...3:49 P.M., CST...
"What I don't understand," the taxi driver shouted over the whacking of the windshield wipers, "is what goes through a person's mind when he mutilates somebody like that."
As he glanced over his shoulder in conversational emphasis, the white station wagon thirty feet in front suddenly braked, skidding in the accumulating slush, its massive back end rising like a sounding whale. The passenger in the taxi, Joseph Leland, who had been wondering about something else entirely, perplexed, threw up his hands; the driver reacted, banging his foot on the brake pedal and twisting the wheel. The taxi pitched forward, rotating slowly on its vertical axis, and slammed sideways into the wagon. The right side of Leland's forehead struck the doorpost, drawing blood. He braced for another collision with the car behind, but none came.
"Shit!" the driver cried, punching the steering wheel. "Shit!"
"Are you all right?" Leland asked.
"Yeah." He saw Leland. "Ah, damn. Damn!"
"Don't worry about it." On Leland's handkerchief was a jagged stain of blood the size of a postage stamp.
The driver was black, young, with high cheekbones and almond eyes. He and Leland had been discussing atrocities in Africa. The falling snow had made the ride from the hotel near the huge, stainless steel Gateway downtown a long one; Leland had learned that the driver had come to St. Louis from Birmingham as a single man in the late fifties, and that his son was now an all-city third baseman for his high school team.
In the bumper-to-bumper traffic near the airport, the conversation turned to violence. As he wheeled the taxi from the Interstate to the airport approach road, the driver brought up the recent sexual maimings in black Africa. Lambert Yield,Leland realized, with the driver talking about severed penises. Not Lindbergh, in spite of the St. Louis connection. Lindbergh, a dangerous airport, was in San Diego. Leland had been in and out of St. Louis a dozen times in the past five years, and this was not the first time he had made the mistake.
Now he was bleeding: for a jot of people, a mature man with a cut on his brow was a falling-down drunk. In spite of that unnerving prospect, Leland was neither upset nor angry. It was not really a bad cut. Because of the accident, he had lost track of something else that had crossed his mind. It began to nag at him. He worked up a new blot on the handkerchief.
"I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry."
Leland could see it. Now the driver of the wagon opened his door and looked back, unwilling to step out into the mess on the roadway. He was a big, fat man with a moustache, a man-mountain, the kind cops were always careful with. He had a temper to match, too: he scowled at the taxi driver, and jerked his thumb commandingly in the direction of the shoulder of the road. The station wagon rolled forward, spewing slush up against Leland's side of the car.
"My plane is leaving in twenty minutes," Leland said.
"Right. That guy can see me down at the terminal. I'm sorry, man. I really am sorry." He stopped beside the station wagon, reached over and lowered the right front window, allowing the whirling snow to funnel inside.
"Pull over!" the big man bellowed.
"My passenger's bleeding and has to catch a plane..."
"Don't give me that crap! Pull over!"
Leland cranked down the rear window. "Let me get to the terminal."
The big man studied him a moment. "You're not hurt that bad. Do you know what this guy is going to try on me? Pull over!" he shouted to the taxi driver.
"He has to catch a plane!"
"Don't fuck with me, you goddamned nigger! As soon as he's out of the cab, you'll take off!"
The taxi driver stepped on the gas. "Fuck yourself!" he shouted. He nearly lost control of the vehicle again as he struggled to close the window. "I don't have to put up with that shit!"
"He's a psycho," Leland said. "Here's my card. I'll be in California for the next ten days, then I'll be back east. Later, if he makes trouble for you, I'll give you any kind of deposition you want."
"It's not later I'm worried about," the driver said. "I'm worried about now."
"As long as I'm in the cab," Leland said, "we have an ace in the hole."
The driver glanced in the mirror. "He got back in the traffic. You some kind of a cop?"
"More of a consultant, these days." Leland patted his forehead again. "The important thing is that I'm carrying the iron that makes it official."
"Jesus. You never do know, do you? Hey, here's something I always wanted to know: How do you get that thing on the plane?"
"They issue a card. Very special. It can't be copied."
"Sure, right, they would have a card. That's funny, like the commercials. Do you know me?" he mocked. He made a gun of his hand. "This is the realAmerican Express."
Leland grinned. "I'll have to remember that."
The bleeding had lessened, but now his head throbbed. It was going to get worse. The traffic slowed, and the driver glanced up and then over to the mirror on the door.
"Here he comes."
The wagon was on their left. The big man swung it over so that it skidded against the taxicab. Leland moved over and lowered the side window.
"Don't plug him, man, please."
"These guys plug themselves," Leland said, enjoying the old slang. Like so many blacks, the driver had the gift of language — he had wanted to know what went through a person'smind. Leland had wondered about the driver's choice of words in that context — and then had remembered something else, the thing that had begun eluding him with the accident. "I'm a police officer," Leland shouted to the big man. "Let us get to the terminal!"
"I told him not to fuck with me! Now I'm telling you the same!" the big man roared, and turned his steering wheel so that the wagon continued to press against the taxi. Leland was thinking of a guy like this who had held off a dozen policemen in a bowling alley in New Jersey, heaving bowling balls like cantaloupes. There was no telling how wild this one was. Leland drew his Browning 9 millimeter, made sure the safety was on, and pushed it through the open windows toward the big man's nose. The Browning was a professional's handgun, thirteen shots in the magazine and room for one in the clip, which was empty now. The big man saw Leland's seriousness. His eyes rolled back and his tongue protruded, curled like a canape. He thought Leland was going to shoot him in the face... to get on a plane.
"He'll see you at the terminal," Leland said to him.
The big man was motionless, afraid to move. The taxi driver eased forward, the fenders scraping.
"Jesus," the driver said.
Leland was trembling, nearly sick. He could be in deep trouble — at least, have some serious explaining in store. "I made a mistake," he said to the driver quickly. "It's just a fender-bender. If he tries to push you around, we'll both charge him with assault."
"Hey, man, don't worry about it. I saw no gun."
Leland got twenty-five dollars out of his wallet. The curving ramp up to the terminal emerged from the falling snow.
"California, huh?" the driver asked. "I've never had the pleasure."
"I'm going to see my daughter in Los Angeles. Then I'm going to drive up the coast to Eureka to see an old friend."
"Your daughter married?"
"Divorced. She has two children. Her mother's dead, but we were divorced, too, years ago."
"Well, you'll be with your family," the driver said. "That's the important thing. Me, too. I'm going to have a good Christmas in spite of this. I'll tell you, man, I've never had much luck with Christmas. When I was a little boy, my daddy used to get drunk and beat up on me. I guess it's not all clear sailing for anybody..."
A 747 rose up over the roof of the terminal, blackening the fishbelly sky and drowning the driver's last words. The station wagon glided by again, the big man glowering at them warily. Leland got another ten from his wallet, then, almost as an afterthought, the I.D. that would get the Browning, loaded, onto the airplane. While the gun was legal, a badge he was carrying was not. It was a New York City detective's badge, a gift from friends in that department, the back engraved THIS MAN IS A PRICK. Leland pushed the twenty-five over the front seat.
The driver pulled to the curb and flipped the meter flag. "Oh, no, man, this is on me."
"Merry Christmas," Leland said, thrusting the money at him. "Have a nice holiday."
The driver took it. The station wagon pulled in front of the taxi. A skycap opened Leland's door. As he got out, Leland gave him the ten. "Get a cop, pronto. The luggage goes to Los Angeles."
"Yes, sir. I'll get somebody to ticket your bags. You have yourself a Merry Christmas."
Leland felt the beginning of relief. This morning's "Good Morning, America" had reported Los Angeles at seventy-eight degrees. A cop was coming through the terminal crowd toward the automatic doors. Leland raised his hand to hold the cop inside. "Stay in your seat," he called to the driver. "Merry Christmas to you."
"You, too. Thanks for your help. Have a nice flight!'
Leland felt he was abandoning the man. Inside the terminal, he produced for the cop, another black man, the I.D. Woven into the plastic of the card was a coded array of rare metals, and now they sparkled under the terminal lights.
"Oh, yeah, right, I know you." The cop, whose name was JOHNSON, T.E., looked over Leland's shoulder, "What's the problem?"
Leland explained that he had been in the taxi during the accident and that the driver of the wagon had gone berserk.
Patrolman Johnson eyed Leland. "You wave your piece at him?"
"I told him I had it," Leland lied.
He smiled and glanced at the taxi. "Sounds good. The brother with you on this? Don't juice my fruit."
Leland grinned. "Scout's honor. I'd salute, but I'd start bleeding again."
"You better have that looked at. Go ahead. Don't worry about this. Have a nice holiday."
"Same to you." Leland kept the identification in hand for the officer at the metal detector. He blotted his forehead again — now he had four large stains on the handkerchief. He had a look at himself in a mirror in the window of a gift shop. It was a real cut, all right, but not deep and barely half an inch long. Something was still bothering him. The officer at the metal detector was another black man: LOPEZ, R.A. Spanish father and black mother? The combination was more common in Los Angeles, and for a second it made Leland wonder dizzily if he had stepped through the looking glass.
"What flight are you taking?"
"The 905, as far as Los Angeles. I'll be in first class, a Christmas present to myself."
"Well, that'll be a helluva flight for somebody to try to hijack. There's two shore patrol riding in economy through to San Diego, and a federal marshal up front with you. I'll let you figure out who he is."
"More important, you'd better let him know who Iam."
Officer Lopez laughed silently. "I'm going to call ahead. What did you do, slip on the ice?"
"Fender-bender. Nothing serious."
"Well, have a nice flight. See how long it takes you to figure out who the marshal is."
"Thanks, I love puzzles."
The clock in the check-in lounge read 4:04, and passengers were still filing into the umbilical ramp. Leland asked the clerk if he had time for a long-distance call.
"Oh, you'll be sitting here for quite a few minutes, sir. They're backed up half an hour trying to get equipment out of St. Louis. This is a bad one. We'll shut down by eight o'clock."
"There's no chance of us not getting out, is there?"
"No," the clerk said, as if Leland were being foolish.
It took the operator a moment to record Leland's credit card number and put the call through, and another before his daughter's secretary picked up the extension.
"Oh, Mr. Leland, she's still out to lunch. You're going to be on the same flight, aren't you?"
He had forgotten the time differential.
"Yes, but I think it's going to be a little late. There's a blizzard here. That's not what I called about." He didn't know if he should continue. "I was in a little accident outside the airport. I'm not hurt, but I do have a cut on my forehead..."
"Oh, you poor man. How do you feel?"
"Well, I guess a little shaken, but I'm all right. I didn't want Stephanie — Ms. Gennaro — getting upset when she saw me."
"I'll tell her. Don't worry about a thing."
There was a tapping on the telephone booth door: a flight attendant, a woman of thirty-five, her dyed bright yellow hair rolled in a style that dated back to the Kennedy years. KATHI LOGAN, according to her nameplate. Now that she had his attention, she smiled brightly, too youthfully, and did a little curtsying nod. Leland said good-bye to the secretary, being careful not to hang up while she too was wishing him a good flight, and opened the door. Kathi Logan spoke with a professional cheer.
"Mr. Leland? Are you ready now? We've all been waiting for you."
The plane was forty-five minutes getting to the runway. He had to stay in his seat, but Kathi Logan brought him some moistened and dry tissues, her mirror, a Band-Aid, and finally, two aspirin tablets. After she had elicited from him that he was going to visit his daughter, a subtle warmth began to creep into her behavior, indicating she was not a bad detective herself. He was wearing no rings, and a man didn't travel to see his daughter at Christmas without his wife, if he had one. But that was a long way from knowing who he was, or even if he had told the truth about himself. Obviously she was alone, felt she was getting older, and a little frightened. He knew the feeling, and that she still spelled her name cute only made him like her more.
The plane was filled, more like a suburban commuter train than a flight across half a continent. The fellow sitting next to the window had his face in a magazine. Not the federal marshal, he was too small to pass the physical. In her effort to help, Kathi Logan had said that the storm extended to the western edge of Iowa, making the first hour of the flight rocky, so she wouldn't be able to let Leland out of his seat to clean up in the washroom. Leland's seatmate had overheard, and Leland saw him tighten his grip on his Newsweek.From the war on, Leland had flown his own planes for more than twenty years, working his way up to a Cessna 310 before he quit. Now he paid no more attention to aviation than any other constant passenger, but he knew that this latest generation of aircraft was the safest ever built. The real problem these days was human error.
And as for the possibility of air piracy, although none had occurred in the United States in years, there was enough good-guy ordnance aboard to butcher all the people in the no-smoking section. Leland wondered if the marshal on board knew that the other armed passenger in first class had helped design the program that had created his job. At the height of the piracy, Leland had been consulted by the FAA, and now he was caught in the situation the program had been designed to prevent: too many guns. Years had passed since he had had contact with any of it, and because he did not know the latest revisions in procedure, Leland was as good as not trained at all, like the S.P.'s in economy. Too many guns and not enough training. If he was on edge, it was because he knew too much.
The plane was next in line. A porpoise-nosed DC — 10 slipped by in the darkness, followed by the muffled roar of its engines. The 747 started rolling again, and Kathi Logan appeared at his side, steadying herself against the rocking of the aircraft.
"How about a drink before we get in the air? Would you like a double scotch?"
He smiled. "You wouldn't like me any more. Can I have a Coke? I could use the sugar."
The pilot was turning for the takeoff run when Kathi Logan came back with the Coke on a tray. She had another smile for him, then hurried back to her seat next to the spiral staircase to the upper deck. Apparently the notion that he was a drunk trying to stay retired did not frighten her. The pilot pushed the throttles to full power. Halfway down the runway, the nose lifted like the end of a teeterboard. Then the rear wheels floated off the ground and they were airborne.
Leland had been sorting out the Lambert-Lindbergh confusion when the driver had asked his amazing question, turning Leland's thoughts completely around. He had been about to tell the driver that he didn't know what went through a person's mind — when he realized suddenly that in fact he did know.
As a young detective years ago he had been on a case in which the victim's penis had been cut off. Leland had followed the chain of evidence along the line of least resistance, to the victim's roommate, a drifter with a criminal record.
After hours of questioning, the drifter, Tesla, finally broke down and confessed. This was in the days when people went to the electric chair every week. Tesla was sentenced to death and electrocuted within the year.
The case brought Leland to public attention for the third time in his life. A rookie patrolman before the war, he had been in a gunfight in which three men had died, including Leland's partner. As a fighter pilot in Europe, he had shot down over twenty Nazi planes, enough to make a New York publisher ask him to write a book. Leland's presence on the Tesla case, with its elements of forbidden sex and lurid mutilations, made it a media event years before such things had labels. When Leland's personal life shattered not long afterward, he was as confused as anyone.
Six years later, when Leland, then running a private detective agency, was asked by a pregnant young woman to investigate her husband's leap or fall from the roof of a racetrack, the evidence led back through Leland's own life to the Tesla case. Leland had sent an innocent man to his grave.
The real killer had been a closet homosexual, unable to accept himself, ravaged with self-hate. His victim, Tesla's roommate, Teddy Leikman, had been a pick-up in a gay bar. At Leikman's apartment, with the hapless Tesla out for the evening, the situation had become more than the killer could bear.
He beat Teddy Leikman to death with his fists, finally crushing his skull with a piece of pottery — but in the struggle, Leikman gouged the other man's neck, getting bits of skin under his fingernails. The solution the killer hit upon came out of the depths of his soul. He severed Leikman's fingers, and to misdirect the police, he severed his penis, too. It worked because no one thought for a moment that the mutilations were anything butthe act of a man shrieking his hatred of himself.
As an act of self-preservation, the multilations to conceal evidence finally came to nothing. Six years later, the killer did, indeed, kill himself.
But not before leaving irrefutable evidence of the biggest municipal fraud since the days of Boss Tweed.
It was the killer's widow who suffered most of all. A kid who had come up off the streets, she wanted the truth told — she could see the connection between her late husband's secret torments and the profiteering of his business cohorts. She wanted people to see how such stealing added to the burdens of the poor.
None of that happened. Every one of the conspirators was able to weasel out of going to jail. Instead of focusing on the housing fraud, the newspapers turned to the old case, Leland's war record, and on, and on. When a scandal sheet suggested a romance going on between detective and client, Norma moved to San Francisco. Leland didn't see her again for years.
Leland's Lindbergh — Lambert confusion had its real origins in those years, for he had been that uncomfortable with the personality the media had assigned to him. "Lucky Lindy," he had called himself more than once, in despair. Like the killer who had eluded him, he had been living two lives and lying to himself about what it meant. His marriage had been disintegrating — and of course he had not solved his big case at all, although he did not know that until later.
What went on in a person's mind? Nothing at all — at such times, the mind and body were one. But there, Leland thought, there in the blankness, lay the riddle of history.