Read Puzzle of the Pepper Tree Online

Authors: Stuart Palmer

Puzzle of the Pepper Tree

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
Stuart Palmer

Contents

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVII

Chapter XIX

Chapter XX

Chapter XXI

Preview: Puzzle of the Silver Persian

Cast of Characters

Phyllis La Fond.
A vivacious blonde who’s down on her luck and admits she’d do almost anything to make it in the movies.

Ralph O. Tate.
A Hollywood director who’s shooting a movie on Catalina.

Tony Morgan and George Weir.
Mr. Tate’s young assistants.

T. Girard Tompkins.
A distributor of Catalina pottery, made on the island.

Thorwald Narveson.
A Norwegian whaling ship captain.

Marvin and Kay Deving.
Newlyweds honeymooning in Catalina.

Lewis French and Chick Madden.
Pilots of the
Dragonfly,
a flying boat.

Miss Hildegarde Withers.
An angular, inquisitive schoolteacher with a talent for detecting.

Amos Britt.
The jovial chief of police on Catalina Island.

Ruggles.
His octogenarian assistant.

Dr. James Michael O’Rourke.
The island’s no-nonsense doctor.

Olive Smith.
His pretty, capable nurse.

Roswell T. Forrest.
There’s a $15,000 price tag on his head.

Barney Kelsey.
Forrest’s bodyguard.

Roscoe.
The hotel’s elderly bellhop.

Rogers.
The hotel handyman.

Dan Higgins.
A night watchman.

Mister Jones.
A black and white wirehaired terrier.

Harry L. Hellen.
A very determined process server.

Patrick Mack.
A self-described businessman from Bayonne, New Jersey.

Inspector Oscar Piper.
A New York City police detective and longtime friend of Hildy’s.

CHAPTER I

T
HAT MORNING SAW THE
mighty Pacific, in the guise of a chill and luminous fog, sweep in upon the arid valley of Los Angeles. It drifted up the slope of cactus-clad hills, obscuring alike the clean, serrated ridge of the northern mountains and the nearer gaunt skeletons of the oil derricks, and left only a greasy black ribbon of highway down which a Ford roadster flung itself headlong into the mist.

The lone driver shivered as the fog seeped through his light sport jacket. His plumply handsome face, over-soft from frequent massage, was gray with cold.

He glanced at a white-gold strap watch on his wrist and saw that it indicated fourteen minutes before ten. That left him plenty of time, unless somewhere he had taken the wrong turning.

No—he was all right. He jammed on the brakes as the mists ahead of him lifted a little to disclose the outlines of a mammoth excursion steamer, bearing at masthead and stack a blue flag with a large white “W” in its center.

The man in the cocoa-colored sport outfit knew this apparition almost at once for what it was—a tall billboard standing dead ahead at a V in the road. Above the exceedingly lifelike painting of the white excursion steamer stood forth a legend in scarlet—“Catalina Terminal—one-quarter mile—turn right,” and beneath it was the assurance, “In All the World No Trip Like This!”

With a screech of tires on wet pavement the little roadster swung to the right and was immediately swallowed up in the mist.

Ten minutes later the man in brown scrambled out of his car to stand a little foolishly upon a barren and deserted wharf. For the second time that morning he was seeing the outlines of a gay white excursion steamer through a curtain of fog.

On masthead and stack were the familiar blue flags with the big white “W”—but this time a wisp of steam followed by a tantalizing farewell blast from her siren assured him that here was no billboard, but the pleasure steamer
Avalon
herself, departing without him.

For some reason never explained satisfactorily by science, there is nothing more thoroughly ludicrous than the sight of a man missing a train or a boat, except, perhaps, a man losing his hat.

As if determined to afford his audience—limited as it was to idlers and a few longshoremen—the highest possible gratification, the man in the brown sport outfit whipped off his modish straw and deposited it before him on the dock, where he proceeded to leap upon it with both heels. His lips moved, as if in silent prayer.

A young man in blue coveralls detached himself from a sheltered spot in the lee of a cluster of piles and approached briskly.

“Park your car, mister? All day for fifty cents.”

The stranger removed his tan suede shoes from the wreckage of his hat, rammed both fists into the pockets of his razor-edged trousers of pinstriped creamy flannel, and finally found words.

He wanted to know what kind of a so-and-so steamship company this was to send out its so-and-so ships ahead of schedule. With unnecessary unction he displayed his watch, which still hovered a little before the hour of ten.

The man in the blue coveralls grinned widely. Then he raised his eyes to the big clock which was visible over the open doors of the garage end of the terminal. Here the time was represented as fourteen minutes past the hour.

“You’re not the only one to miss this boat,” he confided. “Lots of them get on the wrong boulevard coming down from L.A. or else set their watches by those screwy time signals that come over the radio.”

“I haven’t needed to set this watch since—in the last month,” insisted the man in brown. He pronounced it “wartch.”

He went on, his voice rising. “I’d like you to tell me why I should pay you to park my car
now!”
he demanded. “I ain’t going anywhere.”

“You can still hop on the
Dragonfly,”
he was told. A greasy thumb was extended toward the wharf at the right, where for the first time since his arrival the man in brown noticed a thick-winged flying boat rocking lazily at the foot of a slip.

“They always hold back a few minutes so as to pick up them as miss the boat,” went on the garage helper. “It’s only three-fifty fare—and you’ll be on the island two hours before the
Avalon.”

The man in brown looked down at the varnished newness of the red-and-gilt Douglass amphibian without visible enthusiasm. He shook his head. “You don’t get me on one of those box kites again,” he decided. “I’ll wait for the next boat—when is it?”

“Same as always, ten o’clock.” The man in the blue coveralls reached tentatively toward the handle of the car door.

“What? No boat till tonight?”

“Ten tomorrow morning,” he was laconically corrected. “Plane’s your only chance. Here’s your parking ticket.”

The Ford rolled smoothly in through the gaping doors of the Terminal Garage, while he who had driven it here pocketed his parking slip mechanically. Down beside the waiting cabin plane a young man in a white uniform surveyed him speculatively and swung a pair of goggles. Out in the harbor the mist was beginning to give way before the sea wind and the sun. There the man in brown saw the steamer, three decks loaded with pleasure-bent humanity, as she derisively swung toward him her high fat buttocks.

Be it marked down upon the Everlasting Record that at this crucial moment the belated traveler was seen to hesitate. Whether it was the sound of merry laughter mingled with dance music which drifted back from the departing
S.S. Avalon
or the crisp “All aboard!” from the pilot in the white uniform which impelled him to take the leap, no one will ever be able to say with authority. At any rate, the man in brown quietly and fervently kicked the remains of his straw hat off the dock and then hurried down the steep-slanting gangplank onto the slip.

Here he paused before a miniature ticket office and information booth, manned at the moment by a white-clad duplicate of the first pilot. This young man was somewhat officiously making entries in a ledger. His name, as attested by an “on duty” card beside him, was Lewis French, and the silver wings on his lapel had not yet dulled.

“It won’t be rough up there, will it?” the would-be passenger wanted to know, as he put down a five-dollar bill and waited for change. “I was sick as a dog coming out on the Transcontinental.”

“Fog’s clearing,” French told him. “Air hadn’t ought to be rough. Anyway, the trip takes less than twenty minutes. We’ll have you in Avalon before you have time to be sick.” He proffered an official release-from-damages form. “Sign this, please.”

With practiced fingers he tore off the stub bearing the illegible scrawl of a signature and put it with a sheaf of others in the tin cash box beside him. The rest of the ticket, together with a small envelope containing two wads of ear-cotton and three pellets of sugarcoated chewing gum, he handed to the man in brown.

“You can tickle her, Chick!” he called toward the plane. The pilot with the goggles waved his hand and popped through a narrow door near the tail fins.

French closed and locked the little office, handed up the cash box to an office boy who appeared suddenly behind the piling of the wharf, and then herded the last passenger across the slip and into the gently rocking plane. They stooped to pass through the door, though the man in brown was not by any means tall.

On their right was a cubicle for baggage, now well filled with overnight bags, cameras, and various impedimenta. From one of the cases, through a wire window, there sounded an appealing whine as they passed down three steps into the cabin itself.

Here were ten deeply upholstered seats of blue leather, five on each side, with only the narrowest of aisle between. Eight of the seats were filled. There was a strong smell of leather, burned gasoline, and gardenia scent, for the heavy plate-glass windows were hermetically sealed, and the pilot French had already slammed and made fast the single door behind him.

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