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CHAPTER IV A STARTLING DISCOVERY
Flying home at a good speed Roberta considered the offer she had just received and tried to decide whether or not she cared to accept it. Today was the first time since they had started the trips together that her passenger had showed any signs of being especially companionable and her sadness had instantly aroused the young pilot’s sympathy, but she was still not attracted by the woman; in fact she found an indefinable something which she positively disliked. The girl realized that Mrs. Pollzoff’s attention was entirely absorbed with her own project and efforts to carry on her husband’s work; also that while flying her own mind must be fully occupied with her job; but the taciturnity of the61 woman seemed more than concentration on her affairs, whatever they were. There was something hard in her expression and her jaw set more like an over-bearing man’s than a woman’s.

Thinking of the jaw the girl wondered about the strip of plaster which evidently protected some wound, and she tried to figure what it might be. This persistence of her mind in going back to the injured feature made Roberta impatient with herself; it seemed to her that she was trying to find out something which was both unimportant and none of her business. Anyone might get a bump, a bruise, a cut, or an insect bite on her face, and keeping it covered was nothing more than ordinary common sense, especially when her face might be exposed to the force of the wind while they were flying.

Glancing at her watch she calculated that she would reach home about the same time her father did and they could talk the matter over, but when she thought of her uneasiness regarding her prospective employer she realized that she really had nothing tangible to tell him. There wasn’t a thing that Mrs.62 Pollzoff had said or done which could be used as an excuse for refusing the offer. By that time Nike was near their village, so Roberta throttled the engine and glided down close to the hangar entrance, which was open to admit her, for Mrs. Langwell had heard the familiar roar in the heavens, shut off the alarm and shoved the entrance wide.

“Thanks, Mummy,” Roberta called as she rode past. Presently she was out of the cock-pit, but before the two reached the veranda, Mr. Langwell’s car came rolling up the drive.

“Hello, children,” he shouted cheerfully. The auto was quickly put in its own section of the old barn and he joined them.

“Hear anything from the sheriff?” Roberta inquired first thing.

“Not much. The license of the car is registered under the name of Pollzoff, a woman, but that is as much as I got—”

“Pollzoff?” Roberta exclaimed in amazement, then again into her mind leaped the memory of that scar on her cheek.

“Yes. Howard said he’d drop in this evening63 and give us further details, if there are any.”

“Why, Dad, that’s the name of the woman I was taking along the coast. I took her again this afternoon.”

“You did!”

“And today she had a piece of tape on her chin, as if it had been hurt in some way.”

“Humph. Well, my dear, it seems hardly possible that the woman would come herself and try to take your plane.”

“Do you think Dad hit her with some of that shot?” Mrs. Langwell asked quickly.

“I don’t know, Mummy. That piece of tape has been on my mind all afternoon; I couldn’t keep from wondering about it,” Roberta answered, then went on, “She wants me to take her on a trip.”

“Well, we’ll certainly look into the lady’s reputation before you do anything of that kind,” Dad declared positively. “Suppose we take a run down to Howard’s office and talk it over with him—”

“Suppose you come in and eat your dinner64 before it is spoiled,” Mrs. Langwell interrupted. “You can go later, or telephone him.”

“Guess you’re right,” Dad grinned. “I’m hollow as a bass drum and there is no such desperate rush about the matter.” The startling discovery formed the chief topic of conversation during the meal.

“The name is an unusual one but there may be others in the country,” Mrs. Langwell remarked. “But it does seem odd that it should be her car and that she should have a wound of some kind on her face this morning.”

“It’s all circumstantial,” Mr. Langwell added. “Did she usually come to the flying field in a taxi?”

“No, she came in her own car. I didn’t think anything about the taxi today, but she might have used that because she was uncertain where we would land. We’ve come down in a different place every time I have taken her,” Roberta explained.

“Still, I can’t think that she herself would try to appropriate your plane. She has, as I understand it, limitless money,” Dad said.

65 “That’s what I heard at the office,” Roberta admitted.

“How did the woman impress you?” Mrs. Langwell asked.

“Not very favorably,” the girl admitted. “But when I tried to reason it out, I had nothing really to dislike her for.”

“That sounds to me like Howard’s car,” said Dad as a machine came up the drive. He raised himself in his chair and looked out of the window. “It’s the sheriff. We’ll have a talk with him.” Presently the officer was admitted but his expression was one of disappointment.

“We haven’t accomplished a thing in discovering those thieves, Mr. Langwell,” he began. “The machine belongs to a Mrs. Pollzoff, all right, and it was found in Delaware on a side road late this afternoon. Probably been abandoned.”

“Oh.”

“The owner isn’t a bit of help, for she reported her car missing late yesterday afternoon. She said she had been doing some flying, then drove into town to keep an appointment in a beauty parlor. When she66 was fixed up and came out to go home, the limousine was gone. She reported it right away, and as I said before, it was discovered today.”

“Oh. Did you see her?”

“No. There wasn’t any use in doing that. Whoever had been driving was mighty careless for it was covered with mud from stem to stern. You hit one of the fellows, and I figure they went as fast and as far as they could, then stopped to get the wound dressed. The police are making inquiries among the doctors hereabout trying to find one who had a late call to attend to a split-open jaw. I’ll meander along, I promised the wife I’d take her to the movies tonight. Sorry there isn’t anything better to report.”

“Thank you for coming in and telling us. After all, no one was hurt and the planes are safe,” said Mrs. Langwell.

“That’s right,” Dad added. “And I’ve had a fine alarm system put on the hangar, so if anyone comes prowling around again, he will wake the world.”

“Good thing. Well, good-bye.” The sheriff drove off and the family returned to67 the unfinished meal. All of them were mighty sober.

“Just goes to show how perfectly damning circumstantial evidence can be, doesn’t it? Here’s a woman, one who knows flying, whose face has been injured in some way unknown, and whose car is seen parked near here for the robber’s getaway. You know, if she hadn’t reported the limousine missing things might have been very unpleasant for her,” Dad remarked thoughtfully.

“And she is probably doing exactly what she says—just trying to carry on her husband’s unfinished work. Don’t you think it will be all right for me to tell her I’ll take her on the trip, Dad? I feel sort of ashamed of myself for being so suspicious of everything.”

“Guess it would, dear. Suppose I make a few judicial inquiries to be on the safe side. She isn’t to call up before tomorrow evening, and by that time I can know a little about her,” he replied.

“That’s a good idea,” Mrs. Langwell agreed, so it was left that way.

68 “How about taking my family to the movies?” Dad proposed, and they accepted without a dissenting vote.

The evening was spent delightfully, and the next afternoon Mr. Langwell called up from the city to inform his daughter that as far as it was possible to learn, Mrs. Pollzoff was above reproach. She had a great deal of money, a part of which she had made herself by first class business investments, and the rest she had secured when she sold her husband’s fur business. She had a reputation for being quiet and conservative, considerate of her employees and active on several very worth-while philanthropic boards. So Roberta packed a bag for the trip and during the remainder of the time, attended to giving Nike a good inspection.

“Wish I could drop down on the field and give her to one of the mechanics to fix up,” she said regretfully. She meant that there was not time to do it, not that she felt she couldn’t ask for the accommodation, for she was positive that the courtesy would be extended to her cordially. She had nearly finished the task when her mother called, and69 when she went to answer the telephone, found it was Mrs. Pollzoff.

“I have called for your answer, Miss Langwell,” came the rich voice.

“If you could see my suitcase and the way I have been working on the plane, you would know it,” Roberta said as pleasantly as she possibly could.

“Then you will go.”

“Very glad to,” she replied.

“Meet me tomorrow at Elizabeth. I shall be there at eleven o’clock. Is that too early?”

“Not at all,” Roberta replied. They talked a few moments longer about the meeting place.

“I presume you will fetch a warm coat.”

“Oh, yes, I have it all ready. Thank you.” She hung up the receiver and although she was trying hard to feel glad about the prospect before her, she wished heartily that she had said no, or that she could have said she had other work to do. “I’m a little idiot,” she told herself, and then went back to the plane to finish getting it ready.

The next morning at a few minutes before eleven, Nike brought her out of a lower-sky70 near the New Jersey town and a few minutes later, Mrs. Pollzoff drove up in her own car. Roberta noticed that its fender had been bent, and when the woman alighted, she stopped a moment to speak to the chauffeur about having repairs made. He listened respectfully, then transferred her luggage to the waiting Nike, where he assisted in storing it safely.

While these final preparations were going on, Roberta heard a plane flying so low that she glanced up to see if the machine was coming down with its engine running, but she decided that the pilot must have had some difficulty in the take-off. He was climbing rather slowly, and she wondered if he was an inexperienced amateur in trouble or showing off to admiring friends who might be watching him.

“Is that all, Madame?” the chauffeur asked.

“Yes, thank you, that is all. We are quite properly packed, I think, Miss Langwell, but you had better make sure.” Roberta glanced at the tiny baggage compartment, which was certainly well filled, and nodded.71 “Then we can start as soon as you are ready.”

“I am ready now,” Roberta told her. Mrs. Pollzoff took her place, adjusted straps and chute, nodded to the chauffeur, who was already back in the battered limousine, then glanced at the sky.

“Go south, toward Florida, about twelve miles out. The weather looks a little doubtful, we may as well have the cover over our heads,” she said.

“All right.” Roberta slid the top into place and made it secure, then assuring herself that she could start without cutting anyone in two with the propeller, she opened the throttle. The engine roared, Nike moved forward swiftly, lifted thirty feet further along, then rose majestically into the air. They zoomed, circled in wide loops, ascending in spirals, and at five thousand feet, leveled off. Roberta set the plane’s nose toward the Atlantic, for she knew that her passenger preferred to travel above the water rather than the land. Ten minutes later the shore line was almost completely hidden by the haze which was lowering over the coast. Straight east they flew, only once seeing another72 plane. It was a small one which came alongside in a friendly fashion, but the distance was too great for the girl to see who was at the controls. Nike was twenty miles out when Mrs. Pollzoff indicated that she wanted to turn south, and in a moment that was accomplished. The sky did not look as threatening as it had from the shore and Roberta hoped that if a storm was brewing, she was going to get away from it.

They had been traveling about an hour when Mrs. Pollzoff got a book out and opened it, preparing to read. Roberta switched the light on so she could see better, and the woman glanced at the control board, seemed to make a mental calculation of the figures and dials, nodded, and then bent again over her reading. It wasn’t anything more suspicious than a mystery story and for the next half hour the woman did not lift her head again. She seemed perfectly indifferent to everything but the story. The little plane that had followed them out had fallen behind and lower, and the girl Sky-pilot judged that its speed was not very great. She wished it would come alongside because73 it is always rather jolly riding with another machine in the air. In less than an hour it had been left far behind.

Early in the evening Nike glided down at Charleston, W. Virginia, where Mrs. Pollzoff had arranged for refueling and accommodations for the night at a small hostelry near the flying field. They took a cab to the hotel, which was an interesting old place, with a long low-ceilinged dining room. The apartment was a comfortable one with three rooms and bath and while they were refreshing themselves the woman broke the silence.

“As a companionable person I am not a great success, Miss Langwell. Tonight I am a bit fatigued and I think I shall have dinner sent up, but if you have never been in this place and are not too tired, I am sure that you will enjoy the atmosphere of downstairs. This house used to be patronized by members of Virginia’s old families, and a few still cling to it; you may find it interesting.”

“Thank you, I believe I shall, but I will be up early. Are you planning to leave in the morning?” Roberta asked.

“I do not know. It depends upon how I74 feel and what the weather looks like. I shall retire as soon as I have finished dinner,” Mrs. Pollzoff answered. With her helmet off the gauze and tape completely covered the wound on her chin, and when she thought of her former suspicions, the girl Sky-pilot wanted to apologize for her stupid idea that her employer could possibly have been in any way connected with the attempted theft of Nike. She hurried with her dressing, and before she was ready, the waiter appeared with the tray.

“Anything I can do?” Roberta asked.

“Not a thing, thank you. Take your key, for I shall probably be asleep by the time you return.”

“I have it. Good night.”

“Good night.”

Roberta made her way along the winding hall of the old house and decided that the house was one of those which had been built a good many years ago with later wings and additions. Twice she had to step down a couple of steps, and once around a sharp corner she had to go up three. However, she had no difficulty in getting to the main75 floor, which was cheery with old fashioned chandeliers that had yards of long crystals dangling so that the light sparkled through them, and the slightest breeze, or current of air passing set them tinkling merrily. Presently she was in the dining room and a very courteous old colored man, who looked as if he had stepped out of a picture of an ancient plantation home before the Civil war, showed her to a table from which she got an excellent view of the whole room.

Most of the tables were occupied, for it was late, but a few others came in when she was eating her first course. She noticed a party of young people, three men and two girls, who looked as if they were bound for a party of some kind, and when they were seated they made the place ring with their fun. They were rather a contrast from the other diners, but they were not boisterous nor ill-bred with their jollification.

“Pardon me, isn’t this Miss Langwell!” It was a delightful Southern drawl and Roberta looked up into the eyes of Mr. Powell, a young man who had taken the flying course under Mr. Wallace at Lurtiss76 Field, and whom she had helped pass his exams.

“Mr. Powell, how do you do?”

“Fine, Miss Langwell, and I am mighty glad to see you in our midst. I told my friends that I am going to ask you to join us; you look as if you are alone,” Mr. Powell announced cheerfully. “Don’t turn me down, for you can see we are desperately in need of another girl; especially since the two you see are my sisters.” Roberta glanced at the other table and saw one of the girls coming toward her.

“How do you do, Miss Langwell,” she greeted. “How delightful meeting you here. My brother has spoken of you often; I believe you taught him colors when he was taking his course in aviation. Please join us; we will be very pleased to have you.”

“This is Helen, Miss Langwell. I am sure you cannot refuse her; no one ever does,” the young man insisted, so Roberta accepted the cordial invitation and soon was one of the party. She was also introduced to Evelyn Powell and their cousins, Alton Manwell and Edward Crawford. There was no lack77 of sincerity and cordiality in their acceptance of the stranger, and as they were every one of them interested in aviation, they had no end of things to talk about.

“We are going to an amateur show and you must come along,” Miss Powell informed the guest.

“We were to have another girl with us, but she had to break her engagement, so her ticket will not be wasted, and we shall have the pleasure of your company,” Mr. Crawford added.

“It’s rather a queer performance. You may be bored to death. Confirmed bachelor, Mark Anthony by name, but no relation to the ancient Cleo. He has a wonderful house, full of everything from every place in the world, and every once in a while he gives parties,” Evelyn chatted.

“I didn’t bring anything very party-like to wear,” Roberta started to object, but they paid no attention to that.

“You look stunning and Helen has an extra scarf in the car. It will make you look more like a million dollars than you78 do,” insisted Evelyn, so the matter was settled.

Roberta had been penned up in a cock-pit the greater part of the day, and a bit of fun was more than welcome. When the dinner was finished, the six of them were driven to the home of the confirmed bachelor and before his house they saw dozens of other cars lined up on both sides of the drive. They were led up the wide marble stairway, into a huge reception hall, where Roberta caught a glimpse of a very tall man who looked marvelously well in his evening clothes and was evidently the host. He was greeting the new arrivals pleasantly, and near him, facing the door they were entering, was an elegantly dressed woman, who glanced their way but was immediately shut off from Roberta’s vision. But the one glance startled Roberta. It was Mrs. Pollzoff.

“She must have felt better after she finished dinner,” Roberta remarked to herself, but when she reached her host’s side, there was no sign of her employer, but she did not think anything of that, for the rooms were crowded.


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