Death at 60,000

by

Two of the more obscure Harry Harrison short stories – and the most difficult to track down – are ‘Death at 60,000′ and ‘Tragedy in Tibet.’

In order to make them easier to find, I’m going to post the full text of them here on the blog.

‘Tragedy in Tibet’ is a fun piece from the 1990 Worldcon souvenir book, while ‘Death at 60,000′ only ever appeared in the May 1962 issue of the British edition The Saint Mystery Magazine.

Thanks to Dan Bodenheimer at www.saint.org who sent me the scan of ‘Death at 60,00′ which appears below. And thanks to Michael Carroll for the scan of ‘Tragedy in Tibet’ which will appear the day after tomorrow.

This is my last day in work in 2009 – I shall be staying away from computers until the new year, so seasons greetings to everyone, and may you receive all the presents that you deserve… :)

- Paul

 

Death at 60,000
by Henry Dempsey [Harry Harrison]
(c) Copyright Harry Harrison 1962 and 2008

“Ben – your navigation is as bad as ever. You didn’t allow for this sixty-knot crosswind and we must be at least three degrees off course,” Ridge Kranowsky growled.

“It’s not that bad, Ridge,” Ben said wearily. “I took into account…”

“It’s never that bad with you,” Ridge snapped, banging his ham-sized fist on the engine-control column. He scowled down at the banked clouds far below. “You never checked the topping of the reserve tanks in Phoenix. And that blowout, wasn’t that tyre overdue for replacement?”

Ben nodded agreement and scarcely listened as the voice droned on and on. Big Ridge Kranowsky still thought he was flying a bomber in the Air Force and no one could ever forget that he had been the hottest pilot in the European theatre. He never forgot any other pilots’ faults – and never forgot to mention them at every opportunity. In addition to being a bore, he was also an excellent pilot, so the other pilots didn’t even have the opportunity to strike back. So they avoided him. This was hard for Ben Slange, Ridge’s co-pilot, since he bore the brunt of Ridge’s eternal complaints.

As soon as the flow of complaints died down Ben rose and stretched. “Going to get some sleep,” he said, “so I can fly the last leg into Idlewild.”

The passengers, relaxed and sleepy after the big lunch, looked up with interest when the door to the pilots’ cabin opened, peering with bored curiosity into the instrument-filled sanctum. The co-pilot came out, on the way to the rest bunk on the tail. He smiled as he passed the stewardess, serving a second round of coffee. She moved to let him squeeze by, then went back to serving coffee. The big plane droned smoothly on through the clear sky. Below were solid banks of clouds, perhaps even rain, but they were well above any storms.

The thin sound of the buzzer could scarcely be heard above the rumble of the engines, but the stewardess, Sue, had been listening for it.

“Will there be anything else?” she asked the passenger she was serving. “The pilot is buzzing for his coffee and I don’t want to keep him waiting.” The passenger shook his head no and she hurried off. Ridge had a way of giving lectures if he had to be kept waiting. When she came back most of the male eyes followed her passage towards the pilots’ door. She had a good figure and fine legs, and moved in a way that was most satisfying to look at. The patient eyes waited until she emerged a minute later without the coffee tray and went back to serving the rest of the passengers. There was a sudden scratching sound and the hum of an amplifier from the speakers in the ceiling.

“This is your pilot,” the self-assured voice said, “Captain Kranowsky. We are now flying at 60,000 feet and the outside temperature is…” The voice droned on with such vital facts as their air speed and ground speed, wind direction and estimated flying time left to New York City. They were over the Great Lakes, but nothing was visible except the cottony clouds below. When the speaker clicked off, the passengers settled deeper in their seats and peace descended on the cabin.

It must have been a half an hour after this before Sue finished with the extra coffees, drinks, magazines and the rest of the urgent requests. There was a quiet moment then and she used it to retrieve the pilot’s coffee tray. She opened the door to the pilot compartment, stepped through it, closed it – and screamed.

At least that is what the couple in the seats nearest the door thought. They looked at each other, uncertain what to do next. Their minds were made up for them. The door burst open and the stewardess stood in the opening, screaming, then slowly slid to the floor. The first man to reach her was Dr. Bronstein, a passenger in the second row of seats. There seemed to be nothing wrong and he assumed she had only fainted. He went inside to ask the pilot what had happened – then realized that the man was dead. There was a bullet hole in the side of his neck, and blood from it had soaked into his shirt and uniform. When the doctor touched the already chill flesh he realized that there was nothing anyone could ever do again to help Captain Kranowsky.

Someone had the sense to call the co-pilot and Ben, still in shirtsleeves and blinking the sleep from his eyes, pushed his way through the crowd. He pushed all of them out except the doctor and closed the door. As soon as the noise of the crowd was gone they heard the shrill whistling of air and turned together to look at the plastic window, on the side opposite to the dead pilot. A neat round bullet hole had been drilled through the plexiglass.

“I’m going to cover the hole with friction tape,” Ben said, “that will be good enough until we land. Then I’m going to call Idlewild and have them contact the police. You had better stay here until they tell me what to do.”

It wasn’t easy to explain what had happened, but once the fact got across that this was no gruesome joke the wheels of authority began to turn. Ben was ordered to proceed on the original flight plan and not to touch the body. He unlocked the robot pilot and corrected their course. He sent the stewardess for his jacket, and when everything was in order locked everyone out of the cabin and began the difficult task of single-handedly bringing in the large liner. The landing wasn’t bad, but instead of being directed to the passenger terminal, the plane was led to one of the service ramps where an ambulance and three police cars were waiting. Lieutenant Green was the first one aboard when the door was opened, and after a single long look at the corpse he took charge. He had a very strong feeling that this was going to be a hard one.

He was right. Over half the people in the plane swore to the fact that Ridge Kranowsky had been alone when he died, that no one had gone near the door at all. The other passengers had been asleep or reading and hadn’t noticed. Death must have occurred soon after Sue had brought the coffee, because only a single cup had been drunk. It appeared that he had finished the coffee, made the talk to the passengers, poured a second cup – and died. A .30 calibre bullet had plunged through the side window and killed him. This was simple enough.

But where had the bullet come from?

Logic said that the odds were fantastically against a bullet of that small size being fired from another plane – either by accident or design – and killing so unerringly. Particularly since none of the passengers had noticed a plane near by. But everyone knew how far bullets carried, and there had been clouds. Lieutenant Green had the inside and outside of the side window carefully marked and sent it by motorcycle to the police lab. Within an hour he had the report. Microscopic examination of the stress lines and cracks in the plastic showed without a doubt that the bullet had come in from outside the plane.

Lieutenant Green looked at the people from the plane and scowled. The stewardess’s hysterics had ended and she was sitting red-eyed, clutching a damp handkerchief. She had seemed an obvious suspect, being the last one to see the pilot alive. This theory had crumbled when he had discovered that Sue’s last name was Kranowsky and she and the dead pilot had been married less than a year.

“Can we go yet, Lieutenant?” the co-pilot asked. “It’s been a long day.”

“A few minutes more,” Lieutenant Green said unhappily. The luggage, the passengers and the entire plane were being searched. No gun and nothing of absolutely any relevancy had been found. A gloomy looking sergeant reported that the search was complete. Nothing. Green chewed his lip and was about to release them all when the call came from headquarters. He took it in the next room. When he came back his face was impassive, yet something seemed to have changed.

“Everyone can go,” he said. “Except for the co-pilot and the stewardess, I want to talk to them first.” He led the way to the empty office he was using and closed the door.

“What’s up, Lieutenant?” Ben asked.

“This,” Lieutenant Green said, and snapped a pair of handcuffs on the startled pilot’s wrists.

“What are you doing?” Sue gasped.

“Putting on handcuffs,” Green said imperturbably as he clicked another pair on her wrists. Sue looked down at them, shocked and uncomprehending.

“This some kind of joke?” Ben snapped.

“Murder is never a joke,” Green said. “I’m arresting you both for the murder of Captain Kranowsky.”

“Have you gone crazy…”

“Perhaps – but hear me out first, Ben. See if it doesn’t make sense. I’m guessing at a lot, but you’ll straighten it out later. Let’s say that you and Sue here wanted to get rid of Kranowsky. Maybe she doesn’t love him any more, wants her freedom, he won’t give it to her, maybe he has money in the bank. I don’t know yet, but that should be easy to find out.”

“I’m not going to sit here and listen to this!” Sue shouted, jumping to her feet.

“Yes you are,” Lieutenant Green said, and something in his voice silenced her and she dropped back into the chair.

“You want to kill him,” Green went on, “but of course you don’t want to be blamed for his death. So you came up with this plan. A very good one and it looked foolproof. Ben here has a pistol with a silencer, and when Ridge isn’t looking he stands on the other side of the cabin and shoots him through the neck. He is, of course, far enough away so there are no powder burns. Then he walks to the other side of the cabin – again far enough so there will be no burns – and shoots a hole in the opposite window.”

“But the marks,” Ben shouted. “You yourself told me the bullet came from outside!”

“Be patient – I’ll get to that part in a minute. After you shot him, Ben, you propped him in the seat and walked out of the cabin. You signalled Sue that the job was done. She’s a strong girl – which is probably why she had hysterics later on – because she went into that cabin with a corpse and drank a cup of coffee for it. While the automatic pilot flew you all merrily along. Then she came out…”

“Nonsense,” Ben said. “Ridge couldn’t have been dead then, because he talked to everyone in the cabin over the speaker system afterwards.”

Someone talked to them. But if they had never heard his voice before and someone said he was the captain – why should they doubt it? And there is a microphone for the PA system in the galley, isn’t there? Right next to the sleeping compartment?” There was no answer, so he went on.

“Things stayed that way while the corpse cooled awhile, until it was time for Sue to find the body and go into her act. I don’t know much about that plane you were flying, but I’m willing to bet there is a way to open a hatch or something by the sleeping compartment and throw a gun out. You had time enough to do that. Then the body and the bullet hole were discovered and reported. Then you were alone again – with the body. You didn’t touch that, but you did take out the side window – I saw myself that it is just a minute’s work with a screwdriver – and put in the one you had prepared earlier. The one you had shot a bullet through in the right direction. Since you were making a swing over the ocean then and were lower down, you probably dropped the old window into the Atlantic.”

“This is all nonsense,” Ben said coolly, lighting a cigarette in spite of the handicapping cuffs. “It might be true – but you have no proof. It takes more than theory to go to court.”

“I know,” Lieutenant Green said, smiling. “It takes evidence. Like a thirty calibre revolver with a silencer on it – and fingerprints too I imagine – that fell in a pasture and killed a farmer’s cow a few hours ago. He was very angry. Said he heard a plane overhead at the time. Is that the kind of evidence you mean?”

“No!” Ben gasped. “It can’t be! We were over the Great Lakes…”

“We should have been over the Great Lakes,” Sue said with lip curling disgust. “Ridge always did say that you were a lousy navigator.”

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