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[Illustration: _In the case was a clue to the gold coin theft_]




_New York_

_All Rights Reserved_




















_Sunshine Assignment_

Swirls of heavy snowflakes, driven by a brisk wind that whistled across
the vast expanse of concrete runways that is New York City’s Idlewild
Airport, dashed against the big picture window in the Personnel Lounge
and spiraled back into the murky whiteness of the winter morning.
Inside the comfortable room, four girls, all dressed in the trim, blue
uniform of Federal Airlines stewardesses, sat in soft leather armchairs.

“Of all the luck!” One of the girls, a tall brunette, grinned as she
shook her head in mock despair. “Here it is, the middle of the worst
winter we’ve had in years, and what do I draw as my new assignment? New
York to Chicago! The two coldest towns in the world! And you two, you
lucky kids, get the Florida run!”

Vicki Barr tucked a strand of her ash blond hair in place, and her
laugh tinkled like Chinese chimes stirred by a gentle breeze.

“Your trouble, Sue,” she said, “is that you don’t wish on stars. Now
the other night, flying down from Boston, I looked out the window and
there was Venus hanging up in the sky as bright and pretty as you
please. So I just said, ‘Star light, star bright, first star I’ve seen
tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might get the wish I wish tonight ...’”

“Oh, now, go away!”

“No. I really mean it. I said, ‘I wish I am assigned to the Florida
run.’ And the next morning the Chief Stewardess called me into her
office and told me that my new assignment was New York to Tampa.”

Sue chuckled. “Vicki, you little vixen, I don’t know whether to believe
you or not. But just the same I envy you. When I think of Chicago in
this weather ...” She shuddered. “B-r-r-r-r! And I do mean B-r-r-r!”

“I envy you,” one of the other girls spoke up. “You kids are really
going to have fun! I was reading the other day about the big pirate
carnival they have every year about this time down in Tampa. It’s
supposed to be as gay and giddy as the New Orleans Mardi Gras.”

“That’s the Gasparilla Pirate Festival,” the fourth girl, Vicki’s
co-stewardess, volunteered. Cathy Solms was a tall, slender girl about
Vicki’s own age, with flaming red hair that contrasted sharply with
the pale blue of her perky cap. “And you’re right. Vicki and I are
going to have buckets of fun.” She winked at her flight partner and
grinned. “By the way, Vicki, I wonder what big things are happening out
in Chicago this winter.”

“Don’t rub it in,” Sue said. She glanced at the pattern of snow
swirling up against the wide window. “If this keeps up, it doesn’t look
as if any of us will get away from New York.”

“Maybe not you,” Vicki replied. “But we go out on schedule. I checked
with operations as I came in, and south of Washington there’s not a
snow cloud in the sky. Remember, it’s the weather at landing, not at
take-off, that counts.”

At that moment, Johnny Baker, copilot on Vicki’s flight, stuck his
handsome, crew-cut blond head in the door.

“Let’s go, kids. No day off for you two,” he said with a wide grin.
“We’re taking off on the nose. Meet you in five minutes at Gate Five.”

Vicki and Cathy picked up their flight bags and topcoats, and headed
for the door that Johnny had closed after him.

“Give our love to the ice on Lake Michigan,” Cathy said over her

“And don’t slip on the ice when you walk away from your ship,” Vicki
added with a smile.

“Get out,” Sue said, “before we throw you out. And oh, yes,” she
added, a smile twinkling in her eyes, “give our best to that pirate

* * * * *

Four hours later the big DC-6-B four-engine plane put up its port wing
as the pilot banked to swing into his landing pattern. Vicki, strapped
in the stewardess’s jump seat for the landing, looked out the window
at the tropical vista spread all around her. To her left, as the pilot
banked, the window was filled with bright blue sky, cloudless except
for a few white wisps that floated high overhead. Through the window
across the aisle, she could look down on the sand of the beaches,
gleaming golden in the early afternoon sun, the vivid aquamarine blue
of the waters of the Gulf, and the crisp green of the lawns and gardens
that surrounded the glistening white houses.

Then the plane straightened, passed over the busy streets of the old
city, over the scattered houses in the suburbs, and at last the hangars
and runways of Tampa International Airport swept into view over the
leading edge of the wing. The big plane shuddered as Captain March, the
senior pilot, lowered his wing flaps to check the landing speed. Then
the runway rushed up to meet the ship, and there was a shrill whine as
the tires hit the concrete strip.

In her natural element, the air, the huge plane was as effortless and
graceful in flight as a soaring gull. But on the ground, her wings
vibrated and seemed to droop, and she shook all over like some great,
tired clumsy beast as she lumbered forward to the unloading gate.

The instant she felt the ship land and steady on its taxiing course,
Vicki unfastened her seat belt and got to her feet, ready to help her
passengers collect their things and get ready to disembark. Ten minutes
later she and Cathy were standing in the open plane doorway saying
good-by to the last of them, three small children, who, with their
mother, had been making their first trip by air. The little girls had
been fascinated by the flight, and Vicki had spent all of her spare
minutes - which on a short flight like this one, and with hot lunches to
be served to eighty passengers, were very few - answering their eager

Then, rapidly, the two stewardesses checked through the big cabin for
any belongings their passengers might have left behind.

“I hope our hotel is on the beach,” Cathy said, stopping for a moment
to gaze out at the warm sunshine. “I can’t wait to start working on a
Florida tan.”

“I’m staying with Louise Curtin’s family,” Vicki said. “At least for
the first few trips.”

“Louise Curtin?”

“She was in my class at the University of Illinois,” Vicki explained.
“Her family lives down here. When I wrote that I was going to be on the
Tampa run, she phoned me the minute she got the letter and insisted
that I absolutely _must_ stay with them on my layovers.”

“It’s nice to have friends,” Cathy sighed. “Much better than a hotel

Federal, like all other airlines, provided hotel accommodations for
their crews when they were away from home. In New York, Vicki shared an
apartment with several other Federal Airlines stewardesses.

“That reminds me. I have another friend in Tampa,” Vicki said. “I’ll
have to look him up.”

“Ah!” Cathy said, brightening. “Do I smell romance in the air?”

Vicki laughed. “I hate to disappoint you, Cathy. But Joey Watson is a
boy who works here in the Federal warehouse. He’s an orphan, poor kid,
a cousin of Bill Avery, the pilot who taught me to fly.”

Cathy’s eyes widened. “To _fly_? Don’t tell me you’re a pilot as well
as a stewardess!”

“I’ve had my private license for two years.” Vicki smiled. “But I
don’t have a chance to get in much flying time when I’m in New York.
Anyway,” she went on, “Joey was dying to learn to fly, and Bill asked
me if I’d mind putting in a good word for him with Federal’s personnel
department. There happened to be an opening here, and Joey got the job.
So, you see, there goes your romance. I’m afraid Joey thinks of me more
as a mother.”

Cathy surveyed Vicki’s slim, trim figure, looking her up and down with
an expression of exaggerated appraisal on her face.

“You don’t look like the mother type to me, gal.”

“All right.” Vicki chuckled. “Make it big sister if that suits you

At that moment the door to the flight deck opened and Captain March
entered the main cabin, followed by Johnny Baker, the copilot. The
captain had a leather brief case tucked under his arm and both men
carried blue canvas overnight bags stamped with the name and insignia
of the airline.

“How did it go, girls?” the captain asked.

“Smooth as silk,” Vicki answered. “Everybody seemed to enjoy
themselves, and one or two went out of their way to say so.”

“Fine,” the captain said briskly. “That’s good. Now let’s check in and
get out to the hotel. I could use a swim.”

As the four crew members walked from the plane to Federal’s operations
office in the airport building, Vicki explained to Captain March about
her invitation to stay with the Curtins.

“And oh, yes,” she continued. “A young friend of mine works as a cargo
handler in the freight warehouse.” She told the captain briefly about
Joey Watson and how she had helped get him his job. “Do you suppose it
will be all right if I go over and say hello?”

“I don’t see why not,” the captain replied. “Just be sure to check
with the foreman first. They don’t like to have unauthorized personnel
wandering around.”

A few minutes after they had made their routine check-in, Vicki said
good-by to her fellow crew members and strolled leisurely in the
direction of the big warehouse building.

A heavy-set man lounged in the warehouse doorway, holding a
half-consumed bottle of coke in his hand. He looked quizzically at
Vicki as she approached.

“Can you please tell me where I can find the foreman?” Vicki asked

“You’re talkin’ to him,” the man said. His square-cut face was
expressionless, neither friendly nor unfriendly.

“I’d like to see Joey Watson for a minute. Is he on duty this

“Yep. You a friend of his?”

Vicki put on her prettiest smile. “Well, sort of,” she said. “I haven’t
seen him for some time, and if I may, I’d like to say hello.”

“Just a second,” the foreman said. “I’ll go get him.” He turned and
disappeared into the huge building.

Vicki looked in through the open door. Piles of boxes, cartons, and
bulky sacks stood stacked like islands on the big expanse of floor.
Cargo handlers were busy sorting these, loading some on small motor
carts and unloading others that had just been taken off incoming
planes. Backed up at a long platform that ran the length of the
opposite side of the building were half a dozen trucks waiting to pick
up the cargo for local delivery. Other workmen weighed outgoing boxes
and bales, and nailed cartons up more securely. The whole place had an
air of quiet efficiency.

A tall, young figure dashed out of the dimness of the big room and ran
up to Vicki, a big smile spread all across his eager face.

“Miss Vicki!” he cried breathlessly, holding out his hand. “I never
expected to see _you_ here!”

“Hi, Joey!” Vicki greeted him. She took his outstretched hand, and he
pumped hers in a warm but excited handshake. “How’s the job going?”

“Swell, Miss Vicki! Just swell!”

Joey Watson was eighteen, tall, thin, and with long arms that dangled
awkwardly from his skinny shoulders. As he stood grinning contagiously,
he reminded Vicki of a friendly, energetic, oversized puppy. She
couldn’t help grinning back at him.

“Well,” Vicki asked, “are there enough airplanes around here to suit

“There sure are. I’d have taken any kind of job, even sweeping the
place out, just to be around planes. And I can’t thank you enough for
getting this one for me.”

Just then the dour foreman reappeared.

“Oh, Van,” Joey said eagerly, “I want you to meet Miss Vicki Barr.
She’s a Federal stewardess and - ” he added, his eyes shining, “a

Van mumbled an acknowledgment of the introduction. “Don’t take too long
a break, boy,” he said to Joey. “Ed will need you on his cart to meet
the three-fifty flight from Dallas.”

The foreman nodded briskly to Vicki and walked off. Vicki looked after
his wooden, uniformed figure. Was he naturally chilly, or just a
nose-to-the-grindstone type? Oh, well! It really didn’t matter. She’d
probably never see him again. She turned her attention back to Joey.

“I’m afraid I’m not much of a pilot” - she smiled - “whatever you may

Joey’s face wrinkled up in a grin. “Anyone who can fly is pretty big in
my book.” He pointed to an area of concrete strip between the warehouse
and a service hangar next door. “See that Beech sitting over there?”

A small, twin-engine Beechcraft stood on the strip. The cowling had
been removed from one of her engine nacelles and a man stood on a
step-ladder tinkering with the motor.

“That’s Steve Miller,” Joey said. “He’s a charter pilot here at the
field, and he’s promised to teach me to fly.”

“Why, that’s wonderful!” Vicki exclaimed, her eyes twinkling with
pleasure. She knew that being able to fly was the most important thing
in the boy’s life.

“Steve’s the best,” Joey went on enthusiastically. “So’s Van
Lasher - he’s the fellow I introduced you to just now. Gosh! Everybody
around this airport is pretty swell.”

“You just naturally like everybody that has anything to do with
airplanes, don’t you, Joey?”

“I sure do,” he admitted. “Say, Miss Vicki, how long did it take you to
solo? Were you nervous the first time?”

Vicki smiled. “See here, young man, if we start talking flying you’ll
_never_ get back to work.”

“I guess you’re right,” the boy said, laughing. “It wouldn’t do to lose
this job, now that I’m getting ready to be a fly boy for real.”

Vicki said good-by and promised to look Joey up again. Then she walked
back to the airport building.

Even though it had become a common, everyday sight to her, an airport
waiting room never failed to fascinate Vicki. And this one at Tampa
was particularly interesting. Passengers from incoming planes carried
heavy coats that they had worn when they had left the northern winter
weather. Sometimes friends, tanned and wearing gay-colored sports
clothes, were waiting to greet them.

Through the big picture window She could see the air taxis waiting
at one end of the field. Anyone who wished to fly across Tampa Bay
to Clearwater or St. Petersburg, or across the Caribbean to Cuba or
Mexico, could charter a plane like the one Joey’s instructor - Steve
Miller - flew. Everything seemed so easygoing and carefree here, Vicki
thought, in this sun-kissed land where the breeze was scented with the
perfume of flowers.

She stopped at the Federal reservations counter where she had left her
bag, picked it up, and then went out the building’s main entrance to
look for a taxi.

Twenty minutes later the taxi pulled up at the Curtins’ home, and
Vicki, carrying her bag and topcoat, stepped out. She stopped for a
moment, after she had paid her fare, to look at the dignified old
house. It was red brick, old-fashioned and comfortable-looking,
surrounded by a close-clipped lawn and rambling flower gardens. Two
tall palm trees flanked it on either side. She opened the iron gate and
walked down a flagstone path to the front door.

Before she could ring the bell, the door flew open and there stood
Louise, looking more grownup than Vicki remembered her, with her dark
hair done up in a chignon and a big smile of welcome on her beautiful,
delicately tanned face. Louise had written that she was doing social
work, but Vicki found it hard to believe that this lovely, vivacious
girl could confine her energies to anything so unglamorous.

“Vicki! How wonderful to see you again!” Louise hugged her and then
stepped back and appraised her. “You’ve changed!”

Vicki laughed. “It’s pretty wonderful to see you, too. But you don’t
have to sound so accusing. You’ve changed yourself!”

“You’re so poised now, Vicki, and so _très chic_ in that lovely blue
uniform. I remember you used to be shy.”

“Still shy sometimes, and I’m _très_ delighted to be at your house. You
were darling to ask me. Are you actually a social worker these days?
_You_, our southern belle?”

“Only a volunteer, whenever the agency needs me. But tell me - ”

A tall, slim figure ran lightly down a broad staircase at the end of
the entrance hall.

“That’s enough of this college reunion stuff, Louise. Introduce your
kid sister!”

Louise laughed, apologized, and introduced Nina. Nina managed to tell
Vicki, all in one breath, that she was only a year younger than Louise,
had left college to take a fashion job in a Tampa dress shop, and
thought flight stewardesses “have the most glamorous job in the world.”
When Vicki said her job involved some serious know-how about aviation
and practical nursing, and dealing with people in general - and was not
entirely glamorous - Nina refused to believe it.

“Sheer glamour,” she insisted. “Even better than being an actress. I’m
sure of it.”

Louise looked amused and suggested that they had better invite their
guest into the house. The girls showed Vicki to the guest room
upstairs and waited, chattering about the plans they’d made for her,
while she unpacked the few things she had brought with her and changed
from her flight uniform into a bright cotton afternoon dress.

“Better bring more dresses on your next flight,” Nina warned. “You’ll
need them for parties and going out.”

They went back downstairs to the living room, which in late afternoon
was filled with cool shadows and perfumed with the fresh scent of
flowers wafted in through the open windows.

“I’ll fix us something cool to drink,” Nina said, and disappeared.
A few minutes later she reappeared with a tall, frosty pitcher of
lemonade and three glasses on a tray.

“What does _your_ sister do, Vicki?” Nina wanted to know. “College?
Career? Romance?”

Vicki explained that Ginny was still in high school, and that her plans
for the future kept changing from day to day as some new idea took her

Louise wanted to hear news about The Castle, the big rambling home
of Vicki’s family in Fairview, Illinois, which got its name from the
fact that its tower and balcony really did resemble a castle, and
which Louise had visited as often as she could when she and Vicki
were classmates at State University. She asked about Mrs. Barr’s
rock garden; Freckles, the Barr spaniel; and what news Professor
Barr brought home from the university. Vicki answered the torrent of
questions as best she could, for it had been several weeks since she
had been home.

The three girls chattered on and on without noticing the time, and were
surprised when a cheerful male voice broke into their conversation:

“Well, where is she? Where’s the little flier?”

A gray-haired man of medium height stood in the doorway to the room.
He was dressed in a dark-blue business suit and wore heavy horn-rimmed

“Dad!” Louise cried, jumping up.

Vicki got to her feet and went forward, smiling, to take Mr. Curtin’s
outstretched hand. He was just the sort of father she’d expected Louise
to have - a substantial businessman, soft-spoken, cheerful, cordial,
good-humored. The smile he gave Vicki in return was the very essence of
southern hospitality.

“It’s nice of you to take in a stranger,” Vicki said.

“You won’t be a stranger in Tampa very long, Vicki,” Mr. Curtin
answered. “We’ll see to that, won’t we, girls?”

He sat down and lighted a cigarette.

“You came to town at just the right time,” he said, exhaling a spiral
of smoke that drifted upward and hung in a golden ray of late afternoon
sunlight which slanted in through a window. “You’ll be here for the
Gasparilla Pirate Festival.”

“Dad’s on the committee,” Nina said excitedly. “He’s going to be a
pirate. And Louise and I are going to be señoritas.”

Vicki smiled mischievously. “I’m afraid you don’t look like a pirate to
me, Mr. Curtin.”

“You just wait until you see me in a big, black beard, a patch over one
eye, and a bandanna tied around my head. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”

“Dad looks simply ferocious.” Louise grinned. “Why, he even frightens

The four were talking and laughing gaily when the housekeeper came in
to announce dinner. Mrs. Tucker was a large, comfortable-looking woman,
with gray hair rolled into a knot on top of her head and wearing a
crisply starched white dress. They followed her into the dining room
and seated themselves at the table.

“I’m sorry Mother isn’t here to meet you, Vicki,” Louise said, as the
housekeeper served the steaming dishes of food, “but she got a wire the
other day saying that Grandma was ill, and she flew out to Oregon to
see her.”

“Vicki will meet her when she returns,” Mr. Curtin said. “For I trust,
young lady,” he said to Vicki, “that you will consider this your home
whenever you are in Tampa.”

The pleasant conversation continued as they leisurely ate the
delicious dinner. Inevitably it returned to the coming festival.

“One of the stewardesses was talking about it before we left New York,”
Vicki said. “She said it was a sort of Mardi Gras, but that’s about all
I know.”

“It’s an old tradition with us,” Mr. Curtin explained. “I think you
might be interested in how it all started.”

“I certainly would,” Vicki answered. “It sounds intriguing.”

“Well, about two hundred years ago, in 1783 to be exact, an officer
in the Spanish Navy named José Gaspar mutinied and seized his warship
the _Florida Blanca_. Then he turned pirate, changed his name to
Gasparilla, meaning Little Gaspar, and began to prey on the merchant
ships of all nations. He made his headquarters in the islands around
Tampa Bay, and whenever a merchantman came by, he rushed out, captured
it, killed the crew, stole the cargo, and then burned the ship.”

“And this cutthroat is the patron rogue of Tampa,” Nina put in. “Louise
thinks it’s too disgraceful.”

“Oh, really, Nina. I never said quite that - ”

Mr. Curtin laughed as he went on with the story.

“Be that as it may, old Gasparilla’s luck held out for thirty-eight
years. Then, one day in 1821, he made a fatal mistake. He pounced
on a lone brig which he thought was an unarmed merchantman, but it
turned out to be an American warship, the U.S.S. _Enterprise_. And
Gasparilla’s goose was cooked. Within minutes, his ship was a mass of

“So the Navy finally captured him?”

“Not Gasparilla! The old devil wrapped a heavy iron chain around his
waist and leaped into the sea, still brandishing his cutlass.”

“And now Daddy is going to be a lovely, bloodthirsty pirate too,” Nina
said impishly.

Mr. Curtin smiled. “I’d better tell Vicki the rest of the story before
she thinks we’re all crazy down here. You see,” he continued, “since
Gasparilla had made Tampa Bay his headquarters, we decided to use him
as an excuse for a mid-winter festival and a week of fun. A group of
Tampa businessmen formed an organization called Ye Mystic Krewe. You
spell Krewe with a capital _K_ and an _e_ on the end. And aside from
Festival Week, we’re as sedate as any Rotary Club.”

“You’re not very sedate when you capture Tampa,” Louise said.

“No,” Mr. Curtin admitted with a grin, “I’m afraid that for that

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