Authors: Ellery Queen
The Blue Movie Murders
Tuesday, May 11
McCall didn't get invited to many social gatherings in the state capital. As the Assistant to the Governor for Special Affairs, he was too well-known to those who worked and lobbied among the legislators, and to many people that simply meant trouble. A popular hostess had once told him, “Mike, if I want prestige, I invite Governor Holland himself. If I want trouble, I invite you. And nobody wants trouble.”
He didn't really care that much, because the capital cocktail circuit was Washington in miniature. When the legislature was in session, during the early months of each year, there were likely to be parties somewhere in town almost every night. That was too much for any man to take, and he was thankful that his position as Sam Holland's trouble-shooter often took him away from the capital, to odd corners of the state where the residents were more interested in the latest school-tax hike than in the guest list for the next party.
But Dora Pringle's party was one McCall couldn't side-step. He'd known Dora since he first came to the capital to help Sam Holland solve the murder of a state legislator. Holland was not yet governor then, and he'd introduced McCall to the parties at Dora's massive town house with a promise that the contacts made there would serve him well in the future.
Dora herself was a handsome woman in her early forties, with a sly smile that often made McCall wish he'd known her twenty years earlier. She greeted him now with a tug at the arm and a quick sisterly kiss. “Mike McCall! I didn't think you'd come!”
“I don't get invited to many capital parties these days, Dora. Hostesses think I make the other guests uncomfortable.”
She gave him that sly smile. “You'd make any woman uncomfortable, Mike.” Then, tugging at his arm, she asked, “Have you circulated yet?”
“I've had two of these,” he told her, holding up his glass. “Is that circulating?”
“You can't hide out here by the bar. You have to meet people!”
“Cynthia Rhodes, for one.”
McCall was surprised. “The women's liberation gal? I didn't even know she was in town.”
“Oh, she's here, all right. You and Sam Holland will know that soon enough.”
“And what's that remark supposed to mean?”
She steered him through the maze of guests towards the centre of the room. “I'll let Cynthia tell you herself. She's very good at speaking her mind.”
McCall followed, keeping a good grip on his drink. The glitter of Dora's sequined dress around her hips caught his eye, and he wished again that he'd known her in her younger days. In his job sex was irrelevant, but it was still nice at times.
The object of their weaving journey through the crowd proved to be a slinky girl in black pants and black shirt who suddenly materialized in their path. On the shirt was pinned a scratched red button with white lettering reading
. “Great party, Dora,” the girl said, speaking over the rim of her highball glass.
“Cynthia, I want you to meet Micah McCall.”
Cynthia pushed the long dark hair out of her eyes and inspected him openly. He'd never been looked at by a woman in exactly that way. “What sort of name is Micah, for God's sake?”
“You don't know your Bible. He was a minor prophet in the eighth century B.C.”
“You're right,” she agreed. “I don't know my Bible. And I sure don't have time for minor anythings.”
“Then call me Mike, if that pleases you.” Dora had been pulled away before completing the introduction, so McCall took it from there. “You're Cynthia Rhodes, the writer, aren't you?”
“Somebody's been telling.” She tossed her head, clearing the hair from her eyes once more.
“I've read some of your magazine pieces, and one of your books, though I can't say I agree with all your ideas.”
“A typical male chauvinist!”
“Not at all. I'll go along with equal pay and equal job opportunities for women, but not with some of the other things you preach.”
“My, my! You really must be a politician, Mr. McCall, to go on like that!”
“Not exactly. I do work for Governor Holland, though, only on special assignments.”
Her brown eyes hardened for an instant. “Mike McCall.â¦ You're not Holland's troubleshooter, are you? The one who goes around the state tackling the newest crises?”
“Guilty. But we've talked enough about me, and you're standing there with an empty glass.”
“I get my own drinks, thanks,” she said as he reached for the glass.
“Well! You're as liberated in the flesh as you are in print!”
She gave him a hard-eyed smile and went off to the bar where Dora's hired butler served her another highball. McCall guessed he'd seen the last of her and started scanning the crowd for familiar faces. He said a few words to a man from the motor vehicle bureau, and then moved off towards a group that had collected around a short, grey-haired man. He seemed to be somebody important, but he didn't look political to McCall's experienced eye.
“Trying to get away?” a voice behind him asked, and he turned to see that Cynthia Rhodes had come back.
“Not really. I thought you'd deserted me.”
She shook her head, and he could see that the time for light conversation had passed. “How much do you know about women's liberation, Mr. McCall?”
He shrugged. “The usual thingsâday-care centres, free abortions, equal pay, husbands who help with the housework.”
“And burning our bras? You forgot that one, Mr. McCall.”
“I wish you'd call me Mike.” He glanced down at her tight black shirt. “I see you've already burnt yours.”
She sighed and took a long swallow of her drink. She handled it like a man, but he didn't tell her that. “I'm not playing games with you, Mr. McCall. Since you're so full of jokes about women's liberation, let's try another topic. Pornographic movies.”
“I haven't seen a good one in years.”
“There are five of them playing within a mile of the Governor's mansion right now. Do you want the titles?
Streamlined Swappers, Lust Lodge, Midnight Cowgirl, It Pays to Swap
Beauties in Bondage
“They're a little out of my line,” McCall admitted.
“Well, they're very much in my line these days! Under the relaxed obscenity laws this sort of thing is flooding every city in the state.”
He could see she was serious, but he hadn't yet decided exactly how to cope with her outburst. “Don't tell me women's lib has come out against sex!” he said at last.
“We're not against sex, but we are against the degradation of women. Those films, and most of your men's magazines, view women only as a sexual object, something put on this earth for the pleasure and convenience of men. We're more than that, Mr. McCall, and it's time the male population began to realize it.”
“I see. And is that what brought you to our fair capital city?”
“Wouldn't you do better in New York, along 42nd Street?”
“Picketing in New York is like trying to catch the wind. We've come here because it's a place where we can make ourselves heard, and perhaps achieve something.”
“You've come here to picket those movie theatres?”
“No, Mr. McCall. We've come here to picket Governor Holland's mansion.”
McCall chewed at the lining of his cheek and considered that bit of information. He'd found most of the activities of the women's lib people to be ineffectual, but he suspected that this time might be different. In a city like this, during the political season, no one was going to laugh too hard at women picketing against blue movies. In fact, there was a strong possibility that Cynthia Rhodes and her followers might even gain the support of civic and church groups. Governor Holland could hardly denounce them, and yet he would be powerless to do much that was really effective against the sex films.
“What's the Governor supposed to do about it?” he asked finally. “You know he's helpless.”
“He may be helpless, but we're not. Tomorrow morning we plan to be at the mansion with our signs. Perhaps I'll even see you there, if the Governor uses his trouble shooter to chase away pickets.”
McCall was about to reply when Dora Pringle reappeared, her sequins flying. “How are you two getting along? Need another drink, Mike?”
“I'm fine, Dora.” When he saw she was joining them for a few moments he added, “Did you know this young lady is planning to picket the Governor's mansion tomorrow morning?”
Dora Pringle grinned impishly. “I'd heard something about it. That's why I thought you two might find something in common to chat about.”
Quick to sense his growing irritation, Dora shifted gears. “But you still haven't met my guest of honour, Mike. I'm sure he knows more about sex films than even Cynthia does.”
Her words were spoken just loudly enough to catch the ear of the grey-haired little man whom McCall had already noticed. He remembered vaguely that Dora's invitation had spoken of a film producer, and now as the man turned to them, he recognized the face from numerous newspaper and magazine articles over the years. Dora's guest was Ben Sloane.
Sloane had come up the easy way during the final flush days of Hollywood glory, but he'd managed to stay on top the hard way. In an era when studios were going broke and the old hands were falling by the wayside, Sloane had been one of the first to spot the trends that still paid off at the box office. He'd made a few of the early youth-oriented films, before the public soured on them, and he'd collected a couple of Academy Awards for pictures produced by his own studio.
Dora made the introductions, and the short man ran gnarled fingers through his grizzled hair. “Pleased to meet you, McCall. Governor Holland does a fine job running this state. Sometimes out west they talk about him for President.”
McCall grinned and gave the stock answer. “Sam Holland has no aspiration to higher office. He's quite content right here.”
The film producer nodded sagely. “But when Miss Rhodes and her feminists finish their little demonstration tomorrow, he might very well change his mind. Washington could look like a relatively safe place.”
“What brings you to our city?” McCall asked, pointedly changing the subject. He'd never felt qualified to discuss the Governor's political plans.
“Just passing through, and I wanted to look up my old friend Dora. But I certainly didn't expect a party like this!”
Dora Pringle grinned. “Any excuse is good enough when the legislature is in session. I told you I'd have interesting people for you to meet, didn't I?”
“Interesting and charming both,” Ben Sloane said, directing his remark at Cynthia. “I'll never again say that feminists are a bunch of man-hating misfits. There's nothing misfitting about you at all, young lady.”