Authors: G. G. Fickling
Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC022000, #FIC022040
This edition first published in paperback in the United States in 2005 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
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New York, NY 10012
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Copyright Â© 1956 by Gloria and Forrest E. Fickling
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
To Tina and Richard Prather.
Ongalabongay! And to Shell Scott
who can play house with Honey
any old time!
IND DROVE IN UNDER THE EVES, SPATTERING DROPS
of night rain on the dead man's mutilated face.
Lieutenant Mark Storm got to his feet, lit a cigarette and studied the battered corpse. Then he glanced at me.
“You want a cigarette?”
“No, thanks,” I said softly. “I haven't got the stomach for one right now. When'll the coroner be here?”
Mark walked to the shade-drawn
window and peeked out at the storm. Then he said, “Few minutes, I guess. Honey, gal, you'd better go home. It's late.”
“Come on, Lieutenant,” I said. “You don't have to play games with me. I've seen blood before.”
He whirled around. “I told you to get out of here. Now get out! That's an order.”
“Herb Nelson was a client of mine. I've got a right to be here.”
Mark took off his hat and nervously dented his knuckles in the crown. “Look, I don't care whether you're a private detective or
not. This guy looks as if he's been hit by a freight train. No self-respecting woman would stay in the same room with such a torn-up mess, much less ogle at it”
Music drifted out of the distant night. An odd sound, distorted by the wind in the trees. It was a sad song with a high-pitched trumpet that reminded me of taps being played over a dreary, cold burial ground. It seemed a sorry end for a man who had fought his way to the very top of the entertainment world and then toppled to the very bottom.
“I'll take that cigarette now,” I said.
Mark slammed his hat back on his head. He started to form a new argument with his mouth and then gave it up, handing me a cigarette. “You kill me, Honey. A gal with your class, looks, personalityâ” He shook his head dismally. “What in hell did he hire you for?”
“To find out who was trying to kill him.”
Mark Storm, a cynic from the day he was born, lit my cigarette, blew the match out with an expression of disgust and said, “All right, who killed him? A Santa Fe streamliner?”
“I wouldn't be surprised. Know any likely ones with a record?”
“You kill meâ” he started.
“You said that.”
He turned on his heels and crossed the small, dingy second-story room to a shelf crammed with odds and ends. Under a pile of dirty laundry he extracted an Academy Award
Oscar. Also a .38 revolver. He flipped open the cylinder and peered at me through the six empty chambers. “Did he have a permit for this thing?”
“I don't know. Ask him.”
“Don't be funny,” Mark said, tossing the gun back on the shelf. “When we go out for an evening and you stop off to check on a client who's been hit by an H-bomb, I want straight talk, do you understand?”
The music kept sadly drifting in. In a way this was funny. Not laughable, but the sad kind of funny that makes you say things you don't mean. Mark didn't sound like Lieutenant Mark Storm of the sheriff's office, homicide. He sounded like a little boy who suddenly felt the first pangs of manhood when he told his little sister to go home after they found the dead remains of their dog. And I sounded like the sister, who, fighting back desperate tears, made light of his brave attempts to protect me.
With Mark standing firm-legged and angry in the middle of Herb Nelson's dismal, one-room apartment, I said, “I liked the guy. He was a terrific person. He didn't have any money. He didn't have any close friends. But he had a mountain full of guts. Now stop acting the part of a deputy sheriff. I know you liked him, too. Everybody did.”
Mark creased his hat again. “This is murder!” he said with a little boy's anger.
“How do you know it's murder?” I demanded. “Maybe he
hit by a train. Maybe he threw himself in front of it. Maybe someone who knew him picked him up and brought his body back here.”
“You know better than that!”
I did know better than that, but I didn't want to admit it. You couldn't accept this as murder when you knew what Herb Nelson had been to
a generation of children who'd grown up in the thirties and forties. He had been as widely celebrated as F.D.R., Hopalong Cassidy or the Wizard of Oz. I could still remember the songs they had written about him, the jokes that were told, the great performances he'd given on the motion-picture screens. I suddenly felt that wave of female nausea Mark had expected me to feel earlier.
“I want to get out of here,” I said unhappily.
Mark's legs loosened from their angry stance. He replaced his hat and crossed to me.
“IâI'm sorry, Honey,” he said. “Believe me, I'm sorry.”
“So am I, Mark. And I'm mad, too, at the very same time. I'm mad becauseâbecauseânobody had the right to do this. I don't care what he did afterâhe wasn't big any more. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” he said softly, putting an arm around my shoulder. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” He swallowed and it was a deep swallow of hate for something seemingly untouchable, but with a hope that it could be touched some day, somehow. “Some dirty bastard!” he said.
The coroner and several men from the sheriff's office arrived a few minutes later. They were all young men in their thirties and they couldn't believe their eyes. It seemed utterly impossible, but there it was. A child's dream all smashed to pieces. The coroner
guessed Herb had been dead about four hours.
After they took his body away to the morgue, Mark and I drove south to a little coffee house in Laguna. The rain still pelted down and the surf crashed awesomely in tune with the storm's fury.
I stirred a spoonful of sugar into my coffee and watched the crystals melt away in the black depths. Then I said, “Herb never paid me a cent. I want you to know that. He tried to, but I wouldn't take it.”
Mark stared through the open door at the rain drops shimmering in the brilliance of the neon sign. “Who was he afraid of, Honey? Was he really worried somebody was going to kill him?” He squeezed his big knuckles with the weight of his other hand. “Who the hell did he suspect?”
I sipped my coffee, listening to the faint roar of an airliner battling through the stormy sky. “You don't understand, Mark.”
Headlights of oncoming traffic on Pacific Coast High way flickered across the big lieutenant's eyes making them glitter weirdly like cat's eyes caught in the same reflection. “Listen, Miss Private Eye!” he barked. “A man's dead. I've got to explore every possible lead. Now give!”
I shook my head. “All right. About a month ago, Herb landed a bit part in a Bob Swanson TV show. He got into some kind of hassle with the star and cast. There were some pretty bitter words. Herb was apparently hitting the bottle and I guess he went berserk when Swanson ordered him off the set. He
started swinging and before it was all over an expensive camera was damaged and a set wrecked at Television Riviera.
Mark scowled. “That doesn't spell murder in my book. Come on, Honey, you're holding out on me. What is it?”
“Well, as I understand it, Swanson threatened Herb during the fracas. Then, a week later, Herb got a letter signed by Swanson, followed by several phone calls.”
“Where's the letter?”
“Herb said he was so mad he tore it up and burned the scraps. He said the letter contained insulting remarks about his acting. Even suggested Herb would be better off dead.”
“That still doesn't add up to murder,” Mark said, pushing his cup away. “What about the phone calls?”
“More threats. Herb said it was the same voice each time. It could have been Swanson, but he wasn't absolutely certain. Something was used to muffle the voice. Probably a handkerchief.”
“Have you checked out Swanson?” Mark demanded. “To a certain extent. He's a baby-faced, muscular schizophrenic actor with a yearly paycheck of at least a million. As far as I could find out, he had no reason in the world to threaten Herb Nelsonâaside from his fight on the sound stage at WBS-TV.”
“Who else was on the set at the time of the blowup?”
“Cameramen, grips, electriciansâthe usual TV back stage crew,” I said. “The producer on the Swanson show is a guy named Sam Aces. Joe Meeler writes the series and Swanson does his own
directing. They were all present when the fireworks started. So were about six actors and actresses.”
Mark wiped some of the dampness off his forehead and squinted up at the wall menu. “What do you think of the Swanson theory?”
“âThe whole business sounds too pat. That's why I didn't kick the information over to your office. What do you think?”
“Yeah,” he grunted. “Nobody in his right mind sends a letter telling a person he'd âbe better off dead, signs his own John Henry and then drives up with a tank loaded with a twenty-millimeter cannon.”
“I went all the way back to the day Herb was born. He never had an enemy in the world. When he worked at Metro, he was the most liked person in the studioâbarring none.”
Mark, a man who had lived, breathed and formulated his ideals during the era of Herb Nelson, drew an exasperated breath. “Why not? Howâhow anybody could kill a man of Herb Nelson's statureâand like thatâ” He drifted off into a niche of chronic hatred all policemen have for a murder which jolts them into the realization that despite the badge and the training, they are still human beings and subject to remorse for the victim and loathing for the wrongdoer.
“He grew up in Pasadena,” I said. “An orphan. No record of who his parents were, where he was born, nothing. Not a birth certificate anywhere. Herb started acting when he was in his teens. He was the kind of guy who ended up class
president, most likely to succeed, most popularâ”
“All right,” Mark said angrily. “Where do we stand? Somebody must have hated his guts. Who was it?”
“How do I know?”
“He hired you to protect his life, didn't he?”
I knew what was coming. It was the same old thing. Mark didn't like private eyes. Especially the female variety. He was always frying to prove the superhuman portraits of them in fiction were the most dismal fraud ever perpetrated.
He turned and stared at me with about as much compassion as a little boy would feel staring at the spoon after he'd swallowed the castor oil. “Why didn't he come to me about these threats? We might have prevented this!”
“Sure,” I said sarcastically. “You probably get at least a dozen calls a week from people who say their lives are in danger. Do you save every one?”
“No!” Mark roared. “But we would have saved Herb Nelson!”
“Yeah, I'll bet!” I got to my feet “It's late. I want to go back to my office.”
“Sure,” he said, tossing some change on the counter. “You might have a customerâwith real dough, and an option on a plot at Forest Lawn cemetery.”
Anger was forming a big knot in my throat, but I managed to answer, “Why don't you get a new subject, Lieutenant? You've worn this one down to the nub.”
We walked out into the rain. It touched my face, recalling days long ago when I waited in the same kind of downpour, blonde curls clinging
to my forehead, and hoped my father, a private detective, would come out of the wet darkness, still safe and sound and smiling.