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A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1954 Stuart Palmer
All rights reserved.
"Morning and evening, maids hear the goblins cry. "
Darkness was falling when the girl who called herself Janet Poole came back into her tiny cubicle of an office and pulled the Venetian blinds on the dripping California afternoon. From somewhere off across the Valley came the rumble of thunder; she shivered, remembering the classic Greek belief that thunder on the left presaged great and terrible events. Or perhaps, she thought, a rabbit must have just run over her future grave.
No, not a rabbit. It would have to have been a bird, a very special bird. She sighed. It had been a long session downstairs in what they all called the sweatbox; for four hours Jan and a dozen other kindred spirits had been watching a screen on which thousands of pencil sketches moved and jumped and blended. They had been watching the rough animation of what was to be someday Peter Penguin's Barn Dance.
They had watched in deadly seriousness the pictured antics of a mad, antisocial penguin in everlasting conflict with an obese but sportive hippopotamus, a malignant hawk wearing a six-shooter and a ten-gallon hat, a fantastic cat with Adolphe Menjou moustaches—all of them born of the ink bottle, anthropomorphic inhabitants of this Never-never land.
One day, with some luck and the expenditure of much sweat and tears, all this would take shape and color and come alive, come wondrously alive, to sparkle for a few minutes on the nation's movie screens. To that end more than two hundred artists and directors and writers, animators and in-betweeners and cameramen and musicians and cutters labored endlessly.
"Don't ever ask me why!" Jan whispered to herself. But she actually loved being a part of it all, and when she left this pixie world forever sometime next summer—oh, frabjous day!— it would be with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat.
She switched on the lights and then plumped her longish, pleasantly shaped body down before the drawing board, which was really a tilted desktop with a revolving glass plate in the center now illuminated from beneath. She took a pocket mirror from the top drawer and looked most carefully at herself—the self she had somehow created out of nothing more than good bones and a pair of eyes. This life was hard on the eyes, especially on big blue-violet, slightly myopic eyes. But Jan had made her mind up that she wasn't going to break down and wear glasses until she was thirty—still a reassuring distance away. All the same, it might be a good idea to find out about those contact lens things that did the work and didn't show .
The watch on her slim brown wrist said that it was almost six, six o'clock in the evening of a long day which seemed even longer because of last night. They had stayed much too long parked up there in her car on the top of Lookout Mountain in the incredible white moonlight of Southern California, watching the fabulous jeweled lights of Hollywood and Beverly Hills splashed out beneath them and arguing as only people who know and love one another very dearly can argue. That wonderful, stubborn man! Jan smiled, a warm little-girlish smile that transformed her strong-boned Polska face into momentary loveliness, and then she leaned back and pushed at her mop of ash blond hair in a gesture that was all sensuous. "'Haply I think on thee '" she whispered, making the words sound new and exciting. The Shakespearean sonnets were all new and exciting to Jan; she had learned about them only recently. Thanks to Guy for opening that door for her, and so many, many other doors, too.
But there were certain things she would have to prove to him, too; things that he could and must learn even from a Polish peasant girl if they were ever to make a good marriage out of it. Jan had few if any delusions, and as her grandmother had said, "There is more to marriage than four legs in a bed."
That wonderful, unpredictable man!
Then it was that Jan heard a familiar step coming along the hall, and quickly resumed her usual business-like expression. She looked up with assumed surprise to see a roundish masculine face, topped by a ridiculous red beret, peering in her doorway. "Time to knock off, my sweeting," it said. "You are maybe joining us over at the Grotto for a couple of quick ones and perhaps a small steak, which I will gladly buy?"
Janet smiled, with carefully rationed warmth. "Not tonight, Tip. I'm bushed."
Tip Brown had been top artist and story-man at the cartoon studio for a decade; he was one of the best in a fiercely competitive business, but from where she sat he was as nourishing and dull and wholesome as a dish of oatmeal. Long ago Jan had decided that she liked him the way you like an oversized mongrel puppy who keeps trying to crawl into your lap and lick your face. "No, really," she said gently.
"Do you good to laugh and play a little." Then, as she shook her head, he came closer. "Okay, can I walk you out to the gate? Want to talk to you about things and stuff."
"No, Tip. Tonight it's just no dice."
"Oh? I wonder why. As a matter of fact, I know why. Hark!" Tip put his hand to his ear and pantomimed The Listener and then from across the stretches of the studio street Jan could actually hear the faint tinkle of the piano in the music stage, with an individual touch that she knew full well. It made her heart leap up, and it must have showed in her eyes, for Tip Brown subsided a little and said wearily, "So that piano player of yours is on the lot, scoring again, is he? And you've got to wait around and drive him home?"
"I don't gotta, I wanna," Jan flashed. "And, Tip dear, please don't be like that. You'd love Guy if you'd only take the time to know him. Just because he doesn't drive a car is no sign he's not a man, and a lot of man. This part-time music work is terribly important to him; it's already resulted in his getting two songs published in New York based on things he's done here. If you'd only get to know him—"
Tip Brown shook his head. "My quota of charming young gentlemen is filled," he said firmly. "Well, baby, maybe someday you'll learn about musicians the hard way. They eat their young, if any. But everybody to his own taste."
"Exactly!" said Jan.
Tip Brown looked at her wistfully, then bowed low, vented a shrill Peter Penguin laugh, and went back up the hall a little slower than he had come. Janet sighed—because Tip was really a dear, fun to be with and fun to go out with and if things had been different But things weren't different; things were as they were, and wonderful! And it was only in some of the more outlying parts of Tibet that a woman was permitted more than one husband.
It was six o'clock now, and as if that had been a cue the sound of the distant piano cut off short. Jan felt the day's weariness fall from her like a dropped cloak, and hastily reached into the second drawer of her desk for a handbag, feeling that a little lipstick never hurt a girl at the close of a hard day.
Then it happened. Her searching fingers found something else laid on top of the handbag, something that shouldn't have been there at all. It was only a brown paper envelope with her name imprinted in big red capitals, and below the name a sketch of what everybody in the studio called "The Bird"—the fantastic penguin who played the starring role in most of the films. But this drawing was wrong, all wrong. It showed the beloved, irrepressible Bird with his toes turned up in death, a strangling noose about his throat. Long ago Jan had learned the unwritten laws of cartoondom: no snakes, no cows with udders, no blood and no death—no death, ever. The very blackest of its villains, The Big Bad Wolf and Honest John and Buzz Buzzard and all the rest, got their comeuppance in the last reel, but even they always lived on to plot again some other day. This was a world of laughter, and laughter and death don't mix.
This picture was just one of the things you didn't draw, not even while doodling in fun. Jan was about to throw the envelope away when she found that inside there was a sheet of drawing paper cut into the shape of a heart; it was a valentine, the message printed with hot red crayon:
TO THE NUDE ARTISTS' MODEL:
COME AND TRIP IT AS YOU GO,
YOU ARE GOING TO DIE, YOU KNOW,
WILLY-NILLY FALL IN LINE
AND BE IN DEATH MY VALENTINE!
Jan's "O-o-oh" of surprise was thin and reedy, but it must have carried down the hall, for a moment later Tip Brown in his raincoat came plunging through the doorway and saw her viciously tearing bits of paper into smaller bits and hurling them into the wastebasket.
"Nothings the matter!" she cried at him. "Please go away!" But Tip stood there, bug-eyed and motionless. Suddenly she stood up, overturning her chair, and went out and down the hall with coat and hat clutched in one hand and bag in the other, hurrying faster and faster toward the stairs. Soon she was running headlong, down the steps and out into the lighted, rain-swept studio street, and then breathlessly on and on toward the doorway of the music stage and the safety of Guy's waiting arms.CHAPTER 2
"Do not men die fast enough without being destroyed by each other?"
"There seem to have been at least three of these nasty things delivered to people in our studio yesterday," the unexpected visitor was saying. "Or rather, left for them to find. One turned up this morning on the desk of our musical director, a volatile Slovak, who blew his top and was no good for the rest of the day. Naturally we don't like it." The man didn't look as if he liked anything very much; he had a thin face, thinner hair, and a tight mouth. He had originally introduced himself as Ralph Cushak, studio production manager, and it was fairly clear from his manner that at least at the moment he was acting under orders with which he did not entirely agree.
Across the little Hollywood-bungalow sitting room his hostess, an angular spinster of uncertain years but certain temperament, was feeling flattered but a little confused. She had had her crowded hours back in Manhattan; now she chafed at this retirement to the bland, monotonous climate of Southern California though her asthma made it necessary. But like an aging fire-horse her ears pricked up at the sound of the siren. "Perhaps if I could see one of these un-comic valentines?" she suggested. Then, as he hesitated, she continued, "Heavens to Betsy, young man! Don't you worry about my sensibilities. Anyone who has been a teacher in the public schools of New York as long as I have is not easily shocked; I have washed many little mouths out with soap, and erased all sorts of words from the blackboard."
"I see," said Mr. Cushak cautiously. "Well, as to the warnings or threats or whatever they were, the recipients claim to have destroyed them. However, from what I can learn the messages seem not to have been actually obscene. But I gather that there was something of a most unpleasant nature in each one, some personal stab below the belt."
"But why come to me?" Miss Hildegarde Withers asked, not unreasonably. "You have said that the paper and envelopes were studio stationery. It is obviously an inside job, and I know little or nothing about movie studios. You see, I'm only an amateur snoop at best; I have no license or anything."
"Yet you seem to have been highly recommended by the police."
Miss Withers' long lantern-face was quizzical. "And since when have the Los Angeles police, with whom I had a slight disagreement some years ago, gone around recommending retired schoolteachers for this sort of delicate assignment?" She sniffed audibly.
"They didn't," Cushak admitted. "Our studio is located outside of the legal limits of Los Angeles, anyway, and the local force is no worse and no better than one would expect. If we called them in they'd rampage through the place, browbeat a lot of our people, and get absolutely nowhere. The story would also leak out to the newspapers. In the motion-picture industry we try to wash our own dirty linen without any fanfare of trumpets, and if sometimes we do happen to have a rotten apple in the barrel, we feel it should be quietly nipped in the bud without spotlights or the setting off of Roman candles ." He ran out of words and out of breath, hopelessly lost amid his own metaphors.
"The mention of your name came from New York," he admitted. "You see, our cartoon studio is really a separate entity inside Miracle-Paradox. They release our pictures, but our shop is independently owned and managed, with our own buildings on a corner of the big lot. Our big boss—" here Cushak paused and seemed about to genuflect three times toward the east—"our big boss is back in New York on a business trip. He was advised of this situation over long distance, and he told me to contact you; it seems he had heard of you through some big-shot police official he met at a luncheon."
"Dear Inspector Oscar Piper," said the schoolteacher, brightening visibly. "He's always trying to throw a job my way, as long as it keeps me out of his way. But please do go on."
Mr. Cushak came straight to the point. "This sort of problem is supposed to be right up your alley. Of course, at the studio we have our own security force—mostly retired cops— but they're trained to handle pilferers and gate-crashers, nothing like this. You'll have to be there on the lot to be able to function. Would it be convenient for you to report to the main gate at nine o'clock tomorrow morning? There'll be a pass waiting."
"Not quite so fast," objected Miss Withers sensibly. "While I admit that I like to meddle in problems of a criminal nature as a sort of mental exercise, I have in the past worked almost entirely on murder cases. I'm not at all sure—"
"We need you," Cushak told her, obviously remembering his orders. "And there was really a very definite death threat in each of the poison-pen valentines. Perhaps there is no actual danger to anybody, but we want to find out who is responsible for this, and quick."
The schoolteacher was still dubious. "From my experience and from what I have read on the subject, I'd say that murderers rarely rattle before they strike. A person intending to commit homicide doesn't draw silly pictures and write warning messages to put his victims on guard. This looks to me like a bad practical joke." She cocked her head. "Do you have any practical jokers at your studio?"
Cushak's tight mouth tightened tighter. "We are lousy with them, ma'am—if you'll pardon the expression. It's practically an occupational disease among our artists, gagmen, directors and writers; their minds are frivolous and run in that channel for some reason. Irresponsible children, all of them." It was fairly clear that Mr. Cushak sincerely wished that movie cartoons could somehow be put together by bright young certified public accountants who punched the time clock on the dot and always cleaned up their desks before going home at night. "They are always raising some sort of hell," he told her. "Like putting gin in the water coolers. You might not believe it, but one day last winter after I had had to announce that there would be no Christmas bonus because of retrenchment, I came down to my brand new Cadillac on the studio parking lot and found a wheelbarrow brimming full of water in the back seat! What, may I ask, can one do with a wheelbarrow full of water? It took me over an hour to dip it out with a tin can, and I was late for an appointment with my analyst."
With some effort Miss Withers restrained a smile, but this was no time to indoctrinate the man about the principle of the siphon. "And have you any idea as to the identity of the culprit?"
"I have. I can't prove anything, but it's just the sort of thing that Larry Reed would think of. He's a very brilliant artist or he wouldn't stay on the payroll, but he's erratic and temperamental and always pulling fast ones."
"Well, one year we had an efficiency expert on the lot, not very popular with our personnel, as you can imagine. Reed took it upon himself to insert a newspaper ad on the twenty-sixth of December, giving this poor chap's home address and offering a dollar apiece for used Christmas trees. All over greater Los Angeles gullible people saw the ad and pulled off the decorations and the tinsel and hauled their trees out to his house, and when they found it was a false alarm some of them became rather violent. They also dumped the unwanted trees in his front yard; I believe he wound up with several hundred of them."
"How gay and delightful," murmured Miss Withers. "But not very."
"And Larry Reed pulled another gag," Cushak went on in an aggrieved tone. "He'd had a slight run-in with Tip Brown, one of the other top artists at the studio, and got even with him by filling out a phony change-of-address slip at the post office. Brown didn't get any mail at all for weeks. He missed his bills, and had his utilities cut off for nonpayment. He also, I believe, missed certain important letters of a romantic nature.
Excerpted from Cold Poison by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1954 Stuart Palmer. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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