- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Tie into this month's Toby Peters mystery hardcover, The Devil Met a Lady, with his 16th adventure. Surrealist painter Salvador Dali enlists Toby's help in retrieving three stolen paintings--from thieves Dali hired as a publicity stunt.
"Grasshoppers," Salvador Dali whispered, shrinking back as I opened the door. He didn't say "grasshoppers" exactly, it was more like "grah-zoppairs," but I understood the word as he repeated it, his eyes open wide, his long, dark waxed mustaches curled upward at the end like sharp- pointed black surgical needles.
"A giant monk with an ax is coming through that door behind you in about ten seconds," I said.
The door I was pointing to shuddered.
"Make that five, Sal. What'll it be, a couple of grasshoppers outside or a split personality?"
Dali, dressed in a white rabbit suit, removed the deerstalker hat perched on his head and pointed at the splintering door with one hand. Then he did a little dance from foot to foot as if he had to find a toilet.
It wasn't much of a room, a couple of mismatched chairs with a small round table between them. A table-top Philco radio was on and Martha Tilton was singing "From Taps Till I Hear Reveille." The room looked as if it were set up for a seance or a sanctuary to worship the Blue Network. The room did have one thing going for it—a big window through which, by the light of the full moon and about forty yards away down the hill, I could see a party going on. Beyond the party, I could see the Pacific Ocean.
We were in Carmel, the house Dali and Gala were renting for the duration of the war. We'd just finished a whirlwind tour of the place. It had had to be quick. The ax wielder kept cutting it short.
"No, no, no, no," Dali had shouted three rooms and a century ago, "Not the fish room." We had run through an area apparently intended to comprise the living room. It had deep, overstuffed blue furniture, pale blue walls. On one wall a big fat blue fish was painted. The fish had been smiling.
As we stood now, only one door between us and the pebbled driveway where my Crosley was waiting to rescue us, a panicked Dali repeated "Grasshoppers" once more, emphatically, as if I were the town idiot who couldn't understand that the possibility of encountering a grasshopper ranked right up there with being on the ground at Hickem Field when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor.
The head of the monk's ax hit the door behind us again and went through, sending a hefty splinter flying over Dali's shoulder. The chunk of wood landed in my quiver of arrows. Bull's-eye.
"We go," said Dali, dashing past me to open the door to the grounds.
Once outside, Dali exploded in hysteria, and I looked back to see the head of the ax back out of the hole through which I could now see the monk's robe and black hood.
I followed Dali and kicked the door shut behind us. There was enough light from the windows in the room behind us for me to see Dali's Sherlock Bunny face as he stood frozen, his eyes on the ground in front of us searching for the dreaded ...
"Grasshoppers," he gasped.
The giant behind us took another whack at the interior door. I heard a hinge give. I thought. My Crosley was about twenty yards away. Dali's nearest neighbor was about half a mile away. I was no more than five-nine and 160 pounds on a good day. Dali was at least two inches shorter and no more than 130 pounds tops, even with the rabbit suit. But Dali was about forty, and I was looking at half a century in the calendar. Besides, I was recovering from a recently broken leg.
"I'm not carrying you," I said, moving toward my car.
"Listen," Dali whispered grabbing my sleeve.
"Grasshoppers, crickets, a bunch of tree frogs. Can we continue our nature studies in the car?"
A breeze came up from the ocean and billowed Dali's loose white fur. It might have been kind of cute if an ax hadn't just destroyed what remained of the inside door.
The hell with it. I picked Dali up in my arms like a baby and staggered to the Crosley. My back would make me pay for this later, but so would Dali if I lived to send him a bill and he lived to pay it. I could smell Dali's mustache wax and hair cream. It's Jarvis, I thought, putting him down near the passenger door. He didn't want to go down but he didn't have a choice. Somewhere between the house and the car he had lost the deerstalker and his slicked-back hair had started to rise like a frightened character in a Popeye cartoon. He let out a squeak appropriate to his costume and reached for the door. I grabbed his hand.
"Driver's door's broken, remember?" I said.
"No," Dali squealed.
I didn't answer. I pushed past him and did the twists and turns to get myself into the driver's seat. Since the Crosley was only a little bigger than one of those midget cars the clowns squeeze into in the circus, it was no mean trick, especially with Dali almost on my back.
The unlocked back door of the house crashed open and a dull orange bolt of light came through the dirty rear windows of my car. Dali hyperventilated at my side as I reached for the ignition. The key was still where I'd left it. Fortunately, the monk with the ax was no Clifton Fadiman.
I turned the key. Nothing.
The orange bolt dulled with the approaching shadow of the mad monk.
"Vehemence," said Dali, looking back over his shoulder. "Patti, avant, go."
"It won't go," I said.
"Dali says it must go," he demanded, holding up a single finger before my face as if he were a scolding teacher and I was the class dunce.
"It won't go," I repeated.
"Shoot him, Peters," Dali demanded as the ax wielder moved in front of the Crosley.
"My gun's broken," I said.
"Then, then ..." Dali stammered.
"Yeah," I agreed.
"This is not happening to Dali," he said, closing his eyes. "Where is Gala? She must do something."
Since his wife was on the beach, surrounded by people in idiotic costumes, I didn't think we had much chance of hearing from her in the next fifteen seconds. There was no way I could get past Dali and out the passenger door in time. I wouldn't be able to run.
While I was considering all this, the ax blade came down on the hood of the Crosley about a foot from my face. Metal clanked against metal and the blade bit into the tinfoil hood of the car. Dali tried to climb backward over his seat but there was nowhere to go. The blade came out with the screech of a demon's fingernail across a black heart.
The monk stepped back and looked from Dali to me, deciding who should lose his head first. I lost. The monk started around to my side of the car.
"Open the door," I whispered. "And run like hell. Get help."
The ax scratched across my window and I thought I saw a grin in the darkness of the hood. I didn't grin back.
"Now," I told Dali.
"No," he said, behind me.
"Grasshoppers," he whispered.CHAPTER 2
It all started that Friday, New Year's Day, 1943. Well, at least the year started that Friday. The things that led to me being nose-to-nose with an ax- carrying lunatic through the not-very-thick glass of my car window probably began when we were both born. Maybe a hell of a lot earlier.
It was sometime in the afternoon at Mrs. Plaut's boarding house on Heliotrope in a not-so-bad area of Los Angeles not far from downtown. Mrs. Plaut had thrown a wild party the night before to welcome in the new year. To celebrate the occasion, she had put together a dress that looked like a shroud with lunatic flowers of every shape and color sewn onto it. There was very little of her in the first place. Eighty years of life had eroded her into a tough hickory cane lost in the enormity of that dress, the construction of which she had badly miscalculated, probably based on memories of a more matronly body.
Highlights of the Plaut festivities, in order, were:
Mr. Hill, the mailman, his unnecessarily tight tie threatening to strangle him, singing a medley of songs starting with "Cupid's Stupid Isn't He?" and ending with, "The Donkey Serenade."
Mrs. Plaut's elderberry punch, made from elderberry saft sold by her nephew Ridgeway, a traveling salesman who appeared for about half an hour about once a year looking back over his shoulder for dissatisfied customers or ex-wives.
Guy Lombardo on the radio from 11:30 P.M. till midnight, when we sang "Auld Lang Syne."
When Carmen Lombardo sang "and never brought to mind," I thought I saw a tear in the corner of the eye of Gunther Wherthman, my best friend, who lives in the room next door to mine, and who also happens to be three feet tall and Swiss. Gunther had brought a date to the festivities, a graduate student in music history named Gwen, whom we had met on a case in San Francisco two months before. Gwen looked on Gunther with adoration, seeing only a gentle man who spoke and wrote eight languages and knew the difference between a woman and a lady. Gwen looked a bit more like a toothpick than a woman or a lady, but Gunther saw only the adoration.
I had asked Anne, my former wife, to spend New Year's Eve with me but she'd said she had to stay home and do her nails instead. I had a feeling she was doing more than her nails. I tried Carmen, the cashier at Levy's, but the ample Carmen had said she'd promised her son that she'd be with him New Year's Eve.
"You wanna come?" she had asked without enthusiasm as she rang up my Reuben and Pepsi. "We're gonna toast marshmallows and stuff."
"What stuff are you going to toast?" I'd asked.
"Just stuff," she said.
That had been the second-longest conversation I had ever had with Carmen. The longest one had been about Roy Rogers.
So, I had decided to stay home and join the Plaut New Year's Eve party. I should have gone to Carmen's house to toast stuff.
Mrs. Plaut had concluded New Year's Eve with the reading of a passage about her Cousin Ardis Clickman, from her massive memoirs. I was editing her memoirs. At various times Mrs. Plaut thought I was an exterminator, then a book editor. I don't know how she'd come to either conclusion. Many have tried to penetrate Mrs. Plaut's fantasies. All have failed. I had long since given up telling her that my name was and is Peters, Toby Peters, private investigator, not exterminator, not editor.
"Mr. Peelers," she said on that semi-sultry Los Angeles night, "you need pay special attention since you will get my inflection which is not available to you when you are at the task of editing the Plaut saga."
"I'll pay special attention," I had promised.
I looked at her bird, whose name changed at Mrs. Plaut's whim. From the perch in his cage, Carlyle—or was his name now Emmett?—cocked his head to one side and contemplated the tale Mrs. Plaut monotoned for almost an hour.
It had to do with "The Mister" who, along with Uncle John Anthony Plaut and Aunt Claudia had, on New Year's Night, 1871, decided to attack the local settlement of Pawnees—always good fun when one grew weary of watching the fire crackle and re-reading Goody's Journal.
It seems that "The Mister," who would later marry Mrs. Plaut when he was ancient and she was a child, was particularly fond of the Pawnees. Since I valued my sanity more than my curiosity, I didn't bother to question this. I doubt if Mr. Hill even heard it. His eyes indicated that, inspired by elderberry punch, he was off to undreamed of ports of call. No, it was Gwen, who took things and people at their word, who asked the question,
"Why did they want to attack the Pawnees?"
"One may like a class of human species and still feel the necessity of causing their demise for reasons to do with survival and such like," Mrs. Plaut explained, patiently.
"Well," I said when I thought she had finished her tale. "This was some party, but I've got to get up early."
"I've never known a man to refuse a final cup of Grandmother's elderberry punch," she said, evening up the pages of the hand-written manuscript. Over the years, the thing had grown to massive proportions.
"I must," I said sadly.
Mrs. Plaut placed her manuscript back in the linen-covered box from whence it had come and handed it to me.
"I think it's time I took Gwen home," said Gunther, jumping down from the sofa with practiced dignity and offering his hand to his date. He was the only one dressed for the occasion, complete with three-piece suit and tie with a matching handkerchief in the jacket pocket.
Mr. Hill, if his face was a reasonable window to his soul, was over the sea in Erin, dreaming of Leprechauns.
And that was it.
I wished everyone a happy New Year and went to the pay phone on the second- floor landing. I dropped in a nickel and called Anne. She answered on the first ring.
"Hello," she said in the voice that never failed to stir memories.
"Annie, Annie was the miller's daughter," I recited. "Far she wandered from the singing waters. Up hill, down hill Annie went a maying ..."
"Toby, I was in bed."
"Happy New Year," I said. "You want me to come over?"
"No," she said.
"I'm sober," I said.
"I can tell. You never were much of a drinker, even on New Year's Eve."
"I've had a depressing night," I said.
"So you'd like to come over and depress me?"
"That was not my plan."
"You didn't have a plan, Toby," she said quietly. "You never have a plan."
And then I heard it—something, someone.
"You're not alone," I said.
She said nothing.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"You couldn't know," Anne said gently.
"No, I'm sorry you're not alone."
"I hope you have a good new year, Toby," she said.
"Yeah." I hung up, imagining Anne who, at forty-one, was dark, full, and might be considering her third husband. I had been the first. Ralph, the second husband, was another story.
There was only one other person to call. I did it. A girl answered.
"Who's this?" I asked.
"Tina Swerler," she said. "The babysitter. The Pevsners are out. It's after midnight."
"Did I wake up the kids?"
"Lucy and Dave are asleep. Nat's still up."
"Can I talk to him?"
Pause and then, "Uncle Toby?"
"You on a case?"
"Yeah," I said.
Nat was twelve. He knew better than to ask me if I'd killed anyone today. That was David's question. David was eight and kept track of my murders in the pursuit of justice. The last time I had checked with David the count was sixteen. I was still well behind David Harding, Counterspy. The truth was I'd never killed anyone, and had only shot in the general direction of a few people in the ten years since I'd left the Glendale Police Department. I was and am a terrible shot.
"Tina let me taste wine," Nat said.
"How old is Tina?" I asked.
"Seventeen," he said.
"Tell your father and mother I said happy New Year. And tell David and Lucy. I'll try to stop by tomorrow."
"You mean later," he corrected me. "It's already tomorrow."
"It's never tomorrow," I corrected him.
"I guess," he replied, perplexed. "Are you drunk, Uncle Toby?"
"Not yet," I said. "Good-night, kid."
"Good-night, Uncle Toby. Uncle Toby?"
"He doesn't want to be called David, or even Dave. He wants to be called Durango."
"Durango Pevsner," I said. "I'll try to remember. Thanks. Good-night."
There was no one else to call. I wouldn't go to Phil's house in the morning. I didn't know why. I just knew I wouldn't go. I'd stay in my room till I went nuts. Then I'd go to my office or to a movie. Usually I could count on Gunther to accompany me to nearly any movie, but Gunther now had Gwen.
I went into the bathroom I shared with Mr. Hill and Gunther, put Mrs. Plaut's manuscript on the sink and looked at my face in the mirror. I had shaved before the party but I still didn't look like Victor Mature. The hair was there and dark, mainly, with flecks of gray. The nose was flat and the eyes brown. The ears stuck out a little, which should have detracted from the image of the guy who shouldn't be messed with, the guy who knows how to take a punch and how to give one. Only I hadn't given many punches.
I had a good face for my profession. Maybe I should have been better at it, but I lacked ambition. That was what Anne had always said, that I lacked ambition and was still about fourteen years old emotionally.
Who the hell was Anne with tonight? No, don't think that way. Next thing you know you'll be listening in on phone calls, going through her garbage for notes, taking photographs from trees, and following her around to girdle shops.
I went back to my room. My room at Mrs. Plaut's was modest. Sofa with doilies made by the great lady herself, complete with a small purple pillow on which was sewn "God Bless Us Every One." On the wall was a Beech-Nut Gum clock that told pretty good time, at least as compared to my watch. I took the watch off and put it on the little dresser near the door. It had been my father's, the only thing he had left me. It told the right time twice a day if I was lucky and didn't rewind it.
Excerpted from The Melting Clock by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1991 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.