Mildred Pierced (Toby Peters Series #23)by Stuart M. Kaminsky
That down-at-the-heels gumshoe Toby Peters again proves to be "an unblemished delight," as the Washington Post Book World put it, while his creator, Stuart M. Kaminsky, continues to "make the totally wacky possible" in a zany new Hollywood adventure. Having survived the hire of such movie luminaries as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Charlie Chaplin, and Cary Grant,
That down-at-the-heels gumshoe Toby Peters again proves to be "an unblemished delight," as the Washington Post Book World put it, while his creator, Stuart M. Kaminsky, continues to "make the totally wacky possible" in a zany new Hollywood adventure. Having survived the hire of such movie luminaries as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Charlie Chaplin, and Cary Grant, tinsel-town detective Toby finds himself in the employ of an edgy Joan Crawford. Actually, Toby needs Miss Crawford as much as she needs him. His longtime friend and office mate, the mad dentist Sheldon Minck, has been jailed for murder—the victim, his estranged wife, Mildred; the motive, a $200,000 inheritance; the weapon, a crossbow. Only Miss Crawford, the single witness to the crime, can attest to hapless Minck's innocence. But the former MGM movie queen has just been offered her first film in two years, as the title character in Mildred Pierce, so she is anxious to avoid unpleasant publicity that could cost her the role. So it's up to Toby to solve the crime, save Minck, and thus keep Miss Crawford's famous name out of the daily papers.
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A TOBY PETERS MYSTERY
By Stuart M. Kaminsky
Carroll & Graf Publishers
Copyright © 2003
Stuart M. Kaminsky
All right reserved.
Until Wednesday Afternoon January 5, 1944, there had been no deaths,
intentional or accidental, caused by the firing of a crossbow in the
recorded history of Los Angeles County.
On that day, while the German army of Field Marshal Fritz von
Manstein was retreating into the Pripet marshes in Poland and the
U.S. Marines were driving the Japanese back at Cape Gloucester in
New Britain in the Pacific, Mildred Binder Minck made history.
The day after Mildred's historic demise, I sat across from her
grieving widower, Sheldon Minck, D.D.S., in a room in the Los
Angeles County Jail.
The Los Angeles County Hall of Justice on Temple Street
between Broadway and Spring takes up a city block. It's fourteen
stories of limestone and granite, an Italian Renaissance style building
with rusticated stonework, heavy cornices, and a two-story
colonnade at the top.
The L.A. County Jail occupies the five top stories. Sheldon
Minck, D.D.S., was occupying only one chair on the fourth floor
of the jail. He faced me through a wall of thick wire mesh.
"Toby, I didn't do it," he said.
Shelly Minck is not a thing of beauty to behold when he's at his
best, happily drilling into or removing the tooth of a trapped
patient. Seated on the other side of the wire, he was not at his best.
"I mean, I don't think I did it," he added.
Shelly wore a pair of dark slacks and a long-sleeved wrinkled
gray shirt. His thick glasses rested, as they usually did, at the end
of his ample nose. Beads of sweat danced on his bald head and his
large stomach heaved with frequent sighs.
"They won't let me have a cigar," he complained. "Is that fair?"
I didn't answer. He squinted around the room. Along either side
of the mesh wall were chairs facing each other, twelve chairs, and
a narrow wooden shelf on either side so prisoners could drum
their fingers, fold their hands, or examine their bitten nails. On
the other side, lawyers could take notes or safely give their clients
There was only one other prisoner with a visitor. He was a thin
man with wild hair who needed a shave. His visitor was an even
thinner woman with even more wild hair, who needed to decide
which of the three colors that roamed through that hair was the
one she planned to live with.
It was early in the morning, and each newly arrested inmate
was allowed a morning visitor the day after his arrest.
"You should have called Marty Leib," I said.
Marty Leib was a criminal defense attorney whom I called when
I needed legal rescue. As a licensed private investigator, I needed
rescue more often than I could afford so I saved his services for
emergencies. Marty was good, expensive, immoral. He wore fine
clothes, weighed about three hundred pounds, and always seemed
happy to hear from me and start the fee clock ticking.
"You call him for me. It's you I need. You find criminals," said
"I conduct investigations for paying clients," I said.
Shelly looked hurt. Shelly looked as if he were going to weep. I
cut him off.
"Okay, I'll call Marty."
"And you'll help me?"
I sublet a small office off of Sheldon Minck's dental chamber of
horrors in the Farraday Building downtown. The office was not
soundproof. I knew when Shelly had a patient. I could hear the
drill, the screams and Shelly's soothing voice either singing or trying
to calm the hysterical patient with his singing. Shelly thought
he sounded like Nelson Eddy. On one of his better days, I thought
he approached Andy Devine.
"I'll see what I can do," I said.
He looked at his hands. His glasses almost fell off. He pushed
"Why would I kill Mildred?"
I could come up with four good reasons. Mildred had not long
ago thrown Shelly out of their house, cleaned out their joint bank
account, taken in a slightly overage stuntman, and filed for
divorce demanding half of everything Shelly would make for the
rest of his life.
Since Mildred had thrown him out, Shelly had been living in a
very small hotel room.
"She had a few faults, but I loved her, Toby," he said with less-than-attractive
but probably sincere emotion.
I believed him, though I had no idea why he had blinded himself
to Mildred's "few faults." Mildred was skinny, homely, harping,
and unfaithful. She belittled Shelly in front of other people
and made it clear that any pal of his was probably not worth space
on the planet. I stood at the top of Mildred's list of the unworthy.
"I know, Shel," I said. "What were you doing in Lincoln Park
at eleven in the morning with a crossbow?"
"Shooting it," he explained.
"Not at Mildred," he added quickly. "I set up a target. I didn't
know Mildred was there. I don't know what she was doing there.
I didn't even see her till she fell."
"You've got a great defense, Shelly," I said. "You couldn't see
what you were shooting at, missed the target, and hit your wife
who you didn't know was there. Did you have your glasses off?"
"No," he insisted loudly enough that the skinny prisoner and
his visitor five chairs down to his right turned to look our way. "I
didn't take my glasses off. Well, I did, but that was before I fired.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes."
"Are you an expert with a crossbow, Shel?"
"No, I've only fired it five times. I'm getting better, but I think
I'll give it up now."
"Might be a good idea," I said. "Why a crossbow?"
"I've joined Lawrence Timerjack's Survivors for the Future," he
said. "We learn how to make our own weapons and use them, forage
for food, hide from the enemy and survive. I'm a Pigeon now.
When I complete the training, I become a Pathfinder."
I needed a cup of coffee.
"You see," Shelly said, leaning forward. "Our bible is the complete
works of the first great American novelist, James Fenimore
Cooper, who devoted his life to writing about surviving on the
"And killing Indians," I said.
"That, too," he agreed. "Pigeons are the lowest level. Pigeon is
the Delaware nickname for the young Natty Bumppo."
"Natty Bumppo," he said with enthusiasm. "He went from
being called the Pathfinder, to Deerslayer and then-"
"Why?" I asked.
"Why do you want to become a Survivor for the Future?"
"In case America is overrun by the Asian hordes, or the Arabs
or Nazis or creatures from another planet or the government goes
nuts. It could happen."
"We're winning the war, Shel," I tried. "It's almost over."
He shook his head at my naïveté.
"This time," he said. "But the next time? What if we have to
move to Australia or some jungle somewhere or a desert?"
"Where do the Survivors for the Future hang around?"
"We don't hang around," he said, mustering a healthy touch of
indignation as he adjusted his glasses again. "We have a campsite
and cabins on Hollywood Lake. It's secluded, rustic, wooded, the
"Let's try something else," I interrupted. "If you didn't kill
Mildred, who did?"
"I don't know. I was standing straight, both eyes open, focused,
bow pulled back, bolt in place. Concentrating, you know?"
"Crossbows shoot bolts or quarrels or arrows," he explained.
"Depends on where they're made. A bolt is ... well, a bolt of
metal, sort of shaped like a pointy pencil with a kind of tail, all
one piece of metal."
"How many of these bolts had you fired yesterday before ..."
"None," Shelly said, holding up a single finger. "That was the
first. I had three bolts with me. The police took the other two. The
ones I didn't shoot."
Shelly looked dreamily past my right shoulder. I turned to see
what he was looking at. It was a painting of Indians greeting
Spanish conquistadors on the Pacific coast. The Indians were holding
out baskets of food. The Spanish, in full armor, were holding
out what looked like orange blankets. The Indians were wearing
tomahawks on their hips. The Spaniards were wearing swords.
There wasn't a crossbow in sight.
"In the park. Crossbow. You pulled the string or whatever it's
called back and then ..."
"I fired," he said.
Silence while he shook his head and then focused, slightly open-mouthed,
on something behind me.
"I need you here in Los Angeles," I said. "Not in the woods
with the Deerfinder."
He sighed deeply. "Deerslayer. I looked up and there was
Mildred, lying there ten feet from the target. I dropped the crossbow
and ran to her. She was dead, Toby, dead, a hole in her chest.
I looked around for help and there was this woman standing
there, back where I'd shot from. She was holding a paper bag."
"She saw what happened?"
"I guess," he said. "No, she must have, but she started to
run. I called to her and tried to get up to go after her, but she
"And then ...?"
"A kid came. Asked me what was wrong. I told him my wife
was hurt, that I thought she had a heart attack. He looked at
Mildred and said he saw blood."
"I think I closed my eyes and cried. When I opened them, the
kid was gone."
"What did the kid look like?"
"Skinny, reddish hair, maybe fifteen, sixteen."
"That's when the police came?"
He hesitated, looked as if he were going to say something, and
then simply nodded.
"She was with the two policemen," he said. "The woman with
the paper bag. She was pointing to me and saying she saw me do
it. That's when I recognized her."
"Who is she?"
"Joan Crawford," he said.
"You mean someone who looks like Joan Crawford."
"I guess." He shook his head again. "This woman was shorter
than Crawford and she's got regular shoulders. And she told the
police her name was Billie Castle or something like that."
The skinny couple five or six chairs down had their faces almost
against the mesh now, whispering. Maybe she was going to slip
him a wire cutter. Shelly and I both looked at them.
"I'm forlorn," Shelly said, looking back at me with as insincere
a look of woe as I had ever seen from him, and I had seen many.
"I'll call Marty Leib," I said.
"And you'll find out who killed Mildred?" he asked as I got up.
"I'll do what I can."
"I can pay. Now that Mildred's dead, I'll get the house back,
and I won't have to give her any more money."
There was no point in telling him not to pass that information
on to the police. They would find it out on their own.
"You work out payment with Marty," I said. "I'll just charge
"You're a friend," Shelly said with the sincerity of a bad child
actor. "And Toby ..."
"When you come back, bring me some cigars, nothing expensive.
I've got to have them. It's like life or death."
I nodded. Life or death might well be involved here, but it
wasn't about cigars.
"I'll see what I can do," I said.
I didn't look back at him when the guard let me out of the
room. In the hall waiting for the elevator, I pulled out my notebook,
crumpled, wire, spirals bent, found the blunt pencil in my
pocket and wrote three names: Joan Crawford?, Lawrence
Timerjack, and Phil Pevsner. There was a question mark after the
name of Joan Crawford because I knew that Crawford had
once used the name Billie Cassin, and that she was born with
the unlikely name Lucille Fay Le Sueur. I knew because I had
worked at Warner Brothers as a security guard and had plenty
of time to read the fan magazines, even though it was considered
an act of treachery by the Brothers Warner to read about MGM
stars like Crawford.
Phil Pevsner is my brother, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police
Department. He works out of the Wilshire Station. I was born
Tobias Leo Pevsner and changed my name to Toby Peters when I
became a cop. That was before my Warner Brothers days. My
brother had never forgiven me for the name change, but then again,
there was a long list of things for which he had never forgiven me
and a short list for things for which he had forgiven me. I was working
on making the long list shorter, which wasn't always easy given
his temper and my inability to keep from making him mad.
I headed for my brother.
When I found a parking space for my Crosley, I checked the
grocery list in my pocket. I was supposed to pick up what was on
the list for my landlady, Mrs. Plaut. Irene Plaut was ancient and
determined. Neither ration stamps nor common sense got in her
way, and when one of the tenants in her boardinghouse tried to
employ logic, her hearing aid conveniently failed.
The Ration Board allotted each American forty-eight points a
month and warned us not to use them all up during the first week.
I was to pick up a pound of bacon (no more than thirty-nine
cents), a pound of oleo (no more than seventeen cents), a No. 2
can of green beans (for eleven cents), and two pounds of sirloin
steak at forty-two cents a pound. The tenants had all chipped in
their ration coupons, and Mrs. Plaut had given me exactly
When she had caught me hurrying down the stairs that morning,
heading for the door and my meeting with Sheldon Minck, she had
handed me the list, instructions, coupons. She grabbed my arm.
She weighs about as much as a sponge cake and stands no more
than four-feet-eight, but she has the grip of a Swedish plumber.
"Breakfast," she had said.
"No time," I answered. "Dr. Minck is in trouble."
"Then he should see an eye doctor," she said. "Not an exterminator."
Mrs. Plaut is actually under the dual delusion that I am not only
an exterminator, but also a book editor. Both fantasies had been
gleaned from bits of conversation which then were cemented in
her mind as undeniable truth. Thus, one of my duties as a tenant
in the House of Plaut on Heliotrope Street was to read chapters of
the ongoing family history she was writing.
"An eye doctor?" I asked before I could stop myself.
"That's what the mister did when he was seeing double before
the big war-not this one, but the big one."
"He's in trouble," I had semi-shouted, "not seeing double."
"What?" I said, wondering where this was going.
"He has bugs?"
"Yes," I said.
"Unsanitary," she said with disapproval. "I've given my bird a
"Great," I said, trying to escape.
Mrs. Plaut was constantly changing the name of her squawking
bird, which either sat asleep on the perch in its cage or went wild.
Mrs. Plaut's rooms were right off the front door at the bottom of
the stairs. The door was open.
Getting past her was a challenge I rarely met. The bird was quiet.
"I have renamed him Jamaica Red," she said.
The bird was brown and green, some kind of little parrot. I
doubted if it came from Jamaica.
"Great name," I said.
"He seems to like it. It soothes his savage breast."
Excerpted from Mildred Pierced
by Stuart M. Kaminsky
Copyright © 2003 by Stuart M. Kaminsky.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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