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Murder on the Yellow Brick Road
By Stuart M. Kaminksy
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1977 Stuart M. Kaminksy
All rights reserved.
Someone had murdered a Munchkin. The little man was lying on his back in the middle of the yellow brick road with his startled wide eyes looking into the overhead lights of an M.G.M. sound stage. He wore a kind of comic soldier's uniform with a yellow coat and puffy sleeves and a big fez-like blue and yellow hat with a feather on top. His yellow hair and beard were the phony straw color of Hollywood. He might have looked kind of cute in a tinsel-town way if it hadn't been for the knife sticking out of his chest. The knife was a brown-handled kitchen thing. Only the handle was visible.
As I stepped forward, I could see that the blood made a dark red trail down the far side of the body. The blood flowed into the cracks of the yellow brick road. Up close I could see that the yellow paint was flecking off the bricks. I looked up the road. It didn't lead to Oz, but to a blank, grey wall.
Then I looked at the body and the grey wall again and wondered what I was doing here. It was Friday, November 1, 1940. It's easy to remember because the previous night just after eleven I had felt the tremor of a mild earthquake. Some Californians mark their lives by the earthquakes and tremors they experience. I just remember them and wonder how long I'll live lucky.
At the moment I didn't feel lucky. I felt stupid. An hour earlier I had been talking to someone at Warner Brothers when a call reached me. Someone said she was Judy Garland, and I should get to Metro. I got there as fast as my '34 Buick would take me, which was not very fast.
At the M.G.M. gate on Washington in Culver City I was greeted by two uniformed security men who didn't recognize me. There was no reason they should. After a few years on the Glendale police force, I had taken a security job at Warner Brothers. I'd held that for about five years and lost it when I'd broken the arm of a cowboy star. I'd propped him up a lot of times, and he let me down once too often by taking a drunken swing at me. His broken bones knocked two weeks off the shooting schedule of his latest picture and knocked me out of the studio.
Since then, I had almost made a living as a private investigator. I had met a lot of people, made almost nothing and did some freelance bodyguarding for movie people, most of whom didn't need it. I'd done some work for M.G.M. but not much and not lately.
One guy at the gate said:
He was a lanky cowboy type in his fifties with grey hair and a weather-beaten face. His looks more than his ability probably carried him into his security job. I knew the route. When people did use me, it was generally for the way I looked rather than anything they knew about me.
My nose is mashed against my dark face from two punches too many. At 44 I've a few grey hairs in my short sideburns, and my smile looks like a cynical sneer even when I'm having a good time, which isn't very often. I'm reasonably tough, but there are a lot around town just as tough and just as cheap. I fit a type, and in my business I was willing to play it up rather than try to cover.
The cowboy at the gate waited for my answer. His metal name tag read "Buck McCarthy." I smiled and acknowledged my name.
"I got a call from Judy Garland," I said. "She wants to see me."
"I got the word," the cowboy said. "Slide over."
I slid over, and the cowboy got in to drive after nodding to his assistant to watch the gate. Metro was class. Two guards on a gate. I wondered if Jack Warner knew.
The cowboy switched the Buick into gear and took off slowly between the huge yellow-grey airplane hangers that served as buildings.
"You need a new heap," the cowboy said, trying to find second.
"I just had it tuned," I said. A normal man would have given up and let me drive, but he played his part to the end. No mangy Buick was going to get the better of Buck McCarthy. Buck rode my maverick past a few buildings and pulled in next to a line of low green bushes. A little man with a big hat was solemnly watering the bushes. He turned to watch as Buck stalled my car in second.
Buck glared at the little man, who was part Japanese, but the little man smiled innocently and turned back to his bushes. It was a clear day. The sun was shining and he wanted no trouble. Buck turned his glare on me. I didn't want any trouble either so I shrugged and accepted my car keys back.
Buck led the way into the cool corridors of the building, but the walk was short. We stopped at a door marked Warren Hoff, Assistant Vice President for Publicity. Buck pushed the door open in front of me and a small, dark, pretty girl with glasses from the May Company basement looked up at me.
"Peters," said Buck cowboy.
The girl flicked her intercom and repeated "Peters" into it. There was the faint touch of a Mexican accent in the word. She would never get rid of that accent, but she looked determined.
"Go right in Mr. Peters," she said. The accent was certain.
"See you Amigo," said Buck. I waved to him as he slowly sank through the door and into the sunrise.
Hoff was advancing to meet me when I walked through his door. He was taller than I was and reasonably well built, but the build was hereditary. He didn't work at it because he didn't need his body in his work as I needed mine. He was a few years younger than I was and a dozen pounds heavier, but I could tell that I could take him. In my business, your mind works that way. It's not the most sociable way to think, but every now and then it saved a few breaks and bruises, and I can use the edge. I've had more than my share and your share of traumatized bodily functions.
Hoff shook my hand. It was firm enough and fit his well-pressed, pinstriped suit. He didn't let go of my hand. Instead, he put his other hand on my elbow and rushed me out the door.
The girl at the desk looked up as we passed, and I sought her eyes for an explanation. Hoff wasn't even looking at me. He had the determined stare of a delivery man with a heavy bundle he wants to get rid of.
"I'm Warren Hoff," he said, turning his somewhat bland face to me with a quick smile and touching his neat brown hair to be sure it was still there.
"I'm Toby Peters," I said pulling my hand out of his grip. "And I'm not entered in this marathon."
Hoff stopped. The Japanese gardener was looking at us. He looked reasonably sane so I gave him a nod of the head to indicate what we both thought of the insanity of a movie studio. The gardener didn't want to be my partner and turned away.
"I'm sorry," sighed Hoff nodding apologetically, "but I think we've got to move quickly. It'll all be clear to you in a few minutes."
He didn't look like the white rabbit, and I knew too much about movie studios to think Metro was really Wonderland, but I let him lead me. I had a few dollars in the bank for a job I had just completed for Errol Flynn, but it wouldn't last long and M.G.M. was the money studio. If an assistant Vice-President was leading me and apologizing, there must be a payoff.
"Andy Markopulis told me a few things about you," Hoff said hurrying through the lot. Within thirty yards, he was huffing and trying to catch his breath. I could tell he was not only out of shape, but a smoker. The Markopulis he mentioned was one of the M.G.M. security directors. Andy was the one who got me body jobs from time to time. Andy had been on security with me at Warners a few years back and had left for a better spot at the big studio. When I went private, he remembered me. Once in a while we had a beer, but he was a family man who lived comfortably in a house in Van Nuys.
I didn't answer Hoff. I thought he would be better off conserving his energy, but he was the nervous type who had to keep talking. He stopped hustling me across the lot long enough to take out a deck of Spuds and light one. He inhaled deeply.
That'll give you the air to go on, I thought, but said nothing. It was still a nice day. My shoes were reasonably clean, my rent was paid and I had two boxes of cereal and plenty of coffee at home. The world was mine, and I had plenty of time.
"Come on," said Hoff, and we hurried along again. In a few minutes, after passing a bunch of brown painted girls with bananas in their turbans, we went through the door of a big building, a sound stage. The part of the building we were in was dark, but there were enough lights to guide us past props and pieces of sawed wood. We walked around a sticky coffee spill, and Hoff took a last drag before putting out his butt. Then we plunged on into a jungle of semidarkness.
The burst of light was sudden, like the sunrise kicking past a cloud. It came after we walked around the gigantic backdrop of what looked like a seaport. Beyond the seaport backdrop, we stepped into Munchkin City, or what remained of it; Hoff pointed at the yellow brick road and the body on it. His hand urged me forward, and I moved. Only a few of the lights were on in the ceiling above us, but it was bright enough. I knew that on a set like this during the shooting of a color film there would be enough light to make the Hollywood Bowl dazzle at one in the morning.
Hoff watched me as I stepped forward, tilted my hat back and rubbed my chin. I didn't quite need a shave. I knelt at the body of the Munchkin and wondered what the hell I was doing here or supposed to do. I thought of informing Hoff that the little man was dead, but he seemed to know that. Other than that I had no information for him. I touched the corpse's hand; it was cold.
I looked around at the set. It was big, lots of façades of Munchkin houses and a town square with the spiral of yellow brick leading not to a backdrop of infinity but to the big, grey wall.
While I knelt near the body I said to Hoff, "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
I couldn't tell whether the sound from Hoff was a polite laugh or the rumble of smoker's cough.
"This picture was released more than a year ago," I said standing, "what the hell is this set still standing for? And why is this guy in costume? You making a sequel?"
"No sequel, not yet." Hoff's voice echoed through the set. He had refused to come closer than twenty-five feet from the body. "We still use some of the sets for publicity. You know, we bring visiting dignitaries and politicians here and take their picture with a Munchkin or Mickey Rooney, whichever is bigger."
This time I coughed. He must have been feeding me a standing studio joke, and I didn't want to appear out of things.
"The set will come down soon," Hoff said, "unless we go ahead with a sequel. We'll make a decision about that soon."
Hoff included himself in the corporate "we" but I knew he wasn't high enough up to be even a small part in a decision like that.
"These sets cost a quarter of a million," he explained, "and we had to build them from the floor up. There were no standing sets we could convert. When the picture was finished, we couldn't find anything to do with them so we let most of them stand until we need the space."
That explained Hoff's control over the crumbling set, but it didn't explain anything else.
"Why is he in costume?" I said.
"I don't know," sighed Hoff nervously. "There was no publicity tour or any reason for it."
"Right," I said, but I didn't know what was right or what was going on. "Who is he and who killed him?"
I looked at Hoff. His eyes opened a bit as his lower lip raised and his shoulders went up. It was an enormous response of non-information. He didn't know either answer.
"O.K.," I said giving the body a last look and being careful not to touch anything. "Now, what the hell is going on here?"
Hoff gave an enormous sigh and collapsed into a chair from which he could see the entire lighted set. There was a chair next to him. I sat in it, and for a minute or two we looked at the remains of Munchkin City and the remains of a single military Munchkin. We were just like two old friends enjoying the sunset. All we needed was a couple of beers and the football scores.
"Miss Garland reacted in panic," Hoff said finally fishing out another Spud and taking a long time to light it. He didn't want to make any mistakes in what he said. He was acting as if his career were on the line, and maybe it was. "She discovered the body and called you."
"Why me?" I asked.
"She remembered your name from yesterday," said Hoff, his eyes fixed on the Munchkin to be sure he didn't suddenly rise and walk off. "It had been mentioned at a party. It seems you were spoken highly of by someone at Warner Brothers. We didn't find out she had called you until just after she hung up."
"Why didn't she call the cops?" I asked, also watching the dead Munchkin.
"She has been working very hard since OZ," Hoff explained very carefully and slowly as if he were practicing a press release. "I – we – think it has gotten to her, that she needs some rest. She just wasn't thinking too clearly."
I have learned that it's sometimes a good idea to wait out a client or a suspect until he talks himself out, into a corner or into a frenzy. The corporate Hoff, however, was abusing the privilege of either client or suspect.
"Mr. Hoff ..." I began.
"Call me Warren," he smiled, fishing out another Spud.
"Warren, if you want me to just turn around and leave," I said, "I'll be happy to do so, and I'll forget I ever saw our little friend over there." Warren Hoff winced at the words, but I went on. "When I'm gone, you can shovel the body under the road, cart it off somewhere or call the cops. All you'll have to do is pay me $25, my expenses for a day, and say goodby after I confirm all this with Miss Garland. She called me and I'd like to see her before I leave. Now I don't have many principles, but ..."
"We know a few things about you," Hoff interrupted pulling out a small blue notebook from his matching blue jacket. He glanced at the book and spoke.
"You have a reputation for discretion, Mr. Peters ..."
"Call me Toby," I said.
"You know something about M.G.M. and have done some work for us," he went on. So far it was all true, but he hadn't come to the punch line. Then he did: "And you have a brother, a Lieutenant Philip Pevsner who is a Los Angeles Homicide detective."
I shook my head and smiled. He noticed.
"Is that information wrong?"
"No, it's right," I said, "but where you're heading is wrong. You want me to talk to my brother about keeping this quiet, conducting a nice silent publicity-free investigation."
"Well," he began, "we ..."
"Who is this "we" Warren?" He winced again, probably not too happy that I'd taken up his offer to call him Warren or question his corporate identity. It equalized us too much. The studio was his, but I knew more about death than he did. "I have no influence with my brother, less that none. You see this nose. He's broken it twice when I've gotten in his way. You'd have a hell of a lot more influence with my brother than I would."
I started to get up. "I'd like to collect some Metro money," I said, "but I don't see how. No offense, but it's a little late to guard that body and a lot too late for me to ask a favor of my brother."
Hoff looked confused. The word must have been that I could be bought cheap and easy. Normally, the word was good, but this was out of my league. I'd just spend a quiet afternoon at the Y and then listen to Al Pearce and the Loyola-San Jose State game on KFWB. I'd snuggle up with a bowl of shredded wheat and a Rainer Beer and think about my next weekend date with Carmen, the plump widowed waitress at Levy's. The plan seemed great to me, and I turned my back on the dead Munchkin.
"Wait," said Hoff touching my arm. "You want to see Judy? I'll take you to her."
I nodded. Things were going badly for Warren Hoff, and I felt sorry for him, but not too sorry.
"Warren, if you want my advice, call the cops and say you just found the body?"
There was a plea on his face, but the look on mine cooled it. He shrugged enormously again and led the way out past the coffee spill, away from the seaport and back into the light. He didn't say anything, didn't even pause to light a Spud. The temperature was about 70, but sweat stains were showing under the armpits of his jacket. I wondered if he was high enough in the company to have a couple of extra suits in his office.
I couldn't figure out if Hoff was so confused that he was lost or if he knew a super short-cut to wherever we were going. We dodged a truckload of balsa lamp posts, stepped through a small town street which I recognized as Andy Hardy's Carvel and backed up as an assorted group of convicts and Apache Indians hurried past.
We finally stopped at a row of doors leading into a squat wooden building.
Excerpted from Murder on the Yellow Brick Road by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1977 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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