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By Stuart M. Kaminksy
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1986 Stuart M. Kaminksy
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I was leaning out of the window of a room on the twelfth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, but I wasn't enjoying the view. My right hand was trying to hold on to the tearing sleeve of the frightened dentist who dangled and swayed in the April breeze. My left hand gripped the windowsill in spite of the arm behind it, which ached from a very fresh gunshot wound. The blood from that wound was staining my rented tuxedo and my hand, making it hard to hold on to the sill and my sanity. I wasn't worried about losing my dignity; I'd lost that half a lifetime earlier. My knees were propped on either side of the open window as I tugged, grunted, and pleaded with the tearing sleeve to hold till I got a grip on Shelly Minck's sweating, outstretched, and very pudgy right hand.
My back ached. I have a bad back. I earned it a lifetime earlier after a bear hug from a large Negro gentleman who wanted to get a close look at Mickey Rooney at a premiere. My job had been to keep people from getting too close a look at MGM's hottest star. That's how I got my bad back. All this would have been enough to give a normal private detective cause for concern, and I was concerned—more than concerned, I was on the thin edge of panic. What turned the panic to near hysteria was the loud and determined kicking at the hotel room door by a killer who had planted knives in two people within a week and had a bullet ready for me when the last splinter of wood came off the door. I turned my head quickly toward the door to see how well it was holding up. It wasn't. But the sight of a corpse on the bed with a knife sticking straight up out of its chest urged me on to greater effort.
Another stitch came loose on the sleeve and I could see Shelly's glasses slip down his perspiring nose as he turned his mutton neck and looked down.
"Toby, for God's sake, for my sake, for Mildred's sake. Toby, get me up. Get me up, up, up, up."
He tried to find a foothold in empty space, but all he did was tear a few more stitches, add a little pain to my back and arm, and make me realize that it was more likely he would pull me with him than that I would perform a miracle and wrestle his doughy 220 pounds through that window. Behind me I could hear the wooden door moan with each kick.
"Shelly, stop jumping around," I shouted.
A horn blared far below us on Park Avenue, followed by a crash of fenders and more horns followed by shouts of anger. A church bell rang somewhere far away, reminding me that it was Easter Sunday. I could smell some sweet food drifting up from a restaurant far below. I wasn't hungry.
"What's going on down there?" Shelly demanded.
"What the hell's the difference? Stop kicking."
"Then pull me up. I'm losing my glasses. I can't see without my glasses."
The door behind me was definitely giving way. I could hear it splintering. Then something behind me cracked. It might have been my back or my aching knees. Blood trickled down my sleeve from my gunshot wound and I felt dizzy. This was not the ideal way for a nearly fifty-year-old private detective to spend an evening. Or maybe it was.
The whole thing had started about a week before when a tall kid scientist from Princeton found me at a Los Angeles restaurant waiting for rice pudding. The kid scientist was named Mark Walker. He had a job for me back in New Jersey. I'd never been in New Jersey. I said sure, went home, and packed my .38 and my one clean change of clothes in the small battered 'gator suitcase I had earned as part of a fee from Hymie of Hy's For Him on Melrose in Los Angeles. I'd found Hy's missing grandmother for him. He'd given me five bucks and the suitcase. The next job I did for Hy I was smarter. I found his wife and got ten bucks and a shoulder holster. The Princeton kid, tall and gangly and looking more like a basketball center than a math genius, waited patiently while I checked out my room in Mrs. Plaut's boardinghouse and left a note for my next-door neighbor and best friend Gunther Wherthman, who stood no more than a yard high and made his living translating almost any language into or out of English. Gunther was off seeing a publisher.
In my note I told Gunther I'd be in touch and that he could have anything he wanted in my refrigerator. I was sure there was nothing he would want. There probably wasn't anything he'd be willing to eat without washing it with Rinso.
Princeton waited while I checked myself in the small mirror underneath my Beech-Nut gum clock. The face was dark, battered; the nose was flat, without meaning, shape, or bone. The dark hair was short and turning grey at the temples. It was the face of an over-the-hill boxer, a middleweight who had taken two many prelims with up-and-comers. I was pleased. It was a face that went well with a private detective's card. That face had seen a lot, been through a lot. I smiled at me. It was a goofy smile. I turned to Princeton and announced that I was all set.
On the way downstairs we met my landlady, Mrs. Plaut. She came up to Princeton's waist, tilted her white-haired head upward and gave him a careful examination. "You look to be a clean-cut American," she shouted. "It is not safe to associate with Mr. Peelers."
"Mrs. Plaut," I shouted. "If you tell that to all my clients, I won't have enough money to pay my rent."
This gave her pause. She adjusted the hearing aid she had recently purchased and looked at me. Then she looked at Princeton.
"Mr. Peelers has been known to shoot and otherwise do damage to people. However, he did arrange for me to meet Marie Dressler. Would you like to see her photograph? I took it right on our porch."
Walker looked to me for help. I had none.
"It isn't Marie Dressler. It's Eleanor Roosevelt," I explained.
This did not seem to take care of his problem.
"Mrs. Plaut," I shouted.
"You no longer need shout," she shouted. "I am capable of perfectly normal hearing now. Not like Uncle Eustace Varney, who lost the sense of both sound and touch after spending a week in a hollowed-out redwood near Fresno in eighteen and sixty-four. Uncle Eustace and the Sutcliffes had been hacking and hewing at that tree for a week when it fell and they were trapped in the hollow until passing lumberjacks hearkened to their faint calls."
"I don't ..." Walker began.
"Mrs. Plaut, we have to be going. I left my sugar and gas ration stamps on the table in my room. Mr. Wherthman will take care of my Crosley. Please, I beg you, do not drive it."
"I am a careful driver," she replied indignantly, taking two steps back and almost tumbling down the flight of stairs. I grabbed her arm and she shook me off. "You are insulting the widow of a veteran of both wars and a great many years behind the wheel of his Ford."
As I eased Walker past Mrs. Plaut and down the stairs, she remained above, righteously looking down. Her dark green dress and billow of white hair made her look like a thin, wilted dandelion in late summer.
"I'll be in New Jersey, Mrs. Plaut," I shouted. "I'll probably be back in a week or two."
"Be cautious, Mr. Peelers. Remember what Cousin Chaney said and be prepared for new chapters," she called as we went out the door into the March afternoon.
"What did Cousin Chaney say?" Walker asked as we moved to the waiting Yellow Cab at the curb. He had called it from the pay phone on the landing outside my door, while I wrote my note to Gunther.
"Who knows?" I said with a shrug, opening the door of the cab.
"Should I bother to ask about 'the chapters'?" he asked as he got in next to me.
"Airport," I told the cabbie, who nodded and went about his business. "Mrs. Plaut thinks I'm a book editor who moonlights as an exterminator. She's writing a book about her family history. I'm editing."
He shook his head in understanding, pulled up his knees, and faced forward. I think he was beginning to wonder if Albert Einstein had made a reasoned decision in sending him all the way to Los Angeles to retrieve a busted-up private detective who lived in Olsen and Johnson land.
I picked up a copy of American Magazine at the airport, let Walker arrange for the tickets, and hummed "Tuxedo Junction," trying to give the impression that I flew around the country three or four times a week.
Anyone who flew in an airplane was insane. The damned things could just stop up there and fall down, killing everyone in them and whatever cows happened to be moaning away in the field below, but I pretended that flying was like taking the bus to Santa Monica. Princeton sat there calmly, tickets in hand, watching the crowds flow by. He was looking for movie stars. There weren't any. He should have been worrying about Japanese zeros that might be lurking anywhere, ready to shoot down passenger flights. It was 1942. We were at war. Even if we weren't, those damn planes were always dropping out of the sky. I was getting angry with him and everyone else in the airport, except the guys in soldier and sailor uniforms. They had no choice.
I looked at my magazine. A girl on the cover smiled at me. She had a ribbon in her hair. She was playing with four dogs, one black, the others brown. I read a story about Australia, another one about arms for MacArthur, and then one about smoking out Jap spies. I read the whole damn magazine before we were anywhere near the Midwest.
We were on TWA, five flights daily to New York. I sweated my way through the flight, the stop in Denver, the stop in Chicago, the stop in Toledo, and stepped out of the plane in New York City sometime on the night of March 31, seventeen hours and fifty-four minutes after we had boarded in Los Angeles. Courage returned and I stopped hating Princeton while we picked up his car in the parking lot, a blue 1940 De Soto with four doors. I had worked my way down to mild annoyance when we stopped in Teaneck for coffee and a sandwich. I was on speaking terms with him when we hit Princeton about an hour later and I gave him a less than sullen "good night" when he dropped me at the Collegiate Hotel and promised to pick me up at seven the next morning to meet Einstein.
The room was small, but it had a radio. I listened to Mr. Dithers shout at Dagwood, Blondie shout at Mr. Dithers, Daisy bark at Blondie, and Baby Dumpling cry at Daisy. When Dagwood apologized to Baby Dumpling the tale had gone full circle. I closed my eyes and fell asleep on the floor of my room where I had moved my blankets to protect my cardboard back.
When I woke up the next morning, some birds were going mad outside my window. They were perched in the branches of a tree I could see from where I lay, wondering if I should try to move. I watched them for a few minutes till they flew away and then tried my back by rolling on my left side. I felt something, but it wasn't acute pain so I sat up and tasted the morning tin in my mouth, rubbed my hand over the greying stubble on my chin and touched the scar on my stomach to be sure it was still there. It was really two scars, both from bullet wounds, joined like bleached white twins. One was given to me by a former movie starlet who didn't like my thinking she had killed her husband. The other scar came from a bullet fired by a Chicago cop who didn't like my knowing that he had murdered a handful of people. The twin scars itched pleasantly in the morning and reminded me that I was alive.
The knock at my door was polite, not too loud but definitely a knock. I grunted "Come in," and got up as the door opened. Mark Walker, the kid scientist, was standing there, suit and tie, freshly shaved, holding a newspaper in one hand and a bottle of orange juice in the other. He looked at the scarred wreck of a detective in front of him, surveyed my drooping undershorts, and did his best to hide his lack of confidence.
"It's almost nine," he said, throwing me the newspaper. I caught it. "You can shave, dress, pack, glance through the paper, and have a glass of orange juice before we meet Professor Einstein at ten."
"Thanks," I said, stepping forward and tripping over the blankets on the floor. I didn't fall down. I righted myself and reached out for the orange juice.
"There's a hotel glass in the bathroom," he said, pulling the bottle out of my reach. "You can have a glass. The rest is for Professor Einstein. He has a cold."
"Have a seat while you guard the juice," I said. "I'll hurry up."
I grabbed my pants from the night before, along with a shirt from my open suitcase and a pair of socks, which I knew had the fewest holes of the three pairs I had brought. With the New York Times under my right arm, I moved into the bathroom and kicked the door shut. The tile felt cool under my feet. I threw the clothes on the floor, started the water in the bathtub, and brushed my teeth with the new can of Dr. Lyon's tooth powder I had picked up for the trip. The tub was full of hot water by the time I finished shaving. The mirror and I had a truce. I tried not to criticize the battered face it held up to me every morning and the mirror, in turn, didn't laugh at me. Once the stubble was shaved off with a not too-dull Marlin blade and my hair was combed, the face in the mirror didn't look too bad. The face tried to smile. It tried that most mornings and looked like a Halloween mask of Lon Chaney.
I checked my watch and put it on the edge of the sink. The watch, which I had inherited from my father, told me it was one o'clock, which was about as close as it usually came. Once in the tub, however, the Times told me that it was April Fools' Day, that the British Forces in West Burma were cut off, that the Chinese were trying to hold the line near some place called Toungoo and that General Wainwright had reported a Japanese bombing of a plainly marked American base hospital on Bataan. I let the hot water rub my back and wilt the pages.
"Mr. Peters," Walker called from the other room.
"Coming," I called back, folding the newspaper, throwing it in the corner, and climbing out of the tub to mess up the floor. "You know what it says in the paper? According to the War Production Board, empty toothpaste tubes have to be turned in every time you want a new tube of toothpaste. Same with shaving cream. No tube, no new toothpaste."
Walker seemed at a loss for words as I dried myself and pulled on my underwear and pants so I went on. "What happens if you lose your tube? Christ, everyone loses a tube of something if you give them enough time. And people'll start stealing them from each other's bathroom. Given a long enough war, nobody will be able to buy refills on toothpaste. Everyone's breath will smell like Asta's."
"You use tooth powder," Walker countered as I buttoned my shirt with relief that there were no buttons missing. "I watched you pack."
"You're missing the goddamn mystery of the thing," I shouted. "You've got to let your imagination play games in times like these. Shortages, rationing. You play what-if, part of the national pastime. You complain, worry. It's patriotic."
I came out of the steaming bathroom to a blast of cool air. Walker was sitting in the not-too-stuffed chair with the orange juice bottle in his lap.
"I'm a scientist," he explained as I looked for my shoes.
"Even scientists can worry about toothpaste," I said, finding my shoes under the blanket I had kicked away when I got up.
"You are not a logical person," Walker said, watching me struggle into my shoes.
"If I were a logical person I wouldn't be in a New Jersey hotel room looking for a pair of worn shoes and looking forward to a glass of warm orange juice and a job that probably won't even pay my expenses."
"If you—" Walker began. But I cut him off.
"I'm not holding you up for a bigger fee," I explained, throwing the blankets back onto the bed to save the maid from one more assault. "I'm explaining behavior."
"I wouldn't know anything about that," he said, rising and reaching for the glass I handed him and pouring me orange juice. It was warm and made me a little queasy, but that passed. I threw my things into my alligator suitcase, nestling my .38 under a faded shirt, and turned to Walker.
"Ready," I said.
Walker drove. He glanced over at me every three seconds to be sure I hadn't spilled any of the juice from the bottle he had entrusted to me. It sloshed around but nothing escaped. I'd put on a semi-matching jacket and tie and looked reasonably respectable. I would have turned on the radio but Walker didn't have one, so I looked out the window and watched the students walk down tree-lined streets. On what looked like a main street, Walker nodded his head and said, "The Institute for Advanced Study is straight down there. That's where I work."
Excerpted from Smart Moves by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1986 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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