Read an Excerpt
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life . . . But first let me tell you a little about myself.
Max Shulman, Sleep Till Noon (1950)
I thought I'd never see her again. But never is longer than forever.
The beveled-glass door of the downtown Caucus Club opened just before noon and drifted shut against the pressure of the closer, the way things move in dreams and deep water. While that was happening, Louise Starr stood in the electroplated rectangle of light wearing a white linen jumpsuit with matching unstructured jacket and a woven-leather bag on one shoulder. She had kept her pale-gold hair long, against the helmeted utilitarian fashion; in another six months most of the women who glanced up from their menus and kept on looking would be wearing theirs the same way.
She had lost weight. She hadn't needed to, but the loss hadn't done her any harm, just trimmed her down from a steeplechaser to a racer. I guessed tennis or badminton, although it might have been the white outfit that suggested it. I couldn't see her in leotards and a sweatband at Bally's with her hair in a ponytail. In any case the progressive-resistance machines would have surrendered without a struggle.
Inside the entrance, she paused to adjust her pupils to the muted light, then spoke to the man at the reservation stand, a plump sixty with a silver hairpiece and the knowing eyes of a vice cop. He nodded, body-checked the young waiter who stepped forward to offer assistance, and led the way to the corner table where I satfighting a fern for my drink. In three-inch heels, she managed to stand a full head taller than her escort without towering. She was five-eight in her bare feet. I had seen her barefoot. I rose.
"I'm afraid our brunch has turned into plain old lunch." She leaned across the table and kissed my cheek. When she straightened she left behind a light trace of foxglove. "I had no idea the entire state of Michigan was under construction."
"Roadwork is our fifth season. How was your flight?"
"High. Which is what I intend to get as soon as possible. What are you drinking?" She got rid of her bag, slid out her chair, and sat down before the headwaiter could get his hands on it.
"Chivas." I sat.
She wrinkled her nose. She'd acquired little creases at the corners of her eyes since the last time we'd seen each other. They suited her, like everything else with which she came into contact. The eyes themselves were violet. "Bacardi, straight," she told the waiter. "We'll order food later. Unless you're famished." Her brows lifted.
"I had a big breakfast."
"When did this start?"
"Don't worry, I haven't reformed. I missed supper last night."
"A tail job?" The waiter had dematerialized, but she lowered her voice anyway.
"Novocaine. I broke a tooth on a fist."
"Business or personal?"
"It was an affair of honor. My family tree came up."
"You ought to consider another line of work."
"Do you think this one was my first choice?"
The waiter brought her Bacardi in a square glass with a thick bottom. "What should we drink to?"
"Telephones and airplanes."
We clinked glasses. She sipped, set hers down, and sat back. She wore a tiger-eye on a thin chain around her neck and earrings to match. No other jewelry. I remembered she was allergic to gold. "You look good, Amos. Gray is your color."
"I'm not wearing gray."
I drank. "Are we going to be that kind of friend that exchanges over-the-hill gifts on birthdays?"
"No. I'm sorry. You really do look fabulous. Men still age beautifully while women just fall apart. You'd think after what's happened these past twenty years things would change."
"That won't float either. You know you're beautiful because every day strangers stop you on the street to tell you. You didn't need to come all the way out here to hear it. How are things in publishing?"
"Worse than ever. Three one-million-dollar advances went out last Christmas for books that didn't even make the list in the Phoenix Sun. Returns are running around eighty percent. All the big houses have pulled in their horns."
"Things can't be too bad if they flew you first class."
"How did you know I flew first class?" She smiled then. The sun came through the stained-glass partition behind her. It was probably coincidence. "Did you call the airport?"
"You were late. I can't afford the Caucus Club."
"Admit it, you were worried about me. I'm not with the firm anymore. I have my own company now. I thought you might have heard. Publishers Weekly gave me two pages last month."
"I dropped my subscription. Soldier of Fortune offered me a telephone shaped like a Claymore for signing up."
"What's a Claymore?"
"An explosive device. So is hanging out your own shingle in a bear market. What happened on the job?"
"You know Eddie Cypress?"
It wasn't a name I expected her to drop. It was like seeing Princess Di spit on a commoner. "Just what was on CNN. Glad Eddie never worked Detroit that I heard. He killed fifteen men on contract and the feds let him walk for turning state's evidence against Paul Lippo for ordering one hit."
"Court TV fell in love with Glad Eddie and so did the talk shows. He goes to a better barber than most hit men and doesn't have a cauliflower ear. The publisher told me to put in a bid for his memoirs. I told him I didn't offer money to terrorist organizations or cheap hoods. He fired me."
"That what it said on the pink slip?"
"The official reason was insubordination. I could have gone to NOW or Fair Employment Practices and sued to get my job back. I didn't. I was thinking of quitting long before Glad Eddie. Getting canned meant I could raid the inventory without guilt. I signed two New York Times bestsellers and a Pulitzer Prize winner right out from under them. They cried salty tears and threatened to sue me for industrial espionage."
"Congratulations. Want me to write my memoirs?"
"True crime's dead. Newspaper-clipping hacks and the Simpson case killed it. I wouldn't take a chance on it even if you weren't kidding. I need a detective."
"The last time you hired me it didn't turn out the way you wanted."
"If that's true I don't remember. What I remember is you delivered."
My glass was sweating on the polished tabletop. The ice cubes had melted. The restaurant was ducted for air conditioning, as was the rest of the Penobscot Building, but it wasn't scheduled to be turned on for another week; the summery weather in late May had taken the whole southern part of the state by surprise. I signaled the waiter and asked Louise if she wanted a fresh drink. She shook her head and the waiter went back for another Scotch. I was getting the kind of service I never got alone.
"I raised my rates," I said. "You might have to hike up the cover price on your books."
She leaned forward and rested her chin on her hands. "I'll let you in on a secret: Book prices rose ten years ago when the cost of paper went up. Paper came down, books didn't. I'll fold your fee into the profit."
My drink came. I raised it. "Here's to the lending library."
"Libraries? Love 'em. Guaranteed sale." She lifted hers.
When she set it down the playfulness was gone. "I'm in a bind. I guess you could call it a book bind. One of my bestsellers isn't selling as well as expected. The other's blocked, he says, and the Pulitzer winner never cracked the list on his best day; I only signed him for the prestige, and as the man said, you can't eat that. To hedge my bet, I put the rest of my money on an old warhorse. The warhorse jumped the stall."
"I can't boost sales and I'm not a psychiatrist, so breaking the block is out too. It has to be the warhorse."
"His name is Eugene Booth. He was big in the fifties. PBO's."
"What's a PBO?"
"Paperback original. Two bits a pop, sleazy cover art, cheap paper. Dames, gats, stiffs, striptease. He and his colleagues corrupted a generation." The creases deepened at the corners of her eyes. Aside from that her face was solemn.
"I read one or two when I was a kid. I thought he was dead."
"So did everyone else, until he sued a fly-by-night California publisher last year for bringing out a new edition of one of his early novels without permission or payment. The wires picked up the story, and suddenly he was hot again. An entire generation has grown up since he lost his last contract. He's part of that whole tailfins-Rat-Pack-lounge-lizard-swingers revival. Three of his titles are in development in Hollywood right now. I saw it coming the day the story broke. I tracked him down through a friend with the Associated Press and signed him over the telephone."
"He's still writing?"
She shook her head. "He's seventy and in poor health. He hasn't written a word in forty years. Even in his heyday he had a reputation as a drunk. He missed deadlines, reneged on contracts, submitted unpublishable copy and had to be browbeaten into rewriting it. In nineteen fifty-nine he assaulted an editor in a New York office. That was the last straw. When he sued the publisher in California he was living on Social Security and minimum wage, managing a trailer park in Belleville. That's near Detroit, isn't it?"
"Your plane almost landed on it. This Booth character sounds like the Babe Ruth of risks."
"It wasn't as if I was counting on him to deliver a new manuscript. The contract was to reprint Paradise Valley, his best-known novel, with an option on three others if he sold through. Here." She took her bag off the back of her chair, reached inside, and laid a squat glossy rectangle of cardboard and paper on my side of the table. It was almost square.
I picked it up. The aged paperback was dog-eared and the orange spine was cracked, but the cover still glistened beneath a coat of varnish. The scene painted on the front took place in a rumpled bedroom. A rough customer in a wrinkled trenchcoat and a fedora stood in the foreground in three-quarter profile with his broken nose showing. In the background, centered, a blonde crouched facing him in a scarlet slip with one strap dangling, threatening him with the jagged end of a shattered bottle. Behind her a window looked out on a street in flames and shadowy figures armed with rocks and clubs darting about in the flickering light. Fat yellow letters in upper- and lower-case spelled out Paradise Valley across the top. Eugene Booth's name, much smaller, clung to the lower right-hand corner.
The edges of the pages were dyed yellow. The pages themselves were brown and brittle and covered with fine print. A great deal more money had gone into the lurid package than into the book itself. The copyright date was 1952. "Bloody Melee on the Streets of the Motor City!" read a blurb on the back. I held it out.
"You can keep it," she said. "Collectors are paying as much as a hundred for it in good condition. Consider it a bonus if you take the job."
I laid it aside. There was a chance I'd be giving it back at the end of the meal: Work and old friends, coal oil and Kool-Aid. "I think it's one I read. Takes place during the race riot in forty-three."
"We were planning to issue it in hardcover, on acid-free paper, with a jacket painting by a major African-American artist. It's powerfully written, although salacious, and the macho posturing is unintentionally funny. Anyone bothering to reissue this kind of thing a couple of years ago would have been obliged to advertise it as a camp classic, and maybe sold five thousand copies, tops. Then the Library of America brought out a two-volume deluxe set of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Horace McCoyBooth's peersand pronounced it a national treasure. That was the beginning of the comeback."
"If Booth skipped out after you signed him, why don't you just go ahead and publish it?"
"That's just it. He canceled the contract. He returned the advance check uncashed, along with this note."
She handed me a trifold of cheap gray stock from her bag, creased and yellowed at the corners, with the alamo motel printed at the top. The brief paragraph had been typewritten in elite characters on an old machine whose keys needed realigning; the a and the o in particular had seceded nearly far enough to start their own typewriter.
Much as it sticks in an old hack's craw to refuse a buck, I hope you'll be kind enough to tear up our agreement. A gelding ought to know better than to try to breed.
The signature was a thick scrawl in watery ink from a fountain pen.
I sniffed at the coarse paper. Bourbon. That was a nice touch. "Signature check out?"
"It matches the one on the contract, except for the nickname. He signed Eugene. Otherwise it wouldn't have been strictly legal. I called the trailer park, and got a stranger who said he was the temporary manager. He said Booth quit last week and moved out. I looked up the Alamo Motelit's on Jefferson Avenuebut nobody I spoke to there had ever heard of him. They didn't have a registration card in that name."
"The Alamo's a rathole. I doubt it has its own stationery these days. This sheet is older than you are. What about the envelope?"
"Plain drugstore, no return address. Detroit postmark. Should I have brought it?"
"You just told me everything it would have." I read the note again. " 'A gelding ought to know better than to try to breed.' What do you think that means?"
"A number of things, none of them very cheerful. He must be a wretched man."
I folded the note along its creases and stuck it into the paperback like a bookmark. "Photo? Description?"
"We never met. We did everything by telephone and the mail. I had plans to set up a publicity shoot in a month or so. I couldn't even find an old picture on the Internet. He seems to have been allergic to cameras."
"He might have a record."
"He might. It wouldn't shock me. Many of those PBO writers were odd ducks, misanthropes and misfits. They rode the rails, picked lettuce, bellhopped, went to war and were changed by it; some of them served time on chain gangs. The stuff they wrote was too raw for the cloth trade. They got away with more in paper because that whole industry wasn't respectable to begin with. That's why they're so popular now. The rest of society has caught up with them."
I jingled the ice in my glass. "Even if I find him he won't want to come back."
"Finding him is only half the job. I want you to learn why he backed out. If I know what the problem is, maybe I can help fix it."
"You do want a psychiatrist."
She finished her Bacardi and touched her lower lip with a little finger. The lacquered nail was rounded to accommodate a computer keyboard. "I admit I thought of you because of the Detroit connection. But you're perfect for this job. You're the kind of detective Booth wrote about; the kind they say doesn't exist in real life. He's sure to see that. If you can get him to trust you, you can find out what's wrong. I'm sure of it."
"Two Model T's chasing each other on the Information Superhighway," I said. "Talk about your photo ops."
"It's not a publicity stunt, Amos. I need Booth." One hand gripped the other on the table, the knuckles pale against the tan. "My severance package and 401K went into the rent on the office suite. I floated a loan to cover the advances I paid out. I turn forty again this year. I'm too old to go back and start from the bottom."
"I heard your joints creaking all the way from the street."
She said nothing.
I picked up Paradise Valley and looked at it again, front and back. It didn't mean anything to me beyond an interesting read. I slid it and Booth's note into my inside breast pocket. It had been a long time since a paperback had fit there. They were coming much thicker now, and cost twenty times more.
Louise knew what the gesture meant. She smiled, unfolded her hands, and got the waiter's attention. He brought menus bound in aubergine suede.
"We are offering a summer special on barbecued spareribs," he said.
I said, "It isn't summer."
"I'm aware of that, sir. Our chef is under the influence of the weather."
Louise handed back her menu. "I'll have the ribs."
I ordered the London Broil. When the ribs came, charred at the ends and drenched in rust-colored sauce, I said, "You shouldn't have worn white."
"That's what my ex-husband said." Her smile turned wicked. She shrugged out of the jacket, rolled up her sleeves, and tucked her linen napkin into her collar. She polished off half a rack with her fingers and never got a spot on her. Some people are like that. I can't walk past an Italian restaurant without ruining a good necktie.