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The Howard Hughes Affair
By Stuart M. Kaminksy
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1979 Stuart M. Kaminksy
All rights reserved.
The microphone and boom thudded down on the stage within a sigh of taking off the toes of my bare right foot. I had taken the shoe off because the bottom of my right foot began to itch after an hour of waiting in the dark studio at NBC. With the microphone still rolling into the wings, I reached for my shoe and sock, went flat on my stomach and squinted into the darkness.
Things were not going right for me. I had conned my way past the night guard and taken a seat on the side of the stage where I could see anyone who came into Studio B. The killer was supposed to wait for me to contact my informant before making his move—and getting caught. It was all very reasonable and simple, but the killer didn't seem to understand what was expected of him.
The dim corridor light behind the killer caught a glint of metal in the audience. Studio B was soundproof. I could be dead without anyone knowing it till morning. At 44, I was still agile and ugly, but with one shoe off and against a pistol I was too slow and unarmed. In addition to which there wasn't a hell of a lot of room to hide. Even if I could get to my .38, which I had left in the glove compartment of my car, I had never shot a human in my life in spite of seven years as a Glendale cop, five more as a Warner Brothers security guard and almost five years as a private investigator. In stark contrast, my friend in the audience had done away with three people in the last five days. I was seriously outclassed.
At any time except two in the morning, someone would pass the studio and look in—an announcer, a producer, somebody—but I had done too good a job of setting myself up.
The killer stepped forward carefully, showing first the barrel of his gun and then his silhouette clearly against the dim light from the hall. When the shot came, I rolled hard toward the control booth at the back of the stage, abandoning my shoe in mid-air and throwing a kick at the door. The shot didn't have the sharp crack I knew and hated. It had a muffled sound like a gorilla spitting. Any sane man given the choice of kicking a door with a shoe-covered foot or bare one would have chosen the shoe-covered foot, but Toby Peters was not a sane man. He was a cornered, one-shoed idiot who had thought he had a plan to catch a killer and instead wound up victim Number Four—maybe.
In spite of a bad back, very few friends, and a small bank account, I had one hell of an impulse toward self-preservation. I rolled into the control booth on my side and scrambled over a chair until I came against the wall under the main panel. I could hear the stage boards creak slightly as the killer followed. His grey shadow played against the back wall and scared the hell out of me. I clenched my teeth and tried to salivate to keep from gagging and giving myself away. My foot was sore from kicking the door and so was I. I had been warned by my client not to do this, but why should I take advice from Howard Hughes on how to catch a killer? Did I tell him how to invest a million, design an airplane, direct a movie? The killer with the silencer, meanwhile, was making his way toward the control booth door I had left open.
I inched my way out from under the panel toward the far end of the booth, trying to remember if there was a door there. I got to my knees slowly, and crawled to the wall. There was a door. The footsteps were no more than fifteen feet away, and if I turned, I was sure I'd find myself looking into the barrel of the pistol and its too quiet death. I grabbed for the door, missed, grabbed again and ran like hell in hope that the killer's aim would stay sour. A second shot tore into the acoustical wall on my right. I pulled off my shoe on the run and threw it over my shoulder is the general direction of the booth in the brilliant hope that it would slow him down. There were no running footsteps behind me, and I prayed to gods unknown that the killer was willing to call it a day if I was.
I got to the studio door and limped toward the front lobby.
I limped not because I was shoeless but because one foot hurt from kicking the door, and the other had stepped on something sharp in the darkness. There was a swinging door just before the lobby, and I plunged through it looking for help. The night receptionist wasn't there. Neither was the night guard. I hobbled toward the front door. No one was on the street so I dragged my foot around the corner to the parking lot where I made my painful way to my rusting green Buick sitting like a sad turtle, catching the light of the moon on its dirty windshield. I got in, retrieved my .38 from the glove compartment, put it on the dashboard, took a quick look toward the NBC building to see no one there and yanked out my keys. The Buick turned over but jerked forward, banging my head into the steering wheel and sending the .38 and a half-used box of Kleenex flying into the back seat. One of my tires was flat. I turned around to scramble for the .38 in the shadows, missed it and caught a glimpse of a figure with a gun walking slowly across the lot toward me. Bullet Number Three turned my front windshield into a spider web. It was a fascinating pattern, but I didn't have time to admire it or wonder where the hell the population of Los Angeles was. I pushed the door open after one more frantic search for the pistol and rolled onto the gravel.
My grey zipper gabardine windbreaker from Muller and Bluett's was holding up reasonably well, but my expenses were mounting—a flat tire, cracked windshield, medication and treatment for a lacerated foot. I got to my knees and scrambled around a couple of cars toward the side of the NBC building, counting my assets.
These included about 17 years of dubious experience and darkness to hide me. On the debit side, I thought as I stumbled toward what looked like a door, I had a bum foot, no pistol, no help and a calm killer behind me. I hit the side door hard, expecting to bounce off it like a bullet against steel, but it gave and I tumbled back into NBC.
Gary Cooper had probably been in this carpeted corridor once, but where was he when I needed him? I wondered what he would have done in my place. I knew he would have had both shoes on and a gun in his hand. I was getting closer and closer to the point of imagining how the discovery of my body would look. I wanted to be at least a semidignified corpse. I could see my brother Phil the cop standing over me, looking down at my bruised bare feet and thinking it was just the kind of nonsense he expected. Maybe he'd spend a few days trying to figure out why the killer had taken me to NBC, removed my shoes and tortured me before putting me away. The prospect gave me as much incentive to keep moving as did the likelihood of my death.
Footsteps trampled gravel outside the door I had just dived through. The long barrel of the pistol came into view, and I scrambled down the hall smelling the carpet, the walls, and people. I was aware of too much. It was a sure sign of fear.
In the second or two it took the character with the gun to step into the light, I pushed at a door. It didn't give. Bullet Number Four missed.
A plan came to mind while I panted and ran. It was just as bad as my other plans: I decided to scream until someone in the damn building heard me. The hell with dignity. I'd even take an old cleaning lady. But I changed my mind. What difference would a cleaning lady or two make to someone who was out to equal the record of Billy the Kid?
I wondered if the guy with the gun had noticed that I wasn't shooting back. I thought about trying to get back to the door and my Buick, find that damn .38 and hide in the hope the killer would give up and go to breakfastor the toilet. My foot told me I'd never make it.
A light came up on my right and I looked into a soundproof studio where a guy with earphones was sitting and talking into a microphone. He had one hand on his forehead and was reading from a sheet in front of him.
I pounded on the window but he didn't hear me, which may have been just as well for him. Behind him in a small booth was a dozing engineer. I pushed my face against the glass and pounded harder on the window. The engineer looked up at my flattened visage, rubbed his mouth with his open palm and reached for his glasses, but a sound behind me told me I had no time to wait. I turned a corridor, sure I was leaving a trail of blood from my increasingly painful foot in NBC's clean blue carpet, and pushed through the first door that would open. I fell flat, landing on a table piled with records. The table cracked and records went rolling and flying. My breath was gone. I pushed myself to my knees, wiped sweat from my eyes and listened. No footsteps, just the distant sound of Tommy Dorsey playing "This Love of Mine."
I reached over to close the door behind me, gasping for air. I was in a small record storage room. With the slight light from under the door, I could see that there was only one way in or out of the room. Then a shadow appeared under the door. Someone was standing on the other side.
I was scared and angry—angry because anyone in his right mind would have given odds that the destruction of NBC would have brought an army of guards swooping down even at two in the morning. Anger didn't keep fear from turning my stomach. I reached back and felt my way around a large cabinet. It opened with almost no noise and I found enough room inside even with the stacks of records to climb in and close the door behind me. The door wouldn't stay shut, but by holding onto the sharp end of a corroded nail that stuck through the wood, I was able to keep it closed. I knew my fingers would cramp eventually, and I would have been more comfortable in a position other than on my back with my throbbing foot in the air and the Andrews Sisters' version of "Elmer's Tune" poking my neck, but I was alive and had hope.
The door to the small room opened and I heard a foot crunch against one of the records I had scattered. Footsteps on more records, and the light came on in the room and filtered through the cracks in the cabinet.
The footsteps made it clear that the killer was no more than the length of a tall man away. The length dwindled to midget height with one step and there was a tug at the cabinet door. I held onto my rusty nail as tightly as I could, folded upside down on my back. The cabinet door opened and the light hit my face.
My hope that some of the noise had penetrated the brain of a curious guard fell away when I saw the long pistol. I tumbled out of my tiny tomb as the killer stepped back and levelled the gun at me. There was no great hurry now. I put my back against the wall and stood up to take the shot. My knees were too cramped and weak to even consider a lunge. I shrugged and looked up at the face behind the rifle. It was a familiar face, the face of someone who had killed at least two people. The barrel of the gun came up and I revised the body count upward by one.CHAPTER 2
It had all started six days earlier. Actually, where it started is a question of what you're interested in. It started for me in about March of 1897 when my father and mother decided to have a second offspring and God provided a convenient rainstorm one afternoon, so they could close their grocery and work on it. Nine months later on November 14, Tobias Leo Pevsner, who was to become Toby Peters, detective and shoeless victim, was born. Jump 44 years, a broken nose, a broken marriage, and as many broken promises as there are abandoned wrecks along the Pacific Coast Highway and you find yourself in my rooming house, on a Monday, one week before my showdown at NBC.
On the Friday before, I had called a number given to me by my ex-wife Anne, who worked for Transcontinental and World Airlines. According to Anne, her boss's boss, Howard Hughes, wanted a good, honest detective. I qualified for at least the second half of that requirement. I had called the number and spent the weekend at the library getting information on Hughes. He had broken all sorts of long distance flying records, owned Hughes Aircraft in Culver City, Hughes Tool Company, a good chunk of Transcontinental, the Caddo Corporation for making movies, a brewery in Texas and large parts of six states. I was impressed, primarily because I figured it would be reasonable to ask a guy like Hughes for $50 a day, which was so far out of line that anyone but a millionaire would have laughed at it.
On Monday morning, I was sitting in my room eating a very large bowl of Kellogg's All-Bran, the natural laxative cereal. I had been living in a rooming house in Hollywood for almost three months at $15 a month.
I had no faith in the rooming house lasting a long time. My last place was being levelled by a bulldozer to make way for a supermarket. I had been thrown out of the apartment I had lived in before that when a guy shot it up and took an unintended dive out of my window. The rooming house was a change of pace in a quiet neighborhood. It had been an impulsive move toward domestic tranquility, but the quiet street and deaf landlady were already driving me away from what little sanity I had.
The deaf landlady, Mrs. Plaut, kept the room clean, which relieved me of the small, infrequent guilt I had always felt about the other places I had lived in and let rot around me. I had a hot plate in a corner, a sink, a small refrigerator, some dishes, a table and three chairs, a rug, a bed with a purple blanket made by Mrs. Plaut that said "God Bless Us Every One" in pink stitching, and a sofa with little doilies on the arms that I was afraid to touch.
The six people who lived in the place generally minded their own business. I wasn't even sure who they all were, since my hours were unusual and I didn't socialize much in the hall or join in the weekly poker game Mrs. Plaut held in the living room downstairs. Eventually, I would have to accept her invitation since she assured me the stakes were "moderate." I had trouble picturing her wrapped in her old shawl crocheting doilies as she "raised a sawbuck" over the eleven-cent bet of Mr. Hill, the nearsighted accountant.
The phone in the hall rang and I could hear Mrs. Plaut cackling to someone. Then I heard the slap of her slippered feet come down the hall. I could almost smell the faded flowers on her print dress when she knocked on my door.
"Tony," she whispered. I had spent the better part of the first evening I moved in trying to tell her my name was Toby, but she had smiled knowingly and kept calling me Tony Peelers. I had enough names and could have done without it, but some things aren't worth the effort.
"O.K.," I shouted, shoveling down All-Bran so it wouldn't get soggy while I went to the phone.
"Tony," she went on. "Are you there? You have a telephone call."
"I'm here. I'll be right there."
Her feet padded away, and I hurried to the door, pulling on my pants. I hobbled down the corridor to hear Mrs. Plaut saying into the phone, "I'm sorry, but Tony is not home. Would you care to leave a message?"
I managed to pull my belt tight and wave to Mrs. Plaut, who ignored me. We wrestled for the phone for a few seconds. Since I was thirty years younger than she was and fifty pounds heavier, I almost succeeded in getting the phone from her fingers. I finally forced my face in front of her, and recognition dawned. She let me have the phone and I panted into it.
"Mr. Hughes would like to see you today," a male voice said.
"All right, where?"
"Be at 7000 Romaine at 11. That gives you one hour."
"One hour," I said. "What's it about?"
The guy on the other end hung up and so did I.
I finished my cereal, had another bowl with sugar and milk and found out from the L.A. Times that the Russians had launched a strong counteroffensive against the Nazis at Rostov, that Rommel was holding the British in Libya, and that F.D.R. saw a crisis in Asia while he waited for the Japanese reply to his principles for peace. "War Clouds Loom in the Pacific," said the headlines. I turned to the sports section and found that Hugh Gallarnea, the former Stanford runner, had led the World Championship Chicago Bears to a 49–14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles with three touchdowns. Green Bay was still a game ahead of Chicago in the Western Division with a 10–1 record compared to Chicago's 9–1. I had developed a strong curiousity about Chicago since a recent visit there, and I wondered how anyone could play, or want to play football in a Chicago winter.
I also discovered from the "Private Lives" cartoon that "Berlin's most luxurious boudoir belongs, not to a movie star, but to Reinhard Heydrich the cold-blooded killer who governs what was once Czecho-Slovakia."
Excerpted from The Howard Hughes Affair by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1979 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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