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When I opened my eyes, I saw John Wayne pointing a .38 at my chest. It was my .38. I closed my eyes.
The inside of my head seemed to be filled with strawberry cotton candy with little unnamed things crawling through its sickly melting strands. Nausea forced my eyes open again. John Wayne was still there. He was wearing trousers, a white shirt, and a lightweight tan windbreaker. He was lean, dark, and puzzled.
"Don't close your eyes again, Pilgrim," he said.
I didn't close them. He was standing over me and I was slumped in a badly sprung, cheap, understuffed hotel chair. I tried to sit up and speak but my tongue was an inflated, dry pebbly football. There was a flat half-full glass of brown Pepsi on the stained yellow table in front of me, but I didn't reach for it. That glass, and what had been in it, had put me out.
I wasn't sure of the day or the time. When I took those last few gulps of Pepsi, it had been a Sunday night in June of 1942. I had been sitting in a cheap Los Angeles hotel room with a guy who had identified himself as Lewis Vance.
Lewis Vance had left a message for me at my office, but I had been out of town filling in for a gate guard at an old people's home in Goleta. It had netted me $20 minus gas. The message on my desk, left in the uncertain hand of Sheldon Minck, the dentist I rent space from, had said I should call Lewis Vance in Room 303 of the Alhambra Arms over on Broadway, that it had something to do with John Wayne, the actor. I'd called and Vance had told me to come right over. I didn't even have to drive. My office was on Hoover a few blocks away and I ambled over knowing I needed a shave and worrying about what was happening to the U.S. fleet off the island of Midway while I was in Goleta.
My gray seersucker was crumpled but reasonably clean—if you ignored the remnants of mustard stain on the sleeve. It was the best suit I had. The sky threatened rain but no one on the street seemed concerned. Soldiers, sailors, overly painted women laughing too hard to make a buck, and sour-faced vistors flowed with me. Before the war, tourists had been thick on Broadway on a Sunday, but tourists had stopped making their way to Los Angeles after the first threats of an invasion by the Japanese. Now Broadway was kids in uniform, waiting women, and girls and people who couldn't afford to or were too stubborn to leave. I was one of the latter.
Vance had said he had a job for me. Since I am a private investigator, I assumed it had something to do with my profession. At forty-eight with a bad back, pushed-in nose, and black graying hair, I was a reasonably formidable sight as a body guard. If I had been over five-nine, I'd probably have been busy nine or ten months a year with celebrities who wanted to show they could afford protection they usually didn't need. But there were plenty of muscle builders from the beaches—Santa Monica, Venice—who could be bought cheap and looked bigger and meaner than I did. They weren't meaner, but they were fine for show—as almost everything is in Los Angeles.
The people who hired me usually got my name from someone who had used me in the past. All they really wanted was protection or a grandmother found or a stern word or two to a former friend who owed them a few hundred bucks. Vance hadn't said what he wanted me for.
The lobby of the Alhambra Arms was wilting badly, had been since long before the war. There were four big wooden pots in the lobby that had once held small palm trees. The palms had sagged to the floor years before, and now the chipped green pots were used as ashtrays and garbage bins. It didn't look too bad because you couldn't see much of anything in the Alhambra lobby. There was a strict policy of not replacing light bulbs as they died. The ceiling was a cemetery of darkened bulbs with a few dusty die-hards still glowing away. Considering the way I looked, I didn't mind the shadows of the Alhambra. I had filled in as hotel detective here twice in the last two years, both times on weekends. There had been no detecting involved, no thefts. The job was to keep the uniformed kids and un-uniformed prostitutes from destroying the place and each other. It had kept me busy. The last time I had held down the duty, I had done almost as much damage to the Allies as the Japanese fleet. Two sailors in diapers had taken umbrage at my telling them to refrain from destroying the lobby. Had they been sober I might have had a problem. They walked away from our discussion with a concussion, broken thumb, badly lacerated thigh, and a black eye. The damage had been divided rather evenly between them.
The guy behind the desk when I walked into the Alhambra lobby on Sunday was named Theodore Longretti, better known on the streets as Teddy Spaghetti. Teddy was about fifty, long, lean, and fairly yellow from whatever it was cheap hotel clerks put into themselves to make the world think they are awake and relatively sane. Teddy's once white hair was even turning yellow again—not the yellow it might have been when and if he had been a kid, but the yellow of white yarn dipped in cheap bourbon.
"Teddy," I said, walking across the empty morning lobby and listening to my shoes clap the worn linoleum made to look like Spanish tiles.
"Toby?" he said, squinting through the darkness in my direction.
A desk lamp stood on the counter next to Teddy. Light bounced off the counter, making the welcoming clerk look like the skeleton of Woodrow Wilson.
"You've got a Lewis Vance, three-oh-three?" I said, coming near the desk but not too close. A little of Teddy Spaghetti can go a long way. Besides, he thought we were buddies.
"I've got a Lewis Vance," he admitted, looking down at his open book, "and a half-dozen Browns, a sprinkling of Andersons, a Kelly or two, but no Smiths. It's a fallacy that people use the name 'Smith' when they go to a hotel. You know what I mean?"
"I know," I said.
"Even people named Smith avoid saying they're Smith. It looks too suspicious," Teddy said seriously, finally looking up from his book. "So what can I do for you?"
"Vance look kosher?"
Teddy shrugged, his yellow face moving into a thoughtful pout. "Never seen him before. Looks like a straight arrow," he said. "But I ask you, if he's so straight, what's he checking in here for?" Teddy looked around, into the dark corners, past the chipped green former palm holders. I had to admit he had a point.
"Thanks," I said, and headed for the stairway.
"No trouble, Toby," he stage-whispered. "I see you're packing heat. I'm in for two shifts and I don't want to identify the remains of former guests. You know what I mean?"
I patted the holster under my seersucker jacket and winked at Teddy, though I doubted if he could see me.
"I know what you mean," I said, and I jogged up the stairs.
The holster thumped against my chest as I went up and my back told me not to be so athletic. I slowed down and followed the trail of dimly lit landings to the third floor. Room 303 was next to a room where what sounded like a child soprano was singing "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," with frequent stops for giggling. I knocked on the door of 303, adjusted my jacket, ran a hand through my hair, and tried to look as if I wasn't afraid of anything less than a Panzer attack.
The guy who opened the door looked familiar; at least his outline did against the back light. He was tall, with good shoulders, a full-size nose, and a good head of dark hair.
"Peters?" he said.
"Right," I answered. He opened the door and I walked in.
When I turned to face him, he didn't look quite so much like John Wayne as I had thought, but the resemblance was there.
Vance had a glass of amber liquid in his hand. He was wearing a weary smile and a lightweight brown suit with a white shirt and no tie. It wasn't Beverly Hills but it beat what I was wearing and he was the prospective client.
"How about a drink?" he said, holding up the glass.
"Nothing hard," I said, looking around the small room, seeing nothing but shabby furniture, an open unmade bed, and a dirty window.
"Coke?" he asked.
"Pepsi if you've got it," I answered, sinking into the worn chair next to the splintery yellow coffee table.
"I've got it," he said, moving to the dresser, where a group of bottles huddled together. One, indeed, was a Pepsi. "Even got some ice."
His back was to me as he poured and started to talk. He kept talking as he turned and handed me the glass.
"Job is simple," he said. "I'm John Wayne's stand-in. Maybe you can see the resemblance."
"I can see it," I said.
"I'm doing Duke a little favor here," he went on, swirling his glass and sitting across from me on a wooden chair pulled away from the spindly-legged desk in the corner. "He owes some people and they want to collect. Words out that the Duke was registered at a downtown hotel as Lewis Vance. Meanwhile, the Duke is out calling in some loans to pay these guys off. My job—our job—is to keep them busy and away from Duke till he collects and pays them off. Don't worry about your money. We're talking big bills here. He can pay you with pocket money. No offense."
"None taken," I said, picking up the Pepsi. I wasn't of fended by the money insult. It was true. It was the story that offended me. It had more holes than the U.S. Navy ships in Pearl Harbor. There were lots of possibilities here, I thought, as I took a sip of Pepsi. First, the story was true and John Wayne was doing one of the most stupid things imaginable. Second, Lewis Vance, who sat across from me watching for a reaction through dancing brown eyes, was a first-class nut who had thought this up for ends I couldn't imagine. Three, I was being set up for something, though I couldn't begin to figure what that something might be. I took a deep drink of the slightly bitter Pepsi and pretended to weigh the offer. What I really wanted to do was get the hell out of the room before I found out what was going on.
I took another sip of the Pepsi, put the glass down, and stood up. Vance was bigger than me, younger too, but I was used to getting past people or keeping them from getting past me. He didn't look as if he had too much experience with either. I didn't see anything on him that looked like a gun bulge.
"I think I'll pass on this one, Mr. Vance," I said.
He stood up quickly, not losing his grip on his glass.
"Wait," he said with real panic. "I can pay whatever you fee is. Duke authorized me to pay. Cash. Just one day's work. He'll really be grateful."
"Sorry," I said. "Truth is, Mr. Vance, you don't smell right to me."
Something went dull inside my head and should have been a warning, but I've taken so many blows over the years that I tend to regard occasional aches, pains, and ringing bells as natural.
"I'll prove it," Vance said, holding out his free hand to get me to wait. "We'll call Duke. He'll tell you."
Maybe John Wayne had gone mush-headed. My head certainly wasn't feeling too good. Maybe the forty-eight hours straight in Goleta and the drive back were getting to me.
"Make the call," I said. Hell, I needed the money.
"Fine," he said with a smile, his hand still out. "Just sit down again and I'll get him."
I sat down again. Actually, I fell backward.
"Fine," I repeated.
Vance walked slowly to the phone on the desk, his eyes on me all the time, as if to keep me from moving. My upper lip felt numb and my eyes didn't want to stay open, but I forced them to as Vance slowly, very slowly, made his call or pretended to. I was rapidly losing my grip on the room and the situation.
"Right," Vance said. He kept looking at me and nodding his head. "Right. Mr. Peters is right here and he wants to talk to you."
Vance was looking at me now with a triumphant and mean little grin. He held out the phone. "It's the Duke," he said. "He wants to talk to you. All you have to do is walk over here and take the phone."
I tried to get up, but it couldn't be done. It was at that point, long after a lobotomized chimp would have figured it out, that I knew I had been slipped something in my Pepsi. I could only hope that it wasn't lethal as I gave up, sank back, and closed my eyes.
It rained while I was asleep. I don't know how I knew it while Koko the Clown danced before me, but I knew it and it was confirmed when I woke up with John Wayne, the real John Wayne, holding my gun on me. I looked at the single window and watched the downpour splatter and ask to come in.
"Water," I said.
"That it is, Pilgrim," he agreed, the gun steady and level.
"No, need water," I said, pointing to my tongue.
He nodded, understanding, and pointed to the sink in the corner. I made three tries at getting up and succeeded on the fourth. I staggered to the sink, turned on the tap, and looked down at the brown stain near the drain. The stain looked a little like the state of Nevada. I put my head under the warm water, cupped my hands, and sloshed liquid into my mouth and over my inflated tongue. The tongue deflated slightly, and using the sink for support, I turned around.
Beyond Wayne, who looked at me with his forehead furrowed in curiosity, the Murphy bed stood open and on it lay the former Lewis Vance. He was definitely not asleep, with that hole through his forehead.
I must have looked sick, surprised, or bewildered.
"You did that?" Wayne said, pointing his gun at the corpse.
"No," I said, as emphatically as I could. I even shook my head, which was one hell of a mistake. The red cotton candy inside my skull turned to liquid and threatened to come out of every available opening.
Slowly, painfully, I told my tale. The call, the offer from Vance, the drugged Pepsi. Wayne listened, nodding once in a while.
"And," I concluded, "I've got a feeling that hole in Vance's face came from a bullet in my gun, the one in your hand, the one with your fingerprints on it."
Wayne looked at the gun nervously and said, "Supposing I believe you. Where do we go now?"
First I asked him why he was in the room, holding my gun.
"Got a call," he said, gun still on me, though he looked over at the corpse from time to time. "Man said I should get over here fast, a friend of mine, Grant Withers, had taken an overdose of something. I came fast and walked in to find you out with the gun in your hand and your friend Vance. He's never been my stand-in. I don't owe anyone any money and no one is looking for me. I was planning on going to a party at C.B. DeMille's to celebrate the release of Reap the Wild Wind when the call came. I don't think old C.B. is going to be too happy that I didn't come. Won't surprise me if I've worked for him for the last time."
The rain got louder and the day darker.
"Why should I believe you, Peters?"
"When you were a kid you used to play in the driveway of Pevsner's grocery store in Glendale," I said, making my way back to the chair and dropping into it. "About two blocks from the drugstore where your dad worked. You used to go to that driveway and throw a ball against the wooden wall. You did that for about two weeks till Pevsner's son came out and hit you in the head."
Wayne's mouth opened slightly and his hand went up to his head, a spot right behind the ear.
"That was you?" he said.
"My brother, Phil," I said. "He's a Los Angeles cop now."
I figured Wayne was about thirty-five or thirty-six now, but there was still a little of that kid in him.
"I thought you said your name was Peters, not Pevsner," Wayne said suspiciously.
"Professional change," I said. "I thought your name was Marion Morrison."
"You made your point," he agreed. "But knowing your brother beat me up when I was a kid doesn't exactly prove you didn't shoot that fella over there."
I got out of the chair again and started to stagger around the room in the hope of clearing my head and returning my agonized body to its former, familiar level of constant ache.
"Let's go over it," I said, looking at Vance. "Someone wanted me here. Vance or someone else. Let's figure the idea was to set me up for Vance's murder. Vance thought it was for something else. Who knows what? He put me out with the drink and our killer steps in, takes my gun, and punctuates Vance."
"And then," Wayne interrupted, "the killer calls me and I come over and step into it. Publicity could ruin the DeMille picture and maybe my career. Could be we're dealing with an old enemy of mine."
"Could be we're dealing with an old enemy of both of ours," I said. "The only one I can think of is my brother Phil, and I doubt if he'd go this far to get either one of us. Maybe it's a blackmail deal. The phone will ring and we'll get ... No. It would have happened by now. It's a frame-up, simple and dirty."
Excerpted from The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1986 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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