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I met a Californian who would Talk California—a state
So blessed, he said, in climate
NONE HAD EVER DIED THERE A NATURAL DEATH .
He was on fire. Flames licked around him, and the building was about to collapse, and he couldn't jump from the window because the water from the firemen's hoses kept pushing him back into the room. That was the dream.
Consciousness returned so slowly to Wilfred Josef that there was a split instant of relief when he remembered all about being here at the Firsk's for cocktails. He even remembered making his getaway when the party waxed noisy (Josef liked only the noises he himself made when he set classics from his collection of limericks to music via the guitar) and his coming out to a deck chair on the moonlit patio for forty winks.
The sound of his own screams brought him wide awake. He found—like the young girl from Peru who woke up one night in a hell of a fright—that it was perfectly true. Or at least a big wad of crumpled Sunday newspaper was blazing merrily under his chair, and two laughing madmen were dancing withershins around him, yelling "Fire! Fire!" and squirting him unmercifully with soda-water siphons.
The other guests, carrying ping-pong paddles, half-finished drinks or bridge hands came rushing out through the doorway. But by that time Wilfred Josef (author of year before last's best-selling novel Anastasia's Lovers) was singed, sodden and impotent on a charred island in a lake of fizz water.
Mona Firsk, trying to make a noise like a hostess, rushed toward him, her stubby, ring-covered fingers outstretched in sympathy. But even for her the picture presented by Josef's amazed, naked face was too much. She was swept away in the rising tide of laughter, for he had lost eyebrows, lashes, and even most of the silky Vandyke which had been his pride and joy. He was mad as a wet hen and getting madder every second in spite of the helpful brushing off, the support into the house and the stimulants which were being offered as first aid.
Under cover of the hilarity two men faded quietly around the corner of the house, keeping in the soft dirt of the tulip beds. As they passed the swimming pool they paused there to cast adrift the seltzer bottles and then went on down the long flight of steps to the street and the line of parked cars.
There they stopped laughing and listened. "What are we listening for, Saul?" The speaker was Virgil Dobie, a vast, gargantuan man with pointed, Satanic eyebrows and the innocent eyes of a child.
Saul Stafford, a small, untidy man with a leonine head and a perpetually blue jaw, swayed slightly on his bandy legs. "We are waiting to see if some fool turned in an alarm." He seemed to feel the need of justification. "What else can you do with a man who wears a zits like that? And who insists on reciting limericks when you're trying to make a small slam vulnerable?"
Dobie nodded judicially. "In itself a grave social error.
But perhaps all this will be a lesson to him. Say, Saul, what are we listening for?"
Then they both heard it, far off. And coming closer.
Stafford turned toward the crimson Packard with the cut-down Darrin body. "I dislike open cars and I dislike your driving," he announced. "But drive me home anyway."
They rolled on down the driveway and were turning out of Bel Air's gray-stone gates when the fire trucks went screaming and careening past them.
Those same sirens, homeward bound a few minutes later, shattered the silence of the evening on Hollywood Boulevard, sounding even to the heights of a little room on the top floor of the Roosevelt. Miss Hildegarde Withers sat up in bed, her hair in curlers and a wry smile upon her long, equine visage. Sirens in the night and the rumble of trucks—it made her suddenly homesick for Manhattan. "This is a fine way to start a vacation," she scolded herself sternly, and plumped the pillow.
In the beginning, like any other middle-aged schoolteacher with a savings account and six months' sabbatical vacation, Miss Withers had planned the usual Mediterranean cruise. And then Europe exploded, making it seem the better part of valor to see America first.
So here she was in Hollywood to her own mild surprise. With an itinerary all planned, including side trips to the San Fernando Mission and the La Brea tar pits in Hancock Park.
And to the Brown Derby on Vine Street where noon next day found her doing justice to an excellent omelet aux fines herbes. As is the custom of tourists in that justly celebrated restaurant, she was amusing herself by trying to match up the caricatures on the walls with their prototypes among the great and near great of Never-Never Land.
At which point trouble in the shape of a strange, excited young man in a bright plaid suit came over and plumped down beside her. "You," he accused, "are the Murder Lady. Want a job?"
"I beg your pardon?" In spite of herself Miss Withers' expression of shocked propriety changed to a quick alertness.
"My name's Wagman, Harry Wagman," he went on, taking it for granted that she would recognize the name. "Picked you out from your picture in this afternoon's Herald-Express."
Here he displayed the paper, and Miss Withers looked dubiously at a reproduction of a too-candid shot of herself in the act of shaking hands with Chief of Police Amos Britt of Avalon, Catalina Island. The heading began, "SOUTHLAND WELCOMES SLEUTH—Miss Withers Revisits Scene of Triumph."
She nodded. "What was that you said about a job?" During her several adventures as an amateur criminologist the maiden schoolteacher could hardly remember a single time when her services had been requested by anyone. Indeed, it was usually in spite of hell and high water that her insatiable curiosity had managed to get her into a case.
"Right! This job would pay you that a week, maybe more." Wagman wrote the figure "$300" on the tablecloth.
Now she knew that there was a catch to it. "You don't solve murder mysteries by the week," she told him. "Besides, I haven't read anything recently about a local murder."
Wagman was amused. "Ever hear of the Borden case back in Rhode Island or somewhere?"
"What?" Miss Withers peered at him very suspiciously. "That happened nearly fifty years ago. And in the opinion of most experts it was quite thoroughly solved."
"Please! Just a minute, lady. This job wouldn't be for you to solve the Borden case." Wagman stopped, bit his lip and then wrote a name on the tablecloth. "Thorwald L. Nincom. Ever hear of him?"
"The movie director?" she said uncertainly.
Wagman winced. "The producer. Mr. Nincom makes the biggest superepics in Hollywood. Well, listen. It isn't officially given out yet, but he's going to do a picture based on the Borden case, a big super-A picture, in technicolor. And I'm going to sell you to Nincom!"
Miss Withers gulped, and her eyebrows went up. "That sounds very cozy, but—"
"Leave it to me!" insisted Wagman. "I'm your agent and for a measly ten per cent I take care of everything." He wrote the percentage down on the tablecloth. "You'll be technical adviser on the picture, see? Mr Nincom always has technical advisers on his pictures. Last year when he made The Road to Buenos Aires I got Madame Lee Francis a three months' contract. And what she can do you can do!"
The schoolteacher hesitated and was lost. So far she had been in town three days and had not once passed through the portals of a moving-picture studio. When she got back to Jefferson School the other teachers were sure to ask, "Ah, did you once see Gable plain, and did he stop and speak to you?" or words to that effect. It would not be nice to confess that she had drawn a blank. On the other hand.
Mr Wagman, taking her consent for granted, was already talking into a telephone which a waiter had mysteriously plugged into the side of the booth. An appointment was arranged for noon tomorrow at Mammoth Studios and made official by Wagman's writing place and hour down upon the linen.
As the schoolteacher passed out of the restaurant she could not help looking up at the wall and picking out a spot where one of these days her own likeness might hang. Then a soberer idea presented itself. All that she knew about the Borden case was the silly jingle beginning, "Lizzie Borden took the ax and gave her mother forty whacks ."
Noon tomorrow finally became noon today, and Miss Hildegarde Withers rode up to the main gate of Mammoth Studios in a bright yellow taxicab after a trip which took her well over most of southern California by way of Robin Hood's barn. The size of the tariff shocked her almost speechless.
"Listen, lady," the driver told her, "there ain't but two picture studios actually in Hollywood. That's R.K.O. and Paramount. The rest are scattered all over the map. And if you think Mammoth is a long haul try Metro or Warners'. They're twenty miles apart."
"When in Rome " quoted Miss Withers to herself, and tipped the man a munificent quarter. "I'm going Hollywood already," she decided.
Harry Wagman stood in the Moorish gateway looking at his watch. "Now I'll do the talking," he told her. "It's as good as settled though. Did you see your publicity in this morning's Reporter?"
He showed the schoolteacher what appeared to be a small tabloid newspaper full of testimonial advertising and devoted to news of the industry. Halfway down a gossip column she read: "Plans for the new Thorwald L. Nincom production move apace . Today he will sign a famous New York detective as technical expert on the picture."
"I haven't the slightest idea how that got out," said Wagman unblushingly. "But it can't do any harm. Here in Hollywood people don't believe anything, even their own love affairs, until they read it in print." And he steered Miss Withers inside the sacred gates. She had a brief glimpse of a reception room full of uncomfortable chairs and uncomfortable people, then of a double door guarded by a beefy young man in the uniform and badge of a policeman. The door clicked, and they went down a hallway and then outside into a street between towering, windowless buildings.
Young men on bicycles went lazily past them, bearing envelopes, sacks of mail, and round tin cans which Wagman said contained film, the precious strips of celluloid which were the sole product of this vast plant. Trucks rumbled by, and here and there were little groups of worried, older men in bright ties and sedate sack suits. There was no sign anywhere of a star or even of an extra player, but Miss Withers was oddly thrilled all the same.
Then they turned into a doorway and came at last into a spacious outer office hung with still photographs from old Nincom pictures, the likenesses of gigantic apes clinging to the Empire State Building, of stampeding buffalo and hooded knights of the Klan and of a lovely young woman tied very tightly to a railroad track in front of an oncoming train. All these assorted characters were enlarged to truly terrifying proportions.
This room was presided over by a lovely blond automaton with soft amber eyes and long magenta fingernails, whom Miss Withers took to be a movie star and who turned out to be Mr Nincom's third secretary. Wagman addressed her as "Jill."
Jill announced them to the Presence and for her pains received an angry masculine roaring. "I'm sorry—" she began. "But—" The roaring went on.
Jill's lip was a bit redder than normal when she turned to them again. "I'm sorry," she said coolly. "But Mr Nincom cannot be disturbed now. He's in a story conference with the writers."
Wagman nodded. "My clients also," he whispered proudly to Miss Withers. Then to Jill: "How're the boys coming with the script? Have they got it licked yet?"
She raised her eyebrows. "You mean Dobie and Stafford? Those two bums—I mean, they aren't working on the script at the moment. They got the ax."
Wagman wailed, "The devil! Why doesn't somebody tell me these things?"
Jill put through a phone call, turned back to them. "Don't ask me, Harry Wagman. They're your writers, not mine. And you can have them."
Miss Withers, a quiet bystander in all this, saw Wagman wink. To Jill he said, "Why, Miss Madison, are you and the boys still feuding?"
"I'm not amused at their punk gags, and neither is the boss. She lowered her voice. "You know, he always likes to have his writers have lunch with him so he can be sure they don't take too much time out? Well, Dobie and Stafford decided they were tired of that and sick of the commissary food, so they brought lunch pails full of garlic sandwiches and breathed themselves right out of an assignment."
"They're under contract," Wagman observed cheerily. "Say, how about trying His Nibs again?"
Jill Madison tried again. Once more she was met by that crackling roar of words. She looked up, biting her lip. "I'm afraid you'll have to make another appointment," she told them.
Wagman shrugged and took Miss Withers' arm. "We might as well blow," he said dispiritedly. They went back again, out into the sunshine of the studio street. "I must say— " began the miffed schoolteacher, and then stopped short. Coming down the sidewalk was a penguin who wore a white sun topee, a blue sweater with the numeral "4" on its back and a polo mallet tucked rakishly under its flipper. Following, was a sunburned young man in the uniform of a ship's captain. He was talking to the bird, not too happily.
"Hi, skipper!" Wagman cried. "How's Pete today?"
The captain stopped and shook his head. "Not so hot," he admitted. "We were all set for a part in Zanuck's new picture where Pete was going to eat a bowl of goldfish, and then they decided to save money and hire two college boys from U.C.L.A. instead."
"That's Hollywood," sympathized Wagman. The captain started off again, and Penguin Pete, who had been patiently resting on his round stomach, rose and hurried after him.
"You never know in this town—" began Wagman.
Then he stopped, looked back to where Jill Madison, her face flushed, was running after them.
"I'm sorry," she cried. "Mr Nincom didn't want you to go. If you'll come back and wait until the story conference is over he'll try to see you."
So they came back inside. Miss Withers sat down on a hard leather lounge beside the man who was to take 10 per cent of her salary if she ever got one and tried to avoid the accusing eye of the giant ape on the opposite wall.
It was a little more than half an hour before the inner door opened and a little procession emerged. Foremost was a slight youth with cropped hair and a hunted expression who was gnawing at the place where his fingernails used to be. "That's Frankie Firsk," whispered Wagman. "Son of Rupert Firsk, the matinee idol of the silents. Now the old man is retired and down to his last yacht, and Frankie is trying writing." Behind Firsk came a fluttery old lady who looked like the stage version of a London "char" and who was shaking her head and muttering to herself. "Melicent Manning—she wrote the scenario for the first picture Pickford ever did back in two hundred B.C." Then there was a waspwaisted Slav in a green suit with an American flag in the buttonhole, and bringing up the rear was a stocky chap who looked like a middleweight fighter gone prosperous. His fists were clenched tight now, and he seemed to weave slightly as if he had run into a punch.
Wagman said, "Willy Abend, the pink playwright. And the last one is Doug August, the cowboy poet."
"All of them on one story?"
"There were two more yesterday," the agent advised her. "And there may be six more tomorrow." He rose and led her toward the desk again where Jill Madison was signing for a brown envelope delivered by a tall and dreamy youth. "Shush, Buster!" she was saying.
He was staring after the writers. "They get more a week than I get in a year," Buster went on. "And they're just a bunch of poops. Mr Nincom and his poops! Say, that's not bad, huh?"
"Not good," Jill said. She clicked at the switchboard.
"Lunch today? Just this once?" He beamed hopefully.
"No, thank you," she returned. To Wagman: "Just a moment, I think I can get you in ."
Buster lingered. "'Girl who always buy own lunch wind up old maid,' so Confucius say." Then he wandered away, his broad young shoulders sagging a trifle.
"Those fresh messenger boys!" Jill Madison observed.
"There is something in what he said, all the same," observed Miss Hildegarde Withers thoughtfully. "About buying your own lunch. I know."
Excerpted from The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1941 Stuart Palmer. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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