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Peter Lorre isn't exactly everybody's idea of a leading man. Tell that to one Mrs. Sheldon Minck, who, her distraught husband reports, has run off with the big screen's bantamweight heavy with the haunted eyes. And since this is Hollywood during the wartime madness of the forties, where nothing is exactly what it seems, it's the perfect case for Toby Peters. Martin's Press.
Two German shepherds named Trudi and Heidi were about to claw their way through the cardboard door to the Victory Window of I. Magnin on Wilshire in the hope that they could tear me into Spam salad. The dogs were under the mistaken impression that I had, a few minutes earlier, shot a store guard named Murchison. If I hadn't dropped my gun in the menswear department, I'd have shot the dogs.
No one would have blamed me. No one trusted German shepherds. It was unpatriotic. People who owned them had started dropped the "German" and calling the dogs "shepherds," but those of us who had been around for more than half a decade weren't falling for it. Those Nazi dogs were the enemy. If we put Japanese Americans in prison camps for having Japanese ancestors, why weren't we interning dogs whose names were a challenge to the war effort?
My back was against the flimsy door, which shook with the assault by Trudi and Heidi. The dogs snarled, growled, and sank their teeth and claws into the door, which had been built for show and not for privacy or protection. I knew what the furry duo could do. They had already shredded the sleeve of my jacket and ripped the left knee of my pants. My knee was bleeding from a lunge by Heidi just as I had slammed the Window door. I reached out with one hand and kept my shoulders pressed against the door. My heels began to slip but my fingers touched a chair near the table in the window. Rudy Vallee had sat in the chair that very afternoon selling U.S. War Savings Bonds and Stamps and autographing stamp albums and war bond applications. I had seen him grinning, adjusting his glasses, waving at the ladies on Wilshire. Now I shoved the wooden chair Vallee had been sitting in under the door handle as the Nazi canines went wild.
I looked around for other fortification. From the nearby wall, I plucked a neatly printed cardboard sign that informed me by the dim moonlight over Los Angeles that I would be complying with Federal Credit Regulation if payment for my charge purchases was made in full "on or before the tenth day of the second calendar month following the calendar month during which such article was sold." What the hell did that mean and what could I do with the sign, feed it to the canine krauts?
The tin screws on the door rattled as the hinges began to come loose. From the corner of my eye or the edge of my frenzy and imagination, I saw something move on Wilshire; someone was looking in the window. If the window had been lighted maybe a passing car, maybe even a cop, would have spotted me, but the war blackout had darkened Los Angeles after sundown. I looked down, sign in hand, into a pair of drunken eyes set deep in the skull of a broom-thin old man with a wild dirty-gray beard. He wore a coat and looked cold in spite of the summer heat. I gestured at the vibrating door behind me, mouthed "help," and considered a round of desperate charades. The old man grinned and showed a lone dark tooth in appreciation of my act.
The window was too thick to be heard through, and the man's stupor too dense to penetrate with my limited skills at mime. I searched for something to write a message with on the back of the sign. What the hell had Rudy Vallee signed all those stamp books with? Whatever it was, it wasn't in the goddamned Victory Window. I dropped the sign on the small table and dug madly in my pockets for something, anything to write with. I found some coins, the keys to my Crosley, a stick of Black Jack gum, and some lint.
A crack. The muzzle of one of the dogs ripped through the door. I turned to the old man and waved my arms. He did the same. I pointed at the door, at the snarling teeth of the dog. He did the same and grinned. I took a step toward him in frustration and my bleeding knee gave way. One-tooth stumbled in imitation and nearly had a stroke laughing. He tugged at his dirty beard and looked up and down the street for someone to share the show with. The son of a bitch was having a great time. I threw the sign at him and he jumped back when it hit the window. Suddenly, I wasn't fun anymore. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets, gave me a disapproving pout, and shuffled into the night.
It was slightly before midnight on Friday, June 12, 1942. I was almost fifty, missing my gun and one I'd borrowed from my landlady, out of suits, and almost out of time. Maybe this was it. I was going to die in the Victory Window of I. Magnin & Co. A small victory for the Axis. I didn't think the mangling of one weary private investigator would make up for the jolt the Nazis were taking at Sevastopol, but I—the door was about to go. I kicked the small table over. A wet throb of pain shot through my knee. I stumbled forward, grabbed the table, and shoved it against the chair, pushing with both hands, but it was clear that I was only buying a few seconds. There was no hoping for rescue by the night watchman Murchison. He was writhing around inside the store with a bullet in his leg.
I had a fee to collect, a hefty fraction of my life still to live, and an assortment of aches and bruises to take care of. There are some days it doesn't pay to get up off the floor.
"Shut up," I shouted at the determined dogs. I searched for some word in German. Maybe German shepherds understood German. Orders always sounded better in German, only I didn't know any German. I could offer them Black Jack gum, retrieve the cardboard sign as a useless weapon, or think of something clever. I let go of the chair and table, rolled to my feet, and threw myself against the window. I bounced off the glass and tripped backward. I didn't fall. I didn't cry. I turned, blew out a blast of air, and faced the door that now burst wide open, letting in the raging killer-dogs to claw their way over the chair and table.
Think fast, Toby Peters, I said, but no thought came.
It had all begun on Wednesday morning, at least the part that involved me. I'd been asleep on the floor of my room in Mrs. Plaut's boarding house on Heliotrope in Hollywood. I sleep on a mattress on the floor because of my bad back, one of the many parts of my body in need of disaster aid. The back had first acted up or reacted about seven years earlier when I had been a security guard at the premiere of a Mickey Rooney movie. A very large Negro gentleman had decided to welcome the Mick, and I made the mistake of getting in the way of the large man. Actually, it hadn't seemed like a mistake at the time. It was what I was getting paid twenty bucks for. The big man had lifted me in a bear hug and grunted till something in my lower back screeched like a two-timed woman. Since then my troubles and any changes in the weather tended to go for my back. A cold or a twist and turn the wrong way and I'm hobbling for a week and trying Egyptian remedies and faith healers.
My door had banged open that Wednesday morning followed by Mrs. Plaut, a small, ancient, gray stick of a creature in a black smock carrying a dust mop. Mrs. Plaut and the mop looked like twins. I had long given up asking or demanding that Mrs. Plaut knock at my door before entering. Pleas and threats were no use. They went through Mrs. Plaut's almost deaf ears without meeting resistance or acknowledgment. Physical barriers were equally useless. In spite of her seventy-plus years and her ninety-minus pounds, the woman was capable of rolling over the entire USC football team.
Mrs. Plaut had a hearing aid. I had given it to her, but it wasn't in her ear now.
"There is a telephone for you, Mr. Peelers," she announced much louder than the FBI when they surrounded Machine-Gun Kelly.
"I'm coming," I groaned, sitting up carefully. My back didn't protest but my arm felt more than a little numb. I'd just returned from a case in New York that netted me enough money to pay my room and office rent and buy me a week or two of tacos and a bottle of Shinola Dress Parade, which I planned to use with broad strokes on my only pair of shoes.
Mrs. Plaut stood, her vision perfect, scanning the mess in my room with disapproval. She wasn't leaving. I was wearing wrinkled boxer shorts and an undershirt just like the one Clark Gable had worn in It Happened One Night.
"The telephone is waiting," she said, pointing toward the open door with the dust mop.
"The telephone can wait," I said, getting up groggily. "My pants ..."
"Put your pants on," she said, wielding her trusty mop like a pom-pom to indicate the general direction of my heaped trousers next to the ancient sofa.
I groped for the pants and glanced at the Beech-Nut gum clock on the wall near the door. It was a little after seven. I needed something wet in my mouth, coffee, and a bowl or two of Quaker Puffed Wheat or Rice with milk, but was afraid Mrs. Plaut would leap in front of me if I headed for the sink —fearful that she would raise her trusty mop and, like Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand, skewer me painfully in the gut.
The telephone was waiting.
I staggered across the room like a wounded bull, tried to get into my pants, and managed to succeed just short of the table in the alcove by the window. I considered asking Mrs. Plaut to simply take a message from the caller, but asking Mrs. Plaut to do such a thing would be far from simple. I had once spent three days trying to track down a man named Gus Campagni who said he had an urgent need to speak to me. Mrs. Plaut has assured me that Gus Campagni had been most insistent on the phone, saying that it involved money. Gus Campagni turned out to be the gas company trying to get me to pay the gas bill for an apartment I had lived in three years earlier.
"You are not agile," Mrs. Plaut observed as I managed to reach out and stop my fall with my right hand while I pulled up my pants with the left. My right shoulder twinged.
"I am not agile," I agreed. "But I bounce easily."
"The telephone waits," she reminded me as I crossed the room in search of a shirt. I paused, shrugged, felt the stubble on my face, tasted the tin on my cratered tongue, and shuffled toward the door scratching my stomach and not feeling much like Clark Gable. Mrs. Plaut two-stepped out of my path, mop held high.
No one was on the landing. I glanced toward the door of the room next to mine but remembered that Gunther had told me he would be up early for a meeting with a publisher. Gunther Wherthman, all three feet plus of him, is a Swiss little person who makes a living translating books and articles from any of seven languages into English or each other if the need arises. Gunther is also my best friend and a shall cherrystone of sanity in a world made of Jell-O. I shuffled toward the phone near the stairs knowing Mrs. Plaut was close behind.
"Following your conversation, I would like a brief discussion," she said.
"Urggkh," I grunted and picked up the dangling phone. "Peters," I croaked.
"Toby?" came the voice of Sheldon Minck, D.D.S., with whom I share office space.
"There is no other Peters at this address, Shel," I said irritably. "It's seven in the morning. I just ..."
"She's missing, Toby," he cried. When I say "he cried," I mean exactly that. I could imagine the tears running down his Kewpie cheeks, could picture the thick glasses sliding toward the end of his sweating nose, could see his hairless head catching the reflection of light from the always sputtering light bulb in the ceiling of his office.
"Take the cigar out of your mouth, Sheldon," I said.
"Sorry," he said. "I'm just so ... so ..."
"... early," I supplied. "It's seven in the morning."
"Mildred's missing," he wept.
"Missing," I repeated, glancing over at Mrs. Plaut, who was no more than a foot away, cocking her head like a sparrow.
"Missing, gone, disappeared," he said. "Run away."
"Run away," I said, looking at Mrs. Plaut, who nodded knowingly. I wondered what the hell she thought was going on.
"If you're just going to repeat everything I say," bleated Shelly, "we're never going to find her."
Mildred Minck was about Shelly's age, fifty-five or so, spike-thin, hard of face and heart, and given to wearing clothes too young for her. She wore her hair piled high, pointing toward the sky like a lacquered ack-ack gun. She was a screecher who thought I was a bad influence on Shelly, and she kept her, steel fingers on the family checkbook.
"You want me to find Mildred," I said.
"Brilliant," he said sarcastically. "The man is brilliant. I know I've come to the right man. A detective who ..."
"Shelly," I said feeling Mrs. Plaut's jasmine tea breath on my neck.
"OK, OK. When I came home from New York last night, she wasn't there. I thought she might have gone to her sister's."
"Abigail, Queen of the Valkyries," I said.
"That's unkind," he whined.
"It's what you call her, Shel," I reminded him. "I've never met the woman. I've never met anyone in her family or in yours. I've never been invited to your house."
"It's still unkind," he said. "So, I just went to bed and this morning I found the note here at the office. She's run off with Peter Lorre."
"Peter Lorre?" I said.
I turned to Mrs. Plaut, who mouthed "Peter Lorre" silently.
"They've run off together. It says right here in the note, for God's sake."
He crinkled the note into the phone in evidence. It sounded like the noise they make for fire on radio shows.
"I'm sorry, Shel, but ..."
"And she took all the money, everything we had in the bank, everything but my secret nest egg in the Buddha. And you know what plans I had for Mildred's and my money," he whimpered.
"Electric teeth cleaning, colored false teeth," I said.
"That's just part of ... It's not the money, Toby. Not the money at all. Mildred is ... I love Mildred."
Mrs. Plaut's face was so close now it was almost between me and the receiver. I turned to her and said, "He loves her."
"He loves Peter Lorre?" she asked in wide-eyed astonishment.
"No, his wife...."
"Toby, who the hell are you talking to? The world's falling apart and you're fooling around there. I can't think."
"I'm on my way, Shel," I said.
"Stop by Smokey Al's and pick up two of those big Danish cinnamon rolls and a large coffee with double cream," Shelly added.
"I don't want a Danish," I said.
"They're both for me," he said. "God, I'm so upset I can't even make myself understood here."
Before I could get involved in further pathos or get knocked over by Mrs. Plaut, who was close enough to take a bite out of the phone, I hung up and moved back.
"Rubber, Mr. Peelers," she said.
"Right, Mrs. P.," I said with my best unwinning toothy smile as I backed toward my room.
"A nation-wide campaign to collect scrap rubber was announced this very morning by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt."
"I appreciate your letting me know, Mrs. Plaut," I said backing into my room with the black-smocked demon in close pursuit.
"It will last two weeks and all Americans are expected to participate," she said. "I heard that on the Blue Network."
"Then it must be true," I said, opening my closet door in the hope of finding a clean shirt with all the buttons. There was no such shirt.
"Rubber, fats, and grease," she said. "They'll be collected at gasoline stations. The army and the navy need rubber."
"And grease," I reminded her, scanning the floor for the shirt I must have worn the day before. I found it partially draped over one of my shoes and partially lying under the other. I held it up.
"Throw it away," Mrs. Plaut advised. I shrugged, considered the alternatives, and put on the shirt. Maybe I'd get a chance to pick up a couple of shirts at Hy's Clothes for Him on Hollywood.
I needed a shave but I wasn't going to stop for one, not because of Shelly's cry for help and Danish cinnamon rolls, but a sudden urgent need to escape before I learned more about scrap rubber and grease than might be healthy for me. I slipped on my shoes and I grabbed a tie from my closet without looking closely to see if it matched my trousers or the gray poplin jacket on the door handle.
"Things needed," Mrs. Plaut said, pursing her lips in disapproval as I turned fully dressed to her for response, "include soap dishes, sink plugs, pencil erasers, headless dolls, old pairs of galoshes."
"How about a dish scraper or a faucet spray?" I chimed in, heading for the door again.
"Yes," she agreed. "Or preserve jar rings."
"A window wedge," I contributed.
We were beginning to sound like a grotesque version of Astaire and Rogers doing a Cole Porter song. Mrs. Plaut barred my way, mop at the ready.
"Or the mutilated rubber bone of Mr. Tortelli's dog Mitzi," she said triumphantly.
"That too," I agreed.
"We just take it all to your friend at the garage."
Excerpted from Think Fast, Mr. Peters by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1987 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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