The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril is a swashbuckling, breathtaking romantic epic of magic and love, marriage and fatherhood, ambition and loss, and writers who never forget their deadlines even when facing the end of the world. In its pages is a tale that deftly weaves the lives of its real-life characters into a lie of outrageous proportions that just may tell the truth, but is always thrillingly, unapologetically pulp.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"You think life can't be like the pulps?" Walter Gibson asked the other man. "Let me tell you a story. You tell me where real ends and pulp begins." The cigarette in his left hand suddenly disappeared.
The young man, whose most distinguishing characteristic, in spite of his stocky build and shock of red hair, was his powerfully forward-thrusted jaw, blinked in mild surprise at the magic trick, then nodded agreeably. "All right," Ron Hubbard said.
The cigarette, a filterless Chesterfield, reappeared in Gibson's right hand. He took a long sip from his whiskey and washed it down with a sip of beer and an involuntary shudder. He was getting drunk and it was too early. He knew it. He didn't even want to be here tonight. Well, he did want to be in the White Horse Tavern drinking. But he didn't want to be here drinking with the youthful and ambitious president of the American Fiction Guild, who had been hectoring him relentlessly to speak about his writing at the weekly gathering of pulp mag writers in the Grand Salon of the old Hotel Knickerbocker. John Nanovic, his ed at Street & Smith, had begged, pleaded, and in the end agreed to pay for a few of this evening's drinks if he would agree to do it. Nanovic had told Gibson that it was important for him, as the number one bestselling mag writer in America, to take an interest in the new writers, the young writers. To help groom them. Gibson felt that what Nanovic really wanted him to do was to find his successor in case he stumbled in front of a trolley car some drunken evening. Ultimately he had to admit that it was a fair concern for an editor to have about him.
So, here he was having drinks with Lafayette Ron Hubbard, a writer of moderately popular but pedestrian (in Gibson's opinion) westerns, and at twenty-five, fifteen years younger than he. One of the new writers. One of the young ones. They were seated at a small table next to the bar and treating themselves to waiter service. Hubbard was one of those writers who acted like they really cared about writing and had launched into a theory that the sort of adventure pulp Gibson wrote was somehow less valid than the westerns and two-fisted tales he wrote because at least his stories were based on history or reality.
Gibson knew the kid was impressed by him. Hubbard had practically been begging him for a sit-down for weeks. Every now and then Gibson would see Hubbard looking around the saloon as if he could recognize somebody he knew who might come over and interrupt the conversation. If that had happened, he might then have the opportunity to say to them, "Excuse me, but can't you see I'm having drinks with Walter Gibson? That's right, the guy who writes The Shadow Magazine. Well, I know The Shadow byline is Maxwell Grant, but that's a company name, a Street & Smith name. Trust me. Walter Gibson is Maxwell Grant. Walter Gibson writes The Shadow Magazine. We're just talking about writing." But he recognized no one and no one recognized him.
Gibson had seen several writers that he knew come through already; the Street & Smith building was just up the road at Fifteenth and Seventh, and the tavern was popular with writers who had just been roughed up by eds and by the eds who had applied the beating. George Bruce, the air-ace writer, had been and gone; Elmer Smith, the rocket jock, and Norvell Page, the fright guy, were still drinking in a corner. But he hadn't invited either to join them. As a rule Gibson didn't like other mag writers; he found them too self-denigrating yet self-important at the same time. He much preferred the company of the magicians whose books and articles he often ghosted.
He kind of liked Hubbard, though. The kid was eager and acted like he thought his shit smelled like roses, a confidence most other writers lacked. In a one-draft world a man had to believe that every word he wrote was right. Gibson knew he had quickly muscled out old Arthur Brooks, a man Gibson had no use for whatsoever, who as head of the Guild had run the organization as a lazy gentlemen's social club. Hubbard had plans for the Guild, but Gibson didn't really care to know what they were. He knew that Hubbard had lived in New York for several years a while back with a wife and a daughter, and that they had all moved back to Washington State for a while, and that he had left them behind in Washington and come back to New York alone just a few months ago. Gibson could only venture a guess why; the Depression had made it so that sometimes a man couldn't afford to bring his family with him when he went looking for work. But the last thing Gibson wanted to do was ask another man why he had left his wife and child.
"What's real? What's pulp? Right, Ron?" He unbuttoned his collar and loosened his tie knot. "Okay. Here's a story. For the sake of argument, let's call it the Tale of the Sweet Flower War. This is a story filled with blood and cruelty and fear and mystery and love and passion and vengeance and villains," he said. "It began with the arrival of a strange mist which rolled in from the harbor and seemed to fill the streets of Chinatown. Those who were superstitious felt it was the cloak of death. Those who weren't superstitious, and their numbers were few, only felt it was another reason to hate living here." Walter spoke rapidly; the hard emphasis of his consonants tended to resemble a staccato drumbeat, and his fingers twitched mildly as he spoke, involuntarily typing his words onto the table or against his leg or into the air as fast as he spoke them. Gibson's energy always seemed to keep him in motion. His friend Harry Houdini had once told him he seemed to vibrate, even when he was standing still.
"Here Chinatown? Or San Francisco's?" Hubbard asked with a vaguely worldly air that implied he had traveled some in his time and knew both intimately: a warning to Gibson that he'd better have his facts straight.
"New York. Here." The tone of Gibson's voice let Hubbard know not to interrupt the storytelling again unless it was something important. "The deadly fog rolled over the tiny enclave thirty years ago during the great tong wars, when the red flag of war flew over the tallest building in Chinatown."
"Tong?" Hubbard made the same mistake again and winced a little, knowing that Gibson's next breath would have explained it.
"Ancient organizations with mysterious roots going way back in Chinese history. Brutal, cruel, and sadistic. Mostly they imported opium, slave girls, and indentured workers from China.
"In 1909, the year of the menacing mist, the biggest tong in America was the On Leong group. They controlled everything in the matter of things Chinese from Frisco to New York. There were other tongs around at the time, but the only serious rivals were the Hip Sing. Their boss was a fella about your age, everyone knew him as Mock Duck, and he had a habit, when he got into a brawl, of whipping out two pistols, closing his eyes, and firing blindly until everyone was dead or running for their lives. You can laugh if you want, but legend had it that this was a very effective street-fighting technique.
"Well, those that said that something sinister would emerge from the shadow which had fallen over Chinatown were right. One day Sweet Flower came to town. Now she was, by all accounts, a beautiful and delicate virgin. She had remarkable long, slender fingers and could play a variety of Chinese instruments with skill and grace. A slave, of course, smuggled in by a slaver and probably destined for a life of prostitution. But one of the On Leong leaders saw her, fell in love with her, and he had his men steal her from the slaver. Or rescue her, if you prefer. And, he married her. She was sixteen, and on her wedding night he possessed her in every way that a man can possess a woman. And she was happy with her station in life.
"At first, all the slaver wanted was proper restitution for his loss. But the On Leong man refused to pay for what he considered to be true love. He told the slaver to go to hell. The slaver went to another tong, the Hip Sing. A truce was declared and the two parties sat down for formal negotiations. Now this was at a time when the tong fighters, the hatchet men, the boo how doy, were killing each other at the rate of two or three a week. So for these two tongs to actually sit down together in the same room and hold a peaceful discussion..." He made a futile gesture. "Chinatown did not hold its collective breath."
"The negotiations did not go well for the Hip Sing. Once again, they were told in no uncertain terms where they and their demands could go. All things considered, it's pretty remarkable that any man walked out of the tearoom alive that day. That night, however, was a different story. While her husband slept, someone broke into their house and cut off each and every one of Sweet Flower's slender and delicate little fingers."
The White Horse Tavern served its own blend of scotch, and each bottle was topped by a cork with a white tin horse rearing up. There was a cork on their table now; it was usually given to the customer who had put the polish on a bottle, and he had, several drinks ago. Gibson picked it up now, idly playing with it.
"Maybe. It was probably the vile slaver. And, in fact, Mock Duck delivered him over to the On Leong for whatever justice they chose to administer. But it wasn't enough and over the next couple of months, over fifty men from both sides were killed, and hundreds more were crippled or maimed in the fighting. Now what's really incredible about this is that we're talking about a neighborhood that takes up maybe a square mile and is made up of only a dozen or so streets. So relatively, it's a truly gruesome amount of men carving each other up."
"Hundreds! C'mon! That's pulp."
Gibson cleared his throat. "In those days the center of Chinese social life was the old Chinese Theater. It's still there; you can go down and see it for yourself. It's all boarded up now.
"At the time of the Sweet Flower War there was a famous comedian named Ah Hoon. Famous among the Chinese. An ugly clown of a man. Loyal to the On Leong. His grand finale was, and this supposedly laid them in the aisles, an impersonation of Mock Duck firing his guns blindly until he would roll over, ass over teakettle. Guess you had to be there, right? That's what the Hip Sing thought too. They were losing this war badly and now they were being made fun of in public by a clown. Word went out that Ah Hoon was a dead man and he would never see the sun rise after his next performance.
"Even though City Hall never went out of its way to keep one Chinaman from killing another, the rising tide of blood was starting to offend the sensibilities of the rest of the city. This bald-faced death threat was just the opportunity the cops had been looking for to show that they could handle a few uppity Chinese. That night they turned up at the theater in force. There were probably more Irish in Chinatown altogether that night than there were in all the bars in Brooklyn. The chief of police himself escorted Ah Hoon from his apartment to the theater. I imagine a load of innocent Chinese men took a whopping nightstick to the head for looking this way or that to some cop's dislike, but there was going to be law and order on Doyers Street.
"Poor Ah Hoon didn't even want to do his act that night! When he heard he was a marked man, he wanted to take the next train out of town, but the cops and the On Leong made him take the stage that night. They had something to prove. He didn't. But he waited in the wings and sweated through the acrobats leaping over each other. He agonized through the singer's songs, trying to peer into the darkness to see where the bullet or knife or hatchet was going to come from. He probably came close to having a heart attack every time the gas lamps sputtered and popped downstage. But all the time the cops and the On Leong men reassured him that all would be well. He was protected. He would live.
"Can you imagine anyone having a better reason to have stage fright than poor Ah Hoon? He walked out onstage that night and the first person he saw front and center was Mock Duck, grinning up at him. But there were the American police to the left and right of his mortal enemy. Ah Hoon took a deep breath, wished he were in a faraway place, and dove into his act. He didn't change a word and by all accounts he was very, very funny that night. Even Mock Duck laughed at the impersonation. When it was time for the curtain call, the police swept him offstage before his first bow and an encore was out of the question. The point had been made: Ah Hoon had survived the performance.
"Well, the On Leong men went wild that night. Fireworks exploded in the sky over Chinatown, their brightness dimmed somewhat by the eerie fog. Hip Sing men were burned in effigy and humiliated in songs and jeers. To the On Leong men, the survival of Ah Hoon had proven that the Hip Sing were no longer the threat they had once posed and that the war was won. Meanwhile the cops hustled Ah Hoon to a cheap room in a cheap hotel next to the theater. They had rented it just to ensure that nothing would happen to tarnish their reputation as protectors of the weak and innocent and funny.
"The apartment had just one room. Everyone on the floor used the same washroom at the far end of the hall. The other apartments along the hall had been cleared of occupants for the night. Didn't matter if they had paid in advance, lived there for years, or had no place else to go. They were rousted. There were no closets in the room, but several small cupboards. There was a bed. There was one window, but it had been jammed into a stuck position for years. A two-inch gap let a little air into the stuffy room, but the window could be neither forced open wider nor lowered more. Three stories down was a dead-end alleyway barely the width of a broad-shouldered man. Three cops were positioned at its mouth, preventing any entrance. Opposite the window, about three feet away, was the solid brick wall of a building. That particular side was unmarred by a single door or window, featureless and rising another four stories beyond Ah Hoon's floor. Cops on foot and horseback blocked the front and back entrance to the hotel. Ten officers stood in the hallway outside Ah Hoon's room. A big Swede cop of impeccable moral fiber, at least of no discernible vice, was placed before Ah Hoon's door.
"An hour after sunrise, the chief of police led a phalanx of reporters, photographers, reformers, and politicians past the few remaining On Leong revelers, into the hotel, up to the third floor, down the line of ten cops standing at attention, and up to the big Swede. The chief of police himself proudly opened the door to introduce Ah Hoon to the rest of his life and announce to the world that the resolve of the Hip Sing tong had been broken and that peace would reign forever and for all time in Chinatown.
"The bullet hole had made a perfect dot in the center of Ah Hoon's forehead, giving the appearance of a third eye. He sat cross-legged on his bed, stiff and cold in a pool of his own drying blood. Legend has it that it wasn't even a bullet hole, it was the touch of a demon.
"Flies were already buzzing curiously about his head, which faced the single window. Still opposite a solid brick wall. Still jammed at less than two inches open. And as the chief of police roared his outrage and the flashbulbs popped, and as the word spread through Chinatown like a flash fire that the Sweet Flower War was over and the Hip Sing, not the On Leong, had won, and as an entirely new celebration began, the wide-eyed expression on Ah Hoon's face seemed to say one simple thing:
"Now that's funny!"
Gibson closed his fist around the tin stallion and reopened it. It had vanished. "The winds changed that morning, and after months of coldly clinging to every nail and stone and board, the Chinatown death cloud rolled back out to sea and vanished as completely as the life from Ah Hoon's body." He closed his fingers into a fist again and then opened them suddenly. A fresh cigarette, tip glowing, now lay crooked between his first two fingers. A simple French drop with a flourish for dramatic punctuation. His tale was told. He inhaled the smoke deeply and waited for the reaction. He could tell a lot about a fella by the way he reacted to a story or a magic trick. They either bought it, didn't, or tried to find some little flaw that could let them feel like they hadn't been conned into enjoying it when they really had. He figured Hubbard for the last type.
"The cops were in on it."
Gibson was right. "They weren't. And you forgot what I asked in the first place," he reminded Hubbard, the booze making him sound more arrogant than he wanted to be. "I asked you to tell me what's real and what's pulp."
"Well." Hubbard thought a moment. "The way Mock Duck fired his guns sounded kind of pulp."
Gibson shook his head. "True story."
"When all her fingers got cut off?"
Again Gibson shook his head.
"What happened to Sweet Flower?" Hubbard asked.
Gibson shrugged. "No one knows. Some say she may have killed herself. Others suppose her husband kept her sequestered in his house until he died. But no one really knows."
It looked like Hubbard was about to speak again when he was suddenly interrupted by a strong cough from the bar behind him. When they looked to see who had coughed, the man began to speak.
"Actually, it's not fairly common knowledge, so I'm not surprised you passed over this, Mr. Gibson, but Sweet Flower, considered defiled, was driven from the house of her husband and ended up living at the mercy of others."
Gibson looked at the tall man leaning against the bar placidly smoking his pipe and found himself gritting his teeth. What the hell brought him out tonight?
"It's a trick question," said a man from behind them. "Because the whole story is true. If it were pulp it would have a better ending."
"It's real if it's a lie. If it's a pack of lies," Lester Dent said with definitive superiority, "it's a pulp."
Gibson tried not to let his expression change. Dent. Here. Tonight. What were the odds? Everyone said he was a teetotaler anyway. But here he was in the White Horse hoisting a mug of beer and looking as smug as an ape on a pile of bananas. Of course there was a good chance that Dent had dropped off his latest Doc Savage manuscript at Street & Smith earlier and decided to celebrate with a beer. For a moment Gibson wondered just how many books Dent was up to, then decided he didn't care. At that moment.
"Not to say that there can't be true stories in pulps, but most true stories don't have good endings. Pulps need great endings. Mr. Gibson's tale doesn't have a good ending. In fact, it has no ending. The problem with the Tale of the Sweet Flower War is that Mr. Gibson ends it just when it's about to turn into pulp."
Gibson felt his blood rising. "I can't believe you're going to lecture me on what makes great pulp. I am pulp."
"You're not pulp. The Shadow is pulp. Doc Savage is pulp. In fact, I will tell you what makes pulp. Of course there's blood, cruelty, fear, mystery, vengeance, heroes, and villains. That's just a good foundation. To make true pulp, really great stomach-churning, white-knuckle, turn-your-hair-white pulp, you have to fill it with a pack of outright lies. Secret identities and disguises." Dent began ticking off the items on his fingers to emphasize the point he was making. "The Yellow Peril. Superweapons. Global schemes. Hideous deaths. Cliff-hanging escapes. These are the packs of lies you won't find in any slick or glossy or literary hardcover bestseller. Horrors from the grave. Lost lands. Overwhelming odds. Impossible heroics. Unflagging courage. Oh, and I almost forgot! Gun-totin', lingo-slingin' cowboys." He looked at Ron with a mischievous smile, knowing that Hubbard was guilty of perpetrating more than his share of outlandish cowboy tales. "Can't be a true pulp without a genuine gun-slingin', tabaccy-spattin' cowboy, right, Ron?"
As if charged by the sudden burst of electrical tension in the air, Hubbard's gregariousness had increased substantially. He was practically bursting with joy at the fact that Lester Dent knew his name. "That's right, Mr. Dent!" he said loudly and eagerly, nodding like Nipper responding to his master's voice over the Victrola.
Mr. Dent? What was it about the guy that made the kids like Hubbard call him Mr. Dent while he, Walter, was always Walt or Gib or, God forbid, occasionally Wally? Sure, Dent had a good ten years on Hubbard, but Gibson was still a few years older than Dent. It had to be the height.
Gibson, who barely cracked five eight, had never grown accustomed to being the short man. Gibson had heard from eds and other writers that Lester was the athletic type who liked sailing and mountain climbing. Gibson didn't know if it was true or not but Dent certainly was broad-shouldered as well as tall. Sitting in a chair now as Dent loomed nearby only encouraged his sense of resentment that Dent had shown up here to ruin his night. Dent hadn't even bothered to take his overcoat off. And Christ, he was smoking his damn pipe like some longhair! Couldn't he smoke cigarettes like a normal man? Only eds and socialists smoked pipes.
"Walter." Dent nodded after a long pause in which he seemed to scrutinize Gibson through his thick glasses. His broad mustache twitched in the vaguest manner. Dent, thought Gibson, was tweaking him. Gibson felt the alcohol pulsing through his veins. It was a sensation that began at the back of his neck. He shouldn't have started on the shots so early.
Dent's eyes then flicked back to Hubbard and his hard expression seemed to soften. "It's all about the formula. Just throw enough of the right lies into the mix and add a great ending, and that's the formula for a pulp."
Dent spoke with a flattened midwestern intonation. Gibson tried to remember if he knew whether or not Dent was from Illinois. Dent's inflections were more rough-hewn, he decided, even less sophisticated than Illinois. Arkansas, possibly. Then he remembered. Missouri. Nanovic had told him that once. Definitely Missouri. "To make the Tale of the Sweet Flower War pulp you would have to find out that Ah Hoon's enemies had released a venomous snake into the room through an old mouse hole; what everyone thought was a bullet hole was actually a bite, and the cops never even looked for the serpent, which remained coiled behind a radiator."
"Excuse me. So the Sweet Flower War. It's true? Both of you know about it?" Hubbard asked, looking concerned.
Both men nodded simultaneously.
"What I want to know is how come I never heard of it?" He looked from Gibson to Dent. "And do you know what really happened to Ah Hoon?"
"I don't have a clue. Then again I've never tried to pass the Sweet Flower War off as a pulp. But if I wanted to know for sure, I'd start by going down to Chinatown and doing some research. Right, Walter? You used to be a newspaperman. Weren't you the cub reporter who exclusively interviewed Al Capone behind bars? You know how to research a story. And you used to know how to get that ending." He looked directly at Hubbard. "That's the kind of work you have to do if you want to be a good enough writer to get yourself out of the pulp biz and into the glossies, slicks, and hardcovers. Where the real writing matters."
Gibson took a long drag on his cigarette and blew the cloud in Dent's direction. He knew Dent's beef with him, but he was not going to rise to the bait. He just wasn't going to do it.
"Well, that Sweet Flower yarn. It's a helluva story," Hubbard said to them. "You fellas, uh, mind if I take a crack at writing it? I believe I'd like to."
"Well, I'll tell you, Ron," Gibson said, "the reason the Sweet Flower War was on my mind tonight was that it just inspired a big part of the Shadow story I just dropped off today. The Art of Murder. There's a locked-room murder in it which was inspired by the Sweet Flower War. And Lester, you'll be happy to know that I propose a solution. A pulp solution."
In his latest book, his 217th, The Shadow, the hero who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, had set out to solve a series of murders which had taken place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Priceless antiquities arriving from distant lands had been stolen from a locked vault deep within the museum, while guards inside the vault had been found dead come the morning. Slinking from dark corner to dark corner without making a sound, ink-black in his greatcoat and slouch hat, becoming nearly invisible by merely acting invisible, The Shadow had penetrated the museum, eluded the well-meaning guards, and entered the vault, where he had, earlier that day as Lamont Cranston, his millionaire playboy alter ego, made a big show of donating a lost Rembrandt. The door had slammed shut behind him: The Shadow had been betrayed by one of his very own agents, the dedicated and devoted who owed him their lives, men and women whose vigilance constantly provided him with information from every corner of the city, and who carried out his orders without question. Except for this one, who had turned rogue.
Sometime before the dawn the vault door had opened and the sinister crime lord behind the plot had entered and, to his delight, laid eyes upon the murdered corpse of The Shadow, enemy to the criminal demimonde. As his hands had fallen upon his new prize, The Shadow's eerie laugh a haunting, piercing, maddening sound which rattled in the black minds of the guilty had filled the air around him. But the corpse remained still. The crime lord shut himself in the room, knowing it would be safe. At that moment, The Shadow revealed the key to the mystery. A secret panel under the floor flipped up and The Shadow leapt out, nickel-plated .45s drawn. The corpse in The Shadow's coat had been none other than the traitorous agent, who had been lying in wait under the floor. When he had attacked, The Shadow's justice had been swift and merciless, as it would now be with this evildoer. The struggle to the death began.
In the morning, when the museum guards opened the locked room, three dead bodies were found inside beside a note from the mysterious Shadow explaining all, identifying the villains, and giving directions to the location of the rest of the stolen art. In the resulting confusion and general throng of visitors to the scene of the crime to examine the secret hiding spot, no one had noticed as one of the corpses suddenly arose and vanished into the crowd. Later, no one would be able to say for sure whether there had actually been a third body.
"Trapdoor? Not bad. It's pulp." Dent puffed on his pipe. "Of course, I went completely pulp when I proposed a solution in the very first issue of Doc Savage. I had a Mayan with a rifle scale the girders of the unfinished top floors of the Chrysler Building and take a shot at Doc Savage, who was ten blocks away. Of course, he missed because his target was a decoy statue. I'm sure you read it, Mr. Gibson. It was just six years ago. Right after the Golden Vulture disappeared."
And there it was. The Golden Vulture. He'd brought it up. All of a sudden Gibson could sense Dent's particular dislike of him. It was there in his penetrating gaze, and Gibson felt a sudden rising pang of guilt, which he tried to force back down with angry self-righteousness.
"The Golden Vulture," Hubbard interrupted. "What's that?"
"Like the Sweet Flower War, it's a story that's become a legend. And like the murder of Ah Hoon, it's something only two people know the truth about. The one who held the gun and the one who got shot."
Gibson leapt to his feet. He was quivering with anger. "Why don't you call a spade a spade and tell me what you want to say, Dent?"
Dent took a step forward from the bar and drew himself up and over Gibson, looking down at him. "I just did. Anyway, it's all just spilled ink, Mr. Gibson," Dent said. He put his beer stein down in front of Hubbard, who, having been oblivious to the tension, was now registering an expression of complete surprise at their open hostility. "I believe I'm done," Dent said. "I'll see you around."
"Not around, Dent." Gibson put the palm of his hand on Dent's chest. For a moment Gibson thought that the brick wall he could feel under Dent's jacket and shirt was muscle, but then he realized what his palm was on. If Dent had placed his hand on Gibson's chest, he would have felt the same thing. A Street & Smith-issued notebook was always next to a pulp writer's heart. "Behind. You'll always be behind me. The number two. They're not making Hollywood movies of Doc Savage. Doc's not on the radio. The Shadow is. My Shadow." People were starting to look over at them. Gibson saw men he knew recognize him, whisper about him. He didn't care. It was time to put Lester Dent in his place. "And you can forget about cracking the glossies. You ain't gonna see your name on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post or the New Yorker. 'Cause you're just a nickel-a-word pulp monkey like me, selling daydreams at wholesale prices to soda jerkers in Boise and schoolboys in Kansas City while your house name, Kenneth Robeson, gets all the glory! So take that, and your Doc Savage oath, and blow it out your pipe."
Gibson knew Dent would take the first swing. When he swiped at him, Gibson was going to try to punch his lights out with one hit. He even had the spot on his chin that he was going to go after. Then the big man would probably pummel him into a pulp. He had only been in a few scraps in his life, two of those in the army and one in the Bowery, but those had been years ago. On the plus side he had come out of those dustups better than the other guys. Instead of making an aggressive move, Dent looked passively down at the floor for a moment. For some reason this made Gibson even angrier. Why wouldn't the guy just put his mitts up?
"I may not be Jack London, or Ernest Hemingway, but I will make it out of the pulps and into the glossies," he said. He put on his hat, his eyes almost disappearing beneath the brim. Then he nodded toward Ron. "Ron, it was nice seeing you."
Ron cast about for something to say. "How about coming by the Knickerbocker on Friday?"
"Your pulp writers mixer? I just might." Dent puffed on his pipe to make sure it was burning. Without looking at Gibson he said, "That soda jerker and that schoolboy? They're good people. Until I get out of the pulps they'll get my best month after month. I know you're happy to just do pulp that's the big difference between us but are you still giving your readers your best?" He walked slowly around the table, deliberately in no hurry as he headed toward the door.
"Holy...," muttered Hubbard as Gibson dropped into his chair and swallowed another drink.
"Yep." Gibson sighed. The anger was evaporating. The gaze of the spectators was moving on. "A regular Algonquin roundtable here at the White Horse Tavern. Without the sex. Or the witty banter. But mostly without the sex." "What the hell was that about?"
"The Golden Vulture. It's his beef with me."
"So what's the Golden Vulture? A legend? A statue like the Maltese Falcon?"
"It's a story. Just a goddamned book." He wanted to say that it was something that he felt bad about but he couldn't bring himself to admit it. "When you get the number one and number two bestselling writers in America together, there's bound to be some rivalries. Some misunderstandings. Some shit."
"Why don't you try and straighten things out with him?"
Gibson shrugged. "Because I'm still number one and Doc Savage is still number two."
"You mean Lester Dent?"
He waited for Hubbard's contemptuous response. Something deserved that would just wither his spirit. He still felt like he needed the pounding from the fight with Dent that he hadn't received. Combat might have vindicated him, at least restored his honor. Instead he had received nothing from his rival but a lecture. His own notebook felt heavy in his breast pocket against his chest. He carried it out of habit, but had he made any entries in it lately? Weren't all the notes and observations in it kind of stale? Maybe Dent was right. Maybe he hadn't been delivering his best lately.
Instead the young man asked, "Do you guys really make a nickel a word? 'Cause I'm only making two and a half cents. What do you think I can do to make more?" Gibson decided at that moment, as Hubbard spoke, that not only was Nanovic going to pay for all the drinks tonight, but the ed was about to drop a substantial down payment on his future bar tab.
"I got a boat back in Washington. Sure do miss her," Hubbard rattled on. "You know, I went to China once. It was okay. You get better Chinese food here, though."
Gibson smiled to himself. Like any pulp writer worth his salt, Hubbard told his tales well and half-believed his own bullshit. Believing was essential.
"Tell me all about China," Gibson said. And as the other writer launched into what was sure to be a wildly entertaining story full of plausible lies, gratuitous distortions, and outrageous half-truths, he ordered another round.
Copyright © 2006 by Paul Malmont
What People are Saying About This
"The very definition of a ripping yarn with infamous villains, nefarious plots, and hair-breadth escapes. That the square-jawed heroes are also writers pulpateers makes the game a whole new kind of thrill ride. Pulp fiction at its best."
Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil