The snarky and debonair actor George Sanders (who would go on to win an Academy Award for his performance in All About Eve) has had enough of playing a B-movie detective in the Falcon film series. He’s thrilled to land a role against type in an epic historical adventure opposite the hottest bombshell in Hollywood. Then, as the shooting begins . . . the shooting begins. During an all-too-authentic action scene, a background sap in a glue-on beard takes a real bullet. A tragic accident, or something more sinister?
Everyone now expects the big-screen sleuth to draw on his detection skills. But those murders were scripted. Being a pro, he’s tempted to improvise—especially when he learns the victim was much more than some hapless extra. Unfortunately, the slug is traced back to Sanders’s gun, a key reel of evidence disappears, and the gentleman rogue himself becomes the star suspect. For Sanders, finding the real culprit in a world of illusion is going to be the most exacting performance of his life—right up until the killer fadeout.
Having written two films in the Falcon series—The Falcon’s Brother and The Falcon in Danger—Craig Rice was a natural ghostwriter for capturing George Sanders’s trademark tone, a stiff dry cocktail of snark and sophistication. The result? “Lots of fun” (The New York Times).
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I squatted, rather than knelt, over the prostrate form. I tried to concentrate on how, and at whose hand, she had met her death. Try as I might, though, I couldn't make myself believe that the wretched girl was dead, and I simply didn't give a damn who had killed her, or why.
For one thing, the heat was getting me. I was wet with sweat and my newest shirt was a six-dollar wreck. My Shetland jacket was going to be a headache for my cleaner. And I was so tired that I squinted against the bright light.
But I had to solve the case, and the important clue was in plain sight. That is, it was in plain sight to my trained eyes. The ordinary person would have missed it. The ordinary detective would have missed it, for that matter. But I, George Sanders, would see it.
I examined the body.
Her name was Velda Manning, and she was a spy. She had been killed because she had been careless. Served her jolly well right. She wasn't very likeable, anyway. She had always been too certain of her great beauty, too proud of her legs, which she flaunted at the drop of a glance.
They were on parade, even in death. She lay on her side, with her right leg extended. The left leg was bent at the knee, and the inside of her thigh was visible to an almost embarrassing extent. It seemed to me that several yards of bare, pink flesh was exposed to distract me from the more important problem of the body as a whole.
I lifted my eyes to the wound, a red mass in her chest. Her strutting breasts were not bare, but they gave that impression. As a matter of fact, she was much more exciting as a corpse than she had been as a flaunted body.
The clue. Oh yes, the clue. Must find it. Where was the damned thing? It had to be here. Ordinary eyes might pass it by, but not mine — not mine. This keen and flashing glance should seek it out, this incisive brain weigh its significance, this objective voice reveal all. And then, maybe this splendid body could go dunk itself in its private pool.
If only that bare leg were covered. I pulled her skirt down, and went back to the search. My legs were beginning to ache, just behind the knees.
I stood up. "The clue is missing," I said.
I knelt, later, on my spread handkerchief, to examine the body. I wasn't going to get my trousers dirty just because a weak-minded girl had got herself rubbed out. I wanted to wear those trousers to Melva's party that night. Provided I ever got away from this silly case.
Her leg was bare, but I was inured by now. This time I would find the clue. Now it peeked out from under the hem of her dress, a tiny gleam of brass that other eyes would have missed. Not mine.
I picked it up. I turned it between my long, tapering fingers. I frowned. This was a hard problem. She had been stabbed. Why, then, was this cartridge here? Had she been shot, too? A thorough person, this unknown murderer. Perhaps she had been strangled also.
Yes, there were the marks on her lovely throat. I hadn't seen them before, but once my keen mind took hold of the problem, my eyes knew where to look. I touched the bruises on her throat with thoughtful fingers. Silk had been used, a silk scarf.
I looked at the cartridge again. I stood up. "This," I said furiously, "is the wrong caliber!"
When I took up my examination again, I stood in a half crouch. It was a more comfortable position than the others, and it didn't wrinkle my pants.
The leg. Hello, leg. I was beginning to know every pore of that leg, every vein in delicate tracery just under the skin. That tiny hollow, just above her dimpled knee, the gentle curve of her calf.
Now, the wound. She had been shot. She had died instantly. Next, she had been stabbed, and then strangled. These latter acts were to cover the fact of shooting, to confuse George Sanders, detective. But they did not. The murderer had left his signature, just as surely as if he had written a confession and pinned it to the bulging bosom of her dress. This cartridge, this thing of metal, was an odd size, an unusual make. Only one man would have such a gun as fired this shell.
That man was the last person you would suspect, but as his name flashed in my head, the pattern was clear. His philanthropies, his kindliness, were a cloak for his true nature: spy, traitor, murderer.
I turned the cartridge thoughtfully between my clever fingers. I looked at it as if it were a crystal ball in which I saw the face and name of death.
"Channing Wommack," I mused aloud. "He is the man."
I stood quite still for a few seconds before I nudged the recumbent form with my gleaming shoe. "You can get up now, Pat," I said. "And pull your dress down."
I turned as Charlie ran over to shake my hand. He was almost maudlin, his round face flushed with satisfaction. "George, you were terrific. You were colossal."
I shrugged my shoulders. "I'm thirsty and hot. Can't somebody turn off those damned lights?"
Charlie yelled at the roof, "Save 'em!" and an electrician threw the master switch to plunge the sound stage into welcome gloom.
"If we don't get an Oscar for this one, there ain't no justice," Charlie said. He said it after each picture he directed. Thus far both justice and the Academy Award Committee had remained blind. "You wanta see the rushes, George?"
"Frankly, no. I don't care, somehow, after all those retakes."
"I'm going to fire that prop man," Charlie said.
The prop man who had put the wrong cartridge under Pat's dress had been married just the day before. He was a nice kid.
"Don't fire him," I said. "He's tired. Send him home to get some sleep."
Charlie leered, and I went away.
Melva was in her office, her secretary told me with a roll of pretty eyes. "That's a lovely shirt, Mr. Sanders," she added. I patted her blonde permanent and left her happy.
Melva's green eyes had a gleam as they surveyed me. "Just the type," she said. "You're a handsome beast, Georgie."
She scowled, looking like a piqued pixie. "Don't call me Red!"
"Don't call me Georgie!"
"You look so boyish in that fancy shirt, George. Sit down and rest your big feet. I want to talk to you."
She leaned back in her swivel chair, so that the sunlight through the Venetian blind slatted her green blouse with gold.
"Why don't you take a whirl at acting?" I asked. "A screen test in that outfit, with that pattern of shadows, would get you a fat contract."
"I'd rather be your agent, dear," she said. "Besides, my nose is too snub. I'd never be able to look down it, and if I can't look down my nose the way you do, I don't want to act."
"I don't look down my nose at people."
"It's your most valuable asset, George. Tell me about Die by Night."
I crossed my legs and lighted a cigarette. I slid my case across her desk. "This will be a shock to you. I suggest that you light up. If there's a drink in the place, I suggest that, too."
She sat up, leaning slightly forward. Concern darkened her eyes. "What's the matter, Georgie?"
"I'm sorry, George. I won't do it again. Tell."
"I have played my last role as a detective."
She didn't scream and wring her hands. She just sat, calm and unruffled.
"Why?" she asked.
"I'm tired of detectives. And don't wisecrack about that. Here is why. The vogue is for the light-hearted playboy with a butter-heart and iridium brain to become involved in a murder situation. Now the audience knows that I, as that amateur detective, am going to triumph in the end. There's no suspense, except of an intellectual nature. The melodramatic action seeks to cover that dramatic fault, but I know suspense is lacking. I can't be wholehearted about it when I know that I will win, no matter what."
"And so?" she prompted.
"And so the character I portray becomes a rather stereotyped person who is slightly bored with it all. I'm not acting any more; I'm just walking through the part."
"That boredom," she pointed out, "is what got you a two hundred and fifty dollar raise in Die by Night."
"Two hundred and twenty-five," I corrected, "after you take your cut."
She shrugged. "You don't think I'm going to give it back to you? I got you the raise."
"And that dress. I keep you well. What will you do when I quit acting? I have enough money to go along my own merry way. But I'm your only important client. Is this streamlined furniture paid for?"
"You paid for it," she said. "But you're not going to quit acting."
"No. You can't. It's part of you. I propose to see that you get paid for doing something you'd do anyway."
"I'm not playing detectives any more, and I'm so typed I doubt if anyone wants me to play anything else."
"I do, George," she said. "I want you to play Hilary Weston."
"Fat chance," I scoffed.
"Fat contract," she substituted. "You'll put the government back in the black with your new salary."
She was serious. My mouth didn't exactly drop open, but it felt open. I'd have given my right profile to play Hilary Weston, and here she was dropping it in my lap. I had no idea I had even been considered for the star part in Seven Dreams. It was a part for which any actor would give his press clippings. That gentleman pirate who took frontiers in his stride, who left behind him a peopled wilderness and tax collectors, whose philosophy contributed so much to our present civilization, whose loves were as torrid as they were numberless, and who coffined his enemies while stealing their wives and fortunes — he had the color and variety of greatness. And I, George Sanders, was to play him. "Are you kidding?" I asked Melva.
"It's all over but the signing," she assured me. "I didn't mention it to you before because I wanted to surprise you. Did I?"
"More than if you'd stuck a knife in my throat. Baby, you're wonderful. I am going to kiss you."
"Only in front of Fred, George. You leave Monday on location. Riegleman wants to get the desert shots out of the way while we have good weather. If you want the part."
"I'll do it for nothing, if necessary."
She was horrified. "Shut your big mouth!" She took up her telephone. "Get me Riegleman," she said. Presently she repeated, "Mr. Riegleman, please. This is Melva Lonigan ... Mr. Riegleman? ... Fine, how are you? ... That's good. Look, I talked to George before he left. He's taking a vacation, you know ... Left an hour ago. He's been working hard and he needs that vacation. He wants me to thank you for the thought, and he realizes that it's a good part ... All right, a great part."
"I'm working on an invention," I muttered.
"Besides, he's working on an invention that should make him a fortune. So I'm afraid he'd have to have a thousand dollars a week more than you offer."
I came out of my chair to throttle her. She waved me back and listened for a moment.
"Well," she said into the phone. "He was definite. And there's no question, of course, that he's worth even more than that. But I know you've got to stay inside your budget, and it's an expensive picture. Still — ... That's fine, then. I can still catch him at Las Vegas and he'll fly back on the six o'clock plane ... Yes, he'll be ready to leave Monday morning."
She hung up and grinned at me. "That's a hundred bucks more for baby each week."
"That was idiotic," I said. "He might have told you to go peddle your flesh elsewhere."
"He didn't, though. He came through. I should have asked for two thousand."
"I'll buy you a drink," I said.
"Not in public. At least, not until after the six o'clock plane comes in." She frowned. "Now why did I tell him you were leaving on a vacation? Suppose you couldn't get a seat on the plane?"
"Then tell him I crawled back on my hands and knees over broken glass. I'd do it. I'm that tired of bending over corpses and looking deductive."
I should have kept my mouth shut. If there are Fates watching us, whiplashing us at the end of their strings, I must have given my particular Fate an inspiration. For it was less than a week later that I was bending over a corpse again, in the blazing light of a malignant sun, searching for clues. But when I nudged that sprawled and bloody figure, it didn't get up.
It was dead.
By referring to the shooting script, I can recreate the scene almost exactly. It was the sequence in the picture where the wagon train was attacked by white thugs in Indian costume. The wagons had filed past the cameras as the sun rose over giant sand dunes. I, as Hilary Weston on a cream-colored Arabian gelding, had carried on my flirtation with Betsy Collins, screen wife of huge Hank Collins, my wagon boss, under his eyes, which narrowed with sullen speculation.
She, Carla Folsom, could wear her Mother Hubbard as if it were a black-net nightgown, and she was adequate in the part. Frank Lane, cast as her husband, could mutter in his beard with the best, and the morning had gone well. Riegleman was happy.
"It has life," he told me, as we sat under umbrellas while the technical crew set up for the battle scene.
Carla gave me a dark-eyed look over the rim of her glass of Coca-Cola. "We played that scene," she drawled, "like boy scouts rubbing sticks together, knowing that a flame would break out any moment."
An extra came over to our exclusive little group, a tall, slightly stooped man of middle years. He sort of pinned Riegleman with flashing black eyes. "Mr. Riegleman," he said, "I have not yet been told why I am here."
Riegleman's gloomy blue eyes scanned him as if he were a sand flea. "See Sammy," he said, in his clipped voice. "He'll explain it." As the man hesitated, Riegleman said sharply, "Well:' We're busy here."
The man went back to the lounging group of bearded men and pioneer women.
Riegleman turned his long face to me. "I want you to keep one point in mind, George. During this battle, you will not quite forget the romance which is brewing between you and Carla. Hilary Weston was that kind of a guy. Even in the most critical situation, he never forgot what he had on the fire. So you will direct Frank to his post of danger, not only because he is your best man, but also because you hope he'll get an arrow through his heart and save you the trouble of killing him later. I don't want you to forget that, even when the lead wagon is set afire." Riegleman paused, caught his breath, and said, "You understand, George."
I nodded. "Something comparable to the situation in the Bible when David sent Bathsheba's spouse into battle hoping he'd be killed."
"Now we're stealing scenes from the Bible," Curtis, the boss cameraman grunted.
"Not a bad source," Riegleman said coldly. He added, "Besides, it's in the public domain."
Sammy came over, mopping sweat from his face. "We're ready, chief. I hope to God," Sammy said fervently, "we don't have to do retakes on this. I've lost ten pounds already this morning."
Riegleman grinned at Sammy's tubbiness. "If you lose fifty more, Sammy, I'll make a matinee idol of you."
Sammy patted his paunch. "I wouldn't play such a dirty trick on my best friend."
After a final check, we went into action. I rode back and forth before a camera, shouting orders, placing my men, forming the wagons into a circle. I gave Carla a long, calculating look, and sent Frank into the front line.
The marauders poured over a sand dune on calico ponies, and the air was scrambled with shots and shouts. They shot several hundred feet of film, with pseudo-redskins galloping idiotically around the circle of wagons, the grim pioneers potting away, with me firing my two Colts at random, but with uncanny accuracy.
Then, signal whistles broke through the din, and the battle was over. Cameras were moved, to record the retreat of the thwarted thugs, while we shot gay, blank charges into their dust cloud. I registered mild disappointment, in a close-up, that Frank was still among the living, flicked Carla another significant glance, and we knocked off for lunch.
Prop men gathered up the guns. Sammy himself took mine, as they were museum pieces. Corpses, scattered inside and out of the wagon circle, got to their feet and ambled over to the commissary. I washed my hands under a pressure tap and started for my chair, where somebody would bring me some lunch.
That was when I saw the body, sprawled realistically behind a wagon wheel, carbine beside it. Some overly conscientious extra, I thought, who supposed that he had to play dead until he was carried off on a stretcher.
"Chow!" I called to him. "Comb the sand out of your beard, fella, and come after it."
The figure didn't move, and I knew that he was dead. The body had a look of death about it. It isn't exactly describable, but my sensation was definite. I walked over for close examination.
Excerpted from "Crime on My Hands"
Copyright © 1944 Craig Rice.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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