"A sophisticated psychological thriller." — Booklist.
"Taut, well-paced, full of surprises and sparky New York dialogue." — The (London) Times.
"Perfect for a jaded mystery buff." — Chicago Sun-Times.
The freelance hit man known as Pluto takes a unique approach to his profession: clients don't know they've hired the assassin until after the murder. Pluto looks for a conflict between two people, kills one of them, and invoices the other. No one is ever foolish enough to deny payment — Pluto always collects his fee. When Lt. James Murtaugh of the New York Police Department takes on the case, Pluto begins stalking the investigating officer, leading to a suspenseful battle of wits between the detective and the relentless killer. Loaded with intriguing characters and ingenious twists, this action-packed mystery promises compulsive page-turning and an electrifying ending.
About the Author
Kentucky native Barbara Paul is a prolific writer of detective stories and science fiction. Educated at Bowling Green State University and the University of Pittsburgh, she published her first novel in 1978. In 1990 Kill Fee was adapted as the TV movie Murder COD.
Read an Excerpt
By Barbara Paul
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1985 Barbara Paul
All rights reserved.
Leon Walsh was the first one they found out about. Walsh got rattled easily and consequently did a poor job of covering his tracks — or of covering that other man's tracks, rather, the man everyone was looking for. Walsh was a good editor, even inspired at times; but he was all thumbs at everything else. His intentions were good and he tried hard, and yet the world steadfastly refused to fall neatly into place for him. Two wives had left him. Dogs bit him. Automobiles broke down when he tried to drive them. The normal abrasions of everyday life defeated him utterly; department store clerks made him feel inferior. He certainly had no head for business — which was why he'd needed a partner in the first place.
Leon Walsh got rattled easily and knew it; he deeply resented the intrusion of the mundane. The New York offices of Summit magazine made up Walsh's world, and anything that didn't pertain directly to Summit belonged off on Uranus or Neptune, to Walsh's way of thinking. As long as he stayed inside his fenced-off domain, he had life under control. He was a careful reader; he respected his writers' copy as much as he could, and he had an instinct for spotting talent that was fast becoming a lost art in the shovel-it-through-and-print-it world of periodical publishing.
Walsh's partner sometimes laughed at him, not exactly good-naturedly, for being a purist. Purist was a dirty word in the personal lexicon of Jerry Sussman, the partner, a man who said "between you and I." Summit carried both fiction and nonfiction, but Walsh insisted upon literate if not literary style in everything he published. Above his desk hung a sign:
dangle no modifiers, split no infinitives.
Jerry Sussman laughed.
He was laughing right then, or maybe sneering was closer to what he was doing. "Leon, you don't 'explain' things to advertisers. You either listen to them or kiss the account goodbye. And don't say —"
"—'good riddance.' Grow up, for chrissake. You don't just write off an advertiser like Mueller Electronics. Even you know that," he added, insultingly.
Walsh leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs out under the desk, trying to look relaxed. "IBM didn't threaten to withdraw when we ran a computer-menace story."
"Because computer-menace stories are so old hat nobody pays attention to them any more," Sussman growled. "Look, Leon, I know how great it must be, sitting up there above all the petty bullshit like keeping the advertisers happy and seeing the bills are paid. But you ought to try living in the real world like the rest of us once in a while. That story you're so hot to run makes the entire electronics industry look like it's made up of self-seeking incompetents who don't give a damn about the product or even consumer safety."
Look as if, Walsh thought, not look like. Number one.
"Why are you so dead set on running it?" Sussman went on. "It's not that great a story."
"Have you read it, Jerry?"
"A summary, that was enough."
Walsh muttered under his breath. Somebody in the office was keeping Jerry Sussman notified as to what was scheduled for publication. Not that there was any reason Sussman shouldn't know; he was the majority stockholder. But the behind-the-back-ness of the way Sussman kept himself informed irritated Walsh. He wondered who the "spy" in the office was.
Walsh cleared his throat. "You're meddling, Jerry. This is my bailiwick." They'd had that out when the partnership was first formed; Sussman would not interfere with the creative side of the magazine and Walsh would leave all money decisions to his partner. It was an agreement that Sussman had violated almost from the outset. Walsh let a little of his anger show. "Damn it, Jerry, I'm getting tired of this. I choose what goes into Summit."
"Of course you do, of course you do," Sussman said hastily, falsely soothing, insincere and not giving a damn who knew it. "If it was an exposé sort of thing, a researched article, one of those kind, I wouldn't say a word!"
Number two — one of those kinds (plural) or one of that kind (singular).
"But it's not," Sussman went on. "It's only fiction. I don't see why you're so stuck on it."
Only fiction. "What have you got against fiction?" Walsh asked mildly, pleased with himself for keeping his temper.
His partner was at the window, looking down on Sixth Avenue. "It's chicken-shit writing," he said bluntly. "Like that electronics story. Guy doesn't have any facts, so he calls his story fiction and says whatever he damn well pleases. No responsibility to the truth. I want you to kill the electronics thing, Leon. We can't afford to offend Mueller. They haven't been in this country long enough to roll with the punches. Between you and I, Mueller Electronics is running scared."
Number three. "How do you know that?"
"I know." That was his bailiwick. "They're not going to advertise in a mag that undercuts their line of work in the fiction department. I want you to kill that story."
Leon Walsh got rattled easily; and just then he felt his certainty about the story oozing away under the onslaught of that flat voice of authority Sussman could turn on and off at will, a voice that never questioned itself nor permitted questions from others. Walsh knew better than to make any decisions while caught in the throes of berattlement, so he said what he always said when he wanted to get rid of Sussman: "I'll think about it."
Sussman stared at him suspiciously for a moment, but then nodded curtly and left without another word. A big, florid man, Sussman always left a wake behind him when he moved.
Walsh sat motionless for a while, waiting for his resentment to abate. He picked up a pencil and made a notation on his desk calendar: JS = 3. Only three errors today; that would lower Sussman's average for the week.
Walsh had started counting his partner's mistakes in English nearly two years ago, as a way to amuse himself during a long, boring conference that seemed as if it would never end. But when he'd done it once, he found he couldn't help but keep on doing it. He'd actually developed a compulsion to count his partner's grammatical lapses! Adolescent. Every day that the two men talked, Walsh would make a little note on the calendar. He had close to a two-year record. Of value to no one, but unthinkable to discontinue it.
Leon Walsh hated Jerry Sussman. He hated his appearance, his voice, his success, his vulgarity. He hated everything about him. But most of all he hated what Sussman had done to Summit. Walsh had often tried to moderate his hatred by telling himself that any profit-oriented partner would have taken the same steps that Sussman had taken — but it didn't help. In his more melodramatic moments, Walsh cursed the day he'd agreed to a partnership.
Not that he'd had much choice. It was either Sussman or bankruptcy court and fold the magazine. Things had been so simple when he'd first started out; twelve years ago he'd founded a literary journal to be published four times a year in Summit, New Jersey — the town just west of Newark that gave the periodical its name. Walsh's goal had also been simple, almost pristine (he liked to think) in its simplicity: he wanted to publish the very best short fiction and nonfiction available to him. That was all. He didn't want to shape people's tastes or expand anybody's consciousness or make the world a better place in which to live. He just wanted to publish quality writing.
Thinking of it that way always gave Walsh a warm glow; it was that self-generated aura of noble aspiration that kept him going. The only advertisements he'd accepted in Summit were for books. Since he knew nothing about distribution, he'd contracted out to a jobber who didn't exactly strain himself pushing what to him was just one more egghead rag that didn't have a chance in hell of making it. But Summit had attracted an enthusiastic (although minuscule) readership; Walsh's choice of material struck a responsive chord in those who could get hold of copies. He would have done much better if he'd had an efficient subscription department. His subscription department was his first wife, who knew just as much about circulation procedures as her husband did, which is to say nothing at all.
From the day the first issue appeared, Walsh had been in debt. Some bills he forgot to pay, others he couldn't pay. But bill-collectors soon found he was easy to intimidate, so Walsh first sold his wife's car, then took out a second mortgage on the house, then went to work part-time elsewhere just to keep Summit going. It killed him to admit it, but he finally faced up to the fact that he couldn't do it alone. He needed help. He needed a partner well versed in the mysteries of accounting and marketing and circulation and keeping the IRS placated.
Enter Jerry Sussman. Sussman had an eye for spotting potential in the publishing business and realizing a nice profit from that very convenient talent. He'd looked at the Star Trek subindustry in this country — and had taken a Trekker fanzine and promoted it into a full-scale, big-selling professional periodical. He'd bought up a printing outfit that specialized in seed catalogues and the like, and through the printer's contacts had built a staff that put out a successful rival to Farmer's Almanac. And somewhere he'd learned there were quite a few people who would like to read Summit if the dumbhead editor could ever figure out a way to make copies available to them.
Sussman had been quite blunt. "I run this show or my money stays in the bank. When it's my own dough I'm putting into a project, I gotta have majority ownership."
Walsh had bristled at hearing Summit referred to as a "project" and said well, now, he didn't know about that.
"Not open to negotiation," Sussman had said, shaking his big head. "We can argue about the exact figures later because we'll have to put some shares on the market — but either I end up with a majority or I'm pulling out."
"I can't agree to that!" Walsh had sputtered. "I have to retain creative control — I built Summit from nothing and I'm not just going to hand it over to you. Why, you could even fire me if you wanted to!"
"Oh hell, man, I'm not going to fire you." Sussman's thick lips had spread in a big grin. "Leon Walsh and Summit magazine are the same thing. I wouldn't want the mag without you to run it."
Walsh had liked hearing that, but he didn't know whether to believe Sussman or not. The big man repeatedly gave his word that he would never interfere in editorial matters — in exchange for majority ownership. Walsh muttered under his breath, eyed the stack of unpaid bills on his desk, and agreed.
That had been eight years ago, and every day since then Walsh had kicked himself for being such a fool. There must have been some other way to save the magazine. He just hadn't looked hard enough.
He realized he'd been staring at the same page of manuscript for twenty minutes. He looked at his watch: six-thirty. Might as well call it a day; he was in no condition to give anything his full attention.
The changes Jerry Sussman had made were drastic. The first thing he'd done was move the magazine from Summit, New Jersey, to Manhattan. Dealing with suppliers, printers, advertising agencies, mail services, lawyers, and the like right on the spot had enabled them to cut Summit's lead time from ten months to six, and then later to three. Summit had gone from quarterly to bimonthly to monthly as the subscription lists and newsstand sales grew more or less steadily.
Of course, for all that to happen, Walsh had had to give in on a few things. Advertising was the main point of capitulation. Instead of restricting its advertising to books as it once did, Summit now aggressively solicited the patronage of the airlines and the big computer firms and the insurance companies and the automobile industry and the tobacco and the whiskey and the oil businesses. Jerry Sussman's procedure was to raise the advertising rates every year, to tap Summit's advertisers for as much as traffic would bear. The advertisers in turn looked at the magazine's circulation figures and asked for breakdowns — what percentage of Summit's readers were high earners, what percentage academics, etc. When most of the advertisers had balked at the latest rate raise, the word Sussman got was that the advertisers wanted their messages to reach a greater number of that amorphous creature known as "the man on the street"— a euphemism for Use shorter words.
Use shorter words, avoid subjects that get too esoteric or require the reader to think for more than four minutes, insist on a snappy and easy-to-read style, simplify, simplify, simplify. Sussman had started the ball rolling in that direction by asking Leon Walsh to include occasional articles on sports and pop music. Impressed by Sussman's obvious know-how in the magazine-rescuing business, Walsh had acceded to these early requests. But it very quickly became a habit. A representative of one of the airlines would indicate his company's willingness to take out more advertising space in an issue that featured a story set in a certain romantic, out-of-the-way place. A place that only his airline serviced, of course.
Walsh had objected, but to no effect. Several times a year, and against his better judgment, he'd commission a story catering to an advertiser's special interests, feeling slightly whorish every time he did. He knew that kind of mutual payoff was a common practice; what shocked him was the utter lack of awareness of wrongdoing on the part of the participants. That's business, Sussman had shrugged. Walsh didn't like it at all; he could never fully accommodate his sense of ethics to that way of doing business. One time the commissioned work for a promotional tie-in was so poor that Walsh had paid the writer his kill fee and refused to print the story.
Sussman had promptly informed him that next month his manuscript budget was being cut one-third.
That was Sussman's way of handling any resistance on Walsh's part. He'd punish him — as if Walsh were some recalcitrant schoolboy. He'd punish him by withholding the money Walsh needed to attract the writers he wanted. Back in the early pre-Sussman days, Walsh would publish an occasional story by a name writer who'd accepted far less than the usual fee just because he or she liked Summit and wanted to give the struggling quarterly a hand. But Summit had gone big time since then; no more handouts from anybody.
"How do you expect me to put out a quality magazine without the money to pay the writers?" Walsh would protest, even though he knew protest was useless.
"You pay those writers too damn much anyway," Sussman would say dismissively. Subject matter was what mattered to Sussman, not good writing. If he'd been editing Summit, he'd have installed a staff of competent hacks who could grind out stories and articles on any subject on demand.
So Leon Walsh burned with a fury he could find no safe way of expressing. Slowly, watching Sussman take over by inches, Walsh had witnessed the gradual cheapening of his once-meritorious publication. Very few of his original readers were still with him; now he was publishing for the sort of reader who looked up answers to crossword puzzles and called it doing research. Walsh was no longer proud of Summit.
Perhaps I should resign, he thought for the hundredth time. He wasn't happy seeing his name associated with some of the pieces Summit carried, but he could never quite bring himself to make the break. Twelve years, two wives, and several hundred thousand dollars later — he couldn't just walk away. Summit was a much-loved child who had fallen in with bad company. You don't abandon a child who has been led astray.
If only he didn't feel so damned helpless. He went into the small private restroom next to his office and washed his hands and face. The strain of the past few years hadn't improved the face any. Thin nose, slightly hooked; black, staring eyes; two deep furrows in his cheeks, bracketing the thin lips like parenthesis marks. Noticeably receding hairline.
Jerry Sussman had a head of hair of the sort called leonine. He wore it slightly long because he was all too aware of the effect created by his big veldt-colored mane. Walsh grimaced at his own appearance; his name was Leon, he should have been the lionlike one. In America hair was still equated with virility, and Jerry Sussman played the King-of-the-Jungle bit for all he could get out of it. Walsh had once told him the male lion didn't even rule his own pride much less the whole jungle, that he was only a follower kept by the females for stud purposes. Sussman liked that even better.
Excerpted from Kill Fee by Barbara Paul. Copyright © 1985 Barbara Paul. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book has long been a favorite of mine. A clever plot idea, good writing, a great weekend read.