|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
Read an Excerpt
The Big Kiss-Off of 1944
A Jack LeVine Mystery
By Andrew Bergman
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1947 Andrew Bergman
All rights reserved.
It was a Thursday morning and I had lots to do, like sip black coffee out of a cardboard container and stare out my window at the file clerks shuffling paper in the building across the street. I was starting to play with a molar when I heard my outer office door open and turned to see a blonde girl, maybe twenty-five years old, closing the door and taking a seat under the War Bonds poster.
"You can come right in," I called. "Most of the crowd has gone home."
She got up, straightened her skirt and walked in very quickly. She was tall and composed, with blue eyes that burned through too much face powder, a small mouth and a perfect nose, absolutely perfect.
"You're Jack LeVine?" She sat down across from me.
"I am so far."
"That's funny," she said. I didn't think she meant it and couldn't have cared less, not at 10:30 A.M. I cared more when she slowly crossed her legs and shifted in the chair. Bodies like hers didn't happen without work, except to a lucky few. I had seen a few of the few, usually a couple of hours into rigor mortis. Things were rough all over.
"I need what they call a shamus," she said.
"Is it Yom Kippur already?"
"Forget it." I say a lot of dumb things before noon. "Why?"
"I hardly know where to begin, Mr. LeVine."
"Begin at the dirty part. It's been a slow week."
"Are you always this awful to people who want to engage your services?" There was a little of the dowager in this, like a brushstroke of blue in the hair.
"Always. You'll like me a lot better when and if you get to know me. Everybody says so. Cigarette?"
She shook her head abruptly, distractedly, like someone who's nervous and wants to get on with it. Someone like her, for instance.
"Okay. Down to business. What's your name?"
"Kerry Lane. I'm a chorus girl." She looked instinctively at her legs. So did I. "I hope I'm out of the chorus, actually, and on to better things. Right now I've got a bit speaking part in GI Canteen." She looked at me questioningly.
"Don't look at me. I quit going after Abie's Irish Rose folded. It was my favorite."
"It was," she said tonelessly. "Anyhow, I play the kid sister of the lead's girl friend. The girl is Helen August?"
I knew who Helen August was but I shrugged like I didn't know, because that's the kind of guy I can be on Thursdays.
"It's not important. I come out when Helen and her boyfriend, Jerry Swanson, are necking. It's the night before he goes off to fight the Japs."
"Sounds like a real tension-breaker," I said.
She grimaced. "I get my laugh." She tilted her head like a teenager and stared at her nails. I was starting to warm up to Kerry Lane. "And it's a lot better than sitting in Schwab's Pharmacy for three years, waiting for Hollywood to get the idea."
"Not the vaguest. You might have seen me in a few crowd scenes and I once walked past Jimmy Cagney and Ann Sheridan in City for Conquest. It wasn't enough to keep me in chili. I decided that eating was better than starving and took a bus cross-country. It was a long ride. Now I'm working pretty regularly, eating, and living clean."
"And that's why you need a detective?"
She smiled for the first time. Not enough to light up the Polo Grounds, but pretty good all the same.
"It's not all that clean. I'm being blackmailed, by a man named Duke Fenton. Have you ever heard that name?"
"No." This time I wasn't lying. "What does he have on you?"
"I made a couple of films in California that I didn't tell you about." I think she might have blushed a little, but I wouldn't swear to it. "You might see them at your next Elks smoker. I was desperate for money, so anything they asked me to do in front of the camera, Mr. LeVine, I did." She paused. "You're shocked, I suppose."
"A little. Not enough to cause heart failure, but a little. Okay?"
She smiled a little smile. "Okay. Ordinarily, blackmail like that wouldn't count for much in New York. People here are just a teensy bit jaded."
"I've noticed. So what's the catch?"
She looked a little startled by the predictable question.
"Well, the catch is the producer of GI Canteen. His name is Warren Butler and he's a very important man, and also he's a straight-laced old fairy who'd throw me out of the show in a second if he found out about those films."
"Miss Lane, I seriously recommend that you go to the police with this."
She shook her head, very emphatically. "There's too much chance they'd come asking around the theater. I can't lose this job. I thought if you'd just see this man and ..."
"Put the slug on him?" I finished her sentence, laughing. She was a card, this one was.
"Just let him know that it isn't worth all the trouble. He's barking up the wrong tree if he expects to make a great deal of money."
"Is it worth the trouble to me? A penny-ante chiseler can get just as trigger-happy as a big timer. Maybe more so; he's got less to lose. I'd hate to die trying to rescue a couple of stag films."
She looked hurt and not very tough at all. Her hands were trembling.
"Please help me out." The voice was very small now. She took out her wallet and peeled off a twenty. And had a great deal of trouble separating it from the other fresh twenties. She noticed me gawking at the roll.
"That's some bit part."
Kerry Lane stared at me, unblinking and afraid, like a deer who lifts his head from the grass only to find some schmuck in a red hat looking at him through a rifle sight. Her eyes went all wet and one tear cut a trail across her face powder. The skin beneath the mask was a lot softer and younger than I had figured on. She put the twenty on my desk and got up.
"Is that enough for now?"
I nodded. "I haven't done anything yet."
"He's staying at the Hotel Lava, the one with the steam-bath. It's on West 44th."
And she was out the door, leaving me to consider my black and encrusted window again, checking the file clerks. Twenty minutes before my mind had been as quiet and motionless as a hassock in an empty living room; now it felt like Macy's on the day before Christmas. I kind of liked it the other way, but Kerry Lane's story, plus those twenties you could cut your hand on, had me figuring angles on top of angles.
After sitting for a few minutes, spinning pipe-dream theories, I decided to go and find out the presumably boring truth. I took my green hat—the one with the red and blue feathers in the band—off the moose head I keep over the files, closed the office door, and locked the outer door. I rubbed a little grime off the frosted glass that read "Jack LeVine, Private Investigator" and walked on down the hall. After I rang the elevator bell, the old cage took the Cape of Good Hope route before reaching nine.
Eddie, the snot-nosed elevator boy, ragged me.
"Another slow day, Mr. LeVine?"
I smiled and lit a Lucky, being careful to blow the smoke in his face.
"I took a real tomato up to nine before," he went on. "Looked kind of upset on the way down. Friend of yours?" He never turned around, but just kept talking to the gate while I talked to his black, greasy hair.
"My maiden aunt from Russia."
"Looked like a blackmail case to me. Main floor, Mr. LeVine. Have a pleasant day."
I bought a paper from Max in the lobby, just to look inconspicuous, although the way I figured the Lava, I wouldn't be noticed if I strolled in playing the maracas bare-assed.
My building, at Broadway and 51st Street, is a structure supported by the sheer density of the cigar smoke and cheap cologne fumes that rise from the agents and song pluggers who occupy most of its twenty-five stories. The Lava was eight blocks away, so I walked. And regretted it.
It was one of those sneaky days in mid-June when the temperature casually creeps up to about eighty-eight degrees and you're marooned inside a wool suit and long-sleeved shirt. After walking a couple of blocks, I took off my jacket and the wet circles under my arms were already the size of catchers' mitts. I felt terrific—a perfect day to track down a chiseler in a steambath. The eight blocks past hot dog joints, arcades, schlock jewelry stores, burlesques, and every other shakedown in the world was never the greatest walk in the world. Today it positively stank. In flusher times I would have taken a cab, but the last month's business—a couple of tail jobs and a joke bodyguard routine for a rich pansy who thought his ex-roommate was trying to kill him—put the nix on cabs for a couple of weeks.
By the time I got to the Lava, I couldn't have taken my shirt off without a pair of scissors. I perspire a lot—it's the kind of affliction you try to live with gracefully, like baldness, another characteristic that makes LeVine unique among private dicks. Plenty of cops are skinheads, but most of the shamuses I've known had hairlines that started just a cut above the eyebrows. For me, baldness has become a trademark, a distinguishing trait: "Get me that bald dick, what-is-face, LeVine." People like a bald guy, like they like a fat guy.
The Hotel Lava looked just like you'd think it would: a soot-covered ten-story building with a five-by-five marquee over two narrow glass doors with nobody to open them, and a neon sign that probably said: OTEL L VA at night. Inside it was worse, with a lot of dull gray chairs and a brown carpet that last got cleaned when Lucky Lindy had his big parade. The people matched the furniture: hookers, old men, and draft dodgers, sitting as quietly as if they were having their portraits done. In a thousand other lobbies in a hundred other cities sat the same people, with the same clothes, faces, and rackets. They put their cigarettes out on the same mud-brown carpets, read the same box scores, looked over the same kind of women and the same kind of men. In another half-hour, some of them would go to the track, one of the girls might turn her first trick of the day, or her tenth. It's a great life.
I walked over to the desk clerk, a shark-faced man with enough dandruff to fill a pillowcase and eyes that had seen everything and long since stopped caring. He was probably no more than forty years old.
"Is there a man named Duke Fenton staying here?" The shark turned and looked over the register, then turned back to me with total disinterest.
"Yes, there's a Mr. Carl Fenton registered."
I received a smile for my trouble.
"I'm sorry, hotel rules forbid me giving out that information."
"This dump hasn't had any rules since the Spanish-American War," I told him, and he started leafing through the Daily News. Nothing like a clerk fishing for a dollar smear at 11:30 in the morning to get the day off right.
I pushed a dollar across the desk.
"You're a credit to your profession," I said and walked off, already unhappy about the whole set-up. And even less happy when the elevator operator surveyed me with beady eyes the color of sewage. He easily weighed four hundred pounds and had a fan mounted directly next to his head which blew the sweat off him in sheets. Whoever was dumb enough to stand next to him got sprayed. I was dumb enough. It wasn't anything like walking on the beaches of Cape Cod. He stopped at five. The baths were on five.
"I got to pick up a package," he grunted. "Be right back." He kept the door open with a stop, so that the steam seeping out of the baths could fill up the elevator. The temperature must have been 105 and my shirt was a sponge. I could make out some pale, naked bodies moving around through the window on the door leading into the baths but the elevator jockey had somehow vanished into the gray mist.
Ten minutes later, as I was considering whether or not to pass out, he returned.
"Where's your package?" I asked.
He said nothing, but kicked out the stop and shot us up to eight. His uniform was soaked. I got out.
"Keep your nose clean, shamus," he croaked, closing the doors, "or I'll sit on your face."
A sweetheart. The place was filled with them. After the impromptu steambath on five, the eighth floor felt like a refrigerator car. A cleaning lady was airing out 801, letting in some fresh soot, and two doors down was 805. I'm not an investigator for nothing: show me 801 and I'll find 805 two times out of three.
I knocked on Duke Fenton's door and stared at my feet, waiting. No answer. I knocked again, a little harder, and drew another blank. When I tried the door, it was unlocked so I pushed it open with all due caution, my right hand tickling the Colt I keep in my jacket pocket. The room was yellow, small, and perfectly quiet. Some dirty white curtains were billowing inward ever so slightly. There was a suitcase propped open on a chair and a white shirt on the single bed. It was just back from the laundry. Except for the pair of Florsheims sticking out of the bathroom, and except for the dead man inside them, everything was as it should have been. Forget the "excepts": the way this case was shaping up, everything was in order.CHAPTER 2
It was a pretty job: two in the chest, one in the temple. I turned Mr. Mortis a little on his side and found his wallet. It was empty of cash but full of identification. Carl Fenton, Carl Fenton, Carl W. Fenton, and one card in the name of Fenton W. Carswell. Cute. So far I was definitely getting my twenty bucks' worth. I turned the late Fenton back to where I had found him and washed my hands, then crept over to the door and slipped the Do Not Disturb over the knob. I knew Fenton wasn't in any hurry to have his bed made, and it would take the cleaning lady a good long time to get that bathroom floor in shape.
Fenton's suitcase looked untouched. I opened the latches and went through his possessions. I carefully lifted his boxer shorts and undershirts, only to find more shorts and a couple of ties. I liked the one with the little cocktail glasses on it. He had two pink shirts, a black shirt, and a white shirt. Underneath a towel he had stolen from the Hotel Metro in Pittsburgh I discovered cologne, socks, and an unopened box of condoms. Poor bastard: it told the whole story of his stay in the big city. Almost the whole story; that hole in his head added a nice touch.
My search of Fenton's effects kept me occupied, but I hadn't found anything useful and I had the nagging feeling that I wasn't about to. The room was as spare as a monk's, with its one dresser, one closet, single bed, and two-by-four throw rug. Hunting through it was as easy as it was futile. Satisfied that the law wasn't going to find Kerry Lane's Oscar-winning performances, I picked up the telephone.
"Yes?" It was the shark at the main desk.
"Get me the police."
There was a silence you could have driven two Packards through.
"Perhaps the house detective may be of assistance."
"Okay, sure. Tell the house dick that there's a man wearing three bullet holes who's modeling them on the bathroom floor in room 805 and he's been holding his breath for a long, long time. It's a hot day, so if your man wants to figure out what happened, he better do it fast or else the smell is going to put a real crimp in your afternoon business. Johns are nervous enough without dead guys checking in and out. The cleaning lady is in 804 right about now; if you want, I'll ask her to dispose of the body. Unless, of course, you'd prefer me to throw it directly out the window and claim suicide. The Mirror will love it: 'MAN SHOOTS HIMSELF THROUGH CHEST AND HEAD, LEAPS FROM HOTEL LAVA.' Or maybe, in a pinch, you'll connect me with the police."
"You being funny, mac, or what?" I was now addressing the house detective.
"Come up to 805, the laugh's on me." I hung up, walked over to the door, and removed the Do Not Disturb. The cleaning lady was backing out of 804 across the hall, pulling a wagon loaded with gray sheets and cleansers. She turned and saw me.
"Morning," she said in an accent that surprised me: Cockney. "You with the party in 805?"
"No, and you'd better stay out of 805 for a while. There's been a little accident."
She peered in. With the door open, there was a cross breeze that had the curtains floating almost horizontally across the little room. She saw the black shoes sticking out of the bathroom.
"Oh, dear," she said, with no more emotion than if she had just dropped a can of Dutch Cleanser. Probably less. "Is he dead, then?" I nodded and she just shook her head. "I'd better go into 806 and clean up there, don't you think, until this gets cleared up?" I agreed and she pulled her wagon to 806.
Excerpted from The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 by Andrew Bergman. Copyright © 1947 Andrew Bergman. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.