About the Author
George Harmon Coxe (1901–1984) was an early star of hard-boiled crime fiction, best known for characters he created in the seminal pulp magazine Black Mask. Born in upstate New York, he attended Purdue and Cornell Universities before moving to the West Coast to work in newspapers. In 1922 he began publishing short stories in pulp magazines across various genres, including romance and sports. He would find his greatest success, however, writing crime fiction. In 1934 Coxe, relying on his background in journalism, created his most enduring character: Jack “Flashgun” Casey, a crime photographer. First appearing in “Return Engagement,” a Black Mask short, Casey found success on every platform, including radio, television, and film. Coxe’s other well-known characters include Kent Murdock, another photographer, and Jack Fenner, a PI. Always more interested in character development than a clever plot twist, Coxe was at home in novel-writing, producing sixty-three books in his lifetime. Made a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America in 1964, Coxe died in 1984.
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The Fifth Key
By George Harmon Coxe
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1973 George Harmon Coxe
All rights reserved.
The eleven-o'clock from Boston was on time, and the clock over the information booth said two minutes of four when Kent Murdock passed it and headed for the arcade on the east side of Grand Central. Funneling into the opening and burdened down with plate case and bag, he became part of the swift-moving two-way traffic that seemed always to prevail here, and kept pace by artful dodging to arrive at last at the Lexington Avenue entrance. Here he ignored the cab at the curb, crossed the street, and flagged another taxi going north.
There was an island of baggage stacked in the hotel lobby; Murdock's things increased the island's perimeter. There were a dozen men and women leaning over the counter worrying the two room clerks and their assistants, but eventually it came Murdock's turn and when his reservation was checked he was allowed to register.
"It'll be a little while, Mr. Murdock," the clerk said.
"But there will be a room for me?"
Oh, definitely. The clerk couldn't promise when but very likely they would have something for him within a couple of hours. When he returned he could stop at the desk and ask. Meanwhile his bags would be perfectly safe right here in the lobby.
Murdock thanked him perfunctorily and went downstairs to clean up and get a shine; then he came back, got a cab, and rode north and east to a remodeled four-story house between Lexington and Third. The street-level entrance was unlocked, and he went into a square foyer, finding a door on his left and another ahead of him which apparently led to the apartments above. There were four mailboxes on the right wall and on the door on the left a card said: Sheila Vincent, Murdock pushed the buzzer.
The girl who opened the door was young and slender. Neither plain or pretty, she was nice-looking in a bright and pleasant sort of way, and the tentative smile in her hazel eyes gave him the benefit of the doubt when he asked if Miss Vincent was in.
"Tell her Mr. Murdock," he said.
The smile expanded. "Oh, yes," she said, and stood back. Then a woman yelled his name and he was stepping into the living-room and Sheila Vincent was rushing at him, housecoat trailing and arms wide.
By moving quickly he got his hat out of the way and braced himself before she grabbed him; then she was up on tiptoes, kissing him emphatically on the mouth.
"Well," Murdock said when he could. "Well, that was all right. How are you, Sheila?"
The woman let her hands slide down his arms until she held his hands in hers. She stepped back, head tilted as she surveyed him, a small dark woman, abruptly but judiciously curved, with a small red mouth and heavy-lidded eyes.
"You got shot up in Italy," she said. "Do you know I haven't seen you since you enlisted? Are you all right now?"
Murdock said he was fine. His leg hadn't bothered him in months.
"Well, take your coat off," Sheila said. "Sit down. I think that will be all, Dale," she said to the girl. "Oh, this is Kent Murdock," she added. "My secretary, Dale Jordan."
Dale Jordan said, "How do you do?"
She looked right at him, her smile friendly, and then Sheila said, "Oh, Dale. Will you open a bottle of Scotch? And bring some ice and things. And fill the bucket full, please." She glanced at Murdock as the girl moved quietly from the room, and then at his coat and hat. "Where's your camera?"
"At the Hotel."
Murdock grinned. "I thought the assignment was to cover your radio show—what's its name?"
"The name," said Sheila, "is Sob Sister."
"About a gal reporter."
"And a photographer."
"Well"—Sheila's glance was enigmatic—"not exactly."
"And you thought it might be a good idea to take a couple of shots here—showing Sheila Vincent, the creator of Sob Sister, at her desk sweating out a script."
He smiled as he spoke but he could see a spark of irritation in her dark eyes and he wondered why he needled her. It was not because he had been sent to New York when he hadn't wanted to come, for it was not his nature to gripe about a job once he had accepted it. More likely, he thought, it was simply his defensive reaction against Sheila's manner of taking everything for granted and her assumption that in all things she would have her own way. He watched her pout at him.
"All right, have it your way," she said. "I suppose I'm lucky I got you down here at all."
And there was, Sheila knew, more than a little truth in the statement. Murdock had been taking pictures for the Courier for quite a while. Murdock was the best. Since he had been out of the army he had been the paper's picture chief, directing the staff photographers and handling only special assignments himself. Years ago when she had first worked for the Courier she had been impressed more by his dark good looks than by his ability, and it occurred to her now that she was still impressed.
By his poise and easy manner, by the way he wore his clothes. She liked the clean line of jaw and mouth and she realized that outwardly the years had changed him very little. He still had the lean, well-boned figure with its look of muscular fitness and no sign of thickness at the middle; he still had that nice smile which grew slowly now in the angles of his dark eyes as he answered her.
"You were lucky," he said good-naturedly, "and you know it. You did a job on T. A. Wyman," he added, referring to the managing editor of the Courier, "and I got my orders."
"You might sound a little more pleased."
"I'm pleased. I think you're wonderful. It's an honor to—"
"Oh, stop it." Sheila took two fast steps and turned back. She wasn't angry, nor even irritated; she was thinking. "Why shouldn't the show get some publicity?" she asked. "After all, Owen is directing and producing it, and he and I are ex-Bostonians. We both worked for the Courier."
"Sure." Murdock watched her straighten things on the leather-topped kneehole desk, his thoughts hanging for a moment on the reference she had made to her husband, Owen Faulkner. He wondered if they were still separated, decided they were. He watched her open a handbag, take out some keys on a gold chain, and lock the desk drawers.
"Sit down," he said. "Relax."
"I can't," Sheila said. "I'm too excited." She began to pace again. "Here's what we'll do. We'll talk a bit and have an early dinner and then go to the studio. The show goes on at 9:30, and you'll have plenty of time during the dress rehearsal to get your pictures."
He said that sounded okay to him, and then Dale Jordan came back with a tray, and he rose and took it from her while she cleared a place on the coffee table. She went for her coat and hat while Sheila poured two drinks, and when she came back Murdock asked if he would be seeing her at the show. Dale said she hadn't been invited.
"You wouldn't like it, anyway," Sheila said, not looking up.
The girl eyed Sheila coolly, her shoulders moving in the faintest of shrugs, and gave Murdock a half-smile, as though to say, "It's all right. I don't mind." Aloud she said, "Good-by, Mr. Murdock. I'll be looking for your pictures."
Murdock took a good pull at his drink when the door closed. Sheila, still preoccupied, glanced at the clock on the desk and stood up, glass in hand.
"Look," she said, "I'll take this with me and get a dress on. Fix yourself another."
Murdock watched her go and then leaned back and inspected the room, finding it both comfortable and attractive. The walls were a pastel green and matched the over-all rug; the chairs and the oversized studio couch were a rich dark red, on the modern side, but not so much so as the occasional pieces. Only the desk was of conventional style, and there was a portable typewriter on top of it which made him wonder if she worked here.
When she came out fifteen minutes later, he asked her about it, and she shook her head. She said she had an office and mentioned an address a few blocks distant. She did very little work here, though occasionally she did some dictating to Dale Jordan.
"But mostly I work at the office," she said. "Do you want another drink or shall we go? We can pick up your camera on the way and check it while we eat."
They had dinner at Armand's, off Madison and not far from the Universal Studios. The place was, apparently, a favorite of radio people, not only those who had achieved some success but others who wished to give that impression. The food was excellent, the room pleasant, and Murdock might have enjoyed himself had it not been for certain acquaintances who stopped to chat with Sheila. As it was he too often found himself standing awkwardly to mumble names that had no meaning for him while they said, "Don't get up, Mr. Murdock.... Please.... Sit still, Mr. Murdock, we'll only be a minute."
Sheila was in her element. She wore a severe black dress that did extremely well with her ripe and well-placed curves; her mink coat was thrown carelessly back, and her dark, upswept hair was sleekly perfect, every wave exact. When she wasn't eating she chatted incessantly, her color heightened and her eyes busy inspecting each new arrival. Finally, as they waited for dessert, she touched Murdock's arm and said, "Oh, here's my agent. Hello, Ira," she said. "Sit down. This is Mr. Murdock—he's down from Boston to take those pictures for my story—Mr. Bronson."
Murdock nodded, finding Ira Bronson a baldish, overdressed man in his middle forties, with a round face, rimless glasses, and considerable five-o'clock shadow around the jowls. He had a husky voice, a quick, staccato way of talking as he said he was glad to know Murdock and asked Sheila if everything was all right with the show.
There was a space on the banquette beside the woman, and she pushed over toward Murdock, widening the space. Bronson picked up her handbag and sat down, holding the bag on his knees as he edged them under the tablecloth.
"It should make a good story," he said to Murdock.
"If Sheila writes it," Murdock said.
"She will." Bronson nodded. "It isn't every sustaining show that gets a sponsor as quick as Sob Sister did. And that was smart," he said to Sheila, "getting this hookup with the Courier. Good for the show. The sponsor'll like it. Proves to him we're playing all the angles."
He had more to say along the same line and he said it in a manner that permitted no interruption. Then he stood up, replaced the bag, shook hands with Murdock. He said he probably wouldn't be able to make the broadcast but he might see them later.
"George Stark will probably open a bottle afterward," he said. "I may drop around."
"Who's Stark?" Murdock asked when Bronson moved away.
"He's the advertising agency man. His client is sponsoring the show. He's with Gray & Rankin." Sheila put her cup down. "Have you got the check yet? I think we ought to be running."
Sob Sister was being readied for its coast-to-coast performance in Studio 6, a sizable air-conditioned room on the fourth floor of the Universal Building. There was to be no audience, and the studio had no provision for spectators other than what might be crowded into the control room and a similar, glass-fronted room, set in another wall and called the client's booth.
The orchestra of perhaps a dozen pieces was running through music bridges in one corner beyond a couple of screens when Sheila ushered Murdock into the control booth. From here he could see the sound-effects men checking cues behind their equipment; and the cast, sitting in folding chairs and grouped around Owen Faulkner, was going over cuts and changes which were to be incorporated in the script for the dress rehearsal.
A certain glow of excitement seemed to come over Sheila as she stood there surveying the studio and she did not introduce Murdock to the engineer or the assistant producer, but asked him to hurry and hang up his coat and get his camera out.
"I thought you could get some shots of the leads—Lois Edwards and Arthur Calvert—actually doing a scene," she said. "And you'll want Owen directing from the booth here, and one of Owen and me—"
"At ease," Murdock said. With good humored indulgence to take the brusqueness from his words, he added, "I've been doing this quite a while, you know. We'll get your pictures, honey."
"Excuse me," Sheila said, her small chuckle forced. "I'd forgotten how independent you always were."
"Sure," Murdock said. "And you forgot that when I get busy with a camera I always forget my manners." He had his paraphernalia out and nearly ready now and he said, "Come on, don't pout, now. Show me how you get into the studio."
Sheila led the way down the stairs and through the heavy, soundproofed door. "Look who I've got," she said, and then Owen Faulkner shouted a welcome and jumped up to pump Murdock's hand. He introduced the photographer to the cast, and Murdock told him he could get the best pictures if everyone would just go about his business and pretend he wasn't there.
"I'll try to keep out of the way," he said, "and I don't think my lights will bother you."
He worked with a flash gun and an extension cord, borrowing Sheila now and then to hold the reflector unit for him. He had not seen a broadcast in years and he was interested now, not only in his work but in the mechanics of the sound equipment and the realism with which the cast acted out their assignments.
He took a half-dozen exposures at the "cast" microphone before he was satisfied and a couple more from the studio shooting through the glass into the control room as Owen Faulkner gave his cues. He experimented from another angle by shooting from the control room out, with Faulkner and Sheila in profile, and then he suggested that they come out where he could get a shot of them shaking hands and congratulating each other on their mutual success.
Until then he had been too busy to notice any nuances of conduct between husband and wife but now, as they shook hands, he felt a certain tension that had not been there before. The studio was suddenly quiet. Owen Faulkner looked at the camera, and Sheila showed her teeth prettily, and Murdock told Faulkner to look at Sheila.
The man obeyed but he did not smile, and Murdock was about to ask him to look a little happy about the business when something warned him that it would do no good. Without knowing why, he had the feeling that any smile that Faulkner managed would be set and unnatural so he let it go and pressed the shutter. He said he'd like to get a couple of the sound men and then he'd be through.
There were three men working the sound tables, and he was fascinated by the multiplicity of effects they were able to get from their records and boxes and doors and miscellaneous equipment. They showed him how things worked between pictures, and he was still engrossed when Faulkner called to him, motioning him into the control booth.
He saw then that the studio clock showed less than two minutes to go, and he also noticed that there were four or five men sitting in the client's booth. He did not know which one was George Stark but he picked out a wiry, worried-looking man with a mustache and expensive-looking clothes as the most likely suspect since he was doing most of the talking and gesturing.
Faulkner indicated a vacant chair in a corner of the control room. Murdock tiptoed to it, though there was no need to, and found that by sitting on the edge of it he could just see the heads of the cast. Faulkner said, speaking into the control booth microphone, "Twenty seconds."
"Ten seconds," the engineer said.
The announcer stepped up, his script chin-high, his eyes on Faulkner, who now held both hands up, one eye on the clock. The red hand crept to the vertical, a red light glowed briefly. Simultaneously there was a distinct click from the clock, and Faulkner pointed at the announcer, his other hand waiting to give the orchestra cue. The announcer spoke, and in the client's booth the men settled back in their chairs. Sob Sister was on the air.CHAPTER 2
When Kent Murdock got back to the hotel the clerk said he had a room and reached for a key. "Front," he called, and when the boy came he said, "Take Mr. Murdock to eight-sixteen."
Murdock pointed out his bag and his plate case. He gave the boy a half dollar. He told him to take his things up to the room, and as the boy nodded, Murdock wheeled and started back across the lobby, a lean, dark man with good bones in his jaw and a poised, erect way of holding himself that bespoke his not too recent army life as surely as the bronze button in his lapel.
Excerpted from The Fifth Key by George Harmon Coxe. Copyright © 1973 George Harmon Coxe. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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