In 1953, Penny is just another washed-up, wannabe Hollywood actress who is past her prime. She has settled in to a quiet lifestyle, and when she finds a low-rent bungalow in Canyon Arms, it’s a dream come true; Penny takes to the place instantly. But the dream cottage with its French doors and tiled courtyard may not be as perfect as it seems. Penny’s new neighbors start filling her head with stories about past tenants, whispering voices, and a suicide that may not have been a suicide at all. Soon enough, Penny starts hearing strange noises and she can’t help but wonder about the true fate of the bookseller who died in her home a dozen years earlier. Her suspicions are only fueled by the ominous inscription that she discovers in a book that’s closely guarded by her landlord. . . .
The Bibliomysteries are a series of short tales about deadly books, by top mystery authors.
About the Author
Megan Abbott is an American crime author. Her novel Queenpin earned her the Edgar award, and her latest novel, The Fever, was chosen as one of the Best Books of the Summer by the New York Times. Abbott received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University and has taught at NYU, SUNY, and The New School. In 2013-14, she served as the John Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss. Abbott also wrote the nonfiction book, The Street Was Mine: Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, and is the editor of A Hell of a Woman, an anthology of crime fiction. Her writing has appeared in: The New York Times, Salon.com, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Believer, and Los Angeles Review of Books.
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The Little Men
By Megan Abbott
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2015 Megan Abbott
All rights reserved.
At night, the sounds from the canyon shifted and changed. The bungalow seemed to lift itself with every echo and the walls were breathing. Panting.
Just after two, she'd wake, her eyes stinging, as if someone had waved a flashlight across them.
And then, she'd hear the noise.
The tapping noise, like a small animal trapped behind the wall.
That was what it reminded her of. Like when she was a girl, and that possum got caught in the crawlspace. For weeks, they just heard scratching. They only found it when the walls started to smell.
It's not the little men, she told herself. It's not. And then she'd hear a whimper and startle herself. Because it was her whimper and she was so frightened.
I'm not afraid I'm not I'm not
It had begun four months ago, the day Penny first set foot in the Canyon Arms. The chocolate and pink bungalows, the high arched windows and French doors, the tiled courtyard, cosseted on all sides by eucalyptus, pepper, and olive trees, miniature date palms — it was like a dream of a place, not a place itself.
This is what it was supposed to be, she thought.
The Hollywood she'd always imagined, the Hollywood of her childhood imagination, assembled from newsreels: Kay Francis in silver lamé and Clark Gable driving down Sunset in his Duesenberg, everyone beautiful and everything possible.
That world, if it ever really existed, was long gone by the time she'd arrived on that Greyhound a half-dozen years ago. It had been swallowed up by the clatter and color of 1953 Hollywood, with its swooping motel roofs and shiny glare of its hamburger stands and drive-ins, and its descending smog, which made her throat burn at night. Sometimes she could barely breathe.
But here in this tucked away courtyard, deep in Beachwood Canyon, it was as if that Old Hollywood still lingered, even bloomed. The smell of apricot hovered, the hush and echoes of the canyons soothed. You couldn't hear a horn honk, a brake squeal. Only the distant ting-ting of window chimes, somewhere. One might imagine a peignoired Norma Shearer drifting through the rounded doorway of one of the bungalows, cocktail shaker in hand.
"It's perfect," Penny whispered, her heels tapping on the Mexican tiles. "I'll take it."
"That's fine," said the landlady, Mrs. Stahl, placing Penny's cashier's check in the drooping pocket of her satin housecoat and handing her the keyring, heavy in her palm.
The scent, thick with pollen and dew, was enough to make you dizzy with longing.
And so close to the Hollywood sign, visible from every vantage, which had to mean something.
She had found it almost by accident, tripping out of the Carnival Tavern after three stingers.
"We've all been stood up," the waitress had tut-tutted, snapping the bill holder at her hip. "But we still pay up."
"I wasn't stood up," Penny said. After all, Mr. D. had called, the hostess summoning Penny to one of the hot telephone booths. Penny was still tugging her skirt free from its door hinges when he broke it to her.
He wasn't coming tonight and wouldn't be coming again. He had many reasons why, beginning with his busy work schedule, the demands of the studio, plus negotiations with the union were going badly. By the time he got around to the matter of his wife and six children, she wasn't listening, letting the phone drift from her ear.
Gazing through the booth's glass accordion doors, she looked out at the long row of spinning lanterns strung along the bar's windows. They reminded her of the magic lamp she had when she was small, scattering galloping horses across her bedroom walls.
You could see the Carnival Tavern from miles away because of the lanterns. It was funny seeing them up close, the faded circus clowns silhouetted on each. They looked so much less glamorous, sort of shabby. She wondered how long they'd been here, and if anyone even noticed them anymore.
She was thinking all these things while Mr. D. was still talking, his voice hoarse with logic and finality. A faint aggression.
He concluded by saying surely she agreed that all the craziness had to end.
You were a luscious piece of candy, he said, but now I gotta spit you out.
After, she walked down the steep exit ramp from the bar, the lanterns shivering in the canyon breeze.
And she walked and walked and that was how she found the Canyon Arms, tucked off behind hedges so deep you could disappear into them. The smell of the jasmine so strong she wanted to cry.
"You're an actress, of course," Mrs. Stahl said, walking her to Bungalow Number Four.
"Yes," she said. "I mean, no." Shaking her head. She felt like she was drunk. It was the apricot. No, Mrs. Stahl's cigarette. No, it was her lipstick. Tangee, with its sweet orange smell, just like Penny's own mother.
"Well," Mrs. Stahl said. "We're all actresses, I suppose."
"I used to be," Penny finally managed. "But I got practical. I do makeup now. Over at Republic."
Mrs. Stahl's eyebrows, thin as seaweed, lifted. "Maybe you could do me sometime."
It was the beginning of something, she was sure.
No more living with sundry starlets stacked bunk-to-bunk in one of those stucco boxes in West Hollywood. The Sham-Rock. The Sun-Kist Villa. The smell of cold cream and last night's sweat, a brush of talcum powder between the legs.
She hadn't been sure she could afford to live alone, but Mrs. Stahl's rent was low. Surprisingly low. And, if the job at Republic didn't last, she still had her kitty, which was fat these days on account of those six months with Mr. D., a studio man with a sofa in his office that wheezed and puffed. Even if he really meant what he said, that it really was kaput, she still had that last check he'd given her. He must have been planning the brush off, because it was the biggest yet, and made out to cash.
And the Canyon Arms had other advantages. Number Four, like all the bungalows, was already furnished: sun-bleached zebra print sofa and key lime walls, that brightwhite kitchen with its cherry-sprigged wallpaper. The first place she'd ever lived that didn't have rust stains in the tub or the smell of moth balls everywhere.
And there were the built-in bookshelves filled with novels in crinkling dustjackets.
She liked books, especially the big ones by Lloyd C. Douglas or Frances Parkinson Keyes, though the books in Number Four were all at least twenty years old with a sleek, high-tone look about them. The kind without any people on the cover.
She vowed to read them all during her time at the Canyon Arms. Even the few tucked in the back, the ones with brown-paper covers.
In fact, she started with those. Reading them late at night, with a pink gin conjured from grapefruit peel and an old bottle of Gilbey's she found in the cupboard. Those books gave her funny dreams.
"She got one."
Penny turned on her heels, one nearly catching on one of the courtyard tiles. But, looking around, she didn't see anyone. Only an open window, smoke rings emanating like a dragon's mouth.
"She finally got one," the voice came again.
"Who's there?" Penny said, squinting toward the window.
An old man leaned forward from his perch just inside Number Three, the bungalow next door. He wore a velvet smoking jacket faded to a deep rose.
"And a pretty one at that," he said, smiling with graying teeth. "How do you like Number Four?"
"I like it very much," she said. She could hear something rustling behind him in his bungalow. "It's perfect for me."
"I believe it is," he said, nodding slowly. "Of that I am sure."
The rustle came again. Was it a roommate? A pet? It was too dark to tell. When it came once more, it was almost like a voice shushing.
"I'm late," she said, taking a step back, her heel caving slightly.
"Oh," he said, taking a puff. "Next time."
That night, she woke, her mouth dry from gin, at two o'clock. She had been dreaming she was on an exam table and a doctor with an enormous head mirror was leaning so close to her she could smell his gum: violet. The ringlight at its center seemed to spin, as if to hypnotize her.
She saw spots even when she closed her eyes again.
The next morning, the man in Number Three was there again, shadowed just inside the window frame, watching the comings and goings on the courtyard.
Head thick from last night's gin and two morning cigarettes, Penny was feeling what her mother used to call "the hickedty ticks."
So, when she saw the man, she stopped and said briskly, "What did you mean yesterday? 'She finally got one'?"
He smiled, laughing without any noise, his shoulders shaking.
"Mrs. Stahl got one, got you," he said. "As in: Will you walk into my parlor? said the spider to the fly."
When he leaned forward, she could see the stripes of his pajama top through the shiny threads of his velvet sleeve. His skin was rosy and wet looking.
"I'm no chump, if that's your idea. It's good rent. I know good rent."
"I bet you do, my girl. I bet you do. Why don't you come inside for a cup? I'll tell you a thing or two about this place. And about your Number Four."
The bungalow behind him was dark, with something shining beside him. A bottle, or something else.
"We all need something," he added cryptically, winking.
She looked at him. "Look, mister —"
"Flant. Mr. Flant. Come inside, miss. Open the front door. I'm harmless." He waved his pale pink hand, gesturing toward his lap mysteriously.
Behind him, she thought she saw something moving in the darkness over his slouching shoulders. And music playing softly. An old song about setting the world on fire, or not.
Mr. Flant was humming with it, his body soft with age and stillness, but his milky eyes insistent and penetrating.
A breeze lifted and the front door creaked open several inches, and the scent of tobacco and bay rum nearly overwhelmed her.
"I don't know," she said, even as she moved forward.
Later, she would wonder why, but in that moment, she felt it was definitely the right thing to do.
The other man in Number Three was not as old as Mr. Flant but still much older than Penny. Wearing only an undershirt and trousers, he had a moustache and big round shoulders that looked gray with old sweat. When he smiled, which was often, she could tell he was once matinee-idol handsome, with the outsized head of all movie stars.
"Call me Benny," he said, handing her a coffee cup that smelled strongly of rum.
Mr. Flant was explaining that Number Four had been empty for years because of something that happened there a long time ago.
"Sometimes she gets a tenant," Benny reminded Mr. Flant. "The young musician with the sweaters."
"That did not last long," Mr. Flant said.
"The police came. He tore out a piece of the wall with his bare hands."
Penny's eyebrows lifted.
Benny nodded. "His fingers were hanging like clothespins."
"But I don't understand. What happened in Number Four?"
"Some people let the story get to them," Benny said, shaking his head.
The two men looked at each other.
Mr. Flant rotated his cup in his hand.
"There was a death," he said softly. "A man who lived there, a dear man. Lawrence was his name. Larry. A talented bookseller. He died."
"Boy did he," Benny said. "Gassed himself."
"At the Canyon Arms?" she asked, feeling sweat on her neck despite all the fans blowing everywhere, lifting motes and old skin. That's what dust really is, you know, one of her roommates once told her, blowing it from her fingertips. "Inside my bungalow?"
They both nodded gravely.
"They carried him out through the courtyard," Mr. Flant said, staring vaguely out the window. "That great sheaf of blond hair of his. Oh, my."
"So it's a challenge for some people," Benny said. "Once they know."
Penny remembered the neighbor boy who fell from their tree and died from blood poisoning two days later. No one would eat its pears after that.
"Well," she said, eyes drifting to the smudgy window, "some people are superstitious."
Soon, Penny began stopping by Number Three a few mornings a week, before work. Then, the occasional evening, too. They served rye or applejack.
It helped with her sleep. She didn't remember her dreams, but her eyes still stung lightspots most nights.
Sometimes the spots took odd shapes and she would press her fingers against her lids trying to make them stop.
"You could come to my bungalow," she offered once. But they both shook their heads slowly, and in unison.
Mostly, they spoke of Lawrence. Larry. Who seemed like such a sensitive soul, delicately formed and too fine for this town.
"When did it happen?" Penny asked, feeling dizzy, wishing Benny had put more water in the applejack. "When did he die?"
"Just before the war. A dozen years ago."
"He was only thirty-five."
"That's so sad," Penny said, finding her eyes misting, the liquor starting to tell on her.
"His bookstore is still on Cahuenga Boulevard," Benny told her. "He was so proud when it opened."
"Before that, he sold books for Stanley Rose," Mr. Flant added, sliding a handkerchief from under the cuff of his fraying sleeve. "Larry was very popular. Very attractive. An accent soft as a Carolina pine."
"He'd pronounce 'bed' like 'bay-ed.'" Benny grinned, leaning against the window sill and smiling that Gable smile. "And he said 'bay-ed' a lot."
"I met him even before he got the job with Stanley," Mr. Flant said, voice speeding up. "Long before Benny."
Benny shrugged, topping off everyone's drinks.
"He was selling books out of the trunk of his old Ford," Mr. Flant continued. "That's where I first bought Ulysses."
Benny grinned again. "He sold me my first Tijuana Bible. Dagwood Has a Family Party."
Mr. Flant nodded, laughed. "Popeye in The Art of Love. It staggered me. He had an uncanny sense. He knew just what you wanted."
They explained that Mr. Rose, whose bookstore once graced Hollywood Boulevard and had attracted great talents, used to send young Larry to the studios with a suitcase full of books. His job was to trap and mount the big shots. Show them the goods, sell them books by the yard, art books they could show off in their offices, dirty books they could hide in their big gold safes.
Penny nodded. She was thinking about the special books Mr. D. kept in his office, behind the false encyclopedia fronts. The books had pictures of girls doing things with long, fuzzy fans and peacock feathers, a leather crop.
She wondered if Larry had sold them to him.
"To get to those guys, he had to climb the satin rope," Benny said. "The studio secretaries, the script girls, the publicity office, even makeup girls like you. Hell, the grips. He loved a sexy grip."
"This town can make a whore out of anyone," Penny found herself blurting.
She covered her mouth, ashamed, but both men just laughed.
Mr. Flant looked out the window into the courtyard, the flip-flipping of banana leaves against the shutter. "I think he loved the actresses the most, famous or not."
"He said he liked the feel of a woman's skin in 'bay-ed,' Benny said, rubbing his left arm, his eyes turning dark, soft. "'Course, he'd slept with his mammy until he was thirteen."
As she walked back to her own bungalow, she always had the strange feeling she might see Larry. That he might emerge behind the rose bushes or around the statue of Venus.
Once she looked down into the fountain basin and thought she could see his face instead of her own.
But she didn't even know what he looked like.
Back in the bungalow, head fuzzy and the canyon so quiet, she thought about him more. The furniture, its fashion at least two decades past, seemed surely the same furniture he'd known. Her hands on the smooth bands of the rattan sofa. Her feet, her toes on the banana silk tassels of the rug. And the old mirror in the bathroom, its tiny black pocks.
In the late hours, lying on the bed, the mattress too soft, with a vague smell of mildew, she found herself waking again and again, each time with a start.
It always began with her eyes stinging, dreaming again of a doctor with the head mirror, or a car careering toward her on the highway, always lights in her face.
Excerpted from The Little Men by Megan Abbott. Copyright © 2015 Megan Abbott. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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