A newspaperman investigates the strange case of a murdered society clown
Howie Rook does not care for the police. After a long career in newspapers, he has seen too many cases loused up by unimaginative detectives to have any faith in by-the-book investigation. Recently retired, he spends his leisure hours writing letters to the editor regarding police stupidity. He’s so good at pointing out the department’s screw-ups that it has decided to reach out to him. They have an impossible crime, and it requires an amateur’s eye. Real estate magnate James McFarley is found dead in a locked room, a bullet in his chest, and clown make-up on his face. The police have no suspects, no witnesses, and no hope but Rook. The amateur’s skill is about to be put to the test. Will he find the killer, or will he end up looking sillier than a murdered clown? Unhappy Hooligan is part of the Howie Rook Mysteries series, which also includes Rook Takes Knight.
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A Howie Rook Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1956 Stuart Palmer
All rights reserved.
On the bloody floor of the bedroom
I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair,
I note where the pistol has fallen.
The mixed foursome in gala eevervning dress came to the party late, and found that there wasn't any party. No light showed over the transom, and nobody answered the bell. They hammered on the door and called "Mac?" several times and then got tired of it all and went away to have their nightcaps somewhere else. The silence surged softly back again.
Inside the big, comfortably furnished apartment, a large black tomcat came in through the one open window and stretched himself luxuriously. His name was supposed to be Satanas, but he answered neither to that nor to anything else except the sound of the refrigerator door opening, or the smell of food. He now padded confidently through the Stygian darkness of the living room, made a wide detour around the dead man who lay akimbo in the center of the rug, and paused to hiss silently at a strange bit of foreign dirt on the floor. He went on to take off in an effortless leap to the top of the portable cocktail bar that somebody had readied for the party that was never to take place. There, without a single qualm of conscience, he tasted the forbidden fruits of two sausages and the filling of a sandwich—spitting out the latter because it turned out to be too-salty anchovies—and then he deftly knocked a stuffed olive out of its bowl and played polo with it up and down the floor. Finally he batted it through the dining room and into the kitchen, where he curled up easily under the stove with the battered olive still held firmly in his paws, and went calmly to sleep. He was strictly a cat who walked by himself, and the devil take the hindmost.
On the next morning but one, on the other side of the great sprawling collection of assorted suburbs which calls itself Los Santelos, Mr. Howard Rook was rudely disturbed from his slumbers at nine o'clock by a firm knocking on his door. He yawned, put on a worn woolen bathrobe, and wearily went to answer it, trying to think of some new excuse with which to stall his landlady. But for once it wasn't the landlady; it was a brisk, pale-haired young man in sober tweeds. He had a badge cupped in the palm of his hand.
"My name is Jason, sergeant, Detective Bureau," he said, in what was no doubt his best imitation of the heroic fictional cop on a certain well-known television program.
"Come in, come in," said Howie Rook resignedly, since it was obvious that the young man was coming in anyway. "Jason, is it? Well, I haven't got your Golden Fleece."
"Huh? Mr. Rook, you're coming downtown with me," said Jason.
"I am, am I?" Rook countered, not very brilliantly—and not un-cheerfully for a man who suspects that he is being arrested, and not for the first time either. But he did firmly insist on dressing and shaving and being allowed to have his breakfast; said breakfast consisting of crackers and liverwurst washed down with copious drafts of dark beer. Meanwhile, characteristically, he talked. The earnest young police detective, who waited patiently by the door of the rooming-house bed-sitting-room, soon felt as if he had been trapped into a wrestling match with a trained bear.
Across the room, the older man—brick red, fiftyish, shaggy—was holding forth, and obviously enjoying having a captive audience. He was waving a fistful of yellowed newspaper clippings; more clippings were around his feet, like dead leaves around a gnarled oak, and still more were spilling every which way from the shoebox files that covered all of one wall of the room. "You take fingerprints now," said Howie Rook argumentatively. "No doubt when you were going through the police academy they filled you full of the so-called science of dactyloscopy, no two fingerprints in the world alike, and all that?"
"But that's basic ..." protested Jason.
"Then you listen to this, from the Minneapolis Star, November 18th, 1943: 'Twin Sisters, Enlisting in Waves, Found to Have Identical Fingerprints.'!"
Detective-sergeant Jason flushed slightly, and started to say that he remembered that newspaper story and that it had been disproved later.
"Sure, sure," Rook interrupted. "Something about minute differences in the sweat pores, or something, under magnification. The story had to be disproved, because it ran contrary to the sacred mumbo jumbo that has come to take the place of common sense and shoe leather in investigative work. And all you young squirts with your new shiny badges swallow the dogma without question, just as your elders used to accept Lombroso's goofy theories about criminals having a special type of ear lobe or a funny nose or something! Mark my words, criminology in the past two decades has gone all to pot, snake-bit by the obvious fallacy of trying to attack the problem of human misbehavior as if it were something mathematical and predictable instead of just natural hellishness. You can't solve crimes in a lab. Now, you take ballistics—"
"Mister Rook," interrupted the young detective almost desperately, "this is all very interesting, and I bet you don't really believe half of it yourself. But I'm here on duty; they want you downtown and I got orders to bring you in."
Rook sighed. "So here we go again, hah?" His pale, slightly faded blue eyes were wary but amused. "Well, sonny, what's the gag this time? Am I supposed to be growing marijuana plants in a flower pot, or shooting out the street lights with a BB-gun, or what?"
Young Jason looked a little baffled. "I don't get the drift. But if you'll just put on your hat and coat—"
There was a snort. "It's only a gag, sonny, a running gag. Like sending a machine-shop apprentice out to borrow a left-handed monkey wrench, or showing a cub reporter the type lice in a pail of water so that he gets himself well squirted. Rookie cops assigned to this part of town always get sent out to arrest me on some pretext or other; it's been going on for years. This is the way the fatheads who spend most of their time playing pinochle down at Headquarters get even with me for calling the public's attention to their mistakes in my open letters to the newspapers. Maybe you've even read some of my diatribes? And it's also a way of hazing the greenhorns into the bargain; I am known to have ways of destroying some of their fond illusions, and proving my points with my clippings. But you run along now, and tell those jokers that it didn't work this time."
Detective-sergeant Jason shook his head stubbornly. "Sorry, Mr. Rook. I don't just know what it's all about, but I've got to take you in right now."
"But why, sonny?"
"I guess you'll find out just what makes when you get down to Well Street. You're not being arrested, you're just coming along voluntarily, see?"
"Voluntarily! I see." Grumbling sulfurously, Rook finished his beer, then raised himself from his Morris chair, wrapped a shabby topcoat around his ursine bulk and jammed a disreputable fedora on his head. He lumbered out and down the stairs, the young detective close upon his heels. Outside in the driveway there was a black-and-white Ford sedan with the familiar LSPD insignia on the side, a uniformed man at the wheel.
"Back to Well Street," ordered Jason as they got in.
"And as I was saying," Howie Rook continued blithely, "you take ballistics. Every schoolchild today knows that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent of killing that paymaster up in the Boston suburbs. But the ballistics evidence that wrongfully convicted them is proudly presented in photographs in such official reference works as Hatcher's Firearms Investigation ..."
"Kick it along a little faster," said Jason to the driver, who did.
"And how about the polygraph, the so-called lie detector? Its results have been thrown out of court a dozen times, because the thing is inconclusive and easy to trick and also edges into self-incrimination and a violation of the Bill of Rights. Same thing with the truth drugs, such as sodium pentothal is supposed to be and isn't. Why, I can show you literally dozens of clippings to prove—"
"Hit the siren!" ordered Sergeant Jason in pure desperation. And they raced on downtown drowned in their own noise, like three thousand pigs caught under a fence.
"—or this recent increasing dependence of the police on hidden microphones and wire tapping and Dick Tracy pocket-size wire recorders and all the rest of that stuff?" Howie Rook was happily continuing as they got out of the police car and went up the stone steps shadowed by one of the largest and most hideous modernistic statues in history; it was supposed to represent The Policeman Guarding the American Family, but to Rook it looked like a mammoth Tin Woodman of Oz. On the way down the second-floor hallway he nodded pleasantly to several young detectives whom he had put into their places in the past and who obviously had no illusions about the future; they gave him a wide berth.
For Rook was, as our English cousins say, a man with a maggot. He was always riding his hobby, and while sometimes he went to ridiculous extremes with it, there had been times when subsequent events had proved him right.
Jason led him all the way down the hall to the anteroom of Chief of Police Parkman's office, where he deposited him with ill-concealed relief. The room at the moment was occupied by a bored veteran in uniform at the desk, and by two visitors, both female. One was a rich-bitch type, Rook decided, a strikingly lovely moonlight blonde in a coat of blue mutation mink. She was tinglingly beautiful and had been working on it; not too young but making the best of her thirties. She sat nervously tapping her long fingernails on the arm of the divan. The other one, sitting well across the room, was a plumply pretty teen-ager with a sulky lower lip; she might be beautiful someday, Rook decided idly, if she got rid of that baby fat. A confirmed widower of years' standing, he still had a keen eye for the opposite sex—but like the little boy in the toy shop, he didn't want to touch, he just came in to look.
Resigning himself to a long wait, he gathered up some old magazines and sank into a chair. But the uniformed man at the desk suddenly beckoned to him. "If your name is Rook, you're to go right in."
So Howie Rook cast aside the magazines and went into the office of the Chief of Los Santelos Police, wondering just what the hell this was all about. He and the boys in the Detective Bureau had for years enjoyed a sort of running feud, but this was something else again. Chief Parkman, Rook knew full well, was a competent police executive and far above wasting his time on practical jokes.
The Chief was a bespectacled Hibernian type, and a horse-player would have said that he was carrying extra weight-forage. But now the great man rose briskly from behind his massive mahogany desk and leaned over to shake hands. He indicated a big leather chair, and offered his cigar humidor.
Rook took the chair and declined the cigars, being a pipe man at heart. "Are all your prisoners getting this plush treatment these days, Chief?"
"Nothing like that, Howie." Chief Parkman, as Rook knew well from his days as a newspaperman, could turn on the camaraderie when the situation indicated it. "Nice of you to come down."
"You mean I had a choice?"
Parkman smiled. "Er—well, I'll be brief and come to the point. You pretty busy these days, Howie?"
"About as busy as any other old newspaperman turned out to pasture. I'm writing a book."
"What's going to be the title? Fifty Thousand Policemen Can Be Wrong?"
"Thanks," said Rook. "That's not bad; I'll remember it."
"You've also been writing more letters to the newspapers, I see. Taking the police department to pieces. Probably a healthy thing for us to have a little good honest criticism." The man fiddled with a letter opener.
"Well," said Rook dryly, "I imagine that you didn't have me hauled down here just to tell me that you've become one of my fans."
"No, not exactly. I don't quite know how to put it to you, but since your retirement from the paper you've sort of set yourself up as an unofficial crime analyst; at least in your letters to the press you've once or twice put your finger on something our boys have missed. You've been talking big. Now, how about declaring a temporary truce and helping us on something?"
"What?" Rook very nearly dropped his favorite pipe.
"You've needled us plenty—"
"And haven't I been needled plenty too? How about the time I almost had to spend a night in Washington Heights Jail on suspicion of contributing to the delinquency of a minor because I had Tootsie in my room—Tootsie being a parakeet I was keeping for a friend. No, Chief. I'm no sleuth, just an objective observer. And besides, I don't think I'd care to give your boys in the Detective Bureau the correct time if they begged for it on bended knee."
"Nobody's begging, Howie. The idea of calling you in didn't originate in the Bureau, and I myself—" The Chief stopped short. "If you must know, the suggestion came down from the Commissioner's office, obviously planted there by somebody with a drag. But, Howie, we've got a queer death on our hands."
Rook blinked. "But who got the business? There haven't been any murders in the past week, which is a record for our fair city."
"James McFarley was the guy."
"But—but that one was supposed to be suicide!"
"It was suicide. I know it was suicide. But in some ways it's a damned queer one. You knew the man, Howie?"
"Not socially, no. There's a certain gap between the Jonathan Club and Joe's Bar and Grill, you know. But like any other prominent citizen he had a file in the city-room library, and I may remember something." Rook closed his eyes. "Age about fifty-five, give or take a few years either way. Retired lawyer, one-time deputy assistant D.A., but he'd made his real pile speculating in Valley real estate during the postwar boom out there. His hobby was writing stuff on psychology—I seem to remember that he even did a book on it, which he probably paid to get printed. Wife Mavis, legally separated from him about nine months ago, divorce supposed to be still pending. She's an ex-chorus girl, and dancer and model and whatnot, the sort of type who—"
"Pssst!" warned Parkman hastily. "That's her in the outer office. I'll have her in here to talk with us in a few more minutes, as soon as I give you a fast fill-in. It was she that worked on the Commish to keep the case open, and incidentally to bring you into it."
"I would much rather have had my beauty sleep," said Howie Rook. "But naturally I appreciate the compliment. I still don't see what I can do that your men haven't already done; all kidding aside, I know that they're as good as the police force in any American city of comparable size even if they work by the book too much. So—?"
"Listen to the rest of it, Howie. This is up your alley."
Rook shrugged. "Well, I could start off by asking what about any known enemies for McFarley?"
"None that we know of."
"Apart of course from the wife or ex-wife, who according to your police dogma is always automatically suspect."
Parkman shook his head. "She has an alibi, and she had nothing to gain from his death.
And besides, if she'd killed him for any reason she'd hardly be raising hell and high water to get his death investigated more fully, would she? It's suicide, sure enough."
"Well, then, who does benefit by his death? Cui bono?"
"The estate, which is tied up in real property, is estimated at somewhere between two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and four hundred thousand. It is left outright to a daughter by a former marriage, who has not been living at home for some months; she left to live her own life, or something."
"None whatever, which is sometimes the best alibi of all, as you well know. Crafty criminals always have one; the innocent rarely do. Where were you last Wednesday evening?"
"Home, reading—I think," admitted Rook. "But I can't prove it."
"Exactly. But I promised you the fill-in. Yesterday morning about nine o'clock the part-time housekeeper couldn't get into McFarley's apartment to straighten it up. She smelled that something was wrong—she knew that he was home because she'd already seen his Cadillac parked outside on the boulevard. She called the janitor handy man, who'd also noticed the car with an all-night parking ticket under the windshield wiper. The building— which McFarley owned, by the way—had its own basement garage and McFarley always kept his car there when he came in for the night."
"So he wasn't in for the night!"
"Or else he had something else on his mind, and didn't care about tickets. The housekeeper and the handy man broke in the door—and they found him on the floor of the living room, like this!"
Parkman took a photograph from the folder on his desk, and silently held it out. Howie Rook took it, looked, and gasped. "Is this a gag?"
"I only wish it was, Howie. I hate these bizarre things. The reporters and the true-crime writers always go to town on them."
"The boys are only trying to make a living," Rook defensively reminded him.
Excerpted from Unhappy Hooligan by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1956 Stuart Palmer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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