From SHOOTING STAR...
My private eye was a little bloodshot that morning.
I focused it on the mirror, then wished I hadn’t. There was somebody in the mirror I didn’t care to see: the tall, thin guy with the graying hair; the man with the bloodshot eye. He bothered me.
I didn’t like the way he looked today. He’d shaved and dressed too carelessly, and with that black eye-patch and the ridiculous little mustache, he bore a mocking resemblance to the man in those shirt ads of a few years back. Besides, his good eye was bloodshot.
We nodded at one another in the mirror though, just like old friends. Why not? I knew all about him and he knew all about me. Maybe I didn’t approve of my own reflection but, who knows, perhaps my reflection didn’t approve of me, either. We were even on that score.
Maybe my reflection remembered the days when I had two eyes. The days before the hair started to turn gray and the collars began to fray a little at the edges. The days when I was Mark Clayburn Literary Agency, with on office on the Strip.
Well, I remembered those days, too. Perhaps that’s why my eye got bloodshot—from too much remembering, from drinking too many toasts to the past. But it couldn’t be helped. I was stuck with my reflection and my reflection was stuck with me. Me, Mark Clayburn, still a Literary Agency, but not on the Strip any more.
I thought about that for a moment, thought about the long road leading from the Strip to Olive Street in downtown L.A., and of the things I’d lost along the way. The eye went in the accident, and most of my savings were gone by the time I got out of the hospital. Then I found my clients had disappeared, and my help, and the big office.
So here I was, starting all over again. Just a part-time ten percenter, really, with a typewriter, a telephone, and a couple of small clients. Plus a license as a Notary Public and another one as a Private Investigator. Anything to make a buck. Not a very fast buck, either.
My bloodshot eye did a fast pirouette around the office. Nothing much to see there: a desk, files, a few chairs. No beautiful bra-breaking blonde secretary, no top-shelf rye in the bottom drawer. It was just a walkup office, the kind nobody ever comes to unless they’ve been kicked out of all the better places first.
I went over to the desk and sat down. This was no time to feel sorry for myself. Save that for tonight. Right now I had work to do: a science-fiction yarn to send to Boucher, for a client; another to try on a confessions mag, and a true-detective job to revise.
That was still my meat—the true-detective yarn. I picked it up and started to read it over, wondering for the ten thousandth time why so many people are interested in crime and its solution. How many of them identify themselves with the detective and how many of them identify themselves with the criminal? Yes, and how many of them subconsciously identify themselves with the victim? Come to think of it, you could divide all society up into those three classes: the potential investigators, the potential criminals, and the potential victims. Might do an essay on it some time, stressing the fascination people have for reading about murder. Call it Five Little Peppers And How They Slew.
But right now, my job was to read the manuscript, read it and correct it, sitting in the dingy little office that nobody ever visited. I picked up the pages, bent my head, then jerked erect.
The door opened.
He stood there, big and bluff and blond, bulking in the narrow doorway so that his tweeded shoulders almost touched either side of the frame. His eyes and teeth and rings sparkled and he said, "Hello, Mark. Long time no, si?"
"Harry Bannock! Come on in!"
"I am in." The big man walked over and pumped my hand. First he looked at me and then he looked down. They all do if they haven’t seen the eye-patch before. "Great to see you! You’re looking great. How’s business?"
"Great," I told him. He seemed to like the word, always had.
"Glad to hear it. Been meaning to look you up now for a long time." He sat down. "But I’ve been rushed."
"Sure," I said. "I know how it is."
"You had a pretty rough time of it, from what I heard—losing the agency and all. But you’re back in business, and that’s the main thing."
"That’s right." I riffled the pages of the manuscript. "I’m back in business. And you didn’t come all the way downtown just to tell me how great it is either."
Harry Bannock leaned forward. "You don’t like me, do you?"
I smiled at him. "I wouldn’t say that, Harry. You and I used to be pretty close. We worked on a lot of deals together. I sold my clients’ stories to the studios and the networks. You sold your clients as actors. We did each other a lot of favors, tipped one another off whenever there was a lead, made some money together. And you used to phone me at least once a week and ask, ’What are you doing for lunch, sweetheart?’ Good old Hollywood custom—everybody’s a ’sweetheart’ or a ’darling’ or a ’lover’ or a ’doll’.
"Then I had my trouble, and you didn’t phone me. You didn’t come to see me, or write me, or anything. Neither did anyone else I knew. They had their own affairs to handle, and they just forgot about me. Good old Hollywood custom." I shrugged. "No, I’m not sore at you—sweetheart."
For the second time, Harry Bannock looked down at the floor. "I’m sorry, Mark. Honest to God, I’m sorry."
"It’s all right. Forget it. Now that I’ve said my little piece, I feel better. But what can I do for you? Business? Want to buy a story?"
"That’s right, Mark." He took out a cigarette case, flipped it open, extended it. "I want to buy a story."
"For one of your stable? Looking for a vehicle for a picture, is that it? I’ve got a few originals knocking around here that you might—"
"No. It’s a true story I’m after."
"You mean one of those true-detective yarns?"
"In a way. Only it hasn’t been written yet. And it’s never going to be written. I don’t want to see it on paper, either. I want you to tell it to me."
"Don’t be coy, Harry. What’s this all about?"
"I told you. I want to buy a true story from you. The story of a man named Dick Ryan."
"Dick Ryan?" I took a deep drag and let the smoke out slowly. "But I was in the hospital when it happened. I read the papers, and that’s all I know about it."
"That’s all anyone knows about it," Bannock said. "I want the facts. And I’m willing to pay you to find out for me."
"Ryan was murdered," I told him. "There was a big scandal. The police investigated but they couldn’t pin it on anybody. That was six months ago, and now you show up and ask me to solve it. Why?"
Bannock grinned. "Call it curiosity."
I shook my head. "I don’t buy that. Come on, let’s have it, was Ryan a client of yours?"
"Then what do you care? He got his name smeared in the news, but it’s all over with now, and forgotten. Why bother?"
Bannock stood up. "I want his name cleared, Mark. And solving the case will do it. I think he was framed as well as murdered. I think—"
"Save it for the cops," I said. "Which reminds me. We do have a police department here, you know. Understand they even have one of those newfangled Homicide Bureaus. Why don’t you ask them for a little help?"
"Believe me, I have. But they couldn’t do anything. Or said they couldn’t. And meanwhile, there it sits. Ryan’s dead; they can’t find the killer; his name is mud all over town, all over the country. I’d like to set the record straight."
I rose and faced him. "Big-hearted Harry. Fighting to defend a dead man’s honor! How like you that gesture is! Yes, and how dark it is here in the pig’s hinder."
"Wait a minute now..."
"I’m waiting," I said. "I’m waiting until I hear the real reason. Just where are you tied in on the Ryan murder, Harry? Did you do it? Does somebody suspect you? Do you know who the killer is?"
"All right." Bannock sat down again. "I’ll show you the cards—the whole deck."
"You’d better. I’ve got a right to know what you want me to get into."
"It’s like this. I don’t know who killed him, or why. Actually, I don’t much care. Ryan was a louse, for my money. Everybody knew he played around, and there’s probably a dozen husbands who’d put a bullet into him, and two dozen wives. That part’s all right with me. But it’s the tie-in. You know, when they found him they found those reefer butts. And that’s what hurts. They began to talk about a dope ring, say that he was on the stuff. It isn’t true. Everybody who knew Ryan swears he never monkeyed around with weed or anything else. But the story’s out and nothing will change it except the facts. The police can’t give them to me, and I need them, bad."
"Why, Harry? If he wasn’t your client..."
"He is, now."
"But he’s dead."
"Dick Ryan’s dead, yes. But Lucky Larry lives on. Or can live on. When this murder came out, when the scandal broke, Ryan’s studio yanked all his pictures back from the exhibitors. The whole Lucky Larry series was put on the shelf. Poison at the box office when a cowboy star gets that kind of publicity. At least that’s what Abe Kolmar thought, over at Apex. You know him, don’t you, Mark?"
"I know of him, yes. Little indie producer, isn’t he?"
"That’s right. The Lucky Larry flicks were his biggest grossers. When he shelved them he was hard up for dough. But he figured there was no other way because of the stink being raised, and I didn’t try to talk him out of it. Instead, I went there and I bought the whole business, outright: lock, stock and negative."
Bannock nodded. "Thirty-nine Lucky Larry pictures, at five grand apiece, with the rights to the name and future production thrown in. One hundred and ninety-five thousand dollars I paid. And in cash."
"That’s what everybody told me, including my ever-loving wife. Until I told her that See-More TV Productions were willing to buy the series for three hundred and ninety thousand. Ten Gs apiece, plus five percent of all future rentals. Now do you get the angle?"
"I get it. You double your money, and then some. Because westerns are hot stuff for TV rental. And the Lucky Larry name will sell."
"Right. That’s exactly how I figured it. But at the time, I didn’t figure there’d be quite as much of a stink raised. Now See-More keeps stalling me. They’re leery of buying and using a star who’s tied in with dope addiction. You know the angle: kids see westerns, parents object, they write to the sponsor, sponsor cancels out. It’s a rough deal all around."
"And that’s why you want Ryan’s name cleared."
"Now you’ve got it, sweetheart."
"But why do you come to me? If the cops won’t or can’t help, there are plenty of big private investigation outfits you could work with."
"Too risky." Bannock ground out his cigarette. "Why do you suppose the case died so suddenly? One day the papers were full of it: big investigation planned on all this dope ring stuff. Next day, nothing. You ought to be able to figure the answer, Mark. It means things were getting a little too hot. Getting a little bit too close to some of the big wheels in the industry who were mixed up in narcotics. We’ve got a couple of stars who carry a monkey on their backs, and a few producers and directors, too. Somebody passed the word along to lay off."
"You mean they fixed the cops?"
"Of course not. But they did the next best dung, they clammed up tight. And they’ve stayed clammed up ever since. Do you think they’d talk to a big-time investigating outfit? You know better than that.
"But a little guy—a guy who’s known in the industry—he can get around and nobody will bother him. Particularly if he gets to them under false pretenses—say he wants to discuss a story, or something. I need a little guy, Mark. An honest little guy. So I came to you."
I shrugged. "Very touching. But let me remind you of a few things. I’m still a writer’s agent. Sure, I’ve got a permit to carry a pistol and a license for private investigation, but I only use it when I’m working on a true-detective assignment. It helps me to get in and go after material for an article. I don’t know anything about narcotics. I’ve never tangled with a murderer in my life. With this eye-patch I couldn’t use my pistol to shoot Charles Laughton in the belly at five paces."
"But you’re honest."
"Sure. I’m. honest. Like you say, ’an honest little guy.’ And you’re a big-time operator. A big-time operator who thinks he can walk in on an honest little guy and buy him body and soul for a big hello and a five-dollar bill."
"Listen to me, Mark. I’ve got a hundred and ninety-five thousand dollars tied up in this deal. Almost every penny of cash I could scrape together. I mortgaged the house on it. I’ve got to clear Ryan’s name so I can unload. And we’re not talking about five-dollar bills." He gripped my arm. "I’m offering you this assignment, to handle in your own way. It may take a day, it may take a week, it may take a month—though I hope to God it doesn’t. But I won’t be paying you on a time basis. I offer a flat deal."
"I’m listening, but I haven’t heard anything yet."
"A thousand dollars cash right now, and five thousand if you find me the murderer and let me turn the information over to the police. Plus another five thousand if I sell the films. That’s eleven grand in all."
"I used to get good grades in arithmetic," I told him. "But I was just thinking—"
"Good, I want you to think. That’s what you’re being paid for." Bannock took out his wallet. It was big and fat and bulging, like Bannock himself. He opened it and started to lay down hundred-dollar bills. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven...
I used to get good grades in arithmetic, and I was figuring what a thousand dollars would buy: Three months’ rent for the office, for the flat; three months’ groceries and gas supply. And five thousand more would give me a full year. Another five thousand might mean a chance to open up a real office again, with a little front to it, a girl receptionist, my name on the door, a few ads in Film Daily. Eleven thousand dollars cash meant a new start with a good push.
"What do you say?" Bannock asked.
I walked over to the mirror and stared for a moment. And I said to myself, What do you want to get mixed up in all this for? It’s one thing to write about murder and another thing to go out and find it. You couldn’t kill anyone because you’re not the criminal type. And what makes you think you’re an investigator? The way you look, with that damned patch, you’re more like a potential victim. Are you going to risk your hide for eleven grand?
I took a good long look at what I was risking. The grayed, frayed figure didn’t impress me. Eleven grand was a good price. The bloodshot eye stared at me. Then it winked.
"All right," I said. "You’ve got a deal."
I walked over to the desk, scooped up the money, then opened the bottom drawer and took out my pistol.
"Where you going with that?" Bannock asked.
"Public library," I said. "I always carry a pistol when I go there. Never did trust those stone lions."
The door was of blonde wood, highly waxed. Across its surface, in angular script, was lettered:
I snapped the brim of my hat, turned the doorknob, and walked into the office. A set of chimes made background music.
The walls of the small reception room were of glass brick. Torcheres gave off a soft, discreet light. There was an end table bearing the usual copies of Variety and Billboard. Two chairs and a sofa, overstuffed by a firm of reliable overstuffers, completed the ensemble. It made me sick to look at the joint.
I headed for the ticket-window opening in the wall ahead, where a receptionist’s ponytail bobbed behind a panel of glass.
When I rapped, the ponytail switched around until I got a look at a long, thin face with about three dollars’ worth of fancy make-up on it.
The panel opened and the make-up cracked into a smile. "Oh, it’s you, Mr. Haines."
Well, that was something. At least she recognized me, even if she didn’t exactly swoon in my arms at the sight of my smiling face.
"Is Mr. Rickert in?" I asked.
"Have you an appointment?"
"No. Not exactly. But I only want to see him for a minute or two."
She nodded, closed the panel, and manipulated the intercom system, or the TV set, or whatever they used to convey trivial messages around here. After a brief pause for station identification she opened the panel again.
"Mr. Rickert will see you in a moment. Won’t you be seated, please?"
I tipped my hat, smiled roguishly and hit bottom on the overstuffed sofa. The sliding panel closed again. I waited to see if she would put up a Sold Out sign, but nothing happened.
There were exactly three cigarettes left in my package. I lit one and watched my hand tremble. Inhaling, I leaned back and forced myself to breathe deeply and slowly. Gradually I calmed down. It was going to be all right as long as I kept a grip on myself. Sure, I was perfectly relaxed now.
I only jumped about two feet when the outer door opened and Peter Lorre came in.
It wasn’t Peter Lorre, of course. Rickert didn’t handle any movie talent. But the little guy in the black hat bore a fleeting resemblance to the star. He walked over to the reception window and mumbled something about an appointment. I avoided watching or listening too closely, and presently he took his place on the chair set at right angles to my sofa. Something began to burn inside my forehead. He was staring at me.
Right away, my jumpy feeling came back. It was silly, of course. Let him stare. What did he know about me? What could he know?
I was putting up a good front. Sitting down with my legs tucked back this way, it was hard to tell that the shine was on the seat of my pants and not on my shoes. He couldn’t guess that the reason I came to Rickert’s office instead of calling him was that my phone had been disconnected. For all he knew, I had a full, fresh package of cigarettes in my pocket, and plenty of money to buy more.
So why should I worry if he stared at me? But I did worry. I doused my cigarette and looked up. His eyes were stones set in flesh.
I could feel my shirt getting sticky under the sports jacket. And I got the funniest notion that he felt it, too. He could feel everything I was feeling, think everything I was thinking. Those stones set in flesh were magnets.
Maybe I was flipping my wig? Maybe that’s what was wrong with me? All these weeks in the apartment, waiting for Rickert to call, watching the money run out. Then no phone, and nothing to do but run around and try to break the doors down myself—carrying my own photos and recordings.
Rickert had warned me that I’d get no place, fast, on my own. And that’s exactly where I’d arrived. No place. You feel funny there, in no place. You feel as though you aren’t really alive, or have no right to be alive. So you take a couple of drinks and wait for tomorrow. You might be somewhere else, tomorrow. But you’re not. You wake up in the crummy apartment and you’re still no place. Mr. Nobody from nowhere.
But that’s your business, isn’t it?. People haven’t got the right to stare at you and find it out. Damn it, there was nothing to be ashamed about. I knew what I was doing here. I had it all figured out, just how I was going to put it over. And then this little character had to come along and upset me!
I raised my eyes and looked at him. He wasn’t so much. Black suit, unusual for the West Coast, but nothing special about its cut. White shirt, quiet foulard tie. Flashy ring on little finger of left hand. Probably fake stone.
He saw what I was doing, of course. But his expression did not change. He stared. I stuck my chin out, folded my hands across my chest and stared back. It hurt a little. He refused to blink, and those two stones met my gaze. You can’t break stones with your fist. Constant dripping—
Sweat rolled down my forehead and I blinked first. But I wouldn’t turn my head. I stared at the bridge of his thick nose. Maybe if I thought of something else, it would help. I thought about the trip out, thought about meeting Rickert for the first time, and the fast line of con he handed me, the buildup about what he would do for me. I thought about really getting a break, making the grade on a big show, wowing ‘em. That would make my dumb brother wipe the sneer off his face for good. I’d wipe the sneer off all their faces, including this little puffy face in front of me.
But he kept staring. He knew. He knew I was a fake, he knew I was licked, that I’d never make it.
The hell he did! All imagination. Keep staring. He’ll break first.
I looked into his eyes. For the first time, the stones seemed to turn. His pupils were dilating. The lids crept back. The stones glittered. Diamonds. Diamond drills. Drills that bored.
Fakes. Like the diamond on his little finger. I wasn’t afraid. I stared.
All at once, his hand moved. Pudgy worms crawled into the handkerchief pocket of his coat. They emerged and carried something up to his left eye. It glittered. A monocle.
He fixed it into position without altering his line of vision. It hung there in the eye-socket and the eye behind it became huge. The distorted pupil glared at me. I thought that he looked like Erich von Stroheim. I thought that if I had to endure that wave of power beating into my brain, I’d get up and run. I thought—but I stared back.
And his mind told me something. Told me that I was really through, that it was no use, that I was washed up. I’d better get up and leave now. Yes, that’s what he told me, and he was right. I’d get up and—
"Mr. Rickert will see you now."
I heard it somewhere in the distance. Then I was on my feet, stumbling through the inner office, walking down the hall to the big layout in back.
My head was splitting. Larry Rickert smiled at me across the desk.
"Sit down," he said. "Good to see you, Eddie. Be with you in just a sec."
He waved goodbye at me with his left hand and picked up a phone with his right. He began to talk, and a steady stream of conversation and cigar smoke drifted around the big red folds of his neck.
I lit my next-to-the-last cigarette. The headache was worse now. I tried to remember my canned speech, but I couldn’t. All I wanted to do was run away. When he finally hung up and turned to me again, I couldn’t even remember to smile.
"Now," said Rickert, "what can I do for you, sweetheart?"
"That’s exactly what I want to know," I told him.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I came in here over two months ago, because your ads say you’re a good agent and that’s what I needed. You didn’t sign me up or anything like that. But you did manage to get over three hundred bucks out of me, for retainer fee and for photographs and audition records. What I want to know now is, when do I see a little action?"
He gave me the same grin he used for his advertising photos.
"Take it easy, Eddie. Relax."
"I’ve been taking it easy, but I can’t relax. I want to know why you haven’t sold me or my show idea."
Rickert stopped smiling. He leaned forward and waved the chewed end of his cigar at me. It dripped.
"Listen, son," he said. "This isn’t Iowa. That package idea of yours—the Television Psychologist—may have sounded pretty good to you when you dreamed it up back there. And I was willing to give it a whirl. I sent out your audition discs to all the network reps. I’ve pitched you. But it’s just no dice."
My headache was worse. Rickert’s face wavered in and out of focus as I answered him. "All right, drop the show idea. But remember, I’m still an announcer. I had a chance to get on in Des Moines, and I’m willing to start at the bottom here. There must be plenty of openings around town."
"In manholes, yes." Rickert lit a fresh cigar. It dripped nicely, too. "Look, sweetheart, here’s some free advice. Maybe you’re not ready for the big time yet. Why don’t you go back home, take that job? You won’t starve. So you’re out a couple of hundred on this deal—so what? Maybe you’ll click later on. Lots of these executives, they listen to the little stations. Who knows, maybe somebody will spot you and—"
"So I’m not ready for the big time yet, eh?" I stood up and tried to keep my balance in the rolling room. "All right, Mr. Rickert. Thanks for the analysis. But it’s a pity you didn’t tell me all this before I spent three hundred bucks with you—and two months of my life."
"Hold on, now, sweetheart—"
I was holding on, hard. Even though my head was splitting, even though I wanted to kill somebody, I held on. I knew there was no use getting mad. He’d given me the answer. I was washed up.
"No hard feelings, Eddie," said Rickert. "Go on home and think it over. Maybe something will still break. I’ll let you know."
"Only if it’s your neck," I told him. "This I’d love to hear about." Then I stopped. "I—I really don’t mean that. Sorry, I’m not feeling too good."
I went out and managed to wobble through the hall, back to the outer office. It was like walking under water, and the glass bricks wavered before my eyes.
The little man with the monocle was still sitting there. I swam past him. He looked up and started to open his mouth. Fat little fish, gulping air in the wavering water.
"Pardon me," he said. Voice from far away. Sound under water.
I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. I opened the door and emerged upon the sunlit shore of the street.
He padded after me. "Please—" he murmured.
I shook him off. "Go away." I knew that’s what my voice said, but I couldn’t control it. "Go away. Can’t you see I’m busy? I have to kill somebody."
Rushing around the corner, rushing into the crowd, I wondered who it was I meant to kill.
All I knew was that it was going to happen soon.
Shooting Star copyright © 1958 by Ace Books, Inc. Spiderweb copyright © 1954 by Ace Books, Inc. All rights reserved.