A Fine Example of Misdirection
You are about to read a novel of crime in San Diego written 53 years ago.
It has its origins in a radio show written out of the Pickwick Hotel on lower Broadway by two men who met in Woodrow Wilson Junior High School in 1932, were deployed at opposite ends of the earth in WWII, and reunited to pen one of the finest examples of misdirection and noir suspense of its time. Deadly Weapon was the first in a series of collaborations that lasted 15 years: Bob Wade and Bill Miller, under pseudonyms Wade Miller and Whit Master-son, wrote 35 books together including the series featuring San Diego private eye Max Thursday and the classic novel A Touch of Evil (originally Badge of Evil). Together they won an Edgar Allan Poe Award, and Bob Wade went on to garner the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.
No city casts a shadow quite like San Diego when the sun goes down, and no one has depicted the underside of this shiny, happy place with a more unflinching and steel-eyed gaze. But it all began with a talking hippopotamus.
“The first real paying jobs we [Wade and Miller] got were for the Mutual Broadcasting System with studios in the old Pickwick Hotel downtown,” says Robert Wade from his home in San Carlos. “We started out doing a series for the State Department on South America, and then Mutual hired us as scriptwriters. They wanted us to do a show called The Mutual Theater of the Air, an imitation of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater. Bill and I did three one-hour shows for them. One of them was about a talking hippopotamus who becomes vice president of the United States. It was called ‘Voice of the Hippo.’ It went very well. It was not as big a stretch as you might imagine, if you think of Dan Quayle.
“When the war came along, Bill went to the Pacific and I went to Europe. We continued to write back and forth, trying to sell short stories with no luck whatsoever. I got out of the service a little bit earlier than Bill, and I came back to San Diego and set up an office. I suggested to Bill that ‘Voice of the Hippo’ would make a pretty good novelette or even a novel. He was stationed in Manila at the time and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ I kept waiting and waiting and nothing happened. I wrote him saying, ‘Where is it?’ Finally a manuscript arrived, and to my consternation it was not ‘Voice of the Hippo’ at all. What it was was a short novel based on an outline we had intended for one of the Mutual shows. At that time it was called City of Angels and was set in Los Angeles. He had written 40,000 words, and I re-wrote it and added to it. I added 45,000 words and sent it off to an agent who liked it real well. By that time it was set in San Diego, the agent placed it with a new publisher called Farrar Straus — now an old publisher. It was called Deadly Weapon, and we became mystery writers.”
Since I had the author right there, I asked him, “The character of Laura Gilbert becomes ‘Kevin’ about a third of the way into the story. Why is that?”
“Oh yeah, I remember what happened. Her original name was Troy, and when we sold it, Farrar Straus said we couldn’t call her that because that was the name of a heroine in a Nagio Marsh series, which I had never read. So we came up with Kevin. I don’t remember how Laura got in there, to tell you the truth.” The character of Lieutenant Austin Clapp is reprised through several other novels including all of the Max Thursday books. Guilty Bystander, Shoot to Kill, Fatal Step, Uneasy Street, Murder Charge, etc. “I just love these Clappisms,” I tell Wade. “Like, ‘I never clear anybody until they die,’ or ‘You got more guts than a grandfather clock.’ ’’
Wade laughs. “I can tell you that was definitely Bill. His family was from Indiana, and he had a lot of Hoosierisms like, ‘You can’t push a pig too far,’ or ‘Like a hog on ice.’ That sort of thing. Yeah, Clapp kind of enunciates the moral truth throughout the books, he’s the conscience of the series. One thing we regretted was that we couldn’t promote him. Captain Clapp just didn’t sound right.”
Early in the novel, Clapp has a line: “It was a jig that got mixed up in a straight-edge brawl up at Front and Market a few months ago.”
“Is that something that you would not write these days?”
“Yeah, probably so. We’d probably have to be politically correct. It is always sort of a dilemma: as a novelist, do you report things as they actually are or do you soft-pedal them or change them for the sake of sensibilities somewhere? I think we all have to be sensitive to the feelings of minorities, certainly. But it’s like the Huckleberry Finn thing.”
“I was going to say, you’d have to revamp a hell of a lot of Mark Twain.”
“And of course there are people who want to do that. If not revamp it, suppress it.”
Deadly Weapon begins much like a play and then sprawls all over town including a scene in Tijuana that is brutal and convincing and finally creepy in retrospect when you have turned the last page and understand how far private eye Walter James was willing to go to get what he wanted. Keep an eye on all the characters. I guarantee you won’t see the ending coming.
Here is San Diego over a half century ago, and we had already lost our innocence. Whatever we might claim as our heritage or traditions, let’s just say good behavior is not among them. To say more would be a crime.
— John Brizzolara
“Listen, Miss Gilbert. I’ve come to figure that man is the only deadly weapon. Take a gun. It’s an absolutely harmless thing — even makes a good honest paperweight — until some man gets his hand around it. You can strip a gun down to its basic parts and it’s lost its power. You can reduce man to his chemical elements, but you’ve always got the spirit, or whatever you call it, left. And that spirit will find some damned way to do evil.”
— Austin Clapp
Saturday, September 23, 11:25 p.m.
Walter James eased himself into the aisle seat and tried to relax. He couldn’t be calm at times like this; he felt his hands on his thighs, pulling the crease of his trousers a little higher. He felt his fingers at his stomach, buttoning and unbuttoning his double-breasted coat.
The music from the four-piece band behind the runway was self-consciously languorous, underwritten with heavy drumbeats. Walter James could feel the rhythmic echo in his stomach: itwillbreakanyminute, itwillbreakanyminute. He brought his head around slowly, peering up the darkened house, to catch another glimpse of the man he had come to see. The house lights had been out for two minutes now, setting the mood for the Grand Theater’s star attraction.
Yes, there he was — second seat from the aisle in the last row. A glow of embarrassed red from the weak footlights barely outlined the man’s head against the back wall.
The tin voice over the public-address system broke the spell of the drum beat. “And now—what every man in San Diego has been dreaming of— the Grand Theater’s own — lovely Shasta Lynn!”
Walter James turned his head back to face the stage. The curtain glided up. He automatically joined the clattering handclaps that greeted the woman standing in the footlight glow. The fat man next to him was whistling shrilly. As the sound cleared his head, Walter James sat up straighter, feeling almost relaxed. This was better. He turned his full attention on the woman.
Shasta Lynn was not overly pretty, he decided, but her nose was thin and straight, and the planes of her face were not irregular. Her drawing power seemed to be her body: curved and flamboyantly sexual, it thrust arrestingly against the sheath of scarlet satin it wore. Her blonde hair was shoulder length.
As the admiration of the audience subsided to a rustle, a microphone slid down from the top of the proscenium to shadow her face. She sang “All of Me” in a convincing voice, in tones that were softer than Walter James had expected. She stood very still as she sang, her hands moving occasionally and slightly against either thigh. She stood very still, knowing that every eye was fastened on her as she breathed out the words.
After the last soft “All — of — me,” the band at her feet began to accent the drumbeats again. The microphone moved up into the gloom. The red draperies behind her crept silently apart. Now the woman was surrounded by funereal black, against which her blonde hair and white skin were incandescent. She began to undress, moving gracefully and rhythmically about the stage. The throbbing band increased its pace, and blue footlights joined the red ones, caressing her weaving body with purple overtones.
Walter James leaned forward in his seat, wondering just what was strange about the dance. Shasta Lynn was fascinating but not attractive; her suggestive movements seemed calculated to arouse not lust but some other more bizarre and stealthy surging. Despite the feminine bloom of her body, it intimated an odd decadence that Walter James had never noticed about womanly nudity before. What’s wrong with her? he thought. He looked around at other members of the audience near him; their dimly lit faces seemed to be registering the normal reactions. I’m getting old, he thought; maybe 38 is too old to appreciate this sort of thing. Then, while Shasta Lynn posed as nakedly as San Diego law would allow, taking the acclaim of the audience, he dismissed the whole thing as the result of too much imagination.
The curtain dropped.
It rose again as the house lights went on. Male voices still shouted for Shasta as the entire cast paraded about the bright stage, stridently singing an unintelligible song about the show was over but we’re happy, happy, happy, and see you next week at the Grand The-ay-ter.
The clatter of seats and the subdued thunder of feet on the wooden floor as the audience prepared to leave drowned the final chorus. There were a few scattered handclaps as Shasta Lynn and a lanky comedian bowed from center stage. The men — college youths, elderly salesmen, sailors — punctuated by the occasional untidy woman, began to seep up the aisle. As the curtain came down to rest for the final time, the four-piece band swung into a march, overridden by the tin voice seductively announcing showtimes for Sunday. Walter James joined the mob in the aisle, pushing toward the man in the last row, the man he had come to San Diego to see.
As he pressed his slender frame almost viciously through the massed bodies, a low scream leaped from the last row. The crowd stopped moving. Walter James pushed out of the aisle and scrambled over the three rows of seats that separated him from his target.
A girl leaned against the back wall of the theater, awkwardly half in, half out of her seat. Her arms were bent double at the elbows as she pressed clenched fists against her shoulders. Her mouth was still open from her scream; her eyes held astonishment rather than terror as they looked down on the man next to her.
The man’s head was bent forward as if he were straining to see his lap. But he was not looking at anything. A short knife hilt protruded from his chest.
Saturday, September 23,11:55 p.m.
"You might as well all sit down,” the big man said lazily. “We may be around here for a while yet.” The audience, nervous from 20 minutes of waiting, subsided gradually into the theater seats. The murmur of their voices swelled a little as the big man took his gaze off them and looked at the corpse.
Walter James said to the girl who had screamed, “There’s nothing to worry about at all. The police have the situation well in hand.” He sat on the back of a seat, one hand soothingly on her shoulder. She looked up at him gratefully. Though a small man, a perfectly proportioned body gave Walter James the appearance of greater size. A slight quirk to his lips hinted a distant excitement behind the irregular lines of his face. His pale blue eyes glinted under mussed brown hair.
The big man flicked his eyes briefly at them. He stood towering above the medical examiner, who fussed over the body.
“I’ll want that knife when you pull it. Doc. And above all, don’t screw up the prints again.” He moved his tongue contemplatively over his front teeth.
“Got an aspirin for the young lady?” Walter James asked him. “She’s on the shaky side.” He removed his hand from the girl’s shoulder and got out some cigarettes.
The big detective moved lightly up to him. “The Doc’ll take care of her as soon as he’s through over there.”
The girl shuddered. “I’m all right now,” she said out of her white face. “May I have a cigarette, please?” She was a youngster — tweed-suitish dress, nice features, penny-colored hair.
“Sorry,” said Walter James and dumped one out of his pack. The girl leaned forward, and he lit it for her with the glowing tip of his own. She huddled back in the seat again, keeping her eyes away from the men working over the body.
“It’s not very pretty,” the big man agreed sympathetically. “How old are you, miss?”
“Still going to school?”
“Uh-huh. I go to State.”
The big man raised his eyebrows. “Name?” “Laura Kevin Gilbert,” the girl said reluctantly. Walter James said quickly, “Wait a while, won’t you? The kid’s shaky. She was parked next to the body when the lights went up.”
The big man shifted his gaze. “Who are you?”
“My name is James — Walter James.” He puffed smoke at the big man’s gray waistline.
“Stick around,” the big man advised. He spun on his heel, started down the aisle toward the stage. “Jim, I want you.”
An elderly plainclothesman detached himself from the cluster around the body and followed the big man down the aisle. The front few rows of the theater were filled almost solid with silent people; toward the rear where the body had been found only a few hardy souls remained. The big man unbuttoned his coat and leaned back against the runway. He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his thick, grayish-brown hair.
“Folks, I’m Lieutenant Clapp from your police department.” He scanned them lightly, almost disinterestedly. “I don’t want to detain any of you any longer than I have to, so we’ll try to get this over as fast as possible. A little Filipino has been killed back in the last row, probably while the show was on. It looks like murder. If any of you know anything about it, I’d appreciate you telling us right now, in the interest of law and order.”
He paused and glanced around expectantly. No one stirred.
“Don’t hesitate to speak up if you noticed anything out of order in the last row, around the area where the body is.” He paused again. Midway back in the theater, a hand was raised timidly. “Yes?”
A young sailor stood up. “My name’s Bill Davis,” he said uncertainly.
Clapp nodded encouragingly. “You saw something, did you?”
The youth twisted his head embarrassedly. “I — I think so — uh — Lieutenant.”
“What was it?” Clapp asked him patiently. The sailor held a short whispered conference with the uniformed man next to him. He raised his head and spoke rapidly.
“Randy says he thinks so, too, so I guess I did see it. I was sitting across the aisle from the guy —” he indicated the body with a jerk of his blond head, “— and I’m pretty sure that somebody was moving around there just about when the — uh — the lights went out.” Clapp ran a heavy hand over his tanned face. “What kind of moving?”
The sailor frowned. “I — I’m not sure, Lieutenant. I just saw it out of the corner of my eye.”
“Thanks a lot, son,” Clapp gave him a kindly smile. The sailor sat down and began to whisper animatedly to his companion. The big detective glanced around at the rest of the audience. “Anybody else got anything to add? No? All right — Crane here will take your names and addresses one at a time. If you know anything, tell him. If you don’t, just give Crane your name, address, occupation, and how we can get in touch with you by phone — if we have to. Then you can go home to bed and you probably won’t hear from us again. Thanks for your cooperation. All yours, Jim.”
Clapp moved up toward the body again. “Where’s that manager — Greissinger?” he called. A shiny-headed man poked between the curtains and came out on the stage.
“I’m just up here, talking to my people,” he explained anxiously.
“Let’s you come down here and talk to me,” rumbled Clapp.
“Sure, Chief. Anything I can do to help. We help you, maybe you help us keep some of the stink out of the papers.” He hustled up the aisle after Clapp.
Clapp looked down at the body. Once it had been a male, lineage Filipino, age 25 to 40, about five feet tall, approximately a hundred pounds in weight, complexion dark, lots of long black hair greased back, hands a little withered and knotty on the backs, large solid-gold ring on the left one, expensive wristwatch with a gold strap, purple silk sport shirt and plastic buttons, black wool trousers with a hard finish and a neat crease, black patent leather shoes about size six or smaller.
“Too bad,” babbled Greissinger. “An event like this gives an honest, legit house a bad name. Anything we can do to clear this up and keep some of the stink out of—”
“In a minute,” Clapp brushed him off. “What’s the word, Doc?” Dr. Stein, the medical examiner was a young man, but he looked at Clapp with old eyes.
“Died instantly. Heart was punctured by the knife blade. It went in right below the sternum up to the hilt. He took about three inches. From the size of him, the blade probably went clear through his heart The wound points to his left, about 15 degrees. Anything else?”
“How long?” asked Clapp.
“Hell, he’s fresh—within the hour. Very little bleeding, hardly got him dirty. He’s just beginning coagulation now.”
“Why no bleeding?”
“Look at the knife,” said Dr. Stein. “It’s a remake job, blade filed down to a quarter of an inch. It just made a puncture. Between the blade and the hilt, somebody’s fitted on a round metal guard, about two inches in diameter. That served as a sort of cork. Very clean job. I’d like to have more like this.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Clapp. “You can take him home with you now if you want. Thanks for the day.”
“I’ll give you a fuller report late tomorrow afternoon,” Stein assured him. “I’m going to sleep in the morning. It’s Sunday, you know.”
“Not for him,” said Clapp and turned to Greissinger. “You know the body here?”
“Yes — he works here. Or, anyway, he worked here. See, Chief, we want to help you all we can,” insisted the manager.
“Lieutenant,” said Clapp succinctly. “Sit down, Greissinger, you may save us trouble after all. So he worked here? What did he do?”
The pudgy manager took a seat off the right aisle; Clapp filled the one in back of him, looming above him.
“He took tickets as our patrons came in. His name was Fernando Solez — been with us since we opened in ’43.” “Kind of small to take tickets at a place like this, wasn’t he?”
“The Grand Theater is a good, clean house. We don’t have any trouble here — you know that, Lieutenant. Besides, we got Johnny—he’s a pretty big fellow — he keeps the lines in order out in the lobby and watches the box office in case Gladys has any rough customers. We’ve never had much trouble till tonight.”
“Did Solez have any particular enemies?” asked Clapp.
Greissinger waved his hands. “No. Ferdy was a good, clean boy—had nothing but friends. Everybody liked Ferdy — he’d do anything for you. Always a big smile.” He showed Clapp how the dead man used to smile.
“If Solez was a ticket taker,” mused Clapp, “why wasn’t he out taking tickets? What in hell was he doing sitting in the audience?” The manager moved his plump hands out horizontally. “Oh, that! Nothing suspicious about that, Lieutenant. Ferdy was nuts about the way Miss Lynn danced — Miss Lynn, she’s my big attraction here. So we used to humor Ferdy— Johnny would take over the ticket box during Miss Lynn’s number so Ferdy could come in and watch. No harm in that.”
“Felix!” called Clapp. A stocky plainclothes man hurried in from the lobby; he was dapper despite his fat. “Start checking the cast and employees. The body worked here as a ticket taker, named Fernando Solez, been here since ’43.1 want to talk to the cast in a few minutes. Particularly to a babe named Miss Lynn. Don’t scare them — just have them sit tight.” Felix nodded and started toward the stage. “So,” . said Clapp, “Solez was nuts about Miss Lynn.”
“No, Lieutenant!” protested Greissinger. He palmed the sweat off his bald head. “You got me all wrong! Ferdy just liked to watch Miss Lynn dance. She’s a high-type girl, very high-toned. Ferdy just admired her — he liked to run errands for her—you know, get cigarettes or something if she ran out.”
“This Lynn woman got any jealous boyfriends?” “No.”
“No, what?” pursued Clapp. “She got a husband, she living with anyone, who does she run around with?” “She doesn’t go out with anybody.”
Clapp’s lip curled. “Cut it, Greissinger. I’m old enough to know.”
Greissinger took hold of Clapp’s arm. “Believe me, Lieutenant, you got it all wrong. Miss Lynn is a high-type girl. There is nothing wrong there. I have never seen her do anything out of the way.” The pitch of his voice rose unevenly.
Clapp looked at him steadily. A spark kindled in the big man’s eyes. He rose and the pudgy manager rose with him. “Okay, okay,” the detective said, “but I think I’ll have a little heart-to-heart talk with Miss Lynn, just the same.”
Greissinger put his hands together as if preparatory to wringing them. “I can tell you anything you want to know, Lieutenant. There’s no use wasting your time with my cast —” He felt the big man’s eyes on him quizzically and he stopped abruptly. “She’s backstage,” he said uncertainly.
“Keep her there,” advised Clapp. “I’ll be back there right away.”
The fat man let out his breath in a shuddering sigh and turned away. Clapp touched him lightly on the shoulder. “One other thing, Greissinger. Your man on the door — Johnny — tells me that not one of the audience left the theater before we got here.” The manager nodded. “That puzzles me. Why did a good 300 people stick around to chin with the police. Got an answer?” “Well,” said Greissinger, “that officer that’s always around this block — Murdock — he was here five minutes after the girl screamed.” (Tapp went alter his point relentlessly. “But did you send after Murdock? Who called the police station? Who held this crowd in here till Murdock got here and I got here? Did you?”
“Well, Lieutenant, I was going to do all those things— I wanted to cooperate as much as I could. But that man of yours was in the house, so he took charge. He didn’t have any trouble at all with the tough guys — after all, he had a gun.”
Clapp asked slowly, “That man of mine?”
“Why, that gentleman up there,” Greissinger pointed Clapp’s eyes followed the fat finger up to the back of the house, and a new spark kindled in them. He crossed through the seats of the center section and marched up the left aisle toward Walter James.
Sunday, September 24, 12:15 a.m.
The girl had a little more color in her face now. Her low voice was forcibly level as she talked to Walter James. Between sentences, she neatly touched up the areas of her wide mouth where she had chewed the lipstick away.
Clapp sat down ponderously by the pair. “Well, Mr. James,” he said. “You seem to have distinguished yourself in our behalf tonight ”
“It seemed the thing to do,” the smaller man replied. ._ “Do I get a merit badge?” He lit more cigarettes for the redhead and himself Clapp pulled out a pipe and began preparing it for use.
“Naturally,” he considered, “I should be very grateful. However, being of a suspicious nature. I’m gonna reserve our city’s thanks for a while. What’s your angle, Mr. James?”
“No angle, Mr. Clapp,” Walter James said, an amused glint in his blue eyes. “I acted within my rights as a citizen.” “Police background?” “Taught functional law three years at the Cincinnati police school.”
Clapp waved at the remaining members of the audience by the runway, lined up to talk to the elderly detective. “You pull a gun on those other citizens?”
“You got a gun?”
“The brethren down there see it?”
“My coat was unbuttoned. Maybe some of them saw it.”
“Suppose I see it.” Qapp held out a big hand. From far under his left lapel, Walter James extracted a pistol and handed it to him. It was a .38 on a .32 frame. The shells showed shiny brass caps in every chamber.
“Got a license for this?”
“Not here — Atlanta.”
“Oh.” Clapps heavy eyebrows pushed up. “A stranger in town. You like our little city?”
Walter James’s eyes flicked toward the second seat, last row, center section. His lower lip twitched, “You put on this show every Saturday night?”
Around the edge of his tight collar, Clapp flushed. “How long you been here?” “Thursday morning, nine o’clock. Serra Apartments, 3B. Talbot 11211. How about a receipt for that gun?” With a quick smile, Clapp began writing it out. There was a sound of a scuffle in the foyer. Clapp was on his feet and three steps up the aisle when the hanging drapes were tossed aside and a black-shirted cop pushed a man wearing a plaid suit into the theater.
Clapp stood with his legs apart. “What’s the trouble, Bryan?”
The black shirt jerked a visored head at the man in the plaid suit. “He’s the trouble, Lieutenant. He tried to sneak out the door while I was talking to the cashier.” Clapp frowned. “Name?” he snapped.
The man straightened his coat with an indignant jerk and looked at the big man sullenly. “John Brownlee,” he said. “And tell your boy here to quit pushing people around, will you?”
“Sure,” agreed Clapp. “But first you tell me why you were sneaking out of the theater just now.”
“I tried to tell the cop,” Brownlee said in a flat tone. “I wasn’t sneaking out. i work here.”
“What kind of work?”
“I — well, I kinda do a lot of things. I sell popcorn before the show, and I change the marquee once a week and stuff like that.”
Brownlee shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Well, I — well, I was just going to bring in the signboards from in front of the theater.”
The patrolman broke in, “Don’t believe him, Lieutenant. He was trying to sneak out without being noticed. I think there’s something funny there.”
Brownlee shot him a venomous glance. Clapp said gently, “We’ll see, Bryan.
Meantime, make sure that Crane gets him on the list, will you?” The patrolman grabbed Brownlees arm, but the odd-jobs man shook it off viciously and walked down the aisle toward the thinning crowd at the runway with Bryan close behind him.
Walter James said, “You’re a lucky man, Lieutenant. You nab your murderer fleeing from the scene of his crime.”
Clapp grinned at him. “You’d be surprised, Mr. James, how particular the grand jury is about such things as motives and alibis.”
The last of the audience tramped hurriedly up the aisle into the lobby. A moment later, the elderly detective came up and sat down by Clapp, slapping his notebook against his leg.
“Get anything, Jim?”
“Not much. There sure were a lot of different occupations in this bunch tonight, though, Austin. Ones you wouldn’t expect.” He flipped the pages of his notebook. “Doctor, lawyer —”
“Merchant, chief,” Laura Gilbert finished softly and subsided in embarrassment as the men turned their glances on her.
Jim looked at the girl speculatively. “The guy to her left was a grocery clerk, says she was here when he came in before the show started, didn’t see her do anything strange, says she sat and looked straight ahead during the whole show. He thought she might be a good dish so he kept an eye on her. He says the Filipino came in just before the last strip number. Doesn’t remember anyone in the aisle seat. Seems like a nice enough kid.”
Clapp’s eyes and voice flowed kindly toward Laura Gilbert. “That check with what you know, miss?” “Mostly,” she said soberly. “I think somebody was sitting to that Filipino’s right for a while. I seem to remember.”
“When was this?”
“It was right after those two men were on the stage with that sausage.” Her cheeks picked up a red reflection.
“That was the blackout before Shasta Lynn’s strip,” said Jim.
“Then the lights went out and that band began a sort of bluish number.” She pressed a slim knuckle against her teeth and tried to remember. “Somewhere along in there I think somebody sat down in the aisle seat. But when the curtain went up and it got a little lighter, I don’t think anybody was there.”
“Did our Filipino friend make any move during that time?” asked Clapp.
“I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice anything until the show was over and I tried to go out and I asked him to let me by and he didn’t move ” She bit her lip.
“Well, that checks with what the sailor said,” Clapp sighed. “Jim, see if they got the stuff in the body’s pockets tagged, and bring me a list.”
“Okay, Austin.” Jim went out into the lobby.
“Mr. James,” asked Clapp, “where did you sit?” Walter James nodded his head toward the other side of the theater, down front “Right where that blackshirt of yours is cleaning his nails. Fourth row, aisle seat, inside of the right section. 1 came in just before Shasta Lynn’s number.”
“I’m a music lover. Ah’m from Atlanta and Ah just luhve the blues.”
The girl giggled. Walter James winked at her. Clapp said, “You should work here. What is your work by the way, Mr. James?”
“I’ve been retired for a while.” “From what?” “Laniz-James Agency, Atlanta.”
“What make of cars?” Walter James extracted a paper from his trim black wallet and handed it to the big man. “That I want back,” he remarked. Clapp read it through, running his tongue between his teeth and his heavy upper lip.
“Well, by God,” he said. “I should have known.” He returned the paper. “Now what are you really doing
“Resting,” said Walter James, “I have enough money for quite a while, so I’m resting. You can check it easily with Atlanta.”
“You anticipate me, Mr. James,” said Clapp dryly. “But let me give you a tip, son. Don’t think of opening an agency in this town. During the war we had more private cops than city and county police combined. And most of them haven’t gone home.” Interest widened Laura Gilbert’s eyes. “Are you a private detective?”
“He was,” corrected Clapp. “He's resting now.” The girl exchanged smiles with Walter James.
“I thought you acted like you knew what you were doing tonight,” she said warmly.
“I always know what I’m doing,” said the slender man. His soft voice made it a compliment.
Jim hurried in from the lobby, his face wreathed in smiles. Clapp looked at him questioningly. The detective tossed a lightweight green and white sport coat on the empty seat in front of the big man.
“Felix missed this in the lobby. It was hanging behind the door."
Jim nodded. The girl’s eyes widened. She looked quickly at Walter James, who returned her gaze blandly, and then away.
“What do you have?” Clapp probed. “You’re not grinning about a coat.” “No,” agreed the older man. “But take a look at this.” He handed a small, flat tin box to Clapp. The big man opened it and sat staring at the brownish powder inside. He exchanged glances with Jim.
“I don’t know why you’re grinning,” Clapp said. “This is likely to kick the hell out of a simple murder. Any prints?”
“None except his own. Same for his seat and the arm to his right. Everything on the right-hand seat is pretty badly smudged.”
Clapp sighed. “You might know.”
“Nothing much in his pockets except a couple pictures of that blonde strip dancer. No great amount of money, some jewelry, and a flashy knife. Looks unused except maybe for picking teeth.”
Jim picked up the sport coat and ran his fingers into the pockets. “I didn’t look in all of the pockets. I got excited when I found that box. Wait a minute, here’s something.” He pulled out his hand, a small square of white between his fingers. “What do you make of this, Austin?”
Clapp took the stiff paper gingerly by the edges. “Looks like half a business card to me.” He held it up to the light and Walter James looked at it over his shoulder. The printed side read:
- I FACE, M.D.
- Hours 9-4
Clapp turned the card over. On the back something had been scripted in pencil. There were three lines of interrupted writing.
Clapp frowned at it. The men watched him silently. Laura Gilbert said in a small voice, “Does it help any?” The question broke the tension.
Clapp put the torn card carefully into his coat pocket and grinned at the serious girl.
“It brings up a lot more questions,” he admitted. He turned on Walter James suddenly. “Why did you kill him, Mr. James?” The redhead gave a startled gasp.
“It’s a long story,” said Walter James. “He raped my grandmother during the Mukden incident. Us Jameses — we never forget a grudge.” Laura Gilbert stared at him, her lips slightly parted.
“Like me,” said Clapp. “I can remember every fly I’ve ever swatted.” He grimaced thoughtfully. “Oh, well — we’ll come back to that question later.” He eyed the girl. “You didn’t notice anything about whoever it was moved in and out of that aisle seat?”
“I’m not even sure there was anybody. I just think there was.
“You’ll help us a lot if you keep thinking, Miss Gilbert.” He turned to the elderly detective. “You might as well go home, Jim — it’s getting late. You and Felix will have to come down tomorrow.”
“Hell,” said Jim and went away.
Laura Gilbert said, “I’m sorry I can’t remember, Mr. Clapp. I just wasn’t paying attention. This is my first time in a place like this.”
“Why does there have to be somebody in that aisle seat?” Walter James asked quietly.
Clapp said, “You know better than to ask that. The wound indicates that whoever did it would have to be sitting down. Theoretically, the young lady here could have done it with a backhand. If somebody sat to the Filipino’s right, that person could have done it with a lunge stroke. The people in front couldn’t have done it without being noticed.”
“You keep ignoring suicide,” said Walter James.
“Not the right circumstances and no prints on the hilt. As a professional,” Clapp looked thoughtfully at the slim man, “you would appreciate the murder weapon. It’s a store job, cheap, tailored down for a job like this. Tin blade to go in quick, short blade that would make sure of a medium-size or small person, a flat two-inch guard to avoid a mess. The hilt was originally a little longer than it is now — it’s been cut off so it wouldn’t show much, I guess. Yeah. I’d say the knife was ideal for killing a small man, quickly and neatly, in the dark. It could have been made for you, Mr. James.”
Walter James dropped his cigarette. He groped for it with his foot, ground it out. When he looked at Gapp, he was smiling palely. Tve only been in town three days and I’ve had no trouble with my landlady.”
Felix stuck his head through the part in the main drape. “Are you coming up here, Austin, or shall I send them home?”
Clapp waved at him. “Coming right away,” he called.
“Okay, they’re getting restless.” Felix withdrew his sleek head. Clapp looked at Walter James and the girl. “You might as well come along. I want to talk to you a little more.” Walter James helped the girl to her feet. Clapp led the way down the aisle, talking over his shoulder as he went.
“Answer me this, Mr. James — what was that card doing in the Filipino’s pocket?” “You mean half a card,” said Walter James.
“Are they always this confusing?” Laura Gilbert asked. “Murders, I mean.” Walter James said, “No, most of them are pretty simple. Correct me if I’m wrong, Clapp, but the ones I’ve run up against are usually about as hard to see through as a piece of glass. Just find the motive. That’s what the Lieutenant here is trying to do right now.”
Clapp mounted the wooden steps to the stage. “That’s right.”
The girl shook her copper-colored head as she followed him. “I don’t see what possible motive there could be for killing a harmless little fellow like that.”
Clapp parted the heavy curtain, and the three of them eased through the opening onto the main stage. The clamor of voices stopped abruptly as if cut off by a knife. The principals and ensemble of the Grand Theater were lounging casually around the stage, which was still set with the Dutch mill scenery of the finale. The cast had changed into street clothes. From the wings, Greissinger darted forward.
“Lieutenant, my boys and girls are worn out Three shows tonight and a matinee tomorrow —”
Gapp waved him silent. “I don’t like staying up late any more than you do, Greissinger.” He looked around at the actors and rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “You people know what’s happened here. I want to know why Fernando Solez was killed. Maybe you people can tell me. You knew him best.”
A tall man in a trench coat got up from his seat on the mill steps. “Look, Lieutenant, I didn’t even know the guy from Adam — how about me going home?” Gapp looked at Felix inquiringly. Felix said, “That’s Danny Host. The comic. He’s been bellyaching ever since I got here.”
Host thrust his thin face at Gapp. “How about it?” Gapp said, “How come you didn’t know Solez, Host? Or don’t you pal around with the hired help?”
Greissinger interjected nervously, “I can explain, Lieutenant —” Gapp shut him off by turning his back on the pudgy manager. Host smiled with one comer of his mouth. “What he was going to say is that I’m new around here. Just came in from Denver last week, Lieutenant.”
“Why are you in such a hurry to get going?” Gapp asked. “Aside from sleep, I mean.”
Host glanced over his shoulder at the crowd of girls near the stage switchboard. He lowered his voice. “You know how it is, Lieutenant — I gotta meet a friend.”
Gapp grunted. He turned away from the lanky comedian. “I’m sorry, Mr. Host. Your date’ll have to keep.” At the sound of his voice, one of the chorus girls bounced out of the crowd.
“Date?” she said shrilly. “What date?”
Host said, “Shut up, Dixie.” She faced him, arms akimbo, eyes flashing. “Why, you dirty bum,” she said. “So you did have a date tonight, huh? Giving me the brush-off, were you —”
Host kept himself under control with a visible effort.
“Will you shut up, you little tramp?” he said, barely moving his lips.
The epithet set Dixie off. ‘Tramp, huh?” she screeched. “All right, you —” She clawed at Clapp’s arm. “He says he didn’t know Ferdy, didn’t he, Lieutenant? Okay, ask him who he was arguing with this evening before the show.”
A slow grin lit the big man’s face. He looked at Host with fresh interest. “Well, Host — maybe you’d better go over that story of yours again.”
Host gave Dixie a flashing look. “All right,” he said. “I forgot about it.”
“Huh!” sniffed the girl. Her blondined hair bounced slightly as she tossed her head. “Well?” prompted Clapp. Host looked at the floor. “I did have an argument with Solez tonight, but I still didn’t know him very well. He was snooping around the dressing rixims before the show, and I’m kinda nervous anyway around that time. There wasn’t anything to it.”
Clapp nodded his head slowly. “Any witnesses?” Host gave Dixie another venomous look. “I don’t know — I didn’t think so at the time.”
“You have an alibi for the time of the murder?” “When was that?” “Somewhere around the last strip number.”
Host said, with only a momentary hesitation, “Sure — sure, I gotta alibi. I was backstage waiting for the finale.”
A cool voice said from across the stage, "While you’re having a heart-to-heart talk, why don’t you tell the Lieutenant everything?”
As one, they turned and looked at Shasta Lynn.
Sunday, September 24, 12:40 a.m.
The blond dancer didn’t move from her position at the rear of the stage near the curtains. She stood there, easily, gracefully, with one hand held lightly against her hip. With the other she held a lighted cigarette. She was fully dressed in a clinging black dress, street length, with gold accessories that matched her hair. A small black hat with a short veil completed the costume.
“Isn’t she ever natural?” Laura Gilbert whispered in Walter James’s ear.
Shasta Lynn moved forward toward them, walking with a sleek grace. Walter James again felt the wrongness about her. He squeezed Laura Gilbert’s arm gently. "Does she seem odd to you?” The girl looked puzzled.
Clapp said, “You’re Miss Lynn.”
She didn’t smile at him. Her actions seemed to have no trace of coquettishness.
“Maybe you’d better explain that remark of yours.” Dixie took Clapp by the arm, tugging at the sleeve. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, Lieutenant...”
“Let me be the judge,” Clapp said and removed Dixie’s hand from his arm.
Danny Host made an impatient gesture with his arms and let out his breath explosively. “Hell’s bells!” he said. “I’ll come clean, Lieutenant.”
“Come all the way this time,” suggested the big man.
“There isn’t much to tell. I was backstage like I said, except that I stepped out into the alley to have a cigarette.” “When was this?” asked Clapp sharply.
“Oh, a few minutes before her strip.”
“How long were you there?”
The comedian frowned. “I don’t know. I didn’t look at my watch. Maybe 10, 15 minutes.”
Clapp said gently, “That’s a long cigarette.” Host shrugged and looked away. Clapp considered him thoughtfully.
Dixie said suddenly, spitefully, “You might ask Miss High and Mighty just why she's been so chummy with Ferdy.”
Shasta Lynn turned her head slowly and looked at the chubby dancer. Dixie involuntarily moved back a pace.
Clapp said, “I was getting around to that. Solez thought pretty highly of you, Miss Lynn.”
“Yes,” said Shasta Lynn evenly, “we were good friends.”
“Uh-huh, that’s very nice,” the big man continued. “But just why, Miss Lynn? You’ve got the reputation of being pretty standoffish. You don’t mix very well. The girl here called you Miss High and Mighty just a minute ago. It doesn’t seem right that you should be friendly with a little Filipino doorman.”
Shasta Lynn’s eyes behind the veil were impenetrable.
“There isn’t a law about where you choose your friends, is there, Lieutenant?”
“No, I can’t say there is. But — was he only a friend, Miss Lynn?”
Silence vibrated across the stage. Walter James watched the dancer’s hand at her side curl into a claw. Her mouth twisted. She spat at the big detective, “Keep your dirty mind to yourself!” Her hand was coming up like a striking tiger paw when a small girl in a nondescript brown and white polka-dot dress materialized beside them. She put her pale face and enormous eyes between the two.
“You leave her alone!”
Her voice was high-pitched, off-key. Clapp unmoved by the tableau, cocked an inquiring eyebrow at Felix. The plump detective shrugged his shoulders. “She’s not even one of the cast. Just another of Shasta’s friends.”
Clapp turned back to the small girl. Her hair was mouse-colored and unattractively arranged. “What’s your name, miss?”
Greissinger said nervously, “She’s Madeline Harms.”
“Let her tell it.”
Shasta Lynn said, “I’m all right, Madeline.” She seemed to have recovered her poise. She stroked the smaller girl’s arm soothingly. Madeline looked at her uncertainly. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant. But I don’t like to hear people say things like that. Madeline's a friend of mine. She gets upset easily.”
“He doesn’t have any right talking to you like that, Shasta,” said Madeline. Her eyes remained fixed on the dancer’s face.
Greissinger said nervously, “No one’s fighting.”
“If I’m wrong, I apologize,” said Clapp. “But I’m investigating a murder, and it’s starting out like one hell of a job. I haven’t the time to go easy on people’s feelings. Do you have an alibi for the time just before your number, Miss Lynn?”
Greissinger’s voice was high-pitched. “What’s all this talk about alibis for my people, Lieutenant? Ferdy was killed in the audience, not on the stage."
Clapp raised his voice. “You might as well all hear this. Solez was killed while the show was going on.” He indicated the girl by Walter James’s side. “Miss Gilbert here has the idea that someone came in and sat down by the dead man toward the end of the show and then got up and left. It was probably the murderer.”
“How does that tie us in?” Danny Host asked him.
Clapp looked around slowly. “The murderer knew Solez’s habits pretty well. That’s obvious. That doesn’t necessarily mean somebody who works here, but it might. And there are passages on both sides of the stage that lead into the house. It wouldn’t have been too hard to duck out alter a number, plant a knife in Solez, and come back in time for the next spot.” An excited murmur broke out at this. Clapp aimed again to Shasta Lynn. “So what’s your alibi, Miss Lynn?”
“I have to powder my body before my number.” The dancer gave him an icy smile. “It takes about ten minutes.”
“Any witnesses?” “Madeline always helps me.” Madeline nodded her head vigorously. She clung to Shasta’s arm with both hands.
“Very neat,” said Clapp. “You clear each other that way.” He shrugged. “Well, we’ll see. Felix, did you get the names and addresses?” The dapper detective nodded. “Then let’s go home.” He turned toward the empty house.
Greissinger padded after him. “Lieutenant,” he wheezed anxiously, “the newspapers— if they get this, it’s gonna be tough on me —”
Clapp rubbed the back of his neck and squinted his gray eyes wearily. “Okay,” he said, “it won’t be the Grand Theater. It won’t even be a burlesque joint —just a downtown musical showhouse. That’ll go on just as long as you play ball with me.”
The oily manager smiled his gratitude. “Thanks a million, Lieutenant. I won’t forget it. I’ll give you all the help I can. You can count on me.” “All right, all right,” said Clapp heavily and went down the wooden steps into the theater. Walter James guided Laura Gilbert after him.
“Okay,” Felix said in back of them as they started down the steps. “That’s all for tonight. Don’t anybody leave town until you hear from us.” The voices rose again in chorus. The iron stage door banged open.
“Tired?” Walter James asked the girl.
She gave him a weary smile. “Can I sit down for a minute?" She sank into a seat in the front row. She sighed. “Those terrible people!” Walter James shrugged. “You can’t expect the 400 in a place like this.” He glanced around at the empty theater. The blue curtain rose tiredly. The last of the cast were filing out the stage door. An old fellow in blue denim overalls came out on the edge of the stage and sat down. He swung his legs a little as he began pulling limp sandwiches from a paper bag.
Clapp came back down the aisle to them. “I’d like to see you both in the morning. Say about 11:00. What’s your address, Miss Gilbert?”
“Address?” She rattled it off. “It’s at the corner of El Cajon and 45th Street, right behind Gilbert Realty.”
“That your father?”
“Yes—he’s J.A. Gilbert.”
“No. Mom’s been dead for quite a while.”
“And you go to State?” She nodded. Clapp looked at her steadily. “I know that some of the sorority girls like to do some slumming here, but they don’t usually come alone.”
The girl put a little “V” between her eyebrows. “It’s kind of hard to explain — to you. I was just downtown and—and — I wanted something to do. Something a little different. Life seems so slow sometimes.” She smiled at him. “I guess it sounds pretty silly.”
“No,” said Clapp. “Just let me tell you what I had to tell my youngster a while back. She’s a little older than you and she’s up at UCLA. You can’t force excitement in life. You generally find out what excitement has been after it’s all over. You were lucky tonight — if sitting next to a dead Filipino was what you were looking for. But this Grand Theater business isn’t life. It’s all fake. You’d do better to sit back and wait for life to come to you. It’ll come along and it’ll probably be pretty good. Not that I really expect you or my girl to believe me and do just that. Have you got a way home?”
“Thank you,” she said softly. “My father wouldn’t have put it that way. And thanks for the ride, but Mr. James is going to run me out. He lives in my direction.”
Clapp quirked the corners of his mouth at the slight man and stood up, patting the sides of his gray-suited stomach wearily. “I’ll see you two tomorrow. God, I’m gonna hate to get up.”
Laura Gilbert smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt and joined Walter James in the aisle. Little half-moons were beginning to show beneath her eyes. “I feel a hundred years old,” she murmured.
“Would it help any to say that you don’t look it?” Walter James asked her. She smiled at him. He took her arm as they went up the aisle and into the lobby.
A black sedan and a black and white prowl car were double-parked on Market Street.
Clapp moved toward the sedan where Felix was a dark shadow at the wheel.
Walter James took a firmer grip on the girl’s tweed elbow. “My car’s up this way.” Across Market Street, from between two looming storefronts came a low poom and a briefblur of flame. Behind Walter James and the girl, the glass covering a full-length display of Shasta Lynn’s charms tinkled merrily to the sidewalk.
Walter James yanked the redhead to shelter behind a parked Chevrolet with one hand and clawed under his left lapel with the other. “Get down!” he yelled.
Clapp was shouting, “Get that block covered in a hurry!” Felix rocketed the sedan straight ahead for Fifth Avenue. The prowl car spun to the opposite curb. Gun first, a black-shirted cop leaped for the plate glass storefront and edged along it toward the darkness between the two buildings. Reaching the dark slot, he waved his hand at the prowl car and plunged in. The driver of the black and white car watched the opening for an anxious second, then roared his vehicle around the Sixth Avenue corner.
Clapp appeared suddenly beside Walter James and the girl. “Hit you?”
Walter James took his handkerchief away from the girl’s head. The blood on it was brighter than her hair. “Tipped her ear.”
“I’m all right,” Laura Gilbert said shakily. “I’m all right. It doesn’t even hurt.” Clapp stated heavily, “One of you has plenty to tell me. And we’d better go down to headquarters and talk it over.”
He looked up at the full-length picture of the undraped Shasta Lynn. Where her navel had been was a small round hole.
“Got her dead center,” he said. ■
- Mystery fans know Bob Wade, now 78, from his U-T column, “Spadework.” With William Miller, who died in 1961, Wade received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the short story “Invitation to an Accident." In 1988 Wade received the Life Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America. He lives in San Carlos.
Next week: Walter James has no alibi.