I tossed another coin on the counter and the bleached blonde handed me three more baseballs. I hefted one of them, prepared to heave it; but before I could let fly, the yellow-haired gal dropped dead with a crushed skull. Five minutes later I was collared for the killing.
Putting it that way, it sounds about as impersonal as a telegram condensed to fifty words for economy's sake. It didn't seem so impersonal to me at the time, though. My neck was in a lonely spot and I mighty well realised it. If ever a guy had been draped with a murder frame, I was that guy.
The whole thing started the previous afternoon when Roy Cromwell, ace director for Paravox Pix, ankled into my agency office with an embarrassed look on his handsome mush. He was a stalwart ape in the loudest set of tweeds this side of an air raid alarm, and his fame for making hit films was exceeded only by his rep as a Romeo in private life.
Crossing my threshold, he flashed me a sheepish grin. "Hiya, Philo. How's the best private eye in Hollywood?"
"The name is Dan Turner," I said. "Mister to you."
He reddened. "Still sore, eh?"
"I never forget a raw deal."
"I didn't mean it to be as raw as it turned out," he protested mildly. "Why pack a grudge?"
"I've got every reason to pack a grudge. You had a girl in a Sunset Strip dice club one night a month ago. The joint was raided. You begged me to take the doll off your hands and pretend I was her escort. Like a dope, I agreed."
He said: "I appreciated the favour. Honest I did."
"Sure," I sneered. "Only it developed that she was engaged to Bernie Ballantyne, production mogul for Paravox; in other words, your boss. That's why you palmed her off on me. If Bernie found out you were entertaining his sweetie, he might get even by dropping your option, so you picked me for a fall guy."
"But, Dan, listen-"
I waved him quiet. "So what happened? Bernie made me the target of his jealousy; barred me off the lot. I used to get all of the Paravox snooping business; picked up some fat fees. But now, thanks to you, I can't even go through the gates."
"That's where you're wrong," Cromwell said placatingly. "Ballantyne wants to bury the hatchet."
"Yeah. In my dandruff."
"No. He's got a job for you."
I gave him the surly focus. "Quit ribbing."
"A thousand dollars is no rib." He took a check from his wallet, threw it on my desk. It was for a grand, made out to me, and signed with Bernie Ballantyne's scrawled autograph. "That's only the retainer. You'll get more later."
My ire began to fade. "He must crave somebody cooled for this kind of geetus."
All the colour leaked out of Cromwell's pan; left it a floury mask. His glimmers bulged. "Wh-what makes you think a thing like th-that?" he choked. Then he recovered some of his poise. "For a minute I thought you were serious. Shall we go on out to the studio? Bernie's waiting."
I said: "Okay," and we hauled bunions. Leaving the building, I wondered why my casual remark had put the director in such a dither. For an instant he'd acted like a bozo with something nasty on his conscience.
His Packard speedster was parked down at the curb, but I preferred my own jalopy for convenience. I trailed him until a traffic semaphore separated us halfway to Culver City. Cromwell beat the red light by a whisker, pulled ahead; and when I finally got a green signal I'd lost him. I remembered this later, although it didn't seem to matter at the time. I didn't need anyone to guide me to Bernie Ballantyne's private sanctum.
The Paravox production bigwig had a layout of offices in the main executive building, just inside the mammoth wrought iron entrance gates. An assortment of secretaries passed me through the various anterooms until I came to the last one, a sort of Gothic waiting chamber architecturally designed to awe you before you entered the holy of holies. I wasn't very impressed, though. I was too interested in a brunette honey who had just stepped out of Ballantyne's room.
I recognised her and said: "Greetings, Toots."
She drew a sharp breath as she tabbed me. She was a fragile little dish, delicate as a Spring breeze in a modish confection of white silk jersey. Her wavy hair was blue-black to match her peepers, and she had a complexion three shades richer than the cream off the top of the bottle. But there was a tremulous quiver to her ripe pomegranate lips, and her mascara was smudged as if she had recently leaked a trace of brine.
This needled my curiosity. Since she was emerging from Bernie Ballantyne's office you'd naturally think he was responsible for her turning on the weeps; which seemed queer in view of the fact that she was his fianc'ee, Vala DuValle.
She didn't look happy at meeting me. "Mr. T»-»Turner!"
"Skip the formality and call me Danny-boy. You know, the unfortunate jerk that took you off Roy Cromwell's hands the night a certain dice drop got knocked over. Or have you forgotten how I stuck my neck out for an alleged pal and wound up on the wrong end of a hotfoot?"
She drifted toward me in an aura of expensive fragrance. "Please!" she whispered. "Don't link my n»-»name with Roy's. Bernie might hear you."
"Would that be such a disaster, hon?"
"You know it would. For Roy, and maybe for m»-»me, too."
I said: "Then you shouldn't play with fire. Cromwell's dynamite for a jane who's engaged to somebody else."
Her piquant puss got pink. "Roy and I are just good friends, nothing more. You've got to believe that."
"Sure. But does Bernie believe it?"
"He doesn't know anything about it. And he mustn't. He won't either… unless somebody carries tales to him. You w – wouldn't do an ugly thing like that, would you, Mr. Turner?"
"Not unless I thought it would pay me dividends," I said. I was only kidding, of course; but the joke seemed to backfire. A dismayed expression crossed her angelic map and she turned, pelted out of the room before I could explain or apologize. I heard her sobbing as she scrammed, and the sound made me feel like the lowest heel in Hollywood.
Well, nuts. I could hunt her up later and make amends, I decided. Meanwhile Ballantyne was waiting for me. I barged to his door, ankled in, hung the squint on him as he sat behind his ornate desk. "You wanted me, Bernie?"
He was a quarrelsome little sourpuss with fretful glims and a thin, petulant kisser surrounded by permanent sneer lines. Not yet thirty, he was one of the most important powers in the flickering tintypes; and like a lot of undersized runts, he used that power the way you'd swing a baseball bat. In fact, he had been a shortstop on several bush league ball teams before he came into the picture industry.
"Sit down," he piped in his high, reedy voice.
I said: "No, thanks," and set fire to a gasper, blew a blob of fumes his way; deliberately stayed on my dogs. This gave me two advantages. It showed him he couldn't boss me around, and it allowed my six-feet-plus to tower over him, stressing his lack of dimensions. You could see he didn't like it.
He held his temper, though. "Climb off your horse, Hawkshaw. So I had you barred from the lot. So I made a mistake. So I'm sorry. Can I help it if I've got a jealous nature?"
"You should learn to call your shots," I said.
He shrugged. "I love Vala so much it gets me down if I think she's interested in another man. If anybody tried to take her away from me, I believe I'd kill him." Then he grinned wryly. "Forget I said that. It doesn't include you."
"She explained how you just happened to meet her casually at a party and took her to that dice club the night of the raid. No hard feelings?"
"None at all," I said. If the DuValle cupcake had blown down Ballantyne's suspicions with such an outright lie, it was okay by me. I added: "I just passed her. She looked upset."
"She is upset. That's why I'm hiring you. I want you to find out what's troubling her; why she's drawn large sums of money out of her bank account lately for no plausible reason. I want to be told if she's in some kind of jam."
I said: "A blackmail jam, for instance?"
He twitched. "What gives you that idea?"
"When people act worried and draw big dough from the bank, it usually spells shakedown," I answered. "Any cheap flatfoot could tell you that. Do you know of anything in her past that somebody could use as a basis for extortion?"
"No. She's all right. She's been that way ever since she became our top Paravox star; and there was never any hint of scandal in her private life before that, to my knowledge." His manicured fingernails drummed the polished desk. "I'll admit the blackmail angle occurred to me, though. I even asked her about it point-blank, a moment ago."
"So that's why she looked so woeful," I said. "Did she spill anything?"
"Nothing. She denied she was in trouble of any kind. I don't believe her, of course. I think she's being bled, and I want to know why. More important, I want the blackmailer's name. I'll fix him!"
"Suppose it's a dame instead of a guy?"
A mean glitter came into Ballantyne's shoebutton peepers. "A dame? They make coffins for dames too, don't they?"
I remembered an offhand crack I'd made to Roy Cromwell in my own office about his boss craving somebody cooled. Cromwell had nearly thrown a wing-ding until he saw I wasn't serious. But now, twice in the same dialogue, Bernie Ballantyne was yodeling a murder threat.