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CHAPTER II – Under Arrest

My assignment was to keep a constant tail on Vala DuValle during the next few days; check her movements, her contacts. As it happened, she was currently working in a farce comedy opus being produced by Ballantyne and directed by Roy Cromwell; so the next morning I went on a location jaunt with the unit-and ankled into a homicide frame up to my neck.

Outdoor action scenes were to be shot on the amusement pier down at Venice, a once-popular seashore resort that had recently become practically a ghost town since its beach got quarantined by the health authorities because of sewage pollution in the surf. Deserted by vacation tourists, it made an ideal spot for a movie; there was no gawking public to infest the premises, no autograph maniacs to annoy the cast.

Paravox had rented the whole amusement pier; roped it off for camera purposes. Chattering extras thronged the midway, played the sucker games, squealed on the merry-go-rounds and the giant sky-ride that stretched its dizzy dipsy-doodle tracks on slanted trestles over the water. The DuValle quail, playing the heroine, was supposed to meet the leading man for the first time on this sky-ride; according to the screwy scenario she was to fall in love with him while descending an incline at seventy miles an hour. Personally I thought the story smelled, but then I'm just a private snoop, not a critic.

And I didn't seem to be getting very far with my snooping. Cromwell insisted on eleventeen rehearsals of the preliminary crowd sequences, in which Vala DuValle didn't even appear. Bored, she retired to her makeshift dressing room in the Fun House; and naturally I couldn't follow her there.

So I did the next best thing; killed time by mingling with a bunch of extras and bit players prowling the pier. There was one concession game that drew my attention: a counter across the narrow open front of a rectangular cubicle. On platforms toward the back wall of this joint, dummy milk bottles were arranged in pyramids, the idea being to knock them down by hurling baseballs at them.

Of course the owner of the caper had leased it to Paravox for the day, the same as all the other concessionaires had done. And the reason the game interested me was because I recognised the contract actress behind the counter, the bleached blonde cutie who was taking the real owner's place. This yellow-haired wren's name was Maizie Murdock and I'd been on many a party with her in the old days.

I leaned an elbow on the counter. "Having fun, babe?"

"Well, dip me in peanut butter if it isn't Dapper Dan, the wolf in sleuth's clothing!" she gave me a welcoming smile. "How are you? Where've you been keeping yourself?"

I said: "Hither and yon. I'm fine. And you?"

"Okay, but lonesome now that you've scratched me from your address book."

I started to tell her I had censorship trouble but never got the words out, because just then somebody laid a hand on my arm. I turned; saw it was Roy Cromwell. "Anything I can do for you?" I asked him.

He said: "Sorry, Sherlock. This is supposed to be the final rehearsal, not a gabfest." Then he seemed to realise he'd sounded like a director throwing his weight around, and he made an apologetic mouth. "Er, I mean-"

"Okay, bub, okay," I waved him off. "I'll powder." I looked at the blonde Murdock filly. "See you soon, hon."

Cromwell registered embarrassment on his handsome pan. "Hey, wait. I've got an idea. As long as you're here among the extras, suppose you toss some baseballs at these bottles. It'll give me some action to focus my cameras on. Can do?"

"Can do," I said. Cromwell faded off behind me and I picked up a ball, hurled it, scored a clean miss. I tried again, twice; did a little better. Then, play-acting, I planked a coin on the counter and Maizie Murdock gave me three more baseballs. I hefted one of them- Something whammed past my ear like a dirty grey streak. The blur of motion made me duck; and then the Murdock doll let out a stricken bleat that was cut off in the middle as if someone had chopped it with an axe. In fact, I heard a chunking sound; like a blunt hatchet hitting a ripe cocoanut.

I pinned the flabbergasted focus on Maizie just in time to pipe a baseball caroming off her conk, bouncing high in the air. Where it had bashed her, a sudden open fracture appeared. Her blue peepers went glassy and she started to sag.

I yelped: "What the-!" and vaulted the counter; caught her as she toppled. I was too late to do her any good, though. Long before I had lowered her to the floor she had joined up with her ancestors.

She'd been bumped.

For an instant the huge cast and technical crew didn't seem to savvy what had happened. Then chaos spilled over and the panic was on. Three people came sailing at me from the crush: Cromwell, Bernie Ballantyne, and Vala DuValle. I'd known Cromwell was in the crowd, of course; but where Bernie and Vala came from was a mystery to me. One minute they weren't in sight and the following minute they were climbing my back like monkeys picking bananas.

The Ballantyne runt was the worst offender. He kept dragging at my shoulders and yowling: "Call the cops! Get me some law! Help me with this murderer!"

I hunched myself, gave him a flip that sent him flying over into a far corner. This seemed to be the DuValle brunette's cue to dig her fingernails at my glims. She flurried at me, clawing and screeching like a demented banshee. "You beast!" she caterwauled. "You loathesome, slimy beast-!"

I snarled: "Quiet, kiddo," and whapped her a stinger across the chops, hard enough to send her staggering. "Lay off me. I'm not fooling."

Roy Cromwell copped a gander at my palm print on Vala's map and gave a perfect demonstration of a guy blowing his top. "Why, blast your soul!" he roared. Then he grabbed a baseball from the counter and pitched it at my favourite features.

If I hadn't dropped flat on my puss, it would have been just too bad. The throw was an absolute strike; smoked past where my noggin had been an instant before. Had it hit me it would have rendered me defunct. Instead, it crashed against the rear wall of the concession hard enough to split the woodwork in the same way Maizie Murdock's skull had been split by a previous toss. I couldn't help tabbing the similarity.

Rage boiled up inside me. I rolled over, scrambled upright, snaked out my.32 automatic from the shoulder holster where I always carry it for emergencies. I thumbed the safety, curled my finger around the trigger, and got set to blast. "Now, then, chum," I rasped at the director. "One more move out of you and your form will need vulcanizing."

He froze. The DuValle cupcake crouched near him whimpering. Bernie Ballantyne seemed to shrink in his corner, fear scrawled on his rodent profile. "The cops!" he kept mumbling softly. "Isn't anybody going to call the cops?"

"Yeah," I lipped at him. "I am. But first I want to know why you freaks jumped me."

"Because you killed that g»-»girl," he piped in his reedy falsetto. He stole a furtive glance at the Murdock wren's remainders. "You f»-»fractured her skull with a baseball!"

I said: "You lie in your teeth, small fry. I hadn't made my throw when she got bopped. Ask Cromwell." I turned to the director. "Tell him, Roy."

Cromwell kept his glims glued on my gat. "Don't expect any help from me, Turner. I saw what happened."

"Meaning what?"

"You threw the ball at her."

I felt my gullet tightening. "So you're trying to frame me, too. Why? Is it for personal reasons, or just because you think it's wise to string along with your boss?"

"I don't need any excuse for telling the truth," he said sullenly. "I saw you heft the ball and draw it back-"

"But I didn't heave it. Did, I, sister?" I asked Vala.

She ran trembling fingers through her blue-black coiffure. "I didn't see you. I didn't know anything about it until I came out of my dressing room and Bernie told me what you'd done. I'd believe him in preference to you, though."

"You would," I sneered. "You know what side your cake's buttered on." Then I tried being reasonable. "Look, all of you. If I croaked this cookie, what was my motive?"

Cromwell said: "Maybe because she was a nuisance."

"Nuisance?" I stared at him.

"I heard her asking you why you scratched her name off your address book. Maybe she'd been your sweetie and you ditched her. Maybe you thought she'd make trouble; the scorned-woman angle. I don't know. That's for the law to decide."

"You want me pinched, huh?"

He lifted a shoulder. "For my money, you saw a chance to get away with murder and you tried it. The girl was a perfect target and you had a baseball in your hand-"

"And why did I have a baseball?" I bleeped. "I'll tell you! You asked me to throw at the bottles." I moved a step toward him. "It was a fishy request; I can see that now."

He turned pallid around the fringes. "Are you accusing me of trying to frame you?"

I said: "It's a thought."

The impact of this idea hit him all of a sudden. "But why would I frame you unless I-?"

"Yeah, exactly. Unless you were the killer yourself. Remember the ball you just slammed at me? It was a perfect strike over the heart of the plate. It splintered the boards of the back wall. A guy who can heave the horsehide that hard could also crack a cupcake's cranium the same way."

Bernie Ballantyne thrust his beak into the conversation. "If you think you can pin your crime on Roy, think again. I was near him at the time. He threw nothing at Miss Murdock. Every bit player and extra in the crowd will testify to it."

"Yeah, if you tell them to," I growled.

He bridled. "You mean I'd use my position to force anyone to perjure-?"

"Damned right you would. And not necessarily for Cromwell's sake, either. Maybe for your own. I seem to recall you used to be a bush league ball player in your early days. A shortstop, I believe."

"What's that got to do with it?"

"Accuracy and throwing power," I fired back at him. "The ability to chuck a baseball and bean somebody. Or am I wrong in remembering how you made two bumpery threats when I talked to you in your office yesterday?"

I figured this ought to set him back on his heels; expected to see him do some squirming. He didn't though. His attention didn't seem to be on me at all. Instead, he was staring past me as if glomming a hinge at something very soothing to the optics. Then, suddenly, he barked: "Arrest this man, officer! He's the one you want. He's the murderer."

I whirled; but I was a split second too slow. A pair of harness bulls from the Venice police force had sneaked up behind me with their roscoes unlimbered; evidently some wise apple in the cast or technical crew had put in a bleat for them while my back was turned. Now they thrust their rods into my ribs and told me I was under arrest, and would I drop my gat before they shoved a load of lead through my liver?

Homicide Highball | The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories | CHAPTER Three – One for Dave