The raindrops beat down like periods hitting the end of a sentence. The Biltimore oozed its way into the paragraph like a hotel in midtown. I cased the joint and slipped inside. "Is this the Second International Congress of Crime Writers" I asked a slinkly redhead who was giving me the eye. "Yeah," he replied. I slammed him in the pancreas with a cordovan wing tip and he folded up like a hankie in Chinese laundry. One thing I can stand is a stool pigeon.
A quick gander around a press release was all I needed to know the joint was crawling with crime scribes. There must have been 300 of them, every kind in the book. Detective novels, suspense thrillers, short chillers, spy-fi, psychology mysteries.
You name it, they inked it.
It gave me the creeps, all those flashy Dans thinking up cons and capers, plots and scams.I was already bone-tired, dog-weary, beat to a Metaphysical pulp. I wondered where the body was hidden. There's got to be a body, even if it's just a symbol of our angst-filled modern existence. Violence sells. I treated my tonsils to a slug of rye and went off to question the suspects:
She was tall, she was classy looking. I checked her dossier. Patricia McGerr, out of D.C., 17 of them mysteries. I told her to start talking.
"I'm an anahronism," she said. It was the old self-depreciation trick but I wasn't falling for it.Said she writes standard mystery novels, you know, "four suspects, one murderer and the victim." Claimed she wasn't into violence, that her snuffs happened before the book started. "I go back 30 years and they weren't violent in those days," she said. "Mostly I pushed them off cliffs so there was no blood." I could see I was getting nowhere so I gave her a long goodbye.
Something told me these birds were playing games with me. I was right. Some gunsels from Parker Brothers had come over to push their "Clue" game by tossing a nice tournament. The crime scribes had fallen right into their little traps. So had a couple of cops. One was a dick from the NYC safe-and-lofts squad and the other was a London constable. All these bozos were sitting around this ballroom playing "Clue" while Parker soaked up the publicity.
Cute set-up, huh?
A chick with skin in all the right places sidled up and asked me if I wanted to play. "Sweetheart," I sneered, "when I play for keeps." Then she screamed and the lights went out. The last thing I remembered was some Scandinavian scribe saying, 'Was it Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the monkey wrench?"
I woke up with a lump on my noggin the size of Robert Mitchum's ennui. I'd been sapped. I looked around. While I was down, the game had ended and some guy from Chicago rubbed out the opposition. Figured. Now get this: his name is Parker. Percy Spurlark Parker, he says.
The guys's story is he's an assitant manager in a drugstore and he pens mysteries on the side. Uses a character name of Big Bull Benson who runs a bar. "I work in the retail drug field to feed my family," he says. "I write mysteries to feed my ego." Not a bad line. I decided not to rearrange his face. Parker gave Parker his prize: Enough board games to keep Chicago busy for eight years.
With a little nosing around I turned up a dope-sheet and gave it the once-over. This party goes on for a week! There are panels, there are receptions, there are award dinners, there's a wine tasting. Walking tours, cocktail parties, hot-shot speakers. My head started spinning again. Everything went woozy. Maybe it was the sap, maybe the gin I'd poured on my Rice Krisples that morning. Maybe just old age. Then one line came into focus. "Autopsy field trip," it said. My blood ran cold. The punks were heading for a holiday at the morgue.
So that's where the bodies were stashed
These scribes were smart all right, but sooner or later I knew they'd have to spring for lunch. Even a scribe's gotta eat. They'd scrammed to the Roosevelt to throw me off the track but I slipped the bell captain a double sawbuck.
Nobody was inviting but I sat down anyway, next to a cool English dame with a hungry look. I could tell right away she was a limey on account of she said "beastly." Sooner or later a limey will always slip up.
She fed me a line but I wasn't about to buy. Wanted me to think that crime scribes are really pussycats. "They really are the mildest people I know," she said, "because they get all the beastliness out of their system." Sorry sister, but it's just too pat. She winked and slipped me a onte. Her old man was on the other side of the table so I only used one eye to read it. The private one. The note said: "'The Barrancourt Destiny,' by Anne Worboys. Out February." Probably code. I'd get it to the lab later for tests.
Then a guy came up who looked like he knew better. Better play it safe, a little voice was tweeting at me. I made with the polite chitchat. The guy told me he was Issac Asimov. I snarled. What's he take me for, a two bit grifter. Everbody knows Asimov runs with the sci-fi mob. I was ready to give him three quick slugs in the spleen but something stopped me. The bird held his ground. Told me he worked mysteries as well as sci-fi. Even penned some sci-fi mysteries. I'll never know why I didn't blast him. Maybe it was his honest mug, maybe my existential weariness. Was I losing my touch?
Now the guy knew he had me buffaloed. He went on about how mysteries were easier to write. A sci-fi takes him seven months, a who dunit only seven weeks . . . He didn't have to make up a whole new world for a mystery. I grabbed unsteadily for my flask, and the guy took a powder, still playing Asimov. "I've got 193 books published so far," he called back. "One of these days I've got to retire," Sure. He looked about as ready to retire as Leon Spinks.
Then I saw a mug with a worried look. Right away I figured him for Frank Bandy by the way he wore his name tag. Bandy was the chairman of this outfit. He knew he'd better come clean with me or I'd plug him so fast he'd go down like a double negative at a grammarian's picnic. "What about the dough?" I barked.He tried a thin smile. "It's a low-playing job in general," he said. "Hardcover mystery sales are declining and the paperback publishers haven't learned to promote mysteries yet. Costs have risen so horribly."
"Can it, Pal," I said. "You're breakin' my heart." But he rattled on. he said a lot of mystery scribes were copping out for straight suspense because the dough was better. Then he caught himself and tried to cover up. "I shouldn't be saying this," he said. "This whole conference is aimed at promoting the mystery." I sneered and left him to stew in his own juices.
I figured I was onto something big but I didn't know what. I was too dog-tired to hang with these palookas all week. I knew I had only one shot left. The wine tasting. If that didn't loosen a tongue or two, it was farewell my lovely for yours truly.
It was easier than I thought. The room was packed tighter than an over-loaded metaphor. The wines flowed like blood. Betrayal was in the air. Then I spotted a young guy from the coast. Richard Laymon, in from L.A., a small fry, a few stories in the pulps, a novel home in the typewriter screaming for daddy. Something told me he was my man. I was ready to groin him in the knee but he spilled.
The words tumbled out. "You live the deeds vicariously," he said. "A lot of writers pay lip service to morality but they get a thrill out of committing the crimes vicariously. I know I do. Why else would you write about crime all the time unless you're obsessed by it?"
He'd blown this case wide open. The worms were out of the can. These jaspers were all in possession of hard-core criminal fantasies and they were gonna take the fall for it. I clamped the cuffs on him and read him his rights. Then I arrested the rest of the room. Nobody noticed. They just went on blabbing about agents and plots.
Suddenly I was weary. I was getting too old for this mug's game. What was the point of it all? Run these bums in and next week there'd be a convention of self-help writers in town. I walked out into the driving drizzle. The slinky redhead winked at me again. I slapped him around, but my heart wasn't in it this time. His lush red eyes watched me as I turned a tried phrase and disappeared into the rain.