While Carl Connor, K-T’s best director, was putting the finishing touches on the next take, my eyes wandered over the Hollywood studio lot. Over to the left were the red-tiled office buildings blistering and peeling under the torrid August sun. Lazy-looking employees wandered indifferently across the shaggy lawns. In fact, King-Tanger Studios seemed to have gone to the dogs in the three years I was away. Why, when Uncle King was alive—
“Well, Mister Kelley!” Connor snapped at me sarcastically. “Anytime you’re ready!”
“Okay,” I grinned. “Shoot.”
His sharp eyes, owlish under heavy glasses, pinned me down. “I hope you know what’s going on!”
“Sure,” I said blithely. “Good old B-7 Western! Just as Kirk Tanger steps out, I jump in and take his place for the scrap. Then I leap on my—rather his— faithful nag and ride away down the set with bullets nipping at my ears.”
It was an outdoor set, the old saloon front, and dusty cowtown street that I remembered so vividly from the old days. Like everything I’d seen on the lot in the three days I had been back from overseas, it looked on its last legs.
Kirk Tanger, who had been co-owner with my Uncle King of K-T—and who now owned it all—was the star. He didn’t seem to like my coming back at all, though he hid his dislike under that famous back-slapping personality.
But under Kitty Riley’s persuasion, he offered me a job doubling for him in the horse opera. He knew I could handle my dukes with the best of them, and that years on my uncle’s ranch had made the feel of a pony under me the most natural thing in the world.
I decided to take him up on it, mostly so I’d be near Kitty. I didn’t like the way they acted in the clinches. Kirk Tanger was ten years older than I. But we did have about the same build. He’s six foot one, rangy and slim, with wide shoulders and narrow hips. He’s got curly brown hair and a self-important swagger.
The director grunted. I watched Tanger ham it up with his favorite heavy, Lank Rennagan.
“You’ve run this cowtown long enough, Jake Carson!” Tanger cried.
Rennagan, big, dirty-faced, ugly, mugged and taunted him while the cameras rolled. “Why, you lily-livered pup. I’ll—”
Tanger, ye hero, started circling him. I waited for my cue. It came when Tanger backed up and enveloped the camera eye for a split-second. I darted in swiftly and made with the fists.
Fast and furious action followed. I popped about his ears while his haymakers whizzed around mine. I was careful to pull my punches. The sound effects would help the illusion along, plus additional speeding up, and spliced-in close- ups of Tanger’s pretty puss, so the movie-goers would think it was him all the time.
We played it up hot and heavy, like the freckle-faced kids in the front row like it, then I flattened the “bad guy,” leaped on Tanger’s pinto, and raised dust down the fake cowtown street.
The cameras ground on. This was a cheap quickie. Tanger wasn’t wasting any film. Guns roared behind me. I thought I felt something zing past my ear. The thought made me grin. As if anybody would be using real bullets? But when I ambled back for a retake, Kitty, who was the femme lead, stared at me with wide hazel eyes.
“Jack!” she cried. “You’re bleeding!”
My ear did sting, so I put my hand up to it. It came back red. “Must of nicked it in the scrap,” I smiled casually. After three years as tail gunner a little scratch like that doesn’t seem anything to get excited about.
Tanger walked up just then. He looked pale under his bottled suntan. I noticed a blood vessel in his temple hopping.
“Come on over to the dispensary, pal,” he said. “I’ll touch it up for you.”
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A Live Bullet
I followed him into the little studio dispensary, wondering what was up. Why was Tanger calling me pal, all of a sudden, when everybody on the lot knew Kitty had tossed him over for me?
We looked a little like brothers, dressed alike in the same flashy Western breeches and boots. Mine were a little roughed up after a hard day’s shooting, and my face didn’t need fake tan. It was browned permanently by South Pacific trade winds. The lines around my eyes and mouth didn’t get there from cutting up around Hollywood spots.
“Listen, Kelley,” Tanger said, booting the door shut behind us, “you didn’t nick yourself fighting. A live bullet did that!”
I examined it critically in the mirror. Could be. “What makes you think so?” I asked.
“I saw the puff of smoke from the harness shop window. I ran around fast as I could, behind. I got just a glimpse of the man who shot you.”
“What’d he look like?”
“Couldn’t see his face because he wore a black mask.”
“Yeah. Don’t you get it, Kelley? Both you and I—and Rennagan too, when he’s pulling a trick—wear a ‘masked rider’ get-up in the picture. Another masked rider floating around the lot wouldn’t excite any comment!”
I winced as he painted up my scratch and taped it. “Smart guy,” I whistled. “Now, who do you suppose wants me out of the way?”
Tanger shook his head.
“Not you. Me!”
“You?” I asked innocently. Offhand I could think of half a dozen reasons, all of them blonde.
Tanger’s pretty face writhed, “I can’t tell you what it’s all about, Kelley, but believe me. I know. The man who’s out to get me doesn’t know I use a double. He doesn’t know you. Now, here’s what I want you to do …”
I saw it coming. I knew all along Tanger had something up his sleeve when he brought me in here. I shrugged noncommittally.
“You’ve got to do it, pal!” he insisted desperately. “It’s important to the whole studio. Without me this picture will never be finished. If it isn’t, no more K-T. He’s out to get me. He’s a cold-blooded killer. Will stop at nothing! You’ve just got to help me, pal!”
I sighed, facing him. “Just what do you want me to do about it?”
He slapped my shoulder, his face glowing with relief. “I knew you’d do it, pal!”
I winced. This pal stuff didn’t set well with me. It was a lot different from the way Tanger acted when I first got back. Oh, well. That was because of Kitty. Tanger had been trying to convince her she ought to marry him ever since I left. From the way she, herself, had been acting, I wasn’t sure he hadn’t succeeded.
“Easy on the orchids,” I murmured. “I haven’t said I’d do anything yet.” The sore look that flashed in his eyes vanished quick-like. He put on a bland ingratiating tone.
“Nothing to it, Kelley. All I want is for you to pretend to be me for the next few days, until the picture’s wrapped up. Live at my place in Beverly Hills. Go to the premiere tonight. Use my car and chauffeur. Why, it’s a breeze!”
“I didn’t much care for the breeze that bullet made fanning my ear,” I reminded him.
“There’s five grand in it,” he said. Funny how the mention of a nice round sum like five thousand dollars can change a guy’s mind. Kitty and I could get married. I could buy in with Old Karpis at his movie horse-trainer ranch out in the Valley, as I’d always wanted. As Tanger said, three years of it had made me rather immune to the smell of danger.
I said, “Yes.”
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The Top Kick of K-T
The night was typical Hollywood. The heat of the day had cooled down considerably. The sky had shaded down to a deep, rich cobalt.
I sat back luxuriously in Tanger’s smooth limousine, wearing his best tux and smoking one of his best cigars, while Jim, his chauffer, sent the hade spinning down the Sunset Strip out of Beverly Hills, then veering onto Hollywood Boulevard toward the nest of fanning arc-fights that stabbed their wag prettily toward the stars.
Hollywood was doing itself proud at this big-time premiere. As top-kick of K-T, it was Tanger’s duty to put to in an appearance. Tonight, with my face deftly made up, I was Tanger. He himself would come, slip in with the general public.
Jim braked the car smoothly in front of the mobbed entrance canopy, which was flanked on either side by bleacher seats that had been rigged up for the occasion. With hundreds of movie fans’ eyes drilling me as they babbled their criticisms, I stepped down the brightly lit carpeting.
Then I saw Kitty. She was breathtaking in a knockout of a blue evening dress with silver sequins. I forgot I was putting on an act and hurried up to her.
“Why, Kirk!” I took her arm, then noticed her staring at the neat square of tape on my ear.
“Why, you’re not—”
I shushed her quickly, and we went in. During the show I spent my time trying to dope out this deal. I hadn’t had a good chance to talk to Kitty since I got back, with Tanger monopolizing her, and had hoped to later. Somehow, in the mob, I lost track of her. Then a couple reporters buttonholed me. I had to lam out before one of them found out I wasn’t really Tanger.
I went back to the car. It was parked around the corner on a shady little side- street, as I had instructed. That’s one thing about Hollywood. Two blocks off the main drag and you might be m some quiet little hamlet.
“Okay, Jim,” I said, hopping in. “Let’s go.”
The chauffeur’s cap ahead of me nodded, and we were off, suddenly. I happened to glance m the mirror over the chauffeur’s head. “Hey, you’re not Jim I” I yelled, “Who—”
He flashed a pistol, managing to keep his eyes on the road and on me in the little mirror as we swerved around a corner on two wheels and started east op into the Hollywoodland hills.
“Sit still, Tanger!” he snapped roughly. “This is where you get took!”
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End of the Line
I didn’t bother to disabuse him of the idea that I was Tanger. I was worried about his driving. It was as if he had suddenly gone nuts. He took those hairpin turns on two wheels. All I could see were his eyes and a rough pen of makeup. He was a bad actor, all right.
I lit a cigarette and sat back. The long car hurtled upward through the brilliant night, then suddenly braked at the brink of a five-hundred-foot drop. It was a lonely scrubby stretch, with the city spread out below like a jeweled pattern. He leaped out, flung open my door, shoving his gun to my face. “All right, chiseler,” he snapped. “This is the end of the line.” He might he a ham-actor, as I decided, but he wasn’t acting now. This was the real McCoy.
I grinned back at him impishly. “Take it slow,” I soothed. Then I jumped.
The impact of my sudden lunge sent him reeling back a step, with a grunt of surprise. His gun flung lead between my crooked elbow and my midriff. I could feel death tickle my ribs with the end of his scythe. I put everything I got into a swift uppercut. His head snapped back. My other fist cracked down on his gun-hand, sent the roscoe flying off into all those spangled lights, into oblivion.
With a snarl he was out of his spin and on me. His fingers reached for my throat. Then we were waltzing dreamily on the graveled edge of that cliff. I had his wrists and was trying to pin them back. He shook loose and started slugging and gouging. He was no mean shakes. He knew a thing or two, must have learned it from the Japs, it was that dirty.
He faked, as if I’d hit him too low. I fell for it. In the second I relaxed his fist came up. Everything swam around me. Or maybe it was me who was swimming, going around and round on the black wall of the hell-deep whirlpool. Above me hung an ugly paint-smeared puss.
I grabbed out at him feebly, yanked. He moved back, but I caught his shirt. Buttons scattered. Then I went down into that whirlpool, with a faint faraway sound like a siren screaming—or maybe a girl.
But there was one shred left of my shattered consciousness. One chunk of knowledge that stayed with me through the aeons of bad dreams that followed. It was the sight of the slugger’s swirling black chest—and of a triangular red mole on his throat, on the lower part of his left breastbone.
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A Raw Deal
The feel of soft hands on my forehead helped me out of it. It was nice. Pain shot through me in seven directions, but those cool hands helped a lot. When I opened my peepers, relief rolled over me in a tidal wave. I wasn’t in some nasty old Jap prison camp; I was in Kitty Riley’s apartment. She was looking down at me with sorry, anxious eyes.
“What gives?” I wondered, with a low groan.
“Easy, soldier,” she soothed me, in that low husky voice of hers. “You’ve had quite a time for yourself.”
I remembered everything. I sat up quickly. “What happened?” I demanded, feasting my eyes on her soft taffy ringlets and wide kissable lips.
“We were at the premiere, remember?”
“Sure. I lost you in the mob. Go on.”
“Well, I bumped into Kirk. He yanked me out of a side door with him.” Her voice was like dripping honey. “I had my coupe. Kirk offered to drive me home, and on the way I noticed your car. The driver seemed to be hopped up, so I insisted that we follow you. Of course my jalopy can’t keep up to Kirk’s limousine, which you were in, so we lagged behind, making those hills the best we could. We reached you just as you went into your tailspin.”
“What about the pug?”
“Got away. Jumped in the car and beat it. As I said,” she smiled, “my little coupe is no match for that big bus.”
“What happened to Jim?”
“Kirk called me a few minutes ago to see if you had come out of it yet. It seems Jim got a message, ostensibly from his boss, telling him to leave the car and hurry home.”
I nodded, scowling. “So Jim went, and my would-be killer took his place. Did you notify the cops?”
Kitty shook her shiny curls. “Kirk said no. He looked you over. Said you would be okay, and wanted it hushed up. It all has to do with whoever he’s afraid of.
“Got any ideas about that?” I asked casually, lighting a cigarette.
“No-o.” She looked thoughtful. “Wait. Yes, I have. You know Mocardai?”
“The gambling house king? I’ve heard of him. He’s a nice character to cross.”
“Kirk owes him money. A lot of money.”
I tried my legs and found I could stand up, if a little shakily. “Jack,” Kitty said, in a low different voice, “why don’t you go away?”
“I—I don’t know what this is all about, exactly, but why stick your neck out?” I eyed her carefully. She looked sincere enough, but then, Kitty’s quite an actress. On a hunch I asked, “What’s about the studio?”
“In a pretty bad way, Jack,” she wagged her blonde head. “Seems as if nobody will take a chance on Kirk Tanger, since your Uncle King died. It’s all rather odd.” She put her soft hand on my arm.
“Jack, I’ve always thought you got a raw deal. King meant to leave his half of K-T to you.”
I smiled crookedly. “That was before I enlisted. King’s doctor could have kept me out, he thought. I couldn’t see it that way at all. You know King. As long as you did things his way everything was fine. The minute you crossed him he dropped you like a hot grenade. Tanger stayed. I didn’t. That’s the whole story in a nutshell.”
Kitty looked so genuinely sorry about it that I planted a kiss square on her wide lips. It tasted wonderful, but I still wasn’t sure. “Good-bye,” I told her and scrammed.
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Last Will and Testament
Four hours I slept, then went out to the studio. It was a good half hour before shooting time. Contrary to propaganda, a star’s day starts real early and lasts real late sometimes. With a quickie Western like this one, it was even tougher. Tanger was shooting it on a shoestring, and a frayed one at that.
I found out from the gateman that Tanger’s office was vacant, so I slipped in the back way. I used one of my uncle’s keys which I had found among his personal effects. I left the blinds down while I went over the joint. Since Tanger wasn’t going to let me in on his little secret I was going to probe it out for myself. If I was going to continue dodging bullets, I was going to know why. Furthermore, as Kitty hinted, there was something mighty funny going on at K-T.
I saw that one of the desks had been taken out. A single big mahogany affair filled the center of Tanger’s private office. I tried the drawers first. Nothing unusual. Then I turned my attention to the metal wall cabinets. At first I found nothing there, either, until I found a green strongbox tucked way down in at the bottom. It was heavy so I set it down on the floor. The lock was a good one, but I remembered King’s key ring and tried them, one by one.
On my knees by it, I flung the cover back and combed through its contents. I whistled when I found it. The envelope was marked, Last Will and Testament. Herbert J. King.
My uncle. It was dated July 8th, just three days before he died. I broke the seal and started reading it.
“I, Herbert J. King, being of sound mind and—”
I heard the back door snap shut softly behind me. I whirled in time to catch just a glimpse of a black shadow wearing a mask. Before I could get to my feet he lunged, pounced on me like a panther. My head hit a corner of the cabinet. For a few seconds all I saw were stars. When I came out of it he had vanished out of the back door, the envelope and will along with him.
I sprang after him, muttering a few choice words I had picked up in New Guinea. I flung open the door in time to see Kirk Tanger striding bare-headed toward the office, dressed in cowboy togs, his spurs jingling.
He looked surprised to see me coming out of the back door of his private office, but only smiled amiably. “Waiting to see me, Kelley?” he asked.
“Yeah.” I watched him narrowly. “I want some information.”
He smiled that famous smile. “I get it, Kelley. Since tangling with a gunman last night, you figure it’s time I let you in on what it’s all about. Eh, pal?”
I just nodded.
“Well, pal, I was on my way to find you. It’s like this. I ran up a sizable gambling debt with Mocardai, and he doesn’t like waiting.”
“And he decided to take it out of your hide?”
“That’s it,” Tanger nodded. “Last night I got him to call off his hounds. I convinced him that I can settle up as soon as this picture is finished, which will be in a few days. He’s willing to wait.”
All nice and smooth, but it didn’t set well in my craw. It matched what Kitty had told me last night, but that just put her in the shade alongside Tanger. Well, maybe you couldn’t blame a girl for changing her mind about a guy, once she found out he was not going to inherit half a movie studio. Just suppose, for instance, that Kitty hadn’t just “happened” to follow me last night. Suppose Tanger wasn’t with her at all. Suppose that he—
That did it. The rising tide of anger inside me swept up into my brain. I made a quick grab at Tanger’s silk collar,
“What goes on?” he grinned, good-naturedly.
“Nothing,” I mumbled. “Nothing at all.”
I walked away fast, stiff-legged. I was wrong. Dead wrong. There was no triangular red mole on Tanger’s chest. No mole of any kind.
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A Triangular Red Mole
Today’s takes were to be some of the last big scenes. All the location shots were completed, processed and ready for cutting in the lab, having been filmed the week before up in the Sherwood Lake country.
There was the usual barroom free-for- all, with the usual collapsing chairs and bottles busted over heads. It played havoc with the flimsy set, making it unlikely that it would stand up under another such brawl or even a retake.
Then Connor, the director, barked out orders for the final to-the-death battle between Lank Rennagan, the heavy lead, and the hero. In the eyes of the public, Kirk Tanger. Actually me. Tanger wouldn’t dream of risking that pretty face of his before the cameras, any more than he would risk it in real life. Or would he, I wondered, if the stakes were high enough. A couple of telephone calls had told me a lot that I hadn’t known before, and was never intended to know.
Connor’s heavy voice bawled instructions. Mopping his bald dome that glinted under the heavy lights, he finished, “Adlib it. But make it good! We don’t want to have any retakes! Can’t afford it! Make it real!”
Rennagan grinned at me wolfishly. There was an odd gleam in his eyes, but it didn’t really register until a little later.
The cameras rolled. Rennagan came at me, mugging ferociously. I slipped under his lunge and landed a make-believe punch on his jaw. His head went back and he sprawled on the floor. Then he was up again and at me. We clinched.
Some of his slugs landed hard, but it can’t be entirely faked. I thought nothing of it until his hairy arm grabbed me suddenly and yanked me down behind the bar.
It happened fast. His left hand seized my throat and forced me flat against the floor. Then he grabbed a half-smashed bottle, a real one.
I got a glimpse of his hairy chest. There was a red mole on it. A triangular red mole. So now I knew! Rennagan was the one I had tangled with last night. He was going to finish the job now!
Studio accidents do happen. He’d purposely got me behind the bar, out of camera range, so he could make it look like that. “This time you’ll stay out!” he whispered. I saw the ragged edge of glass swing down at me.
Sweating blood, I yanked to one side in time, swung a roundhouse into his solar plexus. He gave a howl of anguish and let the bottle drop. My boot went out into his belt, and sent him flying into the open.
I leaped after him. Fury was upon me. I forgot all about cameras and movies. All I knew was that Rennagan had tried to kill me, at least twice. I plastered my fists all over his greasy pan. I hit him over and over again, until I was out of wind. Then, as he sagged, I cracked out once more, with all my weight behind it. He dropped without a sound.
“Bravo!” Connor applauded behind me as the cameras stopped. ‘‘Best scrap I’ve directed in fifteen years!”
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I swayed there a moment, getting back my wind. Ignoring Connor’s orchids, I walked up to Kirk Tanger, who was standing off to one side with Kitty.
“He meant to kill you!” Kitty cried tremulously. “I saw it in his eyes!”
“Yeah,” I said, stroking my cut knuckles. My eyes were on Tanger. He was pale. The smile on his pan looked lopsided.
“Nonsense!” he said, trying to laugh it off. “Why Rennagan’s the best heavy on the lot!”
“That why you picked him to get rid of me last night?” I demanded.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you quit play-acting? You’re not that good!”
He drew himself up. “I don’t know what you mean, Kelley.” He started to stalk away, insulted. I stuck out my arm and twirled him around so I could look him square in the face.
“You milked your way into Uncle King’s favors ever since he picked you up on the street and brought you to K-T. When you became a star, you bought in. When I enlisted, and you yellow-bellied your way into a 4-F classification, you put on the pressure. You all but kissed his boots.
“You knew he had a bad heart. So when he told you about the new will he made, in my favor, you decided both he and I had to die. In his case it was easy. A drop of something in his heart medicine would do the trick.
“You hid the new will. You didn’t dare destroy it, because there was a witness, King’s valet. So you paid him off and got him to leave town. When I got back, you faked up this gag about somebody who was after you, and offered me five grand to take your place in order to make my death look completely accidental. You hired Rennagan to do your dirty work. But he bungled the job last night, so you told him to finish it today.
“You knew I found that will in your office, because you were the masked character who stepped in on me. You knocked me down and ran out, tucked the will under your shirt and pulled off your mask, then came back, pretending you had just got there!”
Tanger’s lips twitched. “You can’t prove any of this!” he retorted.
“No? I checked the time you really came in the lot gate with the gateman. It matched. I found out from King’s valet’s mother where he had gone. I called him long distance. When I told him what I suspected, he came clean, told me all he knew about the new will, dispossessing you and making me controlling owner of K-T. Now, hand it over!”
“I—I haven’t got it!” Tanger cried. “I burned it! I mean—”
“Oh, no, you didn’t!” Kitty told him, her eyes blazing with disgust. “I met Jack just after he left you. He told me to keep my eyes on you every second!”
Grinning, I grabbed his pretty silk shirt and ripped it open. There was the will, tucked partway under his wide belt. I tossed it to Kitty, then grabbed Tanger by the belt and studied his pretty pan speculatively, as if wondering where I was going to begin.
He cowered back. “No! No!” he whimpered, having seen what his pal Rennagan got.
“Don’t hit him!” Kitty cried. “Please don’t!”
“Why not?” I demanded, scowling.
“Remember, dear,” she said sweetly, “This picture isn’t quite finished yet, and he is the star. We’ll need his slimy puss for some closeups, as is. As wife-to-be of the controlling owner of K-T I say we’ve got to be prudent! Mangle him later, dear!”
I pushed Tanger away and drew Kitty close to me, grinning.
“Anyhow,” I said. “Here’s one fade-out clinch where the double takes over!” I signaled to Connor. “Let ’em roll, professor!”
~ The End ~
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Mr. Bingler's Murder Maze
By Wilbur S. Peacock
(56 min read)
Crack Detective | Mar. 1943 | Vol. 3 No. 2
Mr. Bingler was on the spot, for here was a case not covered by the situations described in his handy little instruction booklet for Home Detectives. But the little man's courage held out, even when he found himself lying next to a murdered man, with his own sword-umbrella sticking out of the corpse as sure-fire evidence!
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