Terminal illness and regret go hand-in-hand. Two months ago, Amos Littlejohn was in the prime of life, and had plenty of energy to be enraged when his pregnant daughter was abandoned by her husband, matinee idol Ahmed Shiraz. Now stricken with leukemia, Littlejohn is near death, and beginning to regret taking out a contract on the actor’s life. He hires international private eye Chester Drum to call off the hit and protect Shiraz until his life is safe. On his first night on the job, Drum’s partner takes a shotgun blast meant for the actor. Wanting nothing more than to wring Shiraz’s neck, Drum follows him to Europe, where he must contend with assassins, beatniks, and the powerful effects of an experimental drug called LSD.
About the Author
Stephen Marlowe (1928–2008) was the author of more than fifty novels, including nearly two dozen featuring globe-trotting private eye Chester Drum. Born Milton Lesser, Marlowe was raised in Brooklyn and attended the College of William and Mary. After several years writing science fiction under his given name, he legally adopted his pen name, and began focusing on Chester Drum, the Washington-based detective who first appeared in The Second Longest Night (1955). Although a private detective akin to Raymond Chandler’s characters, Drum was distinguished by his jet-setting lifestyle, which carried him to various exotic locales from Mecca to South America. These espionage-tinged stories won Marlowe acclaim, and he produced more than one a year before ending the series in 1968. After spending the 1970s writing suspense novels like The Summit (1970) and The Cawthorn Journals (1975), Marlowe turned to scholarly historical fiction. He lived much of his life abroad, in Switzerland, Spain, and France, and died in Virginia in 2008.
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Drumbeat â?" Erica
A Chester Drum Mystery
By Stephen Marlowe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Fawcett Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The subject began running out of steam at a bar on West Houston Street called the Emu. It was after two in the morning, and he was pretty drunk. The piece of beatnik fluff that had been attached to his arm all night seemed even drunker. Maybe supporting her weight as they drifted from joint to joint on MacDougal and Bleecker Streets had finally got him down.
I followed them into the Emu. It was a narrow, cheerless room with sawdust on the floor, wood plank tables on one side, a long bar on the other, and autographed pictures of not-quite-celebrities festooning the walls with all the attention to artistic display that mug-shots get in the post office. But the stale air was warm, and that must have meant a lot to the drifters still leaning on the Emu bar and sitting at the plank tables. It was cold outside and getting colder. I thought it might snow before morning.
The subject, whose name was Ahmed Shiraz, arranged himself and the girl on a pair of stools at the bar. I peeled off my trenchcoat and draped it, and me, on a couple of chairs at a table behind them. I wished Shiraz would bed the girl down somewhere so I could call it a night.
"It's going round and round," the girl said.
"What is?" Shiraz asked her without much interest.
She giggled. "Everything, man."
Shiraz said a four-letter word distinctly.
The girl giggled again. "Are you trying to be philosophical or something?" She had a little trouble with the word philosophical.
Shiraz yawned at his reflection in the back-bar mirror. The yawn went away and his reflection smiled back at him. He was a guy who liked his face. After all it had earned him a few million bucks.
I wondered if anyone would try to beat it to a pulp before the night was over.
The barman minced over to them. He was a skinny flit with big soft watery eyes and a duty white jacket. "Why, you're Ahmed Shiraz," he said. "I see all your pictures. I think you're a marvelous actor."
"Actually I stink," Shiraz said. "It's just I got sex appeal."
"Well, I can certainly see that," the barman said.
The girl said, "Hey, you really are an actor. I kind of thought you were putting me on."
The watery-eyed barman glared at her.
"It's just I don't go to the movies much if at all," she said. "I don't believe in them."
"You don't have to believe or disbelieve," Shiraz said. "They're not a religion."
The girl laughed. It was no giggle this time. She pulled Shiraz's arm against her breast and snuggled up to him. She was wearing a green loden coat, the kind with toggles instead of buttons. All the toggles were undone. Under the coat she wore a black turtleneck sweater and tight black stretch pants. Her tennis sneakers were worn and dirty, showing grubby ankles. She wasn't wearing any socks despite the February cold. Her long black hair hung in a ponytail. She had high cheekbones and was wearing dark glasses. Despite the beatnik getup, she was a good-looking dame.
Shiraz ordered two gimlets. They had been drinking them all over the Village.
A waiter came to my table listlessly, his space-shoes shuffling on the sawdust. I asked for a beer. He went away and brought it and went away again.
A few people wandered out of the Emu and a few, more or less just like them, wandered in.
I left my beer and my coat and went down the length of the bar to the phone booth. A dime and four rings got me Harry Kretschmer, who worked for a small New York agency and was doing some work on the side for me. I could see Shiraz and the girl from inside the phone booth, not that they looked like they'd be going anywhere for a while. Shiraz had ordered another round of gimlets.
Harry Kretschmer made a middle-of-the-night noise.
"This is Drum," I said. "If you snap into it you can take over. A bar on West Houston called the Emu."
"Christ," Harry said. Moonlighting had seemed a good idea to him because he had a wife and three kids. He needed the dough.
"If they take off before you get here, wait for my call."
"Emu bar, West Houston, right," Harry said.
"How long will it take you?"
"Twenty minutes from the time I get up." Harry lived in Peter Cooper Village.
I laughed. "You mean you're not up yet?"
"Search me. Maybe I ought to wake the wife and ask her. Two-twenty ayem—Christ, Chet, why the hell don't you go back to Washington or Europe or wherever the hell you hang your hat? This moonlighting ain't such a hot idea."
"Shiraz sails tomorrow," I reminded him. "So do I."
He thanked the deity and hung up.
I went back to my table, sat down, clamped the beer glass to my face and drank. A big guy in a pea jacket had eased his rear end onto the stool next to Shiraz's girl. He asked the flit for a double bourbon, water on the side. When it came, he took a short swig of water and a long one of bourbon, rotated his stool to the left a little and said: "Hiya, Linda. Long time no see."
"I'm busy, Sailor," the girl with Shiraz said out of the side of her mouth, but loud enough for Shiraz to hear.
"You know this guy?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I knew him about a million years ago. In another incarnation."
An ugly frown rumpled Sailor's face in the back-bar mirror. "Real funny," he said. "You ain't changed a bit. You and them college words."
"Maybe I should have said another incarceration," Linda said. Shiraz laughed. Sailor's eyes narrowed as they met Shiraz's eyes in the mirror. Then he shrugged, nudged his lips with the glass, polished off the bourbon and asked for another.
I began to relax. The Emu bar on West Houston was in a no-man's-land between three neighborhoods, and if a week went by without a brawl it was one quiet week. North of West Houston was Greenwich Village, which explained how the flit got his job behind the bar. South of the street was what they called Little Italy. Further west, where the street ended on the river, was the waterfront. Beats and hot-blooded Italians and seamen on shore leave, it was like putting three starving and frustrated tomcats together in a small sack.
The big guy in the pea jacket didn't let me relax for long. He chewed on half of his second drink, leaned past Linda, leered at Shiraz and said, "I bet she picked you up in a joint on MacDougal, pal."
Shiraz's face got stony. He said nothing.
"A joint called the Bait Pail? That's where she hooked onto you, huh?"
Shiraz studied his own face in the back-bar mirror. It registered a look of studied contempt. Shiraz was very good at it.
"What ship you off of, pal?" Sailor persisted. Shiraz was wearing jeans, a bulky sweater and an unzipped windbreaker. He looked as much like a seaman on leave as the big guy did.
"I asked what ship you off of?"
"Kind of pull your face back three feet, friend," Shiraz said softly. "Your breath stinks."
Linda giggled nervously.
Sailor's lips went white. "Maybe you better say that again," he suggested.
Shiraz asked Linda in a conversational tone, "Did you ever see me in South of Singapore?"
"I said I don't go to the movies." She was looking anxiously at the man called Sailor. She made a slow pass at his face with her hand and seemed surprised that he didn't disappear. I began to get the notion she was on something more interesting than alcohol.
"There's this scene in a bar," Shiraz said. "I'm playing a pretty patient type who killed a fellow once with his fists and is scared of getting into a fight because he might do it again. A specimen of a lummox in a bar keeps on baiting me, but I don't bite for a while. Only the lummox won't take no for an answer. Finally what I do is this."
Smiling, Shiraz tossed what was left of his second gimlet in Sailor's face. Sailor got off his bar stool with a roar, but Shiraz, quicker, was already waiting on his feet. He threw a pretty good left hook that caught the seaman on the side of the jaw. Sailor's knee buckled. He held on to the bar with both hands. Shiraz didn't hit him again.
There was one of those brawl-awaiting silences. A couple of beat types at the end of the bar were watching Shiraz and the seaman eagerly. A middle-aged couple at the table next to mine got up to leave.
"They cut and printed it on the first take," Shiraz told Linda conversationally. "I'm pretty good at barroom brawls. Shall we go?"
The flit behind the bar had produced a policeman's billy. The hand that held it was shaking. "Drinks are on the house. For all three of you. If you get out now," he said.
"Sorry about the commotion," Shiraz said, and left a ten-dollar bill on the bar to prove it.
Sailor looked at him. "Outside, pally?"
Shiraz grinned at his own face in the back-bar mirror. I had seen that same grin in two or three of his movies. "I don't mind," he said.
Sailor left first, swaggering. Shiraz zipped his windbreaker. The two beats at the end of the bar paid and headed for the street. They wanted to watch the action.
"Stay here or come on out and see the fun?" Shiraz asked Linda. "It won't take long."
Linda licked her lips. "I'm coming."
I dropped a dollar bill on the table and slipped into my trenchcoat. This could have been the beginning of what I had been paid to prevent, or it could have been what it looked like—the not-unexpected consequence of a pickup and a long night of drinking in a tough neighborhood.
I went outside not liking the situation. If it was only a barroom brawl and Shiraz got the worst of it I'd have to jump in, and if I did that he might get the idea I'd been paid to protect him. That would lead to questions, and they were questions I couldn't answer.CHAPTER 2
Fat snowflakes were drifting down past the lighted lampposts on West Houston Street. A thin film of snow already covered the roofs and hoods of parked cars. The pavement glistened wetly.
Shiraz and Sailor had squared off, right in front of the three steps leading down to the Emu. Linda stood on the top step, her hands thrust into the pockets of the loden coat. The two beatnik types stood on the curb. Sailor, a little shorter than Shiraz but heavier and massive through the chest and shoulders, threw a high hard right that Shiraz ducked under. Shiraz caught him with a left to the gut that you could hear thud home. Sailor grunted, backed up two steps and sat down on the sidewalk. He scrambled to his feet in a hurry and Shiraz, smiling now, put him down again with a short, jolting right to the mouth. Sailor spat a couple of teeth and got up more slowly. He had a bewildered look on his face. He hadn't touched Shiraz yet. He missed with a left and a right, Shiraz hardly seeming to move as he evaded the blows, and left himself wide open for a haymaker Shiraz didn't throw. Instead the actor hooked his belly three times with his left and stepped back, grinning at Linda. Sailor stood there, arms dangling, bleeding mouth agape. He was all through, but Shiraz wanted to punish him. Four or five left jabs, Shiraz's arm moving like a piston, split Sailor's face open at the cheekbone. Sailor backed against a lamppost and held on. I found myself rooting for the wrong guy, which is never good in my line of work but sometimes unavoidable.
Sailor detached himself from the lamppost and wobbled toward Shiraz. A car pulled up on the other side of the street and parked. It was Harry Kretschmer's Chevy. Harry got out, a small dumpy figure in a dark raincoat, and started crossing. No reason for him to be stealthy: he'd just be a guy watching a brawl.
Sailor came toward Shiraz like a man trying to pull himself clear of quicksand, swinging a languid right fist that Shiraz caught in both hands, turning it, the arm, and Sailor, then planting a shoe on Sailor's duff that propelled him head-first at the lamppost. Sailor managed to sidestep it. He lurched into the street, stumbled to hands and knees, looked back at Shiraz, got up and kept going. He'd had enough.
All of it, including Harry Kretschmer's arrival, had taken no more than two minutes.
"It's getting kind of late," Shiraz told Linda. He wasn't even out of breath. "How about heading for your pad?"
"My God, where'd you learn your fighting, man?" Linda gasped. "He never even laid a glove on you."
"Naturally," Shiraz said. "By the way, it's supposed to make you very erotic."
Linda just looked at him.
"Two stags fighting over you," Shiraz smirked. "My beating the stuffing out of him. Like that. Where's that pad of yours?"
Down the street a car engine kicked over and caught while Linda was telling him. Harry Kretschmer, who was standing at the curb near the two beatniks, gave a barely perceptible jerk of his head to indicate I could take off. Then something made him turn around. It was the sound of a car coming slowly along the street without benefit of headlights.
Harry, who was closer to it, saw the shotgun barrel protruding from the rear window before I did.
"Watch it," he cried, and ran for Shiraz.
One barrel of the shotgun roared, and then the other. Harry flung his arms high and pitched forward. Shiraz caught him. Tires squealing, the car leaped forward. It was a large four-door sedan, not a late model. I couldn't make out the license plate.
Shiraz had eased Harry to the sidewalk. He straightened up and stared at the blood on his hands. Linda was gone, like a puff of smoke in a stiff wind. The two beats were running down Houston toward MacDougal Street.
I kneeled near Harry Kretschmer.
A head poked cautiously out the door of the Emu. It belonged to the watery-eyed flit.
I dug a couple of fingers into Harry's wrist, feeling for a pulse. There wasn't any. Trying to get Shiraz out of the way, he'd taken both blasts of the shotgun in his back.
"He's dead?" Shiraz asked me.
"Jesus," Shiraz said, "I can't get involved in this. Do you know who I am, mister?"
He had no chance of getting involved, not through me.
"Never saw you before, Jack," I said. He looked at me suspiciously. He didn't know if he could trust me or not. Maybe I'd try to put the bite on him later, but if I did there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
He went down the three steps to the Emu's door. One long arm hung itself over the flit's narrow shoulders. The movie star profile smiled. The mouth spoke earnestly. The flit nodded anxiously, smiling a watery-eyed smile. A wallet came out and some money changed hands. The hand on the long arm squeezed a narrow shoulder. The flit made a funny sound and went back inside. Shiraz came up the three steps.
"He's calling the cops. I wasn't here. If you're smart, neither were you."
"I'm smart," I said.
Shiraz went off down the street, in no great hurry. He turned the corner of MacDougal and was gone.
I looked down at Harry Kretschmer. Snow was already mantling his raincoat. Melting, it ran down his face like tears.CHAPTER 3
The address Linda had given Shiraz was an apartment building on Gay Street. I drove there through the snow and parked near a fireplug, figuring the Hertz people would have a tough time catching up with me if their car got ticketed.
There was no Linda Anybody in the vestibule directory, but a second floor apartment went under the name of L. Budd. Single girls living alone in New York rarely announce their sex on apartment house directories, unless their sex is the way they make their living. Deciding I had found my pigeon, I jabbed a thumb against the buzzer.
A squawk box asked me: "Who is it?"
"Shiraz," I said.
"You must be out of your cotton-picking mind, man."
But there was a buzzing sound, and the inner door of the vestibule clicked open for me. I found the stairs and went up them fast. I didn't want her waiting in the hall for me. She might hit the ceiling when she learned I wasn't Shiraz.
She wasn't waiting in the hall, but the door of her apartment stood open six inches, sending a shaft of light into the dim hallway. I knocked politely.
"I'm putting something on," her voice called. "Just park yourself somewhere."
I took off my coat and parked myself on a leather and wrought-iron butterfly chair that faced a closed door at the far end of the room. There was a sofa, a bar, another butterfly chair and one of those long low units that housed a hi-fi set. Travel posters were taped to the walls.
The door facing me opened and she came out barefoot and wearing a yellow quilted bathrobe and those dark glasses. She took two steps into the room and said, "It sure takes nerve to—" before she realized I wasn't Shiraz. "What the hell is this?" she asked on a rising note that might have been fear or surprise or a little of each.
Excerpted from Drumbeat â?" Erica by Stephen Marlowe. Copyright © 1967 Fawcett Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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