Sunday, February 25, 2007

Chapter 4: A Voice from Above

A Crime Novel in Installments,
by Dick Adler

Where we left off: While waiting to hear again from Saul Cooperman, who’s out West digging up clues to a murder case, Ivan Davis took dinner with his parents and then received an invitation to Vesuvio’s restaurant from his mob-connected cousin, who said he might know some things Ivan should hear.

* * *

While Ivan, at Vesuvio’s, was hearing about how the mob might have connections to Viking magazine, his colleague Ross Calhoun was getting an earful of another sort of whispers across town, at the Four Seasons Hotel. Writers and editors descended from the Time and Life offices liked to pad out their expense accounts at the Four Seasons’ restaurant--Brock Burns among them. A year ahead of Ross at Dartmouth, Burns had chosen journalism over espionage, but it was a close call. A professor in the history department was a famous CIA talent scout, and Burns was smart and devious enough to catch his attention. Despite turning down the Agency’s offer (Burns liked the ideas of fame and money better), he still kept up with some CIA types in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

“Everything alright in the sweat and tits business?” he asked, his grin brimming over the rim of a vodka tonic.

Ross knew that his old classmate was working on something very boring for Time, so he shrugged off his usual jealousy. “I’m busy cutting a murder novel down from 150,000 words to 30,000. It’s a great lesson in brevity.”

“Good. The reason I ask, is that one of my contacts wondered if I knew anyone in the men’s adventure magazine field--especially your rag. Seems there’s been a leak somewhere; some writer for Viking doing the leaking. I thought I’d check with you before giving him your name.”

“What kind of leaking are we talking about here? The odd sex habits of generals and senators?”

“Probably something a bit more serious than that,” Brock said. “My contact is quite high up on the Agency ladder. But why speculate now? I’ll have him call you tomorrow. You might even get a trip to Washington for your efforts.”

Calhoun was still thinking over Brock’s questions and suggestions as he strolled back to the Viking offices, where a pulpish but strong short story written by one of Gold Medal’s hot new novelists awaited his editing. Yet even in the midst of marking up copy, he wondered what to make of all that gab about leaks, and why someone from Viking would stir interest among the clandestine set. As Ivan had said after his cousin’s ominous invitation to lunch at Vesuvio’s, who in hell could possibly care what a Viking writer was up to?

* * *

Me. I cared. That is, the people who paid me cared--especially a lunatic Wisconsin senator riding a very hot white horse. So I shared his concern.

Call me Kid Nickels. My old man ran a newsstand in the Bronx, and that’s how I picked up the nickname--hustling for nickels. Now I was fat and 40, always snappily dressed, usually wearing a blue cashmere suit with a $30 shirt and a tie to match, but in a sense I was still that hustling kid.

What I hustled now, though, was information--mostly rumors, but occasionally the real stuff. Scandalous stuff. Because of my background, I started off as a Red, a communist: I figured it was a way to meet free-thinking girls. But I soon realized that the big money and power were all on the other side. So I hooked up with one of this Republican senator’s rich young helpers--probably a fag, though he never tried to get fresh with me.

My first victory came as a teenager, when I “exposed” a gang of Red collaborators within the Boy Scouts of America. Then, because I’d always thought of myself as a show business type, by the time I turned 20 I was putting out--virtually on my own--a magazine called Counterattack, in which I lobbied hard to establish a blacklist of actors and screenwriters who were obviously on the wrong side, America-haters. Treasonous bastards. Producing Counterattack marked the happiest time in my blacklisting career. It gave me the opportunity to bask in the glamorous limelight of show business. Once I got a top comic actor named Jack Gilford kicked off the Colgate Comedy Hour on TV by dialing up the New York Yankees’ front office and saying that I didn’t think Yogi Berra ought to be on the same show with a known Communist-fronter like Gilford.

Ah, sweet memories.

True, after some of the worst stuff I did eventually came to the light--in a book I wrote myself, believe it or not--I did a soft year at
Lewisburg for contempt of Congress. But that’s all behind me now, and I’m right back in the thick of things, even though my profile is a lot closer to invisible than it was in my glory days.

The cost you pay for trying to do the right thing, eh?

* * *

It was two days later that the call finally came in: Saul Cooperman, ringing from New Mexico. Despite the scratchy connection, the once-famous novelist sounded excited, as though whatever story he was working on out West--presumably the Lopez murder case--and whatever lead he was following now, had reawakened his energy and sense self-worth. Ivan fielded the call and tried to find out what was going on, but he didn’t get very far. “I can’t talk much,” Cooperman said. “This guy with the gun says not to. But I’m where I said I would be.” Then the phone went abruptly dead.

Ivan hustled off to the managing editor’s office, where he recalled for McLennon the entirety of his phone call. The M.E. dialed their publisher to pass on the news.

Later that afternoon, McLennon, Ivan, and Ross, along with mystery writer Perry Marcus, who headed up Viking’s Court of Final Justice, a publicity-attracting project that tried to help unjustly convicted prisoners, met in publisher Louis Erickson’s penthouse office. Marcus seemed anxious for immediate action. “We can’t let them push our writers around,” he said in his best courtroom-lawyer voice.

“We don’t even know who ‘they’ are,” Ross reminded everyone. “Whatever trouble Saul is in, we may not be able to get him out of it by ourselves.”

“Maybe we should just call the cops,” Ivan suggested. Nobody seconded his motion.

Erickson rocked back in his leather desk chair, tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling for a moment, and then asked the M.E., in a tenor that seemed too calm for the circumstances: “Morgan, how soon can you get out to New Mexico?”

“Not for a while,” answered McLennon, who, like Ivan, thought the Court of Final Justice was little better than an expensive do-gooder project. The fact that Saul Cooperman had gotten into trouble while working on a Court-related assignment only confirmed his doubts about the whole enterprise.

Erickson was visibly annoyed, his bushy eyebrows threatening to become one at the bridge of his bulbous nose. “OK, get out there as soon as possible. Meanwhile”--and here he swung on Davis and Calhoun--“you two will go out there and see what you can find out about this mess.” When the two staffers didn’t immediately leap from their chairs, Erickson added, “Well, what the hell are you waiting for?”

© Copyright 2007 by Dick Adler

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Chapter 3: The Plot Thickens

A Crime Novel in Installments,
by Dick Adler

Where we left off: After exercising their sex drives a bit, Ivan Davis and Ross Calhoun finally visited the apartment of Saul Cooperman. They found no trace there of the missing writer, but did discover dried blood on the sofa. A sign of foul play?

* * *
As Ivan expected, Morgan McLennon was more annoyed than worried by Saul’s apparent disappearance or the signs of violence in his apartment. A good companion (one afternoon he’d invited Ivan along to meet his friend Behan, as the prison-pasty poet stripped off his sweaty shirt in the middle of Brooks Brothers in order to try on a new one) and a generous mentor, this son of a junk dealer from Providence, Rhode Island, seemed to see in Ivan’s radical upbringing some kind of social commitment he himself had missed. In the year since Ivan had answered his ad in The New York Times and left his apprenticeship at a scruffy little publishing house, where they airbrushed out the models’ nipples and writers got paid only when they threatened to throw the owner out of his eighth-floor window onto Fifth Avenue, Davis had written stories for Viking about American veterans of the Spanish Civil War whose careers had been cut off by their service, and had done some research for a piece that McLennon and his friend, photographer Will Redmond, were putting together on new aspects of the Caryl Chessman capital-punishment case out in California.

Both articles looked a bit out of place in Viking’s mix of oddly juiceless sex stories and tales of hunting and fishing, hidden treasure, and the inevitable World War II battles, but Morgan tried to give the magazine, and Worldwide’s lesser publications, at least a touch of the variety and literary class noticeably missing from the Magazine Management products--despite their editors’ and writers’ own lofty ambitions.

He listened to other job offers (mostly because of his wife, who used to be married to a successful science-fiction writer; with the help of her money, they had a large apartment on Washington Square and a weekend place in Lyme Rock, Connecticut), but his heart really wasn’t into changing positions. Viking seemed to be the height of Morgan’s ambition, and he enjoyed the free meals and travel junkets that regularly came his way.

The other side of McLennon was a total lack of forgiveness for human weakness. Cooperman had been one of his heroes; now he was just another drunk feeding at the men’s adventure trough. Morgan laughed when Ivan suggested that they contact the New Mexico state police, in case Saul was actually in trouble out there. “If we spent our time tracking down every has-been, we’d never get anything done,” the managing editor said.

Ivan talked with Ross about it at lunch; they agreed to give things another day before taking any action. Meanwhile, Viking’s publisher called to ask how Saul was getting along on his research into the Lopez slaying. “Perry Marcus seems to be taking a personal stake in this one,” Erickson said about the best-selling mystery writer who headed up his Court of Final Justice. Ivan stalled the publisher, hoping to give Cooperman a chance to surface, but he had a bad feeling that Saul wasn’t just out somewhere in the western desert, sampling local brews.

Yet he had other matters on his mind. Ruth and Ivan occupied themselves on Saturday with sex, browsing in used bookstores on Astor Place, and lots of food. Ivan had a freelance check burning to be splurged, so they blew $20 on some hearty French peasant cooking and a bottle of decent, unpretentious Beaune at Café Brittany on 9th Avenue--followed by Chico Hamilton’s smoky jazz and a Wild Turkey at the Five Spot.

Then, on Sunday, Ivan made an overdue trip back to the Bronx to see how the previous generation of his family was getting on. With a pound box of Baracini’s chocolates under one arm--half ginger-filled for his father, half orange peel for his mother--he made the subway trip that had carved a permanent track in his memory, surviving even some serious shelling in Korea.

“Boychick,” exclaimed his old man, grinning, the printer’s ink under the fingernails at the end of his steel-cable-like arms the permanent proof of how he had paid their rent and grocery bills during all of Ivan’s life. He worked in the press room at a left-leaning newspaper called PM, and although he never said it out loud, Ivan knew that the men’s adventure magazine business wasn’t really what he had in mind for his only child. He also knew that his dad was proud of the money Ivan made, the fact that he wore a shirt and tie to work, and that in at least some small ways he helped right social wrongs.

Ivan’s mother, the intellectual in the family, still had dreams that he would give up all this men’s magazine nonsense and go back to college, at least part-time. A librarian at the public branch on Castle Hill Avenue, she knew more about history and philosophy than Ivan could ever hope to soak up. Between what she earned and his father’s pay, they made enough to buy a little house in the suburbs--maybe one of the Long Island towns where Ivan’s uncles and aunts mowed their new lawns on weekends. But the Davises liked the city: the Bronx stew reminded them of the way their own parents had lived on the Lower East Side after they arrived in New York City as emigrants from Germany, Poland, and Lithuania in the 1880s.

“So what’s new at the Algonquin Round Table?” asked his little, round mother as they all settled down in the living room. “Has Mr. Benchley or Miss Parker said anything memorable over their oysters lately?”

“Not to me. All I know about the Algonquin is that it’s a great place to pick up British airline stewardesses. I could tell you stories ...”

“Please, leave me with at least a few illusions,” she said dryly. “Speaking of which, I heard that Heidi Rendelbaum is marrying an insurance agent. Joel Rubin, from the class ahead of you.” Heidi had been one of Ivan’s virgin girlfriends at James Monroe. With his pal and track companion, Paul Messenger, whose ambition stretched only as far as becoming a high-school history teacher, and Paul’s lifelong love, Anne, they had once bowled together on Saturdays, followed that up with pizza, then smiled nervously at each other with melted cheese on their teeth. There were lots of girls like Heidi at CCNY; apartments and babies glowed like lighthouses in their futures.

“So what’s up with your social life?” Ivan’s father inquired. “Still finding soul mates among the Bomb-Banners?”

“Why do you think they call it the peace movement?” Ivan said in his best Groucho Marx imitation. If things went well, he did plan to ask Ruth to join him up here for dinner one Sunday, or maybe they’d go out to the Davis family’s favorite Chinese place for shrimp with lobster sauce. But it was still too early in their relationship even to mention such things.

They enjoyed one of his mother’s specialties, a kosher chicken roasted with potatoes and carrots, and his father broke out a couple of bottles of German beer. The old man’s own family of Berlin socialists had mostly died in concentration camps; his father had arrived in America at age 16, and become an unlettered (he still didn’t read English) but occasionally successful electrical engineer and inventor. Ivan’s mother’s family, the Feldmans, being smarter or faster or just luckier, had sailed across the ocean as teenagers; she had two sisters and two brothers working hard at becoming suburban Americans. Ivan had six cousins, at least two of whom were people he’d have liked even if they weren’t relatives.

One of these, his cousin Bobby Siegel, who as a handsome teenager had scored some early sex points while working as a cabaña attendant at a ritzy spa in New Jersey, called Ivan the next morning, Monday. “Come have some clams casino with me at Vesuvio’s,” he said, referring to a known mob hangout frequented by many of Bobby’s contacts. “I’m hearing some stuff you might be interested in,” his cousin added, cryptically.

© Copyright 2007 by Dick Adler

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Chapter 2: Sex and Violence

A Crime Novel in Installments,
by Dick Adler

Where we left off: During his weekly poker game with Ross Calhoun and other pulp magazine editors and writers in New York, Viking’s Ivan Davis learns that Saul Cooperman, a once-famous Chicago novelist reduced by drink, has a new lead in solving a murder mystery.

* * *

“So what did Cooperman want?” Ross asked Ivan. In spite of their very different upbringings (Calhoun was a New Hampshire kid who got into a posh prep school because they liked the idea of a smart local boy among the rich students), Ross had, like Ivan, been a huge fan of An Immigrant’s Diary, which he’d read between football practice sessions at Dartmouth College. Now he shared Ivan’s mixture of fear and faded respect for Cooperman’s subsequent fate.

“I was hoping he had a new story or at least a section of a novel,” Ross said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to run a cover line announcing that?”

“Sure--right below ‘Secret Sex World of Debutante Call Girls’ or ‘I Battled a Giant Otter,’” Ivan replied. “No chance. He’s after an advance--five hundred bucks for a Court of Final Appeal story he’s working on. Can you imagine Erickson going for that?” Both men shook their heads at the ridiculousness of such a proposal.

The next morning, after sharing a 50-cent breakfast with Calhoun at a local greasy spoon--neither of their apartments had kitchens--Ross went off to visit some recent Smith College graduates, while Ivan spent that Saturday in the company of Ruth Sharansky, a hefty and sexy bohemian girl he’d met at a Catholic Worker peace rally. She was surprised that a Korean War enlistee like Davis would be against war; he was surprised by her surprise.

In between discussions with worthy folk at the rally in Washington Square, they smoked Ruth’s Gitanes and cruised through Greenwich Village, an area Ivan had been intrigued by ever since he read the novels of Dawn Powell. They dropped in at the White Horse, where the Clancy Brothers sang about Irish history, then decided to see how many famous painters they could recognize at the Cedars Bar, a famous artists’ hangout. Ivan spotted de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and Franz Kline--all looking as though they belonged there.

The couple splurged on stuffed cabbage at Ratner’s on Delancey Street, around the corner from Ruth’s apartment, then wound up in her bed, where Ivan made his own contribution to world peace. She was as round and as sweet as a watermelon, and he enjoyed her company, even if her sheets needed washing. They stayed in bed all through Sunday, had a late breakfast of scrambled eggs and kasha at a deli on Second Avenue, then split up to get ready for the working day ahead--she at her job as a junior copywriter with a Midtown advertising agency, he at the magazine. They were both smiling as she walked him to the subway.

On Monday morning, after cashing his paycheck, Ivan bought a pack of Gitanes at the newsstand on the first floor of the building where Worldwide Publications had its offices. He braced himself for another call from the errant Cooperman--and for Morgan’s scorn for one of his own literary heroes gone bad. McLennon had been a heavy drinker himself; he only quit, he once confessed, when someone in Paris told him that his urine tasted sweet.

But the morning brought only welcome silence from Saul. Ivan spent the day editing a story about a fake World War II battle (they’d used up all the real ones) and arguing with Morgan about whether a cover line reading “I Saw Them Eat Muñoz” was clear enough about cannibalism. In between, he spent a few minutes doing what he often did--wondering if this was really where he should be working at 25, especially if he wanted to become a “serious writer” someday. The answer, though, was always the same: he was a dropout from New York’s City College, who had enlisted in the Army to get some real-life experience; the Viking job paid decently, and he was lucky to have it; he was actually in the magazine business, and anything could happen.

There were plenty of good examples of men who’d used their editorial jobs as springboards to something more literary. Billy Freeman over at Magazine Associates was working on some fiction of his own, while also managing to buy 36 to 40 freelance stories a month at $500 apiece from writers such as Bruce Pronzini--who in turn used that money to feed his family, while sweating away at a long novel about Italian immigrants that had been in the works for five years. So what if some people Ivan knew from college (the ones who didn’t ask if he actually got to meet the girls on the Viking covers) came over a bit snotty when he told them where he worked? They were mostly pulling in $75 a week writing captions at Time or Life or Look, wearing Brooks Brothers button-down shirts they couldn’t afford, and drinking the cheapest, most palatable French wines they could find.

Saul was equally silent all day Tuesday. On Wednesday, Ivan began to worry; Cooperman didn’t answer his phone. Maybe he was sick, or sleeping off a binge. Ivan persuaded Ross to spend their lunch hour going over to Cooperman’s place in Tudor City, just down the street from their offices. But there, they found no signs of anything odd ... or of Saul, either. They banged on his door long enough to wake a corpse, but he never answered. Finally, they sought to convince the building manager, a scrawny and suspicious man in his 50s, that they were indeed Cooperman’s employers, and were worried about his not keeping an appointment.

“Maybe he needs a doctor,” Ivan said. “Can you open the door for us?”

The manager remained suspicious, but he let them into Saul’s place.

It was a shabby apartment, with a sad lack of comfort, smacking of an empty life very different from Cooperman’s days of fame. Saul’s bed looked slept in, and there were a few shirts waiting for the laundry. The kitchen needed a cleaning, but there was no sign of recent cooking or eating, except for the remnants of a can of Scotch Broth soup that must have been his supper.

Then, in the living room furnished with seedy castoffs, Ivan and Ross found their first clue. A stain of what looked like dried blood decorated the back of the lonely man’s sofa. Ivan reached for the phone; it was working, although someone seemed to have tried to yank its cord from the wall. As he dialed Morgan’s number, he remembered Saul’s call to the poker game on Friday. Something about New Mexico crept back into his memory ...

© Copyright 2007 by Dick Adler

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Chapter 1: The Cards Are Dealt

A Crime Novel in Installments,
by Dick Adler

The high desert wind sliced through their city clothes. Up ahead was the virtually deserted town of Los Alamos, where they hoped the man they had come for was still alive. Then a row of very bright lights burst into life, followed by another. Men with guns, wearing watch caps and heavy gloves, exploded out of Quonset huts. The guns were all pointing at them ...

* * *

It began with a poker game.

They had hired a boozed-out magazine writer named Jim Thompson with a couple of pulp crime novels to his credit as managing editor of Saga downstairs. Thompson lasted about six months; he eventually got fired for trying to start a union of writers and editors, and moved on to the same job on the less-demanding Police Gazette.

Meanwhile, people like Ivan Davis, who worked a few floors above for Worldwide Publications--including a men’s adventure magazine called Viking, for which he toiled as articles editor for $150 a week--served under a burly ex-Marine named Morgan McLennon, a managing editor who hid beneath his rough exterior a surprising streak of sensitivity and intelligence. He’d spent a year in Paris, where he became friendly with Brendan Behan, and was a champion freeloader of food and travel. He was also a deadly gin rummy player, and more often than not took lunch money from Ivan while Davis cursed and kicked his filing cabinet.

Neither Thompson nor McLennon played in the Friday night poker games--Morgan because he had a socially demanding wife, and Thompson because he sent his money back to Los Angeles, where his family lived. It was a colorful group--mostly men’s adventure magazine writers and editors whose hopes for literary fame and fortune surged with every week’s New York Times Book Review.

Although Worldwide employees and the gang from Saga made up its core, a sizable band of would-be tough-guy types also took the weekly after-work journey from Magazine Management to the building on the corner of Third Avenue, across 42nd Street from the Daily News with its giant golden globe in the lobby, and just down the street from Tim Costello’s famous bar and restaurant.

The assembly this Friday included Barry Sternberg and Dick Harris, the two top editors of Sport; Saga’s suave and ambitious art director, Hal Goldman; three would-be novelists from Male and Stag--Bruce Pronzini, Billy Freeman, and Josh Green; plus Ivan’s friend and new housemate, Viking’s fiction editor, Ross Calhoun. And of course Davis, nothing like as good a poker player as he thought he’d become in the hills of Korea.

The telephone at the receptionist’s desk had been ringing all evening; now it went off every five minutes. Finally, Dick Harris, having already won his tiresomely predictable $75, folded an unpromising hand and got up to answer it.

“Maybe you’d better take this,” he said to Ivan when he came back to the three desks they’d pushed together to make their table. “He says he’s one of your writers--Saul Cooperman?”

Cooperman was the author of a prize-winning novel from the 1930s, An Immigrant’s Diary--a book that Ivan’s freethinking (on almost all other subjects) socialist father had objected to his son bringing home, because of its sex scenes. So Davis read it with awe and jealousy in the library at James Monroe High School, and he began to think about writing for a living.

Drink and a vanishing talent for fiction had reduced Cooperman: he now wrote true-crime stories for the men’s adventure magazines. Most of his work for Viking involved research for the Court of Final Justice, publisher Louis Erickson’s attempt to add class to his sleazy product by assembling a team of experts to solve famous crimes.

“Saul, what’s up?” Ivan asked, after deciding that his chances of drawing to a flush were slim.

“Ivan, I need to reach Morgan,” Cooperman answered in his boozy but still oddly impressive voice. “I’ve got a great lead into this story I’m working on, but I’ll need some dough to make my contact.”

“How much are we talking about here?”

“Five hundred should cover it. Can Morgan get me that much as soon as possible?”

Erickson was a notorious penny-pincher who once said to Davis, after he told him that one of their top writers--who had two stories unpaid for and a wife dying of cancer--was begging for a check, “Pay him for one.” So the chances of McLennon getting Erickson to lay out that kind of cash in a hurry were nonexistent.

“I can’t reach Morgan until tomorrow,” Ivan lied. “What story is this--the Lopez murder?”

“That’s it. I’ve got a source, a guy in Santa Fe who says he knows what really happened. But he won’t hang around waiting: you guys have to move on this right away.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Ivan told him. Noticing that a new hand was being dealt, he hung up and returned to the table.

An hour later, he was down to two bucks in his wallet, plus his uncashed paycheck. They decided to call it a night. For a moment Ivan blanked out and thought about going home on the IRT to the West Bronx, where until two months ago he’d been living in his old bedroom in his parents’ railroad apartment in Castle Hill. Then he remembered he was now a Manhattan guy, renting (for $30 a week) a one-bedroom place in the house on East 82nd, where Ross Calhoun also lived. Owned by a rich old widow and furnished in dusty 1930s plush grandeur, it was close to the Metropolitan Museum, where artistic young women seemed impressed by Ivan’s job. These, plus the stewardesses he met on the flights that Morgan’s heavy freeloading schedule made him pass down reluctantly to Ivan, added up to a sex life which was definitely occasional but often interesting.

“I was going to suggest a beer at Costello’s,” Ivan said to Ross. “But then I’d have to borrow subway money from you, plus twenty bucks for the weekend.” They walked out onto 42nd Street, nearly deserted at midnight, and headed for the subway on Lexington.

© Copyright 2007 by Dick Adler