Better Than Dead—24

by Colin Deerwood


She was all over me like butter on scotch. I knew my next move would decide if I was going to be staring down the double barrel of a shotgun or not. I was torn by the urge to pull her in close or pushing her away. I looked at that young face and I saw Rebecca, innocence yet passion.

“Listen,” I said “you. . . .”

She was passing her young lips all over my face and my neck, whispering in my ear, “Oh, Ned, Ned, I knew you’d come back to me!”

So that was it. “Ok, kid, you gotta calm down. You got me mixed up with someone else.” I held her by by the shoulders and pushed her away. “I’m not Ned. And if I do look like him, it’s just the family resemblance.”

“Oh no, Ned, you’ve come back just like you said you would!”

“Ok, let’s get one thing straight. I ain’t no ghost and I’m certainly not Uncle Ned back from the dead.”

She tried to put her arms around my neck and I held her wrists.

“But you look so much like the picture of him when he was younger and I think it looks just like you do right now except you’re not wearing a uniform. And he told me that if he could be that young again he would come and get me and take me away with him! And that’s just what he, you did!”

Now I knew I was dealing with nutty and the only way to deal with nutty is to be nutty right back. “Sorry to disappoint you, Marie. I’m not Ned and I can’t be Ned for you either.”

She gave me a fierce pout and was about to answer me back.

“Let me explain why.” I put on my most serious and somber air. “You see I just lost a loved one, a girl, in fact, just a little older than you.”

“Was she your girlfriend?!” she demanded.

“Well, I was hoping to make her my girlfriend but then she died.”

Her mouth went sad but her eyes were smiling. “Oh,” she muttered, “I’m sorry.” And then, “What did she look like?”

“She looked like a movie star.”

Her eyes brightened. “Oh, which one, which one?”

Now she had me. I’d been to a lot of movies but I could never remember any of the names of the dames. “What’s her name, the blonde with the grapefruit?”

“Oh I know, Jean Harlow!”

“Yeah, but more of a brunette and kinda classy.”

“Mina Loy?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Carole Lombard?” She narrowed her eyes in frustration. “Katherine Hepburn!”

“Yeah, that’s it, but younger.”

I watched her picture the face of the actress. “What was her name?”

I was surprised that it was difficult to speak it. “Becky, Rebecca.” And the ledge four stories up where she took her fall was still very clear.

I got a look of sympathy. “How did she die?”

It took me a bit to form the words. “She fell. From a building.”

“Oh, a suicide.”

“No, she and I were running away from a gang of crooks when the radio bomb blew up and she lost her footing trying to reach the fire escape.”

By the look in her eyes, she was stunned by disbelief.

“You see, I’m a newspaper reporter and I was investigating a mob boss who turned out to belong to the Black Hand. Becky was a cub reporter following me around cause I was supposed to be showing her the ropes, but we got too close to the bad guys. And she died. It happened just a few days ago, not more than a week. And that’s why I’m up here. The cops are after me because they want to know what I uncovered. The mob is after me to keep me from revealing what I uncovered. And then there’s the Thieves of Bombay out for revenge.”

I might have overdone it. Her eyes were shining.

“I don’t care if you’re Ned or not, I’m in love with you!” she said advancing with a youthful ardor.

“Once when I was swimming naked like I do on a full moon night because I read about a movie star who did that, he saw me. And when he stood up to walk away, I saw that he had a stiffy.

I heard it, and she heard it too, a shuffling and heavy breathing. I thought maybe it was the bear and turned in that direction and when I turned back, she was gone. Then I saw him, lumbering up the path, red faced beneath the ragged straw hat. He was carrying a shotgun. He nodded to me as I stepped out onto the porch.

“Ifn I believed in ghosts I‘d say you was one. Marie said you was. I knowed him after he come back from the war n he looked a lot like you do now. You’re family I take it.” When I nodded, wary of the shotgun resting across his forearm, “Abner Wilson. I got the big cabin over yonder.” He cocked his head in the direction I made a note to avoid in the future. “Ned and me was fishing and drinking partners. He supplied the fish and I supplied the drink. It was a good trade. You fish?”

“I’ve been known to.”

“You don’t look like no country boy except for the dings on your face. You ain’t showing any laboring muscle. City boy?” He sent a squirt of tobacco juice into the berry bramble.

“I’m Stan Gardner,” I said, “I was a reporter working on a story about the mob and I got too close. That’s why the knuckle prints.” That got his interest.

“So this is your hideaway? That mean the gov’mint gonna come snooping around?”

“They won’t if nobody tells them I’m here.”

“You sure you ain’t a revenuer?”

“Do I look like one?”

“No, can’t say as you do.” Old Wilson glared with a squint eye. “You look like trouble. Stay offn my property.” He shifted the shotgun to the ready. “And stay away from my daughter.”


I found his daughter after the moonshiner had slouched away through the thicket separating the properties. She was propped up quite comfortably on granny’s bed reading movie magazines.

“Where’d you find those?” I asked flipping through the dusty stack at her side. There were copies of Screen Star, Film Fun, and Star Brite along with some more risqué covers and content from Gay Parisienne, Spicy, and Smart Set.

She looked up from her magazine, smiling mischievously. “Under the bed. Ned used to get them for me. Well, not all of them.” She flicked the cover of a Spicy with a particularly racy cover. “He would read me stories of Hollywood and all the movie stars. And after a while I caught on how to read and could read them by myself and he said he was real proud of me. Even the teacher over at the school was surprised I could figure out how to read and knew so much about Hollywood which she said was the den of devils but I didn’t believe her because if these are pictures of devils I want one and I want to be one.” She held up a full page spread of Hollywood dollies.

“Wait a minute. You and Ned were. . . ?”

“Intimate? Not once. He wouldn’t allow it. I read all about it in one of his magazines, all the different kinds of kisses, like the soul kiss and the vacuum kiss, the eyelash kiss, the nip, the taxi kiss, and there’s this book called the camera suiter with pictures of how to hold someone when you’re in love with them and. . . .”

“Ok, ok, I think I heard enough. So Ned never tried anything, you know, with his. . . ?”

“Once when I was swimming naked like I do on a full moon night because I read about a movie star who did that, he saw me. And when he stood up to walk away, I saw that he had a stiffy. I thought it was funny because I thought only the boys at school got them. And they’re always after me to touch them, but I won’t ever. Ned told me not to touch their toads, he called them that, cause I’d get warts on my hands and I want my hands to be perfect and white as a Hollywood starlet.”

The sirens were sounding in my head and I don’t mean the ones sitting on rocks calling out to sailors that my old man told me about. These were police sirens, tornado warning sirens, air raid sirens, draw bridge sirens, man overboard ship sirens all telling me one thing. I was looking at trouble. That was the last thing I needed. And the way she was looking at me spelled my doom.

“You’re going to get me killed. You heard your old man. He’d shoot me if he knew you were here.”

She pouted and gave me a sorrowful look. “But Ned. . . .”

“I’m not Ned and you know it!” It came out harsh and she drew back alarmed. I’d scared her. And I realized then that she could be a better ally than an adversary. “Listen, Marie, maybe you can help me.” That brightened her up. “There are some real bad men who would like nothing better than to get their hands on me. I need someone who knows their way around Little Lake, someone who knows hiding places in case they come looking for me, someone to keep their eyes and ears open so someone don’t come sneaking up on me.”

Her eyes opened almost as wide as her pert little mouth and she nodded her head vigorously. “Oh, yes, yes, I can do that, Ned, er, I mean. . . ?”

“You can call me Stan for now. When I get to know you better, I’ll tell you my real name.” I held out my hand because I could tell she wanted to throw her arms around me to seal our compact. “Shake?”

I could have passed a hand over my brow to signify that I dodged a close one. Now she was all smiles as she paused at the door to the cabin. “You can count on me, Stan. And don’t worry about pa, by the time the sun goes down he’s usually drunker than a skunk on sour mash. And that shotgun ain’t loaded. It’s mostly for show when summer folk takes a wrong turn and wander onto his property..”


He had a smile like a mouthful of soda crackers. They turned to crumbs and he had to swallow them dry when he saw me. I saw him first, coming up behind him snooping around the cabin.

Earlier that day I’d set out with my list of items I’d need if I wanted to eat more than fish and drink moonshine, not that I objected to either of them. I fired up the Scout and rode down to the farm stand and picked up a sack of potatoes and a sack of onions, the foundation of any hearty meal. The farmer wanted two bits for a half dozen eggs. I might have paid that if he made me an omelet and served it to me on a silver platter. He was a thin rail topped by a bushy beard under a floppy felt hat. Under the overalls the sleeves of his long undershirt didn’t reach his wrists and he was missing two fingers on his left hand, pinky and ring. He’d given me the hard eye when I rode up. Maybe it was the sunglasses. I’d taken to wearing them as my eyes were sensitive to the bright country sunshine and the dark lenses helped ease the watery squint. I probably looked like a mobster or a Hollywood movie star to him. His scarecrow of a wife could only gape a toothless stare. The early corn was cheap and I picked up half a dozen ears for a nickel.

I had to go into Big Lake and the mercantile store to pick up canned goods including a couple bricks of spam and a two pound can of Hillsborough coffee. I ducked into the pharmacy and soda shop next door with a handful of nickels and found the bank of phonebooths at the back. I pulled the door shut, deposited a nickel and gave the operator the number to the shared phone by Alice’s studio. The operator instructed me to deposit two more nickels because it was a long distance call.

The phone rang about five times before a gruff voice answered. “Ya!”

“Hey Linkov!” I shouted into the handset, “Get Alice on the horn! It’s me, Lackland Ask!”

I heard him grumble something and then a loud knock and him shouting, “Alice! You have telephone!”

The operator had me deposit another slug before Alice answered. She was happy and happy to hear from me. I didn’t want to waste another dime and got straight to the point. Had she found anyone interested in buying Ted’s art piece?

But she was bubbling with her own news. First of all she was moving up to the loft that her friend Lee had occupied, and where Rebecca and I had spent the night, and who was going to move in with her boyfriend in a larger loft on Ninth Street. And the attack on her had come with a silver lining. An art dealer had read the story  about her being a victim of a violent crime in the paper. Now he was working with an uptown art gallery to get her a show of her own. He’d even sold a few of her watercolors to some rich swells so all of a sudden she had money and prospects for more.

Right about then the operator said I needed to deposit another nickel if I wanted to continue the call. “What about the art piece!” I shouted casting a glance through the glass of the booth door to see if anyone had heard me.

Alice said knew a retired doctor from New Jersey who might be interested and that she was in touch with him to make arrangements. I had just enough time give her the address in Ridley, Stan Gardner, care of Ruth Walker, before my supply of nickels ran out.

Herr Moustache’s army was advancing on Paris, Mister Loony was raising a fuss in North Africa, and Union Jack was in tatters. I didn’t even bother to read what Uncle Joe was up to because it all added up to war, and the battle field is no place for a coward like me.

I was about to clamber back on the old Indian when I caught a whiff of what was being wafted out of the exhaust fan at the Sleepy Waters Café across the street. It made my stomach rumble and I thought, what the heck, I’d just splurged six bits on a long distance call, I might as well treat myself to something that wasn’t fish or moldy preserves.

The sign on the window said Breakfast All Day Every Day. I caught a look at myself in the glass door going in. I was past needing a shave, hair mussed from the ride, and dark glasses I probably looked like a fugitive in some B movie.

But the waitress greeted me friendly enough and showed me to a booth and handed me a menu. “Are you with the movie people staying over at the Big Lake Lodge?” She took my hesitance as confirmation. She beamed a big smile, “Don’t worry I won’t tell anyone. One of the actresses was in here the other day and said their being here was all hush-hush.”

She set a cup of steaming java in front of me while I examined the menu. I had a choice of stewed prunes, apple sauce, or figs with toast and coffee for two bits which seemed a mite high for such a light repast. Or I could get one egg and two strips of bacon or a slice of ham, toast and coffee included, for the same price. Two eggs any style with a compliment of toast and coffee, the same. If I really wanted to splurge I could get a full portion of ham and eggs or bacon, potatoes, fried any style, marmalade on my toast, and coffee for just shy of four bits. I let my eyes wander down to the bottom of the menu and knew right away that the next item of half a dozen eggs, ham steak, potatoes, half a loaf of bread, toasted, and all the coffee I could drink bumping two whole dollars was beyond my budget.

When the waitress came by again I ordered the number 4. She refilled my cup and handed me a copy of the daily blat. “Coming right up,” she said, “You can read the funny papers while you’re waiting.”

To get to the latest in the lives of Maggie and Jiggs, Dagwood and Blondie, and Popeye and Olive Oyl, I had to cross a minefield of depressing headlines. Herr Moustache’s army was advancing on Paris, Mister Loony was raising a fuss in North Africa, and Union Jack was in tatters. I didn’t even bother to read what Uncle Joe was up to because it all added up to war, and the battle field is no place for a coward like me. To top it off, the local Army Corps had to recruit a hundred thousand men by the end of August otherwise the government was going to institute the draft. My appetite was spoiled even before I got to Joe Palooka and Kobby Walsh.

Beside the prospect of being drafted, the death of Becky, the cops and the mob being after me, not to mention the Thieves of Bombay, a trigger happy moonshining neighbor and his star struck oversexed teenage daughter were occupying my mind on my return to Little Lake so I didn’t think too much of the battered ‘31 Ford ragtop parked off to the side where Little Road goes from two ruts to one rut. And when I pushed the bike down the grade toward the cabin, I spotted him, a pear-shaped man with a peaked cap sporting some official insignia, a loose fitting green shirt with a badge clinging to the front pocket, and a wide belt and holster holding up a pair of oversized herringbone trousers. I was almost up on him when he must have heard me, whirling around and clutching at the pistol in the holster before pointing it at me. If I’d been given a guess, I’d say I had just met Thorny.

Next Time: The Graveyard


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