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The Press Conference was going well — as Press Conferences go. The Fleet Street boys were lit up, the Client wasn't. Their initial efforts to trap him into some incautious quotations had been sidestepped and they were past caring now. His latest LP was booming out over the amplifiers with a hypnotic beat, and the Press Release was so well written — if I do say it myself — that any sub could dredge a few hundred salient words out of it when his principal staggered back to the office.
For the moment, it looked as though I could relax. I snatched a Martini as the tray went past and retreated into a corner where I could keep an eye peeled for trouble.
It was the wrong corner and trouble was waiting for me. 'That room you got for Lou-Ann —' Maw Cooney had been lurking behind the drapes —'won't do at all. I' never saw such a poky little hole in all my born days. Are you sure this is a high-class hotel?'
I took a deep swallow before replying. She'd done nothing but complain since she stepped off the boat-train. 'It's generally considered to be one of the best hotels in London.'
'I'd hate to see the worst!' She sniffed and glanced sharply at the glass in my hand. 'Young man, are you supposed to be drinking on duty?'
'I'm a Public Relations Officer, Mrs Cooney — not a policeman.' To underline this, I took another swallow. You have to assert your independence with some of these characters. And she wasn't paying my salary.
'You haven't answered me. What about Lou-Ann? The Good Lord knows I don't mind for myself — I could sleep on a heap of rags in a corner — but it's a question of the fitness of things. Lou-Ann is the comedy star of this Troupe, after all, and it's mighty kind of her to agree to double up with her dresser — but to ask two of us to share that teensy little —'
'I'll see what I can do, Mrs Cooney,' I interrupted her. 'In fact, I'll see right now.' I got away quickly before she could block my retreat.
This corner was an improvement. There was nobody here but us chickens. It was clear now that the crowd was beginning to thin out a bit.
The LP hesitated, then began on the big one — the Top of the Charts — the number that had lifted Our Boy right out of the boondocks and into the big time.
'Ridin' alone ...'
You could call it Ballad, Country & Western, or Folk Music — whatever was 'in' this year. The music was plaintive, the lyric melancholy — and it had touched a chord in a lot of people. It was about a homesteader who had fenced off his acres, then had to fight beef barons who reckoned they owned the grazing rights to every acre of God's whole creation; just as he was wearying of the struggle, they cut a hole in his fence and stampeded the cattle through; his wife and the child she was about to bear were killed, and now they'd never drive him away because all he had was buried here on this homestead, and he'd stay until they buried him here, too. The Client was alleged to have written it himself — and it sounded semiliterate enough to be possible.
'Ridin' alone ...'
Uncle No'ccount moved forward slowly, pulling his harmonica and a red bandana from his hip pocket. He spat his upper teeth into the bandana and stowed it back in his pocket. He wrapped his lips around the harmonica and breathed into it. A cold wail of melody whiffled a chill down every spine as he picked up the tune.
He was every bum who'd ever hopped a midnight freight, one jump ahead of the railroad police, on his way from nowhere to nowhere, gone too long from home to even remember what he was running from any more.
'Ridin' alone now,
'For ever alone ...'
Cousin Homer chimed in softly with the guitar and Cousin Ezra took up the plaint with the fiddle. They seemed okay, although a bit too awkward and gangly, with wrists and ankles dangling too far out of their clothing for their ages. If they'd done any growing since they bought those clothes, they ought to will their bodies to the Harvard School of Pathology. Still, the fans hadn't seemed to notice — and who was I to knock a successful routine?
They were all playing along with the record now. If the Client held out much longer, it was going to be pointed. I looked over to try to catch his eye.
I needn't have bothered. He was already moving front and centre, grinning his lazy grin, forelock down over one eye, gliding with easy catlike grace. The grin didn't reach his eyes. The reluctance in his shrug was real — the self-deprecation wasn't. I'd only known this crew for six hours, but already I had enough of the picture to realize that there was going to be hell to pay for this performance — after the Press had left.
They'd reached the echo chamber bit when he took up the tempo. He looked more like Black Bart the Last of the Bushwhackers than Bart the Lonely Homesteader; but this was the act that was paying off, so this was the act he was doing — or almost.
The echo chamber did a little to disguise it, the live music did the rest, but Black Bart wasn't singing. His timing was perfect, the graceful throwaway gestures fitted perfectly. He stood there, miming to the record and, except for the musicians, I was probably the only one to notice it. It confirmed my opinion. The Client wasn't giving anything away free.
'For ever alone ...'
The spattering of applause showed how far the party had gone towards breaking up. During the number the waiters had been moving around purposefully, removing empty glasses from tables and detaching near-empty glasses from hands. Ashtrays were being emptied, and a couple of old-retainer types were doddering forward from the far end of the room, managing, like ancient collies, to herd the strays along in front of them.
The Client patted a few shoulders as they passed. 'Nice to have met y'all,' he said. 'Sure hope I'll be seeing a lot more of you.'
His eye had been resting on someone's little office junior as he said that, and I got a nasty feeling that it had a double meaning. At the very least. We were being paid far too much for this job — there must be some deep jagged icebergs beneath the glittering tops that broke the surface.
The last of the Press, exiting, collided with Lou-Ann, entering. She squawked and hurled herself back against the door frame. They glanced at her curiously, but Crystal Harper was right behind her, and nobody with all their hormones operational was going to waste time looking at Lou-Ann when Crystal was around.
Maw Cooney swept down on Lou-Ann, scolding, 'Where've you been? All them reporters were here — and they were taking pictures, too. Now you've missed the whole thing. And you, the comedy star!'
'Sorry, Maw,' Crystal Harper said, with lazy indifference, 'I'm afraid we went shopping and didn't notice the time. Girls will be girls, you know.'
Maw Cooney flashed her a look that told her she'd never been a girl. Several unmentionable variations, perhaps, but never that kind of girl.
Over Maw's head, Crystal met the Client's eyes. Hewasn't complaining. It occurred to me that it might have been deliberately engineered that Lou-Ann miss the Press Reception.
Lou-Ann whirled around and began babbling apologies to the Client. He nodded, not really looking at her. 'It don't matter. You're all right, honey.'
'But I missed everything. Now they won't have any pictures of me,' she wailed.
'You go talk to the Publicity Boy,' the Client jerked a thumb at me. 'He'll fix up something. That's what we're paying him for.' He gave her a shove that was rough but — for him — probably not unkindly, and she stumbled towards me.
She was the kid next door who had grown up, taken the braces off her teeth, thrown away her glasses, had her hair curled — and then found out that it still didn't make any difference. So she'd decided to play it for laughs. Sometimes they make worse decisions.
Somewhere between the shopping tour and the Press Reception, she'd climbed into her trade mark 'comedy costume'. The high-necked long-sleeved blouse bunched itself out of a low-necked short-sleeved red jacket with half the buttons missing. The rusty black skirt dipped to several lengths and multi-coloured patches had been sewn at random on it. The straw hat had two large daisies drooping from broken stalks and was moored precariously to the top of her head by an elastic string passed under her braids.
The freckles scattered all over her face were probably real and not painted on. She smiled at me nervously. There was lipstick on her front teeth. I didn't think that was an intentional part of the costume — she was just the sort who always would have lipstick on her front teeth.
'I'm sorry,' she said. I had to lean forward to hear her. 'I should have kept an eye on the time, but it was so excitin' bein' here, and seeing all those famous stores —'
'Don't you go apologizing to him — he should apologize to you.' Maw Cooney had come up behind us with the battleflag flying. 'You're paying him — it was his job to keep those reporters here until you arrived. Stars are expected to be late. How dare he start before you got here?'
Lou-Ann looked up at me. She'd been chewing gum. Now she pursed her lips suddenly and broke into a broad grin, goggling her eyes at me. It was liquorice gum, and she'd blacked out her two front teeth. On the whole, I preferred the lipstick.
But I recognized it as another form of apology, this time for Maw Cooney, so I nodded and smiled at her, and she relaxed.
Over her shoulder, there was a performance going on in the second ring.
Black Bart had come up behind the musicians as they were settling down their instruments. When Uncle No'ccount pulled the bandana containing his upper set from his pocket, Bart snatched it away.
'You stupid no-account old fool!' He balled his massive fist around the bandana and shook it under Uncle No'ccount's nose. 'What do you think you're playing at? Know what I ought to do? I ought to stomp on these for you!'
'Aw, now, Bart, don't take on so.' Uncle No'ccount kept his eyes on his uppers. 'We didn't mean no harm.'
'You never mean no harm — but you go and do it just the same. Listen, when I decide we'll do a Benefit, I'll give the word!'
'Sure, Bart, sure. I just got kinda carried away. Didn't mean to upset you none — did we, boys?'
The Cousins shuffled their feet and shook their heads, miserable at being appealed to. Only too obviously, they had been hoping to remain unnoticed and escape involvement.
'We was just funning, Bart.'
'No call to take on like that, Bart.' They spoke together, backing towards the door.
''Tweren't like a for-real show, anyhow, Bart,' Cousin Ezra said. 'You know we ain't wired up right yet for this neck of the woods.'
'That's right, Bart,' Cousin Homer chipped in. 'That fella there said he was gonna see about it, but he ain't done nothing yet.'
That sent the ball swinging into my court.
'You, boy!' Black Bart shouted at me. 'Hump it over here and let's hear what you got to say for yourself. How come you ain't got my boys fixed up yet?'
Uncle No'ccount reached out and gently removed his belongings from Bart's hand while he was distracted. A quick flourish of the bandana and his teeth were firmly where they ought to be. He beamed with relief and straightened his shoulders, standing taller.
'Reckon I'd better get along and tend to some unpacking,' he said. 'You don't need me for this. One thing about a good old harmonica — you cain't fit wires to it.'
'Okay, but you just watch it, you hear?' Bart glared, but the menace was wasted on Uncle No'ccount's back, so he turned it on me.
'You don't move very fast round these parts, do you, boy? We told you as soon as we got here an' took a look at the electricity to get the plugs changed an' slap transformers on all the instruments. S'pose I shouldn't be surprised it ain't been done yet, now I see how long it takes you to even cross a room.'
It was a pity Perkins & Tate (Public Relations) Ltd needed the money so badly. It would have been a pleasure to tell him what I thought of him and walk out.
On second thought, I probably couldn't tell him anything he hadn't heard before. And we needed the money. He might be a bastard, but he was a solvent bastard.
'I put in a call for an electrician,' I said. 'They promised to speed it up and have one over here first thing in the morning. That means some time tomorrow afternoon.'
He glared at me suspiciously, but seemed to realize I was serious. 'Hell! What a country!' he exploded. 'I got thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment here, and it ain't worth a damn unless I can get the juice going through it.'
'You'll have everything ready in time for your opening,' I said. 'You've only been in the country about eight hours, why not relax and enjoy it?'
'You trying to be smart, boy?'
'We had to skimp the introductions to get ready for the Press,' I said. 'My name is Perkins, Douglas Perkins.'
'Like I said, you trying to be smart, boy?'
The Cousins began to snicker, then to push each other about. 'You hear that, boy? Yes, sir, boy!' They scuffled wildly.
'All right, cut that out!' They had brought unwelcome attention back to themselves. 'You got off light — this time. Don't let it go to your heads.'
'Yeah, Bart.' 'Sure, Bart.' They were instantly subdued.
'You got nothing better to do — cut along to your hotel and get some more practice. You flatted that top note on me. Do that on stage and you'll be swimming back home the hard way — under water.'
They slunk away quietly, but before I had time to enjoy the peace, Maw Cooney was on us.
'Young man, have you got that room changed yet? By rights, we ought to have a suite. You can't expect Lou-Ann to put up with being treated like poor white trash.'
Since that was what she'd gone to great trouble to dress herself up to look like, it would seem to be an occupational hazard. Perhaps that was why Maw Cooney, as her dresser, was so sensitive about it.
'You tell him,' she whirled on Bart. 'Lou-Ann is the comedy star of this Troupe. She deserves better than that poky old room. There isn't room enough to swing a cat in there. Tell him we want a room befitting her position.'
You had to hand it to her for bravery, if not sheer gall. They were lucky to be in the same hotel as the Great Bart. Uncle No'ccount and the Cousins had been salted away over in the heart of 'Europe On Five Dollars A Day' territory. But, obviously, Maw Cooney was not one to sit back and count her blessings.
Bart turned his head slowly to stare down at her. I closed my eyes. I hate to see a man hit an old lady — no matter how much she's been asking for it.
When I opened them, she was still standing there, untouched. Bart's eyes had narrowed dangerously, but he hadn't said a word.
'You tell him now.' She insisted on crowding her luck. 'You order him to find a nicer room for Lou-Ann. You know it's due her — in her position.'
Crystal had moved up behind Bart and, once again, an unspoken communication passed between them.
Suddenly, Bart shrugged. 'Right, Maw.' He glared at me. 'See to it, boy!' He jerked his head at Crystal and they left the room together.
Maw Cooney fussed her way back to collect Lou-Ann. On their way out, she stopped to say, 'We'll pack our things. We didn't unpack much, anyhow, once we saw that awful place. You get the bellboy to move us. We'll be out getting a bite to eat.'
I stared after them thoughtfully. After a moment, a throat being cleared over by the door brought me back to the scene.CHAPTER 2
Sam Marcowitz. Now there was a man who could give wallpaper lessons on fading unobtrusively into the background.
All this time he had been sitting at the table by the door, thumbing through the Guest Book the Press had signed as they arrived.
I walked over to him. 'What's a nice boy like you doing in a place like this?'
'Honest to God, mister,' he whined. 'I never done nothing like this before. You're the first. Why don't you sit down and have a slug of booze while I slip into something more comfortable.'
He reached under the table and brought out a bottle of scotch the waiters had neglected to reclaim, and loosened his tie. 'Jeez, what a blast!'
I had gone to school with his elder brother, Nathan. Twice, in fact. Once when Nate had come here as part of the 'Junior Year Abroad' scheme of his American college and attended my Redbrick university. And the second time when I had taken a postgraduate course at the Harvard School of Business Administration. After which, we had spent a year together in one of the lesser-known Madison Avenue advertising agencies.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cover-Up Story"
Copyright © 1971 Marian Babson.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It may seem odd to speak of light-hearted murder mysteries, but Babson's works are so farcical, and sometimes so ruefully and humorously truthful, that I rely on them to pick me up in low moments.This is the first in Babson's series about Perkins & Tate (Public Relations) Ltd., the struggling young firm of partners Doug Perkins, the narrator, and ladies' man Gerry Tate, assisted by the youthful, but always game, teenage part-timer, Penelope. Fans of Babson will not be surprised to learn that their clients are desperate, eccentric or both. It may surprise them that it takes them until the second book to acquire a cat.In this first book, the firm represents a demanding American singing and comedy act. Things are not happy within the group, some of whom are lacking sophistication, however, and Perkins and Tate struggle with hilarious desperation to keep the group from public self-destruction from gaffes or self-sabotage.