Black Mask

One Fall to a Finish

by Chris Muessig and Steve Seder

The sun glared like a lidless eye from the hills above the prison. Brewer looked back at the dust swirling behind the black Cadillac and turned the rear A/C up a notch. He hadn’t felt such cool luxury since riding in the old chief’s funeral cortege.

Despite comfortable air and upholstery, Brewer had been uneasy throughout the two-hour ride from the city. He had offered to make this trip in his own car but, in reply, got a postcard with puzzling instructions to be outside his apartment house at sunup. How could a guy who had earned a few cents an hour banging out license plates afford to be whisked back to the outside world in such style? The driver didn’t know.

Knowing people got released from prison whenever the staff got around to it, Brewer was prepared for a long wait, provided the Caddie’s vents kept puffing chilled air. But when they pulled into the lot outside the main gate, Bud Mitchell was already waiting for them, rising up from a shaded bench by the curb. There was another guy there too, with a camera, and he popped a few of Bud, the limo, and the rendezvous in general. Brewer hadn’t been expecting the press to be present.

Bud didn’t stand as straight as he used to. But even with the stoop, the pallor, the constriction of the shoulders, and everything else owing to years spent in this inverted fortress, you’d still have to think twice before scrapping with him. The chauffeur hopped out deferentially to open the door.

Bud eased into the plush seat beside Brewer like someone not quite convinced of its reality. The photographer snapped a few more through the glass as Bud kept one mitt pressed into the fabric and offered the other to his friend. Brewer took it as the car pulled away and said, “What the hell? Limousine, press coverage, new threads”—he pointed at the neatly creased brown suit that Bud had not been wearing when he went in—“and the nearest thing to a smile on your face in a hell of a long time.”

“Surprise, surprise, buddy.” The blaring baritone was as strong as ever. “I had me a stroke of good luck for a change, and I figured I’d keep it under my hat until I could see the look on your face when I told it.”

“Luck? This ride would cost me a week’s pay. What’s the deal?”

Bud turned his immediate attention to the stocked bar, selecting bourbon—Brewer refused—and cracking a fresh pack of Luckies he found tucked inside. He took a big amber slug, lit up, and halved the Lucky with a single drag.

“Ah, the breakfast of champions!”

“Quit dragging it out, Bud. You seen my mug, now put me in the picture.”

Turned out that Stan Fleming—

“Who?”

“The movie producer, that’s who. The guy that made Death House and The Carson City Story? Stuff based on true facts.”

—on a hunch had started keeping track of Bud’s story back when Bud’s kid got killed in the wrestling ring and Bud had worked up the chaotic payback that landed him in jail. Fleming had also looked into the death of the female wrestler Evelyn Starr when it became clear that the imprisoned Bud had been involved in trying to avenge her death too, with Brewer handling the outside work.

Now that the parole board had ruled in Bud’s favor, Fleming had thrown a boatload of money at him for the rights to his story. The plan was to do one of those true-to-life noir pictures Fleming had made his mark with and even roll out a paperback book version at the same time. Besides the front money, Bud was supposed to get a piece of the subsequent action.

“Why does this all sound too good to be true?” Brewer said.

“You’re a cop; you’re suspicious by nature, ’cept I got the money in the bank to prove it. The big problem will be findin’ someone ugly enough to play you and not scare the ladies out of the theater. Is that guy what played the hunchback still alive?”

“Screw you.”

“Well, yeah, that is on my list of things to do—been awhile.”

It had also been years since Bud had tried to be funny. He had to be pretty elevated by this alleged deal; but even if it was on the up-and-up, Brewer had mixed feelings. Sure, Bud definitely deserved a break, but what was the trade-off? And if booking a limo was any indication, Bud was on track to blow through his windfall in record time and end up back at square one.

“So what are you going to do with the big bucks, Bud? House in the country? A world cruise? You’ll have to wait till you’re off parole for that.”

The semigrin gave way to Bud’s usual rock-quarry look.

“Smiley. I ain’t forgot that scumbag. He’s on the hook for killin’ my kid and Evelyn endin’ up on the side of the road. He ain’t goin’ to slither back under his rock this time. He’s goin’ to pay for stealin’ my son and seven years of my life. Now that I got money, I can make my connections do some good.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You seen he’s got a wrestlin’ outfit back on the road and on TV, right? Well, I’m goin’ to set up an outfit that runs against him—take over his towns, steal all his boys and his TV deal on top of that. It ain’t enough I put him in a wheelchair . . . I’d kill him now if I thought I could get away with it. Instead, I’m goin’ to drain away the rest of his life in a different way, make him bleed money so bad he wished he was dead.”

He reached for the bourbon and refilled.

“But first I’m tyin’ one on, parole or no parole. Grab a glass.”

“Jesus, Bud. I haven’t even had breakfast yet, and I’m on the four-to-midnight today.”

Bud poured him two fingers of bourbon. “Here’s your breakfast. Call in sick. I got a much better proposition.”

*   *   *

By the time the chauffeur delivered them downtown at the Hotel Walter, Brewer had learned the guy they were about to meet had sprung for Bud’s threads and fancy ride, not to mention the photog outside the prison. Well, that was somewhat of a relief. To top it off, Bud claimed Fleming had set up a bank account for him with a five-figure advance.

“I seen the deposit slip.”

“We’ll take a run over to the bank and check it out after you talk to this feller.”

Brewer had also been reminded that he should not try to go belt for belt with his old army buddy.

“Bud, I can’t feel my teeth. I don’t think I’m going to impress this big-time producer.”

“It ain’t an audition, Al. You got the gig if you want it. You’re my guy.”

Bud had proposed that Brewer—who had been on the job long enough to retire and draw half-pay—turn in his papers and sign on with the prospective wrestling outfit as paid security. But half-pay being peanuts and Bud’s plan having the feel of a pipe dream, Brewer, in his own mind, was just along for today’s ride to humor an old friend.

Fleming’s suite was on the top floor. In the elevator, Brewer said, “How come he didn’t fly you out to Hollywood for the meet?”

“He says he’s filmin’ on location, so he wants to kill two birds with one stone, whatever that means. Besides, the parole office would put the kibosh on a trip to California.”

The door was answered by an attractive, refined-looking woman, maybe in her late forties. She was not tall, but her posture was perfect, pushing her white blouse out buxomly. She had allowed a few streaks of gray to invade her thick brunette hair in a striking way.

“Hello, I’m Constance, gentlemen—Stan’s wife. Come on in.”

She didn’t seem troubled about greeting two inebriated hard-cases. Good actress, Brewer thought, and then realized that’s exactly what she was, except he remembered her from her blond days two decades ago. Holy Christ—Constance Lawton, holding the door and inviting them in!

Inside, three men sat around a big coffee table littered with papers and pictures. They all stood, clearly warier than Constance. The middle guy had to be Fleming: sixtyish, balding, trim moustache, tan linen suit. The other two were younger, more casually dressed, less endowed with the self-assurance of the man they obviously deferred to.

Handshakes, sizing up. Fleming’s companions were introduced as screenwriter Rodney Mallard, who would also be novelizing his screenplay under a nom de plume, and co-producer Bartlet Alsace. Rodney seemed cool, but Bart looked like he had just discovered an unlocked animal cage at the zoo and wasn’t quite sure what had escaped.

“Coffee, gents?” said Fleming.

“I’ll get it,” his wife said, not waiting for their reply. She filled two cups from a big urn that had been rolled in.

“Black, no sugar,” she said, more like a prescription than a question. Brewer’s sense of the surreal ballooned as she handed him his cup like an ordinary housewife. He was glad his hand wasn’t shaking.

Constance took a seat in a nearby easy chair, crossing one shapely leg over the other. “It won’t sober you up,” she said. “But at least you’ll be wide-awake drunks.”

Brewer hoped his first sip wasn’t as noisy as Bud’s.

Fleming smiled. “Actually, my wife understands completely that you needed a period of adjustment this morning, Mr. Mitchell. That’s one reason we didn’t accompany the photographer to the prison. We’ll get some group photos at a later date. Now, let me outline our immediate plans.”

Brewer listened while he applied himself to the caffeine. The Flemings would be shoving off shortly for some sort of testimony in Washington, but Mallard and Alsace were staying behind, the first to pick Bud’s brain for the script and the other to scout locations. They were on a very tight schedule and definitely wanted to get this one in the can quickly, and as much under budget as possible.

The budget remark rang another bell. Brewer recalled now that Fleming was the studio guy who a few years back had produced The Peloponnesian War, the megablockbuster that almost sank Imperial Pictures. The deal with Bud seemed aimed at getting Fleming back on the block in the way he knew best from past experience.

Bud would see the other half of his advance once they had extracted enough personal stuff to beef up the newspaper stories and court documents and produce a working script.

“You’ll be happy to hear that Connie has agreed to take a supporting role in the picture,” Fleming concluded.

Brewer and Bud stared at the woman like a couple of rubes. “What role?” Brewer said.

“I’m interested in the part of the woman who ran the female wrestling group,” she said. “The Countess. She seems like a very compelling character, or at least she was before being turned into a vegetable during Mr. Brewer’s investigation.”

They mulled that over.

Bud said, “Yeah, I think you can pull it off.”

“Thank you for your confidence, Mr. Mitchell. By the way, I’ve been looking over Stan and Bart’s research. Seems to me you might still have some unfinished business with this Smiley Rose character. I hope that doesn’t interfere with the production. We need this to go smoothly and quickly.”

“Connie,” Fleming said.

Bud gave her as mild a look as he was capable of and said, “I’m with you. I do have a business I want to start settin’ up, my own wrestlin’ group, but that won’t get in the way.”

“That’s good to hear. I hope Mr. Rose relishes the competition.” Her cool, steady look actually did remind Brewer of the Countess. Was she—what did they call that?—getting into character? She put her eyes on him, as if she’d picked up his thoughts.

“Mr. Mitchell told us he was bringing along his security person, an ex-cop, that’s you? I wonder why he feels safer with you around?”

“Connie,” Stan said.

“I’m not an ex-cop.”

“Moonlighting? Do you have a gun with you?”

“More like daylighting. And no, I don’t normally carry an off-duty weapon.”

“You’re the same policeman who helped Mr. Mitchell get into trouble in the first place, aren’t you? And you were his gofer while he was in prison. Casting will have an intriguing task in finding the right person for the Al Brewer character. I wonder if Elisha Cook is available.”

Fleming said, “The boys have taken a bungalow just outside of town. They’ll give you the address, Mitchell, and you can report first thing in the a.m. and get to work.”

Everybody except Connie was on their feet suddenly.

In the elevator, another memory surfaced.

“Hey, Bud. Isn’t Fleming the one who shot his old lady’s boyfriend a few years ago? And wasn’t Constance the old lady?”

“Old news, Al. Temporary insanity. He had a much better lawyer than me.”

*   *   *

At the bank, they found that Bud was indeed flush; so he withdrew a few C-notes, and Brewer called his shift sergeant to say he had the bug.

“You do sound a little off, Brewer. Been a while since you took a day.”

“Last time was when my wife’s lawyer served the papers on me.”

He hung up and looked expectantly at Bud, who said, “You kiddin’ about not carryin’?”

“No. I’ve never once pulled my gun while I’m on duty. Why would I need one off-duty? Besides, I didn’t say I was taking the job offer.”

“How about taggin’ along with me before you make a quick decision?”

“Why not? The day’s already shot. But what’s with the gun?”

“When Smiley gets wind of me bein’ out, maybe sees one of them promo pictures, he might figure offense is the best defense.”

“So he tries to run you down with his wheelchair?”

“Or sends two or three of his stooges to try to take me out.”

Brewer considered the possibility. “Let’s see how it goes. Where to next?”

“We got to swing by my lawyer’s office, and then we’re findin’ a cab and headin’ out to a joint called the Krazy Klown.”

“I can guess what that place is like. Come on; let’s go while I’m still loaded.”

*   *   *

The Klown had a barnboard exterior and hid out in a rural patch just off Highway 45. Brewer couldn’t remember seeing it on the police blotter and was further encouraged when he saw just a few cars and no motorcycles in the dirt parking lot. Bud told the cabbie to wait.

Inside, a couple of big lugs were sitting at the bar in the care of a skinny young woman with frizzy blond hair. She was laughing until she saw Brewer come in.

“Drafts for everybody,” Bud called as he drifted sideways across the room, twirling a swami salute at the two men.

“All I got is bottled.” She jerked a thumb at a big ice trough jammed with green and brown bottles.

“Four Schlitzes, sweetheart.”

Brewer studied the two guys who were studying him and Bud from their stools. The bigger one had just bitten into a boiled egg from the huge vinegar jar on the bar. His smaller companion, who was also pretty big, said, “How’s that egg, Stomper?”

“Not bad, Doc—if you like formaldehyde. How’s it hangin’, Bud?”

“Hey!” said the barmaid. “Who’s payin’ for the round, hotshot?”

Bud pulled the little roll of bills out of his pocket and slapped a C-note on the bar.

“There, sweetheart, now I got me a line of credit. Keep it runnin’ till you need more—and take out a double sawbuck for yourself.”

“You can call me Jo,” the girl said, hustling for the beers.

Transaction completed, Bud addressed the egg eater, “What’s the good word, Wes? What a coincidence runnin’ into you!”

He worked the guy’s vinegary hand like a pump handle and slapped him on the back. “Al, this is Wes ‘The Stomper’ Pratt.”

Brewer reached in, fully expecting to get his arm dislocated. He knew full well there was no coincidence here.

Having survived the first handshake, Brewer was introduced to Bud’s other pal, “Doctor” Jimmy Glynn.

“Al, the Doc wrestles when they’re desperate for a warm body, but mostly he manages and mouths off on behalf of the Stomper here.”

“Bud, what’re we here for?” Glynn said.

“Jeez, I missed you too, Doc. Okay, here it is. You two are still workin’ for that scumbag Rose, right?”

Glynn’s shrug would have been visible from the back row of the Rialto, after which he drooped like a cut puppet. “What the hell we goin’ to do? He owns the territory, so we work for him or we don’t work at all.”

“Yeah, well, not for long. I don’t need to rehash what him and Marty Delaney done to my kid Chuck, or how I ended up doin’ time for tryin’ to give the prick the receipt that Chuck couldn’t. Long story short, Hollywood bought the yarn—God and Al Brewer here are my witnesses—and I have enough dough to buy and sell the little wart ten times over. Which is the word I want you to spread among the boys. I’m goin’ to start runnin’ shows in the territory, and I want you and them in on it. Tell ’em I’m holdin’ a meetin’ here Thursday night at seven, at which point I’ll have the first towns lined up and a preliminary schedule to hand out.”

Stomper shook his head and smiled a smile so wistful it contradicted his hulking body. “Bud, it’s no go. That’s the night we do TV. We got to be at the studio at six.”

“Listen, Rose don’t pay you boys to do TV. No promoter does—all it’s ever been is just a chance for the workers to get themselves over so they can draw money at the house shows out on the road. On TV night, all you get is a song and a dance and a pat on the back.”

“The way of the world,” said Doc.

“Oh yeah? What if I told you I’d pay you and all the boys fifty bucks each to do my TV and guaranteed a minimum payoff of another fifty against a percentage of the gate for the house shows?”

The Doctor unslouched as if his strings had been yanked. “You got TV?”

“Well, not yet. But I will real soon. And I’ll start by payin’ the first fifty TV bucks here Thursday night—to not show up at the studio for Smiley. Let’s face it: We all hate that rat bastard. We can break him. I got the money and the balls to do it. You boys in?”

Pratt’s and Glynn’s mouths hung open like kids at a peep show as they tried to process the proposal.

“Before you catch too many flies, are y’all in or not?”

The chrome on the new Chrysler that had been endlessly circling Pratt’s brain flashed in the sun. “Uhh, yeah . . . Doc?”

“Hell, yeah! Jimmy Junior’s graduatin’ high school and wantin’ to go to college. I been wonderin’ how.”

“Okay, then, spread the gospel,” said Bud. “Thursday night.”

Brewer perched on his stool, looking from one face to the other like a curious bird, disbelieving the whole wacky exchange, especially the math involved.

“Let’s go, Al. We’re done here. Now the real work starts. But let’s seal the deal with shots for everybody. Jo!”

The emptied shot glasses had hardly hit the bar before Stomper and Doc were working the pay phone by the gents’ room.

*   *   *

If Brewer was going to make himself useful, he figured he ought to start by getting Bud in touch with his parole officer before the latter came looking for him. Too late today, though. Besides, Bud needed some recovery time so he wouldn’t show up for his first meeting with more alcohol than blood in his circulatory system.

“Who’s your P.O., Bud?”

“A city feller named Terry Leggett. Know him?”

“An old plugger; been around awhile. He’s going to grill you like a steak.”

Bud shrugged, more interested in the suburban scenery outside the taxi.

“You got to have some legit paperwork for this studio job or he’ll send you out looking for real work. Which reminds me—you’re going to be going through your cash pretty damn quick if you live up to your sales pitch.”

“I can handle it once we get off the ground.”

“And where’re you staying? You got to have an address.”

Bud turned away from the streaming trees and houses and looked at Brewer.

“Jeez, Bud, my place is the size of a closet. You’ll have to bed down in the bathtub.”

“Thanks for the offer—it’ll keep my expenses down.”

“And no more booze, or Leggett’ll write you up.”

*   *   *

In the morning, Bud touched base with the Stomper, a protracted exchange that then led to a lengthier phone conversation with his lawyer, after which he negotiated a telephonic maze to land an afternoon appointment with Leggett.

During all this, Brewer was trying to catch up on lost sleep, but Bud’s voice cut like a saw and the phone was only about six inches from Brewer’s pullout chair bed. He sat up when Bud finally clunked the handset down. The air was heavy with tobacco smoke and the odor of burnt coffee on the hot plate.

“My day is set,” Bud said. “What are you doin’?”

“I’m still thinking on it.”

“Well, get your ass up. I got to find me a decent car.”

Brewer drove them out to a used-car lot on National Boulevard, and Bud gave the salesman a thousand-yard stare until the man seemed to collapse on the cash price of an aquamarine ’63 Cadillac De Ville that Bud liked. The title was put in Brewer’s name, however, because Bud was minus both a license and car insurance. Brewer’s heap went as a trade-in.

“If I get clipped, Al—which I better not since I hired you to prevent that—you got yourself some decent wheels for the first time in your life.”

“Get in; you’re already late for your first day with the movie guys.”

“I forgot about that.”

“It’s your current source of income, Bud; you can’t forget about it. I called the bungalow last night and told them what we were up to and that today was going to be broken up by necessary stuff. They said Fleming could live with one more day of you getting back on your feet, but that was it.”

“They afraid of him or somethin’?”

“Think about it—he’s in charge of their livelihood in a dog-eat-dog line of business. And, he was kind of trigger-happy at one point in his life.”

*   *   *

The rented bungalow was perched on a wooded rise overlooking Lake Reed. There was no car out front. Mallard let them in, advising that Bart had left him to go “location scouting . . . and other stuff.” He led them through a tiny kitchen and into a combo dining-living room with a picture-window view of the lake.

From their vantage, Brewer was able to spot other homes peeking out shyly from the forest that grew right down to the shore. Small boats were out putt-putting or sailing on the water, making their own breeze. Kids splashed around floating platforms close to shore, while less energetic adults stood neck deep in the shallows as the heat piled on.

He turned from the pleasant prospect and surveyed the dining table, which was covered with newspaper clippings, pictures, and handwritten and typed notes, all weighted down against the breeze from a pair of persistent table fans. A fair-sized corkboard was mounted on the wall behind the table, and Mallard had used that to tack up three-by-fives grouped in three main clusters. Acts and scenes, Brewer guessed.

The stuff on the table was apparently organized with chronology in mind, starting with Bud’s own stint in the ring and moving around the table until reaching another lakeside location, the one where the Countess had been taken down.

“We’re thinking of doing some shooting right out here, using Lake Reed for exteriors of the ladies’ wrestling camp,” Mallard said, watching Brewer linger over the last pictures in line.

“I don’t know,” Brewer said, looking toward the window. “Doesn’t look the same. There’s not enough open space around here.”

“We can work around that. But Bart’s checking out a couple other local lakes, just in case. I was about to make more coffee. Want some? Or something stronger?”

Bud seemed interested in the stronger, but his security guy shook his head firmly. “Parole officer today,” he said.

Bud shrugged and said, “Where’d you dig up these glossies of me, Rodney?”

“Call me Rod. Newspapers are a gold mine for old negatives, and Mr. Fleming has been interested in your tale for many a year.”

“Why is that?” Brewer said.

“He’s got a good feel for revenge stories, especially if it’s a true story.”

Brewer and Bud looked at each other as Mallard shifted to the kitchen.

“The revenge part of the story ain’t quite finished yet,” Bud said.

“Well,” came the voice from the other room, “we might have to fabricate something, but you and I are going to load up the opening acts with some good, authentic stuff, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, and the sooner, the better. I have other things to do.”

Brewer left the two of them rolling up their figurative sleeves and worked his way down toward the water, trying to keep his coffee mug level.

He wasn’t used to being out in the fresh air. Since the war had ended, it seemed he had spent almost all his time in a dingy office taking down complaints and typing up reports—except for the side projects Bud had sucked him into. He listened to the high-pitched yells from the kids thrashing in the water. It was hard to relate.

He stopped at the gravel road that circled the lake and looked to his left. About two hundred yards down, where the road started to bend, a mustard-yellow van was parked in a turnout. He had spotted the vehicle tailing them from town, but it was too far away to tell if anyone was inside.

“Not too obvious, clodhopper,” Brewer said, and he began to stroll toward it, thinking their big-ass blue ride was just as conspicuous and easy to tail, so he had no right to criticize. He hadn’t gotten halfway to the van before the engine started. The person behind the wheel turned out and left.

Brewer watched the van go, not sure if anyone besides the driver had been inside. He trudged back uphill and, reentering the kitchen, picked up a copy of the morning edition of the Sentinel that had been left on the counter. It was folded open to the Living section, and there he saw a picture of Bud climbing into the limo outside the prison. His own face, screwed up against the sun, was semirecognizable from the interior of the car. The columns of supplementary teaser material were full of excitement about the Fleming project, its impact on the local community, and Bud’s plan to start up his own organization. The word was out.

*   *   *

The Probation Department could have been mistaken for a one-story brick warehouse hitched like an old horse in an outlying district. The metropolitan area it served was a distant skyline, and the nearest bus stop was enough of a walk to test the resolve of any probationer. Trees lining the surrounding streets had a tired, dusty droop.

“I’ll go in with you,” Brewer said.

“Naw. Some of these fellers get bugged if they think you’re trottin’ out a cop buddy.”

“How would you know that? This is your first time meeting with one of them.”

“Hey, I got seven years’ worth of lowdown,” Bud said, tucking a bulky manila envelope under his arm.

Brewer watched him cross the narrow street, climb three cracked steps, and disappear through the opaque glass doors. He checked the rearview and side mirrors, but there was no sign of the van. He powered down both front windows and leaned toward the motionless shade of a crusty sycamore.

Bud was back a lot quicker than Brewer had expected. He was minus the envelope.

“Back to the lake,” Bud said.

“Really? No side trip to the Labor Office?”

“Nope. Me and Leggett are good.”

Brewer did not turn the key. He stared at Bud.

“What?”

“You look more cheerful than you should. What did you tell him?”

“I told him I’d introduce him to the lady in the picture.”

“What picture?”

“The glossy of Connie Lawton what Rod gave me and I clipped to the copy of my contract. He got it signed and made out to Leggett ahead of time. These Hollywood fellers don’t miss a trick.”

“She went along with that?”

“Well, she wants to get this movie made, right? What’s an autograph and a little pressed flesh cost her? ’Course, she was a lot younger when the picture was taken, but what the hell. You should of seen the old bull tryin’ not to drool. Come on, let’s go.”

Brewer turned the key. “Keep watching for that van,” he said and pulled away.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. One Fall to a Finish by Chris Muessig and Steve Seder

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