Part of both the hazard and the beauty of writing in the style and on the themes of a particular era is that the work becomes quickly dated, turning into an artifact of it’s time. After a certain point, it goes beyond old-fashioned and becomes retro, which is only a bunny hop away from classic. This story was an attempted follow-up to my mystery debut in Ellery Queens. For some reason, Ellery Queens distinguished editor turned it down. The story went instead to landmark westcoast alternative press zine, Sign of the Times – A Chronicle of Decadence in the Atomic Age.and was selected for SOTT’s 10 Year Anthology. Now here, almost as retro and dumb as Beach Blanket Bingo is the classic…”On the Punko Beat, Beat, Beat.”
by Dale L. Sproule
This whole horror show started a week ago, Tuesday. I was bopping down Davies Street to the beat of The Brash’s anti-anthem “Pillory the Power Mongers.” Then, in a series of events about as likely as Ronnie Raygun copping to a charge of male pattern baldness (complete with cover-up), I was strong-armed by a pair of goons in blue and given a free ride to the local Waldorf Alcatraz.
Joey Snotface was dead.
They needed a goat. And since Joey had been plugged into one of my headphone/hairdriers at the moment he’d shuffled off to the House of Blue Lips, they fingered Yours Truly as the major suspect.
“Electrocution,” they called it. “Criminal negligence. Unsafe product…probably custom-rigged.”
“Finding a patsy,” I called it. And I should know. I was in the dick schtick for three years before throwing off the mantle of capitalist totalitarianism and going underground.
Joey’d run a store called Dead Fly Video. Off the cuff? Yes. Sick? Perhaps–but that corporate moniker wasn’t as dumb as it sounded. In 18 months, Dead Fly had gone Number 1 with a bullet in the city and had started picking up partners for the National Franchise Tango. Going great guns…until that recent wet December night, when J.S. was `electrocuted’ while watching the Crude Boys video on the Fly’s giant screen–with the audio apparently jacked through one of my Stereo-Blowers.
CHAPTER TWO–The Inquisition.
I was David Jannsen in The Fugitive. “Look for a one-armed man,” I told them.
“Huh?” They replied.
“I’m innocent, you dips! These hairdriers I invented work on C cell batteries…not enough juice to kill a fly.”
They even missed my clever play on words. “Have your lab boys check it out,” I demanded.
They looked at each other–Herod and Pilate. Then they turned back to me, pockets bulging with nails.
Obviously, I couldn’t sit there on my rattailed comb and wait for these Bozos to clear me. When I was finally released on my own recognizance, I swung straight downtown and hung a `closed’ shingle on the door of Waves & Shaves–that’s the name of my salon–then I went home and dug the old private eye license out of a drawer. Like it or not, CherryJack was back on the track.
CherryJack–that’s me. The name on the license is John Walker, but I picked up the nom de plume while beating the skins for a nouveau combo fondly dubbed The Radiation Blisters.
This was my kind of case (except that my own neck was on the line)–just enough unexplained clues to give me a head start on the badges. Like the video cassette, reduced to a pile of plastic fragments on the floor. Either the homicide boys know something I don’t about the kinky things people do in the throes of electrocution–or some foot other than Joey’s did the Demolition Stomp on the video tape. And who but someone with heavy duty hate-on for the new wave culture would destroy a pricey tape any self-respecting punker would’ve stolen? Besides, the cash float wasn’t touched, nor were the assorted other goodies they found around the store: a kilo of pot, packet of coke (half a gram and change), page and a half of blotter acid, chunk of hash, cookie jar full of mixed delights (mostly reds and ‘ludes), plus a tank of laughing gas and a big bag of Ritz crackers they found beside the body. It looked like the murderer I was after was someone straighter then Hitler’s hair.
But I couldn’t go back to the cop shop armed with mere suspicions, no matter how valid. I needed the Bad Guy(s) himself, hopefully complete with written confession. Even then, they’d probably think I’d conned a phony plea out of some junkie, because as soon as they see my startling pink mohawk and the earring though my nostril, their red complexions start creeping out from under their collars to discolor various other parts of their anatomies and they become blind to life’s subtleties. Little things like deductive reasoning and common sense.
So I was in 7th Heaven when I discovered Joey had a girlfriend. This might be the ally I needed. PUNKS-1…AUTHORITIES-ZIP.
She lived in a small stucco block with no lights in the corridor. After 20 minutes in the hall, I decided that one of the two apartments numbered “6” had to be a “9” with the top nail missing. But the door between apartments “8” and “10” was rattling on its hinges under the assault of a ponderous bass beat that was no more Romeo Void or the Sex Pistols than it was Perry Como of Doris Day. It sounded like…nah! Joey was a punker. Why would he live with some burnt out babe from the age of Dinosaur rock? But it sure sounded like Motorhead or Deep Purple or some other head-banging darling of the Hell’s Angels and the manual laborers of the world. There was only one way to find out.
I knocked. LOUDLY. After a while, the volume subsided and the door swung slowly open.
“What is it man?”
I couldn’t believe it. She was wearing a poncho! I hadn’t even seen one since high school. Her black hair hung down in a limp imitation of a string mop and her bloodshot eyes squinted out through the tangle.
“You Yvonne Simpson??”
“If you’re delivering another token handful of plastic flowers, take ’em down to the morgue. I’m not into funerals.” She began to close the door.
“Wait!” I implored, “I have to talk to you.”
With a shrug, she motioned me inside. Her living room was littered with floor cushions and bedecked in black light posters. I began to reconsider my need for an ally. I was dangerously close to losing my lunch.
My nerves must have been on edge, because the explanation came out in a torrent. I told her that getting a fatal zap from one of my hairdriers was about as likely as getting fried by a transistor radio and that the cops were going to nail me for it anyways and how I used to be a private detective but became disillusioned and lastly why I was sure Joey had been murdered.
“Wanna blow a doob?” She proposed, extracting a marijuana cigarette from the fringed rawhide bag concealed beneath her poncho.
“I wanted to make sure you understood about the hairdrier.”
“I knew the pigs were full of it when they told me how he died,” she said as she inserted the entire joint into her mouth, pursed her lips and pushed it slowly back out–like sucking spaghetti backwards. Shrugging, she passed me the joint, its still flaming tip glowing white under the black light, and wheezed, “So whatcha gonna do about it?”
I interrupted my toke, “Find the killer. But I need your help.”
She got up and put a record on the turntable. “Ozzy Osbourne.” She shouted over the din of an extended primal scream entitled Howl at the Moon. Howling along with the chorus, she flopped down on the pillow beside me, leaned over til our faces were only inches apart and brushed her hair out of her face. “What exactly can I do for you?”
The hot smoke burst from my lungs as I coughed at her full in the face. I glanced down in embarrassment and discovered that despite her weirdness, she had a great set of melons. I stuttered, “I n-n-need to put together a list of all Joey’s uncool contacts. You know…creditors, competitors, relatives, customers…even friends.”
“Is that…all?” She breathed, almost inaudibly
“Yeah, okay man,” she said, turning and leaning back against the wall. “I can get that together. By the way, your mascara’s smearing.”
When I got back from the bathroom, she was sitting at the kitchen table, already working on the list. I stood beside her chair, watching silently. When she finally passed it up to me, I didn’t know how to respond the expectant look in her eyes, but she quickly solved it for me. Quite matter-of-factly, she said, “I haven’t been laid in a week.”
As I worked out of her place over the next few days, the motivating forces behind the strange union of Joey and Yvonne became quite clear to me.
CHAPTER 3–The List.
There must have been 100 names! I mean, she even included Joey’s dentist! I’m all for turning over stones, but this was one daunting sucker of a list. Yvonne helped me boil it down to a short list; then I got started.
CHAPTER 4–The Search.
Joey and his 250 pound shipper-receiver had locked horns in a violent argument only days before the murder. His name was Bert, the type who always seems to have a tool in his hands. Hammer, pipe wrench, screwdriver. He told me he’d been a professional wrestler, a butcher and a truck driver before settling down to work for Joey. I steered the conversation back to the night of the murder. Bert got touchy, evasive and turned redder than a traffic light and I thought I was onto something. But it turned that Bert had been dancing that night at a club called Poof on the Roof. Who would’ve guessed he was the type to dress up like Ziggy Stardust and hang around in gay bars? He didn’t have the figure for it. But his alibi checked out.
As soon as Joey’s mother opened the door to her little brown-shingle bungalow, I guessed that there had been no love lost between her and her son.
“You Mrs. Snotface?” I confirmed.
I thought she was gonna slug me. “Snoteyvko,” she said coldly. “You gotta be one of Joey’s friends.”
She hesitantly let me in and was soon reminiscing fondly about Joey’s childhood. When she reached the teens, her smile disappeared. “Had I known he’d grow up into a green haired pervert, he’d a never seen the light of day.” The anger seemed to flare from her eyes until all that was left were the ashes of sadness and she looked at me and asked, “When was the last time you visited your mother?”
Her camouflage fell away like leaves in a rainstorm. There was love concealed under the cover of sniper fire. This hardbitten trooper was revealed as still just a mother in search of her lost child.
“My mother’s dead,” I said.
Her head snapped back so hard I half-expected to see a hole in her forehead. “No wonder she’s dead…seeing you like that, she musta had a heart attack!” Pausing, she eyed her own reflection in the oven door. “Get outta here. You remind me too much.” Heaving her tiny boxlike figure out of the wooden chair, she beelined for the living room and I backed discreetly out the screen door, careful not to slam it behind me.
Next was Joey’s biggest competitor in the vid-biz, a smalltime sleazeball named Branca who owned a chain called Triple XXX Video. But I didn’t make it halfway up the back stairs to Branca’s office before being bounced back down by two of the toughest hoods who ever hefted an Uzi. Little did they know how co-operative they were being–who needed Branca, when these guys answered all my questions? Electrocution was wayyy too subtle for these boys. After a run-in with them, the cops would still be scraping Joey’s body parts off whatever walls were left standing.
I propped myself against the bottom step and fidgeted with my busted Walkman headphones while considering my next move. Then I moved my right leg, gasped from the pain, and spent five minutes pondering the manoeuvre to follow. It took me an hour to reach a standing position and another 20 minutes to reach the bus stop. The bus driver took one look at me, with my pink mohawk and the blood covering the front of my snazzy mauve check sports jacket, and kept going. With sudden total recall, I remembered all my non-political reasons for getting out of the private eye racket.
I found a booth, made a phone call and an hour later, Yvonne arrived to pick me up. I hadn’t given her any details of my situation–like the broken tailbone I strongly suspected–because at the time, I didn’t know she drove a Harley Chopper. This was not my day.
Despite her offer to droop me over the seat, cowboy style, I insisted on making other arrangements. After lending me ten bucks, she insisted on wiping the blood off my face while we waited for the cab. The rag was so oily that I’m sure the cabbie thought she’d run over my face.
Once back at Yvonne’s apartment, I laid my stiffening body on the couch and mumbled something about the onset of rigor mortis.
Smiling, she said, “I have just the thing,” and flitted out of the room. I laid there listening to the distant breathing–plus a sound like a corpse being dragged across the carpet. Yvonne was lugging a large metal tank into the living room. At the end of the hose trailing from the tank was a war surplus gas mask.
“I don’t think mercy killing is called for quite yet,” I whispered. Even my voice hurt.
“Hey! My pain isn’t all that funny.”
The laughter continued till she ran out of breath. Then she tapped her fingers on the side of the tank. “Laughing gas,” she managed to spit out before crumbling under another outbreak of hilarity.
Something clicked deep inside my pain-shrouded mind, just as she passed me the mask.
It was like the deep breath I sucked in contained the very insight I was looking for. A second stray thought flashed through my mind in the same instant. I hadn’t fed my dog in three days. I found this so hilarious, I almost forgot about the first thing.
“Nitrous oxide? Didn’t Joey have this tank in the shop the night he died?”
“That was a different tank,” Yvonne laughed.
“Do you grow them, or what?”
She shrugged. “There’s two more under the sink.”
It was all coming clear. Unfortunately, I chose that moment to pass out.
The dentist, Dr. Winfield, had been crossed off Yvonne’s list. As soon as I was able to get up off the couch I decided to pay him a visit. His house was up in the Properties. It took me three busses to get there.
Mrs. Winfield’s flaring nostrils reminded me of the business end of a double barreled shotgun. Aiming down the full length of that hooter, the old girl let loose with a snort which miraculously stopped short of dislodging her delicate, gold-rimmed bifocals. “Preposterous! My Harvey is a respected dental surgeon. Not likely to associate with human trash of your ilk, let alone be involved in a murder! I suggest you return to searching the sewers from which you so obviously sprung!”
Calling on my latent suburban guerilla reflexes, I executed an admittedly salesmanlike gesture. Stuck my foot in the door. But my inexperience showed. I was unprepared for the umbrella handle which descended with shattering impact on my right shin. As I struggled to free my genuine, early ’60s, patent leather, pointy-toed shoes from the vise grip of the door, I came to a terrible realization. She’d scuffed them! Mint condition pre-Beatles relics, and this bourgeois old bat had scuffed them! My blade chunked deeply into the doorframe. Her terrified scream, which accompanied my instant freedom, demonstrated a prime tenet of the new wave culture: SHOCK WORKS. Reaching into my encyclopaedic memory of upper-middle class mannerisms, I anticipated her phone call to the cops and ran like hell back to the bus stop.
Another tack was evidently called for. If I could trace the tank of nitrous oxide from the supplier, I should at least be able to confirm the connection between Joey and the dentist.
I searched the thin metal tank for a lot number, thinking I might be able to prove that this one came directly from Winfield’s inventory.
Came up blank on the lot number, but hit a BINGO on my phone call to the supplier. Bravo Laboratories like to brag about their extensive client list. Turned out that Winfield was a 50 tank a week man–more of the stuff in a week than most clinics used in a month.
All I had to do was confront him with a bit more evidence than I actually had, and hope to force his hand. And since I didn’t dare risk another run-in with his wife, I decided to catch him at work. The best way to see a dentist is to make an appointment. My recently rearranged dental work (courtesy of the Triple XXX Orthodontics Team) was the perfect excuse. The receptionist informed me I was in luck. The doctor could see me at 3:45…just over an hour. With a busy schedule like that, it was no wonder Winfield had to resort to selling drugs to support himself. I’d talked Yvonne into feeding my dog, so I left her a note and headed for the bus stop.
Posh office! For a loser, Winfield was doing alright. I settled into the chair uncomfortably. I hate dentists, but I permitted the pudgy, balding dentist to examine my mouth, planning to let him get comfortable before springing any surprises on him.
“Pretty bad, eh, Doc?”
“MMMMMMMM,” he replied enthusiastically.
“Think it’ll take more than one visit?”
“My, my, my,” he muttered, as though he just discovered it was terminal.
“I imagine you’ll just do X-rays today.”
“Tch, tch, tch. X-rays won’t do you any good, young man.”
“If you’re gonna do any work, I want you to know, I’m allergic to Novocaine.”
“Yeah, I was wondering if you could use Nitrous Oxide…”
“Never use the stuff,” he muttered, still shaking his head, “well, we’d better get started.”
“Just a sec! I wanna know mmmphll gllyph gag mmfgnng…”
The last thing I remember is the mask descending over my face.
CHAPTER 5–The Ending.
Light was filtering in from somewhere in the distance. “damned Harvey…let us take care of him until he’d fixed his teeth…find out what he knows…too much…take care of him…”
My surroundings slowly came into focus. I was in some sort of a warehouse, its shelves brimming with gas tanks and boxes. I must have moaned or something, because I felt a sudden stabbing sensation at the base of my throat and looked up to see the grim, furry countenance of Mrs. Winfield, holding my own blade to my neck. She sneered down at me.
“We simply cannot tolerate meddlers.”
I forced a smile and the white-gloved hand holding the knife pressed the instrument down more firmly.
I’d advise you to…spill the beans…immediately, before we decide to terminate your worthless existence right here and now.”
I licked my lips–sandpaper on concrete–and croaked, “whattdya wanna know?”
“Everything you know. Who’s in this with you? She turned the blade, without lifting it from my throat. “I appreciate your delivery of the weapon, right at my door. Your fingerprints are the only ones on it. Now…if you don’t…” She coughed politely, “start singing, you’ll end up as another suicide statistic.”
Wondering how long I could drag this out, I answered, “I know all about how your husband was supplying…”
“Husband, schmusband. All Harvey cares about are bicuspids. If I hadn’t…persuaded his instructors, he wouldn’t have made it through dental college.”
So! That explained the throbbing pain which emanated from every nerve in my mouth!
There was a clunk from across the room, and a voice I recognized as the one which had been conversing with the old hit-woman when I’d come to shouted, “Got another order!”
Mrs. Winfield turned her head and I took advantage of the distraction, bringing my fist up under her elbow and almost giving myself an instant tracheotomy in the process. The handle of the blade bounced off my ear and the weapon clattered to the floor. I rolled off the table I’d been laying on and dumped my assailant with a shoulder block. Then I got my first glimpse of her partner. At a rough guess, I’d say her was 6 foot 8 and 340 pounds. He made the toughs at Triple XXX look like munchkins. Hoisting a tank over his head, he prepared to launch it like a torpedo at my retreating stern. My tongue and hands were tingling and my field of vision washed over with darkness. I dropped like a depth charge.
A familiar voice sounded in the background. “Hey, man…get up against the wall before I blow your bloody head off!”
Yvonne! Wondering if she’d arrived in time, I groped for my backside and confirmed the absence of a giant steel suppository.
Then I wondered how she found me. I didn’t even know where I was!
CHAPTER 6–The Epilogue
(Ephram Zimbalist always had one). Turned out that Yvonne had read my note and came after me. She’d arrived at the dentist’s office just in time to see them carting me out. She thought for sure they’d catch her. “Ever try following somebody discreetly on a chopper?” she explained.
The boys down at homo-cide were in hot water, too. Apparently, they’d been told to lay off me until they received the forensics report. But they were so sure the blue lips were a sign of electrocution, they thought they had me cold. Actual cause of death was asphyxiation. The nitrous oxide had been replaced with carbon monoxide or something, and when Joey sat down to suck up some happiness, he got the old skull and crossbones instead. The bruises on his forehead had come from heavyhanded help in putting on the gas mask, not a hairdrier.
These days, Yvonne comes by the shop almost daily. Ruins my rep by flashing that hairstyle of hers in the front window, while she tries to convince me I should get back into the Cops and Robbers game–with her as a partner.
The hair driers aren’t moving too well (the badges would’ve had a dandy time proving someone was electrocuted by a unit that can’t put out enough power to dry hair). And the temporary shutdown hadn’t done any great shakes for business. In fact, Yvonne’s proposal is looking better and better every day.
Read another story: “Masks of Flesh”
Read another story: “Memory Games”