Authors: Michael Murphy
The Big Brush-off
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
2016 Alibi Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Michael Murphy
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover design: Tatiana Sayig
Cover images: Â© Shutterstock
June 1935. In spite of Roosevelt's New Deal, the stubborn Great Depression continues its stranglehold on America and the world's economy. There are signs of improvement, however. Unemployment drops from a high of twenty-five percent to below twenty. In April, the government enacts the WPA. The program puts Americans to work building roads and bridges, and offers vocational training for the unemployed. Government programs support the arts, theater, music, literature, and painting. Social Security is launched. Hope is on the horizon.
Five months after Amelia Earhart flew solo from Hawaii to the West Coast of the United States, newlyweds Jake Donovan and Laura Wilson travel to their old home in New York City. Laura gets busy filming her latest screwball comedy on location while Jake struggles to produce another Blackie Doyle novel.
Footsteps sounded on the rickety stairs of the quiet home a block from St. Catherine's Church. The young girl, Katie Caldwell, was reading a movie magazine open to a photo of Jean Harlow. A baseball glove, a first baseman's mitt, dangled from the bedroom doorknob. A mirror hung above a simple mahogany dresser containing fingernail polish, freshly ironed hankies, and other dainty girl things Katie accumulated. A desk in the corner was littered with school supplies and a book of poetry given to her by her English teacher, George Hanson. She had other presents: a rosary Father Ryan gave her for her First Communion and a twelve-inch brass baseball trophy, a cherished gift from her boyfriend, Alan Tremain.
The figure, whose face, as always, was clouded in shadows, stepped into the room and approached the bed. I tried to warn Katie. I tried to shout, but the words didn't come. The two struggled until the shadowy figure swung the baseball trophy then shot the young girl. She managed to snatch her rosary before dying in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor.
I woke up with a choked groan.
Beside me, illuminated by the early morning glow through the hotel room window, Laura slept soundly. Her black hair rested on the soft white pillow, her skin as smooth as moonlight.
In the hotel bathroom I splashed cold water on my face and stared into the mirror at tired eyes. Why had I revisited my last Pinkerton case, something I hadn't dreamed about in more than a year? At least the vision had taken my mind from the dreaded task that awaited me, a confrontation with my editor, Mildred Hawthorn.
An hour later I kissed Laura goodbye as she headed off for the final location shoot of her latest movie. I took my time getting ready.
A cab drove me to the forty-story building that housed Empire Press. At eleven, I sat across the desk from Mildred, the toughest person I'd ever met, and I'd met some doozies. I'd gone toe-to-toe with mobsters, Nazis, and a Japanese spy, but Mildred was in a class by herself. She was harder on me than my old man, who taught me to box; coarser than my drill sergeant in the Great War.
She set one hand on the chapters Laura and I had dropped off two weeks earlier when we arrived back in New York. Her eyes locked on mine like a doctor about to express grave concerns over a recent X-ray. “Jake Donovan, we have a problem.”
This problem wasn't life or death, but the next half hour would determine my future with my publisher. For five years, I'd been one of Empire Press's most successful authors. What's the worst that could happen?
I stared back at Mildred. “Give it to me straight.”
She pulled a bottle of Kentucky bourbon from the bottom drawer and set two glasses on her desk.
I glanced at the clock: 11:45. “Too early for me.”
“It's after twelve somewhere.” She poured herself half a shot and set the bottle beside the phone.
She took a sip and gazed out the window overlooking the Manhattan skyline at similar tall office buildings where guys like me sweated out meetings with their bosses that would determine their careers.
Movement caught my eye at the top of the window. I leaned forward and glanced up. An American airship, imposing, but still half the size of the German behemoth
was approaching the spire of the Empire State Building. Apparently she wanted to make small talk before ripping apart my chapters.
Mildred's office was like her, organized and efficient. On her desk, a half-dozen red pens sat in a blue Yahtzee cup. Beside the pens was a metal desk lamp that no doubt got a lot of use during the long hours she worked. A green desk blotter looked as smooth as a pool table, bare except for three familiar-looking chapters.
We'd worked closely for five years, but I knew next to nothing about her life away from the office. She once mentioned an apartment in the Bronx and a mutt of some kind, part Chihuahua, I thought. I couldn't remember his name. “How'sâ¦your dog?”
Mildred peered at me over the top of her glasses. “He's behind you.”
I glanced over my shoulder at a bookshelf next to the door. I expected to see some mutt lying on the floor beneath the bottom shelf, but I didn't see a dog. Something, however, was out of place among the books and framed awards and photos of authors. In the center of the top shelf was a jade ceramic jar with a lid: a miniature urn.
I'd experienced the pain from the death of a pet, but I never kept an animal's ashes. I cleared my throat and faced Mildred. “I'm sorry for your loss.”
“I know.” More than a hint of sarcasm tinged her voice. “The sympathy card you sent touched me deeply.”
Her lip curled with contempt. “Apparently your wife sent it.”
She gazed at the urn and blinked away tears I wasn't certain she was capable of producing. “Twain died in Januaryâ¦after a long illness.”
May he rest in peace.
“I'm sure Laura mentioned the news, but I was focused so much on my writing. Maybe she wanted to spare me the grief ofâ”
Mildred held up her hand, looking mean again. Bringing up the dog had been a mistake. “Can the crap, Jake. You haven't focused on your writing in quite some time.”
Here it was. I never expected her to call a meeting to tell me how much she liked my writing. She generally offered as many compliments as a tax collector.
Bracing for what was sure to be pages of red ink, I picked up the chapters and turned them over. I sifted through several pages. Nothing. Not a spot of red. “I don't see any edits,” I said, not to mention the missing four-letter metaphors demanding punching-up.
She finished her drink. “I didn't get that far.”
I set the pages on her desk.
Mildred cocked her head. “You and Laura okay?”
“I'm not here to talk about my marriage, which is fine, thank you.”
My editor thought my wife was a distraction. Her opinion only intensified as Laura's Hollywood career took off. Apparently I had written better back when I lived alone in a tiny apartment. “Laura sends her regards.”
“I'll just bet.” To my surprise, her face softened. “We've been friends for a lot of yearsâ¦”
Friends? We rarely saw each other outside the office. I recalled a single business lunch after
was released. She visited me in the hospital after I got shot a couple of years ago. She sent a card of congratulations when Laura and I got married, but that was about it.
She didn't need to be a friend. Mildred pushed, goaded, threatened, and ultimately transformed me into a better writer. More important, if one believed, as I did, that a career was critical in life, she made me a better person as well.
Without her and Empire Press, my first mystery,
would've been a five-cent pulp novel at best. I'd still be a gumshoe in a cramped office in Queens instead of a bestselling author married to a gorgeous movie star.
She stared at the whiskey bottle as if contemplating a second drink. “I never told you this, but before your first manuscript crossed my desk, my career was finished here. I hadn't produced a bestseller for Empire Press in three years. I signed off on some real stinkers. I vowed if the company gave me another chance, I wouldn't be so nice.”
Her plan was working.
“You thought I was taking a chance on you, Jake, but really, my boss took the chance, on me. You came through because you took my criticisms to heart and rewrote
into a bestseller. Your first three books were fabulous.”
I remembered all the red ink on my first manuscript, the one I had thought was perfect.
Mildred gestured out the window. “I owe this corner office to you.”
Her story, like the whiskey, was an attempt to soften the blow of what was coming. My earlier apprehension turned to something near panic, an emotion I seldom allowed to surface. I held up one hand, trying to fend off the inevitable. “I can write better.”
The minute the words left my mouth, I wanted them back. The plea sounded perilously close to begging.
She pushed her glasses higher on her nose. “The sales of your last novel were half of your first.”
“The country's in an economic depression.”
“We were in a depression when your first novel came out. People still go to movies and buy books.” Mildred poured another shot. “I can make a case with my boss about declining sales, but my concern isn't the bottom line, it's something more critical.”
Then hit me with your damn concern. “I'm not following.”
“Let me show you something.” Mildred left her glass of bourbon and opened the door. I trailed her to the elevator. We rode down one floor and stepped out.
I'd been to Empire Press plenty, but never to this area of the company. We walked past several offices, where the occupants talked on the phone without looking up. We stopped at the edge of a large room to the
of two dozen emotionless typists, who ignored us.
She pointed to a young brunette seated in the second row. “The typing pool. I sat right there when I landed my job with Empire, twenty-some years ago.”
Mildred had shared more about her past in the last five minutes than in the five years we'd known each other. Why now?
I followed her into an empty conference room with a window overlooking New York. She sat, and I remained standing, still unclear about my writing future. “I got into this business because growing up, I read every book I could get ahold of. I worked hard, harder than the rest, thinking each promotion would bring me more important and fascinating jobs. Eventually I became an editor. Finally, I got to spend time with authors who introduced me to enthralling heroes in exotic locales. I love mysteries most of all becauseâ¦well, life's a mystery, isn't it?”
This meeting had become a mystery. “It must've worked. I mean, you're successful.”
“My career's been an interesting journey, but along the way, I lost something: the ability to enjoy a well-written book.” She gazed out the window. “Last summer I managed to schedule my first vacation in years. At the train station I picked up a novel from another publisher. I'd never heard of the author, but the plot sounded interesting. I brought the book to the beach and sat under an umbrella. I couldn't get past the first page without seeing what the editor missed. I made it to the second chapter, making mental notes of each mistake. I never finished the novel.”
She studied my face. “You still don't get it. I love working with authors and creating successful books.”
I must've missed something.
“You think I'm tough on you.”
Mildred chuckled. “Let's go back to my office and talk business.”
We rode the elevator in silence. She still hadn't expressed her concerns about my chapters and why there was no red ink on the pages.
Inside Mildred's office, I returned to my chair as my editor slid into the chair behind her desk.
She leaned forward and clasped her hands. “You're one of my favorite authors. I liked you from the get-go, Jake, but I
Blackie Doyle. So did your readers, his hard-boiled nature with a caring heart. You could write what it was like to struggle with a dangerous case because you once pounded those New York back alleys and speakeasies. As a PI, you cared about your clients. Your last novel and this one?” She pushed the stack of papers away. “Written by a man who's lost his connection to the beating pulse of the bloody city.”
I hadn't lived in New York for almost two years, but lost the connection? I understood the Big Apple, every flaw, bruise, and worm, and there were plenty of worms. I walked to the window and gazed down at the familiar streets. Maybe my writing had slipped a little, but I hadn't lost touch with my past. That was crazy talk.
“Jake, come sit down.”
I did what I was told. I sat and leaned forward, with my elbows on my knees, staring at the expensive shoes I'd bought for the meeting.
Mildred's voice softened. “I'm not sure what to tell you, because I don't know whether you've lost your gift or just misplaced it. Your writing lacks its original charm and appeal. I get it, Blackie Doyle has grown more cynical over time, but the reader needs to feel your detective gives a damn.”
I jumped to my feet. “Of course he gives a damn!”
“Not in these pages.” She thumped the chapters.
I studied her face. Mildred might be goading me into redoubling my efforts. That was okay. Then again, maybe she was letting me down easy. “I'm in a slump, that's all.”
She shook her head. “Your last book had the same problem. I shouldn't have ignored it.” Mildred leaned back. “I read your chapters three times. They come across like they were written by someone who has life too easy.”
Life was easy. I married my childhood sweetheart. I became a successful writer and Laura had gone from Broadway star to Hollywood actress. She was making so much dough weâ¦was it true? Had life softened me so I'd lost touch with my past? I knew who Mildred would blame for any drop-off in my writing. “It's not Laura's fault.”
“Of course not. It's you.”
The words hit like a punch to the kidneys.
Mildred let out a deep sigh. “Readers enjoy Blackie, a rascal, sure, but a character who cares about the cases and those he helps when he solves the mystery. You've lost the connection with the reader about why Blackie does what he does.”
I snatched the pages. “I'll punch the story up.”
“It doesn't need punching up. It begs to be trashed or used to line a birdcage. You need to start over.”
Mildred rose and walked around the desk. She perched on the edge of it like a vulture about to swoop on unsuspecting prey. “No one else has the guts to say this to you, but since you left New York, you've lived your life for Laura. She's lucky to have someone who cares so much, but you've neglected your career, and it shows in your writing. You need to get away from what you think is your responsibility as the husband of a famous actress.”