When popular cartoonist Lawrence Lariar decided to moonlight as a mystery writer, creating comic book artist turned amateur sleuth Homer Bull was a natural. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Lariar continued to switch from sketching caricatures to sketchy characters, writing hardboiled crime fiction under his own name as well as the pseudonyms Michael Stark, Adam Knight, Michael Lawrence, and Marston La France, and creating a series of memorable gumshoes. Now his classic whodunits are available as ebooks.
A little man built for big trouble, private eye Steve Conacher finds plenty of it when his old friend, Mike Smith, disappears. Odd timing considering the talented cartoonist was set to take over a million-dollar comic strip from his ancient and ailing mentor. Anyone would kill for that gig. That’s why it makes more sense when Mike is fished out of an icy river, stone cold dead.
So who erased the new prince of pen and ink? Right now, Conacher is looking at three characters in Mike’s shady background: the bereaved widow, the hot career girl he was dating, and the ambitious wife of a rival artist. But it’s the second murder that leaves Conacher’s head spinning. Now he has a fresh set of motives, and a brand-new target in the killer’s sights: himself.
I’ll Kill You Next is the 6th book in the PI Steve Conacher Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The start of it was simple — until I met the old man.
Luke Yorke continued to amaze me. He was old and he was sick, but his voice still carried the overtones of seasoned authority. When he talked into his intercom, your ears snipped thirty years off his age.
"No visitors for a while, Kate," he said.
He waited politely for the answering murmur. Kate Steen's voice came from some mysterious void out in the reception room. The old man scowled at it.
"That means everybody," he said sharply. "Including Arthur."
He hung up and fussed with a bottle of Scotch, moving slowly and deliberately, his keen eyes studying me in the pause. He was using the quiet moment to measure me for the job at hand in the brazen, obvious manner of a business executive who appraises a qualifying office boy. His critical scrutiny could freeze a man and then soften him for a sudden verbal attack. I wondered vaguely how Mike Smith had reacted to this routine.
"A gay and high-spirited girl," he said with a dry chuckle. "Quite a little person, Katie Steen."
"An old friend of mine," I said.
"Indeed? From where?"
"Inger's. I used to know quite a few of the cartooning boys at the syndicate, Mr. Yorke. At that time, Katie was a receptionist there."
"Talented," said the old man.
"In many ways," I smiled.
Luke Yorke considered his drink for a moment. He got off his ancient butt and advanced to the window, eyeing the wintry sky with the speculative air of an old, tired bird. He began to cough, a deep and rumbling fit of hacking and hawking, the sound of it filling the room. His pale face reddened under the attack and he leaned against the bar until the great gusts of coughing quieted.
"Terrible," he said. "A bad cold."
He sighed and poured himself a drink. Was it nervousness that added to his discomfort now? His hand was not too steady on the bottle. A few drops splashed on the lush carpeting and when he mixed the soda, his maneuverings set up a fine spray. He had long, lean, aesthetic hands. The tips of his fingers were knobbed with arthritic lumps. He kept talking as he fixed his drink and when the operation was over he sat again and began to squeeze his knuckles, as though by the gesture he might push the marauding malady deep under his skin.
"She's young," he was saying. "I like the very young around me. Livens up the place. And Katie Steen has talent, too."
"She writes." His face wrinkled when he smiled, setting up rivulets of etched lines along the narrow pane of his cheeks and high up on the bony ridge of his brow. But the grin was stock and forced. He had the kind of face that could not screen the restlessness that burned behind his unkempt brows. The trouble bit deep inside him. The trouble came through to me by way of his suddenly empty eyes. They were telling me that Luke Yorke was a lonely man. Lonely and frightened?
"Katie," he said at last, "has been helping me quite a bit with Caleb Straight."
"I didn't know she could write."
The old man nodded absently, lost beyond the reality of our conversation in some private world of his own. "Katie seems to know the character of Caleb thoroughly. And she has many bright, young ideas."
Ideas? Katie Steen was loaded with all kinds of ideas, some of which I had sampled in the distant past. When she worked at Inger's she was an easy date, a consort to a variety of cartoonists who labored for the syndicate. I remembered her on the arm of Buzz Dillon, Chester Garroway and others of the comic gentry. She had played the field, including Mike Smith. The quick picture of Katie and Mike disturbed me, setting up a cloying wave of impatience with the old man for his meandering dialogue.
He continued to talk about Katie in the rambling, purposeless way old people sometimes lose themselves in a theme. But he had lost me five minutes ago. I was remembering Katie Steen after a local brawl a few years ago, when she took me down to her small nest in Greenwich Village. She had a bedroom that was all couch and yards wide. And when she stood against her big window that night silhouetted against the gray sky, she had curves that could make a Pasha leave his harem. Her body, outlined against the light ...
"Kate's never at a loss for story ideas," Luke Yorke was saying. "Not like John Weathering. No temperament like John."
"I thought Weathering was supposed to be tops in the comic strip continuity trade?"
"Weathering's a has-been. No sparkle."
"Weathering isn't with you anymore?"
The old man coughed out his answer. "Fired him, the fool. Long ago."
He was scowling again. Up close, he looked impossibly old. But the light in his cold eyes remained bright and provocative. He would be alert and alive until they lowered him into his grave. Once again, he moved to the window and stared vacantly into the cloudless distances. His withered hand clutched the drape in a slow, almost convulsive grip, hard enough to whiten his knuckles. What bothered him out there? Was it the mournful sigh of the icy wind, sucking and blowing around the lonely walls of his penthouse terrace? His ivory tower looked down upon the quiet streets of the Village, removing him from even a casual contact with the normal sights and sounds below. Suddenly I felt sorry for him.
"Weathering," he said slowly, "was no good. Worthless. Bluffer."
"He went dry?"
"Weathering's dryness was dry rot. You know him?"
"Casually. I haven't seen the cartoon boys for quite a while. This job you want me to do is sort of a coincidence. I was about to hunt down Mike Smith on my own."
"What was that?" — Was he listening to me? What had happened to his eyes now? He seemed angered by some inner idea, some personal discomfort — "You want to locate the scoundrel?"
"Mike Smith is no scoundrel."
"What would you call him? A thief?"
"A mixed-up lad," I said. "But no crook."
"Ah? You knew him well?"
"We went to school together, roomed together. A long time ago."
"The years change a man, my boy."
"In the pig's valise," I said. He was beginning to annoy me with his snide cracks about Mike Smith. My stomach was screaming for me to tell the old stinker off. Mike would never change for me. You can't damage a memory by cheap cracks and innuendoes. The past rose up to challenge such nonsense. The past came alive for me even now, in this quick moment of tension. I remembered Mike clearly, in every detail — his perpetually thoughtful face, the face of a schoolboy, open and honest, ridged with the mass of boyish freckles he had never lost. And two years ago? Had Mike changed while working for Yorke? "I want Mike Smith as badly as you do," I said.
"Because it doesn't make sense. A man of Mike's talent just doesn't sink into limbo."
"Not even deliberately?"
"Possibly," I agreed. "But I'll never rest until I find him and he tells me the reason for his fade-out."
"Why so emotional about Mike?" His faded blue eyes were laughing at me. "He owe you some money, Conacher?"
"Let's skip it, Mr. Yorke."
I was burning with a hot rash now. It would be stupid to tell the old louse what I thought of him. It would be zany to break it down for him. After all, Yorke was a client, a paying customer who had put me on for twenty-five per day and expenses, plus a good bonus for the locate of Mike Smith. What difference did it make whether Mike was an old friend or just a name from the Missing Persons list?
"I'd prefer not to skip it," the old man said. "Your interest in Mike baffles me. Did you know that he worked for me? That he cartooned Caleb Straight for more than five years?"
"Of course I knew it. Mike didn't hide his talents under a bushel. He was proud of the job he was doing for you."
"He told you that?"
"Many times," I said.
"When was the last time?"
I backtracked down the path of memory. There was a man named Luigi DeSarros, a Peruvian mogul who shipped me off on an impossible hunt a year ago. His charming wife had skipped South America with a New York gaucho who was playing her for her bundle of Latin loot. The skip-trace had taken me halfway around the world, the most interesting chase in my pockmarked career. I caught her at last, in Puerto Rico. How long ago?
"I saw Mike last about a year ago," I said. "He was a happy artist then. He loved working for you, had no complaints at all. You paid him well and he was able to knock himself out in his favorite sport — chasing the dolls. Mike was always a high school kid at heart, Mr. Yorke. His perpetual adolescence was part of his charm. It explains many of his foolish habits. But it doesn't explain away his disappearance."
The old man was lost to me again. Sometimes old people seem to lapse into impossible silences, turning their minds inward to the quiet shadows of the past. Luke Yorke looked at me and through me and beyond me, his thin lips curved in a soft smile, his dusty eyes vacant. Only his hands moved slowly, clasped tight, so that the blue veins showed in the pale flesh.
"Mike Smith is an emotional idiot," he said at last.
"Cartoonists are supposed to have temperament, aren't they?"
"An idiot." Luke Yorke didn't seem to hear me. "You might say that I'm surrounded with idiots, Conacher. Maybe it's wrong for creative people to change into business tycoons. Artists were created to eke out a living, to struggle, to fight for recognition. Our civilization stinks, Conacher. Look at what's happened to me. I came out of a farm background. I was a rustic almost all my life, until I developed a comic strip that made me my fortune. Caleb Straight has become a household word, like milk and eggs and Mickey Mouse. You see the damned fool on television and in the movies and on radio. Caleb Straight appears on cocktail glasses and milk bottles, billboards and magazine ads. Advertising agencies bid for the privilege of using his noble features to sell their wares. And every time he appears, the money comes rolling in, so much that I need special people to count it and invest it for me. Caleb Straight is my monster. What was once a simple daily stint has now developed into a labor of great intricacy, with a staff of artists and writers and planners and even an agent to promote and produce the Caleb Straight by-products."
He began to cough again, letting the spasm run itself out, his thin frame shaking under the torment. Then he sucked at his drink and studied the glass, as though he would find the next line of his monologue there.
"Idiots," he said again. "Idiots for an idiot enterprise. Look at these fingers, Conacher."
He held out a hand and it was strangely steady in the pose. There was nothing for me to say.
"Arthritis," he said. "The crippling beast of old age. I can't draw much anymore. The leeches and the lice are standing around jockeying for the best spot in my stupid kingdom. They're waiting for the old corpse to stiffen."
He got off his tail, shaking his white head at his inner woes, weighing them off in his intellect. Behind him, against the long, blue wall, there was a giant picture of Caleb Straight, done in pen and ink, an enlargement of Caleb out of the daily strip. In some strange way the old man's brain child resembled him, like a caricature done in his youth, a symbolic drawing in which the basic lines came from nature — the strong chin and the keen, deep-set eyes, and the noble brow.
Luke Yorke held his glass high in a mock toast. He scowled at the picture.
"My gift to mankind," he said. "My gift to the waiting vultures."
The door opened and a girl came in. She moved silently, with a model's grace.
"You shouldn't drink, Uncle Luke," she said, taking the glass from his hand with the calm assurance of a mother who finds Junior in the bar. "You're a bad boy." She stared at me sulkily, as though my presence in the room had made him break the rules. She had big black eyes, made for staring. "And you're supposed to be napping," she added, still looking my way. "You're supposed to be in bed now."
"Don't blame Conacher," the old man said. "I asked him to come. Business. Conacher's going to find Mike Smith for me, Gwen."
"Mrs. Denton," said Yorke, introducing us. "Gwen Denton, my favorite girl, my niece, my nurse, my lady watchdog."
She shook my hand. She had a man's grip. "I've never met a detective before," she said.
"That makes us even. I've never met a lady watchdog."
"You don't look like a detective, Mr. Conacher."
"A popular sentiment," I said. "How am I supposed to look?"
"What I mean is, I'd never guess your trade."
"Cliché thinking," laughed the old man. "Gwen's been seeing too many bad television shows, too many corny movies. She thinks of detectives in the approved fictional way. Comic-strip thinking, Gwen. We all suffer from the disease. Because Conacher's short and thin, you probably figure him to be anything but a skilled operator. Your imagination demands a big, broad and flat-headed gentleman to play detective for you. Admit it, girl."
"Not quite, Uncle Luke. Maybe I'm the Ellery Queen type."
"Upper class," I smiled. "Out of my league."
"Detectives have leagues?"
"Definitely. I'm working my way through the minors."
"And what happens when you hit the majors?"
"That would be the big time," I said. "That would be the fictional sleuthing with the fat pay envelopes, the way you read about it in the two-bit novels. It never happens in real life. But even detectives can dream."
She was leaning over a cabinet near the great fireplace, reaching for a bottle of medicine. She spoon-fed the old man the mixture, a horrible brew from the face he made at it. He squirmed and almost retched as he swallowed it.
"You must get back into bed," she told him. "You're not out of the woods yet, Uncle."
"I'm hacking my way through, girl."
"You should be resting now. Before dinner."
"Don't want any dinner."
"Not even bouillabaisse?"
"Ah?" He patted her hands energetically, enjoying the feel of her at his side. She sat on the arm of his chair and let him fondle her. She was well molded. Her legs would look well in stocking ads, and the cut of her thighs above the hemline showed a firm understructure. She was dramatically sculptured all the way up, under the Basque sweater where her breasts curved unfettered by any artificial props. When she leaned over to peck at his forehead, a muscle quivered along her calf. Her mouth was created for indoor sports, soft, full lips, neatly made up to accent their good lines.
"Bouillabaisse," the old man said. "That would be fine."
"And will you stay, Mr. Conacher?"
"Not tonight, thanks. Work to do."
"Is it that tough?" she asked. When she smiled something happened to her face — a freshening, a sudden girlishness. "I'll bet you'll have Mike Smith up here in no time at all."
"I wouldn't make book on it. Mike could be a skillful dodger. Artistic people have keen imaginations. They contrive. Especially cartoonists."
"You know many cartoonists?"
"They're interesting people." Gwen eased her lithe body away from the old man. She smoothed her dress, slowly, letting me sample the lines of her torso. Some of her subdued thoughtfulness had returned now. "Every one of them is a character."
At the door she paused. How gracefully she moved! She stood there only to nod goodbye to me, her big eyes somber and strangely inquiring, like a teenager with a disturbing thought. Something was buzzing around in her mental machinery. Yet she managed a crisp smile for me before she left the room.
"A looker, Conacher?" The old man cackled and returned at once to the bar, where he went to work mixing himself another drink. "I'll never understand how my nephew Arthur Denton snared a girl like that for himself. You know Arthur?"
"I've heard his name mentioned. He's on your staff?"
"He plays at it. Arthur is Mr. No-talent himself."
"He makes desperate stabs at cartooning."
He began to talk about his nephew in a slow, calculated flood of descriptive monologue. He backtracked into the story of his only sister, allowing me small morsels of her life, sketching her history for me with a master storyteller's knack for eliminating unnecessary detail. His sister had married a failure. Arthur was their only child.
"She lavished her love on the boy," the old man went on. "She ruined him, of course. She protected him and indulged him, heaping the ruins of her personal frustrations upon the boy. Arthur's ruination stemmed from his mother's overpowering affection. It needs no great psychiatric insight to discover the background for his dilemma. He was ill-fitted for living among people in the outside world. Arthur has no talent. But he imagines the world is against him. He finds himself in the sea of reality with no oars to propel him. He's one of my prize leeches, Conacher."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I'll Kill You Next"
Copyright © 1982 Lawrence Lariar.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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