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DEATH AT NOSTALGIA STREET
by Wade Wright
“WHAT’S BITING Noel this morning?”
I looked up from the copy I was checking as Carol Reid, leaning a trim hip against my desk, dropped two large envelopes at my elbow.
“I wouldn’t know. He came in like a walking thundercloud.”
“And nearly two hours late,” she added.
I reached for my cigarettes. “Want to make some coffee?”
As if not having heard, she threw another quick look at the closed door of Noel Bundy’s cubbyhole. “He’s been shut in there all morning and some of those phone conversations have been a bit noisy.”
“In case it’s slipped your notice,” she sighed, “I’ve a mountain of work.”
“Same here. But I’m dying of thirst and this dungeon’s getting pretty cold.”
“Probably trouble at home,” she murmured, moving off to a rear corner of the office where we kept a hotplate, a kettle, cups, and a can of instant coffee.
I lit a cigarette and watched as she got the kettle plugged in, the cups set out. This morning she wore a flared plaid skirt and a sweater of heavy pink wool that ended in a loose roll collar under her chin. Her dark auburn hair was tied back with a small ribbon and, as usual, her face had needed only a touch of makeup. She was a tall girl, more than adequately put together, and since I’d got myself involved in Bundy’s operation I’d taken her out a few times, never once getting so much as a goodnight peck.
I slit open one of the envelopes, but before there was any chance to read the letter accompanying the typescript, the door at the back of the office burst open and Benny Sheckter came in looking as if he were about to cry.
“I give up,” he complained to no one in particular. “How’m I supposed to run off those cassettes when I have to use this kind of junk?”
Carol turned from what she was doing. “The boss man is in his office. Complain to him . . . if you want your head blown off.”
Benny flushed deeply. The kid was nineteen, with the body of a young giant and the voice of an elf. He brushed at the thick blond fringe hanging over his forehead, and mumbled: “Aw hell — you know he’ll only hit the roof again.” As strong as an ox, Benny was, for reasons he’d never been able to explain, terrified of Noel Bundy. Especially when the latter would take off on one of his frequent tantrums.
Carol, Benny and I made up the total staff of Noel Bundy’s Nostalgia Street Enterprises, an outfit that, as the name was intended to suggest, dealt exclusively with nostalgia — the things of the past. In the process it produced more than just a healthy profit for its owner. Benny watched over the storeroom, a place fitted with steel racks and cabinets, all loaded with old comic books, pulp magazines, movie stills, lobby cards and press books. His job was to take care of the stock, pack and dispatch orders, and in between, run off copies of vintage radio shows onto cassette tapes.
Carol looked after the subscription lists of the three 68-page magazines we published, handled the bulk of the typing, the accounts and orders, and gave Bundy a hand with the advertising layouts. When I’d joined Bundy he was publishing Flicker Favorites, a magazine carrying about 7O percent advertising and a bunch of articles concerning the Hollywood stars of yesteryear.
Since then we’d added Western Matinee, carrying an equal volume of advertising, but directed mainly to the “B” Western movie buffs, of which there were far more than first we’d figured. The Komix we’d launched with certain reservations, for already there were a number of similar publications enjoying good circulation. But by the second issue the new title was pulling in more advertising than its companion mags, and what Bundy enjoyed most was the fact that we were never short of contributors sending in articles and artwork, never expecting a dime in payment.
In recent months we had moved into the reprint business; reprinting old comic books which had never had their copyright renewed. Originally those books had been in full color and sold for a dime. Bundy reprinted them in black and white and moved thousands at six bucks a throw.
“What’s the problem?” I asked Benny.
“Those cassettes,” he moaned, holding a cup for Carol to fill. “They’re junk. They keep jamming. Where’d he get that crap from anyway? How come we’re not using brand names anymore?”
“It involves a thing called profit,” Carol informed him. “And profits, my lad, are what pay our salaries.”
“Hah!” He snorted, trying again to get his hair off his forehead. “If he keeps on sending out garbage like that he can kiss future orders goodbye.”
“If you’re in the mood to tell him,” Carol smiled, “I’d caution you on your choice of words. Mr. Bundy dislikes his merchandise referred to in such a manner.”
“I’ll take it up with him,” I said. “I’ve a few other things to see him about.”
“Hell, thanks, Mr. Tyrell. Me, I somehow have trouble getting through to him.” He turned to Carol. “Any orders come in?”
She went to her desk which was parked a few feet in front of mine and collected a small sheaf of letters on which certain lines had been underscored in red, with notations of the same color in the borders. “Make certain they’re insured for the values indicated,” she said, handing them to him.
“Don’t I always?” The boy glanced quickly through the letters. Suddenly he whistled softly. “Talking of profits — grab a load of this!” He held up one of the letters so that Carol might see what he was talking about. “Some nut’s paying four hundred and fifty bucks for this copy of Marvel Mystery.”
Carol frowned at him. “So?”
“Hell, he got that one in a whole box of stuff he bought off old lady Kelsner for a lousy forty!”
“That’s what business is all about,” Carol said, her voice almost as soft as the boy’s. But she didn’t really believe it. More than once she’d pointed out similar things to me.
“Sure,” Benny agreed. “But couldn’t he have given the old girl a better deal? I mean, hell — I know for a fact he’s already sold six items out of that same pile for over five hundred!”
“He’s probably tuned into every word you’re saying,” I suggested quietly.
Benny’s eyes darted to Bundy’s office, and a little of the color left his face. Without a word he picked up the cup he’d deposited on my desk and retreated back to the storeroom.
At a few minutes after twelve I knuckled Bundy’s door and went into the tiny room he used as an office. He was sucking on a cigarette, leaning back in the old swivel chair and staring at the ceiling. The overhead light reflected off his thick glasses, making him appear even more owl-like than ever. A man of medium height, he carried a little too much weight, and though the weather had cooled considerably during the past weeks, his shirt was already showing patches of perspiration. His light brown hair looked as if it hadn’t seen a comb since the previous day.
He let the chair thump forward, stubbed out the cigarette, scooped up the movie magazine and the thin batch of stills which lay on the desk blotter, and dropped them into a drawer.
“The new logo Chuck Juzek promised us arrived this morning,” I said, and propped the board with the new title lettering for our Western mag up on the filing cabinet at the side of his desk so that he could view it.
“Looks kind of big to me,” he scowled.
“But a lot more impressive.”
“You like it?” he asked without much interest.
“It’s better than the one we’re using.”
“Then use it.”
I sat down in the only other chair the office was able to accommodate. “Problems?”
“Plenty.” He shoved aside a few papers and swore softly. “Been talking to that bastard Decker. He wants a complete layout for Western Matinee four days earlier this month. Seems they’ve got a big rush job from the textile mill, which means if we don’t deliver when he wants the stuff, we’ll be at least ten days late getting out the issue.” He expelled his breath in what sounded like a weary sigh. “I’ll tell you something. If there was another printer in town I’d drop Decker fast. Matter of fact, I’ve been shopping around for someone else to handle our work.”
“Decker’s been helpful to us when we’ve had problems,” I reminded him.
“All right. So where’s that leave us now?”
“We can make it if we put in a few extra hours. The last article I was waiting for just came in. If you’re ready with the ads we can finish assembling the dummy.”
“And next month there’ll be the same damned hassle,” he muttered. “Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just pack it in.”
“Because you enjoy it, and because it generates a handy profit, that’s why.”
Bundy chose to ignore my reply. “It’s these damned writers,” he complained, reaching into his shirt pocket for a crumpled deck of Kents. “They promise material then they don’t come across. That’s what screws up our schedule.”
I didn’t bother reminding him that an issue had never yet gone out which didn’t carry some of my work. I said instead, “Maybe they’d be more co-operative if you paid for their work.”
“Paid?” The suggestion sent his eyebrows soaring. “Hell, grow up, why don’t you? Most of those jerks are only too happy to see their names in print. We send them a few free copies they can brag on and they’re as happy as the proverbial pig. So why spoil a good thing?”
“Some of our contributors are professionals, Noel. They’ve provided free material only because I’ve asked them to help out. But it isn’t going to last. Several of our competitors are paying well for articles and artwork. We’re going to have to do the same — soon.”
“Nuts,” he grunted. “There’ll always be assholes wanting their stuff published — and no question of payment. Besides, half the crap we get has to be rewritten anyway.”
“Noel,” I said as patiently as I could, “the advertising we carry just about pays our printing costs. We sell the mags at five bucks a copy and each has an average circulation of four thousand. We can afford to start paying something.”
Bundy blew smoke across the desk and said nothing.
“An article came in this morning,” I told him. “One I’ve been waiting for. An in-depth biography of Ray Whitley.”
“The guy who wrote all those Western songs?”
“Uh-huh. In between making movies and records. Some of the numbers he wrote were big hits for Gene Autry — ‘Back in the Saddle Again,’ ‘Lonely River,’ ‘Ages and Ages Ago’ . . .”
From behind the thick lenses Bundy squinted at me. “Yeah, I remember. Nice stuff. So what’s the catch?”
“It’s written by Gerald Vaughn,” I said. “He’s done a lot in this vein, including a couple of books on the old Western movies. He’s good.”
“Okay, so he’s good.” He waved aside a cloud of smoke. “What about it?”
“It’s not for free.” Bundy’s already ruddy face suddenly grew two shades darker. “He’s already had an offer for it,” I said quickly. “And I know for a fact he can sell it elsewhere without any problem.”
“Let him,” Bundy growled. “We start paying one or two and the next thing every klutz will expect the same thing.”
I took out one of my own smokes. “All right, Noel, it’s time to get something off my chest. I’ve been stalling this for too long.”
Slowly he eased himself back in the chair. “Not this morning. This morning I got enough on my mind. Send back the article. I’ll cut a couple pages from the issue if I have to.”
I got the smoke going. “And what happens next month? Or the month after that? What happens when word gets around that Bundy’s too damned cheap to pay for what he needs? How many pages are you going to cut when contributions stop coming in?”
He kept his mouth shut, but a little white was beginning to show at the edges. I let the smoke dribble through my nose and held rein on the anger welling up inside of me.
I said softly, “Noel, when I joined you there was only the one mag, and you were having a tough time editing it. Now there are three, and I’m carrying the full load. I happen to know what sort of money you’re making, and I’ve a good idea about the sort of profits your sales of vintage magazines and reprints are pulling in. Yet you keep trying to cut costs at every turn. Right now Benny’s having fits trying to dub recordings onto those cheap cassettes you bought.” I leaned forward and killed the cigarette. “Damnit, don’t you realize that the people buying those old shows will wise up to what you’re doing?”
“Let them. I’ve been getting tired of the radio show side of things anyhow. It’s about time to quit. Profit’s too small,” he added calmly.
“Or,” I asked, “is it the recent law suits concerning copyright that decided you?”
“There’s that, too,” he said, but with reluctance.
“All right, then let’s talk about the deal you promised me.”
“Deal?” His forehead creased into a puzzled frown. “What deal? Aren’t I paying you what I promised?”
I shook my head. “I’m talking about the deal you promised eighteen months ago, when I agreed to join you. You said in six months you’d see how things were shaping and then we’d talk about a partnership. I’ve been waiting nearly a year for you to say something. I’ve done a good job of building up the magazines, even if I have to say so myself. But I’m still waiting for you to come to me with partnership talk.”
“I must’ve been drunk if I ever mentioned anything like that,” he said, face rigid. “Shit, you’re not going to sit there and tell me you expected me to cut you in on —” He let the rest float, took another drag on the smoke, then asked, “Lee, if you really thought I was serious, why’d you wait all this time to —?”
I never let him finish. “Are you trying to say there was never any intention of cutting me in” — my voice was starting to rise — “that it was nothing more than a big con?”
Bundy jerked the half-smoked cigarette from his mouth. “I gave you a job when you needed it. You forgetting that?”
I tried to say something, but the anger I was struggling to control refused to turn the words loose.
“What were you when I met you, huh? You tell me? A loser with two suits to his name and maybe fifteen bucks in his jeans. You were stranded in this dump — on the bones of your backside — and it was me who gave you a break. Me! Only now you don’t seem to remember it. Now you come bleating about a partnership!” He rubbed out the cigarette with unnecessary force. “Just like that — I should give you half of everything!”
“No,” I said. “Not half. That was never expected. Only a percentage of the publishing business; the magazines and reprints I got going for you.”
“Yeah? Like how much percent?”
“No more than was promised. Twenty-five.”
“Twenty —!” The word stuck in his throat, almost choking him. Kicking back his chair he got to his feet and hitched up his sagging pants. Then quite abruptly his shoulders slumped and his face returned to its normal complexion. “Look, Lee, I don’t want to fight with you. Today I got headaches enough. Okay?” He came a step closer. “How much you getting now, huh?”
“Noel — for Pete’s sake —!”
“Okay, okay. As of now you got another fifty a month,” he put in quickly. “Maybe later we can talk about you getting a piece of the action.”
There was a pounding in my temples as I lifted myself out of the chair. “We talk about it now.”
“Lee — don’t push me.” His voice was a loud hiss that rose from deep in his barrel chest. “I said we’d talk later. So don’t push me.”
Two years ago I’d probably have swung at him. Now I merely sighed. “All right. When?”
He needed a moment to think about it. “I guess we’ll both be working late tonight. We can take it up then.” Slowly his round face folded itself into a smile as he reached up and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I like you, Lee. I want you to know that. I’ll see you right. Don’t sweat over it.”
I reached for the doorknob and twisted it. “I won’t. Because if we don’t get something sorted out, I’m through.”
“We’ll talk,” he promised gravely. “Tonight.”
“And in the meantime what about the Vaughn story?”
Bundy’s hesitation was brief. “Okay. Pay him what’s fair. Have Carol make out a check.”
Carol was at her desk when I closed the door behind me, her eyebrows arched. “I couldn’t help hearing some of that. You had the door partly open. Did you mean it, Lee — you’d quit?”
“I meant it,” I said, flopping into my chair. Inside my chest something stretched taught and my hands were beginning to tremble.
“For a while there I was afraid it might end in a fight,” she said quietly, coming to stand at the side of the desk.
“Someday it may come to just that,” I answered tightly. “Damnit, Carol, why does everyone take the kind of garbage he dishes out? I mean — what’s he got? Even when you know he’s pulling a fast one he’s still able to bulldoze you around to his way of thinking. I went in there refusing to compromise, and s’help me, here I am — waiting until he’s ready to talk.”
I explained about the check that was to be sent to Gerald Vaughn, and then somehow got back to work, though my mind was only partly on what I was doing. Bundy’s agreement to paying for the story had surprised me. What surprised me even more was that he hadn’t insisted on stipulating the amount we would actually pay.
At two-thirty Bundy was still behind the closed door of his office, but by then we’d stopped thinking about it. Benny came through with a small pile of stills and lobby cards he’d plucked from stock. Out of the bunch there were only nine in which Ray Whitley was featured prominently enough for my purpose. I put them aside and was reaching for my phone when the street door opened and a tall, cadaverous number huddled in a shabby tweed topcoat stepped hesitantly into the office.
He removed his hat before taking the few steps that brought him to Carol’s desk. He looked like someone who’d been carrying the world on his shoulders for too long a time.
“I’m told you have a Mr. Bundy here.” His eyes darted about the room as if confused by what he had discovered. “Mr. Noel Bundy?”
Before Carol could respond, Bundy came lurching out of his office, his coat over his arm. He started to tell Carol he was going out, then for the first time appeared to notice our visitor.
“Hello, Noel.” The man’s voice was like the rest of him; thin and tired.
For the first time since I’d known him Bundy turned pale as something akin to fear flickered across his face.
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