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by Joseph Shallit


Chapter One


WHEN Kitty Lane started down the train steps, Eddie Fields let out a loud wolf whistle. “Just giving her a break,” he explained. “She don’t get much of that any more.”

I stepped out of the station wagon, walked across the platform and took the two big suitcases out of her hands.

“Such service,” Kitty Lane said. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined—”

“Why not?” I said. “You know we all love you.”

“Sure,” said Eddie Fields, rolling his little blob of a body out of the car. “I was so lonesome while you were away, I got out your picture every night and cried on it, when my wife wasn’t looking.”

“Cut out the crap and give me a cigarette,” said Kitty Lane.

Eddie fussed a crumpled pack out of his pocket and held it up, looking like a curly little cocker spaniel alongside a long, lean greyhound. Kitty took a cigarette without thanks and waited for his match. She sucked in the flame like a cool drink. She looked very much at ease in spite of the drenching August sunshine—a tall, slim column of white flesh cased in shimmery black silk. Kitty was one of those women who thrive on heat—the queer plants that spread their petals and exude energy only when the sun gets fierce. They probably make out fine in hell.

Kitty slid into the front seat while I slung her iridescent aluminum luggage in the back of the station wagon. “Feels like you did a bit of shopping,” I said.

“Had to, Dan,” she said. “I’ve been wearing the same dresses in so many of our shows, the guests were starting to kick. Even the moths were getting bored.”

“Hey, I’m supposed to make the cracks,” Eddie rumbled, getting in beside her, “You’re the singer— remember?” Trying to hog the act?”

“I wouldn’t use that word hog, if I were you,” said Kitty. “It makes people think of ham.”

“Listen to that!” Eddie’s thin lips mashed together. “Sharper and sharper, I’ll be scared to step on the stage with her. I knew we shouldn’t have let her go to New York.”

I closed the back door and walked around to the front. What a load this station wagon had. Talent! Eddie Fields, the m.c. of High Hill Lodge, and Kitty Lane, the singer of sad songs, and me, the razzle-dazzle athletic director. This was what our vacation booklets were talking about when they said “star-studded social staff.” It was a rash thing, putting us all in the same car. Just one skid on the mountain highway, and what would High Hill Lodge have left? Grass.

I got in behind the wheel. Eddie Fields was still badgering Kitty. She’d made a big mistake pulling a gag at his expense. That’s a thing you don’t do to a comic.

“You see, we let her go to New York,” Eddie said. “Four days on Fifth Avenue, and she’s got her nose so high, she has to wipe it through an oxygen mask.”

“Yeh,” said Kitty, blowing out a long drift of smoke, “Four days. I needed that vacation, bud. I could have used a lot more than four days in New York.”

‘‘I see—you don’t like it at High Hill,” said Eddie. “We’re too low-class for you. Mountain resort—hick stuff. You want lights, Broadway—all that crazy scramble, the noise, the rat race.” He paused. “So do I.”

Kitty smiled very briefly. She wreathed the windshield with smoke as I drove up the incline out of the Delaware and Lackawanna R.R. station.

The railroad’s name, stenciled on one of the freights, incited Eddie to song. It was a dialect ditty about an Italian named John who worked on the Lackawan’. There was nothing Eddie liked better than the Italian immigrant routine. He ruffled his curly hair, he hunched his little shoulders, he waved his hands as if he were sprinkling Parmesan on a dish of ravioli.

Kitty let him run out the song to its ragged end. Then she said frostily, “That antique little number gives your age away.”

“Uh huh—” said Eddie, “and since you happen to recognize it, it gives your age away, Yagh yagh—” he gave out with his gargle laugh, which always drove his audience into delighted imitation.

But it didn’t delight Kitty. She flipped a shoulder at him—leaned away from him and cleared her cigarette in the dashboard ashtray. I took a good look at her face. Yes, the gal had made some changes. While shopping for dresses in New York, she apparently had picked up a new face, too. Those penciled lines she used for eyebrows seemed to have been jacked up a little higher, giving her a kind of surprised look. Her cheeks and throat were a new, pinker shade. The subversive gray wisps in her long black hair had all been liquidated.

“The only one that don’t recognize that song is Dan Morrison,” Eddie pursued her. “That right, Morrison? You ever hear it?”

“Don’t think so,” I said.

“See that, Kitty? Don’t you wish you were young and innocent like Dan Morrison?”

Kitty looked down her long, aristocratic nose at Eddie. “And what makes you think I’m so old?”

“That McKinley campaign button you forgot to take off.”

“Why, you disgusting little zombie.”

“Only kidding, Kitty—you really look very nice, very sweet, you really do. I’ll be very happy if I look as young as you when I finally get to be your age.”

Kitty swung a hand at him, and Eddie ducked behind upraised arms, howling.

I drove through East Stroudsburg, past the tidy frame houses that looked like a row of parsonages, past the little stores and the few small factories and the neat old cemetery. A few more turns and we were driving into Stroudsburg’s Main Street, with its bustling shops and its classical row of parking meters.

“Take in any shows in New York?” Eddie Fields asked.

“A few,” said Kitty Lane.

“Like what?”

“Oh, South Pacific,” she said. “And don’t start choking—it isn’t as hard as you think. If you just want a single, that is, and you go there around showtime.” She was friends again, now that they were talking shop. “I also went to the Paramount and took in the Frank Raleigh show. My old partner.”

“Your old—? Are you kidding?”

“Nup—Frank’s my old partner, all right. Raleigh and Lane, ‘Songs as You Like Them.’ We were pretty good together, too—played most of Philly’s spots before we broke up.”

‘‘Why the hell’d you break up?”

“‘Why? Hah hah.” Her little laugh had rough edges, “Just because Frank’s rich brother obligingly died and left him fifteen thousand bucks,”

“I see,” Eddie said, “Used it to give himself the old build-up, eh?”

“He took off like a bird.” Kitty said, “Went to New York and hired the Bart Jamison firm to beat the gongs for him. It blew most of his wad, but zingo—it got him top bookings.”

“Yeh, that’s the way it’s done,” Eddie said mournfully.

“Would you people mind translating for a foreigner?” I butted in.

Kitty gave another little sandpaper laugh. “It’s what they call show business, Dan. Ever hear of it?”

I made a sharp right turn off Main Street and started up the concrete highway into the mountains. Kitty kept talking:

“You can sing at small clubs till you’re sixty, you can have a voice like seven angels, and nobody’ll hear about you—I mean nobody that matters—unless you get yourself some build-up. You’ve got to get everybody talking about you, you’ve got to crack all the columns. Who arranges all that? Somebody like the Bart Jamison outfit. Pay them enough and they can make you sound like the biggest thing to hit town since King Kong. Then you have every night club owner with his tongue hanging out, trying to sign you.”

“And you don’t need any talent?” I said,

“Oh, talent helps. But you know yourself some of the hams that have hit the top.”

“It’s the old story,” Eddie said. “My little missus tells me four times a day how I’m better than Berle, I can steal gags twice as fast as he can—but there he is, with his feet propped up on the RCA Building, while I’m picking pennies off the floor.”

A carload of bathing-suited girls scooted around us from behind and cut in sharply, almost slicing a piece off a big Greyhound bus coming from the other direction. The girls yowled happily.

“Bet we could even make something out of Morrison, if we had enough dough,” Eddie said. “What can you do, Morrison? Can you whistle ‘Yankee Doodle’?”

“The first three notes,” I said.

“That’s enough. How much money you got? Ten thousand?”

“Seven hundred and fifty in defense bonds.”

“Sorry—can’t handle you.”

“Well, you could at least get started with seven fifty,” Kitty said. “You could hire a press agent for one week. You’d get yourself a snazzy wardrobe—one good suit and a hand-painted tie, anyway. Hire a different model every day to go out with you—you’re always seen with a gorgeous tomato, people talk about you. Your press agent will see that you get into the Stork and the headwaiter falls all over you. You’ll have to pick up tabs for columnists, order champagne like ginger ale—you know, act big so everybody thinks you’re making money. That’s when everybody wants you.”

“Go on,” I said, “you’ve got me excited.”

“That’s all,” said Kitty. “You’ve run out of cash.”

“I don’t care—I’m reckless—I’ll borrow some.”

“In that case, we can give you a background. You want a scrapbook, don’t you? Okay. Your press agent goes to a small town, goes to the Chamber of Commerce and tells them the famous Broadway star, Dan Morrison, is willing to address their next luncheon for free. They’re tickled. Then he goes to the local newspaper and drops a fifty-buck bill so they’ll give you a spread on the front page. Okay, your scrapbook’s started. Then he flies you out to Hollywood and uses his contacts to get you posed dancing with Ginger Rogers, playing golf with Bing Crosby and sharing a stall with Hi-Yo Silver. Gag shots—the kind the wire services like to carry. Zingo—your picture’s in papers all over the country.”

“There’s just no stopping me.”

“Then we get you some material,” Kitty said. “Hire a writer to give you a line of patter. Maybe buy a song—comedy lyrics. Might cost you two thousand bucks for a top songwriter, but it’s worth it.”

“Sure, what good’s money if you don’t spend it?”

“Well, all that’s left is to get a top booking agency to take you on.”

“And one more little thing,” Eddie broke in. “You’ll have to get a new face. Sure, you can start out playing for the blind societies, but sooner or later you’ll have to go where people can see you.”

We were covering ground, climbing, while all this chatter was going on. I kept the station wagon at a good clip up past the string of lush landscaped estates, interspersed with gruesome scarred patches of ground owned by the huckleberry farmers, who think it does the land good to burn it out every few years. We passed stands of maple and birch, and ragged stretches of scrub oak, and easygoing streams, and some crows yelled at us and a pheasant gave us the back of its tail, and the road climbed so fast you could almost hear the thermometer gurgling down. In about twenty minutes, we were up to seventeen hundred feet, on the breezy rim of the Poconos. We buzzed through the village responsible for all those souvenir ashtrays and Indian peace pipes the summer guests afflict the folks back home with. Now we hit into rougher, woodier country. Here once in a while a small black bear pokes its snout out of the woods to give the ladies delicious shivers, and sometimes a deer barges into the road and gets bloodily tangled with auto bumpers.

“By the way,” said Kitty, “what did you do for Saturday night, with me not around?”

“I had an amateur night,” Eddie said. “I rounded up every last guest who could do anything.”

“How did it go?”

“Stinking, thank you.”

“That’s too bad,” Kitty exhaled smoke luxuriously through her nose.

“Except for one exception,” Eddie said. “The kid, Dan Morrison’s little—”

“Leave me out of it,” I growled,

“What kid are you talking about?” Kitty said irritably.

“Midge Burnett,” Eddie said. “The little peaches. She’s got a little something, that kid. I’m surprised. She went over like—”

“Oh, she did?”

‘‘Yeh. You see, she learned a little ballet taps in Junior League shows—her people are society in Philly. She knows how to do something with a song, too. The boss wants to give her a try in our regular shows.”

“Well. Isn’t that nice. Isn’t that . . . just very nice.”

“Just for fun,” Eddie said hurriedly. I could see he didn’t want any temperament trouble. “The boss don’t mean it serious. He just thought it’d be kind of cute—society entertainer—you know what I mean. He’s not going to pay her—she’s just doing it for kicks.”

“I think it’s very nice,” Kitty said tightly. “Will she go on before me or after me?”

“Anywhere you say, Kitty. You’re our show—you’re the works—you know that. Where do you want me to put her?”

Kitty jammed her cigarette into the ashtray. “You’re the m.c. Put her anywhere you damn please.”

“For crying out loud, you going to start that?”

Luckily, at that moment we reached our driveway and I turned the car sharply, jostling them quiet. I drove past the weathered pine-board sign, High Hill Lodge, bolted to the big birch at the turn-in. The little postscript chained below, Honeymooners Welcome, seemed to need a new coat of paint, but that didn’t make much difference—we never got many honeymooners anyway. Lots of would-be honeymooners, though.

I drove down the macadam driveway, winding through crowded evergreens that threw comfortable shadows across the road, and suddenly we burst into the clear, and the bright green of our lawn and the high-hearted blue of the lake leaped up at us. I drove along the rim of the grass toward the wide cinder turnaround where all roads met at High Hill. Directly ahead of us was the big, two-story recreation hall with its rough-hewn porch, where at the moment girls were standing up to see if maybe I was bringing in a new male guest. Off to the left was the road leading to the men’s cottages, which formed a curve around the edge of the lake. On the right was the road leading to women’s country, a row of ten little pastel-colored cottages stretching toward the woods,

Kitty’s room was in Cottage Number 9. I started to make a right turn, but she caught my arm. “Don’t bother,” she said. “Let me off at the office. I want to talk to Al.”

“Now don’t go making a fuss about nothing,” Eddie blatted at her.

I drove across the cinder turnaround. I passed the recreation hall and stopped twenty yards away at the little, brown-shingled maintenance building. The rear half of this was the office of Al Kemmer, High Hill’s owner-manager.

As I hauled out Kitty’s luggage, there was a noise inside the building. The door burst open—down the steps ran a little figure in yellow halter and shorts. A very agreeable little figure, cleverly rounded, maybe a bit too plumpish for some tastes but not for mine, which favors a slight degree of overweight. With this figure went a little, baby nose; rich, protruding lips, almost overrich; wide gray-green eyes; and brown hair of no special classification, just brown, but silky enough to roll into a cigarette. The name was as cute as the package: Midge Burnett.

She rushed around the car at me. “Oh, Dan!” she cried.

“What a time to run into her!” Eddie muttered, ruffling his washboard forehead. “Kitty, keep your claws in your pocket.”

“Don’t be silly,” Kitty said, walking away from him. “I like Midge.”

“A body.” Midge blurted in my face. “A body! In the woods back there. Ohhh, Dan.”

“Leave your luggage in the office, Kitty?” I asked foggily. “A what, did you say? A what?”

“A body,” Midge said, her voice suddenly falling. “A man. He’s dead.”

“Well!” said Kitty.

It seemed the most sensible comment possible at the moment.


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