header
home
A GOOD KNIFE'S WORK
Excerpt

New York City
October 1946

The elevator doors opened and I stepped out. Ahead of me was a wall of glass and, beyond that, the point of no return. A Good Knife's Work

I stood there for a moment, fake eyeglasses perching on my nose and a smart little blue hat nesting in my brunette-dyed hair. I swallowed and thought about the possibility that I was putting my life in danger again, this time for a woman I had known for all of two hours and twenty minutes.

Then I pushed open one of the glass doors and went in.

It wasn’t the sort of place where you’d expect a murder to have been committed: gleaming cherrywood paneling and thick, burnt umber carpeting; a sofa upholstered in syrupy gold; chairs, in muted copper. The floor lamps had saucer shades of frosted glass that breathed soft light onto the ceiling.

The woman behind the desk was past the age of most receptionists—by maybe half a century—with hair so densely black that it could not possibly have been natural. A roll of bangs stopped mid-forehead; the rest was parted down the center and folded back onto her neck, framing a leathery, square-jawed prune of a face. There wasn’t a quarter-inch of her skin that didn’t have a crease, seam, sag, bag, pouch, line or furrow.

“Can I help you, dear?” she croaked at me with a smoke-scarred, gravelly frog-groan of a voice. Not the voice of most receptionists.

“I’m here to see Mr. Benjamin. I have an appointment. Mrs. Tanner, “ I said, using my new fake name.

“I’ll tell him you’re here. Have a seat. Take the sofa. The chairs are bricks.” She turned to the PBX cabinet, picked up a headset and pressed the earpiece to her ear. She plucked a cord from the base and stuck it into the switchboard panel. She spoke into the headset’s horn.

As I slipped out of my coat, I tried to look like I was only mildly curious about my surroundings. Lithographs of the programs that were produced here lined the walls. For the “soap opera” Love Always, men and women in chaste romantic embraces. For the detective series Adam Drake, For Hire, one of the detective disarming a gunman and another of him holding the wrist of a beautiful woman, bringing the match in her hand up to his cigarette. Drake’s face was turned away, revealing a terrific profile.

Against the rear wall stood a Keane console radio of burled mahogany, one of the first, from back when radios were still the amusement of the rich and some, like this one, cost as much as a working man made in a year. In its base was the speaker, covered in gold shirred silk and surrounded by elaborate Chinese flowers of inlaid ivory. Above was a cabinet, open to reveal the same design on the inside of the door panels and the glass-covered frequency window and three dials that had been necessary fifteen years ago to tune in a station. The source of the Keane family wealth.

I sat down and pulled out my compact, to pretend to powder my nose while I examined my disguise. Then I noticed the L.A. engraved on its lid, for Lauren Atwill, my real name. I had forgotten about that. Some detective I was. I dropped the compact back into my bag.

Through the room’s long glass front wall, I could see both elevators and the service door beside them. These were the only means of escape the killer could have used. Somehow, he had figured out how to conceal himself inside the offices at the end of the workday so that no one had noticed. He had waited until his victim was alone, then committed a violent murder with four people not forty feet away, without raising any alarm.

But his plan of escape had depended on those four people deserting the reception area when the body was discovered, allowing him to bolt unseen.

It was a madman’s plan. And yet, it had worked.

 
arrow


CHAPTER 1
Pasadena, California
Seven Weeks Earlier


I never thought that I’d end up in another murder case.

Until the first day of that summer, I’d never been closer to a crime than my typewriter. Then for the next six weeks, I was closer than I ever wanted to be again. But that was before I met Hazel Keane and before I knew that I would have to leave California. As it turned out, both events occurred on the same day. Friday, September 13.

At eight o’clock in the morning, I was already sitting at my desk in my home in Pasadena, having been awakened an hour before by the first phone calls from reporters.

The study door opened. A man with a gun walked in.

He was dark and fit, in his late thirties, about six foot two of the kind of trouble most women like to get into. He closed the door and walked over to me slowly, giving me a glimpse of the Colt M-1911 under his left arm. It was a big gun for a man to carry concealed. It was the sort of gun a man wore when he wanted people to know he was carrying it.

I swiveled my chair to face him, crossed my legs, and regarded him steadily. “Who the hell are you?”

He took a good look at what he could see of my bare legs beneath my summer skirt before he said, “I heard you might need a little help.”

“And you think you’re the man for the job?”

He pulled me to my feet and spent some time proving that, in fact, he was. Then I said, “Some bodyguard you are. I haven’t seen you for a week.”

“I’ve been working a case.”

“Hmm.”

He slid his hands down my back, over my hips and pressed me to him. He kissed me again, taking his time, which was just fine with me. Then he said, “It’s getting worse.”

“I’m out of practice and whose fault is that?”

“I meant outside.”

“Ah.” Reluctantly, I eased out of Peter Winslow’s arms and went over to the windows, pulled the draperies back a couple of inches and took a look at my front lawn.

He was right. He usually was.

At the end of the drive, dozens of reporters, some with cameras and all with determined faces, were teeming on the sidewalk, held back by some of Peter’s men. Radio, newspapers, newsreels, news services, news magazines, fan magazines, and probably foreign press as well. The last time I’d looked out, there had been six.

He closed the drapes. “Don’t let them get a shot of you. It makes you look furtive.”

“Furtive?”

“I like to use a dictionary once a month.” He took off his hat and tossed it onto the sofa.

“We had to take the phones off the hook,” I said.

“Johnny told me.” Johnny was Peter’s younger brother, who had spent much of the last two months recovering from bullet wounds suffered in an attack that had nearly cost me my life as well. He had just returned to duty, acting now as one of my bodyguards, protecting me from the possibility that the killer I had caught that summer might arrange some revenge.

“We’ll get someone over here to answer the phones,” Peter said. “I brought some more men. They’ll keep them off the yard and out of your trees.”

“My trees?” There was a knock on the door. I wiped a bit of lipstick off Peter’s face before I said, “Come in.”

My housekeeper, Juanita, brought in a coffee tray and set it down on the table in front of the sofa.

“Have you had breakfast?” she asked Peter.

“I’ll get something later.”

“Why don’t you fix some eggs?” I said to her.

“I’m fine,” Peter said.

“I’ll need to go to the market to feed all these new men,” she said to me.

“Don’t worry about the men,” Peter said.

“Don’t go alone,” I said.

She nodded and went out, closing the door after her.

Peter said, “I like the way the women in this house pay attention when I say something.”

“We’re good at it.” I went over to him and we made up a little more for lost time.

While I straightened my clothes, Peter poured himself a cup of coffee and went back to work. He called Sam Ross, a producer at Marathon Studios, which our investigation had tossed into a scandal and then saved from the worst of it. So grateful was the studio that they’d hired me to write a couple of screenplays for them.

Peter convinced Sam to send over a secretary, at the studio’s expense, to be the villain who wouldn’t let reporters talk to me. Then he handed me the phone. “He wants to talk to you.”

As usual, Sam shot me a series of questions before he paused for an answer. “Hey, how are you? How’s my favorite blonde I’ve never been married to? You doing all right? You holding up? Hey, got a question for you, okay? You know that radio show Adam Drake, that detective show? You know it? We’re thinking about doing a picture, you ever listen to it? Think you might be interested in writing it?”

He took a breath, and I stepped in. Yes, I said, I knew it, and yes, I might be interested.

“Good. We brought the producer out here. Hazel Keane. She wants to meet you.”

“You want me to audition for a radio producer?”

“No, no. It’s a meeting. That’s it. That’s all. A meeting.”

“I’m having a little trouble getting out of the house.”

“We’ll work it out. Call her. She’s at the Beverly.” He rat-tatted a phone number and hung up. I disconnected, then laid the receiver down on the desk top.

There was another tap on the door, and Juanita rolled a chrome bar cart into the room: a crystal pitcher of orange juice, a china serving dish piled with ham and bacon, a silver rack of toast, and a small chafing dish full of a fluffy, lightly browned French omelet stuffed with cheese and onions. Peter’s favorite.

When she had gone, I said, “She likes you.”

“That’s why she scowls at me.”

“She’s naturally suspicious of men, but she appreciates one who saved my life. Twice.”

I loaded plates for us, and we sat there and ate like a couple of ordinary people, not a private detective and his client who had fallen in love while solving a case that, given the identities of the participants—guilty and innocent—was proving to be one of the biggest in California history. For the last six weeks—through the delays contrived by the defense attorney—the D.A. had tried to keep my identity a secret, which meant that Peter and I hadn’t been able to see each other often. The reporters knew he was involved, and he didn’t want to lead them to me. But too many other people knew that I was the woman who had hired him. It was inevitable the press would find out.

Apparently, they didn’t yet know the extent of my involvement—that I was the one who had, in fact, identified the killer—but I was married (although separated for well over a year) to Franklin Atwill, one of Marathon’s stars, and he had managed to get himself into some trouble in connection with the case, through a little but not much of his own fault, and that was plenty for the press.

But I couldn’t talk to them. How would I answer their questions? Why did you hire Winslow? Because, for no reason that made any sense, I was being blackmailed. And, oh yes, my husband might have been involved.

When the secretary arrived, we set her up in the telephone alcove in the foyer and put the phone back on the hook. It rang immediately.

“Let me get you a drink,” Peter said, “then go on up and get some rest.”

“A light one.” The usual strength of Peter’s cocktails would render me incapable for the entire day. He brought me back a mild gin and tonic, full of ice. I thought it would make a perfect afternoon if I could spend it in bed with him and some iced cocktails, but it wasn’t possible, so I went up to my bedroom alone and took off my clothes. Alone.

I unplugged my extension, put on my dressing gown and started running a bath. I poured some salts under the tap, and while they foamed, went back to the bedroom, re-plugged the phone and eased the receiver out of the cradle. When I heard the dial tone, I pulled out the number Sam had given me and called the Beverly Hills Hotel. During the Depression, that grand old lady had fallen on hard times, but she was now refurbished and fashionable again. Marathon placed its special guests there—the ones who didn’t require private bungalows to pass their spare time with orgies.

I asked for Hazel Keane. She answered the phone herself, a little breathless.

“I hope this isn’t a bad time,” I said when I had introduced myself.

“I was halfway down the hall when I heard the phone ring. I was headed to the beach. Is it like this out here all the time?”

“Sunshine, blue skies, clean water. It toughens you up.”

She laughed. She had a good laugh, a good voice, warm and low-pitched; if she was a native New Yorker, she’d made a determined effort to get rid of her accent. Every once in a while, as we talked, a vowel that should have been “ah” veered toward “aw,” but that was it.

“Why don’t we get together?” she said. “I’ve heard a lot about Chasen’s, but I won’t be back before lunch.”

“Chasen’s isn’t open for lunch.”

“Then we better make it dinner.”

I explained about my constant companions.

“I saw the stories. Hell with them,” she said. “Come have some dinner. I’ll get Marathon to make the reservations.”

“Do you have an escort?” I asked.

“I’m sure the studio can take care of that.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather not get a stranger involved. I’ll bring the man. I’ll have the studio leave the reservation under your name.”

“Fine. Don’t worry about people staring at you. I’m so gorgeous, they won’t give you a second look.”

“I’ll be the tall blonde with the reporter wrapped around her ankle.”

“I’ll be the redhead in the scarlet suit.”

 
arrow

Peter put on his best suit and a smaller gun. Johnny drove and quickly lost the posse of press that tried to tail us. He parked the car deep in Chasen’s parking lot, and since any car that I rode in these days was never left unattended, he stayed with it.

When David Chasen saw me, he took charge himself. A small man with thick horn-rimmed glasses—at five-three, he barely came up to my shoulder—he was dressed as always in perfect formal clothes, with his trademark red-silk-lined jacket. David’s first career was playing the stooge in a comic Vaudeville act, the second banana who never spoke and took all the punishment, but he had found his true calling cooking up pots of chili for the casts backstage. Chasen’s had begun as a chili-and-ribs joint, became a hangout for Hollywood, and was now a lavish, phenomenally successful restaurant, constantly expanding.

Our party didn’t rate a table in the front “red room,” named after its ten deep-red semicircular leather booths, but a call from Marathon could get us a booth in the “green room” next door. The people we passed, used to others looking at them, hardly glanced at us.

Hazel Keane did indeed have red hair. Judging from the brows, it had originally been a rather ordinary shade of earthy brown but had been mined enthusiastically to gleaming copper. She wore an evening suit that had obviously been made for her. It fit in the way only personally tailored clothes do, with perfect smoothness through the shoulders and without a pucker or roll at the waist. It had small, scalloped cut-outs just below the collar bones, the latest fashion. Her evening hat fit close to her head and its soft spray of feathers brushed her temple.

Her face had good, strong bones, but not in an arrangement that usually led to the word handsome. She’d been tough on her naturally fair skin, too. Beneath the flawless make-up, there were heavy splashes of freckling and deep lines at the corners of her eyes. She looked as if she’d be more at home steering a sailboat or training horses than sipping champagne in a six-hundred-dollar suit.

“So,” she said, “I’m not gorgeous.”

I laughed, then introduced Peter. “I’m Mrs. Atwill’s bodyguard,” he explained.

“Does that mean I can’t talk to you?”

“I don’t need to be entertained.”

“You’d be the first man. Sit down.” She slid to the center of the booth. Peter motioned me into the seat on her right, and he took the other one, the one with the better view of the entrance.

“What are you having?” Hazel asked me.

“Champagne sounds good,” I said.

“Nothing for me,” said Peter.

David Chasen raised his hand for the waiter, who materialized a second glass and filled it from the bottle in the free-standing silver bucket. David handed us menus and left us alone. I took a sip and told Hazel how much I liked Adam Drake. She stripped off her gauntlet gloves and tossed them down on the table.

“All right, what’s the name of Adam’s secretary?”

I blinked at her. “Maisie Lane.”

“What was last week’s show about?”

“Adam rescued a kidnapped actress in time for the curtain.”

“What’s Adam’s favorite bar?”

“O’Malley’s. The owner’s called Tack. He’s an ex-cop. I take it a lot of people out here are telling you how much they love the show.”

“They apparently listen to it all the time, even when they don’t know what night it’s on.” She reached for the menu. “So, what do you recommend?”

“The chili’s great. Or the chicken curry or sole.”

“I don’t see chili.”

“It’s not on the menu, but you can get it if you know to ask.” She didn’t examine the menu further. We ordered the chili. We agreed that it would go well with champagne. Peter ordered the butterflied steak.

She said, “I don’t want my show turned into some knock-it-out B movie. I need a star, but a star won’t do it unless he knows there’ll be a first-rate script.”

I conceded that was true. Any star would be reluctant to play a character another actor had already made famous, even if that actor was only a voice.

“Of course, the money’s tempting,” she said. “I had no idea how much of it you people have out here.”

“Which agency do you work for?” Almost all of the shows on the networks were created by advertising agencies for sponsors. The networks did little but sell time on the air.

arrow

“I don’t. The D.W. Davis agency represents Miles and Foster Tobacco. They make Traveler cigarettes, our sponsor, but my family owns the agency, so I don’t have to answer to any twenty-eight-year-old vice president.”

“Uh,” I said. “You wouldn’t be Keane as in Keane Radio, would you?”

“My father was. It gave me a leg up.”

“I’ll bet.”

“I started out acting, even did the Lux Theater, when it was still in New York. Between us, I stunk.”

The Lux Radio Theater had started in New York, but moved to Los Angeles ten years ago and since then had mostly presented Hollywood stars recreating their roles in one-hour versions of their films. It had a huge audience and a hefty budget from Lux soap. My husband once made three thousand dollars for recreating his role in a movie I wrote for him called The Brantley Case. As the hired pen on the picture, I got nothing.

Hazel continued, “I was always a better writer. My brothers did some acting, too, but what we really wanted to do was produce our own shows. We started with a soap opera. But Adam Drake was always my dream. How about you?”

“My uncle was Bennett Lauren, the oil man. I was named for him. Mabel Lauren Tanner’s my maiden name. He helped me get a job. The studio told me I could be a secretary. I wanted to be a writer. We compromised. They let me write, but they didn’t use anything. Then I got a break with The Brantley Case. After that—”

“I know your work. Why’d you stop writing?”

“I didn’t.”

“I haven’t seen your name on anything in three or four years, except that Scarlet Spy a few years ago.”

I flinched. “I hope you don’t count that.”

“You owe me a quarter. I only went to see it because your name was on it.”

“It went through two other writers. I’ve had a hand in several scripts in the last few years, off the record.”

“A script doctor?”

“I was married,” I said, a bit defensively, determinedly not looking at Peter. Instead my eyes dropped to her left hand. There was a simple gold band and a diamond not quite as big as Cleopatra’s Needle.

“My husband directs Adam Drake.”

That was all she said about him, and all we said about the show. There wasn’t much to be done at this stage. She wasn’t looking for ideas. She was seeing if she trusted me, so we talked about inconsequential, vital things. It turned out that we had quite a bit in common. We were both writers who loved to work on mysteries. We had both gone to Vassar. We knew the same professors and the same ways of getting around them, which had mostly required that we admire their opinions with wide-eyed enthusiasm, the more unoriginal the idea, the greater the enthusiasm. It had been great training for the entertainment business.

We had both been left wealthy by men we adored. We spent most of that evening talking about my uncle and her father.

When we finished, David Chasen brought the tab himself, which Hazel signed to the studio. “I’m afraid someone told the press you were here,” he whispered to Peter.

Peter suggested Hazel wait and take a cab back to the hotel. We said goodbye and Peter walked me to the front door, where I stayed with David, out of sight of the crowd on the curb while he went to get the car. When he returned, he said, “Don’t cover your face, but don’t look at them. And don’t frown.” He took me by the arm and propelled me out the door, across the sidewalk beneath the green-and-white awning, and into the back seat. He jumped in after me and slammed the door.

Faces pressed against the car windows.

“Lauren! Lauren, is it true there was blackmail? What do you know about the killings? Why did you and Frank separate?”

And then, just as we pulled away from the curb: “Did you hire Winslow because you thought Frank was a killer?”


 
arrow
A GOOD KNIFE'S WORK
Reviews

sheila yorkSet in New York City in 1946, York's snappy second Lauren Atwill puzzler (after 2003's Star Struck Dead) will appeal to readers nostalgic for the golden age of radio. Lauren, a Hollywood screenwriter, and PI Peter Winslow, her gorgeous bodyguard and lover, flee California for New York, where they become involved in investigating the murder of Hazel Keane, the producer of Adam Drake, for Hire, a popular radio mystery series. Lauren goes undercover as a writer for the show under a pseudonym, while the victim's insurance company hires Peter. They soon uncover a host of suspects, including Hazel's estranged director husband, her lover, and her two brothers. Filled with fascinating details about old-time radio production, this crime caper is as much fun as a good game of Clue.
– Publishers Weekly

Sheila York combines glamour, humor, and the late 1940s in a clever and challenging mystery.
– Carolyn Hart, author of Dare to Die

With pitch-perfect dialogue—when’s the last time you used the word ‘fink’?—and a lush and vivid sense of place and time—gotta love the glitter and glam and ethnic neighborhoods of Hollywood and New York in the ’40s—A Good Knife’s Work is a fast-paced page-turner of a mystery. I loved this book!
– Jane K. Cleland, author of Silent Auction

Sheila York infuses this period background with sparkling dialog, memorable characters, and characteristic humor to produce a crackling mystery. Welcome back, Lauren Atwill.
– John Billheimer, author of Stonewall Jackson’s Elbow

arrow