You Bet Your Life
There's nothing funny about the package that comes for Chico Marx. It's a severed ear, a simple message from a Chicago bookie who wants
120,000 from the world-renown Marx brother. The strange thing is that, though Chico likes to gamble, he hasn't been making bets in Chicago. Terrified, he goes to the studio for help. Louis B. Mayer, king of Hollywood, places a call to Toby Peters.
Peters's first lead is promising. Traveling on the studio's dime, he makes his way to Florida where he gets an interview with Al Capone, deposed lord of the Chicago underworld. The retired bootlegger's mind has gone soft, and he doesn't know anything about Chico's bookie, but he suggests Peters speak to his brother. With Scarface's good word as an introduction, Peters goes to Chicago, where it will take more than a good sense of humor to keep the Marxes from getting axed.
About the Author.
Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934-2009) was one of the most prolific crime fiction authors of the last four decades. Born in Chicago, he spent his youth immersed in pulp fiction and classic cinema - two forms of popular entertainment which he would make his life's work. After college and a stint in the army, Kaminsky wrote film criticism and biographies of the great actors and directors of Hollywood's Golden Age. In 1977, when a planned biography of Charlton Heston fell through, Kaminsky wrote Bullet for a Star, his first Toby Peters novel, beginning a fiction career that would last the rest of his life.
Kaminsky penned twenty-four novels starring the detective, whom he described as 'the anti-Philip Marlowe.' In 1981's Death of a Dissident, Kaminsky debuted Moscow police detective Porfiry Rostnikov, whose stories were praised for their accurate depiction of Soviet life. His other two series starred Abe Lieberman, a hardened Chicago cop, and Lew Fonseca, a process server. In all, Kaminsky wrote more than sixty novels. He died in St. Louis in 2009.
'Kaminsky stands out as a subtle historian, unobtrusively but entertainingly weaving into the story itself what people were wearing, eating, driving, and listening to on the radio. A page-turning romp.' - Booklist.
'For anyone with a taste for old Hollywood B-movie mysteries, Edgar winner Kaminsky offers plenty of nostalgic fun . . . The tone is light, the pace brisk, the tongue firmly in cheek.' - Publishers Weekly.
'Marvelously entertaining.' - Newsday.
'Makes the totally wacky possible . . . Peters [is] an unblemished delight.' - Washington Post.
'The Ed McBain of Mother Russia.' - Kirkus Reviews.
You Bet Your Life
The narrow white pier pointed into Biscayne Bay like the finger of a rotting skeleton. The paint was peeling and the planks were soft under my feet from too many years of relentless salt water. A fat man sat or squatted at the far end of the pier-I couldn't tell if there was a chair under him, because he was wearing a long white terrycloth robe that made him look like a soggy tennis ball. His back was to me as I approached, but I could see a thin fishing pole in his oversized fingers. He didn't move. Dark clouds chased each other in the afternoon sky and the rickety pier danced with the white-topped waves. After a minute or two of watching him slowly being eroded by the Atlantic Ocean, I cleared my throat.
The fat man had to turn completely around to see me since there was no longer a clear separation between his head and neck, if one had ever existed. His face was a blank brown circle marred by a distinct dark scar that ran from below his left ear across his cheek. His eyes were as black as the sea behind him. An unlit cigar drooped in the corner of his thick mouth. He was almost bald, but a few strands of hair on top stood upright, comically blown by the warm wet wind.
"Mr. Capone," I shouted over the surf. "My name is Toby Peters."
The clouds had created a thick filter in front of the sun, but Al Capone cupped the chunky fingers of his left hand to shade an unnecessary squint as he examined me silently.
I turned back to the point where the pier touched the land and looked at the man who had led me there. His name was Leonardo, and I thought he might give me some idea of how to handle things. But he simply stood with his arms folded, listening.
"I'm a private investigator, Mr. Capone-"
Capone interrupted with a sound that reminded me of someone chewing sand.
"I didn't catch that," I said, wiping water from my brow and tasting sea salt on my tongue.
Capone's answer was to turn away and fish again. I stood quietly for another minute or so while the waves and Florida humidity turned my light brown suit to moist black. A fish or mermaid tugged at Capone's line; then it was gone. Capone reacted much too late by jerking the pole out of the waves. There was no longer any bait on the hook. He hit the water three or four times with the pole, hoping to split the skull of the unprepared fish.
"Bastard," he mumbled, and began to fish again without bait.
It was 1941-February 19, 1941-and I was forty-four years old. The world was moving fast, a war was coming, and I was a private eye with one wet suit and fifty-six dollars in the bank. I imagined myself standing forever on this pier watching Al Capone fishing baitless while the salt of the sea calmly seeped through my undershirt. I almost fell asleep imagining it.
"Well?" said Capone, without turning around.
"A guy I knew said you might help me," I said. Capone watched the water. "The guy's name was Marty Maloney-Red Maloney. He was on the Rock with you."
Capone said nothing. I thought he grunted, so I went on.
"I'm working for MGM, the movie studio, on something you might be able to help with. Chico Marx is in some gambling trouble, and-"
"I remember Red," said Capone. "I don't forget my friends. We used to look out at night at the water and see Oakland and the fishing boats, and I told Red when I got out I'd sit and fish outside and no one would tell me to stop."
Capone looked up at the sky and watched two clouds separate to let the sun through for a second or two.
"I was in prisons for-I don't know-six years. They tried to rub me out on the Rock-hit me with a pipe. One time a Texas punk got me with a scissors in the back. I almost broke an arm pulling it out. Red and some other friends took care of the punk when they let him out of the dark. You said you know Red."
This time he turned to look at me, and then past me