by Fredric Brown, Selected and Introduced by Toni L. P. Kelner
Step Right Up!
I love carnivals. I can‟t wait to climb onto the rides, with their sheen of danger, without real risk, and I allow myself to be lured into throwing darts and tossing basketballs, even when I know the games are rigged. Most of all I soak in the strange world of bright neon, loud music, and screams of joy and fear, amazed at the strange new world that has suddenly appeared, complete with its own language and rules.
Fredric Brown‟s mystery stories are a lot like carnivals. There‟s the sense of danger that comes with a good mystery; the realization that no matter how hard I try to figure out the puzzle, Brown has rigged a climax that I‟ll never see coming; and the exploration of a whole new world in every story.
Take “Fugitive Imposter.” It starts with an apprentice undertaker working the night shift at a funeral home, and that‟s a world as bizarre to me as any alien planet. For danger, he throws in a murderous bank robber, and then he ends with one of the twists that Brown was famous for. It‟s pure carny!
Now my comparing Brown‟s mysteries to carnivals is no accident. Some of his best-known stories and novels are the Ed and Am Hunter series, many of which are set in carnivals.The Fabulous Clipjoint and its sequels were as fascinating to me for the world of the carny as they were for the plots, and I wanted to learn about carnivals from the inside, not just as a townie. Not that I ran off to join one, but I did start hunting up articles and books about carny life. That led me to write my carnival mystery short story “Sleeping With the Plush” (published right here in Alfred Hitchcock‟s Mystery Magazine in May 2006). It‟s not an accident
that my carnival proprietor is named Brownie, either.
Of course, one place where Brown‟s stories outshine real-life carnivals
is their staying power. A carnival disappears after just a few days, but he left behind an enormous body of work, which means that if Brown is new to you, you‟ve got some great rides ahead. So step right up, climb on board, and stay seated until your mind stops spinning!
* * * *
FUGITIVE IMPOSTER by Fredric Brown
Dead bodies are just clay and you get used to being around them after a while and it doesn‟t bother you. But they aren‟t much in the way of company, no matter how used to them you get. That‟s why the night shift at an undertaker‟s place is just about the loneliest job there is.
By one o‟clock I‟d finished all the work there was to do. Cleaned and swept the place and polished the arterial tubes and trocars and what not, and uncrated the two new coffins that had come in.
And all that that left me to do was to sit down and wish I had someone to talk to that could talk back, and wish that the last three months of my apprenticeship were over so I could get my assistant‟s license.
And, as usual for that time of night, I was getting sleepier and sleepier, and wondering why people didn‟t have the consideration to do their dying always in the daytime, so there wouldn‟t have to be a night watch...
The bell rang.
I jumped and my eyes jerked open, and I noticed first that the clock had moved ahead half an hour in the last minute. So I must have dozed off. As I headed for the door, I buttoned my coat and straightened my tie. Undoubtedly it was a customer, and when you‟re going to be an undertaker you‟ve got to learn to look dignified in front of the customers—the live ones, I mean.
The instant I unlatched the door and opened it, a guy stepped through and jabbed a gun in my ribs. Then he looked me over and grinned a nasty grin and put the gun back in his pocket. I guess he decided he wouldn‟t need it to handle me—and I guess he was right about that.
He was a big bruiser, a head taller than I and with shoulders like a gorilla. He had cauliflower ears with hair growing out of them. And he had little, vacant-looking eyes. Just by looking at him you could see that he might be able to do dirt to a grizzly bear, but never to an equation in algebra. Obviously he was an ex-pug. And if I‟d never
understood what being punch-drunk meant, I understood it when I looked at him.
He reached back of him and pushed the door shut, and said in a hoarse, raspy voice: “Open the door, fat boy.”
I took a step back, maybe two steps, and gawked at him. How could I open the door, when he had just— His face started to get ugly, and he pulled back a huge fist.
“B-but you just sh-shut it!” I stammered, retreating another step. That cocked fist looked as big as a barn. I knew if it hit me I‟d land so
hard I‟d bounce.
He relaxed a little. “Not that door. The car door,” he growled. “Get going.”
Mine was not to reason why, just then. Keeping a watch out of the corner of my eye on Cauliflower Ears, I edged to the door of the reception room and started back for the garage doors. He stayed right with me.
I pressed the button and the doors slid silently open. A big gray sedan came through them and gunned down the ramp to a point where it was out of sight of the doors.
“Shut „em again,” said Cauliflower Ears. As I pressed the switch, the doors slid back into place.
I heard the door of the gray sedan open and slam shut, and a tall slim man, well-dressed almost to the point of foppishness, came walking up the ramp.
I recognized him right away from the pictures the newspapers had been carrying. His face was just as smoothly handsome as the photographs had shown it. But the pictures hadn‟t shown the character of the eyes set in that handsome face. They were fisheyes—and the eyes of a dead
fish at that. Cold and gray and utterly expressionless.
The man walking up the ramp was Duke Hall. Bank robber. Cop-killer. The man who had killed five men and one woman in the course of half a dozen bank robberies within the past two years, who‟d shot his way out of an ambuscade last week in Michigan, leaving one policeman dead
and two others wounded behind him.
Duke Hall, who had bragged he could hit any given button of a policeman‟s coat at fifty feet, but that he never aimed at a button high up because the cop would die too easily. Duke Hall, the most wanted, feared and hated criminal in the country.
Duke Hall, here in Fenimore Brothers‟ Funeral Parlors! I didn‟t know what it was all about, and I couldn‟t even guess. But I felt myself getting cold all over, starting at the base of my spine and working up and down from there.
He was looking at the gorilla standing beside me. “Is Pudgy here the only guy around, Punchy?” he asked. His voice was as cold and gray as his eyes.
The gorilla started to grin. “Funny, Duke,” he answered. “He‟s Pudgy and ya call me Punchy. Pudgy and Punchy.” He broke into a hoarse guffaw.
The killer‟s voice cut like a whip. “Case this joint, you half-witted
ape! How do you know he‟s alone here?” He took a step toward the ex-pug
and there was death in his face.
Punchy whirled, his face white as a sheet, and headed back for the parlors. But humor overcame his fear; I heard him chuckling to himself before he got to the first door. He walked oddly—came down hard on his heel
with each step, and then lifted his foot without any spring to it, like someone on stilts.
Then my eyes came back to Duke Hall and I saw he was looking at me.
I didn‟t like the look.
“Pudgy,” he said, “we want to buy some meat.”
I don‟t know whether it was what he said or the way he said it or the
way he looked. But I didn‟t answer. Because I couldn‟t.
“About a hundred and fifty pounds of it, Pudgy. Five or ten pounds one way or the other is all right. We want it in a cut about five feet eleven inches long. Cold meat will do.”
“Y-you mean you w-want—” I stammered.
“You look like a very smart guy, Pudgy. You get the idea right away. That‟s what I want. A stiff. Only better if it isn‟t stiff yet. See what I mean, Pudgy?”
He leaned back against the fender of Fenimore Brothers‟ best touring
car, and lighted a cigarette. He watched me over the flare of the match. Ice over flame.
The big guy showed up again in the doorway. There was a lopsided grin on his face. “Lots of people here, Duke,” he said. “But they won‟t bother us none. They‟re all croaked.” He guffawed again.
Duke‟s glance flicked toward him and he stopped in the middle of a laugh.
“Take us to the office, Pudgy,” Duke told me. “Or some room without outside windows. You look like a smart guy and that‟s to the good if you don‟t try to be too smart. You can do more good if you know just what I want and what I want it for. Can‟t you?”
I managed to unlimber my neck enough to nod, even if I didn‟t know what he meant. Then I led the way toward Mr. Fenimore‟s office. My legs felt like they were made of rubber.
I fell into a chair, and Duke Hall sat on the edge of the desk, not facing me. I was glad of that. Cauliflower Ears leaned against the closed door.
“Look, kid,” said Duke Hall. “You know who I am, don‟t you?”
“They know I‟m here in Elkhorn.” He didn‟t have to explain who “they” were—I knew, of course, he meant the cops. “There‟s a cordon around the town. A dozen of „em bunched together on every road out. And I‟ve got to get through tonight.”
His voice was as flat and expressionless as though he were talking about the weather.
“They know my car. I could get another, but they‟re stopping all the cars. See?”
I saw. Beyond his unemotional statement of fact, I began to get the picture. There wasn‟t a policeman in the country wouldn‟t risk his life to get the cop-killer, Duke Hall. Outside there, on the roads, they were waiting. Some openly, some in ambush.
Yes, the countryside would be hot all right, since the police knew Duke Hall was in town and suspected he was going to try to run the gauntlet. There‟d be Tommy-guns waiting out there, and tear-gas bombs, and maybe even barricades. And all the state cops would be converging on Elkhorn, and even whatever Feds were near-by. Duke Hall was Big Time, with capital letters.
“They‟ve even got lookouts in the fields,” Duke went on. “There‟s only one way I can get through tonight, Pudgy. They‟re gonna find me dead,
see? And open the roads again.”
I began to see, a little. But how could—
“Highway 41,” he went on, “is blocked at the Bender Road. A mile this side of there, there‟s a barn. When that barn burns down in an hour or so, they‟ll see the flames and some of them will investigate, see? This car that they know I‟m using will be hidden near it. And there‟ll be a charred stiff found in the barn that will be taken for me. A couple bottles to show I got drunk hiding out in the barn, and—”
“But can‟t they tell that—”
He nodded. “Yeah, but they‟ll think so right away. When they get that stiff back to the morgue and begin to check Bertillions, sure. But that‟ll be tomorrow.”
It looked possible. Not sure, of course, but the kind of a gambling chance a guy like Duke Hall would be willing to take. Duke was looking at me, and when I glanced across at his companion by the door, he seemed to read what I was thinking.
“Punchy‟s local talent,” he said. “I picked him up here to help me.
The cops don‟t know he‟s with me, so we won‟t need a stiff for him.”
He stopped talking and for a full minute only the ticking of the clock filled the office. Then Duke Hall looked at me and said, “Well?” and I realized that it was my move.
I guess it was because I‟d been so scared that I hadn‟t realized while he was talking where I‟d fitted in. I had to furnish the corpse. And if I didn‟t or couldn‟t, it didn‟t take much figuring on my part to know where I stood with a killer like Hall.
I saw Duke signal to Punchy, and the big gorilla began to move across the room toward me.
I began to talk fast. “There‟s six of them in the morgue, Mr. Hall,” I told him. “But I don‟t know. Three of them are women and that wouldn‟t be any good, naturally. Then there‟s Mr. Cordovan, but he—no, that‟s no good. And Mr. Rogers is a dried-up little old shrimp and I don‟t
remember the other one‟s name, but he—he‟s a lot heavier than I am. And that‟s all there—”
The big gorilla was back of my chair now, and I didn‟t know what he was going to do. I tried to twist around to face him, but Duke Hall‟s gray eyes held me like a cobra‟s hold a bird. I‟d never known until
then what it meant to be scared stiff.
“How tall are you, Pudgy?” Duke asked quietly.
At first I couldn‟t get my throat to work. Then I swallowed. “F-five
feet six,” I managed to say.
I thought maybe I was getting away with it. But Duke‟s eyes didn‟t waver from mine. “You‟re lying, Pudgy. You‟re five-eight, at least. And lying
down a couple or three inches isn‟t that much. And if it was a really good fire that didn‟t leave much but a skeleton of you, Pudgy, maybe—”
Almost as though I had eyes in the back of my head, I could visualize the grin on Punchy‟s face as he put his hands around my neck.
“Okay, Duke?” he asked. And laughed as he began to tighten his grip.
I managed to holler, “Wait!” squeakily before those tremendous hands had tightened too much to let my voice out.
I saw Duke signal, and the pressure relaxed. He looked at me and said: “Well?”
I said, “Listen—” to stall an instant.
My mind was going like mad. I didn‟t have an idea, but I was trying