BY: JOHN HEGENBERGER
After rescuing Annette Funicello’s stand-in from the amorous clutches of Guy Williams, Stan Wade, young, LA-based PI, gets a new, but secret, assignment from his number-one client, Walt Disney. The elder cartoonist and filmmaker wants Stan to investigate a death at Edwards Air Force Base. The victim, who drowned while testing an outer-space uniform, was the eighth astronaut candidate for America’s new space agency, NASA. Working out of his cramped office in the back of the Brown Derby restaurant where he’s employed as a part-time “bouncer,” Stan uncovers much more than a suspicious death…putting his own life—and the lives of those closest to him—in danger.
An Alternate History Mystery
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Starfall by John Hegenberger, Stan Wade is on another case for his main client, Walt Disney in 1959. This time he is asked to look into the death of an astronaut at Edwards Air Force Base. But as Stan investigates, he uncovers a lot more wrong than the death of one man. From spies and mobsters to commies, he gets way in over his head and has to rely on his wits, and his friends, to get himself out of the mess he gets in. This book takes place a little earlier than the first book in the series, which is kind of unique. But as it is pretty much a stand-alone story, that really doesn’t cause a problem. Just makes you go “hummmm?”
Like the first book, this one is well-written, with a strong plot, fascinating characters, and a mystery that will keep you on your toes.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Starfall by John Hegenberger is the second book in his Stan Wade LA PI Mystery series. In this story, our hero is called upon to investigate the murder of a young man who is a candidate in the new NASA Mercury Seven astronaut program at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. The air force first insists it was an accident, then they call it suicide, but Wade thinks it’s murder and sets out to prove it. In the background, Wade also deals with radicals from the USSR that want to sabotage the US space program so they can win the “space race.” Also woven in between the two main plots, is Wade’s crusade to help an old friend prove the mob murdered her husband. All of these endeavors cause Wade more trouble than he expected, and he barely escapes with his life.
Starfall is filled with endearing characters, a solid well-thought-out plot, and plenty of edge-of-your-seat tension, along with touches of humor that make this a worthy addition to the series and a great read.
I loved my job. I got threatened and shot at by the most interesting people. Today it would be another Hollywood star. Tomorrow? Maybe a mobster. Maybe a commie. Maybe even an astronaut. But today’s assignment was to go and bring back a wayward starlet. Or so I’d assumed.
So I grabbed an early lunch and pointed my battered ’53 Kaiser Manhattan toward Palm Springs, cruising east on highway 111, past Cathedral City and Palm Desert. Eventually, the road snaked up a hill of boulders and rattlers to a swell hideaway spot. The low ranch-style house was a combination of Spanish and modern. I parked next to a chartreuse Caddy and checked the license plates. A hot, dry wind blew off the mountains and lightly ruffled my hair. I hung my sunglasses on the rearview mirror and got out to approach the front entrance, listening to my footsteps crunch gravel.
I knocked, listened, and tried the door. It was part wood and part glass and all locked. I took off my jacket, held it to the glass, and struck it smartly with my right elbow. I reached in through the hole in the glass and opened the door. Now I could hear pulsating music coming from a room in the back of the house. I walked toward it.
She was dancing, arms and legs spread wide. A leopard-skin one-piece bathing suit. The pool on the terrace behind her moving body shimmered in the afternoon sun.
I lifted the needle from the LP on the stereo, and she staggered when the sound stopped, turning to raise a fit.
“All right, Annette.” I sighed, jabbing a thumb over my left shoulder. “Party’s over. Let’s go.”
She screeched and let fly with a heavy cut-glass tumbler that bounced off the wall behind me. I smelled expensive whiskey.
She charged forward with raised claws, so I lifted the record from the stereo and skimmed it at her, like one of those new Frisbees. It bounced off her shoulder, causing her to stop and stare at me in shock. I gently took hold of her right wrist, spun her around, and enfolded her tight until she stopped twisting and stomping. I nudged the phone receiver off the hook with my right knee and dialed “0” with my left forefinger.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Guy Williams come into the room, tightening an electric-blue bathrobe. I raised the phone receiver to his handsome face. He stepped back, smiled, and bowed graciously.
This tough-guy persona was working fine for me and I figured this was going to be one of my better assignments. “Hello, operator? Get me Disney Studios. Hollywood. Stan Wade calling.”
And now, all I wanted to do was collect my fee.
Tuesday, March 24, 1959, I breezed through the gates of one of the biggest little movie and television production companies in town and parked in a visitor slot next to the four-story factory, complete with its own water tower. They’ll put ears on that thing one of these days.
Here, across sun-washed Burbank acres, pirates and frontiersmen, cartoonists and cameramen, accountants and actors toiled daily under the benevolent guidance of “Uncle Walt.”
I’d worked a couple of jobs in the past for him and was here to see again today about money. Inside the fun factory, I slurped cool water from a stainless-steel drinking fountain and pressed the elevator’s “Up” button to ride to Disney’s office. As the mirrored interior doors slid shut, my reflection nodded at me and almost cracked a smile. Brown eyes with an arching eyebrow, dark hair with a streak of white, average build with the average face of an average office worker. Only this average guy hated office work, preferring to be out in the field, or on the street, or just about anywhere, except in heavy LA traffic.
Walt, on the other hand, was a man of sixty, possibly a little more, and had a lot of powdery gray hair, a thin moustache, and a handsome dissipated face that was beginning to go pouchy. His suit was tan and his tie was brown. The exact opposite of mine. A white handkerchief peeped out of his breast pocket and the fingers of his right hand drummed the change in his pants pocket.
I jerked a pack of Luckies toward him so a couple cigarettes extended in his direction. “Worried about me?” He was a chain smoker and this was his brand. “By the way, isn’t Annette still under age?”
He accepted a smoke and lit up from a desk lighter shaped like the Nautilus submarine–the one from his movie, not the one that went under the North Pole last year. “She’s twenty-one.” He exhaled. “And some security analyst you are. Didn’t you figure out during the long drive back that the girl I sent you after is really just her stand in?”
I wasn’t sure I believed him. He’d kidded me before, so I gave him my poker face. “Professional investigator, if you don’t mind.”
He took a deep drag, saying, “That still means you’re only a PI. Hell, Stan, you need to think bigger. Quicker, too.”
“Walt, she sat in the back seat the whole time and wouldn’t talk. I dropped her off at the front gate and she stomped in without a word. Besides, you should know by now that I always get results when you hire me.”
He stared for a moment at a framed photo on the wall beside a potted ficus. It was an old tintype of a steam engine crossing a high wooden trestle. “Maybe,” he allowed.
“Look, you sent me out there and I brought her back alive and kicking. Scratching, too.”
He let that go and rested a hip on the side of his desk. “She does Christmas parades and other events for us, where the public can’t get close enough to tell the difference. Still, we can’t have her running loose, like that. Bad for the company’s overall image. Thanks for bringing her back, Stan. And thanks, too, for helping Fess with that blackmail thing last month.”
I shrugged. “Always a pleasure. Just pay my bill and I’ll be glad to keep watch over any of your cowboy heroes, anytime you ask.”
“Humph. I’ve got another kind of hero that I want you to work on.” My number one client went back around behind his desk and settled easily into a high-backed chair. “I have a featurette in development about weather satellites and another one about Project Mercury.”
“Okaaaay.” I’d read a little in the LA Times about the orbiting satellites which could track and maybe someday influence the weather. Sounded pretty far out there, literally. I’d also read about the test pilots that our country was assembling for the august challenge called Project Mercury.
Every branch of the military was being evaluated as part of America’s program to launch a man high into the upper atmosphere, where he’d circle–scratch that–orbit the earth. If he was lucky, like that Russian had been, he’d come down in one working piece. I had to admit, it was a hell of an idea. The slide-rule boys insisted that we needed to do it or the Soviets would take over the world from on high and maybe even stake claim to the moon. Yep, pretty far out.
Walt got back up and straightened a picture on the wall that, as far as I could see, didn’t need straightening. He mashed out his cigarette in an owl-shaped ashtray on his desk.
“You’re still worried,” I said, waiting him out. “What’s all this space stuff got to do with you, anyhow?”
From a desk drawer, he pulled out his own pack of Luckies and lit up again. “I’m not going to get into that right now, Stan. Suffice it to say that I’ve got a heavy investment in it. I need you to go up to Edwards Air Force Base to meet with Colonel Fielding Scott.” He nudged a sheet of paper toward me across the polished surface of his desk. “He’ll be expecting you. This will get you access to the base.”
I scanned the paper. There was no indication that it came from Walt. It began and ended with a string of numbers like a coded telegram or a Christmas club account at the savings and loan.
“I still don’t get it,” I said. “All this for a space movie? Why am I meeting this guy?”
“In the past, when I’ve hired you, you’ve been discreet. I value the fact that you didn’t ask me dumb questions.”
“For a hundred dollars a day, plus expenses, right?” I wondered if he noticed that I’d just asked a question.
“Yes, well, we’ll talk about those expense reports later.” He gave me a lean grin, and I wished that it had been broader. “What I need now is an objective and confidential investigation into the death of a Mercury Project test pilot. You’ll act under my direction and report back the details, plus whatever insight your investigation generates.”
“Wait, now. Slow down.” I held up my right hand–the one I used to scratch my head when I was confused. “Is this for real or are we talking about one of your movies? Who’s dead and how?”
“I’m not the one you should be questioning,” he said. “But the pilot’s name is, or was, Albert Taffe. He was an air force captain stationed at Edwards, where he drowned.”
“Drowned? Edwards is on the edge of the Mojave Desert.”
Walt stared at me like he needed an antacid.
“Oh,” I said quickly, “that’s why you want me to investiga–”
An angry buzz sounded from an intercom box on his desk and a sweet Southern drawl said, “The people from ABC have arrived for your meeting.”
Walt pushed a button on the box. “Put them in conference room B, Tommie. And let them know that I’ll be right there.” He snuffed out his smoke in the owl as I hesitantly got up to leave. “You have my private phone number, Stan. See Tommie for your check. You’ll get the rest of details from Colonel Scott. Bring them back to me, along with your insights.”
At the moment, my insights needed a telescope.
© 2016 by John Hegenberger