BY: JOHN HEGENBERGER
In October 1959, someone is out for revenge against young L.A. PI, Stan Wade, who has solved a few cases for his main client, Walt Disney. When a CIA agent mistakenly dies in Stan’s place, Stan initiates a revenge investigation that leads him outside the country, and his own comfort zone, to stop a nuclear threat to Europe that will remain classified until 2012.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Spyfall by John Hegenberger, Stan Wade is an LA PI in 1959. His main client is Walt Disney, who he refers to as Uncle Walt. This time, Uncle Walt wants him to act as a liaison between the Mob and the author of the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming. But what seems like a simple case turns out to be much more complicated, involving spies, assassins, and some very dark secrets.
Hegenberger has crafted a fun read. It’s exciting, clever, and chock full of surprises.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Spyfall by John Hegenberger is an historical mystery-espionage-thriller. Our hero, Stan Wade, is a PI working out of a small office in LA in 1959. But while he may be small time, he has some big clients, most notably Uncle Walt, who is none other than Walt Disney. So Stan, his partner/apprentice Norm, Walt Disney, and author Ian Fleming of James Bond fame travel to Europe and East Germany to save the world. Naturally. According to the author’s note at the back of the book, the story is based on things that actually happened. If that is the case, then at that time, Walt Disney was into a lot more than Mickey Mouse!
Spyfall is extremely well-written for a debut novel. The characters are charming and intriguing, the plot is strong, and the action is fast-paced enough to keep you turning pages.
Sometimes people tell you the damnedest things, hoping you’ll believe them.
“You’re the dirty rat who killed my brother,” Frank Gorshin intoned. “And now I’m going to rub you out, see?”
It was a warm Friday afternoon, September 25, 1959 at 12:45 PM, as I sat in my windowless office at the back of the Brown Derby and listened to the gangly actor/impressionist. It may have been warm outside, but it was positively steaming in this cramped room next to the restaurant’s overheated and noisy kitchen.
“Not bad,” I said, preparing to make notes in a little book I carried. I’d recently taken to jotting down the facts, ma’am, for fear I’d forget them. “Now do Boris Karloff.”
Gorshin leaned forward in the client chair, slumped his shoulders, and lisped, “Protozoa–taking over my lab-or-atory.”
I’d had very few clients and a couple of rough months recently. My car needed major repairs and the same was true for the leaky boat moored near the Del Rey swamps, which I called home. Add in my medical expenses from a case I’d worked earlier in the week for Walt during Khrushchev’s visit to the set of Can-Can, and you’ll understand why I’d begun to consider even a night security job at the Dodger Stadium construction site as a golden employment opportunity.
“Can you do Kate Hepburn?” I asked, distracted by the sweat that trickled down my spine and thoughts of lunch. The heavy tang of cooked cabbage and flame-grilled T-bones drifted in from the nearby stoves and ovens.
Gorshin started in about calla lilies blooming, but I cut him off with a, “Wait. What, if anything, has this to do with the bank robbery you mentioned?”
He tilted his head to one side and winced up at me, sounding like Kirk Douglas. “Don’t you see?” he wheezed. “I’m being framed. Someone’s impersonating me.”
Who ever heard of a celebrity imitator being impersonated? Frankly, I thought it was ridiculous. My friends were beginning to say that I felt that way about a lot of things.
They’d taken to calling me a smartass. I guess they were half right, but I wasn’t sure which half.
“Look, Mr. Gorshin,” I said, trying to appear more impressed than I felt. “I’ll assign one of our best operatives to follow-up with you on this case for our usual fee.” I looked at the watch my brother had given me before his death at the Battle of Midway. I’d worn it for years, partly as tribute to Josh and partly to tell the time. “I’m sure we can help you, but at the moment I’m late for a meeting with the FBI. You understand, of course.”
I was trying to sound important. Unfortunately, the head of the restaurant, Robert Cobb, chose that moment to stick his head in and say that he wanted to see me now that I’d shown up for work. The Derby let me keep an office here, such as it was, rent free here in exchange for my services as a quasi-bouncer and tab-collector.
My prospective client was staring at the jumble of napkin dispensers on top of my lone file cabinet. He tightened his right eye, fixing me with it. “You sure you’re a private dick? What’s this going to cost me?”
My darker side whispered, “A million dollars.”
“Not too much.” I smiled. “Usually fifty bucks a day with the first three days in advance. Okay?”
He got out his wallet with a “Hmmm” and paid me in cash. “When can your operative start?”
My noir side silently said, ‘When he comes back from the movies.’
I figured Norman to be just about finished taking in the double horror matinee at the Pantages about now. Something involving a fly and an alligator man. My pal, Norm would have sold his back teeth and possibly his brain for a chance to meet Vincent Price.
“Please write down your address, Mr. Gorshin,” I said, holding my smile and handing him my notebook and an unchewed pencil. “Oh, and your phone number, too. Our Mr. Norman Weirick will contact you. Probably in the morning.”
A few minutes later, we parted company, not the best of friends, and I pocketed his cash before ducking Cobb and grabbing half a ham sandwich on my way through the kitchen’s rear exit.
The melodic tones of a nearby jack hammer blended with those of an insistent car horn on Wilshire to fill the warm, smoggy air of the parking lot. I added to the urban symphony by sneezing twice and gunning the engine of my rusty Kaiser. A couple of Spanish kids roller-skated past, giving me the bird.
This is the city. My name is Stan Wade. I’m not a cop. I’m not even a private investigator. The LAPD pulled my license months ago. Dumb-da-dumb-damn.
I headed west for the Cervantes II, while listening to the Dodgers play the Cubs on the car radio. I knew, of course, who Cervantes was–author of Don Quixote–but I figured that the boat’s original owner had named her after something more prosaic, like the road near the marina up in San Francisco where the ship had been constructed.
Like a lot of Angelinos, I’d become a fan of our new baseball team, and it looked like we had a decent shot at the Series if Larry Sherry’s pitching arm held out.
As I steered onto Santa Monica Boulevard and hit a petrified forest of traffic, I switched the radio off and reached under the dashboard for the car-phone Norman had installed there. It wasn’t really a phone–more like a fancy walky-talky–but I could call Norm and he could transfer me to other people by connecting with the actual phone at his end. Norm’s a smart guy, but a little weird. He’d recently quit his job at A1 Electronics, because he was certain that his boss was a “commie.”
Now he wanted to be a private eye, while writing murder mysteries from his apartment on Boylston, over near Elysian Park.
When his voice finally struggled through the static-filled connection, he started right in with the lyric game. “You reach the Pennsylvania station ’bout a quarter to four. Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore.”
The game was for each of us to challenge other with popular songs from the past, usually show tunes. I immediately answered with, “Dinner in the diner. Nothing could be finer than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina.”
He chuckled. “That one was too easy. What’s up, boss?”
“How was the movie?”
“Shocking. They switched the bill, so I got to see The Tingler instead and my seat was wired with Percepto.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Sometimes Norm was as goofy as Garry Moore. He looked a bit like him too, when he wasn’t wearing his thick specks. I gave him the details about the Gorshin case and he immediately promised to look into it.
As I neared the gravel parking lot near the slip where my boat was moored, he told me he had a title for his new crime novel, My Gun is Sneaky, and asked me to read the opening chapters. This was another game we played. He wrote and I read, offering insight and opinions in lieu of a salary, while he learned the basics of detection.
“Okay. I’ll come by tomorrow and pick up the manuscript while you report what you’ve learned about Gorshin.”
“‘Nothing could be finer,’” he quoted. “Over and out.”
The phone spat an electric buzz at me. I signed off and waved a hand to Max Beeler, waiting for me at the pier.
“Hey, Streak,” he said, shaking my hand and gazing at the top of my head. “Why don’t you dye that thing, before people start thinking you’re a skunk?”
I didn’t let him see me wince from either the comment or the handshake, but I couldn’t stop myself from touching the patch of white that flowed back from my scalp. “And I didn’t think you people used Brylcreem, but your hair has that shine.” I gave his shoulder a short punch. “Good to see you again, Max. Come on aboard.”
Max was my height, thickset, but generally better looking than me, even though his skin had the texture and color of a wet potato. He wore a light brown suit and black knit tie with an overhand knot. I’d met him months earlier during an undercover operation in Vegas.
We sat in the shade of the wheel-house, drinking glasses of iced Pepsi from my galley and listening to a Top 40 station on the radio that quietly played “Mac the Knife.” A single seabird floated on the breeze, then swooped down to snatch up something from the water’s surface and sail away.
Max sweetened his pop with the contents of a silver flask from his coat pocket. Our ice cubes tinkled when we toasted to crime and the flask clanked against the butt of his gun when he put it back under his shoulder.
I looked down at a small hole in my tie where I’d accidently burned it months earlier. A lot of my shirts and a couple of my pants legs had similar pinholes from fallen ashes. Well, not any more. I’d stopped smoking earlier in the year and my sinuses would forever thank me. At the same time, I’d saved a couple of bucks each week, too. “Life is good,” I told Max, “when you live it right.”
He nodded and ran a palm along nearby port railing. “Wish I could live like this all the time. Fresh sea air and the gentle rocking of the waves.” He sighed. “My she’s yar.”
I was impressed that he knew the term. “Aye, that she is. But you didn’t come here to admire sleek watercraft. What’s on your mind?”
He took a long pull on his drink. “Walt found a bomb in his car yesterday. So did I. We think Reed’s brother, Nicolas, planted them.”
“Exactly.” Max’s favorite phrase.
“I didn’t know Reed had a brother.”
August Reed had tried to crater a major part of Southern California a few months ago. I had been part of an undercover FBI operation that had stopped him–dead.
“The Bureau has a very thin dossier on Brother Nicolas, except that he’s currently believed to be here in LA.” He pointed his chin back toward shore. “We should probably check that rust bucket of yours. Just to be safe.”
I said, “Exactly,” and we got up and walked back to the parking lot. Except for Max’s Ford, which he’d parked beside a tilting phone pole and couple of skiffs overturned and baking in the sun, my Kaiser sat alone, waiting near the gangway of the Cervantes II. It seemed more threatening than before, like a dozing bull.
I let Max pop the hood and we both peeked inside. There was a small tan box, wires and a soft-ball sized lump of grey clay strapped behind the left headlight. Definitely non-standard equipment.
“That’s a timer,” Max said, pointing at the tan box. “Just like the one that was in my car. Could have been placed there any time in the last twenty-four hours. Better stand away while I disconnect it.”
I took a couple of steps back. “You sure you know what you’re–”
“Got it,” he called out, still bent over the engine.
“Whew is right,” he said, still working at the device. “I’m sweating like a pig out here in the sun.”
“I don’t think it’s the sun that’s making you sweat.”
Max and the front end of my Kaiser flew up in a roaring, rolling ball of yellow flame that threw me back and down on my left side. Gravel bit into my skin and a piece of the car’s hood slammed down silently next to my face and bounced away.
© 2015 by John Hegenberger