BY: JOHN HEGENBERGER
In June 1959, America’s TV superhero took a bullet to the head in an apparent suicide. But was it? And is he really dead? Stan Wade, a Hollywood PI, sets out to uncover the secret and encounters a host of Mob and Soviet intrigue that threatens not only his life, but the future of the world.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Superfall by John Hegenberger, Stan Wade is on the case again, this time dodging psychotic FBI agents, communists, and the mob. As usual, he is working for his “Uncle Walt,” getting into more than he bargained for once again. When George Reeves, famous for his roles as TV’s Superman, goes into hiding after turning on the mob, Wade is called in to help him protect his new identity. While the world thinks Superman committed suicide, Stan knows different. But as he tries to uncover the secrets behind the drastic action, he discovers things are not as they seem. Soon his life is in danger once again, from the communists, the mob, and people who want to save the world by blowing it up.
Like the other books in the series, this one is well written, with plenty of fast-paced action, and enough twists and turns to keep you up all night turning pages.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Superfall by John Hegenberger is the third book in his Stan Wade, LA PI series. Once again Stan is working for his biggest client, Walt Disney, also known as the Grey Seal. This time Stan is hired to infiltrate the communists who are infiltrating the mob, and at the same time, protecting the new identity of TV’s Superman, who faked his own death to give evidence against the mob and go into the new Witness Protection Program. As Stan and Superman attend a communist party meeting and try to convince the group that they are commies at heart, the group decides to search them, starting a chain of events that propels the story through some hilarious blunders and some harrowing and deadly close calls, as Stan chases a trail of clues looking for killers and funny money.
Superfall is a worthy addition to the series and Hegenberger doesn’t disappoint. With endearing characters, a strong plot, and plenty of edge-of-your-seat tension, once you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down until you’re done.
One day…June 18, 1959:
“Look,” George Reeves whispered. “I’m dead already. Can’t we leave it at that?”
I hate my work. Well, not all the time. Just when I get a headache from dealing with bullheaded movie and TV stars.
Reeves sat in the booth in the Brown Derby restaurant on Wilshire, hidden under a heavy beard, dark glasses, and a darker wig that made him look like a dark Harpo Marx. A sketch of the real Harpo hung on the wall behind him among the rows of Hollywood caricatures.
The blonde seated next to him patted his hand gently. “You don’t have to whisper, baby.”
Her name, I’d been told, was Naomi Lugosi, but I figured that, like so many things in the Hollywood of the ’50s, it was staged. Her hair was blonde, long, and flowing, making her look like Veronica Lake, except I could see both of her dark tarnished eyes.
My hair, on the other hand, needed a trim and had a white streak that ran from my forehead to my crown. I was a bit too thin to be considered ruggedly handsome, with brown eyes, five foot eleven, a habit of interrupting, and a persistent sinus condition from our wonderful LA air.
“I’m just tired of people mourning over me,” George said, “like I was a god or something.”
Seated across from him and the girl, I shrugged. “You were sort of a god to millions of kids, you know.”
Reeves, of course, had been famous for his portrayal of the Man of Steel on the Adventures of Superman TV program.
“But I was a joke to adults. No one over the age of eleven took me seriously. Type cast into kiddieland. Do you know what Disney did to my role in that wagon train movie? He cut me down to a walk on.” George scratched under his wig and above his left ear. “I think this rug is giving me head lice.”
I knew full well what had happened to Reeves’s part in Walt’s Westward Ho, the Wagons. During the preview screenings, you could actually hear the audience gasp when George came on screen, and the hushed word, “Superman,” rolled around the audience like muted thunder.
“Not to mention what happened in From Here to Eternity,” the big actor in the trench coat complained while he fiddled irritably with the saltshaker in our booth.
The same unwanted recognition had occurred at the pre-screening of the Columbia Studios’ Burt Lancaster feature. George’s meaty part was cut down to nothing, because audiences recognized him the second he appeared and the director knew that it broke the film’s narrative flow.
It was all too much for Reeves. He became totally fed up with acting and, in the end, took the easy way out when the circumstances presented themselves. He had come to me weeks earlier, looking to hire me to help with some of those same circumstances. On top of everything else, George had gambling issues and local mobsters, like LA’s finest hood, Mickey Cohen, and his known associates were starting to send not-so-veiled threats about paying up.
The blonde Lugosi lit a Camel with tiny, butane lighter. I didn’t know much about the lady, but George vouched for her when we’d set up our meeting today here at the hat-shaped restaurant. The plan was to see if he and I could identify a small-time hood who had been muscling Bob Cobb, the restaurant’s owner, into offering patrons off-track betting “under the tables” at the Brown Derby. Horse racing. Derby. Get it? In the city of angles, everybody has one.
George looked at Naomi, his face a scowl. “This was not part of our original deal, you know. I’m supposed to be on a train east to Pittsburgh.”
The long-haired blonde patted his hand again. “The Bureau has it covered, baby. We spot this creep and we’ll have the connection we need. Then you can go on to your new life.”
There was a firm assured tone in her voice that made me understand that the Lady Lugosi wasn’t just any dumb blonde. I studied her for a moment. “I get it now. You’re his handler. You’ve got his back covered.”
She smiled broadly at me. “Baby, I’ve got his whole body.”
George grinned and pulled down his shades, winking at me the way he used to at the end of a TV episode.
“Bullshit.” I laughed, sitting back in the padded booth. To our right, another TV actor named…Something …Coburn was enjoying lunch with director Bud Boetticher.
The undercover girl with the phony name cooed, “Georgie, or should I call him Ralph now, is faster than a speeding bullet. And I’m no Lois Lane.”
She was no Gracie Allen, either, as they sat there looking deeply into each other’s eyes and ignoring me.
I was here this bright summer’s day to perform one act that would help two clients: George and Mr. Cobb. George had asked me to help once again with his mob and gambling problems–problems so severe that they caused him to go into an FBI program that promised to protect him with a new identity, if he’d bear witness against local racketeers. Mr. Cobb needed and expected my help, because lately I’d been working out of a temporary office in the crowded, noisy rear of his restaurant. Cobb kept me on retainer to “police” the premises in general and lean specifically on any free-loading Hollywood talent who wouldn’t pay their bar bills. We’d had this arrangement for several months now and I’d almost forgotten how much I owed him, until he told me about the racing tout.
The Derby was a classy place to meet clients and prospects and I got plenty of eats while running my professional investigation business out of a cubbyhole office back where all the other employees clocked in and washed their hands. It wasn’t what I’d imagined when I’d started out as a PI years ago but, like George, I’d taken the easy way out when circumstance presented themselves. Also my old office in the Farraday building had been torched.
As it turned out, the same race tout whom Mr. Cobb had wanted muscled off the premises was also the “creep” that the blonde FBI agent had wanted identified for Mob connections. When the creepy tout entered the front door of the restaurant, I noticed right away the small and quick movements, the thin face, and pointed nose. He made a show of scanning the tables and booths from the front of the room and then strolled over to speak with Tennessee Ernie Ford who was dining with, as it happened, Dinah Shore.
The BD was known for the celebs who graced its tables and the framed sketches of same that adorned its walls. I didn’t think Ford or Shore were the gambling type, and it appeared that I was right, because the little man soon shoved off with a wave and headed for the sandwich shop that adjoined the restaurant proper. Something in the gesture seemed familiar. I’d seen it before, recently.
“That him?” asked the Bela babe.
George and I spoke in unintended unison, “Yep.” Then he went on, “They call him Nicky the Nose, because he knows the inside information from the Santa Anita track and how to get a bet down.”
“The nose knows?” I asked.
Reeves ignored me. “He has a direct line into Cohen’s gambling organization. I think he’s related somehow. You track him, you get the Mick.”
“Okay,” Lady Lugosi said, nudging George and sliding from the booth. “Let’s go.”
“Wait a minute.” I hissed them to a halt. “Something’s wrong here.”
“What?” George and the woman said in unison.
“You say that guy’s with the Mob? I’ve seen him before and know that he’s also a high-level closet commie.”
The disguised, dead actor and his blonde handler disappeared before my eyes and I was sitting across the booth from two concerned and confused individuals, who spoke in unison: “Bullshit!”
I started getting that old headache again.
This particular headache began for me on Saturday, April eleventh, my twenty-ninth birthday.
The longer you live, the more stuff accumulates around you. I was sorting through stacks of old mail, old files, old newspaper clippings, and the remains of an old sandwich–all crammed into my cramped office at the back of the very same Brown Derby restaurant. I was drowning slowly in an ocean of yellowing paper. Twenty-nine felt positively ancient.
Cindy Pyle wrapped her knuckles on and then poked her pretty, blonde-haloed head in the open doorway. “George Reeves is up front at the maître d’ station, Stan, asking for you.”
I knew she wasn’t kidding for two reasons. One: as the office bookkeeper, she never does. Two: Reeves had called me earlier for an appointment. I checked my brother’s aviator watch on my left wrist and saw that Reeves was almost a full half hour early. Must be important. “Can Carlos seat him in a booth for lunch? I’m not nearly ready for him yet. This place is still a mess.”
She glanced around the room, so small that her cute head didn’t need to move. “Why don’t you just use Mr. Cobb’s office? It’s bigger and a lot neater. He’s on vacation, you know?”
“Clever girl. Wish I’d thought of that.” I smiled. “Give me a minute to settle in there and shoo him in, shweetheart.” I gathered up a pen and notebook and stepped into the short hallway, past the time clock.
Norman Weirick caught me as I was navigating around a couple of waitresses on break. “Happy birthday, Mr. Wade,” he called out, adjusting his glasses self-consciously on his lean nose. Norman often looked like he’d been stunned by an oncoming truck, but today his expression held nothing by anticipation.
The waitresses stared at us and snickered something to each other. I couldn’t tell if they were smirking at me or Norman. Probably both. Norm followed me past Cindy’s desk, as she tickled the keys of her adding machine. It too snickered.
Cobb’s office was larger, but had at least as much stuff as mine. The BD was celebrating its thirtieth year in business and there were stacks of red and black anniversary menus piled on the floor, blocking access to a row of filing cabinets. I’d recently stopped smoking, so I couldn’t help noticing with distaste the large amber ashtray on the desk overflowing with bent butts. Still, it was, by and large, better than my cubbyhole office.
Norman brought out a shopping bag from behind his back, holding it out to me. “Here, this if for you,” he grinned, glasses sliding down. And, as if I couldn’t figure it out, he added: “From me.” He took a proud breath and stepped back.
I automatically accepted his gift. “Why, thanks, Norm. You didn’t need to…” I peered inside the paper bag from A-1 Electronics and saw what looked like a couple of small Japanese transistor radios and a jumble of wires for their earplugs.
“I built them myself by combining the miniature radio units with civil defense equipment we had at the store.” I must have looked baffled, so he added, “They’re a set of two-way radios.”
I shook the bag. “You mean these Dick Tracy things actually work? That’s pretty cool.”
“They’re more like the communicators that Captain Midnight used on his TV show to signal the Secret Squadron.” He pushed his glasses up. “I was a charter member, SQ7.”
I didn’t know what all that meant, so I went with, “I’ll bet.”
“I got the idea from the new issue of Electronics Illustrated.” He pulled a folded copy of the red-covered magazine from the back pocket of his wrinkled slacks. “You can use them when you’re out on stakeouts or tailing some crooks.” Tinkering with radio and TV equipment was Norman’s true calling, despite his yearn to learn detective work and/or write the great American science-fiction novel. “They transmit and receive up to a mile and three-quarters, even farther after sunset.”
“Sun spots and interference,” I nodded. “You told me about that the other day. Thanks again, Norm.” I made sure he saw me place the little two-ways in my jacket pockets. If they worked, great. If not, my office would acquire new stuff. “I’ll give them a real work out and let you know the results.”
He snickered. “You find any bugs in them, I’ll squash ’em.”
Seemed like everybody was making that sound today.
Cindy popped in, took a pencil from between her teeth “The kitchen’s preparing his lunch order, so he’s on his way back here to see you. Ready?”
“Ready.” I settled into the padded swivel chair behind Cobb’s desk and told Norman, “I’ve got a client meeting now. You’d better scoot.”
Norman put his hand up to his mouth as if he were speaking into a microphone. “Roger, wilco. Over and out.” Swiveling to the door just as Reeves walked in, he froze.
My perspective client winced from under a fedora too large for him. “Excuse me,” to Norman before turning my way.
Norm’s mouth opened, but his tongue was a Gordian knot.
I gestured to Reeves, offering him the plush, customer chair. “Have a seat, please.”
Norm went, “Uh…” without moving from his spot.
Reeves sat, but didn’t remove his wide-brimmed hat.
“Thank you, Mr. Weirick,” I called to Norman. “Glad I could help you with that diamond theft. And I’ll send you a full report on that homicide. You’re in the clear and can go–now.”
Reeves looked around from his chair and scowled.
Norman hung there, swallowing, as he eased toward the door. Finally, he spoke one word, “Jeepers.”
It was my turn to snicker. “Sorry about that. He doesn’t get out much,” I said, making a show of rearranging some papers on the desk, as if I owned it. “What can I do for you?”
“He’s a little weird, but it’s all right,” Reeves said. “I get that all the time.” He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his surprisingly gray hair. I saw for the first time the gash and stitches along his forehead and was reminded of the bad guys in a Katzman B-movie about creatures with atomic brains. The wound on Reeves’s head didn’t look like makeup.
“I understand from a mutual acquaintance that you might be able to help me with a small matter.” The actor gestured at his injured head. “I got this Thursday morning when the brakes failed on my Jag and I hit a stone wall near my home. Twenty-seven stitches.”
“So much for the man of steel,” I said.
He shook his head like he’d heard that one before–repeatedly. “There’s a guy who claims that I owe him money. Now he’s starting to get nasty about it.”
“Who’s the mutual acquaintance?”
“Another type-cast TV personality, Clay Moore.”
“Ah, yes,” I said, leaning back in the swivel chair and almost losing my balance. “The lonely kemo sabe. One of my favorite clients.” I’d done a piece of work for Moore a few months back, when a woman and her “husband” had tried to pull the badger game on him. The case had resulted in my old digs getting torched, which was why I was currently operating out of the phone-booth-sized room in the back of Derby. “But I’m sorry, Mr. Reeves. I don’t do strong arm work.”
“Call me George,” he offered. “I understand and I’m the last person you’d think who’d need to hire muscle, but the guy I’m talking about claims I welched on a gambling debt. The truth is, I paid him, got back what I thought was my IOU, and tore it up in his office.”
“Oops.” From out in the hall came the harsh clatter of dishes. I got up and closed the door.
“Yes,” Reeves said. “It was a dumb move.” He put his hat back on, possibly to hide both his physical and mental pain. “A couple of weeks later, he claimed that I still owed him. When I refused to pay the second time, he threatened to have someone rearrange my face.”
“And naturally you didn’t want to go to the police,” I said, carefully settling back down behind the desk. “Like I said, I don’t do strong arm work.”
“The police concluded that my car crash was all an accident, but I know better.”
I looked down at the mysterious ink-stain designs that covered the blotter on the desk.
The actor elevated his voice with just the right professional touch of urgency. “I don’t want him leaned on, if that’s what you think. I just want you to talk with him, so he’ll know that I have professional help on my side. Sort of an advocate.”
“Who are we talking about?”
“His name is Eddie Wexler. He has an office on the eighth floor of the Capitol Records Tower over on Vine.”
I made a note of making a note on my notepad. “And who’s the muscle behind Wexler?”
“I don’t know his name. I think he’s an ex-wrestler. Speaks with a lisp. I’ve heard he’s part of Mickey Cohen’s local mob.”
I leaned forward slightly, watching him. He seemed drawn and lethargic, but it was probably the effects of his pain medication. “You sure you’re all right?”
He shrugged. “I know a lot more about Mickey and his gang than you might think. It’s a family thing. I took my real last name, Bessolo, from my step-father. Sam Goldwyn changed it to Reeves when I appeared in Gone With The Wind.”
As it happened, I knew quite a bit about Mickey myself, from several previous encounters with the little giant gangster. But I didn’t think he employed a lisping thug. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to have a little talk with Wexler on your behalf. Understand, I can’t guarantee any results.”
There was a faint knock at the door and Cindy called, “Your lunch order is ready, sir.”
“Come on in,” I replied as Reeves got to his feet. He reached into his back pocket and brought out a wallet. “A hundred ought to cover a day’s work,” I advised.
Cindy opened the door. “We’re ready for you, too, now, Stan.”
Reeves placed two fifties on the desk, next the filthy ashtray. “I’ll pay another hundred, if you get results. Hand me your pen and I’ll write down a number where you can reach me.”
I complied, while Cindy said, “Stan. They’re waiting…”
I pocketed the bills and shook the actor’s hand. It was surprisingly gentle. He tipped the brim of his hat to Cindy as he went back out into the main dining room.
“He’s even bigger than I imagined,” Cindy said, her neck beginning to redden.
I laughed and she guided me through the restaurant to a table where a cluster of people waited. I could see that she had giving her son, Jimmy, a trim to save a few bucks. The eight-year-old didn’t seem to mind his bird’s-nest head. He grinned proudly as he lighted a candle on a small cake. I got sung at by everyone for what seemed like five hours. Now I was the one reddening. A quick peck on my cheek from the blonde bookkeeper and a flurry of back pats later, I saw Norman rush back in, holding copies of a comic book. “Is he still here?”
The cover of the comic showed Superman hog-tied by golden bands shot from a small spaceship hovering over the city. Norman gave one of the comics to Jimmy and they immediately headed over to the booth where Reeves sat eating with a guy who looked like Dabbs Greer.
One of the waitresses started cutting the cake and another wheeled in a cart with dishes of vanilla ice cream.
“Thanks, folks,” I said, trying to appear casual. “You didn’t need to–”
“Of course, we did, squirrel,” said a rumbling female voice from behind me.
I turned to find Alexis Iglesias holding up a package of three large cigars. “Hi, Lady Lex,” I said, greeting.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she hissed in mock confidence, her grin lopsided and her short coiffeur more salt than pepper, “but they’re Cuban!”
Everyone in at the party went, “Woo…”
Lex nodded, playing to the crowd. “Well may ya woo, people. Cost me a buck apiece.”
“Thanks,” I said, “But I’m pretty sure that I told you I quit smoking a couple of weeks ago.”
Without hesitation, she grinned and moved the cigars to behind the backside of her slacks. “Then I owe you a case of Coors.”
“Take a look at what Norman gave me,” I said pulling one of the miniature two-way radios from my coat pocket. “He says they’ll transmit over a mile on a clear day.”
Lex laughed. “Hope they work through smog.”
Cindy tapped me on the shoulder, presenting me with a copy of Raymond Chandler’s last novel, Playback. I had purchased and read the book last year and she knew it. “It’s signed by the author,” she said with a bright smile.
Outstanding. I returned her peck on the cheek. “Like wow. You’re the ginchiest?”
And the crowd roared.
Jimmy and Norman were back, the boy almost in tears. “I don’t see why he got so mad.”
“Okay,” said Norman, ruffling the kid’s hair. “It’s okay.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Here, look.” Norman held up one of the comic books and pointed to a page where Superman was being shot by a policeman. Instead of the bullet bouncing off his indestructible body as usual, Superman grabbed at the back of his left shoulder, saying, “Uh–I’m hit!”
“He said they were destroying the character,” Norm explained, “and he wouldn’t autograph it.”
“I don’t understand,” Jimmy said. “You can’t shoot Superman, can you?”
I knelt down. “You’re right, cowboy. I guess we’ll just have to read the story and see how things come out.”
“Hey, Jimmy,” Norman piped up. “Since it’s Saturday, how about we take in a double feature at the Pantages? If it’s okay with your mom, we can go see the Killer Shrews and the Giant Gila Monster.”
The boy brightened, still clutching his comic. “Okay.”
“Not okay,” Cindy said. “He’ll have nightmares for a week.”
Norman appealed to her with logic. “It’s only a movie, Mrs. Pyle.”
Jimmy applied further logic. “I just stick my fingers in my ears and close my eyes.”
I nudged things forward a little. “Let the boys go have their fun. I’m sure they’ll be all right.”
“Well,” she conceded. “I do need to get caught up on some work here in the office–
“Yea!” Jimmy bounced like freshly popped corn. “You coming too, Stan?”
“Uh, not this time.”
A faint “I want” line still sat between Cindy’s eyebrows. “Can you have him back here by five o’clock?”
Norman nodded, glasses loosening. “Oh, indubitably.”
Jimmy did a full 360-degree turn and tugged at the sleeve of his new best friend. “Let’s go see some giant killer screws!”
Reeves sat alone now in his booth, totally forgotten. I nodded to him, but he ignored me like a strange visitor from another planet.
© 2016 by John Hegenberger
Mark Coggins, Author:
“Faster than a speeding bullet, John Hegenberger’s SUPERFALL sends you zipping through late 1950s Southern California on a supersonic ride. With the help of his kenpo-chopping girlfriend, a sub rosa Superman, the original TV frogman, and a hardboiled writer, private eye Stan Wade battles the Reds, the mob, and crazed federal agents in a mid-century modern yarn. It’s clever, evocative and just plain fun.” ~ Mark Coggins, award-winning author of the August Riordan series
Robert J. Randisi:
“In SUPERFALL John Hegenberger takes us on an irresistible, hard-boiled walk down memory lane, with PI Stan Wade as the perfect tour guide. From George Reeves to Lloyd Bridges to Ross Macdonald, this is a historical tour-de-force.” ~ Robert J. Randisi, President of the Private Eye Writers of America
Martin Turnbull, Author:
“SUPERFALL gives us everything we need for a ripping adventure in 1950s Los Angeles: a wary private eye, a frustrated actor, gamblers, mobsters, Commies, and a labyrinth of twists and turns I never saw coming.” ~ Martin Turnbull, author of the Garden of Allah novels
Matt Coyle, Author:
“SUPERFALL is a rollicking trip through 1950s Hollywood where Mickey Cohen still runs the Mob and the Ruskies are up to no good. If you like your hard-boiled fiction fast and sassy, you’ll love SUPERFALL.” ~ Matt Coyle, author of the Anthony Award-winning Rick Cahill crime novels