He awoke, his flesh wet with nightmare sweat and his stomach burning with
the last flames of an enchilada TV dinner.
He lay in the darkness, the springs of his mattress biting into his back,
and watched the lights from the boulevard—reflections of light—move
across the cracked ceiling. A fan stuttered across his chest of drawers,
and from down the hall he could hear the LaPrestas hollering at each other
again. He lifted his head from the sodden pillow and looked at his alarm
clock on the table beside his bed; twenty-six minutes past twelve, and the
night had already gone on forever.
His bladder throbbed. Right now it was working, but sometimes it went
haywire and he peed in his sheets. The laundromat on the corner of
Cosmo street was not a good place to spend a Saturday night. He roused
himself out of bed, his joints clicking back into their sockets and
the memory of the nightmare scorched into his mind. It was from
Chapter One of Night Calls The Green Falcon, RKO Studios, 1949.
He remembered how he'd panicked when he couldn't get the plane's
canopy up, because he didn't like closed places. The director had
said, "Cut!" and the canopy's hinges had been oiled and the sequence
had gone like clockwork the second time around.
The nightmare would be back, and so would the rest of them—a reel of car
crashes, falls from buildings, gunshots, explosions, even a lion's attack.
He had survived all of them, but they kept trying to kill him again and
again. Mr. Thatcher at the Burger King said he ought to have his head looked
at, and maybe that was true. But Mr. Thatcher was only a kid, and The Green
Falcon had died before was born.
He stood up. Slid his feet into slippers. Picked his robe off a chair and
shrugged into it, covering his pajamas. His eyes found the faded poster
taped to the wall: NIGHT CALLS THE GREEN FALCON, it said, and showed an
assemblage of fistfights, car crashes and various other action scenes. IN
TEN EXCITING CHAPTERS! the poster promised. STARRING CREIGHTON FLINT, "THE
"The Green Falcon has to piss now," he said, and he unlocked the door and
went out into the hallway.
The bathroom was on the other side of the building. He trudged past the
elevator and the door where the LaPrestas were yelling. Someone else
shouted for them to shut up, but when they got going there was no stopping
them. Seymour, the super's cat, slinked past, hunting rats, and the old man
knocked politely at the bathroom door before he entered. He clicked on the
light, relieved himself at the urinal and looked away from the hypodermic
needles that were lying around the toilet. When he finished, he picked up the
needles and put them in the trashcan, then washed his hands in the
rust-stained sink and walked back along the corridor to his apartment.
Old gears moaned. The elevator was coming up. It opened when he was almost
even with it. Out walked his next-door neighbor, Julie Saufley, and a
young man with close-cropped blonde hair.
She almost bumped into him, but she stopped short. "Hi, Cray. You're
prowlin' around kinda late, aren't you?"
"Guess so." Cray glanced at the young man. Julie's latest friend had pallid
skin that was odd in sun-loving California, and his eyes were small and very
dark. Looks like an extra in a Nazi flick, Cray thought, and then returned
his gaze to Julie, whose dark brown hair was cut in a Mohawk and decorated
with purple spray. Her spangled blouse and short leather skirt were so
tight he couldn't fathom how she could draw a breath. "Had to use the
bathroom," he said. Didn't that just sound like an old fool? he asked
himself. When he was forty years younger such a statement to a pretty girl
would have been unthinkable.
"Cray was a movie star," Julie explained to her friend. "Used to be
in...what did they call them, Cray?"
"Serials," he answered. Smiled wanly. "Cliff-hangers. I was the—"
"I'm not paying you for the tour of the wax museum, baby." The young man's
voice was taut and mean, and the sound of it made Cray think of rusted
barbed wire. A match flared along the side of a red matchbook; the young
man lit a cigarette, and the quick yellow light made his eyes look like
small ebony stones. "Let's get done what we came here for," he said, with a
puff of smoke in Cray Flint's direction.
"Sure." Julie shrugged. "I just thought you might like to know he used to
be famous, that's all."
"He can sign my autograph book later. Let's go." Spidery white fingers
slid around her arm and drew her away.
Cray started to tell him to release her, but what was the use? There
were no gentlemen anymore, and he was too old and used up to be
anyone's champion. "Be careful Julie," he said as she guided the man
to her apartment.
"My name's Crystal this week," she reminded him. Got her keys out of
her clutch purse. "Coffee in the morning?"
"Right." Julie's door opened and closed. Cray went into his room and
eased himself into a chair next to the window. The boulevard's neon
pulse painted red streaks across the walls. The street denizens were
out, would be out until dawn, and every so often a police car would
run them into the shadows, but they always returned. Like Julie did.
She'd been in the building four months, was just twenty years old, and
Cray couldn't help but feel some grandfatherly concern for her. Maybe
it was more than that, but so what? Lately he'd been trying to help
her get off those pills she popped like candy, and encouraged her to
write to her parents back in Minnesota. Last week she'd called herself
Amber; such was the power of Hollywood, a city of masks.
Cray reached down beside his chair and picked up the well-worn leather
book that lay there. He could hear the murmur of Julie's voice through
the paper-thin wall; then her customer's, saying something. Silence. A
police car's siren on the boulevard, heading west. The squeak of
mattress springs from Julie's apartment. Over in the corner, the
scuttling of a rat in the wall. Where was Seymour when you needed him?
Cray opened his memory book and looked at the yellowed newspaper
clipping from the Belvedere, Indiana, Banner of March 21st, 1946, that
said, "Hometown Football Hero Hollywood-Bound." There was a picture
of himself, when he was still handsome and had a head full of hair.
Other clippings—his mother had saved them—were from his high
school and college days, and they had headlines like "Boomer Wins
Gymnastic Medal" and "Boomer Breaks Track-Meet Record." That was
his real name: Creighton Boomershine. The photographs were of a
muscular, long-legged kid with a lopsided grin and the clear eyes of a
Long gone, Cray thought, long gone.
He had had his moment in the sun. It had almost burned him blind but
it had been a lovely light. He had turned sixty-three in May, an old
relic. Hollywood worshipped at the altar of youth. Anyway, nobody made
his kind of pictures anymore. Four serials in four years and then—
"Cut," he thought. No use stirring up all that murky water. He had
to get back to bed, because morning would find him mopping the floor
in the Burger King three blocks west, and Mr. Thatcher liked clean
He closed his memory book and put it aside. On the floor was a section
of yesterday's L.A. Times; he'd already read the paper, but a headline
caught his attention: "Flip-Top Killer Challenges Police." Beneath
that was a story about the Fliptop, and the eight photographs of the
street people whose throats had been savagely slashed in the last two
months. Cray had known one of them: a middle-aged women called Auntie
Sunglow, who rocketed along the boulevard on roller skates singing
Beatles songs at the top of her lungs. She was crazy, yes, but she
always had a kind tune for him. Last week she'd been found in a trash
dumpster off Sierra Bonita, her head almost severed from her neck.
Bad times, Cray mused. Couldn't think of any worse. Hopefully the police
would nail the Fliptop before he—or she—killed again, but he didn't
count on it. All the street people he knew were watching their backs.
Something struck the wall in Julie's apartment. It sounded like it might
have been a fist.
Cray heard the springs squalling, like a cat being skinned alive. He didn't
know why she sold her body for such things, but he'd learned long ago that
people did what they had to do to survive.
There was another blow against the wall. Something crashed over, a chair,
Cray stood up. Whatever was going on over there it sounded rough. Way
too rough. He heard no voices, just the awful noise of the springs. He
went to the wall and pounded on it. "Julie?" he called. "You all
No answer. He put his ear to the wall, and heard what he thought might have
been a shuddering gasp.
The squall of the springs had ceased. Now he could hear only his own
heartbeat. "Julie?" He pounded on the wall again. "Julie, answer
me!" When she didn't respond, he knew something was terribly wrong.
He went out to the corridor, sweat crawling down his neck, and as he
reached out to grip the doorknob of Julie's apartment he heard a
scraping noise that he knew must be the window being pushed upward.
Julie's window faced the alley. The fire escape, Cray realized. Julie's
customer was going down the fire escape.
"Julie!" he shouted. He kicked at the door, and his slipper flew
off. Then he threw his shoulder against it, and the door cracked on
its hinges but didn't give. Again he rammed into the door, and a
third time. On the fourth blow the door's hinges tore away from the
wood and it crashed down, sending Cray sprawling into the apartment.
He got up on his hands and knees, his shoulder hurting like hell. The
young man was across the untidy room, still struggling with the
reluctant windowsill, and he paid Cray no attention. Cray stood up,
and looked at the bed where Julie lay, naked, on her back.
He caught his breath as if he'd been punched in the stomach. The blood was
still streaming from the scarlet mass of Julie Saufley's throat, and it has
splattered across the wall like weird calligraphy. Her eyes were wet and
aimed up at the ceiling, her hands gripped around the bars of the iron
bedframe. Without clothes, her body was white and childlike, and she hardly
had any breasts at all. The blood was everywhere. So red. Cray's heart was
laboring. As he stared at the slashed throat he heard the window slide up.
He blinked, everything hazy and dreamlike, and watched the young man climb
through the window onto the fire escape.
Oh, God, Cray thought. He wavered on his feet, feared he was about to
faint. Oh, my God...
Julie had brought the Fliptop killer home to play.
His first impulse was to shout for help, but he squelched it. He knew the
shout would rob his breath and strength, and right now he needed both of
them. The LaPrestas were still fighting. What would one more shout be? He
stepped forward. Another step, and a third one followed. With the rusty
ability of a champion gymnast, he ran to the open window and slid out to
the fire escape.
The Fliptop killer was about to go down the ladder. Cray reached out,
grasped the young man's T-shirt in his freckled fist, and said hoarsely,
The man twisted toward him. The small black eyes regarded him incuriously:
the emotionless gaze of a clinician. There were a few spatters of blood on
his face, but not many. Practice had honed his reflexes, and he knew how to
avoid the jetting crimson. Cray gripped his shirt; they stared at each
other for a few ticks of time, and then the killer's right hand flashed up
with an extra finger of metal.
The knife swung at Cray's face, but Cray had already seen the blow coming
in the tension of the man's shoulder, and as he let go of the shirt and
scrambled backward, the blade hissed past.
And now the Fliptop killer stepped toward him—a long stride, knife
upraised, the face cold and without expression, as if he were about to cut
a hanging piece of beef. But a woman screamed from an open window, and as
the man's head darted to the side, Cray grasped the wrist of his knife hand
and shouted, "Call the po—"
A fist hit him in the face, crumpling his nose and mashing his lips. He
pitched back, stunned—and he fell over the fire escape's railing into