Robert R. McCammon's "Night Calls the Green Falcon" (Part 02/10)

Night Calls the Green Falcon
by Robert R. McCammon

An Old Relic

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 GREEN FALCON."

"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 dreamer.

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 floors.

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, maybe.

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 right?"

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, "No."

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 empty space.

Go to Chapter 3: A Red Matchbook

Copyright © 1988 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story first appeared in the anthology Silver Scream, edited by David J. Schow and published by Dark Harvest in 1988. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2020 Robert McCammon Last updated 2020-07-17 00:17 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha