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It's rare that Dan encounters dough so dirty that he won't touch it. Even this time, when the ante was boosted enough, he forgot his scruples. Besides there was a feminine angle. . . .

Dissolve Shot

By Robert Leslie Bellem

I WAS quaffing a midnight snort of Vat 69 in the Jungle Room of the Brown Stetson on Vine Street when Mike Michaelson sidled up to the bar alongside me, nudged my elbow. He was a tall, skinny citizen with a complexion like adobe mud and a jittery expression in his faded optics.

"Hi, Turner," he said. "How's the private sleuthing business these days?"

I said: "Fine. Good-bye, please." Then I gave him the frigid focus to let him know I didn't like him; brushed him off by turning my back to his sallow puss.

He refused to be insulted; wouldn't let my contempt get under his rind. Which was in keeping with his characteristics; he had as much crust as stale bread and more brass than a millionaire's yacht. In fact, nobody but a heel of his caliber would stoop to make a living the way he made his.

"Don't go upstage, Dan," he said. "I need you."

I faced him again; tried to freeze him with a sneer. He published a scurrilous weekly called the Hollywood Keyhole, a shady sheet that depended mainly on veiled blackmail for its revenue; and in less than three years he'd accumulated a Westwood mansion, a mahogany cruiser, and a fat stack of geetus from operating this tawdry tabloid.

Everybody from producers and directors down to stars, camera-men and scenario scribblers bought costly advertising in the Keyhole. They had to; otherwise Michaelson would have stunk them up with malicious—and frequently false—gossip in his personal columns. He was never more than a jump and a half ahead of the libel laws, and I had little love for him.

I said: "What do you mean, you need me?"

"I've got a job for you."

"Take it and give it to somebody else," I said. "I'm not interested."

"But I'll pay you a grand," he lipped desperately; clutched at my sleeve. His touch made me yearn to go home and take a bath in lysol.

"No dice, bub," I told him. "Your dough's too dirty, even for me."

He hauled out his wallet. "I'll make it two grand." Then he peeled ten C-notes off his stack, waved them at me. "A thousand in advance to bind the bargain. Another thousand when you do this little job I want done."

I HESITATED. After all, I'm in the snooping racket for all the lettuce I can collect. I'm trying to save up enough to retire on before some sharpshooter engraves my name and address on a bullet; and two thousand hermans wasn't exactly hay no matter where it came from.

"I'm a sucker," I said. I took the cash, shoved it in my pocket. "You've hired a ferret. What's gnawing on you?"

"Fear," he made a bitter mouth around the word. "The fear of death. Somebody's gunning for me."

"Who?"

"I wish I knew. Here, look." He tossed three scrawled, torn sheets of paper on the bar for me to read.

They were all alike: unsigned, written with a lead pencil. The orthography was childish, formless, as if a right-handed guy had done them with his left duke for purposes of disguise. Each note was a terse promise to burn Michaelson down before the current week was out.

I handed the warning back to him.

"You don't need me. Better notify the cops and have them give you a bodyguard."

"No!" his beady glime narrowed. "I don't want the police messing in this. And anyhow, a bodyguard isn't what I want. Strongarm guys are a dime a dozen. This calls for someone like you; someone with brains."

I said: "Much obliged. Suppose you make it clearer."

"Well, I just want you to find out who sent me these threats. After that I'll handle things my own way." His voice had a vindictive quality.

I kicked the matter around in my think- tank. There were plenty of people in Hollywood who might entertain a yen to render this Michaelson louse defunct; he'd put the shakedown bite on so many prominent guys and quails it was a wonder somebody hadn't bumped him long ago. Under the circumstances, trying to finger the author of the threatening notes would be about as easy as locating a speck of dust in a pound of pepper.

There was one possible angle, though. "Who've you been blackmailing recently?" I asked him.

He reddened; and then, before he could answer, hell spilled over.

A GORGEOUS blonde cupcake wearing too much makeup and too many sparklers came flurrying toward u...

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