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Crepe for Suzette

A Novelet by C. S. Montanye

Chapter I

IT WAS one of those warm spring nights when everyone was going somewhere. I sat in a taxi with Libby Hart, bound for the Paladium, a stone's throw from Columbus Circle where a big ice pageant, called Frozen Follies of the Year, was due to be unveiled at eight-forty-five.

The star of the hard water carnival was Suzette Darcy. And Libby Hart's interest in the skate opus, I happened to know, had to do with this same Miss Darcy.

Lib's sweatshop, which kept her in alligator shoes and free cosmetics, was known to the trade as Arcady House, manufactured first aids to fading faces. The girl friend did publicity for the outfit, and Arcady House was about to present Miss Suzette Darcy with a cash donation for her signed approval of Perfect Petal Cream, the emollient that made tired eyes pack their bags and leave.

Libby had a pair of Annie Oakleys in her handbag—the reason for the taxi and the ice show. Though I, as a sport writer for the Orbit, should have been at the Garden watching them toss a basketball around.

When we sat down in one of the choice boxes at the Paladium the place was filled to capacity, and three rows of standees were in the rear. Celebrities were as thick as tuxedos at a waiters' convention.

In the next box I caught a glimpse of old Amos Tinsley, the millionaire "Flour King," formerly of St. Paul and points West. Tinsley had a droopy mustache, eyes to match, and a fluff of snowy hair. He sat all alone, looking bored.

On the other side of our box I suddenly caught sight of two characters who made my brows lift. One was a shiny-haired, dark-faced man who wore his evening clothes with the air of an ambassador. He had white, square teeth that gleamed in a smile he turned on and off like a faucet. And the label on the polished gent read, "Nicholas Caduro."

A big-time hot shot, gambler, strong- arm and felony expert, Caduro didn't have one racket. He had them all. Wherever there was an easy buck, Nick Caduro was present, reaching for it. A bad guy to meet up with under any conditions, his sleek appearance and line of patter made him doubly dangerous.

THE man in the box with Nick was a big, stoop-shouldered, silly-panned goon tagged George Bister. He was Nick's errand boy, trigger man and general housekeeper. Bister looked like a furry-eared St. Bernard, adoring his master with red-rimmed, patient eyes.

I was still eying those two first citizens of the underworld, staked out in a box, when the lights went down, the conductor's baton up and, in a blare of brass, the entertainment got under way.

Suzette Darcy was the latest sensation on the silver blade. An unknown Minnesota rink habitué a year ago, Suzy had suddenly burst into prominence like a shooting star challenging Sonja Henie and all the other performers who had found there was a fortune in ice, if you cut it with skates and not an ax.

Lib had told me there was plenty of coin behind Suzette. The minute she made her appearance I understood why. The gal was gorgeous!

Young, beautiful, with a figure more curved than the figure eights she clicked off, her long gleaming, copper-colored hair whirled in the breeze she stirred up. Her eyes were a dusky, shining blue and her lips a tempting crimson.

Her charm and beauty landed with a solid impact. She hadn't been in public view for more than two minutes before any Variety scout understood that both she and the ice show were due to be a smash hit and a financial fireball.

When intermission came along the girl friend murmured, "I have an appointment with Miss Darcy after the performance." Libby patted her bag. "Contracts are right here, ready for her signature, together with a certified check. How come you never learned to skate, Johnny?

"Where I came from," I told her "we used water for drinking purposes only."

Libby wrinkled her cute little nose and I looked in the direction of the Messrs. Caduro and Bister. The perfectly groomed gunny was stifling a polite yawn. The sloppy rum-dum beside him was contemplating the wealthy Amos Tinsley with a dreamy, retrospective gaze.

Finally it was over. The crowd stood and cheered for five minutes. The fascinating Suzette made many bows. Then the lights came up and Lib and I joined the mob pushing a way out.

"Miss Darcy told me to give her a half- hour," Lib murmured. "What time is it now, Johnny?"

It was eleven-thirty. To get rid of the half-hour I took Mrs. Hart's only daughter across to a java joint and bought two cups of the Brazilian brew. As we went in I saw Lieutenant Larry Hartley, of the Homicide Division, at the end of the counter, dunking a doughnut. He glanced up, smiled at Libby, and nodded to me.

"Hello, Castle. Been over to the ice cube festival? Sharp show, eh?"

Hartley wasn't a bad sort. Off and on I'd been tossed in with him on certain murderous matters that had occasionally cropped up. I liked Hartley more than I did his superior, Captain Fred Mullin, a bulldog technician who growled like a man.

Lib inquired, as we found a booth and edged in, "Isn't that your policeman friend?"

"One of them. But don't be alarmed. I have nothing in common with the Lieutenant."

Libby's dark eyes glinted. "You'd better not have! You promised me you were through with crime. Remember?"

When we'd finished our java and the half-hour was up, we found that to reach the Paladium dressing rooms we had to go down the block and around the corner. Every cab in mirthful Manhattan seemed to have converged on the stage door, when we spotted it. Taxis mingled with chauffeur- driven limousines and hot rods that only determination kept out of the junk yard.

The stage door was ganged up with well-wishers, bobby-sox autograph addicts, and florists' delivery boys. Replacing the legendary doorman, of suspenders and sour disposition, an impressively uniformed party examined Libby's credentials. He went into conference with a backstage board of directors and they finally decided to pass us in.

"Third floor," he said. "Take the elevator down the corridor."

WE DID, getting out on an overhanging cement tier patterned with doors. The lighting was indirect. Small sofas and chairs, for the comfort and convenience of visitors, were scattered along the way. It was luxuriously different from the backstage world of the ordinary side-street playhouse.

The layout was de luxe, from the shining chromium knobs on the stainless steel doors to the clubroom atmosphere.

Suzette Darcy's dressing room was at the end of the tier, near a flight of fire-exit stairs. No one could miss it. The star's name was gold-leafed neatly over a pearl button. Libby put a gloved thumb on that.

I said, "You don't need to ring. She's expecting us—the door is open."

She pressed the button anyway, giving me a quizzical stare.

"Stop drooling, Johnny. And when I introduce you, look, don't touch!"

"Yes, ma'am."

Libby rang again—and again. Then she began to frown, drawing her arched brows together and pursing her lips.

"Wait here," she said finally. "I'll go in. If she's decent, I'll call you."

No more than two or three minutes elapsed. During it I listened to a murmur of voices coming out of the rooms on the tiers below. Gay, happy voices. Excited voices belonging to the members of the troupe. Overjoyed voices, because the show was in the bag for a protracted New York stay.

Suddenly I heard something else—a muffled, strangled scream from beyond the doorway through which Libby had gone!

In a flash I darte...

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