“What did the stiff say?”
“What the?” Craig said in the empty car. His eyes scanned the radio before returning to the road ahead. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he muttered, stealing another glance at the digital dial. He punched the preset 2 on the console.
“…that Adams is out of position at third base and Manager Joe –”
The radio still worked, the reception fine. Craig hit 1 again, hoping the old radio show returned and that he didn’t miss too much.
“Radio silence? Really? Dammit!” Craig shouted. He rapped the radio with the side of his fist. Nothing. Then, after several minutes, just as suddenly as it stopped, Craig heard the narrator’s familiar voice.
“…and brought to you by the good folks at Packard. Come see their new 1952 models now in showrooms coast to coast. We hope you enjoyed tonight’s episode, ‘Bum Call,’ starring Dean Powell as Jack Torrey and Lana Martin as Betty Torrey. Mr. Powell is under contract with Universal Studios, and Miss Martin's performance is courtesy of MGM. We hope you will join us next week at this same time for another exciting adventure of ‘Jack and Betty Torrey, the Next-Door Busybodies.’ Goodnight.”
“Sonofabitch!” Craig shut the radio with more force than necessary. He nearly missed his exit, cut the wheel hard right, simultaneously hearing a cacophony of horn blasts, and sped up the off-ramp. At the first chance, he pulled the Toyota onto a shoulder and engaged the flashers. A big fan of old-time radio shows, especially mysteries, Craig fashioned himself the world’s smartest private eye. It was a joke, of course. The number of mean streets the recently downsized human resources manager had walked down equaled the number of punks he’d roughed up, the number of whiskey breakfasts he’d imbibed, and the number of blackeyes sustained and given in fights. Summed up, they equaled the calories in a water-filled pitcher. No worries. He wasn’t the Mike Hammer type, rather more in the cerebral Nero Wolfe mode, working from the comforts of home or his automobile. When it came to unraveling mysteries and whodunits, Craig was a savant. It began when his father gave him a 1930’s Post Cereal premium, a silver-plated Junior Detective Corporation badge. As a precocious 12-year old, he solved his first Ellery Queen, “Challenge to the Reader,” mystery. Whether the puzzle or conundrum appeared in the pages of a golden age or contemporary mystery, Craig’s knack for figuring things out before the final pages was unequaled.
The world’s smartest private eye that never was sat in his car on the side of the road, thinking. “Bum Call,” despite its limited cast and screwball dialogue, was cleverly plotted. The classic locked-room mystery proved to be a real challenge. He went through the episode in his mind, remembering each character and scene. No matter what angle he put on it, he was stumped. The feeling unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Is this the onset of cognitive impairment? He didn’t know whodunit or how, but instead of getting upset, he grinned. “Some dick you are,” he said, staring into the rearview mirror.
The radio cut out at the worst possible time. The show’s signature line, “What did the stiff say?” was spoken by Betty Torrey. Listeners knew the murderer’s identity was about to be revealed. Each episode, Betty and Jack alternated uttering the trademark line. Then she or he would point out the killer and explain how the culprit did it. The show’s popularity was proof that the gimmick worked. Craig sent himself a text with the show’s title and air time. He took a deep breath. I’ll be goddamned. The first time I can’t figure it out, and I have no idea how it ended, Craig thought.
Later, Craig checked the radio station’s schedule. Apparently, it was the third and final time that month the episode aired. Now what? He thought about calling the station and asking someone there how the episode ended. That proved to be the longshot he’d expected. He Google-searched “Jack and Betty Torrey, the Next-Door Busybodies” and found a listing of all the titles. There were plenty from which to choose. The series ran for nine years, changed broadcasting stations twice, actors and actresses portraying the Torreys thrice, and sponsorship more times than Craig cared to count. Craig’s shoulders dropped even before clicking on the “Bum Call” episode summary link. He read the yellow-highlighted, large font at the top of the website. “Note: No spoilers are included in our show summaries.” Resigned, he began reading:
WRITTEN BY Q.Q. KNUCKLEBALL
ORIGINAL AIR DATE: JULY 16, 1952
NBC STUDIOS, HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA
SPONSOR: PACKARD MOTOR CAR COMPANY, DETROIT, MICHIGAN
DEAN POWELL AS JACK TORREY
LANA MARTIN AS BETTY TORREY
MARVIN HERSHFIELD AS THE PITCHER
HAL BOYD AS THE SECOND BASEMAN
ARTHUR BEAMON AS THE FIRST BASEMAN
GEORGE FRANKEL AS THE UMPIRE
NARRATED BY MONTY TATUM
It’s baseball and murder as Jack and Betty decide to take in a ballgame. What begins as an innocent afternoon at the ballpark turns into, what else, mayhem.
While everyone else exits the stadium, the Torreys manage to take a wrong turn and run smack into trouble. First-base umpire George Frankel’s bad call in the last inning cost the Cubs the game and Frankel his life. Shortly after the game, he was found strangled to death. The pitcher, second baseman, and first baseman all have personal reasons to see Frankel dead. Despite their claims of innocence, our busybody couple hits one out of the ballpark by uncovering the truth and identifying the killer.
That wasn’t much help, he thought. Against his better judgment, Craig searched for the preposterous moniker Q.Q. Knuckleball, but the obvious pseudonym yielded nothing more than a couple of unhelpful, baseball-related IMDb entries. He snapped his fingers. eBay! He went to the popular website and searched. There were numerous offerings for episodes of “Jack and Betty Torrey, the Next-Door Busybodies,” but nothing for “Bum Call.” He saved the search, hoping against hope a new listing emerged. Undaunted, Craig continued searching the web. He found a company advertising high-quality recordings of almost every crime, mystery, and western radio program from the 1930s through the 1950s. He typed into the search bar. Nothing! But in his haste, Craig misspelled “Bum” as “Bun.” He steadied himself, corrected the error, and hit enter. Voila! A downloadable version of the episode wasn’t available, but a CD was listed. The company’s confirmation email appeared in Craig’s inbox seconds after he ordered. The mystery would soon be solved.
A week later, another email from the radio-recording company:
Dear Valued Customer,
We regret to inform you that the recording you ordered, “Bum Call,” is no longer available. Due to a copyright infringement, all “Jack and Betty Torrey, the Next-Door Busybodies” episodes between 1952 – 1953 are not in the public domain. We have removed these titles from our website. We apologize for the inconvenience. As customer satisfaction is our number one goal, we offer you either a full refund, or we will double your purchase price in credit for a future selection. Thank you for your understanding.
Craig’s first unsolved case. The self-proclaimed detective struck out.
Craig checked the mirror in his New York City hotel room and didn’t like what he saw. He had a job interview later that afternoon with a Fortune 50 company. It was a coveted, prestigious, high-paying position and a real step-up from his current position. He needed to look his best. Craig walked into Dom’s Barbershop on Second Avenue. Instead of taking a seat and waiting for his turn, he glanced at the autographed photos covering the walls.
“DiMaggio,” the voice said. “Got that one a year before he passed. Greatest ballplayer I ever saw,” Dom said.
The collection was impressive. Baseball players from the 1940s through present day, mostly Yankees, but other teams' players as well.
“Better than Mantle?” Craig asked.
Dom stopped cutting. “Hitting from both sides of the plate, no one was better than Mickey,” he said, sounding professorial. “But if I wanted one person on my team, it would be Joe, for sure.”
Dom resumed cutting. Craig continued ogling the pictures. Near the hat stand, Craig noticed a photo that appeared out of place. “Who’s this?” Craig asked, squinting at the illegible signature. “Not a ballplayer, right?”
The barber didn’t turn around. “Nope. That’s Art Beamon.”
“Who?” Craig asked.
Dom rang up the customer. Craig sat down in the chair, ready for his cut.
“Used to be an actor. Trust me, he don’t look like that picture no more, but he’s still got all his marbles. Starred in a load of television shows during the '60s. Was in radio before that. More importantly, he has enough hair on his head that he still comes in for a cut once a month. Lives a couple of blocks from here. Nice enough guy,” Dom said.
“Whoa!” Dom shouted. “I nearly cut your neck. Sit still.”
Craig moved his hand out from under the cape draped around him. “One minute. What did you say?” He turned to face Dom.
“What? That he lives nearby?”
“No,” Craig said. “About radio.”
“Oh right. Before television, Beamon used to do radio programs. No one remembers them now. He knows I like baseball. Look around,” Dom said, his hand, holding scissors, swept around the shop. “Anyway, last time he was here, he mentioned he once acted in one of those old detective shows involving a baseball murder.”
“Did he mention the name of the show?” Craig couldn’t get the words out quickly enough.
“Hmm. Might have. I don’t remember.”
“By any chance, was it “Jack and Betty Torrey, the Next-Door Busybodies?”
Dom shrugged. “Might have been. I don’t remember. Are you a cop or something?”
“Private.” The word spilled out of Craig. After a year of on and off thinking about “Bum Call,” Craig was antsy. It still remained the one instance where the detective within him failed to solve the mystery.
“I can’t cut your hair if you’re moving,” Dom said.
“You said this Art Beamon lives not far from here? Do you know where?”
With a fresh haircut and address in hand, Craig tipped Dom and headed to Art Beamon’s apartment building. A second tip, this one to the doorman and ten times the size of Dom’s, gained Craig access to the retired actor. It was time to do some old-fashioned P.I. work.
“It’s funny,” Beamon said after introductions. He and Craig sat in the building’s lobby. “I did hundreds of shows over the years, but for two reasons, I remember that one well. First, acting as a ballplayer was ironic. I participated in exactly one baseball game in my life as a child. First time up at bat, I was struck in the head with the ball. Never played another inning after that.”
Craig didn’t know whether to laugh or show concern, but Beamon continued. “Second, I was always typecast as the good guy. Must be something about my voice and face. But in that episode…what did you say was the name of it?”
“Bum Call,” Craig said.
“Right. ‘Bum Call.’ In that one, I was the murderer.”
Craig finally knew who, but more importantly, he needed to know how. Hoping against hope, Craig asked, “By any chance, do you remember the plot? What happened? How did they know it was you?”
Beamon smiled. “One thing I remember for certain. I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but Dean Powell was a jerk. Pompous son-of-a-gun. Lana Martin, now she was a doll. Came from a small town in North Dakota. One of the rare, nice ones in Hollywood.”
Beamon paused. Craig got him back on track.
“Interesting. I might have heard that she was nice. So, what happened in ‘Bum Call?’ After Betty…um…Lana asked, ‘What did the stiff say?’ How was your character exposed?”
“Let’s see…as I remember it,” Beamon began…
Craig didn’t remember the job interview, nor did he much care. He knew what the stiff said eight decades ago. Before boarding the plane for his return trip, Craig visited a used bookstore. Then, the world’s smartest private detective upgraded himself to first-class, watched the flight attendant pour a drink, reclined his seat, and began matching wits with his competition. He opened a 1940’s paperback, Harry Highball, the World’s Brightest Detective, Solves the Green Diamond Mystery. Game on.
About the Author
Bruce Harris writes crime and mystery stories. His baseball murder mystery, Death in the Dugout, is available on Amazon.