The Phantom Automobiles

Gordon Gardner, Ace Reporter!

There’s not a story he can’t crack. He’s got his finger on the pulse of his town. His dogged tenacity means no politician is safe. Even the U. S. Army keeps tabs on him to ensure he safely harbors national secrets. And he looks smashing in a tux.

His latest assignment is a basic police blotter piece: a pedestrian struck dead by a car. As a reporter who is second to none, Gardner’s disappointed. How could a simple accident be worthy of his considerable talents when there are so many other more interesting stories to cover? Even his pairing with a beautiful photographer doesn’t lighten his mood.

His editor wants the piece yesterday. The police already closed the case. But then Gardner asks a simple question: why would a seemingly normal person willingly dive in front of a speeding car? Witnesses said the man went crazy just moments before he leapt to his death. What he alleged made no sense: he said the cars on the street didn’t exist and there was only one way to prove it.

He was wrong. Dead wrong.

Now, Gordon Gardner, in defiance of his editor and the police, resolves to investigate the mysterious circumstances behind the dead man’s life and uncover the real truth behind the phantom automobiles.

Exclusive! Included in this volume, a heretofore unpublished action mystery from the golden age of pulp fiction!

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Chapter One

“I’ve got two dead bodies,” Elijah Levitz, the editor of the Houston Post-Dispatch, said, flipping two pieces of paper between the fingers of each hand, “and I’m gonna let one of my two junior ace reporters pick first.”

Gordon Gardner inwardly bristled at the word junior but knew that he’d one day be the senior ace reporter. He stood in the main newsroom with the other reporters and hoped he got first pick. Having successfully flirted with the editor’s secretary long enough to get the gists of both stories, Gordon knew which one of the stories would have the privilege of bearing his personal “Gordon Gardner” stamp.

But which one would he get?

When the editor called a meeting, the news hounds had gathered liked sheep to a shepherd around Levitz. The portly man constantly had his necktie loosened, his open collar dirty around the inside ring, and a cigarette hanging from dried lips. The unlit stick bobbed up and down as he spoke and handed out assignments. Each assignment was on a slip of paper torn from a stack held together by an iron rod and a cast iron nut. Levitz claimed it was a piece of the Hindenburg but few believed him although no reporter, copy boy, or secretary ever said so to his face.

When Levitz called out a story and assigned a reporter, that man—they were all men—would plow through the throng and snatch a piece of paper Levitz handed out. Barbara Essary, the editor’s secretary, sat at a nearby desk and jotted notes. Sometimes the boys in the newsroom swapped stories. As a rule, Levitz didn’t mind the switching except in those times when he reminded his reporters that he was the editor and he assigned the stories as he saw fit.

This was one of those times.

“I think we all know which ones I’m talking about,” Levitz continued. “There’s the crazy guy who jumped in front of a moving car and lost, and the mugging death of William Silber, local artist. The latter’s more of a fancy obit, the former’s just a basic crime blotter filler piece.”

Gordon looked down a re-read the slip of paper listing the job he already had. A puff piece on the local nightclub owner, Bruno Clavell, who had recently built his first club in Houston after a successful string of similar nightclubs in Dallas, Ft. Worth, San Antonio, and Austin. It didn’t amount to much, but he’d certainly get to dust off his tux.

In the stuffy room, not every reporter wore a jacket. Gordon ditched his long ago to the back of his chair next to his brand-new desk near the window. Next to him, Jack Hanson, an older man with three kids and a wife, needed more deodorant. His body odor wafted around him like a fog. Gordon eased away under a false pretense, all the while wondering how Hanson had three kids.

“I’m gonna get that top story,” Johnny Flynn said to Gordon. Shorter than Gordon by at least four inches, Johnny nonetheless had an effortless aplomb that surrounded him. His charm and good looks opened a lot of doors and he nearly always had his tie cinched tight. “And I’ll get the next promotion by, you know, actually writing something that’s true.”

Johnny, a rival reporter, still hadn’t accepted the fact that Gordon received a promotion for fabricating a news story. To him, you wrote and then you accepted the accolades. What made matters even worse for Gordon was that he couldn’t say anything about the nature of the story. For all Johnny knew, Gordon’s story was about a bank robbery foiled by the police. The real story involved Nazis in Houston. As a result, he had to suffer Johnny’s tirades and oneupmanship.

Gordon hated it. But he loved his desk next to the window so when Johnny got a little too full of himself, Gordon would just saunter over to his desk and stretch out while Johnny had to content himself with a small hovel in the middle of the newsroom.

“Don’t talk about stuff you don’t know a damn thing about,” Gordon whispered. He nodded to their boss.

“Y’all done?” Levitz asked. His cocked eyebrow spoke volumes.

Both junior reporters nodded.

Levitz sniggered. “There’ll be no switching. You get what you get and you won’t throw a fit.”

What was this, kindergarten?

“Harry,” Levitz said, “got a dime.”

Harry Vinson plunged his hand into his pocket and produced the coin.

“Now, since Johnny here wrote the last big piece for us, I’m gonna let him call it. What’s it gonna be, Johnny?”

“Heads,” Johnny called out.

Harry flipped the dime in the air, catching it between his open palms. He uncovered and called out, “Tails.”

The grin on Gordon’s face could’ve lit up the marquee at the Metropolitan movie house. “I’ll take…”

“Not so fast, Gordie,” Levitz said, using the nickname Gordon didn’t particularly like. “You only get the right to choose the slip of paper. Left hand or right hand.”

Again, Gordon thought, is this kindergarten? He wanted the story of the dead artist. Marie Gardner, his mother, taught art in school and was part of the committee that helped found and open Houston’s Museum of Fine Art. Gordon knew he could make William Silber’s obit shine.

Being right handed, Gordon’s natural tendency was to pick right. But he had been under Levitz’s black cloud for a few weeks. Sure, Gordon had successfully bartered his silence for the new desk and promotion, something Levitz had agreed to under pressure. But the editor didn’t like his hand being forced and had rewarded Gordon with lesser stories. The last high-profile story Gordon got still only landed on page two. To date, the only page-one story Gordon had was the fake story he had written.

“Left,” Gordon said.

“Good choice,” Levitz said. “You get the crazy man.”

Gordon’s pained sigh brought chuckles from the guys around him.

“Johnny, you get Silber,” Levitz said. “Alright, boys, let’s make some ink.”

As the throng started to disperse, Gordon moved against the stream toward Levitz. “Wait, boss,” Gordon said, “I’m better for the artist profile. I know more than Johnny does.”

Johnny, who remained in place as the reporters and photographers moved past him, just watched.

“Don’t care,” Levitz said, turning to Barbara and motioning her to follow him. He threw the two pieces of paper in the trash can and sequestered himself in his office.

She gave Gordon a sympathetic look. “Sorry, sweetie.” She straightened her skirt and joined Levitz, closing his door.

Gordon shook his head, catching a glimpse of Johnny’s grin. Now his was the marque bright one. He turned and sauntered away.

Looking down, Gordon caught a glimpse of the pieces of paper Levitz had just thrown away. Frowning, he fished them both out of the trash. He looked at each of them.

Both pieces of paper were blank.

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