.......I was younger in the spring of 1957. A helluva lot younger. Elvis and Lucy were bigger than big, and cars were just plain huge. I was the greenest op at Confidential Detective Agency. This was why they assigned me the Herbie Barnwell case.
.......Herbie wasn't dead yet, though nobody expected him to come out of the coma. He was a skid row character too juiced to even get Christmastime Santa work. But after Boomer King hired him to do the Humpty Dumpty commercials, Herbie got to be halfway famous as Humpty, and Boomer became a celebrity.
.......The police quickly wrote it off as an accident, one of those idiotic things that happen when you're constantly shitfaced. They treated the incident so cavalierly that it offended a distant cousin of Mr. Barnwell's, who hired us on general principle.
.......It certainly looked like an accident to me when I arrived at Boomer King Motors, the biggest De Soto-Plymouth dealership in three states. If you're my vintage and lived within a fifty-mile radius, you'll remember the TV ads. Boomer had his body and fender shop build a fiberglass egg in sections. It was painted like the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty, with arm and leg holes for whatever chump they could find to sit inside it.
.......Herbie was that chump.
.......There was an old brick wall behind the service department, had to be fourteen feet high. It was all that remained of the old Studebaker dealership founded by Boomer's father in the 20s. Directly under the wall was a grease pit they used to lube cars.
.......For the commercials, they'd help Herbie up a ladder -- he'd be stewed and none too steady -- and assemble the egg around him.
.......Then they'd hustle down fast, so the camera could roll in case Herbie fell before he was supposed to. The pit was filled with straw and covered with a tarp. When Herbie landed, the egg would fly apart, and Boomer King would be Johnny-on- the-spot, looking sincerely into the camera saying, All King's horsepower and all King's men couldn't put Humpty together again. But, by golly, my friends, I can put a heckuva deal together for you on the De Soto or Plymouth of your choice or a cream puff from our vast used car lot. Et cetera.
.......They called Boomer a marketing whiz, a pioneer. These days you might say visionary. What he was was a crook. The instant you walked onto his lot, his salesmen pounced, and you seldom escaped without signing a contract. Everyone knew Boomer was shady. That didn't prevent him from selling cars hand over fist.
.......Boomer King's office manager, a buxom blonde named Peggy, built like a brick shithouse, informed me that the boss was upstairs and she didn't know when he'd be available. She referred me to Ken Bolling, the new car manager, who took me around the showroom. Bolling, a slick piece of work with a pencil mustache, wore a seersucker suit and cologne strong enough to kill mosquitoes.
.......A tragedy, Ken Bolling said, walking me to scene. By the way, that '54 Ford coupe you're driving, is it yours?
.......No. The agency's pool car.
.......Got a car of your own?
.......A '49 Merc.
.......I can go as high as two hundred bucks trade-in on a new Plymouth Fury. A young fella like you, you're made for tail fins. You'll have to beat the ladies off with a stick.
.......I guess it must hurt to be in a plastic egg and land from that high, even if you're landing on soft hay.
.......Ol' Herbie, he never felt much pain, know what I mean? He loved the job too. He lived the role. 'Call me Humpty', he'd say.
.......How often did you shoot? All the ads look the same to me.
.......Bolling shook his head at my lack of artistic observation. You got your different nuances. He'd be up on the wall, flailing his arms and legs and topple over, landing on end or on a side. Boomer ran different specials and incredible sale prices too. The plugs, they were like snowflakes.
.......Over what length of time?
.......Three, four months.
.......Was Mr. Barnwell your only Humpty Dumpty?
.......Uh huh. Bolling tapped the side of his noggin. Herbie was fucked up. He had a screw loose from the sauce. He'd hitch a ride out here and sit on the wall even when we weren't shooting.
.......He'd just sit on the wall?
.......Yeah, sit, for no reason, sit up there and look around, like he was rehearsing Shakespeare. I had to chase him away a couple of times. Mr. King personally had to at least once.
.......The report said Mr. Barnwell landed on something other than the usual hay, I said. How come?
.......We're remodeling the used car store across the alley there, Bolling said, pulling the tarp away, exposing a stack of plywood and lumber. Our Super Semiannual Everything Must Go Pre-owned Car Sale's coming up this weekend and it wouldn't do for a buncha scrap to be lying around. Somebody must've ordered clean-up workers to get rid of the mess. The morons dumped it in the pit.
.......The day before the accident.
.......Who were the cleanup guys?
.......Bolling shrugged and took a cigar from a shirt pocket. Mr. King hired them as day labor through some soup kitchen downtown.
.......Mr. King likes to hire on the cheap?
.......Bolling bit off the end of the stogie, spit it out fairly close to my feet. Boomer's a peach of a guy. He's the finest human being it's ever been my privilege to meet as an automotive sales professional. He wept openly when the rummy went kersplat. You can check at the TV station who filmed. It's right there on the celluloid.
.......I took the name of the soup kitchen from him and stopped at the hospital next. Herbie Barnwell didn't know I was his only visitor. He was having a good night's sleep and then some. There were plenty of flowers in the room, a result of his fame. Family and fans were paying homage without having to get too close.
.......Shriveled inside more plaster than I'd ever seen in one place, Herbie was no kid. The tubes and hoses reminded me of the gear the X-15 rocket pilots wear who're blasted up to the edge of space.
.......I asked the doctor how it looked for him.
.......Not good. Skull fracture, internal swelling and a chart full of broken bones. Speaking of that, who gets the bill?
......."Try Boomer King."
.......He laughed bitterly. I bought my son a snazzy, little '51Chevy Bel Air hardtop from him. Boomer acted like we were best friends. After the oil leak, he forgot I existed. Now I have a stained driveway and a car that can't run around the block without stalling.
.......I drove downtown, happy the wheels under me hadn't come from Boomer King Motors. The combination flophouse and mission was located between a warehouse and a tavern.
.......A sign over the door advertised beds at fifty cents per night. The price of a meal, I assumed, was a sermon, because one was wrapping up. The thin, graying preacher and his flock said their amens. While the guys chowed down, I asked the Reverend Snell about the laborers he dispatched to Boomer King Motors.
.......He paged through a ledger and said, I heard what happened.
....... I know Herbie Barnwell. He's like the majority of them, not a bad person, but enveloped in the snares of Demon Drink. How is he doing?
.......I shook my head.
.......I'll go by the hospital. We'll say a prayer for him.
.......Here they are. Bill Randall and Ray Helms. They're the guys Boomer hired to do the cleanup.
.......Are they in town?
.......You'd have to find them and I wouldn't know where to steer you. Another thing these men have in common is restlessness. No roots, no sense of responsibility. They come and they go. A man wants honest work, I'll try to place him with employers who call.
.......Did you place Herbie Barnwell?
.......No, and thank the Lord I didn't. I've seen those commercials. Even landing in hay must have been a painful jolt in that contraption, let alone on lumber.
.......What do you know about Randall and Helms?
.......Next to nothing. Are you suggesting they deliberately harmed Herbie?
.......I'm not suggesting anything. I'm trying to learn the whole story. How much is next to nothing?
.......Well, they struck me as rough trade. The way they carried themselves, the way they talked. The tattoos. I wouldn't be surprised if they had offenses more serious than public drunkenness. They're probably riding the rails now, in the next time zone.
.......Did they have a grudge against Herbie?
.......To my knowledge, they weren't acquainted.
.......I gave him my card. "Could you call me if Randall or Helms shows up?"
.......Snell said he would and added sadly, Humpty Dumpty. A children's nursery rhyme twisted for profit.
.......Humpty didn't come out too well in the rhyme either."
.......I wasn't fifteen minutes from the television station that ran Boomer King's commercials. It was the smallest of four stations in town, the only one without a network affiliation. At the front desk, I asked the receptionist to see whoever was in charge of the Boomer King Motors account.
......."That would be Mr. Manning, our senior advertising executive," she said, pointing me through a door into a studio hotter than Hades. Back then, everything was black and white. They used clunky cameras on dollies and blindingly hot lights.
I asked a guy pushing a broom where I could find Mr. Manning.
.......You're looking at him.
.......Television was fairly new, yeah, but this was a shoestring operation. Joe Manning was tall and lanky and not much older than me. I identified myself and said I was investigating Barnwell's fall.
.......Terrible shame, Manning said. I was there.
.......Along with the cameraman?
.......I was the cameraman.
.......Should've known. Was anything different that day?
.......You're thinking somebody did it on purpose?
.......I haven't ruled anything out.
.......I filmed seven or eight of these. Until Humpty -- Herbie hit the deck hard, everything went about the same.
.......Who dreamed up the Humpty Dumpty idea?
.......Boomer. We'd made commercials for him before, Boomer walking around the cars and talking, prices on the windshields in shaving cream. He was looking for more pizzazz.
.......Do other stations do his spots?
.......Nope. We have the exclusive.
.......Nah, we're just the cheapest. Humpty Dumpty was going to be a one-shot deal. But it became so popular that we re-shot so Boomer could feature other cars.
.......He liked performing in front of the camera too.
.......I asked if we could watch a few, the last and two or three previous, for comparison. Manning showed me how it was done. They filmed on eight-millimeter, like a home movie. When it came time to run the commercial, they'd project the film onto a screen and aim a TV camera at it.
.......I watched and watched until Manning was thoroughly sick of rewinding and changing film. I used to think the commercials were funny. Used to. Herbie'd sit up there in that egg, big eyes and stupid smile painted on it, flapping spindly arms and legs that stuck out the holes.
.......I didn't know Boomer King's given name -- it was his bellow of a voice that earned him the Boomer label. He was a big guy in his fifties with a jack o'lantern grin. In black-and-white, his face was a deep gray, from a year-round tan they say he cultivated at his Acapulco winter home.
.......Boomer would mug for the camera and make his hands into a megaphone and yell for Humpty to be careful. That was Herbie's cue to fall. He'd make a hellacious racket hitting that tarp. It had to've smarted. I'd have to be soused to do it, too.
.......I looked for patterns and didn't see any, except that Herbie's preliminary flailing didn't seem as lively in the final spot. Maybe that was my imagination. The only obvious difference was that Herbie didn't get up and Boomer King didn't begin his spiel. He just looked at Herbie, speechless. Then the screen went blank.
.......It didn't seem proper to continue shooting, Manning said. I told people standing outside the showroom to call an ambulance.
.......What did Boomer do?
.......He brushed by me and went through the showroom, upstairs to his office.
.......Did he weep openly?
......."Not that I noticed.
.......I returned to the office. Reverend Snell had left me a message. Ray Helms was in our pokey, right under my nose. Helms used his one phone call to tell the reverend that he had information on the wino who fell off the wall in an egg, and that he'd sing for a price.
.......Helms was a scrawny redneck, a classic juvenile delinquent who'd graduated from stealing hubcaps to car theft and burglary.
.......The night before, a cruiser nabbed him behind a hi-fi store, coming out with an armload of radios. The burglary detectives on the case told me that our judges were tired of seeing his ugly puss. They were going to throw the book at Helms and he knew it.
....... He had mean, dumb eyes. What's in it for me?
.......Depends. They let you out, Raymond, it's like you're caught in a turnstile at the A&P. The powers that be, they're fed up. They think you need ten years upstate stamping license plates.
.......For a coupla crummy radios?
.......I looked at my watch. Play hard to get. You're not the only number on my dance card.
.......Okay, okay, what it was, see, me and this other guy, Bill, we was doing some tearout work at this car dealership. They're remodeling. We're almost done for the day when the owner takes us aside. You seen him. He does them Humpty Dumpty commercials on television. He says to load as much scrap as we can in this pit. He slips us each an extra fiver and says this is for working fast and keeping our yaps buttoned.
.......Did he say why the rush?
.......He's the boss. He didn't have to.
.......Did you wonder?
.......I wondered a little when I heard on the radio the stooge inside the egg smacked hisself silly.
.......I ain't answering that.
.......Did you know the guy inside the egg, Herbie Barnwell?
.......Word of honor.
.......Sure, I thought, and stood up.
.......You gonna try to fix things for me now with the fuzz?
......."If your story pans out, I'll try."
.......I went to back Boomer King Motors, knowing that it was King's word against that of a jailbird. It was a quiet afternoon and salesmen were prowling the showroom floor like sharks in a pool. I flashed my ID to hold them at bay and asked Peggy if Mr. King had returned.
.......She wore fire-engine-red lipstick and a ponytail streaked dark at the roots. Her cashmere sweater wasn't any too large. Neither was her pleated skirt.
.......Same answer. Mr. King was indisposed. I could leave my card if I wished, so I did. All the way out to my car, I could still smell her perfume. It could do battle with Ken Bolling's cologne.
.......I was parked on a side, by the infamous wall. I looked up at it and had a hunch. The ladder was still leaning on the rear of the wall. I climbed it and sat like Herbie/Humpty had, and looked around. Dead center, smack-dab in front of me, was Boomer King's upstairs office. I had a vantage point like no other unless you count office buildings a mile off, from where you'd need powerful binoculars to see what I was seeing.
.......His office didn't look like an office. It sported a wet bar and the biggest bed I'd ever seen outside of a Rock Hudson-Doris Day movie. Peggy was there and so was Boomer, at the bar handing her a drink. They were talking, not exactly arguing, but it wasn't lovey-dovey either. They were so certain of their privacy they hadn't bothered to pull the drapes.
.......I flapped my arms and legs like Herbie did. Peggy looked out and upward. I waved. Her eyes got as big as hubcaps.
.......I imagined what Herbie had seen the time Boomer chased him away. I also imagined there was a Mrs. Boomer King.
.......When I re-entered the showroom, Boomer was waiting. Peggy sat at her desk, pretending to study a file folder.
.......He gave me a bone-crusher handshake and said, Say, great timing. I was on my way to the hospital to visit my little pal. How's he doing?
.......Swell, I bluffed. He came out of his coma and told me some things.
.......A large shadow fell over Boomer. Yeah, like what?
.......Take a guess.
.......I ain't taking part of the rap for this, Horace, Peggy shrieked.
.......I told you he wouldn't remember what he saw us doing, Peggy said. But, oh no, Mr. Genius, you had to go and fix him.
.......Boomer looked for a moment like he wanted to rip her head off, but he covered it up. "That'll be enough, Miss Brandt. We'll discuss those sales reports later."
.......She opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind. She stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind her.
.......He stared at the closed door for an instant, gave me a look. Women, it seemed to say. Then he winked at me.
.......You're a man of the world, my friend, he whispered. You know how gals are when they're riding the cotton pony, heh-heh. How they can get into a snit and accuse you of God knows what. Say, what kind of car do you drive?
.......A '49 Merc.
.......Boomer scratched his jowls in deep thought. By golly, my friend, that car is already a classic. I can swap you straight across for a brand new '57 Fury with dual pipes and three-tone paint, and owe you besides.
......."I'll think about it."
.......I beelined to the nearest pay phone, and called a buddy on the force. This was before Miranda. They came lickety-split, cuffed Boomer, and hauled him in on attempted murder and attempted bribery charges.
.......Peggy made a terrific witness, packing the courtroom with every news photographer in town. Horace (Boomer) King, Jr. went up the river and didn't get out until they'd quit making De Sotos. Some of the older guys in the agency had known Horace Sr. They said he wasn't too big a crook for a car dealer and was probably rolling over in his grave.
.......I kept my word to Ray Helms. It didn't do him a world of good.
.......A week after Boomer went to jail, Herbie Barnwell came out of his coma.