This story is a work of fiction inspired by the life of author/film director Samuel Fuller. You can read about his years as a 1920s newspaperman in his autobiography A Third Face.
“EX-GI FOUND SLAIN WITH PROSTITUTE”
Max Rothstone pictured the headline in the smoke-filled air with his hands.
“The story writes itself! Get it in tonight’s edition while the blood’s still wet!”
Vick scribbled some notes in a pad and zipped out of the musty office. Rothstone plucked the cigar out of his mouth to throw a final thought at Vick, “And connect it to that Lieutenant murder last week. Both were done in with an auger to ex-servicemen. The public eats up serial killings!”
Rothstone’s phone rang and he scooped it to his ear.
Sam slipped into the Editor’s office while Vick slipped out, the clatter of typewriters cascading through the open door. Things moved fast at The Torch. If you saw an opening, you took it.
“Mr. Rothstone, I got a tip about the Anderson case-”
“Sammy!” Rothstone thundered through his teeth, “Get in here! Shut that racket out!”
One hand still on the phone, he excavated a sheet of paper from the pile on his desk and jotted down a few notes, “Run this to Annie. You’ll find her at the morgue on Second Street. Make it snappy, it’s hot.”
Sam took the paper but remained planted in front of Rothstone’s desk. Max wasn’t going to brush him out so quickly this time, “This kid I used to sling papers with knows Anderson’s nephew. He says Anderson has a-”
“Anderson?! That bone’s picked clean, Sammy! Guy’s a philanthropist, not an embezzler. I oughta hang Perkins just for following that dummy lead to begin with.” Rothstone tossed the phone back on its stand and thrust his hairy paw into a drawer, “Stop trying to push this crime reporter crap on me! We’ll talk when you turn twenty-one.”
He withdrew a fistful of dimes and tossed them at Sam, “Get yourself a cab, and get that note to Annie before I can your ass and find myself a new copyboy.”
Sam retreated out of the Editor’s office, defeated once again. Who cared if he wasn’t twenty-one yet? At seventeen he knew more about the streets of New York than any reporter. He’d climbed as high as he could at The Torch, hell he’d even had a shot at running as editor-in-chief Arthur Barklay’s personal copyboy, but had turned it down to run on the main pressroom floor instead. He felt closer to the action there, three floors closer to the ground, closer to the muck and grime. That’s where the real action was, and Sammy was itching to roll up his sleeves and dive in up to his elbows. He had the street smarts and the ambition to be a homicide reporter, all he lacked were the years. Rothstone needed to realize this wasn’t the 1800s anymore. It was almost 1930! Kids today were more streetwise and less sheltered.
An elevator and cab ride later, Sam was at the local morgue. They never let him in past the front desk, but he soon found he wouldn’t have to get that far.
Annie Calamity was The Torch’s top crime reporter. She knew the names of every stoolie and cannon in the city. She may have worked for The Torch, but her offices were in the dives, hock shops, and flophouses. She always knew where the nearest phone or typewriter was, and within minutes of snagging a story, she had it typed and ready to send to the lithographs. If The Torch was the flame of New York, Annie was the stick of dynamite that lit it.
Sam blundered head-first into the legend herself as she strode out of the morgue.
“Geez, kid, throw some ice on those heels!”
She brushed her skirt and lit a cigarette, “Slow day at the slab. Only fresh stiff is a Jane Doe headed for Potter’s Field. Looks to be an O.D. No injuries, no connections, no story. ” She flicked her match into the gutter, “You bring me something better?”
Sam handed her Rothstone’s note. After glancing it over, she crumpled it up and tossed it aside.
“This lead’s no good! Mack should have saved the paper and phoned me instead.”
She blew a cloud of smoke into the air and eyed the copyboy, “I don’t suppose you’ve got something better, do ya, Sammy?”
He jumped at the opportunity, “Robert Anderson!”
She waved him off, “Last week’s news. The Anderson case is-”
“I know, I know,” Sam cut in, “The Anderson case is wrapped. But what if it wasn’t a dud? What if Anderson really was stashing away all that dough, and I know where?”
Her eyes narrowed, “Okay, I’ll bite. What’re you driving at?”
Sam grinned, “A pack of cigars says he’s secretly sending hush money to his wife.”
“And what’s Mrs. Anderson got on ol’ hubby?”
“Not the current Mrs. Anderson, the previous Mrs. Anderson,” Sam smiled, “the one he never divorced and has a kid with. The one he doesn’t want anybody to know about” He proudly stuck his thumbs in his pockets, “I know where she lives.”
Annie took a long drag on her cigarette and stared down the street in thought. “RETIRED JUDGE CAUGHT PAYING OFF SECRET WIFE. It’s cheap but it’ll read well.”
She turned back to Sam, “Tell you what, make it a pack of cigarettes and you’ve got a deal.”
“And you’ve got to put a good word in for me with Rothstone.”
“Still gunning for a crime reporter slot, eh?” She smiled, “Fair enough. You’ll have earned it if this story sticks.”
Sam tried to play it cool on the cab ride to the apartment. Here he was, on the case with Annie Calamity! The Annie Calamity! If she told Max he was the one who sprung this story, maybe it would be the leverage he’d need to get that coveted promotion. Hell, if Rothstone didn’t have the good sense to give him the position after this, he might be able to use this to get in as a reporter at The Daily Globe down the street instead.
He looked at Annie out of the corner of his eye while pretending to stare out the cab window. Even on the move, she was jotting down notes in her yellow pocket notebook, those wheels spinning a story before she had the details.
Sam piped up, “This story will write itself, Annie. Just you wait!”
“A story never writes itself, no matter what you may hear Mack say.” She retorted.
She snapped her notebook shut and leaned forward, giving Sam her full attention, “You want to be a crime reporter? Then listen up: Any story needs a damn good writer behind it. You can’t just lay the facts on the page, you need to wring every ounce of blood out of a scoop. Grab your readers in the first couple of lines, then pull them in close with the lurid details. The stories that write themselves—that don’t need embellishment?”
She settled back and took another draw on her cigarette, “You don’t want to get anywhere near those stories, kid.”
A group of hoodlums scattered when the taxi pulled up to the crumbling complex. Rats picked at a dead cat lying forgotten in the gutter. Sam led Annie three floors up creaking plank steps to the door. One of the numbers was missing, but he knew from his buddy’s description that it was the right place. He admired the way Annie intrepidly strode over a discolored puddle and rapped on the door. What a gal!
Water dripped from some unmaintained corner of the building. A level below, a baby wailed while some boozer bawled at his wife. Two long minutes passed. Nobody answered.
“I’ll take you to Harper’s. He sells my favorite brand of cigarettes.” Annie grinned.
Sam wasn’t going to lose so easily, “So nobody answered the door, doesn’t mean she doesn’t live here. I saw the landlord’s office on the bottom floor. We’ll ask him.”
Annie thought for a second, “I’ve got a better idea.”
Without waiting for Sam, she tore down the stairs and outside. Picking out the right window, she beckoned Sam over and held her hand down to boost him up to the fire escape. Sam caught on quickly, and within five minutes, the two of them had clambered up to the target’s window.
They peered through the smudged glass into the dark apartment. Sam couldn’t see any movement. Nobody home.
“I’m telling you, this is the place,” he insisted.
Annie pulled a pick out of her pocket, and within thirty seconds she had the window open. She tossed the pick to Sam. “An essential piece of a reporter’s toolkit. Better get yourself acquainted with it.”
Instantly they were hit with the rotten stench of death wafting out from the open window. Sam keeled over, gagging. Annie whistled and held a handkerchief to her mouth.
“Well, this lead just got a lot more interesting.”
She swung her leg over the sill and hopped in. Sam hesitated.
“Maybe we should call the cops first.”
Annie turned back to him from inside the room, “You know how often an opportunity like this comes along? As soon as we dial this in, every reporter within spitting distance of a station will be crawling all over this place. Gotta grab what breaks come your way or you’re a sucker, kid.”
Sam sat on the edge of the windowsill. It wasn’t that he was uncomfortable with seeing a dead body, but this felt wrong. They shouldn’t just traipse in and disturb a crime scene. He pictured his ma lying dead on the carpet, a victim of a heart attack or burglary gone wrong. He thought about thieves and newshawks feeling all over her for clues and ransacking her drawers.
Annie pursed her eyebrows at Sam’s hesitation, “You know what? Why don’t you hot foot it back to the office? I can take it from here. Not everyone has the stomach for this line of work.”
She disappeared into the shadows. Sam gritted his teeth and hopped the sill.
The story hit the stands that evening. JUDGE’S SECRET WIFE FOUND MURDERED, what a headline! The follow-up was good for a couple weeks of sold out papers, culminating in Judge Anderson’s arrest.
True to her word, Annie beefed up Sam’s involvement in springing the story and the next morning Rothstone called him into his office.
“Annie says you did good! It isn’t easy to impress her.”
Rothstone was unusually laid back today, testing the weight of his leather chair while he rolled the cigar between his teeth.
“She also says you can handle yourself. Fast on your feet and don’t get queasy around corpses. How are you under pressure?”
Before Sam could answer, Rothstone hauled a revolver out of his desk drawer and pointed it at the kid.
Sam didn’t flinch, “You gotta find something more creative if you’re gonna scare me, boss.”
Max’s face darkened, “You’re going to run up against a lot of lead in the field, Sammy. Can’t have you cutting out the second somebody levels a piece at you. Once you’ve been stung, you learn not to be afraid of bees. You’ll just have to learn to type with one arm for a few weeks.”
He lowered the gun to Sam’s left arm and pulled the trigger. Sam’s world shattered into a million screaming shards as the explosive discharge filled the room. This sonofagun was out of his damn mind! His muscles tensed so hard they felt soldered together, riveting him to the spot like an iron brace. Journalists in the newsroom barely looked up from their typewriters at the gunshot.
Rothstone laughed and replaced the weapon in his drawer, “Well you didn’t lose your lunch, so that’s worth something! You can relax, I keep some blanks around for times like this. Interview’s over.”
He tossed a reporter’s badge at Sam, “Welcome to the family, Sammy! If anybody asks, you’re Twenty-one with a babyface. Maybe consider growing out what you can of a mustache.”
Sam didn’t exhale until he exited Rothstone’s office. His hand shook but it held the passport to all the adventure he craved. The city wasn’t a web of roads and skyscrapers anymore, it was a hive of vice and depravity just waiting to be printed.
Those first few weeks he shadowed Annie. He learned where the best stoolies could be found, where the pickpockets frequented, which back rooms had a phone you could borrow in a pinch. He learned how to open a story with a bang and drag the readers through the dreck. He learned how to pick locks, bribe cops, and coax details out of drunks who’d seen too much. As he worked, he grew bolder. Those early misgivings melted into a hard-boiled stew of ink and iniquity.
Although Sam was learning from the best, he still had yet to catch a real story. Petty crimes and cold murders were all he could keep up with. Sure, he knew how to blow a story into a real chestnut, but he wanted something meaty. Something that showed he could sling a killer rag. As long as he was sticking with Annie, he knew that she’d save the best slices for herself, leaving the bones for him. He needed to cut loose.
“Where the hell is Annie?” Rothstone roared into the busy newsroom one day.
The other reporters pretended to be consumed by their keyboards and phones, hoping to dodge Max’s wrath. Sam perked up. Annie had been working on the spree of recent auger killings; maybe Rothstone had a lead.
“She said she was going to Chicago for the weekend, boss. Visiting family.”
“Damn fine time for her to go off galavanting.” Rothstone fumed, “I’ve got an informant on the phone says a shipment of hooch is coming in by tug boat in thirty minutes. Cops are wise to it and will be waiting. If we don’t have somebody on-site when the bust happens, I’m gonna start handing out unemployment notices.”
Not quite the scoop he was hoping for, but it would do. Sam had grabbed his camera and sprinted toward the elevator.
Rothstone grinned, “Attaboy, Sammy! Pier sixteen!”
Fifteen minutes later, he was planted on South Street with an open view of the water. A light mist rolled in with the twilight, but he figured the street lights would give him enough light to snap off a few photographs. Those must be the cops in plainclothes dotting the pier. Sam chuckled. They couldn’t have been more obvious if they had rolled out a banner reading “Welcome, to Jail, Boys!”
If he lucked out, the bust would escalate into a firefight, and Sammy had front row seats.
The tugboat chugged in out of the mist, the cops pulled out their rods, and the bootleggers gave up without a fight. No gunfire, no runners, the crates of illegal whisky confiscated without so much as a raised voice. What a wash.
Sam snapped off a few pictures anyway; maybe he’d be able to spin this into a prohibition story. The public ate those up even if the lawmakers hated it. He knew a few speakeasies nearby who were probably going to run dry because of this bust, might as well hit them up for a few words.
Thirty minutes and three gin joints later, Sam was ready to call it quits. Two of the proprietors just shrugged at the news of the bust (such are the risks in their enterprise), and another one flat out wouldn’t talk to him. Sam kicked a puddle as he tramped through a back alley. He’d left his patched-up jacket in his hurry out of the newsroom, and now he was cold as the story he was bringing back. He glanced up at the clock on a street corner; The Torch would be empty by now anyway. One more drum and he’d call it a night.
A foghorn blared through the thickening air behind him. Sam jumped, dropping his camera on the cobblestone. Damn! He’d scraped up a helluva lot of money to afford that thing. Easier than dragging a photographer around every time he bolted out of the office.
He sat down next to an empty crate in the alley to inspect the camera. Hard to see anything in this dim light. His hands explored the mechanisms; everything seemed to be in order. The damp street soaked through his trousers. To hell with it, time to pack it in.
A drunken shout from the end of the alley caught his attention. A man in loose-fitting clothes stumbled towards him, belting out a tune.
“Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Johnny show the Hun, you’re a son, of a gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly,
Yankee-doodle do or die.”
Sam shook his head. Another serviceman trying to wash away the nightmares. For every veteran with a family, he’d seen just as many struggling with the memories of war when coming home to an empty shack. Readers loved these sob stories about heroes left out to dry. They’d shake their righteous fists in the air about how somebody had to do something, but nobody ever did. All was forgotten as soon as breakfast was finished and the paper tossed aside for the day.
Well, at least Sam could make sure this old boy got home tonight okay.
“Pardon me, ma’am. Didn’t shee where I was-”
The serviceman’s slurred statement was cut off by a cry of surprise. Sam jerked his head up to see a woman’s shape in an ankle-length coat gripping the ex-soldier by the collar with one hand while ramming some pointed object into his chest with the other. Again and again the arm descended upon his crumpled form. Each time it raised, the auger—wet with blood—gleamed in silhouette against the moonlight that melted through the fog.
Sam half stood, his mouth open to shout in the hopes that a cop was on patrol nearby. Then he snapped it shut. The man was already dead, by the time anybody got here, the killer would be long gone.
Slinking back behind his crate, Sam pulled out his camera and snapped a few photographs of the crime in action (thank God it still worked). He bit his lip, trying to keep his hand steady while he clicked away. His heartbeat drowned out the dull thud of each impact until the woman dropped the dogface to the cobblestone. Sam finally emerged from his hiding spot after she left, and approached the body. A nearby streetlamp unveiled the horrible aftermath. Sam swallowed—steady kid, it’s just a bag of skin, clothes, and bones now—while he snapped off a couple more pictures before calling for help. Within two minutes, he had a cop at the scene. Within an hour, he was back at The Torch, frantically pounding away at his keyboard.
It was the story of the year. Not just a new entry in the auger killings, but a firsthand witness account from a Torch reporter! With pictures! The morning issue sold out within minutes of hitting the streets, and paperboys were clambering over each other to hand out extra issues. Fists swung on street corners. There was Sam’s name at the top of the article. He was the hottest item on Park Row! The hottest item in New York! No time to sleep, he had to write a follow-up. “DO YOU RECOGNIZE THIS WOMAN? REWARD OFFERED FOR INFORMATION”. This issue featured the grainy photograph of the attack with the killer’s silhouette blown up. Some details were clear, such as her billowing heavy coat and long dark hair, but enough was obscured that you couldn’t pin her face down. The story had turned into a manhunt. Every paper in town tried to hire him out, but Rothstone held an iron grip on his new most valuable asset.
“If any of these saps try to steal you out from under me, Sammy, I’ll fire you!”
Sam couldn’t wait for Annie to return. He staged it all out in his head. He’d be sitting with his feet on her usual desk when she returned, his headlines scattered on top. He’d push back his cap (he’d have to buy a fedora) and say something like, “Sorry toots, needed some place to hang out my laundry. Mack says you he’ll find you a new shack in the powder room.”
That evening the police dragged Sam away from the chaos of the newsroom for a thorough questioning. Did he get a good look at the killer’s face? What was he doing in that alley anyway? Why didn’t he step in to stop the murder? Sam nodded here, shook his head there, muttered an answer from time to time. He yawned and stared up at the ceiling while they fired their questions. The only interest he had in this interrogation was in how he could spin it into tomorrow morning’s issue.
“DETECTIVES INTERROGATE SOLE WITNESS TO LATEST AUGER KILLING”.
He smiled. He was beat. Dead tired. He hadn’t slept or showered in almost 48 hours and he hadn’t eaten since that morning, but he was the happiest he’d ever been in his life. He could take or leave the attention, what he lived for was the thrill of the game.
It was late into the night when the police begrudgingly let him go. He made fast tracks to the newsroom. Everybody at The Torch had packed it in for the night. Without the constant ring of phones and clatter of keyboards, the place felt haunted. Sam was used to this. Since he’d become a reporter, The Torch had become a second home to him. Often he’d plink away late into the night in the dark building, then pass out under a desk with his head on a stack of newsprint. Newspapers were his life.
He gave the lantern a little extra wick and slid a piece of paper into the typewriter. No rest tonight, not until he’d nailed his story for the morning’s issue. An hour later he peeled his head off of the keyboard and checked the last couple of rambling, sleep-deprived lines he’d written. This couldn’t go on, he needed to stretch his legs.
He ripped the useless page from the machine and crumbled it into the bin before stumbling his way to the far wall where the coffee pot was. Five minutes later Sam headed back across the quiet newsroom with a fresh cup of joe in his hand. He paused halfway to his desk: a woman’s shadowy figure was standing next to his machine, reading the half-typed page Sam had just discarded. He broke out into a grin: Annie must be back early! This wasn’t the scene he’d pictured in his head, but he’d have to make the most of it.
“‘The detectives questioned this reporter for hours on the identity of the killer. They already had the rough image published in yesterday’s issue of The Torch, but our intrepid writer was able to clear up-’ what?”
Sam stopped short. That voice…was it Annie? It sounded cold, tinged with iron, “What other details was this ‘hero reporter’ able to divulge to the police?”
She lay a copy of that morning’s issue on Sam’s desk, nailing it to the wood with a blood-crusted auger. Sam felt the blood drain from his head. That coat, those cascades of brown curls, it was as if the image had leaped out of his photograph and into the newsroom. His heart pounded a chill through his body until he wanted to puke.
He croaked out a defense, “I…I didn’t get a good look at you, honest. I’m just pumping it up for the readers, you know? Even now, I don’t really know what you look like. The cops don’t know squat!”
She took a step closer to him. Now the light was behind her, throwing her shadow forward until it consumed the room.
“You sure know how to treat a lady, Sammy.”
Sam hit the floor. His legs were jelly, but he dragged himself through the jungle of desks. He heard a loud chunk as the killer wrenched her auger from the wooden desktop. Her boots clomped as she leaped up and hopped from desk to desk, kicking typewriters to the floor on her rampage to Sam’s hiding place. Sam frantically looked around his location for something to defend himself with. Clumsy typing machines, pens, papers, ashtrays, why didn’t they have any weapons in this damned building?
His interview with Rothstone!
He straightened, flung his ceramic cup of coffee at the killer’s face, and bolted for Rothstone’s office. She screamed an obscenity and covered her face, momentarily throwing herself off balance as she stumbled among chairs and papers.
Sam was already in Rothstone’s office and had slammed the flimsy door shut. Which drawer was it in?
He flung drawers open left and right, scattering cigars, pencils, newspaper clippings, combs, pencils.
The bottom right drawer was locked. Bingo!
Broken glass rained down onto Sam’s head in a thunderous explosion. He ducked behind the desk, dodging the chair that had been flung through the large office windows. A cold laugh peeled out from the newsroom as the killer advanced, crushing glass shards underfoot. Sam plunged his hands into his pockets and shakily withdrew his lock pick.
“You want to be in newspapers, kid? I’ll make you the star of tomorrow’s headline. STUPID ‘CHILD BLABS ABOUT SOMETHING HE SHOULDN’T HAVE SEEN AND GETS HIMSELF KILLED’.”
The drawer was open! There was the gun, next to the whisky.
“That’s too long to print.” he fired back, “How about: ‘CRACK REPORTER SLAYS PSYCHO’?”
BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM!
He pulled the trigger until it clicked. The killer reeled back against the window frame, clutching her chest. Sam heaved buckets of air into his lungs, his arms stiff as kindling as he held the smoking rod out.
He soaked in the moment. He could see tomorrow’s issue in front of him. If yesterday’s story blew the doors off his career, this one would propel him to heights unfathomed. Rothstone wouldn’t be able to dictate his headlines, he could go wherever he wanted, write whatever he wanted. Hell, he’d have this very office within a year if he wanted to. But he didn’t. He just wanted to roam the streets as The Torch’s top crime reporter, and baby, nobody could top this.
The killer wheezed a laugh, her limp body stiffening back up into a standing position. Sam’s eyes riveted on the walking corpse as she felt her coat for bullet holes.
“Either you can’t shoot worth a damn, or that gun’s loaded with blanks, kid.”
Before Sam could move, she had her knee on his gut and the foot-long screw in his chest. The pain twisted through his body. In the agony he finally made out her face, white as ice in the moonlight that poured in through the window behind him. He didn’t know what he expected but her face was unremarkable. Pretty but worn. Here was a face ravaged by years of heartache and hurt. At one point it was probably a face full of trust and love, but now all that was sanded away, leaving a smooth block of cruel stone behind. Even as that face melted away into a red mist, Sam breathed a sigh of relief: it wasn’t the face of someone he recognized.
As quickly as it had started, the pressure let up, as if someone had thrown the woman off him. He was vaguely aware of a struggle occurring somewhere in the office, but between whom he couldn’t tell. All he felt was that fire in his chest pumping through his limbs with every heartbeat. He was vaguely aware of a shape falling heavily to the ground, then the light of a match.
“How you hanging in there, kid?”
He wheezed while a fresh face leaned in close, this time a face he knew, a face ignited by the light of a cigarette. Annie tapped the handle of the auger sticking out of his chest.
“I’ve seen worse. Hang in there, Sammy. We’ll have someone here in a jiffy.”
He gasped out hoarsely between labored breaths, “How…how long have…you…”
She pulled a sheet of paper out of Rothstone’s drawer and secured it in the typewriter, “I got back from Chicago while you were asleep at the machine. Wanted to put a few thoughts down before hitting the sack, but I didn’t want to disturb you, so I’ve been scribbling out some notes in the back. Thought you had the situation in order, so I didn’t butt in until now.”
She smiled then settled into Rothstone’s seat behind the typewriter, “Don’t worry, I’ll have you in the hospital in a jiffy. This won’t take long. This story will write itself.”