Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 41 & 42 & 43

41

“Brix!” Gilmore screamed as she ran to Maxwell’s blood soaked body. She grabbed his head and cradled it in her lap. The icy persona was gone as she held Brix and let the crimson run down her clothes.

Carruthers bravely stepped in front of me to block any more murder attempts. I didn’t lower my gun. The room, by that time, had dissolved into such a frenzy that it was hard to read what was happening. The only thing that was clear was that no one else wanted to be a hero. Weston and Berg huddled together in one corner while Mangiocotti grabbed his wife and the two of them dropped to the floor. Alexis whimpered as his eyes frantically darted around the room.

Still holding the gun as Carruthers blocked my view I yelled over the din. “Go ahead Miss Gilmore, tell us the truth or do I have to shoot your husband too?” I swung the gun toward Alexis who rolled into a fetal position on the floor with his hands over his head. “Now, Miss Gilmore!” I yelled.

“You killed him,” she sobbed still holding Maxwell’s limp frame, “you bastard.”

Carruthers was still in front of me trying to decide what to do. Maybe he didn’t pull his gun because he thought it would provoke me even further. Maybe he was just afraid he was going to be next.

“Who pulled the trigger, Miss Gilmore?” I yelled even louder. “Was it you, Alexis, or someone else? I know you were there. Who did it?”

She slumped against the wall with her head in her hands. She was beaten. Her world was ruined. After a long wait while I held the gun on her husband she wiped her face and looked up.

“Yes,” her voice was very small, “I was there.”

“You imitated Standish’s voice and made the phone call to me from her home and then another one to the police 20 minutes later, didn’t you?” I pressed my advantage.

“Yes.” The crying was making her voice almost unintelligible. “We went there to get the negatives. I didn’t think…I never…it was horrible. We thought we could frame you.”

“You and?” I asked.

“No, no,” she stammered, “I can’t…I…”

While our attention was on Gilmore, Brigham rose from behind the desk with a small pistol in his hand. He had a nightmarish look on his face as he struggled to hold the gun steady. Sweat was flowing out of every pore and he was screaming maniacally. However, before he was able to level his weapon Carruthers dove across the room and swatted the pistol out of his hands. It slammed into the side of the desk and clattered harmlessly to the floor.

Brigham stood motionless trying to comprehend what had happened. A second later he crumbled to the floor and dissolved into hysterical moaning. Carruthers picked up the gun and shoved it inside his belt.

“No one move!” Murphy commanded from a position behind me to my right. “Parker drop the gun! Do it! One person’s been killed today. You could be number two.”

I let my gun drop harmlessly to the floor. Murphy raced to me, picked up my weapon, and slapped cuffs on my hands. “I’m going to personally make sure that you fry for this,” he said into my ear. “I don’t care whether you figured out the case or not.”

Alexis was still cowering in the corner. Both Mangiocottis were huddled by the door with Berg and Weston. Bumchelski had fainted and was sprawled against the door, which had conveniently prevented anyone from escaping. While Murphy guarded me Carruthers was on the phone calling for back up and an ambulance.

“Are you insane?” Murphy yelled into my face above the crying and screaming. “Were you going to kill us all until you got the answer you wanted?”

Carruthers hung up the phone and rousted Brigham to his feet. “They’re on their way,” he said before turning to the disheveled old man. “You shot her?” He asked. Brigham nodded slowly and then vomited onto the floor.

Berg and Weston were still in the corner, the Mangiocottis were across the room from me, Alexis stayed in the corner, and Bumchelski remained splayed across the floor. Lying on the floor sobbing next to her fallen ex-lover was Gilmore. Her hands were shaking and her shoulders heaved. It was only an instant later when the chaos began all over again.

“Just a minute,” came a familiar voice from the floor. Everyone’s head swiveled like they were on turntables. “Take it easy. It was all an act,” Maxwell said as he pushed himself up the wall to a standing position. He then leaned toward a very shaken Gilmore and added, “sorry my dear. JP and I planned this out just in case nothing else worked.”

“What the hell?” Carruthers bellowed.

“This was a gag?” Murphy added.

Once again the room erupted into bedlam. Slowly Berg and Weston came out of the corner while Mangiocotti and his wife stared wide-eyed. Brigham was slumped against Carruthers breathing heavily. Both Alexis and Gilmore remained on the floor too stunned to move.

“I’m sorry everyone,” Maxwell said as he stood in the middle of the room soaked in stage blood. “We, that is, JP and I, thought that this might be necessary. We planned it out riding back from the hospital in Nevada where we were taken after the crash. We were afraid that there might be no other way. No one was going to talk, there wasn’t enough proof for a grand jury, so JP loaded his gun with blanks and I rigged myself up with the blood squibs. Sorry, I probably used too many.”

“But…” It was all Murphy could manage.

“Thanks to JP,” he explained, “I learned just days ago that I’m a father. But I almost lost my daughter before I ever got to meet her. I’ve got a lot of time to make up for and I’m not going to let anyone try to hurt her again, no matter who they are.”

I cleared my throat and nodded my head toward my cuffed wrists. Murphy looked at me with unbelieving eyes. Slowly he fished the key out of his pocket and reluctantly removed the restraints. I tried to rub feeling back into my hands.

Minutes later three more cops barged into the room followed closely by a nurse and a paramedic. It took quite a while before they understood what was going on and knew whom to arrest.

The cuffs that used to be on me were then switched to Brigham. He was so dazed that I couldn’t tell how much he comprehended. The nurse waved smelling salts under Bumchelski’s nose and revived her enough to move her out of the doorway. Immediately after that Brigham was led out to the elevator.

Maxwell helped Gilmore to her feet as her husband slowly climbed out of the corner. He was talking quietly into her ear, but her eyes were blank. Carefully he led her into the hallway with her husband trailing weakly behind. Soon Alexis and Gilmore were led away by one of the other cops.

The Mangiocottis, Berg, Weston, and Bumchelski were allowed to leave with the understanding that they might be needed for questioning. They stumbled blankly into the hallway followed by Carruthers who didn’t look much better.

Eventually only Murphy, Maxwell, and I remained. As soon as the last person out had closed the door the detective launched into another barrage of questions. Maxwell and I explained what had happened in Idaho in more detail, but Murphy looked unsatisfied.

“Look,” he complained to the actor, “I need to talk to Gilmore’s sister, what’s her name again, Hortense Gilley? Where is she?”

“Whoa,” Maxwell raised his hands, “that’s up to JP.”

“Swell,” Murphy shook his head and turned to me. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“Not until this is totally wrapped up,” I said.

“What’s left?” Murphy was trying hard to hold in his frustration. “Aren’t we done here? Johnston and Judge are dead. Gilmore and Brigham are in custody. Brigham planned all this, didn’t he?”

I pursed my lips. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Not all of it.”

Maxwell and Murphy both spun toward me with confused looks on their faces. As they simultaneously tried to form a question I held up my hand. They stopped and waited. Apparently my credibility with Murphy was improving.

“Who else is there?” Maxwell frowned.

“You never found Danny Youngman, did you?” I asked Murphy.

“No.”

“I think he might have been part of this,” I said.

Maxwell tilted his head at me, “your wife’s agent?”

“Yeah,” I rubbed my face in thought, “Maybe so. Look. Because of circumstances in both Brigham’s and Youngman’s pasts they become sort of surrogate father and son for each other. Brigham obviously knew what was going on and Youngman could clearly see how his ‘dad’ had deteriorated over the past several years. These past weeks probably sped up the process.”

“Yeah so?” Murphy squinted in concentration.

“Remember, the only client Brigham Entertainment’s had left was Gilmore. Brigham was barely hanging on and I bet Youngman was willing to do whatever it took to keep both the old man’s career and Gilmore’s from being ruined.”

They nodded in understanding.

“OK,” I continued. “Johnston, Judge, and Youngman all went to high school together. What do you suppose that Youngman is the one who got Johnston the job of retrieving the photos? Brigham wouldn’t have known him. Then when they needed someone to follow us, Johnston got that job too. When all that confusion still didn’t get us out of the picture Johnston was sent to eliminate the only people who could have revealed Gilmore’s secret.”

“Gilmore’s sister and daughter,” Murphy said finishing my thought.

“Gilmore may be crazy,” I added, “but to hire someone to kill your own family, well, she’s not that nuts.”

“And,” Maxwell ventured, “Youngman thought that what Andrea didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, I guess.”

“When Youngman saw that we were able to get back to LA safely, he probably panicked and split.” I said watching Murphy’s expression carefully.

“So,” Murphy sighed deeply as if there wasn’t enough air, “where is he?”

“Good question,” my actor friend said.

“And,” I felt obligated to add a disturbing thought, “what’s he doing?”

42

In a normal town the papers would have had a field day. In a normal town there would have been trials. In a normal town all the details would have come out. But that wasn’t the Hollywood of the 1950s. The secret had been kept for nine years. What’s another 20 or 30 more? Yeah, it was true that lives were ruined, people died, and others had been locked up in rubber rooms. But there were careers to save, more movies to make, and plenty of money on the line. No one was going to foul that up.

Eventually I was able to satisfy Murphy and Carruthers and they let me go home where I laid low for two weeks until Doris was able to drive back from Michigan. To say I missed her hardly covered it. After she returned we hibernated together for another two weeks.

About a week before Doris headed home Maxwell arrived in Michigan and quickly managed to set up Tenny and Sarah with a new life near Lansing. He bought them a house, furnished it, and got to know his daughter a little. How or when they would tell the little girl who she really was would be interesting but, luckily, it wasn’t our problem.

Doris’ career in Hollywood appeared over. Although she’d gotten past HUAC unscathed, the studios, being afraid to work with her again, applied an unofficial blacklist of their own. How they determined that the chaos during that summer in ’52 was her fault was beyond me. Maybe they just didn’t want to be reminded of their own part in all of it.

I was still retired, but retired without an income wasn’t working out very well. We began to talk about where we were going to live. With the finances thinning we agreed that either New York or LA was going to have to go. Doris knew my preference.

She continued to write faithfully every morning while I continued to work on the house just in case we had to sell it. With the great influx of new people to California we figured that we could make a nice profit on the property. At that moment the house was our only potential source of income.

Doris was spending a lot of time on the phone trying to line up a new agent while simultaneously working on two different projects. One was that biography of Gilmore that we’d used as our cover story at the beginning of the case. She decided to not let the effort go to waste and since Gilmore had just disappeared so mysteriously from the public eye it was very topical. There was also another murder mystery novel that she wanted to loosely base on our bizarre experiences of the last months. I wondered how I’d be able to read it without having the dementia of the summer of ’52 coming back to haunt me.

The future looked shaky but, for the moment, there was enough money for us to get by. As long as Doris was with me I didn’t really care all that much where we lived or how we paid for it. Despite her objections I was even willing to get a California PI license and go back to work at the only thing I really knew other than baseball. I figured at 52 years old my alternative plan of making it in the majors was probably not going to work out.

With time on my hands I also decided to make good on my promise to the reporter from the Sacramento Bee. As far as I knew he’d kept his word and didn’t squeal about my escape through the orange grove. He was both thrilled and surprised at the exclusive. My insincere threat when I left him must have been more believable that I thought.

Life was pleasantly calm until about the third week after Doris’ return. That was when we began to notice a dark green DeSoto appearing regularly on our street. I didn’t think much about it at first until it got in the habit of slowing down in front of the house. A couple of times it even stopped.

I would peer out to see who it was but the car’s windows were tinted. A couple of times I even walked out toward the vehicle but as soon as I approached it sped off. It seemed harmless enough, but after the events of the past summer my paranoia hadn’t totally subsided. I tried to get the license, but the driver must have anticipated it and was always able to speed away before I was close enough. It wasn’t long before we got the answer.

It was about 2:00am and Doris was sound asleep as usual. Also as usual I was propped up in bed reading trying to get myself to join her. My book wasn’t working so I put it away and leaned over on my elbow to watch her. Her red hair was splayed across the pillow and her head was tilted back. I lay there hypnotized watching her lips move slowly in her sleep.

A loud knock on the front door quickly rousted me. Who in the world would be out in the middle of the night, I wondered as I pulled on some jeans and stumbled out of the bedroom in the darkness. Doris never moved.

“What do you want?” I called from behind the door.

“I’ve had an accident just down the road,” a vaguely familiar voice called back. “I need help.”

“All right,” I said. “Hang on.”

The door wasn’t open a foot before a large handgun was shoved into my face. Startled I backed into the middle of the living room being followed by a gun barrel that was aimed squarely at the middle of my face. Frantically squinting through the darkness I was able to make out a contorted face belonging to Danny Youngman. Seeing as how I hadn’t been sleeping I should have been more on the ball and not opened the door.

“Wake Doris up!” He commanded viciously.

“She’s not here,” I bluffed, “she’s in San Diego at a conference.”

“Bull,” he sneered. “I’ve been following your schedule. Neither of you have gone anywhere.” At least that explained who had been in the DeSoto.

“JP?” Doris called before I had a chance to try anything else. “Who are you talking to out here?” Wrapped in a bathrobe she stumbled slowly into the living room. “You woke me,” she said before the sight of Danny holding a gun on me stopped her cold.

“Doris,” he said nodding his head as if they saw each other every day.

“Danny wha…” It was all she could manage.

“You couldn’t leave it alone,” he said in a tightly controlled voice. “Now it’s all ruined. Zach is in jail and will never get out. Gilmore is looked up in a mental hospital and she’ll never get out either. Alexis is finished and so am I. None of us are going to be able to work in this town again and it’s all because of you.”

“Listen Danny,” I said raising my hands in a calming gesture. “I didn’t make it come out this way.”

“Shut up,” he said shaking his head. “I know I’ve done things wrong too.”

“Danny,” Doris spoke gently as she took a step toward him. He motioned with the gun and she stopped. “Danny,” she tried again, “can’t we talk this out?”

“There’s nothing to say.” His words became unsteady. “We’ve all ruined everything. You, your husband, and me. The police let you go, but they aren’t going to let me go. The only way to make all this right is to end it for everyone right here.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “Come on, Danny, put down the gun. Let’s talk about this.”

“No,” he began to sob, “it’s the only way. Eventually you’ll talk. Eventually everyone will know what Zach did. I can’t have that. I can’t.”

Slowly I slid my hand around a lamp sitting on the table behind me. At the same time I snagged the electrical cord with my foot and managed to pull it from the socket. Reasoning with Doris’ now obviously deranged former agent wasn’t getting us anywhere and I needed to make something happen. And I was only going to get one chance.

Somehow in Youngman’s distorted reality he’d decided that killing Doris and I and then himself would somehow make everything go away. It didn’t matter how irrational it was, he believed it enough to act on it.

The gun shook in his hand as tears streamed down his ashen twisted face. Doris’ eyes pleaded with me as out of sight of both of them my grip tightened on the lamp. If there was ever a time to make the perfect pitch…

The gun exploded in the semi darkness just as the lamp I rifled at Danny hit him squarely across the mouth. Our insane attacker toppled over and as I dove on top of him the handgun barked twice more. I buried my fists repeatedly into his face and stomach and he went limp. For a second all was quiet until I heard Doris scream and fall to the floor.

Danny lay motionless. I grabbed his gun and turned toward my fallen wife. She was crying in pain and had rolled onto her side. Blood soaked the front of her bathrobe and her eyes were glassy. She looked up at me and tried to form words but nothing came out.

I tore the robe off as she moaned in pain. Oh God, I prayed, not Doris, not after everything that we’d been through over the summer. Please God I cried as I frantically looked to see where she’d been hit.

Before I was able to find her wound a large explosion rocked the kitchen behind us. Plaster and wood fragments flew wildly around the room. As a wall and part of the ceiling rained down I dove across her body to protect her. Debris slammed into my arched back, but I didn’t move until it stopped. The house was still for a moment until a wall of fire burst from the kitchen shooting flames across the beams above our heads. With the small house collapsing around us I quickly scooped her up and ran to the still open front door. I could feel the deadly blaze licking across my back as I scrambled across the living room with her motionless body.

In less than a minute we were outside. I turned to see smoke cascading out of the house under the eaves. A moment later the windows exploded knocking us both to the ground. Balls of flame engulfed the building and the roof sagged. It only took less than a minute for it to cave in and send a shower of flame and sparks into the night sky.

Out on the front lawn as our home raged behind us I carefully eased her down on the grass. Nothing else mattered, not Danny, not the house, not the future, not the past. Nothing.

“JP.” Doris’ eyes fluttered and she looked up at me and coughed through the smoke curling around our heads. “I love you.”

“Be still,” I said softly as I propped her up into my lap, “you’re going to be all right.”

“Of course I am,” she smiled and then her head lolled back. Again I went to work. Time was slipping away.

She’d been hit twice. One tore through her left bicep and the other clipped her left forearm. Tearing off my T-shirt I made a tourniquet around her shoulder. Next I quickly ripped the bloody bathrobe into strips to make some bandages. They’d do until help arrived. She’d lost a fair amount of blood, but it looked like my frantic medical work was going to be enough.

Thank you God, I cried as my eyes filled with tears. Holding her tightly as our house and Danny Youngman went to hell we waited for a neighbor to call an ambulance.

 

43

Freddy’s eyes and mouth were wide open. As before the old man’s story had left him speechless. Parker leaned back and let his exhausted body sink into his wheelchair. Without a word his young partner walked into the kitchen and turned the water on.   He returned in minutes with two cups of tea.

“I don’t know where to start,” he said slowly as he handed the tea to the old detective.

Parker smiled, “that’s OK. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Doris was all right?” Freddy asked finally.

“Yeah. She took great pride in the small scars the wounds put in her left arm. She even claimed that they made her sexier. And you know, they might have.”

“What happened to Brigham?”

Parker sighed. “He was sent to prison where he died only a year later. The poor old guy wasn’t in good shape to begin with and then getting pulled into the mess by Gilmore finished him off.

“They’d gone out to Standish’s to try and work out a compromise. One thing led to another and after Brigham killed her they desperately tried to cover up the mess they’d made.”

“They almost got away with it too,” Freddy added.

“Nobody liked Standish, except for maybe Judge. Those that knew what she was doing closed ranks and being glad she was gone agreed to stonewall the cops. Other than maybe Alexis they didn’t know who killed her and didn’t care. It was only because Maxwell was willing to take a chance that we were able to get to the bottom of everything.”

“And,” Freddy suggested, “he was only willing due to the weird circumstances of your finding out about his daughter and because he felt he owed you.”

“Yup,” Parker nodded as he shifted his weight in the wheelchair, “probably so.”

“Did you see him again after it was all over?”

“Just a couple of times,” Parker grinned at the memory. “He was just as full of himself as ever.”

“Who was the one who’d had sex with Standish before the murder?”

“Don’t know for sure. Today we’d have done a DNA test and found out.”

“Who do you think it was?” Freddy asked as his untouched tea grew cold.

“Keep in mind that this is just a guess but I always had the feeling it was Alexis.”

“Really?”

“Try this out.” Parker took a sip as Freddy watched the cup shake in the old man’s hands. “How about if Alexis first goes to see her to try to put an end to the blackmail. He’s broke, he tells her, and says he can’t pay any more. She coaxes him back into bed despite the promise that he’d made to Gilmore. Thinking that she’s willing to go back to the way things were before he decides that it’s his only way out. What do you suppose that afterward she laughs at him and reneges on the deal? Getting desperate after finding out what had happened Gilmore calls Brigham and they go out to see her and try again.”

“So then what happened to Alexis?”

“His life was over. He was broke, his wife was in a mental institution, and he had nowhere to go.”

“And?”

“He committed suicide about a year later and died at around the same time as Brigham.”

“Oh man…” Freddy shook his head. “All that death, all those lives ruined…”

“Yeah, pretty amazing.”

“Gilmore ever get out of the mental hospital?”

“Eventually,” Parker shook his head sadly. “You know, she was easily the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. But despite all her talent to become someone else she had no ability to be herself, whoever that was.

“She spent about 15 years in a variety of mental facilities before getting out around ‘67. She made a few TV appearances that didn’t go anywhere and then just faded away. Died in obscurity around the mid 80s as one of Hollywood’s most tragic stories.”

“Maxwell?”

“You must have seen his movies on TV,” Parker said. “They play endlessly on American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies.”

“I guess,” Freddy paused. “I’m not much on old movies.”

“You ought to check them out sometime,” the old man suggested. “Anyway, with so much money riding on his career the studios did a fine job on covering up his part in all of it.”

“And he really didn’t do anything wrong.”

“That’s right and, as a result of surviving the plane crash, he was probably even a bigger star than before.”

“OK, so he went back to making movies.”

“Yup,” Parker warmed his hands around the cup, “he stayed a big star until the late 60s when the culture changed and his movies began to look out of style. He retired and spent his last years in Hawaii with a wife less than half his age. Died in 1990 I think.”

“But what about Tenny and Sarah?” Freddy continued not wanting to let the day end.

“They stayed in Michigan,” the old detective smiled at the memory. “I suppose the real fairy tale ending would have had Maxwell marrying Tenny and then raising Sarah together with her. It didn’t happen, but the real story wasn’t bad either.”

“Go ahead.”

“Maxwell provided for both of them until Sarah got out of college. Sadly, Tenny got cancer and died about a year after that. The young girl who used to call me Mr. P became a high school history teacher, married, had two kids, and, according to my last letter about a month ago, recently retired.”

“That’s great that you kept in touch over the years,” Freddy said as he packed up the last amount of his equipment. He knew that he could have gone on much longer, but was feeling that he’d worn out his partner enough for one day.

“When she was still in school Doris and I even had the chance to see her a couple of times when we visited my wife’s Uncle Nick and Aunt Rosa. Great kid. Got the best qualities of both parents.”

“She even learn who she was?” Freddy asked not being able to make himself stop.

Parker smiled. “So here’s Doris writing the biography of Andrea Gilmore that she called ‘Reel Life, Real Death’, but she doesn’t want to tell the most interesting part without both Tenny’s and Maxwell’s consent.”

“Uh huh.”

“Things were slowly loosening up by the mid fifties and, over the objections of Excelsior Studios, Maxwell agrees. Cutting off their nose to spite their face Excelsior cites the morality clause in his contract and fires him.”

“Really?” Freddy laughed. “But Weston had known about it since 1944.”

“Yeah crazy, huh? That’s when Maxwell starts his own production company and for ten to fifteen years continues to put out successful films. While the studio was worried needlessly about his past the general public simply found it fascinating.”

“But Tenny…”

“Sarah was eleven when they told her.”

“Tenny and Maxwell told her together?”

“Yeah,” Parker nodded. “According to Tenny, she’d had the feeling that Sarah already knew. She didn’t exactly know how, but that’s how she felt. The three of them decided to keep the secret to themselves until she was out of college. By that time Tenny was gone and Maxwell was retired. Still, you can imagine the front page news that made for a while.”

“So Doris’ book?”

“My redhead simply rewrote it as a novel. It generated a fair amount of controversy when it came out, but nobody managed to put two and two together.   The controversy, though, didn’t hurt sales a bit.”

Freddy gathered his notepaper and packed up the recorder. He gave the old man a hug and promised to call him in a couple of days. Parker rolled himself over to the window and stared down at the traffic inching along below. The sun was shining brightly off some newly fallen snow and made the old man squint.

Without turning around he smiled to himself and said, “you can go ahead. Ask your last question or two. I’m fine.”

“What?” Freddy stammered. “How did you…”

“I guess I’m still a pretty good detective,” Parker laughed turning the wheelchair around. “You had that look.”

Freddy shook his head and pulled a chair up next to his partner. “How did you know it was Alexis and Standish in that picture in the bedroom? He was the only one you could see.”

“Several things,” Parker leaned back and took a deep breath. “Remember the house number 7519? The 19 was visible behind Alexis’ head in the one photo and I recognized the style of the house. Also, the photo was taken of them at ground level. Alexis’ and Gilmore’s house didn’t have a ground floor, remember? It sat at the top of a huge staircase. What do you suppose that Standish herself arranged to have the photo taken for additional blackmail leverage?”

Freddy was still standing by the door. His tape recorder was under one arm and his notebook under the other. It was late in the afternoon, but even after the several sessions it took to record the whole story he still didn’t want to leave.

“JP,” Freddy said sheepishly while holding the door half open. “If I fix dinner for you would you answer two more things for me?”

“Sure,” the old man’s laugh was raspy, “except that we both know you don’t know how to cook.”

“If I order out then.”

“Fine.” Parker didn’t want the day to end either.

“What happened to make your house explode?”

“Oh man. You talk about being frightened. Youngman’s gun went off three times, I think. He hit Doris twice and the third bullet hit our propane tank. I’d recently had it filled and there must have been just enough of a spark to set it off.”

“And the house was destroyed?”

“Yup, right down to the ground.”

“Let me guess,” Freddy tilted his head and rolled his eyes up in concentration. “The two of you moved back to your old apartment in New York?”

“Sure did. If I had known that all it would have taken to get her to move back was burning down the house, I’d have done it months before.”

The two friends laughed as Freddy went to the phone to order take out.

Parker sat quietly and scanned his 75 years of pictures that covered the walls. You’ve had quite a life, he thought.

 

 

 

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 39 & 40

39

Murphy and I compared notes and phone numbers before I left. We agreed on who should be included and then decided that the best place to gather everyone would be at Brigham Entertainment. It was centrally located and it wouldn’t arouse any suspicion with the press.

Murphy was going to have to walk a fine line in getting everyone to cooperate. They had to know that they weren’t being arrested, but rather were being brought to a meeting to help the police solve the case. We figured that feeding their egos would be the easiest way to get them to go along with it.

Late that evening Doris called again. We made sure that we were purposely vague so that no one who might be listening in could pick up any details. We also had to keep things short so that no tracing of the call would be possible. When this was over I needed to remember to ask Murphy whether our phone actually had been tapped. The answer would let me know whether I had been logically careful or just paranoid.

Doris, Tenny, and Sarah reached Michigan without incident. The wad of cash that Maxwell had left easily covered the costs. While her Uncle Nick and Aunt Rosa were more than just a little surprised when they appeared at his door they were thrilled to see Doris. It probably didn’t matter who she’d brought with her.

Two long days passed before I heard from Murphy. Surprisingly it wasn’t over the phone, but rather when he and his acidic partner Carruthers showed up at my door. “Bad cop” stared hatefully at me through his narrow eyes as I let them in.

“You guys want a beer?” I offered after they came in. They both shook their heads no.

Carruthers frowned until his eyes practically disappeared. He then spoke to Murphy solely for my benefit. “This is going to be a waste of time. We’ve spun our wheels enough on this case without having some private peeper jumping us through hoops.”

“Hey Carruthers,” I decided to get in a lick, “been to a show lately?”

“Huh?”

“You sound like a B movie.”

“Son of a bitch,” Carruthers spit and then turned to Murphy. “Patrick, let’s drop this and run this jackass in.”

“We’ve got nothing to lose here,” Murphy said calmly but firmly. “Let’s see where it goes.”

Carruthers pursed his thin lips and leveled a flinty gaze at me. I disappointed him by not passing out from fright. Getting no reaction from me he walked over to the front window and silently ran his eyes up and down the street.

“We’re on for this afternoon in about an hour at Brigham’s,” Murphy explained. “It took some arm twisting, but they’ve all agreed. You realize I’m sticking my neck way out here without any other support.”

“I noticed,” I replied nodding my head in Carruthers’ direction, “and thank you.”

“And if this doesn’t go anywhere, it’s your ass. You better be sure you know what you’re talking about.”

“No problem,” I smiled stiffly with a confidence I didn’t feel.

“And if you can’t back up your big mouth,” Carruthers said without turning, “we’re going to find some way to jack you up. Personally, I’m looking forward to it.”

“Thanks detective,” I sarcastically provoked him, “your confidence has made all the difference.”

“Shut up,” Murphy commanded. “Both of you, shut up. When we get to Brigham’s I want the two of you to back off. Parker, we’re going to let you have your dog and pony show. It had better go somewhere. Now, let’s get out of here and get this over with.”

The ride into town wasn’t long, but it seemed that way. I sat in the back hoping for a miracle while the two detectives rode silently up front. They were obviously peeved at each other and at least one of them didn’t think too highly of me either.

How did I get into this mess? Doris and I had only been married for five months when what we thought was a great opportunity in Hollywood came her way. Who could have imagined this involvement in a high profile movie project would so quickly degenerate into the chaos that had now taken over our lives. Four people were dead, careers were about to be ruined, and if I didn’t make good on my boast to solve the case, I was going to wind up circling a drain somewhere.

As we pulled into the street that led to Brigham Entertainment I tried to force myself to see some positives. Despite people being shot in the head, buried under a burning barn, and falling out of airplanes, several lives had been saved. Tenny and Sarah were safe in Michigan and Kanovsen didn’t get beaten to death at his marina. Most of all Doris still loved me and was also safe. Maybe I really was ahead after all.

We parked across the street and walked into the lobby. Brigham met us at the door. He was a nearly frantic ball of energy with sweat already beaded on his upper lip and forehead. His apparent surprise at seeing me was just about enough to put him over the edge.

The lovely and vapid Miss Bumchelski was nowhere to be seen. Either she’d had enough sense to run for the hills or was upstairs as one of the coerced audience. I’d find out soon enough.

“Detectives,” Brigham stammered, “and, uh, oh, Mr. Parker. Why, uh, are you here?”

“He’s part of the show too,” Carruthers sneered not even trying to hide his distaste for the upcoming proceedings.

Brigham nodded abstractly and, mopping his face, led us to the elevator. “This way,” he gestured nervously.

There was silence in the elevator, but the tension would have blotted out any sound we might have made. I tried to keep my breathing even and focus on the three females that were safe and hidden in the Midwest. That might have to be enough.

Brigham led us into his office. Practically everyone was there. Seated behind the desk in what seemed to be his usual spot was Alexis. As always he was perfectly dressed in a sharp expensive suit. His hair was slicked down revealing the standard knife thin part. Tension had knitted his brow into tight wrinkles.

Standing behind him looking over his shoulder was Gilmore. She dazzled as if she’d just come out of make up. Her light blue dress clung to her flawlessly and her hair cascaded in perfect waves over her shoulders without even one strand out of place. The world’s most famous pair of violet eyes made sure they were making contact with each of her hypnotized subjects.

To the right was Mangiocotti and his wife trying to balance their matching bulks on a pair of folding chairs. He was chomping aggressively on an unlit cigar and they both glared impatiently at all four of us as we entered. Neither of them looked as if they’d slept in a couple of days.

On the far side of the room was Maxwell. My friend nodded at me slightly as we entered the room sporting a slight smirk and a raised eyebrow. He was wearing jeans and a bulky leather jacket along with his obligatory sunglasses. Brix Maxwell, despite the delayed maturity he’d recently gained, still had to remain the stereotypical movie star.

Next to him was the head of Excelsior Studios, Jack Weston. He had on a three-piece suit that probably cost more than my car. He was a good-looking guy about my age with a strong jaw, a movie star profile, and most of his hair. With his arms folded across his chest and his right shoe tapping the floor it wasn’t hard to tell what he thought of this interruption of his busy schedule.

In the far corner leaning against the wall with his hands folded across his ample stomach was Hiram Berg. Knowing that I could spill the story of our conversation regarding his murder for hire offer he was looking fairly pale. His shirt and tie were pulled up tightly against his neck which made his head look like an over inflated balloon.

Completing motley assortment was Zinta Bumchelski. She was in the corner behind the door simultaneously chewing her fingernails and smoking a cigarette. As usual she was dressed to be seen with a tight red sweater that must have made it hard for her to breathe. Chances were that it was having the same effect on everyone else.

Being the surprise guest I received the biggest initial reaction, but soon it moved to the one who’d set up this little party. Murphy took a deep breath and, ignoring his partner’s disinterest, began to speak.

“Thank you for coming,” he said awkwardly. “I thought that maybe if we put our heads together we might be able to come up with an angle that was missed.”

“Wait a minute,” Alexis protested and pointed a finger at me. “What’s he doing here?”

“You caught him red-handed,” Mangiocotti joined in. “Why isn’t he in jail?”

Soon they were all complaining together. Murphy did his best to calm them down, but it wasn’t until Carruthers spoke up on his partner’s behalf that any progress was made.

“Listen,” he shouted. “Sit down and shut up. I don’t like this any better than you do so the sooner we get started, the sooner we can all get the hell out of here. Now, if you’ve got anything new to tell us about Parker, then do it. But what we’ve got on him at this point ain’t enough to get us to a grand jury. So, if you’ve got something to say, now’s the time.”

Silence.

Carruthers continued. “All right then. My partner says that Parker has some things to say. Sounds like bull to me, but Patrick is my partner and I’m willing to go along with this for him.”

“Thanks,” Murphy said sounding somewhat surprised and then turned to me. “OK Parker, what have you got? You ran your mouth in the stationhouse. Let’s see how it plays here.”

With support like that, how could I fail? OK, Parker, I thought, here goes nothing.

 

40

All eyes turned to me. Some were nervous, some fearful, and some probably wanted to rip my head off. Still, I had other choice. Either I was going to be able to get to the bottom of this mess or Murphy and Carruthers were going to bodily drag me out. One way or another someone was going down.

“Just to get you all up to speed,” I began as I gestured to the detectives, “our public servants here think I killed Eve Standish. They have no real evidence other than they think she and I had a horizontal relationship. Actually, as many of you know, having sex with Standish wouldn’t have singled me out.”

The room was still.

“This all started because my wife was doing some script writing for National Pictures. A while into the project, after finding out my background as a PI, Ron Alexis talked me into coming out of retirement. Someone was blackmailing his wife over a secret from her past and he hired me to find out who. It didn’t take too long to discover it was Eve Standish, which confirmed his suspicions. What he wouldn’t tell me is why and that’s where things started to go badly.”

“Wait a minute,” Mangiocotti stood up which made little change in his height. “Why are sitting here listening to him?”

Murphy walked over to the director and put a hand on his shoulder. He then gently but firmly pushed him back into his chair. “Because this may be all we have. None of you have been forthcoming. Now be quiet and let’s see where this goes.” For a minute it almost sounded like he was on my side.

“When dealing with Mr. Alexis became a problem,” I continued, “I quit the case and went back to being retired. Unfortunately, several people thought that I’d discovered the secret.”

“Such as?” Carruthers sneered.

“Actually most of the people in this room. I’ve had interesting private conversations with everyone here except Mr. Weston. My wife and I also had a very intimidating dinner with Miss Standish herself. Because she was sure I knew what was going on, even though at the time I didn’t, she sicced HUAC on my wife.”

The troops began to squirm. Mangiocotti was probably wondering if I was about to disclose his interesting family connection. Berg was clearly sweating out whether I was going to reveal his generous offer to hire me to kill Standish. Neither story would have done me any good.

“Despite their efforts,” I started again, “the bureaucrats in DC didn’t land a glove on my lovely wife and we came back to LA without hurting ourselves or anyone else. You can thank us later.”

“Wait a minute,” Murphy said, “you were blackmailed into appearing before HUAC?”

“Not really blackmail. I’m figuring that Standish saw it as a convenient way to get me out of the picture. And if anyone else in this room went down the drain, all the better for her column.”

“So, so, so,” Murphy stood up and walked across the room. The stunned silence of the unwilling other participants was palpable. “What was this big secret that these folks are trying to hide, this secret that was worth so much money?”

“Hollywood actors have morality clauses,” I explained. “Having a child out of wedlock would be kind of a big deal, wouldn’t it?”

“What child?” Carruthers demanded.

“Miss Gilmore had a baby in 1944. That’s why she interrupted her career and went home to Idaho.” I watched them flinch as I talked.

Alexis stood up and bellowed, “that’s a goddamn lie. We were married in ‘44.”

Murphy was starting to enjoy himself. “You can sit down too,” he commanded Alexis. “Anyone else who wants to interrupt can do so behind bars. OK Parker, go ahead. I suppose you know who the father is.”

“Yup,” I subtly glanced at Maxwell, “I do.”

“I’m the father,” Maxwell said in a bigger voice than I would have expected.

Watching the reactions I saw surprise only on Bumchelski’s face. What do you know, I said to myself. Except for my pal Maxwell and Brigham’s pneumatic secretary everyone else knew and somehow they had managed to keep the secret for nearly ten years. It was amazing how many jobs were hanging on Gilmore’s every move.

“Let me see if I’ve got this,” Murphy frowned. “Everybody here knew about it, but kept it quiet to save their careers. Jeez. OK then, where’s the kid?”

“She’s been raised, and very well too it seems, by her stepmother, Miss Gilmore’s sister.”

“Where?”

“Idaho.”

“And I suppose that’s not where she is now?” Murphy asked.

“Never mind,” my face became hard. “There’re in a safe location because just days ago someone was sent to kill both the mother and the daughter in order to keep the lid on.”

The room broke into chaos for an instant and then just as quickly was silenced by Murphy’s surprisingly loud voice. Walking into the center of the room he chewed all of them out at top volume. Carruthers seemed both shocked and amused at seeing his “good cop” partner lose his temper.

Alexis was sweating profusely and for the first time off camera I saw emotion on his wife’s face. Gilmore’s hands were shaking and she was biting her lip in vain attempt to keep herself under control. Brigham, the Mangiocottis, Berg, and Weston were mainly sitting with their mouths open looking like fish at feeding time.

When they were quiet Murphy turned back to me and in an artificially controlled voice asked, “who was it?”

“A guy named Carl Johnston,” I said. “Remember him? He was the one who beat up that marina owner, Kanovsen. I also saw him following my wife and I in DC at the HUAC hearings.”

“Where is he now?” Murphy demanded.

“Dead,” I said and the room shuddered. “My wife and I got there just in time to rescue the little girl and her stepmother.”

“Did you kill him?” Carruthers asked.

“Indirectly,” I said. “While we were fighting the family barn caught on fire and collapsed on him. I’m sure the body’s still there.”

“What the hell…” Murphy shook his head.

“Then on the way home,” I continued, “Maxwell’s plane was hijacked by a high school classmate of Johnston, Samuel Judge, and his buddy. Their plan was to parachute to safety after disabling our plane leaving us to crash in a remote part of a Nevada desert. Maxwell and I fought him off and Maxwell’s partner and pilot, Jed Fowler, miraculously landed the plane on that highway. I’m sure you saw something about that in the paper,” I added sarcastically.

“What happened to Judge and the other guy?” Murphy probably felt like he should have been taking notes.

“They were both pretty beaten up from the battle for control of the plane.”

“And?”

“When Judge bailed out of the spiraling plane he snapped against the tail section,” I said. “The other guy was pretty out of it when he sort of fell out. Their bodies are probably somewhere on the Idaho / Nevada line.”

Bumchelski began to sob. Apparently she was involved with both Mangiocotti and Judge. Despite what I expected was an energetic effort on her part neither of them had done much for her career.

“All right,” Murphy said shaking his head. “Wait a minute. Who were these guys working for?”

I took a deep breath. “Judge was being fed information by the lovely Miss Bumchelski here and passing it along to Standish for her column. Judge was also, uh, involved with Standish.”

“That’s a lie,” Bumchelski protested between racking wails, “he loved me. He wouldn’t have done that.”

“He may have loved you doll,” I shrugged, “but he was with her too. I’m not sure that the info Standish was getting was enough to keep him on the payroll without the extra service he was providing.

“And Johnston?” Murphy seemed hypnotized by my tale.

“He went to high school with Judge. You see, Judge was helping Standish with the blackmailing. He took a bunch of very interesting and incriminating photos that were supposed to be delivered to Alexis by his old high school pal. I guess the plan was to make the blackmail scheme harder to follow.

“Then I showed up at the marina, accidentally got possession of the pictures, and inadvertently did Johnston’s job for him. Soon after you had Johnston in jail. Too bad he didn’t stay there.”

“What was on the photos?” Murphy asked.

“First there were pictures of my wife and I coming out of Brigham Entertainment,” I explained. “I’m guessing that Judge took them just to prove to Standish that he knew about everything that was going on. More interesting were the incriminating photos of Alexis and Standish and their horizontal activities.”

Alexis started to stand up to protest but one look from Murphy froze him. Gilmore began to cry softly into a handkerchief. Next to her Brigham turned pale looking as if he was about to pass out. The rest of the guests just seemed shell shocked.

When no one filled the stunned silence I continued. “I think that Standish found out about the baby that was conceived in 1943 during Gilmore’s brief affair with Maxwell during that movie shoot. Obviously the project didn’t get very far.”

“How did she find out?” Murphy asked.

“Probably from Alexis during one of their times together. And, because it’s the only way it makes sense, she was probably willing to keep quiet as long as their relationship continued. Based upon her history, you can probably imagine that she made a threat to ruin both Alexis and Gilmore if he ever ended the affair.”

“Damn,” Murphy looked amazed.

“Miss Gilmore,” I said turning toward the well-known face that was now contorted in pain. “It’s all true, isn’t it? Didn’t you find out what your husband was doing while you were away on location? And didn’t you force him to put an end to it thereby provoking Standish into going through with her threat?”

“OK Parker,” Murphy half smiled, “you win. So who killed Standish?”

“I’m not absolutely sure,” I said sheepishly.

“What!” Carruthers and Murphy both turned and walked to me. The room instantly exploded into chaos. It seemed for a few seconds everyone was out of their chairs and yelling simultaneously. The cops quickly shouted them into submission. When things were back in order I continued.

“But I do know at least one person who was there.” There was menace in my voice and I finished by dramatically asking, “isn’t that right Miss Gilmore?”

No one moved. No one breathed. And no one admitted anything. Unfortunately I couldn’t prove what I’d said despite how sure I was. The only hope was to put enough pressure on her that she’d have to give it up.

All eyes trained on Gilmore. Her hands were shaking and her beautiful face was distorted in pain, but she held firm. If nothing more happened, then I was going to be in serious trouble. The long silence that followed only made things worse.

Suddenly Maxwell jumped to his feet and walked toward Gilmore. He was waving his hands like a football referee.

“Stop,” he yelled at me. “This has gone far enough. You have no proof of any of this. I don’t care what you’ve done. I don’t care what you think you know.”

My eyes narrowed. “Don’t be a fool,” I threatened. “You think she won’t kill you too? She’ll do anything to save her career. I’m not going to take the fall for this. I’m not going to get this far and come up short. Get away from her.”

“No,” Maxwell defied me as he turned away from Gilmore and faced me in the middle of the room. The ten of us sat paralyzed. The tension was going to have to be released one way or another.

“Maybe it was you,” Maxwell threatened. “Maybe you’re behind this and have just made it all up to cover your own sorry ass.”

“Says you,” I spit back. “This is going to stop right now.”

I reached into the back of my belt and pulled out my pistol. Bumchelski screamed and everyone else backed toward the walls. Gilmore was crying openly now. Brigham had sweated through his clothes. Alexis was eyeing the side door looking for a way out. The two detectives stood like statues too shocked to move.

“What are you going to do?” Maxwell taunted me. “You going to shoot us all?”

“I’ve got eight in the clip,” I sneered, “that ought to be enough.”

Suddenly Maxwell’s expression changed as I leveled the gun at him. The explosion that followed was deafening in the small office. Maxwell was slammed against the far wall. His eyes were wide open with fear as he grabbed his chest. Blood poured between his fingers and he slumped lifelessly to the floor.

There was no turning back now.

Reel Life, Real death Chapters 37 & 38

37

“Wait!” Jed called. “Look!” He pointed down to our right.

Cutting through the forest a road appeared. It was only two lanes, but at the moment it was fairly straight. We were dropping fast. Jed banked to follow the pavement as it snaked through the trees.

“Go into the back and hang on to something,” he said firmly. “This is going to be messy.”

Maxwell and I did as we were told. Frantically we searched to find some straps and rope to tie ourselves to the fuselage. With the ground coming up very fast there was very little time to prepare. We sat down, grabbed hold of the frame, and prayed.

“Here it comes!” Jed yelled.

A deafening tearing sound echoed through the plane as the wings clipped the pines lining the road. The sound of prizefighters working the speed bag screamed though the plane just a second before we hit the highway. The impact slammed me against the floor, but I still managed to hang on.

Suddenly we were in the air again and a feeling of weightlessness came over us. Before we could adjust to it the plane pounded the ground a second time. Again we were thrown violently against both the floor and the walls. I hung on and tried to keep my head clear.

The right wing tore off the plane with a withering ripping sound after we hit the roadway the second time. We lurched crazily to the right and screeched along the asphalt with the left wing out in front. A shower of sparks swarmed around the plane.

Trees flew by the open door as Maxwell and I tried to tighten our death grip on the interior of the fuselage. We continued to careen out of the control for what seemed like a very long time. Suddenly the left wing cracked with a loud roar. A second later the end of it pitched up and crashed onto the roof. The ceiling dented but held.

We were bombarded with a terrifying metal screech. My ears rang. Then suddenly after a lifetime of noise and horror compressed into a few seconds it everything became silent. My body still felt like it was moving, but miraculously what was left of the plane had come to a stop. No one spoke.

Clouds of dust and smoke billowed through the fuselage. Both of the main wings were gone and I imagined that the tail section was too. The ceiling and side were crushed and dented, but for the most part our metal tube had held.

Slowly the air began to clear. Across from me Maxwell lay silently against the wall. Before trying to get up to go to him I began to check if I was still in one piece. Before I’d gotten very far I heard a voice from the cockpit.

“Anybody back there,” Jed coughed. His voice was surprisingly strong.

“Yeah,” I gasped, “I’m here.”

I looked again across the rubble at Maxwell. He moved.

“Brix!” I called.

Slowly his eyes opened and he began to focus. After a couple of deep breaths he rubbed his face. “Best damn movie special effects I’ve ever seen,” he said as he struggled to his feet.

————————

After a while the air cleared and we heard pounding on the side of what was left of the plane. The three of us stumbled to the door. Several cars were stopped having been blocked by the wreckage. People had climbed up the side of the demolished plane trying to get to us. Willing arms helped us climb out of the debris.

We were a little banged up, dirty, and a bit disoriented, but amazingly that was all. The plane didn’t do as well. The right wing was entirely gone and the outer half of the left one was folded over the top of the fuselage. Most of the tail section was missing. Apparently Jed had aimed everything perfectly and miraculously had been able to keep the main body of the plane, while twisted and dented, remarkably intact.

Details of what happened next are a bit sketchy due to my disorientation from the crash. But it seems that state trooper cars and two ambulances were quickly on the scene. As soon as Maxwell was recognized we received the red carpet treatment and were immediately spirited off to a local hospital where we spent the night.

Things were much clearer the next morning. I learned that we were in Municipal Hosptial in Elco in northern Nevada. We had crashed along one of the few straight stretches of Route 229 that snaked through the Humboldt National Forest. Looking at a map later it appeared that we were about halfway between Jackson and LA. Apparently Judge and his pilot were going to parachute out near Twin Falls, Idaho expecting that we’d crash later in a remote section of the southwestern part of the state.

As my mental fog continued to lift it became obvious that there were immediate problems to solve if we were going to get out of the hospital. And as a result of our famous passenger it wouldn’t be just the cops who were going to have a long list of questions. But before we started answering I had to make sure that we were all telling the same story.

I laboriously dragged myself into a standing position next to my bed and noticed that Jed and I were sharing the room. He looked up at me as I stumbled over to him. Other than a bandage around his head and tape across his right hand he looked surprisingly well.

“How do you feel?” I asked leaning on his bedpost.

“Considering,” he smiled, “pretty damn good.”

“Before we talk to anyone we need to get our stories straight. Talking about Judge or his partner would make things very complicated.”

“Oh I get’cha,” Jed followed. “Three on board, not five.”

“Right. Can you make up a believable story about what might have happened to the plane?”

“Yeah,” he nodded, “I can come up with something.”

“OK, great. Now, where’s Brix?” I said as I stumbled to the door and looked down the hall. Two rooms away a large crowd had gathered.

“He’s probably got his own room,” Jed answered and pulled himself into a sitting position. “Rank has privileges, you know.”

“Yeah,” I said over my shoulder, “I think I found it. Let’s hope he hasn’t said anything.”

Quickly I pulled on what was left of my clothes and wobbled down the hall. I was moving all right, but I kept one hand on the wall just in case.

As I called to Maxwell a doctor and a nurse ran over to me. When they tried to steer me back to my room I called again. Somehow over the din in the hallway Maxwell heard me and, using his status as America’s favorite movie hero, waved them aside. At his next command the room emptied and the medical staff warily ushered me in and closed the door.

Maxwell, ever the movie star, was sitting up in a chair next to the bed. Newspapers and telegrams were strewn everywhere. Word of the crash and its famous cargo had obviously gone out on the wires overnight. If anything, he was more famous than ever.

Looking around the room I shook my head, “how do you do it?”

“Maybe I’m a better actor than you thought,” he smiled.   Seconds later he was on his feet grabbing me in a suffocating bear hug. We patted each other on the back and then stood motionless for a moment or two. After we let go I noticed tears in his eyes.

“Jeez JP,” he said in an unsteady voice, “I was scared to death.”

“Well, of course. Me too. But, you did what you had to. We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t held off Judge.”

“I guess that’s true, isn’t it?” He said turning back to me. His expression made it appear as if that was the first time he’d actually been proud of himself. Maybe for once he’d been just as brave in reality as he appeared in his films.

Listen to me Brix,” I said seriously. He looked at me and frowned. “What have you told them?”

“The staff?”

“Anybody.”

“About the crash?”

“Of course.”

“Nothing,” he furrowed his brow in concentration. “As far as they know you and I were just flying back from a quick getaway and had engine trouble. Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” I assured him, “that’s perfect. Don’t give them anything. Don’t even hint that about the other two on the plane. Jed’s going to make up a reasonable story about what happened to the plane. Then, with luck, if we can satisfy the cops, we’re going to be able to walk out of here.”

“Really?”

“I hope so.”

He nodded and opened the door letting a flood of staff workers back in. Maxwell worked the crowd like the pro he was. After at least a half hour of picture taking and autographs an older doctor broke through Maxwell’s adoring public and ordered them out. First he gave the star struck staff a brief chewing out and then turned to the two of us.

The broad shouldered doctor unnecessarily told us how lucky we were and we vaguely smiled back at him. He then opened the door and brought two state troopers into the room. Maxwell and I went through a minimum of detail about the crash while continually referring them to Jed. No one, it appeared, had any idea about the other two passengers.

Joining us next was a representative from the Federal Aeronautics Administration. We went over the same ground again providing the same sketchy details as we had previously. After about another hour of questions he nodded, thanked us, and disappeared down the hall to talk with Jed.

Much to our annoyance we were told that we had to stay one more night in the hospital for “observation”. Despite that inconvenience it was appearing that somehow we’d been able to answer everyone’s questions to their satisfaction. As the day wore on the crowds surrounding Maxwell’s room thinned. Jed and I were allowed to roam the building and we spent the rest of the day eating and sleeping.

When the newspapers were delivered the next morning we were headline news. Actually Maxwell was headline news but, fortunately for our egos, Jed and I were mentioned briefly in the article. I knew that Doris would be frantic after hearing about the crash. I hoped that reading about it, even though she wasn’t going to be able to talk to us, would be good enough for now. She had to understand that getting Tenny and Sarah to Michigan was her first priority.

After lunch the older doctor again came to our rooms. Along with a nurse they checked our blood pressure, looked in our eyes, made sure our reflexes were adequate, and then simply let us go. Maxwell, Jed, and I met in the lobby and, as soon as we stepped outside, were met by a throng of over 50 reporters. Naturally they quickly descended on Maxwell letting Jed and I escape. But before we were able to make it to the curb we were met by large man in sunglasses who was obviously not press.

“Jed Fowler and JP Parker?” He asked with his wide glasses cutting into his thick red cheeks. When we didn’t respond he continued. “I’m Vito Cadrucci, Brix Maxwell’s agent. He called me from the hospital and I’m here to pick you up. If you wait here, I’ll just be a minute.”

He strode like a linebacker into the crowd that had engulfed Maxwell giving the idea that he’d done this many times before. Within seconds he led his boss out of the throng and toward a limo that was parked at the curb in front of the hospital. We followed and soon we were seated in a vehicle even more spacious than Mangiocotti’s. Vito slid into the front and with one command an unseen driver took us away.

A large spread of food had been set up for the three of us complete with beer. I decided that I could get used to this lifestyle as long as it didn’t take a plane crash to qualify. We stuffed ourselves and hid behind the tinted windows as we sped out of town. A long ride back to LA lay ahead.

“My Vito’s a good man,” Maxwell smiled. “He’s been with me for years. I called him last night and told him the situation we were in.”

“I hope you pay him well,” I said and Jed nodded.

“He does all right,” Maxwell took a long pull on a beer. “This has all been so amazing. The things I found out, what we were able to do, the fact that we’re still on this side of the grass…”

“Yup,” was all I said.

“Come on JP,” he smiled, “now what?”

“Now we go back to LA to catch a murderer,” I said flatly.

Jed and Maxwell looked up.

“You know?” Maxwell said with his eyes fixed on me.

“Yup.”

“Can you prove it?”

“Maybe,” I set my jaw. “I’ll explain as we go.”

 38

I was sound asleep in the back of the limo by the time we rolled up next to my house. Maxwell shook me a couple of times and slowly brought me around. After shaking hands with both of my death-defying buddies I opened the limo door. My favorite movie star playfully poked me in the arm as I climbed out.

“Call me,” he said.

“I will. Maybe in a couple of days.” I smiled and then turned to Jed. “I know we both thanked you a hundred times in the hospital. It still may not be enough.”

Jed smiled back and nodded. “I saved my own ass too, you know.”

The limo sped off as I walked to the door. Approaching the house I heard the phone ringing but it had stopped by the time I was inside. Even though it was late my long snooze made me awake enough to unpack. After that I still had energy to burn and began to clean up around the house. While going through the mail that had collected the receiver jangled again.

“JP!” Doris’ voice practically leaped through the phone.

“Hi doll.”

“Oh, it’s great just to hear your voice,” she practically yelled. “Are you all right?”

“Only a little banged up. Maxwell and the pilot are fine too.”

“Thank God!” The tension slowly eased out of her voice.

“How are you? Where are you?”

“We’ve just…”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “Don’t tell me where you are just how you are.”

“You think that they’re still…”

“I don’t know, but let’s not find out.”

“OK,” my redhead’s smile came through the phone. “We’re fine, safe, and should be there tomorrow. Oh JP I was so scared. What happened?”

“You know I can’t tell you over the phone,” I cautioned, “but don’t worry. I think the whole thing is going be over in a couple of days.”

“But how…”

“Doris,” I tried to assure her, “don’t worry. I love you and it’s all going to be over soon. Now, we need to be careful and get off the line. All right? You understand?”

“Yes,” her voice was heavy, “I know. I love you too, you big lug.”

“Call in a couple of days?”

“I will,” she said and then I heard her hang up. I held the phone for a minute afterward trying to make the moment last and then, suddenly tired, dragged myself off to bed.

The next morning I called a cab since my car was still on its way to Michigan. After an expensive, despite being fairly short, ride to the train station downtown I booked a ticket to Santa Monica. I needed another visit with the “good cop” from several days earlier. My only real hope to bring this insanity to a close was to get Detective Murphy’s cooperation.

The train dropped me off at the Santa Monica station in the early afternoon. I grabbed a quick sandwich at a sidewalk stand and was told there that the stationhouse was within walking distance. After a brisk 15-minute hike that helped to work some of the soreness out I walked up the stone steps to the Santa Monica Police Department.

A burly scowling desk sergeant was grumbling some bluntly worded questions into a phone and scribbling on a pad of paper. Eventually he looked up and rudely asked what I wanted. I ignored the attitude and simply asked for Murphy. The sergeant stonewalled me until I told him who I was. All of a sudden his eyes opened wide and without another word he pointed me to a flight of stairs in the rear of the building. At times it was helpful to be famous, or was it infamous?

Reaching the second floor I easily found the room he’d described. It contained several desks that were arranged in rows with six to eight foot tall partitions separating them. A severe looking middle-aged secretary frowned at me as I stood in the doorway and gruffly asked what I wanted. We repeated the same routine that I had downstairs with the sergeant. With my name again breaking the impasse she quickly pointed a bony finger toward the back of the room. Murphy’s cubicle was back by the rear wall. Above it was a slowly oscillating wall fan rearranging the stale smoky air.

Murphy was on the phone. His sport coat was draped over his swivel chair and his short sleeves again revealed his Navy tattoos. A large asymmetric ceramic ashtray that looked like it might have been made by one of his kids dominated his sloppy desktop. Several very short cigarette butts had been stubbed out in it. He looked even paler than I remembered. Apparently he didn’t know he was living in sunny California.

“What the hell,” he said when he saw me. Quickly he turned his attention back to the phone. “No, no, not you honey. Look, a guy’s here I gotta go.”

“Detective?” I nodded slightly.

“You’re big news, you know that? Murder suspect, plane crash survivor… Jeez.” Murphy was plenty steamed, but with his colleagues eyes trained on him he was trying to maintain control.

“How you doing?” I affected a casual wave.

“And I thought I told you to stay in town,” he barked as he stood up next to his desk. “What the hell are you doing flying all over North America. I ought to lock your ass up right now. You know that?” The longer he talked the more the veins began bulge in his neck.

“Can we talk?”

His pale eyes danced. “Knock yourself out.”

“No,” I protested, “not here. How about an interrogation room? Just us.”

“Damn,” he almost grinned, “that’s the first time a suspect ever took me.”

He motioned with his head and we walked down a hallway behind his desk to a small windowless room. Like the other one I’d seen it contained a rectangular table and three high backed wooden chairs. The room was fairly bleak and yet still friendlier than the last one I’d been in with him and his “bad cop” partner Carruthers.

“You got a lot of nerve,” Murphy complained lightly as we entered the room. “What do you want to do, rub our face in it? You weren’t even supposed to leave town and then you and your Hollywood friend get splashed all over the papers. Are you trying to piss me off?”

“All right,” I began after we sat down, “you know as well as I do that I’m no suspect. Even Carruthers does. So let’s cut the bull. I was a cop in New York for several years before I went private. I know how the game is played.”

“Tough guy huh?” Murphy leaned back in his chair and folded his thick arms across his chest.

“So,” I taunted lightly, “how’s the case going?”

“Which case is that?”

“Clever,” I said stiffly. “You got anything?”

“None of your damn business.” Murphy leaned in toward the table. His face became hard. Without his partner’s attitude he was having trouble maintaining his good guy persona.

“That’s what I thought. They’ve done a better job than I thought.”

“Who did?” Suddenly interested his eyes bore into me.

His expression made it clear that the whole department was under heavy pressure to clear the Standish case. I wondered how many extra man-hours the dicks had been forced to put in. It didn’t matter that Standish was a vindictive over sexed blackmailer. The public didn’t know her that way and, as usual, perception was reality.

“Why are you here?” His voice began to develop an edge. “You just showing off?”

“Come on Murphy,” I stood up and leaned over at him with my palms flat on the table. “You want to clear this case?”

“And, I suppose, you know who did it?” He slumped back into the chair like the air had been sucked out of him.

“Yeah,” I said still leaning forward, “I think so.”

“Oh great. A retired shamus from the wrong coast is now going to trump up something in order to save his own hide. Jeez, you must think I’m pretty desperate.”

I took my hands off the table and walked over to the far wall. Whether this was going to work or not depended on how frustrated the department was. I stretched my back and killed some time looking at the memos that were posted on the wall. Maybe the silence would work on him.

“Well,” he said impatiently after a couple of minutes of quiet. I was apparently making progress.

“You want to check me out?” I pressed. “I can give you some numbers to call in New York.”

“We already did,” he sighed as if he didn’t like what he’d learned. “What do think, we’re amateurs? We even talked to a guy who said he was your ex-partner, a guy named Klein. He vouched for you.”

“So?” I stalled trying to force Murphy to initiate something.

“You wanna tell me what you got?”

“Telling you won’t do it,” I said shaking my head and again walking away. “I can explain everything, but…”

“…you can’t prove it,” Murphy made a face as he completed my thought. “Swell. What do want me to do with that?”

“OK, look,” I turned back to him. “I need to trust somebody and I guess you’re it. You know, there’s way more to all this than just the old gal’s murder. First, I believe that there are three more dead bodies related to this stretched between here and Wyoming. And there would have been another two if Maxwell and I hadn’t stopped it. Remember that Marina owner that was beaten up and then rescued by what the paper called ‘a mysterious Negro’?”

That got his attention. “Yeah, what about that?”

“The mysterious Negro was me.”

Murphy sat down and ran his hands through his hair. He looked up at me a couple of times shaking his head. “Three more bodies as well as you telling me that you’re a colored guy. One of is bats, pal, and I know it’s not me.”

“What we need to do is to get everyone together in one place and then lay out what we know.”

“What we know?” The cop was apoplectic. “You telling me that I can’t do it?” Murphy dropped his elbows on the table and then rested his head in his hands.

“Listen to me,” I suggested in a calmer tone. “This is a company town despite how big it is. I’ve got nothing to loose here, but you do. If I’m wrong, lock me up. Make up anything. Just remember, there are other lives at stake here.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Get everybody together and I’ll explain the whole thing.”

Murphy lifted his head and looked at me. He was tired. This bizarre case had been dropped in his lap and with his being outside the studios they had been able to stonewall every effort. I hoped that he was frustrated enough to take me up on my strange offer.

“Why don’t you pick them up and bring them in?” His voice sounded weak as the fight leaked out of it.

“Oh there’s an idea,” I rolled my eyes. “You want me to make a bunch of citizen’s arrests? How do you suppose that would go over?”

“OK Parker,” Murphy said as he slowly stood up, “we’ll do it your way. But you better have the goods.”

Reel Life , Real Death Chapters 35 & 36

35

“What’s going on?” Maxwell stammered slightly. His tough guy persona was totally gone.

“Who’s Judge?” Jed asked as his eyes fearfully burned into me.

Ignoring his pilot’s question Maxwell’s nervousness continued to build. “Who told him? What does he want?”

“Never mind who told him,” I growled, “but you, and maybe me, are who he wants.”

“What?” The actor twitched.

“Listen,” I said quickly, “it’s looking like he knows what you were doing out here.”

“But…how…”

“Look,” I grabbed him by the shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. He’s here to make sure we don’t get back without an escort. I don’t know if he’ll recognize me, but under the circumstances he probably will. That’ll be strike two.”

“What do we do?” Jed’s voice was unsteady.

I ran both my hands through my hair. “Is there any other way to get to the plane?”

“Not really,” Jed replied without knowing why we were in trouble. “We’d have to walk all the way around the chain link fence to get out onto the runway. But by the time we were out onto the tarmac everyone would see us.”

While we were debating Judge began walking toward us. We were going to have to make things up as we went along. Even our bad plan of trying to sneak around to the plane wasn’t going to be possible.

“Stay where you are,” Judge called as he crossed the pavement that separated the terminal from the parking lot. His right hand was hidden in the pocket of his jacket and he was making no attempt to disguise the pistol it held.

I thought about grabbing my handgun out of my belt, but with people scattered everywhere I couldn’t take a chance. We were going to have to wait and see how he played it.

“Well, well,” his voice was oily, “the great Brix Maxwell and the murderer of Eve Standish.” There was a catch in his voice as he said her name. “Who’s this,” he said gesturing toward Jed, “your pilot, I guess.”

“Yes,” Maxwell replied in a very small voice.

“Doesn’t matter,” Judge spat, “you’re all coming with me. Walk in front of me. Do something stupid and I’ll kill you.”

“You wouldn’t dare with all the people around,” Maxwell pleaded.

“Try me,” he said in a monotone. We walked.

My mind was racing as we neared the small terminal. If Judge was able to get us through the building and then onto his plane we were all in big trouble. Just because I now knew how everything fit together wasn’t going to do anyone any good. Not only were we going to die, but the careers of many people associated with the National and Excelsior studios were going to go down the drain as well. My only solace was that I had hope that Doris, Tenny, and Sarah were safe. No matter what I was determined to keep it that way.

With no other choice we let Judge force us into the terminal toward the exit that led to his plane. Maxwell, Jed, and I were walking side by side with Judge close behind. The door that would lead us out to the runways was getting very close.

The summer season and the late afternoon had caused there to be a fairly good crowd in the terminal and it gave me an idea. Catching my actor friend’s eye I motioned for him to remove his hat and fold down his collar. I don’t know whether he understood why, but he complied.

“Look!” I yelled all of sudden as soon as his face was visible. “It’s Brix Maxwel!”

In one motion it seemed that everyone’s head looked over and after a very short pause the crowd converged on us. Maxwell, winked at me quickly comprehending what I was doing. He then instantly played along and spoke in a loud voice greeting the throng that was collapsing around him.

Taking advantage of the commotion I immediately turned and grabbed Judge in a bear hug effectively pinning his arms against his side. As the crowd surged toward Maxwell I lowed my shoulder and propelled my struggling captive in the opposite direction. Fulfilling his role as a famous movie star Maxwell made as much of a diversion as he could while I drove Judge toward the men’s room door.

Having caught him flatfooted he wasn’t able to fight me off. I slammed him hard through the bathroom door and drove him against the far wall. Judge scrambled frantically to free his arms, but I held tight. Knowing I couldn’t continue this dance much longer I violently rammed my forehead against his nose a couple of times. There was a loud cracking sound which took the fight out of him. Dazed he slumped back bleeding against the wall.

Just to make sure I popped him twice with short lefts and when he dropped to the floor I wrestled the gun out of his pocket. I quickly jammed it into my belt. Next I lifted the wobbly Judge to his feet and half carried him to a sink. As I did the door opened and two men entered. They both froze when they saw us.

“My friend’s not a very good flyer,” I covered as quickly as I could. Judge’s head lolled from side to side as I tipped him over the sink. “I’m afraid he had way too much to drink and then fell down in the parking lot. If his wife sees him this way before they get on the next plane she’ll have a fit.” I tried to laugh convincingly.

The two men smiled as if they understood and went about their business. I went about cleaning my victim’s face. By the time they left Judge was beginning to come around.

“I need you to listen to me,” I said menacingly with my face very close to his. “Can you do that?”

He nodded weakly.

“We’re going to do the reverse now. You’re coming with us. You give me the slightest trouble and I’ll take you apart right here. You get me?”

“Yes,” he whimpered in a very small voice.

“I’ve already killed your buddy Johnston,” I hissed, “I can send you to meet him.”`

“Wha…” Fear welled up in his eyes.

“OK,” I commanded, “now stand up. Wipe your face and then we’re going to walk across the airport to our plane. Don’t even think of trying anything. At this point one more death won’t matter.”

We made our way slowly through the terminal. Maxwell was still signing autographs, but had managed to work his way toward the exit to the tarmac. Assuming that I’d been able to subdue Judge, Jed had already hustled out to the plane to get clearance for us to take off. Maxwell met us just outside the terminal.

Maxwell took one look at Judge’s smashed face and whistled. “You are a little frightening, my friend,” he said to me. “Remind me to not get on your bad side.”

We could see that Jed had the engines running so Maxwell and I half dragged the still unsteady Judge across the tarmac. It was all we could do to try and make my victim stay upright and put one foot in front of the other. Judge was a mess. I’d clearly broken his nose and a large blue welt was forming over his right eye. Blood stains adorned his shirt and jacket and it would be a long while before he’d be able to go on any auditions unless it was for a horror movie.

By the time we reached the plane the stairs had been lowered waiting for us. As soon as we were inside I expected we’d move out onto a runway. One problem down, several more to go.

As I pushed Judge up the stairs a figure appeared silhouetted in the doorway. He looked too tall to be Jed. Suddenly in one motion he grabbed Judge and dragged him into the plane. He then leveled a gun at Maxwell and I.

“What the hell did you do to him?” The unfamiliar voice barked.

Judge sat at the unknown’s feet still breathing hard, but appearing much more alert. His partner helped him struggle to his feet. Bracing himself between his accomplice and the doorway he took a deep breath and glared at us.

“You bastards,” Judge hissed. “What did you think, that I flew here myself? Now, give me my gun. Very carefully.”

I took it out gingerly and the pilot grabbed it. It was now jammed into his belt.

“What do you want to do?” His partner asked. He was tall and gangly with a pencil mustache and a receding hairline. Not looking tough didn’t matter now. He and Judge had the upper hand.

“We’ll take this plane,” Judge said. “It’s cleared for take off and I don’t want to have to go back to the terminal and start over.”

“What are you going to do?” Maxwell asked in a weak voice.

“I’m afraid that you are going to have an accident,” Judge sneered through his very misshapen face. “It’ll be a shame. ‘Hollywood star Brix Maxwell dies in a plane crash’.”

“What?” Maxwell said softly and then looked at me. His face was very pale. I imagine mine was too.

“We’ll let you go down in the mountains. I bet they won’t find your bodies for days.”

“But how will you…”   Maxwell started.

Judge’s pilot pointed out two parachutes lying on the floor behind him next to an unconscious Jed.

 

36

The pilot went to the cockpit and sat behind the wheel waiting for clearance. Judge kept his gun leveled at us and ushered us into the rear of the plane. Maxwell and I were then ordered to sit on the floor. The still breathing Jed was slumped between us.

I’d never thought about Judge’s pilot, but when he had to wait so long for us appear he must have figured out what had happened. Knowing what plane Maxwell had used would have made it easy for him to find Jed and take his place. Judge was going to be able to take out someone who he thought had been his rival for Standish’s affections as well as the person he thought killed her. Two for one.

We were cleared for take off and within minutes the plane taxied down the runway and slid easily into the air. We gently banked west and Judge’s pilot turned toward the reddening late afternoon sky. Whatever they were going to do was going to have to happen fast. All we had to do was think of a way to prevent it.

In the tense silence we heard Jed groan. Maxwell turned to his friend and helped him into a sitting position. He had a long oozing gash across the top of his balding head. Thin streams of blood had run down his face and dripped onto his shirt. Jed’s glassy eyes and the brown-crusted blood on his chin made him look like a drunken sailor with a goatee.

Maxwell looked at me. Surprisingly I didn’t see any fear. He looked resigned to our fate and appeared to be simply gritting his teeth waiting for the inevitable. Maybe I had misjudged my new friend. Maybe he was tougher than he’d shown. Our eyes met in silent grim surrender.

I wanted to tell him that I’d gotten through tough spots before, like fighting off a murderer in a car as it toppled off a drawbridge, or being trapped unconscious in a burning building. There was also the time I was pulled down into a sinkhole in the Louisiana bayou. I’d been shot, beaten, stabbed, and left for dead more times than I could count. But if I told him maybe he would just think that my nine lives were up. Thinking that maybe they were I stayed silent.

After about a half hour Judge called to the pilot to put the plane on automatic and come back. Next they opened the fuel line and dumped most of the full tank out over the desert below. Then they picked up the two parachutes and strapped them on. Nobody spoke.

Judge opened the door and the wind howled into the plane. The pilot went back to the cabin and pulled some wires out from behind the dash. With a hard yank they snapped in two. The plane shuddered slightly and then regained its level flight as the wires hung loosely below the instrument panel.

We had nothing to loose. We could die fighting or in a plane crash. At least fighting we had a chance to take Judge and his pal with us. Time was short. I watched for an opening. He didn’t give me much, but when it happened I took it.

As Judge moved toward the door he looked down at his feet. In all the stress of the last hour I’d temporarily forgotten about my own gun, which was still wedged into the back of my belt. It had never occurred to Judge to check to see if I was carrying. I hoped it would be a fatal mistake.

Maxwell looked at me and I winked. A startled confused expression washed over his face. There was only a second’s opening. To protect my friends I suddenly rolled away to my left and grabbing my pistol I fired wildly. My shots missed, but momentarily froze our two captors.

Before Judge was able to react Maxwell dove toward him. A second later Judge recovered enough to raise his weapon to fire. The gun barked just as Maxwell hit him with a perfect waist high tackle sending a bullet crashing harmlessly through the fuselage.

As they toppled to the floor I jumped to my feet and rushed the pilot. While he’d appeared tough earlier with a gun in his hand the actual sound of one firing rattled him. Before he could react I dove at his knees. I heard something crack. Wearing the parachute made him awkwardly top heavy and screaming in pain he toppled over backward.

I climbed on him as he reached into his jacket for the gun he’d held on us earlier. We reached for it at about the same time. Four hands scrambled for control as we rolled across the floor with our arms outstretched. He got his hand to the trigger first and as we fought for the weapon two more shots exploded. One broke the cockpit’s side windshield, which made the wind whine loudly.

I knew I’d injured his knee so while we continued to struggle for the gun I managed to lean my leg on top of his. That did it. The pilot shrieked in pain and lost his grip on the gun. As it clattered across the floor and under the chair in the cockpit I pounded his face into a bloody pulp. He gasped and went silent.

Turning to my partner I flinched in terror. Maxwell and Judge had rolled precariously close to the still open door. I had to make a choice whether to run to help or get the gun and empty it into Judge. I decided to double up on Judge.

As I grabbed his shirt his gun fired again. The bullet flew out the open door and I heard it clank into the metal wing. The plane shuddered again and began to bank wildly to the right. The three of us rolled uncontrollably into the doorframe. In the raging wind Judge lost control of the gun and it flew out the door into the clouds. Grabbing at anything to keep him from falling out of the plane Maxwell’s hand found our assailant’s belt. I then grabbed Maxwell’s.

The two of them dangled out the open door as the plane continued to circle lower and lower. Knowing he’d lost the fight Judge tried to drag all of us out of the plane. I grabbed a hanging strap inside the fuselage that was probably intended for skydivers to use for balance. I tightened my grip on Maxwell and for a second or two the three of us were suspended in a chain.

Deciding that he’d gotten the best of it Judge let go and tumbled out into rushing wind. He had the parachute. He had disabled the plane. His plan was going to work after all. Too bad that there would be four dead in the crash instead of three. At least he was still going to make it.

It seemed that way to me too, but neither of us had accounted for the plane’s crazy spiral. As soon as he let go the wind slammed him back loudly against the exterior of the plane. In less than another second his body was hurled into the tail wing, which nearly cut him in half. He plummeted out of sight with his limbs flailing lifelessly.

Maxwell grabbed me around the neck and pulled himself back into the plane. His face was red and his eyes were wild, but he was still in one piece. I slapped him on the back and he slumped onto a sitting position with a dazed look on his face.

Not knowing what else to do I ran to the cockpit. I climbed over the fallen pilot and jumped in behind the wheel. I grabbed it and pulled it back hard. The plane rose, but too fast. I pushed it forward and then turned it to the left. Amazingly we were flying somewhat level.

Maxwell staggered up behind me. “You know how to fly this thing?” He wheezed.

“Not even a little,” I said between gasps. “You?”

“No.”

“Damn.”

“Is that the gas gauge?” Maxwell said frantically pointing at the instrument panel. It was very close to the E.

We didn’t know where we were. Neither of us could fly. We were running out of gas. Looking below all we could see was thick forest. Swell.

Behind me on the floor I heard the pilot stir. We turned to see the bloody pulp that my fist had made. We also saw the gun in his hand. When I’d pulled the plane out of the spiral it must have slid out from under the seat and gone right to him.

He was in bad shape. It looked like I’d broken his leg, his nose, and maybe even his jaw. Blood poured from his mouth and nose and his eyes were unfocused. Despite the shape he was in the gun in his hand made him look like the winner until he tried to move. His injuries made him holler in pain.

“Take me to the door,” he gurgled trying to spit the blood out of his mouth.

“No,” I sneered making Maxwell flinch. “Do it yourself.”

“I’ll kill you,” he managed.

“Go ahead,” I taunted. “We’re all going to die anyway. What’s it matter? Now or in just minutes from now.”

His eyes rolled in his head as he tried unsuccessfully to drag himself to the still open door. He was screaming, crying, and swearing as blood continued to pour from both his mouth and nose. Finally he started making slow progress by laboriously dragging himself and his shattered leg toward escape.

After several minutes he reached the door, but was too exhausted to pull himself into a sitting position. He rolled over onto his stomach and pushed himself toward the door. With one last gasp he leaned forward and somersaulted into the air.

Maxwell ran to the back of the plane. He grabbed the still woozy Jed and tried to lift him to his feet. Our pilot’s eyes fluttered and he slumped in Maxwell’s arms. The actor slapped him lightly across the face and wrapping an arm around his shoulder propelled him toward the cockpit. Together we strapped him into the pilot’s chair and put the wheel in his hands. Jed began to come around.

“Oh God,” Jed wheezed as he looked at the horizon, “where the hell are we?”

No answer was necessary or possible.

As he became more alert he began to experiment with the controls. He shook his head. “They disconnected the ailerons,” he said.

“So?” Maxwell yelled.

“I can’t bring it down. I can bank but that’s all.”

“They fixed it so we could only level off or go up?” I guessed.

“…until we ran out of gas and dropped out of the sky,” Maxwell said with his head in his hands.

The gauge was on empty. The prop on the right wing coughed and stopped. The plane shook and dropped like we’d driven off a cliff. We all yelled in fear. Then the left propeller stalled and the only sound was the shrieking wind. My stomach rose in my throat.

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 33 & 34

33

In a few seconds Maxwell got control of himself. I gave him the number at the phone booth and let him call me back. I could feel tension mixed with excitement in his voice.

“Are you sure?” He asked when I picked up the phone after the first ring.

“I’m sure,” I replied calmly. “I’ve seen her, Brix. Really, she looks just like you. There’s no doubt.”

I then quickly gave him the background on how Doris and I found her as well as what happened after we did. Maxwell hit me with every question he could think of about Sarah and Tenny and also Johnston. I told him as little as I could about who I thought was behind everything and what our plans were. He understood that there was no way I was going to let him know where we were or let him see the girl until I was sure it was safe.

After a few more assurances from me his reticence slipped away and it was his turn to tell me a story. Yes, they’d tried to make the movie and he and Gilmore did have a short affair. About a little over a month into the project she pulled out claiming family problems. Since very little money had been allocated both Berg and Weston decided that they could wait for her to return. They obviously didn’t expect her to be gone well into 1944. By the time she did return however, Maxwell wasn’t available any more and they just let it the opportunity go.

He didn’t think much more about it even though he felt that Weston had. It had obviously been a big risk lending out one of his prime properties and he must have felt short changed. But Maxwell simply went about the business of making big money with his kind of movies and no one ever mentioned it again.

Maxwell said that he and Gilmore were very quickly attracted to each other and it evolved rapidly into a physical relationship. Apparently the love scenes on the set, if the film had ever been made, would have looked very real. He felt hurt when she abruptly dropped out of the movie and broke up with him. Over the next few months he tried to contact Gilmore, but without success. Maxwell described her as “beautiful, sexy, mysterious, and intense.”

“Brix,” I carefully asked, “did you love her?”

“Oh, JP,” he paused and sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve been with a lot of women. It’s not bragging really, just a fact. And more often than not they initiate it.”

“Must be hell to be you,” I joked.

“Dirty job but someone’s got to do it,” Maxwell played along and then his tone changed. “Most of them didn’t mean anything beyond the next day. But… I don’t know. It would have been nice to find out.”

“OK, I just…”

“You have a family and kids, right?” He asked.

“I have Doris, but we’ve been married less than a year. No kids.”

Maxwell seemed surprised. Learning I was a 52 year old newlywed apparently threw him a curve. To fill in the blanks I quickly went through some of my history. When I finished he was silent for a little bit.

“We’re not so different you and I,” he said a little sadly. “I guess we both thought we’d have a family and kids by now, but neither of us got there.”

“I suppose.”

“Well,” the smile in his voice returned, “between the two of us we did. It’s just that you got the wife and, it seems, I got the kid. So, when can I see her?”

“Hold on a bit Brix,” I cautioned.

“Where are you? I can be there in just hours, I bet.” He was practically begging.

I explained that I was worried about his daughter’s safety and, even though I knew he wouldn’t hurt her, I couldn’t be sure about anyone else. I assured him that she was being taken to a secure location until we were able to prove a case against those responsible for Johnston’s attack and Standish’s murder.

Maxwell didn’t give up. He told me that he had a plane that he often chartered and as long as I was in North America he could get to me. Eventually after a long discussion I consented to tell him where we were, but only under the condition that I would decide whether to let him see the girl after he landed.

“OK, JP,” he grudgingly agreed obviously understanding why I was being so careful. “I’m going to call my guy and we’ll land at the Jackson airport. I owe you for even more now. The party, HUAC, saving my daughter’s life. I’m never going be able to pay you back.”

“I suppose not,” I joked and he laughed.

“OK,” Maxwell sounded calmer. “I’ll be at the airport by noon tomorrow.”

“Fine. I’ll meet you there, but it’ll just be me. One step at a time.”

“It’s funny,” he said in a wistful tone, “I’m going to call the studio and take the day off tomorrow so I can maybe see the daughter that I never knew I had. All this time Andrea never told anyone and, it seems, never had any contact with her. Her own flesh and blood, too. And I’m the one portrayed in the press as irresponsible. Funny. Thanks JP. See you tomorrow.”

After he hung up I tried to tell myself that I had done the right thing. After all, he was her dad and deserved to know about his only child. He certainly had the money to easily take care of Sarah and Tenny. And, I felt I could trust him to keep the secret.

Despite the logic of my arguments as I walked back to our hotel I was nagged by the fear that something was about to go horribly wrong because, among other things, Maxwell also had a very good motive for killing Standish.

 

34

I told Doris, Tenny, and Sarah to wait at the hotel while I went to the airport. We agreed that if they didn’t hear from me by 2:00 they were to get in the car and head to Michigan. There was plenty of protest about that especially from Sarah, but I tried my best to convince her that I would see her soon no matter what.

Then before I went out the door she ran over and threw her arms around my knees. Somewhere along the way she’d started to call me Mr. P and, enjoying every minute of it, I did nothing to discourage her. Poor kid. In just three days she was trying to get me to fill in for her eight years without a dad.

Doris said very little. She simply gritted her teeth and leaned her head on my shoulder. We’d had more than one or two serious arguments over the years, but she knew that this was one of those times to just let it go. As I went out the door she and Tenny waved as if they never expected to see me again. I decided that it had to be my imagination.

I arrived at the airport before 11:00 to make sure I didn’t miss the plane. I soon found Maxwell had kept his word. At a few minutes after 12:00 a moderately sized two engine Cessna appeared on the horizon silhouetted against a high blue sky. I watched the noonday sun glint off its silver wings as it approached the runway.

Less than 15 minutes later it was at the small Jackson airport terminal and I saw Maxwell sprinting toward the building across the tarmac. Probably because his face was so familiar he had a fedora pulled down over his eyes and his jacket collar pulled up. That plus his dark glasses probably called more attention rather than less. Of course, maybe that was the plan.

“Hey man,” he said bursting through the doors toward me. “Let’s go.” He quickly threw an arm around me and with a small suitcase in his other hand we hustled into the parking lot. We were on the road in less than 10 minutes.

“Very smooth,” I cracked after we turned onto the main road. “No recognition, no autographs, no photos. Not bad.”

“Yeah,” he smiled as we rode off into the mountains just south of Grand Teton Park. “You don’t want to let on where you are. Chaos.” Then with a wink he added, “I’m not always sure I like it that way.”

I hustled us onto a side road and followed it until the road circled back to the highway. We then ran north until we came to the park entrance where I turned around and retraced our route. Before returning to the main road I found a scenic overlook and parked. Maxwell had been very uncharacteristically quiet. That changed after I stopped the car.

“Now what?” He said with his left arm thrown over the back of the front seat. “Are you going to let me see my daughter? And what was all the racecar driving about? Is that how you usually drive?”

I took a deep breath and turned to him. “Listen Brix,” I explained, “I needed to make sure that no one was with you other than your pilot. I had to make sure we weren’t being followed.”

“Wait a minute,” he protested, “you think that I’d …”

“No, of course not,” I exaggerated slightly, “but someone wanted Sarah and her mother out of the way. There’s no way I’m going to take a chance and expose them to that kind of danger again.”

“But…”

“I’ve seen people die,” I tried to say without sounding like a melodramatic braggart, “and I’ve seen it up close, if you get my drift. I don’t want an eight-year-old girl on my conscience and in my nightmares as well. OK?”

Maxwell looked shaken as if I’d slapped him across the mouth. He leaned back and considered what I’d said. He wasn’t too hard to read. Here was a guy who’d managed to parlay his good looks and charm into millions without, except for Standish, having to deal much with reality. He was fine with a script in his hand, but, as I found out all that time ago at Mangiocotti’s party, Maxwell was no real tough guy.

“Here,” he said after a pause, “I brought this for the kid and her mother.” He reached into his suitcase and produced several packets of wrapped 20-dollar bills.

“Holy smoke,” my mouth dropped open.

“Look, JP. I trust you. If you don’t think it’s safe, then, well, I guess that’s good enough for me. But I know they’ve got to be, hell, you’ve all got to be strapped for cash. This ought to be enough to get you where you’re going. All right?”

“And?” I probed carefully expecting another shoe to drop.

“And nothing,” he said sadly. “I want her safe and well taken care of, that’s all.”

“Suppose I don’t let you see her.”

He took a deep breath and blew the air slowly out of his nose. I could see the wheels turning but there was no way, no matter what he said, that I was going to risk the little girl. Convince me Maxwell, I thought. Convince me that you have no agenda and that it will be safe to take you to them.

The money sat on the seat between us as he stared through the windshield. Not planning to say anything else I let the silence work on him. Finally he spoke to me in a thick voice that was only barely under control.

“JP,” he started without looking at me, “I’m 44 years old. I’ve got lots of money, lots of fame, and none of it is worth a damn. I’ve never done anything for anybody else. It’s just been me, me, me. That is, until your phone call slapped me around. Take the money. Tell Andrea’s sister that I’m sorry and that I won’t invade their privacy and that she’ll never have to worry about money again.”

“OK,” was all I managed as I watched his eyes fill up. He made no attempt to hide his feelings from me, which I took as a complement.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated.

“All right Brix,” I smiled, “let’s go.”

“To see her?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “I believe you. You’re not that good an actor.”

“What?!” He protested half seriously and then laughed, “too bad I didn’t beat the hell out of you at Mangiocotti’s party.”

We pulled up at the motel. I left the money under the front seat to give to Tenny later. We got out of the car, walked to the door, and knocked. Doris answered. A huge smile and look of relief spread across her face as she wrapped her arms around me. She then nodded at Maxwell and led the two of us inside.

Tenny was sitting at the desk writing and weakly smiled at us. Sarah was playing with several dolls that she had set up against the pillows on one of the beds. She looked up, and as soon as she saw me, ran over and jumped into my arms. I turned her to face Maxwell. They exchanged awkward smiles.

“What’s your name?” She said to him.

“This is a friend of mine,” I said. “He wanted to meet you. Sarah, this is Mr. Maxwell.”

“Hello,” she said while keeping a tight grip on me.

“Uh, hello,” Maxwell stammered slightly. “You’re a very pretty little girl.” It was obvious he instantly saw their resemblance.

“I’m not little,” she protested. “Mr. P. says that I’m getting to be a big girl. I am eight, you know. I’m going to be in third grade this year.”

“Yes,” Maxwell smiled, “I see you are.”

Maxwell stared at her for a long time. Years of wasted time washed across his face. The aging playboy was in love for maybe the first time in his life.

As Sarah hung on my neck Tenny walked over and offered her hand to Maxwell. Doris joined my young friend and I allowing us to retreat to the far side of the room. As Sarah gathered her dolls to show to me Doris and I listened to their conversation.

“I didn’t know…” Maxwell began.

“Yes,” Tenny nodded, “Andrea didn’t want you to.”

“But…”

“What’s done is done. I’ve been dreading this day since she was born. For a long while we were able to limp along on our own, but then when the money ran out…”

“Jeez…”

“Well, that’s when Alexis came in. I’m guessing that JP told you the rest.”

“Money won’t be problem any more. I sort of need to make up for lost time.”

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I guess considering all that’s happened, I can call you Brix.” Tenny then turned to me. “Now what? How do we do this?”

I passed Sarah to Doris and stood up. “Here’s what I’ve been thinking. If the two of you are willing, Brix can pass the money to you through me. The less known about what is going on the better. At least one part of this insanity has been taken care of.”

They both agreed.

I turned to Maxwell and asked, “when do you have to get back?”

“By tonight,” he said. “We’re shooting tomorrow and I have lines to learn. But what happens to them? Where are they going?”

“Sorry Brix,” I said sternly, “that’s a secret for now. When all this is over then the rules will be different. But for now…”

We spent about an hour together in total. Sarah didn’t pay much attention to Maxwell, but he didn’t seem to mind. All he wanted to do was to hear about the eight years that he’d missed and watch his daughter play.

When the very short time together was over and Maxwell went out to the car to get the money I took the brief opening to talk with Doris and Tenny. I imagined that they knew what was coming and neither of them wanted to hear it.

“OK,” I started, “we have to move fast. I’m going back to LA with Brix. You three are going to Michigan. You’ve got plenty of money. Take your time. No one will know where you are so I can be sure that you’re safe. Doris and her uncle will handle it from there.”

“JP,” Doris complained, “what are you going to do? We can’t just let…”

“Look. This is the way it has to be. When it’s all over I’ll let you know and then we can try to figure out what normal is going to look like for Tenny and Sarah.”

“But,” Doris began just as Maxwell came back from the car with the money.

He hugged Tenny and Doris, but only managed to get Sarah to shake hands. Tenny hugged me and tearfully thanked both Doris and I. My redhead sadly leaned her head on my shoulder and rubbed my arm. Leaving was even more difficult than I’d expected.

We eventually ended the good byes and as Doris and I walked out with Maxwell he turned to me with a confused look on his face. I raised my eyebrows and shrugged.

“I’m going back with you,” I said flatly.

“You and Doris, you mean.”

“No,” Doris managed, “I’m staying here.”

“She’s not going with us?” Maxwell said to me with surprise in his voice.

“Just as far as the airport,” I explained.

“Then I’ll drive the car back and pick up Sarah and Tenny,” Doris finished.

“They need to be far away and safe and I need to get back to LA and put an end to this.” As I explained, Doris flinched.

“But how?” Maxwell’s eyes were wide in confusion.

“I’ve got a plan,” I said. “I’ll tell you about it on the plane.”

He nodded slowly as we climbed back into the car. We rode silently back to the airport lost in our thoughts. With the spectacular scenery a blur outside my speeding car I tried to imagine how much Maxwell’s life had changed in the last two days. In a perversely funny way I decided that at least now, since all this had to remain a secret, I’d be able to find out how good an actor he actually was.

Doris pulled the car to the far end of the parking lot. Painfully I had to once again say good-bye to my lanky redhead. Having to do it once was hard enough. Maxwell and I watched her drive away. While we headed for the terminal Maxwell again pulled up on his collar and down on the brim of his fedora.

We were traveling light. The only suitcase we had was mine. The other one that held the money had been left back at the motel with Tenny. As soon as Doris returned from the airport the three of them were going to head out. I told her to leave messages for me with Maxwell’s answering service and to only call from a pay phone that wasn’t near where they were staying.

Before we walked into the building a man jogged out to see us. He was a short middle-aged fellow with narrow features and thin shoulders. Wearing a cap with a turned up brim and baggy dungarees he looked like a grease monkey from a local gas station. Maxwell told me it was his pilot, Jed Fowler, which somehow made the attire more logical.

Jed greeted his boss who then introduced me. Jed briefly let a minimal smile of greeting wash across his face. Even though I’d never seen him before it was obvious something was bothering him.

“OK boss,” he said to Maxwell. “The plane is gassed up and checked out. We’re ready to go.”

“That’s fine,” Maxwell replied as he turned to walk inside. Jed put up his hand.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Another plane came in about an hour ago,” Jed explained. “This guy got off and began asking a lot of questions about our plane. He’s been spending his time between hanging around inside and walking out to where our Cessna is parked.”

“So?” Maxwell sounded impatient and uninterested.

“I don’t know,” Jed complained, “but something about him don’t sit right with me.” He then pointed out a square jawed guy in a leather jacket standing by an outside gate that led to the tarmac. “That’s him there,” he said.

“Oh damn,” was all I could think of to say.

“What?” Maxwell said in a higher voice than usual.

“Brix,” I clinched my teeth, “they know you’re here.”

“Who does? What are you talking about?”

They were both looking at me now with fear welling up in their eyes. Maybe I shouldn’t have allowed Maxwell to fly out. Maybe I should have realized that every plane had to post a flight plan and someone could have found out where Maxwell was going. While it was too late to do anything about it at least I knew why I’d been nagged by the fear that something was about to go horribly wrong.

Damn,” I repeated as I reached back to make sure my gun was still wedged into my belt at the small of my back. “The guy in the leather jacket is Samuel Judge.”

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 31 & 32

31

Seated on the couch inside with their arms around each other were Gilley and Sarah. The crying had stopped and they were silently rocking each other slowly with their eyes closed. Seeing the two of them made all chaos and pain of the last hour worth it. Gilley opened her eyes and looked at me. She mouthed a tearful thank you as I staggered upstairs.

Doris helped me to the bathroom and into a hot tub. I planned to soak until the soreness was gone. I thought that a month might do it.

Before going to bed we looked out the back window at the still smoldering barn. With no other buildings, crops, or trees nearby it had nearly burned itself out without affecting anything else. I didn’t know what to do about Johnston’s remains. That problem would have to wait until I had a long talk with Gilley. Doris tucked me in and then went back downstairs to check on our patients.

It was after sunrise when my eyes opened. Slowly I swung my legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand. I was sore everywhere but somehow managed to struggle to my feet and into the bathroom. Doris sat up when I returned.

“How’re you holding up?” She asked quietly.

“I’ll make it I guess,” I sighed as I looked out the window at what was left of the smoking rubble. Knowing a charred body was buried under the debris made it even more disturbing.

“Gilley OK?” I asked to get my mind onto something else.

“Looks that way. The little girl fell asleep and I carried her up to bed. I can only imagine the dreams she must have had.”

I sat down next to her on the bed. “You know we can’t stay here. The four of us need to hit the road to somewhere safe and try to decide what to do next. And, if Gilley is up to it we need to have a long talk.”

“I guess.” Doris began to massage my back. Unfortunately, I flinched so often at every sore spot she touched I wasn’t able to convince her to continue.

“How did you know?” She asked referring to Johnston

“I didn’t for sure. Look, he was already involved in some shady stuff with the photos he expected to get from Judge. Remember, he was stalking us in DC and I watched him beat up Kanovsen. I was pretty sure he wasn’t making a social call.”

“Whom was he working for?”

“I’m still trying to put it all together,” I sighed. “Now, can you help get the soreness out of my back?”

“This is pointless,” she complained when all her massaging accomplished was to make me flinch. “Let me check on everyone else while you get yourself dressed.”

“Can’t you work on me a little more?” I asked as I rolled over.

“Sorry tough guy,” she smiled, “you’re not in good enough shape for that yet.”

It was late morning by the time we were all able to be together. Sarah understandably continued to hold tightly to Gilley. After having the chance to get cleaned up and with her hair combed I had my first chance to see what a truly pretty little girl she was. With Maxwell and Gilmore for parents it was no surprise.

Even at eight years old we could tell that she was going to become a beautiful woman. And it was a someday that only a few hours ago didn’t seem so likely. With her long legs and the silky blond hair that flowed in waves down her back, there was no doubt that she was Maxwell’s child. She definitely had his face all the way from the glint in her eyes to the dimple in her chin. There was the same mouth, same nose, and same cheekbones. The resemblance was impossible to miss.

“So, Miss Gilley,” I said after an awkward time of conversation trying to get accustomed to the bizarre situation we were in. “You feel up to explaining some things while we figure out what to do next?”

“It’s Hortense Gilley,” she said in the same smoky alto as her sister, “but please call me Tenny. Two sisters and can you imagine two more terrible names than Hortense and Prudence. We went by Tenny and Prudy as you might guess.”

“How do you feel?” Doris asked.

“I’m sore and my head’s pounding a bit,” she smiled weakly, “but I’ve been worse.” Sarah snuggled in Tenny’s lap occasionally looking up at her as if making sure she was still there. As we talked her eyes darted between Doris and me still not sure if we were trustworthy.

“Can we talk with Sarah here?” I asked awkwardly since I didn’t know what else to do.

“Come on sweetie,” Doris coaxed, “come on with me. Maybe we can go up to your room and play a game. You know, I was the one who carried you up to bed last night and tucked you in. Did you know that?”

Sarah looked up at Tenny and then at me. After taking a few minutes to talk her into leaving with Doris the young girl finally agreed. My redhead smiled, took her hand, and they slowly went up the stairs. We watched them go and when they were out of sight I turned to Tenny.

“Let me start,” I said. “Maybe my guesses will get things rolling. Stop me if I get off track.”

“All right,” she said before asking, “but first, how did you get involved in all this?”

“OK, fair enough question,” I took a deep breath, “here goes.” For the next several minutes I filled her in on Doris and I, our connection to her sister, my being hired by the studios, Eve Standish, HUAC, the murder for hire offer, and our escape from LA. Tenny listened intently and while fascinated by the story she didn’t seem all that surprised.

“My, my,” she sighed when I was done. “You two have really been through it. OK, what do you want to know?”

“Sarah is a beautiful little girl. You have done a wonderful job with her.” I hoped Tenny knew that I meant every word.

“Thank you,” she said. “She is very special.” Tenny sat quietly giving every indication she knew what I was going to say.

“Sarah is really Andrea’s, or Prudy’s, daughter, isn’t she?” I said bluntly and she nodded. “But you have raised her as your own. I’m guessing that Brix Maxwell is her father.”

“Yes.”

“And,” I continued, “your sister became pregnant after they began work on a movie together back in ‘43. She came here before she began to show and the studios, because they were afraid of loosing their main meal ticket, let her get away with it. Yes?”

“That’s right,” she said softly but without any shame. “As far as Sarah knows I am her mother. There’s enough family resemblance to eliminate any suspicion.”

“Uh huh.”

“But please,” her tone became very different, “You’re not going to tell her are you? She’s had enough…”

I took her hand between mine. “Don’t worry. My wife and I are on your side. But there are some things I’ve got to know.”

“I understand.”

“Who knows about this other than your sister, of course? How about the studios?”

“I just don’t know. One thing they do know is that my sister is an unusual person,” she said. “But what have people said?”

“Even if somebody in Hollywood knew about Sarah, they wouldn’t say it. Lots of jobs and reputations would hang in the balance.

“Alexis ever let on that he knows anything?”

“Nope,” I shrugged.

“You’d think he would though, wouldn’t you? He is my brother-in-law.” Tenny paused. “It feels odd to say that.”

“Do you ever meet him?”

“No.”

“Hmmm,” I scratched my head and leaned back. “That’s pretty strange. OK, so how did you fool everyone?”

“Well,” she lowered her head. It was obvious that she hadn’t told the full story before. “I just became the pregnant one. While Prudy stayed here at home our mother and I continued on our regular routine. We had fellows working the farm back then. We just carried on our regular routine of shopping, going into town, picking up our mail, you know.”

“And you padded yourself when you went out in public in order to fool everyone?”

“Yes,” she took a deep breath and nodded.

“You completely gave yourself up for your sister. Why?”

“Mr. Parker,” she touched the bandages on her head and arm and pursed her lips. “My sister isn’t like other people. She has a gift, I guess, but maybe in order to have the gift she had to give up other things.

“Prudy is a great actress because she is able to completely become someone else. As you might imagine she had many boyfriends growing up, but not only because she’s beautiful. It was also because she became whatever they wanted her to be. There is no real Prudy. She is only able to be other people.”

“Go on,” I said as I thought back to watching her transformation on the movie set.

“You can imagine how Brix was attracted to her. You can also imagine with an endless supply of women available how he probably eventually lost interest. I bet he didn’t think all that much about her after the film was scrapped and she came out here.”

“So then,” I rubbed the back of my neck with my hand, “he doesn’t know anything about Sarah?”

“That’s right.”

“Amazing,” I understated. “But what about your boyfriends, husband…”

“I never married. By the time I was 12 or so I felt that I needed to watch out for my ‘special’ sister. Then it seemed that once I started to do that, I couldn’t stop.”

“As far as the town and neighbors are concerned you’re the unmarried mother, not your sister. I bet they made it tough on you especially since I imagine you never named someone as Sarah’s dad.”

“These small town hypocrites,” she shook her head in disgust, “they have a lot to learn.”

“You ever feel, well, like you got the short end of the stick?”

“I did for a while after Prudy went back to Hollywood,” she said and then a wide smile played across her face. “But then I got Sarah out of the bargain. I’m way ahead.”

“You’re quite a gal,” I said and she smiled. “Tell me about money. Did Prudy support you?”

“Not really,” she shrugged, “remember, she’s not like other folks. For a while the farm supported us. Then Sarah was born and when Prudy went back to Hollywood they were so grateful to me they began to send me money.”

“Who was grateful?”

“At first it was her agent Zach Brigham.”

“So he knew what had happened?”

“Not necessarily,” Tenny said. “My sister might have just told him to do it. If you’ve met him you know he probably wouldn’t have questioned her.”

“I can believe that,” I agreed. “I bet it was in cash too so that there wouldn’t be a trail.”

“It was. I don’t know whether you’re aware of what happened to his sons in the war.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well then,” Tenny said, “you understand why the responsibility had to change. After Prudy got married Ron Alexis took over the payments.”

“But something changed recently, didn’t it?”

Tenny leaned back in the chair and her eyes looked far away out the window. The tough life she’d led had kept her from being as attractive as her sister even though she actually had much more to offer. She had guts, brains, and the ability to live in reality. Oddly despite those qualities it was her sister that everyone admired. Go figure.

“A few months ago,” Tenny said in a weary voice, “the money stopped. The deal that we had set up all those years ago said that I was never to call. So I sent a letter to Ron. Sending it to my sister would have been pointless, although he probably would have opened it anyway. There was no response.

“Now, I could hardly go to the police. While at that point I didn’t really care all that much about her Hollywood crowd I was worried about what the truth might do to Sarah. She was having a nice quiet little life, until yesterday that is, and I didn’t want to risk it.

“I was in a bind. Mom died three years ago leaving me with lots of bills and this useless farm that I couldn’t sell. I didn’t want to leave Sarah to go and try to find a job, but money was becoming very tight. Finally after many increasingly desperate letters to Alexis, and even Brigham, I did a stupid thing.”

“Let me guess,” I said, “you told Eve Standish.”

“Sort of. You see I had a friend who worked at the LA Times. She gave me Standish’s private address and I sent a blind item telling her that Andrea Gilmore had a deep dark secret from the early 40s. I told her to ask Alexis and watch his reaction.”

“But you never let on what it was.”

“That’s right,” she frowned.

“What may have happened,” I explained, “was that Alexis got himself into financial trouble. Hard to believe considering all the money your sister must be making, but it does look that way.”

“I knew I was taking a chance with Sarah, but I was so strapped for cash that I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Do you think Standish ever found out what it was?” I felt that I was on the edge of my seat.

“I don’t know,” Tenny dropped heavily back into her chair.

“And the money started coming again?” I asked.

“There was one payment. It arrived with different handwriting on the envelope. Inside was a typed letter saying that if I ever tried anything like that again Sarah would be taken from me. There was no information about whether any additional money would be coming.”

“And then Standish was killed and Johnston showed up to…well, you know.”

“Yes, I guess so,” she said. “Do you understand all this?”

I nodded grimly. “Yup, I think I do. The trick is to prove it. First thing we’ve got to do is get out of here to somewhere safe. Then we’ll get busy on making things right.”

“What are you going to do?”

My answer wasn’t good, but it was the same thing I’d been saying for weeks. “I have no idea.”

 

32

We left Jordan Valley early the next morning. If whoever was waiting to hear from Johnston got nervous we didn’t want them to visit and find us still sitting around. We headed east on US Route 20 while I scrambled to come up with a plan.

Sarah seemed happy to get away from the farm and go on what we told her was a vacation. Maybe kids are more resilient than we give them credit for. Either that or the full horror of the previous day hadn’t hit her yet. Thankful that it was an easy getaway she and her “mom” sat in the back while Doris drove and I studied a map.

“What are you thinking?” Doris said breaking the morning’s silence.

I looked over my shoulder to see Sarah happily playing with a doll and looking out the window while Tenny dozed. Deciding it was safe to talk I said, “your Uncle Nick still lives in Michigan, right?”

“We’re going to dive to Michigan?” Doris’s spread her hands on the steering wheel. “Do you realize how far that is?”

“Yeah I know, but that’s only one of the several things we have to do. Most important we need to keep them safe. His house would do it for a while, anyway. Then we’ve got to get Maxwell on the phone. He’s a character, all right, but I’m hoping he’ll still want to step up and do the right thing.”

“You ask Tenny about that?”

“We’ll do that first of course,” I nodded. “Then after they’re safe I need to go back to LA…”

“We need…”

“OK,” I smiled at my gutsy redhead, “we need to go back to LA and finish this.”

“Finish this how?” Doris squinted into the morning sun.

“I am very open to suggestions.”

Route 20 took us through Boise, Idaho and I periodically took a break from reading the map to look for the homely colonies made up of LA exiles. They had to be coming up soon.

We plugged along with Doris and I trading the driving while I hoped to make Jackson, WY by nighttime. With it being summer vacation season I worried about whether we would be able to find a place to stay. With effort I put that thought out of my mind. One impossible problem at a time.

At midday we found a local diner for lunch in Carey, ID. The food was adequate and we decided to take a break for a while. Doris agreed that she would spirit Sarah away giving me the chance to tell Tenny what we’d been thinking. Surprisingly when the opportunity came Sarah didn’t want to go with Doris. She was only willing to go with me. I winked at Doris, took Sarah’s hand, and we walked off down the main drag.

About two blocks down the street we came to a grammar school. The gate to the playground was open and Sarah led me inside. For a while my mind was still back at the car where I knew Doris and Tenny were talking, but it wasn’t long before the little girl had me totally distracted.

I’d spent a fair amount of time with Ralph’s kids over the years, yet, except for one time when his then college age son helped me with a case, it was always with their parents nearby. This was different. It was just the two of us in our own private world. This must be what dads experience on a regular basis. I’d never before had the chance to find out what it was like and it made me instantly jealous.

After well over an hour we reluctantly we dragged ourselves away and began to retrace our steps back to the car. What a good break from the chaos of the last few weeks it was. I may have needed it more than she did.

Doris and Tenny were sitting on a sidewalk bench still talking as my new girlfriend and I approached. She ran over and jumped into Tenny’s lap and began to babble about all the fun we’d had in the playground. At least one of us didn’t seem worried about anything.

Tenny listened to Sarah for a minute and then looked up at me. “Doris explained some things,” she said. “Michigan is fine with me as long as you have the money to get us there.”

“That’s another problem,” I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “We’re going to have to make some calls and get some wired to us. Now, what about bringing Maxwell into this?”

“Do you think that’s safe?” Tenny looked back and forth between Doris and I.

“Depends,” I said. “I need to talk with him and maybe I can get a feel for it based on how the conversation goes. He kind of owes us for a couple of things although finding out about Sarah and picking up your bills is a big one.”

“I trust you,” Tenny said slowly and then with her eyes staring at the horizon added, “it’s not like I have a choice, is it?”

We talked about the plans for the next several days making sure to use language that Sarah wouldn’t understand. Then gritting our teeth we all climbed back into the car hoping to make Jackson by dinnertime. After we were settled I’d call Maxwell.

It wasn’t the Ritz but we managed to find a couple of available cabins on the north side of Jackson just south of the entrance to Grand Teton Park. The scenery was unlike anything I’d ever seen. We were completely surrounded by huge snowcapped mountains with gray colored slopes. Slowly I let my eyes trace them until they disappeared behind endless miles of rolling hills covered by Aspen pine. I guessed that I’d seen pictures, but nothing could have prepared me for the spectacular infinite expanse. Maybe this was sort of a vacation.

After dinner I found a phone booth and made a collect call to Ralph in New York. I knew I’d never hear the end of that. Judy answered.

“JP,” she said after hearing my voice on the line. “Where are you?”

“Wyoming.”

“What in the world is going on? We heard your name on the news about the Standish murder. Are you all right?” Judy didn’t mask her concern like her husband did. I quickly explained our situation.

“We’re in kind of a financial jam,” I understated as I finished the update.

“OK, here’s Ralph.”

“Wyoming?” He bellowed into the phone. “What the hell?”

I explained again even more quickly than before. “Can you wire us some money?” I must have sounded fairly pathetic since Ralph put his sarcasm away and he said he’d contact Western Union.

I thanked him knowing that the relatively easy call was over. Under the extreme circumstances I knew that Ralph would come through for me despite any future grumbling he might make to the contrary.

The next call to Maxwell would be going into uncharted territory. How do you tell someone that he has an eight-year-old daughter that he’s never heard of? And, she’s an eight-year daughter that people he knows want to murder. Thinking that of all the billions of people on the planet Maxwell and I were probably the only ones about to have such a conversation.

“Hello,” Maxwell’s familiar voice boomed through the receiver.

“Brix,” I said, “it’s JP Parker.”

“Hey man,” came the friendly banter, “you’re big news. Did you really do her in? If you did, there’ll be no complaints from me.”

“Didn’t you get the messages we left with your answering service?”

“Yeah, I was going to call later.” He suddenly sounded serious. “What’s going on?”

“Oh boy. I’d much rather have this conversation in person, but…”

“All right,” he said quickly, “where are you?”

Not wanting to give anything more than I had to I said, “we’re far away and what I have to tell you can’t wait.”

“Have you been drinking?” He laughed. “I thought I was the one with the flexible elbow. Somebody put you up to this?”

“If I was there with you I’d tell you that you’d better sit down. Even though I’m not, do it anyway.”

“Jeez, JP.”

“First of all someone tried to frame me for killing Standish.”

“I sort of thought so,” he snorted a laugh.

“It looks like it was kind of a spur of the moment thing. They didn’t think it out very well and the cops didn’t have enough to be able to hold me. You’ve got to figure that they’re under big pressure to put something together.”

“What the hell…”

“I’m working on sorting the whole thing out, but there’s more to it than just someone bumping off a crazy oversexed columnist.”

“Standish is the only thing anyone’s talking about” Maxwell offered. “Your name hasn’t come up much. But there were a couple of mentions referring back to those blind items about you that were in her column.

“I was even stopped at the gate to the studio today and asked about the one concerning the two of us at Mangiocotti’s party. I stuck to our story that it was just a gag. Sorry old man, I took credit for thinking it up.”

Despite the jam we were in his attitude still made me smile. “Knock off the ‘old man’ stuff, will you.”

“OK pal,” Maxwell laughed. “Go ahead. I owe you twice now, at least. What’s up?”

“This should more than square things,” I said. I took a deep breath of mountain air and drank in much of the Rocky Mountain scenery as I could. There wasn’t an easy way to say what I had to.

“Man, you sound like the weight of the world is on you.” Maxwell’s inflection was hard to read.

“Look Brix,” I began. “What do you know about Standish beyond, well, you know?”

“Not much. She did seem to know everything about everybody and, as you know, she wasn’t shy about using it to her advantage.”

“Blackmail?”

“Not that I know off, but I guess she could have,” he guessed. “In a way that’s what she was doing to me.”

I was distracted by a huge flock of birds. Their V formation practically stretched from one horizon to the other. I watched their silhouettes against the reddening of the western sky until Maxwell yelled “hello” thinking that we’d been cut off.

“She was blackmailing Andrea,” I said after Maxwell snapped me out of it. “$10,000 a month. Only two payments were made before she was killed.”

“Our Andrea Gilmore?” He laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding. America’s Sweetheart? What in the world would she have hidden? She doesn’t do anything except make movies. She doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t see anyone, nothing.”

“No one except you.”

“What?” Maxwell’s laughter stopped.

“In 1943,” I started, “the two of you began a movie, but then the project was dropped.”

“How did you find…”

I plowed ahead. “During the shooting, you and Miss Gilmore became very acquainted, didn’t you?”

Maxwell’s voice suddenly sounded far away. “We, uh, spent a little time together.”

“You remember that the project was shelved when she quit to go home to be with her mother back in Oregon, right?”

“Something like that, I guess,” he stammered. “We weren’t all that close, you know.”

“And she didn’t return until late summer in ‘44. You remember?”

“Yes,” he said slowly.

“Are you putting this together? Blackmail? Being away for nine months or so? You know where I’m going?”

“What are you saying?” Suddenly Maxwell’s breathing became labored.

“Brix,” I said pausing slightly knowing that there wasn’t any way to soften what I was about to say. “You have an eight year old daughter named Sarah. Andrea’s sister has raised her as her own and the little girl knows nothing else. She’s a beautiful, smart kid and, well, damned if she doesn’t look just like you.”

At first there was silence on the line and then moments later I thought I heard the movie tough guy sobbing.

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 29 & 30

29

Following the postmaster’s directions took us north out of town. At a red barn we turned right and flew down a narrow gravel road heading for the mountains. Before long the gravel gave way to dirt that heavily coated our tires and sidewalls.

Within minutes the road we were climbing leveled off. Suddenly spread out before us was a wide valley that stretched to the base of the mountains. In the distance we could see a small farmhouse and a barn at the end of a dirt road. Parked in front was a shiny new Ford that looked very out of place. We paused for a moment and then took off into the valley.

I slid our car in behind the California plated Ford intentionally blocking its exit. I motioned for Doris to stay down as I took my gun out of the back of my belt. My redhead’s eyes went wide.

“What in the world?” She gasped. “What are you doing?”

“Before anything happens,” I said probably more dramatically than I should have, “I want you to go back to town and get the sheriff.”

“Are you out of your mind?” She yelled at me across the front seat. “There’s no sheriff in town. I see a phone line running to the house. Let me go in there and make a call if I have to.”

“All right,” I agreed. “But stay here for a moment.”

I bent low behind the Ford and then quickly darted to the front porch. Leaning tightly against the side of the farmhouse I stopped and listened. A tapping sound made me spin around only to see a window shade playing a rhythm against a sill. Breathing heavily I tried to put my heart back inside my chest.

The front of the dilapidated house was dominated by a wide open-air porch. It was not in any better condition than the rest of the building. Everything from loose boards to a worn exterior in serious need of paint to windows that were out of square told me that the owner was hard up for cash.

I crept slowly along the front wall carefully peaking inside a couple of times. I saw nothing but old furniture and worn walls. When I reached the end of the porch I made my way down the side of the farmhouse toward the back yard. There were no trees nearby and the barn was over 150 feet away. If someone was watching me they would have a nice clear view.

Behind the house was another empty expanse that contained a couple of old farm implements and a pick up truck with two flat tires. Confident that no one was nearby I ran back to the front corner of the house and waved at Doris to run to the porch. She was there in seconds.

“Go inside and find the phone,” I told her and she disappeared inside.

There’s a feeling you get when you think danger is nearby. Maybe it’s a sixth sense we all have but is only triggered under certain circumstances. Whatever it was I was feeling it in spades. Heat washed up my neck and I could feel my hair standing on end. Suddenly the spell was broken when Doris screamed from somewhere inside the farmhouse.

Without a second thought I tore through the front door with my pistol raised. Sweat poured down my face and I could feel my hands tingling with adrenaline. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior I saw the room was empty. Slowly I headed for the banister by the stairs in the rear of the living room.

Doris called to me again but this time it was clear she was downstairs. Off the living room a short hallway ran past a couple of closed doors and led into the kitchen. What I saw caused me to freeze for a second.

Doris was kneeling over an unconscious woman. A fair amount of blood was smeared across the floor. I went to the sink and soaked down a dishtowel and quickly knelt down next to the two of them. The woman’s breathing was labored, but still regular.

“JP,” Doris’ voice was strained. “What’s going on here?”

“Later,” I said quickly. “We need to find out where she’s hurt and how bad it is.”

The woman had a large gash across her forehead and two black eyes. Blood had run down her face and stained her housedress. She was frail and probably looked older than she really was but the resemblance was clear. She had the same high cheekbones, the same wide set eyes, and the remnants of the same body. The name of the woman lying in front of us had to be Hortense Gilley, Andrea Gilmore’s older sister.

Doris and I pealed her clothes back, but didn’t find anything life threatening. She was bruised about the throat and had a fairly deep cut on her left shoulder. She wasn’t in good shape but at least we’d accounted for the blood on the floor.

Johnston had worked her over pretty well, but I still got the idea she’d put up a fight. We found a knife across the room under the table. It was a standard steak knife that she’d apparently used to defend herself. It certainly wasn’t the variety that an attacker would have used.

Together we propped her up against the wall. I filled up a saucepan with warm water and cleaned both wounds. Doris ran back down the hall and found a small bathroom. She returned in seconds with some ointment and gauze. Gilley was lucky she hadn’t bled to death. Johnston could have easily finished her, but something must have happened to stop him.

Suddenly she gasped as she regained consciousness, which made both Doris and I jump. Her eyes were white with fear and she tried to crawl away from us. Her first move made her cry out in pain and her eyes fluttered.

“Please,” Doris said in a gentle voice, “don’t move. You’re hurt pretty badly. Don’t be afraid, we’re here to help.”

Gilley’s eyes darted between us and I tried to smile reassuringly. Doris ran a warm cloth across the injured woman’s face as the two of us helped her into a sitting position.

“Who are…” She stammered.

“We’re friends,” I said.

“We want to help,” Doris added.

Gilley’s eyes began to clear and for the first time she was able to focus. She looked back and forth between us and there was desperation flashing in her eyes. The battered victim moved her mouth as if trying to say something but at first nothing came out. After some practice she began to form a word or a name.

“Are you trying to say ‘Sarah’?” I asked after reading her lips. She nodded.

“Your daughter?” I continued and she nodded again.

“A bearded man is looking for her to harm her?” I asked again and she frantically mouthed a yes. Doris then looked at me with almost the identical frightened expression.

“And he’s outside looking for her because you wouldn’t tell him where she was?”

“Run…” She choked. “Just run…get…safe…run.” Gilley’s eyes rolled white.

“Don’t let her go to sleep,” I told Doris. “She’s probably got a concussion and may be going into shock. Keep talking to her. Wipe her face.”

Gilley’s head lolled from side to side. Again she looked at me. “Silo…run…safe…”

“Good enough,” I said jumping to my feet.

“JP,” Doris looked up at me. “What are you going…”

“You’re doing great,” I said as I neared the kitchen’s back door. “Keep her awake. Call the cops if you can. Pray that I find Sarah in time.”

As I went out the back door I heard Doris call, “what in the world is going on?”

I decided to tell her when I got back, if I got back.

 

30

It was mid afternoon and the sun glared off the bare dry ground. I looked through the back yard until it ended at the base of the mountains. Finding Johnston would have to come first and then I could go after Sarah. There was no way I wanted to expose her to any more danger than she’d already seen.

It seemed unlikely that my prey was in the house but I opened the outside cellar door and stepped down into the darkness. Enough light poured in through the narrow windows at ground level to allow me to make my way around once my eyes had a few seconds to adjust. The cement cellar was filled with old rusted farm equipment, a coal chute, and a furnace. It was dirty and damp but that was all.

I climbed back outside and headed for the barn. At about halfway there a bullet danced off the ground at the feet. A cloud of dust circled up from next to my shoe. Being exposed in the middle of the back yard put me at a serious disadvantage.

Two more shots hissed by me as I ran a zig zag pattern to the far side of the house. Another bullet slammed into a wood shingle just behind my head as I turned the corner out of range. Johnston was a good shot.

“JP!” Doris screamed from inside.

“I’m OK,” I yelled back. “Stay away from the windows.”

Peaking around the corner I saw a puff of smoke hanging in the air just outside barn’s loft. Johnston was more trapped than I was. He might have had the angle on me, but under normal circumstances I could just wait him out. Unfortunately this time the odds were very different because there was no way to know whether he had found Sarah.

With waiting not an option I walked around the far side of the farmhouse. Staying out of the line of fire I crawled into my car and backed it up away from his Ford. The idea to block him in had initially seemed like a good one.

Being careful to stay out of sight I then carefully got out of my car, crouched down, and made my way back to where he’d parked. I opened his door and crawled in under the dash. Within seconds I managed to pull the ignition wires out. After stripping a couple of them with my thumbnails I hot-wired the car. It started right up. Ford’s are great that way.

Slowly I steered it toward the barn with my head down as far below the dashboard as possible. Another bullet pierced the windshield and dug itself into the seat just above my left shoulder. I kept moving forward and aimed the Ford at the closed barn doors in front of me.

Johnston’s next shot took out the front left tire and then another took out the right. The car shuddered a bit but kept moving. I peaked over the dash for a second and re-aimed for the doors. At about 25 feet away I pulled out the clutch and the car lurched forward. Timing this would have to be perfect especially since I wasn’t going to get a second chance.

As the car picked up speed I opened the door. Hanging on its handle I waited for just the right second to roll free of the impending crash. After a deep breath and a quick prayer I dove away barely a split second before the Ford broke down the barn doors. It continued inside a short distance before colliding with a tractor. Tangled together the two metal beasts held each other in a stalemate.

“Johnston,” I yelled up at from a hiding place I’d found in a stall behind the tractor. “Give it up. You’re trapped.”

“Like hell,” he snarled back at me. “I’ve got the kid. If you don’t clear out of here she’s dead. You get me?”

Something didn’t sound right. If he had her why were they hiding out in the second story of the barn? I crawled as quietly as possible across the floor and, after finding a loose board in the rear of the barn, when back outside.

After looking up and not seeing a gun pointing out of the wall above my head I ran around to the far side of the attached silo. There was a ladder running up its exterior that led to a door about 40 feet off the ground. I climbed it two steps at a time.

If he knew where I was all he’d have to do was run around outside and pick me off. He was clearly a good enough shot. I tried unsuccessfully to put that idea out of my head.

I reached the top, opened the small door, and climbed inside. The smell of the rotting corn was overpowering and I became nauseous almost immediately. The sound of a little girl crying snapped me out of it. She was to my right and just above my head hanging onto a ladder inside the silo. I thought Johnston had been bluffing.

“Sarah honey,” I said in the most reassuring voice I had. “Don’t cry. I’ve come to help you and your mommy.”

She was white with fear and continued to sob.

“I know the bad man is outside,” I continued, “but he doesn’t know you’re in here. My wife is inside the house helping mommy. She’s going to be OK. You understand?”

She nodded very slightly. Her crying and breaths were coming in gasps. All I could think of was the lifetime of nightmares she was going to have, that is, assuming I got her out of this.

Pushing the door open slightly I scanned below for Johnston. He was nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately there was no way I could be sure that he wouldn’t walk around the corner at the instant I began to climb down the silo.

“I’m going back outside,” I said to the petrified little girl. “You stay here. Can you be brave for mommy just a little bit longer?” All the time I’d spent with my pal Ralph’s kids over the years was paying off.

She nodded and I heard a faint “yes.”

“Good girl. You’re very brave. OK honey, I’ll be back in just a little while and then we’ll go see mommy. Do you know how to pray?”

She nodded.

“OK, then pray very hard.”

Again I looked out through the narrow opening. It was still clear. Not wanting to take any longer than I had to I wrapped my shirt around my hands and quickly swung myself outside the silo. I grabbed the sides of the ladder and in one motion slid the 40 feet to the ground. It couldn’t have taken more than two seconds.

Just as I ran behind the barn another bullet danced off the ground at my feet. I reversed course and ran back toward the front of the barn. Johnston was right behind me.

“So,” he laughed maniacally, “the kid’s in the silo. Thanks.”

As I neared the demolished front door I noticed that he was no longer behind me. Johnston had begun to climb the ladder. Feeling the weight of my gun in my hand I ran back around and fired at him. The bullet glanced of the metal frame of the silo.

Startled that I was armed he hung off the side of the ladder and fired back causing me to have to duck around the side of the barn. If I wasn’t able to hold him where he was he’d get too close to the door and it wouldn’t be safe for me to shoot again. And, if he actually got a hold of Sarah we were all in big trouble. It was a stalemate. He couldn’t climb down and I couldn’t go up after him.

“Come on down,” I called from around the corner of the barn. “I’ll let you go.”

“Fat chance,” he yelled back. “Tell you what. Let me have the kid and I’ll let you and the women go.”

This was pointless. We stayed frozen in place with neither one of us able to move and the little girl’s life hanging in the balance. My mind spun desperately for a way out.

We must have stayed that way for several minutes jawing back and forth at each other when I noticed a smell of smoke. Glancing quickly over my shoulder I saw it pouring out of the opening in the front of the barn where the doors used to be. In my frantic hurry to get into the barn I’d never turned off Johnston’s car’s ignition. A possible broken fuel line and some friction were about turn the barn into the Fourth of July.

Within seconds there was a loud explosion that shook the entire barn. Not being ready for it Johnston lost his grip on the ladder and dropped awkwardly to the ground losing his gun in the process. Before he could recover I was on him.

I caught him across the face with a solid left and he sprawled backward in the dust. With him temporarily disabled I frantically scanned the ground looking for his gun. I saw it lying near the side of the barn, but before I was able to get to it he tackled me from behind.

We rolled over several times in the dirt and another explosion rocked the barn. Very soon flames were pouring out from under the eaves of the roof and would be spreading to the silo in only seconds. I was horrified that even if I won the fight it might be too late to save Sarah.

Johnston pushed me face down into the dirt and buried his knee into the small of my back. Despite his superior position I was able to grab his hand and sink my teeth into the soft flesh between his thumb and forefinger. The skin gave way and blood poured into my mouth and onto the ground. Johnston screamed in pain and rolled off to my side.

Forcing the stiffness out of my back I staggered to my feet and kicked him in the ribs. Johnston coughed and rolled over on his back. His eyes were glassy and his left hand was bloodied and useless. The fight looked to be over until his unsteady right hand happened to land on his lost weapon.

I reached for mine only to find it had been lost during the melee. Backing up I tried to keep my eyes simultaneously on him, the engulfed barn, and the now slightly tilting silo.

I didn’t know what I looked like, but Johnston was in bad shape. Blood was pouring from his mouth, nose, and hand. He may have also had a broken rib or two. As I backed away he painfully pulled himself into a seating position and tried to aim his gun. I quickly moved away from both him and the silo.

His first shot sailed high over my head and his second buried itself into the ground not far from his outstretched foot. I thought about rushing him, but knowing Sarah was still imprisoned above my head I had to move in the opposite direction.

Flames by this time had spread throughout the barn and were leaping out the window above where Johnston lay. He once again raised his gun and tried to fire but it was empty. Confident he couldn’t chase after me I feverishly vaulted up the silo’s ladder.

By the time I was only 10 feet from the door and the little girl the side of the barn behind where Johnston lay collapsed outward and landed right on top of him. One problem was gone. But the adjoining wall that was behind the silo having lost its support was now sagging precariously inward. We had mere seconds to escape.

I flung open the door and wrapped my left arm around the hysterical little girl. We backed out of the silo onto what had become a very unstable ladder. I remember reading about people who in times of extreme situations did things that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. That was the first time I’d ever experienced it.

I held Sarah tightly and grabbed the ladder with my right hand. As the barn was falling in on itself I was somehow able to hold on tightly enough to let us slide to the ground. As soon as we landed the ladder was wrenched from my hand as the silo toppled over into the inferno.

The heat may have been intense, but we were miraculously safe. After a few seconds I scrambled to my feet, and still holding Sarah, sprinted to the house. Doris appeared in the back door and ran out to me. I collapsed into her. Sarah jumped out of my grasp and ran inside yelling and crying, “mommy, mommy.”

I was lying on my back with my head in Doris’ lap as she knelt beside me. Slowly my wind began to return and in a minute or two I was able to sit up and look into her wonderful face.

“How bad do I look?” I wheezed.

“You never looked better,” she said as tears streamed down her cheeks. The wet warm towel she began use on my face helped clear my mind.

“The little girl was hiding in the silo,” I said and Doris nodded through her tears. “How’s the girl’s mother?”

“I think she’s going to be fine,” my redhead smiled while getting control of her emotions. “I cleaned and bandaged her and mopped up the mess on the floor. She’s weak but conscious. We managed to get her clothes changed so by the time her daughter sees her she should look mostly normal. I left her sitting in the living room.”

“Good work doll,” I smiled.

“How awful it would have been for the little girl to lose her mother that way. She’s been traumatized enough today”

“Except that she’s not really her daughter, you know,” I said slowly dragging myself into a kneeling position.

Doris took my arm and wrapped it around her wide shoulders helping me to get to my feet. “What are you talking about?” She asked as we walked slowly toward the back door.

“Well,” I smiled sheepishly still fighting to get my breathing totally under control. “She’s what this whole thing is about.”

“Huh?”

“The lost year of 1944.”

“Now you’ve lost me,” Doris looked at me quizzically.

“The mysterious movie project from ‘43.”

“So?”

“When we get inside I’ll have to introduce you to the love child of Andrea Gilmore and Brix Maxwell.”

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 27 & 28

27

Doris descended on me like a wolf. The questions came so fast I almost put my hands over my ears. I told her that having an idea of who was behind this mess was much different than being able to prove it. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“You can’t just leave it that way,” she complained. “Who is it?”

“Look, Doris,” I sighed heavily, “I’m beat.”

“Come on.”

“And you know I don’t want to talk about it until I’m a lot more sure of myself than I am right now.”

“JP,” she complained as the cab dropped us off at home and we walked inside. I immediately began slipping off my clothes and heading for the shower. “That’s what you always say. You’re right more often than not. Come on, who is it?”

“Here’s what I need you to do while I take a shower.”

Doris shook her head in defeat. “OK, what?”

“See if you can get the studio on the line.”

“I think they’ve cut me off.”

“Yeah,” I said standing by the bathroom door, “I do too. But you need to try. Anyone would be good, Alexis, Brigham, Berg, Weston, Mangiocotti, Maxwell. Anyone.”

“And?”

“Get them to talk. We’re going to be big news for a while. We need info. I’m guessing Maxwell will be your best chance.”

“All right. What do I ask?”

“Start with how concerned you are for them. See if it goes anywhere.”

“A little vague, isn’t it?” Doris looked at me helplessly. “I’m betting that they’re going to want to be as far away from us as possible.”

“Probably,” I nodded. “But try anyway. And, don’t make the calls from our phone. Go to a friend, a pay phone, but no calls from here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If the cops are worth anything,” I explained, “they’ve tapped our phone.”

“Wonderful,” Doris said sourly as I disappeared into the shower.

And then with a final thought I poked my head back into the room. “Could you see if you can locate our car?”

“I’ll call a cab,” she said. The next sound Doris heard was water running.

By the time I reappeared Doris told me that the car was still where I’d left it at Standish’s home. The LA cops were under whelming me so far.

Standing by the window, as we waited for a cab to take her to Nocturne Drive, several other cars pulled up outside. People with clipboards and cameras swarmed out of the vehicles like circus clowns in the center ring. While some set up camp on our front lawn others came right to the door and started knocking.

The evening papers had apparently come out. I had the sickening feeling that my face was plastered across the front page along with a ream of articles about the tragic death of Hollywood icon, Eve Standish. All I could think of was all the difficult cases I’d cleared over the years. There were so many I would have been glad to talk about and yet this might be the one that would make me well known. Just great.

“Press,” I said disgustedly.

“What do we do now?”

“OK,” I shook my head in exhaustion. “I’ll get you through the crowd when the cab arrives. Get the car. They won’t follow you because I’m the one they want.”

“What are you going to do?”

“After you get in the cab,” I frowned while my mind raced. “I’m going back inside.”

“But how…” Questions swarmed over her face.

“After you get the cab,” I repeated, “buy yourself a black wig and get both of us some sunglasses. I’m going to wait until dark and then go out the back door toward the mountains.”

“But JP the nearest road is…” Doris leaned against me and held me tightly.

“Yes, I know. Do you know how to find it?”

“The road?”

“Yes.”

“I think so.”

“OK, good,” I said. “Now quick before the cab gets here, throw some things into a suitcase. Just enough to get you out of town.”

“Then what?”

“Drive back here on the road behind the grove. Don’t stop anywhere, just keep making a loop. I’ll be waiting on the side of the road sometime tonight.”

“But,” she was using that word a lot, “the judge said to stay in town.”

“Yeah sure,” was my tart reply, “you want to stay here and deal with this mob scene?”

“Suppose you don’t get there?”

“Too many questions doll,” I shrugged.

Quickly we packed some basics and I gave one suitcase to Doris while I stashed the other on the back porch. As soon as the cab arrived we opened the door and ran the gauntlet through the growing hoard. Questions were being shouted from every direction. “Did you do it?” “Hey Parker, any statement for the press?” “Is it true you were lovers?” Etc. Etc.

It wasn’t easy, but I managed to get Doris into the taxi. Worried that I was leaving too the press crowded around the cab making it almost impossible to close the door. The driver’s eyes were wide with a combination of surprise and fear. I made a big show of not getting in and when I backed away the reporters followed. As soon as there was an opening the cab took off.

With my mouth firmly clamped shut I waded back to the house through the throng. The noise level as each person tried to be heard above the competition was deafening. It was hard to imagine how one of them could think that I’d answer their question when I hadn’t answered anyone else’s.

They followed me until I closed the front door in their faces. Finally inside I turned the radio up loud, pulled the shades, and fixed myself something to eat. Having to wait until it was dark was driving me nuts, but I had no choice. Maybe some of the reporters would just give up, go back to the office, and make up a good story. It would be just as accurate as the police reports they undoubtedly had.

By 9:00pm the crowd had thinned some. I’d long since turned out most of the lights to try and discourage the stalkers. The only bulb that remained on was in the corner of the living room where I’d rigged up a combination of blankets and pillows in a rocking chair to make it look like I was sitting there reading. From time to time I’d hit the chair with my hand to add a little animation.

About 10:00 after one more tip of the chair I jammed my gun once again into the back of my belt and carefully opened our rear door onto the porch. Behind our house was about two acres of scrub bush. Behind that was a small orange grove that stretched toward the mountains in the distance. All I had to do was get to the grove unseen.

In dark clothes with my collar turned up around my face I crawled through the brush feeling like an extra in a Brix Maxwell war movie. Every 20 feet or so I’d stop and listen to see if anyone had noticed I was gone. The noise of the crowd still camped out on the front lawn was fading. I was close to the grove.

Finally reaching the line of orange trees beyond the scrub bush I was able to stand. Peering out from around one of them I paused to be sure I hadn’t been seen. So far, so good I thought until a form jumped out in front of me.

“Parker,” he spoke firmly but quietly. “I thought you might try this. I’ve been waiting here since it got dark.”

He sounded young, but in the darkness of the orange grove it was impossible to tell. It was just what I needed, a hungry rookie reporter trying to make a name for himself.

“Look Parker,” he continued in a thin reedy voice, “it’s just the two of us. You only have to talk to me. None of the others will know. Come on, how about an exclusive?”

He was slightly hunched over as if he was getting ready to write down my every thought. My new friend looked to be about medium height and build so I thought that I could take him if things got physical. That would be just what I needed in addition to being a murder suspect.

I ignored his questions and tried to go around him, but he matched my every move. Guessing he was half my age there was no way I was going to be able to outrun him, especially while carrying a suitcase. I hoped if I stalled something would come to mind.

“So,” he pressed, “where are you going? Didn’t the cops want you to stay around?”

I took a deep breath and slowly slid my belt through my pant loops while asking, “what’s your name kid?”

“Peter Bledsoe, Sacramento Bee,” he said proudly. “Just you and me, Mr. Parker. What do you say?   What’re your plans?”

Moving as quickly as I could I slid the heel of my left foot behind his right leg and pushed him with my right hand. He toppled onto his back. I immediately stuffed the sleeve of my coat into his mouth to silence him. After rolling him onto his stomach I wrenched his hands behind his back and tied them with my belt.

“Listen to me Peter Bledsoe, Sacramento Bee,” I said firmly but quietly into his ear. “I can’t have you following me or knowing where I’m going. I have no intention of hurting you so don’t do anything dumb to change that.”

“OK.” His muffled voice shook clearly terrified of what might be coming next.

“I’m going to make you a promise,” I said. “If you keep quiet, I’ll give you an exclusive on the whole thing when it’s over. How’s that?”

“But how do I kn…”

“You don’t. You’re going to have to take a chance and trust me. You’ll be able to untie yourself with a little effort, but don’t follow me or the deal’s off. And if I catch you following me you’ll get worse than having your hands tied up. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” his voice shook as he contemplated the torture I had planned for him. Letting on that it was all a bluff seemed counterproductive.

I patted him menacingly on the cheek and sprinted through the grove as fast as I could. Carrying the suitcase was slowing me down significantly, but as long as I was out of sight it didn’t matter.

In about 30 minutes I was through the grove and climbing up an incline to the paved road at the base of the mountains. I was fairly winded, but relieved that I hadn’t seen anyone behind me since I’d left Bledsoe lying in the dirt. I tried not to think that he could have easily gone back to the house and gotten in his car. If he knew the local roads he probably would have been able to drive around to meet me on the other side of the grove during the half hour I’d been running.

It wasn’t long before headlights were bearing down on me. I backed off the highway and shielded my eyes. The car squealed to a stop on the shoulder throwing a cloud of dust and gravel into the air. It wasn’t until the interior light went on and I recognized my redhead that I was able to breathe again. She motioned me to get in and we sped off into the night.

“Are you all right?” She asked while I tried to catch my breath.

“Sort of,” I wheezed as I told her about my aborted interview in the orange grove.

“You think he bought the story about the exclusive?”

“That was no lie. After roughing him up it’s only fair.”

She shook her head. The weird events of the day were beginning to make us both punchy. “What do you want to do about Danny?” She asked.

“Somehow I think his piece of the pie is going to come out in the wash.”

“Nice mixed metaphor,” Doris looked at me quizzically, but then let it drop. Instead she leaned over and kissed me. “OK, now what?”

“Suppose we take a little vacation?”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“Probably,” I said, “but I hear that this is a great time to visit the lovely little town of Jordan Valley, Oregon.”

Doris began to laugh. Apparently I wasn’t the only one losing my hold on reality. “Jordan Valley, huh? Now I know you really are crazy.”

28

We headed north into the mountains and found a little motor hotel. Before we went inside to register I pulled my collar up around my face and Doris jammed on a black wig. It was startling how different she looked. We pocketed the sunglasses for now. Wearing them at midnight didn’t seem like such a hot idea unless we were trying to call attention to ourselves.

At the desk were newspapers with headlines about the Standich murder. Luckily there was no picture of me attached. That was fine for now, but it probably wouldn’t be much longer before one was found.

We registered as Smith and dragged ourselves out to a small cabin. It was basic accommodations and not much more. There was a bed and a dresser and a very small bathroom. After Doris determined it was clean enough we unpacked and turned out the lights.

“Tell me again,” Doris said as we drove out the next morning, “why are we going to Gilmore’s home town?”

“Someone there must know what the secret of 1944 is.”

Doris paused and then turned to me slowly. “You think you know what it is, don’t you?”

“One mess at a time.”

“Ooh,” she huffed in a raspy voice, “this is what you used to do all the time back in New York. I’m your wife, you know. You can tell me.”

“What you don’t know,” I said without originality, “won’t hurt you.”

“What am I, nine years old?” She protested.

“It’s to keep you safe so you can’t tell anyone.”

“Who do you think I’m going to tell? We’re the only ones here.”

“I know.” My voice probably communicated more worry than I wanted.

“What are you expecting to happen?”

“I don’t know,” I spread my hands. “I just don’t feel good about where this is heading and I want to protect you.”

“JP, I can…”

“Yes, I know. You can take care of yourself. I know.”

“You do make me mad sometimes,” she said but I could hear the fight going out of her voice.

“Were you able to get in contact with anyone at the studio or at Brigham’s office?” I quickly took the initiative to change the subject.

“Nope,” she shrugged. “I got the bum’s rush off the phone every time. Never got past a secretary. It was obvious that I’m on their blacklist, if not anyone else’s. Your name probably is too.” “Maxwell was probably our best chance. Anything with him?”

“I left a message with his answering service,” Doris explained, “but we’ll have to keep trying since he can’t call us.”

“Yeah, OK.”

“I even drove past Alexis and Gilmore’s house. I don’t know what I was expecting. It wasn’t as if they were going to stroll out and say ‘hi’, but I was so frustrated I didn’t know what else to do.”

“A big place, right?”

“Oh brother,” she rolled her eyes, “you have no idea. You can’t see too much from the road, but the whole place sits atop a huge staircase. The first level must be 20 feet in the air. Never seen anything like it.”

“Sitting up that high, huh? Did it look like that all the way around?” I tried to picture it.

“As far as I could tell. JP,” she added slowly after a short pause, “what’s waiting for us in Oregon?”

“With Standish gone it’s clear that whoever is behind this…”

“Like the one you won’t tell me about,” she interrupted.

Ignoring her comment I barged on. “…whoever is behind this has decided to raise the stakes. Their clumsy idea to frame me failed which tells me that maybe they didn’t have much time to plan. Who’s to say that there aren’t others in addition to Standish that will have to be eliminated.”

“Such as?” Doris was relentless but there was no way I was going to give her info that might be able to be used against her.

“Me for one,” the words stuck in my throat. “Especially now that their idiotic idea of having the police do it for them flopped. And, if you know too much…” I let my voice trail off.

Doris pursed her lips and I could see the muscles in her jaw working. When she folded her arms and turned her gaze out the window I knew we were done, at least for the moment.

“JP,” she began again after a long pause, “what about Judge?”

“OK,” I nodded. “See if this makes sense. He’s getting information from many sources including Brigham’s secretary, the very alluring Miss Bumchelski.”

“Watch it,” she smiled. It was good to see her sense of humor returning.

“…and he then passes the dirt on to Standish for use in her column.”

“So far I’m with you.”

“Judge is the photographer taking the pictures that Johnston tried to get from him at the Marina.”

“Except that you got them first.”

“Going by what I heard Johnston say outside Judge’s boat, he wanted out of being the delivery boy. So then, inadvertently, we take the incriminating photos to Alexis perhaps accidentally doing Johnston’s job for him.”

“Danny Youngman could be the link among everybody. He’s Brigham’s surrogate son and he went to school with Johnston and Judge.” Doris was following just fine.

“Yup,” I nodded, “could be. He’s got several balls in the air all at the same time. Brigham’s only client is Gilmore. So Danny’s trying to keep that afloat. If you’re Danny’s only lucrative client, he obviously doesn’t want that to slip away.”

“The pictures were supposed to be more leverage for Standish. What does all this mean?”

“Suppose Johnston was shadowing you in DC for someone other than Standish?”

“Which means you think he might have been the one to kill Standish.” Doris’ eyes went wide. “He took the offer you didn’t?”

“I suppose that’s one way to go,” I said blankly.

“You are just impossible,” she grumbled at my non-answer and turned back to the window. There was going to be silence again.

Once again in the quiet I went over the confusing assortment of information. It was fine to have an idea about who did what, but I wasn’t sure I could prove any of it. I tried to think about something else. My effort was very unsuccessful.

First, Doris’ lucrative job writing for the movies was probably gone regardless of how things turned out. That would be the end of the adequate money we had even with me not working. Next was how we were we going to support our two homes, her little house in LA and my old apartment in New York. No more luxury of traveling back and forth at minimal expense. And to top things off was the reality that if the cops couldn’t find a way to give me the death penalty there were others looking to do it for them. Funny, I’ve heard people say that change is good for you.

We were up and at it early the next morning with the hope of being able to pull into Jordan Valley by mid afternoon. We each drove about two hours while the other read the map or dozed. There was little conversation even when we stopped to stretch at a rest stop. While I was glad Doris had given up trying to extract information I missed her usual company. Scaring your wife by telling her you were possibly on a list to be murdered probably had something to do with it.

The scenery, as we passed three different national parks, was spectacular, but neither of us was really able to enjoy it. We were making good time, but hours of driving over winding mountain roads was beginning to wear us out. As soon as we passed into Oregon we quit for the day at a picturesque little town with the boring name of Lakeview. Another night, another rustic cabin.

We rolled into Jordan Valley the next day just after lunch. There was only one fully paved street and it ran through what could only be generously called the business district. The less than thriving downtown ran about a half mile. The main drag was lined with little shops including a ramshackle hotel, a bank, and a couple of small five and dimes. We drove the length of it twice before seeing the small Airstream trailer that served as the post office. I pulled in next to it.

“Doris,” I said as the car came to a stop, “I’m sorry about all this.”

“Oh JP…”

“I’m sorry we’re in trouble, sorry we’re mad at each other, sorry about everything.”

Doris slid across the seat and leaned into me. “You shouldn’t be,” she smiled. “You did nothing wrong and neither did I. I don’t care about the money. We’ve been broke before and we came through it.”

“Thanks doll, it’s just…”

“I love you, you big lug, and we’re together. That’s enough for me. The rest was just gravy.”

“I kind of like gravy though,” I said kissing her until we were out of breath. She was quite a gal.

“Now what?” Doris said as she sat up and fixed her hair. “We can’t stay on Main Street in this thriving metropolis making a spectacle of ourselves.”

“I guess,” I deadpanned. “What was Gilmore’s real name again?”

“Gilley,” she said with a confused look on her face.

“OK. Why don’t you go into the post office and see if you can find out if there’s anyone around here by that name?”

“And use my, uh, personality to do it,” she shook her head at me in mock disgust.

“If necessary.”

“Really, how did you ever survive without me?” She laughed. I rolled my eyes as she climbed out of the car and watched her go inside to give the postmaster a thrill.

In a few minutes she returned and slid back into the car next to me. In her hands were several slips if paper with writing that wasn’t in her hand. She handed them to me and smiled.

“This guy was easier than Kanovsen back at the marina,” she said apparently oblivious to the effect her looks could have. I bet the postmaster’s posture also instantly improved as soon as she entered.

“I see two addresses here,” I said as I read the piece of paper.

“The first one is a single woman and her daughter and the other is an elderly couple. They both live out of town off a dirt country road. There’s really more folks living here that the ‘business strip’ would indicate.”

“The woman and the daughter,” I decided. “Did you get directions?”

“Of course,” Doris snapped her fingers and then, as uneasiness washed over her face, added, “funny, he told me that just a little while ago someone else was here also asking about the same folks.”

“A young guy with a full beard?” I asked warily.

“That’s what he said. Are you thinking what I am?”

I started the car and spun it into the street.

Doris flinched. “JP, what are you doing?”

“Johnston has gotten a head start.”

“So?” Doris braced herself between the door and the dashboard.

“We need to get there before he does.”

“What are you talking about? What do you think he’s going to do?” Doris’ voice was tight.

“Better you don’t know,” I said as we left a cloud of gravel that covered the entire main street of Jordan Valley.

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 25 & 26

25

I’d been in LA long enough to learn my way around but Nocturne Drive was not a place I’d ever driven. Still I hoped I had a good enough idea about where it was even though I didn’t expect to get there in time to prevent whatever was going on. On the way out the door I grabbed my pistol and stuffed it into my belt at the small of my back.

The further I drove into the mountains the larger and more remote the homes became. With my tires squealing I frantically tried to find her house before the sun sunk into the Pacific and the darkness made it impossible. I chose not to think about why I was hurrying to help the vindictive blackmailer.

It was dusk when I approached a long sculptured hedge. Cut into it was a wide whitewashed wooden gate that opened in the middle. It was held closed by an iron latch. Hanging on one of the support posts aside the gate were the numbers 7519. I’d found it.

I slammed on my brakes and jumped out of the car into a cloud of dust and gravel. The latch on the gate was closed, but not locked and after flipping it open I ran inside. Door to door had probably taken me 25 minutes. If she had really been attacked I was already way too late.

Standish’s Tudor style home stretched out before me. It was three stories tall and very formal with a spectacularly landscaped front lawn. Trees, elaborate flowering bushes, and modern art sculptures had been carefully arranged on it to create an almost other worldly effect.

Dodging the many obstacles I ran to the front door. I called her name a couple of times, but when there was no answer I tried the door. The knob turned and the door silently swung open. Again I called. No response. I took out my gun.

I stepped into the foyer. It had a high vaulted ceiling that ended at a skylight about 40 feet over my head. Large tapestries, similar to the ones we saw at Mangiocotti’s, framed the room.   Toward the rear of the house was a spiral staircase that appeared to run the entire height of the building. I called some more. Still nothing.

To my left was a huge formal dining room dominated by a crystal chandelier. Large framed antique paintings covered every wall. Behind the dining room to the left was an oversized kitchen with every kind of food preparation gadget imaginable. Off the kitchen was a formal bedroom with a canopy bed, two wide armoires, and a dressing table. The far wall and ceiling were entirely covered by immense mirrors. It might have made me laugh under other circumstances.

I quickly ran up the stairs and found the second floor totally empty. There was no furniture of any kind in any of the four bedrooms. After again calling her name I ran back down the stairs and headed into the room to the right of the front door.

It was a library with what appeared to be expensive book collections filling floor to ceiling bookcases. The middle of the room contained a long rectangular table surrounded by six high backed chairs. In the back of the library was large roll top desk that faced into the room.

I didn’t see her at first. Her body was slumped forward onto the desk and hidden from view. She’d been shot in the back of the head and with her body grotesquely twisted to the side from the impact I could see where the bullet had exited between her eyes. I looked for it briefly, but didn’t find anything. A huge pool of blood had not only spread out across the desktop but had also dripped off the desk making a companion puddle on the floor. There was a pen still clutched in her lifeless hand and a corner of a piece of paper sticking out from under her body. Had she been trying to write something during her last moments?

There were bruises around her throat and a dark mouse forming under her left eye. Based upon what I’d seen there were probably more injuries, but I didn’t dare disturb the crime scene. Being careful not to touch anything I left the grisly scene and wandered the house looking for a phone. Every one I found had had its cord ripped from the wall. I tucked my gun back into my belt.

It was obvious that I was going to have to head back down the mountain highway to call the police. I didn’t like leaving the house open. It also felt wrong leaving her still warm body slumped over the desk.

As soon as I started for the door I heard two cars coming up the driveway. Moving to the side I peaked through the curtains to see two patrol cars screech to a stop. They’d obviously seen my car still parked outside the gate at the end of the driveway and I wondered what they might be thinking. When the cops exited with their guns drawn I had my answer.

“Officers,” I called waving my arms over my head as I walked out the front door. Surprising two armed cops after they found a dead body seemed like a bad idea.

“Keep your hands up,” snarled the shorter one. He warily stepped toward me with his gun at arms length. Shorty was a burly dark haired guy around 30 with a large forehead and narrow features. He looked like he’d never drawn his weapon before. It didn’t make me feel very safe.

“Who are you?” His partner from the other car yelled. He was taller with long yellow hair that stuck out under his cap. He had large wide blue eyes giving him a baby face that probably didn’t help folks to take him seriously.

“Eve Standish is inside,” I said. “She’s been murdered.”

“Up against the car,” Shorty commanded. “Don’t even breath.”

Shorty trained his gun on me while Blue Eyes roughly patted me down. He quickly found my gun and gingerly removed it from my belt. Holding it up he and his partner looked it over carefully.

“OK, pal,” Shorty yelled, “let’s do it again. Who are you?” I told them.

“What are you doing here?” Blue Eyes said just as loudly. I explained that Standish had called me for help.

We were then off to the races. They wanted to know why she’d called me, what it was about, and what I knew about what I’d found inside. My series of “I don’t know” answers made them very unhappy. Next they checked my gun and after seeing that it hadn’t been fired asked me if I had a license. They seemed disappointed when I told them I did.

Shorty stayed with me while Blue Eyes went inside. He was back quickly and the two of them launched into a new round of questions. The only relevant information they received was that I knew Standish through my wife who was a Hollywood screenwriter. I also thought it was safe to say that the three of us had had dinner just a few weeks before. I carefully avoided anything about the studios, Gilmore and Maxwell, or the victim’s blackmail scheme. Avoiding those topics again with the detectives who would be showing up soon wouldn’t be as easy.

Within an hour Standish’s driveway was clogged with four cop cars, an ambulance, two unmarked cruisers, a medical examiner, two detectives, and two forensic cops. I spent the time cooling my heels in the back of Shorty’s car. The frenzy over a famous person being killed had temporarily left me out of the limelight. That wouldn’t last long.

It was nearly midnight by the time we arrived at the Santa Monica police headquarters. I was quickly moved into an interrogation room by Shorty who then took up guard outside and left me waiting for the detectives. The room was stark and cold with bare cement brick walls. The only furniture was a rectangular table flanked by four folding metal chairs. I braced myself for the questioning onslaught.

After about a half hour two plainclothes cops came in. One was medium height and stocky. He’d shed his sport coat and rolled his sleeves up past his elbows revealing Navy tattoos on his forearms. His glasses were propped on the end of his nose and a cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth. His soft eyes and pale face told me that he was playing the good cop role.

The partner had on a worn, to the point of being shiny, black suit with a blood red tie clamped tightly to his neck over a starched white shirt. He had a long pointed nose like a character out of Dickens and just slits for eyes. As he stared at me his thick eyebrows knitted themselves together beneath a wrinkled forehead.

They introduced themselves, respectively, as Murphy and Carruthers.

We went over the same ground as I had earlier. Then we went over it again. They know knew who I was, where I’d come from, who I was married to, how I knew Standish, and why I was there. They were also as unhappy as the patrol cops when I couldn’t answer why Standish had called me.

“This ain’t much of a story,” Carruthers glared after a third retelling yielded nothing new.

“Sorry,” I said keeping my voice even, “next time I’ll try to do better.”

“Wise ass. What picture is your wife working on?” Murphy asked trying a different approach. I told him.

“Jeez,” Murphy said playing the good cop role to a tee. “Gilmore and Maxwell, huh? You ever meet them?” I answered that also and tried to stay consistent by giving only a minimum of detail.

“OK,” Carruthers barked. “So you say you’re an ex-cop and ex-peeper. What are you doing now?”

“I’m retired,” I said vaguely.

The room was silent for a few seconds. Before they could think of another question the door swung open and a uniformed cop handed a slip of paper to Murphy. He stared at it with one eyebrow raised and then handed it to his partner. The bad cop studied it for a long time before slowly lifting his gaze back to me.

“Ain’t it funny,” Caruthers’ tone was slimy, “you got a call to go there, and so did we.”

“What are you talking about?” I had the feeling my voice was higher pitched than usual.

Carruthers leaned in close to me. “Seems she called here too. Said there was a prowler in the house.”

“That’s what she said to me too,” I added.

“Yeah,” he continued, “but did she say who it was?”

“No. I asked, but no.”

“She did to us,” Murphy’s tone changed. “Wanna guess who she said?”

I took a deep breath. “I’m not going to like this am I?”

“Probably not,” Carruthers sneered, “seeing as how it was you.”

 

 26

A few more times over the same ground convinced them that either I wasn’t able or wasn’t willing to give them anything else. Giving up they took me back outside. I had my photo taken, my belongings removed, and my fingers inked. Before being led off to a holding cell I was given a couple of minutes for a phone call. It’s amazing how speedy justice becomes when a famous person is involved.

Doris answered on the first ring. The worry in her voice came through loud and clear. “JP?” She yelled before I even spoke. “Where are you?”

“Hey doll,” I tried to say calmly. “I’m all right.”

“Where are you? What happened?”

“I’m afraid I’ve been arrested for murdering Eve Standish,” I blurted. It was hard hearing those words come out of my mouth.

“What!?”

I explained as quickly as I could and added where I was before the phone was wrestled away from me. They led me down the hall and dropped me into a private holding cell. Vicious killers like me couldn’t be left to mingle with general riff raff.

I kicked off my shoes and leaned back on my hard cot. This wasn’t going to be like New York where either Ralph or Annie would rush to my rescue. It also wasn’t going to be as if some nobody was bumped off. This was going to be a huge story as every newspaper in the country splashed it across their front pages.

The night crawled by. About 7:00 the next morning a cop banged on the bars and slipped me a cold cup of coffee and a stale roll. Moments after gulping them down I was rousted out of the cell and led to a room that had a long table that stretched from wall to wall. It was bisected by a glass partition and there were chairs on either side. Company was calling.

Doris burst into the room, ran up to the glass, and pressed her hands against it. I did the same. Her eyes were wide with fear.

“Oh JP,” she stammered speaking through a small opening in the partition.

“It’s all right,” I said with artificial bravery, “they have no case.”

“Who did it?”

“First,” I said ignoring her question, “I need an attorney to get me out of here. They haven’t got enough to hold me past 24 hours.”

Doris brightened and said, “I’ve got one.”

“What?”

“I didn’t know what else to do so I called Danny.”

“Your agent?” I’m sure I didn’t sound enthusiastic.

“He brought a friend from his old company,” she explained quickly.

“He’s here now?”

“They both are.”

I remembered that Danny had been a PR guy for a company in San Jose before deciding to start his own business. It seemed logical that he must have worked with the company’s lawyers at least once. Doris had moved very fast.

Although she didn’t want to leave Doris pulled herself away and as soon as she left a tall thin middle-aged man in a suit entered. He was nearly bald which made his drawn face look even longer. The glasses that hung on the end of his long nose were precariously hooked behind his large ears. His suit fit his height, but hung loosely around his skeletal frame. A bow tie hung crookedly from his ill-fitting collar. Whoever he was didn’t inspire much confidence.

“Percival Jones,” he said formally as he pulled up his chair. “I’m an old friend of Mr. Youngman. He was contacted by your wife and was most insistent that I come in to represent you.” His Adam’s apple bobbed behind his loose collar.

“Well Mr. Jones,” I sighed in relief, “how can I thank you?”

“Your lovely wife has already retained me. Financial arrangements are being taken care of. This is what I do. A thank you is appreciated, but not necessary.”

“Fine.” I liked his being all business.

“Now,” he said as he opened a briefcase and removed a folder. “Have you been arraigned or charged?”

“No, just held here over night. I’m guessing they’re trying to decide if they have enough of a case to drag me before a judge this morning.”

“Could be,” Jones nodded gravely. “Why don’t you tell me what happened.”

I went though the chaos of the previous night as Jones scribbled furiously. I carefully left out all our dealings with the studios and the murder for hire offer. Things didn’t need to be any more complicated than they already were.

“Why did she call you?” He asked when I finished. Logical question.

“No idea.”

“Did they check your gun to see if it had been fired?” He asked when I finished.

“Yes, and it hadn’t.”

“Is your gun registered?”

“You bet.”

“Good. Did they do a paraffin test on your hands?”

“No.”

“Good again. Would it have revealed anything?” He continued to write without looking up.

“No.”

“Did they determine a motive?” His writing continued.

“No again.” I was quite a conversationalist.

“What makes them think that you had one?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about a lover’s quarrel?”

I stared at him for a minute. “Are you kidding?”

“She has a reputation, you know. Mr. Youngman has told me some stories.” Jones leaned back and studied my face. I’d done the same thing many times over the years when I was the one asking the questions. I wondered what my mug was telling him.

“Jeez,” I rolled my eyes, “give me a break. I know this is Hollywood but…” My voice trailed off.

“OK, so,” he said putting down his pen and lifting his eyes to me. Even they looked undernourished. “The police say they received a call from Eve Standish claiming you were in the house about to attack her. You also received a call from her begging you for help. When you arrived all the phone cords had been broken. How did you know it was she that called you?”

“She identified herself,” I explained, “but who would miss that staccato voice of hers anyway. It is, or was, pretty unique.”

We went over a few more details and I thanked him for his help. Jones nodded and left to try and find out what was next. As soon as he was gone a burly cop motioned me back inside.

After about an hour of cooling my heels in a different holding cell the same cop returned with Murphy following close behind. They led me back to the same interrogation room I’d been in about twelve hours before. Murphy looked at me, shook his head, but didn’t say anything. After the burly cop left Murphy pointed me to a chair. The two of us sat on opposite sides of the same table as we the night before. Before anything was said the door opened and Jones entered. It looked like he’d had a productive hour.

The gaunt lawyer stood up in front of me and confronted the “good cop”.

“Officer,” he began, “are there charges against my client?” It sounded odd hearing someone other than Annie say those words.

I was so bleary from a night of no sleep I had trouble following the conversation, but I got enough to know that the police didn’t have sufficient evidence to hold me. In fact it didn’t seem as if they had anything at all. Not wanting to give up Murphy forced Jones to go through his complete bag of tricks as he tried to get me released. It seemed my new mouthpiece was more than holding his own.

One part that I did hear was that Standish’s phone records had been obtained. Things move fast when the rich and powerful are involved. Apparently the cops were trying to sort out the time line and with the phones having been ripped from the wall maybe they were wondering if the calls had come from another place. It seemed that Standish’s call to the cops for help came only 20 minutes after the call to me. Someone had been set up and it was yours truly.

After maybe 10 more minutes of wrangling Murphy asked Jones to sit. He walked around to my side of the table and pulled up a chair next to me. Murphy initially leaned over at us across the table and then, deciding that intimidation wasn’t going to work, decided to sit down.

Once again I went over my story from the previous evening. With Jones carefully monitoring my every word I told the same story in the same way that I had before. I didn’t know if they were bored yet, but I certainly was. Murphy only asked a couple of clarification questions none of which were controversial enough to force Jones to have to say anything.

It was clear from the minimal questions we heard that Jones was apparently correct in his guess about a lover’s quarrel. Murphy told us that a cursory investigation on the body had indicated that Standish had had sex with someone shortly before she was killed. Unfortunately for the cops they couldn’t prove it was me. The only thing they had on me was my misfortune of being in her unlocked house at around the time she was murdered. They couldn’t even hit me for having an illegal handgun.

Finally after the legal wrangling was finished Murphy turned to me. Murphy’s face was red with frustration and the bags under his eyes told me that he’s had almost as long a night as I’d had. He’d obviously spent a serious amount of time trying to make something out of nothing.

“OK, Parker,” he said in a gravely sleep deprived voice, “you are free to go.”

“Thank you,” I nodded.

“However,” he cautioned, “I want you to stay available. If something breaks I don’t want to be pissed off trying to find you. Maybe we moved a little too fast, but that doesn’t necessarily leave you in the clear. Whether I think you’re guilty or not don’t matter since we ain’t got enough to hold you. We come up with something new, you’re going to right back here and paying your lawyer will be the least of your troubles. You get me? All right, get out of here.”

On our way out of the stationhouse I saw Carruthers glaring toward us. As we neared the door he got up out of his seat and walked over to me. His breath was hot in my face. His eyes were just slits.

“Don’t leave town,” he scowled, “we’re going to want to talk to you again.”

“Suit yourself,” I replied dragging the words out of my tired mouth.

“Don’t say anything else,” Jones cautioned me as he stepped between us. Over the years Annie’d had to do the same thing. Fortunately for Jones I was too tired to fight back this time.

“You pervert,” Carruthers hissed under his breath. “Screwing her and then putting a bullet in her brain. We have ways of getting our kicks too. One is locking up scum like you.”

Practically out on my feet, even though his words disgusted me, I let it go and staggered toward my nervous wife who was standing near the front door. Putting my arms around her had never felt so good. Danny Youngman was with her obviously concerned about how Jones was handling my case. The four of us dragged ourselves out of the building. It was nearly noon.

“I’m so glad they let you go,” Youngman said grimly. He was frowning as if in deep concentration. As always he was dressed in a sharp stylish suit and was groomed as if heading off to a wedding.

“You realize they believe you’re the one,” Jones said to me after we’d left the courtroom.

“Looks that way,” I agreed.

“But there isn’t anything,” Doris said. “JP only met her once.”

“Maybe so,” I said leaning on my strong wife, “but someone went to a lot of trouble to put me in the crosshairs. Still it doesn’t look like they planned things out very well. I just hope they don’t have more up their sleeve.”

“You really believe that Mr. Parker?” Jones asked.

“If we only had an idea of who did it,” Youngman scowled. He jammed his hands into his pockets in a show of determination. It was so stereotypical that it might have been funny in other circumstances.

Jones shook our hands and after promising to keep in touch headed off toward the parking lot behind the courthouse. Danny offered to drive us home, but we declined. He seemed confused by our decision.

“Are you sure?” He protested.

“It’s all right,” I said, “I’d rather just be with Doris. You understand.”

He nodded as if he did. “Yeah, sure.”

“But we do need to talk soon,” I called over my shoulder as we walked away.

“Anytime.”

I then quickly turned and stopped to face him. “And what we need to talk about are your old friends, Carl Johnston and Samuel Judge.”

Danny froze in his tracks and we watched the color drain from his face. After a couple of beats of silence he weakly asked, “who? I, uh, don’t think that…”

Doris and I climbed into a cab and left him stammering at the curb.

“What was that?” Doris said still staring at Youngman through the window.

“That boy has secrets,” I said as I slumped down into the seat.

“JP?” Doris turned to me in the backseat of the cab as we pulled out into the traffic. I must have had a peculiar look on my face. “You have that look. Do you think you know who killed her?”

“Well,” I said sheepishly, “yeah, I think I do.”

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 23 & 24

23

Hoping that I had convinced Maxwell that his secret was safe with us we hung up. Doris and I looked at each other and shook our heads simultaneously. It might have been funny under other circumstances.

“I’m going to lie,” my redhead concluded, “aren’t I?”

“Only if the ‘naming names’ question comes up.” It was a useless response, that question always came up.

With the little time remaining in New York we went to the Klein’s for dinner. Since Ralph and Judy knew everything else about us there was no reason to keep this mess a secret. Despite the time spent on our problems it still turned out to be a good evening’s distraction from the testimony that was hanging over our heads.

In a couple of days we left for DC figuring it would be helpful to get there early. As we waited out the days before Doris’ testimony she seemed to be adjusting to the situation while I became more worried. Figuring that at least her screen writing job was going to be gone I wondered if the money I would make by restarting my business would be enough to sustain us. All of a sudden that Villman Oil stock began to burn a hole in my pocket.

Doris was scheduled to testify at 2:00 at the DC Surrogate Court building. It was an imposing structure with four large Roman columns perched atop a wide stone staircase. With Annie having joined us in DC the night before we traveled to the courthouse together.

At Annie’s suggestion Doris wore a very subdued dark blue suit that had been purposely chosen to be a little too large. In retrospect maybe a few curves would have helped by distracting the fat old men on the committee. The two gals wrestled her wild mane until it was pulled back tightly and tied in a bun behind her head. The only make up she wore was simply some power to try and wash out her features. Doris looked like a repressed schoolmarm. It made me wonder if she could have gotten a job at Ventura East High School.

Before we could enter the building we had to show identification. Being in the very segregated nation’s capital forced Annie to endure most of the attention. Despite her experience with bigots I could almost hear her teeth grinding as she submitted.

That’s where I saw him for the first time. He was doing a good job at staying close enough to keep us in view, but not so close as to call attention to himself. Whenever I turned his way he carefully melted back into the crowd.

Getting inside the building turned out to be the easy part. The hallway outside the courtroom was jammed with reporters and photographers making an impossible tangle of arms, legs, cameras, and notepads. Fortunately they didn’t know who we were so we managed to avoid some of their scrutiny. Unfortunately the government officials made up for it.

Stopped at the door we were again subjected to a round of questions and ID checking. After a long wait they finally let Doris inside, but stopped Annie and I. My old friend showed the documents that were supposed to give her access, but after seeing her color there was no way any of these self-important fascists were going to let her in.

After a lot of rude treatment Annie changed tact and decided to try to get me admitted. That started another round of the same song and dance. I might have been the right color, but I didn’t have any of the credentials that would have given me access. And I didn’t have the expertise to help Doris either.

All the while the arguing went on the door remained open. Doris kept us in sight and constantly looked back with pleading eyes. As a bailiff and another uniformed cop approached her I watched their very animated discussion. Unfortunately they were faced away from me preventing me from doing any lip reading.

Twice one of them walked away and then quickly returned with what appeared to be more questions. I could see Doris shaking her head in strong disagreement each time he came back. It looked like she was using her nervous energy to good advantage.

Peering through the crowd while still trying to keep Annie from being trampled I finally deciphered what the song and dance was about. Not surprisingly Annie appeared to be the topic. Doris had been promised legal representation, but the knee jerk jackasses in charge were either unwilling or unable to see a 90-pound elderly black woman in that role.

Finally after endless trips in and out of sight by one of the officers Annie was rudely escorted into the courtroom. I leaned in behind her as she headed into the chamber only to have the door slammed in my face immediately after she was inside. That left me plenty of time to develop an ulcer while pacing outside. I wondered if this was what expectant fathers felt like.

With the door closed many in the crowd escaped the humid hallway and went outside to sit on the steps. Not knowing what else to do I tried to join them. But while they sat I instead killed time by walking back and forth in front of the building. Nobody talked to me.

Suddenly as if they were one large organism everyone stood and rushed back in. All I could figure was that the doors to the courtroom had reopened. Lowering my shoulder I knifed through the throng and just as I made it inside I saw Doris at the end of the hall. Being nearly 6 feet tall made it easy to pick her out above the chaos. I hoped Annie was nearby and not being trampled.

Suddenly I saw him again working his way through the crowd. He was doing a good job of looking like he had somewhere to go, but having done the same kind of shadowing job myself I knew what to look for.

As Doris struggled toward me we made eye contact, but I couldn’t read her expression. Annie didn’t come into view until they were practically at my side. I spread my arms wide managing to make an opening for them and soon we were able to escape out into the sunlight.

“Well,” I said stepping in front of them as soon as we were clear of the building. “How did it go?”

Annie looked up at me and smiled, “your wife was amazing.”

“So,” I prompted, “tell me.”

We hustled around to the side of the building away from the crowd. As soon as we were clear we stopped and leaned against a wrought iron railing. They were both smiling.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted him again. This time he was walking away from us on the opposite side of the street.

“Annie saved the day,” Doris said drawing my attention back.

“What do you mean dear?” Annie protested. “You did all the work.”

Doris took a deep breath and explained. “First, as you saw, they wouldn’t let Annie in. Then realizing their mistake and how foolish it made them look they went out of the way to accommodate her.”

Annie growled. “Those hypocrites make me sick. As usual I have to work twice as hard to get them to take me even half seriously.”

“And half as hard to be twice as good,” I added smiling.

“The initial questions were about who I was,” Doris continued. “They wanted to know some past history and I made sure I played up the angle of how I’d foolishly married right out of high school. I also made sure to portray Jack in the negative light he deserved.

“When they finally stopped grandstanding I got the chance to tell about the meetings I attended in the mid 30s. I played it up quite well admitting what a fool I’d been and how I was too young to know what I was doing. They seemed to buy it.”

“Of course they did,” I smiled, “it is true after all.”

“Eventually they got around to what I knew and who I knew,” Doris went on. “It was the time to name names.”

“You’re going to love this,” Annie grinned.

“I played as dumb as possible,” Doris almost chuckled, “and gave them a raft of first names saying I never learned the rest. Then they asked about the organizers, the speakers, and such. I instead gave them some of the rhetoric I heard, but told them I couldn’t remember any of the names.”

“A little perjury is good for the soul?” I raised one eyebrow quizzically.

“Yeah,” Annie shrugged, “I don’t feel good about that. Of course I’d’ve felt even worse if any real names were dropped for those Nazis.”

“And?” I asked.

“That’s it,” Doris laughed. “They were so frustrated by this ‘dumb redhead’ that they just shook their heads, thanked me, and that was it. Over and done and no damage. Right Annie?”

“None that I could detect,” Annie added. “It was much ado about nothing.”

“Almost,” I shrugged.

“What do you mean?” Doris asked.

“Carl Johnston is here following us,” I said ruining the mood.

“Who?” Annie’s eyes darted between us.

“Carl Johnston,” Doris rolled the name around. “Carl Joh… Oh, of course, the old high school friend of Judge’s that was supposed to pick up the photos. And then you put him in the hospital.”

“That’s the one.”

“Are you sure he’s following us?” Doris quickly changed from elated to worried.

“Not following us, just you,” I said sourly.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“He was easy to spot. Remember he doesn’t know that I know what he looks like. As far as the paper said I’m just a ‘mysterious Negro’.”

“A what?” Annie said snapping her head around.

“Tell you later,” I smiled. “But I guess there are some things about me that you don’t know.”

“How’d he get out of jail?” Doris wondered as I shook my head.

“Why here?” Annie asked.

“Probably didn’t know where we were staying so he waited here to pick up our trail. I just saw him walking down the opposite side of the street as well as twice at the courthouse.”

“Standish’s idea?” Doris guessed.

“Maybe, if that’s who he’s working for,” I said. “Remember, I heard him say how he didn’t want to deal with her anymore. Even though you escaped very nicely there are still lots of other people to go.   And their concerns are not only about HUAC.”

24

With some fancy footwork, a few changed cabs, and a walk through a hotel lobby I was sure we managed to lose our unwanted friend. Wanting nothing more than to simply get out of town we hopped the next train back to New York.

After thanking Annie more times than we could count we dropped her into a cab outside Penn Station and sent her home. Doris and I made it back to the Soho apartment a little before midnight. The energy we had coming out of the courthouse was long gone and we barely dragged ourselves through the door.

Doris dropped her bag on the couch and slumped down next to it. She’d shed the plain clothes from the hearing and was dressed again in her usual colorful style. Despite the hour, the long day, and the travel she still looked great. I wondered how she did it.

“Where do we go from here?” She asked with head back and her eyes closed.

“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I’ve been thinking.”

“Uh oh,” she smiled.

“With us not falling under Standish’s spell…”

“You mean, you not falling.” She still had the energy to crack a joke.

“Either way. She’s pretty steamed. We didn’t cooperate, the HUAC harassment didn’t work, and she thinks we know what happened all those years ago.”

“So?” Doris remained motionless.

“I want to know if she might switch now from maybe having you followed to having us followed. I also want to know what all this mess is about. And, we need to know if you still have a job.”

That last comment woke her up. Doris sat forward and opened her eyes. “You think I do? But nobody at National even contacted me.”

“That’s right,” I rubbed my chin. “But that was before the testimony. They didn’t know what was going to happen. The fact that you didn’t hurt anyone and walked away clean might put them in your corner again.”

“Back to LA already? Don’t you want to stay here?”

“Oh you bet,” I nodded, “but I want to put an end to this insanity even more. How long is Johnston, and maybe others too, going to follow us around?”

“OK tough guy,” she said as she got up and headed for the shower, “but tomorrow morning will be soon enough. Sleep first, travel later.”

—————————-

Off we went again on another long plane ride, more time changes, and more packing. A nice long vacation would have been better. Of course, never having had a long vacation I didn’t know for sure.

The deadline for another of the $10,000 blackmail payments had passed. That should have calmed Standish’s anger a little. All I could think was that if the studio’s only plan was to look for potential murderers the payments might go on for a while.

For what seemed like the hundredth time we tried to settle back into a routine. It wasn’t easy. Doris called the studio a couple of times and left messages for both Brigham and Alexis, but with no response. We drove to the studio, but were told that “Heart Of China” had temporarily moved to a location shoot in the Sierra Mountains. Upon hearing that they planned to be gone for the next couple of weeks Doris called National and left a message for Berg. Nothing happened there either.

So, where were we? Standish controlled a very disproportionate amount of the information from Hollywood. She also had influence with HUAC. She was bleeding Alexis for $10,000 a month and for all we knew maybe others. She was controlling, at least, Brix Maxwell as well as maybe Sam Judge and Carl Johnston. In addition, the National and Excelsior pictures were taking a huge chance spending large sums of money to team Maxwell and Gilmore in a movie that now appeared to be little more than a sop to the rabid anticommunists in Congress. Brigham Entertainment was being propped up by its remaining client with its owner unwillingly ceding control to that client’s husband. We were being harassed by Standish who was worried that we knew the deep dark secret that was driving her blackmail scheme. It appeared she thought that we had the power to topple her little empire. My wife’s job as a both a screenwriter and a script doctor appeared to be history. And least of all, what was I going to do for the rest of my life? Other than that, things were great.

I had no job and no client, but, as usual, the loose ends of what I knew were making me crazy. What was driving this? What did Standish know that was worth a quarter of a million dollars to have her killed and $10,000 per month to keep her quiet? And, what did she think we were planning to do if we found out?

It was after sundown and I was on the back porch watching the day’s fading lights play across the mountains. Doris was out with a friend and I was alone with a beer and my jumbled thoughts. We’d been back in LA for a week with no contact from anyone associated with the studios or the strange happenings of the last month. All I could think was that our aborted case was going to fade away into a strange disjointed memory that I’d never be able to untangle.

At least that’s what I thought until I answered our ringing phone.

“Parker,” screamed Standish’s familiar voice into the phone, “is that you?”

“Yes. I never expec…”

“Please help. They’re here in the house. I don’t know where else to turn.” She was frantic.

“Who is…”

“Help,” she began to cry hysterically, “I can’t…they’re going…”

“Did you call the cops?”

“No, no, no, I can’t,” her voice was almost incoherent, “Please, help!”

There was a crash of glass, a gunshot, and then silence. I was out the door in seconds.