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.

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