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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
“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?”
“Good. Did they do a paraffin test on your hands?”
“Good again. Would it have revealed anything?” He continued to write without looking up.
“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.
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.”