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.

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