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?”
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.