Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 21 & 22

21

Doris only rarely talked about her past. This time was no exception. Maybe she figured that having to go through it with Annie and then again before the committee would be more than enough. What I did know about her, though, told me that my private redhead had more guts than a hundred gals. But for the first time I began to wonder whether what I didn’t know could hurt me and, even more importantly, hurt us.

I knew her life had certainly been no picnic. First there was her lower middle class childhood in Michigan with an abusive father. That was followed by an early marriage right out of high school to the equally abusive Jack Finerty. Finally when she could take it no more she left him and her only plan was to meet a cousin in California. He was the one who had managed to get her a start with Photoplay Magazine, which was what she was doing when we met.

After laboriously working her way up the ranks at Photoplay they unfairly let her go. With no other options she not only took a chance on me, but also with writing the novel that subsequently became a best seller and opened a door for her in Hollywood.

Before we left I called the offices of Alexis, Berg, and Weston. None of them answered and I was afraid to leave a message not knowing who might hear it. I simply told them it was very important to all concerned and gave them my number in New York. Whether they called would go a long way to clarify Doris’ status on “Heart Of China”.

I also called her agent, Danny Youngman. Danny was very concerned and kept asking me if there was anything he could do. I assured him that we had everything under control and to not worry. I wondered if he knew what a lie that was. There would be time to ask him about Johnston and Judge later.

Not being much of a flyer I was relieved when the plane landed in New York at Idlewild. Doris was very uncharacteristically quiet during the flight choosing instead to rest her head quietly on my shoulder and stare at the clouds out the window. I left her alone figuring that I’d learn her mysterious bad news soon enough.

It was late when the cab dropped us off at what was now our apartment in Soho. I tried to not let on how glad I was to be back in New York. We unpacked quickly knowing that we were meeting Annie the following morning.

A subway ride and a few blocks walk got us to Annie’s place on the East side at about 10:00am. My old friend met us at the door and led us to a dining room table that held a home baked coffee cake. After a little small talk and a cup of coffee Annie sensed Doris was relaxed enough to start.

“All right dear,” Annie began, “let me see the summons.”

Doris handed it over and we waited for Annie to carefully read it. She took off her glasses when she’d finished and thoughtfully rubbed her hands together. Annie then asked how this had all started and she listened intently as we went over the last couple of weeks.

“What do you think?” I prompted when we finished.

“You understand the background of this,” Annie said. “It began after the war as Russia quickly gobbled up Eastern Europe. Folks became concerned about how much influence the Communists had here at home. Certainly there was a fair amount of interest in socialism during the depression and the worry is that it has carried over after the war into the entertainment business. Hollywood with its left wing artsy types became an easy headline-grabbing target.

“In ’47 ten writers who refused to cooperate with the committee were blacklisted and had their careers ended. Others who didn’t give the ‘right’ answers were also put out of work.

“Now with Joseph McCarthy having restarted the hearings and their getting shown on TV they have an even higher profile than before. The fact that the senator is running for reelection this fall is probably driving this as much as anything else. The question is whether you have anything to hide.”

“Oh Annie,” Doris sighed.

“It’s all right,” Annie said calmly. “Now, what can you tell me?”

Doris took a deep breath. “I married Jack right after graduation from high school in 1933. The depression was hitting all of us very hard. The fact that he was getting bounced around from job to job was making us pretty desperate. When you get into a situation like that hearing that there’s an idea to take from the rich and evenly distribute money and jobs sounds pretty good.

“Soon we were going to meetings which continually reminded us how oppressed we were and how the workers of the world needed to stand up for themselves. I’m afraid we bought into it.”

“Bought into it how?” Annie asked.

“Jack and I both registered in the Socialist Party and participated in demonstrations in both Detroit and Lansing. Jack took on some jobs doing even more. While he never told me much I knew it involved making threats on local officials. I think he might have also been involved in some fire bombings of government offices. The insane idea was to bring about a revolution and radically change the government.”

“You knew nothing specific?” Annie confirmed.

“I knew what the goal was,” Doris said while sadly hanging her head, “and I thought I wanted it too. I was young and stupid and was being dragged into the cause by Jack. All I really knew was that I needed something different. Soon our marriage, which wasn’t much to begin with, completely fell apart. Jack was a failure at work, a failure as a revolutionary, and a failure as a husband. Drinking and abusing me turned out to be his only skills.”

Doris stopped and wiped her eyes. Not knowing what else to do I put my arm around her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She gave me a weak smile and took a ragged breath.

“You left Jack and went to LA in the early 40s?” Annie asked after a short wait.

“Yes. 1943.”

“Did you ever accompany your husband on any of his, uh, endeavors?”

“Yes, but only once,” Doris sighed. “I didn’t know it when we left, but he was told to break into the IRS office in Detroit and destroy some files. He left me in the car while he was supposed to get into the building. Actually he never managed to do much more than set off the alarm. When it rang I picked him up and we got away.”

“You’re positive that was your only time?”

“Yes.”

“OK, good,” Annie smiled. “Make sure you tell these stories and make sure that you make it clear that you were forced against your will to participate. We need to build up sympathy for you and since Jack is dead and you’re remarried maybe the committee will give you the benefit of the doubt.”

“All right.”

“I’m assuming that you went to meetings?” Annie asked after another short wait. “Who ran them?”

“The local leaders of the party. But occasionally we had guest speakers in to tell us how oppressed we were and to encourage us by saying the revolution was close. It was all very exciting for a while.”

“Annie,” I asked, “would the committee in DC know about this?”

“Maybe,” she replied and turning to me added, “you still think that this was orchestrated by Standish, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but she seems to have lots of sources so who knows where this little item really came from.”

“I understand,” Annie nodded and turned back to Doris. “You know they’re going to ask you about all this. I assume you no longer feel the way you did then.”

“Of course not,” Doris vehemently shook her head. “I’m not really sure I was in favor of it in 1935. I just didn’t know any better.”

“They’re still going to hit you hard about your background, you know,” Annie warned. “They’re also going to ask you to name names. Do you have any?”

“People supposedly from other parts of the country would occasionally be brought in to address us. They were always good looking and well dressed in order to make a positive first impression.”

“You remember any of them?” Annie asked intently.

“Oh Annie,” Doris protested, “it was over 15 years ago. I’m sure I’ve forgotten. And none of them were well known at the time.”

“At the time?” I repeated apprehensively.

“Wait a minute,” Annie stood up and walked around the table to Doris. With my redhead still seated they were just about at eye level. “HUAC isn’t going to let you get away with that. McCarthy is going to want them to badger you until they get something. So, which is it? Was it too long ago or did the speakers remain unknowns?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Doris sobbed as we both looked at her quizzically. What was it she was holding back?

“Doris, honey,” Annie took her by the shoulders, “which is it?” We waited until she got herself under control.

“There was one speaker who’s well known today,” Doris choked out the words.

“You’ve got to tell us,” Annie pressed. “The folks in Washington won’t be this patient. They will grandstand for the cameras and use you to help them.”

“Come on doll,” I said softly.

“I only remember him because we talked afterward and he made a pass at me.”

“Obviously a fellow with very good taste,” I smiled at my distraught wife trying to get her to relax.

“Who was it?” Annie asked.

“Byron McCassley,” Doris said finally.

“Byron McCassley?” I tried the name out. “Never heard of him.”

“Me neither,” Annie added.

Doris wiped her nose and turned her reddened eyes to me. “That’s because he’s better known today as Brix Maxwell.”

 

 

 

 22

It was quiet in the car on our way back to Soho. Doris looked embarrassed. I was mad, frustrated, and confused simultaneously. An argument was brewing.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Doris said finally breaking the frosty silence after we arrived home.

“Such as?” My response was probably not helpful.

“Damn it JP,” she complained, “I’m the one in a jam here.”

I took a deep breath and walked around the living room straightening my collection of photos that had begun to take over the walls. I wanted to say the right thing, but I also wanted her to know how angry I was. She watched me for a while but then, placing her fists on her hips, assumed the posture that usually meant trouble.

“JP!” Her face was as red as her hair.

“Why didn’t you tell me you’d met him before?”

“I, I didn’t think it mattered,” she sounded like I’d just caught her smoking behind the barn. Then she rebounded with, “how was I to know that HUAC would want to talk to me?”

“How was I supposed to sort out the case if you were withholding information?” The volume level was rising.

“Withholding information? How was I to know a chance meeting 15 years ago would matter?”

“The whole case is about 15 years ago,” I shouted trying to top her.

“We’re only in this fix because you antagonized Standish,” she said marching at me and shaking a finger in my face. I knew she didn’t mean it, but I was too mad to let it go.

“You have got to be kidding,” I yelled back probably with veins sticking out of my neck. “This is now all my fault? Come off it.”

“I suppose it’s all mine, then,” she fought back. “You’ve got a helluva nerve being mad. My career and the careers of many others are going to go right down the drain as soon as I open my mouth.”

“If you do.”

“If I do what!?”

“If you open your mouth,” I said ratcheting it up a few more decibels.

“What are you talking about?” Doris threw her hands in the air and stomped into the bedroom. I followed right behind her.

“Listen to me,” I said loudly walking up right behind her. As soon as I did she threw her hands in front of her face and a look of panic showed in her eyes. Flinching she recoiled and fell backward onto the bed. A few seconds passed. Suddenly I understood her reaction and dropped to my knees next to her.

“Oh Doris,” I said softly, “I’m sorry.”

“You scared me.”

“And you thought I was going to hit…”

As she nodded I quickly lay down beside her. We stayed wrapped around each other for a long time in silence. Doris pressed her face tightly into my chest and I gently stroked her hair. Relieved that the fight was over I didn’t care if we ever moved.

“Oh JP,” she sobbed after a while, “this whole business is making us both crazy. All that talk about Jack and then the argument. For a moment there it was 1937 and you were Jack and…” She dissolved into tears.

“Doris, I love you. You know I would never hurt you. And if you did think so, even for a second, then I’m sorry for that too.”

“I’m sorry too,” she managed to say through her ragged breathing. “I didn’t mean what I said, but what do we do now?”

With the fight over we were able to think rationally again. I was glad that the thinking hadn’t forced us to move off the bed.

We agreed there were two options. One involved giving up Maxwell’s name. The fallout from that plan was hard to imagine. Certainly he’d be called by HUAC and so would Berg and Weston. The movie would be halted and who knew how many others involved would be tarnished. The other choice was to tell her story, try to gain sympathy from the committee, and simply leave Maxwell out. While that sounded fine Doris was worried about lying under oath.

After running over each plan again I asked if she had a way to get in contact with Maxwell. I felt that either way he had to know what was going on. I also wanted to know how he’d managed to remain untouched by HUAC.

Although she didn’t have his home number she did have one for National Pictures. She hoped that somehow we would, at least, be able to leave a message. I decided that it was time to take Maxwell up on his “if there’s anything you need” offer from our day on the set.

“National Pictures,” chirped the receptionist after I’d once again worked my way through the long distance operators.

“This is JP Parker,” I said. “I need to leave an urgent message for Brix Maxwell. Tell him I want to take him up on his offer. Also tell that it’s a matter of career and death.”

“A little dramatic, isn’t it?” Doris smiled weakly after I hung up the phone.

“You do want him to call, don’t you?”

We didn’t have to wait long. Calculating the time change it must have been about 6:00pm in LA when our phone rang. They’d apparently handed him the message as he finished the day’s shooting.

“JP my friend,” the familiar voice crackled through the receiver. “What the hell, ‘a matter of career and death’?”

“Are you at a private phone?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m home. Where are you? There was a rumor around the set about Washington serving your wife? Is that where you are?”

“No we’re home in New York at the moment,” I said and then asked, “who told you?”

“Hmmm,” he mumbled, “I don’t know. But folks knew your wife got called by HUAC. Man the whole studio’s got its knickers in a twist.”

“Nice of them to call,” I said sarcastically.

“Come on, you know what it’s like. Everybody’s scrambling and covering their ass.”

“Yeah,” I replied flatly.

“So what is this ‘matter of career and death’?”

I paused for a moment and then, not knowing another way to bring up the subject, said, “know anyone named Byron McCassley?”

There was silence on the other end of the line. At first I thought he’d hung up, but not hearing any click I simply waited. His voice was very different when he came back on the line. It sounded strained somewhere between anger and panic.

“What are you going to do?” He said nervously. “What do you want? Are you trying to jack me up? You bastards, you’re going to name names.”

“Listen…”

“You son of a bitch! How much money are you after?” His voice was out of control and I had to cool my heels until he ran out of steam.

“Look Brix,” I said in the calmest voice I could, “I called because we’re trying to find a way out of this mess without hurting anyone.”

“So, it’s money then. You want money.”

“Brix please. We’re on your side. All I really want is information.”

The conversation went in circles like that for a good ten minutes. He was truly in a frenzy. I put Doris on the line and fortunately she was able to reason with him. She also told him how we knew. After a while she nodded to me and handed the phone back.

“All right,” he sounded beaten. “I trusted you before and it was OK. I guess I don’t have a choice.”

“Tell me about those meetings,” I said.

Maxwell told us that they had meant nothing. He’d been hired by the promoter of the event simply to appear and read a script that had been prepared for him. At the time he was one of many starving actors in New York and was desperate for work of any kind.

After what he felt was an embarrassing experience, as well as performance, he went back to New York and fired his agent. Soon he latched on to another one who saw his potential for the movies. The new man had Maxwell change his name, his looks, and completely restart his career as if he’d just arrived in town. A few theater rolls later and he got a call from Hollywood to come out for a screen test. It took some time, but eventually he hit the big time. With every year that passed he became more convinced that his original acting jobs as Byron McCassley had been forgotten.

“All right Brix,” I said. “Let’s see if we can keep it that way. But surely there must have been other people who knew of these appearances. Why haven’t they come forward?”

He sighed and then made little clicking sounds with his tongue. “I made some helpful connections.”

“Can I ask who?”

“Eve Standish, for one.” He didn’t sound proud of himself.

“What do you mean?”

“She got wind of Byron McCassleya long while ago,” he said slowly, “and called me up. This was before all the HUAC insanity. She was already very powerful and not knowing what she was going to do with the info, I went to see her.”

“And?”

“You have any idea how much of this company town’s information she controls?”

“I’m learning about it as I go.”

“OK then,” he cleared his throat and paused. “Well, we worked out a deal.”

“Can I ask what kind of deal?” I said fully expecting the answer to be blackmail.

“I, uh, sort of provide a service,” he said and then after a pause added, “you know.”

Thinking back to the foot that massaged my shin during a recent dinner I felt fairly sure I knew what he meant. “Sexually, you mean,” was my educated guess.

“Yeah.”

“Still?”

“Yeah, once in a while.”

“I’m sorry Brix.”

You’re sorry.”

“Yeah,” I sighed, “but at least I understand things much better now.”

Taking an accurate stab Maxwell inferred, “what’d you do, turn her down and piss her off?”

“Maybe something like that.”

I could hear the embarrassment in his voice, but he managed to recover well enough to make a sour joke. “Well, at least you don’t have to feel like a concubine.”

“I suppose.”

“But she’s still screwing you just the same, isn’t she,” he added.

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 19 & 20

19

We rode home in silence lost in our thoughts. Not only was I getting obsessed with our non-job, but I was dragging Doris along with me. I needed to learn to let things be.

Still silent as we got home I was annoyed at hearing a ringing phone as soon as we walked through the door. With a distracted frown still on my face I picked up the receiver. The voice on the other end instantly changed the mood.

“Is this John Parker?” The voice on the wire asked. After I grunted a yes the voice continued. “This is Eve Standish.”

“Hello Miss Standish,” I replied as a suddenly alert Doris walked over to me.

“May I speak with your wife?” She asked politely. I handed her the phone.

They talked cordially with Doris doing most of the listening. I couldn’t help thinking what a weird coincidence. Less than 12 hours earlier I’d been offered $250,000 to rub her out and even more recently Mangiocotti might have been thinking of doing the same. I doubted that she would have found it as curious.

Doris hung up and turned to me. “You interested in a dinner at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel tomorrow night?” She asked.

“With Standish?” This was just too strange.

“Well,” Doris looked at me and wrinkled her forehead, “apparently yes. She said she’d even pay.”

I couldn’t resist some gallows humor. “I wonder who she wants me to kill.”

“Not funny mister,” Doris frowned and slapped me across the shoulder.

“So, what’s it about?”

“We’ll find out.”

——————————–

The dinning room at the hotel was a fairly upscale joint. It was a white tablecloth, tuxedoed wait staff, extra silverware, and no prices on the menu kind of place. The maitre’d met us at the door with a sour artificially bored expression. It changed quickly when we gave our name and whom we were meeting.

Two penguins in black tie led us through a maze of tables to a secluded area well hidden by two large potted palm trees. Seated alone at a semicircular booth, that was clearly her regular table, was Eve Standish.

Though her looks were a bit past their peak she was still a nice eyeful. Standish wore a large extravagant hat with carefully arranged multicolored feathers. She might have been secluded, but she still didn’t want you to miss her. Being around 50 her choice of a strapless white evening gown probably wasn’t the best choice, but there wasn’t anyone suicidal enough to mention it. And since it did manage to show off that she was still in good shape, who could blame her? Large diamond framed glasses dominated her face to try and distract us from the lines her make up couldn’t quite hide. Completing the show was a cigarette in a long holder that she’d clamped in the corner of her mouth.

“Hello darlings,” she cooed in the distinctive staccato voice so familiar from the radio. It actually came out more like “dahlings”.

She held her place in the center of the table, which forced Doris and I to opposite sides of her. Obviously a well-calculated move. With the foliage from the plants that surrounded the booth cascading over our heads Doris slid in to her right while I countered.

“Oh my dears,” she went on in her familiar exaggerated voice, “the food here is simply divine.”

“It certainly was a pleasant surprise to get your call Miss Standish,” Doris flattered with one eye on me. I’m sure she would have winked if she’d thought it would have gone unnoticed.

“Pish posh,” Standish gestured with her foot long cigarette holder. “I have an ulterior motive, you can be sure. Now, I’ve taken the opportunity to order for you. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Oh that would be lovely,” Doris played along. I just nodded and forced a smile.

Dinner came in about five courses with even more waiters. Only some of the food was recognizable, but all of it was delicious. On a few of the parts, though, I had to watch to see which fork I was supposed to use. Standish was so self involved I doubt she noticed. Doris would probably laugh at me later.

As people periodically recognized her we were interrupted as they stopped for an autograph. For the most part she was gracious, but she did move them along quickly. However when people from show business stopped her mood reflected whether they were on her good list or not. The ones who groveled the most were obviously on the outs at the moment.

Dinner crawled while Standish talked about herself, her favorite movies, and growing up in Wisconsin. Doris and I periodically interrupted our chewing and nodded.

At one point during the third course I felt a foot sliding up my shin under my pant leg. Momentarily startled I looked at Doris wondering what she was thinking. That was when I realized it wasn’t her. This continued intermittently until dessert. Fortunately by the time the baked Alaska and coffee were served Standish was ready to get down to business and, at least temporarily, off my leg.

She lit up another torch, leaned back, and said, “so tell me Miss Finerty, what’s the real story behind ‘Heart Of China’?”

“Real story?” Doris asked.

“Certainly, love,” the velvet steamroller continued. “You think that the dear boy Brix Maxwell is up to the task? Do you think the stars will be able to get along?”

“I’m not sure my opinion really means very much,” Doris said modestly.

“I’d say the ‘dear boy’ is ready,” I said making my first full sentence of the evening.

“Why Mr. Parker,” my leg massager said, “you do talk. Come on now, what makes you think so?”

“Don’t you remember your little item just a week ago?” I challenged lightly. “You wrote about our little acting performance at Mangiocotti’s party.”

“And you can read too. My, my, all this and muscles too. You’d better watch him like a hawk my dear,” she said to Doris and then added one more jab. “So darling, was it really acting?” Her sarcasm was heavier than the dessert.

“Oh you bet,” I lied, “ we even practiced it once in the back yard. It’s always better if you’ve done it before. I’m sure Brix is more comfortable with things the second time around.”

Standish chewed this for a minute. “So you mean he might do a better job if he’s worked with someone before?”

“Absolutely,” I said glancing at Doris. “If it doesn’t click the first time you just need to get back on the horse no matter what interrupted things the first time.”

Standish coughed artificially. “Never heard it put quite that way before. A little crude, though, don’t you think? I mean ‘back on the horse’. Really now.”

“Of course the trouble is,” I continued, “it’s better if no one knows about the first time then you can appear spontaneous. After all, don’t we all make mistakes when we’re young?”

Doris watched us banter. It was obvious she was annoyed by the attention Standish was paying me although she should have known she had nothing to worry about. Our hostess was enjoying herself immensely and to keep her talking I let her think she’d distracted me from Doris. Fat chance of that. Soon that foot was working its way up toward my knee again.

“But my dear boy,” Standish batted her eyes, “mistakes are what make the world go ‘round, aren’t they? After all, that’s why papers sell more copies with bad news.”

“Too bad,” I added, “that we haven’t learned to aim a little higher.”

“Higher?” Her voice began to have an edge. “Well, darling you apparently don’t understand how things work. I’m also not sure that you fully understand to whom you’re talking. Many people find it advantageous to defer to me.”

As her foot tried to travel higher I gently grabbed a toe and steered it back to the floor.

“Enlighten me,” I taunted. Doris tossed me a cautionary glance.

“I carry more influence in this town than you can imagine,” Standish’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not even close to playing in my league.”

“I imagine that’s true,” I pressed, “but what does it take to get into your league? And what do you have to do to maintain it?”

Standish’s eyes flashed at me and she ripped the cigarette out of her mouth. Hot was suddenly replaced by cold and I was relieved that I no longer had to protect my leg.

“I’m not one to be trifled with,” she said through clinched teeth. “I don’t have to suffer a fool like you. You’ll see.”

Standish quickly called over the headwaiter to tell him that we were done and to put it all on her tab. Motioning me to move she slid past me as soon as I stood up. After a hurried good evening she left.

Doris, who had carried the majority of the evening’s inane conversation until I took over at the end, looked at me blankly. I had apparently said very few words, but they were the ones that our hostess had been fishing for.

“What was that?” She asked still seated where seconds before we had been able to create the illusion of a happy threesome.

“She knows.”

“She knows?” Doris was usually up to speed, but for the moment she was momentarily lost.

“She knows that we know,” I answered. Doris was right, I was beginning to sound like a fortune cookie.

“You mean that she’s the blackmailer?”

“Yup. And she also thinks we know the hot secret that’s been driving everything.”

“Oh,” Doris was all eyes, “now I get it. Now I understand that cryptic conversation.”

“Sorry about that.”

“So what is it?”

“The secret?”

“Of course.”

“Well, my darling,” I said imitating our evening’s benefactor, “I have no idea, but get ready. She’s about to fight dirty.”

20

Over the next couple of days we tried to put our lives back to where they were before Gilmore, Maxwell, Alexis, Brigham, Youngman, Johnston, Judge, Bumchelski, Standish, Berg, and Weston. Outwardly it might have even looked the same, but it didn’t feel that way. Being offered $250,000 to commit murder and subtly threatened by a crazed columnist has that effect.

I was almost finished renovating the bathroom. The back porch was done and the roof had been replaced. I had gotten used to this routine and wondered what I was going to do when I ran out of repair work.

Doris went back to her old schedule of writing through the morning into the mid afternoon with only a short break for lunch. She hadn’t heard from National Pictures since our bizarre meeting which either meant they were satisfied with her script changes or she was off their radar. Fortunately she’d already been paid and, unlike Alexis’ check, this money was in the bank.

We’d discussed whether to go to the police and tell them about the quarter million dollar offer. But knowing that it would be loudly denied by the well-known person who had made the offer and that the cops would laugh in our faces discouraged us.

By the time a week had passed Doris and I had almost made our way back to where we were before all this had happened. My short return to the private eye business had come to a crashing halt and I was having trouble figuring out how I felt about it. It was certainly closer to the real me that the home repairman I’d recently become.

One afternoon my renovation work was interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing outside was a young man in a light brown uniform with a white shirt and a dark brown tie. In his hand was an envelope that he absently waved in front of the window.

“Yes,” I said opening the door.

He thrust the envelope at me saying simply, “you’ve been served.” Reading the return address gave me a very bad feeling.

“Who was that?” Doris called from the back porch after hearing me close the door.

“You’d better come in here,” I said staring at the envelope addressed to Doris Finerty. In the upper left hand corner it read House Un-American Activities Committee, Washington, DC.

We sat together on the couch as Doris nervously wrestled open the flap open. She and I read the intimidating words together several times. My stomach twisted into a knot while the color drained from my wife’s face.

She had been called to testify before the committee in one week in Washington. The letter explained that she was going to be asked questions regarding to her career in Hollywood and about her membership in The Screen Writer’s Guild. Bringing notes and an attorney would be permissible.

Doris finally looked up at me. Her eyes were wet. “Standish?” She asked. I nodded slowly.

It took a long while to adjust to what we’d read. Finally I stood up, went to the closet, and pulled out two suitcases. I helped Doris to her feet. Leading her into the bedroom I got her started packing.

After a weak smile telling me that she was beginning to adjust to the news I picked up the phone. Patiently I worked my way through a maze of operators before I was finally connected to my lawyer, Annie Cleghorn, back in New York.

She and I had worked together for over 25 years since my early years as a cop pounding a beat in Manhattan. Annie was in her early 70s and was probably the bravest, toughest person I knew. How many people could have clawed their way from being a child of former slaves in Mississippi, through college to a law degree, while also raising a grandson?

Only once in our long association had I seen her lose her composure. It was during that same case that had brought Doris and I together when Annie’s grandson had been indicted for murder. We’d always been close before that, but when I was able to resolve the case and get her boy released our relationship attained a new level of trust.

“JP,” she barked into the he phone in a voice that no one would have expected coming from a 90 pound elderly black woman. “How are you and Doris?”

“We’re all right,” I replied tightly, “but there’s a problem.”

“Between the two of you?”

“No. We’re fine. It’s another kind of problem.”

“Another kind, huh? OK, what is it.” My old friend was as no nonsense as ever.

I carefully but quickly recounted the events of the previous week or so. Aside from an occasional question Annie let me talk. I explained that we were going to try to get a late flight out of LA and hoped to be in our Soho apartment by late the following day. She agreed to meet us as soon as we were able.

After thanking her several times I hung up. My next call was to book the flight. Surprisingly I was able to grab one leaving in just a few hours. With the time change we’d get into New York around midnight.

I went back to the bedroom. Doris was sitting on the edge of the bed next to her open, but still mostly empty suitcase. She was leaning forward with her elbows on her knees and her hands buried in her hair. I sat down next to her and rubbed her shoulders.

“Come on doll,” I tried to make my voice as calm as possible. “I talked to Annie. She’s ready to help. The flight is booked and I’ll be with you all the way.”

She took a ragged breath. “I got us into this didn’t I? This is all my fault. I’m going to lose my job and…”

“Whoa. I thought you were the optimist in the family. Aren’t you getting a little ahead of things?”

“JP,” she turned to me, “don’t you understand? They’re going to bring up my maiden name.”

“Prokakofievitov,” I said. Her ridiculous former name always made me smile. “Yeah it’s a little Russian sounding,” I deadpanned. “So what? You don’t have any Communist background, right? You have nothing to worry about.”

My smile and back rub both stopped when she said with tears in her eyes, “oh JP. Actually, I do.”

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 17 & 18

17

After quickly extricating us from the meeting Doris and I rode home in silence. I could only hope that I had made it as clear as I could that we were done doing business. I was sorry for the spot he was in, but wanted no part of his insane plan.

Not only did his solution make no sense much of what we knew didn’t either. Assuming that Standish was behind it, why did she wait until 9 years later to threaten to blow the whistle? What was the deep dark secret that was costing $10,000 a month? Why didn’t Maxwell know anything? How could one person carry such power? How could a free country allow the HUAC bullies to go prying into personal lives? They were all great questions that I wasn’t going to be able to answer or get out of my head.

When we got home we tried to clear our heads in our own unique ways. I had a beer and Doris washed her hair. It was midnight by the time we’d calmed down enough to go to bed.

“That was disturbing,” Doris said after our long silence. “You ever experience anything like that before?”

“You know that Christmas card I receive every year from Ken Villman?”

“Vaguely.”

“A few years ago he offered me $15,000 to murder a romantic rival,” I smiled slightly. “I decided against it.”

“And now you’re going to tell me that he straightened himself out?” Doris leaned up on one elbow next to me.

“Yup,” I said with a self-satisfied look on my face. “Gave me a few shares of Villman Oil as a thank you before he sold the company. He’s been involved in charity work ever since.”

“That Villman Oil Company?” Doris was impressed.

“It’s kept me afloat more than once,” I said as I kissed her, “and now I have a sexy beneficiary.”

“But those other times,” she said as her mood darkened, “like last year.”

“I try to not think about them. But their faces have cost me more than a few nights sleep.”

“Maybe I can take your mind off them for awhile,” She leered at me as she turned off the light.

——————————

A decent night’s sleep can cure a lot of problems, but not this one. As usual, much to my frustration, Doris seemed to sleep fine while I spent the dark hours pacing in the back yard. The only plus was that I was able to meet the paperboy and prevent him from throwing the morning’s LA Times into our rose bushes. I’d always wondered if the kid’s arm was really that bad or whether he was just a jerk. Interrupting his routine prevented me from finding out. Next time I’d just watch and learn.

After opening the paper it didn’t take me long to spot a very interesting article. Apparently marina owner Kanovsen wasn’t as unconscious as I’d thought.

BURGLARY STOPPED BY A MYSTERIOUS NEGRO

Two men were injured last night during an aborted burglary at Cove Marina in Malibu.  One of the injured was the owner, Ken Kanovsen, 43, of the same address.  He was treated for cuts, bruises, a broken nose, and a broken cheekbone.  He was kept overnight for observation at LA General Hospital.  The alleged burglar, Carl Johnston, 30, of Ventura, was treated for several broken teeth and a lacerated nose.  He was booked for assault and attempted burglary.

Kanovsen said the altercation took place when he approached the alleged perpetrator as he was trying to break into a houseboat owned by Samuel Judge, 31.  Johnston allegedly attacked Kanovsen who was rescued by an unknown black man who exited from Judge’s houseboat.  Police have a description of the mystery man who is wanted for questioning.  Kanovsen said…

I called Doris and we enjoyed the article together. She said that she would love to see the police description of the mysterious Negro. We laughed together and it felt good.

——————————–

Later that morning Doris left for a meeting with her publisher about a possible idea for a new novel. Knowing she’d be gone into the afternoon I made myself busy on my next project, repairing and painting the front gate. Now that I was unemployed again there would be plenty of time.

As soon as Doris drove off a black limo pulled around the corner and stopped at the curb along side of me. I turned just as a rear window rolled down to reveal Vito Mangiocotti’s round face. He leaned toward me out of the darkness of the interior and beckoned me with a forefinger.

“Mr. Parker,” he said in his lightly accented Italian, “ I wonder if we could talk for a while.”

“All right,” I was as noncommittal as possible, “when?”

“Now would be good,” he said. It was obvious that it wasn’t a suggestion. “Get in.”

I protested slightly about being covered with paint and how I might get it on his upholstery. Mangiocotti waved off any possible concern he might have had and patted the seat next to him. I closed up my paint can, locked the front door, and climbed in.

The limo was big enough to double as a bowling alley. As we drove off I let my eyes get accustomed to the tinted window induced darkness. Against the rear of the front seat was a large cabinet that was probably a fully stocked bar. Off to the side were two phones, one to talk to the driver and the other to perhaps make outside calls. I’d never seen anything like it. In the middle was a small oblong table that could easily seat six around it for a meeting. While I had the feeling that a lot of business by a lot of people had been conducted in this rolling office, this time it was only the two of us on the curved plush leather rear seat.

“Why am I here?” I asked trying to be polite and direct at the same time.

Mangiocotti’s mouth curved slightly. “Right to the point. My brother-in-law said you were like that.”

“I beg your pardon,” I said wondering whom he was talking about. One sentence and I was already off balance. I didn’t like it.

“Oh I’m sorry,” he folded his hands in his lap, “I shouldn’t have expected you to know. My wife’s brother is Guiseppi Giovanni.”

I could feel heat wash up my neck and over my face. I had dealt with him several years before while investigating the case that involved Annie Gleghorn’s son. It was also the case that had brought Doris and I together. I remember the menacing, and potentially deadly, conversations we had. However, that was to be expected when you were talking with the head of the Sicilian Mafia. All these years later I was about to find out how successful he felt I’d been in keeping my promise to never talk about what really had happened back in 1947.

“Oh yes,” was my inept reply.

“Guiseppi spoke very highly of you. Said that you were an honest man who played by his own rules. He even told me how sorry he was that he had to briefly kidnap your lady friend. He remembers things like that.”

Recovering from my initial shock I asked, “so Mr. Mangiocotti, what can I do for you?”

My jovial captor smiled, “I hear you’re doing some work for Andrea Gilmore and her husband, is that right?”

“Was.”

“You finished the work?” Mangiocotti’s voice had a similar intimidating edge.

“Partially,” I was purposefully vague. “I confirmed some information for them, that’s all.”

“Might I inquire as to what it pertained?” Mangiocotti’s English was the equivalent of his relative’s and better than mine.

“Mr. Mangiocotti,” I gestured with open hands, “I can’t really talk about it. It was a private matter, you understand.”

“I have been aware of some behind the scenes stress. Having worked with Miss Gilmore previously I understand that she’s not as productive when distracted. She, as you undoubtedly realize, is a very special person who must be handled most carefully.”

“Yes,” I nodded. “That day when Doris and I were on the set we noticed how attentive you were to her.”

“Ah, yes,” he leaned back and folded his hands over his round stomach, “of course. So you understand what I mean.”

“I guess.”

“It would be of great benefit to all of us on ‘Heart Of China’ if outside difficulties could be minimized or even eliminated,” Mangiocotti leaned in toward me and spoke very softly. “I’m wondering if you could be the person to handle such situations.”

“What are we talking about?” I was sure I was frowning in concentration.

“Maybe there could be a job for you.”

“Doing what? Bodyguard?”

“Something like that.” Mangiocotti leaned back and stared at me much the same way his brother-in-law had several years before.

“I think I’d rather remain retired.”

“Hmm,” he tilted his head in thought. “Guiseppi said that you turned down a well paying job with him too. Did you once take a vow of poverty?”

“I’ve worked alone for a long time. It suits me.”

“And money doesn’t?” Mangiocotti steepled his fingers under his chin and looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “Miss Gilmore obviously needs protection that her husband is no longer providing. We certainly wouldn’t want anything negative to happen that might jeopardize the project. You would be a welcome addition. Why don’t you think about it?”

“I’m sure I will,” I understated, “but I expect the answer to remain no. Thank you.”

We pulled back in front of the house. Mangiocotti made one more sales pitch, but as graciously as possible I again passed. He expressed his displeasure in, at least, an outwardly gentlemanly fashion and I stepped out by my gate.

Watching as his car drove away I wondered if he also knew the mysterious secret driving all the insanity and was also trying to get me to bump off the very powerful Eve Standish. Fortunately I arrived home before Doris so I wouldn’t have to be troubled with explaining the details of my most recent bizarre meeting. I was perfectly capable of being troubled about it enough for the two of us.

18

I managed to get enough work done before Doris returned so I never had to bring up my menacing ride with Mangiocotti. I was afraid having to describe our unusual conversation might be too much even for a tough gal like my wife. Once I started the story I knew I would also have to tell her that he was related to Guiseppi Giovanna. That would be totally out of the question.

She came home about an hour after Mangiocotti left. I was glad to see her and find out that her meeting had gone well. We had the evening to ourselves and planned to do nothing more than cook a steak on the grill and watch the colors of the sunset distort the mountains to the east.

“I had a thought,” I said after dinner succeeding in breaking the relaxed mood we’d established.

“Yes?” Doris’ response was hard to read.

“You ever wonder who else Judge and Johnston are connected with?”

Doris sat up and stared at me. “You’re still going over this? Unbelievable. Just leave it alone.”

“Judge is connected in at least two ways to Brigham including the little tips he’s getting from Bumchelski. He’s also hooked up, apparently for a long time, with Johnston who is also somehow affiliated with Brigham. They both have a connection with Standish. Who else do they know?”

“Come on JP, who cares?”

“Me,” I shook my head sheepishly, “it’s bothering me.”

Doris laughed. “We’re off the case, you know. No one’s paying us and the one check we did get bounced. Come on you big lug, let it go.”

I leaned back with my hands behind my head. Everything she’d said was true but I hated loose ends. Finding out how it fitted together was what I wanted. Whether anyone went to jail or whether another crime in addition to blackmail had been committed was secondary.

I tried again. “I heard Johnston say that he and Judge had known each other since they were kids. Chances are that they could have gone to school together. Let’s see, Johnston was part of the Ventura East High School class of ’40 and Judge is almost the same age.”

“What difference does it make?” Doris was obviously humoring me, but it was hard to tell how long it would last. “So what if they might have been in the same class?”

“I’m trying to tie up loose ends, that’s all.”

“And you’d like me to play along,” Doris smiled and shook her head.

I nodded and explained that I’d like to drive over to Ventura East High School and take a look at the classes of about ’38 through ‘42. Doris had given up questioning me at that point and merely agreed to give in to what she figured was a waste of time. I was a lucky man to not only have a great wife like Doris, but one who was also willing to indulge my little quirks. I hoped that this would be the last one I’d have for a while.

Finding the school the next morning wasn’t very hard. It was a typical three-story brick building with large windows. Trees had been planted out by the highway in a side yard that sat behind a stonewall. As we arrived busses were pulling up and depositing their cargo who noisily made their way through the large doors that faced the parking lot. We waited until after the initial commotion of the morning had passed and, after hearing the bell that started the first class, Doris and I went to the front desk.

I wasn’t sure about Doris, but despite being 35 years removed from high school my memories were still fresh. Being the tallest kid in my class all those years ago I was familiar with standing out in a crowd much as the two of us were now as we stepped into the office.

Not only had I been a big kid, but also being a good athlete made me even more conspicuous. My size and sports ability probably gave me an advantage in class since it was automatically assumed that I wasn’t going to have those skills as well. That attitude probably did me no favors and I wondered how it might have affected me over these last three and a half decades.

The woman behind the desk looked up as we entered. Her drab shapeless dress matched the dull expression on her face. She wore large glasses that dwarfed her features giving her the look of a human fly. With hair that was pulled back and held in place by a couple of pencils she looked about as inviting as yesterday’s stale coffee. Having to compete with Doris didn’t help.

“May I help you?” She asked very formally. There was no change in expression.

“Hello,” I tried to be personable, “is it possible for us to look at some old yearbooks?”

“May I ask why?” She probed needlessly with the same blank face and expression.

Ignoring her question I plowed ahead. “’38 through ’42 would be plenty.”

She stared at us briefly. Despite not having her question answered she pursed her lips and led us down the hall to the library. We were met there by another woman only slightly more animated. I began to wonder how the kids stayed awake during class.

With the five yearbooks in our hands we sat down at a table in a far corner of the library. Several pairs of eyes followed us probably wondering what this old unknown guy was doing in their school. The male eyes following Doris probably wondered something else.

“OK Mr. Obsessive,” Doris whispered. “What are we looking for?”

“First let’s find Johnston, then look for Judge, and then see if any other familiar faces show up.”

“Other faces?” Doris asked and I tried out a mysterious smile.

We found Johnston and Judge on the same page in the senior section of the 1940 book. Neither had much of a write up. There were no listings of sports teams, choirs, or clubs for either one except for two dramas under Judge’s name. Both looked well scrubbed and it was interesting to see Johnston without his beard.

’38, ’39, and the rest of ‘40 yielded nothing but as soon as I heard Doris gasp I knew that the trip had been worthwhile. Without another sound she picked up the ’41 book and held it in front of me. I turned to see her tapping the page where a younger, but very familiar face, appeared. It was her agent, Danny Youngman.

Under his name we saw debate club, select choir, a young entrepreneur’s organization, and how he was the statistician for both the basketball and football teams.

“They all know each other,” Doris said out loud causing heads to turn. “How did you know?”

“I didn’t.”

“But…” Doris looked at me curiously.

“I heard Johnson’s comments outside Judge’s boat,” I explained. “That connected the two of them. The three of them are all the Same age and locals.”

“And?”

“We know about Youngman’s surrogate father-son connection to Brigham. But now we also know that Johnston has some kind of a relationship with Brigham. Judge is dealing with Bumchelski who works for Brigham and the three young guys all went to school together.”

“What does it all mean?” Doris asked nervously.

“Yeah, well,” I stammered, “I’m still working on that.”

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 15 &16

15

Doris listened to my story of the last two hours with her mouth open. At one point as she drove us home I reached over and gently pushed up on her chin. Her icy reaction told me to knock it off.

I showed her the glossy of Samuel Judge. Probably one of a million Hollywood tall, dark, and handsome unemployed actors. Doris didn’t seem impressed, but after a second look I was.

“Holy smoke,” I said after looking more carefully at Judge’s photo.

“What is it?” Doris turned with a worried look on her face.

“Judge,” I said pointing at the shiny black and white picture, “is the guy I fought with in Alexis’ dentist office.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty much.”

“What does that mean?” My redhead asked, but all I could do was shrug. I was doing that more and more.

I was relatively dry by the time we pulled into the driveway. Not wanting to wait to get cleaned up I dragged out all the materials I needed in order to turn our bathroom into a photo-developing lab. I screwed a red light into the socket and mixed up the chemicals in the sink. With a couple of boards placed across the toilet I set up an enlarger and while Doris paced nervously outside I went to work. When the pictures were developed I taped them carefully to the curtain rod and let them drip into the tub.

“OK,” I called and after turning out the house lights Doris stepped in.

Most of what we found meant nothing. It was probably just names and numbers of friends. However, there were a couple of them that got our attention.

Eve Standish was the first. She might hold court in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, but her private number and address were much more interesting. Eve Standish, CLaymore 9-4623, 7519 Nocturne Drive, Santa Monica. She might deal with the public at the hotel, but I guessed the real dirt was collected at home.

“Look at this,” Doris said as she scanned the other addresses.

“What?”

“Look where that blond floozy secretary Bumchelski lives, Whilshire Towers.” Doris paused and whistled through her teeth.

“Why?” I turned to her. “Expensive?”

“Oh yeah. She’s not paying that rent on a secretary’s salary.”

“So,” I raised an eyebrow. “Blondie has a sugar daddy. I think we can guess who it is.”

“What did we get ourselves into?” Doris asked after a long pause.

“You got me,” I ground my teeth, “you remember the phone number SOuthern 6-9345?”

“Wait a minute,” Doris said quickly and wrinkled her brow in thought. “It’s Brigham Entertainment’s. I’m thinking that we’d better look at the other photos.”

Having momentarily forgotten them in the rush to develop mine I took them out of my pouch and spread them across the kitchen table. We looked at them for a long while in silence.

There were two pictures of us together and one of me alone coming out of Brigham Entertainment. Bumchelski’s white blouse was visible in the background. There were two of me standing next to Brigham in his doorway and two more of Brigham and Alexis meeting Doris and I at the same office. The photos had to have been taken by a telephoto lens from another building. There were also two more of Alexis standing both outside and then entering a large sprawling old English style home. The number 19 could be clearly seen next to his head and aside the door above a large flowering plant.

However, the piece de resistance was one of a naked couple on a bed in an ornate bedroom going at it like rabbits. It appeared to have been taken through a floor level window with bright sunshine helping to illuminate the subjects. Neither face was visible, but half of the mystery was solved in the last photo. It showed a very distraught and naked Alexis with his hands up running toward the camera screaming. The woman was hiding herself under the covers.

“Now what?” Doris said holding her hands to her head.

“I’m not sure,” I said forcefully, “but I can tell you this. We’re done.”

“What?!” She turned quickly to me. “We’re quitting?”

“You bet.”

“I can’t believe that you wou…” She started until I wrapped my arms around her.

“When I was a single guy,” I began, “I did a lot of stupid things. Several of them nearly got me killed. But it’s one thing to stick my own head in a noose. It’s another to put yours in it with me.”

“What about the case?”

“I’m not sure I want to know any more.”

“Oh JP,” my redhead smiled, “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“It was fun while it lasted,” she said as I stripped off my wet clothes and headed for the bathroom.

“Not really,” was all I could think to say.

———————————

We arrived at Brigham Entertainment the next morning at 10:00. Both Alexis and Brigham knew we were coming. They had sounded shocked when they received my call telling them that the four of us needed to meet. Alexis initially protested but gave in when he heard the tone in my voice. I was practically able to hear Brigham sweating through the phone.

Miss Bumchelski flinched visibly as Doris and I approached her desk. This time, though, I made no small talk. I simply told her that we were going upstairs and to let Alexis and Brigham know we were coming. She was fiddling with her intercom as we stepped into the elevator.

Brigham met us at the door. Sweat was beaded on his lip and he was clearly shaking. Alexis was standing behind him in the middle of the office, his smooth demeanor belied by his tapping foot and a hand jingling the change in his pocket. The office seemed very warm.

“Sit down gentlemen,” I said softly but forcibly. Alexis again took the chair behind the desk as Brigham seemed to hover above one near the inner door.

“What can we do for you?” Alexis’ voice was tight.

“My wife and I have been very busy on your behalf,” I began, “but either you tell us what the hell is going on or we’re done.”

Alexis stayed very still but his eyes gave him away. He was churning inside and he knew that I knew. Doris purposely sat on the edge of the desk and let her eyes burn into his. I could hear Brigham’s ragged breathing behind Doris to my right.

“What do you mean?” Alexis’ mouth was dry and he ran his thumb and forefinger along his jaw.

“How’s this?” I snapped and tossed the photos across Brigham’s desk.

The room was silent except for a gasp from Brigham. Alexis carefully arranged each picture with the eraser of a pencil as if they were too hot to touch. Maybe they were. When they were lined up symmetrically he looked up at me with eyes that seemed very far away. Brigham started to speak, but was waved quiet.

Alexis took a deep breath. “Where did you get these?” He asked in an even but small voice. His skin looked thin enough to see through.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said coldly. “Are these familiar to you?”

After a long pause where a little of his color returned he said, “the one of my wife and I, is, well, uh… Um, from the last picture you can see that I noticed the peeping Tom outside our bedroom window.”

“You call the police?”

“No,” Alexis said. “Call the police and have them interrogate my wife? Not a chance.”

“So this is what the blackmail is about? A picture of you and your wife having sex?”

The sun shown in the window and reflected garishly off the photos. Eerie lights danced on the walls. Doris walked around behind me and put her hands on my shoulders while I leaned forward and glared at Alexis. Brigham walked to the desk, glanced quickly at the pictures, and then backed away.

“Maybe,” Alexis stood up and walked to the window. His back was to us.

“You spent $10,000 because of that?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or not. “That’s too ridiculous to even talk about. How about the pictures of Doris and I? What’s that got to do with anything?”

“What do you think you know?” Alexis asked with his face still hidden.

“I think something happed in 1943. I think the old movie with your wife and Brix Maxwell was, at least, started. Whether it exists now or not, I have no idea. I think that your Miss Bumchelski downstairs is feeding a friend information about what goes on in here. That friend is then passing it to Eve Standish who is using it in her column. I imagine the blind items referring to me were just to let me know who’s boss around here. How am I doing so far?”

“Look, Mr. Parker,” Brigham wailed, “all of that is true. We thought that you…”

“Shut up!” Alexis half shouted and began to stand. I put my hand on his shoulder and forced him back into the chair.

“You thought what?” Doris asked as she turned and glared at the nervous agent.“You though I could ferret out the blackmailer without any information?” I asked incredulously. “How exactly did you think I was supposed to do that?”

“Yes,” he said in a small voice.

“And other thing,” I turned to Brigham. “Who is Carl Johnston?”

“What?” Brigham flinched and then started shaking.

“I had a little altercation with him and afterward found your phone number on him.”

“A lot of people have the number of Brigham Entertainment,” Alexis said when Brigham didn’t respond.

“But written on the same piece of paper with Eve Standish’s number?”   I said in a loud voice.

Without a response Alexis collected the pictures and stacked them neatly together. He then took a lighter out of his pocket and, after setting them aflame, dropped them into an empty metal wastebasket. The four of us watched the small fire until it went out. Waiting for him to respond was all that was left.

Seconds later the inner door to the next office opened. Brigham walked to a chair by his projector and dropped heavily into it, Alexis leaned forward with his head in his hands. Doris and I turned to the sound and watched Andrea Gilmore step into the room.

The sunlight glinted off her expensive silver dress making her look like a Greek statue. Meticulously she removed a large white wide brimmed hat and walked over to he husband. Gilmore then very deliberately took off her very dark sunglasses to reveal the world’s most famous pair of violet eyes. She was impeccably dressed and her make up was perfect. Any minute I expected Mangiocotti to yell, “cut.”

“I believe you’ve met.” Alexis spoke without raising his head. “My wife Andrea Gilmore, Mr. And Mrs. Parker.”

“Yes, I recall,” Gilmore said in her familiar honeyed tone. She placed her hat and glasses on the edge of the desk and folded her hands dramatically at her waist. Somehow I felt that she did everything dramatically. The whole entrance seemed very rehearsed.

“I’m afraid we not forthcoming with you, Mr. Parker,” Alexis said.

“I told you that…” Brigham started until he was silenced by a look from Alexis.

“Go on,” Doris said.

“I purposely gave you nothing to work on because I wanted to see what you might turn up without any preconceived ideas. You were much quicker in confirming our suspicions than we had expected.”

“Suspicions about?” I asked impatiently.

“We were fairly sure who the blackmailer was all along.”

“$10,000 a month is a nice haul.” I whistled through my teeth and then concluded, “so what we’re talking about obviously has nothing to do with those last photos.”

“What pictures are those dear?” Gilmore leaned in toward her husband next to the still slightly smoldering contents in the wastebasket.

“You remember,” he said as if talking to a child, “the pictures of us that were shot through our bedroom window while we were, uh, you know.”

“Oh yes,” she replied glancing vaguely around the room, “I think I remember that night.”

“I told my wife yesterday that we had hired you and that it would be for the best. I didn’t tell you that I had because I thought it would leave you with a more open mind.”

“As you said,” I recalled. “And you thought it would also keep us from doing something that might appear in the papers and get related to your wife.” He nodded when I finished.

With her patience exhausted Doris gestured helplessly with her hands, walked across the room, and sat in one of the chairs by the projector. As she neared, Brigham stood up and crossed to the window behind his occupied desk. Alexis sighed while Gilmore gently rubbed his shoulder.

“So,” I concluded wearily, “we’ve confirmed things for you, huh? And it all dates back to something 9 years ago. And because, it seems, everything in this town filters through one common source then…”

“Yes Mr. Parker, you’re right,” Alexis shook his head sadly, “we’re all being bled by Eve Standish.”

 

16

I threw my hands up in disgust and turned to the door. “That ‘s enough,” I grumbled.

“Wait a minute JP,” Doris said as she grabbed my hand. “Let’s hear the rest.”

“For what?” I stopped and leaned against the wall.

Gilmore had hardly moved giving no indication she was even following the conversation. She was beautiful, all right, but that seemed to be it. Brigham, looking like he was about to have a coronary, stayed by the window wringing his hands.

Alexis turned to me with his palms up. “I must apologize. We simply wanted to see what you’d turn up. Now you know our problem.”

“Go to the cops,” I said casually, “let them drop her in the slammer.”

“We don’t have proof,” Alexis whined.

“Come on,” Doris said, “you have enough to get the police interested. Go ahead.”

“We can’t,” Brigham said.

“Why the hell not?” I said and turned to Doris. She rolled her eyes.

“Because Standish will spill it in her column,” Alexis dropped his head back into his hands, “and then we’ll all be ruined.”

I walked over to him, lifted him out of his chair, and stuck my face close to his. “Spill what?” I said unnecessarily loud.

“Only my wife knows,” Alexis said obviously frightened at what I might do.

“Well,” Doris turned to Gilmore.

She held a steady gaze and only said, “I’m sorry, that’s something we don’t talk about.”

“That’s all brother.” I turned taking Doris by the arm and walked out the door. It would be a while before I calmed down.

Investigating a case without adequate information, not getting an answer to why Johnston had both Brigham’s and Standish’s phone number, and having to put up with people who belonged in straight jackets was enough for me.

“You did the right thing,” Doris said as we neared home.

“Thanks,” I said. “I guess this means I’m retired again.”

“I didn’t want to tell you before,” she added, “but his check bounced.”

“Alexis’?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Figures.”

We were up early the next morning and drifted back into our old routine. Doris wrote and I looked for more house projects. The last week had been exciting, frustrating, and incoherent all at the same time. Before we had much of a chance to sort out how we really felt about it we received a phone call that made things worse.

After answering Doris did a lot of nodding into the receiver and at one point said, “yes, he knows.” Seconds later after more nodding she said, “yes, he knows that too.” Just before she hung up she added, “I’ll try, yes, OK Mr. Berg.”

“What was that?” I said coldly.

“Hiram Berg would like to meet with you tonight at the studio office,” she said.

“You have got be kidding.”

“Come on JP,” she said, “what can it hurt?”

“They’re all crazy. For over 25 years I had one main rule, try to have a sane client.”

“Were you always successful?” She said with an eyebrow raised.

“No.”

“All right then,” Doris was impossible to argue with. “These are the people I work with. And also the ones I work for. Come on JP, for me?”

We went around and around until I realized that I never could disagree with a good-looking redhead.

—————————–

Eight hours later we were sitting in Hiram Berg’s private office at National Pictures. In contrast to his usual loud blustery behavior, this time he was seating quietly at one end of a conference table. He wore an expensive double-breasted three-piece suit with every button fastened. A hand painted silk tie pulled a little too tightly made him look like a trussed up Thanksgiving turkey. His hair was carefully styled and combed straight back making his fleshy face seem even rounder.

“Thank you for coming Mr. and Mrs. Parker,” Berg said getting our names right this time. And I didn’t think he’d even noticed me. “We all know why we’re here.”

“Some know a little more than others,” I said flatly.

“Yes, yes,” Berg continued. “I heard from Mr. Alexis last night. Your work, Mr. Parker, has convinced us that Eve Standish is the one behind their dilemma. She is apparently going to continue to tap them for additional large amounts of money. What can we do about it?”

“Go to the cops,” I said hoping that this would be the shortest meeting in National Pictures history.

“You understand why we can’t go to the police aside from the negative publicity it would bring,” Berg said.

“Yes, of course,” I recited. “Standish is knowledgeable about a situation that came about during an aborted filming back in 1943. Publication of which could seriously damage reputations and ruin careers.”

“Who knows the details other than Miss Gilmore?” Doris asked.

“Maybe her husband?” Berg said.

“He says no,” Doris added and Berg nodded.

“Brix Maxwell?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Berg looked at me curiously, “why would he?”

“No, huh?” I said not able to hide the surprise in my voice. “So then, we’re talking about only two or three people total.”

“For all intents and purposes,” Berg said.

“OK,” I leaned on the arm of my high backed chair, “do you know?”

“I can only guess,” Berg said cryptically.

“This is pointless,” I started to stand but Doris put her hand on my arm to quiet me.

“This is a very difficult time in Hollywood, Mr. Parker,” Berg laboriously stood and walked around the table to the far side of the room. “There is new competition from television. I don’t quite understand it, but that’s the reality of the situation.

“There are also great pressures from Congress. Many in our business have been called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some have been brave only to see their careers destroyed. They won the battle but lost the war, in a manner of speaking. Others did what Joseph McCarthy and his ilk wanted. They named names. Now whether they actually knew anything or not, who can say, but they did what they felt they had to in order to save their careers. Can’t say that I have much use for them, though.

“Mr. Parker, you have worked independently for most of your career. You set your own schedule and, for the most part, didn’t have to worry much about public opinion. Notwithstanding how powerful you might think we are anything that reflects negatively on us in today’s climate is a potential disaster.

“For example, there is a major movie actor who, despite all appearances to the contrary, actually prefers spending his time with other men, if you get my drift. We have carefully covered up that situation for obvious reasons.”

“Should I be reading anything into that little story?” I asked.

“No.”

“So then,” I raised an eyebrow at Doris, “we’re not talking about Brix Maxwell, I guess.”

For a minute the seriousness around the table disappeared. The three of us enjoyed a break in the tension and the laugh felt good. Soon, however, the original mood returned.

“So you see Mr. Parker,” Berg said. He’d pushed his chair back and, after walking behind it, leaned forward onto its high back. “It’s not that we don’t trust you and your wife. We actually do. But whatever happened in 1943 has to remain in 1943 and the fewer that know about whatever information she has, the better.”

“How do you know her information is damaging?” Doris asked the logical question.

“Trust me,” Berg frowned, “if Standish has wind of something big enough to hold up Miss Gilmore for $10,000, it’s damaging.”

All right,” I said, “but I’m a little confused. With all the people that it takes to make a film, how is it possible that there aren’t a hundred others that know this deep dark secret?”

Berg stood behind his chair and unsuccessfully tugged down on his vest. After smoothing his suit he walked to the far end of the room and jammed his hands into his pockets.

“The movie was never actually made,” Berg said quietly. “You see, Jack, uh, Mr. Weston at Excelsior, and I had this idea to star Maxwell and Gilmore together. We had this interesting two-person script about a couple stranded on a desert island during WWII. He was going to be a GI and she was to be a nun. The story bounced around a while and after being significantly rewritten it’s going to be made now with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. With Maxwell and Gilmore we only got as far as doing a couple of read throughs and a rehearsal of a scene or two, but that’s all. It was kind of an offbeat story so we wanted to simply try it out ahead of time. As far as anyone else, well, the scriptwriter died in ‘45. No director had been hired at the time since this was kind of a private thing between Jack and I.”

“Nobody else?” I pressed. “What about Maxwell’s agent?”

“Maxwell never told him,” Berg explained. “Remember, Maxwell is known for action films and not heavy dramatic work. But like today he wanted to work with Gilmore and try something new. Still, he knew his agent wouldn’t have approved. I got the chance to run the idea past him when we met one night at a party. That’s where he agreed to give it a try on his own.”

“Wait a minute,” Doris said. “You bypassed his agent and then did private rehearsals? Really?”

“So what happened to kill the project?” I asked.

“Mr. Parker,” Berg said as he sat back down, “apparently some things happened and the project was eventually optioned out. The three of us, other than Miss Gilmore, have been in the dark ever since.”

“It was after this that Gilmore went home and took the year off, right?” Doris said.

“That’s right,” Berg answered in a small voice.

“You had no contact with her all that time?” I had trouble believing any of this.

“That’s what she demanded,” Berg shook his head. “I suppose I could have suspended her. But then what if she refused to return? This is not a typical woman we were dealing with. We even drove out to see her, but were met only by her mother and very pregnant older sister. We never saw Miss Gilmore until the end of the year when she returned and told us she was ready to work again.”

“And you were willing to let her have her secret,” I concluded.

“What was the alternative? She seemed fine, looked great, and was willing to pick up where she’d left off,” Berg said with a determined edge in his voice.

“All right,” Doris said trying to understand but also sensing that I was out of patience. “What do you want from us?”

“It’s more about what we’d like from your husband,” said Berg.

“Which is?” I asked tired of the whole business. First his colleagues lied to me and then they stonewalled. Despite remaining in the meeting I had long since lost interest in what he had to say.

“As Mr. Alexis told you,” Berg said, “he carefully researched your past in New York. We know about several of the cases you worked and the things that you had to do to close them. You can be very tough and you’ve got guts. I feel you have the skills to handle a matter of the utmost importance.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking…”

“How much money would you like to have Mr. Parker?” Berg asked with an oily tone in his voice.

“What do you mean?” I asked back.

Berg lowed his voice as a very serious look washed over his face. “How much money would it take for you and your wife to live comfortably for the rest of your life?”

Doris looked at me quizzically. I’m sure I returned the expression. Whatever he had in mind he obviously felt that there was no other alternative. Trying to guess what was coming was making my stomach churn.

“I can’t risk having my prime property damaged,” Berg added. I wondered if he was aware that he had referred to another human being as a possession.

My redhead and I sat quietly somewhat stunned by the question. What in the world was he after? What was it he thought I could do for him?

“What are you talking about?” It was the only thing I could think of to say. Doris’ eyes were as wide as saucers.

“I’m asking you a serious question,” Berg said. “What would it take?”

“I’ve never thought about it before,” I shook my head, but momentarily intrigued decided to play along. I glanced at Doris before blurting out the most ridiculous number that I could. “I don’t know. How about a quarter million dollars?”

“All right,” Berg nodded calmly as if we were talking about the weather. The room was very silent. It also seemed as if someone had turned up the heat. Doris and I looked at each other half expecting our host to break out laughing at this nonsensical prank.

“So,” I joked trying to lift the tension, “who do I have to kill?”

“Do you know where Eve Standish lives?” Berg asked letting my attempt at humor hang in the air.

“Yeah,” I nodded warily, “Nocturne Drive, Santa Monica.”

“Good,” was Berg’s only response.

“Wait a minute,” I froze, “you don’t mean…”

Berg’s voice was as cold and hard as February. “Yeah, I do,” he said.

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 13 & 14

13

Doris and I met for lunch. We had a regular place where we’d go when she had to attend a business meeting in town. It was no match for our Soho diner back in Manhattan but it was adequate. Of course adequate doesn’t come close to replacing New York’s bagels, Little Italy, or Chinatown.

Over the last several months in LA she’d tell me about her latest project and amuse me with a little backstage gossip. Now for the first time on this coast we were meeting to discuss business we were doing together. It was embarrassing how much I was enjoying working again.

As soon as we’d ordered my eager redhead leaned across the table and fanned me with her eyelashes. Her wild hair cascaded toward me, but with a quick flip of her head she managed to wrestle it under control. Her wide smile and electric blue eyes nearly hypnotized me and probably every other guy in the restaurant.

“Did you see the paper today?” Doris raised one eyebrow and rubbed her chin.

“What?”

“Eve Standich’s column. You made it again.”

Sure enough Doris took a clipping out of her pocket and slid it to me across the table. She sat quietly with a bemused look on her face as I unfolded it. Down toward the bottom of the page were Standich’s teasingly blind items and, sure enough, there I was. “What well known east coast PI is now sticking his nose in LA? I wonder if he has a clue.”

“Jeez,” I shook my head, “Alexis was right. She is a bitch.”

“At least she said you were ‘well known’,” Doris countered hoping I wasn’t as annoyed as I looked.

“Did Danny call about this?”

“Well,” Doris looked surprised by my question. “Yeah, he did.”

“What did you tell him?”

“JP, why…”

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing really,” she said nervously, “just that you were doing some private work. I know the phrase ‘loose lips sink ships’.”

“OK, sorry. This swirl of unrelated info must have been making me paranoid.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she brightened, “and let me tell you what I’ve got on the very despised Eve Standish.”

“Despised sounds consistent with what I’ve heard and now seen,” I said noticing my hands were clinched into fists.

“Oh you bet,” she smiled. “Of course no one would dare say it to her face unless they wanted to leave the business. In fact no one would dare say it at all because they’d be afraid of who might hear. If she likes you, then you’re in. If not, she cuts you off at the knees.”

“How does one person get so much power?”

“She came out here nearly 30 years ago to be an actress,” Doris explained. “She was a pretty hot number, but instead of being able to get any acting jobs she instead worked her way into the PR end of things. Soon, it seems, she knew everyone, and many of them in the Biblical sense. From there she worked herself into newspapers and by around 1940 she was syndicated across the country in both print and on the radio. Never married but, I’m told, has test driven many different models.”

“Let me guess,” I said as our food was served. “The secrets she collected from her probably married boyfriends were used as leverage to get stories.”

“Oh yeah,” Doris said as she leaned back obviously pleased with the good job she’d done.

“What are the chances she used the last 15 years or so to get even with the town that spurned her acting talents?”

“Why Dr. Freud,” Doris laughed, “you’re so insightful.”

As we ate we planned where to go next. She didn’t have much on Berg or Weston, the heads of National and Excelsior studios, other than to say that they were wealthy. Both had made their fortunes outside of the business, Berg on Wall Street and Weston in Texas oil drilling. They essentially became movie big shots by buying the studios in the late 20s.

Despite their inexperience, they were smart enough to understand the potential in talkies better than the guys that sold the studios. Safe to say it wasn’t a bad investment.

“Now what?” Doris asked as she finished her last bite.

I never saw a woman eat like she did. Anyone with a normal metabolism would have weighed 300 pounds. In her case, however, whatever fat there was had instead managed to distribute itself very nicely.

“Getting a chance to talk to Miss Standish would be impossible, I suppose,” I said as I watched Doris down her last French fry.

“Certainly for me it is,” she nodded, “but you’d have a better chance seeing as how you have a Y chromosome.”

“Does Standish know who you are?”

“Possibly,” she said nodding toward the newspaper, “but it seems she certainly knows you. I don’t know where she lives and, as you can imagine, her phone’s unlisted.”

“But you can find out where.”

“Actually,” Doris said, “she keeps that a very dark secret and you can picture what she would do to the person who revealed it. When she’s in town she stays at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and holds court there for those who come to grovel.”

“OK,” I shrugged again. Seemed I was doing that a lot lately. “Plan B then.”

“Which is?”

“How about Samuel Judge?”

“Miss Bumchelski’s friend? What do you want to do?” Doris asked.

“1132 Shore Rd. in Malibu you said, huh? I wonder if he keeps regular hours.” I sat back and watched her expression change from curiosity to near panic.

“You’re going to break in aren’t you?” Doris had seen my little burglary act before and completely disapproved of not only it, but also my illegal collection of metal shims and keys. “I can’t believe you brought those infernal things along with you from New York.”

“Suppose we got locked out of the house,” I rationalized and she shook her head at me.

“What do you think you know?” She said placing her hands flat on the table.

“All right, see how this sounds.” I took a deep breath and blew it slowly out my nose. “Something happened back in 1943,” I said and then replayed my morning conversations with Brigham and Miss Bumchelski.

Doris listened carefully before asking, “but how do you know?”

“I don’t really know anything,” I said slowly. “But when I asked Alexis on the phone this morning about the phantom movie he said ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ If there was really nothing to it a more likely response would have been something more along the lines of ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

“What does it mean?” She complained. “Honestly JP, you talk like a fortune cookie sometimes.”

“All right my lovely redhead,” I added with a flair and smiled. “How about this? In ’43 Brigham’s sons die in the war. He starts to come unglued and Gilmore is left on her own. Suppose there really was a movie. Suppose it really did involve Maxwell. Then something happens, the flick gets shelved, and Gilmore runs home to momma for a year.”

“Something like what?”

“Who knows?” I smiled. “You’re the writer. Make up a story.”

“You’re so funny,” she protested. “How does Standish fit in with this?”

“If she’s as powerful as you say you don’t suppose that something as big as an aborted movie project involving Gilmore and Maxwell would go unnoticed, do you?”

“And…” Doris smiled. “Oh, I get it.”

“Atta girl.”

“But I still hate those illegal gadgets of yours.”

14         

It didn’t take too long to find Shore Drive. We pulled up in the late afternoon and after retracing the same highway a few times we managed to locate number 1132. The reason it had taken us several tries to find the address was that we’d been looking for a building not a houseboat.

The older wooden boat was tethered and anchored in a cove at the end of a small marina. A wooden plank walkway under a sign that read Cove Marina snaked to it past about 20 other slips. By the road was a line of mailboxes that we used to figure out which name went with which boat.

Judge owned the only houseboat and the only craft that had an electrical hook-up. The others ranged from a little speedboat with two oversized outboard engines to a 30-foot cabin cruiser with a flying bridge. Some were clearly just for pleasure while a few looked outfitted for deep-sea fishing. At the northern end of the small marina was a ramp where other small crafts could be easily lowered into the water. Most of the boats were clearly of the weekend variety since none of them other than Judge’s would have allowed anyone to live aboard comfortably.

We watched from our car for a long time and saw no activity on the houseboat. Being a weekday there were very few folks around. The only movement we did see was someone doing some painting aboard his small craft and the proprietor who sat in a little shack next to the ramp. He stood up as soon as he saw us and watched warily as if we were going to pick up a boat and carry it away. He was a tall gaunt middle-aged fellow who walked with a slight stoop.

“Want to make a new friend?” I asked Doris as we continued to peer out the car windows.

“What?” Her voice was apprehensive.

“I bet our thin buddy there would love a nice visit from a tall sexy redhead.”

“JP,” Doris complained, “what are you talking about?”

I explained that I wanted her to walk over and make conversation. As soon as she had his attention, which would have been within seconds, she could then steer the conversation to the houseboat and its owner. Any story would do. Judge was maybe an old friend, or was it for sale, or was there room for her houseboat to dock as well. Whatever ruse she used, we needed to know what kind of hours Judge kept. Doris protested but eventually agreed.

My tall drink of water had Mr. Gaunt’s attention before she’d even crossed the road. I watched as she quickly engaged him in conversation. It was amazing how much his posture improved as they talked. Soon he was smiling and then they even laughed briefly. This could hardly have gone any better.

Not wanting to be seen I crawled into the back seat so Doris’ new friend would think she was alone as he watched her return to the car. Figuring out why I was slumped in the back she climbed in behind the wheel. After thrilling her new friend with an enthusiastic wave she drove us around the block and out of sight.

“Phew,” she shook her head after parking the car, “his breath smelled like last week’s chum.”

“But…”

“A ‘you’re welcome’ would be nice,” she complained comically before reporting. “OK, Judge will be gone until the weekend, he said. Guy’s name is Ken Kanovsen and he’s run the place for 20 years mostly by himself. After getting up close I know why. Judge has lived on the houseboat for about 2 years on and off.”

“Nice job.”

“Unfortunately,” she added in an artificial voice, “Judge is not my long lost love from a Caribbean cruise last year. I wanted to give good old Ken some hope.”

I laughed. “You really are very devious, you know.”

“Now what?” Her tone told me that the joking was over.

I explained that I couldn’t simply walk out to Judge’s boat and climb aboard. It would have to happen at night when I hoped even less people would be around. But to be even safer I’d have to swim up to the houseboat not walk. I could easily get into the water through the woods that stretched out at the north of the marina. When I was done on board I’d simply reverse the process.

It was near 9:00 that night when Doris dropped me off. She planned to circle back every 20 minutes to pick me up. After a quick kiss I disappeared into the woods and headed for the ocean.

The water lapped lazily against the shore as I stepped out of he woods and dipped below the surface. I was dressed in a long sleeve black shirt, black pants, and had smeared charcoal on my face and hands. In a watertight pouch attached to my belt I had a flashlight, my burglary tools, and a small camera. After all the dramatics I hoped my efforts would be worth it.

I cut easily through the water and tried to be as quiet as possible when I entered the cove. Gliding silently under the surface I reached the houseboat without incident. With my hands on the hull I carefully stuck my head out of the water and listened. The only sound was water gently lapping against the boat’s hull.

When I was sure no one was around I pulled myself up over the port side that mostly faced away from the road and the other boats. With one leg draped over the side I again stopped to listen. So far, so good.

As expected the door in the stern was locked, but inside of a minute I had jimmied it open. I carefully closed the door behind me and pulled my small flashlight out of my belt. All I had to do then was figure out what I was looking for.

Judge’s boat wasn’t much more than one big rectangular room. It contained a bed, a couch, a desk, and a very small kitchen. In the middle on the starboard side was an even smaller rectangular cubical that held a toilet and a stall shower. Apparently Judge didn’t have claustrophobia.

Above me on the next level was a small cabin housing the wheel and a couple of bolted down deck chairs. At the stern were a 30 horsepower outboard and two gas tanks.

First, I rifled the desk being careful to not rearrange anything. Nothing caught my attention until I found a personal loose-leaf phone book in the bottom drawer. I quickly snapped pictures of every page without taking the time to see whose numbers it contained. As I returned it I found an envelope with glossies of a handsome dark haired actor. It read Samuel Judge under the picture. I folded one photo and stuffed it in my pocket.

The kitchen and bathroom areas yielded nothing. Neither did the couch or the bed. Next I tried looking for any false panels in the walls or floor. Again nothing. I went through the few decorations that hung on the wall between the windows. Another zero.

Lastly, I took down the two lifejackets that were hung by the door at the stern. Inside one I could feel some small square lumps that had been poorly stitched inside. Without much effort I managed to loosen the threads and out came several photos. Kneeling on the floor I spread them in front of me and took out my flashlight.

Being so buried in concentration the knock on the stern door nearly gave me a heart attack. I frantically gathered the photos and stuffed them into my waterproof sack. Maybe if I was silent whoever it was would go away.

“Sam,” called a male voice, “you in there?”

I didn’t even breathe.

“Sam? Come on, man,” the voice pleaded. “Give me the pictures like we agreed and then that’s it. I’ll make sure he gets them. Sam, hey, I know you’re in there. I’m sorry I agreed to this stupid job just because he asked. Look, I don’t care how long we’ve been friends. We’re not kids anymore.”

I stayed mute and listened to him swear and pound the door. I wondered if he’d heard me and thought it was Judge hiding from him. If so, I was in big trouble. Not even a good-looking redhead playing up to the arresting officer would help.

“Sam,” he called again. “You can do what you want. Stay with her, I don’t care. I just want the damn pictures.”

Finally he stopped and I heard him pacing on the boardwalk. He climbed on board at one point and tried to peer in the windows, but fortunately the curtains were drawn too tightly. A couple of times he pounded on the roof with his fists and yelled.

When he was on the roof the second time I heard another pair of footsteps approach. There was a muffled conversation and soon my stalker climbed back onto the dock. I carefully crawled over to the door to listen.

“Get out of here now or I’m calling the cops,” said the new voice. I guessed it was Kanovsen.

“Yeah,” my stalker drawled, “I’m going. But I’ll be back. That bastard Judge owes me stuff.”

“I don’t give a damn,” said Kanovsen, “just get the hell out of here.”

Just as the words left his mouth there was a loud slapping sound and then a thud. I pushed aside the curtain by the stern door and saw a large bearded man lean over and punch a prone Kanovsen hard across the mouth. Doris’ new friend went limp and looked unconscious. The bearded man grabbed Kanovsen’s collar with his left hand and raised him slightly off the deck. He then rained several hard blows against his hapless opponent.

I was going to have to risk stepping in. Trying to use the element of surprise I suddenly swung the stern door open. As soon as Beard Man turned toward me I shined my flashlight directly in his eyes.

“Judge you bastard,” he yelled as I lunged for him. “I knew you were in there.”

Before he could react I clipped him hard with a right hand that rocked him back on his heels. Dazed he tried to raise his hands so I hit him again with a left that put his lights out and toppled him off the boardwalk into the water.

Leaving his victim lying above I dove in after him. Not being able to lift him back onto the boardwalk I laboriously carried him though the water and eventually left him on the ground by Kanovsen’s office. Exhausted I collapsed beside him and tried to catch my breath.

A minute or two later I ran back to check on Kanovsen. He was still out and bleeding fairly badly. I tore his shirt into several long strips and tried to bandage him the best I could. He’d also lost a few teeth and it looked like his cheekbone was broken.

I again ran back to the office where my bearded victim continued to lie unconscious. Grabbing some rope that was draped over a bulkhead I quickly tied his wrists and ankles. Just to be sure I ran an extra line between them until he was tied up like Houdini handing over the East River.

Going through his pockets I found his wallet. His driver’s license revealed him as Carl Johnston from 2nd Street in Ventura. There was also a card identifying him as a graduate of Ventura East High School class of ‘40. It looked like it entitled him some kind of local discounts.

Just as I was about to stuff the wallet back into his pants a piece of paper fell out with the phone numbers, CLaymore 9-4623 and SOuthern 6-9345 written on it. It took me a while to remember the second number was Brigham Entertainment. I quickly jammed it into my pocket.

Running into the office I dialed the police. “Listen fast,” I said. “There are two injured guys at a marina on Shore Drive in Malibu. The one tied up by the office assaulted the guy lying on the boardwalk at the end of the pier. Get here fast ‘cause they both need medical attention.”

“Wait a minute,” came the voice through the phone, “who is this?”

“I’m the guy that broke up the fight. You need to be here now!”

“Just a min…” He barked as I hung up.

I was back in the water within seconds wondering what was on both sets of photos.

Reel Life Real Death Chapters 11 & 12

11

I was amazed as we walked next to the huge building. Soundstage #3 was at least four stories high and nearly as long as a football field. It seemed hard to believe that “Heart Of China” had it all to itself.

Despite its size we only found a small door at one corner where we could enter. I assumed that there were other entrances where the sets and equipment could be brought in, but the building was so large maybe everything was brought in first and the building was erected around it.

Two burly bouncers with scowls intended to be frightening blocked the door. They stepped politely out of our way when we identified ourselves. For the afternoon, at least, we were big shots.

Doris and I made our way through an almost never ending maze of crates and electronic equipment. There were huge rectangular racks containing practically everything imaginable. Some carried costumes, others held food. A virtual army of people swirled around us toting clipboards, furniture, and cables each seemingly knowing where they were going. Doris smiled when I suggested it looked like an ant farm.

After several minutes of dodging paraphernalia we came to a very brightly lit stage. As far as I could tell it was a perfect representation of typical street somewhere in China. Every part of its detail, even some that the camera couldn’t have possibly seen, had been carefully constructed. By blocking out the surrounding lights and scaffolding it would have been easy to convince yourself you had been suddenly transported to Asia.

The set stretched for about 80 feet showing four or five recreated storefronts including a sidewalk cafe. I’d never heard that China had such things, but the set was so amazing I was willing to suspend my disbelief.

Mangiocotti was busy behind one of the four cameras that were trained on the cafe. Lights were being meticulously adjusted as Asian actors, or people made up to look like them, carefully took their places. There was even someone painstakingly making sure that the just the right amount of dirt had been strewn on the make believe street.

Being so distracted watching the controlled chaos it was a while before we noticed Andrea Gilmore sitting quietly at one of the tables in the cafe. She was staring blankly off into space completely oblivious to the confusion around her.

Gilmore was, as always, blindingly beautiful. Despite that a make up girl was still furiously working on one of the world’s most famous faces. Gilmore sat impassively while another girl fiddled with her hair and clothes. She might have been a mannequin for all we had seen so far.

After what seemed like a long time Mangiocotti bellowed, “places everyone. Let’s make some magic.” Within seconds everyone scrambled into their positions and a minute later the director yelled, “action.”

Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, Gilmore sprang to life. The lifeless form from a moment earlier was replaced an energetic woman striding confidently down the street to take a table at the cafe. Even her voice sounded different as if she’d actually become someone else. It was an amazing transformation.

Watching the scene made me think about the other times I’d enjoyed her work while sitting in a theater. Gilmore was never the same person twice. Even though she had an image to support she was still able to take on a variety of roles. Some required her to perfect an accent or a different way of walking or even a different facial expression. It was as if she was a blank canvas and for each film painted a new character onto it.

Maxwell soon appeared out of the back of the cafe and joined her at the table. Initially it was hard to concentrate on the scene as cameras and hanging microphones followed the actors. It was also hard to imagine how the actors were able to block it out.

Maxwell wore a leather flying jacket over a pair of jeans. His cap was tilted back at a rakish angle that I’m sure would delight his female minions. First he and Gilmore kissed fairly passionately and then he sat down next to her. We weren’t quite close enough to hear all the dialogue.

The scene lasted about 30 seconds and they repeated it about five or six times. Each time they did it a little differently. The cameras were also changed with each take to catch the action from a variety of angles. At first I raised my hands to block out everything other than the scene but by the third take it was so real I didn’t need to any more.

After every take Mangiocotti walked over to Gilmore and gave her very quiet encouragement. It appeared that she needed almost constant reinforcement. All Maxwell received or apparently wanted was an occasional thumbs up or a slap on the back. It was interesting that the more talented performer was the one who required the handholding. Finally Mangiocotti was satisfied. He called, “cut and print,” and once again the ants became busy setting up the next shot.

The next thing I knew was a slap on my shoulder and there was Maxwell grabbing my hand. A big smile spread across his face as he pumped my arm.

“Hey mister tough guy,” he said in full stage voice. “How the hell are you? Beat anyone up today?”

Deciding to play along I said, “not yet. Want to step outside?”

Maxwell laughed as if what I’d said was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. With his arm around my shoulder he dragged me away from Doris and we ducked behind one of the huge lighting trucks.

“You’re a good guy,” he said. “You kept me from looking like an ass at least for one night. Well, don’t worry. I’m working now so I’ll be off the sauce.”

“Good to hear,” I smiled and then added, “the scene looked great.”

“Yeah,” he replied with no pretense, “I think it did. Of course working with Andrea makes it easy.”

“It all appeared very real.”

“Come on, making love to a beautiful woman,” he snapped his fingers, “how hard can it be? Listen, you seem like a right guy. A lot of other folks would have taken advantage of our little situation. I owe you. Seriously, if you need anything, just let me know. I mean it.”

“All right,” I said enjoying the attention from my apparently newest best friend.

“OK, gotta go. Good to see you.” After he was gone as fast as he’d appeared I walked back to Doris. She was talking to Mangiocotti.

“Your lovely wife tells me that Ron Alexis invited you to the set,” he said somewhat warily.

“Yup, that’s right,” I said.

“You will stay back please,” the director said displaying none of the charm we’d seen days earlier at his party. “Thanks, now I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Wow,” Doris said, “that was rude. He was like that with me too.”

“The guy is working, you know. I don’t lean over your shoulder when you’re writing.”

“Maybe so. What did Maxwell want?”

“Nothing,” I grinned a little, “he was just being friendly and full of himself. Keep the booze away from him and he’s a pretty nice guy. While I was distracted what did Gilmore do?”

“Oh JP,” Doris shook her head. “After the scene it was just as if they cut her strings. You saw how animated and terrific she was while they were shooting. Well, as soon as Mangiocotti said ‘cut’ all the life just drained out of her.”

“He sure gave her a lot of attention after each take. Maybe nobody’s home behind those violet eyes.”

We didn’t hear him come up behind us. With all the lights and other distractions it wasn’t hard to figure out why. We turned quickly at the sound of his voice.

“That’s why I have to take such good care of her,” Alexis said obviously having been eavesdropping over our shoulders.

Recovering quickly Doris said, “she does seem fragile. It’s amazing, though, to watch her when the camera’s rolling.”

“Yes,” his eyes had a faraway look. “She’s really in her element then.”

“Thanks for inviting us,” I said. “Watching now helps me to appreciate your business much better.”

“That’s why I asked you here,” Alexis’ expression was flat. “I wanted you get an idea of how, well, delicate she actually is and to help you understand why we have kept her out of our discussions. I also want to apologize for my attitude earlier. This whole situation has us in kind of a frenzy.”

Soon Alexis excused himself and only minutes later Brigham joined us. I began to wonder if we didn’t move whether everyone involved with this weird case would show up.

“How’s our girl doing?” He said like a proud father. Being out of his office seemed to have a calming influence on him.

“It looks good to me,” I said, “for whatever that’s worth.”

“Listen, you’re the public that we’re aiming for.”

“Brigham,” I turned to him and frowned slightly, “can I see you in your office tomorrow?”

“Uh,” he stammered as his nervousness returned, “I guess. Um, sure. See you at 10?”

“10 would be fine.”

After Brigham scurried off Doris turned to me. “For a minute he seemed calm. Why’d you have to go and scare him?”

I shrugged, “I have that effect on a lot of people.”

“Not me,” she grinned before turning back to watch the next scene.

 

12

It was later than we expected by the time we left the studio. While we’d been watching them work time had just slipped away. On the way home we dragged ourselves back to reality and tried to figure out where we stood on this idiotic job.

Although the first conversation of the day with Alexis hadn’t gone all that well things seemed to have righted themselves. The other ones I needed to have with Samuel Judge, Brigham, and maybe even Gilmore herself were going to be even more difficult. Dicier yet, in light of Alexis’ comments, would be the one I was apparently going to have to have with Eve Standich. I hoped that Doris’ idea for our cover story would be adequate.

According to Alexis there were only five people outside of the blackmailer, or blackmailers, that knew what was going on. With all the developments during the last 18 hours I was beginning to doubt it. Adding the pressure of their impending payment of another $10,000 wasn’t making things any easier.

The next morning before heading out to see Brigham I managed to convince Doris to see what she could dig up on Standish. She was a bit less enthusiastic than on the previous day, but my charm managed to talk her into it. It was either that or she was beginning to think that our cover story might actually land her a real book deal.

I arrived at Brigham’s building before noon and made a purposeful stride toward Blondie and her big mahogany desk. If anything, she was dressed even flashier than before. Replacing the tight sweater was a carefully starched white sleeveless blouse with an open neck that looked like it ended somewhere past her navel. Her straw colored hair was pulled up tightly onto the top of her head and held in place by an ivory clip. Either secretaries in LA were paid very well or their entire salary went into clothing. Then I began to think about her connection to Mangiocotti and what that might mean.

“Good morning Miss Bumchelski,” I greeted her with my blinding smile. Somehow she managed to stay calm.

“Good morning Mr. Parker,” she tried to sound very professional.

I leaned toward her over the desk and said softly, “could you tell Mr. Brigham that I need to see him? Oh, and just a suggestion.”

“Yes?” She looked at me blankly.

“Next time you call Samuel,” I said, “tell him ‘hi’ for me.” I decided I needed to shake some trees and see if anything fell out.

“What?” She stammered. “How did…uh…I mean…”

I left her simmering and went up in the elevator. Without Alexis to act as a buffer I was hoping that Brigham would be coherent enough to tell me something helpful. Feeling guilty about taking advantage of the sad nervous old man would have to wait until later.

He met me at his office door looking like he’d just had his blood drained by a local vampire and the circles under his eyes told me how well he’d been sleeping lately. Brigham led me to his desk while trying hard to keep his nervous tics under control. At least this time he’d get to sit behind it.

“Enjoyed being on the set yesterday,” I decided to open with flattery. “If what I saw was any indication you’ve got a hit coming.”

“Uh yes,” my sweating host stuttered, “we hope so. There’s a lot riding on this and we, uh, hope that it will, um, do well.”

After some more awkward small talk I began the real reason for my visit. “We’ve been looking into things and a couple of questions have come up.”

“Un huh,” he blinked nervously, “like what?”

“In trying to find out what the blackmailers have on Miss Gilmore we came across something odd,” I said letting my eyes bore into him. He swallowed hard, but said nothing so I continued. “I’ve already talked to Alexis but I want your take too. You have been her agent since she started, right?”

“Yes, she joined the agency in 1939.” His voice sounded far away.

“What is this we’ve heard about an unfinished movie from nine years ago that starred her and Brix Maxwell?”

Brigham’s eyes blinked several times and he looked away from my stare. “There’s no such movie,” he said after a pause.

“No movie now or no movie ever?” I asked and then leaned back hoping that the silence would work on him.

“Never was such a movie.”

“It would’ve been made in 1943.”

“Never was such a movie,” he repeated a little bit louder.

“Where’d that rumor start?”

“Could have been one of those blind items that show up in Eve Standish’s column,” he said without looking at me. The response was starting to sound like a company line.

“Like the one about Maxwell and me at Mangiocotti’s party several days ago?”

“Yeah,” he breathed a sigh of relief, “like that.”

“And then we learned that she didn’t work in ‘44, is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right. She wanted to take some time off.” Brigham sounded satisfied with his answer. That made one of us.

“To do what?” I pushed not knowing how far I could go.

“She was tired from the pace of making so many films in such a short amount of time so she went back home for awhile to be with her family.”

“What did she do for all that time?”

“Helped out at home,” he said sounding a little surer of himself. “Recharged her batteries. You know she was only 22 and needed a break.”

“Usually it’s older folks like us who need a break,” I said not wanting to let it go. “How come she hasn’t had to do that again?”

“Ron Alexis came into her life soon after, that’s why. He takes very good care of her. You see, she is a very delicate person. Feels things very deeply. You can certainly see it in her work.”

“So Mr. Alexis…” I let the words hang in the air.

“Ron, uh,” Brigham fumbled for the right words. He then looked away from me, stood up, and walked over to the window. He watched the traffic crawling by below while I waited. Unless he said something interesting I had nowhere else to go.

“Ron,” he continued, “protects her.”

“From what?”

“Everything.”

“Give me a ‘for instance’.” I felt I was dragging the words out of him.

“You remember his phrase ‘she doesn’t handle reality very well’?” He said. “That’s a very good way to put it. As you know she’s very beautiful and talented, but she’s very insecure especially in social situations and really needs Ron around. I couldn’t be with her enough in those days when I was, uh, well, much busier. Ron is able to be with her all the time and, well, do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

“He runs interference for her,” I concluded.

“Yes. Not a bad way to phrase it. You saw how she was during the filming yesterday. You know, sort of withdrawn.”

“And you help out by…” Again I left the words in the air.

“I’m her agent,” he said loudly almost thumping himself on the chest, “you know that.”

“Of course you are,” I said as I got up to leave.

Reel Life Real Death Chapters 9 & 10

9

Doris met me at the door. When I flinched a little as she hugged me I was forced to go into the afternoon’s details. She sat there completely still as if trying to memorize every word. Too bad the tale didn’t warrant it.

“You’re sure you’re all right?” Doris asked for at least the tenth time. “Did he really have a gun?”

I nodded, “I must be in better shape than I thought. And yes, the two holes in the door proved he had a gun.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means that there’s more going on than just blackmail.”

“Such as?”

“I have no idea,” I said as I tried to stretch the kinks out of my back. “First the secretary’s interrupted phone call and then the break in at Alexis’ office. What did we set in motion?”

“JP,” Doris’s voice became very quiet, “should we be doing this?”

“You want me to call Alexis and quit?” I was willing if she wanted.

“I don’t know. We’re kind of in this now, aren’t we?”

“Probably,” I agreed and then we sat quietly. I wasn’t going to continue if she didn’t want me to, but I could read how intrigued she was in spite of herself. From the first time we met and she turned the murder case I was working on into a novel I knew that, at times, Doris was inclined to have more moxie than good sense.

“Wait a minute,” she said breaking the silence as she reached into her bag and took out a piece of paper. “Ralph called and says that the secretary’s pal’s name is Samuel Judge. He lives at 1132 Shore Drive in Malibu.” Apparently we were going to continue.

I smiled, “Ralph’s a good man. Anything on the other number, the GUilford 2-2349?”

“Oh,” she smiled broadly, “You’re going to love this.”

“What?”

“The address is on Mullholland and we’ve already been there.” Doris grinned at my blank expression. “It belongs to Vito Mangiocotti.”

“Well, well, well,” I returned her expression, “Miss Bumchelski is better connected that I would have thought.”

“What does that mean?”

“Who knows, but you know how older guys like younger women,” I said and Doris rolled her eyes at me. “Anything else?”

“He also said to stop pestering him,” Doris laughed. That sounded like my old friend.

“We’re going to have to check out Mr. Judge,” I said. “There’s no way of getting into Mangiocotti’s fortress again, I guess. Now, what do you have on Miss Gilmore?”

“Well,” Doris artificially cleared her throat, “a library stop and many phone calls later I have a pretty good story.”

“OK.”

“Gilmore was born in late 1921 as Prudence Gilley in a little town in the Southeast corner of Oregon called Jordan Valley. She eventually moves from a one room schoolhouse to runner-up in the Miss Oregon Beauty Pageant in 1938.”

“Hoo boy,” I whistled through my teeth, “what must the winner have looked like?”

“Shhh,” Doris continued. “For her talent she did the ‘To be or not to be’ speech from Hamlet. She lost to a gal who tap danced while on roller skates.”

“Maybe the folks in Oregon had never heard of Shakespeare.”

“Then through a connection from the pageant with someone who knows someone who knows someone else she winds up getting a screen test in Hollywood the following year. By ’40 she signs up with Brigham Entertainment is quickly cast in some B comedies. Since ’42 she’s been the biggest thing since sliced bread.”

“I wonder what the biggest thing was before sliced bread.”

Doris ignored me. “Met Ron Alexis at a USO fundraiser at the Hollywood Bowl in early 1945 and they were married before Christmas of that year. No kids and, according to her press kit, no plans yet for any children.”

“Somehow,” I smiled, “I have the feeling there’s more.”

“Yup. During ’40 and ’41 she makes ten movies and then after graduating to big budget films she was almost as busy except for 1944.”

“What’s with 1944?”

“Didn’t make anything.”

“Nothing. She took a whole year off?”

“Well,” Doris explained clearly enjoying herself, “keep in mind how films are made. There can be a long lag between when the picture is made and when it’s released. So while she wasn’t filming in ’44 she was still having movies coming out.”

“So,” I said, “the studio could have planned it that way.”

“Sure, it’s possible,” Doris agreed.

“A whole year off doing what?”

“She went home to finish some college courses and take care of her ailing mother.”

“All right,” I reasoned, “then after mom died she made her triumphant return.”

“It may have been triumphant but mom lived until 1949. There’s also an older sister named Hortense still living in the area. Anyway, Gilmore comes back and seems to pick up right where she left off. It’s on to one hit after another starring with nearly every big name actor in town.”

“Anything come from my little lip reading trick?”

“Hang on, I’m getting to it,” Doris comically shook a finger in my face. “They might have worked together once before in ‘43.”

“I may not be a big movie fan,” I said, “but I don’t remember that. And the marketing for ‘Heart Of China’ says it’s going to be their first teaming.”

“Interesting, isn’t it? By 1943 they were both top names and costarring them would have been a big deal, but there seems to be a bit of a mystery about the picture. The official line is that it was never made, but there were rumors at the time that it was, at least, started and then shelved.”

“Because?”

“No one knows.”

“Or no one’s talking,” I added.

“Possible.”

“Rumors from where?”

“Couldn’t find anything specific. I tried to find other films that they had done but came up with nothing.”

“Wouldn’t that have meant that the National and Excelsior studios were working together then as well?”

“I guess,” Doris said. “Now, it may be that the story is just fiction, or that the initial shoots weren’t going well, or funding fell through, or, I don’t know.”

I scratched my head. “Pretty interesting stuff, but what does it mean, if anything? How about Alexis and Brigham?”

“Some interesting stuff on her husband. He seems like a straight arrow, but the stories I was hearing seemed to indicate some financial trouble.”

“Really,” my eyebrows went up, “with all the money Gilmore makes?”

“Strange, huh?” Doris said. “Started his practice in the late 30s and over time parlayed it into big investments.”

“That aren’t paying off well,” I guessed.

“He now owns several buildings in LA including his own.”

“Using Gilmore’s money, no doubt.”

“No doubt,” she agreed, “but after a malpractice suit and the condemning of many of his properties to build a freeway, well, the money seems to have melted away.”

“Gilmore should be able to make it back for him, I suppose.”

“But Brigham…”

“What about him?” I had the feeling that more curious stories were on the way.

“You’re going to love this too,” my redhead smiled. “Gilmore is Brigham Entertainment’s only client.”

“What?” I sat up straight. “How is that possible, a big well known firm like that?”

“Well,” Doris shrugged as her story became weirder, “it was once. Look, you met Brigham. Did he look like he is capable of running a large business?”

“He hardly looked like he was capable of running to the bathroom.”

“That’s what I thought. So I did a little more homework.”

“How did I function without you?” I asked only half joking.

“I can’t imagine,” Doris said in an amusingly dismissive voice. “Both of his sons were killed in the war within weeks of each other, one in Europe and one on Iwo Jima. After that he started to unravel fairly fast.”

“Understandable.”

“Maybe to you and me,” she continued, “but not to his clients. As he became more erratic and nervous they began to leave in droves.”

“Until only Gilmore was left.”

“Yup.”

“What’s Danny’s connection beyond being an old friend of his sons?”

“I called him and he told me it was a little like being a surrogate father and son for each other. Danny’s family is gone and so is Brigham’s. It’s a logical relationship.”

“I guess,” I said thinking out loud. “Did you know about this before?”

“Danny didn’t talk that much about Brigham, but it was clear that they were close. I knew he worked hard for me and I wasn’t all that interested in much else. If I’d known that this case was going to be coming up I would have paid more attention.”

“And?”

“At the beginning I did ask him how he managed to get me hooked up with ‘Heart Of China’ and all he said was not to worry and keep the pages coming. I was so excited by the opportunity that I just went along with it.”

I walked across the room and sat on the couch next to my brilliant and beautiful wife. She leaned into me and I wrapped my arm around her wide shoulders. We stayed like that for several minutes until I said, “you realize that we’re going to have to figure all of this out.”

“I know.”

“And you’re enjoying it.”

“Yup,” she said looking up at me with a furrowed brow, “I’m afraid I am. Aren’t you?”

“Ask me again in a week or two,” was my noncommittal response.

 

10

My head spun all night while Doris slept soundly next to me. I couldn’t understand how she was able to turn off the day so easily. She claimed it was due to a clear conscience. I decided not to ask if she was joking.

There were so many things on my plate it was hard to decide where to go next. First, I needed to talk with Alexis and Brigham again and check out the rumor about that old unfinished movie.

I didn’t have to wait very long to cross Alexis off my list. He called early the next morning before we were even out of bed. I grabbed the phone and stretched the cord across the room to try and let my redhead sleep.

“Parker,” he said loudly into the phone. Apparently I was no longer to be addressed as Mister. “What the hell happened at my practice yesterday?”

I went through the basics trying to imagine if his typically impassive expression changed at all as he listened. During my story I was able to confirm some of Doris’ info. He admitted the part about the malpractice case without giving any details. When I pressed him about his financial state he gave me a vague answer about how businesses always have their ups and downs. That seemed like confirmation enough. I also learned that his nurse, Jean Tracy, hadn’t been badly hurt.

“But why in God’s name did you even go to my office?” His voice acquired an edge as my tale continued.

“Look,” I said firmly, “you hired me to investigate. I told you that we were going to have to poke around and you said you were all right with that.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Alexis’ voice rose another few decibels. “You think I’m blackmailing my own wife?”

I paused for a few seconds to let him stew before replying in an artificially calm voice. “No, I don’t. But I do need to know as much as possible before I have a chance of figuring out what your wife’s secret is. Initially I was just interested in seeing where your office was, but then one thing led to another. If you don’t trust me, fire me.”

“Just a minute,” Alexis’ tone softened, “I didn’t mean that. It’s just that I’m upset about Mrs. Tracy and the damage to my office. I should have gotten all my equipment into storage. What was the burglar looking for?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I have no idea,” he said irritably, “I have nothing to hide.”

“OK good. Let the cops handle it.” I then changed the subject. “What’s the deal with the little apartment next to your practice?”

“Why, uh,” he paused briefly, “well, when my wife was on a location shoot it was sometimes just easier to stay in town rather than going home.”

“Fine. Now while I’ve got you on the horn,” I said calmly, “I wonder if you can tell me about that old rumor of a movie that your wife might have done with Maxwell back in ‘43.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” The edge in his voice remained.

“In my business,” I tried to explain without enflaming the conversation, “when you come across something unusual, you look into it.”

“The story’s not true,” he protested. “It probably started as a fabrication by that bitch, Eve Standich.”

“The columnist?”

“Yes,” he was still annoyed, but not at me this time. “Do you understand the power she has, the careers that she has ruined by rumor and innuendo?”

“Oh, it’s that kind of column, huh?” I said.

“You have no idea,” Alexis complained but in a much calmer tone. “She’s got spies all over town feeding her information and then she twists it to her liking. Nobody in the business messes with her. Nobody.”

“OK,” I said, “then there’s nothing to it.”

“That’s right,” he said and then apologetically changed the topic. “Now Parker, I have work to do. I’m sorry that I, perhaps, momentarily mistrusted you. It won’t happen again.”

“All right,” I decided to take him at his word although I wondered if that was a good idea.

“Mr. Parker,” he said this time including the mister part, which told me that I was once again in his good graces. I wasn’t sure I cared. “Would it be helpful for you to watch the first scenes being shot this afternoon?”

“At the studio?”

“Of course. I’ll leave word at the gate and they’ll let you in. We’re in Soundstage #3. You can’t miss it. Be there at 1:00. I’ll see you there.”

“Yup, see you there.” With that we both hung up.

“Where are we going?” Doris asked. She was floored when I told her.

Reel Life Real Death Chapters 7 & 8

7

“So you actually want to take the case?” Doris stood in the middle of our living room with her hands on her hips. She’d been listened quietly to my story until she realized where it was going.

I sighed. For 25 years I’d successfully worked my business. There’d never been much money in it but there was satisfaction. And, I had been good at it. Maybe I’d been kidding myself all these months and was just beginning to realize how much I’d missed it. We both knew the idea of a photography business wasn’t really going to fly. Complicating the decision was that I also understood how she felt as well. Maybe if she’d been the one in that hospital bed a year earlier with me sitting next to her I’d have felt the same.

We walked her out to our back porch. There was a storm hanging over the mountains and we watched it silently for several minutes. I missed the rain and wished that it would do it here once in a while. Whatever moisture there was blew right past us and we were only able to enjoy it from a distance. A soaking rain would have fit the mood.

“Doris,” I said softly after a long while, “I know you love me. I know you’d worry about me, but I don’t think I can spend the rest of my life repairing porches and painting bathrooms.”

“How many more lives can you have left?” She said sadly as she leaned against me. Her head was on my shoulder and her red hair floated in the breeze. “JP, I know it’s selfish of me but…”

“I was washed up until I met you. Finished. I understand how different my life is now.” I turned her to me and marveled at how lucky I was. “Listen, if you don’t want me to do this, then I won’t.”

“But then you’ll be miserable.”

“No man could be miserable with you kid,” I said doing a bad Humphrey Bogart impression even though I meant ever word.

Doris’ deep blue eyes bore into me as she strained a smile. “That was the right answer, you big lug.”

“Thanks,” I let her upstage the mountains. It was an easy decision. “I’d have still loved you even if you said no.”

“That’s fine,” Doris sulked, “but now you’ll be gone half the time doing who knows what. I’ve gotten used to having you around.”

“I thought we were a team. Let’s do this as a team.”

Doris smiled and led me back inside. Apparently we were going to be busy for a while.

——————————

We made an appointment for the following afternoon with Alexis and Brigham at the agent’s office. There were ground rules that had to be clear and they needed to know that I was not a one-man operation anymore.

“Mr. Parker and Miss Finerty,” Brigham welcomed us as soon as we arrived on his floor, “come in. I’m so glad that you decided to take us up on our offer.”

“That depends,” I said as we sat down.

Four chairs had been arranged around Brigham’s desk, but sitting behind it was Alexis to once again show who was in charge. Gilmore’s husband was again attired very formally in a dark brown vested suit. His face registered nothing in contrast to Brigham’s typically unfocused nervous energy.

When we were seated I started to explain. “We need to get a few things straight. First, doing this without your wife’s knowledge does not make the job easier, but maybe I can understand why you want to do it that way. Second, I’m, or rather we,” I smiled at Doris, “are going to be asking questions without any clear idea of where the answers are going to take us. You may not like what we find out.”

“I understand,” Alexis said as his hands again were folded on Brigham’s desk.

“And,” I said, “since I’m not licensed in California I won’t be able to claim client privilege. If something happens and the police want to ask me questions I might have to answer them.”

“What?” Brigham flinched. “You think that this is going to get into…” He was anxiously rolling a collection of pencils between his palms.

Alexis waved him into silence. Brigham stood and then sputtered across the room mumbling to himself. Alexis and I ignored him while Doris was briefly amused.

“All right,” Alexis nodded. “What else?”

“Since the two of us will be working it’s 90 bucks a day plus expenses and that could potentially run up a tab. I suspect you’re good for it.”

“I am,” Alexis threw us a tight-lipped smile and then slid a thick envelope across the desk. “There’s $200 to get you started. I’ll write you a check for he rest.”

“We need a cover story to disguise why we’re asking so many questions.” I continued.

“But, uh, how about a…” Brigham tried to stammer his way back into the conversation. One look from Alexis silenced him.

“What do you have in mind?” Alexis asked.

“How about this?” Doris said. “People know me as a writer. Why couldn’t JP and I be working on a biography of Miss Gilmore?”

Alexis looked at me and when I nodded he simply said, “OK, fine.”

We passed phone numbers back and forth and I promised to call him as soon as I had any information.   We shook hands and Doris and I stepped in to the hall.

“When do you think we might have something?” Doris asked as we climbed into our car.

“This is so odd,” I shrugged, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

 

8

“OK boss,” Doris saluted. “What’s first?”

“Did you notice the blonde secretary when we walked back down into the lobby?” I asked.

Doris shot me a sideways glance and then frowned slightly. “I don’t generally ogle secretaries, mister,” she said.

I shook my head, “that’s not what I meant. She’d been on the phone to somebody and quickly hung up just as we appeared. Didn’t you see her hand over the receiver?”

“No,” Doris’ face told me that she understood. “The secret is out already?”

“Yeah, could be,” I rubbed my chin. “All right, here’s what I need you to do.”

“Uh huh.”

“How fast can you put together some background on Gilmore? We need as much as you can find out about her life and career.”

“By…” Doris prompted.

“Meet me at home at 8:00. I don’t care where you get it, library, friends, wherever.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I was thinking about going bowling,” I deadpanned.

“JP!” Doris laughed and complained simultaneously.

“I’d love to find out who Blondie was talking to and I also want to check up on our client.”

“All right.”

“And while you’re checking out Gilmore,” I added, “see if her path ever crossed with Maxwell’s.”

“OK,” she frowned in confusion, “but why?”

“At Mangiocotti’s party Maxwell leaned over and whispered to her.”

“So?”

“It wasn’t the whispering so much as what he said.”

Doris turned to me and put her hands on her hips. “How do you know what he said? You read his lips?”

“Actually I did,” I admitted sheepishly. Doris stared at me in disbelief. “I began to learn how years ago and I’ve gotten pretty good.”

“You’re kind of scary, you know that? You’re not secretly working for the CIA, are you?” She smiled. “So, what did they say?”

“Maxwell said, ‘I hope this one works out better than last time.’ And she replied, ‘I do too, Max.’”

“What does that mean?”

Who knows?” I shook my head. “What does any of this mean?”

“8:00 then,” Doris nodded and after giving me a quick kiss she got in our car and quickly disappeared into LA’s perpetual traffic.

After watching her go I jogged a half block to a pay phone and dialed the operator. I didn’t want to be paranoid, but Blondie had looked very suspicious.

“Hello, operator?” I said in my most friendly helpless effeminate voice. “I was just on the phone from my office and the line went dead. I think the problem’s on this end. My receiver seems to be malfunctioning. My number in the office is SOuthern 6-9345. Could you reconnect me from this pay phone?”

“Do you have the number?” The operator voice asked in typically flat voice.

“Oh dear,” I fretted trying to sound as hopeless as possible, “I left it on my desk. Oh my boss is going to have a fit. Couldn’t you do it, please?”

“Just a moment,” the voice droned. “The number was CLarkson 9-2846.”

Continuing my effeminate act I added, “Just to be sure could you give the number right before that as well?”

“OK,” she said sounding disgusted, “it was GUilford 2-2349.”

“Oh thank you so much,” I overplayed, “you don’t know what this means to me.”

“I’ll connect you to CLarkson 9-2846.”

It only rang once and a man’s voice answered, “Hey doll, where’d you go?” He was apparently reacting to Blondie’s quick hang up.

“No doll here pal,” I answered and then added, “this is Zach Brigham and if Miss Bumchelski makes anymore personal calls from work …”

First he swore and then slammed the phone down telling me that I had the right number and it really was a personal call. Now I needed a name and an address to see whether their conversation had anything to do with our meeting upstairs.

Just for laughs I tried the other number, GUilford 2-2349.   I let it ring for a long time but no one answered. Not bad, one out of two paid off.

Across the street was a bank and I went in and armed myself with a fist full of coins. I’d need it if I was going to call my old partner Ralph Klein in New York. Back at the phone I slowly worked my way through the long distance operators and then the precinct switchboard before finally hearing my old friend’s voice.

“What’s the matter?” Ralph’s voice crackled across the country.

“Listen,” I said quickly. “I’m at a pay phone and don’t have much time.”

“Hmmm,” Ralph drawled, “Doris throw you out?”

Ignoring his typical banter I plowed ahead. “I need a favor.”

“Gee,” Ralph’s sarcasm even worked long distance, “nice to hear your voice too.”

“I need a name and address for a couple of numbers I think are in LA.”

“Sounds like you’re on a case.”

“Actually,” I was sure I sounded sheepish, “I am.”

“Some retirement,” he chuckled and then remembering the plans my wife and had made asked, “and Doris is OK with that?”

“Yeah, she’s working it with me.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Look the numbers are CLarkson 9-2846 and GUilford 2-2349. Got it? CLarkson 9-2846 and GUilford 2-2349 are in LA, I think.

“You gonna tell me about this?” Ralph asked knowing that we always shared information.

“Not now, I’m on a pay phone, remember?”

“All right,” he gave in, “CLarkson 9-2846 and GUilford 2-2349. Say, when are you coming back?”

“In the fall,” I said, “I can’t spent the holidays out here. Too warm. Thanks Ralph, call me tonight.”

Next I looked up Alexis’ dental practice in the yellow pages. I quickly wrote down its Glendale address on my notepad next to Blondie’s pal’s number and stepped into the street to flag a cab.

We drove at an average of 3 miles an hour through the traffic until we finally left the downtown and then we sped up to 5. LA wasn’t so much a city as it was a sprawl that rambled endlessly throughout the valley. But since the studios were still in the downtown they caused more and more traffic as the newly rich commuted. With the money quickly heading out of town it wasn’t hard to imagine that LA was on its way to someday being nothing more than fast food joints and pawnshops. I missed New York more and more.

Alexis’ practice was located in what was once an upscale section on the border of LA and Glendale. The building was on the main drag and, judging from the plaque on the wall in the lobby, its clients were mostly doctors. Of course since this was Southern California there was more than the normal amount of plastic surgeons, psychiatrists, and holistic yoga natural herbalist practitioners. First you get your nose fixed and if it doesn’t heal well the shrink is there to tell you that you’re still beautiful. I found Alexis’ name listed for the fourth floor and, just to be non-conformist, took the stairs.

As I climbed the stairs I looked in at each floor on the way up. They all appeared empty. The only person I saw was on the third. He motioned to me when he saw me lean through the door from the stairs.

“Hey,” he called, “what do you want?” He jogged toward me, which gave me an opportunity to look at his security guard uniform. He had curly hair and bushy eyebrows.

“I’m looking for Dr. Alexis’ office.”

“Man, where you been? This building’s been closed for months.”

“I’ve been out of town,” I said trying to look helpless. “What’s going on?”

“New freeway,” he tilted his hat and scratched his head. “This building’s going down soon. Most of the offices have been cleaned out and everything’s closed.”

He went on to explain how the whole section of town was going to be leveled for the new highway. Businesses were either being sold or moved and there was some controversy about whether a fair price had been paid by the city. He thought that the lawsuits would stretch on for years.

Even though the building was supposed to be empty, when I asked him if I could, at least, check Alexis’ office he shrugged and told me to “knock myself out.” I thanked him and climbed the last flight.

His office was down at the end of the hall. As I approached I could see his door was open. That seemed pretty odd since he’d obviously not been at work for a long time. I peaked in the door and everything appeared just as it would have if he were still seeing patients. Standing in the doorway I could hear rustling noises inside.

“Hello,” I called into the open doorway and the noise stopped. “Anyone there?” Silence.

Slowly I pushed the door wide open. There was a small waiting room with the requisite magazines stacked neatly on end tables. There were two non-descript couches on each side and a window in the far wall where patients could check in. To the right of the room was the door that took you to the dental chairs. On the back wall beyond the window were shelves filled with patient folders.

Off to the left was another door. Having seen the office and the section that contained the dental chairs I couldn’t imagine what else could be needed. I pushed the door open to reveal a very comfortable one-room apartment. A king size bed was against the far wall and there were two dressers across from it. Between the dressers was a large mirror that hovered over a table that held a television. All the furnishings looked expensive and brand new from the wallpaper to the bedspread to the curtains.

Not wanting to disturb anything I walked back into the waiting room. A slight noise made me look into the office. On the back wall was a moving shadow.

Despite deciding that this was much too coincidental I quietly stepped into the waiting room and closed the door to the apartment behind me. I crouched low and tried to stay out of sight. After several minutes of waiting the rustling sounds began again. I carefully took a lamp off one of the end tables and grabbed it tightly around its metal top, which left me about a two-foot long bat.

Unfortunately, before I had the perfect grip the shadow must have noticed me. Suddenly he barreled through the inner door and crashed into me. We tumbled over each other and into one of the end tables spilling the magazines onto the floor. I swung the lamp and caught him somewhere on his upper body with a fairly good shot. He then hit me above the right ear with his elbow and we sprawled in opposite directions.

He was completely in black from his leather jacket to his shoes. He looked about my size, but his arms were much thinner. His long dark brown hair was twisted in all directions as if he’d been wearing a cap. He had a square jaw, a strong nose, and dark piercing eyes. My Idaho theory was holding up.

We rolled away from each other into neutral corners of the waiting room. I picked up my improvised weapon and held it in front of me. The shadow stood up rubbing the shoulder where I’d clipped him with the lamp. He glowered at me and veins stuck out in his neck. It would have been a great look for a close up.

He reached inside his coat and, not waiting to see if a gun was coming out, I rushed him waving my lamp. Mr. Shadow dodged my first swing but I caught him with a backhand that sent him hurtling toward the outer door.

As he sprawled on his back he again dug inside his coat. Knowing I wouldn’t get lucky a second time I lunged behind the door and pushed all but his right leg into the hallway. I then rammed the door against his trapped foot causing him to yowl in pain. Before I could do it again he managed to drag it out of the office and the door slammed shut.

After frantically locking the door I quickly ran across the room, dragged a couch behind the door, and wedged it under the knob. Only a second later two bullets ripped through the door and imbedded themselves in the couch. After that I heard limping footsteps running down the hall.

I slumped against the wall and checked for injuries. Other than a welt above my ear I seemed to be OK. Then jolting me from my medical exam was the sound of moaning from just behind the nurse’s window.

One more time I armed myself with the lamp and started for the inner door. Pushing it open I leaned tightly against the wall and turned the corner into the nurse’s station. That’s were I saw a middle aged woman in a white lab coat lying on the floor holding her head in her hands and mumbling.  She had an ugly bruise over her left eye that had left several small lines of blood running down her cheek and onto her coat. I didn’t see any other marks.

“Come on,” I said as I propped her against the wall, “take it easy.”

She was trying to tell me something, but it wasn’t making sense yet. I let her yammer while I called the police. I had her seated in the waiting room by the time the cops arrived.

They grilled her unsuccessfully. She hadn’t seen anything, was trying to pack up the now closed office, didn’t know what he wanted, and couldn’t describe him. In general she was no help.

I had potential info, but, to protect my client, couldn’t tell it. I just claimed that I had come in to try and get my records and didn’t know anything else. I wasn’t much help either except for the vague description I gave. They nodded thanks and led her to the waiting ambulance downstairs by the curb.

Glad to get out of the building, I flagged down a cab, and headed home. On the way I tried to remember who had told me that there was no such thing as coincidences. After reviewing the last couple of hours, that was exactly how I felt.

Reel Life Real Death Chapters 5 & 6

5

“Listen to this,” Doris said a couple of days later as she walked to me with an opened newspaper. “’What major Hollywood star put on a great show of being intimidated by a New York private eye at a famous director’s party two nights ago. Or was it a show?’”

“What’re you reading?”

“Eve Standish’s gossip column,” Doris laughed.

“Was she there?”

“No,” Doris smiled, “but she has people all over the city feeding her information. Some of it is even accurate.”

“I suppose it depends on how much she likes you or on how much you’ve played up to her.”

“It’s got to be the second,” she sighed, “she doesn’t like anyone. Either way, you’re famous.”

“I wonder how famous I’d be if I’d decked him?”

“I’m glad we didn’t find out. You handled that very well, you know.”

I grabbed a beer out of the fridge and led Doris out onto our newly repaired back porch. The late afternoon breeze filtered down the mountainside. Sensing something was on my mind Doris put the paper away and leaned into me.

“OK, big boy,” she could read me like a book, “what’s going through your head?”

“I was just admiring my fine carpentry work,” I said trying to deflect her question.

“There’s something else,” she persisted. “You have that look.”

“What look is that?”

“JP?” Her tone told me that I wasn’t going to be able to change the subject.

“I was thinking about Mangiocotti’s party.”

“And?”

I stared out toward the mountains and slowly dragged the words out of my mouth. “Maxwell’s a jerk all right but he did get one thing right.”

“What?”

“I am living off you,” I confessed and sat down hard on our porch bench.

Doris walked into my view and shook her finger in my face. I’d seen this gesture several times before we were married, but this was its first appearance after the fact. I had an idea of what was coming and knew better than to interrupt.

“Less than a year ago,” her eyes narrowed, “I spent weeks next to your hospital bed in Pittsburgh. You don’t remember all of it, but I do. Sitting there in tears as you lay in a coma. You had two bullet holes in you, an oxygen mask covering your face, your leg with its destroyed knee in traction, and a raging infection. They had you hooked up to tubes and IVs and the doctor said they were doing the best they could but it didn’t look good. They even had a priest come in at one point to give you Last Rights.

“If your old friend Ralph hadn’t called me, if you hadn’t suddenly awakened, if you, you…” Doris’ voice started to shake. I stood up and she leaned into me. I held her tightly and in a minute she managed to get herself under control.

“For nearly 30 years,” she continued in a softer tone with her face still pressed tightly into my shoulder, “you stuck your neck out for people including me. How many times, JP? How many times did you barely escape with your life? I only know about a few of them, but that’s more than enough. That last case…” Her voice trailed off.

“Yeah but…”

“Don’t give me that!” She snapped and stepped back. Her blue eyes bore into mine. “I can’t see you like that again. If anyone’s earned a little break it’s you. You’re not living off me. JP, I love you enough to never have to hear you say that again.”

“OK,” I shrugged as the phone rang in the living room, “I suppose I understand.”

Doris shook her finger in a comically menacing way as she walked inside, “I’d say more, but I have to answer that.”

I pulled on my beer and watched cloud shadows play across the mountains. You’re more than a lucky guy Parker, I thought. To come out of that coma in October of ’51 and see Doris leaning over me was more than I would’ve ever thought to ask for. Nine months had passed and physically I was just about back to normal. Everything else, though, was way above. There would be no more peaking into windows, no more struggling to pay the bills, and no more worrying that today would be the day that somebody would put a bullet in my head.

I’d only been in love two times before and they had both failed spectacularly. It was good to be reminded that this third time had apparently been the charm.

“JP,” she called, ”it’s for you.”

“Who is it?” I asked putting down my beer and going inside.

Doris put her hand over the receiver, “Zach Brigham.”

“Who?”

“Andrea Gilmore’s agent,” she said raising her eyebrows and shrugging her shoulders.

“Hello?” I said into phone. Doris watched me curiously.

“You available to come to a meeting?” Brigham spoke very fast in a sharp nasal voice. All business.

“Maybe,” I answered vaguely. “About what?”

“I’d rather not talk on the phone.”

“Isn’t my wife the one you want?” I was very confused.

“Not this time,” he said so fast that the three words sounded like one.

“All right, but how about a hint.”

Brigham ignored the comment. “Your name isn’t Finerty, right? That’s Doris’ professional name.”

“Yeah,” I spoke slowly trying to moderate his pace, “I’m Parker, JP Parker.”

“OK Mr. Parker. How’s tomorrow at 1:00?”

“Fine, I guess.”

“Your wife knows the address,” his words almost tumbled over themselves. “Thanks, see you then.”

Doris noticing the confused look on my face walked over to me as I hung up the phone and asked, “what was that?”

“I have a meeting with Brigham tomorrow at 1:00.”

“About what?”

“I can’t even guess. But whatever it is he didn’t want to talk on the phone.”

Before we had a chance to think about the call the phone rang again. This time I answered. It was Danny.

“JP,” he said in his usually excited voice, “did you get a call from Zach Brigham?”

“Yeah, we just got off the phone. What do you know about it?”

“I was talking to him last night. We both saw the article in Standish’s column. Did you?”

“Yeah Doris just showed…”

“Then you know. OK, good. I know you’re the right guy. That’s what I told him.”

“Danny,” I tried to slow him down, “take it easy a minute. What are we talking about?”

“You’ll find out.”

“Why does it seem that you have managed to meet everyone one in Hollywood? How’d you get hooked up with Brigham?”

“Known him for a long time,” Danny answered without explaining. “Oh, I got a call on the other phone. Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’ll be happy with the opportunity. OK, bye.”

“Who and what was that?” Doris asked after I hung up.

“It was Danny.”

“And?”

“And,” I said with what had to be a confused look on my face, “apparently he told Brigham to call me.”

“About what?”

“I have no idea, but I’m supposed to ‘be happy with the opportunity.’ Whatever that means.”

 

6

I arrived early at the agency’s downtown office. It was a red sandstone building with a fancy silver sign aside the front door listing its occupants. It was a typical Los Angeles day with the sun straining through the smog and the streets jammed with cars. I wondered if anyone in southern California had made the connection.

Defying local traditions I walked around the block a couple of times attracting stares on the second pass. I had to remind myself that walking was a foreign concept on this coast and I could only be inconspicuous in my car.

Brigham’s office was on the third floor and it looked appropriate for a company that dealt with someone of Gilmore’s stature. A large mahogany desk with a good-looking blonde sitting behind it dominated the view as I stepped out of the elevator.

Blondie had on a tight light blue sweater that clung to her as if it had been spray-painted. The top two buttons had been left unhooked just in case you hadn’t initially been paying attention. Her straw colored hair was carefully styled and hung in long curls down her back. The blue eye shadow that she’d dollopped across her face made it seem like it would be hard to open her eyes. She was probably one of the many good looking blondes in Hollywood just waiting for the right person to walk through the door and make her a star.

Huge glass chandeliers formed a semicircle above the desk and “Brigham Entertainment” was emblazoned in silver across the wall behind Blondie’s head. On either side of the exaggerated lettering were hallways that probably led to the individual offices.

“May I help you?” Blondie smiled showing as many of her perfect teeth as she could. A little brass plaque on the desk told me her name was Zinta Bumchelski. Based upon my little time in LA it appeared a state law must have been passed that banished all the homely people to Idaho. Of course, before the Miss Bumchelski package could hit the big time a better name would have to be found. Maybe she could ask Brix Maxwell where he found his.

“Mr. Parker to see Mr. Brigham.”

“Very good. Right this way.” She efficiently led me several doors down the hall making sure that I didn’t miss the well-calculated sway of her caboose. After all, I could have been that big shot producer. Enjoying the view I didn’t dissolution her. Of course, telling this part of the story to Doris would probably be a bad idea.

Brigham met me at the door and quickly led me to a chair by his desk. He was a thin guy about 60 with very fine features and what appeared to be a perpetually wrinkled forehead. He wore an expensive tweed suit with an elaborate handkerchief draped carefully from its breast pocket. Thick glasses dwarfed his tired sagging face. Apparently the money he was making for others was keeping him from being deported to that ugly colony in Idaho.

His office was quite large. There was a large trapezoidal mahogany desk in the right corner and an equally large matching triangular bookcase in the other. Between them was a picture window that looked out over the city on days when the smog didn’t prevent it. The right wall was covered with a combination of signed glossies and movie posters. They framed a second door that must have led to another office. On the left was a small projector aimed at the wall that was obviously serving as a space saving movie screen. Behind the projector also facing the wall were three upright chairs with another two of them sitting by his desk. Despite how busy I imagined his office to be it was surprisingly orderly and neat.

“Thanks for coming in,” he said again running his words together.

“Sure.”

“Want a drink, a smoke?” He asked and as I shook my head no he continued. “You must be wondering why I wanted to meet you.”

“A bit,” I downplayed.

“I heard about your little altercation with Brix Maxwell at Mangiocotti’s party a couple of nights ago.”

“From Danny Youngman?”

“Yes,” he stammered slightly, “how did you know?”

“Just after we hung up Danny called to ask if you had called me,” I explained. “You and Danny old friends?”

“He was friends with my sons a while back.” There was an uncomfortable edge in his voice.

“Uh huh,” I said deciding not to follow up on how awkward he’d sounded.

“You know Brix’s not really like that…”

“Except when he’s drinking,” I said completing his thought.

“That’s right.”

“What about while a movie’s being made?”

“He lays off the stuff then. He’s really very professional.”

“If you say so.”

“You know, you handled that situation with him very well. It could have been quite embarrassing for the studio, for Brix, and perhaps even for you. In fact you might have seen the little blurb in Eve Standish’s column yesterday.”

“My wife showed it to me. It seems that’s why Danny told you to call me.”

“Ah yes,” he smiled as sincerely as he was able, “Miss Finerty. Your wife is very lovely.”

“As if she should be on the other side of the camera, right?”

“Yes,” Brigham said nervously rolling a pencil between his palm and the desk, “I suppose you have heard that before.”

“Mr. Brigham,” I leaned forward from across the desk, “I don’t want to be rude, but why am I here?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he said as he wandered to the far side of the room. I would have to wait a little longer for him to get to the point.

“You’re a private investigator, isn’t that so?” He asked with his back to me.

“Retired.”

“Maybe so, but you were for many years.”

“Yes.”

Brigham slowly returned to his desk tapping his pencil against his palm. His eyebrows were knitted tightly together as if he was in pain or was trying to remember the spiel he was supposed to deliver.

“Mr. Parker,” he turned to me and finally stood still. “As you can imagine this is a very difficult business and we need to be careful how we represent our clients. Miss Andrea Gilmore is perhaps the most famous actress in the world and we are very careful with her image. The public is fickle and if someone in this business was to do something that reflected badly on them, well, you can imagine how hard it might be to get back in their good graces.”

“OK, but why tell me? Miss Gilmore’s image, as far as I know, is clean.”

“Yes it is,” he frowned in concentration, “and it needs to stay that way. We don’t want uncomplimentary items about her appearing in the press.”

“Have there been?” I was more puzzled than when he’d first called me.

“No, and we want it to stay that way.”

I stood up and raised my voice slightly, “are you threatening me because you think I’m about to do that?”

Brigham’s eyes widened fearfully. It made me wonder what he would’ve looked like if I’d actually made an effort to scare him.

“Oh please Mr. Parker,” his voice jumped an octave or two and he instinctively backed away from me toward the door. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I was trying to say at all. This current project and the two studios trying to work together have everyone under more stress than usual. Please Mr. Parker sit down. I didn’t mean to imply…”

“Fine,” I said stiffly while remaining vertical. “Then what are we talking about?”

“You see, we need Miss Gilmore to be free to concentrate on ‘Heart Of China’ and not be distr…”

“Brigham!” My minor outburst made him visibly flinch and almost cower by his office door. “If you need something, know something, want to say something, then just do it.”

While my voice was raised the door in the right wall opened and Gilmore’s husband, Ron Alexis, entered. His face and demeanor were all business from the knife straight part in his slicked back hair to the blinding shine on his wing tips. His shirt, tie, and charcoal suit were so well fitted it looked as if they’d been ironed while he’d been wearing them.

“Mr. Parker,” he said in a deep voice that belied his short stature, “nice to see you again. I’m afraid that Mr. Brigham hasn’t expressed himself very clearly.”

I nodded and Alexis motioned me over to the desk. He sat behind it and, obligingly, I once again sat on the other side. Still apparently frightened of me Brigham sat in one the chairs behind the projector. Alexis opened a briefcase on the desk and removed a manila folder.

“My wife,” he began, “is a beautiful woman, not unlike yours if I may be so bold.”

“Thank you.”

“But she is not, despite what one sees on the screen or in public, an outgoing person. In fact, she is quite shy and non confrontational. I don’t mean that as a failing. It’s just a fact. She does not know I’m talking to you and would not approve, but your background and tact in handling the drunken Brix Maxwell tells me that you might be the person we need to handle a delicate matter.”

Alexis handed the manila envelope to me across the table and with a nod of his head told me to open it. Several yellow legal size sheets were inside and each contained messages compiled with individual letters cutout from various sources and then pasted together.

They read: “I know your secret.” “You can’t run from your past.” “You knew you couldn’t keep it hidden for ever.” “One little mistake and it can all go away.” The last sheet contained typed instructions that read: “Leave $10,000 in cash in a black satchel in the phone booth at the end of the Laguna Beach Pier at midnight on July 10. If there’s anyone around I will go to the press.”

“Blackmail,” I obviously surmised and then added in a more concerned tone, “but the date has passed.”

“Yes, I know,” Alexis nodded. “We paid it.”

There was silence in the room. It was obvious that his confession wasn’t a surprise to Brigham, but my response more than made up for it. $10,000 in cash and Alexis sounded as if he’d just bought a newspaper.

“What is this about?” I asked after getting my breath back.

“I don’t know,” Alexis said matter of factly.

“Wait a minute,” I nearly jumped out of my chair. “Your wife is being blackmailed about something in her past and you don’t know what it is? Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve asked her about it?” I figured any moment I’d wake up from this idiotic dream.

“Many times.”

“And you were afraid to go to the police because you figured they couldn’t keep it quiet,” I said.

“Yes.”

“And now you’ve gotten another letter?”

“Yes,” he nodded grimly, “same instructions as before.”

“And you want to hire me to investigate?” I was apparently only able to only speak in questions.

“Yes again.” His tone remained very businesslike.

“But you don’t know anything about me,” I protested despite being flattered by their offer.

“Actually,” he leaned back confidently in Brigham’s chair, “yes I do. I have some contacts in New York who have contacts. As a result of Mr. Brigham’s suggestion, you’ve been researched fairly extensively over the last two days. I know about your police career and your last 25 years or so as a private detective. I even know a little about your last case nearly a year ago near Pittsburgh. You’re a brave man, Mr. Parker, fighting off an armed killer after you’d been shot twice and only armed with some sharpened sticks.”

Not knowing what to say I just nodded slightly.

“So yes, we’d like to hire you,” Alexis repeated without changing his serious expression.

“That’s very flatteri…”

“And we’ll pay twice your regular rate.”

“You and your wife.” I concluded trying to not admit how tempting the offer was. Had I really missed my occupation that much? Keep your head I told myself. Remember you’re retired. Remember that you dodged the funeral home by inches only nine months ago. And remember that Doris will want no part of it.

“No,” Alexis folded his hands formally on the desk and slowly interlocked his fingers, “Mr. Brigham and I. My wife is not to know.”

“Wait a minute,” I said with my voice rising. “You want me to investigate Miss Gilmore being blackmailed, but without her knowledge? You have got be kidding.”

“Could you do it?” Alexis asked as Brigham became brave enough to walk back to the desk. I was amused by how wide a berth he gave my chair as he passed.

Alexis’ expression remained frozen with his eyes fixed on mine. I thought back to Mangiocotti’s party and how I’d written him off as nothing much more than a nobody riding along on his wife’s fame.

“I could I guess,” I said slowly, “but it would be much easier with her help.”

“Of course.” Alexis paused letting the silence fester. Brigham glanced nervously back and forth between us and I watched sweat bead on his upper lip. Alexis was as cool and confident as a riverboat gambler and seemingly willing to wait indefinitely.

“Do you have the envelopes the threats came in?” I said just to make conversation and to keep Brigham from passing out.

“No, she threw them out.”

“Does she know that you know?” I asked realizing that every question was sucking me in deeper.

“Yes.”

“What was her suggestion?”

“My wife does not deal with reality all that well,” Alexis said calmly. “She has other people do it for her.”

“Like you,” I assumed.

“Yes.”

“So her plan was to…” I paused to let him finish my thought.

“Pay whatever they wanted and hope they’d just go away.”

“That’s not how it works,” I cautioned. “As you’ve found out, once they get a taste, they want more.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

Alexis had hardly moved a muscle since retrieving the papers from me and his plain features easily masked what was on his mind. His calm was apparently the ying to Brigham’s yang. It was a good thing since Brigham had enough nervous energy for all three of us.

“So Mr. Parker,” Alexis broke the tension this time, “what do you think?”

“Would an answer by tomorrow work?” I stalled.

“Of course.”

“I have a wife too. I’m just not as in control as you are.”

“You would discuss this with her?” Alexis said showing emotion for the first time. “Is she trustworthy? Could she keep this quiet?”

“Seeing as how I’ve trusted her with my life and my cases several times already,” I replied curtly, “I’d say yeah.”

“All right Mr. Parker,” he nodded quickly getting his brief period of emotion under control.

“One question,” I asked.

“Yes.”

“$10,000 again?”

“Yes.”

“Same routine?”

“Yes.”

“To be paid when?”

“A week from tonight.”

“Swell,” I added sourly.

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 3 & 4

3

It was mid September by the time we made it back to LA. I knew I was going to miss the change of colors at home but the mountains were close enough to help get me over being homesick. Also, the one with the paycheck generally calls the tune.

Doris’ latest project was working on, or as she called it “doctoring”, a screenplay that had been written for one of National Picture’s biggest stars, Andrea Gilmore. Apparently the studio heads liked the story, but didn’t think the script was ready.

Doris had had jobs like this before and while she didn’t enjoy them as much as doing original writing she found the work fairly easy and the money very good. Unfortunately the job required her to go to regular meetings to discuss the changes she was making and to listen to input from the studio heads.

Occasionally I went with her and sat in. The studio big shots probably regarded me as a nuisance, but because they liked Doris’ work they indulged her and put up with me. I assumed that they knew that we were married but since she’d become known as Doris Finerty it didn’t make sense for her to change her name. Being the only woman in a room with several powerful men put her at a distinct bargaining disadvantage and I always felt that she thought of me as somewhere between moral support, surrogate agent, and bodyguard. I looked at it as helping to level the playing field and she claimed that I did it well despite the fact that I rarely said a word. Obviously if she wasn’t well regarded no amount of muscle on my part would have been enough.

Despite my input she had an actual agent that worked for her. While we were broken up as the result of an argument during the summer of ’51 she’d hired Danny Youngman, a 30-year-old rookie, for the job. He’d only been in the business a few years having recently left a large firm where worked in PR. I liked the fact that he had the guts to step out on his own.

Doris had met him at a luncheon in LA while he was still with the big company. One thing led to another and she told him if he ever decided to make the move to work independently he should give her a call. In the year she’d known him he’d managed to pick up several other clients, but Doris was probably still his only regular income.

The fact that I occasionally went to meetings in his place and provided an extra presence on her behalf kept the percentage he charged artificially low. Her rational for hiring the fresh faced kid, aside from being a sympathetic sucker for a desperate case, was that Doris felt she still had me to do the arm twisting / bodyguard part.  In other words I was the weak mind strong back type and Danny was the brains. I didn’t like the casting all that much.

Despite my visible but vague support, Danny seemed on the job around the clock.  He constantly appeared to be making calls, setting up meetings, and talking about her at every opportunity. The fact that Doris was his only successful client so far probably had plenty to do with it. If your 12.5% only came from one source it was understandable how more than 12.5% of your effort went in that direction.

At the most recent meeting I began to understand why this particular project was making the studio more nervous than usual. Gilmore had been the meal ticket at National since before the war having started out as the ingénue in B westerns and comedies before graduating to big budget films a few years later. By ’52 her very recognizable face and form seemed to be perpetually on the cover of magazines and billboards and National was understandably very protective of their valuable property.

Unlike many of her contemporaries she led a very quiet off screen life having been married since the mid 40s to an unassuming local dentist who was also very glad to stay out of the limelight. No one could remember her name ever appearing in any unflattering gossip columns despite the many famous leading men who had shared the screen with her. Gilmore was also valued highly for her hard work during the war raising money for bonds and relief.

In contrast, her co-star in the new picture was to be well known Hollywood bad boy, Brix Maxwell. National had been able to, at significant expense, “borrow” him from his studio, Excelsior Films, and complete a dream casting by putting him together with Gilmore. There was not only a lot of money on the line, but having two studios and their two biggest names involved raised the pressure on making a hit.

Maxwell had started on the New York stage in the early 30s and quickly parlayed his muscles and rough charm into a series of successful action hero roles. While no one had ever accused him of being much of an actor he certainly was every inch a movie star and he made sure that he lived the part on screen and off.   Constantly paired with every available starlet at every conceivable party and nightclub made his name synonymous with living the good life. When someone said he had a “max” night or wanted to “max well” with a young lady everyone knew what was meant. It made me wonder what it would be like to have your name turned into an adjective.

Classified 4F due to high blood pressure and deafness in one ear he stayed on the home front and battled spies, Nazis, and the Japanese on the screen through a seemingly endless stream of expensive, loud, yet undeniably popular films. While his career was very successful, somewhere along the way, Maxwell decided that it was time to show that he could act as well as pose. Being in his mid 40s he apparently saw the end of the tunnel as far as action films were concerned and badgered Excelsior to let him star in Gilmore’s new project. Maybe he thought her acting ability would rub off on him. The fact that he had once derisively referred to his new co-star as “America’s Sweetheart” for her squeaky clean image only added to the interest for the new film.

The big budget movie that both studios were funding had the working title “Heart Of China.” Gilmore was to be a missionary to the Chinese while Maxwell would be an apolitical apathetic soldier of fortune. This was all to take place just as Chang kai-Chek and the Communists were coming into power in late 40s. Naturally the two characters fall in love and Maxwell then has to rescue her out from under the nose of the Red Chinese.

The part of the script that was causing the main difficulty was at the end after Maxwell’s character has seen the light and been changed by love from an indifferent loner into a hero. The characters have successfully escaped, but, just as they are about to board a boat in Hong Kong to head back to the US, a vengeful sniper shoots and kills Gilmore. This would give her a big death scene, provide an opportunity for Maxwell to do some acting as he grieves over his lost love, and also allow for a big final chase as he captures the sniper. The fact that this would also play into the anti-Communist hysteria of the time was surely no accident.

While the studios were happy about the polish Doris was adding to their project they were very nervous about the death scene. Would audiences accept seeing the heroine die and could Maxwell handle the dramatic demands of his part? Theaters erupting in laughter as Maxwell reacts to her death would quickly eliminate any comparisons to “Casablanca”.

Running the meeting was National Studios’ head Hiram Berg. He was alternately loud, charming, and bullying. Periodically he would rant about costs and the pressure of having a hit only to be interrupted at full steam by a phone call. The times when he realized that his counterpart from Excelsior Films, Jack Weston, was on the line his demeanor would instantly change. Not wanting to risk creating dissension, Berg would suddenly and comically change from a stereotypical bellowing boss to a charming soothing friend. I doubted that his underlings in the meeting were at liberty to find it as amusing as I did.

Most of the meetings mercifully ended in less than 90 minutes with the studio bosses usually pleased with Doris’ rewrites, but the death scene controversy continued to be a dilemma. Still the money was in place, the stars, especially Maxwell, were eager to start, and the well-known Italian director, Vito Mangiocotti, had been chosen. The ending was the only remaining problem and it was specifically Doris’ problem.

One afternoon I remember she and I going down the stairs from the ornate office after a meeting. I slid in behind the wheel and we drove out of National Pictures lot past the huge soundstages, under their arched wrought iron gate, and into the bright afternoon California sun.

“Let me see if I followed things,” I said with a slight smile.

“Yes?” Doris was staring out the side window with her thoughts still inside the gate.

“My mind was wandering a little.”

“I noticed,” she smiled back at me as she came back to the present. “It’s rude, you know, to be at a meeting and sit there with your eyes closed.”

“Good thing those guys aren’t the ones on the screen, especially Berg. Is he always like that?”

Doris smiled, “pretty much. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s his way of showing how powerful he is.”

“His lungs are certainly powerful.”

“What do you want to know?”

“You’re going to write three endings now?”

“It looks that way,” Doris sighed. “The one where she dies is pretty much done, but I need to do one where she’s just injured and then another where they get on the boat while dodging a hail of gunfire and safely sail away.”

“How about one where Maxwell dies and she hunts down the sniper?”

Doris laughed, “yeah, that would go over well.”

“But you’d do that for me,” I comically protested.

“Of course,” she exaggeratedly flexed a bicep, “but can you see Andrea Gilmore doing that? She might ruin her make up.”

“You ever meet her?”

“Just once.”

“And?”

“She was very quiet. Sat in a chair with her hands folded in her lap and her ankles crossed. She appeared just as perfect in person as you see her on the screen.”

“How about Brix?” I asked putting a small emphasis on his ridiculous first name.

“Uh, no,” she said with odd inflection.

“I guess you will, though” I teased. “Watch out, he’ll make a pass at you.”

“Me and the rest of the female half of the earth’s population. According to what I’ve heard, he’s earned his reputation. Somehow I don’t think he’ll coax the very proper Andrea Gilmore into bed as does with most of his other costars.”

“Brix Maxwell,” I tried out his name. “That can’t possibly be his real name.”

“Probably not.” There was that odd tone again.

“I wonder what he thinks of redheads?”

“You don’t have to worry about me, mister,” my personal redhead grinned. “I like older men.”

“Hey,” I grumbled, “you play rough.”

“Complaining?”

“What do you think?” I smiled as the sun turned the horizon a bright purple. “I wonder what his real name was.”

“You can ask him yourself.”

“What?”

“Tomorrow night,” Doris said. “Vito Mangiocotti likes to have a party at the beginning of his films. Allows the troops to get to know each other.”

“When did this happen?”

“They called me yesterday. It’s simply for the cast, crew, their spouses, mistresses, psychiatrists, bodyguards, plastic surgeons, personal druggists, etcetera.”

“OK,” I added warily.

“It’s at his mansion just off Mullholland. It’s supposed to be quite a place.”

“And we’ll leave early, I hope?”

“Probably. I’d rather keep my personal bodyguard all to myself.”

“It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it.” My lame humor was immediately met by a playful punch in the arm.

 

 

4

Wanting to be fashionably late we left for Mangiocotti’s party around 7. Doris’ gold dress practically glowed as we walked to the car. Combined with her fire engine hair, bright red nails and lipstick, nearly six foot well proportioned frame, and those piercing blue eyes made me wonder if Miss Gilmore would be able to stand the competition.

We curled up the winding road to the top of Mullholland Drive and marveled as the city lit up below us. After passing several mansions Doris directed me to a large white gate suspended between two 20-foot tall cylindrical stone columns. As we approached a door opened in one and a tuxedoed valet appeared.

“Doris Finerty and her husband,” I said to the valet showing that I understood the correct family billing for the evening.

“Thank you sir,” he replied formally. We stepped out and he drove the car down another driveway and disappeared. We were then escorted between the pillars by a second tuxedoed man. He silently walked with us up a tree lined driveway to the front door of a remarkably authentic looking medieval castle that appeared to have been delivered direct from twelfth century Europe. It had been carefully hidden behind a second line of trees whose obvious purpose was to block any view of it from the highway.

It looked like the real thing in every way with a large wooden door that dropped down and spanned a 10-foot wide water filled moat. At each side of the door the castle spread out evenly for at least 50 feet. Above us on the left was a huge tower with Byzantine spires around its perimeter. The right side was dominated by 50 foot turret where I imagined I saw a couple of men with rifles poised behind its stone walls. Every step of the way I had to fight the urge to ask myself what I was doing at such a joint.

After crossing the immense bridge that stretched over the moat the second servant spoke into a wall telephone and announced us as Mr. and Mrs. Finerty. I decided that I was going to have to get used to that. As soon as he hung up an inner door covered by ornately carved swords opened and we were escorted into a massive banquet room that might have come right out of a Robin Hood movie.

The center of the room was filled by a ridiculously large rectangular table that appeared to have enough food to feed all of North America. Medieval tapestries, that no doubt were the real thing, covered the walls. Above the doors at either end of the room were life-size sculptures depicting crusaders marching off to the Holy Land.

“Hello, hello, hello, Mr. and Mrs. Finerty, I’m Ingrid Mangiocotti,” said a cheerful woman’s voice with a pleasant Italian accent. She was about 5 feet in every direction and we both towered over her. She was wearing an ankle length dress that was covered by an intricate brocade bright enough to make our eyes water. Her hair was pulled back in a bun so tightly that, besides giving her a formal appearance, it had the additional effect of providing a very inexpensive face-lift. I couldn’t determine her age very well with the subdued lighting and her elaborate make up, but she had to be at least my vintage.

We were so dazzled by the entire spectacle neither of us reacted right away. “Yes, I know,” our hostess smiled warmly, “it is a little overwhelming. Come with me, my husband wants to meet you both.”

Before we said a word Mrs. Mangiocotti stepped between us, grabbed our arms, and propelled us toward a short bearded man at the end of the table. She quickly introduced us and then almost jogged back to the door to meet her next guests.

The director slowly turned his attention to us from his previous introduction. He was no taller than his wife with the same round features. Sporting a thick gray beard and a monocle he looked more like a magazine advertisement for Beefeater Gin. His expensive tuxedo was cut very carefully to try and hide some of his bulk. It was only partially successful.

“Finerty,” he said with his dark eyes in deep concentration on my dazzling wife. “Oh yes, you’re whipping our script into shape, is that not so?” His English was very good revealing only the slightest accent.

“Yes, I’m trying,” Doris smiled as he gallantly kissed her hand. I wasn’t sure he’d as yet noticed I was there.

“And succeeding too,” he flattered unnecessarily.

“This is my husband,” Doris smiled as she tried to deflect his stare from her breasts that met him right about at eye level. Fat chance.

“JP Parker,” I said extending my hand, which dwarfed his fleshy soft fingers.

“Are you in the business?” Mangiocotti asked as if any other vocation was somehow unimportant.

“My husband is a private investigator,” Doris proudly ventured.

“Retired,” I felt obligated to add.

“Aren’t you a little young for that?” Mangiocotti looked at me quizzically.

“I have a wealthy wife.”  My answer made Doris frown.

“And a very beautiful one too. Quite a combination.” Mangiocotti eyes never left her. I couldn’t say I blamed him.

“What can I say? I’m a lucky man,” I replied honestly.

“A private eye. You must tell me some stories. I imagine you have a few.”

“He likes to keep them to himself,” Doris stepped in to protect me. “Client privilege, you know.”

“Now, now,” he smiled as potential movie plots probably ran through his head, “I’m sure we could talk without compromising anyone.”

“Why not,” I said abstractly as he winked at Doris and moved on to his next guest.

“Is everyone in Hollywood on the make?” I asked Doris quietly as he turned away.

“Maybe,” she smirked, “but you’ve got nothing to worry about that one.”

“So which ones do I have to worry about?”

“Well,” she paused and winked, “I haven’t seen Brix yet.”

We wandered through a phalanx of people and while I was usually good with names and details they soon became a blur. We met other actors, costume people, lighting engineers, make up techs, and many other folks whose titles I soon forgot. The army of people it took to produce a film amazed me.

Not 5 minutes after we’d left Mangiocotti, Danny Youngman spotted us and practically ran over. He was a short tightly wound ball of energy with short cropped hair and thin features. He had the annoying habit of bouncing on the balls of his feet while he talked with you.

“Quite a party, huh?” He chirped in his high-pitched voice.

“Danny,” Doris smiled, “nice to see you. You’re not working the room, are you?”

“A little,” he shrugged making no attempt to act sheepish. “I’m trying to get a meeting about that last screenplay you left with me. Mangiocotti says he might be interested.”

“Hi Danny,” I said just to get voice into the conversation. He nodded quickly in my direction and then turned back to Doris.

“Don’t you ever stop?” Doris teased.

“Look, when you’ve got a hot prospect you’ve got to keep pushing. I’ll call you in a couple of days and let you know where we are.” With that he was off to work on someone else.

“You’re the hot prospect, I suppose,” I turned to Doris.

She replied in an effected tone, “but of course.”

The food and drink were excellent. Doris and I knew better than to go crazy with either one especially as we watched the crowd around us getting progressively louder and drunker by the minute. At 9:00 a small jazz quartet set up in an adjoining room started to play and about half the throng wandered unsteadily over to listen.

It became clear that the remaining half wanted to stay put to get a glimpse of the guests of honor, Gilmore and Maxwell. Neither had appeared yet probably waiting to make a grand entrance. After all, they were movie stars and none of the people in the room would have had jobs without them.

Soon after the band had started Gilmore and her husband arrived. For the first time during the evening Doris had competition. If anything she looked even more glamorous in person than she did on the screen. Her long black hair was styled in intricate curls that hung loosely down her back. Her violet eyes made it appear as if she was looking right at you no matter where you were. Gilmore’s perfectly shaped face and body were set off by a relatively tight blue gown with a huge collar that curled up behind her head from a moderately revealing v-neck. It was almost as if a survey had been taken to determine what specific features were considered most beautiful and then were used to assemble her.

“Mr. Ron Alexis and Miss Andrea Gilmore,” came the announcement. Apparently the really important folks didn’t have to share a name.

We could feel the electricity run through her fairly inebriated subjects as she and her very non-descript bespectacled husband stepped into the room. Despite the grand entrance she warmly greeted everyone she met and to my surprise seemed to know all their names. Alexis melted back a little into the crowd and yet always kept Gilmore in sight.

Soon she was greeted by the Mangiocottis and he began to squire her around the room introducing her to the unfamiliar faces such as ours. Even though Doris had been in Hollywood for a while she was still barely able to contain the excitement of being able to get the chance to talk to one of the biggest stars in the world. In spite of myself I wasn’t immune either. Gilmore was clearly in a class by herself.

“Doris Finerty and her husband,” Mangiocotti said when they’d finally made their way to us. In only a couple of hours I’d managed to get downgraded from Mr. Finerty to “her husband”. I was going to have to get used to that too.

“Pleased to meet you,” Glimore purred in what had become by ’52 a very familiar breathy voice. “I hear you’ve done wonderful things with the script.”

“Thank you,” was all Doris managed.

“And it’s wonderful to have another woman involved. We girls have to stick together, you know,” Gilmore smiled her perfect smile.

“That would nice,” Doris said.

“And you Mr…”

“JP,” I corrected.

“All right, JP,” Gilmore’s eyes flashed making me feel as if we were the only people in the room. “My dear Vito tells me that you’re a private investigator, is that right?”

“For many years, but I’m kind of retired now.”

“But it must have been dangerous and exciting at times,” she said as her eyes continued to make the rest of the room disappear. It was easy to see why National wanted to protect their treasure. Every expression, every gesture seemed as perfect as if she’d been rehearsing our conversation for a month.

“At times,” I agreed.

Gilmore told us how glad she was to meet us and then continued to make the rounds with Mangiocotti. I turned to Doris and noticed her face was flushed. It made me smile.

Realizing I’d noticed she complained, “oh, and you weren’t excited to meet her at all were you Mr. ‘kind of retired’.”

“I guess sometimes anticipation does live up to expectations. What a package.”

“OK, down boy,” Doris cautioned as we watched other guests queue up to meet Gilmore.

“Time to go?” I suggested no longer willing to share my redhead with the huge crowd.

“It would be interesting to see the kind of response Maxwell gets,” Doris urged and fortunately we didn’t have to wait long.

Maybe he’d been hiding in the bushes until the commotion over Gilmore subsided, but it was only 15 minutes later that the other guest of honor appeared. He was a little shorter than I’d expected, but he more than made up for his lack of stature. From his sandy wind tousled hair, past his strong square jaw and dimpled chin, and over his broad shoulders he looked every inch the movie star. He was dressed essentially the same as I was with slacks, a white shirt, and a brown sport coat, yet somehow they looked much better on him. Completing the effect was a young blonde hanging on his right arm while a black haired beauty adored his left.

Gilmore now had to share the spotlight and although she didn’t seem to mind she also didn’t go over to greet him right away either. Maxwell’s arm decorations slowly drifted away into the largely female crowd that was quickly stalking their prey.

“Quite an entrance,” I mused from a safe distance.

“Jealous?” Doris teased.

“Not as long as you’re here instead of there.”

Maxwell worked the room like an expert. A little time with this one and a kiss on the cheek to that one.   Apparently he was a better actor than we thought.

The only time he broke character is when he and Gilmore crossed paths. For a couple of minutes he was a reserved gentleman. She smiled at him and he leaned over and whispered in her ear. Gilmore nodded slightly and then they each returned to their respective audience.

After the little greeting to his costar he moved closer to us. It became noticeable that Mr. Movie Star, despite having just arrived, was well ahead of the crowd in the evening’s inebriation contest. He was functioning quite well but his eyes were slightly glazed and his voice was just a shade exaggerated.

His first stop as he snaked through the crowd was to pour himself a large drink and after a gulp proceed to tell a couple of slightly off color jokes. They weren’t particularly funny, but it was hard to tell from the reaction. Slowly the throng around him thinned a bit and he was able to greet our host. Mangiocotti then took the opportunity to lead Maxwell around and introduce him as he had done earlier with Gilmore.

Maxwell continued to play his stereotypical role as the devil may care frat boy charming the women and making the men envious. As the evening worn on and more drinks were delivered he began to veer into the obnoxious although no one at the party under his spell seemed to notice. They appeared content to bask in his charismatic glow no matter how tarnished it became. Still, Maxwell’s good looks and undeniable charm still showed through his increasingly boorish behavior.

Eventually Mangiocotti brought him over to us. Up close without his movie make up I saw the beginning of age creeping into the lines around his eyes making me wonder how many years of youthful leading man he had left.

Expectedly, as soon as our host pointed him our way he made a straight line for my redhead. At first she looked excited, but after he put his arm around her shoulders her eyes quickly looked to me for support.  He didn’t seem discouraged that Doris was a few inches taller.

“Mr. And Mrs. Finerty,” Mangiocotti introduced as Maxwell’s eyes drank in as much of Doris as they could.

“Well,” Maxwell almost drooled, “you’re a tall one. What part do you play?”

Mangiocotti sensing he needed to interrupt said, “she’s one of the script writers.”

“No kidding?” Maxwell seemed impressed. “Behind the screen only? Guess you’d be tough to cast. Jeez, what’re you, 6 feet?” Then turning to his adoring audience he added, “how about that, a redheaded Amazon.” They obediently laughed.

“Uh,” Mangiocotti stepped in, “and this is her husband, a private investigator.”

Maxwell, with his left arm still around her, managed to find mine with his right. Taking the opportunity Doris removed herself from his grasp and backed away a couple of steps. He didn’t seem to notice.

“I bet she’s fun to investigate, huh?” Maxwell leered still playing to his now growing public. I wondered if they were hoping that something interesting was about to happen between their hero and me, the unknown fresh meat.

So far I’d done nothing other than shake his hand and was relieved when Mangiocotti made an effort to turn his increasingly drunken guest away saying, “why don’t we get something to eat? A little roast beef, some caviar, a little…”

“So you’re really a private cop?” Maxwell turned again toward me to Mangiocotti’s obvious disappointment.

“Retired.”

“So what do you do now?”

“I’m working on a few things,” I said blandly hoping that my non-answers would bore him. I certainly didn’t want to tell him that my few things were building a back porch and painting a bathroom.

“So,” Maxwell mood was darkening, “what you’re saying is that is that you live off the redhead. Kind of old to be a gigolo, aren’t you?”

Mangiocotti again tried to steer my accuser away, but Maxwell shook him off. The crowd around us had suddenly seemed to double in size. Maybe he wasn’t pleased that Doris and I hadn’t fawned over him like most of the rest of the guests or maybe he was just a nasty drunk. Either way this was going badly.

“Tell you what,” I said quietly, “why don’t you go with Vito and maybe we can talk about this some other time.”

Maxwell downed the remains of his drink and slammed the glass down loudly on a nearby table. Mangiocotti looked at me apologetically and then backed away toward the rest of the crowd. I was getting the feeling that Maxwell had done this kind of routine before and the guests really were hoping for some extra entertainment.

I looked at Doris and she shrugged telling me that she had no idea anything like this would happen. Scanning the crowd I saw no one come forward to drag this jackass movie star away.

“You’re telling me what to do?” Maxwell’s tone was now poisonous.

“Why don’t you calm down?” I uselessly suggested.

“You’re a nothing. You don’t tell me what to do. Living off a dame. What kind of man are you?”

I decided that backing up toward Doris and making a quick retreat was the only solution. Avoiding a fight that could cost Doris her job seemed like a very good idea. Disturbingly, in the back of my mind was the nagging thought that this idiot actor was right. I was living off my wife.

I had only backed up a step when Maxwell came at me with a looping right hand. I easily blocked it. Next he tried jabbing me in the stomach with a short left. I slapped that away too. He may have been a tough guy on the screen, but in person he didn’t look like much and the fact that he’d had a fair amount to drink with no food to absorb it wasn’t helping.

Again he advanced and I backed up. Doris had gone ahead of me and opened the door behind us so that we could sneak out and disappear down the driveway. Unfortunately the guests had begun to circle us and the evening started to take on the look of a prizefight. I knew I could win the battle; it was the war I was worried about.

Repeatedly, my now enraged stalker threw more telegraphed punches my way, which I easily blocked. Unfortunately our escape route had been equally blocked. Finding a way I could end this without fighting appeared impossible.

Maxwell, accompanied by some colorful language, again shot a long right in my direction that instead of blocking I caught in my left hand. Before he was able try another I quickly pried his fingers open and bend his wrist backwards. With him at my mercy I could have easily spread his teeth across the floor with one punch, but despite how much I might have enjoyed it I instead just continued to bend his wrist.

“You’re breaking my wrist,” he screamed as I forced him to drop to his knees, “stop, stop!”

“I haven’t yet,” I said very quietly with my mouth close to his ear, “but I will. Now, here’s what we’re going to do. Are you listening?”

“Yes,” he said in a little boy voice.

“I’m going to let go. You’re going to get up and we’re going to laugh and shake hands like this was all a complete put on. You got it?”

“Yes.”

“You’re going to save face and my wife and I are going to leave here peaceably. Capisce?”

“Yes.”

“OK,” my mouth was still next to his ear, “as they say in your business, action.”

As smoothly as if we rehearsed it I let go and Maxwell stood up. We then both burst into laughter and put our arms around each other like we were long lost college buddies. At my signal we bowed and the guests burst into applause as if they’d just seen Hamlet. I then quickly thanked the Mangiocottis, took Doris by the arm, and made a hasty retreat.

“What in the world was that?” Doris asked after we’d gotten into the car.

“Apparently Brix Maxwell wasn’t the only actor at the party,” I answered with a very self-satisfied smirk on my face.