Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 27 & 28

27

Doris descended on me like a wolf. The questions came so fast I almost put my hands over my ears. I told her that having an idea of who was behind this mess was much different than being able to prove it. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“You can’t just leave it that way,” she complained. “Who is it?”

“Look, Doris,” I sighed heavily, “I’m beat.”

“Come on.”

“And you know I don’t want to talk about it until I’m a lot more sure of myself than I am right now.”

“JP,” she complained as the cab dropped us off at home and we walked inside. I immediately began slipping off my clothes and heading for the shower. “That’s what you always say. You’re right more often than not. Come on, who is it?”

“Here’s what I need you to do while I take a shower.”

Doris shook her head in defeat. “OK, what?”

“See if you can get the studio on the line.”

“I think they’ve cut me off.”

“Yeah,” I said standing by the bathroom door, “I do too. But you need to try. Anyone would be good, Alexis, Brigham, Berg, Weston, Mangiocotti, Maxwell. Anyone.”

“And?”

“Get them to talk. We’re going to be big news for a while. We need info. I’m guessing Maxwell will be your best chance.”

“All right. What do I ask?”

“Start with how concerned you are for them. See if it goes anywhere.”

“A little vague, isn’t it?” Doris looked at me helplessly. “I’m betting that they’re going to want to be as far away from us as possible.”

“Probably,” I nodded. “But try anyway. And, don’t make the calls from our phone. Go to a friend, a pay phone, but no calls from here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If the cops are worth anything,” I explained, “they’ve tapped our phone.”

“Wonderful,” Doris said sourly as I disappeared into the shower.

And then with a final thought I poked my head back into the room. “Could you see if you can locate our car?”

“I’ll call a cab,” she said. The next sound Doris heard was water running.

By the time I reappeared Doris told me that the car was still where I’d left it at Standish’s home. The LA cops were under whelming me so far.

Standing by the window, as we waited for a cab to take her to Nocturne Drive, several other cars pulled up outside. People with clipboards and cameras swarmed out of the vehicles like circus clowns in the center ring. While some set up camp on our front lawn others came right to the door and started knocking.

The evening papers had apparently come out. I had the sickening feeling that my face was plastered across the front page along with a ream of articles about the tragic death of Hollywood icon, Eve Standish. All I could think of was all the difficult cases I’d cleared over the years. There were so many I would have been glad to talk about and yet this might be the one that would make me well known. Just great.

“Press,” I said disgustedly.

“What do we do now?”

“OK,” I shook my head in exhaustion. “I’ll get you through the crowd when the cab arrives. Get the car. They won’t follow you because I’m the one they want.”

“What are you going to do?”

“After you get in the cab,” I frowned while my mind raced. “I’m going back inside.”

“But how…” Questions swarmed over her face.

“After you get the cab,” I repeated, “buy yourself a black wig and get both of us some sunglasses. I’m going to wait until dark and then go out the back door toward the mountains.”

“But JP the nearest road is…” Doris leaned against me and held me tightly.

“Yes, I know. Do you know how to find it?”

“The road?”

“Yes.”

“I think so.”

“OK, good,” I said. “Now quick before the cab gets here, throw some things into a suitcase. Just enough to get you out of town.”

“Then what?”

“Drive back here on the road behind the grove. Don’t stop anywhere, just keep making a loop. I’ll be waiting on the side of the road sometime tonight.”

“But,” she was using that word a lot, “the judge said to stay in town.”

“Yeah sure,” was my tart reply, “you want to stay here and deal with this mob scene?”

“Suppose you don’t get there?”

“Too many questions doll,” I shrugged.

Quickly we packed some basics and I gave one suitcase to Doris while I stashed the other on the back porch. As soon as the cab arrived we opened the door and ran the gauntlet through the growing hoard. Questions were being shouted from every direction. “Did you do it?” “Hey Parker, any statement for the press?” “Is it true you were lovers?” Etc. Etc.

It wasn’t easy, but I managed to get Doris into the taxi. Worried that I was leaving too the press crowded around the cab making it almost impossible to close the door. The driver’s eyes were wide with a combination of surprise and fear. I made a big show of not getting in and when I backed away the reporters followed. As soon as there was an opening the cab took off.

With my mouth firmly clamped shut I waded back to the house through the throng. The noise level as each person tried to be heard above the competition was deafening. It was hard to imagine how one of them could think that I’d answer their question when I hadn’t answered anyone else’s.

They followed me until I closed the front door in their faces. Finally inside I turned the radio up loud, pulled the shades, and fixed myself something to eat. Having to wait until it was dark was driving me nuts, but I had no choice. Maybe some of the reporters would just give up, go back to the office, and make up a good story. It would be just as accurate as the police reports they undoubtedly had.

By 9:00pm the crowd had thinned some. I’d long since turned out most of the lights to try and discourage the stalkers. The only bulb that remained on was in the corner of the living room where I’d rigged up a combination of blankets and pillows in a rocking chair to make it look like I was sitting there reading. From time to time I’d hit the chair with my hand to add a little animation.

About 10:00 after one more tip of the chair I jammed my gun once again into the back of my belt and carefully opened our rear door onto the porch. Behind our house was about two acres of scrub bush. Behind that was a small orange grove that stretched toward the mountains in the distance. All I had to do was get to the grove unseen.

In dark clothes with my collar turned up around my face I crawled through the brush feeling like an extra in a Brix Maxwell war movie. Every 20 feet or so I’d stop and listen to see if anyone had noticed I was gone. The noise of the crowd still camped out on the front lawn was fading. I was close to the grove.

Finally reaching the line of orange trees beyond the scrub bush I was able to stand. Peering out from around one of them I paused to be sure I hadn’t been seen. So far, so good I thought until a form jumped out in front of me.

“Parker,” he spoke firmly but quietly. “I thought you might try this. I’ve been waiting here since it got dark.”

He sounded young, but in the darkness of the orange grove it was impossible to tell. It was just what I needed, a hungry rookie reporter trying to make a name for himself.

“Look Parker,” he continued in a thin reedy voice, “it’s just the two of us. You only have to talk to me. None of the others will know. Come on, how about an exclusive?”

He was slightly hunched over as if he was getting ready to write down my every thought. My new friend looked to be about medium height and build so I thought that I could take him if things got physical. That would be just what I needed in addition to being a murder suspect.

I ignored his questions and tried to go around him, but he matched my every move. Guessing he was half my age there was no way I was going to be able to outrun him, especially while carrying a suitcase. I hoped if I stalled something would come to mind.

“So,” he pressed, “where are you going? Didn’t the cops want you to stay around?”

I took a deep breath and slowly slid my belt through my pant loops while asking, “what’s your name kid?”

“Peter Bledsoe, Sacramento Bee,” he said proudly. “Just you and me, Mr. Parker. What do you say?   What’re your plans?”

Moving as quickly as I could I slid the heel of my left foot behind his right leg and pushed him with my right hand. He toppled onto his back. I immediately stuffed the sleeve of my coat into his mouth to silence him. After rolling him onto his stomach I wrenched his hands behind his back and tied them with my belt.

“Listen to me Peter Bledsoe, Sacramento Bee,” I said firmly but quietly into his ear. “I can’t have you following me or knowing where I’m going. I have no intention of hurting you so don’t do anything dumb to change that.”

“OK.” His muffled voice shook clearly terrified of what might be coming next.

“I’m going to make you a promise,” I said. “If you keep quiet, I’ll give you an exclusive on the whole thing when it’s over. How’s that?”

“But how do I kn…”

“You don’t. You’re going to have to take a chance and trust me. You’ll be able to untie yourself with a little effort, but don’t follow me or the deal’s off. And if I catch you following me you’ll get worse than having your hands tied up. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” his voice shook as he contemplated the torture I had planned for him. Letting on that it was all a bluff seemed counterproductive.

I patted him menacingly on the cheek and sprinted through the grove as fast as I could. Carrying the suitcase was slowing me down significantly, but as long as I was out of sight it didn’t matter.

In about 30 minutes I was through the grove and climbing up an incline to the paved road at the base of the mountains. I was fairly winded, but relieved that I hadn’t seen anyone behind me since I’d left Bledsoe lying in the dirt. I tried not to think that he could have easily gone back to the house and gotten in his car. If he knew the local roads he probably would have been able to drive around to meet me on the other side of the grove during the half hour I’d been running.

It wasn’t long before headlights were bearing down on me. I backed off the highway and shielded my eyes. The car squealed to a stop on the shoulder throwing a cloud of dust and gravel into the air. It wasn’t until the interior light went on and I recognized my redhead that I was able to breathe again. She motioned me to get in and we sped off into the night.

“Are you all right?” She asked while I tried to catch my breath.

“Sort of,” I wheezed as I told her about my aborted interview in the orange grove.

“You think he bought the story about the exclusive?”

“That was no lie. After roughing him up it’s only fair.”

She shook her head. The weird events of the day were beginning to make us both punchy. “What do you want to do about Danny?” She asked.

“Somehow I think his piece of the pie is going to come out in the wash.”

“Nice mixed metaphor,” Doris looked at me quizzically, but then let it drop. Instead she leaned over and kissed me. “OK, now what?”

“Suppose we take a little vacation?”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“Probably,” I said, “but I hear that this is a great time to visit the lovely little town of Jordan Valley, Oregon.”

Doris began to laugh. Apparently I wasn’t the only one losing my hold on reality. “Jordan Valley, huh? Now I know you really are crazy.”

28

We headed north into the mountains and found a little motor hotel. Before we went inside to register I pulled my collar up around my face and Doris jammed on a black wig. It was startling how different she looked. We pocketed the sunglasses for now. Wearing them at midnight didn’t seem like such a hot idea unless we were trying to call attention to ourselves.

At the desk were newspapers with headlines about the Standich murder. Luckily there was no picture of me attached. That was fine for now, but it probably wouldn’t be much longer before one was found.

We registered as Smith and dragged ourselves out to a small cabin. It was basic accommodations and not much more. There was a bed and a dresser and a very small bathroom. After Doris determined it was clean enough we unpacked and turned out the lights.

“Tell me again,” Doris said as we drove out the next morning, “why are we going to Gilmore’s home town?”

“Someone there must know what the secret of 1944 is.”

Doris paused and then turned to me slowly. “You think you know what it is, don’t you?”

“One mess at a time.”

“Ooh,” she huffed in a raspy voice, “this is what you used to do all the time back in New York. I’m your wife, you know. You can tell me.”

“What you don’t know,” I said without originality, “won’t hurt you.”

“What am I, nine years old?” She protested.

“It’s to keep you safe so you can’t tell anyone.”

“Who do you think I’m going to tell? We’re the only ones here.”

“I know.” My voice probably communicated more worry than I wanted.

“What are you expecting to happen?”

“I don’t know,” I spread my hands. “I just don’t feel good about where this is heading and I want to protect you.”

“JP, I can…”

“Yes, I know. You can take care of yourself. I know.”

“You do make me mad sometimes,” she said but I could hear the fight going out of her voice.

“Were you able to get in contact with anyone at the studio or at Brigham’s office?” I quickly took the initiative to change the subject.

“Nope,” she shrugged. “I got the bum’s rush off the phone every time. Never got past a secretary. It was obvious that I’m on their blacklist, if not anyone else’s. Your name probably is too.” “Maxwell was probably our best chance. Anything with him?”

“I left a message with his answering service,” Doris explained, “but we’ll have to keep trying since he can’t call us.”

“Yeah, OK.”

“I even drove past Alexis and Gilmore’s house. I don’t know what I was expecting. It wasn’t as if they were going to stroll out and say ‘hi’, but I was so frustrated I didn’t know what else to do.”

“A big place, right?”

“Oh brother,” she rolled her eyes, “you have no idea. You can’t see too much from the road, but the whole place sits atop a huge staircase. The first level must be 20 feet in the air. Never seen anything like it.”

“Sitting up that high, huh? Did it look like that all the way around?” I tried to picture it.

“As far as I could tell. JP,” she added slowly after a short pause, “what’s waiting for us in Oregon?”

“With Standish gone it’s clear that whoever is behind this…”

“Like the one you won’t tell me about,” she interrupted.

Ignoring her comment I barged on. “…whoever is behind this has decided to raise the stakes. Their clumsy idea to frame me failed which tells me that maybe they didn’t have much time to plan. Who’s to say that there aren’t others in addition to Standish that will have to be eliminated.”

“Such as?” Doris was relentless but there was no way I was going to give her info that might be able to be used against her.

“Me for one,” the words stuck in my throat. “Especially now that their idiotic idea of having the police do it for them flopped. And, if you know too much…” I let my voice trail off.

Doris pursed her lips and I could see the muscles in her jaw working. When she folded her arms and turned her gaze out the window I knew we were done, at least for the moment.

“JP,” she began again after a long pause, “what about Judge?”

“OK,” I nodded. “See if this makes sense. He’s getting information from many sources including Brigham’s secretary, the very alluring Miss Bumchelski.”

“Watch it,” she smiled. It was good to see her sense of humor returning.

“…and he then passes the dirt on to Standish for use in her column.”

“So far I’m with you.”

“Judge is the photographer taking the pictures that Johnston tried to get from him at the Marina.”

“Except that you got them first.”

“Going by what I heard Johnston say outside Judge’s boat, he wanted out of being the delivery boy. So then, inadvertently, we take the incriminating photos to Alexis perhaps accidentally doing Johnston’s job for him.”

“Danny Youngman could be the link among everybody. He’s Brigham’s surrogate son and he went to school with Johnston and Judge.” Doris was following just fine.

“Yup,” I nodded, “could be. He’s got several balls in the air all at the same time. Brigham’s only client is Gilmore. So Danny’s trying to keep that afloat. If you’re Danny’s only lucrative client, he obviously doesn’t want that to slip away.”

“The pictures were supposed to be more leverage for Standish. What does all this mean?”

“Suppose Johnston was shadowing you in DC for someone other than Standish?”

“Which means you think he might have been the one to kill Standish.” Doris’ eyes went wide. “He took the offer you didn’t?”

“I suppose that’s one way to go,” I said blankly.

“You are just impossible,” she grumbled at my non-answer and turned back to the window. There was going to be silence again.

Once again in the quiet I went over the confusing assortment of information. It was fine to have an idea about who did what, but I wasn’t sure I could prove any of it. I tried to think about something else. My effort was very unsuccessful.

First, Doris’ lucrative job writing for the movies was probably gone regardless of how things turned out. That would be the end of the adequate money we had even with me not working. Next was how we were we going to support our two homes, her little house in LA and my old apartment in New York. No more luxury of traveling back and forth at minimal expense. And to top things off was the reality that if the cops couldn’t find a way to give me the death penalty there were others looking to do it for them. Funny, I’ve heard people say that change is good for you.

We were up and at it early the next morning with the hope of being able to pull into Jordan Valley by mid afternoon. We each drove about two hours while the other read the map or dozed. There was little conversation even when we stopped to stretch at a rest stop. While I was glad Doris had given up trying to extract information I missed her usual company. Scaring your wife by telling her you were possibly on a list to be murdered probably had something to do with it.

The scenery, as we passed three different national parks, was spectacular, but neither of us was really able to enjoy it. We were making good time, but hours of driving over winding mountain roads was beginning to wear us out. As soon as we passed into Oregon we quit for the day at a picturesque little town with the boring name of Lakeview. Another night, another rustic cabin.

We rolled into Jordan Valley the next day just after lunch. There was only one fully paved street and it ran through what could only be generously called the business district. The less than thriving downtown ran about a half mile. The main drag was lined with little shops including a ramshackle hotel, a bank, and a couple of small five and dimes. We drove the length of it twice before seeing the small Airstream trailer that served as the post office. I pulled in next to it.

“Doris,” I said as the car came to a stop, “I’m sorry about all this.”

“Oh JP…”

“I’m sorry we’re in trouble, sorry we’re mad at each other, sorry about everything.”

Doris slid across the seat and leaned into me. “You shouldn’t be,” she smiled. “You did nothing wrong and neither did I. I don’t care about the money. We’ve been broke before and we came through it.”

“Thanks doll, it’s just…”

“I love you, you big lug, and we’re together. That’s enough for me. The rest was just gravy.”

“I kind of like gravy though,” I said kissing her until we were out of breath. She was quite a gal.

“Now what?” Doris said as she sat up and fixed her hair. “We can’t stay on Main Street in this thriving metropolis making a spectacle of ourselves.”

“I guess,” I deadpanned. “What was Gilmore’s real name again?”

“Gilley,” she said with a confused look on her face.

“OK. Why don’t you go into the post office and see if you can find out if there’s anyone around here by that name?”

“And use my, uh, personality to do it,” she shook her head at me in mock disgust.

“If necessary.”

“Really, how did you ever survive without me?” She laughed. I rolled my eyes as she climbed out of the car and watched her go inside to give the postmaster a thrill.

In a few minutes she returned and slid back into the car next to me. In her hands were several slips if paper with writing that wasn’t in her hand. She handed them to me and smiled.

“This guy was easier than Kanovsen back at the marina,” she said apparently oblivious to the effect her looks could have. I bet the postmaster’s posture also instantly improved as soon as she entered.

“I see two addresses here,” I said as I read the piece of paper.

“The first one is a single woman and her daughter and the other is an elderly couple. They both live out of town off a dirt country road. There’s really more folks living here that the ‘business strip’ would indicate.”

“The woman and the daughter,” I decided. “Did you get directions?”

“Of course,” Doris snapped her fingers and then, as uneasiness washed over her face, added, “funny, he told me that just a little while ago someone else was here also asking about the same folks.”

“A young guy with a full beard?” I asked warily.

“That’s what he said. Are you thinking what I am?”

I started the car and spun it into the street.

Doris flinched. “JP, what are you doing?”

“Johnston has gotten a head start.”

“So?” Doris braced herself between the door and the dashboard.

“We need to get there before he does.”

“What are you talking about? What do you think he’s going to do?” Doris’ voice was tight.

“Better you don’t know,” I said as we left a cloud of gravel that covered the entire main street of Jordan Valley.

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Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 25 & 26

25

I’d been in LA long enough to learn my way around but Nocturne Drive was not a place I’d ever driven. Still I hoped I had a good enough idea about where it was even though I didn’t expect to get there in time to prevent whatever was going on. On the way out the door I grabbed my pistol and stuffed it into my belt at the small of my back.

The further I drove into the mountains the larger and more remote the homes became. With my tires squealing I frantically tried to find her house before the sun sunk into the Pacific and the darkness made it impossible. I chose not to think about why I was hurrying to help the vindictive blackmailer.

It was dusk when I approached a long sculptured hedge. Cut into it was a wide whitewashed wooden gate that opened in the middle. It was held closed by an iron latch. Hanging on one of the support posts aside the gate were the numbers 7519. I’d found it.

I slammed on my brakes and jumped out of the car into a cloud of dust and gravel. The latch on the gate was closed, but not locked and after flipping it open I ran inside. Door to door had probably taken me 25 minutes. If she had really been attacked I was already way too late.

Standish’s Tudor style home stretched out before me. It was three stories tall and very formal with a spectacularly landscaped front lawn. Trees, elaborate flowering bushes, and modern art sculptures had been carefully arranged on it to create an almost other worldly effect.

Dodging the many obstacles I ran to the front door. I called her name a couple of times, but when there was no answer I tried the door. The knob turned and the door silently swung open. Again I called. No response. I took out my gun.

I stepped into the foyer. It had a high vaulted ceiling that ended at a skylight about 40 feet over my head. Large tapestries, similar to the ones we saw at Mangiocotti’s, framed the room.   Toward the rear of the house was a spiral staircase that appeared to run the entire height of the building. I called some more. Still nothing.

To my left was a huge formal dining room dominated by a crystal chandelier. Large framed antique paintings covered every wall. Behind the dining room to the left was an oversized kitchen with every kind of food preparation gadget imaginable. Off the kitchen was a formal bedroom with a canopy bed, two wide armoires, and a dressing table. The far wall and ceiling were entirely covered by immense mirrors. It might have made me laugh under other circumstances.

I quickly ran up the stairs and found the second floor totally empty. There was no furniture of any kind in any of the four bedrooms. After again calling her name I ran back down the stairs and headed into the room to the right of the front door.

It was a library with what appeared to be expensive book collections filling floor to ceiling bookcases. The middle of the room contained a long rectangular table surrounded by six high backed chairs. In the back of the library was large roll top desk that faced into the room.

I didn’t see her at first. Her body was slumped forward onto the desk and hidden from view. She’d been shot in the back of the head and with her body grotesquely twisted to the side from the impact I could see where the bullet had exited between her eyes. I looked for it briefly, but didn’t find anything. A huge pool of blood had not only spread out across the desktop but had also dripped off the desk making a companion puddle on the floor. There was a pen still clutched in her lifeless hand and a corner of a piece of paper sticking out from under her body. Had she been trying to write something during her last moments?

There were bruises around her throat and a dark mouse forming under her left eye. Based upon what I’d seen there were probably more injuries, but I didn’t dare disturb the crime scene. Being careful not to touch anything I left the grisly scene and wandered the house looking for a phone. Every one I found had had its cord ripped from the wall. I tucked my gun back into my belt.

It was obvious that I was going to have to head back down the mountain highway to call the police. I didn’t like leaving the house open. It also felt wrong leaving her still warm body slumped over the desk.

As soon as I started for the door I heard two cars coming up the driveway. Moving to the side I peaked through the curtains to see two patrol cars screech to a stop. They’d obviously seen my car still parked outside the gate at the end of the driveway and I wondered what they might be thinking. When the cops exited with their guns drawn I had my answer.

“Officers,” I called waving my arms over my head as I walked out the front door. Surprising two armed cops after they found a dead body seemed like a bad idea.

“Keep your hands up,” snarled the shorter one. He warily stepped toward me with his gun at arms length. Shorty was a burly dark haired guy around 30 with a large forehead and narrow features. He looked like he’d never drawn his weapon before. It didn’t make me feel very safe.

“Who are you?” His partner from the other car yelled. He was taller with long yellow hair that stuck out under his cap. He had large wide blue eyes giving him a baby face that probably didn’t help folks to take him seriously.

“Eve Standish is inside,” I said. “She’s been murdered.”

“Up against the car,” Shorty commanded. “Don’t even breath.”

Shorty trained his gun on me while Blue Eyes roughly patted me down. He quickly found my gun and gingerly removed it from my belt. Holding it up he and his partner looked it over carefully.

“OK, pal,” Shorty yelled, “let’s do it again. Who are you?” I told them.

“What are you doing here?” Blue Eyes said just as loudly. I explained that Standish had called me for help.

We were then off to the races. They wanted to know why she’d called me, what it was about, and what I knew about what I’d found inside. My series of “I don’t know” answers made them very unhappy. Next they checked my gun and after seeing that it hadn’t been fired asked me if I had a license. They seemed disappointed when I told them I did.

Shorty stayed with me while Blue Eyes went inside. He was back quickly and the two of them launched into a new round of questions. The only relevant information they received was that I knew Standish through my wife who was a Hollywood screenwriter. I also thought it was safe to say that the three of us had had dinner just a few weeks before. I carefully avoided anything about the studios, Gilmore and Maxwell, or the victim’s blackmail scheme. Avoiding those topics again with the detectives who would be showing up soon wouldn’t be as easy.

Within an hour Standish’s driveway was clogged with four cop cars, an ambulance, two unmarked cruisers, a medical examiner, two detectives, and two forensic cops. I spent the time cooling my heels in the back of Shorty’s car. The frenzy over a famous person being killed had temporarily left me out of the limelight. That wouldn’t last long.

It was nearly midnight by the time we arrived at the Santa Monica police headquarters. I was quickly moved into an interrogation room by Shorty who then took up guard outside and left me waiting for the detectives. The room was stark and cold with bare cement brick walls. The only furniture was a rectangular table flanked by four folding metal chairs. I braced myself for the questioning onslaught.

After about a half hour two plainclothes cops came in. One was medium height and stocky. He’d shed his sport coat and rolled his sleeves up past his elbows revealing Navy tattoos on his forearms. His glasses were propped on the end of his nose and a cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth. His soft eyes and pale face told me that he was playing the good cop role.

The partner had on a worn, to the point of being shiny, black suit with a blood red tie clamped tightly to his neck over a starched white shirt. He had a long pointed nose like a character out of Dickens and just slits for eyes. As he stared at me his thick eyebrows knitted themselves together beneath a wrinkled forehead.

They introduced themselves, respectively, as Murphy and Carruthers.

We went over the same ground as I had earlier. Then we went over it again. They know knew who I was, where I’d come from, who I was married to, how I knew Standish, and why I was there. They were also as unhappy as the patrol cops when I couldn’t answer why Standish had called me.

“This ain’t much of a story,” Carruthers glared after a third retelling yielded nothing new.

“Sorry,” I said keeping my voice even, “next time I’ll try to do better.”

“Wise ass. What picture is your wife working on?” Murphy asked trying a different approach. I told him.

“Jeez,” Murphy said playing the good cop role to a tee. “Gilmore and Maxwell, huh? You ever meet them?” I answered that also and tried to stay consistent by giving only a minimum of detail.

“OK,” Carruthers barked. “So you say you’re an ex-cop and ex-peeper. What are you doing now?”

“I’m retired,” I said vaguely.

The room was silent for a few seconds. Before they could think of another question the door swung open and a uniformed cop handed a slip of paper to Murphy. He stared at it with one eyebrow raised and then handed it to his partner. The bad cop studied it for a long time before slowly lifting his gaze back to me.

“Ain’t it funny,” Caruthers’ tone was slimy, “you got a call to go there, and so did we.”

“What are you talking about?” I had the feeling my voice was higher pitched than usual.

Carruthers leaned in close to me. “Seems she called here too. Said there was a prowler in the house.”

“That’s what she said to me too,” I added.

“Yeah,” he continued, “but did she say who it was?”

“No. I asked, but no.”

“She did to us,” Murphy’s tone changed. “Wanna guess who she said?”

I took a deep breath. “I’m not going to like this am I?”

“Probably not,” Carruthers sneered, “seeing as how it was you.”

 

 26

A few more times over the same ground convinced them that either I wasn’t able or wasn’t willing to give them anything else. Giving up they took me back outside. I had my photo taken, my belongings removed, and my fingers inked. Before being led off to a holding cell I was given a couple of minutes for a phone call. It’s amazing how speedy justice becomes when a famous person is involved.

Doris answered on the first ring. The worry in her voice came through loud and clear. “JP?” She yelled before I even spoke. “Where are you?”

“Hey doll,” I tried to say calmly. “I’m all right.”

“Where are you? What happened?”

“I’m afraid I’ve been arrested for murdering Eve Standish,” I blurted. It was hard hearing those words come out of my mouth.

“What!?”

I explained as quickly as I could and added where I was before the phone was wrestled away from me. They led me down the hall and dropped me into a private holding cell. Vicious killers like me couldn’t be left to mingle with general riff raff.

I kicked off my shoes and leaned back on my hard cot. This wasn’t going to be like New York where either Ralph or Annie would rush to my rescue. It also wasn’t going to be as if some nobody was bumped off. This was going to be a huge story as every newspaper in the country splashed it across their front pages.

The night crawled by. About 7:00 the next morning a cop banged on the bars and slipped me a cold cup of coffee and a stale roll. Moments after gulping them down I was rousted out of the cell and led to a room that had a long table that stretched from wall to wall. It was bisected by a glass partition and there were chairs on either side. Company was calling.

Doris burst into the room, ran up to the glass, and pressed her hands against it. I did the same. Her eyes were wide with fear.

“Oh JP,” she stammered speaking through a small opening in the partition.

“It’s all right,” I said with artificial bravery, “they have no case.”

“Who did it?”

“First,” I said ignoring her question, “I need an attorney to get me out of here. They haven’t got enough to hold me past 24 hours.”

Doris brightened and said, “I’ve got one.”

“What?”

“I didn’t know what else to do so I called Danny.”

“Your agent?” I’m sure I didn’t sound enthusiastic.

“He brought a friend from his old company,” she explained quickly.

“He’s here now?”

“They both are.”

I remembered that Danny had been a PR guy for a company in San Jose before deciding to start his own business. It seemed logical that he must have worked with the company’s lawyers at least once. Doris had moved very fast.

Although she didn’t want to leave Doris pulled herself away and as soon as she left a tall thin middle-aged man in a suit entered. He was nearly bald which made his drawn face look even longer. The glasses that hung on the end of his long nose were precariously hooked behind his large ears. His suit fit his height, but hung loosely around his skeletal frame. A bow tie hung crookedly from his ill-fitting collar. Whoever he was didn’t inspire much confidence.

“Percival Jones,” he said formally as he pulled up his chair. “I’m an old friend of Mr. Youngman. He was contacted by your wife and was most insistent that I come in to represent you.” His Adam’s apple bobbed behind his loose collar.

“Well Mr. Jones,” I sighed in relief, “how can I thank you?”

“Your lovely wife has already retained me. Financial arrangements are being taken care of. This is what I do. A thank you is appreciated, but not necessary.”

“Fine.” I liked his being all business.

“Now,” he said as he opened a briefcase and removed a folder. “Have you been arraigned or charged?”

“No, just held here over night. I’m guessing they’re trying to decide if they have enough of a case to drag me before a judge this morning.”

“Could be,” Jones nodded gravely. “Why don’t you tell me what happened.”

I went though the chaos of the previous night as Jones scribbled furiously. I carefully left out all our dealings with the studios and the murder for hire offer. Things didn’t need to be any more complicated than they already were.

“Why did she call you?” He asked when I finished. Logical question.

“No idea.”

“Did they check your gun to see if it had been fired?” He asked when I finished.

“Yes, and it hadn’t.”

“Is your gun registered?”

“You bet.”

“Good. Did they do a paraffin test on your hands?”

“No.”

“Good again. Would it have revealed anything?” He continued to write without looking up.

“No.”

“Did they determine a motive?” His writing continued.

“No again.” I was quite a conversationalist.

“What makes them think that you had one?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about a lover’s quarrel?”

I stared at him for a minute. “Are you kidding?”

“She has a reputation, you know. Mr. Youngman has told me some stories.” Jones leaned back and studied my face. I’d done the same thing many times over the years when I was the one asking the questions. I wondered what my mug was telling him.

“Jeez,” I rolled my eyes, “give me a break. I know this is Hollywood but…” My voice trailed off.

“OK, so,” he said putting down his pen and lifting his eyes to me. Even they looked undernourished. “The police say they received a call from Eve Standish claiming you were in the house about to attack her. You also received a call from her begging you for help. When you arrived all the phone cords had been broken. How did you know it was she that called you?”

“She identified herself,” I explained, “but who would miss that staccato voice of hers anyway. It is, or was, pretty unique.”

We went over a few more details and I thanked him for his help. Jones nodded and left to try and find out what was next. As soon as he was gone a burly cop motioned me back inside.

After about an hour of cooling my heels in a different holding cell the same cop returned with Murphy following close behind. They led me back to the same interrogation room I’d been in about twelve hours before. Murphy looked at me, shook his head, but didn’t say anything. After the burly cop left Murphy pointed me to a chair. The two of us sat on opposite sides of the same table as we the night before. Before anything was said the door opened and Jones entered. It looked like he’d had a productive hour.

The gaunt lawyer stood up in front of me and confronted the “good cop”.

“Officer,” he began, “are there charges against my client?” It sounded odd hearing someone other than Annie say those words.

I was so bleary from a night of no sleep I had trouble following the conversation, but I got enough to know that the police didn’t have sufficient evidence to hold me. In fact it didn’t seem as if they had anything at all. Not wanting to give up Murphy forced Jones to go through his complete bag of tricks as he tried to get me released. It seemed my new mouthpiece was more than holding his own.

One part that I did hear was that Standish’s phone records had been obtained. Things move fast when the rich and powerful are involved. Apparently the cops were trying to sort out the time line and with the phones having been ripped from the wall maybe they were wondering if the calls had come from another place. It seemed that Standish’s call to the cops for help came only 20 minutes after the call to me. Someone had been set up and it was yours truly.

After maybe 10 more minutes of wrangling Murphy asked Jones to sit. He walked around to my side of the table and pulled up a chair next to me. Murphy initially leaned over at us across the table and then, deciding that intimidation wasn’t going to work, decided to sit down.

Once again I went over my story from the previous evening. With Jones carefully monitoring my every word I told the same story in the same way that I had before. I didn’t know if they were bored yet, but I certainly was. Murphy only asked a couple of clarification questions none of which were controversial enough to force Jones to have to say anything.

It was clear from the minimal questions we heard that Jones was apparently correct in his guess about a lover’s quarrel. Murphy told us that a cursory investigation on the body had indicated that Standish had had sex with someone shortly before she was killed. Unfortunately for the cops they couldn’t prove it was me. The only thing they had on me was my misfortune of being in her unlocked house at around the time she was murdered. They couldn’t even hit me for having an illegal handgun.

Finally after the legal wrangling was finished Murphy turned to me. Murphy’s face was red with frustration and the bags under his eyes told me that he’s had almost as long a night as I’d had. He’d obviously spent a serious amount of time trying to make something out of nothing.

“OK, Parker,” he said in a gravely sleep deprived voice, “you are free to go.”

“Thank you,” I nodded.

“However,” he cautioned, “I want you to stay available. If something breaks I don’t want to be pissed off trying to find you. Maybe we moved a little too fast, but that doesn’t necessarily leave you in the clear. Whether I think you’re guilty or not don’t matter since we ain’t got enough to hold you. We come up with something new, you’re going to right back here and paying your lawyer will be the least of your troubles. You get me? All right, get out of here.”

On our way out of the stationhouse I saw Carruthers glaring toward us. As we neared the door he got up out of his seat and walked over to me. His breath was hot in my face. His eyes were just slits.

“Don’t leave town,” he scowled, “we’re going to want to talk to you again.”

“Suit yourself,” I replied dragging the words out of my tired mouth.

“Don’t say anything else,” Jones cautioned me as he stepped between us. Over the years Annie’d had to do the same thing. Fortunately for Jones I was too tired to fight back this time.

“You pervert,” Carruthers hissed under his breath. “Screwing her and then putting a bullet in her brain. We have ways of getting our kicks too. One is locking up scum like you.”

Practically out on my feet, even though his words disgusted me, I let it go and staggered toward my nervous wife who was standing near the front door. Putting my arms around her had never felt so good. Danny Youngman was with her obviously concerned about how Jones was handling my case. The four of us dragged ourselves out of the building. It was nearly noon.

“I’m so glad they let you go,” Youngman said grimly. He was frowning as if in deep concentration. As always he was dressed in a sharp stylish suit and was groomed as if heading off to a wedding.

“You realize they believe you’re the one,” Jones said to me after we’d left the courtroom.

“Looks that way,” I agreed.

“But there isn’t anything,” Doris said. “JP only met her once.”

“Maybe so,” I said leaning on my strong wife, “but someone went to a lot of trouble to put me in the crosshairs. Still it doesn’t look like they planned things out very well. I just hope they don’t have more up their sleeve.”

“You really believe that Mr. Parker?” Jones asked.

“If we only had an idea of who did it,” Youngman scowled. He jammed his hands into his pockets in a show of determination. It was so stereotypical that it might have been funny in other circumstances.

Jones shook our hands and after promising to keep in touch headed off toward the parking lot behind the courthouse. Danny offered to drive us home, but we declined. He seemed confused by our decision.

“Are you sure?” He protested.

“It’s all right,” I said, “I’d rather just be with Doris. You understand.”

He nodded as if he did. “Yeah, sure.”

“But we do need to talk soon,” I called over my shoulder as we walked away.

“Anytime.”

I then quickly turned and stopped to face him. “And what we need to talk about are your old friends, Carl Johnston and Samuel Judge.”

Danny froze in his tracks and we watched the color drain from his face. After a couple of beats of silence he weakly asked, “who? I, uh, don’t think that…”

Doris and I climbed into a cab and left him stammering at the curb.

“What was that?” Doris said still staring at Youngman through the window.

“That boy has secrets,” I said as I slumped down into the seat.

“JP?” Doris turned to me in the backseat of the cab as we pulled out into the traffic. I must have had a peculiar look on my face. “You have that look. Do you think you know who killed her?”

“Well,” I said sheepishly, “yeah, I think I do.”

Reel Life, Real Death Chapters 23 & 24

23

Hoping that I had convinced Maxwell that his secret was safe with us we hung up. Doris and I looked at each other and shook our heads simultaneously. It might have been funny under other circumstances.

“I’m going to lie,” my redhead concluded, “aren’t I?”

“Only if the ‘naming names’ question comes up.” It was a useless response, that question always came up.

With the little time remaining in New York we went to the Klein’s for dinner. Since Ralph and Judy knew everything else about us there was no reason to keep this mess a secret. Despite the time spent on our problems it still turned out to be a good evening’s distraction from the testimony that was hanging over our heads.

In a couple of days we left for DC figuring it would be helpful to get there early. As we waited out the days before Doris’ testimony she seemed to be adjusting to the situation while I became more worried. Figuring that at least her screen writing job was going to be gone I wondered if the money I would make by restarting my business would be enough to sustain us. All of a sudden that Villman Oil stock began to burn a hole in my pocket.

Doris was scheduled to testify at 2:00 at the DC Surrogate Court building. It was an imposing structure with four large Roman columns perched atop a wide stone staircase. With Annie having joined us in DC the night before we traveled to the courthouse together.

At Annie’s suggestion Doris wore a very subdued dark blue suit that had been purposely chosen to be a little too large. In retrospect maybe a few curves would have helped by distracting the fat old men on the committee. The two gals wrestled her wild mane until it was pulled back tightly and tied in a bun behind her head. The only make up she wore was simply some power to try and wash out her features. Doris looked like a repressed schoolmarm. It made me wonder if she could have gotten a job at Ventura East High School.

Before we could enter the building we had to show identification. Being in the very segregated nation’s capital forced Annie to endure most of the attention. Despite her experience with bigots I could almost hear her teeth grinding as she submitted.

That’s where I saw him for the first time. He was doing a good job at staying close enough to keep us in view, but not so close as to call attention to himself. Whenever I turned his way he carefully melted back into the crowd.

Getting inside the building turned out to be the easy part. The hallway outside the courtroom was jammed with reporters and photographers making an impossible tangle of arms, legs, cameras, and notepads. Fortunately they didn’t know who we were so we managed to avoid some of their scrutiny. Unfortunately the government officials made up for it.

Stopped at the door we were again subjected to a round of questions and ID checking. After a long wait they finally let Doris inside, but stopped Annie and I. My old friend showed the documents that were supposed to give her access, but after seeing her color there was no way any of these self-important fascists were going to let her in.

After a lot of rude treatment Annie changed tact and decided to try to get me admitted. That started another round of the same song and dance. I might have been the right color, but I didn’t have any of the credentials that would have given me access. And I didn’t have the expertise to help Doris either.

All the while the arguing went on the door remained open. Doris kept us in sight and constantly looked back with pleading eyes. As a bailiff and another uniformed cop approached her I watched their very animated discussion. Unfortunately they were faced away from me preventing me from doing any lip reading.

Twice one of them walked away and then quickly returned with what appeared to be more questions. I could see Doris shaking her head in strong disagreement each time he came back. It looked like she was using her nervous energy to good advantage.

Peering through the crowd while still trying to keep Annie from being trampled I finally deciphered what the song and dance was about. Not surprisingly Annie appeared to be the topic. Doris had been promised legal representation, but the knee jerk jackasses in charge were either unwilling or unable to see a 90-pound elderly black woman in that role.

Finally after endless trips in and out of sight by one of the officers Annie was rudely escorted into the courtroom. I leaned in behind her as she headed into the chamber only to have the door slammed in my face immediately after she was inside. That left me plenty of time to develop an ulcer while pacing outside. I wondered if this was what expectant fathers felt like.

With the door closed many in the crowd escaped the humid hallway and went outside to sit on the steps. Not knowing what else to do I tried to join them. But while they sat I instead killed time by walking back and forth in front of the building. Nobody talked to me.

Suddenly as if they were one large organism everyone stood and rushed back in. All I could figure was that the doors to the courtroom had reopened. Lowering my shoulder I knifed through the throng and just as I made it inside I saw Doris at the end of the hall. Being nearly 6 feet tall made it easy to pick her out above the chaos. I hoped Annie was nearby and not being trampled.

Suddenly I saw him again working his way through the crowd. He was doing a good job of looking like he had somewhere to go, but having done the same kind of shadowing job myself I knew what to look for.

As Doris struggled toward me we made eye contact, but I couldn’t read her expression. Annie didn’t come into view until they were practically at my side. I spread my arms wide managing to make an opening for them and soon we were able to escape out into the sunlight.

“Well,” I said stepping in front of them as soon as we were clear of the building. “How did it go?”

Annie looked up at me and smiled, “your wife was amazing.”

“So,” I prompted, “tell me.”

We hustled around to the side of the building away from the crowd. As soon as we were clear we stopped and leaned against a wrought iron railing. They were both smiling.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted him again. This time he was walking away from us on the opposite side of the street.

“Annie saved the day,” Doris said drawing my attention back.

“What do you mean dear?” Annie protested. “You did all the work.”

Doris took a deep breath and explained. “First, as you saw, they wouldn’t let Annie in. Then realizing their mistake and how foolish it made them look they went out of the way to accommodate her.”

Annie growled. “Those hypocrites make me sick. As usual I have to work twice as hard to get them to take me even half seriously.”

“And half as hard to be twice as good,” I added smiling.

“The initial questions were about who I was,” Doris continued. “They wanted to know some past history and I made sure I played up the angle of how I’d foolishly married right out of high school. I also made sure to portray Jack in the negative light he deserved.

“When they finally stopped grandstanding I got the chance to tell about the meetings I attended in the mid 30s. I played it up quite well admitting what a fool I’d been and how I was too young to know what I was doing. They seemed to buy it.”

“Of course they did,” I smiled, “it is true after all.”

“Eventually they got around to what I knew and who I knew,” Doris went on. “It was the time to name names.”

“You’re going to love this,” Annie grinned.

“I played as dumb as possible,” Doris almost chuckled, “and gave them a raft of first names saying I never learned the rest. Then they asked about the organizers, the speakers, and such. I instead gave them some of the rhetoric I heard, but told them I couldn’t remember any of the names.”

“A little perjury is good for the soul?” I raised one eyebrow quizzically.

“Yeah,” Annie shrugged, “I don’t feel good about that. Of course I’d’ve felt even worse if any real names were dropped for those Nazis.”

“And?” I asked.

“That’s it,” Doris laughed. “They were so frustrated by this ‘dumb redhead’ that they just shook their heads, thanked me, and that was it. Over and done and no damage. Right Annie?”

“None that I could detect,” Annie added. “It was much ado about nothing.”

“Almost,” I shrugged.

“What do you mean?” Doris asked.

“Carl Johnston is here following us,” I said ruining the mood.

“Who?” Annie’s eyes darted between us.

“Carl Johnston,” Doris rolled the name around. “Carl Joh… Oh, of course, the old high school friend of Judge’s that was supposed to pick up the photos. And then you put him in the hospital.”

“That’s the one.”

“Are you sure he’s following us?” Doris quickly changed from elated to worried.

“Not following us, just you,” I said sourly.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“He was easy to spot. Remember he doesn’t know that I know what he looks like. As far as the paper said I’m just a ‘mysterious Negro’.”

“A what?” Annie said snapping her head around.

“Tell you later,” I smiled. “But I guess there are some things about me that you don’t know.”

“How’d he get out of jail?” Doris wondered as I shook my head.

“Why here?” Annie asked.

“Probably didn’t know where we were staying so he waited here to pick up our trail. I just saw him walking down the opposite side of the street as well as twice at the courthouse.”

“Standish’s idea?” Doris guessed.

“Maybe, if that’s who he’s working for,” I said. “Remember, I heard him say how he didn’t want to deal with her anymore. Even though you escaped very nicely there are still lots of other people to go.   And their concerns are not only about HUAC.”

24

With some fancy footwork, a few changed cabs, and a walk through a hotel lobby I was sure we managed to lose our unwanted friend. Wanting nothing more than to simply get out of town we hopped the next train back to New York.

After thanking Annie more times than we could count we dropped her into a cab outside Penn Station and sent her home. Doris and I made it back to the Soho apartment a little before midnight. The energy we had coming out of the courthouse was long gone and we barely dragged ourselves through the door.

Doris dropped her bag on the couch and slumped down next to it. She’d shed the plain clothes from the hearing and was dressed again in her usual colorful style. Despite the hour, the long day, and the travel she still looked great. I wondered how she did it.

“Where do we go from here?” She asked with head back and her eyes closed.

“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I’ve been thinking.”

“Uh oh,” she smiled.

“With us not falling under Standish’s spell…”

“You mean, you not falling.” She still had the energy to crack a joke.

“Either way. She’s pretty steamed. We didn’t cooperate, the HUAC harassment didn’t work, and she thinks we know what happened all those years ago.”

“So?” Doris remained motionless.

“I want to know if she might switch now from maybe having you followed to having us followed. I also want to know what all this mess is about. And, we need to know if you still have a job.”

That last comment woke her up. Doris sat forward and opened her eyes. “You think I do? But nobody at National even contacted me.”

“That’s right,” I rubbed my chin. “But that was before the testimony. They didn’t know what was going to happen. The fact that you didn’t hurt anyone and walked away clean might put them in your corner again.”

“Back to LA already? Don’t you want to stay here?”

“Oh you bet,” I nodded, “but I want to put an end to this insanity even more. How long is Johnston, and maybe others too, going to follow us around?”

“OK tough guy,” she said as she got up and headed for the shower, “but tomorrow morning will be soon enough. Sleep first, travel later.”

—————————-

Off we went again on another long plane ride, more time changes, and more packing. A nice long vacation would have been better. Of course, never having had a long vacation I didn’t know for sure.

The deadline for another of the $10,000 blackmail payments had passed. That should have calmed Standish’s anger a little. All I could think was that if the studio’s only plan was to look for potential murderers the payments might go on for a while.

For what seemed like the hundredth time we tried to settle back into a routine. It wasn’t easy. Doris called the studio a couple of times and left messages for both Brigham and Alexis, but with no response. We drove to the studio, but were told that “Heart Of China” had temporarily moved to a location shoot in the Sierra Mountains. Upon hearing that they planned to be gone for the next couple of weeks Doris called National and left a message for Berg. Nothing happened there either.

So, where were we? Standish controlled a very disproportionate amount of the information from Hollywood. She also had influence with HUAC. She was bleeding Alexis for $10,000 a month and for all we knew maybe others. She was controlling, at least, Brix Maxwell as well as maybe Sam Judge and Carl Johnston. In addition, the National and Excelsior pictures were taking a huge chance spending large sums of money to team Maxwell and Gilmore in a movie that now appeared to be little more than a sop to the rabid anticommunists in Congress. Brigham Entertainment was being propped up by its remaining client with its owner unwillingly ceding control to that client’s husband. We were being harassed by Standish who was worried that we knew the deep dark secret that was driving her blackmail scheme. It appeared she thought that we had the power to topple her little empire. My wife’s job as a both a screenwriter and a script doctor appeared to be history. And least of all, what was I going to do for the rest of my life? Other than that, things were great.

I had no job and no client, but, as usual, the loose ends of what I knew were making me crazy. What was driving this? What did Standish know that was worth a quarter of a million dollars to have her killed and $10,000 per month to keep her quiet? And, what did she think we were planning to do if we found out?

It was after sundown and I was on the back porch watching the day’s fading lights play across the mountains. Doris was out with a friend and I was alone with a beer and my jumbled thoughts. We’d been back in LA for a week with no contact from anyone associated with the studios or the strange happenings of the last month. All I could think was that our aborted case was going to fade away into a strange disjointed memory that I’d never be able to untangle.

At least that’s what I thought until I answered our ringing phone.

“Parker,” screamed Standish’s familiar voice into the phone, “is that you?”

“Yes. I never expec…”

“Please help. They’re here in the house. I don’t know where else to turn.” She was frantic.

“Who is…”

“Help,” she began to cry hysterically, “I can’t…they’re going…”

“Did you call the cops?”

“No, no, no, I can’t,” her voice was almost incoherent, “Please, help!”

There was a crash of glass, a gunshot, and then silence. I was out the door in seconds.

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.