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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.