A Janice and Mel Pulp Novel
Hollywood - 1944
It wasn't like I'd never seen a naked man before. Or a dead one either. But I didn't expect to find the late Archie Miles stretched across my office couch at nine o'clock in the morning naked as a jay bird. I hadn't even had so much as a cup of coffee yet. And it was pretty damned clear from the glassy eyed look on his face that he wasn't going to be joining me for breakfast.
I really need that coffee in the morning. Wakes me up, you know? I'd gone straight to the percolator without looking left or right, just like I always do. I would've missed him entirely if I hadn't heard Mel's voice right behind me.
"Oh my," she said, like she'd just caught a puppy pissing on the rug. That's Mel for you.
Somehow I knew right then that it was going to be some time until I got me a decent cup of coffee.
Number 1 on the Hit Parade -
I'll String Along With You? Doris Day and Buddy Clark
Maybe I should go back a ways, fill you in a little. My name is Janice Covington and I'm an archeologist. Well, that's the polite term for it. Mel says the only difference between an archeologist and a grave robber is in how long your subject had been dead. That and what you did with the stuff you dug up. If they'd died last week and you sold it, you were a grave robber. If they'd died three thousand years ago and you sold the stuff to a museum, you were an archeologist.
I met Mel before the war broke out when I'd been on a dig in Mesopotamia. My Dad had sent a letter back to the States to a Professor Mel Pappas asking him to translate some texts we found and she showed up instead, little Melinda, the scholar's daughter. I was a little ticked off at first but I had to admit she had chutzpah, though you wouldn't know it to look at her. All soft Southern accents, Little Miss Innocent face. The kind of woman who usually breaks out in a sweat if her nail polish chips. But Mel turned out to be a pretty tough cookie. And she knew her onions when it came to ancient texts too.
We make a pretty good team. I'm the one with the field experience. My Dad, Harry Covington, had brought me along with him to every dig he'd been on since I was a little girl. I grew up learning how to handle myself in less than ladylike situations. I've got skills you don't learn in school and they haven't let me down yet. Mel's the opposite. She grew up on college campuses and knows what fork to use when you eat in those places where they give you more than one to choose from. Her grammar is always correct and you know she probably got all A's in school. Usually that kind annoys the hell out of me but Mel is different. She gets a wicked little gleam in her eye sometimes when you least expect it and then she says and does things that seem to come out of left field. You can never quite pin her down.
What we do have in common is our obsession with the Xena Scrolls and a determination to find out the truth about the woman warrior Xena and the bard Gabrielle who recorded their adventures together. Mel and I believe that Xena was a hero as great as Hercules but that she just never got her due. Well, it was time to change all that. We'd got a good start in Mesopotamia but the war had put a stop to all that pretty quick. First Rommel had driven his tanks all over the desert sand where I wanted to dig and then, as for Greece, well, we'd have to wait until Hitler's boys cleared the area before Mel and I could go back there with a shovel.
Since we couldn't work, Mel talked me into collaborating with her on a paper about Xena and the scrolls we had found. I don't know, maybe it was because of the war and all those women in uniform but it went over pretty well. We gave lectures at NYU and in Chicago and I figured it was a good way to finance our next project. And it had been a long time since I had been home in the good old U. S. of A.
That's when the offer to lecture at UCLA came in. Good money, good weather, good deal for the both of us. And then after we'd done the last lecture, we got another offer. An agent from Warner Brothers asked us if we'd work as consultants on a big budget, high class film about gods, goddesses and ancient Greece. I was skeptical but Mel was all ears while he ran through his line of malarkey.
There's a war going on, he said, as if we hadn't noticed. Everybody's looking for a hero. It's about the Twelve Labors of Hercules. A Costume epic. Not your cheesy B movie stuff. Maybe get a really big name for the lead. I'm thinking maybe John Wayne if we can get him into a toga. No kiddin'. We want to do this up right, he said. A prestige film, the kind of thing that brings home an Oscar. Mel had a dozen questions but I had only one. And when he finally told me how much they'd pay us, I'd just nodded my head. In amazement.
For all her playing hard to get, I think Mel wanted to do it even more than I did. All I cared about was those little dollar signs shining in my eyes but Mel was excited about being in Hollywood and rubbing elbows with movie stars. Come to find out, she reads Modern Screen and Photoplay and knows all the stars, what's new at the movies, who's playing around. She looks like a sophisticated academic but there's nothing she loves better than to pass an afternoon at the pictures with a double feature, a newsreel, four cartoons and a serial. Oh, and enough popcorn and jujubes to get her through it all.
Me, I don't go to movies much. Mel dragged me to a theater in Cairo once where they were playing Gone With the Wind but she got all put out when she found out the voices had been dubbed locally. They'd got some squeaky voiced guy to do Rhett Butler and I laughed my head off through the whole thing. You ain't lived until you've heard "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" coming out of Clark Gable's mouth in squeaky Arabic. Then again, Mel says that's my philosophy of life anyway.
Knows me like a book, she does.
NUMBER 2 ON THE HIT PARADE -
California Here I Come - Benny Goodman Orchestra
It was a nice little bungalow and I checked out the orange tree in the back yard while Mel knocked on the door.
"Coming. Hang on." A tall brunette opened the door a crack and the chain from the deadbolt stretched across her face like a scar. The door closed again and then Alice Brent opened it full wide and gave Mel a hug. "Melinda! God, it's been years. Come on in." She ushered us in, smiling the whole while. "I was so glad to hear from you. It's been a while since I was back East. I think the last time was your Daddy's funeral and that was back in '39." She gestured to the sofa and we put down our bags and settled in. "And you must be Janice. Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too. Thanks for putting us up." She had a pretty firm handshake and her smile looked genuine enough.
"My pleasure. You need a place to stay and I don't think there's an apartment to be had, what with all the defense workers flooding in. I've got plenty of room. You should have called me as soon as you got to California." She disappeared into the kitchen and came out with a pitcher of lemonade and some glasses.
Mel leaned back and stretched out her long legs, already at home. "The University put us up in the dorm. But I was going to call you anyway before we left?."
I sat back and listened to the two of them chatter for a while. Mel was all bubbly, asking about old friends, catching up on marriages, babies, all that chitchat. Her friend Alice was quiet, careful in her movements and gestures, almost as if she were the guest here and not us. She was the perfect hostess, bringing out little paper napkins and cookies to go with the lemonade. But behind it all there was a kind of tension in her face that I couldn't quite put my finger on. She was pale and thin, like someone just getting over a bad time and I wondered if staying here was such a hot idea after all.
"Alice's Daddy was a history professor who'd gone to school with my Daddy. They used to come visit all the time until Dr. Brent got the job out here in California." Mel was talking to me and I nodded my head as if I was interested in all this. Gotta be polite. Alice was my landlord now.
Mel took a swig of lemonade. "Remember Joey Flanagan? Joey knocked me down and stole my bike one day on the playground and Alice followed him home, beat him up and got my bike back. My hero." They both laughed and I wondered how Joey had explained that to the other guys. "And now you're a real hero."
Alice stiffened and her face paled like someone had pulled a plug somewhere in her throat where the color was kept. She looked away from Mel and fussed with the cookies. Mel kept chattering away. "Alice was a Navy nurse in the Pacific. In the last few years she's hopped from one island to another just one step behind the Marines. And even under heavy enemy fire, her unit lost only four percent of the wounded. My Mom sent me a clipping when they gave her the Bronze Star on Guadalcanal." Mel smiled at her, unaware of how Alice was taking all this, I thought.
"Are you on leave now?" It wasn't any of my business but maybe I could cut this topic short and put her out of her misery.
"I got a medical discharge a few months ago. Malaria." She didn't look at either one of us. It could have been just modesty. Lots of people don't like talking about themselves, even when it's something you could brag about. "I'm fine now." She looked up at me and then at Mel. Tight little smile. "I'm working as an industrial nurse in a defense plant not far from here. Somebody wants to look like Veronica Lake and next thing you know, her hair's caught up in the machinery." She shrugged. "Most of the time I just pass out aspirins and Band-Aids."
"A far cry from Guadalcanal."
"There's a lot to be said for the quiet life."
I nodded. I guess she'd earned a little peace and quiet but there had to be something in between Hell in the Pacific and handing out Anacins to hung over factory workers. The place was tidy, maybe too tidy, like Alice had nothing better to do than to clean it up all the time. And the curtains were drawn even though it was the kind of California day they make postcards out of. I looked at Mel. For all her chatter, she hadn't missed a trick. She had that wise old woman look of hers and I figured Little Miss Fixit would be opening those curtains before long.
She leaned over and squeezed Alice's hand. "Well, keep a couple of evenings free for kicking up your heels. I've never been to Hollywood before and you, Janice and I are going to paint the town red at least once before we leave. Sometimes you need a little excitement just to get your blood circulating."
Tell that one to Archie Miles.
NUMBER 3 ON THE HIT PARADE -
He Just Don't Appeal To Me - Duke Ellington Orchestra
I'd met Archie our first day at Warner's. The studio was a big place, tough to get into, easy to get lost in. The old guard at the gate checked our names off a list on a big clipboard and looked us up and down before letting us through. He was a big red faced Irishman and he looked like an ex-cop to me. Mel was craning her neck to get a peek past the security booth, like a kid standing in front of a candy store with a nickel burning a hole in her pocket.
"Do we get a badge or something?" Mel was all but hopping on one foot.
"I can give you a sticker for your car if you want." He bit into his doughnut and wiped the crumbs from his lips with the back of his hand.
"We don't have a car." Pretty obvious, I thought, since he'd watched us walk up to the booth from the bus stop.
"Don't worry, Toots. I never forget a face." Then he gave us directions to our new office and waved us on through but it wasn't Mel's face he memorized as he watched her walk past.
Maybe it was just me. I was in a bad mood. I hadn't had my coffee yet and that always makes me cranky. Alice had told us to help ourselves but I felt a little funny about rummaging around her kitchen. So I thanked Jack and all the other little Warner boys when we got to the bungalow next to Writer's Alley and I saw the coffeepot sitting next to the desk. We were early so Mel decided to take a walk and get a good look around while I got the coffee going.
I never even heard him walk up to the door.
"I see you've made yourself at home. Archie Miles. I'm the studio detective. It's my job to check out all the newcomers."
And check me out he did. So I took a little inventory myself. He was good looking, I'll give him that. He had a dapper little mustache, dark wavy hair and brown eyes with that sleepy look that made you think of bedrooms even in bright sunshine at nine o'clock in the morning. He wore khaki pants and a jersey that was a little too tight to be fashionable but just tight enough to show off his build. And it was worth showing off. He gave me a slow smile and raised his eyebrows just enough for me to wonder if it was a greeting or a question.
Well, if it was a question, I had a feeling the answer would be no. I knew his kind. Trouble in a tweed jacket. Somebody had hired him as the studio dick and he had taken them at their word. Maybe five years ago I would have taken him on just for the fun of it but I like a little challenge nowadays.
He plopped himself down on the sofa and made himself comfortable. "They tell me you're the new consultant on the Hercules picture. I woulda thought a looker like you would be in it instead. Who knows, meet the right people and you could be the next Alexis Smith." He pulled a little pouch out of his jacket pocket and started to roll a cigarette. "I could give you a little advice, if you want. I see 'em come and go all the time. But you, I bet you got what it takes."
I almost laughed out loud. The pick up line, the smokes - it was just too much for me to take with a straight face. It was easy enough to buy a pack of Camels but rolling his own was just a way to get my attention. He held the white rectangle of paper half folded in one hand while he held the pouch above it and tapped it with one finger. The tobacco fell into place and he casually rolled the thin paper between his fingers until it was a long slender cylinder. He ran his fingers along the length of the cigarette and his eyes met mine as he ever so slowly ran his tongue along the edge of the end paper before he folded it down.
Oh for Crissakes, I thought.
"How's about you and me have a little dinner sometime? We could get a couple of burgers, maybe take in a show." He leaned forward and gave me the full hundred watt smile.
There was a little tiny bit of tobacco stuck to the bottom of his moustache and I couldn't pull my eyes away from it. Every time he moved his lips I expected it to fall down onto his chin and I didn't want to miss that. I smiled in anticipation.
The smile was a mistake. God's Gift to Women smiled back at me. "Maybe you're the more adventurous type. Tell you what, we can go to my place, send out for some Chinese and not take in a show." The smile was a leer now and you could just tell he was feeling lucky.
I remember a couple of years ago I had been trying to sweet-talk a sheik into letting me dig for the Scrolls in pretty much his own backyard. He'd invited me to dinner to talk it over and the specialty of the house was goat meat. But first he offered me an appetizer, a pickled camel's eye. I ate the damned thing and I think that's what won him over. Well, I looked at that smarmy expression on Archie Miles' face and figured dinner with the sheik was a lot more enticing than a couple of burgers with the studio dick, let alone sending out for Chinese and not taking in a show.
I shook my head. "No thanks."
Archie could roll with the punches. He lit up, puffed on his cigarette and sized me up through a cloud of smoke. "What's the matter, doll? You're not afraid of me, are you?"
I could have played the game. I could have given some lame excuse about being too busy or having a fiancÚ overseas. But then, why the hell do that?
"No, Archie. I just don't like you."
He laughed and got up to go. I shook my head. Archie was one of those guys who figure there's two kinds of women. Those who wanted him and told him so and those who wanted him but wouldn't admit it right away. He obviously had me catalogued in the second group.
He stopped at the door just as Mel was coming in. "I'll see you later, sweetheart. Maybe I can change your mind. You look like a little spitfire to me and I never did go for those girl next door types."
He puffed on his cigarette again and stood in the doorway long enough for me to get the full effect. His eyes traveled up and down and it didn't take much savvy to know he was what they call undressing me with his eyes. I hope he enjoyed it because it was the only way it was ever going to happen.
He left and Mel swooped in with a guy named Fred. He was about twenty five or so and it was easy to see how come he'd missed the draft. He weighed about eighty pounds and had a pair of glasses on so thick that they made Coca Cola bottles look fragile.
"Good Morning, Miss Covington. I'm Fred Neill. I'm the Production Assistant on the Hercules picture." He stuck out his hand and the glasses slipped a little down his nose. I reached out for a handshake but now he'd lifted his fingers to push his glasses back up. I brought my hand back to my lap just as he stuck his hand out again. I stuck my hand out again and this time we finally connected. I was starting to feel a little like Laurel and Hardy. With me as Hardy.
Mel sat down on the sofa and tucked her legs underneath her body. The coffee was ready and I poured out a couple of cups for Mel and me. When I offered Fred a cup, he shook his head no and dragged in a big cardboard box full of junk. Getting right down to business. I like that. A welcome change from Archie Miles. He'd been getting down to business too. Monkey business.
Fred pushed his glasses back up his nose again. "Your job will be to go over the script and look for inconsistencies. You know, mistakes in the production details, costumes, props, and things like that. This will be your office and if there's anything you need, just let me know. Actually, we're a little behind schedule and right now there's really not much for you to do until the first draft of the script is ready. I do have some sketches of the costumes and the model shop has been working on the props. Maybe you can take a look at those for starters." He sat down beside Mel, took his glasses off completely and started cleaning them with a big white handkerchief he pulled out of his pocket.
"You're paying us all this money just to make sure your pyramid is shaped right?" Mel looked at him in wonder.
He shook his head. "You'd be surprised. It's not like it used to be in the old days. You could get away with murder then. But now the audiences are just too damn fussy. They pay attention to every little detail. My first project here at Warner's was a World War I movie last year. We had this scene where the hero comes home on leave before being shipped out to France and he takes his girlfriend dancing. Would you believe we got two hundred angry letters telling us that the song they were dancing to was wrong? It hadn't been written until 1922. How could they be dancing to it in 1918? I ask you, who gives a rat's patootie? Haven't these people got anything better to do? We work for weeks getting this big emotional romantic scene put together and all they're worried about is when Irving Berlin wrote the background music. Jeez." He put his glasses back on. "I got my ass chewed out for that one. I'm not getting caught again." He got up to leave and gave us a nervous little smile. "All right ladies, just make yourselves at home."
Well, for a home away from home, it wasn't half bad. I went through the drawers of the big walnut desk and they were full of pens, pencils, and paper with the WB logo. There was a phone on top of a fancy humidor that was stocked with cigarettes, matches and all types of cigars, including those little ones that I liked. There was a Remington typewriter on top of the desk and I gestured to Mel. That would be her job. I'm a one finger typist but she can belt out ninety words a minute without even looking. I can't even talk that fast.
There was a fruit basket on a little side table that must have been delivered too early because the bananas had little brown polka dots on them. I started to peel an orange that was half as big as my face and plopped down next to Mel on the big comfy sofa.
"What do you think, Mel?"
"Janice, I think this is one time we just fell into a pot of jam. It's almost too good to be true. Seems they got so much money they don't know what to do with it. If they're going to throw it in our direction, we might as well take it and run."
She got up and dumped the contents of the cardboard box on the desk. It seemed to be full of odds and ends. There was a big beige paper mache pyramid, a model of a chariot and the horses to pull it, several drawings of characters in ancient dress and sketches of what looked to be pretty anachronistic medieval armor. What had looked like a professional office now looked more like a kid's toybox. I guess it was appropriate. Everybody here was playing make believe anyway.
Fine with me. As long as the checks were real.
NUMBER 4 ON THE HIT PARADE -
Hooray for Hollywood - Francis Langford
We fiddled with the props and sketches for a while and then we decided to wander around a little. If Mel thought the office seemed unreal, it was nothing next to the WB lot. You'd be walking down what looked like Main Street USA and suddenly it turned into saloons, storefronts and the OK Corral. There was even a herd of horses, all of them big and beautiful, right on the lot, just a little walking distance from Hollywood Boulevard. I had to pull Mel's arm to get her away from there. Mel loves horses.
Everywhere you looked there were big warehouse-like buildings called soundstages, where they were filming. There were little red lights above the doors that said whether or not you could go in and they raised all kinds of hell if you stumbled onto the set while they were working. Anyhow, Mel and I figured we'd sneak into one of those for a looksee later.
Mel was having the time of her life and I had to admit I was getting a kick out of it too. The lot was filled with extras milling around and Mel kept staring at everybody hoping she'd see someone she knew. Around lunchtime we found ourselves in front of the Commissary and in the blink of an eye Mel was pulling on my arm and dragging me through the door. Mel's got a good six inches and thirty pounds on me so I couldn't have refused even if I'd wanted.
It was like any other cafeteria I'd ever eaten in except for the customers. There were about forty Indians, twenty cowboys and a schoolmarm or two ahead of us in line. A guy wrapped up like a mummy was standing in front of me and a guy in a vampire cape was next to him. I wondered how he was going to chew his food with those teeth and I tried to be discreet as I watched him sit down at one of the tables. But he sat down with his back to me so I just got myself a chicken salad sandwich and a grape Nehi and then I sat down next to Mel. But she was so damned excited she could hardly eat.
"Look. Look over there." Her eyes were blue half dollars. I'd seen her stare down Nazi gunmen and she'd hardly mussed her hair. But this was something else. "It's Humphrey Bogart. And I think that's Lauren Bacall he's eating with. Oh my."
I cast an eye in their direction. I couldn't see Bacall too well. She had her head bent over telling him some story or other and her hair fell across her face. But Bogie was hanging on her every word like he'd just fallen off the Titanic and she was a life preserver. They made an unlikely couple. She was a long drink of water and I bet she'd tower over him when they got up. He didn't look like he minded though.
Mel whispered like it was a secret. "They're doing a movie together, "To Have and Have Not."
I whispered back, "I'll bet that's not all they're doing together."
Mel looked at me, shocked. "Janice! He's old enough to be her father."
Well, that look in his eye didn't look too fatherly to me but what do I know? She's the one who reads movie magazines. She almost choked when she noticed Bette Davis and for the next half hour I tried to eat my sandwich while she cocked her head in every possible direction to point out actors and actresses I wouldn't have known from Adam.
But even I recognized Errol Flynn when she spotted him. He was dressed in a blue cavalryman's uniform and he was drop dead gorgeous. Mel's jaw dropped down to her chest so fast I thought it would disengage from her face. I wouldn't have been surprised if her glasses had started to steam up like in those cartoons Warner's was famous for. But she caught herself and in a couple of minutes she was dignified again.
"Janice. Can you believe it? Errol Flynn. I'm in the same room with Errol Flynn."
"Yes, Mel. Even I recognize Errol Flynn. You know, I think he looks even better in person. Wow, I wouldn't send him out on a rainy night." I put my lips together like I was going to wolf whistle and Mel slapped my arm with her napkin.
She leaned forward and confessed, "I saw "Captain Blood" four times. And "Robin Hood" six times. Janice, I want to get his autograph. What do you think? Should I?"
He was standing next to the door and I didn't know if he was coming or going. "Well, this could be your only chance. I think he's leaving."
I watched her get up. She gave her skirt a little tug and wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and then she marched right up to him as if she wanted to get there before she lost her nerve. The door was quite a ways off and I couldn't make out what they were saying. It was sort of like watching a silent movie.
She's a tall one, Mel is, and she and Flynn stood eye to eye for a minute. He'd been lounging against a wall, talking to someone but he stood up straight when he saw Mel. Even in a roomful of movie stars, she stuck out. She gave him a smile and he flashed his pearly whites right back at her, dimple and all. They chatted a little bit and then Mel started fishing in her purse, probably for something for him to write on. Well, damned if all of a sudden I don't see him lean up against her and cop a feel. Yep, right in the old Commissary. Well, half a second later I see Mel's purse make a perfect circle in the air and wham, it connects with the top of Errol Flynn's head. He wobbled a little but I guess he's a lot stronger than he looks 'cause he managed to stay on his feet.
She marched back with fire in her eyes and I was about to make a crack when I thought better of it. I finished off my grape Nehi and pointed out Frederick March all decked out like Mark Twain, sitting by himself and eating a Whoopie Pie. She gave him a quick glance and turned back to her salad.
I couldn't help myself. "Maybe if you ask nice, he'll give you an autograph."
If looks could kill?
NUMBER 5 ON THE HIT PARADE
Don't Fence Me In?Bing Crosby
But it wasn't a dirty look that had sent Archie Miles to that great detective agency in the sky. Like I say, I was heading for the coffee percolator when Mel found him. One look and I knew it wasn't worth the time to take his pulse. He was deader than a mackerel, to be blunt about it, and naked as the day he was born. Force of habit, I gave him the once over and figured I hadn't missed much sending him on his way the week before.
Someone had strangled him with a pair of stockings and left him on our sofa. The rest of the room was pretty tidy, except for Archie of course, and there were no signs of a struggle. There were no bruises on the body and his clothes were folded in a neat little pile on the floor. I briefly wondered what the cleaning lady had thought of all this. Rinse the cups, empty the ash trays, dust around the corpse? Nah. It was Monday morning, she'd probably cleaned up on Friday after we'd left. From the looks of it, Archie had been dead for about twelve hours so she must have missed all the excitement.
"Janice, we'd better call somebody and report this." Mel tugged my sleeve and started pulling me back toward the office door. "And we'd better not touch anything either."
I looked longingly at the coffee percolator. So near and yet so far.
She shook her head. "What a waste."
"Archie? Well, no one deserves that but he was pretty much of a creep, if you ask me."
She shook her head sadly. "Not him. The hosiery. It looks like real silk to me."
Mel would notice a thing like that. It wasn't easy getting stockings during wartime, let alone silk ones. It didn't bother me as much as it did Mel since I wear slacks most of the time. I'd heard that some girls had taken to drawing a line down the backs of their legs with an eyebrow pencil trying to fake a seam. Oh well, like they say, War is Hell.
Sgt. Mundy of the L. A. Police and I did not hit it off. The cops had escorted Mel and me to headquarters and let us stew there for at least an hour before anybody said a word to us. I begged one of the boys in blue to get me a cup of java and I was taking in the aroma when Mundy came in and spoiled my moment of joy. He was a tall skinny guy with a long pointy nose like a ferret. He had on a wrinkled gray suit and a bow tie. I hate bow ties. He didn't say anything at first, just stood there looking. Then he sent Mel out the door and scowled at me like he was the high school principal and I'd been caught smoking in the Girl's Room.
"Covington, huh? You're in big trouble, little lady. Murder is pretty serious business and you're up to your neck in it."
I shrugged. Some detective. What cheesy pulp novel had he gotten those lines out of? It was going to be a real challenge matching wits with this one. I took a sip of coffee. "Somebody dumped a body on my couch. Seems to me who I need to talk to is an upholsterer, not a cop."
"Don't get smart with me, sister. What was going on with you and Archie Miles?"
"Nothing. He was the studio detective and I work there, that's all." I pulled a Camel out of my purse and one of the blues leaned over with a match. Mundy gave him a dirty look and the poor guy jumped back like he'd been slapped.
"You trying to tell me he never put the make on you? We asked around. Seems old Archie had the hots for you."
"He wasn't my type. Besides, what business is that of yours? He didn't die of a broken heart. Looked to me like somebody strangled him." I could be generous with my insights. I turned away from him and smiled at the cop who'd given me a light. He seemed like a nice guy. Good looking too.
Mundy bent over and stuck his mug two inches away from mine. He needed a shave. "Could be you did it."
I laughed out loud and blew smoke into the space between us. "Why would I do that? I hardly knew the man. And how could I? Archie was six feet tall and built. Did I overpower him in hand to hand combat, do you think? There wasn't a mark on him."
He sat back and looked at me like he had all the answers already. "Maybe he was willing to go a little hand to hand with you. Maybe there was a reason he wasn't struggling."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I was losing patience.
"Archie had a bet going with some stagehands that he could get you into the sack in a week's time. I'm thinking he was about to win his bet, that you two were going at it and just got a little carried away. Some guys like that weird stuff."
"And then I just left him there? C'mon Mundy. Even if I had killed him, I wouldn't be stupid enough to leave him stretched out on my office couch. Like I said, he wasn't my type and furthermore, I don't need to strangle my boyfriends when I want to take their breath away." The cop who'd given me a light put his hand up to his mouth to cover up a smile and I gave him a wink. "Besides, it's hard enough to get a pair of silk stockings. I certainly wouldn't waste them on a heel like Archie Miles."
We glowered at one another for a while and then Mel came back with Alice. Seems her friend was ready to put up bail if they arrested me. But a couple of minutes later Fred Neill showed up with a studio lawyer and he had just the clout I needed. He took Mundy aside into a corner of the room and they bent their heads together. The shyster was smooth, very smooth. I couldn't make out all the words but I heard the name "Mr. Warner" mentioned a couple of times.
Mundy was coming around. He went from nasty to confused to scared in about three minutes. Then the lawyer shook his hand and left. I was getting a pretty clear picture of who had the real power in the neighborhood. The studios called the shots and I don't just mean on the soundstage. If a consultant from Warner's could rate such attention, I could only imagine what a star at MGM could get away with. It was a little scary, when you looked at it like that.
"Am I under arrest?" I knew damn well I wasn't but I wanted to hear him say it.
"Not yet. But don't think we ain't gonna check out your alibi. Where were you last night?" He was still going to go through the motions.
"My friends and I went to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Artie Shaw. Talk to the guy at the Box Office, he'll remember us. Just mention Mel there. Also, you might want to talk to the usher for the orchestra section. He'll remember us too." I must have sounded pretty cocky but I figured the whole Artie Shaw Orchestra would remember if the cops asked them.
Mel has that effect on men. Even with those black rimmed glasses she wears. It could be a pain in the ass except for the fact that she's usually blissfully unaware of it. It's just some chemical thing. Every time I go to a party with her, men suddenly appear out of nowhere and hover like bugs around a porch light. She sits there rattling on about the last days of Pompeii or something and they're all fighting to sit next to her, like they can't wait to hear how the story ends. Half those jokers wouldn't know the Rosetta stone from a kidney stone but you wouldn't know it to look at them hang on her every word. Of course, it can come in handy. She can hail a cab quicker than anybody I know.
Well, I didn't feel like sticking around so while Mel talked to Fred and the lawyer, Alice and I went outside and got into her little yellow Crosley. She must have got out of work to come down here and I figured she'd be annoyed. But she didn't look mad, just a little nervous. Maybe she'd never been in a police station before.
We'd been living in her house for a week and I still didn't know what to make of Alice Brent. She was a good hostess, pleasant and generous. Helluva good cook too. She was quiet and didn't talk much, didn't ask questions, didn't butt into your business. She went to work, came home, had supper and went to bed early. Maybe too early. I'm a nightowl myself and more than once I'd heard her poking around in the middle of the night. I'd got up once myself figuring she'd like a little company but she just got flustered and apologized for waking me up. She said it must have been something she ate and then she headed back to her room.
Not exactly a social butterfly, Alice. I'd got the tickets so that we could all go hear Artie Shaw and Mel had dragged her to the movies a couple of times. I figured they might want to reminisce about old times so I'd stayed home, reading Life Magazine and listening to her old records on the phonograph. Most nights we just listened to the radio. She liked Jack Benny and The Shadow but I noticed that she took off when I tuned in to the war news. Had enough of it, I guess.
I tried to make a little chitchat. "Thanks, Alice. It's not everyone who's willing to post bail for a stranger."
She gave me a half smile and shrugged. "Melinda trusts you and that's good enough for me. Besides, you were in trouble and I couldn't just stand by doing nothing." She said it casually, matter of fact.
That was the key, I guess. It explained a lot - why she'd helped me out, why she'd got Mel's bike back, why she'd gone overseas. I wanted to like Alice. She was Mel's friend and a war hero, someone who had enough guts to stick her neck out and save men's lives without bragging about it. But I couldn't get over the feeling that something wasn't quite right. Maybe there was a reason why she and I just didn't hit it off. I couldn't understand it myself. I'm usually so damned lovable.
I dug into my pocket and found a pack of Wrigley's Spearmint. I offered her a stick but she shook her head. "You know, Alice, I got a friend Marty who was on Guadalcanal. Lost a leg but you guys patched him up pretty good. He's married now, got a kid on the way. Thanks to you." I popped the gum into my mouth and waited for to Mel come out of the police station.
She nodded and looked away. "I'm glad your friend's okay." Then nothing.
The silence in the Crosley was getting on my nerves. I figured I'd give the friendly guest thing just one last try. "And you know, Mel's real proud of you. I can't tell you how glad she was to hear you'd come home safe and sound."
She almost snorted like I'd said something funny. Then she caught herself. "Well, Melinda and I used to be close when we were kids. I could tell her anything." She got this kind of strained look on her face and I got the feeling she was wishing she and Mel were sitting back on Mel's Daddy's porch swapping secrets and giggling right now.
But then it was gone and her face was a blank again. Well, if she couldn't talk to Mel anymore, she sure as hell wasn't going to talk to me. I was pretty relieved when I saw Mel come out to the police station and wave bye to Fred. She climbed into the car, Alice put it into first and without another word she drove us back to Warner's.
NUMBER 6 ON THE HIT PARADE -
No Love, No Nothin' - Patti Dugan, Johnny Long And His Orchestra
The news about Archie's murder was buried on one of the back pages of the L.A. Times that night. I picked up a paper on the way home from the studio and spread it out over the kitchen table while Alice peeled potatoes and Mel pounded the hell out of some cube steak. I started reading the article out loud when Alice suddenly pointed her knife at it.
"I know him. I didn't connect the name with the face until now." She bent over the picture and Mel came up beside her. "He came to the plant a while ago with a camera crew to take pictures. They rounded up some of the girls, you know, the real good looking ones, and said that they were going to take photos and make pinups of them to send overseas. I remember it because they made such a fuss over one girl in particular, Norma Jean something or other. They took lots of pictures of her, said she ought to be in the movies, that she was a natural. I think she got some modeling jobs out of it."
"That the only time you saw him?"
"No. He came back later by himself. I think he'd just tagged along with the camera crew to meet the girls. It wasn't hard to figure out that he was just on the make. He'd pick out a girl, talk to her, tell her he could get her on the lot, introduce her to agents, casting directors." Alice shook her head and went back to peeling her potatoes.
"Anything ever come of it?" I was curious, having heard his line myself.
"I don't know. I saw him around but I wasn't on his list." Alice shook her head as if the idea was absurd. It wasn't. She wasn't bad looking at all. Archie would have tried his luck with her if she'd looked interested or if there hadn't been so many other easy pigeons around. "I wouldn't be surprised if someone did fall for it. But I couldn't say. They come to me with broken fingers. Somebody breaks their hearts, it's not my problem."
The next day at the studio nobody seemed to be exactly in mourning for Archibald Miles. O'Brien, the guard at the gate, made some crack about how we should keep our office a little neater, you never knew what you'd find laying around and if we kept this up, the cleaning crew would probably want a raise.
Fred Neill didn't seem to be bothered much by it either. I'd thanked him for coming down to headquarters and getting me off the hook, but he just shrugged. "Not a big deal. Just part of my job. I don't think the cops will bother you any more." He pushed his glasses back up his nose and blinked at me like an owl. "Chances are, knowing Archie, it was probably just somebody's husband or boyfriend."
After Fred had gone, Mel started drumming her fingers on the desktop. "You know, Janice, it seems to me that nobody is very interested in finding out what really happened here. The studio is keeping it quiet and the police are useless." She looked at me with that little antsy expression that she has sometimes when she's just itching to poke her nose, or I should say, our noses, where they don't belong.
"Why should I care if no one else does?" Even I knew that I was only putting up a token resistance. All that peace and quiet at Alice's house was getting on my nerves and there was nothing much to do here except kill time until the writers got that script ready. Truth of it was, I was getting as bored as Mel was.
And then, just like it was part of some celestial plan or something, the phone rang. Fred was on the line and told us to sit tight, that the new studio dick would be coming by to talk to us. Just humor him, he said. He's stepping into Archie's shoes and this is one guy who's gonna have to prove himself to stay there. Mel and I were a little surprised by that line. Archie didn't exactly seem like Dick Tracy, Foe of the Underworld, and I figured filling his shoes would be pretty easy for just about anybody with half a brain.
But when I answered the knock on the door, I understood what Fred had meant.
"Good Morning, Miss Pappas, Miss Covington. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me this morning." He nodded his head politely to each of us. "I believe Mr. Neill has told you I'd be coming by. Kawahara, James Kawahara. I'll be taking over Archie Miles' job."
"Sit down, Mr. Kawahara, take a load off. Cup of coffee?" I glanced at Mel and got some cups. I was a little surprised to find out the new man was a Nisei. Don't get me wrong. I don't give a damn what color anybody is and I've lived in enough countries and met enough people to know that there's heroes and bastards everywhere regardless of how they're gift wrapped. We're all just human and that's about the worst thing you can say about anybody.
But Warner's was the whitest place I'd been in for years. You didn't see any Negroes, Indians, or Orientals anywhere. Whenever they needed somebody to play Geronimo or Fu Manchu they'd just slap on a little Max Factor and figure you wouldn't know the difference. As for Negroes, I think they had one guy hidden away somewhere and they just pulled him out when they needed a Pullman porter. It was stupid, if you ask me. Maybe someday when the movies noticed how the real world worked, I might go to them more often.
Well, he smiled and I figured he was relieved that we weren't going to give him a rough time. He was dressed in a natty blue suit and the creases in his pants were sharp enough to slice bread. He was good looking in a short guy Alan Ladd way and he carried himself like he could hold his own in a fight if he had to. And he probably had to pretty often, with a face that looked like the Bad Guy in half the movies they made around here.
Mel moved over and made him some room on the couch and in about five minutes she had worked the Pappas Magic on him. He'd come in to ask us a few questions and before the coffee got cold, Jimmy?he was Jimmy already? told her his life story. How he had grown up in California, been overseas with the 442nd in Africa and Italy, how he was going to night school at UCLA studying pre-law. Mel was going on how her Daddy had gone to night school at Columbia when I figured enough was enough.
"How long had you worked for Archie?"
He pulled himself away from Mel's baby blues with an effort and looked at me with an "Archie who?" expression. He took a swallow of coffee and got back on track. "Almost a year. Archie owed me a favor and when the job came up, he put in a good word for me. I appreciated it then and I figure I owe him now."
Well, it was a generous way of looking at it. I figured Archie had made what he thought was a smart move hiring a young, eager pre-law student to do all the dirty work while he went tom-catting around the Warner's lot. Well, I guess any way you can get your foot in the door. Anyway, Jimmy seemed like a nice guy and he was anxious to make good.
Aside from a few security guards, there wasn't exactly a vast network of investigators at Warner Brothers to look into things like strangulations so we offered to give him a hand. He looked a little reluctant to accept but I reminded him that so far I was the only suspect the cops had and if they got desperate enough, they could make my life pretty miserable, alibi or no. We could help each other out.
To make a long story short, after twenty minutes and a little trip in Jimmy's ancient DeSoto, we were standing in the hallway in front of Archie Miles' apartment. Jimmy had some keys that he had found in Archie's locker and we decided to nose around and see what we could find. But try as he might, none of the damned keys would work.
"Let me give it a try," Mel offered. Jimmy stepped back politely but I could see on his face he figured she wouldn't have any better luck than he'd had. He didn't know Mel. She stepped up to the door and reached up and pulled a bobby pin out of her hair. Well, those raven tresses just tumbled to her shoulders and she gave her head a little shake. I've seen strong men tremble at the sight but right now she had serious business on her mind. She bent over and stuck the bobby pin in the lock and fiddled with it for all of three seconds. That's about how long it was before the door swung open and she stepped back to let us in.
"It's a trick my godfather taught me when I was a little girl," she confided. She was a woman of many skills but you had to wonder about Mel's family life sometimes.
We started looking around for anything that could tell us a little more about the private life of Archie Miles, studio detective. Archie must have eaten out a lot. The fridge was pretty empty and the kitchen stove looked like it hadn't been touched in years. The place smelled of beer and there were lots of take out containers in the trash. I began to appreciate Alice Brent's domestic skills just a little bit more.
The living room was pretty neat for a single guy and there were some shirts and pants from the drycleaners laid out on his bed. Jimmy was going through the bureau drawers and finding nothing that he didn't expect to see. I almost tripped over a stack of girlie books shoved under the bed but that was nothing I didn't expect to see either.
There didn't seem anything out of the ordinary. No incriminating pictures or papers, no threatening letters. If Archie had an enemy, there was no proof of it here. We had hit the most likely hiding spots and were about to do a more thorough search when I thought I heard a noise and shushed everyone.
There was somebody at the door, somebody who had a better key than we did. We slipped back into the living room and I saw Jimmy reach into his inside jacket pocket, just in case. My hand was already in my purse resting on my own insurance policy when his eyes met mine. We both nodded.
"Who the hell are you?" She was about thirty or so and just the sort that you figure would have a key to Archie's apartment. It had been a long time since she'd had a blush on her cheek that she hadn't put there herself. Her dress was tight and wrinkled like she had just rolled out of bed and there was a black dahlia over her ear like Billie Holliday. I figured she thought it was glamorous or exotic. But she just looked tired to me. Tired and scared.
Jimmy took his hand out of his jacket, fished an ID out of his wallet and introduced himself. "I'm Archie's replacement at Warner's. And these are special consultants working there with me." Not an outright lie. "We're looking into the circumstances surrounding his death. And you are??"
"His girlfriend. Betty. I just come to pick up the things belong to me, that's all. I figure the landlord is going to go through all his stuff anyway so I better get what's mine." She sat down in a beat up easy chair. She didn't look too broken up over her loss. Easy come, easy go, I guess.
"Know him long?" Jimmy's voice was low, calming.
"Two years. We was going to get married." She looked me in the eye. I must have looked a little skeptical. "I ain't snowing you. We was going to South America. To Rio. Archie made me get a passport and everything. Look, he even had the plane tickets bought already. He gave them to me when we went out on Saturday night." She reached into her purse and held the PanAm tickets out in her hands." She shook her head sadly. "Archie always said when he come into a little money that was what we was going to do. Living is cheap down there. We could get a house, maybe even have servants."
Jimmy sat down on the sofa. "What sort of money was he coming into? Archie never said anything to me about it. A rich old uncle kick the bucket or something?" His voice was casual, conversational. He sounded more like a nosey old neighbor instead of an investigator. He gave her a little smile and she relaxed.
"Hell no. Archie's family ain't talked to him in years. He said some guy he knew was going to give him the money. That the guy owed him plenty and was going to pay up this weekend." She got up and walked to a kitchen cabinet and poured herself a stiff one from a bottle of rye. "Don't it figure? I ain't got no luck. First time that sonofabitch was going to make good on a promise and now it's all gone bad."
We left her there drowning her sorrows.
NUMBER 7 ON THE HIT PARADE -
Stormy Weather?Lena Horne
After that we headed back to Alice's place. It was still early and she wasn't home from work yet so we sat around the kitchen table and talked it over. Jimmy said that Archie wasn't the kind of guy to save his pennies for a rainy day or to loan anybody any money either. And he never went to the track and said those who did were suckers. The fact that he'd suddenly had enough cash to buy plane tickets, relocate and plan a new life South of the Border made the possibility of an irate husband doing the deed a whole lot less likely than it had seemed that morning.
"Sounds like blackmail to me," I said. "I'll bet Archie was putting the squeeze on somebody. Maybe he had something on one of the big shots at the studio or maybe one of the stars. He was in a perfect position to find out if someone was doing something shady. Something that even the studio couldn't hush up."
Jimmy nodded. "There's usually a morals clause in actors' contracts. If they're really caught with their pants down, like playing around with a minor or using dope or something, it's big trouble. That's usually only with a contract player though and not so much with the big stars. There's too much money at stake there to just dump a big star like that, no matter what they do."
Mel said "There's all sorts of stories. They say that a famous actor even killed someone once in a hit and run accident and they paid somebody else to take the blame."
Jimmy nodded. "That was MGM, not us." He sounded like he knew all about it. Mel stared at him like she wanted to ask who but couldn't figure out a polite ladylike way to do it.
Jimmy continued. "Between you and me, sometimes the studio reps get to the scene of the crime before the cops do. The studios spend big money on publicists to get their stars' names in the paper and I'd bet they spend even more money on cops and lawyers to keep some stars' names out of the paper. Someone gets caught before anyone can clean up the mess and it could mean the end of a promising career."
It was just then that Alice walked in. She usually went straight to the Frigidaire for a cold drink as soon as she walked in the door. But this time she stopped dead in her tracks when she saw us in the kitchen. I was about to do the introductions when she turned on her heel and walked into her bedroom. Not a word to anybody, just turned around and slammed that door behind her. Mel and I looked at one another and Jimmy got up off his chair. He must have been used to rudeness like that but it was a new one on us. At least coming from Alice, it was.
"I'm going to head back to studio, go through Archie's files." Jimmy turned at the door. "I'll let you know if I find out anything. And thank you."
He wasn't halfway around the corner when Alice came out and headed for the kitchen and the usual. She didn't look at either one of us but we just waited a minute for the shouting to start. Mel broke first.
"Alice, I'm sorry if we upset you. We were?"
Alice chugged down her lemonade as if were ninety proof. "Don't bring him back here again. Not to my house. I won't have any Japs in my house."
Mel tried to placate her. "Jimmy's all right. He's taking over Archie's job. He grew up right here in California."
But Alice turned her off like a radio. "Oh yeah, well then how come he's playing cops and robbers at a movie studio when there's a war going on? Look, I don't care what you do anywhere else but don't bring him here. He gives me the creeps." For the first time the paleness left her face and it was flushed and hot with anger, hatred, fear, you name it. She seemed to get control over herself and her voice was low and measured. "He's not welcome here. I won't be playing hostess and pouring coffee for any Nips in my own home." Then she headed back to her bedroom to change out of her uniform.
Well, we were pretty speechless after that one. Mel was ready to argue but I told her to back off. This wasn't the Alice she knew, she said. That Alice would never judge anyone by his race. I reminded her that the Alice she knew had been a sheltered kid on a college campus. This Alice had been through a war and experiences like that made you different and not always for the better. Give her a little time. Maybe she'll come round. Mel just looked at me and snorted.
Well, I thought it had sounded pretty good. Of course, then again, I didn't believe it either
Alice came back out after a while. We listened to the radio while we made supper and we kept it going while we ate too. It seemed a good way to spend the time together without actually having to talk to one another. Alice never said another word about Jimmy and headed out for the living room afterward so Mel and I washed the supper dishes while Doris Day sang her little heart out over a Sentimental Journey home.
We heard the phone ring just as we were finishing up and Alice picked up the receiver.
"Oh yeah? And I'm Betty Grable!" She slammed the phone down and Mel and I looked at one another with lifted eyebrows. Maybe she wasn't quite over her mad just yet.
"Who was that?" I asked innocently.
"Some damned joker says he's Errol Flynn." Alice turned the volume up on the radio and settled back against the sofa cushions.
Mel gave me this look like when she reads one of those crazy items in Ripley's Believe or Not and she isn't sure whether she should believe it or not. I shrugged my shoulders. I suppose it wasn't impossible. I bet it's not often Errol Flynn gets beaned in the Commissary by somebody he's just made a pass at. Maybe just the novelty of it appealed to him.
No offense to Mel, of course.
NUMBER 8 ON THE HIT PARADE -
Pistol Packin' Mama - The Andrews Sisters
The next day there was still nothing much to do for the great epic feature film. A guy from the Wardrobe department brought over some sketches for us to check out and a set designer came over and played around with a model of the Parthenon that he left on our desk with the rest of the stuff. When Jimmy called and asked if we wanted to go back with him to Archie's place, we jumped at the chance.
Mel did her little act with the bobby pin again and this time we really went over the place with a fine tooth comb. Mel started with the cornflakes and went through each of the boxes in the cabinets. I rolled down the Venetian blinds to see if there was anything hidden between the slats while Jimmy checked under the tub and behind the john to see if there was anything taped there out of sight.
I was going to flip through the girlie magazines under Archie's bed when Jimmy offered to handle that little chore. I was about to make a crack about mixing business with pleasure but then I realized that he was a little embarrassed, especially by me going through them. I mean, it wasn't like I was going to see anything I didn't know about. Or had, for that matter. But I thought it was kind of nice of him.
We came up empty and were just heading out the door when we saw three huge palookas come up the staircase and stand at the doorway. One glance and you could tell these guys were trouble.
"Whatcha doing here, girlie?" The biggest one's voice was almost as rough as the beard on his chin and I figured of the three of them he was the only one far enough up the evolutionary ladder to talk yet.
"I'm Archie's sister. I've come to pick up his belongings. We were so close, you know."
He cast an eye in Jimmy's direction. "And I suppose this is his brother? Give me a break. C'mon. Hand it over."
"Hand what over? I don't know what you're talking about." At least there I was telling the truth.
And then one of the other gorillas grabbed Mel around the neck and almost lifted her off her feet. I could see Jimmy reaching into his jacket and signaled him to stop. I wasn't taking any chances with Mel up close like that.
"Hand it over or Archie's Grandma here gets her neck rearranged. You saw what happened to Archie. Weak necks could run in the family."
But Mel is tougher than she looks. She lifted her arm and brought it back fast, so that her elbow rammed into his chest and probably bent a rib. He keeled over and almost hit the floor before he caught himself. But by then all hell had broken loose. We split the three of them up and were on them so fast they never had a chance to pull the guns that made those telltale little bulges in their jackets. Mel's dance partner was already dazed when she hit him on the side of his face with a big brass ashtray she grabbed off the kitchen counter. He went down fast.
Believe it or not, Jimmy had the advantage over his opponent too. The guy towered over him but Jimmy was graceful and quick while this guy moved like King Kong in wet cement. He grabbed the goon by the arm and used his momentum to get him off balance and then he used the guy's weight to flip him over on his back. I think they call it jui jitsu. I had seen it done a few times and I remembered how I thought I should learn some of the moves someday. It didn't require strength or mass, just balance and concentration. A girl's got to look out for herself, I always say.
But I hadn't taken any lessons yet so I just did it the old fashioned way and pulled my .22 out where it could do the most good. Mel was out of the way now and I figured what the hey. Well, nothing's more persuasive than a .22 and before you knew it the three of us were alone again.
"You recognize any of them?" I settled down into the upholstery of Jimmy's DeSoto for the ride back.
"No, they're not connected with the studio." Jimmy put it into first and headed back to Warner's. "I have a feeling that this is a little bigger than some contract player who's been a naughty boy."
Let me tell you, he was right on the button with that one.
When we got back to the studio Fred Neill was waiting for us.
"Where've you been?" he asked, as if we'd been caught playing hookey or something. Come to think of it, we had been caught playing hookey.
"Doing a little research." Mel gave him a smile and he harumphed a little and was satisfied. I lit up a smoke and smiled to myself. It was tough to catch Mel in a outright lie. She just had a way of making you assume you were getting a straight answer when she was really bouncing the truth around like the Harlem Globetrotters with a new basketball. I'm different. My first impulse is to lie. It's just as creative and a lot more fun.
Fred shook his head and his glasses slipped down his nose a little bit. He cleared his throat and pushed them back up again. "Well, you might want to just hold back on that research a little bit. There's been a little change in plan."
"What kind of change?" I could see our lucrative little setup going up in smoke.
"Nothing to do with you ladies. It's a matter of the script. Your work has been exemplary so far."
Mel and I looked at one another. Neither of us had done anything yet.
"You see," he continued, "some of the studio execs got a look at the story outline and they made a few suggestions. They said maybe what we need is a different take on it. Maybe our approach has been a little too pedantic, too focused, that we have to appeal to a more general audience. They thought it needed a little something."
"Let me guess." I puffed a smoke ring just for the fun of it. "A little more sex and a lot more action."
"How did you know? Have they been talking to you behind my back?" Fred's Adam's apple bobbed up and down and his glasses slipped back down again. It was kind of fascinating to watch.
"No, just a wild guess."
Fred nodded. "Okay, here's the plan. We switch it to a Biblical story. That way we can get in all the sex and violence and still be uplifting, you know? Maybe we can do David and Bathsheba or Samson and Delilah. That'll go over. And there's a good chance we can get Victor Mature for the lead."
Mel pushed the props aside and sat on the edge of the desk. "What happened to John Wayne?"
"Too expensive. But you know, we can still use your expertise. Look ladies, I don't want you to get the wrong idea. There's not such a big difference from the classical idea to a Biblical epic. This is still going to be a class act. It can't lose. Action, romance and a strong moral message."
"And Victor Mature with no shirt on." I looked at Mel who was stifling a laugh.
Fred sniffed like I had a lot of nerve mentioning such a thing. "Well, that too. But there's lots of lonely women out there, stuck home while their boyfriends and their husbands are overseas. I'll bet they'll pay good bucks to see Victor Mature with no shirt on. It'll boost morale."
Well, I couldn't argue with that. Chalk one up for Fred Neill, Patriot.
NUMBER 9 ON THE HIT PARADE -
Little White Lies?Tommy Dorsey Orchestra
Jimmy didn't answer his phone and there was even less for Mel and me to do than there had been before, so we headed back to Alice's place. Usually we got home before she did, but this time she was waiting for us, sitting at the kitchen table like she wanted to talk. She looked nervous and her face was flushed.
Mel bent down beside her. "Alice, are you okay? You look feverish. It's not the malaria, is it?" She put her hand on Alice's face and cupped her cheek in her hand. It could have been either a way to check her temperature or the gesture of a friend reaching out to help. Knowing Mel, it was probably both.
"No, I'm alright. It's just something at work?" Her voice trailed off like she wasn't sure if she was doing the right thing, telling tales out of school.
Mel sat down and I got us all some beer from the fridge. Alice's looked too upset for lemonade. I guess she thought so too because she took it from me and tipped the bottle with no further ado.
"There was an accident today. One of the workers, a girl named Millie. It was a while after lunch. Funny how most accidents happen in the afternoon. Anyhow, she cut herself on a piece of sheet metal. There was a big gash on her forearm and she was bleeding pretty badly." Alice took another swig. "I got the bleeding stopped and then I went with her to the hospital."
Mel looked at me with a puzzled look on her face. It didn't sound like anything out of the ordinary to me. Maybe Alice was just upset at having a real injury to deal with instead of handing out aspirins. I shrugged at Mel so Alice couldn't see and popped the top on my own bottle of beer.
"What did they say at the hospital? She's not going to lose an arm or anything, is she?" Mel voice was quiet, calm. "I'm sure you did everything you could."
Alice shook her head. "No, she'll be okay. There wasn't any nerve damage or anything. But they wanted to keep her overnight just for observation and I sat with her a while until the painkillers kicked in. I asked her how come she wasn't wearing her safety gloves. The cuffs come halfway up your arm. She said she just forgot. She was a little off balance lately. She was a couple of months pregnant and she'd just found out the father was dead. At first I figured she meant some guy who was killed overseas."
We'd all heard that one before. Lots of girls telling that story nowadays. It was a lot easier to tell a kid its old man was a dead war hero than to admit its old lady had been fooling around with a married man or some other jerk who just didn't want to be bothered. And who's to prove otherwise? But I still didn't see why Alice wanted to chitchat with us about it.
Alice shook her head but I couldn't tell whether it was in pity or disbelief. "Then she said that her boyfriend had been going to get her into the movies. He had connections at a big studio and knew a lot of the people who discovered young actresses and could make them famous. He was going to get her a job as an extra in a new movie with John Garfield and then something even better after the baby was born. Then she read in the newspaper that he had been killed and now everything was screwed up."
Well, we sat up and took notice at that one. There must have been a lot of guys who used that line but there was only one we knew of who had been killed in the past week. Mel asked anyway. "Did she tell you who her boyfriend was?"
Alice shook her head. "No, but she said that she was scared, that she was planning to make a few phone calls, get some cash and take off. All she wanted was a chance to go far away and start over again. I couldn't get anything else out of her and then the painkiller kicked in and she was dropping off after that."
Sounded like Archie Miles had been a very busy guy in the past few months. Mel and I decided that we should go pay Millie a visit and see what we could dig up. Alice didn't want to go but she lent us the keys to her Crosley and we headed right out.
I'd never driven a Crosley before. It was a little three seater made by the same company that made Shelvedore refrigerators and Crosley radios. You could even buy them in the same appliance stores. They were something like four hundred bucks new and real good on gas. True, it was like riding around in a toy but I'll bet it didn't strain Alice's ration book as much as a Ford or Chevy would have. By the time we picked up Jimmy at the studio and arrived at the hospital, I was really starting to get a kick out of it.
The nurse on duty was a short blond who kept looking at her watch like she had an important date and we were keeping her from it. But it seemed like Millie Swanson wasn't going to be talking to us any time soon. Or anybody else either.
"I'm sorry but Miss Swanson passed away just an hour ago." She didn't seem sorry at all, more like she was irritated by the prospect of extra paperwork. "Are you a relative?"
"I'm her cousin." My family tree was sprouting branches left and right lately. Lying hadn't worked with the goons in Archie's apartment but I had a feeling I was getting better at it what with all this practice. "What are you talking about? I thought that she just cut her arm, that it wasn't that serious."
Florence Nightingale gave me a frosty look as if I'd accused her of something. " It was probably an embolism or maybe a reaction to the medicine. That sort of thing happens sometimes. If you wait a minute, I can page the doctor on call and you can speak to him."
"Was she alone when it happened? I mean, I hate to think of poor Millie dying alone." I must have sounded pretty convincing because to tell you the truth I was really feeling sorry for the poor kid.
"The nurse from the factory came in with her. She didn't say much but she wouldn't leave either. I think she stayed with Miss Swanson until she fell asleep."
"Did anyone check on her after that?"
Miss Nightingale was tiring of my questions. "Yes. She was sleeping peacefully when I made my rounds. And I saw one of the doctors look in on her later on. He couldn't have been gone more than ten minutes when I'd discovered she'd passed away. It must have been very sudden and I'm sure there was nothing that anyone could have done. I'm sure she didn't suffer."
"Which doctor looked in on her? I'd like to talk to him."
"I'm not sure. I just saw the back of his white coat. But Dr. Adamski can answer any of your questions."
She went off to page him and we snuck out to the hospital lobby. I didn't mind lying to a nurse but I wasn't about to sign any papers for a doctor. We took over a wooden bench next to Admitting and Jimmy said what we were all thinking.
"Somebody killed her. It would be easy enough for someone to sneak into her room and give her an empty hypodermic. A little air in her veins and she'd be dead in no time. Archie and she must have been in on it together and maybe after he was gone she tried a little blackmail on her own."
Mel nodded her head. "Alice said that Millie told her she was going to make a few calls so that she could get the money to go away."
I looked around the waiting room. There was a kid about seventeen or so working the switchboard over in the corner. I considered sending Mel over to bat her eyelashes at him a few times but he was too young and the excitement could have killed him so I decided to do the deed myself. Besides, why should she have all the fun?
He was easy pickings. Some guys go for short blondes and if I really strain myself I can work up that "girl next door /damsel in distress" look that puffs up their egos like crazy. Well, in about two minutes my champion had given me all the info we needed.
Millie had only made one call after Alice had left her. Mel, Jimmy and I crammed ourselves into a phone booth and dialed the number that the kid had given me and the three of us bent over the receiver like the Andrews Sisters getting ready to sing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
There was no answer.
Jimmy cursed a little in Japanese. Then he called a friend of his who had access to one of those cross reference phone books. But his buddy wasn't home either. It looked like we were doomed to wait until next day so we dropped Jimmy back off at his apartment and headed home.
Alice was waiting up for us. She switched off the radio and it was pretty clear she wanted to know how Millie was doing. She'd liked Millie and I don't think Alice had too many friends. I watched her face as Mel gave her the news of Millie's death and our suspicion that she'd been murdered. It was almost like a mask was peeling away. She didn't cry or carry on, nothing like that. I think Alice had seen too much death to be rocked by one more. But there was a sadness in her face that was genuine. The only real emotion we'd seen from her had been knee jerk anger when she'd seen Jimmy but this was different. Her chin lifted a little and she made a tight little line with her lips.
"What can I do to help?"
It was barely more than a whisper but it was all we needed to hear. We repeated everything the nurse and the kid at the switchboard had said. Mel showed her the phone number that we'd tried and Alice sat up like her chair was hot.
"That's the main switchboard at work. She must have been calling someone at the plant."
"Could she have been trying to get a loan from one of the other girls on the line?"
Alice shook her head. "I doubt it. Besides her shift would have been over by then. The girls would have gone home."
Mel and I exchanged glances. This changed everything as far as I figured. It seemed like we had been barking up the wrong tree at the studio.
Mel leaned forward and looked Alice in the eye. "What exactly did Millie do at the plant?"
"She was an inspector. Watched out for defects, sloppy work. She was a nice kid, a good worker. She really took those government posters to heart, you know? How if you nodded on the job back here it could mean some guy's life overseas."
We were all quiet for a minute. There was a lot of money in defense manufacturing. Millions of dollars paid out at the drop of a hat and everything done at breakneck speed. Maybe somebody had cut a few corners, cut a few deals. If word leaked out it could mean big trouble for the company. It all sounded pretty good, another theory to add to the list. But we needed more facts.
And it wasn't going to be easy getting them.
NUMBER 10 ON THE HIT PARADE -
Heartaches ?The Ted Weems Orchestra
The next day was Saturday so we borrowed Alice's car and picked up Jimmy at his place. I figured Millie must have had some documentation, either papers or reports that she'd shown to Archie. That's what the thugs must have been looking for at his apartment. But they hadn't found anything there and neither had we. So maybe the proof was someplace else. Jimmy hadn't found anything at the studio so the next step was to check out her place.
Millie had shared an apartment with three other girls. That wasn't uncommon. What with all the defense jobs and Hollywood hopefuls flooding into the Sunshine state, it's a wonder there were only four of them crammed together like that. It must have been like a college sorority house. I don't know, you'd have to ask Mel about that one.
Alice had told us that Millie was blond so we decided that I could pass as a relative. Mel waited for us in the car while Jimmy and I went upstairs. I knocked on the door and a perky redhead answered it. "Can I help you?"
"Hello. I'm Millie's cousin, Janice. I phoned you a little earlier. May we come in?" It seemed like yesterday's lie could be useful but I felt like a heel when I saw her eyes fill up as she ushered us in. Next thing I knew she was offering me her sympathies for a woman I had never even laid eyes on.
"My name's Dottie. I'm real sorry for your loss. She was an awful nice kid. Millie and I shared this apartment for two years, long before Annie and Mae moved in. I'm gonna miss her." She picked a newspaper off the couch and made room for us. "Would you like a Coca Cola or something?"
I introduced Jimmy as my husband and he looked even more surprised than she did. Well, she got over it quick and got us the drinks from the fridge. Then she sat down on an ottoman and gave us a sad little smile. "I guess you've come to pick up her things. She really didn't have much but you're welcome to it. We weren't sure what to do with the stuff anyway. She said her parents were dead so we didn't know who to contact." Dottie gave me the once over but I guess I resembled Millie enough to pass for a relative.
Millie's room wasn't much bigger than a closet and it didn't take too long to check out all her worldly possessions. Funny how much you can tell about a person from the odds and ends they own, what they prize. Millie liked big earrings and perfume that smelled like flowers. From the looks of her wardrobe her favorite color was blue and she preferred skirts to dresses. For fun she read Photoplay Magazine and True Confessions, did crossword puzzles and listened to records. There was a stack of 78's next to a phonograph and it looked like she owned every single recording Sinatra ever made. To make a long story short, Millie seemed like ten thousand other American girls, with one big exception. They hadn't been murdered.
I gotta admit, Archie's death hadn't bothered me much but all of a sudden it hit me and I got really angry and a little ashamed of myself too. Finding his murderer had almost been a lark, something to kill time with. I hadn't really taken it seriously. But Millie had been a nice kid. Somebody had decided to end her life because she got in the way and then got rid of her like last week's trash. Well, I was taking it seriously now and I promised myself I wasn't going to let them get away with it.
Jimmy and I did a quick check of everything just as we had at Archie's place. But there wasn't anything here either. Dottie stuck her head in the door while I leafed through the magazines and asked if we needed a box or anything. I tilted my head for her to come in and she sat on the bed next to me.
"Did Millie have any letters or pictures around? You know, family stuff?"
Dottie shook her head. "No. She used to get letters from some boyfriend overseas when she first got to L.A. She showed me a picture once. She said she'd gone to grade school with him and they were going to get married as soon as the war was over. He was a real cutie. Looked like Jimmy Stewart. But he got killed at Anzio. I felt real bad, you know? It was tough luck for her." Dottie shrugged. "Tough luck for him too, I guess."
I figured I had to say something to keep the lie going. "That would have been Charlie. He was always crazy about her." I held my breath hoping Dottie hadn't remembered the real guy's name. She hadn't. I decided to press my luck. "I heard she had a new boyfriend now. You ever meet him?"
Dottie's expression changed from sympathetic to disgusted. "No. He sounded like a creep to me. She'd meet him places or he'd beep the horn and she'd run out and get into the car. Never even had the class to knock on the door, you know? She didn't seem to mind. She talked about him all the time, how he was going to get her into the movies." Dottie snorted. "Archie was nothing but a bullshit artist, if you ask me. I tried to warn her but she said she was in love with him. That maybe this was finally her lucky break." Her eyes started to fill up again and she looked around for a handkerchief. Jimmy handed her his and she nodded her thanks and started dabbing at her eyes. "Poor thing never got a break in her life."
Well, we weren't doing any good here so I gave Jimmy the high sign and we got up to go. "Look Dottie, you knew her better than me. Millie and I hadn't really talked for years. I just thought if she had family pictures or letters nobody else'd want 'em. Why don't you keep the rest of her stuff?"
Dottie looked up at me in surprise. "Don't you even want her record player?"
"No. I'm sure she would have wanted you to have it." Jimmy and I headed for the door. "And by the way, you were wrong. She did have one piece of good luck."
Dottie looked at me like I was crazy.
"She had a friend who gave a damn about her."
When we got to the street, Jimmy got into the driver's seat. I don't know. Nisei, American, Eskimo, what is it about men, they all want to drive? Well, I wanted to talk with Mel and besides, Jimmy knew his way around a lot better than I did. So I tossed him the keys to the Crosley and figured oh what the hell. I didn't feel like having an argument with Alice so I said we should stop somewhere for a sandwich and go over what we knew so far. Jimmy suggested a little family place off the freeway and we had a pretty good meal for just a couple of bucks.
It was already getting dark when we piled back into the car. Jimmy pulled away from the curb and we were halfway to Alice's place on our way to Jimmy's when Mel piped up from the backseat. "I think we're being followed."
She was right. There were a pair of headlights shining in the rearview mirror and Jimmy did the usual. He slowed down and sure enough, they slowed down. He sped up and they sped up. He tried to lose them with a couple of sharp rights but they kept on our tail. Nobody said anything but I was suddenly sorry that we weren't riding in Jimmy's old DeSoto instead of Alice's Crosley.
Then they upped the ante. They sped up and we felt the jolt as they bumped the rear of our car. They hung back a few seconds and then did it again. Jimmy tried to speed up to get away but the Crosley wasn't up to it.
They started honking on the horn and then pulled up alongside. I couldn't see the driver but his partner hung out of the front window and started shouting at Jimmy. I heard "Nip" and "Tojo" and a few other more general obscenities. Jimmy paid no attention and focused all his attention on getting us out of the way.
Well, the name calling was the least of our worries because after a few minutes of that the driver hung back and got on our tail again. They hit our rear bumper with a force that must have made poor Mel's teeth rattle and we knew it was only a matter of time until they forced us off the road.
They pulled up alongside again and rammed into the side of the Crosley but Jimmy had anticipated the move and veered over to lessen the impact. So they pulled back and hit the bumper again.
"Mel, are you okay?" She'd been pretty quiet back there.
"Yeah, so far." She uttered a short Anglo Saxon term and ducked further down into the seat and braced herself as they hit us once again. It was pretty rare for Mel to swear at all but I figured it wasn't a good time to comment on her new found vocabulary. They pulled up alongside again and I could hear the scrape of metal against metal as the two cars moved in tandem. Then they pulled back. They were tiring of the game and Mel, Jimmy and I knew that the next bump would probably put us out of commission.
So I did what any reasonable woman would do in such circumstances. I pulled my .22 from my purse and rolled my window down as far as it would go. Then I hauled my ass up onto the door to get a clear shot at them. Let me tell you, it wasn't as easy as it sounds. A Crosley doesn't give the best ride in the world as it is, but don't try riding the window unless you really have to.
Now Mel and Jimmy both were swearing and shouting at me to get back in but I was too ticked off to really hear them. I leaned out and sent one back at their windshield. It must have gone wild because they didn't seem discouraged at all. As a matter of fact, they pulled right up to hit our bumper one last time. Did me a favor, though. This time they were close enough so that when I fired their windshield shattered and the driver lost his nerve. He didn't lose control of the car though and he slammed on the brakes so fast you could probably smell the rubber burning clear up to San Francisco. Then he hung a U-turn and got the hell out of there.
I didn't have much time to gloat though. I dropped back into the seat just in time to see a telephone pole loom in front of us. Jimmy had turned toward the sidewalk because it was either that or hit a Mack truck. Jimmy made the right choice I guess but he paid for it when we hit. He whacked his forehead on the steering wheel and I thought sure he'd go down for the count. But he was a tough cookie alright, and considering what had happened, I figured we were pretty lucky to be alive.
We were all a little wobbly on our pins but that Crosley wasn't going anywhere else tonight. The front left fender was crumpled like a cheap suit and the rear bumper looked like hell. The door on the driver's side was concave now and most of the paint was gone. My side wasn't bad at all but I had a feeling that was going to be small comfort to Alice.
Luckily we were only a few blocks from her place. We started walking and I noticed Mel put her arm through Jimmy's. It was more than just a friendly gesture because I saw him lean on her a few times and I would have bet a sawbuck she was really holding him up. By the time we arrived at Alice's door, the goose egg on Jimmy's head was big as an eightball.
I'll admit it. I was relieved to get there. Those insults they had been yelling were just a cover up and it was pretty clear that whoever had been in that car had been trying to kill us, or at the very least, scare us off. I didn't think it was a racist attack at all. They had started banging the Crosley and trying to force it off the road long before they had taken a look at the driver. They couldn't know Jimmy was a Nisei before then unless they had seen us come out of the restaurant. And Mel hadn't noticed anyone then.
Alice had already gone to bed when we let ourselves in. I don't know if we woke her up or if she had still been awake but she came out when we flicked on the kitchen lights.
We heard her voice before we actually saw her. "You're back! How'd you make out?"
Her face hardened like stone when she saw Jimmy sitting there in her kitchen. It didn't soften up any when we told her about the Crosley either. But she waved her hand as if the smashup of her only means of transportation was a minor thing. And instead she said, "I told you not to bring him here."
Mel had been pretty quiet but that set her off but good. "Get off it, Alice. I'm sorry about your car but we were almost killed on the way back here. It's been a rotten night so far and frankly, we don't need any of your bigoted bullshit right now."
You know, they say timing is everything. I grew up around my father and the guys who worked the digs and they were all pretty rough characters. I learned to swear in at least three languages and frequently do. With the least little provocation, I might add. And when I do let go, nobody bats an eye. It's like they expect it. But Mel said the word "bullshit" and it was like the greatest blasphemy ever heard. There was dead silence in that room for at least ten seconds. Lay that on top of the four letter word she had let loose when we were being chased down the street and I was stunned by the revelation of Mel's new linguistic abilities. I had always known that she was an expert in ancient languages. Well, she knew the finer points of modern ones too, it seemed.
But Alice was unmoved by even Mel's little tirade. She just stared at us all, especially Jimmy and never said a word.
I decided to put my two cents in. "C'mon Alice. We've got trouble and we could use your help. Are you going to just stand by and do nothing?"
It was probably a low blow throwing her own words back at her like that but at least she made a move after I'd said it. She went into the bathroom, got an icepack from the medicine cabinet and tossed it on the table.
Jimmy had been quiet up till now but I could see this whole scene was getting on his nerves. "Look, just call me a cab, will you? Then I'll be out of your hair." He started to get up but you could see he was still a little woozy.
Mel grabbed his arm. "Take it easy, Jimmy. You don't look so good. You'd better sit down here for a while." Then she turned to Alice again and pointed to the icepack. " It seems to me this would probably work a little better if it had some ice in it."
Alice gave her a dirty look but she got a metal tray out of the freezer and dropped it on the table with a clatter. "It's late, I'm tired and I'm going to bed. He's your guest. You take care of him." Then she turned on her heel and started to leave.
I thought that'd be the end of it but I had a surprise in store. Jimmy had had enough too. "Look, I'm sick of this. I don't know who put a bug up your behind but I haven't done a damn thing to you. Frankly, I've taken all the racist crap I'm going to for one night."
I was watching Alice and It was like watching a musician tune his fiddle. Everything that had happened in the past couple of weeks was like another turn of the keys that tightened the strings. Our presence, Millie's death, Jimmy. If you tighten those strings just a little too much, they can just snap in half and put your eye out. Alice snapped.
"Oh dammit, why can't you just leave me alone? Look, I don't know you, I don't want to know you. Just your face brings back bad memories for me. " She took a deep breath and I couldn't tell if she was going to cry or throw something. And then she started up again. "I just want to be left alone. I spent two years on one damned island after another, up to my ass in blood. I don't want any part of it anymore. If I don't back off, I'll go crazy. Maybe I'm crazy now. I can't sleep. And when I do, I have nightmares. It's like I'm still there. Every time there's a thunderstorm I have to stop myself from rolling under the furniture 'cause I'm so used to ducking Jap shrapnel?"
"Well, that wasn't me, Alice." Jimmy's voice was as low as ever but there was an edge to it I had never heard before. "I didn't drop any bombs on you. I was too busy ducking Nazi shrapnel in Italy. That's where they sent us, so everybody could tell us from the enemy. But it seems like people like you can't tell the difference regardless of where the hell I am."
He pointed his finger at Alice and I could have sworn it shook a little. "And you're not the only one with an ax to grind because of this war. Before the War my old man bought a worthless little piece of land. But he dug irrigation ditches with a shovel and his bare hands until he made something out of it. And last year I get out of an Army hospital and find out that land's been taken over by some of our rich white neighbors and my old man's died in a internment camp. All he ever wanted was to be left alone too. Just like you, Alice." He got up to leave but the sudden motion hit him like a hammer and he tried to grab the back of the chair to keep from stumbling.
Alice grabbed his arm. "Sit down, for Crissake. Before you fall down." She settled him back down in the chair and then jerked her hands away from him as if she'd just realized what she'd done. She looked at her hands as if they weren't part of her anymore, as if they were doing things on their own, things she wasn't sure about.
Then she sat down next to him and reached for the ice cube tray. She toyed with it for a while and then she lifted the lever that separated the ice cubes. The sound of it was sharp in the little kitchen, like something shattering, breaking down. She concentrated on putting the ice in the pack and avoided looking him in the face. And Mel and I could barely hear her when she said, "I'm sorry about your father. That wasn't right, what they did."
She handed him the icepack and he held it in his hand for a few seconds as if he were considering the weight of it. Then he looked her in the face and smiled. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. It wasn't your fault what happened to him. We smashed your car, got you out of a nice warm bed, took over your kitchen and started giving you orders in your own home. That's not right either." He put the icepack on his forehead and looked away from her. "I'm sorry. About everything. I know what it's like when you first come home. It's not easy. I've been back over a year and I still hate thunderstorms too. What do you say, truce?"
Alice looked down at the table and studied its surface as if she was trying to find the answer there. Then she nodded her head and when she got up I figured she was heading back to her bedroom. But I was wrong. She went to the kitchen cabinet and then turned around to face him.
"Why don't you go lie down on the couch for a while? I'll make us all a pot of coffee."
Jimmy nodded. "Thanks."
I looked at Mel and you could just see the relief on her face. It was like she'd found her old friend again. Alice Brent may have left the jungle six months ago but it was only tonight that she was really coming home.
I woke up next morning to the smells of bacon frying and fresh coffee. Heaven, I tell you. I padded to the bathroom but Mel had beaten me to it so I just ambled into the kitchen instead. Alice was doing the cooking, humming away to the radio. Jimmy had spent the night on the couch and he was sitting at the table squeezing oranges for juice. It was a pretty cozy domestic scene, considering they had been at one another's throats the night before.
I sucked down a cup of coffee while Alice and Jimmy made arrangements to pick up her car and see what could be done about getting the fender and bumper straightened out. Mel came out of the bathroom with her head wrapped in a towel and she had that squinty look she gets when she doesn't have her glasses on. When the doorbell rang she went to answer it and came back with the biggest box I've ever seen that didn't have a body in it.
"What's that?" Not too original but I hadn't finished my coffee yet.
Mel shrugged and opened it up. Somebody had bought up a florist shop somewhere and there were at least two dozen roses lying in the box. Their perfume filled the kitchen and it wasn't bad but between you and me, I liked the smell of the bacon frying better.
I knew Mel couldn't see a thing without her specs so I reached for the little white card on top and read it for her. "Will you forgive me? Let me try to make it all up to you with dinner and dancing this Friday night. Please say yes. Errol"
Well, you could have heard a pin drop. Alice just stood there with her jaw hanging open while the bacon passed the point of no return. Dammit, I had been looking forward to that bacon. She stared at Mel and forgot all about breakfast. "Errol? Errol as in Flynn? You have a date with Errol Flynn?"
Mel took her glasses out of her robe pocket and read the card to herself as if she didn't trust me to read it right. "Humph. Well, what do you know?"
Alice hung over her shoulder and looked at it too. "You are going, aren't you?"
I wondered if Alice had any more bacon in the fridge.
Mel shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. What would I wear?"
Typical Mel. If Errol Flynn had asked me out, I'd be fantasizing about what we wouldn't wear. Okay, so sue me.
Jimmy even got into the great date debate. "If you wanted, you could borrow something from the Wardrobe Department. You're a little taller than most actresses but you look about the same height as Lauren Bacall. You could use one of her outfits and have it back before the weekend was over."
Well, that made up Mel's mind. I don't know if she was more excited about going out with Errol Flynn or wearing Lauren Bacall's frock.
I figured I might as well put my two cents in too. "Go for broke, Mel. If anyone can fill Lauren Bacall's shoes, it's you. Who knows? Maybe next week Humphrey Bogart'll ask you out."
She harumphed and put the card down on the table while I settled back in my chair.
Good. Maybe now we could get back to more important things. Like breakfast. Maybe Alice had some sausages?
NUMBER 11 ON THE HIT PARADE -
I'm Beginning to See the Light -Ella Fitzgerald
Monday morning the Crosley was back in pretty good working order and Mel, Alice and I went to Millie's wake. It was a small funeral parlor but it was still painfully obvious that there weren't too many people to mourn the passing of Millie Swanson. There were some co-workers that Alice said hi to and a few others I figured were neighbors. I spotted Dottie and two girls who were probably the other roommates.
I finally laid eyes on Millie. She was short and blond like me, but she looked like a kid as I knelt down in front of the coffin. I could see why Dottie hadn't doubted my being a cousin. We looked enough alike to be sisters, although it's been a helluva long time since I had that innocent look. Between you and me, even when I was a kid nobody was going to mistake me for a rosy cheeked Shirley Temple. It was just me and my Dad then and he never was the sheltering kind. It's a tough world, he used to say, and you'd better know the score if you're gonna survive in it. The last time I had knelt beside a coffin, he'd been lying in it. I've been on my own ever since. I guess I got lost in my own thoughts for a minute there 'cause I felt Mel's hand on my shoulder and she gave it a little squeeze like she knew what I was thinking. I shuffled to my feet and nodded to her. Well, maybe not entirely on my own.
Everybody was looking at me and I guess I really looked like a mourning relative after all. Dottie was the only one I knew so Mel and I sat down next to her. Dottie's eyes were red and she looked like hell. She offered me her sympathies again and I felt like a creep again. She asked about Jimmy and I told her he couldn't get off work, that his boss really had it in for him, you know, him being Japanese American and all. I introduced Mel as a friend of the family, she introduced Annie and Mae and we all started to chat.
Millie had been a nice kid, everybody agreed on that. No one mentioned the pregnancy and I figured either they were sparing the feelings of her only living relative or else she hadn't confided in them about it. Nobody mentioned Archie either and after a few general comments about what a good friend she'd been, I steered the conversation around to the plant.
Maybe it was that temporary halo that the recently deceased get to wear for a while. You know, someone dies and for a while no one says anything bad about them. You know how it is, no one wants to take a crack at someone who isn't there to protect themselves. Not for a while at least. But Millie had been better than average. Her roommates had nothing but good things to say about her. She was a good worker and conscientious. Never missed a day. She had even been chosen Employee of the Month last February.
Mae was one of the roommates I hadn't met yet, a big buxom blond of the peroxide variety. She was tall, loud and had an attitude that said if you won't come with me, get the hell out of my way. She looked like she could have posed for the Rosie the Riveter pictures but I also got the feeling that she was probably a soft touch for a hard luck story and a sucker for kids and small animals.
"Poor kid really got screwed last winter," she remarked. "There was an opening for a lead girl when Peggy joined the WAACS. Millie should've got that." She nodded her head and the others seemed to agree with her.
"That's right." Dottie said. "Millie was a helluva better inspector than Evelyn was. And she had seniority too." She shook her head at the injustice of it all. "That was one of the few times I ever saw Millie get really mad. Remember?"
Mae looked at me, almost apologetically. "Your cousin came home really ticked off and slammed things around all night. She said, 'Well, that broad won't last long. That it was one thing to come across to get a job but if the defects weren't tracked right in the logbooks, there'd be trouble, no matter how good a lay she was.'"
"Nobody could keep better records of stuff than Millie," Annie put her two cents in now. "She kept records of everything. I told her, I said, 'Millie, you should have been an accountant.' You name it, she wrote it down somewheres. Names, numbers, dates. She used to even keep the theater stubs from the movies she went to, receipts from stuff she'd bought. If you couldn't remember somebody's birthday, all you had to do was ask her. I swear, it was a real mania with her. Always writing stuff down in her little blue notebook, kinda like it was a diary."
Little lights went off in my head. "What little blue notebook?"
Mae answered, "You know. One of them little coil things. The kind you could keep in your purse."
"Was it in the apartment? I didn't see one."
"Nah, we went through her stuff but I didn't notice it. Maybe she left it at work or something." Mae waved at Alice, her interest already fading. "She was always filling one up and then she'd get another one. She didn't keep them for long. I think she just liked keeping records."
"What happened with Evelyn? I mean, was there bad blood between them?" Mel leaned forward, all gossipy.
Dottie shook her head. "No. As a matter of fact she must be a lot smarter than she looks. Inspections went faster than ever after she took over. We even got a bonus last year. Our plant produced more planes quicker than any other plant in the US of A." Dottie turned her head for a moment and looked up to the front of the room where Millie lay. "Well, will you look who's here? It's Mr. Stebbins. That's the guy what gave Evelyn the job."
The girls from the plant quieted right down, like kids when the teacher comes into the classroom. Stebbins was a tall, middle aged guy and he had such an attitude about him that it wasn't hard to figure out he was a big shot at the plant. He smelled like money even at this distance. He had on a dark gray suit, tailor made by the looks of it, and his tie was silk, I'd bet a buck on it. Everything about him was precise, neat, from his manicured fingernails right down to the shine on his wing tip shoes. His dark hair was starting to go gray around the temples and he was starting to settle around the middle like guys do when they get older. He must have been a good looking guy when he was younger but he had sort of a built in sneer that made me want to slap him one. I get that way with some people. Usually I have to get to know them first, tho.
He turned around and talked to Alice and the girls that he recognized and then he zero'ed in on Mel and me. He parked himself next to Mel and started to make conversation. "I'm told that you're a relative of Miss Swanson?" His voice was deep, upper crust.
"Janice Covington. I'm a distant cousin. And this is a friend, Melinda Pappas. And you are?"
"Frank Stebbins. How do you do? I'm the Production Manager of Millie's department. She was a fine worker and she'll be greatly missed." He was about as sincere as a Fuller Brush salesman and with the same result. I wasn't buying it.
You know how sometimes your body knows things your mind hasn't grasped yet? The little hairs on the back of my neck were sending me warning signals about this guy. He was polite, he was smooth but I got the feeling it wasn't all that common for a company bigshot to attend the wakes of line workers who had met an untimely end. He had come to this wake for a reason and it wasn't because he had such a high regard for Mildred Swanson. He'd come to see me and Mel, check us out. Something was rotten here and his expensive cologne couldn't cover up the stink. He was involved in Millie's death and Archie's too, I was sure of it. Mel gave me a glance that told me she felt the same way I did.
It was all starting to make sense now. Something was going on at the plant, in Millie's department, in Stebbins' domain. The conscientious inspector got passed over for the big boss' ladylove or at least bedmate, and Millie was pissed off enough to go nosing around, to get some dirt of them both. Chances are she'd found it.
I found myself staring at Stebbins. He looked like he had enough money to hire a couple of goons to do his dirty work for him. The guys we'd seen at Archie's apartment looked like professionals and I had no doubt that they'd killed him. They were probably the same ones who had tossed Archie's place and tried to force the Crosley off the road. Whatever it was Millie had found, Stebbins wanted it bad. And he probably thought we had it or were likely to find it before he did. I was really itching to get my hands on that little blue notebook.
We made polite conversation for a few minutes but then people started leaving, heading off to work. When Mel mentioned that we had to get back to Warner's, he offered to give us a lift. I figured we should go along for the ride in more ways than one.
He settled in behind the wheel of his big flashy Oldsmobile. "Alice tells me that you've recently been lecturing at UCLA. Archeology, yes? That field has always been of particular interest to me but why would Warner Brothers Studio be in need of your skills?" He smiled at Mel and she gave him a half smile.
She fiddled with her glasses a little before she answered him. "It's a consulting job on a Biblical film to assure historical accuracy. You could say we're inspecting for defects, just like Millie." She paused for a minute, letting him wonder just how innocent that face was. "And it's a very handy way for us to earn enough money to finance our next dig. Archeology is a hard way to make a living. We're very fortunate that we can be paid for what we know."
Bingo. You got to hand it to her. That Mel is pretty good. She was playing him like a piano and I just shook my head in wonder. His face tensed up and you could almost hear his backbone crunch as it stiffened in that expensive suit. The cards were all on the table. We were all still pussy-footing around but things were clearer now. We weren't exactly sure how Stebbins had got his hands dirty but he was feeling the heat. Archie had tried to blackmail him, Millie had put the touch on him for a payoff and now we were soliciting contributions for an archeological dig.
He cleared his throat and gave Mel a quick glance. "Well, I know lots of wealthy people in L. A. who might be interested in supporting your work. There's always money to be had, once you make the right connections. You just have to know what's what."
Mel arched an eyebrow in his direction. I know that look. It's a cross between "I know what you're up to" and "don't mess with me." I remember the first time I'd seen her give somebody that look. A crooked cop in Cairo had threatened to take us in for smuggling if we didn't hand over a nice little stele we had found. We knew he had a fence just waiting for it and before I could say two words, Mel arched that eyebrow, grabbed him by the shirt and gave him a piece of her mind. It took me by surprise because it didn't seem like Mel at all but on the other hand, I've learned it was just that side of Mel you don't see very often. It's that little point where our personalities intersect and the first time I saw it, I knew she wasn't just a sheltered Little Miss Goody Two Shoes. I knew I could trust her, depend on her.
You could see it took Stebbins by surprise too. But he was quick on the uptake. "It must be fascinating work. Although I wouldn't have thought two such lovely women would be content to spend their time digging up dirt instead of enjoying the fruits of your labors. The trouble about digging is you never know what you might turn up. It might be worthless or on the other hand, it could be of great value. It's hard to tell sometimes." He gave us a look out of the corner of his eye as he maneuvered the car through an intersection. "Not to mention that it can be dangerous work sometimes. Dig too deep and the whole thing could cave in on you."
I thought I'd follow Mel's lead, scare him a little, and force his hand. "I think it's worth the risk. It's not often we find true works of art but for the most part, we're searching for information, knowledge. It's a valuable commodity, the truth."
Mr. Silk Tie and Fancy Suit was getting irritated now. Mel and I looked at one another. He had come to the wake to check us out and was upset when the tables were turned. And subtlety was not exactly his forte.
"I just can't help but feel that there are some things should just be left alone. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Who knows, it might be true what they say about ancient curses. Look at the Hope Diamond. Everyone connected with it is dead now. They might have been better off if it had just been left alone."
We were only a couple of blocks from Warner's and I was glad. Every little veiled threat he threw our way only ticked me off more. Who the hell was this Bozo to call life and death shots on other people? Archie, Millie and now he was threatening us? I had the urge to take that silk tie of his and twist it until his eyes bulged out. But Mel always frowns on that sort of behavior and besides, he was driving.
He pulled up to the curb and Mel opened the door. I hung back another minute. The least I could do was get in a parting shot. "But you know, I don't believe in curses. They're usually a lot of hooey made up by priests, royal advisors or local bigshots who just don't want you poking around. It always turns out to be just superstition and lies dreamed up by those in power to take advantage of the little guy. I hate that, don't you? Good bye, Mr. Stebbins. Thanks for the ride."
He drove off with a wave of his hand. I was sure that the phone call we'd traced to Alice's plant had finally connected to the office of Frank Stebbins. Yeah, I think we had his number. And now he had ours.
We were settling in at the office when Fred Neill burst in so excited I thought he'd pop a blood vessel. His glasses were sliding down his nose so fast that he whipped them off his face when he sat down on the couch just so he wouldn't have to fiddle with them.
"What's up, Fred?" I offered him a smoke but he just shook his head.
"Big news. The Studio Executives have decided to redo the whole thing." He whipped his handkerchief out of his pants pocket and began cleaning his specs. He kept looking back and forth between Mel and me like it was a tennis match or something. " You know, that project, it was real Academy Award winning stuff but cash flow is cash flow. They say we need a moneymaker toot sweet and that baby is not going to be it." He put his glasses back on and sat back on the couch and crossed his legs. I couldn't decide whether he looked more like an owl or a crane. Definitely some bird or other.
"They're not going to go with a straight Biblical picture. It seems Twentieth Century has got this new guy Gregory Peck playing a missionary in "Keys to the Kingdom" and we don't want to split up the religious crowd. So instead we're going to grab as much of the rest of the audience as we can. Squeeze in all the genres."
I thought to myself, uh oh, here it comes. All that lovely moola down the john. I looked lovingly at the little office I had learned to call home. Well, maybe not home, but it was a classy little setup when we weren't running all over L.A. with Jimmy.
"We got a bunch of new writers in and they're going to put their heads together. Now we're still going keep it in ancient times but we're not going to use Victor Mature. He wants to do another project anyway. Most of the leading men are overseas and the half dozen 4Fs they still have under contract are raking in all the dough they can until the war's over and Gable and the rest come home. So the thinking is instead, we'll go with a beautiful woman warrior, some kind of Amazon princess or something." He paused and looked at both of our faces for a minute. I got the feeling he wasn't over here just to give us the news but that he was practicing his spiel.
"An Amazon princess?" Mel's voice was as skeptical as her expression.
"Amazon, Warrior, whatever. I'm thinking real physical Esther Williams type. We'll put her in a little toga, maybe some kind of leather thing. Cowboys wear leather a lot. It'll make her seem tougher. Not too tough though. Lot of pinup potential here. We gotta find a girl with great gams, somebody built like a brick shithouse. Plenty of cheesecake for the boys overseas."
Fred got up and started pacing around the office. You could tell he was making this up as he went along, that he was, pardon the expression, fleshing out the concept. "If the music department can get on the stick, we'll give her a couple of songs too. Hey, that's an idea. You can always make a buck with a musical."
I looked at Mel and she just shrugged. There was no interrupting him now even if we'd wanted to.
"And if we put her on a horse, we'll catch the western crowd. A big golden palomino who does tricks. You know, like Trigger. Kids love that shit. Give her a sword, let her raise a little hell with the bad guys. There you got your action Oh, this is going to be sweet. I got it all figured out. She's hard as nails, you see.. 'Cause she's never learned to love anybody. Till now. That's where I'll bring in the romance angle. Hey, maybe I can talk Victor into doing the boyfriend. Yeah, real sexy stuff. A passionate warrior woman who's as fierce in the sack as she is on the battlefield. I swear to you, it'll be the biggest thing since Jolson talked."
I almost whooped with delight. "Look Fred, now this is something we can really help you with. Mel and I have been doing research in Mesopotamia. There was this ancient hero, Xena, who?"
Fred wasn't listening. He waved his hand in the air like he was shooing away a housefly. "Nah, nah. No Xena. Sounds too foreign. Xena sounds Russian or something. We need an all American type to really pull this off."
"But Fred, you don't understand?" Mel almost lunged across the room, she was so excited about what he was saying.
It finally dawned on him that the two of us were staring at him. He had never had our undivided attention before and he froze for a second. "I'm sorry, ladies, we won't need any historians for an action picture. It'll be pure fantasy, you know?"
"But it doesn't have to be." I was shouting at the poor guy and he backed up a little in self defense. "Listen for a minute. The Xena Scrolls are proof that?"
He put his hands out palms up like he was pushing against an imaginary wall. Or maybe it was a defensive barrier. We were a little pushy. But you couldn't blame us. A month on the Warner's lot and this was the first thing that Mel and I could really sink our teeth into.
"Don't worry about the money, ladies. You've got a contract, so we'll pay you what we agreed on and your names will stay on the credits. See, money in the bank and you won't even have to work for it. What more could you ask?"
"But unfortunately you're going to have to clear out of the office. You won't be needing it any more because there won't be anybody consulting you. And once we've cast the movie, we'll be needing the space. But why don't you stick around for a while? Maybe we can turn something up for you. DeMille says he wants to do Ben Hur someday. That'd be right up your alley. I'll ask around, okay? Then I'll get back to you."
And then he was out the door quicker than you could say "lost opportunity." We just stood there stunned for a minute.
Then Mel piped up. "Think we'll ever see this epic onscreen?"
I shook my head. "I doubt it. Maybe it's a good thing. If Fred got his hands on the Xena Scrolls, he'd probably just make a mess of it. I don't want a movie made unless it's by somebody who believes in her as much as we do. Besides, I don't think Esther Williams is going to go for it. Not unless Amazons live underwater."
I plopped down next to her on the couch and lit up another smoke. Might as well get while the getting's good. "Anyway, from the way Fred's talking, it'll be a bitch to cast. All he's got to do is find someone who can sing, ride a horse, swing a sword, look good in a pinup, won't look silly in a fight scene, and go straight from kicking the villain's butt to seducing Victor Mature in the blink of an eye. That ought to be a cinch, don't you think?"
Mel sank further back into the sofa cushions with a sigh of defeat. "You forgot. She should be able to act too."
"What do you want, everything? Forget it, Mel. It'll take them fifty years before they find anyone who fits that bill. Face it. This Warrior Princess thing will never fly."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
Hell, I'd bet money on it.
NUMBER 12 ON THE HIT PARADE
This Joint Is Jumpin' - Fats Waller
Well, we were pretty much finished at Warner's except for the packing up and it really bothered me that we were out the door without putting all the pieces together. Archie, Millie, Stebbins - they were all parts of the jigsaw puzzle but we were running out of time and so far all we had was the borders.
We took a bus to Dottie's apartment. Annie and Mae were at work and Dottie was the only one there. She made us a pot of coffee but you could see that she was wondering what we were there for. So I came clean. She was surprised when I told her I wasn't a cousin but that was nothing compared to when I told her we thought Millie's death wasn't from natural causes.
"Murdered? I can't believe it. Why would anybody want to hurt Millie?" She looked at us as if we had told her the earth was flat after all.
"We think Archie was blackmailing someone and Millie was involved."
"What could Millie know? She was just a sweet dumb kid. All she did was listen to her records, work and go dancing with Archie." She shook her head. "It doesn't make sense."
"Tell me about work, Dottie. What exactly did Millie do?" Mel's voice was soft and calm. She could be downright motherly when it was needed and Dottie was on the edge now. I figured I'd better sit back for a while on this one.
"Our part of the plant is responsible for the cockpit instrumentation. Altimeters, fuel gauges, air pressure gauges, that kind of stuff. They got to be accurate, you know. I mean, if a pilot thinks he's got a tankful of gas and the reading is wrong, he could end up crashing somewheres he don't want to be."
Mel sipped her coffee and nodded. "So you and Millie and the other girls checked them to make sure they were okay before they went into a plane. How does that work?"
Dottie was calmer now, concentrating on Mel's voice. She seemed almost relieved to be talking about work instead of the murder of her best friend. She sat at the table and went through all the procedures as if we had just been hired to work next to her. "The units come in from the assembly line and the inspectors check out each one. We make sure they've got all the parts, that they've been put together right, that the solder isn't all messy. We got government specs that tell us what's acceptable and what's not. Then we check each one for accuracy."
"What happens when you find something wrong?" Mel leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table like she was hanging on Dottie's every word.
"The work comes off the line with a little yellow tag with a number on it. Then if a part doesn't pass, it gets another blue tag with the part number and a description of the problem. Evelyn, she's the lead girl, puts it in the rework area to be fixed. That's how we can tell the good ones from the defects, so they don't get mixed up."
"Is it the same girls who do the rework all the time?"
"No. It varies. Sometimes, there's a lot to do, sometimes almost nothing. Evelyn pulls girls off the line when she needs somebody to do rework and sometimes if we're real busy or something, she does it herself. We take turns. We know how to fix most things. All us inspectors have to start out on the line, just so's we know what to look for later." She looked at Mel and me to see if she still had our attention. She did. "Then it gets rechecked. If it's okay now, Evelyn takes the blue tag off and then she puts it back out on the assembly line."
"What happens to the blue tags?" I couldn't stop myself from butting in. We were on to something, I could feel it.
"Evelyn collects them and at the end of the day she enters the numbers in her log book. That way you can tell what kind of defects keep popping up and you can maybe avoid it later. It could be something wrong with the equipment or a worker who doesn't know what she's doing."
"Who has access to her logbook?" Mel took the words right out of my mouth.
"Just Evelyn, Mr. Stebbins, and the government agents. It's not under lock and key or anything. It's in Evelyn's desk but she keeps a close watch on it."
"Could Millie have got to it?"
Dottie shrugged. "I guess so. It's not impossible."
It was starting to make sense to me now. "What if Millie sneaked a peek into the log book and she found more than she bargained for? Maybe it wasn't just a number here and there. Evelyn could have been passing some units through with no rework, no second inspection."
Mel asked, "What do you think, Dottie? Could it work that way?"
Dottie's face looked like she just smelled something that had gone bad. "Could be. If a defect wasn't that noticeable, she could get away with it. Say a solder seam that was covered up by another part or a reading that was off just a little."
My imagination was in high gear now. "If Millie's notebook numbers didn't jibe with the logbook, that would be enough to start a federal investigation. If they went back and checked Millie's units, they'd be able to track what slipped through. She probably figured it out and told Archie about it. He probably persuaded her to give it to him for safekeeping. And then he made a call to Stebbins."
"I can't believe someone'd do anything that awful. The girls are good at what they do. If something is off even two, three percent, we pull it. Most of us got boyfriends or brothers over there someplace. Something like that could get them killed." She shook her head in disbelief, like all kind good people who find themselves suddenly face to face with evil.
Well, it sure as shooting got Millie killed. And if we didn't get our hands on that notebook, it would have been for nothing. Or maybe we'd be next.
We headed back to Alice's place. Jimmy's car was parked outside and we found the two of them sitting at the kitchen with a stack of forms and notebooks between them. They were going over stuff from Archie's desk and I saw the Warner's logo on almost everything. I don't know how long they had been working but you could tell from the look on their faces that they hadn't found anything worthwhile.
Jimmy ran his hand through his hair and rubbed his eyelids. "Alice and I have been going through Archie's paperwork. We thought maybe we could find a lead if we knew what Archie had been doing the week before he was killed. We figured it might help if we knew where he might have gone, who he might have talked to or if he had any appointments that night."
"Did you come up with anything?" We sat down and I started leafing through the stacks.
"No. His appointment book had a couple of meetings but nothing that wasn't pretty everyday stuff. It was a long shot. It wasn't like we expected to find an entry that said "two o'clock, meet Joe Blow to collect blackmail money.'"
"What are these forms?" Mel was trying to read the forms upside down and gave up.
Alice chimed in, "We just grabbed everything in his file. Those look like all the complaints under investigation. "
Mel picked up a handful and started reading. "Typewriter missing from writers' cottage, second one in a month." She put the form on the table and adjusted her glasses. For a minute there she reminded me of Fred Neill. "Lingerie missing from wardrobe department, a silk nightgown, scarves, hosiery..."
I picked some up, more to pass the time than anything. There'd been a fistfight between a small time hood and a security guard on the set of a Lana Turner movie. Somebody had broken into the model shop but hadn't found anything as valuable as lingerie to steal. Two musicians had been caught smoking reefers on a soundstage. A real hotbed of the underworld, Warner's was, except for Archie himself.
Jimmy shrugged. "Looks like a dead end here. Archie knew how to cover his tracks. We'll just have to figure out another approach."
"Well, you might have to take care of that end by yourself," I told him how Mel and I had got the boot from Fred and that our days as Hollywood hotshots were coming to a close. "Miles must have hidden the notebook at the studio but we won't have the opportunity to nose around now. Finding it ain't going to be easy. There are hundreds of sets and Archie had access to them all."
Jimmy shook his head. "I'll just have to keep looking. It couldn't have been destroyed. Archie needed it to get his payoff and Stebbins is still looking for it." He didn't mention how two people had been murdered and how someone had tried to kill all three of us too. He didn't mention it but it was on everyone's mind.
Alice had made a casserole for supper. I got a kick out of how she just assumed Jimmy would join us. They seemed to be getting along just fine now. I had the feeling that she hadn't had anybody to really talk to since she'd come back from the Pacific. Nobody who'd understand anyway. Until Jimmy. They had a lot in common and that's more important than where the hell your grandparents had come from.
I was kicking everything around in my mind while we ate. Mel was filling them in with what we'd learned from Dottie so I left her to it. My mind was wandering, I'll confess it. There was something I was missing, something that was sitting in plain sight and thumbing its nose at me. Damn, I hate that feeling. It always makes me cranky, restless.
"Alice, can we borrow your car?" I gave her a pleading look. Considering what had happened to that poor old Crosley the last time we'd borrowed it, I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd laughed in my face. But she just said "sure" and Mel's the one who looked surprised.
"What's up?" Mel had carried our dishes to the sink and was rolling up her sleeves and taking off her watch. She rolled them down again when she saw my face.
"I want to get our stuff from the studio and it'd be easier to get them this way than bringing them back on the bus." It was the truth, or at least half of it. I wanted to nose around the studio a little more and it was as good an excuse as any.
Jimmy volunteered to go along to help but I said no thanks. I got him away from Alice for a minute and asked him to stay put. "I've got a hunch. If it works out, this whole thing could be coming to a close. If not, we're no worse off. But I don't trust Stebbins. He might send some of his goons over here now that he's shown his hand. Just stay here until we get back and keep an eye out, just in case."
It didn't take us long to pack up our stuff. I swiped a handful of pens and an bigger handful of cigars when Mel wasn't looking. I figured they'd never miss them and I do love those little cigars. But you know Mel. She'd have been all over me. She's a classy dame, Mel is, but her honesty can be a little irritating sometimes.
We tossed our books and notes into a cardboard box and I looked around for one last time. It had been a sweet little setup while it lasted but soon we'd be on the lecture circuit again. No handsome movie stars to ogle, no free smokes. Mel picked up the box and was heading out the door when I tossed one of the paper mache models on top of it.
"What do you want that for?" She eyed the little pyramid with an arched eyebrow.
"Souvenir. The project is canned, they have no use for it. Maybe Alice would get a kick out of it."
That's when we heard someone coming our way. It was way after hours on a weeknight and although some of the soundstages were lit up, there was no one in Writer's Alley and wouldn't be until tomorrow. Mel and I exchanged glances, hit the office lights and got out of there. We crouched behind the building next door and waited.
It was the same three mugs that we'd met at Miles' apartment. The biggest one tried the door, put the lights on and all three started searching the place. They weren't going to get any Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval though. They started dumping the contents of the desk drawers on the floor and tipped over the humidor. The three of them started to remind me of the Three Stooges, raising hell like that. Curly turned the couch upside down while Larry grabbed a handful of cheroots for himself. Moe slapped him on the head and told him to stop fooling around. I swear I expected to hear "Hello, Hello, Hello" any minute now.
Well, they weren't as stupid as they looked or maybe they were just lucky. One of them must have heard something or maybe the light reflected off Mel's glasses but he gave a yell and in two seconds Mel and I were running like hell out of there with three goons on our tails. Mel's got these really long legs and I was having trouble keeping up with her when all of a sudden she grabbed my arm and dragged me around a corner and into one of the buildings. There was a light on on the second floor and she figured the door'd be unlocked. Good guess.
We looked around for a minute trying not to breathe until they'd passed us by. We'd got onto one of the soundstages where they were filming indoor shots for a Western. There were only security lights on but you could see the interior of a saloon, tables, chairs, liquor bottles lined up against a wall. Too bad it wasn't real. I could have used a drink right then and there.
We had about two minutes to assess our situation. It took even less than that to figure out we were in trouble. My gun was in my purse and that was sitting in the cardboard box next to our office. We didn't exactly have the element of surprise on our side and the last time we'd met these guys, Jimmy had been there to even up the odds. Mel and I were on our own now.
Then we heard them try the door. Mel and I looked at one another and first she shrugged and then I nodded. We were cornered, no doubt about it. Well, at the very least we could make a racket, maybe do them a little damage. Hell, it was worth a try. We weren't about to go down without a fight.
Moe was the first one on the soundstage. He walked onto the set like he was going to belly up to the bar and order himself a beer when Mel stood up behind the saloon door and swung it out at him with all her might. It hit him in the chest and knocked the wind out of him. He went down and lay there for a second while Mel jumped on his chest and aimed her fist right at his jaw. Must have been made of glass because we never heard a peep out of him after that. Mel looked kind of surprised at first but between you and me, I think she was a little proud of herself too. She'll never admit that though.
Anyhow, Larry wasn't taking any chances. He saw his buddy on the ground and pulled a .38 out of his shoulder holster. He would have plugged Mel where she stood if I hadn't kicked it out of his hand. The damned thing skittered across the floor like some bug looking to hide. Mel lunged for it but it ended up under a camera dolly. I saw Mel reaching for it but I was a little too busy to really watch.
Larry was coming after me like the Saturday night fights and I knew I wouldn't get very far with any hand to hand tactics. I jumped on the bar to give myself a little advantage and I gave him a kick in the chest when he got close enough. Unfortunately he wasn't as easy a mark as Moe had been. It was like I hadn't hit him at all. The sonofabitch laughed at me and I got really ticked. Killing me is one thing but laughing at me? well, I wasn't about to take that from a Stooge. I kicked him again but I had a feeling my foot was going to give out long before he did.
Well, I hadn't quite planned my next move when I felt him grab my ankle and next thing you know, I was across the bar flat on my back. Well, actually flat on my ass, if you must know. But he grabbed me by the neck and had me down in about two seconds so the original position didn't really matter much. I didn't exactly see my life flash before my eyes but it isn't one of my favorite memories either. I flailed around a little and then I reached back behind my head. My fingers connected with something solid and I grabbed it and swung it at his temple. It might have been phony booze but the bottle was real enough. He let go and slid down to the floor while I sat up and made wheezing noises. I called him every name in the book with what little breath I had but I had trouble focusing for a minute.
Meanwhile Mel was putting up a good fight with the last guy. She usually likes to talk her way out of a situation but you can count on her when the chips are down. She was dodging his every move and throwing stuff in his way. He tripped over a table and I could see she was leading him away from that camera dolly where the gun was. I could see it just peeking out from underneath and it was a thing of beauty. I was just sliding off the bar and heading for it when I saw something that almost took my breath away again.
Curly made a dive for Mel and I heard the smack clear across the room. He connected with her face and she went down like the proverbial ton of bricks. I yelled out her name but it seemed like everything was in slow motion after that. My stomach tightened up and my throat too as I saw him pick up a chair and smash it over her head. I heard the sound of it and suddenly I didn't give a damn any more. One second everything was in slow motion and the next I was on his back like an Indian papoose. I wrapped my legs around his middle and tried to jab my fingers in his eyes so I could get him away from her. The best I could do was hook my fingers in the sides of his mouth and pull like crazy. We probably looked like a Stooges short feature more than ever but it was no laughing matter for me now. Mel was hurt and I wanted to kill the bastard.
Well, he didn't take too kindly to my plans. He wheeled around and slammed himself against the bar to knock me off. It smacked against my spine and I couldn't help myself. I couldn't hold onto him anymore and I fell off him and back against the bar. He made a grab for me but I figured if I was going to go, it would be with a gun in my hand and I wheeled sideways and got ready to dive toward the camera dolly.
But suddenly he was in front of me blocking my way. Funny how sometimes Fate works for you when you least expect it. I looked up and there it was, a heavy metal microphone dangling from a cord a couple of feet above my head. I jumped up and gave it a good yank. That baby just fell into my hand like it had been waiting for me all along. I grabbed the cord, swung it around like a bolo and conked him one. He staggered a little, more from surprise than anything else. But when I did it again, I could tell he was hurting. He was flat on the ground like he'd just gone ten rounds with Joe Louis.
Don't tell Mel, but between you and me, I wanted to hit him again. I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to swing that microphone and belt him one right in the chops. I don't know. I might have done it too if I hadn't heard Mel call out my name.
"Janice, I think we'd better call the security guards."
I spun around. She was standing there, calm as could be, like maybe we should tidy up or something now that the fuss was over. I just stood there with my mouth open like a damned fool. Then I got even more scared. Brain damage. She didn't even know how bad she was hurt. I'd heard stories like that. She would probably keel over any minute now.
I grabbed her arms and tried to get her to sit down. "Jeez, Mel. Take it easy, just relax. Everything is gonna be fine." My hands were shaking and I didn't know what to do or say.
Mel raised that eyebrow at me. "Janice, what's the matter with you?"
"The matter with ME? You're the one who just got conked over the head with a chair. I saw that sonofabitch hit you with it and I?"
Then she gave me this wicked little smile and her blue eyes crinkled up a little. Then I swear to God, she picked up another chair with one hand and tapped it against the bar. Just a tap, mind you. Well, it shattered into a hundred pieces and there was wood everywhere.
She took a little bow like she'd just thought it up and then she looked at me all pleased with herself. "The magic of Hollywood. Don't believe everything you see."
She's lucky I'd already let go of the microphone.
NUMBER 13 ON THE HIT PARADE -
It Had to Be You ... Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest
It was past midnight when we drove the Crosley back to Alice's place. All I wanted was a hot bath and a soft bed but Mel was all wound up and chattering away. For someone who abhors violence, she sure does seem to get a charge out of it sometimes. She'll deny it but she's a regular live wire after a brawl like that. Me, I figured if she didn't shut up soon, I might hit her with a chair myself.
But once we walked in the door, we had a bigger problem on our hands. Alice had company and I don't mean just Jimmy.
"Good Evening, Ladies. We've been waiting for you." Frank Stebbins was sitting in the easy chair and one of his hired goons was standing nearby, gun in hand. Alice and Jimmy were on the couch, holding hands like a couple of high school kids. I don't know if they were comforting one another or if Alice was holding Jimmy back from ripping the goon's throat out with his bare hands. He looked angry enough.
Stebbins made a little church steeple with his fingertips and watched us as Mel and I entered the living room and dropped the cardboard box on the floor. The goon gestured with his .38 and motioned for us to sit. Mel plopped down on an ottoman and I pushed in next to Jimmy while Stebbins gave us the once over.
"I'm rather tired of playing this game. Where's that notebook?" His voice was losing that cultured edge to it. He was nervous, impatient. Maybe we could use that.
I crossed my legs and leaned back against the sofa cushions as if I were considering his words. I let him sweat a little then I finally answered him. "I haven't got it. Miles must have hidden it somewhere on the lot. He was the only one who knew where it was. And you killed him before he could tell anyone. Maybe it never existed at all. Maybe he made it all up just to scare the hell out of you."
"Don't give me that. You know as well as I, Archie didn't have that facile an imagination. Besides, his ladylove called me and corroborated its existence with a demand of her own." He snorted, as if he had been smelling something bad. "Stupid tart."
Well, that ticked me off even more. "Millie wasn't a tart and she was a lot smarter than you had given her credit for. Had the goods on you, didn't she? She found out what was going on. Millie thought she'd got screwed, that Evelyn was going to mess up. So she decided to check up on her, see if she could catch her in a mistake. She kept a record of all her own defects and jotted the numbers down in her little blue coil notebook. And then she sneaked a peek into the log book. That's when she found out what you and Evelyn were up to."
"Such a cozy little set up. That's why you'd made sure that the job went to someone you could control, somebody you were sleeping with. Having Evelyn pass those units through would speed up the line considerably. More planes out the door, more bonuses for everybody, more contracts for the company."
"And I'll bet there was even more going on than that, Stebbins. Were you using substandard materials too? You wouldn't want too many defects to point a finger at that. So just have Evelyn remove the little blue tag and send it on its way."
Stebbins got up from his chair and stood in front of me. I thought he was going to smack me one from the look on his face but he just glared for a second.
But you know me, I never know when to shut up. "That was it, huh Stebbins? Buy cheap parts, charge the government for the good ones and pocket the difference. You must be a pretty wealthy guy by now. So what if a few flight crews are lost? Planes crash in wartime. People die every day in war. Is that what you figured, Stebbins, while you counted your money?"
Then Mel put her two cents in. "But it didn't work, did it? Millie discovered your operation, told Archie and spoiled your big plans. So you killed them both."
Stebbins looked at her like she was a bug he'd just found on the floor. He shook his head, slowly. "No, not personally. My associate here took care of Miles. Actually his death was a bit of an accident. He was just supposed to scare Archie enough to tell us where the notebook was but he got a little carried away. Didn't you, Stanley?"
Stanley shrugged. He seemed unconcerned. All in a day's work, I suppose.
Stebbins apparently had decided to let bygones be bygones with Stanley. "But once he was dead, we had a little fun with him. I thought the silk stockings were a nice touch, didn't you? He had them in his pocket. Probably stole them as a gift for one his girlfriends. He was such a ladies' man. Well, we decided to make it seem like one of his tawdry assignations. We'd met him in your office, so we left him there. Unfortunately it didn't throw the police off for long."
Alice piped up. "And what about Millie? All she wanted was to get away."
Stebbins shook his head. "No, she knew far too much as it was. Actually, if she hadn't been greedy, I wouldn't have known about her at all. Miles had never mentioned his source. She did me a favor when she called. Even told me where she was. She was asleep when I got there. Probably never felt a thing." He walked across the room and stood in front of the three of us. "No more chitchat. I want that notebook now."
I'd been giving Jimmy the eye. A few discreet eyebrow waggles and we'd agreed. He was the one carrying so he'd go for the goon while I tackled Stebbins. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck prickle and my body tense up for the leap when I saw Jimmy slowly start to reach into his jacket pocket.
But Stebbins was on to us. Suddenly he grabbed Alice and hauled her to her feet by the neck and pulled a gun of his own. "Put it down, Mr. Moto, or I blow her head off."
Well, Mel and I gave each other that look, that "Here we go again" look. There was no way Mel was going to talk us out of this one.
Jimmy held his hands up like he was surrendering. "Don't hurt her." Then he put the gun on the floor and Stebbins kicked it aside.
I watched it glide across the floor and was trying to figure out how to distract the goon long enough to make a dive for it when all of a sudden Alice said, "Don't let that bastard tell you what to do." And then she slammed her high heeled foot down on Stebbins' wingtip with all her might.
Damned if that didn't do the trick. He gave one yell, let her go and pulled the trigger all at the same time. He winged Jimmy in the knee while Mel and I flew in all directions at once. I went after that gun, sliding on my stomach like DiMaggio stealing home and the second I felt it in my hand I flopped over and plugged old Stanley before he could get a shot off. I got him in the shoulder and he dropped his piece like it was hot.
Meanwhile Mel had been a busy little girl too. She's not one for firepower so she just grabbed the nearest solid object at hand, darted around behind Stebbins and smacked him on the head with the prop pyramid. She must have whacked him pretty good because it shattered into little pieces and he went down and stayed down. I tossed Jimmy the other gun and started breathing regular again.
Alice went over to check on Jimmy's leg but I noticed she gave Stebbins a little kick while she was going, kind of like when you find a piece of trash in your way on the sidewalk.
"Thank God, it's not too bad," she announced. Then she went over to the goon and went to work on him next. Must be the training. I would have let him bleed a little first. But Alice was a pro and it didn't seem to matter to her that he'd been willing to kill us five minutes ago. I could just picture her with her helmet on, ducking mortar fire and saving Marines without even mussing her lipstick. My hero, Mel had said. Yeah, I always figured she had guts.
I started rifling through the debris on the floor while Mel called an ambulance. ""Well, you wanted it, you got it." I waved the little blue notebook in front of Stebbins' face.
Mel just stared at it. "It was in the pyramid, wasn't it? It was sitting on our desk the whole time."
I tried not to look smug. "I didn't put it all together until just tonight. When you read Archie's logbook. Then it all fell together."
Everybody was looking at me now. I felt like one of those Basil Rathbone movies when Sherlock Holmes gets everybody together in one room and explains how the dirty deed was done. Mel says I like being the center of attention. She's right.
"Archie was the one who got the idea for the blackmail. A little pillow talk from Millie about the job she'd lost and he saw his opportunity. He had her hand over the notebook, made a phone call to Stebbins and then he arranged a meeting at the studio."
I went to the fridge for a beer and sipped while I talked. "But Archie didn't trust Stebbins. So he decided on a little insurance. The Warner's lot was Archie's little supply house. He was used to pilfering little items now and then. Like that lingerie from the wardrobe department. This time he broke into the model shop, hid the notebook inside the pyramid and glued it together again. It was sitting on the desk the whole time they were having their little conference. Hide in plain sight. But Stebbin's buddy killed him before he could make a deal. Or tell them where it was."
Mel put her spin on it next. "And Millie signed her own death warrant when she demanded money. But she didn't know where the goods were either. Millie just wanted enough money to go somewhere and have her baby. She probably offered to keep quiet for a few grand. But she was another loose end that had to be taken care of."
I nodded. "It's funny he chose a pyramid to hide it in?. where the dead were entombed, laid to rest." I shook my head. "Well, maybe now Millie can rest in peace."
Alice was finished with the goon. She stood up and said. "We'd better call the cops."
"No," I said. "Make that the FBI. I've already met the local cops."
It was the wee small hours of the morning when I heard Mel in the kitchen, so I padded out there to see what was what. She had her head in the fridge, looking for a snack. She was chewing on a cold chicken leg when she spotted me and offered me one.
"You're home early."
"Early? It's three o'clock in the morning." She kicked off her shoes, I mean, Lauren Bacall's shoes, and plopped down into a chair.
"Well, if I had a date like that, I wouldn't be back till at least Tuesday. Why are you eating? What, you mean to tell me that Errol Flynn doesn't even spring for dinner when he takes a girl out?" I had been pretty cool about this whole thing but hey, I'm only human and my curiosity was getting the better of me. "Jeez, don't just sit there. Talk to me, girl. Did you have a good time?"
Mel swung her legs up on the opposite chair and I poured us some lemonade to go with the chicken. Mel's eyes were shining like a kid on Christmas day. "We went to El Morocco. Janice, everybody was there. I saw Judy Garland and Lana Turner and I danced with Tyrone Power. He said I was a knockout. Tyrone Power said that. To me. He was so gorgeous, I got all flustered and I said 'you too.' But then Errol tapped him on the shoulder and I danced with him after that."
She took a bite of chicken while I waited for more. None was coming.
"So you had a good time?" I hadn't come out here to watch her eat.
"Louella Parsons followed me into the Ladies' Room. She thought I was an actress and she wanted to know who I was under contract to. I lied and told her Paramount. I told her that they were developing a picture for me all about a warrior princess who rides a golden palomino and fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way."
I got a laugh out of that one. "She believed you?"
Mel nodded. "I think so. We'll have to read her column tomorrow to find out."
"And then what? You didn't talk to Louella Parsons until three o'clock in the morning. Well, spill it, Mel. Is he as good as he looks?"
"Janice! A lady doesn't kiss and tell." Mel gave me that shocked look like she couldn't believe I could stoop so low as to ask such a thing. If it was meant to put me off, it didn't work.
"Mel, when you go out with Fred Neill I'll respect your privacy but we're talking about Errol Flynn here."
Even Mel had to agree that the conditions were extraordinary. "Alright, alright. Truth is, he drank too much and passed out. The chauffeur tossed him in the back seat and drove me home."
There was stunned silence for a minute while I digested that.
"You mean to say you didn't?"
She shook her head. "Not even a good night kiss."
"Imagine that." I picked up a piece of chicken. "Damn."
"You said a mouthful."
We both munched. I shook my head sadly. First the movie job and then the Date Of The Century down the old tubes. Hollywood was just one big disappointment after another.
I was trying to figure out something upbeat to say when Mel broke the silence. She reached for another piece of chicken and asked, "Is Alice awake?"
"No." I said. "Why?"
"Well, if anybody calls up tomorrow and says he's Tyrone Power, she had better not hang up that phone."
That's what I like about Mel. Always the optimist.