American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  Then someone came into the room. He or she was trying to be quiet, but I heard each step as the person walked toward me. I held my breath until they went on past, and then, without thinking, I sighed. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “You’re dead,” the Murderer whispered. I let out a scream of my own and slumped onto my side, my cheek against the cool tile.

  Sometime later I heard, “Murder in the Dark!” The lights flickered on. While I waited for the remaining players to solve the crime, I watched the clock on the wall. It was nearing eleven. It was cold on the floor, and I thought, If I had to die, why couldn’t it have been in front of the drawing room fire?

  It was almost eleven thirty when I heard footsteps. “Game’s over, Kit.” Redd helped me up.

  “Who was the Murderer?”

  “Nigel.”

  “Who was the Detective?”

  “Roland. We’re collecting the victims now.”

  “Where haven’t you looked?”

  “You could try the library and theater, over in that wing. I don’t know that anyone’s been there yet.”

  I found Shelby on the floor of the library, hand at her forehead, as if she’d been caught in a faint, and Phillip Drake in one of the reading chairs, head thrown back, eyes closed. The theater was empty, and so was the music room, but when I walked into one of the many bathrooms, as large as the kitchen, there was Mudge, lying on her side.

  “Game’s over. They caught the Murderer. It was Nigel.” I turned to go, and when she didn’t follow me, I turned back, hand on the doorframe. “Mudge?”

  She lay still.

  “Mudge?”

  Her black hair fanned across her face and the tile, and it hit me for the first time how messy she looked. Mudge was too vain to be found like this, in a heap on the bathroom floor. She would have arranged herself to look as glamorous as possible. There was something else—the faucet was on and water was running in the sink.

  I kneeled down beside her. She lay with one arm bent underneath her as if she had been trying to lift herself up. She was clutching something in her left hand—something white. Her purse was lying next to her, opened, the contents spilled across the floor—lipstick, powder, cigarettes, lighter, the flying girl I’d given her, and two bottles of pills. I pressed my fingers to her neck, and her skin was hot to the touch. I thought I felt a pulse, rapid and faint.

  I turned her head gently and saw that her eyes were open, the pupils wide and staring, as if she had seen a ghost. “Mudge.” I rolled her onto her back and pinched her nose and breathed into her mouth, trying to give her my own breath, to fill her lungs. I pressed on her chest, the way they’d taught us to do in the WASP, and then I breathed into her mouth again, counting. I thought, No, no, no. And then I shouted for help.

  Mudge is only pretending. Or maybe she bumped her head in the dark. She might have knocked herself out without meaning to.

  She didn’t respond, and I kept at it, on and on, hollering for someone, anyone, praying silently, then out loud. Please don’t be dead. Don’t let her be dead. Wake up, Mudge. Wake up, wake up. I felt her wrist for a pulse, but the flesh felt empty, as if Mudge had gone away and left it there. I put my hand to my mouth, and tasted the gin from her lips on my own.

  Felix Roland appeared, eyes startled, face red, as if he’d run fast and hard to find me. “What is it? What’s happened? I could hear you hollering all the way from . . .” He looked down at Mudge, like he couldn’t understand who or what she was.

  “Call the hospital. Get help.”

  To Mudge I said, “Wake up.” I lifted the hair off her neck. Underneath her makeup, I could see a faint bruise on one cheek, which could have been from earlier, from her argument with Nigel. There was a knot, barely visible, on the right side of her head, but that might have been from falling, maybe from hitting her head on the edge of the sink or on the hard floor. I didn’t see anything nearby that could have been used to cause that bump—only a vase of flowers, undisturbed, and a dish of soaps. The white thing in her hand matched the monogrammed towels—T for Taub—that hung on the racks. Everything else seemed to be in its rightful place.

  Suddenly, her eyes fluttered. A slight intake of breath. She was saying something, or trying to. She was trying to grab my hand.

  “Don’t talk. Don’t talk. We’re getting help.”

  She was whispering.

  “I can’t hear you. Save your energy. Help is coming.”

  She said it again, and this time I heard it. “Rebecca,” it sounded like, before her eyes closed and she seemed to drift off and away, and then her body started jerking like she was a puppet and someone unseen was making her dance. One seizure followed another seizure—wild, gruesome convulsions. The only thing I’d ever seen like it was Mrs. Garland Welch, who had gone mad with rabies when I was ten.

  Just like that, Dr. Atwill, the studio physician, was pushing me out of the way, bending over her, on his knees. “Step back,” he snapped, without looking at me.

  I stood back. One by one, the other guests came. Babe King and her mother, hands over mouths, turning away. Redd, rushing forward, held back by Felix Roland. Bernie, followed by Shelby, then Collie. Bernie said lucky for us the doctor had been at Broad Water for an hour or more, tending to Miss Lloyd’s headache. Felix rounded up everyone but me and sent them out of the room, directing them now as he had on Home of the Brave.

  Someone tried to round me up too, but I shook them off. “Stop her,” I shouted. “Don’t let her do that!” As if everyone was to blame, as if she was doing it to herself.

  Then Sam was beside me, so close I could hear him breathing. “Is it epilepsy?”

  I didn’t answer because if I moved or blinked or looked away she might die. And then Mudge went still, and the doctor sat back on his heels, pinched and defeated, and muttered, “There was nothing I could do. I’m sorry.”

  I heard my own voice. “It wasn’t epilepsy.”

  I told myself she might have accidentally taken too much Benzedrine or Seconal. She might have eaten something with shrimp, which I knew she was allergic to.

  Someone has killed her. Who would kill her?

  And then I thought: Anyone. Anyone here might have done it.

  SIXTEEN

  Howard Strickling arrived just after midnight with Eddie Mannix, Metro’s general manager, and Virgil Apger, the studio photographer. Minutes later, MGM police chief Whitey Hendry walked through the front door with three of his men.

  All of us, hosts and guests, were seated in the living room, staring at the floor, at the walls, into space. Most of the women were crying. Babe’s hands shook as she held her cigarette, the ash dangling and forgotten, her eyes huge and wet and staring. Shelby Jordan wiped one eye and then the other, until she gave up and let the tears run. Pia Palmer, cheeks damp, looked at me and then away.

  Ophelia Lloyd sat in a chair, clutching a handkerchief, the color drained from her face so that the rouge on her cheeks was like two plastic checkers on a white board. Billy Taub stood by the fireplace mantel, furiously cleaning his glasses with a handkerchief, as if by cleaning them enough the image of Mudge’s cold, dead body on his bathroom floor might disappear. Sam stood on the other side of the mantel, jabbing absently at the fire with an iron poker.

  Nigel, drawn and hollow-eyed, said from his chair, “I didn’t kill her.”

  Whitey Hendry was tough as a steel trap, even with gray hair and glasses. “We’re not saying anyone killed her, Mr. Gray.” He exchanged a look with Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling that made it clear this was exactly what they thought. And then all three of them looked past Nigel at Pia.

  “No, I mean I didn’t kill her. In the game. I didn’t walk up to her and tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘You’re dead.’” Pia stood behind him, one hand on the back of the chair, not touching him, staring down at the top of his head.

  Howard Strick
ling said, “I need a copy of the dinner menu. She was allergic to shellfish, is that right?”

  I answered, “Yes.” I hadn’t cried yet. I wasn’t going to cry because in my mind, Mudge was still alive.

  “Was there fish served at dinner? Shrimp?”

  “Yes, but Mudge didn’t eat any of it.” I’d already been thinking this through. She hadn’t eaten any at dinner, hadn’t even touched the plate to pass it. There could have been a serving fork, used for the beef or the vegetables, that was mixed up with the shrimp, but the Taubs knew about her allergy. They would have warned the servants to be extra careful.

  Eddie Mannix had a face like a bulldog. I had seen him before, in Mr. Mayer’s office. He said, “Maybe she did. Cross-contamination. The cook uses a spoon to serve the shrimp, then uses the same spoon to stir the soup. She was deathly allergic, am I right?” He and Mr. Strickling exchanged another look.

  “Yes, sir. But she didn’t eat the shrimp. And she used her silverware to serve herself, not the serving spoons and forks. She always does that.” Did that, I told myself.

  Mr. Strickling said, “We need to see the body.” The body. “Miss Rogers, you were the one who discovered it?”

  “I was the one who discovered her.”

  Mr. Strickling said, “Show me.”

  As Whitey Hendry and his men examined the scene, Mr. Strickling, Mr. Mannix, Dr. Atwill, and Tauby talked in a huddle. Nigel and I were the only other people there, standing forgotten outside the bathroom door. Whitey Hendry said, “Nasty bump on the head.” He looked back and forth from Mr. Strickling to Mr. Mannix. “She could have tripped, knocked herself out, hit the countertop just so. . . .” He stood, demonstrating. “Accidents happen all the time. Especially in the dark, when you’re not familiar with the place. Right, Doc?”

  Dr. Atwill said, “Primula Niven.” The men nodded. In May, the wife of David Niven had died after falling down a set of cellar stairs at the home of Tyrone Power. They’d been playing the game Sardines, and she had been looking for a place to hide.

  “Same kind of thing,” said Mr. Mannix, hands in pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. He glanced past his colleagues to the bathroom mirror and smoothed the hair on his balding head.

  The men moved out of the way so that Virgil Apger could have room to work. He took roll after roll of film, shooting Mudge from every angle. I heard him say to Tauby, “Shouldn’t the police photographer be doing this?”

  “Get them out of here.” Mr. Mannix waved at Nigel and me. As one of Whitey Hendry’s men ushered us into the hallway, Nigel said to me, “I was supposed to meet her during the game. But when I went to her room, she wasn’t there. I drew the ace. It was perfect. The game would go on as long as I wanted it to. No one would know when I tapped the first victim. If I waited, there wouldn’t be any bodies to find.”

  “So you would have had time to be together.”

  “But she wasn’t there,” he said again.

  We were instructed to tell the police that we’d found the body at twelve forty-five. This way, the police wouldn’t know there had been a delay in calling them. I was to tell them I’d found the body in the bathroom, but that was all I was to say. Mr. Strickling and Mr. Mannix went over it again and again: an innocent game; a terrible accident; a call to the police as soon as we found her; just like Primmie Niven (“Mention Primmie Niven.”). Yes, she had been drinking, even though it was a dry party. Most everyone had been drinking. The lights were off. No windows in the bathroom, so it was very dark. The servants could testify that the rug in the music room was always curling up. They’d tripped on it themselves many a time.

  Dr. Atwill paraded around the room from person to person, passing out pills like he was the Good Humor man. When he got to me, he handed me a bottle of red pills. “We use Seconal to treat sleeplessness and tension. You need to remember that it’s fast acting, even in small doses, but it will help you feel calm.” He handed me the other bottle. “The white pills will give you energy.”

  “Benzedrine?”

  “Yes.”

  I didn’t trust pills. Except for the occasional aspirin, I’d been raised on mountain herbs and plants. Whenever I had a headache, Daddy Hoyt gave me a tea of pennyroyal leaves. If I caught a cold, I drank boneset tea.

  I said, “No thank you.” I gave the bottles back to him.

  “Everyone uses them, Miss Rogers. When taken in the right combination, they’re perfectly safe.”

  “I’d rather have aspirin.” As Dr. Atwill doled these out and moved on to the next person, I turned to Sam. “Where are the police?”

  “They’ll be called before it’s over, once Whitey and Strickling have the story straight.”

  It was almost one a.m. when Tauby placed the call. “There’s been an accident,” he said into the telephone. “Out of respect for my guests and my wife, no reporters, please.”

  The Santa Monica police arrived six minutes later. Instead of being separated, all of the guests and servants were interviewed together. Because I had found her, the detective in charge, Nick Agresta, asked me to come with them to the crime scene.

  “Crime scene?” I repeated.

  “The place you found her.”

  Through the short hallway to the bathroom, I could see one uniformed officer and one man in a brown suit, the man in the suit kneeling, the man in the uniform leaning over him from behind. But the body looked different. A corner of the rug was turned over, as if Mudge had tripped, and she was now lying on her stomach, head turned to the opposite side, the one with the knot on her forehead. Her eyes were closed. Her hair flowed across her shoulders, spilling onto the floor behind her so that you could see her face, which looked peaceful. There was something else—her purse, cigarettes, lighter, powder, pills, lipstick, and flying girl were gone.

  No one was taking fingerprints. The police photographer was only shooting pictures of the detectives with the dead movie star, but otherwise he just stood around, chomping gum and talking to his colleagues about the size of the house.

  Lieutenant Detective Nick Agresta was around thirty-five, with thick eyebrows and a hard chin. He barked at his men before turning to me. “Show us how you found the body, Miss Rogers.”

  “Not ‘the body.’ She still has a name.” I tried to appear calm as I demonstrated how I had walked through the room to the bathroom, how I had checked for a pulse in her neck and her wrist and tried to bring her back, but otherwise touched nothing.

  “What’s going on in here?” Two more men strode in, one carrying a black bag, and the other wearing a gray suit.

  Someone said, “What’s he doing here?” as Whitey Hendry began briefing them on the details.

  The man in the gray suit said, “No offense, Hendry, but I’d like to hear it from the detective in charge.” As Howard Strickling, Eddie Mannix, and Whitey Hendry watched, clearly unhappy, the man with the black bag kneeled down beside Mudge, checking her eyes, the knot on her head. He had the soft, pleasant look of a country doctor—wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of a long and rounded nose, two white patches of hair on his otherwise bald head. He began wrapping her hands and feet in plastic bags. While he did this, the gray-suited man called for the police photographer and told him to photograph her from specific angles.

  Since the moment Mudge died, my head had been growing heavier, and it suddenly felt too much to carry around. I thought, If I could just sit or lie down, just for a moment. . . . Then Sam was there. He half-carried me, half-dragged me down the stairs until we were outside in the fresh sea air. My feet were moving but not working. My throat was dry. I couldn’t swallow because it was like swallowing razors. “I need to go back in there,” I croaked. “I need to hear what they’re saying.”

  “What you need to do is breathe.” He made me sit on the steps. He bent down beside me and held my face in his hand. “I need you to keep yourself together right now.?
??

  I breathed. Then, from a great distance, I heard my voice. “The air was too close in there, in the bathroom. I thought I was going to pass out. I don’t see how anyone can breathe in there. They moved her, Sam. They’re making it look like an accident.”

  “Maybe it was an accident.”

  “It wasn’t an accident. She was having convulsions. My granddaddy’s a healer. I’ve seen it before. That was something else. I know it was something else. Maybe she took too many pills without meaning to. I don’t know. But if it was an accident, why are they going to so much trouble? They’re not even taking fingerprints because they’re so busy posing for pictures.”

  “I’m going to see what’s going on, but I need you to be okay in case anyone comes around. Son of a . . .” Sam glanced over my head. “Like this guy.” He sighed.

  A policeman marched across the terrace. He said, “I’m going to want to talk to her.”

  “You can talk to her later.”

  Their voices overlapped like a fog. Sam said to me, “I’ll be back. Are you okay? Pipes?” He took my chin in his hand again and tilted my face toward him. His dark eyes, usually so amused or unamused, were serious, and he looked both mad and worried. “I need you to trust me and I need you to be okay.”

  He followed the policeman into the house, and I sat rocking back and forth in the breeze. I stared out at the waves slapping onto the beach. There was something soothing about the sound. I stared at the waves until I could see a figure down at the shoreline. It was tall and broad and walked right into the water.

  I waited for the figure to come back out, and when it didn’t I told myself I’d imagined it. Maybe I’d imagined Mudge too. For a moment, I pretended everything was the same as it had been this morning and the day before and the day before that, and then I got up and ran down the stairs to the beach. I pulled off my shoes. The sand was hard and cold as I headed for the ocean. From the edge of the waterline, I could see the figure again, waist deep and still walking.

 
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