American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  TWENTY

  On Monday, I shut myself in my new studio dressing room, and dialed Doan & Mills Funeral Home. While I waited for someone to answer, I looked at my list of things to do: Write a check to Flora; answer sympathy notes; talk to attorney; go through Mudge’s papers; respond to reporters. Helen was staying for a few days, maybe longer, to help me sort things out, but even so, it was enough to make my head swim. I found a pen in a drawer and wrote: Find out how Mudge died. Figure out who ‘Rebecca’ is.

  “Doan and Mills.”

  “Could I speak to Mr. McCrary, please?”

  When the funeral director came on the line, I told him who I was and that I needed to arrange to collect Mudge’s belongings.

  He said, “I’m sorry. We never received them from the coroner’s office. You’ll need to get in touch with someone there.” With a neat click, we were disconnected. I rummaged for the city directory. I flipped through the pages, and there it was—the number for the Los Angeles County coroner. I picked up the phone and dialed.

  “Coroner.”

  “Coroner Nigh, please.”

  “I’m sorry, he’s not in.”

  “Do you expect him back today?”

  “Yes, but I’m not sure what time.”

  I thanked her and hung up. I picked up the phone again and dialed.

  “Bernie Hanser.”

  “Bernie, it’s Velva Jean. I’ve come down with the world’s worst headache and I need to leave early.”

  “Sorry to hear that. Have you seen Dr. Atwill?”

  “It’s just a headache, Bernie. A bad one, but it’ll go away after I get a little rest. I’ll probably go on home and lie down for a while, maybe take a nap.” I knew I only had a few more days, at most, before I would be expected to show up at the usual time without any excuses.

  I picked up my purse and my script, and as I was letting myself out, I saw a man with a tool kit crouched outside Mudge’s dressing room door, working on the lock. I said, “Excuse me?”

  He glanced up, and then kept working.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Changing the locks.”

  “I can see that. Who told you to do that?”

  He stopped what he was doing. “They need the room.”

  “We buried her day before yesterday. You can’t do this. Leave the lock like it is. I’ll take the blame. At least give me the chance to collect her things and get them out of there. I have to be somewhere right now, but I can do it tomorrow.”

  He sighed, dropped his tools, gathered them up, and stood. “Tomorrow.”

  I took Wilshire Boulevard downtown to the Hall of Justice. In the coroner’s office, I sat in the same hard wooden chair I had sat in my last time there. While the secretary talked on the telephone, my head went light from the formaldehyde. The room reminded me of a doctor’s office—bland and badly lit, nothing to make you remember it after you walked out.

  The secretary said to me, “Sorry about that, Miss Rogers. Can I help you?” Her tone was friendly and she seemed to remember me. The name plaque on her desk read “Lara Yacoubian, secretary to the Coroner.”

  I stood. “I’m here to pick up the personal effects of Barbara Fanning.”

  “And we have them?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re sure?”

  “That’s what Mr. McCrary at Doan and Mills told me.”

  “I’ll check.” She pushed away from the desk.

  “Also, I was wondering if I could speak to Coroner Nigh while I’m here.”

  She picked up the phone and punched a button. “Sir, Kit Rogers is here to see you. . . . Yes. . . .” She glanced at me. “No, sir.” She hung up. “He’s in a meeting right now.”

  “I can wait.”

  “Let me get Miss Fanning’s things.”

  “Thank you.”

  I waited for ten minutes, wishing I’d brought something to read, thinking of my script in the car. When five more minutes passed, I stood up to stretch my legs, took a little stroll around the office, studied Miss Yacoubian’s desk. Typical office accessories, blank piece of stationery in the typewriter: “Office of the Coroner.” A neat stack of files, a framed picture of the secretary, arms around a dog, and fresh flowers in a bright green vase.

  The telephone rang and I jumped. As I hurried back to my chair, I tripped over her purse, on the floor by her desk, and sent a stack of magazines sliding. I gathered them up and set them back where they’d been, but not before noticing they were movie magazines. There was my face on the cover. There was Mudge, and Mudge again. Pages were dog-eared, all having to do with Home of the Brave. I placed the purse on top of them and sat back down.

  Not two minutes later, Lara Yacoubian walked in with a small bag labeled “Barbara Fanning.” As she handed it to me, I glanced at the ring finger of her left hand, which was bare. I glanced back at her face. She worked in this place surrounded by windowless walls and formaldehyde, yet she had taken the time and care to paint her lips and style her hair and choose a pretty outfit.

  She said, “This was all there was. Let us know if anything seems to be missing.”

  “Do things have a habit of going missing?”

  “Sometimes. In high-profile cases. And Barbara Fanning is definitely high profile. Do you still want to wait for him?”

  “If I could.”

  She shrugged to say she didn’t care one way or another, and took her seat. She opened a file, began typing a letter. I waited, crossing my legs. In a moment, I switched to the other leg, feeling the weight of the bag on my lap.

  I said, “I don’t know if you remember my brother. He was with me the other day when we were here.”

  Her fingers froze on the keys. She glanced at the file she was copying and back at me. “Was he sitting next to you?”

  “Yes.”

  “I remember.”

  “Well, he said to tell you hello.”

  Her face lit up like Christmas. “You can tell him hi back. Does he work nearby?”

  “He’s a musician. He and a friend of ours have a group they play with. Have you ever been to Central Avenue?” She nodded. “He plays there a lot. I think you’d like his music.”

  “Oh, I’m sure I would.”

  “He was friends with Barbara Fanning too.” I smiled sadly and looked away.

  She was leaning forward now, the ends of her hair dangling in the typewriter. “What was she like as a person?”

  “Funny, smart. She loved children and animals. Especially dogs.” Her eyes flickered down at the picture on her desk. “She was loyal. She was one of the loyalest people I know. Knew. Sorry. It’s taking some getting used to.”

  “She was a great actress. She should win an Academy Award for Home of the Brave. I mean, you were good too, of course.”

  “Thanks, but she’s the one who deserves it. She gave everything she had to that role.” I looked down at my hands.

  A few seconds later, I heard her say, “Oh hell,” and then she marched over to the door to Coroner Nigh’s office and knocked. She waited a moment before letting herself in, and closed the door behind her. In seconds, she was back, followed by Coroner Nigh himself.

  He said, “Miss Rogers. I’m sorry to make you wait.”

  Once inside his office, he offered me a seat. He was barely in his chair before I told him why I was there. “I read about the DA’s ruling in the paper. I know the investigation is closed. But why is it closed?”

  “The DA felt that all evidence pointed to accidental death.”

  “Is that what you felt?”

  “I can’t answer that, Miss Rogers. The DA’s decision stands. It doesn’t matter what I think.”

  “So you don’t think it was accidental.”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “I saw her die, and there was nothing natu
ral about it. I saw the way Whitey Hendry and the others fixed up the scene before you got there.” I told him about the studio photographer, the moving of the body.

  “Pretty serious allegations, especially when I’m assuming you don’t have those original photographs to prove any tampering was done.”

  “It’s a serious matter. My friend is dead, and believe me, I want to move on. If there was a way to get my hands on those photos, I would, but you know as well as I do that if they still exist, they’re locked up so tight in some secret location that they might as well not exist.” I perched on the very edge of my chair. “Tell me there’s no reason to second-guess anything that happened here. I want you to tell me that, if you believe it.”

  “It’s out of my hands.”

  “I’m a war hero, sir. Did you know that? That’s what they tell me anyway. I only did what I had to do to stay alive and survive. I did what needed to be done. That’s what I’m trying to do here, nothing else. I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, but I want to do what I can do for my friend because she’s not here to fight for herself. She would have done the same for me.”

  He said, “I’m sorry about your friend. I wish I could give you the peace of mind you’re looking for, but I can’t.”

  I was almost to my car when I heard someone calling my name. Lara Yacoubian came racing toward me on high heels as tall as she was, her black hair turning reddish in the sun. She was carrying the bag of Mudge’s personal effects. “You forgot this,” she said when she reached me.

  “Thank you.” I had left it behind on purpose, hoping she would come after me.

  As she handed me the bag, she said, “You met Dr. Murdoch, the chief autopsy surgeon?” I nodded. “Well, Dr. Murdoch said he needed more time. He sent the organs to the lab for analysis, but the DA closed the case before the results came back. Murdoch knew from the autopsy what didn’t kill Barbara Fanning, but the investigation was closed before he could say what did.”

  “Is it possible to get a copy of the coroner’s report?”

  She shook her head. “The report was sealed.”

  Before I could thank her, she went hurrying away. I looked down at the bag, and on the top, under the label, was a card: Frederick Murdoch, M.E. Telephone: CR6-6633, and below the card a slip of paper with her name and number. Please give this to your brother.

  At home, Helen was out, and Flora was already gone for the day. In Mudge’s office, I sat on the corner of the desk and dialed Dr. Frederick Murdoch. The wall across from me was a floor-to-ceiling mural featuring a life-size Mudge in flying gear.

  A woman’s voice answered. She could have been the doctor’s secretary or his wife—it was hard to know if I was calling him at the office or at home.

  “Dr. Murdoch, please.” I stared up at Mudge’s smiling face.

  “I’m sorry, he’s not expected till later. Could I take a message and have him call you?”

  “Thank you. No message. I’ll phone him again.” I clicked off.

  In the living room, I sat down and opened the package of Mudge’s belongings. Her perfume wafted out like a genie from a bottle. It was so strong that for one moment I expected her to appear. I sorted through the contents—a gold and diamond watch, a pair of gold earrings, and her purse. Inside the purse were her pressed powder compact, her lipstick, a lighter, the carving of the flying girl, and cigarettes. The two pill bottles were missing.

  I opened the lipstick, winding the little stick of color out as far as it would go. It was half-used, the top of it rounded and flat. I turned it over to read the label: “Firecracker Red.” I counted the cigarettes—four left in the package. I picked up the lighter, which was sleek and smooth, except for initials etched into one side: JCH.

  I snapped the head of it once, twice, till a flame shot up. I waved it this way, then that, the fire flickering and fluttering and changing shape. That’s why they’re asking about Johnny Clay, I thought. Not only did everyone see them together the day she died; she was carrying his lighter.

  It didn’t take long to pack up three boxes of knickknacks and books in Mudge’s star suite while one of the Thalberg Building secretaries paced around with a clipboard, checking things off her list: window treatments, living room sofa, living room chairs, living room coffee table, portable bar, lightbulbs. All of it was gone over in the nittiest, grittiest detail to make sure no studio property had been removed.

  When she was done, the secretary handed me a copy of the list and said, “I am sorry about Miss Fanning. We’re all going to miss her. I’ll lock up behind you.” Which meant she needed to make sure I didn’t take anything I wasn’t supposed to.

  I bent down to pick up a box and when I stood, Babe was in the doorway. “Need a hand, Kit?”

  “That would be great.”

  Between us, we managed the three boxes, carrying them past the guard gate and to the parking lot, setting them on the backseat of my Oldsmobile.

  As I closed the car door, Babe said, “I read about the DA’s decision. Why do you think they gave up so fast?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “You don’t think—I mean, I’m hearing rumors around the lot about Nigel—that maybe it wasn’t an accident?” I’d heard the same rumors: Mudge and Nigel had fought and he had killed her without meaning to. Nigel had tired of her and purposely killed her to keep her quiet about the affair. Pia had killed her in a jealous rage.

  “I don’t think anyone knows what happened.”

  “I’m sorry you had to be the one to find her. If it had to happen, I wish someone else had found her instead.”

  One of the publicists came walking toward us, waving and calling hello. We smiled and waved back and after he climbed into his car, Babe turned to me, serious once again. “Kit, I wanted to be the one to tell you—they’re giving me her dressing room. I don’t want it, but it’s the only empty suite, and it’s all a part of this new contract. I didn’t want you to be surprised.”

  “Thanks, Babe.”

  “I’m not fooling myself into thinking she’d be glad about it.” She smiled sadly. “It’s strange, you know? I’ve worked so hard for so long and it feels as if I’ve arrived, finally, where I always knew I’d be, yet I can’t really enjoy it. I shouldn’t enjoy it. It would be wrong to right now.”

  Someone shouted her name, and we both looked. Yilla King stood across the street on the steps of the Thalberg Building, tapping her foot, tapping her watch. Babe sighed. “I wish I’d known her better. You’re lucky you knew her so well.”

  With a quick hug, she walked away, heading for her mother, hair shining in the sun. I rearranged the boxes so they wouldn’t shift too much, and drove home.

  Flora was still there, dinner warming, house sparkling. She said, “I didn’t know if you girls were planning to be in or out tonight, so I fixed something just in case.”

  “Thanks, Flora.”

  I said hello to Helen, and then went upstairs to my room and dialed Dr. Murdoch’s office. This time, he was there. He came on the line, pleasant and distracted, and when I told him who I was and why I was calling, he got very, very quiet. For a second, I thought he’d hung up, but then he said, “I shouldn’t be talking to you.”

  Not I have nothing to say to you or I don’t understand what I can do for you, but I shouldn’t be talking to you.

  “If I could meet with you briefly, I promise not to take up too much of your time.” I gave him my war hero speech, the same one I’d given the coroner, and then I said, “Please.”

  He rattled off an address, said to meet him at six the next morning, and hung up the phone.

  TWENTY-ONE

  I knew by the clock tower that it was quarter till six. The sky was still dark. My hair was pinned up, underneath a hat. I wore a light coat because the air was always cool this early in the morning. I was a spy again. I was in France, walking through the lobby of a Pari
s hotel, on the lookout for my contact, Dr. Frederick Murdoch, chief autopsy surgeon for the County of Los Angeles.

  The Farmers Market was a maze of food stands and stalls, selling everything from homemade jam to fresh honeycomb to peanuts under canvas awnings. Farmers still made the daily drive into town to set up their displays of fruits and vegetables. But right now it was a ghost town. I found a bench, where I sat and waited. I was due at the recording stage by nine a.m., where I would lay down the songs from Flyin’ Jenny for a soundtrack album produced by Metro’s new record label. Kit Rogers Sings Flyin’ Jenny. Songs like “Facing the World Alone,” “Fly Away with You,” and “Red, White, and Blonde.” In my head, I went over the lyrics, and then I went over my questions for the doctor.

  I told myself to be calm, but with each second that ticked by on the clock, my heart beat three times as fast.

  As the clock struck six, I saw him—glasses, balding white head. Even dressed in a suit, he looked like a country doctor. “Dr. Murdoch?”

  “Miss Rogers?” We shook hands. “I almost didn’t recognize you. I’m afraid I don’t have long.”

  As we took a seat on the bench, I thanked him for meeting me.

  “You have questions about Miss Fanning’s death?”

  “Yes, sir. I was there when she died, and it didn’t look natural to me.”

  “The district attorney closed the investigation.”

  “And sealed the coroner’s report.”

  “Perhaps it’s easiest if you tell me what you need to know, keeping in mind that I may not answer.”

  “Was Barbara Fanning murdered?”

  Without so much as a blink, he said, “I can’t tell you that. What I can tell you is that she did not die from a bump on the head suffered from a fall. That knot on her forehead was superficial at best.”

  “What did she die of?”

  “Asphyxiation.”

  “She was—she was strangled?”

  “Poisoned.”

  “Poisoned.” I repeated it, as if that would help me make sense of it. Poisoned. “I don’t understand.” I felt dull and stupid and chilled completely through.

 
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