American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  “Asphyxiation can cause petechial hemorrhages to form on the face and chest. This is most typically seen in strangulation, but can be present after any asphyxial death. They appear as small red or black dots, often around the eyes and cheeks, and as little red dots at the front of the eyes—subconjunctival petechiae.”

  “I didn’t notice any—”

  “They would have been difficult to see behind her makeup. On autopsy, I noted the dark blood and petechial bleeding in the lungs and heart, which also suggests poison.”

  “Do you know when? Or how—I mean, what kind of poison it might have been?” And who—and why?

  “It may have been acute, possibly chronic.” I shook my head to let him know I wasn’t following. “She could have been poisoned that day or over a longer period of time.”

  “You mean a little here, a little there.”

  “Yes. Not enough for her to feel anything but under the weather. If acute, it could have happened anytime that Saturday. The process from ingestion to death might be several hours. As for what kind, I’m unable to say. Unfortunately, the toxicology laboratory is limited to a few test tubes. I sent the liver, kidney, samples of blood, and stomach contents to the Army Medical Museum to be analyzed, hoping to identify the type of poison, but the investigation was closed before I heard the results. Toxicology is in its infancy, so it’s difficult to know if the tests would have detected anything. Far more significant in determining the type would be the mode of death observed by others. In other words, what were her symptoms before death, and what did the scene look like—the ceiling, walls, furniture.”

  “The running water in the sink.”

  “No longer running by the time Coroner Nigh and I arrived.”

  “You reported all of this, everything you’ve told me, to the coroner?”


  “And he reported it to the district attorney?”


  “But the DA closed the investigation.” A voice inside me was saying: This can’t be happening. It isn’t real. Things like this don’t happen.

  “Miss Fanning was an extremely high-profile MGM star. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is an extremely lucrative studio.” His eyes were kind, but his manner was matter-of-fact, as if to say, This is just the way things are. “I’m sorry.”

  “But there’s got to be something we can do.”

  “I’m afraid the studio’s power extends well beyond the movie screens. Especially if they think they’re protecting one of their own.”

  The weight of his words made it hard for me to breathe. I sank back against the wall, as if I couldn’t hold myself and all that weight upright any longer.

  “Why did you agree to meet me?”

  “Even though the investigation was closed, I was curious. For my own peace of mind, I contacted the laboratory regarding the report. The organs and blood went untested and the stomach contents were reported missing.”


  “I was told the contents disappeared along with the mouse they were tested on. The first time, in my forty years, that I’ve known this to happen.”

  We sat in silence, and then he said, “I’ve been a doctor for most of my life. The reason I went into medicine, trite as it sounds, was to help people. As far as I can see, a blocked investigation doesn’t help anyone except the people blocking it. And those people don’t interest me. I’ve made it clear to both the coroner and district attorney where I stand in the case of Barbara Fanning. There’s little more I can do without risking my career. However, I believe we have an obligation to state the truth, no matter what.”

  “What if there were evidence?”

  “I would do what I could to help.”

  Shop owners started trickling in, the sounds of chatter adding life to the place. He stood. “I wish you luck, Miss Rogers. I’d like to think this did you some good, but I’m afraid I’ve made a bad situation worse. Perhaps it’s better you didn’t know.”

  I stood. “Thank you, Dr. Murdoch. But on some level, I think I already did.”

  In the parking lot, vendors and customers passed by on their way into the market as I rested my hands on the steering wheel, then closed my eyes and rested my head on it as well. Mudge had been poisoned. She had died of asphyxiation. The DA had called it accidental, but someone had deliberately killed her.

  I was trying to think of her symptoms the day she died, of the moment she began acting the least bit strange or different. I went over everything she’d eaten or drunk, starting with that morning. I had thought she was drinking too much, that she’d had too much gin. . . .

  Gin . . .

  The flask.

  The driveway was empty, which meant Flora was running errands and Helen was out somewhere. I ran up the walk and, without thinking, turned the doorknob before reaching for my key. The door opened, which meant Flora or Helen had either forgotten to lock it behind them or they were still home. But if they were home, where were the cars?

  I told myself it was nothing, just an oversight, but I pushed the door open, slowly, silently, and peered inside. Everything looked just as I’d left it that morning. I slipped off my shoes, set my purse on the hallway table, and grabbed the first hard object I could find—a sterling silver candlestick. I crept through the downstairs first, from room to room, checking drawers and valuables. The back door was locked. The downstairs and backyard appeared to be empty.

  I crept up the stairs then, candlestick in hand, and explored each bedroom and bathroom until I could see that no one was there, not even hidden in a closet or under a bed. I set down my weapon and checked more thoroughly now—my room, the guestroom where Helen was staying, Mudge’s room. I checked her furs and her fine jewels, the ones she kept locked up on her dresser. Everything accounted for, nothing missing.

  I pulled Mudge’s suitcase from the back of her closet—the suitcase she’d taken to Broad Water. I’d thrown everything in there, so it was all jumbled together: clothes and shoes and magazines. I’d gone through it all before the funeral to find her silver wings, but I’d left the flask in the bag. I would get the flask now and give it to Dr. Murdoch so he could take it to the laboratory and have it tested.

  I rooted through the mountain of clothes and shoes—but the flask wasn’t there.

  I sank back on my heels and made myself breathe. I had put it in there myself. It must be here. It had to be here. I turned the suitcase upside down and dug through all the contents again. I was still digging when Flora walked in.

  “Miss Velva Jean?”

  “Flora, I’m looking for Mudge’s flask. It’s not here. Did you happen to see it?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “Maybe Helen?” Even as I said it, I knew this wasn’t true.

  “She’ll be back soon. We can ask her.” Flora started picking things up and folding them neatly, setting them on the bed.

  “Did you remember to lock the front door when you left?”

  “Of course, honey. I triple-checked it like I always do.”

  “Did Helen leave after you?”

  “She was already out by the time I got to work.”

  “They knew.”

  It’s gone.

  “Miss Velva Jean?”

  They took it. Whoever did this, whoever poisoned her. So there would be no evidence, no proof. It’s gone.

  That afternoon, on Metro’s recording stage, Rosie played back the songs so I could hear them. The truth of it was, no matter how rattled I was from the morning, I’d still been able to remember the words and hit the notes. Unless you were Judy Garland, singing for MGM meant sounding clean and sparkling and just like everyone else.

  The technicians gave me a thumbs-up, which meant that was it. Cut. Print. No need to try it again.

  Afterward, Rosie said, “You sounded fine, but you weren’t there. I need you to show up next

  Why, I thought, when we’re all so interchangeable?

  Flyin’ Jenny: Red, White, and Blonde premiered that night at Carthay Circle. As if we didn’t have a care in the world, Hal MacGinnis and I walked the red carpet followed by Babe and Les Edgar, and other Metro stars. Babe and I posed cheek-to-cheek, sisters Jenny and Bonnie Dare in person, Mr. Mayer’s newest discoveries. Hal and I smiled for the cameras, hands clasped, arms around each other. The all-American couple, except that he liked men.

  Reporters wanted to know about Barbara Fanning. What really happened? Had she been drinking? How were we bearing up in the wake of her tragic death? Did we think it was strange that Nigel Gray had disappeared so quickly after Miss Fanning died? Why had MGM sent him away? Where was Nigel now? Where was Pia Palmer? Was Nigel really on a publicity tour, or was that a studio-invented excuse for keeping him out of the spotlight?

  Hal deflected each question. Over and over, he brought the topic back around to Flyin’ Jenny, to the important work Nigel was doing in England to promote Home of the Brave, and speaking of Home of the Brave . . . Bernie tried to push us toward the theater as quickly as possible, but then Zed Zabel spoke up and over everyone. “Weren’t you the one who found her, Kit Rogers?”

  “Yes, I was.” Someone—Bernie or Hal—placed his hand on the small of my back, trying to steer me away.

  Zed fixed his eyes on me. “And everything they’re telling us—is that the way it happened?”

  “No comment.”

  Everyone fell silent. Zed Zabel’s eyes gleamed like an animal’s. “Are we supposed to deduce, then, that all is not what it seems?”

  “Why don’t you ask Howard Strickling or Whitey Hendry? Or, better yet, the coroner?”

  Bernie shoved me up the carpet before I could say anything else. “Do you realize what you just implied?” He gave me an earful all the way to our seats, smiles plastered on our faces so that no one would know there was a problem. Bernie pointed at me. “Stay.” He marched off toward the exit.

  Hal leaned in to me. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

  “She was my friend. She was your friend too. You think I’m going to abandon her right now when she isn’t here to fight for herself?” I caught his eye and gave him my worst look. “I should have told them everything.”

  Twenty minutes into the picture, I was too restless to sit still. Sitting still wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I got up, ducking low, stepping over feet and legs, and slipped out of the theater. I asked the usher for the pay phone, and he directed me to a wooden booth in the far corner of the lobby. Inside, I dropped a nickel into the slot.

  “Dunbar Hotel,” someone said.

  I asked for Johnny Clay Hart. He answered on the first ring, sounding out of breath. “Are you playing tonight?” I asked him.

  “The Downbeat till ten or so, then we’re going to join the jam session at Jack’s Basket Room.”

  “What’s the address?” Because I didn’t have a pen, I repeated it twice so I would remember.


  Jack’s Basket Room sat at Thirty-third and Central Avenue and was owned by heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson. I parked as close to it as I could get, and walked the rest of the way through the heat of the people and the scene. I wore my premiere gown—a sleek emerald green—which made a swish-swish sound, like bird wings, as I went.

  Men in zoot suits, bright as peacock feathers, sauntered by and shouted things at the white policemen who patrolled on foot. “Hey, baby,” men called to me. “Where you goin’, girl, and can I come along?” The air was smoky and smelled like curry, red pepper, garlic. I could hear music coming from an open window, wailing like a woman.

  A policeman cut through the crowd, his mouth moving, already talking before I could hear him. “Turn around, Miss Hollywood. You shouldn’t be here.” His badge said “Phelps.” He had a big red nose that looked like he blew it too much.

  “I’m going to see my brother.” I kept walking, which meant he had to fall in line next to me, elbowing his way through the crowd.

  “These clubs are breeding places where crimes are planned and carried out. No place for a white woman, especially by herself, especially one so recognizable.” He grabbed my arm, made me stop. “A little white girl about your age was found not far from here today, cut in half. Worst crime I’ve ever seen committed on a woman. You want that to happen to you?”

  “I’m going to see my brother,” I said again, snatching my arm away. I was mad—a kind of dark red mad, the color of blood. It had started with Mudge’s death and the closing of the investigation and the meeting with Dr. Murdoch. Poison. And someone breaking into Mudge’s house and stealing the flask, and now, tonight, the reporters. “My friend died and I need to see my brother. You can either walk me there or let me go.”

  Officer Phelps called me every name in the book, and then half-dragged me the rest of the way. “The next time I see your face, I want it to be on the movie screen.”

  Jack’s Basket Room was a great, rickety barn of a place. All it lacked was sawdust on the floor. There wasn’t a single open seat, so I stood as close as I could to the front. Police lingered in doorways and along the walls, keeping their eyes on the crowd.

  I looked around at the faces, mostly colored, but also white, Mexican, Creole. You could hear the steam rising off the stage. A battle was heating up between the two tenor saxes, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. I thought: The best thing about them is they don’t play for anyone else but themselves. They’re making music because they love to play.

  When a spot opened up down front, I took it, ordering myself a Jack’s basket, which was fried chicken and french fries, and a beer. Up on the stage, the musicians changed, overlapping, interrupting each other, but the music continued to build, the steam still rising. The Downbeat was one thing, with its jazz and bebop, but here, anything went.

  I let myself get lost in the music, and felt myself relaxing a little, the anger fading to a simmer. I was done with my food when I thought I heard my name—not Kit Rogers, but Velva Jean—and when I turned I could see my brother and Butch and their drummer across the room. I wove through the tables and set my bottle down among the glasses of whiskey they’d collected and a stack of white napkins. Johnny Clay picked me up and hugged me hard, and Butch gave me his chair.

  It was too loud to talk, so I watched the musicians and shouted along with the crowd. Go, go, go! The drummer, Sherman Crothers—the young colored man from Mudge’s funeral—beat on the table with his sticks.

  Butch leaned back in his chair, fished around in his pocket, and came up with a pencil stub. He picked up a white napkin and scrawled something down as my brother, guitar in hand, jumped onto the stage. Sherman followed, springing toward the drums like he couldn’t help himself any longer. Butch stood, slid the napkin over to me, took a drink of whiskey, turned the glass upside down, and dragged his guitar out from under the table.

  This is for you.

  Up on stage, he said something to the horn players, the ones who’d been playing for the past half hour, and off they went, nodding and waving to the crowd. Butch and Johnny Clay plugged their guitars into an amplifier, and then Butch laid one hand on the microphone—the hand with the tattoo—and said in that whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, “Seems everywhere I turn these days, I’m hearing about folks who died too young. Someone once said, ‘Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.’ Here’s to the heroes.” He closed his eyes and, without guitars or drums, he sang:

  They tell me of a place where my friends have gone

  They tell me of that land far away

  And they tell me that no tears ever come again

  In that lovely land of uncloudy day.

  At the exact moment I almost walked out—nose and eyes stinging, feeling ambushed, feeling jumped from behind—the guitars roared in like B-29s, and Sherman began
beating away at the drums. The sound was bigger than the three of them, bigger than all of us gathered there. It was angry. It was loud. It was going to raise the roof and blow it all the way to the moon. My brother’s guitar throbbed out the bass line, sounding more like five guitars than one. Butch’s guitar howled and moaned like an animal, like something in pain. It was everything I was feeling—a low-down, raw, bloodred angry. I sat for a long time and then I got to my feet, like everyone else, and danced where I stood.

  Butch lit a cigarette one-handed, never missing a note. The broken bottle neck smoked like he did, up and down the strings. His hair fell across his face, and in that raspy barroom voice, the one he’d blown out years ago, he sang as he played.

  Ready or not, I’m comin’ around

  You can hide if you want, but I’ll hunt you down . . .

  The music found its way under my skin and into my blood and way, way down into my bones until I was charged and electric and could do anything.

  Not gonna stop for kingdom come,

  You better hide, girl, you better run . . .

  As the crowd beat on the floors and the tables, swaying and shaking body against body, white skin, black skin, the policemen who had been leaning against the wall stood straight and tense, hands on their weapons.

  ’Cause ready or not, I’m comin’ for you . . .

  The crowd shouted, cheering the music onward and upward and outward so that I knew it pushed its way out onto the street, into the skin and blood and bones of the people walking by, which meant soon everyone on Central Avenue would catch fire, just like we had, and feel themselves burning where they stood.

  He gets it, I thought. He always has. This music—the soft and the loud—is exactly how I feel. And that, maybe, was the worst thing about Butch Dawkins, that he got me and knew me but could only ever go so far with it before he turned tail and ran like hell. Or maybe it was that he just didn’t think of me the same way I thought of him.

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