American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  It was four a.m. when they gave up the stage. Outside, the crowds on the street were as thick as the ones in the clubs. If anything, the avenue was busier, louder, just getting started. Police wove through the streets and sidewalks, and for all the sense of life and celebration, there was an air of tension underneath it all, as if we were inside a pressure cooker and any minute the lid might blow right off.

  We left Butch and Sherman at the Dunbar Hotel, and then Johnny Clay walked me to my car, even though I wanted to keep going and find another place, other music. He blew three perfect smoke rings, which drifted over our heads like balloons. “You don’t want to see it in the daytime. The whole avenue smelling like beer, cigarette butts on the ground, trash on the street. It’s a place built for night, Velva Jean.”

  I wondered if I was a person built for night, if there was such a thing. I felt warm and dangerous from the beer and the music. I didn’t want to go home and go to sleep, because that meant I would have to wake up and think about what to do and what was next and how to prove what had happened.

  Too soon, we found my car. My brother chased away the teenage boys who were leaning on it, setting off firecrackers and smoking a pipe they passed around. He kicked at the wheels like he was checking the air.

  I said, “Mudge was asphyxiated.”

  Johnny Clay whistled. “Strangled?”

  “According to the chief autopsy surgeon of Los Angeles County, she was poisoned. Almost everyone who was at Broad Water that weekend has access to Benzedrine and Seconal. I should have asked Dr. Murdoch about them, but I didn’t think of it. You drank from the flask the night before, in the limousine, and Sam drank the rest on the red carpet. I gave the flask back to Mudge just before the picture started. It was empty by then. She wouldn’t have filled it up again till we got home, before we left for Santa Monica.”

  “Did she drink at the airfield?”

  “She left the flask in the car. The next time I saw her with it was at the pool at Broad Water.” I thought of Mudge’s flask lying on her lounge chair, of all the people coming and going. She had left it out in the open, unguarded, for hours. There would have been plenty of chances for the killer to slip off the cap, drop something in, give it a shake. “It could have been anyone.”

  “Who’s to say the guy that did this isn’t after other actresses? Or maybe some of the other party guests? Or other people from the movie? Until we know why it happened, you got to be on your guard, little sister.”

  “I already am.”

  “Do you think it was Nigel?”

  “I don’t know. The studio seems to be doing all it can to protect him.”

  “My money’s on the wife. You want me to come stay with you?”

  “I don’t need a babysitter, Johnny Clay. But thanks.”

  I was just past the oil derricks of La Cienega when a truck the size of a moving van came barreling up behind me. The street was nearly empty, but instead of passing me it moved up too fast on my tail. I slammed on the gas and shot ahead, the headlights dropping back in the rearview mirror.

  I eased off the gas a bit, but only a bit, and then the truck moved into the left lane so it could pass me. I eased off the gas further so that he could go on by, but instead the truck pulled up alongside me and swerved into my lane. I slammed the brakes and went skidding off the side of the road, knocking my head against the steering wheel.

  I sat, catching my breath, knuckles white. I checked my mirrors and looked around. I turned too fast, over my shoulder, and my head started to pound. The roadside was empty except for me. Wilshire was nearly empty too.

  I opened the door and got out, testing my legs, making sure they still worked, and watched as, in the distance, the taillights of the truck continued west toward the ocean.

  At home, I examined my forehead, where a bump was forming. Then I went to the kitchen and stood at the stove, waiting for the kettle to boil, ready to catch it before it whistled so the sound wouldn’t wake Helen. I poured the water, dropped a tea bag in, and carried the cup into the living room.

  I set the cup down and picked up an issue of Photoplay from the coffee table, then Ladies’ Home Journal and True Story. They all featured Nigel Gray’s face, brooding and handsome and dignified. “How Nigel Gray Faces Life Without Love,” said one. “Nigel Gray Grieves,” said another. “Nigel Gray Remembers Barbara Fanning and the Life They Could Have Had,” said a third.

  He was the biggest star at the biggest studio. He was worth millions to Louis B. Mayer and the rest of them.

  I set down the magazines and rubbed my head. I had more questions for Dr. Murdoch, and questions for the guests of Broad Water. I had letters to write and business to take care of that had nothing to do with the death of Barbara Fanning. I thought about all there was to do, and then I picked up one of the magazines again. I stared at Nigel, as if he might tell me something. I tore the cover off. I set it aside and there, on the next page of the magazine, was Mudge in an ad for Lux soap. I tore this page out as well. Five pages later, I found Hal MacGinnis. Two pages after that, Babe King. On the following page, Ophelia Lloyd.

  It only took me half an hour to sort through a stack of magazines and cut out pictures of everyone who was at Broad Water the night Mudge died, except for Yilla King and Dr. Atwill. On the wall of my bedroom, I taped a picture of Mudge at her most glamorous. Photographer: Virgil Apger.

  On an index card I wrote, Found Sat., Dec 28, around 11:45 p.m. on the floor of the bathroom off the music room at Broad Water, home of Billy Taub and Ophelia Lloyd. Last word spoken: “Rebecca.”

  Then, in order of suspicion, I tacked the other pictures on the wall below Mudge. I wrote down what I knew—motives; the ways everyone was related to each other; the ways they were related to Mudge; where they’d been during the game.

  Half an hour later, I was in bed. I closed my eyes and told myself to let it all go for now. I could pick it up again in a few hours.

  By the time I was awake, minutes after nine, Helen had made coffee and breakfast. Even in the morning, she looked as smart and chic as a model for Cosmopolitan magazine. She said, “What on earth happened to your head, Hartsie?”

  I touched the bump, where it had started to bruise. “I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and ran smack into the wall.” I poured myself a cup of coffee, swallowed two aspirin, and sat down at the kitchen table.

  “Now why don’t I believe you?” Helen cocked her head at me.

  “Any luck finding Mudge’s will?”

  “Okay, I’ll drop it. Just know I’m interested if you ever want to tell me what really happened.” She settled elegantly on the chair across from mine. “I can’t figure out where she put it. She was the most disorganized person I’ve ever known, and she kept everything—fan letters, hate mail, movie stills, magazine clippings. Nothing’s where it should be. Flora’s promised to help me look. She knew her better than anyone and she might be able to make sense of her filing system, such as it was.” She nodded at the morning newspaper. “Did you hear about this poor girl?”

  The front page of the Los Angeles Examiner read: Slain by a fiend, the body of a teenage girl was found in a vacant lot here yesterday. The nude body was severed at the waist. The girl had been killed elsewhere and her body taken to the lot and left in plain view, not three feet from the sidewalk. Death came to the girl, police scientists said, after hours of torture.

  Accompanying the article, which took up almost the entire page, was a photograph of the victim, body covered by a blanket, eyes closed, black hair a cloud around her head. She looked peaceful as she lay next to a sidewalk on the edge of an overgrown field in Leimert Park, the neighborhood where Flora lived, near downtown Los Angeles.

  As I studied the picture of the girl in the field, my head throbbed. I told myself that what had happened the night before was an accident. The man was just a bad driver. He hadn’t been loo
king or paying attention.

  But what if he had wanted to run me off the road?

  I crept along at twenty miles an hour the entire way to the studio. I watched the mirrors, flinching at every truck that entered the street. As I turned onto Venice Boulevard, the traffic picked up. Off to my right, a train rattled past on the raised tracks of the Venice Short Line.

  I made it to Metro without anyone following me, and went directly to the portrait studio, where I told the girls working there I wanted to see Virgil Apger. “You aren’t scheduled for today, Miss Rogers,” one of them said, finger running up and down the page of her appointment book.

  The studio was filled with file cabinets and card catalogs of indexes, but I believed what I’d told Coroner Nigh. The crime scene photographs wouldn’t be here with everything else. If they even still existed, pictures and negatives would most likely be under lock and key somewhere in the Thalberg Building, which might as well be Fort Knox. But I had to be sure.

  “Oh, I’m not scheduled, but I wanted to ask Virgil a question. Is it okay if I leave a note for him on his desk?”

  She got up and walked to his office, knocking on the door even though it stood open. “Go on in.”

  I thanked her and slipped inside, running my eyes over the room, the walls covered in framed photographs of his most famous subjects—Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Hedy Lamarr. There was only one file cabinet in here, behind his desk. I glanced at the open door, making sure no one was watching, and, just in case, helped myself to a pen and a piece of official portrait studio letterhead. I bent over the desk, pretending to write, and did a quick, quiet search through the drawers, looking for a key. It sat, like it was waiting, in the middle drawer, the last one I checked. Too easy, I thought.

  I picked it up, and with another glance at the door, kneeled in front of the filing cabinet and opened it with a click. I waited, listened, glanced, and then slid the drawer open. Inside were envelopes of negatives, labeled on the outside—“Garland,” “Johnson,” “Turner,” “Loy.” And “Fanning.” There was only one strip of pictures. I held it up to the light, heart starting to pound—but in each frame Mudge was very much alive, and naked as could be.

  At the sound of footsteps, I dropped the negatives into the envelope, slid the drawer closed, turned the key, and was just bending over the desk again, the key in my hand, when Virgil Apger appeared. “Miss Rogers?”

  “I was just leaving you a note.” I held up the half-written piece of paper, then crumpled it and pretended to search for the trashcan behind the desk. The key in my hand felt like a hundred-pound weight.

  “I’ll take that,” he said, and started toward me, but at that moment one of the girls called his name, and as he turned, I slid the drawer open a fraction of an inch, dropped in the key, and closed it again.

  When he turned back to me, I walked over to him and said, “I wanted you to hear it from me first. About the bump on my head. I know I’m due to have photos taken in a few days, and I wanted to see if we should reschedule.”

  He tilted my face to the light and examined the bump. “How did you do this?”

  “I ran into a wall in the middle of the night.”

  His eyes met mine before moving back to my forehead. “I don’t think it’s anything makeup and good lighting can’t fix. Is that the only reason you came to see me, Miss Rogers?” I could hear the wariness in his voice, or maybe I was only imagining it.

  I almost said something. Someone had told me once that he was the son of a sheriff. I knew him to be a good, decent man. But just then a figure appeared in the doorway.

  “Miss Rogers,” said Howard Strickling. “What a pleasure. Did you have a shoot scheduled for today?” There was a woman with him—Shelby Jordan.

  What incredible timing, I thought. How surprising to see Mr. Strickling at this exact moment.

  “I was just showing Virgil the bump I got from walking into a wall. I wanted to give him fair warning so he knew what he was up against.”

  Mr. Strickling smiled. I smiled.

  “Thanks, Mr. Apger,” I said. “You’ve made me feel much better.”

  Outside again, I went directly to the first-aid department, which was housed in a little building near the dressing rooms. This time, Dr. Atwill studied the bump on my forehead.

  He said, “How did you get this?

  I decided to change my story to something that might sound more believable. “A dog ran out in front of my car. I hit the brakes to avoid him and bumped my head.”

  What was it Dr. Atwill had said about Benzedrine and Seconal? Everyone uses them, Miss Rogers. When taken in the right combination, they’re perfectly safe.

  Unless you’re poisoned.

  “You may get a bruise, nothing they can’t cover with makeup.”

  “I have a nasty headache.”

  “To be expected.” He made some notes on a chart and then reached behind him into a cabinet with glass doors that was stocked with pill bottles. As he reached for the aspirin, I practiced Babe’s doe-eyed look. “It’s just that I’ve had trouble sleeping ever since Barbara Fanning’s death, and during the day I’m so tired.” I was thinking of the pills, now missing, from Mudge’s purse.

  He handed me two bottles. “You’re not the only one, Miss Rogers. A perfectly normal reaction to such a tragedy.”

  I held up the Benzedrine. “How many of these can I take at a time?”

  “No more than two.”

  “And these?” I waved the bottle of Seconal.

  “No more than two.”

  “Is it possible to overdose? I wouldn’t want to take too many.”

  “Yes. Twenty-three hundred milligrams of Benzedrine is enough to kill a person of, let’s say, one hundred twenty-five pounds.” He smiled. “And you weigh a little less than that.”

  I smiled. “On a good day.” Doe eyes, I told myself, and gave them an extra bat-bat-bat. “That sounds like an awful lot. You know, I’ve always been sensitive to medicine—what symptoms should I look out for, just in case they don’t agree with me?”

  “Oh, a pulse that skyrockets. High blood pressure. Headache, vomiting. Just the right amount helps the energy, but even a little too much can cause delusions, euphoria, and dizziness.”

  So it was possible to take too much, to kill yourself or someone else. I wondered who else had sought out the good doctor’s services lately, because everyone at the studio was connected through Dr. Atwill. They all came to him sooner or later.

  On the way back to my dressing room, I passed by the Little Red Schoolhouse, where a few of the child actors sat on the stoop under the arched front doorway. They squeezed close, too many of them to fit, and tried to knock each other off the step and onto the ground. Every time someone tumbled over, they fell on top of each other, laughing and whooping. The sound and sight of it was so happy that I stopped to watch them. I tried to remember the last time I’d felt that way, so light and worry-free.

  I could go home. I could leave right now, this afternoon, and then I would be light and worry-free too.

  Like that, I was on my way to the parking lot. I would tell Johnny Clay and Butch, and also Helen and Flora, and then I would just go. No more studio. No more pills and accidents that might not be accidents. No more of people looking the other way and pretending nothing happened.

  I climbed into the car. It would be so easy just to leave. And then I turned the key of the Oldsmobile Mudge had given me as a Christmas present, the one she’d had painted to match my truck.

  “Where should we go?”

  “Anywhere! And everywhere. Let’s just drive.”

  So I headed back to Beverly Hills, because I couldn’t leave. Not yet.

  TWENTY-THREE

  Barbara Fanning had moved off the front page, replaced by the young girl found murdered in Leimert Park. The Examiner identifie
d her as Elizabeth Short, twenty-two years old, of Medford, Massachusetts. She was five feet six inches tall and weighed 120 pounds. She had brown hair and green eyes and a fair complexion. Her hair had been hennaed and her brown roots had just begun to regrow. In the 1943 Santa Barbara Police Department photo that ran alongside the story, she looked eerily, spookily like Mudge.

  I read the news on the front step of Mudge’s house, without bothering to move inside. A man drove past, very slowly, hat drawn low over his face. I looked up to watch him, and he caught my eye. As he kept on going, I went back to the newspaper. Even after I heard my name, I continued reading.

  The paper confirmed that Dr. Frederick Murdoch, the chief autopsy surgeon for the County of Los Angeles, had performed the autopsy on the person the Examiner was now calling the Black Dahlia because of her habit of dressing in black and wearing a flower in her hair.

  “Hartsie.” Helen opened the door and stuck her head out. “There you are.” She pointed to the hall. “There’s something I want to show you.”

  As I was turning to follow her inside, the same man drove by in the other direction. One door down, he pulled over and parked the car. I waited for him to get out, but he only sat there, engine idling.

  “Hartsie.” Helen was back again. “What are you doing?”

  This time I followed her into the house. Spread out on the dining room table were a newspaper article, a photograph, and what looked like a letter.

  “I found them inside a book.”

  The letterhead belonged to Fred Wamack, Private Investigator, Hollywood, California. It was addressed to Eloise Mudge. Per your request, I have conducted an independent investigation into the whereabouts of one John Doe, age 11, born September 1935, birth name ‘John Henry Briggs.’

  John Henry Briggs

  His report went on to say that the child was now living at the Dell Rapids Orphanage and Industrial School, also known as the Dell Rapids Odd Fellows Home, in Dell Rapids, South Dakota. The newspaper article was dated October 1946. It detailed a new addition to the home, originally built in 1910, and a need for funding. It featured four pictures—the home itself, a handsome English manor house of red brick, which rose out of the flat, dry landscape; children planting potatoes; children gathered around a phonograph; and four boys sitting in a freshly plowed field. The smallest boy was circled. He sat on one end, a little behind the others, his face puckered, as if he was looking into the sun. The photograph appeared to be of the same child, hands at his sides, dressed in a suit.

 
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