American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  “While you do that, I’ll use the powder room.”

  I hunted through my purse for my lipstick and compact, and walked into the ladies’ lounge, which was a narrow room with one toilet and a sink with a mirror above, cracked at one corner.

  On my way out, a man was standing beside the door, big and amiable, arms folded across his chest. He nodded at me and started to move forward. I stepped out of the way, but instead of moving past me, he pushed me back into the bathroom and locked the door. He said, “You’re the actress. Sing me a song, just like you do in the movies.”

  His breath was on my face, his hands on my arms, holding me in place. My eyes darted past him, to the soap and towels at the side of the sink, the little wooden stand that sat behind him, a vase with flowers, the door.

  “One little sweet song.” As his mouth moved toward me, and his hands slid down my arms, I could smell the alcohol on him. He could have been studio ordered or a friend of the murderer or just some drunk, obnoxious fan.

  Then his hand was on mine, and I wiggled my hand so that my fingers intertwined with his. In one swift motion, I pulled hard on those fingers, bending them back to his wrist. I knew enough from self-defense, from my work in France, how to sprain a man’s hand without breaking it, how to take it almost to that point. “Tell me who sent you.”

  “Sonofabitch. Let me go.”

  I pulled harder on the fingers. “Tell me who sent you.”

  We went back and forth like this for about thirty seconds. I pulled harder, right at the breaking point, hovering there. Then just a little harder. It would have been so easy to snap his hand in two, finger by finger.

  He dropped to his knees. “No one sent me. I saw your pictures. I wanted you to sing me a song.” He was starting to cry now, and I felt one last surge of anger before I went empty. I let him go and he sank back onto the floor.

  He was just a fan, only a fan. I knew from Mudge that they could be as dangerous as anyone else. I took a deep breath and felt relief wash through me. My heart settled. My pulse settled. I pulled a towel from the rack and handed it to him.

  “Next time, ask nicely.”

  I stepped over him and found Sam outside the door, a box in his hands. He stared past me at the man lying on the floor. “Great mother-of-pearl.” Sam looked at me in what could only be called awe, or shock. “I don’t know whether to kiss you or run like hell.”

  In his car, in front of Mudge’s house, Sam said, “And there it is.” We both stared up at its still and silent face, the windows dark, curtains drawn. The house looked as if it were sleeping.

  I said, “Aren’t you going to walk me to the door?”

  I carried the box from the Villa Nova—some sort of strawberry cake. Sam and I didn’t talk until we were standing on the stoop, my back to the house, his back to the street.

  I said, “Aren’t you going to walk me in?”

  He kissed me then, as if he’d been waiting for this moment all night, his hands on either side of my face, twining into my hair, tugging at it so that my head tilted back and he could run his lips across my throat. My own hands had gone off without me, dropping the box, doing exactly what they wanted to do. I wanted him, and he knew I wanted him. I wanted his hands and his mouth, and the rest of him. I wanted to fall asleep against him, feeling the warmth, listening to his heartbeat, feeling his skin. I wanted to forget about Mudge and death and MGM and Helen down the hall and how things looked and my good Southern upbringing, as strong as any contract, and what Sweet Fern might say if she could see me. I didn’t want to think at all.

  Sam threw the door open, picked me up, and tossed me over his shoulder. He was up the stairs two at a time, my head bobbing upside down. He pushed open the door to one of the guest rooms, then jogged me out of there and down the hall, throwing open another door, and another. “Where the hell am I taking you?”

  “Not that one,” I whispered. “Helen.” I pointed. “That one at the end.” In my bedroom, he shut the door and said, “What’s this?”

  He carried me over to the evidence wall, where all the little faces were lined up, including his own. “You really have been busy.”

  “They’re my suspects,” I said, muffled, into his shirt.

  “I gathered.” He bent his knees, leaned in, so he could better see himself. “I can’t believe it.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “You should be. If you’re going to put me up there, at least use a good picture.”

  Then he switched off the light, flicked on the bedside lamp, and dropped me onto the bed. Instead of joining me, he stood looking at me, as if he couldn’t believe he was there, and I was there, and there we were.

  I reached for his tie, just like in a movie, and pulled him toward me, so that he planted one arm on either side of me, brown hair falling over his forehead, brown eyes staring down at me, mouth set in a half smile.

  “You’re the damndest woman.”

  His forehead met mine, his lips hovering close, so close but not touching. His breath quickened. He ran his hands over my skin, my hips, waist, arms, hair. I ran my hands over his shoulders, feeling the strength of his body underneath his shirt, along his neck and down his back. He pulled the shirt off, dropping it to the floor. His skin was hot to the touch. He pulled me up so I was standing and turned me around so that I was facing away from him. My heart was racing. Then I felt his fingers below my hairline as he unbuttoned my dress—a long line of buttons down the back and a sash at the waist. I felt the air hitting my skin as the buttons came open, as my back was exposed. He pulled at the sash, tugging it out of its bow. My dress dropped next, pooling at my feet.

  I leaned in then and pressed my lips to his neck, where the skin was hottest. He swept me up and onto the bed, rolling me toward him so I was on top of him, and then rolling over again so he was on top of me.

  And then, for no reason, I started to cry. “Sorry,” I said, and brushed the tears away. I pulled him in, kissed him again, and then felt another wave of tears, right after the first. “Dammit. Sorry.” I brushed these away too. I hiccupped. “God, sorry.”

  He didn’t say anything, just lay down beside me, my back to him, pulling me in close. I cried and hiccupped and tried to focus on his arms and his heartbeat. And then I began to cry harder.

  Eventually my mind drifted off. Hours later, I opened my eyes, and Sam was gone. I sat up, looking around, and the bathroom door opened. Sam, in boxer briefs, rubbing his eyes. He said, “You didn’t sleep long. How’s the head?”

  “Splitting.”

  “Do you keep aspirin in this place?”

  “In the drawer there.”

  He opened the drawer, and the bottles of Benzedrine and Seconal went rolling into the wood. “Well now, what’s this?” He held up the Benzedrine and shook it.

  I sat up, gathering my hair, and then let it go. “Evidence.” I heard a noise outside, or downstairs, or maybe down the street. I cocked my head, listening.

  “It was outside.”

  “What?”

  “The noise. I’m not just a pretty face, Pipes. I’m also blessed with exceptional hearing. So what’s my motive?” He nodded at the evidence wall.

  “That remains to be seen. Did you know Felix Roland and Ophelia are having an affair?”

  “The mystery man from her bedroom?”

  “I guess so.” I told him about seeing them at Rockhaven.

  He whistled. “We need to figure out who up there not only had a motive but the ability to poison her. They’re not necessarily one and the same.”

  “I doubt Felix will talk to me, and I didn’t get very far with Tauby.”

  “Maybe they’ll talk to me.” He smiled. “Want me to see what I can get?”

  “If you don’t mind. Did you—when you worked with her, did she ever mention someone named Rebecca?”

  “Doesn’t ring a b
ell, no. Why?”

  “It was the last thing she said to me before she died.”

  He took my hand and nodded up at the wall again. “Have you thought about what will happen once you figure this out?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Say you catch the killer, find the evidence, prove that he or she did it. What then? If what you say is true, the studio’s never going to let you put this out there. They’ll kill it as fast as someone killed Barbara Fanning.”

  “I’m still working on that part of it.”

  “Let’s not worry about it tonight.” He kissed me lightly on the nose. “Shall we get some more sleep? Unless, of course, you can think of something else to do.”

  When I made a show of yawning, he reached over me to switch off the lamp. As he looked down, his face half in light, half in shadow, there was something in his eyes that made me ask, “What is it?”

  “I don’t know. But I’m thinking there’s more on your mind than suspects and poison and murder. Am I right, Pipes?”

  I reached up and kissed him. His lips were warm. My head still pounded. It hurt too much to think clearly. “The only thing I’m thinking about right now is sleep.”

  When I opened my eyes again, it was morning and he was gone. A note lay on the pillow next to mine along with a bottle of aspirin. You’re utter hell on a man’s ego, Pipes. It’s a good thing I have ego enough to spare. Gone to the studio, but will be thinking lasciviously about you the entire time. (Lascivious adjective [of a person, manner, or gesture] feeling or revealing an overt and often offensive sexual desire.) Take two of these as soon as you wake up and call me. P.S. I don’t know how I’ll concentrate now that I can picture you in bed.

  I sat up, stretched, opened the curtains. I padded over to the evidence wall and studied the faces. Nigel Gray and Pia Palmer smiled out at me as if to say, You can’t get us. We’re safe. There’s nothing you can do.

  And there, below them, was a newer, better photo of Sam—torn from the page of a movie magazine—which he’d tacked over the old one.

  TWENTY-SIX

  Early Thursday, Helen found Mudge’s will folded and tucked inside a book of Shakespeare’s plays. In it, Mudge remembered her bunkmates at Avenger Field. She made sure that I received all her dresses since, as she noted, I could “certainly use them.” She left money to the families of the thirty-eight WASP who died and to a flying school for girls, started by Shirley Bingham, a pilot two years ahead of us. She left her house, car, minks, jewelry, and several thousand dollars to Flora, and everything else—including the bulk of her money—went to John Henry Briggs of Dell Rapids Orphanage and Industrial School in Dell Rapids, South Dakota.

  I took the document from Helen to read the date. “December 15, 1946. It was updated two weeks before she died.”

  “Do you think Redd Deeley knows he was cut out?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “So he might have expected to still get everything.” When I nodded, she said, “That looks bad for him, doesn’t it? I mean, in mystery books, that’s usually the motive of the killer.”

  I thought about this as I got dressed and ready for work. Before I walked out the door, I put in a call to Redd, asking him to meet me for lunch. Outside the house, a man with a hat was sitting behind the wheel of his car, the engine running. He was the same man I’d seen parked on the street before. When he saw me coming down the walk, he touched the brim of his hat and drove away.

  At eleven fifteen that morning, I sat down at the piano in Rosie’s studio and played what I’d written of the song for Butch’s record. I only had a half dozen sheets of paper filled with lines, most of them crossed out. The only line I really liked was: “Home to me.”

  I’d written it because it sounded hopeful, and I remembered what Butch had said about hope. I knew people in this world who’d never been through a single sad thing, and they didn’t have any more hope than a grasshopper. But somehow I’d held on to mine—through Mama’s death and everything sad or terrible that had followed. But what if hope had a threshold? What if there was a limit to it? What if each of us was only given a certain amount and mine was used up?

  The thing I did have was the melody, so mostly I played while Rosie listened, and afterward he sat beside me on the bench and said, “Good. This is good. What if you also add in something here?” He did a little flourish up and down the keys. “And what if you change it to a minor key?”

  My first instinct was that this would make the tune too sad, that it was sad enough already, but Rosie said, “Try it. There’s no harm in experimenting. Nothing’s set in stone. You can go right back to the way it was if you don’t like it.”

  So I played it again. This time through, I could feel it in a way I hadn’t before. I played it once more the same way. Then Rosie and I talked about words, and about what I wanted to say. Just as I was starting to hear the lyrics forming in my mind, a messenger boy appeared and said I was wanted in Billy Taub’s office.

  My first thought was that he looked like a madman again. He sat shuffling through papers at a wild pace, fielding phone calls, making notes, shirt untucked, glasses askew. The white streak of hair had grown to several white streaks of hair, so that you could barely see the original brown. His desk was heaped with scripts and notes and pictures—no more Home of the Brave. He was on to Latimer now. A cigar burned in the ashtray.

  When I walked in, he barely looked up. He waved me to a chair, finished his telephone conversation, jotted something down, then threw the pen onto the desk and fixed his eyes on me. “I’ll make this quick, Kit. I know you went to visit Ophelia. I know you were asking questions. I’m telling you this as a favor—let it be.”

  I wondered if he knew I hadn’t been her only visitor that day. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “But you do. We didn’t send her there so that she could be upset.”

  “The papers are reporting that she checked herself in.”

  “We don’t have time to sit here and go back and forth. I know what you’re trying to do, and you need to stop doing it. Let this go.” There was something in his voice that chilled me. He stood. We were done. “It’s best for everyone, especially you.”

  “You meant a lot to Barbara Fanning.”

  “She was a good actress. I enjoyed working with her.”

  “You were more than that to her. If you cared about her at all, and I’m guessing you did once upon a time, you’ll help me.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  He didn’t bother walking me out. At his door, I turned. He still stood behind his desk, sorting through papers. “Who is Rebecca?”

  He stopped what he was doing. For a moment, he couldn’t speak. “Why are you asking about Rebecca?” His voice broke.

  I was filled with a sudden breathless feeling, but I told myself to stay cool. “Who is she?”

  He cleared his throat. “She was my daughter. Our daughter.” His voice broke again. He glanced at Ophelia’s picture. “We adopted her when she was two.”

  “I didn’t see her at Broad Water.”

  “Rebecca died five years ago. She was ten. It was a heart defect, something we couldn’t have known about, even though it was hereditary. Maybe it could have been attended to if they’d told us. But we didn’t know. They didn’t tell us.”

  “Did Barbara ever meet her?”

  “Once. She came to . . . visit me at the house when Ophelia was away. Rebecca was with the nanny, but Barbara ran into them on the beach. Rebecca had seen all her films and so she recognized her. Instead of spending the day with me, Barbara spent it with my daughter. They played in the water and built things in the sand. I knew I shouldn’t let them, that Ophelia would have my head, but it was good to see both of them enjoying themselves like that. Barbara told me afterward it was one of the nicest days she’d ever had.” His eyes had gone misty and faraway. “Rebecca said t
he same thing. She didn’t have many nice days left. She died three months later.”

  When I left him, Billy Taub was sitting quietly, hands folded, staring at his desk. I was late to meet Redd, and I hurried across Washington Boulevard to Frances Edwards’ Bar and Grill, which everyone at the studio called “the Hangout.” I was trying to process the conversation I’d just had—was Rebecca Taub the Rebecca Mudge had meant? And, if so, why had this been her last word?

  Redd was seated in a booth and had already ordered for both of us. As I sat, he said, “Congratulations. You’ve been named Photoplay’s Rising Star of 1947.” He talked about what a big deal this was—my picture on the cover, a full-length article accompanied by more photographs. “Metro’s bringing out the second Flyin’ Jenny ahead of schedule in order to capitalize on the publicity.”

  “Do they want an interview?”

  “Not necessary. They have enough information for the story without talking to you.”

  I was distracted, but I hoped he couldn’t tell. “That’s wonderful.”

  “What’s up, Kit? Why did you want to meet me?”

  “Did you know Mudge changed her will in December?”

  Redd was slick, but he wasn’t an actor, and his entire expression shifted. I could see genuine shock followed by wariness, which told me he hadn’t known. “December?”

  “That’s right. Do you have any idea why she would have changed it?”

  “No. Except maybe to cut me out of it. Is that what she did? I suppose she left everything to Nigel.”

  “She did cut you out, but she didn’t leave anything to Nigel.”

  “When you say ‘cut out,’ you mean I’m nowhere in it? Not even a tie clip? Not even the goddamn car I bought her for a goddamn wedding present?”

  I glanced around, catching the eyes of the people nearby, who were now looking in our direction. “Nowhere and nothing.”

  He threw his napkin on the table and glared at the ceiling. When he spoke again, he was quieter and calmer, as if he’d forced himself to count to ten. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, right? I mean, she was done with me the moment she met Nigel.”

 
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