American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  “You represent Nigel.” The fact had just dawned on me.

  “That’s right.” He was staring off across the restaurant.

  “How did you do that after what happened?”

  “You mean after she divorced me to marry him?” He shrugged. “I’m a businessman. She used to say I was an agent before I was a man, and that was the problem with me. She always loved telling me the problem with me.”

  “She said you wanted Barbara Fanning, not Eloise Mudge.”

  “I know she thought that, but it wasn’t true.” He held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I loved her—Barbara, Eloise. I still do.” He was talking to the table now, where his hands rested, empty, helpless. And then, for the first time I saw it—the wedding ring he still wore, a year and a half later.

  “Redd, who is John Henry Briggs?”

  He made himself look up, but I could see the effort it took. “Who?”

  “She left the bulk of her estate to a boy named John Henry Briggs. A ten-year-old orphan living in Dell Rapids, South Dakota. She hired a private investigator to find him not long before she died.” I opened my bag, took out the picture of the boy, and slid it across the table. “I think he’s her son.”

  Redd stared at the photo for a minute, as if he didn’t want to touch it, and then he picked it up, running his finger up and down one corner, over and over. He took a good, hard look before setting the photo down and pushing it toward me. “He’s not her son.”

  “But she wanted to find him. And she left him all that money. It would have been before you, maybe with Cray Cordova.” I was trying to remember the name of her first husband. Maybe the boy belonged to him.

  Redd shook his head and smiled sadly, the corners of his mouth barely lifting. “I assumed you knew. Barbara wasn’t able to have children.”

  “But she always talked about having them.”

  “Because she wanted a kid more than anything. We tried before we got married, after we got married. We were always trying. She was never able to have one with Cray, but she thought that was because he smacked her around. Her body was just anxious, in a state of stress, she said. But with me she was safe. We argued, but I’d never hit her, and she knew that. When it didn’t happen—when she didn’t get pregnant—she went to her doctor. Not the studio quack, but a regular doctor. He was the one who told her. She didn’t believe him, and so she went to see another doctor and another, until finally I told her to stop it because eventually someone was going to spill it to the gossip columnists. All the doctors told her the same thing: She would never have a child of her own.” He picked up the photo again. “Maybe this was a kid she wanted to adopt.”

  He handed me the picture and I looked at the boy’s face. “But who was he? And why him?”

  When I got back to my dressing room, a note was taped to the door. Pipes—I know I’m supposed to play hard to get, not calling you for a week or two, just to make you worry, etc., but frankly I want to see you too badly. See what you’ve done to me? Sam. P.S. I’m heading to Broad Water for another script-writing lock-up. Please write and provide conjugal visits. Will be interrogating the old boys’ club until your arrival.

  I went into my room, came back out, and there it was—the first time I’d noticed it: “Babe King,” it said on the door of Mudge’s star suite. I heard a voice from inside, and then the door banged open and Yilla King barged out, pushing past her daughter, knocking Babe’s shoulder too hard with her own.

  Babe appeared, face a dark cloud. Just past her, I could see that Mudge’s blue walls had been changed to pink.

  “Is everything okay?”

  She started a little. “Kit. I didn’t know you were there. It’s good to see a friendly face.” She nodded toward the street, where Yilla stood smoking a cigarette. “I think my mother would be happy if I didn’t grow up. She likes it when I depend on her, but she doesn’t like it when I have a mind of my own.”

  “I have a sister like that. It looks as if you’re all moved in.”

  She came out, shut the door and locked it, dropping the key into a flat red purse, which she tucked under her arm. “To be honest, that dressing room gives me the spooks. I can’t help feeling that any minute she’s going to reappear and tell me to get out.”

  I told Flora the news that night—that Mudge had left the house and cars and jewelry to her, along with a great deal of money. Flora sat down with the will and started to cry. As Helen patted her back, I brought her a cold drink and a handkerchief. She said, “Miss Barbara was good people. She had a heart that not everyone could see.”

  I said, “We can help you move in, as soon as you’re ready.” As soon as we can, I thought, and out of Leimert Park, where the Black Dahlia had been found, just blocks from Flora’s house.

  She dabbed at her eyes. “What about the covenants?”

  “We’re looking into those, but you own this house, Flora. They can’t take it away from you.”

  “I want you to stay here as long as you want.” She said it to both of us. “It’s your home too.”

  On Friday and Saturday, Flyin’ Jenny shot on location in the Valley. Les released us Saturday afternoon, and that evening Johnny Clay and Helen and I ate hot dogs from paper cartons at Pink’s hot dog stand on La Brea. As we sat outside under a canvas umbrella, I told my brother about John Henry Briggs and Mudge not being able to have children and the will and Rebecca Taub and even Jane Eyre.

  “Do you think the Taubs’ Rebecca is Mudge’s Rebecca?”

  “I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.”

  He asked me questions, including where was Nigel Gray and when was he expected back, and then we returned to the house, where Johnny Clay told us about the record and the band—Butch Dawkins & the Bluesmen—and all the things they were planning to do after Los Angeles. They might head to Memphis or maybe Chicago, or maybe even New York City. “Which reminds me,” he said. “There’s a stack of records in the car that I’m supposed to give you. Things Butch wants you to listen to.”

  I showed him the evidence wall and played him what I had of my song, and before he left Helen served drinks in the living room while we listened to the Grand Ole Opry. Johnny Clay said, “You still think of going on there, little sister?”

  “Of course.” But I said it out of habit. It used to be that singing and playing on the Grand Ole Opry was the only thing I ever thought about, but the truth was, I hadn’t thought of the Opry in a very long time. I’d been too caught up in getting home from England, in coming to Hollywood, and with everything that had happened since the weekend at Broad Water.

  Helen said, “Did you hear a banging?” She turned the radio down and then we all heard it—a pounding on the door.

  Sam was standing on the front step, and a car idled in the street, headlights blazing. He said, “Roland and I are on our way to the beach.”

  “Do you want to come in?”

  Johnny Clay yelled, “Who is it?”

  “No. He’s waiting in the car.” Sam leaned in. “I just wanted to do this.” He kissed me, sweet and electric. He kissed my mouth first, and then my neck, all the way to the collarbone, his hands sliding down my back, to my waist, pulling me in.

  When we broke apart, he studied my eyes, my nose, my mouth, like he was learning every line. “I like your freckles. I like you best like this. No Max Factor. Just you.” He kissed me again.

  “Good night, Pipes.”

  “Good night, Sam.”

  Like that, he was gone, across the yard, and back inside the car, door slamming, engine revving, taillights moving away into the night.

  Johnny Clay appeared behind me. “Who was it? The writer?” We both stood looking down the street. Cars went by in either direction. I shut the door and tried to think of something to say. I put a hand to my mouth, to my cheek.

  He said, “Little sister. You should see your face.?
??

  I was up before Helen the next morning. On the front porch, wedged beneath the newspaper and the welcome mat, was a plain brown envelope, no address, no name, nothing written on the outside.

  I glanced up and down the street before carrying it into the house. I threw the newspaper aside—“Murdered Girl Discovered in Victorville”—and very carefully opened the envelope to find a thick stack of pages, and a single piece of paper, which fluttered to the ground like a leaf in fall. I plucked it from the rug.

  Kit Rogers—

  There’s more where this came from. Let’s talk.

  Zed Zabel. 213-555-3499

  The stack of pages was paper-clipped together, and at first I couldn’t understand what I was looking at. I carried the pages to the sofa, where I propped myself against the cushions and started reading. They seemed to be phone logs—complete, detailed transcripts of every conversation I’d had over the telephone during the past few weeks, not just in my studio dressing room, but at home.

  I thought: I should call my brother. I should wake up Helen. But instead I started reading again from the beginning, as if I might possibly find some clue as to who or how or why.

  DEATH AT CROSSING

  Movie Star Couple Hurrying to Overtake Commuter, Hit by Southbound Train

  The London Times

  LONDON, January 27—Believed to have been hurrying to Charing Cross to catch a train, international film star Nigel Gray, 31, was injured and his wife, actress Pia Palmer, 34, was killed instantly when their automobile collided with a southbound passenger train at Rogers Street crossing this morning.

  Gray is being treated for a broken arm and broken ribs at Charing Cross Hospital.

  Railroad officials said the couple apparently had waited for a northbound train to pass, and collided with the southbound local when their machine was driven onto the second track.

  There was possibly only a single witness to the tragedy—T. S. Granger, fireman of the southbound train. He said the victims’ auto smashed into the side of his locomotive. The Metropolitan police report indicated that the right front wheel of the machine was already on the track.

  It may never be determined who was driving the car, although the police believe Ms. Palmer was at the wheel. Neighbors of the couple did not believe Ms. Palmer a good driver and said her husband had frequently protested against her operating the machine.

  Gray had been in England since early last week, on a publicity tour for his most recent picture, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Home of the Brave.

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  I drove Sunset Boulevard all the way to Western Avenue, which wound up to the entrance of Griffith Park. I followed the winding dirt road through the trees, which were green even in winter, up and around the mountain. At the very top I came to a parking lot, empty except for one other car, and at the end of it sat a large domed building. “The Griffith Park Observatory,” a sign said.

  I made my way across the lot to the sidewalk and up to the building, where Zed Zabel sat on the steps. “You’re late,” he said, standing.

  “You said dawn. It’s dawn.”

  The Hollywoodland sign perched on a hillside just west of us. Somewhere, birds were singing. We walked along the building to the back, overlooking the city, downtown to the left, the ocean to the right. I had the sense of endless rolling green, almost like being home again. We leaned against the guardrail that separated us from the valley below, and now I could see the sun, spreading its way across the horizon.

  We stood shoulder-to-shoulder, only I was an inch taller. “What do you want, Mr. Zabel? Where did you get my phone records?”

  “Ever heard of a guy named Jim Vaus?”

  “No.”

  “He’s an ex-GI with a passion for electronics.”

  “What does that have to do with me?”

  “He’s a wiretapper. And not just any wiretapper. His taps are virtually undetectable. He works for Mickey Cohen, the cops, and the studios. He plays all sides.”

  “And you’re saying he tapped my house and dressing room?”

  “That’s right.”

  “Who hired him?”

  “Whitey Hendry. Eddie Mannix. Someone at your studio.”

  “Why?”

  “Don’t ask a stupid question. You know why. Because your friend was killed and you won’t let it go.”

  “But I don’t know anything.”

  “Doesn’t matter. You’re digging. That’s all they care about.”

  “How do you know she was killed?”

  “Everyone knows she was killed. Just like Ted Healy. Only in that particular case, Wallace Beery, Albert Broccoli, and Pat DiCicco beat him to death outside a nightclub.”

  “Ted Healy?”

  “Two-bit actor who created the Three Stooges comedy team, but he couldn’t touch Beery’s popularity or box office pull. After Healy was killed, Beery was sent to Europe on a four-month-long publicity tour and the press was fed some bullshit story about three college boys who attacked him.”

  I knew the name Wallace Beery. I’d actually seen Wallace Beery on the lot at Metro. But I still had to ask: “Who covered for him?”

  “Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling, and Louis B. Mayer. You know Shelby Jordan?” I nodded. “She was a kid publicist then, just cutting her teeth. Literally a kid, no more than eighteen or so. She was there then.” My heart went thump-thump-thump. “Now, Wallace Beery’s no Nigel Gray, but you have to admit that’s a pretty strong coincidence. I need to know what you know.”

  “How did you get my phone records? Who gave them to you?”

  “Everyone has a price, sweetheart. Did you talk to Dr. Murdoch?”

  I didn’t say anything.

  “Look at this.” He leaned against the rail, hanging over it. I peered over the edge and studied the sheer drop, the trees and bushes and undergrowth that straggled down the hillside. “You could murder a man and throw him down there and it might be days, maybe weeks before he was found, if the coyotes don’t eat him first. Or, I figure, you could poison him.” He looked at me then, a question in his beady eyes: Is this true? Is this how she died?

  I decided to answer him without answering him. “And then cover up the crime scene, seal the coroner’s report, send the man who did it away for a few weeks, get him out of the public eye.” I studied the spiderweb of dirt roads that wove their way over and through the hills. “I have to ask you. Detective Nick Agresta?”

  “Dirty.”

  “Coroner Nigh?”

  “Clean.”

  “Dr. Murdoch?”

  “Clean.”

  “The DA?”

  “Dirty. Best thing you can do is play along. My sources tell me Nigel Gray will be back soon. You cozy up to him, get him to confess, I print the story, and we blow this thing wide open.”

  “You print the story?”

  “That’s right.”

  “What if I just start talking off-book during one of my interviews?”

  “What are you going to say? That someone killed your friend, but you don’t know who or how or why? Besides, you’ve been cut off from press conferences and one-on-ones, or haven’t you noticed? None of us are allowed near you right now.”

  “What makes you think I can get Nigel Gray to talk to me?”

  “You’re a girl, aren’t you? Plus he’s got something not many people have in Hollywood—a conscience.” He handed me a slip of paper. “You need me, call me from a pay phone, but make sure it’s out of the way. The studio has spies everywhere. And count your lucky stars that Nigel’s had this little accident. If the studio wasn’t so distracted, you might be feeling a lot more heat right now.”

  By the time I got to Metro, a crowd of reporters was gathered outside the Thalberg Building, stretching up to the East Gate. They roamed in front of the car, around the car, banging on the fender.
When they recognized me, they began shouting and snapping photographs.

  The guard waved me on through the gate, away from the mob. On the other side, I rolled down my window and leaned out. “How long have they been here?”

  He took off his cap and wiped his forehead. “Since the news broke.” He fitted the cap back onto his head and rested one hand on my car door, squinting toward the crowd, keeping his eye on them. “Terrible way to die, hit by a train. Mr. Gray’s always been good to me. First Miss Fanning, now his wife.” He shook his head. “Poor bastard.”

  Yes, I thought. Poor Nigel Gray. Losing both the women he loved within weeks of each other. How tragic. How strange. How coincidental.

  In the makeup and hair departments, the women were gossiping. Nigel finally got rid of the old ball and chain. Pia was clearly driving. She wanted to kill him for humiliating her, and ended up killing herself. He tried to kill her for standing in his way with Barbara Fanning. He killed her because she killed Barbara Fanning. They made a pact to die together, but in the end Nigel was saved, and now he’ll live with the guilt of his survival for the rest of his life.

  On the Stage 4 set of Flyin’ Jenny, we were all so distracted that Les Edgar let us go early. “Let’s pick back up tomorrow, folks. I suggest everyone go home, clear your heads, and get some rest.”

  Hal said, “What are you going to do with this unexpected time off?” He held the door for me, and as I walked out I heard my name.

  One of the wardrobe girls came running after me. “Before you go, Miss Rogers, I need you to stop by the wardrobe department to be fitted for the new flying uniform.”

  Hal smiled. “I guess that answers my question. See you tomorrow.”

  “See you tomorrow.”

  Inside one of the wardrobe cubicles, I undressed and then dressed in the new costume, which was the same navy blue color as my WASP uniform. Through the thin wall of the dressing area, I heard Yilla King say to Babe, “First Barbara Fanning, now Pia Palmer. Lord help the next girl who gets involved with him. And Lord help those children, being dragged back here to be raised by him, as if he’s fit to be a parent—”

 
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