American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  “Mother.” Her tone was sharp. “Please stop talking.”

  I stood very still in case they continued, but the only thing Yilla said was, “Once I marry Leland, he’ll never be invited. You’ll see. Nigel Gray won’t ever set foot in my house.” I heard the sound of the cubicle door opening and closing and two sets of footsteps tapping away.

  Ten minutes later, as I stood surrounded by racks of costumes in all styles and colors, I felt an idea forming. As soon as I was done being measured, I told the girl at the desk that I was going to a costume party later that night, and needed a maid’s uniform—black dress with white collar and cuffs, white apron, little black-and-white hat, plain stockings, low black heels, name tag. Exactly like the uniform worn by the servants at Broad Water.

  I changed into my costume at a gas station in Venice, pinning my hair up underneath the hat and softening my makeup and lipstick. I traded my seamed stockings for the plain ones, my sandals for the sensible black shoes. Ophelia liked the maidservants at Broad Water to look clean and attractive, but not too attractive. When I was done, I studied myself in the little mirror that hung above the sink. Even in this getup, I was still recognizable.

  I asked the service station attendant if he had a lost and found. He said, “I got a basket in the back where we throw things people leave. If they don’t come for it in a week, we keep it.”

  “Do you happen to have a pair of glasses in there?”

  “I can check for you.”

  I waited outside for him, and he was back a few minutes later carrying two pairs of glasses. The first was a man’s pair, black rimmed and thick lensed. The second was round and made of wire. I picked these up and tried them on. The world slanted, but I could still see through them.

  “Are those yours?” The man sounded doubtful.

  “No, but I’d like to borrow them. I can have them back to you later today.”

  I handed him five dollars, and as he pocketed the money he said, “You can have ’em. They been in there for at least three weeks.”

  Broad Water looked exactly the same as it had the first time I’d seen it, grand and white and columned. The sun beat down from the blue, blue sky. The waves rolled in and out, in and out, on the wide, tan beach. I parked just past the house, up the road, and walked across the sand to the oceanfront entrance, which I knew would be open.

  The pool chairs were empty, tennis courts empty. I hurried up the stairs to the terrace and slipped inside. I listened for voices. During the writing of Home of the Brave, Sam said that he, Les, and Tauby, and later he, Felix, and Tauby had holed up on the other end of the house from the music room bathroom, where I’d found Mudge. I hoped I remembered the way.

  Ophelia would still be at Rockhaven, but I needed to watch out for the servants. From the entrance hall, I headed south toward what I thought were the art gallery, the library, and the music room. I got lost, ending up in the game room, where we had all gathered after dinner that night. I turned around and went the other way. The house was a maze of rooms and hallways, somehow more confusing now than it had been in the pitch dark.

  I heard voices and ducked into a sitting room, one of five or six sitting rooms I’d already seen. They were female voices—housekeepers or maids—and I crouched behind a chair as they passed. I listened before tiptoeing to the doorframe, where I looked this way, then that, to make sure all was clear.

  I found the music room a few minutes later. There was the rug that Whitey Hendry had turned over. And the bathroom where I’d first seen Mudge. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to find. Some obvious clue. Something to tell me what had happened that night. I flipped the rug back and studied the floor, the underside of the rug itself. I stood in the bathroom scouring every inch of tile, wall, and countertop with my eyes. The white monogrammed towels that hung from the rack were fresh and clean. I turned on the faucet, letting the water run. I turned it off. I opened the cabinet to see what was inside. Cleaning supplies, more towels. But it got me wondering—what was in Tauby’s personal cabinet? The Benzedrine he was always chewing, but what else?

  It took me ten minutes to slip upstairs, unnoticed, to the bedrooms. Too late, I spotted a girl coming down the hall, dressed like I was in a black uniform, white apron, and hat. I adjusted my glasses and tried not to bump into the wall. Before she could say anything, I smiled. “Golly, am I glad I ran into you. I’ve only been here a day and I’ve already lost my way. I’m looking for Mr. Taub’s bedroom. I’m supposed to fetch something for Mr. Weldon.”

  I waited for her to call for help or chase me out, but instead she pointed to the end of the hall. “It’s the grand suite, ocean side. The opposite of Miss Lloyd’s.” She nodded in the other direction. Then she elbowed me. “I’d like to fetch Mr. Weldon a few things myself.” She walked off, laughing to herself.

  I waited till the hall was empty, then took off the glasses and ducked inside Tauby’s room. Once inside, I shut the door. It was a manly room—dark wood furniture, white walls, bearskin rug, framed nudes, all female, including one of a very young Barbara Fanning. She couldn’t have been more than twenty at the time. In it, her expression and her body language were almost shy, but her eyes were shining as if she knew exactly what she was doing.

  I made myself explore the medicine cabinet first because I didn’t know how long I had until I was discovered again. The bathroom featured a black-and-white tile floor and a black claw-foot tub and shower. Inside the wooden cabinet that hung on the wall, I found bottles of pills. Benzedrine, Seconal, and others with names I didn’t recognize. There were tinctures and lotions and salves and liquids. It was practically a pharmacy. I picked up one of the bottles of bennies and read the name of the prescribing physician: Dr. Atwill. I picked up another: Dr. Gabler. And another: Dr. Wakeman. Sneaky man, I thought. Billy Taub had prescriptions from every doctor in town. But then I looked at the labels more closely—“Ophelia Lloyd,” they said, not “William Taub.” Every single one of the prescriptions was for his wife.

  I memorized the names of the doctors, and memorized the names of some of the other medicines. Then, back in his bedroom, I rummaged through the bedside tables and chest of drawers, and finally the thick-legged wooden desk that filled one wall. When the middle drawer wouldn’t budge, I pulled a hairpin from my hat and jimmied the lock. Finally, I heard the click, and the drawer slid open. Inside were two bundles of pictures, tied with twine. One set was of a little girl—twenty or so photographs of Rebecca Taub from the age of two to ten. She was a delicate, sweet-faced child, small for her age. Each photo was labeled and dated, and the last featured Tauby, Ophelia, and Rebecca sitting side by side on the beach, feet stretched out toward the camera.

  The other set of pictures was of Mudge. Underneath these was a stack of letters, which seemed to be from her as well, the earliest from 1933, the most recent from last month. It was dated December 10, 1946.

  Dearest WT, I’m sorry about the blowup, but you’ve got to understand: I’m a girl in love. You said that Nigel won’t marry me, and in the end I’ll be the sad, old thing in the balcony. I know you mean well and you only want what’s best, but can’t you see this is what I’ve been waiting for? I loved Donald, Cray, and Redd in their own ways, but now I think they were just practice, all of it leading up to this man. If he will marry me, I’m going to grab on to it so fast, you’ll have to hold on to your boots. He’s my fresh start. He’s my chance. I’ll never forget all you’ve done for me. Be well, darling, and remember the girl you used to know. Maybe then you won’t be so hard on the one she became. Love, B.

  Suddenly, I heard footsteps in the hallway. In a panic, I slid the letter back into its envelope, shut the drawer, and ran for the closet. It was a deep, narrow walk-in, and I felt my way in the darkness to the very back. There, I rummaged around to get my bearings as voices entered the bedroom. A man and a woman. The man said, “Her name was Mary?” I couldn’t tell if this was Tauby or one of the
male servants.

  “It was on her name tag.” I touched the tag on my dress.

  I could hear them making their way around the room. He said, “Check to make sure nothing’s missing.” This was followed by an opening and closing of drawers and the door to the terrace.

  I shrank back against the wall, as far as I could, feeling for something to hide behind. And that was when I felt the latch. I lifted it and, on a hunch, pushed. Part of the wall fell away, and I tumbled backward into a hallway. As the closet door opened, I closed up the door in the wall and stood staring at it. I could still hear the man and the girl, now in the closet, where I’d been hiding only seconds before.

  As their voices faded off, I turned to see where I was. A hallway, and at the end, a door. Careful not to make a sound, I opened the door and there was the love nest, just as Sam and I had left it, the covers of the daybed smoothed down, the mountains framed by the window. It wasn’t Miss Lloyd’s love nest at all—it was Tauby’s. Had he been angry enough to kill the woman he loved once he found out she was leaving him?

  I followed the hall to the secret staircase down, listened at the door to the library, and then slipped through it, out of the room, and through another and another until I was in the entrance hall, where I walked straight out the front door and back to the car.

  TWENTY-EIGHT

  On Monday, February 3, one week after Pia Palmer’s death, Nigel returned to Metro. He looked pinched and pale, and someone said, “That’s England for you,” as if it was a time to make jokes.

  He started rehearsals of Latimer that day, once again working with Billy Taub, Felix Roland, and Babe King, and now Webster Hayes, cast as King Henry VIII. Both Latimer and Flyin’ Jenny were shooting on Lot 3, so as soon as I had a chance, I left the Jungle River Island and walked across the lot, past the farmhouse, to the Kismet staircase, where Nigel and Babe, still dressed in her Bonnie Dare costume, were standing.

  The concrete staircase was nearly one hundred feet across and fifty feet high. It rose up out of the ground and went nowhere, the only thing left of an elaborate Baghdad set built for a picture named Kismet. At the top, carpenters were banging away on a plywood structure, which would become a palace or cathedral or prison.

  Nigel and Babe were walking up and down, up and down, as Felix Roland gave them direction. Each time they reached the highest step, Nigel took her in his arms and kissed her. As he walked back to the bottom, I studied his face—grim and serious, no sign of the charming smile or the dancing blue eyes. He looked like a man just trying to get the job done.

  When I was finished shooting for the day, I went back to the Kismet staircase, which was empty except for the carpenters. Shelby Jordan chatted with the set designer, bending over a sheath of blueprints spread on a makeshift table, and when she saw me standing there she waved good-bye to him and came walking over. “Lose your way, fly girl?”

  “I thought I’d watch them rehearse, but it looks like the party’s over.”

  “For today at least. Can I give you a ride?” Her car was a shiny convertible roadster, painted racing car red. Inside, the leather smelled brand-new. As we took off, the wind whipping our hair, she said over the engine, “What can I do for you, Kit? I hear you’ve been asking about me.”

  “I’ve been asking about a lot of people.”

  “Part of your investigation?” She smiled like a cat. “Oh, don’t look so surprised. Metro may be the biggest lot in town, but it’s still small. Besides, it’s my job to know what’s going on.”

  “Like with Wallace Beery?”

  “My, my. You have been asking around.” She sped onto Lot 1, past the reporters still gathered at the gate. “I don’t know who you talked to, but they probably didn’t tell you I got fired over Beery. Actually, I threatened to quit. I was barely eighteen, new to the city, new to the studio. ‘Beery’s a bastard,’ that’s what they said to me. ‘He’s one royal pain-in-the-ass son of a bitch, but he’s worth a lot of money to us. We need to make it go away.’ I told them if that was the case, I would go away, and they didn’t blink. They fired me that day. I didn’t work again for two years.”

  She sped right up to the star suites, and yanked on the brake, the engine still idling. She reached past me, opening my door and pushing it so that it swung wide. “Curb service. And, Kit? If you ever have any more questions, I’d prefer you come to me directly. The good news is I’m back at Metro now, so I won’t be hard to find.”

  As I passed by wardrobe on my way to the parking lot, some of the wardrobe ladies were leaving. One of them said, “Miss Rogers, you might want to check with Trudy at the desk. I think she has something of yours.”

  When I walked in, the girl named Trudy said, “There you are. Sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner, but when the maid’s uniform went to cleaning, they found this in the pocket.” She searched below the desk and then handed me a slender envelope, bent at the corners.

  In the car, I opened it, and there was Mudge’s handwriting, the characters looping across the page. I looked at the date: June 23, 1933. Without meaning to, I’d walked away from Broad Water with one of her letters to Tauby.

  Dear Mr. Taub,

  I can’t thank you enough for the interest you’ve shown me. It’s hard to explain to someone like you, but no one in my life has ever been much interested in me. I never knew my dad, and my mother did the best she could, or so everyone tells me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m done with them and with everything that came before June 10, 1933, the day I signed my contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, greatest film studio in the world. As you said yesterday, this is my chance to be someone new. I guess I worry that ‘Barbara Fanning’ sounds too glamorous for me. That’s the kind of name you’d give a lady, but I’ll take it, especially since you chose it. I’m going to do my best to earn it. And I’m going to do my best not to let you down.

  Sincerely yours,

  Barbara Fanning

  Folded in the envelope was a newspaper clipping, yellow from age. “Carmen Girl Makes Mark as Actress,” read the headline, and it featured a picture of a very young, pretty, serious-looking Mudge. Local girl Eloise Mudge, 17, a resident of the Carmen Odd Fellows Home, is succeeding in the theatrical world. After an appearance in “The Restless Sex” at the Colonial Theater, Eloise was spotted by a scout from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who offered her a chance at motion pictures. Also in the cast was sister Edna Mudge, 15, whose idea it was for her big sister to audition. Says Edna, “She’s more the quiet type, while I’m the actress. I thought doing the role would bring her out of her shell.” Now the elder Mudge isn’t just out of her shell—she’s out of Oklahoma and heading to Hollywood.

  Helen closed the door to Mudge’s office and said, “I never knew she had a sister. What do you think happened to her?” The office was tidier now and more organized.

  “I don’t know. But at least we know where Mudge came from.”

  “Carmen, Oklahoma. What’s an ‘Odd Fellow’?”

  “I don’t know that either.” Suddenly, hearing her say it, I had a feeling I’d heard it before. “Where’s the file on John Henry Briggs?”

  She opened the file cabinet and sorted through it. “Here.”

  My eyes ran across the detective’s report, then the newspaper article. There it was: Dell Rapids Orphanage and Industrial School, also known as the Dell Rapids Odd Fellows Home.

  Over my shoulder, Helen said, “Do you think they’re connected?”

  “They have to be, don’t they? It must be some sort of organization. I’m going to borrow this for a while.” Then I waved at the room. “You’ve made good progress in here. It doesn’t even look like the same place.”

  “It was easier once I figured out her filing system.” Helen plucked a book off the shelf. “For instance, she made a donation last year to the NAACP, and they gave her a copy of the paperwork for her records. This is where I found it.” She he
ld up the book. “Black Boy.” She pulled another book off the shelf. “In this one, I discovered thirty or so letters from soldiers, all fans of Barbara Fanning, tucked between the pages.” She held up the book. “The Good Soldier.”

  “And she filed the will in Shakespeare—‘will’ for ‘William.’” I looked back and forth between the books. “Apparently she was more organized than we thought.”

  “By the way, Bernie called, and also Butch Dawkins. I think he wants to hear that song you’re writing for him.”

  Dammit, the song. The thing was only half-done because there hadn’t been time. Like that, I felt my temper stir. I didn’t have a moment to slow down now. I had to keep going because it was the only way to figure out who killed Mudge.

  In my room, I sat on the floor and listened to the records Butch had given me: Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. He had told me that, for a long time, blues was thought of as the devil’s music, but these women had sung it anyway. They taught themselves to play and sing. Most of them had come from dark, terrible childhoods and led dark, terrible lives, but nothing could keep them from singing.

  At first I concentrated on the lyrics. Then I listened to the whole song, not just the words, trying to hear what it was Butch wanted me to hear. Bessie Smith was my favorite because her big, sad voice seemed to come from inside the song, as if it had grown alongside the tune and the lyrics so that it was all seamlessly entwined. And there was something else—in her voice, you could hear every emotion she’d ever had. All the pain and sorrow and struggle were there, but so were strength and hope. I listened to “St. Louis Blues” until I thought I’d wear the record out.

 
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