American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  Webster Hayes, followed by his entourage of bodyguards, paused at our table. “If it isn’t the two lovebirds. How’s the prime rib?”

  Hal smiled. “Good and bloody.”

  Hayes turned to one of his men. “Get me two.” Then, back to us, “Where’s Weldon? I’ve been trying to collect on a drink he owes me.” He said this in my direction, without looking at me. Webster Hayes was one of those men who only liked to address a woman in conversation if he was leering at her.

  I said, “He’s still at Broad Water working on the Latimer script.”

  “Shame about the Palmer dame. You talked to Gray?”

  He was looking at Hal, but I answered “No.”

  His eyes jumped to me before zinging right back to Hal. “He claims he can’t remember how they were hit or how they ever came to be on the train tracks in the first place. The only thing he remembers is waking up on the goddamn ground thinking, ‘What am I doing outside?’ If I had a nickel for every time I’ve wondered that myself.” He threw his head back and roared.

  There was the sound of a commotion. People at the neighboring tables were buzzing so loudly it sounded as if a thousand bees had been let loose in the room. They chattered behind their hands, eyes on the door. Hal, Webster Hayes, the bodyguards, and I turned to see what they were looking at.

  Nigel Gray and Howard Strickling stood together, Mr. Strickling leaning on the host stand, chatting with the host as Nigel, hands in pockets, stared back at everyone who was staring at him. The host led them through the aisles, Mr. Strickling behind him, Nigel following. As he passed, people called out hello and nodded and told him he was looking well, and the moment he moved on, they went on buzzing.

  At home, I lay in bed and thought, as I always did, about how much I hated lying in bed in the dark in the minutes or hours before sleep. This was the only time of day when I slowed down and let down, and just as I did, there would come the sadness creeping in, trying to get inside.

  Mudge was murdered and no one cares. My friend is gone, and everyone is carrying on as if nothing happened.

  I sat up, turned on the light, picked up the steel guitar, and tiptoed down the stairs. I went out to the pool house, where I wouldn’t wake Helen, and said out loud, “All right. Show me where to go. Show me what to do. If you’re in there, come on out.” Like the giant in Devil’s Courthouse, I thought. Like the Wood Carver. You couldn’t always see them, but you knew they were there.

  “Come on, song,” I said. “I don’t have forever.”

  On Saturday, Latimer began shooting at Castle Finckenstein on Lot 2. The medieval castle sat in Joppa Square between Verona Square and Chinese Street. Like most backlot buildings, it was only a backless shell built out of plywood, made to look as if it were constructed of stone. A crowd was gathered—crewmen and other cast members, including Webster Hayes. We watched as Nigel Gray was dragged from his castle home by a violent mob.

  Babe had wrapped her scenes on Flyin’ Jenny and was now transformed into Lady Catherine. She ran after him as he was taken through the streets, struggling at first, shouting bloody hell and damnation, before—finally—giving in, as if he deserved it. When they marched past the cameras, I got a good look at his face, chin held high, tears running down his cheeks, resigned to his fate.

  “A remarkably believable performance.” Sam was at my elbow, the first I’d seen of him on the Latimer set. He looked suntanned, but tired and unshaven. The cameramen began resetting the scene as Felix Roland spoke to Nigel. I watched as he dried his eyes and crossed his arms, listening closely to the director.

  Sam kissed me on the cheek, his lips lingering. “Rumor has it you’ve been spending more time here than on your own picture. Anxiously awaiting my return from Broad Water? Or have you shifted your affections to Nigel Gray now that he’s single?”

  “You’re terrible.”

  “I missed you too.” He kissed me again, this time on the mouth. When I came up for air, I caught Babe’s eye, watching us. She waved and I waved back. Behind her, I could see Shelby Jordan and Mr. Strickling strolling toward the set.

  “Not here,” I said.

  “But you look so fetching in your flying gear.”

  He untied the scarf from my neck and I slapped his hand away. “Were you able to find anything out from Tauby or Felix?”

  He arched an eyebrow. “You know, I’m accustomed to being used for my body, but being used for my deductive skills is a whole new experience.”

  “I don’t have long before I’m due back on the set. Just be serious for a moment.”

  “All right then, to answer your question, in the midst of being locked up for ten days with two drunken, pill-swallowing egomaniacs who can’t write to save their lives but think they can, I did a fair amount of digging, and, in summation, I’d be surprised if either had anything to do with her death.”

  “Weldon!” Felix was calling him, hands cupped to his mouth. Arms still crossed, Nigel looked in our direction. When I caught his eye, he glanced away.

  “Duty calls. I’m not going to kiss you again because I prefer not to get my head ripped off, but are we still on for dinner tomorrow?”

  I opened my mouth to say yes, but there was something in his expression—behind the smirk and the dancing eyes, I saw real emotion, real feelings. “I don’t think so. I’m sorry, Sam.”

  “Care to give me a reason?”

  “It’s not you.”

  “It’s you?”

  “Yes. And the situation. And the timing. I can’t do this right now—us. Not romantically. It’s not fair to you. The only thing I can do is be your friend.”

  “It would be a first for me, Pipes.”

  “I’m sure it would. But I’ll only keep frustrating you and I don’t want to do that.”

  “And after all this is said and done?”

  “I can’t promise anything.”

  He sighed, and I could see the hurt he didn’t attempt to hide. “I can’t promise anything either, but I’ll try.”

  The Lot 1 saucer tank was filled with twenty feet of water and measured 5,250 square feet. It was an enormous aboveground watertight bowl with portholes carved into its sides, which allowed the cameras to film underwater. Here, Johnny Weissmuller had once wrestled rubber crocodiles, and Esther Williams had splashed onto the screen in her debut.

  For Flyin’ Jenny, the tank was doubling as the interior of a flooded fifty-five-foot freighter. In the scene, Jenny finds herself imprisoned in the bowels of the ship, until, in the nick of time, she finds her way out. Right now, the top of the tank was covered with a black ceiling. I would climb into it through a small trapdoor.

  Les and some of the other crewmen arranged themselves along the upper rim and down below at the cameras, which were poised at all angles. I stood beside the trapdoor, dressed in my flight suit, except for my boots, which, at the last minute, they’d agreed I could leave off. I didn’t want to be dragged to the bottom by the weight.

  Les called, “Okay, Kit?”

  “Okay.”

  “You won’t hear me say ‘rolling’ because I want you to go on in.”

  We had practiced this again and again. I could hold my breath for nearly four minutes, thanks to years of swimming in Three Gum River. Even with that, they would have to shoot quickly.

  Inside the tank, the walls were painted black to match the ceiling, and the light was dim at best, just bright enough for the cameras. It was like being in a cave. We hadn’t practiced with the ceiling in place, and it took me a moment to figure out my marks.

  I counted to ten, to make sure they were rolling, and then I started to swim, first here, then there because Jenny was disoriented, trying to remember the way. A body floated past, then another—both wax dummies, but the sight of them jarred me.

  One minute gone.

  There was a motion to the water, a churning that
was meant to imitate the pitching of the ship. I could see one of the cameras through the closest porthole, but even so I felt a flutter of panic. Another body floated past. I swam to the door they had built into the side, just for the scene, just for me. I tugged on it, but of course it didn’t give.

  Two minutes gone.

  More bodies floated past, and I dove my way through these, searching for another door. Then back again to the first one, the only one, and I tugged again. I fiddled with my belt, undoing it as I’d practiced so that I could wrap it through the door handle. I pulled with all my might, my foot braced against the wall. Then I slipped, plunging backward, only to be picked up by the water and carried forward. I hit my head on something sharp—the handle, maybe. The water changed color around me, and in the murky light all I could see was the dark inky red of blood.

  Three minutes gone.

  My ears rang, as if someone had boxed them, and my head throbbed as if it had been cut in two. The water rocked me, over and over. My head spinning, my ears ringing, I swam back to the other side of the tank, in the direction of the trapdoor. I wasn’t supposed to do this, and I could hear voices in the distance, waterlogged and urgent, no doubt telling me to go back and for God’s sake don’t ruin the shot. I pushed up through the water, up toward the blackness, but when I reached for the trapdoor, it wasn’t there. I was swallowing water now, and my lungs ached.

  I slammed against something and my fingers scraped at the wall. I scrambled to find a handhold, the panic quickly growing. My limbs were weary and weak, weighed down as if they weren’t my limbs anymore and belonged to someone else. I felt my eyes start to close even as I scraped and scratched and went tumbling away, the water lifting me and pounding me and pushing me down, down, down.

  Four minutes gone.

  The pants of my flying costume were wool, and I had to fight to keep from sinking. I struggled with the clasp, trying to slip them off, but then remembered they were safety-pinned to me, to keep them up after I removed the belt. I fumbled with the pin, but couldn’t work it free.

  With every ounce of strength I had left, I pushed my way up again and swam along the top of the tank, banging against the ceiling. Everywhere, it was smooth wood, smooth iron, smooth walls. Black, black, black. Through the porthole, I could see the men talking and laughing, tilting the cameras, as if they couldn’t see that I was drowning, that I was dying. I was hitting ceiling and wall, ceiling and wall. I couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

  They don’t know what’s happening to me. They think I’m acting. I’m going to die in here before someone saves me.

  Then, somehow, I found the hatch. I pushed against it, but it didn’t give. I banged and pushed, banged and pushed, and my head and lungs went throb, throb, throb.

  Five minutes gone.

  I was sinking again, all the way down to the black, black floor. And then, from a long way off, I heard a voice say: Let go. Stop fighting. Give in. Give up.

  I closed my eyes and drifted, and the feeling was lovely and peaceful. It was so much easier than fighting. I was warm and light, as if I didn’t weigh anything at all, and I just gave in, gave up, and let myself be carried.

  Suddenly, I was rising up and out and into the sky. The day was so bright, I covered my eyes with my hand. Someone had me in his arms and was moving me down the ladder and onto land and laying me down softly, gently, and then the nurse was there, the one who always stood by when the saucer tank was in use, and Hal was leaning over me, water dripping from his skin, and he was saying, “You’re okay. I got you. You’re okay. You’re here.”

  Little by little, other images and sounds came filtering in, and over Hal I could hear someone shouting. Maybe Les Edgar or one of the technicians—no, it was Les, wanting to know who in the goddamn bloody hell had latched the trapdoor from the outside, and whose goddamn bloody idea was it to put a ceiling on the pool in the first place.

  THIRTY

  Hal drove me home in my car, Les Edgar following him in his own. Even though I could walk perfectly fine, Hal carried me into the house and set me down on the sofa as Helen and Flora fussed about. I said, “Helen, you need to go back to Connecticut and get on with your life. Why are you still hanging around here? Hal and Les, the same goes for you—go back to the studio, go back home. Flora, you’re not a maid anymore. You don’t need to be bringing me things and waiting on me.” I was irritated with all of them.

  Flora pointed her finger at me. “I’m your friend as sure as Miss Helen or Mr. Hal there. Don’t you tell me what to do in my own house.”

  Les said, “We’re nearly finished filming, but you see how you feel on Monday. If you need a day or two off, we’ll make it happen.”

  I wanted all of them to leave me alone and go away so I could think of who might have locked that trapdoor. I tried to remember the faces of everyone on the set, of anyone who could have done this. And then, again and again, my mind kept circling back to Nigel. Nigel and the studio. Mr. Mannix. Mr. Strickling. Whitey Hendry.

  I waited until Les and Hal had driven away and Helen and Flora had disappeared into the kitchen. Then I picked up my keys and went out to the driveway and got into the Oldsmobile.

  I drove like AAA national champion Ted Horn from Beverly Hills to Brentwood, the road stretching out in front of me. That was what I liked most about driving—the forward motion of it and the sense that you were on your way to somewhere. My head ached, but I was fine. I was here. I was alive.

  Nigel lived on a ranch in Mandeville Canyon, which was just west of Brentwood. The minute I turned onto Mandeville, I felt a sharp, sweet pang for home. A thick, green forest hunched across either side of the narrow road, as if it were still deciding whether or not to let the road pass. I rolled down the window and breathed in the air, which was both cool and warm, and smelled faintly of salt. I drove for miles until I thought I’d run straight into the mountains. And there, at the base of them, was Nigel’s property.

  A low white fence separated his land from the street, and a wide iron gate marked the entrance. I hadn’t called first. He didn’t know I was coming. But while the car sat idling, I tried the gate, which opened as if I’d been expected. It took me another mile or so to reach the house, a low, sprawling ranch structure that would have looked big and spacious if it weren’t hugging a mountain. I could see a barn, tennis courts, guest cottages, and horse stables, and trails that spread out from those stables toward the wild, thick forest that climbed up the hillside.

  I parked the Oldsmobile next to his car, which sat outside one of the garages. I rang the doorbell and waited. He might not even be home. The walls of the house were nearly all glass, so I could see through to the other side, and out into the backyard, where a couple of cows were grazing. I rang the bell again.

  After waiting a minute, I walked over to his car and laid my hand on the hood. Still warm. I poked my head in each open or half-open garage door, then walked around to the other side of the house. Here, my eyes swept over the barn, the stables, and the guesthouses. I crossed the yard, passing through the back patio, and saw the cigarette, the end glowing red, resting in the ashtray. “Nigel?”

  I had the sense of someone watching me, even though, except for the cows and horses, I seemed to be alone. “Hello?” My voice sounded too small to carry over all those acres. It was stopped short by the mountain and the breeze.

  “Nigel?” I shooed the cows and stepped carefully to the barn, which was empty except for a nest of pigeons fluttering in the eves. I explored the stables, where the sweet, stale smell of hay and horses burned my nose. I breathed through my mouth, making my way past the stalls as the horses watched me, heads turning lazily as I passed.

  Outside, I breathed the air again and this time walked to the tennis courts, circled the pool, and peered in the windows of each guesthouse. When I got back to the main house, the cigarette was gone. I knocked on the back door over and over. “I know you
’re here,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

  I shaded my eyes and pressed my face to the glass. I could make out the living room, the bar, the den, the office. I moved sideways across the house, looking in each room. When I got to what looked like the playroom, I could see a scattering of children’s toys. I thought I saw a figure sitting in one of the chairs. I didn’t trust my eyes and so I pressed my face closer until my nose was against the glass and my breath was making little clouds of mist. I wiped these away and gave the figure a good, hard look. It was Nigel. He was sitting in the chair, facing me, staring at the carpet, his fingers wrapped around a bottle of something. I rapped on the glass, and he raised his head.

  When he didn’t move any further, I rapped again. “I’m not leaving until you talk to me.”

  The drumming of my heart was filling my ears so that it almost sounded as if I were underwater again. If this man had murdered Mudge and his wife, I wasn’t going to think about what he might try to do to me—or what he may have already tried to do.

  After what seemed like hours but was probably just minutes, he stood, like someone in a trance, and walked over to me so that he was only inches away, on the other side of the window. The sun was behind me, which meant it was focused on him. I could see him clearly now. He was shirtless, dressed in shorts, and his feet were bare. He looked as if he was getting ready to take a swim.

  I said, “I need to talk to you. I need to ask you about Barbara.”

  On the other side of the glass, his blue eyes looked clear and pale. I thought if he stood there long enough I could count every line I noticed, for the first time, at the creases of his eyes and mouth.

  “Open the door, Nigel.”

  His eyes locked with mine. “Go away,” he mouthed.

  I banged on the glass. “Nigel, let me in. I almost died today on the set, and whether or not you were the one who tampered with that trapdoor, that’s your fault. None of this would be happening to me if it weren’t for you. So start talking. It’s the least you can do. You can damn well tell me what happened.”

 
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