American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  I could see him thinking it over. Finally, he leaned one hand against the glass, palm facing me, as if the hand was the only thing holding him up. “She was upset.” I could just make out his words. “She said she would never forgive me.”

  “Forgive you for what?”

  “For falling in love with someone else.”

  I realized he wasn’t talking about Mudge. He was talking about Pia. He began to pace, back and forth, on the other side of the window.

  I banged on the glass, harder this time. “Who was driving the car, Nigel?”

  He walked up and down, up and down.

  “Nigel? Who was driving the car?”

  He stopped and looked at me again. “She was. But it may as well have been me. I as good as killed her myself.” He rapped on the window so suddenly I jumped back. “And they all think I’ve done it. Every last, bloody lot of them. Just like Barbara.”

  My chest fluttered. My hands shook. “Nigel, let me in.”

  He turned, as if someone was calling him, and then I could see a little boy and a little girl, no more than eight or nine, in the doorway of the room. He strolled away from the window, said something to them, and then an older woman bustled in and ushered them out. Nigel came strolling back toward me, the telephone in his hand. He picked up the receiver, dialed, and looked right at me as he said, “Yes, I’d like to report a trespasser. 3099 Mandeville Canyon Road. I have reason to believe this person is dangerous. Thank you.” He hung up, wearing a sad smile. “You have approximately three and a half minutes before they get here. The driveway alone will take half that time.”

  “I’m going,” I said. “But before I do, I need to know. Was it Pia? Was she the one who did it?”

  Something in his eyes went dark, but then I realized it was the clouds, drifting across the sun. He stood temporarily in shadow just like I did. And then the clouds cleared, and I could see that he was crying.

  I was on Sunset when I spotted the man with the hat, two cars behind me. I moved over to the right lane and checked my mirror. In a moment, he changed to the right lane, one car between us now. I slowed down, hoping the car behind me would pass, and finally it shifted into the left lane and zoomed on by. The man with the hat was now on my tail.

  He dropped back a little, as if he didn’t want me to get a good look. I slowed even more, and he dropped back farther, and then I sped up, dodging into the left lane, passing the car ahead of me. I was getting ready to dart into the right lane again, when I thought, No. It’s time to find out what he wants.

  I slowed down until he caught up with me. I let the speedometer hover at thirty miles per hour, then let it go down to twenty-five. He eased off a little. I slowed to twenty miles per hour, and he eased off more. I crept along until other cars started blowing their horns and roaring by. He stayed two car lengths behind, and when we came to a red light, I got out of the car and stalked over to him, banging on his window.

  “What do you want?” I banged on the window until he rolled it down. The stoplight turned green, but I still stood there. “Who are you? Did the studio hire you? Do you work for them? Mr. Strickling and Mr. Mannix? Mr. Hendry?” When he didn’t say anything, I leaned in closer. “Please give them a message for me. You can park in front of my house or follow me all over town. You can lie down in my driveway, for all I care. But I’m not going to stop digging. If they want to scare me off, tell them they’re going to have to do better than this.”

  I climbed back in my car and drove away, and the next time I checked the rearview mirror he was nowhere to be seen.

  Back in the driveway of Mudge’s house, I sat in the car trying to wrap my aching head around all the pieces of the puzzle, too many pieces in too many places, too many clues, too many dead ends, too many suspects, but nothing clear or making sense.

  What kind of world was it in which men could fix events—like murder—so that they never happened, make murderers disappear as if they never existed, arrange marriages between people who didn’t love each other, and use people’s lives as something to be bartered and bargained with? They were, all of them, extortionists.

  From inside the house, I heard the sound of the telephone. In a minute, Helen appeared on the front step, waving at me. I could have kept sitting there, but I made myself get out of the Oldsmobile and walk toward her. She said, “I thought I heard your car. Where did you go? Flora was worried sick.”

  “I had to run an errand.”

  “Sam’s on the phone.”

  I went into the house, dropped my keys on the table by the front door, and picked up the extension. Without a hello, he launched in. “You told me she filed papers away in books.”

  It took me a minute to realize he was talking about Mudge. “That’s right.”

  “What was it she said to you before she died? Was it ‘Rebecca’?”

  “That’s right,” I repeated.

  “What if Rebecca isn’t a person at all, but a book?”

  Helen and I searched every bookshelf in every room of the house until I found it in the sunroom, underneath a copy of the Bible. I opened the book—Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I flipped through it, shook it upside down, and when nothing fell out, I started at the beginning and turned every page.

  I was nearly at the end of the book, and I had a sinking feeling in my heart. A little voice in the back of my mind said, This isn’t the Rebecca she was talking about.

  When I got to the last page without uncovering even a scrap of something, I shut the book and examined the cover, looking for any secret hiding place or pocket. Then I flipped through again, page after page.

  Finally I snapped the book shut and sat back. “There’s nothing here.”

  Helen took it from me. “Are you sure?” She began searching through.

  “I’m sure.” I reached for the Bible and turned to Genesis Chapter 24. I flipped through all the passages about Rebekah, wife of Isaac, just in case she was the one we were looking for.

  When I had finished searching and Helen had finished searching, she said, “Do you ever feel like you wish you’d known her better?”

  “All the time.”

  THIRTY-ONE

  On Monday morning, from the bar and grill across from the studio, I telephoned Miss Dorothea Green, of Carmen, Oklahoma. I told her my name was Kit Rogers, I was a friend of Eloise Mudge, a.k.a. Barbara Fanning, and I was interested in knowing about her time at the Carmen home—how long she’d lived there and what, if anything, Miss Green could tell me about Edna Mudge, the younger sister.

  Miss Green said, “I remember Eloise well. She was a shy thing. Polite, sweet, wounded.”

  “Wounded?”

  “Like a bird with a broken wing. That’s how I always thought of her. She carried a lot inside. I remember Edna too, of course. They were very different from each other.” Her voice trailed off.

  “Can you tell me how old the girls were when they came to live there? And where Edna is now?”

  “I’m sorry, Miss Rogers, but I’m afraid I can’t disclose that information over the telephone.”

  “What if I were to come see you in person?” I would have to record my song for Butch and work out my schedule with Les, but we were nearly done shooting the picture, and he’d mentioned a day off if I needed it.

  On the other end of the line, Dorothea Green was silent.

  “Miss Green? Would you be able to talk to me if I came to Oklahoma?”

  “Yes, Miss Rogers. I would be glad to.”

  I was back on the set for my first time since Saturday, and Les Edgar wanted to know again if I was okay to continue in the wake of the accident. I wanted to say, What accident? That was no accident. Someone was trying to scare me, or worse, but guess what? It didn’t work.

  He said, “Do you need a day or two off to recover? Or can you finish the week? We’re nearly through. We might even wrap as
early as Thursday. You’d have time enough to recuperate before Monday’s premier.” He was referring to the second Flyin’ Jenny installment, Star-Spangled Blonde.

  As he talked, everyone was listening but pretending not to, anxious to get going.

  “I think I can finish what you need me to finish, Les, as long as I know I have two or three days to myself as soon as we’re done.”

  He smiled, and I could see the relief there: We would stay on schedule. We would be on time. He said, “I’ll clear it with Mayer today.”

  The day we finished shooting, the night before I left for Oklahoma, I covered up the cut on my head so that no one—not even my brother—could tell I’d been in an accident. Johnny Clay picked up Helen and me and drove us downtown because he said it wasn’t safe to come by ourselves. Another murdered girl had been discovered Monday morning. Across the nude body of Jeanne French, the killer had written a message to police, too vulgar to print, in dark red lipstick taken from her purse.

  The Bronze Recording Company was located in a storefront on busy Vernon Avenue, an area made up of factories and stockyards, slaughterhouses and meat-packers. Leroy Hurte, the man who owned Bronze, had been making records since 1943. His was one of the first independent labels in town, holding its own against Decca, Capitol, Columbia, and Victor.

  “Did Dawks tell you no one above Central wants to rent to a colored guy?” Johnny Clay had said.

  “Butch isn’t colored.”

  “Maybe not to you and me. But to them, he’s just a dirty Indian.”

  The entire staff of Bronze Records totaled four—Hurte, his secretary, a pressman, and a printer. When we got there, the secretary greeted us and led us into the studio, a large room with a piano and a glass-windowed control room off of it. A middle-aged black man, straight-backed and dignified in a pin-striped brown suit, jacket thrown over his chair, sat in the control room talking to Butch through the speaker. Sherman stood up from behind the drums and shook Johnny Clay’s hand, Helen’s, and mine.

  Mr. Hurte said, “Is that Kit Rogers, the movie star? Look at me, moving up in the world.” He laughed.

  Butch was all business. You stand here, Johnny Clay stand there, Helen sit over here out of the way. We’ll get Velva Jean’s song first, and then, while we have her, record another, get her to sing on that too. He moved around the room like a cat, languid, loose limbed, but with purpose. This was his show, and he knew what he wanted. When it was clear what we were doing, he said to me, “I want you to forget everything you’ve learned. This is Vernon Avenue. There’s a slaughterhouse two blocks away. This ain’t MGM, girl. This is equipment Leroy built himself. Just let everything down and play.”

  I thought: Don’t just tell me. Tell Sherman and Johnny Clay.

  To all of us Butch said, “Let’s throw it down.”

  We ran through the song a couple of times so that we could get it stirring and get Sherman and my brother, on guitar instead of trumpet, on board. Then Leroy gave us the go-ahead, and Butch counted us off, and there we went. I tried to forget everything I’d learned and lose myself in the music, but we hadn’t even reached the chorus before Butch raised his hands and then cut a finger across his throat so that Leroy would know to stop the track. We tried it again. And again. Butch stopped us over and over, and finally said to me, “MGM is all over you, girl. That’s great for the movies, but that don’t work here.” He was frustrated, but trying not to be. “Don’t think so much.”

  “I’m not thinking.”

  “Yes you are. I can hear you, like a dancer trying to learn the steps, counting under your breath.”

  “Maybe you should sing it.”

  “Maybe I’ll need to, but I want to see if you can do it first.”

  I thought, Like hell you will. I said, “All right, let’s go again.”

  We’d barely started this time when Butch stopped, told everyone to take five minutes, and led me outside, where the night air was heavy with the smell of the slaughterhouse. Sirens wailed in the distance. A man walked down the street, singing his heart out. Butch lit up a cigarette, and for a minute I thought he’d brought me out there to watch him smoke. Finally he said, “If you ain’t careful, that studio’s going to ruin you. You got a shine and a spirit I ain’t ever seen before, and a voice like I ain’t ever heard. But they’re going to rub the shine right out of you.”

  “What are you talking about? Kit Rogers is known for her shine. That’s practically all she does.”

  “Kit Rogers isn’t real. She’s a part you’re playing. I don’t care about her; I care about you. I want to see if you can remember being Velva Jean Hart.”

  I thought about walking away, but Butch kept right on going.

  “Let me ask you something. Do you like what you’re doing over there?” He nodded in the direction of the slaughterhouse, but I knew he meant Metro.

  “Of course.” I did my best to sound sincere.

  “Don’t tell me what you tell everyone else. Does it feel good in here?” With the cigarette hand, he pointed at my heart.

  “It’s challenging. I’m challenged. I’m learning to act. I’m learning new styles and techniques. Things a girl like me never would have learned if I hadn’t gone there.”

  “‘A girl like you’? Oh, man.” He shook his head.

  “Let me ask you something. Why do you care so much?”

  “Because I know what you can do. They don’t own your songs anymore. Their year is up and your songs belong to you now. But your voice has changed. It’s like they still own you.”

  “My voice has gotten better.”

  “Only technically. You’re a natural born singer. You got a gift. But you’re in danger of losing it. If you were throwing yourself away on booze or drugs, I’d feel the same. The minute music stops being something you love, you need to walk away. There’s a helluva lot of work involved, but in its best moments, it shouldn’t feel like work. In its best moments it should feel like love. New love. First love. Sweet, uncomplicated, and raw. You play and sing without having to worry about what you know and what you been through. Without ever knowing or expecting the doubt and the hurt and the bullshit. It’s love in its purest form before we go in and fuck things up and make it harder than it should be.”

  He dropped the cigarette on the ground, crushing it under his shoe. “You ready to go back in there and try again?” His voice was low and even, but his eyes were blazing. He was daring me.

  My eyes blazed right back. “Yes.”

  We threw it down, as Butch would say, and something happened—it was like a light turning on. I could feel the change. Metro would never have recorded me like this. I would have been sent back to class and told to study and find my diaphragm and think about the way I was holding my tongue. I felt like I was leaving one world and walking into another. Like I was falling in love with the right person for the first time. Everything felt brand-new, and the world seemed prettier, the air seemed prettier, as if instead of a slaughterhouse we were surrounded by greenhouses of roses. The thing I’d been missing in all the songs I’d been given to sing was soul. There wasn’t room for soul at MGM.

  When we’d recorded my song and one other, Johnny Clay said, “I don’t know what you said to her, but it worked.” He grinned at me. “There you are, little sister. Good to see you again.”

  Leroy Hurte came out of his booth and told Butch he’d put the first song out and then the second, and so on like that, letting each song build off the one that came before. His printing press could print a thousand records a week, and by the end of that week, the dealers would come lining up to buy them. Then he’d go back and press another thousand.

  Then Leroy turned to me, shaking his head. “Honey, you should go up to Capitol Records. They won’t take unknowns, but they’ll take someone they figure can sell in a hurry, and you can sell. You don’t need to be down here cutting race records.”

/>   “It won’t be long before they know Butch Dawkins and his band,” I said. “Besides, this is where I belong. Everyone above Central can just keep their studios.” My face was still burning from the session. I could feel the itch in my fingers that meant I was ready to do more. As good as it felt to prove myself to Butch, it felt even better to know my voice was still my own. No one else was in charge of it but me.

  I sneaked a glance at Butch and he nodded in a way that was meant just for me and no one else. His eyes said, Good job, and Yes it is, and Yes they can, and You can still shine when you need to.

  Outside the studio, my brother danced Helen and me around the street, singing my song, while Sherman beat a rhythm on the hood of his car. Butch made a smoking gesture and my brother handed him a cigarette. Johnny Clay felt his pockets and said, “You got a light, Scatman?”

  Sherman said, “Nah, man, I gave that up.”

  “Dawks?”

  “I used my last matches. Leroy’s still in there. He’ll have some.”

  “Trying to get rid of me?”

  “Only temporarily.” Butch handed him the cigarette back. “Do me a favor. Smoke both of them.” He grinned like someone up to no good.

  Sherman said, “You want Helen and me to pretend like we smoke?”

  “Yes I do.”

  When they were gone, Butch set his guitar case on the sidewalk and leaned against Sherman’s car. We watched the people going by, the traffic rolling past. I leaned against the car, right next to him, so that my arm brushed his.

  “You sure showed me, girl. That was hotter than a Louisiana summer.”

  “It felt good to be playing like that, all of us. To be in a studio—not a recording stage, but making a record that I want to make.”

  “You nailed it. Fo sho, fo sho.” He shook his head. “I wanted to tell you without those buzzards hanging around. I also wanted to tell you that we’d like to record with you again and have you be part of this, if you want to be, however you want to be. I don’t know where it’ll lead or if it’ll lead anywhere, but you’re welcome anytime.”

 
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