American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  I smiled in return as I shook her hand. “Actually, I think I found exactly what I was looking for.”

  When I woke the next morning, three feet of snow covered the walk and the driveway. Franklin Hooper went out to clear a path, and when he came back inside, shaking the snow off his hat and coat on the porch, knocking his boots against the doorjamb, he said, “I think you’d best wait till tomorrow.”

  “I have an appointment tomorrow night that I can’t miss.” I told Franklin I wanted to go out and see the plane for myself.

  I borrowed a coat and scarf from Joanie. The air was so cold my teeth hurt, and my hands, deep in the pockets of Joanie’s coat, were numb. In California, the sun would be shining and the air would be warm, but here, in the rest of the world, it was winter. My boots made crunching sounds in the snow.

  The red of the P-51 barely showed through the white. I circled it slowly, brushing the snow off, scraping at ice.

  Franklin Hooper said, “I can’t let you risk it. The weather report says this is the last of it for the next couple days. You can leave early in the morning and get back in plenty of time. Better to be safe than sorry.”

  He turned and walked back toward the house, blowing on his hands. I ran after him, as best I could, through the thick, white mess. “Did you know a local boy named Jack Brooks?”

  “Name doesn’t ring a bell.” We stepped onto the porch and banged our shoes against the stairs.

  Joanie opened the door, her forehead creased. She stared up at the sky. “You can’t leave in this. She needs to wait till tomorrow, Franklin.”

  “She is waiting till tomorrow.”

  “I’m going to make you some coffee. You can hang your things on the rack by the door.”

  As we let ourselves in and hung up our things, I said, “So you didn’t know a Jack Brooks?”

  He took his time, placing first his scarf, then his coat onto the peg. “I knew a Jack Briggs; John Briggs would have been his given name.”

  “John Henry Briggs?”

  “That’s right. He did odd jobs for me and the Tyners a couple of years ago. Died last year of pneumonia or some such, over in Alva.”

  “Did you know a girl named Edna Mudge? Someone he got involved with while he was married? I think they went away together.”

  “No, but I heard about her.”

  “Do you know what happened?” I hung up my coat, pulled off my boots, and followed him into the den.

  “They were living somewhere up north. She was supposed to meet him, her and the baby, but she never showed. It was two weeks before a car was dug out of a lake, just a few miles from where he was living. It was her car, but she wasn’t in it. Maybe the fish got ’em, folks said. Maybe they melted away, bones and all. Or maybe she had taken the baby and disappeared.”

  The next day was colder, but clear. Franklin and his boys cleared the paths and plowed a runway with the tractor, driving it up and down to make the road as flat and smooth as possible. After I refueled, I thanked them all for the hospitality, told them I wouldn’t forget them, and swung aboard.

  By the time I got the plane engine humming, it was noon. There was an instant after takeoff when I thought I would overshoot the runway, that it wasn’t long enough, but then I was up and climbing, the flat, white land spread out beneath me like an endless blanket.

  Only then did I let myself think about what was waiting for me back home. Edna Mudge had once hurt her older sister by stealing the man she loved. It made sense that Mudge would do the same to Edna years later by stealing her husband. All I had to go on was instinct—and a cabinet full of Benzedrine, and a love of lily flowers, and a daughter named Rebecca, and a person who was younger than she claimed and who was sent away by the studio after Mudge’s death, just like Nigel, just like Wallace Beery. And motive. A good deal of motive. What I needed was an early photo or the original bio and publicity questionnaire, something from before her career had started that would record the real names, the real birthdate, the truth.

  And then I thought about Butch. After years of wondering how he felt and wanting him to say something—anything—to give me some clue to his feelings, he had laid it right down on the table, or started to.

  Did I love him? Did I love Sam? The thought of Sam flooded me with warmth, as if I’d stepped into sunshine and somehow swallowed it whole. Sam was new. I was still finding my way with him.

  But I couldn’t think about Butch without my heart racing. Butch, Butch, Butch, it seemed to say as it pounded along. The thought of him warmed me in a different way that was both familiar and new, easy and electric. It was a deep, unsettling burning that reached my bones.

  This was as far as I had gotten in thinking either of them through—what they meant, how I felt, where we went from here.


  I AM A REBEKAH: I believe in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of man, and the Sisterhood of woman. I believe in the watchwords of our Order—Friendship, Love, and Truth. Friendship—is like a golden chain that ties our hearts together. Love—is one of our most precious gifts, the more you give, the more you receive. Truth—is the standard by which we value people. It is the foundation of our society. I believe that my main concern should be my God, my family, and my friends. Then I should reach out to my community and the World, for in God’s eyes we are all brothers and sisters. I AM A REBEKAH!


  I walked the red carpet at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as if I hadn’t flown in from Oklahoma just three hours earlier. There had barely been enough time to go from airport to studio to home, to shower and dress and arrange for the studio to pick me up. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be in my car, headed to Metro’s research department, where I would find answers in the thousands of files kept on all their stars, past and present. I wanted to drive to Rockhaven Sanitarium right now. I would go tomorrow. I would take Helen with me or my brother, or maybe I would go by myself.

  Reporters lined the ropes, shouting questions at each star going by. I looked, but didn’t see Zed Zabel. Bernie made a beeline for me. “The next time you want to leave town, let Mayer know.”

  “Les gave me those days off. I didn’t miss work. I’m here for the premiere.”

  “What were you doing in Oklahoma?”

  “How did you know where I was?”

  “Just do me a favor, kid—lay low and stay out of trouble.”

  Sam was there alone. Hal stood to my left, his arm around Babe King, fielding questions about their new romance. When did they first feel that spark? When did he know that it was Babe, not Kit, who had his interest? And, Miss Rogers, how do you feel? You and Babe are such good friends, but is there any jealousy on your part? What happened to your romance with Sam Weldon, Kit? Is that over as well? And speaking of romance, is it true your mother recently married grocery store heir Giffard Leland, Miss King?

  While Babe and Sam talked to reporters, Shelby Jordan brushed past, holding hands with Felix Roland. They posed before cameras, the perfect Hollywood couple. The press wanted to know about Latimer, about Nigel, about how he was doing in the wake of the tragic death of his wife. I was inches away from Shelby. She was the right age—twenty-seven or twenty-eight. She was bright and charming and clever, and there was a steeliness about her, as if she’d been through a great deal. But she hadn’t killed Mudge.

  “What are you working on now, Sam Weldon? Will you ever write a book again, or is it strictly movies from here on out?”

  “I’m glad you asked. I’m actually working on a new book even as we speak. It’s a murder mystery set in Hollywood in which nothing’s what it seems.”

  “Does it have a title?”

  “Not yet. For now, I’m just calling it The Great Cover-Up.”

  “Will it be a movie, or is it too early to tell?”

  “I’d say it’s got the movies written all over it.”

  They were hustling us along, trying to get us into the theater. Babe and Hal walked ahead, leading the way. Sam nodded at me. “Good to see you, Pipes.”

  A reporter shouted something in my direction, and I turned, thinking I’d heard him wrong. He leaned forward on the rope and said, “Can you tell us why your brother was picked up by police? Can we get a statement from you, Miss Rogers?”

  “My brother?” But I had just seen Johnny Clay, days before, at the recording studio.

  Sam said, “When was he picked up?”

  “Yesterday. They’re holding him for questioning in the case of Jeanne French, the girl they found Monday. What can you tell us?”

  “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding. I’m sure it’s not my brother, but a man with a similar name.” To Sam, I whispered, “I have to go.”

  He said, “I’ll drive you.”

  Johnny Clay was being held downtown at the Central Jail. Sam and I were directed to the Central Division station, which sat at the corner of First and Hill Streets. It was a cold, dingy building, the walls stained with smoke. Helen and Lara Yacoubian, secretary to the coroner, sat side by side in hard wooden chairs. While Sam, cigarette burning in one hand, talked to the officer at the desk, I joined them.

  “What are you doing here?” I asked both of them.

  Helen said, “Johnny Clay called the house after they brought him in.”

  Lara jumped up. “I’m so sorry about your brother. That is so, so, so awful what they did.” From her chair, Helen watched her. “I was at your brother’s show. I was there when they picked him up. I came to see if I could do anything, but no one will talk to me, and I also came to see you because I figured you would be here.” Lara glanced at Helen, who smiled at her. Lara took my elbow and steered me away. “Listen,” she said very low, “I know you were thinking that it was Benzedrine that killed your friend, but I talked to Dr. Murdoch.” Her dark eyes darted over my shoulder, back to my face. “Benzedrine wrecks the internal organs. It leaves behind damage that’s easily noticeable—a dilated heart, congested kidneys, congested liver, internal hemorrhages. Benzedrine is easy to spot because it just messes up the body. You don’t even need to test for it. But he didn’t see anything like that in the autopsy.”

  “So it’s not Benzedrine?”

  “No. I don’t know if that helps or hurts, but I thought you should know either way.” She checked her watch. “I’ve got to go home and get some sleep. Is there anything I can do?”

  “No, you’ve already helped. And, Lara? Thank you.”

  “You’re welcome. Maybe you could tell that brother of yours to call me when he gets out.”

  As she rushed off, I sat down next to Helen in one of the hard brown chairs. “Women certainly do make idiots of themselves over your brother,” Helen said. She was the only girl I’d ever known who seemed immune to him. “Are you okay?”

  “Just worried.”

  “How was Oklahoma?”

  Before I could answer, Sam was back and saying there wasn’t any bail because Johnny Clay hadn’t actually been arrested, only brought in for questioning.

  “If he was only being questioned, why did he have to spend the night?”

  “Isn’t it obvious? To send a message.” He sank into the chair next to mine and loosened his tie.

  “A message for me.” Well it’s been received, I thought. Loud and clear. Helen got up to go in search of coffee for us, and Sam reached for my hand. “This has gone too far. They’ve gone too far.” My eyes moved from uniform to uniform, suit to suit, at all these men who may or may not have been crooked, men you were supposed to trust but couldn’t because any one of them might have been on the take.

  “Velva Jean?”

  Butch was standing above me, white shirt, dark pants, jacket under his arm. He nodded at Sam, his eyes glancing at our joined hands, at his cigarette. “You got a light?”

  Sam let go of my hand and passed Butch the lighter.

  As he lit up, I said, “Where have you been?” It sounded angry, as if all of this was his fault.

  “I’ve been trying to get him out is where I’ve been.” The lighter found its way back to Sam.

  “Why didn’t you call me?”

  “I did call you, but you didn’t answer and no one seemed to know where you were.”

  “Helen knew. She knew exactly where I was.”

  Butch dropped into the chair on my other side, angling himself toward us, throwing one arm across the back. He looked at me sideways. “Well next time I’ll call Helen.”

  “Where were you when they brought him in?”

  “Getting my own ass rounded up.” He looked around me to Sam, as if he needed to talk to a rational person. “They’ve been raiding all of Central ever since the Black Dahlia killing and then all those other girls. They let me go around four a.m., told me they’d keep an eye on me.” He said to me, “They let everyone go but your brother.”

  “They told me they brought him in to ask about Jeanne French, as if he had something to do with her death, as if he even knew that girl.”

  “You go ask someone else in here, and he’ll tell you they brought your brother in because he killed the Black Dahlia. They’ve done everything but blame him for Pearl Harbor.” He looked at Sam. “You think this was the studio?”


  Butch held the cigarette like he was getting ready to write with it. He said, “This is one fucked up town.”

  I got up and walked away so I could stand by myself and think. It was my fault. I should have listened. I should have left it alone. And now they weren’t going after me anymore; they were going after my brother.

  Helen came back with a coffee for Sam and one for me. When she saw Butch, she offered to get him one, but he shook his head. She and I paced up and down, back and forth, and fifteen, maybe twenty minutes later, Johnny Clay came fuming toward us from the other end of the hall. He moved like he ached, like a man twice his age, and he had murder in his eye. He also had a beauty of a shiner and a split lip. Before he could say a word, I hugged him tight, as if he might disappear.

  “Are you okay? Did they hurt you? What happened?”

  “I’m okay.”

  He yanked his arm away and pushed past me, heading for the door. Sam called, “Uh, Junior. There’ll be reporters there. We should go out the back.”

  Johnny Clay kept walking like he couldn’t hear. He walked right out the door, and the rest of us followed. He was swallowed up by the swarm of reporters who were circling, waiting for stories. I heard him say, “They picked me up outside the Dunbar, two of them, both white, both wanting to know what I was doing in that part of town. I told them it was none of their business.” He grinned meanly. “This was about three, four yesterday afternoon. The fellas that picked me up said they got an anonymous tip telling them I might have something to do with the recent string of lone woman murders. That’s what they’re calling it. I told them, You got the wrong guy, but they said it didn’t matter, they were supposed to take me in, that I must have really pissed someone off. That’s a direct quote.”

  Sam said to us, “And that, my friends, is the sound of Pandora’s box opening. Anyone else think it’s strange that Bernie Hanser, publicist of Kit Rogers, hasn’t shown up yet? Or Mannix? Or Strickling?”

  “No,” I said. “They’ve left me on my own on this one. They know I went to Oklahoma, and I’m sure they figured out it had something to do with Mudge’s death. It’s all part of the lesson.”

  A reporter called out, “Did they actually question you, Mr. Hart?”

  “No. Except for ‘Where were you the night of February 9?’ And ‘Did you know Jeanne French?’ I said I was playing a gig at the Downbeat February 9 and had about two hundred witnesses who could testify to that. And, what’s more, I didn’t know any girl named Jeanne French. That was it. One of the officers said t
hat’s all, thanks so much, now here’s your cell.”

  “That’s all they asked?”

  “That’s all. I been in that cell ever since.”

  “Did they give you that shiner?”

  “And the split lip. They said be grateful it isn’t worse.”

  Zed Zabel moved up to the front. He said, “Isn’t it true you’ve been in trouble before? Does the name George Cuswell mean anything to you?”


  “Sorry. You would have known him as ‘Blackeye.’”

  Johnny Clay went silent. My heart slowed in my chest. My feet, my hands, all of me went cold.

  Zed rambled on. “From Texas, wasn’t he? Had a brother called Slim. Worked for the CCC back in 1940, 1941, until someone nearly beat his brains in, left him to die. Would you know something about that?”

  Sam stared at me. “Who’s Blackeye?”

  I looked at Butch and so did Sam and Helen. Butch had been there too, back on the mountain, back when Blackeye and his gang had tried to hurt Lucinda Sink, the woman Johnny Clay had loved.

  “Go, all of you.” Butch handed me his jacket and then pulled off his shirt. The skin across the Bluesman tattoo was a deep and angry purple-red.

  I reached out to touch it. “You’re hurt. Who did this?”

  He smiled. “Let’s give ’em a distraction.”

  We waited on the other side of the building, in the shadow of Old Central. Sam smoked cigarette after cigarette as I paced up and down. Helen leaned against the building, rubbing her arms to keep warm. I said, “I should be right there with him—with them. Standing beside them, telling those reporters what I know.” Up and down, up and down. I was going to wear a hole in the pavement.

  Sam said, “Which ‘him’ are you talking about?”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]