American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  “Nothing. You need to sit on what you know until you know more.”

  “But I think I know who killed her.”

  “So we deal with that and then you talk to them, only then. Give them something concrete. You spill things now, Pipes, and you’ll be the one who ends up looking bad; I guarantee it. They’ll twist the truth until they’ve pinned you for it. And then you won’t be of any use to anyone.”

  I closed my eyes. I counted. When I opened them again, my brother and Butch were walking up. I caught Butch’s eye as he wadded up the shirt he was holding and threw it in the trash bin. I handed Butch his jacket, and he pulled it on over his bare chest.

  Johnny Clay said, “Let’s get out of here. I can’t stand to look at this place.”

  We found a dim, smoky bar two blocks from the jail. The five of us crowded around a table in the back, where we ordered a bottle and glasses. Johnny Clay knocked one glass back and then, eyes burning, said to me, “What happened in Oklahoma?”

  I glanced around. Metro had spies everywhere. “Not here.”

  “Just tell me you’re getting close so these sons of bitches will let it alone.”

  “I’m getting close. I’m almost there. I’m so sorry they brought you into this, Johnny Clay.” I looked from him to Butch to Sam to Helen. “I don’t want them going after any of you.”

  My brother poured himself another. “Too late.”

  “Do you think I should drop it? Just let it go? I will if you tell me to.”

  “What would Mudge have done, if it was you that died?”

  I thought of one of the passages she’d underlined in Jane Eyre: I cannot lie down. “She would have fought for me.”

  “Then you keep fighting too. We both will. If they think they can mess with us, screw ’em. They haven’t met Velva Jean and Johnny Clay Hart. We come from Indian warriors, little sister. Shit.” His eyes were shining, mean and wicked. There was nothing my brother loved better than a fight. “They’re the ones that should watch their backs.” He threw down the liquor, set the glass on the table. “The way I see it, the only way to get at the honey is to chase the hornets out of there. Or bait ’em out. If it was me, I think I would stir up the hornets and see who wants that honey bad enough to sting.”

  Butch dropped his cigarette into his glass and said, “Just be careful you don’t get stung too bad.”

  For the next hour, Johnny Clay sat drinking like he didn’t plan to go home. When I started to yawn, Helen told me to go on, get a ride with Sam, she would make sure my brother and Butch got back to the Dunbar Hotel safely.

  On the drive back to Mudge’s house, I told Sam about my trip to Oklahoma, the Rebekahs, and Edna Mudge. When he walked me to my door, he said, “In the interest of being your friend, Pipes, I’m going to tell you something straight. I get the feeling there’s more to your uncertainty about us than not being in a good place. Maybe you need to figure that out, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. For the first time in my life, I’ll gladly eat crow. But if I’m right, well you need to figure that out too.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “Subtext. I’m flattered you trust me enough to tell me about your trip and this investigation, but does it ever occur to you that you’re trying to keep Butch Dawkins separate from this for a reason? That maybe you’re trying to protect him, and keep him out of it so when it’s all over and done with, you don’t have to look at him and be reminded of what you went through? So instead you can just focus on looking ahead?”

  When I didn’t answer this—because I didn’t know how to answer this—he started down the walk. With every step, I thought: Stop him. Ask him to come back. But instead I stood stupidly watching as he drove away.

  From the shelf in Mudge’s closet, I pulled down the jewelry box I’d once overturned on Christmas day when I was searching for sweaters. I dumped the contents of the box onto the bed. It was a jumble of necklaces, pins, earrings, bracelets, and rings. Some were missing a bead or a rhinestone or a clasp that worked. I pulled things out in a clump and untangled them strand by strand. I made piles—necklaces here, bracelets here, and over here, pins and medals and one black ring, all featuring a dove and lily, the moon and stars, and a D and R entwined.

  I slipped the ring onto my finger. It was almost identical to the rings worn by Dorothea Green and the girls at the Odd Fellows Home. But as I looked at it in the light, I had the same nagging feeling I’d had in Oklahoma—that I’d seen a ring like it somewhere else.


  Ophelia Lloyd was no longer at Rockhaven Sanitarium. I arrived there at dawn to find the Rose Cottage empty and Ophelia checked out. Agnes Richards couldn’t tell me where Ophelia had gone, so I had to assume it was back to Broad Water. On my way to Santa Monica, I stopped at a crowded diner just north of Culver City to place a phone call.

  “Broad Water,” a voice said.

  “Yes, I’m calling for Miss Lloyd. This is Frances from the portrait studio. I work with Mr. Apger.”

  “I’m sorry, but Miss Lloyd isn’t in right now. I’ll let her know you called.”

  “When do you expect her?”

  “I’m not sure, but I’ll give her the message.” The person clicked off.

  I picked up the phone again and asked for long distance. Minutes later, the telephone rang five, six, seven times. Then a voice, thin and far away, said, “Velva Jean?”

  “Talk into the receiver, Granny.” I sat inside the phone booth and watched the door as people came in and out.

  I could hear her saying something to someone there, then I heard the low, deep voice of Daddy Hoyt as he came on the line. “Everything okay?” It was the way he always began our conversations.

  “Everything’s fine.” I figured he didn’t need to hear about Johnny Clay. “Everything okay there?” It was what I always asked in return.

  “We’re all getting along as good as can be. I got your check, honey, but you don’t have to keep sending them.”

  “I want you to have it. I wish you’d let me send more.”

  We talked for a minute about the news from the mountain—Linc had found a job in Asheville but hadn’t decided whether to take it because taking it would mean moving himself and Ruby Poole and Russell and the new baby away from the family, Beachard had come and gone and come and gone again, Dan Presley had announced he planned to go to college, and Sweet Fern was pregnant. Granny piped in now and then, and I could picture her over my grandfather’s shoulder just as clearly as if I were there.

  When he was finished, I said, “I need your help.” I told him what Dr. Murdoch had said and how everything was being covered up. As I talked, it all came spilling out. “All this time, I thought it was Benzedrine, but it wasn’t. I was hoping I could tell you her symptoms and you might be able to figure out the thing that could have done this to her. Dr. Murdoch says this is the best way to identify the poison.”

  “Tell me,” he said.

  After I described every last detail and symptom, Daddy Hoyt was so silent that I had to ask if he was still there. “I’m here,” he said. “I’m thinking.” He asked me a few questions about the way she looked when I found her—were there any markings on the skin, and so on. “Are you somewhere I can call you back? I want to talk to Granny, consult my books, think about this a few minutes more without tying up your long distance.”

  “It’s easier if I phone you back.”

  “Give me an hour,” he said.

  I went to the studio to wait. I was on my way to the research department when I ran into Bernie, who told me I was needed in the Thalberg Building.

  Billy Taub was the one who let me know: I was suspended for six weeks, effective that day. I didn’t have to ask why. I had broken my contract to leave Los Angeles without permission. And then there were the morning papers, stacked on his desk, my brother’s battered face plastered ac
ross the front pages. Studio Fall Guy? one headline read. What MGM Doesn’t Want You to Know, read another.

  Tauby said, “No one will know about the suspension unless you or your brother decide to announce it. You can still go to class, but you won’t be working again till the suspension is over. We’ll keep you in the public eye, publish some ‘firsthand’ articles, include some photographs from your files. If anyone asks, we’ve sent you on a publicity tour to promote the new picture.”

  “In other words, you’ve got it covered. Just like you always do.”

  He dropped his voice, as if he was afraid of being overheard. “Why won’t you just let this go?”

  I pulled something out of my bag and set it on his desk, on top of the papers. “Because she deserves better.”

  He stared at the article, at the picture of a seventeen-year-old Eloise Mudge on her way to Hollywood.

  “Do you even remember that girl?” I laid her letter to him beside it. “Because she deserves better too.” He picked up the letter. “As the article mentions, she had a sister. Edna Mudge. I believe Edna had something to do with her death.” I waited for this to sink in. “What was Ophelia’s name before the studio changed it?”

  “Ophelia?” He blinked up at me, and I could see the confusion in his face.

  “She’s younger than she looks. How old was she when she retired? Twenty-five? Twenty-six? She would be something like twenty-eight, twenty-nine now.”

  “Ophelia was born January 4, 1910, in Wichita, Kansas, making her thirty-seven years old, although I’m sure she would be flattered to hear you thought she was so much younger.” His eyes grew cold. “Her real name is Louise Wasselman, not Edna Mudge.”

  I walked out of the Thalberg Building and didn’t stop walking until I reached a service station two blocks away. Just because Tauby says she was born in 1910 and that her given name was Louise, not Edna, doesn’t mean he’s telling the truth. He could be lying. Or she could be lying to him.

  Daddy Hoyt picked up on the first ring. “We’re fairly sure it was belladonna.”

  “Belladonna? The plant?”

  “Otherwise known as deadly nightshade or devil’s cherry. ‘Hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet, and mad as a hatter.’ One of the surest signs of belladonna poisoning is meaningless speech and uncontrollable laughter. The entire plant is poisonous. Remember Martha Simms? I treated her for days after she ate the berries. Said she thought they were blueberries, and that they tasted just as sweet. But, like a lot of deadly plants, you can use it medicinally. If you know how. You could go to a store right now and find belladonna salves and plasters, tinctures and eye drops. It’s used as a pain medicine, an anesthetic, for seasickness, palsy, respiratory sickness, intestinal troubles, and menstrual cramping. There’s a reason they call it a medical miracle. Some even call it the sorcerer’s herb because it’s such a cure-all. You just have to know how much to take.”

  “So it’s easy to find? Easy to get your hands on?”

  “It’s always been available in one form or other. I’ve used it myself. When the war started, it was harder to come by because until then you could, for the most part, only find it overseas. But about three or four years ago, the Department of Agriculture set up belladonna farms in five or six states, including California. Now I’m not a medical doctor, honey, but I know what it can do to a body, and I would wager my life that that’s what killed your friend.”

  “Would they have had to use the plant or the berries? Or could something like a tincture do it?”

  Tauby has bottles of tinctures in his medicine cabinet, all prescribed to Ophelia, but I don’t remember seeing belladonna.

  “Probably the tincture. In some cases, they’d have to have a prescription for it. But a little bit here, a little there, could have built up enough in her system so that one big dose of it would be enough.”

  “You think it might have been going on for a while?”

  “Given what you told me, I think it could have been.”

  “If this was caught in time—would there have been a cure? Could we have saved her?”

  “You can’t look backwards, Velva Jean. It does you no good.”

  “I realize that, but I need to know.”

  “The poison, strong as it is, can usually be offset by swallowing a glass of warm vinegar, mustard, even water, and following up with magnesia or strong coffee. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t know that I would have been able to tell what was happening to her until it was too late.”

  You would have known. You can heal anyone. I’ve seen it. I’ve helped you. But where was I? And how did I not know?

  He said, “The funny thing about it, if you can call it funny, is that, deadly as belladonna is to humans, certain animals are immune to it. Cattle, chickens, rabbits.”

  Rabbits. I stopped listening because my mind was flashing back to Carmen, Oklahoma, and the farm surrounding the orphans’ home. Not just the farm, but the barn and the other structures—chicken pens, rabbit pens. I looked down at the ring on my hand—Mudge’s Rebekah ring—and I suddenly remembered where I’d seen it before.

  He was saying, “There’s a plant researcher named Henry Walters who believed that if you crossbred poisonous plants like belladonna with carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap or butterwort, it would be more dangerous than the cholera. He believed plants, like people, were capable of love and that they had memories. Which meant, if this were true, that they could feel pain and jealousy and even hold a grudge. According to him, belladonna is a plant filled with hatred.”

  Before hanging up, I said, “Daddy Hoyt? You all might read about Johnny Clay in the papers, but I want you to know there’s nothing to worry about. What they’re saying isn’t true, and we’re going to put a stop to it.”

  “Is everything okay out there, honey?”

  “It isn’t now, but it will be.”

  I still carried the hairpins that Monsieur Brunet had crafted in his French laboratory, the ones that doubled as knives and, in a pinch, lockpicks. Babe King always locked her door. I knew this because sometimes we would come into or out of our dressing rooms at the same time. She seemed to keep the key in the flat red purse she carried everywhere.

  Babe’s dressing room faced north toward Washington Boulevard, which meant you couldn’t see the entrance if you happened to be walking down A Street. Even with this, I needed to work quickly because I wasn’t sure who was around, and I knew I could be interrupted at any moment. I had picked a lock before, but I wasn’t fast at it like Johnny Clay. He could work one in under thirty seconds.

  I rapped on the door first, to be sure she wasn’t home. I rapped again and again. When there was no answer, I bent one hairpin like a hook and slid it inside the lock, then used another as a tension wrench. It was all by feel. You had to have just the right touch. It was like anything else—you couldn’t force it. When I felt the hooked pin bending out of shape, I pressed it against the keyway to bend it back. I did this over and over, stopping now and then when a car rolled past or I heard the sound of voices.

  Finally, I heard and felt the click.

  Before anyone could come along, I slipped inside the suite, shutting and locking the door behind me. I hated what she’d done with the place. Mudge had made it warm and welcoming, everything in blue, her favorite color, because it reminded her of the sky and of her days as a pilot. She’d always kept fresh flowers around the room, but the only flowers here were on the curtains. The walls and carpet were a bright, blinding pink. The window treatments, the carpet, and the pillows were a sort of creamy white. Pillows and towels were stitched with “BK.”

  I went straight to the bathroom, where I searched the cabinets for belladonna. I found aspirin, toothpaste, Vaseline, hair spray, lipstick. I searched the vanity table, end tables, anything with a drawer, but there was nothing containing belladonna, nothing even all
that personal. I stood in the middle of the room, eyes searching for anything strange or suspicious or out of place, anything that might help me.

  And then I saw it.

  It was sitting in plain sight, atop a little table by the door, as if she’d set it down quickly, on her way out. A simple ring—gold band, black square face, crescent moon, seven stars, a dove, a lily, and an R and D entwined.


  The afternoon paper carried Zed Zabel’s column, where he told “the truth about Johnny Clay Hart,” recounting sordid stories from my brother’s past, most of them made up. The ones that weren’t made up were exaggerated to make Johnny Clay seem wild and dangerous. There was no telling how many newspapers the story had reached. From a Beverly Hills pay phone, I called the Dunbar Hotel and asked for Butch. When he came on the line I said, “Has he seen the paper?”

  “Not yet. What’s in it?”

  I read him the article.

  “What do you need me to do?”

  “Keep him away from them if you can. The last thing we need is for him to go after Zed Zabel and do the same to him that he did to Blackeye, even though both those men deserve whatever they get.”

  “Done. What are you going to do?”

  “I’m going to stir up the hive.”

  The living room of Mudge’s house was stacked, floor to ceiling, with books because Helen and Flora were searching for things Mudge might have filed away. The sofa was so covered in pages you could barely see the pattern. Letters, newspaper clippings, notes, receipts, photos—years of material, years of a life.

  Helen cleared the papers off one of the chairs so I could sit, and then she cleared a spot for herself and Flora on the couch. “How’s your brother taking it?” She nodded at the newspaper.

  “He hasn’t seen it yet. I asked Butch to keep him away from it until I can figure this out.”

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