American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  “Wise idea. So Babe King.”

  “Babe King.”

  “Not Nigel at all.”

  “No. Although I’d bet the studio thinks he did it. Why else would they go to so much trouble? Babe isn’t worth anything to them yet.”

  “I don’t understand what the motive is. I have a sister I’m not especially close to, but I wouldn’t wish anything bad for her.”

  Flora shook her head. “Poor child,” she said, and I knew she was talking about Mudge.

  I thought of my own sister, of how many times over the years I’d prayed for her to disappear or leave me alone or suddenly turn nice. “I wouldn’t wish anything bad for Sweet Fern either. You haven’t found anything in all these papers?”

  “Just more things to be properly filed and put away.”

  I looked at the framed picture of Mudge that sat on the mantel. She smiled, her secrets safely kept.

  Helen said, “Without the flask, there’s no proof. There’s nothing to tie her to the crime.”

  “Unless there’s a way to stir the hive and get the bee to come after me.” She and Flora looked at each other and back at me, lost. “I need you to keep going through these books. Search every book in this house, until you find something that can help me.”

  Flora said, “What are we looking for?”

  “Anything relating to Edna Mudge or Babe King or a boy named John Henry Briggs.”

  Giffard Leland lived in a pink stucco mansion high up in the Bel Air hills, a gift from his father, the grocery store king. The property was terraced and statued within an inch of its life, as if to say, We’re every bit as rich as you are and we belong here too.

  It was two o’clock on Wednesday, February 19, and I had an appointment. A maid in a black uniform met me at the door, her smile as wilted as her apron. Yilla King tripped in from the wings, as if she’d been waiting for her cue. Her bright yellow hair shimmered. The pink-orange of her lips and nails matched her blouse perfectly.

  “Kit Rogers, how charming,” she said, kissing me on both cheeks. She ordered drinks for us from the maid and then led me through a maze of rooms, hands flapping as she pointed out this and that. We wound up on the sunporch, where magazines were spread across the love seat. She had clearly been catching up on her reading.

  She plucked a cigarette from a bowl of them arranged like flowers, but didn’t offer me one. “What can I do you for?” She sat, swinging one leg over the other, shoes a glittering gold under the cuff of her trousers. I sat across from her and it hit me for the first time that this too-bright, too-loud woman was Mudge’s mother. The same mother who had dropped a three-year-old girl and a baby at an orphanage, and then come to collect them and drop them off, again and again, until they were old enough to leave on their own. As far as I was concerned, Yilla was as guilty of killing Mudge as Babe was.

  I said, “It’s about Edna.”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “Your daughter.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Yes you do. Edna Mudge. Babe King.” Her leg stopped swinging. “I guess in a way it’s about Eloise too.” I opened my bag and pulled out a folder. On the table between us, I placed copies of the detective agency letter, the newspaper article featuring the Dell Rapids orphanage, and the picture of John Henry Briggs.

  Yilla stared at them, eyes wide and unblinking.

  The maid walked in then, setting drinks down in front of us, glancing as she did at the materials I’d laid out. Yilla shooed her away and picked up her drink. She took a dainty sip, and then downed half of it. She set the glass on the table with a bang, little drops of water splashing onto the papers.

  I said, “I found these when I was going through Eloise’s things. Take your time.”

  She kept her eyes on me, as if she was afraid to look down. “What do you want?”

  “I want you to tell me about this boy.” I leaned forward and tapped the picture. “I’ll get you started. He’s Edna’s son. Your grandson. Eloise was interested in him enough to pay a private investigator to find him. I’m wondering why.”

  She swallowed the rest of her drink. This time, her hand trembled as she set the glass down. She sat staring at the floor.

  I continued to help her out. “I guess it wouldn’t look good for a popular young movie star to have a secret past and to have abandoned her own child, much less shaving a good ten or eleven years off her age. I don’t think the studio would be very pleased about that. Especially a studio like MGM, which believes in family and happy endings.”

  She lit another cigarette, both hands shaking so badly that I took the lighter from her and helped her. She sat back. Finally, she let out a breath. “She didn’t want anyone to know about it. She stashed the kid somewhere up north, faked her own death, ran away from the father. He was no good anyway.” She sniffed, picked at her lip, inhaled deeply. She glanced at the picture, then away quickly, as if it might burn her eyes. “Eloise knew there was a child because when it happened, back when she got knocked up, Edna asked to come live with her out here. She was just a stupid, mixed-up kid, but Eloise didn’t want anything to do with her. Eloise always had it in her mind that her sister stole that man from her, as if anyone would want him. Like I said, he was no good. Common, you know. But Eloise was cold that way. Same way she was with me. Coming out here, too big for her britches, making all that money. Do you know she kept me on a budget? Tried to tell me what I could spend it on and where.”

  “She supported you?”

  “If you could call it that.”

  “It was her money.”

  “I was her mother.”

  A picture was beginning to form. “And when she cut you off, you pushed Edna into pictures, hoping she would take care of you instead.”

  She laughed, a hard, brittle sound. “No one ever pushed Edna to do anything. Anything she ever did she did on her own and for herself, and she’s the first to tell you. She turned out to be as ungrateful as her sister.”

  “So when Edna knew she was pregnant, why didn’t she turn to you instead?” As if I had to ask.

  “I was married by then and living out of state. Husband number three wasn’t interested in raising someone else’s kids, if you know what I mean. And who could blame him? Troublemakers, both of them. Eloise phoned me up and read me the riot act, said I needed to get my act together and go get Edna and grow up once and for all.” Her eyes flashed. “Me, her own mother!”

  “Why did Eloise go to so much trouble to find him?”

  She leaned forward, stubbing the cigarette out in the ashtray. “She tracked him down through that private eye. Told Edna to stay away from her studio, go back to Columbia, leave her alone, or she would tell Mr. Mayer and Louella Parsons and the New York Goddamn Times, anyone who would listen. It was blackmail. ‘You stay over there, I stay over here, everyone’s happy.’ Only Columbia is a shithole; everybody knows that. Edna wanted more for herself. She always did. This was her dream.” She waved her hands at the house, the city. “Eloise stole it right out from under her nose.”

  “And so you helped Edna, hoping she would help you. You pretended she was ten years younger, just a fresh up-and-comer who needed her mother as a chaperone.”

  She smiled. “It worked didn’t it?”

  It was too much, all of it. Poor Eloise. Poor Edna. This awful mother.

  “Until now.” I looked around at the sunporch and the statued gardens that spread beyond. “It is a beautiful house. I meant to congratulate you on your marriage. Your husband’s a well-known, respected man. It must be a dream come true for you and for Edna. This house, your marriage, her contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.”

  “What do you want?” she said again.

  “The same thing Eloise wanted: blackmail. I want you to tell Edna that I know about John Henry Briggs.”

  I waited just long
enough to make sure this had sunk in, and then I stood and collected my purse. As she stared down at the papers spread across the table, I said, “Don’t worry. You can keep those. I made them for you.”

  And so, I waited.

  I waited for Yilla to deliver my message and for Babe to get in touch with me.

  I waited for Babe’s next move.

  On Thursday, I drove to the studio and went to my classes like a good, dutiful MGM girl, and pretended I wasn’t waiting for anything. Rosie said, “You seem distracted, Velva Jean.”

  I said, “There’s a lot on my mind. Ever since my brother was picked up by police. Did you read about it? And Zed Zabel’s article too?” He nodded. “And then the suspension—1947 has been a really horrible year.” It was an easy, believable excuse.

  He gave me a pep talk, which made me feel worse about lying, and then, as if to make up for it, I sang him the song I’d written and told him I’d recorded it the week before. “I should get a copy soon,” I said. “When I do I’ll bring it in and play it for you.”

  On Friday morning, I reported to hair and makeup and then to the Thalberg Building. I had a meeting with Bernie at nine o’clock. As I came off the elevator, I saw a man who looked like Zed Zabel but who couldn’t have been Zed Zabel because this man was dressed in a suit Zed couldn’t afford and walking with Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix, the three of them looking like best friends, the conspiring kind.

  In Bernie’s office, I said, “Do you want to hear something funny? I thought I saw Zed Zabel just now with Mr. Strickling and Mr. Mannix, but it couldn’t have been him because he’s banned from the studio.”

  “He was banned, that’s right. Until Mr. Strickling hired him.” Bernie launched into what he knew: Howard Strickling had been the one to approach Zed, or that was the rumor anyway. Bernie had seen the result of it with his own eyes—Zed sitting with Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling in Strickling’s office, the three of them shooting the breeze like old friends. The next thing that happened was Zed on a guided tour of the office, shaking hands, chatting up the secretaries and female publicists, acting for all the world like a man who’d inherited a gold mine.

  He showed up the next day wearing an expensive-looking suit and an expensive-looking haircut, his name on the door of one of the third-floor offices, where he moved in as if he’d always been there.

  What was it Zed had told me? Everyone has a price.

  While Bernie talked, my mind was spinning in all directions: Now that I’ve lost Zed, I’ll have to find someone who can get the story out there. I can go to the Times or, better yet, the Examiner. I can go on the radio, tell my story there, once I have proof.

  Sam can write something.

  But I can’t go to Sam because Sam isn’t speaking to me.

  Maybe Dr. Murdoch will come forward. He says he’ll come forward if he has evidence. But I don’t have any evidence to give him. Not yet.

  Outside, I saw her across the street, parking her brand-new car. Babe King, dressed hat to shoes in red, sashayed toward the Thalberg Building, toward me. I could tell she hadn’t seen me yet, and I considered running, but I wanted to know: Had Yilla talked to her?

  For the first time in my life, I wished for a cigarette so that I would have something to do with my hands. I opened my purse and rummaged around until I heard the tap of her heels on the steps. I looked up. Smiled. “Morning, Babe.”

  She smiled in return as she paused on the same step, so that we were eye-to-eye. “Morning, Kit.” There was something in her voice that made my pulse quicken and my brain start churning in an excited, terrified way, as if it realized that finally the waiting was over.

  I raised my hand to tuck the hair behind my ear, and her eyes followed it. As they settled on my ring, her expression changed. The smile disappeared. I held out my hand so she could get a better look. “Pretty, isn’t it? But then, I think you have one like it.” I smiled and glanced up at the building, where anyone might have looked out the window and seen two of Metro’s rising stars engaged in pleasant conversation.

  “Nice to see you, Edna,” I said, skipping down the steps. “Have a good day.”

  On Saturday night, I sat on a corner of the living room sofa, Butch in the opposite corner, Hal between us, Helen and Sherman and Flora taking up the chairs, Johnny Clay standing beside the record player. This was my fake birthday party for my fake birthday, and my present from Butch and my brother was a copy of the record we’d made. Butch Dawkins & the Bluesmen, featuring Velva Jean Hart.

  The music was good. It was so good, I wanted to take the record and break it into a million little pieces so that no one but me could ever hear it, so that I could protect it and keep it for myself. There was my voice, as I’d always thought it sounded. Not my MGM voice. Not the voice of Kit Rogers. That was Velva Jean Hart, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much, singing from deep in her soul.

  I glanced past Hal at Butch. When I’d played my first record for him, years ago, up on Devil’s Courthouse, we had danced. He’d held me so close that I could feel the Indian medicine beads he wore against my own chest. It was the nearest I’d ever been to him, the only time he’d had his arms around me.

  Butch looked up, catching my eye before I glanced away. Somehow he had kept my brother from hearing about Zed Zabel’s article, and I was grateful.

  When the song was over, we all observed a moment of silence out of reverence for the fact that it was really, truly good in a way that you couldn’t say about many things. Then everyone started to talk at once about how much they loved it, how great it sounded, and what came next. Johnny Clay chattered on about the record they’d made yesterday, which was going to be even better than this one, and guess how many dealers had asked for copies, Velva Jean. Go on, guess. That’s right, Leroy was sold out already and having to press more.

  My brother’s face was lit up, and I was happy for him because he needed to be happy, even if I was too worried and anxious and on pins and needles to do anything but watch the phone and watch my back and wait for Babe to do something.

  Johnny Clay, Sherman, and Butch were the last to leave. On their way out the door, my brother was off and running toward the street, as if he couldn’t wait to get to the next place. I hadn’t told them about Babe or Yilla, not after what had happened with the police.

  While Sherman and Johnny Clay climbed into the car, talking a mile a minute, Butch stopped on the step and said, “He’ll be okay. It’s you I’m worried about.”

  “I’ll be okay too.”

  “What are you up to, girl?”

  “It’s nothing, not yet. But I’ve laid the bait.”

  “We can help. You’re not in this alone.”

  “I know.” But I’d involved them enough.

  “For now, maybe you should go back in there and listen to what you did, in spite of what you’re going through. You need to be proud of that and know if you can do something like this now, you can do it anytime. People ask do I only write when the feeling hits, but you can’t wait for the stars to align. You got to stick with it and be prepared to align your own stars. That’s what you did here, Velva Jean. You aligned the stars even when you couldn’t see a single one for the clouds.”

  After they left, and after Helen and Flora had gone to sleep, I curled up on the living room sofa with the record on my lap. It was just a thin black disc labeled “Bronze Recording Company.” To look at it, you’d think it was nothing much of anything—a plastic circle, no bigger than a pie plate.

  Butch Dawkins & the Bluesmen. I ran my finger across his name.

  I flipped the record to the other side and there was his name again. There was my name too.

  The part of me that was still Velva Jean Hart, a ten-year-old girl with a mama and a daddy, who dreamed of hearing her voice on the Grand Ole Opry, thought, Once everything is over, I want this.

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  On Saturday, March 1, a message was waiting when I got home. In Helen’s neat and tidy handwriting it read, Nigel Gray wants to meet Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Lot 2 castle. His secretary says NG knows about “Edna” and has something that might help.

  Sunday was cool and wet, the sky gray and heavy with fog. Rain fell off and on throughout the day, but by five o’clock, the clouds were starting to clear. Helen’s parents were visiting from Connecticut, and the three of them were spending the weekend in Santa Monica. She called to give me the phone number for her hotel, to make sure I’d gotten the message about Nigel, and to tell me she’d left food in the icebox. “I knew you wouldn’t take time to cook or even eat if Flora or I didn’t see to it.”

  In the refrigerator, I found cold chicken salad with celery, nuts, and berries, lemon meringue pie, and iced tea. It was a summer picnic for a winter day. I picked at the food the way I picked at all my food lately, then dropped my plate into the sink, meal half-eaten, and got dressed. Because of the weather, I pulled on a trench coat and picked up an umbrella.

  At twenty past six, I drove to the studio. I checked my mirrors, but no one was behind me, as far as I could tell. I arrived at the gate at ten of seven. I sat by the curb on quiet Overland Avenue, Lot 1 on the left side of the street, Lot 2 on my right. “Keep Out,” the signs said, all along the chain-link fence. The gate was open, but I didn’t see the guard. I waited, engine idling, for him to come out of the guardhouse, where a light was burning, but when he didn’t I rolled on past, following the curve of the main road past the warehouses and boat dock, twisting through New England Street, passing the railroad tracks, the trains, and Railroad Terminal #2, and parking near the enormous and elegant Grand Central Station.

  Outside the station, the gaslights gave off a hazy glow, barely burning, as if someone had turned them down but not completely. The backlot looked eerie, especially with the fog billowing in from the ocean, but I could see the moon, appearing in and out from behind the clouds. Something about it made me feel more exposed somehow, and for the first time I thought: You should have told someone where you were going, Velva Jean. Why does Nigel want to meet you here? Why not a restaurant? Why not his house or Mudge’s house?

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