American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  The station and terminal were dusted with fake snow so that I found myself in a winter wonderland. The ground was covered in white, icicles hanging from the train and from the eaves of the station roof. I crossed over the open ground. I could see the turrets of Castle Finckenstein outlined against the sky. The back side was nothing but plywood beams and ladders, scaffolding and propped-up wood.

  I walked through the passage between Verona Square, with its fountains and statues and arched stucco walls, and Joppa Square. It was darker here, and I made my way carefully across the courtyard, blackness and shadows all around. I could only make out the shape of the castle turrets and walls, and the stairs that led to the entrance, a flight on either side of the landing.

  A figure waited at the top of the stairs, framed against the entrance. I started to call out, but didn’t because the sound of a voice cutting through all that night would have been jarring, even if it was my own.

  I ran up the stairs, two at a time, my shoes tapping against the concrete, the only noise for miles. Nigel stood, hands in pockets, waiting.

  “This is an interesting choice for a meeting place,” I said, trying to sound breezy.

  “My thoughts precisely.” He wore a black jacket, the collar turned up.

  “Before you say anything—I’m sorry I came out to your house that day.”

  “Why did you come out there?” I could just make out his face.

  “To get information. Maybe to get you to confess or admit that Pia did it. But I know now that you didn’t kill Barbara.”

  “So now I’m innocent? I thought it was supposed to be the other way around in this country.”

  “You have to admit, it looked bad. By doing everything in their power to protect you, the studio only made you seem guilty.”

  “It’s been a bloody nightmare, start to finish.” He gazed out past me at nothing, then shook his head, eyes on mine again. “I don’t blame you. I guess I don’t blame anyone. I would have thought I was guilty too.”

  “I’m sorry about Pia.”

  “Everyone seems to assume I’m glad she’s gone, but what they don’t realize is I did care about her. I wouldn’t have married her all those years ago if I didn’t.” The moon disappeared again, and he rocked back and forth, as if he was cold. “Was that what you wanted to tell me?”

  “Yes.”

  “You could have waited till tomorrow and found me in the daytime. You didn’t have to bring me all the way out here on a Sunday night.” Even in the dark, I could see his white, white smile.

  “I didn’t bring you out here.”

  “I had a message that you called, asking me to meet you.”

  “But you invited me.”

  Our eyes locked, and I could see he was as confused as I was. I looked up suddenly, toward the turrets, toward the rooftops of Chinese Street, which grew up alongside. I took his hand and pulled him into the shadows of the great doorway, where I whispered, “I didn’t invite you here.”

  I could see his eyes now, the only spot of color in the pale light. “Then who?” His voice was barely a breath.

  “Barbara’s sister. The one who killed her.”

  “Her sister?”

  “Where’s your car?”

  “The boat dock.”

  “Mine’s closer.”

  We crept down the stairs and stayed in the shadows of the building, hugging it as close as we could. We slipped through a castle archway to the narrow and twisting Chinese Street beyond. This was acres of palaces and pagodas, ringed by the Great Wall of China. Most of it was flooded with water for Green Dolphin Street, a full-sized ship docked on one side of a wooden bridge, a group of small Chinese junks on the other.

  We picked our way across the bridge, over sandbags that lay strewn about. We were halfway across when a shot rang out. In the night, it was hard to tell where it came from, the sound of it echoing through the buildings. Nigel grabbed my hand again and we went bumping along, tripping over the bags of rice or sand, as heavy as bodies, then off the bridge, our feet hitting dirt as we ran through the streets. The shop window signs, all in Chinese, waved in the breeze. Narrow stairways and doorways led to nothing.

  At the end of the street, I could see Grand Central Station, the gaslights glowing in the fog, and, to the left of it, my car, and another car beside it.

  Suddenly, a figure blocked the path.

  Nigel said, “Babe?”

  We froze because she had a gun, and it was pointed at both of us. Without a word, she fired, hitting Nigel in the chest or arm, I couldn’t tell. The unexpected force of it sent him reeling backward.

  She said, “Hello there, you two. Just the people I wanted to see. Thanks so much for coming. How are you feeling, Kit?”

  “A little ambushed.”

  She laughed. “And you, Nigel?”

  “The same. Also a little bloody.”

  “Just so you know, that wasn’t bad aim. If I’d wanted to hit your heart or your head, I could have. After all, I grew up in Oklahoma. I was as good as married to a farm boy who taught me how to shoot.”

  Nigel gripped his arm, little beads of water forming across his face. In the glow of the gaslights, I could see the red of his blood.

  Babe waved the gun. “Let me tell you how we’re going to play this scene. I shoot you once more, Nigel, before giving the gun to Kit, after the chamber’s empty, of course. Then I’m going to get in my car and drive away, and tomorrow Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix can call in Whitey Hendry and the whole thing will just disappear. Just like Eloise. As if it never happened. As if you’d never killed each other, Kit so angry and distraught over the death of her friend, and Nigel so bent on shutting her up.”

  I said, “Before you do this, tell us why.” I was stalling, but I had to think.

  “Are you trying to stall for time, Kit? Okay. I’ll play, just like in the movies. Because Eloise took everything I ever wanted and then she turned her back on me. The time I needed her most, she said no. I was just a kid, but that didn’t matter.”

  Nigel said, “She was sorry.”

  “How do you know?”

  “She told me. Not about you exactly, but I knew there was something in her past that she regretted. She said, ‘I haven’t always done the right thing. I once hurt someone very much, someone close to me, someone I should have forgiven and watched out for.’”

  “Someone she should have forgiven? That sounds like Eloise.”

  Please keep talking.

  “It’s ironic, when you think about it, that she got the life I wanted and I got the life she wanted, or at least I had it for a while. She loved John Henry Briggs, but she couldn’t have him because he was married, and back then she didn’t go for married men.” She batted her eyes at Nigel. “That changed, of course. But I guess, in the end, neither of us got the life we dreamed of.”

  It started to rain again, and that was when I remembered the umbrella, still gripped in my hand. Out of instinct, Babe tilted her head toward the sky, and I opened the umbrella like a shield and swung it in her direction.

  A shot went off, and for a moment I thought I’d been hit because I felt the force of it go through me. Nigel slumped to the ground. I hesitated, but he said, “Go,” and I ran away from the light, into the dark.

  My throat had gone dry. My heart was pounding. I ran through Chinese Street, back over the bridge, the rain falling harder now, the drops sounding like a chorus as they hit the water. Babe could be anywhere and everywhere.

  Three shots had been fired so far. The gun looked like a.38, the same one I’d carried in the WASP. The chamber would hold six bullets, which meant three to go before she would have to reload.

  I could hear her behind me, faster than expected. I was moving too slow. Go, Velva Jean, I told myself. Go, go, go.

  I was on the streets of England now, the clouds rollin
g out toward sea. I could see the thatched, peaked roofs of the buildings and the towers of another castle, an arched door leading to another land. I raced across cobblestones, through the door, and onto another cobbled street. My shoes were making too much noise, so I ducked into one of the open buildings, pulled them off, and in bare feet went rushing out the open, empty back side. I flashed back to wartime France, where the houses and churches were beautiful and whole, until you stepped inside and realized there was no roof, no wall, the stairs leading nowhere to floors that no longer existed.

  I was on the cobbled streets again, silent this time, running. And suddenly I was in Paris. The world tilted because these were streets I recognized. I knew these courtyards and sloping walkways. There was the dome of the Sacré Coeur, the shops and alleyways of Montmartre, the chimney pots and steeples, the twisting streets of the Latin Quarter. I was Clementine Roux, Germans on my heels. I slipped through the shadows thinking: They won’t take me. I will not be caught again.

  The scale was wrong. The dome looked smaller the closer you got to it, when it should have looked larger. The alleyways stopped suddenly, coming up short, and the shops were empty, except for plywood and cables and dusty props. It was a world meant to be seen through the lens of the camera. Up close, in the middle of it, everything seemed upside down and backward.

  I felt the sting on my shoulder before I heard the shot, and saw the blood dripping down. It might be bad, very bad, but I couldn’t stop to look. I needed to reach the entrance gate on Overland because it was the only way in or out that wasn’t blocked by a twenty-five-foot fence. There would be a telephone. I could call for help. Even in the rain, I was burning up. I threw off my coat, which was too heavy, and began to run faster.

  I was in Hamlet’s Mill, or a place just like it. In a blur, I passed city hall, a barbershop, department store, market, drugstore, all lined up on either side of a charming town square of grass and trees, the American flag waving in the breeze. I passed the little theater where I’d seen my first movie, the one Mama had brought me to when I was seven and we’d walked down from Sleepy Gap, holding hands and singing the whole way. I passed the Hamlet’s Mill Hotel, but the sign said something different.

  I could call Daddy Hoyt. I could call the sheriff. They would know what had happened to the hotel. The sheriff would get me home, just like he used to bring Daddy home. I would walk up the mountain and see my family, as if nothing had ever happened, as if all of it—my whole life—was just a dream, like the one Dorothy had in The Wizard of Oz. I would be safe and quiet and cool and still, and this pain in my shoulder would stop aching.

  Babe King was on my heels, and suddenly I wasn’t home at all but on the backlot of MGM. I’d completely lost my bearings. In the distance, straight ahead, I could see the water tower, which meant Lot 1 was that way.

  To get there, I would have to cross open ground. I stayed low and ran in a zigzag because something in my brain remembered this from France. I wished I still had the umbrella, but I had thrown it away when I opened it, and now I had no shoes, no coat, no weapon. Nigel might be dying or dead already, and I had left him all alone.

  The rain made everything blurry, just slightly out of focus. I was out of breath, my mouth so dry I couldn’t swallow, my heart racing. I wanted to rest, but I had to keep going.

  I reached the scene docks and heard another shot. This one brushed so close to my ear that my hair blew across my face. Without thinking, I climbed. Here were staircases that went nowhere, standing in a tangle, railings crossing railings, stairs bumping into stairs, some curved, some straight. I ran up and down, up and down, and there was Babe, two staircases over, coming up and up and across toward me. By now, we’d been trained to run up and down stairs with books on our head, not even looking where we were going, because we were MGM girls and that was what we did. She fired again, and then again. I wasn’t counting anymore, but I knew she had reloaded.

  I leapt to the ground, but it was too high a jump. In the dark, I misjudged the distance, and I landed hard, my ankle throbbing. I ran on, telling myself it didn’t matter and I didn’t care about pain. There would be worse pain if I didn’t run.

  Where was the water tower? I’d lost track of it, and then, somehow, I was on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and it was immediately quiet. It was too quiet. She might be aiming that gun at me right now. I couldn’t remember if I needed to go right or left or up or down, and then there was no time to decide because Babe was there again and she was running, looking for all the world like someone who just loved to run, who could run forever and ever.

  At the end of the street, I turned a sharp right and I saw the open gate, the light still burning in the empty guard booth. The sight of it helped me go faster, and then I was inside, bending over the guard, who lay on the ground, still breathing. I shook him, but his head rested on his arm, as if he was sleeping. I picked up the phone and dialed the operator as I tried to unhook the gun from his belt. “Yes, I’m at MGM studio, Lot Two. Please send help.” I hung up, wondering if I should have said more.

  I didn’t have time to worry or call again because something tapped against the window, and there was Edna Mudge smiling back at me. She stepped into the doorway and I picked up the first thing I saw—a half-drunk mug of coffee—and threw it in her face. She stumbled backward, and I took off, the guard’s gun in my hand, crossing Overland, through the gate onto Lot 1, past the half-acre lake, until I was, once again, in France. This time, it was a French village with shingled rooftops and gabled windows and balconies that stared, dead and vacant, onto the avenue. I paused just long enough to check the pistol, which wasn’t loaded.

  At the foot of the water tower, another shot was fired, this one from close range. I waited to feel it go through me, but when it didn’t I rested a hand on the rung of the ladder, wet with rain. I looked up at the underside of the tower, shoved the gun in my belt, and started to climb.

  “How are you feeling now, Kit Rogers?”

  The voice came from ten or fifteen feet beneath me, maybe more, maybe less. I glanced down and there she was, pulling herself up steadily, gun in her hand.

  I didn’t say anything because I was concentrating on climbing. For some reason, I knew if I reached the top everything would be all right. I would be up above the overcast. I would be beyond the keep. I couldn’t go backward or stand still. I had to keep going, as high as I could, maybe up into the clouds and all the way to heaven, where Mama was waiting. My body didn’t want to stop moving. I felt tired, lost, numb—but unafraid. I should feel afraid.

  Babe might have been able to keep up for a while, on the ground, but we were in the air now, and that was my territory. I kept going.

  I slipped, caught my breath, and then steadied myself and thought, How did I get here? I looked below and there was nothing but open space and air and, at the bottom of this, many miles down, pavement.

  Babe said, “I hope you enjoyed the berries. I’m told they taste sweeter than blueberries, even if they do look just like them. I dropped them off yesterday, gave them to your friend. Helen, I think she’s called? I said they were from Nigel, told her I was his secretary, and delivered the message that he wanted to meet you.”

  This stopped me for a moment. I hung on to the side of the water tower and tried to focus on what she was saying.

  “You know you can buy directly from the belladonna farms, make your own medicine, or just feed your pet rabbit. They’re immune to the plant. Unlike humans.”

  I went lightheaded, maybe from the height or the sight of the pavement. Maybe from the poison. The symptoms were there—the confusion, anger, fever, dry mouth, headache, the wild desire to laugh. Enough poison to kill me. I tried to remember how many of the berries I’d eaten. I told myself, If they can’t figure out on their own what’s been done to me, I can tell them the antidote. If I can remember. If someone finds me in time.

  Down below, the street was nearly e
mpty. No sign of the police. A taxicab stopped outside the bar and grill, and a passenger climbed in. A man walked by, his dog on a leash. A motorcycle went roaring past. No one looked up. No crowd collected. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have an audience, and this might have been the best thing—the only good thing—about being up there.

  The wind tugged at my hem. Even though I was only wearing a dress and bare feet, I was burning up. Is this how it feels before you die? Or is it one of the earlier symptoms?

  I wanted to dance, but I held myself back—gripping the rung so tightly I could literally feel the metal hitting bone. The ladder was barely wider than my waist. My fingers dug into the hard, wet surface. My mind wouldn’t turn over, even though I was trying to think. I suddenly wanted to get back down, but I didn’t know how to get there, and besides, someone or something had chased me up here.

  I don’t want to die.

  A voice was saying, “I actually thought of you as my friend. Maybe that’s the hardest part of all of this. I liked being your friend, Kit. I wasn’t just putting that on. This isn’t personal, although I know it seems that way. It’s just what has to happen now.”

  Here is the strange thing: I feel calmer than I have in months, probably because I am doing something to fix this, once and for all. My mind feels far away, as if it has wandered off, free-falling all those miles onto the street, and from there speeding its way toward the ocean. I am waiting to see what it will do next.

  From the direction of the ground, I heard my name. At first, I thought it was Babe, but then, just barely, I could make out a face. It was a good face, a friendly one. It was a face I loved.

  Babe was also looking down. I hooked my arm through the rail, so that I was latched on, and then I pointed the empty gun at her head. When she turned back to me, she was staring down the barrel. I said, “Bang,” and pulled the trigger. The gun made a clicking sound, and in that instant, Babe lost her grip. Too late, I reached for her hand, dropping the gun. Babe fell through the air, her eyes on mine as she went. I pulled myself in, shut my eyes tight, clinging to the ladder. I was suddenly frozen. I couldn’t look. I couldn’t go higher. I couldn’t go down.

 
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