Read 1 The Hollywood Detective Online
Authors: Martha Steinway
THE HOLLYWOOD DETECTIVE
I noticed her from across the street while I was parking the car. Shorter than average, mid-twenties maybe, carrying a little extra weight, dressed smart. And strangely familiar. Maybe the agency had sent her to me before.
I slammed the driver door shut, but it bounced open again. The old Plymouth was falling apart. I tried again, heard the reassuring clunk I was used to, then picked my way through the traffic and crossed Melrose. It must have been eighty degrees that afternoon and all I wanted was to get my surfboard out of the office and join the cars heading west on Santa Monica Boulevard. Just twenty minutes and I knew I could be in the ocean—if it weren’t for this girl. Maybe I could tell her to come back tomorrow.
“McCoy?” She’d been leaning against the wall but stood up as I approached.
“Sure.” I reached for my keys and opened the door. “We didn’t have an appointment, did we?”
“No, I couldn’t get through on the phone so I came over.” She seemed a little nervous. “I was in the neighborhood.”
I ushered her in: “Go on up. Second floor.”
When we got upstairs she gawped at my office like a tourist at the aquarium. I’d been without a secretary for nearly a month and it showed. Under the piles of paperwork and the discarded mail it was actually a smart place; the kind of office that said you were doing pretty well for yourself. A couple nice oak desks, some expensive leather chairs and a few file cabinets I had never got round to using. But right at that moment it looked more ransacked than respectable. A bit of secretarial help was all I needed: that way I could handle a couple more clients, and earn enough cash to straighten out my ledger.
“I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t take care of,” I said. “Just got a little behind with the paperwork is all.”
“Well, maybe a lot. But I bet you could figure it all out in no time.”
I turned to her. “You don’t want the job?”
Her face was quite the picture. “I think there’s been some kind of mix up, Mr. McCoy.”
“You’re not from the agency?”
“Then I guess I must be here to offer you a job.” She smiled. I was darned if I hadn’t seen that smile some place before.
“Well I guess I must look like a pretty big fool.” I smiled back at her. “You better take a seat Miss…”
“Summers. Mary Louise Summers.” She held out her hand and I shook it.
I eased myself into a leather chair behind my desk and offered her the one in front. My eye was drawn to the corner of the office where my brand new surfboard was still wrapped in brown paper. I’d just had it made by a guy in San Diego and I wondered how quickly I could end this meeting.
“Sorry about the mess. I’m expecting a new secretary to start any day.”
“So I gather.”
She wasn’t short on sass.
“So how can I help you, Miss Summers?”
She glanced down at her hands and then raised her gaze to meet my stare. All the playfulness had gone from her face. “Mr. McCoy, I think my friend is in trouble and a colleague of mine says you’re a man I can trust.”
“Straight as a die, so they tell me.”
“That’s a rare quality in this town.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Her eyes seemed to moisten and she cleared her throat. “Mr. McCoy, I think something bad has happened to my friend. Something very bad. She’s missing.”
I looked again at the unwrapped surfboard. The ocean would have to wait.
I took her to Joe’s on the corner of Vine. It was three in the afternoon and the place was almost empty. It was almost as private as my office—and a lot tidier. Joe’s was the reason I had taken the office on Melrose. It was just a few blocks from the Paramount and RKO lots, which meant plenty of movie folk went there. And that explained why Joe had a better menu than most. He would fix you a burger or a hotdog if you wanted, but he also knew what a vegetable was. And if you ordered the peaches, they came from the tree, not the can.
“You sure you don’t want anything else?” I asked Mary.
“Just the Coke.”
“And I’ll have my usual.”
The waitress nodded, took our menus and left us alone. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see she was talking about more than our drinks with the guy on the counter. Mary began to tell me about her friend who was in trouble. Her name was Clara Lockhart, she claimed she was twenty years old—although Mary said she wouldn’t be surprised if she turned out to be younger—a complete knock-out and, like half the girls in town, destined to be a star. Mary produced a photo from her purse to prove it. It was one of those glossy, over-bright head shots that recent arrivals in Hollywood spend too much money on. Underneath the curled pile of blonde hair and the heavy eyelashes it was easy to see the innocent Midwestern farm girl.
“So she wanted to be an actress?”
Mary nodded. “She is an actress. That’s how I met her—”
The waitress returned with our drinks. She set down my coffee and my juice and then placed Mary’s Coke gently in front of her. “There you are, Miss Treen.” She nodded her head and bobbed at the knee. “Will there be anything else?”
Mary blushed a little. “The Coke is fine.”
“Well you just holler if you change your mind,” the waitress said as she drifted back to the counter.
“Miss Treen?” I asked.
“My mother’s name. Summers was already taken. You know, on the Screen Actors’ register?”
So that’s where I knew her from. The movies.
“And Clara, is that her real name?” I said, pointing at the photograph.
“I doubt it, but it’s a good one, don’t you think? Maybe I should change my name to something a little more glamorous.” She patted her hair.
I don’t know what expression was on my face, but it sure wasn’t the right one.
“Jeez, fella, I was trying to make a joke.” She glared at me. “I know I’m never going to play anything but the best friend or the sidekick with the wisecracks and the heart of gold. But at least I can be sure I’m never going to end up a washed-up has-been neither. And that’s just peachy with me, pal.”
Mary explained she wasn’t under contract because no studio needed to pay a girl like her week in, week out, like they did the latest starlet. But even so, month after month her agent called with a choice of big sisters, shop girls and secretaries for her to play. No wonder I thought she’d been sent by the agency to do my filing.
“Those dependable best friends and girls next door are paying my mortgage. With a little help from the lodgers I take in.” Her eyes started to mist again. “Which is how I got to know Clara. At first she was just one in a long line of roommates, but now she’s my friend—and she’s only got me to look out for her.”
I’d heard enough to know Mary Treen was a good friend off the screen as well as on. She had a level head on her shoulders and didn’t seem the sort to overreact. “Tell me a little about Clara,” I said.
“She’s been living at my place for a few months.” She dabbed her nose with a lace handkerchief she produced from the sleeve of her blouse. “A real nice kid. Keeps her room tidy, pays the rent almost on time, doesn’t bring anyone home. Not that I’d mind…” She clearly didn’t want me to think she was a prude. “Only problem with her is the phone. It never stops ringing.” She smiled. “Only time it’s ever someone for me it’s either my agent or my mother. Mostly it’s some guy wanting to know if Clara is at home. And if they’re not on the phone, they’re on the front porch knocking the door down. Last night was no different.”
“What happened last night?”
“Benny Bowers came to collect her.”
“You’re saying Clara hasn’t even been gone twenty-four hours?”
No wonder Mary had come to me and not the cops. They would have laughed her right out of the station house.
“What makes you think she’s missing? Surely she’s just with this Bowers fella, hunkered down in a motel in Venice or some place.”
She shook her head. “Clara had an audition this morning. A big one. With Paramount. And she knew I’d called in a lot of favors to get it for her. They were going to offer her a contract. $500 a week.”
“Phew. That’s some dough.”
She nodded. “And she really wanted it. She’s been here two years, taking bit parts, waiting tables. I promise you she is not just here to get lucky. She wants to act, and she’s good too. Mr McCoy, you’ve got to understand, this was a big deal for Clara and she knew it. Nothing would stop her getting to that audition.” Mary’s chest heaved and she looked out the window. “Something must have happened to her.”
Outside the traffic on Melrose had thickened as cars started to leave downtown for the suburbs. I thought about joining them, getting behind the wheel and turning west toward the Pacific. I signaled to the waitress: we were going to need another round of drinks. They came quickly and I got out my notebook. “You better tell me everything.”
Mary explained that Benny Bowers—a disappointed bit part waster who had missed out on becoming a leading man and was hanging around until he was old enough to play somebody’s father—had collected Clara at seven o’clock the previous evening. She’d said he was going to take her to Cocoanut Grove for cocktails and then drive her up to William Powell’s mansion for a party.
“It was a big deal. She was very excited. So excited she helped herself to a necklace of mine, which was a surprise because–”
“Could you describe it?” I had my pencil poised.
“Easy. It’s a lion’s head. You know, like the MGM insignia?”
“Yellow quartz. I only bought it a few months ago.” She raised an eyebrow, warning me not to make a comment about why a gal would be buying her own jewelry. “There must be fifty or more stones,” she told me. “The guy in the store says the Duchess of Windsor has one just like it. Only hers is the real razzle dazzle of course, but he swore mine was the only copy on the West Coast.”
“It sounds swell—why were you surprised Clara took it?”
“Because it’s real hard to put on without a little help. The clasp isn’t working properly. Of course I understood why she took it; it was a big deal for her to be invited to a party like that and she wanted to impress. It’s the biggest party of the year, probably. The wrap party for that Oz movie?”
My face must have looked blank.
“Come on, you must have read about it?”
“I’ve heard of the movie, sure—I read
like everyone else in this town.”
“So you must know it’s taken them over a year to make and cost over two million dollars. Which is why they were planning something special, you know, for the cast, the crew, the executives. A real spectacle—something Louella Parsons would wax lyrical about. You’re smart enough to know how it works. The right word in her column gets everybody talking about a picture.”
“You think something happened to Clara at this party?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time a pretty young starlet went to a Hollywood party never to be seen again.” She reached out for my hand across the table. “Say you’ll take the case, Mr McCoy.”
I looked down at her pale fingers as they hovered tentatively over mine.
“If something bad has happened to Clara and I just sit back and do nothing…” She pulled her hand away. “Well I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
Normally, when a client comes to me and says a person has been missing for less than a day, I tell them to go back home and wait, same as the police would, because the phone usually rings soon enough. With an embarrassed voice on the other end of the line, pleading for money, a good lawyer or a ride home. Sometimes all three.
But I felt like I could trust Mary. She didn’t seem one of those girls who makes up stories to get attention. She was quite happy in the shadows and I just didn’t think she was the type to lay a hundred dollar bill on the table for no reason. She truly believed Clara was in trouble, and that meant I did too. Besides, she was right: this is a town where pretty girls get themselves into ugly situations, and when the police won’t get involved, there aren’t too many people who can count on a friend like Mary to pay for a guy like me to run the case down.
By the time I turned off Sunset and started the climb into Beverly Hills, it was turning to dusk. The bright blues and greens that are the hallmark of Los Angeles during the day were becoming sepia and gold like an old movie: the city looked beautiful.
Powell’s place was pretty close to the main drag, but despite its proximity to the road, it was still one of Los Angeles’s prestige addresses. The entire street was lined with eight foot yew hedges, perforated every hundred yards or so by sets of gates that lead to some of the finest real estate in California. I always had a suspicion that the more elaborate and ornate the gate, the less impressive the house. The gates to the Powell mansion were a little on the understated side. I was more than a little surprised to find them open.
Just as I started to nose the Plymouth off the road and into the driveway, a truck came gassing toward me from the house, at maybe forty, forty-five miles an hour. As it turned onto the street, I stamped on the brake. The damn thing came within an inch of my fender. I was fairly sure the driver hadn’t even seen me. I put the Plymouth back into gear, then slid her inside the gates and snaked up the drive toward the house.