Authors: Martha Steinway
Back outside on the lot, the sun was so bright I had to squint. In front of the next door studio, a troop of soldiers practiced marching in formation. It reminded me of all the newsreels reporting what was happening in Europe. I could only hope Roosevelt would keep us out of it, but at the same time I found myself wondering how many war movies the script department was developing.
I wandered over to the maroon and green Cadillac. It just had to be the car I’d seen from Gloria Butterfield’s window—I doubted there’d be two like it in the whole of the county. And it certainly looked like the kind of car a slimy guy like Tomasky would drive. I walked round it, hoping to see something that might give me some kind of clue where Tomasky had taken Clara.
“Hey! Hey you!” A fat guy was waving his arms at me from about a hundred yards away. “Get away from that car.”
I raised my hands and stepped back.
“Your car?” I shouted, keeping my hands in the air. Maybe it wasn’t Tomasky’s.
He was running as best he could. As he approached I noticed his cheeks and bald head glistening in the sun. He sure knew how to sweat. “I told you to get away.”
I retreated another step. “Hey, it’s a nice vehicle, I was just admiring it.”
He was only a few strides away now, and I could see he was younger than I’d first thought. Baldness will do that to a guy.
“Hey, pal. I didn’t even touch it.”
He seemed more panicked than angry. “Why are you still here?”
“I was just wondering who you got to do the paint job, I—”
“Move it! Boss don’t like people snooping around.” He took a step toward me and was barely an inch from my face. He looked ready to pummel me.
One punch a day is my quota, so I said, “Okay, okay, I’m outta here. Sorry to have caused any trouble.” I bowed my head a little, raised my paws and backed away. He folded his arms and kept his eyes fixed on me as I retreated. I felt like his gaze was still boring into the back of my head all the way out of the parking lot.
After my two brushes with violence, I figured it was time to head back to the office. I’d told Red I’d only be a half hour. Seeing as I had practically begged her to take her job back, I didn’t want to risk leaving her alone with nothing but paperwork to do for any longer than necessary.
I passed back in front of Studio 17, where quite a crowd had gathered. It seemed they’d had to close the set while they searched for the snake. I spotted Tomasky who was having another altercation, this time with the tall guy who’d helped break up our fight. I slipped behind a big truck so I could see them without them seeing me. Tomasky was holding a large manila envelope that was so full it looked like the contents were about to spill out. The tall guy seemed very keen to relieve Tomasky of it. He reached out and grabbed one end, and the pair of them started tugging it back and forth. Tomasky didn’t want to give up whatever was in that packet.
The crowd around them all took a step back. They knew instinctively another fight was about to break out. The two combatants raised their voices, but not loud enough for me to make out specific words. Then Tomasky, without taking his hands from the envelope, managed to push his opponent who stumbled but somehow maintained his grip. This wasn’t so much a brawl as a power struggle: both men wanted the other to capitulate. It was like brothers fighting over a comic book. Was the packet stuffed with money? It would certainly explain why they were fighting so hard over it.
Tomasky shoved the tall guy again. This time the guy stepped right up to the photographer, towering a good eight inches over him. He seemed to be saying that if Tomasky wanted to make it physical, then he really didn’t stand a chance. The photographer stared up into his face defiantly and gave the packet another sharp tug. Amazingly, the tall fella let go. A moment later his right hand was around the back of Tomasky’s neck, his left hand on Tomasky’s wrist. He bowed his face low, until their noses were practically touching. Tomasky’s shoulders drooped. He knew when he was beat. Then slowly, one hand at a time, he released the envelope.
The tall guy shoved the packet under his arm, hollered something about Tomasky’s mother that would make even a sailor blush, and strode away without looking back. Tomasky watched him leave. As did I.
In an instant I changed my plans. Red could survive on her own for a little while longer. I couldn’t take my eyes off that packet. Right now all I wanted to do was find out what was inside.
The tall guy drove a brand new Ford and I followed him north, out of the MGM studios, keeping a couple cars between me and him. The first rule of tailing a vehicle is don’t get spotted. The traffic was a little heavier than usual, so he never got too far ahead of me.
I wondered idly where he might be headed—Beverly Hills, Bel-Air—and whether the packet might be intended for a third party. I couldn’t help considering who that person might be. A moment later he accelerated toward an intersection and passed straight through on a red light.
I’d just broken the second rule: don’t lose concentration.
The two law-abiding drivers in front of me sat patiently in their cars waiting for the traffic signal to change while I watched my quarry escape.
On green, I sped forward and continued north toward Rodeo Drive, hoping I might just see his car parked up, or maybe even catch him up at the next intersection. I made it through the next signal but then got stuck on red after another block. The cross traffic had come to a standstill. For years people have been predicting gridlock in Los Angeles: this was like getting a glimpse of the future.
Angelinos are what you’d call “hooter happy”. First sign of a holdup and they’re leaning on the horn like it’s the counter in their favorite bar. Already it was sounding like an off-key orchestra blasting out a particularly tuneless melody. Most of the noise was coming from the cross traffic and something about the urgency of their tooting made me think they weren’t just venting frustration: they were actually using the horn for the purpose it was intended—to issue a warning.
I got out of the car and immediately heard a high-pitched wail cutting through the car noises. I felt for the Colt under my jacket and ran toward the screams.
“It took my baby! The panther took my baby!”
Up ahead I could see the distraught mother and sprinted toward her. She was staring and pointing down an alley that ran between two stores. A small crowd of pedestrians had gathered around her, all unsure what to do.
“Oh my dear God,” I heard one woman say.
“Say it isn’t so,” said another.
“We should get out of here.”
“It’s not safe.”
I looked at the mother. She hadn’t heard any of it. She was just focusing on the alley and what lay at the end of it. The noise from the car horns built to a crescendo and in the distance I heard another loud wailing: the howl of police sirens. There was no way the cops would make it through the stationary traffic. I glanced again at the hysterical mother: I had to do something. I couldn’t see anything down the alley apart from a couple trash cans. I went in.
I drew the Colt and pulled the trigger to clear the empty chamber. I was ready to shoot whatever might be lurking at the other end of that alley. I felt the muscles in my jaw tightening. My teeth were grinding hard against one another. I tried to steady my breathing.
The alley emptied into a small yard, separated from other yards by a crisscross of low walls. I came to a stop and listened. The loud and rhythmic panting of an animal sounded from somewhere close by. My own heartbeat thundered in my ears.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw it. Black, its coat glistening in the sunlight, just two yards away. I could see it flare its nostrils. It had picked up my scent. A moment later it turned its wide head toward me, its gaze locking onto mine.
I froze. The same way you freeze when you see a shark in the ocean. For a second I imagined the cat leaping over both yards in a single bound.
It lifted its head a little higher. I couldn’t see blood around its mouth: I had to hope the mother’s child was some place else, safe. With a lot of effort I managed to get my arms working again. I straightened the Colt and aimed it straight between the beast’s eyes.
Suddenly it felt wrong to punish the animal for doing the only thing it knew how. Maybe it could be captured and taken back to Goebel’s.
I heard a noise. A crash. From behind me. Instinctively, I turned toward it. A cop spewed out of the alley, his gun raised.
A split second later the panther went on the attack. It leapt over a low wall heading straight for me and the cop. In one single, smooth movement it landed in the adjacent yard and started running at top speed. It slowed for a moment, adjusting its stride, then leapt again, launching itself over the final wall separating it from us.
A shot rang out.
The beast didn’t even slow. The cop had missed. A moment later the panther was flying through the air toward us. I aimed for its head and pulled the trigger. All I could do was watch in awe as the animal seemed to freeze mid-flight. Then it dropped like a stone.
And landed at my feet. Part of its head was missing.
I lowered my weapon and let out the breath I’d been holding.
“Good shot.” The cop—a young, blond, innocent-looking type—kept his gun aimed at the big cat. “You think it’s dead?”
I couldn’t find the words to answer.
We stood there in stunned silence just staring at the bloodied black heap before us. It was still breathing, but each breath was smaller than the last.
My arm hung limp by my side, the weight of the Colt dragging it down. It took me a few seconds to realize my hand was trembling. I hadn’t fired my gun in a long while.
“Reckon I owe you my life,” the cop said.
He probably did.
Two more cops tumbled from the alley into the yard. One checked the neighboring plots, calling out for the kid. There was no sign of a child anywhere. Within a minute ten more officers crowded into the cramped space. Shortly after that the men and women who had been standing on the sidewalk started streaming down the alley, anxious to gawp at the corpse lying at our feet.
Conscious I was holding a loaded weapon in the middle of a jostling crowd, I put the Colt back in its holster. I became aware of horns blasting from the other end of the alley. I suddenly remembered I’d abandoned the car.
I ran back down the alley, along the sidewalk and up toward the intersection. The cross traffic had started to move now the police were on the scene, but the northbound carriageway was backed up behind a stationary vehicle: a beat-up 1933 Plymouth. When I approached the car, the horns got louder and drivers started screaming obscenities at me.
“Dammit!” I said under my breath.
I’d forgotten about the broken door handle and felt like a complete cully as I walked over to the passenger side, climbed in and awkwardly slid across to the driver’s seat. I was eager to go, but just as I turned on the ignition, the lights went red, and I was subjected to another round of honking.
Finally the signal turned green and I moved rapidly through the gears to get away from the angry drivers, fully intending to head back to the office. But then I had an idea I couldn’t ignore. I quickly pulled over, the front tire mounting the curb, eliciting a further stream of abuse from the driver immediately behind me.
I wriggled back out through the passenger door, then ran back to the alley as fast as I could.
The crowd had grown: it seemed everyone in the neighborhood had come to see what was going on. The screaming mother was now on her knees on the sidewalk, cradling a boy who was old enough to be embarrassed by her extravagant display of affection. The mob at the mouth of the alley was denser than the throngs you used to see in Hooverville when the soup truck parked up. The alley itself was now impassable, the gawping bystanders were craning their necks and standing on tip-toes to get a glimpse of the dead panther. Whispers rippled and echoed down the alley as the frantic events from the yard were conveyed backward.
I pushed my way through, shouting as I went: “Come on folks! Move along now.”
A wide man in a creased suit barred my path. “And who the hell do you think you are?”
“I’m the guy who shot the damn thing, now will you let me pass?”
People stuck elbows in my ribs and tried to trip me up as I went. What was the matter with these people? “Please, I need to get through.”
The rubberneckers were resistant to my efforts but after what seemed like minutes of pushing, shoving and squeezing, I finally made it back into the yard. A tight circle of cops had formed a wall around the carcass.
“Who’s in charge here?” I asked.
I was willing to wager that the short, overweight cop who had spoken was the guy I was after.
“That’s the one I was telling you about.” The young cop had recognized me. “The one who shot it.”
“Don’t know if we should thank you or curse you,” the fat one said. “You saved us a job but made it look like we can’t take care of things ourselves.”
“Tell the boss you killed it yourself, if you like. I don’t mind.”
“Say, I know you, don’t I?” I turned to see an officer I’d run into on a case a couple months back. “McCoy, isn’t it? You’re a P.I.” he said.
I tipped my hat.
“You telling me someone paid you to kill the cat?”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I think I might be after something inside it.”
“I think it ate something I’m looking for.”
I didn’t want to say I thought it might have eaten Clara—that just sounded fantastical. But nevertheless it was a possibility I had to eliminate. “Aren’t you curious to know what it’s been eating these past two days? You might find all kinds of stuff in its belly. I heard it had broken into houses and eaten some crazy things while it was looking for food. Might find a whole heap of stolen property in there.”