Authors: Martha Steinway
“It’s very quiet up here,” I said keen to fill the uncomfortable silence. “Not been up in the mountains for… years, I guess.”
“Yes,” he said cautiously, “it is rather remote.” He made it sound like a threat.
“This your place?”
He pursed his lips as he considered his answer. “No, I merely work here.”
I thought about the driveway. There had been no other cars parked out front. It wasn’t like he could have walked here. Tracy returned carrying a larger parcel than the one I had given him. He handed it to me.
“Mr Mannix should find everything he is expecting,” the older man said. “Tracy here will show you to your car.”
Tracy opened the door even though it would have been quicker for me to do it, and I stepped as slowly down the steps as he did, so as not to embarrass the fella. It was a queer set-up, a crippled Negro and his employer rattling around a huge villa in the middle of nowhere. Tracy had said his boss was called Mr Channing. So who was the doctor he’d mentioned? What was that name on the package I’d handed over? I tried to picture it in my mind. Dr… Vanderspoel.
“Nice to meet you, Tracy.” I tucked the parcel under one arm and offered him my other hand.
“You too Mr Spencer. I won’t forget you in a hurry.”
“Now every time I see that guy on the big screen I’ll think of you. So long.”
I climbed back into the Cadillac and turned the key. The noise that engine made was hard on the ears; no wonder Tracy flinched. By the time I had driven back down to the gates they had already started to open. Knowing I was probably being watched as I drove away meant I had to leave the same way I’d come. But what I really wanted to do was dump the car and scope out the hacienda on foot. It still seemed to me like the perfect place to hide a girl.
But right now I had another lead. I needed to get to a phone and call the office. I had to tell Red to dig up everything she could find on this Dr Vanderspoel.
I approached the bend that led to the stretch of road where Mannix had tried to stove my head in with a tire iron. I was considering if I should stop and make sure he was still breathing before I headed back to the city. I rounded the curve slowly and prepared myself for another encounter with Mannix. When I cleared the bend I couldn’t believe what I saw.
Or rather what I didn’t see: Red’s Pontiac had disappeared.
I put my foot to the floor.
“What’s in the box?” Red eyed the parcel I was carrying.
“Haven’t opened it yet.” I put the package down on my desk.
“Aren’t you curious what’s inside?”
“Did you find anything out about Vanderspoel?” I had called her from the first phone booth I’d found.
“Sure did.” Red had a big smile on her face. She’d clearly uncovered something juicy.
I searched in my desk drawers for a pair of scissors. “Want to tell me, or do I have to interrogate you too?”
She sat down on the couch usually reserved for clients and flipped open her notebook theatrically. I cut the string on the package.
“Jan Vanderspoel. Forty-nine years of age. From Virginia. Trained at John Hopkins. Married to Theresa. Three kids.”
“Find out anything interesting?”
She screwed her face up at me. “I was waiting.”
She indicated the package. “Until I had your full and undivided attention.” I put the scissors down and she continued. “He’s a head doctor. Schizophrenia, manic depression, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds like he has a lot of show business clients—”
“Every shrink in this town does. It’s why they come here: plenty of wealthy clients.”
“He also works at the Bethesda Sanatorium.” She looked at me for a response. “You haven’t heard of it?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“So I guess you don’t know where it is.”
“Like I said, I never—”
“Santa Barbara. It’s in Santa Barbara.”
I thought about the postcard that Mary had received, supposedly from Clara enjoying a vacation in the town.
“I guess you called the place?”
“And I suppose they can’t possibly divulge the names of their patients?”
“Absolutely not. But I did inquire as to Dr Vanderspoel’s availability.”
“He runs a clinic there on Friday mornings.”
“What kind of clinic?”
“E-C-T, if you can believe it.”
“I might, if I knew what it was.”
“You never heard of it?”
“Your father might be a doctor, but mine was a peach farmer—excuse my ignorance.”
“I suppose the technique is fairly new. I guess Vanderspoel is quite a pioneer.”
“You still haven’t told me what—”
“It’s short for Electroconvulsive Therapy. Electrodes are placed on the head like so,” she said, pressing both forefingers into her temples. “And then… zap!” She started twitching and jerking. “They send an electric current right through the brain.”
“And that’s supposed to make people better?” It sounded more like a punishment than a cure to me, not a hundred miles away from getting fried in the electric chair.
“Relieves depression and other mental illnesses, according to some. But it also causes confusion and memory loss. And sometimes death. You know, during the procedure. Pa says it’s barbaric.”
“And Vanderspoel is doing this E.C.T. business up in Santa Barbara?”
“I know—you’d expect such a groundbreaking technique like that to happen right in the city. Or maybe New York.”
Her revelation was all very enlightening but I wasn’t sure we were any nearer finding Clara.
“So the question is, do we think this doctor has something to do with Clara’s disappearance?” I started to pick at the corner of the brown paper wrapped around the package on my desk. “It’s a huge leap—from a scribbled message on a postcard to a sanatorium.”
“What else do we have?”
Red stepped over as I tore off the remaining brown paper and lifted the lid from the box. We both looked at the package.
“Oh my!” Red said.
Inside the box were around a hundred bottles of pills, just as many vials and a good many syringes and needles. Red reached in and started reading the labels. “Seconal… Quaaludes… Morphine... That’s some pharmacy Vanderspoel has in the mountains.”
“Just about everything you need to keep your stars bright and alert on set for twelve hours, plus something to knock them unconscious when they get home.”
“This must be thousands of dollars’ worth.”
I thought about how much cash must have been in the heavy packet I’d handed over. “Easily.”
“None of it’s actually illegal, though, is it? Pa prescribes this sort of thing all the time.”
“If you and I got caught trying to sell any of this at the Cocoanut Grove we’d get sent straight to the slammer.” We both stared at the contents of the box. “Are there any names on those bottles?”
Red inspected the bottle she was still holding, then sifted through the rest. She shook her head. “So, we think Vanderspoel is selling drugs to the studio… Maybe Clara found out… maybe she threatened to expose their scam and they had to silence her?”
“How could she find out something like that? And why would she threaten them? What’s it to her if Judy Garland is so pumped full of pills she doesn’t know what day it is?”
“Have you got a better theory?”
“What’s the name of the sanatorium?”
Red spelled it out for me and I picked up the phone. The operator connected the call just a few seconds later.
“Bethesda Center, how may I help you?”
“Would you put me through to Clara Locke’s room please.”
“Certainly, sir. May I ask who’s calling?”
I used the first name that came into my head. “Bobby Bowers.” Red frowned at me, I shrugged back at her. The line clicked and whirred as if to accompany the cogs and wheels turning in my head. The telephonist hadn’t told me she’d never heard of Clara Lockhart. Did that mean our gal was holed up in the funny farm?
“Hello?” It was a man’s voice.
“I was hoping to speak to Clara Lockhart.”
“Where did you get this number?”
“The lady on the line just now was putting the call through to Miss Locke’s room.”
There were muffled noises: it sounded as if he had put his hand over the receiver. A moment later the line went dead. I dialed again. This time when I asked for Clara I was told by an apologetic telephonist that no one of that name was staying with them. I hung up and stared at the phone, working out our next move.
“When you spoke to the sanatorium earlier, did you happen to find out when visiting hours are?” I asked Red.
She flicked through her pad. “Lunch times from noon till two, and on Monday Wednesday and Thursday evenings from four till six; Saturdays ten till noon.”
I checked my watch. Four p.m. If I floored it I could be there by six. “Okay, I’m going. If the traffic’s good I might just make it before they shut for the night.”
I grabbed my hat and headed for the door.
“You want to use my car?” Red asked.
I turned back. “Ah… about your car…”
“I lost it.”
“What? How do you lose a car?”
I wasn’t sure the best way to frame it for her. And then I had an idea. “You got plans tonight?”
“That’s not an answer. Where’s my car, Spencer?”
“Do you have plans for tonight?” I repeated, this time slower.
“It so happens I do.”
“What’s his name?”
“None of your goddamn business.”
“Spencer McCoy, if you don’t explain what’s going on right now I’ll—”
“Twice in one week? You’ll get a reputation.”
She pouted at me. “I think a new employer would understand, especially since my last one managed to lose my car.”
“I’ll get you a new one. I promise. Now cancel your date and grab your hat. We’re having dinner in Santa Barbara.”
She picked up her hat and turned toward the door.
“What, no call?”
She turned back around and stuck her tongue out at me.
“You don’t want to leave Claud Rains waiting.”
“He is the Invisible Man, ain’t he?”
“You are in so much trouble, mister,” she said as I locked the door behind us.
“Hey, isn’t trouble what you signed up for?”
Out on the street, Red was more than a little perturbed to see the maroon and green Cadillac. I quickly filled her in on my mountain caper, leaving out the part about shooting—and missing—Eddie Mannix. We discussed how likely it was she’d ever see the Pontiac again.
“It was almost out of gas, he could have dumped it wherever it stopped.” I said. “But I didn’t pass it any place on my way back to the city.”
“You think he pushed it over a cliff? Would he do that? It was a stolen car after all.”
I pulled out onto the Roosevelt Highway and the Cadillac’s mighty engine crescendoed. I considered what I would have done if I were Mannix. “If I’d come to in the back of a trunk at the side of the road I’d be mad as hell. Maybe my first instinct would be to take out my frustration on the Pontiac. Smash it up even more. But I might come to my senses first, realize I was in the middle of nowhere and I needed transport more than I needed to vent my anger.”
“Don’t you think he would have tried to get to Vanderspoel’s villa?”
“It’s what I would have done. But like I say, I didn’t see him or the Pontiac on the road between the villa and L.A.”
“Maybe he dumped the car then walked over the hills to get to Vanderspoel’s?”
“If he did he’s probably still walking. It might be the most direct route, but it sure ain’t the fastest.”
“But when he does get there and finds out the man who had been tailing him not only stole his car, but also delivered his money and collected his drugs… won’t he be madder than hell?”
“He doesn’t know where to find you, does he?”
“But he does know I’m driving a maroon and green Cadillac convertible.”
“Maybe we should dump the car.”
“And throw away the only lead we have left? We’re going to Santa Barbara and this is the fastest way to get us there.”
“What if someone’s following us right now?” She turned in her seat and peered at the road behind us.
“Don’t worry—we’re not. I’ve been watching for a tail ever since we left the office.”
Red swiveled back around and blew out a breath. “You’d better be right.”
“Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
I put my foot down and we accelerated smoothly, passing the other cars on the highway with ease. We were out past Oxnard in less than thirty minutes. At this rate there was every chance we’d make the end of visiting hours.
Red sat in silence for the next half hour. It was the quietest she’d been since I’d first met her. I didn’t know if she was angry or scared, so I left her with her own thoughts and the view of the ocean. The sunset was going to be spectacular. After another ten minutes of silence I cracked.
“You okay, Red?”
She said something so quietly I couldn’t make out her words over the noise of the engine. I asked her to repeat it.
“I said, who’s Mabel Yemm?”
I think I must have swerved a little because a car in the next lane blared its horn. I went with the simple answer. “She was my first case.”
“You made a lot of notes back then. I’ve been filing, see.”
“I worked that out.”
“What was she? A fraudster? Femme fatale? Black widow?”
Again, the most straightforward answer seemed appropriate. “Another missing person.”
“Why’d you keep the notes?”
“She’s still missing.”
Red grabbed my arm—she must have picked up on the tremor in my voice. “Who was she? Why was she so important to you?”
I found I was unable to answer her.
“Oh my, I’m sorry. Was it… personal? Were you close?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“Well, if I’m working with you, isn’t that a good thing?”