Authors: Martha Steinway
I could only hope a hangover was all Clara Lockhart was suffering from.
The Garden of Allah was a notorious joint up on Sunset Boulevard. But now I knew how Benny Bowers paid some of his bills, it wasn’t surprising Red thought I’d find him there. It had been owned by some actress in the ’20s with a reputation for sin, and ever since it has attracted residents with exotic tastes. I’d been there once before and remembered it looking like an upmarket trailer park: a smallish plot with ten to fifteen rental bungalows secluded from each other by generous shrubbery. There was a clearing in the middle if you happened to be an exhibitionist. People usually rented them a week at a time when they were in town to make a picture. Red’s contact had told her Bowers was attending a party there: I had a fairly good idea what kind of party it would be.
I had barely made it through the door before an elegant, manicured hand clasped my arm and a woman of about fifty started purring in my ear.
“Did Artie send you?” She had an accent. European.
I figured answering “no” would get me precisely nowhere, so I nodded and said: “Sure.”
“He always seems to know what I like. Come with me.”
She led me further into the house. She was wearing a sheer gown that didn’t leave much to the imagination—and the dame had a good figure for her age. She opened the door into the main room and instantly the music from the gramophone got louder. Ahead of me was quite a sight: at one end of a leather couch was an older guy with his shirt undone and his pants round his ankles, a girl on her knees in front of him. At the other end of the couch, like a matching bookend was a half-naked girl, and a guy kneeling between her legs.
“Do you want a drink, or shall we go straight to my room?” the foreign lady asked. I decided her accent was Swedish, because she reminded me of Ingrid Bergman.
“I think I’d like that drink, if it’s all the same.”
She squeezed my arm a little harder. Her face told me she liked what she felt. “I have some wonderful rum my husband brought back from the Caribbean.”
I looked again at the man on the couch. Was that her husband? “Rum sounds good.” I’ve never been a big drinker but I had the feeling I would be grateful for a shot.
“Are you going to at least take your jacket off, darling?”
I obliged as she reached for the liquor inside a dark wood cabinet.
“No, I’ll take it straight, thanks.” It was hard to concentrate with the slurping and moaning coming from the couch. I had to remind myself I was there to work.
The woman handed me my rum.
“You worked for Artie long?”
“No, can’t say I have.”
“This isn’t your first time?”
She placed her hand on my chest and fingered the strap of my empty holster and started smoothing my shirt flat against my flesh.
“You a cop, honey?”
“No, bounty hunter. Thought it best if I left the shooter in the car.”
“Shame. There’s something attractive about a man with a gun.’ She spread out her fingers and massaged my chest. Then started to unbutton my shirt.
“Shall we agree on payment first?”
“Okay.” I took a slug of the rum. It was sweet and hot.
“There’s twenty dollars on the side over there.”
By now my shirt was open to the waist.
“You’ve got more muscles than Johnny Weissmuller. Are you an athlete?” she asked as she ran her hand across my shoulders.
That seemed to meet with her approval.
“And how old are you, honey?”
“Just turned thirty-one.”
“That’s a good age,” she said, pressing her fingers hard into my pectorals.
On the couch, things came to a noisy conclusion and the Swedish dame seemed to get as much pleasure from the proceedings as the participants did. When it was all over, the guy who’d been on his knees stood up: he didn’t look anything like Mary’s description of Benny Bowers. It suddenly dawned on me that at the Garden of Allah, there might be a half dozen parties like this one. Maybe I was in the wrong Goddamned bungalow!
The Swedish lady started stroking my thighs and fingering my belt. Then she began kissing my chest. I gently raised a hand to her face and she looked up at me.
“Is there something wrong?”
“I was thinking that we really ought to wait for Benny.”
She looked puzzled. “You mean you’re not Benny?”
“No ma’am, I’m not.”
She stopped loosening my belt. “Is Benny as good looking as you?”
“I’m sure he’s a fine looking guy. He’ll show you a good time. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be doing this.”
I started heading toward the door, but she grabbed my hand and pulled me back. “Where are you going?”
“I gotta find Benny.”
“You don’t do girls, is that it? My husband—”
“I do. I mean I do do girls… and you’re a very lovely lady, but this isn’t why I’m here.” She had me flustered. I tried to remember why I was there. I stared at the necklace round her neck and thought of Clara. I was being paid to find Clara. “I’m sorry, I should go.”
She stood on her toes and started kissing me again, her hand at the back of my neck, pulling my head closer to hers. With her other hand she unfastened my belt.
“Just give me five minutes,” she purred and led me into the bedroom.
By the time I came out of the bedroom—I had to have been in there considerably longer than five minutes—a lot more people had joined the party. One of them matched Mary’s profile of Bowers. He was dressed casually, as if he’d come from mowing a lawn or cleaning a pool. Wearing only my pants—I was clutching my shirt and holster in a fist behind my back—I introduced myself.
“You from Artie?” I asked him.
I nodded. I don’t like to make a habit of misleading people—it usually makes it worse when you finally come clean—but it seemed like the quickest way to get what I needed.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Go ahead.” Benny opened a bottle of beer and offered it to me. I shook my head.
“Actually, it’s kinda private.”
“Want to step outside?”
We sat on the porch. Traffic noise from Sunset Strip merged with the hum of cicadas. The air was warm and the stars dazzled overhead.
“So what is it? Want to know if you still get paid if you can’t get it up?” I was pleased to see that Benny was in a good mood.
“No, it ain’t nothing like that.”
“So what is it? You don’t like the client? Just tell Artie and he won’t send you to them again. He’s an easy fella, he won’t mind.”
I was beginning to think I’d gotten Benny all wrong. Not so much a louse, as a good times guy. The longer I let him believe I was a name in Artie’s book, the worse I’d feel when I eventually told him the truth.
“It’s Benny, right?”
“Artie mentioned me?”
“Benny, I gotta tell you that I never met Artie, never even heard of him before tonight.”
He took a swig of beer and threw me a puzzled look.
“If I was wearing a jacket right now I’d be pulling out my calling card and you’d see that I’m a private investigator.”
“Okay.” He sounded a little nervous.
“I’m not here for the party. I’m here for you.”
He pulled away from me. “You a cop?”
“No, I told you, I’m a P.I.”
“Who do you work for?”
“I work alone.”
He visibly relaxed took another swig of beer. “You take your work real serious.” He pointed to my bare chest.
“Couldn’t be helped. The lady was very insistent.”
“Artie warned me about her.” He was smiling again. “So… I guess you better tell me what I’m supposed to have done wrong.”
“I didn’t say that you had. I just want to talk to you about the party last night.”
“What party?” He wasn’t going to make this easy for me.
“The one you took Clara Lockhart to.”
“Ok-ay.” The two syllables were drawn out and loaded with suspicion.
“Clara didn’t make it home last night.” I paused to see whether his face would tell me something his words wouldn’t. His eyes widened ever so slightly: this was news to him.
“So her husband has hired you to find out which bed she ended up in, is that it?”
“She told you she was married?”
“Hell no, if I’d known she was married I’d never have taken her there. I like an easy life.”
I told him he could relax: there was no husband looking for his tail on a plate. “So you know where she might be?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised if she was still there. She was having a whale of a time.”
“Were you working last night?”
“You mean like now?”
“No, last night was strictly for pleasure.”
“Was Clara working?”
He was perplexed. “Oh, no. She doesn’t work for Artie.”
“Then how d’you know her?”
“We made a picture together a couple months ago. Just background players. We spent an entire day on the lot while Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne tried to get their lines straight.”
He wasn’t striking me as the type who’d do harm to a girl. Benny Bowers was the kind of guy who never says “no”. You ask him to clean your pool, he says sure, then asks for five bucks. You cast him as a friendly bartender, he asks what time you need him on set. You want him to sleep with your wife, he’ll ask how many times. He was more of a scamp than a scoundrel and I didn’t see any malice in him at all. I’d even been wrong about the boot polish in his hair: he was going a little thin on top and, unlike most men in Los Angeles, he wasn’t trying to hide it. Nevertheless, he was still my only lead.
“You say she had a good time?” I asked him.
“Last time I saw her she was down at the pool.”
“Was she alone?”
“There was a bunch of them.”
“I don’t really know. I was kinda distracted.”
“You got lucky?”
“Luckiest guy in Hollywood, what can I say.”
He smiled. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
That meant she was famous: there’s a very annoying code— especially annoying if you happen to be a P.I.—that’s essential to success in Hollywood: no one ever spills the beans about someone more famous than themselves. If you want to work in pictures, you just don’t break that code. It’s called the snitch and ditch: if you talk, you walk. It’s as simple as that.
“Then you should know you’re the guy in the frame for whatever’s happened to Clara.”
“You know, your threats might be a little scarier if you were wearing a tie. Or maybe even a shirt.”
I couldn’t really argue with that.
“Look, I don’t think you did anything to her,” I said, “but the fact remains she’s missing. You seem like a decent fella, so just tell me what you know. If you don’t, and something has happened to her, you’re going to feel real bad.” I paused to let that sink in. “Let’s start with the people at the pool. You said there was a group of them?”
“Can you tell me any names?”
“I wasn’t close enough to make out faces.”
“Describe what were they wearing.”
“Wearing?” He looked at me as if I had asked him to explain why the sky is blue. “They weren’t wearing anything, pal.”
“They were swimming naked?” I thought of the drained pool I had seen just a couple hours earlier.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of swimming going on.”
“You’re telling me it was an orgy?”
“Looked like it was turning into one.”
“Did Clara seem distressed?”
“Hell, no! She was having a fine old time.”
“And when was this?”
“Not that late, maybe eleven, eleven-thirty.”
“And you didn’t see her again?”
He shook his head.
“So when did you leave?”
“The sun was up, I remember that.”
“And you drove yourself home?”
“Didn’t you think that maybe you should check for Clara before you left?”
“I figured she’d be long gone. I was one of the last schmucks there.”
There was nothing in his demeanor to suggest he was lying. He wasn’t stroking his chin, or rubbing his ear, he wasn’t pulling the label off his beer.
“Until I find out who else was at the party, you’re my only lead.”
“I get that, but I like my life. I’m not gonna snitch.”
“Okay then. How about I say some names, and if they were there, you can nod. How would that be?”
“We can try it.”
I’d been reading about the Oz picture in
for months. I reeled off some names. “Frank Morgan?”
Benny didn’t move a muscle.
“I guess that Garland kid was there?”
“Why would she be?”
“It was the wrap party and she’s the star.”
He gave me another smile. “Your information ain’t so hot. Powell wouldn’t throw a wrap party for The Wizard of Oz. He hated that movie. It’s all the studio’s been interested in for the past year and they haven’t been giving him the attention he’s used to.” He took another swig of beer. “Last night was the thank-the-lord-that-Oz-is-over party. Everyone who was there was hoping maybe MGM can go back to being more than a one-picture studio. Let me tell you: the people who didn’t work on that picture hate it just as much as Powell. And, Judas Priest, by the time they finished filming probably everyone who did work on it hated it too.”
“But they weren’t even invited?”
“Nope, strictly no munchkins, no witches, no tin men and no lions.”
“So who was there?”
“Pretty much every MGM actor who’s in town.”
“But you won’t name names?”
He shook his head. “Hey, what do you know. My beer’s empty, and if you don’t mind I came here for what you’ve already had. It’s time to introduce myself.” He stood up.
“I’ll come in with you, my jacket’s in the bedroom.” I got to my feet and turned to go inside. “What about the set designers, the scene painters? Were they there?”
“You go to Culver City in the morning and stand at the MGM gates, nine out of ten people you see will have been there.”