Authors: Martha Steinway
“But no names?”
“Okay. I’ll give you one name.”
There was that happy-go-lucky smile again.
“Well?” I asked.
“I’m pretty sure he’s a chimpanzee.”
I woke early. I knew a swell was heading up from Mexico, and when I felt the wind coming from the North, I felt sure I’d find some breakers up at Oxnard. I threw my old long board into the Plymouth and headed for the coast. The sun had barely cleared the Sierra Madre by the time I was in the ocean.
It was a beautiful morning and I had the waves—and a pod of bottle-nose dolphins—to myself. The beach was deserted and it took me back to being a kid when there were only fifteen, certainly no more than twenty, guys in the whole of California who rode the waves. Nowadays, on the weekend, you might have fifty surfers in the water just at Santa Monica or Long Beach.
I could have stayed there all day, but I wanted to get to my office and start making some calls. I always tried the hospitals ahead of calling the morgue, and I needed to eliminate the obvious lines of inquiry before I used up any more gas or shoe leather. Reluctantly, I toweled down and headed back toward the city.
On the freeway above Malibu the early morning traffic was sluggish, but I figured I had time to get home, spruce myself up and get to the office by eight. I planned to head out to Culver City late afternoon and talk to people as they left the MGM lot. I was working through my schedule in my mind as the intersections and road signs started to blur and the horns and engines turned to a distant hum in my ears.
Then, without even meaning to, I pulled off the freeway and onto the underpass, taking the route back out toward the coast. What was I doing? A moment later my brain caught up with my actions and I realized what I had seen about a mile back on the freeway. There was a large advertisement on a hoarding at the side of the road: Goebel’s Lion Farm—Proud Suppliers of Animal Actors To The Motion Picture Industry. Five minutes later I turned onto a narrow lane that quickly became a dirt track. The Plymouth popped and coughed with each divot under her wheels. I eased up on the gas. After another minute or so an old ranch house came into view.
People always think being an investigator is an exciting line of work, but the truth is most of the important stuff happens when your gun’s in its holster and your feet are under your desk. If I hadn’t spent those hours reading all those copies of
, I might not have known that Goebel’s farm is home to the animals used in the Tarzan movies. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of the chimp, but I figured where Cheeta goes, his handler goes too. Maybe the guy could tell me a thing or two about Powell’s party.
The place seemed deserted, as if no one had been there since the railroad reached the west coast. Goebel’s looked like a frontier outpost, abandoned after a successful Indian ambush. I got out of the car on the passenger side and grabbed my clothes from the back seat. My shorts were still wet, but I couldn’t very well start snooping around without putting on my pants.
I headed to the main house and knocked on the door. There was no answer. Maybe it was still too early. I pushed gently on the door and it gave a little. I pushed harder and it swung open onto a dilapidated kitchen that was overrun with animals. Macaque monkeys were squabbling over bowls of food, and the air flickered red, yellow and green, with exotic birds, squawking and flapping like there was a war on.
“Hello?” I shut the door behind me: I didn’t want to cause a prison break. For a fleeting moment, the cute monkeys stopped their rumpus, and looked at me expectantly. But a human without food didn’t hold their attention for long and they soon started fighting again. “Hello?” I said a little louder this time, but still no response.
I went back out into the yard and headed for the nearest stable block. In the distance I heard a low roar like a rockfall tumbling down from the nearby woods. A lion? An elephant? I had no idea, so I figured I shouldn’t stand around outside waiting to find out. But the sign on the door of the stables made me think twice about going inside: Warning. Wild Animals. The door was ajar and I could see a long line of pens down one side of the block. The original wooden doors had been replaced with metal grilles. I went in.
In the first pen was a panther, sleek, black as oil and—mercifully—asleep. I took a couple steps forward. In an instant the beast had my scent and before it had even got onto all fours it was right next to the grille. A paw swiped at me through the bars. My heart jumped into my throat and my breath stalled. If the grille hadn’t held firm I’d have been breakfast. I shouted a “hello”, but the only reply I got was an angry yelp from a beast in the furthest pen. Who was looking after these animals?
Back out in the yard, the sun was getting high enough to make me squint but at least that meant the damp patch seeping through from my shorts might start to dry. I saw a flicker of movement from one of the outhouses. “Hello!” I rushed over and just got my toe in the door before it closed.
“Hello?” I said again.
A dark face peered out at me from an open pen. A dark furry face.
“Hello, fella.” I felt myself smile as I spoke to the chimp. “Anyone here taking care of you?”
The chimp shrieked but didn’t move. Was that a greeting? Or a warning? I started to hear the noises of other chimps I couldn’t see.
“Easy fella, I ain’t here to hurt you.” I took a step toward him—or her?—and he shrieked again showing more teeth than I knew you could fit in one mouth.
“Okay, okay. Easy now, I—”
I turned round. A young boy, fourteen, maybe fifteen years old, stood in front of me holding a bucket of food.
“Who you?” He had a thick Mexican accent and looked as scared as if I’d pulled a gun on him.
“I knocked at the main house,” I tried to explain. “I, ah… I wanted to talk to someone about a party.” The kid’s face was blank. I wasn’t sure how much he was understanding me. “You know the party Cheeta was at the night before last?”
“You not police?”
“No, I’m…” I would’ve given him a card, but I hadn’t taken my jacket to the beach. “I’m an investigator.”
He walked past me toward the chimp, who leapt up onto his back. The boy handed him some fruit and made some soothing noises.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare him.”
I took a step closer to them. “Is this Cheeta?”
The kid shook his head.
“Cheeta with Denny.”
“And where’s Denny?” As soon as I said the name I realized I’d heard it the day before at Powell’s place.
“Up top?” I asked.
He nodded in the direction of the woods. “Top of farm. Feeding.”
“So it’s just you and Denny here?”
“Where’s everybody else?”
“Cleaning up big mess.”
I got the feeling he wasn’t talking about elephant dung.
“What kind of mess?”
The kid looked at me with wide brown eyes. He wanted to tell me something but seemed to know he shouldn’t. I sensed a divided loyalty. “Big mess,” he repeated.
“From the party?” I remembered the three rifles Denny and his pals had aimed at me at Powell’s pool house.
“They sent wrong animals.”
“They sent bad ones.”
“What do you mean?”
He pointed to the chimp on his back. “From Africa. Nice. Chimps born here, in America, not so nice.”
“So the animals at the party, they were bred in captivity? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah, yeah. Bad animals. Make big problem.”
I got home and took a shower. A picture of the party at the Powell place was forming in my mind. Orgies and wild animals mixed with money and liquor. It would have been the kind of party where anything could happen to a beautiful young actress, especially if she wanted it to. A little part of me wondered if maybe Clara Lockhart had gotten a better offer than Paramount’s $500 a week contract, and she had just disappeared with whoever had made the offer. She could be on a yacht to Mexico just as easily as she could be in trouble. I thought about the photo of her that Mary had given me: there was something of the ice maiden about Clara; she had a steely look in her eye, a firmness set into her jaw. I was beginning to wonder if maybe she wasn’t as frail as Mary had made out. It was possible Mary was jealous of her new roommate: maybe she not only played the part of the overlooked friend in pictures, but it was like that for her in real life too.
For the time being, though, Mary Treen was paying my bills. She’d asked me to find Clara and that’s exactly what I was going to do.
Fifteen minutes after making it home, I was back out the door. Five minutes after that I was parking opposite the office. For the second day in a row, a young woman was standing outside my building. This was a state of affairs I could get used to. Unlike Mary, this girl was tall and thin, and her face was covered with a wide brimmed hat dipped low over the paper she was reading.
“Good morning.” I reached into my pocket for the keys.
“Hey.” She spoke without moving her head.
“You waiting for someone?”
“Why yes.” She was a little more interested in her paper than our conversation.
“Would you mind stepping aside?”
“No, not at all.”
Yet she didn’t move.
I looked at her for a while, waiting for her to finish the line she was reading. Okay, then, maybe the whole paragraph. “Do you have to finish the whole goddamn story before you regain the use of your legs?”
“Now, Mr McCoy, that’s not very nice.”
Her voice was starting to sound familiar. She finally folded her paper, tucked it under her arm together with some other paperwork she was holding, and lifted her head so I could see from the tip of her nose down to her chin. “Say,” she said, “you’re a lot shorter standing up.” She raised her gaze to the top of my head, allowing me to see all her face.
It was the waitress from the Cocoanut Grove.
“I may not be real tall, but I’ll soon cut you down to size if I have to.”
“Well good morning to you too.”
“Must be at least three inches of you that come courtesy of the shoe store.”
“Now play nice, Mr McCoy or I might not be as helpful as I’d planned to be.”
We stared at each other for a moment. Then I said, “Do you want to step aside now?”
“Well…” Clearly she didn’t want to concede anything to me.
“Do I need to pick you up and move you myself?”
“Certainly not.” Reluctantly she sashayed one step to the left.
I opened the door. “Second floor.”
I watched her climb the stairs. Aside from her high heels, she was wearing a smart red skirt with a tight fitting white blouse. She might have been a fine looking woman, but she sure could spar like a man.
I opened the door to my office and let her in.
“Oh.” She seemed quite disappointed. “Yes, yes I see now.”
“Yes. Why that other girl was here.”
“There was another girl?”
“She mentioned something about an agency.”
“I took the liberty of informing her the position has been filled.” She took off her hat and her auburn hair tumbled around her pale, freckled face.
Red removed a pile of papers from a chair and sat down. “Well, as soon as you gave me your card, I thought to myself, that sounds like of lot of fun, detecting and so on, so…” She got distracted by the wrapped board in the corner of the room.
I sat down on the edge of a desk. “So?”
“Well, when I realized you were looking for help… What is that?”
“Oh.” I don’t think she’d ever heard of one before. “What’s it for?”
“Riding the surf.”
“In the ocean?”
“Generally, yes, that’s where you find surf.”
“How… what’s the word? Odd?”
“Quite possibly. You were saying?”
“Was I? Oh yes… well I thought you might like me for an assistant.”
“Whatever you choose to call it. I thought…”
“And you think that sounds like fun?” I managed to squeeze two syllables out of that last word, just like she did. Fa-hun. Pure east coast.
I walked around the desk to my chair. “Well then, Red, if you want to work here I guess I should ask you some questions.”
“Fire away.” She seemed quite perky, like the brainy kid in school who got a kick out of tests.
“Well let me see. Do you type?”
“Oh, sure. All girls type, Spencer.”
“You ever worked in an office before?”
“You think I was born a waitress?”
“You ever going to ask if I mind being called Red?”
“It’s hardly original.”
She had me with that. “What if I like it?”
“My name is Rose.”
“Red Rose. Perfect.”
“Never heard that one before.”
“Say, if you’re going to work here—”
“If. If you’re going to work here do you think you might ever be able to get some actual business done, or is it all chat with you?”
Her lips immediately pursed. She was as willful as she was annoying.
“You mentioned something about being helpful?” I said. “Why don’t you show me what you’ve got?”
She looked down at the papers in her lap. Without saying a word, not one, she put her copy of the L.A. Times on the desk between us, then made a show of sorting through some other paperwork before handing me a few typewritten sheets. I glanced at them. Five pages in total, all with two columns of text forming an alphabetical list of names. I looked at her for an explanation. Her expression told me to look again.
I scrolled through the names. I didn’t know any of the As, but one of the Bs stood out: Benny Bowers. When I looked at her again, Red had the faintest smile on her lips. A slight nod of her head told me to carry on. By the time I got to the Es I realized that some of the names belonged to famous people, and all the famous names I recognized worked for MGM.