Authors: Martha Steinway
“Is this the guest list from Powell’s party?” I couldn’t keep the surprise from my voice.
“Where d’you get it?”
She made a show of pursing her lips again.
“You can talk now. Just not too much.”
Her brown eyes narrowed, furrowing her forehead. She whispered: “I stole it.”
“You did what?”
“I’m almost sure he won’t mind, and if he did I’m darn sure he won’t even hardly notice.” She was back at full volume now.
“Where did you steal it from?”
“The cloakroom. You know, at the Grove. Can you use it?”
“I sure can.”
She beamed at me. “Well you’d said you were interested in the Powell party, and then after you left Mr Powell’s agent came in, and then I noticed he checked his case into the cloakroom. So I said to myself, I said ‘Rose, you really ought to just take a peek, because that Mr McCoy seemed ever so nice’.”
“Nice, eh?” I was still reading, half listening to her.
“And anyway, it was just there. And I thought, given the party’s over, he’s not going to need the list anymore. So I… well, that is, I suppose I just took it.” She paused. “Is it helpful?”
“Uh huh.” I turned to the last page and checked out the Ws, Ys and Zs.
“Can I have the job then?”
“Sure.” I said, concentrating on trying to match the names to faces I’d seen in movies.
“Oh that’s wonderful. Pa will be pleased. And you won’t regret it. Not for a second. Now, which desk is mine?”
“I said, which desk is mine?”
“Do I have a job or don’t I?”
I pushed my chair back and put my feet on the desk. She really was something. “That one over there is yours.”
She cleared some of the debris on her desk, creating untidy piles of papers and files, making a helluva noise about it, while I scanned the list again. One of these people had to know what happened to Clara. I estimated there were three hundred names on the list: Mary had only paid me for four days. It would take months to track all these people down and I could be damn sure there would have been several people at the party who never made it on to the list. If you were really famous, your face was all any doorman needed to see.
Suddenly there was a loud crash. I looked up at Red who was bent over the metal trash can. I raised my eyebrows without saying a word.
“I presumed if you haven’t been using this desk,” Red explained, “then these things can’t really be that important, and time is money after all…”
“You see those big gray metal boxes over there? The things with the drawers?”
“They’re called file cabinets. Ever used one?”
I got up, picked some documents out of the trash and handed them to her. “These really should be filed.”
“In a cabinet.”
“You learn fast.”
“Didn’t I say you wouldn’t be disappointed?”
I turned back to the desk and saw Red’s copy of the L.A. Times folded over at Louella Parson’s page. I remembered what Mary had said. Maybe there’d be a piece of tittle-tattle about the animals from Goebel’s. Maybe there’d be something that might shed some light on what could have happened to Clara. I flicked the paper open. It only took a minute to realize there was nothing in it about Powell’s night of extravagance. All those stars. All those animals. And nothing? Nothing at all? The lack of coverage had the hallmark of a Howard Strickling blackout. The head of MGM’s publicity department was often called the second most powerful man in Hollywood. It seemed he’d just proved it once again.
“Say, Red. You know how to use a phone?”
“Oh yah, I have many skills.”
“Can I leave you to call the hospitals and the morgue? You remember what Clara looks like, right, you can describe her?”
“I never forget a face. Unless I have to.” She had her arms full of old
and was opening a bottom drawer with her stiletto. I thought that showed initiative.
“Got a picture of her somewhere here to remind you.” I started pushing documents around on my desk, looking for the brightly lit head shot Mary Treen had given me. I shoved the L.A. Times to one side and that’s when I saw it: the photo splash on Louella Parsons’ column. It was taken at a premiere yesterday evening at the Pantages Theater. James Stewart was beaming for the photographers and the crowd. With one hand he waved to his fans, the other was around the shoulders of a pretty young starlet who, according to the caption, was called Gloria Butterfield. The thing that caught my attention was what she was wearing around her neck—a pendant shaped like a lion’s head. Just like the MGM insignia. It was hard to be certain from the black and white photo, but if I had to guess I’d say it was made of yellow quartz.
“Get me Mary Treen on the phone.”
Gloria Butterfield lived in a fancy apartment building called the Chateau Elysée up on Franklin. It’d been built before the crash by the widow of a silent movie actor. Rumor was that—contrary to the newspaper stories at the time—her husband didn’t die of natural causes on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, but rather caught a bullet in the head. To keep the wife quiet, Mr Hearst—big hearted guy that he is—gave her two million bucks. She used a lot of the cash on the Chateau. It’s so grand Marie Antoinette would have felt at home in the joint. Apparently the rich widow then lost the rest of the money when the stock market crashed.
The place had always been popular with actors and movie people. You hear stories of casting directors parking out front and just waiting for the right actor to walk out of the building. My work took me there often: in one out of every five cases where I had a client in the movies, I’d wind up at the Chateau to talk to a witness.
It was just a few blocks north of my office and should have only have taken five minutes to drive there. But the traffic was so bad I was over twenty minutes just getting to Sunset. So I decided to see Gloria later, and headed instead up to Bel-Air where Red had made an appointment for me to interview a blabbermouth set designer who had proven himself useful in previous investigations.
I didn’t get far before I hit another snarl up. Just a few hundred yards north of the grid system, where the roads start to curl up into the Beverly Hills, I came to a complete standstill on a tree lined street filled with big houses sitting on nice neat lawns. Drivers honked their horns like it was Downtown, and then they wound down their windows and started waving their fists and shouting. Snarl-ups in the Hills don’t happen very often: something wasn’t right. The hairs on the back of my neck twitched, like a cool breeze was blowing through the car, even though I had all the windows closed.
Out of nowhere two little kids darted into the street, screaming and hollering. They were followed a few seconds later by a woman shouting after them: “It’s not safe, it’s just not safe! Come back!”
I didn’t know what was going on, but if a couple kids were in danger, then I was going to see if I could help. I checked the safety on my pistol, and clambered over to the passenger side to get out. I had to get that damn door fixed.
By the time my feet were on the blacktop, the kids and their mother were nowhere to be seen. In amongst the engine noises and the hooters and horns, I could hear another noise that I couldn’t make out. Was it a scream? A driver shouted out to me: “Hey pal, can you see what the holdup is?”
“I’ll take a look.”
I walked quickly up the road. In every car I passed was someone who wanted to know if I could see something they couldn’t. The cars were backed up round the bend. I reached the corner and saw there was a barricade across the street and four cops in uniform had drawn their guns. One of them spotted me and shouted something, but I couldn’t hear him.
In a house behind me, someone flung open a top floor window. “Get back in your car!”
I turned around.
“Get back!” A plump, gray-haired man who looked like he wouldn’t even raise his voice to a burglar was red-faced in his insistence. “Run!”
“Why?” I mouthed to him with a shrug of my shoulders.
“My God man there’s a tiger on the loose!”
“Where is it?” I hollered.
“Must be in the backyard of 760, judging by where those kids just came from.” He pointed at a house on the other side of the street.
“You seen it?”
“Hell, yes. May good lord excuse my language.”
My instincts kicked in. I unholstered the Colt and checked the houses. Number 760 was a weatherboarded, two story American classic. I could hear the guy at the window shout at me again.
“God protect you!”
I crossed the lawn and followed a path down the side of the house. The sounds from the street faded and I could hear a voice from inside the house. “No, no, no, dear God, no.” The back door was open. I shouted inside.
“Is it in there?”
“You the police?”
“No, sir. Is it in there?”
I put my head inside the door. Chairs lay on their sides and tins and jars of food were scattered on the floor. The refrigerator door was open and the linoleum was ripped. A scared and sallow-faced man appeared.
“See where it went?”
“Over the fence at the back.”
I left him and ran over to the rear fence. It was eight feet high but I managed to haul myself up it so I could see over. In the middle of the neighbor’s lawn was the prowling beast. It turned its head—had it picked up my scent? Heard me? A second later it launched itself toward me. The noise it made—half scream, half hiss—made me drop the Colt.
On the other side of the fence.
I fell back down to the ground. I could hear the tiger—a few hundred pounds of muscles and teeth—on the other side of the fence. I could feel it. It made another run at the slim wooden structure between us. The panels shook violently. I held my breath. Miraculously the fence held firm. I stayed crouched on the ground, unable to move.
A loud crack sounded nearby. Gunshot. It was so loud and so close I thought for a second my gun had somehow gone off.
More shots rang out.
I heard the beast pacing on the other side of the fence and then… nothing. Slowly my ears tuned back into the honking of the horns. I could hear conversations over fences. But there was no hissing, no roaring, only my own short and heavy breaths. What had happened to the cat?
I wasn’t sure I should look back over the fence. Was it waiting there silently for me? Surely it would have made some kind of sound it had been shot? A yelp? A roar? Even just falling to the floor would make quite a thud. I decided it had to still be alive. My heart hammered.
Where was it?
Then there were more voices, closer this time. Men’s voices. Cops.
“It went that way,” I heard one say.
They were in the backyard on the other side of the fence. If they were there it meant the tiger wasn’t. I stood up to find that my knees weren’t working so well. Where the hell was it? I managed to hoist myself up onto the fence again and peeked over the top. The cops had gone. The tiger too. I scrambled up and over the fence, dropped down the other side and picked up my gun. I stood there, hands resting on my knees, sucking down the deepest breaths I could, just staring blankly at the grass under my feet. What had just happened? What crazy, loop-the-loop business had just gone on?
I worked out I was just over a mile from Powell’s place. It was possible—likely, even, given what I knew—that the animal I had just seen was the reason armed men from Goebel’s were patrolling Powell’s place after the party. Not even Howard Strickling could keep this out of the papers.
I turned back toward the fence. My jaw slackened at the damage I saw: the wooden panels were gouged out where the cat had swiped its huge claws trying to get to me. Deep grooves ran vertically through the wood. If that’s what the claws could do, I didn’t what to imagine what its teeth were capable of.
I thought of a wild cat prowling around the grounds at Powell’s and had an awful thought. Could Clara Lockhart have been the beast’s first victim?
“Howdy, Vincent, how are you?”
“Not too bad, Mr McCoy. Caught any good waves lately?”
“This morning, out at Oxnard.” I smiled at him. “Had the whole place to myself.”
“Musta been nice.”
Vincent Kekua was the concierge at the Elysée and he happened to be half Hawaiian. He’d never surfed but he liked talking to me about the water; I guess it connected him with his roots. It helped that I’d learnt a few words of his father’s language. It was one of the ways you could tell if a surf rider had the right amount of respect for the ocean. The guys who couldn’t even aloha and mahalo weren’t people you wanted to share a wave with.
“Do you happen to know if Gloria Butterfield is at home?”
“Did you see her picture in the paper?”
“Didn't she look real good next to Jimmy Stewart—like she belonged there on his arm.”
“It so happens I’m working on a case connected to that premiere and I'm hoping maybe she can help me with it.”
“Something to do with Jimmy Stewart?” The surprise in his voice was unmistakable.
“Hell no. He’s the nicest guy in show business. Never heard a word said against the fella.”
“I met him once. He’s a real nice guy.”
“So, is Gloria in?”
Vincent nodded. “Saw her this morning, she told me she was going out to buy a newspaper.”
“Or a half dozen newspapers, maybe.” I smiled at him. “See her come back?”
“No, sir. But then I haven’t been here all the time—had to go upstairs to check on a leaky pipe.”
“Mind if I go on up and pay her a visit?”
Vincent checked his list. “Apartment 817.”
The elevator in the Chateau Elysée rattled its way upwards and a little brass pointer slowly indicated my progress. The contrast between the eighth floor and the lobby was stark: the bright polished floors and gilded mirrors gave way to long dark corridors lined with identical doors. I felt like I was looking for a cell, not an apartment. I kept following the signs and realized I was heading toward the rear of the building where the less desirable residences were. I wasn’t surprised—I’d never heard of Gloria Butterfield, so I didn’t expect her to live somewhere fancy. The corridor seemed to somehow simultaneously muffle and echo the sounds coming from behind the closed doors: a gramophone, an actor reciting lines, a couple fighting. I took heart that even prestige buildings like the Elysée were just as noisy and crowded as my place on Whitley.