Authors: Martha Steinway
As I crossed the sidewalk toward Lorimer’s, a tall, thin woman with a newly coiffed bob of red hair was just leaving. A change of hairstyle can do a lot to a woman’s appearance and it took me a second or two to realize who it was. When she saw me, she turned the other way.
She carried on walking, so I sprinted to catch up with her.
“I thought I told you to get here for eleven.”
“You did, but I figured you’d told me that time precisely because you thought you’d be finished by then.”
“You can be smart when you want to be, I’ll give you that.” She still hadn’t met my eye, nor had she slackened her pace.
“I thought I’d come a little earlier so I could… so we could…” I wasn’t able to find the right words, so I said, “Your hair looks nice.”
“I’m surprised you even noticed. A girl’s got to look her best when she’s hunting down a new job.”
“Ye-es?” She squeezed two syllables out of the word and slowed to a halt. We were now standing outside a flower shop with buckets of blooms covering the sidewalk. I couldn’t tell if the sneer on Red’s face was due to the overpowering scent of flowers, or because she was anticipating what I was going to say.
“Listen, I was out of line yesterday, but really, you gotta see things from my point of view.”
“You threw me. I hadn’t asked you to go to these places and—”
“Are you saying that I was too good at my job?”
“I hardly know you. And you don’t know the way things are done in my line of work.”
“I told you I’d read Black Mask.”
“That’s all baloney and you know it. Right now a girl is missing and I—”
“—Feel bad for not finding her, and so you took out you disappointment and frustration on me.”
“You’re quite the head doctor. Look, I’m trying to apologize here. I shouldn’t have let you walk out like that and…” She had me flustered again. I could feel my stomach muscles tightening. “Those lists you made were pretty good. Helpful even.” I had already made plans to seek out Eddie Mannix that afternoon, but Red didn’t need to know about it. I really hated to grovel, especially as I could tell she was enjoying my discomfort so much.
“Are you offering me my old job back, Mr McCoy?”
“That’s why I came early.”
She looked at me as if I had a smudge of dirt on my face and she was wondering if she should tell me about it or let me walk round like a fool for the rest of the day. “No thank you, Mr McCoy.”
“No thank you?” I couldn’t believe it.
“No thank you. You made it quite clear what you want from an assistant.”
“Precisely. And I’m not really suited to that sort of role.”
“Well maybe we can talk about it. Back at the office.”
“Listen,” she prodded a manicured finger into my chest. “If you want some angel to file your receipts and take your messages, you need to find a girl with wings.”
“Most girls would be happy with a job like that.”
“Then hire most girls. Good day, Mr McCoy. We have nothing further to discuss.” She walked away from me.
She carried on walking.
“Where else are you going to find a job where you can discover a tax felon one day and track down the heir to a fortune the next? Today we’ve got a missing girl to save.”
“Sure. You said yourself you get bored easy. I promise you won’t get bored with me. There’ll be some dull chores—every job has them, but I’m not going to chain you to a desk. I’ll let you spread those wings occasionally.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“But I will need you to come out with me a few times first, to show you the ropes.”
“Hmm. You seem awfully topsy-turvy. I mean—one day you’re all cold and unforgiving, and the next you’re so hot and flustered you’re chasing me down the street. I’m not convinced.” She started to smile, ever so faintly.
“Quit playing with me, Red! Do you want the job or not?”
She looked at the imaginary mark on my face and scrunched up her features. “Well, all right then, as you’ve been so terribly insistent.”
I smiled at her.
After a long pause, she smiled back and said, “How are we going to handle Myrtle?”
Myrtle Willoughby, as best as I could tell, was a gangster’s moll. She had a New Jersey accent as thick as the San Francisco fog. She was a cross between Mae West and a German Shepherd and must have been hoping Clark Lorimer’s talents with scissors and hair dye could tip the balance toward Miss West and away from Rin Tin Tin.
I’d never had much to do with the Mob, but I’d decided over the years they must like their women to be more like Garbo than Garland—decorative and silent. I’d gained this insight from observing plenty of molls who—when out of earshot of their menfolk—would not shut up. Myrtle Willoughby was no exception. The only difference today was everyone wanted to hear what she had to say.
“Mickey says he’s going to have a lawyer make a suit for me.” Her voice was nasal and squeaky. “I thought he was confused, you know, I thought tailors made suits, but he soon put me straight.”
“Well, he’s right to,” Clark Lorimer sympathized as he curled her platinum locks. “It could have had your arm off.”
Myrtle was wearing a long-sleeved dress with a very noticeable bandage protruding from her cuff.
“You must have been so scared,” an older woman in the next chair said. “I would have fainted away in terror.”
“Well at first, I didn’t think anything of it. You know, boys will be boys and all that, and besides… Mickey was with me and I never thought he’d ever let anything bad happen. So even when they talked about opening the cages, it didn’t occur to me to be scared.”
Red and I were waiting on the couch in the reception area. Red had told the girl on the desk that having talked it over with her husband—me—she wanted a little more taken off her bangs. The girl told us we’d have to wait for Mr Lorimer to finish up with his current client. Which was just peachy by Red and me. We could listen in without arousing suspicion.
“I guess,” the older woman next to Myrtle said, “that we’re so used to seeing wild cats in the movies—do you remember that leopard in Bringing Up Baby?—that you forget how dangerous they really are.”
“And of course, after three or four Manhattans, your judgement gets a little screwy,” Myrtle added.
“And after your fifth…” Clark said with a twinkle in his eye.
“You are mean to me Clark Lorimer,” Myrtle protested and hit him playfully on the arm. “You know I never have more than four.”
“I know honey, I’m just teasing you.”
“Well I’m just glad I live in Pasadena,” the older woman added. “There must be enough people for a panther to eat in Beverly Hills—it won’t need to head any further east.”
“I have a friend in Laurel Canyon,” said Myrtle. “She won’t even go downstairs since she heard it was on the prowl. Do you know she’s living on water from the bathroom faucet and a box of chocolates her husband brought home from a trip to Chicago.”
“The question, I suppose,” said Lorimer, stepping back to admire his handiwork, “is who would you sue? I mean, is it the host of the party? Or the animal handlers?”
“Oh that’s easy.” Myrtle’s voice rose about an octave. “I’d sue Jimmy Stewart.”
“Well it was all his idea. Doesn’t that make him, you know, responsible?” She shook her injured arm in the air for emphasis.
“How on earth is it Jimmy Stewart’s fault?”
“He’s the damned fool who opened the cages! Willie Powell had been telling everyone what an ace shot he was and Mickey got so sick of his bragging he told Willie he should prove it. So Jimmy opened up the cages and challenged Willie to shoot at least one animal right between the eyes.”
I could see Lorimer’s face in the mirror. His jaw had dropped so low I thought it might hit the counter. “Jimmy Stewart?” he said. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, he ain’t as nice as you think he is. None of them are. Take away their scripts and give ’em a bottle of bourbon and those actors are just as stupid as the rest of us.”
One thing I loved about the Mob: they’re not scared of anyone. Except maybe other mobsters. They certainly aren’t scared of Hollywood big cheeses. If Myrtle Willoughby wanted to tell her story, Howard Strickling couldn’t do a thing about it—he had nothing to threaten her with.
When Clark Lorimer had finished working his magic on Myrtle, he called Red back to his chair. And once Myrtle had settled her account, receiving strict instructions from the girl on the desk to watch out for wild animals, I followed her out onto the sidewalk.
She turned to me and smiled. “Yes?”
“I wonder if you can help me. I’m looking for Clara.”
“I don’t know any Clara.”
“Clara Lockhart. She’s an actress. Blonde, about your height.”
A flash of recognition whipped across her features and she narrowed her eyes. “Who are you?”
I took a step toward her and held out my hand. “Spencer McCoy. I’m an investigator.”
Instantly, her features darkened and she quickly pulled her hands away from mine. “I can’t speak to you. My husband wouldn’t want—”
“It’s okay, I only want to talk about Clara.”
“Why? What’s she done?”
“But I saw her just the other day.”
“At Powell’s party, I know. Trouble is, no one’s seen her since.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth opened into a big ‘o’. “Oh my. You don’t think…?” She lifted a hand to her mouth. “You don’t think the panther got her?”
“Right now I don’t know what to think.”
She touched her bandaged arm and flinched in remembrance.
“How well do you know Clara?” I asked her.
“I met her three or four times, maybe. You know, at parties and premieres and stuff.” Myrtle glanced over my shoulder, turning her chin this way and that. I guessed she was checking out her new hairdo in the parlor window.
“Did she seem okay to you on Sunday night?”
“Oh sure, she was having a blast. Big movie stars taking an interest in her, fast flowing booze. She was having a gay old time.”
“Did you see her with anyone in particular?”
“You gotta understand, I don’t really know her too well. Just her face and her name.” I thought about how Mary Treen had underlined Myrtle’s name so emphatically on the guest list. “I didn’t really notice who she was with, to tell the truth.”
Anyone who reads Black Mask will tell you that when someone says “to tell the truth” you can be sure they’re telling you anything but.
“Did you talk to her? Did she say if she was going away?”
Myrtle paused to think and made a show of putting on a very serious face, so I’d know she was giving my questions proper consideration.
“I can’t say that she did.”
“So you did speak to her?”
“Just to be polite. I really don’t know her,” she said again.
“You know any of the people she was with?”
She fished around inside her purse and pulled out a stick of gum. She offered it to me but didn’t really give me a chance to decline before she started to unwrap it. “Nah, not so much.”
“So you recognized some of them at least? Can you tell me any names?”
“Nah, he was at the piano most of the night. Did you know he could sing? I ain’t heard nothing like it.” She pushed a lock of hair over her forehead. “I don’t know this other Willie’s last name, but it’s kinda funny, foreign maybe. But I definitely saw her with him.”
“And who’s Willie?”
She recoiled and screwed up her nose. She was calculating what it was safe to tell me. “I heard he makes quite a bit of dough taking photographs.”
I remembered the stamp on the back of Clara’s headshot. Wilfred Tomasky. “And he’s a friend of Clara’s?”
“Couldn’t tell ya, but they didn’t seem all that friendly to me.”
“They were fighting?”
“What makes you say that?”
“You said they weren’t friendly!”
“It wasn’t physical. They were just shouting at each other.”
I felt I was finally making some progress. “And do you remember if Clara was wearing a necklace when you saw her?”
Again, Myrtle put on her thinking face. “Yeah, yeah she was. Some kind of lion. Reminded me of the movies—the big lion that roars at the start?”
“See anyone else wearing the same necklace?”
“What kind of a hooey question is that? I just told you she was wearing it, didn’t I?”
“It’s important. Someone might have taken it from her.”
She lowered her voice: “I didn’t take it, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“The thought hadn’t even entered my mind. Listen, all I care about is finding Clara. If you can think of anything she said, some little thing you overheard, or some tiny thing you saw, please give me a call.” I handed her my card.
“Keep it. If my Mickey finds me with an investigator’s card you’re gonna be pulling me outta the Venice canal. But now that you pumped me so hard, it mighta jogged something loose up in this old brain of mine.”
“Yeah. I saw Clara leave.”
My heart slammed against the side of my chest. “What time was this?”
“Don’t remember exactly. It was still dark. Three, maybe four o’clock.”
“Did she leave with somebody?”
“Didn’t see his face, before you ask me who he was. But I saw his car. And you know why I remember it?”
My face was pleading with her to get to the point.
“The paint job. The car was maroon and green. You never seen two colors look so bad together.”
I was running late for my appointment with Mary Treen. She’d told me she had costume fittings until one o’clock and what she called a “design” session with the hairstylist at one-thirty. When I got to the MGM gate, my pass was ready for me to collect and I made my way to the refectory. Mary was waiting for me outside.