Authors: Linda L. Richards
“Yes, Mr. Morris,” she said. “Of course. I’m sorry. Right away.”
She hung up the phone, looking distracted. She grabbed her steno pad and got up, at which point she seemed to notice me, still standing in front of her desk.
“You’re still here,” she said without patience.
“Scram,” she barked at me, backing me toward the door. I let her push me out into the hallway and watched as she closed the office door in my face.
The bum’s rush,
I thought to myself dully.
This is what it feels like.
It was a new one on me.
I stood there, in the hallway, my heart pounding, and counted thirty. Then I counted another ten. When I was done, I opened the office door a crack and peeked inside. There was no sign of the secretary. There was no sign of anyone at all.
I entered the office again and stood in front of her desk for a heartbeat. Maybe two. I had no idea how long she’d be gone. On the other hand, I’d seen her leave with her steno pad after Mr. Morris’s call. It seemed likely she was off somewhere taking dictation. Clearly, I had an opportunity. Just what I was to do with it was less clear.
Instinct guided me, I think, because I had no clear plan. Mindful that someone could come at any moment, I moved to the long row of filing cabinets lining one wall. “Darrow” was in the D’s, just where you’d expect. I did not think things through, but I knew what I was doing. Whatever was going on with Rhoda Darrow, she no longer had the support of her agency, that much was clear. I thought about just peeking inside and getting Darrow’s most recent address, which was what I’d hoped to find here. But, in the end some gremlin guided me to double the whole file up and stuff it into my purse. The handbag was really too small for this additional cargo, but I shoved the file around until no bits of paper poked out to give me away.
Back on the street I looked straight up, beyond the buildings on one side and the construction on the other. I looked straight up at a fat gray cloud scudding across a pale blue sky and said a quick prayer to the god of small things. The Broadway-Hollywood was catty-corner to the Equitable Building. I decided that what was needed was the department store’s tea house. It would provide a place to take a load off while I looked over my spoils.
My heart settled into an easier patter once I sat at a wood veneered table with a cup of tea and a tiny crustless sandwich in front of me. Before I brought the file out of my purse, I checked
over both shoulders and all around to see if anyone seemed intent on observing my movements. I don’t know why. I had no reason to think so.
Reassured that no furtive watchers were watching, I reached into my purse and pulled out the file. There she was: Rhoda Darrow. The studio photograph in my hand showed a beautiful young woman with a creamy complexion and a shy, white smile. The photo was undated, but her clothes and the hat she wore told me it was at least ten years old: the girl in this photo was a jazz baby, plain and simple.
In addition to the photo in the file, there were a few contracts, but nothing more recent than 1927. Apparently Miss Darrow had been another sacrifice to the gods of sound. She’d never worked in a talkie. Not, at any rate, while Garris was her agent.
The only other thing in the folder was her personal file. Her date of birth—it indicated that she had been born in 1898, which would have made her roughly 33. But I knew that might or might not be true—her measurements, her next of kin, her doctor, her address: all the information that your proxy in the entertainment world would need to know about you in order to do business on your behalf. Only Garris hadn’t been doing much business for her of late, or so it seemed.
I realized as I sat there, sipping my tea, that the home address on Ivar Avenue listed in Rhoda Darrow’s file was not far from where I now sat. I lifted my head and looked more closely at the faces of the shoppers resting near me. Based on how close that address was, the tea house at the Broadway-Hollywood would not be an unthinkable place for Darrow to take a meal. If she was there, however, I couldn’t detect her amid the aging dowagers and wives of young swells. I decided to finish my tea and sandwich and hit the bricks.
The day was cool but not crisp. I looked at the address again, only three, maybe four blocks out of my way. I decided
to walk there, then catch up with the Red Car again down the line, closer to downtown.
The apartment house was fairly new. It appeared to have been built in the mid-twenties at the very latest and sported the quasi-opulence associated with that optimistic time. Everyone could be wealthy and if not, everyone should live that way, with marble floors and ornate fireplaces—in Los Angeles often beautiful but strictly ornamental. Carved angels and gargoyles guarded such homes and other signs of apparent wealth associated with the grand of other ages.
This is what I wonder: Had the stock market
crashed in 1929, where would it have gone? Because, for a time leading up to 1929, money seemed to breed; seemed to grow unaided. If you had a pile, all you had to do was spend all night dancing and drinking with your friends, and in the morning you’d be worth more than when you went to bed. As a result—at least, this is what I think—the houses grew ever grander, the accoutrements more opulent and impressive, the skyscrapers higher, the engineering more delicately wrought. There seemed to be no end.
At the time of the crash, there was a lot of construction going on. Buildings all over town—and all over the country, I guess—were going up that had been conceived and designed to be the biggest and best ever. With the crash everyone’s expectations had to change overnight. If they did not know it—if they denied it for a time, as many did—then they knew it within a few weeks or months. Things just were not the same. Many of these buildings and houses and other types of construction that had been going on at the time of the crash were reconsidered. Some that hadn’t gotten very far stopped altogether, abandoned, never to be completed. But others that were well underway were reimagined with a sensibility more appropriate to the time. We were beginning to see what I suspected would be the design of a new era: a more Spartan look.
More conservative. The wild imaginings of the jazz age—the sky’s the limit, forget the cost—were relics. New realities affected every aspect of our lives.
But Rhoda Darrow’s apartment building had been affected by none of this.
At the impressive front entrance, I buzzed 307. I could hear the door unlatch almost instantly and I went on up.
At the door to the apartment, I steeled myself before I knocked. I hadn’t anticipated she’d be home and now here I was and here she was. What on earth was I going to say?
I didn’t get much time to think about it. The door opened and a man stood in front of me—a nice looking man about my own age. He was newly shaven and the scent of soap clung to him as though he’d just stepped out of the bath. This impression was increased by his bare chest and the towel wrapped around his waist.
I was so shocked at his appearance—and lack of covering—that I nearly fainted, right there in the hall. Perhaps I only did not because such a move would have been extremely ill-advised—naked man, towel, strange apartment and hall and all.
He looked at least as surprised as I did, and perhaps even more mortified, if that were possible. “I was expecting someone else,” he said. His hand clutched at the towel helplessly, as though he would cover more of himself with it, though that would have just made matters worse.
“So was I,” I said, smiling despite myself as I turned my eyes away. “I’m looking for Rhoda Darrow. Is that who you were expecting, too?”
He shook his head. I caught the motion of it out of the corner of my eye. It was obvious that it wasn’t a name he knew. “No. I was expecting my brother.”
“Ah. And I’m sure your brother isn’t named Rhoda. But is this Rhoda Darrow’s apartment?”
Another shake of the head. “No,” he said. “It’s mine. I’ve
only lived here for about six months though,” he offered helpfully. “Maybe she lived here before me? If you like, you could ask the manager. She’s at 101.”
I did as he suggested. The manager was a sallow-skinned woman of middle years. She might have been blond once, but now her hair was a dull, yellowish pewter. The small child that gripped the edge of her housedress looked like a permanent fixture. She told me she had only been in the building a year herself and had never met Rhoda Darrow. “But I do got a forwarding address,” she said, meeting my eyes and not volunteering anything.
“Wait: are you saying you
have a current address for her?”
The woman ducked her head slightly, nodding in the affirmative.
“But you won’t give it to me, is that what you’re saying?”
“Oh, I never did say that.”
“Yes, but… oh wait,” I said, remembering Dex’s folding money at Number 11. “Are you saying you’d give me the new address for a price?”
“Could be I’m saying that,” the woman said. “I wouldn’t say no.”
I opened my purse and drew out a half-dollar, wondering as I did so how I’d manage to get Dex to reimburse me for it. It was fairly obvious I would not be getting a receipt.
The woman just snorted at the sight of the coin and the child rocked on its heels, as though agreeing with its mother’s dry mirth.
“I was thinking more along the lines of a sawbuck.”
I said, shocked. “I’m not giving you ten whole dollars for an address. That’s crazy!”
The woman shrugged. Clearly she’d had to try. “All right,” she said agreeably, “a fin then. I’ll give you the address for afin.”
“That’s better, but we’re not quite there yet. I don’t even have five dollars on me.”
you got then?” the woman asked, looking at my handbag as though she might see right inside it if she stared hard enough.
“Let me … let me check. Let’s see here,” I said. “I’ll give you a two-spot and four bits, all right? That’s all I’ve got. I have to leave myself enough to take the streetcar.”
The woman grunted her acknowledgment and held out her hand.
“When I get the address,” I told her. I may not have been a big fancy detective, but that much I knew. I’d hold onto my money until I at least got a load of what I was buying.
The woman made a face and disappeared back into her apartment, closing the door without another word. I stood there for a full minute wondering what I was supposed to do. Had I insulted her? Had I breached some arcane informant etiquette? But no, soon I could hear the scratch of the door again and she was back, this time without the child.
The exchange took thirty seconds. Less. And then I stood there, two dollars and fifty cents lighter, looking down at a Santa Monica address written in a scrawled but legible hand. I felt a small surge of pride. It wasn’t full success, but it was definite progress. It was too late in the day to head out to Santa Monica but I’d gotten what I’d left the office for. I’d detected and was coming home with the meat in my fist.
DEX WAS WAITING for me when I got back to the office.
“Where the hell have you been?” he said when I showed up around five. But he interrupted me before I could answer, “Never mind. Sterling called. While you was out gallivanting.”
“I wasn’t gallivanting, Dex. If you would just hold the phone for a minute, I’d tell you.”
But Dex had been waiting long enough. He wasn’t about to wait for me to finish talking now.
“You know,” he said as though I’d asked, “Steward Sterling. Laird Wyndham’s shyster?”
“Well, he called. He said Wyndham wants us to go and see him. Today. The sooner the better.”
“Yeah: us. He’s got some idea you’re at every meeting I ever have, I guess. Taking notes so what we’re talking about doesn’t fall out of my poor, simple head. Anyway, I figured if I didn’t ask if you wanted to come along, there’d be hell to pay.”
“You got that right,” I said, smiling. So even though it was late in the day and that day had been a long one, we prepared to head out to Number 11. Dex had already gotten hold of Mustard and picked up a car so getting out to Number 11 was less painful than it had been on our previous visit. Since Dex already knew the drill—a bit of folding incentive when he showed his P.I. ticket—we got to do pretty much what we wanted. This time the elevator was working so instead of trudging up and down hallways and new stairwells still soiled with construction
dust, we were delivered speedily almost to our exact destination.
My optimism that things were going our way was dashed when Wyndham was brought into the big visiting room to meet with us. He looked haggard and worn, as though he’d been spread on the road and had a truck drive over him. Several times. Both Dex and I tried not to show how shocked we were by his appearance. But it was hard. And though Sterling had made the call, he didn’t join us. The table seemed bigger without him and Wyndham seemed much reduced.
“Glad you two could come,” Wyndham rose when he saw us. He pumped Dex’s hand and smiled broadly at me and, in both of those small things, you could sense his relief at a visit from the outside. “Dex and the lovely Miss Pangborn,” he said, his voice lacking none of its courtly grace, even if it was raw on the rest of him.
“Sterling said it was kind of urgent,” Dex said, dropping into a chair and getting straight to business.
“It’s just that, I did as you asked and really started thinking—hard, you understand?—about people who might be able to either clear my name or who will lead us to … to whoever actually did this thing.”
“Great, Wyndham. That’s just jake,” Dex enthused. “I take it you dreamed something up?”
“Well, yeah. Now that you mention it. Dreamed up is a good way to put it. See, I got to thinking about what you’d said: about wanting to talk to people about me so you could prove I was innocent. That got me thinking some more—and I’ve got nothing right now but time to think—it got me thinking that if I could get you behind the scenes at the studio, that would maybe do some good.”
“The studio?” Dex said. “You mean a movie studio?”