Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
The Devil Met a Lady
Stuart M. Kaminsky
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
To Luciana Crepax, with thanks for her friendship, her continuing appreciation of Toby and his misadventures, and her fantastic translations
“You mean all this time we could have been friends?”
Baby Jane to Blanche in
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
f I remain in this room for five more minutes, I will surely go mad, mad, mad,” Bette Davis said, grabbing the sleeve of my jacket as I reached for the door.
She looked into my eyes. Hers were large and determined. Mine were red and beady.
I couldn’t blame her. She’d been holed up in a small room in the Great Palms Hotel on Main for almost twenty-four hours with nothing to eat but room-service ham-and-cheese on white and nothing to drink but water and Ruppert Mellow Light Beer. She had the bed. I had the undersized sofa.
The Great Palms Hotel was a good place to get lost—not in the top twenty-five percent and not in the bottom ten, usually hovering not far from respectable mediocrity.
We were registered as Mr. and Mrs. Giddins, Arthur and Regina Giddins. The names were her choice, just bad enough to be believable, not that the clerk had cared when we checked in at two in the morning. There had been no one in the lobby at that hour, and Davis, wearing a floppy hat that covered most of her face in shadow, had gone immediately, impatiently, with her hip-throwing walk, to a frazzled sofa behind a potted palm. She dropped a nearly empty suitcase in front of her on the floor.
The night clerk’s name was Scott Cosacos. It was etched in white on an ebony plate perched on the desk. Scott Cosacos, a thin, pasty, baggy-eyed creature of the night in a wrinkled charcoal-gray suit and no hurry, had glanced at Davis and then at me as we came in. I had done my best, mumbling about fouled-up plane schedules, to draw his attention as she strode across the lobby. There was little for Scott to see, once Davis was seated behind the palm, so he had turned to me.
I was a lot less fun than Bette Davis. Within a few years of fifty, about five-ten, dark brown hair turning gray fast, maybe 175 pounds, with a face that looked as if it had taken fifty punches too many from Tony Zale, I was short of a nightmare and far from a dream.
“Five dollars a night in advance. Check-out’s at noon. No exceptions. No questions.”
He tried to look over my shoulder at Davis.
“Fine. Late plane from Kansas,” I explained as he turned the register around for me to sign.
“None of my business,” he said. “Long as you’ve got luggage and cash.”
I signed. He read upside down.
“Room 616, Mr. Giddins,” he said. “Want a bellboy?”
“No, wife and I can handle it.”
“Then I don’t have to wake the bellboy,” the clerk said. “And you save yourself a half-buck tip.”
“Right,” I said, fishing a five from my wallet.
“Logical, Mr. Giddins,” he said. “I’m a logical man.”
“Admirable in an age of emotion,” I countered, with my most winning battered smile. I fished out an extra single and handed it over.
He handed me the key and glanced at Davis again. I walked over to her wearily, reached down for the suitcases, and let her walk ahead of me to the elevator, keeping myself between her and Cosacos. I did my best to make the suitcase look heavy.
Davis was small, so there was enough of me to block the night clerk’s view of her as we crossed the lobby. The elevator, however, was the tricky part. It was open, directly in the clerk’s line of sight. He might not recognize her when she turned around, but, with two Academy Awards for best actress and three major films a year, hers was probably the best-known face in the world behind Roosevelt and Hitler.
We couldn’t walk up six flights. The vigilant Scott Cosacos would wonder why. And it would look a little odd for the little woman to get on the elevator and stand with her back to the door.
When we got in the elevator I put down the suitcases, stepped toward her, and brought my mouth to hers as she turned. I groped back with my left hand and hit an elevator button. I kept kissing her till I heard the door clank closed behind me and felt the elevator lurch.
She was firm and solid, with full breasts and a mouth as large as it looked on the screen at the Fox. Her breath, through her very slightly parted lips, held the hint of too many cigarettes.
She pushed away from me firmly and I looked down at her pale face.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I understand,” she replied. “A take.”
“For the clerk.”
“I prefer rehearsals and a choice of leading men,” she said. “But under the circumstances, consider yourself almost forgiven.”
Room 616 was small. A single bed, a smaller sofa with a low wooden coffee table in front of it, a sad, unraveling wicker chair, and a little table with a white Arvin radio on top.
I dropped the suitcase on the bed and looked up at a print of a copy of a copy of a painting of the ironclad battleship,
. I knew because the name of the ship was stenciled onto its side. The shiny green frame didn’t match anything in the room.
The view from the window was better. Main Street. Blackout dark at night. Teaming and steaming with wandering kids in uniform and people of all shapes, shades, ilks, and genders trying to sell or be sold something or someone. When we opened the window we could hear city sounds and smell a nearby Chinese restaurant.
After a minute or two at the window I went to the bathroom, which was small but boasted a fair-sized bathtub and a couple of fairly clean towels.
“Not much,” I said.
She was slumped onto the bed, her left arm shielding her eyes from the light—three overhead bulbs covered by pale, yellowed shades.
“What a dump,” she said.
“Our choices are limited,” I said, opening the suitcase.
She grunted and kept her eyes covered.
She was tired and I was dazed and hungry. I pulled out a pair of pajamas, a book, a razor, and the latest copy of the
. There wasn’t much more in there; there hadn’t been time to pack. I’d picked up the suitcase, razor, magazine, and even the pajamas at a late-night drugstore on Olympia Boulevard. Davis had a travel kit with a new Dr. Lyon’s toothbrush and powder.
“You want a glass of water?” I asked.
She sat up, looked around as if she had forgotten where we were, got up and took the pajamas from the foot of the bed where I had put them.
“I think I’ll just sleep now,” she said, heading for the bathroom.
Ten minutes later she turned out the lights and was back in the bed.
“Please close the window,” she said.
“Smells and sounds of the city,” I said.
“I have worked long days and nights and forgotten about the existence of weekends so that I could afford houses in which I did not have to hear or smell cities.”
I closed the window and went into the bathroom. I sat on the edge of the tub reading the
It was close to twenty-four hours later that I announced to Davis that I had to go out for a while, and she announced that she was going mad, mad, mad in the small room of the Great Palms, listening to “The Romance of Helen Trent” on the tinny Arvin.
“Okay,” I said, after she had almost calmed down. “I’m going. Bolt the door after me.”
“I would prefer to go with you, you know.”
“Someone would recognize you.”
“Possibly, but it might be worth the risk just to get out of this room,” she said, looking around and shuddering.
“The risk is mine, and your husband’s too.”
“Then,” she said, walking me to the door, “I will simply get the sleep I most urgently require.”
Six hours later I was back and knocking at the door. I was bruised, limping, and in no mood to talk about it. She opened up after I identified myself, didn’t seem to notice my demolished state, and went back to the bed without asking where I’d been.
I didn’t volunteer my story then, but I’ll fill you in on it … a little later. For now I’ll tell you that I had found what I was looking for but I paid the price in cracked ribs.
I took off my shirt, locked myself in the bathroom with the
, and poured myself the closest thing the Great Palms could offer to a warm bath to soothe my wounds. I was tired but I knew I snored. Davis had told me she didn’t sleep well, that she needed close to total silence. Having had a show of her temper the night before when I didn’t even know I was asleep and snoring, I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of a second night with Bette Davis standing over me with her hands on her hips. I couldn’t shake the memory of that scene in
The Little Foxes
, when she just stood there and let Herbert Marshall die.
I kicked off my shoes, got in the tub. The running water eased my aching legs and I learned from the
that one of President Roosevelt’s chief attributes was his “political sagacity”; that, in spite of something called the Baruch Committee Report, the rubber problem was not solved; and that the navy had begun to acknowledge the gravity of the submarine menace.
About two in the morning I hung my trousers on a hook, hitched up my boxer shorts, and turned off the bathroom lights. Then I tiptoed to the sofa, turned away from Bette Davis’s gentle snoring, and covered my head with a tiny tasseled pillow.
The next sixteen hours were among the worst in my life and that includes the night I once spent in a cage with a gorilla.
Two nights alone in a hotel room with Bette Davis had driven me to the edge of the cliff of insanity. I was hanging on with my fingertips and wondering if there was any fee I could charge her husband that would make up for this.
Davis did not feel like reading the
. She got bored with the radio by nine in the morning, and conversation did not come easily. She had confiscated my only pair of pajamas half an hour after we had walked into the room, and spent most of her time lounging around smoking or looking out the window with her arms folded and an impatient scowl on her face.
Our conversations consisted of her requests to call her sister, her mother, William Wyler, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Howard Hughes. I said no. She insisted. I said no. She got loud.
“At least let me call Farney. He must be worried sick.”
Farney, Arthur Farnsworth, was her husband and my client.
I said, “Go ahead and call him. Call ’em all. While you’re at it, you might as well call Wiklund and Jeffers and their two wind-up, broken-nosed robots.”
“Your nose is also broken,” she said triumphantly.
“Smashed flat,” I corrected. “I earned it. You want to call your husband or ‘G.E. News Time,’ go ahead.” I pointed to the phone. “Be my guest and the guest of whoever the switchboard operator is downstairs.”
“You give in too easily,” she said, turning her back on me. “I despise weak men.”
“I can’t win either way,” I observed.
“It is doubtful,” she agreed, turning around again.
We glared at each other, trapped animals, wide-eyed, unwilling to blink first. She had more experience with close-ups than I did. I blinked.
She laughed first. I laughed last. The truce lasted about five minutes.
On that second day, I found a battered deck of Bee playing cards in the back of the drawer behind the Gideon Bible. I put cards and Bible on the coffee table near the sofa and asked her to play poker.
“I do not like to play card games,” she said. “Card games are designed to kill time. Time should be spent in pleasure or work, not thrown away or murdered.”
She had been slowly pacing the floor, wearing the same loose-fitting dark blouse and long dark skirt she had worn the day before, which made sense since that was all she had with her.
“Do you like watching me go nuts?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” she said somberly. “Are you going mad?”
“We can talk instead of playing cards,” I tried. “Or listen to the radio, or …”
“We will play poker,” she countered with a sigh as she moved to the sofa next to me. “And you can listen to the radio.”
I turned on the little white hotel Arvin and a deep voice said, “… Russian troops thirty miles from Rostov.”
“Music only,” she ordered, pushing the battered deck of cards toward me on the coffee table.
I spun the dial and changed stations till I found Helen Forrest singing “I’ve Heard That Song Before.”
“You got any money with you?” I asked as I dealt the cards.
“Yes, but I do not bet money.”
“You’ve got money in the stock market?”
“I have my house in Glendale, which I use when I am working; Butternut, my house in New Hampshire. I pay for my mother’s house and my sister’s nervous breakdowns. I have many expenses and a few investments,” she said. “And I do not consider owning a home a gamble in real estate.”