Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
While the thugs of war gnaw and flay
The light of reason burns in Millay.
In poem, or novel, essay or play,
One can count on truth from E. St. V. Millay.
There are others, false bards with meters of clay
Who pale at the prosody of Vincent Millay.
And to me thus it seems if there’s more to say,
The genius to speak is Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Davis looked up and put the notebook at her side to indicate that she had finished. Jeremy, who seldom displayed emotion beyond his wife and daughter, reddened and beamed as Davis said, sincerely, “Very touching.”
The room burst into applause and Shelly suddenly appeared at Davis’s side, gesturing wildly to Alice Pallis, who stood near a table covered with refreshments. Alice had a camera in her hand. She took a picture of Jeremy, Bette Davis, and Sheldon Minck, who put his hand on Davis’s shoulder. After a second photo, Davis talked to a few people while I made arrangements for Jeremy to relieve me on the Davis detail, and Gunther to do some digging into who might have the recording of Hughes, Davis, and Ham Nelson. I suggested he start with Andrea Pinketts and someone named Wiklund. Grover Niles had said he had sold the record to Wiklund.
A few minutes later, Davis made her way across the room to me.
“And which of these people are your colleagues who will be helping you safeguard my life and preserve what remains of my reputation?” she asked, lighting a cigarette.
I identified Jeremy, Shelly, and Gunther.
“A giant, a clown, and a dwarf,” she said. “I see.”
“Hold it,” I said, low enough so no one could hear me, “I’ve worked with them for years and they know …”
“You misunderstand, Mr. Peters,” she said, touching my hand. “I like them, especially the giant and his wife. I don’t know if they can do their job, but they are certainly a refreshing change from the Warner dolts with whom I spend most of life. Now, I think I should like to leave.”
“Three times,” came a raspy voice behind me.
“I don’t want to know, Juanita,” I said without turning.
Bette Davis’s eyes were focused over my shoulder, a decided look of amused curiosity on her face.
“Suit yourself, chum,” said Juanita. “No skin off my knees.”
“Please introduce us,” Davis said with a smile, holding out her right hand.
There was no avoiding it. I turned and faced Juanita, a sack of a woman in a dress that looked like a South American flag and gold earrings the size of Utah.
“Juanita,” I said. “This is Bette Davis. Miss Davis, this is Juanita. She’s a fortune-teller.”
“A seer, honey,” Juanita corrected, grabbing Bette Davis’s hand and pumping it; her oversized bracelets jingled as she shook. “Parlor’s on the second floor if you’re ever interested. I don’t make house calls, but in your case …”
“We’ve got to get going, Juanita,” I said, trying to convey a strong suggestion that she let go of Davis’s hand.
“That’s what my second husband, Ivan, said in ’26,” answered Juanita. “Only he said ‘I’ instead of ‘we.’ Didn’t bother me though. I knew a month before he’d wind up someplace north in jail.”
“What did you mean when you told Mr. Peters ‘three times’?” asked Davis, intrigued.
“No,” I said.
Juanita had been right too many times in the past, and each time the information she gave me did me no good at all. Now, I don’t believe in that kind of thing, but I don’t disbelieve either. I just try to stay away from it.
“You’ll be taken three times by a man in a mask,” said Juanita. “And he’ll be taken twice.”
“By the man in the mask?” asked Davis.
“Yep,” said Juanita. “And you know something, you’ve already met him. Both of you.”
“Both of us have met him?” Davis asked.
“You got it, sister. Taco crumbs don’t lie.”
“Taco crumbs?” asked Davis, looking at me.
“Juanita can read almost anything you’ve touched. Tea leaves, sand, coffee grounds, taco crumbs at Manny’s down at the corner.”
“But I—” Davis said.
“Your hand,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“This is fascinating,” said Davis. “Can you tell me—?”
“That’s it,” I said.
“All I got,” said Juanita with a shrug, finally dropping Bette Davis’s hand and reaching over to touch her arm. “Except it’s gonna start real soon. Thanks for coming, honey. And give me a call if you want to know more stuff. You’re good people. I’ll give you a discount.”
“Thank you,” said Davis as Juanita waved over her shoulder and headed for the punch bowl.
“Can we leave now?” I asked.
“Is she a little?…”
“Maybe,” I said. “But you’re better off not thinking too much about what she predicts.”
I reached for the door but, once more, I didn’t make it. Gunther had risen from the floor and, holding Gwen’s hand, had advanced on us. I introduced him and Gwen to Davis. She shook their hands politely.
“Mr. Peters has told me so much about you,” Davis said to Gunther. “He has great confidence in your ability.”
Gwen beamed down on him proudly, and Gunther with a bow of his head said, “I am flattered.”
“We’ve got to go now,” I said.
Gwen looked as if she had something to say but couldn’t quite get it out.
“It’s been a pleasure,” said Davis, opening the door and then, to the entire gathering, “I’ve enjoyed meeting you, all of you.”
They indicated in return that they had enjoyed her visit, and we were about to step into the hall when Jeremy touched my shoulder and said, “Toby, you forgot something.”
I didn’t have to turn around. He reached over me and plunked a furry orange lump in my arms.
“Thanks,” I said and stepped into the hall behind Bette Davis, who turned to look at Dash as she closed the door.
“It is important, I have discovered,” she said, “to be careful not to alienate one’s public. I can put in two hours of being nice, smiling, shaking hands, and making small talk, and then forget to say good-bye to someone and be labeled a snob.”
“You charmed ’em,” I said, ushering her down the hall.
“You really think so?”
“I’m sure,” I said.
“Would you mind telling me why you are carrying a dead cat?”
“He’s not dead. He’s sleeping.”
“Then, I take it, that is
“He lives with me,” I conceded. “His name is Dash. He saved my life once.”
“I am reassured by his presence,” said Davis as we walked in echoing Farraday darkness.
The elevator was still sitting open on the sixth-floor landing. I would have preferred to walk down and save the time, but she stepped in. I followed, closed the door, and started the ornate cell downward into the pit of shadows.
“And now, back to my car and home,” she said. “I don’t know how to put this, but the house is small. Our house in New Hampshire is really home. And I also maintain the houses of both Ruth, my mother, and Bobby, my sister.”
“In other words, you don’t have a guest room,” I said.
“Not really, and I’m not sure what we would do with Nash—”
“Dash,” I corrected.
“But,” she went on, “we can—”
“I planned to spend the night in my car watching the house. Jeremy will relieve me in the morning so I can get some sleep and then try to find the people who have that record of you, your ex-husband, and Hughes.”
The elevator bounced to a stop on the ground floor and I reached over and slid the door open.
“It has been a very long night,” Davis said, stepping out.
“And it promises to be a much longer one,” came a deep voice from the shadows near the exit door across the lobby.
I got in front of Davis and brushed her back, reaching for the elevator door.
“Pointless,” came the voice. “You start back up and we shoot you. That elevator moves so slowly we won’t even have to hurry. And believe me, folks, we have been doing a lot of hurrying tonight. Now, just step out here quietly. You give me no trouble. I give you no trouble.”
We stepped out and the three men in the shadows stepped forward. The one in the middle was the shortest, about my height, and the toughest-looking.
“Name’s Jeffers,” he said. “My cohorts here prefer that I not give their real names. I refer to them fondly from time to time as Hans and Fritz, but I don’t know if they’re open to such intimacy from new acquaintances. You know what I mean?”
The cohorts were big, fugitives from Muscle Beach.
“What do you want?” Bette Davis demanded, stepping in front of me.
“What do I want?” he said with a grin. “Oh, so many things, Miss Davis. One of those big boats with guys in sailor caps who drive it around the world for you and call you captain. Or the complete attention of Ann Sheridan. Or a car like the one you are going to soon have the pleasure of taking a ride in.”
“What do you want?” Davis demanded again.
“Ask Mr. Peters,” said Jeffers. “I think he knows. I think he’s been expecting us to call. Some business we have with your husband. And he knows I am not a man to have my wishes ignored. Do you recall our last encounter, Mr. Peters?”
Even if I hadn’t remembered Jeffers, I could tell from the bruises on his face that he had recently taken a beating or a fall or a picture of Claudette Colbert in the face.
“I recall,” I said.
“Then inform Miss Davis what I want.”
“He wants us to go with him and give him no trouble,” I said. “Remember what Juanita said? I think this is number one for both of us.”
“Number … he wants us to?… He wants?” she said. “I do not care what these Three Stooges want. What
want is for them to go away before we are forced to call the police.”
The three men advanced on us out of the shadows. No guns were showing.
“I’m armed,” I tried.
“You gonna shoot us with a cat?” asked Jeffers.
Hans, the stooge on the right, held up my .38. Fritz, the stooge on the left, held up Mrs. Plaut’s Mah-Jongg case.
“And what,” said Bette Davis, stepping forward, hands defiantly on hips, “do you propose to do if we refuse?”
“Shoot you dead,” said Jeffers.
“In that case,” said Davis, “we will certainly go with you.”
And we did.
omfortable?” asked Jeffers.
Davis was in the middle of the back seat. I was on one side of her with Dash sleeping in my lap. Jeffers was on the other. Hans drove while Fritz leaned over the front seat, holding a Smith & Wesson .32 automatic pointed at my chest.
“Not in the least,” snapped Davis as Hans headed for the Hollywood Hills.
“Not comfortable?” said Jeffers, shaking his head. “Can you beat that, Peters? You know what you’re riding in, lady?”
“A Cord convertible,” snapped Davis.
“A Cord? You are sitting in the back of a Graham-Paige convertible. Only four of them ever made. Amazing vehicle. Lowest center of gravity of any American car, wider than it is high; 120 horsepower, 217.8 CID, supercharged, six-cylinder engine. No chassis. Unit body with a stub frame welded and bolted to the front end.”
“I’m impressed,” said Davis, with a mixture of contempt and boredom.
“You should be,” said Jeffers. “But you’d rather be snotty. No offense here, but I’m not really one of your big fans.”
“Nor, Mr. Jeffers, am I one of yours.”
“Name’s not really Jeffers,” he whispered, putting a finger to his lips. “Stage name. I’m an actor. Used to be an actor. Who knows? Maybe some time … What’s your real name?”
Davis didn’t answer.
“Your name’s Ruth,” he said. “Ruth Elizabeth Davis. I do my research. Important in my business.”
“Your business,” Davis said with perfect contempt.
“He murders people,” I supplied.
“If it’s necessary, Tobias Leo Pevsner,” said Jeffers. “But I didn’t shoot Niles. Someone else had that pleasure.”
We hit a pothole in the pavement as we turned off of Sunset onto one of the winding streets that lead into the hills above Los Angeles. The car bounced gently. Dash woke up and yawned.
“How do you like that?” said Jeffers. “How big was that hole, Fritz?”
“Big hole,” said the driver.
“And we hardly felt it. Is this a car or is this a car?”
“It’s a car,” I agreed.
Dash looked around dreamily and turned his head toward Jeffers, who leaned in front of Bette Davis toward me.
“Advice, Peters,” he said. “Don’t be a smart ass. You cut me up and I’m not making an issue of it, but my good will can go only so far.”
Dash hissed and Jeffers snapped backward.
“Keep the cat quiet or I throw him out the window,” Jeffers said.
“You can try,” I said. “But I don’t think he likes you and he has all his teeth and claws.”
Jeffers backed up further. “Just keep him quiet.”
Bette Davis smiled at the rattled Jeffers and reached down in my lap to scratch Dash’s head. Dash loved it.
There was no more conversation as we went up into the hills.
Below us, beyond Sunset, we could see the lights of the city. A year ago the city would have been almost dark below us, but the blackouts had been eased as the threat of Japanese invasion lessened.
Hans turned on the radio and we listened to Lanny Ross singing “Be Careful It’s My Heart.” Jeffers hummed along with Ross.
We were about as high up as you can get, when we pulled into the driveway of a modest one-story brick house with a great view. There were two other cars in the driveway. Fritz got out first and opened the door for me and Davis. We got out. The night had turned cool. I could feel Davis shivering at my side.
“Don’t bother to look at the address, Peters,” Jeffers whispered to me as he guided me toward the door. “We borrowed the place for the night. Owner’s in New York on business. We didn’t have time to get his permission.”
I didn’t say anything. On the surface, what Jeffers was saying was welcome news. He didn’t care if I knew the address because it didn’t matter if I led the cops back here, which might mean that he didn’t plan on killing me. Why bother to advise me about not looking at the address if I was going to be dead?