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Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky

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BOOK: The Devil Met a Lady
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I considered making small talk about Glendale, since my brother and I both grew up there. I didn’t consider it long or hard.

“All right,” I tried instead. “What will we play for if not money?”

“If that is meant to be risque, I am not, under the present circumstances, interested in crude or even remarkably adroit jokes of a sexual nature,” she said. “Do we look at the cards?”

“Yes.”

She picked up the cards and fanned them awkwardly.

“That does not mean, however, that a situation might not arise in which I might well be interested in crude jokes of a sexual nature. What is the point of this game?”

“Highest hand wins,” I said.

“Highest hand wins?”

“Best cards. The most of something.”

I had three sixes.

“Yes,” she said.

“How many cards do you want?”

She looked at her cards forever.

“This is just to teach you,” I said. “You can get rid of any cards you don’t want.”

“I don’t want any cards,” she said.

“I’ll take two.”

I came up with another six and a king.

“Now, if we were betting …”

“But we are not,” she reminded me.

“What have you got?”

I spread my four sixes and a king before her. She followed my lead. She didn’t even have a pair.

“Who has the higher?” she asked.

“Guess.”

She stared at the cards and then looked up at me. She rested her head on her right hand and examined the cards once more.

“What does it matter?”

“If we were betting, it would matter,” I said.

“I have greater variety,” she pointed out correctly. “More numbers and all four suits.”

“I have four sixes.”

“Ah, now I understand. In poker, unlike other sources of entertainment, repetition is better than variety,” she said, opening her eyes wide and looking at me with a smile.

I put the cards away and let Helen Forrest finish before I announced that I intended to go to sleep at nine.

“I promise not to snore if you promise not to snore,” I said.

She didn’t bother to answer that one.

The highlight of this second day in hell, for me, anyway, was going to the Beau Jack–Fritzie Zivic fight from Madison Square Garden, which would be coming on the radio in about an hour. Or maybe I’d switch back and forth between stations and listen to the Ray (Sugar) Robinson–Jake LaMotta bout too. Robinson hadn’t lost in one hundred and thirty straight fights. It figured to be less interesting than the Jack-Zivic bout.

I’d been out twice the day before to make my calls and run my late-night errand. I’d also be out once this morning. Now I had to make another trek to the lobby. There was a phone in the room, but the hotel operator might listen in and hear something that would get us in trouble.

“I’m going with you,” she said.

“Come on. You know someone will recognize you,” I said. “When we checked in, that clerk …”

“All right,” she said, letting go of my jacket. “All right. Yes. What you say makes perfect sense, but …”

Her shoulders slumped, her chin came up, her eyes filled with tears.

“Go,” she said, her voice breaking.

“You did that in
Now, Voyager
,” I said.

The tears disappeared. Her lips tightened and she kicked me in the shins.


The Bride Came C.O.D
.,” I said.

“How comforting to be entombed with a fan,” she said, opening the door for me. “It could, however, be worse. At least you are not Miriam Hopkins.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but she interrupted with, “Do not tell me which of my films that was from. Leave me at least minimally confident that I created one line without the aid of a Warner Brothers writer.”

“I was just going to say, lock the door behind me.”

“Try to find some Graham crackers,” she said. “And one more thing. I’ve been playing poker since I was six.”

I went out without looking back. The door clicked locked. I had no elaborate plan. Go to the lobby. Make a couple of calls in the hope that the people who were trying to kidnap Davis had been found. Pick up a couple of nonhotel sandwiches, maybe even some tacos and a couple of Pepsi’s. Hell, the night was young. Maybe I’d find a box of cereal, a carton of milk, and some cookies. Breathe free.

I made it as far as the lobby and the phone. The lobby was full, not crowded but full. A quartet of middle-aged salesmen in last year’s suits, a pair of preteen sailors talking to a woman who was old enough to be their high-school music teacher and experienced enough to teach them how to play an instrument of their choice, assorted couples, singles, check-ins and check-outs. I was dropping my nickel in the slot when I saw them.

There were three of them: Hans and Fritz, both big, one blond, one dark; one broad, the other lean. Hans was broad and blond. Fritz was smaller but meaner. I ought to know. He had tried to skewer me with a fencepost two nights before. The third stooge, Jeffers, short, nervous, with slicked-back dark hair and a nose that pointed a little to the left, was talking to the desk clerk.

I turned my back when Fritz started to scan the crowd, but before I turned I saw what I didn’t want to see—Scott Cosacos, the logical night clerk, was just coming on duty, relieving the slightly more savory-looking younger man with no hair, who was talking to Jeffers.

When the telephone operator came on, I told her I’d changed my mind, hung up, and made it to the stairs, hiding behind a pair of salesmen talking about friction bolts, a trio of teenage sailors arguing about beer, a weary lady of the afternoon, and a family of five who looked like they were on vacation from Moline, Illinois.

On the stairway, I turned around carefully and saw Jeffers watching Scott Cosacos, whose eyes lifted over their heads and moved around the crowd. I pressed against the wall and hurried upward.

Going up was not easy. I have a bad back and my leg was recovering from a not-distant break of major proportions. On top of that there were the wounds of the previous two nights.

“You didn’t get the Graham crackers,” Bette Davis observed from the table where she was smoking and staring at the cards.

“We’re going,” I said, throwing things into the suitcase. “They’re downstairs.”

“No,” she said, standing.

“Yes,” I said, throwing the cards into the case and snapping it shut. “Put your shoes on.”

She obeyed quickly.

“One more time,” I said, hoisting the suitcase. “Maybe it’s time we went to the police.”

“No,” she said. “There will be pictures, photographers, stories. And Farney has specifically …”

“Hans and Fritz could kill us. That might be a little more inconvenient than the police.”

I was at the door now, opening it slightly.

“No police.”

“Okay, then,” I whispered, ushering her out into the hall. “Let’s go.”

The hallway was empty. My .38 was tucked in my belt.

Stairs or elevator. I figured there were no odds on Cosacos not telling Jeffers, Hans, and Fritz where Mr. and Mrs. Giddins were.

“Stairs,” I said, though my leg and back said elevator.

She followed. Less than a flight down I heard footsteps coming up. Could be anyone looking for exercise. Could be. I motioned for her to follow me back upstairs. On the sixth floor I pushed the elevator button as I watched the stairwell.

Five, ten seconds. Twenty. The elevator clicked into place and the doors started to open as Fritz came into view, taking the last two or three stairs in one stride. There was something in his hand.

“In, fast,” I said, shoving Davis into the elevator. She didn’t move. I shoved her again. Still she didn’t move. And then I looked. Hans and Jeffers were standing against the rear wall of the elevator. Hans had his arms folded, which would have been a good sign if Jeffers hadn’t had a pistol in his hand. I considered our options.

Hans reached forward and held the elevator door open as Jeffers said, “Step in, put your suitcase slowly on the floor, hand me your gun, and turn around.”

Fritz was behind us now, blocking our way if we stupidly decided to run for the stairs.

“Now, see here,” Bette Davis said indignantly. “We are not getting in your elevator. We are not going with you. If you do not leave immediately, I will scream, a scream such as you have never even imagined. You have no intention of shooting us and we have no intention of coming with you. I’ve seen as much of you as I intend to see. So take your two-bit gangster act and sell it to Monogram.”

The elevator door began to rattle, anxious to respond to calls above and below.

“You are one hell of a great actress, lady,” Jeffers said with a smile. “We’ll have plenty of time for your next performance when we get where we’re going. Now, I am going to count to three—then, if you are not on this elevator, I will shoot Mr. Peters. My colleague will restrain and gag you and carry you down the service stairs to an automobile waiting at the service entrance.”

“I don’t think so,” said Davis, looking at me and then Jeffers with a confident smile.

“One,” said Jeffers.

The elevator door begged to close.

“Two,” he said.

Hans and Fritz waited patiently, Fritz standing directly behind Bette Davis.

“Get in,” I said to her.

“He is bluffing,” she said.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

Jeffers cocked his head to one side and aimed his revolver at my head. Fritz moved a little to his left to avoid the splatter of blood.

“All right,” said Davis with a sigh.

Jeffers lowered the gun, and Fritz ushered the two of us into the elevator. The doors closed in relief and we began to go down.

“God, what a moment,” said Jeffers. “A scene with Bette Davis. If that jackass of an agent of mine could have seen me. I was good, wasn’t I?”

“Walter Brennan is shivering in fright from the threat you pose to his career,” she said.

“She’s amazing,” said Jeffers to Hans, who stood stone-faced. “Amazing,” he repeated, looking at me as the elevator slowed down.

“Amazing,” I agreed.

“He was bluffing,” Bette Davis said.

“No,” said Jeffers soberly. “I wasn’t. And I’ll shoot you both and whoever gets on this elevator if you pull anything.”

“Your dialogue is deteriorating,” she said as the elevator doors opened slowly on the third floor and an ancient couple dressed in their Iowa-farm best got on and glared at us.

“Slowest damned elevator I’ve ever seen,” the man said accusingly.

Jeffers smiled and nodded agreement. The sight of Jeffers, me, and the Katzenjammer Kids was enough to silence the old woman, who faced front stoically. The old man, who wore glasses, a gray suit, and a scowl, looked at Bette Davis, blinked and turned front also.

When we reached the lobby, the door clanked open and the old couple stepped out. The man whispered something and the twig-thin old woman looked back at us as Fritz urged us toward the front door.

“Nonsense,” the old woman whispered. “She doesn’t look anything like Joan Crawford.”

And as we wove our way through the lobby crowd with Jeffers’s buddy-buddy arm around my shoulder, his pistol under my jacket pressed into my spine, Bette Davis uttered, “Is there no end to the humiliation I must endure?”

I didn’t answer but I felt like saying that humiliation was not in the same class with what I was sure Jeffers planned for me when he got us somewhere away from Joan Crawford’s admiring fans.

C
HAPTER
T
WO

 

L
et’s go back a little. Not long and not far, only three days and a few blocks from the Great Palms Hotel. On Monday, February 1, 1943, I was sitting in my office on the fourth floor of the Farraday Building on Hoover and Ninth, a few doors down from Manny’s Tacos.

My office is my private domain, monk’s cell, my refuge or, as Bette Davis might observe, a dump. Few ever enter the office of Toby Peters, Private Investigator, especially clients. Aside from me, only a cat named Dash, a fat orange lump who belongs to no one but lives with me, spends a lot of time there. Sheldon Minck, the dentist with whom I share the suite, is permitted to bring me announcements of visitors; Jeremy Butler, who owns the Farraday and is an enormous ex-wrestler who lives on the floor above us with his wife and new daughter, can enter whenever he wishes.

There are those who might say that I keep clients away from my office because it is little more than a closet inside the less-than-clean disaster of a dental surgery where Shelly practices incompetent alchemy and benevolent sadism. There are those who might say that my office, which smells like a fat orange cat, is unimpressive: a small cluttered and battered desk; a single window five stories above an alley where a bum who keeps changing his name resides in the rusting shell of a Buick; a cracked ceiling; barely enough room for two wooden chairs beside my own; a bleary blown-up photograph on the wall of me, my brother Phil, our father wearing his grocer’s apron, and our dog Kaiser Wilhelm.

And there are those who might wonder at the strange painting that covers one entire wall, the painting of a woman lovingly cradling two small naked boy babies. Someone might think the woman was my mother, and the boy babies me and my brother Phil. In fact, they were Salvador Dali, his dead brother, and his mother, who was still alive as far as I knew. Dali had given me the painting as payment for a job I had done for him.

There are those who might say many things about the office of Toby Peters, Private Investigator, if they had the interest or opportunity.

On Monday, I was blissfully, ignorantly, and unaccountably content. Nothing in my life, outside of having enough money to pay my overdue bills, accounted for this feeling.

Sure, the war news was good. The
Los Angeles Times
front page told me that Nazi Stalingrad Chief Field Marshal General Friedrich von Paulus and sixteen other generals had been captured by the Russians, and that the Germans had suffered their worst defeat of the war, one hundred thousand men killed. And there, right in front of me, was the announcement that Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox had just returned from a two-week tour of the Pacific, saying the Japanese resistance on Guadalcanal would end in thirty days.

BOOK: The Devil Met a Lady
4.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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