Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
The money Pinketts had paid me went into one of Shelly Minck’s schemes, pastel-colored false teeth. He had assured me that it was more than a fad, that pink teeth were going over big on the Riviera. I lost every cent and I was glad I did.
Now that record was back to haunt me.
Andy’s wasn’t anything special, but I’m not exactly the gourmet editor of the
L. A. Times
. It was a mid-block coffee house for below-the-line assistants at Paramount. Grips, gaffers, gofers, and extras hung around places like Andy’s making contacts, killing time, making it clear where they could be found. But there was no crowd that Monday when I stepped in, and even if there had been, the place was small and Pinketts easy to spot.
He hadn’t changed.
He was about five-ten or -eleven, lean, dark, with a full head of black curly hair, an aura of perpetual weariness, and that omnipresent thin cigar in his mouth or hand. He wore dark suits and liked to drape a scarf around his neck. Few had seen his dark eyes behind the sunglasses he seldom removed. People who passed him on the street or saw him walking down Sunset or Hollywood would ask him for his autograph, which he always graciously gave. The people then went home to decipher the scrawl and figure out who this movie star might be. Most of them guessed he was Gilbert Roland or Cesar Romero, and that was close enough for Pinketts, whose parents had both been Rumanian farmers.
“Toby,” he said from a booth in the rear, lifting a weary arm in greeting. “It is so good to see you again, my old friend.”
“Andrea,” I said, moving toward him.
The guy behind the counter was fat, in his fifties, and unimpressed by either of us.
I shook Pinketts’s hand and sat across from him in the booth.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“A gallon,” I said.
Pinketts waved at the fat guy behind the counter.
“Coffees,” Pinketts called. “And I’m a bit hungry. Let us try the fried-chicken special, a double coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and your homemade apple pie.”
“Not for me,” I said. “Just coffee.”
Up close, Pinketts was definitely six years older and at least six years shabbier. The scarf around his neck was just about out of life and color, and I had the feeling it was draped carefully to cover some rough spots in the jacket.
“You look much the same, my old partner in arms,” he said.
“I look older,” I said. “I cut the sideburns so the gray shows a little less and I check the mirror every morning to see if I still look tough or look like a bum trying to look tough.”
“In this business,” Pinketts said, welcoming the cups of coffee placed in front of us by the fat counterman, “we gamble, amigo. Our appearance, our reputation. We are mariners in a sea of troubled lives.”
The fat guy walked away.
“That Andy?” I asked.
“There is no Andy,” said Pinketts. “Andy is Andy Gump, the cartoon character. Paramount once considered a series, live, not animated. Lots of publicity. A woman who later went back to Houston, Texas, had a cartoon of Andy Gump painted on a sign and hung over this shop. A few tourists came, but the bread-and-butter workers at Paramount stayed away until the sign came down.”
“A Hollywood story,” I said, downing most of my first cup of coffee and hoping it would bring me back to the land of the living.
“A Hollywood story,” he said. “One of the sad, the comic thousands of stories. Now, I have told you a story and you have bought my attention with the price of a meal. Business.”
I hadn’t promised Pinketts a meal, but I nodded. “The record,” I said.
“The one we did of Ham Nelson blackmailing Howard Hughes and Bette Davis,” I reminded him.
Pinketts leaned forward to look at me over the tops of his dark glasses.
“History,” he said. “You were paid.”
“I’m not after more money. I want to know what you did with it.”
“I sold it for far, far too little to a dealer. I might as well tell you, since I cannot share with you what I have long since spent. I got ten thousand dollars. Invested it in an office and a starlet wife, a golden creature of Amazonian proportions and beauty. It was amazing how quickly both she and the money vanished.”
“I spent my two hundred dollars on pink teeth. Who did you sell it to?” I asked.
Pinketts removed the thin cigar from his mouth, drank some coffee, and regarded me for a full minute.
“What will I earn for giving you this valuable information?”
“Four thousand nine hundred and eighty dollars. My share of the sale of that recording minus the two hundred.”
“Ah, but that is all money in the past. An additional five hundred dollars in the present …”
“One hundred dollars and maybe some night work at twenty a day for keeping an eye on Bette Davis.”
Pinketts thought about the offer for two whole seconds.
“The hundred right here and now,” I said, reaching for my wallet.
He held out his hand and I counted out five twenties.
“Grover Niles,” he said.
“Grover Ni … The agent?”
“The agent,” said Pinketts. “He paid in cash for the record, and I walked away and did not look back.”
“Did you tell Niles I knew about the recording?” I asked.
“What possible reason would I?…”
“You told him,” I said.
“I told him,” Pinketts agreed, tilting his head back to blow smoke at the ceiling. “But that was long ago, another life. What difference does it make now?”
“Someone who knows I was with you on that job wants to sell the record to Bette Davis’s husband,” I explained. “And he wants me to middleman.”
“Most interesting,” said Pinketts, studying me for guile.
I had three more coffees and a Pepsi. Pinketts watched me and told a series of stories as he ate his Andy’s special. He had gory stories of the stars and the starstruck and he had an appetite. When he finally finished, I paid the bill and told him I’d be in touch with him.
He burped discreetly and waved regally, saying, “Be as cautious as the wind and silent as the night, amigo.”
“I’ll try, Pinketts,” I said, and I left Andy’s, not bothering to figure out what the hell if anything he might mean.
For a hundred dollars of Arthur Farnsworth’s money I had bought a name. I knew Grover Niles.
No great surprise. Los Angeles is big, but the people in it holding onto the sharp edges of the movie business—the would-be’s, watchers, wise guys, bamboozlers, babes, bozos, agents, flatfeet, and used-to-be’s—all know each other.
How did I know Niles?
In the spring of ’38 a client of mine, a whistler and bird-caller with a traveling burlesque show, claimed Niles owed her two months’ pay. Niles had gotten the client, Rose-Rose Shale, two weeks in the Red Hot Blues Club on Ventura. Rose-Rose really wanted to break into movies, and Niles promised her rockets to the moon.
Rose-Rose looked great in spangles and she really could whistle like Jolson, but she had the brain of a wren, one of the few birds she did not mimic. Moe Burnhoff, the punch-drunk ex-middleweight who gave out towels at the Adriatic Gym, could have told Rose-Rose that there was no future in the movies for a whistler.
But Niles told her she had beauty, talent, and enough money saved to carry her through till Grover Niles pushed her into the path of onrushing destiny. Niles did not tell her that the Red Hot Blues Club expected something more than birdcalls for their seventy-five bucks a week. They expected her to shed some feathers.
Rose-Rose had a good heart and I took her case on for a little more than birdseed.
Niles denied owing her the money, claimed she owed him his ten percent. Grover Niles was a hard man to believe. Short, thin, with a pockmarked face and sweaty hands, Niles looked and acted nervous and carried a wrinkled handkerchief to wipe his face. Niles was no more than forty but he looked sixty, and if ever a man looked guilty of everything, it was Grover Niles.
We came to a compromise, did Grover Niles and me. He paid Rose-Rose a week’s wages and got her out of the second week of her contract at the Red Hot Blues Club, and I, in return, agreed not to satisfy my curiosity by looking into his past—when, according to Rose-Rose, his name had been Wesley Sternham and he had lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with his wife, two kids, and a large number of markers held by the Purple Gang in Detroit.
I had not seen Niles since that episode, but I had heard his name from time to time, usually spoken with a disclaimer.
According to both the phone book and my memory, Niles’s office was on Sunset near Highland. Good address but a decaying office, perched over a bakery that specialized in movie-star cookies and cakes. I parked my Crosley about a half block away near a hotel undergoing renovations and locked the doors. I had a .38 in the glove compartment and Mrs. Plaut’s Mah-Jongg case in the back seat. I was more worried about losing the Mah-Jongg case.
The Crosley had been given a twice-over by No-Neck Arnie, the mechanic near my office. Since I had bought the car from him in the first place, he had recently given me a special deal to fix the broken window, the ax hole in the hood, and the driver-side door that wouldn’t open. He’d also repainted the car a very off green. It looked a little like a kidney stone my old man passed on his forty-first birthday, but it ran.
A maybe-rain was in the air. I was in a good mood and a thin blue zipper jacket. It had been raining a lot this winter and I needed some new clothes, or some clean ones. I ducked into the bakery a step before the storm hit. Today’s specials were chocolate Willie Bests, gingerbread W. C. Fieldses, and vanilla Shirley Temples. I bought a dozen Fieldses and Temples from the smiling old lady behind the counter and munched on Curly Top while I waited for the storm to pass.
“Ran out of FDRs early,” the old lady said while I watched people dash through puddles outside. “His birthday was Saturday.”
I was through all of the vanilla curls and was down to the beaming smile. I bit into it. I smiled back at the proprietress.
“We try to keep up with famous birthdays,” she said.
“Doesn’t the agent … what’s his name, Niles, Grover Niles, have his office upstairs?”
The old lady wiped her hands on her white apron at the sound of Niles’s name.
“Yes,” she said, busying herself with cookie trays.
“Which ones are the hardest?” I asked.
“Stars are the hardest?” I explained, starting on a W.C.
“Oh.” She paused, tray in hand, and looked out the window at the rain for inspiration. “Leading men, women,” she said. “Hard to tell a Tyrone Power from a Robert Taylor, or an Ann Sheridan from a Mary Astor in a cookie or even a cake. Comedians and kids are easy. Tell you a secret.”
I looked serious and tried to keep the ginger crumbs in my mouth.
“You know who this is?”
She was holding up a Willie Best.
“Willie Best,” I said.
“To you, Willie Best. I sold two dozen to Lew Ayres. Thought he was buying Stepin Fetchit.”
“Why not say it’s Bill Robinson and pair him up with Shirley Temple?” I suggested.
The idea struck home; she beamed at me and decided to give me a crumb of information as she rearranged a tray of Lassies a young boy brought in from the rear of the shop.
“He owe you much?” the woman asked.
“Who?” I said, walking over to catch the kitchen smells and observe better her arrangement of the kennel.
“Niles,” she said. “You process server, collection agency?”
“Private detective,” I said, shifting my bag of cookies so I could pull out my wallet and show it to her. “Toby Peters.”
“Howard Duff on the radio is one of my favorites,” she said. “Saw a picture of him in a fan magazine. I could do a Howard Duff cookie.”
“Call it a Sam Spade cookie,” I suggested, putting my wallet away. “Nobody knows what Duff looks like.”
“Then the customers would think it was a bad Bogart.”
“Niles,” I reminded her.
“Deadbeat,” she said pleasantly. “Always behind in rent. Landlord’s going to toss him next month for sure.”
The kind of guy who might pull out his nest egg, a record he bought in 1938.
“Busted,” she said. “I ought to know. I own the building. What’d he do now?”
“It isn’t now. It was five, six years ago. He up there?”
“Yeah,” she said, backing away from the display case to survey her dog cookies upside down. “Heard him walking around.”
“Rain’s slowing a little,” I said.
“A little. Dogs are easy,” she said, rearranging the cookies a little more. “Asta’s a favorite. No one knows Rin-Tin-Tin anymore.”
I moved to the door.
“Come back when we’ve got Laurel and Hardy. Usually Thursdays. Big sellers. Easy to do.”
“Thanks,” I said and ducked through a few feet of light rain to the entrance to
GROVER NILES, THEATRICAL BOOKINGS, UPSTAIRS.
I opened the door and made my way up the stairs. They were narrow, but reasonably well lighted and clean. I gave credit for that, right or wrong, to the cookie-baking landlady.
Niles’s door was just where I’d left it five years before. The years had not been kind to her. She was losing paint. I walked in. The waiting room had changed. There were still five wooden chairs along the wall for the deluge of clients, and a reception desk facing the door. The room was just as empty as it had been the last time I had been here.
Grover Niles had neither receptionist nor secretary, and clients had always been scarce. What Niles did have was photographs on the wall, each inscribed. I looked at a few of them. It didn’t evade the keen eye of Toby Peters that the signature of Marlene Dietrich under the words, “With gratitude to the jewel of all the Niles,” and the signature of Richard Barthlemess under the inscription, “I don’t know where I’d have been without you, Grover,” were suspiciously similar.
“You need help?” came a quivering man’s voice behind me.
I turned slowly to face Niles, who looked pretty much the same as he had in ’38, if you overlooked the fact that he was ten times as nervous. He had added one thing, a pair of suspenders.
“Remember me?” I asked with a smile, stepping toward him.
The look on his twitching face was close to panic as he backed away.