Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
“I don’t know. That’s all he gave me, that and a cash advance.”
Phil’s chunky fingers began to play with the edge of the plate. “Go on.”
“Well,” I said, “he said someone was trying to blackmail him about a recording made of his wife and another guy.” Phil was shaking his head in disbelief. I kept on talking. “I found out from a guy that …”
“A guy?” asked Phil. “Guy have a name, a first and last name?”
“He’s not important. He’s just a guy who knew who had the record,” I said impatiently.
“Record of your client’s wife and another guy,” Phil supplied.
“Right,” I said admiringly, as if he’d just won a box of Milky Ways on “Dr. I.Q.”
“Wife and the other guy have a name?”
“Everybody’s got a name, Phil,” I whined. “I don’t know theirs.”
“Go on,” he said.
I didn’t like the way his hands were clenching and unclenching. “Well, the guy gives me the name of Grover Niles, says Niles has the record or knows who does. I go to Niles, ask him. He says he knows who has the record—who must be trying to blackmail my client. Niles was about to take me to the blackmailer when he got shot. Killer came up after me. I hit him with a picture. You’ll find it up there. He went down the stairs, dropped the gun he shot Niles with. I picked up the gun and he ran.”
“You get a good look at the killer?”
“Good enough,” I said, sitting back.
“That’s it?” asked Phil.
“I’ve got nothing else, Phil, except a pocketful of cookie pieces and crumbs.” I tried to look like a cherub. I grinned, shrugged, held out my hands, palms up. If my brother was going to destroy me, the time was now.
“I believe you,” he said. “Except for the shit about not knowing anybody’s name. Steve?”
“As far as it goes,” added Seidman, putting away his notebook.
“As far as it goes,” agreed Phil. “You figure the blackmailer found you, knew Grover would talk, and shot him?”
“Something like that,” I agreed. “Makes sense.”
“How’d he know you were with Niles?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “I wish I had some idea.”
Phil got up. I started to do the same. He motioned for me to sit down and moved to my side, leaning down to whisper in my ear. His right hand touched my shoulder. His fingers dug in deep. I kept looking at the belly of the pup beyond Seidman.
“Talk to your client,” he whispered. “Tell him the police want his name, the police want to talk to him about blackmail and murder. Tomorrow you call, give me your client’s name and address, and tell him to come see me. You understand?”
“I understand, Phil.”
His fingers came out of my shoulder, leaving an indented jacket and bruised flesh.
“Good. You want to come over for dinner, maybe Sunday, if Ruth’s up to it? Ruth and the kids ask about you.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Ruth’s making stuffed cabbage,” he explained. “Come anytime in the afternoon.”
“Okay. I’ve had a busy day and I’d better track down my client.”
Phil didn’t say anything. He moved slowly toward the curb where Seidman’s car was parked.
“Have your client call tomorrow,” Seidman reminded me, adjusting his hat. “Walk easy, Toby.”
“You forgot to say Seidman says,” I said.
“Never heard that one before,” Seidman said deadpan, as he turned and took a step toward his car.
“Hey,” I called after them. “What about my car? I left it parked near Niles’s office.”
I think Phil shrugged. No one answered. I sat there and watched them get into the car and drive away.
had cash and Arthur Farnsworth was paying and, so far, getting his money’s worth. I hailed a Black and White cab and had him drive me back to my Crosley, which had a ticket under the windshield wiper. I pulled into evening traffic, turned on the radio, and searched. I heard Walter Huston’s voice first, then Bette Davis’s rasping answer. I didn’t know
, but I figured out fast that Davis was playing Dodsworth’s wife, that she had been fooling around, and that he wasn’t happy about it. It sounded too much like real life. I turned it off and headed for the radio station.
I got there just as the broadcast was ending. I already had one parking ticket in the glove compartment, next to my .38. I had to risk another one. I pulled into a parking lot marked Staff Only, looking for a guard to talk my way past. No one appeared. I found a space next to a big DeSoto, got out, and went in search of Bette Davis.
People were streaming out of the building, probably the audience for
. I moved with a small chattering crowd of women, young girls, and a few men, two of them sailors, to the side of the building. It was dark but I felt the winter threat of returning rain. A few of the women gave up after five minutes. A few others held out with me.
“Where’s your book?” asked the guy at my side, all teeth and smiles and far from young.
“Autograph book,” he said, holding up his book to show me. “I don’t have Walter Huston,” he explained. “I could always use another Bette, anyone could.”
“I agree,” I said.
“Here they come,” said a woman in the front of the group.
The door, up two concrete steps, opened. Two men and a couple of women stepped out, ignored the crowd, and kept walking. Then Huston appeared. He grinned broadly, acted surprised at the gathering, and moved down to sign autographs. The guy at my side lumbered toward him with his book open and his Parker pen at the ready.
Bette Davis came out a few steps behind Huston and the crowd split. About ten people, including the sailors, surrounded her. She smiled gently, exchanged a few words as she signed.
Davis was wearing a gray dress with a silver necklace. Over the dress she wore a matching cape, its hood covering her head and shading her eyes.
Autograph seekers moved from her to Huston as a few were doing the reverse. Huston finished first, waved at Davis who blew him a kiss, and moved briskly into the parking lot as the guy I had been talking to tried to follow him.
“Sorry,” said Huston, turning back. “Another appointment.”
The guy stopped and hurried back toward Davis, who was just finishing the last woman and now turned her attention to the sailors. She was interrupted by Autograph Harry, politely signed, and continued talking to the sailors as Harry waddled away with his prize.
I was about six feet away when she looked up at me. Recognition took a few seconds. She turned back to the sailors.
“And what are you two planning for the rest of the evening?” she asked.
Neither boy knew what to say.
“Movie, maybe a beer, and back to the hotel.”
“Shipping out tomorrow,” the second one said.
“I have an idea,” Davis said. “I’m on my way to the Hollywood Canteen. Are you familiar with it?”
“I think … I don’t know, Cal?”
“I don’t think so,” said Cal. “Maybe I think I’ve heard of it.”
“You have a car?” she asked.
“No,” said Cal.
“Good,” she said, taking their arms. “Come with me. I’ll drive.”
Both kids were beaming as they moved into the lot, locked to Bette Davis. They gave me wait-till-we-tell-the- guys-on-the-ship grins as they moved past me. Davis slowed half a beat and looked at me again, trying to place me, maybe wondering what I was doing there, and then she moved on.
I gave them time to get to her car and drive off. I didn’t have to tail them. I knew where the Hollywood Canteen was.
Fifteen minutes later I was driving down Sunset, worrying about all the gas I was using and how few gas ration stamps I had left.
The location of the Hollywood Canteen, about a block off of Sunset, was fine unless you wanted to park a car. According to Shelly Minck, the myopic dentist, the Canteen had been started the year before by Davis. John Garfield, who was 4F and feeling guilty about it, had come to Davis while she was making
and suggested that she head a drive of movie people to run a place where soldiers and sailors about to ship out to the Pacific or just coming in for leave could meet stars like Davis, Dietrich, and Grable, dance with starlets, and be entertained by acts like Bob Hope and the Mills Brothers.
The place, an old theater and dance hall, was refurbished by movie-studio craftsmen donating their time and movie studios donating paint and parts. Business boomed from the start. Supposedly two thousand movie people did shifts serving, dancing, entertaining, and even cleaning up, and every night more than a thousand kids in uniform came through the doors.
The only uniform I had was a spare night-watchman’s brown slacks, jacket, and cap I had to buy when I pulled down regular nights for two weeks in the parking lot of the Brown Derby the year before.
I parked about a block from the Canteen in a spot big enough for a straight-up quarter or a Crosley. I could hear the music when I stepped out of the car.
A guy in a flannel shirt was sitting on the steps of a house next to the place where I parked. He was about sixty, burly, with gray curly hair, reminded me of Alan Hale.
“Visiting somebody?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, locking the driver’s side door and turning to him.
The man was shaking his head.
The music from the Hollywood Canteen was loud, full of brass and saxophone.
“I hear it,” I said.
“Every night,” he said. “Most of the night. I’m on the early shift at Lockheed all the way out in Burbank. Some shift I’m gonna get my hand pulped. I get no sleep.”
“Shame,” I said, taking a step toward him.
“Well,” he said, and sighed. “You know. What can you do? The war. Some of those kids, a lot of ’em, they won’t be coming … hell, I’ve got a kid in the Pacific somewhere, marine. I’ll live with it.”
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“Twenty-eight years,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the house. “I’ll probably die here.”
There was a trombone blast from the direction of the canteen, followed by roars, applause, and whistling. A new song blared up almost immediately.
“Know much about the Canteen?” I asked.
“Much? Like what?”
“Anybody get in there besides guys in uniform?”
“Girls in uniform get in,” he said.
“People who work there. Movie people. Know why I’m sitting out here?”
“Can’t sleep,” I guessed.
“Naw. I get to see movie stars. When the Canteen lot gets filled they park down here. Almost every night I see someone, write to Hal about it. Hal’s my son. See Bette Davis a lot. That
Prisoner of Zenda
guy … Ronald Colman. Saw him yesterday. Hal likes movies. Gene Tierney’s his favorite. You figurin’ on crashin’ the door?”
“Looking for someone who might be in there,” I said. “Civilian.”
“Good luck,” he said over a tenor sax solo, and I moved back to my Crosley, opened the door, reached into the back seat, pulled out the carrying case with Mrs. Plaut’s Mah-Jongg box inside, and headed down the street toward the blasting trumpets and hooting voices. A quartet of marines moved toward the door in front of me. I zipped my jacket up, tucked the Mah-Jongg box under my arm, and started through the door.
“Servicemen and women only,” a voice said, as an arm was shoved in front of me.
I shifted the Mah-Jongg box with a grunt, reached into my pocket, and fished out my wallet.
“Peters, Warner grip,” I said, finding my long-expired ID card as uniformed kids moved past me to the not-quite-hot trumpet of Harry James, soloing on “Cherry.” Give me Muggsy Spanier any day. “How do I get to the light grids? Miss Davis called, asked me to stop by on the way home. Short or something.”
I didn’t recognize the guys at the door. They weren’t kids but they weren’t lightweights either. I figured them for security staff from Columbia or Republic. They lacked the refinement of the older studios.
The guy who had his arm out glanced at the ID card, saw the Warner shield and my name.
“Al, you know where the grid is?”
Al was busy ushering people through the door.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll find it.”
The arm came down and I walked into the Canteen. There was a small lobby, beyond which the doors leading inside were open. A fog of cigarette smoke filled the space. About a dozen servicemen and starlets were smoking, talking, smiling.
I walked inside and looked up at the low stage. Harry James and his orchestra were behind a low chain, bleating the melancholy tune while couples danced beneath light fixtures that looked like kerosene lamps. The lights had been turned low.
At first I didn’t see Bette Davis. I saw Olivia De Havilland talking to a pair of soldiers in a corner, and Ginger Rogers cheek to cheek on the dance floor with a sailor who looked like my twelve-year-old nephew, Nate, but no Davis.
I hefted my Mah-Jongg toolbox and pushed my way through the crowd, with apologies. I wasn’t the only man in civvies in the place, but the others were either on the bandstand, serving food, or looking like movie stars I should recognize, in perfectly pressed suits.
“I’m here,” came a familiar voice.
I turned, almost hit a kid in an air-force uniform with my box, and found myself looking at Bette Davis no more than half a dozen feet in front of me. She strode forward around two couples and stood in front of me with a smile that could kill. The orchestra had picked up the theme and it was hard to hear her as she said, “Why are you following me?”
“I’m not following you,” I said, surprised. “I’m an electrician. I was over at NBC when I got a call that the lights—”
“Your name is Peters,” she said. “You used to be a guard at Warner Brothers. Now, you have either become an electrician who, for some reason which I cannot conceive, has decided to carry his tools in a Mah-Jongg case, or you are lying.”
“You remember me,” I said. “It was more than—”
“As I recall,” she interrupted, “we had a similar distaste for the behavior of Jack Warner.”
“He fired me,” I said.