Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
“I know. Ironically, Mr. Warner has been remarkably generous in providing craftsmen and even dollars to the Canteen. Why are you following me, Mr. Peters?”
The music rose and I asked Davis, “Someplace we can talk?”
She turned without a word, and I followed her to a door in the far wall, away from the entrance. She pushed it open and I followed her in. The closed door cut out most of the sounds from the dance floor, but I could still hear the band as it eased into “Sleepy Lagoon.”
It was a cluttered office, with a desk piled with papers and walls filled with photographs of men and women in uniform. They had all been smiling when their pictures were taken. I wondered how many of them were still smiling.
Bette Davis didn’t offer me a seat and she didn’t take one. She lit a cigarette that magically appeared from somewhere, folded her arms, and looked at me.
“I’m a private detective. Your husband …” I said, putting the Mah-Jongg box down on the corner of the desk.
“Farney? He …” Her already wide eyes opened even wider, and anger flashed. Then she pulled herself together and went on, “… he hired you to watch me?” There wasn’t much room to pace, but she made the most of what there was.
“Watch over you,” I corrected.
“Hah,” she said, turning to me. “Ha and ha again. He has no reason to distrust me. I have never done anything behind my husband’s back. You go back and … Are you smiling?”
“You are smiling at me,” she said.
“I said ‘watch over you.’ He thinks you might be in some danger.”
She stopped pacing suddenly and turned to me.
“Your husband is working on top-secret research,” I said.
“This, as in so many scripts I have had to endure for the Brothers Warner, is redundant exposition,” she said. “I am well aware that my husband is engaged in military research. He is in fact working on the modification of some kind of bombsight. And, lest you think I am giving away military secrets, Farney has frequently told people the nature of what he is working on, but not the details. Now, Mr. Peters, what has this to do with danger to me?”
She had been advancing slowly toward me as she spoke, and I had no place to go except against the wall. I stood my ground.
“I was one of the guys handling the recording the night Ham walked in on you and Howard Hughes.”
The smile was gone now.
“I’m not proud of it. I didn’t know what was going on. I got paid and walked away. Didn’t hear anything more about it till your husband called me this morning. Your husband was contacted by someone who wanted to trade a recording for information about his work. The person who called also threatened you.”
“That recording was destroyed,” she said evenly.
“Not the second recording we made while your first husband was in the room with you and Hughes. The guy I was working with sold it to a small-time agent named Grover Niles, who sold it to someone else.”
“Mr. Peters,” she said, puffing at her cigarette. “You are quite mad. There was no second recording.”
“There was,” I said. “And a small-time agent named Grover Niles was murdered a few hours ago because of that record. I was with him. I’d guess he was murdered to keep me from getting to whoever has that recording.”
“I appreciate your candor and confession, but what would you and Farney have me do, hide for the duration of the war?”
“Some of my friends and I will just keep an eye on you. Your husband wanted us to do it without your knowing. It won’t work. We have to be close and you have to cooperate.”
She looked at me for a solid thirty seconds without blinking and then crossed the room to the desk and picked up the phone. She kept looking at me when she dialed and then listened.
“For your information, Mr. Peters, I insisted on paying every penny back to Howard Hughes, every penny Ham Nelson got from him.”
She hung up the phone and dialed another number.
“Hello, Farney? I’m at the Canteen. Thank you. I thought Walter Huston was wonderful too. Farney, dear, do you know a private detective named Peters?”
Most of what she did for the next ten minutes was listen.
When she finally hung up, she put out her second cigarette since entering the room and surveyed me with a new look.
“Farney is not pleased that you were unable to keep me from knowing about this,” she said.
“He fire me?”
“No,” she said. “He did not. He asked me to cooperate. I was not brought up to nor born to engage in blind cooperation.”
“You know what I know,” I said.
“I appreciate that. Well, there seems to be no help for it other than for me to try to elude you. I haven’t the energy for that. So, I will ask that you and your helpers remain as inconspicuous as possible.”
I didn’t bother to tell her, as I’d told her husband, that Jeremy Butler and Gunther Wherthman could not be inconspicuous.
“We’ll do our best,” I said.
“I appreciate your being open about this,” she said, coming around the desk. “I was planning to stay here for an hour or so, but, under the circumstances, I think I’d like to go home and discuss this with my husband. He expects to be home around midnight.”
“Fine with me,” I said, standing away from the door so she could pass. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to make a quick stop. It’s not far from here.”
“Mr. Peters,” she said. “I am trying to be cooperative for my husband’s sake, but …”
“Brief stop. I promise.”
“We live in Glendale,” she said after a deep sigh.
I nodded, acknowledging the distance. She put her hand on the knob, turned to me once more, and I said, “I’ve got one stop to make, not far from here. All right with you if we leave your car here and pick it up later?”
“Don’t forget your Mah-Jongg tiles.”
Bette Davis waved, blew kisses, stroked young cheeks that had probably never been touched by a razor, and gave a variety of hugs and instructions as we moved through the crowd.
James was playing a toned-down version of “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” as we hit the door and went into the smoke-filled lobby, which suggested to Davis that she had to smoke.
When we reached it, she described my Crosley as “charming” and smiled at the old guy on the steps who was still sitting there thinking about his son and waiting for celebrities. He grinned at her and waved.
“I have never been in one of these before,” she said as I pulled out of the space. “It rather reminds me of a windup toy.”
I didn’t answer. I turned on the radio and headed for Hoover Street and the Farraday Building while she smoked and looked out the window.
A commentator, not Keltenborn, said with glee that Major General Jimmy Doolittle had just been named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alumni Association of Japan.
“Doolittle,” said the commentator with a chuckle, “was a member of the class of 1924. He replaced Takanaga Mitsui, who was in his second term. In making the announcement, the M.I.T. Alumni Association said, ‘Doolittle recently dropped calling cards on Tokyo and so is well known to Japanese alumni.’”
“Please turn that off,” said Davis, facing me. “Mindless ignorance offends me.”
“Is there any other kind?” I asked, turning off the radio.
“Unfortunately, yes,” she said. “Can you please tell me where we are going?”
“To meet my colleagues, who’ll be helping to watch you and trying to find the person putting the pressure on your husband.”
We didn’t say much more until I was parked a few doors down from the Farraday. Even though it was a Monday night, downtown traffic was still wartime heavy.
“This is it,” I said, getting out of the car and coining around to the sidewalk as she stepped out and closed the Crosley’s door.
“What is it?” she asked, too sweetly.
“My office, the Farraday,” I said, leading her to the big glass door and opening it for her. “Elevator’s over there. We’re not going to my office. I promised one of my associates I’d drop by a celebration party.”
“Celebration?” she said, getting into the open elevator. “Has a dear friend been released from Folsom Prison?”
“Nope,” I answered as the elevator lurched upward. “Edna St. Vincent Millay party. She got some award from the Poetry Society. Jeremy’s having readings from her work, probably reading some of his own poetry.”
We rattled upward into echoes and darkness.
“You are either pulling my leg, Mr. Peters, or I have underestimated you.”
“Neither,” I said.
The building was dark and deep. I liked the Farraday at night, the dim night lights, the creaking beams, the distant sounds of downtown, the smell of yesterdays and Lysol. It seemed haunted and sad.
The elevator lurched to a stop on the sixth floor and I opened the door to let Davis out. There were no loud noises coming from the apartment offices of Jeremy Butler and Alice Pallis Butler, but there was a hum of voices to guide us down the hall.
I didn’t bother to knock. We stepped in and I closed the door behind us.
I’m not sure who was more surprised, the people celebrating who looked up and saw Bette Davis or Bette Davis who looked down and saw what must have looked to her like Saturday night at a sideshow. I’ll give both sides credit. Davis simply smiled politely, and the small crowd, with one exception, tried not to gawk at her.
Jeremy stood across the room, reading aloud from a thin book.
“‘While they murmured busily in the distance,’” he read, “‘turning me, touching my secret body, doing what they were paid to do.’”
Jeremy closed the book. A few people applauded. Most had not heard the lines he read once Davis had entered. Jeremy stepped across the room to greet us, offering a massive hand to his guest.
“Miss Davis,” he said. “I am Jeremy Butler and this is my home and that of my wife, Alice, and our baby, Natasha, who is asleep in the other room. I admire your work and am pleased to have you as a guest at our small celebration.”
“I am pleased to be here,” Bette Davis said. “Those lines you just read? Millay?”
“Millay,” he confirmed.
“They could have been written about me after a studio fitting,” she said.
“The poem is called ‘The Fitting,’” Jeremy said.
Jeremy introduced the members of the group, including the three-piece-suited Gunther Wherthman, and Gwen, Alice Pallis, Sheldon Minck, and half a dozen other friends of Jeremy’s—about equally divided between former wrestlers with distorted faces and massive bodies, and the poets, mostly vampire-thin and of both or unknown genders, whom Jeremy and Alice published.
“Please go on,” Davis said. “I don’t want to interfere.”
The massive Alice had moved to Davis’s side as the actress stood near the door, looking over the heads of the celebrants seated in chairs along the wall and on pillows on the floor.
“Jeremy was just about to read a poem he’s written in honor of Miss Millay,” Alice explained, trying not to hover over Davis.
Bette Davis smiled and glanced at me. I smiled back.
“Are you a poet, too?” asked Davis, sipping at the glass of punch Alice had handed her.
“No,” said Alice, looking fondly at Jeremy. “I run the printing end. I used to print pornography, but now I’m a mother.”
“On occasion I read pornography,” said Davis. “And frequently I am compelled by contract to appear in celluloid obscenities.”
“Would you like to read Jeremy’s poem?” asked Alice shyly.
“I would love to,” said Davis, stepping through the crowd to the front of the room. Alice followed, her broad face shining.
“Toby.” The voice was unmistakable, as was the odor of stale, cheap cigars.
Sheldon Minck, D.D.S., had appeared at my side. He was short, bald, with tufts of hair over his ears, thick glasses on his nose, and a cigar in his mouth. He wore a dark blazer, a white shirt with no tie, and a very happy look.
“This is great, great,” he said. I think he actually wrung his chubby little hands. “Mildred wouldn’t come. Thought it would be dull. I gotta admit I sort of agreed with her, but I got stubborn, she got stubborn, you know how it goes.”
“I know, Shel,” I said, peering across the room at Bette Davis and Jeremy, deep in conversation as they looked at an open notebook Jeremy was holding.
“Wait till I tell her Bette Davis showed up,” Shelly cackled with glee. “She’ll have a fit. You gotta tell her. Mildred’ll never believe me.”
“Mildred hates me, Shel, remember.”
“Hate. That’s strong.”
“But true, Sheldon. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room Mildred would believe.”
Sheldon didn’t look quite so happy anymore.
“I’ve got it,” he said. “You can have Bette Davis tell Mildred. Just give her a call and …”
“Mildred’ll think it’s an imitator. She won’t believe it’s Bette Davis.”
Imitators were a sore spot with Mildred Minck. A little over a year earlier she had run off with a Peter Lorre impersonator. He was murdered and she was a suspect. With some help from my friends, I found the killer and got Mildred off the hook. She went reluctantly back to Sheldon, for which she had never forgiven me.
“All of you gathered,” Jeremy said.
“I’ve got it,” whispered Sheldon. “A photograph. Alice has a camera. They take baby pictures. I’ll get her to …”
“Two conditions,” I whispered back.
“Miss Bette Davis has kindly agreed to read one of my poems,” said Jeremy.
Enthusiastic applause as Davis smiled and nodded at me.
“What conditions?” hissed Shelly, hitching up his slipping glasses.
“I may have to call on you to help keep an eye on Miss Davis,” I said. “She may be in some danger.”
“Sure,” he said. “Wait till Mildred hears I’ll be protecting … wait, could I get killed?”
“Assaulting patients, getting Mildred angry, lots of ways. There’s some risk.”
“Okay,” he said. “What other condition?”
“Mrs. Plaut has more Mah-Jongg tiles to fix. I’ve got them in the back seat of my car.”
“How many tiles?”
And Bette Davis began to read:
Is it not mete at this point to display
Our sincere respect for E.S.V. Millay?