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Melinda Pappas and Janice Covington and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
Continues from here.
THE CASE OF THE HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE:
A Janice and Mel Pulp Novel
NUMBER 10: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|Heartaches ...The Ted Weems Orchestra|
The next day was Saturday so we borrowed Alice's car and picked up Jimmy at his place. I figured Millie must have had some documentation, either papers or reports that she'd shown to Archie. That's what the thugs must have been looking for at his apartment. But they hadn't found anything there and neither had we. So maybe the proof was someplace else. Jimmy hadn't found anything at the studio so the next step was to check out her place.
Millie had shared an apartment with three other girls. That wasn't uncommon. What with all the defense jobs and Hollywood hopefuls flooding into the Sunshine state, it's a wonder there were only four of them crammed together like that. It must have been like a college sorority house. I don't know, you'd have to ask Mel about that one.
Alice had told us that Millie was blond so we decided that I could pass as a relative. Mel waited for us in the car while Jimmy and I went upstairs. I knocked on the door and a perky redhead answered it. "Can I help you?"
"Hello. I'm Millie's cousin, Janice. I phoned you a little earlier. May we come in?" It seemed like yesterday's lie could be useful but I felt like a heel when I saw her eyes fill up as she ushered us in. Next thing I knew she was offering me her sympathies for a woman I had never even laid eyes on.
"My name's Dottie. I'm real sorry for your loss. She was an awful nice kid. Millie and I shared this apartment for two years, long before Annie and Mae moved in. I'm gonna miss her." She picked a newspaper off the couch and made room for us. "Would you like a Coca Cola or something?"
I introduced Jimmy as my husband and he looked even more surprised than she did. Well, she got over it quick and got us the drinks from the fridge. Then she sat down on an ottoman and gave us a sad little smile. "I guess you've come to pick up her things. She really didn't have much but you're welcome to it. We weren't sure what to do with the stuff anyway. She said her parents were dead so we didn't know who to contact." Dottie gave me the once over but I guess I resembled Millie enough to pass for a relative.
Millie's room wasn't much bigger than a closet and it didn't take too long to check out all her worldly possessions. Funny how much you can tell about a person from the odds and ends they own, what they prize. Millie liked big earrings and perfume that smelled like flowers. From the looks of her wardrobe her favorite color was blue and she preferred skirts to dresses. For fun she read Photoplay Magazine and True Confessions, did crossword puzzles and listened to records. There was a stack of 78's next to a phonograph and it looked like she owned every single recording Sinatra ever made. To make a long story short, Millie seemed like ten thousand other American girls, with one big exception. They hadn't been murdered.
I gotta admit, Archie's death hadn't bothered me much but all of a sudden it hit me and I got really angry and a little ashamed of myself too. Finding his murderer had almost been a lark, something to kill time with. I hadn't really taken it seriously. But Millie had been a nice kid. Somebody had decided to end her life because she got in the way and then got rid of her like last week's trash. Well, I was taking it seriously now and I promised myself I wasn't going to let them get away with it.
Jimmy and I did a quick check of everything just as we had at Archie's place. But there wasn't anything here either. Dottie stuck her head in the door while I leafed through the magazines and asked if we needed a box or anything. I tilted my head for her to come in and she sat on the bed next to me.
"Did Millie have any letters or pictures around? You know, family stuff?"
Dottie shook her head. "No. She used to get letters from some boyfriend overseas when she first got to L.A. She showed me a picture once. She said she'd gone to grade school with him and they were going to get married as soon as the war was over. He was a real cutie. Looked like Jimmy Stewart. But he got killed at Anzio. I felt real bad, you know? It was tough luck for her." Dottie shrugged. "Tough luck for him too, I guess."
I figured I had to say something to keep the lie going. "That would have been Charlie. He was always crazy about her." I held my breath hoping Dottie hadn't remembered the real guy's name. She hadn't. I decided to press my luck. "I heard she had a new boyfriend now. You ever meet him?"
Dottie's expression changed from sympathetic to disgusted. "No. He sounded like a creep to me. She'd meet him places or he'd beep the horn and she'd run out and get into the car. Never even had the class to knock on the door, you know? She didn't seem to mind. She talked about him all the time, how he was going to get her into the movies." Dottie snorted. "Archie was nothing but a bullshit artist, if you ask me. I tried to warn her but she said she was in love with him. That maybe this was finally her lucky break." Her eyes started to fill up again and she looked around for a handkerchief. Jimmy handed her his and she nodded her thanks and started dabbing at her eyes. "Poor thing never got a break in her life."
Well, we weren't doing any good here so I gave Jimmy the high sign and we got up to go. "Look Dottie, you knew her better than me. Millie and I hadn't really talked for years. I just thought if she had family pictures or letters nobody else'd want 'em. Why don't you keep the rest of her stuff?"
Dottie looked up at me in surprise. "Don't you even want her record player?"
"No. I'm sure she would have wanted you to have it." Jimmy and I headed for the door. "And by the way, you were wrong. She did have one piece of good luck."
Dottie looked at me like I was crazy.
"She had a friend who gave a damn about her."
~~~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~
When we got to the street, Jimmy got into the driver's seat. I don't know. Nisei, American, Eskimo, what is it about men, they all want to drive? Well, I wanted to talk with Mel and besides, Jimmy knew his way around a lot better than I did. So I tossed him the keys to the Crosley and figured oh what the hell. I didn't feel like having an argument with Alice so I said we should stop somewhere for a sandwich and go over what we knew so far. Jimmy suggested a little family place off the freeway and we had a pretty good meal for just a couple of bucks.
It was already getting dark when we piled back into the car. Jimmy pulled away from the curb and we were halfway to Alice's place on our way to Jimmy's when Mel piped up from the backseat. "I think we're being followed."
She was right. There were a pair of headlights shining in the rearview mirror and Jimmy did the usual. He slowed down and sure enough, they slowed down. He sped up and they sped up. He tried to lose them with a couple of sharp rights but they kept on our tail. Nobody said anything but I was suddenly sorry that we weren't riding in Jimmy's old DeSoto instead of Alice's Crosley.
Then they upped the ante. They sped up and we felt the jolt as they bumped the rear of our car. They hung back a few seconds and then did it again. Jimmy tried to speed up to get away but the Crosley wasn't up to it.
They started honking on the horn and then pulled up alongside. I couldn't see the driver but his partner hung out of the front window and started shouting at Jimmy. I heard "Nip" and "Tojo" and a few other more general obscenities. Jimmy paid no attention and focused all his attention on getting us out of the way.
Well, the name calling was the least of our worries because after a few minutes of that the driver hung back and got on our tail again. They hit our rear bumper with a force that must have made poor Mel's teeth rattle and we knew it was only a matter of time until they forced us off the road.
They pulled up alongside again and rammed into the side of the Crosley but Jimmy had anticipated the move and veered over to lessen the impact. So they pulled back and hit the bumper again.
"Mel, are you okay?" She'd been pretty quiet back there.
"Yeah, so far." She uttered a short Anglo Saxon term and ducked further down into the seat and braced herself as they hit us once again. It was pretty rare for Mel to swear at all but I figured it wasn't a good time to comment on her new found vocabulary. They pulled up alongside again and I could hear the scrape of metal against metal as the two cars moved in tandem. Then they pulled back. They were tiring of the game and Mel, Jimmy and I knew that the next bump would probably put us out of commission.
So I did what any reasonable woman would do in such circumstances. I pulled my .22 from my purse and rolled my window down as far as it would go. Then I hauled my ass up onto the door to get a clear shot at them. Let me tell you, it wasn't as easy as it sounds. A Crosley doesn't give the best ride in the world as it is, but don't try riding the window unless you really have to.
Now Mel and Jimmy both were swearing and shouting at me to get back in but I was too ticked off to really hear them. I leaned out and sent one back at their windshield. It must have gone wild because they didn't seem discouraged at all. As a matter of fact, they pulled right up to hit our bumper one last time. Did me a favor, though. This time they were close enough so that when I fired their windshield shattered and the driver lost his nerve. He didn't lose control of the car though and he slammed on the brakes so fast you could probably smell the rubber burning clear up to San Francisco. Then he hung a U-turn and got the hell out of there.
I didn't have much time to gloat though. I dropped back into the seat just in time to see a telephone pole loom in front of us. Jimmy had turned toward the sidewalk because it was either that or hit a Mack truck. Jimmy made the right choice I guess but he paid for it when we hit. He whacked his forehead on the steering wheel and I thought sure he'd go down for the count. But he was a tough cookie alright, and considering what had happened, I figured we were pretty lucky to be alive.
We were all a little wobbly on our pins but that Crosley wasn't going anywhere else tonight. The front left fender was crumpled like a cheap suit and the rear bumper looked like hell. The door on the driver's side was concave now and most of the paint was gone. My side wasn't bad at all but I had a feeling that was going to be small comfort to Alice.
Luckily we were only a few blocks from her place. We started walking and I noticed Mel put her arm through Jimmy's. It was more than just a friendly gesture because I saw him lean on her a few times and I would have bet a sawbuck she was really holding him up. By the time we arrived at Alice's door, the goose egg on Jimmy's head was big as an eightball.
I'll admit it. I was relieved to get there. Those insults they had been yelling were just a cover up and it was pretty clear that whoever had been in that car had been trying to kill us, or at the very least, scare us off. I didn't think it was a racist attack at all. They had started banging the Crosley and trying to force it off the road long before they had taken a look at the driver. They couldn't know Jimmy was a Nisei before then unless they had seen us come out of the restaurant. And Mel hadn't noticed anyone then.
Alice had already gone to bed when we let ourselves in. I don't know if we woke her up or if she had still been awake but she came out when we flicked on the kitchen lights.
We heard her voice before we actually saw her. "You're back! How'd you make out?"
Her face hardened like stone when she saw Jimmy sitting there in her kitchen. It didn't soften up any when we told her about the Crosley either. But she waved her hand as if the smashup of her only means of transportation was a minor thing. And instead she said, "I told you not to bring him here."
Mel had been pretty quiet but that set her off but good. "Get off it, Alice. I'm sorry about your car but we were almost killed on the way back here. It's been a rotten night so far and frankly, we don't need any of your bigoted bullshit right now."
You know, they say timing is everything. I grew up around my father and the guys who worked the digs and they were all pretty rough characters. I learned to swear in at least three languages and frequently do. With the least little provocation, I might add. And when I do let go, nobody bats an eye. It's like they expect it. But Mel said the word "bullshit" and it was like the greatest blasphemy ever heard. There was dead silence in that room for at least ten seconds. Lay that on top of the four letter word she had let loose when we were being chased down the street and I was stunned by the revelation of Mel's new linguistic abilities. I had always known that she was an expert in ancient languages. Well, she knew the finer points of modern ones too, it seemed.
But Alice was unmoved by even Mel's little tirade. She just stared at us all, especially Jimmy and never said a word.
I decided to put my two cents in. "C'mon Alice. We've got trouble and we could use your help. Are you going to just stand by and do nothing?"
It was probably a low blow throwing her own words back at her like that but at least she made a move after I'd said it. She went into the bathroom, got an icepack from the medicine cabinet and tossed it on the table.
Jimmy had been quiet up till now but I could see this whole scene was getting on his nerves. "Look, just call me a cab, will you? Then I'll be out of your hair." He started to get up but you could see he was still a little woozy.
Mel grabbed his arm. "Take it easy, Jimmy. You don't look so good. You'd better sit down here for a while." Then she turned to Alice again and pointed to the icepack. " It seems to me this would probably work a little better if it had some ice in it."
Alice gave her a dirty look but she got a metal tray out of the freezer and dropped it on the table with a clatter. "It's late, I'm tired and I'm going to bed. He's your guest. You take care of him." Then she turned on her heel and started to leave.
I thought that'd be the end of it but I had a surprise in store. Jimmy had had enough too. "Look, I'm sick of this. I don't know who put a bug up your behind but I havent done a damn thing to you. Frankly, I've taken all the racist crap I'm going to for one night."
I was watching Alice and It was like watching a musician tune his fiddle. Everything that had happened in the past couple of weeks was like another turn of the keys that tightened the strings. Our presence, Millie's death, Jimmy. If you tighten those strings just a little too much, they can just snap in half and put your eye out. Alice snapped.
"Oh dammit, why can't you just leave me alone? Look, I don't know you, I don't want to know you. Just your face brings back bad memories for me. " She took a deep breath and I couldn't tell if she was going to cry or throw something. And then she started up again. "I just want to be left alone. I spent two years on one damned island after another, up to my ass in blood. I don't want any part of it anymore. If I don't back off, I'll go crazy. Maybe I'm crazy now. I can't sleep. And when I do, I have nightmares. It's like I'm still there. Every time there's a thunderstorm I have to stop myself from rolling under the furniture 'cause I'm so used to ducking Jap shrapnel..."
"Well, that wasn't me, Alice." Jimmy's voice was as low as ever but there was an edge to it I had never heard before. "I didn't drop any bombs on you. I was too busy ducking Nazi shrapnel in Italy. That's where they sent us, so everybody could tell us from the enemy. But it seems like people like you can't tell the difference regardless of where the hell I am."
He pointed his finger at Alice and I could have sworn it shook a little. "And you're not the only one with an ax to grind because of this war. Before the War my old man bought a worthless little piece of land. But he dug irrigation ditches with a shovel and his bare hands until he made something out of it. And last year I get out of an Army hospital and find out that land's been taken over by some of our rich white neighbors and my old man's died in a internment camp. All he ever wanted was to be left alone too. Just like you, Alice." He got up to leave but the sudden motion hit him like a hammer and he tried to grab the back of the chair to keep from stumbling.
Alice grabbed his arm. "Sit down, for Crissake. Before you fall down." She settled him back down in the chair and then jerked her hands away from him as if she'd just realized what she'd done. She looked at her hands as if they weren't part of her anymore, as if they were doing things on their own, things she wasn't sure about.
Then she sat down next to him and reached for the ice cube tray. She toyed with it for a while and then she lifted the lever that separated the ice cubes. The sound of it was sharp in the little kitchen, like something shattering, breaking down. She concentrated on putting the ice in the pack and avoided looking him in the face. And Mel and I could barely hear her when she said, "I'm sorry about your father. That wasn't right, what they did."
She handed him the icepack and he held it in his hand for a few seconds as if he were considering the weight of it. Then he looked her in the face and smiled. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. It wasn't your fault what happened to him. We smashed your car, got you out of a nice warm bed, took over your kitchen and started giving you orders in your own home. That's not right either." He put the icepack on his forehead and looked away from her. "I'm sorry. About everything. I know what it's like when you first come home. It's not easy. I've been back over a year and I still hate thunderstorms too. What do you say, truce?"
Alice looked down at the table and studied its surface as if she was trying to find the answer there. Then she nodded her head and when she got up I figured she was heading back to her bedroom. But I was wrong. She went to the kitchen cabinet and then turned around to face him.
"Why don't you go lie down on the couch for a while? I'll make us all a pot of coffee."
Jimmy nodded. "Thanks."
I looked at Mel and you could just see the relief on her face. It was like she'd found her old friend again. Alice Brent may have left the jungle six months ago but it was only tonight that she was really coming home.
~~~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~
I woke up next morning to the smells of bacon frying and fresh coffee. Heaven, I tell you. I padded to the bathroom but Mel had beaten me to it so I just ambled into the kitchen instead. Alice was doing the cooking, humming away to the radio. Jimmy had spent the night on the couch and he was sitting at the table squeezing oranges for juice. It was a pretty cozy domestic scene, considering they had been at one another's throats the night before.
I sucked down a cup of coffee while Alice and Jimmy made arrangements to pick up her car and see what could be done about getting the fender and bumper straightened out. Mel came out of the bathroom with her head wrapped in a towel and she had that squinty look she gets when she doesn't have her glasses on. When the doorbell rang she went to answer it and came back with the biggest box I've ever seen that didn't have a body in it.
"What's that?" Not too original but I hadnt finished my coffee yet.
Mel shrugged and opened it up. Somebody had bought up a florist shop somewhere and there were at least two dozen roses lying in the box. Their perfume filled the kitchen and it wasn't bad but between you and me, I liked the smell of the bacon frying better.
I knew Mel couldn't see a thing without her specs so I reached for the little white card on top and read it for her. "Will you forgive me? Let me try to make it all up to you with dinner and dancing this Friday night. Please say yes. Errol"
Well, you could have heard a pin drop. Alice just stood there with her jaw hanging open while the bacon passed the point of no return. Dammit, I had been looking forward to that bacon. She stared at Mel and forgot all about breakfast. "Errol? Errol as in Flynn? You have a date with Errol Flynn?"
Mel took her glasses out of her robe pocket and read the card to herself as if she didn't trust me to read it right. "Humph. Well, what do you know?"
Alice hung over her shoulder and looked at it too. "You are going, aren't you?"
I wondered if Alice had any more bacon in the fridge.
Mel shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. What would I wear?"
Typical Mel. If Errol Flynn had asked me out, I'd be fantasizing about what we wouldn't wear. Okay, so sue me.
Jimmy even got into the great date debate. "If you wanted, you could borrow something from the Wardrobe Department. You're a little taller than most actresses but you look about the same height as Lauren Bacall. You could use one of her outfits and have it back before the weekend was over."
Well, that made up Mel's mind. I don't know if she was more excited about going out with Errol Flynn or wearing Lauren Bacall's frock.
I figured I might as well put my two cents in too. "Go for broke, Mel. If anyone can fill Lauren Bacall's shoes, it's you. Who knows? Maybe next week Humphrey Bogart'll ask you out."
She harumphed and put the card down on the table while I settled back in my chair.
Good. Maybe now we could get back to more important things. Like breakfast. Maybe Alice had some sausages...
NUMBER 11: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|I'm Beginning to See the Light -Ella Fitzgerald|
Monday morning the Crosley was back in pretty good working order and Mel, Alice and I went to Millie's wake. It was a small funeral parlor but it was still painfully obvious that there weren't too many people to mourn the passing of Millie Swanson. There were some co-workers that Alice said hi to and a few others I figured were neighbors. I spotted Dottie and two girls who were probably the other roommates.
I finally laid eyes on Millie. She was short and blond like me, but she looked like a kid as I knelt down in front of the coffin. I could see why Dottie hadn't doubted my being a cousin. We looked enough alike to be sisters, although it's been a helluva long time since I had that innocent look. Between you and me, even when I was a kid nobody was going to mistake me for a rosy cheeked Shirley Temple. It was just me and my Dad then and he never was the sheltering kind. It's a tough world, he used to say, and you'd better know the score if you're gonna survive in it. The last time I had knelt beside a coffin, he'd been lying in it. I've been on my own ever since. I guess I got lost in my own thoughts for a minute there 'cause I felt Mel's hand on my shoulder and she gave it a little squeeze like she knew what I was thinking. I shuffled to my feet and nodded to her. Well, maybe not entirely on my own.
Everybody was looking at me and I guess I really looked like a mourning relative after all. Dottie was the only one I knew so Mel and I sat down next to her. Dottie's eyes were red and she looked like hell. She offered me her sympathies again and I felt like a creep again. She asked about Jimmy and I told her he couldn't get off work, that his boss really had it in for him, you know, him being Japanese American and all. I introduced Mel as a friend of the family, she introduced Annie and Mae and we all started to chat.
Millie had been a nice kid, everybody agreed on that. No one mentioned the pregnancy and I figured either they were sparing the feelings of her only living relative or else she hadn't confided in them about it. Nobody mentioned Archie either and after a few general comments about what a good friend she'd been, I steered the conversation around to the plant.
Maybe it was that temporary halo that the recently deceased get to wear for a while. You know, someone dies and for a while no one says anything bad about them. You know how it is, no one wants to take a crack at someone who isn't there to protect themselves. Not for a while at least. But Millie had been better than average. Her roommates had nothing but good things to say about her. She was a good worker and conscientious. Never missed a day. She had even been chosen Employee of the Month last February.
Mae was one of the roommates I hadn't met yet, a big buxom blond of the peroxide variety. She was tall, loud and had an attitude that said if you won't come with me, get the hell out of my way. She looked like she could have posed for the Rosie the Riveter pictures but I also got the feeling that she was probably a soft touch for a hard luck story and a sucker for kids and small animals.
"Poor kid really got screwed last winter," she remarked. "There was an opening for a lead girl when Peggy joined the WAACS. Millie should've got that." She nodded her head and the others seemed to agree with her.
"That's right." Dottie said. "Millie was a helluva better inspector than Evelyn was. And she had seniority too." She shook her head at the injustice of it all. "That was one of the few times I ever saw Millie get really mad. Remember?"
Mae looked at me, almost apologetically. "Your cousin came home really ticked off and slammed things around all night. She said, 'Well, that broad won't last long. That it was one thing to come across to get a job but if the defects weren't tracked right in the logbooks, there'd be trouble, no matter how good a lay she was.'"
"Nobody could keep better records of stuff than Millie," Annie put her two cents in now. "She kept records of everything. I told her, I said, 'Millie, you should have been an accountant.' You name it, she wrote it down somewheres. Names, numbers, dates. She used to even keep the theater stubs from the movies she went to, receipts from stuff she'd bought. If you couldn't remember somebody's birthday, all you had to do was ask her. I swear, it was a real mania with her. Always writing stuff down in her little blue notebook, kinda like it was a diary."
Little lights went off in my head. "What little blue notebook?"
Mae answered, "You know. One of them little coil things. The kind you could keep in your purse."
"Was it in the apartment? I didn't see one."
"Nah, we went through her stuff but I didn't notice it. Maybe she left it at work or something." Mae waved at Alice, her interest already fading. "She was always filling one up and then she'd get another one. She didn't keep them for long. I think she just liked keeping records."
"What happened with Evelyn? I mean, was there bad blood between them?" Mel leaned forward, all gossipy.
Dottie shook her head. "No. As a matter of fact she must be a lot smarter than she looks. Inspections went faster than ever after she took over. We even got a bonus last year. Our plant produced more planes quicker than any other plant in the US of A." Dottie turned her head for a moment and looked up to the front of the room where Millie lay. "Well, will you look who's here? It's Mr. Stebbins. That's the guy what gave Evelyn the job."
The girls from the plant quieted right down, like kids when the teacher comes into the classroom. Stebbins was a tall, middle aged guy and he had such an attitude about him that it wasn't hard to figure out he was a big shot at the plant. He smelled like money even at this distance. He had on a dark gray suit, tailor made by the looks of it, and his tie was silk, I'd bet a buck on it. Everything about him was precise, neat, from his manicured fingernails right down to the shine on his wing tip shoes. His dark hair was starting to go gray around the temples and he was starting to settle around the middle like guys do when they get older. He must have been a good looking guy when he was younger but he had sort of a built in sneer that made me want to slap him one. I get that way with some people. Usually I have to get to know them first, tho.
He turned around and talked to Alice and the girls that he recognized and then he zero'ed in on Mel and me. He parked himself next to Mel and started to make conversation. "I'm told that you're a relative of Miss Swanson?" His voice was deep, upper crust.
"Janice Covington. I'm a distant cousin. And this is a friend, Melinda Pappas. And you are?"
"Frank Stebbins. How do you do? I'm the Production Manager of Millie's department. She was a fine worker and she'll be greatly missed." He was about as sincere as a Fuller Brush salesman and with the same result. I wasn't buying it.
You know how sometimes your body knows things your mind hasn't grasped yet? The little hairs on the back of my neck were sending me warning signals about this guy. He was polite, he was smooth but I got the feeling it wasn't all that common for a company bigshot to attend the wakes of line workers who had met an untimely end. He had come to this wake for a reason and it wasn't because he had such a high regard for Mildred Swanson. He'd come to see me and Mel, check us out. Something was rotten here and his expensive cologne couldn't cover up the stink. He was involved in Millie's death and Archie's too, I was sure of it. Mel gave me a glance that told me she felt the same way I did.
It was all starting to make sense now. Something was going on at the plant, in Millie's department, in Stebbins' domain. The conscientious inspector got passed over for the big boss' ladylove or at least bedmate, and Millie was pissed off enough to go nosing around, to get some dirt of them both. Chances are she'd found it.
I found myself staring at Stebbins. He looked like he had enough money to hire a couple of goons to do his dirty work for him. The guys we'd seen at Archie's apartment looked like professionals and I had no doubt that they'd killed him. They were probably the same ones who had tossed Archie's place and tried to force the Crosley off the road. Whatever it was Millie had found, Stebbins wanted it bad. And he probably thought we had it or were likely to find it before he did. I was really itching to get my hands on that little blue notebook.
We made polite conversation for a few minutes but then people started leaving, heading off to work. When Mel mentioned that we had to get back to Warner's, he offered to give us a lift. I figured we should go along for the ride in more ways than one.
He settled in behind the wheel of his big flashy Oldsmobile. "Alice tells me that you've recently been lecturing at UCLA. Archeology, yes? That field has always been of particular interest to me but why would Warner Brothers Studio be in need of your skills?" He smiled at Mel and she gave him a half smile.
She fiddled with her glasses a little before she answered him. "It's a consulting job on a Biblical film to assure historical accuracy. You could say we're inspecting for defects, just like Millie." She paused for a minute, letting him wonder just how innocent that face was. "And it's a very handy way for us to earn enough money to finance our next dig. Archeology is a hard way to make a living. We're very fortunate that we can be paid for what we know."
Bingo. You got to hand it to her. That Mel is pretty good. She was playing him like a piano and I just shook my head in wonder. His face tensed up and you could almost hear his backbone crunch as it stiffened in that expensive suit. The cards were all on the table. We were all still pussy-footing around but things were clearer now. We weren't exactly sure how Stebbins had got his hands dirty but he was feeling the heat. Archie had tried to blackmail him, Millie had put the touch on him for a payoff and now we were soliciting contributions for an archeological dig.
He cleared his throat and gave Mel a quick glance. "Well, I know lots of wealthy people in L. A. who might be interested in supporting your work. There's always money to be had, once you make the right connections. You just have to know what's what."
Mel arched an eyebrow in his direction. I know that look. It's a cross between "I know what you're up to" and "don't mess with me." I remember the first time I'd seen her give somebody that look. A crooked cop in Cairo had threatened to take us in for smuggling if we didn't hand over a nice little stele we had found. We knew he had a fence just waiting for it and before I could say two words, Mel arched that eyebrow, grabbed him by the shirt and gave him a piece of her mind. It took me by surprise because it didn't seem like Mel at all but on the other hand, I've learned it was just that side of Mel you don't see very often. It's that little point where our personalities intersect and the first time I saw it, I knew she wasn't just a sheltered Little Miss Goody Two Shoes. I knew I could trust her, depend on her.
You could see it took Stebbins by surprise too. But he was quick on the uptake. "It must be fascinating work. Although I wouldn't have thought two such lovely women would be content to spend their time digging up dirt instead of enjoying the fruits of your labors. The trouble about digging is you never know what you might turn up. It might be worthless or on the other hand, it could be of great value. It's hard to tell sometimes." He gave us a look out of the corner of his eye as he maneuvered the car through an intersection. "Not to mention that it can be dangerous work sometimes. Dig too deep and the whole thing could cave in on you."
I thought I'd follow Mel's lead, scare him a little, and force his hand. "I think it's worth the risk. It's not often we find true works of art but for the most part, we're searching for information, knowledge. It's a valuable commodity, the truth."
Mr. Silk Tie and Fancy Suit was getting irritated now. Mel and I looked at one another. He had come to the wake to check us out and was upset when the tables were turned. And subtlety was not exactly his forte.
"I just can't help but feel that there are some things should just be left alone. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Who knows, it might be true what they say about ancient curses. Look at the Hope Diamond. Everyone connected with it is dead now. They might have been better off if it had just been left alone."
We were only a couple of blocks from Warner's and I was glad. Every little veiled threat he threw our way only ticked me off more. Who the hell was this Bozo to call life and death shots on other people? Archie, Millie and now he was threatening us? I had the urge to take that silk tie of his and twist it until his eyes bulged out. But Mel always frowns on that sort of behavior and besides, he was driving.
He pulled up to the curb and Mel opened the door. I hung back another minute. The least I could do was get in a parting shot. "But you know, I don't believe in curses. They're usually a lot of hooey made up by priests, royal advisors or local bigshots who just don't want you poking around. It always turns out to be just superstition and lies dreamed up by those in power to take advantage of the little guy. I hate that, don't you? Good bye, Mr. Stebbins. Thanks for the ride."
He drove off with a wave of his hand. I was sure that the phone call we'd traced to Alice's plant had finally connected to the office of Frank Stebbins. Yeah, I think we had his number. And now he had ours.
~~~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~
We were settling in at the office when Fred Neill burst in so excited I thought he'd pop a blood vessel. His glasses were sliding down his nose so fast that he whipped them off his face when he sat down on the couch just so he wouldn't have to fiddle with them.
"What's up, Fred?" I offered him a smoke but he just shook his head.
"Big news. The Studio Executives have decided to redo the whole thing." He whipped his handkerchief out of his pants pocket and began cleaning his specs. He kept looking back and forth between Mel and me like it was a tennis match or something. " You know, that project, it was real Academy Award winning stuff but cash flow is cash flow. They say we need a moneymaker toot sweet and that baby is not going to be it." He put his glasses back on and sat back on the couch and crossed his legs. I couldn't decide whether he looked more like an owl or a crane. Definitely some bird or other.
"They're not going to go with a straight Biblical picture. It seems Twentieth Century has got this new guy Gregory Peck playing a missionary in "Keys to the Kingdom" and we don't want to split up the religious crowd. So instead we're going to grab as much of the rest of the audience as we can. Squeeze in all the genres."
I thought to myself, uh oh, here it comes. All that lovely moola down the john. I looked lovingly at the little office I had learned to call home. Well, maybe not home, but it was a classy little setup when we weren't running all over L.A. with Jimmy.
"We got a bunch of new writers in and they're going to put their heads together. Now we're still going keep it in ancient times but we're not going to use Victor Mature. He wants to do another project anyway. Most of the leading men are overseas and the half dozen 4Fs they still have under contract are raking in all the dough they can until the war's over and Gable and the rest come home. So the thinking is instead, we'll go with a beautiful woman warrior, some kind of Amazon princess or something." He paused and looked at both of our faces for a minute. I got the feeling he wasn't over here just to give us the news but that he was practicing his spiel.
"An Amazon princess?" Mel's voice was as skeptical as her expression.
"Amazon, Warrior, whatever. I'm thinking real physical Esther Williams type. We'll put her in a little toga, maybe some kind of leather thing. Cowboys wear leather a lot. It'll make her seem tougher. Not too tough though. Lot of pinup potential here. We gotta find a girl with great gams, somebody built like a brick shithouse. Plenty of cheesecake for the boys overseas."
Fred got up and started pacing around the office. You could tell he was making this up as he went along, that he was, pardon the expression, fleshing out the concept. "If the music department can get on the stick, we'll give her a couple of songs too. Hey, that's an idea. You can always make a buck with a musical."
I looked at Mel and she just shrugged. There was no interrupting him now even if we'd wanted to.
"And if we put her on a horse, we'll catch the western crowd. A big golden palomino who does tricks. You know, like Trigger. Kids love that shit. Give her a sword, let her raise a little hell with the bad guys. There you got your action Oh, this is going to be sweet. I got it all figured out. She's hard as nails, you see.. 'Cause she's never learned to love anybody. Till now. That's where I'll bring in the romance angle. Hey, maybe I can talk Victor into doing the boyfriend. Yeah, real sexy stuff. A passionate warrior woman who's as fierce in the sack as she is on the battlefield. I swear to you, it'll be the biggest thing since Jolson talked."
I almost whooped with delight. "Look Fred, now this is something we can really help you with. Mel and I have been doing research in Mesopotamia. There was this ancient hero, Xena, who..."
Fred wasn't listening. He waved his hand in the air like he was shooing away a housefly. "Nah, nah. No Xena. Sounds too foreign. Xena sounds Russian or something. We need an all American type to really pull this off."
"But Fred, you don't understand..." Mel almost lunged across the room, she was so excited about what he was saying.
It finally dawned on him that the two of us were staring at him. He had never had our undivided attention before and he froze for a second. "I'm sorry, ladies, we won't need any historians for an action picture. It'll be pure fantasy, you know?"
"But it doesn't have to be." I was shouting at the poor guy and he backed up a little in self defense. "Listen for a minute. The Xena Scrolls are proof that..."
He put his hands out palms up like he was pushing against an imaginary wall. Or maybe it was a defensive barrier. We were a little pushy. But you couldn't blame us. A month on the Warner's lot and this was the first thing that Mel and I could really sink our teeth into.
"Don't worry about the money, ladies. You've got a contract, so we'll pay you what we agreed on and your names will stay on the credits. See, money in the bank and you won't even have to work for it. What more could you ask?"
"But unfortunately you're going to have to clear out of the office. You won't be needing it any more because there won't be anybody consulting you. And once we've cast the movie, we'll be needing the space. But why don't you stick around for a while? Maybe we can turn something up for you. DeMille says he wants to do Ben Hur someday. That'd be right up your alley. I'll ask around, okay? Then I'll get back to you."
And then he was out the door quicker than you could say "lost opportunity." We just stood there stunned for a minute.
Then Mel piped up. "Think we'll ever see this epic onscreen?"
I shook my head. "I doubt it. Maybe it's a good thing. If Fred got his hands on the Xena Scrolls, he'd probably just make a mess of it. I don't want a movie made unless it's by somebody who believes in her as much as we do. Besides, I don't think Esther Williams is going to go for it. Not unless Amazons live underwater."
I plopped down next to her on the couch and lit up another smoke. Might as well get while the getting's good. "Anyway, from the way Fred's talking, it'll be a bitch to cast. All he's got to do is find someone who can sing, ride a horse, swing a sword, look good in a pinup, won't look silly in a fight scene, and go straight from kicking the villain's butt to seducing Victor Mature in the blink of an eye. That ought to be a cinch, don't you think?"
Mel sank further back into the sofa cushions with a sigh of defeat. "You forgot. She should be able to act too."
"What do you want, everything? Forget it, Mel. It'll take them fifty years before they find anyone who fits that bill. Face it. This Warrior Princess thing will never fly."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
Hell, I'd bet money on it.
NUMBER 12: ON THE HIT PARADE
|This Joint Is Jumpin' - Fats Waller|
Well, we were pretty much finished at Warner's except for the packing up and it really bothered me that we were out the door without putting all the pieces together. Archie, Millie, Stebbins - they were all parts of the jigsaw puzzle but we were running out of time and so far all we had was the borders.
We took a bus to Dottie's apartment. Annie and Mae were at work and Dottie was the only one there. She made us a pot of coffee but you could see that she was wondering what we were there for. So I came clean. She was surprised when I told her I wasn't a cousin but that was nothing compared to when I told her we thought Millie's death wasn't from natural causes.
"Murdered? I can't believe it. Why would anybody want to hurt Millie?" She looked at us as if we had told her the earth was flat after all.
"We think Archie was blackmailing someone and Millie was involved."
"What could Millie know? She was just a sweet dumb kid. All she did was listen to her records, work and go dancing with Archie." She shook her head. "It doesn't make sense."
"Tell me about work, Dottie. What exactly did Millie do?" Mel's voice was soft and calm. She could be downright motherly when it was needed and Dottie was on the edge now. I figured I'd better sit back for a while on this one.
"Our part of the plant is responsible for the cockpit instrumentation. Altimeters, fuel gauges, air pressure gauges, that kind of stuff. They got to be accurate, you know. I mean, if a pilot thinks he's got a tankful of gas and the reading is wrong, he could end up crashing somewheres he don't want to be."
Mel sipped her coffee and nodded. "So you and Millie and the other girls checked them to make sure they were okay before they went into a plane. How does that work?"
Dottie was calmer now, concentrating on Mel's voice. She seemed almost relieved to be talking about work instead of the murder of her best friend. She sat at the table and went through all the procedures as if we had just been hired to work next to her. "The units come in from the assembly line and the inspectors check out each one. We make sure they've got all the parts, that they've been put together right, that the solder isn't all messy. We got government specs that tell us what's acceptable and what's not. Then we check each one for accuracy."
"What happens when you find something wrong?" Mel leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table like she was hanging on Dottie's every word.
"The work comes off the line with a little yellow tag with a number on it. Then if a part doesn't pass, it gets another blue tag with the part number and a description of the problem. Evelyn, she's the lead girl, puts it in the rework area to be fixed. That's how we can tell the good ones from the defects, so they don't get mixed up."
"Is it the same girls who do the rework all the time?"
"No. It varies. Sometimes, there's a lot to do, sometimes almost nothing. Evelyn pulls girls off the line when she needs somebody to do rework and sometimes if we're real busy or something, she does it herself. We take turns. We know how to fix most things. All us inspectors have to start out on the line, just so's we know what to look for later." She looked at Mel and me to see if she still had our attention. She did. "Then it gets rechecked. If it's okay now, Evelyn takes the blue tag off and then she puts it back out on the assembly line."
"What happens to the blue tags?" I couldn't stop myself from butting in. We were on to something, I could feel it.
"Evelyn collects them and at the end of the day she enters the numbers in her log book. That way you can tell what kind of defects keep popping up and you can maybe avoid it later. It could be something wrong with the equipment or a worker who doesn't know what she's doing."
"Who has access to her logbook?" Mel took the words right out of my mouth.
"Just Evelyn, Mr. Stebbins, and the government agents. It's not under lock and key or anything. It's in Evelyn's desk but she keeps a close watch on it."
"Could Millie have got to it?"
Dottie shrugged. "I guess so. It's not impossible."
It was starting to make sense to me now. "What if Millie sneaked a peek into the log book and she found more than she bargained for? Maybe it wasn't just a number here and there. Evelyn could have been passing some units through with no rework, no second inspection."
Mel asked, "What do you think, Dottie? Could it work that way?"
Dottie's face looked like she just smelled something that had gone bad. "Could be. If a defect wasn't that noticeable, she could get away with it. Say a solder seam that was covered up by another part or a reading that was off just a little."
My imagination was in high gear now. "If Millie's notebook numbers didn't jibe with the logbook, that would be enough to start a federal investigation. If they went back and checked Millie's units, they'd be able to track what slipped through. She probably figured it out and told Archie about it. He probably persuaded her to give it to him for safekeeping. And then he made a call to Stebbins."
"I can't believe someone'd do anything that awful. The girls are good at what they do. If something is off even two, three percent, we pull it. Most of us got boyfriends or brothers over there someplace. Something like that could get them killed." She shook her head in disbelief, like all kind good people who find themselves suddenly face to face with evil.
Well, it sure as shooting got Millie killed. And if we didn't get our hands on that notebook, it would have been for nothing. Or maybe we'd be next.
~~~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~
We headed back to Alice's place. Jimmy's car was parked outside and we found the two of them sitting at the kitchen with a stack of forms and notebooks between them. They were going over stuff from Archie's desk and I saw the Warner's logo on almost everything. I don't know how long they had been working but you could tell from the look on their faces that they hadn't found anything worthwhile.
Jimmy ran his hand through his hair and rubbed his eyelids. "Alice and I have been going through Archie's paperwork. We thought maybe we could find a lead if we knew what Archie had been doing the week before he was killed. We figured it might help if we knew where he might have gone, who he might have talked to or if he had any appointments that night."
"Did you come up with anything?" We sat down and I started leafing through the stacks.
"No. His appointment book had a couple of meetings but nothing that wasn't pretty everyday stuff. It was a long shot. It wasn't like we expected to find an entry that said 'two o'clock, meet Joe Blow to collect blackmail money.'"
"What are these forms?" Mel was trying to read the forms upside down and gave up.
Alice chimed in, "We just grabbed everything in his file. Those look like all the complaints under investigation. "
Mel picked up a handful and started reading. "Typewriter missing from writers' cottage, second one in a month." She put the form on the table and adjusted her glasses. For a minute there she reminded me of Fred Neill. "Lingerie missing from wardrobe department, a silk nightgown, scarves, hosiery..."
I picked some up, more to pass the time than anything. There'd been a fistfight between a small time hood and a security guard on the set of a Lana Turner movie. Somebody had broken into the model shop but hadn't found anything as valuable as lingerie to steal. Two musicians had been caught smoking reefers on a soundstage. A real hotbed of the underworld, Warner's was, except for Archie himself.
Jimmy shrugged. "Looks like a dead end here. Archie knew how to cover his tracks. We'll just have to figure out another approach."
"Well, you might have to take care of that end by yourself," I told him how Mel and I had got the boot from Fred and that our days as Hollywood hotshots were coming to a close. "Miles must have hidden the notebook at the studio but we won't have the opportunity to nose around now. Finding it ain't going to be easy. There are hundreds of sets and Archie had access to them all."
Jimmy shook his head. "I'll just have to keep looking. It couldn't have been destroyed. Archie needed it to get his payoff and Stebbins is still looking for it." He didn't mention how two people had been murdered and how someone had tried to kill all three of us too. He didn't mention it but it was on everyone's mind.
Alice had made a casserole for supper. I got a kick out of how she just assumed Jimmy would join us. They seemed to be getting along just fine now. I had the feeling that she hadn't had anybody to really talk to since she'd come back from the Pacific. Nobody who'd understand anyway. Until Jimmy. They had a lot in common and that's more important than where the hell your grandparents had come from.
I was kicking everything around in my mind while we ate. Mel was filling them in with what we'd learned from Dottie so I left her to it. My mind was wandering, I'll confess it. There was something I was missing, something that was sitting in plain sight and thumbing its nose at me. Damn, I hate that feeling. It always makes me cranky, restless.
"Alice, can we borrow your car?" I gave her a pleading look. Considering what had happened to that poor old Crosley the last time we'd borrowed it, I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd laughed in my face. But she just said "sure" and Mel's the one who looked surprised.
"What's up?" Mel had carried our dishes to the sink and was rolling up her sleeves and taking off her watch. She rolled them down again when she saw my face.
"I want to get our stuff from the studio and it'd be easier to get them this way than bringing them back on the bus." It was the truth, or at least half of it. I wanted to nose around the studio a little more and it was as good an excuse as any.
Jimmy volunteered to go along to help but I said no thanks. I got him away from Alice for a minute and asked him to stay put. "I've got a hunch. If it works out, this whole thing could be coming to a close. If not, we're no worse off. But I don't trust Stebbins. He might send some of his goons over here now that he's shown his hand. Just stay here until we get back and keep an eye out, just in case."
~~~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~
It didn't take us long to pack up our stuff. I swiped a handful of pens and an bigger handful of cigars when Mel wasn't looking. I figured they'd never miss them and I do love those little cigars. But you know Mel. She'd have been all over me. She's a classy dame, Mel is, but her honesty can be a little irritating sometimes.
We tossed our books and notes into a cardboard box and I looked around for one last time. It had been a sweet little setup while it lasted but soon we'd be on the lecture circuit again. No handsome movie stars to ogle, no free smokes. Mel picked up the box and was heading out the door when I tossed one of the paper mache models on top of it.
"What do you want that for?" She eyed the little pyramid with an arched eyebrow.
"Souvenir. The project is canned, they have no use for it. Maybe Alice would get a kick out of it."
That's when we heard someone coming our way. It was way after hours on a weeknight and although some of the soundstages were lit up, there was no one in Writer's Alley and wouldn't be until tomorrow. Mel and I exchanged glances, hit the office lights and got out of there. We crouched behind the building next door and waited.
It was the same three mugs that we'd met at Miles' apartment. The biggest one tried the door, put the lights on and all three started searching the place. They weren't going to get any Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval though. They started dumping the contents of the desk drawers on the floor and tipped over the humidor. The three of them started to remind me of the Three Stooges, raising hell like that. Curly turned the couch upside down while Larry grabbed a handful of cheroots for himself. Moe slapped him on the head and told him to stop fooling around. I swear I expected to hear "Hello, Hello, Hello" any minute now.
Well, they weren't as stupid as they looked or maybe they were just lucky. One of them must have heard something or maybe the light reflected off Mel's glasses but he gave a yell and in two seconds Mel and I were running like hell out of there with three goons on our tails. Mel's got these really long legs and I was having trouble keeping up with her when all of a sudden she grabbed my arm and dragged me around a corner and into one of the buildings. There was a light on on the second floor and she figured the door'd be unlocked. Good guess.
We looked around for a minute trying not to breathe until they'd passed us by. We'd got onto one of the soundstages where they were filming indoor shots for a Western. There were only security lights on but you could see the interior of a saloon, tables, chairs, liquor bottles lined up against a wall. Too bad it wasn't real. I could have used a drink right then and there.
We had about two minutes to assess our situation. It took even less than that to figure out we were in trouble. My gun was in my purse and that was sitting in the cardboard box next to our office. We didn't exactly have the element of surprise on our side and the last time we'd met these guys, Jimmy had been there to even up the odds. Mel and I were on our own now.
Then we heard them try the door. Mel and I looked at one another and first she shrugged and then I nodded. We were cornered, no doubt about it. Well, at the very least we could make a racket, maybe do them a little damage. Hell, it was worth a try. We weren't about to go down without a fight.
Moe was the first one on the soundstage. He walked onto the set like he was going to belly up to the bar and order himself a beer when Mel stood up behind the saloon door and swung it out at him with all her might. It hit him in the chest and knocked the wind out of him. He went down and lay there for a second while Mel jumped on his chest and aimed her fist right at his jaw. Must have been made of glass because we never heard a peep out of him after that. Mel looked kind of surprised at first but between you and me, I think she was a little proud of herself too. She'll never admit that though.
Anyhow, Larry wasn't taking any chances. He saw his buddy on the ground and pulled a .38 out of his shoulder holster. He would have plugged Mel where she stood if I hadn't kicked it out of his hand. The damned thing skittered across the floor like some bug looking to hide. Mel lunged for it but it ended up under a camera dolly. I saw Mel reaching for it but I was a little too busy to really watch.
Larry was coming after me like the Saturday night fights and I knew I wouldn't get very far with any hand to hand tactics. I jumped on the bar to give myself a little advantage and I gave him a kick in the chest when he got close enough. Unfortunately he wasn't as easy a mark as Moe had been. It was like I hadn't hit him at all. The sonofabitch laughed at me and I got really ticked. Killing me is one thing but laughing at me... well, I wasn't about to take that from a Stooge. I kicked him again but I had a feeling my foot was going to give out long before he did.
Well, I hadn't quite planned my next move when I felt him grab my ankle and next thing you know, I was across the bar flat on my back. Well, actually flat on my ass, if you must know. But he grabbed me by the neck and had me down in about two seconds so the original position didn't really matter much. I didn't exactly see my life flash before my eyes but it isn't one of my favorite memories either. I flailed around a little and then I reached back behind my head. My fingers connected with something solid and I grabbed it and swung it at his temple. It might have been phony booze but the bottle was real enough. He let go and slid down to the floor while I sat up and made wheezing noises. I called him every name in the book with what little breath I had but I had trouble focusing for a minute.
Meanwhile Mel was putting up a good fight with the last guy. She usually likes to talk her way out of a situation but you can count on her when the chips are down. She was dodging his every move and throwing stuff in his way. He tripped over a table and I could see she was leading him away from that camera dolly where the gun was. I could see it just peeking out from underneath and it was a thing of beauty. I was just sliding off the bar and heading for it when I saw something that almost took my breath away again.
Curly made a dive for Mel and I heard the smack clear across the room. He connected with her face and she went down like the proverbial ton of bricks. I yelled out her name but it seemed like everything was in slow motion after that. My stomach tightened up and my throat too as I saw him pick up a chair and smash it over her head. I heard the sound of it and suddenly I didn't give a damn any more. One second everything was in slow motion and the next I was on his back like an Indian papoose. I wrapped my legs around his middle and tried to jab my fingers in his eyes so I could get him away from her. The best I could do was hook my fingers in the sides of his mouth and pull like crazy. We probably looked like a Stooges short feature more than ever but it was no laughing matter for me now. Mel was hurt and I wanted to kill the bastard.
Well, he didn't take too kindly to my plans. He wheeled around and slammed himself against the bar to knock me off. It smacked against my spine and I couldn't help myself. I couldn't hold onto him anymore and I fell off him and back against the bar. He made a grab for me but I figured if I was going to go, it would be with a gun in my hand and I wheeled sideways and got ready to dive toward the camera dolly.
But suddenly he was in front of me blocking my way. Funny how sometimes Fate works for you when you least expect it. I looked up and there it was, a heavy metal microphone dangling from a cord a couple of feet above my head. I jumped up and gave it a good yank. That baby just fell into my hand like it had been waiting for me all along. I grabbed the cord, swung it around like a bolo and conked him one. He staggered a little, more from surprise than anything else. But when I did it again, I could tell he was hurting. He was flat on the ground like he'd just gone ten rounds with Joe Louis.
Dont tell Mel, but between you and me, I wanted to hit him again. I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to swing that microphone and belt him one right in the chops. I don't know. I might have done it too if I hadn't heard Mel call out my name.
"Janice, I think we'd better call the security guards."
I spun around. She was standing there, calm as could be, like maybe we should tidy up or something now that the fuss was over. I just stood there with my mouth open like a damned fool. Then I got even more scared. Brain damage. She didn't even know how bad she was hurt. I'd heard stories like that. She would probably keel over any minute now.
I grabbed her arms and tried to get her to sit down. "Jeez, Mel. Take it easy, just relax. Everything is gonna be fine." My hands were shaking and I didn't know what to do or say.
Mel raised that eyebrow at me. "Janice, what's the matter with you?"
"The matter with ME? You're the one who just got conked over the head with a chair. I saw that sonofabitch hit you with it and I..."
Then she gave me this wicked little smile and her blue eyes crinkled up a little. Then I swear to God, she picked up another chair with one hand and tapped it against the bar. Just a tap, mind you. Well, it shattered into a hundred pieces and there was wood everywhere.
She took a little bow like she'd just thought it up and then she looked at me all pleased with herself. "The magic of Hollywood. Don't believe everything you see."
She's lucky I'd already let go of the microphone.
NUMBER 13: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|It Had to Be You ... Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest|
It was past midnight when we drove the Crosley back to Alice's place. All I wanted was a hot bath and a soft bed but Mel was all wound up and chattering away. For someone who abhors violence, she sure does seem to get a charge out of it sometimes. She'll deny it but she's a regular live wire after a brawl like that. Me, I figured if she didn't shut up soon, I might hit her with a chair myself.
But once we walked in the door, we had a bigger problem on our hands. Alice had company and I don't mean just Jimmy.
"Good Evening, Ladies. We've been waiting for you." Frank Stebbins was sitting in the easy chair and one of his hired goons was standing nearby, gun in hand. Alice and Jimmy were on the couch, holding hands like a couple of high school kids. I don't know if they were comforting one another or if Alice was holding Jimmy back from ripping the goon's throat out with his bare hands. He looked angry enough.
Stebbins made a little church steeple with his fingertips and watched us as Mel and I entered the living room and dropped the cardboard box on the floor. The goon gestured with his .38 and motioned for us to sit. Mel plopped down on an ottoman and I pushed in next to Jimmy while Stebbins gave us the once over.
"I'm rather tired of playing this game. Where's that notebook?" His voice was losing that cultured edge to it. He was nervous, impatient. Maybe we could use that.
I crossed my legs and leaned back against the sofa cushions as if I were considering his words. I let him sweat a little then I finally answered him. "I haven't got it. Miles must have hidden it somewhere on the lot. He was the only one who knew where it was. And you killed him before he could tell anyone. Maybe it never existed at all. Maybe he made it all up just to scare the hell out of you."
"Don't give me that. You know as well as I, Archie didn't have that facile an imagination. Besides, his ladylove called me and corroborated its existence with a demand of her own." He snorted, as if he had been smelling something bad. "Stupid tart."
Well, that ticked me off even more. "Millie wasn't a tart and she was a lot smarter than you had given her credit for. Had the goods on you, didn't she? She found out what was going on. Millie thought she'd got screwed, that Evelyn was going to mess up. So she decided to check up on her, see if she could catch her in a mistake. She kept a record of all her own defects and jotted the numbers down in her little blue coil notebook. And then she sneaked a peek into the log book. That's when she found out what you and Evelyn were up to."
"Such a cozy little set up. That's why you'd made sure that the job went to someone you could control, somebody you were sleeping with. Having Evelyn pass those units through would speed up the line considerably. More planes out the door, more bonuses for everybody, more contracts for the company."
"And I'll bet there was even more going on than that, Stebbins. Were you using substandard materials too? You wouldn't want too many defects to point a finger at that. So just have Evelyn remove the little blue tag and send it on its way."
Stebbins got up from his chair and stood in front of me. I thought he was going to smack me one from the look on his face but he just glared for a second.
But you know me, I never know when to shut up. "That was it, huh Stebbins? Buy cheap parts, charge the government for the good ones and pocket the difference. You must be a pretty wealthy guy by now. So what if a few flight crews are lost? Planes crash in wartime. People die every day in war. Is that what you figured, Stebbins, while you counted your money?"
Then Mel put her two cents in. "But it didn't work, did it? Millie discovered your operation, told Archie and spoiled your big plans. So you killed them both."
Stebbins looked at her like she was a bug he'd just found on the floor. He shook his head, slowly. "No, not personally. My associate here took care of Miles. Actually his death was a bit of an accident. He was just supposed to scare Archie enough to tell us where the notebook was but he got a little carried away. Didn't you, Stanley?"
Stanley shrugged. He seemed unconcerned. All in a day's work, I suppose.
Stebbins apparently had decided to let bygones be bygones with Stanley. "But once he was dead, we had a little fun with him. I thought the silk stockings were a nice touch, didn't you? He had them in his pocket. Probably stole them as a gift for one his girlfriends. He was such a ladies' man. Well, we decided to make it seem like one of his tawdry assignations. We'd met him in your office, so we left him there. Unfortunately it didn't throw the police off for long."
Alice piped up. "And what about Millie? All she wanted was to get away."
Stebbins shook his head. "No, she knew far too much as it was. Actually, if she hadn't been greedy, I wouldn't have known about her at all. Miles had never mentioned his source. She did me a favor when she called. Even told me where she was. She was asleep when I got there. Probably never felt a thing." He walked across the room and stood in front of the three of us. "No more chitchat. I want that notebook now."
I'd been giving Jimmy the eye. A few discreet eyebrow waggles and we'd agreed. He was the one carrying so he'd go for the goon while I tackled Stebbins. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck prickle and my body tense up for the leap when I saw Jimmy slowly start to reach into his jacket pocket.
But Stebbins was on to us. Suddenly he grabbed Alice and hauled her to her feet by the neck and pulled a gun of his own. "Put it down, Mr. Moto, or I blow her head off."
Well, Mel and I gave each other that look, that "Here we go again" look. There was no way Mel was going to talk us out of this one.
Jimmy held his hands up like he was surrendering. "Don't hurt her." Then he put the gun on the floor and Stebbins kicked it aside.
I watched it glide across the floor and was trying to figure out how to distract the goon long enough to make a dive for it when all of a sudden Alice said, "Don't let that bastard tell you what to do." And then she slammed her high heeled foot down on Stebbins' wingtip with all her might.
Damned if that didn't do the trick. He gave one yell, let her go and pulled the trigger all at the same time. He winged Jimmy in the knee while Mel and I flew in all directions at once. I went after that gun, sliding on my stomach like DiMaggio stealing home and the second I felt it in my hand I flopped over and plugged old Stanley before he could get a shot off. I got him in the shoulder and he dropped his piece like it was hot.
Meanwhile Mel had been a busy little girl too. She's not one for firepower so she just grabbed the nearest solid object at hand, darted around behind Stebbins and smacked him on the head with the prop pyramid. She must have whacked him pretty good because it shattered into little pieces and he went down and stayed down. I tossed Jimmy the other gun and started breathing regular again.
Alice went over to check on Jimmy's leg but I noticed she gave Stebbins a little kick while she was going, kind of like when you find a piece of trash in your way on the sidewalk.
"Thank God, it's not too bad," she announced. Then she went over to the goon and went to work on him next. Must be the training. I would have let him bleed a little first. But Alice was a pro and it didn't seem to matter to her that he'd been willing to kill us five minutes ago. I could just picture her with her helmet on, ducking mortar fire and saving Marines without even mussing her lipstick. My hero, Mel had said. Yeah, I always figured she had guts.
I started rifling through the debris on the floor while Mel called an ambulance. "Well, you wanted it, you got it." I waved the little blue notebook in front of Stebbins' face.
Mel just stared at it. "It was in the pyramid, wasn't it? It was sitting on our desk the whole time."
I tried not to look smug. "I didn't put it all together until just tonight. When you read Archie's logbook. Then it all fell together."
Everybody was looking at me now. I felt like one of those Basil Rathbone movies when Sherlock Holmes gets everybody together in one room and explains how the dirty deed was done. Mel says I like being the center of attention. She's right.
"Archie was the one who got the idea for the blackmail. A little pillow talk from Millie about the job she'd lost and he saw his opportunity. He had her hand over the notebook, made a phone call to Stebbins and then he arranged a meeting at the studio."
I went to the fridge for a beer and sipped while I talked. "But Archie didn't trust Stebbins. So he decided on a little insurance. The Warner's lot was Archie's little supply house. He was used to pilfering little items now and then. Like that lingerie from the wardrobe department. This time he broke into the model shop, hid the notebook inside the pyramid and glued it together again. It was sitting on the desk the whole time they were having their little conference. Hide in plain sight. But Stebbin's buddy killed him before he could make a deal. Or tell them where it was."
Mel put her spin on it next. "And Millie signed her own death warrant when she demanded money. But she didn't know where the goods were either. Millie just wanted enough money to go somewhere and have her baby. She probably offered to keep quiet for a few grand. But she was another loose end that had to be taken care of."
I nodded. "It's funny he chose a pyramid to hide it in.... where the dead were entombed, laid to rest." I shook my head. "Well, maybe now Millie can rest in peace."
Alice was finished with the goon. She stood up and said. "We'd better call the cops."
"No," I said. "Make that the FBI. I've already met the local cops."
It was the wee small hours of the morning when I heard Mel in the kitchen, so I padded out there to see what was what. She had her head in the fridge, looking for a snack. She was chewing on a cold chicken leg when she spotted me and offered me one.
"You're home early."
"Early? It's three o'clock in the morning." She kicked off her shoes, I mean, Lauren Bacall's shoes, and plopped down into a chair.
"Well, if I had a date like that, I wouldn't be back till at least Tuesday. Why are you eating? What, you mean to tell me that Errol Flynn doesn't even spring for dinner when he takes a girl out?" I had been pretty cool about this whole thing but hey, I'm only human and my curiosity was getting the better of me. "Jeez, don't just sit there. Talk to me, girl. Did you have a good time?"
Mel swung her legs up on the opposite chair and I poured us some lemonade to go with the chicken. Mel's eyes were shining like a kid on Christmas day. "We went to El Morocco. Janice, everybody was there. I saw Judy Garland and Lana Turner and I danced with Tyrone Power. He said I was a knockout. Tyrone Power said that. To me. He was so gorgeous, I got all flustered and I said 'you too.' But then Errol tapped him on the shoulder and I danced with him after that."
She took a bite of chicken while I waited for more. None was coming.
"So you had a good time?" I hadn't come out here to watch her eat.
"Louella Parsons followed me into the Ladies' Room. She thought I was an actress and she wanted to know who I was under contract to. I lied and told her Paramount. I told her that they were developing a picture for me all about a warrior princess who rides a golden palomino and fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way."
I got a laugh out of that one. "She believed you?"
Mel nodded. "I think so. We'll have to read her column tomorrow to find out."
"And then what? You didn't talk to Louella Parsons until three o'clock in the morning. Well, spill it, Mel. Is he as good as he looks?"
"Janice! A lady doesn't kiss and tell." Mel gave me that shocked look like she couldn't believe I could stoop so low as to ask such a thing. If it was meant to put me off, it didn't work.
"Mel, when you go out with Fred Neill I'll respect your privacy but we're talking about Errol Flynn here."
Even Mel had to agree that the conditions were extraordinary. "Alright, alright. Truth is, he drank too much and passed out. The chauffeur tossed him in the back seat and drove me home."
There was stunned silence for a minute while I digested that.
"You mean to say you didn't..."
She shook her head. "Not even a good night kiss."
"Imagine that." I picked up a piece of chicken. "Damn."
"You said a mouthful."
We both munched. I shook my head sadly. First the movie job and then the Date Of The Century down the old tubes. Hollywood was just one big disappointment after another.
I was trying to figure out something upbeat to say when Mel broke the silence. She reached for another piece of chicken and asked, "Is Alice awake?"
"No." I said. "Why?"
"Well, if anybody calls up tomorrow and says he's Tyrone Power, she had better not hang up that phone."
That's what I like about Mel. Always the optimist.
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