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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.
THE CASE OF THE HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE:
A Janice and Mel Pulp Novel
Hollywood - 1944
It wasn't like I'd never seen a naked man before. Or a dead one either. But I didn't expect to find the late Archie Miles stretched across my office couch at nine o'clock in the morning naked as a jay bird. I hadn't even had so much as a cup of coffee yet. And it was pretty damned clear from the glassy eyed look on his face that he wasn't going to be joining me for breakfast.
I really need that coffee in the morning. Wakes me up, you know? I'd gone straight to the percolator without looking left or right, just like I always do. I would've missed him entirely if I hadn't heard Mel's voice right behind me.
"Oh my," she said, like she'd just caught a puppy pissing on the rug. That's Mel for you.
Somehow I knew right then that it was going to be some time until I got me a decent cup of coffee.
NUMBER 1: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|I'll String Along With You... Doris Day and Buddy Clark|
Maybe I should go back a ways, fill you in a little. My name is Janice Covington and I'm an archeologist. Well, that's the polite term for it. Mel says the only difference between an archeologist and a grave robber is in how long your subject had been dead. That and what you did with the stuff you dug up. If they'd died last week and you sold it, you were a grave robber. If they'd died three thousand years ago and you sold the stuff to a museum, you were an archeologist.
I met Mel before the war broke out when I'd been on a dig in Mesopotamia. My Dad had sent a letter back to the States to a Professor Mel Pappas asking him to translate some texts we found and she showed up instead, little Melinda, the scholar's daughter. I was a little ticked off at first but I had to admit she had chutzpah, though you wouldn't know it to look at her. All soft Southern accents, Little Miss Innocent face. The kind of woman who usually breaks out in a sweat if her nail polish chips. But Mel turned out to be a pretty tough cookie. And she knew her onions when it came to ancient texts too.
We make a pretty good team. I'm the one with the field experience. My Dad, Harry Covington, had brought me along with him to every dig he'd been on since I was a little girl. I grew up learning how to handle myself in less than ladylike situations. I've got skills you don't learn in school and they haven't let me down yet. Mel's the opposite. She grew up on college campuses and knows what fork to use when you eat in those places where they give you more than one to choose from. Her grammar is always correct and you know she probably got all A's in school. Usually that kind annoys the hell out of me but Mel is different. She gets a wicked little gleam in her eye sometimes when you least expect it and then she says and does things that seem to come out of left field. You can never quite pin her down.
What we do have in common is our obsession with the Xena Scrolls and a determination to find out the truth about the woman warrior Xena and the bard Gabrielle who recorded their adventures together. Mel and I believe that Xena was a hero as great as Hercules but that she just never got her due. Well, it was time to change all that. We'd got a good start in Mesopotamia but the war had put a stop to all that pretty quick. First Rommel had driven his tanks all over the desert sand where I wanted to dig and then, as for Greece, well, we'd have to wait until Hitler's boys cleared the area before Mel and I could go back there with a shovel.
Since we couldn't work, Mel talked me into collaborating with her on a paper about Xena and the scrolls we had found. I don't know, maybe it was because of the war and all those women in uniform but it went over pretty well. We gave lectures at NYU and in Chicago and I figured it was a good way to finance our next project. And it had been a long time since I had been home in the good old U. S. of A.
That's when the offer to lecture at UCLA came in. Good money, good weather, good deal for the both of us. And then after we'd done the last lecture, we got another offer. An agent from Warner Brothers asked us if we'd work as consultants on a big budget, high class film about gods, goddesses and ancient Greece. I was skeptical but Mel was all ears while he ran through his line of malarkey.
There's a war going on, he said, as if we hadn't noticed. Everybody's looking for a hero. It's about the Twelve Labors of Hercules. A Costume epic. Not your cheesy B movie stuff. Maybe get a really big name for the lead. I'm thinking maybe John Wayne if we can get him into a toga. No kiddin'. We want to do this up right, he said. A prestige film, the kind of thing that brings home an Oscar. Mel had a dozen questions but I had only one. And when he finally told me how much they'd pay us, I'd just nodded my head. In amazement.
For all her playing hard to get, I think Mel wanted to do it even more than I did. All I cared about was those little dollar signs shining in my eyes but Mel was excited about being in Hollywood and rubbing elbows with movie stars. Come to find out, she reads Modern Screen and Photoplay and knows all the stars, what's new at the movies, who's playing around. She looks like a sophisticated academic but there's nothing she loves better than to pass an afternoon at the pictures with a double feature, a newsreel, four cartoons and a serial. Oh, and enough popcorn and jujubes to get her through it all.
Me, I don't go to movies much. Mel dragged me to a theater in Cairo once where they were playing Gone With the Wind but she got all put out when she found out the voices had been dubbed locally. They'd got some squeaky voiced guy to do Rhett Butler and I laughed my head off through the whole thing. You ain't lived until you've heard "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" coming out of Clark Gable's mouth in squeaky Arabic. Then again, Mel says that's my philosophy of life anyway.
Knows me like a book, she does.
NUMBER 2: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|California Here I Come - Benny Goodman Orchestra|
It was a nice little bungalow and I checked out the orange tree in the back yard while Mel knocked on the door.
"Coming. Hang on." A tall brunette opened the door a crack and the chain from the deadbolt stretched across her face like a scar. The door closed again and then Alice Brent opened it full wide and gave Mel a hug. "Melinda! God, it's been years. Come on in." She ushered us in, smiling the whole while. "I was so glad to hear from you. It's been a while since I was back East. I think the last time was your Daddy's funeral and that was back in '39." She gestured to the sofa and we put down our bags and settled in. "And you must be Janice. Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too. Thanks for putting us up." She had a pretty firm handshake and her smile looked genuine enough.
"My pleasure. You need a place to stay and I don't think there's an apartment to be had, what with all the defense workers flooding in. I've got plenty of room. You should have called me as soon as you got to California." She disappeared into the kitchen and came out with a pitcher of lemonade and some glasses.
Mel leaned back and stretched out her long legs, already at home. "The University put us up in the dorm. But I was going to call you anyway before we left...."
I sat back and listened to the two of them chatter for a while. Mel was all bubbly, asking about old friends, catching up on marriages, babies, all that chitchat. Her friend Alice was quiet, careful in her movements and gestures, almost as if she were the guest here and not us. She was the perfect hostess, bringing out little paper napkins and cookies to go with the lemonade. But behind it all there was a kind of tension in her face that I couldn't quite put my finger on. She was pale and thin, like someone just getting over a bad time and I wondered if staying here was such a hot idea after all.
"Alice's Daddy was a history professor who'd gone to school with my Daddy. They used to come visit all the time until Dr. Brent got the job out here in California." Mel was talking to me and I nodded my head as if I was interested in all this. Gotta be polite. Alice was my landlord now.
Mel took a swig of lemonade. "Remember Joey Flanagan? Joey knocked me down and stole my bike one day on the playground and Alice followed him home, beat him up and got my bike back. My hero." They both laughed and I wondered how Joey had explained that to the other guys. "And now you're a real hero."
Alice stiffened and her face paled like someone had pulled a plug somewhere in her throat where the color was kept. She looked away from Mel and fussed with the cookies. Mel kept chattering away. "Alice was a Navy nurse in the Pacific. In the last few years shes hopped from one island to another just one step behind the Marines. And even under heavy enemy fire, her unit lost only four percent of the wounded. My Mom sent me a clipping when they gave her the Bronze Star on Guadalcanal." Mel smiled at her, unaware of how Alice was taking all this, I thought.
"Are you on leave now?" It wasn't any of my business but maybe I could cut this topic short and put her out of her misery.
"I got a medical discharge a few months ago. Malaria." She didn't look at either one of us. It could have been just modesty. Lots of people don't like talking about themselves, even when it's something you could brag about. "I'm fine now." She looked up at me and then at Mel. Tight little smile. "I'm working as an industrial nurse in a defense plant not far from here. Somebody wants to look like Veronica Lake and next thing you know, her hair's caught up in the machinery." She shrugged. "Most of the time I just pass out aspirins and Band-Aids."
"A far cry from Guadalcanal."
"There's a lot to be said for the quiet life."
I nodded. I guess she'd earned a little peace and quiet but there had to be something in between Hell in the Pacific and handing out Anacins to hung over factory workers. The place was tidy, maybe too tidy, like Alice had nothing better to do than to clean it up all the time. And the curtains were drawn even though it was the kind of California day they make postcards out of. I looked at Mel. For all her chatter, she hadn't missed a trick. She had that wise old woman look of hers and I figured Little Miss Fixit would be opening those curtains before long.
She leaned over and squeezed Alice's hand. "Well, keep a couple of evenings free for kicking up your heels. I've never been to Hollywood before and you, Janice and I are going to paint the town red at least once before we leave. Sometimes you need a little excitement just to get your blood circulating."
Tell that one to Archie Miles.
NUMBER 3: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|He Just Don't Appeal To Me - Duke Ellington Orchestra|
I'd met Archie our first day at Warner's. The studio was a big place, tough to get into, easy to get lost in. The old guard at the gate checked our names off a list on a big clipboard and looked us up and down before letting us through. He was a big red faced Irishman and he looked like an ex-cop to me. Mel was craning her neck to get a peek past the security booth, like a kid standing in front of a candy store with a nickel burning a hole in her pocket.
"Do we get a badge or something?" Mel was all but hopping on one foot.
"I can give you a sticker for your car if you want." He bit into his doughnut and wiped the crumbs from his lips with the back of his hand.
"We don't have a car." Pretty obvious, I thought, since he'd watched us walk up to the booth from the bus stop.
"Don't worry, Toots. I never forget a face." Then he gave us directions to our new office and waved us on through but it wasn't Mel's face he memorized as he watched her walk past.
Maybe it was just me. I was in a bad mood. I hadn't had my coffee yet and that always makes me cranky. Alice had told us to help ourselves but I felt a little funny about rummaging around her kitchen. So I thanked Jack and all the other little Warner boys when we got to the bungalow next to Writer's Alley and I saw the coffeepot sitting next to the desk. We were early so Mel decided to take a walk and get a good look around while I got the coffee going.
I never even heard him walk up to the door.
"I see you've made yourself at home. Archie Miles. I'm the studio detective. It's my job to check out all the newcomers."
And check me out he did. So I took a little inventory myself. He was good looking, I'll give him that. He had a dapper little mustache, dark wavy hair and brown eyes with that sleepy look that made you think of bedrooms even in bright sunshine at nine o'clock in the morning. He wore khaki pants and a jersey that was a little too tight to be fashionable but just tight enough to show off his build. And it was worth showing off. He gave me a slow smile and raised his eyebrows just enough for me to wonder if it was a greeting or a question.
Well, if it was a question, I had a feeling the answer would be no. I knew his kind. Trouble in a tweed jacket. Somebody had hired him as the studio dick and he had taken them at their word. Maybe five years ago I would have taken him on just for the fun of it but I like a little challenge nowadays.
He plopped himself down on the sofa and made himself comfortable. "They tell me you're the new consultant on the Hercules picture. I woulda thought a looker like you would be in it instead. Who knows, meet the right people and you could be the next Alexis Smith." He pulled a little pouch out of his jacket pocket and started to roll a cigarette. "I could give you a little advice, if you want. I see 'em come and go all the time. But you, I bet you got what it takes."
I almost laughed out loud. The pick up line, the smokes - it was just too much for me to take with a straight face. It was easy enough to buy a pack of Camels but rolling his own was just a way to get my attention. He held the white rectangle of paper half folded in one hand while he held the pouch above it and tapped it with one finger. The tobacco fell into place and he casually rolled the thin paper between his fingers until it was a long slender cylinder. He ran his fingers along the length of the cigarette and his eyes met mine as he ever so slowly ran his tongue along the edge of the end paper before he folded it down.
Oh for Crissakes, I thought.
"How's about you and me have a little dinner sometime? We could get a couple of burgers, maybe take in a show." He leaned forward and gave me the full hundred watt smile.
There was a little tiny bit of tobacco stuck to the bottom of his moustache and I couldn't pull my eyes away from it. Every time he moved his lips I expected it to fall down onto his chin and I didn't want to miss that. I smiled in anticipation.
The smile was a mistake. God's Gift to Women smiled back at me. "Maybe you're the more adventurous type. Tell you what, we can go to my place, send out for some Chinese and not take in a show." The smile was a leer now and you could just tell he was feeling lucky.
I remember a couple of years ago I had been trying to sweet-talk a sheik into letting me dig for the Scrolls in pretty much his own backyard. He'd invited me to dinner to talk it over and the specialty of the house was goat meat. But first he offered me an appetizer, a pickled camel's eye. I ate the damned thing and I think that's what won him over. Well, I looked at that smarmy expression on Archie Miles' face and figured dinner with the sheik was a lot more enticing than a couple of burgers with the studio dick, let alone sending out for Chinese and not taking in a show.
I shook my head. "No thanks."
Archie could roll with the punches. He lit up, puffed on his cigarette and sized me up through a cloud of smoke. "What's the matter, doll? You're not afraid of me, are you?"
I could have played the game. I could have given some lame excuse about being too busy or having a fiancé overseas. But then, why the hell do that?
"No, Archie. I just don't like you."
He laughed and got up to go. I shook my head. Archie was one of those guys who figure there's two kinds of women. Those who wanted him and told him so and those who wanted him but wouldn't admit it right away. He obviously had me catalogued in the second group.
He stopped at the door just as Mel was coming in. "I'll see you later, sweetheart. Maybe I can change your mind. You look like a little spitfire to me and I never did go for those girl next door types."
He puffed on his cigarette again and stood in the doorway long enough for me to get the full effect. His eyes traveled up and down and it didn't take much savvy to know he was what they call undressing me with his eyes. I hope he enjoyed it because it was the only way it was ever going to happen.
He left and Mel swooped in with a guy named Fred. He was about twenty five or so and it was easy to see how come he'd missed the draft. He weighed about eighty pounds and had a pair of glasses on so thick that they made Coca Cola bottles look fragile.
"Good Morning, Miss Covington. I'm Fred Neill. I'm the Production Assistant on the Hercules picture." He stuck out his hand and the glasses slipped a little down his nose. I reached out for a handshake but now he'd lifted his fingers to push his glasses back up. I brought my hand back to my lap just as he stuck his hand out again. I stuck my hand out again and this time we finally connected. I was starting to feel a little like Laurel and Hardy. With me as Hardy.
Mel sat down on the sofa and tucked her legs underneath her body. The coffee was ready and I poured out a couple of cups for Mel and me. When I offered Fred a cup, he shook his head no and dragged in a big cardboard box full of junk. Getting right down to business. I like that. A welcome change from Archie Miles. He'd been getting down to business too. Monkey business.
Fred pushed his glasses back up his nose again. "Your job will be to go over the script and look for inconsistencies. You know, mistakes in the production details, costumes, props, and things like that. This will be your office and if there's anything you need, just let me know. Actually, we're a little behind schedule and right now there's really not much for you to do until the first draft of the script is ready. I do have some sketches of the costumes and the model shop has been working on the props. Maybe you can take a look at those for starters." He sat down beside Mel, took his glasses off completely and started cleaning them with a big white handkerchief he pulled out of his pocket.
"You're paying us all this money just to make sure your pyramid is shaped right?" Mel looked at him in wonder.
He shook his head. "You'd be surprised. It's not like it used to be in the old days. You could get away with murder then. But now the audiences are just too damn fussy. They pay attention to every little detail. My first project here at Warner's was a World War I movie last year. We had this scene where the hero comes home on leave before being shipped out to France and he takes his girlfriend dancing. Would you believe we got two hundred angry letters telling us that the song they were dancing to was wrong? It hadn't been written until 1922. How could they be dancing to it in 1918? I ask you, who gives a rat's patootie? Haven't these people got anything better to do? We work for weeks getting this big emotional romantic scene put together and all they're worried about is when Irving Berlin wrote the background music. Jeez." He put his glasses back on. "I got my ass chewed out for that one. I'm not getting caught again." He got up to leave and gave us a nervous little smile. "All right ladies, just make yourselves at home."
Well, for a home away from home, it wasn't half bad. I went through the drawers of the big walnut desk and they were full of pens, pencils, and paper with the WB logo. There was a phone on top of a fancy humidor that was stocked with cigarettes, matches and all types of cigars, including those little ones that I liked. There was a Remington typewriter on top of the desk and I gestured to Mel. That would be her job. I'm a one finger typist but she can belt out ninety words a minute without even looking. I can't even talk that fast.
There was a fruit basket on a little side table that must have been delivered too early because the bananas had little brown polka dots on them. I started to peel an orange that was half as big as my face and plopped down next to Mel on the big comfy sofa.
"What do you think, Mel?"
"Janice, I think this is one time we just fell into a pot of jam. It's almost too good to be true. Seems they got so much money they don't know what to do with it. If they're going to throw it in our direction, we might as well take it and run."
She got up and dumped the contents of the cardboard box on the desk. It seemed to be full of odds and ends. There was a big beige paper mache pyramid, a model of a chariot and the horses to pull it, several drawings of characters in ancient dress and sketches of what looked to be pretty anachronistic medieval armor. What had looked like a professional office now looked more like a kid's toybox. I guess it was appropriate. Everybody here was playing make believe anyway.
Fine with me. As long as the checks were real.
NUMBER 4: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|Hooray for Hollywood - Francis Langford|
We fiddled with the props and sketches for a while and then we decided to wander around a little. If Mel thought the office seemed unreal, it was nothing next to the WB lot. You'd be walking down what looked like Main Street USA and suddenly it turned into saloons, storefronts and the OK Corral. There was even a herd of horses, all of them big and beautiful, right on the lot, just a little walking distance from Hollywood Boulevard. I had to pull Mel's arm to get her away from there. Mel loves horses.
Everywhere you looked there were big warehouse-like buildings called soundstages, where they were filming. There were little red lights above the doors that said whether or not you could go in and they raised all kinds of hell if you stumbled onto the set while they were working. Anyhow, Mel and I figured we'd sneak into one of those for a looksee later.
Mel was having the time of her life and I had to admit I was getting a kick out of it too. The lot was filled with extras milling around and Mel kept staring at everybody hoping she'd see someone she knew. Around lunchtime we found ourselves in front of the Commissary and in the blink of an eye Mel was pulling on my arm and dragging me through the door. Mel's got a good six inches and thirty pounds on me so I couldn't have refused even if I'd wanted.
It was like any other cafeteria I'd ever eaten in except for the customers. There were about forty Indians, twenty cowboys and a schoolmarm or two ahead of us in line. A guy wrapped up like a mummy was standing in front of me and a guy in a vampire cape was next to him. I wondered how he was going to chew his food with those teeth and I tried to be discreet as I watched him sit down at one of the tables. But he sat down with his back to me so I just got myself a chicken salad sandwich and a grape Nehi and then I sat down next to Mel. But she was so damned excited she could hardly eat.
"Look. Look over there." Her eyes were blue half dollars. I'd seen her stare down Nazi gunmen and she'd hardly mussed her hair. But this was something else. "It's Humphrey Bogart. And I think that's Lauren Bacall he's eating with. Oh my."
I cast an eye in their direction. I couldn't see Bacall too well. She had her head bent over telling him some story or other and her hair fell across her face. But Bogie was hanging on her every word like he'd just fallen off the Titanic and she was a life preserver. They made an unlikely couple. She was a long drink of water and I bet she'd tower over him when they got up. He didn't look like he minded though.
Mel whispered like it was a secret. "They're doing a movie together, 'To Have and Have Not.'"
I whispered back, "I'll bet that's not all they're doing together."
Mel looked at me, shocked. "Janice! He's old enough to be her father."
Well, that look in his eye didn't look too fatherly to me but what do I know? She's the one who reads movie magazines. She almost choked when she noticed Bette Davis and for the next half hour I tried to eat my sandwich while she cocked her head in every possible direction to point out actors and actresses I wouldnt have known from Adam.
But even I recognized Errol Flynn when she spotted him. He was dressed in a blue cavalryman's uniform and he was drop dead gorgeous. Mel's jaw dropped down to her chest so fast I thought it would disengage from her face. I wouldn't have been surprised if her glasses had started to steam up like in those cartoons Warner's was famous for. But she caught herself and in a couple of minutes she was dignified again.
"Janice. Can you believe it? Errol Flynn. I'm in the same room with Errol Flynn."
"Yes, Mel. Even I recognize Errol Flynn. You know, I think he looks even better in person. Wow, I wouldn't send him out on a rainy night." I put my lips together like I was going to wolf whistle and Mel slapped my arm with her napkin.
She leaned forward and confessed, "I saw "Captain Blood" four times. And "Robin Hood" six times. Janice, I want to get his autograph. What do you think? Should I?"
He was standing next to the door and I didn't know if he was coming or going. "Well, this could be your only chance. I think he's leaving."
I watched her get up. She gave her skirt a little tug and wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and then she marched right up to him as if she wanted to get there before she lost her nerve. The door was quite a ways off and I couldn't make out what they were saying. It was sort of like watching a silent movie.
She's a tall one, Mel is, and she and Flynn stood eye to eye for a minute. He'd been lounging against a wall, talking to someone but he stood up straight when he saw Mel. Even in a roomful of movie stars, she stuck out. She gave him a smile and he flashed his pearly whites right back at her, dimple and all. They chatted a little bit and then Mel started fishing in her purse, probably for something for him to write on. Well, damned if all of a sudden I don't see him lean up against her and cop a feel. Yep, right in the old Commissary. Well, half a second later I see Mel's purse make a perfect circle in the air and wham, it connects with the top of Errol Flynn's head. He wobbled a little but I guess he's a lot stronger than he looks 'cause he managed to stay on his feet.
She marched back with fire in her eyes and I was about to make a crack when I thought better of it. I finished off my grape Nehi and pointed out Frederick March all decked out like Mark Twain, sitting by himself and eating a Whoopie Pie. She gave him a quick glance and turned back to her salad.
I couldn't help myself. "Maybe if you ask nice, he'll give you an autograph."
If looks could kill...
NUMBER 5: ON THE HIT PARADE
|Don't Fence Me In...Bing Crosby|
But it wasn't a dirty look that had sent Archie Miles to that great detective agency in the sky. Like I say, I was heading for the coffee percolator when Mel found him. One look and I knew it wasn't worth the time to take his pulse. He was deader than a mackerel, to be blunt about it, and naked as the day he was born. Force of habit, I gave him the once over and figured I hadn't missed much sending him on his way the week before.
Someone had strangled him with a pair of stockings and left him on our sofa. The rest of the room was pretty tidy, except for Archie of course, and there were no signs of a struggle. There were no bruises on the body and his clothes were folded in a neat little pile on the floor. I briefly wondered what the cleaning lady had thought of all this. Rinse the cups, empty the ash trays, dust around the corpse... Nah. It was Monday morning, she'd probably cleaned up on Friday after we'd left. From the looks of it, Archie had been dead for about twelve hours so she must have missed all the excitement.
"Janice, we'd better call somebody and report this." Mel tugged my sleeve and started pulling me back toward the office door. "And we'd better not touch anything either."
I looked longingly at the coffee percolator. So near and yet so far.
She shook her head. "What a waste."
"Archie? Well, no one deserves that but he was pretty much of a creep, if you ask me."
She shook her head sadly. "Not him. The hosiery. It looks like real silk to me."
Mel would notice a thing like that. It wasn't easy getting stockings during wartime, let alone silk ones. It didn't bother me as much as it did Mel since I wear slacks most of the time. I'd heard that some girls had taken to drawing a line down the backs of their legs with an eyebrow pencil trying to fake a seam. Oh well, like they say, War is Hell.
~~~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~
Sgt. Mundy of the L. A. Police and I did not hit it off. The cops had escorted Mel and me to headquarters and let us stew there for at least an hour before anybody said a word to us. I begged one of the boys in blue to get me a cup of java and I was taking in the aroma when Mundy came in and spoiled my moment of joy. He was a tall skinny guy with a long pointy nose like a ferret. He had on a wrinkled gray suit and a bow tie. I hate bow ties. He didn't say anything at first, just stood there looking. Then he sent Mel out the door and scowled at me like he was the high school principal and I'd been caught smoking in the Girl's Room.
"Covington, huh? You're in big trouble, little lady. Murder is pretty serious business and you're up to your neck in it."
I shrugged. Some detective. What cheesy pulp novel had he gotten those lines out of? It was going to be a real challenge matching wits with this one. I took a sip of coffee. "Somebody dumped a body on my couch. Seems to me who I need to talk to is an upholsterer, not a cop."
"Don't get smart with me, sister. What was going on with you and Archie Miles?"
"Nothing. He was the studio detective and I work there, that's all." I pulled a Camel out of my purse and one of the blues leaned over with a match. Mundy gave him a dirty look and the poor guy jumped back like he'd been slapped.
"You trying to tell me he never put the make on you? We asked around. Seems old Archie had the hots for you."
"He wasn't my type. Besides, what business is that of yours? He didn't die of a broken heart. Looked to me like somebody strangled him." I could be generous with my insights. I turned away from him and smiled at the cop who'd given me a light. He seemed like a nice guy. Good looking too.
Mundy bent over and stuck his mug two inches away from mine. He needed a shave. "Could be you did it."
I laughed out loud and blew smoke into the space between us. "Why would I do that? I hardly knew the man. And how could I? Archie was six feet tall and built. Did I overpower him in hand to hand combat, do you think? There wasn't a mark on him."
He sat back and looked at me like he had all the answers already. "Maybe he was willing to go a little hand to hand with you. Maybe there was a reason he wasn't struggling."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I was losing patience.
"Archie had a bet going with some stagehands that he could get you into the sack in a week's time. I'm thinking he was about to win his bet, that you two were going at it and just got a little carried away. Some guys like that weird stuff."
"And then I just left him there? C'mon Mundy. Even if I had killed him, I wouldn't be stupid enough to leave him stretched out on my office couch. Like I said, he wasn't my type and furthermore, I don't need to strangle my boyfriends when I want to take their breath away." The cop who'd given me a light put his hand up to his mouth to cover up a smile and I gave him a wink. "Besides, it's hard enough to get a pair of silk stockings. I certainly wouldn't waste them on a heel like Archie Miles."
We glowered at one another for a while and then Mel came back with Alice. Seems her friend was ready to put up bail if they arrested me. But a couple of minutes later Fred Neill showed up with a studio lawyer and he had just the clout I needed. He took Mundy aside into a corner of the room and they bent their heads together. The shyster was smooth, very smooth. I couldn't make out all the words but I heard the name "Mr. Warner" mentioned a couple of times.
Mundy was coming around. He went from nasty to confused to scared in about three minutes. Then the lawyer shook his hand and left. I was getting a pretty clear picture of who had the real power in the neighborhood. The studios called the shots and I don't just mean on the soundstage. If a consultant from Warner's could rate such attention, I could only imagine what a star at MGM could get away with. It was a little scary, when you looked at it like that.
"Am I under arrest?" I knew damn well I wasn't but I wanted to hear him say it.
"Not yet. But don't think we ain't gonna check out your alibi. Where were you last night?" He was still going to go through the motions.
"My friends and I went to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Artie Shaw. Talk to the guy at the Box Office, he'll remember us. Just mention Mel there. Also, you might want to talk to the usher for the orchestra section. He'll remember us too." I must have sounded pretty cocky but I figured the whole Artie Shaw Orchestra would remember if the cops asked them.
Mel has that effect on men. Even with those black rimmed glasses she wears. It could be a pain in the ass except for the fact that she's usually blissfully unaware of it. It's just some chemical thing. Every time I go to a party with her, men suddenly appear out of nowhere and hover like bugs around a porch light. She sits there rattling on about the last days of Pompeii or something and they're all fighting to sit next to her, like they can't wait to hear how the story ends. Half those jokers wouldn't know the Rosetta stone from a kidney stone but you wouldn't know it to look at them hang on her every word. Of course, it can come in handy. She can hail a cab quicker than anybody I know.
Well, I didn't feel like sticking around so while Mel talked to Fred and the lawyer, Alice and I went outside and got into her little yellow Crosley. She must have got out of work to come down here and I figured she'd be annoyed. But she didn't look mad, just a little nervous. Maybe she'd never been in a police station before.
We'd been living in her house for a week and I still didn't know what to make of Alice Brent. She was a good hostess, pleasant and generous. Helluva good cook too. She was quiet and didn't talk much, didn't ask questions, didn't butt into your business. She went to work, came home, had supper and went to bed early. Maybe too early. I'm a nightowl myself and more than once I'd heard her poking around in the middle of the night. I'd got up once myself figuring she'd like a little company but she just got flustered and apologized for waking me up. She said it must have been something she ate and then she headed back to her room.
Not exactly a social butterfly, Alice. I'd got the tickets so that we could all go hear Artie Shaw and Mel had dragged her to the movies a couple of times. I figured they might want to reminisce about old times so I'd stayed home, reading Life Magazine and listening to her old records on the phonograph. Most nights we just listened to the radio. She liked Jack Benny and The Shadow but I noticed that she took off when I tuned in to the war news. Had enough of it, I guess.
I tried to make a little chitchat. "Thanks, Alice. It's not everyone who's willing to post bail for a stranger."
She gave me a half smile and shrugged. "Melinda trusts you and that's good enough for me. Besides, you were in trouble and I couldn't just stand by doing nothing." She said it casually, matter of fact.
That was the key, I guess. It explained a lot - why she'd helped me out, why she'd got Mel's bike back, why she'd gone overseas. I wanted to like Alice. She was Mel's friend and a war hero, someone who had enough guts to stick her neck out and save men's lives without bragging about it. But I couldn't get over the feeling that something wasn't quite right. Maybe there was a reason why she and I just didn't hit it off. I couldn't understand it myself. I'm usually so damned lovable.
I dug into my pocket and found a pack of Wrigley's Spearmint. I offered her a stick but she shook her head. "You know, Alice, I got a friend Marty who was on Guadalcanal. Lost a leg but you guys patched him up pretty good. He's married now, got a kid on the way. Thanks to you." I popped the gum into my mouth and waited for to Mel come out of the police station.
She nodded and looked away. "I'm glad your friend's okay." Then nothing.
The silence in the Crosley was getting on my nerves. I figured I'd give the friendly guest thing just one last try. "And you know, Mel's real proud of you. I can't tell you how glad she was to hear you'd come home safe and sound."
She almost snorted like I'd said something funny. Then she caught herself. "Well, Melinda and I used to be close when we were kids. I could tell her anything." She got this kind of strained look on her face and I got the feeling she was wishing she and Mel were sitting back on Mel's Daddy's porch swapping secrets and giggling right now.
But then it was gone and her face was a blank again. Well, if she couldn't talk to Mel anymore, she sure as hell wasn't going to talk to me. I was pretty relieved when I saw Mel come out to the police station and wave bye to Fred. She climbed into the car, Alice put it into first and without another word she drove us back to Warner's.
NUMBER 6: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|No Love, No Nothin' - Patti Dugan, Johnny Long And His Orchestra|
The news about Archie's murder was buried on one of the back pages of the L.A. Times that night. I picked up a paper on the way home from the studio and spread it out over the kitchen table while Alice peeled potatoes and Mel pounded the hell out of some cube steak. I started reading the article out loud when Alice suddenly pointed her knife at it.
"I know him. I didn't connect the name with the face until now." She bent over the picture and Mel came up beside her. "He came to the plant a while ago with a camera crew to take pictures. They rounded up some of the girls, you know, the real good looking ones, and said that they were going to take photos and make pinups of them to send overseas. I remember it because they made such a fuss over one girl in particular, Norma Jean something or other. They took lots of pictures of her, said she ought to be in the movies, that she was a natural. I think she got some modeling jobs out of it."
"That the only time you saw him?"
"No. He came back later by himself. I think he'd just tagged along with the camera crew to meet the girls. It wasn't hard to figure out that he was just on the make. He'd pick out a girl, talk to her, tell her he could get her on the lot, introduce her to agents, casting directors." Alice shook her head and went back to peeling her potatoes.
"Anything ever come of it?" I was curious, having heard his line myself.
"I don't know. I saw him around but I wasn't on his list." Alice shook her head as if the idea was absurd. It wasn't. She wasn't bad looking at all. Archie would have tried his luck with her if she'd looked interested or if there hadn't been so many other easy pigeons around. "I wouldn't be surprised if someone did fall for it. But I couldn't say. They come to me with broken fingers. Somebody breaks their hearts, it's not my problem."
~~~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~
The next day at the studio nobody seemed to be exactly in mourning for Archibald Miles. O'Brien, the guard at the gate, made some crack about how we should keep our office a little neater, you never knew what you'd find laying around and if we kept this up, the cleaning crew would probably want a raise.
Fred Neill didn't seem to be bothered much by it either. I'd thanked him for coming down to headquarters and getting me off the hook, but he just shrugged. "Not a big deal. Just part of my job. I don't think the cops will bother you any more." He pushed his glasses back up his nose and blinked at me like an owl. "Chances are, knowing Archie, it was probably just somebody's husband or boyfriend."
After Fred had gone, Mel started drumming her fingers on the desktop. "You know, Janice, it seems to me that nobody is very interested in finding out what really happened here. The studio is keeping it quiet and the police are useless." She looked at me with that little antsy expression that she has sometimes when she's just itching to poke her nose, or I should say, our noses, where they don't belong.
"Why should I care if no one else does?" Even I knew that I was only putting up a token resistance. All that peace and quiet at Alice's house was getting on my nerves and there was nothing much to do here except kill time until the writers got that script ready. Truth of it was, I was getting as bored as Mel was.
And then, just like it was part of some celestial plan or something, the phone rang. Fred was on the line and told us to sit tight, that the new studio dick would be coming by to talk to us. Just humor him, he said. He's stepping into Archie's shoes and this is one guy who's gonna have to prove himself to stay there. Mel and I were a little surprised by that line. Archie didn't exactly seem like Dick Tracy, Foe of the Underworld, and I figured filling his shoes would be pretty easy for just about anybody with half a brain.
But when I answered the knock on the door, I understood what Fred had meant.
"Good Morning, Miss Pappas, Miss Covington. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me this morning." He nodded his head politely to each of us. "I believe Mr. Neill has told you I'd be coming by. Kawahara, James Kawahara. I'll be taking over Archie Miles' job."
"Sit down, Mr. Kawahara, take a load off. Cup of coffee?" I glanced at Mel and got some cups. I was a little surprised to find out the new man was a Nisei. Don't get me wrong. I don't give a damn what color anybody is and I've lived in enough countries and met enough people to know that there's heroes and bastards everywhere regardless of how they're gift wrapped. We're all just human and that's about the worst thing you can say about anybody.
But Warner's was the whitest place I'd been in for years. You didn't see any Negroes, Indians, or Orientals anywhere. Whenever they needed somebody to play Geronimo or Fu Manchu they'd just slap on a little Max Factor and figure you wouldn't know the difference. As for Negroes, I think they had one guy hidden away somewhere and they just pulled him out when they needed a Pullman porter. It was stupid, if you ask me. Maybe someday when the movies noticed how the real world worked, I might go to them more often.
Well, he smiled and I figured he was relieved that we weren't going to give him a rough time. He was dressed in a natty blue suit and the creases in his pants were sharp enough to slice bread. He was good looking in a short guy Alan Ladd way and he carried himself like he could hold his own in a fight if he had to. And he probably had to pretty often, with a face that looked like the Bad Guy in half the movies they made around here.
Mel moved over and made him some room on the couch and in about five minutes she had worked the Pappas Magic on him. He'd come in to ask us a few questions and before the coffee got cold, Jimmy...he was Jimmy already... told her his life story. How he had grown up in California, been overseas with the 442nd in Africa and Italy, how he was going to night school at UCLA studying pre-law. Mel was going on how her Daddy had gone to night school at Columbia when I figured enough was enough.
"How long had you worked for Archie?"
He pulled himself away from Mel's baby blues with an effort and looked at me with an "Archie who?" expression. He took a swallow of coffee and got back on track. "Almost a year. Archie owed me a favor and when the job came up, he put in a good word for me. I appreciated it then and I figure I owe him now."
Well, it was a generous way of looking at it. I figured Archie had made what he thought was a smart move hiring a young, eager pre-law student to do all the dirty work while he went tom-catting around the Warner's lot. Well, I guess any way you can get your foot in the door. Anyway, Jimmy seemed like a nice guy and he was anxious to make good.
Aside from a few security guards, there wasn't exactly a vast network of investigators at Warner Brothers to look into things like strangulations so we offered to give him a hand. He looked a little reluctant to accept but I reminded him that so far I was the only suspect the cops had and if they got desperate enough, they could make my life pretty miserable, alibi or no. We could help each other out.
To make a long story short, after twenty minutes and a little trip in Jimmy's ancient DeSoto, we were standing in the hallway in front of Archie Miles' apartment. Jimmy had some keys that he had found in Archie's locker and we decided to nose around and see what we could find. But try as he might, none of the damned keys would work.
"Let me give it a try," Mel offered. Jimmy stepped back politely but I could see on his face he figured she wouldn't have any better luck than he'd had. He didn't know Mel. She stepped up to the door and reached up and pulled a bobby pin out of her hair. Well, those raven tresses just tumbled to her shoulders and she gave her head a little shake. I've seen strong men tremble at the sight but right now she had serious business on her mind. She bent over and stuck the bobby pin in the lock and fiddled with it for all of three seconds. That's about how long it was before the door swung open and she stepped back to let us in.
"It's a trick my godfather taught me when I was a little girl," she confided. She was a woman of many skills but you had to wonder about Mel's family life sometimes.
We started looking around for anything that could tell us a little more about the private life of Archie Miles, studio detective. Archie must have eaten out a lot. The fridge was pretty empty and the kitchen stove looked like it hadn't been touched in years. The place smelled of beer and there were lots of take out containers in the trash. I began to appreciate Alice Brent's domestic skills just a little bit more.
The living room was pretty neat for a single guy and there were some shirts and pants from the drycleaners laid out on his bed. Jimmy was going through the bureau drawers and finding nothing that he didn't expect to see. I almost tripped over a stack of girlie books shoved under the bed but that was nothing I didn't expect to see either.
There didn't seem anything out of the ordinary. No incriminating pictures or papers, no threatening letters. If Archie had an enemy, there was no proof of it here. We had hit the most likely hiding spots and were about to do a more thorough search when I thought I heard a noise and shushed everyone.
There was somebody at the door, somebody who had a better key than we did. We slipped back into the living room and I saw Jimmy reach into his inside jacket pocket, just in case. My hand was already in my purse resting on my own insurance policy when his eyes met mine. We both nodded.
"Who the hell are you?" She was about thirty or so and just the sort that you figure would have a key to Archie's apartment. It had been a long time since she'd had a blush on her cheek that she hadn't put there herself. Her dress was tight and wrinkled like she had just rolled out of bed and there was a black dahlia over her ear like Billie Holliday. I figured she thought it was glamorous or exotic. But she just looked tired to me. Tired and scared.
Jimmy took his hand out of his jacket, fished an ID out of his wallet and introduced himself. "I'm Archie's replacement at Warner's. And these are special consultants working there with me." Not an outright lie. "We're looking into the circumstances surrounding his death. And you are...?"
"His girlfriend. Betty. I just come to pick up the things belong to me, that's all. I figure the landlord is going to go through all his stuff anyway so I better get what's mine." She sat down in a beat up easy chair. She didn't look too broken up over her loss. Easy come, easy go, I guess.
"Know him long?" Jimmy's voice was low, calming.
"Two years. We was going to get married." She looked me in the eye. I must have looked a little skeptical. "I ain't snowing you. We was going to South America. To Rio. Archie made me get a passport and everything. Look, he even had the plane tickets bought already. He gave them to me when we went out on Saturday night." She reached into her purse and held the PanAm tickets out in her hands. She shook her head sadly. "Archie always said when he come into a little money that was what we was going to do. Living is cheap down there. We could get a house, maybe even have servants."
Jimmy sat down on the sofa. "What sort of money was he coming into? Archie never said anything to me about it. A rich old uncle kick the bucket or something?" His voice was casual, conversational. He sounded more like a nosey old neighbor instead of an investigator. He gave her a little smile and she relaxed.
"Hell no. Archie's family ain't talked to him in years. He said some guy he knew was going to give him the money. That the guy owed him plenty and was going to pay up this weekend." She got up and walked to a kitchen cabinet and poured herself a stiff one from a bottle of rye. "Don't it figure? I ain't got no luck. First time that sonofabitch was going to make good on a promise and now it's all gone bad."
We left her there drowning her sorrows.
NUMBER 7: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|Stormy Weather...Lena Horne|
After that we headed back to Alice's place. It was still early and she wasn't home from work yet so we sat around the kitchen table and talked it over. Jimmy said that Archie wasn't the kind of guy to save his pennies for a rainy day or to loan anybody any money either. And he never went to the track and said those who did were suckers. The fact that he'd suddenly had enough cash to buy plane tickets, relocate and plan a new life South of the Border made the possibility of an irate husband doing the deed a whole lot less likely than it had seemed that morning.
"Sounds like blackmail to me," I said. "I'll bet Archie was putting the squeeze on somebody. Maybe he had something on one of the big shots at the studio or maybe one of the stars. He was in a perfect position to find out if someone was doing something shady. Something that even the studio couldn't hush up."
Jimmy nodded. "There's usually a morals clause in actors' contracts. If they're really caught with their pants down, like playing around with a minor or using dope or something, it's big trouble. That's usually only with a contract player though and not so much with the big stars. There's too much money at stake there to just dump a big star like that, no matter what they do."
Mel said "There's all sorts of stories. They say that a famous actor even killed someone once in a hit and run accident and they paid somebody else to take the blame."
Jimmy nodded. "That was MGM, not us." He sounded like he knew all about it. Mel stared at him like she wanted to ask who but couldn't figure out a polite ladylike way to do it.
Jimmy continued. "Between you and me, sometimes the studio reps get to the scene of the crime before the cops do. The studios spend big money on publicists to get their stars' names in the paper and I'd bet they spend even more money on cops and lawyers to keep some stars' names out of the paper. Someone gets caught before anyone can clean up the mess and it could mean the end of a promising career."
It was just then that Alice walked in. She usually went straight to the Frigidaire for a cold drink as soon as she walked in the door. But this time she stopped dead in her tracks when she saw us in the kitchen. I was about to do the introductions when she turned on her heel and walked into her bedroom. Not a word to anybody, just turned around and slammed that door behind her. Mel and I looked at one another and Jimmy got up off his chair. He must have been used to rudeness like that but it was a new one on us. At least coming from Alice, it was.
"I'm going to head back to studio, go through Archie's files." Jimmy turned at the door. "I'll let you know if I find out anything. And thank you."
He wasn't halfway around the corner when Alice came out and headed for the kitchen and the usual. She didn't look at either one of us but we just waited a minute for the shouting to start. Mel broke first.
"Alice, I'm sorry if we upset you. We were..."
Alice chugged down her lemonade as if were ninety proof. "Don't bring him back here again. Not to my house. I won't have any Japs in my house."
Mel tried to placate her. "Jimmy's all right. He's taking over Archie's job. He grew up right here in California."
But Alice turned her off like a radio. "Oh yeah, well then how come he's playing cops and robbers at a movie studio when there's a war going on? Look, I dont care what you do anywhere else but don't bring him here. He gives me the creeps." For the first time the paleness left her face and it was flushed and hot with anger, hatred, fear, you name it. She seemed to get control over herself and her voice was low and measured. "He's not welcome here. I won't be playing hostess and pouring coffee for any Nips in my own home." Then she headed back to her bedroom to change out of her uniform.
Well, we were pretty speechless after that one. Mel was ready to argue but I told her to back off. This wasn't the Alice she knew, she said. That Alice would never judge anyone by his race. I reminded her that the Alice she knew had been a sheltered kid on a college campus. This Alice had been through a war and experiences like that made you different and not always for the better. Give her a little time. Maybe she'll come round. Mel just looked at me and snorted.
Well, I thought it had sounded pretty good. Of course, then again, I didn't believe it either
Alice came back out after a while. We listened to the radio while we made supper and we kept it going while we ate too. It seemed a good way to spend the time together without actually having to talk to one another. Alice never said another word about Jimmy and headed out for the living room afterward so Mel and I washed the supper dishes while Doris Day sang her little heart out over a Sentimental Journey home.
We heard the phone ring just as we were finishing up and Alice picked up the receiver.
"Oh yeah? And I'm Betty Grable!" She slammed the phone down and Mel and I looked at one another with lifted eyebrows. Maybe she wasn't quite over her mad just yet.
"Who was that?" I asked innocently.
"Some damned joker says he's Errol Flynn." Alice turned the volume up on the radio and settled back against the sofa cushions.
Mel gave me this look like when she reads one of those crazy items in Ripley's Believe or Not and she isn't sure whether she should believe it or not. I shrugged my shoulders. I suppose it wasn't impossible. I bet it's not often Errol Flynn gets beaned in the Commissary by somebody he's just made a pass at. Maybe just the novelty of it appealed to him.
No offense to Mel, of course.
NUMBER 8: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|Pistol Packin' Mama - The Andrews Sisters|
The next day there was still nothing much to do for the great epic feature film. A guy from the Wardrobe department brought over some sketches for us to check out and a set designer came over and played around with a model of the Parthenon that he left on our desk with the rest of the stuff. When Jimmy called and asked if we wanted to go back with him to Archie's place, we jumped at the chance.
Mel did her little act with the bobby pin again and this time we really went over the place with a fine tooth comb. Mel started with the cornflakes and went through each of the boxes in the cabinets. I rolled down the Venetian blinds to see if there was anything hidden between the slats while Jimmy checked under the tub and behind the john to see if there was anything taped there out of sight.
I was going to flip through the girlie magazines under Archie's bed when Jimmy offered to handle that little chore. I was about to make a crack about mixing business with pleasure but then I realized that he was a little embarrassed, especially by me going through them. I mean, it wasn't like I was going to see anything I didn't know about. Or had, for that matter. But I thought it was kind of nice of him.
We came up empty and were just heading out the door when we saw three huge palookas come up the staircase and stand at the doorway. One glance and you could tell these guys were trouble.
"Whatcha doing here, girlie?" The biggest one's voice was almost as rough as the beard on his chin and I figured of the three of them he was the only one far enough up the evolutionary ladder to talk yet.
"I'm Archie's sister. I've come to pick up his belongings. We were so close, you know."
He cast an eye in Jimmy's direction. "And I suppose this is his brother? Give me a break. C'mon. Hand it over."
"Hand what over? I don't know what you're talking about." At least there I was telling the truth.
And then one of the other gorillas grabbed Mel around the neck and almost lifted her off her feet. I could see Jimmy reaching into his jacket and signaled him to stop. I wasn't taking any chances with Mel up close like that.
"Hand it over or Archie's Grandma here gets her neck rearranged. You saw what happened to Archie. Weak necks could run in the family."
But Mel is tougher than she looks. She lifted her arm and brought it back fast, so that her elbow rammed into his chest and probably bent a rib. He keeled over and almost hit the floor before he caught himself. But by then all hell had broken loose. We split the three of them up and were on them so fast they never had a chance to pull the guns that made those telltale little bulges in their jackets. Mel's dance partner was already dazed when she hit him on the side of his face with a big brass ashtray she grabbed off the kitchen counter. He went down fast.
Believe it or not, Jimmy had the advantage over his opponent too. The guy towered over him but Jimmy was graceful and quick while this guy moved like King Kong in wet cement. He grabbed the goon by the arm and used his momentum to get him off balance and then he used the guy's weight to flip him over on his back. I think they call it jui jitsu. I had seen it done a few times and I remembered how I thought I should learn some of the moves someday. It didn't require strength or mass, just balance and concentration. A girl's got to look out for herself, I always say.
But I hadn't taken any lessons yet so I just did it the old fashioned way and pulled my .22 out where it could do the most good. Mel was out of the way now and I figured what the hey. Well, nothing's more persuasive than a .22 and before you knew it the three of us were alone again.
"You recognize any of them?" I settled down into the upholstery of Jimmy's DeSoto for the ride back.
"No, they're not connected with the studio." Jimmy put it into first and headed back to Warner's. "I have a feeling that this is a little bigger than some contract player who's been a naughty boy."
Let me tell you, he was right on the button with that one.
~~~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~
When we got back to the studio Fred Neill was waiting for us.
"Where've you been?" he asked, as if we'd been caught playing hookey or something. Come to think of it, we had been caught playing hookey.
"Doing a little research." Mel gave him a smile and he harumphed a little and was satisfied. I lit up a smoke and smiled to myself. It was tough to catch Mel in a outright lie. She just had a way of making you assume you were getting a straight answer when she was really bouncing the truth around like the Harlem Globetrotters with a new basketball. I'm different. My first impulse is to lie. It's just as creative and a lot more fun.
Fred shook his head and his glasses slipped down his nose a little bit. He cleared his throat and pushed them back up again. "Well, you might want to just hold back on that research a little bit. There's been a little change in plan."
"What kind of change?" I could see our lucrative little setup going up in smoke.
"Nothing to do with you ladies. It's a matter of the script. Your work has been exemplary so far."
Mel and I looked at one another. Neither of us had done anything yet.
"You see," he continued, "some of the studio execs got a look at the story outline and they made a few suggestions. They said maybe what we need is a different take on it. Maybe our approach has been a little too pedantic, too focused, that we have to appeal to a more general audience. They thought it needed a little something."
"Let me guess." I puffed a smoke ring just for the fun of it. "A little more sex and a lot more action."
"How did you know? Have they been talking to you behind my back?" Fred's Adam's apple bobbed up and down and his glasses slipped back down again. It was kind of fascinating to watch.
"No, just a wild guess."
Fred nodded. "Okay, here's the plan. We switch it to a Biblical story. That way we can get in all the sex and violence and still be uplifting, you know? Maybe we can do David and Bathsheba or Samson and Delilah. That'll go over. And there's a good chance we can get Victor Mature for the lead."
Mel pushed the props aside and sat on the edge of the desk. "What happened to John Wayne?"
"Too expensive. But you know, we can still use your expertise. Look ladies, I don't want you to get the wrong idea. There's not such a big difference from the classical idea to a Biblical epic. This is still going to be a class act. It can't lose. Action, romance and a strong moral message."
"And Victor Mature with no shirt on." I looked at Mel who was stifling a laugh.
Fred sniffed like I had a lot of nerve mentioning such a thing. "Well, that too. But there's lots of lonely women out there, stuck home while their boyfriends and their husbands are overseas. I'll bet they'll pay good bucks to see Victor Mature with no shirt on. It'll boost morale."
Well, I couldn't argue with that. Chalk one up for Fred Neill, Patriot.
NUMBER 9: ON THE HIT PARADE -
|Little White Lies...Tommy Dorsey Orchestra|
Jimmy didn't answer his phone and there was even less for Mel and me to do than there had been before, so we headed back to Alice's place. Usually we got home before she did, but this time she was waiting for us, sitting at the kitchen table like she wanted to talk. She looked nervous and her face was flushed.
Mel bent down beside her. "Alice, are you okay? You look feverish. It's not the malaria, is it?" She put her hand on Alice's face and cupped her cheek in her hand. It could have been either a way to check her temperature or the gesture of a friend reaching out to help. Knowing Mel, it was probably both.
"No, I'm alright. It's just something at work..." Her voice trailed off like she wasn't sure if she was doing the right thing, telling tales out of school.
Mel sat down and I got us all some beer from the fridge. Alice's looked too upset for lemonade. I guess she thought so too because she took it from me and tipped the bottle with no further ado.
"There was an accident today. One of the workers, a girl named Millie. It was a while after lunch. Funny how most accidents happen in the afternoon. Anyhow, she cut herself on a piece of sheet metal. There was a big gash on her forearm and she was bleeding pretty badly." Alice took another swig. "I got the bleeding stopped and then I went with her to the hospital."
Mel looked at me with a puzzled look on her face. It didn't sound like anything out of the ordinary to me. Maybe Alice was just upset at having a real injury to deal with instead of handing out aspirins. I shrugged at Mel so Alice couldn't see and popped the top on my own bottle of beer.
"What did they say at the hospital? She's not going to lose an arm or anything, is she?" Mel voice was quiet, calm. "I'm sure you did everything you could."
Alice shook her head. "No, she'll be okay. There wasn't any nerve damage or anything. But they wanted to keep her overnight just for observation and I sat with her a while until the painkillers kicked in. I asked her how come she wasn't wearing her safety gloves. The cuffs come halfway up your arm. She said she just forgot. She was a little off balance lately. She was a couple of months pregnant and she'd just found out the father was dead. At first I figured she meant some guy who was killed overseas."
We'd all heard that one before. Lots of girls telling that story nowadays. It was a lot easier to tell a kid its old man was a dead war hero than to admit its old lady had been fooling around with a married man or some other jerk who just didn't want to be bothered. And who's to prove otherwise? But I still didn't see why Alice wanted to chitchat with us about it.
Alice shook her head but I couldn't tell whether it was in pity or disbelief. "Then she said that her boyfriend had been going to get her into the movies. He had connections at a big studio and knew a lot of the people who discovered young actresses and could make them famous. He was going to get her a job as an extra in a new movie with John Garfield and then something even better after the baby was born. Then she read in the newspaper that he had been killed and now everything was screwed up."
Well, we sat up and took notice at that one. There must have been a lot of guys who used that line but there was only one we knew of who had been killed in the past week. Mel asked anyway. "Did she tell you who her boyfriend was?"
Alice shook her head. "No, but she said that she was scared, that she was planning to make a few phone calls, get some cash and take off. All she wanted was a chance to go far away and start over again. I couldn't get anything else out of her and then the painkiller kicked in and she was dropping off after that."
Sounded like Archie Miles had been a very busy guy in the past few months. Mel and I decided that we should go pay Millie a visit and see what we could dig up. Alice didn't want to go but she lent us the keys to her Crosley and we headed right out.
I'd never driven a Crosley before. It was a little three seater made by the same company that made Shelvedore refrigerators and Crosley radios. You could even buy them in the same appliance stores. They were something like four hundred bucks new and real good on gas. True, it was like riding around in a toy but I'll bet it didn't strain Alice's ration book as much as a Ford or Chevy would have. By the time we picked up Jimmy at the studio and arrived at the hospital, I was really starting to get a kick out of it.
The nurse on duty was a short blond who kept looking at her watch like she had an important date and we were keeping her from it. But it seemed like Millie Swanson wasn't going to be talking to us any time soon. Or anybody else either.
"I'm sorry but Miss Swanson passed away just an hour ago." She didn't seem sorry at all, more like she was irritated by the prospect of extra paperwork. "Are you a relative?"
"I'm her cousin." My family tree was sprouting branches left and right lately. Lying hadn't worked with the goons in Archie's apartment but I had a feeling I was getting better at it what with all this practice. "What are you talking about? I thought that she just cut her arm, that it wasn't that serious."
Florence Nightingale gave me a frosty look as if I'd accused her of something. " It was probably an embolism or maybe a reaction to the medicine. That sort of thing happens sometimes. If you wait a minute, I can page the doctor on call and you can speak to him."
"Was she alone when it happened? I mean, I hate to think of poor Millie dying alone." I must have sounded pretty convincing because to tell you the truth I was really feeling sorry for the poor kid.
"The nurse from the factory came in with her. She didn't say much but she wouldn't leave either. I think she stayed with Miss Swanson until she fell asleep."
"Did anyone check on her after that?"
Miss Nightingale was tiring of my questions. "Yes. She was sleeping peacefully when I made my rounds. And I saw one of the doctors look in on her later on. He couldn't have been gone more than ten minutes when I'd discovered she'd passed away. It must have been very sudden and I'm sure there was nothing that anyone could have done. I'm sure she didn't suffer."
"Which doctor looked in on her? I'd like to talk to him."
"I'm not sure. I just saw the back of his white coat. But Dr. Adamski can answer any of your questions."
She went off to page him and we snuck out to the hospital lobby. I didn't mind lying to a nurse but I wasn't about to sign any papers for a doctor. We took over a wooden bench next to Admitting and Jimmy said what we were all thinking.
"Somebody killed her. It would be easy enough for someone to sneak into her room and give her an empty hypodermic. A little air in her veins and she'd be dead in no time. Archie and she must have been in on it together and maybe after he was gone she tried a little blackmail on her own."
Mel nodded her head. "Alice said that Millie told her she was going to make a few calls so that she could get the money to go away."
I looked around the waiting room. There was a kid about seventeen or so working the switchboard over in the corner. I considered sending Mel over to bat her eyelashes at him a few times but he was too young and the excitement could have killed him so I decided to do the deed myself. Besides, why should she have all the fun?
He was easy pickings. Some guys go for short blondes and if I really strain myself I can work up that "girl next door /damsel in distress" look that puffs up their egos like crazy. Well, in about two minutes my champion had given me all the info we needed.
Millie had only made one call after Alice had left her. Mel, Jimmy and I crammed ourselves into a phone booth and dialed the number that the kid had given me and the three of us bent over the receiver like the Andrews Sisters getting ready to sing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
There was no answer.
Jimmy cursed a little in Japanese. Then he called a friend of his who had access to one of those cross reference phone books. But his buddy wasn't home either. It looked like we were doomed to wait until next day so we dropped Jimmy back off at his apartment and headed home.
Alice was waiting up for us. She switched off the radio and it was pretty clear she wanted to know how Millie was doing. She'd liked Millie and I don't think Alice had too many friends. I watched her face as Mel gave her the news of Millie's death and our suspicion that she'd been murdered. It was almost like a mask was peeling away. She didn't cry or carry on, nothing like that. I think Alice had seen too much death to be rocked by one more. But there was a sadness in her face that was genuine. The only real emotion we'd seen from her had been knee jerk anger when she'd seen Jimmy but this was different. Her chin lifted a little and she made a tight little line with her lips.
"What can I do to help?"
It was barely more than a whisper but it was all we needed to hear. We repeated everything the nurse and the kid at the switchboard had said. Mel showed her the phone number that we'd tried and Alice sat up like her chair was hot.
"That's the main switchboard at work. She must have been calling someone at the plant."
"Could she have been trying to get a loan from one of the other girls on the line?"
Alice shook her head. "I doubt it. Besides her shift would have been over by then. The girls would have gone home."
Mel and I exchanged glances. This changed everything as far as I figured. It seemed like we had been barking up the wrong tree at the studio.
Mel leaned forward and looked Alice in the eye. "What exactly did Millie do at the plant?"
"She was an inspector. Watched out for defects, sloppy work. She was a nice kid, a good worker. She really took those government posters to heart, you know? How if you nodded on the job back here it could mean some guy's life overseas."
We were all quiet for a minute. There was a lot of money in defense manufacturing. Millions of dollars paid out at the drop of a hat and everything done at breakneck speed. Maybe somebody had cut a few corners, cut a few deals. If word leaked out it could mean big trouble for the company. It all sounded pretty good, another theory to add to the list. But we needed more facts.
And it wasn't going to be easy getting them.
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