Felix Driscoll ReduxbyFive_Eight©
A NOTE TO THE READER: This story takes place in 1949.
When the two goons burst through the office door behind me I leaped out of my chair.
Both of them big boys.
Both ready to put me down hard.
The guy behind the desk had obviously put a toe to an alarm button on the floor to summon them. A big bore pistol lay on his desktop but I wasn't too worried about that. He barked some orders at the pair of goons when they shoved in to take me.
I saw one of them reaching inside his suit coat for his shoulder holster. Getting the other one between him and me I lashed out with a quick left and right to his jaw. A dazed look colored his face and his eyelids fluttered in surprise. He stood there motionless for a second before slumping in slow motion to the carpet. By then the other one had his pistol drawn, brandishing it. From the corner of my eye I saw the guy behind the desk reaching for the gun on the desktop.
I had bigger fish to fry.
That's when the other big boy raked my skull with the long barrel of his pistol. I literally saw stars. Blackness edged my vision and I felt myself losing my equilibrium. I staggered back, with my head exploding into a thousand fragments. Nausea boiled up in my throat all the way down to the pit of my stomach. If I hit the deck it would be game, set and match for me.
The bruiser raised his revolver high over his head for a second swing. The blow would certainly crush my skull.
It all started early that morning when I got a call from a client. He wanted to know if I could put breakfast on hold and shake a leg down to Silver Cinema studios. Sure, anything for an account as lucrative as Silver Cinema.
"What's it all about?" I asked.
"Tell you when you get here, Felix. It's important."
"Be there in half an hour."
I wrestled my car through the morning traffic in Hollywood and Burbank. The studio nestled in the orange groves in the valley just west of there. The guard at the gate directed me to the receptionist in the office. She asked me if I was Mr. Driscoll. I said I was and she flirted with me for a minute before directing me to a screening room downstairs.
Bobby Glide was on the phone when I entered. Or maybe he was just listening to it ring on the other end. He put the receiver down disgustedly, shaking his head. He raised a finger in the universal give-me-just-a-minute sign and dialed again, probably a different number because, this time, he got an answer.
"Would you roll the film now, Johnny?" I heard him say. "Our audience has arrived. Thanks."
We shook hands and he bid me to be seated as the lights in the empty theater went down.
"I missed breakfast to watch a movie?"
"It's Alena's new picture," Tommy said, like that explained everything.
"I bet I can't even get popcorn in here," I mock complained.
The title card A Hint Of Vermillion flashed up on the screen, starring Alena Dell, produced by Bobby Glide.
Before the first reel ended I knew even the best rewrite in Hollywood couldn't save Alena's new picture. The production obviously cost a lot of money and the movie still stunk. Short of a new director, cast and script, nothing was going to save that dog. As the last reel faded to the credits I yawned, but not too widely, I wanted to be polite. Fishing a cigarette from my pack I clicked my Zippo. Exhaling, I stood up from my seat and stretched to keep from falling asleep.
Bobby was on the wall phone in the back, one more time. He saw me looking and asked, "That bad, huh?"
"You don't need me to tell you that, you're the producer. What do you need a detective for?"
Bobby sighed and scanned the rows of vacant plush seats. While I'd sat through that 80-minute stinker he said not a word. He'd spent every second by the phone when he wasn't pacing a hole in the carpet, chain-smoking. I thought he would have said something of consequence by now. He had had time to put his thoughts in order while I drove over to the studio. More time during the three entire reels of uninspired dreck.
"Cat got your tongue?" I asked.
Bobby made a face.
I tried more prompting, "Why the silent treatment? And what exactly is the job?"
He hesitated: "Look, Felix, I'm not sure what to say."
"Okay, but what's Alena's new movie and a private detective got to do with one another?"
About that time the projectionist stuck his head inside the big soundproofed door. "You finished up in here, Mr. Glide?"
"Sure, sure, Johnny, we're done," Bobby uttered uncertainly, "Felix and I are on our way out."
We shuffled through the door, down a short hall, up several flights of stairs and into Bobby's office. Through his window I saw a row of tired palms drooping in the heat outside. Several green air conditioning units hunched on the roof of a cinderblock soundstage building the size of an airplane hangar. The Silver Cinema back lot had three more the same size but I couldn't see them from here.
I deposited the dead butt of the cigarette in a spotless ashtray on his desk. A couple hundred framed photos festooned the walls: Bobby with this star; that starlet. A color poster of Alena's first starring picture had a wall to itself, hanging over a sideboard.
The phone on his desk bleated before I got a word out of him. "Hang on, I gotta take this. Hello!" he answered before it could ring twice. He dug his smokes out of his breast pocket while listening to the voice on the phone. When he lit up smoke rose like an angry cloud of birds around his head. It didn't take a detective to realize he was speaking with Alena, the conversation unpleasant. To make myself scarce I drifted over to the window. A group of extras dressed as Roman gladiators filed into the giant cinderblock building across the way. Outside the studio fence orange groves stretched into the valley. Bobby startled me by slamming the phone down.
"That was Alena."
"Uh huh. What's she have to say?"
"You gotta help me, Felix. I don't care about the movie."
"What do I need to do?"
"Something's bugging Alena. She's got a big bee in her bonnet. Just went nuts over the phone. That's why the movie's screwed."
I waited for him to say something that required a reply.
He kept talking, "You and I served in the Pacific together, right? You've known Alena and me since high school, right?"
"Back when her name was Melissa Sanchez and yours was Herrera," I smiled lightly.
He gave a hollow chuckle. "We're both in show business, what can I say?"
"You're talking but you're not saying anything, Bobby. So I've known you two since high school. So I thought you two would be married by now."
He looked like my words wounded him. I hated to see an old friend in such raw pain. "It's been fifteen sixteen years since we got out of school," he said in almost a whisper. His cigarette had gone out in his hand. He looked down at it and tossed it in the ashtray. Bobby's eyes shined but not a tear fell. "I think she's in love with another man."
I feigned disbelief for a former schoolmate, "That can't be true." I felt a bit guilty after saying it and decided to shut up.
"I think so, man. It's the celebrity thing. She's surrounded all the time with handsome movie stars, actors, rich guys."
"You're rich," I pointed out.
He blew a raspberry and shrugged: "So what? I ain't the only one. She doesn't know who her real friends are anymore. She can't talk to me, we always fight. Lately she can't even act, she's too preoccupied."
"You want me to talk to her?"
"I want you to check things out."
"Talk to her as a friend?" I asked, "Or are you wanting me to investigate her?"
"Investigate? Yeah, absolutely, I just couldn't come out and say it." Bobby blinked and shook his head. He heaved himself out of the swivel chair behind the desk, his slacks rasping as he paced. Whiskers bristled darkly on his unshaven face. Memories roiled like storm clouds behind his eyes.
I sat down in the chair in front of his desk and did a bit of remembering on my own. "Is she still friends with Robin?"
He nodded. "That's not going to cause a problem, is it?"
I hoped I sounded convincing, "No. I'll give her a call, I still have her number. What about Alena's other friends?"
"Like I said, amigo, she don't know who her friends are these days. But the ones she has sure don't talk to me."
Which translated to they probably wouldn't talk with me either.
Bobby said, "I moved into my brother's place. Just for a while."
I weighed my words before saying anything. "Are you sure you want me to nose around? You might not like what I find out."
"I gotta know, Felix. Alena's cheated on me before."
That I knew too well. If Bobby knew he never said anything to me about it. Melissa, or Alena as I'd come to think of her, and I bumped into each other at a party in L.A. right after she got her contract with Silver Cinema. Business commitments had Bobby, then Alena's manager, out of town. She drank too much and I was a familiar face. We left the party together. That night I hadn't behaved like much of a friend of Bobby's. He and I never had been really close, but we saw each other once or twice a year, usually when I did some work for Silver Cinema. Each time I wondered if that would be the time he'd bust me in the mouth for it.
I was afraid to ask, "Did she tell you who with?"
He turned his back to me and studied something outside the window. Crumpling up an empty cigarette pack he rummaged through a drawer, produced a fresh pack. He lit up again, jammed his lighter back in his pocket. "Lots of guys. It doesn't matter who, I'm over it."
Sure he was. "Last chance, do you really want me digging for dirt? You know what they say about the truth hurts sometimes?" He already looked hurt.
"I said I wanna know. Find out for me, Felix. Investigate her."
"I'll sound her out for you for nothing. A favor to a friend. If I go to work I'm a hundred bucks a day."
He took two crisp fifties out of an alligator wallet, handed them to me. "That'll get you started. Okay?"
"No contract for this little caper, Bobby?"
"Nah! This is personal, not company business."
I stood up and said nothing.
He broke the silence, "So . . . you going to see her?"
"That seems like the best way to go about it since we know each other. She may just blurt out what's wrong to me. She still live on Mulholland?"
"Yeah. Call whenever you find anything out, I don't care what it is. Or what time it is. Okay?"
I told him I would.
"You gonna do this today?"
I patted him on the shoulder, smiled. "Sure. Right now."
I put his money in my billfold and breezed. **********
I walked around the building to the parking lot where I'd left my car. Who first, Alena or Robin? Mulholland was closer and Alena the actual subject in question. Why involve Robin unnecessarily? As an ex-school chum I should be welcome at Alena's mansion in the hills. Feelings do exist between us but not romantic ones. Our one night together had never evolved beyond that.
Robin was another story, maybe I wanted a reason to see her.
The movie and my conference with Bobby lasted through lunch and my stomach was growling. It so happened one of my favorite Italian restaurants is near Robin's bungalow. That was out of the way. It would be easier to just call her, eat somewhere else. It made no sense but I decided to go see her first.
I never did stop to eat.
Never gave Veronica, my girlfriend, a thought.
I drove east into Glendale where Robin lived. Abruptly her unmistakable red flivver turned out of her suburb and zipped down the street ahead of me. If she saw my car I doubted she'd remember it. Just the sight of her caused my heart to pound. I cursed myself and lit a cigarette, threw it out of the car after two drags.
Keeping some distance between us I followed her. We wound up in a modest neighborhood in Pasadena. I sped up to get closer behind her but still kept about a block between us. When I saw her brake lights I rolled over to the curb.
She pulled into the driveway of a house where an enormous avocado tree dominated the front yard. The tree plunged the front of the house into murky darkness in the early afternoon. Robin crossed its shadow to the front porch with a big purse tucked under her arm. She knocked on the door and a man appeared in the doorway. My heart pounded even harder still. I glimpsed Robin hugging him before they disappeared out of sight into the house.
My heart sank. I reached for my cigarettes and sat there and smoked. I turned on the radio. I lit new cigarettes from the old ones. I turned off the radio.
After fidgeting a moment I slid out of my car and strolled down the sidewalk toward the house. I cleaned my sunglasses on my tie as I walked, squinting into the sunlight. Before I took ten steps I froze. Robin strode purposefully through the front door carrying both her big purse and a cat. She fired up the flivver and quit the scene. When she backed out I saw she would be heading in my direction. She would see me if I didn't act fast. I went up to the door of the first house I came to and pretended to knock. As her red Ford drove by I had my back to the street. I looked after her, she paid no attention to me.
What a waste, I'd lost her! By the time I made it back to my wheels half a block away she would be on the Pasadena freeway. I wondered whether to make the drive to Alena's place or try to find Robin. With a cat in hand she'd likely return home rather than take it shopping or with her to get her nails done. A year ago, before Veronica, when I'd dated Robin she owned an orange tabby. The cat she had carried was gray. Maybe she'd acquired another cat. Maybe she was only cat-sitting the gray one. Who knew?
I switched the radio back on to mull things over. My mouth was dry from all the cigarettes so I didn't light another. Should I knock on the door of the house with the avocado tree? Good afternoon, sir, I'm selling subscriptions to The Times; do you take the paper? I sat there undecided when another car turned into the driveway of the house. A big white Cad. A woman emerged from it, a knit cap pulled down over her hair did a good job of obscuring her features, the kind of hat called a cloche. The woman teetered on high heels through the yard and up three steps to the porch.
Unlike Robin, the girl in the cloche walked in like she owned the place, without knocking. Having learned my lesson I stayed put and watched the house. Less than a minute later I saw the knit cap moving in the shadows of the avocado tree. Her head ducked out of sight and she was in her car before I could see her face. What the hell was going on? Was no one home or were they dealing dope out of the place? In the space of fifteen minutes two women had been in and out of that house, one with a cat.
The Cad bumped out of the driveway. It raced my way and hurtled by my car parked at the curb. Behind the tinted windshield the lady with the knit cap was crying.
Even disguised in big sunglasses and the cloche I recognized her. It was Alena.
Getting inside that house became job one. I decided to go into the door-to-door subscription racket immediately with that house as my first stop. I bounded from my car and hot-footed it down the sidewalk as fast as my feet would carry me. Through the shade of the big tree. Up to the porch. Front door open. "Hello, anybody home?" I knocked loudly. No invitation to come on in. "Hello." No answer. I wanted to draw my .32 but if you enter someone's home with an iron in hand you deserve to be shot. But no way I wasn't going in. Call it a hunch; my instincts told me something wasn't right in that house.
With my ink pen I jiggled open the pull handle of the screen door. I wanted neither to disturb fingerprints nor leave any of mine. The front door stood ajar. I pushed on it with a knuckle, it swung back on its hinges and I peered inside. No foyer, the door opened into a living room. Davenport, a TV, chairs, unoccupied. Dead silence. That's what I was afraid of. I moved through the living room into the kitchen. A chair from the dinette lay on its side on the linoleum. A man lay face down in a pool of blood, his hands clutched under him holding his stomach. Crimson was everywhere, splattered on the table and the wall. Judging from the hole in his back a large caliber gun had taken the guy out. Smears and small round spots of blood led toward the living room in a dwindling pattern.
Beyond the chair and the corpse another man stood facing me. He looked surprised yet calm. He surveyed the gruesome corpse without blowing his breakfast. In his WWII days he'd seen dozens of dead bodies. In Guadalcanal it was part of the scenery.
"What are you doing here, Bobby?" I wanted to know.
"I was about to ask you the same thing, man."
"I'm on a case you hired me for! Remember?"
"There's no need to yell, Felix."
I disregarded him, "Did you ice this guy?"
He told me no. Profanely.
I surveyed the kitchen. "Who killed him?"
"Don't know, just got here myself." Next to the stove a door to the backyard was open.
"You know who this guy is?"
"Did you see anyone?"
With reluctance he muttered, "I can't say, man, I can't say."
I got a little profane myself. "Are you covering for Alena?"
His head jerked up when I said her name but he shrugged.
I asked, "Did she kill him?"
"I can't say. But I didn't."
Totally exasperated I growled, "C'mon, Bobby, you're putting me in the middle of something I don't want to be in."
I made a disgusted sound: "Is anybody else in the house?"
"I don't know, I told you I just got here."
I made another disgusted sound.
"What're you gonna do, Felix?"
"Answer some questions, why don't you, Bobby." I looked at the bloody corpse. "Who blew that hole in this slob?"
"How would I know? I came in here and found the guy croaked, just like you."
"Did Alena see you while she was here?"
"She was here?"
"Don't hand me a line, Bobby, you'd lie to protect her. What are you doing here?"
He shook his head back and forth. At any time I thought he might gibber or drool.
"Bobby, do you or don't you know this guy on the floor?"
"We can talk later, amigo, let's blow!"
"I'm going to have to call the cops."
"Screw that, I'm lamming!" He almost made it to the back door before I clamped a big hand on his shoulder. Bobby stood about half a foot shorter than my six one; he stopped moving when I put the grab on him. I patted down his pockets. Nothing. Nothing in his waistband either. The heater that put our boy on the floor down would be too big for Bobby to stow in his sock.
"Who do you think you are, frisking me?"
"Shut up. Where's the gun?"
He got indignant, "I'm not heeled!"
"Don't try to bulldoze the bulldozer."
"Are you accusing me?"
"I'm asking a question." I was as mad as Bobby. Obviously the knucklehead wasn't going to answer any questions about guns so I tried a different tack, "What have you touched inside the house?"
He thought a second, "The door handle coming in."
"Are you sure that's all?"
He gave me a dirty look.
"Don't touch anything else and make sure not to step in any blood. Just stay put, I'm going to see if anybody else is in this dump."
I tiptoed around all the blood. A hallway led to a bathroom and three bedrooms, one with an unmade bed. The second contained a loveseat and a portable bar, a thicket of empty beer cans. On top of the bar I saw several typewritten scripts, each fastened together in the left margin with brads. I was glad to see none named A Hint Of Vermillion. The third room served as a junk room: boxes piled up; an old bicycle; a defunct couch leaning badly to the right; a litter box that needed emptying.
I headed back for the kitchen saying to Bobby, "It's just you, me and the deceased."