Thunder rumbled outside the rented apartment as Chet thought that he sure could use a wet sloppy kiss. He giggled the way he always did when he was high. He knew that the dope had made him slow and clumsy, but he didn’t care. The price had been right and he was feeling the singing in his veins and head.
Jean floated in. She bent and scooped up her copy of the script from the coffee table where his feet were propped in front of the snow-filled TV set.
He made a pass at grabbing her arm, but missed. “Hey, where you going, baby? It’s after three in the goddamn morning?”
“I told you. I’m leaving, Chet. You slobs are never going to amount to anything. Hank and Doug are happy to sleep together and you--you drink and take too many pills.”
“Nahhh...” was all he could say. “I--I love you, sugerbabe, you know that.” The old excitement was starting to rise. It happened whenever he saw her. “Let’s do it here. On the couch.”
Jean tossed her blonde hair and screwed up her face. “I told you, Chet. I’m leaving.”
And she took her sweet butt into the bedroom, emerging seconds later with a suitcase and armload of coat-hangered clothes.
His mouth felt dry as old newspaper. He struggled to his feet. “You--you can’t do that.”
“I’m doing it. Wayne has a room for me closer to the set. He’s expanding my part, giving me more lines. You guys are weighing me down.” She dropped her luggage and dresses beside the apartment’s front door and went back into the bedroom for another load.
Chet felt the rage bubbling up. His hands flexed as his gaze wobbled across the room to the sharp prop they had given him for his role in the picture. The blade was only five inches long, shaped like a Bowie knife. It would go all the way into the cheating bitch’s heart.
Someone said, “Kill her,” or maybe it was just another roll of thunder. Chet saw that he was alone with only the sound of the TV’s hissing static.
His hand was drawn to the knife. He studied an eye in its reflective surface. No, he thought, no I didn’t, but...How has it gotten into my hand? And why am I carrying it toward...toward the bedroom?
She acted startled to see him so close. Acted.
His palm itched. He rotated the handle and drove the blade all the way into her chest.
Her mouth and eyes widened, like tulips. She flailed for a second and seemed to turn into a fawn in his arms. Soft brown eyes. Sweet small tongue.
Then she folded and a low moan slid out of her. She said that she loved him, and his hand grew wet and warm and red. The doctor’s finest drugs sang to him.
“I love you too, sugarbabe. Gimme a kiss.”
Outside, the rain beat down in sheets on the roof. Or is that someone pounding on the door?
I had no way of knowing then, but the next week of my life would be filled with duststorms, snowstorms, and brainstorms. How? Easy. It began in the arid, windswept valleys of Texas and ended on top of Mount Baldy, and in between, I was drugged to the gills by an intellectual who hated the way our country treated “his people.”
On a Tuesday in mid-October 1959, I was on page 71 of the digest version of Woman in the Dark, where “Conroy fell away from the fist rigidly, with unbent knees,” when my phone rang. I hadn’t read a lot of Hammett, but this tale didn’t impress me as much as the one earlier that afternoon--a Continental Op story called, Slippery Fingers.
I flexed my own fingers, put the paperback on the edge of my desk, and answered the phone, feeling hard-boiled due to my choice of reading material. “Stan Wade, Private Investigations. We never blink.”
The female voice on the end of the line commanded sweetly, “Hold for Mr. Ford.” Then in a more submissive tone, I heard, “He’s on the phone, sir.”
“Is this Wade?”
I acknowledged my last name, and the gruff guy went on. “I need you here now. Drop what you’re damn-well doin’ and get to the airport out in Anaheim. There’ll be a flight waiting for you on the executive runway tomorrow morning at seven o’clock.”
The paperback tilted, about to flop on the floor. “Excuse me--A flight? To where?”
The book dropped into the wastebasket on top of the remains of a slice of raspberry pie--a la mode.
“San Antonio. I’ll have a man meet you there with a car and a check for eight hundred dollars. That ought to cover your first week.”
I was fighting the first signs of a cold and sore throat, so I popped another Smith Brother’s cough drop in my mouth and talked around it. “Is this really John Ford, the director?”
The receiver rattled in my ear. “Hell, yes, I’m Ford. You returned my call and now I’m calling you back.”
I tasted cherry on the back of my tongue and glanced through the open door as a waiter dashed by carrying a tray of heavenly-smelling sirloins. “I remember now. Sorry, I’m just finishing up with slippery case involving a woman...in the dark.”
“What’s wrong with you, boy? Say, do you want this job or not? Disney said you were a top investigator, but you sound out of focus to me.”
I stifled a sneeze from the cold or the subtle scent of our LA smog. “Okay, take it easy.” The mention of Walt finally sold me. I’d worked for the elder cartoonist on several discreet cases and if Ford knew even a smidgen about them, it meant this phone call was the real thing. “What am I expected to do for your eight hundred?”
“Christ on a stick, kid. You’re supposed to show up and solve a murder.” The line slammed shut with the sound of a cheap cap gun.
I flexed a finger at the receiver and immediately felt stupid for doing it.
The soggy novel lay in the trash, and I wondered if Conroy ever got up.
The clock in the hall above the restaurant’s time cards said it was half-past four. I’d need at least an hour to drive across town via Santa Monica Boulevard in rush-hour traffic to my boat in del Rey and pack a bag. My swivel chair creaked and almost tipped over as I got up. Damn, those steaks smelled good.
I opened a desk drawer and shrugged into my .38 shoulder holster. I slipped a worn sport jacket over the holster and gun and remembered that I had a change of clothes hanging in Suzi’s closet. Going there, instead of the Cervantes II, would cut twenty minutes from the drive in the morning, since the 101 ran all the way from North Hollywood down to Orange County. Still, considering the morning traffic, it might be quicker if I just drove straight to San Antonio.
When I locked up my tiny office and ducked out the rear of the Brown Derby, I stopped to grab a steak sandwich and consider Ford’s word “murder.” The wide-open spaces of Texas would be a welcome change from all the complex highway logistics of LA.
Suzi handed me a light-blue Oxford with a button-down collar. “He wants you to go to Texas?” I didn’t remember seeing this shirt before. She was always buying me clothes, as if somehow it would make a better man of me. Fat chance.
“Eight-hundred a week,” I reminded her. “That’s better than our usual fifty per day.”
We were both in the PI business. Only she was planning on raising her rates--for good reason. Suzi Sunset had a full-service agency with offices in the Taft building. I had a battered desk at the back of a restaurant where I gently enforced deadbeats who didn’t pay their bar bills.
The love of my life and soon to be wife stepped back, tilting her honey-colored head to one side, inspecting me. “I’ve said it before, Standy, you should raise your rates. I told Jerry Lewis last night after his Jazz Singer show at NBC that I charged a hundred a day plus expenses for investigative work. He didn’t bat an eye.” She handed me a couple of pairs of socks and a small stack of handkerchiefs. I made certain that there were no frilly edges.
“That’s probably because you batted those baby blues at him. Which, I can’t do.” I stuffed underwear into my suitcase and clicked the latches shut. “And wouldn’t if I could.”
Her face seemed to glow slightly. “And that’s why I love and will miss you. Why have you been gone so much lately?” She let those same wild blue-yonders skewer me.
That was all it took. Within minutes, we were enjoying a frisky evening’s skewering.
Later, we hugged long and sincerely--and drifted off together. I never did answer her question.
There was a soft buttery glow in the east now. The car’s radio beat out the latest rock-and-roll tunes on KFWB-98, and the sun would soon beat down on the shimmering concrete roadway. I hated heavy traffic, but this morning’s didn’t seem too bad.
I drove south on the Hollywood freeway around a Greyhound Bus and then got stuck behind a ratty pick-up full of Mexican day laborers. Despite the forty-mile-an-hour speed of several passing delivery trucks, the Latinos stood shoulder to shoulder in the back of their banged-up Dodge, chatting, laughing, and lighting cigarettes off each other’s butts. I gave them a two-finger salute as I swung past, but they didn’t seem to notice. They occupied a place in my world, but at the same time were in their own private version of it. Vaya con Dios, amigos.
I concentrated on steering through the interchange with Route 66 past the city proper. After navigating a knot of semi-stalled vehicles, I relaxed and began to reflect on what I knew of the crusty John Ford.
He was an ex-military man with a thirty-year career of directing motion pictures, thus accustomed to having his orders carried out without question. Working for Ford would be tricky, especially if I expected to handle the case my way, which is to say unhindered by his authority. I liked to follow each lead or hunch wherever it took me without “direction.”
Once things started happening, there wasn’t a lot of time to report every detail back to the client. I’d been cursed or blessed with a series of investigations lately that kept getting deeper and a bit out of hand. But I’d come through them all with some success, if not a lot of cold cash. October, 1959 would be...let’s see...the fifth full year of operating the agency on my own.
A full year, too, with more things going wrong than a season of I Love Lucy. Since spring, I’d dealt with dead astronauts, sunken treasure, and Soviet spies. I’d flown a hover platform over Germany, run around Vegas with a supposedly dead TV star, and killed a woman intentionally. Now, I was “gone to Texas” to look into a murder that involved John Wayne and his new movie, The Alamo.
I parked in the wide, flat lot outside the flat, concrete Orange County Airport and began walking in the warm sunlight toward the tiny terminal. Not all places in the LA basin were exciting and colorful for the tourists. For a second, I saw double--twin images aligned side-by-side like a movie special effect. Only it wasn’t anything special. It was something the docs had warned me about, after I’d been slugged in the head one time too many.
I’d need to take it easy, they said. Maybe consider a new line of work, since my life as a detective had caused me to get knocked out more times than a heavyweight fighter. Pretty soon, I’d have to start wearing a hard hat.
Occasionally, for no good reason, the world would go out of focus or slide to the right, and I’d hear a sharp ringing for a few seconds. I knew I should try and take it easy, relax for a few weeks on a quiet vacation, instead of taking on any new sleuthing clients. But I couldn’t resist a good case when it came my way. Besides, I needed the dough for my upcoming wedding. So, like a dutiful mailman, I pressed on, no matter the climate, and kept my self-appointed rounds, this time with prepaid airfare.
The plane was little more than a puddle-jumper. It didn’t have to be big, just fast enough to make the trip past Phoenix and El Paso to San Antonio. Most of the other passengers were employed in some capacity with the movie. I was delighted to find that my old acquaintance, Joe Canutt, was aboard.
I knew Joe and his father from my brief spell as an apprentice stuntman in the early ’50s. He was already enjoying a pre-flight scotch when I plunked down in the seat beside him.
Canutt smiled when he saw me and indicated his plastic cup of amber liquid. “Keeps me sane.”
I never touched the stuff anymore and ordered a Pepsi. “Hey, Joe. You running a dangerous gag for Wayne’s pic?”
“Not as dangerous as your job, Stan. I heard you almost fell off the Capitol Records Tower a month ago.”
Joe knew I was a licensed snoop and kind of envied me for it. Anything near danger and death interested him. “Just another day of routine maintenance work.” The stewardess brought my soda pop and I let the bubbles tickle my nose.
He half-turned in his seat. “Hey, how about that George Reeves dying, huh? I worked with him on a Disney western couple of years back. Even then, he’d packed on a lot of weight for a superman. Too bad he ate his gun, huh?”
“Too damn bad,” I agreed as I buckled in.
After a bouncing roll out to the runway, our plane lunged up and accelerated away into the eastern sky. I knew that Reeves was still down there below us somewhere, alive and kicking, but I couldn’t tell Canutt or anyone else the true story.
Joe asked how I was involved with the Alamo movie, and I told him I wouldn’t know for sure until I met with John Ford.
Canutt gave me a nodding “yeah, yeah” and took a pack of Old Gold’s from his shirt pocket and shook one out at me. “Smoke?”
“No thanks. I don’t anymore.”
He shrugged, put them away, and caught an attendant’s eye, signaling for a refill of his drink. “Tread easy around Pappy, huh? And don’t try any funny stuff with Wayne, either.” He chuckled and shook his well-tanned head. “I once caught holy hell from Duke for not being man enough during a fight scene. He damn near knocked my block off with those big fists of his.” He rubbed his jaw as if he’d just been slugged.
Joe was a good foot taller than I was, with wide shoulders and somewhat bowed legs inside his worn cowboy boots. He knew plenty about taking a punch and rolling down a hill from a galloping horse, but this was the first time I’d seen him with a worry line etched between his eyes.
I drained my cup of Pepsi and sucked on a piece of ice. “Okay, pard. I’ll be sure and ack tough aron’ bof Ford an Wayne.” I learned a long time ago that I’d get further with most Hollywood types by suppressing my boyish charm. Acting hard-boiled was a cliché, but movie people expected it from a private eye. Cops, however, hated it, but knowing the correct stance to take with people often was half of my profession. Something like method acting.
They said you couldn’t smell vodka on someone’s breath, but I had found that not to be the case with scotch, and soon Joe was malevolently fragrant. He continued to drink and eventually dozed through most of the trip.
I noticed a complimentary copy of Time Magazine, but avoided it with disgust when I saw that the cover story was about “The Corpse in the Living Room.” It featured Peter Gunn, Stuart Bailey, Philip Marlowe, and Richard Diamond in an article about the private lives of all the slick new TV private eyes. I almost gagged. That kind of publicity gave the public the wrong impression. Most of professional PI work involved mundane skip tracing and process serving, although my last year had been uniquely adventurous. Maybe someday someone would write about my “adventures.” If all else failed, I could always write it out longhand myself in my old age. Hmmm.
© 2017 by John Hegenberger