The film actress assists the P.I. in uncovering his father’s police past. Prose Poem. 2,257 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I found a stack of yellowing index cards.
On them, in scrawled handwriting I knew well from long-ago
Christmas and birthday cards, were my father’s case
notes about that night at The Spider Pool in 1957.
In pencil, he had created a maze of scribbles, cross-outs,
arrows, diagrams, rewrites, question marks, underlinings,
erasures, names I recognized and names that meant nothing to me.
I laid the cards out in what I thought was chronological order.
Once I had a handle on his system, I was able to follow his surmises.
At first, he had thought the girl’s secret sugar, Harold Lloyd himself,
to be the killer. But a number of witnesses had testified
to his presence at The Spider Pool when the girl’s life ended
in another location, and his suspicions fell upon Mildred Davis.
He’d gone exhaustively over the phone records
of all the principal players and found a series of calls
initiated by the girlfriend to the wife. He’d been unable to find
a scrap of hard evidence proving that a confrontation had followed the calls,
but it seemed not unlikely. At that point, he’d been stymied. He believed
that Mildred had put up with a series of minor and meaningless
physical collisions between her husband and various young models,
but that this time Harold had fallen in love with one of the girls,
leaving Mildred’s whole life suddenly situated over a fault line.
Then my father had been suspended and lost all official powers.
Without a badge, a gun or the backing of the department, he had
gone rogue, and become an unlicensed P.I., my ancestor in two respects.
When Mildred herself refused him an audience,
he’d waited for her staff to run errands and braced them
in markets and parking lots, perhaps giving the
impression that he was still on the city’s payroll.
Then he’d knocked on the doors of the Lloyd’s neighbors,
a few of whom actually gave him the time of day.
And when he was turned away, he laid small sums of money on
their maids, gardeners, pool cleaners, secretaries and chauffeurs.
Amazing how far a double-sawbuck went in 1957.
A switchboard operator who owed him a favor, a mail carrier who’d
been on his route at a fateful moment, linemen, milkmen,
dog-walkers, a delivery boy from a linen-cleaning service,
a Western Union telegrapher who played the ponies—
all helped him to painstakingly develop a picture
of events at Greenacres on the day and night of the murder.
When he was done, it all added up to an unsettling revelation:
He had been right about almost everything. The girl had
died at the Lloyd residence and her body moved
to The Spider Pool. And Harold Lloyd had been innocent
of any wrongdoing. And Mildred Davis was the key to the case.
But she hadn’t committed murder either.
There had never been a murder.
Instead, born of panic, there had been a cleverly conceived
midnight drama of misdirection, staged by Mildred’s lover,
the superintendent of the Beverly Hills Police Department.
Since my father was no longer on the force,
he hadn’t needed to worry about jurisdictional disputes
between his old station of the Hollywood Police
and their counterparts in Beverly Hills, whom most
members of the LAPD thought little more than fetch
and carry boys who truckled to the whims of the
wealthy citizens of that manicured fantasy land.
"Poodleguards" they’d called them.
But when he’d gone to his chief and aired
his suspicions regarding the superintendent,
his dismissal had been practically guaranteed.
The chief was a career man, and knew full well
how things worked in Southern California.
My father couldn’t make an arrest, and his "wild and irresponsible
accusations" only brought further ridicule down on his head.
He alone had woven the network of servants’ whispers into a coherent story.
Mildred, bored with waiting for her errant husband to return
from the beds of his hussies, had taken to attending charity functions
where she had met and caught the eye of the superintendent of police.
Their subsequent affair had filled her afternoons agreeably,
and since her charity work included many police fund-raisers,
his presence at the estate could be easily explained. She was
within her rights, she felt, to get back at her husband, but
had no desire to flaunt her own infidelity in his face.
When the calls started coming from the girl, who wanted to
speak to Harold’s missus in person, to convince her that in every
sense but the contractual her marriage was over and
a quiet divorce would be best for all concerned, Mildred had
refused to take them. Overcome by their sheer volume,
however, she eventually relented and agreed to a meeting,
if only to set the misguided girl straight. But her candor
had proven disarming. She was so guileless and so
clearly not a gold-digger, that Mildred had softened.
They sat together on a settee and spoke about Harold Lloyd.
Mildred still loved him, if only as her daughter’s doting father,
and the girl all but worshipped the silent screen star
who had become her clandestine lover.
A pitcher of gimlets later, the new friends decided to take a swim.
She loaned the girl a suit, changed into a
charming number she’d bought in Catalina,
and gone into her kitchen to make a fresh batch of gimlets.
By the time she walked out onto the patio to the edge of the pool,
half-sloshed herself, the girl was already a goner. Mildred had waded in,
but Harold’s young mistress would never be the life of anyone’s party again.
Now the lady of the house had a body on her hands and nowhere to turn,
no choice but to alert the police. Squad cars, sirens, scandal, ruin.
Terrified by repercussions that could mean the end of respectability,
maybe even the destruction of her family,
she tossed off another gimlet in a single gulp, and called her lover.
Once the superintendent had arrived and been acquainted
with the unfortunate details of the matter,
Mildred was able to breathe a great sigh of relief.
Rather than calling for a forensics team or an ambulance,
he had simply asked for the loan of a blanket.
Though she still had strong feelings for Harold —
the nominal head of her family — she wasn’t altogether opposed
to the idea of his being implicated in his girlfriend’s death,
provided no shadow were cast on herself or their daughter.
But it shouldn’t come to that, he assured her.
It wouldn’t be hard to make it look like an accident,
since that’s exactly what it had been. Neither of them needed alibis.
Once the presence of the body was established in the Hollywood Hills,
it was only necessary for them not to have been at The Spider Pool that night.
A thoughtful fellow, he had even dry cleaned and returned the blanket.
What was left for my father to do? Though a handful of models and
snap-shooters had been at Jack McDermott’s old place
on the night in question, none could corroborate his theory.
No one recalled a man pulling into the driveway and
moving a body from the trunk of his car to the pool
(Though the house was no longer standing, Harold Lloyd
and some of the other photographers kept the pool filled
and cleaned as an inducement to the shyer young ingénues
to shed their dresses along with their inhibitions). Probably
he had waited out of sight until the weary revelers had
decamped before depositing the dead girl’s body in the water.
But without a witness, my father had no clinching piece of evidence.
Had he tried taking his skein of loose threads before a state’s attorney
and demanding that an obstruction of justice charge be brought
against the superintendent, it would have been like
laying an enormous spider web out on moving water.
Here the case notes ended. It occurred to me that this
stack of cracked old index cards was my sole patrimony.
There was no separate letter explaining why he’d
stowed this record of his investigation.
I could only think that he hadn’t wanted me to remember
him as the babbling monomaniac portrayed by the press.
He, too, must have made one last visit to the family home.
If he’d spent any time with my mother then, she’d never mentioned it.
And now I couldn’t ask her. Or him, for that matter.
The tiki bar had cycled through many names since it first opened.
When I’d moved into the office, it was called "Palm Bitch,"
then "The Ukelele Ladies Room," "Gabby’s" (after Gabby Pahinui,
one of the fathers of slack key guitar), "The Moon & Sixpence,"
then for a couple of disastrous months it had been a Polynesian
comedy club called "Aloha-Ha," then "PL&HL"
(for Peace, Love and Hang Loose) before finally
settling into its current groove as "Be-Bop-a-Hula."
I was able to remember all the names
because I had a complete set of cocktail napkins.
And because I was operating on Jade’s dime and had
been instructed to spare no expense, I went a little
luxury car crazy, renting four saloon-style 1950s Bentleys,
one for each of the reunion’s guests of honor,
so they could arrive, one at a time, in classic rides from their
glory decade and make separate, red carpet-like entrances.
For wheel men, I hired four hunky would-be actors — tan, chiseled,
Shirtless — with lots of white teeth and dark wavy hair.
I felt I owed it to them. Hadn’t they, albeit unknowingly,
given me a sort of reunion with my father? Jade had promised
to make an appearance, though she hadn’t shown up yet.
I wasn’t altogether comfortable about telling her what I’d uncovered.
Though if no murder had been committed in 1957,
shouldn’t her belief in a remake convince
her she had nothing to fear? I didn’t mind
coming off the payroll so much as the thought that
this could be my last time in her company.
She made a man, any man, feel he had a chance with her,
that he alone had been granted a glimpse of her innermost self:
assistant directors, the gofers on her movie sets, delivery boys,
even screenwriters. She was so far from seeming unobtainable,
that an aging shamus might believe for
a moment that she had set her sights on him.
In a career spanning fewer than ten years,
she had already portrayed a remarkably diverse array of characters—
a prim governess, a lascivious countess, an Irish barmaid,
a Russian peasant, a concert violinist,
a schizophrenic barrister, a Prime Minister,
lost souls and women who ran the world
(sometimes at the same time) —
yet invested in all an erotic charge so powerful
that at the end of her performances,
most men and not a few women were unable
to rise and leave the theater until the
violent trembling of their knees had subsided.
In person, the effect was even stronger.
Stepping out of their limos, The Spider Pool girls,
looking not in the least like doddering old ladies
as they waved to the small crowd of fans who
had shown up in response to my internet posting,
stopped to sign autographs and pose for photos before
entering the dimness of the club.
I decided to share the story of the drowned girl way back when.
None of them had been friendly with the victim,
but all were intrigued by the same detail:
the moving of the body from Greenacres to The Spider Pool.
It gave them chills, even from a distance of sixty years. The man with the
blanket might have sat in his dark Town Car among the trees at the edge
of the grounds for hours, watching and waiting
for them to finish playing mermaids and satyrs.
I was ready to pull out their chairs and call it a night
when Jade walked in, her left arm loaded with exquisite plumeria
leis which she placed around the necks of The Spider Pool Girls in tribute.
She insisted on taking a series of selfies with them, some glamorous,
some hilarious, then sat and talked about her house and their careers
for a full ninety minutes until the club was about to close.
We walked them to their limos and returned for French Seventy-Fives.
Any nightspot in southern California will
always stay open late for a major movie star.
So we were permitted to sit side by side on the bar
while the working stiffs put the joint to bed.
I told her the story laid out in the case notes,
and shared The Spider Pool girls’ reaction to the tale.
"You know, it never occurred to me to wonder if she might have
drowned someplace else and her body been moved to my house,"
she said. "I naturally assumed it happened where I found her.
But if so many other elements match up, why not that one?
I want you to keep digging. Isn’t that what your father would have done?"
"I wouldn’t know. But something’s bothering me. If your theory is correct,
and you are this version’s version of Jack McDermott, don’t you also
have to be Harold Lloyd, since you’re the movie star in the movie?"
Instead of answering, she put her arms around my neck
and whispered, "It also raises the question:
Who’s the new superintendent, the man
with the blanket who moved the body?"
"Who says anyone moved the body? Are you sure
we aren’t just collaborating on a screenplay?"
"Maybe we are," she said. "If so, it needs an ending."
This is an edited excerpt from the full manuscript