Elusive film actress hires P.I. to probe a mystery. Prose poem. 2,438 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was Halloween for eye-candy around the pool,
starlets, models, actresses of considerable reputation,
trophy wives on the arms of powerful producers.
But they were all extras on this set, a backdrop for Jade Bellinger.
Even the other professional glamour-pusses, present in the hope
of becoming the center of attention, couldn’t tear their eyes off her.
As a final proof of her allure, jealous wives, instead of glaring at
their wonderstruck husbands, had chosen to concentrate their own gazes
on the woman.
"Hello. I’m Jade."
It was gracious, though hardly necessary, for her to introduce herself.
She was the toast of Hollywood. She carried a kind of
deep effortless glamor not seen since the days of Garbo and Dietrich.
She had turned down Vogue and Vanity Fair covers,
and chose not to pimp herself out on talk shows or social media.
Said to be the most elusive interview in town,
she wouldn’t even go out on promotional junkets for her own films.
"You may be wondering why you were invited," she said.
It was a wrap party for her new movie, Seeds Of Doubt,
held at her home high in the Hollywood Hills.
"Are you familiar with the history of this place?" she asked.
"I know the legend, the rumors, nothing in particular.
Didn’t it used to be known as The Spider Pool?"
"Yes, in the fifties and early sixties. Before that, in 1923, a very eccentric
silent movie director named Jack McDermott bought this property
and built a deeply peculiar house here. While working, he had
noticed that film sets, which must have been much sturdier in his day,
were routinely discarded. So he decided, rather than consigning
them to the flames, to construct his home of them. He used pieces
from Song Of Love, The Thief Of Bagdad, Robin Hood, The Phantom Of The Opera. He ended up with a crib that was
weird even by Hollywood standards, a sort of Moroccan-Egyptian-Navajo
palace, all hauled up the hill by donkeys. Minarets, secret passageways,
a mock-cemetery, an upside-down room with the furniture attached to the
ceiling and a chandelier to the floor. Inebriated guests who had passed
out the night before would awaken there with such strange hangovers I expect
many of them swore off strong drink on the spot. He even had a cannon
from The Sea Hawk mounted on his roof. He died in 1946
of an overdose of sleeping pills and the house burned down the
following year, possibly torched by squatters.
Shortly after his passing,
the house’s second generation of notoriety was inaugurated. The grounds
became a kind of ‘cheesecake factory’ where both amateur and professional
photographers took to snapping pics of nude pin-up models around the pool.
One of the photographers was Harold Lloyd, ranked by most critics
as a distant third among silent screen comedians behind Chaplin
and Buster Keaton. Lloyd led a curiously divided life, devoted on
both sides of it to photography. At the Beverly Hills manse known
as Greenacres, where he lived with his wife, the actress Mildred Davis
and their daughter, he took respectable portraits of the movie folks of the day.
But at The Spider Pool, it was the nude models he was drawn to."
I couldn’t help wondering why she was giving me such elaborate
background on her house. "Is that why you bought the place?" I asked.
"Because you were fascinated by its history?"
"Partly," she said, "I thought it would be fun to
broker a marriage between old and new Hollywood."
But mostly because I wanted to design and build a house from scratch.
The views are superb and my nearest neighbor is a half a mile away."
If you don’t count the helicopters, I thought, glancing skyward.
"Ah, yes," she said. "The gutter press have gone up in the world.
At the moment they’re covering the party,
ordinarily, they swoop in trying to catch me with my top off while sunbathing.
If I hold up a sign saying ‘CHIPS!’, they’ll drop bags of
Doritos. Once I tried for guacamole, but things got rather messy."
She took a deep breath."But there’s another, less well
known aspect of The Spider Pool," she went on.
"In 1957, one of the models was found floating face-down in the pool.
It was ruled an accidental death, due to intoxication, even as
rumors persisted that the girl had been Harold Lloyd’s mistress.
But the investigator who had been first on the scene
never fully accepted the official explanation and had kept digging.
He was able to produce evidence indicating that, despite the amount
of alcohol in her blood stream and the water found in the girl’s lungs,
she had died, or been dispatched, elsewhere
and her body moved to the pool afterwards.
His suspicions fell first on Lloyd and afterwards on Lloyd’s wife.
At that point, he was called to heel. Ancient history, I know.
But recently, a second death by drowning occurred here.
Another young women, a close friend of mine,
was found in the middle of the night,
also nude and face-down, also drowned,
also ruled an accidental death, and this
time the case was hushed up even harder.
Studios have a frightening amount of pull in this town."
I waited, nearly certain of what she would say next.
"I think my friend was killed."
"Is that why you want to hire me?"
"Yes. You see, the police passed it off as routine, dismissed
it out of hand. It’s even possible that I was the intended victim.
My late friend, before she landed her first speaking role,
had on occasion been my body-double in a few nude love scenes.
She bore a faint resemblance to me facially,
but from the neck down, we were virtually identical."
I considered asking for the titles of those movies and thought better of it.
"These events so eerily mirror those of 1957 that I can’t help
thinking that the killer, if there is one, is working from a script.
But since the previous case was slammed shut,
I can’t discover what happened then,
and so I can’t learn what might happen now
in parallel to the earlier eras crimes."
"Doesn’t sound like a murder mystery to me," I said.
"More like one of those cheesy horror movies where the cheerleader
with the largest breasts is always the first to be killed."
She cast a bemused glance at her assembled female guests,
most of whose bosoms had been so spectacularly enhanced
that their feet were forever protected from the threat of sunburn.
"In that case, I would appear to be in no immediate danger,"
she said with a droll grin.
"But why hire me? This town is crawling with
agencies with far greater resources and manpower."
She looked at me for a long time and then looked away.
"Your father was the lead investigator into the murder allegations in 1957.
When he began to invoke the names of celebrity suspects,
a minor sensation ensued, but then pressure came down, with prejudice.
Without the chance to mount any kind of defense on his own behalf,
he was branded a ranting drunk, a publicity hound, and suspended indefinitely.
He was pilloried by the press, accused of
grandstanding and became a laughingstock.
The case was never solved, was covered up thereafter,
and your father never worked in law enforcement again.
No one knows what became of him."
God knows I didn’t. I knew only
that I had known him too little, and after my thirteenth
birthday not at all. He had taken to an armchair in front
of the television, then taken to drink and finally to the road.
This was rather embarrassing. The client knew more about
the detective’s father than the sleuth himself. Whenever I had
asked about my dad, my mother had pointedly changed the subject.
"The only reason I even know about your father," she continued,
"is that I was friendly with a retired script supervisor who had
once been a police dispatcher. She was a little hazy on the details,
but remembered that the case had been buried,
with an emphatically closed casket, as it were."
Looking at her her, my eyelids turned into opium poppies
and I could feel dreams, my own and others’,
floating and filtering through my body,
editing me down into the director’s cut of myself,
the version of me too controversial ever to be released until this instant.
"If you’re able to make any sense of this business," she said,
"come back and we can meet privately. No helicopters."
"OK. I’ll bring chips and guacamole."
I must still be a P.I. I had a second floor home-office above
a rundown tiki bar on the seedy outskirts of Venice Beach.
I had a bottle of hooch in one of the two mini-fridges
upon which rested the weatherbeaten door that served as my desk.
And now, apparently, I had a client. A movie star, no less.
There was a bedraggled palm tree right outside the office window
which I’d been known to shinny down
to escape process servers and ex-girlfriends.
Right now it looked ready to lean against a lamppost for support.
The joint downstairs was frequented by a
lively assortment of disreputable characters:
neighborhood winos cadging either sunblock or a drink,
skateboarders, rollerbladers, beach-combers, volleyball bums.
The bartender was a Hawaiian tropic blonde so profusely illustrated
that her neck-to-ankle tattoos constituted a kind of de facto clothing.
Jade had fronted me a retainer large enough to pay my tab at the bar.
So, using the ancient dumb-waiter in the wall,
I sent down a drink order and tried to sort out my thoughts.
All in their mid to late eighties, the last of The Spider Pool girls,
reduced to four in number, had had no trouble talking about the old days,
though they seemed a bit bewildered by the present.
There should be a retirement home for old
pin-up models and burly-que queens, I thought,
A place with plump cushions and cabana boys,
where they could luxuriate in the recollection of the cat-calls,
wolf whistles and glad excitement they had once inspired.
I decided to raise the subject with Jade.
I found all four of them in drab nursing homes,
one in Silver Lake, one in Echo Park, one in Sherman Oaks
and the last way the hell out in La Habra.
Each of them had framed photos of their younger selves in their heydays
proudly displayed at their bedsides, and each remembered the others,
though were unaware that their former colleagues
were still alive and a very few miles away.
Harold Lloyd they remembered as a perfect gentleman,
neither a lech nor overly impressed by his stature in the industry.
He had seemed more titillated by his expensive photographic
equipment than the naked women he had posed so decorously.
Still, it gave me pause. Had jealous rage seethed beneath a placid exterior?
Had my father found a way to ruffle those calm waters?
The breeze off the ocean was as salty as ever, but somehow
more enticing, I sensed, just as a coconut grazed my forehead.
Why would the palm tree be drilling me with a high hard one?
I wondered, and looked to my left to see my client waving at me.
The tree was close enough to the window
that I was able to lean out and haul her in.
"You could have just taken the stairs," I said,
"No one would have recognized you in that get-up."
She was wearing white pedal-pushers, a crop-top t-shirt and flip-flops.
"Yes," she said, sliding into character, "Sometimes I like
to walk among my subjects disguised as a commoner."
Then, sliding out again, "What’s a girl have to do to get a drink in this dump?" Fortunately, my order arrived in a timely fashion.
She was happy to share, and delighted by the dumb-waiter.
"I have a machete around here somewhere."
I found it on the wall and chopped the coconut in two,
dividing the big Mai-Tai between the halves.
"I thought we were going to meet at your place."
She snorted. "It’s staked out like the crime scene of the century,"
she said. "The paparazzi can always tell when something’s up.
I’d have had to bring you in through the tunnel."
"You have a tunnel?" I said, incredulous.
"Sure. How do you think I got out? It’s not really my tunnel.
It came with the house, a last laugh from Jack McDermott.
I found it accidentally one day when I was hiding in the wine cellar."
"Where does it go?" "Wouldn’t you like to know?" She stuck her tongue
out at me. "I keep a car service on stand-by to pick me up when I emerge
from my underground lair. But they’re sworn to secrecy."
She was hoping for a progress report, but I didn’t have much to tell her.
Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis had gone to their respective rewards.
My requests to interview his living relatives were politely, if frostily, declined.
The police files didn’t offer so much as a mysterious hole
where a missing folder might once have been. The case was simply closed.
I couldn’t even go over the grounds of the former Spider Pool,
unless I was prepared to excavate my own client’s property.
And none of the models remembered any investigation into a possible homicide.
Too bad. I’d been hoping to hear stories about my dad.
She had left by the stairs, disappointed by my report, but urging me to continue.
The low-life riff-raff in the club was so intent on their own dissolution,
they paid no heed to one of the most famous women on earth passing
through their midst. No wonder I thought them boon companions.
I was still sitting at my desk, about to send down for another drink,
when word reached me of my mother’s death.
Though it had long been expected,
I was no readier for it than anyone ever is.
I made my final trip to the family home,
where she’d been living alone for more than thirty years.
After packing away her possessions i decided on a few keepsakes.
Like the Antonio & Cleopatra cigar box which was fuller than it should have been,
filled almost to collapsing. It didn’t take me long to learn why.
This is an edited excerpt from the full manuscript.