Clues start coming together for the P.I. and his film actress client. Prose poem. 2,084 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Jade had walked me to my door the night before,
and draped one of the plumeria leis around my neck
before kissing me goodnight on the cheek.
Her breath smelled of apples, and in her eyes,
when she looked at me in close-up,
an irreconcilable cocktail of mischief and injury glimmered.
Who was she, I wondered, when she wasn’t busy being someone else?
So I climbed out of bed and into my ragtop woody
to stop at the "Made In The Shade"
nursing home in Sherman Oaks where Maggie Amberson
was playing out her string. My timing turned out to be good.
Carrying a box of profiteroles from John Kelly, a confectionary
in Santa Monica, I found her in a reasonably cozy room,
lying abed watching an early Jade Bellinger movie
streaming on Netflix. It had been her first starring role
and offered the pleasure of seeing a good actress
caught in the act of becoming great. She played
a high school teacher accused of having an affair
with one of her students. Somehow, she made this piffle believable,
walking multiple tightropes without ever missing a step.
A nurse nearly Maggie’s age, her name tag identifying her as "Millicent,"
shuffled in balancing a tray of lime jello, a scoop of mashed potatoes
and what appeared to be a cube of meatloaf with carrots and
peas around it segregated into their own little compartments.
She paused on her way out to glance up at the screen and mutter,
"She ain’t no Kate Hepburn, but she’ll do." I felt bad for her,
stuck in a deadly dull job where nothing new would ever
happen, unless you counted the patients passing away.
She didn’t even have the comfort of a glamorous past to look back on.
I handed the bag of profiteroles to Maggie, and she
accepted them as her due. The gifts from adoring men
may have declined from jewelry and furs to
a quick sugar rush, but it perked her right up.
I sat on the bed and watched with her until the closing credits rolled.
"She was such a dear to us last night," Maggie said. " I wanted
to see some of her work while the memory of her was still fresh in my mind."
I hardly knew why I was there. Because she had met my father?
What was I hoping to find traipsing around in his fossilized footsteps?
"I’m glad you came." she said.
"Me, too. But there’s something else I’d like to go back to, if I may." She nodded.
"The girl who drowned, in 1957, are you sure you didn’t know her?"
"I’d met her, I’d seen her. Both at The Spider Pool and at other photo shoots.
But I didn’t really know her, except by reputation." She paused, as though
inching into deeper water. "What was her reputation?" I asked.
"I guess it doesn’t matter now," she said. "Who could it harm? They said,
and maybe they were just being catty, that she wasn’t exclusive
to Harold Lloyd. That, in fact, she sometimes went with another girl."
"Do you remember which girl?" "No, honey, I only know it wasn’t me."
She sighed, rather theatrically. "Maybe I should have tried that side of the street.
I’ve gone through a half-dozen husbands in my life—
they had a habit of trading me in for the newer models—
and I have two children somewhere in this world.
I get a check or a money order from one of my exes every
once in a while, but after the kids were taken away from me,
I lost track of them completely. Last night, my old Spider Pool pals
promised they’d stop by. Or maybe I can get out to see them.
They’re the closest thing to family left to me now."
Maggie excused herself. It was time for her nap.
I found Jade stalking around with a script in her hand,
gesticulating and running lines, playing all the characters in a scene.
She invited me into the kitchen for a glass of wine.
When she opened the refrigerator door, I saw an
events calendar held to it by a magnet. I would
have liked to take a closer look at it, but when
she closed the door, she was standing in front of it.
"I checked the newspaper accounts of the girl’s death.
They didn’t have much to say about her. More about you.
Exactly where were you when your friend drowned?" I said.
"In Mazatlán, playing a Mexican whore. A very solid alibi.
I was gang-banged by an entire drug cartel.
You could ask them if you don’t believe me."
"And where was she?"
"House-sitting somewhere, I think. A lot of out of work
actors house-sit. It not only keeps your ass off the street,
but it’s a good acting exercise. You have to act like
you know what you’re doing and can take care of things."
"If she was house-sitting, how did she end up dead in your back yard?"
"I gave her the code to the gate. I told her she was free to use the pool any time.
I need to go. My agent is taking me to lunch."
I’d been diligently refilling her glass with chardonnay,
hoping it would send her to the bathroom and
give me a chance to look at the events calendar.
But she’d kept her body between me and the fridge,
almost aggressively, before ushering me to the door.
I needed to find the other end of her tunnel.
This time, saying goodbye, she kissed me on the lips.
It wasn’t a passionate attack, with her nails dug into my back.
Rather, it was soft and sweet and slow, almost thoughtful,
her nails tracing soft lines down my neck, her tongue seeking
gently for something in my mouth, as though trying not to wake me up.
My blood didn’t boil, but it simmered real hard.
Days afterwards, it occurred to me that it was how
Jade Bellinger always kissed in her movies.
It would need to go more or less laterally, and given the prankish
nature of Jack McDermott, its terminus was bound to be somewhere
the eccentric silent movie director could pop out and put a scare
into his cronies. A watering hole was my first guess.
So I bent to the task of examining old business licenses.
He had built the house in the hills in 1923.
So the gin-mill, or roadhouse, would need
to have been extant shortly thereafter.
When I realized there was only one barely usable road back then,
it became easier still. There were a great many other streets and
developments now, but the original road, the one the donkeys
had hauled the movie sets on, was still there, though in far better condition.
But I couldn’t find any business licenses before 1940.
So I did what my dad would have done and hit the streets.
I drove around, and asked around, and then did it all over again.
After three days of wearing out shoe leather, I chanced upon a curio shop
down on the flats called "Madeleines" and there found what I was
looking for: a wheel of poker chips that came with a partial set of
shot glasses from a card room and dive bar called "Jack’s Or Better."
I figured McDermott for a partner in the place.
Each glass bore the year 1926, and on each there was a street address.
I had hoped to find some kind of old-timey mercantile operation on the spot.
A general store with gingham dresses, barrels of nails and all the latest catalogues,
from Montgomery Ward to the Farmer’s Almanac.
Maybe the case had made me a little goofy.
But when I found the address where I’d determined the tunnel must end
and eased into the little pull-out, barely large enough for a compact car,
there was no business and no residence.
I was parked in front of a open field.
The donkey traffic may have been heavier in 1923,
but there was still one complete ass on the road.
I climbed out cursing myself, my father and my luck.
My lot in life had turned out to be vacant.
I stomped around the field looking for I knew not what.
A hollow tree? A ski lift? Climbing wearily back in,
I dropped my phone on the ground. Trying to pick it up,
I accidentally kicked it under the car.
Getting down onto hands and knees to retrieve it,
I couldn’t help noticing that I had parked directly over a manhole.
Not a real manhole. It was made of wood, with some astroturf
and artificial leaves and twigs permanently attached,
like a sniper’s helmet with branches stuck to it.
Pretty clever, really, when you thought about it.
If you drove here looking for the entrance to
Jade’s tunnel, you were obliged to park over it,
removing it from sight. I motored about a half-mile uphill
to a more spacious turnout, left the woody and walked back down.
As I’d anticipated, the grade wasn’t steep
and there were handrails all the way,
good ventilation, even a few benches for taking a rest.
If the homeless community ever tumbled to this tunnel,
an underground city would grow up here overnight.
I knew she was scheduled to be on set all day.
I only needed a few minutes, but breaking and entering makes me nervous,
so I didn’t even pause to peruse the labels in the wine cellar
but headed straight for the kitchen. Relieved not to run into
workmen or a cleaning woman, I looked intently at the events calendar.
I didn’t know why it was so important to me.
But I felt like people who needed my help
were yelling at me from behind thick glass.
And why was an image of Jade’s mouth messing with my head?
Probably because of the lipstick encircling a date on the calendar,
a deep red heart around it with a
notation saying "Back From Mazatlán."
I wondered why she would need to circle the date of her
own return, and almost voluptuously, in lipstick, at that.
I kept poking around, but there was really no reason
to believe the girl’s body had been moved to Jade’s pool.
Why, I wondered, did Jade herself
keep insisting on these parallels to 1957?
Could my client have revealed part of the truth to me, and
concealed the rest? For instance: she told me the girl had
been house-sitting, but hadn’t mentioned where. But if she had
been house-sitting for Jade, there had never been any need
to move her body. When I got through to an assistant
producer on the picture Jade had been filming in Mexico,
he told me production had been shut down for a week
due to the director suffering from "flu-like symptoms."
It hardly mattered since Ms. Bellinger’s only
remaining scene had been cut from the script.
I checked flight manifests, talked with ticket agents,
security personnel, pilots, air traffic controllers
and then with cabbies, a lot of cabbies, until I was able
to sketch a picture of Jade’s return home that rang true.
Something Maggie Amberson had said about the first drowned girl,
that she’d been rumored to enjoy the company of other girls,
combined in my mind with that mark on the calendar.
Might it have been not a heart drawn in lipstick
but an actual kiss, planted there by a lovestruck
girl, awaiting the coming of her own true love?
I needed footage from security cameras,
but my client was creeped out
by having them on the premises.
Perhaps it was too much like being at work.
But now I had no way see if anyone
had driven in or out on the night of
Jade’s return before she herself was dropped off. Let’s see:
If she’d entrusted her friend with the key-code for her front gate,
what else might she have shared? When I’d gone back to look
at the calendar, I’d taken a quick peek into the fridge
where a half-empty bottle of champagne sat beside
an untasted chocolate soufflé, two big ahi fillets
and several small produce department bags of vegetables.
The champagne was top shelf, the soufflé looked
homemade, the ahi and veggies were marked "Erewhon."
This is an edited excerpt from the full manuscript