Watching Marilyn, p.7Jack Chapman
The sun was up, traffic high, and out in the desert towns folk were already frying steak on the sidewalk. I was running late, had trouble parking. It was after 9 when I started up the narrow stairs to our office on the 2nd floor. A big man in a dark suit ran down the same stairs. He pushed me against the wall and went past at a lick, jumped the last 4 or 5 steps to the hallway.
It was not unusual for agitated men to descend from the credit-checker firm at the top of the building so I kept to verbal abuse shouted down at the back of his retreating head. I felt greater disapproval upstairs where I found the door to our office hanging from the one remaining busted hinge.
Drawers had been pulled out of the filing cabinets. Contents thrown about. Plenty of paperwork from old cases left screwed up on the floor but the collection of surveillance audio reels was gone and our spare bugging equipment had been trashed like someone had taken a hammer and gone berserk.
Tommy's desk was a mess but I went to mine first. Chair on its back. Middle drawer of the desk was where I had put the file on Marilyn. The drawer was a third open, something black and scaly thin hung out. I pulled the drawer further, identified the tail of a dead rat. The rat's stomach was bloated and shiny, coarse hair stuck out at angles caked with dried blood. I knew it was dead because its head was shot off. The rat was lying on a glossy photograph of Marilyn on her knees pressing her hands in wet cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The picture had been taken ten years before after the success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She was laughing and showed a lot of cleavage. She'd said to Jane Russell it would mean more to posterity if she imprinted her bust on the pavement and Jane imprinted her bottom.
I was standing wondering what to do about the wreckage when the office telephone started to ring. It took me a while to get over my surprise it had been left in working order.
I picked up the receiver and listened. It was bad news, but at that moment I really didn't mind the interruption.
Tommy was standing in the middle of the lawn and Sherri was in the doorway of the house still screaming at him. Sol Marx was behind her looking pale under his deep suntan.
Sol had sounded embarrassed to be calling but he wanted me there urgently. I could hear Sherri was hysterical even in the background of a telephone line. It took twenty minutes to drive over to where Sol lived in his well-off suburb not suited to such scenes going on so long or vehemently.
I slammed the car door and strode over and told Tommy to shut up and wait in the car and let me talk to her. He must have been ready to give up or had more confidence in me than I felt because he took my advice without a word and stomped off like a missile looking for somewhere to explode. Sherri was wearing a fringed leather outfit like Doris Day as Calamity Jane, luckily without six shooters, but she made an attempt to claw my face and kick my shins before I pinned her arms and hauled her past Sol into the house. Sol's living room was just too tasteful to sustain hysteria, even Sherri wasn't mad enough to break quality furniture.
After a while during which we tried to calm her she shifted down from screaming to sustained sobbing which sounded non-aggressive, and when she started blowing her nose and mumbling that Tommy was unfit to be a father and TJ needed a stable home I left Sol to fuss around her while I went back out to check on Tommy.
He was sitting sullen in the front passenger seat of the Chrysler and I didn't bother to ask about the new dent kicked in the door.
"It blows up, Frank, every time, out of proportion. Like walking through a minefield. I don’t have to try, do anything, ask anything. I just have to be there, it happens."
"You had to have been here for a reason, Tommy."
"I just want to take him on a trip for a few days. Camping. Fishing. Things. For the kid’s birthday. Is that too much to ask?"
I shrugged "She thinks you’re a bad influence."
"I’m his father. I got a right. All he ever does in this place is stay in that room and listen to garbage."
"Kids like different music, Tommy."
"The words don’t make sense and the tune’s like banging your head off a wall."
"She’s letting you take him out every weekend."
"For one day. So what’s wrong with a week? Take him somewhere real. I got a duty to teach him how to be a man."
I felt a need to change the subject. Tommy had once been a good man. With the medals he’d accumulated from the military he’d come back and made detective in record time, had a promising career before drink became less a habit and more a mountain to be climbed like Hillary went up Everest. Tommy didn't take oxygen and Sherri had been no Sherpa to help him down.
"Was it you wrecked our office this morning?"
The question turned his anger. "What the hell are you talking about?"
It didn’t improve his mood when I told him. He kept on swearing under his breath. If it wasn’t Tommy it was back to the man crashing down the stairs but I’d known those were the odds.
"Whatever was in the files, they’ve got it all. Someone needs to tell the client."
"You want me to talk to Scalligan this time?"
"Maybe we ought to take time to consider the situation. You used to be a detective, it might be an idea if you head back to the scene and do some detecting. How’d you get over here?"
I handed him the ignition key for the Chrysler. "I’ll see you back at the office."
Sherri was banging things in the kitchen, washing pots like a dog shakes a rat and competing with Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales coming down at top volume from the record player in Tommy Junior's room.
Sol was beginning to regain his composure but still shaken. He looked through the kitchen door at Sherri’s back and wisely decided to let her work off the rage. He took me through into the garden and stood looking at the view. He shook his head. "Did they ever get on? They must have one time. I can't imagine how."
"It was better when they were a thousand miles apart."
"She never talks about how they started. I asked once, thought it might help get it out in the open. Wish I hadn't the way she reacted."
"She can react. If you want to know it was the war. The big Pacific one. Everything after was anti-climax."
"Given a choice between a world war and an anticlimax…" Sol shook his head. Maybe it deserved an explanation.
"Tommy spent a long furlough with me in ’43, didn’t have any people of his own to speak of, he took a shine to my sister. A week later they took a trip to Nevada where the marriage laws require neither patience or undue forethought. Sheri seemed to take to being a service wife. It was when Tommy quit the Marines and joined LAPD and they started being a normal family that things fell apart."
Sol made a sympathetic face. "What was the problem, if you don’t mind me asking?"
"I don't know the details. I was abroad when it turned bad."
"Government work wasn't it?" Sol angled. He was always hoping I was fit to hold down a steady job.
"So what happened to make Sherri decide she has a problem with him taking TJ out?"
"Don’t ask me, Frank. It was okay to start with. Suited her, gave her some time on her own. But his behaviour's not getting any better. You’ve got to be worried about him in any position of responsibility."
"He gets drunk before he sees Sherri. I’m pretty sure he mostly stays sober when he’s out with the boy."
"Yeah, well I’d better warn you, because if you can’t mediate, Frank, no one can. She’s started talking about taking legal action, some kind of injunction. Says if Tommy won’t leave TJ alone he’s vulnerable as an unsuitable parent because of habitual alcohol abuse."
"That what they were arguing about?"
"Tommy turned up wanting to make plans for taking TJ on vacation. Sherri told him TJ has a new family here he should be spending his time with."
"Want to look at the pool now it’s finished?" Sol offered.
I wandered across to Sol's new pool. The chlorinated water was in and suitably blue but the lawn was still showing brown scars from the construction work. There was a rose coloured concrete surround made with a tile effect, a couple of striped, sun loungers arranged to the South and a freshly painted wood-frame pool cabin not much bigger than a gazebo with frosted glass windows. The pool was not over-large but the shimmer of the water was inviting in the heat. A single Wild Lilac leaf from Sol’s hedge was floating on the surface.
He looked back at the house where Sherri was still moving around inside the kitchen window. "Frank, you think there’s going to be an Atomic war?"
"I’m not going to start one."
"All these things going on, Berlin Wall, Vietnam, Khrushchev and Castro. You used to work for the government."
"I wasn’t in the end of the world department, Sol."
Sol slid open the glass door of the cabin and went inside. They hadn’t done much in the way of decoration yet, a couple of wooden chairs and hooks on the wall for bathing robes.
Sol stood in the middle of the polished wood floor and bent down. There was a trapdoor, well-fitting and made to be almost invisible, he lifted it gingerly with his manicured nails, twisted his white leather shoes awkwardly onto a ladder and descended cautiously, jerking his head for me to follow.
Looking down I saw a functional, basement room had been constructed below the summerhouse, which at least allayed my fears that Sol had tunnelled into the sewers imagining he was the Phantom of the Opera. When I got to the bottom and turned around the room was 10 by 10 at most, illuminated by a bare bulb in the middle of the cast concrete ceiling. There was a metal-leg table in the middle and bunk beds squeezed against each side wall. The rest of the walls were wooden shelving carrying stacks of tins and bottles, a battery radio, first aid kit, a row of toilet rolls. There was a pamphlet from the Office of Civil and Defence Mobilization lying on the table for the benefit of tourists.
"Family fallout shelter," Sol prompted when I’d looked around a while and hadn’t asked the obvious. "We had to keep it a secret. I know you're not going to broadcast this, Frank."
"Trust me," I agreed. I'd seen the B-movies too. "You need to guard against panic in the neighbourhood, wild mobs storming your refuge after the Bomb drops."
I took an inventory of the cans stacked on the shelving. "How long a supply?"
"Emergency food and water down here to last 14 days, enough for four people. Assuming they all like Heinz beans and Spam. I wanted you to know, Frank, the worst comes to the worst with the Soviets, you’re number four. You’re part of this family. You’ll be welcome here any time."
"That’s decent of you, Sol. I appreciate your consideration, I really do." I looked at the bunk beds, wondering which would be the best. It was hot like an oven. "Any air conditioning in here?"
"Can’t rely on an electricity supply. Just batteries for the torches and radio."
"Well if they let off every H bomb in the arsenal the nuclear winter’s supposed to last for a hundred years."
"Not in Southern California, Frank. Nuclear winter’s just going to bring the temperature down to a tolerable level."
Scalligan sat waiting in a Mercedes convertible nosed up to the low stone wall that separated the scenic viewpoint alongside Pacific Highway from the cliff. An hour past noon the sun had burnt away from the Santa Monica Mountains and was drifting towards Catalina. I scattered gravel as I pulled in beside the convertible. Except for a cloud of gulls that circled in the updraft the three of us had the view to ourselves. Malibu was the nearest place there'd be a diner and it was just a heat-haze smudge along the coast. Scalligan wore dark glasses against the semaphore flashes coming off the waves. Despite the heat he also wore a dark suit with fashionable narrow lapels, white shirt and a tight-knotted, narrow wool tie.
I finished parking at a right-angle to the scenery. A couple of gulls acting tougher than the rest landed back on the wall and resumed trying to stare Jack Scalligan out of the sandwich he was eating. It seemed to me like corned beef on white bread. Jack ate slowly and methodically and ignored everything else and the gulls shuffled from web foot to web foot not disguising their impatience.
Scalligan was still concentrating on his sandwich when I slid in the passenger seat beside him and Tommy climbed over onto the rear bench. Scalligan chewed another twenty times for his digestion then swallowed. "Tell me about it."
"I'm going to tell you straight, Jack. The LAPD stripped out our equipment from St Helena. Then last night, early this morning, someone went through our office with no attempt at discretion."
Scalligan threw his crusts over the windscreen. The gulls snatched them in mid-air then started screaming over who had the best take-off.
"Hope you ain't expecting that wins you a cigar. LAPD after you?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "They wanted us they'd have us in a cell. I'm assuming you could get us a good lawyer, Jack, if it came to that. Maybe persuade the studio to use a little influence. But right now they’re staying away from open confrontation, just sending a message they don’t want ignored."
"What you gonna do about it?"
"They got your files?"
"Stuff's all over the place. Hard to tell what's gone."
"They get any of those tapes?"
"With the Attorney General's voice? You told us not to keep copies of those tapes, just give you the master. What they got mostly would be papers and files."
Scalligan didn't altogether look like he believed me.
"They were on to our bugs at Fifth Helena some time ago," I admitted. "There won’t be any more tapes. I could write some of it out again from memory maybe."
"Why bother. The past's history, it's the future that makes a difference."
"So what you want us to do?"
"Is she still a problem?"
Scalligan was being rhetorical but it was sufficient opening for Tommy.
"This woman's a secret drinker. She's too pilled up most of the time to work. Unstable enough to be under a psychiatrist. Ditches husbands like empty bottles. Allegedly committing adultery with the Attorney General. No, she's okay. At least she banks her money onshore."
Scalligan twisted round to turn the dark glasses at Tommy. "You know no-one in Hollywood gives a damn about Bobby. You sure it's him keeping warm in that lush bosom?"
"I can see how you'd lose him in the crowd," admitted Tommy.
"Who else you thinking of?" I asked.
"Like the President."
"The studio give a damn about that?"
"He's the President."
"I don't know."
"Just keep watching her," Scalligan ordered.
Back in our Chrysler Tommy and me drove down Pacific Highway until we found the first roadside diner. We'd eaten through our Whale o' Burgers and Deep Sea fries and were washing them down with anonymous coffee when Tommy said "What’s wrong with her? She’s got everything anyone could want and she’s abusing herself and throwing it away. The way she empties her life like throwing out the trash, it’s just immoral."
"She’s searching for salvation, Tommy. Anything promises redemption she'll buy, the way she turned Jewish for Miller, way she took up the Method, she soaks up analysis, mediums, colonic irrigation, uppers, downers. Might be worth our while chasing up the psychic, maybe LAPD overlooked him."
"It didn’t have to be LAPD trashed our office."
"No it didn’t. The guy on the stairs wearing a suit like a Washington suit. But let’s keep it simple for Mr Scalligan."
"When did you ever see who Jimmy Stewart hangs out with? Only movies you watch are what your Vice Squad pals seize on the border."
"I keep my ear to the ground."
"Those are smart people in Hollywood, that's how they made the place, being smart. It’s not about morality, it's about dollars. It's only money counts. You don't think in the old days all those swank country clubs that wouldn't allow in Irish didn't start inviting Joe Kennedy after he bought RKO and Gloria Swanson with it?"
"You got inside information about country clubs now? Where does this come from, Frank?"
"Something I heard. All I'm saying is if a rich mobster pisses on their tennis court they'll put up a commemorative plaque same as they would for any other guy with enough liquid assets. You never heard of Jimmy Cagney, George Raft playing with the bad guys? They feed off each other. Money, fame, influence."
"All I'm saying is it ain't right."
"Why'd you think Bugsy Siegel was screwing Virginia Hill on Hollywood Boulevard before he was interrupted by three hundred bullets? Some polite fiction that closes the bedroom door before the cash fucks the celebrity, that’s your morality. Money and fame get together they breed power. So you don't know what you're talking about, Tommy. Never have."
"What makes it so friggin' difficult for anyone to accept I got standards?" Tommy shouted.
None of the other customers in the Pacific Highway diner seemed willing to come up with an answer.
Watching Marilyn by Jack Chapman / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes