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He Done Her Wrong
By Stuart M. Kaminksy
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1993 Stuart M. Kaminksy
All rights reserved.
The best-looking Mae West in the room, outside of Mae West herself, was a Chinese guy named Richard Horn who wanted to be a comedian. I counted no less than forty Mae Wests in the room, at least one of whom was a thief.
I met Mae West the last day in April 1942, a cool day with no sun. I had called her number the day before, after talking to my brother Phil, and a man had answered and told me to come out the next morning. The man then told me how to get to her ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and I told my mechanic, No-Neck Arnie, that he had to turn all his magic on to keep my '34 Buick going a few more days. He had taken half my last fee to repaint the car and fix the dents an angry elephant had made in it.
"Oliver ain't gonna make it through the summer," Arnie had said, shifting his cigar to the other side of his mouth and rubbing the new black paint job. "You shouldn't sink any more gelt into it. I tell you for a fact." It bothered me that Arnie had named the car Oliver, since I always thought of it as a female.
"I can't afford a new car," I explained. "Inflation is here, Arn. My income is low. Cars are hard to get. The war."
He wiped his greasy hands on his greasy overalls, spit on the roof of Oliver where he saw or imagined he saw a taint in the paint, and rubbed his sleeve on it professionally.
"I know a guy can get you a '38 Ford coupe for two hundred cash and no questions," he said. "Runs good."
"If I get two hundred, I'll be back."
"Suit yourself," he shrugged in a not-too-bad imitation of Randolph Scott.
I suited myself and headed for the valley. The car sounded fine most of the way. Instead of listening to it or the radio, I went over what I had picked up from the L.A. Times' files the night before. The few private detectives and all the cops I know claim to have friends at the newspapers in town, reporters or editors who do favors and get favors back. I've got no such contacts. There's not much I can offer besides a little inside information on a few stars, and I make whatever living I've got by keeping my mouth shut.
When I was a kid back in 1925, a Jewish gangster named Dave Berman became a minor folk hero by refusing to testify against his friends in a kidnapping case. "Hell, all they can give me is life," he said, and the kids back in Glendale and across the country picked it up as a catchphrase. For me it was more than that. Berman may have been a kidnapper, but he had something to sell, loyalty and nerve.
I was dressed right for the meeting, a new 100 percent all-wool tropical worsted gray suit I'd picked up from Hy's Clothes for Him for $22.50 new. Four more bucks got me an extra pair of pants. The tie was a striped blue thing I'd been given for my birthday back in November by my friend and next-door neighbor at Mrs. Plaut's Boardinghouse, Gunther Wherthman.
Driving down Laurel Canyon Road, I saw a sign reminding me to CONSERVE FOOD, so I stopped at a little neighborhood market, picked up a dozen eggs for thirty cents, three Lifebuoy soaps for seventeen cents, and a box of spoon-size Shreddies for which I didn't ask the price. Some things are essential even in inflation. With the groceries safely in the trunk, I continued out beyond the cluster of valley towns and into the country roads at the foot of the mountains.
Mae West, according to the guy at the Times I had to bribe to let me see the files, was pushing fifty and pulling down maybe three hundred thousand dollars for each movie she wrote and acted in. She was in the middle of a divorce from a guy she hadn't seen in twenty years. She'd been under a lot of pressure from groups claiming she was a bad moral influence, and she hadn't made a movie in two years; but that one, My Little Chickadee, according to the Times morgue guy, who looked like the paper in his files—fragile, old, and a little yellow—had earned a pile of money for Paramount.
That was enough to know and think about until I got some facts. I flipped on the radio and picked up Connie Boswell singing "Stardust." I hummed along with her till I found the road I'd been directed to just outside La Canada and urged Oliver to pull us by the retreads up to the big two-story house. Mae West didn't live in the middle of nowhere—she lived on its fringes.
The whole thing had started a week earlier when my brother Phil had cornered me in my office, a cubbyhole with a door inside the dental suite of Sheldon Minck, D.D.S.
Phil is a few months from his first half century on earth. His hair is steel gray to match his disposition and his body solid, with more than a hint of cop gut. Both of which are appropriate, since he is a Los Angeles Homicide lieutenant hoping, in spite of the people he has antagonized over the years by failing to control his temper, to make captain in the near future. Phil is angry about criminals. No matter how many he has stomped, kicked, threatened, and maimed, no matter how many he has railroaded, goaded, and locked up with questionable evidence and the real thing, there are always others to take their place, always more than the week before. Phil strikes with outrage at crime, but there are moments when he focuses some of that hatred on me.
He has been doing that for a lifetime, too. It is his therapy. At home he is a gentle father and a tender husband. He has to be. His wife, Ruth, looks like a finely shaved toothpick ready for exhibition at the "Believe It or Not Show." He has to have someone he loves to take it out on.
So, I was surprised to find him in my office that afternoon, asking me for a favor. It was the only thing he had asked me for in his life, and it came hard to him. He love-hated me and I did the same for him, but he trusted me, and this favor took trust.
"Mae West," he had said with a grunt.
Something like silence had settled over my little office, if you discount the sound of Shelly Minck in the next room drilling away on a patient and singing "When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along." You also had to discount the various other unidentified sounds of the Farraday Building and Hoover Street outside, but I was pretty good at that. I looked at the cracked wall holding the 1907 photograph of Phil with his arm around me holding the collar of our dog Murphy while our father looked proudly at the both of us. Murph was later renamed Kaiser Wilhelm when Phil came back from the Big War, which had now been replaced by another Big War with some of the same people.
"I want you to do something for Mae West," he said, removing the tie from his thick neck.
"O.K.," I said.
"Don't you want to know what it is before you agree?" he said, looking at me.
"I've agreed. Now tell me what it is."
He laughed a this-is-not-funny laugh.
"I see," he said between teeth that were reasonably straight and clean for someone who spent so much time grinding them together and probably biting suspects. "You think this will give you some edge, make me owe you, give you something you can cash in on later."
"I hadn't thought about it, but I'll consider it a suggestion." I resisted the urge to put my feet up on the desk, one of the four or five hundred habits I have that drive Phil to violence. I remembered the last time he had knocked my feet off his desk at the Wilshire station. It had resulted in my seeing an orthopedic surgeon.
"Toby," he said. "No wise talk or I walk."
"O.K., Phil. Do me a favor? Don't walk. Let me help you. Please. I'll be good."
Phil looked at the ceiling and explained that he had known Mae West when she came to the coast back in 1931. He didn't say how he knew her or how well, but it had been either just before or just after he married Ruth. He didn't make it clear, and I didn't push. They had been friends or friends, and she had now called him with a request for help, but it wasn't quite a police matter. Phil had promised to help, and that promise had brought him to my office.
"She wrote a book," he explained, "a life story sort of in fictional form. She had one copy, and it turned out to be missing about a week ago. Gone right out of her apartment in town over near Paramount. It took her a long time to put it together, and it'll take her a couple of years to do it again. She's also worried about someone publishing it as a novel under their name. She can't prove it's hers."
"And," I said, "she wants someone to get it back for her."
"It's more than that," Phil went on. "Some guy called her, offered to sell it back, even told her when he'd make the exchange for five grand. She agreed, but she thinks something's funny about the whole thing. The guy stays on the phone too long, rambles. She thinks he's a nut and a not straight-through-the-window-and-out-the-door gonif."
"And you can't do anything?"
"She wants it kept quiet if possible," he sighed. "I owe her be ... just leave it that way. I owe her. I'm not sure she has enough of a case for me to take it on if she wanted me to do it officially. It sounds too much like a publicity stunt. Well?"
"I said I'd do it," I reminded him.
He got up and reached into his back pocket. Even with sagging pants his rear was large and the pull difficult. He finally extracted a worn wallet and handed me a card from Ruffillo's Bail Bond with a phone number.
"The other side," he said. I flipped it and saw a phone number in pencil and the name Mae. I tucked it in my jacket pocket.
Phil started to pull out some five-dollar bills, and I sighed. "Phil." He stopped, jammed the wallet back in his pocket, and moved to the door. He had just finished paying for an operation on one of his kids and was in trouble with his North Hollywood mortgage. He didn't wear the same suit week after week because he looked so good in it.
"Call me if you need any help on this," he said from the door without looking back.
He almost said thanks. I think he wanted to, but I didn't. You get used to something when you live with it for more than forty years. Our relationship was already in trouble with this visit.
When I pulled in front of Mae West's house, the door opened and two massive guys in their late twenties or early thirties wearing white turtleneck shirts hurried out and set up positions protecting the entrance. I got out and eyed them.
"Hi," I said with my most friendly grin. "My name's Peters, Toby Peters. Miss West is expecting me."
I took a few steps closer and concluded that neither of the two was giving off the spark that signaled intelligence or even animal cleverness. Neither acted as if I had spoken. One was blond. The other had curly black hair. I'd never seen such exaggerated muscles. They looked strangely top-heavy, like Bluto in a Popeye cartoon. They were probably slow, and I could probably take both of them by staying out of their grasp and running a lot. But I had been fooled in the past by those probabilities and wound up more than once (maybe a dozen times if you want a more accurate count) in need of medical help.
"Are you two in there?" I asked, stepping in front of them. "I can come back when you're home."
One of them, the dark one, did something with his full lower lip that could have been a sneer or a smile, or maybe he still had breakfast toast stuck in his perfect white teeth. Since my teeth are neither perfect nor very white, and since I am almost as old as Mae West, I had the urge to push the pair. My world sometimes seems an endless series of encounters with huge men guarding secrets and doors. Each time I meet them I know I have to find out what is beyond that door or go down trying. Hell, the most they can give me is life.
"It's been very nice chatting with you, Dizzy and Daffy," I said, stepping between them, "but I've got some business inside with the lady of the house."
The dark one put an arm out to block me, and I stuck my hand out to push it away. It didn't push. In fact, I almost fell.
"Now all I need is to find the switch to turn you two off." I grinned my most evil grin, but it didn't seem to affect them.
"Your sister eats worms," I tried. No response. "What does it take to get a rise out of you guys?"
"Something you have not got," came a dark voice from the doorway, and out stepped Mae West, but it took me a blink to recognize her. Her voice was the surest touchstone. The woman before me wearing a frilly purple dress had neck-length brown hair, not blond, and was barely on the good side of plump. She gave off a heavy perfume that smelled like a flower I couldn't place and looked at me with amused violet eyes and her hands on her hips.
"Welcome to Paradise," she said, stepping back. "It's a little gaudy and overstocked, but we call it home."
I followed her in with Diz and Daf behind me. A monkey ran across the hallway in front of us, and Mae West nodded. The blond giant hurried after the monkey who had disappeared, heading toward the rear of the house.
"You cut out the tongues of all your servants?" I asked with a smile as she led me into a living room.
"They've got tongues," she said, sitting elegantly in a white chair. "But they use them for better things than idle conversation."
We looked at each other for a few seconds, and I glanced around, waiting for the next verbal game, which I was now convinced I was bound to lose. The room was white and gold. The carpet, drapes, and even the piano were white. The Louis-the-something furniture was gold. She had seated herself beneath an oil painting of a nude reclining. The nude was a somewhat thinner and younger Mae West. The much plumper version was now semi-reclining in the same position with a smile. Dizzy and Daffy had disappeared.
"I don't think I can go on at this level," I said. "I'm used to quiet things like bullets flying, beatings, murders. I came to help, not to lose a verbal match. I know when I'm outclassed."
Her laugh was deep as she sat up and shook her head.
"Sorry," she said. "I've been playing Mae West for so long, I don't know where the playing stops. You want a drink?"
"Sure, Pepsi if you have it."
A few minutes later the blond giant brought in a tray with two drinks. I took the one that was surely Pepsi. She took the dark brown one without the bubbles.
"Steak juice," she explained. "Energy, few calories. Bottoms up."
She drank about half of the juice and then told me her tale. It was pretty much as Phil had set it up. The manuscript was missing. It had been taken not from the ranch but from her apartment at the Ravenswood Hotel near Paramount a few days before.
"He's a real fruit cake," she said, sipping her steak juice. "And I've known some fruits and cakes in my ample career, if you get my meaning."
I got her meaning as she told me that the manuscript contained enough to cause a few scandals.
"It was just a draft," she explained. "I was going to do some cutting, change some names to protect the guilty, though none of it is refragable, and try it out on a few publishers. Now I just want it back, but I think our friendly neighborhood thief is after more than money."
"Like what?" I asked, finishing the Pepsi.
"Even under the circumstances I would like with impudicity to delude myself that I may be the object of his esteem," she said. "But I'm afraid his intentions are strictly honorable. I can read men, and this guy had something destructive on what little is left of his mind."
She had already set up the show for that night and told the thief to come and bring the manuscript. She, in turn, would have an envelope with five grand. The isolated nature of the place, she thought, would make it ideal for keeping him from getting away.
"He's going to be here alone?"
"Not quite," she laughed. "A few of my more intimate friends will be here. We're having a Mae West party. You get in free if you're dressed like me." Her smile was broad, showing teeth that Shelly Minck would have marveled at.
"There's one catch," she added. "Only men are allowed."
"So you're going to have a houseful of men dressed like you, and I'm supposed to find the one who's the thief and nail him?"
"You got it," she said, plunking down her glass with just a brown residue of steak juice remaining.
"You have parties like this often?"
"Since I came out here," she said. "I like men of all shapes, sizes, and persuasion. I even wrote a play back in '29 called The Drag. Cast of forty transvestites. Did pretty well, though we couldn't find a theater to take us in New York."
"Too bad," I sympathized. "Anything else I should know about tonight?"
Excerpted from He Done Her Wrong by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1993 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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