Four years after she arrived in Los Angeles, Kitten Agnew has become a star. Though beautiful and talented, she’d be nowhere without Vivien Spender: Hollywood’s most acclaimed director—and its most dangerous. But Kitten knew what she was getting into when she got involved with him; she had heard the stories of Viv’s past discoveries: Once he discarded them, they ended up in a chorus line, a sanatorium, or worse. She knows enough of his secrets that he wouldn’t dare destroy her career. But he may be willing to kill her. On a train from Los Angeles to Chicago, Kitten learns that Viv is planning to offer her roommate a part that was meant for her. If she lets him betray her, her career will be over. But fight for the part, and she will be fighting for her life as well.
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About the Author
Dorothy B. Hughes (1904–1993) was a mystery author and literary critic. Born in Kansas City, she studied at Columbia University, and won an award from the Yale Series of Younger Poets for her first book, the poetry collection Dark Certainty (1931). After writing several unsuccessful manuscripts, she published The So Blue Marble in 1940. A New York–based mystery, it won praise for its hardboiled prose, which was due, in part, to Hughes’s editor, who demanded she cut 25,000 words from the book. Hughes published thirteen more novels, the best known of which are In a Lonely Place (1947) and Ride the Pink Horse (1946). Both were made into successful films. In the early fifties, Hughes largely stopped writing fiction, preferring to focus on criticism, for which she would go on to win an Edgar Award. In 1978, the Mystery Writers of America presented Hughes with the Grand Master Award for literary achievement
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By Dorothy B. Hughes
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1945 Dorothy B. Hughes
All rights reserved.
SHE HAD spoken aloud. She hadn't meant to; she hadn't wanted those words to come up from her throat to her lips. She hadn't meant to think them, much less speak them. She didn't want Gratia to have heard them.
But across the room the girl lifted her eyes from her book.
"What did you say?" she queried.
James Cobbett rested on the small leather seat at the end of the aisle. He could rest; this was the mid-afternoon lull. A little later the bells would start buzzing again, for drinks at that time. The routine never varied. This was the great Chief. Stow them in at noon, bells buzzing until they'd jogged down into their cubicles. After that the lunch exodus, and bells for those who shunned the public diner. Big shots or those who thought they were, those trying to be. So big they couldn't be seen in public although they budgeted gargantuan amounts yearly to be kept in the eye of the public. After lunch, bells for little nervous things, and then the settling down was complete, then the lull and James Cobbett could rest. When the cocktail bells started, there wouldn't be any rest until late. The Chief didn't go to bed early. Cobbett would make up the beds according to routine, and if permitted, but there would be some who would cajole or bribe. It would be past midnight before this night's work would be ended.
Sometimes James Cobbett read during the lulls, sometimes he just sat there swaying with the train, looking out at the scenery so familiar as to pass unseen. Sometimes he thought long thoughts. He wasn't thinking them now. He was cataloguing the animals occupying his cages on this run. They weren't unusual; they were of such a sameness he could have prophesied what each one was doing behind his closed door and just what he would do from here to Chicago. In the house of economics he could tell just what to expect of each one at the end of the journey. It must be the monotony that made him feel as he did, depressed, almost morose. He didn't often feel lowdown, he was of nature cheerful; maybe he was catching cold at the mere thought of Chicago's snow. Meantime there was nothing out of the ordinary in his passengers, the usual Chief passengers. The same run, the same kind of people.
Vivien Spender, the great Viv Spender, was in drawing room A. He wouldn't be any trouble; he was too important a Hollywood name for that, but he'd expect plenty of service. He would pay for it. He could afford to; he was one of the six high names in the Treasury Department list. His salary was publicized yearly at well over the half-million mark. Salary that was; there wasn't any information given on what he made above that from bonuses and dividends and royalties. The kind of big money that came to those who had big money. James Cobbett didn't believe any man was worth a salary of a half-million dollars a year. What could a man do with that much money? After you had a house and furnishings and all the cars you wanted, maybe a ranch because you felt secure in land; clothes, food—put all essentials and luxuries together and you didn't make a dent on the half million. Not when you were receiving it every year. Viv Spender had been getting it for a dozen years and more. James Cobbett wondered what that much money would do for a man, for the inside man.
This was the first time Viv Spender had been on the Chief. Spender traveled by plane. This time he'd changed his habits. Maybe he wasn't in any hurry. Maybe he'd acquired air nerves. A lot of men did after a while. For a man of importance, Spender on face value was a real enough person. He was big physically, as tall as James Cobbett, broader of shoulder, heavier of hip. He admitted to forty-five years; he looked younger. He had a thatch of straw-colored hair, no gray in it, a bit of curl as if he'd plastered it but it wouldn't stay plastered. He had a hearty voice, a quick smile that went from his mouth to the corners of his eyes. His clothes were good. James Cobbett admired good material, rough imported tweeds, handmade boots of the best russet leather. Cobbett didn't covet them; he admired, knowing they were not for him, none the less appreciative of their touch.
Drawing room B was the girls. If they had friends on board, they wouldn't be troublesome. If they were looking for friends and found them, they might be a little noisy but not troublesome. If neither happened, they'd keep the buzzer going tomorrow from sheer boredom. There were two of them. One was strictly Hollywood, gold hair below her shoulders, touched-up, dark eyelashes to make her eyes look larger, a big sulky mouth redder than raw meat. She must be someone, her gray tailored suit was expensive, her narrow black alligator pumps were tall heeled, her stockings sheer as cobwebs. She had the typical Hollywood figure forced into the plain lines of the suit but not hiding the protuberances Hollywood affected. She was as artificial as a doll.
The other girl wasn't so easy to put in a frame. Maybe a paid companion. A dark wool dress, one strand of pearls not real, dark hair. He hadn't had a real look at her yet, the other one had done all the ordering around. The other one was accustomed to spotlight, she took it even in a Pullman drawing room.
The compartments were about the same as always. The one next drawing room A had the young couple, honeymooners. A sweet-faced girl who looked as if she belonged in her suit, proud of the new gold band on her finger. The young husband was clean and eager and a little embarrassed. Not as sure of himself as the girl, women were better pretenders. All the relatives had been hopping around like birds when the couple got on at Pasadena. Debby and Fred Crandall—the names had been carolled in farewell—would be no trouble on this run. Fred had to be back at the office Monday, a short honeymoon. They'd want only to be left alone. And he could make up their berth early. Cobbett smiled. He and Mary had had a weekend honeymoon. He'd rented a car and they'd driven up to the Dells. Six years ago. He hoped the Crandalls in six years would be as happy as the Cobbetts. Maybe not; they were used to more. If you weren't used to happiness, you coddled it, coaxed it into little blooms. You hoarded what you could lay your heart on, to warm you from the great unhappiness of an alien world.
The poet was in the next compartment. He looked like a poet, he was fair and fragile, but as a matter of fact he was Leslie Augustin; there'd been a wire for him as the train left. James Cobbett knew that name. Leslie Augustin was the hottest white band leader in the business. On the air he had a soft speaking drawl, but he sang a sizzling bass. He looked like a poet; instead of misty words, he wrote stomps and jamborees and hoedowns. He didn't look well; even the tan of his face didn't give him a look of health.
The fellow Augustin had brought back with him after lunch was long and lanky and drunk. Not troublesome drunk, but vague-eyed and stiff-gaited. Drunk at two o'clock in the afternoon. He was wearing a hat and a necktie so he couldn't have been in California long.
Next was the old couple, heading back home after a winter in California. They had money; the man might have been a big boss once, now he was gray and shrunken in his clothes. The, woman was small and neat and, like little Joe, wore blue-white diamond rings. They'd been courteous rather than querulous getting settled; they wouldn't bother anyone beyond maybe a request for an extra blanket or pillow. He didn't have to worry about them.
In the compartment next to drawing room B was the solitary man. James Cobbett knew him without knowing him. A man venting his anger at himself on men like himself who had bettered themselves. Having no reason but anger, and out of anger the impulse to destroy. This one looked like a writer, heading back East out of failure. His fear was covered well by the bitterness on him and his anger, but beneath them was fear. He wouldn't demand much; he would be ashamed because he could offer only a niggardly tip. If possible, he would slip off the train at Chicago without any payment for services. Plenty traveled the Chief who hadn't the money for a shoe shine. It was in their contract: first class transportation back to despair.
The usual people of the Chief, good and bad, mixed up, none of them quite the same as they'd be if they were at home, not isolated in rushing space. James Cobbett sat swaying beneath the dignity of the framed sign which stated:
This car is served by James Cobbett, Porter
And the Chief roared on into the great American desert.
She was afraid. It wasn't a tremble of fear. It was a dark hood hanging over her head. She was meant to die. That was why she was on the Chief speeding eastward. This was her bier.
If only Gratia weren't so beautiful. Beauty was catnip to him. What was in her face that was a melody even another woman, a woman who hated her, could hear? Katherina Agnew, the famous Kitten Agnew, looked across the compartment at the face bent over the small green-backed book. Take it apart and what was there? A squarish shape over the strong bones, dark hair brushed away from a forehead, only the faintest touch of curl. Not glamorous, just a plain soft sheath of dark hair curved below the ears. Eyes wide, gray, dark-lashed. A small straight nose, yes. A sweet mouth, not too red. The square cleft chin. When you put it together why was it so beautiful?
By all screen standards Kitten's face had it all over this one. Hers was piquant—she knew by rote all the adjectives with which it had been described—the face of a lovely child. Her eyes were amber brown, round and long lashed, they could smolder or fleck joy with equal ease according to what the man of the moment desired. Her mouth was full and rich; her nose, thanks to modern science, as good as Gratia Shawn's. Her hair, honey-colored, rippled to her shoulders. Her figure had all the provocation that Gratia's straight, slim, narrow-shouldered one lacked. Yet he had seen Gratia and even Kitten knew he meant to have Gratia. She knew bitterly that Gratia had a beauty on which no one could put a finger. None the less it was there, serene, changeless and shining.
She didn't have to die. She could go to him now and release him of all obligation. He would in turn release her from the verdict of death. She knew he meant to kill her. It was the only way he could be rid of her unless she released him. She had too much on him for him to discard her as he had discarded all of her predecessors.
When she became Viv Spender's newest discovery, Kitten had knowledge of her predecessors, of their brief candles, of the snuffings out. The one in a home for alcoholics. The one picked up soliciting. The one who jumped from a window while Viv was in Florida with the new. And the others, returned to the drabness from which they had once hopefully emerged, walled behind counters, playing walk-ons. Before he discovered Kitten, when she knew he was about to discover her, she had arranged that she would not be snuffed out. Her lawyer was one of the most respected in law, feared and admired in the colony. From the very beginning he had known each step of her progress. He was ready to sue, ready to break Viv Spender. Not for money alone; because one of the tragic brief candles had been his niece.
Viv Spender could supplant Kitten Agnew, could offer the part of Clavdia to another, but he would be broken if he did. There would be a prison sentence to face. He was too powerful to face it. He had become so powerful that his pride was one with himself.
So powerful he would mete out death? She didn't believe it. She couldn't believe it. Mike hadn't meant that.
Mike had been sent by him to make Kitten cancel this trip. She understood Mike's purpose in trying to frighten her. If she'd worn a black veil and held a roiled crystal, Mike might have frightened her. But it was only Mike, the pearl-above-price private secretary to Viv Spender. The secretary every producer in Hollywood had tried unsuccessfully to steal away. Mike, homely in a land where beauty was the commonplace, unemotional where emotion was the norm, stable where stability was suspicious.
Mike had put on a good act. Sliding in that implication as if it were her own idea. Everyone knew that Mike didn't act without his direction; there was no Mike except in co-existence with him. Mike had not frightened her, only angered her and set her determination. Kitten hadn't known about Gratia then. She hadn't even known yesterday when the publicity department begged her to take the unknown under her wing on this New York safari. It had seemed rather odd to be asked to share her drawing room, but it had been put up to Kitten in such a way that she couldn't refuse. Her publicity was built on the legend of a natural, normal girl, with a great loving heart. Human, good fellow, sympathetic. They'd told her about her invitation—after they'd sent out the publicity. Kitten Agnew invites a bit girl to share her drawing room. There was nothing to do but go along with it. He had planned it that way, to goad her, to penalize her even in this petty manner.
She hadn't known until half an hour ago that this girl was the one who was to take her place. He'd kept it that secret no one had known but he himself. Possibly Mike Dana. He had no secrets from Mike; he might think he had but he hadn't. The girl, Gratia Shawn herself, didn't know. And Kitten wouldn't have known but for a casual question, put out of early boredom with the long journey, they were only now entering the desert; out of curiosity about this girl who sat quietly in the chair reading a small green-backed book.
She had asked, "What are you reading?"
Gratia had lifted her eyes, her shining eyes. She'd been too deeply immersed actually to hear Kitten's question. "It's wonderful. Mr. Spender asked me to read it." Her smile was innocent as a white flower. "To see if I liked the part."
It was then that Kitten actually saw the book. An out-of-print edition, from his own bed table. A book she'd held but never read. It was too long to read, too many big thoughts. She forced her suspicions into a seemingly idle question. "What's the part?"
She didn't hear what else Gratia had to say. Because that was her part. For four years she'd waited for it, been promised it. And because she was shrewd and had struck when she was catnip, she had an unbreakable contract for the role. He'd been promising to produce the picture for years; it was his obsession and his dream. He had discovered innumerable Clavdias but because Kitten was just a little shrewder than he, because she was still closer to her meager beginnings, she or no one would play the part. She had refused to sell him the contract at the time of their most bitter quarrel, four months ago. She had offered to trade it to him for marriage. He might have killed her then if they hadn't been in his office. But she hadn't been afraid of him, of the names with which he'd slapped her face. Everything was in her hands. She hadn't known about the first Mrs. Spender then.
She didn't have to die. She could go to him now, tell him in Gratia Shawn he'd found the perfect Clavdia Chauchat. She could bow out still playing the publicity department's role of the good sport, Kitten Agnew. A part wasn't more important than her life. Failure to attain the star she'd fixed, to be Mrs. Vivien Spender, wasn't as humiliating as death. The fixed star of being Mrs. Spender had risen when he first discovered in Kitten the perfect Clavdia. She knew he'd marry Clavdia Chauchat. He'd been obsessed by the dream for too long.
She could give up everything. She wouldn't have to return to the depressing poverty from which she'd emerged. She'd come a long way from North Dakota before she ever met Viv Spender. The chorus, modeling, band singing. In four years he'd made her a glistening Hollywood star. If she left him, she could go at once to any other lot. She wouldn't be like the others, dropping into oblivion or worse because he'd dismissed her. She didn't love him; she'd never loved him, mad as she'd been about him those first years. He'd been her opportunity. She wasn't like the others, the mechanical doll into which he alone could breathe life. She could stand on her own feet, go on to bigger contracts, more important roles even than Clavdia Chauchat.
Excerpted from Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes. Copyright © 1945 Dorothy B. Hughes. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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