A Mary Kelly Story
by D.L. Browne
The Chinese have a saying:
“Dangerous enemies will meet again in narrow streets.”
The way I remember it, business was slow that November. Carl von Ossietzky won the Nobel Peace Prize and everyone was learning to Rumba. We were between World Wars and the Pinkertons over on Euclid Street were catching all the fast balls. When the royal summons came I was engaged in rubber band warfare with Mike Mosley and Stan Stannislaus. Since I was getting the worst of it, it was a relief when Miss Appleby, the office manager, showed up.
“Mr. Brannigan wants to see you in his office,” she announced. I came out from behind the file cabinets pretending that I had actually been doing some filing while Stanni and Mosley shuffled papers and opened and shut drawers and cleared their throats noisily. Miss Appleby was unamused. A rubber band hit me on the keister on my way out the door.
The boss was on the phone when I poked my head in his office. He nodded towards a chair and I sat down and straightened my skirt over my dusty knees; Miss Appleby must have stopped the cleaning crew beatings.
Plain and functional, Brannigan matched the office like a coordinated accessory. He was about forty, tall and lean and pale. He wore horn-rim glasses that disguised the color of his eyes. Or maybe they didn’t have a color. Everything else about him, from his hair to his voice, was colorless, why not his eyes?
Mr. B. concluded his phone call and got right down to business. “I’ve got a job for you, Kelly, if you think you can tear yourself away from the funny papers.”
That crack was because he’d caught me reading Black Mask magazine at my desk a few days earlier. He hadn’t said anything at the time, but I should have known he wouldn’t forget. Him and the Elephant Child.
“You’d be surprised, Mr. B.,” I said. “Some of those Black Mask boys know their stuff.”
He just gave me one of those long, level looks.
The scuttlebutt is that it used to be impossible to tell Mr. B. from a genuine human being. That was before Mrs. B. ran off with David Parker. Back in the days when the sign on the front door read Parker and Brannigan Investigations; before my time.
“Have you ever heard of Millicent Hurlburt?”
“The society matron? Sure.”
“She has a son. Jack. He’s getting married.”
I tried to look like I knew where this was leading. The boss was being uncharacteristically mysterious.
“And Jack Hurlburt requires our services?”
Mr. B. tapped his pen against the ink blotter as though calling his thoughts to order. “Hurlburt will explain the situation to you,” he said. “I’ll say only that I believe this case calls fora woman’s touch.”
I knew he wasn’t kidding because he has no sense of humor, but I held my hand out like I was admiring my nails – or my woman’s touch.
* * * * *
I ended up snarled in traffic, having forgotten about the funeral. They were burying Babe Harlan at Forest Lawn that afternoon. It looked like a Hollywood set: beneath lowering skies a long black line of limousines passed through the tall iron gates of the cemetery and wound up into the green hills. A cast of thousands had shown up for Harlan’s wrap party. I managed to edge my little gray Flivver out of the tangle of cars and sightseers and headed northeast towards Pasadena.
Pasadena was still a winter resort for the rich in those days, a cozy community of millionaire homes nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. The climate was balmy and the scent of orange blossom seemed to linger perpetually in the air.
There was a Depression going on but no one seemed to have informed the Hurlburts. They lived in a Moorish castle surrounded by palm trees and rose gardens with two white stone lions to guard the front gate from riff raff. I half expected to see the marble nostrils twitch as I drove through the high gates. The pseudo-towers had stained glass windows which sparkled like jewels in the shifting sunlight.
I parked beneath the trees and tiptoed across the pristine lawn trying not to leave divots in the green velvet.
The closer I got the more I wondered about that architecture. It looked sort of like a sultan’s seraglio. You know, the place where they keep the harem girls locked up. And if half the stories the gossip columns had to relate about Hurlburt were true, a sultan’s seraglio was just about right.
A butler answered the door. I stated my business and was escorted down miles of polished hallways lined with a museum’s-worth of art. Music played in the distance.
“Mr. Hurlburt is expecting you,” the major-domo informed me, indicating a wide doorway.
The doorway led into a lovely room with sunny walls and lovely old furniture upholstered in jonquil and cream. The room smelled of lemon and beeswax and roses – there were armfuls of coral roses in crystal vases on the fireplace mantel and on the piano by the French doors. It was a woman’s room but a man stood in it.
He was also lovely. Tall and slim with dark hair and blue eyes that somehow looked like a better grade than they generally handed out. He was wearing a silk house suit of Wedgwood fastened by a single link of blue cabochons and pearls. It probably cost more than my entire wardrobe. He wasn’t doing anything, just staring out the windows sipping a drink and listening to the music, but from him it was enough.
The song playing on the phonograph was that jazzy little “Just One of Those Things,” from the show Jubilee. Everyone was humming it that year. And when it wasn’t on the radio you could still hear the tune flirting with your memory. Remember? One of those things, a crazy fling, one of those bells that something something rings.
Hurlburt glanced around, spotted me and went perfectly still, rigid with shock, the glass arrested between his chin and chest. Then he tossed it off in one gulp.
“You’re the P.I.,” he said at last.
See, that’s what I keep telling them at the office, I thought to myself. I offered my hand. “Mary Kelly. Brannigan Investigations.”
“Hello, Mary Kelly.” His hand was tanned, tended and strong. It enfolded mine and didn’t seem to want to let go.
He offered me a seat and a cocktail and a cigarette and a white flash of teeth; the kind of grin you usually see on newsreels surrounded by simpering starlets.
I declined the drink and the smoke and tried to resist the smile, though it wasn’t easy. Hurlburt had another drink to keep himself company. The phonograph arm swung back and dropped onto “Just One of Those Things” again.
Hurlburt made a business of lighting up. He studied me over the glowing tip of his cigarette. “I was expecting someonedifferent.” He had a pleasing baritone. The kind of voice that could–with or without moonlight–convince a woman of all kinds of nonsense.
“I look younger than I am. It’s useful in my line of work.”
“Sure.” He kept staring at me. It was all I could do not to take a swipe at my chin in case I had any crumbs there.
“Did Mr..er…Brannigan explain the situation?” he asked at last.
“He felt you would prefer to.”
“Yes. Right.” He cleared his throat. “In five days I’m going to marry Amy Keaton.”
“Keaton Petroleum?” As I recalled the Keaton heiress was a tall, bony towhead with a face like a horse. Or maybe she just didn’t photograph well. “Congratulations,” I offered.
“I’ve known Amy since we were kids. She’s a swell girl. I’m crazy about her.” I nodded encouragement. He seemed to need it. “My mother – well, it’s something both our families have wanted for a long time. So you see, it’s vital that nothing happens to spoil things.”
“And something’s about to spoil things?”
He stared at his empty glass. “Last year Amy and I – well, it was” He paused and the record filled in the blanks for him. “It was just one of those things…”
It always is, brother, I thought.
“… but while we were apart I, er, met someone else.”
“She was unlike anyone I’ve ever met before. Everything about herit sounds corny, I know.”
I shrugged. There’s good corny and bad corny.
“The fact is II lost my head over her.”
“You wrote letters,” I guessed as his baby blues glazed over with recollection.
That cut short his stroll down memory lane. “Yes, I did.”
“And she’s offering to sell them back to you?”
He stared at me through the haze of cigarette smoke.
“You’re a clever girl, Miss Kelly.”
I sighed. “No. How much is she asking?”
“Ten thousand dollars.”
“Ten grand? What did you write?”
He said stiffly, “As I said, I rather lost my head.”
“Did you promise to marry her?”
“Yes.” He said grimly, “I was a fool; I freely admit that. So you see, Miss Kelly, it is imperative that I getthose letters back. Amy wouldn’t understand. I don’t understand myself, frankly. I can only say that this woman cast a kind of spell over me.”
“Oh my. What’s her name, this enchantress?”
I didn’t think I heard that correctly so I repeated, “Linda Lou?” Although it was hard to picture an enchantress named ‘Linda Lou.’
“Wu,” he said. “She’s Chinese.”
He must have read something into my lack of expression because he added, “That’s right — Chinese. Mother would never understand. The Keatons would never understand. Amymight. In time, maybebut you see, there is no time. The wedding is only a few days off and I feel somehow that if it’s postponed it will never take place.”
Ain’t love grand? “So you want me to buy these letters back from Miss Wu?”
He nodded. “I’m trying to scrape the money together.” Boyishly, he bit his lip. “It’s not easy. No one can know about this, you understand?”
Only too well. I inquired, “So where’s the drop?”
“Where do I make the pay-off?”
“Oh. She’ll let me know. She said she’d keep in touch.”
This Wu dame had a sense of humor. I decided maybe this was where I was supposed to apply my own woman’s touch. Delicately, I began, “See, the thing about blackmail is that once you start paying — “
“Not this time,” Jack Hurlburt interrupted. “Once I’m married she can’t touch me.”
“Does she know that?”
He started to say something, then exchanged it for one of those eye-catching smiles. “Can I count on you then, Miss Kelly? Can I count on your… discretion?”
“Discretion is my middle name,” I assured him.
“Oh yes?” He raised one eyebrow roguishly. “Now I’d have guessed Margaret. Mary Margaret Kelly,” he said in an imitation Irish brogue (which is something I loathe, but have to admit he did well).
“Mary Katherine Kelly.” He spoke each word as though he were savoring it. I felt the brush of his charm in my bones. “How about that drink now?”
A couple of highballs later I returned to my own humble abode (seeming more humble by comparison), heated some milk in a pan and put the finishing touches on a story I was sending to Dime Detective. It was a real corker called “The Golden Mummy.” I even managed to scare myself with that one and had a hard time falling asleep despite the warm milk.
Next morning I was up with the hounds – the two legged kind I work with – and began the hunt for Linda Wu. Hurlburt said when he had met her she was a singer at a club called the Mandarin Fan. I couldn’t find a Mandarin Fan listed in the phone directory. Nor did there seem to be any current business license for the joint. The Better Business Bureau had never heard of the place, and with a name like the Mandarin Fan, you would think they would have. I asked around and found that there had been a Mandarin Fan on the Santa Monica pier about six years ago. It had been torn down and replaced with a gift shop. Wrong time frame, but I noted it down to check on it later.
I had even less luck tracking Linda Wu. I tried the Hall of Records, but drew a blank on a birth certificate, and the folks at the Social Security Administration weren’t taking my phone calls. Hurlburt had said she was Chinese; I assumed that meant American-born, but maybe he’d meant straight off the boat.
Going down my checklist, I rang up a friend downtown and verified there were no wants or warrants on Linda Wu.
There was, however, plenty of intelligence available on Jack Hurlburt. The word around town was that he was wild as prairie fire and as popular as he was wild, especially with the ladies. He was also in debt up to his collapsible opera hat, and the marriage to Keaton Petroleum was serving the dual purpose of getting him out of hock and getting his dear old mater off his back.
He was a lad with expensive tastes: polo ponies, a yacht he sailed regularly to Catalina Island, and a string of starlets. Amy Keaton had my sympathy until I remembered the way he smiled into my eyes, the way he clasped my hand as though I were lovely and fragile and in his care.
When the phone rang I was grabbing a late lunch and sneaking a peek at The Herald-Examiner‘s story about Babe Harlan dying suddenly from peritonitis. I felt bad about that. Most people did. She was such a little fireball. There were photos naturally; the kind guaranteed to bring tears to a glass eye. The reporters tracked her to Will Rogers, Jr.’s ranch in Pacific Palisades and cornered her outshining the Oscars in a spectacular gown that seemed to be made up mostly of glitter. There was also a shot of her before she’d arrived in town, when she was still a fresh-faced kid from the Midwest; all heart-shaped face and bright eyes. In the space of three movies, three screw-ball comedies, she’d become part of the Babylon landscape with her bobbed dark hair and chic trousers and crooked grin.
But maybe it was that girl-next-door quality that sold her at the box office. Every woman recognized a little of Babe Harlan in herself.
The phone jangled, startling me out of my reflection. I snatched it up.
“I’ve got the money. She wants you to meet her in Chinatown,” Jack Hurlburt said without preliminaries.
“That’s where she lives. In Old Chinatown. Here’s the address.”
In 1935 Chinatown was still on Alameda Street although officially condemned by the California Supreme Court so that the proposed Union Station terminal could be built on that convenient piece of real estate. By ’33 the wrecking ball had started swinging. The evictions had begun and there was much rejoicing at the Chamber of Commerce. There was less rejoicing in the maze of narrow alleys and streets that the Chinese community called Home Sweet Home.
Although the exodus had begun, there were still hundreds of families living in conditions of increasing squalor surrounded by everything from quaint little temples and curio shops to gambling houses and opium dens. Periodically the tongs went to war over the crumbling remnants of their burg.
By the time I spotted the ornate curved rooftops of Old Chinatown, it was late afternoon and beginning to drizzle. I parked and wandered the unpaved streets trying to make sense of Hurlburt’s directions. I seemed to have entered a foreign country. Peacocks shared alleys with passed-out derelicts. It didn’t smell like Los Angeles, it didn’t sound like Los Angeles. The marketplace was alive with the sounds of ducks and chickens and pigs and foreign yakety-yak. Strange herbs hung in shop windows; Chinese characters on banners whipping in the wind advertised silk clothing, acupuncture, inlaid furniture, porcelain and ivory. Gaily colored paper fish snapped and rippled on the rain-swept breeze.
The nape of my neck had that itchy feeling, like someone was watching me. Then I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a mud puddle and was reassured by what I saw: just another slim, dark-haired woman in a brown wool coat. Nothing to catch anyone’s eye. Maybe from behind I even looked Chinese.
It was getting late when I found the address. It seemed to be a kind of opera theatre; condemned but still doing business. Rehearsals were in progress anyway. Tiny costumed characters moved around a brightly lit stage like pieces in a game.
A gnome in a mandarin collar directed me down a dark aisle and then a couple of flights of stairs. Above our heads the orchestra pitched a fit. Music that combined the traditional elements of dying cats, scraping sandpaper and banging gongs and tin cans filtered through the floorboards.
My escort vanished and I found myself in a room that looked like a cross between a torture chamber and a prop room. There was a sagging dragon costume in one corner and a number of grim masks and archaic weapons on shelves. The room smelled of Camphor wood and incense and cigarettes. I traced the cigarette smoke to a girl standing in the shadows. She was tall for a Chinese, taller than me, though that’s not saying much. Her hair was long and straight as shining black water; her features were not strictly beautiful but there was something about her that got your attention.
And she was certainly hard to ignore right at that moment. Then again, it’s hard to ignore a woman in a swashbuckler costume: gold and black robes and an elaborate spangled headdress. She wore an ornamental sword in a scabbard, which didn’t quite match the long ivory cigarette holder she puffed on. I figured she was part of the rehearsals going on upstairs; she seemed overdressed for the basement of an old theatre.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Where’s Jack?”
“I’ve brought the money.” I slapped the manila envelope on the table. It made a fat, satisfying sound.
She reached for it and I held it flat with my hand. “The letters.”
“Letters?” She stared at me. Her face was white, shadowed in scarlet angles. It was a little intimidating, I have to admit.
“The letters you agreed to sell.”
Her eyes narrowed and then she laughed. I didn’t like the sound of that laugh. “So Jack sent you, huh? What are you supposed to be? A lawyer?”
“There are such things, you know. They put bad girls who try to blackmail people in prison.”
She looked me up and down insolently then tugged on the envelope. This time I let her take it.
She opened it and began to count. I’d never seen anyone outside of a bank teller count that fast. She counted through it and then counted again and finally lifted her head to give me a basilisk look.
“Where’s the rest of it?”
“It’s all there.” My eyes flicked over to a corner where I thought I saw movement.
“This is only ten thousand. The agreement was twenty.”
A hollow voice, vaguely familiar, repeated, “Twenty?”
“Twenty thousand dollars. That was the agreement.” Her eyes glinted like the tips of obsidian spears. She let off a stream of obscenities, a fragrant blend of English and Chinese. The gist seemed to be that either Jack Hurlburt was a double crosser or I was – and we were both probably in it together. It was difficult to get a word in edgewise although I did try.
Mid-tirade two figures detached themselves from the gloom – or from the cover of a Sax Rohmer novel. That’s what they looked like, right down to the Weeping Willow mustaches and the yellow cookie jar lids.
Linda Wu pointed at me and suddenly we were all speaking the same language.
It seemed like a good time to take a powder. I went for the Mauser I wore strapped beneath my skirt. The problem with that strategy was it only took Eng and Chang two steps to cross the room, at which point I’d barely got my gat out of the holster. As we tripped the light fantastic my biggest concern became not shooting myself in the kneecap.
I managed to twist the gun away from my body. It went off with a bang and the dragon in the corner sagged down, mortally wounded. The firing was an accident; I still hadn’t convinced myself to shoot anyone. But the giant mitt on mine kept squeezing the trigger and there was another loud report. Linda screamed, though it sounded like fury, not pain, which spurred me to start yelling my own head off.
That startled everyone, myself included. We all froze for a beat. Then, from above us came the crash of music. Actually it was more crash than music, but it effectively drowned us out. Whatever it was, though, it was like a signal.
As we started round two I offered a comment or two the nuns at Immaculate Heart College might not have recognized. A minute is a long time in a fight and I was already winded. We grappled some more. I tried jamming my heel in the nearest instep and the gun in the nearest gut. Linda rattled off instructions in Cantonese. One of the extras finally managed to wrench the gun from my hand, nearly taking my arm out of the socket in the process.
Well, I’d known that would happen. If I wasn’t going to shoot anyone they were going to take my gun away–and possibly shoot–me.
I went for the hatpin in my coat lapel and stabbed it into the hand aggravating me most. I was as surprised as anybody when the bigger of the henchman howled and let go of me.
I tore up the staircase and down a long dark corridor. Then another corridor, then another staircase, then a hall with a lot of doors. I could hear them crashing along behind me.
There was a window at the end of the hall. It was a small window, but big enough. I broke a few fingernails getting it open. Crawling out, I shredded my stockings and split my skirt.
I found Chinatown filled with night and fog. From inside the theatre I could still hear the confused sounds of pursuit.
Sprinting down the unpaved street, I prayed I didn’t catch my heel and break my neck. I ran till the stitch in my side brought me to a stop. Then I stood there shaking in the damp night air, trying to catch my breath, and tried to figure where I was. Cutting across a vacant lot I found myself in a park.
Lanterns strung along the path like dim pearls, lighting my way.
I had no idea where I was, but I kept going, limping past little pagodas in the mist, hobbling over carmine-colored bridges: I seemed to have landed in a miniature golf course in Hell.
I came out on a street I’d never heard of in time to shuffle into the queue waiting for a motor bus. There was no sign of pursuit. I climbed aboard and fell into the seat next to a very small woman who tried to make herself smaller.
At the next stop I got off the bus and called Mosely, who gave me a ride back to my car. The good thing about Mosely is he never asks a question he wouldn’t want to answer. It may not make him the best P.I. in the world, but it’s a useful trait in a pal.
It took some doing, but sometime before the witching hour I tracked young Master Hurlburt down to the brass doors of the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
He was having a civilized drink with an elegant redhead who matched the cherry wood paneling and leather couches of the main lobby perfectly. When he spotted me sailing full speed ahead through the crowded tables he said something to his companion who promptly skedaddled. I took her place without being invited.
“What’s the big idea of sending me to pull your doublecross?”
He took in my disheveled appearance with wide eyes. “I didn’t – are you all right? Let me get you a drink. I didn’t think they would – ” He half rose, beckoning to the waiter.
I could have used a drink. I could have used a lot of drinks.
“I’ll say you didn’t think! Why the hell didn’t you tell me what you were planning?”
He bit his lip – it wasn’t so cute anymore. “Listen, Mary… “
“Kelly,” I broke in. “Nobody but my mother calls me Mary.”
“Kelly, I honestly thought it was better – safer – for you if you didn’t know. I couldn’t pay her twenty thousand dollars – I wouldn’t if I could. It’sunconscionable.” He said it earnestly, as though I had to believe him. He covered my hand with his. I drew mine away.
“Unconscionable? Now there’s a ten-dollar word for principles that aren’t worth a plugged nickel. I’ll tell you unconscionable. Unconscionable is sending me in there blind. Did you think they wouldn’t count it? What did you think they would do when they came up short?”
An approaching waiter veered off as Hurlburt burst out furiously, “I thought the bitch would be satisfied with the ten. At least for now. She ought to be grateful I’m paying her a dime! I can’t be held responsible for something that happened back then. Something I’m ashamed of!”
People at other tables were glancing our way. I lowered my voice. I thought I did anyway. “If you wanted me to negotiate, you should have told me.”
He raked a hand through his sable hair and said, “What did she say?”
“The part that was in English wasn’t encouraging. Something to do with carving out your two-timing, still-beating heart and feeding it to the carp. And by the way, the price is now thirty-thousand.”
“Thirty. Thousand?” He gulped each word out like it was his last. “She’s. Crazy.”
“A trifle incensed,” I agreed, rising. “Anyway, get yourself another pigeon. I’m out.”
When I walked in the office the next morning Miss Appleby welcomed me with a stone face that might have greeted jolly old Howard Carter when he broke down the door to Queen Hatshepsut’s Egyptian tomb. Stannislaus was on his way out the door.
“Hey, Kelly, how about catching a movie later?” he called. “I hear The Mysterious Mr. Wong is playing at Grauman’s.”
I hung on to the doorframe to keep from falling down laughing, and eventually he got the point, made a kissy face at me and slammed out the door.
“Mr. Branningan wishes to see you,” Miss Appleby informed me.
“Our client called,” Brannigan said.
“This should be interesting. Did he tell you – “
He didn’t give the orchestra time to finish the prelude. “You know, Kelly, you wiseacre college kids give me a pain. You waltz in here thinking you’ve got all the answers. Nobody can tell you anything.”
“You haven’t heard my side – “
“For months you’ve been nagging me to send you out on a ‘real’ case – whatever the hell that means, because they all pay the rent.” He tossed a pile of papers aside disgustedly. “And then when I do send you out, you welch. You turn into a little crybaby and run home.”
I felt myself turning shades of red that Mr. Max Factor never dreamt of in his universe.
“Hurlburt lied to me. He could have got me killed.”
Brannigan laughed. I guess it was a laugh. It was a crisp, small caliber sound – and it hurt in a well-aimed, small caliber way.
“Welcome to the real world, Kelly. People occasionally get killed in our line of work. You should know; you bump enough of ’em off in those fairytales you write under the name of K.K. Marion.”
My mouth was open. I closed it. I had to open it again to say, “Yeah, well with all due respect, sir, you weren’t there!”
“I’ve been there. Plenty of times. I never ran home crying.”
“All right!” I was mad – mostly because I knew Brannigan was right. “All right, maybe I could have handled things moreprofessionally.”
“I’ll take care of it,” I got out between gritted teeth.
That was easier said than done.
I didn’t want to go back to Chinatown though that was the obvious next move, so I drove out to Santa Monica. It was a lousy day for the beach. The ocean was dented sheet metal, and slivers of silver rained down on shivering palm trees. The streets were slick and rainy, the color of old pewter, the buildings gray and ghostly.
I wandered up and down the pier in the rain, like a damn fool, past the La Monica Ballroom and the little shops and cafés. The ferris wheel stood black and skeletal against the slate skies. Over the crash of waves against creosote pilings I could hear the faint echo of Wurlitzer organs drifting from the Hippodrome on Looff’s adjacent pleasure pier. A couple of waitresses in a café remembered the Mandarin Fan. Their story was the place had a wild reputation, and had burned down six years ago.
“Arson?” I asked.
That got a laugh from the fish fry set. “Mongolian barbecue,” was the reply.
“Is that Chinese?”
“Same difference, honey.”
I bought a cotton candy and headed for the Hippodrome and the carousel. The operator was a gloomy-looking old codger. His rheumy eyes brightened as I leaned up against the railing and crossed my ankles.
“Fer a minute I thought I knew you,” he offered after I’d sufficiently admired all 44 of his horses and we’d exchanged pleasantries about the weather.
“I’ve got that kind of face.”
He chuckled. “You do at that.” And he winked at me.
I grinned. “Behave, Pop.”
This sent him off into what was either laughter or his death throes. For no particular reason I remembered the way Hurlburt had stared at me that first day; like he’d seen a ghost. I thought I had startled him, but now I wondered.
“You some kind of cop?” he asked at last.
“Girl Scout. I got separated from my troop.”
The guy was alone too much. Off he went again. When he was sober I inquired, “Pop, do you remember a dive called the Mandarin Fan?”
He pulled out a handkerchief that looked like a flag no one would want to die for and blew his nose.
“Sure. Used to work there as a busboy. Burned to a crisp one night.”
“Would you remember a girl who used to sing there? Her name was Linda Wu. Tall, kind of pretty, older than me.”
“The Chink torcher? Sure I recollect her. Wanted to be an actress. Thought she was Anna May Wong or somebody. She was trouble, that gal.”
He gave me a knowing look. I wondered what it was like to be the sort of woman who inspired that kind of look. Not much of a retirement plan in that line. Not much of a retirement plan in mine, either, come to think of it.
“Do you know what happened to her?”
I thought he wasn’t going to answer for a minute. I swallowed some pink sugar and kept my frank and friendly gaze on his face.
I straightened up. “What makes you say that?”
“Her kind always comes to a bad end.”
I pressed him but I couldn’t get any more than that. Linda Wu was trouble; there was always some man hanging around her; her kind always came to a bad end. I didn’t need to be a detective to know that much.
I declined a ride on the carousel, and walked till I’d had enough sea air and blind alleys for one day, then headed back to town.
See, I may not always land on my feet, but the good thing about landing on your knees is you’re in a perfect position to beg. And I know all the right people. I finally did what I should have done the moment I first left Jack Hurlburt – I contacted a pal of mine, a stringer for Movie-Radio Guide, who confirmed that Hurlburt and the Keaton dame had indeed parted ways a year ago.
“Why? What have you got for me?” he wanted to know.
“It’s nothing like that, Red,” I assured him. But the more I thought about it, the more something Hurlburt had said the night before began to bother me.
According to Red, Hurlburt had been seeing someone steadily for a few months, someone about as Chinese as the Fourth of July.
“Babe Harlan?” I echoed. “The Babe Harlan? You’re kidding!”
“Would I kid a kidder?”
“What happened?” I questioned.
Red didn’t know but he speculated plenty. The popular view was that the Dowager Mama had nixed the deal. Jacko was earmarked for bigger and better things than that year’s Hollywood consort. But Red’s personal theory was Babe Harlan got fed up with Hurlburt’s roving eye and gave him the heave ho.
So where did the Dragon Lady come in?
Next stop was the library and some back issues of Modern Screen magazine.
There I found lots of pictures of Babe Harlan. Babe Harlan dancing and dining, always smiling or laughing, always sparkling so brightly that you never really noticed the men with her. A lot of the time the men were other actors, other pretty faces; for a long stretch of time the man was Jack Hurlburt. They looked right together. Happy. The kind of happiness that almost begs life to take a swing at it.
I went back to my digs at the Mallory Arms and started a new story for “Cap” Shaw, the editor over at Black Mask. I’d been trying to crack that market for over a year. Rain pinpricked against the windowpanes. Usually I like the rain, but that night it had a mournful lonely sound.
I tapped out on the typewriter, “She was a sleek and shining blonde with just enough of an after-hours glint in her eye to give a guy hope.”
Then I couldn’t think of anything else. I listened to the broken roar of the city as hurried, hunted people fought their way upstream to their homes. I listened to the rain on the roof, now loud, now blurred. I thought about the November rain beating on Babe Harlan’s fresh grave. I guess it’s just the Irish in me.
In the morning Miss Appleby was pleased to inform me that “our” client had called again. I charted a course for Pasadena.
Jack Hurlburt was seated at the piano plinking out a familiar tune. There was a cocktail glass leaving a ring of wet on the black surface. It didn’t appear to be his first.
“She called again,” he told me. “She wants the rest of the money tonight or she’ll tell Amy everything.”
“Does she know everything?”
“What?” He stared at me blearily.
“Do you have the money?”
“Yes.” He looked away. His fingers rippled the ivories. “She wants me to bring it to her. Alone.”
“I don’t think that would be wise.”
His lashes veiled his eyes. “I’m sure it wouldn’t be wise. That’s never stopped me before.”
He had it all. Looks, status, money. I told myself I disliked him, but I felt the tug of his charm even then.
“What is this woman to you?” I asked. “You weren’t running with her last year, because you were seeing Babe Harlan last year.”
His hands went still on the keys. “Babe.” He smiled to himself and reached for his glass.
When he came up for air I said, “Let’s just call her bluff and have her arrested.”
“I can’t do that.”
Silence. I guess it was a dumb question.
I tried again “Then what do you want me to do?”
“Go with me to deliver the money. Back my play.”
“Is this about money?”
“What else?” He grinned, a poor facsimile of his usual effort. “What else is there?”
* * * * *
A few minutes before I left for the meet, Red called.
“You were right,” he said. “She went to someone, some backstreet butcher. They couldn’t stop the bleeding,” Red said. “It’s as good as murder, but the studio hushed it up. Didn’t want to tarnish her image.”
I don’t know why that got to me, thinking of it, thinking of sneaking alone into some alley – alone whether someone came with you or not – waiting in some dingy room for a guy with dirty hands and blood on his coat.
And then afterwards, when it was done, when it was too late to change your mind, knowing something was wrong, ice cold inside, torn up inside, and still alone.
“I guess there’s no way of knowing who – ?”
I knew what he was thinking because it was the same thing I was thinking – the same thing anyone who was paying attention would think. And I wondered if Jack Hurlburt knew exactly what he’d lost with Babe Harlan.
I had a bad feeling.
I’d had it ever since Jack Hurlburt mentioned his little rendezvous with Madame Butterfly. It was still dogging me when I dropped my car off in Pasadena and it only got stronger as we drove to the rendezvous.
Jack was pale and fidgety. He couldn’t stop talking.
“Have you ever been in love, Kelly?”
“I thought I was once,” I said, my eyes on the road. “It turned out to be the flu.”
He laughed. “You don’t fool me.”
“If there’s one thing I know, it’s women.”
“Everyone needs a hobby.”
He felt around as though afraid he’d forgotten the envelope of cash. I’d asked him to let me carry it, but he’d refused. He said grimly, after reassuring himself the green was there, “It’s more like a profession with me.”
“So young and so cynical,” I murmured.
He laughed again.
I wished he hadn’t had so much to drink. I wished he’d let me set up the pay-off. At least he’d listened to me and insisted that the meet would be held in public on neutral ground this time, and I tried to reassure myself with this information. He’d picked the Colorado Street “Circle” Bridge (known as “Suicide Bridge” after the stock market crash) at the safely innocuous hour of six o’clock.
I waited in the Bentley while Jack went to meet Linda Wu. Halfway across the bridge she stepped out of the shadows, walking confidently in and out of the tiger stripes of lamplight.
She seemed to be alone but I knew she wouldn’t be. My hands tightened on the wheel of the coupe. I wished I had a closer view, but Jack had been definite about where he wanted me in the game.
Like a bad penny the moon slipped in and out behind rain clouds. I leaned forward trying to see better.
I’m not sure what happened next. I want to say Linda pulled a gun, but the fact is, it looked like Jack had the gun. I saw them struggle. The gun went off, a flash of orange like a spark between them, and Hurlburt crumpled to the ground.
My foot hit the floorboard as she bolted. I passed Jack sprawled in the gutter, caught up to her and pulled in front, brakes smoking.
She fell against the hood and then brought the gun up, aiming it at me. But I was already pointing a borrowed revolver at her. There was blood on her raincoat, but it wasn’t hers. It occurred to me that Jack Hurlburt was the one who most needed my attention. It also occurred to me that I really did not want to die in Pasadena in the middle of rush-hour traffic.
Cars were swerving and screeching around us, yet it seemed quiet in our private little corner of the world.
“Drop it,” I said.
I could hear her very well and she did not sound like she was going to drop it. “We’re not so different, you and I,” she said. “We both do what we must to survive in a man’s world.”
“Sure, sister,” I said. “But I draw the line at blackmail and murder.”
She stared at me for a moment I heard counted out on my wristwatch. I was afraid if my hand shook I’d shoot her by accident. Her hand never wavered.
“He wasn’t paying for letters, was he? There weren’t any letters.”
One shoulder lifted in a silken shrug. “There were letters. I burned them.”
Oh, I should have tumbled to it a long time before. In that first conversation he had been talking about two different women.
“How long were you married?”
“Five years.” Her smile was bitter in any language. “He called it a youthful folly.”
“Did you love him?” Not that it mattered.
It began to rain again. I could see it shining like grains of polished rice in the lamplight. It beaded on the hood of the Bentley and shone in her blue-black hair. There were raindrops on my eyelashes. My hand felt frozen.
I kept talking. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know if I could shoot her and I didn’t want her to shoot me. Stalling for time, I asked, “He never divorced you?”
For a minute the mask slipped and the fury burning there was enough to warm the coldest night. “It wasn’t that real to him.”
Was that the truth? I still wanted to believe there was something more to Jack Hurlburt. I wanted to understand.
“Put the gun down and I’ll talk to the cops for you. It’s his piece, right?”
She smiled the sleepy smile of a heathen idol after a healthy breakfast. “You think there will be justice for me? A Chinese woman?”
I don’t know if honesty held me silent or I just didn’t think it was smart to say anything else.
“So now what?” she inquired.
I had no answer. I slid over to the far side of the seat, opened the door and got out, keeping the car between us. “See you around,” I said, wondering if I would have to shoot her to walk away.
As she stepped backwards, the mist swallowed her.
I ran all the way back to Jack Hurlburt. Even before I knelt down beside him I knew it was all over. His blue eyes were open, his face was wet. He still had that smirk on his face.
Why did he do it? Did he mean to threaten her, to scare her? Did he really think he could shoot her and walk away?
Cars were pulling to the side and people were piling out. Some salesman from somewhere jumped out of his car and ran back to the drugstore on the Linda Vista side, yelling that he was going to call the cops. Fifteen minutes later they came, they saw, they took notes. They shook their heads over Jack Hurlburt’s earthly remains.
“Poor bastard. Never had a Chinaman’s chance,” remarked a big cop in a wet black raincoat, staring at the blossom of scarlet over Jack’s heart.
My heart was slugging out a familiar tempo, it was like I could hear Cole Porter whispering in the rain, So long, good-bye, ta-ta and you might even say ‘Amen.’
I caught a Yellow Car back to Atwater and then walked the rest of the way in the rush of autumn rain.
Brannigan’s office light was on. Everyone else was long gone. I sat down and began typing.
The next time I checked the clock it was nine o’clock. I pulled the last sheet out of the typewriter and tapped on Brannigan’s half-closed door.
“Yeah?” he called. He looked up from the usual stack of papers and I handed him my donation.
“It’s bad,” I said. “You’re probably going to want to fire me.”
“What, again?” He took my report and began reading.
When he finished, he pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
At last he said, “This is no life for a girl like you, Mary. One of these days you’ll wind up with your teeth scattered over the pavement. Or worse.”
He was serious. His gaze held mine, and I realized his eyes were gray, like the cool, silky sheen of pearls. Without the glasses they had a soft, defenseless look – probably the expression he had when he first woke in the morning.
“You could always adopt me,” I said. “Write my parents. I’m sure they’d give me away to a good home.”
Brannigan shook his head like it was hopeless. I guess it was. “Come on,” he said, rising. “Let’s go get your car.” He added gruffly, “Have you eaten?”
I got a swell dinner out of Mr. B. at Taix in the downtown French Quarter, and one hundred and seventy-two bucks for a story I submitted to Black Mask. I called it “Chinaman’s Chance.”
As for Madam Wu, you never know. Sometime I might just bump into her on some dark and narrow street.
* * * * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
(2001) Los Angeles based writer and reviewer D.L. Browne is a relative newcomer to the Shamus Game. “Just One of Those Things” marks her first foray into P.I. fiction, and can also be found in Down These Wicked Streets, a collection of private eye stories she co-edited with Kevin Burton Smith. It introduces rookie private eye Mary Kelly, someone she promises we’ll soon be seeing more of.