A MAN RIDES INTO TOWN
As it happened, Sol Lasner was also on the train. Ben spied him first on the red carpet at Grand Central posing for photographers, like one of his stars. Shorter than Ben remembered, his barrel chest wobbling on thin legs, storklike, but with the same tailored look, natty. He gave a quick, obligatory smile to the flashbulbs, then herded a group of men in suits onto the train, back to business. At Croton, where they switched over to the steam engine, most of the suits got off for the ride back to the city, but two stayed on through dinner, so Ben didn’t have a chance to talk to him until they were past Albany, when the landscape had already turned dark and there was nothing to observe from the observation car but blurs of street lamps and platform lights streaking past.
He’d been sitting near the rounded back of the car, smoking and staring out at nothing, when Lasner came in, holding a cigar. He nodded to Ben, not recognizing him, and for a moment Ben was tempted to let it wait, talk later on the Army’s time. The next few days were supposed to be his, little shrouds of time to wrap himself up in, prepare for the funeral, stare out windows, get used to it.
The long-distance call to Danny’s wife has taken hours to put through, her voice scratchy with bad connections, or grief. What kind of accident? “A fall. It’s in the papers as an accident. You know, anyone can fall. So they put it in that way.” But it wasn’t? Ben had asked, disconcerted, feeling his way, listening to the precious seconds tick by. “Look,” she’d said finally, “you should know. You’re his only family,” but then went quiet again. You mean he tried to take his life? “Take his life?” she’d said, confusing him until he realized that it was a translation problem, an idiom she hadn’t picked up. Hans Ostermann’s daughter. Tried to kill himself, he said. “Yes,” she said reluctantly, then drew a breath, moving past it. “But they didn’t want to say. You know what it’s like here. Everything for the good name. Nothing bad ever happens. It’s better if it’s an accident, in the papers. So I said it, too.” There was a snort of air, like a shrug over the phone. “But his brother- you have a right.”
Rambling on, making no sense to him now, or maybe he had just stopped listening, his head dizzy with it. Not a crash, a virus, some act of fate, but something willed, a scream of unhappiness. “I’m sorry for this news,” she’d said before he could ask more. “Is it possible for you to come now? He’s in a coma. So still alive. I don’t know how long. They don’t expect-so if you could come.” And then the reserved time was running out, and instead of questions there were logistics and plans. But what answers could anyone have? Something that only made sense to Danny, the most private act there was.
To his surprise, there had been no problem having the Army move up the trip. The problem was getting there, with the trains the way they were. Then something last minute opened up on the Chief, if he was willing to sleep sitting up on the Century to meet it, so he’d packed a duffel, sent the wire, and now found himself riding with Sol Lasner. Who could wait-the Army’s assignment-while he took his personal leave, brooding. Days to think about it, all the way to California. Meanwhile, Lasner was lighting the cigar, looking out the window and then at his watch, checking some invisible schedule.
“Any idea where we are?”
“Just past Schenectady.”
Lasner drew on the cigar, looking out again. “Upstate,” he said. “Goldwyn’s from here. Gloversville. They made gloves. That’s what he was, a glove man. Well, why not?”
Just talking to himself, not really expecting a reply, but suddenly Ben took the opening anyway. The meeting had fallen into his lap, personal leave or not.
Lasner turned, peering at him.
“Sorry. You probably don’t remember. We met last month overseas, on the Army trip. Ben Collier.” He held out his hand. “I was one of the liaison officers. Translator.”
Lasner took his hand, looking closely, still trying to place him. “The guy with the rooms, right? The one got Eddie Mannix the Ritz in Paris.”
Ben smiled. “And Zanuck. And Balaban. Colonel Mitchell arranged it. He figured they’d want the Ritz. Kind of people used to it.”
“I got news for you,” Lasner said, pointing with the cigar. “You think Harry Cohn’s used to the Ritz? Some hot-sheet place down on Flower-that’s what he’s used to.” He shook his head. “I still don’t know what that trip was. A stunt. Army puts a bunch of us in uniform, takes us around. What did they get out of it?”
What did they? Harry Cohn played poker in his suite, ignoring Paris. Everywhere the jockeying for the best hotel rooms, the special transports. Ben remembered the winding road up to Berchtesgaden, lined with jeeps, a new tourist attraction, GIs hunting for souvenirs while the executives stood at Hitler’s vast picture window, little tyrants finally humbled. A ride on Hitler’s yacht. Hamburg, where people had melted into the pavement during the firebombing. The camps, even worse. A few survivors still there, too emaciated and stunned to be moved. In town, packs of children, foraging. How much had they seen from their requisitioned rooms?
“It was Ike’s idea. Thinks people should see it. What happened. So the State Department sends groups over. That was the studio tour. There was another for the newsreel editors. See what it’s like.”
“At the Ritz.”
For a moment there was no sound but the click of wheels beneath them.
“I was there,” Ben said quietly. Watching Lasner stagger against a building, his face in his hands, sobbing. “I know it made an impression on you.”
Lasner rounded his cigar in the stand-up tray, smoothing off the ash.
“We’re making a picture about it.”
“I’m in the Signal Corps. We shot film there. What the newsreels didn’t.”
“No, I collect the film. See it’s put together for briefings, whether we can do something more. Information length, maybe features. If not, V shorts. Depending on the footage. What you do, in a way. Produce.”
Lasner waved his hand. “And now you’re out of a job.”
“Not yet. The Battle of San Pietro got a lot of play. And the Tokyo film did okay on general release, so the exhibitors are still interested. And there’s Ike’s film coming.”
“Who’s releasing?” Lasner said quickly.
“You know how it works. War Activities Committee-Freeman, at Paramount-assigns the pictures on a rotating basis. All the majors. It was Columbia’s turn.”
“The majors. What am I? They still think Continental’s a Poverty Row shop? Next year, we’ll outgross RKO, but me they give the training films. You know what it costs me? We get four to five thousand a reel. But we throw in the production, the overhead, the salaries for chrissake. Add it up, it’s more like seven thousand a reel and we just eat the difference.” He tapped the cigar again, calmer. “Not that I mind. You know, for the war. But you don’t hear Freeman calling me with a feature, either.”
“He will be.”
Lasner glanced up at him. “What’s this, a pitch?”
Ben leaned forward. “We’re sitting on a ton of footage. They’re setting up trials. This is what they’re all about. People need to see this. We want to work with a studio to put it together.”
Lasner shook his head. “Let Columbia do it. You think people want to see this? Nobody wants to see this.”
“Should. You know, Freeman asks, it doesn’t mean we have to do it. These war films-it’s all strictly voluntary. And now, after the war? Nobody’s going to make this picture.”
“I thought you’d want to.”
Lasner looked at him for a long minute, then sighed.
“Let me tell you something. Nobody needs a picture about killing Jews. What else have they been doing? Since forever.”
“Not like this,” Ben said quietly, so that Lasner busied himself putting the cigar out, avoiding him.
“Wonderful,” he said finally. “Cohn gets Eisenhower and I getI’ll think about it. Let Freeman call. We’ll see.” A dodge.
“I’ll be at the Signal Corps base in Culver City. A local call.”
“Fort Roach.” He caught Ben’s look. “Hal Roach’s old studio. The Army took it over. They’ve got some of my people down there. Drafted. My best cutter. Splicing film on VD. How does your prick look with crabs. Talk about a waste of a good technician.” He glanced up. “You want to make the picture there? Fort Roach?”
“No, I want to make it at Continental. With you.”
“Because we were such good pals in Germany. Looking at things.”
“Freeman said you were the first call to make. You were there for the Relief Fund. You hired refugees in ’forty. You-”
“So back to the well.”
“He said the others think they’re Republicans.”
Lasner snorted. “Since when did Frank get funny? If I heard two cracks from him my whole life it’s a lot.” He shook his head, then snorted again. “Mayer keeps a picture of Hoover in his office. Hoover. And now with the horses. A Jew with horses. So he’s fooling everybody.” He paused. “Don’t push me on this. We’ll talk. In an office. We make a picture if it makes sense to make a picture. Not just someone tells me it’s good for the Jews. Anyway, what kind of name is Collier?”
Ben smiled. “From Kohler. My father. It means the same thing.”
“So why change it? Who changes names? Actors.”
“My mother. After the divorce, we went to England. She wanted us to have English names. My father stayed in Germany.”
“He was a Mischling. Half.”
“And that saved him?”
“He thought it would.”
Lasner looked away. “I’m sorry. So it’s personal with you? That’s no good, you know, in pictures. You get things mixed up.”
“Not personal that way. I just want to get this done and get out of the Army. Same as everybody.”
Lasner picked up the cigar again and lit it, settling in.
“Why’d you pick the Signal Corps?”
“They picked me. My father was in the business. Maybe they thought it got passed down, like flat feet. Anyway, I got listed with an MOS for the Signal Corps.”
“Military Occupational Specialty. Civilian skill the military can use. Which I didn’t have, but the Army doesn’t have to make sense. They probably wanted guys with German but everybody did, so they grabbed me with an MOS. And once you’re assigned-”
“Well, at least it kept you out of combat.”
“Until last winter. Then they needed German speakers with the field units.”
“So you saw some action?” The standard welcome-back question.
“Some. The camera crews got the worst of it. They had to work the front lines. We lost a lot of them.”
Sometimes just yards away. Ed Singer, so glued to his lens that he never saw the shell that ripped his arm off, just turned and looked down, amazed to see blood gushing out. Ben scooting over. To do what? Dam the blood with a wad of shirt? A stump, spraying blood as it moved, even the camera covered with it. Ed looking at him, frantic, knowing, until his eyes got calmer as shock set in, then closed, no longer there to watch his life run out.
“I was lucky,” Ben said. “The closest I came was in a plane. When nothing was supposed to happen. You see Target Berlin? Some of the night footage in that. They told us the AAs had been wiped out, but they forgot to tell the Germans. Our gunner was hit. We get back, the plane is full of holes.”
He stopped, embarrassed, then took out a cigarette.
“Sorry. What am I doing now, telling war stories?” He inhaled, then blew smoke up toward the round observation roof, in this light oddly like the glass bubble of the Lancaster. “The thing was, I used to live there. Berlin. So it was the enemy, but also someplace you knew. It’s a funny feeling, bombing someplace you know. You think what it must be like on the ground.”
Lasner stared at him for a minute, saying nothing. “And thenwhat? You’re showing Zanuck around Europe. In uniform. He had it made, you know that? A tailor.” Almost a wink, a joke between them. “And for that they needed-what’s it again? — an MOS. Because your father was in pictures. Where, Germany?”
“Uh huh,” Ben said casually, sorry now that he had brought it up. “He came here for a while. Years ago. I was born here, in fact. California. But he went back.”
“Collier,” Lasner said, thumbing a mental file.
“Kohler then. Otto Kohler. He was a director.” The old hesitancy, as if the name, once his own, would somehow brand him.
“Otto? My god, why didn’t you say so? Wait a minute. I thought his kid was already over here-at Republic or some place. We were going to do something with him once, but then it didn’t work out. I forget why.” He stopped, confused. “Same name, though, as Otto. Kohler.”
“My brother,” Ben said, about to say more, and then the moment was gone. Why not tell him? But why would Lasner care? Something still private, and somehow not real. “He changed it back. Kids pick sides in a divorce. He was closer to my father.” Moving away from it. “You knew him? Otto?”
“Of course I knew him. He worked for me. You didn’t know that?” He glanced at Ben, a slight suspicion. “We made Two Husbands. You must have seen that.”
Ben spread his hands. “I was only-”
“That picture was a classic. He didn’t keep a print? Never mind. I’ll run it for you. You should see it. The talent that man had.” Lasner was off now, waving his cigar to draw Ben along with him. “He was the one that got away. The Ufa directors who came over. The great ones.” He raised three fingers. “Murnau-well, he got away, too, that car crash. Lang we’ve still got. And Otto. His trouble? Expensive. Sets. He thought we were making Intolerance.” He looked again at Ben. “Why didn’t you tell me before? Now I know who you are,” he said, leaning back and opening his jacket, visibly relaxing.
Ben smiled to himself. An industry, but still a family business.
“He was ahead of his time with those sets, you know,” Lasner was saying. “But they were all like that, the Ufa people. Even the ones who came later. You know why? No Westerns. They never learned to shoot outside. It was all controlled light with them. Of course, they had the facilities. In those days, what they had in Berlin-I’m still knocking my brains out in Gower Gulch trying to borrow arc lamps, and over there they’re making cities. Otto,” he said, shaking his head. “I can see the resemblance now, around the eyes. I knew your mother, too. A looker. So what happened? They split, you said.”
“Another woman, I guess. That’s what I heard. My mother never talked about it.”
“Well, he was like that. He always had an eye. So that’s why he stayed there? Some skirt?”
“I don’t know. He probably thought he’d get through it-that’s what people thought then. He was making pictures with Monika Hoppe. Goebbels liked her. Maybe he thought that would protect him, they’d look the other way. Anyway, they didn’t. He was arrested in ’thirty-eight. They sent a notice to my mother. This was when they still thought they had to explain it.”
“So,” Lasner said, looking away. “Some story.”
With everything Ben remembered left out. The good days in the big house on Lutzowplatz. The parties, sometimes with just a piano, but sometimes with a whole band, the air full of perfume and smoke, Ben looking down through the banister. Faces even a child recognized. Hertzberg, the comedian with the surprised round eyes; Jannings, jowly and grave even with a glass in his hand. And afterward, sometimes, the quarrels-were there women even then?
Sunday mornings, the room still smelling of stale ashtrays, his father got them ready for their walk. Scarves in winter. Umbrellas if it rained. But the walk without fail, because that’s what you did on Sundays in Berlin. Down Budapesterstrasse to the zoo, afterward a cake at Kranzler’s, his father desperate by now for a drink. Later, when they were too old for the zoo, they would head straight for the cafes, where his father met friends and Danny tried to sneak cigarettes. Then, a few years after that, they were on a train for Bremen, an American woman with her two boys, their father back on the platform at Lehrter Bahnhof.
They were meant to go home, but stayed in London. Did his mother think Otto would follow, that it was somehow important to be near him, at least on a map? When it didn’t matter anymore, after the official letter, she lacked the will to leave, and they stayed longer. By the time Ben finally did get back to America, to the Army training camp, he was grown up. The accent they teased him about now was English so he lost that one, too. And then, full circle, the Army wanted the old language of his boyhood. They polished off the rust, and it came back, as fluent as memory, bringing everything else with it, even the smell of the cakes, until finally the war took him to Berlin and he saw that it was gone for good-Kranzler’s, the zoo, all of it just rubble and dust, as insubstantial now as his father, all ghosts.
“Then what?” Lasner said, an old hand at story conferences. “She remarried? A woman like that-”
“No, she died. During the war.” He caught Lasner’s expectant look and shook his head. “She got sick.” No drama, a daily wearing away, medicines to keep the retching down, then a final exhaustion.
“So now it’s just the brother?” Lasner said, suddenly sentimental. “Let me tell you something. Stay close. What else have we got? Family. You trust blood. Don’t be like-” He took a puff on the cigar, moving farther away, drifting into anecdote again. “Look at Harry Warner. Jack makes him crazy. Screaming. Shouting. Sometimes, they’re in the same room, you don’t even want to watch. Don’t be like that.”
“But they’re still-”
Lasner shrugged. “Who else would work with Jack? He is crazy. You know, I said to him once, you hate him so much, come work with me, partners, your name first, I don’t care. At the time, this is worth a fortune to him. You know what he said? ‘You want that bastard to run my studio?’ His studio. So they’re stuck with each other, till one of them keels over. You put that kind of pressure here,” he said, touching his heart, “and sooner or later they wheel you out on a stretcher. Well.” He stood up, glancing at his watch again, then out the window. “What I hate, this time of night, is you never know where you are.” He put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, an uncle. “Remember what I said. Don’t be like Jack. Stay close.”
And what was there to say to that? Danny had gone to California in ’40, using Otto’s name to get a Second Unit job at Metro. Just to see what it was like. And then the war had closed the door behind him, eight thousand miles away, so that all they’d had for years were sheets of blue tissue V-mail. Danny playing parent. Keep safe, out of combat. Their mother’s health. War news. But still Danny’s voice, the same wink in it. Stories he knew Ben would like, could pass on to his friends. Meeting Lana Turner. Going to hear the King Cole Trio. You have to come out here. The whole make-believe world real when Danny wrote about it, the same kid sneaking cigarettes, talking late at night from his bed across the room. About what? Anything. Ben wrapped up in the sound of it.
He got up, feeling Lasner’s hand still on his shoulder. “Don’t forget to call Freeman.”
“I don’t forget anything,” Lasner said, peering at him. “I’ll tell you one thing I don’t forget. Your father cost me a bundle. So maybe I’d better watch out-you’re an expensive family.”
“No sets this time,” Ben said.
Lasner nodded, finally dropping his hand. “We’ll talk. Where are you staying in Chicago?”
“I’m just changing trains.”
“The Chief? That’s seven fifteen. That gives you what? Nine hours to kill.” Everything measured and counted. “What’re you going to do for nine hours?”
“See Chicago, I guess.”
Lasner waved his hand. “You’ve seen it. You need a place to rest up, I’m at the Ambassador East. They get me a suite. Plenty of room.” He started to move toward the end of the car. “Otto’s kid. You live long enough-” He turned. “He was shot?”
“That’s what the letter said.”
“But who knows with the Nazis.” The unspoken question, a quick bullet or days of pain, clubs and wires, and screams. Years ago now.
“Anyway, he’s dead,” Ben said. “So it doesn’t matter.”
Lasner nodded. “No. It’s just my age, you think about the how.” He was silent for a minute, then looked up. “You got a budget on this thing?”
Ben held up his hand, checking items off his fingers. “Hard costs. The footage we’ve got. Prints, I can req the raw stock from the War Production Board. You do the prints. And the sound-an engineer for the track, some bridge scoring, somebody to do the narration. American. Fonda, maybe?”
Lasner shook his head. “Use contract. Frank Cabot?”
“Fine. All I need is a cutting room and a couple of hands. We can do it either place, but yours would be better-Army studio, someone’s always taking your equipment. You provide the space, I can get the hands from Fort Roach. The stock would be an Army expense,” Ben said, looking at him directly. “We’ll make it for you. If you put it out.”
“Nobody makes pictures for me,” Lasner said, looking back, the rhythm of negotiation. “At my studio.” He held Ben’s eyes for another second, then smiled. “You know, if your father had been like you, he’d still be-” He looked away, at a loss. “I mean-”
Ben said nothing, waiting.
Lasner held up a finger. “Don’t take advantage. People don’t forget that.” He lowered the hand, a dismissal, and walked away, followed by his moving reflection on the glass roof. “We’ll talk in the morning,” he said, the words in a slipstream over his shoulder.
But when the train pulled into LaSalle Street it was the scene from Grand Central all over again-Lasner surrounded by hats, tips given out, telegrams handed over, the group moving down the platform in a huddle. Ben followed behind, not wanting to interrupt, then lost him outside in the line of waiting taxis. Dearborn Street, where the Chief would pull out, was only a few blocks away, but what would he do there? He turned east instead, past the murky bars and shadowy streets under the El, light poking through the girders in latticework patches. Off the train, things seemed to pass in a plodding slow motion. Nothing whizzed by the window. He had all day.
He crossed Michigan to the lakefront, hoping for a breeze, but the lake was flat, a sheet of hot tin. In the park, dogs panted under bushes. He thought of Warner being wheeled out on a stretcher in Lasner’s imagination. But anyone could have an attack, even someone as young as Danny. Except he hadn’t. What had his life been like? Maybe the same pressure cooker the Warners steamed in. Not the easy California you saw in magazines, men in open-necked shirts. Did he look like that? His wife would have pictures. Hans Ostermann’s daughter, the only thing Ben knew about her. She’d be at the hospital now, waiting things out.
He got up from the park bench, restless. How could he not know Danny’s life? Ben had followed him everywhere, just wanting to be part of things. Wild, just like your father, his mother had said, meaning impulsive. But he wasn’t. A letter every week, staying in touch, still taking care of him. And now gone, without even a note. Maybe he hadn’t really meant to do it, not at the very end. A fall. How did she know for sure it hadn’t been like that? He stopped in the street, caught not just by the heat and the night of half sleep, but a deeper weariness, tired of thinking about it, going round in circles.
On State Street he saw an AIR COOLED banner running along a marquee and went inside. The picture was a Betty Grable on second run, something with snow. Caesar Romero danced. Charlotte Greenwood did her split high kick, right over her head. Betty was put out over some romantic mix-up with John Payne, all of it so airy that it melted away as you saw it, like touching beer foam. The newsreel brought him back with a jolt. Europe in grainy black and white, where he’d been just two weeks ago. People going through PX garbage cans. Then war criminals passing sentences on themselves before the courts could-cyanide capsules for the privileged, amateur nooses for the others. Not a botched accident, a Hollywood indulgence. Meaning it. In the camps, they threw themselves on electric fences. You never asked why, not over there. He stood up, desperate to move again.
Outside there was everything he’d been too preoccupied to notice before. Taxis. Buildings with glass. Stores. No debris in the street. Doormen walking dogs. The bar at The Drake, with silver dishes of nuts. A country so rich it didn’t even know its own luck. Where anyone could be happy.
At the station, busy with redcaps pushing luggage carts, he saw flashbulbs near the Chief. Not Lasner this time, real stars. Paulette Goddard. Carole Landis. Two girls he didn’t recognize. All of them smiling, holding up a bond drive poster as they perched on the compartment car steps. Other passengers stopped to watch. You’ll never guess who was on the train.
They left at seven fifteen exactly, sliding out so smoothly that it wasn’t until they began clicking over the points in the yard that Ben looked up to see they were moving. Past sidetracked box cars, then clotheslines and coal sheds and scrap metal yards, the backside of the city, until finally the open country of the prairie. Another day before they saw mountains. Los Angeles Monday morning, half a continent in under forty hours. He opened his bag to change. People dressed up for dinner on the Chief. A wash, a drink in the club car. He looked out again at the late summer’s light on the unbroken fields, a pale gold. Farther away from the newsreel with every mile. And then, not paying attention, he nicked his finger on his razor and watched, dismayed, as blood welled out of the cut. Had there been blood? She hadn’t said. A pool spreading under his head? Where had he fallen? But there must have been blood. There always was.
They were three deep at the bar in the club car, talking over each other, a party roar of indistinct voices and ice tinkling against glass. Just a few uniforms, officers with their own money. One of the starlets he’d seen on the platform, lipstick refreshed, was taking a light from a man she’d obviously just met, all eyes and what-are-my-odds. The way every trip should begin, Ben thought, the air bubbling like the tonic in his drink.
“So what happened to you?”
Ben turned to the finger poking at his shoulder.
“I thought you were coming up. Talk some more.”
Lasner had changed suits but seemed to have kept the same cigar, now just a stub between his fingers. He was with a young man whose eyes darted around the car, a quick sweep, before they settled on Ben. He stuck out his hand.
“Lou Katz. Morris Agency.”
“Lou works with Abe Lastfogel,” Lasner explained.
“I’m his number two,” Katz said, evidently a point. “You’re with Continental?”
“The Army,” Lasner said. “He’s making pictures for the Army.”
“Oh,” Katz said, his eyes beginning to move away. “You know who this is?” Lasner said. “Otto Kohler’s kid.”
“Really,” Katz said uneasily, not sure he could admit the name meant nothing.
“The director,” Lasner said. “Silents.”
“Right, silents,” Katz said, relieved. “Let me get us some drinks. You’re fine?” He nodded at Ben’s hand and without waiting for an answer headed into the bar crowd.
“Watch this,” Lasner said. “You want a drink right away, always travel with the Morris office.”
“Sorry about today. I thought you’d be busy.”
“So come now.” He glanced at his watch. “We’ve got the eight seating. It’ll be a help to me. You have dinner with Katz, you always feel a hand in your pocket. Look at this, what did I tell you?”
Katz was slipping through the crowd, drinks in hand.
“Looks like a full train,” he said. “You see Julie Sherman over there?” He nodded toward the starlet from the bond drive. “You know Fox isn’t picking up her option.”
“Lou, don’t peddle,” Lasner said. “Anyway, what would I do with her?”
“Nobody ever lost money showing tits. Your health,” he said, raising his glass.
“Then what happened at Fox?”
“Too much like Tierney. Who needs two? She should be somewhere they work with the talent. You know she can sing? Test her. See what she can do. You can’t run a studio on loan-outs.”
“How many times, Lou? Contract talent’s okay for the programmers. That’s your base,” he said, demonstrating with his hands. “Up here you don’t want to carry around that kind of expense. You get top-heavy. For A pictures, buy what you need. How many A’s do I make? Sell her to Metro, they can afford it.”
Katz shook his head. “You got it backwards. You should do the loan-outs. Look at Selznick-he’s living on his contract list. Every time he loans out Bergman, he’s making what? A couple of hundred?”
“There’s a name for that.”
“Producer. What’s he doing now, some farkakte Western with that girl played the saint? One picture. You know how many pictures Continental’s releasing this year?”
“That’s my point. You’re not a small studio anymore. People should be coming to you for the talent.”
Lasner held up his hand. “You got something going with her, is that what?”
“Just ten percent.”
“Do you believe this guy?” Lasner said to Ben. “She’s gone down on half the Fox lot and with him it’s still business.”
“You’ve got her wrong. She can sing.”
“You remind me of Gus Adler. The way he was with Rosemary. All he could talk about. Test her, test her.”
“And you did. And signed her,” Katz said smiling, sending a ball over the net.
Lasner shrugged. “All right. Set it up with Bunny. Then we’ll see.” Katz started to speak, but Lasner stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Now take a step back. You push too hard, you knock people over. Learn from Abe. You know what he decided? Act like a gentleman, people always take your calls. There are ways to do things.”
“Jesus, Sol. I was just trying to say thank you.”
There was a stirring in the car, a shift in the air, as if someone were holding a door open. Paulette Goddard was walking toward them, people pretending not to notice as they let her pass. The bond drive dress was gone, traded up for a dark silk top that glittered with sequins, almost as bright as the diamond earrings setting off her face. It wasn’t just being beautiful, Ben thought, amused-she seemed to have brought her own lighting with her, a spot following her through the car.
“Sol, I had no idea you were on the train,” she said, kissing him, the air denser now with perfume.
“You look like a million,” he said fondly.
“I should,” she said, holding up her wrist to show off a strand of diamonds. “You like?”
“If I don’t have to pay for it. What is it, from Charlie?”
“Are you kidding? He still has the first dollar. Well, from him in a way. The settlement.” She laughed, an infectious giggle. “Imagine his face.”
“So everything’s friendly?” Lasner said, a concerned relative.
“Darling, it was ages ago. You know Charlie. He’s wonderful. He’s just impossible to live with.”
“You two go way back,” Lasner said.
“Not that far, Sol,” she said, laughing again, then turned to Katz. “Hi, Lou. How’s Abe?”
“Busy,” he said, almost blushing, grateful to be recognized. Ben smiled to himself. No one was immune to stardust, not even those who lived on it. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Can’t. Date with the Major. To celebrate the end of the drive. Sol, would you believe it, we set a record? And it was just me and Carole and a few other girls.”
“Julie Sherman,” Katz said, getting the name in.
“Yes, Julie.” She had turned her head to him and now took in Ben, her smile as bright as the bracelet. “I’m sorry-”
“Ben Kohler,” Lasner said, the way he now remembered it. “Otto Kohler’s boy.” Ben could tell from the fixed smile that the name meant as little to her as it had to Katz. “He makes pictures for the Army.”
“Really?” A glance to the other wrist, another flash of diamonds. “God, look at the time. I’ll call Fay.” Evidently Mrs. Lasner. “We don’t start shooting for another week.” She looked up at him, suddenly serious. “Milland. What do you think?”
“You’ll make him look good,” Lasner said, then leaned over and kissed her forehead.
“Liar,” she said, smiling. “Love to Fay. If you want to buy a bond I’m in car twenty-two. At least I think it’s twenty-two. Just go to the end and holler. Lovely to meet you,” she said to Ben, grazing his hand with the tops of her fingers. And then, to Katz, “Give my best to Abe,” and she was off, turning heads again.
“That’s a nice girl,” Lasner said.
Ben looked at him, surprised at the word.
“Paramount signed her to seven years. Seven years, Sol,” Katz said.
“So let Freeman buy the bracelets.”
“I’m just saying-”
“Besides, she’s a friend. Who hires friends?”
“I don’t mean relatives. She and Fay started out together, for chrissake.”
“Another round?” Katz said, letting it drop. A porter had started the first dinner chimes. “One for the road,” he said, beating the rush to the bar.
“Your wife was an actress?” Ben said, curious.
“Actress. They were Goldwyn Girls. On the Cantor picture. The Kid From Spain, whatever it was called. That’s how we met. The wrap party. I’m meeting with Sam, and he says, ‘I’ve got to go put in an appearance.’ So we met. Thirteen years now. Thanks,” he said, taking a new drink from Katz. “But Paulette, that was something different. She wanted it-pictures. After Goldwyn she was with Hal Roach. Then Chaplin found her. Or maybe she found him. Anyway, Charlie’s a great teacher. And she learned. But fresh-that you can’t teach. You look at Modern Times, that’s just the way she was.”
“Before the bracelets.”
Lasner glanced up. “There’s nothing wrong with bracelets. Depends how you get them.” He made a face, as if he were stifling a belch. The porter came through again with the chimes.
“I don’t know about you, but this drink is going right through me,” Katz said. “I gotta take a leak. Sol, I’ll see you in the dining car.” He took Ben’s hand. “Nice talking to you.”
Ben watched him head for the restroom, then heard a gasp and turned. Lasner was looking at the floor, bent over. “You okay?”
Another gasp. Ben took Lasner’s arm. Not just the drink. He felt a clenched spasm. Lasner reached behind with his other hand, grabbing onto the window curtains for support. Geometric flowers. Around them the cocktail buzz went on, not noticing. Lasner looked up, his face contorted, white, sweat forming on his forehead.
“Help me,” he whispered. “Don’t let him see.”
Ben grabbed Lasner’s elbow, propping him up and hiding him from the rest of the car. “Do you need a bathroom?”
Lasner shook his head. “Heart. Get me out of here.” His mouth tight, a grimace.
“Don’t move. I’ll get a chair.”
But Lasner was already stepping forward, leaning on Ben. “Next car,” he said hoarsely. “Before he sees.”
They started toward the other end, away from the crowd moving into the dining car, away from the restrooms, each step heavy as lead, his whole weight falling on Ben. Only the bartender seemed aware of them, a blank expression taking in another one-too-many. At the end of the car, another gasp and shudder as Ben fumbled with the door handle.
“I’ll get a doctor.”
Lasner sank into a porter’s jump seat, his face tight with strain. “No, make some excuse,” he said, short of breath, waving toward the dining car. “Make some excuse. With Katz. Before he comes looking. Then come back.”
Ben opened the top of the window, a rush of air.
“Lean back,” he said. He started to undo Lasner’s tie. But did it matter? It occurred to Ben for the first time, a moment of panic, that Lasner might really be in trouble. The chimes went again. In the next car over, people were sitting down to dinner.
“I have pills,” Lasner said, as if that answered anything. “Come back. After.” He looked over at Ben, eyes large. “Please.”
The word, so completely unexpected, had the force of an order. Ben nodded.
“Just try to breathe normally. Don’t force it, okay?” Which came from where? An old first aid manual? How to tie a tourniquet.
He waited until Lasner had taken a breath-steady, not a rattlethen hurried back into the club car. And what excuse could he make? An agent expecting dinner. Ben looked into the dining car. Not there yet. No one he recognized, in fact. The Major must be hosting the bond drive table in the other dining car. Maybe a private party. Behind him, he heard the bathroom door close with a whoosh.
“There you are. Sol asked me to wait. Look, he’s sorry but he has to beg off dinner. Miss Goddard came back for him. You know Sol, he can’t say no to her.” This all in a rush, as if he were short of breath. “He said he’ll make it up to you. It’s just-”
“What? Just now?”
Ben shrugged. “I think she didn’t want to be alone with the Major. Sol couldn’t say no.”
“No,” Katz said, evidently used to excuses.
“He said he’d make it up to you.”
He left Katz standing in the dining car, wondering how, and raced back through the club car, pushing past the crowd at the bar. Lasner hadn’t moved, leaning against the window, holding on to the rail underneath, still white.
“All right, now let’s get you a doctor.”
“Next one,” Lasner said, pointing down the corridor toward a drawing room car, presumably his own. He leaned again on Ben. “No porters. They tip them.”
“Who?” Ben said as they started to move. Was Lasner becoming confused? Did that happen?
“Polly. All of them. They tip the porters.”
Meaning Paulette? Ben glanced at him, then let it go. “The pills are in your room?”
Lasner nodded, clutching the handrail as they moved down the car. “What did you tell him?”
“That Miss Goddard sent for you.”
“He buy it?”
“I think so. You shouldn’t even be moving.”
“So they can lay me out in the club car? We’re almost there.”
It was a two-chair drawing room, top of the line, the settee already extended and made up, crisp white sheets folded over at the head. Ben lay him down, taking off his tie, his shoes, then suddenly went shy, not ready to draw the pants off the bird-like legs.
“Dopp kit,” Lasner said, pointing to the bathroom.
Ben rummaged through the leather case and pulled out a brown pill bottle. Hillcrest Pharmacy. As needed. He splashed some water in a glass.
Lasner took two, then lay back, half closing his eyes, as if he expected instant results. Ben stood for a minute, helpless, then put the water down next to Lasner and went to the door.
“I’ll find a doctor.”
“I don’t need-”
“I’ll be right back,” Ben said, ignoring him.
“No porters,” Lasner said, raising his voice so Ben could hear it after he closed the door.
But, in fact, how could he find a doctor without one? Another story, a sick wife, the porter too polite to contradict.
By the time he got the doctor back to the compartment the pills seemed to have had some effect. Lasner’s breathing was deeper, pushing some color back into his face. The doctor glanced with a quick nod at the pill bottle and took out a stethoscope at the same time. “There still some pain?” He reached into the shirt, placing the metal disc on Lasner’s chest.
“Not as much.”
“This happen before? Must have, if you have these.” He nodded again at the pills. “And you kept walking around? Don’t you know better than that?”
“You’re lucky.” He leaned over, listening more carefully.
“With doctors,” Lasner said. “It’s like lawyers? It’s all private?”
“You should be in a hospital. To be on the safe side. I can ask them to stop the train,” he said, glancing out at the open prairie, “or wait until we get to Kansas City. We can wire ahead, have things ready.”
Lasner shook his head. “Carry me out? In front of the Morris office? No.”
“What’s he talking about?” the doctor said to Ben.
“Nothing,” Ben said, not bothering. “Is he really in danger?”
“He could be.”
“Listen to me,” Lasner said, his voice steady. “I know what this is. It gets better, or it doesn’t. You ride it out. What are they going to do in a hospital? Put me in bed. I’m in bed.”
“Well, I can’t take the responsibility then,” the doctor said, sounding so exactly like George Brent that for an instant, thrown, Ben almost laughed.
“Kohler will keep an eye on me,” Lasner said.
The doctor sighed. “Anyway, you’re not in bed. Here, give me a hand, will you?”
“What do I do?” Ben said to the doctor as they undressed the head of Continental Pictures. The stork legs, just as imagined. Boxer shorts. The suit hung up neatly. Wispy gray hair laid back against the propped pillows.
“Nothing. He’s right about that. You ride it out. Just keep him quiet. I’ll check in again in the morning.” He wagged his finger at Lasner. “Stay in bed. Or they will carry you out in Kansas City.” He turned back to Ben. “I’ll leave these,” he said, handing him a small envelope with pills. “In case he can’t sleep. If it gets bad again, you know where to find me.” He picked up a cigar from the standing ashtray. “Wonderful,” he said to Lasner, “just what you need.” Another Brent line, shaking his head as he left.
“Fascist,” Lasner said when the door closed. “They’re all fascists.”
Ben looked at him for a second, then dropped into one of the chairs, drained, holding on to the armrests to calm his hands.
“What’s the matter, I give you a scare?” Lasner said, a faint smile now on his face.
“It’s not funny. You should do what he says. Get off in Kansas City.”
“He’s just covering his ass. If I’m going to peg out, I’ll do it at Cedars. Here’s what we do. Kansas City, that’s two twenty-two.” Ben looked over at him, impressed again. On schedule. “We get five minutes there, not enough to call and get through. Anyway, that hour she’s asleep. So send an overnight. Are you getting this? There’s some paper over there. Tell Fay to meet the train in Pasadena. Not downtown. Pasadena’s eight thirty-five. She always forgets. And tell her to bring Rosen. Then another wire to Jenkins at the studio, tell him not to meet the train. Tell him Fay’s meeting me. Otherwise, he’ll start calling people.”
“Anything else?” Ben said, playing secretary. “You’re not supposed to be talking, you know.”
“I’m not supposed to be breathing, either,” he said, but his voice was softer, winding down. “Don’t forget the wires, okay? The address is in my wallet.”
“I’d better go. Let you get some rest.”
“No, sit. Sit. Stick around,” Lasner said, trying to sound casual.
Ben turned off the overhead, leaving just a small side lamp and the faint light from the sky outside. The land below was already dark, anonymous.
“At least till Kansas City. Make sure they don’t take me off. Okay?” he said, asking something else.
“Okay,” Ben said, taking a chair and turning it so that he was facing both Lasner and the window. A clean horizon line, flat, the dark beginning to take over the sky, too. He lit a cigarette, watching the red tip glow in the window reflection.
“You want something to eat? We can have something brought.”
“No, I’m fine. Go to sleep.”
“Who could sleep now. You just wonder if you’ll wake up.” But he half closed his eyes.
Ben said nothing, listening to the wheels.
“Talk to me,” Lasner said after a while, still there.
“What did you mean about the porters? Who tips them?”
“The columns. Hedda. Polly Marks. All of them.” Polly, not Paulette.
“Items. Who’s in whose compartment. Who got tossed out of the bar. Who’s on the train. You know, N.Y. to L.A. Everybody meets the Chief.”
“Like the boats in New York,” Ben said, looking at the land outside, now as black as the night sea. Soon they would cross the Mississippi, something out of books. “And you don’t want them to know. What does it matter? I mean, what if Katz sees you? Any of them?”
Lasner said nothing for a minute, then grunted. “You’re not in pictures. You don’t know the first thing about it. Not the first goddam thing.”
Ben sat back in the chair, waiting for more, but Lasner was quiet, drifting. When he spoke again even his voice had changed, pitched to a different role.
“You know how I got started?”
“How?” Ben said, the expected response.
“Fourteenth Street. On the east side, near Third.”
Ben looked over, surprised to start with an address. But Lasner was smiling to himself, his voice stronger, buoyed up by memory, as if the past, already known, could steady his irregular heart.
“By Luchow’s, where the cheap beer gardens were. Next to one of them there’s a dry goods store. Like a shoe box, you know, just a long counter, some drawers for notions. Lousy space for retail, long, but at night they clear the counter and put a projector in. There’s a sheet at the end of the room. For this the space is perfect. So, a nickel. On benches. The first time, I’ll never forget it. I didn’t even have English yet. Just off the boat, and I’m sitting there laughing like everybody else. An American. This thing — I thought, here is something so wonderful, everybody will want it. A nickel. You couldn’t move in the place. I wonder sometimes what if I hadn’t gone in, on Fourteenth Street. But you know what? I would have gone in somewhere else.”
“And after that you wanted to make pictures?”
“Make? No. Show. You rent the stores at night-who was using them at night? — and you rent some chairs, you got a film from the exchange, and you were in business. Get a little ahead, you take over the store in the day, too. People came. Of course I’m not the only one seeing this. Then it’s theaters and it’s serious money. Banks. Fox, that prick, is squeezing right and left. Zukor. How do you compete with this? You don’t. I thought, I don’t want to be in the real estate business. They can gobble up everybody and then what? They still need something to show. So I sold the theaters and came out here to make pictures.”
Already “out here,” Ben noticed, still two thousand miles away.
“The right place,” Ben said.
“Well, not then. That all came later. There was nothing here then. Oranges. Goyim with asthma. Nothing. But every kind of country, sun every day. It was all outside then. You put up walls and hung cheesecloth over it. To cut the glare. Right out in the open. We used a ranch out in the Valley for Westerns. For years, the same ranch.”
“That’s how you started? With Westerns?”
“Everybody started with Westerns. What’s to know? A man rides into town. That’s it. Just go from there.”
Ben smiled. “But what happens?”
“What happens. Guns. Chase. Gets the girl. It’s a picture.”
He stopped, distracted for a moment, then picked up the thread again, enjoying himself, and Ben sat back, letting the words circle around him. The Lasner style, growls and purrs and easy intimacy under the sharp eye.
“The first place we had was on Gower. In the gulch, right across from where Cohn was. With all the fly-by-nights. They go out of business, we’d pick them up. Just kept moving down the street. Those days, it was hand-to-mouth. Sometimes not even.” He looked up at the ceiling, absentmindedly smoothing the blanket. “You know what you miss? That age? You never think about being sick. Dead, maybe, the idea of it, but not sick. Your body’s just something you carry around with you. Then one day you’re lying here with a bomb in your chest, waiting for it to go off. Just when things are going-since the war, everything’s doing business. Then something you never figured. I’m on two kinds of pills. And you know what Rosen says? Slow down. In pictures. You show weakness for five minutes and-”
He let the words hang in the room. Ben got up and went over to the wash basin.
“Well, it wouldn’t be a weakness to get some rest. Here, take this.” He handed him a pill from the small envelope.
Lasner held it in front of his mouth, a bargaining chip. “But you’ll stick around.”
Ben nodded, watching him lift the water glass. “Don’t worry. I’ll stay till you’re asleep.”
“And after that?” Childlike, pressing.
Ben took the glass away. “After that you’ll be asleep. If anything happens, ring for the porter. I don’t care who’s tipping him. You don’t want to take any more chances with that.” He pointed to Lasner’s chest.
Lasner grunted. “People try to see me all day long and here you are, and all you can say is go to sleep.”
“Sol. For chrissake, you took my pants off.”
Ben sat down. There was nothing to do but wait for the pill to kick in.
“All day long,” Lasner said. “No wonder I get episodes. You think it’s a picnic, running a studio?”
“Maybe you should think about retiring.”
“Hah. Then who would call me?” Said so simply that for a second Ben thought he was joking.
“But if you’re sick-”
“What do you think, it’s something you can just walk away? I built the studio. All of it.” He sat back against his pillow. “Nobody sees the work. They think it just happens. But it’s work. Look at Paulette.” He raised a finger. “You’re wrong about her. I saw it in your face. You thought she was a Peggy Joyce.”
“Gold digger. She had a career for about two minutes. You never heard of Peggy Joyce? She was in a song for chrissake.”
Ben shrugged his shoulders. “Before my time.”
“I forget you’re a kid. She married-well, who remembers? Her they remembered. Or did,” he said with an exasperated look at Ben. “Paulette never married for that. You know how old she was, she started to work? Fourteen. She’s fourteen and making a living.”
“On the stage?”
Lasner nodded. “Chorus. Then Ziegfeld. Next thing, she’s out here. Pretty. But that wasn’t it. Pretty you can get anywhere. She was raring to go. Fun. That’s what Charlie spotted in her. Not just pretty. You know where they met? Joe Schenck’s boat. So, another girl for Charlie. But no. He works with her. And the way he works, every little thing perfect. And she does it. Even now, you see the picture, she’s terrific. Casual, like she’s not working. But she’s working since she was fourteen. And now she’s a star.” He lowered his voice, suddenly pragmatic. “But not to carry a picture. Not yet. And they want to put her in a hoop skirt- where’s the sense in that? The way she wears clothes? What do you see in a period picture? Shoulders.”
“What’s wrong with shoulders?”
“What’s wrong with you? I’m trying to tell you something here. You have to know what you’re doing. You make a bad picture, that’s one thing. You make a few-” He spread his fingers, letting the thought slip through them, like luck itself running out.
Ben stared at the hand, curious. Every gambler’s fear, that it might all go away. Danny’s world.
“Nothing’s the way you think out here,” Lasner said, his voice weaker, drifting again.
Ben looked over at him, not sure what he was talking about now, some earlier thought, and saw that the eyes had finally closed, his chest moving slowly, night breathing. Resting comfortably, nurses would say. After his scare. Five minutes of weakness. Their secret. He could go now, leaving only the dim night-light. But he stayed, listening to the wheels, keeping watch, sure somehow that Lasner felt his presence, felt safer. What happened in a deeper sleep? Did you hear anything in a coma, voices, faint rustling sounds around you? Would Danny even know he was there, had come all this way to see him? Maybe Lasner didn’t know, either, breathing steadily now. But when Ben woke, hours later, and finally left, he tiptoed to the door and opened it quietly, without a click.
Lasner was still in bed in the morning, now propped up against pillows in a patterned silk bathrobe.
“Where’ve you been? The doctor was here an hour ago.”
“He tell you to stay in bed?”
Lasner waved his hand in dismissal, but made no move to get up.
“You want some breakfast?”
“I already had. What do you keep, banker’s hours? Let’s talk about the picture. There’s nothing to see till New Mexico anyway.”
Ben looked out the window-endless yellow fields, silos and telegraph poles, a hot, bright day.
Lasner held up a finger. “It’s not because I owe you. I don’t want you to get that idea.”
Ben nodded and sat down. “Sure you’re up to this?”
“How much footage have you got?”
“Lots. And some captured Nazi film-they actually filmed it. We can also get stock from Artkino, the Russian agency.”
“You want to use Russian film?”
“They were the first ones in. The quality’s okay-I’ve seen it.”
“Never mind the quality. It’s Russian. You use it, that prick Tenney will be all over you.”
“Jack Tenney. You’ve been away for a while. He used to write songs. Mexicali Rose, one hit. Now he’s a politician, with a bug up his ass about Reds. He’s got a committee up in Sacramento. Making lists. You don’t want him making trouble for you.”
“Over some footage?”
“If the Russians shot it, he’ll say it’s a lie. Which leaves you where? Saying it’s not. People wondering. Don’t go near it. You got plenty of Army film, right? Why buy trouble?”
The knock came before he could answer, a light rap, then a tentative opening.
“Sol? You there?”
“Paulette. Come in, sweetheart. You’re up early.”
She took in Ben with a quick smile to cover her surprise, then frowned at Lasner. “What are you doing in bed? You all right?” she said, crossing the room. She was wearing cream-colored slacks and a dark jersey top with a single strand of pearls, day wear.
“Something I ate,” Lasner said.
“When? At the dinner you ate with me except you didn’t?”
“You saw Katz.”
“Don’t worry, I covered. Next time I’m the excuse, let me in on it, will you? I had to have a drink with him. So he could tell me his troubles.”
“What troubles does he have?” Lasner said.
Goddard laughed. “What’s going on?” She turned to Ben, who had already caught Lasner’s signal.
“Doctor says it’s probably just flu.”
“You had a doctor?” She sat down on the edge of the bed, looking at him closely. “You want me to call Fay?”
“It’s done, it’s done. Ben took care of it in Kansas City. She’s meeting me in Pasadena. Don’t make such a big deal.”
She put her hand on his forehead, the bright red tips touching his hair. “Tough guy,” she said, then looked at Ben, raising her eyebrows. “No fever. Some flu.”
“It’s a bug is all,” Lasner said. “Now let me get dressed. How about I take you to lunch?”
She smoothed back his hair. “We’ll have it in. I’ll bring some cards, what do you say?”
“What’s my end?”
“You stay in bed. And don’t cheat.” She tapped a finger on his nose, then stood up, not waiting for an answer. “Help me find his porter, will you?” she said to Ben, blowing Lasner a kiss.
In the corridor her face was serious.
“What did the doctor really say?” When Ben hesitated, she brushed past it. “I know, you can’t- He thinks nobody knows. Fay would kill me if anything happened and I was right here.” She looked up at him. “What’s the connection again?”
“We’re going to make a picture together. For the Army.”
She shook her head. “You’ll have to explain that to me sometime. Right now, he’s taken a shine to you, so help me keep him in bed.”
“He can’t resist a game. They’re all like that.”
Ben thought of Cohn in his Paris suite, throwing chips on the pile.
“Get a deck from the club car. I’ll order lunch. I know what he likes.”
She was right about the cards. Lasner only picked at his chicken sandwich but brightened when the trays were cleared and she brought out the cards and score pad, kicking off her espadrilles and sitting cross-legged on the bed, Indian style, to make a circle.
Outside there was nothing but fields, and Ben lost track of where they must be, cut off even from the rest of the train in their private party. A million miles from Europe, playing cards with a movie star.
The first shadows made him look up. They were finally leaving the steady glare of the flat landscape for the real West, mountains and stretches of old conifers, dirt the color of bright rust. Lasner checked his watch.
“We hit Albuquerque in ten minutes. Four thirty-five.”
“My god, the hairdresser,” Paulette said, getting up. “Why don’t you get some beauty sleep. I’ll check in later. I do not want to see you in the dining car. Use room service-you can afford it.”
“Now I’m an invalid,” Lasner said, a mock pout.
She picked up the cards. “No more of these, either. Come on, Ben, let’s take a hike. You rest.”
“You deserve Milland,” Lasner said, then turned to Ben. “See if they got papers on the platform. Anything. Even local.”
Ben nodded, already one of the suits on the red carpet, a Lasner man.
The Los Angeles paper was yesterday’s but he bought it anyway. While he was waiting for change, he noticed a bundle of old papers, tied up to be sent back. His eye stopped. Not even a big headline, just a story near the bottom, easy to miss. He slipped the paper out from under the twine.
DIRECTOR IN FREAK FALL
Daniel Kohler, director and head writer of the Partners in Crime series, was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital after an accidental fall at the Cherokee Arms Hotel in Hollywood. Kohler, who was alone at the time of the accident, had a long history of dizzy spells, according to his wife. Kohler used the hotel room as a writing office. Neighbors in the building summoned police after hearing sounds of the fall in the adjacent alley. Kohler, son of the late silent film director Otto Kohler, had been a Second Unit director at Metro before originating the detective series at Republic Pictures. Herbert Yates, President of Republic, said the studio intended to continue production while Kohler recovers. Partners in Crime features Larry Burke and Bruce Hudson.
Ben looked up at the metal sides of the Chief, shining like coins. Not even about him, really. An industry item. Was anyone fooled? Not the reporter, his skepticism poking out between the lines. Why rent a hotel room to write? Didn’t he have an office on the lot? Not really about him at all.
He got back on the train just as it was leaving, his mood seesawing back down to where it had been when the first telegram had arrived, a quiet panic. But Lasner was too busy dressing to see it, his attention focused on the mirror.
“Don’t start,” he said, nodding down to the clothes. “Two nights and they notice. Get the paper?”
“Take the pills with you. Just in case,” Ben said, putting the paper on the bed. “You know Partners in Crime? The series?”
“Over at Republic? If Herb had any brains, he’d fold it. I heard the last one did so-so. Oh,” he said, stopping, embarrassed. “That’s your-?”
“I mean, what’s it like?”
“ Boston Blackie, except two brothers. One chases girls, gets into trouble, you know. The other one solves the crime. The good one’s Bruce Hudson.”
No, it’s me, Ben thought, suddenly light-headed. The way they’d been as boys.
“You never saw it?”
Ben shook his head. “They never sent it overseas.” He tucked the other paper under his arm and turned to leave. “Don’t forget the pills.”
Lasner looked at Ben in the mirror. “I don’t forget things.” A kind of thank-you.
Back in his roomette, relieved to be alone, Ben opened the paper again. A piece with everything between the lines. Except why. Because a B series was failing?
Outside, they were heading up through cactus and sage into the wild high desert. At this time of day even the rocks glowed, golden with trapped heat, the shadows around them streaked with violet and terra cotta, as if the Chief had planned it all for dramatic effect, a show before dinner. He imagined Lasner on that other train forty years ago, the dry goods store behind him. No air-cooled compartment then, just hot gritty air and something new at the end. Maybe that’s what all of them had wanted, not just sunlight for film, a new place. What Danny wanted, too, and didn’t find.
Ben looked down at the paper, disturbed. Everything about it was wrong, not just between the lines, but in the lines themselves. He thought of the high railing along the Embankment, Danny perched on it like on a balance beam, arms outstretched and fearless, a boy who had never been dizzy in his life.
Ben saw Lasner once more before they arrived, this time by accident. He’d been up since dawn, watching the last of the desert slip by, the brick sand turning white in the Mojave. They passed Barstow, houses without shade, then over the ridge to San Bernardino and the miles of orange groves, planted straight to the San Gabriels, at this hour still smelling of the night perfume the guidebooks promised. Ben had lowered the window, leaning out in the morning air. In Europe there had been no oranges at all, not for years. Here the land was bursting with them, an almost supernatural abundance. Royal palms began to appear in front yards, rows of peeling eucalyptus along the tracks.
On the rest of the train, he knew, suitcases were being snapped shut, lipstick dabbed on for the last half hour to Union Station, but the morning held him at the window, head stuck out like a child’s. It was still there as they pulled into Pasadena, sliding by tubs of bright flowers, so Lasner saw him when he stepped onto the platform. He came over to the window, his face troubled, oddly hesitant.
“That was your brother that fell? You didn’t say anything? All this time.”
Ben looked for a response, feeling caught, but said, “How did you hear?”
“Katz said it was in the trades.”
Ben imagined the news spreading through presses, across wires, all the way to tables on the Chief, Katz bending forward to gossip, a montage of rumor. But at least Danny hadn’t been ignored, forgotten. News for five minutes.
“It wasn’t your trouble,” he said finally. “I figured you had enough of your own.”
“A shame,” Lasner said, shaking his head. “I never heard he was a drinker. They must have had some party. Him and the skirt. It’s a hell of a thing. He gonna be all right?”
So now he drank, the rumor swelling, branching. A drunken party, something Lasner could understand. Where did the woman come from? His own invention, an inside tip from Katz? But before Ben could say anything else, Paulette Goddard got off the train with a group of porters and a cartload of suitcases. Her hair was brushed out, shiny, every inch of her in place.
“She doesn’t trust me to find my own car,” he said as she came up, putting her hand on his arm.
“I’m just cadging a lift,” she said.
The lift, or at least its colored driver, was moving toward them on the platform, behind a blonde in a wide-shouldered dress and spectator pumps, still trim but thickening a little now.
“Paulette,” she said with a quick hug, then turned to Lasner and put her arms around his neck and held him, not caring who saw. “Dr. Rosen’s in the car,” she said, nodding toward a black Chrysler waiting at the curb.
“I feel fine.”
“Big shot,” she said fondly. “Just get in the car. Stanley’s sniffing around somewhere. Florabel Muir’s old leg man-he’s working for Polly now. You want to talk to him or to Rosen?”
“That’s the choice?”
“Oh god,” Paulette said, “not Stanley. He’s been after me since Charlie. Fay-”
“I know, I know. Henry, get her to the car, will you?” She turned to Lasner. “You send a telegram from Kansas City and now you don’t even want to see him?”
“He sent it,” Lasner said, pointing at Ben.
Fay looked up, puzzled, then went back to Lasner. “I was worried sick.”
“I just hired him. We met in Germany.”
This seemed to make even less sense, but she smiled up blankly, polite, the boss’s wife.
Lasner held his eye for a minute, what Ben took as a last silent exchange about the train, then moved on.
“Call Bunny Jenkins at the studio,” he said to Ben. “He’ll fix everything for you. And order the stock now-they say tomorrow, it’s always next month. Check the list at Roach, see if they’ve still got a cutter, Hal Jasper.”
“The VD guy?”
Lasner smiled. “Yeah. Tell him I bet they were his crabs.”
“Sol, I mean it, no more business. I’ll walk right out of here. I’ve been worried sick. This is the second time-”
“Tell the world.”
She bit her lip, then sighed and fixed him with an or-else stare. “This isn’t a house call. I had to get him out of bed to come here. Now are you coming or what?”
He shrugged, beginning to move off, then paused and looked back to Ben. “If you need a few days, that’s okay. You know, to visit at the hospital.”
At first, scanning the crowd, all he saw were the dark glasses and thick blond hair, pinned up in a pile on her head. Then she came toward him, a smooth stride, and he recognized the woman in her photograph, the same long face as her father, the high forehead. What it hadn’t shown was the skin, a tawny cream that held the sun in it. She was in a white short-sleeved blouse, slacks, and canvas shoes, as if she’d just stepped off a tennis court.
“Liesl?” he said, peering at her.
“Yes,” she said, extending her hand. Then, “Excuse me,” taking off her sunglasses, “so rude. Sometimes I forget. So we meet.”
“How is he?”
“What do the doctors say?”
“He’s not responding. It’s a long time now. We’re just waiting. You understand, there’s no recovery. I don’t want you to expect-”
Her eyes, uncovered now, darted sharply, flecked with light. She seemed to be wearing no makeup at all, lips bare, not even a hint of Paulette Goddard’s glossy red, just the flush of anger or worry that made her movements jerky-handshake to questioning glance, all quick, angular. Only the voice was smooth, held a second too long in her throat, still with a trace of accent. When she said, “This is all?” nodding to his bag, he heard the rhythm of German, not quite forgotten yet.
“That’s it. I’m sorry to get you down here so early.”
“No, I was glad to get a break,” she said, colloquial, fully American now. “It’s been-” She let the phrase finish itself.
“You’re sure it’s all right? To stay? If it’s not convenient-”
“No, no,” she said, dismissing this. “We were expecting you.” Another awkward pause. “Of course later, not so soon. He was excited you were coming.”
“He was?” Ben said, unexpectedly pleased. “Then-”
He stopped before “why,” catching himself. Danny wouldn’t have thought about him, about anyone. They didn’t. Something that happened only to you.
“Yes,” she was saying. “So many years.”
“Liesl? Is that you?”
A tiny woman, teetering in high heels, was hurrying toward them from the barrier. She was wearing a suit with a matching hat, the veil thrown back, as if she didn’t want to miss anything. Behind her, trying to keep up, was a man holding a camera.
“Polly,” Liesl said, taking a step backward.
“My dear, I can’t tell you-”
“Thank you,” said Liesl, anticipating her. “This is Daniel’s brother, Ben.”
“You must be shell — shocked,” Polly said, ignoring him. “I know Herb Yates is. I talked to him.”
She spoke in a rush that was a kind of suppressed giggle and the rest of her moved with it, head turning to keep the passengers in sight, so alert that her body actually seemed to be vibrating. The effect, Ben noticed, was to make Liesl recede, wary as prey.
“Did you see the column, dear? The item about Dan? I didn’t mention the bottle. I thought, Herb has enough on his plate without-and, you know, it just gives the industry a black eye. I was never one for that.”
“No,” Liesl said, noncommittal.
“And how is that other man?” Polly said, almost winking, some sort of joke between them. “Such a shame about Central Station. Sometimes, a book like that, you wonder if it’s too rich. But he must have been disappointed.”
“Oh, I think he was grateful for the money,” Liesl said, evading.
“What is he working on now?” She stopped swiveling to look straight at Liesl, a reporter with an invisible pad.
“You know he never says.”
“But you’re his translator, dear.”
“Only at the end. When he’s finished.”
But Polly, not really interested, was looking around again. “Oh, there’s Carole Landis.”
Ben followed her look to the end of the platform where Landis, Julie Sherman, and the other girls were getting off the train. They were all back in their bond-drive dresses, as next-door as the Andrews Sisters.
“You’re meeting her?” Liesl said, eager to be off.
Polly shook her head. “Paulette Goddard’s on the train.”
“No, she got off in Pasadena,” Ben said.
Polly whirled around, surprised, glaring at him.
“We met on the train,” he said, explaining himself.
“The studio said Union Station. Stanley’s in Pasadena. He doesn’t do interviews. Now the best I can do for her is an item. Is that what she wants?” Still fuming at Ben, somehow holding him responsible.
“I don’t think she knew.”
“Maybe she thinks she doesn’t need it anymore, a good word here and there. I’d be more careful. Given where she’s been.”
For a second Ben thought she meant the chorus days, less innocent than Sol imagined, but Polly had gone elsewhere, almost spitting now with irritation.
“You know, you lie down with a Red, a little pink always comes off. If I’d been married to Mr. Chaplin I’d be a little more careful before I threw away a friendly interview.” She looked over her shoulder to see Landis getting nearer. “Well, I guess it’s Carole’s lucky day. Won’t she be pleased.”
“We’d better let you get on with it,” Liesl said, beginning to move away.
“Believe me, dear, she’ll wait. Nice running into you.” She patted Liesl’s arm. “You’ll be all right. You tell that other man I’d like to have a chat sometime. As a friend. You know, he’s been signing things and you have to be careful what you sign. Carole!”
She stuck out her arm, waving, and without saying good-bye hurried over to the surprised Landis, the photographer trailing behind. Liesl stared at her for a minute, face flushed.
“My god. ‘You have to be careful what you sign,’“ she said, her voice bitter.
“Who was that?”
“Polly Marks.” She caught Ben’s blank look. “She writes for the newspapers. One hundred and twenty-three of them.”
“Exactly one hundred and twenty-three?”
She smiled a little, a slight softening. “My father told me. He’s always exact.”
“Who’s the other man? Him?”
She nodded. “You know my father is Hans Ostermann. So Thomas Mann is also here. And she imagines they have a rivalry-well, maybe it’s true a little-and so he’s the Other Mann. The names, you see. Warners bought one of his books, so now he exists for her. Otherwise-” She turned her head, annoyed with herself. “I’m sorry. She does that to me. I’m sorry for such a greeting. So, welcome to paradise,” she said with an indifferent wave toward the station.
She started through the barrier, leaving Ben to follow on his own, moving sideways with the bag through the crowd to keep up. The main hall, streamlined Spanish colonial, was noisy with leave-taking, voices rising over the loudspeaker announcements, so Ben had to speak up.
“What did she mean about the bottle?”
“They found one in the room,” she said, slowing a little but not stopping. “They think-you know, for courage. I don’t know who told her. One of her little mice. Maybe the maid. She pays them. Or the night clerk.”
Or porters on trains, Ben thought. They were passing through a waiting hall with deep chairs and mission-style chandeliers.
“I don’t understand about the hotel.”
“It’s an apartment hotel. People live there. But there’s a switchboard and a maid to change the sheets. A service, considering. You rent by the month.”
“And he used it as an office?”
“What do you think?” she said, looking at him.
They reached the high arched entrance, where Ben had to stop, blinded by the sudden glare. She had moved aside to put on her sunglasses and now was rummaging through her bag for cigarettes.
“I suppose it takes the guesswork out of getting a room. They asked me if I was going to use up the month. Since it was already paid for. They want to move someone else in. Collect twice.” She lit a cigarette, her hand shaking a little, then looked away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry to involve you in this. Such a welcome. But you’ll hear it anyway. So it was like that.”
He looked over at her, not sure what to say. A marriage he knew nothing about.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” he said finally. “You didn’t know?”
She shook her head. “Isn’t that the point? Cinq a sept. Like the French. Just get home in time for dinner.” She drew on the cigarette, her expression lost behind the glasses. “Or maybe he didn’t want to come home. So that’s that.” She lifted her head. “I wonder what she felt when she saw it in the papers. Maybe she left him. Maybe it was that. Well,” she said, the word like a thud, so final that for a moment neither of them spoke. Then she stepped away from the wall. “So come. With any luck we’ll have the house to ourselves. These last few days- Why do people bring food? Salka brought noodle pudding. Noodle pudding in this climate.” She turned to him, still hidden behind the glasses. “Please. Don’t listen to me. All this-business, it’s not your problem. It’s good you’re here.” She dropped the cigarette, grinding it out, and started for the parking lot, lined with spindly palms, then stopped again, staring at the rows of cars, gleaming with reflected sun. “You know what’s the worst? I didn’t know he was unhappy. Isn’t that terrible, not to know that about someone? Maybe the woman was part of all that, I don’t know. So maybe it’s my fault, too.”
“No. It’s nobody’s fault.”
“I didn’t even notice,” she said, not hearing him. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. One day, one thing, the next-” She put a hand up to her forehead, covering her glasses. “I’m sorry. I must sound like a crazy woman. Talking like this. You’re here five minutes-”
“It’s all right. I don’t know how to feel, either.”
She turned, dropping her hand. “Yes. I forget. It’s not just me, is it?”
He followed her to a convertible with the canvas roof down, shining with chrome, the metal handle already hot to the touch. She opened the door, then stood still for a second, looking at him.
“Just then, with the bag, you were like him. Not the looks. You don’t look alike. But the gesture.”
He got in, flustered, and watched her start the car.
“I know it’s hard, but-tell me what happened. I want to know. The papers. I mean, dizzy spells.”
“That was their idea. I said, why not a stroke? Anybody can have a stroke. Even young. But they said a doctor could tell, if he looked. A fall, it doesn’t matter.”
“The studio. They’re superstitious. Bad things. Maybe they stick. They’re not supposed to happen.” She glanced up at the bright sky. “Just sunshine.”
“But how? Through a window?” he said, still trying to picture it.
“There was a balcony. Just enough to step on. You know the kind?”
“A Juliet,” he said automatically.
“Yes? Like the play? So if you got dizzy, you could fall.”
“If you got dizzy.”
She looked at him, then up at the rearview mirror, backing out, physically moving away.
“Look,” she said, nodding toward the station doors as Polly came out with Carole Landis, arms linked. She waved and moved the car forward in the line to the exit. “Did you really meet Paulette Goddard on the train?” Not wanting to talk about it. “What was she like?”
“Nice,” he said, forced to go along.
“Maybe you are.”
“No, she was.”
“She won’t be after Polly’s through with her.”
“What was that about? With Chaplin?”
“Polly hates Chaplin. So he must be a Communist. Everyone she hates is a Communist. She hated Daniel, too, when he was in the union. She thinks they’re all Communists in the union.”
“Then why is she doing him a favor? Covering.”
“It’s for Yates. Daniel was important to him. Partners made money. So he was giving him a big picture to do. You know at Metro you have to wait years for that. That’s why he left there. You know what he’s like. Everything today. A skating picture, but still. A good budget.”
Not failing, on his way up.
“Skating. Like Sonja Henie?”
“Vera Hruba Ralston,” she said, drawing out the name. “You know her? Yates is in love with her. So it was a good job for Daniel. They paid him while they fixed the script.”
“‘She skated out of Czechoslovakia and into the hearts of America.’“
Ben did a double take, then smiled. “Really?”
She nodded. “On the posters,” she said, lighting another cigarette at the stop sign.
“Who’s Mr. Ralston?”
“She got it off a cereal box.”
“You’re making it up.”
“You don’t have to, not here.” She looked up at the sky again. “The fog’s burning off early. Sometimes it takes all morning. Shall we go to the hospital first?”
She pulled out of the lot, looking straight ahead. Smoke curled up from the cigarette between her fingers on the steering wheel, then flew back in the breeze as they sped up, mixing with loose wisps of hair. What California was supposed to be like-a girl in a convertible. But not the way he expected.
Across the street, they drove past a sleepy plaza of tile roofs and Mexican rug stalls, a village for tourists. Behind it, just a block away, the American city began: office buildings, coffee shops, anywhere. Harold Lloyd had dangled from a clock here and the Kops had chased each other through Pershing Square and dodged streetcars (red, it turned out), but all that had happened in some city of the mind. The real streets, used so often as somewhere else, looked like nowhere in particular.
They drove out on Wilshire, the buildings getting lower, drive-ins and car lots with strings of plastic pennants.
“The first time, you think how can it be like this,” she said, noticing his expression. “The signs. And then you get used to it. Even my father. He likes it now.”
“Well, the climate-”
“Not so much that. He’s hardly ever outside. For him it’s a haven,” she said, her voice so throaty that it came out “heaven.” “All those years, moving. One place. Another place. Then here, finally safe, and other Germans are here, so it’s good. The sun, I don’t think it matters for him. He lives in his study. In his books.”
“What was Central Station? I never-”
“ Anhalter before. They changed it. So it wouldn’t sound German. You know it?”
“ Anhalter Bahnhof. Of course.”
“Tell him. He’ll be pleased.”
She made a right on Vermont, pointing them now toward the hills.
“Do we pass Continental on the way?” Ben said.
“We can, if you like.”
“But if it’s out of our way-”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s not conscious, you know. We just sit there. Maybe it’s better for him. There’s so much damage, the brain-if he were awake, what would that be like for him? Sometimes I think it would be better if-and then I think, how can you think that?” She bit her lower lip. “But he did. I don’t know why. But that’s what he wanted. Not this.”
He looked away, across the miles of bungalows.
“Did he leave a note?” he said finally.
The crucial prop, the writing of it sometimes a scene in itself, looking up from the paper into a mirror, eyes moist. In the movies. In real life you just did it.
“Just his ‘effects.’ I had to sign. You know that word? I didn’t know it. Effects.” She looked at him. “They would have said. If they’d found anything.” She turned on Melrose. “That’s Paramount down there, where the water tower is.”
After a few blocks he could see the roofs of the sound stages, humped like airplane hangars. She slowed near a gate of swirling wrought iron so that he could get a glimpse behind-a tidy factory yard with people in shirt sleeves gliding past, the tall water tower rising above everything, just like its mountaintop logo, ringed with stars. In front of the gate, a thin line of pickets walked back and forth carrying signs.
“There’s a strike?” Ben said. A prewar image.
“Daniel said it was jurisdictional,” she said, careful with the word. “One union against the other.” She looked away, no longer interested. “He always wanted to work here. More than any of them. Maybe if- well. That’s RKO, at the end.”
They turned onto Gower under the model of a radio tower on a globe.
“Continental’s up there,” she said, pointing. “Across from Columbia.”
This gate was modern, no more than a break in the walls with streamlined trim. Beyond it, unseen, Lasner’s empire, built from nickels, a private world made invisible by sentries and passes. Outside, the street was empty-no pickets, just a small cluster of people near the gate.
“Who’s that?” Ben said.
“They wait here, to see who drives through.”
“No, just to see them. For a minute.”
Hans Ostermann was waiting for them in Danny’s room, reading in the corner next to the window. The shades were half-drawn so that even the light seemed hushed, a hospital quiet broken only by the nurses outside and the clank of a meal cart being wheeled down the hall. Ostermann stood when they came in, taking Ben’s hand. He was wearing a suit and tie, as natural to him as his perfect posture and formal nod. Ben wondered, a darting moment, if he wrote dressed this way, erect at his desk in a white collar, keeping German alive.
Ben approached the bed, his stomach tightening with shock. Not just sick. Danny’s face was beaten in, bruised, one eye swollen shut, jagged laceration marks crossing the rest. What happens when you hit. Ben stared at him for a minute, trying to see something familiar, but all he could see was the fall itself, the smash at the end. Why this way? Danny primping at the mirror for a date, deliberately doing this to himself. Why not sleeping pills, an easier Hollywood exit? Why would he want to look this way?
Ben stepped closer, taking in the IV drip, the monitor, all the hospital tools to keep him alive, bring him back. But you only had to look at the broken face to see the truth. The teases, the grins, were gone. They were just waiting for the rest of him to go. Ben took his hand, half expecting some response, but nothing moved.
“Danny,” he said, keeping his voice low, waking someone who’s just dozed off. He turned to the others. “Can he hear anything?”
“No,” Liesl said.
“We don’t know that,” Ostermann said. “There’s no way of knowing. Talk if you like.”
“Nonsense,” Liesl said, moving over to a vase of flowers.
“No, the doctor said, head injuries-we don’t know. What really happens.” He looked over at Ben, his voice reassuring. “The first two days were the critical ones. So perhaps-”
“But he’s no better,” Liesl said, bluntly pragmatic, facing it. “Why do people send flowers when he can’t see them.”
The room, Ben noticed now, was full of them, covering side tables and window sills.
“It’s a sign of concern,” Ostermann said. “A gesture.”
“For you,” Liesl said. “They send them for you.”
“You’re tired,” Ostermann said, as close, Ben saw, as he would come to a reprimand.
Liesl was reading one of the cards attached to a vase. “From Alma,” she said. “So she’s forgiven you.”
“For now,” Ostermann said, a weak smile.
Ben looked at the bruised face. When you’re unconscious, where does the mind go? Functioning somewhere beyond pain, or simply floating in white? Now that he was here, what was there to do? The usual business of a hospital visit seemed beside the point-fetching nurses, chatting idly to keep up spirits, plumping pillows.
Instead they waited, Ostermann returning to his book, Ben sitting at the bedside gazing at Danny’s damaged face, Liesl pacing, making lists of the flower cards for thank-you notes, glancing over at the bed as if she were still deciding how to feel, wearing herself out with it.
By lunch, in the cafeteria, she was visibly exhausted.
“Go home and rest,” Ostermann said. “You were here all night.”
“How can I leave? What if I’m not here if- What would people say?”
“That the family was here. Get Ben settled in. I’ll stay.”
“How can I sleep?” she said, putting things on her tray, standing up.
Ostermann looked at her fondly. “Then have a swim.” He turned to Ben as she left the table. “It’s no good, being here day and night. Look at her, all nerves. Take her home. He’ll be here later, you know.”
“What if he isn’t?”
“I know how you feel. When Anna was dying, in Paris, I never left. Nuns. I didn’t want to leave her with nuns. Leave her alone. But it was for me, not her. When she died, I was there and it didn’t matter. She was alone. I didn’t know it until then. We die alone.” He looked up. “I’ll call if there’s a change.”
They drove up into the hills, the narrow road twisting upward in a series of blind curves past tall bushes and steep, hidden driveways. With each turn the houses seemed to get bigger, villas and a few white boxes that once must have been daring and modernist, softened now by middle-aged gardens. The trees were bigger, too, mature oaks and tall needle pines, as if the cooler air above the flats made it easier for them to grow. The new cars parked along the side of the road were buffed and shiny, like children after a bath.
“Here we are.”
The house, just visible through the driveway shrubs, was Mediterranean, fronted with a row of French windows. They pulled up next to a Dodge coupe.
“Oh, good, Iris is here. I asked her to come in an extra day.” A maid with a car. In Germany, bicycles were traded for food.
The house inside was light and open, filled with books and contemporary furniture, a piano covered with framed photographs in the corner. Iris, a wiry, pale woman in a dress, not a uniform, was in the dining room polishing silver.
“I put the messages by the phone. You better call the caterer again. I told him no ham but he wants to talk to you.”
Ben looked at Liesl, surprised.
“I thought I’d better start arranging things,” she said, flushing, “just in case. So we won’t have to at the last minute. Iris, this is Mr. Kohler’s brother, Benjamin.”
“Reuben. Anyway, Ben,” he said, distracted, noticing her feet in pink bedroom slippers.
Iris nodded. “I’m sorry about Mr. Kohler,” she said, formal but genuine, then cocked her head to one side, appraising him. “You don’t look alike.”
“No, he took after my father.”
Liesl started toward the hall. “You’re down this way. You’ll have your own bath, so it’s private.”
Through an open door on their left he could see a big desk and more shelves. Danny’s real workroom, not rented by the month. A club chair in the corner and, next to it, a day bed made up as a couch.
“I’m here. Daniel’s dressing room opens from the hall, too, so you won’t be bothering me. If you use it. That door.” She pointed, still moving.
“You better call the caterer,” Iris shouted from the dining room.
“All right. I don’t see what’s so difficult. I said poached salmon.”
“Well, he heard ham.”
She opened a door at the end of the hall. “You’re in here. I’d better phone or she’ll nag me about it. If you’d like a swim, just use those stairs-the pool’s out back. I won’t be long.”
A swim. Something he hadn’t had in four years. He gestured toward his bag. “I didn’t bring-” Who had bathing suits?
“Use one of Daniel’s. He’s got a drawer full of them. Just root around and pick what you like.”
He threw his bag on the bed and went over to the window. The pool was below, blue and rippling, catching the light in quick flashes. It had been set off from the rest of the hill by a private wall of trees, with the far end left open, so that the land seemed suspended in air before falling away to the distant grid of streets. Around the edge were large pots of geraniums, a few lemon trees, and a row of trimmed oleanders, high enough to flower but not block the view. Ben stared at the pool, unsettled, as if a wrong note of music had been hit, jarring the whole piece. He’d thought of Danny as somehow desperate, not lying on a chaise in the sun, picking fruit off trees. How did they fit? An acre of paradise and a room at the Cherokee Arms.
He went to the dressing room, curious. More money. Rows of sport jackets on hangers, shoes laid out. A drawer full of bathing suits: tropical flowers, chevron stripes, finally a pair of navy blue trunks that could be anybody’s. He looked through the other drawers quietly, feeling like a burglar. Socks rolled up, a stack of handkerchiefs, pressed and folded. But Danny’s drawer at home had been neat, too. Under the handkerchiefs there were old passports, kept for some reason, filled with the stamps of their childhood, crossing into Germany, crossing out of Germany, Dover and Calais, Berlin-Tempelhof, the last with an eagle on a swastika, just before the pages ran out. He looked at the photo. In his next passport he’d be grown up, but here he was still young, the hair brushed to one side.
Where would the other pictures be? His study, probably. He crossed the hall, carrying the trunks, and surprised Iris, who was putting papers away in drawers.
“I’m just cleaning up in here. You get people in and out, you know they’re going to come snooping. They go looking for the bathroom and next thing they’re at the desk, just happening to read what’s on it. I’ve seen it. Something I can help you with?”
“No, I’m just snooping myself,” Ben said. “Trying to find some pictures. You know, we haven’t seen each other in a while.”
She went over to the shelves where a few small frames rested against the books.
“This is pretty recent,” she said, handing him one.
Ben looked down. A group on the beach, Danny with his lopsided grin, making a face at the camera. The whole row smiling, enjoying the day. Liesl wore a two-piece suit with polka dots, like Chili Williams, her hair blowing behind her.
“You planning to stay long?”
Ben raised his head.
“I only ask because of the food. So I can plan.”
“I don’t want to make things worse for her,” Ben said, a question.
Iris shook her head. “Far as that’s concerned, she could use the company. You know what it’s like in an empty house. She’s already taking it hard. It’s the suddenness of it. And the way-” She stopped and went back to the desk. “Don’t mind me.”
Ben put the picture back, then glanced down at the day bed. “He spend a lot of time in here?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I just meant-”
“I know what you meant. I suppose you’ve been hearing things? People like to talk. When it’s none of their business. I’ll tell you, I never saw it. But people have different ways. You take Mr. Baker-that’s my ex. That man was a hound. I threw him out. I said, ‘I know you can’t help it, you got to chase anything runs in front of you, but I don’t want any part of it.’ Now Mr. Kohler, I never saw that. Two years I’ve been working here. Since they got the house. So you live and learn.” She closed the drawer and looked up at him. “He seemed the same to me. Like always. Well.” She moved to the door. “You want to help, people have to eat. She hasn’t touched a thing in days. Melon. What’s melon? Water is all. Get her to eat something.”
When she’d gone, Ben looked at the other pictures, more wrong notes, as jarring as the pool. Danny and Liesl on a picnic blanket. With another couple around a nightclub table covered with glasses. Hans Ostermann, unintentionally comic in his somber European suit, surrounded by Danny and a few other young men in tennis whites. A croquet game. A pool party. Danny smiling in all of them. A happy life. But everybody smiled for the camera.
He went over to the desk, intending to start on the drawers, but Liesl came in, carrying flowers. “Oh good, you found one,” she said, nodding to the bathing suit. “I’ll be right down. As soon as I deal with these. I have to put them where she’ll see them. She’ll ask otherwise. Now what?” she said, as the phone rang. “Why does everybody want to talk?” But she picked it up anyway, not waiting for Iris, and immediately switched into German. She had the rich, fluid German he remembered from before the war, before all the coarse shouting, and her voice sounded relaxed, at home in it.
“Salka wants to drop off a cake,” she said wryly, hanging up. “But she wants to know if Alma’s here. They’re not speaking to each other.”
“Alma who sent the flowers to Danny?”
Liesl nodded. “Mahler. Well, Werfel now, but if you leave out the Mahler she puts it back in.”
“Viertel. Berthold’s wife. Well, when he’s around. Everyone goes to her on Sundays-like a real salon. So of course it makes Alma crazy. Two queen bees in one hive. I suppose they’ll have to see each other, if there’s a funeral. For five minutes anyway. They’ll all come. It’s like a village. They’ll come to see who doesn’t come. So, you’ll be all right?” she said, gesturing again to the trunks, then glanced at the desk. “Were you looking for something?” She met his eyes, her face suddenly soft. “He didn’t leave a note. You can look, but he didn’t.”
The drawer was a mess of papers: letters, odd pages of scripts with margin notes, bank statements with canceled checks, more private than clothes. An envelope with a doctor’s return address. He pulled out the letter. An annual physical, boxes checked in columns, blood pressure, heart rate-everything had been fine in January, perfect in fact, except for the lazy eye that had got him a 4-F. He put the form down, suddenly embarrassed. What exactly was he looking for? An explanation? An apology? He looked at Danny’s handwriting againswooping caps and then tight, closed letters. Which meant what? Would he even have given it a thought a few days ago? This was like looking at tea leaves or chicken entrails. He shoved the paper back and closed the drawer.
Downstairs, sliding glass doors led out to the pool. There was a wet bar, some bright patio furniture, and a galley kitchen with a serving window that opened to the terrace. Ben imagined parties with platters of food, umbrella tables by day, the million lights by night. To the side was a closed door. The garage? No, a screening room with red plush seats and musty velvet drapes, so dated it must have come with the house. He turned up the lights. Except for the sound speakers, it was the kind of room Lasner might have used to run Two Husbands. Maybe even for Chaplin, a lifetime before Paulette. Did Danny still use it?
The projection room, at any rate, was functional, the equipment newer than some he’d used in the Signal Corps. A few cans of film lay next to the projector, waiting to be put back on the metal shelf lined with hexagonal storage boxes. Ben went over to look, expecting a row of Republic serials, but they were Ufa films, titles on the boxes inked in German. Drei Madchen, Ein Tag in Berlin, Sag Mir Adieu — all the silly comedies and shopgirl dramas their father had made out in Babelsberg, a kind of shrine to Otto Kohler. All here, even the ones from the thirties, when Otto still thought he’d be safe. Ben ran his fingers across the boxes. Films he hadn’t seen, then never asked to see later, all faithfully collected. The father’s son. Even Two Husbands, probably moldering away now in its canister.
He moved from the shelf, his eye caught by a wall of framed photographs. Another Kohler homage. Otto on the set with Marika Rokk. A group picture with Jannings, Lorre, and Conrad Veidt. Dietrich showing him her leg, a gag shot. A formal premiere, probably at the Zoo Palast, in gowns and white ties with-yes, Goebbels at the end of the row. Otto on a crane. Otto blocking a scene. A wall of Otto. And finally, at the end, a picture of the family, all four of them in Lutzowplatz, his mother smiling broadly, her hand on Ben’s shoulder. Danny making a face.
He took the picture from the wall and stared at it, suddenly moved. His life, too. How old had he been? Eight? He remembered the day it had been taken, Frau Weber telling Danny to stand still and then not finding the shutter button so he’d laughed at her again, making another face, the whole afternoon still so real that Ben felt he could touch it, right through the glass frame. His face flushed, a warm surge of recognition. Not someone else.
“There you are. I saw the light. I’ve been looking-” Liesl stopped, seeing his face. “What?”
“Why would he do it,” Ben said flatly.
She had put a terrycloth wrap over her bathing suit and now pulled at one of the lapels, a nervous drawing away.
“I’ve been acting for days as if he’s someone I don’t know.” He held out the picture. “But I do know him. It’s not something he would do.”
“Don’t,” she said softly. “It makes it worse. I know. I did it, too.”
“But it doesn’t make sense.”
“You want it to make sense?”
“It does to them, somehow. He wasn’t sick-I saw his physical. He wasn’t depressed, either. Iris said he was the same as always.”
“You did, too. You said you didn’t know he was unhappy. But why should he be?” He waved his arm to take in the house, Danny’s life.
“We don’t know what was in his mind. We don’t.”
She turned and headed out toward the pool. He glanced down at the picture again, then followed.
“But to do this-”
“What, then? Do you think his girlfriend pushed him out? Like some cartoon?”
“Somebody could have.”
Liesl shook her head. “No one else was there. The police talked to the night clerk. No one went up. No one. The door was locked.”
“There has to be a reason.”
“So what could it be? Maybe his marriage. Is that what you think? The others do. You can hear it in their voices. How could he do such a terrible thing? And then they look at me.”
“I didn’t mean-”
“Ouf,” she said, cutting him off, then tossing the robe on the chair. “Enough.”
But she turned away, stepping over to the edge of the pool, and dove in, a perfect arc, slicing into the water, then streaming under the surface, out of hearing. When she came up she swam the rest of the length in fast, efficient strokes, a quick, sideways turn for air. Someone who swam every day. He watched her as she turned for the second lap, hair flowing, the long, golden legs scissoring effortlessly, at home in it. The kind of girl everyone noticed, pretending not to, but imagining the smooth body without the suit, beads of water running off the tan skin, all anyone could want. But not enough for Danny. The father’s son in every way. That same careless urge for the next thing, not expecting any damage, until families were broken up and what should have been held close had been let down.
He turned his head away, flustered. Not just some girl in a pool. There were cigarettes on a side table, and he lit one, looking away toward the hazy city. Behind him he could hear the regular splashes of her strokes, then a pause and a noisy gathering of water as she lifted herself up the pool stairs. She came over to where he was standing, toweling her hair.
“Marta says I should wear a cap. The chlorine burns the hair. My hairdresser,” she said, the change of subject a kind of apology, moving on. She glanced at him, waiting, then lit one of the cigarettes, joining him. “Would you like to know about me and Daniel?”
“It’s none of my-”
“Yes. Otherwise you’ll wonder. That’s how it is now.” She looked at him. “We need to be friends. To get through this. Sit,” she said, indicating the next chaise. She sat back on hers, lifting her face to the sun. “He got me out. That’s why he married me. My father, there was a visa for him. You know, for the culture. They could get artists out on special visas, especially if they were known here. But not me. I wasn’t an artist. I wasn’t anything. You know, after we left Germany we were officially stateless. Not even resident permits, always temporary papers. So, no visa. But of course my father wouldn’t leave me, and it was dangerous for him. So Daniel married me, made me an American. But I think he was fond of me, too.” She turned to him, her eyes direct. “It wasn’t a mariage blanc. Don’t think that,” she said, then looked away again.
“This was where?” he said after a minute. “Germany?”
“No. Germany? We would have been dead. My father was one of the first to leave. His name was already on a list, because of the articles. And, you know, my mother was Jewish so it was for her, too. First Vienna, to keep the language. Then Paris-she died there. I think her heart gave out from the worry. Then, after the Nazis came, we went south, like everyone. You don’t know this? That’s where I met Daniel. In Marseilles. He was helping people get out. You wouldn’t think such a place-it was like here, the good weather-but it was a death trap. Who could trust Vichy? So Daniel helped people get to Spain. Sometimes over the mountains, on foot. He walked them out. They never forgot it.” She paused, taking in some smoke. “Neither did I. He was my hero,” she said, staring at her burning cigarette. She looked up, self-conscious, her wistful tone now shaded with irony, almost bitter. “So it wasn’t for love. But we made a life. He never asked to leave, afterwards, when it was safe for me. We were-comfortable together.” She sat up, rubbing out the cigarette.
“And the others? You seemed surprised.”
She made a half smile. “Maybe I’m like Germany. I didn’t want to know. So I didn’t. And now everyone will know-” She stopped. “But how can I be angry? He didn’t owe me that.” She covered her eyes with her hand, a pretend sunshade. For a moment neither of them said anything, the air so quiet he could hear the drain flaps in the pool. “You know before, when I said I didn’t know he was unhappy? I should have known, because I see it now.”
“Everybody says that after. They should have seen-”
“No, it’s true. Not unhappy-troubled. Maybe this woman. I don’t know.” She looked at him. “I still don’t want to know, do you understand that?”
He walked toward the pool, thinking.
“How long? I mean, when did you notice?”
She got up, gathering her robe, the movement like a reluctant sigh. “Not long. The summer, the end of the summer. So now you can find the girl and ask her, what happened this summer, all right? Then maybe you’ll be satisfied.” She belted the robe. “But it wasn’t us. We were all right. We were just the way we were.”
The hospital seemed busier at night-trays being collected, nurses changing shifts. Danny was alone in the room, oblivious.
“He wouldn’t just leave,” Liesl said, looking for her father, then spied him at the end of the corridor in the smoking lounge with another man, not as tall, looking around hesitantly, like someone trying to make small talk. “My uncle Dieter,” she said. “Look how they stand. See how stiff?”
“My mother’s. The truth is they don’t like each other. When my mother was alive, it was different. Now he only comes when you have to, for appearances. My father’s birthday, things like that.”
“Or like this.”
“Yes,” she said, looking down. “But not only for that. He liked Daniel. Everybody did.” Already in the past.
“He lives here, too?”
“Pasadena. Come, before they quarrel.”
But when they joined the men, the mood seemed polite, not at all contentious, Danny’s situation overriding whatever irritation there might have been. Introductions were made, doctors’ visits discussedand then they were all back on watch, drifting between Danny’s room and the hall, fidgeting, looking for something to do. Only Ben stayed fixed, holding Danny’s hand again, convinced against all sense that Danny could feel it, use it to climb back. When the two men got up to go to dinner Liesl went out with them to the hall, a family huddle, leaving Ben alone. Talk to me, he thought, tell me why before you go. At least that. The battered face had lost its power to upset him, used to it now, but the waiting itself had become oppressive, making him logy, his mind dense with still air. When the first sound came, he wasn’t sure he’d actually heard anything, just his own wish, but the second was real. He lifted his head sharply, as if someone had snapped fingers in his face.
“Ben.” Still faint, a little croaky, but there. He grasped Danny’s hand, waiting for his eyes to flutter open.
“Yes. I’m here.”
“Ben,” the voice said again, the tone slightly puzzled, working things out.
“Danny, my god.”
The eyes open now but blinking against the light.
“You’re in the hospital. Do you remember anything?”
The blinking stopped, his eyes steadier, wetting his lips, focusing.
Then his eyes closed, a kind of resignation.
“Danny, let me get the others. They’re just outside. EveryoneLiesl, her father, Dieter. We didn’t know if you’d make it-”
He got up, ready to bolt across the room, but Danny made a hiss, an attention-getter, his mouth so dry it was difficult now to speak. Ben leaned close to his face.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered, his voice raspy, urgent.
Ben lifted his head, disconcerted. Did Danny know it was him? All these years, and now suddenly clinging. Maybe what happened at the end, any life raft.
“Don’t,” he said again.
“No, I won’t. It’s going to be all right now.” Elated by the unexpectedness of it. “I’ll just get Liesl,” Ben said, excited, racing across the room and flinging open the door. “He’s awake!”
They all looked at him, stunned. Liesl got to the bed first.
“Daniel?” she said, then, when there was no response, turned to Ben. “You’re sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“Daniel? But he looks the same.”
“He was awake. I’ll get the doctor,” Ben said, still excited, heading for the door.
“I’ll go,” Ostermann said.
But Ben was already on his way, racing down the hall to the nursing station, everything around him a blur. The nurse, alone on duty, looked up in alarm, Ben’s hands now pounding on the desk, an emergency signal. Dr. Walters was on another floor. She picked up the phone to call the station upstairs.
“Never mind,” Ben said, not waiting for the elevator, leaping up the stairs, his eyes looking for the recognizable white coat. Down the hall, jotting notes on a clipboard.
“He woke up,” Ben said, a little breathless.
Dr. Walters, startled, put the clipboard down without a word and followed him to the stairs. Ben could hear their feet clumping, an echo effect between floors. Ostermann and Dieter were at the nursing station now, then Liesl, everyone running, the corridor filling with people, the same blur as they raced back. Dr. Walters dodged past an aide, not stopping till he pushed the door and ran across the empty room to the bed, taking up Danny’s hand.
“You said if he came to-” Ben started, watching the doctor lower his head to Danny’s face, then take his wrist. “What’s the matter?”
The doctor took out a stethoscope and bent lower again, a repeat check.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “He’s gone.”
Ben looked at Danny, winded, his own body suddenly cool. Could you tell just by looking? The body still, mouth slightly open, no movement at all.
“But he can’t. He was just here,” Ben said.
The doctor looked at him. “Maybe he was saying good-bye. A last effort. Nurse.”
She hurried over, turning off the monitor, and drew up the sheet. The doctor glanced at his watch, already mentally filling out a certificate.
“It may be for the best,” he said calmly, an attempt to comfort. “This kind of injury. A full recovery isn’t possible. It’s unusual, to last this long. If we do a complete examination, maybe we’ll know more next time. Mrs. Kohler, I’ll need you to sign some forms.”
Liesl didn’t answer, staring at the bed, dazed.
“We can wait till tomorrow, if you like.”
“You mean an autopsy,” Ben said, imagining the knives.
“It can wait,” the doctor said.
Liesl turned from the bed. “No, I’ll come,” she said, her voice a monotone. “He wanted to be cremated.” Danny in a box.
“That’s not a hospital-”
“No, I just meant, it won’t matter, the examination.” She touched Ben’s arm. “That’s right, isn’t it? You don’t object?”
Ben shook his head. “He knew me. He was conscious.”
And then he wasn’t. When? What everyone always said, it happened so fast, a part of a second.
“Mrs. Kohler,” the doctor said again and then he was leading her out, Ostermann following, everybody, even the duty nurse, until Ben was alone in the room.
In a minute orderlies would come and wheel the bed away. Ben went over and pulled back the sheet, a last look, shaken. On the train, he’d thought of Danny as already dead, but that was an idea. This was worse, a flash of contact, then gone, actually cold now to the touch. Another body. When he was a child, death was something remote, an event for old people. Then, in the war, it happened to everybody. But you only got used to it when they were already dead. Dying itself was new each time, something you could feel. Ed bleeding away. Now Danny. Don’t leave me, he’d said. But he was the one who’d left, just the way he always did, when it suited him, leaving Ben behind.
He was still standing by the bed when he heard the door open. He turned, expecting the orderlies, but it was Liesl. She glanced toward the white sheet, then away.
“Do you want more time?” she said.
“A few papers only.” She walked over to the bed, staring at the body for a minute, eyes soft. “So it’s over.” She looked up. “What should we do with the flowers?” she said, her voice shaky, snatching the phrase out of the air, something to say. “What happens to them?”
“I never thought about it. Maybe they give them to other people.”
“It’s true? He was awake?”
She looked down, then folded her arms across her chest, as if she had caught a chill. “We should go. All the arrangements. There’ll be so much to do. For the widow.” Another glance to the bed, her voice catching again. “So now this. I’ve never been a widow before.”
The phone started ringing early and continued for most of the morning, through the deliveries and the extra help and Iris directing the table setups, the whole house in motion. The mechanics of mourning had taken over. No one sat and brooded, or even mentioned Danny.
“You’re about the same size,” Liesl said, handing him some of Danny’s suits. “They should fit.”
He smiled to himself. Still wearing his hand-me-downs.
“You’ll need something,” she said, misinterpreting his look. “But if you feel funny-”
He shook his head, cutting her off. “It’s fine.”
“I thought you might like his watch.”
Ben took it, his finger grazing the crystal. Not Danny’s, their father’s. Another piece of the Otto shrine. When did Danny get it? On one of those last trips to Germany, probably, a sentimental gift to the loyal son who stayed close.
“Thank you,” he said, touched. “There must be something I can do. Except be in the way.”
“No, really-” She stopped. “That place. Where he was,” she said, hesitant. “Somebody has to go there. If he left things. I don’t know, nobody said. But I could send Iris.”
He shook his head again. “I’ll go.”
“Take his car. You’ll need one out here anyway. Two now. And so hard to get. But now you-”
“You have the key?”
“The key?” she said, a new idea. “I don’t know, maybe here.” She went over to the desk and pulled out a ring with several keys. “They were in his pants. So it must be one of these. So many keys,” she said, looking at them, other parts of his life.
He missed a turn and had to backtrack west on Hollywood Boulevard, past the Pantages, a name out of radio broadcasts, then right on Cherokee. The Cherokee Arms was a five-story pastel building with an alley along the side connected to a parking space behind, not grand, but not seedy, either. A place you used on the way up or the way down, but not at either end. Ben parked across the street and looked at it for a minute, fingering Danny’s keys. If the fall could kill him, he must have been on the top floor. He got out and walked across. An apartment building with a lawn in front, quiet in the bright light, no shadows. He passed through the alley. There were a few cars parked in back, garbage cans. He looked up to the top balcony. The railing wasn’t high, if you staggered against it. The back door was locked. But it would be, wouldn’t it? A convenience for residents on their way in from the parking lot. No need to go through the front, where the desk clerk would see you go up. If you had a key.
The third one worked. From here you could either go directly up the back stairs or down a hall on the right that led past mailboxes and what looked like an elevator door. From this angle Ben couldn’t see the front desk switchboard where the clerk must be. He went up the stairs, walking quietly, expecting to be stopped. Instead he found the landings empty, the building still except for the sound of the elevator going down. On the top floor he went to what he assumed was Danny’s door, using a key that resembled the one that had worked downstairs.
The room, a studio, was neat-bed made, no dishes in the sink, a hotel room just after maid service. Nothing in the bathroom; nothing in the closet, either. He started opening cupboards. Glasses and dishes that came with the place. On the counter there was an ice bucket and a bottle of brandy, opened. Nothing on the desk but a message pad and pen. No personal presence at all. Ben went over to the French windows and opened them, looking at the balcony, trying to imagine it. He stepped out, placing his leg against the railing. If he’d been wobbly- possible. But so was the other, the leap off. He went back in. What was the point? He took one last look around, then opened the door to leave.
The man was leaning against the opposite wall, clearly waiting for him to come out. Young, without a hat.
“You the desk clerk?”
The man-the kid-shook his head and flipped open a press pass.
“I saw you go in. I was out back. So I figured maybe they’d been giving me the brush. About the room. I mean, you have a key. Mind if I look around?”
“They didn’t tell you? Scene of the crime,” he said, starting in. “Last guy had the room went out the window. Mind?” All the way in now. “What are they charging, you don’t mind my asking.”
“I don’t know. I’m not moving in.”
“No? Where’d you get the key?” he asked, but almost off handedly, moving over to the counter, looking at everything.
“I’m his brother-the guy before.”
The kid stopped. “Sorry. I didn’t mean-”
“What do you want to see? There’s nothing here.”
“Honest maids,” the kid said, picking up the brandy bottle. “Usually the liquor’s the first to go.” He went into the bathroom, checking the medicine chest, behind the door. “You come here to pick up his stuff?” He went over to the balcony, retracing Ben’s steps, even putting his leg against the railing.
“There’s nothing to pick up.”
“I noticed. Funny, isn’t it? Somebody must have been here already.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think he used the room for? We said writing office, but what the hell, be nice to the wife. What would he use it for? You ever meet a woman yet who didn’t take over half the bathroom? Cream here, powder there. Douche bag on the door. And what’s here? Nothing. She must have cleaned it out. I don’t know when, though. I’ve been watching the building.”
The kid looked at him. “To see who else had a key.”
“You think someone was with him?”
“Not then. She’d have been spotted. Every window’s got a head sticking out. You know, taking an interest. Cops had to use a passkey to get in. There’s no one in there with him. It had to be later.”
“Unless she’d already moved out. Maybe that’s why he-”
“I get it. You think he jumped. The breakup, huh?”
“You don’t?” Ben said, interested.
“At first. We get the police call, nobody else is interested, but my position, you need the inches, even the blotter stuff. The cops are already here and the night clerk’s going ‘oh-my-god, he must have fallen’-you know, don’t make the place look bad-and the cops are going along with it but I can see they’re looking at it as a jump. You know, taking pictures and everything. And it’s Hollywood, where you get this. Not Hancock Park or someplace-people have been known to jump here. But I’m thinking, it’s a funny kind of jump.”
“You know anything about jumpers? I covered a few. They like it a little higher. To make sure. Maybe for the show of it. Why not just go to the Roosevelt and jump off the roof? Four, five stories? You can — I mean, he did, he’s dead. But you could also just wake up in a cast somewhere. That’s one thing. Then the angle of the fall. All the jumpers I’ve seen, they don’t back out. Face forward. So I figure the LAPD are looking for a little excitement, pick up a slow night. I wouldn’t let this get to you. You believe what you want, but my guess? He was plastered and tripped.” He nodded toward the brandy bottle on the counter.
“Then why are you watching the building? If that’s all it was?”
“Look, why have a separate place anyway? Under a different name. They got him as Collins downstairs. All right, he’s seeing somebody on the side. Not a one-night stand, a longer-term thing. Still, why not a hotel? Unless they don’t want to be seen in public, take that chance. Maybe she’d be recognized. So who is she? I’m wondering about this and then something funny happens. I know the cops wrote it up as a jump, I was here, but when I’m doing the story the next morning they got it as an accident. How come the change? That’s when I get interested, because that kind of change, the only people in this town get favors like that are the studios. So I figure there’s a story.”
“Why would a studio do that for Danny?”
“Him? They wouldn’t. Anyway, he was a goner. They look to the living. And now what do we find?” He looked around at the clean apartment. “Nobody was ever here. But she must have been. And she must have been more than a fuck.”
Ben looked at him, sorting it out. “You don’t know any of this,” he said finally.
“You’d rather have him as a jumper?”
Ben said nothing.
“Maybe we could help each other out.”
“You’re family. Go through his stuff. If he’s seeing somebody, he has to call her. There must be a number somewhere.”
“So you can find her and put her in the paper,” Ben said, thinking of Liesl reading it.
“If she’s in pictures, it’s a story. Don’t you want to know?”
“Seen enough?” Ben said, ducking it, starting to leave.
“I’ll do the legwork. That’s what I do,” the kid said, a half grin on his face, playing reporter, the kind he’d seen in the movies. “I just need a number.” He took a business card from his jacket pocket and handed it to Ben. “Day or night.”
Ben looked at it. Tim Kelly, a name you’d forget without a card.
“What if she isn’t in pictures?” he said. “Just a secretary or something?”
“A secretary-and he gets a place like this?” Kelly said, breezy, still in character. “Then I’d like to fuck her myself.”
Ben stood beside Liesl and Hans Ostermann at the funeral, the immediate family. Around and behind them, all in black, the emigre community sweltered in old high collars, hats with veils, mourning clothes that belonged in the drizzle and cloudy skies of Middle Europe. Thomas Mann had come, a courtesy to Liesl’s father, and Ben recognized a few others-Lion Feuchtwanger, slicked-back hair and eager eyes behind rimless glasses; Brecht, rumpled and smelling of cheap cigars. They were standing in front of the plain marble wall where Danny’s box of ashes would be placed. The rest of the cemetery was more elaborate, carved headstones and obelisks and flamboyant tombs from the 1920s. Valentino was somewhere over to the left. Beyond the cypresses and the high wall, Ben could see the water tower of the Paramount back lot, as close as Danny would ever get now.
There were Americans, too-people from the studio, glancing at their watches, expected back-and while they all waited, Ben wondered what made it so easy to tell them apart. Not just the clothes or the haircuts, maybe something in the way they held themselves, an attitude. Or maybe, like Tim Kelly, everyone here slipped naturally into a part, hitting marks under the giant arc lamp. Wasn’t he? The grieving brother. Liesl, the stoic widow, dry-eyed behind her dark glasses, leaning on Ostermann, all formal Weimar dignity, as publicly correct as the other Mann. Ben saw that Polly Marks had come, keeping close to a man in a double-breasted suit whom Ben assumed was Herb Yates. Who were all the others? Ben looked at the faces, bored or genuinely sad, and realized again that he knew nothing about Danny’s life.
He was still scanning the crowd when he caught someone doing the same thing-a man in a gray suit standing near the edge, looking at faces methodically, as if he were counting. When he met Ben’s eyes he didn’t even pretend to be embarrassed, just looked, then moved on. Ben stayed on him, watching him fix on Ostermann, then on the others, each in turn. What part was he playing? Not from the studio, certainly not an emigre. Holding a hat in his hand, like a policeman.
He heard a crunch of tires and turned to see a black Packard pulling up. The others had had to park near the gates. A driver hopped out to open the doors. First a little man Ben didn’t know, then Alma Mahler, making her entrance. She was dressed for a Viennese funeral the emperor himself might have attended, long black silk with a sizable hat, and without hesitation made her way to the front of the crowd. Ben watched her approach, fascinated. Everybody’s mistress, now broadened and grown outward, a kind of pouter pigeon effect, but still turning heads. She put her hand on Liesl’s arm as she took her place near the family, then nodded to Ben, her eyes interested, someone new.
Her arrival seemed to give permission to start: a man went to the wall and turned to face them, opening his hands. Ben had been told there would be a rabbi, but his dark suit was like all the others and the service was so secular, no religion specified, that Ben wondered if the cemetery had rules about who could be buried there. Judenrein. He looked at the flowers, bouquets, and wreaths with long name ribbons in the German style, then at the open square where they would put the box. After which everyone could move on. He felt Liesl next to him, holding herself erect, getting through it. What would Kelly find, a tabloid love triangle, with pictures of the Cherokee nest? Bury him. Why not a tipsy fall? What difference did it make?
“Heinrich Kaltenbach will say a few words.”
The little man who’d come with Alma opened a piece of paper, then closed it, visibly upset, his round face drawn.
“Only a few, not a speech,” he said, his accent thick, uncomfortable. “I speak also for Alma and Franz, for many of us here. There is for us a great debt. We owe this man our lives. He came with us. On foot. Only a little farther, he would say. To the border. You remember, Alma?” he said, looking at her, waiting for her nod, a little drama. “And you know what she’s carrying, in the suitcase? The manuscript. Bruckner’s Fourth. So not just lives, culture, he’s saving culture. For this everybody owes him. Please, if you don’t mind,” he said, then switched into German, his speech picking up pace, fluent now.
The Americans stood respectfully, trying not to look blank, but for the Germans it was a release, something real after the generic service, with the heft of language. Ben looked at them. Just the sound could take them back-the lucky ones, the ones who’d left. But what choice had there been? If they had stayed, they’d be dead. Like Otto. Ashes, too.
His mind wandered, the sound of German fading into the background, overheard but not distinct, as if it were coming up the stairs from one of his father’s parties. Danny would be down in the kitchen, sneaking drinks from the indulgent staff.
He froze. He looked at the marble wall, seeing Danny as a teenager, his head over a toilet bowl, retching, swearing he’d never touch brandy again. And never did. An almost allergic reaction, not his drink at all. But there was the bottle sitting on the counter at the Cherokee, suggestive. A prop. Which meant someone had put it there.
Ben felt a prickling on his neck. Someone else in the room. The door had been locked-the police had needed a passkey. But there could have been another, a duplicate to lock the door behind you. Without thinking, he turned, looking back at the crowd for the man in the gray suit. Near the edge, still watching, like someone on duty. But why come to the funeral if you’d already filed it as an accident? Case closed. Unless it wasn’t. His mind darted to the stairs, the alley, trying to work out the logistics, as if somehow that would make it all plausible. But how could it be? Could someone really have killed him? Why? Why were people murdered? Jealousy. Revenge. Because they were in the way. In stories, not in real life. Then he thought of the film clips waiting to be assembled at Continental. Why. Millions and millions for no reason at all.
Kaltenbach finished, the sudden quiet like a touch to Ben’s shoulder. His eyes went to the rabbi, placing the box in the square, then handing Liesl a flower to put with it. She stood still for a second, then took Ben’s hand, drawing him with her to the wall. He was given another flower and then, as if it had been rehearsed, they put them in together, one on each side of the box. When she finished she gave Ben a weak smile, her eyes confused, still not sure how to feel. He looked at the box, suddenly overwhelmed, feeling a loneliness he’d resisted before. Danny was gone, for good. Not just gone, taken away. By what right? And it wasn’t just Danny. A death spread out in shock waves, touching other people, changing them, taking pieces of them, too. Demanding some kind of justice. You owed the dead that much. How could he want it for millions and not this one?
Only a few Americans came back to the house afterward, so the lunch turned into a German gathering, the language floating warm and familiar around the buffet table like the wisps of steam from the chafing dishes. The caterer had come through with the salmon and what looked like a dozen other dishes, but people had brought things, too, brisket and cakes, an unexpected homey touch. All of it was being eaten, heaping plates and seconds. Liesl, who might have sat in a corner, receiving, instead was everywhere, seeing to people, playing hostess. Ben watched her, waiting for signs of strain, but he saw that the nervous activity, with its chin-high assurance, was also a kind of protective screen, like sunglasses. There were no whispered concerns, no side glances to see how she was holding up. She was right in front of them, busy, in control.
Instead, to his surprise, he found that he had become the center of attention, new ears for old complaints. The curfew during the war. The five-mile restriction for aliens. Gas coupons. All that over, thank god. And then, in lower tones, what was it really like now in Germany? You hear such stories. And the newsreels. You can’t recognize things anymore. That madman. Ben heard half of it, distracted, back at the Cherokee, his head noisy with questions. A bottle that shouldn’t be there. Someone else. An idea, once there, you couldn’t leave behind, not for polite conversation. So he nodded, answering with only part of his mind, and they backed away, respecting what they took for grief, not wanting to trouble him further. But keeping an eye on him, intrigued.
“It’s like any colony,” Liesl said when they got a moment. “They like to be with each other, not the natives, but they get a little bored, too. So you’re something to talk about. Here comes Heinrich. Be nice. I don’t know how he lives.” She leaned forward to kiss Kaltenbach’s cheek. “Heinrich, thank you. It was lovely.”
“From here,” he said in German, tapping his chest, then turned to Ben, the rituals of introduction.
“I didn’t know,” Ben said, “about his time in France. Getting people out.”
“Yes, many,” Kaltenbach said, still in German. “Some by boat, but that was difficult. So, Spain.”
“Over the Pyrenees?”
“Yes. The mountain crossings were easier than the trains. Not so strict. One guard, maybe two. Sometimes you could walk in. If you got up there. Imagine, Franz and Alma, at their age. Not hikers, you know, not young men like your brother. It’s a very dramatic story.”
“Excuse me,” Liesl said. “There’s Salka.”
“Very dramatic. A film,” Kaltenbach said. “I think so. Think of it, everybody waiting to get out. The noose tightening. You know what we called the house? Villa Espere Visa. But your brother acted. It would be a tribute to him. His story. I have a treatment of this, I’ll show it to you. Exit Visa. See what you think. They could do it at Continental. That’s where you are, yes? Your brother’s story. It would be a gift to his memory.”
Ben looked at him, feeling ambushed.
“I’m not really at Continental. Just putting something together there for the Army.”
And how had he heard about Continental anyway? Ben marveled again at the speed of news here, Lasner in touch even on a train.
“But you’ll read it. You’ll see,” Kaltenbach said. “An exciting film. And you know I can work with another writer. For the English. But who knows the story better? Who lived it?”
“Ben,” Liesl said, coming up to them, a short, plump woman in tow, “you have to meet Salka. She’s everyone’s mother.”
“Everyone’s cook,” the woman said, taking Ben’s hand. “They come for the chocolate cake, not for me.”
“No, your good heart,” Kaltenbach said.
“Daniel liked it,” she said, waving this off. “So maybe you’ll like it, too. Come Sunday. Any Sunday you like.”
“Thank you. I’ll look forward.”
“Even Garbo comes sometimes,” Kaltenbach said.
“So Lasner, now he’s letting people go to funerals? On his time?” she said, raising a finger. “Make sure he pays you for the day.”
“He doesn’t pay me for anything. I’m still in the Army.”
“You’re at Continental for free?” she said, amused.
“How did you know? About Continental. I mean, how does everybody hear these things?”
Salka looked at him, puzzled. “It’s in Polly. You didn’t know? You should keep up,” she said, a gentle tease. “Of course,” she said, catching herself, “on such a day. Who has time for papers.” She nodded to the room. “It’s too soon for this. A young man. But we don’t pick our time, do we?”
“No.” Somebody else had.
“I knew your father, too. Tell me something. I’ve always wondered. Why did he stay in Germany?”
The question mark of his life.
“I don’t know. I suppose he thought he’d be safe.”
“No one was safe,” she said, a settled matter. “Even then.”
“I don’t think he thought about politics. Just movies.”
“Otto? Children never know their parents. When he was young, he and Berthold could argue for hours. Hours. All the problems of the world. No, he knew.” She shook her head. “To make those comedies. To stay for that.”
He found the paper in the den, already opened to Polly’s column.
Off the Chief: Ben Kohler, new at Continental, here early to attend funeral of brother Dan after last week’s tragic accident. The surprise death suspended production on the upcoming Vera Ralston picture, which Dan was slotted to helm. Word on the lot: the picture’s set to be a breakthrough for Republic’s new star. Polly’s prediction: a new director and Vera skates over this rough patch of ice to big box office.
The funeral just a plug for Herb Yates.
“Spell your name right?”
Ben looked up. A burly man in a suit a little too tight for him stuck out his hand.
“Howard Stein. I just wanted to pay my respects. I can’t stay.”
“Thank you,” Ben said. “Actually, they got it wrong.”
Stein noticed the column logo. “Polly? She can’t even spell her own. Used to be Marx, like Groucho. But also like Karl. Somebody points this out to her-one of the Hitler Youth she pals around withso the next day it’s Marks, k-s.”
“You’re not a fan.”
Ben smiled. “Not a fan.”
“I’m with the CSU. You know her with the unions. Like another goon with a club.” He looked up at Ben. “Sorry for the language. I don’t think she’s a joke.”
“Is that how you knew Danny-the union?”
Stein nodded. “He was a good friend to us. When he first got here. You don’t forget that.”
“But not lately?” Ben said.
“No, not lately.” He shrugged. “It happens. People fall away. It’s a hard place to hold on to something. You want-” He looked around at the house. “You want a lot of things. So you make some trades. But he was a good man. I’m sorry about this. You just get in?” he said, his voice gruffer, moving away from anything soft.
“Few days. Those pickets I saw in front of Paramount-that was you?”
Stein nodded. “Studios want the union they already got, not us. Why not-they’ve been paying them off for years. After Willie Bioff got sent up, they tell everybody they’re cleaning house, but nothing changes. That’s four years now.”
“Sent up for what?” Ben said, not really paying attention, a local dispute.
“Racketeering. So you’ve got the head of the union behind bars, it’s time for a change, right? Your brother thought so-we all did. And look. Four years later and we’re out there walking with signs and the studios are still paying off. Cheaper than paying the employees. In a year like this, when they’re making so much money it’s like sitting on a fucking oil well. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get started. This isn’t the place.” He looked again at the newspaper. “And now we’ve got her making it worse. Now we’re all Reds.”
“There weren’t any pickets at Continental.”
“No, you start with the majors-the big five. Then everybody else comes in. Who’s going to follow Lasner?” He looked at Ben. “Not that he’s any different. Dump the cash on some hotel bed and get yourself a new contract. They like doing business that way. It’s an outlaw town, they still have that mentality. You know, one day they’re at a meeting, the studio heads, and I see them walking out of the commissary and I say to myself, Jesus fucking Christ, it’s the boys from Chicago. Same look. Well. This isn’t the place.” He looked at Ben, hesitant. “I liked him,” he said, shaking Ben’s hand, then glanced around the room. “It’s some place he’s got here.” He turned back to Ben. “I don’t understand it.”
He followed Stein back into the busy main room, half-hoping he could pass unnoticed out onto the terrace, but Liesl caught his eye, flagging him down. Somehow the funeral had made them a temporary couple, alert to each other’s signals. She took his arm lightly, lowering her voice as she steered him toward Alma Mahler, eating pastry near the table.
“She thinks you’re ignoring her,” she whispered. Then to Alma, “Found.”
But once they were past the introductions, the sympathies, there was little to say. She was a woman of such regal self-absorption that Ben suspected she had no conversation outside herself, so he fell back on the usual, how she liked California.
“For us it was very pleasant. Before Franz died. Now I never go out. But before-you know Stravinsky is here? Schoenberg? Like Europe, with sunshine.” Her eyes twinkled a little, waiting for him to respond, evidently a phrase that had worked before. “Of course, we were fortunate. Franz’s success.” She let the rest of the thought hover there, leaving Ben to imagine the riches. “You know it was a promise he made. He said if we survived, he would write about Lourdes, and look. So Bernadette blessed us, too. Who would have imagined it then? Such a success.”
“And the film.”
She nodded, accepting tribute.
“Of course, not serious art, like Mahler. Gropius.” Listing former lovers like credits. “But it’s important here, to have a success. It’s what they respect. And of course it’s nice, too, to be comfortable. Look at poor Heinrich. In Germany such an important name. I remember passing a bookstore, a whole window, all Kaltenbach, no one else. And here? No one knows who he is.”
“The books aren’t translated?”
“No. Franz, Lion, Hans of course,” she said, tipping her head toward Liesl. “But Heinrich, it’s too European maybe. So it’s hard for him. We all help a little. Not charity, we tell him, a loan until better times, but of course he’s proud. Once in all the windows. Liesl said you were just in Germany?”
“Yes,” Ben said, surprised at the veering off.
“It’s bad there, everyone says. Heinrich wants to go back. ‘I want to be a writer again,’“ she said, quoting, but shaking her head. “Well, you know what it’s like. I had a letter. My friend Beate. She says people are like zombies. Numb.”
“They’re hungry,” Ben said.
“Yes, hungry,” Alma said, not even glancing at her own plate. “But not reading. Not reading Heinrich.”
“They will again. Someday. Let’s hope so anyway.”
She looked up quickly, as if she had been corrected.
“But not here, I think. He doesn’t have the popular touch, Heinrich. Like your brother. He had the popular touch. Detectives,” she said airily, sliding it in as easily as a pinprick. “Heinrich is an artist.”
They were rescued by Kaltenbach, slightly hunched, like a courtier, who came to say their car had arrived.
“You’ll excuse us? These cars, they don’t like to wait. Such delicious food,” he said to Liesl. “But you must be tired. All these people. You should rest.”
“Yes,” Alma said. “It must be terrible for you.” She paused, another prick. “So unexpected.”
She patted Liesl’s arm, then nodded at Ben and handed him her plate, leading Kaltenbach across the room, tipping her head to people as she went. Just a hand on his elbow, enough to move him along. Ben stared at it. To push a man over you’d need a tighter grip. Had Danny screamed? He must have. At least a startled grunt. Only suicides made no noise, grim with purpose, not taken by surprise. Nobody had said. But it might be in the police report.
“Is something wrong?” Liesl said, peering at him.
“Sorry,” he said, snapping back. “Is she always like that?”
“You don’t like her?” Liesl said, a mock innocence, then laughed, the first time Ben had seen her really smile. She covered her mouth with her hand, a girl’s gesture.
The police report. Tomorrow.
They went out on the terrace, picking up wine glasses off a passing tray.
“Daniel didn’t like her, either.”
“What did they see in her?” Stay on Alma. “Kokoschka. Mahler. She had half the men in Vienna.”
“She used to be a great beauty they say.”
She laughed again. “She does, mostly.”
He looked at her, caught by the laugh. It seemed to come from some private part of her, something you only saw in glimpses, like her ease in the water.
“I shouldn’t,” she said, putting the drink down. “They’ve only started coffee.”
“It’s going by itself now,” he said. “You can sit one out.”
She glanced up, working out the idiom, then took a sip of wine.
“Did you notice? They don’t talk about him. Anything else. They’re embarrassed.”
“How are you doing?” he said, a private question.
“Well, Alma’s gone, so that’s one thing,” she said, evading it. “Now there’s only my father to worry about.” She nodded toward the end of the pool where two men were smoking cigars. “He always quarrels with my uncle. Well, not always. Then it’s like this, polite.”
“Quarrels about what?”
“Germany. Dieter says my father blames the people. You know the article he wrote. The German character. And how can you blame the people? It was Hitler. So back and forth. They’re all like that,” she said, looking around. “Their house burned down and they argue about why it happened.”
“But it’s important. To know why it happened.”
“You think so? I don’t know. It doesn’t change anything. It’s gone. They all want to go back. But to the old days. Heimat.”
“Me? I almost died there once. You don’t get rescued twice, I think. Who would marry me next time?” She tried to smile, then looked away, restive again. “Well. There’s Salka waving so Mann must be leaving. He’ll expect-oh god, not Polly.”
She was looking toward the pool again, where Polly Marks had wedged herself between the brothers-in-law.
“Who’s the guy in the gray suit? Do you know? I saw him at the funeral.”
“He came with her-I suppose he works for her.”
Ben smiled to himself. “I thought he was a cop.”
“A police? Why police?” she said, her head jerking around.
“But he wasn’t. Just a legman.”
“Why would you think that?” she said.
He looked at her, but this wasn’t the time, not with people around them, not with nothing more to offer than a feeling and the wrong bottle.
“I’ll go play referee,” he said, heading toward the pool.
The group at the end, like actors in a silent, were telling the story with their bodies-Ostermann leaning away from Polly, who was cornering him with attention, her back to his brother-in-law, the legman off to the side, smoking and watching them with the same quiet sweep he’d used at the funeral.
“Hello again,” Ben said to Polly, interrupting them.
She turned in mid-sentence, caught slightly off guard, trying to place him.
“Ben,” Ostermann said, cueing her.
But Polly had already found him in her mental file and only gave him a quick nod before she went back to Ostermann. “They sure sound like a front to me. You think it’s all innocent-I’m for world peace, too, who isn’t? — and the next thing you know they’re using you. Your reputation.” The same rushed voice, quivering.
“Do you think I’m so famous?” he said gently, making light conversation. “No.”
“You’re not just anybody, you know that. Your name speaks-”
“I tell him he has to be careful,” Dieter said.
Polly didn’t even turn, brushing this off with a blink. A relative from Pasadena.
“You listen to Polly,” she said. “Warners doesn’t buy just anybody. If you have any doubts, people asking to use your name, call me. I’ve been here a long time. Turning over rocks.”
“That’s very kind,” Ostermann said flatly. “To take so much trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. I love this country.”
“As we do,” he said, a courtly half bow. “Who took us in?”
“Terrible about all this, isn’t it?” she said, looking back at the house. “I don’t know how Liesl does it. So strong.” She shook her head. “Of course he was no angel, but I’m not one to speak ill of the dead.”
She took his hand and patted it, oddly flirtatious. “Glad we could talk. We’ll have lunch soon.” She looked at Ben. “You never mentioned you were going to Continental,” she said, a black mark, holding out, all that needed to be said.
Without being signaled, the man in the gray suit slipped away from the oleander and followed her.
“So it begins,” Ostermann said slowly. “Enemies everywhere. I wondered what would happen when they won. Now look. Like Germany last time, when we lost. ‘I love my country.’ That’s what they said in Berlin, remember?” This to Dieter, who looked at Ben.
“Hans is writing about that time, so it’s all he thinks about.” Then, to Ostermann, “Don’t pack your bags yet. It’s not the same.”
“It starts the same. I remember it.”
“When you’ve been here as long as I have-”
“When did you come?” Ben said.
“ ’Thirty-seven. With Trude. I wanted Hans to bring Anna, too. It was still possible then. Perhaps if they hadn’t waited, things would have turned out differently.”
Ostermann went stiff, annoyed, evidently a sore point between them, the sister who died.
“But we’re all here now,” Dieter said, making peace.
“You don’t want to go back?” Ben said, testing Liesl’s theory.
“Now? My work is here. All my colleagues. Hitler was a catastrophe for German science, but a gift to America.”
“You’re a scientist?” Ben said, surprised. Not in pictures, not even connected. Another California.
“No, no,” he said, diffident. “A teacher. Mathematics.”
“A teacher,” Ostermann said playfully. “Very distinguished. In Germany, a doctor doctor.”
“But not at Cal Tech,” Dieter said pleasantly. “One doctor only.”
“Thank you for being there,” Ben said. “At the hospital.”
Dieter nodded. “You know what he liked? The observatory. On Mount Wilson. Not the science of it. He was like Hans here-everything a mystery, even the simplest numbers. But he liked to see the stars. It’s a good lens, you know, a hundred inches, the largest. Would you like to go sometime? It was hard during the war, but now we can take visitors again. You have to stay over. The road is too dangerous at night.”
“You mean camp there?”
“No, we have places to stay. Dormitories for the staff. A few rooms for guests. It used to be very popular, with the other stars,” he said, smiling. “Hubble liked to take them up. Fairbanks, Pickford, all of them. You can see the pictures. So if you like, I’ll arrange it. A family excursion. But now-” He looked around, ready to go. “A sad occasion. It’s a pity you did not get a chance-”
“No, only at the hospital. For a minute.”
Ben shook his head, not wanting to go back.
“No last words. I’m sorry,” Dieter said, taking Ben’s hand. “So we’ll make a trip. Hans,” he said, now reaching for Ostermann’s hand, “be well. You should listen to her, you know. That woman. No petitions. No letters in the paper. It draws attention to all of us.”
Ostermann watched him leave, a politer version of Alma’s exit, then sighed and busied himself relighting his cigar.
“More American than the Americans. Except for the accent. He thinks no one hears it.” He nodded toward the city below, spread across the flat basin. “Look at that. You know, every building you see, it’s the first. There was nothing on this land before. Imagine. In Europe we live on layers. Here it’s only the first. So what will it become? It’s interesting. But do any of us care? We don’t really live here. I’m still in Berlin. My study even, it’s like before. Writing 1919. You like the title? Just the year. No one here will be interested, it’s for me. What happened to us. Mann’s writing Bible stories. Bible stories after all this. The conscience of his country.”
“I thought that was you.”
He smiled a little. “The bad conscience maybe. I’m sorry. Such gloomy talk. Your brother used to call it the exile mentality. Always half-empty. But it was different for him. He never had to worry about leaving. Being asked to leave. He was born here. Sometimes I think we got out with our skins but our lives-they’re somewhere in-between. Still waiting for the knock.”
“We’re still watched.” He caught Ben’s skeptical look and nodded. “We’re German, we have a sixth sense for this now. The phone I think sometimes, the mail I know.”
“There’s a group, more exiles, in Mexico-it was easier to get a visa there. So they write to me sometimes and I think the letters are being read. You know, opened and resealed. So, a test. I tell them to write in English and you know what? The letters arrive three days earlier-the censor doesn’t have to translate. So I know.”
“But why? Did they think you were a Nazi? You?”
Ostermann smiled weakly. “Anybody foreign. There’s no logic to this. It’s like Polly. You start turning over rocks, you have to find something, or why did you start? So you keep doing it. I’m used to it. In Germany it was the same-well, worse. But you have to be careful. You say things and it might go against you with Immigration. It’s better since the war, but Brecht says they’re still watching him. Even now.” He shook his head. “Such a dangerous person. In Santa Monica.” He moved away from the potted geraniums, taking a chair and leaning back in it, his eyes still on the view. “It’s an irony, yes? What we came to escape. Like poor Connie Veidt, playing Nazis. They wanted to kill him there, and then here it was all he can do, be a Nazi. It was the voice. Like Liesl.”
“Like Liesl?” Ben said, confused.
“The accent. You know she was an actress. Small theaters only, but good, I think. Of course the father says that. But Salka says she had talent. And then we left and she lost her voice.”
“Couldn’t Danny get her work?”
“Here? Even Lorre, an actor like that, couldn’t play American.” He smiled. “Mr. Moto. A Japanese. A girl with a German accent? Not so many parts for her. And you know, I think Daniel liked her at home. So she gave it up. Became the Hausfrau.”
“And your translator.”
“Yes,” Ostermann said, looking up. “A help to me, too, I admit. And now? It’s a worry. When someone dies this way, you think, I never knew him. You turn it over and over in your mind, trying to make sense of it.”
“Yes,” Ben said, an almost involuntary response.
“Everything becomes a lie. Your own life. I don’t want that for her.”
“But everything wasn’t.”
“No, not everything. But which?” He drew on the cigar. “How little we know about each other,” he said, brooding. “Even when we think we know.”
At the police station he was directed to a basement room that resembled a post office will-call window, with rows of files behind.
“Accident report? Kohler?”
“You’re with the insurance?”
“Companies usually get it direct. Not through the family.”
“But I could see it?”
“You could ask,” the clerk said, then got tired of himself and went to get the folder.
In fact, there was little Ben didn’t already know. A more precise time. No eyewitnesses to the fall itself. Neighbors alerted by the sounds of garbage cans knocked over when the body hit, an unexpected detail. No scream. At least none reported. Police response time. Alcohol in the room (dizzy spells not even necessary here-already unsteady). Taken to Hollywood Presbyterian with head injuries and multiple lacerations. Several boxes with numbers and acronyms for internal use. Everything consistent.
“I was told there were pictures.”
“They took pictures.”
The clerk stared at him, annoyed, then checked the report again, glancing at one of the numbered boxes.
“Give me a minute,” he said, going back to the file room, a martyr’s walk.
He returned opening a manila envelope. “We don’t usually show these to family.”
“What do I need? A court order?”
The clerk passed them over. “Just a good stomach.”
Danny in the hospital had been hard to look at, but still a patient, sanitized, wrapped in bandages, the lacerations stitched closed. Here his face was torn open and the gashes poured blood, his head lying in a pool of it. Ben flipped through the pictures-the body from several angles, limp, legs twisted, a shot of the balcony (for a trajectory?), the alley crowded with onlookers and ambulance workers. Crime scene photographs.
“Why weren’t these in the file?”
“You’re lucky they’re here at all. Should’ve been tossed. No reason to keep them in an accident file.”
“Can I have them?”
“Which you were going to toss.”
“Still police property. What do you want them for?” Genuinely puzzled, looking at Ben more carefully now. A morbid souvenir.
“How about some paper then? I need to take some notes. For the insurance.”
The clerk reached below and brought up some paper.
“Next time bring your own. That’s taxpayer money.”
“I’m a taxpayer.”
“Don’t start.” He went over to his desk and lit a cigarette.
Ben held up one photo, then jotted down a note, waiting for the clerk to get bored and turn away. The one thing you learned in the Army: The answer was always no, unless you could get away with it. All bureaucracies were alike. The clerk, still smoking, looked up at the clock. Ben drew out the rest of the photos, negatives clipped to the last. He copied another note, then began feeding paper into the envelope. When the clerk answered the phone, he slid the pictures under his newspaper, added some more paper to the envelope and closed it, pushing it back along the counter.
“Thanks for your help,” he said, turning away with the newspaper.
The cop waved back.
The day clerk at the Cherokee could have been the policeman’s cousin, the same wary indifference.
“You here with the key?”
“I thought it was paid through the month.”
“You’re going to use it?” the man said, oddly squeamish.
“I might. I mean, it’s paid for.”
The clerk gave a your-choice shrug.
“Anybody else have keys?”
“They’re not supposed to. Just the tenant. Otherwise we have to change the locks. Why?”
“Just wondering if you ever saw anybody else. Use the apartment.”
“Anybody else who?”
“A lady, maybe.”
“I’m on days. It’s quiet days.”
“You were on that night. I saw you in the police pictures.”
The clerk looked up, a new scent in the air. Just the word police.
“That’s right. I was filling in. What’s this all about?”
“I’m his brother. I just want to know what happened.”
“He fell-I guess. Whatever it was, it was a mess.”
“And you didn’t see anyone go up that night?”
“The police asked me this. I told them, I’ll tell you-no one. I didn’t even see him.”
“He used the back door.”
“I guess. All I know is, I didn’t see anybody.”
“So she could have done that, too. Without being seen.”
“If she had a key. Which she’s not supposed to have.”
“She’s not supposed to do a lot of things.”
“That I don’t know. I just run the board and collect the rent. We’ve never had any trouble here, you know. Never. I got a lot of people upset about this. Maybe moving out.”
“Many stay long?”
“More and more. Used to be, people didn’t want the extra service expense. But the war’s been great for us. Hard to find anything, and we already had the phone lines. You couldn’t get a phone during the war, so we did all right.”
“He make any calls that night?”
“I’d remember that.”
“Sure?” Ben raised his eyes, the cliche promise of a tip.
The clerk frowned. “I’m not looking for anything here. I don’t remember. I don’t keep tabs. Half the people I don’t even know. I’m on days, right? The only reason I knew him is I rented him the room.”
“So you wouldn’t necessarily have recognized everybody.”
“Not unless they’re here during the day. You’re asking more questions than the police did. What’s this about?”
“I’m trying to find out who else came here. He didn’t take the room to be alone. The family need to know. There might be money in it for her.”
Bait that bobbed back, not even a nibble.
“Then I hope you find her. Now how about I get back to work? Are you going to keep the room, or what? Hey, Al.” This to the mailman coming in with his bag.
“Joel. How’s life?”
“Hah,” the mailman said, opening the front panel of the boxes with the post office key and beginning to fill them. Catalogues from Bullock’s, a girl in a sundress, ordinary life.
“Let me know if you want to extend,” Joel said. “The lease. It’s month to month. And he was leaving at the end, so I need to know.”
“You mean he gave you notice?” Ben said, surprised. Because the affair was over?
Joel nodded. “End of the month.” Involuntarily his eyes shifted toward the alley. “I guess he had other plans.”
Ben went over to the elevator, then turned. “When he came in to rent-how did he know? There was an ad?”
“No, we just use the window,” Joel said, jerking his thumb toward it. “Put out a sign. Somebody always sees it. Like I say, it’s been busy since the war. What with the phone.”
The apartment was exactly as he’d left it, tidy, with the empty stillness of unoccupied rooms. The brandy bottle was on the counter, untouched, not even moved for dusting. He opened the French window, looking down from the balcony just as he had before, but imagining it differently. You wouldn’t need a lot of leverage with the low rail-even a woman could have done it. But wouldn’t Danny have reacted, reached out, grabbed something? No marks on the rail.
He went out to the hall, looking down the back stairs, the door that led to the roof. Someone could have gone up there, waited it out, then slipped away after the excitement died down. But why would she have to? A transient building-not even the clerk knew all the tenants by sight. She’d be just another face in the crowd. Why bother with the roof? Walk down Cherokee to Hollywood Boulevard and hop a red car. Unless she’d been driving, parked around the corner. Then no one would see her at all.
Ben went back inside and sat in the quiet. The empty bathroom, the empty desk. Whatever prints there’d been would have been wiped away by the maid. The fact was there would never be any physical evidence. The how was unknowable. The only way in was the why.
Downstairs, he put the keys in his pocket, then took them out again-one for the room, one for the back. No mailbox key. But why would Danny get any mail? An apartment registered to another name. Just a place where they changed the sheets. Still, they must have given him one, if only to clean out the catalogues and restaurant flyers. He turned back to the clerk.
“I don’t have a mail key,” he said. “For 5C.”
“You’d better find it. We’ll have to charge. We can’t keep making keys.”
Ben looked at the mailman. “He get mail here? Collins? 5C?”
“Mister, you think I keep track? If it’s U.S. Mail, we deliver it.”
“But you might notice-if it piled up. Or if someone never got any.”
“Never? I’d buy him a beer.” He waved his hand toward the boxes. “Everybody gets mail.”
“Did you check his desk?” the clerk said. “Sometimes people keep it there.”
But it wasn’t in his desk or in the desk at home, at least not in any of the shallow paperclip trays in the top drawer, where it logically should be. And not in any of the boxes on top. Ben began taking papers out of the drawer, not rummaging through as he had that first day, but systematically putting them in piles-canceled checks, bill receipts. He started with the address book, as if somehow a number would leap out at him, but none did. Who would put his girlfriend in a book? An odd scrap of paper that no one would see, even a matchbook cover, but not in a book.
The checks were more interesting, like shards of pottery you piece together to reveal a whole society: tree surgeons and pool tilers, land-scapers and caterers, an account at Magnin’s, a life so far removed from Ben’s that it seemed to be otherworldly. Like the thick terry robes by the pool, the drawers of cashmere. He thought of Howard Stein, looking around. And this was only someone with a B series about detectives. Mayer was the highest paid man in America. Still, nobody had killed him because Liesl kept a running account at Magnin’s. He flipped through the stubs. No checks to the Cherokee Arms, presumably a cash expense, discreet. The appointment book was even less revealing: no coded notes, M 5:30, just straightforward studio meetings and doctors and dentists.
No wallet, either. But he must have had one. Maybe in his dresser, with the tie clips and cuff links. He crossed the hall to the dressing room and opened the door that covered the built-in shelves, the inside panel a mirror to check your tie. He reached for the top drawer then stopped, standing motionless. The mirror, some optical trick, reflected the mirror on the partly opened bathroom door. A leg, resting on the rim of the tub, just one, her hands moving up it slowly, as if she were putting on nylons, moving together toward her thigh, then out of the mirror. The hands again, the same smooth drawing up, rubbing. Not nylons, some kind of cream, maybe suntan oil. He stood there, unable to move, his eyes fixed on the mirror. A perfect leg, arched. He imagined his hands moving along it instead of hers, slick with oil, an image that came like a pulse beat, fast, involuntary. Now the leg leaned farther in, more thigh showing, the hands moving. Close the door. Instead he held his breath, mesmerized, wanting the hands to go farther. He could feel himself fill with blood. Unexpected, just like that, without thought. He wanted to see more, where the leg met the body. But it dropped and the other one came up, the same hand motion, just for him, even more exciting because she was unaware.
What could he say if she saw him? Find the wallet and get out. But he stayed, still not breathing. The other thigh now, an almost unbearable second, her sex just beyond the edge of the mirror, and then it moved forward, not hair, a wedge of bathing suit, then more, her whole body bent over, moving into the mirror, her head turning, looking toward her door. He closed the cabinet, a snap reflex, and crossed back to the office, his body flushed, slightly shaky. Had she seen him? The mirrors had to reflect each other, didn’t they? What would she have seen? Standing there, mouth half-open, looking where he shouldn’t, eyes fixed, caught in a kind of trance.
He picked up the checkbook again, pretending he could read the stub notes, listening for footsteps.
“What are you doing?”
He looked up, startled, feeling caught. She was pinning her hair, on her way to the pool.
“I was just-going through his things. I should have asked.”
Nervous, waiting for her to say something. But she seemed not to have seen him in the mirror.
“No, please. Somebody has to. I’ve been putting it off. I’ve been a coward a little bit. In case I found-you know, if it’s somebody I know,” she said, turning to go now, anxious, her movements as darting as they’d been that first day at Union Station.
A new idea. “Did he leave a will?”
“The lawyer has it. Everything comes to me, so that part’s easy. Oh,” she said, a hand-to-mouth gesture. “I never thought. Is there anything you would like? I’m sure he-”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t need anything. Anyway, you’re his wife.”
She smiled a little, trying to be light. “It’s lucky we’re living now. Not like in the old days. Bible times. You would have to take care of me. The brother’s wife. Like a sheep or a goat. I’d belong to you.”
He looked up at her, thrown off balance, then passed it off by smiling back.
“I couldn’t afford it.” He motioned to the check stubs. “Magnin’s alone.”
“You think I’m extravagant. Really, it was Daniel. He liked going out. He liked me to dress. And now how much is left? I haven’t thought.” She stopped and came over to the desk for a cigarette, her hands nervous. “I haven’t thought about anything, really. What I’m going to do. Since you won’t take me,” she said, smiling again, blowing out smoke. “I should sell the house. My father’s already asking, come live with me, but it’s enough the way it is. Milton’s daughter. An apartment somewhere, I guess. But I’d miss the pool.” All said quickly, as if she were filling time, avoiding something else.
“You don’t have to stay here.”
“I couldn’t leave my father. Anyway, I like it here. Maybe I’m lazy. Everyone complains, so ugly, so boring, but I like it.” She started to put on her bathing cap, then stopped. “I know why you’re looking,” she said suddenly, nodding to the desk. “You want to know who it was. The other one. But what does it matter now?”
He took a breath. “Because we need to know. I don’t think he killed himself. I don’t think he tripped.”
She said nothing for a minute, staring back, her body almost weaving. “You’re not serious,” she said finally, her voice faint.
“There was someone else in the room.”
“How can you know that?”
“It’s the only way it makes sense.”
“Sense,” she said, still trying to collect herself. “To think that. Things like that don’t happen, not in real life. Do you think he was a gangster?”
“That’s not the only reason-”
“Why then? She was so jealous? He was leaving her? Maybe it was the wife. Maybe you think that. Isn’t it always the wife?” she said, her voice rushed, flighty.
“Not always,” he said calmly.
She took up the cap again, fidgeting. “It’s not true. Think what it means.”
“It means he didn’t kill himself.”
Her shoulders moved, an actual shiver. “It changes everything, to think this. Why would anyone kill him?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“And you think it’s her? She’s so strong? To push a man like Daniel? Ouf.” She shook her head, dismissive.
“She’s a lead. He got the apartment for her.”
She nodded at the desk. “What do you expect to find?”
“A number, maybe.”
“Clues, like his detectives,” she said. “Ben.”
“You think I’m imagining this.”
“No,” she said, her face softer. “I think you want it to be true. It’s easier for you.” She frowned. “But how could it be true?” she said, not really talking, thinking. “To make someone do that. Kill you. He wasn’t like that.” She looked back at him. “It’s so hard for you to accept this? What he did?”
“The police think so.”
“The police made a mistake.”
“But not you. Just like him. You get some idea and then you won’t let go.”
“It’s not some idea.”
“Because it’s better this way. He didn’t do it.”
She said nothing, at a loss, then turned to go. “There’s more,” she said, flicking her hand toward the piles on the desk. “Boxes from his office. In the screening room. The next installment of Partners. Maybe it’ll give you an idea.”
“You think I’m crazy.”
“Not crazy. Something. I don’t know what. Like him. So sure.”
“You don’t want to believe it.”
“I want it to be over. It’s something you learn, when you leave. You can’t look back. Not if you want to keep going. He’s gone,” she said.
“And if I’m right? We just walk away?”
She held his gaze for a second, her eyes troubled, then turned again and started for the pool.
He looked at the piles on the desk. Check stubs and an address book. Receipts. The life you could trace. Not the one that rented a room. In cash. He reached for his wallet and took out Tim Kelly’s card. Someone interested in the other one.
Kelly answered on the second ring.
“Heard you had a talk with Joel. The day guy at the Arms.”
“Heard from who?”
“Himself. I told him to let me know if anyone came around wanting to have a chat. And there you were.” The same breezy tilt to his voice, like a hat pushed back on his head.
“And he did this for free,” Ben said, curious.
There was a snort on the other end.
“Since you bring it up, if we’re going to help each other out, I could use a little contribution to the tip box. I can’t put everything on the paper.”
“He didn’t know anything.”
“Joel? Not much. But you have to go through him to get to the others. The maid, say. So it’s worth something. Spread the wealth.”
“I’m not keeping books. Buy me a drink some night and throw a twenty on the bar and I’m a happy guy.”
“Okay,” Ben said, sitting back, interested. “So what did the maid say?”
“Her favorite tenant. Hardly ever there. She doesn’t even have to make the bed.”
“So he doesn’t sleep over. We knew that.”
“Or do much of anything else. Not exactly a hot affair. Neat, though. No stains.”
“Oh,” Ben said. A peephole world he’d never imagined, not in detail. “What about the usual night clerk? Joel said he was just filling in.”
“Check. Night guy knew him. Saw him a few times. Never saw the playmate.”
“So she used the back.”
“Or they arrived different times. Or she said she was going to some other room and didn’t. There’re all kinds of ways to do this.” None of which so far had occurred to Ben.
“But if she didn’t want to be seen-I thought that was the idea.”
“That was the hope. A face they’d know. Which is still the way it looks to me.”
“This careful? Their own place, back doors, nobody sees them together-you go to this kind of trouble for who? Some dentist’s wife?”
“You still have any credit left with Joel?”
“It wouldn’t take much. What?”
“Could you get a list of the tenants?”
“Why? You think she’s living there? Where’s the sense in that?”
“Nowhere. But maybe somebody she knows. Joel says he just sticks a sign in the window when a room comes up, but how many times would Danny be walking on Cherokee? So how did he know about the room?”
For a second there was silence on the other end.
“Okay. It’s an idea. Somebody she knows. A helper, like.”
“Nothing. Let’s see who’s there. I don’t know what else to do. I can’t find anything here.”
“Forget there. You got better places to look. When do you start work?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, while you’re wasting time making Joel nervous I spent a little time downtown. Always pays. Boys keep their ears open and like a drink after work.”
“And it’s just like I thought,” he said, almost a grin over the wire. “He’s a jumper, then he trips. And who gets the report changed? Didn’t I say?”
“Studios. But why would Republic want to change it?”
“That’s the beauty part. They didn’t. The favor was for Continental.”
He first had to report to his commanding officer in Culver City, but that took less than an hour. His reassignment had been waiting for days, and the film he’d shipped from the Signal Corps already sent over to Continental, along with Hal Jasper to cut it. Colonel Hill, in fact, seemed eager to hurry him out, too. Now that the war was over, Fort Roach had the feel of a camp waiting for orders to pull out, an uncertain mix of khaki uniforms and open-necked Hawaiian shirts. No one bothered to salute. He was at the Continental gate before noon.
This time there were pickets, a handful with signs walking slowly back and forth, more a polite show of force than a threat. No shouting or heckling. They let him pass through without a word.
“You go to Mr. Jenkins,” the guard said, checking his clipboard. “Admin, room two hundred and one.” He pointed to an office building with Florida jalousie windows that faced Gower. “Park over there in Visitors till they get you a slot.”
As a boy he’d loved the surrealism of the Babelsberg lot, the street fronts and women in Marie Antoinette wigs, and sailing ships beached against a wall at the end of a street. Now what struck him was the blur of activity. Outside, in the dusty orange groves and parking lots, things moved at a desert pace. Here everyone seemed to be running late-grips pushing flats and carpenters and extras filing out of wardrobe, everyone hurrying while the sunny oasis over the wall stretched out for a nap.
The look was utilitarian-no country club flower beds or Moorish towers. Lasner hadn’t even bothered with the Spanish touches the other studios couldn’t resist, the arcades and fake adobe walls. Here buildings were whitewashed or painted a cheap industrial green. The only visible trees were the bottle brush palms up in the hills and a few live oaks behind one of the sound stages, probably the western set.
Inside things were sleeker-modern offices with metal trim and secretaries with bright nails and good clothes. He thought of the offices in Frankfurt, the piles of unsorted papers and drip pails and girls with hungry, pinched faces. This was the other side of the world, untouched, not even a shortage of nail polish. The war had only made it richer. Everyone in the hall smiled at him.
Room 200 was the corner, presumably Lasner’s office, and Jenkins was next door. Ben was shown in and announced without even a preliminary buzz, clearly expected. Or had the guard called up from the gate?
Jenkins was slight, with a boyish unlined face, sharp eyes, and hair so thinned that he was nearly bald. He came out from behind the desk with the easy grace of a cat, as smooth as his camel hair sport jacket.
“I’m Bunny Jenkins. Mr. L asked me to get you settled. He’s on the phone with New York,” he said, implying a daily ordeal.
Ben looked at him more closely. “Brian Jenkins?” he said.
“ Yes, that Brian Jenkins,” he said wearily. “Which dates you. The kids on the lot haven’t the faintest. Not exactly a comfort.”
“Well, we all change,” he said, a put-on archness. “I’ll bet you used to look younger, too.”
Just the voice, still English, would have placed him. Faces wrinkle but voices never change. He was still the boy in The Orphan, then the reworking of Oliver Twist and the other fancy dress adventures that had followed. Ruffled shirts and wide liquid eyes, everybody’s waif.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“Never mind. It has been a while. They don’t know Freddie, either. Funny, isn’t it? They brought me over to keep Jackie in line and then they brought Freddie to keep me in line. I mean, really. Freddie. They could have saved a ton and just let the hair do it.” He touched his head.
“Mm,” he said, glancing up, as if Ben hadn’t been following. “With all his wavy curls. Still, I hear. And much good it did him. They don’t know him, either,” he said, nodding toward the window and the anonymous kids on the lot. “Well, let’s get you started. I’m the tour guide. He wants me to show you Japan, which means the serious tour. I gather you’re here to give us some class.”
“He said that?”
“I’ve seen your budget. You might want to explain the project to me a little. I’ve already had Polly Marks on the horn. I said, ‘Darling, if you don’t know, how would I? He hasn’t even arrived yet.’ But she’ll be back. Walk with me. Oh, and you’re expected for dinner. Saturday. That must have been some chat the two of you had on the train. He never has line producers to the house-not this soon anyway.”
“That’s what I am, a line producer?”
“Well, you have your own budget and nobody seems to be in charge of you.”
“Me? Oh, I’m a glorified assistant. Technically, vice-president, Operations, which is a nice way of saying I do whatever he needs me to do. You know, you grow up on a set, there’s not much you don’t learn. About the business, I mean.”
“In other words, you run the place.”
Bunny looked at him. “No. Mr. L runs the place. Every nook. You wouldn’t want to make a mistake about that.”
They were almost in the hall when the phone rang. Bunny stopped, glancing over at his secretary. She covered the receiver, mouthing a name at him.
“Hold on a sec. I have to take this.” He went over to the phone. “Rosemary, I thought you were being fitted.” He listened for a while, concentrating. “But, darling, she’s the best. I asked for her. Have you looked at the sketches? Forget the mirror. We never see ourselves, not properly. I tell you what, I’ll swing by in an hour, all right? But meanwhile all smiles, yes? You don’t want her to- Yes, I know. But she used to work for Travis. She sewed for him.” A pause. “Travis Banton. He dressed Marlene, Rosemary. Now go have a ciggie and calm down and I’ll be over later. All smiles.”
After another minute of reassurance he hung up, facing Ben again.
“A little crise de nerfs, ” he said lightly. “Still, that’s the business. I know, you’re going to make a documentary. Show us how ghastly it all was,” he said, affecting a shiver. “But that’s not the business. You know what it is, pictures? Attractive people. That’s all it’s ever been. So you want to look your best.” He put his hand to his head again, smiling slyly. “Keep your hair. Come on, I’ll show you Japan.”
They made it out of the building without another interruption, Bunny giving a running description as they went.
“That’s Payroll and Accounting. You’d get your check there, but I gather you don’t get a check.” A point to be cleared up.
“The Army’s still paying me.” He looked at the closed door. “They’d have a list, wouldn’t they? Every employee.”
“If we’re paying them. Why?”
“In case I was looking for someone.”
“Check the phone directory,” Bunny said simply. “There’ll be one on your desk.” He looked over at Ben, as if he were hearing the question again, then let it go. “We’ve got you in B building, next door. Mr. L wanted you in Admin, but there’s no room at the inn so you’re out in the stable. Be grateful in the end-nobody looking over your shoulder. I wish I were there sometimes. I’m afraid you’ll have to share a secretary. I wasn’t sure how much help you’d need.”
“Bunny,” someone said, waving hello.
“How’d you get the name?” Ben said.
“You know, no one’s ever asked. All these years. Not rabbits. Pets, I mean. My mother, when I was little. Because I got my lines right away. You know, ‘quick as a.’ Anyway, it stuck. Editing rooms over there. I understand you got Hal back for us. He’s a great favorite of Mr. L’s. An A-list project,” he said, leaving it open, wanting to know how involved Lasner would be.
“How old were you when you started?”
“In the womb. I don’t know, four or five. Before I could read. She’d say the lines, and I’d have to remember them. But then you grow up. Nobody makes it past that. Look at Temple. Who wants to see her necking?”
“How did you end up here?”
“Through Fay. Mrs. L,” he explained.
“Yes, we met. At the train station.”
“Did you?” he said, another opening, then went back to the thread. “A great lady-not exactly thick on the ground out here. And smart. But she started late, so she needed somebody to help. You know, which fork where. How to do this and that. So, me. Anyway, the more I did for her, the more I got to know Mr. L, and he figured there were things I could do for him, too. So it all just happened. Here we are.”
He opened the door to a sound stage and flicked on the light. Ben had thought Japan would mean a Madame Butterfly set, tea house and garden, but this was Japan itself-a huge, three-dimensional model made of plaster, set up table height on a series of trestles that covered most of the floor.
“It’s built to scale,” Bunny said. “Every bay, river. Took months. Mr. L’s very proud of it.”
“You set the camera up there, on the crane, and you move it along what would be the flight plan. Pilot watches the film, he knows what he’s going to see when he gets there. The exact topography.” A craftsman’s pride.
Ben walked over. Mountains, cities, before you released the bombs. Up close, just plaster and canvas, like a train village under a Christmas tree.
“This must have cost-”
Bunny nodded. “It was the time. We had special effects do it after hours, so you run up overtime. The Army just paid for the materials.” He caught Ben’s surprise. “Our contribution to the war effort. We didn’t just hand out doughnuts at the Canteen.”
“What are you going to do with it now?”
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? It’s just sitting here taking up space, but Mr. L can’t bring himself to get rid of it. The Army doesn’t want it. They can do actual aerial photography now. Funny thing is, the film quality’s not as good. They were better off with this.”
They made a circle of the back lot past the prop department, a hangar full of furniture, and the New York set. Everyone nodded or acknowledged Bunny, as if he were taking roll call. Lasner caught up with them on Sound Stage 5, in front of a plywood Hellcat fighter, sliced in half. A few grips were adjusting lights, fixed on the painted flat sky, but everyone else had gone to lunch.
“Well, at last,” Lasner said, putting his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Everything all right at home?”
“Hell of a thing. Anyway, you’re here. Bunny have you all set up? Anything you need, see him. It’s like talking to me.” He turned to Bunny. “What’s this about Rosemary’s dress?”
“Good news travels fast.”
“I happened to be over there.”
“What did you think?”
“What do I know? You’re the one knows this stuff.” He paused. “She never complains.”
“She’s nervous, that’s all. It’ll be fine.” He looked at Lasner. “It’s already paid for.”
“Don’t pinch. This is the picture we put her across. So what’s that worth?”
“I’ll look at the dress,” Bunny said, case closed. Ben watched the play between them, a practiced volley. It’s like talking to me.
Lasner nodded, then turned to the plane.
“Two more weeks on this. Think we can get it out before November?”
“We still have to score it.”
“The longer we wait- Who the hell’s going to want to see a war picture now? Would you?” he said to Ben. “I’m asking you. Seriously. These last two years, you show any goddam thing, you do business. Now we got all these guys coming back, kids over there seeing things, like you did. What do they want? Maybe they’re sick of this,” he said, gesturing to the plane. “War pictures.”
“Not with Dick Marshall,” Bunny said, indicating the pilot seat. “He’s had three in a row.”
“That’s no guarantee. Maybe Hayworth, that’s it. And that prick Cohn has her.” He cocked his head toward the studio across Gower, then looked at Ben. “You got the message about Saturday? Just a few people. Bring somebody. Nice.”
He left them at the door, heading back to his phones.
“It makes him crazy,” Bunny said. “Cohn having Hayworth.”
“They both started out down here. Same street. You don’t expect to get a star like that, not here. Well, maybe Rosemary will do it for him. She’s worked hard enough.”
“I thought it was all magic.”
“It helps if you help. Let’s get you back.”
“I met Cohn in Europe,” Ben said as they walked.
“You get around,” Bunny said, raising an eyebrow, having fun with it.
“I was an interpreter.”
“Cohn into English?”
Ben smiled. “Almost. He’s a little rough around the edges.”
“And he speaks so warmly of you.”
A policeman passed, touching his fingers to his hat. “Mr. Jenkins.”
“Bert,” Bunny said back.
“Not an actor?”
“Studio police. We have our own force.”
“Under you. Operations,” Ben said, thinking.
“It’s a small force.”
“And who deals with the outside police?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, runs interference. If somebody gets in trouble.”
“You think this is Metro? Benny Thau and his house detectives? There, no wonder. Just handling Mickey’s a full-time job. The rest of us just toddle off to bed and say our prayers like good children. Why, do you need to get a ticket fixed? Already?”
Ben shook his head. “Thank somebody.”
“Getting an accident report changed.”
“To make it an accident. You know Danny Kohler was my brother.”
Bunny looked at him carefully. “Mr. L mentioned it.”
“Somebody at Continental got the report on him changed. Saved the family some embarrassment, so-”
“According to whom?”
“The police.” Ben shrugged. “People talk.”
“Through their hats. We don’t have that kind of influence.”
“Everybody says the studios have an in with the police.”
“Look, before you run away with yourself, let me tell you how things work. Somebody drives when he’s had a little too much to drink and naturally Publicity wants to keep that out of the papers. So we make a nice donation to the Benevolent Fund and people are nice back. When they can be. Strictly parking ticket stuff. The kind of thing you’re talking about-nobody here can do that.”
“Not even you? I thought you might-”
“Not even me. In fact, not me.”
“I just wanted to thank-”
“And I’d hear about it. I hear most things on the lot. Somebody’s telling you stories. Anyway, why would we? Your brother wasn’t at Continental.”
“Maybe he had a friend here,” Ben said, looking directly at him.
Bunny returned the look, then sighed. “Do you know what our police do? They check the padlocks, make sure the lights are turned off, equipment’s where it should be, not walking off the lot. They’re guards. They’re not on the phone with downtown fixing cases.”
“Somebody was,” Ben said.
Bunny stared at him, a standoff. “So you keep saying.”
He turned away, leading them around a corner. “Here we are, B building. I gather you asked for Frank Cabot for the narration. I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t take him off a picture if it’s shooting. I put a contract player list on your pile-in case he’s not available. When do you want to record?”
“It’s not written yet.”
“You’ll want to hop to, then. Not really something for the hols, is it? And Hal Jasper likes to take his time. It’s worth it, but you can’t hurry him. You’re just in here.”
Walking a little faster now, eager to get away, but then caught at the door.
“Bunny, Lou Katz. You remember Julie? Julie Sherman. She’s making a test.”
Julie nodded and smiled, her lips moist with gloss. She was in low-cut satin, held up by a single diagonal strap. Lou, hovering, glanced nervously at Ben, not recognizing him but not wanting to offend.
“Of course,” Bunny said. “Nice to see you. Everything okay? They take care of you in Makeup?”
“Yes, everyone’s been wonderful,” she said, meaning it. A pleasant voice, modulated, not what Ben expected.
“You’ll be, too, sweetheart,” Katz said. “Bunny, we appreciate this. You’re not going to be disappointed. They said you didn’t want the song.”
“Lou, musicals? Here?”
“I just thought, to get the full range. This is a real talent.”
Julie blinked, her only sign of protest, but otherwise kept smiling, evidently used to being discussed.
“You were on the train,” she said, acknowledging Ben. “With Mr. Lasner.”
“Yes. And you were with Paulette. Selling bonds, right?”
She smiled, pleased to be remembered. Bunny glanced at them, taking this in, his attention diverted.
“Bunny, we’ll catch up with you later,” Katz said, checking his watch. “You’re going to like this one. Maybe they can run it for you with the dailies.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said politely, their cue to leave, then turned to Ben. “Paulette? Is there anyone you haven’t met yet?”
“Whoever called the police.”
Bunny stared at him. “So you can send a thank-you note. Just to be polite. It means that much to you.” He cocked his head toward the building behind them. “Third door down on the left. Nice to have you with us. We could use something different. Mr. L’s right, you know. Nobody on God’s earth is going to want to see Dick Marshall shooting down Zeros. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.”
He headed to the Admin building, glancing back once over his shoulder.
The office was adequate but basic-typewriter, couch, Venetian blinds-a place for passing through, not unlike the apartment at the Cherokee. Ben sat down at the desk, annoyed with himself for pressing Bunny. The studio string-puller, now wary, protecting his flank.
Things had been stacked on his desk in neat piles: budget, a provisional time-line schedule, technician availabilities, an inventory of film already sent over from Fort Roach, the contract player list, personnel forms. The Signal Corps had had all the sloppy confusion of the Army, arrangements so haphazard they made the work itself feel improvised. This was a precision machine, waiting for him to set it in motion. To make something important. About millions. And all he could fix on was a police favor, worrying it like a sore tooth. Unable to leave it alone.
He picked up the phone and got an outside line.
“Meet any movie stars yet?” Kelly said when he heard Ben’s voice.
“Who made the call from Continental?”
“You tell me.”
“He didn’t give you a name? Whoever you talked to?”
“That would make it real. I get a tip. But that doesn’t mean it ever happened. My lucky guess. And nobody asks how I got there. Anyway, who would it be? Somebody in Publicity. Whoever. Who do you think makes these calls?”
“It wouldn’t be somebody further up the food chain?”
“Not likely. They like the cleaner air. We’re down here with the messenger service. The point is, who’d they call for. Who do they protect? They protect themselves. They protect the talent. This case, I’d go with the talent. He’s not renting an apartment for a business meeting. Just keep your ears open. Something like this happens, there’s always talk. I like the makeup girls. They always know who’s been out the night before. One look. Ask them out for a drink, you’ll hear what’s going on. Get in their pants, you’ll hear everything. You don’t even have to pay. Speaking of which, I could use a little contribution.”
“I got the resident list you wanted from Joel. Past year, right? He got all huffy. Why did I want it? Damned if I knew. Why do I?”
“I told you. Danny wasn’t driving around looking for FOR RENT signs. He knew the building. So, how? Maybe she used to live there.”
“Or somebody knew somebody. Or somebody heard-how far do you want to stretch it?”
“He had to know about it somehow. If we’re lucky, there’s a match.”
“Okay, I’ll swing by and leave it for you at the gate. Maybe-you got me curious-maybe I’ll run it by Polly’s files. She never throws anything out. Every rumor since Fatty’s Coke bottle.”
“She lets you go through her files?”
“Are you kidding? But it so happens it takes her hours to drink her lunch, and the secretary’s a friend of mine.”
“You have friends all over.”
“And I’m just the lowlife. Run a studio, you got the whole town in your pocket.”
Except the police, according to Bunny. He sat for a minute looking at the desk, then pulled over the contract list. Work backward. Who would they protect? A woman. Worth making a call for. He checked the credits. At Fox or Metro there would have been a slew of names, but Lasner borrowed stars so the featured players here made a much shorter list. Speaking parts, not hat-check girls or window shoppers. Recognizable. Rosemary Miller. Ruth Harris. Someone who met Danny on the side. Already married? One of these few, easy to check against the Cherokee records. Assuming she’d used her real name. Danny hadn’t. He thought of Lasner on the train: Who changes names? Actors. Or Danny, with something to hide.
He spent the rest of the day with Hal Jasper, a short, wiry man, still in uniform, with a permanent five o’clock shadow that suggested sprouting hair everywhere else. He was one of those technicians for whom film was tactile, a physical thing, not another form of theater. There was a reverence in the way he handled it, each splice a weighed decision. He’d already screened most of the footage, waiting for Ben, and now was full of ideas about it, eager to start.
“For the opening?” he said, framing his hands. “There wasn’t enough in the Dachau reel, but if you add some of the other materialBelsen, I guess, right? — you can go in just the way a GI would. The fence, the gates, everything. First time you see it. Walk in, looking around. What the hell happened here? Let it sink in. The faces. You don’t say a word. Just look. Put a big chalk mark on the floor.”
“A crime story,” Ben said.
“It’s the way in. I mean, if you see it that way.”
“A crime,” Ben said, thinking. “Why we need trials.”
“Trials. How the hell do you judge people like this, I don’t know. Unless you string them all up. Then you’re doing what they did.”
Ben looked up at the intensity in his voice. Thinking of Germans in greatcoats with attack dogs, not the kids eating out of PX garbage cans, both things true.
“Signal Corps said there’s more footage coming, but let me start with this.”
Ben nodded, feeling like an assistant, the machinery of the studio already whirring around him.
There were technician reqs to fill out and discarded film to be sorted and sent back to Fort Roach, so it was late by the time the gate called to say there was a delivery for him. Kelly, almost forgotten. It was still light, but the lot was quiet now, only a few distant carpenter hammers banging on a set somewhere. In the Admin screening rooms, they’d be setting up the rushes for Lasner and the producers, but most of Continental had gone home. The east sides of the sound stages were in shadows.
“Anything?” Ben asked, taking the manila envelope.
“Nada,” Kelly said. “Only a Red. If he is. Polly’s got them under every bed, so who knows?”
“A woman?” Ben said, interested.
“No. Guy. No connection. Probably some name she got from the Tenney Committee. They feed her stuff they can’t use-can’t prove. Then she runs it and they watch what happens. What pops out of the hole. Cozy.”
“And nothing else?”
“Not at the old Cherokee. You know what, though? She’s got Frank Cabot as a fruit. That’ll come as a surprise to his ex-wives.” He grinned. “Or maybe not.”
“Where does she get this stuff anyway?”
“Little birds. Chirp, chirp. And once in a while she gets hold of something real and makes him sing. ‘You wouldn’t want me to-’ And of course he doesn’t. Can’t. So he feeds her someone else.”
Kelly shrugged. “Hooray for Hollywood. Don’t work too late,” he said, making a mock salute with one finger. “Let me know if you get a match.”
But no one on the Cherokee list appeared in the Continental directory. Ben looked at the short list of contract players he’d set apart. Not even similar name changes, like Kohler becoming Collins. Who changed names? Actors. Didn’t any live at the Cherokee, grateful for the phone lines? Somebody there had to be in pictures. He picked up the personnel form from his to-do pile and stopped. One box for Name, one for Birth Name. The office files would have everyone’s real name, maybe the one used to rent apartments. He filled out his own form, an excuse to hold in his hand, then took the lists and walked over to the Admin building.
It was dark behind the translucent glass panel, but the door, luckily, was unlocked, part of the protected village behind the studio gate. Ben turned on the light. A wall of filing cabinets. He started with the most likely featured players, working quickly. Arlene Moore used her real name, but Ruth Harris had been Herschel; Rosemary Miller, Risa Meyer. Ben smiled to himself. Hollywood’s own Aryanization program. But neither of them, nor any other birth name, was on the Cherokee list.
When he heard the voices outside in the hall he pushed the file back in the drawer, closing it gently so it wouldn’t slam. A click, inaudible to whoever was coming down the stairs. How could he have explained it? A clumsy snoop after hours. He was almost at the door when it opened.
“Oh, it’s you,” Bunny said, Lasner behind him. “I saw the light.”
“I was just dropping off my personnel form,” Ben said, indicating the sheet on the desk.
“So diligent and good.” Bunny looked quickly over the room, as if he expected to find someone else. “They should keep this locked.” He went over to the far filing case, test-pulling it open, looking relieved when it didn’t budge. “Well, the salaries are, so that’s all right. We wouldn’t want people dipping into that, would we? Makes for ill feeling up and down.” He switched off the light, following Ben out into the hall.
“You’re here late,” Lasner said, pleased. “You meet Hal?”
“We’ve already started. He’s just what I need. Thanks for-”
“What did I tell you? He’s got an instinct. His father was a cutter, you know. With Sennett. It’s in the blood. Like you. You on your way out? Come look at the rushes.”
“Sol,” Bunny said, his tone suggesting a breach of some unspoken protocol.
“If you’re going to learn the business,” Sol said.
Bunny looked at Ben, annoyed, then bowed to the inevitable.
“Mostly bridge shots tonight. Fair warning. No comments to the directors, understood? They’re touchy about tourists.”
But in fact, slumped down in their chairs, they seemed to expect a barrage of arrows, at least fired by Lasner.
“Eddie, what the hell’s the light on the left? What is that, sun on the wing? Except he doesn’t see it? Just us?”
“We can cover it, Sol,” the director said, not bothering to turn around. “It’ll be fine.”
Sol and Bunny were perched in the last row of the small screening room, everyone else scattered at random, leaving them a buffer zone of space. Lasner talked throughout, a back-and-forth flow, but Bunny sat quietly, looking over fingertips raised to his mouth in a pyramid, a line manager, carefully checking for scratch marks.
On the screen, Dick Marshall was leaning forward in his pilot seat, eyes squinting, taking sights on an unseen fighter plane. Then a closeup, his face registering the hit. A cover shot, another. There was no sound of gunfire or people yelling or the popping of AA fire outside-all the things Ben remembered-just Dick Marshall’s face, taking aim, taut with cold calculation.
After a few more cockpit shots they were in a western saloon, the camera turning away from the bar to take in the front door, the looming shadow behind it. The same shot, another angle. There seemed to be no order to the sequence, just what had come out of the lab first. Now a city street, someone getting out of a cab. The cab pulling away. A woman’s back, squaring her shoulders as she walks into an apartment building. Ben wondered how many pictures were in production, who kept track of the output, not just dialogue scenes but these, bridge shots, filler, seconds of screen time, the whole day’s work reduced to a few nuts and bolts, then welded to other pieces of film, like steel sections in the Kaiser yard, one ship a day rolling down the slipway. When the clip ended, Lasner started squirming, bored by the sudden lull.
“She’s coming,” Bunny said, his head still resting on his fingertips. The screen crackled to life, the first clip with sound, the snap of the clapper with the take number. Rosemary was standing at a bar, smoking, her low-cut dress lined with beads, little darts of light. Dana Andrews, the star on loan, was questioning her, the kind of detective who didn’t bother to take off his hat indoors.
“We can do this hard or easy,” he said, the rich baritone turned tough.
“I don’t know where he is,” Rosemary said, disillusioned, not meeting his eye.
“You expect me to believe that?”
“I’m telling you, I don’t know.” She rubbed out the cigarette in an ashtray. “He left me.”
“Then one of you got lucky.”
A new clip, a fresh cigarette, this time facing him. “I’m telling you, I don’t know.” The ashtray. “He left me.”
“Then one of you got luck.” A second. “Lucky. One of you got fucking lucky.” Laughing now, the crew laughing behind him, somebody yelling cut.
“Wonderful,” Lasner said. “A thousand a week, he’s laughing.”
Another clip, this time without a flub, Rosemary turning away, a more sympathetic nuance, the camera close on her.
“Better,” Bunny said. “How do you like the dress?”
“Another inch and her tits are in the shot.”
“That’s her character.”
“No, what you want here is she should show them but she doesn’t want to show them.”
“Eddie?” Bunny said to the director, a few rows down.
“Keep watching,” a voice said in the dark.
And there it was, in the next clip, Andrews looking down, a gesture with her arm, the camera more aware of her body than before, but her own feelings more ambivalent, just what Lasner seemed to have ordered up.
“That’s it,” he said. “Christ, Eddie, I don’t have to tell you anything.”
“You know where I got that? Andrews. He said, ‘Let’s try it. I look down her dress but don’t tell her I’m going to, see how she reacts.’ And he’s right, the arm goes up, she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. But now we know her. Nice.”
“Actors,” Lasner said.
There was more of Rosemary, reaction shots, close-ups, all gleaming, like her beads, then a kiss with Andrews, which she first resisted, then gave in to. After that, a series without Andrews, simply raising her head, her hair swept up now, the way Liesl’s had been at Union Station. Ben leaned forward. Not unlike Liesl-harder, her mouth thinner and her face lacquered tight in studio makeup, but the same kind of look, the same cheekbones. Men married the same woman, over and over. Or was that just an old wives’ tale? But she’d be someone the studio would protect, worth safety shots and endless close-ups, a simple phone call. Then she looked to the side, a different profile, not Liesl. Grasping at straws. Still.
The woman who’d got out of the taxi was back, now full-face, Ruth Harris on the building’s penthouse terrace, confronting a gangster Ben didn’t recognize. The picture was clearly a B, shot for speed, not star making. No dewy close-ups. The scene seemed barely blocked out, the man uncertain of his marks. He had grabbed Ruth by the shoulders, a prelude to roughing her up, pushing her against the balcony. She fought back, trying to scratch his face, slipping out of his grasp. When he reached for her again, she pushed him hard and then, before Ben could react, it happened. The man staggered against the rail, off balance from her push, wheeled around, his weight now plunging forward, pulling the rest of him with it, too late to reach out, a scream, falling over the side. Close on Ruth’s eyes, wide now with terror. Ben blinked. Could it have happened that way? A fight, a push, the unintended pitch over-then, appalled, running. Ben looked away from the screen. The way he wanted it, not the way it had been.
“This is a woman’s picture?” Lasner said.
“The DA falls in love with her,” Bunny said, deadpan. “Well, here’s your little friend,” he said to Ben as the next clip appeared.
Ben looked back at the screen, but the terrace scene kept playing itself in his mind. Couldn’t it be possible? Not intentional, not someone coming up from behind. A woman, a love quarrel gone wrong. Two men struggling. Over what? It might even have gone the other way, Danny left standing with the appalled face. But it hadn’t.
On the screen, Julie Sherman was getting up from a piano and walking over to an older man in what looked like some variation of Intermezzo. She had been talking earlier, but Ben hadn’t been paying attention. Now her voice caught him, the same surprising modulation he’d noticed when they said hello. Nothing remarkable happened. She kissed the man, patting his arm, then walked across the room, turned, and said good-bye.
“Satin,” Bunny said. “Lou would dress his mother like a hooker.”
“Forget the dress,” Lasner said. “Sam likes her. He thinks he can do something with her.”
“She can’t move her arms.”
“So she can practice yanking his dick.”
“Sol,” Bunny said, then picked up the phone. “Any more dailies? Okay.” He looked down toward the directors. “We’re done here. Thanks. Rosemary looked great, Eddie.” He watched them leave, then turned to Lasner. “Sol,” he said, the rest unspoken.
“Sam’s girl-she looks good,” Lasner said stubbornly.
“She’s last year, somebody you could get into the sack before you ship out.”
“You’re an expert on this.”
“And now they’re coming back. What do they want? A quickie with a waitress or somebody you can bring home?”
“They want to fuck Loretta Young?”
“Sol, I’m serious. We don’t need her.”
“Sam Pilcer’s been with me a long time,” Lasner said quietly, a little embarrassed. “He doesn’t ask much.”
“So let him slip her a fifty every time.”
“We can always use a girl.”
“Fox dropped her.”
“Zanuck doesn’t see it. It wouldn’t be the first time. Lou doesn’t see it, either-he keeps saying she can sing. We could get her for a hundred a week with steps, and he’d be grateful.”
“Not as grateful as Sam,” Bunny said.
Lasner turned to Ben. “What do you think? You’re a guy off the boat. She look good to you?”
“Everybody looks good to me.” He glanced at Bunny, an offering. “She has a nice voice.”
“You want to sign her for her voice?”
“Try a shorter option,” Ben said, the thought too sudden to be filtered. “You don’t have to pick it up.”
Bunny looked at him, surprised, then waited for Lasner’s reaction.
“It never lasts long with Sam,” Lasner said finally, staring at Ben. He turned to Bunny. “Tell Lou you like her voice,” he said, amused now.
“Start her with a voice-over,” Bunny said, thinking. “If we had any.” He looked at Ben. “You could request her. For your picture.”
Ben nodded. An easy chance to make an ally.
“That picture? What voice-over?”
“One of the victims,” Bunny said. “The voice-over tells her story.”
Lasner stared at him for a second, then snorted. “You’re going to tell Lou you want her to play a dead Jew? Let me know what he says.” He stood up, shaking his head. “That’s some pair of balls you got on you,” he said to Bunny, heading for the door.
Bunny picked up a clipboard. “Good night, Pete,” he yelled to the projectionist, then turned to Ben. “Clever you,” he said, his voice without edge, as if he were trying to decide how he felt.
“If it works.”
“With Lou? He’ll grab it. It gets his foot in the door.” He sighed. “My new best friend,” he said, then looked up. “It’s hard for Sol to say no to Sam. They go back.” He hesitated. “You don’t have to use her. If she’s not right for the picture.”
“I can find something. Maybe buy myself a favor.”
“I wonder what that could be.”
Ben looked at him. It wouldn’t be Ruth Harris, not even worth safety shots anymore. “You do any favors for Rosemary?”
“My whole life is doing favors for Rosemary,” Bunny said. “Did you have a particular one in mind?”
His tone, a pretend innocence, drew a line, his eyes daring Ben to cross it. But what would be the point? Ben answered by saying nothing, a kind of standoff.
“I hope you’re not still going on about people making calls. You don’t want to be a nuisance.” He paused. “Rosemary’s been seeing Ty Power, since he got out of the Marines. She’s been photographed seeing him. They make an attractive couple. She’s going to keep seeing him. Until her picture comes out.”
“A one-man woman.”
Bunny tucked the clipboard under his arm and turned to the door, then stopped, looking back over his shoulder. “Why Rosemary?”
“She’s Danny’s type.”
“Oh,” Bunny said, his voice sliding an octave. “And here I thought you were just guessing.”
“And she’s important to the studio.”
“Everybody’s important. Until they’re not.” He turned fully, facing Ben. “Look, I don’t know where you think you’re going with this, but if I were you, I’d park it outside the gate. You don’t want to be bothering people. Mr. L likes to keep things running. Anything interferes with production- Right now he likes you. He gets these little enthusiasms. You could have a future here. But he can blow hot and cold. You should know that. It’s a studio. People come and go all the time.”
Bunny nodded. “I keep things running.”
S HE WAS in the pool when he got home. He followed the faint sounds of splashes through the quiet house and out onto the terrace, stopping for a second by the lemon tree near the door. Only the pool lights were on, a grotto effect, with blue light rising up, not spilling down, and he saw that she was naked, her body gliding through the water with a mermaid’s freedom, alone in her own watery world. He knew he should make a sound but instead stood watching her, the smooth legs, the private dark patch in between when they opened out. When she became aware of him, a shadow at the end of the pool, she swam toward him without embarrassment, faintly amused at his own.
“I thought I was alone,” she said smiling, glancing toward the crumpled bathing suit on the edge of the pool.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean-” Still looking, only her head above water, but the rest of her clear in the pool lights.
“That’s all right. I was getting out anyway.” She reached for a towel, more of her out of the water now, her nipples hardening a little as the air touched them. “Quiet as a mouse.”
She looked at him, still amused, then began to climb the shallow end steps so that he finally had to turn away, a show of modesty. Behind him he could hear the towel rubbing, another rustling as she put on a robe, watching her now by sound.
“Have a drink.” She moved to the open wine bottle on the table, tying her belt. “Iris left something in the fridge, if you’re hungry. I didn’t know-”
“I should have called.”
“No, don’t feel that. Come and go as you like.” She poured out two glasses from what he saw was an almost empty bottle. “Did you have a good day?” she said, handing him one.
He laughed, a reflex.
“That’s what people say in movies.” What wives said.
“So how do I say it then?” She sat down on a chaise and lit a cigarette, turning to sit back but keeping one leg up, poking through the folds of the robe.
He shrugged. “Same way, I guess.”
“Ha, art and life. Like my father’s lectures. So, was it? A good day?”
He leaned back on the other chaise, taking a sip of the wine. “This is nice.”
“Mm. Maybe I’ll take to drink.”
But he hadn’t meant the wine: the warm night, the liquid light of the pool catching her bare leg, Danny’s wonderful life. Is that how it had been? Comparing their days, listening to night sounds, the soft air rubbed with hints of chlorine and eucalyptus.
“Did you go to your father’s?”
“No. He says it’s too soon.” She took another drink. “How long do people sit at home anyway? Do you know?”
“A week, I think.”
“Two more days. Then what? Ciro’s. Ha. Every night. Das susse Leben.”
“How about dinner at Sol Lasner’s? Saturday.”
She turned to him, eyebrows raised.
“He said to bring someone,” Ben said. “Who else do I know?”
She sat back, smiling. “Such an invitation. But you’re in luck. I’m free. Every day, in fact. Well, not Sunday.”
“My father’s birthday. Salka makes a big lunch. Dieter comes and makes a toast-he writes it out before, a real speech. My father thanks him. Then he says something. It goes on like that, every year. Then chocolate cake.”
“The one Danny liked.”
“Yes,” she said, a sudden punctuation mark. She stubbed out her cigarette, then got up and poured more wine in their glasses. “They sent the medical report you asked for. It’s on the desk.”
“What does it say?”
“He died,” she said, sitting back down.
“I’ll look at it later.”
He said nothing for a minute, listening to the pool water hit against the drain flaps.
“I don’t know. How he died. It’s something we should know-it’s part of it all.”
She looked over at him for a second, about to speak, then let it go.
“If you say so,” she said wearily. “So what do we wear to Lasner’s? They dress up?”
“I’ll ask Bunny.”
She turned, a question.
“His right hand, his- I don’t know what you’d call him. He used to be a child star.”
“That’s what happens to them? I never think of them grown up.”
“Neither do they. Then they are and they have to do something else. But they look the same. Just older. Remember Wolf Breslau? The little boy in the Harz Mountain films? He became a Nazi. They put him on trial. For killing Poles. In open pits. The same baby face.”
She was quiet for a minute. “Someone you saw in the Kino, ” she said to herself. “How can anybody go back?” She shook her head. “My father says Heinrich’s making plans. To go back to that.” She took a sip of wine. “And what about you? What are you going to do? Now that you’re grown up. Make pictures?”
“No? Lasner must like you. Inviting you to dinner.”
“He likes me this week. One in the family’s enough.” Was. “My father always expected Danny to-”
“But not you. So.” Another sip, thinking. “Did you like him?”
The question, never asked, took him by surprise, something tossed in the air that hung there, incapable of being answered.
“I mean, families, people don’t always- So many years, you didn’t see each other. I just wondered.”
“That was the war.”
“Ah,” she said, the sound floating up to join the question, still suspended.
He looked out toward the city. “I wanted to be him,” he said finally.
“When you were boys.”
“Yes.” When did that stop? Does it? He smiled, moving away from it. “He was good with girls.”
“And not you?”
“I got better.”
“They say in Germany now you can get a girl for a pack of cigarettes. One pack.”
“That’s not all you’d get.”
“So it’s not for you, the easy ones. I can see that. It wouldn’t be- how do you say schicklich?”
“Seemly,” she said, trying it, then took another sip of wine. “The first time I met him-he’d undress you. Look right at you. He wanted you to know he was doing it. So people are different. You look at me from the side. You don’t want me to know you’re looking.” She waved her hand at him before he could say anything. “It’s all right. It’s nice, someone looking. Don’t be embarrassed.” She paused. “I like you looking.”
He turned to her, not sure how to respond.
“If it makes you uneasy, my being here-”
She shook her head. “No. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the way it would happen. I know you a little now. You look from the side. You’d wait. You’d wait for me to say. To start it. That’s how it would happen.” She looked at him. “Don’t you think?”
A direct look, not from the side, holding his. He felt blood rise to his skin, as if she had touched him. Danny’s wife.
“Maybe,” he said. “And maybe you’re having fun with me.”
“No.” She smiled, looking down at her glass. “Maybe the wine is.” She sat up, a drowsy stretch, gathering the robe. “Anyway, it wouldn’t be seemly, would it? Not yet.”
“Not even cold. That’s what they’d say, yes? Well, I’m going in.” She picked up the bottle to take with her. “Have a swim if you like,” she said, moving off, then smiled at him. “I won’t look.”
He sat for a while, his mind drifting but then, like the water, lapping back. Schicklich. The inside of a marriage was unknowable, curtained off. He listened for sounds of her inside, but only the crickets broke the quiet. Maybe she was already in bed, not at all uneasy because she knew the way it would happen.
On his way in, he stopped at the screening room to pick up some of the office papers Republic had sent over. Scripts, drafts. What had been in his mind those last weeks? Not that Partners in Crime was likely to be revealing-formula stuff, two brothers having fun, as frivolous as Otto’s comedies.
He went over to an open film can. The film itself was still in the projector, not yet run through and put away, the last thing Danny had seen. Maybe a Continental picture with a young star, someone he wanted to watch over and over? Ben flicked the switch, half-expecting to see Ruth or Rosemary-any girl you’d want to spend an afternoon with at a residential hotel. Instead it was a Fox Movietone newsreel, men shaking hands right after Hiroshima. Ben rewound the film and started it again.
First, the usual opening montage with the water-skiers, then the airmen at Tinian Island, the ground crew loading the bomb, kneeling with the pilots in front of the plane, a picture everybody’d seen now, instant history according to the voice-over. But the camera had been there, too, recording it, making a movie. And in the plane, flying now through the clouds.
The flash and mushroom cloud, the whole city rolled up in smoke, the narrator excited by the scale of it, the most powerful thing the world has ever known. No voice, though, over the next segment, shot later, a silent sweeping pan of the charred, flattened city. A few figures picking their way through the landscape, otherwise no movement at all. More pan shots, the frame of a domed building by the river, the rest vaporized. Congratulations all around back home, scientists and generals shaking hands. They’d made a movie of it, sent cameras up, got flight crews to pose. But so had the Nazis, filming atrocities with smiling faces. That’s how they’d identified Wolf Breslau, caught on film on the rim of the mass grave, smiling, unable to resist one last close-up.
The newsreel went on to the surrender scene on the Missouri, but even the narrator, booming with victory, couldn’t lift the film from the streets of ashes. The voice wanted to celebrate, throw a hat in the air like the relieved sailors, but the words said one thing and the pictures showed another-this was the way it would be now, the way we would die. Kissing couples, the narrator announcing a world of hope. But it wasn’t, Ben thought. Not now. Just an endless dread.
Ben took the reel off and put it in its canister. Not frivolous. Maybe Partners wasn’t the whole of him, maybe the war had touched something deeper, just as Ben’s life had been upturned by the camps, both of them alike under the skin.
He turned off the light and went into the house. On the desk in the study, just as she’d said, he found the autopsy report. He glanced through it. Medical English, not English at all, nearly incomprehensible. He heard a sound from her room, a turning perhaps, something dropped, meaningless in itself except as a sign of life. Just behind the door. He smiled to himself. Schicklich. How do we decide what’s right? He looked down again at the sheet. Pulmonary-something to do with the lungs. But of course she was right. All it said was that Danny was dead.
• • •
“W AS THERE some problem?” Dr. Walters said, caught on the run in the hall, not sure why Ben had come.
“I don’t know the technical terms. I’m not sure what they actually mean.”
“Simple language? He stopped breathing.” He halted midstep. “I’m sorry. I know it sounds like a joke. All I mean is that there were no signs of stroke-that’s the usual cause after a head trauma, edemal bleeding flooding the brain.”
“But not in this case.”
“No. Or heart damage. There are only a few ways to die. Of course, these are all connected.” He paused, framing his hands, explaining to a classroom. “Think of the brain as a switchboard. The operator pulled a line connected to the lungs. Like being cut off on a call,” he said, looking up, waiting to see if Ben was following. “The board controls everything. The lungs don’t operate by themselves.”
“Is that common?”
“Yes. Mr. Kohler, with a head injury like this, the surprising thing is that he didn’t die instantly. I gather he was lucky in the response time- the ambulance got to him before he lost too much blood. So that bought him some time. I’m sorry.”
“But if he regained consciousness-”
“We don’t rule out miracles,” he said patiently. “But I’m a doctor, you know, not a priest. This is what we expected to happen.” He waited for Ben to reply.
“Was there anything-any sign that he may have been injured before he fell?”
“Knocked out, anything like that.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“By someone else. Before.”
Dr. Walters peered at him, disconcerted. “No. But I’m not a policeman, either. Is there any reason to think this happened?”
“I just wanted to look at everything. Every possibility.”
Dr. Walters nodded. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kohler. These things can be hard to accept.” He looked down at the paper in Ben’s hand. “Maybe that’s why we hide behind the language.”
He had stopped by the hospital on his way to lunch and now found himself running late, caught in the traffic west to Fairfax. Kelly had suggested the Farmers Market, somewhere away from the studio, a pointless Dick Tracy feint, but not worth arguing about.
The market had started as a collection of produce stalls for Depression farmers, but now had the look of a small studio-permanent buildings for the stalls and restaurants, table seating on patios and its own logo clock tower, looking over the parking lot like the RKO globe. Everything was painted cream and light green and maroon, what Ben thought of as leftover colors, the same ones Lasner had used at Continental, maybe even from the same cheap supply. Kelly was already at a table under the trees, nursing a beer.
“So what have we got?” he said as Ben sat down, his eyes darting over Ben’s shoulder.
“Not much. No matches from the building list.” He pulled out a paper. “These are the top contract players, the ones they might want to protect, but that doesn’t mean it’s one of them. And they’re not big names. Lasner doesn’t-”
“Yeah, I know, the loan-out king. Who’s he got borrowed, by the way. He’d want to take care of them, at least until the picture’s out. Listen,” he said abruptly. “You mention me to anyone? Tell them I’m looking at this?”
“No. You said-”
Ben nodded. “Why?” he said, aware now of the look in Kelly’s eyes, his quick movements.
“Maybe my imagination. Except it never is, is it? Don’t turn around-no, don’t, I mean it. People always do that. Take a look when we get up for the food. There’s a guy over by the raw bar. I notice he’s casing the place, and he looks familiar and then it comes to me-he was hanging around Republic. When I’m there checking the talent. This is before I hear about Continental. Some coincidence, if you believe in that. So maybe he’s keeping an eye, you know? The guy’s a cop- everything about him-and I’m thinking, what the hell, the cops enforce for the studios, so maybe someone-”
“I didn’t say a word,” Ben said, beginning to turn.
“No, don’t. He’ll pick up on it. Let’s eat. You like seafood? They have a great Crab Louis.”
They got up and walked across the patio to the sales counter. He spotted him immediately-the man in the gray suit reading a paper, almost hidden behind a tree but scanning the patio just as he had the crowd at the funeral, the reception afterward. Ben gave a don’t-worry shake of his head to Kelly, and ordered the crab. A huge plate, enough for two.
“I know him,” he said when they sat down again. “He works for Polly.”
“No, he doesn’t. He may feed her, but he doesn’t work for her. I know all her runners. So what’s he feed her. He’s a cop. Maybe even Bureau. He’s got that look. He could be Bureau.”
“Calm down. You’re-”
“Cop shows twice, something’s up. You learn these things. So what the fuck does he want?”
“He came with Polly. To the funeral. That’s all I can tell you. Your name never came up at the studio. You’re sure he’s a cop?”
“Some kind of cop. Has to be.”
“I’m going to the head. See if he watches.”
He walked to the men’s room past piles of oranges, but the man in the gray suit seemed not to notice, his gaze still fixed toward the other end of the dining patio, an easier sight line than the side angle to Kelly. People in shirts having lunch, big California salads. A few suits. Liesl’s father. Ben stopped. Ostermann saw him at the same time and nodded. Impossible now not to go over. Ben signaled to Kelly that he’d only be a minute, using the turn to check on the man in the gray suit, absorbed again in his paper. Meanwhile, Kaltenbach was waving him to their table.
“So, you know this place?” he said standing, playing host. “A coffee? You’ll join us?”
Ben shook his head. “I’m with somebody. Just a hello.”
“A little bit of Europe,” Ostermann said, gesturing to the patio. “Not a real Biergarten, but still, trees. You can pretend.”
Ben looked down at their plates-sausages and deli potato salad, what they might in fact have ordered at Hechinger’s.
“That’s what everyone does here,” Kaltenbach said, waving his hands to take in the city. “Pretend.” He looked over at Ben, excited. “Do you know that I am going to Berlin?”
“Berlin,” Ben said, thinking of smashed bricks, jagged walls.
“Yes, I know, it’s bad now, you hear it from everyone, but still, Berlin. Something survives. I thought I would never see it again. I thought I would die here.” He gestured to the sunny patio, the healthy salad eaters, seeing something else. “And now-”
“How did you arrange it?” Ben said. “I thought nobody could get in, except the Army. A few reporters. You need a permit.”
“Yes, yes, another exit visa. But Hans here will write a letter. Thomas Mann, too. Who would say no to them? Why would they keep me here? On relief. Eighteen dollars and fifty cents a week. A charity case. You don’t think they’ll be happy to see me go? One last visa and it’s over. If Erika were still alive, think how happy.”
“Maybe you should wait,” Ben said, “until things are better. It’s difficult now, just to live.”
“No, they’re giving me a flat.”
“The university. I’m invited to accept a chair at the university.”
“But it’s in the Soviet sector.”
“Yes, of course, that’s who invites me.”
Ben glanced at Ostermann, who met his eye but then looked deliberately away, toying with his fork.
“They are going to print my books again.”
“My friend, one conqueror or another, what’s the difference? Germany lost the war. Do you think the Russians will leave now? How else can I do this? I can be a writer again. I can be in Berlin,” he said in a kind of rush, emotional now, almost touching it. “Excuse me,” he said, putting a fingertip to his eye. “So foolish. Old age. And now the bladder. I’ll be right back.”
Ben watched him head for the men’s room.
“He’s not a political man,” Ostermann said quietly.
“He will be. The minute he gets off the plane. German writer returns. To the East. Which makes them look legitimate. They don’t care about his books. They just want him for show.”
“I know. They’ve asked some of the others. Even Brecht is reluctant and he-”
“They ask you?”
“No.” He glanced up, a slightly impish smile. “Maybe they don’t like my work. Too bourgeois.”
“You can’t let him do this. Do you know what it’s like there?”
“What do I say to him? He lives in one room. On money we give him. His friends. Each handout a humiliation. His wife committed suicide. For her, it was too much. And now they come to him. A professor. With a flat. His books. What do we offer instead?”
“Not a prison. At least here-”
“Reuben,” he said, using his full name as a kind of weight, “he doesn’t even know he’s here. He’s somewhere else, waiting. So let him go.”
“This isn’t going to make him popular with the State Department. Or you. Writing letters.”
“An act of friendship, not politics. Or isn’t that possible anymore? I thought that time was over. Well, it doesn’t matter for me. I don’t want to go back. The conscience of Germany? I don’t think they want that now. And maybe I don’t want them, either.”
Ben looked toward the other end of the patio. The man in the gray suit, paper down, was now sipping coffee. Just having lunch.
“A thousand apologies,” Kaltenbach said, joining them at the table. “And after so many kindnesses. I’m not myself these days.”
“Herr Kaltenbach,” Ben said, a sudden thought, “how did the offer come, from the university. A letter? It’s official?”
“Yes, yes. Hand delivered by the Soviet consul, all the way from San Francisco. So I would know it was genuine. You know, you don’t trust the mails for such an offer.”
“Ah, the consul,” Ben said. Someone who would certainly be watched everywhere, each contact another string to follow. “Well, I hope everything works out. Berlin-”
Kaltenbach nodded. “You don’t have to say. I’ve seen the pictures. A wreck. But look at me. So maybe we’ll suit each other.”
There was another minute of bowing farewells, a European leave-taking, before Ben could go back across the patio. Kelly was waiting, smoking over the debris of his Crab Louis, but instead of turning to their table Ben kept going, an impulse, toward the gray suit.
“Excuse me. You were at my brother’s funeral, but we weren’t introduced,” he said, extending his hand. “Ben Collier.”
For a second, the man simply stared, as if the approach had violated some rule, then lifted his hand to shake Ben’s.
“I didn’t know who you were. They told me later. You had different names?” he said, keeping his eyes on Ben, reading him.
“My mother changed it. How did you know Danny?”
“We did some work together.”
“You’re in pictures?” Ben said, surprised.
“Technical advisor. To get the details right.”
“On the series? Police details? My friend over there thought you might be. Maybe FBI.” The man said nothing. “He thought you might be tailing him.”
“Yeah? What’d he do?” he said, playing with it, then looked at Ben and shook his head. “I’m retired.”
The man hesitated, thinking through a chess move, then nodded. “The Bureau.”
“You don’t look old enough to-”
“I took a bullet. That buys you a few years.”
“So what do you do now?”
“Have lunch,” he said, stretching his hand toward his finished plate, implying long afternoons.
“And work for Danny.”
“I gave him advice, that’s all. We helped each other out.”
Ben looked up, an off phrase, but so innocuous there was nowhere to take it.
“Well, thanks for coming to the funeral. Funny running into you again.”
“No, I’m here most days.” He got up to go, taking his hat off the table. “I’m sorry about your brother. That was a hell of a thing.”
“Whatever it was.”
The man stopped, his eyes fixed on Ben. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just a little fuzzy, wouldn’t you say? What happened? You’re the pro.”
He waited. Finally the man looked away, putting on his hat.
“I wouldn’t know. I’m retired.” He paused. “It’s tough to get over something like this. You should take it easy.”
“Everyone says. Would you? Your brother?”
“Something worrying you? You were close? Maybe he said something to you.”
Ben shook his head. “What would he say?” Now a cat and mouse game, but no longer sure who was which.
The man shrugged, then took out his wallet. “Sometimes you start something, you don’t know what you’re getting into. Here.” He took out a card and handed it to Ben. “If you need any technical advice.”
Ben looked at it. Dennis Riordan. No affiliation, just a telephone number.
“Technical advice,” Ben repeated.
“Maybe he left something. Might explain it. Maybe I could help. Figure it out.” He began to move off. “Anyway, tell your friend to keep his nose clean. Stop imagining things.”
“What about German writers?”
Riordan turned. “You’re a suspicious guy.” He looked down at the table. “It was just lunch.”
He crossed the patio to the exit near the vegetable stalls, unhurried, not even a backward glance.
“What the hell was that?” Kelly said at their table.
Ben handed him the business card. “What you thought. The Bureau. But retired.”
“They never retire. They just find another pack of hyenas to sniff around with.”
Kelly shook his head. “But somebody. I’ll find out.”
“You know people at Republic? Find out if he ever got a consultant fee. On Danny’s pictures.”
“What if he wasn’t paid?”
“Then why do it?”
Kelly looked at the card again, memorizing the name, then handed it back.
“Christ, all I wanted was the girlfriend, an item, and now I’ve got the Bureau on my back.”
“I don’t think so. If he was tailing you, you’d never see him. Handing out cards. He wants something else.”
“I don’t know. But think where we’ve seen him-Republic, the funeral. You weren’t even at the funeral. He’s not tailing you. It’s like he’s tailing Danny.”
Lasner lived in a chateau near the top of Summit Drive with enough land for a full set of tennis courts and a formal garden. Danny’s house flowed easily outside and back, the pool another room, but here the effect was moated, drawn up behind the gravel drive, the high view just something framed by picture windows. Teenagers in uniforms had been hired to park the cars so that arriving felt like stepping out of a liveried carriage, something Lubitsch might have shot.
The inside rooms were Du Barry French, high and ornate and formal, with gilded side tables and silk fire screens and ormolu footed chairs. Ben wondered what Lasner made of it all, passing through each morning on his way to coffee. Or did they have breakfast in bed, a proper levee? Still, Fay clearly loved playing chatelaine, greeting people just inside the door with real warmth, so where was the harm? The money, all those nickels, would have been spent somehow. Why not on a French dream? With a hostess once pretty enough to have been a Goldwyn Girl, far more attractive than any of the originals. Even Sol, beaming by her side, was an improvement, at least a bulldog jaw, not a weak Bourbon chin.
“My god, look at the jewels,” Liesl said.
Bunny had said to dress, but Ben had expected country club cocktails in suits. Instead he felt he had walked into an A-picture party scene, everyone turned out by Makeup and Wardrobe, evening dresses and sparkling necklaces, the room like some velvet jewel case.
“Fake,” he said, smiling.
“No, they’re not.” She put her fingers to her throat. “Anyway, the pearls are nothing to be ashamed of. My mother wouldn’t sell them, not even in Paris when we-”
“Nothing to be ashamed of. The rest of you looks good, too.”
“Oh yes, in a roomful of movie stars.”
He glanced around, taking in what she’d already noticed, faces from covers, people you saw in magazine ads recommending soap. He thought of his mother’s parties before the war, gaunt women with hats and fur trim, not beautiful, using their jewels to light up the room. Here the faces themselves were luminous. Paulette Goddard had come, looking even better than she had on the train. Alexis Smith was talking to the Lasners, her chin at a patrician tilt. He recognized Ann Sheridan by the fireplace, the full mouth not drawn in a glamour shot pout, but smiling, as down to earth as the girl next door, if she’d been beautiful. They were all beautiful. It seemed a kind of joke, an ancien regime room finally filled with glorious-looking people instead of pinched-faced heirs.
“There’s Marion Wallace. I’d better say something to her. She sent a nice note.”
“Let me buy you a drink first.” He lifted two champagne flutes from a waiter’s tray. “Who else is here?” he said, clinking her glass. “Do you know anyone?”
She smiled. “A few. There’s Walter Reisch. Daniel used to play tennis with him. Paul Kohner. You know him, the agent? He handles Bruce Hudson. In the series.” She took another sip. “It’s a small town. Nobody ever believes that, but it is. They never see anyone else. If my father walked in, no one would know who he was. Alma used to complain about it. After Bernadette, when people asked Franz to parties.” She giggled. “People thought she was a character actress.”
“Ah, you’re here,” Lasner said, not really in a receiving line, but hovering near the door. “A clean shirt even. You know Fay.”
“So glad you could come,” she said. “Sol tells me everything’s great with the picture.”
“Well, the cutter is. Now all I have to do is listen to him.”
“You think you’re kidding, but I’ve seen it happen. So maybe you are as smart as he says.” She smiled, rolling her eyes toward Lasner. “Hello,” she said, extending her hand to Liesl.
“I’m sorry. Fay, Liesl Kohler.”
“Talk about smart,” Sol said quickly, missing the introduction but taking Liesl’s hand. “One week in town, already a beautiful woman.”
“Sol,” Fay said, then to Liesl, “Pay no attention, he thinks he’s a comedian.”
“No, Jack thinks he’s a comedian. He tells jokes to Jessel. The same jokes. You meet Jack?” he said to Ben. “When we were over in Europe? He was with the group.”
“Jack Warner? Just to shake hands.”
“You’re lucky. He tells one tonight, it’ll sound like the first time to you. Maybe even funny.”
“Sol,” Fay said, but with a glint, agreeing. She looked at Liesl. “Your pearls are lovely. I couldn’t help noticing.”
“I knew it. The old ones have that rich tone. They say it comes from being worn next to the skin. All those years.”
“Do me a favor,” Lasner said to Ben. “I want to introduce you later. Fay’s cousin. We just got her out. Over there. All along, we’re thinking she must be dead and then the Red Cross calls and says she gave them our name, she’s alive, would we send for her? So, we’re crying, thinking, what are the odds? And now she’s here, she just smokes.”
“Sol, she has been through something.”
“Did I say no? It’s a miracle. She’ll be interested-your picture.”
“Sometimes, you know, it’s the last thing they want to talk about. Where was she?”
“Poland. Not at first. They shipped her around. She doesn’t say much.”
“She told you, Sol. Oranienburg, then Poland.” She turned to Ben. “She’s getting used to things, that’s all. She’s only here two days. Big shot here wants- I don’t know, what, she should be dancing.”
“I’d like to meet her,” Ben said politely.
“I figured,” Lasner said. “You’ll have something to talk about.”
Is that why he’d been invited? To entertain survivors? But she’d only just arrived. Lasner was drawing him aside, keeping his hand on his arm.
“Listen,” he said, low as a secret, “I just want you to know. I didn’t want to say at the studio, but I appreciate-you know, on the train-”
“You feeling okay?”
“One hundred percent.”
“Sol, it’s Jack and Ann,” Fay said, drawing him away.
The Warners were all smiles, Jack with a jaunty mustache and a tan so dark that it seemed to have shriveled his face, like a walnut. Ben remembered him from the Army tour, paler and in uniform, telling stories about Errol Flynn. They’d been on Hitler’s boat, a brief day’s outing on the Rhine, which reminded Warner of his own yacht, moored next to Flynn’s at the marina, so close you could hear what happened in the master bedroom. “Not just every night, two, three times a night. Maybe different ones, I don’t know. I said to him, you keep it up, it’s going to fall off.” Laughter from the others, watching the banks stream by. Now he shook Ben’s hand without any hint of recognition, just a new face at Lasner’s.
“So all I hear is Rosemary Miller,” he said to Sol. “It’s going to happen for her?”
“Your lips,” Lasner said, raising his eyes.
“Get it in the can before the goddam union closes everybody down,” Warner said, prompting a huddle, cutting Ben and Liesl loose to drift.
Waiters were still passing rich canapes-caviar and asparagus tips in puff pastry-so it would be a while before they sat down. Liesl had told him Hollywood ate early to get up early, but Saturday must be the exception. No one made any move to the several tables set up in the next room. Ben wondered how dinner would be announced. A gong? Meanwhile, more champagne was poured and the man at the grand piano in the corner, probably someone from Continental, kept playing show tunes.
All the talk, overheard in snippets as they walked around the room, was about pictures. An option picked up. Sturges’s fight with Paramount. Disappointing grosses on Wilson. De Havilland taking Jack to court over her suspension. Would there be a strike? Paramount having a record year. But so was everybody. Knock wood. There seemed to be no one from the outside at all. The aircraft factories in Northridge, the oil companies downtown, shipping offices in Long Beach-all the rest of the new, rich city was somewhere else, at gentile dinners in Pasadena, maybe, or out at the movies. Rosemary Miller had just arrived, giving Sol a showy hug, careful not to muss her lipstick, then a broad smile to the rest of the group. Because it seemed to be her time-even Jack Warner had heard-and people were coming over to her, after all those parties where nobody had even noticed her.
“I’d better say something to Marion,” Liesl said. “Who’s that looking at you?”
Ben followed her gaze. “Bunny, the one I told you about. He runs things.”
She patted his arm. “Then be nice. I won’t be long.”
She moved away before Bunny reached him.
“Who was that?” he said, his eyes following her, intrigued.
“His wife?” he said, slightly addled. “You brought her? You might have said.”
“She’s allowed to go out. Why? Is there something wrong?”
“It’s just that all the seating’s been-well, never mind,” he said, stopping. “I’ve put you next to Paulette. Since you’re such old pals.”
“Well, that’s your left. Right you’ve got a relative of Sol’s. Fay’s actually. Genia, hard g. Markowitz. Polish. But lived in Berlin. Sol asked. She doesn’t speak much English, and I gather you can speak German,” he said, his voice rising at the end, a question.
“I was brought up there. Partly, anyway.”
“That’s right, the father. Quite a life. More interesting by the day.”
“And that’s just my childhood.”
Bunny smiled, enjoying the play, a kind of volley.
“Often the most interesting part,” he said. “ Mine was.”
“God. Rex Morgan?” Ben said, distracted by a tall man near the corner. “I haven’t seen him since I was a kid. He’s not still a cowboy. He must be-”
“Real estate. Glendale. You’d be surprised how many people want to live there.”
“His pictures were Continental?” Ben said, still trying to explain his being here.
“Every one. Locations out in Simi Valley. His ranch now. He bought it eventually.”
“So he and Lasner are old friends.”
“Well, that. And he owns a piece. Of the company. He came through in ’thirty when the banks wouldn’t. Mr. L got through the crunch and Rex got eight percent,” he said simply, the details of the business like a file at his fingertips.
There was a burst of laughter near the door.
“Wonderful. Jack’s here. Telling jokes.”
“You often have the competition over?”
“He’s the reason for the party.”
“It’s not just dinner?”
“It’s never just dinner.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“The Honorable Kenneth T. Minot.” He looked at Ben. “Our congressman. He and Jack need to meet.”
“His district takes in Burbank. Jack’s in Burbank. They should know each other. Mr. L thinks he might be useful with the consent decree.” He caught Ben’s puzzled expression. “The Justice Department issued a consent decree, before the war, to separate the studios and the theaters. Force separate ownership. A disaster for us. Nobody wanted to do anything while the war was on-kick us while we were being so helpful- but now it’s over, they’re acting up again so we’re trying to put a stop to it. Minot’s been friendly.”
“But Continental doesn’t own theaters, does it?”
“But Jack does. And we have a distribution agreement with him. This goes through, everybody suffers.”
“Warner doesn’t know his own congressman?” Ben said. “A studio that size-”
“Wrong party. Jack’s funny that way. After Yankee Doodle, he thought Roosevelt was a personal friend. But it’s time he met more people.”
“Across the aisle.”
“We don’t care where they sit as long as they get the decree squashed.”
“And he gets?”
Bunny raised his eyebrows. “We’ll have to see, won’t we?”
Ben looked around the room again. All this extravagance to arrange a meeting. Rosemary was near the piano now, chatting with Alexis Smith. Ann Sheridan had gone over to greet the Warners. It occurred to Ben suddenly that the stars had been brought in to dress the room, like eye-catching centerpieces. They were all under contract to Continental or Warners-maybe Lasner and Jack had simply ordered them up. He wondered if there were a studio pecking order, Bette Davis having earned the right to pass, Cagney beyond this kind of thing. Only Paulette was with another studio, but she was a friend, happy to sparkle for old times’ sake.
“Well, he’s here,” Bunny said, looking toward the door. “The Honorable. Ken to his friends.”
Minot was sandy-haired, younger than Ben had expected, with an athlete’s build already filling in, about to turn soft. There was a pleasant-looking woman on his arm, a little dismayed at the dazzle of the party about to swallow her up.
“His first term?” Ben said.
“War hero. Took out a Jap machine gun emplacement. Then caught shrapnel in the leg, enough to get him out. Just in time to start passing out flyers in Van Nuys. Well-oh god, the wife. Marie, I think. Marie?”
“Time to go to work.”
“You think you’re kidding. Sorry about the cousin, but I did give you Paulette. I just wish you’d told me- By the way, I talked to the boys in Publicity. And Security. Nobody made any calls about your brother. Nobody knew him, in fact. So I’d check your sources. They might have got mixed up. Another studio. That happens. Sometimes on purpose. A little game they play.”
Taking the time to close the door on it. Ben started to say something, then let it go. Bunny was already moving away, on to more important things.
He made another circuit of the room, another glassful, then noticed Liesl listening to some man, her expression polite but a little pained, trapped. There had been a shift in the crowd, the people near her moving away, leaving her standing in a circle of space, like a fawn in a clearing, and he felt a sudden urge to wrap a coat around her shoulders. When he went over she smiled, a flicker of relief in her eyes. Marion had been replaced by a director who’d known Danny at Metro and was now offering his condolences. He took Ben as a convenient excuse to escape.
“I would be if I didn’t have to talk. Be like her,” she said, nodding toward a middle-aged woman staring out the picture window, smoking. “Just watch everybody.”
“She’s looking the other way.”
“They all want to know what picture I’m working on. When I’m not, they walk away.”
Ben’s eye wandered back to the woman at the window, now moving to a coffee table to put out a cigarette and light another. She looked up, taking in the room, but blankly, as if she couldn’t really see anything. A skeletal thinness, gray hair in short bangs, a velvet dress that seemed too big for her, borrowed. She turned back to the window, staring down at Los Angeles.
“I have a feeling that’s my dinner partner,” Ben said.
“No, it isn’t,” Paulette Goddard said, suddenly at his side. “I am. Hello again.”
He introduced her to Liesl.
“Bunny told me,” she said to Ben. “I don’t suppose you brought any cards.” Her smile and eyes bright, still carrying their own key light. Ben thought of her cross-legged on the Pullman bed, letting Sol win. A good sport.
“Hope you don’t mind,” he said.
“Mind? I usually get Rex. He likes me or something. I don’t know why. He starts on his horses and I just nod off. Do you ride?” she said to Liesl, drawing her in.
“I can’t imagine. The only ranch I’ve ever been to was the divorce ranch in The Women. At Metro.” She glanced around. “Fay certainly knows how to go all out,” she said, half-laughing. “I remember when it was soup and crackers.” She reached for a canape on a tray, showing a green flash of emerald bracelet.
“You’re friends?” Liesl said, polite.
“Mm, from the good old days, and thank God they’re over. Are you in pictures or-?”
“I translate books. From German,” she said, with a sly glance to Ben, waiting for Paulette to bolt.
But Paulette was impressed. “Do you really? I wish I could. Anything like that. They say you’re not supposed to regret anything, but when you don’t have school- I started work so early, I don’t know anything. You never catch up, really.”
“Well, translation, it’s not so brainy,” Liesl said easily. “Just work. And they’re my father’s books, so I can always ask him what he meant. Then find the words.”
“Hans Ostermann. He’s not so well known here-”
“ Central Station, ” Paulette said immediately. “I read it. Warners made it. God, what a mess. Mary Astor. He must have hated it. But I read it in English, so that was you? I’d love to meet him sometime. Just coffee or something, if he sees people. Oh, there’s Rosemary. Have you met? Rosemary,” she said, drawing her to them, “come meet some people. Liesl Kohler,” she said, remembering it, something they didn’t teach in school. “My old friend Ben-we were on the Chief together.”
Rosemary hesitated, staring at Liesl, that first appraisal women make at parties, seeing everything, then shook hands with them both.
“Are your ears burning?” Paulette said. “Everybody’s talking about you.”
“The picture isn’t even finished yet,” Rosemary said, glancing again at Liesl, then facing Paulette, a subtle ranking.
“That’s the best time. When everybody still thinks it’s wonderful. But I hear you are.”
“Well, you know, everybody likes dailies and then it comes out and-”
“Just hit your marks and cross your fingers-that’s all any of us can do.”
Rosemary flushed, clearly pleased to be included in “us.” In person, without the glow of backlighting, her features seemed sharper, everything less soft. She looked around, slightly nervous, perhaps still self-conscious about being the center of attention.
“I’ve never seen such a beautiful house,” she said, apparently meaning it.
“Well, it’s not my taste,” Paulette said. “I can’t even pronounce it. Louis Quinze?” she said to Liesl, saying it perfectly. “Liesl’s a translator, so she can be mine tonight. Quinze,” she said again, at Liesl’s nod. “I always think about dusting it. But Fay loves it. She always had a good eye. I can’t tell one vase from another. But Bunny says the Sevres is museum quality.” Again pronouncing it correctly. “So you see, she knows.” She turned, seeing Bunny coming over to them. “Isn’t that right?”
“Darling, I have to borrow you,” Bunny said, ignoring the question. “Come meet the congressman. He loved Standing Room Only.”
“God. And he got elected?”
“Nicey, nicey. Come on. You can talk to Ben at dinner. Rosemary, you know Irving Rapper’s here. I’m sure he’d love to meet you.” A firm do-yourself-some-good nudge, Liesl and Ben just table fillers.
“Now’s your chance,” Ben said to Liesl, nodding toward the woman at the window. “To join the wallflowers.”
“Who is she? She hasn’t talked to anyone.”
“Fay’s cousin. Has to be. I don’t think she has any English.”
“Then go rescue her. I’m going to the ladies’, find out what people are really saying.”
Fay’s cousin didn’t turn when he came up, her gaze still fixed out the window.
“Entschuldigung. Pani Markowitz?”
“Pani? So you speak Polish?” she said in German, finally turning. Ben smiled. “No. A courtesy only. I was told you were Polish. I’m Ben Collier.”
“I was born there, yes,” she said, her voice flat.
It was then that he took in her eyes, the same faraway emptiness he’d seen in some of the others’, a blind person’s eyes, no longer needed, nothing more to see. Her collarbones stuck out, barely covered by the thin layer of skin.
“I thought I would die there, too, but no.” She half turned to the window. “And now look. So many lights.”
“You lived in Berlin?” Ben said, to say something. “I was there as a boy. A few years.”
“And you’re Fay’s cousin.”
“Her father and my mother-but he came here. A long time ago, before the first war.”
“Your mother stayed.”
“My father-he did very well. There was no reason for us to leave. It was a different time then. My mother always said Max left for the adventure. They thought he was a no-good. To leave your family, your country. So who was right?” She turned fully to the room, the rich end of Max’s gamble. “A daughter living like this. To think all this still exists.”
“You were in a camp.”
She raised her eyes, still not really looking. “We all were. My husband, my sister. Everyone.”
She shook her head. “Now only me.”
She wrinkled her forehead, as if the words were not just inadequate but puzzling, irrelevant.
“I don’t know why. I was not so strong. Leon was stronger, for the work. But they took him. To the gas. I don’t know why. No reason. You survive, no reason. Or you don’t.”
“I knew you’d find each other,” Lasner said in English, genial, putting his hand on Ben’s shoulder.
“You speak English?” Ben asked her.
“A few words only.”
“But now that you’re here, you have to try. I tell her, if she gets every other word, she’s at least halfway there, right? You tell her about the picture?”
“Not yet.” Ben switched to German. “We’re making a documentary for the Army, about the camps.”
“You want to put this in a film?”
“So people will know. A record. Eisenhower ordered them to film it when we got there. He said no one would believe it otherwise. A kind of proof.”
“That it happened.” He looked at her. “We don’t have to talk about this, if you’d rather not.”
“Put her in the picture. You can tell your story,” Lasner said.
“What would I say? I don’t know the reason for any of it.” She reached down to the coffee table for another cigarette.
“You ought to go easy on those things.”
“I’m sorry. For me it’s a luxury. A whole cigarette.”
“I didn’t mean- I just meant for your health. Your life is a gift now.”
She stared at him, saying nothing until, slightly flustered, he changed the subject.
“You know who this is?” He nodded at Ben. “Otto Kohler’s kid.”
Now her eyes did move, suddenly alert, as if she’d heard another voice.
“You knew my father?”
“Otto,” she said, the flat tone now a little agitated. “There was a boy, yes. But I don’t understand. You’re not-”
“My brother. I was in England.”
“Your brother. Taller,” she said, measuring. “What happened to him?”
She drew on the cigarette and looked down. “Yes. Of course he would be dead.” Her voice flat again. When she looked back up at him her eyes had retreated behind their blank wall. “So now this,” she said aloud, but to herself. “Otto’s son.”
“I knew you two would have lots to talk about,” Lasner said in English.
She turned to him, hesitating, translating in her head, then looked back at Ben, an almost wry expression on her lips.
“Yes, much to talk about,” she said and then, suddenly skittish, “Excuse me.”
She left before either of them could say anything. Lasner raised his eyebrows.
“So I was wrong?”
“She’s grateful to you, you know,” Ben said, an instinctive peacemaker. “It’s just maybe too much for her.” He opened his hand to the party. “So soon.”
“You know what I think? Honest to God? I think Hitler won that one. I don’t think she’s here anymore.”
“How did she know my father?”
“She was in pictures over there. They all knew each other. By that time, there’s only one studio.” He paused, taking a puff on his cigar. “She was a looker when she was young. What the hell, Fay’s cousin.” He looked down at the cigar. “Not now. To do that to someone-” He broke off, looking up at Ben. “Well, see if you can get her to talk a little. So she doesn’t just sit there at dinner. Picking. Ask her about Otto.”
“You think they were-”
“Christ, I don’t know. I never thought. Otto? I wouldn’t be surprised. You think that’s what spooked her with you? Like seeing the kid walk in on you when you’re- Oh, there goes Jack. Watch, he’s going to take on Congress.”
Ben followed him, intending to split off and not intrude, but the loose group around Minot seemed open to anyone passing by. Both Minot and Warner were used to audiences-even talking to each other, they were playing to the cluster around them, a public conversation. Ben noticed that they were already “Ken” and “Jack.”
“I’ll tell you what I see,” Jack said. “I see the goddam unions at my throat and now this thing hanging over my head. Ready to chop. Consent decree. Whatever the hell that actually means. Except trouble. I look around, I see trouble. Here we are, knocking our brains out trying to make pictures and everybody wants a piece.”
“Jack,” Minot said smiling, “you’re on top of the world. Top of the world.” A soap box voice, resonant, his chest swelling. “The industry and this city grew up together.” He gestured toward the lights outside the picture window. “Thirty years ago, that was bean fields. Now look at it. With lots more to come. This year the industry’s revenues are going to hit one billion dollars. One billion.”
“Revenues, not profits.”
“Profits, estimate sixty-three million.” He nodded again to the window. “It’s not lima beans anymore.”
“You just happen to have those numbers in your pocket.”
“You like to come prepared,” Minot said, almost winking. “Industry estimates, Jack, not some office in Washington doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Industry estimates. You’re on top of the world.”
“With a sword over my head.”
“Jack’s a worrier,” Lasner said.
“Of course I can’t predict what the Justice Department is going to do,” Minot said. “With them you need a crystal ball. But I can tell you there’re a lot of people in Washington grateful for all the fine work this industry did during the war.”
“While they were earning those profits,” someone said, a left jab.
“I don’t begrudge profits. I’m not a socialist.” He laughed, a stage chuckle. “Not even close. People buy your product, you ought to make a profit. And keep it. Not have the government reaching into your pocket every five minutes. But I’m not here to talk politics. All I’m saying,” he said, looking directly at Jack, “is you treat your friends right and they’ll treat you right. That’s the way it works in Washington.”
“That’s the way it works here, too. Trick is knowing who your friends are.”
“My job is to protect your interests. You do well, the district does well.” Minot smiled. “And you know what I think? I think you’re just getting started. The industry. Look what’s ahead. No more war restrictions. No more price controls. Everybody wants what you make. You’re just going to grow and grow. With this district, with California. You know why? Because it’s our time. Right now. America’s time. All through the war I kept thinking, win this thing and there’s no stopping us. And we did win it. It’s our time.”
Lifted directly from a campaign speech, Ben thought, the rhetoric building, even Jack Warner listening now with full attention.
“Of course you’ve got somebody over there doesn’t like that at all, and we all know who that is. No profits there,” he said, nodding to Warner. “No God, either. A country with no God. I think that says it all. You think the other guys were bad, the Japs, the Nazis, wait’ll you see this one. But at least this time we’re ready. The Commies want to fight, let them come. And all their helpers over here. Trying to bring this great country down. They don’t like to fight in the open. Like to hide. But we’ll find them, too. You know what a great job Jack Tenney’s been doing up in Sacramento.”
“I knew him when he wrote Mexicali Rose.”
“Well, he’s doing something a lot more important now. That state committee-they could use it as a model when they go national with this. And they will. A house has termites, you’ve got to get rid of them before the rot sets in. That’s just common sense. Unless you want to see it fall down. Jack’s been working this for years now. You know what he told me? How many files he’s got? Reds and their pals and people too dumb to know any better? Over fourteen thousand. Just waiting for when we need them.”
“Fourteen thousand subversives or fourteen thousand people he doesn’t like?” The same man who’d made the crack about profits.
“Well, let’s just say people he’s not sure of,” Minot said, deflecting this easily. “You’d want to be sure, something like this. When you’re under attack. Not with guns-not yet anyway. But ideas, too, the wrong ideas. Slip them in every chance you get until people are confused. That’s where you come in.” He nodded to Warner. “Make sure it doesn’t happen in pictures. There’s nothing more powerful if you want to reach people. Not even radio. Hitler understood that. The power of film. These people, too.”
“That’s why we have the Breen Office,” Jack said. “Try getting an idea past them.” He laughed, a signal to the others, who joined in. After a second of hesitation, Minot did, too, playing a man who appreciates a good wisecrack.
“Now, Jack, I said wrong ideas,” he said, still laughing.
“Congressman, you don’t have to worry about that,” Jack said seriously. “I’ve been in this business all my life and I don’t think you could find a more patriotic group of people. We love this country.”
“It gave us everything,” Lasner said.
Jack waited, a twinkle in his eye. “And we’re going to love it even more if you get this decree taken care of.” More smiles all around.
“Jack, they told me you were a kidder,” Minot said pleasantly. “They didn’t tell me you were a politician. Next thing you know, you’ll be running for my seat.”
“You don’t have to worry about that. I’m already running everything I want in Burbank. Sol, you going to give us something to eat tonight?” Cutting the scene before it ran too long, his point now made.
Minot’s instincts weren’t as sure-he missed Warner’s cue and kept talking about the future, now of the Valley, but since none of his listeners actually lived there they became less attentive, darting glances around the room. He was saved by a waiter at his elbow quietly announcing dinner. Not a gong after all, servants discreetly guiding people into the dining room, a piece of social choreography.
Some attempt had been made to place the few German speakers at Genia’s table, but, as her dinner partner, most of the caretaking still fell to Ben. Paul Henreid, no doubt another Warners draftee, was on her right but after a few pleasantries turned his attention, in English, to Rosemary. Liesl, an unexpected German speaker, was across the round table from them, too far for conversation. Paulette’s other partner was Mike Curtiz, who might have helped but, head close, monopolized Paulette instead with studio gossip. Genia didn’t seem to mind. She sat quietly, her own island, while the table talked around her. Since no one on either side was listening, when Ben spoke German to her it became oddly private, as if they were in another room, in no danger of being overheard. As Lasner predicted, she scarcely touched her food, moving pieces of the tournedos with her fork but not eating them.
“I can’t, you know,” she said, noticing his glance to her plate. “It’s too rich for me.”
Ben remembered the rescued inmates vomiting their first meal, their bodies no longer used to digesting anything but watery soup. He looked down at the deep burgundy glaze with its sliver of truffle.
“Such vegetables. This time of year.”
“California,” Ben said. “They grow all year round. Have you been able to get out? See anything?”
“The ocean. Fay took me for a drive. The rest, it’s all houses, no- buildings. Not like Berlin.”
“Liesl’s father says it’s still the first layer here. Before the Schinkels.”
He smiled but she seemed not to understand this, at a loss. She looked over at Liesl.
“She’s your wife?”
“No,” he said, looking across with her, so that Liesl smiled back.
“Maybe one day. See how she looks at you.”
“No,” Ben said, flustered. “She’s my brother’s wife. Was.”
“I don’t understand. The same brother? He wasn’t killed? Years ago.”
“No, just this month. Why did you think-”
“Why? It was so dangerous. Back and forth. The courier. I never thought it was right-for your father to use a boy like that. Well, not a boy. Still, young. To risk his life. When you said he was dead, I thought, yes, it must be. Of course they killed him.”
“Who?” Ben said, suddenly feeling light-headed.
“The Nazis,” she said simply. “It was always a risk.”
“For an American?”
“A Communist,” she said, her voice steady, matter-of-fact.
“You didn’t know this?”
Involuntarily, Ben glanced toward Minot’s table, apprehensive, the word itself now like a pointing finger. But no one in the room was paying attention, hearing anything more than a murmuring of German. Only Ben felt the words shouting in his ears. He shook his head slowly, barely moving.
“And he never told you? Well, that’s right. We had to be secret to survive. The first enemy. Even before they started killing Jews. No one was safe from them. I said to Otto, how can you use your own? But of course it was important to him. And he was like you-an American passport would protect him, they wouldn’t suspect. His mother’s in England. Of course he travels. So, a courier.”
“For the Communists,” Ben said numbly, as if repeating the words would give a sense to them, steady the room.
“Yes, for your father. Anything for your father. For him it was like a religion, so maybe for the boy, too. I don’t know.”
“Like a religion,” Ben said, still catching echoes.
“Yes. And he died for it.”
“For being a Communist? That’s why he stayed in Germany?” Not another woman, a career he couldn’t leave behind, a misguided sense of safety.
“They didn’t suspect him. He could do things the others couldn’t. Goebbels liked him. All of them-they liked to watch those comedies. They thought he was like that. So he was useful to the Party. So close and they didn’t suspect.”
“They didn’t protect him, either. He was still a Jew.”
“That’s what you think? All these years. That he was foolish? That he trusted them?” She shook her head. “They didn’t kill him as a Jew. They killed him as a Communist.” She paused. “He was betrayed,” she said, her voice suddenly low, looking away, across the table.
Ben said nothing. He heard forks, people laughing, sound track noises from another movie. In this one, everything was still. He looked at Genia’s hands, the bony fingers resting now on the table, pale, webbed with veins, the hands of an old woman.
“How do you know that?” he said finally.
For a minute she kept looking across the table, then turned to him. “Because it was me. I betrayed him,” she said, her voice still detached, a confession without emotion or self-pity, something willed. He felt it like a hand on his arm, a restraint, making him look directly at her. “Why? Why else? To save myself.” Staring back, the rest unsaid. Then she looked away, breaking the connection. “But I didn’t. Not in the end.” She picked up the small bag at her side. “Excuse me. I must have a cigarette. Apologies.”
She stood up, catching Liesl’s attention, who looked at Ben, first with casual curiosity, then, taking him in, with real alarm. Paulette was already putting her hand on his.
“I’m not ignoring you, really. Mike was just telling me about Selz-nick. You know, he’s still in therapy. He believes in it. Since Spellbound. I said he could save a bundle and just give up the pills — Are you all right? You look as if you’d seen a ghost.”
He tried to smile, shaking this off.
“Seriously. You’re all white.”
Finally the smile. “Just old war stories. I’m fine.”
From the corner of his eye he could see the emerald bracelet covering his hand. At the next table Fay and Ann Sheridan were charming Minot, who wanted to get rid of termites. Bunny, apparently still worried about the seating, kept looking over at Liesl, watching her. Jack Warner was telling jokes. The waiters had begun to clear the tournedos, replacing it with floating island, puffy clouds of meringue. And Otto had risked Danny’s life. The one Ben knew nothing about.
“I’d better check on her, make sure she’s okay,” he said to Paulette, getting up.
Liesl, still concerned, shot him a what? look, but he made a nothing movement with his head. As he crossed the room, still half in a daze, he noticed Bunny chatting with Marie Minot, keeping things going.
She was sitting behind the coffee table, tapping her cigarette on the rim of the ashtray.
“I thought I would never say that,” she said, not even looking up, as if she’d expected him. “Not to anybody. And now his son. For years I thought, what if someone finds out? What if someone knows? And it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.”
She looked at him, then made a half smile. “To the living.” She drew on the cigarette. “So, what do you want me to say to you? An apology? It’s late for that.”
“Tell me about Danny. What did he actually do? My father made him carry things?”
“In his mind only,” she said, tapping the side of her head. “Messages he had to remember. No papers. If they had found papers, they would have arrested him. Killed him. So it was safer up here. Of course, if they tortured him, he would have told them-everybody did-but without papers there was no reason to suspect him. And an American passport. They couldn’t arrest Americans so easily. So he was perfect for us.”
“My father’s idea?”
She nodded. “There was a problem. Before, we had a network with merchant seamen, for outside communications. You couldn’t use the radio. By hand. By mouth. And then there was a roundup-one of the cells in Hamburg-and we knew they had been given away. An informer. We traced it to one of the sailors, so we couldn’t use the network anymore. That’s when your father had the idea. The one person he could really trust.” She stopped. “Except me, he said. But he couldn’t send me. So he was wrong about that, too.”
“But what did he actually carry? What kind of messages.”
She shrugged. “To help get people out. At that point, all we were trying to do was survive. Save ourselves. There weren’t so many left. He would travel through Paris. There were people there who could make arrangements, to get people across. This was before the war. If we could get people to France-”
And later to Spain, Ben thought, helped across by someone with experience. By then you didn’t have to be a Communist to be in danger.
“So we used him for that. Not a spy, not like in the films. Just messages, to help get people out.”
“But he would have been hung just the same. If they’d caught him.”
“Yes, naturally. That’s why I thought it was too dangerous. But he wanted to do it. You know, at that age-no fear. It’s exciting to them, everything a secret. They don’t know yet what it’s like to live that way, to live in secret.” She rubbed out the cigarette. “But he survived, you said, so I’m glad for that. They never got him. Well, he stopped when Otto- He did it for Otto. He never came back to Germany after that. So maybe that saved him.”
“Tell me what happened. With my father.”
“It’s not so much to know,” she said, shrugging. “A familiar story. They caught me. My fault-I was careless. So, Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. We used to talk about it, if the Gestapo- I knew what it would mean. Not just for me. My family. They didn’t have to torture me. I already knew what they wanted, the names. Who was head of the cell? Well, Otto, Goebbels’s friend.” She looked up. “So I gave them your father.”
“And they let you go? I thought-”
“Yes, usually they killed you, too. After you told them. We all knew that. They had no more use for you.”
He looked at her, waiting.
“I agreed to give them names I didn’t know yet. To be an informer. They thought I would do it-so weak, they hadn’t even had to beat me. A coward. With blood on her hands. What they wanted.”
“And did you?”
“Only to get out. To have a chance to escape. I knew they would watch. But we did it, my family. We went into hiding. The Party helped us, the ones who were left. They thought whoever had betrayed Otto had betrayed me, too, so they helped us. Safe houses. We lived like that, place to place. No one ever knew I’d given them Otto. Of course by that time it didn’t matter if you were a Communist-it was enough to be a Jew. So we hid. Do you want to hear the rest?”
“How he died.”
“I don’t know that. Shot, I suppose. I hope it was that. No, what happened after. Not everything, don’t worry, not all the horrors. Just enough to know why it’s like this now. Why isn’t she weeping? On her knees begging forgiveness-”
“You don’t owe me any-”
“Doesn’t she feel anything, facing me, Otto’s son? What kind of person is this? That it doesn’t matter to her. Can’t even say she’s sorry.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing now?” he said gently.
She shook her head. “It’s too late for that. So, one story only. Something you can’t put in a film. Never mind the hiding, the rest of it. How you feel in the line, select one here for work, select him for the gas. Impossible to understand that, even when it’s happening to you. So impossible for you.” She took a breath. “We were back in Berlin then- the first big roundup. 1942, February. Cold. All of us in a basement, like rats, but still. Leon, my sister, her husband, all down there, but safe. Then not safe.” She looked up. “We were betrayed. Maybe a justice. Anyway, Jews in the cellar, so they came for us. You don’t fight, but they pull you out anyway. Poke the guns in your stomach. Yelling. I can hear them now, it never goes away, the yelling. And it frightens Rosa, my sister’s baby. An infant. ‘Shut it up,’ he screams at her. The soldier. As if she could do something-all that noise, so terrifying. Terrifying to us. And she tries to quiet it, against her shoulder, you know, rocking, while they’re pushing us out and it’s not enough for him. ‘Shut up!’ he yells and then he grabs it, right out of her arms. A second, my heart stops. Now, too, I can see it. He takes Rosa by the feet and before my sister can move he smacks her against the wall, swinging her like a doll, once, that’s all, because then it’s quiet. He drops her like a rag, a piece of- I don’t know. A thump, and then blood on the wall, a blotch, little streaks. There’s nothing in his face. It doesn’t matter to him. This takes-how long? How long can the heart stop? A second, less. And it’s my whole life in that time. Then I hear my sister scream and I’m somewhere else, another life.”
She stopped, almost out of breath, shutting her eyes, then reached for another cigarette, something tangible, right now, and lit it.
“She brought it with us. She picked it up and brought it. They didn’t care. On the train. Until Leon managed to get it away from her, get rid of it. By that time she didn’t know. She was-not herself. So of course they selected her right away for the gas, a madwoman. Right on the platform.” She looked up at him. “Tell me anything matters. Otto’s son.” She reached out and grazed his hand with her fingertips. “If it did matter, I would be sorry. Do you know that?”
She turned her head, distracted by the sound of doors opening.
“Here they come. They’re going to watch a film.” She stood, drawing him up with her. “Make some excuse for me, yes? Headache, whatever you like, it doesn’t matter.” She smiled to herself, a weak grimace. “That, either.”
She slipped out behind the stream of people heading for the bathrooms before the movie started. It seemed a disorganized moment, an aimless milling, like the scattering pieces in his head.
“What’s wrong? What was all that?” Liesl said.
He stared for a second, adjusting to the switch back to English, his mind elsewhere.
“Nothing. She’s- I’ll tell you later,” he said, looking at her closely now. Had she known? How could she not? Unless Danny had kept this secret, too. “Can we cut out before the movie? What’s the form?”
“We can’t. It would be considered an insult,” she said. “Listen, I have to talk to you. I think I know-”
“Later,” he said, touching her arm. “Here’s Bunny.”
“Everything fine?” Bunny said, looking at Liesl. “Did you enjoy Dick?”
Her dinner partner had been Dick Marshall, out of his pilot uniform, a smile replacing the oxygen mask. More window dressing for the party.
“Yes, he was very funny.”
“I’ll bet,” Bunny said, but relieved, as if he’d expected a different report. He turned to Ben. “And you. I thought it’d be pulling teeth, but there you were, nattering away.”
Ben felt fuzzy, a diver decompressing too fast. Why were they talking about any of this? Floating on froth, like the meringues.
“Mr. L can’t get two words out of her. Well, we’d better start the picture before the natives get restless. Glad you enjoyed yourself,” he said to Liesl. “You’ve got a treat in store-Jack sent over something special.”
“Ben,” she said, when Bunny left, “at dinner-”
“She knew Otto,” he said. “She knew Danny.”
“In Berlin. When he was with my father. She thought the Nazis had killed him. He was getting people out. The way he helped you, later. It started then. Why didn’t you tell me he was a Communist?”
“What are you talking about?” she said, nervous, unprepared for this.
“She told me. She was there. You must have known.”
“Known what,” she said, a quick dismissal. She looked toward the room, measuring their distance from the others, then back at him. “He never said. Everyone was a bit then. They were against the Nazis. Organized. There wouldn’t have been a resistance if they hadn’t-”
“You never asked?”
“I didn’t care about that. Politics. When someone throws you a lifesaver, you take it.”
“And marry him.”
Her eyes flashed. “It wasn’t important.” She looked down, biting her lip. “I thought he was-sympathetic, that’s all. So maybe he worked with them, everyone did. It was never official-you know, a Party member. Meetings. I would have known about that. It was a way of looking at things then, because of the Nazis. Years ago. Anyway, that was there. It was different after we came here.”
“It’s not something you stop, just like that.”
“Things change. People change.”
“You think that? That’s what you’re looking for in his desk? A card? A letter from Stalin? I would have known.” She looked away, hearing herself, yesterday’s certainty. “He made movies here, that’s all. Silly movies.”
“So did my father. And he ran a cell. According to her.”
“If you want to know, ask them. The Party.”
“I don’t think they’re handing out membership lists these days.”
“Ask Howard Stein. It’s always in the papers about him. That he must be one. Polly says he is. Ask him. Why is it so important anyway?”
“Because we have to know everything about him. What he was doing. Why anyone would-”
“No. You have to know. I don’t know why. Look, they’re going in. No more about this. The way people talk. Who knows what’s true. My father’s applying for citizenship. How would it look? A Communist son.”
“A dead one.”
“Well, my father’s alive. Talk like this-”
“We have to know. It might be important.” He took her elbow. “Don’t run away from this. Help me. We owe it to him.”
“Owe it to him.” She smiled to herself, then looked up. “I was trying to help. Before you started with all this. Politics. They don’t kill you for that yet. Maybe not love, either. You want to know the girlfriend? Rosemary.” She nodded. “Maybe not the only one, I don’t know. So does that help? Does she look like-”
“How do you know?”
“I know. I knew at the table. The way she was with me. She wouldn’t look at me. Not once. I could see her do it, not looking. And then she heard who you were and she was upset. She wasn’t ready for that. The wife, that’s one thing. But you-”
“That’s it, the proof?”
“You can prove it any way you like. I already know. It’s her,” she said, turning away so that before he could say anything else she had already joined the people moving toward the screening room.
He followed, his mind darting again, his feet moving on their own, in another place. Around him people were talking about the movie, overheard but echoing, like voices in a train station.
Warner’s treat turned out to be Saratoga Trunk, a Bergman not yet released.
“I’ve been sitting on this since over a year,” Jack said.
“You’re worried?” Sol said.
“Not worried. Sam Wood, you’re always going to get an A product. Getting the time right. They put her in dark hair, in period, and I’m thinking, they want Casablanca again, not this. A totally different type. So I wait, we hold the picture. Then what? The Bells of St. Mary’s for Christmas. Talk about timing. I figure after that they’ll like her in anything. Put it out right after, you can’t miss. Same season. You can’t get into the Crosby, see the other.”
“Well, the Crosby,” Sol said. “They’re already counting the money.”
“Hundred bucks it grosses more than anything this year. The Catholics alone. You know how they come out for nuns.”
“A hundred bucks.”
There were no assigned seats in the theater, so Ben and Liesl sat together toward the back. Minot and his wife, still being charmed, were in the front row with the Lasners and the Warners. Bunny walked up the aisle like someone counting the house, making sure everything was in place. The lights dimmed, followed by a blast of music. When the Warner logo came on, people applauded, a jokey tribute to Jack.
Within minutes Ben saw why Warner had waited. Ingrid Bergman was in a bustle, pretending to be Creole. There was a dwarf and Flora Robeson in blackface as a maid who knew voodoo. Gary Cooper was Gary Cooper, a Texan. His name seemed to be Clint Maroon. None of it made sense, and Ben drifted, not really paying attention. Somewhere upstairs Fay’s cousin was lying on a bed smoking, seeing a splotch of blood on a wall. He thought of her bony hand on his. How can you use your own? But Otto had. Like a religion to him. Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac-by whose orders? The priests of the International? Wherever orders came from. Your own son. Who wanted to do it. Fearless. He went through the dinner again, trying to piece the parts of Danny’s life together, looking for some clear thread that ran from Berlin to the Cherokee. But what? It seemed as patchy and unlikely as the movie, even without the dwarf.
Liesl wasn’t watching, either. He could feel her beside him, restless in her seat, maybe looking for Rosemary. Knowing it was her, a feeling. The girl most likely. Someone Bunny would make a call for. Dating Ty Power while they built her up, not a B director on a B lot. But when Liesl leaned toward him to whisper, her mind was somewhere else.
“Why would he keep it secret? From me? Why that? I wouldn’t have cared about that.”
He felt her breath against him before he heard her, warm, reaching into him. When he turned her face was even closer, her eyes shiny, anxious. He sorted out the words. Not about Rosemary. But then he saw in her eyes that it was really the same question, another betrayal.
“I don’t know,” he said, less than a whisper, but feeling her breath again, the warmth coming off her skin with the last of the perfume, and suddenly, a trace memory, he was a teenager with a girl in a dark theater, so close, trying not to be overwhelmed by it. Wanting to lean forward, afraid to. In a second she would move back, the contact broken. But she didn’t. The whispers became tactile, like a hand against the side of his face.
“Do you believe her, the cousin?”
“But why would he?”
“I don’t know,” he said again.
Now she did look away, dismayed, reminded of other secrets. She sat back, pretending to watch the movie, seemingly unaware that he didn’t move, his head turned, as if her face were still next to his. Then someone coughed and he went back to the screen, wondering whether anyone had noticed, whether it showed on your face, the way he used to think it did when the lights came up, kids necking in the balcony.
Think about something else. Why had Danny kept it secret? Even from his wife. Politics were public, argued about. Unless there’d been a turning away, a new life that made the past embarrassing, something to put behind you. Howard Stein had said he’d even faded away from the union, no longer interested. You get to want other things. Which still didn’t explain how he’d ended up in the alley at the Cherokee.
Saratoga Trunk was a hit with the party, ending to applause and pats on the back. Then everyone began to leave at once, pouring out of Lasner’s chateau as if it were a downtown theater, without red trolley cars and taxis, just harried teenage parkers. The Warners and the Minots were the first to go, Bunny hovering nearby, followed by a halting line of impatient guests.
“Did you meet the Honorable Ken?” Bunny said, waiting with them.
“I heard him. That was good enough. Who voted for him anyway?”
“The same people who go to the movies.” He looked up. “We don’t make the world. Right now, he’s what they like.”
“Jack liked him anyway. That was the point, wasn’t it?”
“Jack likes Jack. But it’s a start. Glad you enjoyed the evening,” he said to Liesl, another question mark, still working.
When she thanked him, a bland response, Ben noticed the quick flicker of relief in his eyes. Relieved about what? That she’d got on with Dick Marshall? Or that nothing more awkward had happened, placed at Rosemary’s table? Something Bunny hadn’t expected.
Another car left, the line moving forward. Bunny was looking at her again.
“Do you mind my asking? Are you a dancer?”
“A dancer?” Liesl said. “No. Why?”
“You move very well,” he said, still looking at her.
“Oh,” she said, not sure how to respond. A professional appraisal, not a pass.
“Maybe it’s the theater,” Ben said. “Same training.”
“You’re an actress?” Bunny said.
“Before, in Vienna. Not here.”
Bunny tilted his head, taking her in at a slightly different angle. “But not in pictures. Would you make a test?”
“To see how you look,” Bunny said simply. “People are different on film.”
“Oh, and with my voice.”
“Never mind about that. It’s just-it gave me an idea, the way you moved. If you’re interested.”
Liesl nodded, still too surprised to answer.
“I’ll send you some pages, then. Here we are,” he said, opening the door as the car pulled up.
Liesl stood there for a second, hesitant, then got in, taking direction. Bunny bent forward, eye level with the window.
“Maybe nothing,” he said. “Let’s just see. We’ll call you.”
In the car she was quiet, looking out the open window at the dark hedges and driveways, Beverly Hills asleep.
“This place,” she said, partly to herself. “Years. And then one night you walk into a party. So I should thank you for that.”
“He’s not doing it for me. You really interested?”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything. They test everybody. Favors.”
“Ha. Place your bets. So maybe it comes up.” She looked out again. “And maybe it doesn’t. So let’s see, what else am I going to do now?”
She pushed in the dashboard lighter, then rummaged in her purse for a cigarette.
“Do you think she’s pretty?”
“Who,” she said, waiting.
“I think she looks like you.”
She stopped the lighter in midair, then put the red coiled tip to the cigarette.
“Maybe they were all you.”
She went quiet again, smoking. “That’s nice,” she said softly. “To say that.” She turned from the window. “Then why have them.”
“I don’t know,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road. “Did you?”
“What, have others?” She turned up her lips slightly. “You mean since he did?” She shook her head. “Only before. You want to know how many?”
“I didn’t mean-”
“I don’t even remember. That life, it made you that way. You never knew when you’d have to leave. Go somewhere else. So you took what you could. I was no different. But not after.”
“I wasn’t brought up that way. When you’re married- You know I can cook? Sew. All those things. A good wife, for somebody. But not him.”
They entered the house through the garage, turning off the driveway lights behind them.
“Do you want a swim?” she said, unclasping her pearls as they walked. “It’s good after a party-for hangovers.”
“You go ahead.” He smiled. “Don’t worry, I won’t watch.”
“Well, then good night. Thank you for the party. My evening with the stars.”
She reached up and kissed his cheek, then stopped, her face as close as it had been in the theater, but this time looking at him, her eyes moving, as if she were reading him, deciphering. He stood still, feeling her breath again, then the graze of her hand behind his neck drawing him closer to kiss him on the mouth. He opened his, almost dizzy with surprise and the taste of her. They broke, a gasp for air, then kissed again, her mouth open to his, both of them eager.
“What are you doing?” he said, moving down to her neck, smelling perfume and warm skin.
She pulled back. “I wanted to know what it would be like.”
He looked at her, their faces still close. “I’m not him.”
She smiled, moving her hand to his forehead, gently brushing the hair away.
“No. Someone else.”
He felt her hand, fingertips barely touching his skin but drawing him back, a kind of permission, then lowered his head to hers again, no longer thinking, all instinct. Her mouth was moist, all of her warm, rubbing against him so that his blood rushed, excited. She started unbuttoning his shirt, her mouth still on his, then pulled away, both of them panting, holding each other. Are we going to do this, a look, not words, and she answered by taking his hand, leading him into the bedroom, the furniture just shadows outlined by the pool lights outside. She turned her back to him so he could undo her zipper, move the dress off her shoulders, letting it slide down, then hold her there, kissing the back of her neck, no longer groping, smooth, wanting to kiss every part of her, this shoulder, that one.
She arched her back, an involuntary intake of breath, then a small sound, dropping her head so that he could kiss more of her neck, giving it to him. When he reached around to her breasts, holding them underneath, moving his thumbs against her nipples, her body came up again, pushing back against him, and he felt her bare behind, the soft round cheeks, press against the erection in his pants. They stood that way for a minute, her nipples growing hard, his groin tight against her, until he thought he would burst from it and he turned her around, kissing her mouth, then her breasts, faster, tearing off his clothes, then laying her on the bed and falling over her, his mouth covering hers, his hand moving down between her legs, feeling her wet, beginning to move against his hand.
There was no waiting, no drawn-out stroking, everything that might come later. Only an urgency, mindless. She pulled him into her, one thrust, a second to feel her wrapped around him, the wonderful fullness, and then they were moving again, not a steady rhythm, but a heedless plunging, impossible to wait, both of them grunting. He saw her in the pool, opening her legs to the patch of hair, where he was now, then he didn’t see anything, could only hear her, next to his ear, breathing, then noises, little cries, as exciting as the slick feel of her pushing against him. When she came, a louder cry, broken, like a shuddering, he could feel her grip him inside and he wanted to shout, let something out before he exploded, and then the come shot out of him and he stopped, feeling the last jerks, his whole body emptying, then flooded with relief, inexplicable pleasure. He moved his elbow, falling on her, and it was only then that he felt the sweat, both of them shiny with it.
When he rolled away, she turned with him and they lay on their sides, heads touching, not saying anything, drained, then her body began to shake, not crying, a trembling.
“What?” he said quietly, touching her.
She shook her head. “Nothing. It’s just-to feel something again.” She put her hand on him.
He took her shoulder, drawing her closer and kissing her. “I’m sorry it was so fast.”
“No, don’t be sorry.”
“Next time we won’t have to hurry.”
She propped herself up, looking down at him.
“Already a next time. You’re so sure,” she said lazily.
“Now I know you.”
“You think that’s true? You sleep with someone and you know her? All those girls before-you knew them? Every one?”
“I didn’t want to know them.”
“Just go to bed. Very nice. And now that you’ve seduced me-”
She smiled, moving her hand down his chest. “You’re sweaty.”
He moved his hand up to her breast, running the back along it.
“Come on,” she said, getting off the bed.
“How can you move? Where?”
She pulled his hand and he followed, his eyes trailing her white skin, feeling illicit walking naked through the dark house. He put his hand on the smooth flesh of her behind, cupping it, and she laughed, then sprang away, opening the patio door and running across the tiles to the pool, looking over her shoulder once at him before she plunged in. He ran after her, the front of him flapping in the warm night air, then jumped in, too, and swam after her underwater, his testicles floating beneath him, everything free. When he caught up to her, they both rose to the surface.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she said, shaking her hair. “I never want to wear clothes again.”
“All right,” he said, kissing her.
She laughed. “And you’d like that?”
She swam a little toward the shallow end so they could hold each other without having to keep afloat in deep water.
“You know, my father says you can only seduce someone who wants to be seduced. Otherwise it can’t work.”
“When did he say that?” Ben said, kissing her again.
“In a story. Die Verfuhrung.”
“ The Seduction. He wrote a love story?”
She giggled. “Well, it was about Germany. How the country wanted to be seduced by Hitler. But I think it’s the same with people. Like you,” she said, touching his face.
“What about you?”
He drew her against him as they kissed, not playing anymore, aroused again, drawing one leg up around her.
“Everyone thinks it should be easy in the water,” she said, “but it’s hard. Maybe Esther Williams can.”
“You don’t know her? Bathing Beauty? With Cugat? Daniel did some Second Unit work on it.” She stopped, looking away.
“We didn’t get everything overseas,” he said, trying to glide over it.
“Maybe it was like this for him,” she said, distracted. “With the others. All like me. So now I’m one of them.”
He let his leg drop, freeing her below, then turned her head with his fingers. “I’m not him.”
She glanced up and moved her shoulder. “And you don’t love me, either. So that’s the same anyway. But I know it. So nobody gets hurt.”
“Nobody gets hurt.” Not wanting to go further, coaxing her back.
“Someone you meet at a party. Why not her?”
“Is that what it feels like to you?”
She looked at him for a second, her eyes opening wider, then pulled him closer, leaning her head into his.
“Make love to me,” she said, her voice quick and raspy.
He glanced over the side of the pool. “The chaise,” he said, kissing her.
“Yes, on the chaise,” she said, amused. “Like an odalisque.” She took his hand, urgent again, leading him up the shallow steps, shivering a little as the breeze touched them.
He held her to him, his body a blanket, then lay down next to her.
“Now you seduce me,” she said.
“You have to want me to,” he said, stroking her. “That’s how it works.”
She pulled herself up, her wet hair falling on him, then took his penis into her, straddling him. She closed her eyes, just feeling him there for a second, then slowly sat up, moving just a little, looking down on him. “This time we don’t have to hurry.”
This time it was slow enough to feel everything, every part, until they came again, gasping, and then fell back together, not talking, just breathing. Ben could see the city lights in the distance, hear the palm fronds overhead clicking in the soft air, the sound of paradise.
After a while it turned cooler, and he went over to the changing cabana and brought back two robes. She wrapped herself in one and reached for a cigarette pack on the table, then crunched it up.
“There are more in the house,” she said. “Can I get you anything? A drink?”
He shook his head, then raised the back of the chaise to sit upright. He watched her go in, a blur of white through half-closed eyes, and leaned back, smelling the night flowers. A light went on in the house. In a minute, he knew, his body would start to go limp and he’d drift, the animal languor that came after sex. Everything else could wait until tomorrow-what had happened, what it would mean. Now there was just this.
“Ben.” She was back at the door, her body tense, voice nervous. She waved him toward her, as if she were afraid of being overheard.
He crossed the patio, tilting his head in a question.
“Somebody’s been in the house,” she said, keeping her voice low.
“In the office. Things were different. Moved. I could tell.” She put her hand on his arm. “Maybe they’re still here.” Her eyes darting, upset.
“You’re sure? You didn’t lock the doors?”
“Of course I locked the doors. This one, too,” she said, nodding to the patio door. “Sometimes Iris forgets.”
He looked down at the door handle. No scratches or chipped paint, but an easy lock, he guessed, for someone who knew how.
“What if they’re still here, ” she said, gripping his arm tighter.
“Calm down. There’s no one here.” He thought of them on the bed, grunting, someone watching-but they would have felt that, sensed anyone’s presence, wouldn’t they? “I’ll walk through.” He flicked on a light. “Is anything missing?”
“I don’t know. I just went to the study, for cigarettes.”
“What was moved?”
“Little things. On the desk.”
“No. It didn’t seem right. I could feel it.”
“Don’t laugh at me,” she said, almost snapping. “Someone was here. In the house.” She clutched the top of her robe tighter, her voice rising a pitch.
“All right, I’ll look. Where do you keep your valuables?”
She looked at him blankly.
“Jewels,” he said. “Cash.”
“Jewels? Just the pearls-in the bedroom.”
But the bedroom was untouched, except for the bed, the spread twisted and still damp from sex. Nobody had taken anything from the bureau drawer, the velvet box with earrings and a clip. There was still money under the handkerchiefs.
He went through the rest of the house, turning on lights, Liesl close to him, still anxious, fear bobbing just beneath the surface. Not just an intruder, a more general violation.
“Ever have any trouble before?” Ben said.
“No, it was safe. I was safe here.”
“You’re still safe,” he said, taking her by the shoulders. “Stop.”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” she said, not really hearing him. “Every knock. Always looking back. I thought it was different here.”
“Liesl, nothing’s missing. So, just in here?” he said, turning in to the study.
She nodded. “The desk. Somebody went through the desk.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s different. Look at the blotter-see the one end out? To look under. See for yourself. You know his drawers.”
She picked up the cigarettes, lighting one now, her hand shaking, then stood watching him go through the drawer. Everything seemed the same. Until the second drawer, the folders of personal papers. The police accident report, jammed at the end, not where he’d put it.
“What?” she said, seeing him hesitate.
“Something’s out of place.”
He went through the envelope, flipping through the photos.
“Everything’s here. Probably where I put it, just looked different.”
“No, you noticed.”
“Liesl, why would someone break into the house and not take money-anything-just go through a desk?”
“All right, his desk.”
She inhaled smoke, then folded her arms across her chest, holding herself in. “It’s what you said. I didn’t believe you. Why would anybody do that? I thought it was just your way of-” She broke off, hearing herself, racing. “But it’s true, isn’t it? Maybe I always knew it. That he wouldn’t. I didn’t want to be afraid. And now they’re in my house. Somebody killed him and they’re still not finished. What do they want?”
“I don’t know,” he said, coming over to her.
“Maybe they think I have it-whatever they want.”
“They didn’t go through your things. Just his.”
“I can’t stay here. Listening. Any noise. I’ll go to my father’s.”
He took her by the shoulders, as if he were holding her down before she could fly away.
“I’m here. You’re just nervous, that’s all. I’ll be right next to you. All night.”
“Oh, next to me, and what will Iris think?” An automatic response.
He smiled at her. “The worst, probably.”
“How can you joke?”
“I’ll check the doors. Nothing is going to happen to you. I promise.” He kissed her forehead. “If you’re worried about the house, I’ll talk to somebody. Make it safe.”
“Guy I met. He’d know.”
She dropped her head to his chest. “When is it going to be over? The phone rings-your husband’s in-when was that? And it’s still not over. What did he do? Go with Rosemary? And he’s dead for that? It’s crazy. And now you. What am I doing? His brother.” She raised her head. “Maybe that’s crazy, too. My lover.”
“Say that again,” he said, brushing her hair.
She looked away. “Oh, that doesn’t make it any better.”
“It doesn’t have to make sense. It happens. We wanted it to.” He paused. “We seduced each other.”
“So nothing makes sense.”
“What happened to him. We have to make sense of that.” He touched her hair again. “Just that.”
Liesl’s father’s birthday went exactly as predicted. Dieter read a long prepared toast, then Ostermann stood up for his own prepared thank-you. The others were more spontaneous, but none of them brief. “The Conscience of Germany,” a glib phrase from Time, had now become a kind of honorary title, his own von. The toasts ran to form: the books, the humanitarian concerns, the early courage in speaking out, all noted before and repeated now, familiar as myth.
The dinner itself followed a prescribed pattern. It had been called for late afternoon, a throwback to the curfew days when aliens had to be home by eight, and the food, according to Liesl, was unvarying- steaming bowls of chicken soup with liver dumplings, boiled beef with horseradish, potatoes, and red cabbage, followed finally by Salka’s chocolate cake, a menu that seemed designed to weigh people down in their chairs for the toasts. Later, after the brandies, there would be coffee and mohn cookies, more winter food as the California sun poured through the window.
Salka’s house, on a steep wooded road dropping down into Santa Monica Canyon, was modest, a doll’s house compared to Lasner’s. The guests were many of the same people who’d come to Danny’s funeral, and they greeted Ben like an old friend with the fast hospitality of exiles. Brecht was there again and spent most of the time arguing with someone in a corner. Lion Feuchtwanger, interrupting, playing peacemaker; Fritz Lang, with a monocle. Thomas Mann had not come this time, a social deference, not wanting to eclipse the birthday honoree. Kaltenbach wore a suit that needed cleaning.
Ben noticed scarcely any of it, preoccupied, the German toasts droning in the background, Liesl down the table, her face half-hidden by one of Salka’s flower arrangements. Did she look different? Did he? Could anyone tell? If he looked down at the lace tablecloth, blotting out the rest, he could see her last night, riding him, her breasts bobbing, and he smiled to himself because no one else knew, their secret. Maybe this was the excitement spies felt, sitting down with the enemy, knowing something, holding it to themselves, while no one else had the faintest idea. What was more secretive than sex? Kaltenbach stood up to make his toast. Ben glanced down again at Liesl, this time meeting her eyes, amused, talking to him in code, just the two of them.
When he went out to the kitchen to open more wine she followed, standing behind as he pulled the corkscrew, putting her hand on his waist. He turned, their faces close.
“Somebody’ll see,” he said quietly, glancing toward the dining room, the angle of the table.
She pulled at his shirt, moving them away from the sink, the open door.
“No, they won’t,” she said, urgent, her eyes darting with excitement. “Not here.” Kissing him then, her lips warm, unexpected, alive with risk. From the dining room there was the tinkle of glass, and they kissed harder, racing ahead of it.
He pulled away, breathless. “They’ll see,” he said, already hard, his face red with it, unmistakable.
“I don’t care,” she said, eyes shiny, still moving, then leaned forward again. “I don’t care.”
Not really meaning it, playing, but the words flooding into him like sex itself, rushing, wonderful. Then there was the scrape of a chair and he turned back to the counter, grasping the wine bottle, and she slipped over to the refrigerator, opening it with a faint suppressed giggle, kids stealing cookies, waiting to be found out. He took a breath to calm himself and started in with the wine. But when he saw that the chair belonged to Ostermann, standing to respond to a toast, he glanced back at Liesl, a complicit smile, something they’d got away with after all.
After dinner Salka led the party down Mabery Road to the beach to watch the sunset. Ben had volunteered to drive Feuchtwanger home, a cliffside house on a twisting Palisades road that would be treacherous in the dark, so he was late joining the others on the broad beach. People who’d come earlier for the day were still in bathing suits or sweatshirts and stared openly at Salka’s group in suits and ties. Liesl took her shoes off, but the men didn’t bother, formal even in the sand. The light on the water had already begun to turn the deep gold just before orange.
“You know I was twelve before I saw the ocean?” Ostermann said to Ben. They were walking with Dieter, the others straggling behind. “Fifty years ago. More now. The Nordsee. Absolutely gray. Freezing. Rocks for beaches. But my father had paid for the week, so we had to stay.” He made a mock shudder at the memory.
“So, something else good here,” Dieter said, indicating the white sand.
“Yes, but shallow. You have to walk far before you can swim. That’s why they build the piers.” He nodded to the amusement pier farther down the beach. “Me, I prefer lakes. Of course, it’s what I knew. The Wannsee. Anyway, Liesl’s the swimmer, not me. From a child, always in the water.”
“Yes. She loves the pool,” Ben said, seeing her gliding underwater, parting her legs. Everyone thinks it would be easy in the water, but it’s not. Preferring a chaise.
He looked over at Ostermann, suddenly embarrassed. Change the subject.
“She told me about Die Verfuhrung, ” he said. “I’ve never read it. Is it in a collection?”
“No, alone. Quieros did it in Holland. A small edition. It was not so popular, you know. Not even the emigres liked it. Anti-German. Me, anti-German.”
“It’s a German failing,” Dieter said. “Thin skin.”
“And thick boots,” Ostermann said. “A wonderful combination. Anyway, no one read it. I thought they might buy it for the title,” he said, teasing. “They would think it’s something else. But no one did.”
“You always write about Germany,” Dieter said. “Everybody knows that. And this time-be fair-a fatal flaw in the blood, an insult.”
“No, not in the blood. That’s what the Nazis believed, things in the blood. Destiny. It wasn’t like that. A whole country seduced. Led into a dream. You have to make that happen.” He raised his finger, a classroom gesture. “But they have to want the dream. The master race. Imagine-to believe that. If it’s German, it’s better. Well, the French, too. Maybe everyone. Look at them here. ‘The Greatest Country in the World.’ What does that mean? Great how? But they believe it.”
“It’s not the same,” Dieter said. “What happened there was unique.”
“You think so? Well, let’s hope. It’s not so hard, you know. Give them something to be afraid of. Someone else. The process is the same.”
“Did Danny ever talk to you about this?” Ben said. “Liesl said he liked to talk to you.”
“About this?” Ostermann said, confused. “The story? He said it was different here.” He nodded to Dieter, a point. “He said they were already seduced. By the movies.”
“Ha,” Dieter said. “He was serious?”
Ostermann shrugged. “Well, an idea. To make talk. That was his world, not politics.”
“He never talked to you about politics?” Ben said.
“Maybe I talked enough for both of us,” Ostermann said wryly. “Of course you know he worked against the Nazis. To get people out of France. But I think that was for the adventure. He had that spirit. But here-”
“But someone told me last night he was a Communist. You’d think-”
“People are always saying such things now,” Dieter said. “Every day in the papers. How many could there be? Just for signing a petition.” A glance to Ostermann.
“No, the woman knew him. In Berlin. She said he worked for them.”
“In Berlin?” Ostermann said. “But he must have been a boy.”
“Old enough. He helped my father.”
“Fay Lasner’s cousin. Genia. She was in the camps.”
“To survive that,” Dieter said, impressed. “Genia. A Polish name?”
“Originally. But she knew him in Berlin.”
“But saying such things at dinner. To accuse-”
“She wasn’t accusing him of anything. She was one, too.”
“And he never said anything to you?” Dieter said. “His brother? It’s her imagination, I think.”
“What did you think when you were eighteen?” Ostermann said gently, putting a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Do you remember? I was for the Kaiser. A young man’s ideas. Things change. Maybe he changed, too. A flirtation and then you want to put it behind you.”
“Especially now,” Dieter said. “The way things are. Even at the school. Checking on everybody. So strict. What do they think we write on the blackboards?” He nodded toward Ostermann. “Maybe you can help me persuade The Conscience of Germany to keep his conscience to himself a little. It’s not a good time to show these opinions.”
“When was the good time, ’thirty-three?”
Dieter gave Ben a see-what-I-mean? look, then turned to the water. “Look, it’s setting. At the end, so fast.”
“Do you know why?” Liesl said, coming up to them, slipping her arm through Dieter’s.
“Of course,” he said, affectionate. “When the horizon line-”
She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “I’m teasing. Of course you know everything. When are you going to show us the stars? I thought you were going to take us up the mountain.”
“You’re serious, you’re interested to go?” he said, including Ben. “Whenever you like. You have to stay overnight, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, turning to Ben, her eyes meeting his in code again. “I’ll pack something warm.” Smiling now, handing him a room key. He smiled back, then toward the sunset before anyone could notice, feeling the color in his face.
“You know, I don’t think it can be true,” Ostermann said quietly to Ben, reassuring again. “The ones I knew-they talked about it. They liked to tell you. For them it was-the truth. It explained everything. Children. Daniel wasn’t like that. More-elastic. Anyway, does it matter so much now, what he thought?”
“You’ve got a hell of a nerve. How would I know?”
Howard Stein pushed back from his desk, as if he’d been touched by a cattle prod.
“I thought you were in the Party. That’s what I heard.”
“What are you, working for that fuck Tenney? Or did the studio send you? Lasner doesn’t like the pickets? He wants to nail us this way?”
“It’s a simple question.”
“Get a subpoena, you might get an answer. That’s how it works now.” He looked across the desk. “You have any idea what you’re getting into with this?”
“I just want to know about Danny. Somebody told me he was. So, was he? It’s not a crime, last time I heard.”
“Yeah, and it’s a free country.”
“He was a friend of yours.”
“That doesn’t make him anything.” He looked up. “It doesn’t make me anything, either.” He kept looking at Ben, hesitating, then stood up, taking his hat off the stand, his manner deliberately lighter. “But I’ll buy you a cup of coffee, you want some stories for your scrapbook.” He jerked his head toward the door, more than a suggestion. “He could be a funny guy.”
Before Ben could say anything more, they were heading down the stairs and into the glare of the street. Stein’s office was over a car showroom on Wilshire, not far from the Tar Pits, and the closest diner was empty at this hour, still waiting for school groups.
“You think I’m crazy, maybe you’re right, but I think they got the office wired. You talk about stuff like this, the board starts lighting up. Don’t bother,” he said, catching Ben’s look. “I know. Paranoid. I even know how to spell it. But I’m still walking around. It never hurt anybody, be a little careful. You, either.” He nodded to the waitress to bring the coffee pot. “First of all, I’m not in the Party. I left the Party. That’s for you, all right? Not the water cooler. Just something you heard around.”
“So was he?”
“You want him to be? Everybody else is running away from this and you want to hand him a card?”
“I just want to know.”
Stein waited until the waitress had poured their cups.
“The god’s truth? No. Not that I ever heard of. Or saw. Not one meeting. I’d swear to it. At least him I won’t have to. He’s dead. It’s the others they’ll want to get. Fuck ’em. It’s a funny thing about age-the memory goes. Not a goddam thing you can do about it.”
“Even under oath?”
“What, with Tenney? Up in Sacramento? What’s he going to do, put me away? I’ve been there, I’m not afraid of it.”
“You were in prison?”
“You didn’t know? I’m a tough guy. Fucking George Raft.” He stirred some sugar in his coffee. “Aggravated assault. That was hitting back when they broke up a picket line. Teach me a lesson. Which it did, but not the one they thought.” He looked up. “No, he wasn’t. Like I said, he was a friend to the union, that’s all. And then not even that. Five years ago, there were lots of shades of red here. Like a fucking lipstick counter. Now, there’s one. And it’s too bright for most people.”
“Then why would she say he was-the woman who knew him.”
“Make trouble, maybe. This is someone in the Hollywood group?”
“No, from before. In Germany.”
“Germany? That’s years ago. He was a member or just-?”
“He was a courier for them. Would they have trusted an outsider? Then?”
Stein thought for a minute. “All right. But that’s still years ago.”
“It doesn’t expire, does it? It’s not like a library card.”
“Maybe he quit.”
“I thought you couldn’t.”
“No, that’s what they think. The Tenneys, the Minots. You’re never clean. Unless you confess. Help them throw a few other people on the fire. You can quit. I did.”
“Why did you?” Ben asked, suddenly curious. He sipped his coffee.
“No one thing. Maybe I got tired of taking orders. Party discipline. All the goddam meetings. It wears you out. And this place. You got a bunch of people sitting around, beating themselves up, part of the dialectic, and they’re bringing home five hundred a week, more. I didn’t sign on for that. And you know what? I got more done outside than in. My little time away kept me out of the service so I went to work for the union, the last thing they expected when they put on the cuffs.”
“When was this?”
Stein glanced up. “Late, if that’s what you mean. It’s a funny thing. After the Hitler pact, ’thirty-nine, everyone here’s bailing, and I stick. Maybe stubborn. But I figure maybe there’s something I don’t know. Then it all turns around and I see there wasn’t. Just what’s good for Russia. It takes a while, you know, to see where it’s going. Then we get in the war, and now everybody’s friends again-some people here came back in, you believe it? — but it has the opposite effect on me. I don’t care anymore. The Party line, keep the movement alive. Help Russia. What about this country? What are we doing for us?” He shrugged. “Maybe it was all the patriotic movies, what the hell. Me, waving flags. I know what it’s like here.” He touched the top of his head. “I got the bruises. But I figure if we can get rid of the fucking golfers we still have a shot at something here.”
Ben smiled. “But the golfers have the money.”
“Yeah, they do,” Stein said, smiling a little. “Right on top, where they like to be. Now, anyway. You ever go across the street, see the Pits? It’s interesting. You see these bones, the dinosaurs, and you think, there they were, walking around, fucking owned the place, top of the world. And then the next thing-they’re gone. Just bones in a pit. It’s something to think about. You drive out to the Valley, past Warners, you see those big sound stages, sitting there like the whole thing’s theirs, and for all they know a tar pit’s going to open up on them.”
“Then your pickets go, too.”
Stein grinned. “Jack would like that. He’d throw them in first-buy a little time.” He looked down. “You want pie or something with that?” he said, a signal to wrap things up.
Ben shook his head.
“This is so important to you? Whether he was a Red?”
“Did he ever talk about my father?”
“Some big-time director over there, right? The Nazis killed him. He didn’t get out in time or something.”
“That’s who Danny was working for.”
“He used his own kid?”
“What does that tell you?”
“That’s a trick question?” he said, flustered. “Listen, I knew your brother. The family, that’s something else. He didn’t talk about that- just your father once in a while. Not the mother. He never mentioned you, for instance.”
“No,” Ben said, feeling it anyway, a sharp point going in.
“So I don’t know. What does it tell me? He must have thought it was important. To do that.”
“It was. To them. They helped smuggle people out. Then, after they got my father, Danny kept doing it. Getting people out of France. Probably using the same network, wouldn’t you say? It’s not the kind of thing you can do freelance. You need some-comrades in place. So he still must have been a Red. And then he gets on a boat to come home and throws his card over the side. Does that seem like Danny to you?”
“Not on a boat,” Stein said quietly.
“He came on the Clipper. The boats weren’t running then.”
Something else he didn’t know. A meaningless detail with the same sharp end.
“So does it?” Ben said.
Stein thought for a minute, playing with his spoon.
“You ask his wife?”
“She says no. He didn’t tell her, either,” Ben said, including Stein.
“But you believe the other woman. The one who said he was.”
“She survived the camps. People like that don’t have to make anything up.”
“They could make a mistake.”
Ben shook his head. “Not her. It cost her to tell me.”
Stein looked at him, uncomfortable, then went back to his spoon. “Sometimes it’s better, keeping things quiet. Let’s say he gets here, first thing he sees is you don’t want to advertise. Lie low. We were never popular here, you know, even before this craziness began. So he goes unofficial.”
“Part of a closed chapter.”
“You mean secret?”
“Don’t get excited. Not like that. Just off the books. To protect their jobs. Some places, this can get you fired. Flash a card at Hearst, see how long you last. You go unofficial to protect yourself.”
“There’s a chapter like that here?”
Stein shrugged. “You’re in pictures, you can’t afford to offend the public. My group, it was mostly writers-they don’t have to care.”
“But they must answer to somebody in the Party. They wouldn’t just be left on their own, would they?”
“So who would it be here?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Ben looked at him. “Even if you did.”
“I left the Party. Not everybody did. And I don’t know you from Adam.” He paused. “Look, I liked your brother, so I’m telling you. Maybe he was unofficial. But I never heard that. And it doesn’t matter a damn now anyway. Leave it. You don’t want to get somebody else in trouble. They put me under oath? There are no unofficials. Never heard of them. The rest of us, the dues payers? — it’s open season on us. But we don’t have to give them anyone else. All right?”
“Take a look at this,” Hal said, head leaning over the Moviola viewer. His jaw, even in the morning, had traces of beard. “Birkenau-we haven’t seen this before.”
Ben looked with him. Silent film, with card titles in Cyrillic. Stacks of corpses. He felt his stomach slide, the way it always did. Open oven doors with mounds of ashes.
“Lasner won’t like using Russian footage.”
“Cut away from the soldiers. It doesn’t matter who’s holding the camera. We just want to see the place. Look, the guards are still there. This must be just after they went in.”
On the small screen, men in uniforms were being led away, hands up, their collars open, disheveled.
“What do they look like to you?” Ben said, watching them.
Ben nodded. “Anybody. You wonder what went through their heads. The ovens going night and day. The smell.”
There were people in bunks, too weak to move, hollow-eyed, and Ben realized, going down the line with the film, that he was looking for Genia. An outside shot now, prisoners standing around, disoriented, waiting for another roll call. The wire fence, the ovens again, bodies everywhere. What she must have seen every day, unable to turn away like the guards. He thought of her in the big Louis XV room, her dead eyes still seeing what was in the film. After a while, it would be the only thing you knew. And then you were here, in the sunshine with people drinking milkshakes, and you saw that it must have been going on at the same time, while the doctors made selections on the platform, and there was no reason at all why you were in one place or the other, reality itself become something random, inexplicable.
“This is pretty rough,” Hal was saying. “Worse than the other stuff. We’re going to have to be careful. You don’t want to chase the audience away.”
“We want them to see it. That’s the point.”
“Look at the Russians.” Soldiers carrying inmates to carts. “They’ve all got their heads turned. You don’t want the audience doing that.” He glanced up at Ben. “Let me work on it. You want anything back, we’ll put it back.”
“But keep the guards. The way they look.”
They watched the rest of the film, then another, absorbed, not even making notes, letting it run. A pan shot across bodies, the genitals just smudges, as if they had retreated inside, the women oddly neutered, without sex. Open mouths.
“Bastards,” Hal said, almost a whisper, and then neither of them said anything.
When it was over, they went outside for a cigarette, wanting distance, even a few feet. Hal leaned back against the wall, looking toward the Admin building on Gower.
“How’d you get him to do it?” he said. “Lasner.”
“He saw it-one of the camps. I didn’t have to do anything.”
“Well, whatever you did. I never thought I’d get to do something like this. At Continental. Piece of history. Fort Roach. Enemies to Friends. How to bow to a Jap. What not to say to the women. Put in your time, go home at night. That’s all I’ve done. Nothing like this.” He cocked his head, taking in Ben from a new angle. “What are you going to do after?”
“What, the Army?” Ben shrugged. “Maybe go back overseas. There’s a newsreel job if I want it.”
“Most people, they get on the lot, they never want to leave.”
“I just want to get this one done.”
“You saw it for real. That’s why?”
Ben dropped his cigarette and rubbed it out with his foot.
“I’m still trying to figure it out. The guards. How do you get to that point? When you can do that. What makes it all right? Do you know? I don’t.”
“You’re never going to know that. A wife shoots her husband, that you can know. This-”
“There has to be something. What makes them think it’s the right thing to do? There’s no money in it, nothing-personal. Like the wife. Some other reason.”
For ending up in a mound of ashes. Or in an alley with your blood running out. At least he could know the reason for that. As blameless as the ash heaps? The question that was always there. What had he done?
Riordan’s telephone voice was all business, as if he were sitting behind a desk.
“What kind of technical advice? For a picture?”
“No. Someone broke into the house last night.”
“So call the cops.”
“Nothing’s missing. I can’t prove anyone was there.”
“Then why do you think-”
“Some things were rearranged.”
“Look, the point is it made Liesl nervous. I don’t want it to happen again. I figured you’d have some ideas. The Bureau must-”
“What? Train us in breaking and entering? I’ll tell you this much, somebody wants to get in, he’ll get in. Get better locks. Alarms will run you money, and anybody who knows what he’s doing can get in anyway. Get dead bolts. That’s for free.”
“I was thinking about surveillance.”
There was a pause as Riordan took this in.
“You’re asking me to babysit?”
“I figured you’d know somebody.”
“What makes you think they’re coming back.”
“They didn’t take anything. Even stuff just lying around. So they must have been after something in particular. If they didn’t find it, maybe they’ll try again. Look, I’m just asking you to recommend somebody.”
Another pause. “All right, I’ll have a look around. Anybody home today?”
“Iris, the housekeeper. Liesl probably. Tell whoever’s there I sent you, to check the locks. Got a pencil?”
“I know where it is.”
“That’s right. The funeral.”
“What was rearranged? So you knew somebody had been there.”
“A file. In the desk.”
“That was careless. What’s in the desk?”
“Nothing. Papers. Desk stuff.”
“No idea what they were looking for?”
“That’s why I called the Bureau.”
“Yeah. All right. I’ll take care of it. Where are you, the studio? That’s Gower. You know Lucey’s on Melrose? By Paramount. Six? But I’m telling you now, it’s locks.”
The red light was on so Ben waited, leaning against the sound stage wall, his head still full of the Artkino footage. In the street, two Japanese pilots were sharing a smoke, probably on their way to dive-bomb Dick Marshall. The casually surreal world Hal thought everyone wanted. “What, have you got a girl back over there or something?” he’d said, not able to let it go. No, here. Ben smiled to himself. A mermaid. Waiting at home. Danny’s home.
The red light flicked off and he heard the buzzer inside, unlocking the doors. What would Rosemary say? Why would she say anything? A girl on her way up, dancing with Ty Power at the Mocambo. She’d want to shed Danny, any B-list affair, like molted skin.
Ben stepped in, facing the backs of some painted flats, then walked around to the interior of the set, still drenched in hot light. A nightclub with an orchestra stage and a bar at the side, now being set up for a tracking shot. Gaffers were making adjustments in the overheads, angling away from the mirror behind the bar. The extras, in suits and evening dresses, were still sitting at the club tables, waiting to be told to start talking again. Rosemary, in a tight dress, was leaning back against a slant board to keep the skirt from creasing, while a makeup girl ran a comb over her hair, patting it gently into place. Rosemary didn’t move. When the girl stepped aside, leaving her alone against the board, she seemed for a minute like an oil painting propped on an easel.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, coming up to her. “We didn’t get a chance to talk at dinner.”
“No,” she said, wary, but not surprised to see him.
“Ready in two, darling,” the assistant director said, passing them.
“We’re in the middle of a scene,” she said to Ben.
“You all right with the gun?” the AD said.
She nodded, glancing at the gun on the table beside her. Make a leap, before she can react.
“Danny told me a lot about you.”
Eyes cornered now, but meeting his, not backing away.
“Yes?” Noncommittal, waiting.
“We were close. He could tell me things,” he said, wondering if a lie showed in your face.
She looked at him, still waiting.
“Just me,” he said, a reassurance.
She stared for another second, then raised her eyebrow. “Well, that puts you one up. He never told me anything. It turns out,” she said, her voice sarcastic but warm, as if bad behavior were a bond between them, something they should have expected.
“How do you mean?”
“I always believe it. I always think, okay, this time I’m not going to listen, and then I do. I guess you like to think-you’re the only one. So that’s what you hear.”
“He never told me about anyone else,” Ben said, trying it, another fly cast.
“Just me, huh? Well, so there’s that. Look, I don’t know what to say to you. Is there a script for this? I mean-his brother. It’s a relief in a way, I guess. That somebody knows. One day you think you’re-” She stopped, looking down. “And the next day you’re not supposed to exist. You can’t go to the funeral. Upset anyone. So what do I say? I’m sorry for your loss? Well, I’m sorry for mine, too, but nobody’s going to say it to me.”
“I’ll say it to you.”
“Thanks,” she said, stopped by this. “Well. So now what?”
“I want to talk to you about him.”
“Why? Warn me off? Before it gets out of hand? Before the wife finds out? A little late now. Anyway, she knows. I could tell. Was that you?”
He shook his head. “Not Danny, either. A hunch, I guess. Maybe you told her, the way you acted with her.”
“Yeah, and maybe it was that big A on my back.” She looked up at him, amused. “Your face. I played the part in stock. You’re right, though. I never read the book. So what do you want to talk about?”
“Were you there the night he fell?”
“What?” she said, a place holder, caught off guard.
“With him? You think he’d do that with me there? It’s the kind of thing you do alone.”
“Somebody was there. Or expected. Maybe you were on your way?”
She looked at him carefully. “What’s this all about?”
“Nothing. I’m just trying to find out how it happened.”
“Who to blame, you mean. You think I wanted this?” She shook her head. “Why would I? I thought we were- I was silly about him. Huh. That’s the first time I’ve said that. Even to myself.” She looked away. “Whatever it means. He said it, and it turns out it didn’t mean much. No, I wasn’t there. Must have been somebody else on the call sheet.” She turned back to him. “You think it was because of me? Is that what you want to know? Maybe I should be flattered. But I wasn’t anything special to him. I know that now. What did he tell you, when you were so buddy-buddy? What did he say about me? Besides being an easy lay.”
“Places!” the AD yelled.
“He said you were nice.”
“Oh,” she said softly, surprised, her eyes suddenly moist. “If you ruin this scene for me, I’ll kill you.” She got off the slant board, checking her dress, and picked up the gun, then turned to him. “Nice? That’s not a word he’d use.”
“Maybe I said it.” He nodded to the gun. “Who are you going to shoot?”
The makeup girl came back for a last brush of powder.
“My lover. I’m jealous.” She met his eyes.
“People! Are we going to wrap today or not? Places. Monica, stick that puff somewhere. All right, here we go.”
The buzzer sounded. The director, looking through the viewfinder on the tracking camera, signaled for the clapper. Rosemary’s lover, an actor Ben didn’t know, turned from his drink and started walking down the length of the bar into the moving camera.
“You think you can, but you can’t,” he said, looking from her to the gun.
Rosemary’s hand shook, her eyes beginning to tear up.
“You love me,” the actor said with a sneer.
“I hate you,” Rosemary said, the words pulled out of her.
“Then shoot,” he said easily, still coming toward her.
He froze as the shot exploded, then grabbed his stomach in astonishment and dropped to the floor. Rosemary kept holding the gun out, then lowered her arm, her shoulders shaking.
“Cut,” the director said. “Nice. Let’s get one for safety.”
They did it twice more, then broke to change the set-ups for Rosemary’s reaction shots.
“We’re almost there,” the director said to Rosemary. “The payoff shot. Remember, you still love him.”
“Even while I’m plugging him,” she said wryly.
“And I want to see it right here,” he said, pointing to her eyes. “Watch the dress.”
She stepped back against the slant board.
“That was good,” Ben said.
“It’s always good until you see it.”
“We can talk later if you-”
“They’ll be ten minutes,” she said. “You want to know why he did it? So do I. Don’t you think I’ve asked myself a million times? I never thought there was anything wrong. Maybe one of his other friends didn’t show and he got all upset. I don’t know. Me? All he’d have had to do was pick up the phone.”
“He was seeing someone else?”
“He must have been. Why else would he have the place? We never went there. Well, once-I had somebody staying with me. We used mine. Sometimes little trips. Santa Barbara, the Biltmore. He was romantic like that.” Her voice thickened. “La Valencia, down in La Jolla. Places.”
“But not the Cherokee.”
“Just the once. He said it was a friend’s place. He borrowed it because we couldn’t use any of the hotels-the columns watch. And then I read in the paper that it was his. So there must have been somebody else, without a place. Maybe more than one, who knows? That hurt a little. You like to think- But why should I be surprised? What did I think I was? Someone he saw like that. On the side. Call it romanticoh, La Valencia. But you know what it is. It didn’t seem that way, though, at the time. It was-nice.”
“How long were you-?”
“A few months. Last spring. V-E Day. I was on loan-out at Republic and they stopped work. All-day party. So I guess I could blame the booze. But it wasn’t.”
“And he wasn’t breaking it off?”
“Not that he told me,” she said, a little sharp. “Maybe he told you.” Ben shook his head. “Then why do you ask?”
“Because he gave notice at the Cherokee. End of the month. I just assumed-he didn’t need it anymore.”
She took this in. “You think someone gave him the brush?”
“I don’t know. Any idea who it might have been?”
“I never even suspected. Why would I? We were good together. You look at it now, and I guess I was a fool, but I never thought- When I first heard, I thought maybe he’d been sick. Some condition. He had a lot of doctor appointments. Then I read the place was his and I thought, oh, that’s where the doctor was. Those kind of appointments.”
“How did you hear?”
“In the papers. I was on the set, and it’s in the papers and I had to pretend it didn’t mean anything. It didn’t say how bad he was. Not that I could go to the hospital anyway.”
“You had no idea he was in a coma?”
“You call and they say ‘stable.’“
“They didn’t know who you were, when you called?”
“What do you think? I’m not supposed to exist, remember?”
“And you weren’t at the Cherokee that night.”
“I told you. Why do you keep asking that?”
“Because if you weren’t-if there was nothing to connect you to him-why would Bunny get the police to file it as an accident?”
She started, then pushed herself away from the slant board, no longer caring about the dress.
“What are you talking about? You think Bunny would fix something for me? I’m not important enough.”
“Did he know about you and Danny?”
“I don’t know. He knows everything. He’s like that. But what if he did? You think the studio’s going to fall apart because somebody sees us necking in La Jolla?”
“With Danny. Not Ty Power. He wouldn’t like that.”
“Then he’d tell me about it. Not go flying around town playing Mr. Fixit. You think he’d do that for me? You don’t know what it’s like here. He can trade me in for a new model any time he likes.”
“Not if you’re a star.”
“That’s something to look forward to then, isn’t it? Bunny cleaning up after you. But he’s not doing it now. I’m just a big ‘maybe’ to him. You know how many chances you get in this town?”
“Not even. Half, maybe. And nobody gives it to you. You just keep working and one day you get lucky.” She opened her hand to the set. “This is mine. If the picture works, maybe I get the other half, a real chance. That’s after ten years. A Greyhound from Newark. Nobody fixes anything for me. Anyway, fix what?”
“You close a file, nobody asks any questions. Nobody’s embarrassed. That’s all.”
“And I’m the embarrassment.”
“Maybe Danny was. A married man. They have plans for you.”
The buzzer sounded.
“One sec.” She turned to Ben. “Look, what happened-this business about giving somebody the brush. He wasn’t planning to do that, was he? I mean to me. He didn’t tell you that.”
She nodded, holding on to it. “Thanks. This is a funny kind of conversation to be having. I never thought of him as dead. I knew it wouldn’t last-but not like this.”
“Why wouldn’t it last?”
“Well, they don’t, do they? These things.” She shrugged. “They’re all still in love with their wives, I think.” She brushed the front of her skirt, smoothing it for the shot. “Anyway, they don’t leave them.”
He had lunch with Hal, taking in the pecking order of the commissary. Lasner had nodded to them when they came in, a sign of favor from the head table, but nobody got up to ask them to join the group, sober gray and pinstripe suits except for Bunny in his camel hair jacket. The writers were more casual, hound’s tooth checks and plaids, noisy with laughter, as if they’d just moved the table over from the Derby on Vine. The actors stayed with their production units, eating salads in period dress and seating themselves by salary levels. Otherwise, technicians talked shop with each other. The room itself seemed the one place on the lot where Lasner, or Bunny, had been willing to spend money-chair backs of curved chromium tubes, lacquered tables and sleek sconces, a Cedric Gibbons set.
“Who’s that with Sam Pilcer?” Hal said, nodding to a table near the window where Julie Sherman was huddled with a short man in a double-breasted suit.
“That was fast. The ink can’t even be dry on the contract yet. You want me to introduce you?”
“Later. Not in front of Sam.”
Ben smiled but looked over again uneasily. Julie was leaning forward, her full attention on Pilcer. Is this how Danny had done it? A drink and a promise? Then a quick trip to the Cherokee-except they’d never gone there, only the once. A place paid for by the month.
“They’re wrapping today,” Hal was saying. “Maybe I’ll run into her at the party. Without Sam.”
“Rosemary’s picture? What about her?”
“Chances with her.”
Hal shook his head, protective. “She’s not- She’s got talent.”
Ben looked at him, surprised he’d made the distinction. “Talent.”
“Watch her on the set. A pro. On time, knows her lines. No high-hatting, ever. Knows your name. She does the job.” He looked at Ben. “Then she goes home.”
But not always. Sometimes she went to La Jolla.
“The papers have her out with Ty Power.”
“Yeah, well,” Hal said. “You know these pictures they put her in, she’s got the figure for it, but she’s not like that.” He looked again toward Julie’s table. “You want to get something going, ask her if she has a friend. What?”
“Just thinking,” Ben said, then gathered up his tray. “I have to make a call.”
On his way out he couldn’t resist another sidelong glance-Pilcer even closer now, smiling, telling her all the things he could do for her. What men must have said to Rosemary, too, while she waited for half a chance. But she’d believed Danny.
Kelly was in a rush, claiming to be on deadline.
“Quick question,” Ben said. “One sec.”
“Long time no hear.”
“Nothing to tell.”
“Yeah, I know. This one’s heading for the fridge. So what do you want to know?”
“When did Danny take up the lease at the Cherokee? Did anybody ever say? Last spring?”
“No, first of the year. They didn’t say, I asked. I’m a reporter.” A cheeky Dick Powell. “Why do you want to know?”
Why would he?
“I’m checking the loan-outs. Helps to have a time, when she might have been here.”
“First of the year. You’re still on this, huh?”
“I’ll tell you something. The way it works? At a certain point you think, I’m just spinning wheels. It’s getting late. I can feel the chill on this one already. How many weeks now? And all I got is one girlfriend who wasn’t there.”
“The Miller kid. On your contract list,” he said, a tiny delay, making a point.
“How do you figure that?”
“I showed glossies to the night clerk, the real one, not Joel. He ID’d her. But not Joel. Never saw her. So I checked her out. And he’s right, she wasn’t there that night. So, nothing.”
“You never told me.”
“Keep your pants on. Tell what? We don’t have anything if she wasn’t there, a hit and run. If I ran an item on everyone who got laid, there wouldn’t be enough paper. So they screwed around and he’s dead, but where’s the connection? No story.”
“But you ran it down anyway.”
“It’s always nice to know. Something to put on the layaway plan. Might come in handy, you never know.”
“If she makes it,” Ben said. “Then you can give it to Polly.”
“Tch, tch, is that nice? Anyway, what’s in it for Polly? He’s dead. Sorry, I didn’t mean-but he is. And not a star. So the only way it plays now is if she is and he was the secret love of her life. Which doesn’t sound like it was. The clerk saw her once. You can’t do much with a one-nighter, not even Polly.”
Ben said nothing. One night. La Jolla, the Biltmore, all the others still hers, not tucked away in anyone’s file.
“Hey, speaking of which, you know the Fed at the Market you asked me to check out?”
“Yeah, the Technical Consultant. Turns out he was. Republic paid him. Worked for your brother on the series, just like he said. So.”
“Why speaking of which,” Ben said, trying to follow.
“Oh, Polly’s secretary. You said he came to the funeral with Polly, so I figured she’d know him.”
“Well, I told you, they never retire, they just find other garbage to go through. He’s been freelancing for Tenney-you know the one with the committee. A bunch of old hands from the Bureau dig around for him. He sends stuff over to Polly, and sometimes Riordan takes it. That’s how Polly knows him. Tenney stays clear, so nobody figures where the stuff is coming from.”
“So he’s a messenger?”
“More like a supplier. Anyway, he’s who he says he is. And a little more. Christ, there’s the ME, I have to go.”
“Wait, one more thing. The clerk who ID’d Rosemary? He saw her? They didn’t go through the back?”
“No, he saw her. They must have come in the front. I gotta run. You want, I’ll keep poking around, but this is already going away. What I can’t figure is the studio. But maybe they got trigger happy-grabbed the phone before there was anything to cover up. It happens, you get nervous about people. Maybe they don’t like Rosemary screwing around. But that doesn’t get us anywhere. We need someone there that night. Or every night-the romance that broke his heart. But all we’ve got is a jump. Yesterday.”
Check the loan-outs. Danny had rented the Cherokee months before Rosemary. Maybe for someone he didn’t bring through the front door. He started out for Personnel to get the monthly lists, but got sidetracked by Hal instead, excited about something.
“I was thinking about the guards,” he said, leading Ben to the cutting room. “You know the faces are hard to see. Medium pan shots, nothing closer.”
“It’s newsreel film. Army. They don’t do close-ups.” Heads tilted up to the light, long lashes making shadows.
“Right. But take a look at this.” At the Moviola, a frozen frame of the guards being led away. “Just for the idea. It’s a work print. But they should have the camera originals in Culver City. Now look.”
He took a lens and held it over a section of the viewer so that a single face leapt out of the frame.
“Blow up the negative here. Show his face.”
Ben looked at the spot enlargement, the guard’s eyes caught forever on a piece of film. In the full running shot he’d be turning away from the camera, a close-up of shame itself.
“It’ll cost, though, the lab work. You’re not just splicing.”
“What if the quality’s not good enough? The stock’s grainy.”
“Wet-gate print it.”
“Before you transfer. It takes out the scratches. We always do it with a sixteen-millimeter transfer. Come back here, I’ll show you.”
Ben followed him, not really wanting to take the time but feeling obligated. He had felt in Hal’s eyes the line worker’s mild contempt for the foreman still learning the fundamentals. The whole technical side of film-making-the developing tanks, the chemical emulsions, the synchronized sprockets-were things handled by someone else. They went through heavy double doors to a big factory space of drying rooms and machines that made the transfer from light to image, Merlin’s workshop.
“See, the transfer’s clear,” Hal said, leading him to a machine. “But you couldn’t close in on this. Depends on the exposure, what light was retained.” He pointed to the sample, an indoor shot of people lying in bunks. “You blow up these faces, you don’t have enough resolution. Like a night shot. See what I mean?”
Ben looked at the faces, visible now as individuals, but slightly blurred, not good enough for full-scale projection.
“I tried printing with more light, but you can’t get the background up. Too dark in the first place.”
He reversed the process, the faces slipping back into a formless crowd.
“But the other stock we can work with.”
Shadowy faces in a crowd. Ben stood still, eyes fixed on the enlarging mechanism.
“Hal,” he said, not looking at him, thinking. “You can do this with any picture, right? Bring up the background.”
“Depends how it was printed. If you can work from the negative, you can pretty much get whatever’s there.”
“The negative,” Ben said, elsewhere.
“That’s right. Then you control the printing, kind of coax it out.”
Ben looked at his wristwatch. “How long would it take? Blow up some negatives? Stills?”
“No time. What stills?”
Ben touched his upper arm. “I’ll be back. Keep the machine free, okay?”
In the car he tried to remember the lighting in the pictures, windows shining down on the Cherokee alley, the glare of a police flashbulb, a few people standing near the body, the rest outside the circle of light, like dots in an afterimage. He tried to remember the women-a distraught neighbor, anyone from the studio, maybe even Rosemary herself, who hadn’t been there-but all he’d really looked at before was the body.
Iris’s car was in the driveway so he parked on the street and walked around to the back of the house, the French doors wide open, another invitation to rifle through Danny’s desk. Liesl was in the kitchen grating potatoes, her face pink from the work, wisps of hair spilling down out of the pile on top.
“Oh! What are you doing here?”
“Just picking something up.” Wanting to go over to her, touch her arm, but aware of Iris at her ironing board. “I thought you were going to keep the doors locked.”
“Well, at night. Oh, now you won’t be surprised.” She waved the knife. “I wanted to surprise you. My roast chicken.”
He nodded to the mixing bowl. “What’s that?”
“Kartoffelpuffer.” A hesitant smile. “I told you I could cook.”
“What did Riordan say? About the locks.”
“The man I sent over to check the house.”
“No one’s been here.”
Ben looked at his watch. Cutting it close or not coming. Or maybe he’d been there without announcing himself, playing burglar.
“That’s a lot of food. Are people coming?”
“No, just us,” she said, looking at him, her eyes soft. “It’s going to rain, I think. So it’s cozy, eating in.”
He held her stare for a second, trying not to smile in front of Iris, then headed to the study.
The photographs were just as he’d remembered, Danny lying with a dark smear around his head, people huddled at the edge of the flash. Two angles with two backgrounds, one of the parking area, the other leading to the street. He looked carefully at the faces in front but still didn’t recognize anybody. They’d be neighbors, rushing out at the sudden sound, then the police lights, something more exciting than the radio. But who were the people right behind them? He slipped out the written reports, leaving the prints and negatives in the envelope.
“When will you be home?” Liesl said, then flushed, the simplest domestic question now somehow suggestive. “I only ask because of the chicken.”
“I’m supposed to see Riordan after work. If he shows. Eight, eight-thirty?”
“Yes, all right. But you’ll call if you’ll be late? So I know.”
This time he did smile, not caring whether Iris saw. Something any couple might say.
Hal looked at the pictures, waiting for Ben to explain.
“What exactly are we looking for?”
“People you can’t see clearly in the prints.”
“They’re dark.” He held up one of the negatives to the light, then turned it on its side, looking at the numbers in the margin. “These are police? Where’d you-?” He stopped, still waiting. “Who’s the victim?”
Ben nodded. “I want to see who was there. Somebody from the building, maybe. Anybody I could talk to.”
Hal looked at him, skeptical, then took up the negatives. “Okay, let’s go to work.”
Ben watched, fascinated, as Hal manipulated the negatives, enlarging, then disappearing into the darkroom with its trays of solutions. But even the studio couldn’t produce a miracle. In the shot looking toward the parking lot, faces were barely visible, even blown up. The alley angle was better, street lamps at the end providing a kind of backlight. They looked at the enlargements together, Ben hoping that Hal, familiar with everyone on the lot, might suddenly recognize somebody. But they were all anonymous, caught unexpectedly in suspenders and house dresses, one woman in curlers, hand over her mouth.
“You can tell the cops by the hats,” Hal said, examining a new print. “Everyone else just rushed out, I guess. Look, back there in the alley. You can always tell, can’t you?”
“So why is he in the alley, not with the others? He’s just someone off the street. Who’s the woman next to him? Can we get in closer on her?”
“Closer? Not much. A few more degrees, you’ll get a blotch. But let’s try one.”
When the print was done, it was just clear enough. Ben looked, then went rigid, stunned.
“She looked better in the dark,” Hal said. “But the hat-pure cop. You still think he’s in off the street?”
“No, he’s a cop,” Ben said slowly. “Ex-FBI.”
His parking space was behind Admin B, but when he got there he put the keys back in his pocket. He could use the walk to clear his head. He passed the choked line of cars at the gate, all heading home at once, then the small knot of picketers, and turned down Gower. Where they used to shoot Westerns, under roofs of cheesecloth. Today they wouldn’t need to filter the light-the day, cloudy before, was overcast and thick, already growing faint. How long had Riordan been in the alley? In the picture, he’d been craning his neck to see, just another curious bystander. But how could he have been? Someone Danny knew. Who had never made himself known, not on any of the reports, a hat in the crowd. Wanting to see, maybe wanting to make sure.
Lucey’s was more than a few blocks, a longer walk than he expected, so he was late when he pushed open the door and took a second to adjust to the dim light inside. The after-work drinkers had already piled in from Paramount, but Riordan had managed to get a table and he signaled Ben through the crowd with a two-finger wave.
“I went ahead and ordered,” he said, pointing to two glasses. “Try getting a waitress in this. Beer okay?”
Ben sat down, putting the envelope next to Riordan’s hat. “So,” he said, letting Riordan take the lead.
“So you need to do something about the pool doors.”
“Oh,” Ben said, looking over at him, the same military short hair, steady eyes, but everything different now, someone who’d been in the alley. “Is that how you got in?”
“They’d be easy to jimmy,” he said, not picking up on this. “I noticed at the funeral.”
“And that’s why you didn’t bother going over today.”
Riordan said nothing.
“Or because you already knew how he got in Saturday. Did you do it yourself, or did you send someone else? In case.”
Riordan picked up his glass, staring at Ben over the rim as he drank, buying a minute.
“If I’d done it, you wouldn’t have known anybody was there,” he said finally.
“So someone else. But you’d tell him what to look for. Now you want to tell me?”
“You think I knocked over your place? What for?”
“For something you didn’t get. Maybe I can help.”
“You’re going in circles.”
“And I keep coming back here. You were tailing him. You’re still tailing him. A dead man. What do you want? Didn’t you have enough on him already? A nice big file down in Tenney’s office.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know you work for Tenney. Take love notes to Polly. God knows what else. Keep tabs on Liesl’s father, dangerous characters like him. So we can sleep safe at night. While you’re breaking into the house.”
“I don’t work for Tenney.”
“Were you getting stuff on Danny while he was paying you? Maybe little notes on his love life. Tenney likes that, I hear.”
“Where is this coming from?” Riordan said evenly. “Your information’s old. I don’t work for Tenney. I did. A while ago. But that’s a while ago. And by the way, I’m not tailing Ostermann.”
“You just like having lunch at the Farmers Market.”
Riordan sat back, his eyes steady on Ben.
“You going to tell me what this is all about?”
Ben slid the envelope to Riordan. “Have a look.”
Ben watched him open the envelope and take out the picture, his face registering no emotion at all, a practiced blank. But when he did raise his eyes, they had a new directness.
“Where did you get this?”
“The police had it. They just didn’t know what they had.”
“What did they have?”
“Someone he knew, right at the scene, who didn’t identify himself. Just stood there watching him bleed out. They might be interested in that. I was.”
“And they might want to know more. Show your picture around- do those things the police do. To see what connection there might be.”
“They have any reason to do that?”
Ben shrugged. “A courtesy to the family. After they start making noise. Plus interfering with police procedures. Getting a report changed. They really don’t like that. Unless they’re the ones doing it, but that can’t be all of them, can it?”
“And I’m supposed to be the one asking.”
“Continental asked. But the studio had to get a call from somebody who was there. Otherwise it’s too late, the time doesn’t fit. I’ve been looking for the girlfriend, whoever he must have been meeting. But the girlfriend wasn’t there. You were. The meeting was with you?”
Riordan said nothing.
“So we’re back in the circle again-what were you doing there?”
“Maybe I happened to be passing by.”
“Who can say different?”
“Well, there’s the call. Why call Bunny if you’re just passing by.”
“He told you this?”
“Not a word. Loose lips sink ships. Your secret’s safe with him. I just figured. But put him under oath and he’s not going to keep ducking and weaving-he’ll have other things to think about. So will you. The police might want to change the accident report again. Make it a criminal case this time.”
“What are you saying? You think I killed him?”
Riordan looked at him sharply. “Nobody else thinks so.”
“Just the two of us, huh?”
Riordan paused for a minute, staring at him, then nodded. “But I don’t know it. Neither do you.”
“Then you won’t mind if the police give us a hand. So we’ll all know.” Ben slid the picture back. “I can get more made, if you’d like one.”
Riordan sat forward, his shoulders hunched. “We need to talk.”
“You think you know something, but you have things a little confused. So let’s put them straight. First, I didn’t kill your brother. And you don’t think so either or you wouldn’t be sitting here. Kind of a dangerous thing to say to somebody if it were true.”
“Why? Because you’d plug me here in Lucey’s?”
“You won’t always be in Lucey’s,” Riordan said calmly. “And you can save the tough guy talk. I know people who really are tough.”
“What are they like? You?”
“They don’t talk much at all. Second, you’re not going to the cops. You don’t have anything to give them except a picture that doesn’t mean much. And you start anything, they’ll mess it up. You don’t want any mess with this. They closed it out as an accident, keep it that way.”
“Thanks to you.”
Riordan opened his hand, conceding the point.
“You don’t want anybody nosing around. Trust me on that.”
“I know what Danny was. You must, too, or you wouldn’t have been hounding him. More Red meat. Is that why you didn’t want it as a suicide? They’d blame you for hounding him?”
“I wasn’t hounding him.”
“Then what were you doing at the Cherokee? We’re back there again,” he said, tapping his finger on the photo.
“I was keeping an eye.”
“Jesus,” Ben said, turning his head in disgust. “And what did you think when you saw him there? What was in your head? One less Red? Keeping an eye.”
“You want to listen to this or just get up on a soapbox? I was keeping an eye because something was wrong. I knew your brother. We did business together. And then all of a sudden he was acting funny. Upset. And I thought, which? Is he upsetting himself or is somebody upsetting him? So I started keeping an eye, friendly, to see what was going on. That night I’m sitting in the car on Cherokee. No idea what he was doing there. A woman? Maybe. I see him go in, but I don’t see anyone else. So somebody who lives there. Then the crash. People come running out. I go take a look. And there he is.” He pointed to the picture. “The police come right away. Everybody’s talking in the alley, he’s a jumper. That fairy night clerk, carrying on. And I get that he rents there, it’s his place. And I think, this is going to be a mess.”
“So you decide to be the janitor.”
“You know what happens? A suicide, anything suspicious? They’re going to seal the place. Make an investigation. That’s not going to do anybody good.”
“Not you anyway. How does it look? You go after somebody and he finally runs so hard he jumps. That’s not the kind of press Tenney needs. What his files are really doing to people.”
Riordan sat back. “Whoa,” he said, putting up his hand in a stop gesture. “Look, you’re not playing with a full deck here. That’s not how it was.”
“Nobody was chasing him. He was working with me. He was a source.”
For a second, even the sounds of Lucey’s seemed to fall away, his head stopped up with a cotton numbness.
“What kind of source,” he said quietly.
“A source. He gave me names. Things to follow up. You’ve got this backwards. He helped make the files.”
“I don’t believe that,” Ben said, suddenly chilled, his blood stopped for a minute.
Riordan shrugged. “That doesn’t change anything.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
“I can show you reports. In the files.”
Ben said nothing, still digesting this. Then he looked down to the photo.
“You bastard,” he said. “That’s why you thought he jumped. That he couldn’t live with himself anymore.”
Riordan looked away, embarrassed. “People are unpredictable.”
“Especially informers. They turn on everybody. Then themselves. Is that it?”
“What are you talking about? Informer. He was a patriot.”
“Jesus Fucking Christ. A patriot. What did you do to make him do it? What club did you use.”
“You’ve got this wrong. Nobody made him do anything. We were all on the same side in this.”
“He was a Communist.”
“In Germany. Was. He saw what it meant. Right here.” He held his hand close to his face. “You see it that clear, you want to do something.”
“Like shop people to you.”
Riordan took a breath. “Sometimes, you stop believing in something, you go the other way. You hate it.”
“And hate yourself.”
“No, not like that.”
“Then why did you think he’d jumped?”
Riordan looked away again. “People get ideas. You never know how they’re going to-” He stopped, leaning forward. “But that’s why. It didn’t make sense to me, the way I knew him. So I thought, what if it wasn’t? Just the way you did. I thought, what if he had help? Someone who knew. Wanted him stopped.”
“Communists, you mean. At it again. Is that the way you think Party discipline works? Throw people out of windows. You should go to work for Minot.”
Riordan looked at him. “I do.”
“You work for Minot?”
“It’s not a secret.”
Ben studied him again, as if he were moving pieces of his face, seeing him new, rearranged. “And that’s why Bunny made the call,” he said, half to himself. “Not for you.”
“Ken doesn’t forget a favor.”
“And nobody would know Danny was feeding you. Minot’s own Bureau.”
“Just one of the field agents,” Riordan said smoothly. “Tenney recommended me.”
“After all your good work there.”
“You want to be a wiseass, go ahead. I don’t care. Your brother knew what was what. Maybe you will, too, someday. Everybody will. Minot’s going to take this national.”
“Take what national?”
“The threat in the industry.” He held out his hand, stopping a passing waitress. “You want another?”
Ben looked at his beer, scarcely touched, then sat back, staring at the picture. Riordan waited, letting him catch his breath.
“Why would he do it?”
“Why wouldn’t he? It’s the right thing to do.”
Ben looked up at him. “To fight the threat. Which one? Betty Grable taking over the government?”
“You think it’s a joke. It’s not. This is a war of ideas.”
“What’s the last idea you saw in the movies?”
Riordan said nothing, not wanting to quarrel.
“How long was all this?” Ben said. “How long did you know him?”
“Couple of years. Since the Bureau. He was a friend to the Bureau.”
“What kind of friend?”
“We asked for some help, he gave it.”
“You asked for help? What, go through Herb Yates’s mail?”
“We don’t need people for that. We know what people say, what they write to each other. What we need to know is what they think. Your brother had special access.”
“To whom?” Ben said, chilled again, apprehensive.
“He did us a service. But I think he did them a service, too. Wartime, the Bureau has to keep an eye on enemy aliens. It’s our job. But you don’t want to make people uncomfortable. Not if they’re what they say they are.”
“He spied on his friends?” Ben said, suddenly seeing the exile faces at the funeral, Heinrich and Alma and Feuchtwanger. Hans and Liesl. Family.
“I wouldn’t use that term. He reassured us, that’s closer. That they were all right. Well, Brecht I still wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw. But we got nothing yet, so we can’t touch him. Eisler we already knew. And the Mann kid’s a fruit, that’s always a risk. The others, harmless, more or less. But we had to know that. So like I say, he did everybody a service.”
“The Bureau spied on them? These people risked their lives. Fighting Nazis.”
“So they say. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good for America. They have a different idea of politics over there. You ask me to tell you the difference between a Nazi and a Communist and what would I say? This much?” He held up two fingers, a tiny space apart. “At the Bureau we call them Communazis-they’re both on the same side, so why not put them together? We needed to keep tabs. Your brother saw it. How the Reds tried to use them-small stuff, innocent, put your name on a letter, then maybe not so innocent. He was worried about them being used. We knew how he felt.”
“How? You tap his phone?”
Riordan ignored this. “So we asked him to help. You know, the Bureau, it’s hard to say no. Wartime, it’s a patriotic duty.”
“And then you kept asking.”
“He saw how it was going in the industry. So he gave me a hand.”
“Real pals.” Ben looked again at the alley picture. “But you couldn’t even go over to the body, see if you could help. Just stood there thinking how to cover your ass.”
“He was dead. I thought he was dead.”
“How’s that feel? Having someone’s blood on your hands?”
Riordan glanced up at the returning waitress, but she seemed not to have overheard, smiling as she put down his glass and moved on. He took a sip of his beer.
“How do you figure that?”
“First you think he jumped because he got disgusted with himself. For what? The work he was doing for you. That’s what you thought, isn’t it?”
Riordan said nothing.
“But what if somebody killed him. Who would that be? Who’d hate him that much? How about somebody he sold out to you?” He picked up the photo, both of them glancing at it again, back in the alley, then slid it into the envelope. “Either way it comes back to you,” he said, his voice lower, drained.
Behind him he heard the tinkle of glasses, then a roll of thunder. He turned to the window, even darker now, and suddenly thought of the window on the Chief, looking out at the endless bright fields, everything getting bigger and more open, golden, the way he imagined Danny’s life had become, not shadowy and squalid.
“I don’t see it that way,” Riordan said. “He did what he thought was right. I didn’t kill him. But somebody did. You’re his brother. If you’d stop spitting at me for two minutes, maybe we could help each other out.”
Ben stared for a second, hearing the voice, steady and reasonable, then separating it from the words. What he might have said to Danny, help each other out, while he wrapped the coil around him. Ben stood up.
“It’s still on them,” he said, nodding to Riordan’s hands. He reached into his pocket to pull out some money, then stopped. “I’ll let you get this one.”
He didn’t turn until he was at the door, seeing Riordan drop some change on the table.
Outside it had finally begun to rain, heavy sheets of it, so that he was trapped under the small awning. The Mediterranean hills had disappeared, even the Paramount water tower, leaving a few flat streets with running gutters and a tangle of overhead wires.
“Christ,” Riordan said, coming out. “Where’s your car?”
Riordan looked at him, puzzled, a joke he didn’t quite get. “I’m there,” he said, pointing to a car. “Come on, I’ll drop you.”
“I’ll wait it out.”
Riordan gave him a suit-yourself shrug, then turned up the back of his collar, ready to dart to the car. “By the way,” he said. “You’re going in circles again. You think it’s somebody he gave me. If he’d already done that, it’d be too late, wouldn’t it? No point then. Right?”
He dashed out into the rain, fumbling with his keys, and got into his car. The rain was blowing in under the awning. In a real city there’d be taxis or a bus rumbling along. Ben watched Riordan’s car move into the street. Circles. No point then. Right?
Riordan pulled up in front and rolled down his window. “Don’t be a jerk. Get in.”
Ben looked at the rain again, feeling the bottom of his pants already wet, and sprinted to the passenger door.
“You’ve got a short fuse,” Riordan said, pulling out into traffic.
Ben brushed the front of his jacket, damp in patches.
“I liked him, you know. Whatever you think.”
“Yeah,” Ben said. He took out a cigarette and lit it. They were passing RKO. Only a few blocks, the windshield wipers keeping rhythm. “Everybody did.”
Even as a kid, friends clung to him, following him home. Jokes about the teachers, plans for later. But what had he felt about them? Nothing can lie like a smile. Kaltenbach spoke of him as a hero. But Danny must have filed reports on him, too. Long talks with Liesl’s father-taken down later? Bedtime reading for Riordan. Who must have supplied the lever. Maybe not blackmail, a plot out of Partners, just a soft pressure point, and then he was in it. But at least part of him must have wanted to be. Sometimes you stop believing, you go the other way. But when had it happened? Had he enjoyed it? Even justified it to himself-keeping the wolf away from innocent people? But not from everybody. How did it feel, giving Riordan a name?
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Riordan was saying. “It’s a funny thing to say, but I’m glad it’s this way. That he didn’t do it to himself. I’d hate to think that.”
“Just as long as everybody else does.”
Riordan was quiet for a minute. “You’ve got some mouth on you. That’s not even fair. I got it changed.”
Ben rolled down the window and tossed the cigarette. The quick storm had slowed to a light drizzle. “Just up here,” he said.
At the Continental gate they idled behind a white convertible with a canvas top, its tail lights bathing the trunk in neon red. Even the cars were different here, bright pieces of color, not gray jeeps and flatbed convoys. Like waking up in Oz. Maybe it had been that simple, not some blinding light on the road to Damascus. Maybe Danny had just seen a red convertible, an aqua swimming pool, and decided to leave the old world behind.
“Why Bunny?” Ben said suddenly. “Why ask Bunny? Doesn’t Minot know anybody downtown?”
“Picture people. Call comes from the studio, they figure the usual, a dame, maybe high on weed. Something. A congressman calls, they wonder. People talk. And word gets out.” He looked at Ben. “How’d you hear, by the way?”
Ben said nothing, turning back to the gate.
“Right,” Riordan said slowly, doing a sum in his head. “Your pal at the Market. Little Jimmy Olsen.”
“Did Bunny know why?”
Riordan shook his head. “Just a favor.”
“So Danny’s a drunk. Another studio mess. But not a snitch.”
“Snitch. He was your brother. What do you want to beat him up like that for?”
“I beat him up?” Ben said, looking over at Riordan.
“You’re doing it now. What he did-”
“You’re right,” Ben said, tired of it. “Maybe you didn’t, either. Maybe he beat himself up.”
“He didn’t do anything to himself. That’s the point. Somebody else did. So who?”
“Check your files.”
“You didn’t listen before. If I know, it’s too late. Somebody wanted to stop him. It’s somebody he hadn’t told me about yet.”
Ben watched the tail lights pass through.
“We could help each other out,” Riordan said.
Ben turned to him, meeting his eyes.
“That’s what you were looking for in his desk,” he said finally. “Another name.”
“It’s the same one you want, isn’t it?”
He walked through the gate and heard music, people singing around a piano. The door of Sound Stage 4 was open, light pouring out onto the wet pavement. To one side, holding an umbrella, Bunny stood watching, his figure oddly poignant, like one of the waifs he used to play, nose pressed against the glass.
He was in a belted raincoat, dressed to go-where? Ben had never imagined him off the lot. But he must have a life somewhere, maybe a house on the beach, a bungalow in one of the canyons. Where he took phone calls at night, doing favors. Something he must have done a dozen times, just putting things right. A call the police understood, coming from him-studio business, another embarrassment to keep out of the papers. Not asking Riordan why, just holding the favor in his hand like an IOU. Not talking about it, either, certainly not to the unexpected brother, who kept poking at it.
Ben stopped. According to Riordan. It was still a call to the police, not something Bunny would do without knowing why. What had Riordan said to him? Or didn’t he have to say anything?
“It’s stopped raining,” Ben said, coming up to him.
He looked at Ben, distracted, then up at the dark sky and closed the umbrella. “So it has.”
“You’re not going in?”
On the nightclub set everything was still in place, but the gowns had been traded in for ordinary skirts, the men back in casual trousers and V-neck sweaters, even the cocktail glasses replaced by bottles of beer. Platters of food had been set up along the bar.
“No, you don’t want to barge in on a wrap party. Breaks the mood.”
The piano player shifted to a new song, the small knot of singers laughing as they picked it up.
“No fun with the boss around?”
Bunny shook his head. “Ever work on a picture?” he said, smiling a little, his voice distant. “For six weeks, eight weeks, whatever the shoot is-the minute this door closes everything else goes away. Everything. There’s just the crew, what you’re doing that day, getting the take right. That’s all. Like family. Closer. Then it’s over.” He nodded to the set where Rosemary was being lifted onto the bar next to the piano. “And you pretend you’re relieved, but-now what? You don’t want outsiders, not at the end. Well,” he said, catching himself, “listen to me.”
“You must miss it.”
“Well, of course you miss it. It’s the whole point. All the rest of it-” He waved his hand. “Remember Castaway? My first picture. A hundred years ago. We opened at the Pantages. My first time. I’d never seen anything like it before-the flashbulbs, people yelling your name. I was on the radio. And I thought, well, this is all right, this is it. But it wasn’t. This was it,” he said, looking at the set. “You can get things right. Perfect, sometimes. A perfect take. You can never get things right out here.” He looked down at his watch. “Still, here we are. And I’m late, I’m late,” he said, doing the White Rabbit.
“No rushes tonight?”
“Not tonight,” he said, closing down, moving back into the life Ben knew nothing about, as secret as Danny’s. Ben looked over at him. The one Riordan had called.
“You’re all wet, by the way,” Bunny said, starting to move. “Better get dried off.”
“I got caught. I was having a drink at Lucey’s with a friend of yours.”
Bunny turned, trying to read his face.
“What a busy little bee it is. Buzz, buzz,” he said slowly. “And what did he have to say?”
“Not much. He knew my brother.”
“Oh yes? His nickel or yours?”
“His. A condolence call.”
Bunny took a second, fiddling with the umbrella. “You want to have a care there. You know who he is?”
Ben nodded. “One of Minot’s field hands. Don’t worry, I told him you said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.”
“That’s not funny. What did he ask you?”
“About you? You didn’t come up.”
“Then why did you say he was a friend of mine?”
Ben shrugged. “I figured you’d know everybody on Minot’s staff.”
“We just talked about Danny.”
“Was this after your chat with Rosemary?” Not making a point, just letting him know. “Quite a day for old times.”
Ben hesitated. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why the big mystery? You knew what I was looking for-”
“Tell you what?” Bunny said, then looked away, switching gears. “It wasn’t mine to tell. Yours, either.”
“You said you didn’t know him.”
“I said I’d never met him. I knew who he was. Hard not to, considering.”
“So it must have been a relief.”
Bunny peered at him. “Are you trying to get me to say something unpleasant? Why? I’m sorry for your loss, all right? Let’s leave it at that.”
“All I wanted was to talk to her. I knew there’d been someone.”
“And do you feel better now? Any more skeletons in the closet or are we ready to move on?”
“I don’t know, are there?”
But Bunny didn’t rise to this. “Usually. People are disappointing once you get to know them. I find. You’d do better remembering the good times. I assume there were?”
“Well, hold on to those,” he said archly, patting Ben’s upper arm. He glanced through the door. “Now let’s let her have her party in peace. Anyway, I’m late.” He began to move away again.
“Why’d you make the call?”
Bunny was quiet for a second. “ Les freres Kohler, ” he said finally, rhyming. “One was trouble. Now two.”
“You didn’t answer.”
“All right. What call?”
“The one you made to the police.”
“Again? You’re like a record with a skip. Back and back.”
“The one Riordan asked you to make. Why you?”
“Did he? Tell you what, now that you’re chums, why don’t you ask him?” he said, an end move. He let out a breath with an audible weariness. “Look, we’re stuck with each other for a while. Mr. L insists. Let’s make the best of it.” He nodded toward the sound stage. “For a start, we’ll keep Rosemary to ourselves, shall we? What’s done is done. No need to upset anyone. There’s the grieving widow to consider.”
“Is that why the screen test? Something for the wronged party?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bunny said, genuinely put out. “Screen tests aren’t favors. Not mine. You think we’re all Sam Pilcer?” He looked up, feeling the drizzle begin again, cooling his mood. “I think she has something.”
“Besides an accent.”
“So did Bergman, when she started. You can work with an accent, if there’s something there.” He looked again at the sound stage. “Whatever it is. Some quality.”
“And you think she has that?”
“Haven’t the faintest. She moves well, that’s what I noticed. But you can’t know anything until you see film. It’s not what you see, it’s what the camera sees. What quality it brings out. You have to have that.”
“What was yours?” Ben said.
Bunny looked at him, then smiled, amused. “Innocence, I think.”
After Bunny left, Ben stood for a while watching the party, invisible in the dark outside. There was a cake, somebody’s birthday, with candles to blow, then whoops and applause. He wondered if Bunny had had a cake on his set, eleven candles, surrounded by beaming grips and the family closer than family. Years like that, closing the world out with a door, until he was outside, too.
He darted back to Admin B, then sat at his desk looking at the photos in the manila envelope. Riordan peering over someone’s shoulder, maybe already planning how to clean up. Not a stranger to it. You’d see things at the Bureau, maybe another informer, tired of it. Except Danny had stayed with Riordan, not yet tired, wanting to-what? Protect the country? From whom? What names had he actually given? It was possible, wasn’t it, that he’d just told them things they already knew, some nimble card shuffle to protect his own flanks and bank a favor or two. But there he was, lying facedown in the alley, evidently not harmless. The same boy who’d been in the bed across the room, talking late into the night. Ben looked at the pictures again, feeling a heaviness in his chest. An informer.
And what about the boy in the other bed? No longer all ears, the eager audience. Now he’d seen things himself, stacks of bodies, a shocked face watching blood gush out. Not a boy anymore, either. Someone who knew the camp guards might be anybody, might be us- and where did we go from there? Now that we were capable of anything? They’d both done things they’d never imagined they’d do. Who was he to blame Danny, making love now to his wife? Maybe he would have helped Riordan, too, done the same thing under the circumstances-which were what exactly?
He shoved the pictures back in the envelope and put them in the drawer. Who knows what Danny’s reasons had been, some twisted apostasy. The point was he’d ended up in the alley. Nothing he could have told Riordan deserved that. A career jeopardized, a reputation? Not a real war, with real casualties. You didn’t kill people yet for name-calling.
Hal had asked him to stop by the cutting room on his way out, a quick check-in, he assumed, but some of the enlarged clips had come back from the lab, so a few minutes became an hour, then two. By the time he headed out to his car, he was already late for the roast chicken, the sort of absentmindedness they wrote into the Blondie series, cut to a scolding or an exasperated sigh at the door. He opened the car door. What were they doing? It’s too soon, she’d said, but done it anyway, gasping. If he thought about it, things flooded in, all the awkward questions. But if you didn’t think about it, it was simple again-the feel of skin. He wanted her because he wanted her. And she clutched him when she came, him, not someone else. No need to go deeper than skin. You could feel alive in it.
“Thank god.” An out-of-breath Lasner, upset, his eyes slightly frantic. “Where the hell’s Bunny?”
“He went off the lot.”
“Where? There’s nobody home. I tried. What, does he have a date for chrissake? Henry took Fay to her cards. So now what? Call a cab?”
“Your car?” Lasner said, eyeing it. “You mind? I appreciate it.”
“You need a lift?”
“Hurry,” Lasner said, opening the passenger door. “Come to think of it, you can talk to her. If she can talk. They didn’t say.”
“Who?” Ben said, getting in.
“The cops called. There’s a crash. The Buick. Lorna said Genia took it out. I didn’t even know she could drive.”
Ben started the car and backed it out. “Where?”
“Go out Sunset. The Palisades. So who does she know out there? She doesn’t know anybody. What’s she doing there?”
At the gate, Lasner leaned over Ben to talk to the guard.
“Carl? Henry comes, tell him I got a lift home, will you?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Lasner,” he said, saluting, a Dick Marshall-army gesture.
“He takes Fay to the cards,” Lasner said to Ben, “and then she likes him to stay. I’m here late anyway, so what the hell. Then something like this happens.”
They went up Gower and made a left on Sunset.
“They got the name off the registration. Lucky Fay’s not home- you imagine, she gets the call? So Lorna says call here. Now the car’s a wreck, I guess. Not that you mind the car. I mean, family. I don’t know, you try to do something nice for somebody and she just sits there. Then it rains, she takes the car out. A night like this.”
“Maybe she was going to see somebody.”
“Who does she know?”
They had passed through Hollywood, then the long featureless stretch before Fairfax, slowing now as they came to the heavier traffic on the Strip, bright from the neon signs over the clubs.
“Who knew she could drive? Who has cars over there? Look at this,” he said, indicating the slick street. “She goes tonight, roads like this.”
“What about the other car?”
“They didn’t say. Maybe she went into a tree, I don’t know. Just come. It’s serious.”
Lasner was quiet for a minute.
“It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? You get through all that business, survive Hitler, and then you come here and-bam.”
“They didn’t say she was dead, did they?”
“No. Just there was an accident. But they don’t on the phone, do they? Christ, imagine how Fay’s going to feel-”
“Let’s wait till we get there.”
Lasner fidgeted as they snaked around miles of houses. When they climbed into the Palisades, he pulled a note out of his pocket.
“Paseo Miramar. On the north side, they said. After Palisades Drive, into Topanga.”
“I know it.”
“What do you mean, you know it? You just got here.”
“Feuchtwanger lives there. A friend of Liesl’s father. I had to drop him off there.”
A Mediterranean villa spilling three stories down the cliff.
“And that’s where she goes for a drive? Christ, look at it.” They had started up the narrow, twisting road, slowing on the sharp curves. “And they put houses here.”
“For the views. That’s the ocean.” He nodded to the string of highway lights in the distance, the dark sea beyond.
They passed Feuchtwanger’s house, dark except for a single light in the study, not expecting visitors. But why even suppose they knew each other? A convenient turnoff up into the hills, maybe even picked at random. He imagined her at the wheel, deliberate, her eyes still blank, the light left somewhere in Poland.
“She comes up here? You know what I’m thinking?” Lasner said, a kind of echo. “It’s a hell of a thing. To do that.” He looked over at Ben, suddenly embarrassed. “Well, I don’t have to tell you.”
At the top there was another turn, then a swarm of lights at the end of a stretch, just before the road looped back. Ben saw an ambulance and a cluster of police cars, lights trained on a splintered section of a wooden barrier fence at the edge of the cliff. One of the policemen was holding back a group of curious neighbors, the same extras, Ben thought, who’d appeared in the Cherokee alley. A flashbulb went off- maybe even the same police photographer. Now a few more shots, catching the group of ambulance workers carrying a litter up the side of the hill and onto the road.
“I made the call,” the policeman in charge said. “Sorry to bring you out, but we need an ID on her. It’s your car.”
Another cop drew back the sheet. Lasner looked down at the body, his face growing slack, then turned away, squeamish.
“Cousin,” Lasner said, almost inaudible.
“You’re next of kin?”
“Close enough. You’ll need to see the ME over there, make the ID. I’m sorry, but we need to do it.”
“What happened?” Ben said, staring at her face, torn by shards of glass where she must have hit the windshield, her hair matted with blood. Her eyes were closed but her mouth was open, as if it were still saying “oh.”
“She went through there,” the cop said, pointing to the broken fence. “Into the canyon. The car didn’t catch fire, so that’s one thing, but a drop like that, be a miracle you survive it. You just get knocked to hell.” He looked up at Lasner. “Sorry.”
Ben looked at the length of road, almost straight after the hairpins coming up.
“What do you think?” he said. “She swerved to avoid another car?”
The cop shook his head. “No sign of that. No skid marks either side. Course the rain didn’t help there. But you get a slippery patch here, you take it a little fast-” He raised his hand, letting them fill in the rest. “We had a hell of a time getting her out. The door stuck.”
But the curve wasn’t sharp, a gradual arc that anyone should have handled easily-unless you hadn’t driven a car in years, or never intended to turn. He looked down at the body again, trying to imagine the last minute, through the fence and then suspended in nothing, waiting for it to be over. Something no one else ever knows, the desperation for release. But what prompts it? Ben wondered, an awkward second, whether he had been part of it, the unexpected reminder, ghosts coming back.
“Reuben, it’s you?”
He turned to find Feuchtwanger, a raincoat over his jacket and tie, the slicked-back hair and wireless glasses formally in place.
“Such a commotion. We saw the lights.” He looked over at Genia’s body, clearly not recognizing her. “Poor woman. Oh, these roads. Marta says it’s no worse than the corniche but me, I think a death trap.” He paused. “But what are you doing here?”
“She’s a cousin,” Ben said, indicating Lasner, huddled now with the ME.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Would you like to come back to the house? Some coffee?” A ritual courtesy.
“No, no, thank you. We have to-” He spread his hand to the accident scene, policemen still moving idly around. “Stay with the body. Sign things.” He looked down at her. “She survived the camps,” he said, perhaps a memory trigger.
But Feuchtwanger still didn’t know her. The sorrow on his face was impersonal, another victim.
“The camps, but not this road,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, what am I doing here? They say in English a rubberneck-it’s amusing, a rubberneck. So.” He looked toward the group of neighbors, still gawking. “Marta wanted to know-all the lights. If you need to telephone, please come to the house.”
Ben nodded a thank-you.
“And coffee one day. Tell Liesl to bring you, we’ll talk. She looked well. So strong. I thought it would kill her, too-the way she felt about him. But no, strong. The father’s daughter.” He looked down at the stretcher. “But so much death.”
Ben stood in the road, watching him walk away. The way she felt about him. But Lion was a romantic, his books filled with duchesses and men in wigs and undying love. He didn’t know she could lean her head into your shoulder, soft, not strong at all. Everybody saw what he wanted to see.
Lasner was almost finished with the police. Once the ID had been made there was little either of them could do except arrange for the car to be towed. He looked again at the road. No skid marks, the policeman had said, but you didn’t need to slam on the brakes to have an accident here. Another car, with its lights in your eyes. The inky darkness of the canyon beyond, making the guard rail hard to see. The slide effect of wet pavement. There were lots of ways it could have happened, all of them easy to believe, unless you had sat with her at dinner and seen her eyes.
Still, why this road? The next turnoff would have taken her up over the coast highway itself, a more dramatic plunge off the cliff into the traffic, a spectacular end. But the etiquette of suicide could be peculiar, oddly discreet. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to make a point, just go quietly, no trouble to anyone.
“Who found her?” Ben said suddenly to the cop. They had pulled the sheet back over her face. “I mean, anybody see it happen? Stop?”
“No. Some kids. See the shoulder over there? It’s a view point, daytime anyway. Sometimes they park there-it’s away from the houses. Nights you don’t get many cars, so it’s-anyway, they’re there, going at it, and when they leave they spot the fence. They take a look and there’s the car, her in it. So they call it in.”
“This was when?”
“Hour ago, maybe. Couldn’t have been too long after she went over. No rigor. Tire marks still fresh. Must have been a quickie.” He caught Ben’s look. “The kids, I mean.”
“Nobody heard the crash?”
“Nobody said. Pretty quiet up here. She’d have the place to herself. Till morning anyway. Then you get the dog walkers.” Hours later, not an instant attraction on the highway. “It’s just lucky it didn’t burn. A few weeks ago, all you’d need is one spark and- woof. ”
But she would burn now, finally the ashes the Germans had wanted. Unless Sol decided to have her buried. He looked over to where Lasner was standing, a little lost. He was avoiding the stretcher, still shaken. But Sol had scarcely known her. It occurred to Ben that their talk at dinner may have been the only real connection she’d made in California, that he had known her better than anyone. Not buried. She’d want to go up in smoke, erasing herself.
Another car had pulled up, with a noisy greeting to the police photographer. Kelly. Ben, not yet seen, went quickly over to Lasner.
“Get in the car,” he said.
“Now. Don’t let him see you, the guy over there-he’s press. If he thinks there’s a studio connection, he’ll do a story. You don’t need that.”
“You’re looking after me now?” he said.
“I know him, I’ll take care of it. Just don’t let him see you. He’ll recognize you. Not her.”
“Another Bunny,” Lasner said, but moved to the car, his face turned away.
Kelly was already at the stretcher with the cop.
“Hey, Kelly,” Ben said. “Chasing ambulances?”
“Hey,” Kelly said, surprised to see him. “It’s a living.” He nodded to the stretcher. “More trouble in the family?”
“Just visiting down the street. We heard the sirens.”
“Visiting,” Kelly said, taking in the neighborhood, an open question.
“If you need to call you could use their phone.”
Kelly turned back to the cop. “Who is it? Anybody?”
The cop passed over a clipboard. “Here,” he said, “I can’t even pronounce it. Copy it if you want. Polish or something. Slid in the rain and went through the fence.”
Ben looked nervously at the form on the clipboard. They’d have the Summit Drive address, a Crestview phone exchange, easy for Kelly to spot. But Kelly didn’t bother to look.
“Polish,” he said, a code for no story. “Anybody else hurt?”
“If so, they took off. Just her.” He lifted the sheet off her face.
“Christ, she did a job on herself, didn’t she? What’s with the head, in the back? You get banged up there, you’re the driver?”
The cop nodded to the cars. “Take one and find out. I’ll give you a push.”
“I’m just saying. A wound like that, it’s consistent with a crash?”
“Kelly, for chrissake, anything’s consistent with a crash. You know that.”
“It’s always got to be something,” he said, taking the clipboard away. “It’s not enough she’s dead. She’s got to be somebody dead.” Ben waited for him to mention Lasner, but evidently the name hadn’t meant anything to him. “If it was Lana Turner, I’d be on the phone to you.”
“If it was Lana, you’d be fucking the corpse. I wouldn’t put it past you.”
“Nice. And all those years in school. You going to write this up or what?”
“A Polack goes in the ditch? My Pulitzer.” He turned back to Ben. “Funny seeing you here.”
“Friend lives down there,” Ben said, cocking his head toward the houses. “Another refugee.”
“Some refugee. You know what these go for?”
“I guess he got his money out.” Ben moved slightly to the left, blocking Kelly’s view of his car.
“I was going to call you.”
“Yes?” Ben said, alarmed. Now what? A new scent? Maybe not just some gossip this time. Now there were worse secrets, the kind that could spread like a stain, touching other people. Things he wouldn’t want Kelly to overhear at Lucey’s.
“Get anywhere with the loan-outs?”
Ben shook his head. “I thought you were giving up on it.”
“Yeah,” said Kelly. “Too bad, though. You hate to leave it, there’s a studio angle. Sometimes it’s like this with a story. It goes and then it comes back. Never close a door.” He held up a finger and smiled. “You know where I got that? Partners in Crime. Remember how Frank always said that?”
Otto’s pet phrase. After he started working for Goebbels.
“Which one were you?” Kelly said. “The younger one?”
“Neither. It’s a movie.”
Kelly nodded, unconvinced. “Well, you hear anything, you know where to reach me.”
“You’re the first call.”
He put the car in a U-turn away from the accident and started back down the hill.
“What was that all about? He’s going to write this up?” Lasner said.
“The only story was, she was related to you, so there’s no story.”
“You forgot to mention it, huh?”
“Mrs. Lasner doesn’t need to see this in the papers. I know what it’s like.”
Lasner looked over at him. “You’re a piece of work. You’re here, what, five minutes? And already you know guys on the paper. Not to mention the goddam Palisades.” They were passing Feuchtwanger’s house, dark now. “Thanks for this,” Lasner said, serious. He was quiet for a minute as they turned onto Sunset, heading back. “It’s a hell of a life, when you think about it. Hiding like an animal. The camp. Now this. To do something like this.”
“There was nothing you could have done,” Ben said quietly.
“I don’t know.”
“What she went through, it breaks something. You can’t fix it. Not just like that.”
“What did she say to you? At dinner. She talk about it?”
“No,” Ben said, avoiding it. “She was sad, Sol. Nothing was going to change that.”
“You give her all this,” Lasner said, glancing out the window, brooding. “You know the best thing that ever happened to me? Getting the hell out. Everybody should have got out. Even now, you want to kiss the ground here. What kind of life could you have there? This country-”
He broke off, as if the thought had overwhelmed him. Ben followed his gaze out the side window, trying to see what he was seeing, the big, sleepy houses and palms and hedges of paradise.
“She asks, tell Fay it was an accident.”
But he didn’t have to say anything. When they pulled into the driveway Fay came running out of the house, and Ben could tell from her face that calls had been made and nothing needed to be explained. Behind her, like a shadow, Bunny stood in the doorway, evidently summoned to wait with her. She hugged Lasner, then put her hands on his chest, smoothing his jacket, a hovering gesture.
“Are you all right?” she said. “Did you eat anything?” she said, her hands still on his jacket. “Come on, I’ll get you something.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“And then you’re weak. It puts a strain.” She patted his chest. “Come on. It was bad?”
Lasner said nothing, moving one of his shoulders.
“Her face, too?”
She shook her head a little, relieved. “You know she was beautiful. Before everything started. You can’t see it now, but she was.” She took his arm to lead him into the house. Bunny stepped aside.
“And where the hell were you?” Lasner said, not really angry.
“Even the maid gets a night off. I’ll make the arrangements tomorrow. Fay said cremation?”
“What shape’s the car in?”
“Scrap, probably.” He pulled a receipt out of his pocket. “Here’s where they tow it.”
“Anybody there from the papers? You want me to-?”
“Ben took care of it,” Lasner said, giving him a thank-you wave.
Bunny hesitated for a moment. “Ah. See you tomorrow then. You want an obit?”
“Who would read it? Who did she know?”
“It’s a question of respect,” Fay said, then to Bunny, “I’ll get you the dates. She was in a few pictures over there. You think they’d be interested in those?”
“They always cut something,” Bunny said, evasive. “But we’ll see.”
He watched them go in, then came over to Ben.
“German silents. From the ’twenties. Just what the papers want.” He looked at Ben. “Who’d you talk to?”
“Kelly from the Examiner. Don’t worry, they already had this one as an accident. You don’t have to make any calls.”
Bunny held his stare, not answering, then said, “How’s Mr. L doing?”
“He’s all right. It’s more the idea of it. He scarcely knew her.”
“Neither of them. I don’t think she said ten words. Except to you.”
Ben glanced up at the big picture window where she’d looked out over what had been bean fields. “She knew my father. It took her back.”
He drove to the Hollywood Hills, his head filled with the grainy clips in Hal’s cutting room. Why did some survive and some break? But maybe it was only a matter of degree. Nobody was the same after. Only the mindless, or the callous, could pretend nothing had happened. The others would feel the weight of it, pressing on them, until they accepted it, part of the air, or it got worse and they drove away from it. Still, why the car? Maybe because it was the one way it wouldn’t have happened there-not gas or starvation, what they used, your own choice.
Liesl was on the couch, smoking, her legs drawn up under her, a script in her lap. When he walked in, she drew on the cigarette, deliberately not saying anything.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t call.”
“I play a daughter,” she said, picking up the script. “So it’s good for me. Something I know.” Not asking where he’d been.
He went over to the tray on the side table and poured a drink.
“She takes care of him, but now she has to go away. So I can just think of my father. What that would be like.”
“You didn’t wait, I hope.”
“No. Daniel would do it sometimes-not come. So I know, don’t wait.” She put out the cigarette. “Of course I thought he was working. That’s all I thought then.”
“There was an accident. I had to take Lasner. Remember the cousin at dinner?”
“Car crash. Near Lion’s, in fact. I saw him. When they pulled her out.”
“You mean she’s dead?”
Ben nodded. “She went into the canyon. Probably killed when she hit, that kind of drop.”
“Oh,” she said, a sound standing in for everything else.
“They’re listing it as an accident.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“No other car. She drove herself off.”
“Oh,” she said again, taking this in. “She did that?”
“It happens, with the survivors. It’s hard to come back.”
“And here I am, thinking about- You’re not surprised at this.”
“No. Neither was Lasner.”
“It’s terrible for them. To be the ones left. It doesn’t end-” she said, her voice private, interior.
He looked over at her. “He didn’t do that to you. That’s not what happened.”
“It feels the same. You can’t put it away somewhere. It’s in your head. Tonight I sat here, I thought, it’s just like before. So foolish-a roast chicken, something as foolish as that. Waiting, just like before. And I thought, it’s happening again. I’m waiting again.”
He went over to the couch, reaching out to put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrank from it, moving away.
She stood up and moved toward the French windows, clutching the sides of her arms, guarded.
“We can’t do this. What happened-all right, it happened. But to keep-” She turned. “You know what I was thinking about tonight? Maybe I’m still angry, that’s why. Like a child, hitting back. You can, I can, too, something like that, I don’t know.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Not for you. I don’t know what it is for you. Maybe something of his. Something crazy like that.”
“Why does it have to be anything?”
“Because he’s still in my head. How can you want me like that?”
“I don’t care.”
“Oh. And that makes it all right.” She shook her head, then moved toward the kitchen, a distraction. “Are you hungry?”
“No. I want to talk.”
“About this? There’s nothing to say. We have to stop. Before something happens.”
“We went to bed. I don’t know why, maybe just to do it.”
“You enjoyed it.”
“Yes, all right. Do you want to hear that? I enjoyed it. But now it’s not so easy.”
Ben was quiet for a second, taking another sip of his drink, waiting for her, a look to get them over it.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“Leave. Where would you go?”
“The Cherokee. I still have the key.”
“Ha. To take women there. Then you can really be him. It’s what you wanted.”
“No, why not?”
“He’s not who I thought he was.”
She looked at him, disconcerted, then turned back to the window, not wanting to pursue it.
“You can’t go to that place. It’s-what’s schaurig?”
“Ghoulish.” She fingered the handle on the window, testing it. “Anyway, I’m afraid here now. The man never came. About the locks.”
“I know. You don’t have to worry. Turns out it was him. Or someone he sent.”
“He wanted to look through Danny’s desk.”
“Like a thief? Why?”
“They used to work together. He wanted some information Danny didn’t get to pass on,” he said, his voice taut.
“I don’t understand. Worked how?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“You can stop waiting for him,” he said, cocking his head toward the couch. “He wasn’t who you thought he was, either.”
“What’s wrong?” she said, her hands fluttery, nervous. “What’s happened?”
“I had a drink. A real eye-opener. With Dennis Riordan. Mean anything to you?”
She shook her head.
“Ex-FBI. They worked together. Danny was keeping an eye on all of you for the Bureau.” He gulped down the rest of the drink, angry at the sound of his own voice.
“All of who?”
“The Germans. All of you. Your father, I suppose. I don’t have the exact list. I’d like to get it, see how far he went. What do you think he told them about Alma? Talk about suspicious characters.” He looked up at her. “You really had no idea?”
“What, that people watched us? Of course, all during the war. My father always said. We had to be careful on the phone. They listened. You had to expect that.”
“But not from your husband. But who better? He was practically a refugee himself. He’d know everyone in the German community-he married into it. Be the most natural thing in the world for him to know what everyone was up to. Just not so natural telling the FBI about it.”
“I don’t believe you. It’s a lie.”
“Riordan told me himself. Why would he lie? What for? Why would I?”
“A man who breaks into the house-you believe him?”
“They got together again later. After the Bureau. Riordan catches Reds for Minot and Danny helped him with that, too. A name here and there-I don’t know how many. But enough to keep Riordan interested. Partners in crime.”
“It’s not true.”
“But he thinks there must be one more name. Somebody Danny didn’t get to tell him about. Whoever killed him. So he had the desk searched. A little clumsy, but he wanted to know. He sends apologies if it frightened you.”
“No, you,” she said, suddenly white, her face drained. “You frighten me.”
“You’ll say anything now, to make me hate him. Any lie. Daniel wouldn’t do that.”
“Yes, he would. He just wouldn’t tell you about it. Like a lot of things.”
She glared at him. “That makes it easier for you? If he was like that. Then it doesn’t matter what we do?” She went over to him, putting her fists on his chest. “Stop it.”
“You think I’d make all this up to go to bed with you? I didn’t have to, remember? I didn’t have to force you, either.”
He took her hands, holding them, close enough to feel her breathing, until she pulled them away. She looked at him, then slumped onto the couch, half-sitting on the back.
“No, you didn’t,” she said quietly. “So it’s another thing I’ve done in my life.”
He touched the side of her face, tentative, waiting for her to turn away, but she leaned into it, letting him work down to her neck.
“I’ll never force you to do anything,” he said.
“No?” she said, staring at the carpet.
“No,” she said wearily. “That wouldn’t be-seemly.” She looked up at him. “The good brother. But not always.”
He took his hand away.
She said nothing, then got up and went over to the window again, pacing.
“And the bad one, who was supposed to do all these things-who was that? I didn’t know anybody like that.”
“Riordan saw the reports.”
“For the moment. He wants to know who killed Danny, too. His own reasons, but so what? He can help. He’s-”
“Expedient,” she said, a test answer.
“A chance. A lead.”
“It was better when it was Rosemary,” she said, picking nervously now at her fingers. “One push. You could believe it.” She paused. “What did he say about my father?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I don’t know what he said about anybody. But we need to, now,” he said, including her, still together. “We need to know what he gave them. See who might have been next.”
“Oh, and they’ll tell you. How are you going to do that?”
“I thought, the way he did.”
She looked over at him.
“Work with them. Be like Danny. The one we didn’t know.”
Minot had suggested Chasen’s for lunch and Dave Chasen himself took them to the table, one of the front booths reserved for regulars and recognizable faces. Greer Garson, near the door, seemed not to know who Minot was, but most of the others parading past the table did, and the lunch was interrupted by a series of hellos and handshakes. A surprisingly public place for such a meeting, but what had he expected? Raincoats in an alley? A murky room, drapes drawn? In real life you talked at Chasen’s, hoping for a mention in the columns.
“The chili here is great,” Minot said, ordering it. “Some people never have anything else.”
“Best in L.A.,” Riordan said, a chorus.
“You notice how good Dave is? Smooth. You’re in, he’s gone. He lets you get on with it. Romanoff, he’s all over you, you can’t get rid of him. The Russian prince. Harry Gerguson, Brooklyn.” He had leaned his football shoulders forward, confiding. “That’s the real name.” He shook his head. “There’s a lot of that element here.”
“What element is that?” Ben said, on guard, as if someone had just stamped a J in his passport.
“Phonies. I like to know who people are.”
“You picked the wrong town then,” Ben said, easier. “Half the people in Hollywood have changed names.”
“Well, in the industry sure. That’s just part of the territory, isn’t it? But a waiter pretending to be-”
“A waiter,” Riordan said, amused.
“Anyway, I didn’t pick this town, you know, I was born here. Native Californian, one of the few. I’ve seen it change. A small town in those days-well, small compared-then the phonies and smart guys start coming in. Spoilers. A couple of years ago it was still just oranges here. Like a Garden of Eden. Now you have to be careful you don’t step on the snakes.” He smiled, pleased at the turn of phrase, something he could use again.
“A big city’s bound to have crime.”
“Not crime. Police can handle that. But what do we do with the others? They want to spoil what we’ve got here, where we’re going, and I still don’t know why. Some idea. Have you been down to Long Beach? You see what’s happened there since the war? We can have the biggest port in America, big as New York, and I’ll be goddamned if we’re going to let somebody like Harry Bridges close it down. San Francisco, all he’s got to do is snap his fingers and nothing moves. We don’t want that here. Man’s not even a citizen and he can push a whole city around.”
“He’s not a citizen?”
“Australian. A break for us. You can’t bust a union, but you can sure as hell deport troublemakers. Cheryl, dear.” He rose to greet a grayhaired woman in a feathery hat and fur stole. “How’s George?”
“The flowers meant so much to him, Ken, thank you.”
“Never mind about that, you just get him home. You get the best at Cedars but it’s still not home.” He patted her hand.
“At least they keep him in bed. You know what he’s like. He’ll be a bear.”
“You’ll have a nurse?”
“He says he wants Laraine Day, so I guess he’s getting better,” she said, almost winking. “Well, enjoy your lunch. I’ll tell him you asked.”
“A massive heart attack,” Minot said after she’d gone. “Richfield Petroleum. Not everyone here’s in the movies. Just the ones everybody knows about.” He took a drink from his water glass. “That makes them special. People are interested in the movies. You can get their attention.”
Ben said nothing, waiting for him.
“Dennis here tells me we might have some mutual interests.”
“I like the sound of that. That’s how I like to work. What government’s all about. Mutual interests. I don’t believe in isms. Any of them. Just getting things done. But you’ve got people out there, they have a different idea. Not to your face. A fair fight, they know they’d lose. They get underneath. Hide. That’s the way they work. We need to know who they are, get them out into the open.”
“Congressman,” Ben said, stopping him. “A Communist killed my brother. They’re not my favorite people, either.”
“Ken,” Minot said automatically. “And now they want this country.” Unable to let it go. “Your brother did us a great service. Dennis says we can count on you, too.”
“I want to find out who did it.” He nodded to Riordan. “We think it’s somebody he was going to give you, so I figure we both want to know.”
“Like I said.” Minot smiled. “A mutual interest. I have to say, when Dennis told me about this, I was-well, relieved isn’t the right word. It’s a tragedy, what happened, however it happened. A man’s dead. But you hate to think people you work with might be-unreliable. A lot of what we get is hearsay. You’d be surprised how much time we have to spend just making sure information’s worth something. Now with your brother we never had that. If he told us to take a look at somebody, we’d find it all right. He didn’t shoot from the hip, he got it right. So you learn to trust that. Then this happens and you have to wonder. You’re going to have people saying your sources are unstable. And that makes it all suspect. They’d like people to think that, it’s one of their tactics.”
“So it was better as an accident,” Ben said, interrupting the flow.
“That’s right,” Minot said, hesitating, not sure what Ben knew. “But this, this is a whole new game. If it’s true, we could make some real noise. Most of the time it’s hard to get people excited. They think it’s just about union business, organizing the coloreds. Politics. But a trial, that’s something else. A Red kills somebody working for the Bureau- everybody’s going to jump on that.”
“If it’s true?”
“Well, I mean you have to prove it. Otherwise, it’s still just ‘a man fell.’ Dennis here says it’s not going to be easy. Police never took it up, so we’re not long on evidence. We can get some help from the Bureau, on the quiet, but even they can’t make a miracle. Far as I can see, the best chance we have is you.”
“You’re in his house, you know everybody he knows. And it has to be somebody he knows. You don’t name strangers.”
“I’ve already looked through his things. If he was keeping notes, something like that, he wasn’t keeping them there. But sometimes one name leads to another, so it would be useful to see the files.”
“What files would those be?” Minot said, wary.
“What he gave you.”
“Look, let me explain how this works. Your brother never gave us any paper. He liked to play things close to the vest. He didn’t want anything traced back to him. Limits you, once that’s out. People don’t confide in you. No, he’d just give Dennis a name, a little information if he had it, and then it was up to us. Like I said, they were the right names- once we knew where to look.”
“You said there were reports,” Ben said to Riordan.
“With the Bureau, you talk and somebody types it up. That’s how it worked with us. He’d talk to me and I’d memo the file. You don’t have to see them-just ask me.”
“Who did he talk about? Can you give me a list?”
“How this started? The Bureau wanted to know what Ostermann was up to.”
“You thought he was a Communist?”
“We didn’t know what he was. All we knew was when he spoke- wrote an article or something-people listened. There’s a war on, it’s important to know what somebody like that is going to say. And your brother-well, who was in a better position to know?”
“So he agreed to report on him,” Ben said, hoping to be contradicted.
“Tell you the truth, it kind of surprised me, too. I mean, what if the wife found out? How would she feel? But I think maybe he thought he could do him some good. He liked Ostermann. He said we never had to worry about him. And you know, we didn’t. No funny business there at all. Wants to be a citizen now.”
“Maybe you should write him a character reference,” Ben said, more sourly than he’d intended.
“Don’t get touchy. You got an important German figure and we’re at war with Germany, of course the Bureau has to be interested. Nobody ever interfered with him. He went right on making those speeches, all that. I doubt he ever knew.”
“So that’s how it started,” Ben said, leading him. “Who else?”
“We asked about Brecht. No surprises there-we already knew. But that was a kind of test, see if your brother was pulling his punches.”
“And he wasn’t.”
“The important thing, see, was whether somebody was actually in the Party or just had lefty sympathies. Like Feuchtwanger. Your brother’d been inside, so he knew the difference. People approached him, tried to recruit him back in.”
“How? At lunch?” Ben said, opening his hand to Chasen’s.
Minot peered at him. “We don’t recruit. People come to us. Like you.”
“Not to inform on my family.”
“Informing,” Riordan said, waving this off. “Nobody’s informing.”
“He didn’t see it that way,” Minot said calmly. “It was-part of the war effort.”
“It’s a different war.”
“I just want to be clear. Not Ostermann. Not-family. I won’t do that.”
“Nobody gives a rat’s ass what Ostermann says now,” Riordan said, a little exasperated.
“As long as it’s pro-American.”
“But he is pro-American,” Minot said patiently. “And Feuchtwanger writes-what do you call them? Like Anthony Adverse. Kaltenbach can’t get work at the studios so he’s flirting with the East Germans, but he’s not going anywhere.”
“I think he’d find it hard to leave the country. We’re not going to give him a passport so he can be some propaganda stunt. The point is, nobody’s asking about the Germans. That’s how it started, with your brother, but that’s not what he did for me. I’m not interested in that.”
“What are you interested in?”
Minot leaned back against the booth, playing with his fork.
“I’m interested in getting people’s attention. This country is under attack and it doesn’t even know it. How do you get them to see it? And here we are, sitting in a district with the most popular thing on earth. You want something to make people sit up and notice, nothing even comes close to the industry. They’ve already got people’s attention. If we show what’s happening here-”
“In the industry? You mean in the unions?”
Minot smiled. “Well, the unions. Nobody would be very surprised at that, would they? Howard Stein, he’s practically got a Party number on his back.” He looked up. “Your brother was helpful about that. Information we can use when the time comes.”
“I thought everybody already knew,” Ben said, his stomach turning over. “At least they assume-”
“And he can deny it. But not under oath. Then you’re looking at perjury.”
“He’s going on trial?”
Minot made another half smile. “No. The industry is.”
Ben looked at the broad, handsome face, remembering his hand on Jack Warner’s shoulder, Bunny eager to please, everyone taking up positions in the chess game of the consent decree. Minot leaned forward.
“I assume all this is in confidence?”
Ben nodded, fascinated, a different game board.
“Hollywood has done a lot for this city,” Minot said. “Nobody knows better than I do. I even know the figures, which is more than you can say for most of them. And the figures are big. Since the war-” He trailed off, letting the obvious finish itself. “So now it’s like a rich widow-everyone wants something out of her. The unions want their piece. The East Coast bankers. Let’s not even think about the payoffs, let’s just pretend they don’t happen. But the Commies want something else, they want to use her to get ideas across.” He caught Ben’s skeptical expression. “They don’t have to be blatant. Nobody’s making Battleship Potemkin here. Good thing,” he said, flashing a smile. “Who the hell would go see it? Nothing that obvious. You don’t attack America. You just chip away at it. Some doubt here. Suspicion. But how do you stop them? First you have to find them.” He nodded, somehow including Ben with Danny. “Then you get them to lie. Actually show them lying. Not even their fans are going to trust them after that. You know, you can’t put someone away just for being a Commie. Conspiracy to overthrow? You spend years making a case like that. But perjury’s quick, and it’s right there. They’re lying or they’re not.” He paused. “As long as you have evidence. So you get some. You ask about files, Tenney’s got files. And Jack can be a little hasty, so god knows what he’s got in them. But we have to be more careful. We’re not just some committee in Sacramento. We’re a congressional committee. Subpoena power. You lie at the hearing, you just bought a ticket inside.”
“And if they do come across,” Riordan said, “you still have a shot at contempt.”
Ben raised his eyebrow, waiting.
“Nobody’s a Red alone,” Riordan said. “But they’re usually reluctant to say who their friends are. Even under oath.”
“So either way,” Ben said.
“Assuming we’ve got the goods on them in the first place.”
“And that’s what Danny was doing for you? Giving you movie stars for show trials?”
“No, we’re a little shy in the star department,” Minot said with a stage modesty, not catching the Moscow reference, something that had happened far away. “But any kind of friendly witness here can be something-you still get the press. There’s lots of ways you can use information. Your brother wasn’t going to testify, anything like that. I told you, he liked to play things close to the vest. Of course, if I’d really had to, I could have subpoenaed him, but why would I do that? He played fair with me. He gave me background. And you can use background in different ways. Sometimes, like I say, to set up a perjury charge. But sometimes to get people to cooperate, lead you somewhere else.”
“Give you other names.”
“That, or help in other ways. Be a friend to the committee. You know, we don’t want to hurt the industry. We want to help it protect itself.”
His voice earnest, without a trace of irony. Was it possible he really believed this? Saw himself as a savior, not just another of the rich widow’s cynical suitors, borrowing her limelight?
“So, are you going to be a friend to the committee?” he said casually, bringing his hands together, fingers touching, putting a question.
But when he looked at Ben, not smiling, his whole body seemed to tense, expectant, as if he were waiting for the snap of the ball, and Ben saw that the rest of the lunch didn’t matter, just this moment. He sat fixed by Minot’s gaze, in a kind of quiet panic, feeling exposed, like the second before you leaned forward to a woman, crossing a line. He thought, wildly, of the first night with Liesl, being drawn in, no going back.
“He was my brother,” he said finally, hoping his voice sounded steady, plausible. “I want to know who did it. I think we both owe him that.”
Minot said nothing, assessing, then nodded, the bargain struck, that easy.
“Everything goes through Dennis, understand? Not through my office. When we’re ready for subpoenas, we want them to come as a surprise.”
“Like an ambush.”
Minot hesitated for a second, then smiled. “That’s right. By the good guys this time.”
“Ben, how nice. You’re every where.”
Paulette Goddard on her way in. He stood up, taking her offered hand.
“Paulette. You remember Congressman Minot?”
“Of course, at the Lasners’. Nice to see you again.” An efficient smile, not overlong.
“Mr. Riordan,” she said. “Goodness, you all look so serious.”
“That’s what happens with just Dennis to look at,” Minot joked, a compliment to her. She was wearing lunch jewels, a solitary drop and a diamond bracelet, everything about her shiny.
“I’m here to eat humble pie with Polly,” she said. “Apparently I owed her a train interview and she’s been seething. Nice if they had told me. But I’m the one in the doghouse.”
“Not for long, I’ll bet,” Minot said, smiling.
“My god, is that chili? At this hour. Men.” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t suppose you have anything I can give her,” she said to Ben. “Otherwise she’ll just go on about Charlie again, and what am I supposed to say?”
“Just kiss and make up,” Ben said.
She giggled. “In Chasen’s. Wouldn’t they be surprised. Well, I’ll let you get back to business. Three men, it’s always business. Don’t sign anything,” she said, putting a finger on Ben’s chest. “That’s my motto. Ken.” She nodded to Minot, remembering his name. When she left, there was a trace of perfume.
“That’s some good-looking woman,” Riordan said.
“Hard to believe she was married to him,” Minot said.
“Chaplin?” Ben said. “That was a while ago.”
“When he wanted to open a second front. Just a little earlier than Ike did. I’d like to get him in front of a microphone now. Tell us all about his Russian friends.”
“I can’t help you there,” Ben said, moving him away from it. “Never met him. Anyway, I doubt they ever talked politics. Would you? With her?”
“Not me,” Riordan said, grinning.
“I don’t want you to expect too much,” Ben said to Minot. “I don’t know the people Danny knew.”
“They’ll know you,” Minot said. “They’ll want to know if you’re sympathetic. His brother. They’ll come to you.”
“But I’ll have no way of knowing whether they’re really- How far it goes.”
“Leave that to Dennis. We’re just looking for background. Sympathies.”
“It would help if I knew who he’d already-”
Minot nodded. “Dennis can help you with that, too. Keep in mind, some of those people agreed to be friends. Protected friends. Even from you. We promised them that.”
Ben looked at his smooth, untroubled face, the careful eyes. What had those conversations been like? No one will know if-not blackmail, just a sensible arrangement to keep information coming. A friend to the committee. What he’d promised now, too. He shifted in the booth, feeling suddenly hemmed in. You can do business with anyone, Otto had said. Until he couldn’t. Across the room, Paulette was ordering a drink. Don’t sign anything. He could still say no, go over to her table, stay in the bright world.
“You understand,” Minot said.
“What you want to do,” Riordan said, “now that we think it’s like this, is go through everything again, calendars, things like that, who he was seeing. He’s not going to pick a name out of the blue. What you want are the contacts. Who’d he take to that room, anyway? Any idea?”
Ben shook his head, surprised at how easy it was to lie. Just another move on the board, protecting your pawn.
“You take a room, it’s somebody to you. You’d talk.”
“You know,” Minot said, slowing them down, “to kill someone, you’d have to have an awful lot at stake. Something important to protect. The people we know about-they’re writers, studio people who wrote a few checks to send an ambulance to Spain, people like that. So who else?” His voice more excited now. “Who had a reputation so big you’d kill to protect it?”
A reputation, Ben thought, you could showcase in a hearing room, newsreel cameras turning while you pounded a gavel.
“You mean a star,” Ben said.
“But everyone thinks his reputation’s important. If somebody’s threatening you, everything you have. Something like this, exposing people-you set up conditions.” He looked at Minot. “You have to be careful.”
“Do you mean me?”
“I meant Danny. But let’s face it, Congressman, you keep going, a few people might think they had a reason to kill you.”
“What kind of talk is this?” Riordan said.
“Just making a point.”
Minot reached over to sign the check, a house account. “Some point. Are we done here, gentlemen?”
They made their way out the door, through another round of nods and waves, and almost collided with Polly rushing in. She was tottering in her heels, the way she had been that morning at Union Station, but came to a dead stop when she saw Minot.
“Congressman,” she said, flustered, a hesitation Ben took as a sign of respect.
“Polly, I’ve been meaning to call you.”
“Me?” she said, almost girlish.
“That piece Sunday. I just hope everybody reads it. Stars still in the service. You know my office gets calls every day-the war’s over, when is he coming home? Now we can say, look at this. Did you read Polly Marks? Is Bob Montgomery home yet? Movie stars. But they’re not bellyaching. They’re doing what we all need to do, hang in there till the job’s done.”
Ben watched, fascinated, as this rolled out in what seemed to be one breath, effortless.
“I take my hat off to you. What’s Winchell say? Orchids? An orchid for that one. You know Dennis, I think. My friend Ben Collier here? He’s still in the service, come to think of it. Still working for Uncle Sam. Making one of those great pictures the WAC’s been putting out this year. It’s not over for them.”
“Yes, at Continental. Of course. Good to see you again,” she said, her eyes almost doing a double take. Someone she hadn’t quite got the measure of before, a friend of Minot’s. “I hear Sol Lasner thinks the world of you.”
Ben shrugged, not knowing how to respond.
“Awful about Fay’s cousin, isn’t it? I heard you were there.”
“Terrible,” he agreed, noncommittal, avoiding her eyes.
“You’d think they could’ve met at Sol’s, not have her drive way out there. Road like that. Probably feels terrible about it now.”
“Whoever she was meeting. The one who called.”
“What?” he said, everything stopping for a second, his whole body rooted.
“Somebody called her, that afternoon. They think that’s why she went out.”
“I hadn’t heard that.”
How had she? Fay? Lorna? The Hollywood switchboard.
“And in the rain. You’d think-but you never know about people, do you?”
“Well, you do,” Minot said, “that’s for sure. There’s not much Polly misses, or so they tell me.” A wrapping-up voice, ready to leave. Riordan, hearing it, handed a stub to the parking attendant.
“I get paid not to miss anything,” Polly said, smiling again, flattered.
“Well, you keep writing pieces like Sunday’s, they’d better give you a raise. You can tell them I said so, too,” he said, a verbal wink. “That was fine work. Nice to run into you.” Moving her through the door before she could say anything else.
Ben stood still, only vaguely aware of them. Who would she have been meeting? Not Feuchtwanger. Had she been peering through the rain, looking for house numbers? But the houses stopped and she had gone on. But not necessarily lost, or alone.
“That’s a powerful lady,” Minot was saying. “Do you know how many people-first thing they do in the morning, turn to Polly? Millions.”
“One hundred twenty-three newspapers,” Ben said dully, still preoccupied.
Minot looked at him, surprised, then let it pass. “And the radio,” he said. “A good friend to have.” His car was being brought up. “I’m glad we could do this,” he said to Ben. “I think we can do some good work. You know the MPC?”
Ben shook his head.
“Motion Picture Council. For the First Amendment.”
“Pinks,” Riordan said.
“But not a front group. Legitimate. You might think about joining it. Show them where your heart is. What you might be ready for. Let them approach you.” He paused, an interior debate. “How well do you know Kaltenbach?”
“I’ve met him. He’s close to Ostermann. I thought you weren’t interested in the Germans.”
“Only if they’re in the industry.”
“He had a lifesaver contract at Warners in ’forty-one. One year. He hasn’t worked since.”
“At a hundred dollars a week. That still sounds like a lot of money to some people. Hollywood money.”
“The Germans don’t seem to think so. The East Germans.”
“He’s a famous writer there. Nobody’s heard of him here.”
“Maybe he’ll be better known.”
Ben watched him hand some money to the attendant.
“How?” he said, apprehensive.
“Be a help to us if you could let us know what his plans are.”
“I thought you said-”
“The State Department’s unreliable. People write them-influential people-and they do things they shouldn’t. If it were me, there wouldn’t be a hope in hell he could go anywhere, but it’s not up to me. So we need to keep an eye on him. I don’t want him taking any trips. Not before the hearings.”
“You’re going to call him? He’s a Communist?”
Minot shook his head. “No, just two meetings. A little window shopping. But we can put him at the meetings. That means he can tell us who else was there.”
“I don’t think he’ll do that.”
“He’ll have a lot of incentive under oath.”
“Who put him at the meetings?” Ben said, queasy, already knowing.
Minot looked at him, not saying anything.
“Danny saved his life, in France.”
“I’m trying to save this country,” Minot said. He put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, about to move to his car. “Nice to have you with us.”
Fay assumed it was a condolence call and insisted they have coffee on the back patio. The day was mild but overcast, fall on Summit Drive, and she put a light cardigan over her shoulders as they went out. After Lorna brought the tray, Fay poured from the silver pot, fluttering like Billie Burke, then sat back and lit a cigarette, crossing her still-good Goldwyn Girl legs.
“It was nice of you to come. There’s no one to talk to-who knew her, I mean.”
“It was only the once. But I liked her.”
“The language was a problem. People don’t make the effort.”
“The friend who called-he was German?”
“Well, Lorna didn’t think so at first. She thought it was Bunny, somebody from the studio, you know. But then Genia spoke German to him, so it must have been.”
“A man, then?”
“Mm hmm. Why?”
“I just wondered. He never called again?”
“No, isn’t it the strangest thing? Maybe he doesn’t know. Thinks he was stood up or something. The notice in the papers-if you blinked, you missed it. I can’t imagine who it was. She never talked to anybody.”
“Maybe someone she knew before. Over there.”
“But she never went out. Where would she-?”
“At the party, maybe. She met people then.”
“You, mostly. Of course, Bunny can talk to a stone, so she knew him. Maybe somebody through the Red Cross. I don’t know. None of it makes sense to me. I mean, you call to meet somebody, it’s usually a hotel, a bar, someplace like that.”
“Maybe she was going to his house.”
“And never got there. Or maybe she did. I never thought of that. Maybe it was after.” She frowned, turning this over. “Well, he has the number.”
“Let me know if he calls, will you?”
She looked at him, surprised, her cigarette in midair.
“Just curious. It’s like a mystery.”
“Everything about her was a mystery.” She inhaled some smoke. “Look, we don’t have to pretend. She didn’t slide off the road, did she?”
Ben said nothing.
“I thought it would help, all this,” she said, stretching her hand toward the sloping lawn. “Well, you do what you can. She liked the garden. So that’s one thing.”
“You’ve put a lot of work into it,” he said, taking in the lush rose beds, the perennial borders.
“Me? I wouldn’t know a weed from-well, whatever the opposite is. Miguel does everything. Filipino, but with a Mex name, don’t ask me why.”
“It was a Spanish colony. So lots of Spanish names.”
“Is that right? Ha. Wait till I tell Sol.” She looked over at him. “That’s something everybody knows, right? About it being a colony?”
“No. It was a while ago.”
“But people know.” She laughed. “Who am I kidding? Sitting here with a teapot, la-di-da, like I ever made it past ninth grade. Bunny likes me with all this high-tone stuff, and fine, I like it, too, because Sol likes it, but I know. I like the roses, though, to look at. Sometimes I look at this place and I think, who would have imagined? All those years on the road, washing out things in the sink, and now you’ve got your own roses, not just what some guy brings backstage. A gardener with a fancy name.” She stopped and looked away. “But I guess she didn’t see it that way.”
“You ever miss it?” he said, steering them away. “The business?”
“That life? Not for two seconds. What’s to miss? One town after another with nothing to do-someplace in the sticks, you couldn’t wait to get back to New York. It’s the same here, you ask me, but don’t, because Sol loves it. At least it’s not the road, schlepping around, worrying are you losing your looks. What kind of life is that? Oh, at first, you’re young, you think there isn’t anything else. I never saw myself like this. Married. Mrs. Lasner. And all right, he’s a handful, but you know what? He’s crazy about me. The rest,” she said, waving her hand, “it’s nothing.” She put out the cigarette, looking straight at him. “Would you tell me something? He almost died on the train, didn’t he? Don’t worry, I didn’t get it from you.”
“He had an attack. I don’t know how serious. I’m not a doctor.”
“He almost died,” she said flatly. “He thinks I don’t know. How can you live with somebody and not know these things?”
“What did the doctor say?”
“Rosen? What does he ever say? Retire. And do what? Watch birds? Anyway, he wasn’t there, only later when Sol’s better. You were. You know how I know? How he is with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Close. You almost die, there’s a closeness.”
“I think you’re imagin-”
But she was shaking her head. “He watches you at the studio, how you’re doing.”
“He watches everybody,” Ben said.
“But he tells me about you. How you are with Hal. Other things. He thinks you have a feel for the business. A family thing.”
“Only my father. My mother hated it.”
“Why? Oh, the girls? He got distracted?”
Ben smiled at the word. “Over and over.”
“People say I should worry about Sol, and you know I never do. I figure, if it happens, who’d want to know?”
Fay smiled. “So maybe I’m not telling the truth, either. I’d kill him. Bare hands. But I’ll tell you something, he doesn’t even look. I know. I was on the lot, for years. I know what to look for. The thing about Sol, nobody gets this, he’s a gentleman. They see the rough spots, not here.” She tapped her heart. “Here he’s not so tough.” She looked down, flustered. “I don’t mean the real one. A figure of speech.”
“But that’s right, too, isn’t it? The real one’s not so tough, either. Then what? You know what he thinks about, all the time? What happens to the studio. Me, I guess he figures I can take care of myself. But what happens to the studio. Who could do it? You know we never had children. He said it didn’t matter to him, but now I think it does. You build something, you want to pass it on, not just hand it over to the banks. I said to him once, maybe it’s better, look at the Laemmles, Junior almost took it down with him, and I could tell he’s not even listening. So that’s part of it, I think. Why he watches people.”
“What about Bunny?”
“Bunny’s not a son.”
“I’m not, either.”
“But he likes you. So maybe it was the train, I don’t know. All the sudden you feel you’re running out of time. Maybe this is it. Did you ever wonder how much time you have left? I’ve been thinking about that, because of Sol. But I guess that’s one thing nobody can know.” She paused. “Unless it’s like with her. You decide,” she said, her face softer. “You were nice to come. It’s good somebody came.” She lifted her head, a visual pulling up. “It’s funny, she’s the one contacted the Red Cross. She wanted to come over. You wonder. But you know what I think? It came to me this morning. Does this make sense to you? I think she was already gone. She just didn’t want to die over there-give those bastards the satisfaction.”
There was still a police marker by the broken fence, so Ben stopped short, pulling the car over to the lookout shoulder where couples parked. The drive up Feuchtwanger’s corniche had been no easier in daylight, an ordeal even for anybody familiar with the road. Ben imagined it dark, headlights shining on the wet surface. He got out, not even sure what he was looking for. Something left carelessly behind? But the place seemed undisturbed, even the smashed car removed now, any tire marks or shoe prints washed away. He walked to the fence, looking over into the canyon. A steep drop. All you’d have to do was put the car in gear and let it go. Gravity and a soft skull would do the rest.
Ben went down the slope. There were ruts gouged out of the ground, probably made by the tow truck or whatever kind of winch they’d used to haul the wreck up. The tree that had stopped it had some bark scraped away, but was still standing. Given the angle of descent, the impact must have been violent, a thudding crash, enough to throw a body into the windshield. So why hadn’t there been more blood? He tried to remember the body, his brief look when the sheet was pulled back. Lacerations, the matted wound on the head, but not drenched in blood. But it wouldn’t have been if she’d died instantly. A dead body doesn’t pump blood. Still, the blow on the head had caused a bloody welling. Ben looked up to the broken fence. Unless she’d been hit before the crash, maybe already dead when the car began plunging.
He hiked back to the road and walked along the shoulder to the turnoff. Big enough for two cars, even more, somewhere to meet, marked by the curve. Ben turned back again to the fence, searching the ground. He’d wanted to come back to the site, show himself how it was possible, but he’d known outside Chasen’s that she hadn’t been alone. A phone call, a hasty meeting, dead or almost dead before she went over. The ground falling into Topanga told him nothing. He thought of her at the Lasner party, unafraid to tell him things he shouldn’t know. No more whispers and shadows, not after everything. A German voice on the phone. Who else was at the party, what other ghost? Who recognized her.
He drove back to Feuchtwanger’s house, parking near the other cars along the steep patch of road, one of them, he noticed, Ostermann’s.
“Come in, come in,” Feuchtwanger said, bubbling, his rimless glasses catching the afternoon light.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“No. Brecht is starting to make speeches. Please interrupt. What, were you just passing by? Nobody passes by up here.”
He led Ben into a large living room with a spectacular view of the Pacific through the picture window. Couches were arranged to face it, but the group sat instead at the end of the room, away from the light, clustered around a coffee table littered with half-finished cups and hazy with smoke, as intimate as a Ku’damm cafe. Everyone was speaking German.
“So, you can decide,” Feuchtwanger said. “I’m thinking about a play and of course Brecht doesn’t want me to write a play, so he doesn’t like anything about it.”
“Write the play,” Brecht said, deadpan, drawing on his cigar.
“Do you like The Devil in Boston? For a title?”
“The title tells you what’s wrong,” Brecht said. “All right, so witch trials. Yes, everyone sees, a metaphor for what is happening here, what is going to happen, but it’s not exact. It was then about belief, the devil in Boston, a religious phenomenon, not political persecution.”
“It felt the same to the witches,” Feuchtwanger said.
Brecht waved this aside. “It confuses the issue.”
“But the process is exactly the same, the psychology.”
“Oh, psychology,” Brecht said, dismissive.
“Why do you think it’s going to happen,” Ben said, back at Chasen’s, Minot’s hand on his shoulder.
“Because I’ve seen it happen before.”
“Precisely,” Feuchtwanger said. “The process is the same, always. Make the fear, then the fear feeds on itself. That’s the devil. Hitler made the Jew the devil, but it was the fear.”
“The motivations are different,” Brecht said. “Hitler wanted to go to war, that’s what he always wanted. From the first. Not religious hysteria.”
“And the rallies?” Feuchtwanger said. “What do you call that?”
Brecht drew on his cigar with a little smile. “Show business,” he said in English.
“Ach,” Feuchtwanger said, a mock exasperation, but enjoying the joke. “And here?”
“Politics,” Brecht said. “Not even serious politics. Foolishness. It’s a country of children.” He turned to Ben. “You know what his inspiration is? For a play about witches? They refused his application. To be a citizen. Of this place. Why he wants such a thing-”
“Why not gratitude?” Ostermann said. “They took us in. They took you in, too.”
“Yes, and they’ll spit me out. Watch.” He took a drink from a small glass. “We have no place now. Only here,” he said, touching his temple.
“Hah. I’m not such a poet,” Feuchtwanger said. “I live here.” He pointed his finger to the floor.
“But not as an American.”
“Why? What did they say?” Ben asked Feuchtwanger.
“I can appeal. The time isn’t right maybe. With what’s going on.”
“The reason? ‘Premature antifascism,’ ” Brecht said, rolling out the phrase slowly, savoring it. “What can it mean? There must have been a time when it was good to be a fascist. Then not. It’s a trick, finding the right moment. You can be against the fascists, but not too soon. Then you’re-well, what exactly?”
Feuchtwanger shrugged, nodding with him. “A socialist. A pacifist. Before, when you wrote against the Nazis, where could you do it? The places they suspect now. Too left, too this, too that. So it’s not the best time here.”
“Thomas Mann had no problem,” Brecht said, puckish.
“Oh, Saint Thomas.”
They laughed softly, a cafe murmur. Ben looked at them, slumped against cushions, holding cigars, easy with each other. Was this the sort of meeting Danny had described, Riordan scribbling notes? The author of Josephus is preparing a play about the Salem witch trials, drawing analogies to contemporary events. The author of Galileo made remarks critical of the U.S. Hans Ostermann, my father-in-law, saidAll typed up for the files, smoky, idle talk, a harmless report. But no betrayal was harmless.
“What brings you here?” Ostermann said suddenly.
“Just a quick hello. Lasner wanted me to check on the car, whether they’d towed it.”
“Yes, the accident,” Feuchtwanger said. “I told you about it,” he said to Ostermann. “Terrible.”
“But on this road not a surprise,” Ostermann said. “Someone you knew?”
“A relative of Lasner’s.” Ben turned to Feuchtwanger. “Are there any Germans living here, up on the hill? Besides you?”
“Oh no. We’re famous, Marta and me-the foreigners. Of course Mann is also in the Palisades. Vicki Baum. But not here, nearer the village.”
“Why do you ask?” Ostermann said.
Ben looked up, at a loss. “Maybe this, hearing German. It would be so nice for you if there were someone else nearby.”
“Only Lion has the courage,” Brecht said. “These roads. In Santa Monica it’s safe, all flat. Even Salka, in the canyon, it’s not so bad.”
“But the views,” Feuchtwanger said, extending his hand toward the window and the fading afternoon, copper glints on the water and lights beginning to come on.
“But we always have to drive you,” Ostermann said. “The courageous Lion.”
Another easy laugh, the road familiar to all of them. You didn’t have to live here to know it. Even Lion’s guests, German speakers.
“So how was it at Alma’s?” Brecht asked Feuchtwanger.
“You know she had Schoenberg and Stravinsky? Both. The same dinner.”
“Another play for you,” Brecht said, mischievous.
“No, it was dull. They wouldn’t talk about music. Out of respect. Anything but music-so nothing, really.”
“And Alma talked about herself.”
Ben drank his coffee, half-listening, talk that could go on for hours. No other Germans on the road. Just a place to meet, then, out of the way. He stood up.
“But you’ve just come,” Feuchtwanger said.
“I know. But I have to get back to the studio.”
“Ah, the studio,” Brecht said airily. “Back to the assembly line.” He moved his arms in a pincer, like Chaplin working the wrenches in Modern Times. “More dreams. More dreams.”
“And me,” Ostermann said, standing, too. “No, no, don’t get up. A nice afternoon, Lion. Like before.”
“Nothing’s like before,” Brecht said. “Even before.”
Outside Ostermann walked Ben to his car.
“I thought when you came, it was for me. That you had news.”
“About the screen test.”
Almost forgotten. Liesl playing a daughter.
“No, not yet.”
“I don’t want her to be disappointed. After everything. Although to wish such a life for your child- Still, I can hear it in her voice, how she wants it. I was worried, after the funeral. I remembered how it feels, how lonely. But now look. Screen tests. It was good not being alone in the house, I think. So thank you for that.”
Ben looked away.
“They really refused Lion?” he said.
“He’s a socialist. It’s very well known, even here.”
All you had to do was check a file, information from a well-placed source.
“But that’s not-”
“Not before. Now it’s different. His lawyer said, be patient. Now he gets his publisher to write for him. How distinguished he is. He does very well here, you know. The translations. Not like poor Heinrich.”
Is this how it was done? You didn’t have to ask, just let the conversation run, listening for Riordan, a sponge.
“And now there are difficulties. It’s ironic, yes? They didn’t want Heinrich to leave Europe. Now they don’t want him to leave here. This time, no Daniel to arrange the escape. So he goes to offices and waits. For a piece of paper. Just like his script.”
“Why not leave without it?”
“Cross the Pyrenees again? You forget, he had papers then. That’s what Daniel arranged. It’s not so easy without that, a passport. Brecht doesn’t understand, living in his head,” he said with a sarcastic smile. “Why Lion wants his piece of paper. If he leaves, he can’t come back. He’s not a refugee anymore, but not a citizen, either. Of anywhere. So all he can do is stay here, as he is. Yes, it’s very comfortable for him.” He gestured toward the house. “But now a cage also.”
“But Kaltenbach doesn’t want to come back.”
“So he thinks. I wonder what he will say after. When those doors close.” He sighed. “But first he has to get there.”
With Minot watching. With Ben watching for him.
“What about you? Are you having any trouble?”
“Me? Oh, I’m not such a dangerous person as Lion. I wasn’t premature.” He looked down. “Maybe too late. How we waited, hoping it would go away. Thinking a catastrophe would go away.”
There was traffic on Sunset so that by the time Ben got back to Gower the lot had taken on the after-work quiet of skeleton crews and empty sound stages, only a few cars left in their reserved spaces.
“Screening room with Mr. L,” said one of Bunny’s secretaries, anticipating his question. She was putting folders in drawers, evidently working late to catch up on the filing.
“How’d the test go, do you know? Liesl Kohler.” Or had they changed her name?
“When was this, today? Maybe they’re looking at it now. The only way I know is, he writes a memo.”
“On a screen test?”
“Everything,” she said, with a nod to the wall of filing cabinets. What Tenney’s office must look like. Fourteen thousand files, rumors on paper.
“How about the guest list for Lasner’s party Saturday?”
Her head went up, immediately protective.
“I was there,” he explained, “and I talked to somebody and I can’t remember her name. I thought if I could go through the list, you know, it might come back to me. Does he keep them, the lists?”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure it’ll be okay with him.”
She said nothing.
“I could go down to the screening room, have him phone up.”
She hesitated, trying to guess what Bunny’s reaction would be to either course.
“No, it’s here,” she said finally, turning to a drawer. “I just filed it, in fact.” She got it out and handed it to him.
“You mind? I’ll bring it back?”
“You want to take it?” she said, suspicious again.
He began to read down the list. Everyone there, with marks next to the Warners people. Seating plans, names on spokes around a circle, everything thought out. Liesl listed as Ben Collier guest. Rex Morgan, who owned 8 percent. But who had talked to Genia, spotted her across the room? A German speaker, so not Ann Sheridan or one of the starlets. Maybe not at the party at all, just someone who knew she was in town. But it would be easy enough to come up with a short list of possibilities, then use Dennis to check them, routine for a Bureau man. Start somewhere. She hadn’t taken a random turn off Sunset. Someone had told her where to go.
He looked up to find the secretary watching him. “He doesn’t like things to leave the office,” she said, expecting trouble.
“It’s a party list,” he said, folding it. “I’ll tell him downstairs.”
They had already started running the dailies, so Ben slipped into the screening room quietly and took a seat at the back. Bunny was in his usual watching posture, chin resting on a pyramid of fingers, while Lasner made running comments to the directors. It was Dick Marshall again, out of the fighter plane, making a sentimental visit to another pilot in the hospital.
“Why a profile,” Lasner said. “They’re paying to see the face.”
“Watch the eyes when he turns,” the director said. “Now you see the tears. He’s been holding them back.”
“Why? He saw the picture?”
“The buddy dies? Wonderful. Something upbeat.”
“What can I tell you, Sol? It’s a war picture.”
“All right, all right.”
“He looks good, Jamie,” Bunny said to the director, placating. “Think you can wrap this week?”
There was another clip, Lasner quiet, his silence acting like a sigh, then the directors left.
“Jesus Christ, Bunny,” Lasner said.
The room was still dim, Ben invisible in the back shadows.
“I know. It’ll be okay if we can get it out fast. We can book it with Rosemary’s picture, recover the costs.”
“We’re supposed to be making money, not recovering costs.”
“Sol, you’re the one who taught me. Pay the overhead with these, your wins are twice as big.”
“And what about Dick? We got an investment there, too. Another war picture-”
“I had an idea about that. I want you to see this test.” Bunny picked up the phone. “Could you run the test now? The first one.”
This would have been the moment, Ben knew, to cough, declare himself, but he sat still, too interested to move.
It was the same scene they’d used with Julie, the young girl getting up from the piano and saying good-bye to the older man-her father? her teacher? — who was sending her away, better for everyone for some reason. Liesl was wearing a simple white blouse and skirt, her hair brushed straight, the whole effect young, on the brink. When she lifted her face at the piano, it seemed to draw the key light to it, a sudden radiance. Ben knew that it was framing and makeup and well-placed arcs, that it was Liesl playing the piano, but knowing all of it made no difference. Film transformed everything. Even the piano gleamed. She smiled now at the keyboard, slightly wistful, a girl he had never seen before.
“Watch this?” Bunny said.
“What am I watching?” Lasner said.
“The way she moves. It’s the first thing I noticed. Like a dancer. Watch how she gets up. You know who does that? Cary Grant.”
“He was an acrobat,” Lasner said, “not a dancer.”
“Same thing,” Bunny said, still fixed on the screen. “Now the hands. Watch her with his arm, she just grazes it.”
The way she might have touched Ostermann, a gesture Ben had seen her make, protective.
“Listen,” Bunny said.
“Someone who went to school.”
The clip ended.
“With an accent,” Lasner said.
“Never mind. That’s part of it. Stay with me. Watch it again.”
He asked the projectionist to rerun it. This time neither of them spoke, paying attention. Lasner was quiet afterward.
“A nice girl,” he said finally.
Bunny nodded. “Exactly. She looks like she could actually play the piano.”
“So? What was with the piano, by the way?”
“You don’t miss much, do you? Vegetable oil. You spray it on and the lights pick it up.”
Lasner shook his head, delighted, another magic trick.
“They don’t line up for nice.”
“This is something else, Sol. Maybe another Bergman.”
“You’re serious about this?”
Bunny picked up the phone. “Run the other one.”
“You made two tests?”
“Nice with something behind it. Watch.”
Liesl was on a terrace now, outside a pair of French windows, about to kiss Dick Marshall. It was a night scene, their faces lit by moonlight, her white skin glowing in a low-cut dress.
“You used Dick in a test?”
Marshall kissed her and she responded, then began kissing his face all over, devouring it, an eruption of kisses that seemed to well up out of her control. When Dick pulled back, breathless, the camera went to her, leaning forward, still eager, her eyes darting all over his face, as if she were kissing him now with her eyes.
“Somebody’ll see,” Marshall whispered.
“I don’t care,” she said, her breath a gasp, moving up to kiss him again.
Ben’s own breathing stopped for a minute, hair bristling on the back of his neck. Not just the same words, the same face.
“Turner does that with her eyes,” Lasner was saying.
No, Ben thought, Liesl does that, a look printed in the back of his head, just for him. When her lips reached Dick Marshall, he knew how they would open, the same soft yielding. He felt his hand tighten on the armrest. An actress borrowed from life. The look in her eyes now was real, as real as it had been with him. But what if it hadn’t been? Maybe it was just the way she played the scene, with him, with Dick, acting both times. How had she played it with Danny? Something he hadn’t allowed himself to think about before. The same expression, the same eyes all over his face? Or had it been different with him, a different acting, or not acting at all. The way they felt about each other.
“How do you like her with Dick?” Bunny said as the clip ended. Ben scarcely heard him, his mind flooding with scenes-in the pool, on the chaise, her hand reaching up to his neck. Had any of them been real? None of them? Didn’t everybody react this way when they saw someone they knew on film? They seemed the same because the gestures came from the same place-a protective pat on a father’s arm. But not the eyes. Intimacy wasn’t something you could carry away with you, turn into a character touch.
“That’s why you used him?”
“It works, the two of them.”
“So she can kiss. There’s still the accent. You know what it would take? Smooth that out?”
Bunny nodded. “But not yet. The accent’s part of it. Remember Dearly Beloved?”
“The Klausner script. He brings the wife home and the mother makes trouble. I thought you didn’t like it for Dick.”
“I didn’t. Too light for him-a meringue.”
“And with her a strudel. Give it to Rosemary.”
Bunny shook his head. “The problem’s always been, why does she put up with it? Why doesn’t she get wise to the mother? Rosemary’d be onto her in a minute. But if she were foreign-”
“Dutch, whatever. The accent’ll pass for anything. A war bride. Dick brings her home.”
“Now it’s okay for Dick?”
“It’s time to get him out of uniform. He marries her over there. She’s crazy about him. Why not? He saves her. He’s taking her out of there. To heaven, she thinks. Then she gets here, and there’s mom. Before it’s a B about newlyweds. Now you’ve got GIs coming home, it’s about something. Dick can handle that. And she’d be perfect. A nice girl, you’re on her side when the mother starts in. And she gets him back in the end because he’s nuts about her-which you can believe,” he said, flipping his hand to the screen, the remembered kiss. He paused. “We need to get him into something right away.”
“With an unknown. The biggest name we’ve got.”
“She won’t be unknown when the picture opens. She’ll be his new friend. First time they meet on the set, sparks. Then the brush fire. You can see it on the screen, before your eyes. Polly will eat it up.”
Lasner looked down, thinking. “How soon? To get it fixed?”
“Get Ben Hecht to do a polish.”
“A polish. He’s five thousand a week.”
“That’s all he’d need. We could put it into production right away. A Dick Marshall for the holidays.” He paused. “We own it and it’s sitting there.”
Lasner looked over at Bunny. “You really have a feeling about her?”
Ben sat still, fascinated, the moment suddenly important. A feeling about her. Not Brecht’s factory, a casino, as imprecise as a white ball spinning round a wheel. Lasner sighed, a moment of theater, then lowered his voice.
“Standard options. And you have to do something about the name. What are you going to call her?”
“Linda. It’s close. You like ‘Linda Eastman’? Her name means Eastman in German.”
“Now you speak German?”
“Enough to know that.”
Ben sat up. Enough to make a telephone call? But why would he?
“Where’d you find her?”
“At your house. She was at the dinner for Minot. With Ben Collier.”
“Collier? Oh, Otto’s kid. What, he’s screwing her?”
“His brother’s wife.”
“The one who-”
Ben cleared his throat, announcing himself. Both men turned. Bunny touched a switch on his armrest console to raise the lights.
“You’re there all this time?” Lasner said. “Like a spook?”
“I didn’t want to interrupt. I just wanted to see how she did.”
“Dailies are by invitation,” Bunny said, frosty. “Anything you hear stays in this room, understood?”
“It’s all right,” Lasner said, patting Bunny’s arm. “He’s with the studio.”
“He’s also a relative.”
“So when’s that a crime? This whole business is relatives.” He got up, facing Ben. “What’s the matter? You look funny.”
“Nothing,” Ben said, also getting up. “Just seeing someone you know up there.”
“What did you think?” Lasner said, walking up the aisle.
“Don’t ask me-I’m family. Bunny’s the expert,” he said, a peace offering. “The scene with Marshall. Did they improvise the lines or-”
“Improvise,” Bunny said, rolling his eyes. “On a test.”
The words a coincidence, then, but not the face.
“Bunny’s looking for a nice girl,” Lasner said, a tease. “A Bergman.”
“She’s the biggest thing in pictures, Sol. Nice, but something underneath.”
“What, underneath? She’s playing a nun.”
“One picture. You want to borrow her for Dick? It’s a fortune and you won’t even notice him. Somebody new, it looks like he’s pulling her. And we go into production right away.” Making a case.
Lasner hesitated, for effect, then nodded. “One week for Hecht. And no color.”
“No color,” Bunny agreed. “It’s not a musical.”
Lasner glanced up. “Sam come to you yet? About the musical? Now he’s telling me she can sing, the new skirt. As if he would knowanother Pasternak. He hears her humming on his dick, he thinks it’s a musical. A Bar Mitzvah coming up and he’s playing around with that. Well, Sam.”
Bunny had been watching Lasner’s face, scanning a page.
“You want me to put her in something right away,” he said flatly.
“She’s busy, maybe Sam doesn’t think we’re Metro.”
Bunny looked at him, then put a folder of notes under his arm. “I’ll find something.”
“How long does it last with Sam anyway?” Lasner said, but Bunny had begun to usher them out, moving on.
“The first contract’s always boiler plate,” he said to Ben.
“Don’t worry, she’ll sign. She wants this.”
“Everybody wants this,” Bunny said simply, turning to him, explaining something to a child. “Everybody in the world.”
By the time Ben had finished copying the guest list, Bunny’s secretary had finally gone. He put the list back on her desk, then, an impulse, went through to Bunny’s office and glanced around the room, a more careful look than on that first rushed morning. Wood paneling, barrel chairs with metal trim, but none of the personal effects that usually filled shelves, no photographs of Bunny as a child star, no leather-bound favorite scripts-nothing, in fact, but the business of Continental, filing cabinets and in-boxes filled with waiting papers. It was as if his former life had receded with his hairline, leaving the front office to Mr. Jenkins.
He walked over to the desk and ran his eye down the open calendar, tomorrow’s page crowded with appointments and reminders, as detailed and inflexible as a shooting schedule. He glanced up quickly to make sure he was still alone, then flipped back to Monday. Another full page, ending with Rosemary’s wrap party and Rushes with L, the usual last entry. Except he hadn’t stayed to watch them. Ben remembered him standing outside the sound stage, on his way somewhere, Lasner annoyed later when he couldn’t be found. Where? Just out of curiosity, Ben estimated the time between Bunny’s leaving and Lasner getting the police call. How long to the Palisades? Forty minutes, even with the wet roads, maybe less. He could easily have been there. But why would he be? He wasn’t someone in her past, like Danny. He’d probably helped arrange to bring her over. Why ask now for a secret meeting? Still, hadn’t Lorna thought at first the call was from the studio?
When he got home he found Liesl in the screening room, watching one of the Partners movies. The light pouring through the open door had startled her, someone caught in a guilty pleasure.
“You know this one?” she said. “ Car Trouble? It’s from life, when our car broke down. In Laguna. They’re all from life. I never realized before. I never paid attention. The premiere, all you can think about is the audience, do they like it? But he took everything from life.”
Their life, the one they had together.
“I’ll let you finish,” he said, backing away.
“No, turn it off. It’s enough. I just wanted to see you. What you were like. Well, what he thought you were like,” she said, her voice offhand, plausible.
“And how was I?” he said, moving to the projection room.
“Serious. A great believer in justice,” she said, playing with it.
He switched off the projector and raised the lights.
“What made you run it?” he said, coming back. “You weren’t trying to see me. Eddie’s not me.”
“You don’t think so?” she said, an evasive shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe for Daniel. Maybe I wanted to see what was on his mind. You tell me things-you make me think I never knew him. So who was he?”
“No. Maybe in the one he didn’t make.” She nodded to the box Republic had sent over.
He picked a script out of the box.
“You’re late again,” she said.
“I’ve been watching you,” he said with a sly smile. “They liked the test.”
“Yes?” she said, lifting her head, alert.
“Lasner, Bunny. They liked it.”
“Tell me,” she said, excited. “What did they say?”
“Get an agent.”
“Yes? They want to make a contract? Well, Kohner, I can call him,” she said, suddenly practical. “He knows my father. They really liked it?”
“Bunny wants to give you a buildup.”
“A buildup,” she said, translating it.
“Oh, to make me a movie star,” she said, skeptical. “With my accent. Daniel said it was impossible. With my accent.”
“Times change. He sees you as a war bride. Dick Marshall’s.”
Her eyes widened. “His wife? It’s a real part?”
Ben nodded. “Also his girlfriend. Off screen. At least at Ciro’s, places they take pictures.”
“They can do that?”
“It’s a personal services contract. That’s part of the service.”
“Oh, will you be jealous?” she said, coming over to him, putting her hands on his arms.
“That depends what happens after,” he said, playing along.
“That’s not in the contract, too, is it?”
“Good,” she said, reaching her hand up to his neck. “Then there’s nothing to worry about.”
She smiled, her whole body warm against him, eyes darting across his face, just the way they had when she said, “I don’t care.” And suddenly he didn’t care, either. Maybe it was always acting. He thought of the girls in Germany-there’d been no pretense there, a warm mouth for a few cigarettes. No one thought of sex in the back of a jeep as making love, just something you did while you waited to go home, to real intimacy, a cry that wasn’t fake. Her eyes moved over him now, the way they had in the test, but did that make it any less real? He was already hard, wanting to be seduced, wanting the touch that reached inside you, when the eyes were only for you, the way it was in the movies.
Liesl became Linda Eastman, suddenly swept up in a storm of wardrobe fittings and blocking rehearsals, and Ben moved out of the house. It wasn’t a question of propriety. He was family, easily explainable to the photographers, but why raise questions at all? She was supposed to be lonely, waiting for someone like Dick to come along.
He wasn’t superstitious about the Cherokee. Danny may have died there, but he had never actually stayed there, and there was still part of a month already paid for, with the next now paid in advance to Joel. It was convenient, just a few blocks’ walk to drugstore counters on Hollywood Boulevard if he didn’t want to eat in. Still, there was a haunted feeling to the place, especially at night when the thin sound of a radio playing downstairs came in through the window, like smoke. He never saw his neighbors and after a while he began to feel that no one really lived there-they were all just passing through, drinking or washing out nylons or memorizing lines, all waiting, the way they did in Hollywood, for the phone to ring.
Even with his things hung in the closet and books and papers in a small heap on the desk, the room seemed empty. He paced through it, door to kitchen counter to balcony, an animal staking out territory to make it his own. The balcony especially needed to be claimed, swept free of ghosts. He looked down, seeing the body in the photograph again, the huddled neighbors, Riordan hanging back, surprised. If he had been. If he hadn’t been upstairs, racing down with the others to gape. The photograph was real, but everything else was a story you chose to believe. You couldn’t be certain, not of anybody.
Even someone you thought you knew. He’d seen that going through Danny’s reports in Minot’s office, a paper trail of little betrayals, no one ever suspecting. Just listening and passing on, but violating, too. As Ben flipped through folder after folder, he felt he was no longer looking for leads, but for something else, a reason.
At first Riordan hadn’t wanted Ben in the files at all. “It’s not somebody we know, it’s somebody we don’t know, remember?” But Ben had insisted-it was his bargaining chip, a matter of trust-and Riordan finally agreed, but only at night, after everyone had gone. He steered Ben to files that used Danny’s reports-Ostermann, Brecht, the emigre circle. There were even notes on Werfel and Salka and Thomas Mann. Everyone. Danny appeared simply as the initial K in the margins, identifying him as a source on the memos Riordan had written up, Bureau style.
“Subject [Ostermann] requested sign position paper Latin American Committee for Free Germany sponsored by exile group, Mexico City (see Seghers, et al.).” Brecht’s sexual relations with secretary Ruth Berlau were known to wife, Helene Weigel. “Guest Viertel home Santa Monica (arranged Brecht). Numerous visits Brecht.” Kaltenbach had met with Kranzler, Aufbau. “Kranzler under Bureau surveillance after visit Eisler (known CP). Purpose: discuss English translation of subject’s works. No decision reached (K).” According to the files, Kranzler visited other German writers, then the Highland Lounge, “popular with deviants. Entertained US serviceman overnight at Roosevelt Hotel.”
There were more. Brecht’s arguments with Fritz Lang on Hangmen Also Die, Kaltenbach’s finances, Ostermann’s intention to apply for citizenship after the five-year waiting period. Could anyone have taken these seriously? Written down, recorded, sources put into code so that the files themselves became secrets about secrets. Were they all like this? Ben thought of the FBI, the GPU, any of them, with their archives and hundreds of legmen, filling folders with items no more damaging than onions in Winchell. But there were other items, too, from other sources, requests for surveillance, possible new informants, now vulnerable to approach, everyone caught in a fun house hall of mirrors. In Germany files like these had killed.
“None of these are recent,” Ben said.
“That’s what he used to give the Bureau-it’s just there as backup. You know, in case we ever need it. The congressman’s more interested in the industry.”
Riordan pulled another file.
“Subject [Schaeffer] suspected CP, Hollywood branch. K suggests verify with source G, ex-CP.”
“A writer. Fox. But you get one, you have a lead to someone else.”
“Did G verify?”
“What happens to Schaeffer?”
“That depends what he says under oath, doesn’t it? When he testifies. How cooperative he is.”
Riordan looked to the filing cabinets. “I told you, he’s not going to be here. Bring me a suggestion, a name in his desk. We can check that out. But here, it’s a needle in a- What’s that?”
“A guest list. People Danny knew. I thought-” He stopped. What could he tell Riordan? Another crime, with no connection except a shared past? Something Genia must have known. “Look, we’re flying blind here, I know. But I think he was going to put one of these names in here.” He pointed to the files. “Let’s see who’s already there.”
Riordan looked at him, then at his watch, then back again.
“Can I say something to you? I know this is personal with you. But make it too personal, you’re not going to get anywhere. You want to know everything he told us. What’s the point?”
“I want to know where he was looking. If there was a pattern. You think he just pulled names out of a hat?”
“Tell you the truth, I didn’t give it a thought. As long as the names checked out.”
“And they did. So where was he getting them?”
“His memory box, I always thought,” Riordan said, tapping his head. “These are people he knew, some of them.”
“But not all. So there’s another source, not just him. Someone else.”
Riordan stared at him, then got up, a weary shuffling.
“All right, you got an itch about this, scratch it. But-I don’t have to say, anything in here stays here. You know that, right?”
“You think I care whether Schaeffer’s Red or not? There’s only one Communist I’m interested in. You and Minot can have all the rest. I never even saw these, all right?”
Riordan said nothing for a moment, then picked up his hat. “The door locks behind you. I’m just saying, there’s a lot of privileged stuff here.”
“And I’m trying to get you more. One more friendly witness.”
“Just don’t do it solo.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll give him to you.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“You get too close, all by yourself, you could get hurt. He’d have to, wouldn’t he? Like before. Wouldn’t think twice.” He put on his hat. “Safety in numbers.”
When he’d gone, the room turned eerily silent, and Ben found himself moving quietly, too, as if he had broken in and had to make sure no noise reached the night watchman. He slid the file drawer out carefully, guest list in his other hand. The easiest way would be to eliminate the obvious names first, then move on to the ones he didn’t know, but it was hard to be methodical. Even when a name had no file he would bump up against another one, not on the list, that seemed vaguely familiar. Paulette Goddard was there, but only as an ex-wife cross-reference to the thick Chaplin file. Ben flipped through this-every speech he’d ever made, every interview, anonymous evaluations of his opinions, a full dossier of meaningless paper, flecked with little drops of professional envy. But someone had taken the time to compile it. Out of curiosity, he looked for his own name, but neither he nor Liesl had attracted anyone’s attention-nor Danny, for that matter, unless the sources had a special file drawer of their own. A Warners director had solicited contributions for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and his films had been reviewed for left-wing sentiments. Feldman, a front office crony Ben knew only by sight, had attended an Anti-Fascist League fund-raiser 1938, Ambassador Hotel, with Gail Simco, ex-CP, 1940. His girlfriend? A party seven years ago. It was when he found a file on Warner himself-production decisions made on Mission to Moscow — that the full craziness of it all struck him. He looked around Minot’s silent office, drawer after drawer of trivia and innuendo, put together during the war, consuming time and expense, to prepare for the war in their imaginations. And Danny a willing part of it. Had his sense by then been blunted, too? Crazy wasn’t necessarily harmless. The files were an arsenal. They were getting ready.
His fingers stopped, surprised, at the tab with Rosemary’s name on it.
“Subject (real name Risa Meyer) raised CP household. Father (Jacob) arrested NYC 1933 strike action, later official ILGWU. Mother (Irene) seamstress, also ILGWU. Both CP 1927–1939, membership on record. Resignation 1939. No evidence subsequent membership but source (G) believes remained socialist. Subject attended Pine Hill, Monticello, NY, children’s summer camp known for CP indoctrination. No known official CP affiliation, but background suggests further investigation.”
Attached were supporting documents, even a camp roster, a list of her magazine subscriptions-obtained how? — SAG membership date, a copy of the police report of her father’s arrest, none of it important or secret, yet sitting in a file, available. He looked at it again, feeling squeamish, as if he’d opened a lingerie drawer, a private place where he wasn’t supposed to be. No K source, at least. He’d reported on Ostermann, on friends. Why not jottings after a weekend at the Biltmore? But he wouldn’t have, one fine line he wouldn’t have crossed. As if Ben knew any longer what he wouldn’t have done.
He came back to her again after he’d checked more names off the list. Had Rosemary known? He thought of her at the party, enjoying her moment, not meeting Liesl’s eyes. Suggests further investigation. What if that had been Danny, listening closely?
The click of the key in the door startled him. He looked up, frozen, at Minot coming in, his hand still on the door, even more surprised. For a second neither of them moved.
“What are you doing?” Minot said finally, his voice flat, waiting to hear. He was in black tie, evidently on his way home from a formal evening.