The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue



     by Melanie Bacon

I gave the bright and lively Malibu joint a once-over. The cocktail inundation would put floodgate day at Boulder Dam to shame. Dames chugged from martini glasses held daintily in gloved-and-diamonded hands and thirsty hot-shots in monkey suits kept the poor waiters sweating for their 40 cents per hour. I handed my hat and overcoat to the pretty little maid at the door, taking in the action and avoiding my boss's glare at my tardy entrance. Hey, this place was three bus stops and a streetcar away from the office. Mace was lucky I made it here at all.

Since I was on the clock now I headed for the bar to order two gin fizzes, one to appease the gullet and one to use as a prop while I made my rounds. These two would have to hold me for pretty much most of the evening, because the boss gets really snarky when I get soused on a job.

Besides the boss, the client, and the surveillance subject, I recognized more than a few B-movie actresses and caught a glimpse of my favorite childhood cowboy star in the crowd of maybe fifty people. Too bad my autograph book was in my other tux. I asked a peroxide-and-moonbeams doll for a cigarette which she was happy to supply, and passed on her offer to supply other things as well.

"I'm Charlotte," she said in a husky whisper. "Let's dance."

I gave her a polite brush off. "Maybe later," I said, chucking her under her smooth powdered chin. She pouted her ripe red lips then smiled, allowing a dimple to pop in her cheek. She clearly mistook me for someone else, because I did not think this was the treatment she'd normally extend to a streetcar-riding mook.

I squared my shoulders. Time to mingle.

Adorned in a pirate's booty of jewels, our client Hazel Sutherland glided from group to group, the perfect gracious hostess. She paused at my approach, glancing around to ensure we weren't overheard.

"You almost missed dinner, Mr. Bentley," she hissed. Swarms of peons were rolling surf-n-turf out to buffet tables at the edge of the room. Smelled good.

"Ma'am, I never miss dinner."

"Well, you shouldn't have worried me like that. I expected better from the King Agency."

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Sutherland." I bowed. I do a great bow, just this side of a kow-tow.

She nodded her head. "At least you're here now. Have you had any luck?"

It wouldn't have been smart to remind her I'd only been here 5 minutes. "A bit," I hedged. "I need to confer with Mace." She glanced over at the corner where I'd been heading. "That's fine then," she said curtly, "but tell your boss I expect a full report later this evening." She moved on to shower sweetness and light upon the rest of her guests.

I hate divorce cases.

The couple in the corner could have been modeling for a movie poster. The leading lady was a tall blonde drink of scotch-and-soda, all silk-and-seduction in a sparkling platinum second-skin gown that would have color-coordinated with her frou-frou do if it weren't for the faint gold streaks in the upsweep that told you her pale hair was either real or very expensive. Her costar was the tall, dark and manly type, the kind of rugged palooka who'd look as comfortable and nonchalant in chaps or khaki drills as he did tonight in his zoot-suit-style tuxedo. He leaned against the wall, his arms across his broad chest, cigarette between his fingers, obviously bored unto death by the chattering bombshell resting her exhausted bosom against his side, but forcing himself to appreciate the view anyway.

Poor Mace. No overtime for the wicked.

Mace and I met in the Army. The less said about that the better, except that I owe my life to old Sarge.

I sauntered up to the two pinups. Hot and hungry hazel eyes met mine, promising everything up to and including the post-coital cigarette. Interesting, but unfortunately I'd have to decline. I gave an acknowledging smile, but shook my head. I was here to work.

It was not hard to peel Mace away from the stunner, although it was a shame to break up that beautiful tableau. On the other hand, tall and gorgeous people shouldn't reproduce with each other anyway. It distorts the demographics.

We strolled the room, me silent as I waited for Mace's trademark biting rasp. I was not disappointed. "You're a half-hour late, Chip."

"Hey, three bus stops and a streetcar. I did the best I could."

Dark blue eyes gazed down at me like a scientist studying a particularly interesting specimen of maggot larvae. "I gave you taxi money," Mace articulated through tight white teeth masquerading as a smile for the onlookers.

"Is that what that tenner was for? You handed me some cash right after making that snide comment about my hat, so I thought that was money for wardrobe repair."

"Look, punk, I wanted you here early to schmooze Mark Sutherland. I got a few minutes in, but he wouldn't open up to me. I think you might have more luck."

I nodded, but felt it less than politic to agree. The boss is a bit intimidating. I, on the other hand, have that certain soothing something that encourages total strangers to spill their guts without any provocation on my part. You wouldn't believe the horror stories I've had to listen to while enjoying L.A.'s fine public transportation system.

"You talk to him, and I'll see what I can get out of the women on Mrs. Sutherland's list," Mace said. "Let's see if we can wind this thing up tonight."

"Roger that," I said. "But can I talk with Cowboy Jack? Please?" This shindig was actually a party to honor Cowboy Jack's thirty years in the movie business. There would be a retrospective of his work next week at Grauman's Chinese Theater, where my toddler feet once stood quavering in his giant cement bootprints, right next to Mighty Manfred's massive horseshoe print. It was my earliest childhood memory.

Mace sighed. "I have never understood your fondness for westerns. Sure, you go visit with Cowboy Jack. After you target Sutherland. I'll talk with the Colonel."

The Colonel was a scary old crustacean who ran one of the largest studios in Hollywood. He was also Mrs. Sutherland's uncle, and one source of the infidelity rumors she'd received about her husband.

"Better you than me," I said. I had no interest in chatting with that repugnant geezer. In 1934 he'd fired my aunt in a most public and humiliating way, when the only thing the poor sweet gal had done was make the mistake of thinking her job title of "secretary" meant "typist", not "prostitute".

But we don't always get what we want. Not three minutes later I got caught in the old horror's pincers when we both reached for the same crab leg. From his glare, it was obvious he expected me to acclaim him the victor and forfeit the spoils.

But I'm no actor, and I don't rely on the good will of senile lechers like him for my bed and board. And I like crab legs. On the other hand, now his barnacled cooties were on it. I released.

"I concede," I said graciously. "No need to crab about it. The waters are yours."

He stared at me with his beady eyestalks. "Do I know you?" he asked, one arm hovering protectively over a plate piled high with oysters, scallops, abalone and other assorted seafood.

"You do not," I said thankfully, and walked away to troll for salad, disgusted by the masses of seasoning and sauces the Colonel now slopped over the defenseless invertebrates. On the way to the meager salad trays I stopped to enlist the head waiter in my Sutherland surveillance, which I considered a legitimate business expense which would leave me personally with more time to eat and drink.

I stood next to the wall near the jazz combo, munching my lettuce and observing the floor show. My ticket was for Sutherland on the main stage, but I could spend intermissions watching acts at the lesser venues.

I watched Sutherland argue with a brunette tomato I'd seen in a picture or two, Monique Brown or Smith or Jones. Neither of them seemed too invested in the beef and Monique left after a few minutes, only to be quickly corralled into a palaver with Mace.

The Colonel hauled his platter of sea friends and relatives over to Cowboy Jack's table, followed closely by a waiter burdened by the trough's twin. My boyhood hero was regaling half-a-dozen men and women of all ages with what I hoped were tales of daring do and rescue, and not simply boasts about his tiepin collection or the size of his peonies. He noticed but did not comment on the Colonel's presence, but did start picking carefully at the Colonel's food offering.

I detected three off-duty or plain clothes cops, each trying to keep one eye on all the ice sparkling on skin and gowns while the other eye scoped out refreshes on food and drink.

Over at the 3 o'clock wall Sutherland bummed a match and ciggie from Charlotte, then walked away. Poor little dodo. All that men seemed to want from her this evening were smokes. Maybe she should consider a future as a nightclub cigarette and candy girl. At upstage right a political face from the newspapers belted back one drink while simultaneously accosting a waiter and nabbing another drink with his other hand.

Meanwhile at left center Hazel Sutherland stood hovering over Cowboy Jack, using a pickle fork to help herself to morsels from the communal plates. Mace had joined the group. I waited for the Colonel to leave Cowboy Jack so that I could go pay my homage without his crabbiness to ruin the moment, but he was in no hurry to do so despite Mace's looming presence behind him.

A copper started chatting up Monique Brown-Smith-Jones, but she didn't buy whatever bill of goods he was trying to sell. She emphasized her response with clear finger gestures.

Sutherland spoke earnestly with a waiter, and patted him on the shoulder when they appeared to come to an agreement. The political mug tossed back a couple more drinks.

Sutherland's waiter friend brought a special drink over to him, said a few words and left.

Mace finally managed to cull the Colonel from the herd surrounding Cowboy Jack. I finished my drink and cow food in preparation for meeting the great man.

The politician wobbled and placed hands on Mace, who pushed him down and walked over his supine form with nary a break in conversation with the Colonel. Waiters scurried over to clean up the glass and human mess, and being experienced professionals it took them less than twenty seconds to scoop the guy out of the room. No liquid spill remained to mop up because the politico had obligingly swallowed it all.

As I walked over to Cowboy Jack's center throne, I saw Sutherland headed in the same direction. I introduced myself to my boyhood hero, barely stuttering on my own name, and used this opportunity to introduce myself to the whole table which now coincidentally included Mark Sutherland. The man had a strong, firm grip to go with his piercing hazel eyes.

Cowboy Jack spoke. "Chip Bartlett, is it?"

"Bentley, sir. Chip Bentley. I've seen everything you've ever done, sir. I am your greatest fan." Shame on me. Niagara Falls didn't gush that much.

But Cowboy Jack loved it. I guessed he didn't have as many adoring fans as he used to, back in the days when he didn't outweigh his horse.

"Would you like an autograph, Chip?"

"Gosh, sir, gosh ..." I patted my pockets frantically, searching for pencil and paper.

Hazel Sutherland stopped glaring at her husband long enough to smile at me and open her clutch purse.

"Here, Chip," she said, handing me a small leather-bound notepad and a delicate gold pen, the first ballpoint pen I ever held. I beamed at her, grateful to be able to present my hero with writing implements worthy of him.

He wrote: "To Chip, my greatest fan. Hope you rope in all of your dreams, Cowboy Jack".

I held the precious document close to my heart. "Gosh, Cowboy Jack, thank you, I--" My throat clogged with tears and I couldn't go on.

A strong arm tugged me away from the table. "I could use your advice on something, Mr. Bentley," Mace said, pulling at me. "Oh, oh yes. Of course. Thank you, Cowboy Jack," I said, waving at the great man as the boss and I walked away before I could thoroughly embarrass us all.

"You're welcome, son," Cowboy Jack said with amusement. He reached for an oyster, and turned his head to speak with Hazel as he scooped it out of the shell and popped it into his mouth.

Mace and I had not gone five paces when Hazel's shriek coerced our return. "Jack! Jack! Something's wrong with Jack!"

We forced our way to his side. Jack's face was pale, and he clutched his chest. "I think I'm having a heart attack," he wheezed.

I held his hand tightly while three Hollywood plastic surgeons rushed to his side. Two of them may or may not have been actual medical doctors; I knew for a fact that the third was really an optician. But they were willing and available, and certainly knew more than me. "Hang on, Jack," I whispered.

The plain clothes police stepped in to enforce crowd control, otherwise we would have been crushed by black-tie ghouls. A sudden flash blinded me and I blinked my eyes to see a waiter pushing himself out through the crowd toward the door, camera in hand. I should have guessed a few reporters would have snuck into this bash, and now that I was looking for them I saw another waiter taking surreptitious notes.

Cowboy Jack's grip loosened on my hand. "Come on, Jack, hang on," I urged. The three thermometer jockeys pounded and rubbed and peered all over the old guy. They tried to make me leave, but I wouldn't.

Mace was everywhere, questioning Hazel, Sutherland and the rest of the immediate witnesses; confabbing with the police; examining the food, the table, the chairs; pretty much doing everything a good investigator should do except interview the victim. After a minute it occurred to me that was probably what I was supposed to be doing.

"Jack, how are you feeling?" I asked, but I got no answer. There was no grip from his hand now at all.

A siren sounded closer. "Nix on that," one doctor said. "This old guy's gone. Heart attack."

His fellows concurred. Heart attack. Everyone stood around awkwardly for a minute, waiting for the authorities to take over. Except me; I still sat on the ground clutching Cowboy Jack's limp hand, tears running down my face.

People moved aside for the ambulance drivers, uniformed police and the detective squad that always turns up when famous people croak. White-jacket guys nudged me away so that they could load Jack onto the gurney, and I folded back into the crowd.

Police detective Harry Mulligan knew one of the doctors. "Dr. Alera, what happened here?"

"Heart attack," Dr. Alera said.

"No. It was murder," Mace corrected, walking up to the group.

Harry Mulligan turned to face my boss, then ran his eyes up and down in appreciation. "Well, Macedonia King, I didn't recognize you, all gussied up like that. You fit right in with all these glamour pusses - quite the femme fatale."

"Shut up, Harry," Mace said, a faint blush on her normally creamy cheeks. I smiled faintly. I'd always thought she was just the tiniest bit sweet on Detective Mulligan.

"Where's little Cubby?" Harry said, looking around. "I thought I saw him in here a minute ago." Ducking down slightly I eased back further into the crowd.

"He's not here this evening," Mace said shortly. The detective didn't pursue it, which meant he caught on that we were here on a case and were supposed to be incognito. Of course, the bubble of that hope would pop the minute I appeared on the front page of the paper holding hands with the corpse. Publicity always annoyed Mace. We'd better clear up our case tonight.

"So, why do you think it was murder?"

"Cowboy Jack was allergic to peanuts," Mace said. "There was peanut dust in the food he just ate." She shook her head at the waiters who had been about to clear the table, and they backed away.

A collective gasp filled the room.

"How do you know he was allergic to peanuts?" the detective asked my boss.

"I told her," Hazel said. "Mrs. King asked me if I knew if Jack had any allergies, and I told her he was allergic to peanuts. And strawberries."

The detective pounced on Hazel. "And how did you know?" he asked accusingly.

"This is my party, Detective. Jack told me that he was allergic to peanuts and strawberries so that I would make sure there were none in the food."

"If there were no peanuts on the menu, how do you know he ate any?" the detective asked Mace.

She shrugged. "I tasted it," she said, waving at the platters on the table.

Hazel frowned. "I've been picking at his plate all night, and I didn't taste any peanuts."

"It was very, very faint," Mace said. "Just a sprinkle of peanut dust. I wouldn't have noticed the taste if I hadn't been looking for it."

"So who did it?" the detective inquired.

"That's your job to find out, Harry, not mine. But you might start your inquiries by asking the Colonel what he was sprinkling on the seafood platter before he carried it over to Cowboy Jack's table."

Another gasp came from the crowd, which shifted to isolate the Colonel.

"Take him in for questioning, boys," Harry said.

"And check his pockets first for a salt or pepper shaker," Mace added.

The Colonel did not go quietly, but after patting him down and finding a small salt shaker the police officers cuffed him and hauled his protesting kiester away. Many in the crowd cheered, and I joined them.

"So, Mace ... what was the motive?" the detective asked my boss.

"Harry, if you wanted me to do all your work for you, you should have waited to show up until after dessert and coffee," Mace said cheekily. She left the law enforcement group and walked over to the bar for a drink.

I waited about ten minutes or so for the crowd fawning over her at the bar to thin out. When she saw me approach she waved the last few tenacious wolves away. "Take a hike, boys," she said. "I need to have a few words with Mr. Bentley."

The band played Glenn Miller's 'Tuxedo Junction'. Mace and I stood in silence at the bar for a few minutes, drinking scotch, enjoying the music and watching Hazel Sutherland flapping her lips at her husband.

"How do you think I'd look in a zoot-suit-style tuxedo?" I asked my boss.

"Good, but unless you plan to wear it frequently over the next few months I wouldn't bother," she said. "It's a flash in the pan."

I nodded, then commented "He looks as bored listening to her as he did earlier this evening listening to you."

She bristled. "Is that important?"

"Well, you were poking your Mae Wests into his chest, but I was the one who got his invite to a necking party."

She laughed. "Thank God for that. I thought I had lost my touch."

"No ma'am. The fish just doesn't swim that way."

"Do you have a cigarette?"

I pulled out my case and handed her my last smoke, saying "We can share this." I lit it and glanced around. I couldn't see Charlotte anywhere, otherwise I might have been unable to resist asking her for another one.

She took a deep drag and handed it back to me. "Do we have any other proof of infidelity to offer our client, other than your sex appeal?"

I looked dubiously at the bright red lipstick stain for a moment, then took a puff and nodded toward the waiters clearing the tables and moving them out to expand the dance floor. The party was going full-blast despite the tragedy, thanks to cooperative police and celebrities who knew this was the place to be seen tonight. Ah, Hollywood. I pointed covertly at one waiter. "Sutherland made a date with that guy. We can follow and photo, or we can pass a few bucks to the jenny to set him up. Your call."

"What would you prefer?"

"Pay the waiter for the sting," I said promptly, handing the cigarette back to her.

She punched me lightly on the arm. "You are such a softie," she teased.

I smiled, then grew pensive again as I thought about Cowboy Jack. "I guess I am," I said sadly. After a moment I asked "Why do you think the Colonel did it?"

She shrugged. "Money, I'm sure. Dispute over a contract, or a will, or property, or movie rights. I can't imagine the Colonel getting passionate enough to kill someone over anything except money."

I thought about my poor auntie. "Or pride, maybe. His ego."

She tucked her arm in mine and we quietly finished the cigarette as the waiters bustled around. We'd wait for Sutherland to break for the can before we approached our guy. "Do you still have your autograph?" she asked.

I patted my jacket pocket. "You bet. I'll treasure it for the rest of my life."

"Well, that's fine, but I'll bet Hazel Sutherland would be amenable to a reduction in her fee in exchange for providing a notarized affidavit as the party hostess, niece of the murderer and one of the murder witnesses, stating that's the last autograph Cowboy Jack ever wrote, penned just seconds before his demise."

I looked up at her. "You think?" A grin began to spread over my face.

"If you could find the right collector, you might get enough to buy a used car."

"Or maybe a zoot suit tuxedo," I mused. I didn't really mind taking the streetcar to work.