Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
It is just after 8:00 p.m. The sun has already almost set, backlighting a silk screen of sky, crimson fading to rose, fading to indigo. Even at this height the air hangs heavy and orange- grove-scent laden, like a perfumed cloak draped around the shoulders of the Santa Monica Mountains.
A Packard 533 coupe pulls up at the curb behind a parked police wagon, and the driver, a woman of about forty, steps out onto the sidewalk. She is medium-height, slim and narrow waisted without being meager, her bust and hips fuller than the prevailing trend prefers; her dark hair beneath the navy felt cloche hat, too, is longer than is the current fashion and falls almost to her shoulders. She is wearing a blue, well-tailored jacket-and-skirt suit that is expensive without being extravagant.
There is an economy and purposefulness in the woman’s movements as she makes her way to the house. As she passes, she looks into the parked police wagon and, seeing it is empty, walks on through the open gates and up to the house. An expensive, foreign-made, sand-colored sporting coupe sits at an angle on the driveway as if abandoned in haste, its top down, the driver’s door flung open.
The house sits in the foothills, elevated enough to offer an unbroken twenty-five-mile view across the city to the ocean. The architectural vernacular is a mix of Spanish Colonial Revival grandness and poured-concrete amenity. The white stucco and terracotta-tiled house itself is large and sprawling, set on a proportionately generous lot dressed with acacia, palms, and olive and fruit trees; a kidney-shaped swimming pool glitters under suspended lanterns at the rear.
She knows the house and its scattered half-dozen neighbors are all less than a decade old, the blossoming of recently sown seeds of sudden wealth and confidence. After the war and the post-Armistice economic chaos that followed in Europe, the until then dominant French, German, and Danish film industries had been all but wiped out. The way had been cleared for a small Californian orange-growing town to expand its horizons, metaphorically and, as the house and its neighbors attest, literally.
A young policeman stands at the door of the house and moves to check her entry as she approaches.
“I’m Mary Rourke,” she says to the officer. “Pops Nolan called me. . .”
The young officer looks at her face. It is impassive, cool; its architecture is high- cheeked and strong-jawed beneath a glitter of blue-green eyes. In any other town in America, in the world, it would be considered a beautiful face. But this is Hollywood, and beautiful faces abound. Faces that are a decade or two younger; eyes whose glitter is more dew and less flint.
“Yes, ma’am.” The patrolman, no more than twenty-one, stands to one side. “Pops said you’d be here.”
She steps through the portico and doorway, into an entrance hall that is wide and white, the ceiling ribbed with Spanish arches. The white shields of wall are broken by vibrant modern paintings and pieces of hacienda-style furniture, the jacaranda wood twisting and rippling like dark muscle and sinew. There is a row of Spanish Colonial armchairs, the seat and back of each thick-padded and dressed in tooled blood-red leather, the naked wooden armrests lion-clawed. On one of the chairs sits a small older olive-skinned woman in a servant’s outfit. Decades of labor have wrought her hands as dark and sinewy as the chair’s carved wood, and they sit on her lap in a nervously clutched knot. Her face is creased with grief and stained with tears. Mary Rourke walks across to her, placing a hand on her shoulder to restrain the maid’s habit of subservience as she starts to rise from the chair.
“Oye madre. ¿Estás bien?”
The maid looks up. She gives a small, tense nod, her resolve not to cry a fragile dam straining against the weight of shock and grief. The dam breaks, and the maid starts to weep again, tears re-finding dried tracks like a fresh fall of desert rain. She nods.
“Did you telephone anyone else about this? Or just the police?” Rourke asks. The maid looks confused.
“¿Llamaste a alguien más? ¿O simplemente telefoneó a la policía?”
The old Mexican woman frowns. “Sólo la policía, señora.”
Mary Rourke comforts the maid some more but is interrupted when an older man in a patrolman’s uniform, double chevrons on his sleeve, descends the grand sweep of white marble stair into the hall.
“Hi, Pops,” Rourke says, turning from the Mexican servant. “Thanks for the call. Have you notified the medical examiner yet?”
“Nope. When I saw who it was, I phoned you straightaway. I guessed you’d want to see what the story is.” The patrolman’s voice is haunted by the not-too-distant ghosts of Kerry ancestors.
“I appreciate it. And . . . ?” She indicates the front door. Pops Nolan takes her meaning.
“Prentice? He’s okay,” he says. “The kid knows the score. You’ll take care of him too?”
“Of course. Like I say, we appreciate your consideration.” Rourke pauses; then she says, with purpose: “Where is she?”
The policeman nods in the direction of the upper floor. Rourke turns to the maid and speaks comfortingly to her in Spanish for a moment before following the policeman up the marble stairs.
The bedroom he shows her into is high and wide. Everything here is ornate, extravagant—dissonant with the style of the rest of the house. The walls are adorned with hangings, arcing swathes of silk in peacock hues.
A single, huge painting dominates: an overscaled full-length portrait, painted in luxuriant colors, of a woman standing on the steps of some ancient temple. A breathtaking, dark beauty and a potent sensuality radiate from the woman, who is dressed in a figure- hugging, diaphanous cloth-of-gold kalasiris. She wears the Vulture Crown of ancient Egypt, topped with a golden Uraeus cobra, its rearing head in turn sun-disk crowned. The bright dazzle of her eyes is accentuated by Egyptian-style black kohl and emerald grepond makeup. The slenderness of her neck is emphasized by an ornate gold-and-jewel collar that completely encircles her throat, from under her chin to where it fans out over her chest and shoulders as an Usekh necklace.
Rourke looks down from the painting to the bed beneath it. It too is oversized, twice the width and length of a double bed; Rourke guesses the mattress and the bedclothes were made to special order. It is dressed in satin and silk, again peacock blues and emerald greens.
A woman lies on the bed.
She is dressed in a full-length gown, the silk of which has an iridescent pearl sheen to it. Her arms and shoulders are bare; slender hands rest on her stomach. The woman’s face is tranquil, the closed eyelids dark with mascara, the lips deep red. Her hair is a dark-auburn halo around her head.
“Beautiful woman,” says Nolan.
Mary Rourke nods without comment. Considered by many to be the most desirable woman in the world, the woman on the bed is indeed very beautiful. She is also, Rourke has been told, very dead. The woman on the bed is the woman in the painting.
Norma Carlton, the movie star.
Such is Carlton’s serenity that, for a moment, Mary Rourke can believe she is asleep, rather than dead, and expects to see the chest rise to take a dreamy breath. But it doesn’t. Rourke places her fingertips against the side of Carlton’s neck. The skin is cool, but not yet cold. And there is no pulse.
Rourke sighs as she straightens up. She makes a mental inventory of the rings, bracelets, and armlet that bejewel Carlton’s body: it totals more than most people will earn in a lifetime. However, the most striking piece is the ornate collar necklace that completely encircles her slender neck—exactly the same necklace as in the portrait—splaying out across her shoulders. Despite being more striking, it does not match the other pieces in color or value: painted wire substitutes gold, glass and paste imitate jewels. Yet Mary Rourke immediately recognizes the piece: part of the costume for Norma Carlton’s most famous role, the one captured on canvas above the bed.
Hatshepsut in D. W. Griffith’s historical epic Queen Pharaoh.
Rourke crosses over to the bedside nightstand. She picks up three empty medicine bottles; all three carry the name LUMINAL. A handwritten note, a still-uncapped silver fountain pen resting upon it, sits beneath the bulky table lamp. Mary Rourke picks up the pen and sees an inscription on its side: “To NC from HC.”
She reads the note:
I cannot live with it all anymore. I cannot bear it
There is no signature or initials. The two sentences sit at the top of the page, the second sentence without a period, as if Carlton had intended to write more. Rourke sighs. The Luminal, the note, the wearing of a memento of her most famous role: it all points to suicide, and suicide is scandal for the studio.
Rourke places both pen and note in her beaded clutch bag.
“How long before you have to call it in?” she asks Nolan when she is finished. “It depends on what we’re talking about, and whether the detective branch get
involved.” Nolan shouts the word “suicide” without uttering it. “The maid called the station house, so the time is logged. She barely speaks English, so all that’s recorded so far is there’s some kind of emergency. But I have to call in with some details. I can give you another twenty minutes. Half-hour, tops.” He pauses. “There’s a wrinkle.”
The patrolman leads her back out into the hall and along to the next bedroom door. Mary Rourke looks in and sees a tall man sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his head in his hands, slim fingers clutching thick brunet hair. He becomes aware of their scrutiny and looks up. His absurdly handsome face is drawn, his expression desperate.
Rourke recognizes him instantly, as would a quarter of the population of the world. She sighs, stifling a curse.
“When did he arrive?”
“Just after us,” says Nolan
“After, not before?”
“Is that his automobile in the drive?” The patrolman nods.
The tall, handsome man speaks. His accent is clipped, British. His voice a little high and reedy. “I didn’t think she would go through with it. . . I can’t think what to do. . .”
“Well, she did,” says Mary Rourke. “And leave the thinking to me, Mr. Huston.”
“Who are you?” asks the Englishman.
“The cavalry,” says Rourke flatly. “How did you know she’d be dead? The maid phoned nobody but the police.”
“I. . .” Huston looks up at her. “She said she would. I mean, she threatened to do it, like she’d threatened to do it before. It just seemed. . . it just seemed talk.” Rourke fixes him with her gaze. She knows Huston’s type. He’s a man in a man’s world; a man women want to have and other men want to be. The type of man who glides through life, charming and beguiling his way because nature accidentally gave his features particular proportions and a certain symmetry. But there is no guile in him now. No charm. No gliding.
“So why tonight?” she asks. “Why did you come charging to her rescue tonight in particular?”
“Because we had a row. A bad one. I told her I wouldn’t leave my wife. We’d talked about it before, but things . . . things are complicated.”
Sure they are, thinks Rourke. Robert Huston, heartthrob star who is known worldwide for buckling his swash in a number of historical epics. He is also known within the closer circles of Hollywood as an equally accomplished bedroom swordsman. More than occasional and more than enthusiastic drinking buddy of John Gilbert and John Barrymore. He is married to Veronica Stratton, the glacial beauty whose star shines even brighter than his, and they are Hollywood’s darling couple, second only in popularity to the Fairbanks-Pickfords. Rourke knows that a divorce would be disastrous for them both.
“I told her today that Veronica had found out about us,” Huston continues, “and that we had to break it off. She took it badly.”
Rourke nods thoughtfully. She knows—as everyone in Hollywood’s inner circles knows—that Norma Carlton and Veronica Stratton are—were—bitter rivals. A rivalry that their respective studios had had to play down with picture articles of the two socializing, playing tennis, doing good works together—anything other than clawing at each other’s faces, which was how one photo session nevertheless ended up.
Rourke examines Huston and makes an instant assessment that the beefcake Brit is short on brains and long where it counts, and that any possessiveness either Carlton or Stratton felt was to deprive the rival, rather than possess the object. Something that doesn’t fit with a suicide. Nothing Rourke knows about the cool, assured Norma Carlton fits with a suicide.
“You say Miss Carlton threatened this before?”
“When did you and she start the affair?”
“Shortly after we started shooting The Devil’s Playground. She approached me; I didn’t start it.” He looks up at Rourke, as if he needs her to believe him.
“Well, you joined in. From what I remember, that’s the way these things work.” She turns to the patrolman. “Keep an eye on him.” She goes out to the hall and picks up a telephone, gives the operator a number, and is connected. There is no conversation; she simply gives a series of instructions, then hangs the earpiece back in its cradle.
“I need an hour,” she says to the patrolman. “I have people on their way.”
“I . . .” Nolan begins to protest.
Rourke reaches into her bag and takes out a roll of bills. She peels off one hundred dollars in fives and tens. Nolan’s eyes widen. She has bought herself her hour.
“You’ve done us—done me—a huge favor, Pops. This really is important to us. . .” Rourke hands him the hundred. “I’ll leave it up to you how much you give the kid, but we need everyone to keep this quiet. Before we leave, you’ll have the official line, okay?”
The patrolman nods absently, hypnotized by the bills in his hand.
Rourke goes back into the bedroom where the Englishman sits. “Who knows you’re here?” she asks.
He looks puzzled for a moment, his thoughts sluggish as they wade through the swamp of his shock. “I . . . Nobody. I didn’t tell anybody. I telephoned and couldn’t get an answer, so I came over.”
“The maid was here,” says Rourke.
“Norma didn’t allow her to answer the phone. Her English isn’t good enough.” “She did just fine calling the police.”
“I don’t know about that. All I know is that I rang and couldn’t get an answer. As I said, Norma and I had a beast of a row over lunch, after I told her I’d have to break it off, and she stormed out.”
“You were in a restaurant? This row was public?”
“No. We kept things discreet. I have a sort of retreat—this seafront lodge, down in Santa Monica. We had lunch there.” He frowns. “Are you from the studio?”
“Yes. I’m from Carbine International,” she clarifies for him: Huston is on loan to the studio from First National Pictures.
She is interrupted by the sounds of the young patrolman protesting as someone makes their way in through the main door downstairs. She goes out to the hall, leans over the banister, and calls out:
“It’s okay, they’re with me.”
Mary Rourke trots down the stairs. Four men wait for her in the hall. Of the four, there is no doubt who is in charge. The Golem. Sam Geller is a giant of a man: six and a half feet tall, barrel-chested, heavy-featured. When he speaks—which is seldom, and never without purpose—his voice is a rumbling baritone. His bright and intelligent eyes hide in the shadows of both his heavy brow and dark-gray fedora.
“Hi, Sam,” says Rourke. “Usual drill. Anything sensitive about the studio, any narcotics, anything sex-weird, anything linking her to one of our names. There are three bottles of Luminal on the nightstand that need to disappear.” She remembers the Brit. “Any notes or letters from Robert Huston, too. By the way, he’s upstairs and in shock. You’ll need to get him away from here without being seen. That’s his chariot abandoned on the drive.”
Geller nods, then sets the other men their tasks. “Luminal, you say?” he asks in his deep baritone. “The boss won’t like suicide.”
“I’m on it. Got Doc Wilson on his way. Wilson’s been behind more medical fictions than Sonya Levien at Famous Players-Lasky. I’m guessing when he’s finished our girl will have nursed a diseased heart instead of a broken one.” She frowns.
“What is it?” asks Geller.
“Norma Carlton. Suicide,” Rourke says. “I just can’t put the two together. Norma Carlton and a broken heart neither. Norma Carlton even having a heart, from what I’ve heard.”
“Three bottles of Luminal is a lot of beauty sleep,” he says. “Not something you do by accident.”
“Just didn’t think she was the type, is all.” She shakes off the thought. “You and your boys better hustle. Pops Nolan is watching the clock.”
Geller barks orders at his men. The younger patrolman, Prentice, watches them at their work with an expression of unease. He protests to the senior cop, and Nolan leads him back out of the hall and onto the main drive, where he simultaneously delivers a brief lecture on the reality of being a cop in Hollywood and a neatly folded wedge of some of the bills Mary Rourke gave him.
Inside, Rourke is talking in Spanish to Renata, the Mexican maid, about the sin of suicide and the need to spare the señora’s family the shame. She explains to the maid that, in any case, the señora was seriously ill, something she’d kept from her adoring fans, and she had taken too much medicine by accident, not on purpose. She asks the older woman how much the señora pays her. Five minutes later, the maid is in a cab heading for home, the edge of her grief blunted by the more than a year’s pay in the pocket of her apron, and a telephone number to give as a reference for her next job.
A middle-aged man arrives. Heavyset beneath an expensive three-piece and matching homburg, his complexion ruddy to the point of livid, and his glasses rest on a bulbous nose. Mary Rourke greets him in the hallway.
“Hi, Doc, your customer is upstairs.”
“Suicide, you say?” Wilson’s voice is deep and cultured, his breath fumes expensive brandy.
“Looks like she had a one-woman Luminal party. Sam Geller’s gathered up the bottles. You got the ambulance outside?”
“And a driver and orderly. They can stretcher her down and we can get her off premises. Are the cops tame?”
“As puppies. But I don’t want the detective branch getting involved. We’ve got half on the payroll, but the rags have got the other half. And I can hear a headline screaming.”
“Then I suggest you get them to report it as a suspected heart attack, and that she was still alive when we came and took her to the Appleton Clinic. I’ll nudge the time of death on the certificate to suggest she died in the ambulance. Cardiac failure caused by a heart weakened by childhood rheumatic fever.”
Rourke makes a face.
“I know it’s an old chestnut,” says Wilson, “but it’s the path of least resistance. I’ll revise her records at the clinic to match the story, do an autopsy tonight, sign the cert, and we can have her casketed tomorrow. Otherwise, you may need to sweeten the county medical examiner’s disposition. And that takes a lot of sugar, from what I’ve heard.”
Rourke nods and directs Wilson to the body. “I’ve inventoried the jewelry,” she says. Safe it up for me at the clinic, and someone from the studio’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
“Fine,” says Wilson. “I recommend a private family funeral. Ideally, a cremation, and as quickly as possible without arousing suspicion.”
She leads Wilson to the bedroom where the dead star lies. The two ambulance orderlies follow with a stretcher. Rourke leaves them to it while she steps into the other bedroom and talks the Brit through the fiction.
“I’m telling you this, but you don’t know any of it. When someone tells you that Miss Carlton has died of heart failure—I’ll arrange for the news to be broken on-set tomorrow— make sure you look shocked. Got it? Devastated that your co-star has been taken so cruelly by ill-health. It would be good if you could mention that she had referred to heart problems in the past.”
“I . . .” Huston frowns. “I don’t know if I can pretend that—”
“Sure you can,” interrupts Rourke. “It’s called acting. I’d give it a try if you want to keep your career.”
She leaves him and goes back downstairs. The Golem and his men work their way methodically from room to room, meeting up again in the main hall. Between them, they have three carryalls filled with paperwork, letters, photographs, address books, and a diary.
Most of the contents, they know, will be innocuous; but they have done this often enough to be aware they don’t have the time to be too selective.
When they’re finished, Mary Rourke gives Geller further instructions and the men depart, taking the Brit actor with them. One of Geller’s men gets behind the wheel of Huston’s sports coupe. She expresses her thanks to Pops Nolan and the younger cop. She talks through Norma Carlton having a history of a weak heart—“illness in childhood”—and that she was barely but still alive when she was taken into the ambulance. She explains that Dr. Wilson, Miss Carlton’s personal physician, has said she’s unlikely to make it through the night.
She tells the fiction with such conviction and certainty that the younger cop looks disconcerted, as if he is no longer sure what really happened. She smiles at him.
“Don’t worry, Prentice,” she says. “This is Hollywood. Things are never what you think they are. You can call it in,” she tells Nolan, and waits while he makes the call.
“Who’s duty detective?” she asks him when he replaces the earpiece in the cradle and sets the phone down.
“Kendrick,” he says. “But with natural causes they’ll probably just go with my report.”
“Good.” She pauses as the ambulance men bring the stretcher-borne dead star down the stairs, followed by Doc Wilson. “If Detective Kendrick decides to take an interest, ask him to phone me. I know Jake.”
The policemen leave, and she is alone in the house. After forty-five minutes of quick and deliberate activity, it is quiet, almost serene. She leaves, closing the heavy wooden door on the house and a tragedy that has left no trace there, and heads out into the evening air. Mimosa mixes in with the faint orange scent. At the curb, she finds Geller still waiting in his car, parked behind hers.
“No problem,” says Geller. “Just a message. The boss wants to see you tomorrow morning. Because of this, I guess. Asked me to tell you, is all.”
She nods. “Good night, Sam.”
Geller’s heavy face breaks into a grin. “Good night, Mary,” he says as he drives off.
Rourke looks up at the sky, then back at the house. She climbs into her Packard and eases it down the decline toward the city that glitters in the night.