As promised here is Chapter One of a work in progress. How far it will progress, no-one knows, least of all me.
The Picture Ranch Chapter One
I don’t believe in miracles. Clients do. They expect them every day. I believe in giving them what they think they want, as long they pay $25 dollars a day plus expenses, but I don’t do miracles. Just tricks: if they don’t see how I palmed the pea, they can look under all the shells they want.
Clients come in all shapes and sizes. If a looker opens Mike Fisher’s office door I don’t complain. My office isn’t far from RKO’s place. Plenty of people come over from The Picture Ranch. I even had Sam Briskin’s gofer in a while back. Movie people are good customers, but it’s damn surprising how many of them believe in miracles. They make dreams out of sawdust and celluloid every day. Just shows to go, you can kid a kidder.
A few months ago, there was a knock on the door. Most people don’t run to that much politeness. If the door doesn’t hit the file cabinet on the back swing, I figure the client is welcome. The gal who came in looked like she was auditioning for the part of the high-school librarian. The clothes were right but the body wouldn’t have got the part, it’s a fact. She was wearing horn-rims and her hair in a bun so tight I wanted to pull out every bobby-pin, just to see if her skin really was that smooth. I figured her for an actress, but I was wrong.
The horn rims were real. Her eyes were so big behind them that she must have been as blind as a mole.
‘Yeah. What can I do for you?’ I took my feet off the desk, since she seemed quite the lady and all.
She was standing by the chair on the other side of the desk. I wondered what she was waiting for, until she gave a sniff and nodded at the chair. I stood up and held the chair while she sat down. Then I sat down. I thought of offering her a snoot from the bourbon in the desk drawer, but changed my mind.
‘I need you to find someone.’
‘I can do that. Anyone do ya? ‘Cause if it’s someone you had in mind that’ll be extra.’
‘Very droll, Mr Fisher.’
I’d had a lot of clients pass through my hands, but I never heard anyone use that word before. It was the kind of word that you might see in a book, but not one I’d ever read twice.
She sat, knees together, like a spinster at a church dance.
‘It’s my brother. He’s fifteen. He’s run away.’
I listened for the ‘from home’, but it didn’t come.
‘Fifteen, huh? Big for his age? Got a GF?’
‘A sweetheart, squeeze, you know.’
The lady let out a long sigh.
‘No, that is – I don’t know. He ran away from school. Military School. Over in Carlsbad.’
‘That’s a hunnert miles away. Don’t you think you need a San Diego guy for this? I gotta numb-‘
‘I said that’s where he ran from, Mr Fisher. I’m his only living relative.’
‘Well we know he hasn’t run to you, Miss….’
She stood up, ‘I do beg your pardon, Mr Fisher. Miss Eleanor Gräfenberg.’
We shook hands, she didn’t take her glove off.
I waited for her to sit down and I believed she thought about smiling.
‘You will have to visit the school, of course, but I am sure he has come to Encino. Quite sure.’
‘Well pardon me, Miss Grey-Fun-Berg, but why don’t you just wait for him to turn up?’
‘He ran away a year ago.’
My jaw just about bounced off of my tie knot.
‘I did not know he existed until last week. When the lawyer came to… my workplace.’
‘What’s the deal here, Miss G? It sure sounds goofy. Maybe you better start over.’
It was a long story. Turned out Miss Gräfenberg had been Little Orphan Ellie almost all her life. At the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage until she was old enough to leave, she’d refused the habit and rode a Greyhound to Los Angeles where she got a job filing at the Times. About a year ago she’d taken a job at The Picture Ranch.
‘More filing,’ she said.
‘But it’s the movies, yeah, I know.’
‘No, Mr Fisher, no you don’t. It’s more money and it’s away from that damned newspaper, with its boosterism and simple corruption.’
I’d never thought I’d hear someone say they preferred the movies because people were more honest.
Miss G went on and I let her, because she really was a fine package, when you looked close enough. She told me the lawyer, one Towne, had come to the RKO offices out at the Picture Ranch Friday previous. He was looking for the boy. William Mulvaney.
‘That’s his name, and the name of his adoptive parents.’
‘Which Mulvaney’s are those? Are they LA Mulvaneys? Water Board Mulvaney’s?’
Miss G looked down at her shoes. Nice shoes, not B-girls’ shoes – but they did plenty for her legs.
‘I believe they are.’
The boy’s disappearance had been in the paper Miss G had used to work for, not so long ago.
‘How’d they find you?’
‘I imagine they traced me via the Times. William was one of Georgia Tann’s out-of-state adoptees.’
‘Whose, you mean. Georgia Tann sells babies.’
‘Someone like that keeps records?’
‘Evidently, Mr Fisher. I imagine anything can happen in Tennessee.’
I shook my head, ‘People really buy babies?’
‘You’d be surprised. Why Joan Cr-‘ she broke off, but I knew that the former Lucille LeSueur wasn’t much bothered about how she got what she wanted anyway.
‘What do they want with you?’
She picked a piece of lint from her skirt. ‘I’m his nearest blood relative. The money comes to me, if he isn’t found, that is.’
‘So why look for him, you’ll be rich in five years or so.’
My jaw did that thing again when she said, ‘I don’t want the money.’
‘Wait a minute, you’re five years older right? From an orphanage? How can you have a brother at all, never mind one five years younger?’
‘You are most kind, Mr Fisher. William Mulvaney is fifteen years younger than I.’
I hadn’t eaten breakfast, but that was just about the sixth impossible thing she had asked me to believe since she walked in.
‘Well, anyhoo, don’t see how you can have a brother.’
‘Well, clearly, he is my half-brother. Mr Towne told me that we share a mother. The orphanage has no record at all. I was a foundling. It could be true, of course.’
She looked down at a cuticle and I could tell she doubted that it was.
‘So I’m to go to the school, ask around, then what?’
‘There is a letter. He wrote to me care of the orphanage. The Sisters of Mercy posted it on. I got it yesterday.’
She held up a hand, since she saw mine palm up, outstretched. ‘No, you can read it after you’ve been to the Military School. Go there first.’
She stood up and held out a hand.
‘It’s $25 per diem plus expenses, isn’t it?’
I shook on it and said, ‘A $100 in advance.’
She took out her purse and handed over a Benjamin.
‘A pleasure doing business, Mr Fisher,’ and in spite of the fact I enjoyed watching her rear view all the way out the door, I had a feeling it wouldn’t be for me.
The Army and Navy Academy was on Carlsbad Boulevard in Carlsbad. I had driven down in a friend’s five-year-old Studebaker Roadster. It shone like a diamond outside but drove like it used coal. My own car was in the shop after an argument with a fire-hydrant. I’d paid the cop nearly as much as the repair was going to cost me. I didn’t bother driving through the gate, just parked by a street lamp and walked up the long drive. Miniature soldiers saluted while trying to keep hold of schoolbooks and a junior marine slapped his rifle stock hard when I arrived at the main door.
‘ ‘Pointment, sir?’
‘No, I need to speak to someone about a student.’
He shouted these words so they didn’t sound like questions.
‘No, look just let a guy in so he can talk to a grown-up.’
‘No can do, sir!’
I was going to show him my P.I.’s licence but the door opened. A fat guy crammed into Robert E. Lee’s dress uniform looked me up and down.
‘Hep you, sir?’
I got to “Mulvaney -” and he pulled me in before the door shut.
The fat guy’s office was four vanity walls around a desk the size of a battleship. I looked up at the photos; local pols, Lucille LaSeuer, June Allyson and Dick Powell, a smattering of real soldiers in dress uniforms with the Head of the Academy, sometimes slimmer and younger. He’d been in the military school game most of his adult life, I reckoned. He sat in a captain’s chair on the other side of the battleship. He got all tangled up with his sword and I tried not to laugh.
‘Fulbright, USN Retired,’ he steepled his hands and I prepared not to believe a single word he said.
‘What can I do for you?’
‘The Mulvaney boy, when exactly did he go over the wall?’
The fat guy looked over his pudgy hands at me. ‘He was present at Reveille on the morning of July 4th last year.’
‘How do you know?’
‘We parade for roll call every day after the bugle blows. Discipline, it’s part of military life. So we teach it here.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘He went… absconded before Military History for which he was timetabled with Captain Beauregard in the Stonewall Building.’
He pressed the pads of his fingertips hard together to save him from making a fist and banging it on the desk.
‘However, we did not realise he was missing until dinner in the canteen at 19.00 hours.’
‘Well, gee, Mr, how come you lose a boy and don’t notice for 11 hours?’
‘Cadets are imbued with a sense of honour from the day they arrive here, Sir. It is assumed that any absentee from the classroom is on Sick Parade or already in the San – Sanatorium.’
‘A hospital? You get a lot of sick kids here?’
‘No more than you would expect. There are the injuries concomitant with military manoeuvres and sports which are an essential part of our curriculum.’
I felt like telling him I wasn’t married and had no kids that I’d be sending here to dress up like a Spanish Admiral and shoot BB guns at targets instead of gophers.
‘Was he a good student? Did he like it here?’ I looked around at the office and thought I wouldn’t have, not at 15 and not for five minutes.
‘He didn’t complain. Few cadets do, we breed men, here, Sir. Good fighting men – and they don’t complain’
I knew then that the guy didn’t have a clue about day-to-day matters in School. Or even in the Military. Soldiers complain, I knew. I’d done three years with the 4th Marines in Shanghai. China Marines did no fatigues. Buck privates had Chinese servants to polish brass, mow lawns, rake gravel or keep their barracks clean. The Yankee Dollar would buy Chinese or White Russian girls’ company and enough beer to make that a waste of money, if you were young and stupid. And we all were. China Marines complained like it was an inter-company sports event. I did too.
I asked him if Mulvaney had any special friends. He pressed a buzzer and a uniformed woman came in. If they ever did let women into the US Military I hoped they all looked like this one, but I bet myself they’d never be able to march in those shoes. The woman stood to attention and saluted. I’d met a couple of dames from the Army Corps of Nurses when I shipped out to Shanghai. They wore army-bought uniforms but they ignored every protocol from wearing a hat to saluting officers. We didn’t consider them military and neither did they. The fat guy adjusted the creases in his trousers before he stood up and went over to the red-head.
‘Take Mr Fisher along to Captain O’Herlihy, Miss Lee’
I watched the man’s hand linger on her back and reckoned her typing was the least of her qualifications from the job.
‘Folluh me, Mr Fishuh, she said.’
Her legs stretched the tight uniform skirt to it’s limit. The bell rang: students came out of class and started making their way to the next. We moved through the main school building. Not one kid caught my eye. Nor did their gaze linger on the secretary’s figure for a second. After five minutes,
Miss Lee rapped on a door marked ‘Chaplain’. I said thanks but she’d already turned away and was opening a packet of Wrigley’s as if she was a hop-head desperate for her drug of choice.
The first thing I noticed about Captain O’Herlihy is that he didn’t have a uniform. Not even a dog-collar. He was dressed in a suit and a tie and a fedora hung over a long coat on the hat-stand in the corner. He stood up and held out a hand with a French manicure. His palm was soft and damp and went with the pink-cheeked look. He looked like a chubby toddler done up in man’s suit. The man had no hair at all, not even eyelashes.
‘So, how can I help you?’ His voice was soft and high pitched. ‘The Admiral must have sent you down here, since you came with the delightful Miss Lee.’
‘It’s about William Mulvaney.’
‘You know the boy well?’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘I’ve known the Admiral since we were in the Naval Reserve.’
‘How long has he been here?’
‘How come you’re not in the Reserve now? You look like a young guy. ‘Sides, don’t reserve Admirals retire in a wooden overcoat?’
‘Yeah, about that…’ Baby-face rubbed a hand over one of those pink cheeks.
‘Let me guess, he wasn’t an Admiral, any more than you were a Captain. Am I close?’
‘You don’t understand, he would have been, if…’
‘If things had turned out different. Now he’s running the best Military School in the state. Our alumni are movers and shakers, not just West Pointers.’
‘Just how many of your young men end up in the Military?’
‘I bet it is. Mulvaney, he an honor student?’
‘Top quartile, not outstanding, but pretty good.’
I took out a notebook, ‘Friends? I’ll be talking to them, you could do worse than bring them here. I’ll even let you stay in the room.’
‘Won’t take long, he was a quiet boy.’
‘There must have been somebody.’
‘Tell me about him.’
‘I’ll go get him.’
He started to heave himself out of his chair.
‘No, you tell me something about the boy.’
He took a file out of a desk drawer.
‘Got one of those for Mulvaney?’
I nodded at the buff folder. It was just like the ones the Military used.
‘Ah, no. He’s no longer my responsibility.’ He blushed like a bishop caught in a bordello.
‘He’s been gone a year.’
I asked him what the Police had done. He explained that they’d been ‘all over the Academy like ants at a picnic.’
‘What did you expect? Did Mulvaney Senior come down?’
‘No, Mrs Mulvaney came, every day for a month. She’s younger, you probably know.’
Everybody knew. Twenty years ago, the second Mrs Mulvaney married “lonely widower Frank” 6 months after the first had died in a hospice in Pasadena. The Santa Monica Enquirer didn’t use the words ”gold” and “digger” in any articles, but they might as well have done. The story was reported differently in the LA Times, of course. Tallulah Mulvaney was twenty-one years old and when she married a fifty-five-year-old millionaire. Some might have blamed the old goat for her failure to produce a child in the first five years. What Tallulah wanted, Tallulah got and – according to my client – the Mulvaneys had bought a child from a Tennessee baby farmer.
I figured I’d never get anything out of Father O’Herlihy about Schultz, so I sent him to get the only friend Mulvaney Jr. appeared to have had at the Academy. Meanwhile I read Schultz’s file. It read like an ambitious parent’s dream. Science, Arts and Sports. Friedrich ‘Freddie’ Schultz was in the top percentile. Every semester there had been a hand-written report since the 7th Grade. This seemed to be an attempt to give an impression of the character of the boy. The words ‘shy’ or ‘introverted’ appeared in every one. There had been a special report dated the 30th of June the previous year. It was no more than a single paragraph on a ruled page. I wrote it down in my reporter’s notebook. Most gumshoes I knew used their memory and if the quality of their brains was any indication of their memory power, I reckoned they should have bought notebooks too.
“Cadet Schultz continues to remain distant from his coevals. Aside from sports he seems inclined to solitary activities. It is this officer’s opinion that he spends too much time in the company of one Cadet Mulvaney. An interview (inst) with Schultz did not reach a satisfactory conclusion. Schultz and Mulvaney recommended to be put on report for 3 weeks. A dorm-room move has been suggested for Mulvaney, on receipt of the Admiral’s approval.”
The report had been signed by O’Herlihy. I wondered if I’d be able to get hold of Mulvaney’s file before I left.
The man-of-god returned about twenty minutes later accompanied by a pale-skinned, thin boy who looked as if the jocks would murder him if he got near the football field.
‘You really play football, son?’
‘Yessir. Nose tackle.’
I laughed and wondered how many the football team were last season, zip-and-something, for sure, when they picked a skinny kid like that in the middle of the defensive line.
Father O’Herlihy and cleared his throat. ‘Schultz will make All State one day. Don’t be fooled by appearances.’
Which only confirmed my suspicion that the school was full of loons and fantasists. Fitzgerald pulled over another chair which had been backed against the wall and put it next to mine. I turned my chair and sat with my arms folded across the back. The boy Schultz turned his chair to face me and we both ignored O’Herlihy who was sitting behind the desk, included out of the conversation, you might say.
‘You knew Mulvaney, kid?’
‘I know him, sir.’
‘Know where he is?’
‘Nossir, I don’t.’
‘Might be you knew him. It’s a long time for a boy of your age to be missing.’
‘You seem pretty sure of that. You seen him lately?’
‘No, Sir, I haven’t seen him since… before.’
‘Since before what?’
The boy looked over at O’Herlihy for the first time. The jowls on the giant-baby head shook and I gave him the gimlet eye.
‘Before what, kid?’
He straightened his back and stuck out his weak chin as far as his overbite would let him.
‘I’d rather not say.’
I looked at O’Herlihy and for two pins I’d have knuckled the smile off his teeth.
‘I guess that’ll be all. ‘
The boy stood and held out his hand for a shake. He had a good strong grip and I didn’t bother trying to outdo him, but nodded, respecting him a little more. Fitzgerald’s hand was outstretched too, but I ignored that.
‘Say, O’Herlihy,’ I looked at his too-plump face and felt like punching it. ‘Schultz can see me out, huh?’
The kid caught on quick and we were out of the office while the fat man still spluttered.
Schultx was holding the door open for me at the main entrance when he said it.
‘Meet me Friday. I meet my parents at 5. They’re always late. They don’t come to the entrance. They park over there near the corner.’
He was pointing at the taxi rank. I gave him a salute. He could have done worse than lie about his age and enlisted right then. I thought about taking him to the Marines Depot myself, in fact.
Well, that’s Chapter One… Think it’ll ever see the light of day? Maybe…