Hard Boiled, Part 1

A bit of late-1940s noir for you. It’s in two parts and part one is pretty damn long. Hope you enjoy.

Rated A.

* * *

This is a little something inspired by the work of the great pulp novels of WT Ballard, specifically the Bill Lennox trilogy: Say Yes to Murder, Murder Can’t Stop and Dealing out Death. Ballard invented General Consolidated Studios and its boss, Sol Spurck. I have shamelessly stolen those details from him.

* * *

Part One: Blackmail!

The blonde standing in the doorway was the hottest dame Ashley Davies had ever seen. And she’d seen plenty, in all possible ways.

She’d also seen the blonde before. In fact, there wasn’t a soul in America who wouldn’t have recognised her. She was the reigning queen of General Consolidated Studios, the highest paid and most famous movie star of the day. She did musicals, dramas, romances. Her face beamed down from hundreds of billboards and out from every fan magazine. She was everywhere. Ashley Davies, however, wasn’t one to show her hand easily.

“Yes? May I help you?” she asked, putting her pen down.

“Is that some kind of joke?” Spencer Carlin asked, striding into the room. “Do you usually keep people waiting for,” she checked her jewelled wristwatch, “forty minutes and then act like you don’t even have an appointment?”

Ashley didn’t answer. She was pretty sure that she’d have remembered meeting Spencer Carlin and arranging a date. On the other hand, the thundering head she’d woken up with indicated that she’d been pretty tight the night before. In such situations, experience had taught her to say as little as possible.

“Well?” the blonde demanded.

“Well what?” Ashley casually leaned back in her chair.

She’d been around the movie business all her life and it was rare that she met a star who looked as good off-screen without the benefits of lighting and make-up, but Spencer Carlin was a knock-out. She curved in all the right places at just the right angles, and the cream-coloured dress she was wearing was tailored to show the whole package off to best effect. Yet her stance and attitude said ‘look, but don’t touch’. The pristine cream gloves, the black, wide-brimmed hat and the blonde hair cascading across her face in a Lana Turner sweep added to the aloof air.

Hard-to-get was just Ashley’s type.

“Is this the way you behave with all your clients?”

It was a fair comment. She stood and extended her hand. “My apologies. I’m Ashley D—”

“Yes, I know who you are.” The other woman looked around. The cleaning service hadn’t been around in a week, mostly because they hadn’t been paid in over a month, but the office was nowhere near as bad as the look of disdain on Miss Carlin’s face indicated. “This won’t do at all. Let’s go to the Derby and talk there.”

Spencer Carlin didn’t wait for an answer. She walked back out the door as purposefully as she’d walked in. She never even turned around to see if Ashley was following her: women like that didn’t have to.

Still, it gave Ashley a chance to admire the rear view, and it was as impressive as the front. The wiggle in those hips was almost indecent. Great gams, too.

She grabbed her jacket and purse, but didn’t bother to lock the door. They didn’t have anything left worth stealing apart from the furniture: even the typewriter had been pawned to make the previous month’s rent.

Outside her building, there was a maroon and black Duisenberg with its rear door open. She got in and sat next to the actress, who ordered the chauffeur to take them to the Brown Derby on Wiltshire. As Ashley glanced up front, the driver gave her a curt nod of recognition. It was Flaherty, an ex-cop who worked for the studio as a fixer and general muscle. Whatever was going on, it had to be pretty serious if the brass were sending out the big boys to keep an eye on their star.

“I apologise for the misunderstanding over our appointment,” she said. “I’m afraid head office didn’t pass the message on to me.”

Spencer Carlin wordlessly handed her a telegram that she pulled from her pocket book.

Ashley sighed as she read it. Aiden had once again made a promise that he couldn’t keep.

DELIGHTED TO TAKE CASE STOP
AD WILL MEET YOU LOBBY LENNOX HOTEL TUES 2PM STOP
YOURS WTH

Aiden Dennison was her oldest friend and her business partner, although she did most of the work.

When he returned from service in the Pacific, scouting around for something to do with his life, he scored a few bucks helping out an old buddy who worked for a legit agency — nothing two-fisted, just some legwork following a doxie. He liked it enough to file for a PI licence of his own. He set out his shingle and waited for the jobs to roll in. Only trouble was, no-one wanted to hire a doughboy fresh out of uniform with no experience.

So Aiden invented a senior partner, one WT Hunter. And because Aiden was Aiden, he didn’t just pay the signwriter to stencil ‘The WT Hunter Agency’ on the door. No, Aiden set up this whole fiction by which there was a real WT Hunter with a head office in Sacramento and other offices across the state. Sometimes, he impersonated the old man himself, but mostly he just paid an answering service to field all their calls and apologetically explain that Mr Hunter was busy on a big case but would send his top local agent along instead.

Ashley couldn’t say anything to defend herself against the telegram, even though Aiden had never mentioned the job. In fact, she hadn’t seen him in days which usually meant either a new skirt or a big gambling debt. Whenever he showed his lousy face again, she fully intended to make him wish he’d stayed in hiding.

The hot blonde didn’t offer any chit-chat, so they rode the whole way to the Derby in silence, although Ashley felt that she was being evaluated in some way. The other woman’s gaze was constantly upon her in a frank manner, as if appraising her. Only once they were in a booth did Miss Carlin speak.

“How discreet is your agency?” she asked, staring down at a menu.

“As discreet as you need and want us to be,” Ashley replied.

The blonde put the menu down and took a cigarette holder from her pocket book. She made a big show of selecting a cigarette from an ornate silver box and screwing it in slowly. Once finished, she waited for Ashley to light it. She raised her eyebrows when Ashley produced a solid gold Dunhill, but didn’t comment.

“I have something that I’d like to keep out of the gossip pages,” she said.

“And?” It was Hollywood, Ashley thought. Who didn’t?

“And I need you to retrieve some photographs that might make that difficult.”

Ashley lowered her voice. “Are we talking a pay-off or something else?”

“The subject of payment has been raised, but I should feel far happier if you were to retrieve the photographs and negatives as well.”

“Is the problem private or trade?”

“Pardon me?”

Ashley explained, “If the scandal sheets are putting the squeeze on you, they can be bought off cheaply enough for the sort of money the studio and you wouldn’t even notice, and can be trusted up to a point.” They would return the negatives for some kind of quid pro quo: cheesecake shots of one of the more disposable starlets ought to do it. They just needed something to fill their pages and they didn’t really care what it was.

A waiter appeared and the blonde ordered whisky sours and two steaks, medium-rare, without even asking Ashley.

“It’s not the press and I don’t want the studio involved.”

“What about the Mick in the Duisenberg?”

Miss Carlin frowned. “I don’t follow.”

“Flaherty, the big Mick driving you,” she explained, “is former LAPD. He’s Sol’s private muscle.” Sol Spurck was the boss of General Consolidated Studios. “If Flaherty’s driving you, then Sol knows that something’s up.”

“I don’t see how that’s —” She stopped and took a long drag of her cigarette, blowing the smoke out in a slow stream. “Sol is very shrewd.”

Their drinks arrived and Ashley told the waiter to bring a second round immediately. She had the feeling that liquor was going to help to get them to whatever they were dancing around. She tipped the glass towards her client and took a drink. It was smooth and tart all at once.

“I think this is what you need.” Once again, Spencer Carlin reached into her pocket book. She withdrew a brown envelope and passed it across the table. From its size and shape, Ashley could tell that there was money in it, a sizeable amount. “I’ve included a note with several addresses. They’re my best guess about where to start.”

“So,” Ashley summarised, “someone is trying to hit you up for a big score. It’s gotta be someone you know, if you’ve got addresses. And you want me to visit them while they’re not at home and retrieve some property. But you also want to keep it from Sol, which probably isn’t happening in this lifetime, because he knows everything that goes on in his studio and he already has Flaherty on you. And I definitely can’t afford to get on the wrong side of Sol if I want to work in this town again. So, at some point, someone is going to have to tell me what it is I’m meant to be discreet about.”

For the first time since they had met, Spencer Carlin smiled.

“I asked around, you know,” she said. She sipped her whisky thoughtfully, considering the best way to play her next line. “I didn’t come to you by chance. I requested you most specifically.”

That answered one question which had occurred to Ashley: whether the AD in the telegram had meant Aiden or herself.

“There are things that a woman can only share with another woman who understands her fully. And from my enquiries I felt sure that you should understand me. In fact, I was assured by several mutual acquaintances, including a certain Miss Harte, that you would understand.” The blonde picked up her drink and drained the remainder. She placed the crystal tumbler down carefully and looked straight at Ashley, no flinching. “You do understand, I take it?”

Ashley was tempted to look around to see if Alden was standing behind her, because someone had to be playing a trick on her. Kitty Harte was a dancer at MGM, an enchanting little piece whom Ashley had dated casually for a few months. Unless she was very much mistaken, the most famous woman in America — sweetheart of the Forces, fiancée of matinee idol Clive Standish and General Studios’ least scandalous star — was hinting at an interest in other women.

“I can be very understanding, Miss Carlin,” she replied evenly.

“That is also something I heard.” The blonde’s mouth twitched with amusement.

Ashley picked up a fresh drink and knocked it back. When she had ordered the second round, she hadn’t expected to be the one who needed it. If the conversation kept going the way it was, she was going to need a bottle.

“The addresses in the envelope?” she asked.

“Two private residences — one where the events transpired and one belonging to a gentleman of whom I was not meant to be aware. I assume that he was the shutterbug. I’ve also included a few places that we frequented together.”

“And this is just a straight retrieval, no other funny business?”

“I just want those pictures and negatives, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Ashley shrugged. “There’s a few ways we can do it. Certain steps can be taken to explain that bad choices have been made.” Aiden and she knew a few guys they could rely on for the stronger work.

The blonde bit her lip. It made Ashley wish that she could be the one biting it herself. “No, I don’t believe that will be necessary. I wouldn’t wish to aggravate the situation. I’m willing to pay once, but once only, and if I have the negatives, then I shan’t fear hearing from these people again.”

“How about insurance?”

Spencer Carlin frowned. “I’m afraid you’ll have to elucidate.”

“When someone has something on you, it’s oftentimes wise to get something on them. Insurance.”

“Ah, I see. Blackmail the blackmailers?”

“Indeed.” She paused, wondering how to phrase her reasoning delicately. “Without wishing to offend you in any way, Miss Carlin, if you believe that it’s a two-person set-up, then there’s a chance that you’re not the only fish they’ve hooked.”

She didn’t seem offended. In fact, she thought about it for a moment. “So, you’re suggesting that you get evidence of them doing the same thing or similar to someone else?”

“That’s exactly what I mean. My thought would be that I follow them for a few days, see if I can catch them in the act. That way, if they come back at you, you can threaten them with the LAPD in a case that wouldn’t involve you.”

A third round of drinks appeared. Ashley hadn’t noticed them being ordered, but she wasn’t going to refuse.

“I can see that my friends chose wisely when they recommended you to me. I think that sounds like an excellent idea.”

“I’m glad you agree, Miss Carlin.”

Again, the blonde smiled, a full-on grin that was both self-satisfied and just a little bit flirtatious. “Oh, I think you can call me Spencer. Don’t you?”

* * *

The girl was a dancer — what was it with hoofers? — signed to General Consolidated Studios on a decent enough salary of two-hundred a week. She had appeared in a couple of big-name musicals as one of those dames who stood on the steps wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a smile while the main star danced past, then started getting featured spots in nightclub scenes and the like. From the outside, it looked like she might be going places.

She’d been born Juanita Alvarado, but went by the more screen-friendly Janet Anderson. Janet had no criminal record and virtually no past before signing with General Consolidated. Juanita Alvarado didn’t have much on public record, either, other than a birth certificate at the County Clerk’s office.

Janet had flaming red hair and was definitely statuesque. If she reminded Ashley of anyone, it was a long-haired Esther Williams. Ashley liked Esther Williams. She could definitely see the attraction. The good news was that Janet was on a picture, so she would be on the studio lot all day, everyday for at least a week.

Janet had a guy. They always had a guy. Janet’s was a heel called Stanley Willis who had a long record for penny-ante fraud, mostly passing bad checks. He’d also been arrested but not charged with a couple of assaults, one of which was on a woman; that was indefensible in Ashley’s book. Stanley appeared to have no income apart from living off Janet. And Stanley lived high. In just one day, he’d eaten out every meal at some of the better restaurants in town, picking up the tab for dinner and drinks for a bunch of hangers-on he’d brought with him. During the afternoon, he’d stopped by a cat house and then dropped a couple of hundred bucks with a bookie who was only too willing to tell Ashley that Stanley always seemed to be able to pay his tab, no matter how bad it got.

She also visited the other addresses that Miss Carlin had given her. A couple were clubs with which Ashley was already familiar, women-only places where you parked several blocks over and walked back in a circuitous route to avoid being seen entering. To protect her client, she only showed around a picture of Janet, but no-one remembered seeing her.

She followed Janet to the studio lot on the fourth day, just to make sure she was out of the way before she she swung by her house. Stanley had already set out on a busy day of gambling and drinking with his buddies at the Santa Anita racetrack.

Janet’s house was a simple white flatboard in the Hills, easy to get into by picking the lock of the back door. It smelled oddly damp, like boiled cabbage left too long on the stove. She spent several hours searching it thoroughly, turning up nothing except the fact that Janet wasn’t much of a housekeeper and could use an exterminator in the kitchen. She hadn’t really expected the goods to be at Janet’s place because she figured Stanley for the brains of their operation, but at least she’d made certain.

By the time she doubled back to Stanley’s place, a room in a residential hotel out by Long Beach, he was already home from the track. Ashley parked up a block away and waited. At around 7pm, he took a cab to Ivar just below Hollywood Boulevard, where he hooked up with Janet. From there, they visited a number of bars, dance halls and supper clubs, never staying more than thirty minutes in any of them. Ashley watched them all evening, sipping root beer and knocking back offers from guys to buy her a drink and show her a good time. From what she could see, Janet was a little afraid of Stanley, but did everything he asked without complaint.

The couple spent little time together. Janet spent most of her time approaching men who had been picked out for her by Stanley. The well-practiced way that she sidled up, letting the marks think that they were making the first move, indicated that this wasn’t her first night at the opera. At each location, Stanley left after about a quarter-hour and Janet started winding up her ‘date’ immediately. None of the guys seemed particularly wealthy, and Ashley supposed that they were just getting their wallets or bill folds lifted.

After watching the same show five or six times, she was going to call it a night but, instead of walking down the street to their next location, Stanley hailed a taxi. Her Packard was a few blocks over, so she had no choice but to follow them in a cab herself. It wasn’t her first choice. Cabbies could get a bit talky for her liking, sticking their nose into your business under the guise of being friendly, but the guy she was with didn’t question her command to follow them, nor did he make with the small talk. When Stanley and Janet stopped outside a house in Santa Monica, Ashley instructed her driver to pull up a few hundred yards beyond them.

She watched Janet get out, but Stanley didn’t join her. Janet went up the the gates and pressed the buzzer, while the cab pulled away again. Ashley paid her own cabbie and told him there would be a five-spot in it if he’d come back for her in two hours. He agreed, so she gave him a two-dollar tip as incentive. She could afford it: Spencer Carlin had given her two thousand as a retainer. That was more than they’d made in the last five months. It probably wasn’t even a day’s wages to Miss Carlin.

She wandered down to the house, but there was no name above the buzzer. It didn’t matter. Ashley knew that it belonged to Dorothea Page, the former silent star who’d retired to marry an elderly millionaire a few months before he’d died. The story at the time had been that the Princess of the Spanish Main (Dorothea’s most famous role) had worn him out in the marital bed and the old boy had died with a smile on his face. Ashley doubted that. The reason she’d been at the house before was to pick up a former girlfriend with a broken wrist. Dorothea liked them female and young, and she liked it rough. Maybe the husband had caught her in the act and died of shock.

It wasn’t difficult to get into the grounds of the house. She walked around the block and found a servants’ entrance, a high, wrought iron gate which wasn’t even locked. She circled the house, keeping to the shadows of the many trees and large bushes which helped maintain the privacy of the ground floor, until she spied the happy couple through the windows of what appeared to be the dining room. An odd choice, she thought, for an assignation. Dorothea was wearing something corseted and was bending riding crop between her hands. Only Janet’s head was visible, so she had to be on her knees, but Ashley could see she was wearing a white lace cap. A little game of mistress and French maid, perhaps.

Ashley pulled out her trusty Argus C3 and fired off a few shots before finding a suitable hiding place to wait for Stanley. He showed himself within the hour, entering by the same back gate Ashley had used. As he took pictures of his girlfriend pleasuring the older actress, Ashley took pictures of him. He hung around long enough to change the roll of film in his camera a couple of times and get plenty of material.

She watched him leave again and gave it ten minutes before she also went. With a half-hour to kill before her cab arrived, she walked further down the hill until she found a telephone booth. She thought about calling another cab, but she’d promised her guy a tip and she never welshed on anything. Even though it was well after midnight, she decided to call her client and provide an update. The houseboy was reluctant to put her through at first, but eventually relented and fetched his mistress.

“Miss Davies.”

Just hearing those honeyed tones say her name was giving her a slow, pleasant ache. “Miss Carlin,” she replied.

“You have news, I take it?”

“I didn’t think I’d get so lucky right away, but I’ve been to Dorothea Page’s house tonight.” She heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line. “Yeah, I know. They aim big, these two. I hear that husband of hers had more money than Rockefeller, and it’s not like she was poor.” She debated not saying anything else then asked, “What do you know about Dorothea?”

Spencer sounded cagey. “We’ve met a few times and I am familiar with her work.”

“I’m talking about her off-screen work.”

There was a pause. “There are certain rumours.”

“They’re true.”

“Personal experience or something you saw this evening?” There was more than just curiosity in the question. It almost sounded like prurient interest at the very least.

It occurred to her that she didn’t know at all if Spencer was into the same type of pleasure as Dorothea Page. Not that she cared: each to their own, as long as everyone knew what they were giving and getting. The only problem Ashley ever had with Dorothea Page was that she took it too far without consent.

“Second-hand and before tonight,” Ashley said. “Let’s just say I’ve seen the results.”

“I understand that things can get unpleasant.”

“Very,” she agreed. “Anyway, our mutual friends were there this evening, one in a starring role and the other capturing it all on film. And I have plenty of pictures of them in the act. I’ll get them printed up in the morning.”

“Shall you be dropping them off tomorrow?”

It hadn’t been in her plans, but she wasn’t going to turn down the chance to see Spencer Carlin again. “If you like.” She thought about how long it would take to develop the pictures and what else she’d need to do to get ready for an evening breaking and entering Stanley’s rooms. “How does two o’clock sound?”

“I’m at the studio all day. I’ll leave your name with the guard. You can wait in my bungalow if I’m not around.”

Ashley wondered how many young women had waited patiently in that bungalow for the great Spencer Carlin to grace them with her presence and perhaps a little more. For no good reason, it conjured a mental image of a naked woman spread out on a chaise, draped in only a mink coat. She laughed to herself.

“Something amusing?”

“No, just a stray thought. It’s nothing.”

“Until tomorrow then?”

“You bet.”

She hung up and started back up the hill towards her designated pick-up point, whistling a cheerful Cole Porter ditty.

* * *

Spencer’s bungalow was not quite the erotic boudoir she had imagined. It was a huge open space, like a large sitting room with an office attached. There was a garden out back with some chairs under a large canopy and a fountain beyond. She looked around the room, but she found nothing of interest. She wasn’t even sure what she was looking for.

There were some publicity photos on one wall, mostly of Spencer attending parties and other formal events, and some scenes from her movies. She seemed more alive in the movie stills than in the real-life shots, she noted.

“My wall of shame,” the blonde commented, as she entered the room.

Without turning, Ashley pointed to one of the more recent images. “Your fiancé?” she asked.

“Ah, yes. A very polite and courteous man. I don’t really know him very well as we’ve never worked together, only attended a few parties as a couple. Sol asked me to be engaged to him for a few months. I’m sure our amicable split will be announced soon.”

“So, Sol does know about you?” Ashley was confused. She was also thrown by the fact that Spencer had walked over to stand just by her shoulder. They were less than an inch away from touching and Ashley’s body was tense with anticipation. She tightened her grip on the large envelope containing the photos and negatives from Dorothea Page’s house.

“Clive was arrested at the Zodiac just before Christmas. I think the engagement is all about Clive and not about me at all.”

Ashley gave a low whistle. The Zodiac was officially a supper club, but everyone knew it was a casino where some of the cocktail waitresses offered special services. They also provided medication that you couldn’t get at the corner drugstore — mostly laudanum and opium. Ashley wondered which of those vices was Clive’s. Seemed like everyone she came across in this case had something they wanted to keep hush-hush.

“Doesn’t mean Sol doesn’t know about you,” she said.

“Sol knows everything that happens in his studio, as you said before. But he’s never said anything to me about my personal life.” Spencer’s breath was warm against Ashley’s ear as she asked, “You found it okay?”

“What?”

“This place.”

Ashley nodded. “I just looked for the biggest one on the row.” She wanted to lean back so that she could feel Spencer’s solidity. She was feeling a little light-headed.

“Drink?”

The voice and its owner had moved away, so Ashley finally turned around. She kicked herself for not giving into her instincts to cozy up, as Spencer Carlin didn’t appear to be wearing much of anything except one of those kimono robes than finished at mid-thigh. Definitely great gams.

“Not while I’m working.”

“You don’t mind if I fix myself a little something?” Spencer had moved to a wet bar which had every conceivable kind of liquor. “It’s been a long day already.” She poured herself a sizeable glass of gin and added a few cubes of ice and a splash of tonic water to it. “You’re not in your work clothes today.”

Ashley looked down at herself. She was wearing her best suit, the dark brown one that Aiden had insisted on buying her with their first big paycheck. Yes, she had worn it to make a good impression, but it wasn’t distinctive in any way, other than it was cut perfectly for her. Then she realised that the blonde meant that she was wearing a skirt and not the specially tailored men’s pants that she usually favoured. “Different jobs call for different clothes,” she replied.

“Like costumes?”

“Yeah, you could say that.” She wished she’d accepted the drink. “Most of my work calls for something a little more practical than this.”

The blonde walked over to a nearby couch and sat down, making a sweeping gesture with her arm as an invitation to join her. “Yours is an unusual job for a woman.”

Ashley sat facing Spencer. She crossed her legs and placed the envelope on the seat next to her. “It’s a job. It pays the bills.”

“And Mr Hunter-Dennison, is he your employer?” At Ashley’s look of surprise, Spencer laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m not going to tell anyone that Mr Hunter doesn’t actually exist.” Spencer twirled the ice in her drink. “I found your little fiction amusing.”

“He likes to think he’s my boss because he owns sixty percent to my forty, but we’re business partners.”

“Just business?”

Ashley stared at her. “That’s a very personal question.”

“No more than you already know about me.” Spencer’s hair had been curled and she was twirling it between her fingers casually.

“You volunteered that and, in any case, I thought you’d done your research about me.” Being defensive was a hard professional habit to break. In her business, it didn’t pay to volunteer information until you knew what you were getting in return.

“I did, but just because you hear that someone likes cats, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they don’t also like dogs.”

It was Ashley’s turn to laugh. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

“So?” There was a glint in Spencer’s eye. As Ashley had suspected on the telephone the night before, Miss Carlin was interested out of more than idle curiosity. She felt both flattered and wary. Mixing business and pleasure was rarely a good idea, even less so when your pleasure could get you arrested for crimes against decency.

“So, do you want to see these?” she replied, placing her hand on top of the envelope.

“Not really. I have a fair idea of what’s in them. And you’re evading my question.” Spencer leaned forward. Her hair fell over her face and the robe parted just a little. Ashley knew it wasn’t accidental. An actress as accomplished as Spencer knew her every angle, instinctively knew what the camera, and therefore the human eye, would see. It was a great view.

“I think maybe I should accept that drink.”

“Vice is nice but liquor’s quicker?” The blonde rose and crossed to the bar. “What’s your pleasure?”

Ashley wasn’t ignorant of the vague innuendo. “Whatever you’re having is fine by me.” She watched Spencer fix her drink. “So, you want me to keep following them? In addition to the main event, I watched them roll four or five drunks as a warm-up act last night.”

“I’m sure what you have is sufficient, but I have faith in your judgement.” Spencer returned to the seating area and handed Ashley her drink, letting their fingers touch as she did. That wasn’t accidental either. Spencer had soft, warm hands. She imagined what it would be like to feel them on her skin.

She raised the gin in a silent toast, cleared her throat and said, “So, here’s what I’ve got so far.”

She talked through her research and what she’d learned from following Janet and Stanley. She described the poverty of Janet’s house, Stanley’s indolent lifestyle and the drunk-rolling scam they were working. She skirted briefly over events at Dorothea Page’s house. Spencer mostly listened, but interrupted a few times to ask for detail or clarification. The whole time, however, Ashley was aware of the appraising look she’d first noticed in their car ride to the Brown Derby.

“I want to explain something,” Spencer said.

“Yeah?”

“About me and Janet.” She was biting her lip. Ashley liked it when she did that. It softened her.

“You’re the client. You don’t need to explain anything.”

Spencer got up again and walked over to an old cathedral-style radio. She fiddled with it until she found a station that was playing a swing band, possibly Benny Goodman.

“I’m actually a very careful person. In this job, you have to be.” She stood by the radio and swayed, conducting with the hand that held the gin. “I love this song.” She hummed along for a few bars, then exhaled loudly. “This is the only time I’ve ever done something like this.”

Ashley heard that a lot. Swindlers, philanderers, heels who ran out on their wife and kids, little old ladies who cheated their insurance companies: they all sang that same, sad song. I’m not like this. I’ve never done this before. This is the first and last time, I swear.

But, she believed Spencer.

Hollywood was a village and no-one kept secrets for too long. Someone always said something about that actress who ‘adopted’ a kid that looked very much like the married co-star of her previous picture. Bars and nightclubs buzzed with tales of who cruised Sunset for the lowest-rent hookers they could find, who liked jazz cigarettes, which were the meanest drunks and who liked to wear long, taffeta gowns that didn’t complement their five o’clock shadow. And because of the circles she ran in socially, she knew who liked cats and who preferred dogs, to steal a phrase. Of Spencer Carlin, she’d heard nothing.

She nursed her drink and let the other woman talk.

“She was so plausible.” She swept her hand across the top of the radio, tracing its wooden lines. “I noticed her, of course. She’s hard not to notice, don’t you think?”

Ashley nodded. Janet was a looker, but strictly chorus line, not star material.

“She seemed so shy. Most of the other contract girls take lunch together in the commissary, gossiping about us — the names, that is. But she always sat off to the side by herself, reading. Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier. One of my favourites.”

Ashley would have bet dollars to doughnuts that Janet and Stanley had done their research and knew all about Spencer Carlin’s likes and dislikes. She walked across and stood next to her. Awkwardly, she reached her hand out to rest on Spencer’s shoulder in what she hoped was a gesture of support, but Spencer shrugged and twisted away from the touch. Instead, she hugged herself and shook her head.

“It wasn’t until filming was almost over that we even spoke. She asked if we could meet. She hoped I might advise her about her career. I invited her here for supper. She was quite brazen about what else she was interested in, but I had no intention of acting upon my attraction.” She gave a brittle laugh. “The studio turns a blind eye to what goes on in these bungalows. In fact, half of the reason we’re given them is so that we can indulge our peccadillos under their safe and watchful eye. But, not I. I have never allowed myself. I thought I was being so careful, insisting that we met in out-of-the-way places and at her house.”

She threw her arms out in frustration, causing gin to spill from her glass and her robe to open a little more. She wore only a negligee underneath. Ashley’s mouth went dry. It was hardly unusual for her to see this much female flesh on display: her job took her to the racier clipjoints and nightspots in Los Angeles, and she was no stranger to the female form in her private life. She could genuinely say that no woman she’d seen could compare to Spencer Carlin.

Spencer caught Ashley’s glance and commented, “We’re shooting a bedroom scene today. How appropriate! Rex and I, of course, in separate beds. And this is also to keep the censors happy.” She pushed the robe further aside — what need for modesty now? — and lifted the nightdress a few inches at her hip to show an almost industrial undergarment, certain to repel even the most ardent and insistent suitor. “Attractive, no?”

“I think you’re magnificent.” It was only when Spencer gave a brittle laugh that she appreciated she’d spoken it aloud.

“I hardly think so. A fantasy created by the studio.”

A fantasy that Ashley would like to indulge. “You are.”

“I’m a fool who allowed myself to be flattered by the attentions of a coarse young woman.” She made a derisive noise. “And I thought I was the one taking advantage.”

Ashley could point out that Janet was a talented grifter, but that probably wouldn’t help to make the blonde feel better. “Everyone makes mistakes. It proves we’re human.”

“I don’t have that luxury. If I were a man, Sol would find me some nice girl in the steno pool who’d marry me in return for a generous allowance and her own house in the Valley. It’s not the same for women. For a start, it’s a lot harder to find a man who’ll swallow his pride enough to participate in a sham marriage.”

Ashley shook her head. “Why not live in plain sight like Bill and Peter?” They were two notorious bachelors — a leading man and a writer-director — who shared a house all the way out in Malibu. The press often reported their raucous parties and the many pretty young women who attended. No-one ever reported that Bill and Peter shared the master bedroom.

“They’re hardly representative. You think there’s anyone out there who’d want to share my life?” Her question was plaintive. “Would you be happy to sit at home in the role of best friend or personal assistant while the woman you loved was in all the papers and out at all the premieres with her latest fake boyfriend or fiancé?”

“It wouldn’t bother me. I work a lot of nights.” Her glib answer didn’t seem to work, so she added softly, “You’ll find someone, someone who loves you enough to put up with anything just to be with you.”

This time when Ashley touched her, a consoling hand on her forearm, Spencer did not pull away. Her eyes narrowed and her tongue darted out, unconsciously wetting her lower lip.

Even though she knew it was coming, Ashley wasn’t truly prepared for the kiss that followed. Spencer grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled their mouths together in a frantic embrace. Shocked, she reacted on instinct, wrapping an arm around the blonde’s waist and letting herself be kissed. Her mind reasoned that it was Spencer’s reaction to her sense of helpless outrage; her mouth and her body didn’t care.

As her mouth opened and their tongues met, she registered the feeling of the silk kimono beneath her fingers and the way that Spencer’s hand was massaging the back of her neck slowly. She heard a glass thud against the deep carpeted floor. She felt the kiss slow down, becoming less about Spencer’s anger and more about their mutual pleasure. Spencer’s other hand cupped her cheek as their mouths explored. She gave into the desire she’d had from their first meeting to nibble on Spencer’s lower lip, drawing a long sigh from the blonde, whose hands moved to push Ashley’s best jacket from her shoulders. At first, she complied, shrugging it off, but then she regained her senses.

She pulled back abruptly, breathing heavily. There was no mistaking the desire in Spencer’s eyes. Her lips were red and full and it would have been so easy to give into kissing them again. She wanted to, but she knew it would be wrong.

“I’m sorry. That was unprofessional of me.” Spencer was staring at her strangely, as if unaware of what she meant. “You’re my client and I’m supposed to be helping. And this is not the time or the place for —”

“When is?” Spencer interrupted.

“What?”

“When is appropriate?”

“You’re not yourself,” Ashley countered.

“How do you know that?”

“Because you just told me that you don’t allow yourself to do this sort of thing.”

Spencer twisted her face into a grimace. “And where’s that got me so far?”

Ashley bent down and retrieved Spencer’s dropped glass, picking up the strewn ice-cubes. She ushered the other woman to the couch and handed over her own drink. She went over to the wet bar and fixed herself a fresh one, her preferred tipple of bourbon over ice.

Spencer was sitting with her head in her hands, looking miserable.

“Look, you’re an incredibly beautiful woman and I am very flattered,” she said, sitting down opposite her to maintain some distance, “but I don’t take advantage of crying women, period.”

“I’m not crying,” Spencer replied, even as she lifted her hand to her face to find that it was untrue. She sipped at the gin Ashley had given her.

They sat in silence for a few moments. Ashley could see Spencer thinking about what to say next.

“I shouldn’t have done that, but I’m not going to apologise. And you have nothing to be sorry for, either.” Spencer gave a tremulous smile. “Nothing at all.”

Ashley smiled broadly in return. She liked that the blonde was unrepentant. Under different circumstances, maybe they would both have let matters take their course.

“Perhaps I should still leave, though,” she said, although she made no effort to move.

Spencer cocked her head to one side. “Why? I’m not embarrassed, if you’re not. I should like it very much if you would stay awhile. I’m not due back on set for at a couple of hours.” She still looked a little sad, but tried to cover it with a movie-star smile, all lips and teeth, but no light behind the eyes. “Tell me about your work. How did you end up being a female private investigator?”

Ashley didn’t really want to leave the company of this beautiful woman, so she started talking. She explained how she and Aiden had met in high school and had been best friends ever since. She told Spencer about how she had worked in a munitions factory while Aiden had been shipped off to the Pacific and how that experience had changed her. It had allowed her to accept that she wasn’t like most of the other women. The idea of a life of wedded bliss wasn’t for her for several reasons. So, when Aiden had decided to set himself up in business, she’d joined forces with him, using the small inheritance left to her by her father, a jazz musician.

Spencer, in return, told Ashley the true story of her background. Although the fan magazines portrayed her as the only child of East coast academics, in reality, her parents owned a drugstore in rural Ohio. Her brother, like Aiden, had been sent to the Pacific. Unlike Aiden, he hadn’t returned in one piece, but missing a hand and with a permanent limp, courtesy of a shrapnel bomb.

They didn’t talk about their personal lives at all, just traded stories about their childhoods and about life in and around Hollywood. Still, Ashley felt more relaxed in Spencer’s company than in anyone other than Aiden’s. It was with great reluctance that she announced she had to leave to get ready for an unannounced visit to Stanley’s home.

“I wish I could come with you,” Spencer said.

“Yeah, taking the most famous and beautiful woman in the world on a surveillance job isn’t exactly the best way not to attract attention,” she joked.

Spencer smiled at the compliment. “I suppose so,” she agreed.

They both walked over to the door of the bungalow and stood by it.

“When this is all over,” Spencer said, letting the statement drift out there.

“Yeah? What?” Ashley knew what she was hinting at, but she wanted it said out loud.

“Maybe you and I could have dinner. I’ve enjoyed your company.”

Ashley grinned. Spencer was bashful and it gave her a kick to see one of the world’s greatest stars struggling to ask her out. “Dinner or dinner?”

“Whichever you prefer.”

“Ask me when we’re done with the case,” Ashley replied. She caught the slight downcast look and brief moment of sadness that passed across Spencer’s face. She leaned in a little, grabbing the door handle. “Not to give too much away, but I guarantee I’ll say yes.”

* * * * *

Next up: Part 2 — Finale [X]

10 Comments

  1. Meech
    Posted 30 July 2012 at 7.07pm | Permalink

    Absolutely love this. Definitely wishing it were to be longer! Digging the 1940’s noir theme as well, always been a favorite of mine. I put on some era music while reading this- awesome.

  2. Posted 30 July 2012 at 7.17pm | Permalink

    Ohhh I like it! I’m already hooked!

  3. D
    Posted 31 July 2012 at 5.08am | Permalink

    Dev, my friend, you have done it again, AND in one of my favorite genres imaginable. Fantastic setup, and the tone is flawless. I can’t wait to read more of this!

  4. Packingforthecrash
    Posted 31 July 2012 at 5.48am | Permalink

    I TOTALLY played this out in black and white inside my head….even though they probably had colors in the late-40s!!

    *refuses to leave ignorant bubble*

    I haven’t really come in here for awhile, and I’ve been a bad, bad commenter for years now….I repent!

    But I really like the story of this one, I hope I’m in for a thrill ride! I am loving the setting and definitely look forward to the rest…wait, there’s only one more part?!??! DEV!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    *whines for more*

  5. Devje
    Posted 31 July 2012 at 1.55pm | Permalink

    OMFG. It’s Packsy.

    *faints dead away*

  6. iocaste
    Posted 31 July 2012 at 2.38pm | Permalink

    Wonderful update Dev! Can’t wait to read the second part.
    Hello platipuski!

  7. Packingforthecrash
    Posted 31 July 2012 at 10.06pm | Permalink

    Oi!!!!!

    I dont’t smell THAT bad?!?!?

    *smells around*

    …ok, maybe I do.

    *glares at iocaste*

  8. yeahbutno
    Posted 1 August 2012 at 1.28am | Permalink

    yes, you do Norks!!!

    And Dev, I wish you had directed “The Black Dhalia” fricken waste of a great story, and Swank wtf!!!!! and the rest.

    Anyhoo, get on with it!

    PS I a waiting for the other too

  9. Clom
    Posted 1 August 2012 at 10.43am | Permalink

    I will also say yes.. TO THE SEQUEL

    Muahahahahaha.

    * * *

    A Devje writes: You’re just not funny. You know it’s never happening.

  10. tee452
    Posted 6 August 2012 at 2.51am | Permalink

    Having just had a tour of Paramount Studios less than one week ago, this is so timely! It’s really good, Dev. Historically informed too. Not that I expect anything less! You always deliver the good stuff. I imagine Page to be Barbara Stanwyck, she’s always scared me a little, lol. And so glad redheaded Janet doesn’t look like Lucy or Hayworth. I don’t need that image in my head for life! Anyway, thanks for this. It’s great.

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