Make Believe: An Edna Ferber Mystery #3

Make Believe: An Edna Ferber Mystery #3

In June 1951 Edna Ferber heads to Hollywood to support an old friend who has found himself blacklisted, The McCarthy hearings in Washington have rattled Hollywood with allegations of Communist-leaning ...

About The Author

Ed Ifkovic

Ed Ifkovic is the author eight Edna Ferber mysteries, including Lone Star and Cold Morning. His latest, Old News, publishes ...

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Chapter One

Five days ago I stepped off an American Airlines plane into blinding Los Angeles sunshine. It was a hot July afternoon, the air still and close. For a moment, standing there, I experienced a wave of panic. This was a foreign country, this vast landscape of hungry dreams under an unrelenting pale blue sky.

Five days ago I checked into the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire, coolly regarded the bouquet of lush yellow roses already there, and immediately dialed my good friend Max Jeffries, the man I’d traveled across the country to see…to support. Max,  a Hollywood insider, a man who could always make me smile, a man who now needed his friends nearby to buffer against a menacing world of accusation and condemnation.

Five days ago, the beginning of a whirlwind of lunches, cocktail parties, and Hollywood madness and tomfoolery, Max squiring me gallantly and cynically through the blather that passes for movieland hospitality. Max, the North Star in a western sky speckled with disappearing stars. Or hopeful stars.

Last night Max Jeffries was murdered.

While I socialized with his wife Alice and her friend Lorena Marr—the simple act of taking in an early dinner and a delightful movie—someone invaded his cherished bungalow and shot him in the back of the head.

Max, murdered. Impossible to grasp.

Late last night after the movie, settled in my hotel suite, I’d dropped off into a deep sleep with images of men in dark broad-loom suits pointing gnarled fingers at a hapless Max. When the telephone rang, too loud in the quiet room, I yelped, sprang up in bed. Fumbling, I peered through the shadowy darkness. For a moment I imagined I was in my own Manhattan bed, snoozing in front of my apple-green headboard. The last traces of the nightmare slipped away: gun-metal shards of hot cinder rained down on a stark, endless landscape where I sat and called out to Max…But I could not remember the rest, except that I was cold and clammy and utterly abandoned. My mouth was dry, my eyes ached.

The ringing stopped. I fell back onto the pillow. Then it began again.

I was in L.A. in a suite on the top floor of the Ambassador.

Outside everything was lost in darkness.

And the clock on the nightstand told me it was just after midnight. 12:05. That registered with me.

The voice on the other end sounded tiny, mechanical, and far away.

“What?” I yelled.

“It’s Sol, Edna. Sol Remnick. Max’s friend.”

“I know.” I’d met Max’s best friend at Max’s home just days before. I breathed in. “Tell me.”

Silence.

“Max is dead.” “Tell me.”

“He was murdered.” “Tell me.”

“I don’t know.” The sound of sobbing now, halting gulps, sloppy. “Alice phoned me, hysterical. The police are there now.” Another sob, thick and raw.

The line went dead.

# # #

All night long I lay in my bed, numb, eyes wide in the dark. But I must have drifted off because I started awake as sunlight streamed through the windows. I sat up, sobbing in raspy gasps like a beaten child.

Mechanically, I splashed water on my face, pulled clothing from a closet, then fiddled with the dial on the radio until I found a newscast at the top of the hour. Six in the morning, a beastly hour to be awake, lethal to the body. I rarely violated my longstanding regimen: eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, up promptly at eight, fully dressed, breakfast of coffee with whipped milk and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and then out the door for an invigorating walk. But you didn’t walk in L.A. No, instead, you found yourself wide-awake in bed after a restless, nightmare-laden sleep, grappling with the bizarre fact that an old friend had been savagely murdered. Six in the morning, sitting fully dressed in a chair, trying to make sense of a phantasmagoric world by searching for answers on local radio stations that played “Good Night, Irene” every five minutes.

It couldn’t work, of course, this search for answers, but what other recourse did I have? Room service delivered a pot of coffee, orange juice, and buttered English muffins—the man nodded at my generous tip but stepped back, doubtless startled by the gaunt face of the old and trembling woman.

Max, dead. Max, murdered. Dead. My Max. That puckish, lively soul singing “Make Believe” to me in a restaurant years back. Where? In Pittsburgh? In Philadelphia? A Show Boat tryout. I knew that. Of course. Whenever someone did Show Boat, he’d be there…and I would be, too. The two of us, giddy in the aisles. And now another Show Boat, in Technicolor. Metro’s splashy version with Ava Gardner. But Max was dead. There’d be no more revivals with him. His musical genius would be missing. Yes, it was Pittsburgh. That greasy spoon. Manny’s Deli Delight. Preposterous. Max sang to me, that twinkle in his eye. Silly and foolish, in a parody of ingénue Magnolia Ravenal’s arch soprano from the deck of the showboat. Everyone in the restau- rant laughed. We got free coffee. I remembered that. Sing for your supper, Max warbled at the waitress, and you’ll get breakfast.

Why was this memory coming to me now?

Max, dead.

The news at the top of the hour. The lead-off story featured Max Jeffries, Hollywood agent and most recently musical arranger for Metro’s celebrated extravaganza Show Boat. I winced: even news of murder out here in Hollywood arrived with a requisite commercial endorsement. Max “was found murdered at his home on Wilshire Boulevard.” Police reports were sketchy, but early information indicated his wife, Alice, as leading suspect, “a woman once married to mobster Lenny Pannis.” Alice Jeffries, cleared of charges of murder in the Pannis case. Police were investigating. In the news recently, “Max Jeffries, champion of the Hollywood Ten, faced accusations of Communist leanings when he sent a letter to…” I switched off the radio and sat there, shaking my head. A few simple lines of questionable reportage—innuendo and suspicion and accusation. A few throwaway lines, and both Max and Alice—in fact, the world of the blacklist—were skewered and found guilty. Treason and murder.

At ten o’clock, after repeated attempts to reach Alice or Sol, I decided to take a taxi to his bungalow. I had to do something. The walls of my suite were closing in on me. I’d paced the carpet back and forth and watched L.A. wake up from my high window: the white buildings on the boulevard lost their night shadows and emerged into brilliant sunlight. A normal day in Los Angeles. All the days in L.A. were normal, except for…for what? The day when a close friend was shot to death. When the phone rang, I expected Sol, lunged for it, but was startled by  a gruff though sleepy voice. Detective Marv Tilden would like to speak to me. He was downstairs. Could he please…respectfully…? Of course. After all, I spent last evening with Alice, the alleged but impossible killer of her husband. We watched a Jimmy Stewart movie and roared at his antics. Alice’s preamble to a deliberate killing when she returned home?

Detective Tilden apologized for the intrusion in a drifting, beachcomber voice that suggested we’d be sharing mai tais at the pool shortly. He even leaned on the doorjamb, slouching, one hand rustling his trim blond hair. Dark tanned, with small squirrel eyes in a long face, he towered above me, a pencil-thin man in a gray linen suit. He shouldn’t be standing there, pad at the ready, a sober look on his face. A young man, late twenties, he belonged on a surfboard waiting religiously for that elusive ninth wave.

“Miss Ferber, forgive the hour. An honor to meet you.”  I nodded. A good beginning. An apology and a courtesy.

But he wasted no time. Yes, I was with Alice and Lorena Marr last night. We had an early dinner at the Paradise Bar & Grill just up the street, then took in a movie nearby. “Which movie?” Was that important: Well, yes. It was Harvey.

He smiled. “Did you like it, ma’am? My wife liked it but I didn’t. I’m not into imaginary rabbits. Although now and then, as a detective, I try to pull one out of a hat.” He chuckled at his own joke. Movie reviews and an interrogation? Quietly, I waited as his face hardened. “Then?” He looked sharply into my face. “Then we stopped back at the Paradise for a nightcap. A glass of sherry. That is, Lorena and I did. Alice was worried about Max and hurried home.”

“What time?”

“Perhaps ten. Maybe a little later. I know I was back here just after eleven and asleep soon after.”

“Alice Jeffries went right home?”

“So far as I know. Where else would she go?” “She drove herself?”

“No, she had walked to the bar. It’s close. We said goodbye in the parking lot.”

“Do you believe she murdered her husband? Max?” “Of course not, young man.”

“Why not?”

“People I know don’t kill one another.”

He smiled. ”She was a suspect in the killing of her mobster husband, Lenny Pannis. His brothers still want her charged.”

“Absurd,” I snapped. “Absurd?”

I didn’t answer him. I’d already stated my opinion.

On and on, a detailed recounting of an eventless evening, the small bits and pieces of a lovely time in the company of two women who made me laugh—one of whom was happily married to a man I cherished. Max, now murdered.

“Any tension?”

“Among us? Of course not.”

“Any hint of trouble with her husband?” “Of course not.”

“Are you sure?”

I was piqued. “Young man, I’ve already answered that question. Do you think I’d revise my answer in my very next breath?”

He stared. “It’s been known to happen.” He grinned. I saw gleaming white teeth, too many of them.

“Then you don’t know me, sir.”

He nodded. “I do now, Miss Ferber.”

“Then you’re obviously quicker than others of your generation.”

His eyes twinkled. “I like to think so.”

I was starting to like him. “No,” I concluded, “nothing struck me as odd. Alice was devoted to Max, who was a decent man…” “What about this Commie business?” he broke in, his eyes darkening. “The Hollywood Ten, pinko sympathies. He seems to have had some questionable associates.”

I breathed in…Perhaps my liking of this young man was premature. I didn’t like it when my snap judgments proved wrong. “Scurrilous nonsense. A man who exercised his First Amendment rights…”

His face tightened. “I hear you, ma’am.”

I doubted that he did, but his investigative instincts told him to back off.

He got nowhere with me and finally snapped his pad shut abruptly. He stood and stretched. He’d get back to me, if necessary. I was in town for another week, right? I nodded. “How did you know that?”

“I checked the hotel registration.”

“Of course.”

“Thank you, Miss Ferber.” He turned away.

“A second, Detective Tilden.” He paused, folded his long, lanky arms around his chest. “The radio said Alice was a suspect.”

“Yes, she is.” “Based on what?”

He hesitated, then sighed. “Well, I’ll tell you. A gun was found in his workroom, dropped onto his desk. Her fingerprints were on it.”

“Surely…”

He held up his hand, and I got quiet. “No harm telling you, Miss Ferber, I suppose.” A pause. “Two small fingerprints on the handle, which suggests she gingerly picked it up between thumb and index finger, someone not used to handling a gun. Not liking to handle a gun. So she’s a suspect, but…sort of.”

“Sort of? Young man, I don’t trust sloppy qualifications.” He paused for a second. “Her story is that she arrived home, opened the front door—it was locked—and spotted the .32 laying on the side table where she keeps her mail. She was surprised, thinking Max had left his gun there and forgot it before going to bed. I gather he’d taken his gun out of a drawer recently. A nervous habit. Death threats and all. But she always insisted it be out of sight.”

“Max had a gun?”

He nodded. “A .38 that was found in his desk drawer under some papers. His wife couldn’t tell the difference. She picked the gun up and was carrying it into the workroom, angry that he’d been so careless. She found him slumped over his desk, a bullet hole in the back of his head. He’d been shot from behind, surprised perhaps. She says she dropped the gun on the desk.”

“So she’s innocent.” I was ready to dismiss the officer.

He gave me the indulgent smile you’d bestow on a child, and one not very clever at that. “As I said, she’s still a suspect. Sort of. She could have planned it to look like that. You know, wipe the gun off, and then pick it up with two fingers and drop it.”

“Rather elaborate planning, no?”

“Nothing compared to some of the stuff I come across.” “But she was gone for the evening. He planned on going to bed.”

“Well, somehow during that long evening, he was murdered. Maybe before she left for dinner with you. No way of knowing. We figure it didn’t happen when she got back home sometime before eleven.”

“She called him from the Paradise Bar. He didn’t answer.” “Maybe because he was conveniently dead. And she knew it.” “Impossible.” I remembered something. “As  I’m certain you’ve found out already, Lorena Marr phoned the house from the bar. She was making certain Alice was on her way, but Alice had already left. Max said someone was at the door and he couldn’t talk.”

“Maybe Alice was returning, surprising him. She was late getting to the Paradise, I’ve heard.”

“Impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible when it comes to murder, Miss Ferber.” Finished, he nodded a goodbye and walked out.

“Impossible,” I announced to myself.

# # #

Within seconds, someone rapped on the door, and I suspected that Detective Tilden had returned, sheepish, apologizing again for his intrusion but peppering me with more questions. But a lanky young man in a bellman’s outfit mumbled something about Western Union, thrust an envelope into my hands, bowed, waited for a tip, and then retreated. Inside an envelope marked “Deliver Immediately” was a telegram from George S. Kaufman in New York. Edna. Just HEard. so sad. a Good Man. Can I  HElp? GEorGE.

So the calamitous news had been carried to the East Coast, where Max’s many friends, settling into their lunches at midday, now grieved at the loss. I sat at the edge of a chair, the telegram crumpled in my hands, and reread it. a Good Man. Succinct, perfect: the bittersweet epitaph.

In that moment, gazing out the window, I thought of my last days here—all the frenzied activity surrounding my visit to Max, who’d been hounded in the press for his defense of the Hollywood Ten. Even my name had been mentioned in the press. And in that same moment, my spine rigid, a flash of lightning electrified me: there was a good chance I’d encountered Max’s murderer. After all, Max and I had discussed the way his old friends had betrayed him…how industry types had turned him into a leper. At dinners, lunches, cocktail parties, I’d met the folks who loved or hated him. Straw patriots hurling barbs his way. Chilled now, I stood, antsy: someone I’d talked with most likely killed my friend.

Again, the rapping on the door. Anxious, I rushed to open it and found the same bellman, red faced now and jittery. “My apologies,” he murmured. “Another telegram was delivered minutes after…” His voice trailed off.

I grabbed it from him, reached for my purse for some change, but he backed away, disappearing down the hallway.

Inside the envelope another telegram from Kaufman. Edna. do soMEtHInG about tHIs. G.

Typical of George, I thought, to order me about—and, as usual, after the fact. Because, quite frankly, I’d already decided that I would do something. I really had no choice. No one murders my friends and gets away with it. That’s not the way my universe works. That’s never the way my heart beats.

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