The Picture Ranch 13
I looked at the clock behind Henry’s head. It was a quarter of eleven. My third cup of java was empty, but my head was still home to the Katzenjammer kids learning the kettle drums. Eleanor Gräfenberg hadn’t struck me as the kind of broad to welsh on a date. Not that it was a date, but she had said we would meet. Apart from Henry, there was only me and that drunk writer who crashed out at Ed Everett Horton’s place from time to time. I guess he’d had another fight with Sheila and tied one on. There’d be something uncomplimentary in her column and they’d kiss and make up when Scott’s hangover wore off. I hopped off the high stool.
The writer eyed me, as bleary as a freshly woken mole, ‘Give a guy a ride?’
‘Ain’t got one, I’ll be taking a cab.’
‘Could I, would you...’
‘Where are you bound, brother?’
He laughed. ‘Don’t suppose you’re heading towards RKO?’
‘You writers love coincidences, doncha?’
‘That we do.’
I flagged down the third cab to go past.
The driver looked at Fitzgerald,
‘He ain’t going to upspew, Mister?’
The extra passenger shook his head. Maybe he’d already lightened his load in the Encino Store.
We got in.
‘You aren’t talent, why are you going to the Picture Ranch?’
‘I’m going to meet someone who was supposed to meet me.’
‘Might be. I get the feeling there was something she didn’t tell me.'
‘Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply.’
‘I suppose you wrote that down somewhere.’
‘Matter of fact I did.’
‘Most writing is a load of hooey, if y’ask me.’
‘Spoken like a true denizen of Hollywoodland. You’re not related to Thalberg, are you?’
The cab pulled up at the gate of the Picture Ranch. The uniformed guy lifted the barrier and waved.
‘Mornin’ Mr Fitzgerald!’
The writer turned to me,
‘Only person in the movie business lower on the ladder than the hack.’
Then he jumped out of the car and staggered off to who knew where, if it wasn’t the next snootful.
I told the driver to park up outside the office building. It was alongside warehousing and workshops where all the gaffers, carpenters and masons built imaginary towns and imaginary versions of real ones. There was a canteen, where I supposed Fitzgerald had headed on leaving the cab. I gave the driver half a 10 dollar bill.
‘Stick around for an hour and you’ll get the other half.’
I didn’t have the other half. Another driver had skedaddled last time I tried the same trick.
From the front of the office building I could see someone’s idea of Tombstone to the right and to the left was a plywood Paris that included the Notre-Dame where they didn’t play football. There was no bell, just a glazed door into a lobby where a woman was doing her nails whilst smoking a cigarette, maybe that’s why she was painting them fire-engine red. There was a sign on the desk that said “Reception”.
‘Lookin’ for a dame.’
‘There’s a cat-house on the road out of town.’
‘She works here, Miss Eleanor Gräfenberg.’
‘Miss Roosevelt, huh! She ain’t in today. She took a few days off. Must be a stamp-collectors’ convention on somewhere.’
‘Where does she work exactly.’
‘What’s it to ya?’
I put five dollars on the reception desk.
‘Well, whyn’t ya say it was important?’
She pointed over at a staircase. ‘Second floor, in the archives. She works for Victor Madurado. Go bug him.’
She blew on her nails. I wondered if the enamel would smell of tobacco smoke when it dried.
There were offices with names on their doors on one side of a corridor leading off the landing. There was only one door on the other side. I didn’t think there was anyone called Archives working at the studios. The door was unlocked. A man in a brown warehouse coat stood behind a counter that blocked access to rows and rows of filing cabinets. There might have been something else at the end of the rows but I couldn't see that far. The brown coat man was a dead-ringer for J Carroll Naish, but I didn't think things were that slow over at Warner Brothers.
'Miss Gräfenberg in today, Mr Madurado?'
'She had some time off due. Got family business, she said.'
'When's she back, you know?'
'She said tomorrow, wish it was today. Busy here, y'know?'
I didn't know, and it didn't look like it.
'Busy with what?'
'Why'd the bimbo let you up here anyway?'
'We have a mutual friend in Abraham Lincoln,maybe you know him too?'
I waved my last five dollar bill in his face.
'A lousy fin? Not just dumb, but cheap too.' He still took the money and folded it into the breast pocket of his dust coat.
'We got thousands a' reels in here. In back,' he pointed behind him at the end of the long ranks of file cabinets. 'In the vault.'
'What's in these then?' I lifted my chin at the cabinets.
'Documents. Scripts, contracts, letters. Stuff. And the reels we ain't moved yet.'
'Miss Gräfenberg does what exactly?'
The curator snorted. 'She looks after the paper. The nitrate is my department.'
'Why move it?'
'Dincha hear about the Fox Vault fire in New Jersey?'
'What do I care about a fire in New Jersey?'
The guy rolled his eyes like a silent movie actor in blackface.
'They lost every Fox movie made before 1932.' He looked like the waterworks were imminent.
I knew that every a copy of every movie made was sent to the Library of Congress and I said so.
'I wouldn't trust the government with a pencil drawing never mind a motion picture.'
He had a point, but I reckoned more than a few stinkers would have gone up in smoke that not even the movie-craziest of nuts would miss.
I changed the subject back to Miss G.
'Anything unusual about Miss Gräfenberg, before she took … the time off?'
'She's a pretty unusual dame in general.'
'You seen her, Mr Gumshoe. What's she doin' filin' letters and bad scripts? And hangin' round with writers? Now that ain't normal.'
'She act funny, change her habits?'
'Well... she took a script home. Never brought it back. Wasn't even a good one. I 'member the title on it. Pat Hobby in Hollywood.'
Tired of collecting useless information, I asked him where she lived.
'You'd have to know another friend of mine for that.'
I gave him paper with a portrait of Andrew Jackson and that twenty was the last bill in my billfold. I got an address on Acacia, which was somewhere off Ventura Boulevard. I hoped the taxi was still outside, it was a long walk back to the office.