The Picture Ranch 18
The drive back to Encino didn't take long. There was no traffic at 4 a.m. I decided to make it up with the fire hydrant and left the Ford next to it. The gimpy dog jog-trotted out of a doorway and cocked its leg on my front off tyre. I felt for the photograph in my pocket and went to ring Zbiegniew's bell. As far as I knew he slept on a cot in back of the front desk. Maybe he didn't like to use the bed set-up in the studio. I kept my thumb on the bell push until the bell seized up. The Polack photographer didn't appear so I broke the store-front window and waited. Zbiegniew was too cheap to fit an alarm, but the sound of breaking glass got him to the front door. His puss was as sour as curdled milk when he let me in, but then we'd never seen eye to eye about what and whom it was okay to photograph.
Examples of the guy's legit work was on display. A couple of head shots for would be actors' portfolios, some wedding and Bar Mitzvah group shots. Most of what he sold he kept under the counter or in the file cabinets behind it, most likely.
'I ain't took no juvies. You tole me not to,' he held his hands up to his own throat. I supposed to stop me putting mine around it.
'I ain't here about that.'
The photograph was a little creased from being in my inside pocket. I slapped it on the counter.
'Remember taking this?'
'I take a lotta pictures…'
His hair was pomaded so I twisted my fingers in it when I grabbed it, but they still slipped out. Zbigniew yelped anyway, though it can't have hurt much. The front of his shirt gave better purchase.
'Look at it.'
'I- I, remember the gal in the wig, the other one not so much.'
He pointed at Eleanor and the late Lydia Vorobieff.
'You remember when you took it?'
'I got negatives in the dark room. I could check…'
'Give me your best guess.'
'Last photos I took of either of them were eight or nine years ago. This was part of that studio session.'
I couldn't help sneering, 'Studio session, just like you worked for Life Magazine.'
He looked like he wanted to say something, but didn't.
'Was it a commission? Or just something for your stock?'
He licked his lips. His tongue was so pale it was almost white.
'I respect the confidence of my clie-'
He couldn't finish the sentence because I had mashed my fist into his teeth.
'Don't make me tell you, please. These types of customer are important guys.'
My fist was raised.
'No, look in the files. It's all there. Look around 9 years ago. That way I ain't tole you nothing. When you go, I'll report the break-in.'
He'd probably scam the insurance company, but that was no bone in my fish. I turned over the photo and went to the file cabinet drawer with 1929 fading on its card insert.
Zbiegniew had been a busy snapper on Christmas Eve, 1929. He had a lot of customers all the year round it seemed. Each commission had the name of the customer at the top. Below that was the selection they required from whatever menu the Pole had been offering at the time. I recognised some customers' names. Arbuckle, for one. Anyway, the sheet I was most interested in was headed up 'Mulvaney' and underneath it was written
24 scenes, 2 prints per.
Actors – Eleanor G/Olivia B
Then there was an itemised account for materials, “actors” and labour.
below this was a note.
Same set up as Lucille L.S.
There had been a rumour that the former Lucille LaSueur had done some blue once upon a good-time. Joan Crawford hadn't suffered for it, but maybe someone else had. Or maybe it was just a coincidence. But the name Mulvaney was one coincidence too far. I wondered just what the circumstances of Miss Gräfenberg's departure from the LA Courier had been.
Back in my office I had company. There were three of them and in my office that definitely made a crowd. Boethius, Dzherzhinsky and Detective Scott were killing time by throwing my files all over the floor. I figured they knew Miss Gräfenberg wouldn’t be by to put them order again. I was relieved to see Boethius wasn’t smoking, at least. Boethius looked at Dzherzhinsky and held up a hand to Scott,
‘Mr Fisher, always a great pleasure.’
‘Not for me,’ I nodded at Scott, ‘Randolph, just point the gun at me. No point in ruining a jacket, huh?
The detective brought out a 38/44 Smith & Wesson. Police issue, I didn’t know whether that was good or bad for me. Most West Coast cops used the Magnum by that time. My gun was in the car. The number of guns in a situation increases the probability of death exponentially, so that was why I wasn’t pleased to see Drzezhinsky’s funny looking gun appear too. He must have seen me looking,
‘Is Nagant, good Russian gun. Has killed lot of Bolsheviks.’
This earned him a sharp look from Boethius.
I waved an arm around, ‘I’d ask you all to sit down, but there ain’t enough room.’
Boethius brought out a pack of his cigarettes.
‘We won’t be staying long, Mr Fisher. I just have a few questions.’ He searched in another pocket.
‘Where is the boy?’ he said.
‘Now wait a minute, I thought you had him.’
‘No, we do not. But...’
‘You’ve got El… Miss Gräfenberg.’
A leer spread across Detective Scott’s face.
‘Do you have the boy?’ Boethius brought out a familiar match-book.
‘Do you envisage his being in your possession any time soon?’ he struck a match.
‘I got irons in the fire.’
Boethius threw the match onto the pile of papers on my office floor, they caught fire damned quick and I realised one of the goons had brought a little something extra with them.
‘Don’t leave the irons too long in the flames.’ Boethius tipped a finger to his hat brim.
They left, Scott shouldering me aside as he spat on the floor at my feet.
I rescued my bottle from the john and called the fire service. Maybe my insurance company would be as obliging as the Pole’s downstairs.