Copyright 1993, Kevin Andrew Murphy
It's kind of hard for me to talk about the past. I
mean, I know it's the past, that it's 1992, not
1962, but it's hard to come to grips with, you know? Like
being dead. And waking up in a woman's body. And knowing
the woman who killed you is out there, somewhere, with your
But let me tell you my story. It all took place so far
away from here and now, you might as well think of it as an
old movie. Fade in. Superimpose title: Hollywood,
California. February 15, 1962. Orson Welles' office, the
I slipped inside, shutting the door behind me, and took
off my fedora. The one I'm wearing right now, though it was
new then. But even in '62, it was still the only thing
about me that looked the part of the private investigator.
The rest looked like central casting had got mixed up and
sent out for a hero for some Viking flick: six-three, blond
hair, blue eyes and a California tan. A Malibu Seigfried,
and since it's bad luck to speak ill of the dead, I'll say I
was pretty darn good looking, not that it matters now. It
would have been a liability any other place than Hollywood,
but snooping around the studios, everybody took me for just
another nowhere actor and didn't give me a second glance.
Welles sat behind his desk, trying to grow a beard over
his baby fat. He leaned over and stabbed the intercom with
a pudgy finger: "Hold all calls, Agnes." His face had same
jaded and disturbed look he'd worn in Citizen
There was one of those nasal voices you only hear in
movies: "Right-O, Mr. Welles." Central casting had done
their job with the receptionist at least.
"Make yourself comfortable, Mr. Williams. This should
take a while." He gestured to an overstuffed leather
armchair and I sat down, perching my fedora on one knee.
"Nice hat," he added. "Makes you look the part. Cigar?"
"Cigarette, thanks." I took one from the box he
proffered and accepted a light, though passed on the
burgundy he held up next. If I got tipsy, I'd start glowing
with St. Elmo's fire; I said I preferred not to drink on the
I guess I can safely admit it now that I'm dead. I was
one of those "hidden aces" McCarthy was talking about. Had
been since my sophomore year in college when I stepped out
of the pool and into the high voltage cord for the
floodlights. I got electrified. It wasn't fatal, just
permanent. Two days later, I found I could toss around
balls of lightning and light myself up like a Christmas
tree. I did my best not to, grounded my excess, and went on
with my life, which led roundabout to detective work, though
that's another story.
Welles took a swallow of burgundy and a long pull on his
cigar. "You know Wally Fisk, Nick?"
I shrugged. "Not much. Good detective."
"Bit of a bastard too," Welles finished my unspoken
thought. "He was working for me."
He flicked his cigar ash to indicate the past tense.
"He went mad."
I didn't bother to echo him this time, just waited until
he filled in the rest. He was paying, after all.
"Stark, raving mad," Welles said finally. "Torched his
apartment, burned his files and ran around screaming that
everyone was out to get him. They got him before he could
top it off with a suicide. He's in the lockdown ward at
"Yesterday he was sitting in the exact same chair you
are now, saner than most people in this town." Welles took
a long pull on his cigar and let it out slowly.
He watched the smoke as it drifted toward the ceiling.
"Will you take over?"
"Depends on the case."
Welles smiled. "Smart man. Wally was hired to protect
my film. If he'd turned up dead, I'd at least have some of
my suspicions confirmed. This . . . I don't know. I've
never had a detective go mad on me before."
"I'm sure it wasn't anything he'd planned." I took a
puff on my cigarette. "Did he find anything that would make
Welles shrugged. "Who knows? He torched everything he
hadn't turned into me already."
"What was he protecting?"
"Blythe." Welles said it more like he was
invoking a goddess than saying the name of a woman or a
I just took a drag and waited until he continued.
"I got the script from Dalton Trumbo." Welles took a
long sip of burgundy. "It's the story of the Four Aces,
focusing on the House Committee on Un-American Affairs.
Picture it in all its sordid glory." His voice was the
showman's now, ringing through the office as he sketched
pictures in the air with his cigar. "Dr. Tachyon as the
Lost Prince. Black Eagle as Othello. Jack Braun as Judas
and Senator Joseph McCarthy as Torquemada. And Blythe Van
Renssaeler as the beautiful, doomed madwoman."
I knew about as much as any wild card about the Four
Aces. They'd been the few lucky ones the first Wild Card
Day, and Archibald Holmes had got them together as the
Exotics For Democracy. Black Eagle, who could fly.
David Harstein, the Envoy, sort of a Shylock with a
conscience, who could get you to agree to anything, no
matter how bizarre. Blythe Van Renssaeler, Brain Trust, who
had the world's greatest intellects all within her own mind.
And then there was Golden Boy, the strongest man in the
world, who'd told everyone's secrets to the Committee on Un-
American Affairs in exchange for a thank you and thirty
pieces of silver. Black Eagle flew away, Tachyon was
deported, Holmes and Harstein were sent to prison, and
Blythe Van Renssaeler went mad and died in an insane asylum
a few years later.
And Jack Braun got to go on being an indifferent actor,
in between busting heads for the government.
Welles swirled the burgundy in his glass, contemplating
the color. "You come recommended as someone both thorough
and discreet, and not overly worried about danger, so long
as you receive adequate compensation."
It was a leading statement. "Who did you hear that
I know I blushed, and I was hard pressed to keep from
topping it off with St. Elmo's fire. A detective does a lot
of questionable things in his profession, and I think the
worst thing I ever did was take pictures of Jack Braun with
his wife's pretty girl dermatologist. It got her a divorce
and me a down-payment on my house. In celebration, Kim
Wolfe tried to get me into bed.
They should have stayed married. They deserved each
I didn't feel so bad about that case--believe what you
will, it's standard for a P.I.--as I did about what came
after. I got into the habit of taking similar photos and
selling them to Braun's successive wives. There were enough
for an erotic pin-up calendar and another brace of divorce
suits. I told myself I was doing it to give the Judas ace a
taste of his own medicine, but with 20/20 hindsight, I can
say I did it for the money.
But back then, I was doing it for the
money. "What sort of pay are we talking here?"
Welles named a figure that you'd never find anywhere but
the budget of a major motion picture.
I know I paused too long. "I need to know all of my
duties before I accept anything."
"Smart man," Welles said again. "You'll be doing
anything and everything to protect Blythe. If
someone tries something, you'll stop it, and if possible get
evidence we can use for P.R." He tapped the ash off his
cigar with a final gesture. I watched it fall. "And of
course you won't breath a word of this to Hedda or Louella."
Now there's something you ought to know about Hollywood,
or at least the Hollywood I knew: The gossip columnists ran
the town. And the two biggest harpies in Hollywood were
Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.
Louella, or "Lollipop" as she liked to be called,
invented the business. She was a neurotic old biddy with a
bald spot and a voice like a crow, but at least she could be
reasoned with. She didn't have an axe to grind, only papers
Hedda was another matter. Hedda was a failed actress
who found that all the venom she'd built up over the years
actually sold papers and radio spots. She was also a weird
old lady who went around in these giant hats and hated
everything outside of Middle America prewar, pre-wild card.
She hated Reds, she hated Pinks. She hated lavender boys
and foreigners and Charlie Chaplin and just about everyone
else. But more than anything, she hated wild cards.
Her files must have pinned about half the people on the
Black List. And if you were an ace-in-hiding, you didn't
forget that she was thick as the Forty Thieves with J. Edgar
She was also tight-knit with Willie Hearst, whose papers
owned Louella, and the animosity between them and Welles was
public knowledge. If anyone was to get the scoop, it wasn't
going to be Hedda Hopper or the Hearst empire.
"Let me tell you something, Nick," Welles said.
"Blythe is going to be big and it's going to
piss off more people than Citizen Kane. But
unlike Kane, I'm not keeping it under wraps."
I paused and took a drag on my cigarette. "You've done
a pretty good job so far."
Welles poured himself another glass of wine. "That,
Nick, is the problem. It isn't a secret, but short of
taking out adds in Variety, no one knows what's
being produced. And with the number of spies and rumor-
mongers in this town, it doesn't take a genius to recognize
a conspiracy of silence when he hears one.
"I hired Wally to see just how deep it went. This is
what he found before he went nuts."
He gave me a sheaf of documents: letters, bills,
newspaper clippings, insurance claims, unproduced scripts
like The Bowery Boys in "Jokers' Town," and
scenes cut from 30 Minutes Over Broadway.
What it added up to was that someone had it out for wild
cards, and scenes that made aces a little too heroic had
gotten the axe. And movies that showed jokers as anything
but monsters terrorizing teenage beach parties invariably
had set fires or other accidents.
Welles swirled his burgundy. "I was over at MGM when
they were doing Golden Boy. From what I saw of
the dailies, it looked to be a reasonably good film. What
happened in the cutting room was criminal, probably in every
sense of the word.
"Someone doesn't like wild cards, Nick," Welles said.
"I want you to find out who. Blythe is going
to go ahead and it's going to be the best damn picture I've
He gave me a copy of the script and filled me in. They
hadn't contracted all of the players yet, and Trumbo was
still doing a polish, but Zanuck had lent him Marilyn Monroe
for the title. After her performance in
Cleopatra, they'd have lines down the block.
I believed it. Blond Marilyn was nothing compared to
raven-haired Marilyn. I was one of ten thousand men wanting
to have been that asp.
I stubbed out my cigarette and Welles offered another
before I had to ask. "Marilyn," he said, giving me a light,
"is the risky bit. She's on the bottle, and that wouldn't
be half so bad if it weren't for Paula Strasberg, her acting
coach, and her new psychiatrist, Dr. Rudo. Between the two
of them they've got her loaded down with more pills than any
woman should be able to swallow." Welles scrunched down,
mimicking the posture and accent of a New York matron:
"Marilyn, darling, take one of your tranquilizers." He
straightened up then, affecting a haughty look and an
aristocratic German accent: "Miss Monroe, I prescribe a
Damn-It-All. Take two, they're small."
I bit my cigarette to keep from laughing. "So you want
me to pry Marilyn away from her bottle and pills?"
Welles was back to himself, trimming another cigar. "I
don't care," he said, lighting up and sucking smoke like
some sort of directorial dragon. "I don't care if she takes
twice as many or goes cold turkey, just so long as she can
act. The money for Blythe comes from people
who're willing to bet on the combination of
Monroe/Trumbo/Welles, not a bunch of philanthropists who'll
pay for any actress to play a diseased schizophrenic the
government's glad is dead."
He paused, leaning back in his chair, tapping the cigar
with finality. "If Marilyn goes, Blythe is
dead too. And whoever doesn't like wild cards gets what
I may have been a hidden ace, but I was still a wild
card. There was no way I was letting this one go. "I'll
"Deal," Welles said and we shook.
And as Sheherezayd said, "Yet that is not the end of my tale...."