Card Sharks Cover Scan

"Cursum Perficio"



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 son.
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 Fox lot.
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 Kane.
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 job.
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."
"Was?"
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 County General.
"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 him snap?"
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 film.
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 from?"
"Kim Wolfe."
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 other.
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 to sell.
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 Hoover.
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 done."
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 they want."
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 take it."
"Deal," Welles said and we shook.

And as Sheherezayd said, "Yet that is not the end of my tale...."

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