It was Bedlam, and Babel, and Baghdad galloping, and Lady Godiva in the middle naked as an artificial eye on a white-satin spread. And not a sign of a horse.
It was the United Nations of Hollywood all decked out in masks and sarongs and baggy bloomers and Snug-Fit Pantie Girdles, and the whole thing charged up to "Better Employee Relations" by Magna Studios, producers of the epic epic you'll soon be seeing for sixty-eight cents plus seven cents federal tax at all your neighborhood theatres.
The cameras had stopped rolling in the afternoon on Magna's most recent supercolossal, Cry Cry, and this was the blowout celebrating wrapping the thing up two weeks under schedule.
Me? I was watching Lady Godiva.
And with good reason. Almost everyone here was wearing some kind of costume except the Lady, who warn't no lady. I couldn't have told you who she was, though. She was wearing a mask that covered her face, and I didn't know her that well.
I was wearing a mask too, but that didn't stop a lot of people from recognizing me. I'm just under six-two and weigh four or five pounds over two hundred, so I stuck up in the air a little higher than most of the guys in the crowd. And the mask didn't help me much; I guess no mask ever will. My busted nose stuck out from underneath it, and above it were my screwy white eyebrows that start up from the middle, then throw a fit and swoop down at the ends like bent-pin fishhooks. The blondish, nearly white hair that I kept about an inch long showed under the tilted rim of my costume hat and finished giving me away to anybody that knew me--and it seemed like there were plenty here that knew me, even if I couldn't recognize them in their fancy outfits.
I was born in L.A. thirty years back and I've spent most of my life, except for four years as a Marine during the most recent World War, right here in L.A. and Hollywood. I sort of grew up alongside the movie industry, and in the process I got to know a lot of the Hollywood boys and girls--from guys on the outside looking in to Harry Feldspen himself, top dog of Magna Studios. Which explains what a private detective was doing at a movie ball.
I'd opened the office--Sheldon Scott, Investigations--in downtown L.A. right after I said a happy good-by to the U.S. Marine Corps. After a few bleak months things picked up and I started making enough money to pay taxes. Then about a year back I'd done a job for Feldspen and he'd remembered me when this party rolled around. He'd been kind enough to phone me and invite me to drop in, unofficially, if I felt like it.
Instead of holding the party on a set or sound stage, Magna had taken over Feldspen's huge Los Angeles mansion for a masked costume ball. Taken over, that is, at the nod of Harry Feldspen. So right now I was sandwiched in at the bar between Paul Clark, a cutter in one of Magna's cutting rooms, and Irv Seeley, a makeup artist.
Paul Clark was about five-ten and well built, with an almost square face and a Bob Hope nose. His eyes were brown and alert in a sunburned face. Clark was a sort of casual friend of mine I'd run into around the studios over the last year or so, but I'd known Irv Seeley four or five years. He was a little guy, about five-six, but what he lost in height he made up in belly. I never asked him, but I'll bet he had his pants specially made so they'd be almost as wide as they were long. He was always neat, though, and smiling genially.
Along the bar I could see four or five people I thought I recognized: a couple of grips, a director, a cameraman or two, and a cowboy star. He didn't have a horse either, but nobody noticed; the kids were all home in bed.
Lady Godiva was nearing the end of her freedom. And almost everybody at the bar except me had been missing the fun.
"Irv," I said. "You, too, Clark. Don't look now, but--"
They looked anyway.
Clark whistled through his teeth. "Wow! She must have had some too many. They're gonna catch her. Too bad."
Irv said, "She looks familiar, Shell."
I didn't look at him, but I grinned. "Stop bragging."
"Who's bragging? She acts familiar. Wonder who she is."
I shook my head and swallowed the last of my water highball. It could have been anybody of approximately the same size and shape. Everybody in the big mansion--and there were about three hundred of us at the party--was masked, and the masks wouldn't come off till midnight. Apparently that rule didn't apply to costumes.
This being a costume ball, I'd discarded my private-eye suit, which was a double-breasted teal-blue gabardine, and climbed into a thing the guy at the shop told me was an exact replica of the dress uniform worn by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I had a mask on, but I still felt silly as hell. When I'd walked up to the bar, Irv and Clark, drinking together, didn't have any trouble recognizing me and introducing themselves for kicks. After I'd explained that I was here on a special invite from Feldspen and wasn't here on business or to crash their racket, we settled down to some pleasant drinking. Right now, though, watching Lady Godiva was even more fun than drinking.
Finally a couple of lucky guys caught her and said, "Baby, get on your horse," or something like that, and hustled her out of the big ballroom where most of us were gathered. I never did find out where the devil they took her.
Clark turned around and said, "Bottoms up," which seemed appropriate, and added, "I'm celebrating."
"Celebrating what?" I asked him.
"Promoted. I'm head cutter now. Two days ago. Hell, that's the only reason I'm here; I'd probably be working otherwise. Most of the other boys are--the ones in feature cutting, anyway."
By working he meant snipping and slicing around with the film from the last shot on Cry Cry. It didn't sound like a heck of a lot of work to me, but I'm no expert. About all I know about it is that they cut and splice the features so they run smoothly--chop out a little here and add a little there, then put the thing together and bundle it off to a preview somewhere.
No matter, any excuse was good for another drink. Not that we needed an excuse. Or a drink, for that matter. We'd all been imbibing pretty freely of the free and pretty liquor. So the three of us chewed on more highballs and turned around with our backs against the bar and ogled people.
I'd been ogling one in particular with little luck so far. She was wearing a silver mask that covered her face from forehead to lips but left her lips bare so you could see them. And a good thing, too; it would have been a major crime to cover up lips like those. They were the full, curving kind that you knew said, "Mash me," in hot whispers, and I was getting increasingly curious about the eyes and the nose and the cheekbones.
The rest of her, from the neck down, was part delightful and part guessing. The guessing part was that covered by a thick, flowing skirt in powder blue with wide hoops that discouraged dancing. The delightful part was the square-cut blouse worn low enough to discourage nothing.
She was costumed as a Southern belle, and I wondered why, if they had belles like that in the South, wasn't I in Atlanta? I'd just decided to stroll over to her and ask when Irv Seeley nudged me.
"Tie that," he rumbled. He rumbled because his voice came up out of his stomach and there was plenty of room there for rumbling. Echoes, even. He nodded at a big guy standing near the bar a few feet from us.
I say big because I'm a pretty good size myself, and this guy had two inches and thirty pounds on me. And he was well put together.
"So tie what?" I asked Irv.
"Brane. Roger Brane. You mean to tell me you don't know the bum?"
"Vaguely, now that you mention his name. Never met him. Doesn't he have some kind of studio out on the Strip?"
"That's right. Artist. Very artistic artist. And a stinking, no-good louse if there ever was one."
I winced a little. Irv's voice wasn't a whisper and Brane was only a few feet away.
Paul Clark turned toward us and ran a finger alongside his long, sharp nose. He said loudly, "Irv, you got it all wrong. You should always call Brane a bastard. You know why? Because he's"--he raised his voice a little higher--"the biggest bastard in Hollywood. And brother, that takes in a lot of bastards."
Brane turned slowly and I noticed he had his mask shoved up over his forehead. He wasn't going to play the same way everybody else did; he was going to be different. Undoubtedly that's how the two with me had recognized him--that and his size. He was dressed like an Italian nobleman of the Renaissance period and he looked a little bit like a Technicolor sunset. He wore a blue, puff-sleeved jacket, wine-colored tights that encased his long legs all the way down to his feet, and a black cape lined inside with gray. The cape fastened at his neck and shoulders and hung down his back to the floor, and the jeweled handle of a long knife protruded from a sheath at his left side.
An incongruous touch was a very modern and expensive-looking Leica thirty-five millimeter miniature camera in an open leather case that was secured by a leather strap over Brane's shoulder.
He rested one big hand on the handle of the knife and swaggered toward us. That's right, swaggered. As if he were pretty impressed with himself.
He stopped in front of us and examined the three of us with his full lips curling slightly as if we were dirt. His hair was brown and crinkly and both his thin brown eyebrows were raised.
He completed his inspection and said distinctly and with voluminous scorn, "Peasants."
Then he let his eyes drop to our feet, linger, then rise to our faces again. "Shoes," he said quietly. "My!" He examined our faces intently, smiling with good teeth, then pursed his lips and said, "Definitely cretin. Depressing. Most depressing. But interesting--to an anthropologist."
There wasn't so much that was original in the words Brane used, but his delivery was out of this world. He could have said, "Oh, you kid," and you'd have heard it for the first time. He dissolved part of each word in acid before he flung its remnant past his well-shaped lips.
Roger Brane was a being from Mars or Olympus; we were just people.
Brane was still speaking. He smiled pleasantly and added in his cultured drawl, "You charming things. You ... things." His smile broadened. "Join me outside, will you? One of you? One of you ... things?"
This guy was rubbing me the wrong way, but it wasn't my argument in the first place. I said, "Mr. Brane. Knock it off. I've got no argument with you." I managed a smile. "In the words of Goldwyn, include me out. As a matter of fact, include us all out. Forget it. We apologize."
Brane centered his attention on me as if he were getting ready to perform his first autopsy and didn't know quite where to begin.
"What," he asked, "I mean who are you?"
"Scott. Shell Scott."
"You're interesting," he said slowly with undue emphasis. "But that's a disgusting nose. Don't you think it's disgusting?"
He referred to the fact that my nose, which got busted during a murder session with the Japs overseas in '44, never got set right. It's a little crooked, but not disgusting.
I said as pleasantly as I could, "Sometimes I can stand it. Good-by."
I guess he was just getting started. It was sort of between him and me now, though Clark and Seeley stood on each side of me. And they were the guys that set it off. How the hell had I got tangled up in this thing?
Brane said, "I like the way you talk, man. Man?" He let himself look puzzled, then plastered the big white smile back on. I was starting to understand why Paul and Irv didn't like the guy. I didn't say anything. He'd had his fun; now maybe he'd beat it. The way I was starting to feel, he'd better beat it.
He didn't beat it.
He said, "You know, Scott, you talk with rare intelligence. Taking everything into consideration. I wonder if you'd consider donating your brain--oh!" He was apologetic now. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you."
I could feel my face getting hot. I sat my drink on the bar to my left, stepped up close, and shoved my face at him. "Listen, friend," I said. "You go play with yourself or something. I told you I didn't have any argument' with you. I didn't. But it's not going to last. I can feel it."
He put his chin down on his neck and stared at me, shaking his head as if I were a naughty boy.
I clenched my fists, then relaxed and got a little grip on myself. A little one.
I said, "Look, Brane. My friends here cracked wise. O.K., they shouldn't have done it. Now forget it and beat it."
"But they're right," he said agreeably. "Absolutely right. I am a bastard. Quite literally."
"So who the hell cares?" I said.
Clark, the damn fool, picked that time to bust in again. "That's not what I meant, Brane. I meant figuratively speaking."
Hot damn! Good old Clark. I could have mashed his skull. Brane kept smiling, but for the first time the full lips crinkled a little, bent in toward his teeth.