Constance Lamb - December 1928
“Ah, Miss Lamb, do come in,” the paunchy older gentleman with mutton-chopped jowls held the door far enough open that she had to brush past him in order to enter.
Constance Lamb held back the overwhelming flood of revulsion at the feel of his corpulent form beneath that expensive suit and ducked under his outstretched arm. It was like being on a date with a varsity letterman – they were all hands and you just never knew from which direction they would engage next. She half-expected the old man’s hands to roam immediately.
Instead, he leaned further out of his office and spoke softly to his dowdy secretary with her glasses, her unflattering and nearly shapeless outfit, and her hair fastened up in a bun. “Take a lunch break, Roberta. This interview is likely to take some time.”
Constance caught the concerned looks Roberta was throwing her way as she quickly tidied her desk before exiting. Under other circumstances, they may have been a cause for concern, but this time they served only to excite her. While she waited for the randy old goat to close his inner office door, she made sure that the external blinds were open.
The resulting Californian sunlight made Jersey Whitlow blink rapidly. It also brought the sweat on his forehead into stark relief. “Do we need that much light, Miss Lamb?” he grumbled mildly.
“Oh yes, sir, Mr Whitlow, sir,” she gushed in her best blonde airheaded flapper voice. “I find it’s best to see what I’m doing, you see. Then there’s no confusion.”
Jersey Whitlow’s blinking increased in intensity as he tried to process her statement. Eventually, he shook his head as though to dislodge it from his brain. He watched her settle onto the wide chair and smiled indulgently, as though he were a doting grandfather. He pulled a chair closer to her and settled his own bulk in that, resting a meaty hand on her bare knee, his smile ratcheting up a notch into his best avuncular ‘you can trust me’ beam. “Now, I believe you have come to audition.”
Constance nodded eagerly, putting her entire torso into motion. Her blue eyes were wide, her decolletage was low, and his resistance was non-existent – he couldn’t help but stare at the goodies on display.
“We have two parts available in our latest production, the Lebanese Lion. The first is a non-speaking background role as a servant, but you’re much too beautiful for that.” His sweaty hand squeezed her thigh.
Oh, brother, Constance thought grimly. “Do you really think so, Mr Whitlow?” she asked, trying to look innocent while wondering all the while if she was piling on the hooey too lavishly. She didn’t want to spook him yet – not until he took the bait.
“Please, my dear, call me Jersey. All my leading girls do.” His hand moved a little higher as he leaned in conspiratorially. “And you have true leading girl potential. Why it’s possible I could make you the next big star for our studios.”
“Golly,” Constance gulped. “How would you do that?” Her eyes watered as he leant in closer and wafted a stomach-churning mix of garlic and halitosis across her face just as she breathed in. He seemed to be taking her response as an indication of her excitement at the proposition.
“Stick with me, kid.” The questing hand squeezed her upper thigh. Jeez, he was faster than some of her dates. “All you have to do is pass the audition and your name will be at the top of the marquee.”
“Do you need me to sing?” she asked brightly, forcing herself to relax and let her legs part a little bit more. “Or is there a script I could read from?” That sweaty mitt was now approaching the danger zone. “Or should I recite some Shakespeare?” She took a deep breath, expanding her chest and his eyes widened commensurately. “Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.”
Startled, Jersey looked up for an instant while his brain caught up with her words. “What?” he mumbled before he worked it out. “Ah, Shakespeare. Very good.” His eyes dropped back to her heaving bosom while his hand crept further North with every passing second. “Oh, no. Nothing like that. This is a personality test. All the big names have taken them. That’s how they got to the top.” He chuckled and mumbled, “Of course, they started underneath everyone else.”
“Oh,” Constance cried in dismay, sitting up higher on the seat, forcing his hand to relinquish ground. “I don’t do well with tests.” She put on a sad face. “Even my arithmetic teacher said that all I would ever be good for was multiplication.” She frowned. “I don’t think he was being very nice when he said it, we hadn’t even gotten to our two times tables.”
“Don’t worry, my dear,” Jersey was quick to reassure her, hastily covering his knowing laugh at the multiplication line. He placed his free hand on her shoulder – or at least in the vicinity – and patted her in what he thought was a comforting way. His other hand, still on her thigh retraced its path, reclaiming territory rapidly. “You just do what I tell you and you’ll pass with flying colours. Jersey guarantees it.”
“I don’t think…” Constance started to say when Jersey’s hands both claimed portions of her anatomy that she had not given permission for them to touch. “Fresh!” she yelped, pushing back and up so that she could get out of the chair. It budged backward until the rug bunched beneath its back legs and then toppled over with a crash. Constance, in the meanwhile, played the outraged young girl to the hilt. She stood on the back of the chair, hauled off, and struck Jersey’s cheek with her open palm. The resounding smack echoed in the confines of the small office.
Jersey’s predatory smile morphed into a furious snarl as he clutched his red and stinging face. “That wasn’t smart, snookums,” he told her quietly, his eyes hard and cold, his voice more menacing because he was not yelling at her. “Just lie back like a good girl and I’ll cast you in the star role.” He wagged a reprimanding finger. “Give me any grief and your reputation won’t get you any role other than a dime-a-dick ride in the next Swedish skin-flick.”
And there it was. The monster in the man. Not one of those ‘tear your own eyes out just to try and block out the horror’ cosmic obscenities that Corwyn, Jenny, and the others at the Agency had become so good at finding, just an old-fashioned pervert with a penchant for fresh young bodies. This she could deal with. It was an empowering thought.
Oops. While she’d been distracted, he’d lunged at her again. This time he was hampered by the chair legs and seat so his attempt at grappling was easily foiled. “You still have time to be a gentleman,” she warned him, backing slowly to the uncovered window. She kept one arm behind her back, palm out, with fingers splayed. Her first finger slowly curled in toward the palm.
“Or what?” he sneered, secure in the knowledge that he had the position of power. “My secretary is at lunch. It will be your word against mine. Who do you think will believe a desperate would-be actress over a Producer of motion pictures?”
Constance shook her head sadly. “Wrong choice, ugly.” The frightened young girl act dropped away, replaced by the intelligent and unflappable young woman who had taken her miserable and limited world by the throat to get the life she wanted. She had seen many creeps of Jersey Whitlow’s calibre and, for the most part, dealt with them via a swift kick to the privates. “There is no would-be about it. I am an actress, amongst other things, and I am already contracted to your opposition, Raven Pictures.”
Jersey frowned and shook his head. He looked like an overweight bull getting ready to charge. “So why..?” The question was filled with incomprehension.
“Why am I here?” she asked with a bright, eager smile. “I’m so glad you enquired. As it happens, I’m also a Private Investigator doing a bit of freelance work for a friend. I’m sure you remember Amelia Ferrin.” She paused, cocking her head slightly in query.
At the irritated shake of his head, she added more to the description. “Red-head. Hourglass figure. Came to you a week ago for a part and you gave her the part between your legs even after she said ‘No’.” Her voice dropped an octave into a bared teeth growl as she spat out that last sentence.
Jersey froze momentarily, eyes flicking back and forth like a metronome. “Yeah,” he finally grated, beads of sweat rolling down his pudgy face. “That rings a bell – though I do see plenty of young things that fit the description. There are so many who want a taste of the good life.”
Constance couldn’t dispute that. She had been, and perhaps still was, one of them.
“But I remember Amelia all too well,” Jersey continued, spittle spraying as he said her name. “She was nice as ninepence when she wiggled her way into my office in her tight little dress on those tasty drumsticks. But she went full-on hysterical when I told her she wasn’t right for the role. Came at me with those red nails and a psycho look in her eye. I had to slap her out of it.”
Constance curled her second finger in.
“My secretary will vouch for what happened when that Amelia left. The bitch wasn’t in a fit state of mind then and is now making the whole mess up just because I wouldn’t cast her. She should be in a loony bin.”
The third finger closed tightly.
“I cleaned her up afterward, you gutless toad,” Constance snarled, her eyes flaring. “But I wasn’t around when she took her own life two days later.” She gathered her fraying temper and took a deep, calming breath. The memory of Amelia lying still and pale in that red-stained bathtub and pink water would stay with her forever. “It was reported on page 33 of the local paper.” If you could call two sentences reporting.
Jersey’s obvious fright vanished. The relief he felt was evident. “Well then,” he smiled, back in control. “If that tart is dead, there’s no problem. You can just get out of my office, you jumped-up little floozy. I’ll be having words with Hiram about you. Don’t expect to be working in the industry for much longer.”
Constance closed her last finger into the fist and brought it out of hiding with the thumb still extended. Even now, she was giving him more of a chance than he deserved.
“Oh, I’m so scared,” Jersey hammed it up in falsetto. He swiped at the air with his open hand. “Go away, girl. You bore me.”
“If I hit you with this, sleaze, I guarantee you would feel it.” She took a number of careful steps round the fallen chair, keeping as much furniture between them as possible. He shadowed her movements, turning to keep her in sight, until he had his back to the window and she faced him. “As it is, while I’ve been paid to identify the creatures masquerading as human at Raven Studios, I’ve decided to do the same for Atalanta Pictures gratis.” She sneered as she looked him up and down. “For all your evils, you’re still just a little man in a big pond. Be glad that I’m the one who found you first. There are other things out there that would claim your very soul and walk around in your skin.” Her sneer became a scornful smile. “All I’m going to do is release you to a higher judge.”
There was a noise from the outer office and they both glanced in the direction of the closed door.
“Looks like Roberta is back from her lunch break,” he laughed. “If you try anything now, she’ll be a star witness at your trial.” He straightened up, adjusted his tie and waistcoat, wiped his forehead with a grubby handkerchief, then leant casually against his large wooden desk. “Get your skinny ass out of here before I call the cops.”
Constance opened her fist slowly and brought her hand down. She slipped sideways to the door and opened it wide, revealing the concerned face of the woman who was just about to knock. “I don’t think I want to work here with you, Mr Whitlow,” she said unhappily, her bottom lip quivering, unshed tears welling in her eyes, as she laid it on thick for her unwitting audience. “You’re not nice.”
She closed the door on his apoplectic expression and nodded to Roberta as she crossed the outer room’s linoleum floor.
“Are you alright, dear?” the secretary asked, brown eyes full of concern.
Up close, the woman was younger than Constance had first thought. In fact, now that she was really checking, she could see that she was also quite comely – it was just the way she dressed, the unsightly large glasses perched on the tip of her nose, the artfully misapplied makeup, all conspired to hide her in plain sight. Interesting. “You should find a better class of boss, sister,” Constance told her impulsively.
Roberta shrugged minutely. “I would if I could,” she whispered, almost too low to hear.
Constance reached the door, paused in the opening, then turned and pulled a card from a hidden pocket. The tussle had left it slightly creased, so she pressed it straight between her fingers. “What’s he got on you, Roberta?” There was no way this woman would still be here if she had the choice.
The tiny shrug reappeared. “Just a minor matter of a contract,” she grimaced, her answer not much more than a hoarse whisper. “If I break it, he’ll blacklist me in the industry.”
There was a hint of fire in those still-fearful eyes. Whatever Jersey Whitlow had done to her, she had not yet broken. She was being worn down though, having to constantly interact with that creature. Constance wanted to help, but she couldn’t afford to leave too much of a visible presence here. It had already been a risk showing up in person to directly face down the producer. Someone would mention her name to the cops and that would be her career in moving pictures blown when she used her primary employment as a one-time ‘get out of jail free’ card – assuming they didn’t just throw away the key for visiting Private Investigators.
Constance nodded firmly, once. She twisted her wrist in a flicking motion and sent the heavy card with its Raven logo spinning across the room. It contacted the curved metal edge of the typewriter on Roberta’s desk, bounced upward, and executed a perfect loop before settling back down between the rows of keys. “If you get the chance, call this number.”
Roberta reached out in wonderment and held the card so she could see it clearly beneath her glasses. “Jeez,” she said, impressed. “Did you work as a Magician’s assistant?”
Constance chuckled and shook her head. “I’d rather be the Magician. I have been told I have magic fingers.” She wriggled them in farewell.
Roberta giggled inadvertently and held a hand to her lips to stifle the sound.
Constance turned to leave, but looked back when Roberta cleared her throat softly.
The secretary held up the card between two fingers. “I’ll think about it,” she promised, licking her lips nervously. She clicked her fingers and the card vanished.
Constance raised her eyebrows and bowed in acknowledgement.
“Roberta, get your lazy ass in here, pronto,” came a bellow from the inner office.
Roberta rolled her eyes. “His master’s voice.”
Constance responded with a small smile, then kissed her fingers and blew the kiss to the other woman – who reached out to catch the invisible projectile, before cupping it tenderly in both hands against her chest. Constance’s smile widened. “Maybe today will get better.” She waggled her fingers once more and left the shabby little office.
She skipped lightly to the bottom of the stone steps that led up to the main door and, when her feet touched pavement, she lifted one arm above her head while the other hand covered a supposed yawn. Her raised hand curled into a fist with the outstretched thumb extended out and down.
There was a crack, faint but audible, followed by the shattering of glass. She didn’t startle because she had been expecting it, and her raised arm lowered as she completed her stretch. As her feet turned her away from the office building, there was the sound of a woman’s scream.
“Sorry, Roberta,” Constance said aloud, “but your bad day will lead to better ones.” She giggled mischievously. “Especially if you call that number.”
Her strides alternated with skips and impromptu dance steps around impassive pedestrians who tried to act as though they saw this kind of thing every day – which, thinking about it, they probably did. Happier than she had been all week, Constance made her way to the side-street eatery where she was to meet up with Arnie before he caught the redeye back to Boston. Justice had been served today – in a much more satisfying manner than their usual cases – and it was possible that she might have a few more private cleaning jobs for him later once she was through investigating the state of Atalanta Pictures. Jersey Whitlow had simply been the most pressing. “Rest in peace, Amelia.”
While she walked, she hummed an oldie but a goodie, sashaying along to its rhythm, before breaking into song – though the lyrics being sung had never been vocalised before. It made her smile. Whenever another walker came within earshot, she switched back to the original words – after all, it would not pay to be heard celebrating a death where the body had barely begun to cool.
Jersey has gone away.
He really won’t be missed,
Or break another twist.
A bullet in the brain
Relieved that stress and pain.
Sent him the Devil’s way!