Copyright, 2015 by Sergio Delgado
Hollywood, CA, February, 1923
Nathan Valentine was minding his own business—getting a bit drunk—when the blonde in a tight-blouse and long skirt sat down at his table in the speakeasy and asked, “Do you know you look like Charlie Chaplin?”
Valentine gave her the once-over. She was cute—late twenties, nicely proportioned—and she was suddenly holding a cigarette. He fished out his lighter and lit for her and said, “I’m told he looks like me.”
He did resemble the movie actor, albeit much taller and with considerably more mileage that comes from years of wondering whether you’re going to be caught at doing something you’re not supposed to be doing. He was thin—scrawny, actually. He had dark hair, blue eyes, and a mouth that was too big—both literally and figuratively—for his head.
“You look just like him,” she said, blowing out a stream of smoke.”
“Do you want me to buy you a drink?” Nathan asked her. “Stuff here tastes like real gin.”
“Sorry, no time,” she said. “What do you do?”
He lit up a cigarette of his own. “Why do you want to know?”
“”Every girl wants to know something about the guy she might sleep with,” she said without fear.
“Sounds fair,” Nathan said. He reached into his coat, pulled out one of his rumpled business cards and handed it to her.
“Nathan Valentine—Private investigator,” she said, reading from the card. “So you’re a snoop.”
“You might say that,” Nathan said with a chuckle. “Women hire me to check on their husbands…to make sure they’re not cheating.”
“What happens if they are?” she asked.
“Then they divorce the rat bastard and take his money.”
“Well my name is Jeanie, and I don’t have a cheating husband,” she said with a glint in her eyes. “But I’ve got a room across the street and something you can investigate at a very reasonable rate. What do you say?”
Valentine scratched his cheek, smiled, and told the blonde, “You must be an actress, Jeanie, handing me a line like that.”
She leaned in closer. “Let me hand you your next line: ‘yes.’
“Yes,” he said and slammed back the rest of the bathroom gin in his cup. It made his eyes water violently. “Why the hell not?”
Jeanie took hold of his hand and pulled him out of his seat. “Come on, Charlie,” she said. Her eyes promised a wonderful time. Nathan decided that if she wanted to pretend she was fucking Charlie Chaplin, that was okay with him. He’d been short on female company for some time now.
It was bright outside the cellar speakeasy, the sun was the only thing in the sky, although the temperature was in the high thirties and Jeanie had no jacket. Although it was a short walk across the street to the flea-bag hostelry where she no doubt kept a standing room reservation, Nathan was about to offer her his somewhat-soiled jacket when someone grabbed him by the collar and about wrenched him backwards.
He uttered, “Hey, what the….” Then he saw the face of the man that had accosted him—a dead-ringer for a bulldog and the physique to match. He was pale and bloodless and looked like someone used to violence.
“Mr. Eyeton wants to see you, “ the man said. “Right now.”
Jeanie gave to his rescue—although understandibly less concerned about him personally than about the opportunity being squandered here. Yet was when the Bulldog’s cohort, a man with red hair and very long arms who might have been confused for one of the orangutangs in the Selig Zoo, shoved her to the sidewalk and told her to, “Scram, sister.”
“Leave her alone,” Nathan said, shaking himself free from the Bulldog’s grasp.
His attempt to save the fair maiden ended, however, when the Bulldog produced a switchblade and stuck the tip of the blade up into his left nostril. He didn’t even have to say what he might do if Nathan moved another inch.
“Sorry, doll,” Nathan said, nodding towards the girl just as got up off the sidewalk. “Looks like I’m wanted elsewhere.”
The Orangutang was staring at him. Nathan asked him what he was looking at.
“You look like Chaplin,” the apeman said and let out a brusque laugh.
Nathan was packed into the back of a dented Davis Touring Car and driven out to see ‘Mr. Eyeton.’ That would be Charles Eyeton, a big Irish bloke with a flat nose and a cauliflower ear, souvenirs from his days of brawling on the Dublin docks. He had come up in the world a long way since. He was now the general manager for the Famous Players-Lasky studio. His job was to keep things running smoothly in the cut-throat moving picture business and, if there was a problem, fix it.
The Irishman lived in a colonial house in Beverly Hills with his lovely wife, Kathryn Williams—a blonde actress of unmistakeable Yankee pedigree known popularly as “The American Rose.” His hired palookas pulled up to the front drive among palm trees and beds of fragrant colorful flowers, parked, and then hauled Nathan Valentine out of the back seat. He was markched down a brick-covered path to the large greenhouse behind the residence.
Inside the greenhouse it was warmer and humid. There were ceramic pots filled with roses everywhere. That wasn’t so unusual—it was the sight of Charles Eyeton, one of the most dapper men in the movie business, dressed in a leather apron and tending to the roses, that struck him as odd. Eyeton used a watering can to sprinkle water over some rather impressive specimen of the flower. Nathan hated the smell of roses. They reminded him of funerals. Their cloying scent made him want to throw up.
“Good afternoon, Nathan,” Eyeton said pleasantly when he spotted Valentine. “It’s been a while. Keeping busy?”
“Cut to the chase, Eyeton,” Nathan said. “What do you want?”
“I was wondering if you’ve been keeping your nose clean,” the studio manager said, stripping off his gloves. He had very large hands and they were covered with small scars from years where they’d been cut and bloodied from fighting.
Valentine crossed his arms and said, “That’s the kind of thing you say when you don’t like it that someone knows something bad about you.”
Eyeton punched him in the stomach. Hard. Nathan’s legs wobbled and suddenly he was sitting on the dirt floor on his backside. The Bulldog and Orangutang both grinned. Only Eyeton seemed annoyed by the use of violence here. He picked up something off the wooden workbench where he had put hi gloves. It appeared to be a photograph. He tossed it in Valentine’s lap. “Have a look, “he said.
The glossy hoto was of a rather prominent Famous Players-Lasky actress on her knees fellating a very large Negro man. Nathan recognized her from the picture shows. “That really her?” I asked Eyeton.
“Unfortunately, it is,” Eyeton said coolly. “One of yours?”
He was asking Nathan if he’d taken the picture. “No,” Valentine said, rising back to his feet and handing the manager back the photo. “I’m out of the blackmail business. I don’t even own a camera anymore.”
Eyeton seemed to measure up his answer and then said, “You’ll forgive me, lad, if I’m skeptical.”
Nathan shook his head. “Do I need to revisit the past? You hired me to blackmail William Desmond Taylor into staying with Famous Players and what I got were photos of him fucking Mary Miles Minter—which you showed Mary’s mother—and she shot him in cold blood, a fact that everyone would know if you hadn’t paid off the District Attorney to bury the truth.”
A broad smile crossed Eyeton’s face. “I’ll be goddamned, you know you really look like Charlie Chaplin.” He held up the photo again. “Okay, Nathan, if not you, then whom?”
“How in the hell should I know? Maybe someone new in town. No rank amateur from the looks of it. That’s taken by someone who knows what he’s doing.”
“Find out who,” Eyeton told him.
“I don’t work for you. Maybe I tell you to go fuck yourself.”
Eyeton put one of his giant hands on Valentine’s shoulder. “You could say it,” he said, almost paternally. “But then you wouldn’t eat for weeks because of a broken jaw.”
“Are we done? Can I go and play now?? Valentine asked.
The Irishman kept his hand on Nathan’s shoulder and said, “You know what happens, lad, if I find out you’re lying to me?”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me.”
Eyeton smiled colodly and said, “Maybe I should show you.” He told his men. “Cut off one of his little fingers.”
For a second Nathan thought he was joking. A chill of fear went up his spine when he realized that Eyeton was completely serious. He stepped back from the Irishman. “Look, you don’t need to show me anything,” he said nervously. “I get it, okay? I get it.”
Yet the Bulldog and Orangutang seized him. “Let go of me,” Nathan protested, increasingly scared. “Come on, don’t do this.”
They dragged his heels through the dirt towards the work bench. They pinned him there. The Orangutang wrapped one of his beefy mitts around one of Nathan’s wrists and forced his hand down flat onto the top of the table. Nathan was shaking now.
“No,” he said, pleading and half-blubbering. “Don’t do this.please.” He looked at Eyeton, but there was no court of appeal in those cold reptilian eyes. Pleading further was a useless gesture.
The Bulldog produced his knife, the blade gleaming from one of the overhead lights. Nathan swallowed and said, “Make it quick.”
The Bulldog took hold of the little finger on Nathan’s left hand and touched it with the blade. Nathan about jumped. The Bulldog grinned viciously , held up the knife and then brought down the blade on the finger, severing it in a crunch of bone and a welter of warm, sticky blood.
Nathan Valentine screamed.