Terminal Two was stark and dazzling white against the blue sky. It filled their window as the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 jet idled to a halt off Runway 24 Right at Los Angeles International. Guy still wore his city suit and tie. Henrietta sat in her leathers. He joined her from Business class and she was scathing. “Comfortable trip, was it? Swilling champagne, were you?”
He laughed and toted his hand luggage. Being the PM’s protection officer gave him a lifestyle he enjoyed and he wasn’t going to lose it over a dead gold digger, even if she was a star. “Goat class was all they would allow, Henri.”
She looked at him with contempt until he added. “We are staying at the Beverly Hills.”
The paparazzo’s eyebrows rose and she touched his sleeve. “Can’t we see a bit of Hollywood?”
“We’re booked in to interview the staff.”
“And when the Commissioner finds out Sol Coniff Jr didn’t stay there?”
“Notoriously discreet, the Beverly Hills. The hotel staff won’t talk to me anyway. I’m not a copper here.”
“You like to fly close to the wind, Royce.”
“By then we’ll have got to Sol Coniff Jr for the real evidence. The Commissioner will be happy. He’ll forget the whacking great bill crossing the Atlantic a month behind. And we will have stayed in the best hotel in California.”
“Not to mention my whacking great bill.” She added, sorting out her dollar notes evenly, ensuring they were matched to lay the right way.
Guy scanned the line of waiting cabs at the kerb side lower level, his hand shielding his eyes against the afternoon sun. “There she is.”
Henrietta dropped her bag to the pavement and smelled the warm, dry Californian air that carried on it a hint of the desert. “There who is?”
“Her. Our chauffeuse.”
The little old lady, in a shocking-pink trouser suit that perfectly matched her pink Chevrolet limousine, walked towards them. She slipped off her sunglasses for a greeting aimed at Henrietta.
“You must be Mrs Royce? I’m Marylou. Hollywood Heights Limos welcomes you to Los Angeles.”
Henrietta laughed. “No, Marylou. I’m Henrietta Fox. This is Mr Royce.”
She looked Guy up and down. “Okay. Whatever.” She turned, weaving her way back through the Arrivals passengers. Her cap was awry on top of her bleached-blonde hair, permed into a nest of iron curls. They fell into step, heading for the pink Chevrolet. Henrietta whispered. “Guy, she must be a hundred.”
“No,” he countered, “it’s the California sun. Dries them out like raisins. She’s probably only ninety.”
Their chauffeuse toted the luggage into the trunk. Once settled, she fixed them in the rear mirror, the cap hiding one eye.
“Right, folks. Downtown LA?”
Guy leaned forward. “Beverly Hills Hotel please, Marylou.”
“The Pink Palace, eh? If we go east on Century it should be forty-five minutes this time of the afternoon. Pick up the freeway north to Sunset Boulevard. It’s about sixteen miles.”
With a surge the Chevvy jerked into the traffic, powering out onto the Imperial Highway West. Their chauffeuse changed lanes with a sharp tug at the wheel and a squeal of rubber. She speeded up, tailgating a white, open-top Thunderbird and gave a single, raised finger before shearing off left to join the broader expanse of the Interstate 105.
“We miss the Hollywood, San Bernardino exit we’ll end up as bleached bones in the Mojave Desert.”
Guy looked to Henrietta as she swung the Chevvy over at the Hollywood ramp, the tail snaking as she braked and headed downtown, crossing the wide intersections with the lights. Henrietta studied the rows of drab, budget clothes shops and dingy cafés lining the route. She said. “Is this Hollywood?”
Marylou glanced in her mirror. “Yup. You expectin’ a star on every corner? Tinseltown’s an idea, not a place, lady. It’s about the studios. The stars don’t live here. They live at the Hills.”
At the corner of Hollywood and Vine they left the burger bars and markets behind, heading west on Sunset Boulevard. The chill of the air conditioning made Guy button his jacket. Soon he smelled newly mown grass as they passed smooth lawns, perfectly manicured, soaked by fine sprays of spinning water that set off the columned, colonial-style mansions of Beverly Hills.
Ferraris and stretched limos now filled the driveways, shaded under tall palms. Marylou said. “There’s a cop for every resident.” She grunted at Guy. “Just try parking your ass here, sonny. Take your foot off the gas and those guys come at you out of the trees.”
Guy said. “You see Marie Montague here, Marylou?”
Their chauffeuse cocked her head. “The actress? You mean the dead lady? Poor, dear soul. I drove her when she came here. Such a shame.”
Guy leaned from his seat to be closer. “When did you drive her?”
“February this year and again before that. Last November, I think. She asked for me the second time. Such a beautiful doll, that one. Bloody terrible what men do to women, ain’t it, lady?” She added archly, “Y’know, men say terrible things to women alone in cabs.”
She gave Guy a look in the mirror. He asked. “Where did she go, Marylou?”
“Same place. Beach Plaza Tower. Just west of here, towards Malibu.”
“You know who she saw?”
“Of course. Had them both in the limo. He came to stay with her at the Pink Palace.”
“Had who to stay, Marylou?”
“Don’t you know? That Sol Coniff, of course, the young one. His daddy’s dead. Never liked him, only her. But she was all over him, you know what I mean, lady?”
She threw a glance. “He didn’t seem to care. Men are takers, eh?”
Guy asked. “Coniff stay overnight?”
She shrugged. “Waddya think, sonny. You ever know a man who missed a chance?”
The Beverly Hills Hotel was painted as pink as the limousine that had brought them. Its three domed towers carried the star spangled banner.
“Welcome to the hotel California, folks. I remember when a room here cost twenty dollars. Nineteen forty-five. If you see Bruce Willis in there, pat his ass for me.”
She drew the limo up under the archway entrance, aligning their door with the red carpet. Guy tapped her shoulder. “Don’t leave us, Marylou. We’re off to find Sol Coniff Jr. We’ll need you for that.”
“I’ll be here, sonny.” She soured her face, wrinkling it like a walnut. “Happy to run down that son-of-a-bitch.”
The Beverly Hills
Henrietta strode across Guy’s suite then turned again, talking as she did so. He sat at a mahogany writing bureau, reading his notes, wishing she would stay still.
“We stake him out and I get the pictures you want. Then you spook him.”
Guy sighed. “He sees you, runs away and I won’t get to interview him. I’ll ring him, see what he says.”
She stood legs apart, her arms folded. “You could have done that from London! I get nothing.”
“Henri, you’re on commission from the Yard. You get paid whatever. Stop thinking like a paparazzo.”
He lifted the room telephone, putting it on speaker. “Number for Sol Coniff Jr, please. Beach Plaza Tower. Yes, I’ll hold.”
The operator was fast. “Mr Royce? The only Sol Coniff listed is a corporation. Will that do?”
Guy scribbled the number, punching it back into the gold handset. A lilting American accent greeted him. “Coniff Corp.”
“Sol Coniff, please. This is Detective Inspector Guy Royce of New Scotland Yard from London, England.”
After a pause a new voice came on the line. “Detective Inspector. How can I help you?”
Cass sat up straight. “Mr Coniff?”
“No. I’m Jeffrey Wise. I deal with his public relations affairs. Mr Coniff never speaks himself.”
Guy drummed the polished desktop, wishing he had ordered a malt whisky from room service. The air conditioning tasted toxic in his mouth. He continued. “Mr Wise, I really must speak to Mr Coniff personally. It’s an important police matter. Surely a minute or two would not be impossible?”
“As I said, he makes it a rule. I will help you, if I can.” The man was careful and precise. Guy continued. “Mr Wise, I want to extend my sympathy for the loss of Miss Montague and Mr Coniff’s baby.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“Marie Montague, the English actress found murdered yesterday in London? She was to announce her pregnancy, naming Mr Coniff.”
“You’re saying she has named Mr Coniff as the father?”
“To be announced in Hiya! magazine this Friday, Mr Wise.”
There was a long silence. The American replied quietly. “Detective Inspector, would you mind holding the line?”
Guy fiddled in his jacket pocket, checking his tiny tape recorder. He licked the black, rubber microphone sucker, sticking it to the earpiece. A new voice, deeper, more aggressive, and clearly from another State in the Union spoke, drawling his words.
“Royce. What’s all this about?”
Guy grinned. “Would this be Mr Coniff himself?”
“Yes it damn well would be, Royce. Now what do you want? Make it snappy.”
“I believe you knew Miss Montague? She visited you on February the ninth this year at your Beach Plaza apartment? And previously last November.”
“You’re well informed, Detective. Yes, I knew her. I know hundreds of actresses. I produce movies. What of it?”
“In London on Friday, Hiya! magazine will talk of her pregnancy. I believe she will name you as the father, Mr Coniff.”
“And she said that?”
“I believe she is going to be quoted, Mr Coniff.”
“Detective Inspector, where are you at this precise moment?”
“I’m at the Beverly Hills.”
“We will not speak over the phone. I’ll give you five minutes. Get a cab. Tell him to take you to Morton’s on Melrose Avenue. It’s off Santa Monica Boulevard. Make it snappy and buy a tie.”
The earpiece clicked and Guy was left holding the line. He fingered his necktie, positioned perfectly against his white collar. Henrietta laughed at his distress.
“Guy, the game’s on. We better find the pink lady.”
Marylou turned the Chevvy onto Melrose. “Morton’s is some joint. I make good money on Oscar nights there. You better make him pay, he can afford it.”
Guy smiled. “I don’t think he’ll be entertaining us. Not after what we’re going to ask him, Marylou. You’d better keep your engine running.”
“I always keep my motor running, pal. That’s why I’m so irresistible. You speak so nice he’ll think you’re the King of England. Go get him, limey.”
The white stucco, single-storey restaurant with a private courtyard was sited behind a wall of foliage, planted in outsized terracotta pots. A giant palm stood sentinel over the new arrivals. To let the cab stay, Guy waved away the valet parker with a ten-dollar bill. Henrietta checked her miniature camera, stowing it in her shoulder bag.
Guy scanned the discreet dining room, its tables widely spaced so that Hollywood producers, clustered in groups around the room, could not be overheard in their deal making.
“If money has a smell, Henri, this is what it smells like.”
The maître d’ guided them to a booth against the far wall. Sol Coniff Jr sat fingering a silver salt shaker at a table spread with cream, Irish linen. Upright and unsmiling, he wore a blue, silk suit expensively cut to emphasise his lean frame. His Californian tan was highlighted by a plain, white shirt and an olive-green tie. With each movement of his hand a thin, gold Oyster watch flashed under his white cuff. His immaculate black hair appeared to stand up unaided and Guy wondered whose it was. He was sure it was a weave.
Coniff stared with narrowed brown eyes, confronting Guy. He completely ignored Henrietta, and Guy was pleased, knowing she would wait for her opportunity. He thought Coniff could have been a movie star himself.
“Okay, Detective. Shoot.” The Texan drawled.
“I’m sorry if I’ve shocked you, Mr Coniff. I assumed you would know of her murder.”
He twisted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah, I know of it.”
“And her intention to name you as the father of her child? Am I right in saying that you and Miss Montague shared a close relationship?”
“I knew the lady, as I know a number of women. Planned parenthood comes from a monogamous relationship, Detective, not a close one. This was not one.”
“Would I be right, therefore, to say that you did not know of this pregnancy or plan for it, Mr Coniff?”
Coniff weighed up his words with care. Finally, he drawled. “Detective, all I will say to you is that Miss Montague had many men friends. Here in California and in the UK. I did not believe she and I were in an exclusive relationship. If she said she was pregnant by me then it was her choice. She chose to be a single mother. That is positively all I’m prepared to say. Goodbye to you.”
Henrietta took her chance, lifting the tiny Lumix to her eye, happy the flash was off.
“I’m sure you don’t mind me taking a picture, Mr Coniff? The ones we have of you are so bad.”
He stood, pointing. “Don’t you do that in here! You must leave now. Anton! These people are just leaving.”
Guy raised his palms to placate the advancing waiter. “Thank you for your time, Mr Coniff. We will go.”
He caught up with Henrietta as she headed for the pink Chevrolet. “Sorry you didn’t get a picture, Henri.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Who says I didn’t, Royce? Oldest trick in the book. I took it as I was asking him if I could take it. When he said no I just put the camera down. I love miniature Lumix. They’re so quiet!”