Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
A Few Minutes Past Midnight
Stuart M. Kaminsky
Open Road Integrated Media Ebook
This book is dedicated to Alysha, Allison, and Bill Wargo
my back against the cool headstone over the grave of one Samuel Sidney Talevest. It was dark. It was cold and somewhere in the night a man with my gun and a flashlight was looking for me.
His plan was simple: to kill me and get what I had in my pocket. My plan was simple: to stay alive. One of us was not going to be happy.
I could make out headstones and a few trees. Maybe a few feet behind the headstone my back was against, he stood waiting, listening. Something slithered through the nearby grass. I held my breath.
Then, footsteps. At least I thought I heard footsteps. They were behind me. I couldn’t tell how far. Suddenly I saw the beam of his flashlight to my left. It swept from left to right and then moved forward. He was systematically going down each row, looking behind each stone.
The cemetery wasn’t small, but it wasn’t as big as I would have liked. And the stone wall around the place was about ten feet high. On my best day, at the age of eighteen, I couldn’t have made it up and over that wall. Pushing fifty with a sore ankle, my chances hadn’t improved.
I didn’t see how things could get much worse.
Then it started to rain.
He didn’t have all night to look. The police would be coming soon. But he was moving fast now and the odds were good that he would get to me before the cavalry arrived.
I had a little time to try to come up with something. I couldn’t. I could have done a lot of things differently. I should have done a lot of things differently.
You can make up your own mind about that.
It had all started four days ago.
T WAS A
few minutes past midnight,” Charlie Chaplin had told me sitting in an overstuffed chair in his living room.
He was wearing dark slacks, a white knit sweater, and tennis shoes. He twirled a tennis racket in his hands as he spoke. His thick, mostly white head of curly hair needed a trim. Chaplin looked at the racket and then turned his tired blue eyes to me before continuing in precise, clearly spoken words with just a hint of an English accent as he paced the living room of his house in Bel Air.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he continued. “I don’t sleep at all well when I’m working on a new film or considering one for that matter. I happened to be sitting on the stairs near the Chinese gong on the first landing. I heard a knock. Distinct, five times, not loud. I wondered how my visitor had gotten past the gate. Given my recent problems, Mr. Peters, I’ve been rather more bothered by the press and the morbidly curious.”
“Call me Toby,” I said.
“I shall,” said Chaplin not telling me what to call him. “Mr. Chaplin” would be fine for now.
He paused and looked at me, trying to decide if I was the right bill of goods. I had met him briefly once before while working on a case. I was surprised he had remembered my name and called me. Maybe I make a better impression than I think I do. Maybe. He was silent, studying me. I knew what he was looking at.
Seated in the chair across from him was a rumpled private detective with a battered face and flattened nose, a forty-eight-year-old wreck with dark hair beginning to show gray. A wreck with a bad back and some bills to pay.
I’m a good listener. I know how to keep secrets. I’m not the brightest you can buy, but I come relatively cheap and I don’t give up on a client. I also know when to keep my mouth shut.
“I opened the door,” Chaplin went on, apparently satisfied with what he saw. “There he stood, a slight man about forty years old, drenched, dark hair hanging over his eyes and in his right hand he held a singularly sinister and quite long-bladed knife, almost a sword really. I should have been afraid I suppose. The effect was worthy of theatrical appreciation—especially since there had been no rain. That was the perfect touch.”
Chaplin was still pacing. He took a halfhearted overhand stroke with his racket. Fanny Brice or Baby Sandy could have returned it for a kill.
“I should have been afraid,” said Chaplin, continuing to pace. “Perhaps at some level I was. But I was transfixed. It was as if I had been expecting him or someone like him.”
“You have enemies,” I prompted when Chaplin paused.
“Enemies,” he said with a sigh. “You read the newspapers?” The question was accompanied by an arch of his right eyebrow.
“To say that I have enemies would be an understatement,” he sighed. “Were my enemies to form a military unit, they would be quite a formidable military presence, at least in numbers if not in fighting ability.”
He stopped, tucked his racket under his arm and began a countdown with his fingers. I fished the notebook out of my jacket, found my pencil that had already made its pointed way an inch into the lining, and began to take notes. I made a big “One” with a circle and a dash and waited.
“As you may know, I’ve just been married,” he said. “My wife Oona, the daughter of …”
“Eugene O’Neill,” I supplied.
Chaplin nodded. I knew his Mexican divorce from Paulette Goddard had gone through about a year ago. I knew a lot of things about Chaplin.
“Oona is eighteen,” Chaplin said. “I have had, shall we say, semi-public relationships with a variety of young women.”
We shall say, I thought. Some of those women were as young as sixteen.
“There are people who have been most vituperative about my marriages,” he said. “And particularly hostile toward my current one. Fans of O’Neill, religious fanatics, moralists who know nothing of reality or our relationship have condemned me. I very much love my wife. I anticipate a large family and a reasonably happy future with Oona should I survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the occasional soaking wet and knife-wielding lunatic at my front door.”
“You told her what happened?”
He closed his eyes again for an instant, smiled, and shook his head “no.”
“Fortunately, at the moment she is attending a family funeral in Connecticut,” he said.
“So,” he said, “let us list some of those who might wish me harm. We begin with the fanatic fans of my father-in-law who, between us and in the confines of this room, himself has had more than an occasional attraction to quite young women. I’m sorry.” He bowed his head. “That was petty of me. Would you like some tea?”
“No thanks,” I said.
“And so,” he continued, “one finger down for his lunatic fans.”
One finger went down for the fans of Eugene O’Neill who were to be counted among those who might not be happy with Chaplin.
“Next,” he said, standing before me. “Joan Barry.”
I knew about Joan Barry but I kept my mouth shut. He had become involved with her a few months after his divorce from Paulette Goddard became final.
“Miss Barry was a … protégée of mine,” he said. “A star-struck girl from Brooklyn. I was introduced to her by way of a letter of introduction from John Paul Getty who, as I understood it, knew her as a waitress. I tried to work with her, but she simply did not have the talent.”
The way the newspapers told it—and they told it a lot—Barry, who was twenty-two or twenty-three, had had two abortions while she was with Chaplin. He’d dumped her a little over a year ago. She was pregnant again. This time she took Chaplin to court. Two months before this moment in Chaplin’s living room, a jury had found against Chaplin despite the fact that blood tests proved he wasn’t the father. The
Los Angeles Times
and newspapers around the world carried photographs of a glum Chaplin being fingerprinted.
“She came here, to this house, about ten or eleven months ago with a gun she had purchased in a pawnshop,” Chaplin said. “I persuaded her to leave and filed an injunction against her and took her to court. She was given a train ticket out of town and a hundred dollars. She returned seven months ago, broke into this house and …”
“And?” I prompted when he paused.
“Let’s move on,” he said. “As a matter of deep conviction, last year I addressed a meeting in Madison Square Garden in New York calling for a second front in Europe to aid the Russians. I demanded that England and the United States attack from the west while Russia fought desperately, her back against the wall. Many people thought it was not my place to make such a plea. I then spoke at Carnegie Hall saying, more or less as I recall, ‘Now is the best time for a second front while the Hun is so busy in Russia.’
“And then at an Arts in Russia Week dinner at the Hotel Pennsylvania I urged elimination of anti-Communist propaganda in the interest of winning the war. Since our allies do not object to our own ideas and form of government, I do not think it proper to object to theirs. While the attack on me came as no surprise, the level was overwhelming.”
A second finger went down.
“That is for the fanatical anti-Communists who do not even recognize their own self-interest let alone the humanity of others. If Germany takes Russia, the Nazis will gain access to a new oil supply. This could result in extending the war for years. I’ll try to be brief with the remaining seven,” he said. “I’ve never become a citizen of the United States. I do not even consider myself English. I am, as I have said publicly and often, a citizen of the world. There are those who claim that while America has made me wealthy, I have no reservations about criticizing this country’s policies even though I am not a citizen. Thus, I am that most dreaded of wartime creatures, a peacemonger. That is, I criticize all policies that do not lead to peace.”
Even Stalin’s? I wanted to ask.
His eyes were fixed on me as the third finger went down.
“Even those of Russia when appropriate,” he said, reading my face. “I am not a communist with a small or large ‘c.’ I belong to no party. I understand I shall be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee because of my views. It was my impression that a person was free to say what he or she thought in the United States as long as he did not cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. But times change. In war, rights and principles are often forgotten or their existence suspended in the name of defense. It seems to me that we are most in need of those rights precisely when they are being most threatened. I was under the impression that it was those rights for which the United States and its allies were fighting. But I’m lecturing. Please forgive me. Shall we continue?”
“I was a supporter of Henry Wallace—an outspoken supporter. Enough said?”
I nodded again. A fourth finger went down. Wallace was not on the list of most beloved people in the United States.
“I have repeatedly declared that I am not a Jew,” he went on. “Being Jewish is a matter of religion and conviction and, to some degree, heritage. My Jewish heritage is tenuous at best. I could simply be quiet. I choose not to be. There are people, not only Jewish people, who do not like my speaking out on such a delicate subject.”
A fifth finger went down and he looked into my eyes. I looked back.
I was born Tobias Leo Pevsner. Jewish. I changed my name before I became a cop. My brother Phil, still a cop, is still a Pevsner. I didn’t hide the fact that I was born Jewish. I just didn’t advertise it. I didn’t practice the religion and I didn’t feel any connection to the tradition. I bought into the melting pot when I was a kid. It was a point of friction, one among many, between my brother and me.
“On to six,” Chaplin said, looking from his now-clenched right fist to his left. “A man named Konrad Bercovici sued me recently claiming that I had stolen the idea for
The Great Dictator
from him, that he had submitted a proposal for a similar idea to me, and that I had returned it and then had made the film. I denied it on the stand, but my lawyers advised me to settle out of court. I did so with great reluctance. Expedience is sometimes essential in this one and only world.”
“You think Bercovici …”
“No, I do not,” said Chaplin. “He seemed quite content with the settlement, as well he should have been. But there may have been those who knew him or of him who … madness is often difficult to find by applying nonmad methods of thinking.”
Finger six came down. Chaplin examined the four remaining fingers. His hands were small, delicate, and very clean.
“Since the outbreak of war,” he said. “I have had hundreds of threats relayed by mail and phone, on the streets, and in the newspapers and on the radio. Mr. Westbrook Pegler seems particularly and morbidly interested in securing my deportation.”
“You think Westbrook Pegler …?”
“No,” said Chaplin. “I think it possible that someone who reads Westbrook Pegler might not have the columnist’s journalistic restraint.”
Finger seven folded.