As I'm pulling from the gravel shoulder onto the blacktop, Eddy makes this sickly moan, eyeballing what's left of his orange MG. "There ain't enough of my baby to call a car no more!" he whines.
"Well, Eddy," I say, "pitting your English breezer up against my '38 Packard is kinda like a slug-out between Jack Dempsey and Mary Pickford, if you catch my drift. My trunk lid outweighs your whole tin jalopy, pal."
Eddy leans his American-Nazi mug out the open window, moaning as he watches his crunched-up ball of orange foil fading into the L.A. night. "Don't blame me," I say, turning the radio dial on the dashboard. "I never could've caught you if you hadn't decided to start playing pinball with that brick building." I find The Andrew Sisters doing their trademark harmony on 'You're in the Army Now', and lean back in my seat.
"I loved that car!" Eddy pouts, then goes quiet as a nun at a strip show.
We're rolling north on the Pacific Coast Highway a little after midnight. Benny Goodman comes on the radio doing a smooth version of 'Moonlight Serenade'. I've got just a swell spot in mind to exercise my persuading skills on this blond stooge. I have Eddy sporting steel clamps on his thick wrists. I always keep a pair of cuffs in my jockey box, just for emergencies.
"Where you taking me, Jim?" Eddy asks, squirming away on the seat next to me. "These cuffs are kinda tight! I won't run; I promise! Can Ya just take 'em offa me?"
"I could lose the wrist decorations," I grin, "but then I'd have to keep you covered with my gatt. I'm less likely to accidentally plug you with them charm bracelets on, so just sit back and enjoy the ride."
"Eddy looks worried. "You can't just take me out somewhere and shoot me! I got rights! You're a copper, ain't ya?"
"You, pal, are bumping gums with the one and only James R. Beam, but you should know that already, since you were the palooka listening in on me and Lola Fontaine last night, courtesy of that electric ear. You should also know I'm no flatfoot. Back in my young and foolish days, I did a hitch as a detective in the L.A. copper clubhouse, but now I got me an honest gig. Being that I am a private dick, if I did happen to take a notion to drive you out to the boon docks and plant your sorry carcass under the sagebrush, I wouldn't have all that pesky paperwork to ball- up my day." I make a left onto Hollywood Boulevard, rolling east. I turn to smile at him, "Private practice has all sorts of dandy perks in that regard."
"OK," Eddy starts, "I'll spill! I did try to ice you in the Fontaine dame's house Saturday night, and it was me listening in on the other end of that bug, but just for a pal, see? I don't know a bug from a radio. I was just promised a bundle to take you out if it sounded like that Fontaine looker was selling her murder story to ya, but I didn't plant no ear!"
Seeing that it's Monday morning, 1:00 AM, Hollywood Boulevard traffic is almost nil. I spin the big steering wheel and make a left on North Grover. What traffic there was thins out to just my trusty Packard and a few bats. "Hey, I don't like the looks of this, Beam!" Eddy almost blubbers. "There's nobody out here!"
"Can you eyeball it now?" I ask the shaky rube. "See that big sign on the hillside, spelling out HOLLYWOODLAND, with all the pretty light bulbs on the white letters?"
"Yeah, sure," he says. "I seen it a million times. So what?"
I make a right onto a short dirt road with the moniker of Temple Hill Road. Then I hang a left up another dirt road called North Beachwood. "Well, Eddy, a little farther up this cow trail and we'll be there. Everybody's seen the famous Hollywoodland sign, but you're gonna have the rare chance to get a gander from the backside, and real close-up."
"Are you off your trolley, Beam?" he squeaks. "Why you wanna take me all the way up here?"
"I'm going to clue you to a little Hollywood history, pal. And after all we've meant to each other, call me Jim." I take the steep, winding dirt road up to where it levels out on the top of a mesa, just to the right of the electric landmark. The lit-up sign is on the hillside, over the edge of the flat spot we're on. I park my jalopy and step out to stretch my bones.
I point over to the edge. "See that trail, Eddy? We're gonna mosey down that rocky trail right to the backside of those thirty-foot-wide letters and catch the breathtaking view of the valley. Bet you didn't know those letters stand fifty feet tall, did you?"
"Like I care!" he shoots back. "You go ahead!" Eddy tries to sound light-hearted. "I'm just gonna sit here and listen to the radio, if you don't mind."
I open the passenger door and cross my arms over the frame, peering down at him. "Here's what I know," I start. "You showed up at Johnny Reeso's nightclub, flashing a badge and going into some undercover Fed act. You lay out a load of heavy sugar, along with the promise to help him beat a racketeering rap if he can get a bug planted for you."
"How do you know that?" Eddy squeaks.
I shrug. "I'm a detective, remember? Try to keep up, Eddy. Then he sends you with Frankie Fingers to go ear shopping at Louie the Echo's electronics shop, since Fingers is the best B&E man Johnny has on the payroll. You might as well sing for me," I encourage. "When I told Reeso you were a ringer and nobody's Fed, he rolled on you, pal. You never should have slipped him your right moniker. Of course, if I hadn't noticed movements outside Miss Fontaine's sliding glass door and managed to tap dance around your little chopper fireworks display, I never would have been breathing to compare notes with Reeso and you'd be in tall cotton right now."
I let that sink into his thick skull for a minute before I go on. "What I don't get is why you came up with that alibi about working undercover inside the German-American Bund. That was kind of a stupid connection to make for Reeso. Why even mention the Kraut outfit?"
Schultz lets out a long sigh. "I showed him my membership card to convince him I was investigating 'em from the inside." Eddy's pan scrunches up in what must be his version of thinking. "Say, is that how you tracked me down at the Sundowner? How'd ya Know I'd be there, anyway? Did Betty squeal?"
"Betty who?" I answer. "I just asked around about gin mills that might be haunted by the brown-shirt crowd and started to nose around. That's called detecting. What I want from you is a line on who supplied you with the mazuma to buy the services of Johnny Reeso. I'm laying odds it's the same mug who greased your palm to fit me for a Chicago overcoat last night."
Eddy finds something interesting to study in the shadows on the floorboard. "Just some guy I met at the race track, honest! He didn't give no name and I didn't ask. He just happened to mention he'd done a stretch at Alcatraz, and I happened to mention I did a nickle for manslaughter there. One thing leads to another and he asks me if I'd be interested in picking up some change watching the Granger house. He said he knew the Fontaine dame was shopping around for a shamus to help her prove her old man didn't pull his own cord. The guy told me to buzz him if she found any takers. I said sure. That's when I went to Reeso. After Fingers planted the bug, I spent a week camped out in my car, just down the street. When I heard you acting interested in proving Phillip Granger didn't bump himself off, I drove to a pay phone and told this guy about it. He said there'd be another five grand in it for me if I stopped your clock."
"And, just how do you get in touch with this mysterious benefactor with no name?" I ask the fidgety Schultz.
"I dunno," says he. "He calls me. The guy didn't give me no number. Turns out, the first number was just a nightclub where the guy hung out. He just happened to be there when I called, so I didn't hafta leave no message. He said he'd slip the dough through the mail slot in my front door later that night."
I grab the schmuck by the coat collar and yank him out of my bucket. I give him a rough shove toward the trail. "Now, I know you aren't going to be picking up the Nobel Peace Prize anytime soon," I say, prodding Eddy toward the edge, "but even you aren't dumb enough to risk a murder jacket 'cause some no-name palooka said he'd drop by and play Santa if you came through with a stiff for him." I poke my heater in his back to encourage him to start down the narrow path.
"I'm telling you the truth, Beam!" Eddy pleads as we get down to the level where the backside of the giant H hovers over us. "What's the story on dragging me up here?"
"I just thought the view from up here might clear up that fuzzy memory of yours, pal. Ever hear of an actress with the handle of Peg Entwistle?"
Eddy turns to face me with the bright lights of the sign flooding over his sweaty pan. "Yeah, I heard of her. She bumped herself off a few years back, right?"
"Give the man a cigar!" I look at him like a proud poppa. "Yeah, she was in a lot of stage plays and a few flickers with the likes of Bogart, Myna Loy, Irene Dunne and all those big Hollywood star types. Her future looked pretty rosy until most of her footage started winding up on the cutting room floor all of a sudden. The poor thing lived way down the hill from this very sign on Beachwood Drive. One night back in '32, she told her uncle Harold she was going for a walk into Beachwood to meet up with some friends. What Peg really did was climb that hill, all the way up here."
"What's that to me?" says Eddy. "I don't get it!"
"You will, pal," I assure him. "See those horizontal crossbars going up the back of these letters? That's so the workmen can climb up and replace burnt-out bulbs. Well, poor Peg climbed the bars on that big H right behind you. She stood right in the middle of that H, then she took a swan dive down to the rocks below."
Eddy spins around to gander at the jynxed letter, then looks at me like I'm the monster from under his bed. "Here's the kicker, Eddy boy," I continue. "This poor kid who got chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood dream factory was laying on a slab when a letter was delivered to her home the very next day from the Beverly Hills Playhouse. They were offering her a lead role in a play about a dame who gets driven to suicide. Now, ain't that the raspberries?"
"What do you want from me?" Schultz says, with tears leaking from both peepers. "I told you all I know, honest to God!"
"Start climbing, Eddy," I say real low. "Maybe when you're up there and get an eyeful of the swell view, you'll find out you know a little more than you think you do."