The Gatsby Game by Anne R. Allen by Anne R. Allen - Read Online

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The Gatsby Game - Anne R. Allen

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Allen

Part 1—1973

Taft, California

Chapter 1: THE CORPSE IN THE MOVIE STAR’S BEDROOM

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Some people still think I’m a terrible person because I didn’t call the police right away. If I had, we might have avoided one of Hollywood’s most notorious sex scandals, and I wouldn’t have spent a lifetime living down the whole killer nanny thing.

But seriously, when I saw Alistair lying on the floor of Delia Kent’s motel room that night in 1973, I had no clue I was looking at a corpse. The room was dark, and I didn’t see any blood on that brown shag carpet. I thought Alistair was sleeping off the Mandrax he’d stolen from Delia’s medicine cabinet.

I admit the floor of your boss’s motel room is not the place most people would choose to take a nap, but Alistair Milbourne was nothing like most people—people outside of a Fitzgerald novel anyway.

Besides, I’d have been insane to wake him. He might have started throwing me around the room the way he’d done to Delia earlier that night.

For those of you too young to remember, this took place during the filming of Guido Malatesta’s Oscar-winning opus The Vast Inland Sea, in the California oil town of Taft, previously known as Moron.

Really. I’m not making up a word of this. You can read it all in Delia’s bio on Wikipedia. But of course it won’t tell you the whole story.

That’s because I’m the only one who knows the truth.

The night’s dramas started when Alistair and Delia got into a noisy brouhaha after the day’s shoot. I tried to ignore it: those two were always going at it. But when it escalated to thumps and crashes, I phoned her co-star, Sam Calhoun. (Yum. He really was that hot in those days, even without the rug.) Then I yelled at the connecting door to tell them Sam was on his way.

That quieted them down fast. I heard a couple of door-slams a few minutes apart—probably Alistair leaving and/or Sam arriving. Then nothing.

I figured maybe I’d overreacted, because few minutes later, Delia came into my room—wearing a little more make-up than usual for off-camera—but otherwise looking fine. She wanted to give little Pandora a kiss goodnight and tell me she and Sam were going to party at a local roadhouse with the roughneck extras.

I was pretty sure Alistair had gone back to his room to sulk. He was not into cowboy bars and loathed Sam. Alistair was supposed to be Delia’s business manager, but he acted like a Victorian chaperone. He claimed this was out of loyalty to her husband, Sir Thomas, but I never bought it. Loyalty was never Alistair’s strong point. He swore he’d never bedded Delia himself, but he probably lied about that.

In fact, the one thing you could count on with Alistair was that he was lying about something. That was a good deal of his charm. He was such an obvious phony, you kept thinking he was being ironic—that any minute he’d drop the act and get real. And every so often he would. That’s how he hooked you. He’d make you think you were special enough to be in on his joke.

After Delia and Sam left, I spent the next hour or so trying to get Pandora to sleep. Normally, she’d have drifted off after I’d read her a few pages of Winnie the Pooh—she was a nanny’s dream—but hearing all that violence had terrified her. Our suite connected with Delia’s, so poor Pandora had heard every scream, thump and crunch through that thin door.

Pandora was in no mood for bed, and insisted I get out her toy xylophone, so she could spend an hour or so inflicting unmusical plunkitude on the denizens of the Knight’s Rest Motel. I figured it was early enough in the evening to let her pound away some of her little five-year-old angst.

After I finally got her to sleep and put her precious noisemaker away, I readied for bed myself and turned on the TV. I was trying to mellow out with a Beefeaters and tonic—the violence had shaken me up too.

Then Alistair himself showed up at my door.

He had a black eye and a bunch of cuts on his face. I was amazed that Delia had done that much damage with her tiny fists, especially since she’d survived unscarred, but I pretended not to notice. He couldn’t have been happy that I’d called Sam, so I figured it was best to avoid the subject.

Luckily, Alistair didn’t seem to want to talk. He gave me a sloppy kiss and asked if I had any downers. I had no desire to part with my last four Quaaludes, so I avoided the question and offered to go get ice to make him a gin and tonic.

He took a gulp of mine.

It isn’t Schweppes, is it? You know I can’t drink any tonic but Schweppes.

It’s all they had at the 7-11. I gave him an eye roll and sat back down to watch the rest of the Mod Squad.

But I should have known better. Alistair went into snark mode.

Are you going for the hippie grandmother look? He had a way of curling his lip that was pure melodrama-villain. That outfit makes you look like Ruth Gordon on acid.

I stuck out my tongue and pulled my Laura Ashley robe closer. Secretly I was relieved he wasn’t expecting sex. It was kind of understood I owed it to him because he got me the nanny gig, but oh geez, he was boring in bed. For a professional ladies’ man, he didn’t exactly have professional-grade equipment.

That’s not kind. I should add that his sexual inadequacies hadn’t kept me from falling madly in love with the man. But I was pretty much over it by then.

He stepped between me and the TV, and I could feel his anger from the Delia-fight beginning to erupt again. A little scary. I’d never known him to get violent before. So I told him I might have one ’lude I could give him, but he’d have to replace it because I got it off a college friend and had no idea how to score out here in the middle of a California oil field.

He gave one of his phony Cary Grant laughs.

Quaaludes? Not that garbage. I need Mandrax, the English sleeping pills.

The man was born in New Jersey, but he believed in the superiority of all things Brit. As he smoothed the sleeve of his linen jacket, he winced, as if maybe his forearm was hurting. He had a suitcase full Savile Row bespoke suits, which he often wore even in this heat, but he’d been wearing a blue Izod shirt earlier in the evening. I found it odd that he’d put on the Ritz for a drug run to the room of lowly moi.

Quaaludes are second rate. Mandrax is far better. He softened his tone a little. You know I need the best, Nicky.

Oh, yeah, I knew he needed the best. That’s why he didn’t need me. As he often let me know during the four months we dated in college.

I was one of the academic Harvard Conways, not the boat-building Kennebunkport Conways. I found out later he only asked me out because he wanted to get closer my cousin Wogs, who was in line to inherit all those damned canoes. Too bad she only liked girls.

I mean too bad for Alistair. Not too bad for Wogs, who was saved the annoyance of falling in love with him, so she could be loyal to me through the whole mess. Most of my other friends were sure I killed him. Probably because they wished they had. At one time or another he had let every one of them know they weren’t the best either.  

But Delia Kent was the best. Ever since her debut, at age nineteen, in the London stage version of The Great Gatsby, with Richard Burton, Delia was everybody’s idea of perfection: a luminous English rose with a sassy-urchin smile and an ethereal, almost weightless presence that made every male on the planet want to bang her. Luckily, she was saved, after a particularly nasty run-in with Elizabeth Taylor, by marriage to Sir Thomas Hume, the director, who not only had a title and an unassailable reputation, but a huge, remote country house where Delia could be tucked well away from further scandal.

But at the moment, Sir Thomas was back in Bedfordshire; Delia was here in the sizzling Central California Valley; and Alistair seemed to think it was his job to prevent a repeat of the Burton mess—this time thwarting a liaison between Delia and Sam, who was as charismatic and reckless as Burton, and marginally more sober.

Delia was screwing Sam anyway, of course, which is why it all turned into such an epic scandal. But I don’t put her down for it. Sam oozed a primal sexual magic that spoke to some pre-evolutionary place in the female psyche.

Plus, hey, they were in Taft. What else were they going to do?

They were doing their best to keep their thing secret, and Delia only told me because I needed to know where to find her if Pandora had one of her homesick nightmares that only a visit from Mummy could soothe.

Delia has tons of Mandrax, but she won’t open her door, Alistair said.

That’s when I realized what this was about. He wanted another round with Delia. But I was pretty sure she was still with Sam—either at the roadhouse, or in his room.

Alistair kept blocking my view of the television.

Is she in there, or has she gone slumming with the yokels again?

A cut on his cheek was still bleeding. Delia must have thrown something pretty big to inflict that. Probably the crash I’d heard.

I made a sign he should shush and pointed to the door of Pandora’s room. I did not want to have this discussion. We’d had it nearly every night since I’d arrived in Taft three weeks before.

Let me have the key to her room, Nicky. Alistair pointed to the door that linked our suite with Delia’s. I’ve got to get some sleep. I have a headache from hell.

Judging from his split cheek and the purplish lump rising on his forehead, I surmised the headache came not from the netherworld, but Delia’s lamp-hurling. But I wasn’t going to bring up the subject, for fear of rekindling his anger.

I reminded myself I was just the help. It was not my place to pry.

He’d never been physically violent with me, but then, I’d never known him to be violent with Delia, either. Words had always been his weapon of choice.

I heard Pandora whimper in her bed, so I shushed Alistair again. Pandora detested him and I didn’t blame her. He competed with her for her mother’s time like some overgrown toddler.

Nicky. Please. I’m in agony. Alistair’s tone switched from bully to victim. His whining was more pathetic than Pandora’s. It got me every time.

So I did it. I may have made worse decisions in my sixty-plus years of life, but none have had more dire consequences: I unlocked the connecting door.

Maybe I thought if Alistair took a Mandrax, he wouldn’t start another fight with Delia and we could all get some sleep. Maybe I didn’t think at all. He’d been getting me to do whatever he wanted for nearly four years.

I checked on Pandora, finished watching faux hippies save the world from the scourge of recreational drugs, took half a Quaalude, and went to sleep.

***

At about four that morning, Pandora launched herself onto my bed, crying for her mother. I pushed druggy sleep from my brain and tried to soothe her, but nothing worked. When she started screaming for her xylophone, I figured I’d better wake Delia. Better her than the entire clientele of the Knight’s Rest Motel.

So I opened the door—Alistair had left it unlocked—and tiptoed into Delia’s room, avoiding the broken lamp shards on the floor. I saw the bed hadn’t been slept in, and was about to phone Sam’s room when Pandora rushed in, banging her xylophone, demanding an audience for her latest mutilation of the Beatles catalogue. My focus was entirely on keeping the noise down, so it took me a moment to realize Pandora was addressing Alistair, not her absent mother.

He lay on the floor, half in and half out of the bathroom.

People call me a liar when I say I thought he was asleep, but this is what I figured happened: he’d parked himself in Delia’s room, hoping to confront her about Sam again, and he’d just finished taking a leak when the Mandrax kicked in and he’d keeled over. Downers had that effect on me, too. One minute I’d be going strong and the next I was asleep, face down in my popcorn, like somebody had flipped a switch.

So I told Pandora we had to be quiet and let Alistair finish his nap and promised that I’d get Mummy to listen to her play Maxwell’s Silver Hammer in the morning. I tucked her back in bed, put the xylophone in the toy drawer, and sank back into my be-’luded sleep, oblivious to the disaster that had descended upon us all.

Chapter 2: HOLLYWOOD PEOPLE

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Loud pounding on the outside door woke me. My bedside clock said nine-fifteen. I’d overslept, which meant I’d missed the catering truck and I’d have to pay for greasy eggs in the motel coffee shop. My stomach growled as I stumbled to open the door.

Delia was leaning against the door jamb, looking a bit ragged.

Sorry. Can’t find my bloody key. She gave me one of her little-kid grins. How do you do it, Nicky? You look like a dewy fucking virgin in the morning. She pushed past me and eyed her own image in my mirror. I, on the other hand, look like bollocks. Don’t tell me I don’t.

I laughed. She had a way of dropping salty language into her plummy aristocratic speech that sounded whimsical rather than offensive. She didn’t actually look that bad considering last night’s battle. She had bed-hair and a blackened eye, but she didn’t look anywhere near as beat-up as Alistair. Clearly, she’d been the victor.

She pointed at Pandora’s still-closed door. So you and Pandora overslept, too? Sam forgot to set the alarm.

Her eyes took on a panicked look for a moment, as she glanced at the bathroom door.

I promised a mother-daughter breakfast, but I’m already late for make-up. I’d rather she didn’t see me like this...

She trailed off, still staring in the direction of the bathroom.

He’s not here, is he—Alistair?

I shook my head.

Relief lit up her face.

I’m not up to dealing with him this morning. He probably told you we had an awful row last night. He can be so impossible, can’t he? He does insist on fucking with my head. You know—saying something one minute and denying it the next? He made me so furious I hit him. And he hit me back. He turns into such a child. But he’ll be feeling terrible remorse this morning. He always does. But sometimes that’s worse than the row.

She grabbed my arm and gave me a pleading look.

You’ve got to get him to understand—he has to stop fucking with me like that. I need to concentrate on this bitch of a role. Can you tell him?

I nodded yes, although I had no intention of actually doing so.

Delia seemed to think I had influence with Alistair because of our history, but his relationships didn’t work that way. You had to prove yourself in every encounter as if you were meeting him for the first time. No rollover points.

Delia gave a quick peek into Pandora’s room.

I’m glad she’s still asleep. Just tell her it will have to be lunch. I must run and have a quick shower.

She pushed past me toward the connecting door.

I might have warned her, but it never occurred to me Alistair might still be in there. I thought he’d have woken up got his drugged posterior back to his room

Delia’s screams could have waked the entire population of Kern County.

They certainly woke Pandora, who let off her own wails. I ran into Pandora’s room, shutting the door after me, trying to minimize the kid’s trauma with soothing talk.

***

That’s why I didn’t find out about Alistair until Sam came pounding on the door about fifteen minutes later. When I opened it, Sam was gray under his movie-star tan.

I was letting Pandora soothe herself by banging on the xylophone, but the noise was obviously not soothing to Sam.

For God’s sake stop that racket!

He grabbed the toy and turned on me, his face crazy-mad.

He’s dead, you little tramp. Don’t you get it? Your boyfriend is dead.

Pandora let out a wail.

I didn’t get what he was saying right away, because I didn’t really think of Alistair as my boyfriend. And I was upset at being called a tramp. I hate to admit it, but that’s what was going on in my head: Sam Calhoun called me a tramp. I felt like he’d slapped me.

Pandora escalated her howling and Delia rushed in—having retrieved the xylophone from Sam. She was trailing a couple of policemen and not making much sense.

It was hard to hear Delia once Pandora went back to kerplunking, but it sounded as if Delia had found Alistair lying pretty much where I’d left him on the bathroom floor. She’d tried to wake him and discovered he wasn’t breathing. After vocalizing her shock, she’d phoned Sam. Sam came running, then called Guido. Guido called the police.

One of Delia’s policemen led her out again and the other—an Officer Odom—started asking me questions. He had beady rat-eyes that stared right into you and made it clear they didn’t approve of what they saw. He kept calling us you Hollywood people.

I pointed out I was a Bryn Mawr English major doing some nannying before I started at Harvard graduate school in the fall, and the closest I’d been to Hollywood was the layover at LAX on the way here. But this only seemed to increase his disapproval.

Mostly I tried to ignore him. My focus was on soothing Pandora. She’d burrowed under the covers the way she did after one of her nightmares. I petted her through the blankets.

When Officer Odom finally left, I sang her all four verses of Rocky Raccoon, trying to drown out Delia, who was getting hysterical. She was dropping f-bombs and telling everyone within hearing range that Alistair had committed suicide in her room to fuck with her.

I wished somebody would calm her down, since she was obviously in shock. She wouldn’t have been screaming like that if she’d been fully aware Pandora could hear every word. Besides, I knew there was no way Alistair had killed himself. It’s not that he wasn’t capable of suicide—he threatened it weekly.

But he wasn’t depressed that night.

Pissed off—yes; homicidal—maybe. But not in a mood to shuffle off his mortal coil.

But everybody kept blathering on about suicide. When I finally got Pandora to quiet down by feeding her the remains of a bag of stale M&Ms, I could hear Delia and Sam and Guido talking with investigators. It sounded as if they’d found Alistair with the bottle of Mandrax clutched in his hand. The consensus seemed to be that he’d OD’d—probably on purpose. The men apparently figured if they had to face going through life as Alistair Milbourne, they’d kill themselves too.

Or maybe it was just that a coroner’s ruling of suicide was going to be more convenient for everybody concerned.

Only two of us were not going along with the suicide talk—me and Officer Odom. I was pretty sure Alistair had O.D.’d by accident, and Officer Odom seemed to think he’d been murdered. He kept telling the coroner’s team they were part of a murder investigation, even though the other cops kept calling Alistair the suicide. Apparently harmony did not reign in the Taft law enforcement community.

I got Pandora dressed and she immediately ran to her mother, whimpering about needing to go potty. Delia gave me a reproving look, as if I’d been purposely keeping her daughter from making regular bowel movements. She gave me a dismissive sniff as she led her daughter into the bathroom.

Sam and Guido took off, and Officer Odom went to Delia’s room to talk to the coroner’s investigators. They left the connecting door open, so I was able to get a peek inside. I don’t know why I looked. I guess I couldn’t believe Alistair was really dead.

He looked exactly the same as he had last night—lying on his stomach, with his legs on the amber tiles near the toilet and his head resting on the brown shag carpet of the bedroom. My first thought was how upset he’d have been by the wrinkled state of his linen suit.

But I noticed something odd. A prescription bottle lay near his hand, as everybody had been saying. The top was off—one of those child-proof ones that are as hard to put back on as they are to take off—and pills were scattered on the floor and on his sleeve. That was weird: the pills on top of the sleeve, nestled in the wrinkles. Hard for him to do by himself. Could Officer Odom be right about murder? At least I could see it wasn’t suicide. There were lots of pills scattered around. Some still in the bottle. If you want to kill yourself with pills, you swallow enough to do it right.

Alistair always wanted things done right. It was like a disease with him.

I stood in the doorway, unable to look away. He looked so crumpled and pale and—well, dead—that I started to tear up. Delia came from behind me and put her hand on my arm. I turned and hugged her and she sobbed into my shoulder. I was fairly plump in those days, and a head taller than Delia—what they used to call Junoesque—so I had good crying-on shoulders. That scene is still vivid in my memory—how fragile she felt—and how we clung to each other, weeping for Alistair, and for our own loss. It was the last moment of real trust and friendship we had.

The mood changed when Officer Odom sauntered back in and said he wanted to speak to Delia in private. That was fine with me, since Pandora needed one of us acting normal. By the time she emerged from the bathroom, I’d pulled myself together. I took her back into the little bedroom and read about how Pooh got stuck in Rabbit’s house and had to starve until he was thin enough to wriggle out. My hungry stomach provided real rumbles to illustrate the story.

A few minutes later, Officer Odom burst in.

Let me get one thing straight, Miss Conway... He slicked back his Brylcremed hair—Taft seemed to exist permanently in the year 1958—and said, you stated that you were Mr. Milbourne’s girlfriend?

I didn’t state it, but I’d nodded yes when he asked me the first time, so I nodded again. We’ve dated on and off since my freshman year. He got me this job.

And how did you feel about your boyfriend having relations with Delia Kent?

The question was absurd—as well as wildly inappropriate with Pandora there—and I told him so.

Are you deaf, miss? His little rat eyes bored into me. She’s been screaming for the last hour about how he liked to fornicate with her.

I was about to explain that Delia’s use of the f word was strictly metaphorical when Guido came rushing in.

I have been on the phone with the studio lawyers, he said. They say the nanny should shut up. All of us should shut up. Sorry officer, but this interview is over.

I don’t know if Guido ever knew my name. He always called me the nanny, and after that, everybody did. In the awful article in Variety the next day I was the vacuous blonde nanny.

It made me furious at the time, but being the stupid, anonymous blonde saved me a lot of trouble later on. Very few people ever knew an heir to Conway Industries had any connection with the case.

But poor Delia’s name will be linked with Alistair’s until the day she dies.

Chapter 3: A MAN WILLING TO BE HONEST

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Pretty soon after the cops left, a team of lawyers arrived in a big black limo and Guido told us to pack up to go back to L.A. He said they’d worked out something with the local coroner that would allow us to give our sworn testimony in L.A. so we didn’t have to stick around for weeks waiting for the inquest—which Guido kept calling the inquisition.

Guido announced he was going to finish filming on the studio back lot, even though some of the scenes would have to be re-shot. He was apparently willing to sacrifice artistic vision in order to get the hell out of Taft.

I was totally with him on that, although I would have liked some breakfast first.

*** 

Our time in L.A. was surreal—like living in a TV reality show.

Growing up an academic household, I was never much into celebrity culture, so I was totally unprepared for the media army waiting to assault us when we arrived. Sam Calhoun was an A-list leading man in those days, which meant every time he farted,