A Novel Noir
J. M. Zen
By three methods we may learn wisdom:
By reflection, which is the noblest;
By imitation, which is the easiest;
By experience, which is the bitterest.
Confucius (551–479 BC)
Tadao Matsui worried about his wife. Keiko had always been thin and delicate, but in recent months she seemed to become even more frail. She’d always preferred to be inside a building rather than in the garden. Being out in the open made her uneasy and nervous. Over the years she attended fewer and fewer picnics, parties and social gatherings. And if she would not go, then neither would he. It made for an isolated existence, but they had their work on the Lutz estate and, of course, their daughter, Rose. It was a good life.
He watched Keiko as she leaned into the light, sewing a dress for Mrs. Lutz. Her fingers moved quickly as she made barely visible stitches in the filmy fabric. From this angle she looked like the girl he’d married twenty years ago. He still had the photograph that the baishakunin, the matchmaker, had sent for his approval. From the moment he’d seen her dear, sweet face, he’d known that Keiko was the one for him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing. Can’t I look at my wife and smile anymore?”
She shook her head and tried to create a severe expression, but didn’t quite manage it. A fugitive smile peeked out. “Mrs. Lutz wants this for tomorrow. Stop distracting me.”
“I didn’t say a word.”
“Put on the radio and we can listen to that.”
He did as she asked. The Lone Ranger was once again on the trail of evildoers. Tadao tried to listen. Other thoughts weighed in. Tadao knew the worry and uncertainty since Pearl Harbor had exacerbated his wife’s fears. Keiko hesitated before she ventured out the front door. Sometimes she’d stand there swaying for minutes at a time and it was with a visible effort that she’d close the door and almost run to the main house. It broke Tadao’s heart to see her this way.
How would she cope if they had to leave this place? Tadao didn’t know what to do.
“Tadao! Wake up!”
A hand shook his shoulder and in the darkness, Tadao Matsui groggily registered Keiko’s voice.
“Tadao! Someone’s knocking at the door.”
He looked at the glowing radium hands of the bedside clock. 11:37. “Must be Doctor or Mrs. Lutz.”
“But they never come here. They always call from the main house if they need anything.”
“Oh, Peter. She relaxed and settled back down in the bed. They both knew that the teenage son of Dr. Lutz snuck out at night. It wasn’t the first time he’d forgotten his key and expected Tadao to let him into the house. The boy was getting out of hand.
The knocking started up again. It sounded like Peter was getting impatient.
Tadao got to his feet and grabbed his robe. This kind of behavior could not continue. Peter needed a firm hand. With Dr. Lutz so distracted, perhaps Tadao should talk some sense into him. But would Peter listen?
After the warm comfort of his bed, the drafty hallway felt icy. Tadao pulled open the door, then shrank back.
Two tall strangers loomed over him.
“Are you Tadao Matsui?” the closer man asked.
He mispronounced the name, but Tadao nodded, his mouth suddenly dry.
“FBI.” The man held up his identification card.
Oh God, no, Tadao thought. Ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese-American community had been living in fear. The newspapers were filled with stories and photos of FBI agents searching their homes and taking them into custody for questioning. School teachers, shopkeepers, farmers and priests. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to whom the FBI took. Some were released within a few hours. Others were still incarcerated with no explanation. Everyone worried that the FBI would come to their door. But Tadao never really thought it would happen to them.
“Is there anybody else in the residence with you?”
“My wife and daughter.”
“Take us to them.” The agent’s face was stern and cold. The implacable authority of his command left no possibility for objection.
Tadao felt numb. His feet were heavy, clumsy, as he led them to his bedroom. The men snapped on the ceiling lights. Keiko blinked from the glare and held the covers protectively around her.
“Are you Keiko Matsui?”
“FBI. Please get dressed. Get your daughter dressed, too.”
Keiko gave Tadao a frightened look. He tried to nod reassuringly, but she looked down, collected her clothing and scurried to their daughter’s room. Tadao donned his best suit. One of the agents took him to the living room and ordered him to sit on the sofa. The other agent walked outside. Tadao heard him talking to his employer, Dr. Lutz. He couldn’t make out anything they were saying. Then the agent returned.
Keiko entered timidly, holding the hand of their sixteen-year-old daughter, Rose.
“Please get your coats,” the first FBI agent said. “We’re going to the office.”
“Why?” Rose said. “We’re loyal Americans.”
“Please get your coats,” the agent repeated.
They went to the closet, took out purses and pulled on coats.
“Let’s go,” the first FBI agent said. “No talking.”
They opened the door. Keiko gripped Tadao’s hand tight and he felt her body tremble. They were led to a dark sedan. The Matsuis got in the back of the car. Keiko had tears running down her cheeks. “It’ll be okay,” Tadao whispered. “We’ll soon be back home and this will be just a bad memory.” He was frustrated that he could not give more reassurance, but he felt Keiko nod and lean against him.
They drove a block, then the agent muttered something to the other agent. He pulled to the side, got out of the car for a moment, then got back in. He was holding something. It looked like cloth. A wrapping of some sort. In the dark, Tadao couldn’t tell what it was. Then they continued driving east on Franklin Avenue.
Tadao wondered where FBI headquarters was. Was it downtown? But then they turned left, away from the city and started climbing into the Hollywood Hills.
This was wrong, Tadao thought. Why were they going up into the hills? “Where are you taking us?”
The men ignored him.
“Where are you taking us,” Tadao said again, this time louder.
The men drove on.
“Who are you?” Tadao said. “You’re not the FBI.”
The man turned to him and pulled out a gun. “No. We’re not.”
Eight years later …
October 23, 1950
When the police arrived, Miss Norah Teele had been dead for two days. She’d left an empty pill bottle and a sad little note on the bedside table.
The tiny studio apartment was scrupulously clean. The drapes freshly laundered. The cord of the hot plate neatly folded as if it had just come out of the box. Detective Dalton Pope could smell the scent of lavender furniture polish, underlying the insistent odors of death.
The Murphy bed was open, the sheets starched and turned down, but that wasn’t where she was found. Norah’s last act was to seat herself in a well-worn armchair facing her life’s work and passion. Norah had been a studio seamstress, apparently an excellent one. On the wall was her resume. It was covered floor-to-ceiling with framed photographs inscribed to her. Not the usual fan club prints that studio press departments handed out for publicity. These were photographs of Norah standing with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, Vivian Leigh, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. Dearest Miss Teele, Thank you for making me look beautiful. No one fits a gown better than you! You are such a gem! Mary Pickford. To my best girl, Miss Teele—With affection, Cary Grant.
It was a view to be contemplated with pride. Pope couldn’t help but wonder what drove her to take her life. Depression? Isolation? There was evidence of both. Her neighbors said she was quiet, shy and kept to herself. They hadn’t seen her for several days, but that wasn’t unusual. When the costume department had rush jobs, she’d stay, working thirty-six, forty-eight hour shifts. They all agreed, “She was real dedicated to her work at the studio.”
Pope sat in his car, rereading the note.
Norah Teele apologized for any inconvenience her death might cause. She explained that she had no family and didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. She was so very tired and ready to meet her maker. The words were mundane, but the handwriting was jagged and screamed with despair. Norah was in pain and this was the only way she could be free of it.
Pope hated the suicide runs. He knew how compelling that black pit could be. How fatally easy it would be to fall in.
He replaced the note in the evidence bag, stepped out of the car and made his way to the side yard where he’d seen a line of metal trash cans. Norah’s apartment had been emptied of trash. He was curious to see what she’d tossed out.
It was there in the third can. She’d hidden it at the bottom. Piling papers, even several books on top as if to hold down her secret.
The letter was crumpled and torn. Pope thought she must have read it through many times in disbelief, anger and finally sadness.
5701 Melrose Avenue Hollywood California
October 18, 1950
Miss Norah Teele
222 Tirole Street, Apt. 4B
Dear Miss Teele,
Although you have worked with this studio since its inception, information has come to our attention that you attended several labor rallies during the periods 1930-1931 and that at the time you were associated with the Communist Party. This is in violation of the loyalty clause that you signed. Therefore, you have given this studio no choice but to terminate your employment, effective immediately. Any attempt to enter the premises will be considered trespassing.
In addition, if you are in possession of materials belonging to Century Studios, this will be considered theft, unless they are returned immediately. Such materials include properties such as costumes, fabric, thread or sewing equipment, as well as photographs with staff, actors or actresses currently or at any time connected with this studio.
Very truly yours,
Oliver R. Draper
Pope thought of Norah’s wall of photographs. Her pride and joy. He kicked the trash can. Did they really think she was a national threat?
Pope looked at the letter in his hand. She’d been worried about what people would say if they knew she’d been a member of the Communist Party. She’d buried the letter to hide it. Pope took out a match and did a better job. It went up with a little whomp and turned quickly into ash.
Some secrets didn’t need to be revealed.