by Sally Carpenter
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Los Angeles, 1924
Tap … tap … tap … tap… The man in the expensive suit rhythmically rapped the point of a silver fountain pen on the stained, scratched wooden tabletop the way one might drive a nail into a coffin lid. His clothes smelled like a mixture of musky aftershave and cigar smoke. His black fedora lay on the table. Big Mac’s black eyes bored into the two young women seated across from him in the second floor apartment. Outside the cracked window the last sunrays of the day began to scurry away as if they wanted to flee from the man. The room’s only illumination struggled to leak through the torn cloth lampshade of a rusted floor lamp.
Penny glued her eyes to the man’s leather-gloved hand that held the pen. As long as he kept tapping, she and her roommate were safe. Big Mac vented his repressed anger through those taps, but when Big Mac put the writing instrument into his pocket, he’d explode.
“You’ve been holding out on me.” Big Mac kept his voice low and even.” You haven’t been working the streets lately.”
Penny’s blonde-haired roommate gave a nervous giggle. “It’s the monthly curse.”
“For three weeks?”
“I had a cold. Didn’t want to spread my germs to the customers.”
“I don’t care if you infect them with malaria as long as they pay in advance.”
Tap … tap … tap. “Last week I was tuning in my radio to hear The Amos and Andy Show. I came across KFSG, the station run by that woman preacher. What’s her name?”
“Aimee Semple McPherson.” Darla then bit her lower lip. She’d answered too quickly, too eagerly.
“So you know her.”
That giggle again. “Sure, everybody in L.A. knows Sister Aimee. She’s in the papers all the time.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Penny interjected. “I seen her in the newsreels at the movie house. All the movie stars are pals with her, even Charlie Chaplin.”
Tap … tap. The pauses between the raps grew longer. “Some young broad was on the program, bragging about how she don’t turn tricks no more. How she gave it all up after this Sister Aimee baptized her.” The pen paused in mid-air.
“The broad said her name was Darla.”
The blonde’s cheeks flushed bright red. “Hey, lots of girls around here go by Darla.”
“She talked just like you.”
“The radio makes people sound funny.”
Big Mac narrowed his eyes on Penny. “How about you? Are you chummy with Sister Aimee?”
Darla was the one who attended the Sunday morning services at the temple Sister Aimee had built; Penny stayed in bed to sleep off her work from the night before. Penny could never remember the name of the church building–something about angels.
His eyes shifted back to Darla. “What else did you tell Sister Aimee? Did you give her the name of your employer and the guys who work for him? Blab about how I run the operation? Tell her the locations where my girls work?”
“Oh, no, Big Mac, I didn’t say nothin’ about you.” Darla shredded the paper tissue clutched in her hand. “I’d never turn you in. You know that.”
He slid the silver pen into his inside jacket pocket. Penny held her breath and gripped the arm of the tattered upholstered chair where she sat. She eyed the door. If she moved quickly maybe she could run into the hallway and escape the apartment building, but Big Mac rose and blocked the exit as if he anticipated her thoughts. He towered over the seated women. “What’s it gonna be, Darla? Are you gonna give up this Jesus crap and start doing your job again?”
For the first time that night she met his stare, her voice confident and firm. “No.”
“That’s a shame. A waste of a good employee, but nobody quits on Big Mac.” He pulled a pistol from the shoulder holster beneath his jacket and smashed the pistol butt against Darla’s temple. She fell from the chair and struck her head on the iron radiator. Penny screamed and knelt beside her friend. Blood oozed from the gash in Darla’s head.
“Darla! Darla!” Penny raised her roommate’s head. “No, no! Don’t die! Please, don’t die!”
Darla’s body sagged as her soul resigned itself to the care of the angels.
Penny gently set the woman’s head on the floor and stroked the hair. Then she looked up at Big Mac, her eyes filled with hate. Tears rolled down her cheek and her lower lip trembled.
His voice stayed calm as he stared at her. “Sorry you had to witness that.”
Her rage turned into terror at what he might do next. “I won’t rat on you, Big Mac. I won’t tell nobody you done this.”
Big Mac pointed the business end of the pistol at her. She stared at it, frozen.
The next-door neighbor pounded on the connecting wall. “Keep the noise down in there, will ya! I can’t hear the radio!”
Big Mac turned his head toward the sound. The interruption jolted Penny out of her shock. With the gun no longer jammed in her face, she sprang to her feet and dashed into the kitchen. She glanced around for a weapon. Before Big Mac dropped in that evening she and Darla had been cutting up apples for a pie. The kitchen knives on the counter were sharp but no match for a gun.
Big Mac stood in the doorway. Penny grabbed the bowl with the flour, sugar and melted butter mixture for the piecrust and flung it in his face. He swung a huge fist to intercept the bowl, but the goo landed in his eyes. Big Mac swore and wiped away the mess. This distracted him long enough for Penny to open the kitchen window and crawl through, dropping to the grass below. She landed hard on her feet and twisted her ankle. In spite of the limp, she rushed down the sidewalk and ducked her head as two shots rang out behind her. Those bullets missed her but the next ones would not. At the street corner she stopped to catch her breath. She surveyed the Echo Park neighborhood sprawled out ahead of her.
What now? Penny wasn’t dressed for going out, clad only in an old housecoat, a faded gray cardigan and slippers. The concrete sidewalk felt hard and rough through the thin soles of her slipper. She pulled the sweater closed, but it offered little warmth against the cold night air. Her purse was back in the apartment so she had no money for a cab. Any second now Big Mac would catch up with her.
She hurried down the street, eyes straight ahead, not daring to look behind and see if she was being followed. Her breath came in short, panicked gasps. Pain from her sore ankle shot through her leg. Where could she go? She ran blindly down the streets, tripping over cracked sidewalks and not paying attention to street signs. Somehow she stumbled onto a familiar street. She pounded on the door of a certain bungalow. “Nancy! Nancy! Open the door!” she shouted.
The door gaped a bit and a young woman peered out. “Penny? Is that you?”
“Yes, please, let me it, it’s an emergency.”
Soon Penny was inside the living room, better furnished than her own flat. She sat beside Nancy on the leather-covered sofa.
“Penny, what’s the matter? You look upset.”
“Big Mac killed Darla.”
“What! He’d never do that.”
“Yes, he did, I saw it. She wanted to get out and he killed her. Now he’s coming for me. He’ll kill me. I know he will. You’ve got to help me. I don’t know anyone in the city except you. You’re the only friend I got.”
“Calm down, Penny, catch your breath.”
Penny wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. “Nancy, I’m so tired. I’m tired of running. I keep hopping from place to place, trying to find somewhere safe to live. I left Ohio ‘cause my daddy hurt me. I came to L.A. thinking I’d be a big movie star and everyone would love me, but nobody likes me ‘cept the johns. Now I gotta find a place to hide from Big Mac.”
“Sure, Penny, sure.” She gave her friend a hug.
“Maybe I’ll go back to Ohio. Not to my daddy but some little town with farms. I liked living in the country. I liked the farm animals. I handle them real good.”
“Of course. You sit right there, Penny, and relax and we’ll talk. Okay? Just stay there. I gotta call my mother first and then I’ll make some coffee.”
“That sounds fine. Can I have some food too? I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I’m starved.”
“Sure, Penny, I’ll fix you right up.”
Penny loved Nancy’s coffee. Nancy seemed to make more money than the rest of the girls so she bought the best foods, including a rich blend of coffee beans. Nancy stepped through an archway into the kitchen and pulled shut the door curtain behind her. Penny tried to take her mind off her problems by skimming through the movie star periodicals–Picture Show Magazine, Motion Picture Classic, Photoplay–piled on the wood coffee table. What exciting, glamorous lives the stars led. What fun they must have posing in front of the cameras. Penny would never look good on the silver screen, not with her pug nose, crooked teeth, fat cheeks and small breasts. Even her dark bobbed hair tended to stick out instead of staying flat. But despite her looks, she still dreamed of standing on a stage and taking bows to an adoring audience.
From the kitchen came sounds of footsteps and pots rattling. Penny heard her friend dial the phone but she didn’t listen to the soft-spoken conversation. The kitchen door opened and shut. Nancy must have stepped out to put trash in the garbage can.
After a few minutes her friend called, “Coffee’s ready, Penny! Come and get a cup!”
Penny’s stomach gurgled. She was so hungry and thirsty. She stood and started for the kitchen.
She didn’t smell any coffee.
Nancy’s blend of roast had a strong, distinct aroma. Penny sniffed the air but only detected a whiff of car exhaust from the street outside. A chill ran through her. Something was amiss.
“Hurry up, Penny, or the coffee will get cold.”
Penny pushed back the kitchen curtain an inch and peered through. One of Big Mac’s goons, Fast Freddie, stood in the room. The tall, lean man had slicked back black hair, a thin mustache and a nasty disposition. She stepped back and leaned against the wall as her heart pounded. Nancy hadn’t called her mother after all, but had placed a call to Fast Freddie. Her friend had turned traitor.
“Penny, are you coming?”
The fugitive dashed out the front door. Where could she find safety in this cruel town? By now Big Mac must have used the lobby phone in her apartment building to put the word out to the rest of his boys. His hired muscle wouldn’t stop searching the streets until they’d found her. She turned a corner and spotted Slinky Sam leaning against a street lamp. He tipped his fedora at her and grinned. She doubled back and ran, her sore feet striking the unyielding pavement.
“Missy, what’s your hurry?” A beat cop patrolling the sidewalk stopped her.
She paused long enough to stare at him for a moment.
“Where are you going?” he asked, his tone not too harsh but not friendly either.
“Ah … to the store.”
“Stores are closed on Sunday night.” He gazed at her intently and moved closer. “You’re one of Big Mac’s girls, aren’t you?”
Penny screamed, pushed him hard in the chest, and ran. Big Mac owned the police. He slipped bribes into the pockets of most of the local cops. No doubt this copper would turn her over to her boss. Penny felt no one in this crummy town would help her, not even the police.
Somehow she made her way to Glendale Avenue. To her left, across the street, stood the small Echo Park Lake where swans glided across the surface of the water. Ah, if only her life was as calm and carefree. A crowd of people swarmed the normally quiet street. Good. Penny could lose herself in the mob and nobody would find her. She squeezed among the pedestrians and let the multitude carry her along. Numerous automobiles also filled the street, all inching along, bumper to bumper, in the same direction.
Penny tapped the shoulder of a friendly-looking woman. “Excuse me. Where is everyone going?”
“Why, to see Sister Aimee, of course. She’s doing a new illustrated sermon tonight at the evening service.”
“Service? What service?”
“There.” The woman pointed straight ahead. “At the Angelus Temple.”
At the end of the street, atop a low hill, loomed the massive, white domed edifice of concrete and steel, topped by an illuminated rotating cross that glowed brightly against the black sky. Rows of high arched windows circled the ground floor. People dressed in their Sunday best surged through the open doors. Penny didn’t dare step foot inside such a grand building. She wasn’t dressed right. She hadn’t brushed her hair or put on makeup. She’d look out of place.
Penny pushed her way to the edge of the crowd. She’d cross the street–the backed-up traffic moved slowly and she could step between the Model T automobiles–and head west into downtown. As she stepped onto the curb, a Packard pulled up beside her. One of Big Mac’s heftiest men, Maestro, drove, and Fast Eddie rode shotgun. He stuck out his arm over the side door, pointed his index finger at Penny, and held up his thumb as if aiming a gun at her. Penny was going to lose this battle. If the goons didn’t plug her first, she’d collapse from exhaustion and hunger. She turned and shoved her way back into the crowd that swept her to Angelus Temple. Inside the lobby she stopped and spun around to see if the men had followed her inside. Of course they’d figure she came in here, as this was the only building on the block.
“Good evening and welcome.” One of the temple’s female greeters smiled at her.
Penny stared back. Dare she trust this woman? Would she fink on her as well?
The woman eyed Penny. “May I help you? Is something wrong?”
“I… I… I need a place to hide.”
“Hide? Why do you need to hide?”
“Two men … two men are coming to kill me.”
The woman’s brow furrowed. “Do you know these men?”
“They work for Big Mac. He…” She best not rat him out. “He ain’t a nice guy.”
The woman nodded with understanding. “I see.” She motioned to one of the male ushers. “This young lady needs help. Please escort her to Sister Aimee.”
Sister Aimee! Was she going to see the great evangelist herself?
“No, no, I couldn’t,” Penny said. “Not Sister Aimee. She’s too important to waste her time with a nobody like me.”
“She’s helped many young women like you. You’ll go straight away.”
The male usher in a suit and tie took her arm, not too tightly, and led her through the bystanders to a door at the end of the lobby. They climbed the stairs to the second balcony of the main auditorium. Behind the rows of seats, out of view of audience, the evangelist herself waited for her entrance to the stage.
Penny had never seen such a sweet, pretty lady. The 34-year-old preacher with the chestnut bob had the face of an angel. She appeared tired already from having overseen several services already that day, but her large eyes sparkled with energy and humor. She wore her standard preaching outfit, a starched white dress and collar topped with a long blue cape.
“Excuse me, Sister Aimee,” said the usher, “but this young lady needs your help. We can come back after the service–”
“Nonsense. The Lord never turned away those in need.” Penny liked the lady’s voice, deep and rich, not high-pitched and screechy like most of the girls she knew. “If I’m late, tell the choir to sing an extra song.”
As the usher left, Aimee said, “What is your name, my dear?”
In the presence of a celebrity, she was tongue-tied. “Ah, um, Penny. Penny Entworst.”
“A pretty name. Now, Penny, what can I do for you?”
“Darla’s dead. You know Darla. She said you baptized her.”
“Darla McCreedy? How terrible.”
“She was my friend.”
“What did she die of?
Penny stared down at the floor. She’d promised she’d never fess up about Big Mac, but she couldn’t resist, not with this celestial being standing beside her. She nearly choked on the words as she muttered, “Big Mac, he killed her.”
“Here now, my poor child.” Aimee placed her hands on Penny’s shoulders.
Penny started to cry. “Big Mac’s men are here and they’re gonna to kill me too.”
The brown eyes looked her over. “Don’t be afraid.” From the stage below the choir and the pipe organ performed an upbeat hymn. “We’ll have to wait until the service is over before we can help you, but until then we’ll keep you safe.”
“Thank you, sister! But how you gonna do that? Big Mac’s men are everywhere.”
“Come with me. We’ll hide you in plain sight.”
The two women descended the stairs. Behind the stage they entered a large, dimly lit room full of wondrous sights. A cluster of men and women, clad in Middle Eastern robes, scarves and rope belts, mingled about. Large stage sets leaned against the walls. Some men in work shirts and jeans tended to a herd of sheep and a ram. Sheep in a church?
“Who are these people?” Penny asked.
“Shhh, keep your voice down or the congregation will hear you.” Aimee spoke in hushed tones. “They’re part of my illustrated sermon tonight.”
“Yes, I often use creatures as well when I speak. People love them.” Aimee waved a hand at an older, matronly woman with a no-nonsense face. The lady approached them. “Penny, I want you to meet Minnie Kennedy, my mother. Mom, this is Penny. She needs our help.”
The woman seemed out of sorts. She whispered, “Are you giving her money? The temple will go broke at the rate you hand out funds.”
“Some gangsters are trying to kill her.”
“Aimee, what is it about you that attracts that sort of element? You need to call the police instead of trying to fix everything yourself.”
“Mother, I have to preach now. Take care of her until I’m finished, please?” Without waiting for an answer the evangelist swept out of the room.
Minnie glanced over Penny to size her up. Then she pulled a long tan robe off a clothes rack and shoved it into Penny’s hands. “Here, put this on.”
“What is it?”
“Why do I need this?”
“So you won’t look out of place on stage.”
“On stage! You mean these people,” she gestured at the others in the room, “are actors?”
“Yes, and hurry, you’re on soon.”
“I can’t do that! I’ve never acted before!”
Minnie tugged off Penny’s sweater and pulled the robe over her head. “It’s easy. Just follow what the others do.”
“But Maestro and Fast Eddie, they’ll see me!”
The mother pinned a blue scarf to Penny’s hair. “Nobody will touch you if five thousand people are watching you.”
“Five thousand! I can’t! I’m scared!
Minnie dropped to one knee, yanked off Penny’s shoes and slipped on a pair of too-big sandals. “Pretend you’re an actress and you’re making a movie.”
On stage the brass band struck up another spirited song. Penny’s stomach churned and she broke into a sweat. Is this how the movie stars felt before they performed? The other costumed persons gathered at an open door, the stage entrance. Minnie pushed Penny in that direction.
“Go on! And good luck!”
Once again a mob surrounded Penny and moved her to a place where she didn’t want to go. The oversized sandals flopped about on her feet and she tripped. Two robed men followed the group, guiding the herd of animals. Soon Penny found herself standing on a platform several feet above the stage floor. The hot stage lamps overhead washed the room in a blaze of light. More than five thousand spectators seated in the two balconies and the main floor stared at her. She caught her breath. Her knees shook. Her injured ankle hurt. She wanted to drop to the floor and crawl away.
To distract her mind from the audience she inspected her surroundings. The overhead dome of the sanctuary was painted sky blue with wisps of clouds. Angels with outstretched wings decorated the tops of the walls. The scent of the many floral arrangements on the stage perfumed the air. The baptistery pool behind her had a painting of the Jordan River. What a friendly place. No wonder Darla liked to come here. On one side of the platform stood an enormous papier-mâché sailboat, no doubt part of the illustrated sermon. With trepidation Penny peeked out at the audience again. Many pleasant faces smiled back at her as if to offer encouragement. Maybe she could get used to this play-acting.
The brass band sounded a fanfare. Aimee strolled down a ramp from the second balcony and to the stage. A spotlight followed her. She carried a large bouquet of long-stemmed red roses and beamed at her followers.
“Tonight I’m going to tell you the story of a man named Jonah.” Her booming voice reached the topmost row without straining and without the use of a microphone. “God called him to preach the word to the people of Nineveh, who were the worst sort of sinners, carousing all day and all night.”
The robed actress standing beside Penny elbowed her and whispered, “That’s us.”
“What should I do?”
The actors laughed boisterously and waved about beer steins. Penny tried to work up a loud laugh but the best she could manage was a timid twitter. A man in a robe and a long fake beard stepped to the front of the platform. Aimee introduced him as Jonah and told how God ordered him to preach to the evil inhabitants of Nineveh.
Penny was enjoying the story until she looked into the audience. Fast Eddie and Maestro sat in the front row. They caught her eye and she nearly fainted. Fast Eddie shook a finger at her. The two men rose and hurried down the side aisle to the lobby doors. Penny knew they had no intention of leaving the building. They’d soon find their way backstage. She looked about for an exit. She could jump off the platform to the stage below but she’d only twist her other ankle. And too many people stood between her and the stage entrance.
Aimee continued her narrative. “Instead of obeying God, Jonah caught a boat sailing in the opposite direction, away from Nineveh.” The bearded actor stepped aboard the pretend “ship.” “How often do we do that very thing? When we’re called to do the right thing, we say, ‘No thanks, I got my own life to live my way. I got a ticket for the next boat out of town.’”
Right now Penny wished she had fare for a train out of L.A.
Aimee said, “And then a huge storm began to brew and ship that Jonah rode swayed to and fro, up and down. The passengers thought the ship was going to sink!”
The stagehands hidden backstage rocked the “ship” with levers. The stage lights flickered. The drummers beat out a continuous drum roll as the percussionists struck sheets of aluminum with hammers to simulate the thunder.
Penny glanced at the stage entrance and screamed. Fast Eddie stood in the doorway with a gun in his hand. She knew if he’d keep shooing and kill the innocent folk around her until he hit his intended target.
At Penny’s cry, Aimee glanced up at the platform and the doorway. She made a gesture to her lighting crew stationed in the ceiling. She ad libbed, “And God plunged the ship into total darkness!”
Picking up on her cue, the lighting crew shut off every light in the room. The audience murmured as blackness descended on them.
“Keep your seats!” Aimee ordered. “No need to panic! God always brings light into our deepest darkness! So Jonah prayed and the sun broke through the storm clouds.”
The lights snapped back on and the nervous spectators gave a collective sigh of relief. Penny breathed easier too, because Fast Eddie had disappeared from the doorway.
Aimee went on unabated. “Jonah realized his disobedience had caused the storm. So he decided to leave the ship to save the other passengers. He jumped into the dark and murky waters and the weather cleared up just like that.”
The actor playing Jonah–in real life a Hollywood stunt man–dived off the “ship” and into a pile of mattress cleverly hidden from the audience by a row of fake “waves” created by canvas stretched on wood frames. “But Jonah didn’t drown in the ocean,” said Aimee. “God sent a giant whale to swallow him up! That sinner must have given the beast a big case of indigestion!”
As the audience chuckled, the stagehands pushed an enormous papier-mâché whale onto the stage. The audience “oohed” and “aahed.” A man hidden inside the whale opened the fish’s jaw and scooped up the hapless Jonah. The jaw snapped shut and the spectators applauded.
But Penny had nothing to clap about. A costumed man moved behind the cluster of actors. Fast Eddie! He must have put on one of the extra robes so he could sneak onstage. An open switchblade knife glinted in his hand. Penny’s fear turned to fury. Besides trying to kill her and possibly the other nice people around her, he was ruining Sister
Aimee’s entertaining presentation. She had to stop the scum once and for all.
Penny slipped over to the men with the animals. She wasn’t afraid of sheep. She’d helped her daddy sheer the flocks back in Ohio. She grabbed the horns of the ram, wrestled him until he face the right direction, and smacked the animal’s backside. The ram charged straight ahead, right toward Fast Eddie, and butted into the man’s legs. Fast Eddie lost his balance and tumbled off the platform, plunging into the stack of mattresses below.
Aimee observed this and smiled. “Looks like an especially wicked sinner from Nineveh fell off the ship as well! After feasting on Jonah, the whale gobbled up this man for dessert!”
As if they’d rehearsed it, the stagehands made the whale “eat” Fast Eddie.
One of the actors quickly captured the ram and Aimee went on with her sermon, but Penny didn’t hear it. She slipped past the actors, stumbled off the platform, and collapsed into a chair backstage.
Minnie took the would-be actress to the parsonage next door where she set Penny in a chair at the kitchen table. The mother turned on all the kitchen lights as well as the oven. The aroma of the evening dinner hung in the air–fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and hot apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream. A grandfather clock kept the time–tick … tock … tick … tock. Penny found the gentle rhythm comforting, like child cuddling against a mother’s heartbeat. Minnie warmed up the supper leftovers and Penny feasted, with seconds of everything. By the time she finished, the service had ended and Aimee arrived, tired but elated from her long day.
“Fast Eddie!” Penny exclaimed. “Where is he?”
“The stage hands overpowered him and the police were called. The ushers detained the other man as well. You have nothing to worry about.”
“I’m sorry they messed up your talk.”
“Nonsense. If anything, they made it more exciting. The congregation loves the little slips during my talks. I’ve had many of them. Now, what are we going to do with you?”
“I don’t wanna be an actress no more. I wanna get out of town.”
“What about Big Mac? Don’t you want to bring him to justice for killing your friend? You must stay and testify at his trial.”
“No! He’ll have me killed!”
“Didn’t you hear my talk tonight? We mustn’t run away from doing the right thing. You’re the only person who can stop his nasty deeds. If you testify against Big Mac, you can be an angel and save other girls just like yourself. Now, will you stay?”
Penny thought for a moment and nodded.
“Good girl! Until then, you’ll remain right here with my family and me. We take in young women all the time. You won’t leave the house until the trial’s over. Then I can send you to one of my Foursquare Gospel churches anywhere in the country. Someone will put you up and help you find work. You can make a new start.
“Oh, Sister Aimee, that’s wonderful! Thank you!”
She gave the preacher a long and heartfelt hug. For the first time in her life she felt at peace and at home. At long last she’d found sanctuary.
Although Aimee Semple McPherson died in 1944, Angelus Temple still continues to rescue people out of human trafficking.
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