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Volume 5041

P. J. Monahan: Girl from Hollywood - FP same as DJAce edition: Boris Vallejo cover art: January 1976
 by Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
Part 21: Chapters 36
“Last thing I remember, I was Running for the door
I had to find the passage back To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man “We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like But you can never leave.”
– The Eagles, “Hotel California.”

I believe ERB must have witnessed some real trials because his account of the fictional trial of Custer Pennington and Shannon Burke was very well told, even though such a trial led to a great injustice in that it convicted an innocent man.  Only a very small percentage of trials get overturned on appeal.  The main cause for relief in these modern times is usually an ineffective assistance of counsel argument, and let me tell you, this happens so often that courts are left a lot of times to find excuses why stupid attorneys did what they did.

Now that Custer has been convicted of a capital offense, what will be his fate?  Hanging? This was the method at the time.  Hitler hadn’t perfected the gas chamber yet.  I can’t believe it took so long to outlaw that gruesome method.  When you think about it, it is the only method that requires the victim to participate in his own execution by making him take the breath that kills him.  I think hanging was a good method myself, but who am I to say?  We will now conclude our story.

        On the day when Custer was to be sentenced, Colonel Pennington and Shannon Burke were present in the court room.  Mrs. Pennnington had remained at home with Eva, who was slowly convalescing.  Shannon reached the court room before the Colonel.  When he arrived, he sat down beside her, and placed his hand on hers.
        “Whatever happens,” he said, “we shall still believe in him.  No matter what the evidence – and I do not deny that the jury brought in a just verdict in accordance with it – I know that he is innocent.  He told me yesterday that he was innocent, and my boy would not lie to me.  He thought that you killed Crumb, Shannon.  He overheard the conversation between you and Crumb in the patio that day, and he knew you had good reason to kill the man.  He knows now, as we all know, that you did not.  Probably it must always remain a mystery.  He would not tell me that he was innocent until after you had been proven so.  He loves you very much, my girl!”
        “After all that he heard here in court?  After what I have been?  I thought none of you would ever want to see me again.” The Colonel pressed her hand.
        “Whatever happens,” he said, “you are going back home with me.  You tried to give your life for my son.  If this were not enough, the fact that he loves you, and that we love you, is enough.”
        Two tears crept down Shannon’s cheek – the first visible signs of emotion that she had manifested during all the long weeks of the ordeal that she had been through.  Nothing had so deeply affected her as the magnanimity of the proud old Pennington, whose pride and honor, while she had always admired them, she had regarded as an indication of a certain puritanical narrowness that could not forgive the transgression of a woman.
        When the judge announced the sentence, and they realized that Custer Pennington was to pay the death penalty, although it had been almost a foregone conclusion, the shock left them numb and cold.
        Neither the condemned man nor his father gave any outward indication of the effect of the blow.  They were Penningtons, and the Pennington pride permitted them no show of weakness before the eyes of strangers.  Nor yet was there any bravado in their demeanor.  The younger Pennington did not look at his father or Shannon as he was led away toward the cell, between two bailiffs.
Assholes like Dr. Drew on TV love to analyze the body language of people accused of crime, as if it allows them to perfectly read the mind of some poor soul they often victimize with their bullshit psychology.  But the public eats it up in another version of the Orwellian hate hour, so who can stop it?  Dr. Drew would have analyzed Custer’s attitude as the cold sociopathic unfeeling body language of a serial killer, or something or other.  You get the gist I am sure.
        As Shannon Burke walked from the court room with the Colonel, she could think of nothing but the fact that in two months the man she loved was to be hanged.  She tried to formulate plans for his release – wild, quixotic plans; but she could not concentrate her mind upon anything but the bewildering thought that in two months they would hang him by the neck until he was dead.
        She knew that he was innocent.  Who, then, had committed the crime? Who had murdered Wilson Crumb?
        Outside the Hall of Justice she was accosted by Allen, whom she attempted to pass without noticing.  The Colonel turned angrily on the man.  He was in the mood to commit murder himself; but Allen forestalled any outbreak on the old man’s part by a pacific gesture of his hands and a quick appeal to Shannon.
        “Just a moment, please,” he said.  “I know you think I had a lot to do with Pennington’s conviction.  I want to help you now.  I can’t tell you why.  I don’t believe he was guilty.  I changed my mind recently.  If I can see you alone, Miss Burke, I can tell you something that might give you a line on the guilty party.”
        “Under no conceivable circumstances can you see Miss Burke alone,” snapped the Colonel.
        “I’m not going to hurt her,” said Allen.  “Just let her talk to me here alone on the sidewalk, where no one can overhear.”
        “Yes,” said the girl, who could see no opportunity pass which held the slightest ray of hope for Custer.
        The Colonel walked away, but turned and kept his eyes on the man when he was out of earshot.  Allen spoke hurriedly to the girl for ten or fifteen minutes, and then turned and left her.  When she returned to the Colonel the latter did not question her.  When she did not offer to confide in him, he knew that she must have good reasons for her reticence, since he realized that her sole interest lay in aiding Custer.
        For the next two months the Colonel divided his time between Ganado and San Francisco, that he might be near San Quentin, where Custer was held pending the day of execution.  Mrs. Pennington, broken in health by the succession of blows that she had sustained, was sorely in need of his companionship and help. Eva was rapidly regaining her strength and some measure of her spirit.  She had begun to realize how useless and foolish her attempt at self-destruction had been, and to see that the braver and nobler course would have been to give Guy the benefit of her normal support in his time of need.
        The Colonel, who had wormed from Custer the full story of his conviction upon the liquor charge, was able to convince her that Guy had not played a dishonorable part, and that of the two he had suffered more than Custer. Her father did not condone or excuse Guy’s wrong-doing, but he tried to make her understand that it was no indication of a criminal inclination, but rather the thoughtless act of an undeveloped boy.
        During the two months they saw little or nothing of Shannon.  She remained in Los Angeles, and when she made the long trip to San Quentin to see Custer, or when they chanced to see her, they could not but note how thin and drawn she was becoming.  The roses had left her cheeks, and there were deep lines beneath her eyes, in which there was constantly an expression of haunting fear.
        As the day of execution drew nearer, the gloom that had hovered over Ganado for months settled like a dense pall upon them all.  On the day before the execution the Colonel left for San Francisco, to say goodbye to his son for the last time.  Custer had insisted that his mother and Eva must not come, and they had acceded to his wish.
        On the afternoon when the Colonel arrived at San Quentin, he was permitted to see his son for the last time.  The two conversed in low tones, Custer asking questions about his mother and sister, and about the little everyday activities of the ranch.  Neither of them referred to the event of the following morning.
        “Has Shannon been here today?” the Colonel asked.
        Custer shook his head.
        “I haven’t seen her this week,” he said.  “I suppose she dreaded coming.  I don’t blame her.  I should like to have seen her once more, though!” Presently they stood in silence for several moments.
        “You’d better go, dad,” said the boy. “Go back to mother and Eva.  Don’t take it too hard.  It isn’t so bad, after all.  I have led a bully life, and I have never forgotten once that I am a Pennington.  I shall not forget it tomorrow.”
        The father could not speak.  They clasped hands once, the older man turned away, and the guards led Custer back to the death cell for the last time.

        It was morning when the Colonel reached the ranch.  He found his wife and Eva sitting in Custer’s room.  They knew the hour, and they were waiting there to be as near him as they could.  They were weeping quietly.  In the kitchen across the patio they could hear Hannah sobbing.
        They sat there for a long time in silence.  Suddenly they heard a door slam in the patio, and the sound of some one running.
        “Colonel Pennington!  Colonel Pennington!” a voice cried.
        The Colonel stepped to the door of Custer’s room.  It was the bookkeeper calling him.
        “What is it?” he asked.  “Here I am.”
        “The Governer has granted a stay of execution.  There is new evidence. Miss Burke is on her way here now.  She has found the man who killed Crumb!”
        What more he said the Colonel did not hear, for he had turned back into the room, and, collapsing on his son’s bed, had broken into tears – he who had gone through those long weeks like a man of iron.
        It was nearly noon before Shannon arrived.  She had been driven from Los Angeles by an attache of the district attorney’s office.  The Penningtons had been standing on the east porch, watching the road with binoculars, so anxious were they for confirmation of their hopes.
        She was out of the car before it had stopped and was running toward them.
        The man who had accompanied her followed, and joined them on the porch. Shannon threw her arms around Mrs. Penningtons’s neck.
        “He is safe!” she cried.  “Another has confessed, and has satisfied the district attorney of his guilt.” “Who was it?” they asked.
        Shannon turned toward Eva.
        “It is going to be another blow to you all,” she said; “but wait until I’m through, and you will understand that it could not have been otherwise.  It was Guy who killed Wilson Crumb.”
        “Guy?  Why should he have done it?”
        “That was it.  That was why suspicion was never directed toward him. Only he knew the facts that prompted him to commit the deed.  It was Allen who suggested to me the possibility that it might have been Guy.  I have spent nearly two months at the sanatorium with this gentleman from the district attorney’s office, in an effort to awaken Guy’s sleeping intellect to a realization of the past, and of the present necessity for recalling it.  He has been improving steadily, but it was only yesterday that memory returned to him.  We worked on the theory that if he could be made to realize that Eva lived, the cause of his mental sickness would be removed.  We tried everything, and we had almost given up hope when, almost like a miracle his memory returned, while he was looking at a snapshot of Eva that I had shown him.  The rest was easy, especially after he knew that she had recovered.  Instead of the necessity for confession resulting in a further shock, it seemed to inspirit him.  His one thought was of Custer, his one hope that we would be in time to save him.”
        “Why did he kill Crumb?” asked Eva.
        “Because Crumb killed Grace.  He told me the whole story yesterday.”
        Very carefully Shannon related all that Guy had told of Crumb’s relations with his sister, up to the moment of Grace’s death.
        “I am glad he killed him!’ said Eva.  “I would have had no respect for him if he hadn’t done it.”
        “Guy told me that the evening before he killed Crumb he had been looking over a motion picture magazine, and he had seen there a picture of Crumb which tallied with the photograph he had taken from Grace’s dressing room table – a portrait of the man who, as she told him, was responsible for her trouble.  Guy had never been able to learn this man’s identity, but the picture in the magazine, with his name below it, was a reproduction of the same photograph.  The scarf-pin, and a lock of hair falling in a peculiar way over the forehead, marked the pictures as identical.  Though Guy had never seen Crumb, he knew from conversations that he had heard here that it was Wilson Crumb who was directing the picture that was to be taken on Ganado.  He immediately got his pistol, saddled his horse, and rode up to the camp in search of Crumb.  It was he whom one of the witnesses mistook for Custer.  He then did what the district attorney attributed to Custer.  He rode to the mouth of Jackknife, and saw the lights of Crumb’s car up near El Camino Largo.  While he was in Jackknife, Eva must have ridden down Sycamore from her meeting with Crumb, passing Jackknife before Guy rode back into Sycamore.  He rode up to where Crumb was attempting to crank his engine. Evidently the starter had failed to work for Crumb was standing in front of the car, in the glare of the headlights, attempting to crank it.  Guy accosted him, charged him with the murder of Grace, and shot him.  He then started for home by way of El Camino Largo.  Half a mile up the trail he dismounted and hid his pistol and belt in a hollow tree.  Then he rode home.
        “He told me that while he never for an instant regretted his act, he did not sleep all that night, and was in a highly nervous condition when the shock of Eva’s supposed death unbalanced his mind; otherwise he would gladly have assumed the guilt of Crumb’s death at the same time Custer and I were accused.
        “After we had obtained Guy’s confession, Allen gave us further information tending to prove Custer’s innocence.  He said he could not give it before without incriminating himself; and as he had no love for Custer, he did not intend to hang for a crime he had not committed.  He knew that he would surely hang if he confessed the part that he had played in formulating the evidence against Custer.
        “Crumb had been the means of sending Allen to the county jail, after robbing him of several thousand dollars.  The day before Crumb was killed, Allen’s sentence expired.  The first thing he did was to search for Crumb, with the intention of killing the man.  He learned at the studio where Crumb was, and he followed him immediately.  He was hanging around the camp out of sight, waiting for Crumb, when he heard the shot that killed him.  His investigation led him to Crumb’s body.  He was instantly overcome by the fear, induced by his guilty conscience, that the crime would be laid at his door.  In casting about for some plan by which he might divert suspicion from himself, he discovered an opportunity to turn it against a man whom he hated.  The fact that he had been a stableman on Ganado, and was familiar with the customs of the ranch made it an easy thing for him to go to the stables , saddle the Apache, and ride him up Sycamore to Crumb’s body.  Here he deliberately pulled off the fore shoe from the horse and hid it under Crumb’s body.  Then he rode back to the stable, unsaddled the Apache, and made his way to the village.
        “The district attorney said we need have no fear but that Custer will be exonerated and freed.  And, Eva” – she turned to the girl with a happy smile – “I have it very confidentially that there is small likelihood that any jury in southern California will convict Guy, if he bases his defense upon a plea of insanity.” Eva smiled bravely and said:
        “One thing I don’t understand, Shannon, is what you were doing brushing the road with a bough from a tree on the morning after the killing of Crumb, if you weren’t trying to obliterate some one’s tracks.”
        “That’s just what I was trying to do,” said Shannon.  “Ever since Custer taught me something about tracking, it has held a certain fascination for me, so that I often try to interpret the tracks I see along the trails in the hills.  It was because of this, I suppose, that I immediately recognized the Apache’s tracks around the body of Crumb.  I immediately jumped to the conclusion that Custer had killed him, and I did what I could to remove this evidence.  As it turned out, my efforts did more harm than good, until Allen’s explanation cleared up the matter.”
        “And why,” asked the Colonel, “did Allen undergo this sudden change of heart?”
        Shannon turned toward him, her face slightly flushed, though she looked him straight in the eyes as she spoke,
        “It is a hard thing for me to tell you,” she said.
        “Allen is a bad man – a very bad man; yet in the worst of men there is a spark of good.  Allen told me this morning, in the district attorney’s office, what it was that had kindled to life the spark of good in him.  He is my father.”

Wow, what a Luke Skywalker ending!  If you want to have some fun, go back and count the number of times Shannon tried to fix things but only made matters worse.  She has a real knack for that.  And poor Eva – her fiancé is a nut case.  Maybe that will make him a better writer.  I didn’t think Shannon’s mother was married, but I went back and read the beginning of Chapter Five and discovered this that I had forgotten about Shannon’s prior life:

        Stronger, perhaps, than her desire for fame was an unselfish ambition that centered about the mother whom she had left behind.  To that mother the girl’s success would mean greater comfort and happiness than she had known since a worthless husband had deserted her shortly after the baby came – the baby who was now known as Gaza de Lure.
So Shannon’s parents had been married before she was born, that God for that at least.  I wonder what ever attracted her mother to Slick Allen in the first place.  Likely he got her pregnant before he married her, if we are going to believe he was rotten to the core from the beginning.  As least he had a spark of good in him.

So, wasn’t that a cracking good story?  I sure would have liked to have it as part of my reading assignment in college American Literature classes.  Instead, for social realism, I was stuck with long-winded reads such as Sister Carrie, or some other critically acclaimed boring novel.  ERB is still regarded by the high-brows as a hack writer of pulp fiction mainly for juvenile reading.

But, let’s face it, The Girl from Hollywood is far from boring.  I mean it’s so full of vice, sex, and drugs that it still would not be fit for high school English classes.  I don’t believe most readers have any idea that ERB wrote such a good mystery, perfectly capturing the exciting background of early Holllywood film making.  And how about the recapitulation at the end, saving Custer at the last minute.

Custer Pennington is one of the most challenging characters in American literature, and I don’t just say that because I am a big fan of ERB.  I’ve read almost two thousand books and this is one of my favorites.  It’s much better than his earlier attempt at social realism, The Girl from Farris’s, about a good girl tricked into the life of prostitution in a brothel on Chicago’s south side, where the girl’s true identity is finally revealed during a trial at the end.

It seems that ERB was fascinated with trials and, like me, found the criminal justice system disturbing in the way that it can be so easily manipulated for evil.  Well, I hope you enjoyed the novel.  It was my pleasure to present it to you in this format

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Read The Girl From Hollywood Text in ERBzine
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 by Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
Pt. I: Ch. 1 Pt. II: Ch. 2 Pt. III: Ch. 3/4 Pt. IV: Ch. 5 Pt. V: Ch. 6/7 Pt. VI: Ch. 8/9/10 Pt. VII: Ch. 11/12
Pt. VIII: Ch. 13/14 Pt. IX: Ch. 15 Pt. X: Ch. 16 Pt. XI: Ch. 17/18 Pt. XII: Ch. 19/20 Pt. XIII: Ch. 21 Pt. XIV: Ch. 22/23
Pt. XV: Ch. 24/25 Pt. XVI: Ch. 26/27/28 Pt. XVII: Ch. 29/30/31 Pt. XVIII: Ch. 32/33 Pt. XIX: Ch. 34 Pt. XX: Ch. 35 Pt. XXI: Ch. 36/37


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