by Max Allan Collins
February 14, 1970
The press called her "Lady Lindy," but her family called her Mill. Schoolgirl pals preferred Meelie, certain friends Mary (Fred Noonan among them), she was Paul Mantz's "angel," and her husband used "A.E." To the world she was Amelia Earhart, but to me, and only me, she was Amy.
I hadn't thought of her in a long time, at least a week, when that damn Texan came around, stirring memories. For all the mentions of her in the media, even after so many years -- some screwball was always mounting an expedition to "find her" -- I'd managed to keep her real in my mind, not just a famous name, not just an "historical enigma" (as Leonard Nimoy called her on some silly TV show), always a person, a friend, someone I missed, with that bittersweet kind of longing you feel more and more, the older you get.
Old age is a combination, after all, of hard and soft, a senile sundae of cynicism and sentimentality, with much of your time spent reading, both aloud and silently, from a laundry list of bastards and sweethearts you spent a lifetime compiling. And not all of the sweethearts were women, and not all of the bastards were men.
My wife -- my second wife, the marriage that took -- and I had not given up our home in suburban Chicago, yet; I was telling people I was "semi-retired" from the A-1 Detective Agency, lying to myself that I was still in charge. I was still in charge like a brain-dead billionaire on life support is still in charge of his finances.
But at age sixty-four (with sixty-five a few months away), I didn't need to work. My one-room agency in Barney Ross' old building on the corner of Van Buren and Plymouth, established in 1932, had turned into suites of offices in six cities now, not to mention two floors of the Mondanock Building. I wasn't the President of the A-1 anymore, but Chairman of the Board. We no longer did divorce work; our specialties were "anti-industrial espionage" and "security consultation." I had become so successful, I didn't recognize my own business.
So, when the Texan came calling, I was still kidding myself that I was only "wintering" in Florida. We had a nice little rambling three-bedroom ranch-style on a waterway where we could sit and watch boats glide by, first in one direction, then the other, sometimes chased by water skiers, some of whom were pretty young girls. We could have had an oceanfront place, giving my tired old randy eyes even more ready access to sweet young things in skimpy bathing suits, but the "villa" available shared a wall with a nextdoor neighbor. Maybe that was a villa in Florida; in Chicago, we called it a goddamn duplex.
Our life in Boca Raton was fairly simple. I rarely played golf, though we had country club privileges (our house was part of a "neighborhood association"), because golf was a social pastime I had put up with for business purposes. I've always had better things to do than hit a little ball with a stick and chase the ball and then hit it with a stick again. Nor did I go fishing; I'd caught plenty of big fish in my time, but not the aquatic kind -- fishing, it seemed to me, existed solely to provide the world with a more boring pastime than golf. My wife loved to garden, and I loved to watch her bending over in ours; she had a green thumb, and a great ass for an old gal. I told you I was a randy old bastard. Or is that sweetheart?
Anyway, my days were spent in a lawn chair, watching the boats go by, sipping rum and Coke, reading, occasionally accompanying my wife shopping, just as she would more than occasionally accompany me to the track. Evenings it was often cards, bridge club with my wife, poker with my buddies, retired cops, mostly. Since I'd only smoked during the war and was a mild drinker, my health was excellent, save for the sporadic aches and pains, never quite escalating into arthritis or bursitis, that a son of a bitch with as many healed-over bullet and knife wounds (even a machete scar) as I have ought to expect after a lifetime of merriment.
I had also started to write the memoirs, of which this is the latest installment; but I had not yet come to the realization that writing those memoirs would become my salvation. That a man who had lived a life as eventful as mine, who was no longer of an age where that eventful life could be further pursued, could find, if not meaning, relief from the malaise of old age, in reliving that life. Besides, I had a fat advance from a publisher.
So I was noodling on a yellow pad, when the Texan strolled up, blotting out the sun like an eclipse with a pot belly.
"You're Nate Heller, aren't you?" With that drawl, only the word "pardner" was missing.
"I'm Nate Heller," I said, and I was, even if I was Nate Heller in sunglasses, a Hawaiian-print shirt, chino shorts and sandals. No trenchcoat or fedora, despite the goofy pictures I'd posed for, for Life magazine, a hundred years ago. "Private Eye to the Stars," they called me. We'd opened up our Los Angeles office, by then. Anyway, the Texan. He was as big as...a Texan. He wore a multi-color Hawaiian shirt that looked like a paint-factory drop cloth, unlike my own tasteful purple and white affair. A young guy -- maybe fifty-five -- he wore new blue jeans and wrap-around black sunglasses, and his hair was white at the temples and suspiciously black everywhere else and curly and dripping with more Vitalis than a Sam Giancana bodyguard. He had a bucket head and a shovel jaw, and the hand he extended was smaller than a frying pan.
I just looked at it.
He took no offense, just reeled in his paw and sat on the edge of the deck chair next to mine, sort of balancing precariously there, asking, after the fact, "Mind if I sit myself down?"
"Who else is gonna do it for you?"
He grinned -- his teeth were as white as well-polished porcelain bathroom tiles; caps or dentures. "You're a hard man to find, Mr. Heller."
"Maybe you should've hired a detective."
An eyebrow arched above a sunglass lens. "That's partly why I'm here."
"I'm retired." That was the first time I didn't use "semi"; dropping the prefix was either an admission to myself, or maybe just a lie to cool this Texan's interest.
"You never answered my letters," he said. He pronounced "my" like "mah." Like a lot of Southern men, he managed to sound simultaneously good-natured and menacing.
"No," I said, "I never did."
"Least you're not pretendin' you never got 'em. Did you read 'em?"
"About half of the first one."
A motor boat purred by, pulling a shapely blonde whose hair was made even more golden by the sun; the blue water rippled, and so did the muscles on her tummy.
"The rest you just pitched," he said.
"Left messages at your office. You never answered them, neither."
"Nope," I said, speaking his language.
"Thought when I come up with your home number, there in, where is it? Forest Park? Thought we'd finally connect. But you got one of them tape machines. Pretty fancy hardware."
I gestured with my rum and Coke. "That guy James Bond, in the movies? He was based on me."
He chuckled. "Actually, I wouldn't be surprised. Your name turns up in the damnedest places."
Peering over my own sunglasses, I said, "I know you've come a long way, Tex. So I'm going to do you the courtesy of lettin' ya speak your piece."
"And then you're gonna tell me to haul my fat Texas ass out of here."
"I would never insult a man's home state."
"You knew her, didn't you?"
"Who?" But I knew who he meant.
He stared at my sunglasses with his sunglasses. "Anybody but me ever track you down, on this subject?"
"I mean, you been talked to enough. I dug back through the files. There was a time you gave plenty of interviews, droppin' all them famous names."
"Stirring up business," I shrugged.
He made a click in his cheek, and his words made me sound like a pecan pie he liked the taste of. "Crony of Frank Nitti and Eliot Ness alike. At the Biograph when Dillinger got his. Pal of Bugsy Siegel's." He shifted his body side to side, like he was really settling into this one-way conversation. "Were you really one of Huey Long's bodyguards, night they plugged him?"
I sipped my drink. "Another proud moment."
He filled his chest with air; it was like a dirigible inflating. Then he breathed it out, saying, "'Course, there are those people that say you got a line of bullshit a mile wide and two miles long."
"Question is, how deep?"
"People that say you took all sorts of credit, for all sorts of famous cases, made yourself ten kinds of important, just to build up your business. That none of this wild shit you talk about ever really happened to ya. You really have an affair with Marilyn Monroe?"
I took my sunglasses off, tossed them on the grass. "I think you're about there."
The bathroom tile grin flashed again. "Out the door, you mean? Or knocked on my tail?...I figure your connection with Lindbergh's how you and A.E. hooked up. You worked that kidnapping, a while, didn't you? Only weren't you still on the Chicago police, at the time?"
I sat up, swiveled and faced him. "Is there something you want? Or are you just another mosquito, buzzing around a while? Before you draw blood."
"And get swatted? Can I just show you somethin', 'fore I head out? I mean, I come a long way...from Dallas?"
He withdrew a piece of paper from the pocket of his paint-splotch shirt; unfolded, it was a photocopy of a fairly crude drawing, about on the level of a really poor police artist's sketch.
"One of my associates has what you might call a modicum of art training," he said, "and worked this up from a native's description."
The drawing, rough as it was, was clearly a portrait of a ruggedly handsome young man in a priest's collar.
"Several natives we showed this to," he said, "remembered this priest, though not his name. They say he had reddish brown hair...kinda like yours must've been, 'fore the sides turned white. About your size...six foot...your build, 'fore you got that little paunch. No offense. Ain't near the spare tire I'm carryin.'"
Now his smile turned sly. "Little bitty slice of paradise in the Pacific, no more'n five miles long, fifteen wide. In the Mariana Islands?"
I said nothing.
"'Course the first time I seen it," he said, "it was about the opposite of paradise, Saipan was. Never saw such a landscape of total fucking devastation. You see, I was there with the Second Division."
"Twenty-fifth Regiment. I was there when Captain Sasaki and five hundred other Jap sons of bitches tried to break through at Nafutan Point."
"So I'm supposed to warm up to you now, 'cause you were a jarhead, too?"
"You know what they say -- Semper Fi, Mac. Guadalcanal, weren't you?"
I thought about cold-cocking him, but only nodded.
"Got out on a Section Eight, I understand. Funny. You don't look like a nutcase to me."
"You might be surprised."
"Of course, according to that Look magazine article, it was battle fatigue. They even made you sound like a kind of hero, holdin' off the Japs in a foxhole with your boxer pal, Barney Ross. He was a drug addict, wasn't he? What a life you've led." He folded the photocopy back up and returned it to his pocket. "You want me to leave now?"
I didn't say anything. Another boat was streaking by; no pretty girl tailing this one, though.
"Nobody ever connected you to Saipan before," he asked cagily, "did they?"
"No," I admitted.
"I mean, you been talked to about her. You mentioned her in passing, to this reporter and that one. More of your celebrity namedropping, to feather your business nest. I know you were her bodyguard for a while, in what, '35? Least they didn't bump her off under your nose, like they done with Mayor Cermak and the Kingfish."
My hands were turning into fists. "I'm sure there's a point to this."
"But nobody ever noticed your name come up in the Mantz divorce proceedings. I never saw that in print anywhere -- did you?"
"You have been digging."
He gave a shrug of the head. "So have a lot of people, for a lot of years. I've made three trips back to Saipan so far...and I got another one coming up. I want you to come with me."
I just laughed. "I don't think so."
"You know, there've been lots of expeditions...."
"They haven't found squat."
His smile was small but knowing. "So...you paid attention. You followed the news stories. You read any of the books?"
"No," I lied.
"Not even Goerner's? CBS news correspondent, that's hot shit. Then there's Davidson, and Gervais -- "
"And you. Speaking of which, who the hell are you?"
"I won't tell ya unless you shake my hand," he said, shambling to his feet. "I mean, I already put up with more indignity than any good Texan had ever ought to suffer. If you won't shake a fellow jarhead's hand, then fuck you and goodbye, Nathan Heller."
"I don't know whether to throw your ass out," I said, "or invite you in."
"Well, make up your mind, pard. Either way, I come prepared for a good time."
And he stuck the paw out again.
I laughed once, and shook the goddamn thing.
"Let's go inside," I said. The sun had gone under and the afternoon was slipping away, cool dark shadows shimmering on the waterway; no more pretty girls today.
His name was J.T. "Buddy" Busch, and he was from Dallas; there was oil money in his family, but he'd made his fortune in real estate. In recent years, he'd been pursuing various exotic business ventures more for "the sheer fucking fun of it" than profit.
Amelia had fascinated him since childhood, from when she was first in the news for crossing the Atlantic in 1928; officially the "captain," she'd been a passenger to a male pilot and male navigator, though that fact was sluffed over, in the press. But later -- five years to the day after Charles Lindbergh -- she became the first woman to make a solo Atlantic crossing. Lady Lindy had set many records in her Lockheed Vega monoplane, her feminine yet tomboy image sending mixed but intriguing signals to a public that included a little son of Texas named Buddy Busch.
Buddy was an aviation buff who never learned to fly; later I learned he had retained his childish enthusiasms, as evidenced by movie posters ("Tailspin Tommy"), comic books ("Flyin' Jenny") and vintage model planes (Spirit of St. Louis) in a museum-like room of his Dallas near-mansion.
But right now we were in the three-bedroom Heller palace, in the kitchen dining area, where my wife was serving us coffee and macaroons after bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches. She disappeared off to watch television while Busch and I talked into the evening.
"You know, I realize all of a sudden this is Valentine's Day," he said chagrined, "and here I drop in and you and your wife probably had plans. Didn't mean to spoil 'em...."
"We had a romantic little luncheon together," I said. "We did what all Chicagoans do to honor the day."
"Shot up a garage." I munched a macaroon. "So Saipan trip number four is coming up? Aren't you taking a childhood interest a little far?"
"I didn't set out to try to find Amelia," he said. "A pal of mine and me, we went to the Marshall Islands, what was it, now? Four years ago, five? Anyway, I had it on good authority that a whole slew of Jap warbirds were just waitin' for the pickin', on Mili Atoll."
"I suppose they did abandon a lot of planes," I allowed, sipping my black coffee, "when our boys started advancing. So you figured you could reclaim a bird or two?"
He nodded. With his sunglasses off, he had sky-blue eyes with long, almost feminine lashes, curiously beautiful in a craggy male face. "I had a couple museums on the hook, eager to buy planes to restore and display. But it never panned out."
"Never found any?"
"Oh, hell, there was a passel of 'em, all right. Zeros, mostly. Only in shit-poor condition. Planes either past restoration or too difficult to pry loose from the underbrush and overgrowth. Did some diving, too, 'cause we knew some planes went down; but what with rust and corrosion....It was a fool's errand, and you're lookin' at the head fool."
I studied him. "Did you think you were going to find Amelia's Lockheed?"
"Not hardly." Now the blue eyes had a twinkle. "You see, I know what happened to that 'flyin' laboratory' of hers. I saw it."
That perked me up. "When in hell?"
"The first time I was in Saipan....July 1944."
"You saw the plane."
"We'd just captured Aslito Field. You or your wife mind if I smoke?"
He dug out a pack of Lucky Strikes and fired one up, waving out the match as he said, "I was one of several Marine guards posted outside this padlocked hangar. Some of the brass were arguing with this fella in a white shirt, no sidearm, and you know sidearms were mandatory for officers in combat zones. Some kinda intelligence spook, I gathered....Seems Major Greene discovered this American plane in Jap storage, and wanted to make sure the marines got credit for it. But this guy in the white shirt was backing 'em off -- and they were taking it."
"Did you see this plane?"
"Yes and no. A buddy of mine said they rolled her out and actually flew her. I didn't see that. That night, off duty -- we were bivouaced a half-mile away -- we heard an explosion, over at the air field. Bunch of us went over there and this plane, a Lockheed Electra, civilian plane, was the hell on fire. Like somebody'd poured gas on and lit her up like a bonfire. Still, I could make out an i.d. number -- NR16020 -- which meant nothin' to me at the time."
That was the registration number of Amelia's Lockheed Electra, the one she'd taken on her final, ill-fated flight around the world. She and her navigator Fred Noonan had taken off on the last leg of the landmark flight, from Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, 1937. Their destination was tiny Howland Island, 2,556 miles away. It was the most famous unfinished trip in history.
"Jap sabotage?" I asked, referring to the burning plane. "There would've been plenty of our little yellow friends left on the island, in the hills and trees and caves."
"I don't think so," he said, shaking his head, no. "I think somebody was destroyin' evidence. That fella I saw? In the white shirt? He had a real familiar face. I recognized him from the papers, or anyway I knew I should have recognized him from the papers. He was somebody."
"Did it ever come to you, who he was?"
He snorted a laugh. "Only the goddamn Secretary of the Navy. Remember that guy? James Vincent Forrestal!"
Names from the past can have a funny effect on you. Sometimes a warm feeling flows through you; my stomach had just gone cold. Colder than my wife's coffee could ever cure.
The blue eyes tightened. "You all right, Nate?"
We'd gone to first names, a long time ago. Sometimes I'm not all that easy to read; but I guess the blood had drained out of my poker face.
"Yeah. Sure. Get back to your story, Buddy. Trying to reclaim those old warbirds."
He grinned again; dentures, I'd decided. "I guess I am gettin' ahead of myself, jumpin' around....Anyway, while we were on Majuro, misguidedly mountin' a machete expedition into the jungle to try and liberate one of the better preserved Zeros, this fella...he was in charge of this heavy equipment yard where we were rentin' some stuff? This fella asked me the same question you did."
"What question is that?"
"He asked if we were looking for Amelia Earhart's plane. Then he told us how in 1937 he'd worked for a company supplying coal to the Japanese Navy. How one night he was refueling a ship called the Koshu when a crew member friend of his told him the ship was about to leave to search for an American airplane that crashed."
"That was his whole story?"
He gestured with a Lucky Strike in hand, making smoke streaks. "That was it, but it was enough, coming when it did. I mean, we were stuck in the Marshall islands, about to throw in the towel on my warbird expedition. My friend who gave me the lead on the abandoned planes? Well, he'd also told me about these islanders, hundreds of miles apart, all with the same story to tell...a story of two American fliers, a man and a woman, captured by the Japs and held as spies, before the war."
"You were an Earhart buff already, Buddy. You'd read the books."
"Sure, casually. I knew the stories of her and Noonan windin' up on Saipan, the theory that Amelia was on some sort of secret spy mission, and got shot down and captured. Never took it too seriously, though. Course I kinda like the romance of it. Right out of the movies, you know?"
"And you were in the neighborhood, so you decided to see for yourself."
"Yes I did. Got an ashtray?"
"Use your saucer."
He put his Lucky out, then sat forward, the coolness of his blue eyes at odds with an expression that had grown intense. "And I talked to all sorts of people...on Majuro, Mili and Jaluit, three little atolls in the middle of the South Pacific."
He told me of some of the islanders he'd spoken with.
Bilimon Amaron, a respected storeowner on Majuro, related that as a sixteen year-old medic, at Jaluit, he was called to a military cargo ship, where he tended to two Americans, "one lady, one man"....The man had some minor injuries from a plane crash, and the woman was called, by the Japanese, "Amira."
Oscar De Brum, a high-ranking Marshallese official, told of hearing from his father (in 1937 when De Brum was in the first grade) of the capture of a lady pilot who was being taken to the Japanese high command office in Jaluit.
John Heinie, a prominent Majuro attorney, recalled attending a Japanese school as a child in 1937 and witnessing, one morning, just before school, a ship towing a barge with a silver airplane on it, into the Jaluit harbor. Lotan Jack, a Marshallese working in 1937 as a mess steward at the Japanese naval base on Jaluit, told of hearing officers discuss Amelia's plane being shot down between Jaluit and Mili atolls; that she'd been routed to Kwajalein and on to Saipan.
On Saipan, a respected local politician, Manuel Muna, told of talking to a Japanese pilot who claimed to have shot the Electra down, and also took Buddy for a tour of the ruins of Garapan Prison, where he said the American prisoners -- Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan -- had been held.
"We've made three trips to Saipan," Buddy said, "with limited results. At first, the Saipanese, the Chamorros, seemed less willing to talk than the other islanders."
"Why do you suppose that is?"
"Well, for one thing they still fear reprisals from the Japanese."
"There's still a strong Japanese presence on Saipan, Nate, strong economic ties. Then there's a general distrust, no, more a...hell, a downright fear of Americans, 'cause up till recently the CIA had a secret training center on the island, behind a security fence, not unlike the kind of fences the Japanese put up, in the old days."
"And the Saipan natives were afraid of the Japs, so now they're afraid of us."
"Right. Just another foreign military presence to be feared. And they got worries from within, too -- a good number of Saipanese collaborated with the Japs, vicious goddamn thugs, carrying clubs, beating and torturing their own people. Many of those mean old bastards, who were on the Jap's 'local police force,' are still alive, and might retaliate if old secrets were revealed...."
"You'd think after the war, these snakes would've been rounded up and shot."
"That's not the way of the Saipanese. Yet gradually we did get natives to talk to us. Dozens of them, with similar stories of the lady pilot held in the hotel, and the man who'd come with her, kept in the prison."
"So why bring me into it?"
He tapped the pocket where the photocopy was folded up; it crinkled under his prod. "You were on Saipan, Nate, well before the war...probably in 1939 or maybe '40. Weren't you?"
"Do I look like a priest?"
"You sure don't look like a Jew. Even if your name is Heller. That's 'cause your mama was a good Catholic girl; that's where you get your Irish good looks."
"What would I have been doing on Saipan in 1930-whatever?"
That bathroom-tile grin flashed again; dentures, all right -- you didn't smoke that many cigarettes and keep them white like that unless they reside in a glass overnight.
"Same thing I was doing there in 1967 and '69," he said. "Looking for Amelia."
"She's been dead a long time."
"Probably. But where did she die? And when? And where's the body?"
Out the glass doors of our patio, moonlight glimmered on the waterway; but even with the moonlight, the night seemed dark.
I said, "Buried somewhere on that island, I suppose."
He pounded a fist on the table. "That's why I'm going back. To find her grave. To prove she was there, and give her a proper burial, and her rightful place in history as the first courageous casualty of the Second World War."
I looked at him like he was the one who'd been mustered out on a Section Eight. "Then go dig her up. You don't need me for it."
The blue eyes narrowed and bore in on me like benign laser beams. "I think you'd be useful company, Nate. Might be interesting, seeing if that mug of yours stirs any memories, loosens any tongues. You'll see some familiar faces. Remember a bad-ass named Jesus Sablan? He was the head of the Saipan police -- worst of the collaborators."
My stomach grew cold again; my eyes felt like stones.
When I didn't say anything, Buddy said, "Funny, I thought maybe you might remember him. One of the stories about the Irish priest involves Sablan....They say Sablan's the one that killed Fred Noonan. Some of them say that, anyway. Quietly, they say it. Secretly. Praying it never gets back to Lord Jesus."
"Still alive." My voice sounded hushed, distant, like somebody else was saying it, somewhere else.
A sly smile formed; blue eyes twinkled. "Oh, you do remember Jesus Sablan, then?"
I gave him my own sly smile. "I never confirmed your theory, Buddy. Never said I'd been to Saipan before. This could all just be another horseshit Amelia Earhart yarn."
"Remember your research. Remember all those people who dismiss Nate Heller's ramblings as bullshit self-aggrandizement."
"Good point. Of course, another thing I read about you, they say you like money. You don't turn down a good retainer."
"I'm old and rich, Buddy. Anyway, rich enough. And old enough, to ignore you and any offer you might make me."
"Ten grand, Nate. For ten days. Are you so well off ten grand don't matter?"
Actually, I was.
But I said, "Okay, Buddy -- I'll take your money. Just don't ask me to go on record about that priest business."
"No problem." He rose from the table. "We leave next week. I'll mosey out so you can break it to your wife...no wives on this trip."
"Please do thank her for the hospitality, and my regrets for messin' up Valentine's Day evenin'. Passport in order?"
I nodded. "I'll phone my office in Chicago and get you a contract."
"I'm disappointed," he said, as I walked him to the front door. "I figured you'd want cash."
"That was a long time ago, that Nate Heller. I'm a different man, Buddy."
And I was, or at least I thought was, till I heard those names: Amelia Earhart, James Forrestal, Lord Jesus Sablan.
Buddy Busch was giving me an opportunity I'd never dreamed I'd get: before I really retired, I would return to a place I'd never expected to see again, to a job I'd left unfinished, a very long time ago.
And finish it.