The alarm rang out like a school bell right as my head hit the pillow. My eyes didn’t even have time to close. They were wide open as I jolted into an upright position on the bed. It was hard to act with a hundred pound Golden Retriever, two Coton d’Tulieres and my own wire-haired Jack Russell Terrier in the full size bed with me. The clanging bell made the walls vibrate. Toby the Golden Retriever trembled with fear while his two puffy white siblings Prince and Simba, normally neurotic basket cases, snuggled up against me. I suddenly remembered the tour Mr. Yorkin had personally given me on the morning I agreed to housesit. With a veiny, well-manicured hand he had demonstrated how to set the alarm system and pointed out the different readouts on the digital display. After browsing through his collection of jazz cds in the screening room, he had escorted me upstairs and shown me the safe hidden in the master bedroom closet. The safe held all of Mrs. Yorkin’s jewelry and his cash. It was equipped with a motion sensor and a body heat detector. So if the bell sounded that meant there was an intruder in the twelve thousand square foot Holmby Hills mansion with me.
With the seemingly impenetrable iron gates that surrounded the property and security cameras, I was not at all concerned about my safety. Instead, I’d had thoughts about the enormity of the master bedroom and the closet we were standing in.
The alarm bell was unrelenting. I grabbed my glasses then mustered the courage to jump out of the bed and lock the door. To the right of it was the alarm system keypad. I read the digital display and there it was: INTRUDER DETECTED MASTER BEDROOM. I instinctively lunged for the telephone on the nightstand to call 911. My hand shook as I dialed. Instead of 911, I dialed 912. On my second attempt I dialed 811. Try as I could, I could not make my fingers comply with my thoughts. In an inspired moment I grabbed my cell phone and pressed the red emergency key.
“911 Emergency what is your emergency?”
I focused my attention on the tips of the heritage trees I could see through the second floor window. I was determined to speak calmly and coherently. Instead I blathered.
“I’m housesitting and the alarm just went off. It says there’s an intruder in the master bedroom.” The female operator’s voice remained flat as she typed.
“Is anyone else home with you?”
“No. I mean, yes. I have four dogs with me.”
“Are you somewhere in the house where you can lock a door?”
“Yes, I’m in the nanny’s room. I already locked the door.”
A long beep sounded on her end. The faint sound of helicopters distracted me for a moment. I looked outside and for the first time ever noticed the spires on the black gate.
“A response team is on its way. I’m going to stay on the phone with you until they arrive. I need you to put the dogs somewhere secure where they won’t interfere with the officers.”
“I could put them in the bathroom.”
“Yes, go ahead and do that.”
I lifted the three little dogs out of the bed and set them down in the bathroom. I prayed that Toby not choose this moment to play dead the way he did on our hikes when he didn’t want to walk anymore. Toby was confused but compliant. He and his siblings stared up at me with unwavering love and trust as I told them all to lay down. My Jack Russell, Lucas had a look of fear in his eyes that broke my heart.
“The response team has arrived. Are you standing near a window on the north side of the house?”
My mind raced as I tried to picture the blue print of the house. “Yes. I am. How did you know that?”
“The helicopter can see you.”
I realized then the sound of the helicopter had come closer and now hovered over the house. Outside I could see teams of shadow figures rappelling over the gates.
“I’m going to continue to stay on the phone with you. I need you to go to the front door of the house and when I tell you, open the door for the officers. Do not open the door unless I tell you to do so.”
I took a deep breath, unlocked the door and stepped out of the nanny room. I flew down the wool carpeted hallway hoping I would be able to locate the front door. I came and went on a daily basis through the service entrance and had only once been beyond the restaurant style swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the main residence. The dogs barked from the bathroom as the distance between us expanded.
I clutched my Razor phone as I approached the wall of large French windows. The moonlight illuminated the grand staircase that led down to the front door. A series of digital beeps told me the operator was still on the other end of the line.
“I’m almost there.”
I gripped the elegant hand railing as I jogged down the stairs. “Okay, I’m at the front door.”
“The officers are standing outside. Go ahead and open the door.”
I fumbled with the deadbolt then opened the heavy door. Standing on the other side were a cadre of officers with flashlights and their hands on their guns. A pair of police dogs were being unloaded from the K-9 Police vehicle in the driveway. I shivered in my tank top and thin cotton pyjama bottoms as the cold night air and the troop of officers swept into the house. Their tactical shoes made a dull sound against the marble floor. They dispersed like fireflies into the dark house. One of them lingered behind with me.
“Have you seen anyone?”
I shook my head. “No, the bell only sounds if it detects motion or body heat so I know someone was here.”
“Got it. ” His radio crackled. He turned down the volume on the Phantasmic voices.
“We’re going to put you in the squad car while we have look around. You’ll be safe in there.”
The coarse red bricks scratched the arch of my foot as I stepped down the threshold of the house and onto the bumpy asphalt driveway. He held the door to the squad car open for me.
“How big is the place?
“I’m not sure.” I thought about the tennis court, the rose garden, the swimming pool and its accompanying cabana. Then there was the veranda off the southern end of the first floor adjacent to the oak paneled library. “Maybe a few acres?”
The officer was beckoned by one of his colleagues. They stepped away from the squad car for a private chat. When they returned, the officer asked me to step out of the car. He held out a black vest.
“We’re going to put this on you and have you walk around with us. The officers are having trouble finding their way around the property.” I wasn’t convinced of their strategy but I knew myself the house was a maze.
The bulletproof vest weighed heavily on my frame as I led the officers through the house. They turned on every lamp and flipped every light switch in every room. Every now and then I heard Prince’s high-frequency yelp from the nanny room. As we stood in the screening room, two of the officers nudged one another as they noticed the placards from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences that hung on the walls. Another officer who had been out on the grounds entered like a breathless Grecian messenger.
“The dogs picked up a scent in the master bedroom closet. It goes off the balcony, across the back lawn around the tennis court. Perp probably climbed the fence on the other side of those tall hedges.” He punctuated his statement with an antic climactic shrug.
Another officer stepped in to ask a question. “There’s some paint trays and a couple of ladders laying around. Are they working on the house?”
All week long painters, plasterers and electricians had made parking in the motor court impossible. I had even gotten a nail in one of my tires.
“They’ve been working somewhere in the house.”>/p>
The officer shifted his weight. “Does anybody keep track of the construction crew? Make sure they’re all gone at the end of the day?”
I didn’t know the answer to this but I imagined this was a task, like all others passed down the pecking order so far that it fell off. I felt sick at the thought that one of the construction crew had hidden himself away upstairs in the master bedroom closet waiting for the right time to make his move.
Every night Lucas and I had the same routine. We checked in at the house as soon as the second assistant and the last housekeeper left for the evening. I grabbed the heavy-duty flashlight off the utility table in the service entrance and took the dogs on their evening walk around the property. Lucas and Toby happily jogged along the footpath on one side of me while Prince and Simba bounced and smiled on the other. My Ugg boots were soaked with water from the lawn by the time we returned to the house. After that, the dogs lined up for their bedtime treats then up we went to the nanny room for a little television before finally going to sleep. It frightened me to my core to think that tonight someone had watched, listened and waited all this time for me to close the nanny room door and turn off the television.
It was two in the morning by the time the officers left. They advised me to take the dogs and sleep somewhere else for the night. The dogs were in a full-scale panic when I released them from the bathroom.
“Come on babies, let’s get the hell out of here.”
Our little pack of five ran down the corkscrew staircase at the northern end of the hallway, through the garage then outside to my SUV in the motor court. As I swung my car around and off the property, I saw that every light was left on in the house giving it a spectacular glow.
I didn’t know what Toby, Prince and Simba were going to do in a six hundred square foot apartment but I didn’t care. I just wanted to go to sleep. Fortunately, my apartment was just a few miles away on the other side of the 405 freeway. I waited until I got to Wilshire Boulevard before dialing the Yorkin’s assistant, Emily.
Until recently, Emily had been the second assistant and was promoted after the abrupt departure of Mr. Yorkin’s long time assistant, Damon. Damon’s departure was surprising considering his level headedness and seeming acceptance of the insanity that came with his position. Unlike previous star struck assistants, many of whom came off the bus from the Midwest and Las Vegas and saw their name in lights, Emily was an educated, effective and sassy twentysomething. She also had irreverence for the first world problems and fake emergencies of the Hollywood family she worked for. She sounded appropriately groggy for an unexpected 2:30am wake-up call.
“Hey, it’s Brenda. Sorry to wake you.”
“The house got broken into. The police just left. I’m on my way home to my apartment with the dogs.”
Emily was suddenly wide awake. “Shut the fuck up!”
“Everything’s okay. I just didn’t want to sleep there.”
“Well I wouldn’t want to either! Oh my god. OH-MY-GOD!”
My adrenaline rush began to wear off as I rounded the corner of the Veteran’s Administration and crossed San Vicente Boulevard. I could practically hear the clever cogs, gears and wheels of Emily’s mind working.
“I need to talk to Mr. Yorkin first so don’t tell anyone what happened. Especially Vilma. Jesus Christ. They’re in Hawaii with Clint Eastwood and his family. He’s going to have a fucking heart attack. I mean literally, he might have a heart attack.”
“Let’s hope not.”
Mr. Yorkin had his cantankerous moments but overall my experiences with him had been pleasant. He had a wonderful sense of humor, a dapper sense of style and loved his dogs and children dearly. Every morning he was up early, having his breakfast and ready to drive the children to school. Like most Depression era survivors, I noticed that Mr. Yorkin always ate everything on his plate and left it looking as if it had just been cleaned.
The irony was not lost on me as I settled into my own bed with the dogs that my modest little apartment in the Brentwood Barrio where disenfranchised Veterans from the VA across the street regularly quarreled over recyclables from our bins, was a more comforting place to be than a fortified mansion in Holmby Hills.
Marching along the trail the next morning it was clear the dogs had forgotten earlier events. It was a beautiful spring morning and from the trail off of Old Road Mulholland we had a panoramic view of city. To the west, the ocean glistened and to the east, the buildings of downtown Los Angeles stood like miniature models on a diorama.
I meandered on the trail and drove back slowly to the house hoping Emily would call to tell me the coast was clear. I wished I could live in the present like the dogs but I couldn’t help compulsively checking my phone for missed calls from her. There weren’t any. At about ten, I had no choice but to head back to the Yorkins’ to give the dogs their breakfast.
I steeled myself as I clicked the remote and pulled through the gates. The house looked so stately and innocuous in the daytime. The dogs hopped out of my car and into the motor court, excited to eat.
Lucas watched and barked from the car as I shepherded Toby, Prince and Simba into the garage. We squeezed past Mr. Yorkin’s sage green vintage Mercedes-Benz Roadster then took that last step up into the service entrance of the house. There on the other side of the door, I was met by the awestruck faces of the housekeeping staff.
Vilma, Yvonne and Vittorio. Vilma and Yvonne were immigrants from Mexico like my parents and we had bonded over our shared culture. The fact that I could speak Spanish with them and understood their work ethic earned me their trust and confidence. Still, I didn’t completely trust Vilma who I knew would do or say anything to occupy the cardinal position with Mrs. Yorkin. Short and shaped like a barrel, Vilma was the living stereotype of the Southern California housekeeper. Yvonne on the other hand may very well have been the inspiration for the housekeeping beauty conjured up by James Brooks in his colonialist fantasy Spanglish. Vittorio was from Southeast Asia and had been Mr. Yorkin’s “houseboy” for thirty-eight years. He liked to boast that he had been with Mr. Yorkin longer than either of his two wives. Vittorio was as kind and gentle as they came and was the first of the staff to befriend me and Lucas.
All three of them fell completely silent as I strode in trying my best to act normally. The dogs with their wagging tails provided good cover for me.
I immediately felt Vilma’s accusatory eyes on me. Vittorio set down the pink Ugg boot he was spot cleaning. Behind him was a row of tween size Ugg boots in every color imaginable.
“Good Morning, Brenda.”
I wasn’t at all surprised that Vilma took the lead in questioning me. “Brenda, deed you turn on all de lights in de house?” Emily had obviously not done her job of briefing the staff.
“Because all the lights were on in the house this morning.”
I paused, hoping I didn’t have a tell. “Really? That’s weird.”
The trio looked at each other knowingly. I figured the jig was up. Vittorio wiped his rough hands on his blue smock then raised his index finger as he spoke ominously.
“It was Henry Mancini.”
Vittorio nodded with conviction. “He used to be neighbor when Bugsy Siegel live here. They not like each other.”
I remembered now that Yvonne had once shared that she refused to sleep at the house because it was haunted. She saw ghosts at night and was kept up by their convivial gatherings in the living room. I had taken Yvonne’s information with a grain of salt if for no other reason than because when I had once offered to spend my Saturday helping her learn to write in English, she had blown me off. She later apologized and explained that she had lay on her bed all afternoon having a vision of the Virgin Mary.
On another morning during one of his smoke breaks out by the trash cans, Vittorio had once told me that mobster Bugsy Siegel had been the original owner of the Yorkin’s house and that he had been murdered. Bugsy had sold the house with all its furnishings to finance the construction of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Why composer Henry Mancini would be haunting Bugsy’s Siegel’s house I had no idea.
“You mean you think Henry Mancini’s ghost turned on all the lights?”
Vilma and Yvonne looked at me as if I were completely naïve. Vittorio nodded with absolute certainty.
“I see him before. At night. He play the piano.”
I didn’t have the heart to let them in on the truth. And without Emily here it wasn’t my place to do so. I wasn’t sure how to conclude the conversation. “Well, I better feed the dogs their breakfast. Will you tell Emily to call me when she gets in?” Yvonne’s syrupy hazel eyes met mine.
“You’re not afraid to sleep here tonight, Brenda?” The truth is I was terrified but I was also trapped until I could get a hold of Emily.
For the next few days she cleverly avoided my phone calls and made herself invisible at the house. I thought about sleeping at home but I felt obligated to look after the house. My remaining nights in the nanny room were torture. The house had taken on a macabre quality. The kitchen, which was in desperate need of an update now looked dreary. The bough of the tree that hung over the black and white static image on the surveillance camera had become eerie. One night I even heard the clinking of glasses and the murmuring of a crowd as ghostly libations were poured on the main floor of the house.
Overwrought with fear, I fought the urge to flee with the dogs and instead forced myself to confront my anxieties. My whole body shook as I made my way down the staircase with my crew of four-legged ghost busters behind me. They accompanied me as far as the accordion gate set up to keep them out of the kitchen. They all wagged their tails as they watched me climb over the gate and disappear behind the swinging doors on the other side of the kitchen.
In the middle of the night, the formal living room had a blue hue to it. An entire wall of floor to ceiling windows glistened behind did the custom furniture and antiques. Much to my relief, Henry Mancini was not seated on the bench of the grand piano tinkling the ivories. I wondered as I stood there on the edge of the sunken room, if the ghost of Bugsy Siegel might be standing alongside me. Maybe he was perched with his pistol on the narrow ladder staircase tucked behind the swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the rest of the grand house.
After the burglary, I had done some research into the construction of the home. This steep and austere metal staircase next to the ice machine was primarily used by Yvonne in the late mornings as a short cut to Mrs. Yorkin’s dressing area. It always seemed like a strange architectural afterthought, poorly designed for servants carrying breakfast trays. It was in fact a very deliberate detail, designed by Bugsy himself so that he could elude would be attackers or the authorities.
My last day of house sitting was a Sunday so the property was absent of all other human life. Lucas galloped around the beautifully manicured yard squeaking a toy. He was making the most of his last full day at the estate; swimming in the resort style pool and chasing balls across the tennis court. Toby, Prince and Simba stayed at my side all morning, valuing human companionship over living on a few of acres of prime Los Angeles real estate.
Tomorrow I would have one last hike with the dogs then I would hand them off to their mobile groomer. It would be an all hands on deck situation at the house as they prepared for the return of the family. The refrigerator would be re-stocked meals prepared and mail sorted. The nameless laundress who was always hidden away in the scullery ironing table linens, bedding and hand washing Mrs. Yorkin’s bras, would prepare for the onslaught of dirty clothes that would arrive direct from Hawaii.
Days after the return of the family my phone rang and I saw it was one of the numbers from the Yorkin home office. I assumed it was Emily. Instead it was Vilma.
“Hi, Brenda it’s Vilma wid de Yorkins. Mrs. Yorkin say der are things missing from de house and she want to know where dey are.”
My heart stopped. In all the talk about the house being haunted it never occurred to me I would be accused of theft.
“Missing? What’s missing?”
“She say a laptop, a purse. And some oder things.”
“Vilma, can you transfer me to Emily?”
“You wanna to talk to Emily?”
“Yes please, Vilma.”
“Okay lemme see if I can find her. You gonna call me back later?”
To my surprise Emily picked up the phone. She sounded very casual as if nothing had happened.
“Mrs. Yorkin just had Vilma call me. She thinks I stole things from the house. Didn’t you tell them what happened?”
Emily lowered her voice to a whisper. “No. I was afraid Mr. Yorkin would have a stroke and you said everything was okay so I didn’t feel like I needed to say anything.”
“Emily, Mrs. Yorkin thinks I’m a thief. You have to tell him!”
Emily was unconvinced. I issued an ultimatum. “Either you tell him or I tell him. “
Her anger at my demands was palpable over the phone. She wasn’t going to tell him. It was clear.
“Okay then, I’m going to tell him. Can you transfer me to him please?”
Emily sighed. Her voice transitioned into a sing-song lilt. “Okay…”
This was my first time calling Mr. Yorkin. It felt very bold. I felt sick as I held for several minutes waiting for him to pick up. I pictured him whistling as he walked down the hallway, the heel of his cap toe shoes clicking against the stone floors to his desk in his library. Finally, he picked up the phone.
He always sounded like the actors from Frank Capra movies when he spoke on the telephone. “Hello.”
“Hi Mr. Yorkin, it’s Brenda.”
My voice quavered as I forged ahead. “I’m calling to speak to you about the burglary at your home. Emily has the police report.”
“Burglary? What are you talking about?”
“The house was broken into while I was sleeping. The police came. Everything seemed fine but Mrs. Yorkin called earlier about some things that are missing from the house. I didn’t want you to think I had taken them.”
“Things are missing? What things?
“Vilma said something about a laptop and a purse.”
“Well first of all, I wouldn’t have you stay here if I didn’t trust you. Second of all, we have so much goddamned stuff in this house we can never find anything. Don’t worry about it.”
I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I hung up the phone but ultimately was overwhelmed by the urgency to get back to my real life. My former existence had guaranteed paychecks via direct deposit. Paid sick days, paid vacation days, three-day weekends, medical benefits and a 401-K. But it wasn’t just the money and definitely not the office politics I longed for. It was the day-to-day stability and predictability.