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Episode 1: Private Screening
Both of them big boys.
Both ready to put me down hard.
The guy behind the desk had obviously put a toe to an alarm button on the floor to summon them. A big bore pistol lay on his desktop but I wasn't too worried about that. He barked some orders at the pair of goons when they shoved in to take me.
I saw one of them reaching inside his suit coat for his shoulder holster. Getting the other one between him and me I lashed out with a quick left and right to his jaw. A dazed look colored his face and his eyelids fluttered in surprise. He stood there motionless for a second before slumping in slow motion to the carpet. By then the other one had his pistol drawn, brandishing it. From the corner of my eye I saw the guy behind the desk reaching for the gun on the desktop.
I had bigger fish to fry.
That's when the other big boy raked my skull with the long barrel of his pistol. I literally saw stars. Blackness edged my vision and I felt myself losing my equilibrium. I staggered back, with my head exploding into a thousand fragments. Nausea boiled up in my throat all the way down to the pit of my stomach. If I hit the deck it would be game, set and match for me.
The bruiser raised his revolver high over his head for a second swing. The blow would certainly crush my skull.
It all started early that morning when I got a call from a client. He wanted to know if I could put breakfast on hold and shake a leg down to Silver Cinema studios. Sure, anything for an account as lucrative as Silver Cinema.
"What's it all about?" I asked.
"Tell you when you get here, Felix. It's important."
"Be there in half an hour."
I wrestled my car through the morning traffic in Hollywood and Burbank. The studio nestled in the orange groves in the valley just west of there. The guard at the gate directed me to the receptionist in the office. She asked me if I was Mr. Driscoll. I said I was and she flirted with me for a minute before directing me to a screening room downstairs.
Bobby Glide was on the phone when I entered. Or maybe he was just listening to it ring on the other end. He put the receiver down disgustedly, shaking his head. He raised a finger in the universal give-me-just-a-minute sign and dialed again, probably a different number because, this time, he got an answer.
"Would you roll the film now, Johnny?" I heard him say. "Our audience has arrived. Thanks."
We shook hands and he bid me to be seated as the lights in the empty theater went down.
"I missed breakfast to watch a movie?"
"It's Alena's new picture," Tommy said, like that explained everything.
"I bet I can't even get popcorn in here," I mock complained.
The title card A Hint Of Vermillion flashed up on the screen, starring Alena Dell, produced by Bobby Glide.
Before the first reel ended I knew even the best rewrite in Hollywood couldn't save Alena's new picture. The production obviously cost a lot of money and the movie still stunk. Short of a new director, cast and script, nothing was going to save that dog. As the last reel faded to the credits I yawned, but not too widely, I wanted to be polite. Fishing a cigarette from my pack I clicked my Zippo. Exhaling, I stood up from my seat and stretched to keep from falling asleep.
Bobby was on the wall phone in the back, one more time. He saw me looking and asked, "That bad, huh?"
"You don't need me to tell you that, you're the producer. What do you need a detective for?"
Bobby sighed and scanned the rows of vacant plush seats. While I'd sat through that 80-minute stinker he said not a word. He'd spent every second by the phone when he wasn't pacing a hole in the carpet, chain-smoking. I thought he would have said something of consequence by now. He had had time to put his thoughts in order while I drove over to the studio. More time during the three entire reels of uninspired dreck.
"Cat got your tongue?" I asked.
Bobby made a face.
I tried more prompting, "Why the silent treatment? And what exactly is the job?"
He hesitated: "Look, Felix, I'm not sure what to say."
"Okay, but what's Alena's new movie and a private detective got to do with one another?"
About that time the projectionist stuck his head inside the big soundproofed door. "You finished up in here, Mr. Glide?"
"Sure, sure, Johnny, we're done," Bobby uttered uncertainly, "Felix and I are on our way out."
We shuffled through the door, down a short hall, up several flights of stairs and into Bobby's office. Through his window I saw a row of tired palms drooping in the heat outside. Several green air conditioning units hunched on the roof of a cinderblock soundstage building the size of an airplane hangar. The Silver Cinema back lot had three more the same size but I couldn't see them from here.
I deposited the dead butt of the cigarette in a spotless ashtray on his desk. A couple hundred framed photos festooned the walls: Bobby with this star; that starlet. A color poster of Alena's first starring picture had a wall to itself, hanging over a sideboard.
The phone on his desk bleated before I got a word out of him. "Hang on, I gotta take this. Hello!" he answered before it could ring twice. He dug his smokes out of his breast pocket while listening to the voice on the phone. When he lit up smoke rose like an angry cloud of birds around his head. It didn't take a detective to realize he was speaking with Alena, the conversation unpleasant.
To make myself scarce I drifted over to the window. A group of extras dressed as Roman gladiators filed into the giant cinderblock building across the way. Outside the studio fence orange groves stretched into the valley. Bobby startled me by slamming the phone down.
"That was Alena."
"Uh huh. What's she have to say?"
"You gotta help me, Felix. I don't care about the movie."
"What do I need to do?"
"Something's bugging Alena. She's got a big bee in her bonnet. Just went nuts over the phone. That's why the movie's screwed."
I waited for him to say something that required a reply.
He kept talking, "You and I served in the Pacific together, right? You've known Alena and me since high school, right?"
"Back when her name was Melissa Sanchez and yours was Herrera," I smiled lightly.
He gave a hollow chuckle. "We're both in show business, what can I say?"
"You're talking but you're not saying anything, Bobby. So I've known you two since high school. So I thought you two would be married by now."
He looked like my words wounded him. I
hated to see an old friend in such raw pain. "It's been fifteen
sixteen years since we got out of school," he said in almost a
whisper. His cigarette had gone out in his hand. He looked
down at it and tossed it in the ashtray. Bobby's eyes shined but
not a tear fell. "I think she's in love with another man..."
On to Episode 2 : Cut to the Chase
Murder's Accomplice is copyright by Darryl Crawford. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)