DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.
Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie) and Gina Martin
Wondering at the advisability of regaining awareness, Vince Deal experimentally cracked open one eye. It didn't lessen the roil of nausea in his gut -- he really was getting too old for heavy drinking -- but it didn't increase it either, so he opened his other eye and stared at the ceiling overhead. It wasn't very high; his dream about a posh hotel room had been nothing more than wishful fantasy. Fiberboard, stained brown with old water spots, and a square metal thing with a handle...the overhead vent.
He was still in the shabby motor home that was his dressing room.
Well, at least he hadn't tried driving home in his inebriated state. Some iota of good sense had made him sleep it off in his trailer -- or maybe he'd simply passed out from all the booze.
He sat up cautiously and groaned as the pain rocketed from his belly to his head.
He hadn't drunk this much since the cancellation of his series, Braddock's Way, back in the '60s. Braddock's Return was supposed to be a TV movie-of-the-week, his triumphant comeback to network television, but if the current production schedule was any indication, it would be lucky to see the can, much less be broadcast.
Damn, he hated hangovers!
He glanced at the blanket-covered mound on the other side of the bed. Who was that? He assumed it was a woman, because he hadn't slept with a man since that debacle on the Hitchcock film back in fifty-something, and that had been the accidental result of some really bad tequila. Luckily, nothing too embarrassing had happened, and he was able to look back on the memory with wry humor. He hadn't touched tequila since that time, except for the occasional five-star anejo, of course. A man had to have standards....
Tentatively, he pulled back the blanket to reveal an eruption of blond curls flowing across the pillow.
Ah, yes, Gwenyth Oberon. Her real name, actually, capitalizing on its legendary namesake although there was no blood relation. Pity.
Deal sighed. Merle. Now there was a timeless star from the heyday of Hollywood glitz and glamour. Everything about the industry seemed tawdry and tired these days.
Much like Vince Deal himself.
Shaking free of these uncharacteristically maudlin thoughts, he pushed himself cautiously to his feet and navigated the few short feet of faded linoleum to the tiny bathroom, where he rinsed his mouth and tried to bring some life back into his pallid cheeks by washing his face.
Christ, he looked a mess. His normally clear brown eyes were red and watery. The skin on his face felt loose and sagged limply around his chin.
He was too old to drink like he had tonight, dammit. Too old to let some upstart of a director rile him into throwing a tantrum more worthy of a young Brando than an old TV has-been. Coming from Deal, the flare-up had seemed less like artistic temperament than churlish pettiness. He couldn't even remember what the fight had been about.
So he'd sulked in his trailer, ignoring the knocks on the door, and drunk himself nearly into a stupor. Gwenyth had arrived at some point, and he'd let her in. Who could refuse that sensuous flower of youthful optimism and energy -- although what she saw in him made him wonder about the competence of her mental faculties.
He was a pathetic drunk, he realized. When he was sober...when he wasn't ensnared in this doomed effort of a bad movie...he was almost annoyingly cheerful. His big television comeback had been a bad idea. He knew that now. It only served to remind him of glory days he could never hope to recapture. He should have remained content with the occasional guest-starring role, the commercial voice-overs, and the radio bits. But Braddock, Private Investigator, was as much a part of Deal as the deep luster of his relatively full head of hair, silvering now at the temples in middle age, but still one of his finest features. Although a bit stockier around the middle and less agile than in his younger years, he still cut a fine figure, and could even be called handsome on most days...on days when he hadn't been drinking.
Trying to find something positive to focus on, he assured himself he'd be in fine fettle again once the hangover passed. First, he'd have to apologize to that twit of a director.... The thought served to depress him all over again, and he sighed at the pathetic, baggy-jowled stranger looking back at him in the mirror.
Something outside clattered to the ground, shattering the silence of the old factory district where the dilapidated soundstage was located. All of the interiors for Baddock's Return were being filmed here on cheap, flimsy sets that showed less imagination than the current fashion retread of a '60s fashion craze.
A distant chorus of dogs answered the disturbance, further disrupting his thoughts.
A prowler? Who'd be interested in his wreck of a motor home or the locked equipment trailers that held the pathetically small assortment of hardware allotted to the movie company?
Against his better judgement, he went to the door and drew aside the curtain in the small window. Peering into the late-night gloom, a thin fog reducing everything to two-dimensional grayness, he tried to see what had caused the noise.
Movement. There, by the FX van.
A furtive figure straightened from a crouch behind a long metal table where the various components for the day's requirement of special effects would be assembled, tested, and made ready for service. A canopy offered meager protection from the harsher elements, but it did nothing to block the wafting fog or penetrating chill of the night. Two small, low-wattage lamps illuminated the tabletop, but their glow did not reach more than a few feet into the gloom.
Rollie Houston was in charge of special effects for Braddock's Return, and he'd been working late on a prop of a human hand that was supposed to show a bullet passing through it while cameras captured the sequence for slow-motion playback. The slow-motion requirement meant the hand had to look realistic, and Rollie had been working diligently to produce a believable device. There was no sign of him now, however.
The tall, thin shadow creeping away from the table and rounding the side of the van wasn't cast by Rollie's stout, bow-legged figure. Of that much, Deal was certain.
Cautiously, he silently opened the door, then ruined his exit by stumbling down the motor home's narrow steps. He'd forgotten where he was for a moment.
Well, whoever was lurking certainly knew someone else was around after that graceless maneuver, so Deal walked on slipper-encased feet to the dimly lit table. Mysterious bits and pieces of FX paraphernalia littered the work surface. There were no suspicious gaps to suggest anything was missing, but Deal stepped around the table to see why the prowler had been crouching.
That's when he saw the body.
Rollie Houston was sprawled face upward on the pavement, his arms outflung, his chubby face contorted in a hideous death mask. In the faint lighting, the blood covering his chest and abdomen was a glistening deep pool of black soaking the formerly white fabric of his shirt.
Automatically, Deal checked for a pulse, but there was no indication life still flickered in that still, empty shell. He straightened in sudden alarm and looked around for the intruder.
But the night was silent and empty once again.
Refusing to panic, Deal returned to his motor home and picked up the telephone. Dead. Bad choice of words under the circumstances, but truthful nonetheless. The lines were disconnected each day at the end of shooting. He knew he had to summon the police, but he wasn't familiar with the neighborhood and didn't know where the nearest payphone was located.
Then he realized he did know someone who lived close by. Grabbing his overcoat and car keys, he locked the door of the motor home behind him and headed for his car.
Ellison couldn't believe his ears. Who the hell was pounding nails at this ungodly hour? Cursing, he stumbled from his bed and reached for his bathrobe. His fingers missed it in his sleepy disorientation, so he abandoned the quest and made his way down the stairs with the assurance of someone who was familiar with his surroundings and didn't need his eyes fully open to navigate.
Okay, it wasn't someone using a hammer; it was someone hammering on the door with a fist.
"All right!" he grumbled loudly to the insistent visitor. "I'm coming! Just hold on!"
The pounding continued. Glancing at the clock on the VCR as he passed, Jim saw it was after three a.m. Shit, he'd only been asleep a couple of hours. Behind him, he heard grumbling from his loftmate's room but ignored it to fling open the door and confront whoever had the audacity to disrupt his sleep at his ungodly hour.
His jaw fell. "Vince?"
"Hello, Ellison, glad to see you're up." Oblivious to the incredulous look from the police detective, Deal slipped past him into the loft.
Jim slammed the door and turned to the older man. "Up? I wasn't up, Vince -- I was trying to get some sleep after a very long night." Why the hell was he bothering to explain? "What do you want?"
"I have a problem, Jim." Deal leaned against the back of the sofa and crossed his arms, then had the grace to blush when Jim stared down at the slippers on his feet and saw the diamond-patterned flannel peeking from beneath the overcoat.
"Are you wearing pajamas?"
Vince honestly didn't know, so he glanced inside his overcoat to satisfy himself that Jim's question had been rhetorical. Unruffled, he stared pointedly at Jim's plaid boxers. "I'm wearing more than you at least."
A sleep-slurred voice murmured greetings from the bedroom doorway. "Hey, Vince, how're you doin'?" If anything, Sandburg knew how to accept disruptions to his routine, which was pretty chaotic even at the best of times.
Jim wasn't willing to be so lenient. "Never mind that. What are you doing here?"
"Coffee?" Blair padded in his bare feet toward the kitchen to start a pot, his hands tousling his hair as he tried to massage some alertness into his sluggish brain. The gesture made his gray sweatpants sag dangerously low on his hips, and he grabbed for them with hasty modesty. The dingy tee-shirt he favored for sleepwear was equally shapeless, and he looked about twelve years old.
"Yes, thank you, Blair." Deal shot Jim a look that said at least one member of the household knew how to be hospitable.
Jim's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Are you drunk?"
"I probably qualified for that label earlier in the evening, but now I am merely suffering the aftereffects of excessive indulgence."
"You're drunk," Jim said grimly.
"No, I'm hung over," Deal corrected without rancor. "And I want to report a murder."
Jim was unimpressed. "Then call a cop."
"I am -- you."
"I'm off duty."
"A cop is never off duty." Deal sounded positively sanctimonious with certainty. "Besides, I was looking for a payphone, but I reached your place before I found one."
Jim pointed toward the wall. "Phone. Call."
"Thank you, Jim, but I'd really prefer it if you'd look into the matter yourself." Without invitation, he went to the table and pulled out a chair to sit down.
"Let's just say that passing out in my dressing room at the movie lot will not make for good press if the story leaks out."
Blair delivered steaming mugs to the table, quickly added spoons, a container of sugar, and a carton of creamer, then sat down across from Deal. He looked at Jim. "Come on, man, he's here. Let's listen to what he has to say."
Grudgingly, Jim sat down and wrapped his hands around his mug of coffee. "Okay, Vince, we're listening."
"Thank you." As precisely as he could remember, Deal outlined what had happened, omitting the presence of Gwenyth Oberon in his bed. Belatedly, he realized he should have wakened her and gotten her safely off the lot. It was too late now to worry about his unintentional lack of chivalry. He only hoped she was still sleeping peacefully, unaware that anything was amiss.
Jim sensed Vince wasn't telling everything he knew, but he wasn't interested enough to press the matter. Reluctantly, he admitted maybe there was a shred of plausibility to the story. "Okay, I'll get dressed and check it out."
Deal brightened. "Great. Hurry up, though, because the rest of the crew will be arriving at five, and it wouldn't do for them to mess up your crime scene."
Finishing his coffee and standing up, Jim headed for the stairs to his bedroom. "Mess up my crime scene," he muttered sarcastically, then called, "You joining us, Chief?"
"Uh, sure." Hastily, Blair emptied his cup and dashed for his room to dress.
Both men chose simple expedience, dressing in the same clothes they'd worn prior to going to bed. They stumbled around each other in the small bathroom as they vied for space to brush their teeth and use deodorant, but they managed to emerge looking somewhat professional and alert.
Deal was unimpressed. "You look like rejects from a grunge movie."
"Don't press your luck, Vince," Jim warned, slipping on his shoulder holster and checking his weapon. "I'll write you a citation for indecent exposure or driving under the influence."
The older man was unfazed by the threat. "All right, but can we please go?"
"Sandburg will drive your car. I don't want you behind the wheel until you're sober." He snagged jackets for himself and his roommate, then herded the others out the door.
"Hey, kid, you're a cop now, right?" Deal threw a comradely arm across Blair's shoulders as they headed for the elevator. "What type of sidearm do you favor?"
Blair's answer was prompt. "Swiss Army."
Deal looked nonplussed. "Isn't it hard to find ammo for those foreign models?"
The area looked depressing and deserted. Jim waited in the truck while Vince got out to open the chain-link gates that provided entrance to the lot. Driving through behind Deal's pristine 1968 BMW, he watched in his rearview mirror as Vince closed the gate and walked forward to climb back into the passenger seat of his car. Then, obviously following instructions from Deal, Blair drove through a maze of equipment trucks and other equipment to a small parking area currently occupied by a relatively new Corvette.
Jim parked his pickup next to the sports car and climbed out. Blair and Vince joined him a moment later. "This car belong to the victim?"
Deal shook his head, wondering if he'd have to confess about Gwenyth after all. Consorting with a man almost three times her age would not be good publicity for his rising young co-star. "No."
He was grateful when Jim seemed willing to leave it at that.
"Okay, where's the body?"
"Does Rollie Houston have a car?" Blair added as they walked toward the soundstage.
Deal frowned in concentration. He honestly couldn't remember if Rollie's short-bed Sonoma had been parked there when he'd left to get Jim. With the exception of finding the body, his memory of recent events was hazy at best. "Sorry, I don't know where it is."
He led the way past his motor home toward the long table and the grisly scene hidden behind it. To his left, the sound stage loomed black and imposing out of the fog, while the lamps on the table cast sallow pools of illumination to mark his destination.
There was no body sprawled on the pavement.
"You're sure it was here?" Jim sounded openly skeptical now as he crouched to examine the immediate area.
"Yes, he was here. Right here." Deal gestured toward the spot with agitated uncertainty.
Blair looked around, peering into the shadows cast by the van and other trucks cluttering the lot, but he couldn't see anything unusual. "Maybe he was just hurt and left to get help."
Deal shook his head. "He was dead. I checked for a pulse."
Jim touched a finger to something on the ground and then lifted it to his nose.
"Did you find something?"
Jim stood up. "Yeah, blood."
Deal nodded. "There, I told you."
Jim scowled angrily. "Stage blood, prop blood, whatever the hell you call it. Dammit, Deal, if you set this up to sucker us in as some sort of publicity stunt --"
"Jim, I swear that isn't what happened," Vince protested, thoroughly flustered now. What if he'd only imagined what he thought he'd seen, and Rollie hadn't been dead after all, but just temporarily stunned by one of his own special effects? What if his alcohol-soaked brain had conjured up the furtive figure, the absence of pulse, perhaps even the delectable mound of Gwenyth Oberon gracing his bed?
"Vince, I don't know what I believe." Jim's voice was hard with the raw edge of his anger, fueled by weariness and suspicion. "I just know there isn't a case to investigate here. Call me if the body turns up, all right? Otherwise, I'm going home to bed. Come on, Chief."
Blair hesitated, touched by the lost look on Deal's face. "Uh, Jim, I think I'll hang out here for a while, give Vince a little company until the rest of the film crew shows up. Okay?"
Jim wasn't in a mood to argue. "Suit yourself. You need cash for a taxi?"
"I'll make sure he gets home," Vince said quietly, his confidence thoroughly deflated. "He can take my car. I'll be working on the show most of the day anyway."
With an exasperated look at his partner that spoke volumes about what he thought of Blair's compassionate nature right at this moment, Jim headed for his truck. Plans for a hot shower, a good breakfast, and a veritable deluge of coffee were already prioritizing in his thoughts.
Blair watched him leave, then turned to Vince. "Were you spending the night here?"
Vince shrugged. "I was too drunk to drive, and my trailer has a comfortable bed." He gestured toward the motor home, his mouth turned down in a bitter grimace. "Come on, kid, and I'll show you the glamour of show biz."
Personally, Blair thought the inside of the motor home looked too shabby and depressing to be the dressing room for a star of Deal's caliber.
Vince gestured vaguely toward the kitchenette. "Make some coffee, will you, kid? I'm gonna grab a shower." He disappeared into the rear of the coach.
Blair rummaged through the cupboards, then finally found the coffee and filters amid the clutter of the countertop. He cleaned out the coffee pot, poured fresh water into the coffeemaker, and prepared the brew according to package directions.
When the coffeemaker began to burble obediently, he looked around for a place to sit. The tiny dining area with its bench seating was piled high with clothing, scripts, and other stuff he had no desire to explore. The bed was the only uncluttered surface he could see, so he sat down on the edge of the mattress and fidgeted while he pondered Vince Deal's apparent descent into this rat-hole existence.
He yelped as hands grabbed him and pulled him backward onto the bed. He landed on something extremely soft and turned his face sideways to peer over the twin mounds of generous mammary splendor that cushioned his head.
Wide green eyes stared back at him, mirroring his surprise. "You're not Vince." The words were inane, but the voice was sultry with sleep and filled with startled amusement.
Even from the awkward angle, Blair was struck by her beauty. He struggled to find a coherent syllable. "No."
"Then you probably shouldn't be nuzzling my breasts."
He shot to his feet as if he'd been launched from a cannon. "Sorry!" he stammered breathlessly, feeling his face heat with embarrassment.
She laughed. "My fault. I should never make a move without my glasses." She fumbled on the built-in nightstand next to the bed. The movement dislodged the sheet she had tucked modestly beneath her arms. It stopped just short of achieving a major "R" rating, but Blair had his libido firmly in check and managed to divert his gaze from following the sheet's downward drift.
"You're Gwenyth Oberon," he said, pleased to have found his voice.
"Yes," she said, setting a huge pair of glasses on her face. Magnified, her unbelievably green eyes almost assaulted him. "And we've established that you're not Vince."
"Blair Sandburg." She shook his hand with a grip that was surprisingly cool and firm. "Vince is in the shower."
"Are you his friend?"
He thought about it. Could he really call himself Vince's friend, since he knew so little about him except what he chose to reveal? "Acquaintance, I guess. He comes down to the precinct every now and then to help us with a case."
"You're a police officer?" The question was asked without a trace of disbelief, which made him admire her even more.
Her forehead creased with worry. "Why are you here?"
Blair didn't quite know how to answer. "Vince thought he saw something," he answered cautiously.
At a loss, Blair shrugged and hid his discomfort behind a search for mugs, sugar, creamer, and spoons. When he turned back, Gwenyth had emerged from beneath the bedcovers and had donned a threadbare terrycloth robe.
"I did." Vince Deal, looking ten years younger after his shower and a return to sobriety, sounded assured. "I saw a murder."
Her concern was genuine. "Oh, Vince, how terrible."
Briefly, Vince recounted his story. "Except Jim doesn't believe me."
Blair poured coffee. "My partner."
Her gaze was disconcertingly probing. "Do you believe him?"
He was spared an answer by Vince.
"Blair doesn't believe me either, but he's too polite to say so." He accepted his cup of coffee with a nod of thanks. "I was a bit worse for wear last night."
She gave him a sympathetic kiss on his cheek before whispering something in his ear, while Blair busied himself with his coffee in an effort not to intrude on their private moment. Then she went into the bathroom and closed the door.
Vince shoved a pile of clothes aside and squeezed into the tiny booth of the breakfast nook. "She said this movie isn't good for me."
"Is she right?"
Vince shrugged. "Probably. I was sober as a judge from the day after Braddock's Way was cancelled until I started filming this movie."
"Any idea why you started drinking again?" Blair asked sympathetically.
Vince smiled sadly. "Oh, I suppose a shrink would say I was trying to recapture my glory days when I was a high-spirited, hard-drinking Hollywood big shot. The character of Braddock is a link to those years, so it might seem natural for me to emulate my behavior from then."
"But you don't think that's true?"
"No. I think I'm just feeling the weight of my years because I have to deal with punk directors like Tony Baron." Vince laughed harshly. "He's an inept sonofabitch, but the producer loves him." He raised an eyebrow. "I wonder --" After a moment, the eyebrow lowered again. "No, not even a love-starved baboon would be tempted to fall in love with Tony."
Blair listened to the sounds of the shower running in the bathroom, and his curiosity got the better of him. "What about Gwenyth?"
Vince didn't have to wonder at the intent behind the question. He grinned with self-deprecation. "I'm a realist. I'm not sure what she wants from me, but I'm too sensible to think she's with me because of my charm and good looks."
Blair smiled. "Do I detect a hint of wistfulness?"
Vince laughed abruptly. "Hell, yes, kid. I'm old, not dead. What man wouldn't hunger for the love of a 24-year-old woman who looks like Gwen Oberon?" He drained his cup and stood up with a flourish. "The gang should be arriving by now. Let me introduce you to the walking edifice of stupidity known as Tony Baron."
Continue on to Act II...
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This page last updated 2/2/01.