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."
A shower and shave made Jim Ellison feel almost human again, so he completed the transition by having breakfast at his favorite greasy spoon. Country-fried steak smothered in heavy gravy, eggs over medium, fried potatoes, pancakes with butter and maple syrup, and strong coffee made him feel deliciously decadent. It wasn't that Blair objected to Jim occasionally straying toward the "cholesterol special of the day," but the restaurant offered nothing but toast for someone with Sandburg's healthier breakfast preferences, so Jim tended to eat there only when he was on his own.
The lengthy shower and leisurely breakfast didn't fill the hours between the time he'd been woken by a drunken Vince Deal and when he was due at work. He even beat Simon into the precinct. Too full to think of donuts, he brewed coffee in the bullpen's communal pot and carried a cup to his desk. Sitting down, he turned on the computer and sifted through the stack of folders in his in-box.
He enjoyed the silence of a deserted bullpen. It gave him a chance to organize his day and ease into an increasingly demanding workload. He planned to check with the FBI to see if a recent homicide fit the profile of a known serial killer. He suspected -- or maybe just hoped -- it didn't, but the FBI would have the final word on the subject. Two witnesses were due to come in this morning to give statements regarding another crime. He needed to bug an equally overworked forensic pathologist about a corpse that had washed ashore after a lengthy visit with the fishes, and there was also the puzzle of a missing college co-ed, an abandoned car, and one red tennis shoe that begged for a speedy resolution. He really hated puzzles.
The phone rang, and he looked at it warily. It could be someone with information about one of his current cases, or it could be a report of a new crime. He had enough in his caseload already without adding to it.
Then again, he was the only one in the bullpen, so it really didn't matter.
With a sense of foreboding, he answered the phone. "Ellison."
A moment later, he hung up the receiver with a sigh and stared down at the information he'd scrawled on his notepad.
A body. Well, that was a shitty way to start the day....
Like most people, Blair found himself inexplicably fascinated by the production side of show business. Although it was still fairly early, a large number of people were bustling about on one chore or another; the crew, there to begin setting up for the day's shoot.
Vince took him by the elbow and steered him in the direction of a short, rotund woman in an ankle-length broomstick skirt printed in a riotous rainbow of color. "Mags, this is Blair. Take care of him for me, will you? I need to head for makeup."
For such a large woman, Mags was quick on her feet and had Vince's arm in a vise-like grip before he could take another step. "Vince, head for the office. You have a ton of messages from your agent and some network weenie in New York."
Vince rolled his eyes dramatically. "Probably shutting us down."
Mags shook her head emphatically. "No. Not cable weenie. I said 'network' weenie. I really think it's good news. Head over there, and I'll look out for the cutie here."
"Thanks." With a wave, Vince was gone.
Blair blushed as the woman looked him up and down.
"Hungry?" she asked.
He was cautious with his answer, since her tone suggested she'd like him to be an entree on her own private menu. "I could use some breakfast."
"Come on, then." She led him toward the nearest entry to the big soundstage. "If there's one think a film company knows how to do, it's how to cater breakfast."
Blair was impressed. Despite Vince's complaints about how cheaply the production company ran its operation, he had to admit they put on a good spread for the crew. The buffet was large, sumptuous, and so delicious looking that Blair's mouth watered as soon as he caught his first whiff of made-to-order omelets. "Wow, this is great."
Mags pointed him to the start of the line. "Union rules. It doesn't matter how low you want to keep the budget, you gotta feed the help."
He enjoyed a spinach and feta-cheese omelet with a side of fresh fruit, a glass of tomato juice, and a cup of coffee that would have made Simon Banks, coffee connoisseur, green with envy. Sitting down at a picnic table with several crewmembers, he joined in their casual conversation and quickly learned who did what around the lot.
He made small talk with an assistant director, a sound technician, and a lighting assistant. While the technical information was interesting, more pertinent to the case was the revelation that everyone had left at dusk -- quitting time -- the night before. Only the special effects wizard, Rollie Houston, had remained behind to work on a setup that was required for today's schedule. A few of the people Blair talked to hadn't realized Vince Deal had spent the night in his motor home, although everyone recalled the blow-up he'd had with the director, Tony Baron, and knew Vince had locked himself up with a bottle to lick his wounds.
Once Blair had finished eating, he decided it was time to do a little investigative work. Since Vince had been certain Rollie Houston had been murdered, he circulated in the direction of the special effects van. Outside, the sun had burned away the morning fog, and it looked as if it were going to be a pleasant day.
Two energetic-looking young men were doing mysterious things with unrecognizable bits and pieces at the table near where Vince claimed to have found Rollie's body the night before.
Blair introduced himself. "Is Rollie around?"
"No, he hasn't come in yet," one of the men answered, sounding annoyed and worried. "He's never late."
"He's not answering his phone either," the second man stated. He picked up a prosthetic hand and waved it at Blair for emphasis. "This damn thing's gotta explode in about two hours, and it doesn't look like he's even tested it yet."
From their frantic activity, Blair guessed it wasn't a good time to engage them in idle conversation, so he continued his wandering until he found the makeup trailer.
Gwenyth Oberon was seated in a chair in front of a large mirror. A makeup artist was deftly applying a blue-gray powder to her left cheek. After a moment, Blair realized it was a very realistic-looking fake bruise.
"Hi, Blair," Gwenyth greeted cheerfully as if they were old pals.
"Hi, Gwenyth," he returned with as much aplomb as he could muster. It wasn't every day a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and budding actress called him by his first name. In fact, he reflected glumly, it wasn't often someone of Gwenyth's beauty called him anything at all. Well, there was the gorgeous Leesha just across the hall from the loft, but she thought he was gay. Every effort to dispel her misconception only resulted in increasingly pitying looks, so he'd finally given up trying to convince her.
The makeup artist was a flagrantly gay man who lived up to the stereotype held by every redneck in America. He gestured limply toward the next chair. "Sit down there, darling. I'll be with you in a minute."
Blair frowned. "Uh --?"
His uncertain interrogatory was ignored and overridden. "Really, Gwen, my dear, this boy is absolutely delicious, but I'm afraid Tony simply will not buy him as your husband."
Vince Deal loomed in the doorway. "Nonsense!" he boomed good-naturedly. Dressed in a tailored suit, his hair freshly groomed, and makeup softening the age lines on his face, he looked exactly like the dashing man of action he was supposed to portray. "Pull his hair back, dress him in a double-breasted suit, and perch some glasses on his nose, and he'll be perfect."
Blair's frown deepened. "Vince, I don't know --"
His objection was cut off as the makeup man grabbed him by the chin and turned his head from side to side.
"Yes, yes, I do believe you're absolutely right, Vince. He'll be an Adonis by the time I'm finished with him."
Gwenyth laughed and removed the tissue bib that had protected her clothing. "Come on, Blair, I'll take you over to costumes. I'm sure they'll have something for you. And then Rudolpho here can work his magic."
Blair shot an apprehensive look at the makeup artist. "Rudolpho?"
The man blew him a kiss.
Morning commuter traffic was a nightmare at the best of times. A freeway closure due to what the radio report called "police activity" made it even worse.
When a uniformed cop waved him through, Jim drove his truck up a freeway off-ramp. It was disconcerting to enter the freeway driving in the wrong direction. Behind him, the lanes were empty. A half-mile ahead, he could see where the packed throng of traffic was being diverted off the freeway. On the other side of the median wall, the lanes were snarled nearly to a standstill due to the sheer volume of gawking drivers striving to get a glimpse of the action.
Jim swung the truck around to face in the right direction and parked amid the cluster of official vehicles crowding the verge. Despite the line of official vehicles and the knowledge that the freeway was closed, he still automatically checked for oncoming traffic before stepping onto the pavement.
A man dressed in Department of Transportation orange hurried over to him. "Can I go now?"
Jim frowned. "Who are you?"
"Luke Walker. I found the body." The man was clearly agitated and eager to be on his way.
"When was that?"
"Hour, maybe a bit more. I came out here to check the collision guard at the off-ramp." He pointed toward the ramp Jim had recently driven up. An orderly V-shaped arrangement of plastic barrels guarded the heavy cement casements separating the ramp from the freeway. "We had a wreck here yesterday evening, and a lot of the barrels had to be replaced. I looked over the edge here and spotted the body."
"Mr. Walker, did you see anyone else around when you arrived this morning? A car parked on the shoulder, someone on foot walking on the freeway or the off-ramp?"
"No, just the usual parking lot known as the morning commute," the man insisted.
Jim sighed, and looked at the nearest uniformed cop. "Someone have this guy's name and address?"
The officer checked his notebook and nodded. "Yes, sir, took it down first thing."
He turned back to Walker and handed the man his business card. "All right, you can leave. Call me if you remember anything else."
With a grunt of thanks, the man headed for his official vehicle.
Other uniformed officers and evidence technicians were scouring the shoulder in both directions searching for tire tracks or other clues. The first officer pointed down the slope. "Body's down there. There's a line of yellow tape strung to mark the safe path. It's already been searched for evidence."
"Thanks." Jim worked his way down the short slope through the thick foliage that had been planted to serve as natural noise abatement to shield nearby apartment buildings from the roar of traffic. Automatically, he looked for anything the first searchers might have missed, but he didn't spot anything out of the ordinary.
As he approached the knot of figures gathered around the corpse, an assistant ME rose from his examination and turned toward him.
"Got a real puzzle here, Detective."
Oh, good, another puzzle. Jim scowled. He joined the ME and stared down at the body sprawled inelegantly across a bed of ground cover. The body appeared to have been tossed from the road shoulder above. On his back, the face of the middle-aged man was contorted in a rictus of pain. The front of his plain cotton shirt and jacket were soaked with dried blood from sternum to belly.
"A puzzle," he echoed softly, his nose and eyes already telling him everything he needed to know.
The ME nodded, clearly savoring a clever secret. "I don't have a cause of death. Despite all the blood, there's no sign of an entry wound."
Instead of being properly dazzled by the conundrum, Jim just nodded. "Your vic is Rollie Houston, the special effects guy on Vince Deal's new movie."
The ME's face fell. "Oh. Yeah. Well, I recognized the phony blood, of course. There's a ruptured plastic pouch containing the stuff taped to his chest and what looks like a -- squib, is it? -- you know, one of those little explosive charges they use to break open the pouch."
"You don't have any idea what killed him?"
"No. Except for the way the body was disposed of, I would have guessed natural causes...a heart attack most likely. It's still a possibility."
One of the forensics techs walked over to them. "We haven't found anything down here. No sign of a weapon or the vic's wallet. The body was obviously thrown down from above."
The ME and the tech looked at Jim expectantly, waiting for him to tell them how he'd known the victim. But Jim wasn't aware of their curiosity. Instead, he stared off in the direction he'd come from to reach the scene. Up the off-ramp. Wrong way on the freeway. A homicide victim who'd apparently died of natural causes. A witness before he'd had evidence of a crime.
Everything about this case was backwards.
He glanced at his watch. "There should be someone at the production office by now. I'll get Houston's address and check out his residence." He looked at the ME. "When can you do the PM?"
The ME puffed out his cheeks as he pondered. "We're a little backed up right now, but I can put a rush on it if you want."
Jim shook his head. "That's all right." He figured he already knew how the man had died. There now remained the questions of "why" and "who." Maybe a search of Houston's home would reveal the answer to at least one of those questions.
Then again, judging by the way this case had come to him, he figured he was probably only going to find more puzzles....
Blair admired himself in the full-length mirror. His hair had been pulled back into a ponytail, and his own glasses lent an air of professional competence to his face. A perfectly fitted, double-breasted blue suit made him look and feel like a successful, if unconventional, businessman. Of course, the suit was fitted to him with a wealth of tape and pins, courtesy of the costume designer. He could feel them whenever he moved. Rudolpho, the makeup genius whose hands tended to stray beyond the boundaries of their duties, had given Blair's face a tanned, rosy glow that belied the late-winter season.
"God, you're beautiful," Rudolpho breathed, a hopeful invitation in his tone.
Blair looked at Gwenyth, who nodded.
"Very handsome," she agreed with a broad smile.
It sounded much better coming from her, and he grinned in embarrassment. "Exactly what am I supposed to do?"
"I don't know -- well, I mean, the script calls for Sammy...my husband...to get killed by a street gang while changing a tire in a decrepit part of town." She preceded him out the door and gestured to the run-down movie lot. "Around here, I don't think they'll have to do much to set the atmosphere, do you?"
Blair was still confused. "But why am I playing Sammy? I can't act in this movie. I mean, I can't act, period."
"Vince wants you," she returned reasonably. "Let's introduce you to Tony Baron, our director."
Tony Baron proved to be a cadaverous-looking wisp of a man whose incessant twitching and rapid-fire manner of speaking made Blair suspect he was on some type of stimulant that wouldn't be available without a doctor's prescription.
He grabbed Blair's arm and towed him to a light-blue BMW parked at a curb. "You're not what I was picturing, but I can work with it," he muttered irrelevantly, moving through the crush of cameras and crew set up around the vehicle. "Normally, this scene would be second-unit stuff, but I have a vision about the poetry of the senseless violence infecting our cities. It will be a short but pivotal part of my movie." He all but shoved Blair against the street-side front fender of the car. "You've had a flat. You're already angry, because you've just argued with your wife and slapped her around. You've tried your car cellphone -- we'll shoot the interior car scenes later -- but it doesn't work. You also have a cellphone in your pocket -- does someone have his cellphone? --" Tony grabbed a phone from the prop man and shoved it into Blair's coat pocket. "-- but it doesn't work either. You're going to change the tire yourself. While you're in the midst of this, three street thugs come along and mug you, killing you with the lug wrench. Second unit will film your dead, bloody corpse after lunch. Got it?"
Blair was confused and speechless. The three "thugs" who were going to dispatch him looked like caricatures from a teen angst flick. They wore black leather adorned with chains. Tattoos decorated the exposed expanses of biceps and pectorals, while beard stubble and glowering gazes added further menace. He squinted into the bright sunlight. "Uh, Mr. Baron --?"
The director looked exasperated. "Yes?"
"Is all this supposed to be happening in broad daylight?"
Baron smiled indulgently. "I'm shooting day for night, of course. Please, just follow my cues." He retreated behind the cameraman. "Now, you've just gotten out of the car and slammed the door before coming around to check the flat."
The next ten minutes were spent positioning Blair in the perfect position to maximize the lighting and capture the angles Baron wanted to achieve. He found it boring and tedious.
Finally satisfied, Baron declared he was ready for the first take. "You stare down at the flat tire. Give it an angry kick." Blair prodded the tired with his shoe. "No, no! You're angry. Give it a good thump!"
Blair did, then spent the next minute hopping around in agony when he sprained his big toe on the unyielding rubber. Pins from his hastily fitted suit prodded at him mercilessly and he twitched like a puppet on a string. It took another ten minutes to get him back into position for the shot.
Baron looked on the brink of an explosion. "Try to avoid the histrionics this time, all right?"
"But it hurt!" Blair shot back.
Baron was unmoved. "After you've kicked the tire, you'll pull out your cellphone and hit the speed dial. Nothing happens. You glare at the phone in frustration, then put it back into your pocket and move toward the trunk."
"That's it for the first shot." Baron nodded to his personal assistant, a burly fullback of a man who called for quiet in a voice that dared anyone to disobey. Everyone went instantly silent. At the director's nod, the camera started to roll, and a digital clapper board recorded the scene number and take number for the editor. Finally satisfied, Baron called, "Action!"
Blair glared at the offending tire, but mindful of his sore toe, he managed little more than a feeble tap.
"No, no!" Baron yelled. "Keep rolling. Kick the tire, dammit!"
Cringing in anticipation, he pulled back his uninjured foot and swung it at the tire. It hurt just as much this time as it had with the other foot, but he managed not to hop around in agony.
"Yes, that's it. Now the phone."
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the cellphone. The flip-cover caught on the edge of the fabric. He fumbled it like a wide-receiver trying to score an awkward touchdown pass, but the phone flew out of his hands and almost hit the camera lens before striking the pavement with a sickening clatter.
Blair winced. "Oh, sorry," he mumbled, but his words were lost amid the creative vitriol of Tony Baron in full-tantrum mode. He was so impressed with the range of the man's vocabulary, he forgot for a moment that the anger was being directed at him.
Baron finally began to wind down. "Have you ever acted before?"
Blair shrugged. "Actually, no."
This set the director off again. "No! You mean, this is your first time? Your first time?"
"First time," Blair agreed.
Baron looked skyward for guidance. "Please, please tell me you have your union card."
"Sorry, no." Blair looked past Baron and saw Vince Deal standing on the sidelines. The smug grin on his face was all Blair needed to realize he'd been a pawn in Vince's payback scheme aimed at the director. "I think I'll go away now."
And he did, limping with as much dignity as he could muster, Baron's near-hysterical tirade following him toward the changing room where his own clothes awaited him.
Vince fell into step beside him. He smiled with predatory satisfaction. "Well, that was certainly rewarding."
Blair wasn't feeling charitable. "Damn it, Vince, I don't appreciate being used just so you could get even with the director. It was embarrassing, and I resent it."
Vince looked startled by the criticism. "Really, kid? I thought you'd enjoy a chance at movie stardom." He looked genuinely contrite. "I'm sorry. Let me make it up to you."
"How?" Blair asked suspiciously.
"What say I drive us over to Rollie's house and we check it out? He didn't show up for work, which supports my claim that I saw him murdered. Maybe we can find a clue."
Blair pondered the suggestion, looking for hidden traps. "All right," he said at last. "When we're finished there, you can drop me off at the precinct and spare Jim a trip out here to pick me up."
The production offices of the company making Braddock's Return were located in a modest office block located at the fringe of the city's main business district. Jim found a parking place less than a half-block from his destination and retraced his steps to the address.
An elevator carried him up to the fifth floor, and a long, deeply carpeted hallway led him to the entrance of C&C Productions. The reception area was furnished in bargain basement chic, and the well-endowed teenager applying maroon lacquer to her two-inch fingernails had probably never seen a keyboard, much less touched one.
"Welcome to C&C Productions. May I help you?" she recited with bored precision.
Jim flashed his badge, which earned him a little moue of interest.
"Is that real?"
"Yeah," he said, not feeling in a particularly good mood. "I need to get a home address for one of the crew working on Braddock's Return, and then I'd like to speak with either of the two 'Cs'."
Her dimples dimpled. "Which one?"
"What choices do I have?"
"Carmen, or his sister, Carmenita."
"Which one would probably have the most information about the filming of Braddock's Return?"
She tapped her chin thoughtfully, and Jim was vaguely surprised that she didn't draw blood. "That would probably be Carmenita."
"Then I'd like to see Carmenita."
The receptionist's smile was dazzling. "I'm sorry, but she's not here right now."
Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Carmen, then."
"Very well. Please, take a seat and I'll inform Mr. DeLorre that you're here."
For the first time, Jim noticed the framed movie posters adorning the wall. Lurid pictures of buxom beauties imperiled by a variety of monstrous creatures and being saved by stalwart heroes -- or perhaps it was the other way around -- crowded the reception area. He looked at the titles and gratefully realized he hadn't seen a single one of them.
And then he wondered why a production company that specialized in third-rate science fiction and monster movies would be interested in filming Braddock's Return.
A minute later, he was ushered into the presence of the man himself. Although Jim knew one of his weaknesses was making snap judgements about people, he took an immediate dislike to Carmen DeLorre. There was something too oily smooth about the man, from the sprayed sheen of his perfectly styled brown hair to the tips of his manicured nails, the man oozed sincerity like a slimy televangelist who promised salvation through donation. He fought the urge to place a protective hand over his wallet and instead grudgingly shook the soft, pale hand offered to him.
Carmen was short and trim, a well-tailored dynamo who seemed incapable of sitting still. He waved Jim toward a heavy, comfortable-looking visitor's chair. "Detective Ellison, what an unexpected pleasure to have one of Cascade's finest in my office. I do hope this is not a professional visit."
Jim surreptitiously wiped his palm on his slacks before taking his seat. "Actually, it's about one of your employees. Rollie Houston?"
DeLorre relaxed into his leather executive chair and gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling. "Rollie Houston. The name isn't familiar."
"He's the special effects man on the new Deal movie," Jim prompted helpfully.
DeLorre waved a hand negligently. "I'm not familiar with all of the crew, of course. I'm more the administrative side of things. Has he gotten himself into trouble?"
"He's gotten himself dead," Jim returned flatly, regretting he'd ever opened the door to Vince Deal this morning and started this whole miserable chain of events. If he'd gotten to work just an hour later, someone else would have taken the call to view Houston's body and he wouldn't be sitting here now, tired and cranky.
DeLorre looked shocked, but the expression was as calculated as the rest of the man's appearance. "Good Lord. I gather his death wasn't from natural causes."
Jim didn't want to go through the convoluted explanation of what he'd deduced during his short time viewing the body, so he just nodded confirmation. "I need to interview his family, if he has any, his friends and co-workers, and anyone here who might have encountered him in the course of daily business."
DeLorre leaned forward and rested his elbows on the broad expanse of his solid mahogany desk. "Of course. I'll have his personnel folder made available to you. You're welcome to talk to the administrative staff, accounting, anyone here who might know him. I doubt you'll have much success, however. I'll have Stacey provide you with a pass to get on the lot. I'm sure you'll have better luck talking with his co-workers."
Jim was surprised at the level of cooperation he was receiving, and this naturally made him suspicious. "Thanks, his personnel file will do for the moment."
A few minutes later, as he scanned the meager sheets comprising the history of Rollie (Roland Thomas) Houston's professional life and copied down the man's address, he had the definite sensation that he was once again approaching the case from the wrong direction.
The Old Town Historical District was comprised of several sectors. The old waterfront canneries and a nearby timber mill had been refurbished to create Old Town, a shopping district filled with trendy boutiques and fashionable restaurants. It was a prime tourist draw that attracted visitors who might otherwise have just passed through Cascade en route to more interesting destinations.
Behind Old Town and situated on the lowest elevations of a line of coastal hills was another section of the Historic District. Here was located a beautifully restored line of old Victorian row homes, their front windows commanding an excellent view of the bay. Behind it, at increasingly higher elevations, rose detached homes, almost all of them listed in the Historical Homes Registry. These homes had been built by the founders of Cascade, and a few remained in the hands of their descendants. Even higher on the slope rose the Victorian mansions of the timber barons, railroad magnates, and bankers who had left their mark upon the city with their legacy of streets, parks, libraries, and college buildings named in their honor.
Rollie Houston lived in the first row of detached homes above Victorian row. As with all the houses in the area, the landscaping had been designed to look like natural woodland, although each of the small lots had an area of lawn and garden to take advantage of the spectacular views to the seaward side.
Blair parked Vince's BMW in the short driveway and climbed out to admire the shafts of sunlight burning through the last, stubborn wafts of coastal clouds. The thin veil of fog muted the view to pastel shades of yellow and silver. "Wow, some view." A very expensive view, too.
Vince got out from the passenger side and breathed deeply, as if tasting his first fresh air of the day. "Film people are grossly overpaid."
Blair glanced at him and grinned. "Including you?"
They walked up the cobbled path to the front of the house, which was the color of butter and trimmed with forest green to match the surrounding woods.
Blair rang the bell, while Vince seemed more interested in rooting beneath a wicker rocking chair on the narrow brick front patio.
No one answered the door, but Vince finally grunted in victory when he straightened with a key clutched firmly between his fingers. "Rollie's been known to lock himself out on occasion."
"You must know him pretty well to know where he keeps the spare key," Blair said, not entirely comfortable with the fact that Vince was opening the front door and striding inside as if he owned the place. He followed a little more cautiously, then called loudly, "Mr. Houston? Cascade PD. I'm here with Vince Deal." There was no answer.
Vince shot him a look that said Blair's gesture had been unnecessary and surveyed the foyer. He led the way on a quick tour of the lower level. "I know him from the business, of course. The film industry here in Cascade is a close-knit community. Since I live just a few blocks up the hill, it was natural for us to carpool a time or two to various functions."
Blair followed him through the house, noting that traditional Victorian sensibilities did not extend to the interior. Sleek, modern, and sparse were Rollie's choices in decor. Sealed hardwood floors unadorned by rugs, a state-of-the-art big-screen entertainment center, and a huge leather sofa comprised the living room. What had once been a dining room had been converted into a combination library and office with shelves overflowing with technical journals and copies of industry trade papers. A huge, flat-screen monitor hinted that the accompanying computer was equally high-tech. Framed movie posters and lobby cards adorned the walls, interspersed with photos of various industry bigwigs posed with the same figure, presumably Rollie himself. Blair recognized a few of the actors, but the behind-the-scenes faces were unfamiliar.
A quick tour through the library, the ultra-modern kitchen, and the front rooms revealed nothing out of place. They ended up back in the foyer.
"Check upstairs, kid," Vince said, gesturing toward a steep, narrow staircase. "My knees aren't what they used to be."
Nodding, Blair climbed the stairs to the second floor. A bedroom, bath, and what had once been a spare bedroom now used as storage space revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Feeling as if their trip had been fruitless, he paused by the bedroom window to check the progress of the sunlight in its battle with the fog. The day was sparkling and perfectly clear, with nary a cloud in sight.
Below, a shiny Sonoma pickup angled in behind Vince's BMW in the driveway. Uh-oh, maybe this is Rollie now. But as he thought about hurrying from the bedroom so it wouldn't appear as if he'd been snooping, he saw the driver's door open and a figure twist sideways in the seat. From the angle, he couldn't see more than the top of the man's head, but there was no mistaking the hand movements that pulled a knit ski-mask down to hide the face, nor the unmistakable shape of the pump action shotgun the man grabbed off the seat beside him as he climbed out of the truck.
Blair bolted down the stairs. He was just about to shout a warning when some instinct made him forego the niceties and tackle Vince instead. As the two went down in a jumble of arms and legs, the front door splintered under the first ear-splitting blast from the shotgun. With its lock shattered, the door slammed inward on its hinges and hit the wall.
Beyond it, silhouetted against the sparkling sky, was a menacing figure dressed entirely in black.
The door, blasted in and shuddering on its hinges, wobbled back from the wall. Without thinking, Blair slammed his heel into it, sending it flying closed again. The shooter fell back with a grunt of surprise.
Blair didn't wait around to see if he'd gained any advantage. Hauling Vince off the floor, he urged the older man through the doorway to the living room and kept him moving toward the kitchen. At any moment, he expected to feel lead pellets from the shotgun plow into his back, but they reached the kitchen safely.
Vince slumped against the wall, his breathing fast and ragged. He wasn't a young man anymore, and the tumble had taken more out of him than he was willing to admit. "Where's your gun?"
It was a fair question, and Blair mentally kicked himself. His weapon was where it always was when he considered himself "off duty"-- locked in a gun case under his bed. It had been the same when he'd taught at Rainier. Every morning he'd check his backpack: lesson plans, reference materials, attendance roster. He didn't think of those things when he wasn't teaching. It was the same now. Every morning before putting on his jacket, he checked for his weapon, his badge, and his handcuffs. It was just part of the routine; when he wasn't going to work, he didn't think about those things.
This morning when Vince had come to the loft, he'd believed he was helping out a friend, not beginning an official investigation.
Because he wasn't thinking like a cop, he could end up getting Vince -- not to mention himself -- killed. Why couldn't he be more like Jim and just carry the damned thing as routinely as he carried his house keys? Instead, he was reduced to fighting an armed assailant with kitchen utensils.
He could hear the man moving cautiously through the living room. The back door was an option, but he could see through the window that the backyard was wide open in every direction. He might be able to dash around the side of the house in time to avoid being shot, but he didn't think Vince would be fast enough. And once around the side, there was only a narrow walkway and a gated entry. If the gate were locked....
He needed to buy more time. Looking around, he grabbed the closest thing to a weapon he could find: a small fire extinguisher kept beside the stove. Holding it by its head, he drew back and lobbed it toward the sound of approaching footsteps.
The shotgun roared again. The pressurized fire extinguisher, punctured in several places, behaved for one critical moment like a balloon pricked by a pin. Rocketing upward into the ceiling, the lethal metal canister spewed a fog of fire retardant around the room before clattering to the floor.
It was all the time they had. Blair flung open the back door as a diversion, then shoved Vince through the interior doorway leading toward the office. Blessing the architect who had designed the lower floor to sweep in a circle with the staircase at its center, he pressed Vince against the wall and put a finger to his lips.
The two men kept quiet, straining to locate the gunman with their hearing. The back door slammed, and footsteps retreated. A moment later, they watched through the office window as the gunman rushed across the front yard and leaped into his small pickup. Tires squealed as the truck backed into the street, narrowly missing a collision with Jim's Ford.
The Ford swung sideways in the street, and Jim bailed out, weapon at the ready. But the Sonoma was already speeding away.
By the time Blair reached the front porch, the shooter was gone.
Jim holstered his weapon as the truck vanished from sight. He grabbed his cellphone, rattling off a description and plate number of the vehicle, adding requests for backup and an ambulance before ending the call.
Ambulance? Blair swung around and saw the blood seeping through Vince's left sleeve. The older man seemed to become aware of his injury in the same moment, and his face paled. With Jim on one side and Blair on the other, they guided him back to the porch and lowered him into the wicker rocking chair.
"Funny, I didn't feel a thing," he murmured, wincing. "Wish I didn't now."
Jim quickly checked the wound. "It's not serious." He applied a hasty pressure bandage using his handkerchief and closed Vince's good hand over it. "Hold that."
Vince smiled tightly. "Just a flesh wound, eh?"
Jim nodded. "It probably did more damage to your jacket than it did to your arm." He looked down the deserted road. "What the hell just happened?"
Vince scowled. "That was Rollie's pickup."
"Whoever was driving it tried to kill us," Blair added. "All I saw was a big man with a shotgun. He wore a ski mask to cover his face."
"Rollie wouldn't try to kill us," Vince insisted.
"I'm pretty sure he didn't," Jim admitted. "I think we found his body. At least I'm working on that assumption until we get a positive ID."
"Damn." Vince's voice was heavy with regret. "I was really starting to hope I'd imagined the whole thing. Was he shot?"
"No. The ME thinks it looks like a heart attack." Jim held up a hand to forestall the protest he saw forming on Vince's lips. "Do you know if he had a bad heart?"
"Yeah, he had a pacemaker. But I still saw --"
"I know you did. Rollie had small, round burn marks on his neck. Someone used a stun gun on him, probably intending to put him temporarily out of the action. Instead, it caused his pacemaker to malfunction and set off the squib on the pouch of special-effects blood he was getting ready to test."
Vince was impressed. "Your Medical Examiner is one smart cookie."
Blair managed to turn a disclaimer into a soft snort of laughter. "Jim, there are a bunch of pictures inside of Rollie with various celebrities. You should be able to tell if the body you saw is his."
"Thanks." Jim was gone for less than a minute. Both an ambulance and squad car arrived in that time. Two paramedics were just beginning to fuss over Vince's wound when he came outside again. He glanced at his partner, who'd been briefing the uniforms. "Did you find anything interesting inside?"
Blair shook his head. "Nothing to suggest a motive."
"Nobody would kill Rollie Houston," Vince insisted, grunting in pain as one of the paramedics applied a more professional bandage. "What's our next move?"
Before Jim could open his mouth, one of the paramedics answered the question. "Your next move is to the hospital. It looks like a minor wound, but we don't want to take any chances with a man of your age." He didn't see Deal's glare as he prepared to close up his medical kit.
Quickly, Jim asked, "Vince, what can you tell us about C&C Productions?"
Vince's eyebrows wiggled dramatically. "Ah."
Blair grinned. "That's one of those words that speak volumes."
"I'm an actor," Vince acknowledged modestly. "It's my job to speak volumes."
"Well, try using words that actually appear in the dictionary," Jim grumbled.
Vince shot him a caustic look. "Very well. C&C is a family dynasty. They've been making movies since Papa Carlito DeLorre came to America and filmed the '50s cult classic of nuclear armageddon, Mutant Cannibals of White Sands."
"The one with giant lizards that tried to eat a bunch of scientists," Blair explained helpfully. Jim's expression clearly indicated he hadn't seen it.
Vince was in his element. "The current producers are a brother and sister team, Carmen and Carmenita. They've done several low-budget horror flicks: The Beast That Ate Hong Kong, Space Women Take No Prisoners --"
"Hey, that one was pretty good," Blair cut in. "You know, as a social commentary on the femi-nazi emasculation of the American male."
"-- The Stalking Plants --"
"Plants?" Jim echoed.
"Plants," Deal confirmed, his irritation at being interrupted coming through clearly in his tone. "My personal favorite is Furial, Queen of Atlantis."
Jim scowled. "Okay, I see the trend. What's the significance?"
"Obviously, all of them are B-movies," Vince explained, then added with significant portentiousness, "but every one of them had an A-movie budget. They sometimes managed to break even, and a few made a profit, especially in the international markets. But we're still not talking blockbuster returns."
They weren't talking rocket science either, so even Jim's weary brain didn't have a problem coming up with the next obvious question. "Who invests in their movies?"
Deal nodded, pleased he'd made his point. Almost coyly, he said, "Anything I say would just be rumor."
Jim wasn't in the mood. "So rumor me."
Vince was more than glad to oblige, especially since he had an attentive audience of two detectives, two uniformed cops, and a couple of paramedics hanging on his ever word. "The industry scuttlebutt is that C&C is a money laundering operation for the mob."
"Sure," Blair agreed. "Dirty money in, nice clean money out, everything neat and tidy in the books."
"That's it in a nutshell," Vince said. "Hollywood studios are masters of creative bookkeeping."
One of the paramedics looked almost mesmerized by the story. "So the dead guy found out about it and got himself killed."
Six pairs of eyes turned on him with incredulity, and he had the grace to blush. "Well, it sounds reasonable."
Jim shook his head to clear his muddled thoughts. "You two," he said to the paramedics, "take him --" he pointed at Vince, "-- to the hospital. Now."
Vince was helped to his feet. Before allowing the paramedics to lead him to the ambulance, he asked, "What will you two be doing?"
"Interviewing everyone on the lot," Jim answered. "Until we know if Rollie was the target or just got in the way, we need to explore all the possibilities."
He stood beside his partner and watched Vince being helped into the ambulance. After its departure, he breathed a sigh of relief and looked at his watch. "Damn, it's still morning. I feel like I've been on the go for hours."
Blair nudged him in the ribs. "We can have lunch on the movie lot."
Jim's spirit perked. "Good. We'll interview as many of the crew as we can, then grab something to eat." He closed up the house, assigned the officers to keep it secure, and led the way down the walk.
"What about Vince's car?" Blair asked.
"Lock it up and keep the keys," Jim said. "We'll give 'em back to Vince when we see him."
As Blair complied, Jim's cellphone rang. "Ellison." He listened for a minute, then disconnected. "Come on, Chief. They found Houston's truck about a mile from here."
The Sonoma pickup was angled off the road in a small turnout. A patrol unit was parked on the asphalt, and two unformed officers stood nearby.
"We haven't checked the vehicle yet," one of them said as Jim pulled up and parked. "We figured you'd want to look at it first."
"Thanks," Jim said, pleased the officers had waited for his arrival. He quickly scanned the dirt and saw scuff marks where the driver had jumped from behind the wheel after hastily parking. Keeping a good distance in case there were any visible footprints, he followed the signs to the edge of the hillside. The tree-covered slope was steep but short. Immediately below was Victorian Row. Narrow alleys led to the street beyond, where taxis and bus stops gave their quarry any number of escape routes.
"He must have heard the sirens coming up the road," Blair speculated, reaching the same conclusion Jim had.
"Yeah. He's long gone by now." Jim scanned the foliage. "You said he was wearing a black ski mask?"
"Good. He tossed it in a tree down there."
Blair couldn't see it, but he said, "I suppose you're gonna want me to climb up and get it?"
"Sounds fair to me," Jim replied amenably, urging Blair down the slope. A minute later, as they approached the small copse, he remarked, "You're looking awfully dapper for someone who barely had time to shave this morning."
"Yeah, I grabbed a shower on the lot. The costume lady 'freshened' my clothes for me." Blair eyeballed his route up the tree and missed the expression that crossed Jim's face.
"And just what were you doing while she 'freshened' them?"
He grinned. "I was sacrificing my big toe in the name of artistic vision."
Jim grimaced. "Do I really want to hear this?"
As Blair started to climb, he regaled Jim with the details of his morning, from his unorthodox introduction to Gwenyth Oberon to his misadventures in front of the camera. At about the same time he finished, he snagged the cap from the tree, dropped it into an evidence bag, and returned to solid ground.
Jim looked faintly envious. "They fed you, huh?"
"Man, those movie people know how to put on a buffet. You would've loved it."
Jim opened the evidence bag and peered at the contents. "I smell something -- a blend of hair gel and Old Spice."
"Will you be able to ID it on the perp?"
"No problem. The cap reeks of it."
"Great. So, it's back to the movie lot?"
"Yeah. I want to start questioning everyone who knew Rollie. I may just get a whiff of our shooter."
They struggled back up the slope, always more difficult than going down. Jim gestured to the uniformed officers. "Get a tow truck to take the truck back to the lab, then search the area for anything our man may have dropped. He had a shotgun. He probably tossed it the same time he threw away the ski mask."
"We'll get right on it, Detective," the senior officer promised, looking pleased at being left in charge of the scene.
Jim had barely set the parking brake when Gwenyth Oberon rushed over, flung open the passenger door, and all but hauled Blair onto the pavement.
"Vince has been shot!" she blurted, her eyes wide with anxiety.
Blair sought to calm her. "He's all right. It was just a minor wound."
Her eyes searched his for a moment. "You're sure?" she persisted, her anxiety evident in the deep, emerald gaze.
He almost forgot the reason for her probing look. "Uh, yeah, I'm sure. I was with him when it happened. A few stitches and a bandage, he'll be fine."
She sighed. "Good. When he called from the hospital --" She gestured toward a small suitcase sitting beside her car. "He asked for a clean shirt and jacket. I thought he was downplaying his injury. You know, to keep me from worrying."
Jim came around the truck and stood beside his partner. "You really like Vince, don't you?"
She looked at him, a tiny frown wrinkling her forehead, and Blair quickly performed introductions.
"Yes, I really like him," she said in response to the question. "I know it must seem odd, but I've always been attracted to older men." She smiled. "And Vince is so wonderful."
Jim looked skeptical but managed to avoid any remarks about her assessment of Vince's character. "How long have you known him?"
"Since my very first professional acting job," she answered, then laughed. "All of six months. We did a commercial together, a Charlie's Angels sort of thing where you only heard Vince's voice while I was doing all this damage to the bad guys. It was for breakfast cereal."
Jim and Blair exchanged glances. They remembered the commercial very well, although they'd be hard-pressed to recall the name of the cereal. The image of scantily clad Gwenyth Oberon summarily dispatching villains that looked like body doubles for characters from WWF was indelibly imprinted on their memories.
Jim searched for something to say. He wasn't quite ready to have her leave; beauty so rare had to be admired for a while longer. "Uh, what's next after this movie?"
She actually blushed. "I'm hoping, um...I'm hoping Vince and I --" She stuttered to a halt.
Blair's eyebrows shot up. "You and Vince? You mean married?"
She shrugged. "I've accepted the fact that I'm no Meryl Streep." She gestured toward her perfect face. "When these cheeks or these boobs start to sag, I'll be tossed out like yesterday's hash. I'd rather exit gracefully."
"Does Vince know?"
Again, she shrugged. "I think he believes I'm with him to take advantage of his contacts in the business."
"You should tell him," Blair said gently.
"I will." Gwenyth smiled radiantly. "As soon as I see him, I'll tell him. Thanks." She said her good-byes and headed for her car. After tossing the suitcase onto the passenger seat, she went around to the driver's side, got behind the wheel, and started the engine. The Porche came to life with a throaty purr.
She waved at them as she drove off.
They waved back a bit wistfully, then sighed with mutual regret.
"Vince must have been born under a very lucky star," Blair said at last when the Porche had disappeared from sight.
"Yeah," Jim agreed softly, breathing deeply as if to capture the last remnants of her scent. "And we get to catch ourselves a killer."
The day passed slowly. Jim commandeered an office in which to conduct interviews, then instructed a production assistant to stagger the arrival times of the cast and crew. Everyone he spoke to was eager to gossip, but no one had any concrete facts about the dead man, Rollie Houston.
With every interview, he took the opportunity to check for the combination of scents he'd detected on the ski mask, but after a few hours, the only thing he'd scented was lunch. Succumbing to temptation, he and Blair invited themselves to partake of the sumptuous spread.
Thus sated, the lack of sleep over the past few days began to catch up with him. He was grumpy and weary when he picked up the interviews again later in the afternoon.
When he smelled the scent he'd been seeking, he sat up with more energy than he'd shown in some time.
Blair saw the reaction.
Like hunting dogs flushing a game bird, both men focused on the giant filling the doorway. As a technique for lulling a suspect into a sense of false security, it was sorely lacking.
"Hey --" said Blair.
"Ah," said Jim.
"Uh," said the giant.
For all this slow-wittedness, Jim was still quick off the mark. He launched from behind the table he'd been using as desk and tore after the suspect, Blair hot on his heels.
The large man was fast for his size, and his sheer bulk cleared a path as he bulled his way toward the parking lot. He ran past Vince Deal's motor home and skirted around the special-effects table.
Never one to forsake a shortcut, Jim leaped onto the table and used his momentum to fling himself at the escaping suspect. The two men went down in a tangle, Jim's experience and skill a more-than-adequate match for the other man's greater strength.
With Blair's help, the man was quickly subdued and handcuffed.
Jim stayed on the ground for a moment to recover his breath. So much exertion after a full meal wasn't conducive to good digestion. A shadow fell over him, and he looked up into the tear-streaked face of a terrified-looking young woman with a clipboard clutched to her bosom.
"I'm sorry," she stammered in a voice so soft he had to crank up his hearing to detect her words.
Blair touched her arm. "It's all over. Are you all right?"
She nodded dismally. "I'm sorry," she repeated with a bit more volume. "I'm afraid I wandered into the shot."
Jim got to his feet and hauled his suspect up with a grunt of effort. "Don't worry about it," he said blithely. "Either way, we're not doing any retakes today."
A squad car came to collect the suspect, who turned out to be one of director Tony Baron's assistants.
Jim read the man his rights, then was startled when the man volunteered, "The weasel owed me money."
"Uh-huh," Jim said, not convinced. "So you killed him to make certain he couldn't pay up."
"He wasn't supposed to die," the man grumbled resentfully, then permitted himself to be stuffed into the back of the squad car.
They watched as he was driven away.
"That confession was a bit convenient, don't you think?" Blair said.
Jim nodded. "Yeah, but I'll take it for the moment. I'm too damned tired to think straight any more. Let's take care of the preliminary interrogation, get all the paperwork straightened out, and then head home for an early night. If I don't get some sleep, I'm gonna be a zombie by tomorrow."
The excitement was over and things were getting back to normal on the lot. Tony Baron threw another tantrum about the delays, then faded back toward the soundstage to continue the afternoon's shoot.
"Well, well, look what the cat dragged in," Blair said, grinning.
Rafe sauntered toward them, his perfectly tailored suit, shirt, and coordinating tie peeking from between the open folds of his trench coat.
Jim looked him up and down. "You're even more splendid than usual."
Rafe smiled. "Mock if you want, but I impressed a jury this morning."
"Yeah, they probably figured you were on the take," Blair retorted with a grin.
Rafe ignored him and handed a slim file folder to Jim. "Here's that information you wanted on C&C Productions. Henri had to slave over a hot keyboard all day just to get this much."
Jim glanced inside at the top sheet. "The IRS and the Justice Department both have an interest in the financial creativity of Carmen and Carmenita."
Blair nodded. "Maybe Vince wasn't so off the mark when he speculated on where they get their investment money from."
"I've seen a couple of their movies," Rafe admitted, "and I've always wondered how they got financial backing for their next production."
A short, wide woman in a flowing broomstick descended on them.
"Hi, Mags," Blair greeted.
"Hi, sweetie," the assistant replied fondly, pinching his cheek. She looked at Rafe. "I don't suppose you're our Sammy? The damn casting office keeps assuring me he's on his way, but I haven't seen a warm body yet to justify their confidence."
"Sammy?" Rafe said.
"Breaks his big toe on a flat tie and then gets killed by thugs," Blair explained simply.
Mags continued to eye Rafe, impressed by what she saw. "You'd be perfect."
Rafe grinned. "Then I'm your Sammy."
She brightened, then scowled with suspicion. "You do have your union card, don't you?"
Surprisingly, Rafe took out his wallet and fished in its depths. To the amazement of his colleagues, he pulled out a card and handed it to the woman.
She examined it. "Screen Extras. Have you ever done dialogue?"
"Dialogue?" Rafe looked as if he'd just nibbled on ambrosia and found out what immortality was all about. "I get dialogue?"
Mags took him by the arm. "Come on, sweetie. After today, you'll be eligible for your SAG card."
He threw an apologetic look at Jim and Blair. "Do you mind?"
Jim shook his head slowly. "Uh, no. I guess not."
Blair grinned. "Think of it as an undercover assignment. Keep your ears open for any useful information."
"How long have you been doing this?" Jim asked, finally reassembling the scattered remnants of his brain.
"Since college," Rafe admitted. "The pay's good." He gestured toward his elegant suit. "Gotta pay for the threads somehow."
Jim sighed. "Another mystery solved."
Mags tugged at him again more forcefully. "Hurry up, honey. We don't want to keep Tony waiting."
Grinning happily, and still dazed by his sudden good fortune, Rafe went obediently.
The partners continued their interrupted journey to the parking lot and climbed into the truck.
"I still can't believe it," Jim said. "Rafe -- moonlighting as an actor."
Blair buckled his seatbelt and picked up the file folder Jim had put on the seat between them. "You gonna tell Simon?"
Jim started the engine. "No. Depending on how bad Rafe wants to keep it a secret, we've got some leverage for any future favors we might need."
"You're devious and cunning," Blair agreed absently, perusing the contents of the file folder.
They drove in silence for a while. The day was waning, the sun dipping toward the western horizon and turning the clouds overhead a rich salmon color. A damp chill promised the fog bank would be returning shortly.
Jim hoped to be finished at the precinct and snug in the loft before the city was socked in again for the night.
"Jim?" Blair sounded faintly anxious.
"It says here C&C Productions took out a huge insurance policy on Braddock's Return."
"Insurance? That's not unusual, is it?"
"Not really -- I mean, the producers would insure a movie to recoup some of their investment in case it couldn't be finished for one reason or another."
"Sounds like good business."
"Yeah." Blair continued to scan the information Henri had provided as if trying to put a finger on the reason behind his unease. "They tripled the insurance amount just two days ago."
Although Blair didn't state a monetary figure, it sounded to Jim as if it had to be a considerable sum. "What changed two days ago?"
"I don't know." Blair sighed, searching his memory. "Vince had a call this morning from a network."
"I thought Braddock's Return was going to be on cable."
"Yeah, but when Mags delivered the message to him, she made it sound like a big deal. Like maybe a big network was going to get involved in the movie."
"That still sounds like a good deal for everyone," Jim said. "A big network would mean a bigger budget and a bigger audience."
"Yeah, but what about the original investors?" Blair persisted. "Suddenly, a bunch of network executives are going to be looking through the books, checking out the financial backers, bringing in their own investors. Control would be taken away from C&C. If they're laundering money for the mob --"
"They wouldn't want a bunch of outsiders coming in and taking over," Jim concluded grimly. "Instead, they insure their movie for big bucks, and then arrange for something to happen so they can collect."
They had the same thought at the same moment, and spoke together. "Vince."
Jim jerked the truck into a hard left turn at the next intersection. "That dim bulb we nailed today wasn't after Rollie. He was after Vince, and Rollie just got in the way."
"Killing the star is a sure way to keep a movie from being finished." Blair grabbed for the dash and braced himself during another hard turn. Reminded of his frequent role in the partnership, he asked, "Do you want me to call someone?"
"See if you can track down Vince. Try the hospital and his house."
Blair remembered something else. "He said something about having to shoot some scenes tonight. If that bullet graze didn't change his plans, he's on his way back to the lot."
Jim pulled down the visor and activated his emergency lights.
The fog rolled inexorably over the city turning dusk to night within moments. Jim pulled the truck up to the closed gate of the movie lot, saw the heavy chain and padlock securing it, and cut the engine.
The place looked deserted. "You're sure he planned to come back here?"
Blair nodded. "He said that's when the director, Tony Baron, told him he'd be needed again."
"Okay." Jim opened the door and climbed out of the cab. "Let's check it out."
Blair jumped down from the passenger side and headed for the chain link gate. It was an easy climb, easier than any of the ones he'd made at the Police Academy. He was almost to the top when he noticed Jim hadn't started to climb yet. "What?"
With a bemused shake of his head, Jim stepped onto the bumper of the truck, then onto the hood. This brought the top of the gate within easy reach. A single lunge put him on top, then he dropped easily to the ground on the other side.
Blair joined him a moment later. "Show off."
Jim just smiled and led the way at a quick jog down the two-lane access road to the parking lot. Three parked cars loomed dully out of the fog. One of them was Gwenyth Oberon's Porche. "Looks like you were right."
Blair felt anxiety grip his chest. "If Gwen's here, she could be in danger, too." Off Jim's look, he protested, "You've been a cop too long if you think she's involved in this as anything but an innocent victim."
"I hope you're right," Jim said, continuing on to the cluster of paneled trucks and trailers fronting the huge soundstage. At the special effects van, he held up his hand in a cautionary warning, then crouched down behind the long table.
Blair dropped beside him. Keeping his voice whisper-quiet, he asked, "What is it?"
"I can hear someone moving around inside Vince's motor home." Jim held up two fingers to indicate he heard two people, then cautiously left the cover of the table and crossed the asphalt expanse. The darkness and the fog worked in their favor, and they reached the entrance to the motor home without being spotted. He placed a foot on the bottom rung of the metal steps, then drew back abruptly and gestured to his partner.
Blair pressed against the cold metal exterior of Vince's trailer and waited. A moment later, the door swung open. The motor home creaked as a large man stepped awkwardly onto the top step.
Jim stepped into view. "Cascade PD. Freeze," he ordered quietly.
The big man studied him for a long moment, his gaze shifting from the determined expression on his face to the large bore of the Sig Sauer aimed unerringly at his chest.
Finally, he sighed. "I told Tony it was a stupid idea."
Jim took the man's arm and guided him to ground level. "Where's Tony?" he asked, pulling out his cuffs and handing them to Blair.
"Somewhere on the soundstage," the man said. "I'm a truck driver, not some mob hitman. I told Tony this was a stupid idea."
Jim nodded absently. "Sit down," he ordered, pointing toward the ground. When the man had complied, Blair quickly handcuffed one wrist before passing the metal links around a thick stair support and securing the other hand. "Keep quiet and maybe we'll tell the DA how cooperative you were."
He quickly scanned the interior of the motor home, then climbed inside, Blair right behind him.
Gwenyth Oberon was sprawled face up across the bed, her hair in wild disarray and her clothes disheveled.
"Is she alive?" Blair asked anxiously as Jim felt for a pulse in her neck.
"Yeah," Jim confirmed after a moment. "Drugged, but alive." He sniffed. "Alcohol. Someone drugged her and then poured booze down her throat. Some of it ran down her cheek and wet her hair."
"Either so she'd be uncertain about what happened or else no one would believe what she had to say," Blair said grimly.
Jim straightened. "Call for backup and an ambulance. I'm gonna find Vince."
A faint yellow glow from a single bulb led him to a small door set to one side of the large soundstage door. Unfortunately, as soon as he opened the door, the noise would announce his arrival. He hoped Tony would think it was his associate reporting in after dealing with Gwen.
Blair came up beside him.
"You should have stayed with Gwen."
Blair shook his head. "She's already coming around. She's woozy but coherent. I told her to stay put until the paramedics get here." He gestured with his head. "How many inside?"
"I hear only two, one of them presumably Vince." He eased open the door. The loud squeal from the hinges cut through the silence of the night, and Jim winced at the noise. "Come on."
Inside, the huge soundstage was cloaked in darkness. In the dimness, a jungle of 2x4 lumber supported various set pieces, while cables snaked like giant tree roots across the floor.
Jim glanced at his partner. "Can you see well enough to keep from falling over something?"
Blair nodded. "Yeah, I think so. Lead the way. I'm right behind you."
Jim headed cautiously toward the sound of heartbeats. They were on the other side of the soundstage, and he picked his way carefully through the warren.
They found Vince first. He was lying between the rear walls of two movie sets. The 2x4's supporting the walls formed a V-shaped wedge with only a foot or two of clearance. It appeared Vince had stumbled into the maze and fallen.
Jim and Blair stepped cautiously over the lumber and crouched beside the fallen man to check his condition.
"Go 'way," Vince mumbled blearily, struggling to rise. With their assistance, he managed to sit up. Groaning, he cradled his head in his arms. "Wha' t'hell?"
"You're drunk," Jim said softly.
"No," Vince said with as much conviction as he could muster. "Pain pills and booze -- no good."
"You didn't do it to yourself," Blair explained quietly. "Tony Baron's setting the stage for your accidental death."
With his eyes barely open, Vince peered at them in the near-darkness. "Dumb shit has no 'magi-nashun. Let's get 'im."
Jim patted his arm reassuringly. "We'll get Tony. You stay here until you're feeling better. Ambulance is on the way."
Vince wasn't happy about it, but he was in no condition to argue. With a weary nod, he gestured for them to leave.
As Jim once again led the way through the maze, he thought Tony Baron had plenty of imagination. There had to be a thousand ways for a careless person to suffer a fatal accident on a movie soundstage. Partial walls looked ready to topple. Massive overhead lights dangled from thin cables, while thick electrical cables wove a hazardous pattern across the floor. Other items unidentifiable to his inexperienced eye balanced on casters or swung from pulleys. All in all, it looked like a safety inspector's nightmare, and the perfect setting in which to stage an accident.
His senses told him where to find Tony Baron. Locating him was easy; getting to him through the cluttered soundstage was a different matter altogether. Jim paused beside a set wall, one of many defining the various "rooms" where filming took place. It had a door, and he opened it cautiously before slipping through to the set on the other side.
It was some sort of nightclub, with a long, polished bar backed by an enormous mirror. Small tables designed for intimate conversation cluttered the area around a tiny dance floor. On the far side of the room was a glass booth that was either part of the set or the control room. Tony Baron was hunched over, using a small flashlight to illuminate something below the level of the glass. Some instinct must have alerted him to his unexpected guests because he looked up suddenly and peered into the darkness of the set.
Jim couldn't tell if Baron saw them or not; either way, it would only be a moment before the man raised his flashlight to confirm his suspicions. Raising his weapon in case the director was armed, he started across the floor toward the door to the booth.
Light and sound erupted simultaneously, slamming against his senses and sending him crashing to the floor.
Even Blair, possessed of normal sight and hearing, squeezed his eyes closed and covered his ears in an effort to ward off the onslaught. Reeling, he tripped over Jim and fell against a table, bringing it down with him.
The tumble probably saved his life. Bullets slammed into the wood tabletop as Tony Baron stepped out of the booth and opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol.
Wincing at the pain that assailed him, Jim squinted up at the huge kaleidoscope of a disco ball spinning overhead. Bright lights splintered off its mirrored surface and strobed spears of light around the room. Two shots shattered the ball, ending the bright slashes of light. Two more shots took out the speaker system amplifying the bone-jarring base notes.
Silence returned with a suddenness that was disconcerting. Jim shook his head in an effort to clear away the aftereffects of the blinding light and pulsating sound, then looked around for Blair, who was just starting to sit up.
"Yeah." Blair's gaze shifted and Jim saw his expression tighten.
The warning came from behind Jim, and he didn't have to turn around to know Tony Baron had them covered.
"Drop your weapon."
Carefully, he lowered his 9mm to the floor and then raised his hands.
Baron stepped into view, his angry glare shifting from man to man and finally settling on Blair. "You! You're still fucking up my productions."
Blair shrugged slightly, his arms raised in surrender. "You gotta admit, man, this one isn't exactly Academy Award material."
"Shut up," Baron said. "Just shut up." He looked around nervously.
Jim thought it might be a good opportunity to act, but before he could make his move, there came a swish of sound from overhead. This was followed immediately by a wavering war cry -- or perhaps a yodel -- that froze everyone in place for a crucial moment.
Swooping down from an overhead catwalk, Vince Deal swung onto the set like Tarzan. Although he must have been aiming for Baron, he missed entirely and swooped right out the other side, narrowly missing a collision with the far wall.
Before Vince's trajectory carried him back again, Jim tackled Baron and brought him down. A well-placed blow to the jaw put the director out of action, although he had to duck to avoid being struck by Vince, aerialist extradordinaire.
"Help!" Vince croaked pitifully as he completed another pendulum swing, this one much shorter than the first.
Blair judged speed and trajectory, then grabbed for Vince's legs on the third pass. This slowed the man's arc considerably, and by the fourth swing, Blair was able to bring him to a complete halt. Only then did Vince let go of the thick rope he'd been using as a jungle vine and drop the few short feet to the floor. Blair steadied him.
"Hey, man, are you all right?" he asked, amusement vying with concern in his tone.
Mustering his dignity along with his breath, Vince straightened the lapels of his coat. "Of course I'm fine. Errol Flynn couldn't have done it better."
Jim climbed to his feet and hauled his prisoner up. "Maybe not, but I only give you three out of ten for the dismount."
"There's always a critic in the audience," Vince retorted, undaunted.
"Vince?" Gwen stumbled tipsily toward the little group. Her hair was an unruly mass of blond curls framing her face, and her blouse was unbuttoned, revealing a generous swell of bosom behind the scant covering of brassiere. "Oh, Vince, you were wonderful!"
Vince preened. "Yes, I was, wasn't I?"
Reaching him, she promptly swooned into his arms and began to snore with a most unfeminine sound.
Jim sighed. "And that, as they say in the biz, is a wrap."
Jim had often thought that if it weren't for skinny doorways, stair landings, and narrow aisles, there would be no place for people to congregate and talk. This maxim seemed especially true whenever he was trying to navigate the aisles of his local supermarket. People insisted on picking the most inconvenient places to gather.
This was especially true today, when the corridor outside the doors to the bullpen was clogged with detectives and uniformed officers from every corner of the building. They'd come to stare, gawp, and otherwise gape at Gwenyth Oberon, supermodel, swimsuit calendar pinup, and aspiring actress.
Unruffled by the chaos, she graciously signed autographs and traded quips with her admirers while Jim tried to forge a path into the bullpen.
Once he and Blair had Gwen and Vince through the doors, Jim closed them on the clamoring horde outside. Well, it had seemed like a horde to him at the time.
Inside the bullpen wasn't much better. Every detective in the room found a reason to leave whatever work they were pursuing and gravitate toward them like metal particles attracted to a powerful magnet.
They managed to get into Simon's office without being completely surrounded, and this time it was Blair who closed the door. Still, it was very crowded. Simon looked startled by the unannounced arrivals. Vince and Gwen smiled charmingly, while Jim and Blair looked rumpled and harried. Rafe and Henri had managed to slip inside with the group, and since they'd been peripherally involved in the case, Simon decided not to throw them out.
"Not that it isn't always a pleasure to see you, Vince," he began, rising and extending his hand although his gaze was riveted on Gwen, "and it's a honor to meet you, Ms. Oberon, but why have you commandeered my office?"
Jim sighed in exasperation and made an all-encompassing gesture to indicate the bullpen and perhaps the entire world beyond the closed door. "They came in to sign their statements, Captain, but it's total chaos out there. Your office seemed like a logical refuge."
Simon smiled with approval. "Excellent. You can bring me up to speed on the investigation."
"It's out of our hands, sir," Blair said. "The FBI, the IRS, and other mysterious letters of the Federal alphabet have pretty much taken over the case."
"Yes, that was to be expected." Simon made a mental note to make certain his people got the credit for breaking the case, or at least for solving one murder and preventing another. He looked at the celebrities. "And how are you two faring?"
Vince looked like a cat who'd successfully raided the cream pitcher. "The movie is still on," he said, unable to disguise the satisfaction he was feeling. "Since the case broke wide open, I've been on ET and Access Hollywood, and Leno's people have called about an interview."
"That's great news, Vince," Blair said sincerely.
"And if the movie does well in the ratings, there's talk of reviving Braddock's Way as a series."
Jim tried to sound knowledgeable about the subject. "Ratings. Nielson boxes. A few people determining what the rest of us will get to watch."
"Exactly." Vince nodded in agreement. "Braddock's Way has a huge fan following on the Internet since the nostalgia channel began showing repeats of the show. The fans mobilized, launched a letter-writing campaign that blindsided the network, and insured our shot as a mid-season replacement early next year."
Blair looked at Gwen. "How about you? Will you be a regular on the series?"
She smiled and blushed prettily. "Actually, I've made other plans."
Vince fidgeted. As if he still couldn't believe it, he murmured, "We're getting married."
"You're what?" five male voices chimed at once.
Vince shrugged. "I know, I can hardly believe it myself." He smiled at Gwen. "But whatever she wants...."
"You're giving up your career?" Henri looked stricken by the prospect.
She laughed. "You'll forget me in a week, as soon as the next pretty face comes along."
"Never!" he vowed, placing a hand over his heart in affirmation.
Simon coughed softly. "Detective Brown, don't you have an elsewhere requiring your presence?" He glowered at the rest of his detectives. "For that matter, don't the rest of you have an elsewhere to be?" Then he smiled warmly at Gwenyth. "Why don't you and Vince make yourselves comfortable in my office while Detective Ellison gathers the paperwork for you sign? Some coffee perhaps?"
The office door closed on the four detectives, shutting out the rest of Simon's words.
"Tragic," murmured Henri.
Rafe grunted. "Really tragic. Plus, with the investigation into C&C Productions, I'm probably not going to get paid."
Blair steered him toward his desk. "I meant to ask you about that, Rafe. Did you have to bash your toe on the tire?"
Jim and Henri exchanged glances. Jim shrugged. "One of us has to say it."
Henri grinned. "That's show biz!"
~ Finis ~
E-mail the authors of this story, Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie) at email@example.com and Gina Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org Read Mackie's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Idol Pursuits and visit Gina's page at Hawaiian Style (for Hawaii Five-0 and other television shows based in Hawaii) Beta Credit: Thanks to JoanneG, Shellie Williams, and Hephaistos for their quick turnaround on this episode. The artwork in Act II, Filmstrip, was created by Debbye... Enjoy more of Debbye's art at her website, Website Please visit our Virtual Season 5 Staff Page to learn more about the hard-working behind-the-scenes crew responsible for bringing you this episode E-mail Faux Paws Productions at email@example.com NEXT WEEK on THE SENTINEL: Speak No Evil (2/9/00, FPP-519) by Eddie
Jim and Blair protect a murder witness -- a small boy with autism who seems to have a lot in common with Jim.
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