THE LUCKY BREAK KID
I had to admit, the kid didn’t look good. But then again, it’s hard looking your best after twelve hours of rigor mortis.
Matthew Harty was the newest it-boy on the Hollywood chess board. Starting out as a pimply-faced pre-teen prima donna who made his early showbiz bucks flaunting an irresistible grin on cereal commercials, Harty worked his way up through a high school musical special and a primetime TV-G laffer. It wasn’t until he belted out “Kansas City” in a cable redo of Oklahoma!, that the world took notice. He was quickly becoming a national treasure with a manufactured pop hit in the works--not bad for twenty-one years to his name.
Needless to say, Matthew Harty was the last person you’d expect to find strangled and stiff in the underbrush of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Publicity queen Justine Swirler led me down the steep Bel Air slope to the kid’s body--a sight that never would’ve crossed my eyes had she not fished my digits off a previous client, Berna Hampshire--the divorcee of a wealthy lawyer, who cut me a check to justify a burning paranoia involving her ex attempting to lay her six feet in the ground. Naturally, I proved her paranoia true and my referral base extended.
Justine Swirler was a ferocious grizzly of the PR world--a woman who made sure her clients were as squeaky-clean as their silver screen personas could allow. Wild girls and
trash-talking lushes were off her roster. She held onto poster children sellable to lunch boxes and half-hour daytime spots. Justine had her niche and no other would fit the bill.
I watched her hold up a firm, unemotional stare at her dead client. I figured she could keep her eyes on a bus as it plowed into a group of nuns without twitching a muscle. But who knows? Maybe pitbulls cry in their sleep.
“It looks bad,” she said.
“Do you always shed a tear for your star clients?”
Her eyes turned jack frost.
“Are you always this good at talking yourself out of a job, Mr. Shaye?”
“Sometimes. Depends if I wanna handle the case.”
She seemed shocked by my response.
“Money’s not an issue, is it?”
“Nope. I know you’re good for it.”
“So is this your method of bargaining?”
“Listen, the fact is, you’ve got me down here in Bel Air Estates in broad daylight looking at a corpse that hasn’t been picked up by homicide. My guess is you haven’t called homicide for a reason. No offense to Berna, but you don’t know me from Adam, and that, quite frankly, makes this situation odd.”
“Can’t beat around the bush with you, can I?”
She walked away from the body and looked up at the afternoon sun beaming down through the canyon.
“I found him at one o’clock this morning,” she said. “He phoned me and told me to meet him on Fontenelle Way. He was in trouble... but he wouldn’t tell me what kind.”
“How’d you find him all the way down here at night?”
“I didn’t. The coyotes did. They made noise and I took notice.”
I looked up at the hills surrounding us.
“Dangerous climb down at night. One wrong step in the dark and--”
“I’d break my back for my clients,” she said with a hardened gaze.
I turned and looked closely at Harty’s closed eyelids. They flickered as if there was life still in him aching to get out. The canyon winds got cold. And so did I.
“There’s no such thing as an easy break in show business,” she said.
“I always thought rising stars were born, not made.”
She studied my face, trying to determine if it was humor or ignorance that predicated my remarks.
“Matthew had his hard luck. You need to understand that.”
“What are you driving at?”
“Matthew was strangled. Somebody wanted him dead.”
“You don’t need me to tell you that.”
“Mr. Shaye, there are things the public won’t understand about Matthew. Things that might be hard to swallow. Fact is, Matthew was a victim long before his life was taken.”
“Closed door incidents?”
“I’m in the PR business. Image is everything.”
“I have an indefinite contract with my clients.”
“Hey, Sam Cook died in the company of a hooker. People still listen to his music.”
She threw me a dirty face, but I acted like she never did. She needed the sarcasm.
I leaned in closer for another look at the kid. I was about to examine his bruised neckline, but she quickly grabbed my hand.
“Don’t touch him. You’re not LAPD.”
Her grip was firm, she could’ve drawn blood.
“Oh, I get it. I was never here.”
I took another lingering look at poor Harty.
“Kid had talent.”
She studied my face, then cracked a smile for the first time.
“You don’t have to fake it.”
“Being a fan.”
She wasn’t convinced.
“Mr. Shaye, I firmly believe that sympathy isn’t something you feign.”
“Hey, maybe my stomach just isn’t strong enough to handle a kid who had only a few good weeks to exercise his drinking privilege.”
“Then you’re in the wrong business.”
I pulled my Altoids tin from my hip pocket and popped a wafer in my mouth. I wanted her to hear the crunch.
“Let me make that call, Ms. Swirler.”
As I took one final look at America’s latest idol in a contorted fetal position, I suddenly realized there was more to this town than just the usual paycheck of snapping clicks of hitched starlets on a midnight tryst with agents who don’t know they’re abusing extra-hold hair gel.
I gave myself seventy-two hours to throw Justine something to chew on, but I knew I didn’t need it.
I started work that night at Dolce, a Hollywood haven flanked with wannabe starlets in over-sized Prada sunglasses and I-don’t-care-about-radiation cell phones. Pretty boy metros hung on their shoulders like a disease they couldn’t shake. These were the party kids who learned glamour school on their own. And I knew the scene--all sides of it.
Minus the bums and crazies that stood on Hollywood Boulevard, most of the ugliness was behind velvet ropes on the Strip and the iron gates of Holmby Hills. Now considering myself long retired, I was the coke pusher with the two thousand dollar Valentino jacket. My presence in a room was accompanied with promises of throwaway kicks and a hiked price for the boot.
But those days were over before I could really cash in. After pushing an undercover Narc and dodging a twelve-year sentence, I needed a different line of work. Investigations were my calling.
Tuesday night at Dolce belonged to Celia Turner--a go-to girl of mine--someone who knew Matthew Harty and a slew of others like him. Celia was on the outskirts of stardom, but always surrounded herself with the ones who made it. She was a girl who thirsted for the paparazzi bulbs and kept a childish ignorance of their dangers. But at twenty-six, I knew her angel days were over. Her sparkle was gone, dictated by hersmoke-weathered eyes and tiny cracks on the cheeks that L'Oreal couldn’t hide. And I felt partially responsible. I was the one who gave her the habit it took five years to break.
It was no surprise to find an unwelcoming grimace smudged on her face as I sat down next to her.
“Still think it’s easier to be seen at the corner table?” I asked.
“Who says I’m trying to be seen?”
“Last time we talked, you dropped your agent.”
“Agents procure work, don’t they?”
“No. Working actresses procure agents.”
She kicked back the rest of her mojito martini and angrily stood up. I grabbed her by the arm, forcing her to keep her seat and my attention.
“C’mon, you need money. Admit you’re out here looking for a sponsor.”
”New boyfriends aren’t hard to find.”
“But old ones are hard to keep, right?”
“Can’t a girl enjoy a drink without being on the prowl?”
“I know you, Celia.”
I laid two hundred dollars on the table. I knew she needed the money and I had my seventy-two hour rule to keep.
“Matthew Harty,” I said.
“What about him?”
“He’s dead. And that means your access privileges to The Standard have been revoked.”
“I think I would’ve heard the bad news.”
“Well, you didn’t, and that makes this a pretty serious matter.”
“You’re being played.”
“No. I saw his body. It’s amazing how asphyxiation can wipe a million dollar smile right off your face.”
She read the seriousness in my eyes.
“I never liked The Standard.”
“Listen, I need something on the Kid-Wonder. His publicist’s got a lotta faith I can deliver.”
She discreetly pocketed the cash.
“Thought you’d have more than two hundred to your name. You know what rent’s like out here.”
“Yeah, but you never pay it. Somebody’ll put you up.”
She looked at me like she wouldn’t buy it.
“Nothing’s free, Shaye.”
“Sweetie, I blew all my bartering money on a good lawyer. That’s how I kept twelve years of my life, remember?”
Celia shook her head in disbelief, but I knew she wasn’t hearing this for the first time.
“Well... I don’t have much on Matthew,” she said.
“His PR gal said his big break didn’t come easy. What does that mean?”
She snarled at the idea.
“Lance Stromyer gave him the lead in Oklahoma!. And that’s about as easy as it comes.”
Stromyer was one of the heavies in film and television--a veteran producer with a twenty-five year track record in family entertainment. He knew the field, knew the market and knew talent. He wasn’t a household name, but the business bowed to him. At least, most of it.
“Was Harty a personal pick?” I asked.
She nodded. “He always bragged about how he got the golden tap.”
“Other than you, who was jealous?”
“Everyone who didn’t have a screen credit.”
“Maybe his girlfriend.”
She spoke with a subdued bitterness. I knew Celia wanted her share of Harty. That’s what made Celia Celia. She clung to branches too high to hold.
“What’s her name?”
“With blonde roots.”
I’d caught sight of Lindsey more than once. Relegating herself to the club circuit, she was on the same playing field as Celia--always looking for an audience. Besides a couple of guest spots on teen dramas, she was invisible on the Hollywood radar. I’d seen her in and out of the Martini Lounge on Melrose, but never glimpsed her locking arms with Harty.
“Did they keep their thing private?” I asked.
“Matthew was Matthew.”
True, Harty had his choice. He was at his prime. I didn’t blame the guy for shacking up with another starlet--if that in fact was the case.
“Good chance for you to step in, right?” I sneered.
“I’m not young enough for Matthew.”
“’Least you gave it a shot.”
“A girl’s gotta try.”
I knew my fishing well was running dry. I slid another hundred across the table as a “thank you” for playing nice and stood up.
“Not going to stay for one drink?” she asked.
“Don’t act like you want me to. Time’s flying. Harty’s parents might get worried if the kid’s death goes unjustified.”
“I highly doubt that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Stromyer was the closest thing to a father Matthew ever had.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Matthew never knew his biological father. His mother’s in rehab. Stromyer gave Matthew his break.”
“Doesn’t Stromyer have kids of his own?”
“None that I’ve heard of. Matthew spent a lot of time up in Stromyer’s hilltop flophouse.”
“More like an estate, right?”
“Could’ve been Matthew’s second home. Not to mention, Stromyer likes to keep him in safe reach because his next picture’s dependent on him. Guys and Dolls. Another cable musical--who would’ve figured?”
“Where’s Stromyer’s home base?”
“Bel Air Estates.”
I sat back down.
“Are you sure?”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Got an address?”
“My list of walk-on roles wasn’t enough to get me through the iron gates. Kinda hard to know an address when you’ve never been invited.”
I studied Celia long and hard.
“How much is it gonna cost me?” I asked.
“Now you’ve got me labeled real dirty, Shaye.”
And with that she stood up from the table and made her way to the ladies room. I couldn’t convince myself to stop her.
I fetched Stromyer’s address off Trudy T., my favorite LA limo driver who knew every back alley, back road and backseat bribe in the city. Trudy was a player in the scene--a guy who made himself part of the social circuit, even though he kept his hands tied to a chauffeur’s wheel. He helped me round up clients in my pushing days, back when I could afford him. But now, his second-grade scribble on the flap of a matchbook was the only thing my wallet could buy. He handed me my last stop of the evening: 600 Vestone Way.
True, LA’s a small town, but I knew it wasn’t dumb luck that twelve hours earlier, I was face-to-face with Stromyer’s fallen prodigy just one street over from Vestone Way. Coincidence is a word I’m not that loose with. I knew the look in Stromyer’s eyes would tell me everything I needed to know as soon as I uttered: “Matthew’s dead.”
So I made the drive up Stone Canyon Road in my modest, mid-priced Volvo--suitable wheels for someone in my line of work--dark, quiet and reliable. It wasn’t long before Stromyer’s stucco wall floated by my driver side window--a monumental piece of work both dull and expensive, just like his flicks.
His security eye watched as I pressed my index to the ringer. It was eleven-thirty on a Tuesday night, and if he was still awake, I gave him three minutes to answer before I started to think about other options.
Two minutes passed before the strained, nicotine-scorched voice of Lance Stromyer emitted from the speaker box:
“Yeah? Who is it?”
“Devon Shaye. Private investigations.”
“Ever heard of a telephone?”
“I forgot to pay my phone bills this month, but I’d still like to have a word with you.”
“How about I forget you even came to my house.”
“Mr. Stromyer, this is a rather personal matter.”
“Matthew Harty’s gone missing.”
There was a pause.
“What are you talking about?”
“People disappear. It’s been known to happen.”
Another pause. He cleared his throat.
“Is there a ransom involved?”
“No. Just questions.”
“It’s too late for questions. Or games.”
“I don’t think the future of Guys and Dolls is something worth risking.”
No response, I went on--
“How about asking yourself why a stranger would come to your house inquiring about a headline actor who could otherwise afford to live anywhere he wants?”
“Matthew Harty doesn’t live here.”
“But don’t you wanna know how someone could think he does?”
There was a pause. Part of me waited for the rebuttal and subsequent call to the police. But deep down, the stubborn part of me knew Stromyer was curious--my instincts paid off as the gate buzzed open.
I found Stromyer waiting for me at the front door. He was in his late-sixties and his artificial tan covered up all signs of aging and all remnants of his youth.
Stromyer looked at me inquisitively, trying to second-guess my persona as the Real McCoy. He asked for my state-issued investigative ID card and I flashed it without hesitation. He seemed satisfied by its appearance and suddenly turned more hospitable. His rigid shoulders loosened and he started to look more relaxed in his plaid Burberry loungewear.
“I should offer you something to drink, shouldn’t I?” he asked.
“I didn’t come here for the hospitality.”
“But you’re standing in my house and I insist... whatever your motives.”
He opened his front door, and with a producer’s smile, motioned me inside.
Stromyer looked like a foreign dignitary as he led me through his Victorian foyer. His demeanor grew strangely calm-- I figured he either expected someone like me to walk through his door or grew too comfortable covering up his own messes.
When we got to his living room, Stromyer offered a glass of scotch, then had me sit a few feet across from him on his Gothic floral-patterned sofa. Between us, a mild blaze swelled in his white marble fireplace. Soot and wood ash fluttered around the room, even so far as to make its place on my two hundred dollar knock-off Versace jacket. I turned and looked at the compiled teepee between the flames. Whatever Stromyer had burning in there, it sure wasn’t firewood.
“How did you find my address?”
“I’m a private investigator. It’s what I do.”
He read into my lack of modesty--
“You know, your own confidence might put a thorn in your investigation.”
“Accurate with first impressions. Producer’s instinct, right?”
“Always dead on.”
I knew Stromyer was sweating on the inside or else he never would’ve let me in the door. I could tell by the steadiness of his eyes that he was a man who hid his fears with straight-faced precision--
“Let me be frank with you, Mr. Shaye--if for any reason, this is some backhanded publicity stunt, I’ll personally make sure that license of yours won’t even get you a job investigating rat trails at the city dump.”
He probably meant it, but I was far from being intimidated.
“As much as I enjoy being treated to good scotch, I’m not someone who likes wasting time.”
“Then spit out what you’ve got to say.”
“Well, first, I have a confession to make,” I said as I set down my glass. “Harty’s not missing.”
“Oh, he isn’t?”
“No. He’s dead.”
Stromyer didn’t flinch. He studied every square inch of my face. Some people have short, nervous ticks when they lie--
I don’t. But then again, I wasn’t lying.
“I like your poker face.”
“What makes you say that?”
“My own disbelief.”
I stayed serious--
“Listen, I can tell you that the red and blue markings on Matthew’s throat were a sure sign he had a hard night. I can tell you that his body contorted like a pretzel after the oxygen ran out of his lungs. His facial muscles were constricted so stiff, a four thousand volt shock couldn’t relax them. I think most people would agree that suffocation is agony. How’s that for a picture, Mr. Stromyer?”
His eyes welted up. And then, he started to break. Somebody putting me on would’ve acted like they didn’t care--but Stromyer’s tears were as real as you get.
And consequently, so were my doubts.
As Stromyer lowered his head and tried to cover his tears, I spotted a lingering figure in the hallway--his wife.
Loretta Stromyer was a woman dodging sixty, but trying to push twenty. It might’ve been pilates that kept her inside that slim white cocktail dress, but the flattened hair and
over-applied makeup didn’t do good to knock the idea that her age was a flexible number. Her hand gripped an empty wine glass like it was the only thing keeping her balance.
As soon as I thought she might make an entrance, she disappeared into the shadows of the hallway--indifferent to what knocked Stromyer off his wheels.
I turned back to the disheveled man, who took another drink and looked up at me with nostrils that wouldn’t stay still.
“I want photos,” he said.
“Could be a problem. The kid’s got an image. Say these photos get into the wrong hands.”
“My job code requires things to stay on the down-low. Maybe for reasons you can help me pull the covers off.”
“Unless you want to continue to make this a game of bluff, I need pictures, Mr. Shaye.”
“Do games of bluff always make you breakdown?”
He grew stern--
“My trust runs thin.”
Fair enough, I thought. I knew it wouldn’t be easy for Justine to turn over pics, but somehow I got the feeling that Stromyer wouldn’t have a problem keeping them to himself.
“I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, how about shoveling some dirt off your memories of the kid--”
I laid my card on his coffee table and stood up. I took one last look at his blazing fire and noticed what appeared to be the charred remains of an endtable inside. He really must’ve hated the thing.
The next day, I arranged a meeting with Justine before having my morning red-eye and blackened wheat toast. Since Harty’s body hadn’t popped up on the front page of the LA Times, I figured she did a clean job of keeping him under wraps. But as I flipped further into the local news, I was reminded that LA was far from losing its identity--
There they stood, small bold letters: Girl, 22, found dead and abandoned in Echo Park. Lindsey Shines. No notes that she was a bit-part actress or Harty’s secret fling. Nobody cared.
Half an hour later, I took a drive to visit my only LAPD ally, Rich Forester--a midnight junkie who did well keeping a straight face and a medical examiner’s title by day.
Like most people, I never got used to the smell of the LA County Coroner’s office. Maybe Rich didn’t either, accounting for his drug use. I discreetly slipped Rich my usual one K and watched him pull out Lindsey’s body--a battered ingénue, marred by a blow to the head.
“Right frontal subdural hematoma. No prints, no foreign hair samples. Died of trauma,” he said.
“She was struck directly over the head?”
Rich’s mumbling always lacked adequate pauses--
“No. Thrown into something. Straight edge. Line injury above her left brow. Narrow, yeah. But deep--caused shut-eye.”
“Wood fragments, glittered around her incisions.”
“What kind of wood fragments?”
Rich smiled his usual, half-crooked smirk and zipped up poor Lindsey. He took a strange, curious look at my jacket collar.
“Too cheap for dry-cleaning?” he asked, pointing to the soot and ash left on my blazer.
And then it hit me.
“Take a sample. Tell me if the wood ash isn’t Bolivian Cherry.”
I removed my jacket and handed it to Rich.
“Why?” he asked.
“Just promise me a call this afternoon.”
I made my way to Justine’s Avenue of the Stars roost--a sturdy twentieth floor east-view office that overlooked Hollywood’s cluttered, cross-town traffic.
She gave me an unsettled look when I told her of my predicament with Stromyer.
“He needs to know how legit I am. If he buys me as being solid, then it’s only a matter of time.”
“I can pin this thing.”
“I need his trust, first.”
“I need yours.”
Justine was the type of woman who immediately went with her instinct. And right then, she was telling herself “No”. So I got blunt--
“You were right about feigning interest. I don’t care about Matthew Harty and that means I don’t care about exploiting him for money after he’s dead.”
“But you like the sparkle of this town just as much as I do. That’s why you haven’t left.”
“No. I like secrets. I like finding them, not printing them on paper.”
She studied me, then turned and faced her window. She looked out over Hollywood like it was an unruly child. I knew she wanted control of the town, but by throwing me in the mix, she felt like she was losing a little bit of it.
“How do you know I have them?”
“You know where Harty’s body is... and that means you can find a way to get them made.”
“The answer’s ‘no’.”
She’d regret the decision. No more than fifteen minutes after stepping out of her office, I got Rich’s call. And as expected, the wood lined up. Whatever Stromyer threw Lindsey into was burning in that fire he had going. The man didn’t want any exhibits during his trial. Too bad he didn’t act fast enough. I would’ve upped my fee if I’d known I’d be working two cases. Unfortunately, I felt the two incidents were married.
A small piece of Bolivian Cherry was all it took to get Justine to change her mind. Surprisingly, she already had the pics secured in a safe behind her desk. Polaroids--shot minutes after I left the canyon. Harty’s most controversial role yet.
“Why didn’t you tell me you kept them standby?” I asked.
“Breaking a man down.”
I looked at her strangely.
“You were waiting for this all along, weren’t you?”
“Matthew got worried when she stopped calling.”
“Last week. She was at his house. Two days before he turned up dead.”
“Why haven’t I seen them together?”
“Maybe you went to the wrong clubs.”
“No. You kept them from being seen together. Why?”
She hesitated, but knew I had her cornered.
“Whether they realized it at the time or not, it was for their own protection.”
“No. It was for Harty’s protection. You couldn’t care less about the girl. But he did. And somehow, their lives got put into jeopardy because of it.”
She placed the photos in an envelope and sealed them up.
“You have your business, and I, mine.”
She was cocky, I’ll give her credit. She slid the envelope to me and I left with the smell of smoke under my nose--there was a fire brewing in Bel Air Estates.
I arrived at Stromyer’s house at eight that evening. I figured the man should’ve been tucked inside reading whatever scripts were thrown at him for the week.
But I came at the wrong hour. Loretta answered the speaker box, sans the pleasantries--
“This is about Matthew Harty, isn’t it?”
“It’s got something to do with him, yeah.”
She buzzed me in. I could feel the weight of the sealed envelope slowing my steps as I walked through the gates. In the guise of a pen in my shirt pocket, I kept a digital voice recorder running. I knew the Bolivian Cherry ash was enough for me to have speculation against Stromyer, but the police wouldn’t buy it. The only thing that could connect Stromyer with the murders was an audible confession.
Loretta didn’t wait for me at the entrance. The front door was open and it took twenty steps inside the foyer before I found her standing silently next to a grandfather clock. She looked as if she hadn’t left the house in days. Her once-flattened hair was frazzled, and the same cocktail dress she wore the night before showed evidence of wine stains. She held an empty glass--something that never seemed to leave her hand.
But I could tell she wanted to see me. She’d probably been kept up in that estate of his, forced to hold in whatever happened behind its walls. She wanted to get out. Maybe I was her only chance.
“He hasn’t cried in years. You made him do it...” she said. “That means you have something on him, don’t you?”
“Let’s not jump to any conclusions. I’m just the bearer of bad news, that’s all.”
She smiled at me like she knew better.
“I’m sure there’s something in this for you.”
“Some of us have a living to make.”
She grabbed the sealed envelope from my hand, but didn’t open it.
“Lance and I didn’t have children. My ability to give birth has never been, should I say, up to par.”
“Why was Lance so stuck on Harty?”
“He had the it factor. Lance loved him. Matthew was everything he wanted in a son.”
“So much to choke him to death?”
“You don’t understand.”
“Ms. Stromyer, there’s a lot I don’t understand, but I do know that two kids won’t be going to any more auditions. One of them killed in this very house.”
Suddenly, Loretta smashed her wine glass against the wall. She was coming loose at the hinges, so I gave her space.
“I wasn’t supposed to know,” she continued. “But when you find blood stains on your Peruvian endtable... it’s hard to cover-up a lie.”
“Is that all you found?”
Her eyes told me it wasn’t.
“I watched him carry her down the steps... even though I wasn’t supposed to. Lance put something in my drink... something to make me think that this was all a routine hallucination... due to my on-going alcoholism.”
“So Stromyer threw Lindsey Shines into an endtable while you played sleeping beauty, only you weren’t fully counting sheep?”
“Yes, but the truth sounds so grim when you repeat it face value.”
“What about Harty?”
“Ask my husband yourself...”
She pointed to the living room, where Stromyer was sitting comfortably on the couch, facing that raging inferno of his in the fireplace. I had a hard time believing he’d be forthright with a confession, but somehow I knew I was the person who’d bring his world crumbling down.
I slowly stepped inside the room while Loretta opened the sealed envelope and kept her distance. Stromyer was either in surrender or trying to ignore my footsteps. But my words should’ve been enough to turn his head--
“Leave out enough trash, Stromyer, and someone’s bound to pick it up.”
He didn’t respond. I really wanted to see him crack and pour out his guilt, but I never got the chance.
Stromyer sat motionless on his sofa. A tiny bullet hole originated in his chest and extended through the sofa cushion. I didn’t have to guess that the .38 Loretta held in her hand was responsible for Stromyer’s stiffened composure.
Loretta threw Harty’s photographs on Stromyer’s body.
“He kept this one hidden from me.”
“Why?” I asked as she waved the gun dangerously close to my chest.
“Between you and him?”
“No. Lance and Matthew shared the same fixation for Lindsey... but Lance was the one who always had to have the power... always the upper hand and iron fist.”
As she lowered her .38 and stepped towards the fire, I knew it was only a matter of time before Stromyer’s body would make its way into the flames and Loretta would be busy conjuring up her own alibi.
I didn’t wait around to see if Loretta had it in her to turn the .38 on me. So I left. Luckily, she didn’t need to hear a “Goodnight” from my lips, and I from hers.
The next morning, I went to Justine’s ready to up my fee for my recent on-the-job danger. I found her smiling with a hint of satisfaction as I told her of Stromyer’s fate.
I laid my USB voice recorder pen on her desk. She played back the convo Loretta and shared.
“Saves me time and money,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Stromyer doesn’t need to be blackmailed. He’s dead.”
And it was then that I fully understood the ruthlessness of Justine’s nature. She pulled out her checkbook and, no sooner than she applied her Jane Hancock, the dead kid walked in the door.
Matthew Harty--alive, healthy, but somewhat glib.
“Loretta will back up what you recorded, right?” he asked me as if he’d been listening all along.
I acted like his performance didn’t stun me.
“If she hasn’t thrown herself into the fire,” I said.
“Odds are low, considering how much money she’s likely to inherit,” Justine said.
I looked at the kid from head to toe. I couldn’t put together why he wanted to play opossum.
But then I remembered what Justine told me about Harty being a victim before he was “killed”.
“On account of me brushing shoulders with a homicidal wife, I’d like to know what’s so hard to swallow about your Oklahoma! break.”
He was tight-lipped at first, but knew he owed it to me.
“When I got the role, there was this little unwritten contract attached. Something my agent never saw.”
“A non-verbal agreement?”
“I was supposed to be Lance Stromyer’s pick-up guy... bait and switch as some salesmen call it. All I had to do was pick-up the fans and show them his amazing house. He did the rest. It was what he called a ‘forever debt’. But then came the time he wanted his way with Lindsey because I owed it to him... and it happened more than once,” the kid said as he got choked up. “The one time she didn’t wanna do what he wanted her to do, things got rough... I know because I heard the screams from downstairs.”
“So it wasn’t that Lindsey stopped calling. You were there when she got killed. And you got rough with Stromyer, right?”
“Yeah, we had it out. Some of the scars on my throat are real. But when he brought a .38 into our ‘disagreement’ I gave myself a fifty percent chance of getting out of there alive.”
“But you did. And that’s when you called Justine to meet you at Fontenelle Way, only you didn’t end up at the bottom of the canyon. You made it out alive. Stromyer wanted it that way because he needed you attached to his next production. Only you returned the next morning because Justine had a game plan--she had you play dead, while she reeled in a PI who could pull up some dirt on Stromyer.”
“Guess that’s how it works,” he said.
“But why fake it?”
“You needed to know what was at risk,” Justine said.
I took another look at Harty. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad actor.
“Must be able to hold your breath a long time. But I’m not so sure about the dead skin tone.”
“Make-up and low light works wonders behind the camera. Sometimes off-screen, too.”
Justine finally tore the check from her book and slid it to me. Part of me wondered why I was even getting paid.
“What are you getting out of this?” I asked her.
“One of the rules of publicity is to have leverage. I needed a card to use against Stromyer,” she said while holding up my recorder pen. “Loretta’s voice is what your check is for--with a bonus on top for hazard pay.”
“But you hired me to find Harty’s killer.”
“There you go again, talking yourself out of a job.”
My hand couldn’t reach for the check. I didn’t wanna be known as a dope who got comfortable being fooled for good pay.
“Listen, if this is for Lindsey, I just wanna hear it from your lips.”
Justine didn’t say a word, but then the kid spoke up--
“This is for me,” he said, with a cold stare driven only by payback hunger pains.
“Saved you the cost of blackmail, didn’t I?”
Harty grabbed the check and waved it over my hands like I’d already dropped it.
“Honest pay. Can’t complain about that,” he said as he threw me his kid-smile.
I could see why the camera loved him.
BIO: Patrick splits his time between writing fiction and working in television. He is currently working in production onCSI: Miami. My first cold case novel is in seconddraft territory. He lives in the posh spectrum of lights known as sultry Los Angeles.