A Valentino Mystery
By Loren D. Estleman, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
WINGED PEGASUS GLIDED along the San Diego Freeway, soared down the ramp onto Sunset Boulevard, and swooped into West Hollywood, full of oats and hubris. There gridlock clipped its wings. It waited for the lights to change with a quizzical smirk and both eyebrows raised in a Victor Mature arch.
L.A. took little notice. A city accustomed to seeing Roman centurions in White Castle and RuPaul anywhere spared only the occasional curious glance for a flying horse in the bed of a rented trailer, even if it wore all the colors of the rainbow and BRUINS SUCK spray-painted on its plaster butt. Valentino got all the way to his last turn before someone seated on the passenger's side of a wired-together El Camino got his attention with a two-fingered whistle.
"Hey, buddy! Fill 'er up with regular!"
The man pulling the trailer smiled weakly, waved, and made the turn.
He pulled into the alley next to The Oracle Theater and braked behind a construction trailer piled high with demolition debris. Exhaling with relief, he switched off the ignition. He disliked attracting attention, and had chosen the one place in America to live where it was virtually impossible. The exchange at the intersection had nettled him.
He got out and hoisted himself up onto the wheel of the construction trailer to peer inside. It was filled mainly with sheets of dirty linoleum cratered with old cigarette burns and heaps of broken lath with bits of plaster the color of bad teeth clinging to the slats by strands of horsehair. This, too, was a relief; he lived in fear that without his supervision the workers would throw away something irreplaceable.
"What a hideous way to treat a noble creature that never existed. Where'd you find him, Fire Island?"
Valentino stepped down and turned to meet the owner of the voice. Kyle Broadhead stood outside the fire door propped open on the side of the theater, flanked by a pair of husky young men in UCLA sweatshirts: undergrads, beyond doubt, selected from the football team's expendable third string. Between them the rumpled film studies professor looked like a garden gnome. He was stuffing his pipe from his old pouch and getting more tobacco on his sweater than into the bowl.
"Not Fire Island, but close." Valentino followed his gaze to the multicolored sculpture hitched behind his car. "An Armenian rug dealer in the Valley stuck it in front of his shop to attract business. Some students from State have been decorating it once or twice a week for five years. It'll take ten gallons of mineral spirits just to get down to the original workmanship."
One of the burly UCLA boys snorted. "Everybody knows you can't trust a statie with a box of Crayolas."
"Spoken by the young man who when I asked him who directed Stagecoach, said Henry Ford." Broadhead walked around to the back and scowled at the BRUINS SUCK. "I hope you didn't drive past campus."
"I made an end run around it," Valentino said.
"What's it made of?" the other student asked. "Coach'll drop me if I pull a muscle."
"He'll drop you if you drop another pass," said his teammate.
Valentino said, "It's just hollow plaster. The rug dealer and I got it up there without help."
Drawing on his pipe, the professor reached up to pat Pegasus on the rump. "Welcome home, Old Paint. Your brother missed you."
Valentino untied the ropes that lashed the sculpture to the trailer and acted as guide as the students bent their shoulders to their task. They carried it down the ramp that came with the trailer and through the broad doorway into the building, Valentino saying, "Careful, careful," biting his lip as the horse's brittle ears passed a bare half inch under the top of the frame, and scurrying around ahead of them to kick hazardous pieces of rubble from their path, walking backward and gesturing gently with arms spread in front of him as if to calm down a beast of flesh and blood. Broadhead wandered in behind them, smoking.
After much grunting, mutual accusations of sloth on the part of labor, and two pinched fingers, the tie-dyed creature of mythology stood at last on a pedestal opposite its twin at the base of the grand staircase in the lobby. For the first time in more than a decade they bracketed the cracked marble steps and mouse-chewed carpet runner.
"There's teamwork," Broadhead said.
Valentino glared at him. "What's that make you, the coach? I missed the part where you contributed."
"I hired the muscle. A passing grade for twenty minutes' work."
The student with the pinched fingers took them out of his mouth. "The new one's bigger."
"It won't be once all those coats of paint have been stripped away," Valentino said. "They're both the same age. They were cast by the same artist who sculpted the original out of limestone."
"How do you figure it made it all the way down to the San Fernando Valley from here?" Broadhead asked. "Those wings don't really work."
"Vandals. Pranksters. People have been scavenging the place since it shut its doors. They got tired of it and sold it, or tossed it, and somehow it wound up in a junkshop in Burbank, waiting for someone to buy it and turn it into an advertising gimmick and post a picture of it on his Web site. That's where I found it, on the Internet. Thank God for those kids with their buckets of paint. They protected it from the rain and smog."
Broadhead blew smoke at the fallen-in ceiling. "Cost you a fortune to restore it."
"Not as much as it would've to duplicate it from scratch. The artist is dead and the original went down with the Andrea Doria."
"What's the point?" asked the young man who'd come through without injury. "It's just something to walk past on your way to the show."
Valentino smiled at him. "It is the show, or part of it. I can't explain it to you if all you know about movies is DVDs and the multiplex. I'll put you both down for free passes to the grand reopening, and then you can see for yourself."
"They'll be in AARP by then," Broadhead said. "And you'll be in a crappy nursing home, as penniless as the schnook who went broke on this dump the first time."
"A man needs a hobby."
"A hobby is something that has nothing to do with your work. You spend all week sniffing out and restoring old films and all weekend rebuilding a theater to show them in. That's like an undertaker who stuffs turkeys on his day off."
But the film archivist wasn't listening. Standing there admiring the reunited sculptures — really magnificent beasts tossing back their heads, opening their wings, and lifting their front hooves free of the earth — he saw them unsullied and unchipped, all gleaming gold leaf and electric light shining from their eyes. Between them had passed Hollywood's royalty: Swanson, Gable, Harlow, Chaplin, Bogie and Betty, James Dean, Brando, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo; flashguns flaring like sheet lightning as they filed in for the premiere of yet another vision from the Dream Factory. Outside, limousines lined the street on both sides for blocks, and sabers of light swiveled and crossed, bleaching the bellies of clouds a hundred stories above the pavement.
"... Harriet think?" Broadhead was saying.
The hallucination faded. Plaster dust settled over leprous patches of linoleum, drop cloths blurred the outlines of the plugged fountain and shattered glass snack counter, pigeon filth frosted the reliefs on the walls. Chalky clouds swirled slowly in the sunlight slanting through holes in stained glass.
"What did you say?" Valentino asked.
"I said, 'What does Harriet think?' She's a forensic pathologist. Does she bring DNA home to spin in a dish in the kitchen?"
"I should call her. We're going to a thing tonight." He looked around. "Where is everyone? The place was crawling with workers this morning."
"This was how it was when we got here. Ask your contractor."
"I would if I could get him on his cell."
"He's probably in Athens, cribbing bits off the Parthenon. Maybe this will explain something. One of the jocks found it taped to the door." Broadhead took a small rectangle out of a sweater pocket and handed it to him.
It was a business card. Valentino read the message scribbled in blue ink on the back first: "Call me. D.S."
He turned it over to look at the printing:
LOS ANGELES COUNTY BUILDING INSPECTOR
"What do you think it is?" he asked.
Broadhead puffed on his pipe, thickening the haze. "It can't be good. Government functionaries are like mice. If you don't see or hear them, you can pretend they don't exist."
Valentino could never get a cellular signal on the ground floor of The Oracle; there was either too much lead in the paint or the walls were too thick for modern microwaves to penetrate. He went into the auditorium, where more drop cloths hammocked the rows of seats and carpeting had been torn up in strips to expose dry rot in the floorboards, swung open a panel that looked like part of the wall, and climbed a set of steep narrow musty-smelling steps to the old projection booth. He'd furnished it with all the essentials of a bachelor living arrangement; his lease had run out on his apartment in Century City and all his money was tied up in the renovation. When his phone informed him he had service he sat on the sofa bed and dialed the number on the business card.
"Yes?" It sounded more like a challenge than a question.
"Dwight Spink, please."
"Speaking." This time Valentino heard a British accent. He introduced himself. Then: "Yes, the theater. I sent the crew away. You have a serious problem, Mr. Valentino."
He waited, hearing his heart beating between his ears.
Spink cleared his throat in two notes, like a cellist dragging his bow back and forth across the strings. "Perhaps you're not aware that the State of California requires a separate hazardous material license for laborers engaged to remove asbestos."
"I was told all the necessary permits had been obtained."
"We're not discussing permits. Laborers who handle asbestos must be bonded and licensed as a matter of public safety and to minimize the risk of litigation."
"Did you ask them if they were licensed?"
"That isn't how it's done. When I asked to see a license, none of the men present was able to comply."
"Were any of them actually removing asbestos at the time?"
"The law makes no provisions for the odds of an inspector actually conducting an inspection when the removal is in process. Absent the certainty that an unregistered laborer would not attempt the job after I left, I ordered everyone to leave lest they all be exposed to a dangerous carcinogen."
"Isn't that the same as arresting someone because he might commit a crime?"
"No, sir, it isn't."
"I think you should be discussing this with my contractor."
"I attempted to reach Mr. Kalishnikov, but was told he was unavailable. Since public safety was involved, I took the initiative."
"I'll have him get in touch with you. I'm sure this can be resolved with a single conversation."
The cello rasped. It sounded like the opening to the theme from Jaws. "During my inspection I noted also that someone has been living on the premises. That neighborhood is zoned commercial, not residential."
"I understand it's zoned for both."
"There is some question as to precisely where one ends and the other begins. In any case I cannot allow the present situation to continue until the zoning board has voted and a certificate of residency is issued. Until then the person who has been living there must find outside accommodations."
"Is there anything else, Mr. Spink?"
"As a matter of fact there is. The staircase leading to the projection booth is not up to code. The treads are too narrow, the risers are too high, and the ventilation is inadequate. These things violate OSHA, the fire code, and the Clean Air Act. The stairs must come down."
"Then how am I — how will the workers get up to the booth?"
"Not being in the construction business, I wouldn't know. Whatever solution your contractor comes up with must comply. These regulations were drafted for our safety, Mr. Valentino. Yours and mine." Spink cleared his throat. "It's Friday afternoon. I will conduct another inspection Monday. If at that time the proper license is presented and the nonconforming passage to the booth and the unauthorized apartment there has been sealed off to my satisfaction, the construction may resume."
"How am I supposed to seal it off without any workers?"
"It's a simple job for a rough carpenter. We can assume he won't be messing around with asbestos."
"I haven't budgeted a carpenter until next month. Do you have any idea how much this has cost me so far?"
"It's a fair-market state," Spink said. "You pay for what you get."
When the line was clear, Valentino tried Leo Kalishnikov again. The flamboyant contractor, who specialized in designing and building high-end home theaters and had taken on The Oracle as a personal challenge, was out of the office, and his cell phone went straight to voice mail. Valentino left an urgent message and went downstairs.
Kyle Broadhead was alone in the lobby. "I sent the defensive line home. I'm giving the clumsy one extra credit so he doesn't sue you over those mashed fingers." He read Valentino's expression. "That bad. I was right about mice, wasn't I?"
"I'm beginning to smell a rat."
"I WANT TO be alone," Harriet said.
"Vant," said Valentino.
"I said want."
"I don't understand."
"It's 'I vant to be alone.' Your accent needs work."
She squinted. "Did we or did we not watch Grand Hotel just last week? You said it was research."
"I did and we did."
"She said, 'I want to be alone.' She pronounced the w, I heard it. I even had you go back and play it again to be sure."
"Beside the point. When Greta Garbo says 'want,' the world hears 'vant.' Garbo didn't have to prove she was Garbo. You do. Perception is everything."
"I don't have to prove I'm Garbo to win a silly contest."
"Look, if you don't want to play, don't. I thought it would be fun."
"Okay, don't get your moustache in a wad. I mean vad. Hang on while I go slip into something less comfortable."
She left him standing in her living room and went into the bedroom, leaving the door open a few inches. Harriet Johansen had answered her door wearing a fluffy robe and pink mules with a towel wound around her head; with her face freshly scrubbed she looked like a sloe-eyed little girl with ideas. Valentino wore an imperial Russian uniform: scarlet tunic with gold frogs, white riding breeches, and black stovepipe boots. A thin Ramon Novarro moustache clung to his upper lip, stuck there with spirit gum. He felt like an idiot who'd never had an idea in his life. What had he been thinking?
"I did some research on my own," Harriet called through the opening. "Did you know Greta Garbo checked into hotels using the name Harriet Brown?"
"I'd heard that."
"So we share a name, and that's how I attracted your interest. You want to sleep with Garbo."
"I honestly never made the connection until just now, when I saw you in that turban. I thought someone had colorized The Painted Veil."
"A towel isn't a turban. You didn't answer my question."
"You didn't ask one."
She sighed. "Do you want to sleep with Garbo?" He touched his moustache to make sure it hadn't slipped off plumb. "Rita Hayworth once said the problem with her love life was men went to bed with Gilda and woke up with Rita Hayworth."
"Remind me who Gilda was."
"Her sexiest role. Her point was she couldn't possibly hope to fulfill their expectations."
"So I'm a letdown."
"I didn't say that. Are you trying to pick a fight?"
"I was teasing. Why are you such a grouch? I thought the idea tonight was to have fun."
"Forgive me." He meant it. "That damn theater is eating my lunch."
"Don't be so quick to condemn it. We met there, don't forget."
Which was true. It might not have been the first romance that began in a theater, but the circumstances were unusual. He'd plunged into the purchase on a whim, then discovered he'd bought the scene of a forty-year-old murder. That had brought him to the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department and its crew of criminalists, including Harriet.
He said, "I'll try to keep that in mind. It may spare you the unpleasantness of lifting my fingerprints off the throat of a bureaucrat."
"What on earth happened today?"
"Let's not spoil the night with construction talk, all right?"
"Deal. Anyway, it's out of character for John Gilbert."
"Sorry. I thought it was Gilbert with the uniform and the funny moustache."
"It was. Also Conrad Nagel and Melvyn Douglas and Fredric March."
"No wonder she vanted to be alone." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Alone by Loren D. Estleman, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2009 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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