Read an Excerpt
Bullet for a Star
By Stuart M. Kaminksy
A MysteriousPress.com Copyright © 1977 Stuart M. Kaminksy
All rights reserved.
It was the summer of 1940, a hot August day in the San Fernando Valley, and I had doubts that my '34 Buick would even get to Warner Brothers. The pistons were making threatening noises, and with four bucks in my wallet and nothing in the bank, I tried to ignore the sound. I was, I hoped, on the way to a job.
I totaled my assets and salable qualities as I turned down Barham. I was on my own, had my office rent paid till the end of the month, knew a dozen people I could hit for a few dollars, including an ex-wife who worked for an airline and liked me but long ago gave up loving me—with good reason. My health, except for an occasional sore back, was good, though it wouldn't be much longer if I had to keep living on nickel tacos and cokes.
My face was in my favor. I badly needed a haircut, but sometimes the slightly wild look was just what a client wanted in a bodyguard. My nose had been broken at least three times, once by a baseball thrown by my brother, once by a wind-shield and once by a fist thrown by my brother, in that order. But at five foot nine, the nose was a valuable asset. It announced that I had known violence.
I had been about to answer an ad in the L.A. Times for a part-time commissioned skip tracer for an auto agency in Fresno when the call had come from Sidney Adelman at Warner Brothers. Sid said he had a job for me if I could get to the studio in a hurry. I didn't bother to ask what the job was. He knew I didn't care. I survived a shave with a thrice-used Gillette Blue Blade and put on my only decent suit and unwrinkled tie, being careful to knot it over a small egg stain.
Four years earlier I had been fired as a Warner Brothers security officer. I'd made the mistake of breaking the arm of a Western star who had made the mistake of thinking he was as tough in person as he was on the screen of Grauman's or Loew's State. The broken arm had caused a two-week delay on the star's latest classic. The order to fire me had come directly from Jack Warner.
For the past four years I had barely survived as a private investigator. The jobs had been few: helping a house detective named Flack in a second-rate hotel during conventions, searching for missing wives of shoe salesmen, picking up days here and there as a bodyguard for movie stars at premieres. I had Mickey Rooney twice, and he was hard to keep up with; but MGM didn't argue about the salary and paid it fast.
I pulled up at the Warner gate behind a black Pontiac. The uniformed guard at the gate, a big-bellied, good-natured giant named Hatch, motioned Walter Brennan through, and I eased forward. As I reached through the window to shake Hatch's massive, hairy right hand, I wondered why the studio had suddenly forgiven me.
"Toby Peters, for Chrissake. How you doing?"
Hatch was about 60, but his grip was inescapable. There was a car behind me, a limousine with a chauffeur waiting to go through the gate.
"I'm making it, Hatch, and they tell me times are getting better."
"God willing," he said, "but that European war don't look good."
"Hatch, Adelman sent for me."
"Right, he called down. You know where the building is. Take Litvak's space. He's on location somewhere."
I thanked Hatch and drove through slowly past two of the block-long, barracks-like Warner buildings and a flock of extras dressed as pirates. Eventually, I slipped down a narrow alley to the office building where Sid Adelman hung his nerves.
Warner is a labyrinth of two-story rectangular buildings, outdoor sets and sound stages. Adelman's office was on the first floor of one of the office buildings. Sid was called a producer, but he didn't produce many things that made their way to the screens of theaters. He had started by getting coffee for the Brothers Warner when they were still junk dealers. Now he listened to the woes of studio stars, sympathized with directors' complaints, delivered ultimatums, arranged parties, kept secrets and made lots of money. He was only fifty, but looked sixty.
The long corridor was busy with hurrying people. Girls with long skirts and porcelain faces trying to look like Wildroot Cream Oil ads, men with cigars who wanted to be recognized as producers, guys with their collars open, whose weary smiles announced that they were writers and had nothing to do with the others in the hall.
Sid's office was where it had been four years before when I had last been in it. I had done a few odd jobs for him, like carrying drunks from parties, muscling a persistent fired cameraman who claimed the studio owed him a year's salary, and keeping my mouth shut about a very important female star who had a session with drugs and a friendship with a married senator.
Sid's outer office was the same as I had remembered it. The walls were covered with autographed, framed photos, all studio publicity shots, of Warner stars. The only thing that had changed in the office was the girl sitting behind the desk reading a Street and Smith love magazine.
"What happened to Louise?" I asked affably.
"Did you wish to see Mr. Adelman?" she answered unaffably, looking up from her reading. Her face was like those in the hall, pretty, ready to crack and young/old. Her hair, over her painted eyebrows, was a lacquered, brittle tower of dark yellow. I wondered how she could sleep without breaking it and decided from the blank look on her face that it was probably her biggest worry.
"My name's Peters. He called me."
"Have a seat," she said, returning to her magazine. "Mr. Adelman is in Viewing Room Three and will be back in half an hour."
Normally, I would have sat down humbly, but she annoyed me by being stupid, which I wasn't, and having a job, which I didn't.
"I'll join him," I said, heading for the door.
"He wanted you to wait," she said in exasperation at having to look up again.
"That's O.K., Maisie. I know the way."
"My name's not Maisie. It's Esther." I closed the door.
I walked back down the hall, spotted Jack Norton, the guy who always played a drunk, and made my way back into the California sun. I was starting to sweat. I sweat easily, and with only three shirts I couldn't afford it.
As I crossed the fifty yards to the screening room, I almost bumped into a kid who made me feel a little better. He was carrying two huge cans of 35mm film and was sweating even more than I was.
Screening Room Three was one of five in a lifeless, one-story rectangle. The screening rooms offered different sizes and levels of plushness. Number Three was the simplest, with thirty seats arranged like a theater. I opened the outer door and stepped past the small projection booth, where I could see an old, hard-of-hearing studio projectionist named Robby leaning back in a chair and doing a crossword puzzle. Whatever he was screening didn't interest him.
I opened the inner door to the theater and stood still, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The first thing I saw was the image on the screen, a black and white, silent film. A tall, skinny, good-looking boy on the screen was standing bare chested in a forest arguing with a girl who came up to his waist.
Only two other people were in the screening room, sitting in the middle row. One was Sid Adelman. The other seemed to be a youngish man with Harold Lloyd glasses. Harold Lloyd leaned close to catch any great words that Sid might drop.
"What's the kid's name?" Sid grunted in a put-upon New York accent.
"Bradley," said the young man.
"No, schmuck, not the kid who made it. The actor. That big kid." Sid pointed to the screen, his hand breaking the projector beam and crossing over the young actor's face.
"Uh," said the young man flipping through some notes and turning them toward the screen to catch enough light to read them. "Heston, Charlton Heston. He's 17 and ..."
"Jesus," groaned Sid. "I wonder who made that name up."
I shuffled my feet as noisily as I could on the carpet, and the two men turned toward me. Adelman stood up, so Harold Lloyd stood up.
"Peters?" Adelman asked.
"All right. All right," Adelman shouted. "Turn it off." Nothing happened. "That deaf son-of-a-bitch. Robby," he shrieked, "turn that fucking thing off." Sid was one of a townful of Hollywood characters who swore two decades before it became generally popular.
The projector went off with a whine and the lights went on.
"Some kids in Ohio," Adelman said, shaking his head toward the screen.
"Illinois," corrected the young man at his side.
"What's the difference," sighed Adelman. "These kids made that picture, a full-length version, silent of some Russian or Greek play, Peer Gynt. Who wants it?"
Sid looked at me. I looked at him. As bad as I looked, he looked worse. At least I hoped so. Even with his elevator shoes, Sid Adelman topped no more than five foot four. His hair was dirty grey and as thick as style would allow, to give him another fraction of an inch on the world. The bags under his eyes were permanent, dark heavy, packed and ready to go for more than twenty years. The light brown suit fit perfectly around his stomach, but the shoulders were too wide. Throwing in the suit, elevator shoes, haircut and paunch, he weighed no more than 120 pounds.
The young man stood beside Adelman, waiting. If he straightened up, he would have been a good four inches taller than his boss. And if he took off the glasses, he would have been a good looking man, but he wasn't about to straighten up or take off his glasses with Sid around. He reeked of brains and ambition.
Sid came out of the aisle and took my arm, pulling me down a little toward him.
"I've got a job for you," he stage whispered, ushering me through the doors and back into the sunlight.
"Cunningham, go write a letter to those guys," he barked over his shoulder.
Young Cunningham nodded efficiently and hurried away without a glance at me. Cunningham, a damn good yes man, would go far at the studio. Sid was now dragging my left shoulder dangerously close to the ground.
"The things these actors get into," he whispered, "you remember." He paused to put on a gigantic fake smile for a fat, well-dressed man well up in his sixties, who passed by us, a cigar in his mouth as big as Sid.
"Looking good, Morris."
Morris nodded, preoccupied.
"An asshole," confided Adelman, guiding me into his office building. "A producer with three straight shit bombs." He smiled and shook his head in mock sympathy.
We passed an open office door, and I could see Jack Benny sitting in a chair and looking up with full attention to a minute, ancient woman in black who was shouting, "Every time, every time."
Esther lifted her heavy head as we entered but didn't bother to put away her magazine.
"Mr. Peters and I are not to be disturbed," Sid told her, guiding me into his office and closing the door.
His office was large, with a big window looking directly at another huge window about ten yards away in a similar building. There was a man in the other window. He wore a dark sweater, had a mustache and unruly hair and held a pipe in one hand as he looked up in the sky.
"That," said Adelman pointing directly at the man, "is Faulkner, the writer."
Adelman looked at Faulkner, who smiled genially and went back to looking at the sky. Sid shot me a look to see if I knew who Faulkner was. I didn't bite, and he continued:
"You know what he's costing us for two weeks' work? MGM didn't want him, and you know what we're paying him?"
"No," I said sitting across the desk from Adelman, who had not offered me a seat.
"Don't ask," he said, tearing his eyes away from the writer and sitting uncomfortably in his chair, an oversize leather monster.
The office was remarkably plain for a producer: dark carpeting, a big desk, a bookcase full of scripts, and two pictures on the wall, one of the Brothers Warner and one of President Roosevelt. Both were autographed. A small refrigerator stood in one corner, and there were two plain chairs for visitors.
"Well," beamed Sid, turning from studio hen to salesman, "How have you been? Can I get you a drink?"
"No drink, thanks. I've been doing fine."
He shoved a couple of pens and pencils into a desk drawer and looked over at me.
"You've been doing lousy," he said evenly.
"I've been doing lousy," I agreed, "and I'd like a beer."
He got up and hustled to the refrigerator. He talked as he moved and brought me a bottle of Ballantine's beer with a glass. The glass had a decal of Porky Pig on it.
"You know, Peters, I had nothing to do with your getting booted two years ago. I want you to know that."
"It's four years, Sid, and I never blamed you."
I poured the beer slowly and watched Porky's eyes turn amber from the liquid. Faulkner smiled across at me and turned away.
"You know," Sid went on, after looking at me intently while I took a long drink, as if I hadn't a care in the world, "you had one quality I always admired."
"My rotten temper. But I'm older now." I tried to make it sound wise and ironic.
"No, no, no," he said. "You're honest. You keep things to yourself. You saw something here and you kept your mouth shut even when you got axed. You follow me?"
"You've got a secret for me to keep."
"In a way. In a way." He took the pens and pencils out of the drawer he had just put them in and arranged them on his desk. He was silent for about thirty seconds, looking at his pencil and pen arrangement. I drank my beer and looked at Bill Faulkner's back. I felt like he and I were old friends, and things were finally going our way.
"Blackmail," Adelman finally spat out. The pens and pencils went back in the drawer. "One of our stars is being blackmailed."
"What do you mean, 'and'? And I've got to take care of it," he said, looking at the photo of his employers on the wall.
I finished my beer.
"We ... I've decided to pay them," Adelman said, reaching into the drawer again and pulling out a thick envelope. "There are five thousand dollars in one hundred dollar bills in here. I want you to deliver them to a certain address at two in the morning. We don't want any studio people involved, and we don't want anyone to know anything before or after. You give me your word that if anything goes wrong in the transaction, you don't involve me, the studio or the actor."
"What do I get in exchange for the envelope?"
"A negative and a positive print," said Adelman softly. "You don't give up the money until you have the negative and print. Then you bring them back to me."
I shook my head.
"They can have a hundred copies of that picture, a dozen negatives," I said. "The five thousand is just a down payment."
"You think I'm some kind of putz off the street," Adelman said, rubbing his forehead and standing. "Our actor says the picture's a fake. Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. We have a man who can tell if he sees the original negative."
"And if it's real?" I asked with a slight grin.
"We'll handle it."
"You mean pay some more, find someone nastier than me to handle it, or dump the actor?"
"That's our business," said Adelman, turning in his chair where he was again sitting.
"Where's the print the blackmailers sent your actor?"
"I destroyed it immediately," Adelman barked. "I didn't want someone else to get it and make more copies."
"All right," I said standing. "Answer three questions, and you have a delivery man."
"Good," Adelman sighed, turning to face me. "The answer to your first question is $200 now and the same when you hand me the negative and print. Now your second question."
"My second and third," I said holding up two fingers. "What's in the picture, and who's the actor? I'm going to know both answers when I make the trade, and you want to be sure I know what I'm dealing for."
The little man hesitated, touched his hair to be sure it was still there and threw up his hands.
"It's a picture of a man and a girl, a very, very young girl." He handed me the envelope and counted $200 from his own wallet. I took the cash and pocketed it.
"You make the exchange at this address in Los Angeles," he whispered. "You take the envelope there at two in the morning." He scribbled on a sheet of paper and handed it to me. It was a middle class area off Figueroa near the University of Southern California. "You go to the door, make the exchange and that's all."
"You checked the house?" I asked.
"It's empty, for sale."
"O.K.," I said, thinking that I had plenty of time to fix my piston, get a reasonable meal, listen to the radio and get some sleep before the delivery. "Now for the other question I asked."
Adelman nodded and moved to the door. I caught him glancing at the portrait of the Warner boys and followed him out and past Esther the reader. This time he didn't take my arm. I caught up with him as he burst through the door of the building. Wet patches of sweat immediately wilted his collar.
We cut through a sound stage where the cast and crew of what looked like a football movie were taking a break. Pat O'Brien, wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt and a baseball cap, was telling a joke in a heavy, put-on Irish accent. He paused to wave at Sid, who dashed through a door and hurried to another building.
Excerpted from Bullet for a Star by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1977 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.