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Killed in the Act
A Matt Cobb Mystery
By William L. DeAndrea
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 William L. DeAndrea
All rights reserved.
"Live! From New York!" —CHEVY CHASE, "NBC SATURDAY NIGHT," NBC
WHEN I WALKED INTO the commissary for lunch that day, I thought the only thing I had left to do with the Network's fiftieth anniversary celebration was sit back and watch it happen. "Sight, Sound, & Celebration" was going to be a weekend-long extravaganza featuring half a century of American pop culture, as shown by the Network's radio and television programming. There would be two full days of old shows being presented, appreciated, and discussed in depth. Then, to top it off, the Network was devoting six hours of Sunday night prime time to a super-sized birthday party, presented live from Studio J in this very building.
"SS&C" was to feature "more superstars than one could imagine in one place at one time"—unquote, Salvatore Ritafio, Vice-president, Public Relations. I'd seen the guest list, and it looked as though this might be one show that actually lived up to its hype.
There had been a time when I might have been one of the small army of people trying to see that it did, but not any more. My work for the Network wasn't done in studios any more. All I had on my agenda was lunch.
Which wasn't something to be rushed into. The fourth-floor commissary is such a dingy, noisy little place, it's hard to believe it's stuck in the heart of the Network's modernistic skyscraper. Furthermore, the food is terrible. The meat loaf tastes like it was fabricated from something they swept from the floor, and the roast pork is better left undiscussed.
There's no obvious reason for the food to be so bad, it just is. What makes it worse is the knowledge that down in the lobby is one of New York's finest restaurants (also owned by the Network).
Still, the Accounting department can show you just how big a profit this den of dyspepsia rakes in during your average year. It's peanuts to the Network, of course, but for a cafeteria, it's astronomical.
It prospers because they bring the tourists to it. The tourists, having shelled out three seventy-five for a tour of the building, are willing to put up with a mystery-meat sandwich and lukewarm Coke for the chance to eat near a Real Live Actor. The actors, being actors, are glad to oblige.
The only trouble is, there are fewer actors around all the time. Except for a couple of soap operas and game shows, everything is being produced out in California these days. Network sages viewed the fact that "SS&C" was being done here in the Big Apple as nothing short of a miracle. Rumor had it that the mayor himself had pleaded with Tom Falzet, president of the Network, to do the show here to bring the town some much- needed positive publicity. Whatever the reason, Falzet, who usually wrote turgid memos to complain about the excessive use of toilet paper in the washrooms, had authorized the expenditure of large sums of money to fly that unimaginable quantity of talent to New York from their Los Angeles poolsides.
It happened that a Los Angeles poolside was the subject of a lot of the lunch-time conversation I overheard as I slid my tray past what was laughingly called "food."
Three different sets of people were talking about the murder of Jim Bevic. The conversations weren't exactly loaded with facts—all any of us in New York knew was that he'd been found three days ago floating in somebody's pool, and that the police there called it murder. Nothing else had been released to the panting public, or if it had, it hadn't worked its way East yet. No doubt the LAPD was saving details for its own reasons.
People made do, though, despite the lack of facts. Two secretaries from Accounting were telling each other what a tragedy it was. One said, how terrible, such a good writer, and only thirty years old. The other said, don't be silly, he had to be thirty-three if he was a day, but at least it was lucky he wasn't married.
It usually makes me a little uneasy to hear about people roughly the same age as I am dying violent deaths. I had the feeling this time, too, but it was mixed with puzzlement over why an unmarried murder victim was luckier than a married one.
I was still thinking about it when I was distracted by the weatherman from Channel 10 News. Channel 10, a local station, is owned and operated by the Network, and has its studios in NetHQ (short for Network International Headquarters, the building's official name). The weatherman, who had pretensions to Science, was speculating on the condition the body must have been in when it was found Sunday after having marinated in chlorinated water overnight. Then he started speculating on the condition the body would have been in if it hadn't been found until today, Wednesday.
For the first time, I was happy I was eating at the commissary. Anywhere else, talk like that would have dampened my enthusiasm for a meal. Here, it didn't much matter.
A few tables farther down, the producer of a Sunday afternoon public affairs interview show was sitting up very tall and declaiming, ostensibly to his assistant, but really to the room at large, that Jim Bevic's book, Fellow Travelers, had been the absolute final word on McCarthyism, witch hunts, and especially the broadcasting blacklist, of the fifties, the one that had effectively, but unofficially, barred anyone from working in the industry unless he could prove lifelong revulsion with everything Russian, from dancing bears to salad dressing.
I had read Fellow Travelers—more than once—and I agreed it was a terrific book, but I felt obliged to point out to the guy that it was obviously not the last word, since he himself seemed to have plenty left. He made indignant noises, but some of the tourists at neighboring tables applauded me, so he gave up.
I paid a bored, just-short-of-surly register girl for my meal, such as it was, then scanned the room for Llona's dark, glossy head.
She was sitting in the far corner, doing her best by a plate of limp lettuce some optimist in the kitchen had called a salad. Llona was a vegetarian. She waved a slender hand to me, and I went over to join her.
"What was that all about?" she asked.
I told her. She grinned, and shook a fork with two bent tines at me. "I've been warned about you, Matt Cobb. I know all about your English-teacher mentality. But if you start correcting my press releases, I'll beat you to death with your own dictionary."
"Look," I said, "don't get the wrong impression. I'm not a Mad Grammarian, lopping off heads for split infinitives—I've been known to occasionally be guilty of that myself." She caught the joke and smiled. I went on. "To quote Kin Hubbard: 'It ain't ignorance that's the problem, it's folks knowing so many things that ain't so.' That's my gripe. I get peeved at people, especially people who are supposed to be in the communications business, who make stupid mistakes in the attempt to convince people they're important."
"My," she breathed, "you sound important." She had a low, full-throated laugh. She sounded good.
"You're evil, Llona," I told her.
She batted her eyelashes. "I try," she said. She didn't look bad, either. Llona Hall was occasionally taken for an actress by some of the tourists, but what she was was a middle-level executive in the Public Relations department. She had the same kind of aura a lot of stars have: all ambition and dedication, with just a touch of ruthlessness. For her, her status today was just something she had to put up with till tomorrow.
Llona had shiny black hair, worn shoulder length and curled under. She had long bangs, parted in the middle, and curving back along her forehead like a curtain going up, to show her big chocolate-brown eyes with their long black lashes.
Her nose was small and slightly pugged; not nearly enough to be unattractive. Her skin was clear and healthy; beautiful, like snow and roses. If she wore any makeup besides bright red lipstick on her wide mouth, it wasn't discernible. She had regular white teeth, and she dealt with the lettuce in a way that was far from dainty, but still ladylike.
Llona wasn't a big girl; she was about a foot shorter than I was, making her five-two or -three. She was wearing a green turtleneck blouse, with a gold medallion on a chain, a flaring plaid skirt, and practical two-inch wedge shoes. The outfit was modest and sexy at the same time. The skirt accentuated the way her hips swelled from a narrow waist, and the turtleneck followed the curve of breasts that a purist would probably have said were too large for her frame.
I, however, was not a purist, and it seemed to me if anything could make a success of a lunch of one salty hot dog on a soggy bun with watery mustard and relish, having someone like Llona across the table to look at was it.
She waited until I had bitten off a piece of hot dog, chewed and swallowed, before her impatience showed.
"Well? How did you make out?"
I was working on a second bite. I showed her a polite palm while I finished it. "She doesn't like it," I said when my mouth was empty, "but she'll do it."
Llona was happy. "That's a relief. You know she wouldn't even talk to me on the phone? It would have looked pretty strange not to have the founder's only surviving relative on the dais."
Llona was in charge of lining up the guests for the big black-tie banquet scheduled for Friday night. It was to be a huge media event, Public Relations' big play to the other media for coverage and plugs for the money-making portions of the anniversary program.
The banquet had a couple of other purposes. For the talent, it would be a chance to unwind after dress rehearsal Friday afternoon. For the Network brass (not including me—I was a very junior vice-president), it was a chance to blow the speeches out of their systems. The speeches would be taped, and the highlights shown on the televised party Sunday night. That was a smart idea on the part of Porter Reigels, who was producing and directing. On an occasion like this, you have to have the big shots, but you don't want to put them on the air live, where they can come down with an attack of camera fright, or worse, "flaming," also known as "diarrhea of the mouth."
Llona had had no trouble getting the important executives to appear on the show. The Network has more hams than Iowa. But with Roxanne Schick, granddaughter of the founder of the Network, daughter of his successor as president, largest single stockholder in the company, and at nineteen, one of the fifteen or twenty richest women in the world, it was a different story. She had given both Llona and Ritafio flat refusals when they sought her out for the dinner. For a lot of reasons, Rox and I had become very special friends, so the Department of Public Relations called in the Department of Special Projects, and asked me to help.
Roxanne took no joy in any close association with the Network, and I couldn't say I blamed her. A Network power struggle had ended in the crippling (and last month, the death) of her father, and the suicide of her grandfather; though to the rest of the world, that had been an accident at sea. Roxanne's mother escaped being tried for murder by committing her own kind of suicide, inside her head. She was in a private institution, but most people thought of her as dead, the way Llona apparently did.
Still, you can't escape who you are, and I finally managed to convince Rox that a trip down from college and an appearance at the banquet wouldn't hurt her.
"However," I told Llona, "Miss Schick has set a few conditions."
A wary look came into the chocolate eyes. Llona said, "Oh?"
"She wants her introduction and her speech to total forty-five seconds or less."
Llona was smiling again. "Is that all? Relax, this is PR speaking, remember? You people in Special Projects specialize in handling disasters, but we specialize in ignoring them. We don't want to hype the Schick name; not after the ARGUS scandal." She looked pensive. "Think we'll ever know the truth about that?"
"No," I said. At least, she wouldn't if I could help it. With hard work and luck, I'd managed to make that mess seem a lot smaller than it really was, and I wasn't about to blow that success just to satisfy someone's curiosity, no matter how cute she was.
"Well," she said, "it doesn't matter. How are things in Special Projects?"
"Quiet," I said. It wasn't often I could say that. "Special Projects" is a deliberate euphemism—what we really do can't be summed up in one of those pithy phrases the Network likes to paint on doors. "Trouble Shooting" would be close, but we also try to anticipate and avoid trouble if we can. It entails a lot of sneaking around, a lot of Machiavellian manipulations. I try to keep it as clean as possible.
"I wish I could say things were quiet." For just a second, Llona let her smile slip, to show me how tired she was. For just a second, while she proved her point. Then, cool and lovely as ever, she said, "I am going crazy. Never deal with TV people more than three at a time."
"That bad, huh?"
"Someday," she said, "I'm going to buy myself a little island, and just lie in the sun all day." She was smiling, but she sounded as though she meant it. "I'm going to be overjoyed when Sunday is over, and we're through with this."
"I have a few people upstairs just sitting around reading magazines. Anything Special Projects can do?"
She shook her head. "Not unless you feel like smoothing a couple hundred ruffled egos. Some of them have murder on their minds."
I jump to conclusions. It's a bad habit, especially in my job, and I try to minimize it. My brain, though, has a tendency to make decisions and take action without letting my conscious self in on it. That's handy when I'm under pressure—I don't have a chance to get nervous, for one thing—but it can lead to severe social embarrassment, as it did this time. I heard Llona say "murder," and making the too-quick association said, "I didn't think the show-biz types would be taking much notice of Jim Bevic."
Llona looked surprised. "Jim Bevic?" she said. "What about him?"
I shook my head. "That's the murder that seems to be on most minds around here," I said.
"Oh no," Llona said, "it's not about Jim. I was just using a figure of speech."
I raised an eyebrow. Llona didn't strike me as a name dropper. "You knew him?"
"We went to high school together. I dated him a few times."
"I didn't know," I began. I was all set to be sympathetic, but Llona waved it aside.
"It wasn't a romance or anything, we were more like pals—he was editor of the school paper, and I was his assistant. I used to kid him about winning the Pulitzer Prize someday. I phoned him after he actually did win it. That was the last time I talked to him."
"You kept in touch, then."
She shrugged. "Sporadically. He was a nice guy." She sighed. "Still, I'd like to go back home and pay my respects at the funeral, but with the way they've got me jumping around here, I'll never get the chance. I tried to call Alex—Jim's brother—but he was out of town."
I returned to Network business. "What's the problem?" I asked. "Complaints?"
"You guessed it."
"What are they complaining about? Isn't the Network putting them up like royalty across the street in the Brant? Aren't some of the old-timers from radio about to get their first checks since V-J Day?"
"The ones that old aren't the problem," she told me. "The big problem is Melanie Marliss. That ... that taco cook she brought along has her all worked up, and then she gets everyone else going."
I could see that. Melanie Marliss had been getting people worked up for years—primarily male movie-goers. She was a tried and true Network alumna, though. She got her start as card girl and sketch extra on the "Shelby and Green Program," then graduated to the enormously successful "Harriet Gunner" series, a sort of mid-sixties "Charlie's Angels." One honey-haired, long-legged, amply endowed Melanie Marliss had been plenty for girl- watchers in those days.
After "Harriet Gunner" folded, Melanie went right into pictures, and today, if you wanted financial backing for a picture that featured a woman in the major role, you went to a money man and said "Streisand," or you said "Marliss," or you said good-bye.
"What's her complaint?" I asked.
"Shelby and Green," Llona told me.
Excerpted from Killed in the Act by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1981 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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