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Jill M. SmithRomantic suspense is one of versatile author Heather Graham's strong suits, and she proves it yet again with Long, Lean and Lethal. Great reading!
— Romantic Times
The tap on Jennifer's door in the morning usually meant the arrival of a script.
Except that it was Friday, and scripts didn't usually arrive on Friday—unless it was a rewrite for the scenes they were doing today. Certainly they'd had more rewrites lately than seemed humanly possible.
She opened the door to her dressing room. A thin white envelope lay there, with nothing but her name on it. She looked down the hall, but it was empty. In fact, the entire fifth floor of the building seemed to be empty at the moment. She felt a chill.
That was ridiculous, she told herself. Though she tended to be earlier than the other actors with morning calls, she knew that some crew members arrived as early as she did, and it wasn't that early at all anymore. Just a little more than an hour and they should be on the set in full costume and makeup.
She stepped back into her dressing room, closed the door—and locked it. Sinking into the chair in front of her dressing table, she slipped open the envelope, wondering why she felt so tense.
There was a brief note inside. "Jen, please be advised we need you to stay next Friday night—filming a short scene after private rehearsals. Hush-hush set. Secret twists in plot! Love and kisses, your favorite producer, Andy Larkin."
Next Friday night. Great. Andy apparently believed she had no outside life. He was more or less right, of course. And actually, at the moment she was looking forward to more work, to avoid goinghome.
Deep in thought, she almost jumped at the next tapping at her door. Then she laughed.
Idiot, someone is knocking! Why on God's earth am I so nervous? I'm tired and worried, and that's that.
"Jen? Jen, you in there?" She heard her doorknob rattling along with the sound of Doug Henson's voice. She jumped up and opened the door.
"Hey, yourself, gorgeous." He was gorgeous. A tall, blue-eyed blond who worked out in the California sun. So gorgeous he should have been an actor instead of a writer. "They'd tried to use him on the show a few times. He hated acting, though, and the directors had basically given up—unless it was a beach scene in which someone just had to stand there being good-looking. But though Doug hated acting, he loved writing. Not so much this kind of writing. Soap operas made him crazy—changing everything ten times at the whim of the producer, director, or even the actors on occasion, but it was a good income, and allowed him to work on his great American novel in his spare time.
"What's going on, Doug? Why am I working next Friday night?"
"Plot twist," he told her.
"Obviously. What's it twisting to?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
He walked on in, helped himself to the coffee brewing in her pot. "You know, your stuff is always so much better than the dreck on the set." He inhaled deeply. "Cinnamon, eh? Macadamia nut?"
"Hazelnut, with a touch of cinnamon," she replied briefly, getting back to the point. "Doug, pay attention here. How come you don't know?"
"There are eight writers on this show, you are aware."
"Yes, but you're all supposed to know what one another is doing. To keep the plot in order, making sense."
He sighed, sinking onto the sofa in front of the dressing table, running his fingers through his impossibly blond hair. "When, my love, has this plot ever made sense? Think about it. Last year Randy Rock was caught in an explosion and fire, killed, and buried—and he came back last week."
"Entirely possible," Jennifer defended. "He couldn't be identified, the wrong man was buried—"
"He ran around with terrible amnesia, had affairs all over the place—probably sired a half dozen children, no one has told me yet—and reappeared looking devastatingly the same after plastic surgery."
"It could have happened."
"Only on Valentine Valley—isn't that what our promos say?"
"What's happening next?"
"Anything!" Doug muttered. He leaned back with a dramatic sigh. "Andy Larkin's character was thrown off a cliff into the Pacific Ocean and eaten by a shark. And he came back."
"It worked in Pinocchio."
"That was a whale. This was a shark. What, somehow the teeth of a great white missed him?"
She laughed. "You wrote his return—"
"And did a darned good job of it!" Doug said proudly, then grimaced. "Actually, that one was simple. He came back because they just thought that he'd been eaten by the killer shark that had taken three lives in the Pacific, but he hadn't been touched by the shark at all. He'd swum beneath the surface, come up beneath a different boat—"
"Had an affair with the woman on board, became he had amnesia, too."
"Naturally—he had to have an affair."
"Well, but you see, it did all make sense, because he wasn't really eaten by the shark," Jennifer said. "However, now, Doug," she began, her voice warning, "tell me what's happening. And quit making fun of us."
He opened his eyes, sat up straighter, and looked at her guiltily. "Sorry, Jen. I'm not really mocking anyone. I think you guys are really the best actors and actresses out there—you have to be, you make people believe all this stuff. And by God, you people get things in one take all the time. I was over on the set for that new studio psycho-thriller the other day, and you wouldn't believe it. Fifteen takes to get one little scene right."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. I do appreciate it," she said, smiling and meaning it. Soap stars took some taunting as "professionals." But they did work hard, and it was nice to hear a compliment.
"It does look as if it's going to be a good movie, though. Very scary."
"Really?" she murmured. Her heart did a little flutter. She'd been offered a role in the movie. "Small but important," her agent had said. Supposedly, the offer was still on the table.
"The director is that fellow who did the low-budget teen flick last year that made all the money. He's a huge Hitchcock fan, and believes that the psychology of fear is much greater than a bucket of guts and gore."
"I'm sure that's true. The director is Hugh Tanenbaum, right?"
"And isn't he good friends with Jim Novac?" Jim was one of the directors on the staff of their soap, Valentine Valley.
"Yeah, that's why I was over there. Jim wanted me to see what they were doing."
"I'm assuming so that I can see how psychological terror is done."
"You're a soap writer."
"I assure you," he protested with smooth indignity, "I'm a writer, not a `soap' writer. No adjectives, please!"
"I'm sorry, really sorry," she apologized quickly, hiding a smile. He was so serious about his work. "You're a writer, a wonderful one. A no-adjective, wonderful writer. But, I still don't get it. Never mind, I do get it, I'm afraid. The plot line is going to twist into a really scary suspense-type thing?"
"I don't know."
"Doug! Would you quit that and tell me the truth?"
"I can't tell you, Jen, because I really don't know."
She studied his face for a long moment and frowned. "Really?"
He nodded. "Cross my heart."
"You're not writing the scene? You must be. You do most of my scenes—"
"I am writing the scene. I just haven't been told what I'm writing. It's all hush-hush."
"Oh, come on, Doug. Even we silly actors know that there's a `bible,' the plot structure for the year, and that all you boys and girls do the writing each week by the bible."
He shook his head firmly. "The bible says `plot thickens, terror menaces Valentine Valley, details to be decided.'"
She stared at him, frustrated. He was telling the truth.
"Look, Jen, it's just that we're up against so much these days. They don't dare let anything get out." He sighed with tremendous patience. "I'm older than you. I admit I'm wearing rather well"—he grinned—"but that's good clean living for you. You're too young to remember the old days, I'm not. Once upon a time there was no cable, soaps did darn well. Now the folks at home can turn to us, or the cooking channel, or they can learn how to repair their house, garden—or how to speak French. Or they can turn to a prime-time movie in the afternoon. We have to protect our plot lines like Dobermans—it's survival of the fittest!"
"You're ticked because they won't tell you what you're writing," Jen observed with a smile.
He grinned back. "You bet your ass. Can you believe that? They won't trust me."
"Maybe they're afraid your actress friends on the set will torture it out of you."
He shrugged. "Yeah, maybe." He brightened suddenly. "I can tell you some of next week's general plot—until the end, of course."
"I can probably tell you about next week's plot," she murmured.
"Ah, dear and alas," he teased, his voice going very deep. "Do I detect a note of bitterness there?"
"No. Of course not," she lied. Turning, she pretended to fix the makeup on her counter.
"So ..." His voice trailed tauntingly. "You're just thrilled to pieces that we're bringing in Conar Markham? For a small fortune, I might add."
"It's none of my business, is it?"
"Actually, I'd imagine it is."
"He's coming to Granger House—your home."
"It isn't my home—it's my mother's house."
"A minor detail," he said, and through the mirror she could see him waving a hand in the air. He leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, meeting her eyes in the mirror. "Let's get down and dirty here. Tell me that you're not just sick to death of hearing how wonderful Mr. Markham is."
Jen spun back to look at him. There was such a bright, teasing light in his eyes that she had to laugh. She put her finger in her mouth in a pretend gagging motion. "I shall throw up the minute I see him if I get any sicker!" she admitted, which caused Doug to burst into rich gales of laughter.
Then his laughter faded, and the amusement left his eyes. "All of us are joking about it, of course, but Jen, don't be upset. I know that Abby invited him, but ..."
His voice trailed off.
"I'm not upset at all," Jennifer lied. Her life had always been somewhat strange, but that was what happened if you were born the child of a living legend. Her mother had garnered two Oscars, three more nominations, and was still considered to be one of the most beautiful women alive. Jennifer had spent haft her life trying not to live in California, and when she had graduated from school, the last thing in the world she had wanted to do was become an actress. Next to her mother, she had felt like an ugly duckling, and certainly an underachiever. She had tried so hard to be different. Yet no matter what her fame, fortune, or obligations, Abby had always been there for her daughter. Jennifer had been her mother's priority all the time that she had been growing up. Not long after she had realized how much her rebellion and resentment had hurt her mother, Abby had gotten sick with Parkinson's. She'd hidden it for a long time. Too long, Jennifer thought. They might have gotten help earlier. And now ...
"You really don't feel, well, resentful at all?" Doug asked.
Jennifer shook her head firmly. "He was Abby's stepchild for a long time. They always had a relationship."
"And you don't mind that."
She actually grinned. "I was kind of a brat as a child, I'm afraid." She grinned and lifted her hands out. "I had a chip on my shoulder about this big. I was kind of cold to my mother on a frequent basis in those years, and I'm very sorry now—"
"She adores you."
"I know it," Jennifer said softly.
There was a soft tapping on the door that startled them both. "Jennifer, makeup!" Thorne McKay called to her.
"Whoa, look at the time, will you? You're on call." He rolled his eyes. "And I've got a meeting with the big boys. But hey, I forgot the real reason why I came."
"How about an invite?"
"To Granger House for the holiday weekend."
She hesitated. She was disturbed by the fact that Conar Markham was coming. Abby had been acting ... strange lately.
It was true, in her heart, Jennifer was upset. Why did her mother suddenly need Conar? She was her mother's biological child, she had moved back to be with her—why wasn't she enough?
"Hey, kid, I'm talking to you," Doug reminded her.
"Doug, you know, I do have my own apartment, and if I were living there right now, you'd be welcome anytime, you know that. But now ... you know, I don't own Granger House. I'm just a guest myself. It's my mom's home, and she isn't doing very well—"
"You'll need moral support. Trust me. You need me."
"I'm a big girl, Doug—"
"You still need me."
"Look, I'm all grown up and mature—"
"Nobody's that mature. I know you have to resent this guy. I resent him coming in here, and I'm not even an actor, and Abby isn't my mother! See what a good friend I am—I even emote for you."
"Doug, I emote just fine for myself."
"And if all that is not enough," he said, coming closer to her, "there's a rumor going about that you're having a cocktail party tomorrow night to welcome home the conquering hero."
She sighed. Her mother had mentioned a party. Small. Impromptu. Just good old friends and a few folks from the soap. But Granger House was almost as legendary as her mother, at least in these parts of the world, and she wondered if her mother would really be up for a party. They never really knew when a bad spell would set in, even with her medications.
"Jennifer!" Thorne pounded on her door again. "You may be a beauty, my darling, but I'm a makeup man, not a magician!"
"I'll be here when the day's shooting is over. Luckily, I've packed a bag," Doug said.
She had to laugh. Maybe she did need the moral support. And Doug loved her mother, and her mother loved Doug. He would be helpful and understanding if they had guests and the stress did prove to be too much for Abby.
"Okay. Let's head out the moment my scenes are shot."
"You got it," Doug said.
He opened the door. Thorne almost fell in. He looked at them both. "Did I interrupt something?"
"Yes," Doug said.
Thorne pointed a finger at him. "But you're gay."
"Ah, but my arm can be twisted. There's always room in life for experimentation," Doug said wickedly. He walked on out, leaving Thorne to stare at Jennifer. She tried to keep a straight face, but his eyes were so big, nearly bulging out of his bald head. She had to laugh, and she saw in his return gaze that he knew he'd been taken.
Back to L.A.
La-la land, they called it, Conar Markham thought. He hadn't thought that he'd come back here—certainly not yet. But though he thought that Abby Sawyer was completely off her rocker, he owed her.
And he loved her.
And so he was back.
Arriving at LAX, he was surprised by the reporters waiting as he exited the plane. Not that he didn't have his share of self-confidence; he did. But he was a realist. There were a lot of big fish to fry out here. For the past two years he had been working the theater circuit, and that was far different from the land of movies, where millions of people saw your face in one shot, and even the worst flick was better known than the best play.
"There he is!" someone shouted, and the next thing he knew, he was surrounded; flashbulbs were sizzling, he was half-blinded, and a brazen young reporter had one hand wound around his arm, while the other popped a microphone in front of his face.
"Conar! Conar Markham! Back in L.A.! We're so excited out here."
Always, always, be good to the press, Conar. You never know when they'll turn on you. Abby had taught him that. So he forced a casual smile to his face. He couldn't help but look at the perfectly manicured hand on his arm, though, and ask politely, "Do I know you?"
The girl with the deep brown eyes, reporter's sleek dark haircut, and perfect nails had the grace to blush—moving the microphone as she did so. "No, um, we've never met. I'm Vickie Warren from Flick TV, a new cable channel that focuses on popular and commercial entertainment."
His smile deepened. "Well, nice to meet you, Vickie," he said. "It's good to be home," he said, fingers closing over the microphone she held, bringing it back toward his mouth. "I love New York, and God, I love Broadway, but I am a California boy, and it's good to be home."
She had been afraid, he realized. This was one of her first big jobs, and she had been petrified but brazening it out—and so now she was grateful to him.
Abby would have been proud. He smiled, lowering his head as he walked through the crowded airport.
They stayed with him.
Reporters were scrambling with their tape recorders and notepads; cameramen were aiming and walking at the same time.
"Mr. Markham!" His name was called by a man in a wilting business suit, camera crew at his side. "Is it true that you're going to be receiving an unprecedented amount for accepting your role in Valentine Valley?"
He should have expected that one.
"So they say," he replied cheerfully.
"How much?" someone else called out. The anorexic blonde to the rear of the crowd who had the pinched look of a nervous terrier?
"Come on now, folks, I'm not at liberty to say," he stated firmly, still smiling. And walking. He had to keep walking. It was almost comical, the way they all seemed to be sticking right with him.
"Are you afraid the other actors on the show are going to resent you?" Vickie asked him the question, her dark eyes grave.
"I certainly hope not," he replied.
"What about your stepsister?" someone else demanded.
He hesitated, wondering if he should simply say that he'd only met his "stepsister" a few times, and he surely didn't know what she was thinking—other than that her mother was very ill, and she was very worried about her. "If you all will excuse me, it's been a really long flight and I've got to get home."
"Home—how is Abby Sawyer, Conar? Will you be staying with her?" Vickie asked.
"Is she as sick as they say?" the other woman asked.
"Will she be returning to films?" someone else asked.
"Is she dying?" Vickie asked softly.
"I heard it's Alzheimer's!" one of the cameramen commented.
"She isn't dying, and it isn't Alzheimer's. Abby's doing just fine!" he heard himself say. His smile was starting to crack. "In fact, I'm sure she sends her love. You know how good she has always been with the media. Now, please, if you will all be so kind ..."
"Do you think that living at Granger House is affecting her mind?" Vickie asked.
"There's a story out that Abby is crazy, losing her mind, and that it all started when she bought Granger House," a young man with bleached hair and a nose ring said. "That she really got sick when she moved into the house."
Abby had moved into the house for good when she had realized her illness, Conar knew. But he didn't say that.
"You're looking too hard for a story," he said softly. "Abby isn't crazy, she's one of the most intelligent women I've ever had the pleasure to know. And as to the house, come on, people! A lot of places around here come with rumors and stories. This is Hollywood, a land of hopes—and of shattered dreams. Bad things have happened, as they have happened everywhere. Granger House is just a house, a very beautiful house," he said.
"You're not afraid of staying there, are you?" a male reporter asked.
"Personally—no! I love it. It's a really fine, handsome place, modernized, incredibly comfortable. I'm not afraid in the least."
"Abby stays there, Jennifer Connolly stays there—" Vickie observed.
"Yes, but still—" the young man with the nose ring interrupted.
"There are so many stories!" the older woman finished.
He hadn't expected to get into this.
"Half of L.A. County is haunted, as is the White House, if you want to listen to stories," he said impatiently. "If you don't mind, I really am worn."
He got past them and fled. Like a pack of hounds following a meat truck, they hurried after him, the sound of the women's heels staccato against the flooring. Luckily, he saw Edgar Thornby, Abby's very proper British butler walking toward him now, a worried look on his face. "Mr. Markham, sir, forgive me." Edgar was white-haired, lean-faced, just a hair short of his own six-two in height. His suit looked as if it had been ironed while on his body. "Your flight came in earlier than expected."
"A full twenty minutes," he agreed. "It's fine, Edgar."
"Oh, sir, I should have been there to get you through the wolves."
"Edgar, I'm a grown man, and like Abby says, without the wolves, we wouldn't have jobs."
"But you must be tired."
"Jet lag is worse going the other way, Edgar. I'm fine. Now, tell me about Abby."
Edgar's lean face went, if possible, leaner. "Ah, Abby," he said sadly.
"The disease is progressing?"
"It's degenerative, sir. You know that."
"Of course, but she's still relatively young. People have it for years, and there are medications and ..." His voice trailed off. "Edgar, it's not supposed to affect her mind, is it?"
Edgar didn't answer right away. "Let's collect your luggage, sir, and get on out to the car. The `wolves' are still behind us. I wouldn't want them listening in, if you don't mind, sir."
"I don't mind at all, Edgar. If you'll just stop calling me `sir' every other sentence."
"Yes, sir, of course, sir."
Conar sighed. "There are my bags, Edgar, right there. Grab the small one; I'll get the larger."
"Edgar, I'm twenty years younger than you. Do as I say."
"Calling you sir. Yes, sir."
He glanced sidewise at Edgar. Edgar didn't notice. He shook his head, picked up his bag, and they headed out of the airport and for the car.
They were on the freeway when Edgar suddenly answered him. "It's the drugs, sir."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"The drugs she takes. Her medicine. The prescriptions. She doesn't think clearly on them; she doesn't see clearly. She talks to people who aren't there."
"But other than the drugs, is her mind clear?"
Edgar seemed to hesitate. "I think so."
"Well, I think that sometimes, when she's drugged, she thinks that she sees or hears things ... and then they follow into her rational mind. Do you understand?"
"I'm not certain."
Edgar looked at him through the rearview mirror. "Like this thing with ... with someone trying to murder Jennifer."
Conar was quiet for a moment. "So she's told you that she believes someone is trying to kill her daughter."
"It's why you're here, isn't it?"
"I had a great job offer. That's why I'm here."
"Oh, yes, right. Is that what Jennifer believes?"
"I haven't the faintest idea what she believes," Conar said, staring straight ahead at the road. "I hardly know her."
"I wonder if she'd be angry if she knew the truth," Edgar mused, more to himself than to Conar.
Conar replied anyway, almost repeating his original answer. "I don't know. Like I said, I hardly know her. But tell me, what do you think? Is Abby—" He hesitated, then asked bluntly, "Edgar, is Abby losing her mind?"
Edgar slowly went crimson. "Most of the time she's fine."
"But is she imagining things? She sounded ... different."
"It's not for me to judge—"
"Oh, come on, Edgar. You've been with Abby for years. Since she bought that house, before she ever lived in it. You've been more loyal than any husband. What do you think?"
The butler's carefully shielded expression was suddenly haggard. There was deep sorrow in it. "I seldom leave her anymore. She insists that I take my days off, but frequently I just pretend to leave. When I do, I try to make sure that one of the day maids is with her. What do I think? I think that she didn't deserve this. I think that the disease is horrible and cruel, dehumanizing, and she didn't deserve it."
"But is she losing her mind?"
"I don't know," Edgar said, and it sounded like a groan. "I don't know what to tell you. You're going to have to see her for yourself."
Conar was thoughtful. "Well, she has always been a bright woman. Medications affect people, but she seemed pretty good when you came to New York last year."
"She's changed in the last year," Edgar said quietly.
"Is it the house, do you think?"
"The house?" Edgar said, startled.
"Well, it has a reputation."
"Abby loves the house," Edgar said flatly.
"Houses aren't evil," Edgar said.
"Edgar, I didn't suggest that the house was evil. I think it's a wonderful, handsome house, with a bit of sad history."
"It's a good house!" Edgar said, showing more passion than he had in all of their conversation to this point. "I've lived there, working for Abby, for years now."
"Edgar, I'm very fond of the place myself," Conar assured him.
Edgar wasn't assured. "Strange things happen, and bad things happen to people, but houses aren't evil."
"Of course not," Conar agreed.
Edgar turned to him suddenly, a strange tension about him. "But people can be evil, Mr. Markham. People can be very evil, indeed."
Posted June 4, 2000
Long, Lean, and Lethal is one more in a series of disappointing books (not really long or complex enough to be classed as novels) from major female authors. Graham is capable of so much more! The plot is completely predictable, the characters stock, and there is no chemistry between the protagonists. And no character development. We have an alcoholic director, a nice guy gay, an ever present, sinister butler, a hunky step brother, an attractive but hostile step sister, etc. No one does anything unexpected or surprising. Yet there 's none of the passion of romance and none of the suspense of mystery. The worst of each genre.
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Posted June 4, 2001
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