In 1931, while most of Los Angeles is struggling to survive the Depression, the business of Hollywood is booming. And everyone wants a piece. The movies have always been cutthroat and, as girl Friday Kitty Pangborn is about to find out, that's more than a metaphor.
Kitty's boss, private detective Dexter Theroux, has been asked to help leading man Laird Wyndham prove his innocence. The actor was the last person to be seen with a young actress who died under very suspicious circumstances, and the star has fallen from the big screen to the big house. Wyndham's a dreamboat, but that isn't the only thing that has Kitty hot under the collar. Dex has already signed a client---one who's hired him to prove Wyndham's hands are not as clean as they look.
Mixing Hollywood glitz with hard-boiled grit, Death Was in the Picture captures the essence of life in Depression-era Los Angeles: a world where times are tough, talk is cheap, and murder is often just one scene away.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Linda L. Richards is the editor and cofounder of January magazine and a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet blog. She is the author of Death Was the Other Woman and Death Was in the Picture. She lives near Vancouver.
Read an Excerpt
Death was in the Picture
By Linda L. Richards
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Linda L. Richards
All rights reserved.
"I'D LIKE TO see Mr. Theroux, please."
The man who was still closing the office door had been surprisingly quiet for someone his size. When he crossed the room toward my desk, I was entranced by his keen blue eyes and his easy grace. He moved like an acrobat, like a dancer. He moved like someone you wanted to watch. Yet he couldn't have been much under six feet and was probably only a couple of cheesecakes shy of three hundred pounds.
"Do you have an appointment, Mr. ...?" I prompted, knowing full well he did not. The only way you got an appointment with Dex Theroux was by talking to me and I was about one hundred and three percent sure this guy hadn't done that. There weren't any appointments in my book, for one thing. For another, I had a pretty good idea what was on Dex's schedule for the day. I hadn't peeked in at him for a few hours, but I figured that he'd been looking at spending the afternoon with all the boys: Johnnie Walker, Jack Daniel, Jim Beam and Jose Cuervo. I'd be lucky, after an afternoon of hard drinking, if he wasn't listening to the ink stains on his desk blotter. Most of the time, that's just how it was.
The big man stopped close enough to where I sat that I could smell him. It's odd when you can notice a man's scent and still think it's kinda nice. This was like that. The big man gave off the scent of something mysterious but pleasant. Slightly floral, yet appropriately masculine. I didn't know what it was, but I wished I had the courage to ask. I wanted to get a big bottle of it. There were days things would have been greatly improved in the office if I could have doused Dex in a nice cloud of whatever scent the big man was wearing.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "I do not have an appointment. Mustard sent me. He told me Dex Theroux was the man to see and that if I mentioned Mustard's name, you'd probably get me in without too much trouble."
He was right: he'd said a name that opened some doors. Any friend of Mustard's, as they say. "And you said his name twice," I smiled up at him. "Listen, though, I'm not sure if Mr. Theroux is free at the moment." I shot a doubtful look at Dex's closed office door. I wanted to say Dex might be free but not coherent, but didn't want to put too fine a point on things. "If you'll just have a seat Mr ..."
"Dean," he supplied as easily as a hand over silk. "Xander Dean."
"All right, Mr. Dean. If you'll just have a seat, I'll determine when Mr. Theroux can see you."
As I headed in to Dex's office, I saw Dean attempting to wedge himself into the small space our not-so-roomy office allows for a waiting room. He was managing the operation more gracefully than I would have thought possible, given the sheer bulk of him, but it was still going to take some doing. I considered offering to pull a chair up to my desk so he could sit comfortably, then thought better of it. I might be a couple of minutes getting Dex into shape. Trying to find an acceptable position in the waiting area would keep Dean occupied for a while.
The office was small and it only took me a couple of seconds to cross from my desk to Dex's office door. Before I opened it, I shot a look over my shoulder and saw that Dean was still busy shifting this and pulling that. I slipped inside Dex's office as quickly as possible, closing the door behind me before I even looked at my boss. I wasn't taking any chances.
"What's with the cloak and dagger, kiddo?"
I noted with relief that Dex was sitting upright. More than that, even though it was close to three o'clock in the afternoon, he looked as sober as a gas jockey's maiden aunt. And there wasn't a single sign of Johnnie, Jack, Jim or even Jose. Dex's hair was neatly combed, his chin wore only the faintest hint of stubble — not inappropriate to the time of day — and his eyes were clear and blue and weren't being chased by red rims. I blinked at him. Then I blinked again. This wasn't what I'd expected.
I knew what to do with drunken Dex. I knew who to be and how to handle things. Understand: I wasn't complaining. But neither was I prepared. It had happened before, but it wasn't something that happened every day.
Dex stretched back in his chair, the racing form on the desk in front of him forgotten for the moment. He linked his hands behind his head and offered up a self-satisfied sigh. "Spill it, cookie," he said, "but I already know what's going on. You came in here figurin' I'd be soused, didn't you?"
"I ..." I tried again. "That is, I ..."
He laughed then, not unkindly. "Never mind, Kitty. Never mind. Don't worry about sparing my feelings. I know how it's been. But things have been better lately. Hadn't you noticed? Things have been different."
I thought about it. Was he right? Had things been different? I ran through the last few weeks in my mind. There had been cases, the usual kinds — jealous wives, suspicious business partners. Nothing exciting, but Dex had done what needed doing. And I realized that I'd been picking up Dex's ice on my way into the office in the morning, just as I always had, but I hadn't been finding any empty rocks glasses on his desk when he went out.
I looked at him then — really, fully looked at him. He must have seen a light dawn, because he laughed right out loud. The laughter — probably combined with his new dry state — shaved an easy ten years off his craggy looks. When he laughed like that, I saw the swaggering shadow of the youth he must once have been.
"But why, Dex?" I asked, plunking myself in one of the chairs opposite his desk, Xander Dean skootching around our waiting room like a big kitten and trying to find a comfy spot forgotten for the moment. "What's going on?"
Dex shrugged and grinned. "A lot," he said at length. "Maybe more than I wanna say."
I felt an eyebrow arch at him. "What's her name?"
Another laugh. "Naw, nothin' like that. It's not a dame. Just, you know, things have been good lately. Haven't they been good?"
I nodded warily. When I thought about it, I realized he was right. The problem was, I'd been down this road before. We both had. I'd sat right here in this very chair. I'd felt this bright spot of hope. He didn't seem to realize that now. But me? I hadn't forgotten.
"Things have been better," he continued. "We've had a pretty steady run of cases. The bill collectors have been calling less." It was another thing I hadn't noticed. It's the kind of thing you don't miss when it's gone. "I'm a grown man, Kitty. And the war? It's far behind me. I just figured it was high time I started acting my age, not my shoe size."
I could have pointed out that there weren't too many eleven-year-olds who could put away a pint of bourbon, but I didn't want to spoil his mood. If he was growing something new and fragile inside him once again, I didn't want to do anything to hurt it. That bright spot of hope again. On the inside, I could be as skeptical as I liked. But I let Dex see the part of me that shared his optimism. And I was optimistic, though maybe not in a way he would have understood. Just maybe, I said to myself, maybe this would be the time his good intentions would take.
I tried to imagine dry Dex, sober Dex, a cleaned-up, cleaned-out, responsible Dex that I didn't have to constantly watch to make sure things didn't go wrong. And I couldn't: it was outside of what I was capable of imagining. Still, I could work on it. If Dex was ready to try being a grown-up, I was sure as hell ready to be a secretary to one.
Imagine! Only having to type and make coffee and answer the phones. It would be a luxury to not have to do my job and parts of his just to make sure things kept going as they should. Because if Dex didn't do his job right his clients wouldn't pay him. If his clients didn't pay him, Dex wouldn't be able to pay me. If Dex didn't pay me, I'd have to find a new job. That's where the buck stopped — any old way you cared to look at it — because there just weren't any jobs out there to have. Not in Los Angeles in 1931, with the Okies and their trucks loaded with all their worldly goods clogging up the state lines and out-of-work men shuffling around outside locked construction sites every morning, hoping against hope they would be the one to catch a break and do twelve hours work so they could earn enough to buy their families some tea biscuits and maybe pay the power bill. Not in that L.A. In that L.A., I was happy enough to have a desk to show up at. Even the occasional rubber pay check couldn't put a damper on the fact that I had a job when so many did not.
I was happy for Dex, happier than I would have thought possible at the idea of him trying to turn over a new leaf. I had a bunch of questions, and maybe a couple of comments, but at that moment the door opened and I jumped guiltily at the sight of Xander Dean.
"Oh!" I said. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dean. It turns out Mr. Theroux is available to see you. We just had some ... some paperwork to get through." I noticed with relief that Dex had made the racing form disappear, as was his habit, drunk or sober, when someone came in. The racing form wasn't the kind of paperwork a client needed to see.
"Kitty ...?" Dex said.
"Sorry, Dex. This is Xander Dean," I said, as I ushered the big man to the seat I'd been occupying moments before. "Mr. Dean, Dexter J. Theroux. Mr. Dean is a friend of Mustard's," I said, knowing that would give Dex the only introduction he'd need.
I shut the door tight behind me on my way out.CHAPTER 2
I WAS BACK at my desk and rolling a piece of paper into my typewriter when the phone rang. I knew who it was before I picked up the receiver. Even so, I was surprised when I was right.
"How's my favorite Kitty-cat?"
"No, Mustard. Not at all. You already know I'm not so crazy about you calling me 'Kitty.' But Kitty-cat? Absolutely not. Where's your head?"
"You don't like Kitty?" Mustard sounded astonished. "How can you not like Kitty? It's your name."
"My name is not Kitty. It's Katherine. Kate, if you must. Miss Pangborn, if you dare. But no Kitty. Got it?"
"Sure, sure," Mustard said like he meant it. I knew him well enough, though. I knew that he did not. "Dean show up?"
"He did," I said. "He's in with Dex right now."
"Good, good. Listen, if you get a chance before they work things out, tell Dex not to go easy on him."
"Pardon?" I said.
"Yeah. Did you notice his suit? And his pocket hanky: real silk."
I hadn't noticed the fabric, but the hanky I'd noticed. It was fuchsia, patterned in an even darker purple; a bright splotch on the man's otherwise conservative dark gray suit. When I thought about it, I realized that Mustard was right. The whole effect was pretty swank.
"What's his story?" I asked.
"I don't know for sure," Mustard said. "And I don't know that I'd tell you if I did."
"Thanks," I said dryly.
"Don't mention it. But this is real jack, Kitty; this is folding money. I can tell. He came recommended. Like I said, get Dex to charge all he can. The guy said he was looking for the best. He'll be expecting to pay for it."
I told Mustard I'd do what I could, but I figured I probably wouldn't get the opportunity before Dex made the deal, if a deal were to be made. I considered intruding, perhaps offering a glass of water or some coffee, but this move would have been so uncharacteristic of me, it would have left Dex open-mouthed. Anyway, once in there, I couldn't see past the tray with the cups or glasses. Would I pass Dex a note? Whisper something in his ear? Either scenario seemed out of character and beyond my job description, so I opted for another plan: I'd do nothing and hope for the best.
Dex and Dean were in the office for a long time. At least, it seemed that way to me. To fill in the time, and because Dex likes me to do it, I typed away merrily for a while.
The quick brown fox.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and falls off a log.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and falls off a log and into a deep and extremely frightening and totally unexpected bog.
Things like that. All in an effort to supply the busy, successful sounds that Dex liked clients to hear coming from the outer office when he was in a first meeting.
The quick brown fox fell off a log and onto a brown dog and met a lavender hog in a deep, dark fog while trying to avoid falling into a bog.
But it was a long meeting. After a while, I started running out of possible scenarios for quick brown foxes and I moved on to hitting random keys at sensible intervals. Just when I was about to give even that up and start preparing to pack it up for the night, Dex's office door opened and the fat man came out. I waited, but Dex didn't pop out behind him.
"Good day, then," he said as he passed my desk. I returned his polite greeting, noticing as I did that he didn't look the least upset or perturbed. Curious.
As soon as I heard the elevator leave our floor and head down with its larger than usual cargo, I slipped back into Dex's office. He was sitting at his desk, his head turned toward daylight. He grunted in my direction when I came in, but he didn't turn away from the window. He seemed deep in thought.
"It didn't go so good, huh?" In our office, I could tell when a meeting had gone well when Dex walked a new client to the door. Then, after the client was gone, he'd stop by my desk and fill me in. But a bad meeting usually resulted in the lost potential client leaving the office in some sort of visual huff. Dex wasn't a halfways kinda guy: he usually dotted his i's and made sure people knew exactly how he felt.
Dean had seemed happy enough when he left. Dex wasn't, though. He wasn't happy at all.
"It went all right," Dex said, rolling a cigarette thoughtfully between his thumb and forefinger before lighting it. When the cigarette was lit, he flicked the match off the end of his finger — a neat trick. It did a lazy sort of triple somersault and landed in his jade green ashtray tidy as you please. "It went just fine."
Without being invited, I sat down opposite the desk in the still warm chair and looked at my boss. Dean's scent lingered, but Dex had a wrinkle in his nose like he was smelling something bad. It wasn't true that I missed the glass in front of him but I had a hunch that whatever had made him this gloomy wouldn't have had quite the same effect had it been cushioned by a bourbon haze.
"It doesn't look like it went fine," I said.
"You're not going to let up until I tell you, are you?"
"Well, it's not what you'd figure, a guy like that. Not some cheating wife. Least," Dex smiled for the first time since I'd entered, "that's not what he was here for this time."
"So spill it already, gumshoe. I've got some important typing to do and you're cuttin' into it." I was trying to lighten the mood. It didn't work.
"Pipe down, Kitty," Dex said. "I'm gettin' to it. It's a hard thing to explain. Complicated. You ever heard of Laird Wyndham?"
I didn't answer. Just crossed my arms over my chest and looked Dex straight in the face. I was modern, I was in touch. I read the newspapers, went to the pictures. Of course I knew who Laird Wyndham was. You'd have to have been living on the moon and surviving on its green cheese for the last half dozen years not to know the name and face of the biggest motion picture star there had ever been and probably ever would be.
Laird Wyndham was tall, dark and handsome, with pale eyes that flashed charm and wit and a chin strong enough to crack nuts. Then there was his voice. One magazine article had described it as molten lava over iced cream. It was rich and deep and powerful and it was the voice that had brought stardom, in the end, edging out other actors who hadn't the vocal timbre to make the transition to talking pictures. Laird had. Laird did. And a million women, just like me, couldn't get enough of watching and hearing him.
I'd been to see one of his pictures just the week before. I couldn't really afford the nickel but, as Dex had said, things had been a bit better lately and my paychecks had been coming to me regular for the last few months.
After work, I hadn't gone straight home to Bunker Hill. Instead I'd walked over to Broadway to the Million Dollar where I'd felt like a princess in the opulently ornamented theater. But even the pleasure in my surroundings faded away when the curtain opened on Laird Wyndham in The Cardboard Heart. It hadn't been possible for me to think about anything but what was on that screen.
Excerpted from Death was in the Picture by Linda L. Richards. Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Richards. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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