Shoot: a Loren D. Estleman's Valentino mystery!
Valentino, a mild-manner film archivist at UCLA and sometime film detective, is at the closing party for the Red Montana and Dixie Day museum when he is approached by no less than his hero and man-of-the-hour Red Montana, western film and television star.
Red tells Valentino that he is being blackmailed over the existence of a blue film that his wife, now known throughout the world as the wholesome Dixie Day and the other half of the Montana/Day power couple, made early in her career. With Dixie on her deathbed, Red is desperate to save her the embarrassment of the promised scandal, and offers Valentino a deal-find the movie, and he can have Red's lost film, Sixgun Sonata, that Red has been hiding away in his archives. Don't accept, and the priceless reel will go up in flames.
Feeling blackmailed himself, Valentino agrees and begins to dig. In the surreal world of Hollywood, what is on screen is rarely reality. As he races to uncover the truth before time runs out, his heroes begin their fall from grace. Valentino desperately wants to save Sixgun Sonata...but at what cost?
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Loren D. Estleman is the author of more than fifty novels, including the Amos Walker, Page Murdock, and Peter Macklin series. Winner of three Shamus Awards, three Western Heritage Awards, four Spur Awards and many other literary prizes. He lives outside Detroit with his wife, author Deborah Morgan.
Read an Excerpt
A Valentino Mystery
By Loren D. Estleman
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
"THIS IS CUTE." Harriet Johansen touched a sample.
"Cute isn't what we're going for," Valentino said.
She smiled, a bit stiffly. "Pardon me, maestro."
They were seated beside Leo Kalishnikov, Valentino's architect and designer, at a large table in a studio in Tarzana — the only city in the United States named after a fictional character — browsing through a heavy volume the size of a family photo album. The studio was on the third floor of a faux-Spanish modern house with stucco walls and enormous Plexiglas windows overlooking the residential sprawl, with natural light flooding in; a shoreward-bound wind had exiled the smog into the desert east of L.A., where presumably it shriveled away in the Mojave heat.
The house was so well-proportioned that from a distance it looked no larger than the average McMansion, but it covered a city block.
"It's an exact copy of Harold Lloyd's estate in Beverly Hills," said their hostess, a tall woman hovering around fifty in black leotards and tights with her hair cut short and dyed glossy Florsheim-black. Valentino thought she looked like a retired ballerina from some Eastern Bloc country; the fact that she spoke with no accent at all confirmed her foreignness.
It was a bright, airy space, a thousand square feet of terra-cotta tiles, eggshell-colored paneling, lighting both indirect and direct, original architects' drawings in copper frames on the walls, and bolts of material lined up in racks like torpedoes waiting to be loaded.
But in place of pages of photographs, the huge book contained carpet samples. The one Harriet had pointed out was a brightly colored image of film reels uncoiling serpentine strips of celluloid in yellow on a burgundy background.
"Indeed," said Kalishnikov. "We're designing a classic motion-picture palace, not a home theater for the basement of a used-car baron in the Valley."
Harriet looked at him. She was uncommonly pretty in casual dress, a fitted shirt with the tail out over Capri pants and the cuffs turned back, her ash-blond hair in a ponytail tied with a blue bandanna. "Isn't that what you do when you're not designing motion-picture palaces?"
He said nothing. He wore his favorite working uniform of silk-lined opera cape over a cutaway coat. His broad-brimmed gaucho hat lay on a corner of the table. Shiny patches of grafted skin pulled his seventy-year-old eyes into an Asian tilt. So far he'd neither spoken to Harriet nor even looked her way. Plainly he resented an outsider's intrusion into the appointment.
Valentino, hoping to defuse the tension, asked their hostess standing on the other side of the table how many more books she had in stock.
"Let's see." She glanced at the stack of books they'd discarded. "You've been through sixteen. There are twenty-four left."
"I meant of theater carpet."
"Yes, I know."
He groaned inwardly. The whole thing was uncomfortably like evaluating samples of wedding invitations, an ordeal he'd been unaware of until a close friend who was going through that actual process had related it to him in excruciating detail. He loved Harriet, but he wasn't ready for that plunge. The years he'd already invested in restoring The Oracle to its Prohibition- era glory was challenge enough for now.
He turned to the architect. "What about that one with the Greek letters?"
"You mean the Arabesque." Kalishnikov, who seemed to have a photographic memory for which sample was in which book, off-loaded four volumes from the towering stack of deadwood, dragged over one bound in aubergine vinyl, and opened it directly to the sample. The squarish design, resembling hieroglyphics, was a border in muted gold on a midnight-blue background; the fibers were stiff, made of some synthetic material that resembled wool but were guaranteed to withstand ten years of heavy foot-traffic. From an inside breast pocket he drew a flat wallet, the kind made to contain square foreign currency, and slid out a photograph. It was black-and-white, a digital copy of an old snapshot taken of The Oracle sometime during the Great Depression. "Drapes, please, Sila. It will never be seen under natural illumination."
The woman nodded and touched something under the table. Blackout curtains glided noiselessly across the windows, suspended from a hidden track.
"Dimmers, please. I'll tell you when it's right."
She touched something else. Slowly the light in the room softened. This went on until Valentino could barely make out his companions' faces.
Sila immediately halted the dimming process; which settled the question of her origins, so far as he was concerned. Kalishnikov had fled Belarus shortly after the USSR fell.
For a time he studied the sample as it would appear in a room lit only by wall sconces and stumble-bulbs on aisle risers.
"We can't be sure about the colors, of course," he said, "but the pattern is similar."
Valentino and Harriet watched him closely, their heads almost touching, her hand gripping his under the table, tightly enough to compress his knuckles. He felt a ghost of a promise of the dawn of hope.
Kalishnikov shook his head. Hope flickered, died.
He closed the book, returned the photo to the wallet, the wallet to the pocket, and the book to the stack. "Similar is not the same."
The film archivist winced; Harriet was a CSI with the L.A.P.D., and years of working with forceps and rib-spreaders had given her the grip of the daring young woman on the flying trapeze. "At exactly what point did I lose control of this project I'm paying for?" he asked Kalishnikov.
"When you signed the contract. You agreed to respect my decisions. 'I want this done right, or not at all.' Your exact words when you called me; I remind you I was in Venice at the time, installing a screening room for a film director with the government arts program in Rome. I equate 'right' with 'authentic,' yes?"
He acknowledged defeat with a nod. When Kalishnikov slipped into an immigrant's use of English, the battle was over. Harriet, sensitive as always to Valentino's every mood, relaxed her grasp and patted his hand.
The architect drew a platinum watch from a vest pocket and popped open the lid. A tiny hidden music box played "Lara's Theme" from Doctor Zhivago. "We'll have to continue this at another time. I have to meet with a member of the Department of the Interior."
"Whatever for?" Harriet asked.
"A shipment of mahogany has come in from Central America, and I must show papers to prove that it did not come from the Brazilian rainforest. Things were so much simpler when the aristocrats were allowed to rape the earth without interference." He stood, bowed to the woman who owned the decorating firm, then to Harriet, acknowledging her existence for the first time. "I bid you all good day." He groped his way out.
The lights came up, the curtains slid back into their invisible wall pockets: Intermission. Everything in Southern California seemed to have been built on the picture-palace standard.
Valentino watched the woman returning the books they'd been through to a tall shelf. He hoped she had a system of determining which ones they'd seen. The prospect of going back to scratch made Sisyphus' job look part-time.
But he was grateful for the break. They'd spent four hours staring at carpet samples. His neck was stiff, his eyes stung, his head spun with colors and patterns like a kaleidoscope gone rogue, and he still couldn't tell taupe from beige or burgundy from claret or sea- from foam-green or charcoal from chalk from iron from ash from gunmetal from — fifty shades of gray, my —
Harriet checked the time on her smartphone. "Just as well. We should get ready for the reception."
They'd descended the stairs to the foyer, whose walls were shingled with framed autographed photos of celebrity customers in glass frames. Just looking at them made him think of flocks of dollar bills sprouting wings and flying out the window. A pale female creature as sleek as the décor sat behind a glass desk. Everything on the ground floor appeared to be made of glass; even her legs looked like stemware. She didn't look up from her copy of Elle as they walked past.
"Don't act ignorant. You know the one."
"I thought that was next week."
"No, you didn't. You see the invitation every day. I taped it to your bathroom mirror so you wouldn't forget."
"Can't we give it a pass? Trust me, nobody will notice."
"I thought you were a fan."
"I am; but you know how these affairs go. The room will be so crowded we won't be able to see anything, and we'll be lucky to have thirty seconds with the host. Anyway, it's sad. He's shutting down the museum because no one's interested in his kind of western anymore."
She patted his hand and smiled. "You're not no one, Val. I happen to know you passed up an offer for your original Red Montana cap pistols that would have paid for twenty square feet of carpet for that old barn of yours."
"Not just the pistols," he said. "The guy wanted the holster, too; also the hat, vest, chaps, and boots. They'd have paid for the rest. But now the bottom will drop out of the market because every collector in the country will be after the originals. They've never been for sale before."
"You could have sold yours at any time."
"So I'm stupid. So what?"
"So you're both the last of your breed, you and Red. Trust me, he'll give you more than thirty seconds."
Which was truer than even Harriet predicted.CHAPTER 2
HE TOOK IN his breath when Harriet opened her door. She wore a low-cut evening dress of some shimmery material that clung to her in all the best places and changed colors when she turned around for his inspection. The back was cut in a daring scoop, exposing her well-defined deltoids.
"You look like an expensive sports car," he said.
"I guess I can take that as a compliment."
"That's how it was intended. I'm in the middle of negotiations with a retired assistant director for some home movies he shot on the set of Bullitt. Cars get under your skin like —"
"Grease under your nails. You clean up pretty well yourself."
He touched his black silk bow tie. "I appreciate that. I rented the tux. They threw in the alterations for free, so I wasn't expecting much."
"I'm glad they included a cummerbund. When you took me to the Oscars I saw more white cloth than Grant at Appomattox."
"I had to buy that separately. Did you know it was originally called a crumber-bund, because it was designed to catch crumbs when you're dining? I got that from the salesman; he said that's how you know which way the pleats go when you put it on."
She drew a filmy white scarf over her bare shoulders and picked up a tiny handbag that matched her gown. "Let's saddle up, cowboy."
The Red Montana and Dixie Day Museum was circled — like the covered wagons in one of their films — by Broadway and the Ventura, Glendale, and Golden State freeways. The building, a super-sized replica of an adobe ranch house, topped a low, green, perfect dome of a hill, with a spacious parking lot centered around a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of the cowboy star in his prime aboard a bucking bronco — Tinderbox, of course — atop a pedestal with the titles of his seventy-two films engraved on a brass plate.
A twentysomething parking valet in a yoke-front shirt and skin-tight Levi's looked doubtfully at Valentino's ten-year-old Chevy, but gave him a claim ticket with a polite smile and slid under the wheel. The owner grasped the door before he could close it. "You might need to jiggle the wheel to get the key out of the ignition. It's cranky sometimes."
"Don't look so contrite," Harriet told him as the attendant drove off. "So it's not Steve McQueen's Mustang. A new Cadillac would cost more than those twin three-D cameras you're always talking about."
"I meant to look disdainful. Everyone in this town judges you by your wheels."
"Not everyone. I fell for your cute butt at first sight." She squeezed it surreptitiously.
Near the entrance stood another bronze — smaller than the one out front — of Dixie Day, Montana's co-star and wife of many years, looking dazzlingly beautiful in cowgirl dress, holding the reins of her mare, Cocoa.
A security guard at the door asked to see their invitation. He wore a sheriff's star and the stag handle of the revolver on his hip resembled Valentino's prized cap pistols, but that would be where the similarity ended. A walkie-talkie balanced it out on the other side. The film archivist handed him the stiff sheet of rag paper bordered with rearing horses. In serifed Wanted-poster letters it read:
YOU AND A PARD ARE INVITED TO A SHINDIG TO CELEBRATE SIXTY YEARS OF RIP-ROARIN' MEMORIES ON THE OCCASION OF THE CLOSING OF THE RED MONTANA AND DIXIE DAY MUSEUM PLEASE CONSIDER KICKING IN TO THE DIXIE DAY CANCER FOUNDATION.
The date and time were included in script resembling a curling lariat.
The guard thanked him and unhooked the rope — a real rope, made of hemp — that barred the entrance.
"I hope I don't look like a piker when I chip in what I can afford," Valentino whispered as they pushed through a pair of wooden bat-wing saloon doors. "I owe them the price of restoring the mezzanine for all the entertainment they've given me."
"They'll be grateful for whatever you can donate. From the Humvees and the Mercedeses in the parking lot, my guess is they'll bring in plenty."
"That's just it. I don't even know why I was invited. Kyle wasn't, and he's the head of the department."
"Don't sell yourself short, Val. Maybe Montana's familiar with your reputation. You've uncovered more lost films than anyone else at UCLA. As for 'giving' you entertainment, they didn't build all this on a truck driver's salary."
"All this" was indeed impressive. A painting the size of a barn door greeted them inside, showing an implausibly young Montana smiling broadly astride Tinderbox under his trademark milk-white Stetson, with Dixie beside him in Cocoa's saddle. Both wore elaborately embroidered western costumes. They were aglow with health, the man tanned and handsome, the woman as stunning as when she'd represented Oklahoma in the Miss America pageant. The portrait was signed in Norman Rockwell's distinctive block-print hand.
The crowd inside sipped red and white wine from plastic goblets, conversing and admiring framed movie posters, bright splashes of red and yellow with six-guns blazing and horses plunging down steep canyons, spangled shirts, woolly chaps, and fringed skirts on form-fitted dummies in glass cases, and an arsenal of chrome-plated revolvers, gold-chased carbines, and wicked-looking bowie knives on display. Harriet, an inveterate connoisseur of women's footwear, lingered over pairs of Dixie's cowgirl boots handmade with ostrich, crocodile, and rhinoceros hides in scarlet, turquoise, emerald, pearl, and ashes-of-rose, decorated with Indian signs and tulips. Bright electric bulbs in glass oil-lamp chimneys illuminated everything from wagon wheels suspended from the ceiling. Nothing had been overlooked; even the floor beneath their feet was a tile mosaic of Montana and Day backed by Old Glory.
"I like this one best of all," said Harriet, as they stood before a simple black-and-white photo in a silver frame of the cowboy actor in western-cut formalwear and his brand-new bride in a conventional wedding dress with a white veil. "They look as happy as any two kids starting their lives together."
Valentino, hoping that wasn't a hint, read the engraving on the small brass rectangle set into the base of the frame:
Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Phelps June 25th, 1956
"He never did change his name legally," Valentino said. "I forget what Dixie's is in real life."
"Agnes," said a voice behind them. "Somehow I don't think 'Lionel Phelps and Agnes Mulvaney, King and Queen of the West' would of sold many tickets."
They turned to face their host. Despite the two-inch heels on his glossy boots, Red Montana in person was not as tall as he appeared on-screen, and he'd put on weight since retirement; his chins spilled over the knot of his necktie, cutting the crown off the hat of the cowboy twirling a lasso hand-painted on silk. His suit, with flared lapels and arrow pockets, was beautifully cut, although it probably hadn't cost much more than his head of silver hair, a tribute to the wigmaker's craft. His voice was reedy with age, but retained an echo of its famous timbre: He could still have sung "Tumblin' Along with the Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" and sold it.
Valentino shook his hand; it was liver-spotted, but he had the grip of a career politician. "Good evening, Mr. Montana. I'm —"
"I know who you are, son. All the invites are numbered, and the lawman at the door keeps me posted on the arrivals by that gizmo he wears on his belt. Who's the pretty filly you brung along?"
"This is my friend, Harriet Johansen."
He beamed all over and took her hand as delicately as if it were made of thin crystal. "How'd'ya do? I'm obliged to you both for coming." He turned toward the wedding photo. "I picked that date on account of it was the hundredth anniversary of Custer's Last Stand. It was a Monday, so we done it after dark. Wouldn't do for the world's biggest western stars to get hitched in front of a bunch of empty seats on account of work."
"How did Mrs. Phelps feel about marrying on the day of a cavalry defeat?" Harriet asked.
"Fine and dandy. That little lady shot an arrow straight through my heart."
"Thank you for having us, Mr. —" Valentino hovered between "Montana" and "Phelps."
"Red, son. You wouldn't know it to look at the snow on this old roof, but folks've been calling me that since a long time before I knew a camera from a dry wash." He looked at the Rolex on his wrist, a custom-made one with his own image aboard a rearing horse on the dial. "I got to get ready to make a speech, but I'd be obliged if you'd see me in the curator's office afterwards." He patted him on the shoulder and moved off, wringing hands on his way through the crowd.
"You see?" Harriet said. "Your reputation precedes you."
They paused to admire a Concord stagecoach, which the plaque on the stand erected in front of it assured them was an original, acquired from the Butterfield line by Montana himself and a feature in every one of his films from Sunrise Over Texas through Song of San Antonio, then entered the gift shop.
Excerpted from Shoot by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 2016 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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.
Table of Contents
Part One: Horse Opera,
Part Two: Oater,
Part Three: Outdoor Drama,
About the Author,
Books by Loren D. Estleman,