Last Heartthrob 08
The Spy in the Movie
Much to Walter Forbes’s relief, Philip Sternwood didn’t call Laurel Gray again that week. His schedule was busy. The competition of the holiday buying season was heating up.
It was an occupational hazard for private investigators to become too involved with their subjects. Forbes was professional enough not to let the actions of others weigh upon him. But he wondered if his own action, giving Laurel Gray’s name to Jimmy Castigliane, had compromised her safety.
Of course, the location Valentina Sternwood had chosen for the Northwest Cinematheque gala was crawling with security cameras. Of course, Walter Forbes had enough connections within the private security community to be inside the room with all those monitors. He would be able to keep a watchful eye on both Philip Sternwood and Laurel Gray.
Tom Kahane arrived at the gala as Paging Mr. Kaplan was ending. Valentina and Phillip Sternwood watched from the back row of the theater. One of the staff tapped Valentina on the shoulder so that she and Philip could come out and greet the obscure fellow masquerading as a celebrity this evening.
If you saw Valentina every day, the thing you could forget about her from time to time became startlingly apparent when she did her hair and makeup and dressed to the nines for an occasion like this one.
Forbes noticed that Tom Kahane, who had probably only spoken with Val on the phone to set up this event, was defenseless. She was, in a word, glamorous.
“You’re Valentina Sternwood?” he managed.
“Yes, you’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Kahane, my face is sore from laughing so much.”
“Did the studio send the wrong movie?”
Tom shook his head. “I’m glad you enjoyed it, and it’s Tom please, unless you’re from the New York Times.”
“Val.” She shook his hand. “And this is my husband.”
“Philip Sternwood,” said Tom, shaking Philip’s hand.
“Phil,” agreed Tom. “I never got the chance to write your spots, but I helped lure some customers in to look at your used cars.”
Val took charge. “So we thought we’d steer people into the reception area and get some drinks flowing before bringing you out to do a little Q&A. Very informal. Then it’s food, music, dancing, we managed to book The Corkscrews.”
“What?” asked Val.
“Oh, nothing. I haven’t talked to Corker in ages. It’ll be interesting, that’s all.”
Forbes noticed Sternwood shift his attention to Jimmy Castigliane, who beckoned him from across the room to come talk with someone. Once the ice was broken, Val and Tom continued to chat amicably as Sternwood crossed the reception room. It filled up quickly as the auditorium emptied. He had to say many hellos on his way to Castigliane. Forbes figured he probably knew a quarter of the people there either personally or professionally. It was that kind of Portland crowd.
About three-quarters of the way there, Sternwood excused himself as he inched by a long-haired blonde.
“Rude,” she said.
“I’m sorry.” He looked at her face and froze. Everything about her from her lustrous hair covering her right eye as it swirled down to her breast, to her long lashes, to her lipstick, to her smoldering glance, to her deep-red floral patterned vintage V-back dress, a standing invitation to indiscretion.
She twirled before him so he could take it all in and then laughed. “You can put your eyes back in their sockets now.”
The first thing recognizable as Laurel Gray was her voice. “I guess I don’t have to ask if you like the wig.”
“You look…you look great.” Phil summoned all the control he could muster.
“I’m the spy in the movie, get it?”
The spy in the movie was a fusion of two male fantasies. The dress was patterned after the one Eva Marie Saint wore in North by Northwest: the film being spoofed. The hair was Veronica Lake’s from This Gun for Hire.
“What did you think of the movie?” she asked.
“Oh, it was great.” He sounded noncommittal, still trying to reconcile Laurel’s movie-buddy personality with her appearance.
“I didn’t think that Chad Reve showing up just in time to save the day worked. It seemed to shift tone.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Phil.
“Hey, Phil!” Jimmy Castigliane, now within microphone shot of Sternwood, grew impatient.
“I’ll see you at your table.”
“Okay,” she said.
Forbes noticed the smile disappear from Laurel’s face the instant Sternwood left her. Audio surveillance continued on Sternwood as video surveillance shifted to her. When she made her way to the bar, she probably ordered something simple. It was likely the idea of the bartender, a man roughly her age, who obviously thought himself irresistible, to make her something showy and special.
She did not receive the same attention from others in the room.
That Laurel was an unaccompanied female in a room with practically no unaccompanied females was Sternwood’s doing. Forbes didn’t know whether she was there to advance her career, or out of gratitude to Sternwood, or if she had other motives. Maybe she dressed in costume to signal that she didn’t care, or maybe to mask how much she cared, or maybe to look as out of place as she knew she’d feel. But Forbes also noticed something that Laurel might not have. Her ex-roommate Sylvia, who had surely helped with this charade, had stopped just short of caricature. Laurel might have thought of herself as a Plain Jane pretending to be a glamor queen, but she hadn’t pulled it off. Both Forbes and the uncomfortably older women in the room noticed where the mens’ eyes were drifting even if Laurel didn’t.
There were no men in the room her age who weren’t serving. The women who were closest her age were the trophy wives, attired to show off their gym-toned bodies. Forbes noticed the way a woman in her thirties turned up her nose when she looked at Laurel’s wig. Based on the woman’s suspiciously perky bustline, Forbes wondered if she resented the ease with which another woman could steal attention.
Forbes could tell from Laurel’s body language that she felt out of place. The dresses the other women wore, and their jewelry, those were the real thing. It came with real money. She wore a costume.
The attendees divided quickly into groups of men and women. This was awkward for Laurel, who was used to co-ed collectives among her peers. The women would grow suspicious if she approached the men. So she stayed on the periphery of the various female groupings, but as none of her attempts to enter a conversation resulted in a circle widening to include her, she drifted from one to the next.
Valentina made her way through the band’s instruments and cables on stage to the mike stand. She made her opening statement about the indispensability of Northwest Cinematheque. After the audience gave themselves applause, she made her segue.
“Our guest tonight Tom Kahane is no stranger to Portland. Those of us who missed his work as sometime lyricist for tonight’s musical entertainment, the Corkscrews, surely caught the many TV commercials he made with the director of tonight’s film David Oakley during his days at H-L-S Advertising.”
Some applause and a cat-call came from the H-L-S table.
“Settle down, Shelby,” said Val.
“Bellissima, Valentina!” Shelby countered, to some laughter.
“Tom graduated from my alma mater.”
Applause from a fair number of fellow alumni.
“And Tom, you probably don’t remember this, but you and I go way back. I first met you at Prowls Book Metropolis the summer you joined your mother, the noted film and TV critic Evelyn Kahane, on the tour for her second book of essays: The Sequel Part II: Return of the Sequel.”
She held up her copy of the book.
“So please give a warm, Northwest Cinematheque welcome to the writer and producer of Paging Mr. Kaplan, Tom Kahane!”
Tom sheepishly acknowledged the applause as he stepped up to the microphone. He thanked his hosts and delivered the juicy what went wrong anecdotes he had polished on the film festival circuit before opening the floor to questions, which he answered with a self-deprecating wit. Forbes figured he hadn’t gone Hollywood yet.
Things went smoothly until:
“Why did you change the ending?” asked a man.
“What was that?” Tom cupped his hand to his ear.
“I saw the premiere at Park City. Why did you dumb it down?” The questioner spoke up.
Tom shaded his eyes and looked at the questioner. “You’re the KGW weather guy, aren’t you?”
The man nodded, and many turned to take a look.
“What am I doing up here with so many real celebrities in the audience?” he asked. “This is so embarrassing. KGW weather guy, ladies and gentlemen.”
Tom led a small round of applause.
Forbes listened more carefully. Tom had dodged the question.
Tom selected a question from a woman in her mid-forties. “What was it like working with Chad Reve?”
“No, I’m sorry, the woman in the black dress behind you.” Two questions dodged as he maneuvered to answer one from an unimposing, silver-haired lady.
In hindsight, after checking with Anna, Forbes made the educated guess that Tom Kahane was willing to answer every question asked about the movie he and David Oakley had shot and premiered in Park City. He was not at liberty to discuss the movie that screened tonight, the movie the world would come to know, and immediately forget, as Paging Mr. Kaplan.
“You probably don’t remember me, but I was your mother’s editor that summer you were driving her into the city for her chemotherapy.”
He shaded his eyes to get a better look at her and smiled. “I remember you.” To audience: “I used to run Mom’s manuscripts up to her every week, and she would bet me ten bucks that I couldn’t answer a question about the movies. How could I forget you? You helped keep my friends and me in beer–I mean soda that whole summer.”
“Your movie reminded me of your mother’s article ‘George Kaplan’s Trousers,’ for an anniversary tribute to North by Northwest.”
“Don’t know the piece.”
“She wrote that she couldn’t waste her time re-watching an old movie every time five or zero was added to its age, so she pawned the task off on her son to give her the CliffsNotes edition.”
“She wrote that?” Tom asked.
“Wasn’t it true?”
“The way I remember it, we were stuck in traffic, as usual, on the way to the hospital, and I was telling her the story. Tough audience, Mom was. She was the parent they had in mind when they said parental guidance suggested. I can’t say that everything she taught me came from watching movies, but a hell of a lot came from discussing them: and practically everything I learned about storytelling. I had to be careful what I watched on my own because she’d be sure to ask me about it. If I got too detailed, she’d ask: why is that important? If I didn’t supply enough detail, she’d ask: why would he or she do this or that? With my North by Northwest recap, I was doing all right until we got to Roger Thornhill and Mother looking at George Kaplan’s trousers in a hotel room.
“She asked me whether I believed The Professor could fool Vandamm and his goons by moving a suit of clothes from hotel room to hotel room. I didn’t. So while she had her chemo treatment, I came up with a more plausible ruse.”
The woman followed up. “I was wondering if rereading that article was the seed for your movie?”
He had no quick comeback. Forbes noticed the look of sympathy on Laurel’s face as she looked at him, embarrassed for him. He didn’t know what to do or say next, the universal nightmare of the public speaker.
“I haven’t read her articles because I still remember the movies, and I still remember–” He cleared his throat. “I still remember her. So maybe I’ll get around to them one day, but…”
“Your mother would have been proud of you tonight,” she said.
Tom started to respond to this but checked himself. His uneasiness confirmed that he was anything but proud of the film.
Lydecker led the applause giving Tom the cue he needed to pull himself together and make a graceful exit. Val returned to the microphone, announced the buffet table was open, and the band began to set up.
Val whisked Tom away for meet and greets. Laurel got in line at the buffet. She tried again to interact with those in front or behind her by commenting on how delicious, or beautiful, or unusual the various dishes looked, but soon dropped the futile effort. Finally, Sternwood came over and introduced her to one of the Cinematheque’s directors.
“Laurel’s very interested in studying the economies of digital production and distribution,” Sternwood said.
“Of course, we still emphasize traditional filmmaking techniques, but we’re expanding our digital courses all the time,” said the director.
“I’ll keep saving my pennies,” she said.
“We’d love to have you aboard.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
Phil seemed concerned with her response as they walked away. “You’re not still worried about the burglary, are you?”
“Why would I be?” she asked, but Forbes detected an undertone of irony.
Castigliane called “Hey, Phil!” having found someone else more important for Sternwood to talk with.
He acknowledged. “I should probably–”
“Of course,” said Laurel.
“Are you going to be okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Castigliane called again, “Hey, Phil!”
Sternwood looked troubled as he left her but followed orders.
The table Sternwood had purchased and donated to students sat seven men (boys) and two women besides Laurel. The more attractive of the two women, the one more used to being center of attention, seemed put off. The plainer girl who was giving someone’s prom dress a second lease on life mouthed the words, “I love your costume.”
“Thanks,” Laurel replied.
Forbes felt relieved that she’d found someone on her wavelength. The student handed Laurel her phone for her to type in her number.
But the others, the students who would be her peers if she attended, didn’t seem to show any interest in what she had to say. She received the same cold shoulder she had with the grownups. Maybe they knew the student whose ticket she’d stolen.
The male students stood as Sternwood and Kahane approached, but Kahane motioned for them to sit and grabbed a chair vacated by someone who’d gone to the buffet line to squeeze in with them.
“So I just want to assure you all that this is as odd for me as it is for you,” Kahane started. “This is what happens. You’re going to make a movie, and someone’s going to invite you to one of these events. They will tell you how much money people will pay to watch your movie and listen to you talk about it. You’ll think they’re insane, but sometimes they’re not. Northwest Cinematheque? I used to see movies here all the time. So what do you do? You say sure, right?”
The students smiled.
“You’ll come, you’ll talk, you’ll take some pictures, and maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get a minute or two to talk to the people you’re helping out. That’s this part. Then, I’m out of here, right?”
Sternwood smiled and nodded.
Kahane added, “FYI, if you’re looking for backers, the richest ones in the buffet line are the ones who brought the resealable gallon bags.”
Val was back at the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Corkscrews.”
She led the room in applause. The drummer began to play a slow, insistent heartbeat, a piano’s plaintive chords joining in. Corky Marzzone approached the microphone, but instead of singing, she called out, “Tom? Where’s Tom. Oh, Tom!”
“Here we go,” said Tom, then loudly enough so the room could hear him, “Yes, Corker!”
“Do you want to tell everyone how we wrote this song, or shall I?”
Tom mock grimaced. “It’s all yours.”
“You see, Tom wrote in the script that the spy in the movie lip-syncs Jo Stafford’s recording of the Johnny Mercer, Rube Bloom song ‘Fools Rush In.’ You remember the scene. Just picture how that would have played. The night before they shoot, he calls me in a panic and says, ‘Do you know how much they want to charge us to use that recording in the movie?’ I guessed. He asks, ‘How do you know?’ How do I know? Really, Tom. He thought that since Mercer borrowed the first line of his lyrics from Alexander Pope that the song should be in the public domain.”
Corky shook her head. Tom made an exaggerated shrug for comic effect. “Tom says, ‘We gotta write another song.’ So I say, ‘What do you mean we?’ So he says, ‘You gotta help.’ And I ask, ‘Why do I gotta help?’ Then he’s like, ‘We only got the set for a day.’ And I’m like, ‘And how is that my fault?’ Then he’s all, ‘So what do we do?’ And I’m all, ‘What do you do?’”
She shook her head and sang:
Did my heart skip a beat the night I met you?
The audience, recognizing the song from the movie, started to applaud.
Across that crowded room, I found your face.
Suddenly, the room was lit by candles and the thousand points of light of a slowly turning mirrorball. It was very effective. Val had a flair for this kind of thing.
Was my heart whispering, this is no stranger,
Warning me, there was a danger
I might never know your loving embrace?
Tom had been sitting next to Laurel Gray all along, but it took until now for their eyes to meet.
“Ask me to dance,” she said.
“This is Laurel Gray,” said Sternwood.
“Would you care to–”
“I’d love to.” She took his hand and led him away from the table.
“And all of a sudden you find yourself in a scene from your movie,” Tom continued.
“I want to hear your song,” she said.
“FYI, excuse the near rhyme. Mine, time, crime. I know they don’t rhyme.”
She kicked him in the shin.
“No talking. I want to listen.”
And that’s all Forbes could hear as they moved away from Sternwood onto the dance floor.
Be still you foolish heart, do not excite me.
Remember how we break with each romance.
Philip went to stand by Valentina, but Forbes zoomed the cameras to watch Tom and Laurel. He could see that Tom was tense. She drew him closer and gently guided his hand until skin touched skin on her naked back. He gently pressed his face against her wig.
Her lips formed the words, “That’s not me.” She pulled the fake hair out of the way so that their cheeks touched. “This is.”
But when your eyes met mine, my poor heart lost all
sense of time.
Would loving you be
such a crime? I knew I must take that chance.
At that moment, some of Tom’s uneasiness melted away. Forbes didn’t know whether they connected because of the song, or the light, or the wig, or the dress, or the movie, or her loneliness, or his loneliness. Maybe if she’d met another guy her age, she would have danced the same way with him. Or maybe the connection had something to do with the love they shared–for movies.
As the song reached its final bars, she whispered something in his ear. Whatever she said affected him greatly. As a spotlight hit the couple Tom looked into Laurel’s eyes, Forbes had never seen such sadness in a smile.
A flash went off nearby and applause rippled through the hall from the now crowded dance floor. Valentina, Philip, and a photographer had made their way through the well-heeled couples to collect the guest.
“I love your ensemble,” Valentina said to Laurel. “So creative.”
“Thank you,” said Laurel.
“Val Sternwood,” she said, extending her hand.
“Laurel Gray,” took it.
“G-R-A-Y?” asked the photographer.
“We got the best picture of the two of you. The newspapers will eat it up. Free publicity. Gotta love it.” Val said.
The photographer showed them the digital image.
“Unless it will get either of you in trouble?” she checked.
“I’m between relationships,” said Laurel.
Forbes didn’t quite catch if she glanced at Phil as she said it.
“Not for long,” said Val, giving her hand a squeeze and turning expectantly to Tom.
“Run it,” he said.
Val beamed. “Thank you, Tom. Thank you, Laurel.”
Laurel smiled and nodded.
“You haven’t met the mayor yet, have you?” asked Val, leading Tom away.
One of the male students shyly approached Laurel and asked whether she’d like to dance. She agreed. Why not? Forbes thought the student might have been disappointed that she didn’t hold him as closely as she had Tom.
When the dance was over, she began to look around the room. The dance floor was still quite crowded, and skewing younger as the Corksrews returned to their standard set, so she had to be on guard for flailing limbs.
She eventually gave up her search and sought out Philip Sternwood, who spoke with Jimmy Castigliane and another Portland business leader at the head table.
“Excuse me, Mr. Sternwood,” she said.
“Have you seen Mr. Kahane?”
Sternwood was surprised by the question, “He left a few minutes ago.”
“Oh…” she said. “It was lovely meeting you and your wife. Thanks so much for the invitation.”
“Our pleasure,” he assured her.
She forced a smile, nodded, and immediately began negotiating her slow, oft impeded progress toward the coat check. She probably didn’t notice the look of concern on Phil Sternwood’s face as he watched her leave, but Val noticed.
Forbes watched the external monitors. The way Laurel shivered as she stepped outside called to mind that it was considerably colder than the KGW weather guy had originally forecast. There had been a fifty percent chance of rain, which usually meant cloud cover, but the night was clear and bracing instead. She usually had more covering her legs than silk stockings, and the wind would not be shy about gusting up her dress to get her attention.
It was only a couple of blocks to the bus stop, but Laurel couldn’t move as quickly in heels as she could in her running shoes. When she escaped the bold scrutiny of the security cameras, what bothered Forbes more than anything was what he’d felt when he watched that tragic-comic, costumed young woman depart. He wished there were something he could do for her. If he wished that, he knew Sternwood wished it a thousand times more.
Fortunately, Jimmy Castigliane had an endless stream of businessmen for Sternwood to speak with, and Forbes returned to the task at hand.
In hindsight, two things came into focus for the private investigator. Madeleine might have seemed familiar to him because she bore a passing resemblance to Valentina Sternwood. If Philip Sternwood had a type, she fit the bill. And he remembered a hell of a lot more about how things had ended between Philip Sternwood and Laurel Gray.
©2014 Bruce Cantwell
The characters and events in this serial are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.