Last Heartthrob 09
What Kind of Person?
Fred Abundas, Sternwood’s opponent in the class action lawsuit against the auto group, was Oregon born. He had attended PSU and aspired to the legislature.
At this point in Abundas’s life, a woman he’d met during his university days was deemed most capable of scuttling his ambitions. After a night of sex, she had floated the trial balloon of filing a date rape charge. She backed off when Abundas said he couldn’t settle because he didn’t have the money.
It was Monday, December 17, and Philip Sternwood was making his year-end to-do list when the report from the private detective he had hired in the Capitol arrived in his email in-box.
Walter Forbes understood why Sternwood let his phone go to voice mail as he weighed the implications of the report. The fact that Sternwood’s private investigator had dug up something salacious meant that he couldn’t find an incident of professional misconduct. Professional matters made good bargaining chips. You let this drop, I’ll let that drop.
Personal matters were trickier. Though Sternwood’s personal life, as far as Forbes knew, was pretty (if not squeaky) clean, when you began questioning morals, there were always gray areas. That’s one of the reasons Sternwood had asked Forbes to have a talk with Abundas, and why, if he weren’t working for Castigliane, he might have agreed.
When Sternwood checked his phone message, it was from Laurel Gray.
“Hi, Phil. It’s Laurel. Just calling to say thanks for the ticket to the Northwest Cinematheque gala. That was very sweet.” There seemed to be a muffled male voice in the background. “There’s a lot going on right now, but I’ll give you a call when the dust settles. Bye.”
Sternwood repeated the message.
This time Forbes could make out the male voice saying, “Thank him for me.”
Sternwood repeated the message.
He called Laurel, but she didn’t pick up, and he didn’t leave a message. Forbes’s pulse quickened when Sternwood played her message yet again.
Sternwood tried to call Laurel again before lunch, but she didn’t pick up, and he left no message.
Forbes tracked Sternwood’s GPS as it progressed, very slowly, toward the upscale market where Laurel worked. It took a good chunk of the auto man’s day to cross town and search for her in vain at work and at home.
When Sternwood finally arrived back in Beaverton, he was late for a meeting with Jimmy Castigliane and Paul Shibano concerning the end of year clearance. The agency had prepared a couple of spots and awaited his okay contingent on an inventory check. Sternwood apologized for being late. Paul Shibano was relieved to get the okay. This time of year, the sooner the ads were in the hands of the media outlets the better.
After Shibano left, Castigliane lingered. “Where were you?”
“I was getting some lunch. Traffic was bad.”
“I mean, where was your head?”
“Excuse me?” Sternwood was defensive.
“You could have called the ad at close of business Saturday. There was no need for Shibano to come here at all.”
Sternwood laughed. “Since when have you been concerned about making our agency do a little work for their money?”
“That’s not what concerns me.”
Forbes listened expectantly. Was Castigliane ready to admit that he knew about Laurel Gray? Or was that wishful thinking, a way to confirm Forbes’s suspicions about the burglary. Or did he want the confrontation just to hear Sternwood’s version of things?
“What concerns you?” asked Sternwood.
“You haven’t been yourself lately.”
Sternwood didn’t respond.
“Maybe it’s not my place to–” tried Castigliane.
“It’s not,” Sternwood confirmed.
“I’ll let you get back to–”
Forbes was disappointed: not in his subject, not in his client, but in himself for ever speaking the name Laurel Gray. Because of his error, he now felt compelled to monitor any conversation that might refer to the lawsuit or the woman. No one was paying him for that.
When Sternwood left the office for the evening, he drove down to that store again. He didn’t see Laurel there. He drove to her apartment. She wasn’t home, so he took his phone out and started to dial her number but, again, left no message.
On Tuesday, in the midst of going over the quarterly taxes, Sternwood called Tomasso Pontano about the Oregon movie deal.
Pontano was brusque. “I made the call. Check with your guy. I’ve gotta run. See you Friday.”
Forbes knew that for Sternwood to check with his guy he’d have to ask Valentina for Tom Kahane’s contact information. She would want to know why. He could make a case for shooting in Oregon, but, after witnessing Philip and Laurel Gray together at the gala, she would see right through him.
Apparently, Forbes wasn’t completely immune to Sternwood’s plight, because Wednesday evening, as he and Anna were having dinner, she mentioned it.
“One of your cases?”
“You seem kind of in a funk.”
Walter thought for a moment. “There’s this guy who’s well off. He meets this woman who is kind of down on her luck. He is in a position to help her out, but she is too independent to accept it.”
“Some people are like that.”
“Yeah, well…he’s concerned about her. He’s been trying to check in with her to see how she’s doing, but he can’t. He can’t ask anyone where she is. And he can’t talk with anyone about it.”
“What about his wife?”
“Because he’s married and he’s having sex with the woman he’s helping?” Anna speculated.
“I wouldn’t put it like that.”
“The married part or the sex part?”
“He’s married. The sex part.”
“Is she attractive?” asked Anna.
“Is that the only reason a guy would want to help a woman?”
“It’s just a question.”
Walter wasn’t sure if Anna had asked this to determine if his own feelings for the woman were clouding his outlook on the situation. “Do I find her attractive?”
“I’m assuming you find her attractive. Does he find her attractive.”
“Probably, but I wouldn’t be so quick to make this sexual.”
She looked at him skeptically. “Really?”
“At least not very, not yet.”
She nodded. “I get it. That’s worse.”
“Why is that worse?”
“You should know as well as anyone.”
“Because guys always think it’s going to be more than it turns out to be.”
“You mean the sex?”
“The sex, the money, the job, the car, the house, the kids, the computer game, the football game.”
Walter cracked a smile. “Leave football out of this.”
On Thursday, the day of the hit-and-run, Valentina called Philip at the Gladstone dealership. She’d completed her charity work for the season. He’d finished his pre-holiday duties as well. They decided that a quiet dinner at home was in order. She’d try out Anita’s recipe: the one that called for the dried morels. They agreed he could be home by seven-thirty.
He left the Gladstone dealership at 6:09 P.M. He had time to spare, so much so that he decided to make one more pass on that supermarket. Again Laurel wasn't there. He noticed the young man who had worked with her in the flower department.
“Do you know if Laurel Gray is on tonight? I had a movie recommendation for her.”
The young man recognized him but didn’t answer immediately. He was trying to remember what to say. “Laurel Gray is no longer with the company.”
“Huh. Well, that’s a surprise,” said Sternwood.
The young man shrugged and got back to work.
At 7:10 P.M. he started toward home but got caught in traffic on I-5 South. He fidgeted and called Valentina.
“Hi, Hon. I’m sorry. I’m running late. I just got on I-5 South, and I’m stuck in Rose Quarter traffic.”
“I-5 South?” asked Valentina. “From Gladstone?”
Gladstone was over thirteen miles south of their home. Sternwood had no brilliant comeback. “Anyway, I just thought I’d give you a heads-up. Bye.”
He ended the call, and his phone rang immediately. He sighed, “Yes?”
“It’s Laurel. Is this a bad time to talk? I would have called you sooner, but I had to finish packing.”
“Yeah. I’m moving to L.A.”
“Yeah. Long story.”
Forbes felt relief when he heard these words. But it was immediately mitigated by the length of Sternwood’s pause. He didn’t immediately say “That’s great news,” or “Good luck,” or anything.
“Hello?” prompted Laurel.
“I’ll have to call you back.”
“I understand. I just thought I’d tell you.”
“Yes, thanks for calling.”
It wasn’t immediately apparent to Forbes why Sternwood’s car stopped on a steep incline in Portland Heights within a few blocks of his house. He backed his car downhill past a couple of PSU students who were smoking cigarettes outside their palatial old apartment building into a parking space.
“Gentlemen,” Sternwood said.
“Sir,” said one of them, the other nodding.
“I wonder if I could enlist your services in giving me a push?”
Forbes barely made out one of the students saying, “ran out of free gas,” before they both chuckled. Sternwood gamely steered while walking alongside to assist as much as he was able.
This was further complicated by a phone call he could not refuse.
“What time did we say for dinner?” Valentina asked.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he said. “I’m almost there now. But the battery charge doesn’t seem to be holding and I ran–”
It’s just as well that Valentina didn’t let him finish that sentence.
“Hear anything more about that Beaverton break-in?” she asked.
It took him a second to remember his lie.
“Anything more? There was nothing for the police to check out. It was just a broken driver’s side window on a Ford F-150. Some guy tried to hot-wire it and got spooked by the alarm.”
“Okay, you missed an opportunity to tell me the truth there. I’ll spare asking you to come up with a story about why you were taking I-5 South from Gladstone. I won’t lie to you. Ed Riedenschnieder has collected your phone records and some other incidental information.”
Forbes could almost feel Sternwood’s sphincter tighten. Ed Riedenschneider was the über-lawyer the Pontanos retained to dissolve underperforming domestic mergers.
“He hasn’t looked at anything yet,” assured Valentina. “I won’t ask you what your problem is unless you need my help to resolve it.”
“In the meantime, I can tell the family tomorrow that you have some last minute business–”
“I’ll take care of it right now. But can I borrow your Navigator? I ran out of gas.”
Forbes winced as Valentina replied, “Keys are in the bowl by the door.”
Forbes had a pretty good idea where Sternwood was going and drove the short distance to select a vantage point. Laurel Gray’s shades were down, but her lights were on. He wouldn’t be able to see much, but if Gray and Sternwood went somewhere to talk things through that could all change.
Philip Sternwood parked his wife’s Navigator on NE 31st about a block north of her apartment. She was on the phone with her landlord when she opened the door and waved him in.
“Yes, that’s fine,” she said. “Uh-huh. I don’t have any problem at all paying for the ads. That’s fine.” A pause. “Yes, okay. Uh-huh. Yes. Okay. See you tomorrow. Bye.” She ended the call. “Well, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Am I interrupting?” Phil asked.
“No, your timing is good actually. I just finished talking with my landlord. I’m a little tired that’s all. I took Sylvia out to dinner. She helped me box things up and scrub the walls. Not much can be done with the carpet.” She walked over to the refrigerator. “Want a PBR?”
She cracked open the beers and returned to sit beside him on the sofa-bed.
“I didn’t know you were moving,” said Phil.
She laughed. “Neither did I. Cheers!”
She clinked her can against his.
“I stopped by the store,” he said.
“Yeah. They were just great about everything. I would have totally stuck out the two weeks or whatever, but they were like ‘Go for it.’ Nice people.”
Phil nodded. “So where are you–”
“Los Angeles, Cal-i-for-ni-a,” She laughed. “I know. Crazy huh?”
Phil sounded mixed-up. “I don’t see how this fits in with your plans.”
“I had to think fast.”
“Well, you know about the burglary, obviously. You were very comforting and all, but after you left, I went to work, and I thought about how much I was taking home a week versus how much I had to make up. I used the calculator on my phone. I lost four years.”
“I told you not to worry about that.”
“I’m telling you what happened,” said Laurel. “I called my ex-roommate Sylvia and told her I would blow off the gala. She told me to meet her at Mad About Movies. I thought we would just rent a movie, but she had something to show me instead. There in the display case, next to Tony Curtis’s hat from Some Like it Hot was Eva Marie Saint’s dress from North by Northwest. The same dress the actress wore in the trailer for Paging Mr. Kaplan. She said she could make it and dared me to go. So I called to confirm you left a ticket at will call and went as a goof.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I should have called about the ticket.”
“Yeah,” she said, a bit sadly, “You really should have. But I’m glad I went. It helped me see what was going on.”
She sipped her beer.
“What did you see?” he wondered.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be a good fit for that crowd.”
“Ah, you get used to it.”
“I saw that I was already the oldest person at the student table and tried to picture myself there at thirty-one. I saw your wife, Valentina. She is so beautiful. Even her name is beautiful. How come you never mentioned it?”
She shook her head. “I felt so alone in that room. But I made my observations to share with Sylvia at the Salmon Street Wine Bar afterwards. All part of the deal.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t have a good time,” he apologized. “I thought–”
She continued, “Then I saw someone who was lonelier than I was. I realized that whatever I was going through was nothing compared to his situation. I mean, I didn’t see the movie David Oakley and Tom Kahane shot, but I know that it wasn’t the movie they screened: the movie that’s going to be released as their work. And I knew when he spoke that he wasn’t free to tell a soul what the studio had done.”
“Maybe it needed work,” said Phil.
“Maybe. But I saw Tom up there and realized he’s about my age, and I thought how I’d feel.”
“Did you tell him about your BBS program?”
“You saw what we did,” she said. “We danced.”
Phil sipped his beer.
“He was so tense being out there plugging someone else’s movie that when I touched his back I thought he was wearing body armor. I wanted to help him. I couldn’t do that by talking about movies.”
“I’m not sure he’s in that much need of help.”
“Maybe not,” she said. “But there was something that I hadn’t considered when I asked him to dance. I think I needed someone to hold me just as much as he did.”
Phil sighed. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to be there for you.”
“Sorry for what? When were you not there for me? You always listened to me. You took me to dinner. You came over when I called you at some ungodly hour. You got me a ticket to the gala. You introduced me to Tom Kahane.”
“But none of it helped.”
“It would help if you listened to me now,” she said.
“I knew the song was coming to an end. And I knew someone would be there to whisk Tom away. So I said to him, ‘If you’re happy with your movie, I enjoyed meeting you. If you’re not, come see me before you leave.’ I left him an out. He didn’t have to break his non-disparagement agreement.”
“I’m sorry that he didn’t take you up on your offer, but that doesn’t mean things can’t still work out.”
“He didn’t come to see me, so I went to meet Sylvia as promised. A limo pulled up beside me, and Tom got out. He didn’t want to talk to me inside because he thought someone from the studio might be watching.”
“You slept with him?” asked Phil.
“That’s an odd question.”
“It’s an odd story.”
“We ditched the car and walked to Salmon Street to meet Sylvia,” Laurel continued. “We talked about movies.”
“I thought he couldn’t talk about his movie.”
“Not his. We talked about the movies he loved as a kid, the ones he loves now. I mentioned The Narrow Margin and The Hitch-hiker. You should have seen his Charles McGraw impression. So funny.”
“And you mentioned your BBS program?” he tried again.
“No,” she replied. “By that time, Sylvia, who was two glasses ahead of us, was flagging, so she went home and I walked with Tom back to his hotel.”
“And I took a cab home,” she said.
“I’m glad you allowed yourself that indulgence.”
“It wasn’t an indulgence. The buses don’t run that frequently at that hour, I budgeted it.”
“There’s something I should have told you before you–” Phil looked around the apartment at all the boxes. “–before all this. I heard it through the grapevine that Tom might be making his next film in Oregon.”
“We talked about that.”
This caught Phil off guard. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember–”
“I mean Tom and David and I talked about it,” she said.
“David Oakley. I told you a lot of stuff happened. Tom stayed the weekend to visit his friends Corky and Violet. David came down to unwind. I had to work Saturday and Sunday but hung out after hours. David told me that as much as he’d like to, he couldn’t think about selling a movie while he was shooting it. So his choices, as he saw it, came down to taking a studio project or raising the money with a pitch and busting his hump to sell it once it was finished. Neither is ideal. I told him that finding middle ground was my job.”
“Good for you,” said Phil.
“What do you mean, good for me? I dealt with clients and creatives every day. I told you I had a real job before, right?”
“I’m just glad you got your confidence back.”
“It’s the L.A. part I’m not confident about,” she sighed. “Shooting in Oregon would have been nice.”
“Don’t worry about it. We can get you work on their production,” he assured.
“Oh, I’m going to work with them. The movie’s not going to be shot here.”
“Val told me it was,” he stumbled.
Laurel was puzzled. “Where did she hear about it?”
He recovered. “I assume Tom told her.”
“Tom didn’t tell her. Tom didn’t tell me. He was a little miffed when David told me, but David was drunk. Tom didn’t want anyone to know until after the movie opened. He was concerned that someone from the studio would get wind of it. Which they did. Which is why it’s not being shot in Oregon and why I’m moving to L.A.”
There was a pause.
“What did you mean we can get you work on that production?” Laurel asked.
“I just meant that I know people, that’s all.”
“Look, I’m glad that you quit the supermarket job. You can start at Northwest Cinematheque right away.”
“That’s not what I want.”
“Forgive me,” he said. “That’s what you told me you wanted. Or I’ll call someone at the Film Board, see what kind of shoots are coming up. I can loan you some money to tide you over.”
“I worked my ass off to make it through college debt free. I’m not going to start taking loans now. And I already have a movie job, but it’s in L.A. What I no longer have is an apartment here.”
“You just called your landlord. He hasn’t rented it yet.”
“She.” Laurel shook her head. “I’m already packed.”
“We’ll get another place.”
Phil paused. “I mean, I’ll help you find another place.”
Laurel’s phone chimed.
“Trust me. You don’t want to answer that right now,” said Phil. “You need to think. As you said, a lot has happened. You meet some filmmakers whose aesthetic seems to fit in with your plans. They offer you a job. Everything sounds like things are coming together for you. But are they? Are they if they’re working for the kind of studio that changes up their vision?”
“It’s not ideal,” admitted Laurel. “But he kind of needs me right now.”
It took Phil a moment to regroup.
“Maybe. What I’m saying is you don’t need him.”
“Yeah. See that’s the thing I didn’t quite count on. When someone feels that way about you and you’ve been on your own for a while…”
“May I say that I understand something about that…situation,” Phil countered.
“Let it be stipulated that you love me.” Laurel sounded exasperated. She finished her beer. “What, isn’t that the right legal term?”
“Do you object?” she wondered. “I know you can’t say it.”
“Do I seem that cold to you?”
“I see the way you’ve started to look at me, even when your wife is watching. Every woman knows what that look means. It must be devastating to feel that way about someone and not be able to act on it or even tell them. It’s a good thing for us both that there’s someone else for me right now. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t choose the man I could help over the man I would ruin?”
Walter Forbes turned off the monitor and turned on the radio to kill time while awaiting Sternwood’s departure. He deliberately didn’t look at the time. He knew that everything between now and then would be heartbreaking, and he had no wish to take its measure. He felt a little unclean for listening to as much as he had. The rain started to come down hard. It was as though the sky remembered how much it was supposed to rain in December in Portland, realized it was behind, and decided to dump everything at once.
Eventually, the sparsely spaced street lamps made a shadowy specter of Philip Sternwood walking briskly north. The downpour leaped from his umbrella. If a motion-sensor activated security light hadn’t shone on Valentina’s Lincoln Navigator, he would have walked right past it.
When Sternwood reached the stop sign, an old Volkswagen Golf passed westbound. As he turned left from NE 31st onto Killingsworth, a Doppler shift approached speedily from the east, and the Navigator’s headlights illuminated a set of blinking antlers directly in front of him. Sternwood spun the wheel and rear-ended the Golf that had pulled over to give the emergency vehicle a wide berth.
The ambulance turned before reaching them. The blinking antlers came back at Sternwood, attached to the helmet of a man riding a six-foot tall bicycle who made a U-turn to confirm that no one was hurt. A man in a Santa hat, soaked to the skin, walked by with a forty-ounce malt liquor he’d picked up at the corner convenience store. He was the first to recognize the celebrity in their midst.
“Hey, it’s Mr. Free Gas!” Santa yowled.
The cyclist in heavy duty rain gear pulled up to the driver’s side of the Navigator. “Are you okay?” Sternwood (a.k.a. “Free Gas”), didn’t answer. He re-started the Navigator, which had stalled on impact.
The antlered one realized, “Hey, you’re that free gas for a year guy.”
“You got rear-ended by Free Gas, bro!” the Santa hat guy told the Golf guy, who now got out of his car rubbing his neck.
The Navigator backed up from the cyclist who leaned against its door and sped away westbound. “Free Gas” heard them calling after him for a second or two: “something, something…mother-something…Free Gas!”
The following morning, the headline in the city’s daily read:
AUTO DEALER GUSTAFSON CITED IN HIT-AND-RUN
It had taken twenty-four grueling hours for the newspaper to print the high-profile retraction after the TV news stations had a field day covering the mix-up and a press conference by Sternwood’s competitor.
In hindsight, many things had come into focus. Forbes now understood why he hadn’t recognized Tom Kahane. He had only seen him once five years ago on a security monitor. He understood why he vaguely remembered Paging Mr. Kaplan. He never saw the film. He understood a possible dual motive for keeping an eye on Kahane. Five years ago, Sternwood and Kahane had known the same woman. One of those men was married. Loose lips sink ships.
What hindsight hadn’t ruled out was the stated objective for the surveillance, determining whether Kahane would make a suitable Communications Director for The Company.
When Forbes returned his attention to vetting Kahane, the ad man appeared to be going strong on the set of the AutoMan Empire shoot long past midnight when Forbes decided to call it a night.
He slept more soundly than he should have, blissfully unaware that if he were a film noir detective he would have been able to piece things together a full two days before the gunshots.
©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.