Last Heartthrob 11
Women Have Secrets
ONE DAY BEFORE THE GUNSHOTS
As Walter Forbes continued to walk on the north side of the street, across from Madeleine Barton and Tom Kahane, he tried to process his subject’s confession. Kahane said that he’d killed Laurel Gray, but he had done so to clear Philip Sternwood and to assuage Barton’s guilt.
The closer Forbes got, the better he could see Barton’s face by the naked, low-wattage light bulb above the door of Laurel Gray’s old apartment. He could barely hear her say, “We better have that beer at your place.”
He continued walking past them.
Since Forbes now knew Madeleine and Tom’s destination, he chose to ride back to his office. He knew he could get there more quickly by bicycle than Kahane and Barton could get to The Kearney Lofts by bus.
While all parties were in transit, Kahane had received a call. There was a jazz combo in the background.
“Hi, Tom, it’s Shelby.”
“Oh, hi, Shelby.”
“Did you find that book?”
“Yes, we did.”
“Good, well, you know where we are.”
Tom recognized the sound of the Portland jazz institution down the street from H-L-S. “I do,” he said.
“When can you be here?”
“Actually, we’re headed back to my place,” said Tom.
“Perfect. Drop off the book and come on over.”
Tom paused for a second. “We’ll take a rain check.”
“It’s not raining,” said Lydecker.
Forbes noticed two things about what Lydecker said and the way he said it. At Lydecker’s end, if folks overheard him, it came off as sweetness and light. At Tom’s end, the disapproval was palpable.
“Shelby,” sighed Tom. “Truth is, I’m beat.”
There was half a chorus of “Harlem Nocturne” before Lydecker said, “Then get some rest.”
“I will, thanks.”
“Oh, I’m having some friends over for dinner tomorrow night. Eightish.”
“Yeah. Well, Madeleine changed her flight to Sunday. We’ll see.”
“Did she now?” The rest of “Harlem Nocturne.” “Well, make sure you don’t exert yourself, you hear?”
When Forbes had hacked Tom Kahane’s smart TV/DVR so that he and Jane Greer could monitor their subject’s media consumption, the P.I. hadn’t imagined he’d be accessing its audience recognition feature. Like almost every component of the internet of things, the all-seeing eye installed in smart TVs to deliver an optimized viewing experience by recognizing who was in the room could be used in other ways.
Forbes watched as Tom entered the Euro-style kitchen area where he set down some groceries on the granite countertop and began putting them away in the stainless steel refrigerator. The loft’s open floor plan left little to the imagination.
As Madeleine came within view and microphone range, Forbes heard her say, “You could probably put art on the walls.”
“Shelby is going to pick out a few things for me.”
“Where would you be without him?”
She looked out at the fourth-floor vista of cars driving by on I-405 through the floor to ceiling window. “No need to turn on the traffic report in the morning.”
“I walk,” he replied. “You don’t like the place.”
“It doesn’t really matter if I like it. Do you like it?”
“Yeah, I like it.” It sounded as though this was the first time he’d considered this. “I can walk to work in ten minutes. Plenty of brew pubs, coffee, organic produce.”
“Where does Shelby live?”
Tom glanced toward the ceiling. “Penthouse.”
“What?” groaned Tom.
“Don’t you find him a little…controlling?”
“Maybe I’m damn lucky to have someone like Shelby to say, ‘Come work for me. You can live here. You need some furniture. Buy this.’”
“Don’t forget clothes,” she added.
“Why don’t you pour those beers?”
Tom took a growler of IPA from the refrigerator and opened it. He poured two pints, explaining the hops used and their characteristics, the alcohol by volume, and the IBU (International Bitterness Units).
When Madeleine tasted the beer, her nose crinkled a bit.
“Anything wrong?” asked Tom.
“I’m not a huge beer drinker, but I’m sure I’ll warm to it as the alcohol kicks in.”
They moved over to his uncomfortable looking but highly fashionable sofa, conveniently within range of the smart TVs highly sensitive voice-command microphones. She said, “So I have one question for you that’s kind of a deal breaker. You don’t have to answer it. You can tell me it’s none of my business. That’s perfectly okay. But if it is none of my business, I will thank you and say goodbye.”
“No pressure there,” said Tom.
“How did you kill her?”
“We’re not going back over that, are we?”
She rose from the sofa. “Up to you.”
“I put a bullet in her head, okay?”
“That’s not funny.”
“You’re damn right it’s not!”
“Should I be calling the police right now?”
Forbes wondered the same thing.
“I’ll accept your verdict,” Tom began. “I think I mentioned David Oakley and I split over a woman. Laurel Gray was that woman. The week before Paging Mr. Kaplan opened, our agent snuck us in to meet with an indie guy affiliated with one of the majors. I’m not trying to be vague. It’s just that I’ve signed a bazillion papers along the way, and…”
She nodded, sitting back down.
“There was some money to shoot a movie in Oregon for who knows why. He’d seen the original Kaplan, shot mostly in Seattle, and came to us for obvious reasons. We already had a modestly-budgeted script prepped called Two Desires. We’d planned to shoot it around Seattle but asked ourselves if it could be done in Portland instead.”
“You both being former ad men the answer was surely yes,” she said.
“Our agent saw the limited release schedule for Kaplan and pushed for a three-picture deal. There was leeway with budgets contingent on grosses for the second two films, but he wanted to assure that we weren’t making a movie solely for tax purposes that the distributor would bury. He wanted no part of pitching our third picture if our first two escaped all visibility.
“On the plus side, the exec seemed to genuinely respond to Desires as a movie, not as a financial instrument.”
“He laughed at the right times?” she asked.
“But it never happened.”
“And David blamed Laurel Gray,” he said, pausing to sip his beer. “Because I met her at a Portland benefit screening of Kaplan, David thought the studio sent her to watch me.”
“And you told her about the deal?”
“I think David’s the one who blurted it out the weekend he came down to meet us.”
“Did you think she was a spy?” she asked.
“No, but the day after David blurted out the news, our studio picked up its option on Two Desires, and the chance to sign with the indie went away. Then they dumped Kaplan to make sure we got the memo.
“She sounded genuinely upset that we lost the indie deal. She swore she would come with me to L.A. to look out for us. But she claimed she had some things to tie up in Portland and couldn’t come right away.
“David pointed out that while we were in L.A. taking meeting after meeting to slice and dice Desires with very junior level people, she wasn’t looking after us very well.”
“Assuming she’s a spy,” she said. “If she’s not, it’s completely unfair.”
He shrugged. “David also pointed out that the only people he had ever met who knew our cinematic tastes as well as she did were the studio heads who had wined and dined us to get their hands on Kaplan. David also pointed out that if you really wanted to crush a couple of guys for crossing you, tying up their second film and dumping their first one were a start. Utterly humiliating them was a huge bonus. Then all of a sudden he started talking about the movie In a Lonely Place. He asked, ‘Didn’t Gloria Grahame’s character leave Bogart’s screenwriter character during the movie, and didn’t Gloria Grahame actually leave her husband, director Nicholas Ray, when the movie was finished? What was that character’s name?’”
Madeleine said it first. “Laurel Gray.”
“You said you put a bullet in her head…”
“It was harder for me to believe I’d fallen for something so transparent than it was for David. But it was easy enough to clear up, right? One phone call would do it. I called. I thought it was a little odd she didn’t pick up, but she could have been busy. David said to text her. I texted. David said to make sure she knew it was urgent. I let her know it was urgent. I finally called and left a message spelling out the misunderstanding. No answer. David did the right thing. He called some friends, went out, got drunk. He told me to come with him, but I waited at the hotel for her call. After six hours, I let her go. I decided to be magnanimous and give her a parting piece of advice. By that time, I was so messed up that it was all I could do to touch her name with my thumb. I told her she was very good at providing the girlfriend experience and that prostitutes of her caliber could make excellent money by being up front about their services. Under those circumstances, I would have given her a referral or two. I opined that the downside to accepting a higher up-front payment to betray her clients was that it showed short-term thinking. Sooner or later, one of them might try to get even.”
Madeleine sounded a little frightened but asked anyway. “Did she ever answer?”
“She answered by putting a bullet in her head.”
Tom continued, “At least that’s what the police concluded after they went through the messages and texts on her phone. They woke me up to establish that I was in Los Angeles and had been for a couple of days.”
Almost a minute passed.
“Then you didn’t actually shoot her?” she confirmed.
“I didn’t say I shot her. I said I killed her. I said I put a bullet in her head. You asked how. I told you.”
After a while, Madeleine stood up, picked up her purse, and extended her hand to him.
He took it uncertainly.
She led him to the kitchen area. Setting her purse down on the counter, she removed one prescription bottle, then another, then another, then another, and lined up the pills. She took out her smartphone, activated a timer app, and set it beside them. She took a fresh glass from the certified-green bamboo kitchen cabinet and filled it with water from the door of the fridge. She took the first two doses.
“I take the next two in three minutes and the three after that in fifteen minutes,” she said. “It was very tricky to work that sequence out.”
Neither Forbes nor Tom understood why she did this. Tom asked, “These are for?”
“These are for rejection, Tom.” She nervously undid the top button on her high-collared blouse. “Were you at all curious about my fashion sense?”
“Not really,” said Tom. “It’s a style.”
She stood beneath the beam of a track light and nervously undid the button at her neck. “You see, the pills, I usually leave them in my purse. I set the timer to vibrate and find an excuse to sneak into the bathroom. Men are used to women slipping away for a moment. I’m sorry to cheat you of that. It can actually be sexy.”
“When did I give you the impression that I don’t find you sexy?”
He started to move toward her.
“Not just yet,” she said. “I want you to understand what makes this…difficult.”
He didn’t know what to say.
“I wish I could tell you for certain that you were wrong about that woman…that her death had nothing to do with you. I don’t know what secret she carried around that made her… But I think you should consider that women have secrets.
“We both know that if I wanted to I could have steered you into that bedroom of yours and taken care of all of this in the dark.”
“All right, here’s the other way.”
Madeleine unbuttoned her blouse the rest of the way and pulled it open. Covered only an eighth of an inch of its length by the front-clasp of a lacy sheer black bra was a very distinct scar that ran from just below her collarbone to just above her navel.
Tom looked at the scar and at her with that same sort of odd, sad smile that had been on his face at The Micronesia.
“Not my best feature,” she said nervously, “but I wouldn’t be here today without it.”
He stepped toward her and looked into her eyes as he gently traced the length of the scar with his finger.
“The good news,” she continued, “is that my energy level improved so much post-op that the doctor thought I must have the heart of an eighteen-year-old boy.”
“I think it’s beautiful,” said Tom, nearly choking up.
Her eyes teared. “Right answer.”
They kissed until the timer went off. Tom stopped patiently as she went over to take two more pills and gather up the phone and other pills to take into the bedroom.
THE DAY OF THE GUNSHOTS
It was just past midnight. Walter Forbes began his report with the trip to Prowls, complete with Madeleine Barton’s suspicion that Philip Sternwood had killed someone. He reported the trip to 3110 NE Alberta. He gave Tom Kahane’s account of Laurel Gray’s suicide, which filled in the blanks about the someone he had lost. It was also telling that Kahane and Barton had slept together, not very discreet for a professional relationship.
He was ready to finish writing the report and call it a night until he reread the part about the trip to Prowls and the Northeast side. It made no sense to him. It hadn’t made sense to Barton or Kahane either. If Barton had sustained her suspicion of Sternwood, it would have been Forbes’s duty to report it. But she seemed to accept Kahane’s version of events, and those Forbes had faithfully detailed. He deleted the first part of the document.
One of nature’s great gifts, the way that the mind can reprocess various sense impressions of the day during sleep, turned out to be Forbes’s enemy in the early morning hours. His resting mind attempted to reconcile Kahane’s story with the version of Laurel Gray he’d observed while following Sternwood.
Forbes couldn’t believe that Laurel Gray was a studio spy, though he completely understood why Kahane believed she was. He hadn’t even included the fact that she’d appeared at the gala dressed as a spy. But why didn’t she return Kahane’s call? Why did she kill herself?
Forbes woke up to feel Anna’s hand on his shoulder. “Walt. Walt, what’s wrong?”
Forbes sat up. “What?”
“You were shaking the bed so much I thought we were having an earthquake.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be sorry. What’s wrong?”
Walter shook his head. “Just trying to wrap my mind around something, I guess.”
“Something that happened tonight?” She positioned herself to give him a back rub.
“Something that was said tonight.”
“Is it essential to your assignment?”
As Anna’s thumbs pressed into some knots that had formed in his lower back, he began to think about it in terms of the assignment to vet Kahane. “Probably not,” he said.
“Then is it something you can just let go?”
Anna let him think about it and continued to work out the knots in his back. He wondered if there were a way to share with Kahane what he knew about Laurel Gray. But what did he actually know about her? He could lay claim to knowing Kahane because he had observed his life, personal and private, when he was with others, and when he was alone. He could lay claim to knowing Philip Sternwood at one point in his life, but he had deliberately tried to limit that to his handling of one specific lawsuit. The entirety of what he knew about Laurel Gray was literally none of his business. If he’d been more professional, he would never have heard of her. If he’d been more professional, he wouldn’t have mentioned her to Castigliane. If she hadn’t killed herself, had one of Castigliane’s associates assisted her?
He thought about what he could have done differently. He thought of what he could do differently. But he found himself in the same situation with Tom Kahane as he had with Philip Sternwood. It wasn’t Sternwood’s fault he’d revealed more than Forbes needed to know. It wasn’t Kahane’s fault. The fault would always lay with Forbes. There would always be the risk of reporting too little or too much.
After Anna had let him reflect for a moment, she asked, “Do you want to talk?”
“I’d much rather sleep.” He laid down and pulled up the covers, relieved that he’d just retired from the surveillance business.
Walter Forbes cancelled Jane Greer’s weekend duties and delivered his final report to Philip Sternwood in person. When Forbes entered the auto man’s office, windows for transparency, blinds for privacy, his client looked a little hung over but his face brightened. He rose and shook his hand.
“Walter Forbes in person: such service! To what do I owe the honor?”
“From what I understand,” said Forbes, “Madeleine and Tom are heading up to Mount Hood today for a hike.”
“Really?” Sternwood was surprised.
“And I’ve concluded the investigation.” Forbes handed Sternwood an envelope.
Sternwood sat down, opened it, and read. Forbes looked out at the sales floor but could see his client’s face reflected in the glass. It showed some concern, probably over the section mentioning Laurel Gray, but he wasn’t visibly shaken. He put the document in the shredder and laced his fingers behind his head, leaning back.
“Thoughts?” Sternwood asked.
“I’m thinking that you have enough information to decide if Tom Kahane would make a suitable Communications Director,” replied Forbes.
“You think he’s a loose cannon?”
Sternwood nodded. “I like Madeleine Barton a lot. I wouldn’t mind having her in there either.”
“You didn’t ask me to vet Madeleine Barton.”
“Yes, I know. I’d like to see them get married,” Sternwood mused.
“That will cost you extra.”
“They’re going up to Mount Hood, you say?”
“Those were the plans.”
“It’s a beautiful day for it,” Sternwood said, then turned serious. “I hope I’m not bending your ear, but I’ll tell you what’s most on my mind. It’s the meds. I get the feeling that Tom is a little…sedated. Not a problem if he can execute. He’s a hard worker. It would be nice for him to have a moderating force in his life. Do you like Madeleine Barton?”
“Yes, I like Madeleine Barton,” Forbes said.
Sternwood nodded in agreement. “Shame about that heart transplant.”
“I don’t think she’d say so.”
“Of course not. Of course not. I just mean with all those drugs there are bound to be side effects from time to time.”
“Again, you didn’t ask me to vet Madel–”
“You’re right. I mean, in terms of The Company. If they both ended up having the same bad day with all that stress…”
“I didn’t see either of them have a bad day,” said Forbes.
“Well, Barton was a little off that one time.”
“So you said.”
Sternwood nodded, took a key from his desk and got up to shake Forbes’s hand. “Outstanding as usual.”
“Can you and Anna get away this weekend?”
“I’m not sure.”
“This is the key to the beach house in Seaside,” Sternwood explained. “It’s vacant until Tuesday.”
Forbes was taken aback. He sometimes saw Sternwood as merely a client and not someone who had become a friend over the years.
“You know, since Val and I–” it was uncomfortable for Sternwood to discuss his unofficial marital status. “It hasn’t been easy for me to ask you two over for dinner. I can’t cook.”
“Would you like us to invite you?”
“Yes!” Sternwood said.
They both laughed.
“Yes, I would. I know it’s rude but–”
“It’s not rude,” assured Forbes.
“I mean, it’s fun having lunch with you and all but I miss Anna, I mean, the two of you together, you know?”
“You guys might feel awkward if I invited you to some restaurant and picked up the check, right?”
“Don’t know,” said Forbes. “You could try it.”
Sternwood smiled and looked at the key in Forbes’s hand. “Hope you can enjoy the beach house. Oh, and there’s a number for a restaurant by the phone. It’s the best. Just tell them you’re staying at my place.”
Anna Forbes liked the idea of Sternwood’s beach house offer. For one reason or another, one of her work projects or one of Walter’s, they hadn’t made time to walk along a sandy beach that summer.
Forbes was in a good mood as he drove home. He didn’t know whether he consciously chose a route that passed the County Medical Examiner, but since he found himself driving by, the decision to pull in seemed easy. He didn’t think Bart Huff, an old school buddy, would be in on a Saturday. He didn’t think that he would bring the Gray matter up if it turned out that he wasn’t. But when Forbes entered the office, there he was, covering for an assistant’s vacation shift before going on vacation himself on Monday.
The story was simple. Forbes had been contacted by a bottom feeder lawyer in Twin Falls, Idaho who had trolled Laurel Gray’s father about the denial of her grocery store life insurance claim. Mr. Gray couldn’t care less about the money, but agreed to let the lawyer try to prove she hadn’t killed herself. Forbes refused to look into it, but wanted to alert his old friend that another investigator might come snooping. It might be worth making sure the file was clean.
As Walter and Anna drove out to Seaside, he felt more relaxed than he had in ages. It wasn’t difficult for him to leave his handheld behind.
Sternwood’s beach house was expensive as hell but consciously decorated with rich old woods and comfortable vintage furniture to give it the feel of what it was, a seaside vacation home. There was no visible television, although their son had insisted on one. The compromise was to mask it with a very nice oil painting of a ship on a rolling sea commissioned from a local artist. The four bedrooms each had their own baths, there was a hot tub, private, with a retractable awning for late night stargazing.
The cupboards and refrigerator were stocked with beer, wine, snacks, sandwich fixin’s, s’mores components, breakfast items. There were fresh fruit and vegetables from the local farmer’s market, selected by the housekeeper who re-stocked after visits and kept an eye on expiration dates. Of course, there was a full bar.
They changed into beach-bum clothes, and each grabbed a peach from a farm in the Columbia River Gorge that seemed geologically engineered for millennia to tempt heaven to fall to earth when the fruit was in season.
They left the beach house barefoot to cross the short grassy path to the beach and were soon tickling their toes as the receding waves pulled sand out from beneath their feet. Their position on the beach was virtually private, but after half a mile there were plenty of people. This was the coast that Anna and Walter knew and loved. They enjoyed seeing other happy faces. The roar of the waves overruled the sound of the families who could squabble anywhere. Pelicans flew in formation. Peripatetic gulls grudgingly conceded twelve or so feet to humans, taking flight only to escape an overeager child or a dog unoccupied by its new favorite activity: swimming out to fetch a stick.
Walter and Anna stopped and laughed at a cream colored lab that had started digging a hole and appeared to be heading for the center of the earth.
They placed a call to the restaurant Sternwood had recommended before going up to shower and change. At the restaurant, they were handed menus without prices, which made Anna pipe up. The waiter smiled and explained that they were Philip Sternwood’s guests.
They each ordered a cleverly named cocktail, and Walter toasted, “Philip Sternwood.”
“And his unexpected generosity,” added Anna.
They clinked glasses.
“Why unexpected?” Walter asked.
“This is our first invite.”
“We’ve been here before.”
“Not to stay. That was when you supervised the installation of the security and alarm system.”
“Well, they put us up,” he countered.
“At a hotel.”
“We had dinner at the beach house.”
“That’s true,” she admitted. “Did you bill for that job or was it more of a freebie?”
“After all the work they’ve given me over the years I don’t have to nickel and dime them on everything.”
“Hey, that’s your business. I’m just saying a couple of steaks and a hotel room isn’t much for a job like that.”
“It’s going to be a pretty fat paycheck for this last job,” he said.
“Did you submit the invoice yet?” she asked.
Anna smiled and looked at the menu. “Let’s relax and enjoy his beneficence.”
Walter felt slightly miffed that Anna doubted their friendship. He wasn’t going to let it spoil what showed every sign of being an exceptional meal.
“He regrets not seeing us more since he and Val have been–” Walter explained.
“Yeah, what exactly is going on with those two? Are they officially separated?”
Walter shrugged. “They seem to always be together in public, not so much in private, I guess. He said he would like it if we invited him over or if we all went to a restaurant.”
“All right,” said Anna. “I take it all back. Maybe he just wanted to get you out of town.”
Walter stopped drinking his cocktail, and the tension that had ebbed away that morning rolled back in like the tide.
Anna could see it. “What?”
Walter was thinking.
“I was kidding.”
It’s true. She was. But her jest made Forbes think about the meeting that morning. If Sternwood had been considering Kahane for a job with The Company, he would have kept the reports together in a file. Why had he shredded this morning’s report? If he had just decided against the idea, why didn’t he shred the other reports as well?
Why had Sternwood raised the issue of the drugs? True, it was a potential complication for The Company job.
“Walter, tell me what’s bothering you.”
But Sternwood hadn’t asked Forbes about the risks involved with the various drugs. He’d investigated on his own. Why?
“I was just kidding,” said Anna.
“I know you were. I have to make a phone call.” He got up.
“Order your dinner,” she said.
“I have to make a phone call. I may have to go home.”
“Walter Theodore Forbes, if you need to make a phone call, I won’t stop you. If you need to go home, I won’t stop you. I’ll walk back along the beach.”
“Thanks for understanding,” he said.
“But if you don’t order something from this amazing menu and bill it to your client, we’re getting a divorce.”
He ordered something and walked as briskly as he could toward the exit. He felt as helpless as he had watching his former football teammates from his hospital during the last game of his last season. His team was up by two, but the opponent’s offense was nearing field goal range, he was helpless to stop them, and the clock was running out.
©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.