Last Heartthrob 12
The Gunshots and the Femme Fatale
SHORTLY BEFORE THE GUNSHOTS
“Hello!” Jane Greer shouted above the roar of a soccer crowd.
“Jane, it’s Forbes,” he said, using the landline back at Sternwood’s beach house.
“You said I could take the weekend off!”
“I know what I said. Jane, can you get to a concourse where we can hear each other!”
Walter Forbes repeated himself more slowly and distinctly.
“What if I miss a goal?” asked Greer.
“Jane, it’s soccer, nothing ever happens in a soccer game.”
“Until it does, that’s why I don’t want to miss it.”
He could hear the distorted swoosh of sound of someone squeezing past fans to head for a concourse.
“Thank you, Jane.”
Perhaps Philip Sternwood never got over Laurel Gray. Maybe finding out about the events leading up to her suicide upset him. Maybe he felt that there was something he had to get off his chest with Tom Kahane.
“I hope you appreciate my dedication.” Greer was now in a cleaner sound environment.
“I’m in awe.”
“I mean, in my paycheck.”
“You’ll be in awe.”
Forbes realized he’d called Greer too soon. He hadn’t yet worked out what to tell her. Had Sternwood known about the suicide all along? Was he concerned that Kahane doubted it was a suicide? Why would Kahane doubt it was a suicide? Because Sternwood didn’t know what Laurel Gray had told Kahane about him. That’s what Sternwood had hired him to find out.
Greer sounded disconcerted that Forbes wasn’t talking. “Can you hear me now?”
But if that were the case, Sternwood should have been happy Kahane didn’t suspect him. There was no evidence that Laurel Gray had mentioned him at all.
“I want you to look up a death notice,” said Forbes.
“A what? What’s going on? Where are you?”
“I’m in Seaside without my handheld. The woman’s name is Laurel Gray, she lived on Northeast Alberta, 3110, I think.”
“Can you give me a date?”
Forbes guesstimated the last time he’d seen her alive, which was the night of the hit-and-run, when she and Sternwood called it quits. Anytime from there forward.
“I’m not getting any Laurel Grays. There are a lot of Laurels and a lot more Grays.”
Forbes entertained the possibility that David Oakley had been right about her. If she were a spy, her real name wasn’t Laurel Gray. His gut told him otherwise.
“She was twenty-six years old, somewhere around that,” said Forbes.
“Look, this search engine isn’t exactly set up for the kind of information you’re giving me.”
Sternwood was worried that Kahane had connected the dots between the accident and his leaving Laurel’s apartment. Forbes felt his chest thumping when he narrowed the search to the night of the hit-and-run.
“Again,” said Greer. “No Laurel Gray.”
“There’s one Eunice L. Gray. She was twenty-six.” Greer read the text mentioning next of kin and some kindly phrase about her being a selfless organ donor.
Who could blame a woman for using her middle name when her first name was Eunice? And who could blame a man for being paranoid when someone brought up a fender bender he’d been in while leaving the apartment of a woman who committed suicide?
“Okay, Jane. The next words out of my mouth will sound insane.”
Forbes didn’t disappoint. He told her that he needed her to break into his house. He suggested the best way to do it. It would activate an alarm. He gave her the passcode to disable the alarm and the password for when the company called so she could confirm it was a false alarm. He told her where to find his handheld. He told her to bring it to a specific gas station along US 26 to hand it off.
“This is totally insane!”
“I need my handheld!” cried Forbes.
“I know, little boy,” she joked. “Calm down. I’ll get it for you.”
Greer terminated the call before he could thank her. Just as well. They both knew he couldn’t have thanked her enough.
Forbes tried to work through what he would do as he drove. If Sternwood were going to confront Kahane, he would do it at The Kearney Lofts. That’s why Forbes told Greer to meet him. He would check Kahane’s location immediately and decide whether to proceed to the condo on the west side or call Kahane out by Mount Hood and tell him to stay put while he continued in that direction via US 26. He didn’t feel that he had the luxury of driving all the way home in either case.
He wasn’t sure what he would say to Kahane when he reached him. That wasn’t important yet. Something plausible would come to mind.
At the gas station on US 26, Forbes was elated to see Jane Greer standing beside her car share Smart Car. When he pulled in, she slipped the handheld to him. He was about to say something, but she yelled “Go!” and waved him through as though it were a pit stop. He appreciated her sense of urgency and sped back onto the road. He felt less tense now that he was no longer helpless.
Kahane’s phone was at his condo, but its battery was dead. Forbes couldn’t access any of the phone’s features. Forbes blamed Kahane for forgetting to charge it overnight, but recalled the circumstances. Were Madeleine Barton and Tom Kahane back from their day trip or had she prevailed upon him to leave his phone at home?
Forbes called Sternwood. He wasn’t sure what he’d say to his client. He might tell him how much he and Anna were enjoying their meal, anything to start a conversation, anything to gauge his state of mind. Sternwood didn’t answer. Forbes wanted to kick himself for disabling the GPS on his client’s phone, but he had just been doing his job.
Then the words Madeleine Barton spoke the evening before at Prowls came back to Forbes.
“He murdered her.”
Tom Kahane assured her she was wrong. But how did he know? The police said it was a suicide. If Laurel Gray died soon after Sternwood left her, had Jimmy Castigliane sent someone to kill her and make it look like suicide? Or did Philip Sternwood flee the scene of the fender bender out of something more than heartache? Was he running to escape a murder charge?
Forbes remembered something Philip Sternwood told him that first time at the beach house while Anna and Valentina took a stroll after dinner. It had something to do with the movies and with regret. The P.I. coupled that conversation with the last words Laurel Gray said before he’d stopped listening.
On the night of the hit-and-run, Laurel said, “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?”
What then? The shades had been drawn that night. Forbes had to use his imagination now as he had then. Laurel’s dingy studio apartment would have been cluttered with moving boxes. She would have looked as she had that night at the Taylor Street Theatre: her hair in a ponytail, wearing a sweatshirt, filled out across the breast, and baggy, water-resistant cargo pants. What then? He had to let the scene play out in his mind. His hindsight had to be better than twenty-twenty. This time he had to see what he had missed the first time around. He had to see it as clearly as a movie.
Phil leaned in to kiss her. He put his lips on her face, and she kissed him back. He moved closer to her, and she got up uneasily.
“I think you should choose the man who’s best for you.” He moved toward her.
She backed away from him, trying not to seem unnatural. He stopped. Her phone chimed. That would have been Kahane’s second or third call. She didn’t answer it.
“What if his next movie is just the kind of crappy popcorn pic the studio loves?” asked Phil. He tried a step closer to her. She didn’t recoil.
“I told you we talked about their next movie.”
“What if it doesn’t test well?” he asked.
He moved closer to her again. She didn’t move away. It was a studio apartment. There wasn’t far for her to go.
“I wouldn’t want him to have to go through all this again, but I’d still be there for him.”
Phil’s instincts as a lawyer and a salesman would have told him that to overcome her resistance he had to retreat. He took a few steps back and leaned against the wall about six feet from her.
“Twenty-seven in January.”
“Well, I’m not. But I was. And I’m not telling you what to do, but I’ll tell you what I did.”
She sat down on the far end of her sofa-bed. He remained against the wall. “I shared an apartment in Palo Alto, Mayfield Avenue, with a couple of guys. One of them was the filmmaker Quentin Iverson.”
“You never told me that.”
Phil shrugged. “This was way before his Oscars. I was third-year law. He was undergrad. He was the only one with the time for either a social life or movies. You can imagine how persuasive he had to be to get me to sit down one evening and watch The Conversation.”
“I haven’t seen it,” Laurel said.
“You must,” Phil continued, and she wrote it on her moving check list. “Our relationship was a little like Scheherazade. He told me that the first time I felt that he’d wasted my time he’d stop bothering me. It didn’t happen. We began arguing film like legal briefs, and it was good exercise for both of us. He joked about how if I agreed to practice entertainment law he would agree to be my client.”
“One Saturday night, he persuaded me to come downtown with him to see a new print of Antonioni’s La Notte. It was one of Quentin’s earliest productions. He traded on his abilities as a raconteur to get invited to parties at the rich students’ houses. He went to one at the Pontano family house in San Francisco. He invited fellow student Li to La Notte. Li had a cousin visiting that week from Portland so Quentin had to suggest a double. Apparently, when my surname came up in conversation, it caught Li’s father’s ear. He thought it entirely honorable for a member of the Pontano family to double date the son of a California Supreme Court Judge.”
Laurel listened intently.
“I just went to make it happen for Quentin. Li didn’t show. As we stood beneath the marquee at the Castro, Valentina stepped out of that limo.” He spoke as though he could see her. “She walked toward me in this impossibly delicate haute couture dress. Shimmering blonde hair, smiling dark eyes, that skin. She was twenty-four years old. There was nothing on the screen that night that could compare.”
“Wow,” said Laurel.
“At some point in the film, there is a very vulgar night club scene with a black slave figure in a loin cloth undressing a white woman. To be fair, the main character’s wife was supposed to find the act offensive. But Valentina wanted to leave. Quentin couldn’t. I found that I could. That night, when I accompanied her back to her cousin’s house, I was immediately surrounded by everything the senior partners at my father’s old law firm had worked their whole lives to earn. And much more. All I had to do to have it was change her name, and become a Catholic, and move away from my friends and family, and practice a different kind of law, and change most of my other beliefs along the way.”
He sat down on the sofa-bed beside her but not too close.
“Point taken,” she said.
That was all the material Forbes had to work with. That was as far as his imagination would take him. But it wasn’t enough. He had to envision the ending.
Sternwood said, “I’ve thought about it all very carefully, and I’m ready to give you what you want.”
He leaned in and kissed her again. She looked in his eyes. Their faces were inches apart.
“What are you doing?” she protested.
“This is what you wanted,” he said, kissing her again, reaching beneath her sweatshirt.
“What are you–”
She pushed him. He pinned her to the sofa-bed beneath his body. He stopped her words with his mouth. He pulled down her cargo pants and opened his own.
“If I do this can we count it as paid in full?” she negotiated.
Phil put his hand to her throat, not hard, but closing her windpipe. Laurel’s eyes went wide with terror. She reached into the drawer of a nightstand by the sofa-bed and withdrew her pistol. Phil reflexively grabbed her wrist as Forbes had once trained him. He turned the gun back on her and since they were close; the nozzle went into her mouth.
He spoke soothingly, trying to diffuse the situation. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
It might have been the right tone of voice. It might have been the right words. But when there’s a gun so close to your brain, there’d be no pain regardless.
Laurel tried to free herself. The gun went off. Over.
Maybe it had played out that way. Maybe it hadn’t. To err on the side of caution, Forbes had to act as though it had.
He thought through what he would say to Tom Kahane and Madeleine Barton right until he saw Sternwood’s Ferrari parked on NW Kearney beside Kahane’s building. He ditched his car by a hydrant, shot off the lock on the security door, glanced at the elevator position, top floor, and started hauling his frame upstairs.
As Walter Forbes tried to run up the northwest stairwell, the forty-seven-year-old private eye knew he was no longer a defensive lineman for State. His career-ending back injury reminded him. The punishment lay in wait whenever he pushed himself beyond his usual range of movement.
He played through pain on the gridiron when only a game or a season was on the line. Now actual lives were at stake, and he was the only one to blame.
Sheer force of will could no longer spur his hulking frame to perform as it hadn’t in decades. He shifted his body weight to his powerful arms, pulling himself up the stairs, but nothing he could do relieved the fire in his back or the numbness in his legs.
He pushed the door open, keeping his left shoulder pressed against it to avoid a face plant. When he released the handle, he thudded into the wall of the fourth-floor corridor. Using his left shoulder against the wall to brace himself, he eased forward with his right foot.
That’s when he heard the gunshots.
He took his gun in hand, fixed his eye on the doorway, and waited.
SEVEN MINUTES EARLIER
When Madeleine and Tom returned from their hike on Mount Hood, she parked her car half a block from the Northwest entrance. As Tom pulled out his key card to enter the building, Sternwood came around the corner with an over-the-top gift basket from the Made in Oregon store. “Hey, Tom, Madeleine, I’m glad I caught you before you left.”
“Oh hi!” said Tom.
“What were you two up to today?”
“We were hiking on Mount Hood,” replied Madeleine.
“Nice, where abouts?”
“The Timberline Trail from the lodge,” she said.
“How were the wild flowers?”
“Amazing,” said Tom.
“What?” Tom said. “You were right. They were.”
“Nice,” said Sternwood. “Buy me a drink?”
They went up to Tom’s loft. Sternwood set the gift basket down on an oddly shaped object in the middle of the room. That’s when they noticed that Sternwood’s otherwise really nicely cut silk suit jacket bulged at the breast pocket.
“This is for...well...I guess both of you.”
“Thank you,” said Madeleine.
“IPA?” asked Tom.
“Sure,” said Sternwood.
Madeleine nodded. “That’s all he ever has.”
Tom pulled a growler from the back of the refrigerator and poured three pints.
Sternwood took a sip. “Very nice.”
Madeleine took a sip. Tom caught her grimacing, but she forced a smile as she crossed the room to the asymmetrical sofa. Tom came to join her. As Sternwood sat across from them, in a chair designed by someone unfamiliar with the act of sitting, he seemed somewhat less focused than usual. He had spent much of the morning perusing bullet trajectory evidence in cases ruled to be murder/suicides.
“Madeleine, Tom probably told you that I wanted to do something special during my last year managing the Sternwood Auto Group. That’s how this whole campaign came about. But I’m glad that you’re still here because what I came to talk about is what happens next. Have you ever thought of directing a feature?”
She laughed. “Maybe.”
“I think that you and Tom work pretty well together.”
Tom smiled. “So do I.”
“I’m sure you both know that I’m a big time movie buff. Do you remember that company that put out movies like Five Easy Pieces and Drive, He Said back in the early seventies?”
“Not in particular,” replied Tom.
“They just got these talented writers and directors together and told them they could make any movie they wanted for x number of dollars. Back then I think it was something like $750,000.”
Sternwood had done his homework on the drugs Madeleine was taking, on the antidepressant Tom was taking. He’d looked up several wrongful death suits pending against the pharmaceutical companies. If the event were properly staged, the case for a murder suicide would be strong. Tom and Madeleine both read Sternwood’s anomalous behavior as enthusiasm.
“It didn’t work back then,” Sternwood continued, “because theatrical distribution was too complicated for niche films. But today with the convergence of shooting digital video, DVD and Blu-Ray, VOD and streaming, it just might. Do you think you could come up with a project to shoot for…say $2.5 million?”
Tom asked, “Have you ever seen Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire?”
“That’s the one with Fernando Rey and the two actresses?” asked Sternwood.
“Yes,” said Madeleine. “Hilarious.”
“I have a script called Two Desires that tells the story in the Pacific Northwest. It’s about a Senator contemplating a presidential bid who falls in love with a woman who might be a terrorist. I’d have to double check, but I’m pretty sure I have the rights back now.”
“That sounds like just what we’re looking for,” Sternwood said, moving over to crouch beside Tom. In the murder suicide scenario, Tom and Madeleine sat together on the sofa. Tom put the gun to her head, then into his mouth. The auto man was now in position to walk Tom through that scene. “Let me make a call and get this started.”
Sternwood reached into his–BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM–suit jacket pocket. The booms were insistent knocks on Tom’s door.
“Police!” came a call. Then another volley. Tom stood up and went over to open the door. Two policemen, a veteran and a rookie stepped inside.
“Mr. Sternwood, Mr. Kahane, would you come with us, please?” asked the veteran.
Sternwood looked first at Tom who seemed just as incredulous as he was. But then he looked in Madeleine’s eyes and his expression changed from surprise to certainty.
The last seconds of Sternwood’s life went like this. He reached into his jacket pocket for the gun. The rookie cop yelled “Drop it!” Sternwood didn’t drop it. He had to get it in his mouth first. The rookie fired: BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. Tom quickly turned away and grasped Madeleine’s arms to turn her away as well. Though she flinched, she watched as the man collapsed. After a long moment, the room fell silent, or almost silent. The breathing was tense and Sternwood’s body made noises as his life spilled away. The veteran tried to steer clear of the blood as he felt for a pulse. It often took longer for gunshot victims to die, but Sternwood had been eager to leave, and, in this, he got his way. Over.
Out in the corridor, with his gun trained on the door, Walter Forbes made an exception and used his handheld to call in a report of gunshots in unit 408 of The Kearney Lofts. He monitored the police response. When it became apparent what had happened, he put away his gun and somehow negotiated his way to the elevator to make his exit.
THE FEMME FATALE
“They missed it the first time because the case for Laurel Gray’s suicide had seemed overwhelming,” Walter explained to Anna a few days later over dinner at Arrabiata. It had taken him that long to piece together what had happened in the end through police statements and Sternwood’s computer. “There were no other fingerprints on the gun. In speaking with her co-workers and friends, they found she had been very shaken by the burglary. She had eaten through most of her savings while unemployed. As soon as she got the job at the store, the burglary wiped out all of her plans. When she quit her job, her supervisor thought she had seemed optimistic about moving to Los Angeles and starting over. That could have been mistaken for the solace of someone who’d already made up her mind to kill herself: quitting her job, packing her belongings, canceling her lease, all just preparation for the act.”
“Sad,” said Anna.
He nodded. “What caught Bart’s attention…”
“Your medical examiner friend,” checked Anna.
“Right. When he looked at her file he noticed a wound trajectory consistent with a lateral head-jerk. It didn’t rule out suicide, but a lawyer with an expert witness could contest it showed signs of struggle.”
She shook her head. “Why did Bart act so quickly?”
“He was going on vacation and didn’t want an inquiry to catch his deputy off guard. He figured it was a cold case at best but wanted Homicide to re-run Gray’s phone records to see what turned up.”
“Did they know Sternwood would be at Kahane’s place or was that a fluke?” she asked.
“They made several calls and finally tracked him via the Ferrari GPS. They knew he was in the building. But Homicide didn’t link her death to the hit-and-run and Kahane wouldn’t have either. The one Sternwood really had to worry about was Madeleine Barton.”
“Why is that?” she asked.
Walter built his case. “Several reasons. There was something about the way Kahane and Barton reacted to each other at the Micronesia. And she suspected Sternwood. And the book she showed Kahane at Prowls had a lengthy section on BBS, Gray’s business model. And she somehow knew the way to Laurel Gray’s apartment. Though Laurel Gray was brain dead from the gunshot wound, her other vitals held on. She was a registered organ donor. Madeleine Barton had her heart transplant less than twenty-four hours after Laurel Gray’s body was released.”
He paused for gravity. “Some years ago, a thirteen-year-old female heart recipient in Cleveland, Ohio began having terrible nightmares. Each night she saw the headlights of a car bearing down on her, hitting her, and pitching her into the air. She’d wake in a cold sweat. Her doctor told her to write down as much detail as she could remember, and she eventually came up with a license plate number. Her family turned that information over to the police, and within a couple of days they linked it to the as-yet-unresolved hit-and-run death of the girl’s fourteen-year-old male organ donor in Elyria, Ohio. They found DNA evidence on the vehicle confirming its role in the incident.
“The very last thing Sternwood did was look into Madeleine Barton’s eyes. He saw that somehow she knew what had happened to Laurel Gray. He knew it was over, and he drew a gun to end his life.”
“That’s amazing,” Anna said.
But Walter thought he noticed the corners of her mouth contort into something approaching a smile. “And where exactly did you hear that story?” she asked.
“It was in a book by a Hawaiian physician who’d received a bone marrow transplant and discovered variations of cellular memory phenomena in himself and others. In interviewing fellow transplant recipients, he encountered people who could accurately describe places they had never visited, people who somehow knew the names of strangers, people who rapidly developed facility in other professions, other languages…”
“I don’t remember you reading that book.”
“I didn’t read the book. I heard an interview with the author on George Bell.”
Anna nodded. Walter knew she took George Bell’s guests with more than a grain of salt. He did, too. But that didn’t mean they were always looney. She changed the subject. “What was your sense, do you think Tom and Madeleine will get together?”
“You tell me.” He didn’t appreciate her closed-mindedness right now.
She reached out and took his hand. “Hey, don’t be that way. I’m proud of you. You saved a couple of lives. I just think you lighted on the wrong femme fatale. Your story still has one: Val.”
“Go on,” he said.
“She’s your spy in the movie, anyway. When she was making arrangements to go home for the holidays her brother mentioned the Oregon film deal to her. After watching Philip and Laurel Gray together at the gala, that little secret must have made her see red. She called her contacts at the studio to thank them for the screening and told them how excited Mr. Kahane was about the deal.”
Anna sipped her wine. Walter chewed his food.
Then he recapped. “Sternwood looked at Madeleine Barton, read something in her eyes, and pulled out the gun.”
“I don’t doubt that for a second,” she said. “Those pictures you showed me of her from The Micronesia. I could see how she’d remind Sternwood of Val. That’s what finally spooked him.”
He returned his attention to his pasta.
“This is even better than last time,” he said.
“I think so too.”
“I don’t believe in the femme fatale.”
“I do,” she said. “You see them every day. Mixed up with billionaires, politicians, generals. Believe me, femmes fatale are out there. But I think you’re pretty safe from them as men go.”
“Now what is that supposed to mean?” He feigned insult.
“First off, a young, attractive woman isn’t going to look at you and see dollar signs.”
“I do okay.”
“You do more than okay, hon. But she’d have to calculate what would be left after our divorce.”
“What if I know a good divorce lawyer?” he asked.
“You have a sharp wife, and she won't hire a slacker.”
“What if we bumped you off?”
“You know how unimaginative the police are. They always convict the spouse.”
“Let’s say I’m smart enough to pull it off.”
“Then you’re smart enough to realize that a woman who has no qualms about bumping off a guy’s wife won’t have any qualms about bumping off her new husband.”
“What if she’s not after money? What if she just wants me for the sex?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she said.
“All right,” he conceded. “But you forgot that I have other good qualities. It’s not impossible that some woman would fall in love with me for me.”
Anna smiled. “That’s why I said you’re pretty safe. But you forgot something too. That woman wouldn’t be a femme fatale. That woman would be me.”
Walter suddenly felt a little choked up. He leaned over and kissed Anna as he hadn’t in a while.
But Anna’s theory raised doubt in Walter’s mind. Tom Kahane’s police statement had expressed surprise that the dead man’s face seemed peaceful, maybe even wistful. This made sense. At peace was a man who no longer kept a secret. Wistful was a man remembering his woman’s smile. But now whose smile, Laurel’s or Valentina’s, would forever remain a mystery. Philip Sternwood wasn’t Laurel Gray. His body was interred intact. There would be no grateful organ recipient to reveal the secret of his last heartthrob.
I’ve been monopolizing the conversation!
If you let me know what I got right and what I got wrong I promise I’ll come up with a new set of mistakes next time around. It’s more fun answering your email than coming up with tweets and Facebook posts. Who knows where those things go?
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©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.