JR ParsonsMystery and Suspense Author
EDGE OF FRAME
Most people prefer death on celluloid over the real life kind.
I imagine Darcy Diamond once shared that feeling. I might have asked her, except the twisted steel truss she wore like a grey topcoat didn’t leave room for breathing much less talking—-even if she had been alive.
I was standing just inside the Soundstage 3 door on the Republic Pictures lot. Truth be told, I was a bit suprised to find Darcy here. A B-movie actress who resembled Claudette Colbert, she had been cursed by a dog whistle voice and limited talent that kept her on the wrong side of major studio doors. Strictly Poverty Row studios talent.
A thick-legged LAPD sergeant stood near her body, questioning a key grip named Cranks. I approached and tapped the blue uniformed shoulder.
The cop pivoted and squared his body, boxing me out. “No press. Scram.”
I ignored him, and the slur to my character, and told the key grip that Louton had called. “He on set?” I asked.
Cranks and I first met back in 1935 when I took a job as a riding extra in Hollywood. He was a union shop steward then. We hadn’t spoken in a few years and it took him a minute to place me.
His handlebar mustache danced a jig as he considered my question. I understood his reluctance. Louton rode film crews hard. Not an unusual trait in a movie producer, but unpleasant if you were on the receiving end. Cranks knew that steering someone to Louton without an okay might set the producer off, and he was calculating the chances of blowback.
While Cranks worked the problem, I listened to fragments of conversation drifting across the set from unseen crew members standing behind the stage lights…Damn-it, that rigging checked out. It was solid…I dunno, cable don’t look right, it don’t look—Shut up, you bastard, I strung it myself…
A moment later, the key grip reached his decision. “Marty ducked out five minutes ago,” he said. “Probably catch him at the cottage on the phone to legal. ”
I nodded my thanks and shot a final look at the dead actress. I suspected that when Louton called Thorton Confidential, he’d left out the bit about a corpse. Chandler Thorton wasn’t a fan of dead bodies, having seen too many as a former assistant district attorney, so if the producer had said something, the boss would have mentioned it.
Ordered to head over to Republic Pictures and talk to no one but Louton, I’d caught a cab at the corner of San Pedro and First in Little Tokyo and arrived at the studio just behind a police cruiser. I checked in with the gate guard and headed to Soundstage 3 only to find the same black-and-white parked outside the stage door. That didn’t surprise me, but walking into the middle of a death scene did the trick.
Now, leaving the soundstage, I scanned the lot for gold shields. Most of the Homicide Detail guys liked me, but I wasn’t ready to jaw about why I was stomping on LAPD’s patch. Maybe because I was clueless myself.
I found Louton in the tiny clapboard cottage that over the years had served as a makeshift office and a hidey-hole for props, paint and the odd pint. He was leaning against a slapdash wood desk, shouting into a candlestick phone. “…and just where the hell is this hotsho….” Gray eyes raked me. “Wait, what’s he look like? A grown up Dickey Jones? Huh, if you say so. Anyway, he showed.”
He dropped the handset onto its cradle. “What the hell took you?”
“Who was on the line?” I knew it was one of the dolls, but his attitude rankled.
“Damnit, how the hell do I know?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Watch the language, Marty. Don’t want to spoil your Hays rating.”
Louton’s upper lip thinned out. It was common knowledge around town that his last movie had fired up the censors, leading to a fine and angering studio heads.
“Didn’t know Thorton hired clowns,” he said.
“Only ones who handle riled up bulls.” I kept my tone easy.
Louton frowned. “Finn, right? Some kinda rodeo star before you hired on for stunt work.” His gray eyes challenged me. “Didn’t you fall off a horse during shooting on Rio Seco? Busted the camera rig and cost Grassman a day’s production.”
“Got fired, yeah?”
“Not how Grassman tells it.”
My shrug barely registered. “Man always did like rewrites.”
Louton’s mouth threatened to curve, but like a mishandled rope never looped. He nodded once, more to himself than me, then stepped neatly across the cluttered floor and out the door.
“Keep up,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll give you the scoop about why I called Thorton. It’s a bad business, Finn, bad all ways round.”
© 2017 Parsons & Roth