VALENTINO WATCHED THE mover strap the refrigerator-size crate to his hand truck and tilt it back to engage the wheels. The sight brought a lump to his throat and a sudden panicky urge to call the whole thing off and take back possession.
“Heavy. What is it?” The mover was a florid sixty with a head the size of a basketball, covered by what must have been the only knitted woolen cap in Southern California outside a studio wardrobe department.
“Just one of my vital organs,” Valentino said.
“Huh. Well, you’re better off not lugging it around.” He wheeled the crate up the ramp into the van and came back down to hand Valentino a receipt. Then he closed and padlocked the doors.
A minute later the diesel engine expectorated a ball of black exhaust and trundled out of the alley next to The Oracle Theater, bearing yet another piece of Hollywood history into the Bermuda Triangle of the collectors’ market.
Valentino would not bother to monitor the sale at Sotheby’s, where he’d bought the item five years earlier out of his first big commission for rescuing a lost classic film from the void of nearly a century. It was the glistening leather rocking chair that both Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet had sat in on the set of Sam Spade’s apartment in The Maltese Falcon. He’d swooped in and bought it right out from under the nose of Teddie Goodman, an employee of Supernova International. She’d been acting for the CEO and founder, Mark David Turkus—“the Turk,” as he was known to his friends as well as his detractors—a fanatic collector of movie memorabilia as well as an investor in film preservation and marketing, who had been on the other end of her cell phone. It had dropped the call just as Valentino’s bid edged out the maximum they’d prearranged. Teddie could not counterbid without permission, and so had lost the contest.
She had not taken the experience in the spirit of healthy competition. The relationship between her and Valentino since that moment had been one of tit-for-tat rivalry escalating to the proportion of a minor arms race, straining their unevenly matched budgets in their obsession to outbid their bitterest foe on some article of interest to the archives.
Kyle Broadhead, senior member of the Film Preservation Department at UCLA, calculated that that soundstage prop had cost their institution more than a hundred thousand dollars over the succeeding years. Teddie was that determined to trounce her colleague at every opportunity. “That’s what, twice your salary?” Broadhead had asked.
“Twice yours, for whatever you do for this department,” Valentino had said. “Just what are your responsibilities, may I ask?”
“You may not, but I’ll answer you anyway, in respect for our long-standing awareness of each other’s existence. I cram infants’ skulls with the product of my education and experience and bring luster to this great citadel of learning.”
“How? You never go to class and no one’s seen so much as a paragraph of that magnum opus of the cinema you say you’ve been writing for eight months.”
The rumpled gray scholar slapped the ancient Wang computer on his otherwise naked desk; it gave off a hollow metallic ring reminiscent of its name. “It’s all here, every word, assuming I can track down a printer that will teleport the fruits of my wisdom onto the page. As for my laissez-faire approach to teaching, I wouldn’t insult my T.A. by hovering over him at the blackboard.”
“They replaced the blackboards with dry-erase boards ten years ago. Not that you’d know.”
“You are young, and place adolescent faith in the nobility of hard labor. It’s no wonder Teddie Goodman is kicking your butt.”
“Are you kidding? She makes me look like a lazy lout. Her idea of a vacation is to go deep-sea diving to rescue the lost reel of Potemkin from the bottom of the Black Sea.”
“As is yours, could you but swim.”
“I can, as a matter of fact. I’ve scubaed off Malibu.”
“Not lately. You spend all your free time diving in Dumpsters after Art Deco bric-a-brac to rebuild that ruin of a picture house. But we digress. Teddie’s your evil twin, you know. Her full name is Theodosia Burr Goodman. That was Theda Bara’s before she changed it to become a silent-screen vamp.”
“Teddie isn’t Theodosia Goodman any more than Theda Bara was Theda Bara. She changed it herself so she could claim to be a direct descendant.”
“Shrewd decision. I suspect it had a bit to do with why that starstruck Turk put her on his payroll. No sucker can compare with the self-made billionaire.”
“At least I never pretended any blood relationship to Rudolph Valentino.”
“My point precisely,” Broadhead had said. “She suffers from no such inhibition, hence her superior track record.”
“Right now I’d say it’s neck-and-neck.”
“An ephemeral condition at best. Supernova’s pockets are ten times deeper than UCLA’s.”
In the alley now, recalling that conversation, Valentino was very aware of just how tight the money situation was, personally as well as professionally. He’d been forced to put the Falcon chair on the block in order to help pay for the never-ending renovations at The Oracle. He’d let his sentimental attitude toward the once-ornate, now-dilapidated movie palace suck him into the most expensive undertaking of any dozen careers. He was living in the projection booth. Few in L.A. could afford to rent an apartment and restore an architectural treasure at one and the same time.
He admitted to the petty consolation that Teddie Goodman would probably enter a bid on the chair on Turkus’ behalf. The Turk would never allow it to go to another collector having missed out once, and would expect his pit viper to make good on her previous failure. She would know that in so doing she’d contribute to the finances of her despised opponent, and it would gall her no end.
It was unworthy reflection. When all was said and done he’d feel worse about the transaction than she. Broadhead, of course, would be amused, and say something about virtue being its own penalty. Valentino loved his mentor more than he had ever loved his own distant father, but the man could be a royal pain in the neck without even trying.
He walked around to the front of the building, where Leo Kalishnikov, his architect and designer, was staring at paint chips spread out on the folding card table he used to study blueprints. Today the flamboyant little Russian was dressed like a flamenco dancer, in a flat-brimmed black hat, tight pants, a bolero vest over a shirt with balloon sleeves, and suede pumps on his feet. An enormous canvas drop cloth covered the roof of the four-story building where cracked tiles and rotted boards had been removed, and the steel superstructure of the marquee under restoration thrust its gaunt skeleton skyward, a not-so-miniature Eiffel Tower. Depending on the mood of the owner, it all looked like progress or else the heart-sickening prospect of the point of no return.
“It is the bitch.” It was one of those moments when Kalishnikov spoke like an immigrant straight off the boat. Other times he could be mistaken for a third-generation Midwesterner with a thorough command of the American vernacular. “Those scrapings could be turquoise or royal blue. There is fading to consider, and smut from this infernal air.”
From the tiny Ziploc sandwich bag containing samples shaved from the exterior walls he drew his finger across the numbered chips in every shade of blue to the period picture postcard of the theater that Valentino had found in an antiques shop on Sepulveda. “It’s hand-tinted. Can I trust the impulse of the artist not to place his peculiar stamp upon the work of another? As an artist myself I am dubious.”
Valentino pointed at a chip that looked like robin’s-egg blue but that had probably been dubbed something more exotic-sounding by a creative consultant at the paint company. “I like that one.”
“But what is its provenance?”
“What’s the difference? Who’s to say it’s wrong?”
“My inner self. It’s what you hired me to provide, is it not?”
He stopped short of pointing out that Kalishnikov had made him a present of his fee, agreeing to do the work at cost. The architect had made his name designing high-end home theaters for wealthy clients and had leapt at the opportunity to restore a genuine movie house to its former glory. That was part of the slippery slope that led to personal bankruptcy. Materials and long-distance calls cost money, and none of the carpenters, electricians, plasterers, plumbers, and skilled artisans who had signed on for the project had shared the Russian’s altruism. On the university campus, The Oracle was known as Valentino’s Folly—or as Broadhead put it, “the Titanic that never stops sinking.”
“I’m fresh out of ideas,” Valentino said.
“Fortunately, I am not. Somewhere there is someone who knows.”
“What’s it going to set me back to find him?”
“I have horse-trading skills. My great-grandfather was a Cossack. By the way, the glazier called this morning. Your check bounced.”
Valentino groaned and went inside.
The tile man was laying the ceramic in the foyer, a time-consuming job as he had to keep referring to photographs to duplicate the original mosaic design; after nearly two weeks, only a third of the plywood sub-flooring was covered. In the auditorium, the linoleum that in the 1970s had been laid over the original teakwood boards made snapping sounds when Valentino lifted his feet from it, smeared as it was with old adhesive where the aisle runners had been scraped up and thrown away. Half the seats were stripped to their springs awaiting reupholstery. A sheet covered the three-manual Wurlitzer organ in the orchestra pit to keep sawdust and granulated plaster from entering the pipes. Valentino had wanted to postpone work on the instrument until the basic construction was completed, but the expert who had rebuilt it, the best in his field, was eighty-seven years old and time was of the essence. Practical order had no place where history was involved.
He opened the hidden panel in the wall and climbed the freshly sawn stairs to the projection booth. Eventually it, too, would be gutted and fireproof insulation installed to allow him to screen volatile silver-nitrate stock without violating the fire ordinances, but for the time being it was his sanctum. With the wall torn down that had separated it from the film storage area, it made a comfortable utility apartment.
Harriet Johansen hadn’t called his cell phone. He checked his message machine in case she’d had trouble connecting, but she hadn’t called the theater either. He supposed she was busy attending panels at the CSI convention in Seattle, but he missed her. He made a telephone transfer at his bank to cover the returned check, then left a message on the glazier’s voice mail apologizing for the mistake and assuring him it had been corrected. Sometimes he was grateful for the technology that prevented people from making personal contact.
Harriet answered her cell on the fifth ring. Voices buzzed in the background. “Hi. I’m on my way to lunch and an autopsy. What’s up?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“That’s sweet. Did I tell you about this fella I want you to meet? He’s ex-FBI, has interest in the antiques business. You know, half detective, half geek. You’d like each other.”
“Still dabbling in law enforcement, eh? Is he living on a pension?”
“I didn’t say he retired. He’s living in the family mansion, making more money buying Louis Quatorze chairs low and selling them high than he ever did chasing terrorists. He’s kind of a hunk.”
“Are you trying to make me jealous?”
“No, but I’m glad to know I still can. Gotta go. Call you later.”
The line clicked. He held the handset a moment longer, then replaced it in the cradle. He was jealous. Had she ever called Valentino a hunk in front of others? He doubted it. He wasn’t beefcake material, but evidently this former G-man was.
Someone was rattling up the steps, taking them two at a time. He braced himself for the gale. Jason Stickley, his intern, blew in after barely brushing the door with his knuckles. “Hey, Mr. V.”
“Valentino, Jason. Mr. Valentino if you prefer. ‘Mr. V.’ belongs in a sitcom on Fox.”
“Sorry, sir. It’s just that I’ve seen that other Valentino on TV and you don’t look anything like him.”
He assumed the boy meant the fashion designer and not the silent-film star, whom he’d been told he did resemble slightly. The only reason Kyle Broadhead recommended these young scholars seemed to be to get them out of his class on the history of cinema. They were spoiling the curve.
Whom Jason resembled, he couldn’t say. He looked like a toothpick sculpture and his daily uniform of black T-shirt and jeans only drew attention to his painful thinness. He had hollow cheeks, dark hair and dark, soulful eyes, a divot on his chin, and mystifying tattoos inside his arms, extending from under his short sleeves to his wrists, that appeared to represent piston rods joined by pins in the bends of the elbows. He hadn’t explained them, although he must have been aware they were noticed, and Valentino himself was too private a person to ask. The effect was vaguely gothic, but only vaguely, and the lack of macabre makeup and piercings set the youth apart from the Goth crowd on campus.
If there still was such a crowd. The student union really ought to issue a program every semester to bring the uninitiated up to speed on all the cliques.
“Where’s the fire?”
“Fire? Oh, you mean ’cause I was in a hurry.”
And a fossil-to-student dictionary, while they’re at it. But he merely rolled his eyes.
“This guy’s been trying to reach you all day at the department. I guess he doesn’t have your number here. Ruth sent me to tell you she’s tired of taking the same call from the same guy. It must be important.” He handed him a wad of pink office message slips torn off a pad.
Valentino shuffled through them, recognizing the secretary’s spiky hand. Craig Hunter. He sighed. He’d called every hour on the hour since the office opened. “Did she say how he sounded?”
“‘Stoned and drunk.’ I’m just quoting her.”
“I was afraid of that. There should be a law against operating redial under the influence.” He tore up the messages and dropped the pieces into the fire bucket next to his chair.
“Not a friend, I guess,” Jason said.
“The sad thing about it is he’s just about the best I ever had.”
Copyright © 2013 by Loren D. Estleman