I knew when I got the call there was going to be trouble. Helen wasn’t one to chat on the phone unless she had to and she wasn’t going to run up a bill calling from California unless it was absolutely necessary. The storm made hearing her the challenge of the day. Through the crackles I could make out something about “. . . horrible . . .” and “. . . arrested . . .” and “. . . please come, Katie.”
Please come meant get on a plane and fly to Los Angeles, but I wasn’t sure how it fit in with horrible and arrested until the crackles died down and I heard her cry, “Lanie didn’t do it! You know she couldn’t do a thing like that!” I managed to ask, “Like what?” And she managed to reply, “They’ve arrested her, Katie! They say she murdered him!” Then the line went dead. 2
I’m Katie to those who know me, Katlin Wallace to bill collectors. I’m older than Rita Moreno, but not by much. I’d been working in Los Angeles doing office type things for my husband’s detective agency, although I hated the sound of those words. It isn’t like TV detective shows or true crime magazines. Nothing that exciting or dramatic. On the West Coast it’s a career that consists primarily of following up on death threats made to movie stars or sitting behind the wheel of a parked car on the trail of some wayward spouse, taking notes on where he (or she) is spending the night or a steamy two hours in the middle of his (or her) day, then reporting to the suspicious spouse—the one paying our agency’s bills—that their worst fears have been confirmed. That’s what we did. We confirmed worse fears. A terrible way to earn a living. I think it’s what made my husband change over a period of time. Like eroding rock under the steady drip of that one proverbial drop of water. If you’re exposed for extended periods of time to people who lie, and those without any sense of moral obligation or honor, it rubs off on you eventually. Frankly, I’ve analyzed the whole thing to death over the past year and I can’t find an acceptable reason for the way things turned out between us.
MacKay was his name. MacKay Wallace. Started out years before as a rookie cop on the L.A. police force, took early retirement and ended up opening his own agency on Sunset Boulevard. Don’t let the name mislead you. It’s a nasty place, Sunset Boulevard. Palm trees lining the wide avenue are pretty enough, majestically regal, but what’s under them is pure slime, I’m sorry to say. The Hollywood Chamber has done its best to clean up the place, but it’s like trying to sweep sand off the beach. Prostitutes, male and female, sex shops, motels with bars on the windows and broken glass in the driveways, strip mall shops…the dust pan for broken dreams. We had an office in one of the buildings of yore, meaning that the gingerbread stuck on it in the ‘30s or ‘40s was still in place. It managed to retain some of the architectural charm of that era though the halls smelled of mold and old plaster, and creaked mightily underfoot. I’d been working at one of the major studios as a production coordinator on a long-running television series when I met MacKay, a man I once described as tall, dark and arrogant. We flirted, we dated, we married. I’d planned to live happily ever after, though I thought it would be just the two of us. See how naive a female can be? Our marriage was enjoyed by him, by me, and by a multitude of women I wouldn’t learn about for many years to come. MacKay often worked traffic control at Hollywood events and on movie sets when they filmed on location around town. He had made enough friends in the movie industry that the decision of leaving the police force to open his own detective agency seemed logical. He’d been on bodyguard detail for more than one mega star, and the moonlighting paid a lot better than his LAPD salary. Steady work seemed assured. My friend Helen’s daughter, Lane Allison, was once the darling of the MGM lot, back at the close of their golden era, which was way before Ted Turner made off with its brilliant library of old movies and virtually destroyed the legend. Lane had been a favorite of mine. As a kid, I’d sit in a darkened theater, mimicking her crinkly grin, trying to squinch my eyes up to look cute and innocent the way she did. She had a way of wrinkling her nose when she was tickled, which I imitated ad nauseam. Lane’s star began to fade. Ingénues weren’t in demand, in fact they became quite a giggle at one point. And so, the Debbie Reynolds and the Meg Ryans and the Lane Allisons joined the way of the dinosaur and the home-grown tomato. One of her last films brought about bad reviews and a man named Glance Debrey. Debrey had been released from prison after serving seven years for raping and stabbing to death an eight year-old. He became fixated on Lane after seeing
that particular movie and began stalking her.
MacKay was still with the police force then, and was sent to help her out. He ended up guarding her in his off hours, which is how I got to know Helen. I met Lane, who was only a few years older than me, when were invited to the funeral of her Director of Photography husband. He had died in a fiery plane crash along with the rest of his camera crew on their way to Singapore to work on a picture. We met again a few years later at her elaborate Malibu wedding to up-and-coming TV producer, Richard Wagnor. Her two kids were teenagers by then: Caroline, a Grace Kelly gorgeous fourteen-year-old, and Michael, a handsome twelve who would turn the magical teen corner within days of the nuptials. By the time of her wedding, MacKay and I were ensconced in our Sunset Boulevard digs, chasing wayward spouses. We didn’t see much of Helen and her husband Donne until her family got yet another death threat, from yet another ex-con who planned to kidnap Caroline for ransom. Why Caroline? Because Richard Wagnor had just produced a TV documentary about famous kidnappings like those of Elizabeth Smart, Patty Hearst, the Lindberg baby and those three girls in Ohio. As this moron ex-con sat in front of his TV screen, he must have thought who better for him to kidnap than the stepchild of the man who gave him the idea. Yeah, he must have thought, maybe they’ll make me a movie about me someday. When the ex-con began sending notes to the producer’s office, warning of his intentions and promising unspeaking harm to the entire family if they went to the police, the Wagnors became sick with worry and anger and helplessness. That’s when Helen called me. And I told MacKay. And MacKay was in Richard’s office, passing himself off as a production assistant when the mail arrived the next day. Sure enough, there was another note, this time printed in crayon. Magenta. MacKay arrested the guy within the next hour and a half. He chalked the quick work up to experience and gut instinct. I personally think it was because the ex-con wrote that last piece of correspondence on the back of his phone bill. His name and address were on the other side. Helen and Donne were eternally grateful, and we four became fast friends. When Donne died of a heart attack two years ago, Helen called me right after she notified Lane and Richard, who were in Brazil where Richard was trying to raise money to produce what would have been his first feature film. Lane flew back for the funeral, but Richard felt he was too close to a deal to jeopardize it by leaving. That was the last time I saw my childhood idol. Her crinkly eyes were red and swollen. The bunny nose ran continuously. To me, though, she was still the most beautiful woman on planet earth. Looking back, I doubt I was really seeing her. I think I saw an adoring ten-year-old sitting in a dark theater, trying to pull her nose up between her eyebrows in an effort to be cute-as-a-button. I think we all long for our childhood, even if it wasn’t ideal. What I don’t know is why. When MacKay’s mother reached her ninety-second birthday and still hadn’t missed a day of work in over forty years, he decided we should move to Florida so he could be closer in case she needed him. I didn’t argue. I was tired of smog and freeway traffic that turned into parking lots during rush hours. Mostly, I was tired of the earth grumbling and shaking under me. No matter that it only happened a few times a year; I detest those earthquakes that happen so quickly, so unexpectedly. I’d be sleeping, or sitting at my desk, my mind on everything but the possible jeopardy of the planet, when all of the sudden the walls began to creak. I’d look at anything that hung from the ceiling, potted plant, windchime, anything, to see if it was swaying even the least bit. If it was, then watch out. The world was about to wobble. First would come the tiniest groan. Wood resisting the movement beneath it. Then crrrraaaackkkkk! And your mouth tastes suddenly black and evil, and your heart does a boogie-woogie in your chest, and you realize in that instant—my God—there’s no place to go! Ditches and basements for tornados, high ground for hurricanes and floods, but nowhere to go in an earthquake. That word has become a California mantra: nowhere. Having agreed on the Florida move, MacKay and I closed the office, bid Helen and a few other friends goodbye, and packed. Five days and two flat tires later we were in Mt. Dora, Florida. I found the house on the Internet, though I couldn’t do it again if I tried. It was a fluke. I usually can’t find anything on the Internet but anonymous entities finagling to bill my Visa or MasterCard for dubious unwanted goods. The place is a sprawling affair in central Florida, on one of the highest points, in an area thick with giant, moss-dripping trees. The city of Mt. Dora has the same kind of nostalgic feel as St. Augustine, though maybe a tad more upscale. Our house sits on five acres surrounded by Dinah and Nolan’s cattle ranch, which forms an L around our property, and a winding, red clay lane that disappears into a stand of woods behind us, separating us from Terry’s place. Terry’s an honest-to-goodness rodeo cowboy who earns his living roping Brahmas. He has five horses that give me no end of gazing pleasure. The house we bought is too big, but MacKay had this notion that we were going to entertain all of the southern relatives he hadn’t seen in years and maybe even talk his mother into moving in with us. Turned out he had a couple of chances of that happening: fat and slim. She’s married to her job, absolutely loves it. Besides, she has a lot of responsibility as an Executive Secretary. It falls to her to pick up company VIPs when they arrive at the airport. Plus she takes care of their corporate taxes, or at least prepares them for the CPA. And she’s very involved with her church. There’s no way she’d ever leave Miami, even if she were the only Caucasian left in Little Haiti. It’s her house, paid for since 1948. Her boy was raised there, she was widowed there, and by thunder she’ll bar the windows and doors before she’ll even entertain the idea of moving. So MacKay and I rattled around in a four thousand-square-foot house, trying to get our Florida footing. Not that we were alone. There’s Gracie, the old black lab that was on the property when we got here, and Shadow who stepped in front of a diesel out on the country road beside us. A two hundred dollar vet bill makes Shadow ours, I don’t care who birthed her. There’s Sparkie, a mixed German Shepard-Dingo that we rescued from an abusive home; Puggie the Pekingese who belonged to my father before he died, plus Precious and Itty-Bit, the tom cats. This is the long way of telling you how I came to be in the state (as in emotional condition) I was in when Helen called on that dark and stormy night. I’m working my way toward the present. MacKay thought he could pick up some detective work, being so close to the Orlando film community, but it turned out the studios there weren’t really about making movies. They’re about tourists and theme parks, and they have plenty of minimum wage security. He was all right about it at first. I mean, he had five acres to mow, a pool to clean, and a huge house to maintain, not to mention a workshop where he could whittle to his heart’s content. There were constant glitches in the fence that surrounds the property and, as soon as he’d finish mowing the back forty, it was time to start over again. So, it wasn’t that he didn’t have anything to do; it was that he was bored out of his mind. He wanted to nail somebody. He wanted to lurk in parking lots and follow horny men to wherever they were going. He also missed the women in his life - though I didn’t learn about that until after he was gone. It was nearly Christmas. MacKay went to bed one night unusually quiet. I lay there, knowing he was awake and waiting for him to tell me what was on his mind. Finally, in the darkness, he said, “I really hate Mt. Dora.” “I know,” I said from my place a million miles away from his. “I really hate this house.” “Well, it’s ours now.” “I’m going to Miami.” That wasn’t unusual. He was spending about two weeks out of each month there anyway. But then he added, “I’m going to live with Mom.” Oops. Live with? Did I hear live with? I think I gulped. My voice came out thinner than I’m used to hearing it when I said, “When were you thinking of doing this?” “Tomorrow.” Oh. Tomorrow. We didn’t say anything else and I suspect he was as long in dropping off to sleep as I was. Tomorrow. I couldn’t even think ahead. My mind went numb. I stared into the darkness. No. That won’t happen. No way would he walk off and leave me with this house and all these grounds. And the animals. Nah. We’ve been married too long for him to do something like that. Cut now to dawn. MacKay was up, packing his overnight bag and a larger suitcase. I got up and made coffee. While it was brewing, I walked around picking up this and that of his, saying, “How about this, hon? Want to take it?” “No. I’ll just take a few things for now. I’ll come back for the rest later.” Oh. An hour after that I was standing at the front gate, waving as he turned onto the county road and soon disappeared from sight. The last thing I saw of him was his hand out the window, up above the roofline of the Nissan, jiggling his goodbye. I stood there, in that tiny spot on those giant five acres, and felt nothing. It wasn’t happening. The dogs looked questioningly down the empty road, then back up at me for reassurance. That’s when I broke down and cried until my head hurt and my nose was so swollen I couldn’t get a peep of air through either nostril. We had no money to split; it had all gone on the house and the move. I had no job, no income. He’s still living at home in the room he grew up in, while Momma works and cooks the meals. Ninety-two years old, for cryin’ in the beer. My pool became a fancy shade of slime green, the animals walked through the front porch screens, and I didn’t have money enough to fix them. The grass needed the fine touch of a machete. What to do, what to do, I found myself moaning as I sat in the middle of the big, empty king-size bed. I became immobile. I was petrified. New state, no friends, no income. No MacKay. And then I found the stack of love letters. He’d left several boxes that had never been unpacked since our move. They were in a corner of the garage, a place that seemed to be the social center for every black widow within a holler and a shout of our property. I killed seven of them before I decided I’d better move MacKay’s things and spray. I trudged to an outbuilding where we stored assorted debris, hauled out a few boxes that were in good condition, and began to transfer his goods from one to the other. And there they were. In a box within a box. Letters from Norma and Renee and Mary and Alice, and great Lord, can you believe it, letters sent to a box rental on Hollywood Boulevard. They covered every year of our marriage. The blood drained from my face. My heart wasn’t racing; it had come to a standstill. I went back in my mind to try to find some signal, some clue, some warning. The wife knows, they always say. She just doesn’t want to admit the truth. She’s in denial. That’s bull. I did not know, was not in denial. In my honest opinion, MacKay was one of the most upstanding, most decent human beings I’d ever met. I never particularly wanted to be married. I loved independence. But when your path crosses the likes of MacKay Wallace, you join hands and happily agree to go the distance together. I’d married my best friend. And now I suddenly realized that he had never been a friend. Friends don’t do that to each other. By this time, he’d been gone for nearly a month. I wasn’t even tempted to write him one of those ten page notes like we did in high school when spurned by the love of our short life. I had no intention of pouring out my heart with how-could-you. What would I gain? He knew what he was doing when he did it. If what I thought had mattered, he wouldn’t have done it. That’s when it hit me that MacKay had never been married. We’d shared all kinds of things over the years, but not marriage. Sadly, it’s his loss. Not that I’m such a prize, but I realized that he had never known the warm, comfortable feeling that comes with looking at the person you love across the breakfast table. All right, let’s not romanticize. He had terrible morning breath. But he was so solid. So there. And I was so safe with him. I could do anything because my friend was there to give me a wink or shoulder rub. I pushed away the vision of Alice’s shoulder rub. Never mind Renee’s and Mary’s. Those hands. Those hard-knuckled, soft-palmed hands. I thought I knew them and they weren’t even knowable. The knuckles I kissed had plunged under another woman’s hemline, and the thought made me physically ill. It isn’t jealousy, it’s betrayal. Suddenly you have no confidence in your own ability to make judgments. If you can be fooled that long, to that degree, what kind of a dummy are you, I’d ask myself. Myself didn’t know. Myself doesn’t much like stupidity and when I’m the one being stupid it’s especially unacceptable. It isn’t even ego because it goes deeper than that. Rejection kicks the self-confidence out from under you. I itemized a litany of standard clichés: No one can do to you what you don’t give them permission to do (did I send a message that it was okay to cheat?), we give off signals to others that tell them how they are to treat us (am I wearing a doormat sign?), we are the most hurt when we have unrealistic expectations of others (I guess it was silly to expect fidelity and truth from a mate. Where was my head?). In the end, I was left feeling not independent and grandly free, but deflated. MacKay didn’t define who I was, but he made me doubt who I thought I was. I thought I was someone who deserved honesty. I thought I was a pretty good someone whom someone I loved would never intentionally hurt. Over the next few days, as I pondered my future, I realized Mt. Dora had a few art galleries. I paint. A little. No training, but Grandma Moses didn’t study art either, I’ve heard. I drove to an Altamonte Springs shopping center fifteen or so miles away and bought a couple of canvases and a few bottles of acrylic, and set up shop in the garage among a new generation of black widows. The results weren’t too terrible, though I’m still trying to figure who’ll buy them. A little workshop on the property a dozen or so steps from the side of the house had once been used as an architect’s studio. I’m fixing it up bit-by-bit to become my studio. I think I’ll call it something like the Master’s Prodigy. I was out there hanging curtains when the storm broke. The sky had become ominously dark, the wind had kicked up to gale force, and lightning was striking too close for comfort. I got down off of a step stool, slapped my hands to get the attention of Puggie, Shadow, Grace, and Sparkie, then we sprinted across the wet grounds to my front door, drenched to the bone. I was still closing windows around the house when the phone rang and Helen asked me to come to Los Angeles.
Helen lived in Studio City, a colony nestled between two famous canyons, Coldwater and Laurel, a stone’s throw from downtown Los Angeles. One side of it backs up to the Ventura hills, the other stretches to the monotony of several bedroom communities lumped together by two descriptive words: The Valley. On the other side of the hills, you’ll find Hollywood. Heading toward L.A. proper on Ventura Boulevard is Universal City, made up primarily of Universal Studios and the Universal Hilton Hotel. Before you reach that turnoff you’ll come to the Barham Street bridge that takes you into Burbank where, despite what you might think, the majority of studios are located. Warner Brothers is there, Disney’s there. NBC is across the street from the ivy-covered English-style Tudor mansion that once housed dick clark cinema productions (the little letters were his idea, not mine). The late, great TV talk show host, Johnny Carson, used to say on his nightly program that he was coming to you live from Burbank, California, “. . .the little town where anything can happen—but nothing ever does.” It’s changed a lot since then.
Before I married MacKay, I lived on Palm Avenue, not too far from where Debbie Reynolds was born. The cottage has been torn down and a condo stands in its place. Concrete has replaced the little orange grove out back. MacKay owned a house in Sun Beach and that’s where we set up housekeeping. One of the few southern California beach towns I find acceptable, it’s south of Los Angeles, butted up against Long Beach. Most coastal communities consist of little more than roof-covered mattresses where young adults engage in the noisy ritual of puberty celebration. Sun Beach, in contrast, is a cobble-stoned haven of seclusion for those wanting peace and quiet after a week of coping with the masses. It took fourteen years of wedded bliss to get us thoroughly sick of the tedious commute to our Sunset Boulevard office. We ended up selling our home to Helen and Donne, who gave it to Lane and Richard as a wedding present. Like Fred and Ethel, and Desi and Lucy, we moved next door to our best friends, in a modest yellow ranch-style house, balanced precariously on a Studio City hill. “Solid as a rock,” a geologist said before we bought the place. “It’ll take more’n an earthquake to knock this baby down.” Odd thing about California, in other parts of the country when you’re thinking of buying a house, you bring in the termite inspectors; in California, you bring in a geologist to tell you if you’re buying on rock or landfill or, God forbid, a fault line (there’s actually one that runs through the heart of Hollywood).
A mid-morning flight from Orlando to Los Angeles International Airport was the best I’d been able to book for myself after Helen and I hung up, a flight that put me, at five-thirty on a Monday, April eighteenth, smack in the middle of one of the things I’d gone cross-country to escape: traffic. Mind-boggling, fender-snapping, rear-end bumping, sit-and-wait-in-the-middle-of-a-freeway traffic. Even though I’d spent years doing exactly this same thing, in exactly this same spot, I was feeling anything but nostalgic. I was hot and tired, and my stomach was gnawing on my backbone, demanding something more substantial than the Starbuck latte and bagel I’d had during a layover.
I maneuvered the Toyota rental off Ventura Boulevard, turned onto Spring Drive, and climbed a narrow, winding road that, phony as everything else that has to do with the film community, looked as if I’d suddenly arrived in the countryside. It sounded like the country. It felt like the country. But it was only two blocks back down the lane to heavy commerce, grime and crime.
To my right, the cliff dropped sharply into a field of treetops, their trunks far below, buried alongside Coldwater Canyon Drive. To my left, mansions of all colors and descriptions sat back from the road. A castle, straight out of a Robin Hood adventure, perched in the crook of a hairpin curve at the end of the street, but I wouldn’t be going that far. Helen’s Bavarian-style guest cottage marked the entrance to her property. My old yellow house was beside it.
I turned off Spring Drive and followed a gravel lane behind the cottage, to a gigantic gray stucco home nearly hidden by gigantic live oaks. Gigantic is a Hollywood word. Everything’s gigantic in Hollywood. Movie openings. Restaurant openings. New offices, new office buildings. Handsome, little Tom Cruise is “gigantic”. Dustin Hoffman is “gigantic”. I sat beside Hoffman one day on a concrete bench in the lobby of Columbia Studio. I was struck not so much by the girth of his nose, but by the fact his feet didn’t touch the floor. His talent, I have to admit though, really is gigantic. I parked the car and locked it because in broad daylight in southern California, even in your own front yard, you’re likely not to have a vehicle when you come back out if you don’t batten the thing down. Helen’s yardman had left a hose slung across the walkway. I pitched it aside and continued on to the front door. There was a hush to the air that was somehow unnerving. I had the feeling a thousand secret eyes were on me, watching my every move. I glanced around, half expecting to see yellow eyeballs peering down from the trees. I lifted the brass knocker, let it drop and rang the bell instead. Two ding dongs and the door flew open. Helen looked like hell. “Thank God,” she muttered, pulling me inside and slamming the door behind us. As soon as the chain lock was in place, she said “You’re here”, and it was as if she could, at long last, rest easy. Matt Dillion had arrived. The ranch would be saved from cattle-rustlers and bank foreclosure. I opened my mouth to speak, but she pulled me to her so roughly and so close that I could feel her chest starting to rise and fall in advance of an onslaught of tears. The dam broke and I could only imagine how long she’d held it in. “It’s okay,” I said, patting her back. It was a lie, of course. I didn’t even know why I was there, so how could I tell her it was going to be okay? Besides, horrible and arrested and murdered aren’t words to indicate things might be made okay any time soon. “Come in, come in,” she said finally, stepping away from the door. She dabbed at her eyes with the back of one hand and led me to the living room with the other. I followed meekly, suddenly at a loss for words with a friend to whom I could have said anything, if I could have thought of anything to say. The living room, so familiar to me, covered the entire back of the house. Ordinarily it overlooked a forest of trees, but today the drapes were pulled tightly. The only light came from a Tiffany on a side table near the gigantic white sofa. In front of the gigantic rock fireplace. “Sit down,” she said, indicating a spot beside her on the sofa. I chose, instead, a footstool and pulled it up to face her. Her eyes glistened with fresh, unshed, tears. Taller than my own five foot seven, there was a smallness about her at that moment, a vulnerability I’d never seen before.
“I’m a mess,” she sighed in a tiny voice. Then she drew in a sharp breath and stuck out her chin. “Tell me about you,” she said. “Tell me how you’re doing in Florida and wh— ”
“You tell me,” I interrupted. I nailed her with a look that said to cut the bull. “Tell me what happened.” “Oh, God, Katie . . . ” I reached over to pull the chain on a floor lamp beside us, but she caught my hand in midair. “No! No lights.” Her eyes darted in the direction of the closed drapes and, farther along the west wall, to a bank of three low windows, also covered. “They sit in the woods and watch,” she whispered. “Like preying things.” I didn’t have to ask. I knew she meant photographers. Her hands fluttered in her lap. Her lids sagged over watery eyes. “They peek over the windowsills if I leave a curtain open. Their cameras are always pointed at the house …” Her voice trailed off. Those were the stares I’d felt out front when I came in. I had to wonder where the vultures were hidden. Didn’t they feel foolish, grown men and women, crouched among the foliage on someone’s private property? The answer was no, they didn’t. Helen shivered. Her elbows were resting now on her knees, her face buried in her hands. The room was quiet except for Helen’s muffled sobs. I gave her arm a little squeeze and let my hand linger while I looked around the room in which I’d spent so many afternoons and evenings. Finally, I said, “I’ll get us some coffee,” and got up, feeling awkward and inadequate. I was there to hold my friend’s hand, but I couldn’t find a damn thing to say that would give her a moment of comfort. I flipped a wall switch in the kitchen, which kicked on a ceiling fluorescent. Immaculate as always, I thought vaguely as I moved toward the white marble counter where Helen had already laid out two mugs, the pink sugar stuff, and a carton of half-and-half. I knew where the spoons were and found two of them. She looked up when I went back into the living room. “Tell me what happened,” I said for the second time, settling onto the footstool. I put her cup beside her, under the Tiffany, and held onto my own with both hands. A scene flashed in my mind, like they say happens just before you die. I saw me sitting on this same footstool not all that long ago, and Helen, face shining with happiness, telling me that Lane was up for a very important comeback role in a movie. It never happened. Years earlier, the same footstool and Helen’s face gray with grief, telling me about the plane crash that took her son-in-law and his crew. I didn’t know her very well then. I was there with MacKay. He was in a corner, talking to Donne. Sunlight streamed over him from the big bay window and I was thinking more about how I’d like to jump MacKay’s bones that very moment, right there on the rug in front of the fireplace, than I was about Helen’s tragedy. Another scene. Same footstool. “Lanie’s getting married,” Helen beamed to a small group she’d invited for dinner. “A wonderful man, actually a few years younger than Lanie, but who cares about that kind of thing any more? Richard’s a television producer. He wants to find just the right screenplay for Lanie’s return to film. Isn’t that terrific?” We all agreed it was terrific. And now she was staring into her coffee cup and the terrific moment had long since passed. Richard was dead and Lanie was accused of killing him.
I’d seen a newspaper at the airport that morning. Richard’s demise hadn’t made headlines, though it did make the front page, at least in the Orlando Sentinel. A small item near the bottom, under a grainy picture of Lane and her husband: Hollywood Producer Murdered. The line under that: Actress Accused of Slaying. The story had gone on to report that Richard David Wagnor, 48, and his wife, “one-time sweetheart of the American Cinema,” Lane Allison, 53, were entertaining in their Sun Beach, California home on Sunday, April 17, when an argument broke out between them. The event, according to the newspaper account, ended with Lane shoving her husband down a flight of stairs, which resulted in his death. The shoving part came from an eyewitness at the party, the part about his death from the local coroner. Details were sketchy and the brief article concluded with a list of Richard’s producing credits, mostly television, and a longer list of Lane’s early films, mostly forgotten. It went on to state that Richard was survived by a daughter, Royalee, 21, from a previous marriage, as well as stepchildren, Caroline, 21, and Michael, 19.
I’m not very good at numbers, but remind me never to let a reporter anywhere near my checkbook. Follow me here. If I’m a tad older than Rita Moreno, and Lanie’s a bit older than me, that doesn’t make her fifty-three. Or if she is, then I’m getting younger every day, and I want some of what she’s having. Who knows how old Richard Wagnor really was? “She didn’t want to have the party,” Helen was saying. I quit counting on my fingers and toes, and tuned back in, waiting for her to elaborate. “It was mainly for Richard’s friends . . . for the garden group at the church. He served on the Grounds Committee, you know.” I didn’t know. “He wanted to show his appreciation for the hard work they’d done on the spring planting program.” “Lane…” I prompted, trying to steer her back on track. “She didn’t feel they were really friends or even much interested in the church grounds. They made such a fuss about Richard being a TV producer…gushed over him, that sort of thing. It was uncomfortable for her. The fact she’d been a star … not that she ever thought of herself as a star, but they did. They’d introduce her to new members of the congregation like she was the biggest draw in movies today. It embarrassed her. She’s another person now. A wife, a mother, a stepmother ... and she loves that role better than anything she’s ever done. She’s told me that a million times. If only she’d met Richard earlier in her life. He was so good to her. They were like newlyweds. But these church people...phonies. That’s how she described them.” I nodded and said ummmmmm and stuck out my bottom lip like I was thinking heavily but, in truth, I didn’t know the people, didn’t really know Lane or Richard, and I didn’t have anything to add to the conversation. “Richard’s sister was there, of course.” Helen said ‘of course’ like I should know this. “She practically runs the church. And she’s always let it be known how much she dislikes Lanie.” I tried to think if I’d ever met his sister and drew a blank. Helen said, “Anyway, they got into this big argument— ” “Lane and her sister-in-law?” “No. Lanie and Richard. I don’t know what it was about. I haven’t been able to talk to her.” Her voice caught. When her eyes fastened on mine there was panic in them. “They took her away and …” I waited again while Helen sobbed into her hands. When she could catch her breath, she swallowed hard. “They arrested her,” she whispered. “It was all over the news last night … handcuffed. Can you imagine?” I put my coffee cup on the floor and wrapped my arms around her again. No, I could not
imagine. After a moment, she took a tissue from her skirt pocket and wiped her nose. “I’ve got to pull myself together. This is crazy.” She drew in a sharp, desperate breath. “You are going to stay and help, aren’t you, Katie?”
I didn’t have a clue how I could be of any help except to do what I was doing. Be there. Hold her hand. Listen. Beyond that, well, if Lane pushed her husband to his death then she pushed him and those consequences would have to be dealt with. My heart ached for Helen’s loss, for Lane’s predicament, but no one except a very good lawyer could do much to help either of them. “Talk to her,” Helen said suddenly. “Surely if you can’t see her, they won’t let— ” “Talk to Dorothy.” “Dorothy?” “Richard’s sister.” “Oh, Helen—” If there was an incredulous tone to my voice it was intentional. “She’s the one who claims Lanie shoved Richard. Says she saw it with her own eyes. But maybe…I mean, it’s only her word. Maybe, in the heat of the moment, Dorothy imagined that she saw Lane push him, or maybe she just saw a chance to hurt Lane, not realizing the extent of the damage she was doing. Dorothy has a flair for the dramatic and a terrible vengeful streak. Don’t you see? A little fib and she’d get her own picture in the paper! On television! It would become her moment. She’d get attention and, at the same time, punish Lane for marrying her brother. Maybe, now that so much has happened, she’s looking for a way to take it back, to admit she made it up.” False testimony is serious business. I got to my feet and went to the window, where I pulled the drape back a fraction of an inch. Sunlight bounced off of something deep inside the foliage out there. A camera lens? How much would one photograph of Helen, the mother of the accused, fetch from a sleazy magazine? Not as much as one of a terrified and grief-stricken Lane suddenly appearing at the door. The paper said she had been released on a million dollars bail. I figured that the photographers figured it was worth the wait. I let the drape fall back into place, thinking about Richard’s sister. If the woman had already given her statement to the police, she wasn’t apt to change it for me. False testimony. Serious business. “Have you tried talking to her yourself?” I asked. Helen shook her head. “I wouldn’t be able to hold my tongue. I’d have to tell her what I really think, what I’ve always thought of her and that wouldn’t do anybody any good.” She rubbed her temples with her fingers. “I can’t face the woman.” Then she quickly added, “But somebody’s got to.”
It’s quite a drive from Studio City out to Long Beach where Dorothy and Harmon Ermaling live. He’s a retired financial analyst for a brokerage that deals primarily in funding major feature films. We’re talking about a firm that finances films of Titanic proportions. A mind like Harmon Ermaling’s could probably even figure out how old Lane and Richard really were.
I left Helen’s place early the next day, after the morning rush, and took the Ventura Freeway to the 101, otherwise known as the Hollywood Freeway, where I veered south. The traffic was insane, as usual. I breathed diesel fuel and managed to elude every non-English speaking driver on the road between Universal Studios and the Dodger Stadium, where I swung onto Harbor Freeway, racing at a snail’s pace in a southwesterly direction. I knew those folks didn’t speak English because of their abundant use of sign language. I was cutting now through a part of Los Angeles that had become famous for its riots. Soon I’d plunge into the stench of Carson, heading toward the Pacific Ocean and a breath of fresh air. As I gained on downtown Long Beach, I made a left onto Ocean Boulevard and drove in the direction of the old Seal Beach Naval Station. A community of new homes had been built in the last few years near Martial Stadium, where the Ermalings lived. The trip took an hour on good days, two hours on normal days, and up to three hours if it drizzled or a truck turned over en route. I had plenty of time to review everything Helen told me over cold crab cakes the night before. There wasn’t much to it, really, except for the devastating finale. Helen said Richard gave a party for his church garden group. That’s a grand total of seven people. Not surprisingly, most were women: Henny Thornton, long time church member and a friend of Richard’s since before his marriage to Lane; Joanna and Farley Norco; Belinda, the church’s secretary; John and Suzanne Marlowe and, finally, Dorothy who had come alone. Belinda, the Norcos, and the Marlowes were going on from the party to a play at the Long Beach Civic Center and left early. At the time of the argument between Lane and Richard, no one was there from church except Dorothy and Henny. Richard’s daughter, Royalee, was spending the weekend at the house. She and Caroline, a student on the Cal State University-Long Beach campus, were in the family room, listening to CDs, when they heard the commotion. They didn’t investigate, however, until they heard Richard tumble down the stairs, his cries mixed with those of Dorothy and Lane. Royalee reached her father first. He was already dead, having hit his head on the corner of a step. Michael, Lane’s son, had been clearing tables out on the patio when he heard the screams. It was Michael who called paramedics from the kitchen phone. According to Dorothy’s statement to the police, and later to reporters, she, Henny, and Richard had been standing on the back patio talking when he excused himself and went inside. Next thing they knew, they heard Richard and Lane screaming at one another from someplace in the house. It sounded like it was coming from upstairs. Dorothy, curious, went inside and was near the bottom of the stairs when she saw Lane shove Richard from the top landing. Dorothy said that Henny rushed in right behind her and was privy to the whole thing. Royalee and Caroline raced from the family room, but Caroline hung back with Dorothy and Henny, while Royalee fell to the floor beside her father. His head was still cradled in her arms when paramedics arrived. There was nothing anyone could do. The police appeared on the scene a little later. Helen admitted that things got blurry beyond that point. A yellow police tape went up at the Wagnor home, she was sure of that, and neighbors jammed into the yard while being pushed back by the cops. She remembered seeing a couple of local reporters arrive seconds after the police. She surmised they’d heard the news on their police scanner. It seemed that before anyone could count to ten, especially if it’s reporters doing the counting, news vans were racing up the street and parking everywhere, even on adjoining lawns. Meanwhile, Dorothy, Henny, Lane, Royalee, Michael, and Caroline were interviewed separately by police detectives. What I gathered from what Helen repeated was that standard police protocol was followed: perimeters examined, body examined, the scene photographed, sketches made; everything was duly processed. There seemed to be no big mystery and, for the police, it was business as usual. Everyone knows that eyewitnesses can make mistakes, get confused, withhold information—or lie about what they saw. But the Wagnor tragedy was cut-and-dried. Richard and Lane argued, she pushed him in the heat of the moment, and Dorothy witnessed the whole thing. It was clear that Richard was dead and it was clear that he had died as a result of his fall down the stairs. Lane was taken into custody, booked, and then released on one million dollars bail raised by Helen, who was unable to reach her lawyer on a Sunday night, but did manage to locate one of his junior partners at his home in Sherman Oaks. The Wagnor house was bombarded with media who continued to arrive in a steady stream throughout the rest of the day and evening, and into the night. Night before last. The same night Helen called me in Florida. Helen and I turned on all the radios and television sets in the house in an effort to hear what distortion was in the works at any given minute. National news figures were beginning to arrive in private planes. What they thought they’d find was a riddle to me. Caroline moved into the apartment of a friend who was away on a foreign exchange program and whose parents offered her the key. Michael returned to the student film production he was helping crew out in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree (he’d come home for the weekend). I doubted he was getting much work done, but at least he was protected from reporters and photographers who weren’t allowed on the set. Michael, it turned out, was a student at Long Beach Community College, but he was taking a two month break to work on a University of Southern California film project. Royalee, interning at a Fresno television station, left for home as I was flying across the country. She lived near her mother, Arlene, Richard’s ex-wife, a botany teacher retired from Fresno City Campus. As soon as Lane was released from custody, Helen and a family friend spirited her into a van and, under cover of night, took her to a cabin in Yucca Valley, owned by a writer they knew and trusted. It was only a couple of miles from where Michael was on location. In case all of this geography is confusing you, Joshua Tree, the Mojave, and Yucca Valley are all in the general direction of Palm Springs, only further north, and why anyone would want to live there is beyond me. A passion for scorpions, lizards the size of St. Bernards, the biggest, hairiest, spiders ever created (why’d Noah take two of them on the ark?), sand that burns the foot and blinds the eye, and heat to melt your teeth, is a must for anyone even traveling through that forsaken land, let alone actually residing there. Mojave desert. Bootcamp for Hell. Horrible place, in my humble opinion. Anyway, that’s where Lane went, to the cabin of a New York based writer who wasn’t using it anyway. I know if I were a reporter and someone told me Lane was hiding out in Yucca Valley, I’d find myself another story to pursue. If you’re wondering, as I was, why Lane had to hide, I’ll explain it the way Helen explained it to me. After all, Lane Allison hadn’t made a movie in several years and the last one was a bomb. Richard, a television producer of mostly documentaries, wasn’t a Hollywood name to contend with either, so why the enormous publicity? Answer: Everyone in media was so turned on by the publicity generated by the Zimmerman case and, further back, O.J. Simpson’s trial, and Casey Anthony’s plight, that they began looking for windows of opportunity where an incident can be accelerated into an Event. Books. Movie deals. Magazine articles. Interviews. Talk shows. Ratings. International attention. In other words, there really are times when the media creates not the news itself, but the spectacle around the news. This was one of those times. A lot of low-life leeches would become rich on this one horrific incident. Lane had once been a very big star. Her stock-in-trade was her innocence. America loved her. What happens when the country’s one-time darling retires? According to the media – print news, radio, TV and Internet social - she goes nuts and kills her husband out of professional jealously or stifled rage or the pure undiluted need to make headlines again. That’s what was being tossed around on the Early Show and even on the distinguished Meet the Press. Pop psychologists were analyzing Lane’s motives, even though they’d never met her and knew nothing about her relationship with her husband. Networks were devoting entire segments to the subject. And what fueled the flame? The fact that no one knew where Lane was hiding. It had become a huge scavenger hunt. A game—with Lane as the prize. So, you say, why doesn’t she just come out of hiding? That would chill the interest, wouldn’t it? Think about it. This woman had been stalked twice in her life, both times by nut cases willing to go to any extreme for the publicity. Who knew who was out there, waiting to stalk again? To hurt one of the children? Society is on the high end of madness and now Lane had to face not only the grief of losing her husband, a man who, according to Helen, was the passion of her life, but the added horror of possible imprisonment. I’d hide, too. Helen got no further with the story because by then we were both in tears. Mine were tears of rage, hers of unbearable heartbreak. How dare the media do this! Even if Clinton were still President, and he stuck his arm up another woman’s dress, it would be a yawn. Yeah, yeah…been there, seen that. Next. Who’ll be next? Lane Allison. Of course. What I couldn’t imagine was what I’d say to Dorothy, the sister-in-law. She saw what she saw. What was she supposed to do, say she didn’t see it? Still … Helen needed to know I was there for her and if being there meant a chat with Dorothy, I had to do it. As close as I could figure, things would not be okay for Helen and Lane any time in the foreseeable future—if ever.
I’d had the car radio tuned to a jazz station, but turned it off when the news came on and the lead story was The Disappearance of Lane Allison. The subject had gone from serious (death and murder are serious) to absurd (she’d kill to get her name in the papers again). What I resented most was the lack of concern for Richard and Lane’s children. Royalee was devastated by the loss of her father. She was the apple of his eye; spoiled, according to Helen, but totally devoted to her dad. Caroline and Michael were walking zombies. They, of course, knew where their mother had gone, but they dare not try to get to her for fear of leading the media to her. Caroline didn’t even want to go to her grandmother’s home, preferring to simply disappear into her friend’s apartment where no one would bother her and she could grieve in solitude. Royalee had lost her father, Caroline and Michael lost their stepdad (they had already lost their real father to a plane crash years before, don’t forget) and now they were losing their mother, too. Show me the humor in that. Show me the “game”. I found the white clapboard Ermaling house just as Helen had described it from her one visit there a couple of years back when she had attended a surprise birthday party in Richard’s honor. Lavender, pink, and blue pansies lined a flagstone path to the front door. A birdbath sat in a circle of white rock near the front steps, which I climbed before crossing a covered expanse of blue porch. When I rang the doorbell, it echoed in three tones inside the house. I turned to watch the progress of a bee as it circled a plant hanging from a porch rafter. I was debating flight or fight when someone said, “Whatever you’re selling, we’re not buying.” The voice was male, had a hint of humor in it, and surprised me since I hadn’t heard the front door open. “Oh. Hello.” I smiled brightly, turning to face a man who was short, balding, not handsome by any stretch of imagination, but not unpleasant looking either. A favorite professor or uncle. I recognized him from the Wagnor wedding and Donne’s funeral. We’d never spoken before and I doubted that he would remember me. He didn’t. His eyes were becoming wary. “Can I help you? That is, if you’re not from the media.” “No, I’m not. Actually …Could I talk to your wife?” “You won’t be talking to anybody if you don’t state your business.” “Katlin Wallace.” I stuck my hand in his direction. He made no move to open the screen door that separated us. I gave it another shot. “I’m a friend of—” “Who’s there?” Harmon Ermaling turned to watch his wife approach in an electric wheelchair. She was heavy-set, actually fat and, like many overweight women, had a flawless complexion. Seeing her, it all came back; the pushy one at family gatherings. She hadn’t been confined in a wheelchair when I saw her on those other occasions. I wondered what had happened. When Dorothy reached us, she looked up at me curiously. Trying to place the face, I assumed. Her dark eyes suddenly lit with recognition. “Helen Allison’s friend?” “That’s right.” She was immediately suspicious, and I noticed that Harmon’s expression became guarded. The intelligence in his eyes intrigued me. Very bright, this Harmon Ermaling. Not one to be underestimated. “Did Helen send you?” Dorothy asked. “To be honest—” Harmon stepped between us, his hand on the inside door as if to close it. “We don’t want trouble with her. We’ve all been through a lot these last forty-eight hours.” My face felt hot. I was embarrassed to be standing out on a porch, under a droning bee, trying to figure a way to get Dorothy to admit she’d lied. Which I doubt she did. “Well, she just asked if I’d stop by to see if we…you and I…you and Dorothy and I…could talk about—” “Her daughter killed my brother.” It was a cold, harsh statement delivered by Dorothy. “Well, yes, that’s what I’m hearing. Helen had hoped… Look, uh, it’s really hard to talk about it out here on the street. Could I come inside for a minute?” “I don’t think so.” It was Harmon. “Talking isn’t going to make Helen or anyone else feel any better. My wife’s said everything she has to say to the police.” “I know, but—” “Like my husband said, I gave my statement to the police.” Dorothy’s face flushed deeply with—what? Indignation? Anger? Her lips, already thin, became a straight pink line. The square jaw thrust itself to its full jutting position as she wheeled her chair into a tight circle and drove it out of sight, around a corner in the living room. “Sorry to have troubled you,” I mumbled to Harmon. “It’s just that I promised Helen—” He nodded and interrupted with, “I feel sorry for her, for all of us. But facts are facts.” Then he gently, but firmly, closed the door in my face.
I drove around for a while, trying to decide what to do. I wasn’t ready to tell Helen that I couldn’t get Dorothy to talk to me. I had the uncanny feeling MacKay was sitting in the passenger seat, watching me with one black brow raised accusingly, giving me the kind of pathetic look he saved for when I attempted to work anything that had an electrical switch—an expression I came to loathe. The kind of expression that drives wives to shout, “Then do it yourself, bozo!” which, as I learned, doesn’t make for ties that bind.
I decided to grab a sandwich at the Hamlin Hut in downtown Belmont Shores, a Long Beach neighborhood cupped alongside the bay. It was only a few blocks from the Ermalings. I was in the mood for a broad umbrella under a sun that had finally burned off the morning smog and a temperature that was stretching toward the eighty mark. I was lucky enough to find a BMW easing away from the curb almost at the front door, slipped into its space, jammed a coin down the throat of a balky meter, and went inside. I made my way to the upstairs terrace, found a table that was empty once I shooed away the starlings. A disinterested blonde (yeah, sure) waitress took my egg-salad-on-a-hard-roll order, poured a tall glass of tea from a chilled pitcher, and I was left with my thoughts. I squinted, readjusted the umbrella to allow for more shade, but what I was really doing was stalling. Next, when I ran out of busy work, I’d be forced to think. What to tell Helen, how to tell Helen, and, mostly, how to let her know that I’d exhausted my ability to “help”? I glanced around to see if there were any familiar faces. Not surprisingly, there weren’t. MacKay and I put in ten to twelve hour days at the agency- and I wasn’t one to join clubs or women’s groups. I knew cops and cops’ wives and the people down the hall in our Sunset Boulevard office building. That’s about it. Wouldn’t know my Sun Beach ex-neighbors if I were sitting on them. Thinking about cops reminded me that I wanted to call Donald Stuart before leaving town. Donald had been a good friend of mine and MacKay’s, a career cop who had his knees shot out from under him and took early retirement rather than ride herd on a desk for the rest of his professional life. Last I heard, he was working as police consultant on the television series Cop Patrol, one of those real-life productions with live cameras and live mics and cops being much more copperly than ordinary because they’re cognizant of doing their duty while entertaining their kids at home, watching Dad on TV. The egg salad was obviously going to be masterpiece in presentation; it’d been ten minutes and was still nowhere in sight. I got up, told my waitress I was going to use the pay phone and would be right back. I found Donald’s number in the phone book, dialed, got his machine telling me to leave my name, number, blah blah. I blahed back to it, told him where I was having lunch if he was home but not picking up, where I was staying if he didn’t hear my message until evening. And then I did the inevitable. I thought about what to tell Helen. It’s a funny thing about thinking. I mean the kind of thinking where you have a definite idea of what you need and want to be thinking about. It doesn’t come naturally. When you’re driving along and your mind is cartwheeling this way and that, and you’re letting it play itself out, you can come up with some really good stuff, but try roping your brain into a corner to examine something under a mental microscope, and it’s darned difficult. I’d start to think about what I’d say when I got back to Helen’s place, and my mind would go scudding off somewhere, conjuring up images of Dorothy’s face turning that stunning shade of red. Or the sudden change in her husband’s expression, from half-amused, to deeply analytical, to almost hostile. Quick changes. I realized there was something about the look on Dorothy’s face that bothered me, but I hadn’t realized it at the time. That’s why my mind wouldn’t stay still. I wanted to think about Helen and our upcoming conversation. Mind wanted me to center on Dorothy. Like a kid pulling at the hem of my skirt, I finally heaved a sigh of surrender and turned my attention to the woman in the wheelchair. What was there about her I was supposed to know? Her eyes had gone hard when she realized who I was. And then, when I asked to talk to her, her face had flared crimson. Anger at my audacity to think I could have a private conversation with her? Me, a friend of Helen’s? No, that wasn’t the look. So what was it? MacKay was nagging me, too. I could hear him saying, “Look at what you don’t see, Kat. It’s what you don’t see that tells you everything.” He had a great instinct for getting behind words and finding the person’s true intention, often the opposite of what had been stated. I marveled at how he did that. I’m apt to believe what I hear. I seem to miss the subtleties. But back to Dorothy. The tugging at the back of my brain . . .What would MacKay be analyzing if he were here and had this same kind of uneasy feeling? It was as if something had happened right in front of me that I couldn’t put my finger on. Whatever it was would have to wait. I couldn’t concentrate. I decided that, as soon I polished off the egg salad, I’d visit the house where MacKay and I had lived and which was now the scene of a crime. It was only a couple of miles north of Belmont Shores.
The California coast is lined with beach communities, each blending into the other, one hardly distinguishable from the next. Belmont Shores crosses a grand old humpback bridge onto tiny Naples Island, which serves as a link into Sun Beach. I stayed on Second Street, curved to the Pacific Coast Highway, and followed that to Seventh Street, past the Cal State University campus, onto a knoll that made up Bell Park off to one side of the highway, overlooking my old neighborhood. I parked the car and got out. There was no one around at that hour, nearly one o’clock. Later, when it cooled a bit and naps were over, the playground with its four swing sets would be filled with mothers and kids. Around four-thirty the softball field would overflow with teens. After dinner, before it got dark, overweight dads would play catch with their boys and ride bikes with their families along the path that ran behind a tall stone fence which encircled the entire half-moon of a hundred or more houses beneath me. On the other side of the wall, a channel ran to meet the Pacific. Even from here, I could see maybe half a dozen news vans parked around my old place. Camp chairs were set up in the cul-de-sac and people I imagined to be bored reporters drank coffee or wrote in notepads on their laps. I wondered what they thought was going to happen. The house was empty. Lane was out there in no man’s land, Yucca Valley; Caroline was ensconced in her friend’s Naples Island apartment; Michael was back on the set of the student film in Joshua Tree, and Royalee, Richard’s daughter, was home in Fresno. Helen said that Lane had no live-in maids or hired help, so what were the reporters doing? I remembered the same kind of scene during the O.J. Simpson mess. Vans jammed the streets around Simpson’s Brentwood house (and, no, it wasn’t a mansion. It was a big house on the corner of a neighborhood street), but O.J. wasn’t there. Friends and family came and went, but no one was giving interviews, so why the same tired report day after day from reporter after reporter? I decided to watch the news when I got back to Helen’s to see what they could be saying about this empty house in a tiny community tucked almost under the freeway. I picked my way down the slope to a gate that opened onto the bike path. From there I followed the stone wall until I came to a wooden gate, maybe six foot high that opened onto the far curve of the cul-de-sac. I’d planned to use one of the public access gates that opened onto a path leading into the neighborhood then, once on that side of the wall, double back across several backyards until I reached the Wagnor home. That’s when it dawned on me that my plan wouldn’t work. Not only would people panic, thinking a stranger, no doubt connected to the media, was on their property and maybe dial 911, but also some of the homes had backyard walls that hooked up to the stone wall, boxing them in and making it impossible for me to get past without hurdling someone’s fence. Definitely not a good idea. I went back to a spot along the wall directly behind my old house and looked around for something to stand on so that I could crawl up and into the backyard. I found a couple of small boulder, which of course I couldn’t lift if my life depended on it. By scrunching down and putting my tailbone against the largest of these mothers, I was able to push against it until it inched closer to the wall. After that, all I had to do was climb up, throw one leg over, hoist myself up with both hands, and sling the other leg along behind me. I’d jump down and, presto, I’d be in Wagnor’s backyard. My old backyard. Problem was I couldn’t get my damn leg up that high. I skinned my knee, bloodied my palm, and slammed my nose into the wall, trying to pull myself over. No luck. It was too tall and I was too short. It hit me that I was going about it all wrong. A stone wall is an uneven wall. An uneven wall is bound to have a niche for a toe or two in it somewhere. I squatted down and searched and, sure enough, I saw a lot of possible toe-holes. I took off my sandals, butt-shoved the rock to a place where I could use it to gain some height, then wiggled my toes into the rough surface of the wall and, schazam, over I went. It was both odd and not odd to be standing there with scuffed toes and a pair of shoes tucked under my arm, looking at the backyard where I’d exhausted myself sodding the grounds. The results were worth it. A yard the size of a postage stamp, bordered by lilies, azaleas and tiny tea roses, went along a path from the swing that hung from a branch of an apricot tree, all the way to the covered back patio. I’d sat in that swing so many times, mainly on Sunday afternoons, reading. The peach tree had finally committed hari-kari. It bore so much fruit, it had finally snapped off its own limbs. There was a stump now where the tree had stood all those years. One Easter, I hung baskets on it and had a patio lunch for several policemen and their families. I guessed that the Wagnor’s garden party must have looked similar to the way it looked that holiday, with tables on the patio and a buffet set up under the dining room window. Why didn’t I feel a pang of something? Longing, nostalgia. Something. Instead, it was like remembering a movie. I could recall the scenes, but they weren’t connected to me. We’d sold the house years back, but MacKay had only been out of my life for a matter of months. I was braced to feel a stab of pain when I saw the home we’d shared. Instead, I saw something I recognized, but no more than that. Maybe it was related to the fact I’d never much liked the place. I was glad when we sold it and moved into Studio City, closer to work and friends. Helen said Lane loved the home though, and so did Richard. That’s good. Houses need to be loved; they can sense when it’s lacking and so can its guests. I crossed the patio to cup my hands against sliding glass doors that opened onto the living room. All I saw was the reflection of my face with a freshly-skinned nose. The drapes were closed. The lock and a safety device were firmly in place. I moved to a dining room window and saw me again. I went around to the side, to a window over the kitchen sink and, beside that, to a door that opened from a tiny patio. Everything was battened down and covered up, and I was being as foolish as the reporters out front. I even asked myself what I thought I’d gain by being there. I suppose I thought I was doing detective work of some kind, but in reality it was nonsense. I quickly turned around and got my hinny over the stone wall as unceremoniously as I’d arrived. It was nearly six before I walked in the door to Helen’s house and found her sitting at the kitchen table, her face swollen, her eyes puffy and red. She had on a satin robe. Her hair, ordinarily neatly arranged in a coil at the base of her neck, went a dozen angles from her skull. She was holding a cold cup of coffee. She obviously hadn’t heard me come in because she nearly jumped out of her skin when I said, “Helen?” Her chin quivered when she lifted her eyes to meet mine. “They told me Lanie was in the hospital—” It was all she could manage before she broke down. I pulled out a chair across from her and leaned over far enough to remove the cup from her hands and wrap my own around them. “Who said that?” She shook her head as if to clear it. “I was taking a nap, maybe half an hour ago, I don’t know … I’m losing track of time. The phone rang and I got up to answer it. A voice, a woman’s voice, said that Lanie had been in an accident and was in the hospital, in the emergency room, and that I should come right over.” When she ran her hand along the side of her face, her fingers were trembling. “My head was in a fog. I couldn’t grasp what she was saying. What emergency room? What hospital? In Yucca Valley? Lanie’s out there all by herself and I know she’s scared and, my God, I thought, what if she tried to …do…something to herself. She wouldn’t do that…she loves the kids too much to do anything like that…but I couldn’t understand. Helen drew in a deep breath and looked at me with the kind of expression I’ve only seen in television documentaries, like when a baby seal is about to get its brains splattered by a towering humanoid and doesn’t understand why. “Did you call the hospital in Yucca Valley?” She shook her head. “I’m afraid to. I think my line’s tapped. Don’t look at me like that, Katie. I hear all kinds of clicking when I’m talking on the phone. I started to go to my neighbor’s house to use theirs, but then I realized I don’t know if I can trust them. I mean, if they heard me ask for Yucca Valley information, and then I called the hospital there … People do crazy things for money, and magazines will pay top dollar to know where she is.” I thought about it for a second before jumping to my feet. “I’ll be right back.” “Where are you going?” she called after me. “Ten minutes,” I said, leaving. “I’ll be back in ten minutes.” I drove to the end of the street, where it intersected Ventura Boulevard, crossed over to Jerry’s Deli, parked between it and a bank, and went inside. Jerry’s is a well-known haunt for movie stunt men. MacKay and I had shared many a breakfast in there with the late Jock Mahoney, one of the most respected professionals in the business, and his wife, Autumn. His stepdaughter is Sally Field, though we never met her. Jock played the bad guy in early Tarzan movies then briefly became Tarzan himself after Weissmuller left films. Tarzan Goes to India comes and goes on late night cable classics. I’ve caught it a couple of times. I realized I was feeling more nostalgic about Jock and Autumn than I’d felt walking around barefoot in my old backyard. I snapped myself back to reality and shouldered my way though the noisy crowd, toward a bank of pay phones near the rear exit. Yucca Valley information informed me that they had no local hospitals. Closest one, a friendly operator told me, was Eisenhower Medical Center, on Bob Hope Drive, in Rancho Mirage, and Desert Regional in Palm Springs, some thirty miles down the mountain, toward L.A. I called both places, asking if Lane Allison had been admitted, and got a bored ‘no,’ which I believed. Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting on the edge of Helen’s bed while she combed her hair at the dressing table. She was now wearing a casual silk jumpsuit. I told her what I had found out, or rather what I didn’t find out. She looked at my reflection in the mirror while she continued to try to get her hair into some kind of order. “No . . .she’s not in a hospital. I don’t know why I almost bought their story. The woman who called didn’t even properly identify herself. If she’d been a doctor or a nurse, or even an administrator, she’d have said so. It was a news reporter.” She turned to me, hands planted on her knees. This was the old take-charge Helen I’d known for so many years. “They were probably hoping I’d ask if they were calling from such-and-such hospital, which would tell them where she is. Or, what’s even more probable, they figured I’d jump in the car and go to her…and, of course, they’d follow me.” She was on her feet now, pulling an overnight bag from the walk-in closet and tossing it on the bed. Bureau drawers were flying open; clothes were being plopped into the case. She stared into the closet, debated about a raincoat, decided against it, threw in a designer denim shirt instead. “Oh, good grief!” Her hand flew to her mouth. “I was so torn up over that call I forgot all about Dorothy.” Believe it or not, so had I. “Tell me everything. She made it all up, didn’t she? She didn’t witness a damned thing.” “Well, actually— ” “You saw her, didn’t you?” “Yes …but through a door.” “You talked to her though, right?” “I talked at her.” I told her what had transpired. When I finished, she frowned thoughtfully. “That’s peculiar. I would have thought she’d break down just hearing Richard’s name rather than get angry. Besides, why would she be mad at you? A temper tantrum doesn’t seem like a normal reaction.” What she said was making perfect sense, but the last thing I wanted was to give Helen false hope, so I was careful about how I worded my reply. “This is just a hunch, but I think she got away from me as fast as she could so I wouldn’t be able to see the look in her eyes.” “You mean guilt?” I shrugged, wondering if I should encourage her even more by telling her about the change in Harmon Ermaling’s expression when his wife reacted the way she did. I decided to level with her. “What’s it mean?” she asked when I’d finished. “Maybe he realized for the first time there’s a chance Dorothy’s not telling the truth. The problem is, one way or another, it doesn’t change things. It’s what she told the police that counts and, from what I saw of her, I’d bet she’s not going to recant her story. By the way, I remember bumping into her at a couple of functions, but she wasn’t in a wheelchair. What happened?” “Probably nothing,” Helen said, making a face. “She likes the sympathy it gets her. Supposedly she has some kind of muscular disorder. Doctors are running tests. She’s in the hospital so much we’ve all about decided she confuses it with a resort. Meals prepared, back rubs, no responsibilities, lots of uninterrupted soap operas.” “How long’s she been that way?” Helen shrugged. “Two or three months. I’m not sure.” She snapped the lid shut on the overnight case. “Why?” “Curious.” I really was curious. I kept thinking about the hallway in the Wagnor house, the house where I’d lived. It’s what they call a shotgun hall, about six feet wide, running from the front door to the back of the house. How’d Henny What’s-Her-Name (the other eyewitness), Royalee, Caroline, and Dorothy in that bulky wheelchair, fit in there at the same time? Suddenly, I realized that’s what had been bugging me all along. My subconscious was telling me there were too many bodies in that tiny space. It wasn’t ringing true that someone in a wheelchair could go to the foot of the stairs and see what’s happening on the upper landing, and here’s why. When you enter the house from the front door, you come into the narrow hallway. Immediately inside the door to your left are three steps and then a landing. When you get on that landing you’re facing a wall, so you have to make a very sharp right to go up a staircase to the second floor. For Dorothy to have seen what was going on at the top of those stairs, she would had to have pulled her wheelchair to a place in front of the door, leaned way over, and angled her head to the right. Her chair would have been wedged into the hallway. Now, let’s say she heard Richard and Lane arguing, and she came rolling in from the back patio. Looking from the front door down that hallway, your view would be across a portion of the living room and, beyond that, the sliding glass doors to the patio. So she would have had to wheel herself through the open patio doors (they’d have to be open for her to have heard them), across that part of the living room, and into the hallway. She would have had to continue past the family room doorway, where Caroline and Royalee were listening to CDs, to the front door where she would had to have parked her chair and craned her neck uncomfortably to the right to see what was going on the second floor. Let’s say she did that. And she saw Lane standing at the top of the stairs with Richard. Saw her shove him. Let’s say Richard tumbled down and fell in a heap on the tiny landing. Now, let’s further suppose that Henny came running in from the patio when she heard the commotion. What could she have seen? Dorothy and her chair would have completely plugged up the only space that would have let her glimpse the upstairs. I shared all of this with Helen who finally said, “But … if you can figure all of this out, Katie, why don’t the police see it that way, too?” That was a good question. But a better one was why did
Henny back up Dorothy’s story?
“Well,” she said, with a resolute sigh, “all of this only confirms my decision.” “What decision is that?” “To go and stay with Lanie until this whole ugly mess is resolved.” I wondered if that meant I was free to return to Florida. Maybe the fact I tried to talk to Dorothy but couldn’t, released me from further obligation. My observation of the Ermalings had at least settled things in Helen’s mind: Dorothy was lying. Whether or not she really was, was immaterial. At least to Helen. I was relieved, to be honest. I wanted to get home and take care of the menagerie and to see what damage had been done to the property in that storm that was still raging when I’d left for the airport. Was it really only yesterday? I was just getting around to wondering how Helen was going to get to Yucca Valley without leading reporters to Lane’s hideout when she said, “You don’t mind driving me up there, do you?” Forget that it was eight o’clock at night or a little after. Forget that it was a two hour drive across a barren stretch of desert, then grueling mountain roads that reach up to four-thousand-plus feet, heading into the constellation Orion. Forget all of that. What about the reporters? When I asked, Helen’s exasperated sigh went before, “Oh for heaven sakes, Katie. All of those cop shows you worked on, and all of those stunt drivers you worked with, and you’re telling me that you don’t know how to lose a couple of obnoxious reporters?”
MURDER IN THE MOVIES
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