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Double Exposure
 

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Double Exposure
Double Exposure

  A Stoney Winston mystery by

  Jim Stinson

  Double Exposure

  A Stoney Winston Mystery

  Copyright 1985 Jim Stinson

  Hard cover edition originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985

  Corrected and reformatted text August, 2012

  ISBN: 9781466019171

  jimstinson.com

   

  Ah, the romantic, primitive 1980s! No Internet, Facebook, or Twitter. Telephones tied to the wall. Music on vinyl or flimsy cassettes - and don’t even start on the fashions! Hollywood wandered in the desert between the lush studio days that were gone and our flush modern times full of cable and Netflix. Work for film people was scarce in those days and Stoney Winston just barely scraped by. If the 1980s were romantic, Stoney was far too busy surviving to notice....

  Double Exposure

  Chapter 1

  Film Props Incorporated is a two-acre attic in West Hollywood stuffed with moose heads, spectacles, armor, space suits, and the lab equipment of half the mad scientists in movie history. Rummaging for props to rent, I once found a gun belt marked “Mr. Wayne” and a parlor lamp labeled “Tara.” That’s as close to the big time as I ever get: fondling saintly relics of my faith: finger bones and hanks of hair from movies long since canonized.

  Today, I’d collected two surfboards and a volleyball set for Harry Hummel’s cola commercials (“Kids at the beach, okay? Lotsa tits and teeth”) when ancient Merv behind the counter called me to the phone. I walked through this sanctuary with honest reverence, threading past rubber swords, plowshares, plastic Tikis, and a flyblown gorilla, toward the front of the musty building.

  The call was from Hummel: “Winston, get your ass over here.”

  “Harry, you won’t believe this: I found a surfboard from Gidget Goes Hawaiian.”

  “What?”

  “I’d love to use it, but the design’s too dated.”

  “What? What is this? Will you get your ass over here?”

  “You said that.”

  Click.

  I sheathed the surfboards in the hatch of my ancient yellow Rabbit (1975 was not a vintage year for Volkswagen), flagged their protruding sterns to mollify the law, and struggled east on Santa Monica Boulevard toward Finart Studios, the ramshackle production lot on which Hummel rents an office.

  As I rattled through the smog, the next few days unreeled before me, predictable as death: out to Malibu Beach with two trucks, a generator, and station wagons full of “talent” and wardrobe. Two days playing film director in sand-filled shoes, the sun broiling my dismaying new bald spot into a dime-sized plate of scrambled eggs. Two days more in my editor hat, faking the footage into some kind of sense. Then three weeks of unemployment while hustling another job.

  Dear Mama: I am in Hollywood. It is fun. I am a big director now. You were wrong.

  Oh yes: scrambling at the grubby edges of the Industry, presiding over cheap local commercials and droning industrials, writing training films to keep afloat and feature scripts for agents to reject.

  I paused at the studio gate, to find One-Arm Willard snoozing as usual in the gatekeeper’s booth.

  “Willard!”

  His sleeping finger stabbed reflexively at a button and the gate lifted to admit me. Riffraff come and go unchecked while Willard slumbers on.

  I should have stuck with acting. I’d be just as poor and pointless and just as much a whore, but at least I could work a nice warm brothel, instead of ankling around the streets.

  I chugged along the tarmac road dividing scabby bungalow offices from sound stages that resembled stucco hangars. The Rabbit wheezed to a grateful halt in a parking spaced marked HARRY HUMMEL LIMITED. The perfect adjective for my employer.

  Hummel was lurking in his scruffy office, behind a midden of crumpled production forms and takeout food wrappers that hid a grandiose prewar mogul’s desk, now rapidly shedding its oak veneer.

  As always, he skipped the pleasantries: “You line up the location, Winston?”

  “How about Coronado for a change?”

  “How many times do I have to tell you: no more than thirty miles from the fucking gate.”

  “I love your finesse with adjectives, Harry.”

  “What?” He struggled with that briefly, then reached the limit of his attention span and shrugged. Harry Hummel’s forty four, with brass-blond hair and pale ceramic eyes. In the beard he’s forever starting, he resembles Henry VIII, just growing fat.

  I sighed. “Malibu again?”

  “Whatever.” He waved it off. Hummel stared at me, tried to invent a transition, failed of course, and plunged in anyway: “Do something for me.”

  I returned his stare.

  “Look at this tape.”

  He pushed a videocassette into a recorder on the swaybacked table behind his desk and clicked on the color monitor. The speaker whispered electric hash and the screen displayed a snazzy pattern reminiscent of Hummel’s taste in sport jackets. Aping bigger producers, he’d bought the rig to tape auditions, product tests, locations. But being Hummel, he’d spent three weeks locked in his office with a stack of porno tapes and then tired of his toy.

  Sure enough, the picture coming up was the same sad ritual of clenching buns and straining faces and of course the ancient piston and cylinder: the wet machine. It must have been a so-called “loop,” a crude, silent effort without even a pretense of story. A carnal documentary of the crassest kind.

  Hummel stared sourly at the tiny, striving figures. “I know the girl. That’s Lee Tolman.”

  I didn’t bother to look. “One of your ladies, Harry?”

  He killed the tape irritably. “I didn’t say I screwed the kid - just knew her.”

  “Why the past tense?”

  “Huh?”

  Give me patience. Slowly and distinctly: “Why did you say knew?”

  “She took off. You know how kids do.”

  “Why are you showing me this tape?”

  He wouldn’t quite look at me. “That’s - part of what I want you to do.”

  Time for caution. I took refuge in another blank stare.

  “You gotta find the original tape.”

  No I don’t. I may have to stand under streetlights swinging my plastic purse, but I won’t run errands for producers - especially not for Hummel. I said as much.

  Hummel essayed a calm, grave look, as he does when he’s about to relate meaningfully: “No kidding, Stoney. A very nice lady and a personal friend of mine has trouble.”

  Hummel’s use of my nickname increased my suspicion. “I thought the girl disappeared.”

  “I mean Denise Tolman, her mother. Someone wants her to pay fifty thou for the original tape.”

  “The original’s probably film. Looks like Ektachrome.”

  He waved away this picky technicality. “Point is, the tape shows her kid screwing somebody.”

  “That’s not worth fifty thousand dollars. Not these days.”

  “Denise thinks so.”

  “Have her tell the police.”

  “She wants to keep it like quiet.” He leveled sincere, ceramic eyes: “Stoney, you know the town, the Industry. You get things done. Denise wants you.”

  “She does not; she barely knows me. You sold her on me, Hummel. Why?”

  A long pause, during which Hummel’s struggle for plausibility was a minor pleasure to watch. Then he brightened: “She asked me who’s the smartest guy around and I just had to say Stoney Winston.”

  “Flattery does not become you, Harry.”

  “She’ll pay six bills a week for two weeks.”

  “I have a job here.”

  “Not anymore.” I stood up quickly and Hummel added, “But you get it back in tw
o weeks.”

  “You have six cola spots in production.”

  “Big deal. I’ll direct them myself.”

  “No.”

  “Okay, big shot: you’re fired anyway. I’m sick of your smartass face.”

  A reflective pause while my bankbook flashed before my eyes. “All right, I’ll go talk to Denise Tolman.”

  “Whatever. Listen: do a good job and I’ll still let you cut the spots.”

  “Let joy be unconfined.”

  “What?”

  * * * *

  Chugging out to Pasadena in my ratty lemon Rabbit: through the tunnels, over the river - a foot-wide piddle in a concrete trough - and up the ancient freeway in the crisp September light.

  I was conning myself into accepting the inescapable: thinking about two glorious expense-paid weeks away from Harry Hummel. No dreary trips to Malibu, no sand-filled shoes, no self-disgust at lavishing my attention on Cutrate Cola. A two-week reprieve before I had to start hustling again.

  I eased around a ‘55 Porsche, now too valuable to be pushed to freeway speed.

  I think I met Denise Tolman once: a Pasadena matron in preppie clothes. Her uncomplaining husband ran a little studio until cancer killed him. She needed the business to fund her Junior League lifestyle but wasn’t interested in running it; so she hired a manager and resumed good works in Pasadena.

  A ‘67 “Chebbie” whistled by, rear end barely two inches off the concrete, full of Mexican-American kids in identical T-shirts.

  I don’t know: porno tapes, extortion threats, disappearances - dangerous stuff, the lot.

  But interesting. Maybe get some ideas for a script. Oh sure: to join all the others in my drawer.

  * * * *

  San Rafael Circle turned out to be one street away from the Arroyo Seco, the gulch that holds the Rose Bowl. Expensive houses in the usual California mix: Revised Ranch, Retrained Colonial, Recycled Mansard. Not quite the Tudor forts and stone palazzi of the really rich a block away, but not loose change either. Denise Tolman’s home squatted at the end of a long, narrow driveway, with a shake roof, green shutters, and ivy everywhere. I parked my seedy Rabbit beside a Mercedes coupe and rang the doorbell. The Rabbit’s electric radiator fan was still whirring and I imagined it whispering to the Mercedes, “Pssst! The Fuehrer lives! Pass it on.”

  A touch of paranoia there. In forty years, the Reich has menaced nothing but Detroit; but I was born in England a few years after the war and childhood attitudes die hard.

  Sergeant-Major Winston was my father’s title then. He named me Spencer Churchill Winston in a peculiar fit of patriotic humor. But “Stoney Winston” now attracts no notice and I’ve schooled myself to speak in bland Los Angelese, as if I were an immigrant from Kansas.

  Denise Tolman opened the door, dressed in jeans and denim shirt, a garden trowel in hand. Hazel eyes in an indistinctly pretty face. Hair a bit too uniformly blond and pants a shade too tight, as if she’d bought the size she hoped she still could fit. Ten years ago, she’d have been a delicious sorority girl with a peachy bloom and bouncing hair. Even now, after a decade of fighting gravity, she was ripely charming. But her soft face and chirpy voice were still back in that sorority, ten years gone.

  Ten years? Fifteen at most. How could she have a grown daughter?

  She led the way past ten thousand dollars’ worth of colonial furniture and out into a vast back yard, where I dropped into a redwood chair beside the pool.

  “I’m so glad you came out here, Stoney.”

  “Hummel said he’d fire me if I didn’t.”

  Wry brackets around her mouth showed she knew Hummel’s courtly ways. “Did Harry tell you what it’s all about?”

  “He played the tape.”

  Denise troweled a hole in a flower bed, inserted a bulb of indeterminate species, and filled the hole again. “I saw some of it. I couldn’t watch very much.”

  “I understand.”

  “I hope you can find the original tape.” I waited out another little burial. “Harry says you know everything about the Industry: every scene shop, sound stage, and prop house in town. He says that’s why you’re a good production manager.”

  “I’m a director.”

  Denise interred another bulb.

  “Where is Lee now?”

  Denise appeared to sift possible answers, then lifted her hands: “I wish I knew. I walked into her room one day with an armful of clothes to put away. She never put away her clothes - did you ever know a girl that did?” Denise flashed a Cute smile, as if from habit. “And she was gone. Empty drawers and closets - well no, she never took her best dresses - but everything else, even little pictures off the walls. The note said sort of, well, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thanks’ and - that was it.” Denise scooped another hole.

  “How long ago was that?”

  “About eight months.” She sculpted the hole, rounding it to perfection, as if to plant a soup can. “And I don’t know why.”

  “Do you want me to find your daughter?”

  “She was Roy’s daughter.” Denise enlarged the hole to fit a coffee tin. “My husband divorced Lee’s mother several years ago. She still lives up the coast, I think: Oxnard, Ventura - someplace like that. Pepe’d know.”

  “Pepe?”

  “Pepe Delgado, my studio manager. He used to make out her alimony checks.” A mournful smile. “Until Roy died.”

  That explained how a woman her age could have a grown daughter. “I wondered where her red hair came from. Well, do you want me to find Lee?”

  She stared into the hole for a long moment, then sighed. “I guess she’s eighteen, now. Maybe Lee wasn’t happy here.” She buried another bulb.

  I changed the subject: “Denise, I know that tape distresses you, but why is it worth so much money?”

  “Have you heard of Isaiah Hammond?”

  “He runs a fundamentalist church in Burbank. Does a lot of TV.”

  “A lot of movies too - mainly Bible stories. They show them on sheets in church basements.”

  “And he makes the movies on your lot.”

  “All the time. About half my income last year.”

  “So they threaten to show the tape to the righteous Reverend Hammond. Do you think he’d yank his production from your studio?”

  “Those awful people: they scream if a TV actress doesn’t wear a bra. I’m just afraid to take chances.”

  “Hm. How did the extortioner contact you?”

  “Somebody called me, and a tape arrived in the mail.”

  “How are you to pay the money?”

  “I don’t know yet. They say they’ll get back to me.”

  I stood up. “Why me? Why haven’t you called the police?”

  “I almost did, but I thought about it. Suppose they caught them. There’d be publicity and Hammond would hear about it anyway.” She rose, stabbing her trowel into the new little plot. “I can’t afford that, Stoney. That crummy studio is all Roy - all I’ve got. “And Pepe says nobody else wants to shoot there.”

  I’d worked on her lot, and recalling that cramped little warren, I could believe her. “I’ve never tried to find anyone before.”

  “I don’t want you to find people. I just want the tape. Please, Stoney, you’re all I can think of.”

  Her body language said poor helpless me, but the stress in her face was real enough. She’d lost her husband and her stepdaughter, and now her livelihood was about to leak away.

  Whatever I did, it couldn’t be just a junket, a two-week respite from horrible Hummel. “I’ll have to think about it. I can’t take your money for nothing. If there’s a chance I can find that tape, I’ll give it a shot.”

  “You can find it.”

  “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

  “No, come back and tell me. We’ll talk about it.”

  She offered her hand and, when I shook it, deposited bits of flower bed in my palm.

  “Oh!” Smiling, flustered, she took my wrist and scraped my hand across he
r denim sleeve. “Tomorrow.”

  * * * *

  Piloting the Rabbit through the interchange they call “The Stack” (in helicopter shots its concrete branches swarm with metal aphids) I struggled up the Hollywood Freeway, reviewing the conversation with Denise.

  I braked as an open semi groaning with produce whipped into line ahead of me. A vegetable dislodged, bounced off the concrete, smacked my grill. I’d killed a tomato.

  Appealing woman, Denise - I mean person.

  A sweet Grandma painted on a building side regarded me gravely as I passed. I assure you, Madam, this is simply business. Grandma looked unconvinced. Oh all right: appealing woman.

  The issue was that tape. If I could find it, I’d actually earn the money. Maybe I could spot something in it that shows where it was made. Better have a look.

  Through the open gate at Finart Studios (One - Arm Willard had left to resume his nap at home) and over to Hummel’s rented bungalow. His crimson Eldorado was gone, so Harry was home too, or out breathing on girls. I opened his dreary office, started up the video rig, and concentrated:

  INTERIOR BEDROOM NIGHT

  1. FULL SHOT: Rear view. Athletic male kneeling on bed, back to camera, between flapping knees of redheaded supine girl.

  CUT TO:

  2.WAIST SHOT: Her point of view. Her partner’s a towheaded, straight-nosed surfing son with a face as blank as a cue ball.

  CUT TO:

  3.INSERT: The gynecological details.

  CUT TO:

  4.CLOSEUP: The surfer’s point of view. Lee Tolman’s head and shoulders against the sheet.

  CUT TO:

  5.FULL SHOT: Rear view as before. The girl revolves onto knees and elbows, pelvis cocked like a puppy with tail in the air and front paws on a bone.

  CUT TO:

  6.TIGHT CLOSEUP: Lee’s face rhythmically pressing the sheet.

  And so on and so forth at tedious length, this glorious old communion reduced to damp machinery. How anyone finds this erotic eludes me.

  Distracted by these doggy rhythms, the mind wanders: how typical she is: pale, sloping breasts, slender arms and shanks, wall-to-wall freckles - except for the protected rump, where cool-white skin laps around the odd coral pimple, the single atoll mole.

  These redheads: Irish, Danish, German, Pole; Gentile, Jew, and God knows what - a secret clan breeding true for centuries across countries and even races. Only three great families even now: Reddish Blond at one extreme; Irish Setter at the other; and in between, your Classic Carrot.

  Like this girl: even her pubic hair’s a hard, even orange - the too-perfect color of a nylon rug.

 
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