A brand new Valentino novel from Harlan Coben’s hero, Loren D. Estleman!
Film detective Valentino is summoned to the estate of Ignacio Bozel to collect a prized donation to the university’s movie library: Bleak Street, a film from the classic noir period, thought lost for more than sixty years.
Bleak Street was never released. Its star, Van Oliver, a gifted and charismatic actor with alleged ties to the mob, disappeared while the project was in post-production, presumably murdered by gangland rivals: another one of Hollywood’s unsolved mysteries. Studio bosses elected to shelve the film rather than risk box-office failure. UCLA’s PR Department is excited about the acquisition, but only if Valentino can find a way to sell it in the mainstream media by way of a sensational discovery to coincide with its release: “We want to know what happened to Oliver.”
A simple quest for a few hundred yards of celluloid opens a portal into a place darker than night.
Indigo will be available on May 26, 2020. Please enjoy the following excerpt.
Harriet said, “but you’ve seen it a thousand times.”
“A gross exaggeration,” said Valentino.
“Okay, nine hundred and ninety-nine. On TV, on silver nitrate, celluloid, VHS, Beta—”
“Enough about Beta. Haven’t you ever made a mistake?”
“—LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray, digital HD; you even followed it frame-by-frame and line-by-line in the pages of the Film Classics Library. Val, during intimate moments you shout out, ‘Play, it, Sam!’ Why would you want to watch it again on such a special occasion?”
“Everyone should see a classic film at least once on a full-size screen in a public theater, with an audience. That’s how it was intended originally.”
She jumped on that. “You’ve seen it that way too, in that art house in Glendale. You geeked out when one of those two girls sitting in front of us whispered to her friend, ‘I bet she doesn’t show up at the train station.’”
“Well, I want to do that again tonight. Seeing Casablanca with someone who’s never seen it before is like watching it for the first time all over again.”
Harriet Johansen stood in the middle of The Oracle’s auditorium, sweeping her arms to encompass the motion picture palace’s gilded and velvet-swagged trim, its mythic statuary and plush brocade. “Why not here? You’ve spent a fortune restoring this barn. Save it for the grand opening. That’s what you and I are celebrating, after all: the butt of the last contract laborer on its way out the door, after five years.”
“Nearer six. We met here, remember.”
“How could I forget? You, me, and a forty-year-old corpse in the basement. Could it be more romantic?”
“Beats hooking up in a chat room.”
She smiled, removed her short silk cape, baring her shoulders, slung it around his neck, and went up on tiptoe to kiss him. Then she pulled back to study his face. “Seriously, what’s wrong with here?”
Valentino shook his head. “It’d be anticlimactic after Grauman’s screened the same film. Who’d bother to see it again so soon?”
“You, for one.” She stopped smiling. “Val, are you putting off actually opening this place to the public?”
“Think you know me, do you?”
“I know I know you. Answer the question.”
“Okay, I’m a little nervous. What if no one comes?”
“You built it. They’ll come.”
His eyes rolled. “That’s terrible.”
“Now you know what it’s like to hang out with you.”
“I just need a little more time—to plan the campaign, I mean. You can’t just throw open the doors and expect people to come pouring in like Black Friday at Macy’s.”
“Okay, you win.” She retrieved her cape and put it back on. “But as long as we’re all dressed up, let’s stop someplace for a drink on the way.”
“I’ll get my wallet. They’re still carding me in my thirties.”
“Stop complaining. Your youthful good looks are what attracted me to you in the first place.”
“You know, deep down, you’re quite shallow.”
He took the hidden stairs to his apartment in the projection booth. For years Valentino had lived among the wreckage of old Hollywood, commuting between The Oracle and UCLA, where he supervised the hunt for and restoration of lost motion pictures for the Film & Television Archive. The rest of the time—that time he didn’t spend with Harriet—he fought with painters, plasterers, plumbers, electricians, inspectors, and his prima donna of an architect. At long last the work was finished—most of it, anyway—and they’d planned this night on the town to commemorate the event.
Harriet was parked in a tow-away zone in front of the theater. The sun visor was tipped down on the driver’s side, showing the word POLICE in block letters. “Shame on you,” Valentino said. “You’re a forensic pathologist. What’s the hurry? All the people you make appointments with are dead. Anyway, you punched out two hours ago.”
“Oh, like you never snuck into the screening room at work to watch the Three Stooges on company time.”
“Their contribution to slapstick cinema—” He fell back against his seat as she peeled away from the curb.
They went east on Broadway. Vintage movie houses rolled past, their names spelled out in neon and incandescent lights: The Million Dollar, The Orpheus, The Pantages, now advertising Spanish-language features for the largely Hispanic local population. By some miracle, a city of restless bulldozers had overlooked this slice of old California. He went there often for architectural inspiration and nostalgia; but much of the neighborhood was crumbling. He’d turned to point out that they had missed Grauman’s Chinese Theater by many blocks when she drew up before the terra-cotta façade of a five-story building older than most of its neighbors and cut the engine.
“Seriously?” he said. “Aren’t we a little overdressed for a mugging?”
“Need I remind you, Merton of the Movies, that more classic films and TV shows have been shot in the Bradbury Building than almost any other place in town? Especially crime stories, which are your favorite.”
“But it’s no place to order a drink! It’s all offices.”
“Well, maybe we’ll find a bottle of Old Grand-Dad in some shamus’ desk drawer.” She opened the door and swung her feet to the ground. He got out and followed her to the entrance, feeling more than usually self-conscious in a well-pressed suit and polished shoes.
But he looked forward to revisiting the Bradbury. In his younger days, before Harriet, before The Oracle, before he had any standing in the university, he’d gone there with a sack lunch just to sit in the foyer and watch ghosts. Thanks to the casting departments of Warner Brothers, Paramount, and RKO, generations of hard-boiled detectives and sadistic racketeers had prowled its halls, leaving their shimmering silver essence behind.
Its exterior was unobtrusive, almost anonymous; practically the only note of character was a plaque assigning it to the National Register of Historic Places. But inside lay a breathtaking display of Gay Nineties splendor: tessellated floors, ceramic fixtures, filigreed stairs that climbed up and up a series of railed balconies, the iconic cage elevator, all visible from ground level because of the air shaft that shot straight to the skylight, prisming California sunshine into old-time Technicolor.
Was it still pristine, or had the carrion-birds of Civic Improvement gutted it to attract orthodontists, CPAs, and designers of web sites? Valentino opened the door for Harriet, feeling as he did so a chill of anticipation mixed with dread.
The lobby—ornate and unchanged—was packed with familiar faces. Professor Kyle Broadhead, the venerable director of the film preservation department, shared space with his young bride, Fanta; Henry Anklemire, the high-pressure PR rep in charge of UCLA’s Information Services; some technicians Valentino had befriended in the lab where films were rescued and restored; and Leo Kalishnikov, the genius (and didn’t he know it!) architect in charge of returning The Oracle to its Roaring Twenties glory.
Harriet applauded. “Perfect!”
“Keep quiet, wait till the door opens, yell ‘Surprise,’” Broadhead said with a shrug. “Pretty hard to screw that up; although I did worry that Val might overhear Kalishnikov’s getup from a block away.”
The architect beamed, as if he’d been paid a compliment. Silver-haired and gaunt, he stood apart from the party-clad crowd in a white double-breasted tuxedo, borsalino hat tipped low over his left ear, and a full-length velour cape, red to match his hatband and shoes. “I made a special trip to my tailor in London just for this occasion.” The Russian’s accent today was pure Sergei Eisenstein; it came and went according to his fancy.
Broadhead said, “And still they let you back in the country.”
Valentino turned to Harriet. “So, no Casablanca?”
“We’ll always have Casablanca.” She turned. “How long have we been planning this, Fanta?”
The younger woman rested a hand on Broadhead’s arm. She was his former student and now his wife—against all odds, given the professor’s long solitary widowhood and the age gap. They were unabashedly devoted to each other. “We started talking about it the first time Val threw the main switch. We were interrupted by the fire engines.”
“The blaze was not unexpected,” her husband added. “What was, was me still being around to attend this soiree. The Great Wall didn’t take as long or exceed the budget by as much.”
Henry Anklemire, his chubby little frame swathed in a faded purple smoking jacket, snorted. “Baloney. You’ll bury us every one. You’re an excrement of the university.”
“You’re an excrement of the university,” said Broadhead. “I’m an ornament. By the way, which long-dead thespian is responsible for that horse blanket you have on?”
“David Niven. Wardrobe department at United Artists will never miss it. This was in one of the pockets: Bonus.” He pointed to his obvious toupee.
“I didn’t know Niven made a Davy Crockett movie. Ouch!”
Fanta squeezed Broadhead’s biceps. “Down, Kyle. This is Val’s night.”
“Yes, dear.” He pried himself loose, rubbing the sore spot, and turned to a rolling cart laden with bottles and trays of hors d’oeuvres. From a gleaming copper ice bucket he plucked a magnum of champagne, swaddled the neck in a linen napkin, and began twisting the wire that secured the cork. “No celebration is complete without dehydrated gray cells and toxic acetaldehyde surging from your liver.”
“A hangover, to the non-biologist,” Harriet said. “You’ve been stepping out on your specialty, Yoda.”
“Purely in its interest. I’ve come to the chapter in my magnum opus on the history of cinema where I dissect The Lost Weekend, The Thin Man, and When a Man Loves a Woman. Our esteemed dean has suggested the title ‘A Dissertation on Dipsomania,’ but rather than induce coma among my dozens of readers I shall call it ‘You’re Out of Scotch.’” The cork shot out with an ear-splitting pop and struck a chord off an iron railing. He stanched the flow of bubbly with the napkin, filled a series of crystal flutes, passed them around, kept one for himself, and lifted it.
“To The Titanic, the Hindenburg, New Coke, and The Oracle: four disasters in declining order of casualties.”
“Very well, my dear. I raise my glass in honor of bold enterprise and devotion to lost glamour, however misdirected.”
“Better, lover. Still not good.” She drank.
The film archivist sipped, raised his eyebrows. “This is fine. I thought you bought all your liquor in Tijuana.”
“Too much trouble now that a passport is required. Mine expired while I was in a cell in Yugoslavia. Anyway, the occasion is stellar. How often does a man escape debtors’ prison?”
“The jury’s still out on that; but thank you.”
Broadhead set down his drink. “Reserve your gratitude for when it’s appropriate.” He walked around behind the cart, drawing everyone’s attention to a sheet-covered rectangle resting on an easel; Valentino had been only half aware of it, dismissing it as part of a repair project, common to old structures of historic importance.
Fanta leaned in close to the guest of honor. “He’s been busting to show you this for days. I had to promise him sexual favors to hold off.”
Valentino grimaced. “Thank you for that image.”
A tasseled cord hung alongside the drapery. Broadhead, standing next to it, took hold of this, paused, and tugged hard. The cloth slid to the floor without interruption.
A hush followed, shattered by spontaneous applause.
“Oh, my.” Valentino stared. “Oh, my.”
It was an oil painting in a Deco frame, a portrait of a stunningly beautiful woman, rendered by an artist of rare talent. Her cascade of raven hair caught the light in haloes as if she were standing directly across from Valentino. A naked shoulder was opalescent. The eyes—part defiant, part fragile—were a bewitching shade of hazel; they lacked only the addition of a green scarf to turn them to jade. The lips were full and exquisitely shaped. It was a face without flaws.
There wasn’t a sound in the room. Even Anklemire, far from the most sensitive soul in attendance, stood mute, his glass raised halfway to his lips and motionless.
“Laura.” The name came out in a whisper, as if Valentino had spoken in church.
“The same,” said Broadhead, “yet different. When Rouben Mamoulian was signed to direct, he commissioned his wife to paint this picture. Gene Tierney posed for it in person. But it isn’t the one everyone remembers from Laura. When Otto Preminger came on to replace Mamoulian, he rejected it. I gather it had something to do with her gaze set in the wrong direction; wrong, I suspect, because it wasn’t directed at Preminger. Anyway he had a studio photograph blown up and air-brushed to resemble a painting. That one’s unavailable, and if it were, it would be beyond most people’s means. This one is dear enough, but because it’s less well-known, the price was far more reasonable.”
“Even so, Kyle, you can’t possibly afford this.”
“Right you are. We ornaments of the university are vastly overrated and notoriously underpaid. But he can.”
Valentino turned to follow the direction of Broadhead’s pointing finger. From a corner he’d have sworn was deserted only moments earlier stepped an elegant-looking old man, with white hair fine as sugar combed back from his forehead, very brown skin, and eyes the color of mahogany. His thin build created an impression of height; in fact he was only slightly taller than Anklemire, but a creature from an entirely different species. His evening clothes were silk, the jacket and trousers midnight blue, the shirt snow-white, and his black patent leather shoes glistened like volcanic glass. He was ancient, but erect, and his smile was both genuine and modest.
The smile broadened. “You remember me. Swell!”
Valentino took the slim brown hand that was offered him. Although the fingers were bony, his grip was firm and dry.
“How could I not? The party you threw to commemorate your gift to my department was almost as lavish as the donation itself. Wherever did you find a cache of George Hurrell’s studio stills no one had seen in eighty years?”
“No comment. An old mug like me needs his secrets.”
Ignacio Bozal’s habitual use of forties-era urban slang, so much in contrast with his Castilian accent, surprised and amused everyone who met him for the first time: He looked like a Spanish grandee and talked like a combination of Allen Jenkins and Broderick Crawford.
Twenty years before immigrating to the United States, he’d suddenly appeared in Acapulco with a bankroll big enough to buy and renovate a broken-down resort hotel and open for business just before the birth of the Mexican Riviera. His American investors accepted his claim that he’d been a silent partner in a gold mine somewhere in the Sierras; but then they’d profited too greatly from the association to press for specifics.
Valentino, whose department was so much richer for Bozal’s contributions, was similarly inclined.
“The minute I heard about this shindig, I decided to crash the gate. But I ain’t so rough around the edges I’d come empty-handed.” The old man gestured toward the painting.
“It’s too generous,” Valentino said. “I’ve done nothing to justify such a present.”
“Maybe not. But you will, if we can come to a deal.”
The old man’s gentle appearance was reassuring; it was his underworld vernacular that lent a sinister interpretation to the remark. On a soundstage, the camera operator would dolly in for a close-up of his enigmatic expression just before fading out.
Harriet, who had stopped at one glass of champagne and made free with the canapés, drove. Laura, cocooned in the sheet that had veiled her, rode in the back seat. The theaters were dark at that hour, and the streetlamps, spaced farther apart there than in the busier neighborhoods, illuminated Harriet’s profile in flickers.
“How old do you think Bozal is?” she said.
Valentino came out of a half-doze; he’d stopped at one canapé and made free with the champagne. “Based on what little is known of his history, my guess is he’s approaching the century mark, not that you’d know it to look at him.”
“How much do you know about his history?”
“I told you where he says he got his capital. Personally, it sounds a little too close to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Did you notice the way he talks?”
“How could I miss it? It’s like Dick Tracy marinated in Cesar Romero.”
“When he came to this country, the TV airwaves were jammed with sports, soap operas, and old movies. He didn’t follow sports, and the soaps weren’t his cup of tea, so he learned his English from films Hollywood considered too old to re-release to theaters, so they dumped them on television. His preference happened to run to gangster movies. Anyway, that’s his story.”
“I don’t have one, but any man who comes out of nowhere with a bundle is bound to attract rumors: He made his stake harboring Nazi war criminals in Brazil, or was a member of the Perón government in Argentina, where he looted the treasury.”
They entered West Hollywood, where the glow of the thousands of bulbs that illuminated the marquee of The Oracle were visible for blocks. After decades of darkness, it pleased him to come home to a dazzling display. Kyle Broadhead, less romantic, referred to it as “a human sacrifice to the gaping maw of Consolidated Edison.”
“You don’t think there’s any truth to the rumors, do you?” Harriet said.
“Of course not. In the absence of evidence, people will go to any lengths to provide a substitute; and they never gossip about the basic goodness of Man.”
She smiled. “I like that you believe that. So why do you like crime thrillers so much?”
“When I feel blue, I watch Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. When I feel naughty, I watch Lawrence Tierney plotting a murder with Claire Trevor. The first cheers me up; the second keeps me from acting on my baser instincts.”
“‘Baloney,’ to quote Henry Anklemire. What’s this deal Bozal was talking about, in return for the painting? You were off in a corner together, whispering like a couple of heisters.”
He laughed, hiccupped; excused himself. “Two minutes with him and you sound like Bonnie Parker. He’s invited me to his house tomorrow morning.”
“That sounds like more of a favor for you than for him.”
“He was cagy about it, but from some broad hints he made I gather he’s come into a film that shouldn’t be screened except by someone who knows how to manage old stock. Of course he has a home theater, and of course it will make The Oracle look like an all-night grindhouse in San Diego.”
“I wouldn’t rule anything out where Bozal is concerned. He’s one of the biggest private collectors in the business. If I play my cards right, I’ll pick up some tips on how he manages to find such treasures without the resources of a major university behind him.”
“Greedy. You’ve already got Laura.”
“Told you I have baser instincts.”
They pulled up in front of the Baroque/Italianate/ Byzantine pile of sandstone, with bulbs chasing up, down, and around the towering marquee: GRAND OPENING SOON, read the legend in foot-high letters.
“How are you feeling tonight?” Her brows were arched. “Blue or naughty?”
“Inebriated as a North American mammal of the weasel family.” He got out, stumbling, opened the back door, and leaned in to retrieve the portrait.
She alighted from her side. “You’d better let me carry that. You’re liable to trip and put your head through it, and then you’ll feel like Abbott and Costello.”
Court Street was old town, wop town, cook town, any town. It lay across the top of Bunker Hill and you could find anything there from down-at-heels ex-Greenwich-villagers to crooks on the lam, from ladies of anybody’s evening to County Relief clients brawling with haggard landladies in grand old houses with scrolled porches, parquetry floors, and immense sweeping banisters of white oak, mahogany and Circassian walnut.
That was how Raymond Chandler, the great (and unabashedly politically incorrect) detective-story pioneer had described the place in his own time. His works had poured the foundation for film noir, Ignacio Bozal’s crash course on English as a second language, and incidentally Valentino’s guiltiest pleasure. Some of these dark forays into the abnormal psychology of crime had been based on Chandler’s novels and stories, others were filmed directly from his screenplays; most of the rest bore his influence.
Although Valentino knew the neighborhood well—and as recently as last night’s celebration in the Bradbury Building—he looked forward to returning as a guest of its most famous resident.
There’s nothing rarer than an East L.A. millionaire. That paradox was enough in itself to pique the film archivist’s interest, without the added incentive of an invitation to screen some mysterious property possibly lost for generations. Together, they’d compelled him to cancel his day’s appointments and brave the gangs and carjackers who preyed upon the honest residents to pay the old man a visit.
There, scorning the mansions of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, Ignacio Bozal had bought a city block of modest houses in the largely Mexican-American suburb of Los Angeles. A wall went up around it, sheltering his middle-aged children, grown grandchildren, and great-grandchildren under his benevolent eye. He’d kept the largest home for himself and converted it to make room for his various collections; an example of one of which boated into the curb in front of The Oracle and blew a horn that played the first four notes of the Dragnet theme.
“Boated” sprang to mind the moment Valentino pushed through the brass-framed front door to the sidewalk: The car was more than twenty feet long, most of its length belonging to the hood, which resembled the visor of a Medieval knight’s helmet. The cup-shaped headlights were encased in gleaming chromium to match wheel covers the size of hula hoops, and the paint was two-tone, liquid black and royal purple, baked on in so many coats it made a man dizzy staring into the depths of his own reflection.
The next surprise was the driver. Such a rig suggested a chauffeur in livery. Instead, Bozal himself leaned across the front seat from behind the wheel to swing open the door on the passenger’s side. He was dressed casually in an old rust-colored suede jacket, threadbare at the elbows, faded jeans, penny loafers, and a billed cap bearing the logo of what his guest suspected belonged to a Mexican baseball team: a rattlesnake coiled around a bat with a cigar in its mouth.
“Bugatti Type ’forty-one,” he said as they peeled away from the curb, the motor churning like a powerful dynamo beneath the country block of hood. “The Royale. Only seven ever made, back in ’thirty-one. The kings of Spain and Belgium each had one. That year I had a bike that blew a tire before I rode it the distance from the rear bumper to the front; not that I ever saw one of these babies then.”
Valentino felt swaddled in rich aromatic leather. The old man was a skilled driver, careful but confident. The white-enamel elephant attached to the radiator cap remained rock-steady in the center of the lane. The scenery slid by precisely at the speed limit, according to the gauge in the padded dash. This was what it must have been like to ride in a first-class cabin on the Twentieth Century Limited.
Nearing Bunker Hill, enough of the Victorian homes were still standing to help Chandler find his bearings, but he’d have been nonplused by the high-rise buildings that had sprung up to cast their shadows on the spires and turrets. They crossed into East L.A., passing Mexican restaurants, corner markets, and long stretches of cinder block sporting gaily colored murals, then purred to a stop before an iron gate in a stucco wall sprayed all over with graffiti. Bozal tilted his head toward the peace signs, hallucinogenic images, and aerosol text in two languages.
“Kids, they gotta have whatchacallit artistic release. I don’t mind it, ’cause I’m behind it.” He punched the horn.
After a short interval the gate opened and a young Hispanic man in a tailored gray uniform stepped outside. Blue-white teeth shone in a brown face. “Hi, Grandpapa!”
“We have a guest, Ernesto.”
“Sí! Welcome, señor.” He stood aside and they cruised through the opening.
The compound reminded Valentino of a barrio scene in Border Crossing: tawny children in baggy swimsuits frolicking in the spray from an open fire hydrant, substantially built women in light summer dresses sitting on porches, sleek-haired hombres in bright sport shirts smoking cigarettes and conversing in rapid Spanish on the sidewalks. There was plenty of family resemblance to go around. His host had established a colony of his own north of the border, a modern-day Cortez expanding his influence deep into gringo country.
At the end of the block they turned into a circular driveway paved with limestone around a gushing fountain. A motionless parade of exotic automobiles parked bumper-to-bumper formed a horseshoe around the edge. The guest knew little about makes and models, but he was aware that the low-slung convertibles, bus-shaped sedans, high-centered horseless carriages, and slab-sided hardtops covered the history of the motorcar from early days to the Kennedy years. They were enameled in canary yellow, emerald green, candy-apple red, cerulean blue, and gunmetal gray, and all glistening as if they’d been run through a gigantic dishwasher and dipped in molten wax.
“Overflow,” Bozal said, pulling up behind a seven-passenger touring car straight out of the original Scarface (it might well have been in the movie, at that) and setting the brake. “I knocked down five bungalows to make room for a garage and it still wasn’t big enough. I’m waiting for my granddaughter next door to get hitched, then I’ll doze her place and build on. Her fiancé’s got a job waiting in Omaha, for cat’s sake. Maybe I’ll get some good steaks out of the deal.”
The house was the biggest in the compound, although it was by no means palatial; its owner seemed to have had more interest in obtaining room to display his treasures than to loll in the lap of luxury.
“Hello, Grandfather.” A woman in her twenties, pretty but pouty-looking, opened the front door. She wore a red dress, modest in design, but her trim figure, lustrous black hair, and healthy flush under olive-colored skin made it provocative.
Bozal introduced Valentino. “Esperanza, my granddaughter. Not the one who’s deserting me for the Nebraska wilderness. I offered to put her through college, but she insists on working her way to a master’s; in communications, no less. She could be head curator of the Motion Picture Hall of Fame, but she wants to produce a news show on cable.”
“CNN,” she clarified. “C-SPAN would be my next choice. Movies are my grandfather’s thing, not mine; but he’s forgiven me so far as to pay me three times the going wage for answering the door and taking visitors’ coats.” Despite her solemn expression, a merry light glimmered in her eye. Valentino saw something more than idle mischief when their gazes met; but he was off the market: a mantra worth repeating. She swiveled aside for them to pass.
“What’s your poison?” Bozal took up a post behind a sleek white bar with a wall-size mirror at his back. The glittering display of liquor bottles and stemmed glasses slung upside-down from the ceiling might have belonged to a gangster boss’s lair on a 1940s soundstage.
“It’s early for me, thanks.”
“You ain’t had practice.” He poured amber liquid from a cut-glass decanter into a tumbler, squirted in seltzer, and carried his drink down into a sunken living room.
The room was done in neutral tones, a sharp contrast to the warm, vibrant colors that decorated the rest of the neighborhood. It was like stepping from bright glare into shade. The chairs and sofas were upholstered in cushy leather. Above the mantel hung a portrait of a woman with the proud features of a Spanish patrician. She wore jet buttons in her ears and a plain blouse cut low to show off her shoulders. It was as haunting as the painting now in Valentino’s possession, the original centerpiece for the film Laura.
Bozal saw the cast of his glance. “Estrella, my wife. I lost her fifty years ago. Damn careless, if you ask me.”
“Don’t be. She wouldn’t know regret if it bit her on the nose. She’s responsible for everything you lay eyes on here. All I did was supply the juice. Wasn’t for her, I’d be one of them parasites you see in the country clubs, palling around with cheap broads in expensive perfume.” He lifted his glass to the image and sipped.
“But why East L.A.?”
“Might as well ask why Beverly Hills? There, I’d be just a spick with money, probably earned pushing drugs; a racist neighbor with unlimited credit is still a son of a bitch in a sheet. Here, I’m part of the community, something bigger than me.”
They sat facing each other in matching armchairs.
“I can’t thank you enough for Laura,” Valentino said. “It will occupy the place of honor in the lobby of The Oracle.”
“Just don’t fall in love with it. That gag only works in movies, and then only through the closing credits. The audience rips it apart on the way home.”
Bozal aimed a porcelain smile over the edge of his glass. It was as vaguely sinister as his eccentric use of the English language. “Okay, sure. But lay off the thanks till you see my end of the deal. You may want to give it back.”
Harriet was wrong.
Partially, anyway. While the theater Bozal had installed in the lower level of his home didn’t make The Oracle look like a dump tailor-made for showing barely acceptable features, it outstripped the grandest screening rooms commissioned by major movie stars and most neighborhood picture houses.
He’d taken a larger-than-average basement, extended it under his multi-car garage, and hired a team of contractors to turn it into something Valentino could describe only as an underground mall: what seemed miles of tiled hallway passed a replica of a 1930s automobile showroom, complete with Depression-era models in mint condition on display, brightly gleaming, a mid-century-type service station built of white glazed brick with a black 1955 Porsche pulled up to the pumps—waiting, it seemed, for James Dean to bring the engine to life and speed toward his date with destiny—and a men’s haberdashery stocked with mannequins decked out in vests, double-breasted suits, and snappy fedoras, decorated with patriotic posters advertising war bonds to fight the Axis.
Their way led at last to the theater itself, a plush Art Moderne palace lit by wall sconces, with stadium seating to accommodate two dozen viewers and gold velvet curtains cloaking a screen with a stage for live performances between shows.
“It’s magnificent,” was all the visitor could find to say.
“You should’ve seen it when I bought the place. The previous owner hosted cockfights down here. His neighbors turned him in. He needed quick money to pay his lawyer, so I got it for a song. ’Course, more excavation and the retro-fitting ate up the difference. Let’s go see the projection booth.”
A door concealed in the molding led up a short flight of stairs into a square chamber with walls of plain concrete. It contained an ultramodern laser projector mounted to the ceiling and a black steel giant resembling a locomotive. It had reels the size of platters and a threading system as complicated as the Gordian knot.
Valentino goggled at this. “Is that a ’forty-four Bell and Howell?”
“’Forty. I scored it in a junk shop in Tehuantepec, where it’d been busy collecting dust and mouse turds for sixty years. Took me another ten to track down replacement parts from all over the world. I had to buy a shut-down theater in Prague just to get the lens assembly. Outfit in Detroit made the arc lamp from scratch; Bausch and Lomb the reflector mirror. I lucked out on the mechanic. He was retired, living right down there in the Valley. He’d never worked on a projector before, but it’s just a series of simple machines, going back to the Greeks.”
“How big is your silver-nitrate collection?”
“Big enough. But I went to all that bother for just one.”
Bozal turned and took a pizza-size film can off a steel utility rack. “Ever hear of a mug named Van Oliver?”
The abrupt question surprised Valentino. Plainly the old man had little patience for small talk. “Old-time picture actor. He was murdered, supposedly. Another one of Hollywood’s unsolved mysteries.”
His host jerked his chin, approving. Aged and slight as he was—his gold Rolex and cuff links looked too heavy for his fragile wrists—all his movements were steady and his eyes bright as a bird’s. “That’s refreshing. Most people don’t know Van Oliver from Oliver Hardy.”
“We can’t all be buffs. Most people wouldn’t know him. He only made one movie, and it—” He stopped, looking at the can. He felt the old familiar thrill.
Bozal’s smile was wicked. It was the privilege of rich men to carry suspense to the brink of cruelty. “Officially, he just disappeared. My bet is they buried him up in the hills, or rowed him out past Catalina and dumped him overboard in a cement overcoat. In those days, you couldn’t convict anyone of murder in the State of California without a corpse. I guess the law didn’t want to fry someone just because someone else decided to take a powder and forgot to tell anyone, but it sure sold a lot of shovels and quicklime.”
“It was almost a double murder, if you can apply the term to a movie studio,” said Valentino. “He’d been getting the kind of star treatment they reserve for major properties: elocution lessons, tailors, a big flashy car, dates with glamour queens, and an army of press agents, so he could make a splash during interviews and premieres. Only he couldn’t, because he died before the film was released. They shelved it. That was the end of RKO.”
“Helped by that nut Howard Hughes. Sooner or later he drove everything he owned into the ground. You can’t keep hiring and firing and quadrupling budgets and stay in business. Lucy told me the best day in her life was the day she bought the studio, four years after RKO fired her.”
“You knew Lucille Ball?”
“Through Desi. In those days the Spanish colony in Hollywood was thick as thieves.”
Valentino had never met anyone closely connected with I Love Lucy, Desi Arnaz, and the birth of Desilu Studios.
“That was in fifty-seven,” Bozal said. “They might have recut and reshot the picture to build up one of the other players and brought it out later, but the noir cycle was on its last legs. Welles’s Touch of Evil came out the next year and tanked.”
He snarled out the side of his mouth. “Universal butchered Evil in post-production; shoved Welles right off the cliff, so of course it under-performed. Nothing’s changed in sixty years except the suits. Anyway, the Oliver vehicle went the same way as its star. Nobody gave a rat’s behind about preservation then. Re-release was strictly for proven properties, the studios had already sold their old libraries to television, and there was no video. Desilu edited down the script to an hour for TV, but none of the networks would touch it, even with a new cast. In this town a bad rep has a half-life of a hundred years. You know the title?”
“Bleak Street,” Valentino said. “Oliver played a racketeer loosely based on Bugsy Siegel. Only he didn’t play him the way pioneer actors played gangsters in the thirties. The few insiders who saw the dailies said he had an entirely new take on the character. If the movie had been allowed to open, it would have revolutionized the crime film the way The Godfather did fifteen years later.”
“Not just crime pictures. Acting; only it didn’t seem like acting. Edward G. Robinson was nasty, Paul Muni a goon, Jimmy Cagney was like a bomb about to go off. Oliver was entirely natural; you wouldn’t know he was reading lines. Also it’s clear no stunt doubles were used for his fight scenes. It wasn’t like watching a movie, more like something happening right in front of you, that you might be sucked into any time: disturbing, which was ideal for the form. There was even a rumor he wrote the screenplay himself under a pseudonym, or at least made changes in the text. The plot had all the usual clichés, but I’d stand the production up beside anything else out there.”
As he warmed to his subject, Bozal’s speech shifted away from street lingo toward more formal language, using jargon familiar to any story conference. Clearly the old man’s passion outstripped his affectations. What was more to the point, he wasn’t parroting something he’d read or heard; he spoke as someone who’d seen the evidence firsthand. The shock of hope Valentino had felt settled into a cozy hum. He had little doubt now what was in the can.
He wondered if he was a latent masochist. He put off asking the question that was foremost on his mind. Instead he drew out the excruciating pleasure of suspense.
“What made everyone so certain he was killed? Sudden success can be terrifying. Maybe he just dropped out of sight because he couldn’t take the pressure. It was easier then to relocate and make up a new identity.”
“His kind thrives on pressure; enduring it as well as applying it. How do you think he did such a good job capturing a gangster’s personality? He came here from New York to work for Mickey Cohen, the local mob boss.”
“Bodyguard; not that the little twerp needed one. He already had an army on the job. He thought surrounding himself with muscle made him look like a bigger shot than he was. Some folks said Oliver got bored with sitting around Mickey’s house in Brentwood watching Roy Rogers and started making hits on the side.”
“Sounds like typical Hollywood hokum.”
“Probably. That last part anyway. But he’d been seen around town with Mickey, shooting golf and picking up dames in nightclubs. When the Bleak Street hype started, the attention got to be too much for his employers. They were camera shy after so many big-time operators got themselves deported or shut up for tax evasion. They cut their losses same way they did with Bugsy Siegel back in ’forty-seven, only by then they’d learned not to be so public about it.”
Valentino banked his fires. His profession had taken him close to criminal territory before, and he hadn’t enjoyed the experience. “How much of this is likely and how much gossip?”
Bozal tented his shoulders, let them drop. “In this town, who can say? Is there any other place so visible, yet so frequently out of focus?” He drummed his fingers on the edge of the film can.
His guest couldn’t hold out any longer. “Where’d you find it?”
Copyright © Loren D. Estleman
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