Desert Spring

A Claire Gray Mystery

Claire Gray Mysteries (Volume 3)

Michael Craft

Minotaur Books

Desert Spring
PART ONE
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1
"Claire." The whisper came from behind, mouthed over my shoulder in the darkness. My name drifted forward on warm, stale breath with a thin cloak of mint. "It hasn't aged a bit--fresh as the day you wrote it."
"It" was a play titled Traders. I hadn't written it in a day, but over the course of several months, some five years earlier, when I had suspended my directing career on Broadway and retreated to my alma mater to spend a year as a visiting professor. That hiatus, during which I was tucked away in a sleepy college town in the foothills of the Berkshires, had been prompted by an itch to try my hand as a playwright. By all accounts, I succeeded. Traders enjoyed instant critical acclaim when I premiered it at Evans College that spring, and the show met subsequent success both on Broadway (under my own direction, of course) and in Hollywood, where the play was adapted to film. I snagged a Tony; the Oscar was a near miss.
History, in a sense, was now repeating itself. On a Saturday night in April, I sat in the darkened auditorium of a theater on a college campus, watching a performance of Traders that I had directed. But I was nowhere near the Berkshires; I was some three thousand miles southwest, in the Sonoran Desert, near Palm Springs, California, on the campus of Desert Arts College. And this time, I was not a visiting professor, but head of the theater department, a permanentcareer shift that I had embarked upon the previous autumn. At fifty-four, I was starting over.
"Claire," repeated Kiki, resting her fingers on my shoulder, speaking into my ear, "you've outdone yourself. The role was made for Tanner." Each whispered word ruffled a tuft of hair at my temple. I shuddered as a tickling sensation shot down my neck.
I acknowledged her praise mutely, reaching to pat her fingers. Our silent touch conveyed an easy, wordless understanding rooted in more than thirty years of friendship.
Kiki Jasper-Plunkett had attended Evans with me as a fellow theater major. We'd graduated on the same day, then had gone our separate ways, each on a quest for theatrical glory, mine in directing, hers in costuming. My path had led to New York, while Kiki's had taken her back to Evanstown, where her decades of tenure as head costumer would eventually entitle her to chair the department. Ah, the codified perks of academia.
A hand touched my other shoulder. "Bravo, Claire," whispered another voice, drifting from behind on breath as stale as Kiki's--we'd all been sitting in silence for over two hours, and I was tempted to beg for one of Kiki's mint pellets. The voice, that of D. Glenn Yeats, continued, "You've delivered more than I dreamed possible." With my free hand, I patted his. Grateful for the cover of darkness, I mused that anyone observing me at that moment would have found my contortion ludicrous. With arms crossed high against my chest, one hand touching Kiki's, the other touching Glenn's, I seemed to mimic the stately repose of an embalmed pharaoh. There I sat, fallen royalty.
Glenn Yeats, local royalty of our desert kingdom and very much alive, had taken a backseat to me that evening--literally--sitting behind me in the theater, next to Kiki. Glenn constantly told me that this splendid new playhouse was "mine," but in truth, it was his; he had built it for me, using it as bait to lure me from NewYork. As founder and president of Desert Arts College, Glenn had built not only the theater, but the entire campus--his way of "giving back" to society after amassing billions as the brains behind his famed computer-software empire. He was a wealthy geek with a soft spot for the arts, particularly the dramatic arts. Lucky me.
But I digress. The focus of attention that April evening was not on me or on Glenn Yeats, but onstage, where the last scene of Traders had enthralled our closing-night audience, a many-headed mistress wooed by my cast, a faceless crowd sitting breathless in the dark, hanging on every word. I wish I could say that I alone, as author and director, was responsible for this enchantment, but theater is a collaborative art, with its magic dependent on the creative efforts of many. As Traders drew to its close, however, the audience doted not on the scenery, costumes, writing, or lighting, but solely on Tanner Griffin.
Starring in the central role of Jerome, my discovery and protégé was breathing new life into the role I had written. With a maturity of insight remarkable for his twenty-six years, Tanner had found a level of meaning in my script that had eluded even me. He'd captured his audience with a definitive performance that would be the topic of bragging for years to come. "I was there," they would effuse. "I saw Tanner Griffin play Jerome, live. What a night! He was virtually unknown back then, long before his first film."
Long before? Barely. Tanner was just on the verge of making his transition from stage to screen. The contracts had already been written and signed. He would soon become an image, an icon projected through a lens, ephemeral as flickering light. But tonight he was flesh and blood.
Visceral too was his interpretation of the monologue that ends my play. I heard my own words as if freshly coined by him. The thoughts I had committed to paper now spun from his lips as if they were his spontaneous creation. With everyone else, I sat agogas he uttered the final lines. His head slowly bowed as the curtain began to fall. The lights faded to black.
A moment of appreciative silence was followed by hesitation, then a burst of applause as the lights rose for curtain call. During the blackout, Tanner had left the stage, so the intensity of applause grew as each cast member entered from the wings. The audience understood that Tanner would be last to appear, and when he did, the crowd instantly, collectively rose to their feet--no laggards. Their tribute was punctuated by hoots, whistles, and a smattering of bravos.
Tanner had proven, in spades, that he could act, and his astounding good looks left everyone drooling, men and women alike. He seemed genuinely humbled by this reception, which only heightened his allure. In short, the audience adored him, just as I'd predicted.
What I had not predicted, and would have nixed had I foreseen it, was Tanner's subsequent gesture into the crowd--toward me. Rising from a bow, he extended both arms in my direction and began to clap with the others, inciting a chorus of "Author, author."
A spotlight swung in my direction, and I began to suspect that this impulsive tribute had been rehearsed. I wagged my hands as if to shush the needless hoo-ha, but the wave of adulation would not be quelled. Now the entire cast had joined Tanner in beckoning me to join them onstage. I placed my palm on my chest and shook my head demurely, signaling that while I appreciated the recognition, I had no intention of moving from my seat--which only exacerbated the crowd's raucous insistence that I take the stage.
"Good God, doll. I think you'd better go peaceably, or they're apt to hoist you overhead, mob-style, passing you from row to row, kicking and yelping." From the row in front of me, Grant Knoll winked, adding, "Not very ladylike." In the seven months since mymove to California, Grant had become my closest friend. Not only did we find ourselves emotionally in sync, but the thrum of our lives had shared much in common. Most notably, although neither of us had ever married, we had both recently found romance. Not with each other. We both liked men.
"He's right, Claire," said Spencer Wallace, standing next to me, applauding warmly. A celebrity in his own right, Spencer was variously known as Megahit Wallace or Mr. Blockbuster. As Hollywood's reigning producer, his name was a household word, synonymous with movie-making. He had sat next to me in the theater that night because I had invited him to the closing performance of Traders and to the party at my home, which would follow. Four months earlier, I had invited him to the opening performance of Laura, my first production at the college, and he had discovered, as I was certain he would, that Tanner Griffin was blessed with star magnetism. Spencer had now signed Tanner to appear in his next film, and preproduction would begin the next week. Tonight, Tanner's brief period of study at Desert Arts College was drawing to a close.
"Yeah, Claire, go on. You're the real star tonight." Arnold Manley, standing at my other side, squeezed my arm and nudged me toward the aisle. Manny had been an earlier protégé of mine, an aspiring actor back in New York. I had cast him as Jerome in the Broadway premiere of Traders, and when the play was later adapted to film, Manny made the transition as well. Now in his mid-thirties, Arnold Manley had solidly established a career as one of Hollywood's most respected actors.
Manny's comment, that I was the real star tonight, seemed on the surface both flattering and modest, and I was willing to accept it as such. But a point of fact did not escape me. Tanner Griffin was the star tonight--not I--and, more pointedly, not Manny. So I couldn't help wondering if my earlier protégé now harbored agnawing resentment of my younger discovery. Not that I'd ever known Manny to be conniving or petulant, but he had clearly been upstaged this evening in the role that had first brought him fame. What's more, although Manny was unquestionably attractive and photogenic, Tanner Griffin ... well, Tanner still took my breath away every time my eyes fell upon him.
Setting these thoughts aside, I worked my way through the row of seats, brushing knees with patrons who scrunched back to let me pass. Many knew me, offering words of congratulation, a pat on the back, or a kiss on the cheek; all continued to applaud.
When at last I'd made my way to the aisle, I paused to straighten my dress and unrumple the wrinkles from my lap--in the white-hot glare of a follow spot. The aisle was carpeted in deep crimson, matching the velvet upholstery of the seats, which I had chosen. Would it be shamelessly vain to admit that I had decorated my theater to coordinate with my wardrobe? Don't get me wrong; my taste for red is not an all-consuming, self-defining passion. Though I generally wear at least a touch of red, I make a full-blown splash in that color only on special occasions. Tonight certainly qualified, and I wore a new nubby-silk suit of bloody scarlet. There was nothing subtle about it--talk about theatrical flair. As I strutted toward the stage in the spotlight, the audience roared its approval.
As if by magic (it had been rehearsed, I decided), a set of rehearsal stairs was rolled to the stage apron to accommodate my ascent from the auditorium floor. Tanner stepped forward to assist me, taking my hand. As he escorted me to center stage, I spoke into his ear, "This is punishable by death, you know."
"I'll risk it." Then he turned me to the audience, stepped back a pace, and joined the others in their sustained applause.
It would be disingenuous of me to claim I was embarrassed.Having spent most of my life in theaters, I felt no discomfort in being the target of a thousand admiring eyes. As for the applause, well, perhaps it was a bit much--a surfeit of nourishment--but nourishment it was, like food or oxygen, the very lifeblood of theater, the payback, the bouquet tossed onstage by our many-headed mistress. I offered a simple but self-confident bow with the trace of a smile that told the crowd, My, I do admire your taste.
Surely, I thought, they now had what they wanted and we could all go home. But the ovation didn't dwindle in the least. So I turned to Tanner, offering my arms, and we indulged in a full embrace--prompting cheers--before joining hands with the rest of the cast for a long, last, deep bow.
 
As the curtain fell, the audience finally rested their reddened hands and broke into happy chatter. Purses snapped. Keys rattled. Cellophane crackled as mints found their way to dry mouths.
Backstage, emotions were equally high but colored with the bittersweet awareness that the pressure was off, the show was over. All those weeks of hard work had produced the intended effect--we had created a new reality for our audience, transporting them to another world for a few hours. But the theatrical experience, by nature, is fleeting. It's not like a movie, wound on a reel, stored in a can. Theater packs its punch, then vanishes.
So our laughter and backslapping was punctuated by sniffles and underlaid by the anxiety of losing something that, only moments earlier, had been tangible and living, something that was now slipping irreversibly into memory. I'd been doing this for over thirty years, shepherding hundreds of productions from start to finish, but it never got easier. While opening night always carried overtones of birth, the obverse metaphor also applied.
Parents and friends of the cast had begun to find their way backstagefrom the auditorium. Amid the squeals and giddy laughter, I stepped close to Tanner and held both of his hands. "You were magnificent," I told him softly. "Thank you."
"Thank me?" He shook his head; thick locks of sandy-blond hair, damp from the rigors of his performance, swung across his forehead. "I owe everything to you--the script, the training, the opportunity. I can't thank you enough."
"Then the gratitude is mutual. Each of us will have to endure the frustration of owing greater thanks than we feel we deserve in return."
Tanner cast his eyes upward, into the fly space above the stage, features pinched in thought. "I ... I guess I follow that." He laughed.
"Miss Gray?"
I turned. Thad Quatrain, one of the younger members of our college troupe, had approached me from behind, still glowing with the excitement of our performance and the rush of our curtain call; I'd have sworn I could hear the kid's adrenaline pumping. I gave him a hug. "Good show, Thad. There'll be bigger things ahead for you next year." With Tanner leaving, I would need to start grooming other leading men.
"Thank you, Miss Gray," he gushed. "I don't know if I can wait till fall, though. Have you decided about the summer program?"
"Nothing's final yet, but I think I can pull it together. If I do, can you stay?"
He nodded eagerly. "Mark says it's up to me." He was speaking of his uncle and guardian, Mark Manning, a journalist from Wisconsin who was back at home now, having attended our opening, two weeks prior.
"Excellent. Knowing you're available, I'm that much closer to committing to the summer program. I'll let you know."
"Great."
"Hey, Thad," said Tanner, slinging an arm over the kid's shoulder, "let's get cleaned up. Party tonight."
"I'll see you there," I told them both as they headed offstage toward the dressing rooms. Tanner needed a shower, but even those actors who'd played less taxing roles needed to remove their makeup before leaving the theater--lest they break one of the many taboos that rule the art of Thespis.
"There you are, doll." Grant Knoll rushed toward me from the wings, a nice-looking man, not quite fifty, stylish in his linen slacks and silk blazer, both in muted desert tones. "I thought perhaps you'd ascended into the heavens, carried from our mortal midst on that wave of adulation. What a curtain call!" He flung his arms around me and offered a big, sloppy, congratulatory kiss.
I accepted it with pleasure. With a tsk, I dismissed the significance of the ovation, telling Grant, "It was all a bit much."
He shot me a skeptical look. "Nonsense. Milady loved it."
Under my breath, I told him, "Well, of course I did."
"Oh"--he remembered his manners--"have you met Brandi Bjerregaard yet?" He ushered from behind him the woman he'd escorted to the theater that night. She was younger than Grant by about ten years, attractive in a stark, urban sort of way.
"No, I haven't." I offered my hand to the woman.
She shook it--very businesslike--as Grant explained, "Brandi is a fellow real-estate broker and developer, working out of Los Angeles."
"Birds of a feather ... ," she singsonged, referring to her and Grant's similar line of work.
"And, uh ... ," I asked awkwardly, "where's Kane tonight?" For the last several months, Grant had been settling into a live-in relationship with a much younger man, Kane Richter, a graphic-design student at the college who also served as an office intern in the publicity department of the campus art museum. Despite thedifference in their years, Grant and Kane struck me as the genuine item--probably the most "normal" and stable couple I knew--and indeed, they were making plans to host a formal commitment ceremony in the not-too-distant future. Yet, tonight, a Saturday, Kane was nowhere to be seen.
"He's in LA," said Grant. His matter-of-fact tone assured me that he wasn't concerned, so I reasoned that I needn't be either. Grant continued, "He'll be away for a few days, attending a seminar at the Getty Museum. Arts administration and promotion--or whatever." Grant whirled a hand.
"Ah." Turning my attention to Brandi, I noted, "So you and Kane are sort of trading places this weekend."
She lolled her head back and breathed a languid laugh. "Yes, Claire, I suppose we are."
"Claire, darling!" Kiki bustled toward me rattling two armloads of bracelets. "It was smashing. You were smashing. What a finale!" She planted a big kiss on my cheek. As I pecked back, she whispered in my ear, "Your new outfit looked fab-ulous under the lights. Did you plan it that way?"
I let the question pass. She was a fine one to hint that ulterior motives were lurking in my wardrobe. As a theatrical costumer, her own interest in clothes bordered on manic--well, everything about Kiki bordered on manic. But clothing was truly a fixation of hers. She changed outfits several times a day, and her style was anything but subtle. Tonight she wore peacock-blue palazzo pants and a gauzy peasant blouse covered with a sleeveless tunic of gold brocade. Nuzzling next to her huge hoop earring, I asked discreetly, "May I have a mint?"
"Of course, love." She ferreted through an enormous black vinyl bag, produced a tiny tin, extracted a pea-size mint, and popped it in my mouth. In her flowing robe, she conjured thebizarre image of a priestess in spike heels delivering a microscopic communion pill.
As my saliva met the mint, it seared my dry tongue.
A mob of other well-wishers spotted me and drew near. Leading the pack was Glenn Yeats. "Claire, dear," he said, stepping forward, offering a hug, "remember the first time we met? I flew to New York to tell you about my plans to build Desert Arts College. Then and there, I predicted you would become the crown jewel of my faculty. Tonight, dearest, you've proved once again that I have an uncanny knack for fulfilling my ambitions." He held me tight.
It escaped no one that his fulsome words were as much a reflection on his own talents as on mine. And while the others didn't realize it, his warm embrace conveyed more than affection. His hug was clinging and possessive, perhaps even desperate--revealing an insecure underside to the e-titan's armor of bravura.
He leaned to whisper in my ear, "We do make a handsome couple, don't you think?"
Other than the similarity of our ages--he was fifty-one, a few years younger than me--I'm not sure why he felt we were so well matched, but our pairing was a possibility he had promoted since the week of my arrival in California. "Not now, Glenn," I whispered through a smile, and he released his grip.
Spencer Wallace, the movie mogul, moved in. Ignoring Glenn, he grasped my hands and heaved a dramatic sigh, almost swooning. "Brava, Claire. Brava. It was spectacular, but then, I'd expect no less from you, dear lady." He bobbed his head deferentially, presenting an odd image. At sixty, Spencer was at the height of his career, known and respected by all within the film industry--and feared by many, he was that powerful. Still, this man of aggressive vigor had begun to look old for his years, almost frail. He patted my hand. "Claire, I'm honored beyond measure to call you a friend."
"Awww." I hugged him. "You've become more than a friend, Spencer." And I gave him a light kiss. He beamed. Was it just my imagination, or did the other mogul in our midst, D. Glenn Yeats, bristle at this exchange?
"I've brought a gift for you," Spencer told me. Then he added, "Not here--at the party."
"Oh? You shouldn't, Spencer."
"No," Glenn agreed with a flat, dull expression, "you shouldn't, Wallace."
Ignoring Glenn, Spencer told me, "It's nothing, really--a hostess gift, a token of our growing friendship."
Arnold Manley, who'd been spotted and surrounded by part of the backstage crowd, managed to break through the throng of starstruck fans and join my own little circle of admirers. "Gosh, Claire," he said, sweeping me into his arms, "I'd forgotten the excitement of working in your productions. I miss it."
I reminded Manny, "No one forced you to abandon the legitimate theater. The choice was yours." I tried to lighten my stern words with a tone of humor.
"Hollywood beckoned," he explained with a shrug. Then, with true concern, he asked, "Do you think less of me for it?"
"Of course not, dear." Despite my assurance, my peevishness on this point was a matter of record. I was known to be a tad defensive--in speech and in print--regarding the stature of "real" theater versus the lowest-common-denominator mentality of films, which are generally produced to serve no purpose beyond mass consumption. But we'll save that lecture. I told Manny, "I couldn't be prouder of everything you've accomplished."
Spencer noted, "And now Tanner Griffin is on his way as well--our next rising star. The industry always needs fresh blood."
I doubt if the comment was intended as an affront to Manny,but I could understand if he interpreted it that way. Rather than openly question or rebut Spencer, which might have nasty consequences for Manny's movie career, he simply stepped aside, saying nothing.
"Ah, Miss Gray! There you are." A man with a notebook, wearing a press badge on his sport coat, edged through the crowd and introduced himself as Kemper Fahlstrom, an entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Tribune.
His name seemed familiar, and I greeted him cordially, but I didn't mention that I rarely saw his paper; for arts news, I still looked to New York.
"I'm wondering if you could spare a few minutes for an interview, Miss Gray. My editor is holding page one of the entertainment section, and I'd like to get something to him tonight. The show was wonderful, by the way."
"That's very flattering"--I hesitated--"but I'm sorry. There's a party at my home tonight, and I do need to rush along." I noticed that the backstage crowd was thinning; they would doubtless beat me to my own party.
"Claire," said Glenn, raising a finger, "perhaps you should, for the good of the school." He chortled. "Never turn away an opportunity for some page-one press--especially in LA."
I knew from previous discussions that Glenn had no particular enchantment with Los Angeles, but it happened to be the city where one of his two ex-wives, as well as his two grown children, now lived. He would waste no chance to demonstrate to them, preferably in print, that he had met unbridled success in his quest to reinvent his life by building, from the sand up, a world-class arts college in the desert.
"Glenn, really ... ," I began to protest.
My friend Grant stepped forward to mediate. "Claire, if you'dlike to stay and do the interview, why not? Everything is under control at the house--the catering staff has been there for hours. If you like, I'll scamper over and make sure everything's up to snuff."
I really wanted to leave. "Well ..." At the same time, good publicity would be its own reward, and it was part of my job to promote the school and its theater program. Needing reassurance from Grant, I asked, "You'll play host till I arrive?"
"You bet, doll. Do your duty."
Glenn Yeats breathed a contented sigh. "There now--excellent--all worked out. We'll see you at the house, Claire."
And with that, my friends departed, as did the few remaining backstage stragglers who filed through a service door and headed out to the parking lot. With a reverberant thud, the big metal door closed, leaving me alone with the reporter.
I led him onto the set, suggesting we use the sofa at center stage. As we sat, he readied his pen and notebook.
"Now, then," I asked, "what would you like to know?"
DESERT SPRING. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Craft. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.