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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 on a dating app.”
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 Theatre 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 untwisting 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 manage to outrun all his creditors?”
“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.”
Copyright © 2020 by Loren D. Estleman