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Successful movie producer Wolf Willett is stunned when he sees his own death reported in a major newspaper. It says he was a victim in a triple homicide during a sordid tryst with his wife and a friend. But who is the unidentified corpse? Why can’t Wolf remember anything about the night in question? And who wants him dead?
Wolf had the means and motive–and his inexplicable memory loss seems far too suspicious to suit Sante Fe’s crusading D.A., who promptly has Wolf arrested. And when another murder complicates the scenario, he turns to hot-shot criminal attorney Ed Eagle to help clear his name–and stop a killer who’s determined to finish the job.
Wolf Willett remembered too late that Flaps had always had a cold nose. Now it found the back of his neck, and with a girlish shriek, Wolf sat bolt upright in bed and regarded her with bleary eyes. There was only a faint glow of daylight from outside.
“Got me again, didn’t you?” he said to her.
Flaps grinned. This grin had always been one of her great charms, and it did not fail to do its work now.
Wolf melted. “Time to get up, huh?”
Flaps laid her head in his lap and grinned again, looking up at him with big brown eyes.
“Right now?” he asked, teasing her.
Right now, she replied, thumping her tail against the bed for emphasis.
“All right, all right.” He moaned and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
Flaps celebrated her triumph with a little golden retriever dance, throwing in a couple of squeals of happiness.
“Okay,” Wolf said, standing up, “but me first.” He headed for the bathroom, but somehow one leg seemed shorter than the other; he missed the bathroom door and bumped into the wall. “Whoof,” he said to Flaps. “What did I have to drink last night?” He shook his head and stretched his eyes wide open, but the dizziness, not an unpleasant sensation, remained. He groped his way into the bathroom, using the walls for support, and peed, holding on to the toilet with one hand.
Flaps rewarded him with a little kiss on the ass.
“Jesus!” he screamed, jumping away and grabbing the sink for support. “You really know how to wake a guy up, don’t you?”
Flaps grinned and did her little dance.
“Just a minute, all right?” He splashed some water on his face, brushed his teeth too quickly, and tossed down a couple of vitamin C’s with a glass of very cold water from the tap. He grabbed a bathrobe from the hook on the door and headed back to the bedroom in search of slippers. He was navigating better now, but as he proceeded out of the bedroom and across the living room he found himself moving slightly sideways, crablike, in order to maintain his course. Light was creeping across the valley below the house, across the suburbs of Santa Fe, but the interior of the house was still dimly lit, and in the kitchen he turned on the lights, squinting against the glare.
Flaps waited impatiently for him to get coffee started, then watched, rapt, as he poured her a dish of dry dog food. She ate daintily, as befitted her gender, while he got an English muffin into the toaster and rounded up butter and jam. He drank directly from a plastic container of fresh orange juice and returned it to the refrigerator, sighing as the sweet juice made its way down.
“Want to go out now?” he asked her.
To his surprise, she trotted across the room and scratched on the door that led to the guest wing of the house.
“That’s not the back door, dummy,” he railed at her, shaking his head. “It’s this way, remember? The way you’ve gone out every day of your life?”
She scratched on the guest wing door again.
Wolf kept that part of the house closed and unheated until a guest arrived. “I think you must be as hung over as I am this morning.” He slapped his thigh and whistled softly.
Reluctantly, Flaps followed him to the outside kitchen door and, when he opened it, bounded outside.
Wolf left her to roam the hillside, sniffing for coyote markings among the piñons, and returned to his breakfast. He ate slowly and with a nearly blank mind. He did not think of the night before, did not try to remember what he drank, did not think of anything much until he remembered that he had to go to Los Angeles this morning. He looked at the clock on the microwave: just after seven. He calculated the time to the airport, time for the trip, time for the ride to the office. He’d be in L.A. by eleven; time for a sandwich at his desk before his meeting at two. It was Tuesday; he’d get six or seven hours of work in with the editor today and a full day tomorrow, then on Thursday he and Julia would have Thanksgiving dinner with their friends the Carmichaels.
Flaps, her ablutions completed and her survey of the property concluded, scratched on the back door.
He let her in, and she went straight to her cedar-shavings bed and settled in for her morning nap; she was as much a creature of habit as he.
Wolf shaved in the shower, using the mist-free mirror, then toweled himself dry and used the hair blower on his thick, graying hair. He still felt a light buzz, felt oddly free of worry; they were approaching completion of the new film, and he was usually nervous as hell at this point in a production, but today he couldn’t think of anything to worry about. He was on automatic pilot as he dressed, doing the things he did every day. He slipped into freshly starched jeans and into the soft elkskin cowboy boots that added an inch and a half to his five-foot-nine-inch frame. He was the same height as Paul Newman, he told himself automatically, as he did every morning of his life, and, he reminded himself, the same age as Robert Redford. He wondered for a moment whether he would rather be the same height as Redford and the same age as Newman. It was a close call.
He slipped into a silk shirt and a cashmere sweater and, on his way back to the kitchen, retrieved a sheepskin coat from the hall closet. It would be a chilly morning, but he would shed both the outer garments before arriving in L.A. He took along a light blazer for the city.
As he came back into the kitchen, Flaps hopped out of her bed and went again to scratch on the guest wing door.
“What could you possibly want in there?” he demanded, and got a grin for an answer. “Listen, you,” he said, shaking a finger at her, “I’m leaving Maria a note telling her you’ve already been fed, so don’t try and get another breakfast out of her, you hear?”
Flaps looked suitably guilty, but she knew very well she’d be fed again by the housekeeper, who melted at the sight of her.
“Be good,” he called out to her as he left by the kitchen door, “and don’t eat the mailman.” If an intruder ever actually got into the house, Wolf knew her plan would be to kiss him to death.
He opened the garage door, tossed the blazer onto the passenger seat of the Porsche Cabriolet, then eased into the car. It was like climbing into a deep freeze. He started the engine, and as he let it warm up, he thought of going back into the house and seeing what the dog wanted in the guest wing; it was unusual for her to display an interest in that part of the house when there were no guests on board. Oh, the hell with it, he thought. He backed out and started down the driveway, taking it slowly, since there was still snow there from the last bit of weather they’d had. The four-wheel drive of the car kept it nicely in the ruts of the driveway, and the main road out of Wilderness Gate had been plowed days before. He passed through the gate of the subdivision and headed down into the town.
There was little traffic at this hour of the morning, and Santa Fe looked beautiful with the low sunlight on the adobe houses and shops. Everything was adobe in Santa Fe—or, at least, stucco painted to look like adobe—and it reminded him a little of an English village in which all the houses were built of the same stone. The common building material gave the little city a certain visual harmony.
Wolf always felt grateful that he had chosen Santa Fe as a second home instead of Aspen or one of the other movie-colony favorites. It was harder to get to from L.A., but that kept out the riffraff, and anyway, he had his own airplane to get him there and back faster than the airlines could. Never mind that Julia didn’t like the single-engine airplane and usually insisted on taking the airlines, when she couldn’t hop a ride on somebody’s jet; he liked flying alone. Today he would think about L.A. Days, the latest Wolf Willett production, written and directed, as usual, by Jack Tinney. The film wasn’t right yet, and, since shooting had ended and the sets had been struck, it was going to have to be fixed in the editing, as it nearly always was with Jack’s films.
As he drove, he used the car’s telephone to get a weather forecast from F.A.A. Flight Services and to file an instrument flight plan from Santa Fe to Santa Monica Airport. He always flew on instrument flight plans, even in clear weather; it was like being led by the hand, especially when arriving in L.A. airspace, which was always smoggy and crowded. Santa Fe airport was virtually deserted at this hour of the morning. He drove along the ramp to his T-hangar, opened it, parked the Porsche behind the airplane, and pulled the airplane out of the hangar with a tow bar, then locked up. Normally, during business hours, he would simply call ahead and Capitol Aviation, the F.B.O. (fixed base operator—a name left over from flying’s barnstorming days), would bring up the airplane for him, but today he was too early for them. Anyway, he liked the idea of the Porsche being locked in the hangar instead of being left in the airport parking lot for days on end.
The airplane was a Beechcraft Bonanza B-36TC—a six-passenger, single-engine retractable with a 300-horsepower turbocharged engine. He’d owned it for three years and had nearly six hundred hours as pilot in command. It would do two hundred knots at twenty-five thousand feet, and Wolf wore the aircraft like a glove. He gave it a quick but thorough preflight inspection, checked the fuel for water or dirt, then climbed aboard and started the engine, working his way through a printed checklist. Noting the wind direction, he taxied to runway 33, then did a run-up, checking the operation of the magnetos. He checked the sky for other aircraft that might be landing and, finding none, announced his intentions over the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. He lined up on the runway, did a final check of everything, then took off, turning west when he reached five hundred feet.
Once airborne, he called Albuquerque Center on the radio and received his clearance. He was cleared as filed—direct Grand Canyon, direct Santa Monica, though he knew that when he approached L.A. airspace, they’d vector him all over the place in order to sequence traffic for Santa Monica and keep it clear of LAX—Los Angeles International—the big, busy airport just next to Santa Monica. He tuned Grand Canyon Airport into the Loran navigator, set the required course, and relaxed. Then he remembered that he’d forgotten to pick up a New York Times from a machine on the way, and he had nothing to read aboard.
When the airplane reached its assigned altitude of twelve thousand feet and was automatically leveled off by its autopilot, he leaned the fuel mixture, ran through the cruise checklist, then relaxed, forgetting his resolution to concentrate on L.A. Days. Instead he switched on the CD player and punched in a Harry Connick, Jr., album. He enjoyed the singer/piano player; the young man played the music he’d always liked best—the prerock, musical theater numbers that Wolf felt were the best American music ever written—none of the electronic noise that passed for music these days. He hummed along with “It Had to Be You” and let his mind drift. He was still curiously unable—or unwilling—to recall the past evening.
The song reminded him of his childhood; it was one of the first things his mother had taught him to play on the piano. He had been born in the small Georgia town of Delano, to a music-mad piano teacher and a soldier from nearby Fort Benning. She had named him after her favorite composer: his birth certificate read Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Willett, a name which would subject him to years of the torture of schoolmates and the amusement of others. This began to abate when he captained the high school tennis team, and because he hit the ball so hard for a smallish fellow, he earned the nickname Wham, which was almost his initials. His mother called him Wolfie (Wolfgang when she was angry with him), but when he entered the university, he was able to shorten it to Wolf, and that had stuck through law school and military service.
He’d received a Naval R.O.T.C. commission and been sent to flight school, where he’d earned his wings. Then he’d stupidly allowed himself to be hit hard in the left eye with a tennis ball during a base championship match, and the resulting injury had washed him out of flying before he’d ever had a chance to land an aircraft on a carrier. A contact lens in that eye corrected his vision, but that wasn’t good enough for Navy flying.
He’d been transferred to administrative duties, and his first job, for which he had been totally unqualified, was to make a film about carrier operations for his unit. This allowed him to stay with his flight school class as they trained in the Pacific, and it had introduced him to the only man aboard the ship who knew how to operate a movie camera, one Jackson Tinney, a skinny, Tennessee-born good ol’ boy who was, unaccountably, a wizard with a 16mm Arriflex.
Together, the young ensign and the even younger able seaman had put together a cinema verité account of life aboard an aircraft carrier that was still shown to Navy pilots; it had been put into general release and had won an Academy Award nomination for best short subject.
When the documentary had been completed, Jack had been transferred to a shoreside film unit and Wolf to other administrative duties aboard ship. It would be years before they saw each other again.
After being discharged from the Navy, Wolf, who had learned to love California while briefly stationed in San Diego, traveled to L.A. and began looking for a job in a law firm while studying for the state’s bar examination. No L.A. law firm displayed much interest in a University of Georgia Law School graduate who had not risen to the top of his class, but Wolf had been invited by an old Navy buddy to play tennis at a Jewish country club, and there he had met and begun playing twice a week with a top agent and senior vice president of the William Morris Agency. Shortly, he had a job as a legal assistant at the agency and, when he had passed the bar exam, was promoted to staff lawyer.
Some years later, after Wolf had risen to head the William Morris legal department, Able Seaman Jack Tinney had appeared in his office with four cans of film under his arm. Using Navy equipment and studio space, he had shot a film of his own, and when Wolf had run it in the William Morris screening room he had thought it rough, but the funniest thing he’d seen in years.
Wolf had rented a cutting room, and together the two men had gotten it into shape. Wolf played jazz piano, and he and some musician friends, with whom he jammed once a week at a Santa Monica bar, had recorded a sound track, and after months of work they had found themselves with a completed feature film.
Wolf had then taken the biggest risk of his life. He went to his patron, the senior vice president, and resigned from his job; then he hired the man as his and Jack’s agent and dragged him down to the screening room to see Rough Water, as they had named the film. Their new agent had loved it. Within a week, they had nailed down a distribution deal at Centurion, one of the big studios, and within a year, Wolf and Jack had each earned better than half a million dollars. The film was still making money on late-night television and video rentals.
Twenty-five years and eighteen films later, Wolf Willett and Jack Tinney were still in business together. Jack wrote and directed the movies, and Wolf, their agent having died fifteen years before, produced, negotiated contracts, and oversaw every aspect of production. They had an in-house production deal with Centurion, and Jack had long been established as the Woody Allen of the West Coast. His films never lost money and usually did quite well, though they had never been blockbusters—not so far, anyway. They were shot on tight budgets, with big-name stars who were happy to play parts for small money just to get into a Tinney film.
All this had earned Wolf a house in Bel Air, another in Santa Fe, a nice little airplane, and the assorted cars, boats, pools, and tennis courts that went with a seven-figure income. He earned, in fact, even more than he spent, and he had even managed to put away something for his old age, which wasn’t as far away as it used to be.
Wolf was brought abruptly back to the present by a red light on the instrument panel before him. Red lights were not good. This one said LOW BUS VOLTAGE. He started looking at gauges. Alternator failure. He switched on the backup generator. Nothing happened. Backup generator failure. He started turning off electrical gear and consulted his chart. He’d never make it to L.A. on battery power, and he didn’t want to fly in L.A. airspace without radios. Grand Canyon Airport looked good for repairs.
Wolf switched off the autopilot and began hand-flying the airplane.
The eastern end of the Grand Canyon was in sight when the instrument panel went dark.
“Shit!” Wolf yelled. He tried switching things on and off, but nothing worked; the battery was too low to operate anything. He had a hand-held radio somewhere in the airplane; he didn’t use it often. He began rummaging through the pile of charts, manuals, and other debris behind the passenger seat, while trying to hold the airplane straight and level with his free hand. He unearthed the small radio, found the adapter wires that allowed him to plug his headset into it, turned it on, and tuned to the Grand Canyon control tower frequency.
“Grand Canyon, November one, two, three, tango foxtrot.”
“Aircraft calling Grand Canyon, please say again. Your transmission is weak.”
Shit again; his hand-held’s batteries were nearly dead, too.
“Grand Canyon,” he said, enunciating carefully, “November one, two, three, tango foxtrot. I am a Bonanza B-36, estimate fifteen miles east of the airport. I have electrical failure and am using a hand-held radio.”
“Roger, November one, two, three, tango foxtrot; runway two-six is active; wind is two-seven-zero at eight. You’re number two behind a Grand Canyon Airways twin now on final.”
“Tango foxtrot.” He rested the small radio on top of the instrument panel. What now? Get the landing gear down. He hoped to hell there was enough battery power left for that. He pulled out the gear lever and pushed it down. The red IN TRANSIT light came on and drag on the airplane was noticeably increased. Was it down? Two miles out he called in again. “Grand Canyon, I will fly down the runway at one hundred feet. Please tell me if my gear is locked down.”
“Roger, tango foxtrot.”
Wolf tried the flaps; they didn’t work, either. He reduced power slowly and got the airplane down to 120 knots for his low pass down the runway.
“Tango foxtrot, Grand Canyon. Your landing gear appears to be partly down, but not locked. What are your intentions?”
“Goddamn it!” Wolf screamed, but not on the radio. “Grand Canyon, I’ll try to crank it down.” He had never done this before, although he had been trained to do it. The hand crank was behind the passenger seat where all his junk was. He began throwing stuff indiscriminately into the backseat. Finally the small crank was exposed. He began cranking. How many turns? Seemed he had been told fifty. On the twentieth turn, the gear-down lights came on: all three wheels down and locked. Wolf heaved a sigh of relief; he was sweating heavily from the tension and the effort of cranking the gear down. “Grand Canyon, gear down and locked,” he said into the radio.
“One, two, three, tango foxtrot, cleared to land, runway two-six.”
With no flaps to slow him, Wolf had to make a fast approach, but there was plenty of runway length, and he got the airplane down smoothly. He cleared the runway and taxied to the maintenance hangar.
“Well,” said the shop foreman, wiping his brow, “you got a dead alternator there, all right. Dead standby, too. I haven’t got either in my stock.”
“How soon can you get replacements?”
“Day after tomorrow,” the man replied.
“Can’t you call the manufacturer and get the parts overnighted in?”
“Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving,” the foreman said. “I’ll call today, but Fed Ex won’t deliver till Friday.”
“This is Tuesday,” Wolf said, relieved that the man had got his days wrong. “Thanksgiving isn’t until day after tomorrow. You can have the parts here tomorrow, and I can be on my way.”
The foreman turned to the mechanic waiting beside the airplane. “What’s today, Charley?”
“Wednesday,” the man replied.
“Thanksgiving’s tomorrow,” the foreman said to Wolf.
“No, no…” Wolf looked at the day and date displayed on his wristwatch. “It’s…” He stopped and stared at his wristwatch. “That can’t be,” he said, shaking his head.
“Sure can, Mr. Willett. It’s Wednesday, and tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. I can have the parts here by ten-thirty Friday morning, and we’ll have ’em installed by early afternoon.”
Wolf rubbed his forehead. Something was terribly wrong here. “Okay, where can I get a room?”
“Try the lodge. Rent yourself a car at the terminal over there, and follow the signs. It’s real nice, and they won’t be full this time of year.”
The lodge, a huge place, had a room for him. He explained why he didn’t have any luggage, and a bellhop took him upstairs. He immediately called the Bel Air house and got a recording of his own voice. He hung up. Julia could never remember to play the messages on the machine anyway, so leaving a message would be a waste of time. He didn’t have his address book with him, and the Carmichaels’ number was unlisted. He telephoned his office, but got a recording saying that it was closed until Monday for the Thanksgiving holiday. He didn’t remember giving everybody Wednesday, but when he hadn’t shown up for work yesterday, Jack had probably given them the day off; Jack was too softhearted.
He hung up the phone and walked to the window. He had a fine view of the canyon, and it was truly grand, but he hardly noticed. Try as he might, he could not remember the past twenty-four hours. He remembered going to bed, but that must have been on Monday. He picked up the Tucson newspaper that came with the room and checked the date to be sure. Wednesday.
He had lost a day out of his life. And it wasn’t the first time.
Wolf woke up the next morning feeling horny and reached for Julia. She was not there, of course; she was in L.A. At least he thought she was. He had rung the Bel Air house a dozen times and gotten only his own recording. He had rung Jack’s house, too, and gotten no answer.
He and Julia had been married a year. It was a second marriage for him—he had been widowed for more than twenty years—but the first for her. She was twenty-six at the time, and an actress. Two kinds of women he’d promised himself he’d never marry—a woman in the business and somebody half his age. It had gone well, though, had exceeded his expectations. Julia was wonderful company, and she had revived his nearly dormant sex life. She made him feel eighteen again, and he would always love her for that. God knew, she was too friendly with other men, and she was making a career out of shopping, which drove him nuts, but she was beautiful and shrewd, two qualities that had always appealed to him. She would probably leave him on his sixty-fifth birthday, but if she lasted that long, it would be worth it.
He reached for his wristwatch: nearly noon. He never slept that late—what was the matter with him? He stood in the shower long enough to wake him, but when he got out, he still felt fuzzy around the edges. He shaved with the razor the hotel had lent him and got dressed, squirming in the damp underwear and socks that he had rinsed out the night before. There was still no answer at the Bel Air house.
Downstairs, he asked for a New York Times.
“Sorry, sir,” the young thing at the desk said, “we don’t get any papers at all on holidays. Will you be having Thanksgiving dinner with us?”
It was that or McDonald’s in the village, he thought. “Yes, of course.”
He ate hungrily, having slept through breakfast; he drank nearly a bottle of wine with lunch, feeling sorry for himself for being alone on Thanksgiving, then had a long after-lunch nap in his room. Later, he forced himself to go for a walk along the rim of the canyon, but he had seen it many times before, and it wasn’t working its charm today; he was too depressed. Here he was on his favorite holiday, far from wife and friends, stuck with no way out until the new parts arrived tomorrow.
He went back to the hotel, bought a paperback novel in the shop, and tried to read it. He was asleep again by nine.
He was wakened in broad daylight by the sound of something sliding under his door. He raised a sleepy head: a New York Times! At least he could start the day with the news. He glanced at his watch: noon. He ordered breakfast from room service, then retrieved the newspaper, scanning the front page. He was about to open the paper and look inside when a small article in the lower right-hand corner of the front page caught his eye:
FILM DIRECTOR AND TWO OTHERS IN TRIPLE DEATH
Oh, God, he thought, it’s going to be somebody I know. He read on quickly. It was somebody he knew.
The film director Jack Tinney of Los Angeles has been found dead in circumstances that police sources are describing as murder.
- On Sale
- Mar 17, 2009
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Hachette Book Group