Death Was in the Picture
by Linda L. Richards
Published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books
288 pages, 2009
In 1931, while most of Los Angeles is struggling to survive the Depression, the business of Hollywood is booming. And everyone wants a piece. The movies have always been cutthroat and, as girl Friday Kitty Pangborn is about to find out, that’s more than a metaphor.
“Richards’s swell follow-up to Death Was the Other Woman … handles the slang and patois of the period neatly. Likewise, she paints a vivid picture of the contrast between those just scraping by during the Depression and those living high on the hog. Kitty has plenty of moxie, and while Dex gets top billing on the office door, she’s no second banana in this class act.” -- Publishers Weekly
“Breathtaking.” -- Kirkus
“Nice period detail … and a satisfyingly twisty ending.” -- The Seattle Times
“…a superb period piece.” -- Genre-Go-Round Reviews
“Luckily for Richards -- if not you -- the cooling global economy has put Depression-era stories on the front burner.” -- The Vancouver Sun
You can watch the book trailer for Death Was in the Picture here.
“I’D LIKE TO see Mr. Theroux, please.”
The man who was still closing the office door had been surprisingly quiet for someone his size. When he crossed the room toward my desk, I was entranced by his keen blue eyes and his easy grace. He moved like an acrobat, like a dancer. He moved like someone you wanted to watch. Yet he couldn’t have been much under six feet and was probably only a couple of cheesecakes shy of three hundred pounds.
“Do you have an appointment, Mr....?” I prompted, knowing full well he did not. The only way you got an appointment with Dex Theroux was by talking to me and I was about one hundred and three percent sure this guy hadn’t done that. There weren’t any appointments in my book, for one thing. For another, I had a pretty good idea what was on Dex’s schedule for the day. I hadn’t peeked in at him for a few hours, but I figured that he’d been looking at spending the afternoon with all the boys: Johnnie Walker, Jack Daniel, Jim Beam and Jose Cuervo. I’d be lucky, after an afternoon of hard drinking, if he wasn’t listening to the ink stains on his desk blotter. Most of the time, that’s just how it was.
The big man stopped close enough to where I sat that I could smell him. It’s odd when you can notice a man’s scent and still think it’s kinda nice. This was like that. The big man gave off the scent of something mysterious but pleasant. Slightly floral, yet appropriately masculine. I didn’t know what it was, but I wished I had the courage to ask. I wanted to get a big bottle of it. There were days things would have been greatly improved in the office if I could have doused Dex in a nice cloud of whatever scent the big man was wearing.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I do not have an appointment. Mustard sent me. He told me Dex Theroux was the man to see and that if I mentioned Mustard’s name, you’d probably get me in without too much trouble.”
He was right: he’d said a name that opened some doors. Any friend of Mustard’s, as they say. “And you said his name twice,” I smiled up at him. “Listen, though, I’m not sure if Mr. Theroux is free at the moment.” I shot a doubtful look at Dex’s closed office door. I wanted to say Dex might be free but not coherent, but didn’t want to put too fine a point on things. “If you’ll just have a seat Mr...”
“Dean,” he supplied as easily as a hand over silk. “Xander Dean.”
“All right, Mr. Dean. If you’ll just have a seat, I’ll determine when Mr. Theroux can see you.”
As I headed in to Dex’s office, I saw Dean attempting to wedge himself into the small space our not-so-roomy office allows for a waiting room. He was managing the operation more gracefully than I would have thought possible, given the sheer bulk of him, but it was still going to take some doing. I considered offering to pull a chair up to my desk so he could sit comfortably, then thought better of it. I might be a couple of minutes getting Dex into shape. Trying to find an acceptable position in the waiting area would keep Dean occupied for a while.
The office was small and it only took me a couple of seconds to cross from my desk to Dex’s office door. Before I opened it, I shot a look over my shoulder and saw that Dean was still busy shifting this and pulling that. I slipped inside Dex’s office as quickly as possible, closing the door behind me before I even looked at my boss. I wasn’t taking any chances.
“What’s with the cloak and dagger, kiddo?”
I noted with relief that Dex was sitting upright. More than that, even though it was close to three o’clock in the afternoon, he looked as sober as a gas jockey’s maiden aunt. And there wasn’t a single sign of Johnnie, Jack, Jim or even Jose. Dex’s hair was neatly combed, his chin wore only the faintest hint of stubble -- not inappropriate to the time of day -- and his eyes were clear and blue and weren’t being chased by red rims. I blinked at him. Then I blinked again. This wasn’t what I’d expected.
I knew what to do with drunken Dex. I knew who to be and how to handle things. Understand: I wasn’t complaining. But neither was I prepared. It had happened before, but it wasn’t something that happened every day.
Dex stretched back in his chair, the racing form on the desk in front of him forgotten for the moment. He linked his hands behind his head and offered up a self-satisfied sigh. “Spill it, cookie,” he said, “but I already know what’s going on. You came in here figurin’ I’d be soused, didn’t you?”
“I...” I tried again. “That is, I...”
He laughed then, not unkindly. “Never mind, Kitty. Never mind. Don’t worry about sparing my feelings. I know how it’s been. But things have been better lately. Hadn’t you noticed? Things have been different.”
I thought about it. Was he right? Had things been different? I ran through the last few weeks in my mind. There had been cases, the usual kinds -- jealous wives, suspicious business partners. Nothing exciting, but Dex had done what needed doing. And I realized that I’d been picking up Dex’s ice on my way into the office in the morning, just as I always had, but I hadn’t been finding any empty rocks glasses on his desk when he went out.
I looked at him then -- really, fully looked at him. He must have seen a light dawn, because he laughed right out loud. The laughter -- probably combined with his new dry state -- shaved an easy ten years off his craggy looks. When he laughed like that, I saw the swaggering shadow of the youth he must once have been.
“But why, Dex?” I asked, plunking myself in one of the chairs opposite his desk, Xander Dean skootching around our waiting room like a big kitten and trying to find a comfy spot forgotten for the moment. “What’s going on?”
Dex shrugged and grinned. “A lot,” he said at length. “Maybe more than I wanna say.”
I felt an eyebrow arch at him. “What’s her name?”
Another laugh. “Naw, nothin’ like that. It’s not a dame. Just, you know, things have been good lately. Haven’t they been good?”
I nodded warily. When I thought about it, I realized he was right. The problem was, I’d been down this road before. We both had. I’d sat right here in this very chair. I’d felt this bright spot of hope. He didn’t seem to realize that now. But me? I hadn’t forgotten.
“Things have been better,” he continued. “We’ve had a pretty steady run of cases. The bill collectors have been calling less.” It was another thing I hadn’t noticed. It’s the kind of thing you don’t miss when it’s gone. “I’m a grown man, Kitty. And the war? It’s far behind me. I just figured it was high time I started acting my age, not my shoe size.”
I could have pointed out that there weren’t too many eleven-year-olds who could put away a pint of bourbon, but I didn’t want to spoil his mood. If he was growing something new and fragile inside him once again, I didn’t want to do anything to hurt it. That bright spot of hope again. On the inside, I could be as skeptical as I liked. But I let Dex see the part of me that shared his optimism. And I was optimistic, though maybe not in a way he would have understood. Just maybe, I said to myself, maybe this would be the time his good intentions would take.
I tried to imagine dry Dex, sober Dex, a cleaned-up, cleaned-out, responsible Dex that I didn’t have to constantly watch to make sure things didn’t go wrong. And I couldn’t: it was outside of what I was capable of imagining. Still, I could work on it. If Dex was ready to try being a grown-up, I was sure as hell ready to be a secretary to one.
Imagine! Only having to type and make coffee and answer the phones. It would be a luxury to not have to do my job and parts of his just to make sure things kept going as they should. Because if Dex didn’t do his job right his clients wouldn’t pay him. If his clients didn’t pay him, Dex wouldn’t be able to pay me. If Dex didn’t pay me, I’d have to find a new job. That’s where the buck stopped -- any old way you cared to look at it -- because there just weren’t any jobs out there to have. Not in Los Angeles in 1931, with the Okies and their trucks loaded with all their worldly goods clogging up the state lines and out-of-work men shuffling around outside locked construction sites every morning, hoping against hope they would be the one to catch a break and do twelve hours work so they could earn enough to buy their families some tea biscuits and maybe pay the power bill. Not in that L.A. In that L.A., I was happy enough to have a desk to show up at. Even the occasional rubber pay check couldn’t put a damper on the fact that I had a job when so many did not.
I was happy for Dex, happier than I would have thought possible at the idea of him trying to turn over a new leaf. I had a bunch of questions, and maybe a couple of comments, but at that moment the door opened and I jumped guiltily at the sight of Xander Dean.
“Oh!” I said. “I’m sorry, Mr. Dean. It turns out Mr. Theroux is available to see you. We just had some ... some paperwork to get through.” I noticed with relief that Dex had made the racing form disappear, as was his habit, drunk or sober, when someone came in. The racing form wasn’t the kind of paperwork a client needed to see.
“Kitty...?” Dex said.
“Sorry, Dex. This is Xander Dean,” I said, as I ushered the big man to the seat I’d been occupying moments before. “Mr. Dean, Dexter J. Theroux. Mr. Dean is a friend of Mustard’s,” I said, knowing that would give Dex the only introduction he’d need.
I shut the door tight behind me on my way out. | January 2009
Copyright © 2009 Linda L. Richards
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Death Was in the Picture is her fifth novel.