I’d finished eating by 9.15, but I wasn’t in any hurry to go back to the hotel, not with Smith and Floyd on the prowl. I was still trying to figure out how it was going to go down tonight. I guess the plan would be, get the family together, read the fake will, congratulate the girls and commiserate with Chastity. Lots of ‘I can’t understand why Norm would have left you out of the will.’ sorts of stuff, and then home. Well if that was their plan, then I aimed to drop a large spanner in the middle of things. A lot of it revolved around what Flint came up with. If Barclay had something going, I was pretty sure Flint would find it. Question was, had it got anything to do with the funny business back at the station. Now I don’t mind the occasional coincidence, particularly if it’s the state lottery coincidentally matching the numbers on my ticket, but this? This seemed fishier than a truck load of haddock.
What didn’t make sense was the greaseball talking about ‘Her’ films. He’d definitely gone over to the Lillywhite group, so he must’ve been talking about Lily or Jezebel. Then again, he was talking with the benefit of several drinks inside him. Could it be that I was barking up the wrong red herring there?
I came to a decision, then pushed my plate away and got up. While I didn’t mind coincidences, what I didn’t like was surprises. And a ‘spooky old studio at midnight’ sounded like a whole bunch of unexpected waiting to happen. Stepping out, it didn’t take long to find a cab.
“Goldstar Studios please, buddy.”
The cabbie turned round.
“Goldstar? You sure?”
“Yep. The abandoned place.”
“Ok. You’re the boss.”
He threaded into the morning traffic and we ambled along, picking up a bit of speed when we got out of the city traffic. I watched Hollywood through the window. Plenty of people came here to live the dream. Some of them had held doors open for me and flipped my burgers.
It didn’t take too long to get out to the studio, maybe forty minutes. I asked the guy if he’d wait while I took a look round. He shrugged and flipped the paper open.
“Meter’s still runnin’ though.”
“Sure, sure.” I chalked it up on the expenses I hoped I’d be claiming this time tomorrow.
Goldstar was typical of the second golden age of Hollywood. The first time round, it had been huge lots, massive soundstages, recording studios, the works. One studio could cover several acres. Second time around, with all the whizz-bang computer stuff, they didn’t need to be nearly so big. Not when you could create Mars, a deep sea diving rig or a 1950’s diner, right there in some little beige box.
So the lot wasn’t huge. One big studio building, a couple of smaller stages and what looked like some office buildings. Parked in front of the offices was a trailer. There was a couple of cables running over to the main block which suggested it was hooked up for power and what have you. As I walked onto the lot, I rubbernecked. Maybe I wasn’t much of a movie buff, but there was still something pretty cool about being in a film studio.
I made my way over to the smaller buildings and tried the doors, but they were locked and padlocked. I considered trying to pick them, but figured I’d have a look elsewhere first. When I reached the biggest building I found that one of the doors was standing open. I looked around, and then ducked inside. It was mostly dark, but a few spotlights seem to have been rigged up over the far side.
I don’t know what I expected an abandoned film set to look like, but if I had to imagine it, then this was probably it. Assorted props lay all over the place. In the dim light, I could just make out swords, doors and stairs that led nowhere. Saucepans next to spacesuits. Bits of cars and carts. Big sheets of plywood and old lights. Scaffolding disappearing up into the darkness above my head. And dust. Dust everywhere.
I headed in the direction of the lights. As I got closer, I could see that an area had been swept clean, and that a small desk and chair had been set out, with a hodgepodge of about a dozen other chairs set facing it. The area was illuminated by four spotlights on tall stands. The lights were so bright it meant that when you were in the pool of light, the entire surroundings appeared to be pitch black.
As I stood there with my hands in my pockets, a figure suddenly loomed out of the dark, making me jump.
“Can I help ya?” said a small man in a scruffy pair of overalls and an old shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “Only, rightly speaking, ain’t s’posed to be nobody in here.”
He scratched his head. “Well, not nobody.” he said. “I’m s’posed to be here. Gotta git all these here chairs laid out, ain’t I?”
“Is this for the will reading tonight?” I asked.
“Mebbe, mebbe.” he said, looking at me. “Mind if I ask who you are, young man?”
“Able.” I said. “Chuck Able. I’m, er, I’m with one of the people who is coming tonight. Just wanted to make sure everything was ok. Sorry, you are...?”
“I told Mr Barclay it’d all be sorted by tonight, and it will.” he muttered, looking a bit cross. “Checking up on me... Harrumph.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t catch your name.”
“That’s cos I didn’t say it!” he said, getting quite irrascible. “Smithers effen you must know.”
I looked at Smithers. I reckoned he must be seventy-five if he was a day. Quite an old man, Smithers.
“You work here then?” I asked.
“I do.” he said. “Caretaker. Looked after this place for thirty years now. Nobody wants to buy it, but the owners don’t want to tear it down. Every couple of months, somebody comes out, pokes around, scribbles on one of them there ‘puter things and goes away again. Never come back though. Then a few months later, some different folks come out, do the same thing and away they go. I just keep an eye on things. Keep the generators working, do the maintenance, fix the glass that the damn kids break,”
He paused and spat on the ground.
“Full time job jus’, doin’ that!” he said. “This would be ok if it weren’t for them meddlin’ kids.”
“So is it just you here?” I asked.
“Yep. jus’ me. That’s the way I like it. Got ma trailer, got ma toolshed, got enough to keep me busy an’ not too many people botherin’ around. Suits me jus’ fine.”
“Mind if I take a look around, Mr Smithers?”
“I s’pose not,” he said. “S’long as you don’t go breakin’ nothin’.”
I promised to be careful.
“Here.” He said. “Just bring it back.” He pulled out a torch from one of the pockets of his overalls.
“Don’t you need it?” I said.
“Naw,” he replied. “I kin find my way round this place with ma eyes shut.”
“Thanks.” I said. I flicked the torch on and stepped out into the dark.
Most of the studio floor looked like the bit where I’d walked in. Covered with remnants of old movies and a thick layer of dust. There were doors in three of the four walls, but the one that I’d come in was the only one that was unlocked. I made my way back to the lit area where the will would be read.
I flicked off the torch and sat on the front row of the seats. It might be a strange old setting, but it looked basically like any office, except an office that hadn’t got any walls. I mulled over the goings on that would occur later. If everybody came in, sat down, listened to the will and then trooped out again, then the biggest danger would be tripping over a stuffed giraffe. However, if things started to go pear shaped, and hot lead started flying, then anybody in this pool of light would be a sitting target, while anybody outside it would be invisible. I flipped the torch back on and shone it out into the darkness, but it didn’t penetrate more than twenty feet or so. Then I thought some more and pointed the torch up. The beam petered out long before it reached the roof.
I got up and went to angle one of the spotlights up and cursed as I burned my hands. Jeez these things get hot! I slipped my coat off and used that to turn the light up. The beam cut through the darkness and illuminated a walkway among the scaffolding about a hundred feet up in the air. ‘Good place for a sharpshooter’, I thought. Then just as I started to turn the light back down to face the floor, I thought I saw a figure in white run along the walkway. I heaved the spot back upwards, but by the time I’d got it pointing at the scaffolding again, there was no-one there. I stared for a few seconds, and then convinced myself I’d imagined it. I shivered, and then reminded myself that it was just after ten in the morning, not the middle of the night. I stood and listened for a while but couldn’t hear anything. I shrugged it off as a trick of the light.
I straightened up the light and then headed for the door. It took a couple of minutes to walk all the way across the studio floor, and as I approached, I turned the torch off. When I got to the door, I stood there for a few seconds, squinting while I got used to the Saturday morning sunshine. Just as I was about to step outside, I heard something.
From back in the darkened studio, came the sound of someone cackling...
I swung round and snapped the torch on again, but it was useless. Other than the pool of light on the far side, the entire space was as black as the inside of a bachelor’s oven.
I heard whistling coming from behind me, and saw Smithers heading over to the trailer. I walked over to him and handed the torch back.
“You said you’re the only one here. Is that right?”
Smithers looked at me and narrowed his eyes.
“That’s what I said, sonny. Jus’ me.”
“Only I’m pretty sure I just saw someone back there,” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder towards the studio. “And as I came out, I could swear I heard someone laughing.”
“Laughing?” said Smithers. “Just the wind in the rafters, thas’ all”
He went inside the trailer and shut the door in an ‘I’m done talking.’ way.
I took a look round the other buildings, but they were all locked up tight. I walked back and stuck my head inside the studio door again, but it was silent. I began to think that I’d imagined the whole thing. I could certainly see how people would think this place was haunted.
The cabbie was still reading his newspaper when I got back to the gate.
“Heading back into town?” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied. Drop me by Gina’s, thanks.”
He fired up the engine and we pulled away.
o o o o o
It was about 11.30 when he dropped me off. I walked slowly back towards the hotel. I really wanted to get back into my room and pick up my revolver but I was concerned that there would be trouble in the shape of Smith and Floyd. Walking up to the front door wasn’t going to work this time.
As I came to the corner, I cut down the road that ran down the side of the hotel and eventually came to the business end of things. A small loading bay, kitchen doors and staff and tradesman’s entrances. One of the kitchen staff was supervising a delivery of veg, but otherwise the yard was pretty quiet. I walked in as if I was supposed to be there. The porter didn’t even look up from his checking.
I slipped in the staff door and found a cloakroom just inside. There were piles of freshly laundered uniforms for the back office people. I found the white housecoats that the male cleaning staff wore and slipped one on. I hurried out. I didn’t want to bump into anyone who might start asking awkward questions. Pretty soon I found my way to the staff staircase and started the long haul up twelve floors. When I got to my floor I peered through the window of the door. The coast looked pretty clear. And better still, one of those big laundry baskets on wheels was parked outside a room who’s door was open. I grabbed it and started pushing. It gave me an excuse to lean right down and keep my face close to my chest. As I pushed, I heard a jangling, and realised that there was a couple of keys attached to a cord on the basket handle. Must be the master key that the cleaning staff use to get into rooms. Beats a lock pick anyday.
I pushed the trolley down to my room, fished out my keys and opened the door. I’d feel a whole bunch better when I’d got my revolver back.
I crossed over to the chest of drawers and pulled the top one open. It was empty.
Then behind me, I heard the unmistakable sound of a hammer being pulled back. And from the bathroom door came Smith’s silky tones.
“Looking for this, Mr Able?”