Chapter Twelve

Just as I was finishing my coffee-sans volcanic French toast-my cell rang. It was the LAPD, as predicted, asking Aunt Sue and me to come down to the station to give an official statement about last night. While reliving the scene was the last thing I wanted to do, as Cal had said, I didn’t have much choice in the matter now. I told the officer I’d be there as soon as I could, finished my coffee, and the three of us loaded into Cal’s Hummer.

Three hours later, I had completely spilled my guts to a homicide detective who was the spitting image of Kojak, and Aunt Sue had given a somewhat coherent statement to his partner, a woman with the most severe ponytail I’d ever seen. By the time we were finished, I had renewed purpose. I was going to find this guy if it was the last thing I did.

And I was going to start where we left off yesterday-Blain Hall’s agent.

As soon as we dropped off Aunt Sue at Millie’s, I plugged the agent’s address into Cal’s GPS.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Address of Jerry Leventhal’s place.”

Cal narrowed his eyes behind his shades. “And why do we need that?”

“I never got a chance to question him about his visit to Blain in rehab.”

“I thought we agreed to leave this to the police.”

I shook my head. “I agreed to talk to the police. Do you have any idea how many homicides have taken place in L.A. County this year?”

“Two hundred and four.”

I raised an eyebrow his direction. Okay, so he did know. I was impressed. “Right. The police have their hands full. I, on the other hand, have all the time in the world to devote to catching this asshole.”

I turned to find Cal grinning at me.

“What?”

“Remind me never to piss you off.”

“Does that mean we’re going to Leventhal’s?”

Cal flipped a U-ey. “You’re the boss, Bender.”

A mere hour later we’d made our way onto Wilshire, a long street winding through the heart of Beverly Hills and flanked on each side by exclusive boutiques, towering penthouses, and high-rise office buildings that housed the movers and shakers of the big screen world. The Wilshire corridor was about as high dollar as real estate could get. Leventhal’s office was on the sixth floor of a huge glass and chrome building shared with a law firm, a cable network, and about fifteen other talent agents. Leventhal’s office was the last one on the right as we got off the elevators.

A slim, waiflike girl with unnaturally black hair sat behind a low reception desk as we walked in. Obviously an actress slash receptionist. Not that that was an anomaly. In L.A. almost everyone was an actor slash something. Even the janitor in our building had done a guest spot on House last season.

Actress Slash Receptionist was applying lip gloss in a little compact as we approached. “Can I help you?” she asked without looking up.

“We’re here to see Mr. Leventhal,” I told her.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Uh…no.”

“Names?” she asked.

“Douglas. Lisa and Oliver,” I said.

“I’ll see if he’s in,” she said noncommittally, rising from the desk and crossing to a hallway behind her.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Cal leaned in. “Oliver and Lisa Douglas?”

“From Green Acres.”

I felt him smirk as the receptionist returned.

“Yeah, go ahead,” she said, waving us in the direction she’d just come from.

“Thanks.”

The hallway was short, a copy room on the left, an office on the right, and a dead end in a window that overlooked the Wilshire traffic below. The door on the right read “J. Leventhal.”

I quickly pushed through.

Jerry Leventhal sat behind a large oak desk, every inch of which was covered in papers and CD cases. He perched on the edge of an enormous leather chair that made me think of a throne, upon which the gatekeeper to fame sat. His skin had an unnaturally tanned look, as if he seldom saw the real sun but was a devotee of the spray-on variety. Dark hair covered his head-well, most of it. A large thinning patch sat on top, though I could tell by the obvious plugs that he was doing his best to fight nature. A Bluetooth was implanted in his ear, and he spoke seemingly to the air as we entered.

“Baby, you’re great. You’re a fucking John Lennon, a Bob Dylan, a Kurt Cobain. You speak to the generation. No one can touch you, baby. You’re king, got me? King. Call me when the tour gets to Baltimore. Keep rockin’, baby.”

He touched a button on his ear, then turned his attention our way.

“Prima donnas. Fragile artist egos, need all the help they can get. Poor kid, probably won’t make it past Philly. So, what can I do for you?” he asked, leaning forward onto his desk, hands clasped in front of him.

“Uh, hi. I’m Lisa, and this is my colleague Oliver.”

He nodded, motioning me to go on. Unless our names were Brad and Angelina, it was obvious he could care less.

“We’re…freelancers for Rolling Stone,” I lied. “We’re doing a piece on Blain’s brave battle with addiction.”

Leventhal shook his head. “I’m sorry, Blain’s not up for interviews at the moment.”

“Oh, I completely understand. His treatment has to be paramount. We actually wanted to talk to you.”

“Me?” He raised an eyebrow, leaning back in his chair. “I’m not sure what I can tell you.”

“You recently visited Blain in rehab, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” he hedged slowly. This was a man who’d dealt with the fickle media before and was not going to let some juicy quote slip out unnoticed.

“What did you discuss?”

“I’m sorry, but that conversation was private.”

“Did you talk about his treatment?”

“Some.”

“His plans when he gets out?”

“A bit.”

“How does he feel about what the media’s been saying? I hear that Tina Bender at the Informer has been roasting him?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Exactly what are you getting at?”

“Where were you last night?”

Leventhal stood, planting both hands on his massive desk. “Okay, that’s it. This conversation is over. I want you both out, or I’m calling security.”

Shit. Too far.

But Cal stood up, matching Leventhal’s height and then some. “I don’t think you want to do that,” he said.

“Oh really?” He crossed his arms over his chest. “And why not?”

“The truth is we’re working with the police. We’re investigating a murder, and your client is a suspect.”

All the color drained from the agent’s fake tan.

“Murder? Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack,” Cal said, holding the man in his steely gaze.

Slowly, Leventhal sank back into his chair. “Jesus, when the tabloids get wind of this…”

Little did he know.

“Look,” he continued, “I don’t know anything about any murder, but Blain’s been in rehab the past four weeks. He couldn’t have killed anyone.”

“Blain has plenty of resources. He could have had someone else do his dirty work,” I pointed out.

“Like who?”

“Where were you last night?” I repeated.

If it was possible, Leventhal paled further. “Me! You have got to be joking. You don’t seriously think I killed someone for Blain, do you?”

Neither Cal nor I answered, both giving him the cold stare.

“I was here,” Leventhal finally squeaked out.

“Alone?”

“The cleaning lady saw me. She can vouch for me. Maria. Or Juanita. Something like that. I was brokering a deal for my latest act, a punk band from Milwaukee. Here, you guys want a free CD?” He shoved two unmarked discs at Cal and me.

“Has anyone else been to see Blain?” I asked. I knew the guest book had been free of signatures, but I was desperate here.

But Leventhal shrugged. “I don’t know. Look, he’s under pretty tight surveillance. Trust me, Blain’s not your guy.”

“Maybe we should ask Blain directly,” I said.

“No!” Leventhal jumped in his seat at the suggestion. “No, you can’t talk to Blain.”

“Why not?”

“He’s in treatment.”

“We’ll be gentle.”

“Please. I know Blain isn’t your guy.”

Cal leaned forward, narrowing his eyes at the man. “You seem pretty anxious to divert attention from your client.”

“It’s bad publicity.”

“I don’t buy it,” Cal said. “He’s a rock star. The badder he seems, the more records he’ll sell.”

Leventhal swallowed audibly.

“What’s the real reason?” Cal pressed.

Leventhal licked his lips.

I leaned forward.

“Alright. I’ll tell you. But it goes no further than this room.”

I crossed my fingers behind my back. “I swear.”

Leventhal took off his Bluetooth, dropping it on the table as if someone might hear him through the device. “Blain’s not really in rehab for drug addiction. We floated the story to stave off the media.”

Cal cocked his head to the side. “Floated?”

“They spread the rumor themselves,” I explained. Unfortunately, it was something studios did all the time to protect the real secrets of their stars. “Remember how many times Lance Bass was linked in the media with some supermodel or another before stepping out of the closet? All floaters.”

“Okay,” Cal said, addressing Leventhal, “so, you’re saying he’s not even at Sunset Shores?”

“Oh no, he’s in rehab alright,” Leventhal assured us. “Just not for drugs.”

“What then?” Cal asked. “Alcohol? Gambling? Sex addiction?”

“World of Warcraft.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Poor kid got caught up in this online game, World of Warcraft. It’s this whole virtual reality world with these complicated plotlines and battles and all kinds of crazy characters. Blain started playing it on the road. At first it was a nice way to relax, wind down from a show. But then he got so into it he started missing gigs.” Leventhal shook his head. “Poor kid became obsessed. He couldn’t focus on anything else. He was playing up to twelve hours a day. So I checked him into Sunset to help him break the addiction.”

I bit my lip to keep from laughing. The big bad rock star was a closet gamer nerd. I would have given my firstborn to run with the story.

Though, sadly, it also cleared Blain of motive to want me out of the picture. The longer I kept reporting the floater story, the safer Blain’s secret really was. It was in his best interest to keep me writing, not stop me.

“Mr. Leventhal, does the name PW Enterprises mean anything to you?” I tried not to sound as desperate as I felt to make some connection here.

He scrunched his forehead up. “PW?”

I nodded. “They’re local.”

He snapped his fingers. “Production company! They were interested in an act of mine to do a soundtrack at one point. I think they’re in Hollywood somewhere.”

“Got any idea who runs it?” I asked, perking up.

“Sure do.” He nodded, clearly pleased to be talking about something other than his client. “The owner is Edward Pines.”

Mental forehead smack.

It had been Pines calling me all along! Which, now that I thought about it, made perfect sense. Who else had that kind of time on their hands? Thanks in part to my column, the public thought he was total scum. And I’d just visited him yesterday, trying to dig up more dirt, before someone had broken into my house and killed Hattie. It fit like a dream.

“There’s just one problem,” Cal pointed out as we hopped back into his gas guzzler and I told him my theory.

“What’s that?”

“That first call was made from the PW number, not the L.A. County jail.”

I waved him off. “Simple. Pines is a director, people are used to taking orders from him. He could have easily had one of his flunkies do his dirty work.”

“But why would he go through all that trouble to disguise his voice, then call on a number that links directly back to him?”

I chewed my lower lip. Beats me. I looked down at the dash clock. One thirty p.m.

“Let’s go ask him.”

We made tracks toward the courthouse, stopping at a newsstand along the way just long enough to pick up copies of Playboy, Penthouse, and some magazine called Naughty Bits that Cal swore Pines would love.

“It’s the best,” he said.

I cocked an eyebrow at him.

He shrugged. “You know, so I’ve heard.”

“Uh huh.”

“Come on, we don’t want to be late.”

I paid for the magazines and hopped back in his Hummer, making our way through town to the courthouse. We pulled into a spot in the lot and quickly jogged up the steps and through the metal detectors. I felt my cheeks heat as the guy manning the x-ray machine got a load of the stash in my bag, but we cleared security and hit the lobby at two on the dot.

As did a perky blonde in a miniskirt and knee-high boots with four-inch heels.

Right. I’d forgotten about Allie.

“I’m not late, am I?” she asked, all breathless like a porn star.

I shook my head. “No.” Unfortunately.

“I just talked to the clerk. Pines is in conference room 4A with his lawyer,” she informed me.

“Great. Let’s go talk to him.”

We made our way up the stairs and past the courtroom, where shortly Pines would be sitting behind the defendant’s table, to a small wooden door to the right that served as chambers for the prisoners to meet pretrial with their counsel. A bailiff stood outside 4A, a sure sign that a prisoner was inside.

I threw my shoulders back and walked up to the guy like I owned the place.

“Excuse me,” I said, doing my best imitation of a Harvard Law grad. “My client is inside. I need to speak with him.”

His eyebrows ruffled. “He’s already with his counsel.”

“Right. I’m second chair.”

“And I’m third,” Allie piped up behind me.

Cal had the good sense to remain quiet, instead taking a seat on a bench against the wall.

The bailiff shrugged, then stepped aside and let us through the door.

Pines and his weedy-looking lawyer were sitting at a large oak desk, papers strewn across the top. Both were deep in conversation as we walked in, and again I was struck by how pale and thin the lawyer was. I almost couldn’t tell which of the men had spent more time locked in captivity.

The lawyer’s head popped up as we entered the room, his expression immediately contorting into outrage.

“What the hell are you doing here? This is a private meeting room. I’m here with a client.”

He jumped out of his seat, but Pines put a hand on his arm, calming the man down. “Don’t worry,” he said, a slimy grin taking over his features. “They’re here for me. You got what I asked for?” Pines asked, nodding to my bag.

I set it on the table and pulled out the magazines, sliding them across to him.

“What the hell is this?” his attorney cried. “Jesus, you know how much trouble I could get into for bringing you contraband?”

“Relax,” Pines told him, greedily flipping through the pages. “You didn’t bring it, they did.”

Which didn’t seem to make the man feel a whole lot better, as he began pacing the room.

“I held up my end, so now it’s your turn, Pines,” I said, taking a seat at the table across from him. “Start talking.”

Pines took a moment, licking his lips as he eyed the cover of Naughty Bits. Apparently Cal was right. It seemed to be a winner.

Finally he looked up. “What do you want to know?”

Everything. Why he was threatening me. Why my neighbor was dead in my living room. And how to steal a front-page story from Allie McTiny Top.

“Let’s start with the kid.”

“I told you I never touched him.”

“Did you ever take compromising pictures of him?”

“Don’t answer that,” his attorney said, swooping in.

Pines looked from him to me, then finally shrugged. “Sorry, can’t answer that one. Try again.”

“Jake Mullins. You said he deserved what he got. What did you mean by that?”

“Just what I said. He was a slimy sonofabitch, and I hope he’s rotting in hell.”

“What did he do?” Allie piped up beside me, gel pen hovering over her little floral notebook, a little frown of concern between her perfectly plucked brows.

Pines shifted his gaze, letting it rest somewhere in her double D region.

“Tried to blackmail me.”

Pines attorney jumped up. “I have to strongly suggest that you not talk to these women.”

But Pines waved him off. “Relax, Paul. I didn’t go for it. The guy comes at me saying he found some kiddie mag in my trailer. What the hell he was doing in my trailer, I don’t know. But he says he wants a hundred K or he’s going to the media. I told him, good luck. He could try, but he’d never work again in this town, I’d see to it.”

“And what did he do?”

“Nothing. What could he do? I steered clear of the little prick after that.”

“How long before his death was this?”

“A couple weeks.”

I mulled that over. If Mullins had been so strapped for cash that he’d jeopardize his big break, he may have tried the same tactic on someone else. And maybe they weren’t as confident as Pines that he’d go away on his own.

“Where were you last night?” I asked, switching gears.

He gave me a blank stare. “Are you fucking kidding me? Same place I’ve been every night since that judge denied my bail. A cell.”

Right. Stupid question. I cleared my throat. “Did you have any visitors?”

“No.”

“Call anyone?”

“As a matter of fact I did. My mother. Why the hell do you care?”

“Because someone killed my neighbor last night.”

He blinked, then leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him. “What the hell does that have to do with me?”

“PW Enterprises. Your company?”

“Yeah. So?” “Someone from your company threatened to kill me if I didn’t stop printing stories about them in my paper. Two nights ago, someone broke into my home. Last night, my neighbor was murdered in my living room. Quite a stretch to claim coincidence, huh?”

At the word “murdered,” Pines’s lawyer began shoving papers into his briefcase. “That’s it, this conversation is over!”

“You’re kidding, right?” Pines asked me. “This is some kind of joke to get me to give you some shit quote to print in your paper, right?”

I shook my head from side to side. For Mrs. Carmichael’s sake, I wished it were just a joke.

Pines swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing nervously up and down. “How do you know the caller was with PW?”

“I traced it to a number owned by your company.”

He shook his head. “That could be dozens of people. I started PW to back my last movie. The one before didn’t do so great at the box office, so I needed to recreate myself. Financially speaking.”

I nodded. That was standard op in Hollywood. Production companies came and went faster than the Santa Anas. “Go on.”

“That’s it. We’ve got an office on the Sunset Studios lot manned by a couple assistants and an intern. But anyone could have used the phones. The place isn’t even locked during the day.”

Which meant any one of my celebrity suspects could have had access. Katie was a regular at the studios, and Jennifer was there every day. Blain could have conceivably called in a favor to an actor friend on the set. And even if Pines was telling the truth, as I’d pointed out to Cal, he could have easily had an assistant do his dirty work. I felt myself mentally slumping in my chair, feeling like I was taking one step forward only to take two back again.

“Let’s go back to the case at hand,” Allie said, scribbling in her notebook. “You’re being charged with possession of child pornography. How do you-”

But Pines’s lawyer held up his hand. “We cannot comment on an open case.”

Allie shut her mouth with a pretty little pout. Then shifted tactics. “How do you feel about the public calling you a pedophile, Mr. Pines?”

“Look, honey,” Pines told her breasts, “people like to rubberneck at accidents. They all wanna see what’s going on. Doesn’t mean they’re gonna go crashing their cars into each other on purpose, now, does it? Just because I like to look now and then doesn’t make me some child molester.”

I had no idea if he was telling the truth, but I suddenly felt like I needed a shower. Or ten. No matter how he spun it, it was clear that lurking just beyond his flashy Hollywood exterior lay the heart of a diehard pervert.

“Why did you plead not guilty?” Allie asked.

Pines cocked his head at her. “What are you, the brains of the outfit? Because I’m not guilty.

“The cops found the magazines in your car.”

“They were planted,” Pines said. Though I could tell by the look on his face, even he was having a hard time believing that lie.

“Edward,” his lawyer warned. “Be careful.”

“What? I can’t tell the truth?”

“So,” Allie said, furiously scribbling, “you’re saying you were framed?”

“That’s right.”

“By whom?”

“The cops. They have it in for me. Did you see the movie I did about police corruption? I get a parking ticket every week now. Fuckin’ pigs.”

Persecution complex much? But I was happily dancing in my seat, picturing the headline that went with that quote: PIGS PERSECUTE PINES OVER PARKING.

“I think we’re done here,” the lawyer said, jumping in before Pines could do any more damage.

Both men rose, prompting Allie and I to do the same.

As we walked out, Allie was still jotting down notes. “I might suggest investing in a digital recorder,” I told her.

She looked up, a frown of concentration on her forehead. “What?”

“It’s a lot easier than trying to write down everything they say.”

“Do interviewees usually let you record conversations?”

I smirked. “I don’t actually ask.”

“But you have to disclose that you’re recording, right? Otherwise, well, that would be unethical, wouldn’t it?”

I shook my head. “Wow, do you have a lot to learn about working at a tabloid.”

When we got back to the Informer with our mega story, I stopped at Max’s desk first thing. “Hey,” I said, leaning over the fabric partition.

Max looked up, the droopy bags under his eyes a testament to his night with Jim Beam. “Hey, Bender. What’s up?”

“I was wondering if you’d do me a favor. I’d like to see an obit for her.” I handed him a slip of paper with Hattie Carmichael’s name on it. “Think you can dig up some stats?”

Max took it, frowning at the name.

“Who was she?”

“No one famous,” I told him. But before he could protest, I added, “But she was a friend. It would mean a lot.”

Max nodded. “I’ll see what I can do,” he promised.

I thanked him, glad I could do something for Mrs. Carmichael. I know, it wasn’t much. But at least it was something.

One time when I was sixteen, I was visiting Aunt Sue’s house in Long Beach and she’d let me take her station wagon out to a party. I’d had a little too much to drink and, instead of driving it home, I’d parked it overnight at the beach and took a cab. I’d had two parking tickets by the time I went to retrieve it the next day. Or, more accurately, Aunt Sue had two tickets. On her perfect, never even a speeding ticket or fender bender DMV record. I’d worked the rest of the summer at Togo’s to pay off the fines, but I still felt incredibly guilty about blemishing the perfect record she’d been so proud of.

Let me tell you, that guilt was nothing compared to what I was feeling now. This was guilt supersized. And it was a bitch.

I plunked down into my chair, cueing up my computer screen to type up my Pines interview. I was halfway through when an IM window popped up.

I missed you last night.

Man in Black. Shit. I’d completely forgotten about him last night. Again. Though, in my defense, a dead body was a pretty good excuse.

Sorry. Long night.

Hot date?

No!

Though even as I typed it, I remembered just how close Cal’s lips had been to mine and how hot things might have gotten had circumstances not intervened.

Good, Black typed. I’m not a guy who likes to share.

I grinned. Sorry. I know that’s two nights in a row I’ve stood you up.

If I wasn’t such a stud, I might start to worry. Then, Tell me about your long night.

I paused. Usually, I told Black everything. But he was likely to run for the hills the second I started talking about dead bodies.

I don’t even know where to begin, I typed.

You okay?

I nodded at my empty cubicle. Yeah. And I guess I was. Surprisingly. I thought back to last night and how much I’d leaned on Cal to get me through. I’d leaned so hard, my IM date with Black had been the last thing on my mind. I felt a little twinge of something. My good friend guilt again? Which was ridiculous because Black was a fantasy and Cal was a rent-a-goon. In reality nothing was going on with either of these guys.

I’ve missed you, Black typed.

I bit my lip. Nothing. Right. Then why was my chest suddenly clenching as I stared at those three little words on my monitor?

I typed back a simple, Me too.

I’m not making a date for tonight, because I hate being stood up. But type at me when you can.

I will, I promised, meaning it. Okay, so maybe he was just a fantasy, but Black was the one person who really got me. He always knew just the right thing to say-or type-to make me feel better. Let’s face it, my internet crush knew me better than anyone.

Jesus, I needed to get a life.

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