I’d heard that film critic Rex Braverman would be in the audience tonight. Well, so would I.
The movie theater was crowded and smelly just as I had predicted. There were more unsupervised kids than I could shake a stick at. There appeared to be a Mary Kay convention down front. There was a group of Elvis impersonators on the East side of the theater. I had a feeling that my new shoe leather might stick to the floor. That my head might implode from chewing caramel.
But I had a responsibility. A person had gone missing. It was my job to go looking. Rumor had it that he might be here tonight.
Most seats were taken. I sat in the front row center, between an incessant babbler and a chewing gum snapper. Later my neck would hurt as if in a hot vise. As if impaled by a voodoo pin. As if impacted by a night of hot romance. You get the picture.
I saw a lot in this job. Sometimes I saw too much.
The event was a Whitty Allin film festival. One had to ponder the diversity of the crowd. The theater was packed. Many had come in only to get out of the rain.
I had been retained to locate a missing person, by an anonymous source who had paid in cash by proxy. I was on a loose leash. I knew a good deal when I found one.
It was a simple missing persons case – which would soon evolve into a murder investigation.
I was seeking Braverman. Rex Braverman was a legendary film critic and social butterfly. But now harder to find than a Dan Quayle IQ at Mensa. Than a bear in winter. Than a New York style pizza in the deep South. Face it, the man was scarce.
Usually spied tromping from theater to restaurant to theater, he wore a trench coat and fedora, summer and winter. Rex cut a suave path. But face it. The man was eccentric.
Braverman’s film reviews had angered many. The man would argue genre and quality till blue in the face, a becoming color. Actors and critics gave him wide berth. The public loved him. His bosses loved him.
“It’s not a comedy-drama, it’s a drama with comedic undertones!” He would cut filmmakers no slack if he thought that they were slacking.”This is no historical epic, it’s a soap opera with swords and swine!” He would opine.
Controversy generated popularity. But the man made enemies.
As the screening of Play It Again, Sam flickered, I discreetly eyed the filled theater seats, looking for a fedora-clad head. I was amazed to notice a group of Humphrey Bogart look-a-likes seated near the front west exit. My search for Braverman was becoming complicated. More complicated than a solving a Rubiks Cube in the dark. Than making pastry on a humid day. Than juggling dates on a busy week. Not simple.
BLAM! BLAM! Gunshots rang out. I checked my gun. It hadn’t accidentally discharged as in an unfortunate previous incident. I was relieved.
People began to scream. Mr. Fetzer, the theater owner, had fallen to the aisle floor, clutching his chest. Spectators gathered around the prone victim, as he tried to speak.
“It was . . . it was . . .” Mr. Fetzer managed to choke out, before he collapsed, dead.
“Why do dying victims always repeat the subject and verb without getting to the object of the sentence?” A bystander asked no one in particular.
“I dunno. That’s what they always did in the movies.”
Movement suddenly caught my eye, fortunately not like last time. As I looked towards the exit, I saw him. Fedora cockily tilted over an intense face, trench coat aflutter, Rex Braverman ran for the exit. I gave chase.
I caught up with him. I then managed to disentangle my blouse sleeve from his coat buttons.
“Back off, sister! What’s yer problem?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Rex! You practically stand before me with a smoking gun!” I exclaimed, perusing his gun area.
“Lady, who are you? Christ, a person gets a little fame, and look what happens! Nuts chasin’ ya down the street! . . .”
“Rex, I’m no nut. I’m a private investigator. I was hired to find out your whereabouts. And now it looks like you’re involved in murder.”
“I’m innocent. I can’t stress this highly enough. We must talk. Care for dinner?”
“I could eat.”
Ducking into Andiamo’s, we took a booth and ordered drinks. Rex looked suddenly vulnerable, seemingly deep in thought, semi-collapsed against the red booth cushion. I felt a little vulnerable myself. Like a candy that’s hard on the outside and soft in the center. Like a person who doesn’t know whether to go or stay. Like a little deah sipping at the brook as the hunter splatters its little deah brains. Like that.
Our drinks arrived. We gulped to calm our nerves.
Rex made eye contact. “Oooohhh! Gross! Stop it! Put your eyes back in, silly!”
“Oh. Yes. Well, wait, just a sec. There. That’s better. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist!” He responded, shyly grinning. He was adorable.
He took a deep breath, exhaled, and looked into my eyes.
“Sheila. Listen to me. I did not kill Mr. Fetzer. You must believe me. You must help me. “
At this point in my career, I’d heard it all. Had my eyes deceived me at the crime scene? Was this hard boiled gumshoe gal getting soft in middle age? In any case, I had to get the facts, and go from there.
I interviewed crime witnesses. Their recollections were diverse. They had more versions than a politician in the hot seat. Than a software giant. Than a dalmatian had spots. Lots.
“Elvis is back, and he shot Mr. Fetzer! I realize that the theater was dark, but I know what I saw!
“The shooter was clearly a Mary Kay rep! She stood next to Fetzer on the east aisle. She cranked stick and popped lead in rapid succession.
“The killer wore a fedora and trench coat. He seemed to be very anxious, and paced the aisle. Suddenly he walked past Mr. Fetzer. He stopped and turned, facing him. He pulled a gun! He pulled the trigger! A little flag popped out of the gun barrel, that said ‘BANG!’ in big letters. He cursed and threw it to the aisle floor. He pulled a second gun, and shot Fetzer! He ran for the exit, slipping and falling several times on a giant banana peel. Then he was gone.”
Big picture, suspect-wise: I didn’t believe that an Elvis impersonator would commit murder, risking a wonderful career. Ditto for a Mary Kay magnate. Not logical. But suspect number three raised my red flag. Tweaked my gray matter. Sent my deductive logic on a blue streak.
Why was theater owner Fetzer targeted for murder in the first place? How did film critic Braverman fit in, was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Clearly there was a cinematic theme here, and I didn’t mean the soundtrack to The Sound of Music. Or Jaws. Or Chinatown.
My home phone rang – I’d paid extra for a black rotary style. The voice on the line was male, and veiling controlled hysteria.
“Br- Br- Braverman killed Fetzer! If I were you, I’d look into him!”
I tried to keep the caller on the line.
“Okay. I’ll look into it. Seen any good movies lately?” I cheerily asked him. The ploy seemed to work.
“Ha! You have got to be kidding. How would I even begin to find one in this sea of mediocrity?”
“You sound very negative. What would your analyst say?”
“He would say that I’m a perfectionist who feels inadequate . . . hey! wait a minute! . . . why am I telling you this? . . . and why are you asking me these things?”
“Silly! It’s an old trick, to keep you on the line!”
“Gasp . . . REEEAlly?” He hung up.
I schlepped uptown. Arriving at last, I took a deep breath and knocked on the apartment door. I steeled myself. It was very uncomfortable.
He answered the door. Wearing horn rimmed glasses, a cashmere pullover, khaki pants, and a morose expression, was filmmaker Whitty Allin.
“May I help you?” He suspiciously asked.
I quickly shouldered my way inside.
“Whitty, the jig is up.”
“REEEAlly? . . . um . . . what exactly is a jig?. . . where?” He asked, glancing nervously upward and around.
“Mr. Allin, I know that you murdered Fetzer and tried to frame Braverman.”
“ExCUSE me? . . . uh uh . . . I don’t know what you’re t-t-talking about!” He stammered, backing away. As I approached him, he took off his glasses, threw them to the floor and stomped on them. He made a run for a bedroom. I gave chase.
Catching up with him, I tackled him and began to tickle him. “Gasp! OOOOoooohhh . . . hahahahaha . . . hehehe . . . please stop! I’m not only ticklish, I’m polymorphously perverse! Okay! I’ll confess! Please stop!” He choked out, tears of hysterical laughter streaming down his face. Whitty gathered his senses about him, and began to speak more clearly.
“Fetzer was going to show colorized versions of Manhattan and Stardust Memories. I couldn’t allow this to happen, okay? And that Braverman! One of the few critics who doesn’t like all of my work! What does he know? Do you know what he said to me at a party once? ‘Do you want to do humankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes!’ . . . the nerve!
“And yes, I knew that Braverman would be at the Crest Theater that night, dressed in that ridiculous pseudo PI getup. I tried to use him for a fall guy, a patsy.”
“I know, Whitty.”
I met Braverman at Andiamo’s for drinks. He’d taken a corner booth. We greeted one another as I slid in opposite him. Our hands brushed on the table, discharging static electricity. Startled, I accidentally dumped the contents of my purse onto the table, seat, and floor.
“Oh Sheila! Let me help you with that.” Rex sweetly offered, smiling and laughing. A true gentleman under his gruff, tough, wry exterior, I had the feeling that he held more surprises that a pinata. Than picnic potluck. Than Christmas fruitcake. Face it, the man was yummy.
“Sheila! What IS all this stuff? Have you considered cleaning out yer purse sometime maybe?” He asked in an exasperated fashion, holding up a partial banana, distastefully, between his thumb and forefinger.
“Hey! Careful with that!” I reminded him as our eyes met over my big gun. He gingerly handed it over to me. Static electricity manifested once more, startling us, almost causing yet another of my little accidents.
“Sheila. I want to thank you for everything. Who would have thought this turn of events possible? To have been framed for murder by a major filmmaker? I realize that I’ve made some enemies with my film criticism, but this is ridiculous!”
“Rex, it’s over. Put it behind you. And may I ask you a question?”
“Certainly. I imagine that we’ve achieved a certain level of intimacy at this point.”
“Is Rex your real name?”
“Oh, Sheila! How did you know? No. Rex is not my real name. My real name is Spike. Braverman. Spike Braverman.”
We finished our drinks, lingering for a moment, looking into eachothers’ eyes and communicating a wordless goodbye. As he walked out, I wondered if I would ever see him again.
Who knows, I just may sense him in a darkened theater some night. And we’ll always have Whitty.