by Loren D. Estleman
EQMM May 2010
The shop was one of dozens like it in Tijuana, with Louis Vuitton knockoffs hanging like Chinese lanterns from the ceiling, shelves of ceramic skulls wearing Nazi biker helmets, and cases of vanilla extract in quart bottles, the kind the Customs people seized at the border to prevent parasites from entering the U.S. A muumuu covered the female shopkeeper’s tub-shaped body in strips of crinkly bright-colored cloth, and until she moved to swat a cucaracha the size of a fieldmouse on the counter, Valentino thought she was a giant piñata.
“Buenos días, señora,” he said.
“Buenas noches, señor,” she corrected, scraping off the remains on the edge of a large can of refried beans.
It was, indeed, evening. He’d started out from L.A. early enough to get there by nightfall, but the rickety heap he was driving these days had blown a radiator hose in San Diego and it had taken the mechanic two hours to fashion a replacement because that model hadn’t been made since Nixon.
“Buenas noches. Yo busto un hombre Americano se gusta—”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but are you trying to say you are looking for someone?”
“You speak English?”
“Everyone in Tijuana speaks English, but no one understands whatever language you were speaking. Whom do you seek?”
“An elderly gentleman named Ralph Stemp.”
She smacked the swatter again, but this time there appeared to be nothing under it but the counter. “I do no favors for friends of Stemp. You must buy something or leave my store.”
He decided not to argue with her scowl. He took a box of strike-anywhere matches off a stack and placed it before her. She took his money and made change from a computer register; the bronze baroque antique on the other end of the counter was just for show. He said, “I don’t know Mr. Stemp. I’m here to do business with him.”
“If it is money business, pay me. He died owing me rent.”
He had the same sudden sinking sensation he’d felt when the radiator hose blew. “I spoke to him on the phone day before yesterday. He was expecting me.”
“Yesterday, in his sleep. He’s buried already. He made all the arrangements beforehand, but he forgot about me.”
Remote grief mingled with sharp frustration. Ralph Stemp was one of the last of the Warner Brothers lineup of supporting players who appeared in as many as ten films a year in the 1940s, more than double the number the stars made. He was always some guy named Muggs or Lefty and usually got shot in the last reel. Whatever insider stories he had had gone with him to his grave.
That was the grief part. The frustration part involved the unsigned contract in Valentino’s pocket. A cable TV network that specialized in showing B movies was interested in a series of cheap heist pictures the ninety-year-old retired actor had directed in Mexico a generation ago, and Stemp had agreed to cut the UCLA Film Preservation Department in on the sale price if Valentino represented him in the negotiations. The films were trash, but they were in the university archives, and the department needed the money to secure more worthwhile properties. Without the old man’s signature, the whole thing was off.
He excused himself to step out into the street and use his cell. Under a corner lamp a tipsy norteamericano couple in gaudy sombreros posed for a picture with a striped burro belonging to a native who charged for the photo op.
“Smith Oldfield here.” There was always a whiff of riding leather and vintage port in that clipped British accent. The man who for all Valentino knew ate and slept in the offices of the UCLA Legal Department listened to the bad news, then said, “You should have faxed him the contract instead of going down there.”
“He didn’t trust facsimile signatures. It was his suspicion and resentment that swung the deal. He never forgave the country for branding him a Communist, or the industry for turning its back on him. He agreed to the split so he wouldn’t have to deal directly with anyone in the entertainment business.”
“I’m surprised he trusted you.”
He took no offense at that. “I ran up a monstrous long-distance bill convincing him. I suppose now we’ll have to start all over again with his estate.”
“A U.S. citizen residing in Mexico? With two governments involved, you’d be quicker making peace in the Middle East. And the heirs might not share his distaste for Hollywood. In that likelihood they’d cut you out and make the deal themselves.”
“He outlived all his relatives, and judging by his crankiness in general I doubt he had any close friends.”
“Have you any idea what happened to his personal effects?”
“I can ask his landlady. Why?”
“It’s a longshot, but if he left anything in writing that referred to the terms of your agreement, even a doodle, it might accelerate the process. The probate attorneys could take their fees out of his share in the sale.”
Valentino thanked him and went back inside to talk to the human piñata.She said, “The room was furnished. Everything he owned fit in a suitcase. No cash, and not even a watch worth trying to sell. Some rags and papers. You can have it all for what he owed me. One hundred sixty dollars American.”
“What kind of papers?”
She smirked. “A map to a gold mine in Guadalajara. Go down and dig up a fortune.”
“Can I take a look?”
“This is a retail shop. The peep show’s across the street.”
He exhaled, signed three traveler’s checks, and slid them across the counter. The woman held each up to the light, then locked them in the register and moved with the stately grace of a tramp steamer through a beaded curtain in back. She returned carrying an old-fashioned two-suiter and heaved it up onto the counter.
He frowned at the shabby piece of luggage, held together by a pair of threadbare straps. He’d be months wheedling reimbursement out of the department budget, if the bean-counters even signed off on it. He’d given up on disposable income the day he undertook the mortgage on a crumbling movie theater that resisted each step in the renovation the way a senile old man fought change. It was his home and his hobby and his curse.
“I’m closing,” she said when he started to unbuckle one of the straps. “Open it someplace else.”
Tijuana reminded him too much of Touch of Evil to stay there any longer than he had to, but he didn’t want to risk taking the suitcase to the American side without knowing what it contained; an undeclared bottle of tequila, or perhaps an old movie man’s taste for the local cannabis,would look bad on a job application under “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” after UCLA let him go. He drove around until he spotted a motel belonging to an American chain and booked a room. He was free of anti-Mexican prejudice but border towns were affiliated with no country but Hell. Alone in a room with all the personality of a Styrofoam cup, he hoisted the suitcase onto the piece of furniture motel clerks regard as a queen-size bed and spread it open.
He sorted the contents into separate piles: a half-dozen white shirts with frayed collars and yellowed buttons, three pairs of elastically challenged sweatpants, a gray pinstripe suit with a Mexican label, fused at the seams rather than sewn, filthy sneakers, a pair of down-at-heels wingtips, socks and underwear in deplorable condition, an expired Diners Club card in a dilapidated wallet empty but for a picture of Deanna Durbin (just how long had it been since wallets came with pictures of movie stars?), a Boy Scout knife, two tablets of Tums in foil wrap—pocket stuff—a three-dollar digital watch, still keeping time after its owner had ceased to concern himself with such information, restaurant receipts (Stemp seemed to have gone out of his way to avoid Mexican cuisine, but his tastes and more likely his budget had run toward American fast food), dozens of folded scraps of paper that excited Valentino until they delivered only grocery lists of items that could be prepared on a hot plate or microwave; receipts for prescription drugs, which if he’d left any behind, his landlady had appropriated for sale on the black market. Other ordinarily useful things, pens and pencils and Band-Aids, had probably been seized by default for the service they offered.
A sad legacy, this; that nine decades of living should yield so little of material value made a bachelor in his thirties wonder about his own place in the Grand Scheme. Well, he had hardly anticipated a complete print of Metropolis, but even the gossamer hope he’d been handed by Smith Oldfield, of some evidence to support the agreement he’d spent so many user minutes hammering out with the old man, had come to nothing.
Valentino lingered over the heaviest object in the case, a nine-by-twelve loose-leaf notebook bound in green cloth, faded, grubby, and worn shiny in patches by what appeared to have been many hands. The yellowed ruled sheets inside, dog-eared and thumb-blurred, reminded him of a dozen last days of school, when the detritus at the bottom of his locker served up the remains of the crisp stationery of the back-to-school sales of September. It seemed to contain a list, neatly typewritten in varying fonts as if it had been added to on different machines over time, and totally indecipherable. It appeared to be made up of random letters, suggesting no language he’d ever seen.
A code. Wonderful. From crossword puzzles to Rubik’s Cube to Sudoku, there wasn’t a conundrum or a cryptogram in existence that couldn’t leave Valentino in the dust. He could track down a hundred feet of London After Midnight in a junk shop in Istanbul, but Where’s Waldo? stumped him every time. If there wasn’t an obvious motion-picture connection, he was useless.
There were a hundred pages at least, many of them torn loose of the rings and as yellow and tattered as ancient parchment, scattering crumbs like old bread when he turned them. He was a paleontologist of a very special sort, brushing the dust off the bones of obsolete civilizations, dead-end species (early 3-D, Sensurround, scenes hand-tinted frame by frame), but this was an artifact outside his area of expertise.
A prop, possibly, from one of Stemp’s Mexican-movie atrocities; although from prima facie evidence the old man had saved nothing from his long career in movies, probably because of bitter memories.
He laid the notebook aside, exhaled again. Success and fame had always been a crapshoot, but a man’s life ought to boil down to more than the contents of a suitcase in Tijuana.
“You might have thought to bring me a bottle of mescal, with a real worm in the bottom,” Kyle Broadhead said. “All you can get up here is a piece of licorice. Fine protégé you turned out to be.”
They were sitting in the professor’s Spartan office in the power center, unchanged since the campus had ceased to draw all its utilities from a single source. Only a smiling picture of the shaggy-haired academic’s young love interest on the desk relieved the palette of gray cinder block and steel. Valentino smiled, opened his bulky briefcase, and set a bottle on the desk. “I had just enough cash left to pay the duty. Señora Butterworth took all my traveler’s checks.”
Broadhead beamed and stood the bottle in his file drawer, which rattled and clinked when he pushed it shut. “I talked to Smith Oldfield this morning. Any luck with Stemp’s things?”
“I don’t know how a man can live so long and leave so little behind. I’m one-third his age and I needed a tractor-trailer to move half a mile from my old apartment into the Oracle.”
“That’s because you’re a pack rat. Your office looks like the Paramount prop department. You have to travel light in this life or your heirs will pick apart your carcass. What else is in the case? You didn’t need it to run liquor across the hall.”
“I was hoping you could tell me.” He took out the heavy loose-leaf notebook and laid it on the desk.
The professor’s expression alarmed him, as blank and gray as the walls of the office, his eyes fixed on the object as if it were a dangerous animal. Valentino thought he was having a seizure “Kyle, what’s wrong?”
“Where did you get that?”
“Stemp’s suitcase. Do you know what it is?”
“Do you know what it is?”
Under other circumstances he’d have suspected his mentor of teasing, but the dead grimness on his face was something new in their long association. “I can’t make head or tail of it. It seems to be written in code. I’m pretty sure it’s a list of some kind.”
“A list of some kind. You young fool. You carried that across the border? You should’ve thrown it into a volcano in Mexico.”
“What is it, the formula for the atomic bomb?”
“As bad as. Sixty years ago it blew Hollywood to smithereens.”
Valentino kept the lid clamped on his curiosity while Broadhead fired up his ancient computer, a great steel-cased anachronism that was all one piece, monitor, keyboard, and tower; he practically expected the professor to start it by pulling a rope. It made various octogenarian noises under the whoosh of a built-in cooling fan while he worked the keys in a blur of index fingers.
“I’m looking up Stemp’s biography,” he said, his face bathed in the greenish glow from the screen. He looked like a mad scientist in a Hammer film. “There has to be some explanation for how he came by that thing.”
“Right now I’d settle for an explanation of how you know what it is.”
“The one and only time I saw it was in Darryl Zanuck’s office at Fox. It isn’t likely I’d forget it. He was in a power struggle with his son at the time, and preoccupied; he left the thing out while he went to see what became of his secretary. I was interviewing him for my book, and I wasn’t about to give up the opportunity to snoop. I wish I had. It’d be easier to convince myself it was a myth.”
“What is it?”
“You haven’t guessed? I did, and I’d never even heard it described. Ah!” He sat back, still staring at the screen.
Valentino got up and went behind the desk to watch over his shoulder. A postcard-size photo of a young Ralph Stemp in padded shoulders and a snapbrim hat accompanied a lengthy text and a sidebar listing his screen credits, beginning with a nonspeaking bit in Hot Town in 1937 and ending with an unbilled cameo in Clash of the Gladiators, shot in three weeks in Mexico in 1962 on a shoestring budget. When the House Un-American Activities Committee interrogated him in 1950 about the presence of his name on a list of subscribers to The Daily Worker, he refused to answer, spent a month in jail for contempt of Congress, then went south to form an independent production company after U.S. studios turned their backs on him. He never returned to his native soil.
“No help,” Broadhead said. “The rest is personal. Married, divorced, predeceased by a son. I saw the notebook in Zanuck’s possession twenty years after Stemp expatriated.”
“ ‘Son’ is highlighted. Try clicking on it.”
He did so, and stuffed his pipe while waiting for the computer to respond. It wasn’t geared to take advantage of the university’s high-speed connection.
When at last the son’s entry appeared, they looked at a grainy résumé shot of a pasty-faced young man who bore scant resemblance to his father and two brief paragraphs on his life.
Broadhead laid aside the pipe. “Ralph Stemp, Junior. Had his name legally changed to Richard Stern, for obvious reasons, not that it did much for his career.”
Valentino’s eyes moved faster. “Keep reading.”
Stern had been arrested for questioning after Darryl Zanuck’s office at Twentieth Century Fox was broken into and vandalized in 1970. He’d been overheard making threats against the studio for dropping his contract after small parts in drive-in features, but the police released him when Zanuck declined to press charges. A month later, accidentally or on purpose, Stern died of an overdose of sleeping pills.
“Not before doing his old man a favor,” Broadhead said. “I wonder if he sent him the notebook or delivered it in person.”
“It doesn’t say anything was reported missing.”
“That would make it hard to deny it ever existed. A trial would have brought it out into the open, and the lawsuits would’ve bankrupted every studio in town. Zanuck was losing his grip or he’d have burned it. The witch hunts were over.”
Valentino saw the dawn then, shining merciless light on the darkest chapter in Hollywood history. “You mean this list—”
Broadhead picked up his pipe and tamped the tobacco with his thumb, watching him over the bowl. “You didn’t really think it was black, did you?”
The film archivist returned to his seat. His legs felt rubbery. All his life he’d heard about the Hollywood Blacklist, compiled early in the Cold War when Washington had shifted its attention from Axis saboteurs to Communist infiltration of American society. Investigations into the alleged subversive influence of films had panicked the industry into expunging from its midst everyone who came under suspicion of harboring sentiments Congress considered unpatriotic. If your name appeared on the list, you were through in pictures.
“I always thought the list was symbolic,” he said. “I thought it was just word-of-mouth.”
“It was the only thing those old moguls ever shared with one another.” Broadhead lit his pipe, violating university regulations and California law; he wasn’t likely to be turned in by anyone who valued him as a pillar of the institution. “They were scared, sure, but it gave them a honey of an excuse to trim personnel and the budget with the Supreme Court pressuring them to sell off their theaters. A lot of innocent names wound up in that notebook.”
“They were all innocent, Kyle. The Constitution protects every citizen’s right to his beliefs, whatever his politics.”
“You know nothing about that time. Your parents weren’t even born when the Hollywood Ten stood trial.”
Valentino was shocked by his friend’s vehemence. He’d never seen him so worked up over events, current or otherwise. He said himself he hadn’t voted in the last six presidential elections. A little levity seemed indicated. “I thought all you college professors were flaming liberals.”
“Not quite all. Our employers are government-funded, so it’s no surprise so many of my colleagues don’t support conservatism and tax breaks. An old widower like me doesn’t need much to live on, and I have an income from outside these hallowed halls.” Which was no less than fact. The Persistence of Vision, his seminal work on the history and theory of film, had been in print for thirty years. Broadhead was the only film instructor in the country who hadn’t made it a required text in his classes.
In any case, his feathers appeared to be smoothing out. He cut the power to his computer (he never bothered to shut down programs, and never complained about losing anything as a result); it made a whistling noise like a bomb falling in a war movie and went silent. “Do you know how the list got started?”
“It was based on names provided by witnesses friendly to the Congressional investigation.”
“No. Those came later. The first forty or so were taken from a statement signed by a hundred and fifty American intellectuals in support of Stalin’s purge of his political enemies in nineteen thirty-eight. Bud Schulberg and Dorothy Parker were among them, and they recruited as many of their show-business friends as possible. Bear in mind, the next time some neo-pinko squirt starts sniveling about all those poor souls who lost their jobs, that it all began with a petition that condoned mass murder by a man responsible for slaughtering twenty million of his own people.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“To be fair, neither did they at the start. But I never heard of any of them coming forward later to set the record straight. Take the c out of ‘activist’ and what do you have?”
Valentino smiled. “ ‘Atavist’; but only if you can’t spell.”
“That’s why God made copyeditors.” Broadhead puffed smoke at the nicotine stain on the ceiling. “At least the studio chiefs suspected on some level that what they were doing was wrong, and that they might have to pay for it someday. That’s the reason they put the list in code and kept the key.”
“What is the key?”
“Who cares now? The men who shared the list are dead and so are most of the people on it. The damage to the rest can’t be undone. Cracking it would be a waste of time.”
“Kyle, you’re the least curious academic I ever met.”
“At my age I haven’t time to be generous with my curiosity.”
“Do you think Richard Stern’s death is suspicious?”
“If it was arranged, it flopped, or they’d have gotten the list back. I never buy a suicide cocktail as a murder weapon. It’s a Hollywood cliché. I’m more interested in what Stern’s father had to gain by hanging on to the list.”
“Ransom, at first. But the men who built the movies would have been stubborn enough to tell him where to stick it, and try to reconstruct it from memory. Later, when the studio system tottered, he might’ve squeezed an income from them in return for not going public. By then, his Mexican film venture had failed. Then, when the last of the moguls died, he’d have been on his own again, living hand to mouth. That’s why he died owing rent.”
“Leaving the Film Preservation Department in the lurch.”
“Wake up. What are a bunch of badly dubbed crime movies worth to a station broadcasting to insomniacs at four a.m.?”
“Hundred thousand, give or take; too much to sniff at, the state our treasury’s in. And my ten-percent finder’s fee would put me a step closer to finishing the Oracle before I’m too old to attend the grand opening.”
The professor grimaced and knocked the smoldering plug out of his pipe into his empty wastebasket. He kept a paperless office, with his vast store of motion-picture history locked in his head. “Last year an advance poster for the original nineteen thirty-one Frankenstein went on the block at Christie’s. It was the only one known to exist that advertised Bela Lugosi as the monster, before he dropped out of the production and Boris Karloff took his place. Do you remember what it went for?”
“I was in England at the time, chasing down Charlie Chan Carries On. It was predicted to go for a million.”
“Seven hundred thousand. The second-highest bidder dropped out, believing that a duplicate poster might surface sometime and slash its value in half. There was no guarantee that only one was printed.”
“I see where you’re going.”
“If you didn’t, I’d resign as your mentor.” Broadhead pointed at the notebook, but refrained from touching it; it was as if he thought it might spit venom. “This is a one-of-a-kind item, no warranties necessary. There are no copies, because that would have multiplied the risk of the studios’ biggest secret falling into the wrong hands. It’s more famous than Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and the Jerry Lewis canon combined.”
“He cracks me up; sue me. And don’t get me wrong just because I played devil’s advocate a minute ago: It’s a symbol of tyranny. A screenwriter took his life because he happened to have the same name as a writer on the list and could no longer make a living. That’s evil. Don’t ask me why Hitler’s autograph is worth ten times as much as Churchill’s. There’s no arguing with the market. Evil sells. The moment the word gets out that the Hollywood Blacklist—the Blacklist—is available, the offers will stream in from all over the world. UCLA will have the monopoly on every elusive foot of silver-nitrate stock in both hemispheres, and you’ll be able to rebuild five theaters like the Oracle from your end.”
He took a cab to the Commerce Bank of Beverly Hills, holding the briefcase in his lap with both hands. His car was in the university parking garage, but he was afraid it would break down again, leaving him stranded with an armload of dynamite. The bank was the closest one to campus and he wasted no time in arranging for a safety deposit box and locking away the notebook. He hoped there wouldn’t be an earthquake.
Work on The Oracle was progressing slowly. The man Valentino’s contractor had engaged to apply the gold leaf to the auditorium ceiling, a Tuscan, moved like a snail, but left behind a trail that glittered, and the peacocks on the new Oriental carpet slumbered beneath a dropcloth. When the film archivist had gone house-hunting, he’d had no intention of rescuing a historic picture palace from destruction, but when the opportunity had presented itself he’d lacked the fortitude to ignore it. Now he was taking peanut butter sandwiches to work, sleeping on a sofa bed in the projection booth, and spending his weekends browsing for doorknobs in shops that sold fixtures reclaimed from demolished buildings.
Of which there were more in Los Angeles than Thai restaurants and Starbucks. Sometimes he felt he was the only resident who was building up instead of tearing down.
Whenever he had the energy, Valentino liked to recreate the moviegoing experience of the first half of the twentieth century. He fired up the Bell & Howell projector he was still paying for, selected a film from his small personal library of classics on safety stock, and projected them onto the new polyester screen through the aperture in the booth. But tonight he was exhausted. Rather than spend a night in the cheap motel in Tijuana, he’d driven all the way back home, arriving in the gray light of day, and had caught only two hours’ sleep before reporting to work. He poked a disc into the DVR and settle himself in front of his forty-two-inch flat-panel TV.
He watched The Front, Woody Allen’s tribute to the victims and survivors of the Hollywood witch hunt. He laughed during the funny parts and sat riveted when Zero Mostel’s desperate funnyman was forced to suicide for the indiscretion of having attended a Communist Party rally to impress a girl (“I was just trying to get laid!”). At the end he read the long list of contributors to the movie who had spent time on the Blacklist, a virtual Memorial Wall of casualties of intolerance. He’d seen it before, of course, but until he’d actually held the list in his hand it had never seemed quite real.
Paranoia had done as much as anything else to destroy the Dream Factory. The old system of feudal bosses and contract players might have survived competition from television; when Anti-Trust forced the studios to break up the theater chains that had secured their monopoly for decades, they might have muddled through. But in the end it was the industry pioneers who shot themselves in the foot. The resentment they created led to the rise of the Screen Actors Guild. From that had come power to the proletariat: The on-screen talent seized the ability to choose the roles it wanted, reject the ones it didn’t, and place the future of film in dozens of hands instead of only a few.
It had been a blow for individual freedom. But it had come at a cost.
As a movie buff, Valentino remembered that some of the greatest motion pictures of all time had been made in spite of the casts’ unwillingness to appear in them (Casablanca, for one), and that some of the worst flops had stemmed from the vanity of actors and directors overcoming doubts about whether the vehicles were appropriate (Ishtar; Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; Heaven’s Gate, to name a few.) An L. B. Mayer or a Sam Goldwyn would have had the gut instinct to reject such projects or reassign them to someone more appropriate. The aftermath had made the case for autocracy, even as the event that had preceded it had made the case against.
That was the clinical view. Humanity said that the life of one disillusioned screenwriter was worth more than a couple of hours spent squirming through a bad movie.
When the banging came to the front door, Valentino shot bolt upright in the sofa bed, heart pounding like The Guns of Navarone. He’d dreamt he was a victim of the American version of Stalin’s purge, and was certain they’d come for him.
He went downstairs in his robe and opened the door on Kyle Broadhead, wearing the corduroy coat and flat tweed cap that made him look like a refugee from the Iron Curtain. “Fanta says I should apologize for the hour, but I’m not responsible for the clock. Am I too late for the last show?”
“How is that child you kidnapped?” Valentino let him in.
“Past the age of consent.” He followed his host up the steep unfinished stairs to the projection booth and looked at the DVD case Valentino had left open. “Research, I see. Watch High Noon again. Allegories make better box office than polemics.”
“You’re unpredictable. I expected you to make some comment about Woody Allen losing his sense of humor, followed by a paragraph on Chaplin.”
“The English Patient was funnier than both of them put together. Here.” Broadhead drew a stiff sheet of pasteboard out of a saddle pocket and held it out.
Valentino took it. It was soiled and tattered at the edges, and punched full of square holes in what appeared to be a random pattern. “It looks like an old-fashioned computer punchcard.”
“Yours is the last generation to make that comparison. Welcome to Old Fogeyhood. Mine would say it belongs in a player piano.” Broadhead unbuttoned his coat and sat in a canvas director’s chair with Anne Hathaway’s name stenciled on the back. “I couldn’t sleep. That exasperating young woman wrung a confession out of me and sent me over. I don’t suppose you’d care to offer an old man a drink on a chilly November evening.”
The thermometer had read seventy when Valentino went to bed, but he rummaged out a fifth of Jack Daniel’s the professor had given him for his birthday. “I don’t have any Coke.”
“Really. A non sequitur, I hope. Anyone who would defile premium bourbon with sugar and syrup would slap a coat of Sherwin-Williams on top of the Sistine ceiling.” He poured two fat fingers into the Old Fashioned glass Valentino put before him and set down the bottle. “I attended Darryl Zanuck’s estate sale in 1980, purely out of scholarly curiosity. I didn’t expect to buy anything. I’m no hoarder, as you know.”
“You make Gandhi look like a compulsive collector.”
“Zanuck was a big reader; most people don’t know that, but he started out as a screenwriter, and you need to be literate to commit plagiary. His complete set of Shakespeare got no takers, generic thing that it was, so in the spirit of sportsmanship I bid fifty bucks, and damn if no one took up the challenge. That slid out of Richard III when I took it home.” He pointed at the item in Valentino’s hand. “I like to think he chose the hiding place out of guilt, but his bumps of greed and lechery were too big to leave room for any other human emotion.”
“I’m not sure I know what you’re getting at.”
“I’m sure you do.”
Valentino nodded. “It’s the key, isn’t it?”
“The simplest in the world, but without it, the code might slow down even Stephen Hawking. I’d never have guessed what it was if you hadn’t plunked that notebook down on my desk. You have to understand it was ten years between the few minutes I had at Zanuck’s and the moment that thing slid into my lap.”
“I’m surprised you kept it.”
“I was still curious then. I never made the connection until now. I might still be wrong.” His eyes pleaded for a conclusion he seemed reluctant to suggest.
Valentino spoke carefully. “Fortunately, I can’t do anything tonight because the notebook’s in the bank and it’s closed. Otherwise we’d be up all night. We’ll go over it together in the morning when we’re fresh.”
“Sounds fair.” Broadhead finished his drink and stood. “Don’t expect any big names. Edward G Robinson was washed up already, and if you think Larry Parks was any loss, go back and watch The Jolson Story again. Congress took a swipe at Lucille Ball and went down hard. It gave up on Hollywood because it couldn’t win votes by running people no one had ever heard of.”
“I won’t peek, Kyle.”
“Of course you will. I recommended you for your job because you’re a bloodhound.”
The next morning, the professor lifted a stack of Photoplay magazines off the chair in Valentino’s office, saw no place to put it down, and sat with it on his lap. “You look like you’ve been up all night with Harry Potter,” he said.
“Just since the bank opened.” Valentino planted an elbow on either side of the notebook on his desk and rested his chin on his fists. “That piece of cardboard fit right over the sheets. The names read diagonally, the letters showing through the holes. Some surprised me, especially on the last pages. The studio bosses got carried away near the end.”
“Would you have recognized any if you weren’t a film geek?”
“Never having been anything else, I can’t be sure. Why didn’t you tell me you were on it?”
“How could I know? I only had a minute with it and I didn’t have the key then. I guessed what it was, because that’s what I always thought it would look like.”
“You don’t seem surprised.”
Broadhead chuckled. “You can label anyone you don’t like a subversive. I worked on The Persistence of Vision for twenty years, reading excerpts to book clubs and film societies. I revealed that Jack Warner shut down the Warner Brothers animation studio when he found out he didn’t own Mickey Mouse. I was the first to call Howard Hughes a nut publicly. I’d be disappointed if I weren’t on the list.”
“Why did they bother? It was discredited by then.”
“They’d tinkered with it too long to quit. They’d lost most of their power; the Film School Generation was forcing them out. That notebook was the one thing they still had control over. Nowadays I suppose it would be called therapeutic. They say Nixon was still adding to his Enemies List in San Clemente.” He took out his pipe, but to play with, not to smoke. “Have you decided how you’re going to sell it?”
“Kyle, I can’t. Some of these people are still around. Even if I withheld the key, someone would be bound to crack the code, causing a lot of embarrassment. Not for you, but I see nothing but legal action against the studios for ten years. They’d go bankrupt, which would affect the entire entertainment industry. What’s it matter how many old films we can buy if no one will distribute them? They cost money to restore and preserve.”
“You’d still profit personally.”
Valentino smiled—ironically, he hoped. “I didn’t apply for this job to get rich. If they stopped making movies, what would I spend it on?”
“You can always do what Zanuck should’ve done.”
“I can’t burn it either. Knowing I’d destroyed so large a part of Hollywood history would haunt me forever.”
Broadhead got up, returned the magazines to the chair, and held out a hand.
Valentino didn’t move. “It would be the same if I let you burn it.”
“I won’t burn it. I’ll slip it onto a shelf at Universal, where anyone who finds it will just think it’s a prop from a spy picture. Even if he suspects what it is, he couldn’t prove it without your testimony or mine, and why would he even ask us? Can you think of a better place to hide an important historical artifact than in the land of make-believe?”
“Why do I keep thinking about the government warehouse scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark?”
“I knew you’d appreciate it. Just as I knew you would never sell the list.”
Valentino picked up the notebook and held it out. Broadhead took it, touching it for the first time. He slid the riddled sheet of cardboard from between the pages where the other had left it and put it on the desk. “No sense making it easy.”
The film archivist picked up the key to the code, opened a drawer, and took out the box of strike-anywhere matches he’d bought from the woman in Tijuana. “I knew these would come in handy sometime.” He struck one.