Official Site of Author Robert S. Levinson
THE EVIL DEEDS WE DO
Harry Roman back to haunt her.
Standing on the uppermost tier of the Star Bright Performers Workshop, his back against the wall, his hands buried inside his suit jacket pockets, his right shoulder hanging about four or five inches lower than the left.
Except for her, Roman had no business being here.
Like most Equity-waiver theaters around L.A., the Star Bright wasn’t much more than a hole in the wall, fashioned out of a failed mom-and-pop butcher shop on Hyperion in Silverlake, its ninety-nine castoff movie house seats arranged on stadium-style risers facing a concrete floor, barebones props and a painted backdrop designed to hide a walk-in meat freezer now used for storage.
The entrances and exits by her cast were made through the toilet, which Lainie Davies Gardner felt suited her perfectly the first day she walked into the Star Bright hoping to land a teaching gig, desperate for any kind of teaching job that paid, because that’s where Roman had helped put her life: the crapper.
Roman must have slipped inside through the production door after the house went to black on the curtain line, or she’d have spotted him before the actors came out for their bows, house lights up, and she could answer smiles from the sparse crowd of relatives, friends, other Star Bright students, a couple minor league talent agents, and two old-line casting directors who had come as a personal favor to Thelma Street, the workshop’s owner.
The room echoed with insincere applause, but Lainie knew tonight’s show was lousy.
Lousy, lousy, lousy.
Lainie as lousy as her actors after stepping in an hour before curtain for Joy Collins, who had added life to the old saying Break a leg while crossing over to the Star Bright from the rut-infested parking lot.
There’d been no time for rehearsal. Lainie had to work from the book most of the show, but she was making no excuses for herself. She was the pro in the cast, granted, not much of a pro anymore, but more than the others. Enough of a pro that she should have done better than them. Better than lousy.
Harry Roman was not applauding.
He was the one unsmiling face in the audience, giving her the gimlet-eyed Gonna get you granite stare that still, two-and-a-half years later, gave Lainie nights of fitful sleep. Sometimes, a nightmare shock that caused her to spring out of bed, soaking in sweat, gasping for air, throwing punches at the relentless demons hiding in the clammy darkness who meant to destroy her before they disappeared, taking Sara with them; Sara, her precious fifteen year old, losing a battle with her own raging demons since the night she saw her daddy shot, felt his blood paint her face and clothing, and watched him die.
Lainie studied the ex-cop turned assistant district attorney as he drew closer.
Roman looked every one of his mid-forties years, like he’d gone more than a few rough and tumble rounds and then some with Mother Time. His unruly black hair was turning salt and pepper, but still full of the wayward locks that defied a comb and brush and whatever motor oil he used to give it a shine as bright as his size twelves. His broad, hard-edged chin was growing a chin on a battered face her late husband Roy’s lawyers said dated back to the poundings Roman routinely took as a high school football star.
He was a running back who never slowed down or stopped running on his way to being named to the All-City team three times, Player of the Year his senior semester. A nose busted in four places. A jaw broken twice and never reset properly, like the sagging right shoulder he got after becoming a street cop and moving onto the fast track to detective status.
He’d put on eight or ten pounds that hardly showed on his six-foot frame, inside a neatly pressed blue pinstripe that told her practiced eye Roman was still shopping off the clothing racks at Sam’s Club. The button-down had struggled through one washing too many, and the skinny tie had long ago gone the same way as eight-tracks and cassettes.
Lainie had never seen Harry Roman smile; as if he thought showing his teeth would be a sign of weakness.
He wasn’t smiling now, stepping a respectful distance up to her after the obnoxious agent who’d been monopolizing her finally cruised off. He angled his weight onto one leg, locked his hands behind his back, aimed the good shoulder at her, and began sucking her into his eyes like he was analyzing a painting at the county museum.
She waited him out, not anxious to have the first word, knowing it would be, as it always was whenever they’d faced off before Roy’s death—
Something to make the night lousier than it already was.
Harry Roman let his stare go a bit longer, then with no trace of humor said, "Long time no see, Mrs. Gardner. What? Two, two-and-a-half years?"
"Not long enough."
He faked a smile. "Had anybody else murdered since you put out the contract on Mr. Gardner?"
The accusation stunned Lainie.
She locked her knees before they could give out entirely.
Waited for her breath to level out.
Said in a voice not as firm as she wanted it to be, "That your idea of a joke, Roman?"
"That you’re still flapping around free as a bird, that’s my idea of a joke."
"You’re saying I killed my husband?"
Roman tilted his head, squinted and squeezed his eyebrows, pursed his lips and pretended to search the ceiling for an answer. He started a slow nod before looking at her squarely. "Had it done for you is what putting out a contract means, so yes, you’re definitely the responsible party, Mrs. Gardner."
"In front of our daughter? In front of Sara? I would do a thing like that?"
Roman shrugged, made a throwaway gesture. "I could name mothers who’ve done a whole lot worse by their children."
"You’re sick," Lainie said, choking on her words. Her shiver turned into an earthquake/ She struggled against launching her fists, dancing balls of anger, at his smug, arrogant face. "To even think I’d do anything like that, to my husband, in front of my child. It makes you one sick son of a bitch, Roman."
"You’re not the first one to come to that conclusion."
"You were wrong then, to indict me with Roy, and you’re wrong now."
"Not me. A grand jury named you your husband’s co-conspirator on twenty-four of the thirty-seven counts of unlawful business activities inspired by his ties to organized crime."
"Allegations and never proven, because there never was any proof to be found, only you grandstanding for the press, waving around your accusations like circus balloons."
His expression rejected the charge. "The proof was there, if we had gotten that far. Roy Gardner’s murder put an end to the indictments, but no chance in Hades you’ll have it easy this time around, getting away with his murder."
"When are you going to stop persecuting me, Roman? Ever?"
"Confession is good for the soul, Mrs. Gardner. You think about it after you get home tonight. I’ll give you my card. All my numbers are there. Call anytime, day or night. We’ll work something out."
Lainie unclenched her fists, wrapped herself in her arms and surveyed the theater. The last of the stragglers had gone. She and Roman were alone. "First, you prove it, prove something, prove anything," she said, her husky voice as threatening as a rattlesnake’s hiss. "You can’t, or you never would have dropped the indictments. You can’t, or you’d be putting handcuffs on me now, instead of playing the sick mind games my husband, Roy, someone I loved more than life itself, always said you were capable of playing."
Roman turned from her attacking gaze. "You are quite the actress, Mrs. Gardner. I don’t mean in the play tonight, which I got here too late to see. Now’s when I mean. I don’t know why you ever gave up a career in acting for the record business. You hadn’t, I could be standing here right now talking to a great big movie star."
Lainie took his measure. "And I’d still be talking to a pile of shit."
Home was an easy twenty-minute drive on surface streets from the Star Bright, on South Hoover in the low-rent district behind City College, the bottom half of a double-decker stand-alone duplex from the thirties in desperate need of a paint job, its narrow front lawn a weed-infested garbage dump for booze bottles in paper bags and crushed beer cans; a pee stop for every stray mutt wandering the neighborhood.
Lainie stepped inside calling, "Sara?"
Sara had promised her, sworn she would stay home, finish her homework, and now this.
Not the first time.
Lainie threw her eyes and hands to the sky.
She changed into her nightgown and robe.
She snapped on the TV and fell onto the couch with this week’s Billboard, the Bible of an industry that turned its back on her two years ago rather than risk fallout and contamination from the criminal indictment brought against her. She flipped through the pages indifferently, looking for familiar names, half-studying the hit charts that barely made sense to her anymore; settling in for another long night of worrying about her absent daughter’s safety.
After a while, as she had on so many other nights, Lainie caught herself crying, blaming herself for not being able to give Sara a better childhood than she’d had, vowing to find a way to do better for Sara, before finally crashing under the weight of a memory that had cost her more than her husband—her daughter as well, two-and-a-half years ago, the trial scheduled to begin in Division Four the day after Sara’s thirteenth birthday.
The lawyers insisted there was no time for sentiment or celebrations; there was still prep work to be done that would take them well into the night. They backed off the way six-hundred dollar an hour lawyers do only after Roy slammed his fist down on the conference desk and told them it was pointless to argue. He and Lainie were taking Sara out for the birthday dinner they’d promised her, and that was that. His daughter was more important to him, to his wife, than even a "Not Guilty" verdict.
He gave Lainie the kind of look that could last an eternity. "That so, Lainie?"
She squeezed his hand and nodded agreement. "More than life itself," she said.
Sara got to pick the restaurant. She chose her favorite, Sal’s Little Sicily, which featured a menu thick with recipes Sal’s mama had brought with her from the old country. It was located on a quiet business street about a mile from the Gardners’ sprawling ranch-style home in Encino, in Hacienda Estates, a walled, guarded valley haven for the wealthy and famous north of where the 101 intersects with the 405.
Sal, a small man with a salt-and-pepper mustache too big for his egg-shaped face, greeted them warmly, added an extra hug for Sara, and personally escorted the family to Booth Three in the main dining room, the booth usually reserved for celebrities who enjoyed having everybody’s eyes on them while they feasted on one of Mama Luciana’s specialties.
"Tonight, cousin, you’re the biggest star here," Sal told Sara. He released her from his grip after planting a second smooch on her nose and steering her by her shoulders to the booth.
Sara slid along the cracked and faded brown leather to the middle seat. Roy slipped in alongside her with his back to the entrance, and Lainie settled at the aisle position across from Roy. They acknowledged waves and nods of notice from some of the regulars in an unusually large and bustling crowd for a Monday night.
The bar noise, undecipherable chatter and bursts of response to the football game on TV, drowned out Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on the dining room speakers. Francis Albert and Dino, as Sal always identified them, were his idols long before the night Lainie brought them in for some of Mama Luciana’s manicotti alla Siciliana.
It was before the troubles began. Lainie was still in her glory years as president of Blue Pacific Records, a power broker, the highest-ranking woman in the music industry, whose face had graced the covers of Time, Newsweek and Rolling Stone all in the same week, a first for the business.
Sara had her usual, the spaghetti alla salsiccia and a double order of hot garlic toast. Roy and Lainie went for the fried calamari, sharing their orders of cannelloni and linguini with clams and an imported chablis that Sal recommended, allowing Sara to have half a glass because it was a special occasion.
For dessert, Sara ordered the tri-flavored spumoni—unaware of the rich chocolate cake about to be served with fourteen blazing candles, the fourteenth for good luck—and excused herself to spend a few minutes with a school chum who was dining out with her parents in a booth across the way.
Roy hand-signaled it was a good time to pull out Sara’s birthday gift, an 18-carat Perretti heart-shaped pendant on an 18-inch chain. She had admired it more than once in the days when Lainie and Roy could afford shopping at Tiffany’s and the other Beverly Hills goldmines along Rodeo Drive. To buy it for Sara now, after the IRS had tied up every asset in claims, Lainie had pawned the black-and-white pearl necklace she’d managed to hide from the Feds when they came calling with search warrants. Roy tried talking her out of it, but he’d run out of legitimate sources for loans, and covering the vig demanded by sources you’d never want to meet in a dark alley was impossible, he told her, breaking into horse tears.
Lainie reached into her handbag but after a moment came up empty-handed and did a slap-off gesture against her forehead. "I didn’t get a chance to sneak the box out of the glove compartment," she said, and eased onto her feet. "Be back in a minute, darling. If Sara asks, just say I’m in the ladies."
"She’ll know better."
"Of course she’ll know better. Doesn’t she always?"
"Just like her mother?"
"Not best, just always," Lainie said, giving Roy’s shoulder a gentle squeeze as she passed by.
Outside, past the dome-shaped burgundy canopy protecting the restaurant entrance, she turned her face against a light breeze and headed through the parking lot. The lot had been full, so Roy parked across the street, about half a block up, where the area turned residential and slim palm trees began forming regimental fashion on the parkway lawns.
Nearing the sidewalk, she bumped shoulders with a man nine or ten inches taller than her own five-seven, half his face buried inside the turned-up collar of his camel hair coat, the rest of him covered in a traveling shadow as the quarter moon glided into a bank of gray clouds.
He grunted and hurried on, slouched over like a fullback racing for the end zone.
Lainie reached the car, a ten-year-old Toyota Camry one of Roy’s friends from the Masons—one of the few friends who hadn’t abandoned him—had sold him for nine hundred dollars, on credit, a personal loan with no interest or due date.
She fumbled for several moments in the semi-darkness getting the key into the lock.
Heard what sounded like a car backfiring as she was pulling Sara’s gift from the glove box.
Then a second backfire.
She recognized it was more than backfire when she was halfway back to the restaurant. Dozens of customers were racing out of Sal’s, their voices tinged with fright as they got into their cars and roared away. She tried to make sense of what they were saying, but it was only a jumble of noise.
The tumult grew louder the closer she got, cries and screams pouring out the entrance.
She heard the words dead and killed.
And a scream louder than any other noise.
At once, she knew in her heart—pounding like a jackhammer—that it was her precious Sara screaming, and—
Sara’s scream, loud to the sky, barely a break for a breath before it moved an octave higher.
Sara’s screaming absorbing every other sound attacking Lainie’s head.
Terrified for her daughter, Lainie fought through the bottleneck of customers elbowing, pushing and shoving their way out of the restaurant.
She pushed past the last of them into the main dining room, where some customers were still sitting, frozen over their gnocchi and chicken parmigiana, shocked beyond panic, staring as if in a hypnotic trance at Sara and Roy.
She let out her own scream, a burst of horror, when she saw Sara back in the booth, her face and clothing bloodied, covered with bits of brain and bone, shaking the lifeless body of her daddy, what remained of his face drowning in linguini with clams, his left arm dangling, fingers wrapped tightly around an empty wine glass.
It was Lainie’s turn to scream.
She got to the booth and somehow managed to pull Sara loose from her daddy, then wrapped her arms around her in a way that sheltered Sara from the sight of Roy. She tried to comfort Sara with meaningless words.
"It’s okay, baby. Everything is okay, baby. Mommy’s here. Mommy’s here, my sweetheart."
Sara moved past hysteria to gigantic heaves of sobbing, her tears making rivers through the blood and gunk on her face, the blood and gunk transferred onto her mother, who hugged her child closer and harder, adding her own tears to the mix as police sirens grew louder outside Sal’s Little Sicily.
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