Was it murder--or something serious?
Philip Marlow in Murder, My Sweet

Friday, December 5, 2014

Docketful of Poesy redux

“Theater of the Absurd” takes on a whole new meaning when former high school teacher and literary scholar Grace Hollister is hired as a script doctor for a straight-to-cable film production of her own academic exploits. Although the film’s budget seems boundless, almost no one in the cast or crew seems to have any experience making movies. It would almost be comical in a Woody Allen sort of way…until history repeats itself for real, and it’s curtains for one of the cast.

Chapter One


“A film?” Peter’s voice echoed hollowly down the transatlantic line. “You’re going…Hollywood?”
“I…um…believe it’s straight-to-cable,” I said.
Silence. Then, “And this is a documentary?”
“I think so.”
“You think so?”
“Roberta Lom, the producer—” I winced, hearing my own slightly self-conscious tone as I spoke the word producer, “—was a little vague. It was a short conversation. She was late for a meeting.”
Another of those awkward silences. I glanced at the clock on the bedstand; ten o’clock at night. Peter’s time. I had been so looking forward to talking to him; I always seemed to call at the wrong hour: either he wasn’t home or he wasn’t able to talk. But now, after three and a half weeks of phone tag, I finally had him on the line—and it was almost as though I were talking to a stranger. He seemed so…far away.
Of course, he was far away—over five thousand miles of far away. Peter was in the tiny village of Innisdale in the English Lake District while I was in Los Angeles, so maybe I was letting my imagination make too much of a bad connection. Bad in more ways than one.
He said flatly, “I don’t see why anyone would want to make a documentary of your book. Who, other than academics like yourself, would care whether or not Lord Byron fathered yet another bastard child?”
Now, I found that a tad irritating, but I’m the first to admit that when it comes to my passion—my passion for literature of the Romantic period—I’m not entirely objective. So, striving for sweet reason, I said, “Well, first of all, how we determined that little fact makes a pretty good story, I think. I mean, I was kidnapped—three times—”
My gaze wandered past the assorted silver- and pewter-framed photos of my parents, me, and my brothers, Clark and Colin. Clark, four years older, had the blond hair and wide green eyes—behind the same horn-rimmed glasses—of our father. Colin had Mother’s freckles and red hair. As the middle child it had fallen upon me to somehow manage a diplomatic combination of genetic traits: green eyes and auburn hair—and if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s diplomatic relations.
“You can hardly count Allegra taking you to Lady Vee’s as actual abduction.”
Perhaps he was not defending yet another former girlfriend so much as being a stickler for accuracy. Still striving for sweet reason, but now through gritted teeth, I said, “I was held against my will. Never mind the fact that we were both nearly shot by that crazed—”
“A bit sensationalistic for a reputable documentary,” Peter drawled in that annoying public school accent, and if I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn he was deliberately provoking me.
“I assume the documentary will focus on the academic aspects of our search.”
Peter laughed. And now I was quite sure that he was trying to provoke me. “What academic aspects might those be?” he inquired as though genuinely interested. “As I recall, you were convinced we were searching for a lost manuscript.”
Now that was one for the books—no pun intended. For once I, Grace Hollister, was at a loss for words. In fact, there was the oddest prickling behind my eyes—as though I were about to suffer a dreadful allergy attack. What was happening here? We were very nearly quarreling.
This, after exchanging no more than a dozen words or so since I’d left the Lakes for a brief visit home. Or what would have been a brief visit if it hadn’t been for my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary, the holidays, the difficulty in arranging the subletting of my apartment, catching up with old friends and colleagues, and now this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see my first book made into a film.
I couldn’t understand it. Did Peter regret the things—those lovely, romantic things—he had said before I left, nearly three…four…six months…earlier? Did he not want me to return to Innisdale?
Into my silence he said, “If this is a documentary, wouldn’t I need to sign a release of some sort? You’re planning to use my name, I take it?”
“Are you saying you would refuse to sign a release?”
The hiss in the long-distance line seemed ominous.
“No,” he said quietly, at last. “I’m not going to stop you, if this is what you want.”
Were we still talking about the proposed documentary film? There was something in his voice…
I said uncertainly, “Is everything all right there? Was there—you said you had something to tell me.” I’d been so thrilled that he had called me, so excited about my news; I’d hardly given him a chance to get a word in until at last his pointed lack of interest had penetrated the bubble of my enthusiasm.
“It’ll keep,” he said.
Abruptly, I remembered the beautiful and dangerous Catriona—and the much less beautiful but equally dangerous Turkish prison guard Hayri Kayaci. I remembered three murder investigations and far too many close calls to count. Peter’s past was checkered at best, and the publication of my first book alone had brought results similar to poking a stick into a nest of cobras. Was it possible that he had valid reasons for not wanting this film made?
“Peter,” I began.
“Look, Grace,” he said at the same time. “Something’s come up. I’ll ring you later, shall I?”
“All right,” I said reluctantly, but I was speaking to a dial tone.
Slowly, I replaced the handset, fearing that more than a phone connection had been broken.

*****

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