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by George E. Simpson, Neal R. Burger
Description: In a world of secrets and deceit, he was the quiet one. Unassuming, focused on his work. Little did his co-workers know, he was a ticking time bomb. At a boutique recording company in Hollywood, Linda Sharman finds herself immersed in a man's world, fearful of her job. Tony Benedict is the man with flash and attitude, full of macho bravado, who wants all the glory?and Linda, too. And then there's quiet executive Paul Mizzell, a man without a past, intent to keep it that way. Because Paul Mizzell doesn't exist. His identity is pure fiction, hidden behind a veil of secrets. Someone has found him though and has begun to taunt him?threatening to expose the savage crime that, so far, has gone undetected. When Paul is pushed too far, he explodes--and Linda finds herself his new target. Filled with insight into the seedy underbelly of the music business, SEVERED TIES is a thriller that burns with slow heat?until it boils over.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1983
eBookwise Release Date: May 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [394 KB]
Reading time: 244-342 min.
Paul Mizzell got off the elevator and walked into the plush executive offices of Rok Records, the comp under his arm just finished, sprayed and covered. He headed for the marketing director's office, hoping for a quick approval. His worn cowboy boots clumped on the parquet floor. Tucking his shirt into his jeans and running a nervous hand through his beard, he went through the high-tech glass doors into Never-Never Land, so dubbed by the art staff because lately Tony Benedict's customary answer to a creative suggestion coming from anyone other than himself was "Hey--sorry, kids, but never."
From the moment Tony Benedict had come in as marketing director, Rok's homey atmosphere had vanished, replaced by air-conditioned sterility, efficiency checks, and stiffer deadlines.
Paul remembered coming through that door two years ago for his first meeting with the creative director, Linda Sharman, and being impressed by an air of vitality and fun. At that time in his life, after years of grim therapy and enforced soul-searching, the prospect of living normally and having work to enjoy and be absorbed in had seemed a godsend. But all that changed quickly when Tony Benedict arrived and, in a few short months, managed to completely turn around the company that Rocky Holt had founded with compassion and love.
Gone was the lobby display, the tacky collage of old record jackets pasted one on top of the other, making the wall bulge with cardboard--a warped monument to the company's achievements. Some of the staff had suggested having it bronzed and presented to Rocky, but Tony had personally supervised when it was cut up and carted away. The old didn't just make way for the new: at Rok it had to be systematically dismembered first. Now there was a cold brass plaque on the lobby wall--ROK spelled out in bold, slanted letters, trailing a short stream of gold discs. Like a lot of otter jobs lately, the new company logo had been farmed out, and therefore found, little appreciation among Rok's art staff.
Tony Benedict had been brought in to give the company a face-lift. Marketing Director was just a title--The Lone Re-arranger would have been more to the point.
Paul stopped in the outer office and nodded automatically at the secretary, dark-haired with eyes like ice--another stranger. He sat down to wait, propping his art work against the potted palm next to his chair. Another sign of indifference: Rok had become one of those places decorated with a lush abundance of greenery to display with-it extravagance. The plants were removed and replaced every Monday by a local exotic foliage service. The life expectancy of everything at Rok had grown depressingly short.
In the last eight months, Tony had created four new executive positions and had filled each of them with hotshots in their late twenties--his own age. Young fireballs full of ideas, and all of them men. Linda Sharman was thirty-seven and a woman. She had been Rocky Holt's first art designer years ago. He had promoted her to creative director, but where did she fit in now that Tony was in control?
And Rocky Holt, who should have been around to see that things ran smoothly mid personalities didn't clash, was out of town most of the time--traveling, finding new acts, new talent, new music, and in Paul's opinion, abdicating his responsibility.
Paul looked up. Tony stood in the doorway to his office, wearing a sharply creased white tropical suit and a soft print shirt open at the collar, exposing a he-man thatch of chest fur and a heavy gold chain. He was macho down to his Gucci loafers, and his hair was styled in a fluffy mod wedge.
"Let's see what you've got," he said.
Paul closed the door and came in with his art work. There were other men in the room--Rok's sales director, Marvin Beosch; the Struts' producer, Steve Klemer; their attorney, Lou Eisen; and their manager, Jerry Madison.
"Shouldn't Linda be here?" Paul said, glancing at the men.
"I would have called her, but the fellas only have a minute. Come on, let's see. Put it down here." Tony pointed to a glass-topped coffee table.
Paul put the comp down and pulled back the cover sheet on his rendering of the Struts' first album cover. Everyone crowded around.
"What do you think?" Tony said without a trace of emotion. There were a few appreciative murmurs and a satisfied grunt from Marvin Bensch. Jerry Madison studied the work, reluctant to commit himself.
"Maybe I should explain it," Paul said to break the ice. When no one objected, he went on. "The background is the new Main Street in Venice. It's all illustration, to be finished in full-color airbrush. We'll strip in a stock crowd shot for people on the street, give it a one- or two-color tone, whatever works best. And over that we'll super the Struts wearing those turn-of-the-century band uniforms--a full-color photo we can do right here in the studio."
"Strutting, right?" Tony said.
The lawyer nodded and looked at Tony. "Sounds good," he said.
Tony smiled and sat down, pulled the art closer, and leaned over it, his fingers exploring the comp while he made a show of careful consideration.
"It's good," he said finally.
"I think it's terrific," said Steve Klemer.
Tony smiled encouragingly. "Fine work, Paul. You've done real well with the concept. I like the angle on the street there. Perfect depth. And with the Struts up front, I think we've got a solid eye-catcher. Now, Jerry, this is the Struts' first album, and I hope you understand we have your interest at heart."
"Good. Because I've got a way to make this better."
Why the hell isn't Linda here? Paul thought to himself.
"It'll raise the cost, though."
Jerry looked blankly at the art. "What could make it better?"
Tony got up and paced, eyeing Marvin Bensch, who stared back, ready to support anything. Tony patted his midriff in a studied gesture, then looked at Paul and said, "No airbrush, no art work. We do it live. The whole concept, one photograph."
Jerry was puzzled.
"The crowd and everything?" Paul asked.
"Everything. We take a crew out to Main Street, close it off for a few hours--"
"Close it off?" The lawyer was seeing dollar signs.
"Hire a crowd--got lots of folks down in Venice dying to be on an album cover. It's like the movies, only better, because the jacket sits in the stores forever. They can point it out to their friends, start word-of-mouth. We'll do the rest--schedule a Struts concert down there, create a whole cult in Venice, make this a Venice-based group. Local boys with new sound!"
"They're from Watts," Jerry said dully.
"Not anymore. They just moved to the beach. I got another idea!" His eyes flashed with the beauty of it. "The crowd in the street--we'll have them all strutting, like this!"
Tony struck a pose that was too practiced to be off the top of his head. He locked one leg out in front, set his arms rigidly at his sides and flared his Angers. Marvin Bensch laughed and applauded. Steve Klemer grinned and said, "All right!"
Paul stared at Tony. How long had he spent rehearsing this? Nothing wrong with it actually. Good commercial razzmatazz. But why hadn't he brought it up before?
Tony grinned at Jerry. "Get a hundred people out there, put the Struts in the foreground, shoot low, see everyone through their legs. Paul, this is going to be great."
"Hey," Paul said flatly, "whatever you want."
"I like it," Jerry finally admitted. "I think the boys will, too."
"Sure they will. We'll do a whole promotional thing on the day of the shoot--press, TV..."
"What about cost?" Lou Eisen said quietly. "You're going from a hundred percent illo to a hundred percent live photo. We're on a budget."
Jerry looked at Tony, concerned.
"Not anymore," Tony snapped. "This is too big. Right, Jerry? We want to get your boys launched. We need a zippy cover and publicity on the shoot. I did it for the Gaudies and look where they went--big."
Paul swallowed hard. The design for the Gaudies' album was his.
"We'll do the same with the Struts. Okay, Jerry?"
Jerry nodded. "Fine with me. Listen, the boys always told me they wanted to go with Rok because it's first class. Now I see why."
"You're beautiful, Tony," said Marvin, the quintessential yes-man. Around the company he was known as Oui-Oui.
"You bet your ass," Tony said, laying a strong, firm hand on Jerry's shoulder and rocking him back and forth. Then he picked up the comp, flipped the cover back, and gave it to Paul. "Finish that up. We'll use it as the model for the shoot, okay? Thanks."
Paul turned at the door and said, "Who explains the change to Linda?"
"You do," Tony said nicely, and shut the door.
"Well, the son of a bitch has done it again." Linda sank into her chair and pushed Paul Mizzell's comp across the desk. He watched her stare out the window, drained.
Linda Sharman's office was still small, even after sixteen years with the company. She kept it neat and uncluttered, with wall unit counters and shelves lining every available space. Design trophies and awards were prominently displayed, but there were no other mementos--no photographs, no favorite record jackets, no autographed publicity stills. The shelves were stacked with back issues of Cue, Rolling Stone, and recording industry trade publications. Her desk was a broad slab of oak on chrome legs with no drawers. Three chairs were placed neatly around a single small coffee table before it. There was a picture window that looked out on Sunset Boulevard, a view she could have done without. Hollywood was not home to her--just a place to work.
She stared at the Russian restaurant across the street, fashioned after the country house at Varykino in Doctor Zhivago. She had never been inside it; one of these days she really ought to give it a chance. She started to rub tired eyes but stopped, recalling her teenaged daughter's warning--rub your eyes and you get crow's-feet. Terrific advice from a kid majoring in body sculpture or beauty techniques, or whatever the hell it was. What was the difference? At thirty-seven, you either had crow's-feet or you didn't. Linda had them. It was getting harder to hide skin blemishes, but she was about ready to give up the battle anyway. She was still fresh-looking and careful about wardrobe, staying with skirts and soft pastel sweaters or tailored suits. No jeans--they made her look too thick. She wore her blond hair long and limited herself to one piece of jewelry, a jingly gold bracelet given to her by Rocky Holt on her tenth anniversary with the company.
Linda sighed heavily and smiled at Paul. He looked back sympathetically. "It's not your fault," she said. "He's just playing genius."
"I think he planned it ahead of time. He knew exactly what he was going to do."
"Probably. He's right, though. That cover should be photo. I thought so all along. But on the budget he gave us ... Oh, Christ, I can't get around him. He makes the rules and he breaks them. Nobody else in this company can do that."
"Why don't you have it out with Rocky?" Paul suggested.
"Rocky loves Tony."
Paul frowned. "Why?"
"Because he gets results. You don't see what happens at the other end, just what passes through art. He's got every department head in the company on a short leash. He pulls, we jump."
Paul shrugged and picked up his comp. ' 'Back to the drawing board?"
Paul went out without another word. When he was gone, Linda stared at the phone, anger washing over her so completely that her teeth clenched and she balled one hand into a fist. She couldn't understand Rocky anymore. What the hell was he doing gallivanting all over the world looking for new acts? Couldn't he see what was happening right under his own nose?
Tony had been marketing director at Capitol and RCA, so he knew how to manage volume, and how to handle a talent list as long as his arm. But Rok's success depended on the personal nurturing of a limited roster of quality acts. What had made Rocky think that Tony was equipped to deal with that? So far, his concept of management consisted of radical change and little else. His approach to employee relations was to fire people and farm out the work. Album packaging few half of Rok's artists was now done outside, and the results were good, which frustrated Linda. There was getting to be less and less work for Paul Mizzell and the few artists who remained.
She picked up the phone and punched Tony Benedict's extension. The secretary answered. "This is Linda," she snapped. "Put him on."
The secretary asked her to wait, then went off the line. Long seconds passed, Linda's anger building. She rehearsed a speech in her mind--
"Hi, Linda." Tony sounded cheery. "Hey, I loved your presentation on the Struts. We can really make something out of that."
"It wasn't a presentation, Tony. It was a comp. It was exactly what we agreed on at board, on the budget you approved--"
"Hey, I said I liked it. I just think photo will work better than illo. Don't you?"
"Look, I'm getting really tired of this."
"Tired of what, Linda?"
"Interference. Am I running creative or not?"
"I bought the layout."
"No, you changed it--to make yourself look good."
Tony sighed. "Can't we stop fighting?"
"Sure, but from now on, why don't we budget after you see the layout? Then we can all be geniuses."
Tony laughed. "I'll take it up with Rocky. I can't stay on the phone, sweetie. Got two producers and an artist in here--It's my creative director, fellas. She's on the warpath."
Linda bristled. "You condescending bastard--"
"Listen," he said. "I've got somebody waiting--a reporter from the L.A. Times wants an interview. Do me a favor and take him to lunch, okay? I'm really swamped."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'll send him right up." The line clicked off.
Linda stared at the phone in her hand then slammed it down. It's a man's world, she reminded herself. Especially in the recording industry. She was one of a tiny handful of female executives in the business, and she had a hunch that their number was soon to be diminished by one.
Linda spotted the man throwing down his tip and was off to grab his table before any of the twelve other people waiting noticed. Brian Hawthorn was startled but hurried after her. She sat down and waved him to the other chair. Tibbits' was crowded but fast; Linda hated lingering over lunch. She passed a menu to the reporter and studied him. He was somewhere in his midthirties and running to seed. His suit was awful, straight off the rack from a downtown discount house, ill-fitting and not helped by a ten-year-old tie. He was sort of handsome but looked like he never slept. He put his briefcase under his chair and his portable tape recorder on the table.
Brian smiled and said, "What's good here?"
"Too healthy. They got a nice greasy hamburger?"
Brian smiled at the waiter too. "Cheeseburger, medium--extra tomato, french fries, and coffee."
Linda winced and ordered. "Fruit salad, extra cottage cheese, and a glass of Chablis."
"You on a diet?" Brian asked after the waiter left.
"No. Are you?"
He grinned. "Well, Miss Sharman--"
"Excuse me. You're married?"
"Oh. Me, too. Heather couldn't live with my hours." He glanced at her breasts as she unbuttoned her jacket and smoothed her sweater. She caught him looking.
"Is that going to be in your article? My divorce?"
"No. I'm doing a piece on mob influence in the recording industry." He stood the tape deck up, directing the mike toward her. "If this makes you uncomfortable, I'll just take notes."
"Either way, you won't get much. I don't know anything about mob influence in the recording industry."
The waiter served her wine and his coffee. When he was gone again, Brian said, "You mean Rok Records is clean?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
"What on earth would make you do a story like that? Is that how you stir up news? Couldn't you go out and cover a murder or something?"
"I've done that." Brian sugared his coffee heavily.
"Then try the men's room at the Bijou. Ask the fags what they think about gay lib. That ought to sell papers."
"Sure. Reporter's head found floating in public toilet. I'll stick with the mob, thank you."
Linda raised her glass. "Your choice."
"Look, Mrs. Sharman," Brian said quietly, "I didn't ask to cover this story. It was assigned to me." Linda sipped her wine, eyeing him over the rim of the glass. "If you don't know anything," he continued, "it's cool. Okay?"
He looked away while stirring his coffee. Linda put down her glass and thought before speaking. "I know of a lot of things wrong with the recording industry. I could probably fill that tape. But nothing on mob influence. You're interviewing the wrong person."
"Not your department, huh?"
"Come on, Mr. Hawthorn, who are you kidding? You just want some poop on Rocky Holt. The Times would love to nail a big fish like that."
"Wrong. The Times doesn't crucify people. I'm on the level. I tried to see Rocky Holt, but I got funneled down to you. That makes me suspicious."
"Really? You'd laugh if you knew the truth."
"You were palmed off because Tony Benedict didn't want to be bothered and he thought it would be a nice way to annoy me."
Brian arched an eyebrow. "Oh."
"How long have you been a reporter?"
"I guess after all that time digging up dirt, you tend to see it everywhere."
"What have you got against reporters, Mrs. Sharman?"
"I was married to one." She paused. "And call me Linda."
The waiter returned with their food. They started eating in silence, then Linda spoke: "He worked for The Star for five years, then went straight to the top--the National Enquirer. Then the divorce. Now I don't know--or care."
"Any kids?" Brian asked.
"One daughter away at college."
"Who got custody?"
"Me. You need to know this?"
"No, but if we can't talk about the Mafia, how about some chitchat?"
Linda smiled. "How's the hamburger?"
"Greasy. What do you think I should write about?"
"Oh, come on. You must know something worth telling."
She sipped more wine. "You know what made Rocky Holt great?"
"Not his singing," Brian said. "I remember his first record--couldn't get it off the radio even by switching stations--"
"'One and One Is Heart,' 1960."
"That's it. He bought the deejays."
"He did not. Rocky was straight."
"And I'm Ernest Hemingway. Come on--how did a third-rate vocalist come to head his own label?"
"He was a great businessman, and he had--still has--the best ear for talent in the industry." She ate sparingly and said, "Most record entrepreneurs build up their artists by giving them nothing up front, promising them a future down the line. Rocky gives them everything now and warns them there is no later. Unless you become a mammoth hit. Musicians respect him. He doesn't lie. He's been where they are."
"Very touching." He had saved the french fries; now he was shoveling them down, one after another.
Linda's anger rose. "I'm telling you this so you'll see why he doesn't need the Mafia. They have nothing to offer him."
"Well, that seems to put the lid on it."
"It does? Good." She pushed her plate away, drained the wine, and dabbed at her lips with her napkin.
"How about dessert?"
"Enjoy yourself." She picked up her handbag.
"I can't tell you how much help you've been."
"Ah--a nice backhanded compliment."
Brian laughed. "You're sharp for--" He broke off.
"For a woman?" she finished.
"Ah--a nice liberated feminist."
"Just a working girl, Mr. Hawthorn. Are we through?"
"I seem to have run out of grease."
"Oh, no. Not you." She stood up.
"Look, if I need anything more, can I get in touch with you? Maybe dinner some night?"
She sat down again, amazed. "I told you I used to be married to a reporter."
"It might be fun if you'd forget that."
She stared at him, amazed at his gall. Finally, she shook her head and picked up the check.
"Oh, that's very kind of you," he said. "I'm not on an expense account."
"Neither am I."
"Then you will let me return the treat."
"Treat?" she said narrowly, getting up again.
He stood up too. "Oh, one thing, Mrs. Sharman--uh, Linda. That fellow you spoke to when we were leaving the art department. What was his name?"
Brian's face crinkled in thought a moment, then he shook his head. "Doesn't sound right. I know him from somewhere."
"It'll come to you. Good-bye, Mr. Hawthorn."
She hurried to the cash register, and only after signing the check did she dare to look back. He was still at the table. He had ordered apple pie a la mode. Something about him made her uncomfortable, and it wasn't his eating habits.
Paul Mizzell never left the building for lunch. Every day he brought a fresh brown bag containing sandwich, fruit, and cheese, and ate alone at his desk while everyone else went out. They knew his routine and no one questioned it. He did it so he could be at the phone around one P.M. when his live-in girl friend, Judith Berg, took her lunch break at the bookstore and made her daily call to his office. They would talk quietly for a few minutes, their brief mutual strokings punctuated by long silences that Paul perceived as tender communication. If for any reason he missed her call, or if she got too busy to make it, he would try to reach her at exactly five after one. If he couldn't connect then, he would keep trying. If they failed to connect completely, he would be in a depression the rest of the day, almost unable to function. No one in the department suspected this clockwork dependence, because no one else was around often enough to see it happen. So Paul's occasional afternoon funk was usually attributed to moodiness or "bad brown bag."
Back in the pre-Tony Benedict days, when there was more work and overtime was permitted, Paul would often stay late. Judith would bring him dinner and sit with him while he finished his layouts. Sometimes she would go off alone and roam the building, then come back and ask him questions about the operation. He liked those evenings because it was the only time she showed any real interest in what he did. He even made her a duplicate of his back-door key, so she could come and go at will. On occasion, when everyone else had gone home and they were alone together, he would wrap up work and turn to find Judith watching him expectantly. There was an old sofa in the shooting studio. They got a lot of use out of it until Tony clamped down on the overtime. Now he couldn't work nights anymore unless he filled out a form ahead of time.
He finished the apple and glanced at the clock. A minute after one. Already his face was getting warm. In a couple of minutes he wouldn't be able to sit still. His eyes locked on the phone. What was she doing? he wondered. Stocking the shelves? Dealing with a customer? Manning the register? So much to do in a little neighborhood bookshop. Always busy. One would think that books just sat on the shelves and moved when a customer bought them. But no, there was so much rearranging to do. And returns. Special ordering. She had explained it all to him once so he would understand that if she called a little late now and then, it wasn't deliberate, nor was it forgetfulness.
The phone rang.
Paul snatched it up and waited.
"Paul," she said.
He relaxed. "Hi. How's it going?"
"So-so," she said. "I had a customer. You finished lunch?"
"How was the sandwich?"
"Good. Thanks." He heard a bag rustling: her lunch.
"How about a bike ride tonight?" she asked.
"Yeah--that sounds good."
"Then maybe a little fun."
A silence. Paul smiled to himself, tapping a felt pen on the drawing board. He heard her teeth crunch into an apple and felt good. He could listen to her eat all day, which was fine because he'd already run out of conversation.
Paul looked up. Jimmy Otner, the one remaining staff photographer, stormed in.
"That cunt did it again!"
Jimmy was short and scruffy, with long stringy hair--a throwback to the sixties. Nobody had told him the revolution was over.
C. L. Clarke was right behind him--a transplanted Canadian: tall, lean, weathered, handsome, with sun-bleached hair and bad teeth, as relaxed as Jimmy was nervous. C. L, Clarke was one of the top free-lance shooters in the record business.
Paul excused himself to Judith and cupped the phone, a wave of anger knifing through him at being interrupted. In a cold voice he asked Jimmy what was wrong.
"That bitch--Candy Lee. Strung out!"
Paul forgot his anger. "The model?" he said. "She's not coming?"
"Oh, I'll bet she's doing plenty of that." Jimmy lit a cigarette and offered one to C.L., who declined. While Jimmy paced, C.L. perched on Paul's flat file with an inscrutable grin. "Banging some guy in Santa Barbara since yesterday lunch," Jimmy went on. "She just called and fed me her bullshit--I mean, who do these chicks think they are, anyway, man?"
"Just a second." Paul turned back to the phone. "Judith, something's come up. I have to go. See you tonight." He heard her bite the apple again, then mumble a reply. He hung up and turned to Jimmy and C.L. "Can we get anybody else? We need that shot today. Linda is supposed to show something to Crunchy Harris by tonight."
Jimmy shrugged. "I'll call the agency."
"No good," said C.L. "You know what happens when you ask for big tits and lush hips. You get everything butt." He winked at Paul.
"Then what do we do?" wailed Jimmy. "Use Tisa?"
The others groaned. Tisa Stimmel was overweight, plain, and generally regarded as unappealing, but she was a good artist, well-adjusted and uninterested in men. Jimmy was convinced she was a lesbian.
"I think we can do better than that," C.L. said.
Linda walked in.
"No naked. I don't do naked."
"Nobody's asking you to."
"We've got a swell leotard here, Linda. Never know the difference." C. L. Clarke dangled it temptingly.
Linda looked at Paul Mizzell for support. They were all standing in the studio, waiting for her decision. C L. had his lights and drops ready, and the bulky two-and-a-quarter was on a tripod. Paul stood leaning against the door, hands stuffed in his pockets.
Linda pointed to the prop box, a large wooden bin by the door, and said, "Haven't we got some falsies in there? One of you guys could do it."
No one laughed. Paul finally took the leotard from C.L. and said, "If she doesn't want to, she doesn't have to. She's the boss."
"Oh, crap, I'll do it." Linda grabbed the leotard from him and stalked off to the changing room.
By the time C.L. had Linda posed, legs straight and spread slightly, hips swung to one side, tummy tucked in and breasts thrust forward, everything straining against the tight mesh, people had gathered from all over the floor to watch. Some exchanged whispered comments; most just looked on with mild interest. C.L. crouched over his finder--he'd lowered the camera to Linda's crotch level. They weren't selling her face.
Linda glanced down at her legs, wondering desperately how they looked. C.L. brushed by with his light meter and whispered, "You're in frame from the thighs up." He winked and moved back to the camera. Was that reassurance or a mercy gesture? His voice went deep with authority. "Okay, folks--circus is over. Everybody out but art people."
A few groans and protests but they left quietly. Only Jimmy, Tisa, and Paul remained. C.L. started shooting, coaxing Linda into tougher positions, working as fast as possible, Jimmy exchanging roll-backs rapidly behind him.
Linda glanced at Tisa. She was standing very still, like a slack-jawed statue, mesmerized by Linda's body.
Oh, God, Linda thought, of all the people in here I have to turn her on?
"To the right a little, Linda," said C.L. "That arm is falling too close again. That's it. Good..."
Paul Mizzell watched her, too, glancing away each time their eyes met. Linda had wondered about him, why he seemed so shy. When he had started dating Judith, Linda had invited them as a couple to dinner, parties, promotional gigs--they only showed up once. Maybe Paul never told Judith about the invitations. Maybe Judith felt Linda was a threat. Linda wasn't sure and she had long since stopped caring.
"Okay, Linda, that's it. Thanks very much." C.L. snapped off the lights.
Linda collapsed onto a stool. Tisa put a sweater around her shoulders and massaged her neck muscles. Linda cringed at her touch. "Thanks," she said, "but what I need is a drink."
Tisa stepped back. C.L. took over the massage. Linda rolled her eyes. "Don't do that," she said. "I don't need to be stroked. Just get me a drink."
"Scotch?" asked Tisa.
Tisa ran. Jimmy lit another cigarette and said, "You were great, boss. Do this more often. Give the hired help a kick."
"As soon as I get my boots on, I'll do just that. Suppose you get on the phone to the agency and tell them I don't want to see or hear from Candy Lee again. And tell them the next time one of their bimbos fails to show, they can take our number off their Rolodex."
"Right." Jimmy hurried away, eager to give someone else hell.
Tisa returned with a glass of water. Linda drank it down and stood up. She winced at a pain. Muscles need exercise, she told herself. Get in shape, you lazy broad. She padded across to the changing room, shut the door, and struggled to strip off the leotard. She finally held it up and couldn't believe how she'd ever squeezed into it. She dropped onto the bench, naked, and just sat for a minute, rubbing her tortured midriff. She caught her reflection in the full-length mirror and stared at the elastic marks left around her thighs. She studied her body critically, and decided she didn't like the color of her skin anymore. Too much white. Where was the pink flush of her youth? The great summer tan? She never got out anymore. She never did anything. She just worked and went to industry functions.
"Hell, you are an industry function," she said aloud.
"Good-looking one, too," C.L. called back. He was on the other side of the wall, in the darkroom, unloading his roll-backs.
Linda sighed and stood up, reaching for her clothes. What you need is a man. A nice, sexy, athletic man who'll go out and play tennis all day, work up a real rank libido, then come back and spend it all on you.
"When was the last time you got laid, Linda?" C.L. called out.
"Last March," she called back. "By an entire Canadian hockey team. Not one of them even knew what a camera was. Best bang of my life."
C.L. didn't say a word.
"How did I look? Tell me the truth."
Linda walked back up the hall to the art department with Paul. "Think I should wear that leotard around the office?"
"Getting married, Paul?"
"I don't know."
"Why don't you bring Judith around someday?" she said.
"She works all the time."
"I mean around to my place. Dinner."
"You've asked before..."
"And nobody ever turns up. Is she afraid of me, Paul?"
"No," he said quickly.
"We're still getting to know each other. We like to be alone in the evenings. Is that wrong?"
"If you can stand each other's company that regularly, great. My ex-husband never came home at all, except the night we made my daughter."
Paul stopped at the door, half smiling, waiting to be let off the hook.
"Okay, don't come to dinner if you don't want to," Linda said. "It's not in your contract."
"Hey, we'll do it real soon."
He went in. She was about to follow when she heard Jimmy calling from down the hall, "Linda! They want you downstairs!"
Her eyes closed; she held her breath a moment then expelled it. The Lord High Marketing Director summons you for an audience. She turned and headed for the elevator. Jimmy was coming toward her, agitated.
"Something's happened to Rocky," he said. Linda stopped, then walked faster. "Car accident--somewhere in France--"
She punched the down button and felt a chill slice through her from head to toe. Her voice quavered. "Is he all right?"
Jimmy spread his hands uncertainly.
"Oh, shit," she said, stumbling into the elevator, remembering as the doors closed to stab the first-floor button.
The afternoon mail was in; Paul dropped into his chair and opened the letters first. One was from Chrysalis Records, inviting him to a promo party for the new Blondie release. He chucked it in the can. He never went to those things. The other was from his accountant, a bill for last year's tax preparation that he hadn't got around to paying. He stuffed that into his back pocket, then slit open the package that was about the size of a record album. He was surprised to pull out an old, battered copy of the Beatles' Revolver.
Paul's brow furrowed and he stared at it, uncomprehending. Then his heart began to thump and, with a premonition bordering on dread, he flipped the album over and looked at the back. He found it right where he expected to, in the upper left corner--Lori Cornell's scrawled signature.
Paul froze in his chair. For a brief eternity, he was once again in a small, dingy apartment off campus, alone in a dark, overheated room with shades drawn, incense burning, rock concert posters plastered to the walls, Revolver blaring from a cheap hi-fi ... alone but for the girl sprawled over the edge of a sagging, squeaky bed, her legs apart, naked and damp, her body jumping with his as he hammered into her with long, measured strokes. He stopped. They shared some dope and changed position, then started again. She gasped as he went rigid. Her legs thrashed, then quivered.... She moaned and he felt himself subside.... His weight dropped on her.... Lori Cornell...
Sweating, Paul stared down at the album on his desk. It couldn't be hers. He snatched up the wrapping and looked for a return address. None. There was a Los Angeles postmark over the stamps. His name and the address of Rok Records were neatly typed on a gummed label. But there was no indication of who it was from.
His mouth dry and sour, Paul glanced out of his cubicle to see who was around. Tisa walked by, glanced at him, then disappeared into her cubicle. Pierre Carette was working at his drawing board, absorbed. Pierre was the epitome of the egotistical foreigner, smug and condescending, temperamental and opinionated. He delighted in conquering American women. Linda tolerated him because he was superb at a certain kind of design innuendo. He could make anything look sexy.
But would he play a gag like this? Somebody else in the office? Impossible. Nobody here knows about Lori. Somebody outside then?
Paul shoved the album back into the packing and slipped out of his cubicle, trying to think where to get rid of it. He went to the hallway. Somebody he knew from audio came out of a recording room and headed for the elevator, then changed his mind and turned down the stairs. Paul slipped out of the art department and went down the hall, the package tucked under his arm. His boots clumped on the linoleum and echoed back at him noisily.
Take it easy. Take it easy. Who gives a damn about a beat-up copy of Revolver? Who else would know the significance?
Whoever sent it knows plenty.
The elevator opened. Paul stepped in and punched one. It started to close. He heard running feet, then a shoe kicked back the sensor panel. The doors opened and C. L. Clarke came in, carrying his camera cases. Paul managed a weak smile. C.L. would be going to the parking lot too. The doors closed and they started down.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" said C.L.
"You ever make it with Linda?"
"Anybody ever made it with Linda?"
Paul didn't answer. The doors opened and C.L. stepped out, struggling with his cases. Paul saw an opportunity to make his little trip seem natural. He snatched up one of the cases. "You need help," he said.
C.L. led the way down the hall, away from the receptionist, who didn't even look up, and away from the executive wing. Paul looked back. He could see people standing outside Tony Benedict's office. He put them out of his mind and concentrated on what he had to do.
C.L. pushed open the side exit, and they walked out to the parking lot. "I'm over there." C.L. pointed to a flashy Pontiac Trans Am, a kid's car with custom striping and a hood-mounted air scoop. They walked over. C.L. popped the trunk and dumped in his cameras. Paul handed him the other case. C.L. put it in and shut the lid. Paul waited for him to leave, the package still under his arm. C.L. glanced at it, then got into the car, started the engine, and gunned it a few times, grinning at Paul. Over the roar of his idle he said, "How's Linda feel about fast cars?"
"I wouldn't know."
"Find out. Call me."
He took off with squealing tires. As soon as he was down the street and gone, Paul looked around to be sure he was alone. Satisfied, he walked across the lot to the big trash dumpster. The lid creaked as he opened it and propped it up. The garbage smell washed over him. With quick, shaking fingers, he took the album out. The wrapper dropped at his feet. He ripped the jacket open, broke the record in two against the steel dumpster, then threw the pieces into the trash. He shredded the cover and scattered the bits into holes in the piled garbage so they would filter to the bottom. He picked up the packing and ripped out the address label, tore that up, and shoved everything deep into the bin. He hit the prop with the heel of his hand; the lid clanged shut.
His pulse racing, still looking around to make sure he wasn't seen, Paul Mizzell went back to work.