by Lorie Lewis Ham
Murder At the Movies is an original short story written by Lorie Lewis Ham featuring the main character from her novels, gospel singer Alexandra Walters. This series is set in a fictional version of Reedley, California. Check back here next week for the conclusion of this story. Learn more about her books on her
Murder and entertainment; the perfect combination. Some people might find that odd coming from a gospel singer but I had been a mystery fan for almost as long as I’d been a singer. I felt a tingle go up my spine and shivered with excitement just thinking about the night’s festivities.
The doorbell rang and I jumped. Moments later, I heard my boyfriend’s hearty laughter from the kitchen. Someone had beaten me to the door. Grabbing my shawl, I went to join him. Stephen’s whistle of appreciation made it worth the two hours of preparation that had gone into getting ready for this evening. I hadn’t spent that long since the prom.
“You look great, baby.” He grinned and flicked a lock of blond hair from his eyes. “Ready for your close up?”
“Why of course, Mr. DeMille.”
Cassandra, friend and faithful babysitter of my daughter Jessica, giggled. “You guys look like you stepped right out of an old movie. I almost wish I were going with you.”
Stephen took my arm and maneuvered me to the door before I could offer to let her take my place; my ingrown need to please others was a hard habit to break. Being a gospel singer most of my life, I seldom got the chance to dress up and go out for a night on the town so I really didn’t want to miss this and he knew it. My meager earnings weren’t exactly enough to finance running off to the theater every week.
He escorted me to his latest vehicle—an antique car in perfect condition. I smiled. Not exactly the kind of car he could use to tail someone, but it was perfect for tonight. “Between our outfits and this car we’ll take first place in the costume contest for sure. Where did you get this beauty? It looks just like the one in Sunset Boulevard.”
“I rented it from an outfit in Hollywood. Pretty cool, huh.”
If it had been anyone else, I would have been shocked that they had gone all the way from our little town in the San Joaquin Valley to Hollywood just to rent a car, but not Stephen. Thanks to the racehorses he owned, he could afford it. He’d never be able to do things like that on what he made as a private investigator.
When we pulled up in front of the Classic Theatre, there were cars everywhere. A photographer took our picture as we exited the car and Stephen reluctantly handed the keys over to a valet. It was just like a Hollywood premiere. Lights, a red carpet leading up to the front door, photographers and lots of people in pretty clothes. Mr. Mitchell, the owner of the theater, went all out for their “Days of Hollywood Past” night each year. Every dime went to support a local charity. This year it was the police benevolence fund, which held a special place in my heart from my six months as a reserve officer.
This was the highlight of the year for Donlyn residents—even bigger than the Blossom Festival. I was sure most of the people in town attended; dressed up to fit whatever era the chosen movie was set in. Tonight’s movie was Sunset Boulevard and I could hardly wait. It had been one of my favorite movies since watching it on TV with Grandma Walters as a kid. Stephen preferred musicals but had to admit Sunset Boulevard was a great picture.
Naturally, Stephen purchased the best seats in the house. We were front row center. Instead of popcorn and soda, the theater served sparkling cider and Godiva chocolates that melted in your mouth. Heaven. After the movie there would also be a buffet catered by the NoName Café, the big hotspot in Donlyn. Truly a night to remember.
We settled into our seats. As the movie began, a hush fell over the crowd. These were people who respected the classics so we were saved from the common chatter of the typical movie theater. There was nothing to distract from the enjoyment of the experience.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaah!” came a scream from somewhere behind us. So much for the quiet. Surely, this was part of the show. The movie stopped and the houselights switched on.
I turned around to see what was happening. Everyone had backed away from the center of the middle row of seats. Stephen was quick to get up and head over. Curious cat that I am I followed. I should have contained my curiosity. This wasn’t the kind of murder I enjoyed. In one of the seats was a young man with a knife sticking out of his back and a circle of blood around the wound. He was slumped forward, his head leaning against the seat in front of him. I stepped back as Stephen went forward. Singing gospel music had not prepared me for murder even if there was a lot of backstabbing in the business.
Dr. Masterson appeared on the scene, decked out in top hat and tails that looked oddly out of place on his tall, thin body. He reminded me of Tommy Tune. He checked the man for a pulse and shook his head. I shuddered. I preferred my murders to be fiction.
“Alex, run out to the lobby and call the police,” ordered Stephen. “Everyone else please remain calm and return to your seats.” Taking charge, he proceeded to tell the one security guard to watch the front door and the ushers to watch the exits. No one was to leave until the police said so.
In the lobby, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the police.
“Donlyn PD,” answered a squeaky voice.
“Shirley, it’s Alex. I need Rick. There’s been a murder at the Classic.”
“Dialing his extension right now. You okay?”
I took a deep breath. “A little shaken, but fine.”
I heard some clicking and voices in the background. “Here he is.”
“Hey, Kid. What’s this about a murder?” Rick’s familiar voice made me feel a little better.
“I’m at the Classic and someone has been stabbed. We’ve made sure no one touches anything other than Doctor Masterson checking for a pulse. Bring everyone you can round up, this place is packed.”
“I’ll get right on it.” He paused. “Be careful, kid.”
He knew me too well. My curiosity and sense of justice tended to get the better of my judgment. “I’ll try.”
Rick hung up. I dialed home.
“Hello,” answered Cassandra.
“Cass, we’ve had an emergency here at the Classic so we might be really late.”
“Nothing too serious I hope.”
I twisted my hair nervously. “I’m afraid it’s murder.”
Her whistle came through so loud I held the phone away from my ear. “Wow. Not anyone we know I hope.”
“He didn’t look familiar but I only saw him from behind. Lock the doors and get Jess to bed. Hopefully I won’t be too late.”
As I hung up, I walked back to what was now a crime scene. Stephen was talking to the head usher. “Howard, did you notice any strangers tonight other than the victim?”
Donlyn was small enough to make such a question possible. He shook his head. “Same old crowd, except…”
“Yes?” I prodded. Stephen gave me one of those let me do my job looks.
“Mrs. Swanson brought someone with her. I think it might have been her nephew. Tall, good lookin’ guy. Dark hair, nice suit.”
Unable to control myself I spoke again, “Stephen, do we know who the victim is yet?”
“Didn’t want to touch the body until the police get here so haven’t checked for an ID. But it sounds like the man Howard just described. Mrs. Swanson was the one who screamed, then she fainted. Howard took her into the office and laid her on the couch. Mitchell said we could use his office for whatever we need.” Stephen smiled. “He’s even trying to get some food in here early to keep the crowd occupied. Food sounds good right now.”
If the situation hadn’t been so serious I would have laughed. Investigations always made him hungry.
“We should see if she’s up to talking.”
Stephen flicked a lock of blond hair from his eyes. “I was about to do that, if you’d like to tag along and watch.” The emphasis on watch wasn’t lost on me. I followed him across the lobby but never agreed to anything. Now that the initial shock had worn off my curiosity was in full gear.
Glenda Swanson sat on a couch in the manager’s office, a white handkerchief to her green eyes. She was dressed in a long, black gown, her brown hair framing her face with bright red lipstick on full lips. I could easily imagine the young star of stage she had once been. Stories of her years on Broadway were the stuff of beauty parlor gossip. But more than her awards, I admired the fact she’d been willing to leave it all to marry Patrick Swanson and live on a farm. She’d done several local productions through the years.
Stephen sat next to her and took one of her well-manicured hands. “I’m so sorry for your loss. I wish I didn’t have to bother you with this but we’re trying to determine what happened tonight.”
She wiped her eyes. I’d have sworn she batted those long eyelashes at him. “I understand, Mr. Carlucci.”
“What can you tell me about the gentleman who came with you tonight?” Stephen was careful not to refer to him as the murdered man.
“He wasn’t my nephew,” she said with a degree of hesitation. “People talk and I just didn’t feel like dealing with anymore gossip. That’s why I made up the nephew story. He didn’t mind.” She smiled slightly. “He kind of got a kick out of it. His name is, was Bill Harrison. We met a few weeks ago when I was in Hollywood visiting old friends. He’s a young writer and was hoping I’d be interested in financing his screenplay. Mr. Swanson left me very well off.”
She stopped to dab her eyes again with the handkerchief then continued. “I’ve been taking a look at it this week and we’ve been making plans. I learned he was a fan of the classics so thought it would be fun for us to come tonight. It was all very innocent. I can’t believe —” Her voice broke and she was unable to finish.
“Do you have any idea why someone would have wanted to murder him? Was he acting unusual at all this week? Like he was frightened or upset?” I interrupted without thinking, winning a dirty look from Stephen. You’d think he’d be used to it.
At this, she nearly smiled. “Everything about the entertainment world is unusual. But no, nothing out of place really for the lifestyle he chose. Not that I had known him very long. Sorry.”
“If you think of anything else please let me know right away.” Stephen gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
We left her to compose herself and headed back for the lobby. Stephen pulled out his cell. “David, I need you to do a quick check for me and call right back. Yes, I know it’s late, but there’s been a murder. Get all you can on a Bill Harrison from Hollywood.” He flipped his phone closed and slipped it back into his pocket.
“I guess I shouldn’t even try to keep you out of this,” He said with a smile. “Any thoughts?”
“It’s all a little surreal actually. Someone named Mrs. Swanson brings a young Hollywood writer to a showing of Sunset Boulevard and he dies. Are you sure we’re both awake?”
He gently pinched me, then himself. “Looks that way.”
I rubbed my arm. “That hurt. Do you know who was seated where? Maybe that would help.”
“Good idea. Let’s see if we can get everyone to account for where they were sitting. Since the police are taking so long we might as well start their job for them.”
I started to follow him in but my cell phone rang.
“Hey, kid its Rick. We got sidetracked to another homicide on the other side of town. Since I knew you guys were there I felt I could make the other one my priority. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
He hung up. I went in and told Stephen about the call. He nodded as he headed to the front of the room where he stopped in front of the big screen. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. I know this hasn’t been the evening you planned, but the police will be here soon. In the meantime, if you will help me perhaps we can get you out of here sooner. I know I’d much rather be at home with a nice glass of wine and Mozart on the stereo.”
The room was quiet, all eyes on him. Stephen would have made an excellent politician. His warm, charming smile could win anyone over.
“If all of you will do me the favor of remembering where you were sitting, then write that and your name down on your ticket stub and send them up to me. Howard is bringing me a seating chart. This could be very important. To reward you for your help Mr. Mitchell is having refreshments set up that were to be available at intermission. As soon as you send up your stub you may go and enjoy them.”
People began searching their pockets and purses for their ticket stubs. Would the killer actually tell the truth? Obviously since the victim was stabbed in the back, the killer must have been behind or beside him. But surely it couldn’t be that simple to find our killer.
Don’t forget to check back next week for the conclusion to this story.