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Authors: Ron Chudley

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective

Act of Evil

BOOK: Act of Evil
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ACT OF EVIL

Ron Chudley

For Joan Bryan . . . first believer.

one

With the camera rolling, Hal Bannatyne tripped on one of the fake cobblestones and fell flat on his back.

While still on the ground, twisted about so that he happened to be facing the crowd of spectators in the nearby roped-off area, he found himself looking directly up at . . .

Mattie
?

He hadn't thought of his old flame in years, wouldn't have believed that he retained a clear image of her face. Yet he knew beyond question that it was she.

Then the assistant director and the makeup girl and a couple of extras all descended at once, helped him up and brushed him down, laughing in spite of their concern. Jack Naesby, the director, came out from behind the camera, hands on hips. “Great stunt, Mister Chaplin. But we should probably stick to the script, don't you think?”

Hal was a loose and very secure actor, not at all bothered by providing a little unplanned comedy relief.

“I'm fine, Jack. Thanks for the concern, buddy.”

“Okay. Let's go again, please.
Take two.
Positions, people. Let's put this baby to bed.”

Hal prepared to move to his mark. But first he swiveled to regard the line of spectators, the place where he'd seen Mattie.

She was no longer there.

≈  ≈  ≈

It had been a long day. Victoria, British Columbia, is a picturesque little city, a fact well known in the movie business. A number of the downtown streets can dress up prettily in period attire and plunge into earlier eras as easily as an actor dons a fancy costume. This lane leading off Humboldt Street in the downtown core had stood in perfectly for a quiet Victorian-era street, as required by the script. They had been filming here for a week. Today was not just the last at the location, it was the end of the shoot. When the current scene—the first take of which Hal had just wrecked—was in the can, filming would be complete.

Although this shot was not, in continuity, the last in the movie, it was crucial; the climax of a moving scene where Hal's character bids a final farewell to his lover. Juliet Jeffries, his co-star, was an intense and accomplished performer. They'd worked well together, their screen relationship all the more electric for the fact that they'd not become personally involved. Half a dozen takes were in the can before the director declared himself satisfied. “Right, thanks very much, everyone. That's a wrap.”

The traditional burst of applause was genuinely enthusiastic. Jack Naesby, though a stickler and inclined to over-direction, was respected and had a good rapport with cast and crew, so it had been a happy company. Just
how
happy would no doubt become evident tonight at the wrap party.

Because of the scarcity of downtown space, there was room for only the minimum of production trailers. Jack shared his with Darcy Shadbolt, an elderly actor playing a support role, who was an old compadre. Such a setup wouldn't have been acceptable to a star in Hollywood, probably, but Hal didn't care; having built most of his reputation in the quasi-democratic world of theater, he was unimpressed by the hierarchy games of the movies. On entering the trailer, he found Darcy, who'd already changed into street clothes, quaffing a beer. “Congrats, old man,” Darcy chirped: despite fifty years in Canada, he still sounded as
BBC
Brit as when he'd crossed the pond. “That last scene was a corker—as, I might say, has been your entire performance in this pale epic.”

Hal smiled. “Thanks, Darc.”

“I mean it, dear heart—though I thought for a mo' we were to be robbed of your shining talents for that final shot: how's your bum?”

Hal hadn't thought of his battered rear since the incident. It might be stiff tomorrow, but felt okay now. What did surprise him, however, was the vividness with which the
other
thing
came back: after the fall—that unmistakable glimpse of his old sweetheart.

It had been Mattie: he knew that as surely as he knew his own name.

Having reassured Darcy on the state of his gluteus, he was offered and accepted a beer. While he changed, they chatted about trivialities, but Hal's real thoughts were elsewhere.

How long had it been since they'd broken up? Incredible as it seemed, twenty-five years! A full quarter century: just thinking about that made him feel decrepit. The life of a performer provided any virile, not-too-ugly guy with ample opportunities for romance, and Hal had scarcely been inactive. No nuptials or kids, to be sure, but several quite serious relationships, and a steady array of pleasant companions in-between. Affectionate impermanence: that was the state best suited to an actor—or so he'd come to believe. So the real surprise today lay not just in seeing Mattie—nor even the unnerving immediacy of the recognition—but an emotion that had slipped unexpectedly from a place he hadn't even known existed: something that felt oddly like regret.

Bullshit!

He told himself that firmly, as he left the trailer and walked the half-dozen blocks to his hotel. Surely, the strength of his reaction to Mattie had been due to nothing more significant than surprise. By the time he reached his destination, he'd more or less convinced himself. Yet, throughout the trip, he couldn't prevent his eyes flickering across passing faces. He didn't see her again.

He arrived at his room and ran a bath, meaning to have a rest and a decent supper before the bash to be held in the production suite at the same hotel. At least getting away would be reasonably easy. Cast parties didn't do much for him any more, the result largely of a decreased interest in getting hammered; life had begun to seem too short to be wasted in a stupor, plus he'd really come to loathe hangovers. His position in the company meant that he couldn't exactly
not
show. But he intended to slip away as early as possible.

Ouch! Getting into the tub produced a twinge of his recently battered posterior. Hot water would soon ease that. He lay back, intending to do nothing but soak and veg out—

Mattie
 . . .

They'd met at the University of Victoria, both members of what was then a fledgling theater department. He'd grown up in the city, she was from a small town up-island. Hal was in his second year when Mattie arrived. They gravitated to each other within a week, their coming together swift, hot, and inevitable. During the first academic year Mattie had lived in the dorms. But in the summer she stayed in town to get a job, at which time they dispensed with pretenses and took an apartment. For the next two years they were scarcely apart, both anticipating a bright and happy future together.

Except it hadn't worked out that way. Prior to graduation, on the advice of his acting prof, Hal had auditioned for the National Theatre School. To his surprise, he was accepted, which meant three years in Montreal, on the other side of the country. Up to then, he hadn't even been sure that he wanted to make acting his career. But being accepted for the National gave him exciting prospects and a real boost. During the first year apart, he and Mattie wrote and phoned constantly. When he came back in the summer, it appeared for a while that nothing had changed. But it had:
he
had, if Mattie was to be believed. More to the point, she'd decided she wanted no part of a full-time stage career, while he'd become committed to nothing less. Older heads would have called it quits right then. But they were still “in love,” with much emotional capital invested. Hal returned to Montreal, vowing that somehow they'd find a way. His immediate idea was that she move east and join him. If she didn't want to act, there were plenty of other things she could do, and at least they'd be together. But it turned out she wouldn't do that either; though she wouldn't come right out and admit it, apparently her family and life on the West Coast were more indispensable than her relationship with Hal. So unless he gave up acting and slunk back to
BC
, to teach or something equally tedious, there was no way they
could
be together. Coming to this conclusion was probably inevitable; his mistake had been breaking it to Mattie by way of a long-distance phone call . . .

His tub was getting chilly. He got out and dried off, and while he was dressing the telephone rang.

“Hi, sugar. How's your backside?” The musical voice of Juliet Jeffries managed to sound classy, even in ribaldry.

“Fine. Nothing broken. You want to go eat somewhere?” They'd taken to sharing meals in the evenings, sometimes running lines afterward, if they had a scene next day. Now there were no more lines to run or scenes to play. After tomorrow, they mightn't see each other for years, such was the rhythm of the work. This had been a good partnership, so a quiet farewell supper before the closing riot was a pleasant prospect.

“Our last chance in a while, I guess. Come by when you're ready.”

He said he'd be there in half an hour and prepared to dress. He'd been up since 6:00
AM
, and his chin already sprouted a mat of black stubble. In honor of the last night, he decided to shave again. The features that confronted him in the mirror were broad, square and even, a face classically handsome. Fortunately, he was a good enough actor not to have suffered the label of “pretty boy.” His hair was thick with barely a trace of gray. In his late forties, he could still pass for a decade younger. When he entered a room, the heads of most women—plus a fair contingent of men—inevitably turned. Hal took all this for granted; the mug in the mirror was pretty much routine to him, except that this evening something was different.

Staring at himself, he was reminded once more of that glimpse he'd had of Mattie. Did the immediacy of recognition mean that
she
hadn't changed? At twenty, she'd been really beautiful. People had thought they looked like a couple of movie stars together: quite an ego trip. Today she'd seemed unchanged, though she had to be in her mid-forties. In the shock of the moment, he must have imposed an ancient memory upon present reality. His imagination placed that memory beside his own reflection—and something odd occurred: there, gazing back at him, was not himself but his father.

Jesus! What the hell's this about?
But it was fairly obvious. When he'd first met Mattie, his dad would have been about the age Hal was now. The mirror guy was old enough to be parent to the girl who'd once been his lover, so his mind had made the embarrassing—if appropriate—switch. But
she
was no longer that girl. Despite appearances, Mattie must have aged as much as he. And so . . .

So this whole train of thought was nonsense. If he didn't know better, he'd think he was having some weird mid-life crisis. He'd had a few problems in his career—due largely to his actor's curiosity, which had led him into trouble on more than one occasion—but emotional insecurity wasn't his style. Hal chuckled ruefully. He finished dressing, and headed out for a last supper with his co-star.

Juliet Jeffries' suite was just down the hall. Actors, when touring or on location, spend a lot of time in each others' company—if not beds—such is the nature of the business. Performers are not necessarily more promiscuous than other folk, their lifestyle just provides a lot more opportunities. Also, fantasy-romance, onstage or for the camera, needs genuine immersion; being believably in love requires the evocation of emotions which—at least at the time—can be hard to differentiate from the real thing. That Hal's and Juliet's spirited performance had
not
translated into an off-screen affair had taken a certain discipline, and as soon as she opened her door, he found himself regretting it.

Juliet was ten years his junior, a willowy thirty-seven; with auburn hair, large brown eyes, and a mouth that crimped sweetly at the corners, offsetting a strong chin. During filming, he'd seen her only in the dark, high-necked gowns of the late Victorian period, or the work-sweats of the theater gypsy. Tonight there had been a transformation. She wore a mauve, clingy dress that did wonders for her very good figure, while her hair had been lifted into a bronze halo, framing a face ready for a
Vogue
photo-shoot.

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