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Murder on Location

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Excerpt from Chapter 1

One of the first things that attracted Rosa Reed to Dr. Larry Rayburn, assistant medical examiner for the Santa Bonita Police Department, had been that he was the picture of Texas charm. As a former Woman Police Constable for the London Metropolitan Police, Rosa had worked with many pathologists and found most capable and efficient, but they were a little, well, “stiff”. Perhaps that came with the job of examining corpses all day. Larry Rayburn, however, defied any stereotypes Rosa had ever had. As a Londoner, she appreciated his gentle formality—but just below that was a funny, unpretentious, and kind man that Rosa enjoyed.

Still, she had to occasionally stifle a giggle when he came to pick her up for a date. He drove a 1948 faded-green Chevrolet pickup truck with its heavy rounded hood, large bug-eyed headlights, and painted grille. Larry had regaled Rosa with stories about how he used to drive the machine on his father’s ranch in Galveston, and though he kept saying he meant to trade it in for “a nicer chariot”, Rosa suspected her date was a little more attached to the truck than he liked to let on. So tonight, as she watched him trundle into the elegant and expansive Forrester estate in his faithful mechanical steed, she grinned at the incongruous sight.

The Forrester mansion was a sprawling Spanish-style structure, built on a low hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and was a testament to her late Uncle Harold’s wealth and his success as an oil baron. It boasted many acres of land, manicured gardens, a swimming pool, and a tennis court. The long driveway was lined with swaying palm trees and ended in a circle surrounding an angel-pouring-water fountain.

Not bothering to wait for Larry to come to the door—and saving him from another embarrassing interrogation by her Aunt Louisa who, in Rosa’s opinion, was overly enthusiastic about her budding relationship—Rosa stepped out into the warm and breezy California sunshine.

Already out of the truck and opening the passenger door, Larry tipped his straw fedora, winked with his deep-blue eyes twinkling, and said, “Hiya, Miss Reed.”

“Hello, Dr. Rayburn,” she teased as they were on a first-name basis. Rosa, shifting the crinolines of her black-and-white checkered skirt—embossed with red cherries that matched her red form-fitting, fine-knit sweater—kissed Larry before she climbed into his truck. Gloria, her younger and society-minded cousin, had been with Rosa when they were lingerie shopping and had encouraged the purchase of a bullet brassiere, named such for its rather pointy design. Rosa felt a tad self-conscious wearing it, but Larry, if one could go by his cheeky grin, seemed quite taken with her outfit.

Along with her white half-hat angled on her head of short chestnut curls, short white gloves, and black ballet shoes, Rosa was appropriately dressed for going to the movies and was looking forward to the evening.

Showing at the Santa Bonita Cinema was an action flick called The Last Clue starring Nicholas Post. Though Rosa had only recently heard of the star, Gloria had told her, most emphatically, that in America, he was as famous as Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart.

“You should like this one,” Larry said as they moseyed along the main road. “Nicholas Post plays a hard-boiled private investigator.”

“I’d hardly call myself hard-boiled.” Rosa had recently set up Reed Investigations in Santa Bonita, and though she worked as a private investigator, she didn’t think she could be compared to the character in this film.

Larry chuckled and took her hand. “No, darlin’, you are definitely of the softer-boiled variety.”

“Isn’t The Last Clue about the mob?”

“Yes, ma’am. Nicholas Post is hired by the mob boss to investigate a string of murders committed by rival gang members.”

After arriving at the theater and picking up the reserved tickets, Larry bought two sodas, a big bucket of popcorn to share, and a movie magazine called Inside the Silver Screen that featured the very movie they were about to see.

Once seated, Rosa opened the magazine. “East Shore Productions Incorporated produced this film,” she said. “It says here they are based in Boston.”

“This movie is set there too, isn’t it?” Larry said. “In 1912.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize the year!” Rosa looked closer at the article. “Aunt Louisa was born and raised there,” Rosa said, “and though my mother was born in London, she grew up in Boston. She’d have lived there that year. I’ve never been to Boston, so I think I’m going to enjoy this!”

Larry draped an arm over Rosa’s shoulder. “And I’m going to enjoy watching you enjoy it.”

The theater darkened and the newsreels began: news that San Francisco’s iconic cable line was being replaced by buses, and the winner of the Formula One Drivers’ Championship.

“NASCAR is planning an exhibition race here in Santa Bonita,” Larry said. “In November.”

“Aunt Louisa mentioned that,” Rosa returned. “One of her organizations is sponsoring it.”

Dramatic music filled the theater as the credits began, and the moviegoers cheered. There was not a seat to spare, and it seemed much of Santa Bonita was excited to start watching.

As the movie progressed, the costumes of the times—the long stiff skirts worn by the women along with their modest long-sleeve blouses with high, button-up collars—intrigued Rosa. And the parasols and big hats could hardly have eased the summer heat. Rosa felt thankful to live in a time where a lady could wear a skirt that ended at the knees, and blouses with no sleeves at all!

But it was the setting of the city of Boston that interested Rosa the most. Boston Harbor differed greatly from Los Angeles on the Pacific Ocean, or London on the River Thames. Her mother had often talked about her transatlantic trip from Boston Harbor to Liverpool. That trip had been significant in several ways. It had been the first time that her mother, Ginger Gold, had met Rosa’s father, Basil Reed, another passenger on the ship. It was also the first time Ginger had helped solve a murder with Basil leading the investigation.

Rosa owed her existence to that voyage. Had her mother never gone on that ship, Rosa would never have been born just a few years later. The ship had been called the SS Rosa—Rosa’s namesake.

Every time the camera panned a shot of the city or the harbor, Rosa, fascinated with it all, leaned forward in her seat. Less impressive to Rosa, however, were the skills of some actors. The main villain in the movie, played by an actor named Scott Huntington, certainly looked the part with his dark, brooding good looks. Still, his acting seemed melodramatic, especially the scene where he was shot, which was a long, painfully dramatic affair causing Rosa to roll her eyes.

The magazine article hinted at a rivalry between this stuntman and Nicholas Post. Was that actually true or something fabricated for publicity to promote the movie, Rosa wondered.

“I’d put my money on the dark-haired feller in a real fistfight,” Larry whispered in her ear as the two main characters brawled in an Irish pub. “Neither one of ’em seems to know how to operate a gun. They must’ve shot at each other at least a dozen times in that last scene, and no one got so much as a powder burn.”

When the story reached the point where the private investigator rubbed a pencil across an old notepad to reveal hidden letters underneath, Rosa whispered back to Larry, “That’s such an overused trick in detective stories. I’ve never once done that myself, and I doubt if any other detective ever has.”

However, Rosa couldn’t afford to be critical. Though she’d opened her office a couple of months earlier, business was slow. But she didn’t want to think about that problem now and forced herself to focus on the film. Rosa realized that despite her critiques, she was pulled into the movie’s plot and felt a sense of disappointment when the story ended.

As they stepped into the evening air and onto the sidewalk along with the rest of the movie patrons, Larry suggested drinks.  “There’s a bar just down the block.”

“Yes, I would like that.” Rosa linked her arm with his as they strolled down the street on a pleasantly cool evening.

While in her office the next morning, Rosa arranged the magazines on the teak coffee table for the third time. Did the room look more welcoming now? She’d placed an ad in the Santa Bonita Gazette that had garnered her a few new clients, but not enough to keep her mind and body busy.

She had worked at her mother’s office, Lady Gold Investigations, in London. A long-running establishment—starting its operations since from before Rosa was born—Ginger Gold’s business never hurt for clients. Her stellar reputation had been passed by word of mouth and hers was the first agency considered when most people needed a detective.

But how did one gain those qualities with a new business in Santa Bonita, California?

“What are we going to do, Diego?”

Rosa’s brown tabby kitten, curled in the corner of the couch, feigned indifference to his owner’s plight. He slowly closed his eyes and purred. Apparently, this new office space was even too boring for her cat.

A moment later, the door burst open, and there stood Gloria—all bright eyes and shiny red lipstick.

“Rosa! I thought I might find you here.”

Gloria wore an emerald-green A-frame dress patterned with flecks of red and gold. A V-shaped neckline enhanced the capped sleeves. Around the creamy skin of her neck, a pearl choker hung, and her matching pearl belt emphasized her figure. Short curly hair framed her heart-shaped face, and although she’d tested a platinum-blonde look, her natural dark locks suited her much better.

Gloria waved the flyer in her hand. “Look what was posted on the bulletin board.”

Rosa picked up on Gloria’s infectious smile as she reached for the paper. It might be a flyer advertising Reed Investigations, Rosa thought. However, her name and business were nowhere to be found on the flyer.

“Still a little slow?” Gloria asked, looking around the small office and stating the obvious. But Rosa’s rapt attention was now fixed on the small white flyer.

It read: FILMING ON LOCATION IN SANTA BONITA, QUICK STRIKE—A WESTERN FILM BY DIRECTOR FREDERICK FORBES. EXTRAS NEEDED!

“That’s intriguing,” Rosa remarked. “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the same director as last night’s movie.”

‘It’s the same director,” Gloria confirmed. “Frederick Forbes is a very influential figure in that industry.”

The qualifications for those who might be interested in extra work were listed under the heading. Prospective extras were people in their twenties with no distinguishing features such as scars or birthmarks on their faces. On the first day of filming, the possible extras had to be prepared to spend the first few hours going through the selection process, and then came makeup and wardrobe allocation.

Gloria came around Rosa and peered over her shoulder to read the flyer, even though Rosa couldn’t imagine that her cousin hadn’t already memorized every word. “It starts tomorrow,” Gloria said. “I already asked if I could miss class—I thought the experience could be helpful.” Gloria was a student at a local acting studio. She waved her hands around at the empty office. “It looks as though you’re free too. Why don’t you come with me?”

The idea of being in a movie—a Frederick Forbes film, no less—pumped more than a little extra adrenaline through Rosa’s veins. It certainly beat rearranging coffee-table magazines all day while waiting for the telephone to ring.

“Rosa?” Gloria prodded. “You’ll do it with me?”

“I don’t know,” Rosa hedged. “Acting isn’t something I do well.” She was purposely modest. In her line of work, she often had to pretend to be someone she wasn’t.

Gloria pouted. “You don’t have to act as an extra, not really. Anyway, I’ll do all the work, you just have to respond to my cues.” Gloria tugged on Rosa’s arm. “Come on! It’ll be fun!”

Rosa’s hesitancy had nothing to do with acting, and she knew it. It had everything to do with a certain detective’s fiancée, Charlene Winters, who Rosa knew would be on the set.

Rosa sat on the couch beside Diego and sorted out her crinolines and her emotions. Hadn’t she carefully filed away her tumultuous romance with Miguel Belmonte into the past? Hadn’t she been enjoying the time spent with her new boyfriend, the intelligent and respected Dr. Larry Rayburn, who had the prestigious position of assistant medical examiner?

Hadn’t she moved on?

Rosa reached over to pet her kitten’s soft fur. “What do you think, Diego? Can you live without me for a day?”

Diego’s eyelids opened briefly but shut again as if the effort to look up at Rosa was too much. Rosa’s mind spun quickly. Just because Charlene Winters would be on set, didn’t mean she and Gloria would encounter the actress. Movie sets were notoriously busy places, and she knew she’d be one of many extras who milled about. And what about Miguel? Since he had his job to do at the Santa Bonita Police Department, there was no need to worry about him showing up.

Her choice was to while away the time in her office, hoping a client would call, or making her cousin happy.

She smiled up at Gloria. “Let’s do it.”