SISTER ACT

 

By W.M. Achrya

 

 

Even if you just catch a flick sometimes, you’ve probably heard of Gerry Shaw.

Chances are you didn’t believe what you heard. He’s in the movies, a sober, hard-working guy, married to the same woman since before he came over from England sometime in the 80s. Back then he made theater history by playing a “Macbeth” that broke even on Broadway. Still, Hollywood didn’t think that he was a big enough name for the movie version. He never talks about it, so it probably hurt.

Instead they offered him a big villain part in an action blockbuster and the public ate him up. So he spent a dozen years playing high-concept baddies and, presumably, laughing all the way to the bank. Then he retired from the bad-guy business, got into directing and producing, and has been driving everyone bonkers ever since. He’s a sellout with the indie crowd because he’s been involved in a couple of major franchises, and the big entertainment industry doesn’t call him a dumb bunny only because he’s got a Silver Bear and a share in a Silver Lion to show for his European co-productions.

He can’t stay away from acting, either. He does quirky stage stuff or supporting parts in indie movies for his friends.

The yellow press wrote him off as a bad job around the time Bruce and Demi got hitched and he hasn’t gotten more interesting since. So, when his PA called me for an appointment, I was pretty sure it wasn’t about carting stunned paparazzi out of his back yard. Beyond that, I had no clue and she wouldn’t say. Mr. Shaw would prefer to tell me in person.

 

His office address was in one of those Downtown concrete and glass contraptions housing everything from talent agents to pet food wholesalers. In the lobby a seven-foot roll-up with an anorectic model smiling beatifically on a cardio bike advertised the fancy health club on the top storey.

The earnest Asian woman at the reception desk gave me the usual third degree before pointing me to the elevators and sending me to the thirteenth floor. I wondered if Shaw got a discount on the rent for not being superstitious. He probably did if his PA was involved: what I saw of her in his front office, gray suit, short hair, no makeup, was all business and no frills. She finished a phone conversation in fluent and barely accented German and put down the receiver.

“Good morning, Sir,” she said with a how-may-I-help-you look.

“Good morning. I’m Sean Eliot, to see Mr. Shaw.”

“This way, please, Mr. Eliot.”

I followed her down a short corridor, along white walls decorated with movie stills, past a few grey doors with plain white name cards in plastic holders. She opened the door at the end of the corridor and told my name to someone inside. She held the door open for me to come in and closed it from the outside.

 

Shaw had a trained actor’s eyes, the kind that focus on you completely and make you feel like you’re the center of the universe. Some people find it creepy; some confuse it with romantic attention and end up miserable. I felt like he could see how many eggs I'd had for breakfast, but that was okay. I waited for him to make the first move.

He herded me away from the desk to a pair of armchairs next to a coffee table; we made the expected social noises and he offered me tea.

 

“Milk,” I said, “one sugar.”

“Hmm.. A civilized native.”

“Something like that.”

The tea ceremony gave him time to collect his thoughts.

“So, what brings me here?” I said. ‘That your studio security can’t handle,’ I added mentally.

It turned out that he’d followed me.

“Our studio security recommended you for a personal and confidential assignment.”

“If it means you’re looking for someone who doesn’t like the tabloids, I’m your man. On the other hand, I don’t handle divorce work. What’s the problem?”

“My daughter is missing.”

“Which one, the starlet or the cinematographer?”

He looked pleased. I’d done my homework.

“Oh, Evelyn has been gone for years,” he said, referring to his older daughter. “She’s got her own career, her own house, her own friends, she’s even changed her name.”

“Did you have a fight?”

“You mean back before she left? Yeah. For a solid six months.”

“About...?”

“I said she should go to a theater school and learn the craft properly.”

“And she said no?”

“She told me to go piss up a rope. That was the last thing she said to me in person.”

“But now your other daughter, Sophie, is missing.”

“Yes.”

“What can you tell me? How long has she been gone, when did you last see her or hear from her, that sort of thing. And why call a solo PI and not Missing Persons.”

“As for the Missing Persons, they’d laugh in my face and leak it all over the tabloids.”

“Yeah.”

“Last time I saw her was a week ago. She was on her way to see her sister. Evelyn doesn't talk to me, but I think she and Sophie get along all right.”

“And then, nothing? Didn't you wonder?”

“We share a house, but she's an adult and has a life of her own. Only, then she didn't show up for a pre-production meeting.”

“Not like her?”

“She'd have to be in ICU or in jail.”

“What does her sister say?”

“I phoned her. There was a party going on, she just laughed and hanged up in my ear. Helen, my PA, tried talking to her and got told to ‘go blow daddy’. To the producer she said she'd put it so an intellectual type like him would understand: she wasn't her sister's keeper.”

“Charming. So you don't know if Sophie got there at all.”

“Oh, yes, she did. Tony told me.”

“Tony?”

“My major eccentricity, together with the Bentley. I employ a driver. Sophie hates driving, she was going to party a bit and I didn't have any trips planned, so we decided Tony should drive her in the big car.”

“And what does he have to say?”

“He phoned yesterday and was worried. Someone had returned the car to the hotel, which was weird enough, and Sophie was no-where to be found.”

“Did he try Evelyn?”

“Sure. She had the maid tell him that hired help had no business calling at her front door.”

“And the maid?”

“Not sure. May have seen Sophie at the house, but...” he made a vague gesture.

“What about your wife? How does she figure in all this?”

“Not at all, I hope. She’s in India with a seniors’ volunteer program, working on a water and sanitation project in Rajasthan. She’ll be back next month. If anything happened to Sophie...”

He only shook his head and let me imagine the rest.

Then he gave me some pictures, addresses and phone numbers. I said I’d be in touch in two days and went to look up the Greyhound connections.

 

--- --- ---

 

The big sister’s “artistic” name was Dee-Dee Fox. To me it sounded like a porn queen, but apparently she wasn’t quite that. She took a little fewer clothes off on daytime soaps.
I could hear the racket from her bungalow long before I could see it. Some people call it music. I’d rather work in a tool factory, but to each his own. I knew her thoughts on hired help, so I was wearing a dark suit and a shirt and tie in rather revolting shades of purplish pink. I hoped the outfit was making me look enough like a classy pimp for the maid to let me in.
It did.

 

The party was in full swing and the noise from the living-room hit me like walking into a concrete wall. I didn’t have to go inside – the maid went in and talked to someone. A moment later a tall redhead detached herself from the huddle around the bar and came sashaying at me, six-inch heels, shiny black pirate pants that she must have put on with a spray gun, a zircon rock in her pierced navel and a torn, shapeless top with a brand name picked out in sequins that looked like she’d worn it to paint the house, so it had likely put her back a couple of hundred bucks.

She looked me over from freshly shined lace-ups to fashionably scruffy hairdo, her eyes pausing in a couple of strategic spots, clinked the ice in her highball glass and drawled:

“Mister Sean Eliot. Hmm... Never heard of you, but you’re a hunk. What can I do for you, Sean Eliot?”

From three feet off it was obvious that her luscious burgundy locks were something she kept on a styrofoam ball in a closet, and her makeup would have done the job on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

“Hello, Miss Shaw,” I said. “Is there anywhere we can talk?”

“ęF course,” the alcohol was making her inflection grand and expansive. She waved her glass towards a couch. “Let’s talk. How ębout a drink first?”

“No, thanks.” I felt I was beginning to shout. “I mean really talk. The noise...” I waved my hands about my ears.

“Schertainly,” she slurred. “The ghhorgeous Schean Eliot deschires a private confęsation. This way.”

She took the lead along a corridor wallpapered in velvety gilt Bourbon lilies, through a door covered in black leatherette with shiny white-metal studs set in a double diamond pattern.

The bedroom wasn’t done in pink, but the gold and blue fake Rococo made an acceptable substitute. There was a synthetic potpourri scent in the air and she stood close enough for her stale perfume to mix with it and make me nauseous.

“Well, hellooo, gorgeous. Nishe and quiet here. Wha’ d’ you have in mind?”

An unfriendly move would have been a bad idea, so I didn’t take a step back.

“Miss Shaw,” I said as clearly as I knew how, “when was the last time you saw you sister?”

 

She had some trouble with her focus when she peered at me.

“Tęname’s Fox. Dee-Dee Fox. And forget Soph. Whaddaya want with that prudish cow?”

She put her arms around my neck with the highball glass still in her hand. Then she tried to climb into my lap while I was standing up. She almost fell over, so I steered her to the bed and sat her down on it. She patted the pale blue satin next to her and I sat down. She leaned sideways towards me and I had to put my arm around her to keep the two of us upright.

“Was Sophie here last week?”

She snickered. “What if I tell you? Dee-Dee get a kiss?”

She leaned some more and tried to slobber on my face. I propped her upright and asked once more: “Did Sophie visit you last week?”

“Meh! Who gives a fuck... Soph’s an old bore.”

“Still, your father would like to know if she’s okay.”

“That old goat! Yeah, she was here. And then she left. Gimme that kiss.”

She had another go at my face, lost her balance and I had to prop her upright again.

“Okay, she was here,” I said. “When was that, and what happened?”

“Sophhhhh, Soph, Soph, Soph, Sophhhhh...”

She blew out the final “f” between her lips like blowing out a match, again, again and again.

“Was there a party? Who did she talk to? Did you have a fight?”

She took a pull at her drink and gave me a cold stare.

“The bitch almost cost me a job. Your darling Sophie. Fuck her! Yeah, he would, and she wouldn’t, goody fuckin’ two-shoes squawked about attempted rape. And then, pfffft, gone. Good riddance...”

For a moment she was so mad she sounded almost sober. Then she gulped down the rest of her drink and stared cross-eyed at the melting ice-cubes. She tried to grab me when I got up, but missed. She flapped her arms and fell sideways across the bed.

I took the glass out of her hand, dumped the spilled ice back inside and put the glass down on the nightstand. Then I straightened her out on the bed, unstrapped her spike heels, thought about her wig but left it where it was, lopsided on top of her head. There was a blue and gold chenille throw on a chaise-longue by the window; I spread it over what was left of Dee-Dee Fox and left her to the looming specter of hangover.

 

--- --- ---

 

I phoned a couple of hospitals and the usual places to ask when you’re looking for someone who could be in a jam, and came up with zilch. There was a journalist I knew locally, but I didn’t want to give him ideas about the Shaw family if I could help it. So I dug up my old buddy Kate Ryan’s number. Someday I ought to phone her when I didn’t need a favor. Yeah – that would be he day MTV played Brahms, and we both knew it.

Kate and I had been rookie cops together, we got promoted to sergeants on the same list and she beat me to detective’s grade by six months. We were both up to our eyebrows in the mess that got my ass fired for insubordination. They needed Kate to beef up the gender statistics, so she only got transferred and eventually ended up working for the DA’s office. I’m a lot happier as a private operator, but I think Kate still has guilt feelings after all these years. Anyway, she was my best gopher in the local law enforcement, so I picked up the phone.

 

We met the same afternoon in a brewpub, Kate’s usual watering-hole. The place had a clean-scrubbed, no-nonsense look, tables and benches of solid pine, the copper brewing tank polished to a high shine, whitewashed walls with old brewery engravings, and the ale could match anything imported from England or Belgium. Kate knows beer about as well as she knows me. She said to leave the chitchat for later and tell her what it was I needed – so I did. She had come across Sophie Shaw’s name on a list recently, it wasn’t her case but maybe she knew someone who knew.

A phone call and an hour later we were sitting across the desk from a skinny pop-eyed paralegal who didn’t owe Kate quite enough to sneak us in to see Sophie. He was just working on the case – he jerked his chin towards the computer screen. Then he quickly excused himself and left the room. Irritable bowel syndrome, he said. Kate pounced, hit “Control+P” and went over to the printer in the corner to collect the pages. On our way out we met the paralegal in the corridor. He gave me a level look, shot Kate a quick grin that almost wasn’t there and said he was sorry that he couldn’t be of more assistance.

 

Sophie was being held as a material witness in a narcotics case: someone had tipped off the cops and they’d found some illicit substance in her car. They were holding Sophie on the assumption, corroborated by someone anonymous, that she knew where the stuff came from and could lead them to the source. Hence the material witness status instead of just a possession charge.
The whole setup stank like a week-old lobster. Sophie had no history of substance abuse or anything else dodgy in her past. The dope was found in her car after the Bentley had been sitting for hours in her sister’s driveway. It was during one of Dee-Dee’s parties – maybe someone’s idea of a practical joke, maybe a nasty way to get at Gerry Shaw, maybe the guy that Sophie told to go jump in the lake got sore. Whoever had her locked up knew that a case against her wouldn’t hold water – but they had enough pull with the DA to have her held as a material witness for as long as the DA said so: no charge, no habeas corpus
, no bail.

 

I called Shaw’s office and got his PA. They had lawyers to handle that sort of thing, she said. She gave me a fax number, I sent her the printout of the DA’s file and she told me to go and have dinner someplace where she could reach me. Which was anywhere, in this age of cell phones, but Kate and I went to feed ourselves in style. It wasn’t every day that Kate could dine on someone’s expense account and she knew exactly where to go. It was one of those places where the cloth napkins are crisp but not new, the waiter knows exactly when to show up and you can trust the house’s rosé not to taste of stainless tank.
We were finishing our crŹme caramel
when Helen phoned. Apparently the Shaw company lawyers had no trouble persuading the DA that they had a bigger stick than whoever was trying to frame Sophie. The release order had been signed and I could pick her up at the cop house.

--- --- ---

 

Sophie was dressed the way she’d gone to Evelyn’s party: a black, slinky, spaghetti-strap dress, black high-heel slingbacks and very little else. I imagined her in jailhouse twill and thought that nothing could really harm her looks. The glossy black hair was her own and whatever she did to her face when they returned her purse was more for the sake of her confidence than for any esthetic reasons. Evelyn had the same bone structure, but Sophie hadn’t spoiled the rest with too much makeup and liquor.

Sophie was tired and sore, with the kind of edge that comes from fear. Once out of the lockup, though, she was no damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. The movie-set habit of pulling her own weight and making on-the-spot decisions kicked in. She asked to look at my various licenses, then told me that her phone was dead, and could she use mine. Within fifteen minutes her father knew that she was okay and on her way home, she had checked with him that I was indeed the cavalry, and got hold of Tony the driver for transportation.

”So, what’s the plan, Ms. Shaw?” I asked.

”Sophie, please.”

”Thank you, Sophie. I’m...”

”Sean, I remember. I’m not ungrateful or a moron, just too damn tired to deal with social niceties. I’m sorry. I really do appreciate you bailing me out of the slammer.”

”There was no bail. You were a material witness, not a suspect. No charges, no bail.”

She caught on quickly.

”No suspect, no charges, no bail... so they could keep me in the cooler for as long as they wanted.”

”Yeah. The Shaw company lawyers pulled some strings.”

”Hm... right. Anyway, the plan is to go home. Now, straight away. Tony’s checking me out of the hotel and he’ll pick us up when he’s done. ”

We stood outside the police building like two strangers at a bus stop, both of us too tired to make small talk. I was thinking about the eye and the mind behind Sophie’s latest movie, about an old man reminiscing in a retirement home. She had the knack of making the old man’s scruffy, worn appearance into pictures both beautiful and thought-provoking. I remembered some dumbass television interviewer saying that, with her looks, she ought to be in front of the camera instead. She answered something scathing about dyeing her hair blonde, too. Like her father, Sophie Shaw didn’t suffer fools gladly.

 

The Bentley was a silver-colored cabriolet looking like something Francoise Sagan wouldn’t mind crying in, with the steering on the wrong side. Tony, a slender, earnest-looking thirtyish Caucasian, who wore the chauffeur’s uniform the way 007 wears a tux, looked genuinely pleased to see Sophie. He gave me a beady eye, so I told him my business and my name.

”Like T.S.?” he asked.

”Same spelling, no relation.”

”Personally, I prefer Ms. Szymborska,” he said, deadpan, in a voice made for “Richard III”.

”I agree, except for the spelling.”

”Quite.”

After that, he was simply the driver.

 

We went to my hotel to pick up my belongings. I was still wearing the pimp outfit that got me into Dee-Dee’s house, but Sophie was in a hurry to get home and I didn’t blame her. While I was packing and checking out, Sophie persuaded Tony to take the Bentley’s top down.

”I smell of jail,” she said. ”I need some air.”

I looked at her skimpy party dress, but I’d myself been inside a few times and she had a good point. I handed her my coat; she smiled a thank-you that I felt all the way down to my toes, and snuggled down in the back seat. I dumped my army duffle in the trunk and climbed in next to her.

 

When we were out on the freeway, Sophie said: ”I had no idea she was that desperate.”

”Who’s that?”

”Evelyn. She’s behind this, you know. And yes, I did have an idea. But I didn’t want to believe it.”

”Why would she set you up?”

”There was this producer at her house... she wanted me to ’be nice’ to him. He started talking about a movie project, but then he was pawing me and hinting that the road to this movie went through his bedroom. So I slapped his face. Turns out that he was producing Evelyn’s next job and when I wouldn’t play, he almost fired her.”

”And she...”

”Flipped her lid. ’Prudish cow’ was about the nicest thing she called me. I’d been drinking, so I went for a walk on the beach to clear my head, think things over and then either get hold of Tony or drive myself to the hotel. I was gone for maybe an hour and when I got back, the cops were there waiting for me.”

”Any idea where the dope came from?”

”Evelyn’s stash. She’ll try anything at least once.”

”So what’s next – you gonna sue her?”

”Hell, no, she’s my sister. And she is desperate. She’s getting too old for the college soaps, last month they offered her to play someone’s mother, and that’s it, she’s got no proper training, no education... in her line bright eyes and nice tits are a dime a dozen. The industry has chewed her up, sucked her dry and now it’s about to spit her out.”

”Sure, but... how would framing you help her?”

”It wouldn’t. She got sore at me, so she and that producer guy started setting up a scandal. I guess she wanted to let me stew for a bit before calling in the hyenas. But she would eventually let the tabloids have my ass out of sheer spite, and maybe drag our father into it as a bonus.”

 

She sat brooding, quiet, for a long moment. Then she curled up against my chest, like the most natural thing in the world. It did something to me: smart, good-looking women don’t usually act so relaxed around me. I liked her a lot and right now she needed a shoulder, maybe not to cry on, but to lean on, so I put my arm around her. Some time later she went to sleep. I kissed the top of her head and nodded off myself.

 

The police copter was loud. I woke up and so did Sophie. The cops must have wondered what this foreign battleship of a car was doing on an empty road in the middle of the night. We squinted into their searchlights and probably looked peaceful and legit enough, so they veered off and took their crimefighting business somewhere else.

Sophie’s hair was silky and lovely; I toyed with it and she seemed to enjoy it because she cuddled up to me some more. I had to remind myself that she wasn’t just a client, she was a client’s daughter, strictly off limits. She dozed off again and I felt like Sir Galahad watching over her.

 

When the swarm of bikers came along I found myself discreetly reaching for some hardware more suited to the occasion than Galahad’s sword. Sophie studied them for a while, the way I imagined her looking over a movie scene she was about to shoot. Passing the Bentley obviously satisfied their egos, because they moved on without bothering us.
Just as well – I didn’t want to stop with them around, but we needed gas.

 

Sophie told Tony to take a break and have a cup of coffee: she would fill up the tank.
As he went off in the direction of the men’s room, she slipped into a weird mood. She started humming a song, then singing, and I knew the words.

Fais comme si, mon amour, fais comme si on s’aimait,
et qu’un jour, rien qu’un jour, l’amour était vrai
...”

Edith Piaf. I hadn’t expected anyone Sophie’s age even to have heard of her. Let alone know the words by heart. ”Let’s pretend we’re in love, and that for just one single day our love was for real...”

Sophie’s alto was as silky as her hair, a lovely woman singing softly in French, and I was as horny as a moose in October.

A wise man once said that we are the sum of our lacks. I was feeling some of mine, but I managed to keep my head in control of my gonads.

Sophie slipped out of the coat, swirled into my arms, we were dancing some dreamy dance to the Piaf song... No, I didn’t think she was on something. She’d been under a lot of strain. Adrenalin takes people in funny ways and she was getting over a bad adrenalin hangover.

And the song, the dance, the seductive movements when she pinned me against a concrete pillar next to the gas pumps, that wasn’t about me or seriously about sex. It was about Sophie coming to terms with something. She was using me for a projection screen, or a blank sheet to doodle on and sort out her feelings. I partnered her in the dance but I let her lead. She created it, this soap bubble outside time and space; I played along and enjoyed every single moment.

And suddenly Sophie finished the song, turned away, busied herself with the gas pump, filled the tank, picked up my coat and snuggled down in the back seat of the Bentley again. With my arm around her, she went to sleep like a child.

 

I spent some more time snoozing with Sophie curled up in my arms. We weren’t going to have a happy-ever-after, or even a roll in the hay – if we met at a party in six months, she’d probably treat me with politely detached interest. But for the time being she needed a man-sized teddy bear and I was happy to oblige.

The Bentley purred on and Tony drove calmly and efficiently. I admired him. He didn’t even need a radio to keep him awake on the almost deserted freeway.


At dawn we left the freeway and turned down towards the coast again. The sky was pink and pale blue with the kind of light that makes you reflect on the night’s sins, if any. Sophie woke up in a thoughtful mood. She rubbed her eyes, looked at the pink clouds for a while and said that she needed to stretch her legs.

The Promenade was empty, not even the occasional drunk on his way home. You never see it quiet like that in the daytime.

We walked slowly, with Tony in the car trailing along behind us. Sophie didn’t look at me, but she hooked her arm in mine and pulled herself close to my side. She stared ahead at the sidewalk and walked in silence.


Then she started talking about her work. She and her father were going to make a film together.
“It’s about Joseph Fouché,” she said like I ought to know the man.
“Joseph who?”
“Fouché. Known as the Butcher of Lyon during the French Revolution. The only man Napoleon was afraid of. His minister of the police.”
“Sounds like a genuine nasty number.”
“The screenplay’s based on a book called “Portrait of a political man”. Fouché was a chameleon, a survivor.”
“And you want your father to play him? I thought he was through playing bad guys.”
“That’s exactly it. You call Fouché a bad guy without even knowing his story.”
“And what would you call him?”
“Since I was four dad’s been teaching me not to judge characters. I don’t want to stick a label on Fouché. If anyone can bring out his human side, it’s dad.”
“And that’s a good thing because…”
“Because dad won’t show the audience a monster. He’ll give them a guy who does things for reasons that they’ll understand. People will start out expecting something evil by nature, and suddenly they’ll go ‘hey, he’s got a point,’ or maybe even ‘I’d likely do the same thing if I was that smart’. They’ll have to face that anyone can do evil things in some circumstances, even you or I. No person, no country, no system is immune.”

 

Sophie talked with a quiet intensity that was somehow related to that weird dance at the gas station. There’s an old Irish story about a barber who knew the King’s great secret and was forbidden on pain of death to talk about it. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he went out and whispered the secret into an old willow tree. I was Sophie’s willow tree.
She was talking about Joseph Fouché, but her sister’s name hung in the air in front of us like a neon sign.

 

--- --- ---

 

I wasn’t going to bring Sophie home like some truant schoolgirl. She’d simply come back from visiting her sister, and tell her father as much of the truth as they both needed, when they were ready. I’d send Shaw’s PA a bill for my services and that would be it.

 

In the pale morning light the Bentley decanted me outside my apartment building. I lifted the duffle out of the trunk and dug up my keys out of my pocket. When the car pulled away from the curb, I looked at Sophie’s glossy black hair and at her shoulders still snuggled up in my coat.

 

She was welcome to it.

 

 

 

 

THE END