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The Miracle of Ivar Avenue

Inside the coat pocket of the dead man Corcoran found an eyepiece. "Looks like John Doe was a photographer," the pathologist said, gliding his rubber-gloved thumb over the lens. He handed it to Kinlaw.

Kinlaw walked over to the morgue's only window, more to get away from the smell of the autopsy table than to examine the lens. He looked through the lens at the parking lot. The device produced a rectangular frame around a man getting into a 1947 Packard. "This isn't from a camera," Kinlaw said. "It's a cinematographer's monocle."

"A what?'"

"A movie cameraman uses it to frame a scene."

"You think our friend had something to do with the movies?"

Kinlaw thought about it. That morning a couple of sixth graders playing hooky had found the body on the beach in San Pedro. A man about fifty, big, over two hundred pounds, mustache, thick brown hair going gray. Wearing a beat-up tan double-breasted suit, silk shirt, cordovan shoes. Carrying no identification.

Corcoran hummed "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" while he examined the dead man's fingers. "Heavy smoker," he said. He poked in the corpse's nostrils, then opened the man's mouth and shone a light down his throat. "This doesn't look much like a drowning."

Kinlaw turned around. "Why not?"

"A drowning man goes through spasms, clutches at anything within his grasp; if nothing's there he'll usually have marks on his palms from his fingernails. Plus there's no foam in his trachea or nasal cavities."

"Don't you have to check for water in the lungs?"

"I'll cut him open, but that's not definitive anyway. Lots of drowning men don't get water in their lungs. It's the spasms, foam from mucus, and vomiting does them in."

"You're saying this guy was murdered?"

"I'm saying he didn't drown. And he wasn't in the water more than twelve hours."

"Can you get some prints?"

Corcoran looked at the man's hand again. "No problem."

Kinlaw slipped the monocle into his pocket. "I'm going upstairs. Call me when you figure out the cause of death."

Corcoran began unbuttoning the dead man's shirt. "You know, he looks like that director, Sturges."


"Preston Sturges. He was pretty hot stuff a few years back. There was a big article in Life. Whoa. Got a major surgical scar here."

Kinlaw looked over Corcoran's shoulder. A long scar ran right to center across the dead man's abdomen. "Gunshot wound?"

Corcoran made a note on his clipboard. "Looks like appendectomy. Probably peritonitis, too. A long time ago--ten, twenty years."

Kinlaw took another look at the dead man. "What makes you think this is Preston Sturges?"

"I'm a fan. Plus, this dame I know pointed him out to me at the fights one Friday night during the war. Didn't you ever see The Miracle of Morgan's Creek?"

"We didn't get many movies in the Pacific." He took another look at the dead man's face.

When Corcoran hauled out his chest saw, Kinlaw spared his stomach and went back up to the detectives' staff room. He checked missing-persons reports, occasionally stopping to roll the cameraman's monocle back and forth on his desk blotter. There was a sailor two weeks missing from the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. A Mrs. Potter from Santa Monica had reported her husband missing the previous Thursday.

The swivel chair creaked as he leaned back, steepled his fingers and stared at the wall calendar from Free State Buick pinned up next to his desk. The weekend had brought a new month. Familiar April was a blonde in ski pants standing in front of a lodge in the snowy Sierras. He tore off the page: May's blonde wore white shorts and was climbing a ladder in an orange grove. He tried to remember what he had done over the weekend but it all seemed to dissolve into a series of moments connected only by the level of scotch in the glass by his reading chair. He found a pencil in his center drawer and drew a careful X through Sunday, May 1. Happy May Day. After the revolution they would do away with pinup calendars and anonymous dead men. Weekends would mean something and lives would have purpose.

An hour later the report came up from Corcoran: there was no water in the man’s lungs. Probable cause of death: carbon monoxide poisoning. But bruises on his ankles suggested he’d had weights tied to them.

There was no answer at Mrs. Potter’s home. Kinlaw dug out the L.A. phone book. Sturges, Preston was listed at 1917 Ivar Avenue. Probably where Ivar meandered into the Hollywood hills. A nice neighborhood, but nothing compared to Beverly Hills. Kinlaw dialed the number. A man answered the phone. “Yes?”

“I’d like to speak to Mr. Preston Sturges,” Kinlaw said.

“May I ask who is calling, please?” The man had the trace of an accent; Kinlaw couldn’t place it.

“This is Detective Lemoyne Kinlaw from the Los Angeles Police Department.”

“Just a minute.”

There was a long wait. Kinlaw watched the smoke curling up from Sapienza’s cigarette in the tray on the adjoining desk. An inch of ash clung to the end. He was about to give up when another man’s voice came onto the line.

“Detective Kinlaw. How may I help you?” The voice was a light baritone with some sort of high class accent.

“You’re Preston Sturges?”

“Last time I checked the mirror, I was.”

“Mr. Sturges, the body of a man answering your description was found this morning washed up on the beach at San Pedro.”

There was a long pause. “How grotesque.”

“Yes, sir. I’m calling to see whether you are all right.”

“As you can hear, I’m perfectly all right.”

“Right,” Kinlaw said. “Do you by any chance have a boat moored down in San Pedro?”

“I have a sailboat harbored in a marina there. But I didn’t wash up on any beach last night, did I?”

“Yes, sir. Assuming you’re Preston Sturges.”

The man paused again. Kinlaw got ready for the explosion. Instead, Sturges said calmly, “I’m not going to be able to convince you who I am over the phone, right?”

“No, you’re not.”

“I’ll tell you what. Come by the Players around eight tonight. You can put your finger through the wounds in my hands and feet. You’ll find out I’m very much alive.”

“I’ll be there.”

As soon as he hung up Kinlaw decided he must have been a lunatic to listen to Corcoran and his dames. He was just going to waste a day’s pay on pricey drinks in a restaurant he couldn’t afford. Then again, though Hollywood people kept funny hours, as he well knew from his marriage to Emily, what was a big time director doing home in the middle of the day?

He spent the rest of the afternoon following up on missing persons. The sailor from Long Beach, it turned out, had no ring finger on his left hand. He finally got through to Mrs. Potter and discovered that Mr. Potter had turned up Sunday night after a drunken weekend in Palm Springs. He talked to Sapienza about recent mob activity and asked a snitch named Bunny Witcover to keep his ears open.

At four-thirty, Kinlaw called back down to the morgue. “Corcoran, do you remember when you saw that article? The one about the director?”

“I don’t know. It was an old issue, at the dentist’s office.”

“Great. ” Kinlaw checked out of the office and headed down to the public library.

It was a Monday and the place was not busy. The mural that surrounded the rotunda, jam-packed with padres, Indians, Indian babies, gold miners, sheep, a mule, dancing senoritas, conquistadors, ships and flags, was busier than the room itself.

A librarian showed him to an index: the January 7, 1946 issue of Life listed a feature on Preston Sturges beginning on page 85. Kinlaw rummaged through the heaps of old magazines and finally tracked it down. He flipped to page 85 and sat there, hand resting on the large photograph. The man in the photograph, reclining on a sound stage, wearing a rumpled tan suit, was a dead ringer for the man lying on Corcoran’s slab in the morgue.

* * *

Kinlaw’s apartment stood on West Marathon at North Manhattan Place. The building, a four-story reinforced concrete box, had been considered a futuristic landmark when it was constructed in 1927, but its earnest European grimness, the regularity and density of the kid’s-block structure, made it seem more like a penitentiary than a work of art. Kinlaw pulled the mail out of his box: an electric bill, a flyer from the PBA, and a letter from Emily. He unlocked the door to his apartment and, standing in the entry, tore open the envelope.

It was just a note, conversational, guarded. Her brother was out of the army. She was working for Metro on the makeup for a new Dana Andrews movie. And oh, by the way, did he know what happened to the photo album with all the pictures of Lucy? She didn’t have a single one.

Kinlaw dropped the note on the coffee table, took off his jacket and got the watering can, sprayer and plant food. First he sprayed the hanging fern in front of the kitchen window, then moved through the plants in the living room: the African violets, fichus and four varieties of coleus. Emily had never cared for plants, but he could tell she liked it that he did. It reassured her, told her something about his character that was not evident from looking at him. On the balcony he fed the big rhododendron and the planter full of day lilies. Then he put the sprayer back under the kitchen sink, poured himself a drink, and sat in the living room. He watched the late afternoon sun throw triangular shadows against the wall.

The Life article had painted Sturges as an eccentric genius, a man whose life had been a series of lucky accidents. His mother, a Europe-traipsing culture vulture, had been Isadora Duncan’s best friend, his stepfather a prominent Chicago businessman. After their divorce Sturges’ mother had dragged her son from opera in Bayreuth to dance recital in Vienna to private school in Paris. He came back to the U.S. and spent the twenties trying to make a go of it in her cosmetics business. In 1928 he almost died from a burst appendix; while recovering he wrote his first play; his Strictly Dishonorable was a smash Broadway hit in 1929. By the early thirties he had squandered the play’s earnings and come to Hollywood, where he became Paramount’s top screenwriter, and then the first writer-director of sound pictures. In four years he made eight movies, several of them big hits, before he quit to start a new film company with millionaire Howard Hughes. Besides writing and directing, Sturges owned an engineering company that manufactured diesel engines, and the Players, one of the most famous restaurants in the city.

Kinlaw noted the ruptured appendix, but there was little to set off his instincts except a passing reference to Sturges being “one of the most controversial figures in Hollywood.” And the closing line of the article: "As for himself, he contemplates death constantly and finds it a soothing subject."

He fell asleep in his chair, woke up with his heart racing and his neck sweaty. It was seven o’clock. He washed and shaved, then put on a clean shirt.

The Players was an eccentric three story building on the side of a hill at 8225 Sunset Boulevard, across Marmont Lane from the neo-gothic Chateau Marmont hotel. Above the ground level entrance a big neon sign spelled out “The Players” in easy script. At the bottom level drive-in girls in green caps and jumpers waited on you in your car. Kinlaw had never been upstairs in the formal rooms. It was growing dark when he turned off Sunset onto Marmont and pulled his Hudson up the hill to the terrace-level lot. An attendant in a white coat with his name stitched in green on the pocket took the car.

Kinlaw loitered outside and finished his cigarette while he admired the lights of the houses spread across the hillside above the restaurant. Looking up at them, Kinlaw knew that he would never live in a house like those. There was a wall between some people and some ways of life. A lefty like the twenty-four-year-old leftie he had been in1938 would have called it money that kept him from affording such a home, and class that kept the people up there from wanting somebody like him for a neighbor, and principle that kept him from wanting to live there. But the thirty-five-year-old cop he was now knew it was something other than class, or money, or principle. It was something inside you. Maybe it was character. Maybe it was luck. Kinlaw laughed. You ought to be able to tell the difference between luck and character, for pity’s sake. He ground out the butt in the lot and went inside.

At the dimly lit bar on the second floor he ordered a gin and tonic and inspected the room. The place was mostly empty. At one of the tables Kinlaw watched a man and a woman whisper at each other as they peered around the room, hoping, no doubt, to catch a glimpse of Van Johnson or Lisabeth Scott. The man wore a white shirt with big collar and a white Panama hat with a pink hat band, the woman a yellow print dress. On the table they held two prudent drinks neatly in the center of prudent cocktail napkins, beside them a map of Beverly Hills folded open with bright red stars to indicate the homes of the famous. A couple of spaces down the bar a man was trying to pick up a blonde doing her best Lana Turner. She was mostly ignoring him but the man didn’t seem to mind.

“So what do you think will happen in the next ten years?” he asked her.

“I expect I’ll get some better parts. Eventually I want at least second leads.”

“And you’ll deserve them. But what happens when the Communists invade?”

“Communists schmomunists. That’s the bunk.”

“You’re very prescient. The state department should hire you, but they won’t.”

This was some of the more original pickup talk Kinlaw had ever heard. The man was a handsome fellow with an honest face, but his light brown hair and sideburns were too long. Maybe he was an actor working on some historical pic.

“You know, I think we should discuss the future in more detail. What do you say?”

“I say you should go away. I don’t mean to be rude.”

“Let me write this down for you, so if you change your mind.” The man took a coaster and wrote something on it. He pushed the coaster toward her with his index finger.

Good luck, buddy. Kinlaw scanned the room. Most of the clientele seemed to be tourists. At one end of the room, on the bandstand, a jazz quintet was playing a smoky version of “Stardust.” When the bartender came back to ask about a refill, Kinlaw asked him if Sturges was in.

“Not yet. He usually shows up around nine or after.”

“Will you point him out to me when he gets here?”

The bartender looked suspicious. “Who are you?”

“Does it matter?”

“You look like you might be from a collection agency.”

“I thought this place was a hangout for movie stars.”

“You’re four years late, pal. Now it’s a hangout for bill collectors.”

“I’m not after money.”

“That’s good. Because just between you and me, I don’t think Mr. Sturges has much.”

“I thought he was one of the richest men in Hollywood.”

“Was, past tense.”

Kinlaw slid a five dollar bill across the bar. “Do you know what he was doing yesterday afternoon?”

The bartender took the five note, folded it twice and stuck it into the breast pocket of his shirt. “Most of the afternoon he was sitting at that table over there looking for answers in the bottom of a glass of Black Label scotch.”

“You’re a mighty talkative employee.”

“Manager’s got us reusing the coasters to try to save a buck.” He straightened a glass of swizzle sticks. “I paid for the privilege of talking. Mr. Sturges is into me for five hundred in back pay.”

Down the end of the bar the blonde left. The man with the sideburns waved at the bartender, who went down to refill his drink.

Kinlaw decided he could afford a second gin and tonic. Midway through the third the bartender nodded toward a table on the mezzanine; there was Sturges, looking a lot healthier than the morning’s dead man. He saw the bartender gesture and waved Kinlaw over to his table. Sturges stood as Kinlaw approached. He had thick, unkempt brown hair with a gray streak in the front, a square face, jug ears and narrow eyes that would have given him a nasty look were it not for his quirky smile. A big, soft body. His resemblance to the dead man was uncanny. Next to him sat a dark-haired, attractive woman in her late thirties, in a blue silk dress.

“Detective Kinlaw. This is my wife, Louise.”

“How do you do.”

As Kinlaw was sitting down, the waiter appeared and slid a fresh gin and tonic onto the table in front of him.

“You’ve eaten?” Sturges asked.


“Robert, a menu for Mr. Kinlaw.”

“Mr. Sturges, I’m not sure we need to spend much time on this. Clearly, unless you have a twin, the identification we had was mistaken.”

“That’s all right. There are more than a few people in Hollywood who will be disappointed it wasn’t me.”

Louise Sturges watched her husband warily, as if she weren’t too sure what he was going to say next, and wanted pretty hard to figure it out.

“When were you last on your boat?”

“Yesterday. On Saturday I went out to Catalina on the Island Belle with my friends, Dr. Bertrand Woolford and his wife. We stayed at anchor in a cove there over Saturday night, then sailed back Sunday. We must have got back around one PM. I was back at home by three.”

“You were with them, Mrs. Sturges?”

Louise looked from her husband to Kinlaw. “No.”

“But you remember Mr. Sturges getting back when he says?”

“No. That is, I wasn’t at home when he got there. I—”

“Louise and I haven’t been living together for some time,” Sturges said.

Kinlaw waited. Louise looked down at her hands. Sturges laughed.

“Come on, Louise, there’s nothing for you to be ashamed of. I’m the one who was acting like a fool. Detective Kinlaw, we’ve been separated for more than a year. The divorce was final last November.”

“One of those friendly Hollywood divorces.”

“I wouldn’t say that. But when I called her this morning, Louise was gracious enough to meet with me.” He put his hand on his wife’s. “I’m hoping she will give me the chance to prove to her I know what a huge mistake I made.”

“Did anyone see you after you returned Sunday afternoon?”

“As I recall, I came by the restaurant and was here for some time. You can talk to Dominique, the bartender.”

Eventually the dinner came and they ate. Or Kinlaw and Louise ate; Sturges regaled them with stories about how his mother had given Isadora the scarf that killed her, about his marriage to the heiress Eleanor Post Hutton, about an argument he’d seen between Sam Goldwyn and a Hungarian choreographer, in which he played both parts and put on elaborate accents.

Kinlaw couldn’t help but like him. He had a sense of absurdity, and if he had a high opinion of his own genius, he seemed to be able to back it up. Louise watched Sturges affectionately, as if he were her son as much as her ex-husband. In the middle of one of his stories he stopped to glance at her for her reaction, then reached impulsively over to squeeze her hand, after which he launched off into another tale, about the time, at a pool, he boasted he was going to “dive into the water like an arrow,” and his secretary said, “Yes, a Pierce-Arrow.”

After a while Sturges wound down, and he and Louise left. At the cloak room Sturges offered to help her on with her jacket, and Kinlaw noticed a moment’s skepticism cross Louise’s face before she let him. Kinlaw went back over to talk with the bartender.

“I’ve got a couple more questions.”

The bartender shrugged. “Getting late."

"This place won't close for hours."

"It's time for me to go home.”

Kinlaw showed him his badge. “Do I have to get official, Dominique?”

Dominique got serious. “Robert heard you talking to Sturges. Why didn’t you let on earlier you were a cop? What’s this about?"

“Nothing you have to worry about, if you answer my questions.” Kinlaw asked him about Sturges’ actions the day before.

“I can’t tell you about the morning, but the rest is pretty much like he says,” Dominique told him. “He came by here about six. He was already drinking, and looked terrible. ‘Look at this,’ he says to me, waving the L.A. Times in my face. They’d panned his new movie. ‘The studio dumps me and they still hang this millstone around my neck.’ He sat there, ordered dinner but didn’t eat anything. Tossing back one scotch after another. His girlfriend must have heard something, she came in and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t talk.”

“His girlfriend?”

“Frances Ramsden, the model. They’ve been together since he broke with Louise. He just sat there like a stone, and eventually she left. Later, when business began to pick up, he got in his car and drove away. I remember thinking, I hope he doesn’t get in a wreck. He was three sheets to the wind, and already had some accidents.”

“What time was that?”

“About seven-thirty, eight. I thought that was the last I’d see of him, but then he came back later.”

“What time?”

“After midnight. Look, can you tell me what this is about?”

Kinlaw watched him. “Somebody’s dead.”

“Dead?” Dominique looked a little shaken, nothing more.

“I think Sturges might know something. Anything you remember about when he came back? How was he acting?”

“Funny. He comes in and I almost don’t recognize him. The place was clearing out then. Instead of the suit he’d had on earlier he was wearing slacks and a sweatshirt, deck shoes. He was completely sober. His eyes were clear, his hands didn’t shake—he looked like a new man. They sat there and talked all night.”


“Mr. Sturges and this other guy he came in with. Friendly looking, light hair. He had a kind of accent—German, maybe? I figure he must be some Hollywood expatriate—they all used to all hang out here—this was little Europe. Mr. Sturges would talk French with them. He loved to show off.”

“Had you seen this man before?”

“Never. But Mr. Sturges seemed completely familiar with him. Here’s the funny thing—he kept looking around as if he’d never seen the place.”

“You just said he’d never been here before.”

“Not the German. It was Sturges looked as if he hadn’t seen The Players. ‘Dominique,’ he said to me, ‘How have you been?’ ‘I’ve been fine,’ I said.

“They sat up at Mr. Sturges’ table there and talked all night. Sturges was full of energy. The bad review might as well have happened to somebody else. The German guy didn’t say much, but he was drinking as hard as Mr. Sturges was earlier. It was like they’d changed places. Mr. Sturges stood him to an ocean of scotch. When we closed up they were still here.”

“Have you seen this man since then?”

The bartender looked down the bar. “Didn’t you see him? He was right here when you came in, trying to pick up some blonde.”

“The guy with the funny haircut?”

“That’s the one. Mr. Sturges said to let him run a tab. Guess he must’ve left. Wonder if he made her.”

* * *

It was a woozy drive home with nothing to show for the evening except the prospect of a Tuesday morning hangover. He might as well do the thing right: back in the apartment Kinlaw got out the bottle of scotch, poured a glass, and sat in the dark listening to a couple of blues records. Scotch after gin, a deadly combination. After a while he gave up and went to bed. He was almost asleep when the phone rang.


“Lee? This is Emily.”

Her voice was brittle. “Hello," he said. "It's late.” He remembered the nights near the end when he'd find her sitting in the kitchen after midnight with the lights out, the tip of her cigarette trembling in the dark.

"Did you get my letter?"

"What letter?"

"Lee, I've been looking for the photo album with the pictures of Lucy," she said. "I can't find it anywhere. Then I realized you must have taken it when you moved out."

"Don't blame me if you can't find it, Emily."

"You know, I used to be impressed by your decency."

"We both figured out I wasn't as strong as you thought I was, didn't we? Let's not stir all that up again."

"I'm not stirring up anything. I just want the photographs."

"All I've got is a wallet photo. I'm lucky I've got a wallet."

Instead of getting mad, Emily said, quietly, "Don't insult me, Lee." Her voice was tired.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'll look around. I don't have them, though."

"I guess they're lost, then. I'm sorry I woke you." She'd lost the edge of hysteria; she sounded like the girl he'd first met at a Los Angeles Angels game in1934. It stirred emotions he'd thought were dead, but before he could think what to say she hung up.

It took him another hour to get to sleep.

In the morning he showered, shaved, grabbed some ham and eggs at the Indian Head Diner and headed in to Homicide. The fingerprint report was on his desk. If the dead guy was a mob button man, his prints showed up nowhere in any of their files. Kinlaw spent some time reviewing other missing persons reports. He kept thinking of the look on Louise Sturges' face when her husband held her coat for her. For a moment she looked as if she wasn't sure this was the same man she'd divorced. He wondered why Emily hadn't gotten mad when he'd insulted her over the phone. At one time it would have triggered an hour's argument, rife with accusations. Did people change that much?

He called the Ivar Avenue number.

"Mrs. Sturges? This is Lemoyne Kinlaw from the L.A.P.D. I wondered if we might talk.”


“I hoped we might speak in person.”

“What’s this about?”

"I want to follow up on some things from last night."

She paused. “Preston’s gone off to talk to his business manager. Can you come over right now?"

“I’ll be there in a half an hour.”

Kinlaw drove out to quiet Ivar Avenue and into the curving drive before 1917. The white-shingled house sat on the side of a hill, looking modest by Hollywood standards. Kinlaw rang the bell and the door was answered by a Filipino houseboy.

Once inside Kinlaw saw that the modesty of the front was deceptive. The houseboy led him to a large room at the back that must have been sixty by thirty feet.

The walls were green and white, the floor dark hardwood. At one end of the room stood a massive pool table and brick inglenook fireplace. At the other end, a level up, surrounded by an iron balustrade, ran a bar upholstered in green leather, complete with a copper topped nightclub table and stools. Shelves crowded with scripts, folders and hundreds of books lined one long wall, and opposite them an expanse of French doors opened onto a kidney-shaped pool surrounded by hibiscus and fruit blossoms, Canary Island pines and ancient firs.

Louise Sturges, seated on a bench covered in pink velveteen, was talking to a towheaded boy of eight or nine. When Kinlaw entered she stood. “Mr. Kinlaw, this is our son, Mon. Mon, why don’t you go outside for a while.”

The boy raced out through the French doors. Louise wore a plum colored cotton dress and black flats that did not hide her height. Her thick hair was brushed back over her ears. Poised as a Vogue model, she offered Kinlaw a seat. “Have you ever had children, Mr. Kinlaw?”

“A daughter.”

“Preston very much wanted children, but Mon is the only one we are likely to have. At first I was sad, but after things started to go sour between us I was glad that we didn’t have more.”

“How sour were things?”

Louise smoothed her skirt. “Sour. Have you found out who that drowned man is?”

“No. I couldn't help but get the impression last night that you were surprised at your husband's behavior."

"He's frequently surprised me."

"Has he been acting strangely?"

“Well, when Preston called me yesterday I was pretty surprised. We haven’t had much contact since before our separation. At the end we got so we'd communicate by leaving notes on the banister."

"But that changed?"

She watched him for a moment before answering. “When we met, Preston and I fell very much in love . He just swept me off my feet. He was so intense, funny. I couldn’t imagine a more loving husband. Certainly he was an egotist, and totally involved in his work, but he was also such a charming and attentive man."

“What happened?”

“Well, he started directing, and that consumed all his energies. He would work into the evening at the studio, then spend the night at the Players. At first he wanted me totally involved in his career. He kept me by his side at the sound stage as the film was shot. Some of the crew came to resent me, but Preston didn't care. Eventually I complained, and Preston agreed that I didn't need to be there.

“Maybe that was a mistake. The less I was involved, the less he thought of me. After Mon was born he didn’t have much time for us. He stopped seeing me as his wife and more as the mother of his son, then as his housekeeper and cook.

“Some time in there he started having affairs. After a while I couldn’t put up with it any more, so I moved out. When I filed for divorce, he seemed relieved.”

Kinlaw worried the brim of his hat. He wondered what Sturges’ version of the story would be.

“That’s the way things were for the last two years,” Louise continued. “Then he called me Sunday night. He has to see me, he needs to talk. I thought, he’s in trouble; that’s the only time he needs me. Back when his deal with Hughes fell through, he showed up at my apartment and slept on my bed, beside me, like a little boy needing comfort. I thought this would just be more of the same. So I met with him Monday morning. He was contrite. He looked more like the man I’d married than he’d seemed for years. He begged me to give him another chance. He realized his mistakes, he said. He’s selling the restaurant. He wants to be a father to our son.”

“You looked at him last night as if you doubted his sincerity.”

“I don’t know what to think. It’s what I wanted for years, but—he seems so different. He’s stopped drinking. He’s stopped smoking."

“This may seem like a bizarre suggestion, Mrs. Sturges, but is there any chance this man might not be your husband?”

Louise laughed. “Oh, no--it's Preston all right. No one else has that ego."

Kinlaw laid his hat on the end table. “Okay. Would you mind if I took a look at your garage?”

“The garage? Why?”

“Humor me.”

She led him through the kitchen to the attached garage. Inside, a red Austin convertible sat on a wooden disk set into the concrete floor.

“What’s this?”

“That’s a turntable,” Louise said. “Instead of backing up, you can flip this switch and rotate the car so that it’s pointing out. Preston loves gadgets. I think this one’s the reason he bought this house.”

Kinlaw inspected the garage door. It had a rubber flap along the bottom, and would be quite airtight. There was a dark patch on the interior of the door where the car’s exhaust would blow, as if the car had been running for some time with the door closed.

They went back into the house. In the back yard the boy, laughing, chased a border collie around the pool. Lucy had wanted a dog. “Let me ask you one more question, and then I’ll go. Does your husband have any distinguishing marks on his body?”

“He has a large scar on his abdomen. He had a ruptured appendix when he was a young man. It almost killed him.”

“Does the man who’s claiming to be your husband have such a scar?”

Louise hesitated, then said, “I wouldn’t know.”

“If you should find that he doesn’t, could you let me know?”

“I'll consider it.”

“One last thing. Do you have any object he’s held recently—a cup or glass?”

She pointed to the bar. "He had a club soda last night. I think that was the glass."

Kinlaw got out his handkerchief and wrapped the glass in it, put it into his pocket. “We’ll see what we will see. I doubt that anything will come of it, Mrs. Sturges. It’s probably that he’s just come to his senses. Some husbands do that.”

“You don’t know Preston. He’s never been the sensible type.”

* * *

Back at the office he sent the glass to the lab for prints. A note on his desk told him that while he had been out he'd received a call from someone named Nathan Lautermilk at Paramount.

He placed a call to Lautermilk. After running the gauntlet of the switchboard and Lautermilk’s secretary, Kinlaw got him. "Mr. Lautermilk, this is Lee Kinlaw of the L.A.P.D. What can I do for you?"

“Thank you for returning my call, detective. A rumor going around here has it you're investigating the death of Preston Sturges. There's been nothing in the papers about him dying.”

“Then he must not be dead.”

Lautermilk had no answer. Kinlaw let the silence stretch until it became uncomfortable.

“I don't want to pry into police business, detective, but if Preston was murdered, some folks around here might wonder if they were suspects."

"Including you, Mr. Lautermilk?"

"If I thought you might suspect me, I wouldn't draw attention to myself by calling. I’m an old friend of Preston's. I was assistant to Buddy DeSylva before Preston quit the studio.”

“I’ll tell you what, Mr. Lautermilk. Suppose I come out there and we have a talk.”

Lautermilk tried to put him off, but Kinlaw persisted until he agreed to meet him.

An hour later Kinlaw pulled up to the famous Paramount arch, like the entrance to a Moorish palace. Through the curlicues of the iron gate the sun-washed soundstages hulked like pastel munitions warehouses. The guard had his name and told him where to park.

Lautermilk met him in the long low white building that housed the writers. He had an office on the ground floor, with a view across the lot to the sound stages but close enough so he could keep any recalcitrant writers in line.

Lautermilk seemed to like writers, though, a rare trait among studio executives. He was a short, bald, popeyed man with a Chicago accent and an explosive laugh. He made Kinlaw sit down and offered him a cigarette from a brass box on his desk. Kinlaw took one, and Lautermilk lit it with a lighter fashioned into the shape of a lion's head. The jaws popped open and a flame sprang out of the lion's tongue. "Louie B. Mayer gave it to me," Lautermilk said. "Only thing I ever got from him he didn't take back later." He laughed.

“I'm curious. Can you arrange a screening of one of Preston Sturges’s movies?”

“I suppose so.” Lautermilk picked up his phone. “Judy, see if you can track down a print of Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and get it set up to show in one of the screening rooms. Call me when it’s ready.”

Kinlaw examined the lion lighter. “Did Sturges ever give you anything?”

“Gave me several pains in the neck. Gave the studio a couple of hit movies. On the whole I’d say we got the better of the deal.”

“So why is he gone?”

“Buddy DeSylva didn’t think he was worth the aggravation. Look what’s happened since Sturges left. Give him his head, he goes too far.”

“But he makes good movies.”

“Granted. But he made some flops, too. And he offended too many people along the way. Didn’t give you much credit for having any sense, corrected your grammar, made fun of people’s accents and read H.L. Mencken to the cast over lunch. And if you crossed him he would make you remember it later.”


“Lots of ways. On The Palm Beach Story he got irritated with Claudette Colbert quitting right at five every day. Preston liked to work ‘till eight or nine if it was going well, but Colbert was in her late thirties and insisted she was done at five. So he accommodated himself to her. But one morning, in front of all the cast and crew, Preston told her, ‘You know, we’ve got to take your close-ups as early as possible. You look great in the morning, but by five o’clock you’re beginning to sag.’”

“So you were glad to see him go.”

“I hated to see it, actually. I liked him. He can be the most charming man in Hollywood. But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that the studios are full of people just waiting to see him slip. Once you start to slip, even the waitresses in the commissary will cut you."

“Maybe there’s some who’d like to help him along.”

“By the looks of the reactions to his last couple of pictures, they won’t need to. Unfaithfully Yours might have made money if it hadn’t been for the Carole Landis mess. Hard to sell a comedy about a guy killing his wife when the star’s girlfriend just committed suicide. But Beautiful Blonde is a cast iron bomb. Daryl Zanuck must be tearing his hair out. A lot of people are taking some quiet satisfaction tonight, though they’ll cry crocodile tears in public.”

“Maybe they won’t have to fake it. We found a body washed up on the beach in San Pedro answers to Sturges’ description.”

Lautermilk did not seem surprised. “No kidding.”

“That’s why I came out here. I wondered why you’d be calling the L.A.P.D. about some ex-director.”

“I heard some talk in the commissary, one of the art directors who has a boat down in San Pedro heard some story. Preston was my friend. There have been rumors that’s he’s been depressed. Anyone who’s seen him in the last six months knows he’s been having a hard time. It would be big news around here if he died.”

“Well, you can calm down. He’s alive and well. I just talked to him last night, in person, at his restaurant.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“So what do you make of this body we found?”

“Maybe you identified it wrong.”

“Anybody ever suspect that Sturges had a twin?”

“A thing like that would have come out. He’s always talking about his family.”

Kinlaw put the cinematographer’s monocle on Lautermilk’s desk. “We found this in his pocket.”

Lautermilk picked it up, examined it, put it down again. “Lots of these toys in Hollywood.”

The intercom buzzed and the secretary reported that they could see the film in screening room D at any time. Lautermilk walked with Kinlaw over to another building, up a flight of stairs to a row of screening rooms. They entered a small room with about twenty theater-style seats, several of which had phones on tables next to them. “Have a seat,” Lautermilk said. “Would you like a drink?”

Kinlaw was thirsty. “No, thanks.”

Lautermilk used the phone next to his seat to call back to the projection booth. “Let her rip, Arthur."

"If you don’t mind," he said to Kinlaw, “I’ll leave after the first few minutes.”

The room went dark. “One more thing, then,” Kinlaw said. “All these people you say would like to see Sturges fail. Any of them like to see him dead?”

“I can’t tell you what’s in people’s heads.” Lautermilk settled back and lit a cigarette. The movie began to roll.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was a frenetic comedy. By twenty minutes in Kinlaw realized the real miracle was that they had gotten it past the Hays Office. A girl gets drunk at a going-away party for soldiers, marries one, gets pregnant, doesn’t remember the name of the father. All in one night. She sets her sights on marrying Norval Jones, a local yokel, but the yokel turns out to be so sincere she can’t bring herself to do it. Norval tries to get the girl out of trouble. Everything they do only makes the situation worse. Rejection, disgrace, indictment, even suicide are all distinct possibilities. But at the last possible moment a miracle occurs to turn humiliation into triumph.

Kinlaw laughed despite himself, but after the lights came up the movie’s sober undertone began to work on him. It looked like a rube comedy but it wasn’t. The story mocked the notion of the rosy ending while allowing people who wanted one to have it. It implied a maker who was both a cruel cynic and dizzy optimist. In Sturges’s absurd universe anything could happen at any time, and what people did or said didn't matter at all. Life was a cruel joke with a happy ending.

Blinking in the sunlight, he found his car, rolled down the windows to let out the heat, and drove back to homicide. When he got back the results of the fingerprint test were on his desk. From the tumbler they had made a good right thumb, index and middle finger. The prints matched the right hand of the dead man exactly.

* * *

All that afternoon Kinlaw burned gas and shoe leather looking for Sturges. Louise had not seen him since he’d left the Ivar Avenue house in the morning, he was not with Frances Ramsden or the Woolfords, nobody had run into him at Fox, the restaurant manager claimed he’d not been in, and a long drive down to the San Pedro marina was fruitless: Sturges’ boat rocked empty in its slip and the man in the office claimed he hadn’t seen the director since Sunday.

It was early evening and Kinlaw was driving back to Central Homicide, when he passed the MGM lot where Emily was working. He wondered if she was still fretting over the photo album. In some ways his problems were simpler than hers; all he had to do was catch the identical twin of a man who didn't have a twin. It had to be a better distraction than Emily's job. He remembered how, a week after he'd moved out, he'd found himself drunk one Friday night, coming back to the house to sit on the backyard swing and watch the darkened window to their bedroom, wondering whether she was sleeping any better than he. Fed up with her inability to cope, he'd known he didn't want to go inside and take up the pain again, but he could not bring himself to go away either. So he sat on the swing he had hung for Lucy and waited for something to release him. The galvanized chain links were still unrusted; they would last a long time.

A man watching a house, waiting for absolution. The memory sparked a hunch, and he turned around and drove to his apartment. He found the red Austin parked down the block. As he climbed the steps to his floor a shadow pulled back into the corner of the stairwell. Kinlaw drew his gun. "Come on out."

Sturges stepped out of the shadows.

“How long have you been waiting there?”

“Quite a while. You have a very boring apartment building. I like the bougainvillea, though.”

Kinlaw waved Sturges ahead of him down the hall. “I bet you’re an expert on bougainvillea."

“Yes. Some of the studio executives I’ve had to work with boast IQs that rival that of the bougainvillea. The common bougainvillea, that is.”

Kinlaw holstered the gun, unlocked his apartment door and gestured for Sturges to enter. “Do you have any opinion of the IQ of police detectives?”

“I know little about them.”

Sturges stood stiffly in the middle of Kinlaw’s living room. He looked at the print on the wall. He walked over to Kinlaw’s record player and leafed through the albums.

Kinlaw got the bottle of scotch from the kitchen. Sturges put on Ellington’s "Perfume Suite."

“How about a drink?” Kinlaw asked.

“I’d love one. But I can’t.”

Kinlaw blew the dust out of a tumbler and poured three fingers. “Right. Your wife says you’re turning over a new leaf.”

“I’m working on the whole forest.”

Kinlaw sat down. Sturges kept standing, shifting from foot to foot. “I’ve been looking for you all afternoon,” Kinlaw said.

“I’ve been driving around.”

“Your wife is worried about you. After what she told me about your marriage, I can’t figure why.”

“Have you ever been married, Detective Kinlaw?”



“No children.”

“I have a son. I’ve neglected him. But I intend to do better. He’s nine. It’s not too late, is it? I never saw my own father much past the age of eight. But whenever I needed him he was always there, and I loved him deeply. Don’t you think Mon can feel that way about me?”

“I don’t know. Seems to me he can’t feel that way about a stranger.”

Sturges looked at the bottle of scotch. “I could use a drink.”

“I saw one of your movies this afternoon. Nathan Lautermilk set it up. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

“Yes. Everybody seems to like that one. Why I didn’t win the Oscar for original screenplay is beyond me.”

“Lautermilk said he was worried about you. Rumors are going around that you’re dead. Did you ask him to call me?”

"Why would I do that?"

"To find out whether I thought you had anything to do with this dead man."

“Oh, I’m sure Nathan told you all about how he loves me. But where was he when I was fighting Buddy DeSylva every day? Miracle made more money than any other Paramount picture that year, after Buddy questioned my every decision making it.” He was pacing the room now, his voice rising.

“I thought it was pretty funny.”

“Funny? Tell me you didn’t laugh until it hurt. No one’s got such a performance out of Betty Hutton before or since. But I guess I can’t expect a cop to see that.”

“At Paramount they’re not so impressed with your work since you left.”

Sturges stopped pacing. He cradled a blossom from one of Kinlaw’s spaths in his palm. “Neither am I, frankly. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions. I should have sold the Players two years ago. I hope to god I don’t croak before I can get on my feet again.”

Kinlaw remembered the line from the Life profile. He quoted it back at Sturges: “'As for himself, he contemplates death constantly and finds it a soothing subject.'”

Sturges looked at him. He laughed. “What an ass I can be! Only a man who doesn’t know what he’s talking about could say such a stupid thing.”

Could an impostor could pick up a cue like that? The Ellington record reached the end of the first side. Kinlaw got up and flipped it over, to “Strange Feeling.” A baritone sang the eerie lyric. “I forgot to tell you in the restaurant," Kinlaw said. "That dead man had a nice scar on his belly. Do you have a scar?”

“Yes. I do.” When Kinlaw didn’t say anything Sturges added, “You want me to show it to you?”


Sturges pulled out his shirt, tugged down his belt and showed Kinlaw his belly. A long scar ran across it from right to center. Kinlaw didn't say anything, and Sturges tucked the shirt in.

"You know we got some fingerprints off that dead man. And a set of yours, too.”

Sturges poured himself a scotch, drank it off. He coughed. “I guess police detectives have pretty high IQs after all,” he said quietly.

“Not so high that I can figure out what’s going on. Why don’t you tell me?”

“I’m Preston Sturges.”

“So, apparently, was that fellow who washed up on the beach at San Pedro.”

“I don’t see how that can be possible.”

“Neither do I. You want to tell me?”

“I can’t.”

"Who's the German you've been hanging around with?"

"I don't know any Germans."

Kinlaw sighed. “Okay. So why not just tell me what you're doing here.”

Sturges started pacing again. “I want to ask you to let it go. There are some things—some things in life just won’t bear too much looking into.”

“To a cop, that's not news. But it’s not a good enough answer.”

“It’s the only answer I can give you.”

“Then we’ll just have to take it up with the district attorney.”

“You have no way to connect me up with this dead man.”

“Not yet. But you’ve been acting strangely. And you admit yourself you were on your boat at San Pedro this weekend.”

“Detective Kinlaw, I’m asking you. Please let this go. I swear to you I had nothing to do with the death of that man.”

“You don’t sound entirely convinced yourself.”

“He killed himself. Believe me, I'm not indifferent to his pain. He was at the end of his rope. He had what he thought were good reasons, but they were just cowardice and despair.”

“You know a lot about him.”

“I know all there is to know. I also know that I didn’t kill him.”

“I’m afraid that’s not good enough.”

Sturges stopped pacing and faced him. The record had reached the end and the needle was ticking repetitively over the center groove. When Kinlaw got out of his chair to change it, Sturges hit him on the head with the bottle of scotch.

* * *

Kinlaw came around bleeding from a cut behind his ear. It couldn't have been more than a few minutes. He pressed a wet dish towel against it until the bleeding stopped, found his hat and headed downstairs. The air hung hot as the vestibule of hell with the windows closed. Out in the street he climbed into his Hudson and set off up Western Avenue.

The mess with Sturges was a demonstration of what happened when you let yourself think you knew a man’s character. Kinlaw had let himself like Sturges, forgetting that mild-mannered wives tested the carving knife out on their husbands and stone cold killers wept when their cats got worms.

An orange moon in its first quarter hung in the west as Kinlaw followed Sunset toward the Strip. When he reached the Players he parked in the upper lot. Down the end of one row was a red Austin; the hood was still warm. Head still throbbing, he went in to the bar. Dominique was pouring brandy into a couple of glasses; he looked up and saw Kinlaw.

“What’s your poison?”

“I’m looking for Sturges.“

“Haven’t seen him.”

“Don’t give me that. His car’s in the lot.”

Dominique set the brandies on a small tray and a waitress took them away. “If he came in, I didn’t spot him. If I had, I would have had a thing or two to tell him. Rumor has it he’s selling this place.”

“Where’s his office?”

The bartender pointed to a door, and Kinlaw checked it out. The room was empty; a stack of bills sat on the desk blotter. The one on the top was the third notice from a poultry dealer, for $442.16. PLEASE REMIT IMMEDIATELY was stamped in red across the top. Kinlaw poked around for a few minutes, then went back to the bar. “Have you seen anything of that German since we talked yesterday?”


Kinlaw remembered something. He went down to where the foreigner and the blonde had been sitting. A stack of cardboard coasters sat next to a glass of swizzle sticks. Kinlaw riffled through the coasters: on the edge of one was written, Suite 62.

He went out to the lot and crossed Marmont to the Chateau Marmont. The elegant concrete monstrosity was dramatically floodlit. Up at the top floors, the building was broken into steep roofs with elaborate chimneys and dormers surrounding a pointed central tower. Around it wide terraces with traceried balustrades and striped awnings marked the luxury suites. Kinlaw entered the hotel through a gothic arcade with ribbed vaulting, brick paving and a fountain at the end.

“Six,” he told the elevator operator, a wizened man who stared straight ahead as if somewhere inside he was counting off the minutes until the end of his life.

Kinlaw listened at the door to Suite 62. Two men’s voices, muffled to the point he could not make out any words. The door was locked.

Back in the tower opposite the elevator a tall window looked out over the hotel courtyard. Kinlaw leaned out: the ledge was at least a foot and a half wide. Ten feet to his right were the balustrade and awning of the sixth-floor terrace. He eased himself through the narrow window and carefully down the ledge; though there was a breeze up at this height, he felt his brow slick with sweat. His nose an inch from the masonry, he could hear the traffic on the boulevard below.

He reached the terrace, threw his leg over the rail. The French doors were open and through them he could hear the voices more clearly. One of them was Sturges and the other was the man who’d answered the phone that first afternoon at the Ivar house.

“You’ve got to help me out of this.”

“Got to? Not in my vocabulary, Preston.”

“This police detective is measuring me for a noose.”

“Only one way out then. I can fire up my magic suitcase and take us back.”


“Then don’t go postal. There’s nothing he can do to prove that you aren’t you.”

“We should never have dumped that body in the water.”

“What do I know about disposing of bodies? I’m a talent scout, not an executive producer.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You won’t be here to deal with the consequences.”

“If you insist, I’m willing to try an unburned moment-universe. Next time we can bury the body in your basement. But really, I don’t want to go through all this rumpus again. My advice is to tough it out.”

“And once you leave and I’m in the soup, it will never matter to you.”

“Preston, you are lucky I brought you back in the first place. It cost every dollar you made to get the studio to let us command the device. There are no guarantees. Use the creative imagination you’re always talking about.”

Sturges seemed to sober. “All right. But Kinlaw is looking for you, too. Maybe you ought to leave as soon as you can.”

The other man laughed. “And cut short my holiday? That doesn’t seem fair.”

Sturges sat down. “I’m going to miss you. If it weren’t for you I’d be the dead man right now.”

“I don’t mean to upset you, but in some real sense you are.”

“Very funny. I should write a script based on all this.”

“The Miracle of Ivar Avenue? Too fantastic, even for you.”

“And I don’t even know how the story comes out. Back here I’m still up to my ears in debt, and nobody in Hollywood would trust me to direct a wedding rehearsal.”

“You are resourceful. You’ll figure it out. You’ve seen the future.”

“Which is why I'm back in the past.”

“Meanwhile, I have a date tonight. A young woman, they tell me, who bears a striking resemblance to Veronica Lake. Since you couldn’t get me to meet the real thing.”

“Believe me,” Sturges said. “The real thing is nothing but trouble.”

“You know how much I enjoy a little trouble.”

“Sure. Trouble is fun when you’ve got the perfect escape hatch. Which I don’t have.”

While they continued talking, Kinlaw sidled past the wrought iron terrace furniture to the next set of French doors, off the suite’s bedroom. He slipped inside. The bedclothes were rumpled and the place smelled of whiskey. A bottle of Paul Jones and a couple of glasses stood on the bedside table along with a glass ash tray filled with butts; one of the glasses was smeared with lipstick. Some of the butts were hand-rolled reefer. On the dresser Kinlaw found a handful of change, a couple of twenties, a hotel key, a list of names:

Jeanne d’Arc

Claire Bloom

X Anne Boleyn

X Eva Braun

X Louise Brooks

X Charlotte Buff

Marie Duplessis

Veronica Lake

X Carole Lombard

X Germaine Greer

Vanessa Redgrave

X Alice Roosevelt

Christina Rossetti

Anne Rutledge

X George Sand

Brooks had been a hot number when Kinlaw was a kid, everybody knew Hitler’s pal Eva, and Alice Roosevelt was old Teddy’s aging socialite daughter. But who was Vanessa Redgrave? And how had someone named George gotten himself into this company?

At the foot of the bed lay an open suitcase full of clothes; Kinlaw rifled through it but found nothing that looked magic. Beside the dresser was a companion piece, a much smaller case in matching brown leather. He lifted it. It was much heavier than he’d anticipated. When he shook it there was no hint of anything moving inside. It felt more like a portable radio than a piece of luggage.

He carried it out to the terrace and, while Sturges and the stranger talked, knelt and snapped open the latches. The bottom half held a dull gray metal panel with switches, what looked something like a typewriter keyboard, and a small flat glass screen. In the corner of the screen glowed green figures: 23:27:46 PDT 3 May 1949. The numbers pulsed and advanced as he watched . . . 47 . . . 48 . . . 49 . . . Some of the typewriter keys had letters, others numbers, and the top row was Greek letters. Folded into the top of the case was a long finger-thick cable, matte gray, made out of some braided material that wasn’t metal and wasn’t fabric.

“You have never seen anything like it, right?”

It was the stranger. He stood in the door from the living room.

Kinlaw snapped the case shut, picked it up and backed a step away. He reached into his jacket and pulled out his pistol.

The man swayed a little. “You’re the detective,” he said.

“I am. Where’s Sturges?”

“He left. You don’t need the gun.”

“I’ll figure that out myself. Who are you?”

“Detlev Gruber.” He held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

Kinlaw backed another step.

“What’s the matter? Don’t tell me this is not the appropriate social gesture for the mid-twentieth. I know better.”

On impulse, Kinlaw held the case out over the edge of the terrace, six stories above the courtyard.

“So!” Gruber said. “What is it you say? The plot thickens?”

“Suppose you tell me what’s going on here? And you better make it quick; this thing is heavier than it looks.”

“All right. Just put down the case. Then I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

Kinlaw rested his back against the balustrade, letting the machine hang from his hand over the edge. He kept his gun trained on Gruber. “What is this thing?”

“You want the truth, or a story you’ll believe?”

“Pick one and see if I can tell the difference.”

“It’s a transmogrifier. A device that can change anyone into anyone else. I can change General MacArthur into President Truman, Shirley Temple into Marilyn Monroe.”

“Who’s Marilyn Monroe?”

“You will eventually find out.”

“So you changed somebody into Preston Sturges?”

Gruber smiled. “Don’t be so gullible. That’s impossible. That case isn’t a transmogrifier, it’s a time machine.”

“And I bet it will ring when it hits the pavement.”

“Not a clock. A machine that lets you travel from the future into the past, and back again.”

“This is the truth, or the story?”

“I’m from about a hundred years from now. 2043, to be precise.”

“And who was the dead man in San Pedro? Buck Rogers?”

“It was Preston Sturges.”

“And the man who was just here pretending to be him?”

“He was not pretending. He’s Preston Sturges, too.”

“You know, I’m losing my grip on this thing.”

“I am chagrined. Once again, the truth fails to convince.”

“I think the transmogrifier made more sense.”

“Nevertheless. I’m a talent scout. I work for the future equivalent of a film studio, a big company that makes entertainment. In the future, Hollywood is still the heart of the industry.”

“That’s a nice touch.”

“We have time machines in which we go back into the past. The studios hire people like me to recruit those from the past we think might appeal to our audience. I come back and persuade historicals to come to the future.

“Preston was one of my more successful finds. Sometimes the actor or director or writer can’t make the transition, but Preston seems to have an intuitive grasp of the future. Cynicism combined with repression. In two years he was the hit of the interactive fiber optic lines. But apparently it didn't agree with him. The future was too easy, he said, he wanted to go back to a time where he was an exception, not the rule. So he took all the money he made and paid the studio to send him back for another chance at his old life.”

“How can you bring him back if he’s dead?”

“Very good! You can spot a contradiction. What I’ve told you so far isn’t exactly true. This isn’t the same world I took him from. I recruited him from another version of history. I showed up in his garage just as he was about to turn on the ignition and gas himself. In your version, nobody stopped him. So see, I bring back my live Sturges to the home of your dying one. We arrive a half hour after your Sturges is defunct. You should have seen us trying to get the body out of the car and onto the boat. What a comedy of errors. This stray dog comes barking down the pier. Preston was already a madman, carrying around his own still-warm corpse. The dog sniffs his crotch, Preston drops his end of the body. Pure slapstick.

“So we manhandle the ex-Sturges onto the boat and sail out past the breakwall. Dump the body overboard with window counterweights tied to its ankles, come back and my Sturges takes his place, a few years older and a lot wiser. He’s had the benefit of some modern medicine; he’s kicked the booze and cigarettes and now he’s ready to step back into the place that he escaped earlier and try to straighten things out. He’s got a second chance.”

“You’re right. That’s a pretty good story.”

“You like it?”

“But if you’ve done your job, why are you still here?”

“How about this: I’m actually a scholar, and I’m taking the opportunity to study your culture. My dissertation is on the effects of your Second World War on Hotel Tipping Habits. I can give you a lot of tips. How would you like to know who wins the Rose Bowl next year?”

“How’d you like to be trapped in 1949?”

Gruber sat down on one of the wrought iron chairs. “I probably would come to regret it. But you’d be amazed at the things you have here that you can’t hardly get in 2043. T-bone steak. Cigarettes with real nicotine. Sex with guilt.”

“I still don’t understand how you can steal somebody out of your own past and not have it affect your present.”

“It’s not my past, it’s yours. Every moment in time gives rise to a completely separate history. They’re like branches splitting off from the same tree trunk. If I come out to lop a twig off your branch, it doesn’t affect the branch I come from.”

“You’re not changing the future?”

“I’m changing your future. In my past, as a result of personal and professional failures, Preston Sturges committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning on the evening of May 1, 1949. But now there are two other versions. In one Sturges disappeared on the afternoon of May 1, never to be seen again. In yours, Sturges committed suicide that evening, but then I and the Sturges from that other universe showed up, dropped his body in the ocean off San Pedro, and set up this new Sturges in his place—if you go along.”

“Why should I?’

“For the game! It’s interesting, isn't it? What will he do? How will it work out?”

“Will you come back to check on him?”

“I already have. I saved him from his suicide, showed him what a difference he’s made to this town, and now he’s going to have a wonderful life. All his friends are going to get together and give him enough money to pay his debts and start over again.”

“I saw that movie. Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed.”

Gruber slapped his knee. “And they wonder why I delight in the twentieth century. You’re right, detective. I lied again. I have no idea how it will work out. Once I visit a time stream, I can’t come back to the same one again. It’s burned. A quantum effect; 137.04 Moment Universes are packed into every second. The probability of hitting the same M-U twice is vanishingly small.”

“Look, I don’t know how much of this is malarkey, but I know somebody’s been murdered.”

“No, no, there is no murder. The man I brought back really is Preston Sturges, with all the memories and experiences of the man who killed himself. He’s exactly the man Louise Sturges married, who made all those films, who fathered his son and screwed up his life. But he’s had the advantage of a couple of years in the 21st century, and he’s determined not to make the same mistakes again. For the sake of his son and family and all the others who’ve come to care about him, why not give him that chance?”

“If I drop this box, you’re stuck here. You don’t seem too worried.”

“Well, I wouldn't be in this profession if I didn't like risk. What is life but risk? We’ve got a nice transaction going here, who knows how it will play out? Who knows whether Preston will straighten out his life or dismantle it?”

“In my experience, if a man is a foul ball, he’s a foul ball. Doesn’t matter how many chances you give him. His character tells.”

“That’s the other way to look at it. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves . . . ’ But I'm skeptical. That's why I like Preston. He talks as if he believes that character tells, but down deep he knows it's all out of control. You could turn my time machine into futuristic scrap, or you could give it to me and let me go back. Up to you. Or the random collision of atoms in your brain. You don’t seem to me like an arbitrary man, Detective Kinlaw, but even if you are, basically I don’t give a fuck.”

Gruber sat back as cool as a Christian holding four aces. Kinlaw was tempted to drop the machine just to see how he would react. The whole story was too fantastic.

But there was no way around those identical fingerprints. And if it were true—if a man could be saved and given a second chance—then Kinlaw was holding a miracle in his hand, with no better plan than to dash it to pieces on the courtyard below.

His mouth was dry. "Tell you what," he said. “I'll let you have your magic box back, but you have to do something for me first."

"I aim to please, detective. What is it?"

"I had a daughter. She died of polio three years ago. If this thing really is a time machine, I want you to take me back so I can get her before she dies."

"Can't do it."

"What do you mean you can't? You saved Sturges."

"Not in this universe. His body ended up on the beach, remember? Your daughter gets polio and dies in all the branches."

"Unless we get her before she gets sick."

"Yes. But then the version of you in that other M-U has a kidnapped daughter who disappears and is never heard from again. Do you want to do that to a man who is essentially yourself? How is that any better than having her die?"

"At least I'd have her."

"Plus, we can never come back to this M-U. After we leave, it's burned. I'd have to take you to still a third branch, where you'd have to replace yet another version of yourself if you want to take up your life again. Only, since he won't be conveniently dead, you'll have to dispose of him."

"Dispose of him?"


Kinlaw’s shoulder ached. His head was spinning trying to keep up with all these possibilities. He pulled the case in and set it down on the terrace. He holstered his .38 and rubbed his shoulder. “Show me how it works, first. Send a piece of furniture into the future.”

Gruber watched him meditatively, then stepped forward and picked up the device. He went back into the living room, pushed aside the sofa, opened the case and set it in the center of the room. He unpacked the woven cable from the top and ran it in a circle of about ten feet in diameter around an armchair, ends plugged into the base of the machine. He stepped outside the circle, crouched and began typing a series of characters into the keyboard.

Kinlaw went into the bedroom, got the bottle of scotch and a glass from the bathroom and poured himself a drink. When he got back Gruber was finishing up with the keyboard. “How much of all this gas you gave me is true?”

Gruber straightened. His face was open as a child's. He smiled. “Some. A lot. Not all.” He touched a switch on the case and stepped over the cable into the circle. He sat in the armchair.

The center of the room, in a sphere centered on Gruber and limited by the cable, grew brighter and brighter. Then the space inside suddenly collapsed, as if everything in it was shrinking from all directions toward the center. Gruber went from a man sitting in front of Kinlaw to a doll, to a speck, to nothing. The light grew very intense, then vanished.

When Kinlaw’s eyes adjusted the room was empty.

* * *

Wednesday morning Kinlaw was sitting at his desk trying to figure out what to do with the case folder when his phone rang. It was Preston Sturges.

“I haven't slept all night," Sturges said. "I expected to wake up in jail. Why haven't you arrested me yet?"

“I still could. You assaulted a police officer.”

“If that were the worst of it I'd be there in ten minutes. Last night you were talking about murder."

“Since then I had a conversation with a friend of yours at the Marmont,"

"You--what did he tell you?" Sturges sounded rattled.

"Enough for me to think this case will end up unsolved.”

Sturges was silent for a moment. "Thank you, Detective.”

“Why? Because a miracle happened? You just get back to making movies.”

“I have an interview with Larry Weingarten at MGM this afternoon. They want me to write a script for Clark Gable. I'm going to write them the best script they ever saw.”

“Good. Sell the restaurant.”

“You too? If I have to, I will.”

After he hung up, Kinlaw rolled the cinematographer’s monocle across his desk top. He thought of the body down in the morgue cooler, bound for an anonymous grave. If Gruber was telling the truth, the determined man he’d just spoken with was the same man who had killed himself in the garage on Ivar Avenue. Today he was eager to go forward; Kinlaw wondered how long that would last. He could easily fall back into his old ways, alienate whatever friends he had left. Or a stroke of bad luck like the Carole Landis suicide could sink him.

But it had to be something Sturges knew already. His movies were full of it. That absurd universe, the characters’ futile attempts to control it. At the end of Morgan’s Creek the bemused Norval is hauled out of jail, thrust into a national guard officer’s uniform, and rushed to the hospital to meet his wife and children for the first time—a wife he isn’t married to, children that aren’t even his. He deliriously protests this miracle, a product of the hypocrisy of the town that a day earlier wanted to lock him up and throw away the key.

Then again, Norval had never given up hope, had done his best throughout to make things come out right. His character was stronger than anyone had ever given him credit for.

Kinlaw remembered the first time he’d seen his daughter, when they called him into the room after Emily had given birth. She was so tiny, swaddled tightly in a blanket: her little face, eyes clamped shut, the tiniest of eyelashes, mouth set in a soft line. How tentatively he had held her. How he’d grinned like an idiot at the doctor, at the nurse, at Emily. Emily, exhausted, face pale, had smiled back. None of them had realized they were as much at the mercy of fate as Sturges’ manic grotesques.

He looked up at the calendar, got the pencil out and crossed off Monday and Tuesday. He got the telephone and dialed Emily’s number. She answered the phone, voice clouded with sleep. “Hello?”

“Emily,” he said. “I have the photo album. I’ve had it all along. I keep it on a shelf in the closet, take it out and look at the pictures and cry. I don’t know what to do with it. Come help me, please.”

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