Sean Cameron grinned at her; he was strikingly good-looking, she realized again, and could have been in the movies instead of the magic behind them.
Step back, think sanely. You’re just here as a guide, she reminded herself.
She still wasn’t quite sure how one went from being a visual fabricator and creator to an FBI agent, but she was glad to see his grin. She had to admit she hadn’t relished this assignment and wished they could rewind time—go back twenty-four hours, make sure Alistair Archer was nowhere near the Black Box Cinema last night and that the entire place had been locked down tight. Then she’d be at work, consulting with her colleagues, studying sketches, and then computer simulations, discussing materials….
“Sometimes the L.A. cops have taken a beating when they haven’t been the ones to mess things up. And if you’re asking whether law enforcement agencies can be territorial—you bet. I actually belong to a unit of people who are ready to stand down, suck up when necessary and just get our part done. But yes, we are all working toward the same goal, and a team like mine doesn’t have the manpower to do it alone. If you have good cops on your side, you’re ahead of the game.”
“You worked for Eddie for several years, right?” Madison asked him.
“Yes. Then I returned to Texas—had a close friend with cancer, and I wanted to be around to help with what was needed.”
“How did you find your way into law enforcement?”
“I didn’t. It found me,” he said.
They were in front of the studio door now. He indicated that she should get out her key, and she knew that their conversation on his history was over.
Madison fumbled in her purse and produced the key, then opened the door and stepped inside. As she’d expected, once they’d entered the vestibule, she saw Colin Bailey on duty behind the little glassed-in reception area.
During the day, when work was in progress, two people handled the reception desk. The hallways that led down to the studios, work areas and offices weren’t locked, but a security officer usually sat in front with the receptionist. Today, no receptionist was on duty, but Colin Bailey was there, formidable despite his age. Colin had been a boxer in his day. Like the cop she’d just met, he was bald, but his bare pate was a present from nature, and not the work of careful shaving. He had bright blue eyes and jowls that would have done a bulldog proud. His nose had been broken a dozen times and looked it.
He could be gentle as a lamb, but when it came to defending Eddie Archer or his property and reputation, Colin turned into a cobra.
“There’s no entrance! Absolutely no—Oh! Madison, it’s you. And the FBI man, I assume?” Bailey rose from his swivel chair, opened the door dividing the entry from the reception area and came out to greet them. He inspected Sean, and then smiled. “Why, it’s you, kid!” he said with enthusiasm. “I thought I got the name wrong or something!” He took Sean’s hand and shook it with enthusiasm. “Wow, it’s true! So you’re a G-man, huh? For real?”
“For real, Colin, my friend, for real,” Sean told him. “So, you’re doing well?”
“Great!” Bailey said. “Well, until last night,” he added, his smile fading.
“You were on duty?”
“I was. And I take that seriously, as you know, especially during lockdown.”
“You had your eye on the video screens?” Sean asked.
Bailey grimaced. “For all the good it did. And the cops have the video now.”
“The cameras still cover the same areas?”
Bailey nodded. He motioned to them to join him in the reception area. As they walked in, Madison realized she’d never been there herself; she’d never thought about the security cameras.
There was a bank with six screens. One showed the entry. Another focused on the main work area, encompassing the shop, the main construction area and, somewhat obscured, the rest of the floor. Another screen covered the parking lot, and yet another, the upstairs hallway. One showed the cemetery and parking lot to the right if one were facing the studio entrance, and another showed the side of the Black Box Cinema.
“You can’t see the entrance to the Black Box,” Madison noted.
“The Black Box Cinema has its own security camera that focuses on anyone coming through the main entrance,” Bailey told her. “But as you can see, these screens will tell you if anyone is entering the studio by the main entrance, and if anyone tried to get through the fire exits, an alarm would have gone off.”
“There’s no security footage for the tunnel—the museum—itself?” Sean asked.
“Yes, but it’s seldom used,” Colin said. “There never seemed to be a reason. No one’s allowed down there except by appointment or on movie nights, and there’s always a guide with anyone who does go down. Film noir buffs always want to see it, but it’s not like it’s the biggest tourist attraction in Hollywood or anything. The cinema’s Eddie’s baby—has been from the start. He grew up loving film noir, and I guess he feels it’s just a little collection he shows friends, even if the friends are people he doesn’t know. You can ask for a tour if you’ve come to see a movie. You don’t even have to pay the nominal five bucks, just bring your ticket stub during opening hours. Like I said, there never seemed to be much need for security down there.”
Sean Cameron didn’t respond to that. Maintaining a pleasant expression, he said, “Thanks, Colin. Madison’s going to catch me up on any of the changes that have happened around here since I left. We’ll check back in before we leave. Obviously, we have to leave this way, don’t we?”
Bailey nodded. “Unless you open a fire door and, if you do, alarms will go off like firecrackers.” He grinned at his own mild joke.
Sean looked at Madison. “If we go to the right, that’ll still lead us to the main work areas?”
“Yes, the hallway to the left has two meeting rooms, plus the stairs up to the offices and meeting rooms on the second floor.”
He moved quickly, heading to the right. She followed him at the same pace.
The studio seemed strange. Empty. She came in early sometimes, but a lot of workers did, and Madison couldn’t remember a single time when she’d come in and one of the seamstresses or construction engineers hadn’t already been at work. The sounds of sewing machines, electric saws, hammers and other work-related noises were constant, although someone usually had a stereo system playing pop music or rock classics. Today, there was no stereo on. Materials were piled up on the tables that stood by the sewing machines, and the shop area itself felt eerie. It was almost like walking into a home whose owners had mysteriously disappeared.
The walls were pinned with fabric and materials and drawings. Creatures they’d made for movies, shows or advertisements were lined up on the floor and arranged on shelves—some might be used again, and some were kept because they’d required a great deal of work and had turned out exceptionally well. They also kept some of the projects that hadn’t worked quite as well, a reminder of the thought and care that needed to go into any creation.
A giant rat stood next to an equally large penguin. The rat had been used in a public service announcement and the penguin had been animated to advertise a new adventure park in Oregon. Robotic creatures from the last sci-fi movie they’d worked on were lined up together, and above them was an old bicycle being ridden by a very evil-looking big, bad wolf. Zombies created for Apocalypse from Beneath the Sea were against the far rear wall, and the bloodied victims from a Victorian-era murder mystery were on the high shelving ten feet above the floor—above the zombies. Madison noted that Sean was staring at the victims, Miss Mary, Parson Bridge and Myra Sue. He was thoughtful, and she suspected he was imagining that the appearance of Jenny Henderson’s body must have been disturbingly similar to these props. The studio was known for the realism of what they created.
“Life imitates art and art imitates life. In this case, the question is which came first,” Sean murmured.
Madison glanced down, troubled by the creatures that were just rubber, plastic, fabric and paint. She’d drawn the designs for some of them; she’d dressed Myra Sue. Suddenly, Myra Sue and the other “victims” didn’t seem like props designed for a movie. They looked like flesh and blood.
A lot of blood.
Madison found herself turning away from Myra Sue’s one sightless eye.
“Fire door is still in the back, right?” Sean asked her.
She nodded. “Between these guys and the Planet Mondo air creatures over there,” she said, pointing to the door. There was a large sign that said Fire Door, but it was partially obstructed by the wings of one of the Planet Mondo air creatures.
“Hasn’t changed much,” Sean said. He nodded to one of the giant robots across the workstations, beside the climate control room. “I worked on Hugoman. He’s been here awhile.”
“Really? He’s fantastic. And I love the movie!” Madison said. She did love the creature in the movie Hugoman. He was the invention of a mad scientist who’d given him his son’s personality through partial cloning; the massive machinelike creature was kind and fought only to save lives. Of course, he’d been misunderstood, and when he’d saved the community from an attack by mutant creatures, he had died—a moral about judging people, or creatures, on appearances. Hugoman had actually been low-budget and promoted as an action/monster flick, but it had been extremely well written and had become a cult classic.
She flushed; they were here because of a murder, and because someone they both cared about had been accused of that murder. And yet, she wasn’t sure why they were just touring the studio. The murder hadn’t taken place in the studio; it had happened in the museum tunnel.
He wasn’t appalled by her sudden enthusiasm; he smiled at her. “Thanks. I loved working here. I needed to go back to Texas for a bit, and then…then you get swept up in life, so I wound up staying and working there. But I did love the time I spent here, working for Eddie Archer. I was proud that we helped create a cult classic on a budget.” His tone became businesslike. “So, as far as I know, that’s our fire door on this side of the building downstairs, and we have another over by the offices?”