Chip Pendleton, chief of the Cypress Knee Police Department for the past five years, closed the driver’s side door of his green-striped white Crown Vic and looked over the roof at his deputy chief, Oswald “Ozzie” Clendening. The rollers cycled red and blue.
“Make sure no one messes with the body,” Pendleton said. “Round up any witnesses you can find at the tower. I’ll check his room.”
Ozzie nodded. “Sure thing, Chief.” He turned toward the doughnut boob for a moment, saw the hanging man’s silhouette, and then turned his gaze back to Pendleton. “Chief, what was he doing here, do ya think?”
Pendleton shrugged. “We’re not even sure it’s him yet. Rutledge says if it is him, he checked in under an alias.”
“It’s all over Twitter, though.”
The chief laughed. “Twitter killed Jeff Goldblum once. Denzel Washington too, if memory serves. “
“If it is him, though…” Ozzie’s voice trailed off.
Pendleton frowned. If a movie star of Tag Kern’s popularity really had just died one hundred and eighty feet above this tacky strip joint/amusement park on the outskirts of Cypress Knee, the mourning fans and creepy looky-loos would swarm the spot. Just the threat that it might be true would be enough to draw the most adoring fans from hundreds of miles away.
“Good thinking,” the chief said. “Call Woody over at FHP and get the fire department looped in. We’re going to need traffic control and barricades. Rutledge won’t like it, but we need to seal the place off until we get what we need and the coroner hauls the body away.”
Ozzie nodded, taking out his smartphone as he continued on his way toward the tower.
Pendleton approached the Nighty-Night Motel, bound for Room Fifteen. He noticed the curtains shift in the front window of Room Sixteen – the unit with the green Toyota Prius with city plates parked outside. Buckingham’s car. The chief doubted that he was in there with his wife. Gary’s affair with Eula Dean was probably high on the list of Cypress Knee’s worst-kept secrets.
Unless one of them had killed Tag Kern – or someone who looked like Tag Kern but checked into the Nighty-Night Motel under the name Mahatma Creed – Pendleton didn’t really care about what they were doing in there. Of course, he thought, they might prove to be material witnesses to a homicide.
Might as well see what they knew, he reasoned, stepping toward Room Sixteen and raising his right hand to knock on the door. But that’s when the door of Room Fifteen opened. A young woman with bobbed blonde hair stepped out, phone in hand, eyes rimmed with tears as she looked in the direction of the towering doughnut-boob and its new ornament.
The chief asked, “What’s your relationship to the deceased?”
“It’s true, then?” She hadn’t taken her eyes off the tower.
“Someone appears to have hanged himself from the doughnut, yes,” he said. “We haven’t confirmed his identity yet. He was checked in as Mahatma Creed. Something tells me that’s not his real name.”
“Tag Kern,” she said, sobbing into the sleeve of her blouse. “You’ve heard of him, I’m sure. I’m his assistant, Tina Gray.”
Pendleton didn’t see first-run movies in the theater much anymore, not since Sheila gave birth to the twins. But he was a child of the last generation before the Internet and he knew Kern’s work just like he knew Pearl Jam and U2.
Tag Kern got his start in Hollywood in the mid-1980s, with a teen mischief comedy called “Kid Sweet” about a young man fresh out of a stretch in juvenile detention whose parents shuffled him off to an uptight boarding school where, of course, he inevitably persuaded his classmates to fight authority and break all kinds of rules as hijinx ensue.
Pendleton, a teen himself at the time and quarterback on the Heck High School varsity football team, counted “Kid Sweet” among his favorite movies. But Kern had lost his appeal over the years, mostly thanks to the roles he chose, but also due a little to his crazy “We-ism” religious beliefs.
The police chief liked to think he was adequately tolerant, especially in Deep South terms, but he couldn’t stomach the cold and calculating philosophy of a church that preached the value of those with plenty and encouraged the abandonment of those who couldn’t always provide for themselves.
The church got its start in an Orlando strip mall in 1977, founded by a real estate broker named John A. Swarthmore who moonlighted as a romance novelist under the pen name of Delores LeCrest. He was the mysterious J.K. Rowling of bodice-ripping mattress adventures of his time until 1989, when Swarthmore’s died in an Everglades plane crash.
“We-ism,” also known as The Church of Us, is built on the belief that rich people – even the ones who just got that way by being born into the right family – are a special breed and should be protected from siphoning by needy, grabby fiscal leeches.
That alcoholic uncle who couldn’t hold a job to save his life? Let him go, the church argued. If you someday found him squatting in his own filth on the side of the road, waving one of those pathetic cardboard “Need help” signs, you should shout in his face: “HELP YOUR OWN DAMNED SELF! I’VE GOT ENOUGH TO WORRY ABOUT!”
That cute kid whose family couldn’t raise enough money for critical cancer treatment? Let her die! If she was meant to survive, her body wouldn’t be so weak. If her parents were meant to save her, they wouldn’t be such underachievers. The child’s demise is survival of the fittest at work.
The Church of Us counted Tag Kern as one of its most prized parishioners, probably because he invested heavily in the construction of the “We-ist” headquarters – a big mirror-windowed cathedral dome and administrative outbuildings surrounded by a spiked wrought iron fence along the bend of Interstate 4 near International Drive. On bright summer days, with its blinding bursts of reflecting sunlight, motorists called it the Darwin Dome. At night, it was the Disco Ball. Bodie Waller, a crafty accidental injury attorney, staked his claim on a prominent billboard across the highway from the dome.
SOMETHING GOT IN YOUR EYE? the sign inquired in large yellow letters. IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. CALL 407-BOD-WALL.
Waller had sued the “We-ists” at least sixty times so far. More than half ended in settlements. None went to trial.
“I know it’s a tough time right now,” Pendleton said to the woman as she dabbed tears from her eyes with her left sleeve. He didn’t glance toward Room Sixteen, but heard someone bump their head against the window glass. “But we need to figure out what happened to him.” He frowned after hearing those words out loud. He took a folded brown kerchief from his uniform shirt pocket and offered it to her. “*Why* this happened,” he amended.
“He was depressed,” she said, clutching the police chief’s kerchief in her hands.
“So you think it was suicide?” Now, he shot a look toward the window of the neighboring room and watched the curtain slide back into place.
“I’m sure it was,” Tina said.
Pendleton tilted his head, returning his attention to Kern’s assistant. “Why is that, ma’am?”
“The prison rape.”
“In the script,” she clarified. “Well, it wasn’t in the script that Tag read when he signed on for the project, but they’ve been through about six writers. Miller got it in his head that Tag’s character needed a ‘Prince of Tides’ moment. You know, when Nick Nolte’s character gets raped as a kid? Like that, only Tag’s character’s an adult and he’s in the prison cafeteria kitchen with a few convenient product placements and he’s getting rammed by three skinheads.”
“Never saw ‘Prince of Tides,’” the chief said. “Wasn’t that a Disney movie?” He couldn’t recall if Nolte was in that, but he would’ve been surprised to learn that a rape scene had made it into a Disney flick.
Her mouth fell open. “Uh, no,” she said. “Not ‘Prince of Persia.’ This was a really old movie. Like, before I was born. 1991, I think.”
Christ, he thought. Seriously? He’d been right out of high school, shipping off with U.S. Army infantry to chase Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm that spring. And this woman hadn’t even been born yet? Suddenly, he knew what his parents must have felt like when he balked at their dusty old Beatles music.
“My mistake,” Pendleton said. “So, who’s Miller?”
“Donovan Miller. He’s the director.”
The name meant next to nothing to the chief. He knew Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese. The Godfather guy: Coppertone? Pendleton made a mental note to check Miller out.
“When did Mr. Miller break the news to Mr. Kern about the latest script change?”
“Last night, before the scouting trip with the crew to Florida State Prison. They’ve been in Starke all day. I thought they’d be back by now.”
Pendleton nodded. “All right. I want to talk to him when he’s back. Our investigators need to process this room for evidence, so we’ll talk to the manager about getting you new accommodations. If you can wait for me in the Slurp ‘N Burp, I’ll set up the room and get your official statement.” He pointed toward a glass-walled building with a purple neon sign with café tables and a snack bar. “I’ll be along directly.”
“Okay,” Tina said.
Once he saw that she was halfway across the parking lot, the chief rapped on the door of Room Sixteen.
At first, no one answered.
He knocked again. Through the door, he could hear panicked mutterings that sank into a sullen hush.
Another knock. Nothing.
Pendleton sighed. “Councilman Buckingham, this is Chief Pendleton of the Cypress Knee Police Department. You’re next to a crime scene. Open this door and talk to me right now or wait and talk to the reporters when they arrive. Up to you, sir.”
Someone – probably Eula – shut off the lights in the room. Pendleton heard the chain lock sliding free, followed by the thumb bolt. The door opened about three inches and Gary Buckingham hissed: “For Christ’s sake! Keep your voice down, Chip.”
The chief crossed his arms and asked, “Did you or Eula see anything unusual tonight?”
“Eula?” Buckingham’s jaw dropped. His eyes narrowed. So did the gap between the door and its frame. “I’ve been alone here tonight. I needed some ‘me’ time.”
“Is that right?”
“Seen anything unusual during your ‘me’ time?”
“No. I was just watching the Magic game.”
“Oh?” Pendleton said. “Who was leading? Magic or Nets?”
Not even a pause to think: “Nets.”
“Interesting,” the chief said. “They beat the Nets last week. They’re playing the Heat tonight.”
The councilman’s chin sank into his chest. He raised a palm to brace his forehead. “Chip, listen, I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything. I’m just here minding my own business.”
“Using a city car, paid for by taxpayers,” the chief reminded him.
“I’ll go home. Just…keep the reporters out of it.”
Pendleton frowned. “That part’s out of my hands. We’ve got another dangler on the doughnut. Not some anonymous drifter this time, though. Looks like Tag Kern.”
Buckingham yanked the door open wide and stepped outside, boggling. Eula, briefly in full view, dropped into a hurried squat between the two beds. Her lover was oblivious as she tried to hide. “Bob Beacham?! Dead? That’s shitty. Tag was awesome in that movie.”
Despite rarely going to the movies anymore, the chief still watched the news and listened to talk around town. Gary Buckingham would have to count himself as a significant minority when it came to the world’s appreciation of “Beacham.” The movie was based on a series of beloved novels about a hardboiled detective, described in the books as “a simmering hulk of an ex-cop with a Flintstone brow.”
Tag Kern stood just over five feet tall and couldn’t hulk over a class of elementary school students.
“Guess this means no sequel,” the councilman said.
“Yeah,” Pendleton said. “I’m sure this is what killed those prospects. Anyway, you’ll want to leave right away, sir. Press won’t be far behind me.”
“Okay. Thanks, Chip.”
The chief nodded. “Good night, sir.” Then, over Buckingham’s shoulder, he said, “G’night, Eula.”
A pale hand rose tentatively, waving.