An expedition has arrived in the frigid wilderness to shoot North to Fortune—an epic motion picture featuring authentic footage of majestic peaks, vast glaciers, homesteaders, and Alaska Natives. But the film’s fortunes begin to go south as a local Native group grows angry at how they’re portrayed in the movie, fights break out, and cast and crew are beset by accidents and assaults. Finally, production is halted when the inebriated director falls into a crevasse—and dies of exposure.
Soon Michael Brody—the town coroner and Charlotte’s brother—starts to suspect that Mother Nature was not responsible for Stanley Welsh’s death. Charlotte, who’s been writing about all the Hollywood glamor, is suddenly covering a cold-blooded crime story—and as springtime storms keep the suspects snowed in, she has to make sure the truth doesn’t get buried . . .
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Murder on Location
By Cathy Pegau
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Cathy Pegau
All rights reserved.
The SS Fairbanks made its approach to the Cordova ocean harbor, belching black smoke that quickly dissipated on the icy breeze. Anticipation from the crowd waiting on the dock was as thick as the aroma of tar, tide, and the exhaust from the line of idling automobiles. Sunlight glinted off the gray-green water and the bright white of the hull of the ship still one hundred yards away.
Charlotte Brody smiled at the memory of coming to Alaska on a similar vessel just six months ago. Still a "cheechako" in the eyes of the locals, she was settling into her new home. Plans to return east come spring — only a week or so away, supposedly — had been indefinitely postponed.
The steamer's air horn blew a greeting as it approached, and the largest gathering of Cordovans Charlotte had ever seen in one place cheered in response, waving hats and hands.
"Isn't this exciting?" a woman standing beside Charlotte asked no one in particular. Smiling and starry-eyed, the woman brandished a rolled-up movie magazine like a member of the Signal Corps conveying messages to troops.
Charlotte didn't quite share her or the crowd's enthusiasm. Half the population must have turned out for the Fairbanks's arrival. Who knew Cordova, home to some of the most practical people she'd ever met, would become positively giddy over a film crew coming to town?
Then again, given the cold, dark quiet of the winter they had just been through, the arrival of such unusual persons gave the town a boost to its torpid mood. Despite the calendar claiming it was mid-March, the more vitalizing days of the coming season were still a month or so away.
A frozen, salty gust blew in off the water, confirming suspicions of that date. Charlotte shivered within her heavy coat and the trousers she wore. It was also a few tens of degrees from what she knew as spring.
Maybe more like two months away.
If she hadn't been assigned to cover the event, Charlotte would have happily stayed in her warm little house and avoided the whole thing. Or most of the fanfare and over-the-top events, at any rate. Andrew Toliver, owner of the Cordova Daily Times and her boss, would have done it himself, but a fall on a slippery step had broken his foot. Being the only other writer on the paper, it fell to Charlotte to cover the most exciting thing to happen to Cordova since the railroad.
Toliver insisted she chronicle the visit by the Californians, painting Cordova in as positive a light as she could. He was sure the articles would be picked up by other newspapers, particularly those in areas where filmmaking was growing, and put the booming town in the minds of the rest of the country, if not the world.
Charlotte flexed her fingers within her mittens in an attempt to get them warm enough to use her pad and pencil when it came time to take notes. She would do her job and do it well, for the sake of the paper and for the town she now called home. The cast and crew would be in Cordova for two weeks. Maybe she'd get caught up in the excitement.
God, I hope so, Charlotte thought as she watched the Fairbanks maneuver into position alongside the dock.
While she could admit interest in watching films — they were a great way to entertain or educate — she didn't understand the growing popularity of the actors to the point that ordinary people seemed to put them above others. Many had excellent talents, and some poignant films had been made, but she saw no reason to elevate actors to an idealistic or romanticized status. There were plenty of other people doing real work who deserved acknowledgment and recognition.
Bells rang aboard ship. Several uniformed members of the Fairbanks crew threw thick lines over the rails to the longshoremen on the dock. Once the steamer was fastened and the engines throttled down to a low rumble, the gangplank was lowered and secured. Conversations in the crowd became random cheers and whistles, yet no one on the dock moved closer to the vessel. Charlotte noted a number of men facing the crowd now, standing at regular intervals and giving warning glares to any who dared to pass.
Security for the Californians? What did they think was going to happen in Cordova?
After several minutes, a mustached man in a tweed cap and khaki trench coat, with a motion-picture camera balanced on his shoulder, carefully limped down the gangplank. He set the long legs of the tripod on the dock. He made a few adjustments to the box, aimed the lens toward the top of the gangplank, and checked the viewfinder.
The cameraman cupped his hand around his mouth. "Ready to roll!" He turned his cap around, bent to look through the viewfinder, and began cranking.
A man in his forties strode across the deck and stopped at the top of the gangplank. He wore a bowler hat, a thick white scarf around his neck, and a long black coat. The people on the dock began clapping and cheering. Who was he?
Behind him, a group of men and women gathered in a semicircle. All were bundled against the cold and not recognizable. A few waved to the people on the dock, much to the delight of several onlookers by the sound of their exclamations.
Smiling, the man in front raised a megaphone and spoke to the attentive audience. "Thank you. Thank you, my friends." His voice boomed from the cone. "It's so wonderful to be back here in Cordova." He swept his hand in a gesture to encompass everything before him. "The most beautiful city in the Alaska Territory."
Cheers and whistles exploded from the dock dwellers, temporarily deafening Charlotte.
"Hey, Wally, you owe me a sawbuck!" someone shouted from the crowd.
Everyone laughed, including the man on the ship.
"And I'll pay it back, I promise," he said, still smiling. "Because with the help of all you fine folks and North to Fortune, we're gonna put Cordova on every map and on every mind in the country."
This man could run for mayor.
"For those of you who don't know me, my name is Wallace Meade."
The name was familiar to Charlotte, thanks to Andrew Toliver, and now she had a face to go with it. Wallace Meade owned several properties in Cordova and was generous to local organizations. Meade also had business interests in other towns throughout the territory, including a gold mine in Fairbanks and a tract of land near Juneau where he ran a lumber mill.
Meade had been down in the States for months, Charlotte had learned, busy in California and New York drumming up interest for the up-and-coming film industry to look north. According to Toliver, Meade had finally managed to engage the crew he needed to produce what was supposedly going to be a "truer than life" depiction of Alaska.
Whatever that meant.
"I know the good people of Cordova," Meade continued, "and I've assured the cast and crew that you're the friendliest bunch north of Seattle." The crowd cheered again, and Meade's smile broadened. "So let me introduce a few of these folks to you." He gestured for a tall, thin man to step forward. The man wore a long fur coat, with his scarf pulled up over his nose and mouth. "This here is Stanley Welsh, director of such notable films as A Place in Their Hearts and Granger's Last Stand. Stanley?"
Charlotte had heard of the films but hadn't seen either of them. One was a murder mystery and the other something about battles during the Civil War.
People cheered, and Welsh took the megaphone from Meade. He tugged his scarf down, revealing his clean-shaven face and narrow features. "Hello, Cordova!" Welsh waited for the noise to die down. "We are so very happy to be here and appreciate your fine welcome on a cold day."
Charlotte thought she detected something of an accent in the man's speech but couldn't place it. Eastern European, perhaps?
"When Mr. Meade told us about your lovely town and showed us pictures, I knew right away it would be perfect for our film, North to Fortune. Some wanted us to wait a few more months until it warmed up, but I insisted my cast experience the real Alaska, cold and all. Authenticity, you know!"
"Only if you fixed the story!" a man shouted from behind the crowd.
Several people turned to see who had interrupted the director. No one stepped forward, and Welsh ignored the comment.
What was that all about?
"We will be here in Cordova for approximately two weeks," Welsh continued, "filming exterior shots of the mountains, glaciers, and lake. Our cast and crew are the best and ready for anything. I think some of you are familiar with our lead players."
Welsh smiled as a younger man stepped forward, doffed his hat, and waved it at the crowd. His dark hair fluttered with the sea breeze.
A woman shouted, "I love you, Peter!"
"Yes," Welsh said, "Peter York will be playing Lawrence, our hero. And Roslyn Sanford is our leading lady, playing the part of Dorothy." A petite woman came up beside York and waved. She could have been anyone; she was so bundled in furs it was difficult to see her face. "We're all terribly pleased to be here, but we should let everyone get off the boat now. Thank you."
Welsh and Meade shook hands, holding the position as a still photographer on the dock took a picture. The photographer gave the men a thumbs-up gesture and the two released hands. Meade took the megaphone from Welsh.
"Tonight, we'll present a few brief scenes from the film and have some other thrilling performances at the Empress Theater," Meade said into the megaphone. "Eight o'clock curtain. Be sure to get your tickets."
"I have mine," the rosy-cheeked woman beside Charlotte said, flapping the movie magazine. "Goodness, that Peter York is a handsome devil, isn't he?"
"I suppose," Charlotte said, mostly to herself, as she jotted notes.
"In his last movie, he played a sheik prince." The woman sighed dramatically, and Charlotte wondered if she'd have to catch her should she faint. "So handsome."
The crowd parted as the cast and crew descended the gangplank, creating a narrow lane for the visitors to reach their awaiting cars. Cordova didn't have enough taxis to take them all, of course. The vehicles belonged to private citizens, hired for the sole purpose of transporting these particular VIPs. The audience would have to find their own way back to town.
Meade led the way, followed by Welsh and a statuesque woman holding his arm. Behind them, Peter York escorted Roslyn Sanford. At least a dozen more well-dressed people followed, obviously not Cordovans by the way they stared up at the surrounding mountains in wide-eyed wonder. A tall, bespectacled young woman gazed intently at her new environs as if absorbing every detail.
A few of the men broke away from the California group and moved directly to the longshoremen. One man gestured toward the ship, a crane, and then to two waiting flatbed trucks. The shore man nodded, his cigar bobbing up and down as he chewed on the stub.
Shuffling across the slick dock with shoulders hunched against the cold, the visitors piled into the cars. The Cordovans followed as close as the security men would allow, some shouting requests for autographs, others their declarations of love.
"Miss Brody?" Mr. Jenkins, the Alaska Steamship Company agent, came up beside her, grinning broadly.
Charlotte took his extended hand and shook it. "Good afternoon. Quite the excitement today."
"Yes, indeed," he said, gazing out at the crowd. "We haven't had this sort of brouhaha for some time." Jenkins focused on her again. "Mr. Meade was wondering if you would accompany him and the others to the hotel for an interview."
Charlotte stared at the agent. "Me? How does Mr. Meade know about me?"
Jenkins shook his head, shrugging. "He asked if there were any newsmen about. I told him I thought I saw you in the crowd. He asked me to fetch you."
The back of Charlotte's neck tightened. "Fetch?"
Perhaps she was overreacting, but she was a grown woman, a professional journalist, not something to be retrieved. And Mr. Jenkins wasn't a dog. She would not be at the beck and call of Wallace Meade, no matter what sort of do-gooder he was in the community.
"Um, I'm sure I misheard him," Jenkins said, eyes large with distress as he noticed her frown. "Yes, my apologies, I'm sure I did. Would you follow me, Miss Brody? Please?"
She should say no. She should tell Mr. Jenkins to tell Mr. Meade to take a flying leap. But she didn't want to put Mr. Jenkins in the middle of anything, and she shouldn't judge Meade without facing the man himself. Perhaps he was just tired after a long voyage.
Allowing the benefit of the doubt, for now, Charlotte forced a smile. "Lead the way, Mr. Jenkins."
Relief eased the tension lines from his narrow face. "Thank you. Over here."
He gestured toward the line of automobiles and started to make a path through the crowd. The onlookers reluctantly moved aside as Jenkins tapped shoulders and requested passage. When they finally reached the edge of the group facing the vehicles, Charlotte noted the men keeping the Cordovans from mobbing the visitors had closed ranks. Jenkins told the nearest one that he was escorting Charlotte at Mr. Meade's request.
The man gave Charlotte a quick once-over, then pointed a thumb toward the vehicle at the front of the line, a new deep green 1920 Oakland touring car that Charlotte recognized as belonging to Clive Wilkes. His Studebaker had given up the ghost in December. The passenger side front door opened and Wallace Meade stepped out. The bespectacled young woman Charlotte had seen earlier sat beside the driver. She gave Charlotte a shy smile.
"Mr. Meade," Jenkins said, "this is Miss Charlotte Brody of the Cordova Daily Times. Miss Brody, Mr. Meade."
Meade stuck out his right hand. "Nice to meet you, little lady. Andrew Toliver speaks highly of you."
Little lady? Gritting her teeth, Charlotte offered a firm grip to counter the barely there pressure many men provided when shaking hands with a woman. "He's often spoken of you too, Mr. Meade."
Meade's dark eyes narrowed, then glinted with amusement when he realized she hadn't necessarily paid him a compliment. "Indeed. Please, join us for the ride back to town." He opened the rear door. Director Stanley Welsh and the woman he'd escorted down the gangplank sat on the leather bench seat. "Stanley, Carmen, this is Miss Brody from the local paper. Miss Brody, Stanley and Carmen Welsh, and that's their daughter Cicely up front."
"Pleased to meet you," Charlotte said, shaking the hands of each of the elder Welshes and smiling at Cicely, who peered over the front seat.
Mr. Welsh slid closer to the opposite side of the car, pressing himself against the other door. Mrs. Welsh made room for her.
Charlotte climbed in beside the Welshes, notebook and pencil in hand. Once she was seated, Meade closed the door and returned to his place in front. It was close quarters in the car, considering all their bulky outerwear, but not uncomfortable. Still, Charlotte was glad it was a short ride into town.
"Let's go," Meade said to the driver. He then turned to address the back seat. Poor Cicely Welsh. She was squashed to the driver's shoulder, angling her head to keep Meade from talking into her face. Meade seemed oblivious. "Toliver cabled me to say he was laid up with a broken foot, but that you'd be spot-on ideal for the job of writing up articles for the next few weeks."
Spot-on ideal? Charlotte was amused with Toliver's fib. He knew she wasn't exactly thrilled with the assignment. But knowing Meade's success was due in no small part to his ability to soft-soap folks to get what he wanted, maybe it wasn't Toliver's wording at all.
"I don't know about ideal, Mr. Meade," she said. "I certainly enjoy going to the theater, but I'm not well-versed in the film business."
Stanley Welsh smiled. "Probably all the better for us."
Wincing suddenly, Welsh turned his head toward the window and coughed into a fold of his scarf.
"Are you okay, Papa?" Cicely asked, her brow drawn with concern. Welsh waved her off, the coughing less intense. Cicely frowned, keeping an eye on her father.
"Film is a marvelous world," Meade said as Welsh recovered from his bout. "Full of so much potential and growing every day. Why, I expect moving pictures will smother live theater in a few short years —"
"That would be a sad day," Carmen Welsh interjected. "There should be both."
Silently agreeing, Charlotte jotted down their exchange in shorthand, willing to let the conversation play out rather than interfere with questions for the moment.
Excerpted from Murder on Location by Cathy Pegau. Copyright © 2017 Cathy Pegau. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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