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The Cat's Meow

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"Stop touching me," Fred said, not really awake yet. Anyone who grew up as the youngest of four learned to issue vital commands while half asleep.

His polite demand failed, of course. The soft something touched Fred's nose again just as the weight of the book on his chest and the ache from the crick in his neck informed him that he'd dozed off while studying on the sofa. And here came another poke; it must be Charlie playing the elder brother from hell, prodding away with a pencil eraser or a broad-nibbed pen. If Charlie was leaving ink dots on Fred's nose, he was a dead man.

"In this trying year of 1930, men have died and worms have eaten them, and all for poking…" Fred blinked as he trailed off.

He had finally managed to pry apart his gummy eyelids, but not upon a view of Charlie's smirking features. Instead, Fred saw a pale mass of fur. Right above his head, perched on the sofa arm, a flat-faced white cat examined Fred through narrowed yellow eyes before reaching out a forepaw with its claws sheathed, to delicately touch Fred's nose.

Fred felt himself squint, heard himself ask, "See here. Who are you?"

If he'd ever needed proof he wasn't brilliant while waking, those words were it. Thank God he had an excuse. Last evening, Charlie hadn't owned an alley cat, let alone a big ball of fancy fluff. Fred could only hope the feline wasn't the winnings from a well-oiled, late night card game or the result of some casual promise to this week's girlfriend.

The cat had stopped poking and now seemed to consider staring at short range enough entertainment, so Fred tried sitting up. Once he'd grabbed the copy of Management Accounting sliding down his chest and deposited it on Charlie's Mexican rug -- poker winnings -- he checked his wristwatch: about half past six, more than three hours left before his last exam. Even taking into account all the Red Car transfers needed to reach USC from Hollywood, Fred still had time to deal with his unexpected guest. He could also bathe, shave, and change his clothes, so as to not disgrace his academic discipline any more than he supposedly did by accounting while secretly homosexual.

His first, urgent task was to make coffee. After he got up from the sofa, Fred went into the tiny kitchen and stopped short. There was a wooden box full of sand in the middle of the linoleum floor, sand with, well, poop on it. Swell. Here was another example of the joys awaiting those who slept like King Tut while siblings went screwy.

"I guess you don't go outdoors in the beautiful California sunshine like all the other cats," he said to the fluff ball, who had jumped down, strolled over, and was now pressing his head hard against Fred's leg.

"Mrow."

"Okay, a predictable answer." Looking around for any other surprises, Fred spotted a piece of paper in the middle of the kitchen table top. He picked it up and spent a few seconds deciphering the words scrawled onto it.

Fred--

Job with Studio so I need you to take care of the cat Mr. Flurry. Food in cupboard and he uses a box of sand. Don't let him out. He's some kind of valuable.

Also I was working for Belasco. Fill in for me okay?

I'll telephone later.

Charlie

"Oh, for crying out loud. What do you have against commas, Charlie?" Fred rubbed his face and winced at the rasp of beard stubble. "Now I really need coffee."

"Mrow."

"And you need your breakfast. Gotcha."

Fred had been staying at Charlie's apartment for a few weeks, long enough to know, even when newly awakened, where most things were. He got ground coffee into the electric percolator and then checked all three cupboards before finding some Spratt's Cat Food in the last one he tried. With the support of hot coffee, Fred managed to open the food and dump it into Charlie's favorite bowl without injuring himself. The breakfast kept Mr. Flurry busy long enough for Fred to escape into the bathroom.

Mr. Flurry didn't approve of closed doors. And he really didn't approve of baths. The paw he was sticking through the gap underneath the door got more active when Fred turned on the taps in the bathtub.

After climbing into the tub, Fred looked over at the persistent paw, and decided he could indulge in a little lavender melodrama during this rare interlude of privacy. Folding his hands across his chest, he rolled up his eyes in the manner of Miss Lillian Gish and proclaimed to the ceiling, "Help, help. The evil bath is removing all my delightful, sweaty grime. Blubblubblubblub." He sank low into the water.

The answering paw action seemed a little frantic. As responses went, it was sweet. The white fur Mr. Flurry left on Fred's trousers a few minutes later wasn't as sweet, but Fred probably deserved the retaliation.

In the assets column of life's ledger, the mystery of Mr. Flurry kept Fred from worrying about his final exam on the way down to USC, which would have been a pointless exercise, especially while riding on a streetcar with no textbooks to hand. Fred had a way with numbers, and this final test covered the theory of cost assessment, a task at which he knew he was truly gifted. But reason couldn't always stay in the saddle.

Although Fred had schemed to sit his professional exams months earlier than he should have -- he'd really wanted that summer work auditing instead of another building job -- he'd still studied frantically for his remaining classes. A part of him expected to be flunked out at the last minute by some random fury or archangel in retaliation for refusing to join the family construction business; it must not be enough that his fight with Dad had ended with exile onto Charlie's sofa. Or maybe the mysterious power wanted Fred to suffer for accepting drinks from fellows in bars. Any of the choices making him happy as he emerged from his fog of work and study could be an Achilles' heel. His sense of creeping dread hadn't been specific.

Still, facts couldn't be entirely buried by fears. Fred rode back on the Red Line that afternoon knowing he'd sacked his final exam, burnt it down, and spat upon its ashes. Not even the nagging worry about what he'd do after he graduated could keep him from sprawling out luxuriously on the sofa in shirtsleeves, along with a ham sandwich and his copy of The Good Companions, to await Charlie's telephone call. Mr. Flurry decided Fred would be spending the late afternoon with the sorry crusts of a ham sandwich, The Good Companions, and a big, white cat on his chest, but Fred could adapt to circumstances. It was a desirable trait in a soon-to-be-official CPA.

Two o'clock rolled around without a call from Charlie. "Maybe he's coming home instead of using the telephone," Fred told Mr. Flurry.

He got nothing but half-opened eyes in reply. Still, he was taking a break from reading for further improving conversation when his answers finally arrived.

"Rawr," Fred was pontificating as the doorbell rang.

"Mrow," Mr. Flurry trenchantly retorted.

"You're telling me? Rawr."

"Mrow."

The doorbell rang again.

"For Christ's sake, it's open," Fred hollered.

Mr. Flurry flicked both ears and Fred told him, "Rawr," not bothering to hide his disgust with all siblings in theory and Charlie in practice.

"Mrow," Mr. Flurry replied, suddenly sitting up straight on Fred's stomach.

"I'm sorry. Am I interrupting?" a gravelly voice inquired.

With a start, Fred looked up to see the fellow he'd thought was Charlie. It was Mr. Belasco, and the close-up view was appealing. At this range, Mr. Belasco was clearly in his thirties, tall and solidly muscled with wavy dark hair, mismatched features, and weary-seeming eyes. Rather than his usual suit, he wore worn, well-fitted, and pleasantly educational, indigo waist overalls today. Fred tugged his mind upward and back to business.

Fred was supposed to be avoiding their landlady's agent-or-whatever since the lease here did not grant guest privileges, but a fellow couldn't be rude. Besides, Fred had visited Charlie several times before being exiled from the family house in West Adams, so the man had already seen him. And Mr. Belasco was pleasant enough at a distance, responding with a slight smile and a polite wave to any greeting in passing.

Now, however, Mr. Belasco was behaving oddly, staring at Fred and Mr. Flurry with what must be bemusement if Fred was reading the expression in those brown eyes correctly. Although Mr. Flurry had begun the staring contest. Mr. Belasco appeared to be even more interesting than Fred.

"Hello." Fred glanced from the cat to Mr. Belasco. "Do you know him?"

Abandoning his bemusement, Mr. Belasco said, "Fred, right? Hello. I know him well. Too well. He's supposed to belong to my mother."

"Eureka. Charlie's landlady." Pleased to have straightened out these particulars, Fred asked, "Is Charlie watching the cat as a favor to her?"

"Charlie doesn't seem to be watching him at all. And, no, Mother's away on one of her longer trips abroad. This was a favor to me."

Uh-oh. "That's why I'm here, of course," Fred said, all innocence. "Charlie was called away on a job and asked me to keep an eye on him. Mr. Flurry."

"Just Flurry. But he answers better to 'Hey, Mister.' Or 'Hey, fella.' Or 'Hey, you.' When he answers at all. In fact, now that you've suggested it, Mr. Flurry might work well as a name."

Trust Charlie to get the details wrong. And Mr. Flurry was still staring. He was rising to a near-Olympic level of feline staring, in fact. "He seems to like you."

"Yes." Mr. Belasco did a good job of emptying out some tangle of feelings with a sigh. "Yes, he does. Now, while I'm glad Charlie thought to find Flurry -- Mr. Flurry -- a substitute nursemaid, Charlie is also meant to be meeting me here this afternoon to assist with some chores."

Already resigned, Fred sat up, and Mr. Flurry jumped to the floor. "I see. Charlie was going to do things for you."

"He was."

"I'm supposed to take care of all that, too."

Mr. Flurry was staking a claim to the waist overalls. Mr. Belasco didn't actually say anything impolite as he rubbed Mr. Flurry's head, but the noise he made was dubious.

Fred asked, "What exactly was Charlie meant to be doing?"

"Playing handyman. I'm changing around some of the rooms in my mother's house," Mr. Belasco straightened and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder toward the big residence about ten feet from the double garage over which Charlie's apartment perched. "Replacing carpets, some painting, hanging curtains, a lot of furniture to be moved back and forth."

This last chore was the source of Mr. Belasco's dubious noise, Fred would bet. Charlie was six feet even, looked something like Gary Cooper, and was as athletic as any former champion high school quarterback should be. Fred was five feet eight, classically red Irish, and had the willowy build of a fellow who could play the leprechaun representing St. Patrick's day in a public school Pageant of All the Year's Holidays. Which Fred had done, complete with a brief, green-trousered jig. Diddily, diddily, diddily, diddily…

Unwilling to dwell upon painful memories, Fred said, "Don't worry. I've put in my time building. It's left me a master of nothing but an adequate jack of all trades."

"Aren't you studying business at U.S.C.?"

"Yes, but I'm finished." Fred waved a hand, trying for a carefree attitude. "Today was the last exam, my final final as it were. And I may be most of a C.P.A. but everyone in my family works in construction sooner or later. I've done my time." He flexed an arm, strongman style, and was pleased to produce a visible muscle.

"I see." Mr. Belasco put his cap back on. "What I needed this afternoon was someone to steady a ladder and help me take measurements. I suppose you could substitute as my assistant with all your varied experience." There was a nicely measured dash of sarcasm in his voice.

Fred paused to raise eyebrows in admiration at the jab. Then he got up from the sofa. "Okay, I'm all yours."

"Oh? I would've sworn you were all Mr. Flurry's," Mr. Belasco said, his tone still dry.

"Unless you prefer your nursemaids to pinch-hit from the bleachers, I wouldn't complain." The wiseacre crack got Fred a thoughtful stare and the hint of a smile, so he chalked it up as a hit.

It only took a few minutes for Fred to change into his work clothes. Mr. Flurry wanted to come along, but a gentle block with a booted foot barricaded him into the apartment as the door closed. Fred clattered down the outside stairs from his -- well, Charlie's -- apartment to the driveway of their landlady's house.

Mr. Belasco had dug around in the backseat of the Studebaker parked on his mother's driveway and come up with a couple of large, rolled-up drawings, which he was spreading out on the hood of what must be his car. Fred studied them as Mr. Belasco started to explain.

"Here are the rooms on which we'll be working." Looking up, he caught Fred's expression. "Not exactly blueprints, I know."

"Nope. I have to say, these plans are awfully artistic."

"Which is why I'm starting with measurements. Right now, you're seeing my step-father's rendition of my mother's latest daydreams. He sent them to me with a not-so-subtle reminder that she'll be sixty this year. And you didn't hear that age."

"What age?" Fred pursed his lips. "Your mother does like indigo."

"As do I. Most times. Maybe it runs in our blood."

"Well, it's running a marathon here. Will you be able to finish? The job will take a fair amount of time, and you sure don't do this for a living."

"Did I somehow give myself away?" Deadpan amusement at its finest.

Swallowing a grin, Fred retorted, "Oh, just a wee bit. Maybe it was those suits and ties I've seen you in, or maybe it was the Studebaker President-8."

"There is that, yes. Although I have done a bit of handiwork in years past. Using hammers, paint brushes, and everything."

"Impressive. Even so, are you certain you want to tackle this yourself? I know some fellas who would help without bankrupting you."

"No, Mother is a great believer in doing for oneself. The nobility of physical labor and traditional craftsmanship. It will add value to the gift. And I have also been told this project will be therapeutic, good for my overstrained nerves." Those last words came out sounding glum, even a little grim.

Contrary to his sisters' stated beliefs, Fred did have some notion of when to close his mouth. He went back to the drawings. "Okay. Do you have a ladder?"

"I hope I don't strike you as being all that fond of improvisation and doing for oneself. It's by the garage."

Fred nodded sagely. "Since you're not entirely committed to winging this, I'll go get a notebook and pencil for the figures. Meet you on the front porch."

***

Mr. Belasco turned out to be a man with a plan. They trooped over to the main house and upstairs to the rooms in question, where they got straight to work measuring and calculating what needed to go where. Mr. Belasco was also a good boss, clear about what he wanted and satisfied to get what he'd requested done in whatever way Fred saw fit. He didn't insist on chitchat but did seem to be the sort of fellow who enjoyed casual conversation once someone else began it. And whatever work he did during his mornings must involve money; he knew some of the right questions to ask about Fred's classes.

Otherwise, the house provided entertainment. Given the style of its décor, Mount Vesuvius had barely missed this sitting room on the way to destroying Pompeii. After more than an hour of talking about nothing in particular while he jotted down dimensions and then transposed the double-checked numbers onto sketches, Fred said idly, "It's very, uh, Italian in here."

"Neapolitan neo-classical, the decorator called it. A result of Mother's travels through South Europe. The ones that sparked her second series of travelogues, including The Ruins of Herculaneum." Mr. Belasco must have noticed Fred's lack of comprehension. He said, "She's Mrs. Dorothy Harvey."

The name sounded familiar. "Well-known writer?" Fred hazarded.

"Widely selling, at least," Mr. Belasco said with a twitch of his lips. "Although the films make more money than the books. Give me a hand with this vase, please."

It wasn't really a vase, but more of an urn, a four-foot-tall pottery urn with mostly naked warriors on it; Fred loved classical culture. Once they'd shifted the "vase" out of the room, Mr. Belasco straightened, stretched, and said, "I'm glad you know what you're doing."

"That could've gotten nasty."

"Apparently I do need help getting this done. How long will Charlie be out on location?"

Fred stared at Mr. Belasco for an uncomprehending heartbeat before asking, "Location?"

"You said he was called in for a job. The second unit for The Air Pirates headed up to our studio ranch today, and Charlie is their director's -- Rolly Winston's -- latest discovery. It was a decent screen test; Charlie will likely be offered a contract. I'd assumed he went out with them."

"I thought he'd gotten another day's work as an extra." Even to his own ears, Fred's words made him sound like the chump who'd been kept in the dark.

Seeing Mr. Belasco's sardonic look, Fred narrowed his eyes. "His note didn't go into details, and I've been busy studying. And I don't ask how well he's doing at work if he doesn't want to tell me. It's brother behavior."

"That, I wouldn't know about."

Fred was still grappling with how Charlie had, once again, tricked him, probably without even meaning to. "Anyways, in case you somehow missed it, I don't know how long he'll be out on location if that's where he is. I thought he'd be calling this afternoon or evening to explain, but maybe not."

"Then I'll make a telephone call and find out exactly where he is." Mr. Belasco turned to survey the room. "This is a good place to pause. We're done early enough to buy drop cloths and paint since the store--"

Fred held up a hand. "Wait a minute."

"Yes?"

"How important is matching those shades on the drawings?"

"As you already seem to have realized, very important."

"So, we're not going to some hardware store or other to buy something cheap. An honest mix will matter." Checking his watch, Fred said, "Ostler's Paints in Echo Park is open late on Fridays, and he won't overcharge you if I work my Dad's name into the conversation." Mr. Belasco was studying Fred bemusedly again, so Fred told him, "Or you can direct me toward the infernal region for horning in, but I'd bet you have too much sense for that."

Snapping out of it, Mr. Belasco said, "I do. I also have enough sense to telephone Metropolitan before everyone leaves for the day. Would you check on Mr. Flurry? I'll meet you down by my auto."

After an unpleasant interlude with the sand, and a pleasant -- well, audibly appreciated -- interlude with cat food, Fred went out to the Studebaker. Then Fred provided directions. They were well underway down Sunset Boulevard before Mr. Belasco said, "I was right. Your brother's on location."

"How long will he be gone?"

"Two weeks."

"Two weeks. Of course." Fred grimaced. "Does Mr. Flurry usually attack cuffs to defend his…sand?"

The now-familiar twitch of amusement was larger than usual. "No. Since you're new, I imagine he was making clear who'd done all the terrifically creative work you were removing. I know at least one director who does that."

"Oh? Well, I'm glad it's not his normal behavior. Mr. Flurry's, I mean. Young men working on audits are supposed to wear intact trousers."

"I assume it's part of your professional code of conduct." Mr. Belasco took advantage of a stop sign to look briefly at Fred and away. "Mr. Flurry will only need a nursemaid on weekends, maybe a Monday or two. Whenever I'm playing at handyman or a room is drying. He hates being shut out of places, and he's learned to get through some of the doors in the house. Say, once or twice a week for the next several weeks."

"If Mr. Flurry's okay with my being gone any day you don't need me and I get hourly accounting work, it's fine." Fred shrugged. "Also, I'd have to stay over at Charlie's place until he's back."

"Since Charlie was already assuming you'd be an acceptable guest," and those words were very dry, "that'll be easy enough."

Mr. Belasco's observation polished off personal discussion for the moment. Only in the paint store was there another outbreak of conversation that had nothing to do with shades of indigo, white, or gold.

After Fred dropped his father's name like the brick that it was, they got exceptional service. Time and a lot of paint chips produced some old-school oil mixes that looked like they would dry right, and the price for the paint wasn't bad. But Mr. Belasco started to wad up his receipt.

With a scandalized hiss, Fred took it away from him. "Your accountant hates you."

"And now you somehow know I have an accountant."

"This time, the do-what-I-say-even-on-a-Friday-afternoon telephone call gave you away. Studio executives who own fancy cars have accountants. More important, do you have any other receipts? For that new ladder and tape measure, maybe? Give it here."

"I can tell you grew up the boss's son." The words were mild enough that Fred barely bothered bristling before Mr. Belasco followed through with, "Luckily for me. I'm having problems getting useful backtalk these days."

"Then you need a better brand of flunky." Refusing to be distracted by side issues, Fred held out his hand, obtained another, wadded-up receipt, and tucked both receipts away in his notebook. He'd clip them to an accounts page in a new file folder when they returned to Charlie's apartment.

The quick test patches they painted on the walls of the first bedroom looked promising, but they'd need to try again on properly prepared surfaces to be sure. Also, they'd mostly lost the natural light. Mr. Belasco was hammering shut paint cans as Fred cleaned up with mineral spirits. He considered Mr. Belasco while he scrubbed his hands.

Had there been a flicker of physical interest or was that hope substituting for Fred's intelligence? Since this house wasn't one of those speakeasies, Fred couldn't be certain. The opportunity was almost appealing enough for him to try something, but taking into account all the problems he would cause with a badly received pass, the word needed to describe his impulse was "stupid."

Mr. Belasco said, "So. Fred."

"Yes, sir?"

That form of address got a headshake. "Call me Carl. They even do at Metropolitan. I know the Hollywood informality is fake as all get-out, but I'm used to it."

"Okay. Carl."

"In any case. You're looking for work. I have work." Which wasn't the kind of overture Fred had been expecting. Fine, hoping for rather than expecting.

After clearing his throat, Fred said, "Thank you. I don't want to seem ungrateful, and I'll be glad to help you with the rest of your decorating since you're owed the chores anyhow, but I need to get more hours in accountancy."

What Fred got was an exasperated look. "Not what I meant although I'll be happy to pay your hourly rates as an auditor's assistant when you help me with the house or Mr. Flurry."

With a wince, Fred told him, "Your accountant hates you."

"In a way, that brings me back to where I started. Ever considered a job in the pictures?" Mr. Belasco's smile was wry and gone almost before it started. "Nothing glamorous. But I have recently been promoted, and you were right. I need better assistants to add to those I brought along. Ones loyal to me. Properly educated ones, too, ones who can count when money is involved."

After a second to get over the surprise, and a few more seconds to consider, Fred said, "You sure believe in do-it-yourself."

"In this case, cultivate it yourself. Or do I mean catch 'em early and train 'em up right?"

"The latter. Although you're making me sound like Mr. Flurry, which even I know isn't diplomatic."

"Good luck training Mr. Flurry. Think over my offer."

Fred had already been thinking, but he wasn't stupid. "I will."

"No hurry. After all, I'm getting part of your Saturday and Sunday this week for painting. Time for you to consider. I'll need to make some telephone calls. And you'll want to make some telephone calls about me, not to mention about the sort of salaries Metropolitan Pictures pays."

"That's not very subtle."

"I work in the booming new motion picture industry. The usual choice is between subtle as practiced in Hollywood or…" He hefted the rubber mallet in his hand before giving the can lid one last tap. "You've probably noticed which one I prefer at point-blank range. Look who I just offered a job."

Oddly, for all the push and light sarcasm, Fred didn't think Mr. Belasco's employees did hate him. And it was true that doing chores with someone was a clever alternative to an interview. Men gave themselves away on the job. This had even handed Fred a chance to form opinions, which said something more important about Mr. Belasco right now than his waist overalls did. Whatever Fred ended up doing, it wouldn't involve an immediate no.

"Are we done for the day? Carl?" Fred couldn't help wrinkling his nose at using Mr. Belasco's first name again.

"You'll get used to it. Yes."

"Good, because I have to go over to my older sister's house now and borrow her telephone." Fred let himself scowl. "There'll probably be tuna a la king for dinner. I'll be expected to have seconds before I take thirds home, and I'd bet Mr. Flurry's going to be annoyed at my extending my absence. Combining those two problems might save me from them but won't save me from having to talk to the folks I know best from your studio: Charlie's former girlfriends. I'm glad I've been nice enough that most of the girls think I'm cute and sometimes even adorable."

Mr. Belasco -- Carl -- went so far as to chuckle.

Not very much later, Catherine laughed at Fred, too. "Honestly, you complain about the oddest things. Most fellows your age love being cooed over by flighty young actresses and secretaries. But not my little brother."

"This is business, and they're not flighty." Fred snorted. "It's just Charlie rubbing off on them."

"Well, be that as it may. You have no reason to complain when all you want from them is gossip. Excuse me, 'background information' about your job offer. And that's what you got."

Fred shrugged. He couldn't tell Catherine his sulk was over the news that Carl Belasco was married. What else had he expected? "I'm trying to gather enough facts for an informed decision."

"Why?" Now it was Catherine's turn to snort. "You already know you're going to say yes."

They were both too old for Fred to tell her to dry up -- not that the demand had ever gotten him more than a sock in the shoulder -- so he settled for giving her a pursed-lip stare, much more mature.

"Oh, for heaven's sakes. Business is bad even in L.A. You don't have any other prospects that aren't casual labor with a fancy name. This Mr. Belasco sounds like a decent enough sort, and having a real job, even if it doesn't last, will help you with Dad. Your refusing his job offer in favor of a fancy position, rather than hourly work, will go easier on his pride."

"Dad wouldn't listen to me; you know he wouldn't. As much as I tried, he never really has, and working for him would only make that worse no matter what he claims. And he has to listen to his accountants, especially these days."

"I know." Catherine's shoulder pat was sympathetic. "Even Rudolf--" her husband, who really should be taking over Doyle and Son Construction Co. "--thinks you did the right thing, Freddy."

"Augh!" Fred threw up both his hands. "I thought we were losing that nickname!"

His protest only got him laughed at again before Catherine went to see how Cook had done in the kitchen and what Baby was up to in the nursery.

Too bad that the telephone calls had taken them right up to dinner time, served extra late on payroll Fridays. Fred hadn't found a chance to tell Rudolf about his offer before they sat down to eat -- tuna a la king, sure enough -- and the announcement produced more general interest than Fred had bargained for.

While the dull part of being the child of a Doyle, even in the maternal line, was being put to work early and often, the fun part was getting more respect than usual. Doyle offspring were encouraged to join adult conversations at the dinner table if they kept their talk polite. Unfortunately, that left Fred subject to his niece's and nephew's opinions about his job offer.

Betty told him, "I think you should say yes."

"Of course he will," Bill informed her, barely staying on the safe side of scorn. "Hollywood. Movie stars and cowboys." He turned to Fred and demanded, "Are you going to get a car now? A big car? A Duisenberg?"

"Will you meet Laura Moore?" was Betty's question.

"Laura Moore doesn't work for Metropolitan. And why would she want to meet Uncle Fred?"

"Uncle Fred's adorable," Betty proclaimed loyally. "He's gonna marry a movie star."

"Or date one," Bill retorted. "Everyone knows actresses are fast."

At this, Rudolf, not exactly the world's biggest talker, lowered his knife and fork to his plate to give his son a considering stare.

A few seconds of this treatment, and Bill deflated. "Sorry, sir," he said.

"Many actresses are perfectly respectable women with bothersome, if lovable, children who need to be provided for," his mother said briskly, ladling out a second helping of spinach onto Bill's plate. Bill looked appalled.

"Then may I be a photoplay actress?" Betty asked.

"No," Catherine and Fred both said, right as Rudolf hmphed dubiously.

"You haven't even finished your speech about the Declaration of Independence for your girl scout troop," Catherine pointed out. "Actresses have to do a lot more in the way of public speaking than that."

Betty looked wistful but refrained from arguing at the table. She was a smart cookie, and Fred wasn't the only one who had noticed the pineapple upside down cake waiting on the sideboard for dessert.

However, his niece and nephew had still set up Fred for a fun after-dinner conversation in the parlor. With the kids dispatched straight to bath and bed, Rudolf broke out the cellar-brewed bootleg beer for the adults.

Fred took a considering sip. "Better. Much better. I think the new hops did the trick."

Rudolf made a satisfied noise.

Catherine came in from settling the children. "I'll take one of those," she said. Rudolf passed her a glass of beer. She took a solid draught, and then sighed as she settled into her armchair and rested her feet on an ottoman. "They were on the warpath this evening, the problem with keeping them up so late. Sorry, Fred. Although you really should think about getting an auto now that you won't need what's left of your inheritance from Granda to help you through your dry spell."

"I'll think about it. Hurrying is the best way to get rooked."

"I can ask around the family. Or maybe Charlie will know someone helpful. He always seems to."

That reminded Fred of his other news. "Oh, I forgot. Looks like Charlie's finally signing a contract."

"Thank heavens for that. I am so tired of tiptoeing my way through the rest of Sunday dinner after Dad asks him about work and Charlie gets all vague."

"It'll be fine. If Charlie has a steady job, Dad will forgive him anything else." Unlike Fred, but that was ancient news.

"I know. But at least nobody can complain about you working for a picture studio if Charlie got there first. Honestly, you'd think he was the youngest one in the family, not you."

Rudolf shook his head over his beer and said, "First boy."

"I suppose you're right, but, really, Dad shouldn't be so hard on Alice and Fred and then let Charlie get away with murder. Maybe it's because he looks so much like Mother did."

Catherine was leaving out the detail that Charlie's glamorous, thrill-seeking ways entertained Dad as much as they annoyed him. But, again, ancient news. "Maybe," Fred told her.

"Well. Now that you're both out of school, and you're both employed, we'll just see. And that reminds me. Which of those former girlfriends of Charlie's are the ones who think you're cute? Since you don't have to work all the time anymore, you should get out more."

All in all, it was a relief to ride home on the Red Car to an apartment shared only with Mr. Flurry.

 

 

II

If Fred had thought he'd have more time free now that he was done with university, he'd been wrong. Apparently, when he'd agreed to Carl Belasco's job offer, he'd signed his life away. Although his salary was more than he'd expected, so were his working hours. He soon learned that this was common in Hollywood.

"You're being trained," Carl told him the first morning, "even though your title on paper is personal assistant."

"Less than the dust beneath the chariot wheels if your production unit wasn't the most prestigious one at this studio and if I wasn't meant to be a flunky one day soon."

"Flunky now. Senior flunky, eventually. Everyone who trains you will tell a different story about what we're doing."

"And I should pay close attention to what they leave out."

Carl's look was approving. "I thought you'd learn quickly."

"Maybe, but that's another lesson I already got taught by my siblings," Fred told him, and Carl quirked his lips before reaching toward the single telephone adorning the green leather blotter on his mahogany desktop.

Those first two weeks, Fred spent much of his time with other accountants in an interesting set of tutorials about studio practices. The local bookkeeping used techniques about which his fellow accounting students had talked in hushed and lively tones after a few drinks at Beta Alpha Psi get-togethers. Such methods were supposedly distinctive to bookmakers and bootleggers.

"The results are impeccable within the company and truly inventive when presenting totals to the outside world," was Fred's reported opinion to his new boss.

"So I'm told. Your job will include checking that invention hasn't landed on my desk when I need impeccable to do my job. That shouldn't overstrain your professional conscience."

Fred considered and then nodded.

"Later, I'll turn you loose on individual shoots, so you can get a good sense of who's doing what and for how much. After a few months, you'll work for a while assisting a couple of my better line producers with their projects. You should be able to more or less do their jobs if you're going to report on them, but right now you don't know enough about what we're doing here to try."

"Mmm-hmm," Fred agreed. He didn't like talking with his mouth full. After swallowing his bite of egg salad sandwich, he said, "To sub as assistant producer, I'll need to know a lot more about making movies. Hell, about movies altogether. I didn't spend nearly as much time at the picture palaces downtown as I would've wanted. Too busy. Are you going to eat that?"

Carl looked at the roast beef sandwich in front of him with an absent frown. He was wearing what Fred now had enough proximity to tell was a pricy double-breasted suit. While the change from waist overalls helped Fred keep his mind on business, skilled tailoring revealed that Carl had been losing weight. There didn't seem to be enough problems at Metropolitan Pictures to account for the shrinkage; Carl's first full slate of talkies was out in the theaters and, as far as Fred could tell through the mists of studio bookkeeping, doing very well.

Fred couldn't consider another possibility, that his boss was ill, without a pang. He had moved past his first carnal interest into the immature fascination stage, which more time and familiarity should wear down to a pleasant working relationship with a little extra vim to it. That was Fred's opinion, at least, and he was clutching it tight. But any of those three states of mind would've disinclined him to accept whatever was going on here without some prodding.

"Sandwich?" Fred tried asking. "Yummy?"

He would have predicted a scorching look, but instead he got a level stare, followed by a deliberate, enormous bite. The, "mmm, mmm, mmm," was interspaced with chewing.

"Thank Christ. I didn't want to try making airplane noises to get that hanger open."

This time, Carl followed up a meaningful gaze at the roast beef with one at Fred's head. But he did finish his sandwich, which was Fred's intention.

What made many of Fred's days so long was the pictures themselves. Every other day or so, about the time when he would have been going home, he'd meet up with Carl instead. Then they'd go watch some talkie or other.

If they went to a Metropolitan preview at one of the suburban theatres, or a talkie by a rival studio that was showing at one of the picture palaces downtown, Carl would lecture on the way out and dissect on the way back. If they went to view daily footage at Metropolitan's small studio theater, Carl would speak during the showing, even having the projectionist stop the film so he could make his points. In all cases, he'd grow voluble, his hands gradually starting to sketch out his ideas, his whole posture expressing more enthusiasm than he showed during any other part of the business day.

Fred kept wanting to touch Carl at these times, to try tracing the energy moving just beneath his boss's skin. A dumb idea, but Fred had always liked skilled craftsmen more than he should. One more reason to run away from construction and become an accountant, he supposed.

Practically speaking, the introduction Fred was getting to how pictures were made was priceless. He'd bet the undergraduates in USC's new Department of Cinema would have committed crimes to swap places with him. But his working days were long. If Fred was feeling the strain, he wasn't sure how Carl, who actually had a home and hearth, was managing.

Fred was relieved, on his second Friday at Metropolitan, to return after a mere nine hours to Charlie's apartment and a visit from Mr. Flurry. Carl and he had spent last weekend prepping walls over at the house, and there was painting to be done in the morning. Fred was exhausted. A sympathetic pair of ears was welcome even if those ears were pointed.

"It's rough going," he told Mr. Flurry, who was parked in Fred's lap gently kneading his left leg. "Now the boss is asking me questions. What's important in this scene? Where did the money go in that reel we just saw? Do you think the second location is doing the plotline any good? Did the picture make you care or just make you wish you'd bought some of the popcorn sold outside without bothering to enter the theater? Half the time I feel like a freshman again. The other half, like a fool."

At least the purring didn't stop. Since he was talking to a cat, Fred might've gotten agreement with that last sentence.

"I'm suffering here. Suffering, I tell you." Fred pressed the back of his hand to his forehead and fluttered his eyelashes in mock distress. Then he continued, dropping the cornpone, "I could stand to get some. But I'm too tired, and you're better company than most of those fellows afterward if not nearly as interesting before."

Mr. Flurry thought Fred's trousers needed a few tests for resistance to piercing. They were debating this when Fred heard a key turning in the lock on the front door. He had just enough time to greet Charlie with a gesture accidentally learned from Granda on Fred's first construction site.

Charlie only grinned. "And a fine evening to you, too. I see you're babysitting the cat. Good work if you can get it."

"Same hourly rate as auditing. Excellent work, given that I'm sundowning, doubling jobs."

"The money must sure be nice. You get more hours from that accountant fella, what's his name, Mr. Morley?" Charlie wasn't carrying a suitcase, Fred noticed. He'd probably found another girlfriend and parked his duds with her.

"Mr. Morales. No. Steady work, instead. What's this I hear about you signing a studio contract?"

"I did. And better than that. I'm with Susan Winston now. She finds me compelling. It's the word she used, compelling."

Fred stared at Charlie for a few seconds, only his hand moving in Mr. Flurry's ruff. Then he said, "Okay, you're not quite dumb enough for Susan to be your director's wife, so I assume she's his daughter."

That got him a considering look at last. "Since when do you know anything about Rolly Winston?"

"Since I work for Metropolitan Pictures. Which I would have told you if you'd asked."

Say what you wanted about Charlie, he was rarely stupid when it came to other people's behavior. After a momentary frown, he said, "I thought I told you to stay away from Mr. Belasco."

The words hadn't carried any real criticism, but Fred still rolled his eyes before retorting, "You also told me to fill in for you with him. How was I supposed to do both at once?"

"Huh. Well, at least you got a job out of it."

"Uh-huh. And a lot of indigo paint."

"Indigo. Sure." Mr. Flurry, tired of being ignored, meowed and sat up on Fred's lap. Charlie grinned again and said, "Not to mention, a big, hairy friend. Really big. Really hairy. Really friendly."

"He's not your brother," Fred told Mr. Flurry. "Nothing's stopping you from using all your claws at once." Charlie laughed at them both before going to use the bathroom.

When Charlie came back out, he went to raid the kitchen. "Hey. When did we get a telephone?"

"Last Friday while I was working. It just appeared."

Charlie's voice was muffled as he leant into the icebox. "Would've been better earlier. Having Renee Berkerwitz dropping by with my messages was damned inconvenient, sometimes."

"If her father had found out you were using their phone number, that would've been even more inconvenient."

Back to ignoring Fred's retorts, Charlie said, "Figures the problem would be fixed right as I'm leaving." He leaned back around the icebox door to ask, " Belasco really wants you available at short notice to haul his paint cans, huh?"

"Wait." Fred put down The Bridge of San Luis Rey on the coffee table. "You're leaving?"

"Contract player now. I need my privacy. Susan agrees. Besides, you're all grown up with a job and everything. Maybe it's time for you to have your own apartment."

"My name's not on the lease. Don't you think Mrs. Harvey is going to be a little upset?"

"Who? Oh, the lady who owns the house. Why would she care? Belasco signed the lease for her. Ugh, what's this cat doing?"

Fred's "You're the one who parked his box of sand in the kitchen," was said almost without thought. His mind was busy elsewhere.

"I was in a hurry. That didn't mean you couldn't move it."

Resisting the temptation to be distracted by discussion of who'd been busier the morning Charlie left, Fred asked, "Where are you going, and what about your belongings?"

"The Studio has an apartment court it favors for the junior players, just off Sunset. Those places have more room, and I'll get a good deal. So, I'll shift what I need tonight or tomorrow morning. It's not like there's much for me to move, and you can use the stuff I don't want."

"Metropolitan is picking out your living quarters for you." Sometimes Fred wondered if Charlie listened to himself. "You ever stop to think how much being a contract player will be like working for the family firm?"

"Sure." The reply sounded indulgent. It also sounded muffled; Charlie must have found something edible in the icebox, likely part of Fred's dinner. A brief pause, and Charlie continued, "Because the family could've paid me this much and fixed it so I'd be mentioned in the movie magazines."

Fred gave up. "Let me guess. You're expecting me to smooth over the lease for you with Mr. Belasco."

"I wasn't, but good idea." Charlie appeared through the archway to the kitchen. He was eating a piece of the ham Fred had been saving. "Everyone knows Belasco's touchy these days. Since I can't afford any trouble with him, and you're in good right now, a little smoothing will square us up for the free rent."

"Okay, okay, fine. But I get to keep the electric percolator."

This won him the real smile, the one both more crooked and more charming than anything Charlie used on his female targets. "My little brother, entirely fueled by coffee. I'm going to pack."

For his part, Fred went to deal with Mr. Flurry's sand, talk briefly with the cat about ham scraps, and only then have his brain catch up with Charlie's conversation. But he knew better than to tackle his brother head on about anything important; Charlie was a former football player, after all.

Going out to where Charlie was shifting the rest of his suitcases from the tiny bedroom into the not much bigger living room, Fred asked, "What are you doing with Susan Winston? I can't see you getting away with dropping her in the usual way."

"She's more likely to drop me," Charlie told him. He straightened up and visibly considered. "I kind of hope she doesn't, not for a while at least. Huh."

"Then you tell the family about her. I already let them know about your contract, and that's enough."

"Good. Dad should be nicely softened up for dinner on Sunday."

Fred barely kept from rolling his eyes.

"Count yourself lucky you've been freed from the mandatory social appearances." Freed was not the word Fred would have chosen, but he refrained from comment. He was rewarded by Charlie saying, "Except when you have to follow around Belasco, I'd bet, and him not happy, what with his wife finding lodgings in Reno." Charlie's eyes narrowed slightly; he was actually paying attention when he asked, "He's not too hard on you? No rough stuff?"

"What? Are you kidding? Not unless you count playing twenty questions about where to squeeze a picture budget without making it into something Mr. Flurry leaves in the kitchen."

Charlie's shoulders relaxed a little as he laughed at Fred. "Oh, so rough compared to mixing mortar. And you ragged me about accepting a studio contract."

"Dry up." Fred didn't want Charlie to dry up, he wanted him talking about Reno. But that wasn't something he needed to admit to anyone including himself. Too bad that Charlie only shook his head amiably and went to remove his remaining shaving tackle from the bathroom.

After helping Charlie carry his things down to his Chevy -- accompanied by annoyed commentary and pawing gestures under the door from Mr. Flurry, shut into the bedroom -- Fred asked, "Are you giving me an address?"

"Even a telephone number." Charlie handed him a scrap of paper. "Pass these along to Alice, okay? I'll tell Catherine myself."

Once he was good and ready for her to know, Fred silently finished Charlie's sentence for him. "Okay."

"You should come out to dinner with Susan and me next week. Give us the lowdown on Belasco."

"You mean, tell you nothing about Mr. Belasco aside from his theories about editing and continuity. Although I'd like to meet Susan, thanks. While I can."

"I'm going to love watching you feed your line to everyone at Metropolitan if you stay on as Belasco's torpedo. Doo-de-doo, look at me, I'm Mr. America's Sweetheart, then whack with the claws. Just like that cat."

"Takes one to know one," Fred retorted. "Keep off the alley fences, okay?"

Charlie only turned a thumb from himself toward Fred, laughing again. Fred ended up saying goodbye with the same gesture he'd used to say hello.

***

"Alice is a librarian up in Ventura, Catherine does seasonal bookkeeping for Dad's company and takes care of three kids as well as a husband, you know all you ever wanted to about Charlie's acting ambitions, and more than anyone ever wanted to know to about my new job. That's all the offspring." Fred cautiously stretched after replacing some torn tape on the cornice in the sitting room. Then he climbed down the stepladder.

Carl glanced up from stirring paint. "Having brothers and sisters sounds complicated. Interesting, but complicated."

"It's a good introduction to human nature, but nothing special to me. I'm used to it, which is half way to resignation. I'm not sure how I'd feel about having a stepfather."

"Lou's fine. He's not interested in being my father. More like the uncle who buys you dinner on your sixteenth birthday and gives you some manly advice along with a twenty-dollar gold piece. The uncle who takes you out fishing."

"Did he take you out fishing?"

This particular smile, directed toward the paint, lasted longer than usual. "After I was packed off to Mother in Hollywood, he did. Yellowtail, marlin, swordfish: good times." Fred made an appreciative noise, and Carl looked at him. "You like salt-water fishing?"

"On the maybe three occasions I got to go out? Sure. I love boats and ships; my usual threat when ignored as a kid was to run away and join the navy. I don't know what I thought I'd do at that age and my size, be a marlin spike?"

With care, Carl was dividing the paint he'd been stirring between two smaller buckets. Since neither he nor Fred were professionals, care was only delaying the inevitable. They'd soon be splattered with a zinc white on top of the indigo from this morning. Fred wasn't planning a social evening even after he cleaned up.

Interrupting Fred's thoughts, Carl said, "Then you might consider taking up sports fishing. It's popular with a lot of the studio executives. Since you don't play golf--"

"Hell, no. I'm a working man's son. Okay, grandson. After I'm done with my studio training and everything calms down, I was thinking about learning to play tennis. I still might, but fishing's better." Fred accepted a can and a brush. Once he'd climbed back up his step ladder, he said, "I bet you don't like golf either."

"I play. But, no."

"However, you do like fishing."

"Yes."

After stropping the extra paint off his brush, Fred laid down his first stroke just below the woodwork. "You're the boss, so this recruitment speech isn't needed. According to studio custom, I now fish."

"Only if you enjoy it." Carl sounded stubborn.

"That's one more point in favor of my being your flunky. Past experience says I will." Eyeing his brushstroke critically for drips, Fred said, "Fishing trips will also help me get to know the other fellows running your unit better. I assume Mr. Boucher and Mr. Katz go out with you."

"Not as often as you'd think, given that they're both married."

"So are you." Even as he spoke the words, Fred knew he was taking a risk. Sometimes his own curiosity ambushed him.

The silence did stretch afterward but not all the way to painful before Carl said, "Not for long."

"Oh. That's too bad," Fred said, trying to cover over a bumpy situation without being drippy, something like the painting he was doing right now.

At least Carl's voice was calm when he told Fred, "Beatrice is in Reno, establishing residency for a divorce. You aren't following studio gossip?"

"Not yet. I'm still trying to prove I'm not the junior C.P.A. version of a prohibition agent, which excludes any direct digging for dirt. I knew you were married of course." After another brush full of paint, Fred said, "Charlie did mention Reno last night but without details."

"So, Charlie's back from location. Right on schedule."

Fred took a deep breath and let it out. Here came more trouble. "In a manner of speaking. He intends to move. There are these apartments a lot of the younger contract players are shuffled into--"

"I know the ones." The tone of those words was noncommittal, and Fred didn't want to turn around yet to eye Carl's reaction.

"Anyhow, Charlie thinks I should take over the garage apartment from him, which lets him both obey instructions and continue to cultivate his budding friendship with Susan Winston." Ruthlessly, Fred threw Charlie to the lions. The lion. Carl Belasco. Then he put down his brush on the paint can lid and turned to gauge results.

"Susan Winston. Here's hoping Rolly isn't taking down the shotgun hung over his mantelpiece." Carl's expression seemed to mix resignation with-- indigestion? Noticing Fred's look, Carl removed his cap and rubbed one temple, leaving a splotch of white as he said, "I should have seen this coming."

"I didn't, and I've known him for a couple more decades than you have." Fred shook his head. "But, knowing Charlie, I can honestly say he believes this move is for the best all the way around."

"He'd better not think he can treat a studio contract the way he's treating my mother's lease."

"Don't worry. I'll remind him of that in unneeded detail, very soon now. It'll be fun."

"Not that I didn't earn the complications by offering the deal I did once he'd broken out the butter. Stupid, folding that way. Although, in my defense, he does know how to use his charm. No insult intended."

"None taken. Charlie charms almost everyone in the end. His looks don't hurt, either."

"No, they don't," Carl said, in the matter-of-factly appraising way studio executives referred to physical beauty. "One in ten thousand, all right." Then he glanced up at Fred and his lips quirked. "Again, no insult intended."

"Again, none taken. I prefer being able to do long division in my head and remember the occasional comma."

Assessment appeared and was gone in Carl's eyes almost too swiftly to see. "I could place you in character roles. Even as juveniles. The appeal is much subtler but still there."

"Why, Mr. Belasco," Fred said, "And here I thought you only loved me for my auditing." He managed to catch himself before he fluttered his eyelashes. Barely. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. "I should've believed my niece when she told me I was adorable enough to marry a picture star."

Fred didn't have time to get nervous before Carl burst out laughing. After the laughter died down to a grin, Carl said, "You're always either bluntly candid or the most calculating character I've met in a long stretch of Hollywood workdays. Often, somehow, both at once."

"Oh, really? Seems like you're forgetting I'm an accountant, not a publicity man. I'm also Charlie's younger brother."

Carl snorted. "Although you deliver what you hint at, not just what you promise. Unlike Charlie."

"Thanks. I…" Fred stopped. He stared at Carl for a long few seconds. Then he asked, "Hint at? Let me be precise, here. You mean Hollywood-style hints? Hints at spicy evenings available to weary executives?"

"Crap." Carl jammed his cap back on. "You're smarter than Charlie is, too."

"Oh, for crying out loud."

For a moment, Carl seemed about to beat his head against the wall in front of him. Maybe it was all the wet paint that stopped him. Instead, he started talking with the urgency of a fellow who knows he's just dropped his trousers and has about two seconds before the chaos begins.

"I didn't collect. I didn't, I swear. It was a nutty idea anyhow, for nutty reasons. I thought I shouldn't be stuck being the only one playing by the rules. In my marriage, you see. Then I calmed down enough to admit most of that mess was my own fault."

"Okay…"

Carl seemed both desperately earnest and horrified he was still talking. "Sure, every executive in Hollywood can work through entire rosters. It wouldn't help me. Easy sugar wasn't what I wanted, not without--" Now Carl stopped dead.

Fred realized he was wrinkling his nose while making "cut" motions with the hand that wasn't clutching his stepladder. He quit signaling and spoke instead. "Thank Christ I know Charlie well enough to believe you were bilked. And we will not speak of this incident again."

"Gladly."

"Ugh. Just, ugh."

"So, we're still speaking of this incident?"

"No. No more Charlie, and no more half-assed sugar-daddy stories, either. But I do need to be entirely certain. You're thoroughly 'artistic', right?"

"Yes." Carl squared his shoulders as he said, "Given how my marriage turned out, absolutely. No more illusions about that."

"Okay. I sure hope you'd already figured out the same thing about me before you started spilling the works. But please don't tell me I wasn't hard to spot."

"You weren't altogether easy, either."

"Thanks. I'm going to paint for a while now. Without talking."

"There's a good idea," Carl said, and picked up his bucket with a determined air.

You couldn't call the silence that fell cozy, but it wasn't anywhere near as uncomfortable as it should have been. Just as well since Fred had hard and crucial thinking to do.

Both from what he said and what he hadn't, Carl was desperate for some sympathetic company right now. Since homosexuals were a lot more like normal fellows than folks would like to admit, that made him a sitting duck for seducers.

Too bad Fred had seen at close quarters what happened to the first gal -- person -- to take an interest in some unfortunate, attractive Joe whose marriage was falling to pieces. Everything got chaotic, confused by all the jostling around. Discretion was pushed right out the window. For Christ's sake, Alice had ended up stuck in Ventura afterward, an exile worse than sleeping on Charlie's sofa. In circumstances like Carl's, expecting a man to juggle easygoing fornication with anything else was asking too much.

Fred liked his new job. And Carl had somehow won Fred's friendship to add to that of his senior minions, a knack both enjoyable and useful in a boss. It would also be handy having an employer who could cover up if Fred dropped any hairpins at work in return for expecting the same. Damn it, a little whoopee wasn't worth the trouble. No, it wasn't. Truly. Even Carl had thought so.

Clearing his throat, Fred asked, "Where are you going to get that indigo draping pretending to be curtains in your stepfather's sketches?"

From the eagerness with which Carl seized on the topic, you would have thought he was discussing a studio loan of both Greta Garbo's and Elaine Gray's services for the same premiere project. "Where I was told to, the same place we're buying tiles for the bathroom and fireplace. Avalon. My mother has a friend whose husband is helping introduce decorative items at the Catalina pottery. Ordering custom tiles from them will be encouraging handicrafts. And the friend, Mrs. Ayala, dyes cloth using traditional Mexican techniques, very artistic."

"Another triumph of the artsy-craftsy. Tell me we're not going to tile the new sitting room fireplace ourselves."

"We aren't."

"Good. Fancy grouting is like wiring, one of those jobs you should leave to the experts. I mean, I can rewire a lamp, but…" Fred broke off. "What's that noise?"

"Uh-oh." Carl put down his brush and frowned, obviously listening. Then his eyes widened. "Oh, crap."

Fred craned around on his step ladder to see what Carl must have just seen. In through a doorway, leaving a neat set of indigo paw prints on the drop cloth behind him, marched Mr. Flurry. He had obviously investigated the drying paint in the bedroom next door, given the piebald appearance of his coat on one side. Seemingly, he'd come in to register a complaint.

Mr. Flurry spotted them. He sat, a picture of feline exasperation. "Mrwooow!" he protested before lifting one paw to his mouth to start dealing with this latest aggravation.

Carl moved fast, Fred had to give him that. But his grip was soft enough that Mr. Flurry merely squirmed instead of using the claws. "I've got him."

"Keep hold. I'll grab the rags and mineral oil. And the scissors. And the gloves."

"We'll need the bathtub, too," Carl said, almost growling. He added to Mr. Flurry, "You bet you're being put upon. It's about to get worse. Rough it. We'll pay you off once we're done."

"Mrow."

"I'm sure Fred has ham. There may also be chicken."

"Mrow. Mrow, mrow."

"At least talking distracts him," Fred said, grubbing through the rag bag for the cleanest cloths he could find.

"Always has. But that's not going to be enough once he feels porcelain beneath his paws. He must've found his furry Houdini way through a door or window over at your place. With so many of the house doors open for airing…Yes, your life is very difficult. You're still staying right here."

Fred paused for a moment to glance over at Carl's grim expression and the gently unyielding grip he'd just shifted to the nape of Mr. Flurry's neck. Carl's first guess hadn't been that Fred messed up caring for Mr. Flurry. Carl hadn't even mentioned likely carelessness while Charlie moved. Those missing assumptions showed a strong bias toward thinking well of Fred and his attachments. Fred wasn't the only one feeling some friendship here.

Ignoring both a sudden, urgent craving and his familiar sense of creeping dread, Fred tugged on his work gloves before gathering up the cleaning supplies. There wasn't time for airs and fancies when they had this kind of problem. That paint had to come off Mr. Flurry before it dried or the cat licked off enough of it to make him sick. Besides, today's random fury or archangel had found a brilliant retaliation for Fred actually enjoying playing at handyman with his new pal. This next chore wasn't going to be fun for anyone.

 

 

III

Fred shook his head. "At least Mr. Flurry's haircut is good for this summer heat, so I've kept it clipped. And he's not acting shy; he still sits in my bedroom window, supervising birds and passersby. But he's mad about how his moustache grew back lopsided."

As he nodded over templed fingers, Carl leaned back a little in his desk chair; they were eating lunch in his studio office again, so he was listening to tales of Mr. Flurry in the way he would any report he'd requested. "I'd noticed he's vain about his whiskers. As he should be."

Flashing a grin, Fred said, "I try not to remind him of his loss."

"Thanks for taking him every evening without extra payment."

"With me around as well as Mrs. Brown coming in to clean over at your Mother's place, he's less likely to get into trouble. You know humans interest him."

"Daily visits aren't enough. Weren't enough. I should've moved into an apartment that allowed cats. He could've stayed with me. Wonder what I was thinking."

Carl had probably been thinking about selling his house quickly enough to head for the hills although he hadn't ended up needing to retreat. After harvesting the studio grapevine at last, Fred knew the wreck of Carl's marriage didn't publicize his forbidden tastes in fornication. Instead Carl's actress wife had romped off with a big-time investor, which at least left Carl's secret buried. Not to mention, all the overtime he'd used for shelter had also helped smooth Metropolitan's conversion to sound production, upping his unit's box office receipts to a level where the big bosses wouldn't see lavender if no one made them look.

None of this was the sort of personal politics to talk about on the studio lot. Fred shrugged and changed the subject. "You don't want to waste your lunchtime hearing what's wrong with the projected budget for Sing Out, Sinners. And today's general business news isn't anything entertaining. What else can we discuss to distract you into eating food when you're supposed to? Are we working both days this weekend?"

"If you agree to my proposal, yes and no. Do you remember those tiles I mentioned back on the day of the Mr. Flurry disaster?"

"Tiles and, let's see, indigo drapes, right?"

"It's time to take a trip out to Avalon and make sure the order's acceptable. Did you have other plans?"

"No," Fred told him, trying not to sound smug about hatching his first scheme. "Anne Jackson turned me down flat for Saturday evening. Now everyone's waiting with bated breath to discover if she made a safe decision. After it's obvious no official thunderbolts struck her for daring to nix me, I'll ask out someone else in the steno pool with fewer ambitions and more of a yen for good nightclubs. That'll let me start finding more clerical cronies who think I'm cute and even adorable; treats for them and gossip for me. Right now, though, I'm free."

Carl's eyebrows rose. All he said was, "You aren't free anymore."

Since Fred had wasted some time lecturing Carl about never accepting custom-made building supplies that hadn't been checked and double-checked first, he couldn't act peeved at the prospect of hours inspecting fabric and sorting through tiles, not that he would have. He hadn't been out to Catalina in years, not since its millionaire owner had started reworking the island into a fancier, Spanish-themed resort for the weary Angeleno. Even with the tile checking, Fred was looking forward to this trip, especially since it would be by steamship.

"I'll be staying with Mrs. Ayala and her husband, but you have a room booked at the St. Catherine for Saturday night. I'm not sharing a guestroom with you," Carl told him a few days later. They were walking down the lot street between two of the studio soundstages, but for once all was quiet. No costumed extras or crew members were in earshot which made the last comment fairly safe.

Fred also felt free to flutter his eyelashes if only briefly. "Oh, what a compliment. I do believe I'm overcome."

There was that flick of a smile Fred had learned to anticipate. "You will be by the time you've dealt with Mrs. Ayala at dinner."

"Uh-oh." They turned a corner and waited for two men wheeling along several fake trees on a handcart to clear the way.

After brushing a fragment of artificial palm frond off his suit coat, Carl asked, "You enjoy Mexican food?"

"Is that the problem? I love it. I thought we were talking about eating nut cutlets or something."

"No. The food will be good. But Mrs. Ayala is a member of one of those theosophical churches, and the conversation might be challenging."

"Still better than a lot of what gets discussed in the executive dining room, I'd bet."

Carl halted. His gaze was both assessing and amused. "I should discourage you from saying things like that."

With a pious expression, Fred told him, "I say these things so you won't be tempted to."

"Bushwa. You know it makes the temptation stronger."

"Yes, but only around me, which is not just safer for you but also increases my prospects of keeping a job during this slump."

To Fred's surprise and amusement, Carl smacked Fred across the shoulder with a script he'd rolled up to hold some memos and a revised shooting schedule. Then Carl shot his cuffs, back to business.

After they'd both checked to make sure the red light indicating filming was off over the entrance they'd reached, Fred opened wide the heavy door into Soundstage Three. Carl strode through it.

This sudden entrance was into an unprepared scene, a good reason not to telephone ahead. After a swift, assessing look around at the crew and cast, including a large group of hoofers desultorily running through a dance number off to one side, Carl continued on toward the nightclub set. Even before he'd reached the proper distance from the picture's director to speak, he'd already started talking. His gravelly voice at full volume was enough to interrupt an ongoing conversation with a couple of crew members, a nicely calculated social offense meant to serve notice that Carl meant business.

"Sorry, fellows, I need to interrupt." Carl gave the sound men about three seconds to retreat before he continued, his voice still grimly genial, "George. Do me a favor. Explain these proposed schedule revisions to me until I understand them. Even better, explain them to Fred, here, while I listen. The plain English version will be a revelation after that last memo you just sent me."

As his gaze met the sandbagged director's, Fred tried for a smile that was rueful but not apologetic. This public posturing was tiring, but he'd already learned some men on Metropolitan's lot were worse than sign painters on the Monday after payday, requiring such pushing merely to show up and do their jobs. A weekend across the channel on Catalina Island, even another working weekend, sounded really appealing right now.

***

Carl being the fellow he was, the two of them were aboard for the early departure of the S.S. Catalina on Saturday morning. Fred, with the cunning of those faced by deprivation, had brought along a thermos of coffee for the trip.

"They'd sell you coffee on the ship's saloon deck," Carl had pointed out during the drive down to Wilmington and the harbor. "Happy to do it, too."

"That would've come too late," Fred said darkly. Then he brightened. "I could compare brands."

"Now I know what needs adding to the supplies for any future fishing trip. Usually I only worry about liquor."

"Hooch is great, but going without coffee?" Since Carl did his own driving, Fred could clutch his thermos to him with both hands and let himself shudder theatrically at the thought of such an ordeal. Then he took another, eager sip of tasty, life-giving joe.

"I think I saw some raw footage of a response shot like yours in The Klondike Trail dailies. If I didn't, why not?" Carl said, turning his gaze back to the traffic on Figueroa.

"Are you sure you aren't remembering The Gold Rush?"

"Chaplin would get there first. Somebody always does. Once I had a dream I somehow made it to heaven and Irving Thalberg had already optioned the entire place. So, I went on to hell and Cecil B. DeMille was using it as the location for a Bible epic."

Fred almost choked on his coffee.

The two of them got sideways glances on the Catalina; most weekend day-trippers dressed up for the sailing, but Carl and Fred were wearing their cleaner working clothes, the ones without paint splatters. Fred knew Carl would no more pay attention to most folk's attitudes about his wardrobe than he'd ignore the feathers on an evening dress the female lead wore for one of his projects. Carl returned the censorious gazes of the group ahead of them in line at the refreshment stand with a self-possessed look of inquiry that turned them back to their own business without a word.

After Fred bought more coffee, they took the ladder up to the A deck and went forward to enjoy the view and the breeze. Carl spotted some porpoises, which got him started on fishing stories. Fred countered with a question about what sea novels would make the best studio projects. Eventually the conversation drifted back toward their work on the house. While they strolled along the railings, Fred told a few of his best tales of building disasters with an emphasis on tiling. He wanted to shore up Carl's decision to keep them free from grout.

This particular Saturday was sunny and hot, a pleasant contrast to the ocean breeze. The usual fog hadn't descended onto the channel waters yet. On board, the passengers seemed cheerful. Lots of kids ran around in a mostly safe kind of way, and Fred could see a couple of yachts tacking back and forth along their own routes to Catalina. Even the shipboard coffee wasn't bad.

Fred spent some time wondering what this sense of being pleased with everything around him was until he realized he was both relaxed and happy. On most occasions when that had happened these past few years, he hadn't found time to notice until the feelings had passed.

During the rest of the day, nothing jarred him from his unusual contentment. Avalon was attractive enough to be what Fred was learning to call photogenic, a judgment confirmed by Carl's yarns about the pictures already shot in the small harbor town. Even the trip out to Catalina Clay Products, and checking the tiles there, turned out to be interesting. After a dusty interval that justified the work clothing, their host, Mr. Ayala, showed off a few samples of the fancier products.

Fred ended up buying a plate with a seahorse on it merely because he could. Carl shook his head as Fred tenderly cradled his new knick-knack. "I thought I was the one who liked indigo."

"The main color is Catalina Blue, according to our host. None of your indigo here."

"Let's see. What was it the fellow who decorated Mother's house called the slight variation of colors between that pottery vase and the walls of the room? A grace note? So, you purchased a decorative grace note before you bothered to buy your own automobile?"

After considering Carl for a moment, Fred asked, "Am I still off the clock at Metropolitan?"

"You know you are."

Fred freed a hand to employ the gesture he habitually used on Charlie.

Carl blinked twice and then grinned. Fred glared at him with mock ferocity before striding off to talk with Mr. Ayala about receipts and shipping.

Their hostess pleased Fred, too. Given Carl's warning, he had expected etherealness along with a lot of scarves and tinkling jewelry. Instead Mrs. Ayala was an ample, middle-aged woman whose delivery hinted that she'd started in one of the boroughs of New York City. She wasn't what Fred would have matched up with a serene, artisan husband born in Mexico, but the combination worked. Mrs. Ayala's general outlook gave her metaphysical musings over dinner a kind of yeasty zest they might otherwise have lacked.

"Since you take after your Ma, you liking the indigo doesn't surprise me at all," she informed Carl over enchiladas en salsa mole. "Dorothy is also one for mastery, institutions, and imagination. That's congruent with your job and your buddies, lucky for you."

"Mmm?" The noise was one of polite inquiry since Carl's mouth was busy. For once he hadn't needed coaxing to eat.

"Congruent with what I sense in this one here, for example. He's another of your kind. I'm not surprised you snapped him up for that cut-rate daydream manufactory of yours." She turned to Fred. "As for you, don't let this opportunity get away. Concordances at the third sublevel of the triangle are not to be wasted, no, indeedy. It doesn't take a seer to know you'll prosper in your new job. So, shine, bright and youthful spinel."

Mr. Ayala shook his head at his wife, but his eyes were fondly amused as he changed the subject to the virtues and drawbacks of Catalina Island's red clays. For his part, Fred was torn between hilarity and a sigh. Aside from the Mexican food and metaphysics, he might as well be having dinner over at Catherine's house again. Even the twelve stellar rays of Zarathustra, or whatever the hell they were, had opinions about Fred's career choices.

Once both the fine food and the homemade red wine were gone, they went into Mrs. Ayala's workroom to examine the material for the house's so-called curtains. Fred checked fabric, knowing he was only making a show. He'd put through a toll call to Alice last night, catching her before she went out to a dance, to ask for a tutorial. But fifteen minutes over a crackling telephone line didn't create any kind of expertise.

Carl, on the other hand, was examining hemming as if he saw something he recognized. Either that, or his natural confidence was carrying him through the inspection. He tangled his broad-fingered hands into the fabric and frowned faintly, pausing to slowly rub the cloth before he hoisted it up to examine it in the lamplight. For a few seconds Fred had to look away and scrub clean his brain from sudden heat with the cool familiarity of summing up figures.

"This is fine work," Carl told Mrs. Ayala, who chuckled indulgently before starting a lecture about sunlight and gradual fading. Fred had rarely been so grateful to be ignored. Once he calmed, he went to make the day's second set of payment and shipping arrangements with Mr. Ayala while Carl distracted their hostess with talk about his mother's recent adventures in the Orient.

It might've been the earlier, unwelcome return of a want he'd thought was subsiding that kept Fred quiet on the first part of their evening stroll. Carl was escorting him to where the bus from the St. Catherine Hotel picked up and dropped off passengers by the Casino, which also provided a chance to see the town. By now it was twilight, so the beauty of the scene might also have been part of why Fred stayed mute. Golden light from houses and hotels glinted against the darkening blue of the sea and sky, pretty enough for a postcard, captivating in a way worthy of vain pursuit by monochrome movie cameras. The faint laughter and talk of passing vacationers, the mixed scent of hillside brush and sea salt were all alluring. Fred wished he was allured more by his surroundings and less by the man walking next to him.

"Penny for them," Carl just had to say.

"Uh-uh. These thoughts are private. You know what I mean." Fred put some significance into his wave between the two of them and a young couple walking briskly past them toward the Casino. "Anyhow, it's busy tonight. You'd think this 'Casino' building really was Monte Carlo's gambling headquarters and not meant for a ballroom and movie theater. Is a good band playing?"

"I'm not sure. I don't dance for fun."

"You should work on that, Mr. Associate Head of Production. If I can fish, you could dance better."

"I'll consider your advice."

"Always a good idea to listen, at least. Maybe everyone's heading to the pictures. What's on?" Carl would know, Fred bet himself.

"Life and Soul," Carl replied, winning Fred an imaginary nickel. As they walked beneath a streetlamp next to a potted palm tree, Carl checked his wristwatch and said, "Right now they're about twenty minutes from the end of the first showing. The heroine should be tap dancing out her declaration of love at the country club ball."

"One of your projects, right. And doing well."

"It's no Disraeli. But the audiences enjoy it. They like the particular cut-rate daydream it portrays. Although I doubt we have much time left before this musicals bubble bursts."

"Which explains all the melodramas and adventures on your unit's slate. Busy, busy." Fred shook his head. "As your loyal apprentice, I'm forced to mention there's more to life than producing pictures and painting walls. Maybe I'll tell Sammy Katz about my secret passion for swordfish and get a trip going. It'd be a start."

There was a brief pause. Carl seemed to have a little more gravel in the voice than usual when he broke the quiet to say, "You don't need to spend all your time tending to me."

"Too bad, since them's the rules. If you don't have a private life, neither do I. I'm junior-most flunky right now, so I'm the one who follows you around. Everybody's made that clear."

Carl made a discontented noise.

Having mercy on him, Fred said, "For Christ's sake, it's not like I mind. The perks are great. Look at this weekend with its free trip and stylish accommodations. In fact, I bet they'll mistake me for a location scout at the St. Catherine, what with the clothes, my rucksack, and all. Then my room will turn out to be even fancier than the one you told Mrs. Cheever to book me, since she only thinks I'm pleasant rather than adorable."

They'd reached the bus stop, empty since neither the picture nor the dance at the Casino was done yet. Private or not, Fred was still faintly surprised to hear himself keep right on going with, "I wish you could come along. Settle in to enjoying the place with me. You need more fun." And those words just had to come out full of raw yearning.

Fred's chagrin made him check for a reaction, so he saw the way Carl suddenly stepped forward, hands rising to grasp.

Startled, Fred raised both his own hands. "Whoa, there!"

Carl stilled. He lowered his arms. But he fisted his hands by his sides.

Hastily, Fred added, "Sorry. That was dumb. Not what I said, my saying anything about it. Especially right at a bus stop, for crying out loud." He stopped, taking in the details. "Carl. You okay?"

"I will be." Now Carl's fists were working. "You took me by surprise."

"Oh." Fred had to swallow before he could ask, "Back in the beginning I thought you might be a little interested, but you're as interested as all that?"

"You think so?"

"Okay, okay, you are." Fred took a deep breath, wondered if he should apologize again. Then he frowned as realization hit. "Wait a minute."

"Crap."

"This. This is a very bad habit you're developing. You cannot keep renting out your mother's apartment to fellows you--" With a real act of will, Fred made himself stop talking. He took one more deep breath and let it out. Then he said, "Fine. I think I'm walking out to the hotel. It's a nice night; there's a good moon rising over the channel." Turning, he strode off, angry enough to be blind to his surroundings.

Fred wasn't angry enough not to notice when, a few minutes later, Carl caught up and kept pace with him. He also wasn't surprised.

The road they were on ran up past the Casino and continued to curve along the hillside above the Pacific. Soon Fred was grateful for the moonlight that lit his way; the drop was more than scenic. At least a fast interval of hard walking was enough to cool his temper. He managed to say, "No reason for you to follow me around." Okay, mostly his temper was cooled.

"First, you're not the only one who could use the hike. Second, how will I hear what you have to say if I'm not there when you say it?"

True, Carl could be a champion listener, one key to his success at Metropolitan. Fred wondered for a while longer if he wanted to talk to Mr. Sugar-Daddy before he stopped trying to fool himself.

"You know what I'd hate at school? Getting into a class and being treated a certain way because Catherine or Alice had been there before me. Or Charlie."

"That's not what's happening. You're…" After Carl bottled up whatever words he'd been going to use, he said instead, "C'mon. I only offered you a job. Charlie was the one who offered you the apartment."

"You didn't nix the swap. And I was hoping to find a job not because of my ass but because I sweated my ass off at USC." Before Carl could speak, Fred continued, "Yes, my ass is still on, helping with the hike. You know what I mean."

"That. That right there." Carl's words sounded both exasperated and heartfelt.

"What? What where? Explanation, please?"

"The correction about your ass. It's true. And funny even though you're mad. I want the correction about your ass more than I want your ass."

"Although you want my ass."

"Obviously!" Carl took several deep breaths as he strode along, but he still sounded tense when he said, "Look. If it's a problem, I can find you a job in another division, with a promotion. Or at another studio."

Fred stopped short. "For Christ's sake, the payroll accountants hate you. You cannot go around paying off your red-hot cuties when you haven't even banged them yet."

When Fred had stopped, Carl had stopped. "I didn't set out to buy your favors. I only wanted to, to, keep you around, I guess. And I had already considered hiring. Someone who'd, I don't know, like salt-water fishing. I thought I could leave it at that with you." There was a pause. "Sounds desperate, doesn't it?"

"You also can't hire first-rate friendship, if that's what you're trying to say you'd planned. For all the dapper suits, you are a goddamned mess, Buster Brown."

"Obviously." The repeated word was back to gravelly, and now Carl was crowding Fred again.

"I will clock you, I swear. The hotel bus--"

"Fuck the bus."

It couldn't be helped. Fred burst out laughing. He managed to get out, "Christ, that would be painful. When it comes to literal meaning, you're about the poorest cusser I've ever heard."

Carl had drawn back. "You should've met my father. Jiminy Cricket, goldurn, ding-dang, criminy, cheese 'n' crackers."

There was enough moonlight to see Carl had relaxed, to tell the dangerous moment was past again. No fool, Fred turned and started walking, if at a slower pace. When Carl appeared by Fred's side this time, his hands were shoved deep into his waist overalls pockets.

They walked for a while without speaking. At last Carl said, his voice unadorned, "Even when I'm considering other factors, I hire for talent. It was easy to tell you'd be good at what you do. Soon you'll be excellent."

From everything Fred had seen around the studio, Carl's claim about his main concern was true. "Fine."

"Just to get that off the table."

"Sure."

"Before we met, I tried seeing one of those new fellows, the Freudian analysts, and you can imagine how well it was going and where."

"About as helpful as a Capone torpedo spending time in a confessional, I'd bet."

"Maybe less. Hence, reworking Mother's house. Believe it or not, I'm getting better."

Instead of punching Carl's shoulder, Fred kept his mitts to himself, but he didn't try to hide the irritated affection when he told Carl, "Okay. I'm only saying you need to branch out. And not by collecting more Doyle offspring."

"According to you, I've seen the relevant choices," Carl said dryly.

"I do have cousins, you know."

"Ding-dang criminy your cousins."

"I don't even know what that is, but I want to see you try it with Pete, who's involved in city politics and looks like Boris Karloff."

"No. If you want, I'll promise not to try anything with you."

Fred barely had to consider that offer. "It's no good asking fellows to make the kind of promises that get broken accidentally. Over the long run, that's shooting yourself in the foot. I'll think of some other way you can make up for your bad behavior. Something not to do with money or work. Or the apartment." He snapped his fingers. "Wait, I know: you can tell me whatever it is you keep swallowing when we talk about all this."

"Clever. If you're not quitting, I'm using every bit of that cleverness at Metropolitan." The moonlight was enough for Fred to see Carl square his shoulders. "What I'm swallowing? Not sure what to say. I'm working without a script. Or even an analyst."

"Also, the bus is coming." That was a statement of the obvious, given the lights coming around the curve up ahead to the accompaniment of motor noises.

"We'll have to ride back to the Casino with him before he makes the return trip. Hate looking like a tourist who can't finish a hike."

"Too bad," Fred said, sounding cheerful even to his own ears. All this bonus confusion, and he felt better now. Sometimes life was strange. "Our alternative is hiking the rest of the way."

"Occasion for more private talk? No. Bad enough I have to…" This time, Carl managed to spit out what he'd started to swallow although the words were squashed together. "Sorryforthismess."

"Granted. You will still suffer. And answer my question."

"That's not clever, that's back to obvious," Carl said, sardonic as usual. He took off his cap to wave it at the approaching bus.

Fred snorted. He was feeling much too pleased by Carl's quick recovery. Another problem with siblings who weren't entirely deserving of being shipped out on a slow boat to Shanghai: they taught you to think about the opponent in your fights.

The bus driver thought they were screwy, all right, but he was well enough trained not to comment. But his presence was enough to prevent conversation, and Carl clattered off the small bus at the Casino as if it was on fire. Even if Fred had meant to brood about that on the way to the hotel, he couldn't have. A couple of middle-aged ladies returning from their evening in Avalon decided he needed to be told all about Life and Soul. Fred made pleasant noises and took mental notes of their reactions.

After some time spent checking in and asking about wake up calls and whether or not there was a telephone line to the mainland these days, Fred made it up to his room. He was exhausted, which he would have predicted. He would also have predicted that he'd need a while to get to sleep if not the exact reason why. After a lively conversation with his right hand, Fred had all the proof he needed that the immature fascination was back. No, somehow it had never finished going away.

Carl did owe him for this mess. He really, truly did.

 

 

IV

If asked to predict what would happen the next morning, Fred would not have listed a long telephone call followed by late breakfast at the Ayalas' and then a tour of the new Catalina Bird Park to admire mynahs and penguins. But that was the schedule.

The day's events were improved by Fred's choice to have a good time. He'd already decided he wasn't crazy enough to quit a paying job without knowing if he truly faced trouble. And, since he hadn't set a deadline for Carl's answer to last night's big question, he might be coping with uncertainty for a while. This, Fred could do. His generation of Doyles were experts at enduring what couldn't be cured.

The schedule was surprisingly enjoyable aside from the occasional mental stutter when Fred caught Carl looking at him, brows knitted, as if trying to puzzle through an ambiguous letter from the money men in New York. Still, how wary could you be of a fella who knew how to use his arms and hands to imitate bickering flamingos at a bird park?

Given one thing and another, Fred and Carl were on the S.S. Catalina heading back to Wilmington harbor before practicalities reappeared.

Fred had just put away the small notebook he was keeping of refurbishment expenses. "Yet again, I have to mention this isn't coming cheap."

"Cheaper than other ways to sooth my nerves." Carl leaned on the railing of the promenade deck, looking out across the waves, so relaxed he was almost smiling.

"At least I managed to pinch transport costs."

"Somehow I missed that."

"It's less money to bring your tiles back with us than to use the pottery's usual methods, can you believe it? Especially since Mr. Ayala didn't mind seeing they were dropped off at the dock in Avalon. Shipping sure scales strangely."

"Which leaves my tiles stuck in Wilmington," Carl said mildly, more in the way of one prodding for details than pointing out a problem. "There isn't enough room for those crates in my Studebaker."

Fred smiled. Given the amusement that appeared in Carl's eyes, maybe the smile was a little bit smug. "I called in a favor. Transportation -- free but for gas -- will be waiting."

"You…" Carl shook his head. Fred couldn't tell if he was saying what he'd started out to when he continued, "You, I'm sending over to Sound Recording. They're bleeding cash but manage to intimidate everyone who enquires about the details."

"I'm sure they'll be impressed by the way I can rewire a lamp."

"Better background than anyone else's. I'm tired of waiting for the front office to straighten them out."

"Has anyone tried asking around? I mean, the taking of people to lunch off the lot kind of asking?"

"Don't know. I'd be willing to initial those receipts."

They settled in to discuss approaches. Too bad all such conversations couldn't be had on the top deck of a steam ship on a nice day in the channel, but sorting through possible espionage ploys to use against Sound Recording would've been interesting even back at Metropolitan. Fred still suspected their talk was a joint delaying tactic. He didn't point this out even though he should've remembered that putting off problems only provided opportunities for those random furies and archangels he'd always feared.

Once they'd descended the gangplank, Fred quickly spotted Henry Piron, one of Doyle and Son Construction's drivers, at the far side of the crowd. Henry's bulk and looks stood out in this gathering, and his being at the landing was what Fred had angled for when he'd gotten in touch with Catherine. What Fred hadn't angled for, standing right next to Henry, was Charlie.

"What?" Carl asked, nearly running into a suddenly halted Fred. Then, "What now?" he amended, obviously also spying Charlie.

"I don't know," Fred said, "but I think I'd better find out." Resettling his rucksack, he worked his way through the thinning crowd.

"So, I rode over with Henry," was Charlie's opening sally.

"Okay," Fred told him. Turning back to Carl, who had followed hard on his heels, he said, "Henry's the best driver Doyle and Son has to offer." This was no exaggeration; Fred was now wise enough in the ways of the world to know that Henry, being a Negro, had to be twice as good as the next best man just to safeguard his job, given this slump.

Carl nodded. "Glad to hear that. Hello, Henry."

"Hello, Mr. Belasco. Hi, Mr. Doyle."

Fred was so busy wondering what Charlie was doing that he said, in a kneejerk reaction recently created by Metropolitan, "Call me Fred." At least he managed not to wince afterward.

Henry merely gave Fred the particular, bland smile likely meaning, 'That sure was dumb, but I have known you Doyles for over twenty years now, and I have heard dumber in my day.' What he asked was, "We have some tile to move?"

"They'll be unloaded over by the luggage carts. Although, given the limited number of crates we bought, I didn't think you'd need more help than ours." Fred was glaring past Henry at Charlie as he spoke.

The grin Charlie unlimbered in return was one of his grade A charmers. "Catherine mentioned your request before lunch today, and I thought I'd come along to give you a hand." He moved the grin on to Carl, and it brightened. "Maybe I can get a ride to the house, and Fred can go with Henry to provide directions?"

Oh, wonderful. That little muscle twitching at the corner of Charlie's jaw meant he was nerving himself up to a confrontation rather than trying to charm his way into something. Why, oh why, did this annual event have to be happening today?

Carl considered Charlie, his eyebrows slightly raised. "Yes, I can give you a lift."

"No," Fred said. "No, you can't. Or, if Charlie gets a lift, so do I."

This interruption left both Carl and Charlie turning to examine Fred. Carl's gaze could be read by the initiate as inquiring. Charlie's seemed thunderous. Then Carl turned back to Charlie, caught the glare, and his eyebrows rose higher. "I see."

For his part, Henry somehow managed to imply a sigh rather than use it. "Think I'll just go fetch the truck and then check for some crates labeled fragile."

"They'll also be labeled 'Catalina Clay Products' and go along with a couple of boxes of fabric," Fred said, absently and automatically supplying details. "You know where we're heading in Whitley Heights?"

"Uh-huh."

"We'll be over to help you shift crates in a minute."

"Don't have to hurry. I can manage," Henry said. He walked away briskly, likely getting while the getting was good and thereby showing the sound sense for which he was known around construction sites.

Meanwhile, the conversation hadn't conveniently waited for Fred. "--really need to talk," Charlie was saying doggedly to Carl.

"Not without me, you aren't," Fred interrupted again.

"Look, Fred--"

"You look. Tell me this is nothing to do with me and I'll ride back with Henry in the truck." Fred narrowed his eyes. "But remember the last time you tried a whopper when we were making a deal. That jar of pickles."

"Do I want to know?" Carl asked.

"No!" Charlie said, and "I'll tell you later," Fred promised.

Charlie's gaze darted from Fred to Carl and back again. The muscle by his jaw twitched. "Just get in the goddamned auto," he told Fred.

Fred thought Carl was being very patient by not pointing out the Studebaker was his goddamned auto. At least Charlie didn't demand the keys. Nerved up like this, he was capable of it.

However, Doyles could also be patient, even Charlie. Although his temper had been obvious enough that Fred didn't try getting to the shotgun seat first, not wanting a fraternal shoving match, Charlie at least waited until they were underway to begin whatever speech he'd been preparing. He was probably busy revising his lines to allow for Fred's presence.

Meanwhile, Fred was the one stuck in the back seat, wondering which way this talk would go and how angry Carl would be. Fred thought he knew what Charlie wanted to discuss, but he couldn't figure out the details. And his usual sense of amorphous dread had solidified into indigestion. Oddly, his dyspepsia was also comforting. Something awful he'd half-expected for years was here at last, and now it was time to cope.

What with all the working free from the harbor traffic and curdling quiet building up in the Studebaker, they were back on Figueroa by the time Charlie pointedly cleared his throat.

"Frog in your throat?" Fred asked pleasantly.

"Dry up. See here, Mr. Belasco."

See here? Fred slouched back against the right-hand passenger seat and rolled his eyes, but Charlie's monologue kept coming.

"Fair's fair, and I know we're in Hollywood, but Fred takes this kind of thing too seriously for your sort of fun and games."

It wasn't quite where Fred had thought the conversation would go. He was confused. Maybe Carl was also confused, or maybe he was just feeling put-upon, when he said, "Afraid I don't get your drift, Charlie."

There went that jaw muscle again. "Fred's an adult. When it comes to the one-time clinch, he can take care of himself." Hah, Fred thought. As if Charlie believed that for a red-hot second. "But he's too damn romantic for Avalon."

After a peculiar interval of silence, Fred blurted out, "Honestly? You're honestly accusing Carl of trying to turn my head?"

"Hey. What happened to dry up? And, sure, what the hell else do you call him taking you on a free weekend trip to Catalina?"

Carl asked mildly, "How about, none of your business?"

"Ugh. It really shouldn't be. But I'm the one who gave you the wrong idea about Doyles being easy nances."

"You are easy," Fred said. "You were only playing a nance. Badly."

Charlie ignored him to tell Carl, "Fred's not like me. He's, I don't know, serious about the sex stuff. Romantic."

"What are you, screwy?" Fred asked, ambushed by temper into bluntness. "What, exactly, do you think I've been doing in the pansy bars downtown for the past couple of years?"

"Ugh! Avoiding what you can't have, of course. Now dry up, Mary Pickford."

Incensed, Fred punched Charlie in the shoulder. Matters were decaying into a serious scuffle over the front seat when Carl gritted out, "Can it, you two, or I'm pulling this car to the curb."

Why those words worked, and why they also seemed vaguely familiar, Fred couldn't tell. But the scuffling did die down. Feeling rather sullen, Fred sat back and adjusted his shirt collar. Charlie took unfair advantage of Fred's good manners to keep talking.

"He thinks he's so tough, but he believes in hearts and flowers, not Hollywood."

"I can't blame him for that," Carl said. "I'm not certain I believe in Hollywood."

Charlie's expression and posture managed to be politely, pointedly incredulous. Carl looked away from the road to briefly study Charlie before returning to his driving and saying, "You don't have much faith in my intentions."

"You're honest enough," Charlie said, grudgingly. "But you bet I still doubt you. What kind of good intentions could you have? You sure wouldn't be buying him a diamond ring."

Carl went very still, only his hands moving the wheel as he stared straight ahead at the highway. He'd even paled a little. Concerned, Fred leaned forward right as Carl shook his head and said, "Although you mistrust my intentions, I'm not hearing any threats from you. Yet."

"Right. Like I'm also butchering my little brother for the scandal sheets. Or the cops. Or Dad." It was obvious which avenging fury Charlie considered the worst of the trio, and Fred couldn't disagree. "Dad was upset about Catherine being born left-handed. And you should hear him talk about the wall-eyes on Cousin Irene. This…" Charlie trailed off and faintly shuddered, a nicely understated gesture.

"I see," Carl said. "Not a fan of either the chosen sin or psychological theories of sexual perversity, I take it."

"Hah. What a racket those Fraudians have. And we Doyles haven't bothered with the Church since the fight Granda picked with Bishop Montgomery back in the 'nineties. Why are we talking about this? As I was saying, you are honest. " The muscle twitched on Charlie's jaw. "So, I'm asking you nicely to lay off."

"Even though I'm Associate Head of Production at your studio."

Charlie didn't say anything else. He only managed to look queasy and resolute at the same time, which was enough to make Fred snort.

For some reason, Carl had taken advantage of the intersection they were stopped at to turn and stare at Charlie, with face blank and gaze considering. When the patrolman shifted the traffic signal, he turned and got them going again. Then he asked, "Fred. Does he often look like this?"

"What?" Confused, Fred sat up straight and craned to check Charlie, who had turned around to gaze back at Fred in equal confusion. Then some puzzle piece fell into place as Fred recalled all his picture palace tutorials of the past several weeks. "Oh, this. You're seeing him ditch the charm in favor of his true, underlying obnoxiousness." Charlie found another rude gesture learned on a construction site for Fred, and Fred continued as sweetly as the Gish sisters hugging each other, "I suppose one could claim it's a good look on him. Even more yummy than usual." His word choice earned him a gagging noise from Charlie: field goal.

"Is that so?" Carl asked, almost abstractly. Several seconds passed. Fred found he was exchanging confused looks with Charlie again. Suddenly Carl spoke, and it was very obvious who was now driving this conversation.

"Thank you for your concern, Charlie. It's surprising but impressive. As are you today." Charlie, who had stirred, stilled. Carl continued, voice gritty as a cement mixer, "I'm taking you away from Rolly Winston for a while. It'll let Susan sort you out without fireworks. More important, I can then put you with Harry Helmann. He will make you suffer. He will make you suffer like the damned. But when he is done, you will act, not just posture."

"I… Well…" Charlie said weakly before he trailed off.

"It's the usual reward for the virtuous, suffering. Silent suffering is said to be even more noble. So, you will dry up about Avalon and romance, your brother will take his time sorting me out, and you will glower warningly from the correct distance as he does so."

"Nice to be consulted during all this planning," Fred told the Model A on the other side of his window.

"As I mentioned," Carl said to Charlie, "he'll sort me out. Was that clear?"

"Yes."

"Do I need to pull over so you can take a swing?"

"Hey, I'm not the screwy one in this automobile."

Carl sighed wearily. "Likely true, I'm afraid. Fine."

"Well, I'm not done," Fred said. "Did you try all this bushwa on Alice's beau, Charlie?"

"What? She had the sense to run in the other direction after he got obvious about his carnal confusion, even if it was too late. Unlike you, the youngest Gish sister."

"Just pretend I'm not here," Carl said, dry as dust.

At least that served to stopper up the conversation for the rest of the trip. Carl made Charlie help them unload and move the tiles into the garage, too.

Fred pulled Henry off to one side. "Your brother, um, Bernard, still doing tiling jobs?"

"When he can get them," Henry said succinctly. "And I still help out."

Producing a business card, Fred said, "We need some high-end work done on a fireplace and hearth in this house. Some bathroom work, too. Can you call and let me know when's a good time?"

"Sure can." Henry took the card and tucked it away. Then he smiled. "Nice to see you again. Watching you and the other Mr. Doyle tussling in that car up ahead was just like old times, back when you two were kids."

"It really was, wasn't it? I'd better go before I'm late for mutual mud pies."

At least Fred could still make folks chuckle, even on a day like this one.

***

Charlie departed at last, but not without a lot of lingering, significant gazes at Carl and an obvious show-of-fraternal-support handshake with Fred. He even used both hands, which was really overdoing it.

Torn between complete exasperation and a sudden surge of affection, Fred told Carl as they watched the Chevy drive off, "I hope Susan Winston puts him over all the fences and through a couple of fiery hoops."

"From what I hear, that is her custom."

"I'm truly sorry about that trip."

"I'm not." When Fred looked at him, surprised, Carl said, "Let's take this indoors."

Fred closed the door to the foyer behind them after checking Mr. Flurry wasn't trying to ooze through the gap. But his favorite furry feline was somewhere else in the house, probably enjoying a sunbeam. Fred didn't even glimpse the cat as he followed Carl up the graceful curve of the main stairs.

The upstairs sitting room was looking good even if Fred did think so himself. The millwork painted white against those indigo walls made for an elegant but exotic, mildly Hollywood style. Hand-dyed drapes would go great in here; Mrs. Harvey should be thrilled. But Fred knew Carl hadn't chosen this room so he could gloat over their hard work. The big attractions seemed to be the room's size and temporary emptiness, given how Carl was striding up and down the floorboards with the expression he wore while debating approval of a quality production that might or might not make much money.

In the middle of the third lap, he turned to Fred and said, "Your brother mashed his finger right onto the button. Hard."

"Which button?"

"He accidentally made clear what I've been choking back. When you and I talk." Pulling off his cap, Carl ran one hand through his hair. The result was both atrocious and appealing. "I've been thinking too much like a movie-maker and not enough about the movies I make. In the end, those cut-rate daydreams are what ambushed me."

Remembering enough of that afternoon's squabbling to catch Carl's drift, Fred said, "Oh, for crying--"

"Don't bother. Even if all my daydreams came true, I still couldn't dance down Main Street, mooning over ring displays in successive jewelers' windows while belting out a zippy little number about marriage proposals. I couldn't even ask you out to the country club ball. But some part of me wanted to, which is why I got us into this tangle."

Fred rolled his eyes. But his not running off screaming into the day outside must've been all the response required because that fast flick of a smile came and went on Carl's face before he said, "Instead I ended up hiring you, which gums up everything."

"Right." Fred let his limited tolerance of the temporarily feebleminded show in his words. "Gummed it up. Especially since you hired someone born and raised to the emotional juggling act that is working in a family business with all his closest kin. Then you decided that same someone couldn't handle employment by one fellow with whom he'd canoodled. With whom he was canoodling. Whichever one would apply."

Carl stared at Fred, obviously bemused. Fred shook his head, and then kept right on going with, "And, of course, no one else in Hollywood ever screws around with the same secretary or staff member over and over again. It just doesn't happen. Although, if it did? Swapping all the after-hours attention for fancy cars or jewelry is stupid. I'd want something better if I was looking at long-term sundowning."

Those words seemed to snap Carl out of his trance. His expression an odd mix of wary and wildly hopeful, he asked, "What would you demand?"

"A better job title. Junior sidekick instead of junior flunky. Eventually, if I came up with the needed abilities and results, I'd request a promotion to associate crony and then on to senior vice buddy with the extra perks--"

This time, Carl managed to capture when he grabbed. He didn't miss with his lips, either. The results were potent enough to fray anyone's control, let alone a fellow who'd been stewing in fascination for weeks and months. Nonetheless, they could've made it into a bedroom if Carl hadn't unbuttoned the fly on Fred's work trousers and then raised both eyebrows high.

Not even trying to hide his smugness, Fred said, "I might've been elsewhere when the Doyle height was distributed, but that didn't mean I missed out on all the available inches."

"Obviously not," Carl replied, his tone both dry and hot. He tightened his grip. Then he stroked a few times, calloused pads of his fingertips slightly rough against skin, intently observing the results of his craftsmanship. Fred swallowed a yearning whimper, and Carl told him, "For once, you're driving."

This time Fred couldn't stifle his choked noise of want, but his own hands were busy yanking down those indigo waist overalls at last. Soon he had reason to be grateful for the Vaseline he kept among the painting supplies to protect his skin from the rougher varnishes, given how much they were rushing this job. The drop cloths on the floor proved to be useful, too, if not much protection for knees and elbows.

After they were done, Fred lay sprawled out next to Carl, feeling satisfyingly bruised and mostly boneless. His pulse had slowed and the sweat was drying on his skin; now he was half way to dozing. A small shift to spare his right hip from the floorboards made Carl mutter sleepily and tighten his grip. Something tapped Fred on the cheek, and he blearily opened his eyes, wondering if Carl wanted his full attention.

"Mrow," Mr. Flurry told Fred, lowering his paw and settling back on his haunches to stare fixedly at them both. Fred wondered if the cat actually sounded pleased or it was his own feelings coloring the commentary.

"No dinner before clean up and clothes," Carl said without opening his eyes. Of course, anything to do with food was a possible translation of that meow, too.

Mr. Flurry was even more stricken than usual when two of his favorite targets for fur deposit confronted horrible, horrible flowing water at the same time. His tragic, gesturing performance underneath the bathroom door rivaled that of any queen of the silent screen's. As he dressed afterward, Fred told Carl, "I think I want a share in Mr. Flurry, too."

"Since he introduced us, he would likely claim it was me getting a share in you."

Later that evening, Fred was sprawled out on the living room couch next to Carl, who was muttering ominously at a production schedule, when a realization struck him. He looked up from reading Is Sex Necessary, and smoothing Mr. Flurry's back, to ask, "You know what I hate?"

Pausing from editing a time estimate in red ink, Carl asked, "What do you hate?"

"When Charlie figures out important stuff before I do. Seemingly, I am soppier than a Gish sister role."

Carl considered, and then said in his most gravelly tones, "I always did think that Lillian Gish was the cat's meow."

"Mrow," Mr. Flurry protested upon hearing this false equivalency, and then continued to complain indignantly as he was suddenly dumped onto the living room floor due to irrelevant human activities.