By Lauryn Poynor & Anne Rose
|The hard bitten
blonde rounds on Steele. "You know, Derek Vyvyan is a very corrupting influence.
If he's got your associate caught up in his childish hijinks . . ."
Steele cocks his head. "My associate? Childish hijinks?" Wishful thinking will get him nowhere. "Ms. Waggenbacker, there's one thing I can assure you about Miss Holt. It's that when she's working - she's deadly serious." Steele straightens his tie. "And even when she's not."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
"Ha! I am no man's prize!" Laura's sword is aimed decisively at the actor's vitals, holding him for the nonce, at bay.
"Bold words from such sweet lips!"
They cross swords and advance down a staircase as Laura shouts, "My steel is all you shall kiss!" She essays a lunge at her opponent and misses, nearly skewering a lobby-sized poster of Derek Vyvyan as "The Pirate Prince."
Derek recoils as if struck with a mortal wound. "Careful, darling. That's my best side. In glorious Technicolor."
Laura shrugs a bit sheepishly and points the weapon in a more harmless direction. "Sorry."
"A lady should never apologize." Out of breath, the actor props himself on his sword, leaning rather heavily. "Where were we?" He shouts to the wings. "A cue! A cue! My kingdom for a cue!"
Laura decides it's time to ring down the curtain. "We really should be getting to the location. They've been waiting three hours now."
"No, no, no, my love, your next line is 'No pirate will ever have my heart!'"
"And you say?" she prompts.
Derek stands there, darkly puzzling. "Why in blazes can I remember your lines and not mine? How deuced convenient is that?"
Before Laura can answer he rails, eyes cast heavenward. "An actor is but a mere plaything of the gods. Alack. Alas." He recovers himself, re-hanging his sword on the wall. "And what a lass you are. My girl, you've nearly exhausted me. And I've had six wives!"
Laura seizes an opening. "And I'm sure they insist on seeing you gainfully employed."
"Oh, bother. Then we shall have to hurry. One more parry. One more - thrust." Now swordless, he presses himself bodily against her and waggles both eyebrows.
Vyvyan's gin-soaked breath singes Laura's sinuses. "I think you've had enough for one day." She scurries under him.
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world. What a quick study you are!"
"I have been watching the late show more often. Thanks for the fencing lesson."
Vyvyan strikes a contemplative pose. "Y'know, with the proper lighting, you could rival any of my ladies fair."
"Really?" Shyly, Laura toys with her sword, then hangs it across Derek's, a bit embarrassed to find herself not entirely immune to his brand of flattery.
"Your hair, streaked with sunlight. Your lips red as flame -"
Suddenly a skeptic, Laura folds her arms. "That's from 'Camelot'."
Vyvyan shrugs disarmingly. "Never could carry a tune."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Steele and Derek enter Vyvyan's apartment.
"I feel positively invigorated!" Derek declares. "A brush with death really gets your adrenaline pumping. Ah ha! Sort of like…a perfect…Rob Roy! Rob Roy, Rob Roy - that reminds me . . ." He angles toward the bar.
Steele is upset by his attitude. "Why didn't you get out of the way, old boy?!"
"Ah, well, don't . . . bandy this about, it could be very embarrassing. But just for an instant down there, I thought I was on a film set and I was waiting for the director to yell, 'Cut!'"
His arms crossed over his chest, Steele looks skeptical. Vyvyvan studies him for a long moment. "Y'know, Steele, you cut a rather dashing figure yourself. Pity you weren't around in my salad days. You would have been cast in a second. Could've given Rathbone a run for his money."
"Really?" Steele relaxes his arms and shrugs self-consciously, momentarily taken off guard.
"Definitely." Vyvyan smiles nostalgically and heads for the swords mounted on the wall. He stops short. "Between takes of 'Young Raleigh' old Basil used to regale us with tales from the set of 'Captain Blood'."
Now Steele is unabashedly impressed. "The greatest swashbuckler ever made?" he gushes. "Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland, Basil Rathbone and a stable full of Warner Brothers contract players?"
"Why, yes. Quite the fan I take it? He told some hair-raising yarns about Flynn and his, uh, lifestyle choices, shall we say?"
Steele is still star struck. "That must have been quite an experience."
"He inspired me to keep the spirit alive. I fought to get into every costumer I could, and when I hit it big with 'The Pirate Prince', Basil sent me a telegram of congratulations." He assesses Steele again, deep in thought. "Would you like to see a rare treasure of mine?"
Unsure what is behind the lingering look, Steele is tentative. "I suppose."
Derek crosses the room and disappears behind a carved wooden screen in the corner. He emerges a moment later, triumphantly displaying an oversized cotton shirt. "Rathbone's blouse from his swordfight on the beach with Flynn." He waves it like a flag in front of Steele. "He sent it to me right after the premiere of 'The Pirate Prince'. Quite a gift, don't you think?"
Steele reaches out and fingers the fabric reverently. Vyvyan turns the collar outward to reveal the Warner Brothers inventory tag. Sensing Steele's vulnerability, Vyvyan realizes the moment is right.
"Let's do the scene, my boy. I'm sure you know it!"
Steele snaps out of his reverie. "Of course. Although I'm hardly in Rathbone's class with a sword."
"We'll make it up as we go along. After all, we haven't got much in the way of sand and surf." He tosses the shirt to Steele. "Why don't you put this on, to get in the mood?"
Steele looks at him as if he's just been handed the Shroud of Turin. "I couldn't possibly…."
"Poppycock, boy! It's mine, and Rathbone wanted me to have it. He's probably smiling down on us right now."
"I really shouldn't." Steele tries to hand it back to Derek.
"You'd do it for Randolph Scott."
Steele pauses as if he has just heard a heavenly choir, but it shakes off. "Fencing was hardly his forte."
"All right then. Gilbert Roland?"
Steele raises an eyebrow.
"Ronald Colman? Louis Hayward? Sink me! I'm running out of actors."
Steele thinks for a moment more, than shrugs off his coat and tosses it over the back of the sofa. Unselfconsciously he sheds his tie and shirt as Derek watches him intently. When Steele extends his arms to pull on Rathbone's shirt, Derek staggers back involuntarily.
Leaving two buttons undone, Steele tucks the shirt in and plucks at the sleeves. The V of the opening extends to his sternum. Derek runs one hand lightly up Steele's arm. He smiles broadly at Vyvyan, who quickly turns away.
Vyvyan tosses him a sword, and Steele slices the air experimentally, getting accustomed to the balance. Derek does the same before striking the en garde position with a flourish.
"Shall we pick it up with Rathbone's line? "
Steele searches his memory. "You'll not take her while I live."
Vyvyan shouts, "Then I'll take her when you're dead." He launches himself at Steele, both of them flailing away. Steele backpedals around the sofa and musters up his best French laugh.
Vyvyan continues, "With two breaches in our articles committed by you, you should be marooned. It's what I intended for you in the end. But….but…."
Steele feeds him the rest. "But if you prefer it this way, you muckrake, faith I'll be humorin' ya!"
"Yes, yes, that's it! Good job, my boy!" Steele rounds the coffee table and runs up the stairs. Derek has to pause in his pursuit, catching his breath.
Steele chides him. "C'mon, Derek, it's just a rock." Vyvyan takes a deep breath and climbs the stairs, attacking with renewed vigor. Steele defends himself as best possible until they are hilt to hilt.
Derek forces Steele back against the wall, and leans up against him. "You could rival Flynn any day."
Steele is taken aback, unsure if he should push Vyvyan away. "I thought I was Rathbone."
Derek ignores him, pressing on. "You have the ebony mane of a Tyrone Power."
Steele squirms uncomfortably, trying to break free without hurting Vyvyan.
Derek leans harder, too close, his face inches from Steele's. "Gable's eyes. As stainless blue as the seas of Antium."
Steele has had enough and shoves Derek away, catching him before he stumbles down the stairs. "Gable's eyes were brown," he says quietly. Unsettled, he forces his way past and turns to place his sword on the bar.
Derek descends the stairs and drops heavily into an armchair, defeated. "Can't say I didn't try," he mutters.
Steele stares at him, perplexity turning to anger. "What was that all about?"
Derek looks away. "Time spent around free-wheeling chaps like Flynn and Cary Grant and the like makes one ever in pursuit, my boy." He glances up at him. "And ever hopeful."
Steele is silent, still trying to fathom why Vyvyan thought his advances would be reciprocated.
"I've never been in their
league, in any category." He sighs. "I never will be. All that talk about
King Lear, that was just to keep up appearances. Being a semi-serious actor,
I'm supposed to loathe and despise those commercials whilst looking for
something in which I can exhibit my - acting prowess and show my talent.
But, alas, I'm no
Steele sits on the nearby ottoman and takes Vyvyan's dangling sword from his hand. "I don't know which frightens me more. Dying - or losing those commercials."
"I know, Derek. I know."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Laura is devouring a plateful of Mexican take-out. "There's nothing like a TV dinner sprayed with carnuba wax to give you a hunger -- for something else."
"Yes, well, appetites do have a way of surfacing when one least expects them."
She glances at Steele's untouched plate. "You seem to have lost yours."
"I suppose." He looks away with a distracted air.
"I'm glad we can cross Derek Vyvyan off our list of suspects. I hate to sound star struck, but I'm beginning to see what you see in him."
Steele digs in to his taco.
"It's funny, Mr. Steele. At times, I can almost believe he's one of his own characters: the Pirate Prince, or the Passionate Troubadour. To hear him tell it, he's romanced half of Hollywood."
Steele swallows a bite a bit suddenly. "The question is, which half?"
Laura burbles on, oblivious. "I wonder. Is there anyone he hasn't seduced?"
"I think we should save that one for his memoirs."
Laura's eyes were alight with curiosity. "If he ever decided to kiss and tell …"
Steele chews on this possibility for a fraught moment, then manages to ask, "Don't you think this pre-occupation with Derek's amours is a bit, well, sordid?"
Laura shrugs lightly. "For a man who's left a trail of broken hearts over several continents, I think you protest too much, Mr. Steele."
"Really, Laura. I'm not in the same league with Derek Vyvyan." Steele chews and swallows emphatically. "Much as he'd like to think so."
Not sure where this is going, Laura shoots him a look. "Pardon my pre-occupations, but did something happen between you two?"
Steele makes a strenuous effort at nonchalance. "Just a bit of play acting. Nothing more."
"I never thought play acting could be such a jolt to your equilibrium. More like an honest noon-to-five day's work."
"Yes, well, we all have our limits," Steele replies evasively, shoveling copious amounts of salad into his mouth.
Laura studies him. "You seem awfully --- disenchanted. All of a sudden. And bent on keeping your mouth full during this conversation."
Steele manages to swallow. "Laura, it's a trifling matter. Believe me."
"Then you won't mind discussing it." Laura smiles sweetly.
"Actually, I do mind, but you have this habit of never letting things go."
"I'm twisted that way. So. Let's have it."
Cornered, Steele springs up and begins to pace. "'Let's have it'," he begins. "Well, it was a -- miscue, of sorts."
Striding across the carpet, Steele recounts it all in a rush. "You see, after Derek's close brush with death he became strangely, ah, invigorated. Insisted on re-enacting a scene from 'Captain Blood'. Flynn and Rathbone, the swordfight on the beach."
"Re-living past glories does seem to be a habit with him."
Steele stops and frowns as if something about that depresses him. "He even gave me a part of Rathbone's actual costume to wear. Levasseur's pirate blouse. Of course I was hugely flattered by the gesture."
Laura didn't doubt it. "I can imagine."
"We dueled our way through the dialogue, swords clashing, me feeding him lines here and there. Vyvyan followed me up a staircase -- the next thing I knew we were hilt to hilt, he pressed me up against the wall and, um --"
Steele's narrative falters and Laura prompts, a bit uneasily. "Hilt to hilt?"
"The old lush is this close," says Steele, measuring millimeters between his fingers. "Breathing yesterday's Scotch down my neck. If he'd had both hands free -- well -- let's just say that the damned pirate's intentions were even more dishonorable than they were with Ellen Dru in 'Young Raleigh'."
As Steele tries to recover his dignity, Laura blurts, "You mean Derek Vyvyan made a pass at you?"
Steele flushes crimson. "In a word. Started banging on -- ah, going on, that is -- about his favorite leading men. Rather inaccurately, as it were, but I got the gist of it."
Laura shakes her head, nonplussed. "I never expected this."
Steele tries to be philosophical. "Well, one doesn't go looking for this sort of thing, but it happens."
"It's just that --" Laura gestures with her hands, then comes out with it. "Derek made a pass at me, too."
Steele stares in horror. "Good lord. The man's insatiable." Worst case scenarios begin to strike him. "What sort of pass?"
Laura shrugs it off. "Kind of an instant replay. Just substitute leading ladies for leading men."
"Derek's line in seduction sounds a bit shopworn." Despite her reassurances, he's still worried. "How physical did the -- bloody twit get? Did you resist?"
Laura throws the question in his face. "Did you?"
"Of course I -"
"Ah." Deciding to change the subject, Steele goes back to his chair and sits down. "Glad we've cleared that up."
Laura looks across at him with a smirk. "Are you sure? But speak the word and I shall defend your honor!"
"Laura, do you have to find this so amusing?"
Companionably, Laura touches his shoulder. "Poor Mr. Steele. So irresistible to either sex."
Steele muses for a long moment. "Laura. Do you think I gave Vyvyan some -- vague signal? Some sign, perhaps unconsciously?"
Laura considers this. "Well . . . you do spend a lot of time on looking good, Mr. Steele. Not to mention a lot of the agency's money."
"Laura, there are only certain lengths to which I'll go to prove my masculinity. Wearing off the rack suits isn't one of them."
"Wouldn't have it any other way, actually." Laura eyes hold his. "Don't bother losing sleep over Derek Vyvyan. He simply mistook your admiration of him for -- something else."
"Bless you, Miss Holt."
Laura gets up, decision in her step.
"Where are you going?"
She leans over and runs a proprietorial finger down his chest. "To tell the vivid Mr. Vyvyan to keep his hands off the merchandise."
"Laura, I really wish you wouldn't -"
She silences him with a kiss. No stage kiss, but the real thing.
All thoughts of Derek Vyvyan vanish. "Merchandise, eh? So you're done shopping?"
"You're getting to be an expensive habit." Laura's lips tease his earlobe. "I might have to pay in installments."
Steele grins at that and pulls her close. "Or perhaps a convenient layaway plan."
"Not so fast --"
"On the contrary, I'm thinking long-term."
"Hold that thought, Mr. Steele."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Laura arrives at the bar. She watches Derek for a moment before striding over and slapping him on the back, causing him to choke on his drink.
"I think you've had one too many. First your 'leading lady' and now your 'leading man'. Where do you find the time?"
Derek turns and squints at her, bleary-eyed and puzzled. "Speaking of leads, I'm not sure I follow. If you'll refresh my memory while I refresh my Scotch -"
Laura assails him. "You made a pass at Mr. Steele. You embarrassed him, and frankly," she sniffs, "you disappointed me."
"Ah. Yes, well, I'm sorry about that. I didn't mean to imply you were my -- second choice."
"Second choice!" Laura can't believe what she's hearing. "Of all the vain, presumptuous -- that's not what this is all about!"
Derek blathers tipsily on. "Old habit. Tend to hedge my bets. My love life has always been rather -- ecumenical. A true artist appreciates beauty in all its forms."
Laura's sarcasm knows no bounds. "Doubles your chance of a date on a Friday night."
"Just so. If memory serves, I might have tried a little something on with Steele. Or rather he did. Looked smashing in it, too. Rathbone's costume fit like it was made for him."
"Ha! I think you were spending more time trying to get Mr. Steele out of his clothes than in."
Derek surrenders the point with an elaborate sigh. "If only he'd known me in my prime! When I was young! Firm buttocked! And firm --"
Laura's hands rush to cover her eyes and ears. "Spare us the inventory. Mr. Steele is not interested!"
Her vociferous protests intrude on his reverie. "And if he were, how, precisely, should that concern you?"
"It's a long story but -- Mr. Steele and I are not just business associates. We're a bit more, well -- personally involved."
Derek is brought up short. "Now, that does surprise me. I hadn't the foggiest. You certainly do a bang-up job not showing it."
Laura tries to explain it all. "Well, we can hardly go around pawing each other in public, now can we? I mean how would it look to our clients?"
"Like you'd come to your senses, I imagine. Lord knows, I couldn't keep my hands off him. Are you sure he's off the market? What a tragic waste!"
"I can assure you, Mr. Vyvyan," Laura affirms, flushing slightly. "Mr. Steele is not -- wasted!"
"My girl, I certainly hope not." Vyvyan drains the last of his drink and motions for another. "I'm not sure you quite realize what manner of man you have there."
As ever when it comes to Steele, Laura's curiosity is aroused. "What do you mean?"
"Like so many caught up in the magic of the cinema, your Mr. Steele is a dyed-in-the-wool romantic."
A pang of worry slips past her defenses. "Our lives have hardly been the stuff that movies are made of lately. We haven't had time for anything but cases."
"That will never do! 'Amor vincit omnia'! Love must conquer all. Even if, as I surmise, one may not be quite ready to speak the lines, the hope must spring eternal. Be waiting in the wings, as it were."
Laura is skeptical. "It sounds lovely. But real life has a way of turning the tables."
"Life is only as real as you make it." Derek gestures grandly. "You must seize the moment. Steal away for a weekend in Paris. Or a sun-kissed embrace on Arabian sands - "
"Those possibilities seem a bit remote right now."
"Then, my lovely, you must improvise. Nothing is more fatal to a romance than the dull, dry air of routine."
"You make it sound awfully simple."
"On the contrary, setting the stage for an enchanted evening can be fiendishly difficult without a script, though I've managed a few times."
"You know, beneath that rakish armor, Derek Vyvyan, I think you're a traditionalist at heart."
Vyvyan downs another drink then confesses, "You've cut me to the quick, but it's true. Despite numerous amours without benefit of clergy I married six times on hope."
"Not such a bad way to start a relationship."
"Take my advice, Miss Holt. Don't let it all end badly. I've always despised being alone. It's why I find an audience so reassuring."
In sympathy, Laura touches his shoulder. "Don't worry, Derek. We're still here."
"Yes, well, as long there
are convenience foods I trust I'll never be
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
The reception area is dark as Laura leads Steele into his office. He follows her gaze, finding the desk set with china, flowers, and candles. "What is this?" Steele asks as Laura watches him. "I thought we were going to just grab a quick bite while we finished our paperwork."
"Why, Mr. Steele," she says, "We must never, never allow our work to interfere with other, more - pleasurable pursuits." She dramatically removes a chafing dish cover. "Which would you prefer? Chef Gaston's Beef Bourguignonne? Or Veal Fricassee?"
"I never thought I'd say this, Laura, but you've almost made them look edible."
Laura smiles as she prepares his plate. "It's all in the presentation." She moves around the desk and produces a bucket of iced champagne. "Something to wash it down with?"
Steele smiles broadly. "A Pommery Cuvee Louise? For such an ordinary repast?" He sets to work on the wire mesh.
"No repast is ordinary with you, Mr. Steele." She steals a kiss as the cork flies. "Dig in. There's more where that came from."
Steele eyes her cautiously as he pours. "There is?"
"Our grateful clients gave us a year's supply."
Steele takes a fortifying swallow from his glass. "I hope they sent a large check to make up for it." Flirtatiously, he edges closer, slipping an arm around her waist. "Can't we skip straight to dessert?"
Laura flashes a teasing grin. "In a jiffy, Mr. Steele. It comes in a handy foil pouch."
Steele is dubious. "Laura, I'm all for instant gratification but -"
Laura seconds the motion; her lips meet his in a champagne flavored kiss. "You were saying?"
Steele hasn't a clue. "Whatever
it was, it'll keep."
[ Steele A State Of Mind ]