I started my internship under Syl Goldberg hoping for a tremendous learning experience. His office and lofty ambitions impressed me. "First we turn a quick profit," he said. "And then we use the seed money for the movies we really want to make."
One of my first lessons was that second-hand crack smoke makes my chest hurt. I suppose I set my expectations too high; after all, Syl was the producer of Schizo Cop and Big Mack on Campus. Their posters greeted me every time I stepped off the elevator to Golden Age Films, on the fourth floor of the Smith Brothers Building downtown.
I didn't usually work weekends. Syl liked to keep his Saturdays open. Unfortunately, we had a film in post that needed to be ready for the distributor on Monday, so the first Saturday in June, I had to go to the studio to do sound work.
Syl was in his office that day, but he wasn't exactly working. Friday night he had gone "talent scouting" – his euphemism for passing business cards around strip joints. He had insisted I join him, which I managed to tolerate because he bought the drinks. The more Jim Beam I swallowed, the less I noticed how heavy his gold watch was. He got a bite at the second club we hit. Betty Miles, a dancer who was pretty in the synthetic blonde fashion that Goldberg liked, agreed to an audition Saturday afternoon.
Syl's office door opened while I poured coffee. A man wearing a flannel shirt and a baseball cap came into the reception area. I noticed Betty Miles behind him. She was beyond a doorway on the other side of Syl's office, in a room Syl called the Inner Sanctum. That was where the literal casting couch became the proverbial one. Betty sat on the couch and jiggled her leg.
I also caught a whiff of smoke. The dirty ache in my chest told me that crack was today's entertainment. I don't know if Syl ever smoked it himself, but he never denied an auditioning talent's vices.
The kid in the flannel shut the door. "You work here?"
"Yeah, I'm the studio wonk."
I shook his hand. "Jack."
"So, uh...you need anything?"
"I'm cool. How's the audition going?"
Skeeter smirked. "Oughta go better now." He walked to the elevator.
I reminded myself again of the rarity of film studios in Ohio, and carried my coffee down the short hall to the editing room.
The film in post was Urban Heat, an unremarkable crime drama with six gunfights, a slow-speed car chase, and Goldberg's trademark amounts of nudity and soft-core sex. Someday, I consoled myself, he'd run out of excuses to set scenes in girls' locker rooms.
I didn't relish putting my name in the credits of this Golden Age film, or any other. I hoped to build enough of a resume that I could start freelancing on better projects and slowly flush these turkeys off the ass end of my filmography.
I threaded the film's picture and sound reels into the flatbed. I only needed to make a few last-minute additions to the score. The flatbed and the audio multi-tracker were rigged to a DAT recorder so I could sync the score to the film. It's a cheap way to do the job, but we had overrun the budget too far to hire a professional sound studio.
All the music was in a second DAT wired to the multi-tracker. I cued the song for Scene 24, a cheesy hard rock tune. I made a cursory effort to sync it to the scene and started recording. Distorted chords whined while bad actors shot blanks at each other. The most interesting aspect of the scene was the weaponry. Syl was an avid gun collector. His movies often featured choice pieces from his private arsenal.
I played back the scene with the music synced. Something didn't sound right. I played it again. The recorder had picked up a glitch at sixty hertz. It was just a split-second thump, but it was noticeable. It was also a common problem in Syl's studio, a symptom of a bad ground. Pound on the wall while a track is recording, the tape catches noise. Kick the floor, tap a fingernail against the multi-tracker, someone on the third floor blows his nose – same thing. It was the reason I monitored the sound through headphones instead of the studio's speakers, a tacky solution that obviously wasn't failsafe.
Syl didn't think the problem warranted the hassle of rewiring the studio. I could see his point. These movies didn't play in big theatres with THX. Who would notice the glitch? Does anyone pay that much attention to a Golden Age film?
I listened to the thump a few more times. I decided fixing it was more trouble than it was worth and moved on.
Next was a shower scene. I laced it with some generic jazz and played it back, praying there wouldn't be any more noise because it would be far more noticeable against the softer music. It was clean.
On to Scene 30, a foot chase through a shopping mall. The guitar started to grate on my nerves. I took off the headphones and went to reception, leaving the tape to run on its own.
I was pouring another cup of coffee when I heard two gunshots. After working on Urban Heat, it took me a moment to realize that they weren't canned effects. I stared at the door to Syl's office.
The lock clicked and the door opened. Syl gaped at me with a revolver in his hand.
"Jack," he said, "could you come in here a moment?"
I walked into his office. Skeeter lay in front of Syl's desk with a nine-millimeter in his hand and an extra hole in his head. Past the door to the Inner Sanctum, Betty Miles lay crumpled in a heap.
I turned to Syl. "What the hell happened?"
"Skeeter pulled a gun," he said. "Shot Betty. If I hadn't shot him, he would have got me, too."
"I guess we better call the cops."
"Look, I didn't do anything wrong. She asked for some rock, I hooked it up. I didn't mean for this to happen."
"Yeah. Self-defense. Let's just call the cops and get it over with."
"Listen, Jack." Syl's eyes were fierce beneath his glistening scalp. "I know you're not a fan of my movies, but it's an opportunity, right? I can help you finance your own projects. Whatever you want to make. But I can't do that if I'm behind bars. You follow?"
"You don't need to convince me, Syl. I'll tell the cops exactly what I heard. Two shots. You did what you had to do. Okay?"
Syl exhaled. "Okay. Let's call."
He stood frozen in place.
"You want me to make the call?"
He looked at me. "Could you?"
"Sure. Why don't you grab some coffee?"
"Yeah. Coffee. Good idea." He wandered into reception.
I dialed 911. There was a monitor behind Syl's desk, connected to a security camera in reception. I watched a grainy image of Syl standing next to the coffee machine.
"Syl," I shouted, "if you're going to rub your temples like that, you might want to put the gun down."
"She told me she wanted to call a friend, someone who could help her loosen up," Syl told the officer. "I didn't think there was any harm in it. I didn't know she was calling a crack dealer."
"So this guy Skeeter showed up," the officer said. "Then what?"
"He gave her a pipe. I wasn't happy with it, but I was too nervous to push the issue. I just wanted him to get the hell out of my office."
"Okay. So what went wrong?"
"They got into an argument over money. Next thing I know, the guy pulls out a gun and shoots her. Soon as I saw the gun come out, I went for the revolver in my desk. He tried to take a shot at me too, but I got the drop on him."
My testimony was much shorter. "I was in the editing room all afternoon. When I came out for coffee, I heard the shots. Then Syl came out of the office and told me what happened."
The cops took us to the station for more questions. They seemed satisfied with my story and let me go before long.
Syl wasn't so lucky. The police kept interrogating him after I left.
My apartment had a small multimedia studio for my pet projects. I was in no mood to work on them after I bussed home – not that I had been in the mood any time recently. I worked my way through a six-pack of Budweiser and a worn tape of The Third Man instead.
Syl phoned around midnight. "I'm still down here, but I don't think they'll hold me much longer. Go ahead and finish Urban Heat tomorrow."
"Will the cops even let me inside?"
"My lawyer fixed it. Nobody's allowed in my office, but the editing room is okay. I'll drop by first chance I get."
Sunday morning I rode the elevator back to Golden Age Films. Syl's office door was closed and taped. I kept my back to it while I made coffee.
I only had to lace music to two more scenes, three if the foot chase track was messed up. I ran it back and checked. Dammit, there was more bleed on the tape. The same sixty-hertz noise. I rewound it and listened again. Two thumps this time.
This was the part of the tape that had recorded while I was getting coffee and heard the gunshots. Two thumps...two shots.
I rewound the tape to Scene 24 and listened to the first thump again. It sounded a lot like the other two.
I had a hunch. I opened the door to Syl's office and crawled under the police tape. I did my best to ignore the red stain on the carpet. In a corner, mounted near the ceiling, were a television and two large speakers, which were connected to the video recorder in the editing room. Sixty-hertz noise, I remembered, could be introduced to the studio through badly grounded speakers.
Two shots. Three thumps. The police had found one spent shell in Syl's revolver. Skeeter's nine had ejected a single shell as well.
I searched the floor, but didn't find a third shell. Not much chance I would, since the cops hadn't.
The window behind Syl's desk overlooked an alley. I went outside and scoured the pavement beneath the window. There it was: a nine-millimeter shell, no doubt fired from the gun that Skeeter had supposedly brought with him.
Not far from the shell I found a nine-millimeter bullet. It looked like it had never been fired, but it wasn't in a shell.
I pocketed the bullet and the shell and rode the elevator back to the studio. I stood in the reception area, staring through the door to Syl's office, imagining what had happened, what I hadn't seen, what I had heard without realizing it.
Interior, Syl's office, day. Syl and Betty are alone in the Inner Sanctum. They get into an argument over something. It turns physical. Syl pulls a nine-millimeter and shoots her.
Close-up of Syl. He's sweating, panicky. He creeps into reception and peeks down the hall to the editing room. He sees Jack working with the headphones on, oblivious.
Syl returns to the office. He gets a second gun, a revolver, from his desk. He takes a round from the nine-millimeter, pries out the bullet, jerry-rigs the shell into a blank, and drops it in the chamber. He phones Skeeter and asks him to come back with another score. He closes the door to the Inner Sanctum so Skeeter won't see the body.
Skeeter arrives. Syl tells him Betty left for a moment, maybe to get more money. Glancing at the security monitor every few seconds, he blows gas with Skeeter and waits for his opportunity.
Finally, Syl sees Jack on the monitor, walking into reception to get more coffee. He draws the revolver and shoots Skeeter. Thump. Then he fires the blank from the nine. Thump. He plants the nine on Skeeter, reopens the door to the Inner Sanctum, and tosses the third shell and unused bullet out the window. He opens the door to reception. Pan to Jack, standing next to the coffee machine and staring stupidly.
"Jack," Syl says, "could you come in here a moment?"
The elevator opened behind me, interrupting my storyboard. I turned and found myself facing Syl.
"They let me go," he said. "Finally saw the light and called it self-defense."
I took the shell out of my pocket and held it lengthwise between my thumb and index finger.
He stared at it for a moment. "What the hell did you go and get that for?"
"I heard the first gunshot," I said. "It was loud enough to cause sixty-hertz noise in your crappy studio. I didn't know what caused it until I heard the two thumps that got recorded while I was here in reception."
"Why'd you shoot her?"
"The crack got her wound up, so I slipped a pill in her drink to calm her down. We went into the Inner Sanctum. She seemed...willing. But she passed out halfway through. When she came to, she freaked out. Said I attacked her."
His matter-of-factness took me aback. "So you shot her?"
"Hell, Jack, she wanted to go to the cops! I didn't do anything wrong, but you know I would have got railroaded. Girl screaming rape, drugs, pills...I would have been done for. I didn't mean to shoot her. I just wanted to keep her in the Sanctum until I could calm her down. But she jumped at me and the gun went off."
"And I couldn't hear the shot over the headphones," I said. "So you decided to pin it on Skeeter. You needed me to hear two shots to corroborate your story, so you hacked this round into a blank."
"A trick I learned while I was filming Farmer's Revenge," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"You got me over a wire, Jack. Remember the promise I made yesterday? I can make good on a lot more than that."
I shook my head, grinning in spite of myself. "I gave up a lot when I came to work for you – a livable wage, a sense of self-worth – but now you're asking me to give up something that actually matters. I can't do that."
Syl's face hardened. "Try to prove any of this garbage with studio noise and an empty shell. It'll never wash."
"Only one way to find out." I walked to the editing room.
Urban Heat was still on the flatbed, rolling with the sound muted. It was near the climax. I was about to stop the DAT when I heard Syl behind me.
"Sorry about this, Jack."
I turned. He had a gun on me.
"I don't suppose that's a rubber prop," I said.
"No blanks in it, either."
"You think you can get away with shooting me, too?"
"You're not giving me a choice."
There was four feet of space between us, more than enough for him to squeeze the trigger if I rushed him. I could see Urban Heat playing on the flatbed behind him. I had worked on it so much, I could recall every edit, every sound effect, every line of dialogue from memory. I backed away from Syl until I was against the multi-tracker.
Syl glanced over the cassettes scattered around the room. "Which tape is it?"
"I'm not sure," I said. I kept one eye on the flatbed and watched an actor dressed like a cop ease down a hallway, gun in hand.
"Give it to me," Syl said. "Now."
"It's too late," I said. "The cops are already on their way. I called them before you arrived. You won't get away with it."
"You expect me to believe that?"
On the flatbed's screen, the cop kicked open a door. Behind my back, I flicked the kill switch on the multi-tracker.
The speakers screamed to life. "Freeze! Police!"
Syl whirled at the noise. I jumped on his back. We tumbled and knocked a speaker stand to the floor. Feedback thrummed, clearing its throat at eighty decibels. The gun slid across the room.
Syl struggled beneath me, trying to get to the gun. I picked up the speaker and slammed it against his skull. The feedback died. I hit him once more for good measure. When I was sure he was through struggling, I picked up the gun, stumbled to his office, and called 911.