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Petit Morts #9: Critic's Choice

Critic's Choice cover

Critic's Choice by Josh Lanyon

Series: Petit Morts #9
Length: Novelette - 15,430 words - 60 page PDF
Cover artist: Jordan Castillo Price - see larger cover
ISBN: 978-1-935540-18-2


JCP Books' edition of this title is out of print.
See http://joshlanyon.com for more info.

 

 

Summary

If there’s one thing film critic Crispin Colley can say about his ex-boyfriend Rey, it’s that Rey likes to remain friends with all his former lovers. Rey’s a friendly guy. Maybe too friendly, judging by the incident that drove the first and last nail in the coffin of their relationship.

But now Rey’s been hired for a DVD commentary on a classic horror flick. In typical Rey-fashion, he’s used his clout as a lauded director to win Cris a spot on the commentary right beside the star of the film, his idol, Angelo Faust.

The recording of the commentary goes about as smoothly as a half-decayed film through a stuttering projector…but that’s nothing compared to the strange scene that unfolds once the tape’s done rolling.

Excerpt

What the hell had he been thinking?

The minute he saw Rey’s car, Cris knew he’d made a mistake.

That 1964 fire-engine red Mustang convertible symbolized everything that had gone wrong between them six months ago. That was not the car of a guy who planned on settling down anytime soon. That was the car of a player. A player in every sense of the word.

Hey, nothing wrong with that. Unless you were trying to build some kind of relationship—life—with the player in question. In which case, if you had any brains at all, you’d pay attention to the signs, which happened to be about as obvious as bad news in a goat’s entrails.

Well, it was too late now.

Cris slammed his own car door shut and walked briskly up the flagstone walk to the house. The landscaping consisted strictly of grass, dark green hedges, and tall Tuscan-style cypress trees. But there all resemblance to sunny Tuscany ended. There were no flowers, no fountains, no color or life at all. It reminded him a bit of Forest Lawn. The estate itself was nearly large enough for a cemetery. Twenty-nine acres set in the hills above Sunset Boulevard.

Cris spared a grim smile for the hunched stone gargoyle peering around the dormer window three stories above. From the outside at least, the house looked exactly as you’d expect Angelo Faust’s home to look: creepy.

But creepy in a severe and stately way.

The wind, one of those legendary Santa Anas that periodically scoured the Southland in the late summer and early fall, whispered through the maze of hedges. Unease rippled down his spine. He hated the wind. Would always hate the wind.

The mansion entrance consisted of forbidding wrought iron scroll double doors. Cris touched the doorbell and jumped at the sepulchral moaning sounds that bounced off the portico. That got a quiet laugh out of him at both his own reaction and the sense of humor behind the trick doorbell. The Whiterock Estate would have been a huge hit with the neighborhood kids. If there had been any kids—or neighborhood—in walking distance.

The doors swung open soundlessly. A very tall, very bony man in black trousers and black turtleneck studied Cris for a few unimpressed seconds.

“Hi. I’m Crispin Colley. I have an ap—”

“Oh, yes.” The tone was more like Oh, no. “Mr. Faust and the other gentleman are in the screaming room.”

Was this human fossil Faust’s PA? Butler? A misplaced zombie from one of Faust’s later films?

“Screaming room?” Cris let the inflection that suggested gentleman was doubtful, pass.

The fossil raised a single disapproving eyebrow. “Screening room.”

Cris had excellent hearing, sharpened through years of listening closely to fuzzy, terrible old movie soundtracks. He began to be amused.

“I didn’t catch your name.”

“I didn’t throw it at you. I am Neat.”

“I’m sure you are.”

Neat didn’t crack a smile. “This way, Mr. Colley.”

Cris followed Neat down the vast center hall. Three tall archways adorned by carved woodwork and decorative moldings offered a glimpse of a grand staircase and two corridors leading east and west.

Baguès crystal chandelier, wrought iron wall sconces, a marble bust of Louis XIV, a large marble-topped table, silver candlesticks, cloisonné boxes, and marble benches…it was nice to see that Faust had fared better financially than some of his contemporaries.

Neat, sounding like a bored tour guide, said, “To the west is Fhillips’ Grand Ballroom, the Garden Retreat, Gentleman’s Study and Salon d’Art. The east corridor leads to the Library, Drawing Room, Morning Room, Solarium and the Salon de Thé.”

“Impressive.”

“Possibly.”

Cris bit back a smile, but his amusement faded as he realized he was going to have to face Rey in a minute or so. It was irritating to realize how nervous he was. He’d known when he accepted the offer from Dark Corner Studios that Rey was the other commentator on the voiceover of the legendary The Alabaster Corpse. The film’s director, Paolo Luchino, was long since dead, so Rey would be offering his insights along with Faust, who had starred in the film. Cris wasn’t sure why the studio thought they needed a third opinion, but he wasn’t about to turn down the project. If it wasn’t a problem for Rey, it sure as hell shouldn’t be a problem for Cris.

“The theater is this way.” Neat turned off another hallway, this one lined with framed posters of Faust’s most famous releases, starting with 1956’s The Island of Night.

There was no poster for The Alabaster Corpse, but then it wasn’t one of Faust’s major works. It was a cult favorite, having caught the critical attention of film historians and reviewers in recent years.

Cris knew all Faust’s films. He’d seen them all many times growing up, and he’d watched them all again before he’d written Man in the Shadows, the one and only filmography of Faust’s work. The filmography Faust had declined to authorize or even be interviewed for. In fact, given how steadfastly Faust had refused to contribute to the filmography, Cris had been more than a little surprised to be invited to take part in the project. Surprised but thrilled. Dark Corner was repackaging and releasing Faust’s early films in a sumptuous five disc collection. The studio must have backed Rey’s choice, which underscored just how much clout Rey had these days.

Rey, on the other hand, was an obvious choice for the project. The critics—with the exception of Cris—were hailing him as the new Wes Craven. There was even a rumor that Rey might be luring Faust back to the big screen.

Good for Rey, if it was true. Cris didn’t grudge him his—well, maybe he did a little. Better not to go there.

Speaking of going places, they had apparently reached their destination.

An open door led into a home theater papered in old-fashioned red and gold stripes and complete with slanted floor. Thirteen plush theater seats were arranged in a half moon. Crimson draperies hid the screen.

“Mr. Colic,” Neat announced.

“Colley,” Cris corrected automatically. Though he was looking straight at the elderly man who rose and came to greet him, his focus was on the room’s other occupant.

Rey.

Cris’s heart sped up just as though he’d received a bad shock, just as though he hadn’t known the whole time that he was going to see Rey again. He was not looking at him, not even watching him out of the corner of his eye, really, and yet he was painfully conscious of Rey’s motionless figure. Cris suspected that even if he closed his eyes and turned around three times he’d be able to pinpoint Rey’s exact location in any room. Reydar.

He forced himself to concentrate on the man before him. There had been a time when the opportunity of meeting Angelo Faust would have wiped out all other considerations. That needed to be true again if he was going to get through this afternoon.

Even at seventy-something (assuming the age on his official bio was close to being correct) Faust was unnervingly handsome, almost angelically so. The surprise was that he was so much smaller than he looked on the screen. Of course, people did shrink with age, but Faust couldn’t have been much over five eight even in his youth. He was about five six now. His hair was still—well, no, that was a wig, actually—was thick and black and curly as it had been in his youth. His eyes, those wonderful expressive light eyes, were still bright, still so blue they made you blink.

“So you’re Crispin Colley.” Faust didn’t offer his hand or a smile. He scrutinized Cris with those amazing eyes, and his expression suggested skepticism.

“It’s an honor, Mr. Faust,” Cris said, and he meant it. To finally meet Faust…all his intentions of playing it cool, keeping a little professional distance, went flying right out the window. He offered his own hand. “I’ve been a fan since I was…gosh. Forever.”

Oh God. He was gushing. But maybe it wasn’t a bad thing because Faust unbent slightly and shook hands, albeit briefly.

“Christ, you’re young.”

He wasn’t really. He was thirty-three, but thanks to genetics and a very fast metabolism Cris looked younger. Sometimes it was an asset. Sometimes it was a pain in the ass. Not as much of a PIA as it had been in his twenties.

He opened his mouth to make some disclaimer, but Faust waved it aside. “No, no. I merely expected…someone different.”

Who? Cris managed not to ask the question. He probably didn’t want to hear the answer.

Faust turned away. “I think you know Mr. Starr.”

“Rey,” Cris said automatically.

Not for the first time, Cris wondered what it was about Rey. He was good-looking, but not in a Hollywood way, not in a stop-you-in-your-tracks way. He was a little over medium height, square-shouldered and compact. His face was strong and sensual. His eyes were a very light hazel, his hair dark. His hair was longer, but other than that he looked disconcertingly unchanged. What had Cris hoped to see? Shadows and pallor? Some sign that Rey had suffered a little over their breakup? Suffered as Cris had?

“Cris.” Rey was holding out his hand. It seemed a little formal, a little weird to be shaking hands with someone you’d once—but really he didn’t want to start thinking like that. Did not want those images in his mind any more than he wanted to slo-mo through Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Cris pressed his palm to Rey’s, tightened his fingers. The mechanics of a handshake. The last time he’d touched Rey it was to take a swing at him. The swing had not connected. Rey had grabbed him and then let him go, and they had never spoken directly—let alone touched each other—again.

It was strange to hold hands, to feel that warm, strong grip, even for a few fleeting seconds. Strange, the memories that seemed to be waiting in the wings to rush the stage of this moment.

It was Cris who let go. Cris who stepped back.

“How do you like the setup?”

“What?” A second later it dawned on Cris what—duh—Rey meant. “Nice. Very nice. It will be great to see this on 35mm at last.”

Rey turned to Angelo, though he was still addressing Cris too. “Okay, just to run over the basics. The plan is to record this as a feature-length, screen-specific commentary in one session this afternoon. The studio is hoping for an extempore but informative audio track. They’ve been slammed for the commentary on some of the other releases in the Tales from the Vault series, so they’re hoping to recoup a little credibility here.”

“Once again looking to me to bail them out,” Faust said.

Rey didn’t even blink. “Angelo, you’re doing anecdotal stuff and reminiscences. Cris, you’re doing the film background, significance to the genre, et cetera, and I’m talking about the film from a technical aspect. Is that pretty much what everyone expected?”

Cris nodded.

Angelo said, “No drinking games?”

Rey laughed. “Maybe later in the film.”

Angelo winked at Cris. Cris smiled back with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. Everyone liked Rey. He was easy to get along with. Sincerely charming. He liked people and they liked him. The fact that he was a two-timing, cheating adulterer was beside the point. It really was, because other than the fact that Rey couldn’t keep his pants zipped, he was a great guy—and a very good director. Including Crispin in this project had been typical of him. He liked to stay friends with his ex-lovers. Hell, when it was possible he liked to stay friends with people he’d fired from sets. He was a nice guy. A nice but tough guy. That was the word in Hollywood.

They weren’t in Hollywood now, though.

“We have two options. We can watch the film first, make notes, and then record our commentary on the second viewing. Or we can just view it cold and say whatever pops into our heads.”

“I haven’t seen this film in over thirty years.”

“It’s a great film,” Cris couldn’t help saying, and that time Angelo actually beamed at him. Yes, it looked like the ice was breaking. Too late for Cris’s book, but it would make for a better audio commentary.

“Personally, I think it’d be great to get your first reactions on seeing this film again after all that time.” Rey turned to smile at Cris. “And knowing Cris, he’s already viewed the film a couple of times and made his notes on it.”

Given the fact that Rey was smiling, and that making digs wasn’t his style, he probably didn’t mean that in a derogatory way, but Cris was nettled all the same. It just underlined the difference in their styles. Cris liked to do his homework and Rey liked to wing it. Or, in other words, Cris was staid and uptight and boring and Rey was creative and innovative and exciting. No news there.

“If it’ll float your boat,” Angelo said breezily.

Cris recognized that too-grave expression on Rey’s face and his own mouth twitched in an automatic, quickly repressed, grin.

“Anybody have any other questions?”

Cris shook his head.

“Then let the curtain rise.”

They took their seats in the front row behind three mic stands. Rey sat down next to Cris and began to explain how to use the high-powered mics. Angelo sat on the other side of Rey.

It was too cozy with all of them lined up in the front row; Cris would have preferred they spread out a little, but it would have entailed repositioning the mics and in any case, would have surely looked ridiculous. Why weren’t they doing this in an editing bay at the studio? Not that he seriously objected to getting to visit Angelo in his lair.

Angelo pressed a button on the remote control. The overhead lights dimmed.

He pointed the remote and the crimson velvet curtains slid slowly open to reveal a 130-inch screen.

Rey settled back and stretched his long legs out. His arm brushed Cris’s on the rest. He asked quietly, “You have enough room?”

Cris moved his arm away. “Yep. I’m good.”

Rey smiled at him.

Don’t. Just don’t. Cris smiled politely back and stared straight ahead.

 Angelo pressed the remote again.

Anticipation of the movie relieved some of Cris’s uncomfortable awareness of his proximity to Rey. Whether he liked it or not, it did feel very natural sitting here like this. They had watched a lot of films together.

Angelo pointed the remote again.

The screen before them stayed gray and blank.

Angelo swore and pointed the remote behind him at the light in the small projection room behind them.

Still nothing.

Rey began, “Is there something I can do?”

“No.” Angelo hit intercom in the center console. “Neat!”

Silence.

“What the hell is he doing?”

A rhetorical question if there ever was one.

“Why don’t I take a look?” Rey began. “I have a lot of experience with everything from projectors to—”

“No. No. Absolutely not.” Angelo punched the intercom button again. “Neat!”

With an exclamation of impatience, he rose and left the theater.

“Run, Neat,” Rey murmured as Angelo disappeared down the hall.

Cris acknowledged with a little huff of amusement.

A couple seconds passed. It was so quiet he could hear Rey’s wristwatch. How weird was it to sit here side by side alone in the dark? But to get up would be obvious. Cris forced himself to relax his limbs, to at least offer the illusion that he was at ease and perfectly comfortable—and wasn’t jumping every time his arm brushed Rey’s.

It wasn’t easy.

And it didn’t help that he was trying to present this picture of ease to the person who knew him better than anyone else in the world.

“How’ve you been?” Rey’s voice sounded abrupt.

“Fine. You?”

Rey nodded. He turned his face and Cris caught the gleam of his eyes. “You look good.” The glimmer of his smile was rueful, flattering. “You look great.”

“Thanks.” Grudgingly, Cris added, “Congratulations on the Saturn Award nomination.”

“Thanks.” Rey rubbed the edge of his thumb against the tip of his nose. One of his little mannerisms when he was bored or nervous.

He clearly wasn’t nervous, so…good. Polite chitchat out of the way. Cris slid lower on his spine and stared up at the in-ceiling speaker system.

“I heard you’re working on a book about Hammer Film Productions.”

“Just Hammer Horror. The gothic films.”

“You’ll be going to England for research, I guess?”

Cris nodded.

“When? I’m going over in October for the British Horror Film Festival.”

“I haven’t decided.” Cris continued to study the shadowy ceiling with its decorative moldings and seven mounted speakers.

Hopefully Rey would get the message. It probably wasn’t very sophisticated of him, but Cris didn’t want to be a good sport about their breakup. He appreciated being included in this project, but he didn’t want to be friends with Rey. He didn’t want to let bygones be bygones. Rey had broken his heart and maybe that was a cliché, but it still hurt like hell. He still wasn’t over it. He was still angry—although that probably wasn’t rational. Like being mad at a cat for chasing mice.

They could work together. Cris was a professional after all. A grownup. But they weren’t going to be pals. He wasn’t going to be another Teddy or Evan or Mark or Phil.

He couldn’t handle it. He wasn’t built that way.

The speakers suddenly crackled and ominous organ music poured from the sound system overhead. Both Cris and Rey jumped—and then laughed sheepishly.

A hooded figure flickered on the screen, time code numbers burned in at the bottom of each frame. The figure began pouring potions from jeweled flasks. The camera panned slowly to skulls littered on the floor of a tomb. The hooded figure hurried past and spared a kick for one of the skulls.

Cris had always loved that shot. It was so outrageous. Especially for 1963.

Rey reached the remote control as the credits flashed up. He pressed and the screen froze on the image of the hollow-eyed flying skull.

Angelo returned. He was a little out of breath but impressively spry for a man of his age. He took his seat. “What did I miss?”

“We’re fine. We can re-sync the audio. I just want everyone to remember that the mics are hot. So if you don’t want it potentially on the audio track, keep it to yourself.”

“Got it,” Cris said.

Angelo waved a lazy hand.

Rey pressed the remote. The credits began to roll, the jagged graphics looking like the black and white embodiment of a migraine.

The Whole Shebang

The Petit Morts Series

#1: Hue, Tint and Shade by Jordan Castillo Price
Yellow is as yellow does.

#2: Slings and Arrows by Josh Lanyon
It's a fine line between "secret admirer" and "stalker".

#3: Moolah and Moonshine by Jordan Castillo Price
If you ever go to France, watch out for those ticklers.

#4: Other People's Weddings by Josh Lanyon
Pulling off the perfect wedding can be murder.

#5: Spanish Fly Guy by Jordan Castillo Price
A new twist on liquid courage.

#6: Pretty Ugly by Jordan Castillo Price
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...usually.

#7: Sort of Stranger Than Fiction by Josh Lanyon
They always say to write what you know.

#8: One Less Stiff at the Funeral by Sean Kennedy
Chocolate makes everything better. Even a eulogy.

#9: Critic's Choice by Josh Lanyon
It was a dark and stormy night. No, really, it was.

#10: Wishink Well by Jordan Castillo Price
You can't get something for nothing.

#11: Happily Neverafterby Jordan Castillo Price
All's well that ends well.

#12: London Eye by Clare London
Give credit where credit is due.

#13: Spirits and Second Chances by Sean Kennedy
The past can come back to haunt you.

#14: Just Desserts by Josh Lanyon
Pick your poison.

#15: Loose Change by Sean Kennedy
If there's one thing you can always count on, it's change.

#16: Media Naranja (Other Half) by Clare London and Jordan Castillo Price
There's someone for everyone.

#17: Immortal Coil by Jordan Castillo Price
Love is more than skin deep.


 

Reviews

Fans of old horror movies, will appreciate the hallmarks of those movies coming to life for the guys and giving the reader a creepy ride along with them to their happy ending. - Tam, Brief Encounters Reviews

 

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