The Trigger Episode (2007)
"A debut in the Chandler tradition..." — Kirkus Reviews
"The author, a veteran sitcom writer, keeps the proceedings moving along at a nice, light clip, and he obviously knows his way around a television studio and its assorted personalities. " — Booklist
Hardwick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, falls from a grace, and to survive he's now part of the Hollywood paparazzi. Television star Bonnie Quinn disappears before taping her 100th episode (The Trigger Episode) and Hadwick's hired to find her. As Hardwick searches for Bonnie, he runs into old journalist girlfriend Meddy, who treats him with disdain. But a suspicious death re-teams him with Meddy and Hardwick grapples with his feelings for both women, his hope for redemption, and the solving of The Trigger Episode.
Empire Studios is a small lot as they go. Hobby Horse is the largest tenant with long-term leases on two sound stages and over half the production offices and ancillary facilities like dressing rooms, make-up, wardrobe and construction. For that, Monte Arnett rides ungoverned, where he wants, as fast as he wants, his business-modified NHL mullet flapping, holding the fate of security guards in his meaty hands.
We zipped past Stage 2, where Hobby Horse taped its phenomenally successful sitcom, Thanks for Sharing. The elephant doors of the hulking, beige hangar were paintedwith the show logo in tall letters above a billboard-sized mural of its star, Bonnie Quinn, looking skyward, one arm draped on a telescope, the other hand on her hip, in her trademark pose of sassy defiance. Her face was as big as an Encino garage door. “Thar she blows,” I said.
Monte ignored her image looming over us. “Yup. Stage 2. Biggest on the lot.”
“Is that to fit her ego, or the crypt for all the writers she’s had fired?” Silence. What was that about? Not only did the whole town know about Bonnie’s outrageously difficult personality, the nation did. On any given week there was a story about her latest antics splashed on the cover of a tabloid or leading the teasers on Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood. With her foul mouth, drug abuse, drinking, sexual wildness, violent temper, and public verbal abuse of cast and crew, she carried the torch of the over-the-top sitcom diva into the new millennium, occulting Roseanne, Brett Butler, and Cybill, who never even came close. And so the tone from Monte struck me as strange, loaded with avoidance.
The door handles of the Hobby Horse executive offices were a single brass hobby horse, split down the middle on either side of twin tinted glass panes. Monte cupped a hand under the rocker and opened one side to let me in. Notably, the first time a studio employee at any level knowingly allowed me in a door, let alone held it for me.
“He’s still in a screening,” said the assistant in the library-quiet upstairs suite. She had a serious air and cum laude grooming. Attractive, but no dummies allowed on Elliot Pratt’s outer perimeter. “But go in. He’ll be wrapping up soon.”
As I followed Monte into Elliot Pratt’s office with my requisite free bottled water, I surrendered to the butterfly in my stomach. Had I really seen Meddy in that van? How many times before had I seen her only to discover with a turn of her head in the produce section of Gelson’s, or an adjustment of her bangs in a Lexus on Coldwater that it wasn’t Meddy after all? Of course it was her. There was eye contact. Recognition. But what did I see in those eyes besides surprise? Any chance it was forgiveness?
“So, you decided to show.” Elliot Pratt carried a lidless banker’s box filled with DVDs and scripts, which he tossed with a clatter beside his desk on the way over to me. He shook my hand with one of those shakes that pushes you away about an inch.
“Guess you could say there was an incentive,” I said.
“He wants us to drop the suit,” said Monte.
“Bullshit. You offered to drop it. I’m still ready to fight it and win it.” Contentious of me, but fuck ’em. Whatever the junk sculpture my life has become since my wunderkind days of the war and the White House, the one thing I cling to is my inner compass. The needle always points moral north. Some ground I’m just not made to give. It gets me in a lot of trouble, but some trouble’s worth having.
Monte started to retort, but Elliot jumped in. “You’re right. I authorized Monte to suggest that offer, so let’s agree the lawsuit is off and have our meeting.” Elliot gestured to the love seat while he took the rocker. “We have bigger fish to fry here.”
Monte bristled and looked uncomfortable in the wingchair. His gut buttons were spread, giving me unwanted navelage. Monte Arnett was the only person I knew who could make a Nat Nast bowling shirt actually look like a bowling shirt. “Sorry if I’m still pissed off. Those shots of yours killed our paramedics pilot, you know.”
“I didn’t tell your male lead to wear a Klan robe to a spring break party on a public beach. Besides, looks like you survived.” I scoped out the antique furniture, the pale yellow walls with sage wainscoting. And the bookcases lined with gilded first editions beneath framed original maps. “This what independent production buys you?”
“You know what they say,” said Elliot. “A sure way to make a small fortune in independent production is to start with a large one.” The executive producer rocked back and forth, smiling, bygones forgotten, let’s be friends. I had heard about Elliot’s charm. Kennedy charisma was the phrase everyone liked. When People did its Hollywood Power Elite issue, they boldfaced his profile with “Camelot on the Backlot.” That’s just the sort of bloated PR I’m always looking to blast out of the water, but I could see where it came from. He was blond and 80s rock star-tousled instead of dark and wavy, but the Boston accent, the athletic carriage, and the air of relaxed privilege made for a first impression if not of Camelot, then a more evolved species of TV producer. Yet, there is something about a forty-year-old-man draping tennis sweaters over his shoulders that says artifice. The Jack Kennedy rocker suddenly seemed a pose. I decided to remain resolutely uncharmed by Elliot Pratt as he rocked and smiled. “I think this is your meeting,” I said.
“Bonnie Quinn is missing and I want you to find her.” Elliot paused and let that pause hang, and when he was sure I had absorbed it and that he owned the conversati on,he said, “I know this is a bombshell. You must have a lot of questions.”
“What bombshell? I mean, she’s gone AWOL before, right? Is she using again? Off on a lost weekend?”
Elliot spoke evenly, sounding very Hyannis Jack, “Let me say one thing very clearly. I have no firsthand knowledge of any drug use by Bonnie Quinn. She was put in a facility once by her manager for a medical condition. She assures me that is all taken care of.”
“No elephant in this living room,” I said. They just stared. “If you’re worried, why not call the police?”
Elliot shook his head. “That’s a nonstarter. This is too delicate to let outside the circle. The circle being the three of us in this room. And her manager.”
Monte crossed his legs, flashing some halibut calf. “You go to the cops with this and next thing the Channel 5 helicopter’s circling, news vans are camped outside, and the gate’s knee-deep in paparazzi scum.”
“No offense,” I said. “Next question: Why me?”
“Because you found her before.”
“Twice,” added Monte.
Elliot rose to pace. “Know what this week is? The end of Season Four.”
I nodded. “Critical mass for syndication. A hundred episodes.”
“Wrong. Ninety-nine. Episode One Hundred was supposed to be this week. I should be at a run-through right now. But we can’t shoot the episode without our beloved star, and she is—who the hell knows where this time?”
“Lots of shows go into syndication on less. What’s one episode?”
“It’s contractual. This episode triggers all the big numbers. It’s cash, it’s financing commitments, bonuses, back-end points. But, you see, with all she has cost me on this show – and not just heartburn, I mean actual costs – in reshoots and shut downs and lawsuits and perks and demands... Well, I’m not going to open my books here, but the deficit I have to cover personally on each episode has me upside down.” As Elliot laid out his money woes, all I could think of were my own. It was like that Far Side cartoon where the man talks at great length to his dog, and all the dog hears is its name. The “Blah-blah, Ginger” part for me was my cold sweat over Rudy’s next move. Elliot sat heavily, as if another year had left him. “It’s as simple as this: If we get Episode One Hundred in the can, I am the ramblin’, gamblin’ wonder boy who rode the wild pony and it paid off. If we don’t, I’ve actually lost money on this series. I am one episode shy of make-break, and I cannot get there unless I find my God damned star.” Elliot leaned close and whispered, “Will you help me?”
I gave it a decent pause so as not to appear rude. “Sorry.”
“We’d pay you,” Elliot said, and, for a blip, I wondered how much. But to raise the question would steer me down a road I wanted off of. I didn’t have to ask, though. He named a figure. “Monte says that’s was your rate for your biggest picture this year.”
I nodded. “Close enough. But, see, I’m not a bounty hunter. I take pictures.”
“Simple as that,” said Elliot.
“Simple as that,” I said.
“Don’t you hunt for people so you can take their picture?”
“It’s an ethical thing.” Monte scoffed and Elliot gave him a reproving look and I continued. “I’ve always been a journalist. There’s a line for me between capturing a picture and, well... a person. Or working for a company I may end up covering.”
“And what’s the problem with that?”
“Conflict of interest. How do I know you aren’t just finding a way to spiff me so I’ll back off a little. Or hesitate next time I’m at a beach bar on spring break.”
“Are you really that cynical?”
“I’m that experienced. I know how things work, Elliot. I’ve seen how things work. That’s why I hold a line.”
“And how big is that line?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Big. And clear.”
Monte must have taken some cue because he unbuckled his briefcase and tossed an envelope onto the coffee table in front of me. I didn’t need to open it. I’d seen enough movies to know what it was. “Is it this big?” he said. I tried not to stare, but I knew they saw through me. That envelope must have held my top Get, times three. Maybe four. “Tell me something, Hardwick,” said Elliot. “When was it you sold your last picture?” When I didn’t answer, he added a ball-squeeze. “Monte tells me things aren’t going so well as they used to. Must be a big adjustment after being the king.”
I hated them for playing me like that as much as I hated myself for not walking out. But I felt immobilized by the tug. How could I not after the week I’d just had? After the alley that day? Knowing another collection day was coming, and it was double? “This is Tuesday. Find her in time for a Monday table read and that envelope’s yours.” It was fat. It was the end of my worries. No. Fuck these guys. I slid my feet under me, got ready to stand up and just go. Then Elliot told me how much was in it. My mouth tasted of chalk, same as it had between the dumpsters when Rudy rattled the cage.
“So, do we have a deal?” Elliot asked.
© Tom Straw, 2007