Orson Welles was tempted to take a final puff. Too late. Cue music: Opus 31 of Le Rouet d'Omphale. Then came canned cackling before a sneering voice asked the radio audience: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Another cackle. “The Shadow knows.”
In fact he didn’t. He didn’t even know what came next in the script. Arriving as usual with a few minutes to spare, 23-year-old Welles had put down his cigarette, picked up the sheets of paper for the first time and nodded at the producer whose facial twitch was worsening.
Standing at a microphone in the centre of the studio, the other actors formed a tight semi-circle, shoulders almost touching, all in character except Welles. His Lamont Cranston role could wait. He was staring past Shrevvy, Cliff, Dr Sayre and Slade Farrow to take in Margo Lane. Her smouldering bedroom eyes could burn down a city block, Welles decided.
The play began. As Cranston, a wealthy man about town, Welles affected a fruity accent contrasting with the tough guy tone of Cranston's crime-fighting alter ego The Shadow. Welles’ performance was delicatessen-grade ham.
Margo, The Shadow’s socialite sidekick, dipped in and out of the storyline. The other characters also grasped a few moments of airtime before The Shadow returned to the microphone.
Thirty minutes later, somewhere in-between being reassured The Shadow knew and the final advertisement for Blue Coal (“Save and be safe with Blue Coal”), the hero solved the mystery of who’d been planting bombs around New York.
Out of her Margo Lane character, Margot Stevenson shook her head at Welles. “Late, always late, Orson. It’s hard to tell if you’re a naughty boy or a spoiled brat.”
“The former sounds more fun. Speaking of which, how …?”
Margot turned away, a “Goodnight” hanging in the air between them.
Manhattan was fixing itself an evening cocktail. Welles didn’t need a drink. He was hungry – again.
Jonah’s counter was crowded. Sliding into a booth by the window, Welles looked out at two bums arguing in the middle of the narrow street.
The quality of the air in the diner improved abruptly, the aroma of shift workers and fried fat replaced by something more fragrant. Glancing up, he hoped it was Margot. It wasn’t.
The woman was standing so close to the booth that her perfume invaded his senses, throwing him off guard. She had blonde hair in a sleek pageboy cut, pressed down by a small navy blue hat.
Leaning forward, she hissed: “The Shadow knows.”
A tap on the window. Turning, Orson saw it was one of the tramps. He swung back. The woman was gone. Then so was the tramp. What remained was a white envelope on the edge of the booth table. He tore the flap open. Inside, a stiff white card had been pasted with letters cut from a newspaper: “Find me or Margo dies.”
Welles was on the pavement in seconds, swivelling his head. The blue hat was bouncing through the crowds, making for the subway entrance.
Down the stairs he trotted and into a carriage, its doors shutting behind him. A glance back at the platform. Blue hat was standing there, smiling at him. In the carriage, two men in dark coats, too warm for the weather, pushed past Welles. Opening the storm door at the end the carriage, they made the risky steps into next section.
Tilting his head, Welles could see the men talking to a woman. Even with her back to him, she appeared agitated. The train began slowing into the next station.
A minute later, Welles was tailing the trio into the street. A Cadillac town car drew up, doors bounced open and a black hood was swung over the woman’s head. Her face turned in time for Welles to recognise Margot. Hero or not, he sprinted down the sidewalk, slapping his palms on the boot as the car took off.
"Need help, bud?” The patrol car was kerb-crawling, matching Welles’ sagging pace. Passenger side window down, the two policemen didn’t look like helpful men.
Welles’s summary of events earned him an invitation to the back seat. Siren on, the car barrelled through the traffic. Welles spotted the Cadillac sliding into an alley. Siren off, the patrol car came to a halt behind the parked Cadillac.
Bent almost double, Welles followed the two police officers up a darkened staircase. The lead officer used the butt of his revolver to bang on a door. “Police!”
The door edged open. A police boot kicked it hard. Welles tumbled through after the officers.
Standing in a tight semi-circle, the cast of The Shadow was waiting.
Margot Stevenson held out a script. “Next week’s storyline, Orson. You’ll note I’m kidnapped. We decided if you wouldn’t rehearse, we’d force you to.”
"All actors?” Welles asked. He didn’t wait for the answer, holding up his hands he said: “Guilty as charged. I surrender.”
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Copyright © 2014 GREG FLYNN