A Darcy Lott Mystery
This month and next, as we launch our occasional By the Book excerpt series, we’re honored to bring you the initial chapter of Power Slide: A Darcy Lott Mystery, on the brink of release by Berkeley’s Counterpoint Press. The third in Susan Dunlap’s latest series featuring a sleuth who’s also a stunt double, the thriller opens with heroine Lott on location at the Port of Oakland, where she’s positioned for a power slide—a dangerous trick in which she falls off a bike and skids under an 18-wheeler. It’s all off the grid from there.
“Where the hell is Guthrie?”
“He’ll be here by call. He always is, Jed.”
The second unit director nodded, and I subtracted a big bite from my account in the Stunt Doubles Bank of Trust. This gag was part of a sequence in the planning for over a month. I’d been to the preproduction meeting, noted the storyboarding, and choreographed my part. My name would be in the credit roll. I always want gags to go right, but this one was special: it could make or break my future. Not to mention my neck.
We’d had a top-notch wheelman in on the planning and ready with his truck, but he’d downed some bad crab last night and it’d been all he could manage to lift the phone this morning. So I’d called Damon Guthrie. I’d vouched for him, promised he was a quick study, had a good resume, and, most important now—was reliable.
“You’ve known him a long time?”
“Never missed a call.” That I know of. “He’s on his way.”
“Driving the rig?” A flash of fear—economic fear—whitened Jed Elliot’s already pale face. I’d worked with him before—turned a busted fire gag into a showstopper and left him grinning ear to ear. Still, every time I saw him I was struck by what a worrier he was. So, I swallowed a retort and went for over-the-top reassurance.
“Guthrie’ll get here. Listen, he’s the best. He’s modified that rig of his till it’s like a Swiss watch. He hits a button and the payload swings like a salsa dancer’s butt. He’s invested everything in that truck. He’s not going to blow this chance to recoup.”
“Yeah, but rehearsals—”
“Tell him what you want and he’ll make it happen.”
“Minimally, he’s going to need to scope the layout.”
“Sure. But we’re on a loading dock here. It’s an easy drive. He comes full speed around that corner onto the pier, starts toward the ship. I’m riding the bike, catch the tire in a rut, and do a fall, go into a power slide. He jackknifes and I go straight under his truck. He’ll handle it.”
Jed shot a glance at the second unit crew—the camera operators, lighting guys, wardrobe mistress, and landscapers making final adjustments to an arbor that would hide a camera—along with everyone else hanging around, waiting for the truck to arrive and the day’s shoot to finish up. If Guthrie threw off the schedule and sent the shoot into tomorrow, paying the Port of Oakland for an extra day would pretty much blow the entire second unit budget, if we could get the dock at all.
Already the lighting tech was eyeing the bank lights he’d used for a dusk shot, and it didn’t take a mind reader to know he was gauging how long he could stretch “daylight” without losing continuity. We might squeeze out another quarter of an hour if we shot against the beige buildings rather than the cargo ship, but then there’d be no point in being on the dock.
The photographer from the Oakland Tribune who’d been clicking away when I did the first half of the gag had left, but the woman from the San Francisco Chronicle was after the city angle: San Francisco Girl Makes Good. She wanted to catch me coming out of the slide, and I wasn’t about to turn down publicity.
Jed was staring at something on his clipboard. “I don’t know, Darcy. It’s a split-second gag. If he screws up, there’s no leeway. Without rehearsals—”
“We’ll handle it.”
Jed looked dubious, as well he might. A moment passed before he said, “It’s your head. The rate this fog’s flooding in, we’re not going to get more than one shot.”
“I need to do a final run-through.” Need to get out of this conversation and hope to hell I’m right about my good friend Guthrie.
I loped toward the end of the pier. Mo Mason, in the camera cart that would be running next to me for the close-up, tooled it alongside me now. At the end of the dock, he cut in front and started bitching about Guthrie. “You sure about the guy?”
“Never seen him fail.”
“You know him . . . well.” It wasn’t a question.
I thought we’d been more subtle.
“Listen, I’ve worked with Guthrie before,” he went on, “but that doesn’t mean I know him. Nobody does . . . except maybe you?”
I stared down at him. “He’s always shown up, right? Always aced the gag, right?”
“Yeah, but used to be he’d cut it close, then pull out the gag, and afterwards he’d take the crew out for a beer. By the end of the night he was everybody’s best friend and no one remembered that half hour cooling our heels. But the last couple of times, it was just shoot and I’m out of here. No drinks, no jokes, all business . . . like he was a different guy, you know?”
“Actually, I don’t. Haven’t seen him in a year.”
“But you’re the one who vouched for him. Aren’t you two—”
“No.” I forced a grin for him. “It’s complicated. And anything but full-time. But I love the guy even when he’s off my radar. Uh-oh, look at the fog!”
The startling wall of white was banked thick and high behind San Francisco across the Bay. Only the Sutro Tower was holding it back. Jed Elliot was right: in a few minutes it’d stream over Twin Peaks and flood down the hills into downtown. Then, in a flash, it’d be across the Bay and turning our shoot into mush.
Where the hell are you, Guthrie? No problem, you said. You’d be on the road by ten, here by four.
I understood there was a wildness about him. But I’d always been a sucker for that in a guy, something I wasn’t about to admit at this particular juncture. Guthrie’s intensity burst out full force when he plotted a stunt, tossing out ideas like Frisbees to see which would be caught and brought back in, hunting down the cable with the least give or the most, finding an angle no one had tried, pushing the limits with each gag. But he’d always kept that wildness under some control, like a thoroughbred in a fenced pasture. And as far as I knew, he had never, ever, blown a gag or held up production.
Until now. Where are you? It’s my neck on the line here!
And it’d be my body if I didn’t do just what I told Jed I’d come down here to do—mentally run through the gag one last time. I had the feeling Mo was thinking similarly. Driving the camera cart wasn’t the same as doing the stunt, but it wasn’t tooling along the freeway, either. You had to be alert for obstacles, figure where to move in close, gauge your speed, all the while keeping your target front and center. More than one cart guy had ended up on the paramedics’ gurney.
To be continued in September.
Excerpted from Power Slide: A Darcy Lott Mystery by Susan Dunlap, © 2010. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.
For our September installment of the Power Slide click here.
Susan Dunlap, the author of 24 mostly local mysteries to date—fans have come to expect a new fix every year—was once dubbed “The Bard of Berkeley.” Actually, though, Dunlap—a former social worker, a Zen Buddhist, and a full-on Peet’s Holiday Blend addict—lives just across the border in Albany. For more inside info about this prolific local treasure and her haunts, check out Dunlap’s website, susandunlapmysteries.com, and our May 2007 profile, “Berkeley Bard,” at themonthly.com.
Susan Dunlap reads from Power Slide on Thursday, Aug. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley. For info: (510) 704-8222 or mrsdalloways.com.