I waited out of camera range
, holding the bridle on a saddled horse. Movie lights flooded the scene with brightness. The set was pin-drop quiet.
I let go of the bridle, slapped the horse on the rump, and stood back so the camera operator could capture the animal racing past. Just as the rider less horse entered a clearing, gathering speed to a gallop, a voice rang out into the silence.
"My stars and garters! Somebody's let a horse get loose. Don't just stand there, Mace! Come help me catch him."
An orange blur dashed into the animal's path, waving arms and yelling.
"Cut!" The assistant director put his fingers to his temples and massaged. I could tell him it's not so easy to rub away this kind of headache.
A short bald man in a bright red shirt kicked over a chair on the sidelines. "Security!" The word exploded from his mouth. "Would somebody grab the stupid hillbilly?"
A muscled guy in a baseball cap started toward The Hillbilly, a.k.a. my mama. Cringing, I stepped forward. "She's with me."
The short man came closer and leveled a glare. "And who the hell are you?"
"Mace Bauer." I offered my hand. He looked at it like it was bathed, palm to pinky, in manure. "I'm the animal wrangler."
"And I am not impressed." His leathery face scrunched like he smelled a load of hogs.
As I slipped my unshaken hand into the pocket of my jeans, Mama marched to my side. She smoothed her orange-sherbet pantsuit, fluffed her platinum hair, and straightened to her full four foot, eleven inches. The jerk in the red shirt may have had her by a few inches, but she had the Mama Glare, and it was set at stun.
"Well, who the blue blazes are you? All we know is you're a rude little man who has no idea how to talk to a lady. By the way, Florida's as flat as a frying pan, so I can't be a hillbilly, can I?"
Whispers and a few snickers traveled around the set. His beady eyes met her glare. "I'm the boss here. The top dog. Let me put it in terms you'll understand. If this movie set was a barbecue joint, I'd own the building. I'd own the chairs and tables. I'd even own the pigs. And I'd get to say who gets to sit down for dinner, and who doesn't."
Mama, brows knit, glanced at me. "Is he saying I can't come to his rib joint?"
"Well, I wouldn't want to go there anyway," she said. "I can tell you it'll never be as popular as the Pork Pit, which has been in Himmarshee forever. Not only do they have ribs to die for, they make the best peach cobbler, too. Besides, the folks at the Pork Pit know how to treat their customers. You certainly have a lot to learn about how to treat people . . ."
As Mama went on, I tried to imagine I was somewhere else. The assistant director massaged his head so hard, I thought he'd rub the hair right off his temples. Meanwhile, the old guy's face was getting purple. Jabbing his cigar, he looked mad enough to pick Mama up and toss her off the set himself.
Just then, a woman stepped up to him with a cell phone in one hand and a sandwich in the other. She whispered in his ear. He handed her his cigar, took the cell phone, and jammed half the sandwich in his mouth. Then he began shouting into the cell.
"What kind of idiot do you think I am? I'll have your ass in the courtroom faster than you can say breach of contract . . ."
He stomped away, Mama's transgression seemingly forgotten. As he left, little missiles of what looked like roast beef launched from his mouth. I pitied the person on the other end of the call. Even though the woman was almost a head taller than him, she had to run to keep up.
The assistant director scolded Mama through tightly pursed lips: "You ruined the shot. This is your first - and last - warning."
"It's her first time on a movie," I apologized, as he stalked back to the director's tent.
Next to us, the behemoth in the ball cap still loomed. "Don't worry," I told him. "I'll make sure she understands the concept of Quiet on the Set."
The three of us watched the departing loudmouth in red. "Who is he, anyway?" I asked the security man.
"You mean besides being a First Class Asshole?"
"Language, son," Mama said, but she was smiling.
"Norman Sydney. He's the movie's executive producer, but he thinks he's God."
* * *
"How was I supposed to know you let the horse go on purpose?"
"We're shooting a movie here, Mama. The scene is supposed to look like something bad happened to one of the kids in the family. The horse is spooked, so it races off alone."
Mama's bottom lip was set in a pout. The horse, in contrast, plodded along with no whining at the end of a lead rope. He seemed happy to be heading back to the movie's corral.
The Hollywood folks were in Himmarshee doing a film about the early days of cattle-ranching in Florida. It was supposed to be based on Patrick Smith's classic book, A Land Remembered. But I'd peeked at a script, and cows were about the only thing it had in common with the book. Supposedly, the new working title was Fierce Fury Past. Hired to handle the horses, I was using up vacation time from my real job at a nature park. It was a good chance to make some extra cash. Since the film was the most exciting thing going on in our little slice of middle Florida, Mama nagged me until I got her on the set, too.
After her embarrassing interruption, we'd done five or six more takes of the galloping horse. Bored, she'd wandered off to find somewhere she wouldn't get yelled at for talking.
Now, we'd met up again, and were about to have lunch. But first I had to return the horse. Still smarting over the producer's dressing down, Mama was uncharacteristically quiet.
Saddle leather creaked as we walked through a pasture. The horse's hooves thudded on a sandy path cut through a blanket of Bahia grass. A mockingbird sang from an oak branch.
Curiosity finally triumphed over Mama's bad mood: "Have you seen any of the Hollywood stars yet? I've got my autograph book all ready. Is that Greg Tilton as good-looking in person as on the screen?"
"It's just my first day. I'm sure I will see some stars, unless one of my family members manages to get me fired from the movie."
She narrowed her eyes. "Why would any of us want to do that?"
"Just don't bug anybody. And try to stay out of trouble, would you, Mama?"
"Me? I thought you were in trouble. I thought you needed my help with that horse. What kind of mother would I be if I saw you in a jam and didn't step in? Besides, it was that awful man's fault for jumping all over me. He's wound up tighter than granny's girdle."
A loud whinny sounded from the horse corral. A whicker came from behind us in return.
"Rebel, what's wrong?" I made a half-turn to run a reassuring hand below his mane.
Turning back, I plowed smack into Mama, who'd stopped in her tracks. Rebel's big head hit me between my shoulders. Mama gave a sharp gasp.
"Oh, my! It's that horrible producer, Mace. I can see his bright red shirt. Your eyes are younger than mine. Isn't that him, leaning against the corral gate?"
I stepped around her to get a better view.
"I hope he hasn't come to fire you," she said.
"It's him, Mama. But he's not leaning against the corral."
I took my cell phone from my pocket and hit speed dial for Carlos Martinez, a detective with the Himmarshee police department and my boyfriend.
Somebody had tossed Norman Sydney over the fence like drying laundry. The white, sandy ground beneath his body was stained, as red as his tomato-colored shirt.