Temping in Hollywood can be boring or blissful or even brilliant. 2,886 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It’s an insurance company,” she said, idly swiveling in the black leather manager chair with the receiver cradled against her shoulder. “Yeah, Culver City. It’s in the movie business but as borderline as you can get. It’s all they had for me this week. I got bills to pay, babe.”
She looked up, startled to see a man standing over her desk. “Gotta go,” she said, hanging up the phone.
“Hi, I’m Brad,” he said, beaming down at her.
She straightened up. “I’m Sara from the temp agency,” she replied, “filling in for Todd Pierce’s secretary while she’s on maternity leave.”
Sara gave Brad a quick once-over: tan skin, angular jawline, aristocratic nose, blue eyes and blond hair. His perfect teeth glistened through a radiant smile.
“Welcome to Fortress Insurance.” Brad said and started to leave, then stopped. “By the way, how you were holding the phone,” he cocked his head to the side, “you’ll get a crick in your neck. Use the headset.
Is it a case of mistaken identity or masterful acting? 2,153 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
"I’ve solved the case."
In the name of showmanship, I had come through
the tunnel and into the house from the wine cellar,
though without any wine. Jade barely lost her composure,
greeting me as though I’d been expected. "I was wondering
how long it would take you to find the other end,"
she said. "Have you made any progress?"
She sounded genuinely hopeful.
"Yes. I even know who moved the body.
We should have champagne to celebrate."
I went to the fridge, lifted the metal cap off the half-filled
bottle of Taittinger, made a point of noticing that
that no pressure was released, and said,
"What do you know? It’s flat. Those things usually work so well."
"Well, tell me. That’s what I’m paying you for, isn’t it?
It wasn’t a superintendent of police, was it?
That would be too much to ask for."
"No," I said, taking a hit off the bottle. Only
private eyes can enjoy flat champagne. "It was you."
"Me?" Her eyes opened, but only by a fraction, with mild
indignation mingled with anticipation. "Why would I
move her, and where would I move her from?
Are you saying I killed her?" "Oh, no. That wouldn’t
line up with 1957. In fact, symmetry with the events
at The Spider Pool may be the only reason you took
the trouble to move her at all, since you only
moved her from the jacuzzi to the pool."
She smiled, indulgently. "Our screenplay
appears to have gone off the rails," she said.
Clues start coming together for the P.I. and his film actress client. Prose poem. 2,084 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Jade had walked me to my door the night before,
and draped one of the plumeria leis around my neck
before kissing me goodnight on the cheek.
Her breath smelled of apples, and in her eyes,
when she looked at me in close-up,
an irreconcilable cocktail of mischief and injury glimmered.
Who was she, I wondered, when she wasn’t busy being someone else?
So I climbed out of bed and into my ragtop woody
to stop at the "Made In The Shade"
nursing home in Sherman Oaks where Maggie Amberson
was playing out her string. My timing turned out to be good.
Carrying a box of profiteroles from John Kelly, a confectionary
in Santa Monica, I found her in a reasonably cozy room,
lying abed watching an early Jade Bellinger movie
streaming on Netflix. It had been her first starring role
and offered the pleasure of seeing a good actress
caught in the act of becoming great. She played
a high school teacher accused of having an affair
with one of her students. Somehow, she made this piffle believable,
walking multiple tightropes without ever missing a step.
A nurse nearly Maggie’s age, her name tag identifying her as "Millicent,"
shuffled in balancing a tray of lime jello, a scoop of mashed potatoes
and what appeared to be a cube of meatloaf with carrots and
peas around it segregated into their own little compartments.
She paused on her way out to glance up at the screen and mutter,
"She ain’t no Kate Hepburn, but she’ll do." I felt bad for her,
stuck in a deadly dull job where nothing new would ever
happen, unless you counted the patients passing away.
She didn’t even have the comfort of a glamorous past to look back on.
The film actress assists the P.I. in uncovering his father’s police past. Prose Poem. 2,257 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I found a stack of yellowing index cards.
On them, in scrawled handwriting I knew well from long-ago
Christmas and birthday cards, were my father’s case
notes about that night at The Spider Pool in 1957.
In pencil, he had created a maze of scribbles, cross-outs,
arrows, diagrams, rewrites, question marks, underlinings,
erasures, names I recognized and names that meant nothing to me.
I laid the cards out in what I thought was chronological order.
Once I had a handle on his system, I was able to follow his surmises.
At first, he had thought the girl’s secret sugar, Harold Lloyd himself,
to be the killer. But a number of witnesses had testified
to his presence at The Spider Pool when the girl’s life ended
in another location, and his suspicions fell upon Mildred Davis.
He’d gone exhaustively over the phone records
of all the principal players and found a series of calls
initiated by the girlfriend to the wife. He’d been unable to find
a scrap of hard evidence proving that a confrontation had followed the calls,
but it seemed not unlikely. At that point, he’d been stymied. He believed
that Mildred had put up with a series of minor and meaningless
physical collisions between her husband and various young models,
but that this time Harold had fallen in love with one of the girls,
leaving Mildred’s whole life suddenly situated over a fault line.
Then my father had been suspended and lost all official powers.
Elusive film actress hires P.I. to probe a mystery. Prose poem. 2,438 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was Halloween for eye-candy around the pool,
starlets, models, actresses of considerable reputation,
trophy wives on the arms of powerful producers.
But they were all extras on this set, a backdrop for Jade Bellinger.
Even the other professional glamour-pusses, present in the hope
of becoming the center of attention, couldn’t tear their eyes off her.
As a final proof of her allure, jealous wives, instead of glaring at
their wonderstruck husbands, had chosen to concentrate their own gazes
on the woman.
"Hello. I’m Jade."
It was gracious, though hardly necessary, for her to introduce herself.
She was the toast of Hollywood. She carried a kind of
deep effortless glamor not seen since the days of Garbo and Dietrich.
She had turned down Vogue and Vanity Fair covers,
and chose not to pimp herself out on talk shows or social media.
Said to be the most elusive interview in town,
she wouldn’t even go out on promotional junkets for her own films.
"You may be wondering why you were invited," she said.
It was a wrap party for her new movie, Seeds Of Doubt,
held at her home high in the Hollywood Hills.
"Are you familiar with the history of this place?" she asked.
"I know the legend, the rumors, nothing in particular.
Didn’t it used to be known as The Spider Pool?"
Everybody knows the dreams and desires of a Hollywood actress are ageless. 2,147 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It was too clichéd. That’s why I never forgave him. To drop dead after cutting the grass? Really? Just charmless.”
There was no venom in the old woman’s voice. In fact, her tone was coquettish — a little creepy now that she was in her late eighties. There was no venom in my thoughts either, even though it was my father she was talking about. He’d had a massive coronary when I was nineteen, when he was a few years younger than I am now, not to put too fine a point on it. At the time, I knew she was going to be more trouble in the years to come than he would have been. I’d felt guilty about thinking that then. But I was right. Yes, she was my mother. I watched her smoke her cigarette. She still did that coquettishly too.
“The rest of it was my fault. You know, my mother told me not to marry him. Hell, his mother told me not to marry him.”
I did know that. Because she’d mentioned it countless times, even before he was gone. Poor bastard — he’d been too stable for her, although that was exactly what she’d needed. And, after fleeing Germany as a teenager, he laughed at her rages and outrages. He’d become an accountant. He wanted something safe, probably because his refugee parents had run out of money in L.A. whilst on their way to Australia and initially survived thanks to tangential acquaintances with Thomas Mann and Billy Wilder back in the old country.
As for her, if you haven’t already guessed, she had been an actress.
A screenwriter uses every Hollywood trick to keep control over his project. 992 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Averill, no. We cannot make Jennifer an alien.”
“I didn’t mean alien, Zack. I meant… anything else.”
“I’m not changing her.”
“But now Jenny’s a—“
“I don’t know this Jenny. My character’s name is Jennifer. She was never a Jenny. She’s an Adjunct Professor of American Literature.”
“It’s not who she is, it’s not our story. There’s a thirty-second classroom scene, then she gets the call about her daughter—“
“Why’d she give up the daughter?“
“Did you read this, Averill? She had the baby when she was fifteen, gave it up for adoption, went on with her life.”
“As a sponge diver.”
“What the hell?”
The Venice Film Festival goes from great to horrible for these moviemakers. 2,233 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As they were packing, Philippe Renoir called to inform the filmmakers that they would finally be meeting their financier Errivo Monsour on the Red Carpet at the Venice Film Festival. After the screening, they would be swept off to his yacht for a lavish fête. Philippe dropped several A-list names before hanging up.
Cynthia spent the next three days in Beverly Hills trying to find the perfect dress. Harlan bought that Ralph Lauren tuxedo he’d promised himself.
Venice was not the picture postcard they’d envisioned. The late August weather was the equivalent of being locked inside a sauna that hadn’t been cleaned in months. The canals gave off the stench of rotting vegetables marinating in a dull brown broth. The streets were clogged with sweaty overbearing tourists. But at least the hotel didn’t disappoint. It was elegantly gaudy and the employees bowed and scraped every time the couple walked past. And room service was delightful.
The filmmakers had flown in a few days early to screen their passion project Monumental for distributors; several seemed genuinely interested afterwards but were loathe to commit until they saw the feature with an audience. The one firm offer they did receive, a direct to cable deal, they turned down flat. Monsour’s representative, Philippe, expressed his annoyance, he being of the bird-in-the-hand school. Harlan said he felt confident a distributor would bite after the premiere. But it was Cynthia who had to point out a contractual obligation he’d forgotte: in the agreements, both leading ladies had inserted a provision demanding a theatrical release. So no streaming services or pay channels were possible.
The Venice Film Festival was the culmination of their dreams. 1,719 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The source material for their project, an obscure novella called “Fork In The Road,” was the story of two life-long female friends whose paths diverge. One pursues a career as a medical researcher, the other becomes a hardened criminal. But in the end, it’s the latter who has the more emotionally satisfying life. She becomes an angel of mercy in prison, redeeming herself through altruism. The story was tersely written, and because it was delivered without even a trace of sentimentality or bathos, earned the tears Cynthia shed when reading it.
She passed it on to Harlan, who also found the story compelling but pointed out “as a movie it screams ‘woman’s picture.’ The only male characters are incidental. And before you give me ‘the lecture,’ I’m only telling you what every producer in town is going to say, even the female producers. Just trying to prepare you.”
Married just two years, but together for six, they’d discussed several co-scripting projects for Harlan to direct but so far nothing had jelled. Cynthia was keeping them afloat with residuals from a long-running TV series in which she’d been a supporting cast member, and a combination of TV commercials, voice-over work and guest-starring assignments. She was regularly cast in pilots, none of which ever went to series. Harlan, meanwhile was directing local theater and temping as a teacher.
Like many of their aspiring friends, they were just getting by, stuck in gear, in desperate need of forward momentum.
What happens when you fall for a showbiz wannabe who then becomes a somebody? 2,468 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When the film rights to Truman Blu’s novel, Better Off Dead, sold for two million dollars to Magnet Pictures, it was a triumph. Three days ago, the publishing rights had sold to HarperCollins for seven hundred fifty thousand, thereby creating the buzz that would make Truman Blu a rich man. Of course, the author was thrilled, but the huge sale also made Lolo’s boss, Peter Biro look like a star and Lolo basked in the reflected light.
Truman had been a struggling writer in the unincorporated town of Victor, Montana, and went from penury to riches overnight. A month later, he came down to L.A. for his victory lap. He arrived unexpectedly, and Peter was in a staff meeting. Lolo texted her boss, who texted back that she should take Truman to Starbucks and Peter would get there as soon as he could.
Lolo went down to the atrium to retrieve Truman. He rose from a Herman Miller sofa. It took a long minute for Truman to reach his full height. He dipped his head in the way of tall men and smiled. Those teeth. The man must have eaten nothing but candy as a child. Truman Blu, previous to this windfall, was a man who could not afford teeth. But Lolo saw past that. What she saw was a man bathed in the glow of genius. He had done the one thing she wanted to do, the thing she dreamed of doing as she wrote late into the night. Lolo had always been a sucker for men of literature. One drunken night back in New Hampshire, she had sucked on the tips of a man’s fingers just because he’d had a short story published in Ploughshares.
Is Jason going to spy on his celeb friends for a gossip mag? 2,304 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Beverly saw Jason sitting at a corner table under the heavy drape of bougainvillea. He looked like his dad with some of his mother’s refinement thrown in. He definitely wasn’t movie star material but he was cute. Beverly didn’t like her staff to be too great looking. It made them memorable. Memorable was definitely not good. A few years ago, she’d had a reporter with a purple streak in her hair. Jenifer Lopez referred to her on the red carpet as Juicy’s Miss Purple. Subsequently, the reporter had been thrown out of a posh hotel in Cabo because Jennifer’s security people recognized the hair and knew she was a gossipmonger.
Looks are fine, but not too out there. Jason could blend in wherever he went.
He stood up when she approached the table. She never saw that anymore, thought Beverly, who would have raised an eyebrow but that expression had been wiped out by Botox long ago. Melody must have been awake enough during his childhood to get some manners pounded into him, Beverly surmised. Actually, he’d learned that from Big Jack. Stand up, look them in the eye and shake hands, but only if they offered theirs first. “It’ll get you laid, I promise you." Big Jack had been right.
Beverly went into her no-nonsense mode, shotgunning questions at him. Asking Jason what he did for fun. What he read. Where he went with his friends. And what he was studying. Then she got down to it. Did he know Selena or Kendall? What about Demi’s kids? Does anybody still care about Britney Spears anymore? Is Jennifer Lawrence going to keep so private she’ll fade? Which clubs were hot right now?
Cop turned screenwriter Nick Chapel finds another body and puts his own in danger. 3,036 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I’m riding shotgun in the LAPD department issue Ford Taurus going south on the 405 and trying not to imagine the sources of the stains, tears and burned holes in the fabric around me. The seats are wide and the suspension spongy. My slacks and blazer will have to be laundered and even that may not erase the smell of fried food and cigarettes. I crack the window, but it’s not big enough to air out this kind of stink.
For the longest time Ayers says nothing, focusing on the intricate sequence of lane changes required when traveling through West L.A. and Culver City. He’s a meticulous driver, head on a swivel, checking his mirrors. Perhaps he was in the military, or played ball in college. I sense team sports in his background, but the lanky frame that impressed high school recruiters has gone soft.
“So you and Brandt were a team,” the police detective finally says. “I hear you didn’t suck. A real hard charger.”
“I liked putting the cuffs on bad guys.”
“Hard chargers burn out. That what happen to you?”
I smile at the jab, then explain, “I got a job on a TV show and it stuck. Now I’m a screenwriter.”
“I need you to just remember one thing: you’re not a cop anymore. So who is this mook we’re trying to find?”
Former LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel follows a lead in the serial murder case. 2,096 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
There is a reason I specialize in rewriting crime stories. It’s not just the compelling nature of murder, and the ease of breaking a second act that is propelled by the search for a criminal. It’s the simple motivation that drives the hero to his or her goal. No boring exposition is needed to explain why a police officer or private investigator endures trials and hardships to solve the crime and catch the villain. It’s simply what they do, and who they are. It defines them.
It’s the detective who doesn’t pursue the killer that requires explanation. He knows the criminal is out there somewhere. The same sun beats down on him. He wears sunglasses to cut the glare, just like I am, and maybe even a hat to protect his sensitive scalp. The same hot wind blowing in from the desert burns his lungs. I drive east, sketching out the backstory of a man I’ve never met.
He works in show business, or used to, but the reality never matched his dreams. That made him angry, enough to kill, but he’s no wild man ranting on Hollywood Boulevard about what might have been. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Intelligent. He has a plan and a place to do his work that must be private, where no one would notice his comings and goings, or the bodies he carries.
Driving through Beverly Hills, I wonder if he is shopping at this very moment. Maybe he is sipping a cappuccino at one of the coffee shops on Robertson, or eating lunch at the Beverly Center. But then he is probably more accustomed to brown-bagged lunches and black coffee from a thermos than hipster meetings at The Ivy. I settle into his shoes, and feel the weight of the implements he uses to cut his victims apart. I should be angry with my ex-partner, LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt for introducing me to this character, but only feel an odd gratitude. Finding Sid Shulman is the least I can do.
Screenwriter Nick Chapel is back on the LAPD beat looking for a serial killer. 1,894 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt spreads the files on the table. “Fair warning: these are pretty disturbing.”
“Worse than eyeballs?”
“Worse than eyeballs. The Starlet Stalker takes different body parts every time. We’re keeping the specifics out of the press. They know disfigurement is part of the MO, but not the details of what he’s taking. The first victim, Mandy Monroe, played the oldest daughter on the sitcom Daddy’s Home. She was found five weeks ago in a dumpster in back of a Pizza Hut on Pico Boulevard with her breasts cut off.”
Brandt slides the file across the desk to me. I brace myself, then open it, revealing photos of Monroe’s savaged torso. She lies naked in a tangle of garbage, her face frozen in a beatific gaze, a purse and its contents scattered around her crudely slashed torso. Where her breasts should be, eye-shaped holes reveal red musculature and white ribs. For a moment, it’s difficult to process the discrepancy between her external beauty and internal meat. I close the file.
“I flagged the case, but pegged it as a one-off,” Brandt says. “Figured some angry boyfriend or crazy fan, but I was wrong. The second victim, Victoria Foster, was in the teen comedy Senior Year. She got a lot of press from her nude scene. Her body was found in a half-pipe in a Venice skateboard park. Again the breasts.”
“Your guy likes the publicity,” I begin. “This town is full of hot young women, but he goes after the ‘it’ girls, the ones with heat on their careers. He makes no effort to hide the bodies. He wants you to find them. Leaves their purses to help you identify them. And he keeps killing even after you put him on national television. Talk about your ego strokes. This gives him something he’s missing in life, a feeling of importance, that his existence has meaning. I’m sure your profiler has told you he’s probably single, a loner, maybe the victim of abuse.”
LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel is consulted on a serial murder case. 2,272 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The elevator doors open at the lobby revealing Russell, the day man on the front desk.
“Mr. Chapel, are you okay?” he asks. “I caught the whole thing on the security cameras. Should I call the cops?”
“I’m fine, Russell. No need for the police, but don’t open the garage for them. Maybe they’ll miss their deadline.”
Finally, I let out a long sigh. I am home and safe behind metal gates, doors with biometric key card locks, and Russell with his security monitors and taser. With each passing floor, I feel cleaner and safer, high above the dirt, poverty, illegal-immigrant desperation, multi-cultural conflict, gangbanging violence, and star-struck disillusionment of the city below.
The doors slide open, and we are greeted by a reproduction Louis XIV side table topped with a vibrant bouquet of bird-of-paradise. There are only two condos on this level and Lee Chang stands outside the open door to my unit, no doubt having watched the entire affair on the security system inside. He’s not much older than my college roommate’s daughter, Megan Davies, but already a veteran of the industry. Three months as my assistant will do that to a person. Gone is the boy band haircut and saggy skateboard jeans he wore to his interview, replaced by dressy-casual attire from the vintage stores on Melrose. Right now he is bringing me up to speed with his usual efficiency.
“Housekeeping has the guest room all set up for Megan. Mel called about a deal at Paramount. Mrs. Henderson from next door is threatening to take you before the tenants’ board because of all the paparazzi outside. And you’re all over the news. The landline’s been ringing off the hook. Channel 4, Channel 7, the L.A. Times, Entertainment Tonight. I’m letting the machine pick up. What the hell happened?”
Which is worse on a TV shoot: wrangling insane directors or stupid executives? 1,850 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
You know it’s a bad day when the Network appoints an incompetent head case to be its new programming chief and the guy you chose to direct your latest movie turns out to be a fraud.
Let’s just call it a massive Xanax day.
My name is Ray Medly and after years of toiling in the fields and learning my craft, I now produce motion pictures, including theatrical features, movies for television and streaming video.
I’d begun shooting Wagons West on the same day Mascot Cable trumpeted the hiring of Truman Rombolt, the third member of a three person team of programmers at RBP Productions and the subject of much industry speculation as to what it was they were thinking when they hired him.
When it was announced he was to become Mascot’s new head of programming, a collective groan could be heard all over Hollywood.
"Clueless," was how one producer described him.
"A deeply disturbed human being," commented another.