To say Los Angeles isn't like other cities is a colossal understatement. People insist it's because La-La-Land is filled with nuts. And while it sometimes seems as if this is where every town in the country ships its most sanity-challenged, that's not it. Real life just isn't something we Angelenos take that seriously. But LA revels in its contradictions. It's a smog-tinted temple of eternal promise built on the shifting sands of make-believe. It proudly presents itself as the most laid-back of cities, when everyone schemes 24/7, and no one rests in their relentless quest for fame and fortune.
It's where people come to reinvent themselves, and some do it so well, their stories become more genuine-seeming than the mere reality of their actual lives. Angelenos celebrate their scandals on the front pages of the tabloids — proof that they've arrived. But with that much reinvention going on, the critical secrets are buried deeply. And anyone who tries to dig them up had better expect a fight to the finish.
Some also philosophize that LA's not a place at all but a state of mind. But it's a real place, all right. One with too many people and too many cars. I oughta know. I ran myself ragged getting around this sprawling geographical monster without the benefit of my own wheels. I would brag about not adding to the unending traffic snarl, but the only reason I relied on LA's inadequate transit system was that my over-the-hill Duster only started on days that had the letter X in their names.
Admitting to such a pitiful financial condition meant that I was either a homeless woman or a struggling actress. Naturally, it was the latter; homeless women were the lucky ones who dreamed of frittering away their pennies on non-essentials like food and shelter, while actresses reserved their fantasies of windfalls for the important things, such as makeup and clothes.
But I wasn't a total wannabe. I'd won some small parts — mostly from cablers; cable channels, that is — and I'd had auditions up the wazoo, if that was anywhere near as high as my eyeballs. I'd even gotten loads of callbacks; those were second-round auditions to civilians like you. But they almost always turned my agent down with a line I'd come to hate: "We liked her, but we decided to go another way." What way? Why wasn't it ever my way?
I'd be doing better, I felt sure, only I was saddled with some major obstacles. My name is — no jokes, please — Lorna Doone. Honestly. And my mom would be devastated if I changed it. So I endured the laughs for her, confident that she named me, as she claimed, after her beloved sister who died when they were girls, not something as frivolous as a cookie; that would comfort me, if only I could escape the knowledge of how much Grandma loved shortbread. Obviously, not all the nuts were here.
I was also cursed with the appearance of exactly what I was growing up — an Iowa farm girl. Oh sure, I had the cornflower blue eyes and silken blonde hair that Hollywood loves. But I was doomed by the rounded figure of someone not in end-stage anorexia and the dimpled cheeks that might as well be leprosy.
But inside, where it counted, I was pure Hollywood. I'd embraced this place with such a vengeance, I even thought in show biz trade-journal-lingo. You know — stuff like, "Sticks nix hick pix," which meant that folks living in a rural area hated a movie about folks living in a rural area. And "My career is crappola," which happened to be true.
Since both day-jobs and time for auditions are necessities for actors, we have to be creative about employment. Being a terrific hoofer and warbler — dancer and singer, that is — I applied for a job delivering singing telegrams. But once the boss heard my name, he had a giant rubber cookie suit made for me. Now I delivered Cookiegrams. I'd have said it wasn't a bad gig — but I had no idea how much trouble a cookie suit can get a girl into until the devil tried to kill me.
The day it happened was bad from the get-go. The cookie-gig had picked up some adequate coin at first, but novelty's everything in this town. Now that interest had faded, if I wanted to stay above the line — that was on-budget in civilian-speak — I had to supplement my income. So I took a second job conducting graveyard tours. For real. Tourists revel in standing on the spot where celebrities departed for their Final Journey. Especially if there was something suspicious about the way they departed.
My favorite LA burial ground, and the one where I gave most of my tours, was the Westwood Memorial Cemetery. Located a stone's throw from UCLA, sheltered from bustling Wilshire Boulevard by a couple of office towers, and down a hard-to-find path, was a peaceful little oasis that contained more dead stars tucked underground than the Oscar red carpet held above it.
The members of the Dead Hollywood Elite buried there had always drawn great interest. But visitor numbers had skyrocketed since the whispers about Wendell Kale, the late leading man, began to circulate.
Even back in the pristine fifties, when the public was expected to believe that movie stars led the kind of sanctified lives to which nuns can only aspire, Wendell was known as quite the ladies' man. It was also an open secret that Wendell, dubbed The Candyman by insiders, dispensed drugs to his famous friends. While it was never clear where he got the stuff, even in those innocent times, the combination of Hollywood and drugs hardly raised eyebrows. Now a tell-all book on the verge of publication supposedly claimed that Wendell had been gay. Even more interesting was the contention by the author of Kiss of Death that all his male lovers had died under mysterious circumstances.
But my day didn't start out at the cemetery. It began with a Cookiegram I had to deliver to some birthday boy in downtown LA. The trek from the guesthouse I rented out in Santa Monica to downtown would be an arduous one by bus, even if I hadn't overslept. LA did have a subway, of course. However, it only went for 1.7 miles. In a city that covered more than five hundred square miles, that was of less value as transportation than a Disneyland ride.
Standing on the bus in my cookie suit and tap dancing heels wasn't fun, especially since I carried a large tote bag filled with the boom box that played my dancing music, the cookies I gave the recipients, and the clothes I would change into for my graveyard gig. At the very least you'd think I'd have drawn a bit of attention by way of compensation, but nobody even looked my way. That how it was here. Everyone assumed that anyone in a costume was coming from or heading to a movie location. Ho-hum. Just another cog in the machinery of what was really a company town.
The bus slowed near the entrance to the Westwood Cemetery. Some production company had set up there for a location shoot. White trucks, some holding props and equipment, and others in which rows of tiny dressing rooms had been build, filled both sides of the street; while grips — those were the guys who worked behind the scenes — wheeled lights and cameras to a driveway up the block. I gazed longingly at the dressing rooms, thinking with a wistful sigh, about the lucky devils in those rooms that had acting jobs.
Whoa! I didn't know I was so powerful. As soon as I thought the word devil, I conjured up the actual thing. One of the dressing room doors flew open and a man in a devil costume leaped out. He wore a small black skullcap, on which a pair of horns had been attached, over his lumpy shaved head. The rest of the costume — red tights, red cape — looked like standard devil fare. But his geeky black-framed glasses struck an odd note; you'd think someone so powerful could do something about his vision. The devil threw a furtive glance over his shoulder and disappeared down the path to the cemetery. Meanwhile, my bus inched on, making my entire day increasingly off-schedule.
The lousy day's only bright spot appeared when I showed up at the birthday boy's office door. I'd delivered Cookiegrams to doctors, lawyers, an Indian Chief once at a casino, and oodles of studio execs — but never before to a PI. Now I found myself standing outside a door whose lettering read: "Leon Hart, Private Investigator."
Wow, this was gonna be cool. I'd loved mysteries since reading stacks of Nancy Drews under the covers by flashlight as a kid. I did feel a bit of a letdown when I opened the door and discovered the waiting room looked like that of any other business, with a small oak reception desk and blue guest chairs. Only nobody occupied that desk now. If I didn't get through this Cookiegram fast, I was going to be late for my tour.
"Hello," I called. "Anybody there?"
After a moment, a man appeared in the doorway that led to the rest of the suite. He was a tall, rangy man in his fifties, whose sapphire eyes sparkled with sardonic amusement, within a fan of laugh-lines cut into skin burnished by the sun. Central Casting would have made him the aging cowhand who always had a trick up his sleeve. That he wasn't my idea of a private dick should have disappointed me, but I found his look of amused affability appealing.
"Hi there," he said, while holding a cell phone at his side. "You the temp the agency sent over?"
I gestured to the cookie suit. "In this?"
He shrugged. "The last one thought she was a seal. I had to keep throwing her sushi if I wanted to get any work done."
I laughed and told him about the Cookiegram his wife had ordered for his birthday.
"Yeah, she never knows what to get for me," he said with a sigh. "Hey, would you mind watching the phones? I'm on an overseas call. I have to tell a pair of Japanese parents, through an interpreter yet, that when I found their runaway son, he was in the county lockup. We'll skip the cookie thing. Whattaya say?"
I tried to refuse, but he was gone before I could complete the sentence. But hey, he didn't want the Cookiegram, yet his wife had paid for it. The least I owed him was a little time. Besides, the idea of working for a PI, even in this limited capacity, was a lifelong fantasy. And there were actual case files on that desk to snoop through. Next to show biz, I love snooping more than anything.
Despite the difficulty I had sitting in the cookie suit, I squeezed myself in the desk chair and yanked the first file folder off the stack. Clipped to the front of it was a handwritten report. I ignored that, naturally; I might watch the guy's phones, but I sure wasn't going to do his typing.
After flipping that folder open, a couple of photos stared out at me. One was of some dweeby-looking guy in his twenties, whose closely shorn hair revealed a head shaped like the shell of some knobby nut. His murky eyes were narrowed as if he had been squinting when the shot was snapped. He looked familiar to me, but I couldn't place him. There were no shortage of dweebs in my dating history, so who could say.
The next photo was a studio publicity shot of the late Wendell Kale. For being a legendary stud-muffin, no matter which way he swung, Wendell wasn't as great looking as you might think. His shoulders were a little narrow within the gray suit he wore, and his hips looked a little fleshy. But his rugged facial bones, coupled with burning black eyes Rasputin would have killed for, and full lips that curved crookedly into an absolutely wicked grin, made the overall package work.
Remembering the tell-all book about to hit the shelves, I wondered whether Leon, the PI, had done research for it, maybe turning up something even juicier than the rumors. I turned back to glance at his handwritten report. But no, the case had nothing to do with the book. Some family had simply hired Leon to find their missing son — he of nut-shaped head fame — who was believed to be in LA because of his obsession with Wendell Kale lore. He's dead, kid, I thought.
Tossing that folder aside, I turned to the next file in the stack. This one contained lots of photos. One was a wedding shot of a bride and groom, circa 1980, judging by the wedding gown's massive shoulder pads. The young bride beamed up at her groom with happy devotion. But while the thirtyish man smiled for the camera, the stiffened arm around his new wife looked more like an attempt to push her away than draw her close. I gave the other photos a peek; they were all candid shots of heavyset middle-aged men, any one of which could have been the groom today if he'd pudged out.
Leon returned and said, "Thanks, Cookie-lady." He saw the file I was studying. I thought he'd gripe about my reading it, but he perched on the edge of the desk for a chat. "That's a funny one. The groom went out for cigarettes on his wedding night and never came back. Now the wife wants a divorce so she can get married again. The trouble is the guy had his fingerprints burned off before they were married, and that makes it tough to ID him."
"And that didn't tell her something about him?" I asked.
"No accounting for love," Leon said, his sapphire eyes twinkling. "Anyway, I've narrowed it to these five guys. I'm hoping she can pick out the right one."
"It's this guy," I said, taking one of the shots from the fan of five." When Leon looked skeptical, I went on. "No, I mean it. See the way his knee turns in his pant leg in the wedding shot? Like it's twisted? He probably broke it when he was a kid and it wasn't set right." I held out the candid photo. "Now look at the way the knee turns here. This guy's the only one whose leg works that way. The rest of him might have aged, but some things don't change."
Leon looked at me with speculation. "Actress?"
Would anyone else wear that getup and dispense cookies to strangers?
"You ever decide to quit acting, see me about a job, okay?" Leon said. "You're a natural, kid."
Give up the biz? Right. Still, it was flattering that a genuine PI thought I had such potential. All those sleepless nights spent reading Nancy Drew had not been wasted.
Since Leon and I talked about a few more of his cases, I was late by the time I reached the Westwood Boulevard stop. And I hadn't taken the time to change from my cookie suit, as I'd intended to do when I left his office. If my tour group had gone already, I was going to get fired.
Practically tripping off the bus, I ran to the cemetery, hop-scotching among the graves, so intent on my destination that I didn't pay attention to my surroundings. I did notice that my tour group, with their Deader than Disco badges, was still there. But those folks weren't as jovial as groups typically were. I wasn't aware of anything else — until I almost fell into a hole.
The cemetery was so tiny that the management always put up a cautionary sign when digging a grave. Had I missed it in my haste? No, there was none of the backhoe's neatness about this hole. Someone had simply started to dig up a grave.
Wendell Kale's grave, I realized, once I oriented myself. Where I usually started my tour. My somber tour members stood at the side of that hole. Near them was the devil I'd seen when the bus passed that way earlier. And he held a young girl in front of him with a gun to her head.
Absently, I realized the devil was the dweeby-looking guy in Leon's file. The kid whose family thought he might have been here on a Wendell pilgrimage. Good guess on their part. No wonder he'd looked familiar to me when I saw the photo; I'd seen him from the bus on my way downtown. My guess was that the whackjob stole whatever costume happened to be in an empty dressing room, in the hopes of disguising himself.
The hostage's terrified eyes begged me for help. With the other tour folks frozen in fear, I had no choice. I decided to act as if I saw nothing strange about the situation. This was LA, after all.
"I'm Lorna Doone, your Deader than Disco tour guide," I said, angling my cookie suit so I could slowly inch my way around the hole. "Today we'll..."
"Don't come any closer or I'll shoot her," the devil cried.
Someone must have told him that Hollywood loves clichéd dialogue. Or maybe he'd seen a movie lately. But obviously, normalcy wouldn't work. In a flash I bent for the shovel and swung it his way, so startling the devil, he released the girl. She stumbled into the hole, where the people from the tour rescued her.
But then the devil pointed the gun at me. Before I could devise a strategy, he fired. Fortunately, he'd lost his geeky glasses somewhere, and though he squinted, he obviously couldn't see me well, since the shot went wide.
The tour group folks took cover, leaving me alone. I wasn't going to wait around till this guy could better his aim. Letting off a scream, I turned and ran toward the street.
But in the concrete corridor between the buildings, even with my taps echoing loudly, I could hear the devil's footsteps trailing me. My mother always told me if I went to Hollywood, the devil would chase me, but I hadn't believed her. I remembered there was a casting office in the high-rise building next door. I'd auditioned there once, but they went...you know..."another way."
I threw the lobby door open and raced inside. A guard sat behind a desk. Yes! I was saved.
But he didn't help me at all. Instead, he said, "They're filming down the street, not here." Then he returned his gaze to his copy of Variety.
What was wrong with the people in this town? Was everyone blind to reality?
The hell with him; I'd hide in the casting office. Hey, maybe I could even see what they were reading for today. I mean, I'd be there anyway. A moment later that sounded reality-challenged even to me. Get a grip, Lorna, I thought. The only thing you're auditioning for here — is murder.
I punched the elevator button. But then the door to the lobby flew open, and the devil ran in.
This time the guard didn't bother to look up. "Filming's down the street," he muttered.
I dashed to the stairs, threw the door open and pulled it shut behind me. There was a lock in the handle, which I turned.
Climbing stairs in the cookie suit was brutal, but so was getting shot, I'd heard. That motivated me. On the third floor, I raced out and ran toward the casting agency's suite.
Folding chairs lined the corridor outside the office. People waiting to audition, I knew from experience. Today those chairs were filled with men in drag, some with makeup ineptly applied, and others who had done such a good job with it, I wondered about them. They all held pages from scripts and practiced lines in whispers.
I realized I knew two of those guys from an acting class we'd taken together. "Hi, Gerry and Nick. What are you reading for today?"
"A pilot for the fall season," one of them said.
"A cross-dressing detective," the other supplied.
The elevator doors opened and the devil ran out. He fired at me once more. This time the shot went high. But it was enough to get all those guys to hit the deck, where half of them probably ran their pantyhose.
With nowhere else to go, I threw open the door to the agency and dashed inside. I ignored the receptionist studying a script at the front desk and ran back to where I remembered the casting inner sanctum to be.
When I burst into it, some poor guy, wearing his mother's floor-length dress, I'd guess, was reading the lines in a high falsetto. Along the far wall, seven decision-makers sat behind a couple of long tables. The five men and two women all wore Hollywood casual clothes: garments that looked as tattered as something a homeless person might fish from a Dumpster, apart from the crisp dry-cleaning creases. They probably spent thousands for them in Beverly Hills boutiques and would donate them to a thrift shop when they went out of style tomorrow.
I could see from their looks of impatient boredom that they were no more than an instant away from stopping the guy's reading with the inevitable, "Thank you. You'll hear from us." Which meant he would die and become fossilized without hearing anything at all. Before them was a smaller table for actors who preferred to sit for their readings. And on the table were some props: a baseball bat, a can of chicken soup, and a book; improvisational tools.
When the devil ran in behind me, still waving his gun, the guy in his mom's dress ran out. But the decision-makers merely smiled in anticipation, as if they were expecting this audition to be good, considering all the creativity I'd brought to it.
"Call the police," I shouted, as the devil fired at me again, getting closer this time. I hid behind the little table.
The casting agents didn't even flinch at the shot, despite the blast that rattled the room. To these people, reality wasn't what actually existed in the world out there, it was what they put on the screen, what they first saw here. And reality held no danger for them.
"This guy's good. Really looks like a woman," one of them said to another. To me, he said, "Let's see what you look like without your cookie suit and wig, fella."
"I'm not a guy, I'm an actual woman," I said, as the devil and I raced around the table.
"An actual woman," one of the casting guys mused. "It's a different way to go, but I like it."
"Call the police," I cried again.
"That's enough, honey," another one said. "The audition's over. Now we need to talk."
They were hopeless. I took the can of soup from the table and hurled it at the devil's gun. Since I throw like the girl I am, I couldn't believe when it connected. The gun fell to the floor and slid all the way to the corner. Then I grabbed the baseball bat and kept swinging at him. When he finally slumped to the floor, I still took no chances. I sat on the devil's chest.
"Corn-fed," one of the decision-makers muttered to another. "You can always tell."
Like I was a heifer or something. Hey, I was only a size eight; some people considered that slightly smaller the Goodyear blimp.
Knowing I'd never pierce through their Hollywood bubble, instead of calling again for the police, I merely requested a cell phone, something my own financial state didn't permit. In a room with seven other people, twenty-three phones were thrust at me. I used one of them to call 911.
The excitement didn't die down with the devil's arrest. Especially not when the cops learned he was Donald Kale, son of the smarmy TV televangelist, the Reverend Webster Kale — and the grandson of Wendell Kale. I gave Leon a heads-up call about the dweeb in the devil suit, and he contacted his client. Webster was on the tube, sobbing and begging for bucks for the legal fund, before his son, crazy Donald, had even been booked.
The cops finished Donald's exhumation and tested to see if the stiff and the devil actually were related. But that was when things got interesting. It seemed Wendell wasn't a Wendell at all, but a Wendy.
Young Wendy had won a college scholarship for chemistry, only she got knocked up by some Southern tent preacher and married him. Yet Wendy's dreams weren't of either chemistry or college, but movie stardom. One day she took off, leaving her husband and son behind. Only Hollywood slammed its doors in her face. She was a biggish girl, and not a good-looking one at that. As a woman, she repelled the camera. But when she impersonated a man, the fickle camera fell in love.
It wasn't clear whether her preacher hubby realized what had become of his wife. But his son, Webster, who raised his daddy's operation to new levels, certainly knew. He reared his own son with talk about the shame of his grandmother's male impersonation. Donald grew up a twisted young man, obsessed with grandma's sin. When word about the forthcoming book leaked out, Donald decided to bring her body home before anyone could discover the truth.
So Wendy wasn't gay. She was a straight woman who occasionally slept with straight men. While she often used her chemistry skills to synthesize drugs for her friends, she also made the poisons she fed to her lovers, so none could reveal her secret. They exhumed those bodies, too. The Medical Examiner was pretty impressed with her concoction. He said Wendy could have been a brilliant chemist, if she hadn't become a leading man.
The tell-all book died, of course, since what it told wasn't true. But all the books written since about the scandal have filled the bestseller lists.
Things worked out great for me, too. The publicity brought me lots of work. Best of all, those casting agents actually went my way. I landed the starring role in the first TV detective show about a cross-dressing PI. They figured an actual woman, playing the part of a man dressing as a woman, would add to the appeal.
In the wake of the Wendell/Wendy business, it might have worked, only the writers were too young to read so the scripts were abominable. Still, we lasted a whole season, long enough for me to snag some new wheels, so I could take part in the LA traffic mess, as every real Angeleno should.
Even after the show went off the air, I didn't lack for work. No more Cookiegrams and graveyard tours for me. But as great as my new celebrity was, it wasn't as much fun as I had that day. From the time I made those connections in Leon's files, and then took on the devil and saved — if not all of civilization, what passed for it in these parts — I was in my element.
One day I walked away from show biz and accepted Leon's offer of PI training. Did I miss acting? How could I? I acted all the time in my new line. I was the woman who sat next to you at the beauty salon and wormed from you the secret of your phony disability. Or the girl who watched you enter that motel and reported to your wife whether or not you were there alone. Best of all, I'd reinvented myself, and that made mine a real LA story.
But once the biz is in your blood, you never get over it. I still thought in the trade-journal slang. Couldn't shake it. And that's why this story isn't simply over now, it's...