UCLA film archivist and sometime film detective Valentino doesn’t take friend and former actress Beata Limerick very seriously when she tells him that she quit acting because of the curse on blond actresses. Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Thelma Todd, Sharon Tate… they all had more fun, but none of them made it out of the business alive, and according to Limerick, she wasn’t taking any chances. But when Valentino finds Beata’s body staged the way Monroe was found, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” playing on repeat; he knows Limerick’s death was no accident.
Police detective Ray Padilla doesn’t quite suspect Valentino is the killer, but he can’t let him off that easy. After all, the film archivist seems to be involved in more than his share of intrigue and death, which makes him a prime suspect. But Valentino is also a walking encyclopedia of Hollywood knowledge. When another washed-up actress is killed, the crime scene a copy of Thelma Todd’s last moments, Padilla enlists Valentino’s help in catching a serial killer of doomed blondes before he can strike again.
Brazen will become available December 6th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
KYLE BROADHEAD LOOPED a giant rubber band on the toe of his wingtip, aimed his leg at a picture of the director of the UCLA board of regents shaking his hand, drew the band taut, and let go. It zinged through the air of his office and struck the protective glass a tremendous whack, but failed to crack it.
“Plexiglas.” He snorted. “I might have guessed. The cheap so-and-so.”
“Why hang it at all, if you dislike him so much?” Valentino asked.
“I need the target practice.”
“One of these days you’re going to snort yourself into a case of sudden retirement.”
“Never. I am an ornament of this institution.”
“Make yourself more useful than one. You know how to tie one of these things.”
The professor looked up at his visitor, in a dinner jacket with both ends of his bow tie hanging loose.
“How come Dean Martin died again and no one told me?”
“It’s a party. Even here they throw them sometimes without writing ‘Torn jeans optional’ on the invitation. Seriously, if you don’t help me out I’m going for a clip-on.”
“Why stop there? Get one of those elastic things, so you can stretch it out and let it snap back when you tell a joke. Better yet, get one with a motor that makes it spin. Come to think of it, I’ll pick one up for myself. I can distract the next moneybags host while I spit those godawful cheese puffs into my napkin, then make my pitch for a donation.”
“Keep your shirtboard on.” The old academic got up from his desk, stepped behind the young film archivist, circled his arms around his neck, and tied. “What’s the occasion, and why wasn’t I invited?”
“Dinner party at Beata Limerick’s, to celebrate her newest acquisition. A cozy little affair of sixty or so. That’s as many as can stand on her balcony without finishing up in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard. As for why you aren’t on the list, you’ll have to take that up with Beata.”
“No need. You just told me.”
“Told you what? You get along fine with her.”
“Her, yes. Heights, no. If God had meant people to live in penthouses, He would have given them parachutes.”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you admit you were afraid of anything.”
“I confess to frailty on a case-by-case basis. Let’s keep this one between you, me, and the Lady Limerick. If Mr. Plexiglas gets wind of it, he’ll hold the next meeting in the Watts Tower.”
“Why’d you tell Beata?”
“I had to come clean the third time she asked me over. Contrary to the prevailing theory, I’m only rude to my close friends. There.” He spread his hands and circled in front of Valentino to inspect the result. “If you ever hope to replace me as this university’s chief procurer, you’re going to have to stop renting your tuxes out of Shifty Louie’s trunk in the parking lot. All you need in that getup is a towel on your arm and a phony French accent.”
“I’d make a better maitre d’ than a fund-raiser. I can twist a corkscrew, but not somebody’s arm. And I can’t make a bow out of a wet noodle.”
“Who said anything about a maitre d’? You always did aim too high.”
“Well, I’m off.”
“This time I hope you at least come back wearing a chinchilla coat.”
“Vicuna,” Valentino said. “It was a vicuna coat Gloria Swanson gave William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. And our relationship isn’t like that.”
“I don’t know why not. She signs one check, and that wet dream of an architectural project of yours rises fully intact from a cloud of dust, like in a cartoon.”
“I wouldn’t ask, and she wouldn’t offer, with or without the sordid details. She knows what it means to haul yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
“She should know. She married the guy who bought her the boots.”
It was true, to an extent. Beata Limerick had turned her back on stardom and fallen into a fortune.
That, at least, was the line taken by every feature writer in L.A. who’d succeeded in storming her parapets and scoring an interview, and from Valentino’s personal experience, he found no reason to question it. A town that chewed up and spat out female talent the moment it turned forty had no mercy for those who beat it to the punch, but she had done more than that; she’d rubbed its face in it and made it like it.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had been giving her the big buildup in 1967 (“Not since Marilyn…”) when she walked out on her contract, offering no explanation. The studio sued, then withdrew its suit when she handed the head of production a cashier’s check for the entire amount she’d been paid while on salary. The money was accepted, but not before a toady for Louis B. Mayer actually spoke the words, “You’ll never work in this town again.”
She never did; but then she never had to.
Six months after she quit, she married the chairman of the board of the corporation that built Century City. When he died, shortly before their fifth anniversary, he left her forty million dollars in cash and securities, a controlling interest in the corporation, and an additional sixteen million in real property, including four hundred feet fronting on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. She entered probate a grieving widow and emerged a charter member of an exclusive club: Together with Mae West and Greta Garbo, the former Bertha Liechtenstein of Santa Rosa (population 10,773), owned the largest tract of Southern California in private hands.
“I’ve even got a name for it,” she declared, with a chortle: “The Richest Bitches in Britches.”
They were standing on the balcony of her penthouse in Beverly Hills, looking out at the dusting of lights that was Los Angeles on a night swept clean of yellow-ocher auto exhaust. On evenings like that the horizon vanished, the hundreds of thousands of electric bulbs merging with the stars so that the city seemed folded in the firmament. She wore a low-cut evening gown and a wrap filmy enough to create the illusion of transparency, but opaque enough to filter out the effects of seventy-plus years on bare shoulders and bosom. Through it glittered the facets of a diamond choker, her only jewelry tonight, apart from the wedding set that had resided on her left hand for five decades.
Valentino had lied to Broadhead about the number of guests, knowing his mentor would never have let up on the gigolo jokes had he known there was only one.
“I don’t believe you,” he told her. “Kyle says only sane people question their own sanity, and no woman who is truly a bitch would admit to it.”
She smiled. It was an attractive smile, if a bit sad, and her bones were good. Time, not surgery, had been kind to the woman whom Hedda Hopper had declared “Hollywood’s Alice Roosevelt Longworth.” She was a force to reckon with at elegant parties. Coat-check girls who wanted to be starlets, starlets who wanted to be stars, and stars who didn’t want to be coat-check girls laughed at her jokes and gushed over her taste in clothing and jewelry, and came away uncertain whether they should worry more about Beata’s discussing them behind their backs or not discussing them at all.
“Dear boy. You’ll never be a grown-up until you stop warming over the wisdom of others. I had my coming of age at sixty, when I realized that half of what I knew I’d been told by Pietro.”
Pietro Jacobelli, squat voluptuary that he was, had been the Prince Charming who’d rescued her from cautionary-tale hell. Their marriage had been looked upon at first as the usual merger of beauty and loot, but brief as it was, it had proven to be the genuine article. She’d never remarried, although she’d been proposed to by men who could have increased her fortune many times over.
“He was just sixty when he left me,” she said. “Everything since then I went out and learned myself.”
“I have time, then,” Valentino said.
“Not as much as you think; which is the reason I wonder why you’re wasting it.” She laid her hand atop his where it rested on the balcony’s marble railing. “Why don’t you let me build that theater for you?”
Copyright © 2016 by Loren D. Estleman
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