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Hollywood's famed Brown Derby restaurant oozed and bubbled with celluloid celebrities every day of the week and today, the fourth Friday of 1941, was no exception. It was one of the peak places to see or be seen by those who counted in the film colony. The buzz of a hundred voices competed with the clatter of crockery. Stars appraised other stars and fluttered eyelids or threw he-man smiles at prospective directors and producers. The directors and producers in turn cruised around the tables, sizing up the merchandise on offer.
When a pudgy, black-clad female appeared in the doorway, all the activity stopped dead. She lunched there once a week on random days and her presence always had the same effect. The diners broke out in cold sweats. The eyelids stopped fluttering and the he-man smiles went limp. But only the brave or foolhardy shunned lunching there for any length of time. Absences created rife speculation. Staying away too long was tantamount to admitting you had something to hide.
The fawning head waiter bowed to the figure in black so many times it made those watching go giddy. As he led her to the best possible table she nodded vague acknowledgements to those nearby. An uninformed onlooker may be deceived into thinking she was just a rich middle-aged lady who handed out big tips and had nothing more on her mind than her forthcoming meal. The victims though of Louella O. Parsons, correspondent for the Los Angeles Examiner, whose column was syndicated around the country, and host of the Hollywood Hotel radio program, knew otherwise. Not even the knot of a tie or the angle of a hatpin escaped the scavenging eyes of the gossip guru. Foryears she and her arch adversary from the Los Angeles Times, Hedda Hopper, whose column Hedda Hopper's Hollywood was also syndicated nationwide, had fought pitched battles to out-scoop each other with Hollywood scandals. It had made them both such big winners in the power stakes that either of them could make or break careers at will. The two were masters at gathering scraps of gossip and manipulating them into full-blown stories the public would almost kill to get hold of. Outsiders call Hollywood Tinsel Town. Insiders call it The City of Fear.
Cinamon Spark, a young reporter who'd been given a big break on a rival paper, the flagging Globe, sat watching the charade. Queen Louella holds court, she thought, as every waiter on the Brown Derby's payroll danced attendance to her.
Cinamon smoothed out a crease in the lilywhite cloth covering her table as a swarthy man aged in his early fifties, bald apart from a thin hedge of gray hair running around the back of his head, pushed aside a frond of an indoor potted palm and seated himself beside her. He tugged at the lapels of his crumpled black jacket. "Didn't think I'd make it," he said. "Got held up in traffic. I hate those journalists' conferences but the bosses expect me to put in an appearance. There's no way I'm going back again this afternoon."
"I wouldn't mind going," said Cinamon. "I've never been to one. But anyway, what gives, Blackie? Why were you so anxious for me to meet you here?"
Joe Blackman, recently appointed editor of The Globe, renowned for his black humor, black moods, and black soul, didn't believe in wasting words. His dark eyes fixed squarely on the green cat-like eyes of Cinamon. "The owners of The Globe are paying me big bucks to save it from going down the gurgler. The wider the circulation, the bigger the bucks. Get the picture? And what do you think sells papers? Big front page headlines like, 'Which country will be the target of Hitler's next blitzkrieg'? Or, 'Beef barons doing battle over boundaries in Texas'? Not a chance. Some stories swell the circulation for a day but it ain't Hitler and it ain't Texas that keeps it swollen." He turned his head away from Cinamon until he was gazing towards the table where Louella was perched. "It's the poison pen of that witch over there," he said, inclining his head. "Hers and 'Grass' Hopper's. The lives of the 'reading public', and I use the term loosely, aren't complete unless they're being shocked or scandalized by the gruesome twosome. Their own lives are so devoid of meaning they have to feed off other people's. The twisted side of their nature laps it up when someone big gets stripped of their stardom. They start off loving them, see, but then the love turns to envy, and the envy to hate. Give 'em stories that brings out the worst in 'em. If they need to feel pious for a while they tottle off to church. The rest of the time they lust after the poison pens of Lolly and Grass."
A waiter materialized proffering menus but Joe waved them away and barked, "Two plates of steak and fries and stack 'em high with onions. And two strong coffees."
The waiter looked down his long, thin nose, sniffed, then retreated towards the kitchen.
"Greasy food is good for the guts," said Joe, as Cinamon began to protest. "Well oiled guts keep on grinding. Less chance of developing ulcers." He patted his bulging stomach.
"Okay, okay," said Cinamon, "I guess I can handle a bit of grease, but you don't have to give me a lesson on what sells papers."
"Oh no?" snapped Joe, his black eyes flashing fire. He thrust his hand towards the entrance. "If that's the case, why isn't everyone here scared shitless every time you step through that door? Every good citizen of California oughta be beating a path to newsstands across the state to get a copy of The Globe to read Cinamon Spark's latest expose. They're crying out for dirt. Dirt, dirt, dirt. And dirt you've got to give 'em. Take a good look at Louella; you're in the presence of a master. Feel her power. Breathe it in. Soak it up. Taste it on your tongue. I got a tip-off she'd be here today. That's why I phoned you."
Cinamon glanced at Louella who was being served a plate with a whole sole laying across its width. Its glassy eye stared up towards the ceiling. She looked back at Joe. "I'd sell my soul to be able to wield that kind of power, but her and Hopper always get the breaks. They can smell a scandal ten miles off. All the rest of us get to do is scoop up the entrails."
"Ha!" said Joe, his face glowing red with a rush of blood. "They don't get the breaks by sitting around on their arses waiting for something to fall in their laps. They're always on the job. They go out sniffing. They set traps, lay bait. Christ, they can turn one grain of dirt into a wheelbarrow full of mud. When they were kids they were lucky if they got one meal a week, their families were so poor, but they both had enough drive in them to scratch themselves out of the abyss with their fingernails. They learned how to hunt and honed their skills until they could put any big game hunter that comes out of Africa to shame. But they didn't squander their time felling lions or elephants. No, sir. They went after the biggest prize of all--their own species!"
They leaned back a little as the waiter whisked up their table napkins and placed them across their knees. He set their plates down in front of them.
Joe's black humor dissipated momentarily. "Smell them onions," he said, and began spraying his plate with salt. He stuffed his mouth full of food, pointed his fork in the direction of Louella, swallowed, and then said, "Who'd ever think a fat little frump like her had Hollywood in the palm of her hand? And Hedda ain't just famous for her hats. Where once the crowned heads of Europe ruled the Old World, so Lolly and Grass rule the New. Like I said, they don't sit around waiting for the big ones to fall in their laps and they never let the truth get in the way of a good story. They're wizards. Learn from them, and learn fast. You've got till Monday to come up with something that sells big. And I mean big. If you don't you're out of a job."
Cinamon's flesh stung as if a swarm of bees had swooped on her. "Out of a job!" she echoed.
"You got it," said Joe. "You've got three days to think of an angle. An angle that will hook a big school of fish and keep 'em dangling. An angle that will swell the circulation of The Globe past even that of Hopper's and Parsons' papers."
Cinamon tried to stem the stinging in her hands by rubbing them against her hips. She looked across at Louella once more. The fawning waiter was pouring coffee from a silver pot. Louella looked past him and for a moment the eyes of the two women locked. Cinamon felt the full-blast of power exuding from Louella and the envy that exploded inside her made her shake. Turning back to Joe she said through trembling teeth, "You'll get your angle, Blackie. When I'm through with this town it's going to be like Pompeii after Mount Vesuvius erupted. I'll be the one who makes or breaks careers. I'll be the one every movie mogul and every star and starlet comes groveling to."
"Atta girl, Cin," said Joe Blackman, cutting another chunk off the mound of rare meat. "Atta girl."