A killer is reenacting the deaths of Hollywood's blond bombshells, and Valentino must stop him before it's too late in Loren D. Estleman's Brazen.
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.
About the Author
LOREN D. ESTLEMAN has written Frames, Alone, Alive! and more than seventy books all told. Winner of four Shamus Awards, five Spur Awards, and three Western Heritage Awards, he lives in Central Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
A Valentino Mystery
By Loren D. Estleman
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
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?"CHAPTER 2
"BEATA, WE'VE BEEN through this. You know what people will say."
"I'm too old to care about that," she said.
Specifically, he was thinking of what Kyle Broadhead would say. The old curmudgeon was only kidding when he made remarks about Valentino's relationship with the former actress, but he would suspect there was a great deal more to it if his colleague came away from the evening with the wherewithal to finish restoring The Oracle, the classic motion-picture palace Valentino called home.
Both he and Beata knew that there was nothing seamy about her offer. All she cared for was companionship; but try selling that one to the professor, or for that matter anyone else in that jaded town.
She liked him, he knew, because he was the only one in her circle who didn't care what she said about him or if she said nothing. He had no social aspirations beyond his relationship with Harriet Johansen, the woman to whom he was faithful, and no ambitions beyond finishing The Oracle — a time-consuming and hideously expensive hobby — and rescuing classic films from obscurity, which helped to finance it. She had tested him, found he wanted nothing from her but the pleasure of her company, and met with him often to compare their latest treasures, celebrate their victories, and commiserate over their defeats. They shared a keen interest in Hollywood's rich and gaudy history. For his part, it was his job: He was an archivist with UCLA's Department of Film Preservation. For hers, it was a passion: She was the foremost collector of movie memorabilia on the West Coast.
With one bid at Sotheby's — a cool million for the drapery-dress Vivien Leigh had worn in Gone with the Wind — Beata Limerick had raised the bar on everything from Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy hat to the chariot Charlton Heston had raced in Ben-Hur. It had made her no friends in the collecting community, but it removed any onus of competition between her and Valentino, as every penny he earned went into the theater renovation, and he'd sold off his own modest collection in order to keep it going. His acquisitive interest now was confined to film itself, on behalf of the university that supported him.
They were serious rivals once only, before they became friends. She'd annihilated him in a battle over an unedited print of The Sandpiper at Elizabeth Taylor's estate auction. That was the first day they'd lunched; her treat.
"I couldn't resist," she'd said. "I doubled Liz Taylor in that one — it was my brunette period — and it's all I have to show for my career in pictures, such as it was. Anyway, you're better off without it. It's a stinker."
"Stinkers have a way of making money. Burton and Taylor are a kitschy gold mine. We could have exhibited it in revival houses and made enough to restore half a dozen better films."
"I'll make it up to you one day."
At the time, he'd thought it an empty promise. He'd yet to make his mark in his chosen trade. Now, with some significant notches on his belt, he wondered if that day had come. Certainly she didn't want to let go of the possibility.
"At least let me contribute to your cause," she said. "During the bad old days of the blacklist, I helped a number of set designers establish themselves in the contracting trade. One or two of them are still active. I can arrange for you to obtain some material at cost; less, perhaps."
He sipped pink champagne, her libation of choice. "It's tempting; but the result would be the same. They'll wonder why you waited so long to cash in, and why you selected me as the benefactor."
"Well, then, we might as well sleep together and get it over with."
He sprayed champagne.
* * *
Her cook, a Jamaican named Mrs. Flynn, with whom her mistress had been squabbling for forty years, had laid out a feast before going home: squabs stuffed with wild rice and shallots, new potatoes, kale served with raspberry dressing, and crème brûlée for dessert. Beata insisted that squab was to be eaten without utensils. Her fingers dissected her bird with fastidious efficiency.
"MGM drilled me as if for a coronation," she said. "They had Russian counts on staff. It went beyond singing and dancing lessons. They taught us to dress, speak, which fork to use, when to dispense with one entirely, and how to take charge of interviews. Last week I heard a male star on The View compare the size of his organ to a snow pea. That couldn't happen in the old days. The studio was a duchy, with its own government, army, and fire department. My dear, it was the Vatican! When Robert Taylor went to Universal, he didn't know how to pick up a phone and make a dinner reservation. There had always been someone to take care of such things at Tiffany's." Which was her private, semi-affectionate euphemism for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
"Is that why you dropped out?"
She ate, blue eyes twinkling in their thicket of creases. "I've been wondering when you'd get around to that: The Secret of Beata Limerick."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't pry into your personal affairs."
"Bullshit. What else do friends have to talk about? I hate to disappoint you, but there's no mystery about it. It's just easier to refuse to answer the question than it is to repeat the same story over and over. What's dismissed as egocentricity in youth, therefore pardonable, is a bore in old age, and intolerable. I was afraid of the curse."
"What curse?" He put down his fork. His fingers lacked the dexterity of her long slender digits.
"The curse, foolish boy. Thelma Todd. Jean Harlow. Marilyn, who might as well claim ownership. It was still around for Sharon Tate. All the great blond bombshells came to an early end. I was twenty-five; if I wasn't going to be one of the great brazen hussies of Hollywood, the hell with it, and I didn't want to die. When that truck took off Jayne Mansfield's head, I got the message loud and clear. I didn't walk away from my destiny, as the tabloids are so fond of repeating. I ran for my life."
"She wasn't really decapitated, you know. It was just her wig they found on the hood of her Buick."
She reached across the table to pat his hand. There wasn't a scrap of grease on hers.
"I was being grotesque for a point. Is she any less dead?"
"You seriously believe there's a curse on blondes in the industry?"
"Not all of them, only the ones who rose to the level of an icon. Teri Garr and Melanie Griffith haven't a thing to worry about. And I'm not the only one who skedaddled. I've talked with Mamie about it."
Now that he thought of it, Mamie Van Doren had quit about the same time. "I'd heard she was something of a ditz on the occult. I thought you were more levelheaded."
"Just because I don't proselytize doesn't mean I'm not a believer. I'm into astrology, tarot cards, and voodoo. It's my birthright. I'm a native Californian."
He sought to change a subject he found embarrassing. He didn't have to search for long. Most of the apartment was one huge room, partitions having been removed to create space for some of the artifacts she'd amassed. Opposite the heavily reinforced shelves and original posters in archival frames, a blue cloth covered something squarish on a sleek table with curving glass legs.
She followed the course of his gaze. "You're right, it's what I invited you here to see. Trust a detective like you to spot it."
"I'm all aquiver."
She rose gracefully, with none of the hitches connected with gravity and imperfect circulation, and led the way across a carpet as thick as a mattress. With a trilly little, "Ta-da!" — her vocal training was still paying off — she snatched away the cloth.
A square glass case displayed a mass of what looked like pink cotton candy on a mannequin head.
"Is that —?" A sudden chill prevented him from finishing the sentence.
"The same. It's why what you said before was no news to me, and why I steered the conversation in the direction I did. You can take the queen out of the drama but not the drama out of the queen."
Beyond doubt, the object in the case was Jayne Mansfield's infamous wig, the very one that had been recovered from the hood of her smashed Buick.
"I got it at Christie's," she said. "The last owner bought it in a lot when the New Orleans Police Department cleared out its evidence room after Hurricane Katrina. I'd've gotten the Buick, too, if that sprout Spielberg hadn't outbid me."CHAPTER 3
A DECIDEDLY LESS exotic brand of champagne was available a few days later. It was bottled in Schenectady, New York, and poured into plastic flutes that came in two pieces and had to be assembled by the host.
"Hump!" Broadhead adjusted his readers to peer at the bottle. "It says here if you send in ten labels, the manufacturer will respond with an autographed photo of the founder of the distillery, a Monsieur Harvey Finkbeiner."
Valentino said, "It doesn't say that at all!"
"It should include a coupon for a free stomach pump."
"It was a contest between Dom Pérignon and sixteen cases of LED lights. Technology won."
They were standing on the sidewalk in front of The Oracle: the owner; his girlfriend, Harriet; his disgruntled mentor; Fanta, soon-to-be Mrs. Disgruntled Mentor; Smith Oldfield; and Henry Anklemire. Oldfield, the ivy-covered legal advisor to the Film Preservation Department, and Anklemire, the flack in charge of Information Services, had earned the privilege of attendance through Oldfield's proofing of the tons of documents required to take possession of the property and to arrange the cooperation of the various contractors, and Anklemire's tireless efforts to promote public interest in the films Valentino managed to free from Purgatory.
Excerpted from Brazen by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 2016 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,
II: The Girl Can't Help It,
III: The Fearless Vampire Killers,
Books by Loren D. Estleman,
About the Author,