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About the Author
Melodie Johnson Howe is a mystery author and former actress. She began writing as a child, composing plays such as Nevada—a western that ended with the villain being sent to his room—and began acting in the mid-1960s. For a decade, she worked in movies alongside actors such as Clint Eastwood, Alan Alda, and James Caan. In the early 1980s, she left the Hollywood grind to pursue her dream of writing mysteries. Howe’s first novel, The Mother Shadow (1989), featured Claire Conrad and Maggie Hill, whom Howe describes as “the female answer to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.” It was nominated for an Edgar Award, and was followed by a sequel, Beauty Dies (1994). Howe is also acclaimed for her short fiction. Her most recent book, Shooting Hollywood: The Diana Poole Stories (2012), is a collection of short stories starring a forty-year-old actress trying to make a comeback.
Read an Excerpt
City of Mirrors
By Melodie Johnson Howe
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Melodie Johnson Howe
All rights reserved.
Mother never owned a house. If she was living in one for any length of time, it meant she wasn't making a movie. It meant she was out of work. My early life consisted of boarding schools and, depending on where mother was shooting her latest film, rented houses. On my vacations I would join her in these strange impersonal places. Sometimes there was a strange impersonal man living there, too.
When I was fifteen she was stuck with me for Christmas vacation in one of those houses. She pointed to the indoor swimming pool. "You can swim when it rains!" she beamed.
I would paddle around in the giant pool while the raindrops and the acorns dropping from the oaks pounded the glass ceiling. In a corner of the room stood a white-flocked tree tilting precariously and shimmering with yuletide decorations. Next to it Brent or Burt or Bart—I never quite got his name—wearing an early version of a Speedo sat in a deck chair, watching me.
On the wet hard floor I offered up my virginity, and he took it with brutal efficiency. After Christmas he got tossed out with the tree, and Mother viewed me as a competitor from that moment on.
Maybe that's what I had wanted, I thought now, stripping off my clothes and walking down the steps into the water. It was as warm as I remembered. Outside the oak trees spread their branches over the glass ceiling, dropping their acorns on the roof. Plonk. Plonk. I smiled and began to swim.
Twenty-five years later, I had come back to this place that was never ours, to say good-bye to Mother.
Taking long easy strokes back to the shallow end, I came up for air, blinking chlorine from my eyes.
"Jesus Christ, Diana, you're naked." Stunned, Celia Dario stood on the deck above me in five-inch heels, calves tight, black chiffon blouse tucked into a short tangerine-colored skirt. Her long raven hair was twisted into a chignon, making her look professional and chic. A man in a black jacket, white dress shirt, and jeans, stood next to her staring at me with deep brown solemn eyes.
Oh, hell. I crouched low in the water, trying to cover myself.
"This is my client, Mr. Ward," she said, trying to regain her equilibrium.
"Sorry, I thought you said he wasn't going to be here for another half hour. That I had time to ..."
"Not to take all your clothes off! Just to look at the house where you lived for fifteen minutes of your life." Taking a deep breath, she turned to her client. "I'm sorry ... for all this." She waved manicured fingernails in my direction; her client still hadn't taken his eyes off me.
He was about six feet tall, firm body but not heavily muscled. His bent nose seemed to have taken a few punches. His dark brown hair, graying at the temples, waved back from his lean face. He had a matter-of-fact self-possession that was beginning to irritate me.
"You could turn your back," I told him.
"Why? I've seen everything there is to see." His somber lips slid into a smile. And suddenly he was charming, which was even more irritating.
I pushed my determinedly blond hair back from my face. "Do you have a towel?" I asked Celia.
"No, I don't have a towel," she snapped.
"You look familiar," the man said.
"Which part of me?"
Celia shifted into her best realtor mode. "This is the actress, Diana Poole," she continued, sensing an unexpected sale point. "Her mother, Nora Poole, the famous movie star, just died last week. She rented Bella Casa." Yes, the house had a name.
"She died here?" he asked.
In most house sales, death is not a selling point. But in Hollywood it's important for homes to have a lurid history of the famous living badly and dying even more badly in their mansions.
"Not exactly in Bella Casa, but ... nearby." Celia shot me a glance, wanting my help.
"She died in bed in a room at the Bel Air Hotel with a shot glass in her hand and a half-empty bottle of bourbon on the nightstand."
"My father died like that." He paused, rubbing his index finger over the bump in his nose. "But not in the Bel Air Hotel. More like Motel Six."
"I'm getting cold, I'd like to get out of this pool," I announced.
He turned to Celia. "Why don't I see the living room again?"
She started to guide him back to the white louver doors that led to the main house, but he stopped her. "Help your friend. I can wander around on my own." He tossed me a lopsided smile as he took one last look.
After he left, Celia scooped my bra up off the deck and shook it at me. "Do you know how hard it is to sell a twenty-thousand-square-foot mansion that needs a total remodel in this market?" Her dangling gold earrings swayed erratically.
I climbed out of the pool. "I'm sorry." I grabbed my jeans and tried to dry myself off with them.
"Forget it, he's not interested."
I took my bra from her and put it on. "How do you know?" I stepped into my panties.
"I can tell." Her violet-colored eyes darted to the door where Mr. Ward had disappeared. "He is handsome, though."
"Almost handsome." I picked up my jeans.
"Even better. I can tell he liked you."
"I was stark naked. He's a man. What's not to like? Stop trying to fix me up." My jeans stuck to me as I wiggled into them. "Are you okay?" I'd noticed her face was drawn.
"You seem worried. I mean, beyond my taking a swim."
"I'm fine. Aren't you working today?" She handed me my blouse.
"One o'clock call." I ran my hand through my wet hair. "Thank God, I wear a wig." I managed to button myself up.
"Say hello to Robert for me."
"I will." Robert Zaitlin was Celia's lover and the producer of the movie in which I had a small but important role. He was married to an old girlfriend of ours.
"He told me he's having problems with a young actress," she said.
"Jenny Parson. She can't get through a scene without forgetting her lines."
She nodded. "I'd better go see what Mr. Ward is up to. Want to have dinner tonight?"
"Great." I paused. "Celia, I just want to thank you for helping me get this part."
"You gave a great reading. Besides, Robert has always had your best interest at heart, you know that."
Only a woman in love with a movie producer could say that and mean it. But I wasn't worried about Robert Zaitlin; it was the young actress, Jenny Parson, who troubled me.
In my Jaguar, so old it had five ashtrays and no airbags, I headed east on Sunset Boulevard then turned down to Santa Monica Boulevard toward the old Warner Bros. sister studio, which was once the old Samuel Goldwyn studio and is now called The Lot. But what's in a name?
The heater, which never turned off, blew hot against my wet jeans. My silk blouse clung to my damp body like an unwanted lover. I began to laugh at the absurdity of the situation I'd just created, and then suddenly I burst into tears. Mourning for a dead mother I didn't like and a dead husband I loved can do that to you.
Colin Hudson, my husband, died a year ago of a heart attack. We had been married for eight years—an eternity in this business. He left me with what is euphemistically called a teardown in Malibu, the old Jag, two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, a bank account in the red, and an emptiness I couldn't fill.
In order to earn a living, I'd gone back to what I knew best—acting. Of course, I was eight years older and the parts for women in their early forties were few and usually lousy. And to be honest, if I had not been the daughter of Nora Poole my name would have been forgotten. Hollywood has all the attention span of a coked-up executive producer.
The bold-striped awning of the Formosa Bar came into view. It was one of the few great watering holes from the Golden Age of Hollywood that was still standing. The others had become photographs in coffee-table books reminding us of how great movie life had been and would never be again.
I turned right and pulled up to the gate of the studio. Recognizing me, the guard waved me through, and I drove slowly past the enormous, gray stucco soundstages that looked like vast warehouses where all the Hollywood dreams and nightmares were stored. I parked in front of the makeup and wardrobe building and stared up at its benign facade. I would go in there looking like myself, a little bedraggled, and come out looking like the role I was playing: a mother who was a drunken slut.CHAPTER 2
The camera aimed at Jenny Parson and me. The key light felt warm on my skin. Jenny crossed to her mark—a piece of blue camera tape stuck to the carpet. She glared at me. Her auburn hair curled around her oval face and down to her shoulders. I held a glass of scotch (colored water) in my hand. Using the acting technique sense memory (conjuring the past to give reality to the present), the odorless liquid reminded me of the smell of bourbon in my mother's shot glass. My blouse was buttoned haphazardly, and the tail end of it hung out from the waist of my too-tight, too-short miniskirt. The red wig felt heavy on my head. "Don't you dare talk to me like that," I slurred, staggering on my high heels, while making sure I didn't block Jenny's light.
"Why, because you gave birth to me?" she snapped back. Her green eyes flared in a defiance that felt real to me, and for the first time I thought we'd make it to the end of the scene. I fed off her anger, using its power to say my next line.
"Who says I did?" I let my mouth turn ugly.
Her full lips tensed. "You ... you gave birth ... didn't ... give...." Her lively eyes grew vague. She froze. I knew the look. God, did I know it. She'd gone-up again. Forgotten her lines.
I held my expression, trying to will her to remember. My makeup felt tight on my skin, like a second layer of flesh. Jenny clenched her fists, groping for her dialogue, then turned away from me and stared angrily out into the shadowy darkness of the soundstage.
"Cut!" The director, Beth Woods, ripped off her earphones, jumped away from the monitor she'd been viewing us on, and emerged from the dim light onto the set.
Spiked henna-red hair cut short, Beth wore a leather jacket that looked as if she'd borrowed it from a Mossad agent. She had the worried look of a director who knew her film and maybe her career were going down the toilet.
"Diana, you could help her out by just continuing with your line," Beth chided.
I was about to remind her I had done just that on a previous take, and she'd told me not do it again. But I said nothing. We were all tired, and tempers were flaring. The grips moved restlessly. My head ached from the damn wig.
Beth took a deep breath and put her arm around Jenny. "What's the problem, love?"
Jenny shot her a cat-like look, and Beth removed her arm.
"I can't remember my stupid lines. It's kind of obvious, isn't it?" At least she didn't say duh to her.
Jenny was twenty years old and playing sixteen. She had that jarring quality young girls have today: a youthful innocence mixed with a slutty in-your-face seductiveness.
Robert Zaitlin, the producer, walked slowly onto the set. He pulled thoughtfully at his perfectly unshaven chin. The lights reflected off his perfectly shaved head. "I think we should call it a day."
Astonished, the director turned on him. "We're behind."
"Wrap it," Zaitlin ordered.
With an abrupt turn, Jenny ran dramatically out of the soundstage. I couldn't help but think tears should have accompanied her grand exit. But there was none.
Beth let out a long disgusted sigh, and called out "It's a wrap!"
The crew converged on the set, taking down lights and wrapping up cords. The boom mike disappeared from overhead, and the prop man took the glass out of my hand while the wardrobe, hair, and makeup people waited for me. The set no longer belonged to the actors.
Stepping over cables, I started to leave, but Zaitlin put a hand on my arm and walked me to a quiet corner.
"I was the one who told you to go ahead and get married, but don't give up your career." Robert always started a conversation as if the person he was talking to was inside his head and on the same wavelength. Prologues wasted too much time. "So did your mother," he continued. "Even your husband. We all tried to convince you. But no, you didn't listen to me. Or them."
As I waited for him to come to the point, he leaned close and I got a whiff of his sweet cologne mixed with the smell of a very long disappointing day.
"I didn't think you had a chance at a comeback. But you're damn good in this role. I really think it could be a springboard for larger roles."
Zaitlin's copious belly pushed against his tailor-made blue-striped shirt. Sweat had gathered under his loose heavy chin. He was not a physically attractive man, but his energy, intelligence, and intensity lit up his blue eyes and made him appealing. He also had the producer's ability to focus on a person as if they were the only one who mattered. Maybe that's how you end up with a wife and a mistress.
I smiled, understanding what he was really saying. "You want something, don't you?"
Gripping his heart, he feigned being hurt. "I only want the best for you, Diana."
"And what else?"
"I've got Jake on my ass."
Jake Jackson was the hot new star and the reason the movie was able to get made.
"He wants me to replace Jenny Parson," he continued.
"You're as ruthless as your mother."
I doubted that, but let it go. Now Zaitlin looked helpless and vulnerable. "I can't," he said. "I'm too deep into the movie to change horses, to mix a metaphor. Besides when she gets it right she's great, and that's all I care about. Without her, we'd have to reshoot half the movie." He placed a fatherly hand on my arm. "And who knows, maybe if he gets rid of her he might want me to recast you."
"Are you threatening me? I thought you only had my best interest at heart."
"And I do. If the new actress doesn't look like she could be your daughter, my hand is forced. Diana, you are wonderful in this role. It could put you up there with your mother."
I didn't care about being "up there" with my mother. But I did need the work. "What do want me to do?"
"I've tried talking to her. Now I want you to. Have dinner with her tonight. Get to know her. See if she's on something." He lifted his shoulders. "Drugs maybe. Then spend tomorrow going over her lines with her."
"Drugs? You usually handle this kind of thing. And I'm having dinner with Celia tonight."
"I'll take care of Celia," he said possessively.
"What if Jenny doesn't want to ..."
"You'll convince her. I can tell she looks up to you. I have good instincts about these things, that's why I'm a producer." He grinned wolfishly, patting my cheek. "Don't forget Gwyn's party tomorrow night for our son. It's his birthday."
Catching sight of the director, he yelled, "Beth! I want to look at the last take. Maybe there's something we can use from it." Finished with me, he strode away.
I wondered whether Zaitlin really thought I was good, or whether he was just saying that to get me to help Jenny. Compliments in Hollywood are handed out by the bagful, like Halloween candy. It's never been easy for me to completely accept them, because I'm always searching for the one that has the poison in it.CHAPTER 3
Jenny and I had trailers—our dressing rooms—in the alley next to the stage. I knocked on her door, opened it, and peered inside. Already dressed in her street clothes, she wore a short black leather skirt, black tank top, and a lush emerald green cashmere-wrap sweater. She looked not only sexy but also her age. As if she didn't care or didn't want to look at her reflection, she sat with her back to a large mirror surrounded by lights. She was talking on her cell. When she saw me she quickly disconnected.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt," I said. "May I come in?"
"Are you going to lecture me?" She dropped her phone into a very expensive leather purse that was slouched on the makeup counter.
"I'm not your mother. I only play her." I stepped up into the trailer and closed the door behind me.
"If you can call that a mother." She snorted, baring small sharp teeth. She was oddly beautiful, like a pretty animal. But nonetheless an animal.
Sitting down on the built-in sofa, I glimpsed myself in the mirror. Out from under the set lights, my makeup looked harsh, exaggerating the lines on my face.
I pulled off my wig. "God, this is giving me a headache." My own hair was bound flat to my head with a gauzy net. Jenny eyed me warily as I took that off too and dumped it inside the wig. Then I shook my hair loose and asked casually, "Want to have dinner tonight?"
"Can't. Going clubbing." She shot me a hard look. "And why would you want to suddenly have dinner with me?"
"Is too much clubbing the reason you're having trouble remembering your lines?" I rubbed my scalp and fluffed my hair.
"The assistant director told me I won't be needed tomorrow, and is it any of your business what I do?" Her chin jutted defiantly.
Excerpted from City of Mirrors by Melodie Johnson Howe. Copyright © 2013 Melodie Johnson Howe. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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