Saturday, 15 August 2015

Maxine Nunez - Dazzled - Virtual Book Tour

                                          Mystery / Contemporary Noir
Date Published: June 25, 2015

During a brutal L.A. heatwave, four people are murdered in the Hollywood Hills and Nikki Easton's best friend Darla Ward has disappeared. The police think she might be one of the victims.
In her relentless search for the truth, Nikki discovers the hidden side of her friend's life, laying bare secrets buried before Darla was born, and uncovering widening layers of corruption that reach far beyond Hollywood to the highest levels of government.

What’s real? Darla used to ask me. How do you know what’s real? I never understood the question. But then I didn’t have platinum hair and cheekbones that could cut glass, and no one ever offered to buy me a Rolls if I spent one night naked in his bed. Darla was a brilliant neon sign flashing pure escape. You almost didn’t notice that those lovely green eyes didn’t blaze like the rest of her. She was both main attraction and sad observer at the carnival. Something had damaged her at a very young age. We never talked much about it, but we recognized this in each other from the start. Isn’t that what friendship is?
The week she disappeared was as extreme as she was. Triple-digit heat in late August and wavy layers of smog suffocating the city. By ten in the morning, it was brutal everywhere, and on the sidewalks in front of the homeless shelter, with the sun bouncing off the film crew trailers and the odor of unwashed bodies and general decay, it was a very special episode of hell. Beneath an archway, a tall man with a filthy blanket draped over his head rolled his eyes heavenward like a biblical prophet. Or a Star Trek castaway waiting to be beamed up.
In one of those trailers, where air conditioning brought the temperature down to the high nineties, I was being stuffed into a fitted leather jacket two sizes too small. Perspiration had already ruined my makeup and the dark circles under my eyes were starting to show
Heat keeping you up, hon? the makeup girl had asked. I’d nodded. Half the truth.
Mykel Z, the costume designer, was trying to zip me into the jacket, but his fingers were sweating and frustrating his attempts. “If you’d get yourself boobs, Nikki,” he said, “we wouldn’t have to squeeze you into size zero to work up a little cleavage.”
“Bigger boobs for you, smaller nose for my agent. Average it out and I’m perfect.”
“Almost. Legs from here to eternity, long dark hair to die for. But the nose is a bit roller derby, darling. Did you break it?”
“When I was a kid.”
“I’ll give you the name of a marvelous doctor, a genius with noses. And his lifts for my older ladies . . . I swear the seams don’t even show.”
“I’m not sure I want to wake up one morning and see someone else in the mirror.”
“An idealist. Good luck, honey.”
I was used to this. At my first Hollywood party, a guy asked me what I did. When I told him, he looked bewildered. Then he brightened. “Oh,” he said, “I guess you could play a real person.”
Outside, a prop guy was spraying a couple of shopping carts to dull down their newness, and a wardrobe assistant walked a few extras onto the set.
“No, no, no!” Mykel cried, running out the door, letting in a flush of hot air. “Layers! They need layers!” With a broad motion of his arm, he pointed to some people in the little park on the corner. “Use your eyes! The homeless totally invented layering!”
I took advantage of the break, managed to find my phone in the junk shop that is my shoulder bag, and called Darla’s cell again. It flipped straight over to her voice mail. Like it had for three days, since this shoot had begun. No point leaving another message.
Mykel flew back into the trailer and stared at me for a few seconds, blinked like he
was fighting back tears, then began to tackle the zipper again. It moved up an inch before it caught on the leather.
He dropped his arms, his lips trembled, then he opened the trailer door again and stuck his head out.
“Benito!” he hollered, with an edge of real panic in his voice. When Benito, his “shlepper,” did not appear, Mykel flopped down on a chair and blotted his face with a tissue.
“Where the hell has he gone?”
“You sent him for a Frappuccino,” I said.
“Ten minutes ago!”
“It’s hard to find a decent barista on Skid Row, Mykel.”
“Maybe that’s why these people look so depressed.”
“You know what,” I said, “let’s forget the jacket for a while. They’re nowhere near ready to shoot. I’m gonna grab some water from the fridge. Want a bottle?”
“Thank you, sweetie.” Mykel placed the jacket back on its hanger with all the tenderness due a garment that cost more than I was being paid for a week’s work.
Beneath my tank top, a trickle of sweat from my bra reminded me I was still padded with chicken cutlets—the silicone inserts the director wanted for every female in the cast over the age of twelve. When I removed them, I felt almost human again.
Outside, an assistant was trying to wrangle the extras—a task that had turned chaotic, since real street people kept slipping past security to get to the bagel table. But even from this distance, it was easy to tell them apart. You only had to look at their faces. On some, the flesh itself was infused with misery, the eyes dazed with hopelessness. The rest, in
the same soiled layers, were radiant and eager to be noticed.
I’d had a taste of both, but a year on the streets at fifteen had been enough. I got a false ID, found jobs, and managed to take care of myself. But there was something restless in me and I never stayed in one place too long. Somehow, more than a decade slipped by. And what had seemed like freedom began to close in on me.
Then I wound up in L.A. and started picking up rent money working as an extra. A crime show was shooting a Manhattan street scene in downtown Los Angeles, and I got pulled out of the crowd because of my “New York face” for a line they had added: Ain’t seen her in a long time, mistah. That amazing stroke of luck—and the three-thousand dollar initiation fee I was still paying off—got me my union card.
Now I had pictures and an agent and classes, and that was what really hooked me. Acting may be make believe, but in class the truth beneath the face you showed the world was not only welcome but demanded.
Only that wasn’t exactly what working as an actor was like.
This job was a midseason pilot called Street, a “fish out of water” comedy about three girls from Beverly Hills who start a gourmet soup kitchen for the homeless. “Clueless meets Pursuit of Happyness” is how my agent described it. My role—two days’ work that could “go to semi-recurring”—was as a homeless person who gets a makeover.
A wave of hot air blew into the trailer, followed by the production assistant, who looked at me and let out a shriek.
“Mykel! Why isn’t she in costume? They’re ready for her.”
And they were.
Four hours later.
By the time they released me it was past ten, and as the crew struck the lights and
equipment, the homeless began crawling into makeshift tents of newspapers and old blankets and cartons, or gathering in doorways, palming small packets that would get them through the night.
Hot stale air still hung over the city as I walked to my car, an ancient MGB that looked right at home in its own version of layers—black over Haight-Ashbury psychedelic over the original British racing green. The standard joke about MGs is that you share custody with your mechanic, but someone had replaced the temperamental English parts with American ones, and it actually started up every time I turned the ignition key.
With the top down, the hot Santa Anas were better than no breeze at all as I passed the rolling lawns and swaying palms of MacArthur Park, moonlight dusting the lake and the silhouetted figures of dealers and users.
A half hour later, I turned onto La Cienega and headed north past the cool stone facades of restaurant row, past Beverly Center whose colored lights bounced off gleaming Mercedes, Lexus SUVs and the occasional virtuous Prius, past the mansard-roofed Sofitel, past the crowds milling outside a few nightspots.
My little cottage still held all the heat of the day. I stripped down to panties, then finished off a pint of Chunky Monkey— ate it straight from the carton in a current of cold air from the open fridge door—and dragged myself into the bedroom.
I used up all the cool spots on the sheet in about five minutes and picked up a mystery from the night table. But no matter how hunky the hero, an old paperback cannot fill the other side of the bed, and I started to think about the man who’d occupied that space until a couple of weeks ago. Dan Ackerman. A good, solid guy, and I left him . . . why? Maybe because he was a good, solid guy.
The only other person in my life who mattered was Darla, and she hadn’t returned my calls, which really wasn’t like her at all. Even when she was on location, she’d phone and
talk about anything—what they had for lunch, how filthy the honey wagons got—just to keep from feeling lonely.
I wondered if she was mad at me, if maybe I shouldn’t have been so blunt about her ex-boyfriend Jimmy. It was past midnight and too late to call. But I sent a quick text, then found myself listening in the silence for the phone to chime with her answer.
I turned on the TV. Fourteen dead in the Middle East and four dead in a murder in the Hollywood Hills. But no worries. Just wait for election day. Mike Ryle, TV Land western star/turned senate candidate, was saying, “Let’s return to the America I grew up in.” He sounded so earnest, you could almost forget that he’d grown up in the America of Vietnam and segregation and backstreet abortions.
When the infomercials started, I flicked the TV off and watched the minutes and the hours on the clock change. As the city was waking up, I fell asleep.
Cool air drifted through the window and I opened my eyes to a crisp, clear morning that made the heat wave seem like a fevered dream.
I showered, had a cup of coffee with cream and plenty of honey, put on yoga pants and the disintegrating Misfits T-shirt I’d owned since I was twelve, and went out for a run.
It felt good to use my body again. I took the steep hill on La Cienega at a decent clip and when I hit the Strip, the uneasy undertow from yesterday caught up with me.
I pulled out my cell and was about to dial Darla again, when it rang.
“Nikki? Thank god!”
“Yes. You’ve got to come over here.”
“What is it?”
“I just called the police, but I—”
“The police! What’s going on?”
“I can’t wait for them. I have an audition!”
“Sari, what happened?”
“Darla’s apartment. It’s just awful. Someone must have broken in and—”
“Where’s Darla?”
“I don’t know. Please come.”
I took Holloway back down, running all the way, trying to convince myself Sari was overreacting. She was always in a panic about something. The three of us led precarious lives, but she didn’t have Darla’s ambition or my need for freedom, and after her divorce she spent the better part of a year barely able to get out of bed.
Sari had been married to a lawyer who got the house, the pool, and the pool boy. Now, she had somewhat put herself back together and was trying her hand at acting. But what she really longed for was another man to take care of her. She spent most of her nights at private clubs, dancing with old guys in young clothes or nursing drinks at the bar, waiting for her future to show up.
Darla and Sari both lived in one of those apartment houses built for glamour in the fifties, with birds of paradise, browned at the edges, surviving among the wild aloe and yucca. Darla’s living room blinds were closed, but water from the air conditioner dripped into a spreading stain.
Sari came running toward me as soon as I walked through the glass doors.
“Omigod, Nikki!” She gripped my hand and led me up the hallway to Darla’s door. “I was on my way out and needed to ask her something. The door was open a crack so I knocked to see if she was home and then it opened a little wider and . . . look!”
Darla’s living room had been assaulted. The sofa—cushions, back, arms—had been slashed open. The floors and tables were covered with down as if some giant bird had been slaughtered. Everything in the room had been destroyed. Every picture had been pulled from the walls, every vase and every lamp lay shattered on the floor.
“I kept calling her name,” Sari said, “but she didn’t answer.”
“You didn’t go in?”
“No.” She looked pale and terrified under her makeup.
“Do you want to come in with me?”
She shook her head, looking, with her soft round face and pale curls, like a little girl.
I was no less frightened than Sari, but who knew how long the police would take to get here?
Inside the apartment, there wasn’t a sound, except for the hum of the air conditioner. I glanced down the hallway that led to the bedroom. The photos that had lined its walls lay all over the floor, and I made my way between the broken frames, steeling myself for what I might find.
Through the open door, I could see the explosion of clothing. Her closet, her dressing table, the night tables had been emptied. Hangers and drawers had been flung at odd angles everywhere. The mattress had been ripped open and pulled half off the brass bed.
Praying I would not uncover what I most dreaded finding, I began pulling aside piles and piles of clothes. To my enormous relief, she wasn’t there.
“Nikki,” Sari called from the doorway, stretching my name into three syllables, each with its own need: I’m scared. Is Darla in there? I have to leave soon.
I started back toward the living room, then froze.
A thin stream of watery red was trickling across the floor, and I had to force myself closer to the archway that opened onto the kitchen.
It too had been ransacked, the fridge and cabinets completely emptied. Rice, sugar, flour, cornflakes blanketed every surface. Puddles of ice cream oozed from containers. It took a minute before I could make out where the red liquid had come from—slabs of frozen steak thawing and leaking blood onto the floor.
Thank god.

I went out to the hallway.
“She’s not there,” I said to Sari, who took what must have been her first full breath since she’d opened Darla’s door. “But I haven’t heard from her in days. When’s the last time you saw her?”
“I don’t know. It’s been a while, I guess. Who could move during that heat wave? I had to drag myself—”
“Sari, has Jimmy been coming around?”
She stopped dead and stared at me. “Oh, no, you don’t think—”
But she was thinking the same thing, and what I had feared all along finally took on the hard edges of reality.
“You know how he’s always driving up and down our street,” she said. “And what good is a restraining order if she never calls the police when he shows up?”
A few weeks earlier, the three of us were walking home from a movie together when Jimmy came up behind us. Despite Darla’s larger-than-life sensuality on film, she was slender and fine-boned, almost petite. He lifted her effortlessly off the sidewalk and shoved her into his car. As they drove off, she turned to look at me from the window and mouthed the words “It’s okay.” I hadn’t called the police. Now I regretted it.
Sari grabbed my hand. “Nikki, I’m sorry.”
“About what?”
“Please don’t hate me, but I have to leave. The audition. It’s a national spot!”
“Go ahead. I’ll wait for the police.”
She hesitated, then blurted out, “I needed to ask Darla if this outfit works. Does it?”
She was wearing a plaid shirt and mom jeans.
“What kind of commercial?”
“Floor mop.”
“You’re fine.”
“Let me know what happens. Please, Nikki. I’m worried sick.”
I shut the door to the apartment and walked out to the street with her. As she headed toward her car, I noticed Darla’s bright yellow Beetle parked a few doors down, a ticket flapping from the windshield wiper. I walked over and took a closer look. The paper didn’t look smooth enough to be fresh. I flattened it with my palm. Alternate side parking. Three days ago.
I waited for the police on the steps outside the building, my arms circled around my knees. An orange-blossom breeze riffled the trees. A girl too pretty for any other town jogged past, and a city garbage truck emptied three cans and dropped them right smack in front of a driveway. It wasn’t long before the black-and-white pulled up.
Deputy L. Flutie, clipboard in his beefy fist, followed me into the apartment and let out a long, low whistle.
“Someone really did a job here,” he said, as he took a form from under the clip and handed it to me with a pen. “Here ya go. Just write down what they got, then you can file a claim with your insurance company.”
“It’s my friend’s apartment.”
“So where is she?”
“I don’t know. I—”
“Write her name in and she can fill out the rest later.”
When I handed him the paper, he took one look at it and broke into a wide grin.
“Darla Ward? Miss April? From Bachelor Pad? No kidding!” He glanced around the apartment as if he hadn’t seen it before, then started down the hallway. I saw him stop, glance at the floor, and with uncanny instinct, turn over the large picture frame of her
centerfold. I’d never really looked at it, though I’d passed it hundreds of times on that wall—three feet long and a foot and a half high. More of your best friend than you really need to see.
Officer Flutie took his time in the bedroom, occasionally lifting, for closer examination, silky underwear that threaded through the piles of clothes. When he came back to the living room, his face was a little pink.
“So where is your friend?” he said.
“I don’t know. I haven’t been able to get in touch with her, and her car’s got a three-day-old ticket. Something’s wrong.”
He looked amused. “Maybe the lady hasn’t been sleeping at home. Looks like some thief took advantage of it.”
I wanted to tell him to take his fat head out of the gutter and open his eyes, but I said, “Does a thief usually slash the sofa, pull all the food from the fridge—”
“You’re lucky he didn’t take a dump on the floor. These crackheads and meth freaks, they can get pretty nuts.”
“So could her ex-boyfriend,” I said. “She had a restraining order out on him.”
Flutie found that less amusing. “What’s his name?” he said, pulling a notepad from his pocket.
“Jimmy Van Druten.”
He jotted the name down. “Okay, got it.” He turned to leave.
“That’s it?” I said. “That’s the investigation? Nothing else? No fingerprints? Just a good long look at her Bachelor Pad shot and a stroll through her lingerie?”
“You know, nothing makes my life tougher than these cop shows. Everyone expects a whole damn forensics team to show up for every punk thief. Well, my world is a reality series and it’s called Backlog. Murders, armed robbery, five thousand rape kits rotting on the
shelf and no manpower to deal with them.” He gave a tired shrug. “So, as much as I’d love to find the creep who did this, there’s not much I can do.”
“And Jimmy?”
“Yeah. We’ll check him out.”
Then I was alone again in what remained of the home Darla had made for herself. The overstuffed furniture, the overstuffed fridge, the vases full of silk flowers, and paintings of more flowers and fluffy kittens—none of which had ever quite erased the deprivation in her eyes—all destroyed. The photographs that marked her small successes—the centerfold the deputy had gawked at, the stills from films and shows she’d had minor parts in, the pictures taken with celebrities and any number of men in well-tailored suits who leaned toward her like plants bending to the sun—all strewn amidst the broken glass on the hallway floor.
The sliding door to the patio was open. Outside, a dozen large geranium planters had been overturned, their contents emptied. The flowers were wilted, some of them already brown and withered.
I didn’t much like geraniums, trite flowers with hairy stems and the odor of mildew, but Darla loved them because they were survivors. She even brought me some to plant in the four-foot patch of dirt I called my backyard. Break a stem off, she told me, stick it back in the ground, and it’ll keep growing. I scooped the soil back into the containers, replanted the flowers, and watered them.
When I came back inside, I took one more look around. Beneath the coffee table lay pieces of an ashtray that had been shaped like a daisy, and two gold-tipped cigarette stubs, thin and brown, the ones that boasted no preservatives. Like that made them some sort of health food. Darla didn’t smoke. They could have been anybody’s.
Her cordless handset was on the floor, the voicemail light blinking. I wondered about violating her privacy. But not for long. I pushed Play.
There were several calls from me, others from people I knew and some I didn’t.
Her brother Kyle had phoned a few times. I knew his voice. A whine. With an edge. Saying he needed a favor. Money, of course. Always money. To pay for his habit. No matter how often he lied or stole from her, she never turned her back on him.
He was the only clue I had to the childhood she never talked about. She didn’t like being asked about her family. All she had ever told me was that her mother had died and her father ran off before she was born.
I wondered when Kyle had last heard from her and dialed his number. He didn’t pick up and I left a message.
The next voice on Darla’s phone was a woman. Older. No name. Clipped diction, every syllable enunciated. “My dear, if you are under the illusion that I will allow you to ruin my husband’s life, then you are not only a cheap little whore, but a terribly stupid one.”
I had no idea who she was. Jimmy didn’t have a wife. It was the one good thing you could say about him.

Maxine Nunes is a New Yorker who's spent most of her life in Los Angeles. She has written and produced for television, and currently writes for several publications including the Los Angeles Times. Her satiric parody of a White House scandal won the Pen USA West International Imitation Hemingway Competition.

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