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By Ace Collins
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Ace Collins
All rights reserved.
June 5, 1936
Why can't people get murdered in the daytime?"
Bill Barrister glanced over to his young sergeant, Barry Jenkins, frowned, and said, "Why do they have to get killed at all?" The captain then looked back at the body sprawled on the ground beneath the Hollywoodland sign and sighed. She looked to be about twenty, her hair was platinum, though he figured it was dyed. She was dressed in a torn ice-blue evening gown and high heels. Her nails were polished and manicured, her skin almost ivory, and her lips painted deep red. She was way too young to be dead.
"We can't find any identification," a uniformed cop called out from down the hill. "There's no purse or anything else within twenty feet of the body no matter what direction I search."
Barrister didn't figure there would be. After all, when you are the head of the Los Angeles homicide division nothing ever comes easy. So he had to scratch and claw for every clue and there were never any movie detectives like Philo Vance or Nick Charles trying to help him. Crouching beside the body, the heavyset Barrister took a closer look and shook his head. "She must have been pretty before someone strangled her."
"Hard to tell now," Jenkins chimed in. The twenty-eight-year old lanky investigator stuck his hands into his gray suit slacks, looked away from the victim toward the city, and asked, "How long you been on the force, Cap?"
"Too long," came the abrupt response. Pulling off his hat and running his short, thick fingers over his bald head, Barrister studied the body more closely. After his eyes roamed from her head to her feet, he finally answered his partner's question. "Barry, it has been twenty-one years." He pushed his short body upright and glanced over to the other man. "Tonight, I wish I was back on a beat. When I get cases like this, I hate this job. This was personal. This wasn't some random robbery or domestic squabble; this was a crime of passion. Someone wanted to not just kill this girl; they wanted her to watch them as they squeezed the life from her body. What kind of monster does this?"
"Just like the other three," Jenkins suggested.
"Yeah," Barrister admitted, "just like the other three."
The captain loosened his tie. Even on this cool night he was sweating. Death did that to him. It made his insides burn and his head pound and left a foul taste as his stomach churned like a Kansas twister. And most of all it made him want to race home and hug his wife and two children and then walk away from this job forever. And yet, he couldn't do that. That wasn't his nature. Like a hound with his nose to the ground, he had to doggedly stay on the trail until he treed or killed the man who did this.
"Do you think it's the same guy?" Jenkins asked.
Barrister, his gaze once more falling on the body, didn't reply. And there was a good reason too.
Before he connected the cases, he had to put them into some kind of context that allowed him to view them logically and unemotionally. After all, a dozen people were strangled in his city last year, and he knew for a fact not all of them were killed by the same person. What did these four have in common? Were they looking at random acts of violence or was there a madman on the loose? His gut assured him it was the latter, but logic begged him to consider the former.
"Barry," the captain explained as he did a mental inventory, "we've caught and convicted four stranglers this year. Two were husbands, another escaped from prison and was after the guy who set him up, and the other one was a jealous boyfriend. Who is to say this one doesn't fall into one of those categories? Before I determine anything that might give the press something to sensationalize and scare the citizens of our city half to death, I need to be sure. Right now, you and I are the only people who think this one might be connected to the others. For the moment, that's how I want to keep it. So put your flashlight beam back on the body and let's take another look and without allowing past prejudices to influence us, let's see what this one body and single crime scene tell us."
With the body now bathed in the yellow glow of the flashlight, Barrister mentally put the unsolved but similar cases side by side. Judging by how this girl was dressed, she had likely been to a party. At least one of the other victims had been dressed for a fancy or formal social gathering. But where did she go, and was it the same location as this woman? Could the murderer seek women out at a nightclub or on the party scene? It might be a possibility and something he needed to consider.
Victim #2 was tossed in a vacant lot in Beverly Hills about nine months ago ... September 15, 1935. The brunette was tall, attractive, and wearing a dress that matched the California sky on a summer day. As they'd never found out that woman's name, there was no way for Barrister to know what she might have had in common with the blonde lying at his feet. So was there something else tying the two women together and was it hiding in plain sight right in front of him? If it was, he didn't see it, so it was time to move on to another victim of strangulation.
The first one was discovered a year ago, June 3, 1935, on a beach outside of Malibu. She was dressed in a light blue bathing suit. Maggie Reason was a brunette, twenty-three, and lived on the West Coast for five months. Like so many others she was trying to make it in the movie business, but only managed a couple of walk-on roles before she was killed. She had grown up in Illinois and, when the medical examiner finished with her, she'd been shipped back there. Beyond having someone wrap their fingers around her throat, what did she have in common with the dead woman they found tonight? On the surface it looked like nothing.
In December they'd found victim #3. She was a brunette, beautiful, and athletic. She was raised in Los Angeles and was a freshman at UCLA. Her last night was spent at a movie in Beverly Hills before her body was dumped in an alley behind the restaurant of the stars—Musso and Frank. She'd been wearing a navy sweater and light blue skirt when she was found. She'd been strangled too, but did that tie her murder to any of the other three?
"It just doesn't add up," Barrister grumbled turning to look at his partner. "Where is the connection? The two we identified didn't know each other and had far different backgrounds. And, in each case, the bodies were found in much different locations."
Barrister studied the dead woman again and mumbled, "Why not dump them in a canyon or someplace few people ever visit? That's what smart killers do. Each time we've found young strangulation victims, the bodies have been dropped in places people pass by all the time."
"Maybe he's dumped others in out-of-the-way spots," Jenkins suggested. "Maybe these aren't the only ones."
As if trying to deal with four dead women was not enough, now Barrister had something even more sobering to consider. What if there were more?
Leaning back over the body, the captain took a final look at the victim. Just like the other three, her face was forever frozen in terror. He therefore figured the attacker or attackers had to be people who felt a sense of great power from their actions. And if these four were all murdered by the same man, then this was an urge he probably had to satisfy on a regular basis. And it would likely not end until he was either caught or dead. It looked more and more like there was a deranged killer on the loose in Los Angeles.
"What's that by her right hand?" Jenkins asked, pointing a flashlight's beam to a place two feet from the dead woman.
The captain stepped over the body to the area where the light had spotlighted something in the grass. "It's a kitchen match," Barrister noted. "Look, it's been broken in two." He picked up the pieces and placed them in the palm of his hand. He studied them for a moment before looking back to his partner, "Didn't we spot a match on the beach beside the first victim?"
"Yeah." Jenkins replied, "but a lot of folks use matches on beaches."
Barrister stood, "Was that one used?"
"I don't think so," the younger man replied.
"We need to examine the crime scene photos," Barrister suggested. "This might be nothing more than just a coincidence, but I need to find out for sure. If there is an unused, broken match at each crime scene, it could be our first break."
"If there was a broken kitchen match at each scene," Jenkins asked, "what do you think it means?"
"It could be a signature," Barrister explained. The fact he might have uncovered his first real clue caused the captain's heart to race, but that excitement was tempered with the knowledge that a clever madman was much more difficult to find than any other kind of killer. He could literally be anybody. By day, he might be a respected businessman, doctor, preacher, or actor, but for an hour or two every few months he might become something much more evil than any fictional character ever dreamed up by Hollywood scriptwriters. And the only clue he possessed was the broken match he held in his hand.
"Barry," Barrister suggested, "this might just be our murderer's way of signing his work. Based on how and where he lays out his victims, I'm guessing he thinks of himself as an artist too. He wants these women to be found. He wants to know there are others admiring his work. He might even be looking at us right now." Barrister stopped, looked back into his hand, and sighed, "Or it could be nothing at all.CHAPTER 2
June 6, 1936
Filled with grief, her deep blue eyes were drawn to the small, three-room farmhouse that had been her home since birth. It wasn't much to look at, the Oklahoma wind had pretty much stripped away the peeling white paint, and the sagging tin roof was patched in four different places with old rusty metal signs, but that didn't matter. She belonged there or at least always thought she did.
To the young woman's right, an early twenties Model T Ford roadster, half buried by drifting dirt, sat beside a small, almost roofless, plank barn that, from constantly being pushed by a relentless south wind, was leaning at a twenty-degree angle in a northerly direction. To her left, a circular stone wall surrounded the opening to a well that had gone dry the previous summer. Just beyond that was a garden spot filled with little more than brown, stiff, and broken weeds holding a sad vigil where vegetables had once thrived. But it was still home.
For twenty-one years, this now depressing patch of land just outside of Cordell, Oklahoma, was the place she'd learned to walk, read, sew, and cook. During those years she'd spent hours on the front porch and, while washing clothes in an old tub, she thought about the future. And in those modest musings the future was bright and joyful filled with a happy marriage, a small neat home, and lots of children. And those simple ponderings were so unlike the reality of what her life and prospects had become.
Five miles down the dirt road running in front of her home, she'd gone to school, sitting day after day and year after year at old desks with scores of names that generations of students had carved deep into the tops. In poorly lit classrooms, she learned to read, write, spell, and add as well as made scores of friends. There had been dances and hayrides, ice cream socials, and band concerts, and each of those events was now etched deeply into her soul's fabric and was seeping from places in her mind that had been dormant. And right now, she didn't want those memories in her life because they brought far more pain than joy.
In Cordell, just off the town square, the community church might have been just a simple, plank- board building, but it was where she'd learned about values and faith as well as where God tugged at her heart and led her to trust Him. In hard pews holding shaped-note, canvas-backed hymnals, she'd sung and prayed and even suffered during long, loud sermons. And though it had often been a struggle to get out of bed and get there on Sunday mornings, it, along with her family, was her anchor.
Then there were the fields her father had farmed. The sunny days she'd walked barefoot beside the mule as her dad, always outfitted in a straw hat, white shirt, and bib overalls, plowed. How she relished the feel of the warm soil between her toes, how she'd loved to listen to his stories, been captivated by the tunes he'd whistled, and taken in by the smell of the Prince Albert tobacco he always smoked in his pipe. When the hard times hit, it was the tobacco that went first. Her dad gave up smoking to save a few cents a day. Later, Jasper, the old mule was sold and the stories and whistling stopped. Then her mother, who'd always sewn their clothes, started patching them instead. And that meant fewer trips to the general store where the young woman had once bought orange sodas, looked at dolls, and read movie magazines. She treasured those bittersweet recollections even more than the cameo her grandmother had given her for her sixteenth birthday.
For the past three years it had been her paycheck that had kept the hounds from the door. She'd worked at Maybelle's Dress Shop. For a time her skills as a seamstress had given her value. She'd altered dresses and even sewn original outfits. Then the Depression had deepened to the point where Maybelle Johnson no longer sold enough stock to keep the doors open. And that was the real beginning of the end.
The sound of a screen door slamming shut yanked her from sad reminiscing to the even sadder reality of what life had become. Lifting her large, expressive eyes, Shelby dejectedly watched as her mother, wearing a faded, long blue dress stepped out onto the porch for a final time. Looking far older than her forty-one years, the frail woman, her straw-colored hair pushed under a bonnet, wiped tears from her eyes as she patted the porch railing and gazed out on what had once been fertile farmland. Finally, she turned to once more study the foreclosure notice tacked to the wooden entry. Rather than see her mother's sagging shoulders tremble and her eyes explode with tears, twenty-one-year-old Shelby pushed her eyes back to a blue 1932 Ford truck. Her father, a short, thin man stood beside it inspecting the family's meager possessions. He was just another Okie who had run out of luck, but in his eyes Shelby could see he felt as though he'd failed as a farmer, husband, and father. Giving up and moving was breaking both his spirit and his heart but there were no other options. So, surviving the June 3 auction that stripped him of every vestige of how he'd once fed his family, he'd spent the last two days packing everything the family kept into the vehicle's six-foot bed.
Her eyes misting, Shelby smoothed her washed-out green dress and turned her gaze to Rex. The old collie/shepherd mix jumped into the truck's bed and found a place on an oak rocking chair. If the dog regretted leaving the farm, he didn't show it. His eyes were bright and his expression filled with a mixture of joy and curiosity. The black and tan mutt, the only animal that hadn't been sold or given away, seemed more than ready to make the trip that everyone else was dreading. He had no regrets about what he was leaving behind and no fears of what was ahead. If only she had the old dog's blissful, optimistic faith.
The July wind stirred up dirt that hadn't seen rain in months and sent it swirling by the house and barn and down the long straight road. It seemed that even the wind and the dust that had choked the life out of the farm were now urging the family to move on.
"Time to get going," John announced, his voice cracking with emotion.
"I know," Mary answered, her words barely carrying the twenty feet from the porch to the truck. Shaking her head, she stepped onto the ground before adding, "It ain't going to be easy, Pa."
"Can't be any worse than here," he assured her. "We didn't have nothing twenty-three years ago when we got hitched. So we'll be fine. Cousin Stew assured me there was work in California. You read his letter a dozen times. You just got to have faith."
"Not sure I know what that is anymore," the woman admitted as she opened the passenger door and placed her foot on the running board. "Pa, you get everything on the truck?"
"Everything but our troubles and problems," he assured her. "Hopefully, I'm leaving those here."
The sound of a car motoring up the road caused Shelby to turn her eyes away from her parents and to the road. She immediately recognized the black Model A coupe stirring up the dust as belonging to Calvin Kelly. They'd graduated high school together and, thanks to the fact that his family owned a couple of the stores in town, the tall, dark-headed young man was attending the University of Oklahoma studying business. In a state filled with sad and suffering people, Kelly was one of the lucky ones.
Pulling up behind the Beckett's truck, Calvin switched off the four-cylinder motor, swung the door open, jumped out, and quickly covered the thirty feet between him and Shelby. After smoothing his light blue shirt, he pushed his hair out of his eyes and announced, "I had to catch you before you left."
Excerpted from Hollywood Lost by Ace Collins. Copyright © 2015 Ace Collins. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ace Collins in his new book, “Hollywood Lost” published by Abingdon Press takes us into the life of Shelby Beckett. From the back cover: “She must have been pretty before someone strangled her.” Deep in the heart of Hollywood’s Golden Age, someone is murdering beautiful women. The victims are polished, manicured, and far too young to be dead. Behind the glamour and wealth, behind the opulent parties and screaming fans, a ruthless killer lurks. Homicide chief detective Bill Barrister believes the murderer is somehow connected to the crown jewel of the movie industry: Galaxy Studios, home of the box office rivals Flynn Sparks and Dalton Andrews and a young woman named Shelby Beckett. Thrust into a Gatsby-like lifestyle far different than her childhood in the Oklahoma dust bowl, Shelby only wanted to escape the Great Depression and find work. Little did she know, her job in the Galaxy wardrobe department would make her popular with the city’s most elite-and make her the target of a serial strangler. As hard as it is to fit into a city known for fortune and greed, Shelby must maintain her small-town morals…and try to stay alive. Hollywood, 1936, not the place where moral values were running high. There is a serial killer who is strangling women. The cops narrow down their field of search to Galaxy Studios. That’s where Shelby Beckett works. Now the cops set Shelby up to be the next victim of this serial killer. Let’s face it if there is ever going to be a book that is going to have you reading super fast so that you can flip to the next page trying to find out what is going on next this is the book. A Serial Killer, loads of suspense and mystery are oozing out of this book. And did I mention there is romance? Mr. Collins throws in all kinds of sub-plots that keep the story moving briskly. I do not think you will figure out who the murderer is until Mr. Collins tells you who it is. This is an excellent thriller that you will not want to put down until you actually finish it. Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Abingdon Press. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
A Largely Predictable Mystery Suspense is not my usual genre of choice, even romantic suspense, but I was lured into the premise of this book by the promise of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I am a huge fan of classic movies, and I was expecting the written version of a film noir flick. Sadly, there wasn’t much mystery to be had, the twist I was waiting for never appeared, and it wasn’t until the last third of the book that I really engaged with this novel. I can’t fault Collins’ research—it fits well with what I know about old Hollywood, and the writing itself is not bad with a nice balance of prose and dialogue. The problems are really the characters he has created for us and the pace at which the clues are revealed. There aren’t very many likeable characters, or even fleshed out ones. Shelby is one of the few realistic inhabitants of this novel. Her genuine faith makes her stand out as she sticks to her convictions in a difficult environment that tests her constantly; she struggles with temptation and overcomes it. Only one of her love interests gains any depth but much of what he does leaves him unlikable most of the time, and they are kept apart by misunderstandings that seemed artificial and forced—even his rival seems to better understand Shelby. This lack left me, as the reader, wondering if she wouldn’t be better off scrapping all of her options for romance and finding someone in the world outside of Hollywood. The police come off as bumbling and incompetent—as the reader, I was able to piece together one important group of details from the head of homicide’s reminiscences within the first ten pages. His inability to do so was frustrating, especially as it was so obvious. The clues are generally revealed too quickly and in too obvious a manner, though the author did plant enough red herrings to have me question my conclusion occasionally. This caused the tension in the novel to suffer as we already knew too much and when Shelby was and wasn’t in real danger. Given this story deals with murder, there are going to be some questionable elements, though nothing crosses the line into graphic. Some of what passes for romance is lust, plain and simple, and references to casual sex abound though it is never described. The bad boy character makes no apologies for his behavior and remains two-dimensional for much of the novel. One thing that Collins did exceedingly well occurs towards the end of the novel and is what made this book enjoyable at the end: the line between the fantasy of the movie studios and the reality of what was happening outside of the script is largely blurred, to the point that the reader is even confused for a bit. In that way, I was put in Shelby’s position as she tries to sort out what is Hollywood publicity and who the people she works with really are. Unfortunately, this story is largely predictable, and in a mystery that is never good. It wasn’t until the last third of the book that I began to rapidly turn those pages to find out how it was going to end. While I don’t think suspense fans will be impressed, those interested in classic Hollywood might find enough help them enjoy this tale. It was hard for me to connect with the unlikable characters or to feel enough tension to keep me reading. Ultimately, if I hadn’t had to finish this book, I don’t know that I would have, but I’m glad I persevered because the last third of the novel proved to be a worthwhile read. This review originally appeared at The Christian Manifesto, where I received an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for this honest review.