Vaudeville actress Leah Randall took on her most daring role ever when she impersonated missing heiress Jessie Carr in order to claim Jessie's inheritance in The Impersonator. Now that the dust has settled around that tumultuous time in her life, Leah has adopted Jessie's name as her own and moved to Hollywood, where she's taken a modest but steady job in the silent film industry.
Jessie's thrilled when Bruno Heilmann, a movie studio bigwig, invites her to a party. She's even more delighted to run into a face from her past at that party. But the following day, Jessie learns that sometime in the wee hours of the morning both her old friend and Bruno Heilmann were brutally murdered. She's devastated, but with her skill as an actress, access to the wardrobes and resources of a film studio, and a face not yet famous enough to be recognized, Jessie is uniquely positioned to dig into the circumstances surrounding these deaths. But will doing so put her own life directly in the path of a murderer?
With Silent Murders, MB/MWA First Crime Novel Competition winner Mary Miley has crafted another terrifically fun mystery, this time set in the dizzying, dazzling heart of jazz-age Hollywood.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.71(d)|
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By Mary Miley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Mary Miley Theobald
All rights reserved.
Turns out vaudeville doesn't prepare you for Hollywood.
I'm a quick study and good at figuring things out, but it was a week before I could navigate the eighteen acres of stages, sets, and storage rooms at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios. It was another week before I got straight in my head the pecking order of all the directors, general managers, collaborators, producers, and other big shots and learned to tell the actors from the extras and the gaffers from the grips. To be safe, I called everyone mister or miss until they said otherwise.
Everyone called me Jessie. And everyone called me a lot. Officially I was assistant script girl to director Frank Richardson on the Don Q, Son of Zorro set, but anyone in the studio could waylay me at any time. I felt like a lowly worker bee, flitting in and out of the beehive on foraging expeditions.
"Jessie, run to Wardrobe and get Paul Burns — the Queen has ripped her ball gown."
"There you are, Jessie. We need wind. Find two electric fans, pronto."
"Oh, Jessie? More ice water for Mr. Fairbanks before he films that stunt again."
"Quick, Jessie, the shovel! Somebody oughta quit feeding those damned horses."
But I was lucky to have the job, and I loved being part of the excitement of creating moving pictures. Pickford-Fairbanks Studios made even Big Time vaudeville seem Small Time.
The film industry had started moving to the Los Angeles area a dozen years ago, drawn by sunshine, scenery, and cheap labor. I was part of that last feature. Locals called us moving picture people "movies" and avoided us when they could, but the number of "movies" grew with every passing day while locals seemed to evaporate into the warm, dry air. By my count, there were seventeen studios in town and Pickford-Fairbanks was not among the largest. But it was the only one started by actors: Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, the queen and king of Hollywood.
I'd been on the job two weeks when America's most famous leading man first took notice of me. We were in the early days of filming Don Q, Son of Zorro, shooting one of the final scenes (who knew the scenes weren't shot in sequence?), the one where Don Q has fled to his hideout in the ruins of the DeVega ancestral castle, when a hinge on the secret trapdoor came loose.
"Jessie! Find a grip right away."
I came across Zeke in the shade of a low-hanging eucalyptus at the edge of the back lot and pulled him from his lunch pail to the castle hideout. Crouching beside him, handing him his tools like a nurse in an operating room, I felt a prickly sensation on my neck. I've always been able to sense when I'm being watched — it comes from years of being on the stage where the ability to draw attention is essential to success.
"Who's that?" I heard a deep voice whisper.
"The new girl Friday, Jessie Beckett."
I stood up and turned to face the great Douglas Fairbanks, Son of Zorro, not three steps away.
He looked every inch the Spanish don of the last century, costumed in tight pants and a white blousy shirt with a flowing silk tie and bolero jacket. He had played the hero in the 1920 feature Mark of Zorro — a completely new style of picture full of action and adventure — and now, five years later, he was back for the sequel as Zorro's son, Don Q, wrongly accused of murdering the archduke and desperate to woo the fair Dolores. I'd seen him on the set, of course, but this was the first time we had actually been introduced.
From a distance, Douglas Fairbanks was a tanned, muscular young man, but up close, the receding hairline and the wrinkles around his mouth and eyes betrayed him. I felt a stab of sympathy. I, too, had specialized in younger roles, playing a fourteen-year-old in vaudeville with the Little Darlings well into my twenty-fifth year, and I understood all too well the terrifying prospect of aging out of one's livelihood. It had recently happened to me.
"How do you do, Mr. Fairbanks?" I said, looking steadily into his eyes, according him the respect he had earned without any of the toadying I knew he would loathe.
He gave me the once-over, stepped closer, locked those piercing gray-blue eyes on mine, and put both hands firmly on my shoulders. Without a word, he walked me backward until I bumped into a papier-mâché castle wall that looked more like the real thing than the real thing. Two dozen people on the set froze. With my shoulders pinned to the wall, I probably looked as thunderstruck as I felt.
"Chin up," he commanded in a voice that was clear and strong and accustomed to obedience.
"Hold still, now." And yes, I did think, for one appalling moment, that he was going to kiss me, right there in front of the entire cast and crew.
Snatching a clipboard from the hand of an assistant, he set it on my head and made a pencil mark on the fake stone wall.
"How tall is she?" he demanded of no one in particular. An alert gaffer whipped out a tape measure and held one end at my heel.
"Five one," the man announced. "With shoes."
"I thought so. Exactly the same as my Mary. But not as slim, I'll wager. How much do you weigh?"
"Um ... about a hundred pounds."
"Mary weighs ninety-five. And she struggles mightily to hold on to that number, I can tell you. Never touches sweets. Well, well, maybe we can use you as a stand-in sometime, eh, Jessie Beckett? A blond wig to cover up that auburn bob and you'd be all set."
A stand-in for the incomparable Mary Pickford, my idol and the most recognized face in the world? I swallowed hard but no words came out.
"All finished here." At that moment, the grip climbed through the trapdoor, oblivious to the odd scene that had just played out above him. The cast and crew scurried to resume their places and pretend nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
It was a week or so after that incident, at a break during the brutal swordfight scene between our hero, Don Q, and the dastardly Don Sebastian, that Mr. Fairbanks sent for me to come to his dressing room. The makeup artist was leaving just as I arrived.
"Ah, there you are," said Mr. Fairbanks. "Come in, come in. Step lively, there isn't much time."
He must have sensed my nervousness because he lost no time in putting me at ease by telling me that Frank Richardson, the director, and Pauline Cox, the script girl who was training me, were pleased with the job I was doing. Then he asked how I liked working at Pickford-Fairbanks.
"I like it very much," I replied uneasily, fearing this was to be my last day.
"Frank says you were in vaudeville. What brought you to Hollywood?"
"I spent my life in vaudeville, but I was ready for a change. Twenty-five years was enough."
"Jesus, I thought you were about eighteen. How old are you?"
"Twenty-five. My mother was onstage while she was carrying me, so I tell people I started performing before I was born. Last fall, I took some civilian work and ended up with a broken leg and living with my grandmother in San Francisco while it mended. A vaudeville friend, Jack Benny, knew I'd had enough of the vagabond life and made inquiries for me. Zeppo Marx told Benny that Frank Richardson's script girl was planning to get married, and I applied for the position before Frank even knew she was leaving."
"If Zeppo vouched for you, I'm sure Frank counted himself lucky to get you." He offered me a Camel, which I declined, and he lit one of his own. "So you came to Hollywood to become a star, eh?"
"Doesn't everyone want to become a star?" I asked, relaxing a little now that I realized I wasn't going to be fired. "But I expect my years on the stage left me a little more realistic than most. I figure to learn all I can about the moving picture business — it's a lot different than vaudeville — and then I'll find out where I best fit in."
"Well, Jessie Beckett, I'll tell you where you best fit in. If you agree, that is. My personal assistant was called home to Texas yesterday to comfort her dying father. I need someone to fill her shoes for a while, and Frank offered you up. Pauline says it's okay; she's got six weeks before she leaves and that's plenty of time to get you trained. It's a temporary assignment, you understand," he warned. "When my assistant comes back, she picks up where she left off, and you're back with Frank. Are you interested?"
"Oh, yes, sir. Very much." In the distance, a harsh bell sounded, signaling the end of the break. Douglas Fairbanks extinguished his cigarette, picked up a stack of papers, and continued talking as we walked out of his dressing room toward the sunlit stage.
"Good girl. Job starts now. Here, take these folders to director Beaudine on the Little Annie Rooney set, call for the studio mail at the post office — something you'll do twice a day — take it to the office and my secretary will show you how to sort it and what to answer. Stop by Kress's and pick up a hat and some other things they'll have waiting for you. Bring them here before three. Do you have all that straight?"
Other than the fact that I had no idea where those places were, sure. "Yes, sir."
"'Sir' is for the stage, Jessie. 'Douglas' will do off it."
By now we had reached the castle-ruins set. The great actor threw back his shoulders, straightened his doublet, narrowed his eyes to a steely glare, lifted his chin, and transformed Douglas Fairbanks into the fearless Don Q, son of Zorro. "Robledo!" he barked imperiously, one hand held out, palm up. "My sword!" Both cameras rolled.
Douglas Fairbanks was as good as his word. When his assistant returned after a few weeks, I went back to working as the film's assistant script girl. But during those weeks, I learned my way around Hollywood, met a slew of big shots and stars, and got invited to the party where the first of the "Hollywood murders" took place.CHAPTER 2
"Are you very, very certain the invitation included me?" Myrna asked as we stepped off the electric streetcar — called Red Cars or Yellow Cars around here — on Saturday night and headed toward the home of one of Paramount's leading directors.
"Of course it did," I replied in a confident tone designed to conceal my own misgivings. In truth, it had been rather an odd invitation, extended on impulse only yesterday when I delivered some papers to the office of the famous director, Bruno Heilmann. I had no written invitation to get us past a butler. What if no one expected us? Being turned away like gate-crashers in front of other guests would be humiliating.
"I was at Bruno Heilmann's office on business three times this week, and yesterday I explained to him that it was my last day and that he could expect Mr. Fairbanks's regular assistant to pick the papers up on Monday. He looked at me like he was trying to figure out a puzzle, and then he said" — and here I mimicked him with my best German accent — "'I'm hafing a party at my house tomorrow night. Everyone vill be there. Vill you come?'" So I said, 'Sure, what time do you want me?' and he said that most people would be arriving after nine. Then I asked, 'What do you want me to do?' He gave me the strangest look and said, 'Vat do you usually do at parties?' That was when I realized my mistake. 'You mean, you want me to come as a guest?' I said. 'Of course,' he said. 'Vat did you think I meant?' And I had to admit: 'I thought you were asking me to help out taking coats or passing caviar.' He laughed so hard he had to wipe his eyes."
Myrna was laughing, too. "You didn't!"
"I'm afraid I did. But the minute I understood it was an invitation and not a job, I thought how much I'd rather come with a friend. I figured since he was laughing, the odds were in my favor, so I asked. He said, 'A girlfriend or a boyfriend?' I said, 'A girlfriend who shares a house with me.' 'Is she pretty as you?' he asked. 'Prettier,' I said."
"Aw, come on!" she said, nudging me with her elbow.
Myrna was not a classic beauty like Gloria Swanson or Greta Garbo. Cataloged individually, her features were nothing unique — a cute upturned nose, wide-set blue eyes, and high cheekbones — but the package sure turned heads. At nineteen, her carrot hair was maturing to a more sophisticated hue, her freckles were fading, and her soft, sexy voice was deepening ... not that that would help her until someone figured out how to make pictures with sound. I had been in vaudeville dance acts for years and was a pretty good hoofer myself, but Myrna was a gifted, classically trained dancer who made reaching for the salt look like something out of Swan Lake. She had recently left her dancing job for a shot at the silver screen. With the predictable outcome ... that is, none. We met two months ago when I took a room in the house on Fernwood Avenue where she lived with Melva, Helen, and Lillian — all nice girls, but I liked Myrna best.
The noisy commercialism of Hollywood Boulevard faded behind us, replaced with the sound of crickets and the exotic fragrance of eucalyptus trees as we wound our way through the narrow roads of Whitley Heights. Although there were no street lamps, a nearly full moon lit our stage like a distant floodlight. "The stars are out tonight," I said.
"I hope I meet some. What if no one will talk to us?"
"Then we'll talk to each other. But don't worry. Douglas Fairbanks, at least, will talk to us. He told me he'd be there tonight for a short while, and he's always so kind to his people. And we're bound to know some of the others," I said with more hope than certainty. "Surely someone from Son of Zorro will be there. And maybe from Ben-Hur."
"Even so, they won't know me. I'm just an extra." Myrna was still glum over her recent failures. She had tested for the Virgin Mary with Ben-Hur but came away with only a $7.50-a-day job as a Roman senator's mistress at the chariot races. Earlier she'd tested for a role with the great Rudolph Valentino in Cobra but missed that one, as well. Too young for the part, Valentino had ruled.
We stepped through a gate and into a semicircular courtyard with five Spanish-style haciendas arranged in an arc around a dolphin fountain spouting streams of water. There was no mistaking the house — flaming torches lit the path to Bruno Heilmann's front door.
"Good thing Mr. Heilmann put torches out or we'd never have guessed which place was his," Myrna deadpanned.
I smiled. The Heilmann home could have doubled as an advertisement for the electric company, with light spilling out of every open door and window, raucous laughter surging and ebbing like waves at the seashore, and lively band music pulsating from behind the house, competing with the people indoors who were lustily singing to piano accompaniment. I'd been to parties in Hollywood, but nothing classy like this.
"It looks like he invited all the neighbors," I said, indicating the other four houses that were dark.
"That or they left town before the ruckus started!"
We approached the wide-open front door. Inside it was wall-to-wall actors, actresses, directors, and studio big shots, all dressed to the nines in dinner jackets and glamorous flapper dresses that bared more arms, shoulders, calves, and backs than you could see at a burlesque show. A thick haze of cigarette smoke clogged the air. Myrna and I exchanged nervous glances, put on our most confident smiles, and stepped into the foyer. When no one sprang from behind a corner to challenge us, my fears receded.
Bruno Heilmann didn't live in one of those flashy mansions you see photographed in Motion Picture, Photoplay, or any of the fan magazines. We could see most of the first floor from the foyer, all of it decorated in the modern German style, cold, spare, and angular, with subtle colors, no bric-a-brac, and lots of abstract paintings. Intimidating, like its owner, but not overly large. I guessed he didn't need a huge place, being a bachelor.
A butler descended the stairs to take our wraps. Several couples wobbled past him on their way to the second floor, planting each footstep with care and steadying themselves with the handrail.
I wore a custom-made, sleeveless tea-length frock, green to bring out the color in my eyes, with bugle beads sewn onto every square inch. It was expensive, left over from my last role, where I had played the part of a long-lost heiress in a swindle to bilk her relatives out of her fortune. No one cared to have the clothes back, so I kept them. Myrna was dressed in her finest, a blue silk backless with a handkerchief hem; not costly, but Myrna could wear rags and look like a million bucks. Still, she came across as very young and inexperienced. I made a mental note to keep an eye on her.
"Shall I use your new name?" I asked, thinking ahead to the introductions.
She nodded uncertainly, then sighed. "I suppose so. I've just started using it on the back of my photographs and to sign my checks."
"Good girl. It's a great name." The artistic, avant-garde crowd she hung around with had been urging her for some time to come up with a more distinctive-sounding moniker, and she had finally settled on one.
Excerpted from Silent Murders by Mary Miley. Copyright © 2014 Mary Miley Theobald. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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