Albert Camus

Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Dazzled (Five Star Mystery) by Maxine Nunes

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.


Published: June 25th, 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.

"I loved this book. The characters, plot and dialogue brought me back to my favorite genre, "Film Noir". [...] The book is full of twists and turns and characters who are not always who they seem to be. It's an exciting ride literally as well as figuratively." Goodreads, Peggy

"[I] got caught up in this story and in following the twists and turns of the multi-layered plot. The ending is surprising (something I never saw coming). After I finished the book, I went back over key turns in the plot and admired the author's skill." - Goodreads, Kathy



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 through.
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. 

About the author:
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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