a novel by
Book Six in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels
Gwendolyn Brick was surprised at how different Sunset Boulevard looked from twenty-five feet in the air. Its effervescence at street level had always quickened her pulse; new stores, bars, and nightclubs were always opening to replace old ones whose time had waned or whose owners weren’t the impresarios they’d imagined. But standing on the roof of 8623 Sunset, Gwendolyn discovered that in the twenty-one years she’d lived in LA, she’d never wondered what the view was like from the top.
“You’re on top now,” she told herself. “In a few hours, you’ll be one of those guys. Let’s hope you’re as shrewd as you think you are.”
The afternoon sunlight slanted across the traffic, catching the bold stripes of the front awning of Mocambo as the club’s sign flickered to life. Several blocks east, lights illuminated the white columns around the entrance to Ciro’s, whose neon “C” glowed like a halo.
Dazzling personalities had surged through this town, loaded with talent and handed opportunity like caviar on a silver tray. Gwendolyn had watched them glitter and shine, only to see their egos crash-land like the Hindenburg. A speck of doubt caught in her throat. Could she really compete here?
She glanced at her watch; it was now-or-never o’clock.
A brisk February wind blustered up the boulevard, whipping her emerald silk dress around her calves. She peered over the ledge to make sure the tangerine cloth she’d hung over the sign of her brand-new dress shop was staying put, then scuttled across the graveled rooftop to climb down the ladder as gracefully as her skirt permitted. A dark blue DeSoto pulled into the lot below and three figures emerged holding boxes crammed with the stuff of which successful launches were made: booze.
Gwendolyn had known Kathryn Massey and Marcus Adler since the week they all moved into the Garden of Allah Hotel. She’d arrived from the other Hollywood—the one in Florida—knowing nobody, and she didn’t like to think where she’d be without them. She certainly wouldn’t be opening her own store along the same stretch of road that boasted some of the most famous addresses in America.
“How many people are you expecting?” Kathryn asked when she reached the store’s rear entrance.
“We bought four dozen bottles of champagne, so we’ll just make it,” Marcus teased. “And Oliver’s got a surprise.”
Oliver Trenton was Marcus’ . . . Gwendolyn wasn’t sure what to call him. Paramour? Lover? Suitor? Beau? Whatever the word, he was a sweet fellow who made Marcus happy.
Oliver pulled a brushed-silver hip flask from inside his jacket, unscrewed the top, and handed it to her, saying, “I call it the Gwentini! Champagne, gin, and lemon juice, which we’ll serve in a martini glass. Ice optional.”
It was bubbly and lemony, and packed a wallop.
“By about nine o’clock, the glass will be optional, too.” Kathryn tilted her head toward Gwendolyn’s doorway. “I’m dying to see what you’ve done with the place.”
Gwendolyn ushered her friends through the back room and into the salon.
She’d had the walls painted in mottled crème. The trim was dark turquoise to match the chintz curtains that softened the room’s hard edges, and the carpet was deep plum. The counter was on the right, a full-length tri-fold mirror on the left. Overhead, the pale lavender glass light fixtures had a hint of pink—Gwendolyn’s years at Bullocks Wilshire had taught her plenty about the importance of great lighting.
“Oh, Gwennie!” Kathryn pressed her hands together. “It’s perfect! And the sign? Can we see it?”
“Not until the unveiling. Didn’t you notice when you drove in? Tangerine to match my scarf—OH!” Gwendolyn’s hand shot to her neck. “My lucky scarf! Where is it?”
Ordinarily, she wasn’t inclined to superstition, but she’d lent that scarf to Edith Head on the day Howard Hughes flew his Spruce Goose, and when Edith returned it to her at the Garden of Allah, she saw Gwendolyn’s portrait and told her it was worth a small fortune. Gwendolyn had been wearing that scarf when she learned what the painting fetched at auction, and was wearing it the day she found this store. Marcus had his lucky purple tie and Gwendolyn had her lucky tangerine scarf. She knew it was ridiculous, but the thought of opening without it sent her into a panic.
“We’ll help you look,” Oliver said.
“People will be arriving soon. I need you to set up the bar.” Gwendolyn pointed to the counter and let the boys start preparing for a crowd whose thirst would be as deep as Sunset Boulevard was long.
“Where did you last see it?” Kathryn asked.
Gwendolyn dismissed the question with a wave. “Never mind. I’m being silly.”
“Nonsense. Surely we don’t need a whole hour to find a scarf.”
Gwendolyn followed Kathryn into the spacious back room that could easily accommodate the dressmakers she’d need to hire if her couture services took off the way she hoped. They searched for the scarf among dress forms, boxes of notions, bolts of material, and the worktable, to no avail. The fleck of doubt she’d felt on the roof caught in her throat again, but Kathryn grabbed her hands.
“Gwennie?” Kathryn fixed her with the penetrating look she usually saved for Hollywood Reporter interviews with recalcitrant movie stars. “I want to tell you how proud I am of you before things get crazy.”
Gwendolyn blinked away unexpected tears. “You mean ‘drunk’?”
“You came to LA with nothing but moxie and talent—”
“My acting talent?”
“Your lack of acting talent made room for your real one.” Kathryn squeezed her hands. “And now you’re about to open your own store! On the Sunset Strip! And it’s gorgeous! I couldn’t be more thrilled for you.”
Marcus appeared in the doorway, waving the silk scarf. “We found this under your counter.”
“Thank you!” Gwendolyn plucked it out of his hands and wound it around her neck, draping the ends on either side of her right shoulder. “So these Gwentinis you mentioned, when do I get to taste one?”
* * *
Gwendolyn and Kathryn, Marcus and Oliver had scarcely finished their first cocktail when Gwendolyn’s neighbor burst through the door. Bertie Kreuger was not the type to doll herself up, so Gwendolyn was touched to see she’d put some effort into taming her unruly hair with a dozen pins clustered around the back of her head. She’d even squeezed into a pair of patent leather mules. Gwendolyn knew what a sacrifice this was for someone who spent the day on her feet.
Marcus’ sister, Doris, trailed behind Bertie and held the door for Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who were back in town to pen a remake of Ernst Lubitch’s The Shop Around the Corner for MGM. Gwendolyn had missed chatting with Frances and Albert around the Garden, and she was pleased to see them.
More people showed up: neighbors and their boyfriends, her boss from Bullocks, even Chuck the bartender from her long-gone days as the Cocoanut Grove’s cigarette girl. Before she knew it, her store was crowded with smiling faces and fizzy laughter, but the special guest she was hoping for failed to show.
Kathryn nudged her. “Expecting someone else?”
“You keep looking at the door.”
“No, no,” Gwendolyn said. “I was just hoping—never mind.” She clapped her hands several times. “Outside! Outside!” She herded everyone toward the sidewalk and arranged them in a semicircle around the front door.
“Wait! I don’t want to miss this bit!”
Dorothy Parker was tottering up Sunset from the direction of the Chateau Marmont, waving a white lace handkerchief. She was back in Hollywood to adapt Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan for Twentieth Century-Fox. Gwendolyn thought Dottie was brave to take on Wilde, but if anybody could pull it off, Dottie could.
Oliver slipped a Gwentini into Dottie’s hand as Gwendolyn cast around one more time. The face she wanted most to see was still absent.
“Welcome, everybody! This is a big day for me—” an outburst of cheering forced her to pause “—and whether this store of mine is a resounding success or an embarrassing flopperoo, I want to say that your being here means the world to me.”
To raucous applause, she yanked on the green ribbon she’d sewn to the tangerine cotton covering her sign. Cecil B. DeMille himself couldn’t have orchestrated a more picturesque puff of wind to billow beneath the curtain and send it fluttering to the sidewalk.
Modiste & Couturier
Fashion for All Occasions
The sight of it left Gwendolyn dizzy with joy.
The evening flew by in a rush of roaring laughter, air kisses, and increasingly slurry toasts. A wooly haze of contentment blurred Gwendolyn’s edges until Marcus gripped her elbow and directed his eyes toward the front of the store. The trim figure in a suit of midnight blue was barely over five feet tall, yet seemed to fill the doorway like a bulldozer.
Marcus slid two fresh Gwentinis into her hands and she elbowed her way through the crowd toward one of Hollywood’s leading costume designers.
Gwendolyn didn’t need the approval of Edith Head, or her blessing, but it sure went a long way toward dissolving Gwendolyn’s qualms about blowing all her dough on a pipe dream.
Gwendolyn and Edith pressed cheeks.
“My dear!” Edith murmured into her cocktail, “I’m so frightfully impressed.”
“Thank you. I’m glad you could make it.”
“Sorry to be so late. I got caught up with William Travilla over at Warners. They’ve got him designing ballet costumes for an Errol Flynn-Ida Lupino picture.” Edith read Gwendolyn’s thoughts. “I know! So incongruous! He was having trouble with the designs and sent me an SOS this afternoon. That’s when we heard about Leilah.”
“What about Leilah?”
The chatter around them broke off and everyone turned to look at Edith. Leilah O’Roarke was the wife of the head of security at Warners, but more importantly, she ran a trio of swanky brothels up in the Hollywood Hills.
Edith knocked back the rest of her Gwentini. “She’s been arrested! For pandering!”
The crowd gasped. Marcus’ sister piped up. “What’s pandering?”
“It’s the legal term police use when they arrest hookers and the like.”
“So it’s finally caught up with her?” someone said wistfully.
“Big deal,” somebody else put in. “With her husband’s connections at the LAPD, she’ll be out before we start staggering home tonight.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Edith replied. “She was arrested at dawn and she’s still behind bars. Everyone at Warners is speculating that they must really have the goods on her.”
Kathryn eyed Gwendolyn. “Maybe pandering is just a cover.”
What most people didn’t know, Edith Head included, was that Leilah O’Roarke and her husband were behind a shady land grab around the newly minted mobster-ruled playground, Las Vegas. Gwendolyn’s ex-boyfriend had discovered the scheme and become so frightened that he ran away to Mexico. Which was all very well for Linc, but not so reassuring for everyone who had done business with Leilah, legitimate and otherwise.
“So what do you think?” Gwendolyn asked.
Edith blinked knowingly. “I think that anyone with even so much as a passing acquaintance with that noxious hellcat needs to watch out. If she goes down, you can be sure she’ll take as many chumps as she can with her.”
TWISTED BOULEVARD is due out November 2016
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