“City of Myths” – Chapter 1

 

“City of Myths”

Book Eight in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels

 Due for release in FEBRUARY 2018

 

CHAPTER 1

Marcus Adler vaulted onto the stone balustrade at the eastern rim of the Trevi Fountain and twisted the zoom lens on his camera. Louis Jourdan sharpened into view. The early afternoon sun reflecting off the white marble highlighted the actor’s aristocratic face. Marcus waited for a movie-star smile. He knew right away his photo was a keeper.

Jean Negulesco, the director on Three Coins in the Fountain, had kept a sure hand through long days toiling in the relentless Roman summer. But September was around the corner, which meant that in four days the cast and crew would be boarding a Pan Am flight back to the States.

Everybody else would be resuming their lives and tackling the next film, but for Marcus, it meant picking up his life again.

Goodbye blacklist.

Goodbye graylist.

Hello Garden of Allah Hotel.

Hello career.

Today they were shooting the final scene where the three couples reunited around a deserted Trevi Fountain to what Marcus guessed would be the swell of the movie’s theme song—on-set rumors whispered that Frank Sinatra was going to record it.

But two rolls of film and only one usable photo was not a great ratio.

Negulesco walked out from behind the enormous Technicolor camera and approached Jourdan with a beckoning hand. As Marcus lifted his Leica to readjust the zoom, he heard a metallic clattering at his feet. One of his cufflinks bounced off the stone and plopped into the water swirling eight feet below.

It wasn’t just any cufflink; it was half of his favorite pair, two gold studs embedded with three tiny emeralds apiece. He stared into the fountain. Technically, they weren’t his at all; they belonged to someone he’d been avoiding ever since he arrived in Italy.

Not that Marcus wanted to see Oliver Trenton. Of course he wanted to. But Marcus knew it wasn’t healthy, so he’d avoided walking past the seminary where Oliver had enrolled in the Jesuit priesthood.

The locations used in Three Coins in the Fountain had taken them all over the city, but never near Piazza Colonna. But they were there right now, three blocks from it.

Four more days, Marcus told himself, then you’ll be out of here and you can put this behind you.

The cufflink glinted in the water. He jumped down from the balustrade and skirted around the fountain’s edge until he was close enough to dip his fingers; the water was refreshingly cool in the stifling August heat. Marcus thought of the pool at the Garden of Allah, and how this time next week he’d be able to dive in any time he wanted. God, how he’d missed that.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Negulesco announced to the crew gathered around the Piazza di Trevi. “We have dust in the camera. Mr. Krasner and his team will need several hours to clean it all out, so I’m calling an early lunch until two o’clock.”

Marcus turned back to the water. It didn’t look too deep. Knee height, maybe? Waist deep at most. With any luck he could slip off his shoes, wade in, collect the cufflink, and wade out again before anyone objected.

“Marcus?” Negulesco curled a finger. “May I have a word?”

He joined the director in the doorway of a gelato store. “I got a great shot of Louis, and another of you two when the camera clogged.”

“We need to talk.”

Jean Negulesco was an urbane Eastern European who eschewed shouting in favor of imparting his intentions with an air of genteel authority that brooked little opposition. However, in Marcus’ experience, no pleasant conversation ever started with the words We need to talk.

“Sure. What’s up?”

Negulesco took a long pause, heavy with apprehension. “How about we go for a walk?” He led Marcus out of the piazza and into one of the many narrow lanes that made up the labyrinth of Rome. “It seems River of No Return has been a rough shoot. Otto Preminger and Marilyn Monroe have not gotten along very well and evidently it shows. Zanuck has decided that a number of scenes will require re-shoots, and he wants me to step in.”

“For no screen credit, I assume?” Marcus asked.

“‘Take one for the team’ is how he put it.”

“Did you say yes?”

Negulesco nodded.

They turned onto a wider thoroughfare, Via del Corso, where a long newsstand hawked an array of European and international newspapers. The headline straddling the New York Times was about the Korean war. News from the States was hard to come by and Marcus ached to find out what was happening back home. But Negulesco pressed on. Marcus was starting to pant; this was no casual stroll.

“Does this mean you want me to accompany you on the set when we get back?” Marcus asked. “Kathryn Massey wrote to me the other day. She told me that Monroe—”

“Zanuck has plans for you.”

“Some other movie?” Demetrius and the Gladiators and Prince Valiant were currently shooting on the Fox lot. Did either of them have a troubled script?

“I’m not entirely sure what he has in mind,” Negulesco said.

“What did he say?”

Negulesco remained silent for half a block. “I think he wants you to stay in Rome.”

Marcus halted out front of a basket store. “Nope.” He shoved his hands down his pockets and rattled the loose change inside. “I took this job so that I could get off the graylist. And when we’ve finished, I get to go back to LA and start my life over.”

“I know,” Negulesco replied quietly.

“I’m getting on that Pan Am flight and neither you nor Zanuck can stop me.” The edges of the lira coins dug into Marcus’ fingers. He pressed them harder until they hurt. “I’ve been counting the days since we got here. He can’t snatch this away from me.”

Negulesco wrapped an arm around Marcus’ shoulders and pulled him forward. “There are worse things in the world than having someone like Darryl Zanuck owe you a favor.”

Marcus shrugged away his boss’s arm. Its intended intimacy wasn’t lost on him, but it felt like a heavy yoke. The two men veered into a side street. It was a relief to step away from the unsettling bustle. “What exactly did he say?” Marcus asked.

“It was a P.S. at the end of one of his long telegrams. He said that he had some extra duties for you to complete before you flew back to Hollywood.”

“But he didn’t say what?”

“You’re to expect a telephone call some time next week.”

“Don’t those transatlantic phone calls cost a fortune?”

“They do, which means it must be important. And that means he trusts you. Trust is not a quality that comes easily to the Zanucks of this world.”

“I have to wave you off at the airport, then sit around until the telephone rings.”

“Think of it as extra bonus time to enjoy the Eternal City on someone else’s dime,” Negulesco advised. “And while you’re here, maybe you’ll have to run a few errands.”

They were standing at a pasta store window that held fifty different sorts, composed like a Picasso cubist sculpture. The arrangement was breathtakingly clever, and must have taken hours to assemble.

I’m a forty-seven-year-old messenger boy.

“You won’t be off the graylist—or the blacklist—until Zanuck says so.” Negulesco pulled at Marcus’ elbow. “Let’s take a breather on that bench over there in the shade.”

It was noticeably cooler on the south side of the street. Marcus felt the tension slip slowly from his shoulders. “If you were to take an educated guess about what these errands might be . . .?”

The director watched an old lady dressed from bonnet to shoes in widow’s black shuffle past, dragging a shopping cart behind her. Every dozen steps or so, she stopped to fan herself with her purse or nod to a storeowner she knew.

“Movie audiences are getting more sophisticated. Fake backlot versions of the Spanish Steps and the Colosseum don’t cut it anymore. For pictures like Three Coins in the Fountain, the studio is selling Europe as an authentic shooting destination. I imagine Zanuck’s going to want lots of scenic pictures of Rome.”

“That’s not something Zanuck needs to place a transatlantic call for.”

“I know, which is why I’d put my money on Bella Darvi. She’s one of Zanuck’s new protégés. Her name came up a few times in his telegram. With The Robe looking like it’ll clean up at the box office, I think he’s looking at casting her in The Egyptian.”

Even as far away as Rome, word had reached the Three Coins crew that Fox expected colossal box office from their biblical epic, The Robe. It was their first in the new widescreen CinemaScope format and was set to premiere in LA the following week. In her most recent letter, Kathryn had told Marcus that Zanuck was so confident in the movie that he was “expecting it to out-DeMille DeMille.”

But it was Marcus who had originally planted the idea for The Robe into Zanuck’s head. Hope warmed his chest as the clues started to fall into place.

“Does Zanuck want to film The Egyptian at Cinecittà?” he asked Negulesco.

“The studio still has a mountain of frozen funds locked up over here—but that might be an excuse.”

“For what?”

“If they film in Italy, Zanuck might have to make a trip to ensure the cast and crew are happy.”

“But he didn’t do it for Three Coins.”

“Ah, but our picture didn’t feature Bella Darvi.”

Another puzzle piece. “She isn’t just Zanuck’s protégé, is she?”

“You asked for an educated guess, Marcus. And if life has educated me about one thing, it’s that men like Darryl F. Zanuck can think with only one part of his anatomy at a time.”

Halfway down the block, a church bell announced that it was one o’clock.

Negulesco got to his feet. “There’s a place not far from here that serves the best saltimbocca alla Romana in the whole city. Care to join me?”

“Thanks,” Marcus said, “but I need time to think. I’ll see you at the Trevi Fountain.”

Negulesco headed back the way they’d come, dissolving into the swelling crowd of hungry locals emerging from doorways in search of lunch. “Ciao!” and “Benvenuto!” echoed off the walls as sidewalk cafés and bars started to fill.

Marcus stood up and pulled his shirt away from the sweat that coated his back. He thought clearer when he was in motion, which usually meant swimming laps, but the Garden of Allah pool was 6,327 miles away, so he’d have to make do with walking.

He turned left and headed toward the church. The bell was silent now; it had done its duty for another hour.

It wasn’t until he drew closer that a growing sense of trepidation rose in his throat.

Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle built for two, you’ve got to be kidding me.

For a more than a month, Marcus had done everything he could to avoid standing in this exact place. Every time he found himself close by, he’d gone out of his way to steer clear of the Jesuit seminary off the Piazza Colonna. And yet here he was ten steps from the matching pair of ornately carved doors that separated him from Oliver. His fingers instinctively reached for the edge of his left sleeve to fiddle with the gold-and-emerald cufflink that now lay at the bottom of the fountain.

A burly man wearing a dark blue suit swept past Marcus; their shoulders brushed as he marched toward the church door. He pounded his fist on the circular brass doorknocker.

“APRA QUESTO PORTELLO!”

During his time in Rome, Marcus had picked up a fair smattering of Italian. Open this door!

“ORA!”

Now!

The man pummeled the doorknocker again and again. “APRA QUESTO PORTELLO!” His bellowing brought no response. He pulled off a shoe and struck the door with the heel. The sharp sound made café patrons look up and pigeons take to the air.

“DEVO PARLARE CON QUALCUNO! OGGI! ORA!”

I must speak with someone! Today! Now!

He struck the door again and again until a chunk of weathered wood broke off and fell at his feet. The man gathered it up off the cobblestones, took a couple of steps back, and threw it at the doors.

“NON SIETE UN SANTUARIO! SIETE UNA PRIGIONE!”

You are not a sanctuary! You are a prison!

His face now flushed bright, he stomped past Marcus muttering a stream of Italian too heated for Marcus to catch. The lunchtime crowds parted for him as though his fury were a contagious disease. Soon he was out of sight and the street gradually resumed its customary hubbub.

Marcus walked up to the doors of Oliver’s seminary. The chunk of wood the guy had broken off was an angel’s wing, about the size of his palm.

Three years ago, when he’d first arrived in Rome to work on Quo Vadis, Marcus was a refugee. He had seen the Eternal City as an escape hatch from the Hollywood blacklisting that had killed his career.

But now it felt different.

Dusty. Dirty. Decaying.

The magazines might have dubbed it the center of the burgeoning jet set, but to Marcus it felt like a city stuck in its Roman Empire glory. It was the past, and he wanted to get on with his future. He felt like taking off his own shoe and banging it against the doors. That nutty guy was right. You are not a sanctuary. You are a prison.

~oOo~

City of Myths is due for release in FEBRUARY 2018

~oOo~

Back to City of Myths page

~oOo~

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