Elaine Lennon is a film historian. She is the author of ChinaTowne: The Screenplays of Robert Towne and is widely published in international film journals.
She has a background in television production and film financing and was a lecturer for a decade in film studies and screenwriting at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology.
By Elaine Lennon
A skywriter traced the current temperature overhead. Seventy-three degrees.
He could see by the dashboard clock in his gold straight-six ’67 Mustang it was already ten-oh-five. The hot air from the unseasonably late Santa Anas pressed on the atmosphere like a tension headache. The sun scorched his retinas and he reached for Ray Bans in his breast pocket.
He made a right on Pico and turned into a block the tourists don’t know exist. The house was an attractive one-storey clapboard cottage clad in peach bougainvillea. Roses trailed around the windows from outsize terracotta pots.
He rang the dolphin doorbell. The front door swung inwards and a melodious voice called, “Just a moment.”
He stopped in this tracks when he saw the woman behind the greeting. Miranda Essex was a knockout. A breathtaking blonde dream of a certain age for whom the word lush might have been coined. Long hair, freshly scrubbed tan skin, small features this side of sharp. If Sharon Tate had lived to forty-four she would look like this.
“Who are you?” she asked, her brows furrowed.
“Service. You called about your missing daughter.”
“Of course.” She yanked the catch on the screen door.
He was sure he had seen her somewhere.
“I used to be someone,” she said, brushing back a hank of hair. Her smile was broad and shy at the same time. “I did a couple of pictures, one down in Florida with Sinatra. The beginning and end of my acting career.”
“That’s it,” he said, eagerness overcoming his customary reticence.
“Then I married Conrad Lomax.”
She padded through a shady corridor to a pretty pink kitchen where she had been making lemonade on a tiled countertop covered with bowls of freshly picked irises. Her home managed to be cosy and discreetly tasteful.
She offered him a beaker. He demurred.
“You don’t look like you sound,” she remarked without a hint of malice.
He looked at the hastily covered easel on the outside deck.
“I took classes at the Institute of the Arts and now I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Lycée Français on Pico. It pays the rent.” She sipped her drink.
Service wondered why a woman previously married to one of the richest men in Los Angeles worried about money.
“Which era do you prefer?” he asked.
“I love the Impressionists. They captured full light and deep shadow simultaneously, replicating human vision. It’s too complex for photography.”
“Tell me about your daughter.”
“Lori’s been gone for two days and I called the police but they couldn’t help for the first twenty-four hours.”
“Can I see photos?” he asked.
“I’ll show you her room,” she said and led him to a charming haven of chinoiserie with a chintzy bed. Rock posters and concert advertisements were tacked up on the walls and a dressing table and desk were cluttered with Peanuts tchotchkes, Love’s Baby Soft fragrance and piles of mix tapes. A digital clock radio on the bedside locker hummed with shows from KROQ beside a datebook covered with flowery decals.
“Mind if I take this?” he asked. He popped the diary in his pocket.
Under the bed he found scuffed Keds with multi-coloured laces, rolled socks, an empty box of Lemonheads and some Pez dispensers.
There was a VCR on a small wicker table. A Nightmare on Elm Street started up. Miranda was by his side in an instant, replacing the tape.
“That’s so ghoulish. This should help,” she said. The images were of a cute tow-haired violet-eyed fourteen year-old pixie playing up to camera and joshing with an older boy who briefly held her head in a lock.
“That’s Griffin,” said Miranda, audibly grimacing.
He drove to the expensive hush of Holmby Hills, just off Mapleton Drive where Bogart had resided back in the day. He announced himself at a speaker and large iron gates opened smoothly. It was a quarter mile to the kind of real estate they wrote up in the weekend section of The LA Times. Banks of glorious flowers shocked him out of the foliage tunnel and into the scorching daylight of another, richer world. Sprinklers hissed discreetly over immaculately groomed lawns. He was sure some sort of city ordinance was being broken but who would dare come after the perpetrator? Conrad Lomax was one of the city’s biggest realtors.
He shivered in the portico and the buzzer echoed around the Twenties Tudor mansion.
A sly middle-aged butler bade him enter. He slid along polished halls into room after room suffocated by Persian rugs, antiques and Old Masters. He was ushered through French windows onto a patio overlooking a pool. For a brief moment his nostrils flared as his senses were confused by the sultry scent of Jungle Gardenia. He didn’t know if he would choke or come.
A slinky long-limbed brunette in Jackie O sunglasses was coiled on a lounger with a copy of Hollywood Husbands in her lap. Long tendrils of hair swept down her backless leopard-print Norma Kamali swimsuit. She had the muscle definition that comes from a lot of tennis. Service noted the small blunt extremities topped with scarlet talons and immediately formed the impression of a panther. The kind of fitness freak that anxiously hopped up and down if they didn’t get their fix on time.
“You’re looking for my husband, I presume,” she purred.
“If you mean Mr Lomax, yes,” said Service to the reclining feline. “Actually I’m looking for Lori. Her mother is very concerned that she didn’t come home. Is she here?”
“Oh, her,” said the woman. “She hasn’t been here in days.”
“And you are?” he asked.
“Mrs Lomax,” said the woman as though it were obvious. “And who are you?”
“I’m a private investigator hired by Miranda Essex,” he said.
“I associate private investigators with trouble. Is there trouble?” she asked, sitting up straight, pushing her Oliver Peoples shades back on her glossy locks whilst simultaneously extending her glistening legs onto the flagstones.
“Not necessarily. Miss Essex said that Lori has been spending time with Griffin. Is he here?”
“I have no idea. They’re good friends, they go to gigs on Sunset at some of those dreadful clubs, they go to Canters for potato knishes, sometimes they head to my ex’s to surf. Maybe they’re there. You know?”
Service shook his head.
“Gene Sterling, the novelist,” she said with a sigh. “He lives up in Malibu, just off Point Dume. They catch the bus at Santa Monica Pier.”
“They don’t drive?” asked Service.
“Not since Griffin got a DUI,” she said flatly. “And he’s my stepson. Gene’s his father.”
“What age is he?” he asked.
“Seventeen. Now is that all you wanted to know?” She got up in a quick movement and vanished in a blur of perfume and disdain.
As he was leaving the property a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost glided silently past. Service tipped an imaginary hat to the invisible occupant.
“That’s alright with me,” he said to nobody.
He took the CA-1 North. The house sat where the bluffs fall away from the headland and was on a decent plot, the last construction possible in the most desirable part of the Colony. After that was ocean.
The door was answered after three attempts on the starfish doorbell. Service suddenly found his writing hero pointing a Colt .45 in his face. Sterling was older than his years, a big man sporting a grizzly beard, with sagging khakis hitched up by a Mexican leather belt over ragged deck shoes. He looked for all the world like Hemingway the year he shot himself.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“Service. I called. Please put down the revolver,” Service said.
“You’re not what I expected,” said the older man, lowering the weapon.
“I get that a lot,” agreed Service.
“I don’t have staff, Mr Service,” Sterling said. He held his visitor’s gaze a little too long then abruptly beckoned him into a waterfront greatroom lined top to bottom with bookcases where a spiral staircase led to a mezzanine with more stacks and tables. A thirty-foot high picture window reflected the crashing Pacific. Kids threw Frisbees back and forth in the sand, then shuffled out of sight.
The men sat on two upright chairs facing each other on either side of a stone fireplace where a framed marlin hung over a Chagall on the chimney.
“Lori hasn’t been here in weeks. Nor has Griffin, for that matter.”
“He’s your son. Your ex knows him pretty well.”
“Yes, she became his stepmother when my first wife drowned. And Guin took off from here years ago,” said Sterling ruefully.
“Guin? I thought her name was Eleanor.”
“It was. Is. It’s one of her many noms de plume.”
“Used to churn out Gothic romances under any number of names including her own, Guinevere Bidwell. Mayflower stock. Old money and not much of it. You know the junk – women running away from dark men in big houses. Then she ran away with me. Dumped her first husband.”
Service raised his eyebrows.
“Cyrus Lindahl. The novelist? She drove him crazy. He ended up thinking he’d seen a UFO and started writing science fiction. They’d been college sweethearts back East. He had a bestseller right off the bat and even won a Faulkner award, then dried up. They lived down at Manhattan Beach. He couldn’t write and she couldn’t stop. She faked a cancer diagnosis, took the dog and moved here with me. Poor guy.
“As for Lomax. Well, in a twist straight from one of her own trashy books she ran away again, to a man in a big house. A millionaire who lives like a billionaire. Goes with the territory. So do enterprising women, fear and insurance. And unwanted errant children. My poor son is a lost boy.” The words were thick with emotion.
Service looked away. “One more thing. Where is the first Mrs Lomax?” he asked.
“Dead. Convenient for Guin,” said Sterling, gesturing like he was swatting a fly. “Now she has an in on high society and reports on them in that stuff with shiny covers for sneaks in the Polo Lounge. Everyone is copy.”
He put down his Waterford Crystal tumbler.
“Everyone runs away from me, even the blasted dog. I loved that dog. Turtle. She took him here to spite Cyrus. Maybe he ran back to Manhattan Beach. Think you could find him?
“The dog? When did he disappear?” Service asked.
“Spring nineteen seventy-three,” said the older man.
A surfer crested the tip of a late breaker. Service knocked back his Scotch in one.
He stopped at the news stand on South Robertson for an L.A. Weekly. All the headlines were about Dean Martin Jr.’s flight going missing on snowy Mount San Gorgonio. He picked up ice cream, Crest and prescription sleeping pills at the local Walgreen’s.
Back at his office in the Outpost building on Hollywood Boulevard he read the runaway girl’s diary. Little Lori Lomax was a punk goddess, an underage denizen of the club scene. He guessed the significance of the letter ‘v’ that occasionally punctuated the daily hieroglyphics. Griffin Sterling clearly had a thing for her. Maybe it was mutual.
He picked out Gene Sterling’s books from the shelf over the captain’s desk where reams of discoloured foolscap manuscripts curled up accusingly in fraying packages. They were stacked on a half-dozen half-written screenplays and an untouched box of brass brads he’d purchased at that copy place on Melrose run by an Iraqi eccentric who played back satellite recordings of the previous weekend’s Irish football games every Friday night to a bunch of lonesome ex-pats.
He made some calls then mashed up tomato pulp on Wonder Bread for dinner. There were some stale Pepperidge Farm cinnamon cookies crumbling on a plate and he washed everything down with week-old buttermilk.
He fell asleep on his ratty couch watching Entertainment Tonight as they discussed the weekend takings for Lethal Weapon. The last thing he saw beyond his fluttering eyelids was John Tesh and his perfect hair.
Service met his contact at the dimly lit bar in the Roxy. Cosmic Ray was a Hollywood cadaver, one of those stoned dethroned wasters hollowed out by heroin who had a vampiric afterlife when fame had gone, if it had ever been. Service remembered him from a one-hit wonder prog rock band that never went home. His British accent was a dead giveaway. Now he had sharp cheekbones and a deathly pallor.
“Almost didn’t see you there,” he sniffed.
Service nodded. “Lori Lomax?”
“Saw her once, twice a week maybe,” Ray drawled, sucking on a Marlboro through yellowed canines and a snaggletooth that briefly mesmerised Service. “She was with another kid, a user, they hung out with Vinny Van. Speed freak, lives over at La Leyenda, Spanish building on Whitley.”
“Poetic name,” murmured Service. “Anything to Linwood Van, the realtor?”
“Probably. Everybody’s related to someone, right?” Ray sniffed.
“Is he or isn’t he?” asked Service.
Ray nodded. “His son.”
Conrad Lomax’s ex-partner. “Who owns this place?” asked Service.
“Mickey Wolf. Does his business out of Hamburger Hamlet.”
Service recognised the name of the biggest nightlife mogul around, a joker with impressive underworld connections.
Service parked out front of the restaurant. He saw Wolf in a red leather side booth eating bacon cheeseburgers and little fried onions with Eleanor Lomax.
Service strode past the restaurant captain to their table.
Eleanor Lomax stared up at him. Her emerald eyes glinted with hatred.
“This the guy?” asked the seal-sleek magnate who discreetly gestured to a waiter. He said to Service, “You’re not a cop. You don’t have the power of arrest. Now get out of here, you’re embarrassing the lady.”
Service was escorted to the door by two handsome hulking hunks with pectorals bulging through their tight white wrinkle-free shirts.
As he sidled up to his vintage drive he found the sidewalk rising to meet him. He crumpled into the cement with a sickening crunch. Two pairs of legs briefly stood around while he groaned.
“Mickey Wolf says Goodbye!” one hissed as Service passed out.
In the wing mirror he checked his shut eye as it trickled crimson blood down his cheek. So now he had met Big Bad Mickey Wolf and the Wicked Stepmother.
The Capitol tower blinked like a homing beacon through the rain-spattered windscreen.
After securing wet cotton wool to his orbital socket with tape he riffled through the pile of overdue bills in a wire tray and wrote checks for the Final Notices.
He pulled the venetian blinds down and drifted into insomniac sleep. The last words he heard on the television set were Richard Widmark telling Rachel Ward, “I get things done in this town.” In his fitful dreaming Widmark morphed into Big Bad Mickey Wolf and Service woke up just as Eleanor Lomax was about to kiss or kill him.
The splayed lifeless body in the Tropicana Motel on Fountain was marbled like prime beef. Nobody knew the girl, or at least that’s what they said. She had a split lip and dribble solidified on her mouth. Her barely-there leather skirt was stained and her biker boots looked brand new. Her perfectly curved fingernails were finished with creamsicle polish. A bruised and bloody hole in the crook of her arm suggested recent drug use, perhaps for the first time. She was so very young. It was one of those hard cases nobody ever wanted and they certainly didn’t want to tell her parents, whoever they might be.
“It is what it is,” said Sergeant Troupe from the Hollywood LAPD. “Another day, another OD.” He said to another officer. “Make the usual calls.”
A flash went off as the dead girl was photographed before she was bagged up.
Service got the message from Troupe a few hours later.
“Speedball, most likely,” Troupe said. “It’s the fashion right now. I blame Belushi. A kid of fourteen. I’d like to know who did it to her. Tell me whatever you find. You wanna talk to her mom?”
Service stared into his coffee. His jaw creaked like a rusty hinge. He considered taking the easy way out and lifted the handset of his phone. Because it was Tuesday and she was teaching he drove to the school where a Brilloed secretary with a Cubist face informed him in a clipped accent that Miranda Essex had taken a group of students to the Getty Villa on a class trip.
The orange ball in the sky glared in Service’s one good eye. An hour later he walked over gravel and gardens until he saw her in the Inner Peristyle standing by the statue of Doryphoros. He paused to take in her perfectly tailored figure, hair gleaming in the midday sun, when she spun around. He froze. She acknowledged him with a wan Mona Lisa smile and a flat hand gesture. Stop. His stomach cramped at the stylish kiss off.
He chewed a cherry Lifesaver as she disappeared into chattering uniformed students. Miranda Essex had opted out when she quit her acting career; when she left her marriage; and now this. It was a story in D Minor, the saddest of all keys.
He walked to his car and remembered a Sisley hanging in her hallway and those paintings at the Lomax mansion. And Gene Sterling’s Chagall. He sang along to I’m A Fool.
The red light winked on the office answering machine. Griffin Sterling had been found at that old apartment Cosmic Ray had mentioned. Another overdose, a probable hit of pure heroin administered by Vinny Van who was now in police custody.
He crashed out in the ambient glow of Jeopardy!
What character in crime fiction lived at the Bristol Hotel? asked Alex Trebek.
“Who is Philip Marlowe?” Service muttered from somewhere on the edge of sleep.
A shaft of light from the frosted panels of Balter, Stross & Mintz briefly illuminated the hallway outside the door of the otherwise empty building.
The air was chill on the PCH. Service squinted at the shimmering sea. He changed stations and Welcome to the Boomtown reverberated like a prophecy.
From his perch in the dunes above Sterling’s house he watched Miranda Essex drive away and he put down his binoculars.
Later on Sterling’s veranda as seahorse wind chimes sang in the breeze he drank with the writer.
“What did you want to be when you were a boy?” asked Sterling.
“A soldier,” said Service. “You?”
“Errol Flynn. The position was taken. A year after I graduated Santa Monica High they shot Rebel Without a Cause there with James Dean. By the time I wanted to be him he was already dead. Then I wanted to be Sean Flynn. By the time I did my stint reporting from Saigon he had disappeared. I saw a lot. At some point I had no choice but be myself.”
“And now you’ve decided to be Hemingway,” said Service.
“He did himself very well.”
“I’m almost on a par. I may have outdone him on the drinking front.”
“Ended in violence.”
“Death is not pleasant. You know that. You did a tour or two.”
“Two in Vietnam. Then I volunteered for the military police and wound up in Germany. Two years.”
“The Olympics? On the day in question I was at the General Walker troop hotel below the Eagle’s Nest. Army trouble.”
“A diversion?” asked Sterling. “The Nazis put good money into that primetime event. Even had their PLO pals stage the floor show. Those poor bastards. Does war ever end?”
“I’ll take my leave of you, Sir.”
“Thank you, John.”
Service got goose bumps at the sound of his name.
Waves buffeted the shore.
Service passed the trash cans on the way to his car. A first edition of Sterling’s debut sat on the hood. The frontispiece bore the legend, To John, a born writer, from a dying one. Gene.
Service put the key in the ignition.
In the rear view mirror Sterling waded fully-clothed into retreating azure water.
It was dusk. Service accelerated ahead of the chugging Blue Bus in the traffic streaming to Santa Monica. He stopped on red at the intersection as malfunctioning neon flickered over the entrance to the Pier. He peeled a Band-Aid from his eye. He rolled down the window and inhaled the clean tang of kelp and salt. It made him crave barbecue chicken. He turned off KTWV and grooved to Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett on the cassette player.
He wondered why he’d missed the signs. A fake art racket. A spider woman for a stepmom spinning a sticky web of wreckage in her wake.
He’d had a weird reception in those gloomy places filled with stories they never told you on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And he thought, Maybe it’s because I am black.
© Elaine Lennon 2022