I’m thrilled to be part of the Murder Among Stars Blog Tour!
Today we have a special chapter excerpt for you. But first let’s take a look at the book.
- Series: Lulu Kelly Mysteries
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
- ISBN-10: 1481447904
A murderer is picking off the young Hollywood starlets gathered at the swanky Hearst Castle, and Lulu Kelly might be next—unless she can find the killer first in this glitzy, glamorous, and cinematic sequel to acclaimed film producer/director Adam Shankman and coauthor Laura Sullivan’s Girl About Town.
After being framed for attempted murder, Lulu Kelly has earned a rest. Unfortunately, there is no rest in Hollywood for a rising starlet. Lulu and her boyfriend Freddie are invited to posh Hearst Castle, where Lulu will be competing against other young actresses for the role of a lifetime. But what’s a house party without a little murder?
After a rival actress is found dead under the dining room table, Lulu makes it her mission to solve the mystery. But illusion is this town’s number one export, and it’s hard to tell the ambitious from the truly evil. As the clues pile up, Lulu and Freddie race to find the killer, even as Lulu becomes the next target.
About the authors:
Adam Shankman is the director and producer of the exuberant musical remake of Hairspray, the producer of the top-grossing Step Up films, the director of the adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks bestseller A Walk to Remember starring Mandy Moore, and the director of Bringing Down the House starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. Adam has also directed episodes of Modern Family and Glee, and he was a popular judge on So You Think You Can Dance.
TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | GOODREADS
Laura L. Sullivan is a former newspaper editor, biologist, social worker, and deputy sheriff who writes because storytelling is the easiest way to do everything in the world. Her books include Love By the Morning Star, Delusion, and Ladies in Waiting. Laura lives on the Florida coast.
FACEBOOK | GOODREADS
Hollywood starlet Lulu Kelly gazed through the bril- liant California sunshine at the castle that rose like an enchanted dream from the mountainside. She was so awestruck by the grandeur that she almost didn’t notice when Freddie Van—former billionaire, former hobo, current private eye, and Lulu’s boyfriend—held the car door open for her. “Holy cats!” the actress said as she looked up at the mansion that was to be her home for the long weekend. “Freddie, are you sure this belongs to Mr. William Randolph Hearst and not a sultan? It’s rather . . . a lot.”
“Being ‘rather a lot’ is what Mr. Hearst is best known for,” Freddie said. “Why do you think everyone who’s anyone is here?”
“I’m here to get the part of a lifetime,” Lulu said as she marveled at the castle. In her successful year in Hollywood she’d gotten used to luxury and high living. Though her own rented home was fairly modest, she was often invited to the luxury estates owned by such luminaries as Mary Pickford and George Cukor. But their establishments paled in comparison to the estate known modestly as the Ranch. This was a castle, plain and simple, built for an American prince.
Not satisfied with a single splendid house, Hearst had built four. La Casa Grande with its two towers and stunning blue tile work held the place of honor as the main residence. Sur- rounding it were guesthouses that were mansions in their own right. Casa del Monte had a stunning mountain view. Casa del Sol faced the setting sun. And Casa del Mar overlooked the crashing waters of the Pacific Ocean. Together it was called La Cuesta Encantada—the Enchanted Hill.
“And I’m here as private eye, junior edition.” After helping Lulu clear her good name following an accidental shooting (that proved to be no accident), Freddie had fallen naturally into the investigative business. Right now he was assistant to Mr. Waters, the most sought-after PI in Hollywood.
“What a shame our first holiday together has to be a work- ing holiday,” Lulu said a little sadly.
Freddie groaned. “Only in Hollywood would they turn a party into a tryout. Do you even have any idea what you’re supposed to do there for four days?”
“No. It’s all very hush-hush. The invitation said ‘WR and Marion Invite You to Reveal Your True Character’ in big embossed gold letters. That’s all. Veronica says that nearly every starlet in the biz will be competing for the role of a life- time, but no one knows any more than that.”
Freddie looked sly. “Maybe I know a little more than that.”
Lulu gasped and grabbed his hand. “Oh, my own per- sonal investigator! Come on, spill!”
“Well, Waters may have mentioned to me that none other than Anita Loos will be in attendance.”
Lulu’s heart began to race. Anita Loos! The author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the funniest book of the last decade, maybe even of the last century! Now she was a screenwriter of considerable renown, working with her husband, John Emer- son, on only the choicest projects.
“Do you think she could possibly be writing something completely new for Cosmopolitan Pictures? A real Anita Loos original screenplay?” Her eyes were aglow at the possibility.
“I wouldn’t be surprised. Would you like to work with her?”
“Like to? I’d kill for—” She caught herself short and swal- lowed hard, as Freddie laughed.
“It’s just an expression,” he said, excusing her.
Lulu shook her head. “But one in very bad taste for yours truly.” Not long ago, she’d very nearly killed a rival starlet. In the peculiar way of Hollywood, it had launched both of their careers to new stellar levels.
“I have to meet with Waters and find out why I’m here,” Freddie said. “I’ll find you as soon as I can.” He bent over her hand, kissing her knuckles with elaborate gallantry.
A slew of photographers was waiting for Lulu and the nineteen other starlets invited for the weekend. A little while before, Lulu had submitted her tired face to the skilled hand of her friend and publicist Veronica, and now she was daisy-fresh and glowing, her platinum hair fetchingly curled around her ears, her sleepy eyes painted wide and alert. She smiled gamely for the cameras while she held her little terrier, Charlie, in her arms.
Lulu did what she was required to do, but after her official photo shoot she declined to pose and ham it up with the other girls. A brassy, buxom blonde sidled up to her. Lulu knew most of the other actresses—a mix of newly established A-listers and the relatively unknown group of this year’s Baby Stars. But this girl was unfamiliar.
“Are you too dumb or too smart to be out there mugging with those publicity whores?” the girl asked, fanning herself with her slim crocodile pocketbook.
Lulu, momentarily too shocked by the girl’s language to speak, let her mouth gape. “Oh, too dumb, I see. Well, I’m not bothering with those photographers because they don’t count for a hill of beans. Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow are the only ones who will get any ink tomorrow. They’ll hold the rest of the photos until they see who wins. And, sister, when I win, I plan to have a photo shoot with diamonds and doves, looking like a queen slumming as a pinup. I have no time for snappers of me with a greasy morning face and bad lighting. No thank you!”
“I’m Lulu,” she began, holding out her hand.
The girl ignored it. “I know who all of you are. You’re no competition. Why do you think I’m here? After that business with Ruby Godfrey they’ll never cast you in a comedy or a romance. It will be gangsters’ molls from here on out, toots. I’m Juliette Claire. Ugh, look at Joan Crawford, flapping those giant hands around. More like Joan Crawfish.”
“Joan’s a friend of mine,” Lulu said.
“Then you ought to tell her to keep her hands behind her back if she doesn’t want to look like a lobster. Too bad Bette Davis can’t hide those bug eyes behind her back. Oh my, look at all the bad bleach jobs out there. Pure chlorine, you can tell. Half of them will be bald in six months.” She looked Lulu over critically. “What do you use, then? It almost looks real.”
“It’s my own color.”
Juliette snorted. “Sure, and so is mine. Forget it. Just trying to be friendly.”
It was Lulu’s turn to snort. Still, she tried to be polite to this unpleasant girl. “Which studio are you with?”
“I’m freelance, sister. I have two movies coming out next year, so watch out! Let’s see, who else have they dragged out of the woodwork? That tall drink of water is Boots Mallory. She posed in her scanties, so WR will never consider her. Because he’s such a pillar of virtue! Ha!” Juliette erupted in a hideous honk of a laugh that pierced the air and made Lulu physically recoil.
“WR?” Lulu asked, composing herself. “You’re that inti- mate with Mr. Hearst?”
Juliette shrugged. “I will be, if that’s what it takes. You got a problem with me, sister? Didn’t think so. There’s Eleanor Holm, still wet from the swimming pool. I hear she’s a cham- pion on her back.”
Juliette snickered, and Lulu bristled. She’d recently seen a photo shoot with the Olympic swimmer turned actress, and admired her confident physicality. “She won a gold medal for the backstroke.”
Juliette shrugged. “Oh, is that what they call it these days?
These girls all think they can get this part by impressing Mar- ion. I know its WR who holds the purse strings—and owns Cosmopolitan Pictures. Once he finds out about some of these girls’ reputations, they won’t have a chance.”
“These are some of the sweetest girls in the business,” Lulu said hotly. “Most of them don’t have a reputation for anything other than beauty and professionalism.”
Juliette glared at her. “Well, hoity-toity. Don’t you know a reputation is easier to get than the clap out here? And easier to give. Hey, will you look at that! Who the hell invited Toshia Mori?”
Juliette indicated a striking Japanese girl standing a little apart from the others.
“I hear there’s a part for a brunette, but not someone that
brunette,” the actress said. “What’s next, they audition our colored maids?”
Lulu felt her face redden. “And why shouldn’t Toshia be up for a part as much as you? She was a Baby Star, after all, and she’s filming with Frank Capra right now. How dare you imply—”
She was interrupted when several other girls joined them. Lulu felt relieved. One more minute alone with Juliette, and she’d likely find herself involved in another murder investiga- tion.
Juliette looked amused to be challenged. “I never imply,”
she hissed to Lulu. “I make myself perfectly clear.” Then she smiled at the new girls and said loudly, “Make sure you give Lulu here plenty of room and don’t jostle her. She’s in a deli- cate condition.” Her hand hovered briefly over her own stom- ach and she winked.
“What?” Lulu cried. “I’m not!”
But she could already hear some of the other girls whis- pering behind their hands. Who’s the father? Will Lux fire her?
Lulu protested as strongly as she could, and the other girls said they believed that it was only Juliette’s joke. But she could still see the doubt in some of their eyes. How could one quick lie have such power?
Lulu tried to act natural, but it was hard. A better girl, she
told herself, would be plotting revenge. Or a worse girl. In any case, a more typical girl. She still wasn’t used to the way girls out here could sabotage each other so viciously. She longed, more than anything, to be quietly alone with Freddie. But he was already on the job, and she didn’t know when she’d have a chance to see him.
An imposing older woman in black came up to the young actresses. Her dress was of such good material, so finely tai- lored, that it took Lulu a moment to realize it was essentially a servant’s livery. It was as simple and chic as a Chanel frock, and the shining chain holding the housekeeper’s collection of keys might as well have been a platinum accessory. Her steely hair was severely coiffed, her lips a long, elegant line. She’d been a beauty in her day, Lulu thought.
“I am Mrs. Mortimer, the housekeeper,” the woman introduced herself, giving a stiff nod of her head. “I am in charge of your comfort and will ensure that your stay here at the Ranch goes smoothly and without incident. Miss Marion does not care for incidents.” She looked sharply at a couple of girls. Her gaze seemed to rest the longest on Juliette. Lulu suspected the housekeeper was competent enough at her job to have done her homework about all of the guests.
“Should you have any difficulties, please come to me before they get out of hand,” Mrs. Mortimer went on. She gave a hint of a smile and briefly met Lulu’s eye. “Early inter- vention can prevent a host of problems. Please follow me.”
She gave another sharp bow of her head and walked purposefully away without a backward glance, trusting that the girls would follow. Lulu watched her with admiration. What a strong, competent-seeming woman. She supposed being a housekeeper at a place like the Ranch might almost be like being an executive at a big company, hardly like a servant at all.
Much to Lulu’s annoyance, Juliette maneuvered to walk beside her. “Why the sour puss? Oh, my joke earlier? Well, what’s a little reputation? They’ll know it ain’t true . . . in nine months or so.”
Lulu gave her no encouragement, but Juliette seemed to like having an audience. “I was talking to Dolores, that giant over there.” She nodded toward a tall, striking, dark-haired beauty of superbly buxom proportions. “She told me Marion herself was originally up for the role we’re all here fighting over. Even old WR had to shoot her down. Whatever the part may be, if they have all of us here, it’s obviously for a young beauty queen. Can you imagine an old hag like that trying to play twenty?”
“Hush!” Lulu hissed. Ahead of them, she could see Mrs. Mortimer stiffen, though she didn’t turn. Lulu was sure she could hear.
“She’s nearly forty, and WR still has her playing ingenues. It’s ridiculous. She should shove off center stage and leave it to the next generation. You know, girls like me who don’t have to provide favors to the lighting supervisor to make sure we’re shot in flattering light.”
Lulu gasped. “Marion is a beautiful woman and a great actress.” This last might have been a slight exaggeration, but Lulu felt the situation called for adamance. “She could adapt herself to any part. That’s why this job is called acting. A skilled actress doesn’t have to rely on being eighteen. But for some, that’s all they’ve got.” She looked pointedly at Juliette, who sniffed derisively.
“Oh, I’m going to put on one hell of a show for Marion . . . and a different kind of show for WR, if that’s what it takes. She won’t know I think she’s a ridiculous has-been, and he won’t know I think he’s a disgusting old lecher. And if Marion tries to get that part, I’ll show her exactly how easily a pret- tier, younger woman can take her place.” Juliette snapped her fingers and strutted off, following Mrs. Mortimer to her room. All the while Mrs. Mortimer stiffly ignored her. She had to have heard, though. Lulu wondered if any of it would make its way back to Marion Davies.
As the rest of the girls were directed to their rooms in the main house, Lulu and some of the others waited in the hall. Veronica pulled Lulu away for a private chat. She wanted to share her theories about what might be expected of Lulu this weekend.
“The scuttlebutt is that whoever can make Marion laugh the most gets the part,” Veronica said. She tossed back her sensible brown bob. “I miss the innocent, simple old days when all an actress had to do to get a role was show a little leg. Or heaven forbid, be able to act. But this! Everyone is determined to be funny, but they know they have to toe the line with WR. If it were up to Marion, whoever got drunkest and danced longest on the tabletops without falling off would take the prize.”
“Doesn’t this all seem a little desperate to you?”
“Now you’re getting it!” Veronica said. “I have no idea what this script will look like, but based on the buzz, it’s going to be the biggest thing ever. And you can bet that Marion Davies was behind these ridiculous shenanigans. She’s bored! A gin- soaked bird held prisoner in a gilded cage. The whole thing smacks of one big spectacle for her personal entertainment.”
“Are we really all supposed to act like fools for her amuse- ment?” Lulu asked.
“Who knows? But she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, and then did mostly comedies until Hearst pushed her into dramas. She’s basically a champagne bubble ready to pop. She can’t be as wild as when she was a sixteen-year-old chorine, but she still surrounds herself with all the funny and bright young things. Maybe she’s looking to relive her stolen youth through you all. To see herself as young again. I’d say a bawdy joke and a squirting boutonniere might be the way to win her over.”
“That’s sad,” Lulu mused. “If I were her I think I’d rather—”
Veronica interrupted her. “Take it from me, you have to put on a show. Don’t worry. We’ll figure something out once we have the lay of the land. Luckily I know you’re a girl who can think on her feet.”
The ladies were led back outside by courteous staff members to their respective guesthouses. As she was ushered along the shade-dappled tile pathway, Lulu did a double take when she thought she caught sight of a familiar—and unwelcome—face near the trucks that were unloading copi- ous amounts of liquor. Black hair, flashing eyes, the sensu- ously curving mouth of a Caravaggio . . . She gasped. It couldn’t be Sal! What on earth could he be doing at the Ranch? An icy chill ran down Lulu’s spine even as the hazy San Simeon sun beat down upon her.
Sal had been an unexpected hit in the Hollywood social scene, schmoozing with some of the biggest names, and every- one seemed willing to ignore his shady profession. Gangsters were superstars, and Sal seemed to have a knack for buying his way into the right society. She’d heard there was a movie in the works based on his life story. Some even said Sal was going to star in it.
She craned her neck behind her, trying to get a better look. But the man, whoever he was, had vanished. My mind must be playing tricks on me, Lulu thought. Sal would never manage to get an invitation to the Ranch.
“Looks like you’re with me,” Boots said, tucking her golden-brown hair behind her ears. “Casa del Mar, right?” Lulu had never met her before, but she liked her right away for her easy, straightforward manner. She was all legs and angles, but she carried herself with a natural grace that gave her a sylph-like beauty.
“Me too,” said Eleanor. The catty Juliette was right— Eleanor’s dark hair did almost seem like it was fresh from the pool, slicked back away from her face, wet-looking, curling at the tips. But it was a good look for her. She seemed strong, ready for anything. Lulu saw her eyeing the unloaded liquor.
“Guess I didn’t have to smuggle this in,” Eleanor said, giv- ing them a peek at a flask from her satchel.
“Better to be prepared,” Boots said. “Hearst might have enough booze to fill his swimming pool—both his swimming pools—but I hear he restricts his guests to two drinks apiece, and I intend to have a good time while I’m here, even if I know I don’t have much chance of landing the role.”
“Ditto,” Eleanor said. “We might as well live it up for a weekend, right, girls?”
Toshia joined them. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she confessed. “We all know they’ll never give me the part, unless there’s one for a maid or a concubine. And if the concubine is the star, it goes to Myrna Loy in eyeliner. All I’ll ever get are the roles Anna May Wong turns down.”
Boots gave her a hug. “Just enjoy the party, lady. We Baby Stars have to stick together. This one, though.” She patted Lulu on the back. “She might have a chance. She’s got the goods, dimples and all.”
“I think Juliette is the one we have to watch out for,” Elea- nor said. “She’s sneaky, mean, and ambitious. The trifecta of successful starlets.”
“I agree,” Toshia said. “Girls like her might get theirs in the end, but in the beginning they usually do pretty well.”
Boots and Eleanor exchanged a quick look. “Well, maybe we can fix the odds a little bit,” Boots said.
While the maids unpacked their suitcases, the girls were summoned to the main house for a cocktail party. Drinks—all two of them—would be served in the Assembly Room. But as Lulu was about to leave, Charlie made his needs known with a yip, so she slipped away with him for a quick stroll around the grounds before getting dressed.
She found something fantastic around every turn. In one fountain, dolphins sported around naiads. In another, a cun- ningly placed conch hid essential parts of a naked and brawny Poseidon.
“Guess I don’t have to bother going to Europe now,” she told Charlie as she gazed at a row of armless marble statues imported from Greece and Italy.
She whipped around, startled, when she heard a giggle from the foliage, and a dark-haired, impish head poked out. “Don’t go even if you get the chance,” the girl said. “It’s
deadly dull, and no one speaks properly, even the English.” “Hello,” Lulu said. “Are you family?”
Charlie pushed his way into the shrubbery and looked pleased when he emerged again not only with an entire girl, but with a graying, portly dachshund on a leash. When Lulu could only see her peeping face she’d thought the girl must be a teenager. She had bright precocious eyes under arching brows, and a hint of lip rouge.
But when she emerged completely from the bushes she looked like a totally different girl. Her hair was gathered in long twin braids that fell over her shoulders, tied with pink bows. She wore a high-waisted short frock with frills and petti- coats, ruffled white socks, and black patent-leather shoes. Her body was slim and straight, her chest perfectly flat. At first Lulu thought she must be a very small woman dressed for a costume party. But no, she was a little girl after all, and appar- ently much younger than she first appeared.
“I’m Patricia, Marion’s niece.” “I’m Lulu.” She held out her hand.
“I know that,” Patricia said, giving it a businesslike shake. At their feet, the two dogs struck up their acquaintance with posterior sniffs. “Golly, everyone knows who you are now. Did you really, truly shoot someone? Gosh, how exciting!” She heaved a dramatic sigh. “I never get to do anything. Dinner in the nursery, bed by eight. It’s a sad and sorry life for a girl like I.”
“Well, at your age . . . ,” Lulu began, then stopped her- self. How old was Patricia? She talked like a young woman and dressed like a child. Lulu was perplexed. Perhaps children raised by millionaires matured differently than poor children. She’d have to ask Freddie later.
“Tell me what it felt like,” Patricia begged. “Did the blood get on you?”
What a morbid little person she was. But her eyes seemed eager as Charlie’s when he smelled a treat. Lulu could tell she was simply longing for experience—any experience. Lulu remembered that feeling. It had been replaced only a few weeks ago with a fervent hope that nothing dangerous or exciting would ever happen to her again.
Against her better judgment, Lulu told her about the ter- rible ordeal that had been cleared up only a few weeks before. She left out many of the more sordid details that the studio lawyers had managed to conceal from the press. “The scene called for me to shoot the gun, so I did. I had no idea it was loaded.”
“And they never figured out how the bullets got in there? Strange. I pored over the stories in WR’s newspapers. It always seemed to me as if the relevant particulars were somehow . . . missing.” She gave Lulu a canny look that made the actress feel decidedly uncomfortable.
“Accidents happen,” Lulu said, neglecting to mention that the victim, rival actress Ruby Godfrey, had loaded the gun herself in a desperate play for publicity.
“I bet Ruby had something to do with it herself,” Patricia said. Lulu kept her face resolutely expressionless. A few of the papers had speculated on that, but no one seemed to take it seriously. This girl was too perceptive for her own good.
“She has an interesting face, that Ruby,” Patricia contin- ued. “Always looks like she’s up to something. Which is good for an actress, maybe, but not so good when you actually are up to something. You, on the other hand, look as innocent as a May flower.” Patricia scrutinized Lulu’s face, and Lulu got the distinct impression she was trying to imitate her expres- sion. “You could get away with anything. That must come in handy.”
“How old are you?” Lulu finally couldn’t help but ask.
She thought it would be an innocent question. After all, children got asked that all the time by tedious adults who couldn’t think of anything more interesting to ask. So she was surprised to hear Patricia give a sharp intake of breath, almost a sob, while a look of something strangely like fury flashed across her face.
Then, just as suddenly, it was gone, replaced by a bizarre look of affected innocence. “I’m ten,” Patricia said, and now her voice was pitched up an octave, squeaky and girlish.
Lulu wiggled and struggled into a formfitting strapless Elsa Schiaparelli cocktail dress of burnt orange silk velvet with a fiery pink satin-lined train, and entered the Assembly
Room. She accepted a poison-green cocktail, though she didn’t really have a taste for alcohol beyond an occasional glass of champagne. Still, it was a decorative thing to have in her hand, and less noxious than the long cigarette holders some actresses thought were fashionable.
Though the twenty actresses were the guests of honor, the party didn’t lack for male company. Anita Loos’s handsome husband and cowriter, John Emerson, was there, resplendent in a gray suit and shimmering lion-head tie tack. For some rea- son, the Lux Studios doctor Harry Martin was there too, neat scotch in hand as always. Lulu wondered how he’d finagled an invitation. There were newspaper men and Wall Street men, novelists and actors, and a few more exotic specimens, too—at least one unattached man for every woman. Freddie and his boss were nowhere to be seen. There was a palpable tension in the room as everyone waited for Hearst and Marion to arrive. “They have spy holes everywhere,” Veronica whispered into Lulu’s ear. “I even heard they have the rooms rigged with microphones. I bet Hearst is watching us right now. Now, make with the shenanigans! There have already been three whoopee cushion incidents, a cloud of itching powder, and one gal who keeps trying to shake people’s hands with an electric joy buzzer.”
Lulu noticed Patricia sitting quietly by herself, her legs in lisle stockings kicking against the sofa as she watched the elegant crowd around her. “How old is Marion’s niece?” she asked.
Veronica, who made it her business to know absolutely everything, thought a moment and said, “Ten.”
“Are you sure?” Lulu asked.
“Yes. They had a photo spread on her last birthday party. It had ten peacocks, ten flamingos, ten baby tigers, ten uni- corns, for all I know. Yes, definitely ten.”
“She seems so much older,” Lulu said.
“You’ve only been in this life for a year, and I bet you feel a million years older at seventeen than you did at sixteen. With- out the crow’s toes to show for it. Patricia has probably seen and done more in her ten years than most people do in a life- time.”
The girl seemed so bored and alone that Lulu sought her out and—with great effort and an alarming creak in the Schiaparelli’s stitches—sat down beside her.
“Oh, thank goodness it’s you,” Patricia said, her voice jaded now, almost adult. “Can you believe someone actually patted me on the head? What do I look like, a dog? Why do people think children can be treated like dumb animals?”
“People don’t think, most of the time,” Lulu said, feeling
sorry for this precocious girl.
“See, you can speak to me like an adult. Other people do baby talk and call me a good girl and ask what I want to be when I grow up. Is that what passes for conversation? Should I ask them where they plan to retire when they get wrinkly and washed up? Honestly, I detest these parties.” She flopped back on the sofa.
“Isn’t there something you’d rather be doing? Surely in a place like this there are more suitable things for a . . . younger person such as yourself.”
“I want to dance!” Patricia said. “I want to drink absinthe and flirt and creep off into dark nooks with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and . . .”
Lulu couldn’t help but burst out laughing. “There’s plenty of time for that when you’re older.”
Patricia gave her a withering look. “When I’m older. Do you know that phrase has been the bane of my existence for half my life? That’s what Marion is always saying. Just a few more years, and . . .” She clamped her mouth shut.
“Tell you what,” Lulu said. “I might not be Doug Jr., but I can cut a mean rug.” She inhaled deeply and stood with- out ripping a stitch, which was something of a miracle, then exhaled as much as possible and held out her arm. “May I have this dance?”
Patricia looked delighted. She turned on the Victrola and dropped the needle on Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.”
At once Lulu was caught up in the joy of dancing. She forgot all about the competition for the lead, the uncomfort- able dress. Juliette’s nasty rumor even ceased to sting. Lulu had passed many of her happiest moments dancing with her mother in their cramped and squalid tenement. Even when they didn’t have food, they still had music they sang and hummed, and the lively swinging steps of her mother’s favor- ite dances.
Now, taking the lead and swirling Patricia into the middle of the floor, Lulu felt totally unconcerned about the tittering crowd. She was happy and carefree. Patricia seemed joyous, too, because she flung her head back, laughing and wild as a maenad, and danced with such abandon that for a moment the rest of the guests fell silent and simply watched.
It was at this moment that Hearst and Marion slipped into the room through a secret panel beside the fireplace.
“Now, that’s what I like to see!” Hearst boomed. “Dance, everyone—dance!” He clapped his hands loudly, slightly out of time with the rhythm.
No one disobeyed an order from Hearst. Almost instantly couples formed and found an open spot to finish out the tune.
Marion bounced beside him in a flirty polka-dotted dress.
“Come on, Daddy,” she cooed, dancing a quick step around him, looking like a tiny kitten frisking around a bloodhound. “I get you first.”
Hearst made a rather ludicrous figure, bearish and lum- bering beside the effervescent Marion. But he put on a game show, laughing at his own clumsiness. Lulu thought it must be easier to accept being a figure of fun when his signature on a check could buy anyone or anything. That would numb the sting.
No, she realized a moment later. He was ordering them to
laugh at him, just as he had ordered them to dance. If they’d done it on their own, they might be banished, ruined. But he enjoyed having the power to tell people to laugh at him. Look, he seemed to say with his antics, I can be ridiculous and still be above you.
The music stopped, and Marion clapped, then flitted from guest to guest, saying charming nonsense to each until she was interrupted by Mrs. Mortimer, who whispered something in her ear that made her frown. They had a quick, hushed con- sultation before the housekeeper left and Marion resumed her flitting, though it seemed a little more forced now.
To Lulu’s surprise, Hearst introduced himself to her after a while.
He was daunting close up. Even the president wasn’t such a public legend as William Randolph Hearst. A president would be gone in four years, or eight. Hearst had been head of an empire for decades and seemed to have every intention of living to rule for many more. Though nearly seventy, he was hale. If he stooped a bit, he still towered over everyone in the room. If his fair hair was graying, it nonetheless flowed in a thick wave across his forehead.
His eyes were the strangest of all, an unnerving pale blue that seemed somehow less alive than the rest of him. Lulu couldn’t tell if they were the eyes of a child that still turned to some secret inner world of his own, or the eyes of a monster.
If he was a monster, he was a perfectly cordial one. “Wel- come to the Ranch,” he said. “Are you the gal who was caught up in all that ruckus a while back? Marion was sure it was that one over there.” He pointed to the tall and sultry Dolores. “She looks more like the shooting type. But I remember your face from the Los Angeles Examiner. I never forget anything that appears in any of my papers. I peeked out and said yup, that’s the face.”
“So you really do have spy holes?” Lulu couldn’t help saying.
“Wouldn’t you?” he asked, and tapped the side of his nose. “I don’t think I’d like to know what people are saying about me behind my back,” Lulu admitted.
“Oh, the microphones are just a rumor I started to keep everyone on their best behavior. And the spy holes are mostly so Marion can make sure no one is wearing her dress when she makes her entrance. Now, tell me, young lady, do you like art?”
She caught Veronica’s eye across the room. The publicist made a pushing gesture that Lulu interpreted to mean she bet- ter take advantage of her moment with Hearst to be funny.
“Art? Never met him,” Lulu quipped, embarrassed at the inanity of the joke.
But Hearst gave a belly laugh. “Thank goodness, someone who didn’t bone up! Do you know, every guest who comes here knows I have an art collection and decides to impress me, so they look up some tidbit about Caravaggio’s knife fight or Titian’s tint, and try to talk like a professor.”
Hearst gave Patricia a fond kiss on the head and went to chat with other guests. Patricia left the Assembly Room in search of cookies, making Lulu sure she really was ten after all.
With Hearst and Marion now in attendance, the Pranks Olympics began. Certain that this was the way to make an impression, everyone pretended to be chatty and social, but they all had plans to make Marion laugh. Instantly, as if she were in on the gag, Marion plopped down on one of the sev- eral whoopee cushions hidden around the room. She squealed and jumped up. “Excuse me!” she said, looking far too ladylike to ever produce such a sound herself. Then she gave a mighty belch, and laughed.
Jean Harlow, her hair almost exactly the same platinum shade as Lulu’s, offered Marion a tray of candied apples. Mar- ion gamely bit into one and scrunched up her face into a gri- mace as sweat broke out on her forehead. “Spanish onion!” she gasped, fanning her mouth and raising her arm blindly for a drink.
“You’ve probably had enough,” Hearst said gently as Marion downed a gin, honey, and lemon concoction called a Bee’s Knees.
“Water ain’t gonna cut it, Pops,” she said, and called for another. “Whew-ee, Jean, you are one hot lady! And the pale horse takes the lead.”
Joan Crawford supplied Marion’s next drink—in a dribble cup. “And Joanie edges up,” Marion said, wiping her chin.
“I’ll give a hundred dollars to anyone if I crack three eggs over their head!” Juliette suddenly announced.
“I’d volunteer,” Hearst said, “but it would just put me in the next tax bracket.”
Juliette batted her dark lashes around the room, finally set- tling on the Lux Studio doctor, Harry Martin. “How about you, big boy?”
“A hundred dollars? Really?” he asked. His voice was slurred with drink, but his eyes perked up at that remarkable sum.
“If I crack three eggs over your head,” Juliette confirmed. “I’m game,” he said. “If you’re really good for it.”
“And if not, make her pay you off some other way,” said John Emerson with a lascivious leer that brought a disapprov- ing look from Hearst. “I’m sure she can think of something.”
“I always keep my word,” Juliette said staunchly. “To the exact letter.” But Lulu could tell she had a plan. Juliette looked sidelong at John, a look that seemed to promise something in the future, but then turned her attention squarely to the man known on the Lux sets as Docky. Marion, eager to see what would happen, told a servant to fetch three eggs.
“Drumroll, please,” Juliette said as she held up the first egg. Everyone began tapping their fingers on the furniture.
Juliette basked for a moment in the spotlight. Lulu saw Louella Parsons—gossip columnist extraordinaire, known to her friends as Lolly and her enemies as something unprintable— sidle up to Docky and whisper something in his ear. He shook his head brusquely and turned away from her. He seemed to like being the center of attention too, particularly when his audience consisted of so many pretty girls.
With great fanfare she held up an egg . . . and smashed it down on top of Docky’s head. He flinched, but kept on a game face even when the gooey yolk dripped into his eyes.
“Should I do another?” Juliette asked, holding up the next egg. When she was answered with cheers, she smashed that egg, too, onto Docky’s balding pate.
Lulu didn’t want to look. It was humiliating.
“That’s what this whole business is about,” Boots said from beside her. “Doing anything for money.”
Juliette held up the last egg over Docky’s slimy head. His face was red, but he looked eager, too. For the hundred dol- lars? Lulu wondered. Didn’t a doctor make enough that he didn’t have to embarrass himself for money?
“No,” Juliette said after a long pause. “I think I’m in the mood for a flip.” She summoned a maid and instructed her how to froth the last raw egg with brandy and spices for the unusual cocktail. Then she sat down next to Marion.
“What about my money?” Docky demanded, hot and hoarse.
Juliette looked at him with big, innocent eyes and said guilelessly, “But I didn’t break three eggs.” She shrugged her shoulders as if she were just too helpless to do anything about it.
“But you said . . . ,” Docky began.
Marion laughed. “Oh, I get it now! She never said she would crack three eggs over your head—just that if she did, she’d pay you a hundred dollars. Oh, it’s too funny. Docky, you look an absolute fright! I’ve never seen such a mess. And the dark horse takes the lead! What’s your name, kid?”
“Juliette Claire,” she replied, her eyes big and innocent, looking like she had no idea what everyone was laughing at.
Marion’s face instantly darkened when she heard the name, and she turned away. Lulu guessed that Mrs. Mortimer had shared the cruel, catty things she’d overheard Juliette say.
Docky sputtered and fumed, his face going from red to purple in his rage. Lulu saw him clench his fists and take a step toward Juliette. Lolly put a hand on his shoulder.
“Why don’t you go and clean up, Docky,” she said. “Here, I’ll help you.”
“Exit, pursued by a bear,” Lulu murmured, which might have earned her comedy points if anyone present had read The Winter’s Tale.
“Has anyone told you that you look ravishing tonight?” a low voice whispered in her ear. Lulu shivered, and turned to find Freddie. She shook her head. “Good, because I’d have to beat him silly.”
“Did you find out why you’re here?”
He guided her farther away from the others. “Not a word to anyone, but . . . blackmail! Hearst got a letter purporting to know something terrible he did thirteen years ago and demanding money.”
“How very mysterious!” Lulu said, her eyes lighting up at the thought of a mystery. They’d worked so well together uncovering Ruby Godfrey’s plot. It would be fun if she could help him on something like this.
Before she could offer her help, they heard Hearst sputter from across the room. He was mopping his face with a linen handkerchief that seemed dwarfed by his hand. Someone had unleashed that old comedic standby, the squirting bouton- niere, on their host.
“What the hell is going on?” he thundered. All of the actresses avoided eye contact, and the whole room fell silent. “You!” He jabbed his finger at the pretty little actress with baby-doll curls still clutching her trick flower. “Why is every- one acting like a lunatic? I demand an explanation!”
“B-because we all want the part!” she squeaked. “What?” Hearst bellowed.
The little actress quailed, and Lulu felt sorry for her. She stepped up to take the harsh, frightening focus onto herself and said, “Because we were all told that making you and Marion laugh would get us the part.” She held Hearst’s steely gaze.
Hearst looked around the room. “You ladies think that squirting water in my face and breaking eggs on a fellow’s head is the way to get the finest role Cosmopolitan Pictures has ever offered?” He frowned, looking to Lulu like a sulky, overgrown child, though his millions seemed to stand behind him like a child-king’s personal army, making him incredibly intimidating. “You should know that practical jokes are the lowest form of comedy,” he said witheringly. “You better start taking your craft more seriously if you want to get ahead in this business . . . and at the Ranch. After all, you only have one chance to make a first impression. So far, very few of you have impressed me favorably.” Lulu was almost certain his small blue eyes flickered her way.
The actresses all looked abashed, and Marion pushed her way in front of Hearst, pulling a funny face to chase away his ire. She clinked her cocktail glass with a backgammon piece and called everyone to attention.
“Thank you so much for coming to our humble abode,” she said, making a little curtsy. “I’m sorry to have kept you all in the dark about the nature of this party. Oh, who am I kidding? I loved keeping all of you in suspense!” She laughed merrily. “Now, I’ve heard the rumor that’s going around. Whoever can make me laugh gets the coconut, right? Wrong! But oh, what a show you girls have put on so far! You know how I love a good chortle. Juliette, that egg joke was . . .”
Hearst flashed her a quick scowl, and Marion’s face grew a shade more serious. “You saw that the party invitations said we’d reveal your true character this week. Well, that’s exactly what we plan to do. WR and I have come up with an abso- lutely revolutionary new way of making a grand film. Instead of finding a story, writing a script, and casting an actress who fits the part—or more likely, one who the public is already mad for—we’re flip-flopping the whole tedious affair. Look at how fascinating all of you girls are! Some of you I know well, and some of you absolutely intrigue me already.” She winked maliciously at Juliette.
“You are all being judged this week,” Hearst said. “By the end of the party, Marion and I will have chosen the actress who interests us the most, upon whom to base my friend Anita Loos’s next screenplay. Ably assisted by her husband and a brilliant new writer we just discovered, Mr. Paul Raleigh, Anita will write something the likes of which the world has never seen. Art will imitate life as it never has before. One lucky girl will not only be the star of the biggest Cosmopolitan Pictures hit—she will be a muse. She will be a goddess, with the story molded to her in every way. She will ennoble great cinema with her most radiant virtues . . . and her terrible secrets!”
Around her, Lulu heard the actresses gasping. Lulu gasped too, but not, she thought, for the same reason. The other girls were awestruck that a movie might be custom- tailored to their unique personality. Lulu was for a moment horror-struck. Though she strove every moment of every day to be a good person, her past haunted her. She knew that her secrets were far too grisly to be revealed. They could end her. Permanently. She always suspected that deep down she was flawed. Why else would she have lied to protect a gangster and advance herself ?
When she sat in the witness stand and swore that Salvatore Benedetto had not shot the man who killed his father, she had betrayed everything her mother taught her and everything she knew was right. She knew she probably would have been killed if she hadn’t played along with Sal’s demands. And look what it had gotten her! A soaring career, fame, love, enough money to pull her family out of abject poverty. But she was always left with a sick feeling of her own moral failure. How- ever good, however kind, however brave she might be now, she had folded when it mattered most.
No, Lulu thought, I don’t have the kind of character worthy of a movie heroine.
“In four days,” Marion went on, her words more than a bit slurred, “we will hold a talent competition. And you thought you were all above such nonsense, didn’t you!” She shot a look straight to Joan Crawford, whose square jaw set tightly just as one eyebrow arched skyward. “The winner will get the part. Simple, right? Wrong!”
She downed her cocktail. “The talent show will only be the—what was that fancy word you used, ’Nita? Culmination! Long before that, though, you will all be judged.” She dropped her voice to an ominous modulation. “And sadly, some of you will be found wanting. Every night two of you will be bundled into Daimlers and whisked away home. An honor to be nom- inated and all that, right? The lucky ones who remain in four days’ time will grace us with their artistry in the final com- petition, and a winner will be chosen by myself, WR, Anita, Emerson, and Paul.” She turned to Hearst. “Darling, where is Paul?”
Hearst shrugged, but Lulu, within earshot, heard his private secretary murmur into his ear that Paul Raleigh had called, saying he was unavoidably delayed and hoped to arrive before dinner.
Lulu felt warm breath on her neck and turned, letting her cheek brush against Freddie’s. “What do you say you commit an unpardonable faux pas and get kicked out, I quit my job, and we spend the rest of the weekend fooling around on the beach?”
“Tempting, but Veronica would never forgive me. Hell hath no fury like a publicist scorned.”
They wandered toward a dark nook, and might have managed to avoid dinner entirely if Veronica hadn’t spied them and tried to hustle Lulu back into the social circle. “You’re not doing yourself any good being a wallflower,” she said.
“We’re just trying to get some time together,” Lulu said. “I have several days to be thrilling and inspirational.”
“You have to focus on the competition first.”
“Just let me have a little while with Freddie, and I promise tomorrow I’ll pull out all the stops.”
“Oh, very well,” Veronica grumbled. “Just turn on a couple of lights, will you? Hearst will think you’re up to no good.”
“Don’t we wish!” Lulu said with a dramatic sigh.
Veronica turned the switch on an unlit nearby lamp—and screamed.
The bright bulb illuminated the silhouettes of half a dozen huge roaches clinging to the underside of the lamp- shade. Veronica jerked away, knocking the lamp down with a crash. One of the insects seemed to fly through the air, landing at Lulu’s feet. She managed not to cry out—after all, roaches were a familiar sight in her slum childhood—but she backed hurriedly away.
Juliette, who had been deep in an animated conversation with John Emerson, gave a grunt of distaste and said, “You simpering namby-pambies make me sick!” With that, she stomped on the roach.
“That would have done it in for sure,” Freddie said, pick- ing it for inspection, “if it hadn’t been made out of paper.” He upended the lampshade, showing the cleverly cut-out figures of bugs designed to show up alarmingly when the lamp was lit. “Just another practical joke, left over from when they were still all the rage a quarter hour ago.”
Marion laughed, along with everyone else, and gave Toshia a hug when she took credit for the prank. Only Hearst was manifestly displeased.
“I don’t allow anyone to hurt animals in my house or on my land,” he said ominously.
Juliette snickered, then saw that he was serious. “But . . . it isn’t even real! And even if it was, who cares about a disgusting roach?”
Marion came up behind him and slipped under his arm. “Ladies, when we had a mouse in the house, this man caught it in his hat, made a nest for it, and fed it for three days.” She looked up at Hearst. “Not everyone feels the same way you do about animals, Pops.”
“True,” he said, still angry. “But they have to respect my wishes in my house.”
He looked to Lulu like a cross between a domineering company president and a petulant child.
“Oh, please don’t be a grump when I’m having such a good time, WR,” Marion pleaded.
Hearst looked down at his treasured mistress, then slowly to Juliette, his eyes narrowing. “Tell you what we’ll do,” Hearst told Juliette. “Take it outside and give it a decent burial. Then we’ll be square.”
Juliette looked at Hearst like he was nuts.
“But it’s paper,” she said again. Hearst stared icily down at her. “Okay, fine. But this is dingy, I tell ya!” She snatched the paper roach out of Freddie’s hand and stomped out the door.
A servant came a little while later and summoned Hearst on some newspaper business.
“Now, where were we?” Lulu asked Freddie, edging closer. But almost as soon as their hands touched, Mr. Waters called Freddie away. Lulu closed her eyes and sighed. Would she never get any time alone with Freddie? She didn’t care
what they did, as long as they could be together.
“There you are,” Boots said, dragging Eleanor and Toshia behind her. “We have a plan to take Juliette down a notch or two. Are you in?”
“I don’t know,” Lulu said. “What do my odds look like?” Boots pulled out a little notebook. “Ten to one right now, alas. Jean and Joan pulled ahead, and stand at three to one each. Juliette, darn her, is at five to one thanks to that egg stunt. She knows her audience, in Marion at least. Not so much in Hearst, though.”
The look of mischief in Boots’s eyes made Lulu think she’d better pass.
“Have you seen Honey or Dolores?” Boots asked. Those were the other two girls sharing Casa del Mar. “They might want to help.”
Dolores was busy looking sultry in a corner while an up-and-coming young artist praised her figure. Adorable, black-eyed Honey, though, was nowhere to be found.
“Well, the three of us ought to be strong enough to man- age,” Boots said mysteriously.
“Heavens!” Lulu gasped. “What are you planning to do to Juliette?”
“Come with us if you want to know,” Boots said deviously. “No? Well, you’ll find out soon enough. Suffice it to say that a good scare might be enough to make Juliette quit this game for good.”
The three young actresses slipped out of the room on their secret mission.
Left alone, Lulu looked around the Assembly Room for someone to talk to. Marion saw her at loose ends and pounced. She took her arm and said, “I didn’t get a chance to thank you earlier for showing Patricia such a good time. The poor girl is absolutely dying for some fun, and nobody pays much atten- tion to her. You’re the first person to make such an effort.”
“Your niece is an interesting girl,” Lulu began.
“Oh Lord!” Marion said, smacking her forehead. “Inter- esting? That means crazy, doesn’t it? That’s one of those back- handed insults clever people do. A critic once walked out of my premiere, and when I asked what he thought, he smiled and said ‘words fail me.’ Boy oh boy, words didn’t fail him in the next morning’s review! Ouch!”
“I didn’t mean . . . ,” Lulu began.
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. And it is a pretty little head. You remind me of someone. Who could it be? Oh yes, me!” Marion threw back her head and laughed. “Seriously, I’m so grateful to you for dancing with my niece. She said she met you earlier with your little dog, Charlie. Why not have him stay in Casa Grande so he can pal around with my dogs? You’ll be here twenty hours out of the day, anyway. Have you met everyone yet?”
She walked Lulu up to Anita. “This is ’Nita, my bosom friend. At least, I think she is. Most of the stuff that comes out of her mouth is so clever I can’t understand it, so she might be insulting me all the time, for all I know. Have you read Gentle- men Prefer Blondes?”
“No, I’m sorry, I haven’t. I didn’t have many books grow- ing up.”
Anita moaned. “Growing up, she says. These kids make me
feel ancient. She was an infant when the book came out.” “Don’t remind me,” Marion said. “This week I want to
be forever seventeen. Oh, you should have seen me at seven- teen! WR would buy two seats in the front row just to stare at me at the Follies—one seat for him, one for his hat.” She looked around the room. “Where did our fellows get off to? I wonder.”
“Yours is doing that mysterious thing called business,” Anita said. “Mine isn’t being mysterious at all. This is his day off. Just figure out which starlet is missing, and that’s what—or who—he’s doing.”
“How do you mean, day off ?” Marion asked.
“Never mind,” Anita said lightly. “I’m starving! Someone ring the dinner gong.”