Monday, April 25, 2011

Darker By Degree Preview Package

One of my fears is the sample chapter is too long. Maybe groundless, after all it's only 8 pages, but I guess I've got to worry about something.

Hollywood is a place where fantasy and reality sometimes collide. Struggling actress Madeline Pryce dreams of stardom, but someone else harbors darker fantasies and the murderous intent to fulfill them. With the help of a handsome but infuriating detective, can Maddie unmask a murderer before she becomes the next victim?

Look for Darker By Degree, coming soon.


I doubt I could remember the name of the first movie I ever saw, even with a loaded gun to my head.  It was probably some classic from the golden age of Hollywood, perhaps one of the half dozen my mother had been in.  The great Charlotte Corday, who had faded from the big screen and been reborn as the perfect '50s TV mother, forever smiling benignly.

Well, at least her dream had started.  I was giving up the idea of ever seeing the name Madeline Pryce on the marquee, and this morning's audition was the most recent in a series of brief encounters that felt as awkward as blind dates and ended just as badly.  For the past five years I'd subsisted on a diet of rejections, regional commercials, and one recurring soap opera role that hadn't lasted half as long as the casting director had promised.  The cachet of stardom attached to my family had not blossomed around me after my parents plunged off the seaside road and sometimes, mostly at night and mostly after a really lousy day, I wondered what cosmic fluke had kept me out of the car that night.

The emergence of a dark figure between two parked cars wiped out my thoughts of the audition and I slammed my foot onto the brake pedal, my '56 Chevy sliding to a stop with a sound like a woman screaming.  I glanced in the rearview mirror to see the van behind me swerve sideways just in time to avoid my rear bumper.  The Litigation Louie picked himself up from the street and skulked off in search of a mark with slower reflexes.  If I wasn't careful, the cosmic scales were going to balance after all.

I started back down West Hollywood, past weed-filled, cyclone-fenced empty lots interspersed with cheap souvenir shops and trendy pseudo-celebrity hangouts.  In places, Old Hollywood--the one tourists look for and rarely find--sparkles like a well-cut gem amid a tangle of costume jewelry.  The Orpheus is one of those almost forgotten jewels, a 1930s theater hanging onto the dividing line where Hollywood is wedged against the galleries, shops and bistros of more affluent West Hollywood.  The theater was my day job, but something more than that. I had an abiding affection for the old art deco monster.  I saw it as part time machine and part secret fort, where I can slip sideways in time to a place where there were always happy endings.

Today the theater had no hold on me.  I pulled onto the rotting pad of parking lot across the street, grateful to find a spot close enough to the lone streetlamp to assure at least a passing chance of making it back to my car alive.

Reproduction posters of tonight's triple bill studded the theater's front window, night moths trapped under glass.  Universal Monsters, who once inspired terror in the movie-going public of the '30s and '40s, now filled me with a different type of fear.  I knew tonight's crowd was bound to be packed with mercenary youth and nomadic millennials, reckless kids whose spiral-bound theme book doodles ran more toward daggers through skulls than arrows through hearts.

The alley housing the theater's side entrance held the familiar smell of wet cardboard, a scent trapped by the high brick walls that formed a cut-out where the dented dumpster sat.  I saw Irene leaning over the railing of the stoop, ensconced in layer upon layer of multicolored gauze, her white hair hidden beneath a bright scarf.

"Maddie!" she yelled.

"Aren't you hot in that get-up?”  I said.

She jingled as she executed a slow pirouette.  "Why, yes, thank you, I am."I waited through her giggles.

“Don't you get it?  I'm Maria Ouspenskaya."

Again I waited.  Maria who?  Then I remembered.  The old gypsy woman who sent Larry Talbot off to become the Wolfman.

 "Irene, you never cease to amaze me.  You don't think you're getting me into a costume, I hope."

"Oh, where's your sense of adventure?  You'd make a great Bride of Frankenstein."  Irene laughed again and descended the short stairway to offer a motherly hug.  "I'm just kidding, sweetie.  But you're too young to be such a fuddy-duddy."

Not that young, I thought.  I gave her a quick hug back, taking in the scent of buttered popcorn mingled with gardenia perfume.  Irene Shoffit had managed the Orpheus for nearly thirty years and had saved me from unemployment not that long ago. She'd become the closest thing I had to a confidant.

I opened by mouth to tell her about the morning's failed audition when she took a step back and I realized she hadn't been looking for me.

"You didn't happen to see Jason, did you?" she said.

I hated the hopeful look that flashed in her eyes.  "He's not here again?  When was the last time he showed up for work, anyway?"

Irene's son had stood outside my circle in high school.  He was one of those loners who made other kids nervous in a way that was never easy to explain, and the years between then and now had given me no further insight into him and no reason to care.  Tonight he was just pissing me off.  Four more hours added onto five I was already dreading.

Irene's hand shook as she took mine.  "Maddie, I hate to ask you to stay late again, but I don't think he's going to show up and I'll need you here for the third feature.  Jason will either straighten up or be out of a job.  I'm tired of making excuses for him and tired of being embarrassed in front of my friends."

The last thing I wanted to do was make Irene feel worse.  "Don't worry about me,” I said, flashing a smile that I hoped look genuine.  "I'll take care of it tonight.  Jason can make it up to me later."

That seemed to pacify Irene for the moment and we went inside.  She turned toward the lobby and I headed for the makeshift cafe/changing room that occupied a back corner of the building and always smelled like the inside of a latex Halloween mask.

The opaque glass of the single, narrow clerestory window threw the last rays of sunlight across the floor in an amber harlequin pattern.  Dust swirled by my shoes as I made my way to locker number twelve to peel off my street clothes and trade them for the black fez and bolero jacket that made me look like an organ grinder's monkey.  As I slid into my uniform, it felt shiny against my skin, the tile floor cool against my stocking feet.

Weak light bounced off the edges of the corner mirror where I stopped to straighten my jacket, creating phantom companions in the chairs behind me, indistinct reflections of faceless people.  I stared into my own face for a moment:  dark eyes, full lips, cheekbones the less fortunate would pay good money for.  I'd grown accustomed to the fact that my beauty did not startle me.  I was a pretty girl in a sea of pretty girls, and my looks had yet to open doors for me.  My dark hair blended with the uniform, leaving my face floating like a disembodied spirit in the warped changing-room glass. 


At 7:30, Bela Lugosi was telling his dinner guests that he didn't drink wine, and I was giving up any hope that Jason would show tonight.  I gripped the over-sized chrome flashlight until my fingernails dug into my thumb and glanced to the right entrance where Pete leaned against the wall.  His deeply grained face held a broad smile that trapped the black and white movie flickers for a second before letting them go.  Every few moments I would see the detail in his cap, the red cording, the gold insignia centered over his forehead.  Pete Torrence, world's oldest usher.

The crowd that spilled out after the first feature hadn't lived up to my expectations. Scrubbed college students, young professionals, blue collar workers who hovered just above minimum wage, punctuated here and there by the blood red lips of a passing goth.  Half the crowd had bought all-night tickets, and they moved toward the smooth deco curve of the concession stand, streaming and flashing like a school of fish.  The others passed the red velvet ropes, their feet whispering across scarlet and gold carpet laid in 1982 as part of the Orpheus' long period of restoration, a graceful nod away from the oranges and browns of the '70s.  Their voices echoed into the ornate barreled ceiling as they opened the doors onto the night.

I could see Irene looking like a gypsy fortune teller in a penny arcade, trapped by the round glass of the ticket booth, surrounded by black-laced teens in Doc Martens.  Glittery studs and gold hoops sprouted from odd places -- noses, cheeks, eyebrows -- and the pack passed through the lobby in a cloud of clove cigarettes and patchouli.  I hoped they were only trying to look dangerous.

The crowd was getting darker by degree, and larger too.  I knew by the time midnight rolled around we'd be looking at a full house.  Good for business, bad for me.  I started mentally counting the minutes, like I was stuck in high school algebra waiting for the bell.  I paced for the last thirty minutes of Frankenstein, as if I was the one waiting for the villagers to storm the castle.

In the break before the final feature, I headed for the alley entrance with my cargo of candy boxes and greasy popcorn tubs, the night air cool against my skin after the stifling press of bodies inside the theater.  I tossed the bags into the open dumpster and walked to the mouth of the alley, drawn by the citrusy scent of oleander bushes that grew along the grassy front courtyard of the Orpheus.  The ornamental gaslight at the corner of the building cast a protective circle around me as I glanced toward the parking lot to make sure my car was intact.

A red Cabriolet heading east on Hollywood made a careless turn into the lot, stopping just beyond the reach of the streetlamp.  The headlights died.  Nobody got out of the car.  I waited for the car to pull out or the driver to show himself, then caught movement and turned to see a running figure split the headlights of three oncoming cars.  I recognized it.  Jason.

He crouched by the driver's door and I caught the glint of the window sliding down.  Jason punctuated the conversation with furtive glances, and then turned his shaggy head and looked straight at me.  He stared for a beat, then sprinted around the front of the car and yanked open the passenger door, cutting me another look before disappearing behind the tinted windows.  The car shot backwards and took off down the boulevard, and I watched until it disappeared around a corner, unsure of what I'd just witnessed and what, if anything, I would tell Irene when I got back inside.

The midnight crowd looked like trouble.  Posers had given way to gang girls with  hair sprayed into shapes as threatening as Stephen King's topiary animals and boys pretending to be men strutted around, big pants slung low on their hips, hiding switchblades and crack pipes.  I said a silent prayer and stood in the darkness long enough to make sure they were seated and not scaling the velvet drapes before heading back to the lobby to find Irene.

She was sitting behind the oaken desk in the small office off the main floor of the lobby looking wilted, her cheer from earlier in the evening nowhere in evidence.  I positioned myself in the doorway so I could keep one eye on the closed doors to theater.

"Irene, I just saw Jason take off in a red Cabriolet, but I couldn’t see who was driving. Sound familiar?”

Irene shook her head and slumped back into the chair.  "I don't know his...friends."

 I glanced back at the theater doors and imagined the chaos that could be occurring on the other side.
"I'd better get back.  I just wanted you to know that Jason was around."  I hesitated, unsure of what else to say. "Do you want to get together for an early lunch tomorrow?  We could get spring rolls at Wong's."

Irene's shoulders lifted slightly at the suggestion.  "That would be wonderful, Maddie.  You go on.  I'm leaving this for now.  I need a good night's sleep."  She waved me out.  "Go on, you don't want them tearing the place up."

I knew she was right, but that didn't make leaving her any easier.  I glanced back once before pulling the door shut.  She looked small behind the massive wooden desk, like a child lost in the world of grownups.

On screen, Larry Talbot was undergoing his first transformation, man to wolf, innocent to killer.  The same metamorphosis did not appear to be affecting the audience and I breathed a sigh of relief.

It must have been my lucky night.  The movie ended without incident and the crowd shuffled out to wreak their havoc elsewhere. Pete and the counter girl followed them out and I was alone with the Orpheus now except for Gene, a twenty-something film nerd, who was tending his roost in the projection booth.

After forty-five minutes, everything was shut down and bagged up and Gene was downstairs leaning against one of the decorative columns smoking a joint.

I walked over and punched him in the arm.  "Don't you have any respect for a landmark?  You could burn the place down, you know?"

"At least then it'd look like the rest of the landscape.  Besides, you don't want to be mean to me.  I'm only hanging around to walk you out to your car."

"Well, don't think I don't appreciate it,” I said.  "Just give me five minutes and I'll gladly allow you the privilege of escorting me to my carriage.  And don't drop any ashes on the carpet."

"You got it, babe,” he said with a wink.

I changed as quickly as I could, glad to shed the black polyester skin, then grabbed my purse and pulled out my keys.  Back in the lobby, I noticed the white bags on the carpet.

"Damn, I forgot the trash.  Give me a sec, okay?"

I didn't wait for a reply, just grabbed the bags and ran for the side entrance.  I fumbled with the lock and finally got it open, then kicked the wooden wedge under the door so I wouldn't lock myself out.  I traversed a litter of empty popcorn boxes spoiled by yesterday's rain shower, and heaved one bag after another into the waiting mouth of the dumpster.  Something gauzy and turquoise curved under a corner of the receptacle like a small river, glittering in the sodium lights, too unsullied to have been there long.  In spite of myself, I walked over and reached down for it.

I could see around the edge of the dumpster now, into the brick corner of the alley alcove.  I lost my balance and sat down hard on the cracked asphalt.  It didn't matter; I didn't feel it.

Irene was crammed into the small space, her gypsy finery spotted with blood gone maroon in the shadows, her glassy eyes staring into the stars above Hollywood.

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