Cold Open, a tale of modern Hollywood by Cantara Christopher // Chapter 2. The Breaking News

12 min read

“Calm. Perfect calm. Perfect focus. All right… Keep uncurling that spine… Keep rising…rising… You’re completely standing, relaxed, alert. Inhale…exhale. You’re now ready to greet this beautiful, beautiful Wednesday. Open your eyes. Everyone, good morning.”

The half a dozen housewives in Nina Lee’s 7:30 mixed-level yoga class, conducted in the living room of her modest but pleasant Pasadena bungalow, sighed with satisfaction.

“Okay, everyone. I’ll see you Friday,” said Nina. “And if you turn on Great Day LA when you get home,” she added as they pulled their street clothes and shoes back on and rolled up their mats, “be sure to catch Bunny’s segment. They told her they’re putting it on — ” she checked her watch — “in just a few minutes, as a matter of fact. 8:32 to be precise.”

“Oh yeah!” said one of the women genially, “like we never get enough of Angeltown already.” She pointed with her thumb out the window to across the street where a small house stood, festooned with angels of all sizes and shapes, including an enormous topiary sculpture with a wing span nearly ten feet wide. “Here comes Bunny anyway. See you Friday, Nina.”

In a flurry of so-longs and hellos, Nina opened her front door to let out her students and let in a pretty, blonde, plump energetic woman in her mid-forties dressed in a purple velour jogging suit and carrying a homemade coffee cake.

“Darling!” she exclaimed. “Ready for my big debut? Here, I made this low-fat.”

“Give me a minute to tidy up,” said Nina. There was actually very little tidying up to be done, as the living room would still be needed for her 10AM intermediate class and the furniture wouldn’t be pushed back to their original positions until afterward. She picked up a couple of scattered pillows and tossed them against the wall, then took a print cotton smock from a peg near the door and threw it over the black unitard she was wearing. “Mind if we watch it in the kitchen?”

“Best place,” said Bunny as they went in together. She put the coffee cake down on the kitchen table and proceeded to fill a kettle and put it on to boil.

“I know my TV’s only a little bit smaller than yours, but the picture’s all right,” said Nina, turning on the small portable set on the counter. A commercial was on. She took out a couple of forks and some Fiestaware plates and mugs and laid them on the table. Bunny found the box of Red Zinger tea in the cupboard, took out two bags, plopped them into the bright blue mugs and poured the boiling water. Then she turned their chairs to face the television and sat down.

“By the way, did I tell you the story of how the people at Great Day LA found Angeltown?”

“I don’t think so. Did you send them an audition tape or something?”

“Nope, not in the least! It was exactly like what happened to you — well, not exactly. I mean, yes, the producer discovered me in the supermarket exactly the same way you got discovered — Only I didn’t wind up in the movies — But she recognized me from that kiddie show I hosted back in the eighties when it went into reruns, and we got to talking, and I told her about Angeltown, and voila!”

“That’s amazing,” said Nina as she sat down and cut slices of the cake, a large one for Bunny and a thin one for herself. “Great Day was lucky to have found you.”

Bunny grabbed the remote and turned up the sound. “Shh! They’re back. This should be it.”

The cheery redheaded hostess grinned from the screen. “Have you ever wanted to take a little peek to see what heaven might be like? Then look no further than Pasadena, where Latasha DeVille has a very delightful treat for you.”

Bunny, eyes bright, reached over and gave Nina’s arm a quick squeeze, then pointed to the TV. “That’s her, that’s the segment producer.”

“She looks so young.”

“She’s a baby. She’s twenty-six.” The slim young coffee-colored woman in the taped segment was walking, microphone in hand, up the familiar path toward Bunny’s house.

“Folks, I’m standing in front of the home of SoCal native Bunny Frazier and what might be the most unusual collection in the world.” As she approached the door with its faux-tapestry hanging of Raphael cherubim, it opened wide as if on cue, and there was Bunny, smiling and lovely in a long flowing print dress.

“Hello Latasha, the angels and I were expecting you. Come on in…” Suddenly the screen went blank.

“Nooo! Not a cable outage!” shouted the Bunny in the kitchen. “Not now!”

In a couple of seconds an image on the screen appeared, this one of the afternoon anchorman seated at his desk. “We interrupt this program to bring you this just-breaking news,” he intoned. “The body of a young woman has been discovered in the home of a well-known TV actress, apparently shot to death. We take you live to Jean de la Hoya in Laurelwood Canyon.”

Another scene appeared, an eerie reminder of the earlier one — a young slim female reporter was walking up the path to another house.

“Tim, minutes ago a squad car arrived at the home of Dennie Dearman, star of the hit TV show Melody Evergreen, where the body of a young woman, apparently shot to death, was discovered. Now, details are sketchy at this time, but what we do know is that at approximately 8:05 this morning a call was placed to police from the home of a neighbor, who had answered a frantic pounding at her door by Dearman’s housekeeper — a housekeeper who had come to work as usual this morning, only to stumble upon the shocking scene. As I said, police have already arrived and it appears that they’re now in the midst of questioning a man who was found at the scene of the crime. Whether he is the gunman himself we can’t be sure. What we do know — ”

“Oh my goodness,” breathed Bunny over the reporter’s spiel, suddenly fascinated by this sensational turn of events.

“Maybe they’ll cut back to your segment in time,” offered Nina.

“I don’t think so. This is big! Dennie Dearman! You know who she is, don’t you?”

Nina shook her head.

“She plays Melody Evergreen. Leo and I watch that show every Sunday night. Oh, this is terrible! Is it Dennie who’s been murdered? Leo will be devastated — ”

“ — when she heroically escaped the alleged assailant and ran to the nearby house. That’s all we’ve managed to piece together so far.” The camera on de la Hoya then pulled back to reveal the crowd that had formed on the sidewalk and even in the middle of the street near the jacaranda-framed house. “As you can see, neighbors and fans have been quickly gathering to try to learn more about this tragic occurrence. So far there’s been no official word, but — Wait, it looks like the police are allowing a vehicle to come through their barricades. Let’s get a closer look.”

The camera swung to one side, revealing an unmarked sedan pulling up. A pair of brown-suited men got out. “Yes, I think I recognize them. Homicide Detectives Bill Blake and Jack Milton of the LAPD.” As they came up the path de la Hoya dashed over to them. “Detectives! Detectives — ”

“Not now,” said Blake, the older one, as they brushed past her. In a moment they bounded up the steps to the door, which was immediately opened by one of the uniformed policemen, and disappeared inside.

De la Hoya turned and appeared to be listening intently through her earpiece. “Folks,” she said finally, “while we’re waiting for official information, let’s take you back to the studio.”

Great Day LA should be almost over by now,” said Nina. “It’s a shame about your story.”

“Oh, not to worry, I’m sure I’m getting a copy of the segment tape from the station.” Bunny sighed. “But I just wanted someone to share the moment with, you know…”

Nina put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a sympathetic pat, then went over to switch off the TV.

“No, wait! This is Melody Evergreen. Turn it up.”

As a scene from the television show appeared on the screen the voice of the anchorman was heard over the subdued dialogue. “ — due to the charisma of its title star became one of the top-rated series of last season, and continues to claim the number two or three spot this year. This is a scene from an episode shown last November during sweeps week — ”

“Well, don’t talk over it!” said Bunny to the TV, annoyed. “Nina, this was the best episode ever. This was where Melody… I guess you don’t watch the show, do you?” Nina shook her head. “Well, first, you have to know that Melody’s the daughter of a minister in a small town in Montana, see… Just the most incredible kid, everybody in town adores her and she helps out, well, just about everybody… And this is the episode where the strange new boy in school tries to, you know, practically rape her, but he fails of course… And then she spends the rest of the episode talking him out of committing suicide… And… Well…it’s all about love and forgiveness… Really, it was just the most incredible episode.”

Nina, impressed by the passion her friend was revealing, focused her attention on the scene on the television. It was the interior of a simple small Protestant church, empty except for a young, blonde, almost ethereally beautiful girl and, a few feet away from her in the middle of the pews, a lean and shaking young man. The girl was speaking calmly to the young man, who was holding a gun to his own head.

“Oh — oh — here’s the part that made me cry.” And indeed, tears were starting to well up in Bunny’s eyes. The girl, obviously Melody Evergreen, was slowly approaching the young man, her two hands together, palms up, as if they were in church services and she was about to receive a communion wafer from him. There was an exchange of looks between them. The young man slowly lowered his gun and placed it in Melody’s hands. Melody gently set it down on the pew, then tenderly embraced him. The young man, just as tenderly, returned her embrace. Fade out.

Bunny dabbed her eyes and quickly finished her cake. “Everybody loves this show. Did you know it’s one of the President’s favorites? He’s never missed an episode. It’s in the Congressional Record.”

“Um, yes,” answered Nina. “It looks very moving.”

The anchorman returned. “That episode scored the highest Nielsen rating for the date it was aired. Melody Evergreen, now in its second season, continues to rank among the top ten shows on television and is the number-one show for this network.” He paused. “It looks like there are some new developments, so let’s take you back to Jean de la Hoya.”

The scene was immediately switched back to outside the house in Laurelwood Canyon. “Tim, only a few seconds ago the door of the Dearman house opened and — yes — as you can see, Homicide Detectives Blake and Milton are coming out, followed by the two uniformed policemen who were first called to the scene. And it looks like they have a man between them.”

Bunny sat forward, her attention riveted to the television. A tall, clean-shaven, sandy-haired, middle-aged man in aviator glasses, wearing a brown corduroy jacket over a button-down shirt and jeans, was being led out, his posture erect as he walked. Whether there was dignity or bewilderment in his blank expression was hard to determine.

Nina stared at his face. A sharp involuntary intake of breath — then she exhaled, slowly, composure regained.

“Well,” said Bunny, slumping back in her chair, “he doesn’t look like a killer. He looks more like my old high school English teacher. Kinda cute, though. What do you think?”

Nina bit her lower lip. “Um, I — I don’t know what to think. They’re, um, they’re not telling us much, are they?”

On the screen, the man was slowly being walked to the car, then expertly installed in the back by Blake. Milton swung around to the front, opened the car door and slid into the driver’s seat.

As Blake turned to dismiss the uniformed officers, de la Hoya rushed up to him with her microphone shouting, “Sir! Sir! What can you tell us? Is the victim Dennie Dearman?”

“What we can tell you at this time,” he started grimly, “is that the body of a caucasian female in her mid-twenties — ”

A sudden clamor of dismay from the crowd interrupted him.

“It’s Dennie!” wailed someone offscreen, “Oh God, it’s Dennie!”

“Is that him? Is that the guy?”

“Who is he? Let’s get a look at him!”

“Has he confessed?”

Blake held up his hands to calm the crowd. “People. There will be a statement forthcoming at which time official identification of the victim, and information about any suspect or suspects, will be released. But please, let us do our jobs first.” And without another word he got into the passenger’s side, slammed the door, and the car drove away.

De la Hoya addressed the television audience. “Well, there you have it. The victim, possibly Dennie Dearman, beloved star of Melody Evergreen. A man, possibly her assailant, in custody. We’ll get back to you as soon as there are any new developments. From Laurelwood Canyon, this is Jean de la Hoya, channel 6 news, reporting.”

The scene reverted to the anchorman at his desk. “Jean, thank you. We now return you — ”

Nina went over and switched off the TV.

“Not what we expected this morning, was it?” said Bunny. She shook her head, sighing, then stood up. “Well, I guess I’ll be getting back. UPS just delivered more angels yesterday and I’ve still got to catalog them… Maybe I’ll keep the TV on, just in case…”

“Here, I’ll wrap your cake.”

“Nonsense! The rest is for you, and for Bennett when he drops in.” Nina’s longtime steady boyfriend was teaching all that day at the Jesuit college only a couple of miles away.

“Well, on behalf of us both, thank you.” Nina walked Bunny back to the front door, where her friend gave her an unexpected hug.

“Look, you take care of yourself. You seem a little quiet this morning.”

“I’m just mentally preparing for my next class. You know I do that.”

“I mean quieter than usual. Don’t let this story on TV get you down, honey. There’s so much tragedy in the world, we can’t absorb it all.”

“I won’t.”

“Maybe I’ll call you later…?”

“Sure, we’ll talk then.” Nina shut the door and went back to the kitchen, where she methodically cleared away the dishes, put away the cake including her uneaten piece, and wiped the table. She glanced at the wall clock. It was half past nine, plenty of time for her to prepare herself for her next class.

This was how she had been able to successfully run a yoga studio for the past several years. Meditate, center herself before the start of class in order to connect with the students she was about to train to breathe and stretch and do headstands. She took off her cotton print smock, went into the living room, unrolled her own mat and sat down, assumed a lotus position and closed her eyes.

But it was strange, so strange. For the first time in over twenty years she was unable to let her conscious thoughts empty out. Instead, a disquieting jumble of images and feelings filled her mind, images she thought she’d let go of decades ago.

The luscious coolness of a soundstage when the klieg lights were turned off. A garden that wasn’t really a garden.

Premiere night. A red carpet gala. Beautiful women in evening gowns, handsome men in smart trim black. Photographers everywhere.

A dark stretch of Mulholland Drive near Malibu and the sound of metal crunching. Then pain, unbelievable pain…

Nina’s intermediate class, to her utter chagrin, suffered from her inability to concentrate that morning. Her timing was off; she’d lost the sense of their bodies; no one in the class could sustain a pose for more than a few seconds. For the first time since she began teaching, she felt she’d let her students down. And after the last of them had gone she was still only half-conscious, still lost in a fog as she completed her usual routine of pushing the furniture into place and turning her yoga studio back into her living room.

She couldn’t help it. Her thoughts were returning of their own accord, back through time, back to that wonderful day — yes, it was, it was a wonderful day — when she stood in the coolness of the garden that wasn’t really a garden…

A persistent ringing in the present jolted Nina out of her reverie of the past. It was the phone in the kitchen. Her heart began to beat faster as she went to answer it, already certain who the caller was, and what the news would be.

“Nina, honey!” said Bunny excitedly. “They broke into the program I was watching with the official police statement. It was Dennie, poor girl. And they ID’ed the man they’ve got. His name’s Teddy Sunnegaard and he’s a director. They say he directed that movie, Setting Sun…? Honey, isn’t that the name of your movie, the one you did?” There was silence at the other end. “Nina…? Are you there?”

TO BE CONTINUED EVERY FRIDAY 13 MAY — 12 AUGUST 2022

NEXT: CHAPTER 3. THE OLD FLAME

© Cantara Christopher 2012, 2022

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