10 min read
As Bunny was entertaining special foreign visitors to Angeltown the next day, Nina went on her own to El Sereno to Esperanza’s house. It was nearly an hour by bus over the hills, and the route seemed to consist of nothing but steep and winding mountain trails, but after many years of relying on public transportation Nina was used to it.
The envelope containing the money and the slip of paper bearing Esperanza’s address was safely tucked in the inside pocket of her leather jacket. As she looked out the bus window at the scrub brush and scraggly trees on this February morning she was thinking, Why am I doing this? Yesterday I was leading a nice quiet life in Pasadena and today here I am, somehow involved with a man I knew twenty-five years ago who’s somehow involved in a sensational Hollywood murder. It didn’t occur to her once that Teddy might be guilty. She knew in her heart that he was incapable of such an act.
Thinking about Teddy was stirring long-dormant emotions. She had never felt about a man she way she’d felt about him, not her first boyfriend, or her ex-husband, or Bennett. But their affair had been so many years ago and had ended so badly. Why was that ache in her heart returning?
The poor man, she thought. She would deliver Teddy’s guilt money, call him and tell him she’d succeeded in her task, and that would be that.
The bus stopped at Huntington and Eastern and Nina got off. The tiny street where Esperanza lived was a short distance off Eastern — Nina had spotted it from the bus window. She walked up the street and found the house, a weather-beaten bungalow with a neat, well-kept front lawn on which a couple of chickens were roaming freely.
She went up and rang the bell. In a moment, a short plump woman came to the door.
“Señora Nuñez?” said Nina politely.
The woman peered at her suspiciously through the screen door. “Si, señora?” Nina introduced herself. “You are a reporter?”
“No,” said Nina, “I’m a friend of Teddy Sunnegaard…” The woman began to close the inner door. “Wait, please!” called out Nina. “I’m not here to make trouble. I have something for Señora Nuñez. Please let me in.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she pushed the screen door open to allow Nina to enter. The living room was small but comfortably furnished, neat, with colorful woven hangings and a foreign flag on the wall. The woman stepped back, still wary of Nina’s intentions.
“Are you Señora Nuñez?” asked Nina again. The woman was wearing a plain dress, her only jewelry a wedding ring and a silver crucifix around her neck. Hesitantly she admitted that she was. Nina smiled in her friendliest manner. “Then I have something for you.” She pulled the envelope out of her pocket and handed it to her.
“What is this?” asked Señora Nuñez, opening the envelope and waving the bills at Nina.
“Señor Sunnegaard wants you to have this, for your distress.”
Señora Nuñez looked at her suspiciously. “I already have been paid my wages for this month. The señorita was a good employer. I am truly sorry to see her come to such an end.” Then she said, “Does he think with this money he can keep me from speaking?”
“No!” said Nina, shaking her head emphatically. “Esperanza — May I call you Esperanza?”
There was an uncomfortable moment of silence and Nina looked around the room for a neutral subject to continue the conversation. As she gazed at the wall hangings her eyes came to rest on the flag and she had a snap of recognition. She smiled again and asked, “Are you from Ecuador? I noticed your flag.”
Esperanza gasped. “You know the flag of my country? I am Quiteña.”
“I visited Quito several years ago with my husband. Beautiful city.”
“Gracias,” said Esperanza solemnly.
Feeling that she had won Esperanza’s confidence, Nina went on. “Teddy — that is to say, Señor Sunnegaard — is truly sorry for frightening you yesterday morning. He had nothing to do with Miss Dearman’s death. Surely you can understand.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Esperanza slowly. “When I came into the room I saw the señorita lying dead and the señor was beside her waving a gun at me. I ask you, is that the act of an innocent man?”
“But Esperanza, it may not have been as you thought.”
She shook her head. “I know nothing of these matters. I will call my son. He is a man of the world. He will know. Enrique!” she called out. “Come in here a moment.”
A short, well-muscled man of about forty emerged from another room. “Si, mama?” he replied. But he wasn’t looking at his mother. Instead he was staring at Nina.
“Oye, I know you,” he said. “Just a minute.” He went back into the room and returned a moment later with a rolled-up poster in his hand, which he unrolled and presented to Nina. “This is you, no?”
Nina took one look and blushed. The poster was quite old, a little wrinkled and its corners were torn off — it had obviously been taped to a wall for some time. But it showed her as she was, twenty-five years ago, in a poster from her first and only Hollywood movie. In it, she was posed in a short diaphanous summer dress on the shore of a lake, looking wistfully out at an unseen horizon.
“I always liked your hair long, and now you’ve cut it,” said Enrique. “You know, when I was a boy full of dreams I often thought that one day I would meet you. I saw your movie many times and each time I enjoyed it more than the last.” He moved a step closer to Nina and continued in a softer, lower voice. “Por favor, señora, would you sign this for me?”
Nina checked her embarrassment. “Certainly,” she said. “Do you have a pen?” Enrique pulled a black marking pen from his pocket and handed it to her. “How do you spell your name?” He spelled it for her and with a flourish Nina wrote, “To Enrique with love, Nina Lee.”
He rolled up the poster and turned to his mother with a wide grin. “You don’t recognize her? I talked about her many times. This is Nina Lee. She is a great actress!”
“That was a long time ago,” said Nina.
“But — what was it you wanted to ask me about, mama?” Enrique said.
“You remember what happened yesterday, si?” said Esperanza. “When the police brought me home? El asesinato?” Enrique nodded. “This woman is a friend of the man who killed Señorita Dearman. Now she wants me to keep quiet about what I saw!” She waved the bills in the air. “Perhaps I should tell the police detectives about your visit. I have their cards right here — ”
“Esperanza, please. I assure you this is not a bribe,” said Nina passionately. “My friend Teddy is completely innocent. He’s only thinking about how much trouble he caused you. Please accept this money. There are no strings attached, none whatsoever.”
Enrique looked gravely down at his mother. “Mama. This is Nina Lee, a great, great woman. A great, great actress. If she says this man is innocent, he is innocent. If the man has given you money because he feels he has done you wrong, trust that it is so and be thankful. I believe her and you should too. Nina Lee would not have a friend who would do such a thing.”
Esperanza looked down at the money for a moment, then finally said in a low voice, “Si mi hijo le cree… Bien. Gracias.”
Nina sighed gratefully, feeling as if she had somehow herself been exonerated.
“Will you take some coffee with us, Miss Lee?” asked Enrique.
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. It’s a long bus ride back.”
Enrique offered to walk her out to the sidewalk but she declined. At the door he turned and shook her hand. “You know, I’m sorry you never went on in the movies. You have so many fans still. Why don’t you go back?”
Nina blushed again and stammered, “Well — well — I don’t know. It’s been so long. But it’s something to consider.”
She left the Nuñez house and walked down the narrow street toward the bus stop, thinking about that unexpected encounter with Esperanza’s son. It had been years since anyone had recognized her from her on-screen career. Even Bunny, her closest friend and something of a film buff, hadn’t known who she was when they first met. And Enrique told her that she still had fans. Was that true, or was he just being kind? Her ego didn’t need the boost — even at the height of her fame she had had her feet on the ground. It was the excitement she missed, the thrill of sharing a glamorous experience with someone. The simple act of signing Enrique’s poster had brought it all back.
But now the glamorous moment was over and she was still in East Los Angeles, looking down Huntington Drive for the next bus that would take her back to Pasadena and her normal placid life. It seemed too soon for the day to come to an end. There was an artsy café on the corner where she could wait for her bus. She decided to go in and take a little refreshment.
The place was a wi-fi type of café, where several young artistic and student types were sitting at the few tables, staring silently at their laptops. Nina walked past them and went up to the counter where she ordered from the barista a decaf chai.
She grasped the enormous ceramic mug in both hands and looked around for a place to sit. The only available seat was a stool next to a young man at a long table overlooking a large window that faced the street. This is perfect, thought Nina. I can sit and enjoy my chai and watch for the bus at the same time.
So she sat, took a sip from her cup, resolving to take no notice of the rather striking young man sitting next to her. Unfortunately, as they were sitting only about a foot apart, her eyes began to stray towards the screen of his laptop computer. It was displaying a web site on which the top was embellished in bold pink with the title “Nicky Narcissus Presents the Sweetest Melody”. But that wasn’t what captured Nina’s attention. It was the image of an ethereally lovely young woman against a backdrop of a fairytale castle in the clouds and flanked on either side by flickering torches. Below was the caption, “Dennie Dearman — 1983–2007”.
Noticing her interest, the young man turned to Nina with a wide grin on his face. “Hello, girlfriend! New around here?”
“I’m just visiting someone,” said Nina, taking him in. He was very thin and very young, probably no more than twenty or twenty-one, and wearing a flamboyant floral print shirt and tight-fitting jeans. His hair was bleached blond with dark roots and he was clean-shaven, except for a tiny dark soul patch that graced the area under his lower lip. “Do you live around here?”
“Me? Oh honey, I wouldn’t live in this flea trap if you paid me. I just come here every so often to meet my operatives.”
Operatives? thought Nina. Does he think he’s some sort of spymaster or something? Well, I suppose it’s only a little harmless role-playing, unless… Suddenly she had a flash of intuition and said aloud, “Oh my goodness! You’re not — you’re not Nicky Narcissus, are you? The guy who knows everything about everyone in Hollywood?”
The young man, still seated, half bowed. “One and the same.”
“Oh, that is so cool,” said Nina. In truth she had no idea who Nicky Narcissus was. But it struck her that this young man was a purveyor of celebrity gossip of the type that Bunny had railed against, and it was just conceivable that he might possibly know something about Dennie’s death that hadn’t made the news or be known by the police.
“You know, my best friend was a big fan of Dennie,” she continued. “She really loved her.”
Nicky’s voice suddenly became quietly reverent. “She was royalty. She was a princess. And so, so beautiful. I don’t just mean on the outside. I mean in here,” he said, tapping his chest. “Anybody could see that.”
“You mean like on Melody Evergreen,” said Nina.
Nicky turned back to his laptop. “Come here, look at all these tributes. They’re still pouring in.”
Nina got up in order to see better and glanced over his shoulder. On the website below the dates of Dennie’s birth and death was a message field that automatically scrolled toward the bottom to make way for new entries that appeared at the top.
“Are these happening right now?” asked Nina.
“It’s all real-time, baby,” he answered.
Nina watched the screen. Between the usual tributes such as “We’ll miss you, Dennie” and “You were the greatest” one message stood out:
“I’m glad she’s dead. The fucking bitch deserved it after what she did on ME. Screwed me out of a career. I hope she rots in hell.”
Most of the messages were anonymous, but this one was signed, “Highland Maiden”. Nina directed Nicky’s attention to it.
“Wha — ?” he gasped, looking stunned.
“Didn’t she mean ‘What she did to me, not on me?” asked Nina.
“Not ‘me’,” said Nicky. “M. E. Melody Evergreen.” He shook his head sadly. “How can people be so cruel?”
For a moment, Nina thought he was going to cry. Then out of the corner of her eye she saw her bus coming down the street. She patted Nicky’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about Dennie. Look, darling, I’ve got to run. But thanks for explaining that. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
Without glancing at her, Nicky said, “Hm? Okay, honey, thanks for dropping in.” Suddenly he looked up. “What do you mean, explaining what?” But Nina was already out the door, and a few seconds later she was on the bus back to Pasadena.
© Cantara Christopher 2012, 2022
TO BE CONTINUED EVERY FRIDAY 13 MAY — 12 AUGUST 2022