Cold Open, a tale of modern Hollywood by Cantara Christopher // Chapter 6. The Smorgasbord

18 min read

“I’ve absolutely got to be home by six,” said Nina as she climbed into the car beside Teddy.

“No problemo,” he told her. He started the engine and pulled away from the curb. In no time at all, they were on Sunset Boulevard headed east.

“I hope this info Ruth gave you pans out,” he said as he leaned back, steering easily with one hand. “That’s why I left the room, to give you a chance to pump her. You know, using your feminine wiles.”

“Because she’s a lesbian and was sure to go for me,” said Nina, perfectly deadpan.

“Right,” answered Teddy in perfect earnestness.

She looked out the window. “Wait, how come we’re not taking the freeway?”

“Don’t forget, it’s Friday afternoon rush hour. You know how the freeway gets.”

“I don’t drive anymore,” said Nina quietly.

“You don’t? In LA? Interesting,” he remarked absently as he passed a few cars. After a moment he asked, “Sooo…did you talk about anything else while I was out?”

“Just your career.”

“Seriously? Great.”

“And my career.”

They stopped at a red light and Teddy turned to her. “What are you talking about?”

Nina explained about Ruth recognizing her. “And this is the strange thing, Teddy,” she continued. “She was hinting that she might already have something in mind for me. Do you know about anything going on I might be right for?”

He knitted his brow in thought. “No…no. I can’t think of anything. But so much stuff gets spread around town and ninety-nine percent of it is bullshit anyway…” Then he grinned broadly. “But that’s great! Are you gonna sign?”

Nina sighed. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t.”

“You know, baby,” said Teddy almost tenderly, “you’ve got a lot of good work in you still.”

They looked at each other for a long moment until the light changed and the car behind theirs beeped loudly for them to move.

“I, um, I’ll have to think it over,” Nina said at last as they continued up Sunset. “But don’t talk about this to anyone else, would you? I’m not even going to tell my friends until I’ve decided.”

“Mum’s the word.”

As they passed a faded but familiar landmark restaurant with its broad blue roof, Nina’s face broke into a delighted smile. “Oh look, it’s the Little Sweden Smorgasbord.”

“God, is that place still around?” said Teddy, ignoring Nina’s pointing finger.

“You used to take me there, remember? I often wondered why you chose it for our first date.”

“The food’s good. I used to go with my parents every Sunday,” he answered.

Nina stared at Teddy in surprise. He had never before volunteered such personal information to her. She hoped he’d go on, but there was suddenly a look on his face that was so serious she dropped the subject and they were both quiet again.

In a little while they turned left on Highland. “By the way,” said Nina, wanting to change the mood, “what was that whole thing about Tawny Lockheed?”

“Who?”

“You mentioned her in Ruth’s office. You said she was insane.”

“Well, she is!” said Teddy with renewed vehemence. “I worked with her on a network feature when she was into this mystic amulet kick. One day it went missing from her trailer and she screamed bloody murder. Held up shooting for four hours while she personally interrogated every member of the cast and crew. Here’s the insane part. She accused everyone of wanting to steal the amulet because they knew it gave her special sacred powers.”

“Well, did you solve the mystery?”

“Let’s just say it was eventually found in the trailer of a certain married actor. Under his couch. Where she dropped it.”

Nina laughed easily. “At least I didn’t drive you crazy like that.”

Teddy laughed too with equal ease. “No, you drove me crazy in other ways.”

By this time they were at Franklin and the Highland Gardens. Teddy pulled into the parking lot in the front and they got out and went over to the glass doors of the entrance. He pushed them open and together they entered the simply appointed, spacious lobby.

While Nina, walking beside him, was taking it all in, Teddy looked around quizzically. “Hey, you know, this place looks familiar. I think I shot a cop show here once.” As they went up to the front desk Teddy, with an engaging smile, asked the clerk while gesturing with a wave of his hand, “Excuse me, but I seem to remember a bar in this hotel. I think it was over there just past that potted palm…?”

The desk clerk, who was quite young and quite good-looking, answered with as broad a smile, “You would be right, sir. That’s the bar Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack frequented whenever they stayed here.” Teddy asked him if they might take a look, but the young man apologized and told them it was being renovated. But he added quickly, “Oh yes, Highland Gardens has quite a history.” He pointed to his left. “Over there down that corridor is the room where Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose during her short stay here. And our courtyard is world-famous for its lush flowers and foliage. It’s practically a jungle. In fact, it’s provided the setting for many, many TV shows and films.”

Teddy nodded. “Yeah, I know. I directed an episode of LA Centurions here.”

The young man’s eyes lit up. “Oh, you’re a director? I thought I recognized your face.”

“As a matter of fact,” said Teddy quickly, “I’m trying to track down an actress, I think she’s staying here? Lana Lanton.”

“Yes, Miss Lanton.” He turned to his computer and pressed a few keys. “She’s in suite 204. Do you need someone to show you the way?”

“I’m sure we can find it,” said Nina.

They thanked the desk clerk and Teddy nodded his head in the direction of a single glass door leading to the courtyard. “Come on, it’s this way.” Nina followed closely behind as Teddy pushed wide the door and they stepped onto the tree-shaded path.

It was as lush as a jungle, just the way the desk clerk described it. There were even bright blooming flowers on the path which exuded a deep sweet scent. Nina, who had been expecting more of a seedy low-rent motel filled with seedy struggling actors, was impressed. As they emerged from the shade of the low palms and went up onto the walkway that overlooked the courtyard she was even more impressed by the delightful scene. It was almost the end of the rainy season, the late afternoon was warm and sunny, and it appeared that many of the Gardens’ guests were taking full advantage. In the center of the courtyard below was a sparkling swimming pool surrounded by lounge chairs, most of them occupied by very young, very beautiful, and very scantily-clad young people, a few of them males but the majority female. A good deal of them were chatting on their cell phones, although a few were lying flat on the loungers, contentedly working on their tans.

They walked around the passageway and quickly found Lana’s suite. Teddy rapped with his knuckles on the door. Within a moment or two, the door opened slightly and a lovely tiny freckled redhead stared at them through the crack.

“Yes, can I help you?” she said in a kittenish voice.

Teddy graced her with the most winning smile Nina had ever seen on him. “Hello, miss, I hope we’re not disturbing you.”

“Oh no, my friends and I just finished a swim and we’re changing back into our clothes.”

“Well, if it’s not inconvenient, can we come in? My name is Teddy Sunnegaard and this is my production assistant, Ms Lee. You see, I happen to be a director — ”

At this, the door opened wide.

“Come on in,” she purred, and Teddy and Nina walked into the sparsely-furnished suite. The floor was littered with clothing and wet towels were draped all over the furniture.

The redhead closed the door. She was wearing a swimsuit halter top and a short wraparound skirt and was gazing up expectantly at Teddy, who was obviously taking her in from head to toe. “So, you’re a director, hm? Are you doing any casting?”

“Well, as a matter of fact — ”

But before he could answer, out of the bedroom emerged a strikingly tall, olive-skinned brunette in a gauzy peasant blouse and size 0 jeans.

She regarded Teddy intently while he took in the redhead. “So, what’s going on here?”

“He’s a director,” she snapped, “and he was talking to me.”

“Really?” said the brunette, a trace of skepticism in her voice. “TV or movies?”

“Um, both,” said Teddy.

“Like what?”

“Oh. Well…there’s LA Medics… LA Centurions… The Wilder Years, I did the pilot for that, Brentwood BuddiesThe Castaways

“Oh, I used to love that show in junior high!” said the redhead. “All those hot guys!”

“…Melody Evergreen…” He recited that title carefully, and was relieved that neither of them made any comment, “…and next week I shoot the series finale of Naval Maneuvers in Portsmouth, Virginia.”

The brunette nodded knowingly at the last title. “I looove Maura Kilburn. And all those female officers in their dress blues. There aren’t enough strong women on TV.”

“And of course you’ll remember Setting Sun. I got an Oscar nomination for that one.” The girls looked at him blankly.

“That’s, uh, great,” said the redhead finally.

Just then, a girl of medium height with a fluff of platinum blonde hair framing her baby face came out of the bedroom. She was wearing tight form-fitting spandex shorts and a matching pink elastic bandeau that concealed very little of her ample bosom.

“Mister Sunnegaard, Miss Lanton,” said Nina.

Teddy, who was already staring at the curvaceous blonde, murmured, “What — what was that?”

“I said, this is Miss Lanton, Mister Sunnegaard,” repeated Nina somewhat icily. “You know, the actress we’re here to see?”

“Oh, of course!” he said. “So glad to finally meet you.” He held out his hand.

“Pleased, I’m sure,” she said, shaking it.

She and Teddy stood shaking hands for a long moment until Nina broke in, “I’m sure, Mister Sunnegaard, that you’ll want to get to the matter at hand.” She paused. “You know, about that part…?”

“Oh right, right!” said Teddy. “Miss Lanton, is it? I’m a director. My name is — ”

“Call me Lana,” she cooed. “Yes, I heard. Listen, why don’t you and I go someplace private and talk?”

“Absolutely,” said Teddy.

Totally ignoring her roommates, Lana took Teddy’s arm and steered him to the door while Teddy totally ignored Nina as she followed them.

From the doorway Nina turned to the other girls. “Ladies,” she said, “it’s been a pleasure.” She shook both their hands.

“You’ll consider us if any part looks right for us?” said the brunette.

“We certainly will,” she assured them both. By this time Teddy and Lana had left the suite, so Nina was forced to scamper along behind them.

As she and Teddy walked together down the passageway Lana jerked her head in Nina’s direction, murmuring to Teddy, “Does she have to be here?”

“She’s my assistant,” he told her. At this Lana scowled, shrugged, then put her arm around his waist while Teddy in response put his arm around hers.

Nina, upon seeing this, felt a ridiculous pang of jealousy shoot through her but quickly checked it.

They reached the swimming pool area. There were fewer people there now, and Lana went over to a couple of lounge chairs that had recently been vacated.

“These will do fine,” she said, taking the one on the left. She pulled the lounge chairs closer together and patted the other one, motioning for Teddy to sit. Then she reclined on her lounger, raising her arm and resting her head upon it in a provocative Marilyn Monroe pose.

It took less than a moment for Nina to realize that they had both totally forgotten about her. Seeing that she was on her own, Nina found another lounge chair and dragged it over close to Teddy’s right. She sat and began listening intently to them.

“So,” said Lana, “you’re from Melody Evergreen.”

“How did you know?”

“Heard you talking from the bedroom.” She sighed. “God, it’s been a whole six weeks. They sure took their time asking me to come back.”

“They? Who’s they?”

“You know, the producers. I got to know them pretty well. Well, actually, one of them. Henry, you know, his wife not so much. You know they produce the show together.”

Teddy nodded. “I know the Halsingthorps. Nice couple.”

“Anyway, Henry said he sympathized with my plight. You know, being a struggling actress and everything.” She sat up. “So it was Henry who sent you, right?”

“Could be.”

She grinned. “Oh, I get it. Just between guys, right? I understand.” She reclined again. “So like I say, we got pretty close and he told me about the new part they’re writing into the show. You know, Melody’s younger sister Harmony who comes back from boarding school.”

“Oh, right, right,” said Teddy, for whom this was obviously news.

“All I had to do was make an audition tape with Dennie. You know, just right there in Henry’s office to make it official. Although he told me it was a done deal anyway.” She sat up again. “And you know what she did?” Teddy shook his head. “She refused to do the scene with me! Looked me up and down like she’s some kind of queen of England and stalked out of the room saying something like, ‘This is the most ridiculous stunt you’ve ever pulled, Henry.’ So Henry shakes his head and says there’s nothing he can do. That cunt!” Lana appeared to be pondering something for a moment. “Hey, now that she’s dead, the show can’t go on. I mean, it’s named after her, right?” Her eyes started to shine. “Is that why you’re here? They’re gonna go on with the show, right? Only it’ll be Harmony Evergreen! I got it! Hey, I’ll bet I’ve got you to thank for this, huh?” she purred, as she placed her hand tenderly on Teddy’s upper thigh.

Teddy laughed nervously, a laugh Nina recognized from their past relationship.

As he seemed to be seriously in danger of succumbing to Lana’s blatant come-on, Nina cleared her throat. “Mister Sunnegaard, remember your agenda…”

Lana looked at Nina with annoyance, while Teddy stammered, “I, um, can’t take all the credit, I’m afraid.” Then he shook his head. “It’s, uh, a terrible thing, though. She was a real star.” He tried to sound as casual as possible. “Where were you when you heard about it, by the way?”

“What?”

“Dennie getting killed. I mean, I was just getting up myself when I heard about it. Partying all night. This club on Sunset. Do you go to the Strip much?”

“Oh sure, when someone takes me.”

“So…did anybody take you out…say, Tuesday night?”

“What makes you think I was out Tuesday night?”

“I dunno, maybe we were at the same club.”

“Well, I wasn’t out Tuesday night.”

“You sure?”

Her body stiffened. “Hey, wait a second,” she said slowly. “Tuesday night? That’s the night Dennie Dearman got killed. So are you here to give me a part or talk about the murder?”

“Uh, well…” he said, falteringly.

She stood and glared at him. “Well, for your information all Tuesday night I was here in bed, getting my beauty rest. My roommates can vouch for me. Satisfied?”

“Yeah, sure, sure. It was just a question,” said Teddy.

At this point, Nina made a ladylike cough. “Um, Mister Sunnegaard…” For the first time in the conversation he turned to her. “You know, the list?” she said. “I think we can cross her off.”

Teddy stared at her, puzzled. “The list?” Then he remembered. “Oh yes. The list.” He turned back to Lana with an apologetic shrug. “I’m sorry to have taken up your time, Miss Lanton.”

She looked stricken. “Look, I didn’t mean to blow up at you like that… What about the part?”

With a sincerely sorrowful expression he shook his head and rose. “I’m sorry. It would have been interesting to work with you, I’m sure.” He held out his hand to shake Lana’s but she backed away.

“Listen,” she exploded, “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not letting just any old creep get in my pants. If you don’t have a part for me you don’t touch the goodies!” And with that, she stalked off.

As Teddy regretfully watched Lana depart, Nina got up from her lounger and went over to stroke his arm consolingly. “Forget it, dear. We got what we came for.”

Just then they heard a loud chuckle from a man reclining in the lounge chair about ten feet away from Nina. She had barely noticed him when they first sat down, but upon hearing his voice she and Teddy turned to look at him. Even in his Hawaiian shirt and Panama hat, which was tilted over his eyes, she could see that he was about thirty, small, slim, and dark-skinned.

The man, still reclining, removed his hat from his face and spoke. “So, you’re trying to find out who killed Dennie Dearman, are you?”

“What do you know about it?” asked Teddy.

“Come closer, my children,” he said, sitting up, “and all will be revealed.”

Intrigued, Nina and Teddy pulled their lounge chairs closer and sat down on either side of him.

“I think we should introduce ourselves first,” said Nina. “I’m Nina Lee, and this is — ”

“Oh, I know who he is. And you too.” He turned and looked sardonically at Teddy. “So, what is it like to wake up next to a dead body?”

Glowering, Teddy started from his seat but the man laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I apologize for that ghoulish remark, my friend, but I am genuinely interested. I am Paul Pittsburgh, the video artist.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of you,” said Teddy tentatively. “At least, I think I’ve got some friends who have.”

“One might call me more accurately an autobiographical videologger. I explore the deepest bowels of my selfhood on camera. My art is my life, my life is my art. Check me out, I’m on YouTube.”

“What’s YouTube?” asked Nina.

Paul didn’t answer her but instead continued to gaze at Teddy. “You will check me out, won’t you? You might like what you see.”

“Um, sure,” said Teddy a little nervously.

Paul then turned to Nina. “And you, my dear. Setting Sun is one of my favorite films of all time. What a joy to see you here teaming up again with your brilliant director.”

“Well, maybe not brilliant…” said Teddy, trying to sound modest.

Nina broke in. “Paul — may I call you Paul?”

Bien sûr,” he answered in a perfect French accent.

“You asked us if we’re trying to find out who killed Dennie Dearman. Well, if you recognize Teddy, you obviously realize the trouble he’s in. Is there anything you know, anything at all, that might help us find her real killer?”

“I know many things,” said Paul mysteriously.

Teddy sighed. “Let’s go, Nina. This guy’s nothing but a…”

“Gossip queen? A bavarde, as they say in the language of art?” Paul supplied. “I hope never again to hear you lump me in with that unwashed rabble on the internet. They dig up one titillating piece of information on some starlet and suddenly they’re instant experts on Hollywood. It’s context that counts, my friend, and I deal in context. For example, darling Nina, your sudden re-emergence, as well as your surprising re-teaming with Teddy here — ”

“I’m just helping him out today,” she interrupted.

“ — can only serve as a harbinger of wondrous things to come. It’s been my avocation to follow actors and actresses, that is to say their careers, not their personal lives. Although when I first saw Setting Sun on cable as a young lad I was instantly smitten and sought to discover all I could about you from the fan and entertainment magazines. I was so sorry to read about the car crash, Nina. I trust you’ve completely recuperated…?”

“Oh, that was years ago. I’m fine now,” Nina assured him nonchalantly.

“It must have been traumatic, to have had your promising career sidetracked by such a debilitating accident.”

Suddenly Teddy jumped up. “You can just cut that out, guy. You don’t need to harass her,” he said with such a strong tinge of anger in his voice it surprised Nina. “Come on, let’s go. I told you this guy was just another gossip queen.”

“Just hold on,” said Paul quietly. “I knew Dennie Dearman. In fact, we were very close once upon a time.” They both stared at him and Teddy sat back down.

“You knew her?” said Nina. “When? Where?”

“Right here in the Gardens. We were next-door neighbors, right there,” he said, pointing up to two rooms on the second floor. “Wonderful girl. Not like the others. I could tell that from the moment she arrived in Hollywood two years ago. She had talent.”

“Talent — yeah,” repeated Teddy quietly, nodding.

“Even though we were next-door neighbors it took a little time for us to finally meet,” Paul went on. “As I said, she had talent and she was completely serious about her career. There was hardly a day when she wasn’t auditioning or seeking out an agent. But that’s not to say she didn’t also quickly develop a social life. No man in his right mind could have resisted her beauty or her joie de vivre. It seemed only natural that within a couple of months of arriving she would find a serious boyfriend.”

“Do you know his name?” Nina asked.

“Not only do I know his name, I actually know him, though in a peripheral way. He’s a fellow video artist.”

“I had no idea she was seeing someone,” said Teddy.

“Well, Dennie was clever enough to keep her relationship a secret so nothing about it ever appeared in the gossip columns. She was convinced, or let’s say he managed to convince her, that he was a genius. In fact, scuttlebutt in our circle said that she was actually financing one of his more expensive projects.”

“You’re not saying that you suspect him? But why, if Dennie was giving him money?” asked Nina.

Paul’s expression darkened. “When Dennie and I became close she talked about him a great deal. She described him more or less as what you might call a volatile type. But she put up with him because, as I say, she believed he was a genius. However, the same scuttlebutt told me that very, very recently they had a falling out and he was forced to abandon this so-called project which, to be honest, I never really believed existed.”

“So when was this falling out of theirs?” asked Teddy.

“Just last Monday,” said Paul.

Nina gasped. “But that would explain a lot,” she said in a low voice. “The timing, the fact that Dennie probably knew her killer. The news stories said her house hadn’t been broken into. Do you suppose the police know about him?”

“Haven’t you heard? They’ve already got their killer,” said Teddy sourly. “They just have to build their case around me.”

Nina turned to Paul with a pleading look. “You realize you’ve got to go to the police with your suspicions.”

He shook his head vigorously. “Oh no, dear lady, not I. Police involvement is never good for our business.”

“I’ll say,” said Teddy.

“And I would rather not be a person of interest to the police at this particular moment… Nothing to do with the murder, you understand, but we all have our little secret things we’d like to remain secret for just a while longer…”

“Look, it’s none of my business,” Teddy said. “Just give me the name. I’ll go and see what I can find out about this kid.”

“Very well. His name is Justin Rodenko. He has a place in The Frink, that old office building downtown that’s just been converted into overpriced lofts.” He rolled his eyes. “Tres gauche.”

Nina took out a notebook from her purse and wrote down the name and address.

“Look, I think I’d better warn you,” continued Paul, “I’ve heard stories about Rodenko, and he is more than volatile. He’s actually something of a loose cannon. He could really do a body some physical damage.”

“Not to worry, I’ll be packing,” said Teddy.

Nina’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Now don’t tell me you have a gun.”

“An engraved second-generation Colt single-action Army revolver,” he answered proudly. “Vic Miller, creator of LA Centurions, gave it to me for Christmas. It’s just like the one Hunk Bradley uses on the show. You and I’ll swing over back to my place before we hit downtown — ”

“Teddy,” said Nina firmly.

“Yeah?”

“Six o’clock.”

“Ohhh yeah, that’s right, you’re taking a class or something. Okay, I’ll drive you back.” He turned to Paul. “So how about you, pardner? Feel like joining up?”

Paul drew back, waving his palms. “Not for me, I’m afraid. For Dennie’s sake I’d like to see her killer caught, but Justin and his crowd are just a little too rough for my taste.”

Teddy snorted a laugh. “Well, looks like Marshall Will Kane’s gonna have to face the bad guy alone.”

“Oh, I adore High Noon,” said Paul.

Standing, Teddy offered his hand to Nina. “Shall we go?”

Nina got up. “You’ve been more than helpful, and we’re very grateful,” she said, extending her hand to Paul.

He shook it. “Drop in again if you’re ever in the neighborhood,” he answered.

Teddy took her by the arm and they walked out of the courtyard.

As they reached the car and Teddy unlocked it Nina looked over at him with a concerned expression. “You will be careful, won’t you, Teddy?”

He gave a little laugh and drawled, “When this Justin kid sees my Colt, he’ll be putty in my hands. I’ll get his confession then turn him over to the cops. And next week I’ll be directing all those luscious babes in Portsmouth.”

Nina just shook her head, sighed and climbed into the car.

© Cantara Christopher 2012, 2022

TO BE CONTINUED EVERY FRIDAY 13 MAY — 12 AUGUST 2022

NEXT: CHAPTER 7. THE SOFT MIDDLE

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