Cold Open, A Tale of Modern Hollywood // Chapter 7. The Soft Middle

15 min read

What with the weekend traffic, Teddy didn’t get Nina back to Pasadena until quarter to seven. So, she had only just enough time for a quick shower and change, but by seven-thirty she was in her bedroom, seated at her dressing table conscientiously finishing her makeup.

Tonight was going to be a special night, as Bunny and Leo were celebrating their second wedding anniversary, and although it would be the first time that Bennett would be meeting her best friend Bunny’s new husband, he had gallantly offered to take them all to dinner. She wanted to look especially festive for the occasion, and had decided on her favorite Laura Ashley flower-print dress.

If not for the events of the past three days, tonight’s dinner would have been the highlight of her week. Now, she thought ironically, it was likely to seem quite ordinary. Still, Nina was looking forward to it.

She reached into her closet for her dress, slipped it on, put on her sling-back pumps and reached for her evening bag on the dressing table. She stood in front of the full-length mirror admiring herself. Yes, her hairstyle was a short pageboy with some gray at the temples rather than the long straight raven tresses of her twenties, but her figure was still trim and she still wore clothes well. Really, she thought, she hadn’t changed much since Setting Sun. The dress, though, was rather light for the weather so she decided she needed a wrap. She quickly searched through the closet and came up with a lovely embroidered shawl she had bought in Manila some years ago.

Just as Nina was throwing it around her shoulders she glanced out of the window and saw Bennett’s Prius drive up. Dear Bennett. He was never late. As he opened the car door and began to get out, she called to him through the open window, “I’ll be right there!” He nodded and closed the door again.

She left her house, locked up and scurried down the walkway. The evening air was mild and smelled of early spring. When she reached the car, Bennett opened the passenger’s side door for her.

“You look great, as usual,” he said as she slid in.

Impulsively she leaned over, embraced him, and kissed him full on the lips.

He looked at her quizzically. “Hey, what’s that for?”

She smiled. “I don’t appreciate you enough,” she said, smoothing the lapel of his perfectly-tailored conservative gray suit.

“Well! I guess it pays to be on time,” he said, as he put the car in drive and pulled out onto the quiet street. “So, so did you have a good day today? Anything exciting?”

“Nope,” said Nina. “A nice quiet day, exactly the way I like it.”

They got to Scarantino’s in ten minutes and pulled up in front, where the valet took the keys from Bennett to drive his car to the parking area. As they went inside they noted to each other with approval that even though it was the height of dinner hour and Scarantino’s was crowded with patrons filling nearly every one of the plush red-leather booths, the restaurant still had a genteel subdued quality, perfect for meeting friends.

At the bar were Bunny and Leo, she resplendent in a sequin top and satin skirt, he looking comfortable in a well-worn sports jacket. They were seated on high stools, smiling broadly and motioning to Bennett and Nina to join them. They walked over and Nina gave Bunny a warm hug, while Bennett shook hands first with Leo, then with Bunny.

“Mister Frazier.”

“Professor Sung-Flores. Call me Leo.”

“Call me Bennett. Bunny, nice to see you again.”

And from that moment, the two couples became a foursome.

At the bar while waiting for their table, they chatted. Bunny was drinking a cosmopolitan, Nina ordered a Campari and Bennett ordered what Leo was drinking, a whiskey and soda.

“So,” said Leo. “Nina tells us you’re writing a book. What’s it about?”

Bennett smiled, looking a little embarrassed. “It’s tiresome. No sane person would be interested. But my teaching position requires it. You’ve heard the term publish or perish.”

Leo nodded. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that.”

“It’s a book on first-order logic,” said Nina, who was sitting on the other side of Bunny. “The course that Bennett teaches at the college.”

“Oh my,” breathed Bunny. “Just the term makes me feel stupid.”

Bennett turned to her. “Don’t let it intimidate you. It’s sort of like mathematics, only with different symbols and concepts. It’s just a way of looking at the world. A very dry way.”

The hostess approached them with menus. “Your table is ready, ladies and gentlemen.”

They picked up their drinks and followed the hostess, who seated them at a semi-circular booth in the corner under a mural of Venice. It was such a spacious booth that the couples easily and comfortably sat across from each other.

As soon as they were settled in, Bennett continued his conversation with Leo. “So Leo, what do you do for a living?”

“I deal in alternative transportative power,” said Leo with enthusiasm. “Right now, electric bicycles.”

“Oh, really? I own a hybrid, but I’d like to reduce my carbon emissions even more,” said Bennett, sparking to the subject. “Can you recommend a bike for me?”

Leo’s voice suddenly became authoritative yet still friendly. “Come around to the shop one of these days and we’ll find you a good fit.”

“Be glad to,” said Bennett. “Are you open Sunday? We’ll drop in then.”

“Sure,” said Leo, taking out one of his cards and handing it to Bennett. “I’ll be expecting you.”

Across the table, Bunny winked at Nina, who winked back. They were both glad to see that their menfolk were getting along.

When the waiter came to their table they all placed their orders. First, though, Bennett ordered champagne, and when the sommelier arrived with the bottle, uncorked it with a pop and filled the glasses, he called for a toast.

“To the happy couple, Bunny and Leo,” he said as they held high their glasses. “May their love live forever.”

“Bennett, that’s beautiful,” said Nina admiringly as they all clinked.

“Another toast,” announced Leo. “To friends, new ones, old ones and absent ones. To friendship.”

“To friendship,” they chorused and clinked again. It took only a few minutes for them to finish the bottle.

When dinner arrived, the men plunged into their osso buccos with great gusto, while Bunny enjoyed her chicken parmigiana and Nina her sole doré. The meal was accompanied by bottles of cabernet from Napa and chardonnay from Sonoma.

During dinner Bennett entertained them with stories of his most memorable meals, ending with a vivid reminiscence of the time in Paris he ducked out of the rain and found a little restaurant that served a surprisingly delicious dish of braised sweetbreads in garlic butter sauce. “I don’t expect that kind of serendipity again,” he finished. “But how about you, Leo?”

“No question about it. Eating pan-fried trout that me and my dad just caught at the lake,” said Leo.

“And how about you, Nina?” said Bennett, turning to her.

Nina looked away for a moment with a tiny smile. “The buffet at the Little Sweden Smorgasbord in Hollywood.”

“Well,” he said, “I didn’t expect that from a world traveler like you.”

“Oh…the food’s good,” she said noncommittally.

“Hey, I’ve got one,” said Bunny. “The venison at the Saddle Back Inn.”

“Yeah,” agreed Leo. “That was great.”

“The Saddle Back Inn is where we spent our honeymoon,” she explained to Nina and Bennett. “Remember what we did the first night, honey?”

“Every detail. Ordered room service, spread out on the bed and watched TV,” said Leo.

“Every detail?” said Bennett humorously. “So what did you watch?”

Bunny answered, “Why, Melody Evergreen,” then gasped. “Oh my goodness.”

Leo shook his head sadly. “That poor girl. She was only, what, twenty-four?”

“I think so,” said Bennett. “I’ve been reading about the murder.”

“I heard they caught the guy,” said Leo.

“No, dear, he’s just the prime suspect,” corrected Bunny.

“Teddy didn’t do it,” said Nina with such vehemence that the men stared at her.

Leo blinked. “Who’s Teddy?”

Bunny gave a short laugh. “Fellas, you probably should know that that guy in the news, Teddy Sunnegaard, is an old friend of Nina’s.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Leo. “I understand you used to be some sort of actress. You did surfing movies, right?”

“That was back when I was in college in Honolulu,” Nina said. “No, I met Teddy here a couple of years later. We, um, sort of worked together.”

Leo nodded, considering this. “So, you think your friend didn’t do it. Sure looked like it to me. I tell you, those Hollywood types — ”

“By the way,” broke in Bunny, “I just read on the internet that Dennie’s funeral will be held tomorrow in her hometown. Her family claimed her body today.”

This piece of news cast a bit of a pall over the rest of the dinner, and all of them finished their meal without saying much more. However, when the dishes were cleared away and the coffee and desserts were ordered and brought, the atmosphere grew lighter.

Leo polished off his tiramisu in a few minutes, after which he sat back with a look of satisfaction and patted his stomach. “I tell you, I’ll bet you couldn’t get better in Italy. Great choice of restaurant to celebrate, Bennett.”

Nina sipped her coffee and turned to Bunny, who was halfway through her cheesecake. “You know, after all this time, you never told me where you and Leo met.”

“Okay, but you tell me first,” answered Bunny. “You’ve known Bennett longer. Where did you two meet?”

“Over at the college. I think about…” She considered it for a moment. “About four years ago. I took one of Bennett’s classes.”

“Really! Did you pass?” asked Bunny.

“I got an A. I think that’s what attracted him. That’s right, isn’t it, Professor?” she said, patting him on the hand.

He lifted her hand and kissed it. “My genius,” he said, then turned to Leo and Bunny. “Now how about you two? Where did you meet?”

Bunny lowered her gaze in feigned modesty. “Oh, you’ll laugh. The Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day.”

“Oh my goodness,” breathed Nina. “That is so romantic.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Leo. “I was rooting for Michigan. I flew in from Grosse Pointe.”

“That was one great game,” said Bennett. “I caught it on TV. I tell you, when the Texas Longhorns scored that field goal at the last minute — Oh, sorry, Leo.”

“Don’t worry, I’m over it. Besides, I found the best girl in the world.” He put his arm around Bunny and gave her a squeeze.

“And eight weeks later we were wed,” chimed in Bunny.

“And that summer we started building Angeltown,” added Leo.

Bunny turned to him. “That was your idea, wasn’t it, darling?”

“No, sweetheart, it was yours.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Their light argument amused Nina so much she couldn’t help grinning at them both.

Bunny caught her expression. “Oh, don’t mind us,” she said. “We’re an old married couple now.”

“So what’s the idea behind Angeltown?” said Bennett. “If I may ask.”

“Of course you may. It’s a love offering to the world from Leo and me. Anyone is welcome to come visit for free. Really, Bennett,” she continued, “one day you are going to have to come over and see us. The angels would love to meet you.”

“I love building Angeltown with Bunny,” said Leo. “It’s just so…Southern California.” He made the last remark with genuine affection.

Just then Bunny’s cell phone rang. She took it from her purse and answered it. “Hello? Yes? Yes.” Her brow furrowed as she listened intently. “Just a minute,” she said. Then she handed the phone to Nina. “It’s for you.”

All eyes were on Nina as she took the phone and spoke. “Yes, this is Nina Lee.” She laughed gaily. “Why, Teddy! How are you?” Her expression was one of puzzled amusement. “Yes?” She listened. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “Of course. Oh yes?” She listened further. “I understand. Yes, I think I can do that. It was good to hear from you again. So long.” She ended the call and handed the phone over to Bunny, who put it back in her purse.

“Well?” said Bunny. “What was that about? Was that really Teddy Sunnegaard?”

Nina waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, it’s nothing. Remember I called Teddy a couple of days ago on your cell phone to wish him luck? Well, he just called me back to say thanks. That’s all.”

“That’s it?” She sounded disappointed. “What did you mean when you said, ‘I think I can do that’?”

“Just throw some good vibes his way,” said Nina airily.

Nobody spoke for a moment. Then Bennett nodded and said, “Well, on that of note of ‘good vibes’, what do we all say we call it a night?”

“That’s probably a good idea,” said Nina. “I’ve had a long day.”

“What time is it?” asked Bunny.

Bennett checked his watch. “Ten forty-five.”

“I think he’s right,” said Leo, stretching. “We’re not as young as we used to be. Bunny, are you ready?”

She started to rise. “I think Nina and I will take a little trip first. Guys, will you excuse us?”

The men stood up to allow the women to leave the table and go to the ladies room.

After they returned from the toilet cubicles, Bunny and Nina went over to the mirror to wash up and fix their makeup. As Nina brushed her hair, Bunny took a lipstick from her purse.

“Bennett’s a real nice guy,” she said while staring into the mirror and applying a fresh coat to her lips. “I’m glad to finally get to know him. He’s handsome, he’s smart, he’s thoughtful, he’s generous…”

“Well, you don’t have to sell me,” answered Nina with a little laugh.

“That’s why I’m a little concerned that you don’t do anything to, you know, mess up your relationship.”

Nina stopped brushing. “What? What are you talking about?”

Bunny closed her lipstick and put it back in her purse. “Look, you can level with me. I won’t tell anyone. Aren’t you planning to sneak off to some wild Hollywood party later on tonight?”

Nina turned and stared at Bunny, then realized she must have thought Teddy’s phone call was some sort of invitation. She regarded her with solemn sincerity. “Bunny, I absolutely promise you that I’m not going to a wild Hollywood party tonight.”

Bunny returned her look, then nodded and said quietly, “Okay.”

“In fact,” Nina continued, “the one thing I’ve been looking forward to all day, I mean besides having dinner with you and Leo, was spending a quiet weekend with Bennett. He’s been so busy lately, you know.”

“Yeah,” Bunny answered with a shrug, “I guess he’s got a pretty intense career.”

Nina patted her hand. “Come on, let’s get back to our dates.”

When they got back to the table the bill had been paid and Leo and Bennett were standing and buttoning their jackets.

“Ladies,” said Leo, offering Bunny his arm. Bunny took his while Nina took Bennett’s and they strolled out of the restaurant.

As they waited at the curb for their cars Nina asked, “So, you two, are you going straight home?”

“Actually, now that you mention it,” said Leo as he turned to Bunny, “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind swinging over to the shop with me for a couple of minutes, honeybun. I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Bunny pecked Leo on the cheek. “Oh darling, I know what it is. My anniversary present, right?”

“I can never keep a secret from you,” said Leo, returning her peck.

Their car arrived first. Leo went over to the driver’s side and as Bunny opened the passenger door she winked at Nina and said, “You know, you two, why don’t you come over Sunday after you see Leo about the bike? I’ll make a little supper and we can watch the Oscars on the great new flat screen we got.”

“That sounds fine,” said Bennett. “I think we can make it.” He turned to Nina. “What do you think?”

“Sure, we’d love to.”

“Great! I’ll give you a call tomorrow,” said Bunny, sliding into the passenger seat.

Bennett and Nina watched them drive off. A couple of moments later Bennett’s car arrived and he and Nina got in. He pulled into the street and, one hand on the wheel, with his free hand reached over and stroked Nina’s arm. “Did you have a good time?”

“I had a great time,” she said drowsily.

“I really like your friends, you know. I’m only sorry that we didn’t get to know each other sooner.”

“I’m glad, I’m really glad, Bennett. And you were such a dear to take us all to dinner.”

“Just paying you back for all those boring faculty parties I dragged you to.”

“They weren’t boring,” Nina said, then leaned back in her seat and sighed.

“Tired?” he asked.

“Just a little,” she answered. “I guess it was all that wine. I’m not used to it. I’ve got a little headache too.”

“You know,” said Bennett, “if you like I can just drop you off at home.”

As she started to reply she noticed his look of disappointment and felt a sudden pang of guilt. “Oh, dear,” she said, her voice filled with regret, “I know you were looking forward to a nice quiet weekend together. I was too.”

“Look, I’m only ten minutes away,” he said lightly. “Why don’t you just get a good night’s sleep? Tomorrow morning we can pick it up right where we left off.”

Nina leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Bunny was right about you, you know.”

“What did she say?”

“She said you’re the most thoughtful man who ever lived.”

“And Leo was right too,” said Bennett.

“What did he say?”

“He said we’re not as young as we used to be.”

The look on Bennett’s face puzzled her, but by this time they were in front of Nina’s house. She kissed him on the cheek and got of the car. Leaning down to the car window she said in a low voice, “I’ll call you tomorrow morning,” then scurried to her front door and closed it behind her as Bennett drove away.

Once inside, Nina went over and switched on the light in her living room, then stood for a moment, mentally replaying her conversation with Teddy on Bunny’s cell phone at the restaurant.

“Yes, this is Nina Lee.”

“Nina, is that you? You gotta help me, I’m in big trouble!”

“Why, Teddy! How are you?”

“I’m being held prisoner! They took my gun!”

“Yes?”

“Then they held me at gunpoint with it! Then they forced me to — God, I can’t even talk about it!”

“That’s wonderful.”

“And they drugged me too… I feel so weird!”

“Of course.”

“Then they chained me to a bedpost!”

“Oh, yes?”

“I can’t get out! But I gotta get out of here! They left me all alone but I think they’re coming back! God knows what they’ll do, probably kill me!”

“I understand.”

“Do you remember the address? Please come and get me!”

“Yes, I think I can do that.”

“For chrissakes hurry! Baby, there’s no one else I can turn to!”

“Well, it was good to hear from you again. So long.”

Wasn’t it only yesterday she’d heard that demented hysteria in his voice? Of course this was Teddy being irrational again. Still, what he’d been forced to go through these past few days would have driven almost anybody bonkers. Was somebody really coming to kill him? She quickly dismissed the idea as drug-induced paranoia. But that was the problem. As far as she could tell, he was alone in a strange apartment in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the middle of the night and too wasted to make it out of there on his own. It was no use to call the police — Paul Pittsburgh was right, police involvement is never good for business. Teddy was still a murder suspect, and if the police were called and found him obviously high on drugs they would search the place and probably find more illegal drugs which they would assume belonged to Teddy. Then there was the possibility of him shooting his mouth off about his gun, which was probably unregistered at that. The police would arrest him for sure and the news would be all over Hollywood in a minute, ensuring that he’d never work in this town again.

No, she thought with a mixture of anxiety and irritation, there was nothing else to do. She was the only one he could turn to.

Once she made her decision, she walked swiftly to her bedroom, taking off her outfit and putting it away while doing some quick calculating. It was after eleven, but it was Friday and the metro wouldn’t close for another hour. If she could walk to the station four blocks away in time to catch the next train she could be at Union Station in half an hour. From there she could grab a taxi to the Frink Building, do what she had to do, and be back home in plenty of time to call Bennett. The weekend would still be hers.

She reached into her closet, found the jeans and sweater she had worn the day she went to deliver the money to Esperanza, put them on, and pulled out her low-heeled boots and leather jacket. Then she went over to the window and looked across the street. It was still dark at Bunny’s house. She wouldn’t be noticing her leaving. Sighing with relief, Nina finished dressing, then turned out the lights, quietly went out her front door, and walked briskly down toward the metro.

© Cantara Christopher 2012, 2022

TO BE CONTINUED EVERY FRIDAY 13 MAY — 12 AUGUST 2022

NEXT: CHAPTER 8. THE HEADSHOT

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