Chapter Two

Jack McCann woke up with an erection sticking in his back. It ws a novel sensation, he thought, grimacing as his head started to pound and every muscle protested. He half-opened one eye, flinching at the bright sunlight that flooded the room. Gold furniture, luscious greenery, several marble columns. He must be in Archie’s Roman sun room.

At one point in the wee hours the previous night, a few of the party had broken away to come down here. Jack vaguely recalled sprawling on that chaise longe over there, champagne in one hand, Scotch in the other, gaily playing at Caesar and commanding everyone to dance for him or be thrown to the lions. He had no idea how they all ended up naked though.

Jack appeared to be curled around a woman, and spooned in turn by someone behind him — he had no idea who, other than the confirmation poking into his lower back that it was a he. The woman was olive skinned and voluptuous, her dark hair cut in a fashionable bob. She was a make up artist over at Fox, Jack remembered suddenly. He noted ruefully that despite the woman’s beauty he had not roused himself to give her a similar morning greeting; though given the alcohol he had consumed the night before it would have been a feat of epic proportions.

Jack shifted with a deep yawn, slowly extracting himself from the mass of sticky, sleeping bodies — he belatedly realised he was using another woman’s thigh as a pillow. A man, wearing nothing but a emerald green feather headdress, was snoring face down by his feet. Quite a few of the party must have followed them down eventually, Jack thought as he forced himself to a sitting position. One of the band members, his dark skin gleaming in the morning sunshine, snoozed in a chaise, still clutching his trumpet.

That new Italian just starting out — what was his name? Valentino? — was sprawled on the floor draped in a satin sheet. Jack could have sworn he had danced with Mabel Normand at some point the previous evening, but there was no sign of her now. She probably slipped away at dawn for a hot bath and hearty breakfast, and was now already hard at work on set at Paramount.

Jack needed coffee, but first he needed clothes. He vaguely recalled he had dressed in white tie and tails; the festivities having started with dinner at Pickfair, and Mary being such a stickler for formal dress. As usual, Chaplin hadn’t felt pressured by formality or courtesy to bathe before dinner, and Archie had been forced to smother a fit of laughter at Jack’s look of horror when he realised he was seated in the vicinity of the unpleasant little Englishman.

There was no sign of Jack’s suit now, but he spotted a pile of crumpled fabric beneath an enormous fern and pounced on it. It turned out to be a be a flapper dress of sapphire velvet. He tied it around his waist like a sarong.

‘Jack — Jack McCann, is it really you?’

Jack turned to see a flapper, stunning in a silver dress and pearls, her makeup somehow still flawless though she was wearing only one shoe, standing in the doorway, staring at him with wide, stunned eyes.

‘On a good day, perhaps.’

‘I can’t believe —’ she breathed, stumbling into the room — ‘I heard a rumour last night that you were here but I didn’t really — of course I knew you and Archie Tanner are great chums, I read all about it in Photoplay magazine but to see you standing here just like a regular Joe — Cecily!’

Cecily came clattering in, shorter and rounder than her friend, in a burnt orange dress and a tuxedo jacket Jack was almost certain was his.  ‘Oh Mr McCann, you have no idea how I have dreamed of this moment — I came all the way to Hollywood to meet you and I just knew it would happen if I wished hard enough. We’re meant to be together, don’t you see? A psychic told me when I was just sixteen years old and —’

‘Well it sure is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.’ Jack grinned his patented movie star grin to cover the flutter of unease trickling over him. ‘I’ll be glad to sign —’

‘And me!’ The other woman was pulling at her dress, undoing the fastenings. ‘We’re meant to be together too.’

As the sliver of satin fell to the floor revealing her nakedness, Jack turned and fled.

Next Chapter…

Start from the beginning

Chapter Three

‘I’ve got a story,’ Callie said

‘Then you can make an appointment with my secretary for tomorrow,’ her boss, Buddy Armstrong thundered. 

‘Williams and Cassidy are fighting again. I thought I just heard shots.’

Successfully distracted, Buddy Armstrong leapt from his desk chair to peer out the window. He was tall and thin, with a mournful face that made him seem much older than his middle forties. Callie and Max von Brauer, a German refugee and rising star of the RLP writing staff, used to giggle that Buddy just might be Honest Abe reincarnated. He even wore a black three piece suit every day, with a monocle tucked into the vest pocket which Callie had never seen him use. The only thing he was missing was the top hat.

‘Callie, if I could help you —’

‘No, no, no — I don’t need any help. This is about me helping you. It’s a million dollar idea, I’m telling you. It would be a perfect vehicle for Gloria Swanson. Don’t tell me Mr Macmillian isn’t negotiating to bring her company over to RLP?’

‘You don’t know anything about that.’

Callie chose to ignore the warning note in Buddy’s voice.

‘Okay, well I’m just saying, if we were looking for something for Gloria Swanson, this would be it.’

‘So let’s hear it.’

‘Really?’ Callie blinked. She hadn’t expected him to capitulate so fast. He must really need material for Miss Swanson.

Buddy straightened up, put his hands in his pockets. In his shadowy office, he looked even more like the ghost of Lincoln than usual, and Callie gulped. 

‘You’d better talk fast Callie. That fight won’t keep Gabor occupied all day, and who knows what he’ll do if he catches you —’

‘There’s a cowboy — he’d be played by Wally Reid or Fred Thompson — his parents were murdered by an outlaw.’

‘No.’

‘Wait — he kills the outlaw, then the outlaw’s daughter — that’s Gloria Swanson — dresses as a man so she can —’

‘Callie Carmichael you want to dress the most fashionable actress in pictures as a man?’

‘That’s what would make it so interesting, see — audiences would —’

‘Audiences would get right up and walk out. Do you think they come to see Gloria Swanson pictures for her looks? Or even her great acting talent?’ Buddy scoffed, shook his head. ‘They come to see what she is wearing. They come to see her get the better of hapless men. Sex comedies. That’s what I’m looking for.’

Callie bit her lip. She knew in her bones that Armstrong was wrong, that audiences would flock to this story, but the problem was, there was no way to prove it until they did — or didn’t.

Thousands and even millions of dollars were poured every year into nothing but a good feeling about this one. It was the reason that men like Buddy Armstrong and studio head Wallace H Macmillan kept a tab of antacid tablets in their desks, and that the entire city was preparing for the Volstead Act with the fervour that bordered on hysterical. To further complicated matters, despite the fact that the most successful scenario writer working in Hollywood was Miss Frances Marion, and that Jeanie MacPherson, June Mathis and Anita Loos all turned out hit after hit, Callie couldn’t help but notice that Buddy Armstrong was more likely to get a good feeling about an original story pitched to him by a man. Max von Brauer had talked his way directly into a staff writer’s contact — for twice Cassie’s weekly salary — without ever having worked as a reader or story editor.

‘Gloria Swanson has already done half a dozen sex comedies with deMille, don’t you think she might want to do something different?’ she said, hoping her voice didn’t sound as desperate as it did in her head. ‘Or that audiences might want to be surprised?’

‘Gloria Swanson dressed as a man is a gimmick. It’s not a story. Bring me a story about a wife turning out to be cleverer than her husband, and I might see about reinstating you. You’re not qualified to write Westerns.’

‘I know more about horses than I do about marriage,’ Callie said.

‘Well perhaps you’d better see about getting yourself a husband.’

‘I broke in my first horse at eight years old. You don’t think I know better how to write a Western than Max von Brauer from Berlin? I grew up on ranches all over Oklahoma.’

‘You didn’t grow up as a boy, Callie.’

‘Doesn’t it take a little more than knowing how to ride a horse to make a person a boy?’ Callie shot back.

Buddy shrugged, sat back down at his desk and Callie knew with a sinking heart that the interview was over. ‘You know, these days with all the things you gals are doing I really don’t think I know any more. Ever since you started agitating for the vote — is there anything a man does that you don’t want to do?’

‘There is, as a matter of fact,’ Callie snapped. ‘I have no desire to pee standing up.’

Callie slammed the office door behind her, fighting down the little flutter of panic that danced in her chest. She had enough saved for two more months’ rent. That was plenty of time to sell a story. More than enough.

‘You just need to pitch him a story he can’t say no to,’ Max said sympathetically as Callie strode by his desk.  ‘Come up with an idea that excites him so much he buys it on the spot, then you just figure out the details once you’ve got the assignment.’ He shrugged. ‘That’s what I do.’

Callie didn’t bother to respond.

Next chapter…

Start from the beginning

Chapter Four

Something was happening. 

Ada Watson had been taking her afternoon walk when she spotted the car careening at speed along Melrose Avenue. Just last week, Ladies Home Journal had advised most strenuously that if one wanted to be truly full of pep and energy it was necessary to spend as much time as possible engaged in physical activity in the open air (particularly if one was amongst the new army of “working girls” and consequently spent most of the daylight hours sitting industriously in front of a typewriter), and to regularly eat spinach. As Ada had no intention of eating like a rabbit however much pep it promised, she supposed that a habit of daily walks would d her no harm, especially if it provided a break from typing up her review of the particularly dreary play she had been sentenced to watch the night before. 

That a car was speeding erratically wasn’t remarkable in itself; the picture business had a habit of providing people with the riches with which to purchase cars long before the countenance to operate them responsibly, but this was no ordinary car. Her best friend Callie often teased Ada that nothing happened in the movie colony without Ada making a little note of it just in case it proved useful knowledge in the future, and sure enough, she instantly recognised the one-of-a-kind Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce that belonged to Wallace H Macmillan of RLP Studios. If Mr Macmillan was speeding, something was happening.

Ada dashed across the street to where she parked her beloved Briggs and Stratton Flyer and started the engine. The two bucket seats of red leather were mounted on a flat wooden platform and the wheels were red — including the fifth wheel at the back on which was mounted a small gasoline engine a engine which powered the car. Her brother Fred scoffed that it was barely a real motor car, but Ada countered that her ‘Red Bug’ had been inexpensive — though at $115 still a frightening amount to spend all at once — and that two horse power was more than enough to serve her needs.

That said, it had precisely zero chance of keeping pace with the Silver Ghost. Despite her spirited defense of her vehicle in the face of her brother’s scorn, Ada was utterly fascinated with cars and dreamed of one day riding in one fast enough to feel as though she were flying. One of her favourite actresses, Florence Lawrence, not only starred in racing pictures but was a keen ‘petrol head’ in her own time, and the one occasion at which Ada dared to approach her, the two had passed a very happy hour discussing the newest innovations in motor racing. A few weeks earlier, newspapers had reported a Silver Ghost had reached the barely imaginable speed of 78.2 miles per hour at a racing track in England, and the very thought of it quite took Ada’s breath away. 

Macmillan certainly wasn’t driving at anything like that speed, but Ada keenly felt the limitations of her Flyer as she watched the Ghost roar towards the Beverly Hills in a cloud of dust.

If he was heading that way, it was either to Pickfair or to Archie Tanner’s new home, Ada decided. There was nothing else out that way but a few ranches and empty mountains, and as Archie Tanner was currently contracted to RLP Studios, it was a safe bet that was where Macmillan was speeding. 

A little while later, Ada pulled up outside the gigantic wrought iron gates of Archie Tanner’s ostentatious house, she immediately spotted the Ghost part haphazardly next to the front and in front of the grand white pillars of the mansion. She crept closer to the gates and peered through. Several crystal champagne glasses were strewn on the lawn, as well as a tarnished saxophone and a feather boa. 

Archie Tanner’s parties were legendary — Ada and Callie had once managed to sneak into one and were so stunned by what they witnessed that it took them almost a week before they could even discuss it. But this wasn’t the usual torturous come down after a night of debauchery, Ada thought, narrowing her eyes. There was something muted, strained in the air; the dozens of black windows suddenly taking on a malevolent air.

‘You! You there! What do you think you’re doing?’

One of Archie’s staff, a tall man with an angry scar on his face, came dashing furiously across the lawn.

‘I see you — this is private property! You have no right —’

Heart hammering, Ada leapt back into her Flyer and sped back towards the city.

Next Chapter

Start from the beginning

Chapter Five

Jack hurried through endless, cavernous hallways, cursing Archie’s determination to build the most palatial home the world had ever seen. He passed priceless medieval suits of armour, the stuffed head of a tiger reputed to have eaten a Raj of India, and a selection of framed drawings by a young Spaniard Archie insisted was the hottest artist in Europe even if Jack thought his doodles looked like a random selection of shapes. He found a welcome pack of cigarettes and solid gold lighter stuffed in a resplendent fern, and a few drags made him feel almost human again.

A quick glace in the gilded mirror lining an entire wall of a room he passed confirmed his worst suspicions. Jack thought he looked like a stray dog at the best of times. Slight with tough, rangy muscles formed from a previous life shovelling coal on a cross country steam train, his arms and chest were ravaged with tiny white scars from a partially unexploded grenade that had rolled unnoticed into his trench in the winter of 1917.  A mop of unruly hair and eyes almost jet black — ‘from the Spanish Aramada,’ his mother would say as she attempted to tame his wild curls after a tin bath in front of the fire in their Hells Kitchen apartment — stood out against his pale skin that was almost translucent in the morning sun. 

If he could just find a telephone he could call his valet Williams to pick him up and perhaps even make it to the studio before noon. Or if he could make his way to Archie’s dressing room, he could borrow some clothes and likely cadge a lift from someone or other. There was always something faintly depressing about the morning after one of Archie’s parties. Every once in a while he would pass a staggering creature of the night, makeup smeared, clothes torn or missing, eyes sunken like something out of a Poe story and he would wish he had stayed at home last night. 

‘McCann! Jack McCann — it sure is swell to run into you this fine morning, it just so happens I’ve got a film scenario that must star you and only you —’ Jack swerved as the large man wearing tails and a crumpled top hat, old fashioned walrus moustache, loomed from the shadows. ‘McCann — say, don’t you even want to hear it? It’s a helluva lot better than those shallow melodramas Macmillan keeps putting you in — unlike him, I actually believe you can act. McCann, aren’t you listening?’

Jack spotted the gold plated double doors of the ballroom just ahead and slipped in, shutting them behind him. He heard the large man go charging past, still shouting after him, as he took a moment to catch his breath in the welcome shadows. The ballroom was dimly lit — for some reason, the curtains had been pulled over the French doors leading to the gigantic terrace, and a sharp, bitter scent that must be stale alcohol permeated the stale air. 

Though the eighteenth amendement didn’t come into force for another five months, Jack knew that Archie had purchased the entire contents of three liquor stores the moment it was ratified. If he kept throwing parties at this rate, his stock wouldn’t last until Christmas.

Suddenly unnerved by the gloom, Jack ran to the nearest door and flung the curtains wide, feeling himself physically recoil at the glaring sunshine that assaulted him. He took note of his reaction, remembering that Macmillan had mentioned an interesting vampire scenario he was considering Jack for, then turned and froze. 

Icy chills dashed down his spine as screams of agony and unrelenting artillery fire struck his ears and terror dripped through his veins like liquid nitrate. Blood. That was what he could smell. It was everywhere.

He felt the chilly weight of his Lee-Enfield rifle in his arms, the wretchedness of his ravaged feet burning in five inches of fetid water, the relentless ache of his empty stomach. 

They were creeping over the sides of the trench. They were going to get him. It was just a matter of time.

Start from the beginning

Chapter Six

The silence in the first class compartment was verging on awkward as the young ticket inspector combed his mousy hair with shaking hands and Stella deftly pinned her thick blond curls back into place. 

Stella smoothed the skirt of her favourite frock, marvelling yet again at its decadent silkiness. It was the colour of the sky on the brightest, most cloudless summer’s day, and embroidered with tiny red roses along the low waistband. She had purchased the entire outfit at one of the very best stores in New York City (or so the sign outside had proclaimed), using the last of the small fortune she had won at cards on the steerage deck as the elderly ship chugged and creaked its way across the Atlantic. She had longed to add a pair of satin gloves to the ensemble, but her funds wouldn’t quite stretch to it, and the stern woman serving hadn’t taken her eyes off her for a second.

After a week on an elderly ship chugging and creaking its way across the Atlantic, she had spent two days in Manhattan awaiting the train’s departure, passing both nights wandering the bustling streets in thrall to its energy. Gleaming skyscrapers disappeared right into the very clouds and its strict grid of paved streets were filled with more shiny black cars than Stella had thought existed in the whole world. If only the picture business had remained centred in that great city, but thanks to Mr Edison and his enthusiasm for pursuing patents, all the important producers had emigrated West years ago. 

‘Well Miss, I — we will very shortly be arriving at Los Angeles,’ the ticket inspector said.

‘And not a moment too soon,’ replied Stella brightly. ‘Mr Macmillan has had to delay production to await my arrival.’ Stella’s accent wavered between clipped boarding school King’s English when she remembered, and her natural East End drawl when she didn’t.

‘Mr — Mr Wallace Macmillan do you mean? Of RLP Studios?’ The ticket inspector stared at her in wonder. ‘Are you a motion picture actress?’

‘ As a matter of fact, I’m a proper actress, from the theatre,’ Stella replied sharply. ‘I assume you’ve heard of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane? It’s quite a step down to enter pictures you know, but I promised dear Wallace when he took me to dinner at the Dorchester every night for a week. I’m going to be starring alongside Archie Tanner and Esme Holt.’

‘Archie Tanner and Esme Holt? You actually know them?’ 

The ticket inspector’s eyes seemed about ready to pop right out their sockets.

‘Esme is such a dear and Archie Tanner a terrible one for saying the most shocking things,’ Stella giggled. ‘We all passed a marvellous weekend at the country home of some lord or other, and really Archie was quite the funniest one there. Noël tried to pretend he didn’t mind being bested in the wit stakes, but truly he was fuming. It was most amusing.’

‘Well I — as I said, we shall be arriving, very soon. In Los Angeles. Our final destination.’ 

Stella stared curiously as a crimson blush crept over the ticket inspector’s face. ‘Yes, you said that.’

‘Perhaps we — perhaps you — perhaps it might be… my turn.’ 

‘Heavens! What must you think of me — I can only apologise.’

‘Oh that’s — it’s quite all —’

‘You must have thought I were one of these unscrupulous seductresses that afflict our generation.’

The ticket inspector’s expression of relief faded as Stella smiled at him, her eyes wide and guileless. ‘I’m sure you are aware of the very latest research that finds most conclusively that for a gentleman to maintain top physical and mental condition and really be firing on all sixes, it is vital that he keeps his essence to himself except for in circumstances of absolute reproductive necessity.’

‘His — essence?’

‘His essence,’ Stella repeated firmly. ‘The very force of life after all. One wouldn’t want you to lose any willy-nilly, as it were.’

‘I — I — oh.’

‘It was all written up in Time Magazine.’

‘I see.’ The ticket inspector cleared his throat officiously, attempting to claw back a shred of dignity. ‘Well, then — ‘

“I couldn’t possibly trouble you to fetch me a cup of tea, could I? The ordeal of this long journey has exhausted me so.’

The young ticket inspector nodded wearily and disappeared down the narrow corridor in the direction of the dining car. Before he could remember to ask to see her ticket again, Stella slipped from the luxurious compartment and scampered back to her seat in third class. 

Chapter Seven

Ada watched Esme Holt and Archie Tanner carefully beneath lowered lids as she pretended to read over her list of questions in preparation for the interview. 

Esme, resplendent in a red satin and black lace dress that fell to her ankles and was topped with a flowing Chinese shawl of cerise and crimson and purple, was pouring tea from a silver teapot. Her dark blonde hair was still long, Ada knew, but was pinned carefully in waves under a wide satin ribbon so as to give a nod towards the flapper style without actually sacrificing the her hair. Archie lounged on one of the low, embroidered armchairs: evidently he was perfectly comfortable in Esme’s abode. But, when Esme brought him his tea and he thanked her with a brief smile, Ada noted that there was no brief touch of the shoulder, no instant of eye contact, no indescribable but unmistakable air of intimacy between them.

What had happened at the party last week?

Esme placed Ada’s tea on the occasional table next to her chair, and Ada eased into the interview, skilfully drawing Esme and Archie into outdoing one another with charming anecdotes about their time shooting Flowers in the Morning, the feature length picture premiering in Los Angeles that very evening. An interview was rather like a tennis match, Ada always thought. She once had a beau who was an accomplished player, and when he described how one wanted to lure one’s opponent into a rhythm before startling them with a lob to the far end of the court, Ada recognised the technique instantly. 

‘You do know that I almost killed her on several occasions?’ Archie asked, lighting another cigarette.

Ada dutifully gasped, and Archie launched into the story of his unfortunate habit of knocking things over in the direction of his co-star. 

‘Of course I would never mean you any harm, old girl,’ he finished, affectionately patting Esme on the knee. Though it was barely discernible, Ada was certain she saw Esme flinch.

‘And of course,’ she began carefully, and the two seasoned professionals were instantly on alert, sensing her change in tone. ‘You both undertook an impressively comprehensive publicity tour prior to this premiere? Why, you must have visited almost every state!’

‘It was both a joy and a pleasure to have the opportunity to meet so many of our public in person,’ Esme replied with impeccable ease. ‘And indeed to see so much of our country. From the Rocky Mountains to the swamps of Louisiana, we were quite in awe of the natural beauty and majesty —’

‘From sea, as it were, to shining sea,’ finished Archie.

‘Did you enjoy meeting your public, Mr Tanner?’ Ada asked.

‘I believe it was Mrs Pickford who said, ‘I have never forgotten that I am a servant of my public’,’ he replied evenly.

Ada fixed Archie with an intent gaze, which he returned with admirable directness. It was now or never.

‘Mr Tanner, during your stop in Philadelphia a young woman claimed that you and she —’

‘Now look here,’ he snapped, and Esme put a warning hand on his arm.

‘Miss Watson,’ she said with a smile. ‘We understand that you have a job to do —’

‘You’ve never responded to the claims,’

‘I didn’t bloody well need to —’

‘If you could just tell our readers —’

‘But in turn,’ Esme continued, ‘you must understand that though we play on screen, away from the glare of the camera we are people with feelings —’

‘Your relationship has played out in full view of the glare of the camera,’ said Ada firmly. ‘You became engaged at the premiere of the first picture you co-starred in together, interviews about your domestic bliss have appeared in magazines from Photoplay to Ladies Home Journal —’

‘You’re quite right,’ Esme said suddenly, twisting her hands in her lap. ‘We opened the door to the public, we cannot expect to close it when it suits us.’

‘We don’t owe anyone a damned thing,’ muttered Archie, but he remained in his chair, fiddling with his lighter. 

If he were going to storm out and have her thrown off the lot, Ada reasoned, he would have done it by now. 

‘Archie Tanner and I are very much in love and intend to be married just as soon as our schedule permits it. And you can quote me on that,’ Esme said firmly. ‘All affairs of the heart experience dark days from time to time. I’m quite certain every member of our audience can empathise when I say that we are none of us perfect and when mistakes are made all that truly matters is that you commit to remain a pair, and to renew your admiration for one another.’

Chapter Eight

Callie lived in a studio apartment above the garage of a family home out in Beverly Hills. Being a country girl, she loved the wilds of the hills where coyotes howled at night, and the fact that she had been able to make arrangements with several local farmers to exercise their horses in exchange for free rides.

The apartment was just perfect for her. It was tiny and cosy, and provided everything she needed, including a corner kitchenette comprised of a stove, sink and icebox and a shelf above which Callie had painted a cheerful periwinkle blue in a fit of domesticity when she first moved in. A bed that folded into the wall during the occasions she entertained friends at home sat opposite a small fireplace tiled in a cheerful, Spanish style pattern. The fire was bordered on either side by two comfortable wing armchairs in a soft brocade fabric, and Ada had embroidered Callie two pillows for her last birthday which added a homely touch.

She had been in her little home for almost five years, the longest she had lived any one place since she was a small child, and she would be heartbroken if she had to leave. Ada had warned her that since Archie Tanner had built his mansion and Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks had established their Pickfair residence in the area, Beverly Hills was suddenly being spoken of as a sought-after address, and rents were sure to rise accordingly. Looking out at the rough, scrubby hills with no sign of civilisation as far as the eye could see, Callie had found it hard to believe, but if Ada said it, it was probably true.

Her landlady had been incredibly kind to her, even sharing the family’s leftovers with her when she discovered just how much of a disappointment Callie was in the kitchen, and Callie couldn’t expect her not to charge what the apartment was worth just to be charitable. Besides, if she didn’t sell a story soon, she wouldn’t even be able to afford the $35 a month she already paid.

There was one such package of leftovers on the front step now, Callie noted joyfully. It was a meatloaf, and she set it to heat up as she stripped to her slip and applied the newest Pond’s anti-perspirant and powdered her nose. Her friend Lillian was trying out yet another recipe for a bathtub gin that evening, and Callie knew she would need a stomach that was fortified. There was just a few months left before Prohibition took effect, and Lillian was utterly determined to perfect her recipe before then. Ada insisted that they would always be able to source giggle-water from somewhere or other, but Lillian was taking no chances.

Callie had laid out the dress she planned to wear to Lillian’s party that morning. It was of teal silk, cut low in the front and back with dropped waist in the flapper style. Tiny rosebuds in dusky pink were embroidered along the collar and waist, and the skirt was full and pleated, so that it swished when she walked and meant she could pretend to be a great deal more sparkly and fun than she felt at that moment.

She sat down at her desk, pulled out the little notebook she always had on her, grubby with ink stains and dirt and flicked to a fresh page. She closed her eyes and willed a spark, a snatch of  anything, to come forth. The page remained stubbornly blank. She thought about the pictures she had seen in the past few weeks.

Her very first boss when she was first starting out as a reader at Universal, a stern lady of Scottish extraction, had insisted that anybody who wished to work in pictures must watch each and every picture they possibly could. ‘That’s the only way to learn,’ she would say, marching up and down the office in her long skirt and ruffled blouse. ‘Do not ever let me hear of any of you wasting your money on those ridiculous schemes that promise to teach you screenwriting. Spend every minute you can in a theatre making notes, analysing sequences and pacing — notice when the audience laughs, when it shuffles in boredom or gasps in fright. That is how you learn the technique of moviemaking.’

Hours ticked by and only tumbleweed rolled lazily through Callie’s mind. She had almost a hundred dollars left, she reminded herself. That was two months’ rent plus a few weeks of food. Perhaps she could sell her evening gown, she thought with a sudden flash of inspiration. That could well buy her another month. She sat up straight suddenly, realising that she was frowning. A recent article in Cosmopolitan magazine had warned of the dangers of allowing negative emotions to fester. A great deal of undesirable symptoms could be avoided if one simply employed the newest techniques of Eastern breathing to cleanse one’s mind.

Callie did this now, closing her eyes and taking a deep inhalation through her nose. All it, achieved, however, was to signal that the meatloaf was ready and that she was very hungry. As she tucked in, she belatedly noticed that her landlady had also provided mashed potatoes and green beans and gravy, but she was too hungry to heat those now. She would put them in the ice box and have them for breakfast.

Realising that Lillian was expecting her any minute, Callie raced to step into her party dress. A dash of kohl and red lipstick, and she was ready to dash out the door.

Chapter Nine

It was a good quote, thought Ada, as she dawdled her way back towards the studio gates. Esme was quite right that every married person would likely nod in sympathy at her words (or so Ada assumed, never having been married herself), but the fact remained that they didn’t confirm or deny a thing. 

Ada had failed to secure a scoop that would make the front page, she admitted with a sigh as she idly watched a fight break out amongst actors draped in furs for an Alaska gold rush picture. No wonder they were so grouchy in this heat, Ada thought. In just a light jacket she herself was looking forward to a cool bath before changing for the evening.

Even as the sun began to set and many productions shut down for the evening, the lot remained a hive of activity. Ada had to jump aside as a crew of overalled workers carried a gigantic backdrop of what looked like the Versailles Hall of Mirrors towards a wooden frame. 

‘Careful! The paint isn’t dry yet!’ called their supervisor, an elderly woman whose dress hadn’t gotten the message it was the 20th century. Her Victorian bustled skirt in forest green was caked in dust and mud at the bottom as she scurried after her precious painting. 

Ada couldn’t help feeling a tiny, ridiculous thrill as she caught sight of Jack McCann being hurried towards a gloomy gothic set by a harassed assistant director. Archie Tanner might be the more established heart-interest, but Jack McCann’s mop of tousled dark hair and puppyish brown eyes had Ada’s heart. 

Not that she would ever dream of expecting him to notice her — and she had been reliably informed in any case by many girlfriends in the picture business that romances with actors were more trouble than they were worth — but she would enjoy the little glimpse of him all the same. 

Checking that no one was paying any particular attention to her, Ada casually followed and watched as Jack performed a few graceful leaps and tumbles to warm up while the director and cameraman conferred over the composition of the shot.

At the director’s command, Jack nimbly pulled himself up into a gnarled, wizened tree — or at least, a beautifully rendered effigy of one — and proceeded to hang precariously from it, pleading passionately with some unseen adversary as the director shouted encouragement and the cameraman carefully cranked the film at an even speed to ensure a smooth picture.

 Ada sidled a little closer so as to hear over the cacophony of the lot — somewhere in the distance a brass band clanged and crashed, closer by a violinist played a jaunty quickstep and from every corner people shouted, roared and laughed.

‘Sausages!’ called Jack with an expression of heart rendering sorrow. ‘Custard and mashed potatoes! Rabbit stew, treacle pudding and four or five slices of buttered bread. Good lord I’m hungry.’

‘Everybody can see hearts fluttering from your eyes,’ whispered a smooth western drawl right beside her and Ada jumped. She furiously tried to hide her blush as her brother Fred, carrying a huge saddle effortlessly over his shoulder chuckled. 

‘What would you know about anything Fred Watson? she demanded.

‘I know better than to get on the wrong side of Archie Tanner, for a start.’

Ada stared at him in alarm. ‘How could you possibly —’

‘This is Hollywood, little sister. If you sneeze on Wiltshire someone will sell you cold medicine by Sunset Boulevard.’

‘I’ll write a glowing review of Flowers in the Morning,’ she shrugged, affecting a confidence she didn’t feel. ‘He’ll be fine.’

It was then that Ada noticed Caspar Gabor standing at the edge of the Jack McCann set, watching intently. An enormous bear of a man with a shattered nose and cauliflower ears. Gabor was ostensibly head of production at RLP Studios, but everyone knew that his true role was as studio head Wallace H Macmillan’s eyes and years. His position — and rumoured extremely generous salary — was in view of the fact that — so it was said — he had saved Macmillan’s life in a brawl in New York many years previously. They had been a team ever since and had travelled out west together in 1909, amongst the first film pioneers to flee Thomas Edison’s draconian patents and establish a sleepy ranching community in California as the centre of the picture industry.

Realising she was going to be hopelessly late for Lillian’s party, Ada headed towards the gates where she had parked her car, but something about Gabor’s expression gave her pause. Maybe the picture was running way over budget and Macmillan had dispatched him to supervise and ensure that the director wasn’t wasting time. That must be it. She reached her car, but couldn’t resist turning to glance back one more time.

Jack, apparently done for the day, shook hands with the director, waved to the crew and headed off towards his dressing room. As Ada watched, Gabor followed him.

Chapter Ten

Though it cost her 35 cents, which meant she had nothing left with which to secure accommodation and consequently would have to sleep out of doors, Stella didn’t regret the hearty goulash, mashed potatoes, stewed celery and coleslaw followed by coconut pie, one bit. 

As she dawdled over the free coffee refill, she told herself firmly that it would be an adventure to camp wild for the night. She would be like those men who clung onto the back of the train as it trundled across the plains of Nebraska until several railroad employees waved sticks at them and they were forced to leap off. Stella had seen one elderly man go tumbling over and over down a hill, his enormous white beard a blur and she had screamed, certain he was breaking every bone in his body, until he hopped to his feet to wave cheerily at the departing train.

Tomorrow, she would secure a contract at the studio and immediately move to the Ambassador Hotel, where, Stella had heard, Mr Charles Chaplin himself was currently in residence. Tonight’s sleeping out of doors would become a hilarious anecdote to be told at the best dinner parties, where Gloria Swanson and Jack McCann and even Mabel Normand would marvel at her wit and courage.

The small diner in downtown Hollywood was quiet, with only two or three tables occupied and Stella was alone at the counter. She had attempted to strike up a conversation with the heavyset Dutch woman who served her meal, but had been tartly informed that she did not engage with those in the picture business. Though it meant Stella had to pass her meal in silence, she was thrilled she had been so readily identified. 

There was a courting couple at the table by the window, the woman’s face sullen as the man gesticulated wildly, telling what appeared to be an attempt at an amusing anecdote. Give him a chance, love, thought Stella as the woman turned to stare out the window. He’s doing his best.

A woman a little older than Stella, wearing what looked like a riding frock, with a smart blouse and tie tucked into a jacket that was nipped at the waist, sat at the table nearest the counter, absentmindedly sipping soup with one hand while engrossed in whatever she was reading. On the table in front of her sat a towering pile of papers, and Stella’s heart started to beat faster as she leaned forward in the guise of fastening her shoe and spied the logo of Metro Pictures. The woman was reading scenarios for pictures! And Metro Pictures – Stella had sobbed aloud at Ethel Barrymore’s heartbreaking performance in The Divorcée at the Rivoli in Whitechapel just the year before, and during the journey she had read in an issue of Photoplay a rumour that current head of production Mr Louis B Mayer was considering a merger with the Samuel Goldwyn company. It was a studio that was going places: if Stella could just get into conversation with this woman, then everything would start to happen. 

‘ ‘Scuse me Miss, but is this seat taken?’

‘What?’ barked Stella, forgetting in her fright that she was a refined soon-to-be movie star.

‘I — I apologise Miss, I’ve startled you.’

‘You haven’t bloody half.’

He was handsome, there was no denying that. Tall, with sandy, wavy hair and clearly defined muscles beneath his rough cotton shirt. 

‘You smell of horses,’ she blurted, as he gestured to the grumpy Dutch lady who scuttled to serve him. 

‘I don’t deny that I do,,’ he replied with an easy grin. ‘Fred Watson. Friend of horses.’

‘Stella Bennett. I hate horses.’

He looked genuinely horrified, and Stella couldn’t help giggling. ‘I got bitten by a dairy horse once in Shoreditch. Nasty old bastard, it was. We was all terrified of it.’

‘I sure am sorry to hear that.’

‘You’re a cowboy, then?’

‘My pop was,’ Fred replied. His plate of steaming goulash was placed in front of him; though she’d finished her own less than quarter of an hour before, Stella’s stomach grumbled. ‘ ‘Till he got thrown from a horse and broke his back. I’m just a pretend one.’

‘Pretend?’

‘You ever seen a Western picture?’

‘One or two.’ Stella’s heart lifted. Was every person in this whole town connected with the picture business? Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the scenario-woman leaving, scurrying into the night laden with her armful of precious movie ideas. No matter, Stella had Fred now.

‘Well I play in those. And some other kinds sometimes too, when they need an extra person and I don’t got anything else to do.’

‘You’re an actor?’

‘Hell no,’ he replied with a grin. ‘I’m in pictures.’

‘I’ve never seen you in one,’ Stella said, helping herself to his bread and butter in a manner she hoped appeared charming as opposed to famished. ‘Tell me a picture you’ve been in.’

‘Well you won’t have seen Flowers in the Morning yet, but I’m in four scenes of that. In one, I got to knock Archie Tanner to the ground.’

‘But that’s opening tonight!’ Stella had overhead some chatter about it as she wolfed down her dinner.

‘It sure is.’

‘Aren’t you going?’

Fred shrugged. ‘Lady, I’ve appeared in thirty-seven pictures this year alone. If I went to the party for every one I would do nothing else. Unless,’ he added casually, taking in the look on Stella’s face. ‘I had a pretty gal to accompany me, maybe.’

‘We’d need to go right away — surely all the stars will be there already.’

‘Esme will have left thirty minutes ago, she never wants to inconvenience anyone, but Archie will insist on them driving around and around the block until the crowd is in an absolute frenzy of anticipation, I promise you that.’ 

Stella didn’t say a word. 

‘Okay, okay — just let me finish my dinner first, huh?’

‘I’ll finish it for you.’

Chapter Eleven

The evening was mild and muggy, the ear heavy with the chirrup of crickets. Ada slipped her arm through Callie’s as they walked the few blocks to Cole’s. Downtown was beginning to feel like a proper city, Callie thought, with tarmac roads and real sidewalks and buildings several stories high going up all around. Lillian insisted that it was a long way from comparing to New York, but Callie loved the feeling of being part of a brand-new city just starting out. The founders of New York were all long in their graves, but there was still a chance to make one’s name is synonymous with Los Angeles.

‘Lillian seemed to be having fun,’ commented Ada as they turned onto East 6th Street.

A car roared by, careening wildly in accordance with the amount the driver had presumably drunk that evening. It was a Model J, which to was said to be capable of the almost unimaginable speed of 75 mph. A woman in the back seat was screaming, ‘no faster, no faster,’ as the male driver whooped and the car thundered out of sight.

‘Do you think she’ll finally do the jingle jangle tonight?’

Callie snorted with laughter. Ada prided herself on always being up-to-date with the very latest slang, though Callie was convinced she made half of it up. It was a topic of much debate amongst their friends as to which of brains or brawn was the more desirable quality in a potential soulmate.

Callie joined in as best she could, but the truth was, she didn’t really know, never having been truly in love herself. She had the usual selection of male friends who squired her to parties as required. Now and then, she invited one home with her to the pull down bed in her little studio apartment just to see what all the fuss was about, and thus far been distinctly underwhelmed. The mechanics of the matter were pleasurable enough, but in terms of thrill it didn’t come close to a good gallop through Laurel Canyon. Lillian, for all her wild talk, was saving herself for marriage, which Callie found hopelessly old-fashioned. Callie and Ada had both warned her not to get her hopes up too much.

‘I hope not,’ she said now, wrinkling her nose. ‘He looked awfully pleased with himself. That sort never give any thought to the women’s experience, do they?’

‘Did you read that article in Time magazine?’ Ada asked. ‘Apparently, there is a doctor in New York who advises that it is terribly unhealthy for men to be overly free with their — manhood. To remain really firing on all sixes, a man must endeavour to keep himself all bottled up, as it were.’

Callie made a face. ‘You have to feel sorry for the male sex, don’t you? Since the pessary became available, we women have little to worry about anymore, but men have all that — equipment. It must be such a fuss. Hold on — that newsstand is open. I just want to see if you have any early copies of the magazines.’

The magazines that ran the hottest stories — Cosmopolitan, the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers — came out on the first of the month. Basing a picture on a book or a play that had already received acclaim went some way towards soothing nerves, but those sales took place in New York. By the time Callie could get her hands on any exciting new work, the rights had long been snapped up by some enterprising East Coast story editor.

However, if Callie could read the magazines now, at three minutes past midnight, there might just be the tiniest chance she could find a story whose rights were still available. Then she would have to persuade the author to take a chance on a lowly film writer like herself, but she would cross that bridge when she came to it. Callie grimaced as she parted with almost a whole dollar for five magazines.

‘Let’s hurry,’ Ada said as they turned on to 6th Street. ‘I heard that Anita Loos and Irving Thalberg made up a party tonight and they always end up at Cole’s — they’re saying he is quite the boy wonder of pictures and I bet if he listened to your pitch he would see how great it is.’

Neither of them saw the man appear from the shadows. Callie gasped, the wind knocked out of her, as she stumbled to the ground. She saw blood drip on the road in front of her and she realised it was Ada’s.

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