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Café Society: An Original Mystery Short Story

IN THE July 23 ISSUE

FROM THE 2011 Articles,
andContributors,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Jude McGee


Cafe Society is a never before published original mystery short story by California author Jude McGee.

Summer, 1997-driving on Sunset Boulevard

“C’mon, I want to see his place,” my friend Suzanne begged, referring to O.J. Simpson’s mansion.

“Forget it, you ghoul. I need a coffee.” I put my ancient Fiat Spider into gear and let up the clutch. “He doesn’t live there now, you know.” We rolled into the daytime traffic and headed north.

“Stop, stop,” she screeched the way only someone who does not drive could do. I slammed to a stop.

“What?” I asked, scanning the street for someone heading north in the southbound lane, an ambulance, something that would justify her screams.

“Did you see that girl in the white sweats? That was Julia Roberts’ body double from Erin Brokovich. I’d recognize those boobs anywhere. And wait,” she commanded, just as I was about to lay into her for nearly causing me cardiac arrest. “Look, that’s the guy from The Right Stuff. You know, the short one whose food was floating around the capsule,” she finished triumphantly.

The cars stopped honking as I started up again, nearly creamed by an SUV five times taller than my little convertible. Suzanne craned her neck hoping for more sightings. You could see movie stars anywhere in Los Angeles, but on Sunset Blvd., celebs were thick on the ground.

Sighting Sly Stallone’s stunt double or the person whose legs were used in the poster for “Double Jeopardy” was a life and death matter to my east coast friend. So, I headed to Sunset, the wonder road that led from the Pacific Ocean to East LA, celebrated in song and umpteen movies–a tourist’s delight. Take this one road end to end and you sample the full sprawling flavor of Los Angeles.

My stomping ground was the west side, where the gaudy high-end boutiques of Sunset Plaza gave way to the gaudy nightlife of the Strip, which gave way to the cool wide greenery of Beverly Hills, followed by the lush winding greens of Bel Air, Brentwood and the Palisades, all neighborhoods of Los Angeles, all on Sunset Boulevard, then the sparkling Pacific.

We headed for the Starbucks on Sunset Strip, calm in the daytime, with relaxing “industry” types taking meetings. If she was lucky, Suzanne would spot a star or two and have conversation to dine out on back in Boston.

Suzanne chose an outdoor table with good sightlines.

“Girlfriend,” said a smoky voice I thought I recognized. I glanced over to the speaker who clutched a small over-stuffed drawstring bag to her chest. Suzanne recognized the voice, too. She sat up and inclined her head like a pointer.

A lissome blonde, Pilates-perfect, sashayed toward the speaker. “Girlfriend yourself,” she answered with a grin the size of an eight inch reel. She was familiar. Tank top, short hip hugger shorts low on skinny hips, sneakers with see through bottoms on her feet, she wore typical midday attire for the neighborhood. Sunglasses and a faded baseball cap completed her ensemble. I saw that cap for $30 at a boutique. A three-inch pouf of curly blond ponytail poked out the back. All of that, however, was barely noticeable. It was Angelica–famous for mammary glands and only mammary glands. I recognized her from the 40-foot billboard above Sunset Strip that was emblazoned with her image.

“Isn’t that Vikki Venome?” Suzanne gasped, pointing to the blonde’s husky-voiced companion.

“Who?” I asked, trying to place the woman who wore shiny tights, a sports bra, sandals and a fanny pack, in addition to a lumpy suede satchel.

“You must know her. She starred in Love of Passion, the longest-running soap in history. Oh, it’s tragic what happened to her. She still looks good,” said Suzanne, dazzled by her proximity to greatness.

“She hasn’t worked for years.” I was unkind because I needed caffeine if I was going to deal with Suzanne and her National Enquirer mentality.

The two women ignored Suzanne’s scrutiny, choosing the sunny table next to us, and I followed the soap star inside to order.

Because of the way she held the suede bag, Ms.Venome had trouble extracting the money to pay for her nonfat blended soy chai latte. Glancing this way and that, she pawed in her fanny pack. The barista waited.

When she finally left, I ordered a decaf for Suzanne and my usual double dry extra foam 2% hazelnut cappuccino.

At the table, Suzanne shamelessly studied the soap star, and the woman who was busting out all over like June in the old song.

“I don’t believe I’m sitting next to Vikki Venome,” Suzanne said, too loud for politeness.

“Cut it out,” I said. “Even in La La Land we give people at least a bit of privacy.”

“If they wanted privacy, they’d wear some clothes,” she said, none too softly.

“So…” I started.

“Hush, I’m trying to listen,” Suzanne said, making a show of looking the other way while craning her ear practically into the latte on the other table.

“Why are you carrying them around?” Angelica asked her friend.

Vikki leaned in and said, “I have to sell them today. They’re foreclosing on my house.”

Suzanne whipped her head around and was gaping. I kicked her under the table.

Angelica looked over at us, but we might not have stopped eavesdropping, if not for the tall, blond and wild-haired surfer dude approaching from the bus stop across the street. His seven-foot board under his arm, waving this way and that to ward off traffic, he jaywalked toward us, looking like a hirsute bird just learning wing control. “Is he someone?” Suzanne asked breathlessly.

He loped over to the other side of the soap star, and claimed the table by putting his noseless blue and coral board across three chairs. Dinged, with broken fins and long spider webs running the width of it, the board looked like it hadn’t been waxed for a year, and had been stored in the middle of the 10 Freeway in the desert near San Bernardino.

He went in to order. I needed some napkins and followed him in. He ordered a tall crème brulee decaf frappuccino with lemon zest, “But not that cheap fake stuff. Don’t you have a real lemon? This is California, for Chrissake,” he bullied the barista. She answered that they did not. He surveyed the case of pastries and told her to give him a lemon poppy seed muffin. He proceeded to decimate it, extracting two pieces of lemon peel. “Here, blend it with this,” he instructed her.

I exchanged a sympathetic glance with the put-upon young woman, and went back outside.

“Her friend is telling her not to carry them with her,” Suzanne hissed, pointing to the drawstring bag. “I wonder what ‘they’ are?” She sipped her coffee in a celebrity-induced trance.

Surfer dude came out, and I told Suzanne about the lemon zest exchange.

He sat next to the soap star, facing the street. Her friend sat back to the street.

Fussing and picking at the bag, Ms. Venome inadvertently loosened the drawstring. The glittering end of a tennis bracelet poked out. Angelica gasped. Ms. Venome meant to put the bracelet back and close it, I presume, but instead, she knocked the entire thing to the ground, where more of its contents spilled out. A large red cross on a gold chain landed near my foot. I went to hand it back and noticed its heft and color—had to be real rubies.

“I’ll help,” Suzanne cried, dropping to the floor, thrilled to have a role with a star. She scampered after a star sapphire ring that rolled onto the sidewalk, and handed it back, ready to use it as a conversational gambit.

A huge screech and the scream of skidding tires made us all jump. A white Bentley careened up onto the curb only a few feet from us, leaving fat black skid marks in the road. The maneuver successfully avoided a head-on crash into—wait for it—a second white Bentley. The second one stopped down the street, pointing west across the two lanes. The drivers ran to each other. Pandemonium, threats of lawsuits and fisticuffs ensued.

“Jesus H Christ,” said Suzanne, who was standing on her chair, hopping from one foot to the other, “how often do you even see two white Bentleys, let alone an almost head-on collision!”

“Stop, thief, stop.” I heard the cry and looked to see my neighbor of the lumpy suede bag lunge across her table too late. The surfer guy had grabbed her bag and made a dash for it, but not before he viciously hurled his surfboard behind him.

The dangerous seven foot slab hit Vikki Venome on the head, and felled her mid-step. The table toppled. Angelica tripped, then righted herself, and ran after him. The soap star lay on the ground, the surfboard near her head marked with wet shiny red. The sidewalk wore a widening red spot as well.

He was gone. The commotion of the double-Bentley incident interfered with pursuit, and he got away.
I called over a policeman. He called a detective. It turned out to be Detective Winslow, whom I knew from my days on the Hollywood beat. He took a report, but we got no assurance that the thief would be apprehended. An ambulance arrived and took the bleeding woman away.

“Poor thing,” said Suzanne, “but is it always so exciting around here?” I glared at her and we left. We spotted Jimmy Smits in the drug store where we stopped to get Suzanne a special lip plumper that she read about in some fan magazine. At home, we dressed and took a moment to relax before heading to a press preview and party for a new movie.

“Whaddaya think’s gonna happen?” Suzanne asked. The air pollution special sunset made us both look young in its rosy glow.

The Times will run the story of the theft and a movie star will get a publicist to organize a benefit. The victim will get sloshed, offend everyone, and take home a couple grand from passing the hat. Hollywood will go home feeling great about itself. Vikki will sink further into booze and ignominy, ending up wiping windshields on Hollywood Blvd. after she tanks on Hollywood Squares. That’s how it will go.”

But that isn’t how it went. “So how do you know that detective? I thought all LA cops planted evidence and took movie stars to the slammer in handcuffs,” said my friend, surprised by Detective Winslow’s gentlemanly manner when he took our statements about the theft of the soap star’s jewels.

“Mostly they’re okay,” I answered vaguely.

“I thought they hated reporters.”

I wrote a piece that flushed out a villain. Detective Winslow and I had a respectful relationship, bordering on friendship. Once he kept me from a weekend in county lock-up when I looked like a suspect in a murder. I kept back some elements of a crime in a story about a case of child porn. “It goes both ways,” was all I said.

Suzanne was back to celebrity hunting.

My cell phone chirped. It was Detective Winslow.

“Did they get the guy who stole the jewels?” Suzanne asked when I hung up.

“Vikki died.”

“Oh no.”

“Winslow said there had been a rash of opportunistic thefts. But this is the first time someone was killed.”

“But we saw him, we can identify him if he’s in a mug book,” Suzanne said.

“Apparently the guy disguises his looks–no one can agree on a description.”

We headed out for coffee.

“So what is it with you Angelenos? Can’t you have a simple cup o’ Joe?”

We sat back to enjoy the morning in perfect 76 degree sunshine. A sweet ocean breeze cleaned the air. I went to order.

“You want a muffin?” I yelled as I headed toward the counter.

“Poppy seed,” she shouted after me. I waited behind a single guy. He was tall, with a long dark ponytail and battered in-line skates slung over his shoulder; baggy khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirt open over a white t-shirt. His sneakers were laced but open.

“Make me a crème brulee decaf frappuccino with lemon zest.” The barista looked at him quizzically. I froze.

“Here,” he said, handing over a lemon. “Just scrape some zest and blend it in.”

I slid past him and around the counter to the hallway by the rest room, and dialed Winslow. I waited behind him while they made his coffee. I ordered, not looking at the skater, who chose a neighboring table. Suzanne did look at him, speculatively, wondering if he was somebody.

Five minutes passed. When Detective Winslow arrived, Suzanne was startled, but I quelled her with a look. I nodded toward the skater. Suzanne sat stupefied as Winslow whipped out his handcuffs and snapped them on our lemon zest frappuccino neighbor’s wrists and Mirandized him.

Jude McGee is a native Angeleno who grew up in Boston, then became a New Yorker & is now back in La-La Land. Jude was a journalist & radio talk show host for many years, & did commentary for various public radio shows including Marketplace. Now she has found her true calling as a crime fiction writer. Death Is Golden, a mystery short, was recently published in MURDER IN LA-LA LAND, an anthology of Los Angeles-themed murder mystery stories. You can learn more about Jude on her website & her blog
& find her on Twitter @JudeMcGeeAuthor.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David July 23, 2011 at 5:29pm

Loved it!! Totally captured the LA experience — especially from the perspective of a visitor, easily impressed by celebs . ..

Reply

2 marina drasnin July 24, 2011 at 3:11pm

WOW-WOW-WOW……..I just couldn’t stop reading this story once started. “I couldn’t put the book down,” is what I would exclaim had this been a short story in a real book (I miss tactile so some smart publisher quickly BUY this for a real MYSTERY BOOK collection!!) is all I can say about this brilliantly written piece. That Jude McGee can write – so keep em’ coming Miss McGee…….you’ve got a real zest for story-telling!

Reply

3 Jude McGee
Twitter: @judemcgeeauthor
July 30, 2011 at 5:35pm

Thank you–any publishers listening to Marina???
A recent post from Jude McGee: Latest from Michael in TunisiaMy Profile

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4 Sally Carpenter July 25, 2011 at 8:38am

What a fun read! I laughed out loud! A clever satire of the Hollywood star-making industry, although nothing quite this exciting has happened to me since I moved to the land of granola–everyone in LA is a nut, flake or fruit.

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5 Jude McGee
Twitter: @judemcgeeauthor
July 30, 2011 at 5:36pm

Yeah, a true foodie heaven. Thank you for the comment.
A recent post from Jude McGee: Latest from Michael in TunisiaMy Profile

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6 Paul D. Marks
Twitter: @PaulDMarks
July 30, 2011 at 12:33am

Hey Jude, The story really captures the essence of the LaLa in La La Land.

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7 Jude McGee
Twitter: @judemcgeeauthor
July 30, 2011 at 5:33pm

Thank you Paul. Looking forward to seeing your e-book. La-La Land reunion a great idea.
A recent post from Jude McGee: Latest from Michael in TunisiaMy Profile

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8 Rob McGee August 6, 2011 at 9:06am

I loved this, nice work sis!!

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