Against all odds and George Walsh’s wife’s dream of a fiery plane crash, TWA Flight 7 arrived without incident at Los Angeles Airport at 2:50 p.m. on Monday, February 5. In fact, it was an incredibly pleasant experience, with fine food, plenty of drink, and smooth sailing. As I disembarked, the friendly captain smiled at me again.
“Welcome home, miss,” he said, his gaze darting from my eyes to linger on my bust before he remembered himself and his good manners.
“I’m not from Los Angeles.”
He arched a brow and cocked his head just so as if to flirt. “Perhaps I could show you around town,” he said. “Where are you staying?”
It took no small measure of self-control, but I managed to keep the name of my hotel to myself. I thanked him for a fine flight and stepped through the door and down the airstairs.
“I have an appointment to see Tony Eberle,” I told the uniformed man on duty. “He’s shooting Twistin’ on the Beach today.”
The officious guard checked my name against a list on his clipboard. Then he double-checked, an operation aided by scratching his chin. Finally, satisfied that the only Eleonora Stone on the list must be me, he handed me a pass and dispensed directions to soundstage 5.
“Go straight on Avenue P then turn left on Seventh Street. Keep quiet on set, please. Welcome to Paramount Studios, Miss Stone.”
“Are you a spy, Mr. Porter?”
He cracked a toothy smile. “No, nothing like that. I’m in the music business. Capitol Records. I’m sure you’ve seen our headquarters on Vine.”
I took a sip of my drink and nodded, unclear why anyone in the music business would need to use an alias. He wore no wedding ring, but I was sure of one thing. This guy was married and a cheater on the prowl.
“Yes, I’ve seen it,” I said. “It looks like a great big layer cake.”
“We like to think it’s more like a stack of records. I could give you a tour if you like. Tonight.”
The car looked like an early fifties Rambler station wagon. Through the driving rain it was hard to be sure, but I thought I could make out the shapes of three heads inside. The Rambler continued west along Franklin Avenue, crossing La Brea where it zigzagged down to Hollywood Boulevard. I marked the car some thirty yards back, keeping my distance so as not to raise suspicion. Only when we reached a red light did I pull to a stop directly behind it. Hoping the passengers wouldn’t notice me among the other cars, I wondered if the street lamp was bright enough for me to get a clear shot of the license plate. I pulled my Leica from my purse and popped off the lens cover. The light changed, but I snapped one frame before the Rambler had moved.
“I see you found the place,” said Dorothy once we were seated in a booth.
She and Stemple sat on one side of the table, and I took the other. The setup felt like a police interrogation. I tried to break the ice and my own jitters by asking if Dean Martin and his friends might stop in. The two exchanged a glance. Archie Stemple snorted through his nose.
“Oh, no, Miss Stone,” said Dorothy, shaking her head in a most condescending manner. “Dean Martin wouldn’t be caught dead in here.”
My face flushed hot. “But it’s his place, isn’t it?”
“He sold his name to these people,” said Stemple, oozing even more arrogance than Dorothy had done. At least she’d appeared to pity me. “He had a disagreement with the owners and stopped coming here. In fact, no one comes here anymore.”
“Having skipped dinner the night before, I felt hollow and needed something to eat. The McCadden provided no food service, but the same dusty desk clerk from the previous day steered me to Hody’s Coffee Shop a couple of blocks away on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. I almost gave it a miss when I saw the giant creepy clown on the sign atop the roof. I swear the eyes were following me.”
I asked him if he’d ever seen William Hopper around town. I’d had a big crush on “Paul Drake” for years. Something about that shock of white hair and the checked jackets he wore.
Nelson squired me around the furniture to present me to his bride. Eyes shut and decked out in a white silk cheongsam dress with red embroidery, Lucia leaned back against the cushions, motionless, as if in a trance or experiencing some kind of rapture. Or, I suppose, even dead. Her dress was slit up both legs, baring three quarters of each thigh and drawing the attention of whosoever beheld her. In this case, me. Lucia Blanchard understood sexy, that much was obvious. Nelson emitted a feathery cough to rouse her, and she opened her eyes.
“Ellie,” she purred in her soft Spanish accent. “Qué hermosa que eres. I’m so happy you wandered into Nelson’s web this afternoon. You look lovely.”
I knew I wasn’t as lovely as she. Not only because the rain had worked its magic on my unruly hair but—let’s face it—mostly because Nature had outdone herself on Lucia in the first place.
Once Nelson had fixed us all drinks—sake—we sat admiring the stormy evening through the bank of windows.
“If the rain keeps up like this, Ellie will have to spend the night, isn’t that right, querida?” said Nelson with an eager grin.
“Don’t beg, mi amor,” said Lucia. “Too desperate. You’ll scare her away.”