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STAR STRUCK DEAD
Excerpt

Sunday, June 23, 1946

I was having a wonderful dream. Then I woke up. Star Struck Dead

I was in the hospital. I didn’t remember how I got there.

It was a private room. That much I could make out. But somewhere off to my right, an enormous window was letting in entirely too much light. I rolled away from it, flinching and groaning – making the sounds a person makes when her head is pounding and her stomach is lurching. I buried my face in the pillow and reached for the nurse call-button.

While I was still groping for it, the nurse came in.

“You’re awake,” she said cheerfully. It seemed like the best news she’d had in a week. “Good morning.”

“Not so far.”

She chuckled indulgently as she passed the foot of the bed, a brisk blur of white to my one exposed eye. I heard her snap the window shade down. The room got a bit darker.

“Thanks,” I said.

“How are you feeling?”

“My head hurts, and I think I might be sick.”

She pulled a bedpan out of the bedside cabinet and set it on top beside the water carafe. “Use this if you need to. When the doctor comes, we can give you something for the pain.”

I made a few more groaning noises to indicate that I thought that would be a good idea.

“Now that you’re awake,” she said, “I’ll go call the police.”

I brought my other eye out of the pillow. “What?”

“Don’t you remember what happened last night?”

“I couldn’t have been hit by anything smaller than a truck.”

She chuckled again. “I heard you were a movie writer.”

“I think I’m usually funnier. What time is it?”

“About seven-thirty. A Mrs. Ross called and said she’d come by later to pick you up.” She started for the door.

“Nurse. This may sound like a strange question, but where am I?”

“At County,” she said proudly. “Now try to get some rest.”

There was something else I wanted to ask her. Or was it a hundred things? I couldn’t remember what any of them were, so I let her go and concentrated on my groaning.

After a while, though, I got tired of it and rolled over and looked around. The window turned out to be only regulation size. Beneath it was a silver radiator and a wide-planked, dark-varnished wooden floor, well-scrubbed and hard-used. Almost everything else — the walls, the chairs, the bedside cabinet — was the same unfortunate shade of yellow, somewhere between mustard and jaundice. It was just the sort of color the government liked to paint the insides of public buildings, the sort of color no actual member of the public would be caught dead with in his own home. Now that the war was over, and we could get paint again easily, the hospital was apparently repainting with a vengeance.

Even a good color would not have helped much: the room would still look as if it had lived through too many years with too little money. The enamel on the slats at the end of the bed was chipped. On the ceiling, there was a faint veining of cracks spreading from the corners and from the edges of the white metal fan. As the breeze lifted the window shade, I could see that the screen was sagging and patched.

County. What was I doing at County? Why had I been brought all the way back into Los Angeles? Surely, there had been a hospital closer. Maybe the thieves had taken my identification, and County was the only hospital that would accept what might be a charity case. I wondered who had found me all the way out there in Topanga Canyon. I would like to say thank you.

I lifted the sheet and examined my body. There were assorted bruises on my forearms, a half-dozen stitches across my knee, and a nasty scrape on my hip where I’d fallen in the gravel. On the whole, I thought it would have been simpler if the bastards had just pulled guns. Of course, if they had, they might have shot me before they robbed me. There was that to consider. I could imagine the story in the papers — on the front page, of course, because of Franklin — STAR’S WIFE FOUND DEAD IN DITCH. A couple of men standing in line to see The Blue Dahlia would read it.

“Hey, you see this about Frank Atwill’s wife?”

“What she do?”

“Found her dead out in Topanga.”

“No kidding. What happened?”

“Don’t know. Says she was shot.”

“That her? Huh. Thought he’d have a better-looking wife than that.”

“Says she used to write movies. Lauren Atwill. Ever heard of her?”

“Nope. Which ones?”

“Some of the Phil Marsh mysteries, says here.”

“Yeah? I liked them okay.”

A shrug. A grunt. The line starts to move.

My epitaph. Here lies a hack. Maybe a dozen people would care. I wasn’t depressed. No, not me.

I went back to my groaning. It seemed more useful than thinking.

The doctor came in twenty minutes later, making as much noise as a person can make wearing soft-soled shoes and not dragging any chains. He was a dapper little man with a crisp, energetic moustache and a bony nose. He set a tiny paper cup with two tiny white pills in it on the bedside cabinet.

“I understand you have a headache this morning.”

“Yes. Thanks.”

He snapped my chart out of the rack at the foot of the bed and read it. I took the pills.

“You’re very lucky,” he pronounced rather loudly when he’d finished reading. “They gave you a few stitches last night, but otherwise, you’re fine.” He dropped the chart back into the rack with more clatter than I thought was absolutely necessary, then he raised his eyebrows and gave me a reproving look. “You’re very lucky.”

I didn’t need a lecture on how women should never drive alone at night. “How long does chloroform last?” I asked.

He blinked at me a couple of times. “I beg your pardon?”

“When I was robbed last night, I was chloroformed.”

He raised his eyebrows again, this time in skepticism.

I said, “It only lasts a few minutes, doesn’t it? Unless you continue to administer it?”

“Yes,” he agreed cautiously.

“I thought so.” I had researched it once for a script. In the early days. Before I realized that Hollywood wasn’t much interested in accuracy. “Would you look at these?” I raised the droopy sleeve of my hospital gown to show him the two tiny red dots on my upper arm. “Did they give me any shots last night?”

“There’s no mention of shots on your chart. These could be insect bites.”

“I’ve been unconscious for six hours. How do you explain that?”

He raised those skeptical brows again. “I believe, Mrs. Atwill, that there was some alcohol involved.”

“What?” I said so loudly that my head started pounding again.

“I understand from the emergency room staff that you were drinking last night.”

“I was not drunk. I have not been unconscious for six hours because I was drunk. I was robbed and drugged.”

He looked at me. If he raised those eyebrows one more time, I was going to hit him with the bedpan.

“Did they do a blood test?” I asked.

“They would have drawn blood from the vein.”

“I know that. Did they do one?”

“Yes. The results aren’t back yet. It is Sunday, you know.”

“I was not drunk.”

He stretched the skin around on my upper arm and examined the dots. “Hmmm,” he said.

“I need to ask you something else. Last night . . . Did anything happen to me that . . . that I should know about?”

He let go of my arm and stared at me, then he swallowed so hard that his Adam’s apple bobbed up like a fishing cork. “I. . . uh. I understand that, well, of course, under the circumstances, you were examined. You would be. Of course. Under the circumstances.”

“And?”

“There are ways to tell if, well, if . . ..”

“And?”

“You were not.”

“They were sure?”

“Yes. You don’t feel that . . .?”

“No. Not at all. I just wanted to make sure.”

“Yes. Well, then. Yes. I think you can go home as soon as you’re feeling up to it.” He turned and hurried out.

When he had gone, I punched the pillow around and snarled at the door. He — and apparently everybody else at the hospital — thought that I was pie-eyed last night and probably picked up some hitchhiker, who lifted my purse and my car after I passed out. And no one would ever tell them the truth, even after the blood test came back.

Despite what he had said about the thoroughness of last night’s examination, I lay there for a while, running over and over what I remembered of the dream I’d been having when I woke up, looking for any detail that would indicate that it was not a dream. I didn’t find one. There was a soft bed, not a car seat or the choking dust of a canyon road. There was no fear, only pleasure. The face of the dark-haired man was vague and blurred, as faces so often are in dreams, but the sensation was still warm. The smooth, bare skin of a tall, strong body. I rolled onto my side and snuggled into the pillow and closed my eyes. I slept, but the dream did not come back.

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About ten, while I was moving a spoon around in some cream of wheat, my best friend, Helen Ross, showed up.

“Well, you look like hell,” she said amiably as she tossed a garment bag across the foot of the bed. She, however, looked nearly perfect, as she always did. Her pink two-piece linen day dress was smooth and crisp, despite the car ride. Her carefully dyed blonde hair was pinned up flawlessly beneath her straw picture hat. Once she had been a Ziegfeld Girl, and — now past forty — she still looked thirty-five. From ten feet away. Closer, the powder was maybe a little too thick, the rouge a little too heavy, and the China Cherry Blossom lipstick a little too vivid. She set the bedpan on the floor and dropped her bag, gloves, and a small pearl-colored overnight case on the bedside cabinet. “You okay?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. I landed on my head.”

“Anything left of your clothes?” Before I could answer, she opened the closet door. “God, it smells like a brewery in here.” She pulled out my white satin evening gown and examined the dribbling booze stains down the front.

I said, “Now I know why everyone around here thinks I was drunk.”

“Well, this is ruined. It’s just as well. I don’t think either one of us looked all that great in white.” She rolled the gown into a ball and tossed it into the trash can. “Where’s your wrap?”

“Gone with the car, I guess.”

“Did they hurt you?”

“Not much.”

“You know what I mean.”

“No.”

“Well, thank God for that. Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Go ahead.”

She slipped a slim, silver case out of her envelope bag and took out a cigarette. “Juanita called me last night about three, just after I got in. She said you weren’t home yet and wanted to know if you were with me. The first thing I did was call all the hospitals, then all the police departments. They didn’t pay any attention to me. Apparently, Saturday nights are full of women who don’t come home when they’re supposed to.”

.

She lit the cigarette with an engraved silver lighter and turned her head away from me to exhale. She scooted the trash can over beside the chair with her foot and sat down. “Then about five, the L. A. police called and asked if my friend was a tall blonde with long hair and a white dress. So I drove over here as fast as I could and there you were on one of those – what do they call them, the stretchers with wheels?”

“Gurneys.”

“You were laying there, unconscious, all scraped up, and the policeman started asking me how much you’d had to drink. I told him that, the last time I saw you, you had a car, a necklace, and an evening bag, all of which were now gone and that never, in the whole time I’d known you, had I ever seen you drunk. Of course, he didn’t believe me. The police are idiots.”

There was a knock on the door and the police came in.

First, there was a young patrolman, who was wearing his hat pushed back on his head and was working hard on a hard look. He wasn’t having much luck with it. He had a round, boyish face with red cheeks and pale lashes. There was a rash on the side of his neck from shaving — or trying to. Behind him, chewing on a wooden matchstick, was the man who was probably teaching him the hard look. He was about fifty and wearing a suit over plenty of bulk, but plenty of that bulk was still muscle. He had thick, unruly eyebrows and stormy jowls, but when he removed his hat, his matchstick, and his sneer, he looked more like a big, furry uncle. “Mrs. Atwill?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Sergeant Barty. This is Officer McHugh.”

“How do you do?”

“Are you really married to Frank Atwill?” McHugh asked, trying to keep his eyes from getting too big.

“Yes, I am. And this is Mrs. Samuel Ross. You may have heard of her husband. He’s a producer at Marathon. He’s producing my husband’s new movie.”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” he said politely. If he was going to make it as a cop, he was going to have to work on his lying.

Barty said, “I only brought him along because he doesn’t get to see many Hollywood people. The report said you’re a screenwriter.”

“Yes.”

“Which movies did you write?” McHugh asked eagerly.

“Summer Eagle, That Girl Next Door, The Brantley Case.” He looked blank. “Some of the Phil Marsh mysteries.”

“I love those. Especially The Candlestick Murders. The way the candle was always burned down after one of them got killed.”

“I’m glad.”

Barty concentrated on the matchstick in his hand, but I could see him roll his eyes. I didn’t blame him. He sat down in the other chair and hung his hat on his knee. He took a notebook out of the inside pocket of his well-used suit. “What can you tell me about last night?”

“She was not drunk,” said Helen.

“That’s why I’m here, Mrs. Ross. To get the story.”

“Just so you understand that.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened, Mrs. Atwill?”

I told him everything I could remember. I had driven out to Ramon Elizondo’s night club up in Topanga Canyon. Usually my escort drove me, but he’d fallen ill the day before, so I went alone. I met Helen there and a small group of friends. About one o’clock, I left. Coruna, the road that runs between the club and Topanga Canyon Road, was almost deserted. After I’d gone about a mile, I came across two saw horses in the middle of the road with an official-looking sign hung between them that said, TEMPORARY DETOUR. I turned off onto a road barely wide enough for two cars. At the first bend, there was a car stopped diagonally in the road. The driver’s door was open. In its interior light, I could see someone slumped over the wheel. I got out and went over to help. Then I could see that it wasn’t a person at all, but a dummy.

I told Barty about the dummy, but I didn’t tell him what that moment of cold horror had felt like as I stood there, struggling to make sense of it, all the time knowing that something terrible was about to happen. A man grabbed me from behind. I fought, but he was too strong. We slipped in the gravel and fell, then I smelled chloroform.

I showed Barty the needle marks. “I only woke up about seven. They must have shot me full of dope and then poured booze on me. I don’t know why.”

“And all this happened way out in Topanga?”

“Yes.”

“So how’d you get back downtown? That’s got to be twenty miles from where they found you.”

“What?”

“A couple of our guys found you laid out in an alley off Broadway. You don’t remember anything after the chloroform?”

“Not a thing.”

He chewed on the matchstick awhile, then he asked about the thieves’s car. Dark. Coupe. A tall grille. I didn’t remember any of the license number.

“What about the man who grabbed you?”

“He was wearing a mask. Actually, a hood. He was tall. Over six feet. That’s all I know.”

“Did you see anyone else?”

“No, but I’ve been thinking.” I sat forward. “There had to be more than one. There had to be at least three. One to grab me. Another to move the phony detour sign out of the road quickly. And there had to be a lookout somewhere to make sure there weren’t any cars following me.”

He grinned around his matchstick at my efforts at deduction.

“Would it be very hard to find detour signs?” I asked.

“Not with all the roadwork going on these days.”

“Still, it seems like a lot of trouble to go to. They would have needed a radio.”

“That road, that time of night, their chances of getting a high roller with a nice car were pretty good. And there are plenty of army surplus radios around these days. How much did they get?”

“Not much money. But there was a necklace and some earrings. Emeralds and diamonds. I can give you pictures. I had them taken for the insurance. And my wedding ring.”

“I’m sorry,” he said and meant it.

“Thank you,” I said. “Is there any hope for my car?”

He consulted his notebook. “Forty-one, white, Lincoln Continental cabriolet. Aren’t many of those around.”

“No, they didn’t make very many before Pearl Harbor.”

“During the war, a thief could get five, six thousand for one of them. Some folks in Mexico’d probably still pay that much.”

“Maybe that’s why they drugged me. So I wouldn’t wake up and get help before they could get the car over the border. And they poured booze on me so, if I did wake up, no one would take me seriously.”

“Why didn’t they leave you up in Topanga? That’d make more sense.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

.

He stood up. “I’ll run this past the county boys. See if anything else like this has happened.” He handed me a card with the address and telephone number of Central Division.

“I’ll bring you the photographs of the jewelry.”

“Anytime tomorrow’ll be fine. Just ask for me.”

“Thank you.” We shook hands. Barty’s face didn’t give much away. I couldn’t tell if he’d believed one word I’d said.

When they’d gone, Helen said, “Don’t worry about a thing. Sam’ll take care of it.”

“Of what?”

She slid a copy of the Examiner out from under the garment bag and tossed it into my lap. “It made the second edition.”

“Jesus.” I stared at the headline.

STAR’S WIFE FOUND UNCONSCIOUS NEAR SOLDIERS’ BAR

“Jesus.” I scanned the short article. “‘According to police, Mrs. Atwill, who had apparently been drinking . . .’ Jesus.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“‘At press time, Mrs. Atwill had not been able to explain why . . .’ How could I explain? I was unconscious! It doesn’t even mention that I was robbed.”

“It does. But on the next page.”

“‘Frank Atwill separated from his wife last year . . .’ Jesus. It makes it sound like he walked out on a drunk. Are all the papers like this?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Jesus.”

“Sam’ll take care of it. He’s already got Morty Engler making calls. Come on. Let’s get you out of here.”


 
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STAR STRUCK DEAD
Reviews

sheila york A real treat, Star Struck Dead offers a stylish glimpse into the grit and glamour of 1940s Hollywood.
- Romantic Times (Star Struck Dead was nominated by the Romantic Times as Best First Mystery)

A strongly drawn heroine, a rich atmosphere and a dashing hero….A strong setting, interesting characters and a fun, quick-grabbing plot all make for a terrific introduction to the world of Lauren Atwill.
- The Mystery Reader

I loved Star Struck Dead. I was immediately transported through time and into the world of Lauren Atwill…Star Struck Dead is exceptional.
- Mystery News

…Lauren is a snappy, intelligent heroine…This is one for the keeper shelf.
- TheBestReviews.com





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