L.A. SLEEPERS: A Hollywood Ghostwriter Mystery (Chapter One)
When my cell phone rings, I’m soaking in the bathtub, puffing on an electronic cigarette, and rereading The Big Sleep. The last thing I want to do is answer an unexpected call.
I’m behind on my rent, overdue on my credit card payments, still owe my dentist for a root canal, and about to have the electricity turned off. If the phone is ringing, and the fricking thing rings night and day, it’s somebody who wants money—money I don’t have.
But I have to answer—the person on the other end might want to hire me for a writing gig.
On the fifth ring of the ringtone—the opening bars of Bach’s “Sleepers Awake”—I grab my cell from the shelf next to the tub and answer the way I always answer.
“Boo! It’s Dakota Donovan.”
“I’m looking for a ghostwriter,” the man says. He has the quavering voice of someone in his eighties.
“Y-e-s,” he answers, turning the short word into three syllables. “I need you to start right away.”
I know what’s coming.
“ . . . I’m dying.”
It’s a Brentwood address, so I take Sunset from my place in Hollywood—I no longer trust my 1998 Toyota to the freeways. The route is definitely the long way around—through tourist traps, the Sunset Strip, UCLA, twisting and turning and curving up and away.
After I find the address, I drive about a block past it and walk back—the better not to be seen in an old car, my dear. Anyway, I can always use a good walk. All the hours sitting in front of a computer are working unwonders on my forty-something backside. Not that I tell anybody my age—I hide it the way I try to hide my car. And it isn’t easy sans Botox, plastic surgery, or the money for gym memberships, spas, personal trainers, facials—or even a good haircut.
As I make my way up the Brentwood street that yawns the heavy breath of most overgrown behemoths—overfed, overwatered, overpleasured, overmedicated, overcompensated—I wonder about the people who live in these multimillion dollar homes. What are their stories? How did they get here? How do they stay here? Will Client A (if he gives me the job and lives that long) refer other Brentwoodites with stories to tell?
What a joke. If there’s one thing a ghostwriter never gets, it’s referrals—even if the book is a bank-account-bloating success. The “authors” I work with always take credit for the books—and even come to believe they’ve written them. As a ghostwriter, I’m very good—and this proves it.
The house is a fine midcentury load of bricks—the type of house I adore, the house I’d pick for myself: not too large, not too small, more than just right.
But instead of feeling envious, I’m curious—and happy I can get a look inside the place. Who knows when I’ll need to use it as a setting for one of my books—my own books, the novels I write under my own name, when I have time to write them. But, hell, if other writers, better writers, famous writers—F. Scott Fitzgerald, for one—were broke most of the time and had to scramble to survive, why should I be exempt?
When I reach the destination, I take a deep breath, straighten my sunglasses, force a smile, and get ready to meet the author.
Before I have a chance to knock, the door flings open and a short, slight man, probably in his early eighties, stands in the open doorway. A fedora sits at a jaunty angle on his head, and he’s dressed in a well-pressed double-breasted gray suit, white shirt, and striped blue tie. He appears to be on his way out, and I wonder if I have the wrong address. But I know it’s the right place when the man steps aside so I can enter, while staring at me through cloudy cataracts.
Without speaking, I take off my sunglasses, then face the man for what seems like a long time. My initial encounter with an author is a significant moment—an animal-like sizing up each other. I know if the prospective client hires me, I’ll become a combination confessor, psychiatrist, minister, sister, friend, enemy—someone who learns the person’s deepest, darkest secrets, or probes until the client reveals them, and it will be a wild ride, as the author loves, hates, resents, despises, and finally appreciates me. Both author and writer just have to hang on until the book is finished. This is my main advantage over other ghostwriters—I can make it through all the crazy stages and end up with a completed book. I have a high tolerance for confrontation.
“Good afternoon,” the man says. On the phone he’d told me his name was Milton. In person, he looks like a Milton—and sounds like one, with a deep, well-modulated voice, without any trace of the shakiness he’d displayed on the phone. It’s hard to believe I’m speaking with the same person.
“Hello,” I say, as I walk through the door.
When I step inside, I have the sense that I’ve been in this house before, and feel an espresso shot of déjà vu.
As I stare at the rear wall—floor-to-ceiling glass—it occurs to me where I’ve seen Milton’s house—a Columbo rerun on Netflix, when I could still afford the service.
Ghostwriting Rule #1: Find a point of conversation and get the client talking.
“What a beautiful home,” I remark. “It would make a wonderful movie location.”
I turn to smile at Milton—hoping he’ll mention that the house has appeared in a TV show. Instead, he removes his fedora and tosses it toward a hat rack on the wall, where—bull’s-eye!—it lands on the center peg surrounded by other fedoras (or is it “fedori”?). Either the old man’s eyesight isn’t that bad or he’s had a lot of ring toss practice.
I need to get him talking.
“Have you lived here long?”
“Built the place,” he answers. “Pioneer days.”
“Back when? The fifties?”
“Those were the days,” he says. “The really, really good old days.”
“ . . . and you want to write about them,” I say, smiling in understanding.
“Hell, no,” Milton replies in a voice that sounds too big for his small body.
“I’m looking forward to learning what you have in mind for the book,” I say, trying to smooth over this first bump in the ghostwriting road. It’s never a good sign when a prospective client’s answer starts with the word “hell.”
I really, really want, and really, really need this job. Judging by Milton’s surroundings, he should be able to afford my full rate—twenty thousand for a book, completed in four months. It isn’t a fortune, but it’s enough to live on—almost.
“Follow me to my study,” he instructs, leading me at a fast pace through bright, high-ceilinged rooms, where the furniture is pristine Midcentury Modern—gorgeous, to-die-for tables, desks, chairs, lamps, sofas, and credenzas.
I worship Danish Modern the way some people idolize other great Nordic-related art—Hamlet, Beowulf, and the works of Hans Christian Andersen and Isak Dinesen. The place is a Midcentury Modern museum—with collector’s items worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m thrilled just to breathe the same atmosphere as the glorious furniture.
But when Milton turns a corner and leads me into his study, the room isn’t decked out in sleek midcentury furnishings. It’s a dusty, musty, fusty home office with a scratched-up metal desk, floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets, and lots of wires everywhere. The entire vibe is anti-creative, dank, and stale.
“Have a seat,” Milton croons, as if ushering me to a table at a classic Hollywood nightclub—the Cocoanut Grove or Ciro’s.
I start to sit on a rickety folding chair, but Milton grabs my elbow and pushes me toward the low-slung, dingy beige couch.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he tells me.
I sink into the close-to-the-ground discomfort of the monstrosity couch—feeling as if my knees are going to hit my chin every time I move my head. I’m glad, so glad, I’m wearing slacks.
Milton removes his suit jacket and drapes it over the back of his desk chair. Then he settles into the chair, which is raised so high that the old man’s feet don’t quite touch the ground. He crosses his legs and one foot keeps kicking in my direction. I figure he is either trying to send me a message—“I’m in charge here”—or the action proves that restless leg syndrome does, in fact, exist.
“So . . .” I begin, hooking my hands over one knee and taking a deep breath.
“So, what are you going to charge me?” Milton says, peering down at me from his swivel-chair throne.
“Could you tell me a bit more about what you’d like to do?”
“I want to put it all down on paper,” Milton replies. “Like I told you on the phone.”
All Milton had mentioned during the phone call was that he was dying and wanted to finish a book, “A-SAP.”
“Your life story? A novel? Something work-related? I’m not sure what you’re looking for,” I say in my lowest, most well-modulated tones. Put the client at ease. Make the author feel comfortable.
“It’s better for you,” Milton replies, “if I don’t say whether it’s fact or fiction.”
In the blip before saying anything, I try to figure out why it’s “better” for me not to know whether Milton’s story is fact or fiction. Better for my safety? (Does he want to write about the mob?) Better for my writing? (Does he not want to bind me with the facts?) Better for my peace of mind? (Is he going to admit to crimes?)
“I hear you,” is my noncommittal response.
“We’d need to finish in about eight weeks,” he says, giving me a grim, close-mouthed grin.
Eight weeks is pushing it for a book—but if we start right away and if he pays me enough so I can focus only on his project, and I work twelve-plus hours a day, I can probably pull it off. It isn’t the writing that takes time—I write fast—it’s gathering the facts for the story. Some people meander all over the place before they come up with even one usable anecdote.
“Well, we’d need to get started right away,” I say, glad for a legitimate reason to give Milton a nudge.
“So what’s this going to set me back?”
“My usual rate is twenty thousand, but since this is a rush project…”
“I’ll pay you four grand, flat,” he states, leaning back and folding his arms over his starched shirtfront.
Four thousand! Lord, the Rougier lamp in his living room is worth more than that! I know that if I take the job for such a paltry fee I’ll regret it. I’ll kill myself to finish the book—since I can’t lower my standards, and will deliver the same quality of work whatever the client pays me. I’ll have to take on side jobs just to get by.
But I don’t hesitate with my answer.
“All right,” I say. “Let’s get started.”
End of Chapter One