Los Angeles, California. November 1937.
Coffee. That’s the first, second and third order of business after a restless night with a busy day ahead.
Step one, rinse out the percolator and pry open the coffee can. So far, not so good. There’s just enough java left to make an eyedropper’s worth.
I bought a new can last week. Didn’t I? I don’t understand how I can misplace food in a kitchen the size of a phone booth. It takes two sorties to unearth the unopened tin of Chase & Sanborn. Soon, the invigorating aroma of coffee fills the air.
While the pot perks away I don my lucky navy blue suit. With its high-waisted skirt and slim jacket I’ll look every inch the professional saleslady. Today it’s vital I look my best. I’m facing a test of sorts, hence the rough sledding through Slumberland.
Tremayne’s Department Store will be my proving ground. It may not be downtown’s largest or chicest shopping emporium. But we strive to outfit our patrons in elegant yet affordable ensembles. We even hold regular fashion shows spotlighting our exclusive lines.
Last week, after I’d hounded him daily, my boss Mr. Valentine finally relented and allowed me to select the peignoir set that would serve as the finale in today’s sartorial soiree. Blotting his forehead with a vermillion pocket square he’d proclaimed, “We shall see, Miss Frost, if your eye for fashion is as keen as your voice is relentless.”
Dressed and with half a cup of coffee in me, I consider nourishment. I scavenge two heels from the breadbox and a jar of orange marmalade from the cupboard. One of the girls at Tremayne’s made it herself. Her father owned an orange grove, she’d said. I didn’t believe her at first. I’m a city girl through and through. To me farmers are more otherworldly than movie stars.
If I make a good impression this morning, I’ll get a leg up in my new career. Not that my last career had ever taken off.
I came to Hollywood like so many others, convinced I’d see my name – Lillian Frost! – in lights. And why not? I’d won a beauty contest back home in New York (although my red velvet bathing suit deserved most of the credit). The prize of a screen test tempted me onto a westbound train. I soon learned movie star dreams come a nickel a gross.
My then-roommate Ruby Carroll knew that from the start. “Talent only gets you so far, mermaid,” she’d say, “mermaid” being the nickname she’d bestowed upon me because of that velvet swimsuit. “In this town it’s who you know. And who knows you.” And I knew no one. One disastrous screen test later, I scampered to Tremayne’s seeking steady employment.
I’m too jittery to think about work now. I need distraction. I slip downstairs and borrow my landlady Mrs. Quigley’s newspaper. On the front page there’s more about the “Alley Angel,” a mysterious young woman found dead close by. Too close by. I shudder and page quickly to Lorna Whitcomb’s gossip column, craving news of Hollywood notables.
I hope to find Ruby mentioned in Lorna’s column someday. She’s still plugging away for her big break, supporting herself with the occasional day job. Her last was as a wardrobe girl at Paramount Pictures. I can’t deny I envy her, working behind the scenes making movie magic alongside a genius like Travis Banton. Paramount has a girl costume designer now, too, name of Edith Head. One of the movie magazines profiled her. I clipped the article, thinking that would be my dream job, tailoring togs for leading ladies. Too bad my drawing is as bad as my acting.
Breakfast done, I check my change purse for streetcar fare to Tremayne’s and send up a quick prayer to Saint Lucy, patron of salesmen (and presumably –women). I adjust my cream-colored hat in the mirror and manage not to wake the neighbors with a terrified yelp when I spot motion behind me. Miss Sarah Bernhardt struts across the window sill. The landlady’s dusky Burmese cat had deigned to visit my abode. I decide to treat her appearance as an omen.
“Wish me luck, Miss Sarah.” I close the door behind me, and set out to make my mark in the world.
Design for Dying is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Lillian Frost and real-life Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. It was published in April 2016 by Forge Books.
Los Angeles, 1937. Lillian Frost has traded dreams of stardom for security as a department store salesgirl … until she discovers she’s a suspect in the murder of her former roommate Ruby Carroll. Party girl Ruby died wearing a gown she stole from the wardrobe department at Paramount Pictures, domain of Edith Head.
Edith has yet to win the first of her eight Academy Awards; right now she’s barely hanging on to her job, and a scandal is the last thing she needs. To clear Lillian’s name and save Edith’s career, the two women join forces. Unraveling the mystery pits them against a Hungarian princess on the lam, a hotshot director on the make, and a private investigator who’s not on the level.
All they have going for them are dogged determination, assists from the likes of Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck, and a killer sense of style. In show business, that just may be enough. . .
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Meet the author
Renee Patrick is the pseudonym for married authors Rosemarie and Vince Keenan. Rosemarie is a research administrator and a poet. Vince is a screenwriter and a journalist. Both native New Yorkers, they currently live in Seattle, Washington.
Giveaway: Leave a comment below for your chance to win a signed copy of Design For Dying. The giveaway will end July 27, 2016 at 12 AM EST. Good luck everyone!