Books: The Wrong Girl
Books: The Wrong Girl
Order from Poisoned Pen Press
Hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-4926-9918-7, $26.99
Large Print Trade pbk, ISBN: 978-1-4926-9920-0, $22.95 US,
Trade Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-4926-9919-4 $15.99
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They say a life well-lived is the best revenge…
Blanche Tucker longs to escape her drop-dead dull life in tiny Boynton, Oklahoma. Then dashing Graham Peyton roars into town. Posing as a film producer, Graham convinces the ambitious but naive teenager to run away with him to a glamorous new life. Instead, Graham uses her as cruelly as a silent picture villain. Yet by luck and by pluck, taking charge of her life, she makes it to Hollywood.
Six years later, Blanche has transformed into the celebrated Bianca LaBelle, the reclusive star of a series of adventure films, and Peyton’s remains are discovered on a Santa Monica beach. Is there a connection? With all of the twists and turns of a 1920s melodrama, The Wrong Girl follows the daring exploits of a girl who chases her dream from the farm to old Hollywood, while showing just how risky—and rewarding—it can be to go off script.
“With both wit and her trademark warmth, Casey serves up the story of Bianca, the eighth child of Alafair Tucker, who flees her native Oklahoma for glamorous Hollywood in the 1920s. Clever, resilient, and agile, Bianca makes her way into films, but en route she meets a broad cast of characters, including a sleazy villain and a group of spirited, quirky women, all deftly drawn. The reader is transported to the 1920s Southwest, both seedy and sparkly, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride!”
Karen Odden, author of A Lady in the Smoke and A Dangerous Duet
Read an excerpt of The Wrong Girl
Beverly Hills, California
Private Detective Ted Oliver ascends Olympus,
Is struck by Lightning.
Ted Oliver drove up Santa Monica Boulevard to Beverly Drive, then turned onto Summit and wound up the steep side of San Ysidro Canyon until he reached the ten acre estate of beloved motion picture celebrity Bianca LaBelle, star and living embodiment of the Bianca Dangereuseserials, the biggest money-making movie franchise in the entire Western world. He showed his identification at the wrought iron gate to the guard who, having already been apprised of his arrival, gave him directions to the main house. He drove down a winding dirt road for nearly a quarter mile before he turned onto the palm-lined drive leading to a California Mission style mansion. LaBelle’s estate was not situated at the top of the hill, but the property still boasted a commanding view of the ocean on one side and mountains on the other.
Oliver had only seen one Bianca Dangereuse flick in his life. There wasn’t much of a plot to it, but there was a lot of action. Bianca Dangereuse had been kidnapped by pirates off the Tripoli coast and had saved herself by leaping overboard and swimming to shore, where she escaped by donning a burqa and hiding among the sympathetic wives in the harem of the local sheik. Oliver had enjoyed it, but he didn’t have time to go to movies very often and so had never seen another.
The actress who played Dangereuse, Bianca LaBelle, was an enigma. In a world of insecure people with giant egos who lived to see their names in print, Bianca had managed to keep her private life as private as possible ever since she had burst into the public consciousness only four years earlier with the release of her first movie, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse. Bianca Dangereuse was a Nellie Bly-type journalist and adventurer who would go to the ends of the earth for a story. She also had a talent for getting herself into impossible situations and making uncanny escapes. In the years since the first Dangereuse adventure came out, Bianca LaBelle had been in great demand. She worked continually, making half-a-dozen feature films a year. Historical adventures, oaters and romances, and three more Bianca Dangereuse thrillers. It was widely advertised by United Features Studios that Bianca LaBelle wrote her own scripts and did all her own stunts, but after seeing the character swing herself off a yardarm on a rope, dive headfirst into the ocean, and swim a hundred yards to what he suspected was one of the Channel Islands standing in for Tripoli, Oliver had his doubts.
Bianca’s relative invisibility on the social scene didn’t mean that the press never wrote about her. There was not one issue of a fan magazine or industry newspaper that didn’t have at least a filler, and more likely an entire feature, speculating about the mysterious beauty from who-knows-where, who suddenly appeared out of nowhere in 1922 and instantly became a star. Bianca had done a couple of interviews with the fan magazines and cooperated on one feature in the Examiner. The only thing she had ever publicly said about her background was that her first appearance in the moving pictures was in a Tom Mix feature in 1921, when she had ridden stunt double for the female star of the picture, the luscious Alma Bolding. In the Dangereuse features, Bianca was absolutely fearless, whether the role called for her to go over waterfalls in a canoe, swing on a rope over a canyon, leap onto a galloping horse, or climb a cliff face. That much was known. Where Tom Mix had found her, why Alma Bolding had decided to take the total unknown under her wing, or why Pickford and Fairbanks had decided to produce her first Bianca Dangereuse film, was not. The Tom Mix flick had been shot near Prescott, and there was some speculation that Bianca may have grown up on a ranch in Arizona.
But her name was definitely French, and she did have a dark, exotic, Mediterranean look about her, so the most popular scuttlebutt about her background was that she was the scion of a noble French family, who had escaped to America in order to avoid an arranged marriage with a sybaritic Italian count. It didn’t matter that Del Burke, publicity director for United Features, had fabricated that story out of thin air. It was romantic and appealing, so it was widely believed by the movie-going public and Bianca’s adoring fans. Was her real name Bianca LaBelle, Oliver wondered? Probably not. Yet no reporter had ever gone to the trouble of digging into her background. Or else the studios had quashed the truth in favor of the fairy tale.
Bianca was not often seen at parties with the rich and famous. She did not frequent the dance halls and country clubs where her contemporaries whiled away their time with bootleg booze, illicit drugs, and other unsavory activities that usually involved sex with whoever was handy.
Not that she was a virginal goddess. The studios presented Bianca as independent and totally self-sufficient. She was wealthy, gorgeous, a fashion icon, the perfect modern twentieth century woman, only seen with the most eligible bachelors, usually a co-star, at one official studio function or another. No serious romance had ever been hinted at. That fact had lent itself to some innuendo, especially since Bianca and Alma Bolding frequently traveled together and stayed at one another’s homes. Of course, Alma was twenty years older and had been married five times. Which still didn’t do much to quell the prurient rumors about her relationship with Bianca.
Bianca’s inaccessibility merely increased the public’s appetite for any tidbit of news about her. She was one of the most popular actresses in the industry, a friend of the elite; besides Mix and Bolding, she hobnobbed with Chaplin, Marion Davies, Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks. None of whom had any gossip to share about her, either. A studio conspiracy, Oliver thought, to add to her mystery.
Oliver parked his auto at the head of the drive and made the long trek up the steps to pound on the massive mission-style doors. He figured that a polite tap wouldn’t do to alert whoever was inside of this monstrosity that someone was outside and wanted in.
He was beginning to wonder if he’d pounded hard enough, but it must have taken a few minutes to traverse the foyer’s acreage to reach the door, for just as he raised his fist for another try, the door swung open and a creature of remarkable size and aspect blocked his view of the interior.
Oliver had seen all kinds since he had come to California, but this being took the cake. He was well over six feet tall and well over three hundred pounds, dressed in a tuxedo, white gloves, and spats. Or was he a she? One red chili pepper-shaped earring dangled from a pierced lobe and a surprisingly delicate face sported a tasteful hint of blush and a bit of lip rouge. No hint to gender could be gained from the hair, it being covered by a black turban. In fact, judging by his or her dusky complexion, the person could very well be an Indian or a Parsee, or from somewhere else in the Mysterious Orient.
“May I see your identification,” he/she said, in a hoarse, mid-timbre voice that gave nothing away. A careful once over of both man and calling card, then, “Come in, Mr. Oliver. Miss LaBelle is expecting you. She is in the garden, but if you will wait here in the foyer, I will inform her that you have arrived.”
Oliver stood with his hat in his hand, taking in the details of the grand entryway—gleaming marble floors, a sweeping oak staircase, ceiling two soaring stories high—before the unfathomable personage reappeared and said, “Please follow me.” The individual turned and strode away, leaving Oliver to follow or not, whichever suited him.
It suited him to follow.
Oliver had had his share of dealings with some of the motion picture elite, directors and producers and such, so when he was ushered into Bianca’s airy sunroom by her butler, or whatever its title was, he was prepared to be treated like something Her Highness had just stepped in.
The solarium consisted of more windows than walls, and was alive with potted plants: bamboo, palms, other tropical varieties, including a small orange tree in a turquoise ceramic planter that graced one corner. A radio encased in a cherrywood cabinet shaped like a gothic window sat on a sideboard next to the wall. Velvet rugs and streamlined furniture completed the decor.
Bianca LaBelle was draped across a chaise-lounge situated between two feathery fan palms, holding a small, hairy, brown dog in her lap.
Oliver paused between steps. He had never before been face to face with a real movie star. He had known she was beautiful. Her image was everywhere–trade papers, magazines, posters and billboards. But in living color, she was stunning. It was impossible to tell on film how remarkably green her eyes were – spring grass flecked with gold, and almond-shaped over her famously high cheekbones. Her short, wavy bob was a rich, deep brown, glinting with mahogany highlights where the sun shone on it through the windows. She was younger than Oliver expected. On the motion picture screen, in black and white, she looked like a mature woman, but in the flesh it was obvious that she was not long out of her teens. Her expression was wary as she sized him up. Oliver approved of her caution. Hollywood was not kind to young women.
“Mr. Oliver,” the usher announced.
“Thank you, Fee,” Bianca said.
Oliver couldn’t help but cast a glance at the person as he (Oliver decided to call it “he”) withdrew.
Bianca smiled at his poorly masked curiosity. “Fee is my majordomo.”
“Quite an interesting individual.”
“Fee likes to keep people guessing, and is generally quite successful at it.” She put the dog on the floor, and it immediately trotted over to inspect Oliver’s shoes. The beast gave an accusatory “whuff”, which indicated that he was withholding his approval until presented with further evidence. He stalked back to his mistress and flopped down under her chaise. Bianca leaned back and stretched out one long, brown leg, then picked up a glass of something icy from the side table before sliding a languid glance at Oliver. She was barefoot. The man/woman had told Oliver that Bianca had been in the garden when he arrived. She was dressed casually in a plain white cotton shirt with a sailor collar, and a dark skirt. She had tied a wide, bright green scarf around her brunette waves, its long ends trailing down her back. She had on no makeup, which surprised Oliver. These days no actress would let herself be seen without her cheeks rouged, her eyes kohled, and her lips a crimson slash.
Instead of the peaches-and-cream complexion that was all the rage at the moment, Bianca was unfashionably bronze, which made Oliver think there might be some truth to the Mediterranean noblewoman story. Her slender body was long, half legs. A tall woman, yet she had an elfin look about her. Or some sort of not-quite-human-like-the-rest-of-us look, anyway. Oliver braced himself sternly, determined not to be swayed by her otherworldly beauty.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Miss LaBelle.”
She graced him with a nod. “I understand that you are a private detective from Santa Monica.”
“That is so.”
“Now tell me why you made an appointment to trek all the way up here to Beverly Hills to speak with me. How can I help you?” Her voice was low pitched, and she spoke slowly, deliberately. Oliver detected a slight accent, but couldn’t put his finger on what variety of accent it was.
“Last week, a couple of citizens found human remains on the beach near Santa Monica.”
“Bones. Sticking out of a hillside at the foot of the Palisades, just north of the park. Been there a long time. The storm last week finally eroded the hill enough to expose part of the body.”
Bianca seemed unaffected by this revelation, but Oliver noticed that her eyes had darkened. He reminded himself that she was an actress.
“And why did you make a special trip to tell me about these old bones, Mr. Oliver? I’m as interested as anyone in Mr. Carter’s recent discoveries in Egypt, but that doesn’t mean that I know anything about archeology.”
“These bones are nowhere near as old as King Tut’s, Miss LaBelle. I was able to examine the remains before the police removed them. They were still clad in parts of a man’s suit. A nice one, too, from what I could tell. Still had his wallet on him. It was much the worse for wear, but his driving license was still readable. Have you ever heard of Graham Peyton?”
Bianca’s expression didn’t alter, but the atmosphere in the room changed utterly, as though time had paused. “Should I have?”
“Miss LaBelle, screen stars usually can’t keep their pasts a secret or their lives private for long, considering the press’ appetite for every detail about the lives of the rich and famous. But you’ve been pretty successful at keeping yourself to yourself. In fact you’re famous for your air of mystery. The enigmatic Bianca LaBelle, star of the many adventures of the intrepid Bianca Dangereuse, daring journalist.”
“Do you have a point, Oliver?”
“Graham Peyton, if that’s indeed who our body was, was a bag man for whoever needed money physically carried from the east coast to the west. I’ve discovered that he was also well known around Southern California for recruiting high-class prostitutes for the studios. I’ve been told that he specialized in young girls who wanted to get into the pictures. He disappeared off the face of the earth back in the fall of ’21, and from what I hear, nobody much cared except for the people whose money he was transporting. At the time of his disappearance, a Pierce Arrow like the one he drove was found at the top of the bluffs, but no one connected it to Peyton until now. It was generally believed that he either stole a lot of money and left the country, or that he finally ran afoul of one of his business associates and whatever was left of him was feeding the fish in the Pacific Ocean.”