Cast the First Stone: New Excerpt

Cast the First Stone by James W. Ziskin is the 5th book in the Ellie Stone Mysteries series (available June 6, 2017).

Set in Los Angeles in the rain-soaked month of February 1962, Cast the First Stone is the fifth book in the Ellie Stone series of mysteries. Ellie is a Manhattan transplant living and working as a newspaper reporter in the small upstate New York mill town of New Holland. She describes herself as a “modern girl,” which means she enjoys her drink and the occasional night in a man’s bed.

Ellie has been dispatched to Los Angeles to profile a local boy, Tony Eberle, who’s landed the second male lead in a real Hollywood picture. True, it’s only a teenage beach bash movie, but all the folks back in New Holland expect stardom for the hometown hero. The only hitch is when Ellie arrives on set to interview Tony, he’s AWOL on the first day of shooting, and the director fires him from the picture.

Two days later, the movie’s producer is discovered dead in a ravine three hundred feet below his Hollywood Hills mansion, and the police want to talk to Tony Eberle.

In Cast the First Stone, Ellie’s path leads her deep into the secretive demimonde of closeted gay Hollywood. As she digs into Tony Eberle’s disappearance, she confronts her own prejudices about a world she knows only through lingering doubts about her own late brother’s sexuality.

In this excerpt, we get a glimpse of Ellie in her element: a bar. Her sparkling wit and unique powers of observation are on display in this interaction with a handsome man who makes a pass at her on a rainy evening at Musso and Frank Grill in Hollywood.

Excerpt from Chapter 10

The joint wasn’t exactly jumping. At ten thirty, diners filled only a few of the booths and tables; the rain had chased away most of the patrons. I found a seat at the empty end of the long mahogany bar. Within seconds, the friendly bartender in a red waiter’s jacket, complete with epaulettes and brass buttons, poured me a healthy two fingers of Scotch, winked at me, and called me sweetheart. I sipped my drink, savoring the sting on my tongue and in my nose. The first bite of whiskey. I felt I deserved it after my disappointing day. In fact, I felt I deserved the second drink as well, which I ordered a few minutes later.

“Is this seat taken?”

I turned to see who’d interrupted my thoughts, and my gaze came to rest on a tall, handsome, athletic man with thick black eyebrows and a strong chin. He stood above me in a blue suit and silver tie, his eyes trying to draw me in as if with a rope. He had a cigarette wedged between the fore- and middle finger of his right hand, and he wore a gold Omega watch on his left wrist.

I shrugged. “It’s a free country. But I must warn you I’m not looking for company.”

“I’ll take that as your opening offer. We can negotiate from there,” he said, appropriating the chair next to me.

He signaled to the barkeep, who seemed to recognize him and know what he was drinking.

“Chuck Porter,” he said to me, holding out a hand.

I took it, debating whether to give him my real name or not. I figured there was no harm. Mr. Chuck Porter probably trolled this place nightly, tossing out his net to see what he might snare. A pretty actress on the make for a steak dinner and a couple of drinks. Maybe a girl looking for a rich friend to help with the rent in exchange for the occasional evening of thrills. Or even a naive out-of-towner. Well, I wasn’t in the market for steak or a roll in the hay, and I could certainly buy my own drinks. Ultimately, though, I found him just charming enough to bear, and I resisted the urge to tell him to push off.

“A pretty girl like you should smile,” he said. “Come on. I’ll bet you’ve got a beautiful smile.”

“I smile when someone says something funny.”

“Good one,” he said with a chuckle. “So, does Ellen come here often?”

“I don’t know about Ellen, but Ellie doesn’t. First time.”

The bartender slid a Manhattan under his nose.

“There you go, Mr. Alden.”

My new friend blushed and cleared his throat. He took a drag of his cigarette then stubbed it out in the ashtray on the bar.

“I use a different name here,” he said in a low voice, almost a whisper, by way of an explanation. “Just for business purposes, you understand.”

“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.”

“I told you I’m not looking for company.”

He shrugged and took a swig of his Manhattan. “You’re not waiting for someone, are you? If so, say the word, and I’ll withdraw to lick my wounds at the other end of the bar.”

“Actually, I was hoping William Hopper might drop in and sweep me off my feet.”

“William . . . William Hopper the actor? Paul Drake?” Chuck couldn’t tell if I was joking or not. A strike against him in my book.

I giggled. “Wishful thinking. I’m not meeting anyone, Mr. Porter. I came in from the rain for a drink.”

“That’s your second drink,” he said. “And please call me Chuck. We’re old friends by now.”

I retrieved a cigarette from my purse and lit it.

“You should know that I have a horror of men who keep track of how much I drink,” I said. “Or who watch me secretly from across the room. Perhaps you’re a spy after all.”

“Duly noted. Apologies, Ellie.”

“Ellen.”

“Sorry, Ellen. It’s just that you caught my eye,” he continued without missing a beat. “You can’t blame a fellow for appreciating a pretty girl.”

We sat quietly for a minute. I didn’t mind chatting with him, but he was mistaken if he thought he was striking gold this evening.

“Do you know Ray Charles?” he asked, breaking the silence.

“The singer?” I asked. “I’ve never met him, if that’s what you mean.”

“Would you like to?”

“Tonight? At Capitol Records?”

Chuck smiled and said no. “Next week he’ll be in town to record his new LP. Not with Capitol, but he’s a friend of mine. I could pull some strings.”

I thanked him but said that while I appreciated Ray Charles, I was more of a Sam Cooke kind of gal.

“You wouldn’t know him, by any chance?” I asked.

He didn’t. Strike two. But over the course of the next twenty minutes, Chuck treated me to war stories about the music business. He was a producer, so he said, and knew almost anyone who’d ever strummed a guitar, tickled a piano, or banged a drum. For fun, I asked if he’d ever met Fritz Wunderlich. He shook his head. Then he told me he worked in the movies, too. Rather some of the singers he handled did. What is it that makes some men fall in love with the sound of their own voices?

“Have you ever heard of Rockin’ Johnny Bristol?” he asked.

Strike three. Johnny Bristol was exactly the type of teen idol that I couldn’t stomach. All teeth and hair and muscles, with a pedestrian voice and a stringless guitar for a prop.

“Not my speed,” I said, nodding to the bartender for one more drink.

Chuck tried to pay for it, but I refused. I might have enjoyed passing some time chatting with the big side of beef, but I wanted there to be no confusion in his mind as to my intentions. He took it like a man.

“What brings you to Los Angeles?” he asked, changing the subject.

“What makes you think I don’t live here?”

He smiled indulgently.

“Is it that obvious?”

“You’re quite a looker. Not at all provincial. But once you’ve spent some time in LA, you can spot the interlopers pretty easily.”

“I’m in LA to meet someone,” I said cryptically.

“A man?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“A love affair?”

“Nothing like that. I’m a reporter, here to interview an actor.”

“Let me guess,” he said. “Rock Hudson?”

I shook my head.

“Tony Curtis?”

“No one as famous as that.”

He thought hard, scratching his head and squinting at the light. “Then it must be Ed Wynn.”

“You’ve never heard of this fellow,” I said, trying to sip my drink with a huge grin on my lips. Chuck Porter was cleverer than I’d thought. “He’s just a young actor from a small town.”

“Try me. I know a lot of people.”

This Chuck Porter refused to take a hint. I asked him if he knew Paul Newman to get him off my back.

“Afraid not,” he said. “But I once spilled a drink on Joanne Woodward in the Beverly Hills Hotel bar. She was quite gracious, considering it was a bloody Mary and she was wearing a white silk dress.”

I’d had my fill. While it was mildly amusing to listen to Chuck Porter/Alden talk about himself, I’d originally intended to enjoy a quiet drink by myself as I tried to sort out what I might do to find Tony Eberle. Now, three whiskeys in, I felt my faculties punching out for the day. Suddenly I was annoyed at this man who’d deprived me of my own time.

“I doubt I would have been as magnanimous,” I said. “And before you spill your Manhattan on me, I’ll say good night.”

My words seemed to sting him, like alcohol in the eye. He straightened up and cleared his throat. He put on a brave face, trying to mask the affront with bravado before managing to fashion a counterfeit smile out of his pursed lips. He fished into his breast pocket and produced a business card.

“If you change your mind, Ellie, let me know.” His curled lip told me he knew I’d been pulling his leg about my name.

I pointed out that the number and address were in New York.

“I live in New York but spend most of my time out here. I’m staying at the Roosevelt Hotel, room 135.” His eyes offered one last invitation.

 

Copyright © 2017 James W. Ziskin.

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James W. Ziskin is the author of the Ellie Stone mysteries Styx & Stone, No Stone UnturnedStone Cold Dead, and Heart of Stone―a 2017 Edgar Award nominee. A linguist by training, Ziskin was director of New York University's Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò for five years, where he collaborated with an impressive catalog of writers, journalists, and academics on cultural and educational events.

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