I had never been fired before in my whole life. I sat there in Frick’s office… Or was it Frack? I could never keep those guys straight because I hadn’t had the job very long. And they were identical twins. Personally, I thought they should have worn nametags. Somebody told me I could tell them apart by their teeth, but that was by the by. Two weeks I’d been working for them, to be precise, but now we had to say farewell.
I listened in disbelief as he said, “We have to let you go.”
“Yes,” Frack echoed. Or was it Frick? “We have to let you go.”
“You’re too expensive.”
“Yes, you’re too expensive.”
I wondered, as they kept blathering, how many other people in Hollywood had been fired by a Greek chorus?
“It has nothing to do with your job performance. It’s necessary cutbacks. Our bottom line.”
“Yes. Our bottom line.”
“And…unfortunately, our last movie tanked.”
Frack—or maybe it was Frick—didn’t echo the last sentiment. Studio executives hated to admit failure. I already knew the movie had tanked. That’s why they’d hired me, Ky Maxwell, to whip up a groundswell of PR about their new movie. Then they’d gone and fired their Executive Creative Director. I’d had a bad feeling that his job loss would also mean mine. It was the way these things went in Hollywood. Any baby the ECD had hired went out with the bathwater too.
I was really sorry now that I hadn’t listened to all my friends who had told me it was career suicide to leave a big, cushy job at Paramount Pictures for a small company like Lunchbox Productions.
“How many times did you open your lunchbox as a kid and find you had lousy sandwiches?” one of my friends had asked.
I felt just like the guy on JetBlue who opened the emergency exit and jumped off the plane, except that I was being pushed, and unlike him, I didn’t even have time to grab a couple of beers on my way down.
Frick and Frack didn’t shake my hand. They didn’t believe in bodily contact at Lunchbox Productions. Germs, you know. I wished now I’d contracted a galloping case of strep throat to breathe all over them. They pointed to the door, together, as if I had no idea where the damned thing was.
Lucy, the woman from Human Resources, was waiting for me outside what had been my office up until ten minutes ago. I was still in shock. I’d thought Frick and Frack were calling me in to discuss our weekly strategy meeting before marshaling the troops. I’d had no idea they’d been about to shove their boots up my ass.
“You can’t go in there,” Lucy said, barring entry into my office in a dramatic way.
“But my things are in there,” I said. I could see my iPad, iPhone, and iPod in its soundstage dock. These were my personal possessions. I wasn’t going anywhere without them.
She looked askance. She obviously hadn’t expected me to react and she instantly called security on her cell phone, as though I were a dangerous lunatic about to go postal on her. Frick and Frack hid in their offices as security arrived. One of the two armed guards kept his hand on his Taser. I suspected he was itching to use it. I remained calm as he escorted me into the office so I could remove my things.
Lucy scurried in with a form for me to sign. “Would you like an exit interview?” She clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oops, sorry,” she said when she removed it. “That’s only for people who resign.” She gave me a pleading glance. “Please don’t tell them I screwed up.”
She gave me a shaky smile and dangled my paycheck like a carrot. I had to sign the waiver exempting the company from any future lawsuit in exchange for getting two weeks’ severance. I signed Donald Duck, not that she noticed. I took the check out of her hand. She was too busy staring at the security guard, who was, by anyone’s standards, a handsome guy. We’d dated a couple of times the week I’d started work. Joe’s addiction to steroids and lengthy gym sessions, and my addiction to long hours of work, had kinda killed things for us.
I’d liked Joe, but my less than enthusiastic response to evenings spent doing stomach crunches had wrecked any chance of a romance. I thought he was still pissed that I’d stopped returning his calls. He stared at me, his thumb caressing the Taser on his tool belt.
Time to boogie.
He waited patiently for me to cram my last Heath bar into my briefcase from my chocolate stash in the top drawer.
“You and candy.” He shook his head.
Lucy acted surprised. She glanced at me. I shrugged my shoulders. Let her think…and wonder.
Joe and his partner escorted me outside. They were both so bulked up they could hardly put their arms down to their sides. I felt like a criminal. As I left my office, I peered over my shoulder and discovered that my replacement was already moving into my nice, two-week-old swivel chair. I wasn’t surprised to see that it was my assistant, Alessa Thompson. I had brought her with me from Paramount.
Et tu, Brute?
I felt bruised more by her shoe joining the others up my ass than losing the job itself. Now I understood why she’d been sniffing around my desk the past couple of days. She’d been trying to figure out what I was up to. I’d been in the midst of organizing a massive marketing campaign with McDonald’s. Without my contacts, she wouldn’t know where to begin. I’d only ever given her limited access to my stellar list of go-to people. I had password-protected my phone, but my iPad was still too new for me to have programmed much into it.
Outside in the parking lot of Universal Studios, where small production companies came and went like take-out meals, I handed Joe my parking pass as I stuffed my belongings into the trunk of my treasured Mini Cooper. I loved that damned car, but it had scared me since the day I’d bought it. It was so tiny and with all the idiots driving massive SUVs in LA, I was always petrified some goofball would steamroll right over me.
Who knew the steamroller would be two humans who couldn’t rub a couple of brain cells together?
Alessa. God! Alessa was not only my assistant, but one of my best friends. This would sure cast a pall on all those weekend brunches. They’d hired her, not because she was better than me, but because she was cheap. And as I always liked to say, you get what you pay for.
Joe took the parking pass from me, examining it carefully between his thumb and forefinger, holding it up to the sun, squinting as though I might have had time between getting sacked and being escorted from the premises to create a dummy duplicate. Nope. The only dummy duplicates on the lot were Frick and Frack.
“Sorry it didn’t work out,” he said.
“Yeah, me too.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking about our dating life or my job, but felt that my response covered all the bases. I sat behind the wheel for a moment. Where did a guy like me, whose whole life had been work, work, work, go when he suddenly found himself…unemployed?
I drove off the lot, incredulous as I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw that Joe was still standing there in a half-crouched position—hand on his Taser, ready to strike. I thought about giving him a finger wave, or maybe backing up and knocking him down, but in my brief experience with him, he didn’t strike me as being the type with a sense of humor—especially when he had murder on his mind.
A surge of sadness engulfed me as I sailed past the buildings that had become a big part of my daily life. I’d dreamed of Hollywood success from the time I was a little kid. I loved studio lots. I belonged on them. What the heck would I do now?
At the Technicolor gate, I waited for the lights to change. It cheered me up to no end when I realized that sacking me had been a Band-Aid on a major arterial bleed. Frick and Frack were panicking. They were in deep trouble and would no doubt be out of a job themselves by the end of the next financial quarter.
Lunchbox Productions had turned out two turkeys in a row and before I’d even joined them, the studio had been rejecting every screenplay they wanted to produce. Now their latest project, an animated feature, had lost its director, and its key marketing platform, thanks to giving me the chop. They’d made a colossal mistake.
I moved forward as the lights turned green. I waved goodbye to the guy in the security booth. He was too busy texting with one hand and picking his nose with the other to pay me any attention, but I waved anyway. I wanted it to matter that Ky Maxwell was on his way out. Over and out. Done. Done like a dinner.
When I was working, I made constant lists all day long of what I would do if I had free time. My lists usually included drives up the coast, walking on the beach, spas, saunas, long lunches with old friends… Now that I had all this free time on my hands, I didn’t want to do any of those things.
I drove south of Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, to my apartment on the corner of Maxwell and Laurel Canyon. It had tickled me from day one that my name was Maxwell and I lived on Maxwell. Now that it was the morning for weekly street cleaning and there was no parking to be found for half a mile, I wasn’t enjoying it so much. Being at work all day, I’d missed all this fun. I parked several blocks away, read the complicated and conflicting street signs, took a deep breath and hoped I’d parked legally. I unpacked my truck and stomped off home with my belongings.
My apartment was half of a small bungalow. There were two—one in the back of the property, the other in front. I was in the front half and it was both a blessing and a curse. I got plenty of sun, but also plenty of intrusive property developers who dropped by daily, wondering if I wanted to sell my place so they could bulldoze it in favor of some hideous ‘multi-family dwelling’, as they liked to call it.
I dropped my stuff inside the door, and my golden retriever, Phantom, came running to greet me. He was the world’s sweetest dog—and the hairiest, too. In spite of frequent grooming, he left a wad of blond fur wherever he went. I could tell every place he’d been. For example, I could tell he’d slept on multiple spots on the sofa, his bed, a couple of chairs, and if I checked the bedroom, I was certain I’d see fur there, as well.
His dog walker, Tammy, was a nice enough lady, but she didn’t seem to do much with him. I paid her to walk him each afternoon, but he was always anxious to pee when I arrived home. I checked my watch. Too early for her now. I leashed my best friend and walked him down the street. We didn’t get very far since Phantom was too busy stopping to sniff and squirt each and every blade of grass. We were just in time to see my car being towed right past us.
I flagged down the tow truck driver, who wasn’t going to release my vehicle at first, until he saw I had a cell phone and was about to dial nine-one-one.
He finally relented, dropped the vehicle, and charged me a whopping two hundred dollars. He had tried to tack on impound fees of another hundred but had no choice but to scratch those.
With my car now resting in a truly illegal spot, I had no choice but to jump in and drive. Phantom thought it was Christmas and stuck his head out of the window. I called around to a few friends and discovered that my best friend, Angus, was at the Mulholland dog park with his dogs, Zoe and Justice.
Phantom thought it was a cool idea to head on down there and we did. I quite liked the speed with which Laurel Canyon moved. I was used to choking, bumper-to-bumper, peak hour traffic. I would have relaxed, except that I remembered bad things happened in threes. So far, I’d lost my job, gotten my car towed, and God knew what would happen next.
We found parking in the small, cemented lot at the dog park. Phantom’s ass swayed in my face as he bent down, looking for tennis balls under the passenger seat. His head popped back up. He’d found a treasure, now firmly embedded between his teeth. Phantom was the nicest dog in the world until you tried to separate him from a ball. Then he would growl and snap and bark. Oops…and bite.
I parked and opened the gate from the parking lot to the enclosed stretch of green that had been designated as off-leash fun for dogs. Nestled in the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, the small strip of park was a gift from the city. It operated from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon. After that, the city’s animal control units enforced closure. Being part of the wild was great fun, until late afternoon when coyotes started coming down from the mountains hunting for food. The inspectors made sure you and your dog were nowhere near the park by then. A dog running around was like ringing a dinner bell and the city did not want to deal with lawsuits.
A lot of celebrities brought their dogs here and were actually fun when they were in the park. It was hard to act hoity-toity with your feet stuck in mud and a poop bag in your hand. I noticed a few of them had grouped off and we exchanged nods and greetings.
Ah, this was the life. A genteel start to the day.
Angus had parked himself on a bench, a gigantic Starbucks cup in his grip. He waved to me. Ten o’clock in the morning and he seemed all relaxed and happy, but I knew this was a front. He was in the midst of anguished rewrites on his new screenplay. I found a space beside him on the bench. The other two ‘dog parents’ sitting beside him scooted over. I caught a whiff of the women’s conversation. Online dating.
I’d had enough dramas of my own with that particular topic. I focused instead on Angus. An actor and writer, he was working on a new screenplay that already had some heat on it. He’d mostly acted until a couple of years ago, and now writing was his passion.
Phantom chased off every dog that attempted to get close to his ball and dropped the gooey thing at my feet. He waited for me to chuck it for him. His obsessed gaze, lolling tongue… He was a man-dog, ready for action. This was a relentless game, but one he never tired of. He panted, his big, warm brown eyes on his toy. As it soared through the air, his head snapped in that direction and he chased after it, his body moving like a furry bullet.
He brought it back, dropping it at my feet. I tossed it again.
“So, what happened?” Angus asked. At thirty-seven, he was four years older than me. He was as dark as I was fair. We’d been friends for fourteen years and I loved him like a brother. He’d sworn off relationships years ago until he’d met the divine and hunky Santos, a Mexican soap opera actor. They spent half their time in California, the other in Tijuana where Santos taped his show. The amazing thing was that Santos’ soap opera was the most popular show on TV in California. If you looked at the ratings, the true TV ratings, the top five TV shows were all Spanish language shows.
I liked Santos, even though he’d kind of stolen my best friend. Angus and I still talked every single day and saw each other almost as often.
I told Angus the whole sorry-assed story. He commiserated then mentioned that Santos still wanted me to handle some PR work for him. I didn’t mind and was happy to do it, except that to give him the kind of media representation he needed, I had to learn Spanish and mine was rudimentary at best.
“How are the Rosetta Stone language lessons coming along?” Angus asked, apparently reading my thoughts.
“Great,” I lied. I had to get back into it. And I would. Really, I would. Santos’ series was so huge the producers were considering a deal where he’d get to shoot the whole thing in California, just to make him happy. If he did, then I was a goner. I’d be forced to do his PR. I’d have no more excuses.
He was a handsome guy, Angus. Tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed. He and Santos had the kind of relationship I envied. They adored the hell out of each other. Santos loved everything about Angus, including his French bulldogs, Zoe and Justice. Since they were the most irritating dogs alive, this was saying something.
Angus returned Santos’ feelings. He adored everything about Santos, including weekly trips to TJ, which in the current political climate meant frequent and sometimes lengthy security checks at the Mexican border. Their vehicle was constantly inspected and Santos was always checked and double-checked coming back into the US.
“You should call Catalina,” Angus said.
Phantom nudged me with his nose. I bent and tossed the ball to him again. He took off running.
Catalina was my former boss at Paramount.
“She hates me,” I whined.
“No, she doesn’t hate you.” Angus stared at me. “You’ll get a job, Ky. You’re the best.”
“Call her now.”
It was a good suggestion, but cell phone reception in the canyon was dicey. I checked my phone, saw that I had a couple of bars, so I called. I got her voicemail and left her a message.
“You should see if you can get some unit publicity on Steve’s movie,” Angus suggested. That was a good idea. Unit publicity meant doing PR for a movie as it was in production, planting stories in all kinds of media, creating interest before the movie had even finished shooting.
I called him, got another voicemail and left a message for Steve, too.
“Come over and hang out for a bit. We’ll brainstorm and have some lunch,” Angus said.
It cheered me up to know we were seeing our most treasured friends but Phantom, who adored Angus and his two unlovable dogs, ignored everything and everyone at the park. He seemed fixated suddenly with a man in the parking lot. I don’t know what made me glance up at the precise moment I did, but you might call it instinct. I noticed a guy getting out of a Jaguar convertible and letting out a black Labrador.
The dog cantered over to the gate, tail wagging as it saw all the dogs on the other side. The driver wore a cap and sunglasses. I couldn’t tell where he was looking since his eyes were hidden, but he opened the gate and the dog romped into the park. It stood for a moment, hesitating, until a couple of the other dogs ran to it. As if uncertain about proceeding, the dog turned to its master, who just stood there, as though he was about to come inside, too.
He didn’t. The group of us on the bench watched the driver watching the dog for a few minutes. I had a weird feeling about the guy. Really bad. He closed the gate softly, watching the dog playing, and I began memorizing his license number. I was stunned, yet not really, when the man chose his moment and turned, racing to his car. He drove off with a squeal of his tires.
“Think he’s coming back?” one of our bench companions asked. I recognized her now as a makeup artist on the TV show Criminal Minds. She was a nice lady who had a strange habit of showing up in her pajamas but was otherwise an entertaining conversationalist.
“No,” Angus and I said in unison.
We glanced at each other. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident. We’d seen people dump dogs here before, thinking that pet owners would feel sorry for their abandoned pooches and give them a home.
The dog kept playing and the four of us on the bench decided which of us would give the poor thing a temporary home until we found her a new one.
“I’ll take her,” Angus said after the dog padded over to him and put her head on his knee. “You don’t need more responsibilities right now, Ky.”
He was right. I felt sad, though. The dog seemed sweet.
Phantom lapped at the communal bowl of water one last time and joined me at the gate as we left together.
We followed Angus to the canyon home he shared with Santos on Woodrow Wilson Drive. Parking on his street was a nightmare. It was winding and narrow and difficult to navigate a decent angle to park, but we managed. I could already hear Angus’ dogs barking inside his house when Phantom and I got to the front door. All four dogs made themselves comfortable in the postage-stamp-sized terraced back yard.
“Hey,” Santos said, greeting me with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. He looked amazing. He was about the most handsome man I’d ever seen—dark hair, chocolatey eyes and a killer smile, minus the ego of mainstream Hollywood celebrities. He worked out all the time due to his acting career, but he wasn’t the type to bore you with the details.
He met the new addition to his family.
“What are we going to call her?” he asked.
“She’s super-sweet, so how about Querida?” I suggested.
Santos laughed. “I love it. Does this mean you’re learning Spanish finally?”
“Un poquito,” I responded. “A little.”
“Huh…same as the last time I asked.” Santos grinned. It was hard to feel sore at him when he spent time lavishing attention on Phantom, who knew he was gorgeous and deserved every second of it.
“You’re out of a job?” Santos asked, incredulous when I told him the news. “We’re shooting the series in LA starting in June, so now you have no more excuses, amigo.”
“Right,” I said. “I can’t wait.” Oh, my God. I have to learn Spanish…and what am I going to do for another two months?
He rustled up treats for the dogs and fielded some business calls while I read over the notes Angus showed me for his screenplay. I had no idea how screenwriters put up with Hollywood. You wrote a screenplay, they said they loved it then twenty different people gave you twenty different sets of conflicting notes. You then had to rewrite the damned thing, incorporating all their suggestions. It was not a career for the thin-skinned, to be sure.
I had read all three drafts of his screenplay and loved it. A contemporary romantic comedy, My Romance was set in Tijuana. It was a switch on the immigration theme because in Angus’ story, boy meets girl, except she lives in Tijuana and refuses to move to LA. He constantly travels south of the border to visit her and soon realizes her father, a legendary mariachi singer, and her brother, who can’t hold a note, are also heavy-duty drug smugglers and coyotes, traffickers of humans across the border into the US.
The girl is just gorgeous and the hero has to get her away from them.
In spite of its ripped-from-the-headlines scenario, it was pitched perfectly as a comedy, especially with Angus’ lengthy time spent in Tijuana with Santos and his family. The plotline was filled with colorful characters, fighting roosters that wouldn’t fight, a ditzy grandfather who kept wandering off, and some superb, crackling dialogue.
Actress Salma Hayek, a dear friend of Santos, was apparently interested in playing the female lead. Angus wanted Santos to have a major part in the movie, as the male lead. That wouldn’t be a problem necessarily. Santos was very closeted, as most actors in Hollywood were, so his sexuality was no big deal. He played a straight lothario on his soap opera and women adored him.
The problem was that he was a huge name in his country—not the US. Not with English-speaking TV fans, anyway. The studio brass wanted a big American name for the movie.
This wasn’t the problem with the screenplay, however. The notes had come from all the executives involved with the production. Every screenplay produced in Hollywood ended up being written by a committee. I could tell it was killing Angus and the ball had only just started rolling.
“So, we produce it ourselves,” Santos said after finishing a call. “Forget about the studio, querido. We’ll get funding and we’ll bring Ky in to promote our first movie together.”
I liked that idea.
“You think we can?” Angus asked, worry etched into his lovely features.
“Of course we can. We should get some big star, a big crossover name to play the father. If he can sing, all the better.”
I stared at Santos as Angus leaned across the table and kissed him. “Your wish is my command. You are the most talented man I know, querido.”
I almost swooned myself.
Santos was a magician, among his many other attributes. I didn’t know how he did it, but in ten minutes he made flaming chicken fajitas, killer guacamole and a pitcher of margaritas. He even called the cops to file a report on the Jaguar-driving dog dumper.
“I can’t believe them,” Santos said, aghast at the end of his call. “They said if it was his dog, he had the right to do whatever he wanted with it. They said to call them back if and when he dumps a kid.” He shook his head. “They don’t seem to understand. Any monster who would do this to an animal could easily do it to a kid.”
We toasted Querida’s good luck, each other’s good health and good fortunes, and they soon made me laugh with their outlandish suggestions for my temporary employment.
While Santos favored my taking a job at Starbucks as a barista because coffee was my drug of choice, Angus felt I wasn’t yet done with lunches.
“How about Subway?” he asked. “You’re a born sandwich maker.”
I shuddered. “I never want to see another lunchbox again.”
“I know! I know!” Santos slapped his thigh, laughing so hard he almost couldn’t get the words out. “You could work for one of those cell phone stores. You know…they’re all over the boulevard, with guys holding up big foam hands pointing to the stores.”
“You think I’m qualified?” I deadpanned.
My cell phone rang. It was my former boss, Catalina.
“I got you a job interview on the lot here,” she said without preamble.
“Oh, my God, you’re fantastic, Cat!”
“Don’t thank me yet. It’s not a studio job. It’s with an indie production company, Heaven Sent Pictures.”
“Never heard of them.”
“They’re new. They just got the green light to do three sci-fi movies shooting in New Zealand, using all of Peter Jackson’s old Lord of the Rings sets. The studio down there wants to make some money with them, since the sets are just sitting there.”
“Really?” I found my enthusiasm waning just a little. That meant I’d have to go to New Zealand. I had no desire to go to New Zealand. But I couldn’t say that. I made all the right, appreciative noises.
“There’s just one catch,” she said.
Another one? New Zealand isn’t bad enough? “Oh, what’s that?”
“The creative director, Lisa Bird, is a real cuckoo—pardon the pun. She wants your birth details to do an astrological chart on you before you go in there. And be prepared. She’ll probably do a psychic reading, too.”
“Aw, geez,” I said. “Isn’t it illegal to press one’s religion on their employees?”
“It’s no big deal. It’s not a religion. She says it’s for entertainment purposes. She thinks she’s got the gift of clairvoyance.”
“And does she?”
“No idea, doll. I gave her your birth date from your job file here, but I need your actual time of birth and the city where you were born.”
This blew monkey chunks. I couldn’t believe the crap I had to go through just to get a frickin’ job. It was bad enough that employers wanted to run credit checks on you and drug test you too, not that these things were a problem for me. An astrological chart just seemed to cross the line from sanity and drive bang-slap into straitjacket territory.
“Okay,” I said. “I was born at six p.m. in Summerland, California.”
“You’re a native? How weird. You’re so normal. Most native Californians are usually so wacky.”
“Like Lisa Bird?”
Cat laughed. “I’ve missed your sense of humor, hon. I’ll convey all this to her. I’ve scheduled you for an interview tomorrow at ten a.m.”