Author's Note: So this story is going to be a little bit of a departure for me. It's going to go back into the territory from whence my best stories have come – the completely alternate universe, informed by the show Chuck, but not restrained by it.
This story will furthermore take place in an alternate Los Angeles from the one we know today. In this Los Angeles, the Sunset Strip of the 1920s – a rancid stretch of whorehouses, gambling halls, and speakeasies – evolved not into the two miles of trendy bars and nightclubs we know today, but rather into what really would have been a more logical progression – a strip of casinos similar to what we see in modern-day Las Vegas.
Though this is undoubtedly a Chuck story, you will notice that characters from Castle and SouthLAnd – most notably Richard Castle – are present in the story. Consider it a crossover for that reason if you will; however, I do not, because as little as this story has to do with the canon of Chuck (one MAJOR exception aside), it has even less to do with the canon of the other two shows.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy. If any part of this story confuses you, or you have questions, please feel to let me know. I plan to make available a map of the Sunset Strip of this story so that those of you familiar with Los Angeles have an idea of what's going on geographically.
Finally… and this is the first time I've ever done this… if you like the story, won't you leave a review? Reviews, though certainly not the motivation for writing, are always gratifying for the author.
The following excerpt is the preface to Richard Castle's 2011 non-fiction novel, Fake Empire: The Battle of the Sunset Strip (Simon & Schuster, New York. Available from Barnes & Noble or Borders for $29.95; Amazon for $26.95; Kindle edition for $17.95).
"Sunset Boulevard, twisting boulevard, secretive and rich, a little scary…
Sunset Boulevard, tempting boulevard, waiting there to swallow the unwary."
When I was nineteen years old, struggling to find my footing in the great, dangerous world of mystery fiction novelists, I had occasion to have an accidental face-to-face encounter with Andrew Lloyd Webber. My mother, attempting to revive her flagging career following her ignominious departure from the soap opera Falcon Crest, had agreed to meet with Mr. Webber as he was developing his musical adaptation of the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard.
He had chosen to turn to my mother because, despite the untimely demise of her last character, she was nonetheless a well-known actress and a reasonably respected authority on Sunset Boulevard. Having moved to Los Angeles just after my birth in 1971, she had initially lived in a squalid little hovel – at least, that's what she calls it; I personally have no memory of it – but once her role on Another World took off, she quickly moved into the Chateau Marmont – at the time, the cornerstone of the Burton casino empire on the Sunset Strip.
When I ran into Mr. Webber, he wanted my opinion on the nature of the Sunset Strip. I asked him why. "You're nineteen years old," he told me. "You lived in two different worlds – the world of high money, glitz, and glamour on the Sunset Strip – and an entirely different world, all of, what, half a mile away?"
It was a mile and a half, actually. A mile and a half from the Chateau Marmont to Fairfax High School – someplace where I was blessed with relative obscurity. My mother's name was QUITE well known throughout Hollywood by the time I was in high school, so I chose to adopt her mother's maiden name – Castle. There was no way that anybody would connect Richard Castle with Martha Rodgers, and that was the way I liked it.
So I told Mr. Webber what he wanted to know. I told him that off the strip, as long as I never, ever told anybody that my last name was Rodgers, I was fine. However, I couldn't set FOOT in a single casino on the Sunset Strip without being immediately recognized.
Now, unless you've been living under a rock, you know that the Sunset Strip is essentially what the Las Vegas Strip would be if it had any class. A collection of two dozen hotel-casinos, the oldest one built in 1927 and the newest – Woody Woodcomb's glittering abomination, the Viper – built in 2008, it fits to a T the description you find in the title song from Mr. Webber's musical. And up until just after my eighteenth birthday, in 1989, I was essentially royalty there.
What you have to understand is that from the early 1950s onward, the Sunset Strip was controlled largely by two families – the Woodcomb family and the Burton family. There were a couple of outliers here and there – Larry Flynt's bizarre little Hustler Casino at the west end of the strip, Richard Branson's Virgin Casino, and Howard Hughes' old Garden of Allah, which bounced from owner to owner after Hughes' death until Magic Johnson finally purchased it in 1993. But most of hotel-casinos on the strip belonged either to Terry Woodcomb or Mick Burton.
Terry Woodcomb and Mick Burton were a pair of gentlemen who genuinely liked one another. Their courtside tickets to the Lakers were right next to one another for years; they would travel to conventions together; they would often host large events on the strip as joint events. And they raised their sons – Terry's son Walter, who went by Woody, and Mick's son, Jack – right next to each other, intending for them to take over the Sunset Strip and continue running things as they had.
And the two young men did just that – or so it seemed. In 1985, Terry Woodcomb and Mick Burton held a joint press conference, announcing that they were retiring and turning control of their respective casino empires over to their sons. Jack Burton was more than content to continue running things the way his father had.
Woody Woodcomb, however, was an ambitious little bastard.
Okay, maybe that's an unfair assessment. But we'll get back to that in a moment.
In 1988, Woody Woodcomb started going after the Burton empire with a vengeance. Claims of sabotage, financial tampering, general mayhem started cropping up at the Burton casinos, but nothing could ever be proven. But the real killing blow to the Burton casino empire came in early 1989, when a fire at the old Empress Hotel – where the Standard is today – gutted the building, killing 34 guests. The Los Angeles Fire Department initially found an enormous amount of evidence of arson – but somehow, the evidence disappeared as quickly as it was discovered.
Jack Burton was essentially ruined. Forced to pay huge damages to the families of the guests who perished, he sold off almost the entire Burton empire, which Woody Woodcomb was more than happy to snatch up. The only hotel Jack Burton refused to sell was the Chateau – after all, that was the hotel which had given his father his start.
Jack Burton retreated to his cabin in Wyoming, allowing his company to run the hotel. My mother was all but blackballed, having been a vocal and public supporter of Jack Burton from the day his troubles began. And me? Well, I basically became persona non grata on the strip. I couldn't go into a single casino on Sunset Boulevard without almost immediately being unceremoniously dumped on the street.
And people wondered why I moved to New York City for nearly twenty years.
The thing is, I guess Woody Woodcomb just didn't expect the events of the summer of 2010. I was able to serve as a first-hand observer to the events that transpired. In 2008, my wife, former New York Police detective Kate Beckett, had moved to Los Angeles, established residency, and promptly run for and been elected Los Angeles County Sheriff. I, obviously, had moved with her, and having established a tentative truce with Woody Woodcomb, took up residency in the Chateau Marmont once more.
I learned that much had changed in the time I was away. Woody Woodcomb's son, Devon, had expressed an utter disdain for the entire charade of the Sunset Strip, instead going to UCLA medical school, getting his MD, and joining Doctors Without Borders. Desperate for somebody to take over the empire, Woody had turned to Devon's brother-in-law, a young man by the name of Charles Bartowski.
In 2007, Charles – or Chuck, as he prefers to be called – became the chief operating officer for Woodcomb Hollywood Entertainment, Inc. He was basically placed in charge of Woody Woodcomb's thirteen hotel-casinos, and was being groomed to take over the empire when something extraordinary happened.
Now, I cannot truthfully say that there were any black and white good guys or bad guys in this entire story. Really, everybody – even my wife – was a certain shade of gray from front to back. However, one side clearly won the Battle of the Sunset Strip, and quite frankly, I'm glad that that side won.
However, none of it ever would have happened if it hadn't been for the arrival of a new face in town, on May 3rd, 2010. Yes, I remember that day very well. It was the day that the battle really began. It was the day that I got a new neighbor.
It was the day that Jack Burton's daughter came to town.
So, if you have a couple of hours to kill, I'd invite you to sit back and relax. Grab a good bottle of wine, maybe some popcorn. Yes, I know it's a book, but believe me when I tell you, the tale I'm about to impart to you is better than any movie. In fact, if I had known that writing non-fiction could be so salacious and satisfying, I never would have penned a word about Derek Storm.
And so, without any further ado, I present to you this tale… the tale of the Fake Empire.
The Chateau Marmont
May 29th, 2011