|The Fire Season
By J.S. Kierland
The main thing to remember about Southern
California is the sunlight. It sucks the
color out of leaves, the sap out of twigs,
makes human beings small and of no importance.
Nothing changes. Here the oil wells flow
right along, so do the orange trees.
So does everything. It is terrifying.
"But I don't want to go among
mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said
the Cat: "we're all mad here.
I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?"
"You must be," said the Cat,
"or you wouldn't have come here."
Alice in Wonderland
An unspeakable curse had fallen on Nora Marlowe. Her last three films had lost money and she had plunged into the Hollywood void. Autograph hounds looked the other way, her phone calls went unanswered, and the constant weekend party invitations had dried up. She made the usual adjustments: fired her agent, traded in her Mercedes, and began using sleeping pills to get through the night.
On one of those lonely, isolated mornings, Nora heard a chorus of chop-chop sounds drift in her window. The uneven rhythms kept getting louder. She crawled out of bed, flipped her blonde wisps at the full-length mirror, snapped a glistening red fingernail between her teeth, grabbed her sunglasses, and peeked into the stark southern California sunlight. The flash of a machete gleamed near the rosebushes and a shadowy figure, with long jet-black hair, appeared from below. A hard sweat soaked body, swinging in a counter rhythm to the glinting blade, came into view.
Nora lit a cigarette, draped a fluffy pink robe over her shoulders, and stepped out on to the patio. Heading across the bright Mexican tiles she slipped the robe off her shoulders and stretched naked across the long redwood lounger. The dark figure continued to move up the hill and she yelled, "What the hell are you doing here?" The sweat-soaked man froze and she groped for her robe.
"Brush clearing," he said, pointing down the hill toward the crew throwing stacks of dried cut brush into a red paneled truck. "It's the fire season," he said. "Regulations."
Staring down the hill, she asked, "What's your name?"
"Mando," he said, wiping his sweating face.
"Are you a gardener?" The frightened young man looked perplexed. "Gardening?" she asked again.
One of the men called to him from below and Mando waved the machete in answer. "I have to go, ma'am," he said.
"Can you come back later? I'll show you what I need done."
"Si," he said, with a wave. The men in the truck shouted up at him again, and he began to roll the bundles of brush down the hill. Nora went back inside to watch him from the window. When he reached the truck she crawled back into bed.
* * *
Ron Goode had been a Hollywood agent most of his life. He loved the circus of cynical writers, manipulating directors, fast-talking producers, and insecure movie stars. He'd worked for the Morris Office almost twenty years until his lawyer finally convinced him that he should move up in the world and open his own agency. He leased an entire floor in one of Sunset Boulevard's new buildings, got a significant pile of congratulatory telegrams, was slapped with several lawsuits, and made headlines in the trades. He was off to a great start.
Nora Marlowe sent her congratulations to him and inserted a little blue card asking if he'd be interested in representing her. Ron had been a fan of Nora's ever since he saw her first film, The Goddess, well before she'd turned into the star that no one wanted.
"My knight in shining armor," Nora said, curling up on his new coffee colored leather couch in her worn jeans, black tee shirt, and favorite open-toed white heels.
"Did you go over my contracts?" Ron asked.
Nora pulled out the folded sheets. "Signed and delivered."
"I've already got a line on a couple of projects."
"The wronged woman?"
"How did you know?" he said. She forced a laugh and waited for him to tell her the exciting news. "But this role is much more interesting than just being the wronged woman. It's the mother of the wronged woman who has gotten--"
"Yes," he said. "A mother wronged by a man whose about to do the same thing to her daughter."
The suddenness of his explanation smoldered in her stomach and turned into a scorching hatred for the prissy little man on the other side of the coffee table. She immediately thought that signing his contract had been a mistake. She wanted to walk out, but covered her uncertainty with a smile.
"How old is the daughter?"
"Let's just say she's younger."
"I've never played a mother before. Is it the lead?"
"It's the title part. Every actress in town is after it. We have an inside track because--"
"What's the other thing?"
"You said you had a couple of things."
"The other thing all depends on you taking the role in Sins of the Mother."
"Sins of the--"
"Never heard of it."
"Bestseller. Cost NBC a fortune."
"Prime time. It'll go through the roof."
"I've never done TV. Less money...isn't it?"
"All depends. We represent the director."
"She did State of Affairs and Long Time Gone. That's a TV movie and a mini-series. The Sins producers would love to talk with you about this. They think you're perfect for the part." Nora stared back at him. He crossed his legs and said, "Cliff Bloom and Arnie Bellows love your work, darling."
"They should. I've done three pictures for them. I can't believe they're doing TV."
"Everybody does TV."
"You still haven't told me about the other thing."
"Ohhhh, the perfume."
"We've got a manufacturer who'll put a product out with your name on it."
"You mean like Cher and Liz?"
"Even better. It'll be cleaner...if you know what I mean. We're debating what to call it. Marlowe or Deirdre."
"Who the hell is Deirdre?"
"That's the name of the character you'll play in Sins of the Mother. Won't be a big payoff at first," Ron droned on, "but there's a lot of promise at the back end. I'll tell Arnie you'll take the part and we'll start the perfume negotiations right away," he said, signing the contract and handing her a copy.
* * *
Nora took some more sleeping pills, turned on the air conditioner, and crawled into bed with a vodka sea breeze and all her clothes on. She smelled something burning and kept getting up to check the kitchen. Each time she did she poured another drink from the cold container in the fridge. On her fifth trip she heard a knock at the front door. She peeked out at the young man she thought the studio had sent over to deliver The Sins of the Mother script.
"I'll sign for it," she said.
"I'm Mando," the young man told her. "Remember...this morning? You wanted me to work."
"Of course...cutting the brush," she slurred.
"Just in time. The fire's bad."
"What fire?" she asked, and then noticed the thin sheet of ash that had blown into drifts along the pathway.
"Look," he said, pointing to where the potbellied copters poured water on flames running up Mandeville Canyon.
"It won't come over here, will it?" she asked.
"They're trying to cut it off before it jumps the freeway."
The pastel lights in the pool popped on giving a floating glow to the smoky air. A strong licorice smell from the burning chaparral made her nauseous, and the thumping helicopters seemed to overpower her. She snapped her fingernail between her teeth, felt dizzy, and began to shake. Mando helped her into the house. Then it all dropped into blackness.
* * *
She dangled her arm over the bed and reeled in the ringing phone. "Did I wake you?" the voice asked. She mumbled something unintelligible. "It's Ron Goode." She had the phone upside down. "We've got an appointment at Kings Way. Two o'clock."
"I'll be there," she mumbled.
"Don't be late," he said and hung up.
She dropped the phone and it hit the floor with a dull thud. Her clothes were still on. The clock read 11:36. She tried to stand up, grabbed the headboard, and looked into the mirror. A swipe of mascara smeared her cheek. Her diamond ring and gold bracelet were still on, even the Tahitian pearl necklace. She swallowed the dryness in her mouth, tried to remember what had happened, and undressed on the way to the shower.
* * *
Ron Goode's arm steadied her as they walked briskly toward Kings Way Productions where Arnie Bellows waited at the door. "You look fantastic," he said, kissing her on the cheek. Nora smiled, moved towards a large easy chair, and tried to shake off another attack of dizziness. "Got some bad news," Arnie said. "Cliff's house burned down last night in the Mandeville fire so he won't be here. I know it's a bad time to talk business, but I'm excited about this new casting idea."
"Nora's perfect for Deirdre."
"Well, I want you both to know we haven't committed on the part. I'm hoping Nora will test for us right away."
"Jesus, Arnie...a test?" Nora said. "I've done three goddamn pictures for you."
"Ohhhh, you'll do fine. The director just wants to see if you and the kid make sparks together."
"You're using some kid?"
"She's probably scared stiff," Ron said. "We might even squeeze some publicity out of it. Nora coaching her in a scene...that kind of thing."
Nora took a deep breath, waited for the nausea to fade, then said, "I don't mind testing under certain conditions."
"Anything you want, darling," Arnie said.
"I'll let what-ever-her-name-is direct it...but it has to be a scene from the script."
"Done," Arnie said through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
"Great doing business with you guys," Ron said quickly. "Book the studio and give my best to Cliff. We've got two other meetings this afternoon," he lied, taking Nora's arm and heading for the door just as a tall, distinguished man walked in.
"Nora," he said.
"Cliff." She threw her arms around him. "I heard about the house. So sorry."
"What are you doing here?"
"Arnie wants me to test for your new film."
"Gina wants to see Nora work with the kid," Arnie added.
"Why didn't I think of that? You're perfect. Playing mothers could mean a whole new career for you."
The scene began to play like it'd been planned before she'd gotten there. She felt caught in another under-the-table deal and hated these men who pulled and pushed her into whatever they wanted. Goddess, lover, and now mother. "I don't need a damn screen test," she finally said.
"You're right," Cliff answered with a little laugh and it surprised her.
"I promised the director--"
"To hell with the director, Arnie! Let's sign Nora for the part. Give Ron the money he wants as long as it's within reason. There's a tight budget on this one."
"I'll be kind," Ron said.
"Let's do lunch," Cliff whispered to Nora.
"I'd love it. Call me," she said, heading for the door.
Ron caught up with her at the elevator. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you were so tight with Cliff," he said.
"It all went exactly as planned," she mumbled.
The elevator doors sprung open and they got on with the end-of-the-lunch-crowd. Dizziness hit her again. She bit hard on the tip of her tongue, squeezed her hands into fists, and anticipated the elevator's drop. She needed a drink.
* * *
Mando smelled the musty tang of birds even before he went through the large doors where tethered cocks strutted in front of red painted walls. A fat man waved him to one of the benches and asked, "You the guy Tuto sent?" Mando nodded, reaching to shake hands. "I'm Eddie. Tuto told me you speak English." Mando nodded again. "What do you know about cockfights?"
"My father ran them in Monterey where it's legal."
"You're a wiseass, eh?"
"Sometimes," Mando laughed.
"I don't need a wiseass, but I do need someone to collect the bets. I get a bunch of old guys in here and they think it's a social club. If they don't bet I want you to throw them out. Can you handle that?"
"You have to speak English for that?"
"You take their bets in Spanish, you throw them out in English."
"Where do I bring the money?"
"First, you write the bet down and make them sign it. If you don't they'll say you got their bet wrong when their cock loses. Always give them a copy, keep one for yourself, and give the bets to the cage man behind those boxes. We work Friday and Saturday nights. The cocks go at each other at nine. You start at eight."
"I get one dollar over minimum," Mando said.
"Who told you to say that? My friend, Tuto, eh? That sonofabitch! I'm paying fifty cents under minimum. You're an illegal. Take it or leave it."
"I'll take it for now. Then we'll see."
"Be here tonight...at eight. One more thing, only the customers call me Fat Eddie. Nobody else."
"Whatever you say, Boss," he said, and quickly figured that if he could get extra work out of la senora bella up on the hill he could go home sooner than he planned.
* * *
Cliff Bloom invited Nora out to lunch, forgetting that she didn't like to do anything on Fridays. Mondays were her lucky days, not Fridays. It'd been on a Monday when they wrapped their first hit movie and the day he admitted he'd fallen in love with her. Their affair lasted through that year with clandestine meetings at small hotels up the coast. Nora kept asking him to get a divorce but Cliff kept avoiding it. In her frustration she stole the heavy gold ID bracelet off his wrist one night after he'd made love to her. When he discovered it missing he accused the maid of taking it and made the manager fire her. Their brief affair was over at that moment and they both knew it. So on a rainy Friday in Santa Barbara they ended it with a glass of champagne, and a few tears. Cliff produced several films after that. One of them had even been a hit, and she hated him for not casting her in it. This time it'd be different. She'd make sure of that.
"Are you free this weekend?" Cliff asked on the way to the garage. It had taken him over an hour to ask. "Thought you might like to take a drive down to Del Mar with me."
"Sorry, I have plans," she lied. Her new Lexus came squealing down the garage ramp. "Call me in the morning," she said with a wave, drove out into the Rodeo Drive glare, and her cell phone began to ring as she made the right on Wilshire.
"I think we've got a deal," Ron said.
"Someone just told me that they're going to start shooting as soon as I'm signed for the part."
"You're getting inside info."
"Still haven't seen a script though."
"Let's concentrate on the important things. I got you fifty grand a day. Guaranteed two days. You'll have special appearance credit, a honey wagon, and your own parking space. I'm also cutting a deal with a perfumer. And the production company will pay for your star on Hollywood Boulevard the same day the show premieres. Your career is just beginning," he said. "Gotta go. I'll call you when I get the contracts."
It all happened so fast she missed the turn on Sunset.
* * *
Ron changed his clothes and headed downtown to The Cage on Fifth. Leather jacket, torn jeans, and shiny cowboy boots still didn't get him past the muscle at the door.
"Clive's expecting me," he said.
"He's getting dressed for the show. AIDS benefit tonight. Twenty buck cover. He does a great job...raises a lot of money for the cause." Ron slipped the guy a fifty. "Go past the bar. Back door," he said.
"Thanks," Ron said, and headed into a sea of smoke where large cages hung from the ceiling with bright feathered macaws and parrots squawking in the haze. Men in leather jackets leaned on the oval bar and talked over the loud music coming out of the lighted jukebox in the corner. The muscle at the back door hung up the phone when he saw Ron coming. "You the one looking for Clive?" Ron nodded and was led through a back alley to a red door. He stepped into the funk of perfume, cigarettes, and sweat. "Hello, Clive," he said, edging his way behind the men at the long, cracked mirror putting on makeup.
Clive was tall and thin with long flowing red hair. When he finished lining his large brown eyes he threw a blonde wig over his head and winked at Ron in the mirror. "Who are you promoting this year, mate?" he asked. Ron whispered Nora Marlowe's name in his ear, and Clive snapped to attention. "The ice queen?" Then Ron whispered Cliff Bloom's name. The mascara brush stopped in mid-air. "They've started up again, eh?" he asked. Clive caught Ron's surprise in the mirror. "You didn't know? I thought the uptown crowd knew everything about those two. They tried so hard to keep it hush-hush. Pity."
"I just signed her to do Deirdre in Sins of the Mother," Ron said. "Cliff Bloom's producing."
Clive stopped powdering his nose and raised his thin arms in supplication. "Hallelujah! Perfect casting at last."
* * *
Mando borrowed Tuto's red pickup and drove up the hill to la casa de senora bella's house on the hill. He parked across the street, behind a dented convertible with Nevada plates, and had to ring the bell several times before she came out to the locked gate.
"I'm Mando. We never got to talk because you--"
"I remember," she said, opening the gate.
They headed down the stone path to the patio on the other side of the house. Nora pointed at some dead plants and dried undergrowth. "All this has to be redone," she said.
"Maybe some birds of paradise here. Some hosta for shade."
"Sounds wonderful, errrr..."
"Mando Zapata...and you?"
She couldn't believe he didn't recognize her. "Nora," she said waiting for his reaction. He stared blankly. "When can you start?" she asked.
"How much do you pay?"
"I pay the maid twenty dollars an hour."
"I'll take the same. You have tools?"
"In the shed," she said, opening a door just off the veranda. An array of shovels, loppers, and rakes hung along the walls. "I'll have the nursery deliver--"
The cell phone rang. She stiffened and snapped her fingernail between her teeth. "Hello," she said. "Oh, Cliff, thank you for that lovely lunch yesterday. I would've gone to Del Mar with you but my mother's in town for the weekend. I thought you knew," she said. "She's visiting a sick friend and decided to stay with me. By the way, I've been trying to get a copy of the script. You know, Sins of the Mother. Of course I read the book but scripts can be so different. Thanks, darling. Let's get together soon," she cooed and hung up.
"My mother's not really here," she said to Mando. "You can work as long as you want."
"I'll start at eight. If that's all right?"
Nora nodded and he thanked her. When he opened the front gate he heard a clicking and whirring sound. It stopped when he got into the truck and he saw a movement behind the wall when he made the U-turn to go back down the hill.
* * *
Clive slipped into the grandstand, causing a stir among the old Latinos. Mando collected their bets, took the money to the cage, and went looking for Eddie. "We got a visitor," he told him. "A gringo with red hair."
"He looks like a woman," Eddie said. Clive smiled when he saw them coming. "Listen to what I tell him so you can do this when I'm not here."
"Do you throw them out in Spanish or English?"
"Don't be a wiseass," Eddie said. Clive stood up to greet them. "This is a private club," Eddie told him. "You can't come in here unless you're a member."
"I just want to make a bet like everyone else."
Eddie gave him an annoyed little laugh. "No way. You've got to be a member."
"I've got pretty good connections," Clive said.
"Mando," Eddie said, switching to Spanish. "Throw this faggot out and tell him if he comes back I'll cut his heart out and eat it!" Then he pushed his way back through the growing crowd, leaving Mando alone to deal with Clive.
"What'd he tell you?" Clive asked.
"You better get out of here," Mando told him.
"Is he the owner?"
"We don't want any trouble."
Mando began to shoulder him toward the door but Clive broke away, pulled out a camera and aimed it at the brightly lit area where the cocks were getting ready to fight.
"What the hell are you doing?" Mando shouted in Spanish.
Clive lunged backwards through the crowd. A car door slammed, a motor started, an old convertible spun backwards, slammed into a pickup truck, then roared down the road. The last thing Mando saw was the Nevada license plate and remembered that same car parked on the hill at la casa de senora bella. He walked back to the rows of men waiting for the cocks to be dropped on the dirt floor, collected their bets, took the money to the cage, and kept thinking about the pale man in the convertible with the Nevada plates.
* * *
Nora lit a cigarette, started her morning exercise, and listened to the howling Santa Ana winds. They knocked over garbage cans, spun tumbleweeds, and blew grit through the hot streets. A car door slammed. The red paneled pickup was parked across the street and a shadowy figure stood on the stucco wall behind it. A few minutes later the doorbell rang.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"It's eight o'clock," Mando said. "I've come to work."
"What were you doing over there on the wall?"
"I was looking for a redheaded man with a camera. Yesterday he was here and followed me to work. Took pictures...then ran away. You know who he is?"
"He's come back," she said, pointing down the street.
The man he'd thrown out of Fat Eddie's the night before was walking up the hill with several cameras around his neck. He looked up and down the empty street, snapped several pictures of the red-paneled truck, and climbed over the stucco wall across the street.
"He's after me," she said.
Nora looked up at him in disbelief. "I'm a movie star," she said. "They hate us."
"But why would he come to where I work? And why would he take pictures of my friend Tuto's truck?"
"We better go inside," she said, pulling him into the cool shadows. "There's only one way to deal with them," she said, dialing her cell.
"Hello. This is Nora Marlowe. The actress. Yes. 1135 Chantilly Road. Bel Air. There's a man outside with long red hair. He's been stalking me for days. Yes. He's hiding behind the wall across from my house. Thank you so much."
"I better go," Mando said. "That's not my truck. If the police come they'll want to see my license or a green card."
He started for the door, but she grabbed his arm. "Just go to work like nothing happened," she said. He nodded at her as he opened the door. "You know where the tools are, don't you?"
"Yes," he said, running down the stairs to the patio.
There was a slam of car doors. Two cops circled the beat-up convertible parked down the street. A cracking sound behind the wall made them look up and draw their guns. The man with the long red hair came over the wall with his hands extended as if he'd done it many times before. One of the cops cuffed him and shoved him into the police car. The other cop, wearing street clothes, came to the gate. Nora went out to meet him.
"Is everything all right?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "We'll book him for trespassing. Do you know who owns the red truck?"
"My gardener. He's also been bothered by that man."
"Really? Can I talk to him?"
"He's working on the lower patio. Mando," she called but there was no answer.
"We can do it some other time," the detective said, holding up his report book. "Would you mind giving me your autograph?" She smiled. "To Frank Benedetti would be great," he said. She wrote his name on the report sheet and signed it. "We'll have that convertible towed. He won't bother you anymore."
"Thank you," she said and watched them leave with the red haired man staring at her from the back of the patrol car as it went down the hill.
* * *
Nora stood in front of a blazing set of mirrors while costumers sewed her into a tight red gown. A hard rap hit the dressing room door. "Two minutes!" Activity became frenzied. They led her out onto a spacious sound stage. Cliff Bloom took her arm. Ron Goode moved in next to her on the other side.
"The announcer will enter from the center. We'll meet him out there," Cliff told her.
"It's going to be a blockbuster," Ron said.
A resounding voice on a loud speaker introduced, "the wonderful cast playing these classic roles." Nora heard her name. Cliff led her through the curtain into the hot lights. When they got downstage she smiled at the applause. Cliff did a quick two-step and spun her so the crowd could see the gown. The loud speaker boomed, "Nora Marlowe plays the sensual, desirous Deirdre. Her Versace gown will be worn in the dramatic climax at the Governor's Ball."
Nora moved along the edge of the stage above the rows of photographers jostling for positions. She spun, started back, and heard a high voice calling her. She turned toward it and heard the snapping cameras. Then she saw the gaunt, pale face and the flowing red hair. A sudden fear rose in her stomach and she headed for the wings.
"Nora. Nora. We're supposed to stay out here," Cliff called to her. The costumers scattered as she ran offstage to the dressing room.
Cliff rushed in behind her. "What's the matter?"
"I want to know why that pasty-faced sonofabitch is slinking around my house. Bothering my gardener. Stalking me until I had to have the police come and arrest him. That redheaded shit is out there now. They let him go, and he just took my picture!"
"I'll take care of this immediately," Cliff said.
"And when the hell am I going to get a script?" she yelled, but he'd already gone.
* * *
They were cutting brush when the drab green government cars pulled up with the men in blue uniforms. "Hee-laar! Heeee-laaar!" they shouted. Mando ran through the brush, gulping the hot dry air until his lungs burned. He stopped in a blur of pastel colored houses, braced himself against the hill with his machete, and snaked across the narrow canyon toward the large Spanish house on the crest. He threw himself over the wall and into the shade of the orange-tiled overhangs, landing in an exhausted heap. Before he could catch his breath, Nora stood over him in her white pants, thin black blouse, and a haze of cigarette smoke.
"You didn't come back yesterday. Was it because of this?" She held up a newspaper with the headline, NORA MARLOWE IN LOVE TRIANGLE WITH TV PRODUCER & COCKFIGHTER. "That's me," she said, pointing to her picture. "And that's you."
Mando stared at the picture of the young man with the surprised look on his face. "I come to work, that's all," he said. "I swear it."
"That's all been fixed," she said, and pulled out a green card with his name and picture on it. "All you have to do is fill in the blanks and sign it. My agent will take care of the rest."
He looked down at the newspaper again. The front of Nora's house was spread across the entire page. Below it were pictures of Tuto's truck and Fat Eddie's little plaza de gallo.
"This is why they came today. They arrested my friends and I have no work now."
"Don't worry about that. We'll set up a place for you in the shed," she said, handing him the green card.
He felt his legs cramping as he went up the stone stairs, dropping the machete behind a large yucca plant, and following her into the coolness of the house. She angled the venetian blinds and pointed to a large couch. "You better get some rest. We'll fix up a place for you later," she said. "You don't look well. Don't worry, you'll make even more money than before." He stretched out in the shuttered light, smelled the jasmine, and closed his eyes. She snapped her fingernail between her teeth and waited for the steady sound of his breathing, then picked up the phone and hit the automatic dial.
"Ron Goode here."
"It's me," she said. "He came back exhausted. Had a run in with Immigration."
"Where is he now?"
"Did you give him the green card?"
"Yes. But I'm frightened. Cliff must've done this. He'll do anything to promote himself and his lousy movies."
"The trick is to make the situation work for us. The whole country's going nuts over you and this cock-fighter. In the past two hours I've had five blue chips begging for endorsements and every talk show is screaming for you. It's time to splash the perfume, honey. Incidentally, People Magazine's been crying on my shoulder. They keep whining about you not giving them the story first after giving you all those fluffers."
"I didn't have anything to do with this."
"I gave them an exclusive for next Monday. In my office. We've got the cover too. Your price will go through the roof. Think long term. Give them what they want. Never fails. Got to put you on hold."
The telephone dropped into its soundless void. Nora studied herself in the mirror, fixed the edges of a curl, and thought about what she'd do next. Ron's voice snapped on again. "Just got off with Apple. They want you for their Euro market. Told them I'd get back in ten days. That'll be the week you're on the cover of People."
"I've never done a commercial."
"That's why they'll pay plenty."
"What am I supposed to do with the gardener?"
"Keep him working. Don't let him out of your sight. If things keep rolling like this we'll have to hire bodyguards for the both of you," he said with a giggle, and hung up.
* * *
Nora waited for the chunk-chunk sounds to stop. She'd listened to its dull repetition for hours, watching the fog seep over the patio and spill into the pool lights. It'd been a hectic week. Her scenes for Sins of the Mother had wrapped. She sold out her first run of Marlowe perfume, did two commercials, posed for three magazine covers, and had to hire bodyguards to protect her from the fans who knew where she'd be before she got there. Every night Mando brought in the warmed dinners the cook left for them and they'd watch television. Then he'd go down to the refurbished tool shed. The only time the ritual ever changed was that night.
"I'm going back to Mexico," he told her. "I've saved enough money to buy a house for my mother."
"You'll be coming back though...won't you?"
"I don't think so."
"You can always use more money," she said, but he just stood in the doorway staring at her. "When are you going?"
"Soon," he said, and walked out into the fog.
* * *
Mando stretched across the narrow bed and watched the mist roll up the stairs. He thought about his mother and the trip back, and had almost fallen asleep when the smell of jasmine hit him. He got up and walked out into the warm air wondering if la senora bella had been there or if he'd only dreamt it. He checked the front door. It was locked. Then he heard something at the bottom of the stairs, made the sign of the cross, and hoped it was just a stray cat or passing coyote. He crouched on the wet stairs when he heard the clicking sounds and a pale face came up the stairs through the fog.
"Got some good stuff here. Your fans will love it. You're a big celebrity now," Clive said, taking pictures of Mando as he came up the stairs. "I've created a whole new career for you. Go with it, kid." Mando lunged at him. They crashed against the tool shed, struggling in a clumsy, groping dance. "What the hell are you doing? I'm trying to help you," Clive said, slipping easily out of Mando's grip. A spray of heavy rain suddenly splattered across Mando's head and shoulders. Clive moaned, fell backwards, and blood gushed across his face and down into his shirt. The split in his neck disappeared somewhere behind his bleeding ear and ran up into his matted red hair. Mando reached to help him, but Clive fell into a contorted heap and didn't move.
Below him in the shadows he heard la senora bella ask, "Is he dead?" Bright splotches of blood ran down the front of her robe. His machete hung in her hand. "He's definitely that same sonofabitch," she said. "I can tell by the lousy dye job."
Mando nudged the man with his foot. He didn't move. "We better call an ambulance."
"He must've parked his car down the road so we wouldn't hear it," she mumbled, lifting Clive's bleeding head, taking the cameras off his bleeding neck, and slipping something shiny into his jacket.
Mando saw what she did, and said, "You're not supposed to touch the body."
"Pick him up," she said. "I'll show you where to put him."
"But we're not supposed to-"
"Pick him up!"
Mando heaved the man's body up on his shoulder and followed her down the stairs. She stopped to get a shovel from the shed and went down the path that led under the house. She pointed to a spot. "Dig down along the cement pillar and make sure it's deep enough," she whispered. "He's short, so if he's standing up against the pillar when you cover him they'll never suspect a thing. I'll get rid of the cameras." Mando leaned against the pillar and eased the body off his shoulder. When he looked back she was gone.
The hours passed and he kept digging. He could hear her hosing down the stone steps and saw the water running off into the soil below. He stared at Clive's body, slumped in the half-light, and remembered she'd slipped something into one of his pockets. He kneeled down, reached into Clive's jacket, and found the gold ID bracelet. Cliff Bloom's name was engraved on it but the part with the catch was missing. A few of the gold links had been loosened and he pulled them off and slipped them into his pocket. He carefully wiped the rest of the bracelet clean with his bandana and put it into the gringo's fist. He felt for the gold links he'd put in his pocket and knew they'd be searching for them when they found the main part of the bracelet that he'd squeezed into the gringo's hand. La senora bella would have to pay plenty for the piece he had. She'd have no choice.
He looked up at the thin light beginning to break through the heavy mist. With his last bit of strength he rolled Clive's body to the hole and dropped him up against the pillar. It fit and he mumbled a quick prayer. Then he filled in the grave, hung the shovel back in the shed, and went up the stairs to look for la senora bella. He found her standing naked in the shallow end of the pool, washing the blood out of her pink robe.
* * *
Cliff Bloom and a burly man in a red and yellow Hawaiian shirt came through the front gate. Nora heard the bell ring but didn't answer it. A key scraped in the lock, and she remembered that Cliff had an extra key. She slipped back into the bedroom, staggered out as if she'd been asleep, and surprised the two men coming in the front door. "I'm so glad to see you, darling," Cliff said, kissing her on the cheek. "Got worried when you didn't answer my phone calls."
"Hello again," the man in the Hawaiian shirt waved.
"Back for another autograph?" she asked, recognizing him.
"I'm flattered you remembered me. I just came by to ask you about the man we arrested that day."
"Is he still bothering people?"
"Not exactly," Cliff said. "He's missing."
"We found his car down the street with his keys still in it," Detective Benedetti said. "We were wondering if you'd seen anything--"
"I think he's a photographer," she said. "The last time I saw him he was taking pictures of me at a pre-production party."
"Yesh, that happened right after we arrested him. By the way, I just loved you in Sins of the Mother. I'm glad it was such a hit." She nodded her appreciation. "I never did get a chance to question your gardener though. It might help if--"
"He's putting in ice plants along the hill below the south patio," she said, walking him toward the door.
"Thanks, I'll find him," he said.
She edged toward the kitchen window, tried not to snap her fingernail or seem nervous, and watched him go down the stairs. Benedetti flashed his badge, and Mando reached for his green card. She turned away, opened the fridge, and took out what was left in the pitcher of sea breezes.
"I hope we didn't upset you by barging in like this," Cliff said. "Benedetti just showed up at the office. When he mentioned coming up here I thought I'd better tag along."
"How's your wife?" Nora asked.
"We've decided to get a divorce," he said. "I'm looking for a house." Nora glanced out the window at Benedetti talking to Mando. "I figured we could pick up a nice piece of property if we bought it together," he said. "Tie the knot, so to speak." She looked over at him. He had a slight smile on his lips, but his eyes looked frightened. "I know it's all rather sudden. Especially with this paparazzi business going on."
"Stalkers will be stalkers," she said, draining the sea breeze and letting her tongue linger on a piece of ice. She watched Benedetti point at something under the house.
"No one seems to be concerned about a missing drag queen anyway," Cliff said. "Particularly the cops." Nora stared down at the empty stairs. "We're about to close a deal and start on a new movie," Cliff went on. "We're drawing up the contracts now. This time you'll be part of the production company. Thought we could talk about it over dinner. That new Samoan restaurant up the coast might be nice."
She watched Benedetti turn the corner and come back up the stairs. This time he opened the door without knocking and had an odd expression on his face. "There's a patch of disturbed earth under your house," he said. "The gardener doesn't seem to know anything about it. I'll bring back a couple of men to check it out," he said. "Probably just a wild animal."
"That's very nice of you," she said.
"I try," he answered.
They waited until the front door closed, and Cliff said, "He's certainly efficient. He ought to be in the movie business."
"How did you get in?" she asked.
"I just remembered that I still had your key on my chain, so I used it."
"Oh, of course," she said, smiling and pouring herself another drink. Benedetti's car started down the hill and she noticed a quick movement behind the house at the same time. A figure jumped the low fence and stopped to look back. She recognized Mando. He looked up and saw her at the window. They just stared at each other for a moment and when he turned away she knew he'd be on the night bus back to Mexico in a few hours.
"Got anymore of those sea breezes left?" Cliff asked.
"Help yourself," she said, watching Mando running through the cut brush below.
"Guess I ought to introduce myself to the cock fighter," Cliff said, pouring himself another drink. "The three of us seem to be part of a Hollywood triangle. It's amazing how Ron Goode works these things, isn't it?"
"What things?" she asked.
"That publicity crap he creates in those supermarket trash mags. You know, the cock fighter, producer, and the beautiful actress. Ridiculous. But it works wonders with the viewing numbers."
"I thought you and Arnie did that?"
"Producers always get blamed," he said. "That's because we take the free publicity. Why not? It certainly helped Sins."
She looked down the hill again, but Mando had already disappeared into the brush below. Nothing moved except the shimmer of sunlight on the orange tiled roofs. Cliff finished his drink and headed for the door. "While I'm down there I'll take a look at that patch of dirt Benedetti found under the house. You never know."
She followed him out and when he'd disappeared around the tool shed she took out the machete and the broken piece off the gold ID bracelet she had stolen from him. She wiped them clean, and dropped both under the large yucca plant where Benedetti would be sure to find them. "A little more publicity won't hurt," she mumbled, and went back into the house. She picked up her drink and began to plan the evening. She'd wear something comfortable and dazzling...for the paparazzi.
The main thing to remember about
Southern California is the sunlight.
It sucks the color out of leaves,
the sap out of twigs, makes human beings
seem small and of no importance.
Nothing changes. Here the oil wells
flow right along, so do the orange
trees, so does everything.
It is terrifying.
J. M. Cain