Barbara Hambly. Bride of the Rat God
ONE: WATER OVER THUNDER
Do not go anywhere ...
Find a local guide ...
Stopped amid much confusion and milling about--
it is best to form a partnership ...
Marriage for the Maiden is not yet in the signs--
it will come ...
It was not that here were no warnings.
But for a long time no one believed.
Exhausted, the girl stumbled to a halt. Though clouds were gathering fast over the ebony sky, sufficient moonlight lingered to transform the low ground fog into a chill silver lake that dampened the dark silk of her dress and made it cling with the clammy grip of a spider's web. Her black hair lay in a disheveled cloak about shoulders blanched chalky by the dead light. The blood on her hands showed black as well.
She swung around, startled, enormous eyes straining to pierce fog and darkness, and one hand stole to her throat. In the heavy necklace she wore a jewel flashed, an enormous opal white as the fog. When she took her hand away, the blood on her fingers left three streaks on her alabaster skin.
She began to run again, desperately now, like one who realized there was nowhere to run, no hope of escape. At the cliff's edge she could run no farther. Dark gaped before her suddenly, and she staggered in the tangle of dead vines, staring into the abyss. Her hand fluttered to her mouth; she turned again as if to run back, but a broken branch underfoot gripped the torn silk of her gown like the hand of death. She tugged, sobbing, and in that moment dark forms materialized behind her from the ghostly scrim of mist. They were the men who had pursued her from the cluttered brightness of her lover's bedroom, where lamplight gleamed on a dead man's pooling blood. They were retribution.
The girl sprang back, hands thrust out in wordless terror and denial. Under one high satin heel the cliff edge gave. She grabbed as she fell at the gnarled knots of an old tree root, and for an eternal moment her body dangled like a glimmering pendant above the tossing lake of vapor. The men waded through the ferns, but the black vines clung to their feet, pulling them back as they reached for the bloodied white hands.
Her grip slithered from the wet roots as their fingers brushed hers.
Later they found her in the black jumble of rock, shattered branches, and steel-cold water, the white gem of her necklace shining eerily, like a fragment of alien moon.
"Where on earth did you film that?" Norah Blackstone reached for the curved Cubist rainbow of the brazen door handle, and her sister-in-law put a small, staying hand on her wrist.
"Darling, don't! You can't go out ahead of me or even with me. We filmed it up at Big Bear Lake, except that first part near the house--that's the Burbank golf course. I thought I'd freeze to death in that awful stream, but Campbell insisted. He's a fiend for authenticity. Thank God Charlie had a flask on him, but I swear they should arrest that bootlegger of his for poisoning. Stand over there and wait just one minute, darling."
Norah stepped obediently back. Her diminutive companion drew a deep breath, shook back her torrent of dark hair--augmented for the occasion to match the film--and flung wide the door into an explosion of flash powder and journalistic Hollywood adjectives. "Stupendous!" "Chrysanda, you've never been more stunning!"
"Gorgeous ..." "Ravishing!" "Fatal beauty at its most devastating!" "Kiss of Darkness is a picture that shakes you to the soul!"
Norah, reflecting that her soul hadn't been shaken in the least, waited until the voices had drawn away a little from the door, then stepped forth herself with what discretion was possible. Chrysanda Flamande, raven coiffure a splendor of suggested disarray and the cold white gems of her necklace glistening on a breast like Carrara marble, had taken up a position in front of a gleaming bronze warrior, carefully chosen so no photograph would include a door bearing the inscription ladies lounge. Her kohl-dark eyelids lowered, her red lips curved in her famous enigmatic smile, and she stood with one hand on her black silk hip and the other raised as if to support her back-tilted head. Flash powder coruscated once more, leaving a haze in the air like a battlefield and calling echoes from the diamonds that thickly adorned the white wrists, the prisoned midnight of her hair.
"Miss Flamande, is it true your next picture is going to be with Valentino?" "Miss Flamande, how did you feel to be playing a scene so similar to the actual death of your fiancЋ, the Count d'Este?"
Chrysanda Flamande's dark eyes widened, seeming to burn with emotion under the hundred minuscule electric bulbs concealed in the arched ceiling. "An artist uses everything that befalls her," she said, her deep, husky throb quite different from the child-sweet tones in which she'd spoken to Norah moments before. "Grief as well as ecstasy. Lucien was killed in a tragic and terrible accident rather than taking his life like the man in the film, yet it was I who found his poor body sprawled in a pool of blood. And yes, the horror, the despair I felt then was in my mind as I enacted that scene. It is always in my mind. Sometimes I think I shall never be free of it."
She passed a bejeweled hand across a brow suddenly twisted with pain. "The director did not know, naturally; the scenarists did not know. I could not tell them, knowing that any change would lessen the impact of the film. But I knew. And I felt. Yet unless one is able to devour life in all its glory, to radiate it forth again as art, no matter how great the pain, one is nothing but a sham."
From a respectful distance--namely, out of camera range--Norah shook her head at the aptness of that final phrase. "Nothing but a sham" accurately summed up the mythical Lucien d'Este's existence and, in fact, most of the studio-written biography of Chrysanda Flamande. With her soul-devouring eyes and nightshade hair, her slender body and restless, ethereal movements, she certainly looked as if she could have been born of a Greek concubine and a French soldier in the harem of the Grand Turk of Constantinople a solid nine years later than her actual birth date. There were still times when Norah didn't know whether to be appalled or to laugh.
Mostly she found herself laughing.
Two months earlier she had not thought she would ever laugh again.
Sixty days ago, almost to the day, she had seriously considered stealing a razor from her then-employer's son, filling the upstairs bathtub with hot water, lying down in it, and cutting her wrists. According to classical authors, it would not have taken long to bleed to death and would not have hurt much
. That had been on her twenty-sixth birthday. She hadn't known then how she was going to endure another gray Manchester winter, another year of pain. Another year of Mrs. Pendergast's hypocrisy, pettiness, and spite. Whatever else could be said of her, her beautiful sister-in-law--vain, selfish, and apt to float through life on a sea of pink gin and discarded lovers--had rescued her from that, and the gift of renewed laughter was among the most precious she'd ever received.
"One owes it to oneself, as the poet says ..." The throbbing voice broke into her reverie once more, "... to drink life's wine to the very lees, to grasp life's roses, never heeding the thorns ..."
Chrysanda--whom Norah couldn't think of by any other name than Christine, which was how she'd first known her--passed under the baroque arch and down the stairs toward the lobby, barely to be seen among the mob of reporters. Norah smiled a little and followed, admiring in passing the Grauman Million Dollar Theater's very un-Manchesterian decor of Shakespearean murals, gilded arabesques, and curlicued niches containing statues of warriors, cowboys, and what looked like dance hall girls.
Her aunts would have told her the gratitude she felt toward Christine was perfectly proper ... but ought not go further than that. One shouldn't, of course, actually like THAT kind of woman...
Norah shook her head again, this time at her own weakness of character.
Mrs. Pendergast had not approved of the cinema; thus Norah, when she came down into the lobby in her sister- in-law's wake, recognized almost none of the faces in the crowd that jostled for position around the staggering buffet at the far end.
Mary Pickford she did recognize, though her ringlets were upswept this night to alter the girlish sweetness into adult and shining intelligence. Pollyanna--the last film Norah had seen--had been made four years earlier and even then the actress couldn't have been as young as she had appeared on the screen. Douglas Fairbanks, too, she identified immediately, mostly by the way he moved. Norah smiled again at herself--she was probably the only person in the civilized world who hadn't heard of their marriage.
And that extraordinarily handsome young man with the brilliantined black hair had to be Rudolph Valentino, judging by the fuss the reporters were making over him.
"I must speak to Miss Flamande!"
The voice was soft but came only a few feet from Norah's side; turning, she saw a fan who had somehow gotten through the police lines. Fans were an aspect of Hollywood life for which she had been unprepared. Two ushers were already conducting him to the wall of plate-glass doors that formed one side of the theater's lobby. A tall old man, Chinese, Norah thought, certainly very different from most of the mob who pressed so close to the velvet ropes and the barrier of police and uniformed ushers under the blaze of the marquee lights.
"It is a matter of life and death!"
"Yeah, sure, they all say that, Grandpa."
The old man tried to pull his arm free of the usher's grip. Thin and tall--taller than Norah, who was taller than most men--he wore his long ash-white hair unqueued, hanging loose around a face hollowed like ancient ivory and down over bony shoulders. In one twisted hand he clutched a walking staff as tall as him with a carved dragon on its head; with the other, he tried to shake the ushers thrusting him inexorably toward the doors. In his baggy Western-style suit he had the air of a dilapidated scarecrow, but his eyes were those of a displaced god. "Look, you want to tell Miss Flamande something, you write her a letter care of Colossus Studios."
"I tell you it will be too late!" The old man half twisted in their grip, looking back at Christine, who had been joined by an enormously fat man with a coarse, pouchy face framed in badly cut black hair.
More flash powder, more tugging of reportorial forelocks: "Mr. Brown, can you tell us about the rumor that you're planning to take over Enterprise Studios?" "Mr. Brown, what's Miss Flamande's next project going to be?" "Mr. Brown, is it true you're bringing D. W. Griffith out from the East to direct Charlie Sandringham's next picture?" Three or four stunningly beautiful girls hovered in the background, gazing at the black-suited behemoth with expressions of adoring fascination while Christine put one arm most of the way around his back and leaned into him with every graceful line of her saying "love and trust."
A. F. Brown owned Colossus Studios.
In a way, Norah supposed, she, too, ought to be expressing worship, or at least gratitude, since it was ultimately his money that not only paid for Christine's house but had enabled Christine to bring her here to this bizarre world in the first place.
She glanced at her wristwatch. It was precisely nine-fifty and twenty seconds.
Curious, she thought, looking around the lobby, how thin they all looked in real life, Pickford and Chaplin and Mix. Thin and tired and just a little fragile. They were probably all anxious to get to bed. Most of the players she had met in the past six weeks, she had never seen on the screen until tonight. Like Flindy McColl, Christine's best friend, red-haired and giggling on the arm of a studio Adonis named Dale Wilmer, or Roberto Calderone, the handsome Mexican who'd emerged from the fog like a vengeful specter and caused Christine to step back and plummet to her death over the cliff.
Or, more accurately, Norah revised, had caused Christine to step back and that good-looking stuntman? Kevin? she'd never heard his last name--to plummet over the cliff wearing Christine's black silk dress and eerie opal necklace.
Kevin or Kenneth was near the refreshment table, helping himself to beluga caviar and lobster patties beneath a glittering life-sized ice sculpture of Rameses II. The young man, slender and athletic even in a tuxedo, talked animatedly to Charles Sandringham, last seen lying in a pool of blood on the floor of Christine's--Chrysanda's. Sandringham was sneaking nips from a silver hip flask, and Norah guessed he'd done so all through the premiere. Sober, he'd never have put his hand on the young stuntman's arm that way in public. She checked her watch again. Three minutes had elapsed.
"If you're waiting on Miss Flamande for something, I warn you they'll stand there gassing to the press for half an hour at least."
Norah turned in surprise. A pair of very bright brown eyes, slightly below the level of her own, blinked at her behind a pair of very thick spectacles. Perhaps, she thought later, her aunts were right and Christine was a bad influence on her, because instead of the retreat proper to a young woman of her station, she said frankly, "Oh, I'm not waiting. I'm just checking to see how long it is before Christine comes over to me and says, breathlessly, ТDarling, we're all going over to Frank's house, so could you possibly take a cab home?'"
He considered the little group. "How long have they been at it?"
"Three and a half minutes."
"I'll say eight, total."
"You don't know Chris. I make it six and a half."
He produced a pocket watch from his much-worn tweed jacket and compared it with the plain, brushed-steel Elgin on her wrist. "I'll still say eight. That's Doug Fairbanks talking to Brown now, and Brown doesn't know him well enough to ask him to his party in less than five. And what makes you think I don't know Chris?" He snapped the watch shut. Norah noted how soft and uncallused his hands were, though by no means weak or unworked. They were also covered with small nicks and cuts, chemical stains, and abrasions. He bit his fingernails and evidently kept a cat.
"I'm sorry." Norah smiled ruefully. "Of course you might." Her mind snagged on his voice, realizing that she did know him from somewhere ... "I've only been here six weeks, and she must know other people besides actors."
He drew himself up with great dignity, fully four inches, she guessed, under her own loose-boned five foot eleven. "And what makes you think I am not an actor?"
"Your beard," she replied promptly. "And your hands. And the fact that you're speaking to me and not hovering around the producers."
"Darling." Chrysanda Flamande broke momentarily from the group in question, casting a glance of soulful longing over her shoulder at Brown that would have shamed Duse playing Juliet. "Darling, listen, Frank's asked us all over to his place after this dreadful affair is over and I haven't the faintest when I'm going to be home, so do you think you could get a cab?"
Norah automatically checked her watch, and the little man with the beard and glasses turned quite gallantly away to examine the mural of King Lear and Cordelia on the wall behind him lest Chrysanda Flamande see how hard he was working not to laugh.
"Of course, darling," Norah began, but as usual, her sister-in-law was already babbling, "I knew I could count on you ... I'll see you in the morning ..." as she flitted back in a firestorm of diamonds to couple herself once more to the studio head's massive arm.
"Have you tried saying, ТI'm so sorry but I've suddenly developed a morbid psychological complex about cab drivers?' That was seven by my watch."
"Curse you, Mr. Fairbanks. I'm still closer by thirty seconds."
"So you are."
A scrimmage of red uniforms caught her eye. It was the Chinese gentleman, who had tried to reenter the lobby through a small door in a gilded wall niche, arguing, gesturing with his twisted, crippled hands. Norah's companion said, "Ah, another life-or-deather," and Norah regarded him in surprise.
"You heard what he said?"
"Lot of them say that." He pushed his glasses more firmly up onto the bridge of his nose. "You came in with Chris. You saw the fans. Cleopatra rolling herself up in a carpet to see Caesar is like an appointment with a social secretary compared to some of the tricks they've pulled."
"Hmm," said Norah. Masses of men and womenwith a casualness that she found unnervinglined the sidewalk eight and ten deep beneath the garish posters in front of the theater as Christine had docked her enormous yellow Nash roadster at the curb with her usual lack of accuracy, shouting her name, reaching through the police lines to touch her as she walked through them with that slight, seductive sway, her enormous coat of sables half drooping from alabaster shoulders and the lights of the marquee sparking the white opals of her necklace. Norah had followed, feeling invisible as usual, clothed also in black--though far less fashionably--and leading the small string of Pekingese without which, these days, Christine was never seen in public.
The Pekes--Christine's latest affectation--currently resided in the theater manager's office, Chang Ming doubtless sprawled on his back waiting for someone--anyone--to come play with him, Black Jasmine jealously guarding all three of the toys Norah had left to amuse them, and Buttercreme hiding in the darkest corner under the desk, her tongue lying like a little pink welcome mat on the floor before her flat nose.
Her companion's voice drew her attention again. "So, listen. I'll pay for the cab and buy you a cup of coffee at Enyart's Grille on La Brea if you're willing to stop. I'm Alec Mindelbaum." And as if he sensed her proper upbringing withdrawing from the undocumented introduction, added, "I did the camera work on that epic that just--shook us to the soul."
"Ah." Norah remembered him now. He looked very different in a suit. "Of course. And I'm the--I believe you used the phrase Тbutterfingered nitwit'--who let Miss Flamande's Pekingese get away on the set yesterday with such enlivening results."
It was his turn to blush, which he did rather readily behind the close-clipped rufous beard. "I know," he said a little shyly. "I feel I owe you a cab ride and a cup of coffee just for that."
The crowd in the lobby was thinning, changing color and composition as sotto voce invitations to Mr. Brown's party circulated. The press still surrounded the buffet like sharks feeding on a dying whale, but the flitter of beaded dresses and the black of formal evening clothes were bleeding away, leaving only a muddy suit-brown. "Nonsense," said Norah. "I haven't been in Los Angeles long, but I saw how long it took Mr. Hraldy to rehearse everyone and set the lights. I don't wonder you were furious. I think Chang Ming saw a mouse under the queen of Persia's divan."
"That wouldn't surprise me. That shooting stage must have started life as a mule barn."
"And, of course, Black Jasmine would die before he'd let himself be outdone. I suspect he's still under the impression he's going to grow up to be a wolf. Your offer of a cab must include them, you know."
"I know." Mindelbaum grinned and held out his arm to her with an old-fashioned courtliness that took her by surprise. No man had treated her with such consideration since she'd left London. "I'll cherish to my grave the look on the manager's face when Chris said she'd leave them in his office during the show."
"Which was quite unjust of him, since they're the most fastidious animals you could hope to meet. On the boat from England and later on the train crossing the country, they always waited for their promenades on the deck or down the station platforms, for which I was infinitely thankful, since, of course, I was the one looking after them and Christine wouldn't have so much as scolded if they'd killed and eaten the conductor."
Mindelbaum left her beneath a poster of Christine and Charles Sandringham--like moths to a candle's devouring flame, it said--and went in quest of their coats. Outside the glass the crowd still milled, striving for one last glimpse of cinema godhood. Norah could almost feel them glance at, and dismiss, Mindelbaum's threadbare tweed and her dowdy black crepe.
It was a dismissal she'd grown used to long before she'd come here to the ends of the civilized world. The Manchester version of it took in the outdated shirtwaists and mended shoes, the heavy stockings and hands chapped from washing Mrs. Pendergast's underwear, and said, Oh. Poor relation. The Hollywood version was, in a way, more democratic. Oh. Not a star.
A younger Chinese, clothed in the baggy black quilting common to Chinese from the Limehouse to the Barbary Coast, had appeared through the same discreet doorway and stood talking to the ushers and the old man. "You must forgive my grandfather," he said, bowing to the usher. "He has not long been in your country." And the old man gestured, furious, at the poster of Chrysanda Flamande smoldering in the doomed and noble Charles Sandringham's arms.
There was a surge of movement from the direction of the buffet. Sandringham, after thirty-five years of ruling the stages of the West End and Broadway, still possessed of exquisite hands and patrician bones, proceeded to the doors in company with his beautiful stuntman. They paused so that Sandringham, clearly in his cups, could light the young man's cigarette. The Dick's Hatband Brigade, Jim would have said with a raised eyebrow. Norah was reflecting that her mother would never have credited such a thing of her idol when Alec Mindelbaum's voice asked in her ear, "That bother you?"
"So long as he doesn't light up at a table where I'm eating, no." She caught the appreciative twinkle in Mr. Mindelbaum's eye as he helped her with the worn black coat she had bought for Jim's funeral.
The manager appeared, bowing and trying to keep two very lively little dogs and one extremely unwilling one from tripping every departing reporter in the room. Norah took pity on Buttercreme and picked her up, carrying her across the lobby to the doors.
Nothing about Los Angeles had so convinced her that she had come to an alien world--an alien universe--as the weather. All week it had been as warm as an English summer, and even tonight's flickers of rain had done no more than dampen the streets, yielding a breath of asphalt and a confusion of yellow reflections from the multiglobed streetlights on the Los Angeles version of Broadway.
An usher summoned a cab, which edged from the porridge-thick traffic while everyone crowded around Mr. Sandringham's silver Dusenberg. Across the street and up a block, the Pantages and Palace theaters emptied hordes of casually dressed men and smoke-trailing women: Mrs. Pendergast would have retired to bed for a week in a fit of scandalized modesty at the sight. Motorcars wove in front of yellow streetcars and hopelessly impeded their progress. Against the glow of the sky, feather duster tufts of palm trees spread their spiky fans; Norah noticed that a good portion of the people passing before the otherworldly office building opposite were brown-skinned Mexicans and Chinese in their traditional black pajamas and queues, many more than she had seen in Hollywood. She had heard someone mention that Chinatown lay nearby.
As Mr. Mindelbaum helped her into the cab amid much tangling of leashes and a good deal of "Down, Chang! Sit, Jazz! Off, Chang! No, Chang! Down, Jazz!" something caused Norah to look back at the theater. The ancient Chinese gentleman had halted there despite the tugging of his grandson and now gazed worriedly back into the lobby, as if debating the possibility of returning for another bout with the ushers.
On both sides of the entry, Sandringham and Chrysanda gazed and smoldered; the poster artist had flattered the actor by a good fifteen years and had made Chrysanda's gown far more revealing than it was in the actual final sequences of the film, though God knew, Norah reflected, it was scanty enough. The old man gestured at the poster again, saying something; then he made a quick and universal sign, slashing his hand across his throat. The grandson shook his head as if to say, There is nothing to be done.
As her cab pulled from the curb, Norah saw the pair of them cross through the lights and crowds around the Pantages before they vanished into the dark of Fergusson Alley.