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Authors: Dan Simmons

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BOOK: Carrion Comfort
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Later that evening we discussed the possibility of Willi simply buying an option on the treatment, but Willi was short on cash at the time and Nina was insistent. In the end, the young writer opened his femoral artery with a Gillette blade and ran screaming into a narrow Greenwich Village side street to die. I don’t believe that anyone ever bothered to sort through the clutter and debris of his remaining notes.

“It could be like that writer,
, Melanie?” Willi patted my knee. I nodded. “He was mine,” continued Willi, “and Nina tried to take credit. Remember?”

Again I nodded. Actually he had not been Nina’s or Willi’s. I had avoided the party so I could make contact later without the young man noticing he was being followed. I did so easily. I remember sitting in an overheated little delicatessen across the street from the apartment building. It was not at all difficult. It was over so quickly that there was almost no sense of Feeding. Then I was aware once again of the sputtering radiators and the smell of salami as people rushed to the door to see what the screaming was about. I remember finishing my tea slowly so that I did not have to leave before the ambulance was gone.

“Nonsense,” said Nina. She busied herself with her little calculator. “How many points?” She looked at me. I looked at Willi.

“Six,” he said with a shrug. Nina made a small show of totaling the numbers.

“Thirty-eight,” she said and sighed theatrically. “You win again, Willi. Or rather, you beat
again. We must hear from Melanie. You’ve been so quiet, dear. You must have some surprise for us.”

“Yes,” said Willi, “it is your turn to win. It has been several years.”

“None,” I said. I had expected an explosion of questions, but the silence was broken only by the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. Nina was looking away from me, at something hidden by the shadows in the corner.

“None?” echoed Willi. “There was . . . one,” I said at last. “But it was by accident. I came across them robbing an old man behind . . . it was by accident.”

Willi was agitated. He stood up, walked to the window, turned a straight-backed old chair around and straddled it, arms folded. “What does this mean?”

“You’re quitting the Game?” asked Nina as she turned to look at me. I let the question serve as the answer.

“Why?” snapped Willi. In his excitement it came out with a hard “V.” If I had been raised in an era when young ladies were allowed to shrug, I would have done so then. As it was, I contented myself with running my fingers along an imaginary seam on my skirt. Willi had asked the question, but I stared straight into Nina’s eyes when I finally answered. “I’m tired. It’s been too long. I guess I’m getting old.”

“You’ll get a lot
if you do not Hunt,” said Willi. His body, his voice, the red mask of his face, everything signaled great anger just kept in check. “My God, Melanie, you
look older! You look terrible. This is
we Hunt, woman. Look at yourself in the mirror! Do you want to die an old woman just because you’re tired of using
? Acch!” Willi stood and turned his back on us.

“Nonsense!” Nina’s voice was strong, confident, in command once more. “Melanie’s
, Willi. Be nice. We all have times like that. I remember how
were after the war. Like a whipped puppy. You wouldn’t even go outside your miserable little flat in Baden. Even after we helped you get to New Jersey you just sulked around feeling sorry for yourself. Melanie
made up
the Game to help you feel better. So quiet!
tell a lady who feels tired and depressed that she looks terrible. Honestly, Willi, you’re such a
sometimes. And a crashing boor to boot.”

I had anticipated many reactions to my announcement, but this was the one I feared the most. It meant that Nina had also tired of the Game. It meant that she was ready to move to another level of play. It had to mean that.

“Thank you, Nina, darling,” I said. “I knew you would understand.” She reached across and touched my knee reassuringly. Even through my wool skirt I could feel the cold of her white fingers.

My guests would not stay the night. I implored. I remonstrated. I pointed out that their rooms were ready, that Mr. Thorne had already turned down the quilts.

“Next time,” said Willi. “Next time, Melanie, my little love. We’ll make a weekend of it as we used to. A week!” Willi was in a much better mood since he had been paid his thousand dollar “prize” by each of us. He had sulked, but I had insisted. It soothed his ego when Mr. Thorne brought in a check already made out to William D. Borden.

Again I asked him to stay, but he protested that he had a midnight flight to Chicago. He had to see a prizewinning author about a screenplay. Then he was hugging me good-bye, his companions were in the hall behind me, and I had a brief moment of terror.

But they left. The blond young man showed his white smile and the Negro bobbed his head in what I took as a farewell. Then we were alone. Nina and I were alone.

Not quite alone. Miss Kramer was standing next to Nina at the end of the hall. Mr. Thorne was out of sight behind the swinging door to the kitchen. I left him there.

Miss Kramer took three steps forward. I felt my breath stop for an instant. Mr. Thorne put his hand on the swinging door. Then the husky little brunette went to the hall closet, removed Nina’s coat, and stepped back to help her into it.

“Are you sure you won’t stay?”

“No, thank you, darling. I’ve promised Barrett that we would drive to Hilton Head to night.”

“But it’s late . . .”

“We have reservations. Thank you, anyway, Melanie. I
be in touch.”


“I mean it, dear. We must talk. I understand
how you feel, but you have to remember that the Game is still important to Willi. We’ll have to find a way to end it without hurting his feelings. Perhaps we could visit him next spring in Karinhall or what ever he calls that gloomy old Bavarian place of his. A trip to the Continent would do wonders for you, dear.”


be in touch. After this deal with the new store is settled. We need to spend some time together, Melanie . . . just the two of us . . . like old times.” Her lips kissed the air next to my cheek. She held my forearms tightly for a few seconds. “Good-bye, darling.”

“Good-bye, Nina.”

I carried the brandy glass to the kitchen. Mr. Thorne took it in silence.

“Make sure the house is secure,” I said. He nodded and went off to check the locks and alarm system. It was only nine forty-five, but I was very tired.
, I thought. I went up the wide staircase— perhaps the finest feature of the house— and dressed for bed. It had begun to storm and the sound of the cold raindrops on the window carried a sad rhythm to it.

Mr. Thorne looked in as I was brushing my hair and wishing it were longer. I turned to him. He reached into the pocket of his dark vest. When his hand emerged, a slim blade flicked out. I nodded. He palmed the blade shut and closed the door behind him. I listened to his footsteps recede down the stairs to the chair in the front hall where he would spend the night.

I believe that I dreamed of vampires that night. Or perhaps I was thinking about them just prior to falling asleep and a fragment had stayed with me until morning. Of all of mankind’s self-inflicted terrors, of all their pathetic little monsters, only the myth of the vampire had any vestige of dignity. Like the humans it fed on, the vampire responded to its own dark compulsions. But unlike its petty human prey, the vampire carried out its sordid means to the only possible ends which could justify such actions— the goal of literal immortality. There was a nobility there. And a sadness.

Willi was right— I had aged. The past year had taken a greater toll than the preceding decade. But I had not Fed. Despite the hunger, despite the aging reflection in the mirror, despite the dark compulsion which had ruled our lives for so many years,
I had not Fed

I fell asleep trying to remember the details of Charles’s face. I fell asleep hungry.

Beverly Hills
Saturday, Dec. 13, 1980

he front lawn of Tony Harod’s home featured a large circular fountain into which a sculpture of a cloven-hoofed satyr urinated while staring down the canyon toward Hollywood with a perpetual grimace which might be interpreted as either pained aversion or sneering contempt. Those who knew Tony Harod had no doubt as to which expression was the more appropriate.

The home had once belonged to a silent-screen actor who, in the prime of his career and after much struggle, had made the difficult transition to talking pictures only to die of throat cancer three months after his first talkie opened at Graumann’s Chinese Theater. His widow refused to leave the sprawling estate and stayed on for thirty-five years as a de facto mausoleum caretaker, frequently sponging off old Hollywood acquaintances and previously spurned relatives in order to pay the taxes. When she died in 1959 the home was purchased by a scriptwriter who had done three of the five Doris Day romance-comedies released by then. The writer complained about the gone-to-seed garden and a bad smell in the second-floor study. Eventually the writer went deep into debt and blew his brains out in the potting shed, to be discovered the next day by a gardener who did not report the death for fear of being revealed to be an illegal alien. The corpse of the screenwriter was discovered again twelve days later by a lawyer for the Screenwriters’ Guild who had come out to discuss their upcoming defense in a plagiarism suit.

Subsequent owners of the house included a famous actress who resided there for the three-month interregnum between her fifth and sixth marriage, a special effects technician who died in a 1976 commissary fire, and an oil sheik who painted the satyr pink and gave it a Jewish name. The sheik was assassinated in 1979 by his brother-in-law while passing through Riyadh on pilgrimage and Tony Harod bought the estate four days later.

“It’s fucking wonderful,” Harod had told the realtor as they stood on the flagstone path and stared up at the urinating satyr. “I’ll take the place.” An hour later he handed over a check for $600,000 in down payment. He had not yet been inside the house.

Shayla Berrington knew the stories about Tony Harod’s impulsive acts. She knew about the time Harod had insulted Truman Capote in front of two hundred guests and about the scandal in 1978 when he and one of Jimmy Carter’s closest aides almost had been arrested for the possession of narcotics. No one had gone to jail, nothing had been proven, but it had been rumored that Harod had set the hapless Georgian up as a prank. Shayla leaned over to catch sight of the satyr as her chauffeur-driven Mercedes glided up the curved drive toward the main house. She was acutely aware that her mother was not with her. Also missing on this particular outing were Loren (her agent), Richard (her mother’s agent), Cowles (her chauffeur/bodyguard), and Estaban (her hairdresser). Shayla was seventeen years old, a successful model for nine years and a movie star for the past two, but as the Mercedes came to a stop in front of the elaborately carved front doors of Harod’s house, she felt like nothing so much as a fairy-tale princess who had been compelled to visit a fierce ogre.

No, not an ogre
, thought Shayla.
What did Norman Mailer call Tony Harod after Stephen and Leslie’s party last spring? A malignant little troll. I must pass through this malignant little troll’s cave before finding the treasure

Shayla felt tension pull at her neck muscles as she rang the bell. She consoled herself with the knowledge that Mr. Borden would be there. She liked the aged producer with his Old World courtliness and pleasant hint of accent. Shayla felt the tension rise again as she thought of her mother’s reaction if the older woman ever discovered that Shayla had secretly arranged such a meeting. Shayla was about to turn and leave when the door swung wide.

“Ah, Miss Berrington, I presume.” Tony Harod stood in the doorway wearing a velvet robe. Shayla stared at him and wondered if he wore anything under the robe. A few gray hairs were visible in the black mat on his bare chest.

“How do you do,” Shayla said and followed her would-be associate producer into the foyer. At first glance Tony Harod was not an obvious candidate for trolldom. He was slightly shorter than average— Shayla was 5′11″, tall even for a model, and Harod could not have stood more than 5′7″— and his long arms and oversize hands seemed out of proportion as they hung from his thin, almost boyish frame. His hair was very dark and clipped so short that black bangs curled down over his high, pale forehead. Shayla thought that perhaps the first hint of the hidden troll was the sallowness to his skin that seemed more appropriate to a denizen of some sooty, northeastern city than to a twelve-year resident of Los Angeles. Harod’s face was sharp-boned, sharp-edged, and not softened by a sardonic slash of a mouth that seemed filled with too many small teeth and a quick, pink tongue that moved constantly to moisten his thin lower lip. His eyes were set deep and looked vaguely bruised, but it was the intensity of that shadowed gaze which made Shayla inhale deeply and pause in the tiled entryway. Shayla was sensitive to eyes— her own had helped make her what she was— and she had never encountered a stare which struck her quite like Tony Harod’s. Languid, heavy-lidded, almost unfocused in their mocking disinterest, Harod’s small, brown eyes seemed to project a power and a challenge quite in contrast to the rest of his appearance.

“Come on in, kid. Jesus, where’s your entourage? I didn’t think you went anywhere without a mob that’d make Napoleon’s Grand Army look like a rump session of Richard Nixon’s fan club.”

“Pardon me?” said Shayla and immediately regretted it. Too much was riding on this meeting for her to get behind on points.

“Forget it,” said Harod and stood back to look at her. He jammed his hands in the pockets of his robe but not before Shayla had time to notice extraordinarily long, pale fingers. She thought of Gollum in
The Hobbit

“Christ, you’re fucking beautiful,” said the little man. “I knew you were a knockout, but you’re even more impressive in real life. You must drive the beachboys apeshit.”

Shayla stiffened. She had been prepared to suffer some boorishness, but she had been raised to abhor obscenities. “Is Mr. Borden here yet?” she asked coldly.

Harod smiled but shook his head. “Afraid not,” he said. “Willi had to go visit some old friends back East . . . somewhere in the South . . . Bogs-ville or Redneck Beach or someplace.”

Shayla hesitated. She had thought herself well-prepared to make the deal she wanted with Mr. Borden and his associate producer, but the thought of dealing just with Tony Harod made her shudder. She would have made some excuse then and left, but the movement was preempted by the appearance of a beautiful woman.

“Ms. Berrington, allow me to introduce my assistant, Maria Chen,” said Harod. “Maria, this is Shayla Berrington, a very talented young actress who may be the star of our new film.”

“How do you do, Miss Chen.” Shayla took the mea sure of the older woman. In her thirties, her Oriental ancestry apparent only in the beautifully sculpted cheekbones, a raven richness of hair, and the slightest turn of the eye, Maria Chen could easily have been a model herself. The slight tension, so natural between two striking women being introduced, was immediately dissipated by the warmth of the older woman’s smile.

“Ms. Berrington, it’s a great plea sure to meet you.” Chen’s handshake was firm and pleasant. “I’ve been a great admirer of your ad work for some time. You have a rare quality. I think the Avedon spread in
was magnificent.”

“Thank you, Miss Chen.”

“Please call me Maria.” She smiled, brushed back her hair, and turned to Harod. “The pool is at the proper temperature. I’ve arranged to hold all calls for the next forty-five minutes.”

Harod nodded. “Since my accident on the Ventura Freeway last spring I find it helpful to spend some time in the Jacuzzi each day,” he said. He smiled thinly as he saw her hesitate. “Pool rule, suits required.” Harod unbelted his robe to show a pair of red trunks with his initials monogrammed in gold. “Shall Maria show you to a changing room or would you prefer to discuss the film at some future date when Willi can be here?”

Shayla thought quickly. She doubted if she could keep such a deal secret from Loren and her mother for long. This might be her only chance to get the movie on her own terms. “I didn’t bring a suit,” she said.

It was Maria Chen who laughed and said, “No problem there. Tony has suits for all shapes and sizes of guests. He even keeps several for his elderly aunt when she visits.”

Shayla joined in the laughter. She followed the other woman down a long hallway, through a room filled with comfortable sectionals which was dominated by a large television viewing screen, past shelves filled with electronic video equipment, and then down another short hall into a cedar-lined dressing room. Wide drawers slid out to reveal men’s and women’s swimsuits of various styles and colors.

“I’ll let you change,” said Maria Chen. “Will you be joining us?”

“Perhaps later. I have to finish typing some of Tony’s correspondence. Enjoy the water . . . and Ms. Berrington . . . don’t mind Tony’s manner. He’s a bit rough sometimes, but he’s very fair.”

Shayla nodded as Maria Chen closed the door. Shayla looked through the stacks of bathing suits. The styles varied from skimpy French bikinis to strapless maillots to conservative two-piece suits. Tags bore the names Gottex, Christian Dior, and Cole. Shayla chose an orange bandeau that was less than outrageous but cut high enough to show off her thighs and long legs to best advantage. She knew from experience how well her small, firm breasts would show and how there would be just a hint of nipple swelling the thin lycra fabric. The color would complement the green in her hazel eyes.

Shayla went out another door and emerged into a green house setting enclosed on three sides by curved walls of glass where a proliferation of tropical plants caught the light. The fourth wall held yet another large projection screen next to the door. Muted classical music came from unseen speakers. It was very humid. Shayla could see a much larger pool sparkling outside in the morning light. Inside, Tony Harod reclined in the shallow end of the spa and sipped at a tall drink. Shayla felt the hot, moist air press on her like a damp blanket.

“What kept you, kid? I started without you.”

Shayla smiled and sat on the edge of the small pool. She remained about five feet from Harod— not so far as to convey insult, not so close as to suggest intimacy. She kicked idly at the frothing water, lifting her legs with her feet extended so as to best display her calf and thigh muscles.

“Let’s get to it, shall we?” suggested Harod. He showed his thin, faintly mocking smile and his tongue darted out to wet his lower lip.

“I shouldn’t even be here,” Shayla said softly. “My agent handles this kind of thing. And I always consult with Mother before deciding on any new project . . . even a weekend modeling assignment. I came today only because Mr. Borden asked me to. He’s been very nice to us since . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, he’s crazy about you too,” interrupted Harod and set his drink on the tile. “Here’s the deal. Willi’s bought the rights to a paperback best-seller called
The White Slaver
. It’s a piece of formulized shit written for illiterate fourteen-year-olds and the kind of lobotomized house wife that lines up to buy the new Harlequin romances each month. Jack-off material for intellectual quadriplegics. Naturally it sold about three million copies. We got the rights before it was published. Willi has someone at Ballantine who tips him off when one of these concoctions of puréed bat-shit promises to be a sleeper.”

“You make it sound very attractive,” Shayla said softly. “Fucking right. Of course the movie will throw out most of the book— keep the rough story line and the cheap sex. But we’ll have good people working on it. Michael May-Dreinen’s already started work on the script and Schubert Williams has agreed to direct.”

“Schu Williams?” Shayla was startled. Williams had just finished directing George C. Scott in a much-touted film for MGM. She looked down at the bubbling surface of the pool. “I’m afraid it doesn’t sound like something we’d be interested in,” said Shayla. “My mother . . . that is, we’ve been very careful as to the type of vehicle we’ve chosen in which to start my film career.”

“Uh-huh,” said Harod and drained the last of his drink. “Two years ago you starred in
Shannerly’s Hope
with Ryan O’Neal. Dying kid meets a dying conman in a Mexican laetrile clinic. Together they give up their search for false cures and find real happiness in the few weeks left to them.
. And I quote Charles Champlin, ‘The previews alone for this saccharine abomination would be sufficient to send diabetics into seizure.’ ”

“The distribution and promotion were poor and . . .”

“You’d better be damned glad of that, kiddo. Then last year your mom got you into Wise’s
East of Happiness
. You were going to be another Julie Andrews in that cheap-shit rip-off of
The Sound of Mucus
. Only you weren’t— and this isn’t the flower child sixties, it’s the mean-assed eighties and I’m not your agent or anything, Ms. Berrington, but I’d say that Momma and the crew have poled you pretty far up shit creek as far as your film career goes. They’re trying to turn you into a Marie Osmond type . . . yeah, yeah, I know you’re a member of the Church of the L.D.S. . . . so what? You were a class act on the cover of
and now you’re close to pissing it all away. They’re trying to sell you as a twelve-year-old ingenue and it’s too late for that kind of shit.”

Shayla did not move. Her mind was racing, but she could think of nothing to say. Her impulse was to tell this malignant little troll to drop dead, but no words came and she continued to sit on the edge of the bubbling pool. Her future depended upon the next few minutes and her mind was a muddle.

BOOK: Carrion Comfort
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