Daddy hurt me. He beat me and he made me do all those bad things.'
âTake my hand,' Frank insisted. Hesitantly, the figure held out its right hand. âCome on, there's nothing to be scared of.'
Frank leaned forward and took hold of the child's hand, but the instant he touched it he recoiled in horror. It wasn't a child's hand at all. It was soft, but it was a woman's hand, with long fingernails, and a ring.
He sat there staring at the figure, wide eyed, breathing as quickly as if he had been running. âWho are you?' he demanded. âYou have to tell me who you are.'
I'm not allowed to.'
âYou can tell me. I won't let anybody know that it was you.'
The figure said nothing, but stayed where it was. The first light of dawn was beginning to appear through the drapes, and the figure was slowly becoming clearer. There was no question that it looked like Danny, but it was wearing soiled yellow pajamas with pictures of marching teddy bears all over them. Danny had never worn pajamas like that.
Danny, are you?' asked Frank.
Astrid stirred. âDon't. Not tonight,' she said. Frank looked across at her, and when he looked back, the figure had vanished.
He sat up for over twenty minutes, waiting to see if it would reappear, but the drapes grew lighter and lighter, and it was obvious that the figure had gone for good.
In a strange way, Frank was reassured that it wasn't Danny. He didn't like to think of Danny wandering around the spirit world, lost and confused and dressed in dirty clothes. But at the same time, he needed to know why it had chosen to appear as Danny, and where the real Danny was, and if he was at peace.
He eased himself out of bed and went into the kitchen for a drink of orange juice, straight out of the carton, so cold that it made his palate ache. It was only then, though, that it occurred to him that Danny had appeared to him without Nevile's assistance. No sÃ©ance, no deep concentration, nothing. The figure had just materialized of its own accord.
He went back to bed and found Astrid waiting for him with her eyes open. âWhat time is it?' she asked him.
âFive after five.'
âCouldn't you sleep?'
He slapped the pillows and settled back under the sheets. âBad dream, that's all.'
They lay in silence for a while and then Astrid propped herself up on one elbow and kissed him lightly on the lips. âI might lie to you, Frank, but I'll never hurt you.'
âWhat does that mean?'
âSometimes the truth is much too painful to bear. Sometimes lying is a kindness.'
âSo wherever you went yesterdayÂ .Â .Â . you think it's better if I don't know?'
âDo you still love your Margot?'
âWhat does that have to do with the price of pork bellies?'
âI just want to know if you're lying to yourself. You can't give me a hard time for lying to you, if you lie to yourself, too.'
hen Astrid left the hotel that morning, Frank followed her again. This time her taxi took her along Sunset Boulevard to Beverly Glen, and up into the winding lanes of Bel Air, among the fragrant flowers and the gilded security gates of Hollywood's wealthiest homes. The sky was streaked with mares' tails, as if a change in the weather was coming.
Astrid's taxi stopped outside the gates of a large white
Gone with the Wind
-style house. It was mostly hidden from the road, but Frank could see a lofty pillared portico and a green copper dome with a weather vane on top of it, pointing to the west. The steeply sloping gardens were laid out with flowering rose bushes and fountains made of grinning stone dolphins and bosomy mermaids. The taxi driver spoke into the intercom beside the gates and after a few seconds they swung open electronically and the taxi drove in. Frank cruised slowly past, and then turned his car around and cruised slowly back again. He parked about fifty yards down the road, and waited.
The taxi reappeared only two or three minutes later. Frank climbed out of his car and flagged it down. The taxi driver put down his window. He was pockmarked, with a droopy moustache, and a rosary wrapped around his fist like a knuckle duster.
âWant to do me a favor?' asked Frank. He produced his Fox-TV business card and handed it over. âDid you ever hear of
The Beverly Hillbillies
âAre you kidding me?'
âWell, we're planning to remake it, with Steve Martin playing Jed and Pamela Anderson as Elly May. I'm looking for locations, see, and this particular house looks like it could just about fill the bill. You don't happen to know who owns it, do you?'
The taxi driver shook his head. âI can't give you that information, man. That's privileged.'
âYou're a taxi driver, for Christ's sake, not a gynaecologist. Look, how about a finder's fee?'
He opened his billfold and held up twenty dollars. It was snatched so fast that he didn't even see where it went.
âCharles Lasser,' said the taxi driver. He started off, but immediately jammed his brakes on. âYou know, Charles
?' Then he sped away.
Frank stood outside the gates looking up at the house. So Astrid had gone to visit Charles Lasser, the owner of Star-TV. That really confused him. Why would a girl like her visit a man like him? Could they be lovers? Worse, could Astrid be a prostitute? That would certainly account for her reluctance to tell him anything about herself.
Yet, if she was a prostitute, why did she keep on coming back to
bed, every night? Maybe Charles Lasser was the man who was beating her, and she needed somebody to turn to, somebody who was sympathetic and gentle and wouldn't judge her.
Whether she was a prostitute or not, Frank didn't have to ask himself what Astrid might find attractive about an ugly, domineering bully like Charles Lasser. A private Boeing 767, for a start, and a 250-foot yacht, and houses in five different countries. Frank knew the wives and mistresses of too many famous actors and too many heavyweight studio bosses, and he knew how much humiliation they were prepared to take to stay within the glittering circle. As Mo had once put it, âThey would rather eat shit, these ladies, than lose that lifestyle, and I know one who actually has, and dressed herself up in pink silk and pearls to do it.'
Frank drove to the cemetery to visit Danny's grave. He stood beside it for almost fifteen minutes, his hair flapping in the breeze.
âDanny?' he whispered. No answer, of course, only the distant drone of a plane circling around Burbank airport.
âI wish you'd talk to me, Danny. I just want to know that you're not too unhappy; and that you've found yourself some friends. I can't bear to think of you being lonely.'
He was about to leave when he became aware of a young man standing not far away, wearing dark glasses and a worn-out leather jacket. The young man had black spiky hair and he was standing with his arms folded as if he were waiting for somebody. As Frank walked past him, he said, âYou're one of them, aren't you?'
Frank stopped. âYou talking to me?'
âThat's right. I said, you're one of them, aren't you? One of the liars.'
âWhatever you say,' Frank replied and carried on walking. He hadn't gone far, though, before he realized that the young man was following him. He stopped again, and the young man stopped, too. He carried on walking and the young man came after him. Eventually Frank turned around and said, âListen, I don't know what you're selling, but I'm not interested.'
The young man smiled. âI'm not selling anything, Frank, not the way you do. I don't sell lies and impossible dreams. I don't sell hope when I know that there isn't any.'
âHow do you know my name?'
âWhat does that matter? You're one of the liars, that's all that counts. You're one of the moneychangers, in the temple of truth, and just like Our Lord we're going to drive you out.'
âListen,' said Frank, âI don't know what the hell you're talking about, and frankly I don't want to know. I came here to visit my son's grave and I'd appreciate it if you'd show us some respect â me and him, both.'
âRespect? What respect do you ever show to anybody? You write about joyful families, but where are they, all of these joyful families? You write about love, when there's nothing but deceit. You make people believe in a happy world that doesn't exist, and what greater cruelty could there ever be than that? “Look, folks! Mom and Dad and Thanksgiving dinner! Look, folks! Good overcomes evil, and the bad people go to jail! Oh, we may have to struggle. We may have to shed a few tears. But it's always waiting for us, in the end! The answer to all of our prayers! The Golden City!”'
The young man took off his sunglasses. Both of his eyes were totally bloodshot, like a vampire. âThe trouble is, it's all a mirage, isn't it, Frank? It's all a story, made up in your head.
If Only Pigs Could Sing
, Frank. If only they fucking could.'
Frank took out his cellphone, ready to call the police, but the young man replaced his sunglasses, turned around, and walked briskly away through the cemetery until he had disappeared amongst the headstones.
That night, Astrid came around to see him just after eight o'clock, and they ordered take-out Chinese: prawn balls, shredded beef, chicken with ginger and vegetarian noodles.
âHow was your day?' asked Frank, and promptly dropped a prawn ball under the couch.
âGood,' said Astrid.
âWell, that's good,' said Frank, chasing the prawn ball with a spoon.
âHow about you?'
âGood.' He sat up straight. He knew that he was going to have to say it.
âGood?' she repeated.
âWell, yes and no. It depends. I found out something interesting.'
âI found out where you went.'
Astrid stared at him. âYou did
âI followed you, OK? You can't blame me. I care about you. I want to know who you are and what you do. I want to know who your friends are.'
She tossed down her chopsticks. âYou
me? You had absolutely no right!'
âI'm sorry, I beg to disagree. You know everything there is to know about me. You know where I was born. You know all about my family. My job. My marriage. My favorite movies. I never hide anything. Why shouldn't I know something about you?'
âBecause I don't want you to. Isn't that a good enough reason? Besides, when did I ever ask you anything about yourself? You volunteered it. Now you've ruined everything.'
She stood up, went across to the door and took down her coat. Frank got up, too.
âYesterday you went to Star-TV and today I followed you to Charles Lasser's house. For Christ's sake, Astrid, you and I are having an affair. We're lovers! Don't you think I have a right to know if you're seeing another man?'
Astrid opened the door but Frank immediately slammed it shut. âThis is insane! I'm committed to you, Astrid! I've crossed the road, and I'm never going back!'
Her cheeks were flushed and it was obvious that she was trying hard to keep her temper under control. âThat still doesn't give you the right to pry into my private business.'
âParticularly your private business with Charles Lasser, Esquire?'
âWhat I do when I walk out of here is nothing to do with you, Frank. If you can't accept that, then I'll just have to walk out of here for good.'
âWhat's the matter? You don't trust me?'
âOf course I trust you. But you don't need to know anything more about me than you know already. It's just not necessary.'
Frank looked around the room, almost as if he were expecting to see a more reasonable Astrid still sitting on the couch. Then he looked back at her, and stepped away from the door. âGo ahead. If you want to leave, be my guest. I thought that you and I had a future together, but it looks like I was deluded.'
âFrankÂ .Â .Â . I've told you so many times before. You can't own me. I'm not one of your characters. I'm very fond of you. I think I might even be in love with you. But you'll just have to take that on trust.'
âAre you having an affair with Charles Lasser?'
âI'm not going to answer that.'
âIs Charles Lasser the man who's been beating you?'
He knew by the tone of her voice and the way she was looking at him that if she walked out now he would never see her again, and of course he would never know where to find her. He went back to the couch and sat down, leaving her standing by the door.
When sunlight filled his bedroom the following morning, he woke up to find that Astrid was sleeping face-down, so close beside him that she was breathing on his arm. He thought he had never felt this way about any woman before, and never would again. He stroked the fine golden-brown hairs at the back of her neck, and ran his fingertip down her spine. God, she was magic.
As he lifted the sheet, he saw that she had an angry scarlet circle on her left shoulder. Lifting it further, he saw two more circles, above her hips, and one on each of her buttocks. They all looked sore, and they were still weeping. Jesus. Cigarette burns.
His immediate reaction was to shake her awake and demand to know who had burned her. But then he thought about her standing at the door last night, prepared to walk out on him and never come back. It was obvious that her life was a whole lot more dark and complicated than he could even guess at, and he didn't want to lose her by blundering around like a lovesick Dusty from
. How could he save her if she left him? He let the sheet fall softly back, turned over, and pretended that he was asleep.