He saw her face in his mind’s eye and there was no mistake. Pale and pleading. Desperate. A ghost with pale red hair floating to the surface of his consciousness.
More like an ache. An awful reminder.
Gil Naylor cranked up the stereo in his vintage Mercedes coupe as it climbed the narrow streets of the Hollywood Hills.
Then he saw her again. This time, smiling. Teasing. Beckoning him further like a siren. “Help me, Gil. Please, help me.”
Entering through the elaborately carved Spanish door, the ruggedly handsome forty-nine-year-old actor crossed directly to the bottle of Asombroso Reserva Del Porto, poured a shot and downed it.
Beyond the patio and pool he watched the sun drop like a mustard-colored fizzy into the blue ink ocean. The tequila slammed down his throat like a fist.
And the image vanished.
Replaced by familiar sounds and faces as the house came to life like it always did when he entered. Jagged sparks of energy ricocheted off the terracotta tiles and yellow stucco walls, into the lavender tiled kitchen, and beyond.
Jenny, his live-in girlfriend, responded, hurrying in from the gym in a black tank top and shorts, abs taunt and glistening, nipples at attention. Tara, his personal assistant stuck her head out of the upstairs office and called from the balcony.
“Gil, is that you?”
“Who else?” flashing his five-million-dollar-a-movie smile.
“Ben called,” Jenny said.
Ben was his business manager. He grabbed her muscular behind and squeezed. “What’s he want?”
“He says while you’re in New York you have to clear out your office on First Avenue.”
“I know that already.”
The building was being razed to accommodate a high-tech apartment tower designed by Daniel Lipschits.
His lips met Jenny’s. Like all the other surfaces, they were polished to perfection. Plump and soft the way he liked them.
His personal assistant, Tara, rushed down the stairs, her chest heaving under the white cotton shirt.
“Gil, a messenger dropped off an invitation.”
A strange sinking feeling in his stomach as Tara’s sculptured white fingernail pointed to the rough mahogany table bought while on location in the Philippines. Gold embossed lettering caught a gleam of light.
“There,” she said.
Gil’s voice was ragged from a day of looping. A Disney animated feature. He played a leopard with a gambling habit. On Monday he was leaving for NYC to play the villain in a new Angelina Jolie thriller.
He wanted it to be an invitation to one of the Academy Awards parties as he ripped the envelope open.
“Is it Vanity Fair or Elton John’s?” Jenny asked panting in front of him like a Chihuahua.
“I don’t know.”
Inside the card was a faded photograph of a girl with red hair. Someone out of the frame was lifting the back of her skirt and exposing her naked behind, which had a banana protruding from it.
“Gil, what it is?”
He had to steel himself to look at the girls’ face, one side of which was pushed down against the blue and silver striped upholstery. Immediately recognized the big amber eyes as they gazed back at the camera. Her mouth twisted up in a smirk.
Written in block letters on the back. “To the good times.”
Flashing back twenty years, he felt a stab of tension in his chest, right below his heart.
“Gil, is something wrong?”
Gathering himself, he checked the back of the card, then the envelope again. No postage. No return address.
“A … a messenger left this?”
Tara nodded. “Yes.”
Jenny: “Tell us, darling. Don’t keep us in suspense.”
He balled the envelope, card and photo in his fist. Shoved it in his pocket. “Some wacked-out fan. Nothing special.”
The two women made their exits as he lifted the hand-blown decanter and poured another shot of the $1,000-a-bottle tequila.
Tara over her shoulder: “I’ll print out your schedule.”
Jenny from the bedroom door: “I’ll shower and get ready. We’re expected at Nobu. 8 o’clock.”
Gil wasn’t listening. He calculated that he’d received at least a dozen similar photos over the past fifteen years. All of Larisa Peterson in various states of submission. Sent to his various residences, even though he’d moved three times during that period.
Curious, to say the least. Troubling.
He believed that they’d come from Larisa wherever she lived now. And he thought he knew why.
She was bitter. Angry. The photos meant to remind him of a betrayal. One that had probably shattered her dreams and caused her to slip and fall into the banal world of anonymity and endless struggle.
Sipping the tequila, Gil looked past the infinity pool and thanked God again that he had been one of the lucky ones. Plucked from the crowd. One of an infinitesimal number of young actors and performers who had made it to the top.