All day the sun had baked the concrete, sending waves of heat shimmering skyward. Now a breeze blew through the canyons of downtown and people crept from buildings and sniffed the air like desert animals at the approach of night. Perched at the edge of a fountain outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I felt my mood lift along with the crowd's. It was opening night at the city's premier theater, and soon we'd file inside and leave the pavilion empty, save for the saxophonist nestling his instrument in its blue velvet case, the bums sifting the trash for crusts of panini, and the cashier savoring a cigarette before closing up shop for the night.
I sipped my Pinot Blanc and watched the café grill send up wisps of woodsy smoke. It felt delicious to be anonymous and alone, the crowd swirling around me in a way that suggested New York or Budapest or Paris. This was as good as L.A. streetlife got, even though it wasn't a street at all, but a concrete slab ringed by concert halls and theater. A cultural oasis that connected to nothing.
My city had been wrenched from the desert, willed into being by brute force and circus barkers who sold people on a mass hallucination that became a reality. And for generations, the loudest of those barkers had been my newspaper, the Los Angeles Times and its onetime owners the Chandler family. Their name graced this square, with its reflecting pools and shimmering fountains. It was sheer hubris to send water cascading skyward in the heat of an L.A. summer, but then, water had been the original currency of this land. Without it, the city would sink back to chapparral and sagging clapboard, a provincial outpost doomed to fitful dreams. In a city that lived on grand gestures, evaporating fountains provided the ultimate nose-thumbing at restraint.
Then a man was walking toward me. He wore a guayabera, the accordion-pleated shirt of Mexico, khaki slacks and leather sandals. His wavy black hair was combed back and cascaded over his collar. As always when I saw him from afar, in that split second before recognition hit, a wave of impersonal pleasure passed through me at his beauty. Then the pleasure grew personal and my heart quickened as I realized it was Silvio Aguilar, the man who occuppied an increasingly large part of my heart.
We had met the previous year when I profiled the Latin music promotion business that his family had built from a mom-and-pop swap meet stand into a multi-million dollar empire of arenas, concerts and recorded music. The attraction had been instantaneous and mutual, but Silvio was grieving over the death of his brother and I wasn't supposed to date sources so we had tried to control ourselves, which only made things more electric when we finally did get together.
I loved his complexity, his Old World chivalry, the masterful control with which he ran the family business and the utter abandon I saw in his eyes when he made love to me. Straddling the formal Mexican culture of his parents and the easygoing American ways of his home, Silvio grappled daily with the duality of his existence and wondered where he belonged. But sometimes he'd turn inward, retreat into pride and moody secrecy, suspicious of every attempt to reach him, and then I'd wonder how well I knew the man I had thrown in my lot with.
That was not likely to happen tonight, though. A childhood friend of his had written "Our Lady of the Barrio," the play that would premiere in less than an hour, and we had front row tickets. It was a many-faceted celebration, because Alfonso Reventon was a gangbanger turned playwright, a cultural outsider whose evocative works of streetwise magical realism had brought him growing acclaim and commissions. "Our Lady of the Barrio" was poised to be a smash hit. As Silvio drew closer, though, I saw a harried look on his face.
Striding up, Silvio looked at his watch, frowned, then took my hand and caressed it absently.
"Is something wrong?" I asked him. My lover's mind was clearly elsewhere.
"I was just backstage, dropping off flowers for Alfonso. The director says he's hysterical. It's forty-five minutes to curtain on opening night and Katarina hasn't shown up."
"Only the leading lady." A hint of incredulity in his voice.
"She's probably running late. You know those temperamental actresses."
I was determined not to let his words shatter my good mood, the Old World theater aura, the air like crushed velvet against my skin.
Silvio's cell phone rang and he answered slowly.
He listened, then said. "Absolutely. It's no problem."
On the other end, a man's voice spoke too fast and garbled for me to make anything out.
"Don't worry," Silvio said. "I remember."
He hung up and scuffed his feet against the concrete, refusing to meet my eye.
"Look, uh, Alfonso says Katarina's not answering her phone. It's a fool's errand, but he's asked me to go by her house. It's only 10 minutes away."
My vision of a romantic evening, a shared drink at the fountain, holding hands in the darkened theater, vanished.
I looked at my watch. 7: 20. Curtain was at 8 p.m. I knew I wouldn't be able to sit still, knowing Silvio was out there, hunting down the star.
"I'm coming," I said.
By the time we wheeled his truck out of the underground lot, seven more minutes had elapsed.
"At this point, it would take a Medivac helicopter landing on the roof to make her on time," I said.
Silvio grunted and kept driving. Tense and focused, he swerved in and out of traffic, his eyes on the road.
"So what's Katarina's story?"
Silvio filled me in as he drove. Katarina was a fiery Chicana. For years she had been Alfonso's muse and his lover. But she was capricious. Unstable. The final straw came when she took off to Berlin mid-run with a composer who had scored one of Alfonso's plays. An understudy took over the part and Alfonso had no choice but to get over the actress too. He married, fathered a child and grew increasingly prominent. His gangbanger past, when it was mentioned at all, served to make him more noble for having escaped it. His plays received wide acclaim and he won a MacArthur "genius" grant. Eventually the artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum commissioned a play. In Los Angeles, it was theater's Holy Grail, and Alfonso yearned to be its Latino Lancelot and Arthur combined.
"He wrote ‘Our Lady of the Barrio' for her, you know," Silvio said. "Every woman he creates is based on Katarina."
"What a burden."
Silvio shot me a look.
"It's an honor. But the director had heard the diva stories, the entire theater world had. Alfonso got on his knees and begged to have her cast. Then he had to beg Katarina to audition. She thought it was beneath her."
Silvio exhaled through clenched teeth. "Oh, he ought to kill her for this."
The truck shot out over Glendale Boulevard and up around Echo Park Lake. Silvio turned right, making his way to a hillside street above the lake.
Katarina Venturi lived in a freshly whitewashed duplex draped with bouganvillia and banana plants. Truding a short flight of stairs to the entrance, we heard loud Spanish rap thumping from the house next door.
Silvio knocked, then stepped back. He knocked harder, calling her name. He swore in Spanish and yelled something at the rapper's window. A young man with a shaved head and a scraggly goatee stuck his head through the yellow curtain.
"Can you turn that down for a second, I'm trying to reach the lady in there," Silvio said. "It's important."
The man scowled and withdrew his head. A moment later, the volume was lowered. Silvio knocked again and tapped his foot. He tried the knob. It wouldn't turn.
"Poor Alfonso. Every critic in town is there tonight."
"How do you know she hasn't turned up by now?"
"He promised he'd call." Silvio tapped the mute cell phone in his pocket.
He stood there, undecided, for a moment. Then he turned, as if a thought had occurred.
"Do me a favor," Silvio said. "In my glove compartment, there is a screwdriver. Could you please get it while I check the window?"
Eager to help, I walked down to the truck, somewhat encumbered by my outfit, a 1940s cocktail dress of raw silk with a scoop-neck that curved nicely around my hips before narrowing as it ended just above the knee. It was a frock made for sipping Cosmopolitans and clapping for encores, not striding athletically down a stone staircase like I should be doing right now. The high-heeled black leather pumps didn't help, either.
The glove compartment held only papers. I looked on the floor and groped under the seats to no avail. Then I ran back to tell Silvio the bad news. He was standing at the front door, now ajar, and shoving something into his pocket. I heard a faint jingle.
"I thought it was locked."
"I was able to jimmy it."
"Well that's good because I couldn't find the screwdriver."
He looked at me oddly. "Well, never mind."
And with that, he stepped into the house. As I made to follow him, we heard a growl, low and gutteral. Silvio stumbled backward. At the same time, something soft brushed against my bare legs. I shrieked. Craning my head over my shoulder, I saw a fluffed orange tail disappear into the shrubbery.
The cat's eerie rrowwwllll reverberated up my spine.
Silvio straightened, pulled a tissue from his pocket and sneezed several times, his allergies distracting him momentarily from the task at hand. Then he grasped the door with renewed determination.
Inside, the windows were closed and the curtains drawn against the heat. Silvio flipped on the light. When my eyes adjusted, I saw the room was empty. An overhead fan chugged at high volume, its blades whipping the hot, tired air.
From the recesses of the house came faint music, male voices singing plaintively, their voices twining in the style of long-ago.
"Someone's home," I said.
Silvio ignored me and moved into the living room. Mexican serapes were slung over a leather chair. There was a rattan couch upholstered with toucans and tropical flowers. A low coffee table scattered with Hollywood trade publications. I saw a purse tipped on its side, spilling out coins, a brush and the corner of a leather wallet.
"Katarina?" Silvio called.
I followed him, sniffing the air. The sickly odor of gas from a tidy, two-burner stove in the kitchenette mingled with the overflowing contents of an ashtray, each butt kissed by bright red lipstick. Two mugs of half-drunk tea sat on a 1950s chrome table. Above the sink, colorful Fiestaware cups marched along the windowsill. A dispenser of "Wash Your Sins Away" hand-soap with a lurid image of a bleeding Jesus crowned in thorns. An avocado seed stuck with toothpicks sprouted in a cloudy glass, its curly vines tumbling to the floor.
"Katarina, are you here?"
The tiny house seemed to absorb and muffle his words. Silvio walked into the hallway, floorboards squeaking under his weight. The singing was louder now, voices naked and anguished in a way they would never have been in English. He pushed the bathroom door open and called again, but the only answer was the slow gurgle of a toilet tank. Silvio walked toward the bedroom and I followed.
The music seeped out, crooning a silvery ballad from long ago. I could make out the lyrics now and they seemed sinister, at odds with the soaring melody and sweet harmony.
"You are like a carnivorous flower
In a savage garden
Beautiful but deadly
As you devour my heart."
As the strings died away, I heard a scratchy whir, the pops and clicks of a record ending, then the metal tssking of a phonograph arm rising, then the needle settling back into the vinyl with a blur of white noise. The song started up again. It was plaintive and mournful, like the cry of a heron at dusk when the river holds no more fish.
But Silvio wasn't listening. At the bedroom doorway, I heard his sudden exhale.
"Maybe you should wait here."
His voice was unsteady. He turned to block the doorway, but I had already seen beyond him.
The bed was empty, its white eyelet sheets pulled back and tousled. A torn screen balanced precariously against the pillow. The sash window above the bed, which looked out onto an alley, gaped open. I craned over Silvio's shoulder to see more.
"Is she there? Let me see. For God's sake, I'm a reporter."
"Katarina?" Silvio said.
"You are like a carnivorous plant..."
Silvio stepped into the room. He strode to the closet and threw it open, pushing aside clothes, but met only empty space. With a cry of exasperation, he went to the linen hamper and lifted the lid. Then he turned, eyes roving as he considered where else a woman might hide. But there was nowhere.
"In a savage garden..."
He brushed past me and out of the room and soon I heard him outside, calling hoarsely for Katarina.
I walked over to examine the sheets. There was no blood as far as I could see. Maybe the screen was old and warped and had fallen in. Maybe it had been torn for years.
"Beautiful but deadly..."
My gaze went to the window and I thought I saw a faint red smear on the sill. I bent closer. It was rusty red, already dry and slightly ridged, like a furrow in a field.
"As you devour my heart."
Why was this song playing over and over. It was as though someone was trying to tell us something.
"Silvio," I called, but he didn't answer.
I moved to Katarina's bedside table, filled with framed photos. All held the same pale-skinned woman with long black hair, an oval face and dark eyes. She had a disquieting way of staring into the camera, looking imperiously down her long, aquiline nose, whether dressed in a T-shirt and boxers, her thin, sculpted arms flung around a boyfriend, or saucy in a 1950s poodle skirt and twin set. My eyes flittered over more frames. There she was, clad in a negligee and cradling a cocktail in her "Thin Man" phase. Defiant with a group of zoot-suited men, arms filled with flowers. One of the photos had fallen to the sisal carpet. It lay face down. I squatted to pick it up, then thought better of disturbing a crime scene. Slowly, I stood up.
"Don't touch anything," I called to Silvio. "You're already going to have to explain to the police why your prints are all over the knobs."
I considered Katarina Venturi. A single woman who lived alone. I pictured her putting on her favorite album and twirling around the room in the arms of an imaginary lover. Then sliding between those sheets for an afternoon nap before her Taper debut tonight. And finally I thought of someone slashing the screen, raising the window left unlocked in the heat, climbing in and surprising her. Every woman's nightmare. Did he have a gun or a knife? Had he put it to her head? Had a struggle ensued as she tried to fight him off, a struggle in which someone's blood spilled on the windowsill.
Or had she put on the record for a lover before they headed to bed, then left in such a hurry that she forgot to take it off. What if Katarina Venturi was striding onto the Taper boards to mass applause right now, her biggest concern a case of pre-show butterflies? And Alfonso had been so relieved and preoccupied he'd forgotten to call?
I pictured us two hours from now, gathered backstage. We'd make toasts and drink champagne and Silvio and I would turn this into a funny little anecdote that grew with each telling until it became a permanent part of our repertoire. Remember that night Katarina gave us such a scare? But what if that it wasn't it?
There are pivotal moments in everyone's life, when they see the future laid out clear as a seer's vision, and there's both a hallucinatory and a hyper-real quality about it. Can this really be happening? Is it what my gut tells me it is? Should I go on my instinct, even if I may be roundly embarrassed if I am proved wrong?
"As you devour my heart," the man sang mournfully.
Slowly, I pulled my cell phone out of my purse.
"There's something that looks like blood on the windowsill," I yelled to Silvio. "I'm calling 911."
"No," he said, his footsteps echoing back into the house. "Wait."
Amazingly for L.A., an operator came on immediately. I took a deep breath.
"I'd like to report a break-in," I said. "A woman may be missing. There's a dried substance that looks like blood. Echo Park, above the lake. The address is..."
"Don't," Silvio said. He ran up, a queer look on his face as he realized I was already talking.
"I'm waiting, miss," the operator said.
"What's the address here?" I asked.
Silvio stared at me for a long moment.
"862 Lakeshore," he finally said.
It was only after I hung up that I considered the apprehension I had seen on Silvio's face.
"Why did you tell me to wait?" I asked.
The corner of Silvio's mouth twitched.
"Because there's got to be some logical explanation," he said. "Katarina's pulled these stunts before. And frankly, I'm worried that bad publicity could kill Alfonso. And his play."
His answer seemed anything but frank.
"What if Alfonso's not the one getting killed," I said, leading him over to the rusty red mark on the sill. "What do you think that is, nail polish?"
He looked at it and blinked, repeating that there was probably some reasonable explanation. I thought he might be trying to convince himself. But then I thought of something else. Again, I heard the jingle in his pocket.
As the sirens of an ambulance drew closer and the singers wound up again with their beautiful and disturbing song, I asked my lover:
"You have a key to her apartment, don't you?"
© Denise Hamilton