“Baby, are you ready?”

No answer.

“Baby?”

This was beyond tedious.

He’d been in the bathroom now for three hours.

I banged on the door. “We have to go.”

No answer.

I banged again.

“What the fuck!” he yelled.

This was what happened now, every time he had a photo shoot or interview. It drove me insane. Each time I wondered if he would actually do what was required of him. And each time, miraculously he had. Tonight was the world premiere of Moon Wars and I was determined it would go off without a hitch.

I heard some shuffling noises and then, thankfully, he appeared.

“You look great,” I said.

And he did. That’s what was so incredible. How he’d perfected this balance of beauty and self-destruction. He’d been brilliant in the film. An incredibly talented actor. Moon Wars wasn’t just another action movie. It was being touted as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Blade Runner—three very different types of science fiction films. The buzz was he’d be nominated for an Oscar.

After tonight, he needed to get off the merry-go-round. Go to rehab. Except no one could make Phillip do what he didn’t want to do. His excuse was his fans would never stand for it. And there was some truth in that. He was on such a pedestal in the media and the public eye. No one could ever know. If the tabloids found out…

If only Manson was still around. I’d hated him, but he was the only one Phillip would listen to.

Everything was unraveling.

First Natasha showing up. I mean, talk about a heart-stopping shock. The humiliation that she, of all people, had saved Phillip. And for that, she’d been “disappeared.” They’d assured me she wouldn’t be harmed. Could I believe that? What had happened to her? And then Manson.

Manson had been the glue holding us all together. Since his death, Rey had turned colder and more menacing with each passing day. Now, at the last minute, he’d summoned me and Phillip to his house.

Rey lived high up in the Hollywood Hills, in one of those 50’s styled houses perched on the edge of a hillside like an eagle’s nest, steel beams plunging deep into the earth. It seemed to defy logic in this earthquake-prone land, but Rey boasted his house was safer than anything down on the flats.

Phillip complained like a little bitch at having to go. But in the end, what choice did we have? I drove us up to the house, taking Sunset Blvd., which was looking drabber and dirtier than ever. I wondered what tourists thought when they came here, so excited to see Sunset Blvd.

Hollywood.

The Promised Land where dreams come true.

Speaking of which, you couldn’t escape the huge billboards advertising Moon Wars, Phillip’s gorgeous body on full display, Oran’s two moons shining red and blue behind him.

The real Phillip sat next to me in a state of carefully-controlled hypertension.

“I don’t want to go up there,” he said, yet again, like a child.

“As if it matters what you want,” I said.

His left leg bounced up and down.

“Don’t do that,” I said.

He kept on.

I reached out a hand to put it on his leg and he pushed it away.

“Get off, you stupid cunt.”

Sometimes I wondered if I had a big sign on me saying “Abuse Me.” Something that had somehow attached itself to me in childhood and just wouldn’t go away, not matter how hard I tried to be strong.

Everything I’d done, everything I’d let him do to me, was it worth it? Would I get what I wanted? Would I be the star next time?

The image of Mavis Kotch exploded into my brain and I clenched the steering wheel tighter. Mavis. What kind of a name was that anyway? She should be a doddering grandmother with a name like that. Instead…she was Phillip’s co-star, standing defiantly just behind Phillip on all those posters. That sleek little bitch. I knew they were having an affair. I’d even walked in on them once. In our bed. He’d just slammed the door in my face.

I swear, if things didn’t work out for me, I was going to kill them both.

I turned off Sunset and headed into the hills, the streets growing narrower and windier as we climbed higher. At last, we turned onto Blue Jay Way. The road ended at Rey’s house. Beyond, the hill still climbed higher, starkly cleared of trees and the usual dry, yellow brush to stave off the fires plaguing the city. Rey owned the entire hillside, so no one could build above him.

Cameras swiveled to peer at us and the huge gate opened, two former Delta Force operatives motioning us in. We parked the car inside the carpark, which was basically a tunnel drilled into the hill, and took the elevator up to the back garden. The sun was low in the sky bringing relief from the heat of the day. A small pool lay at the center of the garden, surrounded by exotic plants and cacti, interspersed with priceless sculptures. Rey loved showing off how cultured he was.

We entered the house and walked through the wide foyer into the sunken living room. This house was so perfectly Lance Rey, discrete and tastefully understated. Nothing like how most celebrities liked living in huge mansions and making sure everyone knew about their lavish lifestyles. Rey never did interviews and was rarely spotted in public. He hadn’t been able to escape the news lately, not with the release of the movie. His reclusiveness combined with the international success of the book, Moon Wars, made him the most intriguing celebrity of all time. His fan groups had over a billion followers. And Rey had nothing to do with any of it.

Except for profiting off of everything, from merchandise to other, questionable dealings. I didn’t know anything about that stuff. I didn’t want to know. But when you have a boyfriend as indiscrete as Phillip Chu, you hear things whether you want to or not.

From the living room, and any other main room in the house, Rey could observe the world below through the floor to ceiling windows. The windows opened onto a balcony running the entire length of the house. Indeed, he had one of the most stunning panoramic views of the city: all the way from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica and beyond, with Catalina Island visible on a clear day.

Rey had an impressive array of Chinese and Japanese art. On either side of the entrance to the living room were matching blue and white porcelain Ming Dynasty pots from the town of Jungdezhen in Jiangxi province.

Taking up an entire wall was the coup d’etat of the room, an enormous painting of the Lady of Shallot by Waterhouse. An Arne Jacobsen Mayor sofa in lime green faced the painting. Many times, I’d sat on that sofa, just staring in awe.

The first time I’d seen the painting, I’d mentioned how the original is in the Tate Gallery. I always felt tongue-tied and awkward around Rey, so I don’t know why I’d said that. I guess I wanted him know that I, too, was cultured.

As if I could ever impress Rey about anything to do with my pathetic little self. He hadn’t even answered, which wasn’t surprising. To him, I was just another ignorant sycophant who should be grateful that I could occasionally bask in his glory. Not only didn’t he answer, but he gave me a look of such superiority that I realized what he was saying without words.

The painting hanging in his living room was the original. The one in the Tate was a fake. And that’s how I found out how truly powerful he was. Because who could accomplish a switch like that, and on top of it, instead of hiding the painting, display it in the middle of his living room?

Tennyson wrote a poem about the Lady of Shallot, originally published in 1832. She’d been cursed to imprisonment in a tower with only a mirror through which she could observe the world below. Through the mirror, she saw Sir Lancelot passing and fell in love.

“I’m half-sick of shadows!” she said and turned away from the mirror to see him and the real world. Immediately, the curse fell upon her. After going out from the castle, she lay down in a boat on the river and died, floating into Camelot. Sir Lancelot remained oblivious of her sacrifice; just to look upon him for real was worth dying.

In my darkest moments, I wondered, am I like her? Had I forfeited authenticity for this life of shadows, catering to a man who didn’t respect me, so that I could somehow attain success in the future? If only I could be acknowledged, just once. To be the one in front of the adoring crowds instead of on the arm of a buffoon. I’d give anything for that. I’d float down that river in death if I could know for one moment what it felt like.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But it’s in the spirit of the poem.

It had been such a shock, Natasha showing up like that. Sitting beside Natasha in the car, all my insecurities from junior high had flooded back, as if I’d never grown up at all. I’d manipulated, connived, sold myself while she’d been busy punching and kicking, even slitting people’s throats. I was ordinary and she was a superhero.

She’d saved the man who was supposed to save me. What kind of twisted fate was that? I’d hated her all over again for it. How dare she do this to me? Remind me of all the things I’d buried over the years. And so, I’d betrayed her. Perhaps led her to her death. Even while I’d justified it to myself by saying I’d convinced them not to kill her. That was a lie, of course. I didn’t have that kind of ability to sway them.

And then, what had she done? Kissed me as she said goodbye. And for one tiny moment, I’d felt alive. Only to have the waves of hate drown the feeling.

“Good evening.”

And there was Lance Rey, pulling me back to this terrible reality. He’d entered the room noiselessly, in slippers. It was disconcerting, how quiet he was. He looked like a bull with his powerful body. Yet he moved as gracefully as a dancer.

“We should be heading over, shouldn’t we?” said Phillip, suppressed anxiety in his voice.

“Relax,” said Rey with a smile. It was a cobra’s smile, hypnotizing before sinking its teeth into your flesh.

Rey walked over to the bar and poured three whiskies into crystal glasses, then added ice to two of them and handed them to me and Phillip.

“I don’t think he should drink that,” I said.

“I think we all deserve this, Jessica,” said Rey.

Phillip’s anger seethed beneath his skin. I would pay later for humiliating him. If he remembered. And he probably wouldn’t.

Rey raised his glass. “To Moon Wars.”

We all drank.

The front door opened and Rey turned with a welcoming gesture. “Ah, Mavis.”

She walked into the living room, glittering in a deep red confection, shoulders bare, champagne glass breasts covered by two thin, blood-red smears of material, toned arms reaching out to give Phillip a hug, red lips kissing his mouth. Golden hair, more golden than mine, cascaded down her bare shoulders and back. She turned to me, as if I would submit to a traitor’s kiss as well. I stepped slightly back, watching beneath my dark lashes as she shrugged and fixed herself a drink.

Such a petite thing. I towered over her. Far from making me feel superior, I felt awkward and stupid.

Rey’s wife, Lana, walked into the room next, a dark beauty. I’d always liked Lana. I even felt sorry for her sometimes. She seemed so clueless. Genuinely in love with her husband, if that was possible. How could someone so close to him, who shared his bed nightly and had born his child, be so oblivious to the demon he really was? Perhaps just as I’d fooled myself with Phillip, she’d fooled herself with Rey. And with her, the stakes were so much higher. If I admitted the truth and got out, I’d probably survive. She wouldn’t. No one married to Rey could ever free themselves.

Lana was holding her daughter, Gem, only a few weeks old. Rey went over and took Gem from her, cradling the tiny bundle and cooing down. What a tight little circle it was, this family before me. I felt the love.

“Congratulations, your baby is beautiful,” I said.

The nanny came in and whisked the baby away.

We all looked at Rey. What now?

“A car’s coming for you and Mavis,” he said, addressing Phillip.

I stood staring stupidly at Rey. He gave me another one of those insanely reasonable smiles. “You’re welcome to go with us.”

I still couldn’t grasp it. Us?

Lana chimed in hurriedly, “Oh, it’d be great to have your company, Jessica. I’m so nervous.”

“You can’t be fucking serious?” I whispered, but loud enough for everyone to hear. My voice sounded hoarse and shaky, as if I was dying from thirst.

I pointed a finger first at Rey, then at Mavis. “Are you telling me you’re pushing me out for that whore?”

There’s something about Rey. He can talk to you in a polite, solicitous manner. Make you feel for a few brief moments as if you’re the only person on the planet. He can be sweet and kind. Lovely. While all the while, he remains far away. You will never touch him, no matter how much he touches you. You do not belong in his universe. He is reaching down to you, bestowing upon you a little glimpse of his glory. And you pray that maybe, just maybe, a tiny bit of that glory might stick and that one day you might rise, well, not to his level, but at least higher than where you were before.

But then, he can switch from being the benevolently distracted god to giving you his actual attention. And that is something you never want. You never want it to happen that he is no longer disinterested in you. You never want him to swivel that round, bald head so that he is looking right at you, into you with those startlingly blue eyes.

This is what he did that evening. My first experience of his full attention and it froze me so that I lost all control of my body, mind, and soul. My knees turned to jelly and it was all I could not to collapse in a slobbering heap on the floor.

“Don’t make a scene,” he said, the sound of his voice soft and mild, and yet, for that very reason, striking terror through me. “You’re welcome to come with us, as Lana said. But if you’re going to be like this, then you’d better go home. The public expect Chu to arrive with his co-star. There’s nothing unusual or unreasonable about that.”

I continued to stand there, silent now. No more fight. Of course I couldn’t go to the premiere. Of course, I wasn’t really even invited. It was a script and I needed to read it exactly how it was written.

I was led out by one of those fucking Delta Force guys. I felt drugged, and maybe I was. I got in my car and drove out of that tunnel, through the gate, and into the fading evening light. The gates closed behind me with an eternal thud and I knew I’d never be going through them again. Probably, I should have been counting my blessings that I’d been let out alive. But I wasn’t thinking that way.

I drove down the hill, farther and farther until I reached the flat lands of Sunset Blvd., where all the lost souls of this horrible city wandered like those in a zombie movie. I found myself driving aimlessly, I didn’t know where. Until I stopped and realized I was at Le Relais Basque. I’d found comfort there a few times, showing up late at night and talking to Adonai. She’d never turned me away, always had a sympathetic ear. I suppose that’s why I gravitated there now. I’d heard rumors of underground parties held in a back room, attended by celebrities and the most powerful people in the city. But I’d never believed the rumors, because there was no place for parties that I could see. Still, the café had an air of mystery about it that one couldn’t deny.

I got out of the car and walked toward the entrance, a wooden door that stood open, long colorful beads obstructing the view inside. I was about to go in when the beads parted and out came Natasha.

I screamed, and, really, can you blame me?

I think she was just as surprised to see me, although she reacted differently. She grabbed my shoulders, slammed me up against the side of the café, and clapped a hand over my mouth. I struggled a bit and then saw it was useless, so I stopped.

She took her hand away and I gasped in some air. “What the fuck are you doing here?” she asked.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

I coughed and rubbed my mouth. “And why all the drama, stop doing that!”

“Fair enough,” she conceded. “However, you still better tell me why you’re here.”

My pride was gone. I had no more lame excuses, even if she was going to end up saying I told you so. I told her what had happened, the very short version, like in about three sentences. Before she could response, the café door opened and out came…Phillip?

I looked harder, then turned to Natasha. “Is that…”

“Stryker Gunn,” she said.

I was stunned. He looked so much like Phillip. Yet this man was real. I had no doubt in my mind that standing before me was the one who had lived the adventures Phillip had only acted. He’d fought in battles where blood had flowed. He’d loved a woman in a way Phillip had never loved me.

And then, the woman who Mavis played in the movie appeared. Gunn’s lover, Erolin. She looked nothing like Mavis, but I knew it was her. This ethereal creature, like an Irish princess. I wanted to cry and scream all at once at the emptiness of my life.

There were more who came out the door. Some of them I recognized, like Adonai. Later I found out she was really the alchemist Extorlia, from Oran, who had created the Oranian fireflies.

Three more women came and one other man. I’d seen them around, but had never talked to any of them before. Lilly was Manson’s wife, a delicate thing that looked as if she couldn’t hurt a fly. I would have been shocked to know she’d brained her husband with a hammer. Then there was Farida, who I later discovered was an undercover FBI agent. She and Lilly seemed to know each other well and were deep in a discussion about something. Ariyan came out next. I remembered his death had been all over the news. But here he was, with an artist named Hannah whose paintings I’d seen in an exhibition once.

Adonai put a gentle hand on my arm and I jumped. “It’s okay,” she said. “We’re going to the premiere. You can come, too.”

“No, she can’t,” said Natasha.

I opened my mouth to object, but Gunn spoke before I could. “Natasha, is she your friend?”

Natasha didn’t answer. I crossed my arms and waited.

“We can’t just leave her here,” said Adonai.

Gunn gave Natasha a sly look and then grinned at me. “You can come,” he said.

“Oh, can we just get on with it,” Lilly blurted out impatiently. She took my arm with a smile. “I’m just like you, darling. A voyeur. Sit with me.”

A windowless van pulled up and the side door slid open. There were three commando-type guys in there, one of them the driver. They were just like Rey’s guys, only on the opposite team and armed to the teeth with weapons and body armor and face masks. In fact, everyone was dressed for battle, I realized. Even Lilly had on a bullet-proof vest. Where was mine? I felt ridiculous hiking up my gown and teetering on my high heels as I folded myself inside. If only I could have changed my clothes.

We drove off and I looked behind to see two more black windowless vans following closely. Filled with more scary guys, I assumed. Fortunately, I was handed a bulletproof vest and put it on over my dress. Now I really looked stupid. But safer.

***

For all installments from Luminaria, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Chapter 1: Come to Me — Lana
  2. Chapter 2: The Proposition — Hannah, Part 1
  3. Chapter 2: The Proposition — Hannah, Part 2
  4. Chapter 3: Killer Gene — Natasha, Part 1
  5. Chapter 3: Killer Gene — Natasha, Part 2
  6. Chapter 4: Wrong Turn — Lilly, Part 1
  7. Chapter 4: Wrong Turn — Lilly, Part 2
  8. Chapter 5: How it Happened — Adonai
  9. Chapter 6: Vishku Way — Erolin, Part 1
  10. Chapter 6: Vishku Way — Erolin, Part 2
  11. Chapter 7: Undercover — Farida, Part 1
  12. Chapter 7: Undercover — Farida, Part 2