SIXTEEN

Ariana handled the LAPD when the patrol car arrived. Until then I’d wandered around the house, trying to hang on to the contents of my stomach. Ariana had found me in the study, checking out the papers on the desk. “Don’t touch anything.”

Now I sat quietly to one side while Ariana talked to the two young patrol officers. I’d seen dead bodies before, my grandparents, for example, but their passing had none of the violence of this. Perkins had been a despicable human being, but I felt hollowed by his death.

More cars arrived, more cops conferred with Ariana. It was obvious she knew one bloke personally. Even before the coroner’s people had arrived, I heard the cops talking suicide.

We gave brief statements and were about to go when Sven arrived in a huge black vehicle. I peered at it, and Ariana said, “It’s a Cadillac SUV.”

Sven flung his bulky body out of the SUV and demanded of the nearest cop, “What the fuck’s happened?”

“Your name?”

“Sven Larsen. I live here. Personal assistant to Mr. Perkins.” He swung his head around, his angry expression fading. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

“Where have you been, sir?”

“The gym. I go every morning. What’s going on?”

We left as he was led into the house. Ariana drove, because I was still too shaky. After a long few minutes, I said, “Was it suicide?”

“Hell, no,” said Ariana. “Can you really imagine Jarrod Perkins killing himself? Killing someone else, yes. Himself? No.”

“Are you saying murder?”

Ariana shot me a hard blue stare. “I’m saying murder.”

I thought of begging oft” my date with Chantelle, having seen a corpse that morning, but I was looking forward to going somewhere new, with someone I didn’t really know. It would be an escape from the indelible picture of the slumped body in the shower recess. I kept myself busy checking through Dad’s things in the boxes Ariana had packed up and customizing his computer to suit me. Ariana had gone out, and nobody disturbed me, except for Harriet, who sweetly checked to make sure I was okay then left me alone.

Chantelle had told me to dress casually, so I put on freshly ironed jeans and a blue tunic top. My battered face was a disaster area beyond repair, so I decided to tough it out with dark glasses until the lights in the theater went down.

I explained to Julia Roberts I was going out and might be quite late. She checked that I’d filled her dinner bowl then made it clear she didn’t care.

Chantelle was picking me up, and she arrived as Melodie was leaving. “You’re Melodie!”

“You’re Chantelle!”

I realized they had never met in person, though they’d certainly shared quite intimate information via the receptionist gossip network.

Melodie was appraising Chantelle with approval. “Acting?”

“Amateur stuff mainly. You?”

Melodie assumed a modest expression. “Some. I have a callback for Angel Rejects”

“Angelique?”

“How did you know?”

“You’re perfect for the part.”

Later, in Chantelle’s car, a red Jeep, I said, “I didn’t know you were into acting.”

“I’m not, really. Practically everyone in this town dreams of being an actor. The rest are aiming to be scriptwriters.” She gurgled with laughter. “Sweeping statement, of course, but with a core of truth.”

Something was puzzling me. “If you and Melodie have talked so much, how come you didn’t know she was”-I was about to say a would-be actor, but Melodie would hate that-“an actor?”

“We don’t talk about personal things, we’re at work.”

“But I know for a fact you and Melodie discussed me.”

“That’s different.”

Plainly there were receptionist networking rules I’d never understand.

Sooner or later the subject of Jarrod Perkins had to come up. It was sooner. “You found Jarrod Perkins.”

I made an indeterminate, let’s-not-discuss-this noise. Didn’t work. She repeated the question.

I said, “Yes, it was horrible.”

No way was she going to drop the subject. “Shit, Kylie, you saw Perkins yesterday. Right off the wall. Never heard a man scream that way. He said something about blackmail…” She trailed off, sending me a fill-in-the-blanks look.

“Did he?”

“When the news came he’d shot himself, I wasn’t surprised. Obviously, he was losing it. Maybe this blackmail thing pushed him over the edge.”

“I’d rather not talk about it tonight.”

Clearly disappointed, Chantelle said, “Sure.” Two minutes later: “Melodie said you were white as a ghost this morning when you came back.”

“Thank you, Melodie.”

“And she’s been fending off reporters all day.”

“She has?” This would be the first time Melodie had failed to spill the beans.

“Ariana Creeling told her not to worry you.”

Crikey, Ariana had more clout than I’d realized. I hadn’t thought anyone or anything could shut Melodie up. And I hadn’t thought of Ariana for minutes, and now here she was, popping up again.

“So did you actually see the body?”

“Chantelle!”

She took both hands off the wheel to gesture she was giving up. “Okay, subject’s off the menu.”

I pushed Ariana out of my mind and concentrated on Chantelle. She was looking spectacular tonight. Her silk shirt was a rich golden yellow and glowed against her dark skin. I felt a tickle of anticipation, but that may have been my stomach. I’d got over the shock of the morning’s discovery and was feeling ravenous.

We ate in a little Indian restaurant in the same block as the theater. The place was semi-dark and packed full of noisy patrons. I loved it because it was so full of life, and life was something I found myself valuing more than ever.

The theater was hardly larger than the restaurant. I’d taken off my dark glasses, as I reckoned no one was looking at me anyway. We sat in the front row on a low bench, our knees protruding into the stage area. The play, Chantelle confided, had been written by a friend of hers; it was called Voices From the Walls.

I steeled myself, expecting something perplexing and experimental, but it turned out to be a broad farce about the entertainment business. The audience roared with laughter through most of the performance. Being a foreigner, I didn’t get all the references, but I enjoyed it all the same.

Afterward we went backstage and crammed into a tiny dressing room to meet the cast and Chantelle’s friend, the writer-director. He was a puppy-dog type of bloke, hopeful and ingratiating. If he’d had a tail, he’d have wagged it madly.

A spontaneous party was starting, and suddenly I wanted to get away. Reading my mind, Chantelle murmured, “Let’s get out of here. My place?”

I looked into her eyes and felt a sudden jolt of freedom. No one knew me, no one cared what I did. This was someone I didn’t really know, and she didn’t know me.

“I’m game,” I said. “But my nose…you’ll be gentle?”

Arms around each other, we laughed our way to her Jeep. I felt giddy, like I was a kid again, on the edge of something new and exciting.

Chantelle had an apartment in West Hollywood just off Santa Monica Boulevard. We made it through the front door before we kissed, quite gently, in the darkness. And then more insistently, until my skin tingled and the core of me began to melt.

Chantelle laughed against my lips. “Do you want to shower with me or go to bed with me?”

“Both, please.” My knees were growing weak. “Bed first?”

Everything shook. The floor beneath us creaked, the window shutters rattled. Then it was still again.

“Stone the crows! What was that?”

Unconcerned, Chantelle nuzzled my neck. “Probably an aftershock.”

“What the hell’s an aftershock?”

“From L.A.’s last big earthquake. Aftershocks go on for years. Of course, it could have been a small earthquake in its own right.”

I tightened my arms around her. What was it about danger pumping up one’s sexual responses? I was living proof it worked. Trembling with both alarm and passion, I said, “Jeez, Chantelle, you’re awfully casual about this. I mean, an earthquake!”

Another less violent shaking rolled through the apartment, dancing the shutters again. “Yerks!”

“Calm down. After you live in L.A. for a while, you’ll get used to it.”

I doubted it, I doubted it strongly. But I was finding Chantelle a delightful antidote to fear. The bed was super-size, the sheets were crisp, her body was lithe and strong, her skin like satin. Her mouth devoured me, her hands traced electric patterns on my willing flesh.

“You’re pretty crash-hot,” I breathed.

“That’s good?”

“That’s very good.”

I was tight, I was liquid fire, I was flying. Sensations rippled, caught at my heart, exploded.

“Tell me what you want,” she whispered.

“I want to fall into the flames.”

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