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Authors: Jane Lotter

Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Literary, #Contemporary Women

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BOOK: The Bette Davis Club
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Chatting me up, is more like it. Nevertheless, when Malcolm goes I turn and watch him walk away across the broad lawn, headed toward one of the tents.

I spy Charlotte at the opposite end of the house, near the swimming pool. She’s pacing back and forth, waving her arms at a collection of servants. Malcolm may not know if something’s amiss, but it’s obvious to me that disaster looms. Charlotte is like an aurora borealis of bad vibrations; even from here I can see her shimmering with anger and frustration.

I turn around and again focus on the wonders of my martini and the Pacific Ocean. Minutes later, I hear footsteps and look up to see Charlotte’s thin little butler, Juven, standing before me. I like Juven, though perhaps what I feel for him is more pity than affection. I’d feel sorry for anyone employed by Charlotte.

“Thanking you in advance,” Juven says, bowing. “Señora Illworth asks if you would please come up to the casa. If it’s no trouble.”

Of course, it’s trouble. Lately, my whole life is trouble. Anyway, does Charlotte think I’m furniture to be moved about? Am I blocking someone’s view? Because most of the time, Charlotte doesn’t have much to do with me. I’m an embarrassment to her. Her only possible reason for summoning me now is that she needs something.

Well, I think, the joke’s on you, Charlotte.

For the unhappy truth is that I am the survivor of a shipwrecked life. I’m a castaway who has washed up on your shore without craft, without hope, and without the one person I ever really loved. In other words, my dear half sister, I have nothing left to give.

CHAPTER TWO

I LEAP FROM A RUNAWAY TRAIN

B
y the time I finish my drink and walk back to the house, Charlotte has disappeared from her place by the pool. I’m ushered into the library by another servant and asked to wait. Library, indeed. What nonsense. When our father was alive, this was a real library with real books. When I first came to stay at the house at the age of eight, I’d curl up for hours in a club chair, reading
Stuart Little
or
Winnie-the-Pooh
.

But the leather-bound volumes of my childhood are all gone. In their place are rows of DVDs, a giant television screen, and a well-stocked bar.

Almost nothing left in the room is familiar to me. The French doors leading out to the terrace are still there, slightly ajar, their white silk curtains moving gently in the breeze. A large antique globe of the world, about four feet high, stands near them. I don’t recall the globe from my childhood, and I can’t imagine why Charlotte, who probably still believes the world is flat, would have such a thing. I go over to inspect it.

“Hello, world,” I say, bending down to take a look. “What’s new?”

I reach out to give the globe a spin, but something prevents it from turning. It won’t budge. I wiggle the North Pole pin when—oof!—the entire Northern Hemisphere pops up like a jack-in-the-box, bopping me on the nose. I freeze, and it takes me several seconds before I understand I’m all right, my head has not exploded.

After I catch my breath and rub my nose, I examine the globe and see that it’s hinged at the equator so it can open up like a clamshell, or a treasure chest. I seize the upper half and push it farther back. Inside, nestled in the earth’s center, is a lacquer box containing . . . what? Money? Diamonds? Love letters?

I lift the lid off the box, but find no currency or precious gems. What I do find is a small stash of white powder. Hell-o, kitty, I think. So this is what you find if you dig through to China.

I dip my forefinger in the powder and regard the white specks that cling to it. Well, I’ve lived a long and sometimes sinful life, and I can recognize cocaine when I see it. It’s funny, but when Charlotte was a teenager, Daddy nicknamed her “Cokie” because she drank so much soda. Now I realize our father wasn’t being playful. He was foretelling Charlotte’s future.

Feeling like Pandora, but without finding the hope that remained in her box, I replace the lid and put the world back together. Then I sit down on a leather sofa and flip through a copy of
Entertainment Weekly
. You’d think I was in the waiting room at my doctor’s, only the magazine selection is less promising.

Moments later, Charlotte comes sweeping into the room. Her body is as thin and straight as a panatela. Her lips, on the other hand, are so swollen from collagen injections she looks like she plays first trumpet for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

She’s wearing a jet-black Chanel suit, black leather pumps, and her dyed black hair is lethally styled, as if Joan Crawford’s hairdresser has had his way with her. The overall look is more harried funeral director than mother of the bride.

“Little Mar,” she says by way of greeting. She plops down next to me and takes my hand. Her fingernails are immaculate and painted a deep plum. “Thanks for meeting with me.”

“You’re welcome,” I say, putting my magazine aside and leaning back against the leather. “It’s not like I was doing anything.”

She sighs, then regards me closely. “You look good,” she says, without an ounce of sincerity. “Stylish, slim. That’s a killer dress.”

“Thank you. I’ve received several compliments on it today.”

“That color flatters you. The fit is to die for.”

“You’re too kind.”

“Is it Donna Karan?”

“Yes,” I say. “From the spring collection.” With my free hand, I smooth the hem and finger the expensive fabric. “Actually, Charlotte, I took it out of your closet.”

All is silence, broken only by the gentle grinding of Charlotte’s teeth. Then she speaks. “I figured,” she says, squeezing my hand a tad tightly. “Little Mar and her jokes. Well, let it go.”

Let it go
?
When we were children, Charlotte wouldn’t lend me a bobby pin, never mind a dress.
What in the world do you have up your sleeve
?
I wonder.

There’s a knock at the door and sad-eyed Juven enters, carrying a silver tray holding a decanter of port and two glasses. He brings the tray over to where we’re sitting and places it on a low table in front of the sofa. After a nod from Charlotte, Juven picks up the decanter and pours wine into the glasses. At this stimulus, Charlotte, like some sort of mad Pavlovian dog, drops my hand and reaches for the alcohol.


Gracias
, Juven,” she says, handing me a glass and taking one for herself. “Now
por favor
go take care of that other thing we talked about.”

The two of them look first at me, then at each other, with such obvious collusion that I can only imagine the “other thing” is the assassination of one of the crowned heads of Europe.

The second Juven leaves the room, Charlotte begins gulping down port.

I taste it myself. It has a dry, woody flavor. “This is quite good,” I say.

She waves a hand dismissively. “Donald gets it by the crate from one of his buddies over at Paramount.”

Donald, her husband, is an agent who represents several successful screenwriters. He’s employed by one of the larger agencies, WME or CAA or . . . somebody. It’s hard to keep track. I haven’t spotted Donald among the wedding guests today, but that’s not surprising. After all, he isn’t Georgia’s father. That hapless fellow was two or three marriages back, and we lost track of him long ago.

I suppose I should mention that Charlotte—like her husband, like Malcolm Belvedere, like most of the wedding guests—is in the motion-picture business. She’s a movie producer. Her latest project,
Muscle Man
, is a mega-million-dollar extravaganza shot at great expense in exotic locations and featuring a galaxy of big-name stars.

All of which sounds good until you find out it’s an action picture based on a comic book. Or perhaps a comic strip. Come to think of it, maybe it was inspired by one of those Saturday morning cartoons for children.

The script is by one of Donald’s clients. Malcolm Belvedere’s studio will release it. (Why does that always sound like the unleashing of some sort of toxic bacteria?) Naturally, everyone involved expects a giant hit, a real blockbuster. And no doubt
Muscle Man
will ultimately receive numerous Oscar nominations for things like Makeup, Special Effects, and, you know . . . Very Loud Noises.

As I say, Charlotte’s a professional. She’s had hit movies before and knows what she’s doing. But from the little I’ve heard about it,
Muscle Man
isn’t anything I’d care to see. Nevertheless, I make an attempt at small talk. “So how’s the film coming?” I say. “In the can and all that?”

“We wrapped three months ago,” Charlotte says. “Finished up in post, test screenings start this week.” She gives a short laugh. “That’s a formality, believe you me. Licensing, merchandising, all inked. This one’s so in the bag, I told Donald to start researching property in Spain. I love the idea of a pied-à-terre in Barcelona, don’t you?”

I don’t know how to answer that. Yes, I’d like to own a fashionable little flat in Spain. Who wouldn’t want to be rich like Charlotte and travel the world, eating in expensive restaurants and staying in posh digs? But the reality is, right now I’d be happy just paying my electric bill.

“Anyway,” Charlotte says, “on a project like this, we can’t lose. It’s mathematically impossible. The comic-book rights alone are worth a boatload of money.”

“Comic-book rights?” I say. “I thought the story was based on a comic book.”

Her eyes widen, as though she can’t quite believe my stupidity. “Well, it is. And now there’ll be a
new
comic book—except we call them graphic novels—based on the film. Honestly, Margo, have you forgotten how this town works?”

“I’m not sure I ever knew,” I say.

“Maybe not,” she says thoughtfully. She swirls port round in her glass. “You really were just a kid.”

This, I admit, is unexpected. It’s one of the rare times I’ve heard my older half sister acknowledge that I was once a child who needed looking after, that I was ever anything other than an adult.

There’s a lull in the conversation as Charlotte grows reflective. Her eyes glaze over, but whether that’s from drinking Donald’s port or from the thrill of envisioning a freehold in Barcelona—or even from remembering our unhappy childhood—I cannot say. Then, deep within her, something switches back on. She returns to the here and now.

“Well!” she says. “How’d we get off on that? That’s not what I want to talk about at all.”

Cocking her head like a robin, Charlotte views me over the rim of her glass as if I were a promising earthworm. “I had Juven round you up for a reason,” she says. “There’s a family matter I want to discuss.”

Family matter?
Family
?
All right, yes, we’re half sisters. Though, frankly, it feels more like one-eighth or one-sixteenth. And all right, our parents—her horrible mother, my beloved mother, and our dear mutual father—are dead, and we’re the only siblings each of us has. Meaning there’s precious little family left.

But what could Charlotte possibly want to talk about concerning our family? Childhood memories? Holiday gift-giving ideas? I think not.

Perhaps Charlotte wants my opinion as to whether she and Donald should have a child. The fact that she’s pushing sixty is irrelevant—with sufficient hormone injections, anything’s possible in Southern California. But no, I doubt that’s it either.

If we’re going to talk family, somehow I don’t think Charlotte wants to consider her life or mine. I have the distinct feeling she wants to confer about someone else altogether. I believe she wants to discuss the one and only living blood relation the two of us have left in common: her nineteen-year-old daughter, Georgia.

“Let me get right to it,” Charlotte says. “You were always a bright girl, Margo. You’ve probably figured out what’s going on.”

I sip my port and remember the look on Malcolm Belvedere’s face when he read the time on his watch. “I believe I know what’s
not
going on,” I say.

“Which is?”

“Georgia’s wedding.”

“Bull’s-eye,” Charlotte says. She pours herself more wine, this time up to the rim. “Georgia’s run off!” she declares, anger flashing across her face. “Last night, apparently, though I just found out half an hour ago.” I watch as she shuts her eyes, hugs herself, and takes a deep cleansing breath, tricks I think she may have picked up in yoga class. Unfortunately, they do not produce the desired calming effect.

The anger bubbles up once more and, in a way I remember vividly from our childhood, Charlotte releases it via her mouth. “Those ripe little girlfriends of hers!” she says. “That gaggle of tattooed bridesmaids! They’ve been covering for her the whole time.”

She drums her fingers on the arm of the sofa. “Big joke. Ha-ha. Very funny. Georgia gone and Mama stuck with six hundred guests, a river of champagne, and a catering bill the size of Rhode Island.”

BOOK: The Bette Davis Club
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