Authors: Adrienne & Scott Barbeau,Adrienne & Scott Barbeau
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction
“Take me to Bel Air, Maral. Please.” I climbed into the back of the SUV, buckled myself in, closed my eyes, and stretched my legs out across the seat. A definite sign to Maral that I didn’t want to talk. I needed to think. I needed to get home, sit in a tub, and listen to “Dead Can Dance” while my mind floated around with the bath bubbles. “I’m taking no calls,” I added.
Maral nodded. She pulled the car out of the underground lot, turned left onto Sunset. “We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
I have two homes in L.A., one in Bel Air and one at Point Dume. But I’m happiest at my home in Marin County—land of the Grateful Dead.
It was Catherine the Great, born Sophie Friederike Auguste but called Figchen by those of us she kept close, who taught me the value of owning real estate. We met when she arrived in St. Petersburg in 1744 and the Empress Elizabeth asked me to tutor the German-born princess in Russian before she was christened as Yekaterina Alekseyevna and married the man who would become Peter III.
Officially, I was her Lady-in-Waiting, unofficially her bodyguard, always her friend, and sometimes, when her frustration with Peter’s impotence overcame her royal judgment, her lover. From Voltaire—gossip that he was—she learned my true nature, but she never wavered in her loyalty to me. Nor I to her. Twice, when I was stricken with the Thirst, she offered me her wrist. So you could say the blood of royalty runs in my veins. The blood of royalty and the wisdom to buy real estate.
Catherine acquired the Crimea, the Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. Under a variety of names of individuals, companies, and corporations I own land in over twenty countries and have property in just about every state in the Union.
I own huge swaths of Hollywood and greater Los Angeles. When I came out here at the turn of the twentieth century it was possible to pick up land for dollars. I used the money I got from Thomas Hope, when I sold him the French Blue diamond in 1830, to buy as much land as I could, particularly in and around the canyons. It didn’t take a genius to work out that the orange groves of the city of Hollywood and Los Angeles would prove an irresistible lure.
When I was younger, I drifted around the world, spending days or weeks on the various properties, but as I get older, I find myself traveling less and less. It’s been decades since I was in France, a century since I visited Italy. I’ve not been back to Russia since Catherine died, even though I own a charming dacha on the Black Sea.
Catherine also taught me that once you have property, you don’t sell it: you lease or rent it. Last year, the little hotel I own just off the Rue Perenelle, in Paris, earned me about $1.5 million in profit, the villa in Tuscany about the same, the house in Kensington in London nearly twice that. I have no idea what the L.A. properties earned. More than I could ever spend, certainly.
Vampyres move and travel to protect their secret. It was easier when I was younger. A century ago I could stay in one place for a number of years and then, before suspicions arose, I would take my leave or arrange for my death and burial and transport myself to a distant country where no one would question my appearance. Now, with jet planes and ocean liners and automobiles and news broadcasts, it’s impossible to get away from people you know. Twice this century I’ve had to resort to “dying” and returning as my “daughter.” Fortunately, L.A. today is so obsessed with staying attractive, no one questions how I manage to age so well. They just chalk it up to surgery and injections and non-stop Pilates. Little do they know it’s nearly five hundred years of sucking blood. But living in Hollywood in the twenty-first century has allowed me to remain Ovsanna Moore a lot longer than I lived as her mother and grandmother. If Gloria Vanderbilt can look as good as she does at her age, I’ve got another twenty years before anyone gets suspicious…and by then, who knows what technology will have achieved?
I love the house in Bel Air almost as much as the one in Marin. They’re completely different. Marin is all rough-hewn cedar and glass, built into the side of a mountain, surrounded by ancient oaks and redwoods. Bel Air is a Spanish hacienda, hidden from my neighbors by a two-foot-wide, twelve-foot-tall stucco wall.
My “grandmother” bought the property in the early twenties when Los Angeles was nothing but orange groves and avocado trees. She convinced Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue to draw up the original plans for the main house and the two guesthouses. Over the years I made changes, mostly for the sake of security. The windows are bulletproof glass, the massive carved wooden door has a steel core, and the grounds have the requisite cameras and sensor alerts. I didn’t touch the original waterfall and running stream he created, just stocked the pond with ducks and geese. A lesson learned from Louis XVI—forget dogs; no one sounds an alarm better than waterfowl.
The house has its own well and I have diesel generators for emergency power. This is Los Angeles, land of constant earth quaking. No one questions these things.
Lying on my back, I felt the car slow; then my sensitive hearing caught the whirr of the electric gates. The car moved forward and now gravel crunched under the wheels. I love this house.
I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else and it’s filled with objects I’ve managed to keep with me through six centuries. Many of the vampyre collect; it is part of our nature. When life is so long, when memories crowd one atop the other and become confused with fantasy and dreams, then we need tangible objects to remind us of our past. A collection comes to represent something tangible in an otherwise ever-changing world.
For me, it’s always been art. I’m particularly fond of the Impressionists and Postimpressionists, but only because I was so much a part of that culture. The art on the walls is all original: purchased, cajoled, bartered, or stolen from the original artists. The west wing is entirely devoted to van Gogh, whom I adored, Toulouse-Lautrec, whom I despised, and Gauguin, whom I was always ambivalent about. Didn’t stop me from taking their work, though. Individually and collectively, they all called me their muse.
My insurance agent marvels at the money I must have spent to acquire such ancient artifacts when in fact most of them were trinkets I picked up at the time they were made. That Ming vase in the living room was a chamber pot I used in 1590 and the van Gogh in the bathroom was something Vincent was throwing away because he didn’t like it.
Half my house in Point Dume is covered with Vincent’s work. Vincent was special. We were never lovers; ours was a friendship that went deeper than that. I own more of his work than any other artist. I still miss him. When we left Paris for Arles together, I started the process of Turning him, but he grew terrified that becoming vampyre would destroy his talent. He refused to allow me to complete his creation. To this day I am convinced that his subsequent half-human, half-vampyre existence—what is called the
stage—is what drove him mad. The evidence of his emerging vampyre senses is there on the canvas: the vibrant colors, the swirling energy, the sheer exuberance of life. To look at his work is to see the world through vampyre eyes.
“We’re home.” Maral turned off the engine and I straightened, opened the back door, and stepped out into the near darkness.
And immediately knew something was wrong.
I’ve no psychic abilities—only the Bobhan Sith possess those. But my instincts, honed by too many years of survival, were warning me that something was amiss. Leaning back into the car, I unsnapped the snub-nose .357 Magnum from its holster under the backseat and shoved it into the pocket of my coat. I kept my hand on it.
Maral’s eyes flared when she saw the gun, but she didn’t speak.
“Just a feeling,” I whispered, leaning over to pat her face. “Maybe I’m just spooked—”
“You don’t get spooked,” Maral reminded me.
“Do you have your pepper spray?”
“Always.” She patted her bag. Nothing discourages the over-eager, the rude, or the obnoxious better than a squirt of cayenne pepper spray.
“Get it ready. Take out your phone, pretend to answer a call, give us an excuse to linger here.”
While Maral reached for her cell, I took the opportunity to look across the garden before finally settling to look at the house. Nothing seemed amiss. Doors were closed, windows locked. There was no movement in the undergrowth. Maybe it was just my imagination. I was turning back to Maral when I realized what had caught my peripheral attention. There was a series of regular indentations across the smooth gravel driveway. They came out of the hibiscus, crossed the turning circle, and finished at the doors to the screening room. Someone heavy had walked across the gravel.
I allowed my vampyre senses to flare.
Usually I keep them damped down: the additional stimuli are a lot to handle. Now I welcomed them. My pupils widened, contracted down to cat’s eyes, then grew large again. The twilight brightened and jumped into sharp focus, and I followed the progress of the footprints across the grass, over the gravel, towards the house. Size elevens or twelves, I guessed. Breathing deeply, I sorted through the myriad odors in the garden, ignoring the sulfurous smog smells, identifying the camellias and the roses.
And then I caught it, faint, faint, faint…just at the very edges of perception: bitter spices and the tart iron of blood. Ancient blood. Familiar blood.
“Get back in the car!”
Maral opened her mouth to protest.
“Get back in the car!” My fangs began to unsheathe and that frightened her where my words hadn’t. She scrambled back into the driver’s seat. I pushed the door closed. “Get out of here. Wait for my call.”
“Let me come with you.”
“No,” I snapped, with more venom than I intended. “No,” I repeated gently. “I’ve a good idea what’s inside and, trust me, you don’t want to meet it.”
“I’ll call you,” I said firmly. “And if I don’t contact you within the next thirty minutes, then phone Detective King and get him up here.” I dug his business card out of my pocket and dropped it in her lap. “On no account are you to come into the house on your own.”
“Ovsanna, I’m scared.” Her gray eyes were huge behind her Buddy Holly frames.
“I can take care of myself,” I assured her. But deep inside, I was experiencing an emotion I barely recognized: fear. I hadn’t felt fear in a hundred years or more. I don’t like it. It’s not a comfortable feeling. And even the cold metal of the .357 and five hundred years of survival weren’t offering much reassurance.
Not only had Maral McKenzie eviscerated a man with a top-quality twelve-inch-long Sabatier kitchen knife in a house on Mulholland, she’d almost beheaded him. The murder file read like an X-rated version of
I’d broken a whole bunch of regulations and borrowed the file to bring it home with me. As a precaution, I requested a raft of files to disguise the one I really wanted. Too many inquiring eyes turn into “sources close to the investigation” when some scandal sheet flashes big bucks for the smallest snippet of information or nugget of gossip. Eva Casale’s murder at Anticipation had already been tied to the Cinema Slayer by the media. The talking heads on FOX News and CNN had theories ranging from the ludicrous to the ridiculous. My favorite was the pet psychic from Animal Planet who claimed that an evil spirit manifested by Charlie Manson was inhabiting the body of a pissed-off capuchin monkey. According to the psychic, said simian had jumped its fence at the L.A. Zoo and was out wreaking havoc when no one noticed.
I was standing in the kitchen rereading the file and putting together the jug of sun tea I’d left sitting out all day when the door opened and SuzieQ, my tenant, appeared. SuzieQ stopped knocking about two days after she moved in. I have a nice little three-bedroom house in Beverly Glen that I bought with the fees I earned off
. The best investment I ever made. It’s got a hot tub with two settings, too hot and scalding; a black-bottom lap pool, which seems really cool until you realize it’s hard to see the water moccasins lying in wait; and a separate guesthouse at the bottom of the garden. Renting out the guesthouse supplements my BHPD wages. SuzieQ—that’s the name on her license and her checks and it’s the only name she’s ever given me—was my first and only tenant. She took it originally on a month-to-month lease. That was five years ago. She’s an Amazon, taller than I am, blond, blue-eyed, and built—think Sandhal Bergman in
She works out on Muscle Beach and earns her living as an exotic dancer. And they don’t come any more exotic than SuzieQ: she dances with snakes—a nine-foot boa constrictor and a fifteen-foot albino python. She may have others, I don’t know. I don’t go visiting.
As usual, she got straight to the point. “Now listen, honey, I hear the Cinema Slayer’s struck again; what are you gonna do?” Her Nashville twang turned “do” into two syllables. Folding perfectly sculpted forearms across her impressive chest, she leaned back against the fridge and regarded me with her baby blues. Last week, they were green. She wears colored contacts when she’s dancing so her eyes won’t clash with her snakes. In her V-neck sweater and cut-off jeans she probably hadn’t caused too many accidents today, but then I don’t think she’d left the house yet. She’s usually just getting home at 4:00
“We only found the body four hours ago. Which newsmonger did you hear that from?”
“Well, AOL has it on their welcome page and
just e-mailed me the headline and a link. I just love bein’ signed up with them. Now I never miss the news.”
“You didn’t miss it when you didn’t have it,” I reminded her, but she didn’t respond. When she wanted to ignore me, she could be as deaf as her snakes.
“The Slayer is still your case, ain’t it, sugar? Only now you got a fourth body—ain’t you just in a whole mess a trouble?”
“Actually not as much as you might think. I was the one who discovered the body. I was following a lead.”
“Well, so tell me what happened? The news didn’t have a whole lotta facts.”
The sun tea looked plenty strong; I melted some brown sugar in the microwave, stirred it into the pitcher, and added a handful of ice cubes. Then I poured two glasses and handed one to SuzieQ. “We’re trying to keep a lid on the details until we can contact the vic’s family. Doesn’t sound like we’re doing a great job, does it? But so far there’s nothing to say this is the Cinema Slayer. The vic was no movie star—she was a special effects artist at Anticipation.”
“That’s Ovsanna Moore’s place. I worked for them a couple a years ago.”
SuzieQ is always full of surprises. One of these days I was going to get around to asking how a convent-educated Catholic school girl ended up dancing with snakes and sporting a pentacle tattoo on the base of her spine.
“Dancing or wrangling?”
“Wrangling. You’re such a good detective, ya know? It’s amazin’ how y’all do that. It was
Bride of the Snake God
. You remember that movie?”
I shook my head.
“I don’t guess too many people saw that one. I’ll lend you the DVD; it’s got extras and everythin’. I used Spiro Agnew in that one and he was featured right nice. They even gave him a credit. And one for me, of course, as snake wrangler.”
“Have you got a few minutes?”
SuzieQ grinned, teeth laser white and dentist perfect. “Sure. I’m teachin’ a belly dance class to a bunch of Hadassah ladies but not till eight o’clock. And those ladies won’t be on time for their funerals. I never seen such a bunch a talkers—even where I come from.”
There’s nothing between us, never has been, never will. SuzieQ’s more like a big sister. I’m not sure if she’s gay or straight or bi. I’ve seen her hanging around with people who fell into all three categories; personally I think the snakes put a lot of people off. She’s also got a black belt in karate and has recently started kickboxing. Only last week one of the customers at the club where she dances grabbed her python’s tail: she’d broken his jaw and four fingers before the bouncers pulled her off him. She was lucky: he was a televangelist from Idaho and naturally reluctant to press changes.
I headed into the living room and put my tea and the file down on the coffee table. The light was fading and there was a definite chill in the air. I piled a couple of white pine logs on the grate above the gas jet and lit the gas. Within seconds the dry wood was burning nicely and I settled onto the sofa. SuzieQ had already arranged herself in the lotus position on the rug in front of the fireplace. “Did you meet Ovsanna Moore?” I asked.
“I worked with her for three weeks. She was playing the snake god’s bride and she was handlin’ Spiro Agnew. She did pretty good, too.” SuzieQ’s snakes are named after politicians. She may sound like a backwoods hillbilly but she’s smart as a whip, with a wicked sense of humor and a head for complete trivia. I took her to game night for a cop charity a year ago and we won two hundred dollars. Well,
won two hundred dollars. I only got one question right—I knew who won the race in the movie
“What did you think of Moore?”
“I liked her,” she said. “And she’s strong, too. Whoa, is that girl strong. She carried Spiro around like he was a little bit of a thing and he’s getting to be a big boy now. He must weigh thirty pounds. That’s a good size for a python.” She whipped a flat silver PDA out of her shoulder bag and made a quick note. “Have to stop at the pet store for more mice.”
“What about the assistant, Maral McKenzie?” I persisted. “Did you come across her?”
“Once or twice. I sure didn’t like her. She’s a real pain in the ass,” she added dismissively.
“Any particular reason why?”
“Always hoverin’ round Ovsanna, gettin’ between her and ev’ryone else.” SuzieQ’s bright blue eyes snapped open. “Ooh, you think she done it, don’t you? You think she killed that girl.”
“I’m not thinking anything yet. I’m just asking questions. And I’m interested in her.” The blue eyes got even bigger; pencil-thin eyebrows rose a fraction. “Not in that way.”
“Well, you’d be wasting your time if you were, honey. That girl is gayer than an Apache dancer. She is definitely not interested in men.”
“And what about Ovsanna?”
“Not sure. I saw her lookin’ at men. She might go both ways. But I think she’s interested in a lot of things. Not that I can say from personal experience, she was all business with me, but there was somethin’ goin’ on with her and that McKenzie woman. Maybe not fuckin’ exactly, but somethin’…” She straightened one leg in front of her, crossed the other over it with her knee bent and did another yoga pose, the Twist. Her back cracked all the way up her spine. “So how come you think she did it?” she asked.
“I didn’t say that, SuzieQ, I said I was interested in her.”
“Oh fiddlesticks. It’s damn near the same thing, sugar. Somethin’s got you askin’ questions. What is it?”
“In confidence…?” I asked.
“Cross my heart!” She made an
over her impressive bosom.
I flipped open the file. “Miss McKenzie’s got a jacket. Stabbed a man in the gut and damn near beheaded him.”
“My kind of girl. He musta really pissed her off.” She came to her feet and moved around to peer over my shoulder at the file. She smelled good, honeysuckle or something. She tapped the file photo with her fingertip. “Don’t look like a killer.” It showed a wide-eyed, wild-haired young teen, frightened, disheveled, with bruises darkening her cheek and jaw.
“They never do.” I quickly flipped through the file. Most of it was public knowledge anyway and I couldn’t let SuzieQ read any specifics, but over the years I’ve come to rely on her as a sounding board when I’m mulling over a case. “Not sure if you remember this case. Twelve years ago—”
“I’ve only been in L.A. six,” SuzieQ reminded me.
“Well, twelve years ago we had a series of break-ins in expensive homes in the canyons and along Mulholland. The guy got off on getting past the alarm systems. It was like he deliberately chose houses with great security so he could laugh at us. Twice he found women at home and raped them, but neither of them could give us a description that was worth anything. He was on them before they even woke up and held a pillow over their faces while he was doing his business. Used a condom, so there was no DNA.
“Maral McKenzie was house-sitting for friends in a big home set off the road on Mulholland, sleeping in a guest room. She wakes up, finds the guy about to climb on top, grabs the knife and does him. She told the detectives she kept the knife on the night table because it was spooky staying in the big house alone.”
“Sounds like one smart cookie to me. So she used it and saved herself a whole mess a trouble. What’s your problem with it?”
“Ms. McKenzie claimed in her statement that she was lying in the bed when he walked in. Somehow she managed to eviscerate him and almost slice his head clean off. I’m not sure I could do that if I were standing in wait and the guy was immobile.”
SuzieQ was smart. She got it. “Remind me again about the Cinema Slayer: how did the vics die?”
“Disembowelment, decapitation, impalement, and drowning.”
“Wow, she’s done two out of four. What do you think? I knew there was a reason I didn’t like her.”
“I don’t know, Suze, it’s all a bit too easy. Maral McKenzie kills three movie stars and a special effects artist in a way that vaguely mirrors her manslaughter beef a decade earlier?”
“She’s an obsessive. She’s killing anyone with an interest in Ovsanna,” SuzieQ suggested.
“Too neat. Too obvious. What’s her motive?”
“Who knows? Maybe she didn’t like their work.”