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Belmundus is Book One of The Farn Trilogy, an exciting fantasy epic for those who like to slip through the rabbit hole.
Harris Cartwright, a young A-list actor, is at the crossroads. His career’s on fire - in a good way, but a missed step on an evening romp with an alluring stalker brings him to the brink of a strange world. He finds he’s been drawn into a dystopian realm and is transformed into the new Gulliver.
Belmundus is the first book of The Farn Trilogy, an adventure into the realms of high society and tyranny — a place were the native cultures have been displaced by an elite force of magicians and a conqueror’s brutal hand. Harris Cartwright has been drawn into elite society, but soon discovers his sympathies for the underdog as he searches for an exit and his true-self. Along the way, he makes indelible friendships and encounters . . . love.
Belmundus, your passport into the Realms of Farn, introduces a tale of ancient history, lingering mystery, tantalizing promises and enduring prophecies. Harris Cartwright soon learns that this alternate reality is truer than any movie set he has ever graced. He’s up for the shoot, but is always on the lookout for exit - stage right.
“I’m a star,” he whispered to the young man in the mirror. “A star,” and then chuckled as he thought about a giant gas ball, ignorantly fixing planets in orbit for no other reason but gravity.
Harris Cartwright, born nineteen years earlier and christened Humphrey Kopfstutter, smiled dimly in the mirror. Dimly, because the hotel room shone amber with its upscale ambience — flattering light designed to be so. Still, in any light, this star of stage and screen was a Narcissus; although his reflection sometimes tamed him.
Harris moistened his bottom lip with his upper, and then winked. He shrugged, and then preened, coming closer to his reflection, nearly kissing the glass. Pucker he did; then laughed. His grin exposed a brilliant smile, a gap between his two front teeth — a chasm his mother meant to have corrected when he had landed his first role as a wee urchin in a Dickens remake. However, the gap and his alluring eyes kept the roles coming until . . . well, until the adolescent leaped the gulf between child actor and teen idol; done with ease and without scandal, drugs or an arrest record. Now Harris leaped the second gulf — youthful high school parts to the dashing hero. Still, he could hide his secrets safely from public view — although the public pried.
He winked again, and then turned around on the stool, which faced the dressing table. The hotel was accommodating — equipped for a range of actors from A-list to C, now that the Tribeca Film Festival had rolled in this town. The SoHo Grand, the classiest bed roll in this lower Manhattan neighborhood, had no vacancies this weekend.
Harris stood and stretched. He had slept the day away and, now as evening hugged the New York skyline, he was up for nocturnal festivities — a sneak preview of his new film The Magic Planet to be followed by a Q&A panel and light refreshments. Who knew what would come beyond that? These junkets were regulated to a point, but burst like fireworks when the rockets spent. Harris might take an evening romp with his co-star. The prospects loomed, so Harris stretched, chucked his underwear, and then headed for the shower.
The hotel room was small by luxury standards, but the Grand had arisen like morning cream. The warm rooms shimmered with golden walls and amber lighting. All that wasn’t silk, was satin. When not occupied by a nineteen-year old, the king size bed wore an olive satin spread, seagreen silk sheets, a princely counterpane and stately pillows. Now the bedding was tossed asunder as if cats had fought in the sack. Clothes were strewn on the floor in a trail from dresser to bed, from bed to shower. Books and scripts kiltered in piles on the dressing table, and the telephone directory sprawled beside a tray with last night’s room service caking in partnership with this morning’s breakfast. No lunch — evidently.
The shower room opened directly into the boudoir, a glass panel separating it from the minibar. To Harris, the steaming water would be his wake-up call. He wasn’t sure what time it was (and he didn’t worry, because Tony watched those details). However, a schedule would kick in eventually. It always did on publicity junkets. Soon, a flock of studio bullies, who, as well-meaning as they pretended to be, would erase his freedom. They were the paycheck, after all, and who was he?
“I’m a star,” he gurgled, spitting out a mouthful of amber water. He laughed again, the stream plastering his curly hair into black slick. He shook the cascades from his eyes and laughed again, and then ran a soapy cloth over his newfound biceps. His last flick demanded his body beef up from a teenage lanky noodle to a swashbuckling space pirate. He was unaccustomed to the added musculature, although the chicks dug it.
At the thought of chicks, Harris smiled, leaning against the glass wall and letting the shower permeate every pore — every crevice. He felt giddy, his hormones having run the gamut of sexual urges and experiences lately. Still, he refused to declare a preference in public. He couldn’t even admit his affinities in the shower stall, because he wasn’t sure he had a preference — a weather vane at times; at other times, as sure as the partner who shared his bed. One thing was positive. He hadn’t time to ponder the issue now or do more than scrub his groin in this shower-call.
“Maybe later,” he mused, and then hastened to finish, turning the taps and waiting for the steam to clear.
Harris reached for a towel — a preliminary dry, beginning with face and hair, and then creating a silly turban, which didn’t squat well on his noggin. He grabbed a second towel for his nether parts, marrying this more ample terry around his waist into something akin to Pharaoh’s kilt.
“A star,” he said again, and then slid open the glass door.
The room’s chill met him and he noticed something queer. On the shower door, written in the condensation, were letters. He squinted, thinking he might have accidentally etched these sigils, but he hadn’t. These were letters — clear and definite.
C U L8R C M J
“What the fuck?” he said, pawing the initials. “See you later — CMJ?”
He turned, looking for uninvited company.
“Tony?” he called. “Are you here?”
Harris inspected the room, walking over his debris, pushing linen with his feet and picking up his clothes as he went. Opening the closet door cautiously, he expected to encounter Anthony Bentley-Jones, his co-star and best friend. A joke, perhaps. However, the closet, devoid of actors, contained only tonight’s wardrobe.
Harris threw off the turban, and then returned to the shower door, hunkering for another inspection before the initials faded. But they were still clear. He rubbed them. They remained. He pushed back, landing on his ass.
“They’re inside. Whoever wrote this was in the fucking shower with me.”
He crabbed back to the bed, took the room in again, and then laughed.
“You’re nuts, Humphrey. Scared by a little soap scum?”
He shook his damp hair, and then sought the dryer.
Again the mirror loomed while Harris dried his hair. He inspected his cheeks for blemishes and his chin for the scar remnant — a nick from a sword accident on the last film. It healed nicely — nothing makeup couldn’t hide, and was more pronounced two weeks ago, when he had walked the red carpet in L. A. Tony fussed over the scar so much, Harris thought Mom had tagged along. Mom wasn’t the stage door kind, but she had rules — good rules, which worked well for a child actor transitioning through this Thespian world. Mom’s rules guided Harris to regard acting as a job rather than a privilege. A good thing, because he loved his job. He hated these junkets and the crowd’s rush. The red carpet was his least favorite thing, although he was gracious to his fans and never withheld his autograph.
He mused on his last prance on the red carpet. Unlike tonight, a public preview at a festival, two weeks ago the event was an invitation-only première. He was tuxedoed and spotlighted — the press in full attendance — interviewers great and small, each with frivolous questions like did you find the battle scenes hard? Did you perform your own stunts? We hear talk about you and Romey (Romaine Rowan — the heroine). Any truth to it?
Drone. Drone. Drone.
Harris danced around these questions. He hugged Romaine and Tony and the director, McCann Phillips. He stood with them and posed and preened and bathed in a shower of flashbulbs and strobes behind the usual studio spoiler backdrop. It was a whirl until he saw . . . saw her.
She, a fan, cocked her head and grinned. She, dressed in black denim and a leather cap, was unlike other fans, who stretched arms forward, pens in one hand, books in the other — this girl in black denim stood patiently, smiling confidently, and then . . . winked.
“Do you see her?” Harris whispered to Tony.
“What ya talkin’ about, mate,” Tony replied. “All I see is a sea of screamin’ Mimis, and you know not one of ‘em’s me type.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Harris said. “I mean, focus your ass and look at that one over there — the one that’s casing me.”
“They’re all casing you. I mean, who wouldn’t, you damn cutie?”
But Tony wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing. The whirl distracted him. They were the attraction. The stars. The fans, white noise.
Except that one, there. That one in black stillness. Then Harris, compelled to speak with her, broke ranks, despite the push to enter the theater.
“Where ya goin’, mate?”
“Nowhere,” Harris muttered, his eyes drifting to that wink in the crowd.
He went to the sidelines, suddenly accosted by hundreds of arms and pens and books and screaming women. They broke his reverie. He grasped one book, and then another, and yet another, signing and scribbling on demand. When he looked up, she was gone.
“Gone,” he said, now into the mirror, and then pouted.
But he had seen her again; last week near his mother’s house in Santa Monica. While heading to the Yatzy Club with his little sister, Harris wore his usual public disguise (thick glasses and a false nose). He encountered a gaggle of fans. Sarah, his sister, always a good shepherdess, tugged him across Santa Monica Boulevard to avoid detection. There were times for adulation, and times for anonymity. Harris liked the Yatzy Club because the DJ, although recognizing him, would never blow his cover.
Crossing the boulevard, he spotted a lone wolf coming in the opposite direction.
“It’s her,” he muttered.
“Her who?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, loosing himself from his sister’s arm.
The lady wore black denim — the same outfit she had at the première. She strolled with swagger, her head down, but she looked up when she passed him. She winked, her chalk-white skin amplifying her crimson lips. She had a green beauty mark on her right cheek. Harris gasped — his chest hitching. But even as he turned to follow her, she hastened to the curb.
“Wait,” he called.
She didn’t. She raised a departing hand — an alluring fist wrapped in a black fingerless glove — on her finger, a captivating jade ring. Then, as if the night had swallowed her, she disappeared. Harris reached the curb.
“Do you know her?” Sarah asked. “You look . . .”
“No.” he replied. “She’s . . . How do I look?”
“Smitten, Humph. Let me fix your nose.”
They had neared the gaggle of club girls. One latex slip and Harris would be a rooster fending for his life in the henhouse. He let his sister repair his nose and straighten his thick glasses. Still, he meant to pursue the phantom lady, only . . . where did she go?
“She’s a dream now,” he said into the mirror, the hairdryer aimed at emptiness.
The lady in black denim — the evasive girl of the night, no longer remained in reality. She stalked Harris’ dreams this last week. He spent the afternoon trying to escape her clutches. But she lingered — on the red carpet and at the curb, winking and waving, and then coming close to his ear, her crimson lips and chalky cheeks an arabesque to his quaking soul. These were good dreams, but fell short of The Magic Planet. Harris had spent so much time on bizarre sets, this shade had to be a remnant hallucination from a cut scene — a scripted snippet chastised by better reason, never to be seen in the projector’s flicker.
“You’re spoiling me,” he muttered, shutting the dryer and nodding his head before his image.
A knock at the door interrupted this reverie.
“It’s open,” he shouted.
“What d’ya mean, it’s open, mate?” came a voice from the hall. “‘ow can it be open?”
Harris set the dryer down and let the towel fall. He let his co-star in.
“Well, don’t cover your nuts for me,” Tony said, bouncing in as if it were his room. “And what d’ya mean, it’s open?”
“I was testing you,” Harris replied. “And you didn’t mind me butt naked last week.”
“Well, we’ve no time for that sort of thing now. We’re late, and King McCann’ll have those balls if there’s a repeat of . . .”
“Hush up,” Harris said, without malice.
“Is your minibar stocked?” Tony announced, aiming directly for it. “Or should I ask? You sip only fizzy drinks and water, unless there’s a bloody ‘eifer up ‘ere filling jugs with chocky milk.”
“You know we have to pay for that shit.”
“You’re payin’, thank ye. Me cooler’s gone empty some’ow.” He shrugged and grinned. “Get dressed and . . .” Tony raised his hand toward the bed. “What a toss we ‘ave ‘ere? Did you ‘ave some birds in? I’m green with envy.”
“No. Nothing like that,” Harris said, pulling on his briefs and heading for the closet. “I slept, mostly.”
“Looks like you wrestled the queen ‘ere.”
“No, you weren’t anywhere around,” Harris replied, chuckling. “Get your drink. I’ll be ready in a shake.”
Anthony Bentley-Jones, the draw of the East end and many a rear end, bowed first to the bed, and then the minibar. He was a good egg, as they said across the pond. He was four years older than Harris, but in the biz longer, having made his first cereal commercial at age two, his Mummy hell-bent on keeping herself in gin and marijuana. The Bentley-Jones franchise (which began as the Koslowsky enterprise) was not as smooth and carefree as the Cartwright-Kopfstutter dynasty. Little Antonin’s Mummy drove him from stage door to audition to rock video to TV commercial to rascal roles until, by age ten (just over a decade earlier) he was a bundle of talented nerves and molested by a string of equally talented directors. He still landed plum roles, but his decadence factor overshadowed many jaded actors three times his age. However, he had his good looks and came out of the closet three years ago, with much aplomb. The rumors that he had slept with every one of his co-stars (male and female) were true, or so he told the press.
They don’t call me Bentley-Jones for nothin’, dearies.
Tony pulled the minibar door ajar and perused the choice of little bottles.
“I see the munchies ‘ave gone missin’.” He glanced at the floor. “Your aim is bleedin’ off. I ‘ope you made it to the loo better’an you did the dustbin.” He rattled through the shot bottles, putting a few in his jacket pocket. “And what’ll grace your glorious body tonight?”
Harris alluded snidely to Tony’s over-the-top outfit — very Dorsetshire — a flowery shirt beneath a blue blazer, a pink hankie mushrooming from where the yacht insignia should have been — a fedora (duck feathered – green) and, of course, an Ascot.
“Simple? Jeans and shitekickers?” Tony drawled like a Dallas native just short of Yorkshire. He turned, and then glanced over his tinted glasses at the young American. “Now that’s bloody fetchin’. Turn ‘bout and let your Auntie Antonia assess.”
Harris had donned a green silk shirt and a white jacket with matching pants. He was stunning. He knew it, but dummied down this wardrobe choice. He was more comfortable in, as Tony had stated, jeans and shitekickers. He refused to do a runway twirl for Auntie Antonia, although he had seen the runway on many a fashion week.
“Listen,” he said sternly. “I told you the judge is still out on me and the coming-out ball.”
“I ‘ate when a man can’t make up ‘is own mind,” Tony said, pouting. He held a gin sample in one hand and a Post-it in the other. “You just want the best of both worlds — and I guarantee that you’ll never get anything better’an me.”
“Stop it.” Harris squinted. “What’s that?”
Tony lifted the bottle.
“No . . . that?”
“Oh. This was stuck inside ya minibar. Maybe a note from the mice that you ate their munchies. Stole their splif too, I bet.” He looked at the Post-it, and then frowned. “Not the mice. It’s from a secret admirer. It says,” he adjusted his glasses. “It says — I C U and C U l8r, CMJ.”
Harris shuddered. He rushed to Tony’s side, swiping the note, and then stared hard.
“You did ‘ave a bird up ‘ere in this cage today,” Tony said, fretfully. “You needn’t ‘ave lied. I mean, we’re not a couple or anything like that.”
“Nothing like that, and I didn’t have . . . a bird in this cage today.”
Tony shook his head knowingly.
“Ah, you said the door was open. So that’s ‘ow it’s done. You know in some cat ‘ouses an open door is a signal for . . .”
“Stop it. I had no one here. At least, no one that . . . Anyone could have stuck this in the fridge.”
Tony pocketed the gin and shut the minibar door with his foot.
“Keep your little secrets. Let’s just get a move on, mate. The limos’ll be lining the curb and we mustn’t keep a Rolls-Royce waitin’.”
Harris Cartwright, star of stage and screen, sighed. He glanced about his home away from home and wondered about the journey. This was the only life he knew, and now he must move along a professional course.
“You’re right,” he said. “We’re stars — giant balls of gas. Let’s go fill the galaxy with our stink.”
“Why, what’s crawled up your arse, mate?”
Harris grinned. He was the master of the moment in his green shirt and white duds. He had a Q&A to give and flashbulbs to embrace. It was illusion, but he knew no other life.
Harris peered out the limousine window at the passing New York City lights — lights like none other on the planet. The Manhattan skyline fascinated him. He had lived here for a brief spell when he made his crime drama Bad Boys in the City. He had invested time exploring the museums, the clubs (those that let him in as a courtesy and not by proof of age), and the hustle-bustle of Greenwich Village at night. His destination tonight was the Village 7 Theater, a Tribeca Festival venue. The ride was short.
“There she be,” Tony said, pointing through the traffic. “Small, but at your service.”
“Are you shit canning your accent tonight?” Harris asked.
“What accent, mate?”
Harris laughed. Tony could slather the Yorkshire when he wanted the audience to lean forward and listen attentively. Gets their undivided attention, it does, Tony would say. However, he played Captain Joseph Baneworthy in The Magic Planet, a character as American as American could be — not a hint of the Yorkish tongue. He could have been cornbread Des Moines. Mr. Bentley-Jones was an actor, after all — a star and, as gas giants went, as seamless as the sky.
“Get ready for the crush,” Harris warned.
“This is a wee preview, laddie,” Tony replied, tipping his head backwards to empty a minibar special.
“You’ll need a breath mint,” Harris said, fishing in his pocket.
“Nothin’ doin’. I’m ‘ard drinkin’ Joe Baneworthy, the Commander of The Galaxy 12. The public should expect ‘ooch on me kisser.” He laughed. “Besides, a preview crowd’s shy of the première crowd with ‘alf the paparazzi.”
“I know. Still, the world’s watching us.”
“Not without a ticket, mate.” Tony yawned. “I could use a noddy ‘fore I get too pissed.”
“You can’t sleep through your own performance.”
“Why not? I was sleepwalkin’ on the set. I could ‘ardly watch the rushes. I mean, when we do the legitimate gig, we’re not in the audience enjoyin’ us. It’s bloody work, you know. We’ve no right to sit back and look in the looking glass.”
The looking glass. Harris knew the looking glass. Sometimes he winced at his own performances. In the beginning, it was fun, but he was a kid. Now, whenever he was in the audience, he was a critic. Always something — a misplaced inflection or a facial twitch. Directors were the ultimate critics, and if satisfied, actors could be happy. Still, Harris couldn’t imagine sleeping at either a première or a preview. Fun flickered seeing himself twenty-feet high, luminous in the dark and delivering art to a crowd of adoring strangers chomping popcorn and silencing cell phones.
“You don’t want to know if they liked your performance?” he asked Tony, who leaned forward preparing to exit onto the red carpet.
“I can tell without watchin’. I listen to the chairs.”
“Aye, me laddie. Silent chairs mean I’ve earned it. Creaky chairs means the lions are restless and owed a refund.”
Harris laughed, not because it was funny (which it was), but true.
“You’re not that rich,” he replied.
“But you are, mate.”
The limo door opened and the flashing commenced.
The crowd, large for the space — Eleventh Street being narrow, the red carpet had been shortened between a few silver stanchions. A modest festival security detail pressed the fans to the curb.
Harris popped a grin, radiating his famous tooth gap. Shouts of Harris cut the night air, with here and there an Anthony and a Romaine and an Audra and a Max and a Milton. The entire cast arrived in mixed fashion and different length limousines. There were some calls for McCann, but directors usually weren’t regaled from curbside. However, this was a prestigious festival, and a fan or three were here to admire the McCann Phillips’ screen craft. Generally known for television work and three romantic screen comedies, The Magic Planet was his first foray into epic fantasy. His chops rode on its success.
Flashes pumped like fireworks and interviewers massed at the theater’s glass doors, microphones at the ready. There, Harris groped for Tony, as the cast coagulated into a lineup — posing for the world. Harris trotted out his latent humility to assure the paying public their icon was human and, like the rest of the species, flushed the toilet.
Harris waved at the fan blur. If the cordons fell, the crowd would charge him like bulls at Pamplona, skewering him with adoration. But his mother had coached him well:
Humph, she had told him, never look upon their love as real. They have lives beyond you and when you’re bigger and older, they will embrace the image fixed within your work and not the one hidden from their view — the true you.
Mother Kopfstetter was right, of course. Harris was wise enough to keep his work life separated from his personal life. But Mama never said to ignore the sweet aroma when the two overlapped naturally.
Scanning the face blurs and following the interviewers with their lollipop mikes accosting Romaine with questions about a recent tumble she took over her pet poodle, Harris spotted one clear face in the crowd. He shook his head, because he didn’t trust what he saw.
“Tony,” he whispered. “Is she here again?”
Tony placed his chin on Harris’ shoulder to capture his sight line.
“That’s ‘er, all right, mate. You got yourself a class-A stalker.”
“No,” Harris replied. “I don’t think she’s stalking me. I think she wants to talk.”
“C U l8tr, mate and all that.”
Suddenly, Harris was beside himself. Could she be his mysterious scribbler? Only one way to find out. He broke ranks and retread the red carpet, Tony at his heels.
“You can’t do this, mate. Trust me. McCann’ll ‘ave your balls.”
“I don’t care. He’s not God.”
“Maybe not, but ‘e can blackball you all the same.”
Harris reached where the lady in black denim had stood. Again, gone. Fled. Immediately, the crowd crushed in, trying to tear off a souvenir — his white jacket perhaps. Perhaps his ear. A security guard pushed the fans back.
“Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “Mr. Bentley-Jones. It’s best you both go back to the press queue.”
“Listen to ‘im, mate.”
Harris ignored them. He saw his target on the other side of the street, and in motion, heading south on Third Avenue. He glanced at the guard, assuming command.
“I need to leave,” he snapped. “If you don’t want my body in a bag, you’ll corral these fans and clear a path.”
The guard blinked, but then waved two other guards to follow the order. When a gas giant speaks, who disobeyed? They pushed the adoring fans to form a narrow path.
“‘arris,” Tony shouted. “This’ll be on the Internet in less than an ‘our.”
“I don’t care. Enjoy your sleep.”
Harris didn’t wait. He scurried between outstretched arms and dashed along Third Avenue into the night.
Harris had lost the lady in black denim at once. But he felt her presence — a pheromone trail. He couldn’t tell why. He was like a lion stalking an antelope. But who stalked whom, and was Tony’s suggestion true? Could the lady be a stalker? Could she have planted those mysterious messages in his hotel room? Even so, why was she at a festival on the East Coast, when she was a West Coast denizen? Many questions more interesting to the police than a working actor loomed. But Harris didn’t need answers. He needed her and he couldn’t tell why.
The magnetic draw entranced him until the neighborhood changed. After marching through Cooper Square and passing Cooper Union, he now tramped in the Bowery, the homeless haven. In the past, these down on their luck indigents were called bums. Drunks and foul-smelling society weeds huddled in doorways, strewn to the curbside and confronting Harris. One staggered to a car stopped at a traffic signal and cleaned its windshield with a dirty rag. This returned Harris to reality. He stood at the corner of Second Street and the Bowery. He hung a right, not because he knew where he was going, but it felt correct.
His pace quickened. As he progressed, he had second thoughts. Tony could be right. By bolting from the Tribeca Festival’s press queue, Harris would be broadcasted on YouTube. The world would wonder what’s up with Harris Cartwright? Had this good conduct paragon finally tapped the drug fairy? Had he a secret longing to squeegee stalled cars in the dead of night? What’s up, mate? What would Mom think about her squeaky-clean little boy?
Then he heard the click of high heels — stilettos. Had he entered the realm of prostitutes and street-walkers? This was the East Village, after all — a neighborhood that never closed its doors to business. But no. Ahead he spotted his target and thought to run. But even in Santa Monica on that fateful night with his sister, the dark lady vanished when he stormed her. So, he too followed with caution when he crossed Second Avenue and then, a block later, First.
She turned left and crossed the street, halting in front of a landmark — one Harris knew, although he had never been inside. Happy Pings. A Chinese restaurant with a twist, because all the waitresses were drag queens — a vision of gay China. The fact this lady stopped here gave Harris pause — a pang of wonder. She didn’t enter, so Harris darted into an alleyway and peeked over the garbage cans.
He peered long and hard, but when a rat distracted him (or perhaps a cat prowling deep in the nightshades), it shook his focus. When he refocused on Happy Pings, the lady was gone.
She probably entered the restaurant. He slipped along the concrete wall, the cold bricks marring his white jacket. He heard the vermin stir again before sensing a presence behind him. He turned and, from the darkness, a shadow emerged.
“Fuck,” he yelped. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“You should be scared,” she said. “I do not take well to stalkers.”
“Stalker? Me, a stalker? I’m not the one who shows up everywhere I show up.”
She laughed. When he thought about it, he laughed too.
“So here you are again,” she said. “And you showed up just where you showed up.”
“It’s stupid, but you know what I mean.”
He got a good look at her face. Bleach white — unnatural — a canvas for face paint. Her lips were crimson, and she still had a green beauty mark on her right cheek. She smelled of roses — a whole damned floral shop’s worth.
“I’m sorry if I’ve jumped to conclusions,” he said. “It’s just, I thought . . . I thought, since I keep seeing you, you might have . . . might have . . .”
“Been looking for you?”
“Well, you’ve crossed my path more than once — here and in L.A. What am I to think?”
She lit a cigarette, took one draw, puffed out smoke, and then crushed the butt on the alley’s foul pavement.
“At least you could buy me a drink.”
Harris regarded this change to Mae West with suspicion. Caution raised its head.
“Sure,” he said, affably. “You were heading into . . .”
“Happy Pings. Do you know Happy Pings?”
He clicked his tongue, scuffing his feet.
“Not personally,” he replied, and then decided on full disclosure. “Damron gives Happy Pings one-and-half to two stars for Szechuan cuisine and . . . drag queen waitresses — a gay hoot.”
“Good. It is one-off . . . like me.”
Red flag. Harris smelled a practical joke — a Bentley-Jones practical joke. Revenge. Harris pulled one on Tony on The Magic Planet set. Good, clean fun, but not taken in the spirit intended. McCann Phillip’s assistant, Pam, slipped script changes under the actors’ trailer doors — line alterations for the next day’s shoot. Harris jiggered these with devilishly inappropriate dialogue for his co-star. Tony dutifully memorized them and came swaggering onto his starship’s deck delivering (in his best American accent) the bogus lines.
Last night’s prawn makes me ill today. Who’s got the cuttlefish to cure me?
Everyone roared — Harris doubled-over. However, McCann was furious, and not at Harris, but at Tony, who flew off the handle in his best Yorkish — a word shower of fookin’ arse’oles and bloody mudder’umpers. He didn’t talk to ‘arris for a week.
Harris thought now: This is revenge. Hire a drag queen to allure him at the première, and then have her show up in New York (with mysterious Tony-planted messages). Then, when the sexually ambivalent Mr. Cartwright came to it in the end, he’d be up on YouTube in the arms of a dick-and-balls Amazon (shy the black denim). Kinky and mean. With these thoughts, he paused.
“Are you coming?” she asked, beckoning with her eyes. “Or are you afraid to be seen in public with me?”
“I’m coming. I’m surprised you’d want the drink at . . .”
“Oh, I get it.” She pressed him against the alley’s wall, smothering him in floral iniquity. “Go ahead. Explore if you must. Satisfy your curiosity.”
Her aroma overcame him, his heart beating wildly. But the invitation to feel her up would dispel doubt. He decided to accept, feeling her firm breasts as they engulfed him. If these were falsies, they were good falsies. They terrified him at first. As attractive as she was, Harris wasn’t into the bizarre.
Was this the answer to the prank script?
His hand crept down to her skirt buttons. Nervously, he explored, cautiously travelling toward her crotch. No bulge, thank God. Not Bruce in Black Knickers.
“Satisfied?” she asked, her eyebrows raised.
He withdrew his hand like the Dutch boy from the dike. She gave him a wet kiss, and then drew back, continuing her course toward the restaurant. He galloped after her.
“I’m sorry I doubted you,” he said. “I’m not a prig. I’m open to almost anything. But I think of you as a woman and if you turned out to be a man, I wouldn’t get violent or anything, but . . . but when I look for blueberry pie and discover steak tartar, it’s a letdown.”
She lit another cigarette, took a deep drag and blew smoke over his head.
He noticed that brilliant jade ring on her right hand — incised with a funny emblem — a shepherd’s crook or something like it. His eyes followed the ring as she smoked.
“You like my ring?”
“It’s bait to wear it on First Avenue. I’ve expensive bling, but I wouldn’t sport it in this neighborhood.”
“No. You are just sporting a completely white outfit, walking the streets like a lighthouse in a storm.” She turned him around. “Nice brown brick mark on the back.”
Harris slipped off his jacket and stared at the stain — brown as if he had changed a diaper on his new, Indochino dinner jacket. This outfit had been earmarked for fashion week. Now it was earmarked for the dumpster.
“I’ll leave it off.”
“You will not,” she snapped. “You look like the Green Hornet with it off.”
“Do I?” he laughed. “The Green Hornet?”
“I did not mean to flatter you.”
She tossed the cigarette aside, not bothering to stomp it. She grabbed the jacket, holding it high. Her black fingernails, the most prominent items free of her fingerless gloves, raked the stain. She turned the coat around, and then presented it back to him. Clean as the day it was bought, only two days ago.
“How did you do that?”
“Magic is my hobby. My daddy is a magician.”
Harris grinned, and then donned the jacket.
“You could open a dry-cleaning business.”
She didn’t seem amused. Instead, she retrieved her still-burning cigarette from the pavement, and took another drag, before extinguishing it on the restaurant’s stoop. Harris wondered if she just lit it up for effect. At any rate, he never would pick up anything from the pavement and shove it between his lips.
“So are you up for me?”
Harris chuckled. He was up and hoped he could keep his self-control in the restaurant, especially one served by flaming Chinese drag queens.
“I’ve come this far,” he said.
She gave him her arm. He escorted her beneath the chintz lanterns into Happy Pings.