Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Friday, February 15, 2008

Jayne & the Satanists --Chapter 17

We should probably have turned the whole thing over to the police and if somehow Scream wanted to blackmail me with some photos, I should just start sending resumes to New York and forget all about this sun-baked burg where the heat boiled everyone’s brains and they became pawns of their every urge. Satanists, sex clubs, dominatrixes, transvestites, alcoholics, dope fiends, and gossip columnists; what a sorry lot we were. The real Bettie Page had the right idea: come out here while you’re young, have some fun and split back to the real world before this freak show breaks your ass.

While I’d been mulling this over, Ed had persuaded Betty to let him have a look at her outfits. You could see he was in seventh heaven running his fingers over the satin and leather, discussing corsets and high heels. From the way Ed was looking at her I knew he was no nance. He mentioned that he had a still camera for taking continuity shots for his films. I was amazed he had not hawked it for a bottle along the way. He asked Betty if he could take a few shots of her. She said that she usually charged ten bucks an hour for the privilege, but she relented when Ed gave her the puppy-dog eyes.

I could tell she loved being admired. “Before I get my pictures taken though, I like to have some of this,” she said, and pulled a brown reefer out of her purse. Ed and she smoked it. I declined. I’d had reefer before and I didn’t like the sensation. Pretty soon, they were giggling like schoolgirls, while I felt outside of some special bubble they were in. Ed was rambling on about how a man could get great pleasure from wearing a woman’s clothes and how it was unfair that men had to wear such dull, lumpy clothing when, in nature, the male of the species was the flamboyant one, the peacock.

I felt like getting out of there, but when Betty stood and started posing for Ed, my interest was piqued. When she started modeling, her silliness fell away and she was the serious, statuesque poser. After a couple of shots in her sundress, she asked me to undo her dress and she slipped out of it revealing a white half-bra and a white garterbelt and panties and black nylons. I couldn’t help but stare. She was magnificent and substantially bustier than the real McCoy. She scorched the camera with her stern gazes and Ed clicked on until he ran out of film. She seemed disappointed when it came to an end, but showed no sign of getting dressed. The sun was pouring through the window, glinting off her slick nylons and the straps of her garterbelt, highlighting her hair and the silver hoop earrings she wore. She stalked around the room as she sipped her drink, always aware of our eyes on her, glorying in the attention. She was magnificent. If Scream’s mind could be boggled by female pulchritude, she could do the job.

The reefer and the booze had climbed all over Ed and he was soon smiling sleepily in a chair. My fondest hope was that he would pass out and get some sleep to be in shape for tomorrow’s meeting with Scream. Ed in the throes of hangover was not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

I asked Betty if she needed a ride home and she said she had taken the bus down, so she would appreciate it. She got dressed and maybe because she was high, she did not bother hiding her bangs under her hat.

* * *

I drove her to a little bungalow in an older neighborhood. It was very quiet, sedate. On the way over, we had talked about her life and how she had become an expert on Bettie Page, how she had learned to capitalize on it. All afternoon I had wondered if she hooked on the side. She invited me in and I was powerless to refuse.

Her place was spic and span, a nice airy place with a few framed photos of her on the walls, all very conservative. She made us gin rickeys, which I thought was not such a bright idea on top of the bourbon. She asked if I wanted to see her modeling portfolio. She brought it out and we sat on the couch. The pages were arranged from her in dresses through lingerie, nudes then stuff of her in bondage and on to her as a domina over trussed up women, spanking them. When we reached the end there was a large white envelope. She looked up at me and there was hunger in her eyes. I was obviously aroused. She opened the envelope and brough out a series of her dressed in a leather corset. She was with some young muscle boy. He was nude and aroused. She spanked him and lay her riding crop across his genitals. The final shot was of her on her knees peering at the camera, she was holding the guy’s erect cock.

I looked over at her and she was flushed and breathing hard. There was an imploring look in her eyes. “You are so gorgeous,” I said and pulled her face to mine plunging my tongue into her mouth. She gasped and pulled away for air. “It’s thirty for regular, more if you want special outfits or to play games.”

I was surprised, but not much. I had almost hoped it would turn out this way. I stood and opened my wallet, dropped fifty on the coffee table and she pressed her face into my trousers and purred.

* * *

Next day at work my mind kept wandering. I was working on a story about a country club that certain stars belonged to. Certain, non-Jewish stars. I had this whole story worked up about stars and prejudice. I was investigating the Masons too. It would be a good piece if I kept my mind on it. I tapped the keys until lunch break. Then, I went out to buy a gun.

It was a beauty. I had gone to Remo’s Firearms and given him my budget, substantially reduced after last night’s dalliance, and for thirty-five bucks I got a grey snub-nosed thirty-eight revolver and a clip-on holster suitable for wearing at the back of my pants. A good reliable gun, nothing fancy. A killing machine.

When I got back to the office, I called Ed and he seemed compis mentis. He understood he was to call me as soon as he finished with Scream. I spent the next few hours working fitfully on my stories. After two, I kept visualizing Ed and Betty across the desk from Scream. Negotiating who knew what.

At 3:30, I filed my copy and went home to wait for the phone to ring. Lex seemed to sense my tension and curled up in my lap, allowing me to listen to his throaty, calming song. When the phone rang, it shocked me from a faraway place where the texture of the world was shimmering with energy, where there were no decisions to make.

“Well, he’s quite a feller. We’ve got an assignment.” Ed started in on it, but I cut him off. “Where are you?”

“We’re at a bar called Darrien’s.” I said I’d meet them there in twenty minutes. In recent weeks, I’d improved Lex’s automotive digs and he never seemed to object to the car. I did the typical pet-owner “Car-ride” falsetto and Lex lifted his chin and trilled his eerie “yes” sound. I clipped on my gun and threw on a jacket. With Lex in one arm, I took the egress.

* * *

Wood and Betty were hunkered in a corner and engaged in conversation. Both smiled as I sat down and Betty sidled her hand over to my knee and gave it a squeeze.

“Well, Szandor went ape-shit over our Betty,” said Ed. “Was beside himself. Wanted a go right then and there, I think.”

I foolishly felt a twinge of jealousy. “What does he want you to do at the party?”

“He’s got this whole B&D, S-M scenario worked out,” said Betty. “He wants me to bullwhip this chick in the middle of the party. Then, I dildo rape her and then she’s thrown open to anybody who wants to bang her.”

“And he wants me to record it for posterity on film, plus he wants a still photog there, too.”

I let out a low whistle between my teeth. “It must be Serena. He doesn’t want to kill her, but he wants to degrade her and humiliate LaVey. And he wants a record that he can use if LaVey ever steps out of line or threatens him. He’s obviously clued that LaVey’s hex was behind Ariana’s death. What the hell did you say to his proposition?”

“I asked if the chick was willing,” said Betty. “And how much?”

I raised my eyebrows.

“He said she was into it, but would pretend not to be because that’s what got her off. And a hundred-fifty bucks.”

“What about you, Ed?”

“Document it for a hundred-fifty, plus expenses, seventy-five bucks for the photog. All you can drink and eat and a thrash at the chick if I felt like sloppy fifteenths.”

“And you said?”

“I said, I’d do it, because that’s what the plan was. But Betty said she’d need to think it over for a night, which I think was a pretty cagey response.”

“Did he tell you how many guests were coming?”

“About eighty,” Wood said.

“Well, we can’t just go in and start shooting people, much as I’d like to. I think we have to turn this over to the cops.”

We finished our drinks and walked to a liquor store where I bought Ed a bottle of bourbon and sent him on his merry way. Then I offered Betty a ride home. “Ah, the day is still young,” she said. “I’ve done enough business for one day. You want to do something?”

“I’ve got to do something first. Want to meet the High Priest of Satan?”

“Why not?” she said.

“Okay, I’ve got to call LaVey, then maybe we can go over.” I located a phone and told LaVey I had news. He said to get right over.

Jayne & the Satanists --Chapter 16

LaVey was in a state. He had no hair to be in a mess, but his already gaunt face looked more worn and weary. He wore a shabby black cardigan that seemed a touch avuncular for a Satanist.

He was in a position of weakness. For someone who preached selfishness as the ultimate goal of life, he was torn with concern and fear for his Serena. He may have like to feign an askance distance from the rest of stinking humanity, but like us all he required a support system of at least one person to be close to him. Without Serena, he wasn’t lean and fearsome, he was wasted and haunted.

He didn’t have to persuade me. I felt his ache. He gave me a couple of photos and told me she was dressed all in black with a kaftan-type cloak and large plastic sunglasses. I lit out. Jayne stayed with him. Her visibility would only hinder the search.

Not that I anticipated searching for people who had seen someone who looked like a blonde vampire to be too tough.

It wasn’t. The little chinaman who ran the fruit stand, IDed her at the first flash of a photo. From his mangled pidgin, I figured out she had been shopping right here and had carried on down the street and all seemed well.

I got the same response from various merchants down the street. All was fine apparently. Until she got to the butcher. He told me that she had been in line in his shop but had kept looking out his window at the street. Then, obviously agitated, she dashed out his door. He had other customers in line, so he didn’t think much more about it.

I stepped back onto the street and saw a little easement alley between shops. Peering down there, I saw a rummie in dirty clothes sitting on the asphalt. He was up to his nose in a half a canteloupe. He looked up at me as I approached, deciding whether to scram or not. His hand moved to shove a grocery bag behind him.

“Where’d you get the bag?” I took four bits out of my pocket and hunkered down in front of him. “I don’t want your fruit, I just want to know where you found it.”

“Right here,” he said. “Just a while back.”

“Did you see who left it?”

“Nope, never look a gift horse, myself. Largesse from God, I suppose.”

“Well, here’s some more,” I said and gave him the coins. “You didn’t happen to see this woman, did you?”

He squinted at the photo I held out to him and shook his head. “Can’t say as I did, but I like to pay my way. Since I can’t help you out would you like an apple?”

“Thanks, pal. Not hungry right now.”

“Suit yourself,” he shrugged. “How ‘bout a nice pair of sunglasses?”

* * *

I brought the glasses back to LaVey. He identified them. We could only assume she dropped her groceries and the shades as a result of being forced into the alley. Someone had got to her, but there was no way of knowing who.

LaVey was sick with worry. I left Jayne with him and said I’d hit the newsroom and see if there were any leads. I spent the rest of the afternoon working the phones. Then the evening cruising the streets and querying bartenders. I drove past the Demon Club and shuddered with nausea. At midnight, I headed home. She was gone. The trail was cold.

I checked my apartment, it seemed undisturbed. I called LaVey and gave him the discouraging update and told him it was time to call the police.

LaVey thought the force would not do him service. He felt he was a target for the police because of his religion.

I didn’t know what I could do. My sleep was a morass of badly edited scenarios involving LaVey, Ariana and Lex.

Next day at work, I felt like someone had removed part of my IQ. I bashed out retrograde copy while drinking enough coffee to turn me green by lunchtime. Whenever I answered the phone, I hoped it wasn’t a story. Jayne called and she had some info. “I got an invitation today. I think it was hand delivered. Anyhow, it’s for a wake for Ariana, to be held at Scream’s pad on Friday.”

“We’ve gotta be there. You’ve got an invitation, but I’m a known undesirable. But I’ll figure out a way, knock on wood.”

* * *

I sat with Ed as he made the call to Scream. He politely expressed his condolences re Ariana. He also said he was hoping that he had not screwed up their working relationship. And in that Ed-Wood, ever-optomistic way of his, he mentioned that he had discovered this Bettie Page lookalike, Betty Payne, and that Scream might be interested in meeting her. Perhaps making a film for his own pleasure. When Ed waved at me and waggled his eyebrows I knew that Scream had taken the bait. Ed talked with him for a few more moments and ended, “I’ll call her up and see if she can make it.”

Ed rubbed his hands in glee. “He wants to meet her to see if she lives up to his expectations. He also mentioned that he was planning a special wake for Ariana and that a film might make a nice commemoration. He said he had a special sexual event he was going to stage in Ariana’s honor. He wants to meet at two tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s worth two drinks Ed,” I said and uncapped the bourbon. “Now all we’ve got to do is get Miss Payne.” Ed slammed his shots and worked the phone. He got her and laid out the drill. She said she could meet with us in a couple of hours. Now all I had to do was keep Ed sober for that period. We had two more shots with the promise of another in an hour and then Wood took me downstairs where he had a projector set up. He spooled up a couple of the loops he had been doing: women wrestling in satin undergarments and a couple of more hardcore epics with guys wearing socks and fedoras and nothing else servicing weedy-looking bleach blondes. We killed an hour and then went up for a drink and Ed explained the story of The Sinister Urge to me. The only thing that could distract him from booze was film. He had some great stories too, mostly sad ones, tales of Lugosi and commercial failure. He kept stopping to make notes for a new book he would write in the next few weeks. He was inspired by our little caper.

* * *

At four, there was a knock on the door. Ed stood aside to let her in. She was wearing big dark glasses, a white dress patterned with black roses and a white sun hat that rode low down to the glasses. “Hi, I’m Betty,” she said and held a hand out. I noticed black nail polish as I took it. I introduced myself and Woody stood speechless. She was a knockout, pale white skin, lips a burgundy red. A figure to make the knees of strong men tremble. She doffed her hat and shook out her hair: the trademark short rounded bangs and lustrous black waves. When she took off the glasses, I was staring at Bettie Page.

“Wow,” I said. “You’re a dead ringer,” I gasped.

She smiled and said, “Yep, we’re pretty much two peas in a pod except I’m an inch taller and two inches bigger in the bust.” She motioned to a black overnight bag, “I brought some outfits if you’d like to see, leopard-print bikini, black satin corset, garter belts --white and black, fishnets and some stilettoes.”

“I’d like to see that,” enthused Ed.

“I’m sure you would,” I said. “But we’ve got more important things to consider. Sit down., Miss, er, Payne. Should I call you by your real name?”

“Betty Payne is fine,” she smiled. “The less people who know my real name the better, in this business.”

“Okay, Betty. Here’s the drill. We want you to work for us. You’re going to see Szandor Scream tomorrow and he’s probably going to want to hire you for this shindig he’s having in a few days. The details of that are between you and him. However, we want you to remember that you’re working for us. You keep what he pays you and we will add to that for doing what we want while you’re at Scream’s little soiree. You would come out of this with a fair bit of dough, two pay packets for one job. Does that sound good to you?”

“Definitely. What’s your angle?”

“We want to find out who Scream is. He wears a mask all the time and we believe he is connected with some criminal activities, but we can’t take action against him until we know who he is, legally.”

“What’s he done?”

I didn’t want to scare her off with tales of baby death and rape. “We think he’s got a grudge against a friend of ours and that he has kidnapped his ladyfriend. We want you, as subtly as possible, to find out about this girl, her name is Serena and this is her picture. If you see her when you are behind the scenes, let her know that we’ll get to her. If, some way, you can get any documents that might say who Scream is, something from his wallet or his desk drawer, then that’s exactly what we want. Do you understand?”

She nodded. I wondered how bright she was. Her income basically revolved around a coincidence of birth that made her look like someone who had become famous because of her looks. “Are you going to be there?”

“Yes, it’s a costume party so one of Ed’s makeup people is going to make me unrecognizable. Though I’m not going in drag as Ed suggested.”

“But you can rest assured that I’m not going to pass up such an opportunity,” Ed gloated.

“What if I get caught?”

“Don’t. But, Ed and I will be on the same case. Maybe you’ll just be a distraction for Scream so that I can get away. We’ll just be playing it by ear. Whatever opportunity presents itself we’ll take. Maybe none of us will get a chance. But if worse comes to worst, we’re hoping that your beauty will provide you with some latitude. Scream is a major Bettie fan. We want you to demand a dressing room. He’ll have to rig something off the main ballroom and hopefully you’ll be able to sneak away and get into the main house at some point.”

“I don’t like the sounds of that.”

“Well, Ed will have a camera crew there and they’ll be running around with cables and lights. So there will be a lot of moving around beyond the main party. In the confusion you might be able to slip away. We want you to try and seduce Scream into taking off his mask.

When we’d agreed on the ground rules, I offered Bettie a drink. “Sure, I don’t have anything to do tonight.” I slid the bottle over to Ed who poured with a vengeance. I took a long pull on mine. Revealing how jerry-rigged our plan was had unnerved me. As Ring Lardner would have said: plan, there was no plan.