Friday, February 15, 2008

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.

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