She’s nobody’s fool, fool.
Pauline looked up and down Pineapple Street as she waited under the marquee. As a rule, she steered clear of the law, but she had called in a favor, something she promised herself she would never do. She was no fan of ancient history.
It was clear she had awakened the startled professor when she gave him a warning call at 6 a.m. She imagined he was scrambling now through the morning rush hour.
At the moment, Tom was stalled at Sepulveda Boulevard. He was on the phone.
“Miriam. It’s Tom. I’m heading to the theater. There’s trouble. The police need to search the premises. Call me when you get this message. Better yet, come to the theater. They may want to speak to a trustee.”
Pauline went back under the shade of the marquee. She was impatient, and for no better reason than that the lights were on in the lobby, she rattled the glass doors again. They were still locked. Dante was in there somewhere.
At last, Tom arrived. He could see her agitation. “I wish you hadn’t done this,” he told her with ill-concealed annoyance.
“The police will help me if you won’t,” she replied tartly, leading the way in.
“I’ll turn on the house lights,” he said. Unhooking the velvet rope, he took the grand staircase to the balcony level, where he unlocked the side door that led up to the projection booth.
Pauline was alone now, pacing the lobby. It was such a creepy place, this movie theater, with all these plaster gods staring down on you with their blind white eyes.
“Well, if it isn’t Swifty Charles!”
Pauline stiffened. She hadn’t heard that nickname since she was a kid. She turned and saw a familiar face: older, gray-whiskered now, with white at the temples, but clearly, the same beat cop that used to shake down the street punks for a weekly cut of the action.
He seemed genuinely happy to see someone from the old days. “I hear reform school rehabilitated you back to society.” He gave her a knowing wink, adding, “Well…after a fashion.”
She knew how to handle guys like this. “I’m a good girl now, daddy,” Pauline said in a cloying baby voice
“You sure is … Goldilocks!”
Oh, so he was a “fan.”
“I made detective a couple of years back,” he boasted. He was a husky, blue-eyed man, easy to read, and as he said this he actually pushed out his chest with pride.
Pauline couldn’t help herself. “You a clean cop now, Officer Bradley?” It was her turn to wink. “I mean…after a fashion.”
The detective roared. He always did have a big, earthy laugh. In the end, it was hard not to like Bradley a little. He never mistreated the girls, and it was said he was sweet on Miz Lulu, who ran the run-down no-tell motel under the freeway. Besides, it wasn’t Bradley who had cuffed young Pauline and marched her out of the Beverly Center when she was caught boosting diamond earrings off a display. And it wasn’t even diamonds. She had drawn an eight-month stretch in reform school for mopping cubic zirconia! In the end, though, those eight months changed her life.
“You still got those talented light-fingered ways, Swift?”
She gave him a frosty smile. She had had enough of this gregarious asshole. “Look, something’s going on in this theater,” she said in a tense tone. “My boss was last seen at a class here. Then when I came here yesterday to look for him, something weird happened backstage.”
The detective was joined by two young men in uniform. “Rogers,” said Bradley to the blandly blond one, “you search down here. Jacobs, take the balcony.”
Tom passed Jacobs on the grand staircase and looked at him searchingly, but the young cop was trained not to answer unasked questions.
“You’re the manager?” Officer Bradley said when Tom joined them.
“I’m the professor who was teaching the class where the student was last seen.”
Bradley consulted his field notepad. “One Dante Allesso.”
“Alessandro!” shot back Pauline. “Look,” she continued, trying to soften her tone, “I had to call in a favor to get you boys to come at all. The department wanted me to wait a month. But I want to show you the shitshow that’s going on backstage. I think they’re holding Dante back there somewhere.”
“That’s absurd!” protested Tom.
“Lead the way, Swifty.”
She turned on him sharply. “It’s Miss Charles now, okay!” she snapped. “I haven’t been a girl from around the block for many years.” And with that, she huffily led the way into the auditorium.
Officer Bradley threw Tom an amused smirk behind her back, and Tom, finding something smarmy about this instant guy-guy camaraderie but feeling it was best to humor the policeman, returned a wan smile. This was enough to make them brothers in horndoggery, and the cop nodded sheepishly, indicating the woman’s pert apple-round buttocks as she took the small steps onto the stage.
“Here’s where it happened,” Pauline said when they went behind the curtain. Tom found the standing floor lamp and switched on the naked bulb. The uproar from the day before — props, twisted ropes, lopsided sheets of scenery — lay scattered about in the dismal circumference of light.
“Something powerful hoisted me in the air,” Pauline declared, “It felt like…like a tornado. A tornado that was sucking me up into a tunnel of, I don’t know, all this whirling shit!”
The bland blond cop joined them.
“You checked the rows?” Bradley asked.
“And the heads?”
“You’re not listening to me!” demanded Pauline.
“I am, Miss Charles,” the senior detective replied in what Tom suspected was a spoof of formality, “but I’m confused. You saw a tornado… and a tunnel… in a movie theater?”
“I don’t know if it was a tornado. It felt like a tornado. My back was to it. But whatever it was, it lifted me up and pulled me in, and it was coming from here.” She approached the screen.
Tom braced himself. Eden had told him the woman merely brushed against the screen when it swirled open. But it was too late. Pauline was extending a pointed finger, she was about to tap the screen. And then like a furious woodpecker, she hammered the point of her nail into the canvas
Ripples went up to the rafters, ripples went down to the floor. And then…
They subsided. They quieted.
Just as they had straightened out when Tom forced Eden’s hand against the screen.
“I was right here!” insisted Pauline, “when whatever the fuck it was scooped me up. All these ropes were flying around, and I grabbed the first one I could with both hands.”
Now Tom stepped in. “I can explain. What probably happened is the young lady tripped the switch on one of the wind machines in the dark. They’re industrial-grade and were used in the old days on movie sets. The Palatine would bring them out at premiers for elaborate Hollywood stage shows. She must have tripped a wire, fallen backward, got tangled up in the ropes, and the gale-force winds hoisted her into the air.“
“That’s a lie,” hissed Pauline. “You know it’s a lie. You saw it!”
“You were a witness to this?” Bradley interrupted.
“I pulled her down.”
“He got snatched up into the air too!” exclaimed Pauline, her deep voice resonating. “My back was to it, but he looked right into it, right into all these weird yellow lights that were whirling out of the thing. I could see the lights on his face. I could see them lighting up the back of the stage.”
Tom shrugged at the detective as if there were no accounting for hysterical females. He didn’t want bad publicity to mar the comeback of the Palatine Theater. It was important the theater remain a glamorous acquisition for UCLA. Even less did he want his Eden — it was his Eden now — to be put under the intense microscope of a modern police department. So he shrugged with feigned helplessness, second-guessing the sort of crude locker-room stereotypes that held sway in the mind of an old-school, mustachioed cop who ogled women’s behinds for the amusement of his beer buddies.
And like clockwork, the detective took his shrug and passed it on as an amused smirk to the blond cop, who squinted back uncomprehendingly under his policeman’s cap.
“I could sue the theater for this,” Pauline raged.
“And that, Miss Charles,” said Bradley in a pedantic mood, “would be a matter for the courts, not the police. By the way, how does this have anything to do with your missing boyfriend?”
“He’s my boss, okay! Not my—“
“What’s that,” said Officer Bradley, pointing to an outline on the floor he just noticed by the dim light of the stage lamp.
“That’s a trapdoor,” said Tom. “The stage has, I think, three of them. As well as stairs in the back. They all lead to the same place under the stage.
“Check it out, Rogers.”
Pauline followed the blond cop to the trapdoor and watched him unlatch it. The door swung down under the stage. The smooth-shaven officer pulled the flashlight off his belt and gave the submerged room a quick scan. “Looks like a lot of cobwebs, sir.” Pauline crouched down in her tight jeans to get a closer look. The young officer turned to her. “Stand back, miss.”
She stood and watched him climb down the ladder and then saw the faint light scan the room. “It’s a storage room, sir. Nothing here but wood props; old furniture; paint cans; a toolbox, opened; electrical tape, unspooled. Looks like rhinestones on a gown. Oh, here’s one of those carriage things they used to carry Roman emperors on.”
“A litter,” Tom muttered, remembering Movietone newsreels of Claudette Colbert’s spectacular entrance on this stage with 35 half-naked Black extras for the premiere of Cleopatra.
Pauline spun around and fixed Officer Bradley sharply. “Look, I know Dante’s here. Somewhere in this theater. His car is still parked out by the canal.”
The blond cop climbed out of the hatch, dust and broken spiderwebs tumbling off his blue uniform.
“Rogers,” Bradley said, “you keep searching the backstage. Miss Charles and I are going to take a little walk to that car.”
It had been a narrow escape.
It had taken a lot of double-talk, deflecting this Charles woman from the anomaly — “the tornado,” as she put it. They had both grappled with it, she had felt it, perhaps she had even glimpsed it, but he had looked into it dead-on. And no matter what he said, she knew that he knew. Something unnatural, something very wrong, had come whirling out of the screen.
Tom stood in the lobby, watching the detective and the woman depart, knowing full well that there were no “wind machines” backstage.
The detective — Tom had worried how he would explain things to the police — but the mustachioed grandee had helped, rather than hindered. The flat way the detective repeated the woman’s statements back to her, the underlying amusement set in permanent lines around his eyes, the patronizing nodding along of a man who enjoyed women but didn’t take them seriously, certainly not when they made such overt appeals to his appetites, when they came under his gaze with long legs, tight jeans, cascading hair. This Miss Charles, who seemed otherwise quite level-headed, surely would calm down, make up some rationalization, as we all did when we come face to face with the supernatural.
Whatever was happening at the Palatine Theater must be kept quiet. Tom was adamant about this. Deep down he had a suspicion, an unsettling feeling that were the anomaly ever “solved,” were its opening and closing understood, it might draw Eden back into its depths, send her spinning away into — he was about to say “her world,” but as that was something she might want, he decided to think of it as “the Nowhere Place.” That’s the way he would phrase it if the time ever came. Eden would never want to be lost in that pitch blackness again, suspended between realities.
Tom glanced up at the street beyond the plate glass doors. Coming under the marquee, out of the glare, was the helmet of auburn hair that announced Miriam’s arrival.
Some women never have a springtime. Youth for them is no more than a bland, filmy glaze over the face. It is only when the glaze is shed that they come into their own. So it was for Miriam Thorncraft, who, because of her famous father, was put before the public at an unflattering time, a time preserved in her father’s masterpieces and in the memory of Thorncraft experts, scholars of her small, piquant roles.
But Tom had the opportunity of working with the Miriam Thorncraft of today. There was a warm autumnal fullness about her now: the congenial round face, the well-judged attire, the matronliness that was no longer a young girl’s flaw but had matured into a patrician stateliness, not unlike the majestic veiled Vestals that guarded the theater at its four corners.
Miriam greeted Tom with a welcoming smile, but her eyes were worried. Tom’s cryptic phone message had mentioned the police.
“One of my students never showed up at work,” Tom explained. “His girlfriend thinks … well, she thinks a lot of things. She wants the theater searched. But that’s not really the odd part: Yesterday, backstage, the screen … it—” Tom cut off abruptly. He heard himself about to sound like a lunatic. He took a different tact. “Miriam, what do you know about this theater?”
The question startled her. Her clear hazel eyes widened for a moment.
“Did the Palatine ever strike you as peculiar?” he prodded.
“This … theater,” she chose her words carefully, “has always been… a point of fascination for people, if that’s what you mean. A magnet for the wild imagination. I certainly was not immune. The dancing maidens on the facade, the grand staircase made of Carrara marble, the bas-reliefs of fauns and wood nymphs. The truth is I had a schoolgirl crush on Aubrey — Arthur Aubrey, the man who built the Palatine. You might call him an odd bird. Many people did. But he was a force of nature, a charismatic being. Moon in Pisces, of course, always the sign of the cosmic mystic. He awakened my mind, many people’s minds, to the Hidden—” She stopped herself.
“Go on, Miriam.
“To a world full of possibilities.”
“That’s not what you were about to say.”
“No,” she agreed grandly, “but it will have to do. To put it simply, Aubrey opened the mind to mystery. He was everything the great Thorncraft was supposed to be, what the flacks at the studio made my father seem to the public at large, but never to those of us around his dinner table. I was hopelessly….I was sixteen, you see, and Aubrey was a man in his seventies.”
Tom wondered if she was avoiding the question. “Did you know,” he said, not really changing the subject,” that that domed rotunda on the roof of this theater is actually a miniature of the Pantheon in Rome, with statues in niches and vo—“
Miriam gasped. “You entered the temple! But the way is hidden! The door is locked! No one can see the door in the dark!”
“The door was open, Miriam. There’s a policeman up in the balcony right now, probably exploring it as well.”
The auburn matron blanched. In great distress, she hurried to the grand staircase. “What’s wrong?” Tom called after her, but she was too alarmed to reply. It was only when she burst through the balcony doors, Tom at her heels, that she reared back in shock. The smashed statuary, the broken rows. When had the Imperial Balcony been pillaged! She searched Tom’s face as if an explanation might be found there, then looked back over the ravaged tiers. Left, right, no policeman was in sight.
Pulling herself together, Miriam hasten down the right side of the theater that led to the corner where there should be no corner. In the corridor behind the opera bays, Officer Jacobs was jiggling at locked doors. “Was this door always damaged,” he asked, pointing to raw wood where white paint had splintered off. “It looks recent. Did someone try to break in?”
“No one’s allowed up here,” replied Tom. The alert young cop spied Miriam as she hurried past and turned an unexpected corner. “What’s that?” he asked. “A hidden passage?”
This was as good a ruse as any. “Yes,” replied Tom, determined to protect the theater from any further intrusions. “It was a way for the actors to come up here from backstage and, um … surprise the audience.”
Jacobs nodded as he made sense of this, but it did not deter him. He headed for the cul-de-sac, and when he and Tom entered the L-shaped room, he clicked on his flashlight. A flustered Miriam turned as if she had been caught at something.
“Where’s the passageway?” the cop asked, and again Tom noted Miriam’s overreaction. He tried to cover her alarm. “It’s been sealed up for years, officer,” Tom said smoothly.
In fact, Miriam stood firmly in front of the black door. It was now closed, and in the ambient dimness, it blended invisibly into the black wall. “It was the forties, wasn’t it Miriam,” Tom went on, “when the stage shows were discontinued.”
“That’s right,” Miriam replied, now masked in well-bred composure, “during the war.” Tom suspected this was actually true. Miriam was too preoccupied to make things up at the moment.
It was up to him then to create a diversion. “Your captain left the theater with the young lady,” he informed the officer. “Are you supposed to meet them back at the station house?”
“He wouldn’t leave without his team!” the young cop replied, but the idea irked him.
“No? Perhaps you should check the lobby. The other officer might still be downstairs.”
An hour later they were gone, the detective, the deep-voiced Black woman, the blond cop and the not-blond cop.
The student’s car had been impounded, and the woman, whose professional name was Stormy Rivers (Tom had checked the business card from the day before), vowed to return with leaflets, bearing a photo of the missing Dante. Yes, yes, Tom promised, he’d display them in the lobby, he’d hand them out, anything to be rid of her. Miriam meanwhile, in her formal role as president of the Palatine Preservation Society, had acquitted herself with dignity and a light, easy touch, a well-bred noblesse oblige.
Tom locked up the glass lobby doors and now turned to Miriam as they stood under the marquee. He wondered why she had been so dismayed, so protective of the hidden door in the L-shaped room, but when he saw the grave look on her face he knew an important question of her own was forthcoming.
“I never got this clear, Thomas. A student is missing, and the young lady came here to find him? Why?”
“She thinks…well, she imagines he’s lost in the theater somewhere.”
“Lost in the—?” Miriam mumbled something quickly to herself.
“No, you said ‘just like…’ And I couldn’t make out the rest. Was it Sandy? ”
Miriam cast a nervous look out to the street.
“Candy?” Tom pursued. “Mandy?”
“Some … girl…who went missing years ago. The tabloids made an awful hullabaloo about it. Well, no ill wind, as they say. It boosted box office. You see, she went missing during the premiere of The Cats.”
“But you said a name. ‘Just like…?”
“You don’t remember the name you just said? … Miriam?”
She gave him an annoyed look. “Alright!” she yielded grudgingly, and as if it were a secret, she lowered her voice. “Annie.” The very sound of it seemed to disturb her.
Miriam shook her head.
“You don’t remember the full name?” he persisted.
“I really can’t tell you any more.”
“What about that temple, what about the screen that opens up?”
This was the first the auburn matron was hearing about the screen. She frowned back at him in deep confusion, and then there it was again, the wary alarm he had seen when the not-blond cop surprised her in the L-shaped room.
“You…you really must speak to Daphne … Daphne St. Lorraine, Aubrey’s widow. I should have made the introductions before now.”
Tom got the distinct impression she was about to flee.
“Yes,” she said with something like relief, “that would be best, Thomas. I’ll set up a meeting. A meeting with Daphne.”
“Miriam!” he called after her.
But Miriam, the living Vestal, the last Keeper of the Flame, was hurrying off into the glare of Pineapple Street, the secrets of the Palatine silently intact.
Preview: Nobody really likes surprises.
MS. STORMY! One of my ab fab favorite characters in your book. She needs her own spin-off novel or even better her own series on HBO!