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Dead Linesby Greg Bear
Paul is dead. Call home.
Peter Russell, stocky and graying, stood on the sidewalk and squinted at the text message on his cell phone, barely visible in the afternoon sun on Ventura Boulevard.
He lifted his round glasses above small, amused eyes, and brought the phone closer to see the display more clearly.
Paul is dead. He flashed on his youth, when for a week he had sincerely believed that Paul was dead: Paul McCartney. I am the walrus. But he had misread the phones blocky letters. The message was actually Phil is dead.
That shook him. He knew only one Phil. Peter had not talked with Phil Richards in a month, but he refused to believe that the message referred to his best friend of thirty-five years, the kinder, weaker, and almost certainly more talented of the Two Ps. Not the Phil with the thirty-two-foot Grand Taiga motor home, keeper of their eternal plans for the Worlds Longest Old Farts Cross-country Hot Dog Escapade and Tour.
Please, not that Phil.
He hesitated before hitting callback. What if it was a joke, a bit of cell phone spam?
Peter drove a vintage Porsche 356C Coupe that had once been signal red and was now roughly the shade of a dry brick. He fumbled his key and almost dropped the phone before unlocking the car door. He did not need this. He had an important appointment. Angrily, he pushed the button. The number rolled out in musical beeps. He recognized the answering voice of Carla Wyss, whom he had not heard from in years. She sounded nervous and a little guilty.
“Peter, I just dropped by the house. I took the key from your bell and let myself in. There was a note. My God, I never meant to snoop. Its from somebody named Lydia.” Lydia was Phils ex-wife. “I thought I should let you know.”
Peter had shown Carla the secret of the bronze Soleri bell, hanging outside the front door, after a night of very requited passion. Now, upset, she was having a sandwich and a root beer from his refrigerator. She hoped he didnt mind.
“Mi casa es su casa,” Peter said, beyond irritation. He tongued the small gap between his front teeth. “Im listening.”
Carlas voice was shaky. “All right. The note reads ‘Dear Peter, Phil died. He had a heart attack or a stroke, they arent sure which. Will let you know details. Then its signed very neatly.” She took a breath. “Wasnt he another writer? Didnt I meet him here in the house?”
“Yeah.” Peter pressed his eyes with his fingers, blocking out the glare. Lydia had been living in Burbank for a few years. She had apparently made the rounds of Phils LA friends. Carla rattled on, saying that Lydia had used a fountain pen, a folded sheet of handmade paper, a black satin ribbon, and Scotch tape.
Lydia had never liked telephones.
Phil is dead.
Thirty-five years of kid dreams and late-night plans, sitting in the backyard in old radar-dish rattan chairs on the dry grass between the junipers. Shooting the bull about stories and writing and big ideas. Phil hanging out on movie sets and model shoots—not so selfless—but also helping Peter carry his bulky and unsold wire sculptures to the dump in the back of the old Ford pickup they had often swapped.
Only the truck, never the women, Phil had lamented.
Slight, wiry Phil with the short, mousy hair who smiled so sweetly every time he saw a naked lady. Who longed for the female sex with such clumsy devotion.
“Are you okay, Peter?” Carla asked from far away.
“Heart attack,” Peter repeated, lifting the phone back to his mouth.
“Or a stroke, they arent sure. Its a very pretty note, really. Im so sorry.”
He visualized Carla in his house, locked in her perpetual late thirties, leggy as a deer, dressed in pedal pushers and a dazzling mans white dress shirt with sleeves rolled up and tails pinned to show her smooth, flat tummy.
“Thanks, Carla. You better leave before Helen comes over,” Peter said, not unkindly.
“Ill put the key back in the bell,” Carla said. “And Peter, I was looking through your files. Do you have some glossies of me that I can borrow? I have a new agent, a good guy, really sharp, and he wants to put together a fresh folio. Im up for a credit card commercial.”
All of Carlas agents had been good guys, really sharp; all of them had screwed her both ways and she never learned. “Ill look,” Peter said, though he doubted cheesecake would help.
“You know where to find me.”
He did, and also what she smelled and felt like. With a wave of loose guilt, Peter sat on the old seat in the cars sunned interior, the door half open and one leg hanging out. The hot cracked leather warmed his balls. A cream-colored Lexus whizzed by and honked. He pulled in his leg and shut the door, then rolled down the window as far as it would go, about half way. Sweat dripped down his neck. He had to look presentable and be in Malibu in an hour. His broad face crinkled above a close-trimmed, peppered beard.
Peter was fifty-eight years old and he couldnt afford to take ten minutes to cry for his best friend. One hand shielded his eyes from sun and traffic. “Damn it, Phil,” he said.
He started the car and took the back roads to his home, a square, flat-roofed, fifties rambler in the Glendale hills. Carla was gone by the time he arrived, leaving only a waft of gardenia in the warm still air on the patio. Helen was late, or maybe not coming after all—he could never tell what her final plans might be—so he took a quick shower. He soon smelled of soap and washed skin and put on a blue-and-red Hawaiian shirt. He picked up his best briefcase, a maroon leather job, and pushed through the old French doors. The weedy jasmine creeping over the trellis had squeezed out a few flowers. Their sweetness curled up alongside Carlas gardenia.
Peter stood for a moment on the red tiles and looked up through the trellis at the bright blue sky. He pressed his elbow against a rough, sun- battered post, breath coming hard: The old anxiety he always found in tight places, in corners and shadows. When events fell outside his control or his ability to escape. A minute passed. Two minutes. Peters gasping slowed. He sucked in a complete breath and pressed the inside of his wrist with two fingers to check his pulse. Not racing. The hitch behind his ribs untied with a few solid pushes of cupped fingers under the edge of his sternum. He had never asked a doctor why that worked, but it did.
He wiped his face with a paper towel, then scrawled a note for Helen on the smudged blackboard nailed below the Soleri bell. Reaching into the oil drum that served as an outdoor closet, mounted high on two sawhorses, he tugged out a lightweight suit coat of beige silk, the only one he had, a thrift-store purchase from six years ago. He sniffed it; not too musty, good for another end of summer, soon to turn into autumn.
Peter let the old Porsche roll back out of the garage. The engine purred and then climbed into a sweet whine after he snicked the long, wood-knobbed shift into first gear.
Last he had heard, Phil had been traveling in Northern California, trying to unblock a novel. They hadnt seen each other in months. Peter tried to think why friends wouldnt stay in touch from week to week or even day to day. Some of his brightest moments had been with Phil; Phil could light up a room when he wanted to.
Peter wiped his eye and looked at his dry knuckle. Maybe tonight. But Helen might drop off Lindsey, and if he started crying with Lindsey around, that might rip open a wound that he could not afford to even touch.
Numbness set in. He drove toward the ocean and Salammbo, the estate of Joseph Adrian Benoliel.
The sunset beyond the hills and water was gorgeous in a sullied way: lapis sky, the sun a yellow diamond hovering over the gray line of the sea, dimmed by a tan ribbon of smog. Peter Russell pushed along in second gear, between lines of palm trees and golf-green lawn spotted with eucalyptus. Flaubert House cast a long cool shadow across the drive and the golf-green approach. Crickets were starting to play their hey-baby tunes.
Salammbo covered twenty acres of prime highland Malibu real estate. She had survived fires, earthquakes, landslides, the Great Depression, the fading careers of two movie stars, and tract-home development. In more than thirty years in Los Angeles and the Valley, Peter had never encountered anything like her—two huge, quirky mansions set far apart and out of sight of each other, looking down descending hills and through valleys rubbed thick with creosote bush and sage to Carbon Beach.
Here was illusion at its finest: the fantasy that peace can be bought, that power can sustain, that time will rush by but leave the finer things untouched: eccentricity, style, and all the walls that money can buy. Life goes on, Salammbo said with sublime self-assurance, especially for the rich. But the estates history was not so reassuring.
Salammbo was a nouveau-riche vision of heaven: many mansions “builded for the Lord.” The lord in this case had died in 1946: Lordy Trenton—not a real lord but an actor in silent comedies—had risen from obscurity in the Catskills for a good twelve-year run against Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. His character—a drunken aristocrat, basically decent but prone to causing enormous trouble—had palled on audiences even before the onset of the Depression. Trenton had gotten out of acting while the getting was grand. One grand, to be precise, which is the price for which he had sold all rights to his films in 1937.
During the Depression, Lordy had invested in sound equipment for the movies and made big money. In the mid-thirties, he had built Flaubert House and then started to erect what some architectural critics at the time referred to as Jesus Wept. Trentons friends called it the Mission. The Mission featured a huge circular entry beneath a dome decorated with Moorish tile, high vaulted ceilings, bedrooms furnished in wrought iron and dark oak, an austere refectory that could seat a hundred, and a living room that by itself occupied two thousand square feet. It consumed much of his fortune.
In the early forties, beset by visions of a Japanese invasion of California, Lordy connected Flaubert House and the Mission with a quarter-mile underground tramway, complete with bomb shelter. He lined the smoothly plastered stone-and-brick tunnel with a gallery of nineteenth-century European oils. At the same time, he became involved with a troubled young artist and sometime actress, Emily Gaumont. After their marriage in 1944, she spent her last year obsessively painting full-sized portraits of Lordy and many of their friends—as clowns.
In 1945, during a party, a fire in the tunnel killed Emily and ten visitors and destroyed the tram. Four of the dead—including Emily, so the story went—were burned beyond recognition.
A year later, alone and broken by lawsuits, Trenton died of acute alcohol poisoning.
The next owner, a department-store magnate named Greel, in his late sixties, acquired a mistress, allegedly of French Creole descent. To please her, he spent a million dollars finishing the Mission in Louisiana Gothic, mixing the two styles to jarring effect. The name Jesus Wept acquired permanence.
Greel died in 1949, a suicide.
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