LOS ANGELES AUGUST 6, 1961
FORMER STARLET LANGUISHES IN JUVIE!
Receives Visit from Mystery Man in Black Time in solitary goes by with unbearable slowness when you've killed every member of your family. With nothing for Pagan Jones to do but pace the five steps back and forth between the walls of a former broom closet, it wasn't surprising that all she could think about was blood and shattered glass and her baby sister's final scream.
At Lighthouse Reformatory for Wayward Girls, a summer Saturday night usually offered up a group dinner of canned beef stew followed by a Lawrence Welk rerun. But here in solitary, Pagan had only a hard narrow cot next to a seatless toilet, a sink, and four blank walls reflecting back her darkest thoughts.
Miss Edwards herself came bearing a tray of congealing food in her bony hands. Her heavily starched black uniform rustled as she set the tray down on Pagan's cot. Waitressing creamed corn and meat loaf would have normally been beneath her. But from the smirk on those narrow lips, Pagan could tell Miss Edwards had made an exception so she could take in every moment of Pagan's humiliation.
It took every ounce of Pagan's self-control not to grab the woman's skeletal upper arms and shake her, but then she'd never know what had happened to her roommate after their aborted escape attempt the night before. She swallowed down her anger and asked, "Could you tell me, please. What happened to Mercedes?"
Miss Edwards lifted her narrow shoulders in a sad little shrug.
Horror threatened to close up Pagan's throat. Mercedes couldn't be dead. "You have to tell me if she's okay, at the very least!" It came out louder, more desperate than she wanted. "What happened?"
The matron's shark-like smile widened. "What makes you think you deserve to know?"
Pagan fought back a flush of shame. She didn't deserve anything. She knew that. She'd earned a fate far worse than two years locked up in Lighthouse. But ever since the night she drove her cherry-red Corvette off Mulholland Drive, killing her father and younger sister, a kind of claustrophobia had closed in. It wasn't a fear of enclosed spaces. More like a need to know she had a way out of any situation. As soon as the judge had sentenced her to reform school, the remorseless itch had taken hold. Any situation she couldn't extricate herself from felt like the end of the world.
She'd tried to be good her first few months in Lighthouse. She'd stuffed down her anxiety, bitten her nails, and annoyed Mercedes by constantly pacing their tiny room like a lion in the zoo. But inevitably the necessity to get the hell out, to prove she had a choice, had become unbearable.
So she'd started planning her escape, and Mercedes had asked to come along. Their careful, months-long strategizing had soothed Pagan's anxiety, but their climb over the barbed wire fence had been interrupted by Miss Edwards's inmate enforcers. By the time those girls had sauntered up, Pagan had made it to the other side of the wire. Mercedes had not.
Mercedes had ordered Pagan to go, but then Susan Ma-honey pulled a knife. No way would Pagan have left her besther onlyfriend behind to face that alone. She'd climbed back over the fence and dropped into the fray only to be pummeled nearly unconscious by Phyllis Lawson and Grace Lopez.
That didn't matter. What mattered was that Susan had viciously stabbed Mercedes in the shoulder with her stiletto just before the guard rushed in, gun drawn. Pagan had heard nothing about her friend's condition since they'd carried her away, trailing blood.
"You'll be here in solitary for two weeks," Miss Edwards said, her beady eyes happily taking in Pagan's shaking hands. "One meal a day. If Mercedes survives, she'll get the same. I've asked the judge to review both your cases. He could decide to extend your sentences past your eighteenth birthdays. I hope you're both eager to see how they deal with escape attempts from adult prison."
That was enough to shred Pagan's attempt at detachment. "They can't do that! It was my fault, not Mercedes's"
Miss Edwards didn't let her finish. "You may have noticed," she said, backing toward the door, where a guard waited in case Pagan got any ideas, "I had them take away your shoelaces, your girdle, and your belt."
Pagan had noticed, and she knew why. "I'd never try to kill myself," she scoffed.
Miss Edwards's shiny upper lip curled in disbelief. "Why not? Your mother did it and didn't even leave a note."
Pain ripped through Pagan as if Miss Edwards had stabbed her perfectly manicured nails into Pagan's chest and pulled out her heart. It took all of Pagan's training as an actor to keep her face blank.
Obviously, the matron of Lighthouse had never lost anyone she cared about to suicide or she would've known that, once it happened to you, you would never go down that road yourself. It led only to darkness. Not an expansive velvet black like the sky at night. No, this was a suffocating, heavy dark, a nauseating mass that dragged you down to drown. Once that weight landed on you, all you could do was to keep holding it up, hoping it wouldn't touch anyone else.
The weight clouded her mind again as the door locked behind Miss Edwards. The matron had taken the single bare lightbulb with her and left Pagan with only the line of light slithering under the door. Pagan fixed her eyes on it as she lay down and clenched her fists against the smothering black, the pain in her head, and her racking worry about Mercedes.
She woke up sometime later knowing only one thing. She was getting out.
Her headache had dimmed, and Miss Edwards had not thought to confiscate Pagan's bobby pins. There was no time like now, now, now. Remembering how Mercedes had showed her to bend the pins into a tension wrench and pick, she got busy with the lock.
Luckily, because the solitary cells had once been closets, there was a keyhole on her side of the door that she could rake. Once out of this room, she could sneak into the parking lot and maybe crawl into the trunk or backseat of a car.
Outside the walls she could find the hospital where they'd taken Mercedes.
She focused on the lock, ear to the door. The tension wrench gave a bit to the right, so she slid the pick in and began tapping the pins in the lock. There. That one. Push that one down and
A key was shoved in from the other side, pushing her pick out of the cylinder. It dropped to the floor.
No time to be terrified. She felt the floor frantically for the pin and palmed it as the door opened to reveal the rigid form of Miss Edwards, silhouetted against a shaft of morning light.
So. The night had passed.
The narrow crimson lips turned up in a tight smile as the small glittering eyes took in Pagan's flushed cheeks and the curl of her fingers as her hands slid behind her back. Quick as Pagan had tried to look nonchalant, wreathing her face in habitual resentment, Miss Edwards was no fool.
"Your right hand, please." She held out French-manicured fingers.
Trying to hide or drop the pins would only delay the inevitable. Pagan all but threw them into Miss Edwards's palm and braced herself.
The painted mouth curled. Miss Edwards put the pins in her pocket and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and her favorite lighter, a silver Zippo engraved with the Ace of Hearts in red. The "students" at Lighthouse weren't allowed to smoke, and Miss Edwards took pleasure in flaunting her privilege in front of them. She drew out a cigarette, put it between her lips, and formed words around it. "Adult prison's too good for you."
"Would you be sad to see me go?" Pagan was pleased at the insouciance in her voice, because her knees were watery, her throat tight. Every fiber in her wanted to demand how Mercedes was doing, but she'd rather die than endure another smug, withholding smile.
Miss Edwards had just had her hair done, the roots retouched to a glowing blond much like the fashionable color Pagan's had once been. She was wearing eyeliner today, winged out at the corners like Marilyn Monroe. "It's always a tragedy when a young life takes the wrong turn." She flicked the Zippo and lit her cigarette. "Which brings me to why I'm here. You have visitors." She exhaled the smoke into Pagan's face.
Those last three words turned Pagan's next smart remark into something like a hiccup. She struggled to keep her face blank. Only immediate family members were allowed to visit "students" at Lighthouse.
"I killed all that was left of my family." Her voice was thicker than she liked. The smoke smelled like her old life, and she tried not to suck it in with a deep, appreciative breath. "Are you making an exception for second cousins once removed?"
Miss Edwards's heavy eyelids lowered in a look of self-satisfaction that made Pagan's hands curl into fists. "These men have Judge Tennison's permission to see you," she said. "I sent my request in to him yesterday to reconsider your sentence. Perhaps this has something to do with that. Come." She pocketed the Zippo and click-clicked down the hallway without looking back.
Pagan followed slowly through the still-open door into what the students called the Haunted Hallway. Its adobe walls stretched thirty feet down then turned right, but through some trick of acoustics if you stood at this end you could hear the slightest whisper taking place around the corner another thirty feet, where the hallway ended near Miss Edwards's office and the stairway descended to the first floor. If a girl desperately needed to hear word of the outside world, she'd volunteer to mop this hallway to try and catch a sentence or two as it bounced up the stairs, passed the office, and rebounded around the corner.
Pagan hurried after Miss Edwards, using her fingers to comb her dry, overgrown hair into a semblance of neatness, stuffing down a desire to plead for more information. The hallway stretched on forever. The walls around her were scuffed gray, the barred windows allowing in brief glimpses of azure sky, a dusty green palm frond swaying in the breeze. Nine months here had been an eternity. Prison would be infinitely worse.
She tried to swallow, but it was as if the bent bobby pin had lodged in her throat. She'd figured on a beating, bread and water, some solitary at worst. And she'd gotten exactly that.
But what if that was just the beginning of her punishment? The escape attempt had happened Friday night. This was Sunday morning. Surely judges didn't come in on the weekends to change the terms of a juvenile's sentence.
But maybe what was about to happen was justice. Pagan had done far worse things than try to escape a reformatory. Maybe she deserved what she was about to get.
Miss Edwards stopped at her office door, her mouth turning ever downward as she laid one hand on the knob.
"Just because I'm allowing this doesn't mean you're special," Miss Edwards said. Her resentful tone set off further warnings in Pagan's busy brain. Why was the matron frustrated now instead of triumphant? "You're thinking that you're better than me, aren't you? You still think you're a movie star. You're famous. You're somebody."
"I killed my father and sister." Pagan's voice was flat. "So the last thing I could ever feel is that I'm better than anyone. Even you."
Miss Edwards's frown deepened. Effort flickered between her painted eyebrows as she tried to figure out how a statement of such humility could come out sounding like an insult. Pagan was good at ambiguity; it was part of what had made her such a good actress. In the past nine months, that skill had proven vital. That and Mercedes's friendship.
Miss Edwards turned the knob. Pagan squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, the way she always had before auditions, trips down the red carpet, or courtroom entrances. Her mother would have approved. Even if facing your own execution, best to meet it with a serene smile and excellent posture.
The doorknob under Miss Edwards's hand jerked back. She lost her grip and grabbed the door frame to stop herself from falling. A fresh cloud of gray-blue cigarette smoke wafted over them from the room beyond.
"Do come in." The low, masculine voice was not one Pagan recognized. A shaft of sunlight filtered through the smoke, blinding her, until a slender young man in an exquisitely cut black suit and narrow tie moved forward. He was tall and wore no hat, his dark hair slicked back, one unruly lock spiking over his forehead. He stood with one hand on the door, as relaxed as if he were welcoming them into his own home.
Only his eyes were turbulent, a dark blue. They swept over Pagan with speculative calculation and something darker she couldn't identify. Goose bumps ran up her arms.
She was staring at his mouth and pulled her gaze up, shaking off a sudden blankness in her thoughts. It had been nine months since she'd seen a man other than the gatehouse guard, but she couldn't let that distract her. The crews on her movie sets had called her One-Take Jones in the early days because of her composure and professionalism. That was before she'd started drinking. Now that she was sober, that girl was still inside her, somewhere.
"The notorious Pagan Jones." The dark-haired young man held out his hand. "My name is Devin Black."
She slid her hand into his. It was warm, the grip firm. "I'd say it was a pleasure, Mister Black, but I don't like lying to strangers."
Amusement curved one corner of his mouth. He kept hold of her and leaned in, his voice soft. "Lies are best saved for those we love."
Her heart hammered once, twice. At this range his eyes glittered like shards of stained glass shaded from indigo to azure. They locked on to her, taking her in.
He pulled away. The moment might never have happened but for the electricity still prickling over her skin.
He cast his indifferent gaze at Miss Edwards, who was hovering like a storm cloud. "That will be all. Thank you."
Dismissed from her own office, Miss Edwards puffed out her narrow chest as if about to spew fire. But Devin Black was already ushering Pagan inside. The door clicked shut behind them.