American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  “I’m not going to tell you about the date. Speaking of dates, what happened to yours?”

  “You’ll have to be more specific.” He slouched in his chair and got a concentrating look on his face.

  “The redhead from last night.”

  He rubbed his jaw, narrowed his eyes at the distance, shook his head. “Again. The more detail you can give me, the better.”

  “You know what? It doesn’t matter.”

  He poured some of the liquor into my glass, swirled it with a bartender’s flair. “It’s interesting. That we’re both here. Dateless. I wonder why that is?”

  “Don’t read too much into it.”

  “I’m a writer, Pipes, which means I understand subtext. And fate.” He sat back, swirling his own glass, and scanned the porch, his eyes moving from person to person. “The guest list reads like a who’s who from the Hollywood gossip columns. Who knew our hosts had a sense of humor?”

  Nigel called out, “There it goes.”

  We all watched as the sun dropped below the horizon. One by one, we fell silent as the sky darkened, and down the beach, the lights from the pier glowed like a carnival. The breeze blew in off the water, turning the air cool, and across the veranda, Pia pulled her chair closer to Nigel’s. He put his arm around her, like it was habit. In a minute, Mudge got up and sat right down on Johnny Clay’s lap.

  Sam whispered, “I have a perfectly good lap myself, in case you’re in need of one, Pipes.” I turned to say something and he was still leaning in to my ear, which meant that now we were nose-to-nose. He set down his drink and mine, said, “Come with me,” and then took my hand and led me into the house.

  FIFTEEN

  As he pulled me into the library, Sam said, “This room is worth every dime they spent on this monstrosity of a house.” There must have been ten thousand books, leather bound and musty, some kept behind glass.

  “It’s beautiful,” I said.

  “You’re beautiful. This is—I don’t know what this is. The most provoking moments of a writer’s life are when he can’t find the words to describe something truly great.”

  I moved from shelf to shelf, running my fingers along the spines of the books. We’d had a library in Alluvial, in the house that belonged to my schoolteacher and her husband. They had let us come and read and take books home, and I’d hidden them from Sweet Fern because I’d known she wouldn’t approve.

  “I saw your brother in here earlier.”

  “Johnny Clay?”

  “Unless you have another brother running around Broad Water this weekend, which, incidentally, is my worst nightmare. That and being eaten alive by fire ants. He had his nose so deep in a book, he didn’t even see me.”

  I thought, What is the world coming to?

  “Do they have your books here?”

  “I hope so. They’d be lucky to be in such company.”

  I picked up a heavy leather volume, flipped through the pages, set it down. “Why did you sell the rights to Home of the Brave?”

  “I got tired of having to say no. So finally I said yes, and I cashed their ridiculous check, even though I knew what they would do to the book. Two years to research it, four years to write it, and it only took them a month to tear it apart.” He ran his hand along a panel in the woodwork, searching for something. “I wrote it after my father died because I wanted to say something about survival. I put it all into the novel, all of me, dividing everything I was feeling among all the many, many characters. And for some reason, it took. Maybe that’s one reason I’m so protective of it.”

  “The story you wanted to tell still comes through.”

  He stopped searching for a moment to look at me, his hand resting on the panel. “Pipes. Does that mean you broke down and read it?”

  “Yes.”

  “You know, it really is a shame I don’t date actresses.”

  He pushed on the wood and a little door swung open, revealing a hidden cabinet. “Like the cabinets of Catherine de Medici. No jewels or money, unfortunately. However . . .” He opened another—this one contained bottles of something old (judging by the label) and dark. He scooped one of the bottles out and then opened more cabinets, each no bigger than a breadbox, all lined in wood. I set my hand inside one as if I expected it to disappear.

  “Hoping for magic?” He closed the cupboards, the bottle now under his arm.

  “Maybe.”

  His eyes danced over my face, settling on my mouth. “Tempting.” He touched another panel, this one in the bookcase, and a large door, as high as my shoulder, sprang open. Beyond it was a curving flight of stairs, a white wall, and a window. Without another word, he ducked inside. I hesitated, then followed him in, creeping past him up the winding wooden staircase. “How did you know this was here?”

  “I always check libraries for secret passageways. I even wrote one into a detective story.” He popped the cork.

  “Did you steal glasses too?”

  “For you, Pipes, I’d steal the moon, but sadly, no.” He offered me the bottle. I drank. He drank. He studied the label. “Not bad for 1787.” He moved ahead of me. “Let’s see where it goes.”

  We climbed the stairs like two detectives on a case. At the top, a narrow, low-ceilinged hallway ran half the length of the house—wood floors, Oriental carpets, fat painted lamps sitting on skinny tables. I said, “It’s a house within a house.”

  At the end of the hall was a single room with two dormer windows and a view toward the Malibu mountains and the road that wound up the coast. Slanted roofline, a daybed, cozy chairs—it wasn’t fine and formal like the rest of the house, which made me like it best.

  Sam opened the window, and the night air drifted in along with the sound of the waves and the guests down below. We pulled up two chairs and drank the wine and watched the lights blink on across the mountains.

  I said, “Who do you think uses this room?”

  “I don’t know. Probably her. Maybe both of them.”

  “But not at the same time.”

  “No.”

  “This house is too big for two people. I think it would be hard to find each other.”

  “Unless they don’t want to find each other.”

  We sat for a few minutes without saying anything. I felt drowsy and happy, lulled by the sound of the ocean. I felt so happy, I started to sing. It was a song I’d written years ago about a girl who lived on a mountain near a little trickling creek, and how that creek fed into a stream that fed into a pond that fed into a lake that fed into a river that fed into the ocean. It was something I used to think about when I lived in Devil’s Kitchen with Harley Bright, trying not to lose my mind. I’d walk in the creek that cut past his house and think, If only I could follow this, I’d reach the ocean.

  And now here I was, and there it was.

  When I finished the song, Sam was looking at me. Without a word, he reached for my hand.

  “Tell me something. What’s a girl like you doing in a town like this? You don’t seem like someone who has to go to Hollywood because she can’t do anything else. All these other people, I know why they’re here. They’d never make it in the real world. All of them damaged in some way, dependent on the studios to guide them through life, telling them who to date and who to marry and what role to play.”

  “You’re here.”

  “And I’m as fucked up as any of them. But you’re different. I’ve been trying to figure it out.”

  I decided to quote his own words to me. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to flatter me.”

  He laughed. “I like holding hands with you, Pipes. I don’t know when holding hands has ever excited me more. Or at all.”

  “I can’t imagine you do a lot of hand holding.”

  He flashed me a wicked smile. “No, but I can imagine doing a lot of it with you. Of course,
that isn’t all I imagine. I want you. Epically.”

  “I imagine you want a lot of women.”

  “Not like this. Books should be written about it. Not just one book, but volumes.” He was gazing out the window now, looking long and lazy and satisfied. “Not just volumes. A library. An adult library. But a library all the same. Do you think I have a chance?”

  My mind stirred, my body stirred. Even as I listened to him, I wasn’t sure if I should believe him or not. “Maybe.”

  “Come here.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I want to kiss you.”

  When I didn’t move, he pulled my chair around and in, so that it was facing his, and he sat up, leaned forward, suddenly awake and focused, eyes taking me in—really taking me in. “I want to kiss you,” he said again, his eyes and voice serious. His fingers brushed my left cheek. “Kiss this cheek.” His fingers brushed the other one. “And this one. I want to kiss your chin, your forehead, your nose . . . your lips.” As he described it, I could feel him doing it, and my entire body went on alert, my heart running for him, my skin prickling like a storm was coming.

  “I want to give you something to think about at night.”

  I whispered, “Why don’t you do it, then?”

  He whispered, “Because I’m afraid you’ll slap me.”

  “What if I promise not to?”

  “I might take the chance.”

  He touched my face.

  “But I might want to build up to it, ease in.”

  He tucked my hair behind my ear.

  “Just in case.”

  He kissed my left cheek.

  He kissed my right.

  He kissed my chin, my forehead, my nose.

  Then his lips were on mine, soft and warm. And there was something behind it that let me know he at least meant some of what he’d said.

  I heard a man’s voice, coming through the wall. “Do you keep your room locked?” It was as clear as if he were in the room with us.

  Sam froze. I froze.

  A woman said, “In my own house?”

  “I’ll remember that later this evening.”

  “You’re terrible.” The sound of drawers sliding open, of someone rummaging, a muffled laugh, and then silence.

  Sam said, very low, “Or maybe this is where they stash their lovers.” We moved up and away from each other, and when I got to my feet he smoothed my hair and straightened my collar, the way Sweet Fern did with the children before she sent them to school. Then we set the chairs back carefully, making sure the room looked the same as when we’d found it. I was still breathing hard as, step by careful step, we crept away. We followed the stairs down, twisting and turning until we were outside the library.

  I reached for the door, but Sam stepped in front of it. “By the way, I’m probably going to fall in love with you.” His eyes were shining, the eyes of a wolf in moonlight.

  After dinner, Mudge walked Johnny Clay to his car while Ophelia Lloyd excused herself with a headache, and Bernie and his wife announced they were going for a walk on the beach. Babe’s mother had arrived at the end of the meal, and the two of them hadn’t yet appeared, but the rest of us gathered in the game room around a roaring fire. A grandfather clock, stiff as a soldier, stood in one corner, and chimed the half hour. Nine thirty. Some of the men played cards, while others, Sam included, played a wild game of Ping-Pong. Hal, costume designer Colin Fedderson, and I sat in a corner and played Twenty Questions. Mudge walked in and joined Phillip Drake by the fire, flicking cigarette ashes into the flames. She talked and talked and waved her hands, ash flying everywhere, until finally he stalked away. She crossed to where we were and sat down beside me on the sofa.

  Collie said in a biting way, “Making friends?”

  “I told him he shouldn’t let his mustache creep around his face like that. He ought to get it under control because otherwise he just goes around scaring people.” Something about this struck her as funny, and she started laughing. Her face was flushed, either from the heat of the fire or all the gin she’d been drinking. The brown of her eyes had gone black. She chattered on about mustaches and snakes and how you couldn’t trust them, not a one.

  Hal frowned. “Why don’t you give us your flask?”

  “Because it’s empty.” She reached for Hal’s ginger ale and took a swig. “The sun has dried me out.” She gave him back his glass, then slipped off her shoes and massaged her feet. “Go on with your game. I promise to watch like a good girl. Not a mustache to be found here. No, no, I’m safe now.” She narrowed her eyes at Pia. “As long as I stay right here and be very quiet and very good and very, very small, and then maybe I’ll be invisible. Oh look, I already am.” She laughed and laughed. “Sorry. I can’t seem to stop it.” Hal looked at me and shook his head.

  Tauby had disappeared after dinner, but now he strode in, chomping on a cigar, and surveyed the room. “Let’s choose a game we can all play together.”

  Collie was the one who suggested Murder in the Dark. One of the servants brought out a deck of cards, and Tauby himself removed three of the aces and three of the kings. He dealt the cards to each of us until the stack was gone. He gave the cigar three firm puffs and said, “The person who receives the ace is the Murderer. The person who receives the king is the Detective. Do not tell anyone whether you have these cards or not.”

  He stood, walked to the panel of light switches, and flicked them off. The fire cast shadows across the room. He pulled out his pill bottle, flipped it open, and chewed the pills as he talked. “We play in the dark, as the name implies. One of the servants will count to one hundred, and everybody must hide. No closets or cabinets, nothing closed in. You must be where the Murderer can find you.”

  Nigel said, “In this house, Tauby? We’ll be playing for days.”

  Tauby stood with his back to the fire. “All right, we’ll create boundaries.” Half of his face was in shadow, the other half cast in an orange glow. “First floor only, no going upstairs or downstairs, and no going outside.”

  Shelby said, “The terrace?”

  “Yes, but only on this level.”

  Hal raised his glass to Shelby. “Now we know where to find you.”

  Mudge called out, “And if you can’t find her there, just look in Nigel’s bed. Or Tauby’s. Or maybe even Redd’s, on occasion.”

  Shelby’s smile disappeared as Felix Roland barked at Mudge, “Why don’t you shut your mouth once and for all?”

  Hal said, “Okay, that’s it. We’re cutting you off.”

  Maybe it was the fact that she was being locked up with Nigel and Pia for the weekend, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something strange was going on with Mudge. I laid my hand on her arm, and she was burning up.

  Tauby raised his voice, as if he hadn’t heard a word of it. “If you’re the Murderer, you find the other players and kill them by tapping them on the shoulder. You can whisper, ‘You’re dead,’ but otherwise be silent about it.”

  Collie added, “But the victims should feel free to perish with gusto. Make dying noises as you fall.” He demonstrated with a scream, followed by choking sounds. He collapsed onto the rug and then whimpered and thumped and moaned before taking one last gasp and going silent. We all applauded. Beside me, Mudge jittered her leg up and down.

  From the floor, Collie said, “Don’t move until the game is over and the Murderer has been caught.”

  Tauby continued, “The servants will remove themselves after we begin, so that you don’t confuse them for victims. If you run across someone who has been murdered, scream out, ‘Murder in the Dark!’ At that point, the person who locates the body will turn on the lights and whoever is still alive will gather here to determine the culprit, the Detective leading the investigation.”

  I said to Mudge, “Why don’t you go up to bed? Sit this one out. It’s been a
long day.”

  She turned those black eyes on me, and I didn’t like the look in them. “Sweet Hartsie. Dear Hartsie. Dear, sweet Hartsie. So dear. So sweet. I need an aspirin.” She stood and practically ran toward the door.

  I looked at Hal and Collie, propped up on one elbow, who were staring after her as if she’d caught on fire. “What in the world’s gotten into her?”

  Hal said, “You mean besides too much gin?”

  Collie smirked. “And too little Nigel?”

  We gathered in the middle of the room, and Sam found his way to me. In my ear, he breathed, “So many things we could do in the dark, Pipes. Remind me to find you once the lights go out.”

  We were told to scatter, as throughout the first floor the lights were snapped off. One of the maids came in and began to count, and I slipped out. I wasn’t the Murderer or the Detective, so I needed to hide as soon—and as well—as I could.

  My eyes adjusted to the dark, the only light coming from the fireplaces that burned in various rooms and the glow of the moon, reflected off the water, which crept in the windows. I heard a whisper as someone breezed past. I froze, and when I wasn’t tapped on the shoulder, I kept going.

  The house was completely still. Then, ahead of me, I heard footsteps. I turned and turned again until I was in the kitchen. I tried to remember the layout from earlier that evening, when Sam and I had passed through on our way to the library. I felt my way along the counter, which suddenly curved. As I ran my hand across it, I discovered an open space. I crouched down, trying to outline it with my hand, and found the pipe in the middle. The sink. I climbed underneath, into the open hollow, and waited.

  It’s funny how the other senses heighten when one sense is taken away. I could barely see, but I could hear every sound. It was a long time before I heard a scream, from somewhere far away. The first victim. After a while, another scream, closer this time. No one had yelled “Murder in the Dark,” which meant the game was still on.

  The minutes ticked by on the kitchen clock, and I started counting them. There was another scream and a series of moans, which told me Collie was the victim. Then silence again, then a kind of manic laughter, which sent a chill through me and caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. A clock chimed the half hour. Moments later, a scream.

 
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