This book is dedicated
to my daughter
without whose help
the Third Millennium
might never have arrived.
with gratitude and love
to SID STEBEL
IT was a dark and stormy night.
Is that one way to catch your reader?
Well, then, it was a stormy night with dark rain pouring in drenches on Venice, California, the sky shattered by lightning at midnight. It had rained from sunset going headlong toward dawn. No creature stirred in that downfall. The shades in the bungalows were drawn on faint blue glimmers where night owls deathwatched bad news or worse. The only thing that moved in all that flood ten miles south and ten miles north was Death. And someone running fast
Shocking me, hunched at my typewriter, digging graves, my cure for insomnia. I was trapped in a tomb when the hammering hit my door, midstorm.
I flung the door wide to find: Constance Rattigan.
Or, as she was widely known, The Rattigan.
A series of flicker-flash lightning bolts cracked the sky and photographed, dark, light, light, dark, a dozen times: Rattigan.
Forty years of triumphs and disasters crammed in one brown surf-seal body. Golden tan, five feet two inches tall, here she comes, there she goes, swimming far out at sunset, bodysurfing back, they said, at dawn, to be beached at all hours, barking with the sea beasts half a mile out, or idling in her oceanside pool, a martini in each hand, stark naked to the sun. Or whiplashing down into her basement projection room to watch herself run, timeless, on the pale ceiling with Eric Von Stroheim, Jack Gilbert, or Rod La Rocque's ghosts, then abandoning her silent laughter on the cellar walls, vanishing in the surf again, a quick target that Time and Death could never catch.
"My God, what are you doing
"I already have. Stand back!"
But Constance did not move. For a long moment she stood shivering in the light of great sheets of lightning and the following sound of thunder. One moment I thought I saw the woman that I had known for years, larger than life, leaping into and jumping out of the sea, whose image I had witnessed on the ceiling and walls of her basement's projection room, backstroking through the lives of Von Stroheim and other silent ghosts.
Then, that changed. She stood in the doorway, diminished by light and sound. She shrank to a child, clutching a black bag to her chest, holding herself from the cold, eyes shut with some unguessed dread. It was hard for me to believe that Rattigan, the eternal film star, had come to visit in the midst of thunders.
I finally said again, "Come in, come in."
She repeated her whisper, "Stand back!"
She swarmed on me, and with one vacuum-suction kiss, harassed my tongue like saltwater taffy, and fled. Halfway across the room she thought to come back and buss my cheek lightly.
"Jeez, that's some flavor," she said. "But wait, I'm scared!"
Hugging her elbows, she sogged down to dampen my sofa. I brought a huge towel, pulled off her dress, and wrapped her.
"You do this to all your women?" she said, teeth chattering.
"Only on dark and stormy nights."
"I won't tell Maggie."
"Hold still, Rattigan, for God's sake."
"Men have said that all my life. Then they drive a stake through my heart."
"Are your teeth gritting because you're half-drowned or scared?"
"Let's see." She sank back, exhausted. "I ran all the way from my place. I knew you weren't here, it's been years since you left, but Christ, how great to find you! Save me!"
"From what, for God's sake?"
"No one gets saved from that, Constance."
"Don't say that! I didn't come to die. I'm here, Christ, to live forever!"
"That's just a prayer, Constance, not reality."
"You're going to live forever. Your books!"
"Forty years, maybe."
"Don't knock forty years. I could use a few."
"You could use a drink. Sit still."
I brought out a half bottle of Cold Duck.
"Jesus! What's that?"
"I hate scotch and this is el cheapo writer's stuff. Drink."
"It's hemlock." She drank and grimaced. "Quick! Something else!"
In our midget bathroom I found a small flask of vodka, kept for nights when dawn was far off. Constance seized it.
"Come to Mama!"
"You don't have my death cramps."
She finished three more shots and handed me the flask, eyes shut.
"God is good."
She fell back on the pillows.
"You wanna hear about that damn thing that chased me down the shore?"
"Wait." I put the bottle of Cold Duck to my lips and drank. "Shoot."
"Well," she said.
"Hell!" Rattigan cried. "That's hair tonic!" She drank and shivered. "Where was I?"
"Yeah, but whatever I ran away from came with."
The front door knocked with wind.
I grabbed her hand until the knocking stopped.
Then she picked up her big black purse and handed over a small book, trembling.
"Oh, Lord," I whispered. "Tell me why I brought that?" she said.
I turned from the
"A Book of the Dead."
"A Book of the Dead," I said. "Egyptian. Fresh from the tomb."
"Fresh out." Constance waited.
"Someone sent this to you?" I said. "Was there a note?"
"There doesn't have to be a note, does there?"
I turned more pages. "No. Since practically everyone here is gone, the implication is-“
"I'll soon be silent."