Prologue - OCTOBER 31, 1999
Vance St. Martine awakened to the harsh snap of cracking glass as the hot Santa Ana winds blew a tree branch against a window of his Pasadena townhouse. He sat up in bed and turned on the lamp on his nightstand. He blinked, momentarily confused by the unfamiliar surroundings, and then remembered why he was there: The Malibu mansion was being remodeled.
It was always a treat to visit Pasadena. He liked the shops in Old Pasadena, and the theaters and museums. The townhouse was full of good memories: The parties he'd thrown for film stars of the 30's and 40's, the holidays with his brother, nieces and nephews and their children....
The sound had come from the bedroom in the other wing, so he got up and walked down the hall to inspect the damage to the window. The past eighty-two years, St. Martine decided, had been remarkably good and he had no regrets.
A gracefully curved crack divided the glass into upper and lower halves. It almost looked as if his second floor view of East Green Street was smiling at him with a twisted smirk. He smiled back at it.
"Kane...." someone whispered.
Before Vance St. Martine could even look around to see where the voice had come from, the earth began to shake. A life-long Southern Californian, St. Martine reacted instinctively to the earthquake. As he turned to hurry to the bedroom doorway, his heel landed in a puddle of water on the hardwood floor and skidded out from beneath him. St. Martine's arms flailed wildly and a gasp escaped from his lips as he crashed backwards through the French doors and onto the balcony. A hot gust of wind grabbed him like a giant hand and flung him over the railing to the courtyard below.
APRIL 28, 2000
Even after a week, the kids were excited to be back at school after the long Spring Break. They were also completely wired on sugar from the seemingly endless supply of Easter candy that their parents kept packing into their lunches. Henry St. Martine once again wound up chucking the afternoon's lesson plan and taking the little monsters out for an extra-long P.E. just to keep them from climbing the walls. There were about a dozen in his Special Ed class; ages seven-to-ten, severely learning disabled and/or mildly retarded, with a scattering of physical disabilities. Henry made sure to run them all ragged that afternoon. At least, by one o'clock, they were worn out enough to actually sit more-or-less still in the classroom until the school day ended for them at two o'clock. During that time, he had his aide, Mel, read to the class while he pulled a few of the kids aside for some math practice.
"How many did I just give you?" asked Henry dropping four poker chips into the clammy little hand of a cute nine year-old girl.
The child peered at him through glasses with lenses that looked to be about an inch thick. "I dunno," she said looking through him.
"Can you count them, Kimmy?" suggested Henry gently.
"Yes," said Kimmy confidently.
Kimmy said nothing.
"Go ahead," encouraged Henry.
"What?" They were getting dangerously close to the limits of Kimmy's attention span.
"Go ahead and count them," said Henry.
"Oh," replied Kimmy, as if seeing him for the first time. "One..." She held up a chip and set it down next to her. "Two..." She held up a second chip. As she held up the third chip, her little brow creased with a look of intense concentration.
"Go on, Kimmy," smiled Henry. "You know this one."
A Lego sailed over his shoulder and bounced off the wall. Another one of the kids Henry had pulled for math practice had gotten tired of waiting for Kimmy to figure out what came after two. Henry turned and glared at the boy sitting on his left. He formed the letter "T" with both hands and gestured toward the corner with his head. The boy hung his head, picked up his chair and took it over to the corner for a time-out.
Henry allowed himself a smile. If only it was always that easy, he thought.
"Five!" declared Kimmy triumphantly as another Lego sailed through the air.
Eventually, two o'clock finally did roll around. With it came the ritual of desk cleaning, the passing out of homework, the putting up of chairs, and the lining up by the door in order of who was quietest and most ready to go. His aide marched them out across the playground to put them on their buses. Only Eddie Thomas, the little boy who'd thrown the first Lego, remained behind. The reason for his detention had nothing to do with his behavior, however; Eddie's mother usually came to pick him up sometime between two-thirty and three.
"Can I play on the 'puter, Mr. St. Martine?" Eddie wanted to know as soon as his classmates were gone.
Henry used the opportunity to give Eddie some extra help with his math. "All right, you little monster," smiled Henry counting off four dollars in play money and giving it to the boy.
Eddie giggled, loving the individual attention.
"How much money do you have?"
"Four dollars. Can I play on the 'puter?"
"Good," said Henry. "I'll let you play computer games for ten minutes, but it'll cost you six dollars. How much more do you need?"
Eddie sensed the trap far too late to do anything but try and solve the problem.
When his mother finally arrived, Eddie was happily playing Vowelmania on the Apple. She was an attractive dark-skinned woman in her early thirties.
"Mommy!" shouted Eddie.
Henry shot a look at Eddie and turned an imaginary volume knob counter-clockwise.
"Mommy," repeated Eddie in a more appropriate tone of voice.
"Hi, sweetie," smiled Mrs. Thomas. "Hello, Mr. St. Martine." Alice Thomas and Henry St. Martine were actually on a first-name basis when Eddie wasn't around. She worked as the school nurse at one of the junior high schools in the district and Henry knew her from a variety of faculty functions over the years. "How was Eddie today?" she asked.
Eddie looked at his shoes. "I had two times out before lunch and two after lunch."
"How many is that all together?" asked Henry.
Eddie thought for a minute. "Three?"
Henry shook his head. "Try again."
"Now if your behavior were only as good as your math is getting, then we'd be getting somewhere," suggested Mrs. Thomas sternly.
"I'll try harder," promised Eddie.
"You'd better believe it," said his mother sparing a smile for Henry. "Now go get your jacket and lunch box."
Henry ruffled the boy's curly black hair as he passed by on his way to the back of the classroom. "It'd probably help keep him focused if you limit his dessert to one or two pieces of candy," advised Henry picking up a workbook and some paper off of Eddie's desk.
"I didn't put any...." began Mrs. Thomas and then glared over at her son. "Eddie..."
"Uh-oh," said Eddie looking at his shoes again.
Eddie's mother and teacher exchanged a knowing glance. "Here's his homework," said Henry handing her the workbook and dittos. Their fingertips touched as she took the homework from him and a slightly longer glance passed between them.
Mrs. Thomas was the first one to look away, a slight smile on her full lips. "Come on, Eddie."
Henry felt a little warm. "See you tomorrow," he said.
"Bye, Mr. St. Martine," said Eddie.
I wasn't talking to you, thought the teacher with an inward smile as Mrs. Thomas followed her boy out of the classroom. Henry took a moment to appreciate the woman's long-legged walk as she left.
Someone was tsking at him from behind. Mel Ling, his aide, was standing in the other doorway with an armful of dittos. "Careful there," warned Mel. "Caught you thinking with the little head again."
Henry grinned. "Wise ass. I'm perfectly aware that she's happily married. We've been playing this little flirting game since November. Nothing's going to come of it. It's harmless."
"And therefore pointless," said Mel stacking the dittos on the worktable.
"Are you suggesting that I have an affair with the married mother of one of my pupils?" he said sardonically.
"In your case," retorted Mel, "it might not be such a bad idea. It's been three years since your divorce during which time you've been living with your mother and playing touch-and-smile games with women who aren't going to do you a bit of good. Either that, or you're recovering from the latest date-from-hades. You ought to find someone who is available and worth your while."
"Easier said than done," said Henry patiently. "Available and worth my while. That's a pretty rigid set of criteria. You know, we can't all be happy-go-lucky, free-wheeling lesbians like you."
"Sad, but true," agreed Melody Ling. "I'll buy you dinner?"
"You're on," said Henry. "We could get some Greek in the Village."
Mel wrinkled her nose. "I am not spending a perfectly good Friday night in Claremont. Why dont you come pick me up in my neck of the woods and well do Old Pasadena."
Melody Ling was a part-time artist / part-time dancer who had been Henry's aide for the past two years. She was a slim feisty young woman of Chinese-American heritage. She wore her black hair short on the sides, medium-long in the back and had a dyed streak of magenta, which she kept tucked out of sight while at work. Once school was out, however, she adopted a slightly more hip appearance which, on this particular evening, consisted of a leather skirt and matching jacket, a black sleeveless top, several bracelets and an earring that would have made a good fishing lure. The magenta strands of hair were now on top for all to see and tucked behind one ear. When she and Henry were seated in a booth at Ruby's Rose City Diner at six-thirty, the only thing she was wearing that she'd worn during the school day were her round-lensed, gold-framed glasses.
In stark contrast to his best friend's double life, most everything about Henry St. Martine was on the surface all the time. Honest and kind-hearted to a fault, he was the sort of man whom parents wished their daughters would bring home instead of the bums they usually dated. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, Henry was a thoroughly average-kind of guy; not bad-looking, but not too remarkable either. He'd married his college sweetheart right out of school and that had lasted just under five years. That was the time it took Cyndi Ellis St. Martine to decide that she wanted something other than thoroughly average.
The divorce had been hard on Henry, who was still trying to figure out exactly what it was that he had done wrong. It had been even harder on Henry's widowed mother who had gotten to be quite close to Henry's ex-wife. Henry had moved back in with his mother partially to console her and partially because he himself needed the security of the nest. After the first eight months, Henry was more-or-less okay enough to try and get on with life. Unfortunately, Elaine St. Martine was somewhat slower to recover. Three years later she still needed the companionship of her only child. Twice, Henry had tried to move back out, and twice, some crisis on the part of his mother had brought him back to provide emotional nurturing. Sometimes he wondered if he wasn't just letting himself get dragged back to the nest to avoid dealing with the real world. Either way, he was trapped.
Mel spent most of the meal telling Henry about the trials and tribulations of the week she'd spent with her parents in San Francisco over Spring Break. Ever since she'd come out, her relationship with her parents hadn't exactly been a bed of rose petals either.
"I couldn't believe it," she said laughing and shaking her head. "Dad actually suggested I get hormone shots."
"No," replied Henry disbelievingly.
"Seriously. He and Mom sat me down at the dining room table after Easter dinner," she said. "They faked me out at first though. Dad said, Melody, we finally understand and we want you know that we'll always love you. Just as my hopes were getting up, Dad levels me with this: We know it's not your fault you're what you are...."
"The L word," supplied Henry knowing that neither of the Ling parents had uttered the word lesbian aloud since finding out about their only daughter's sexual orientation.
"Yeah," said Mel. She flicked a toothpick into the air and it stuck in the acoustic tile ceiling with thousands of other toothpicks similarly deposited by other Rose City clients. "What did he say next? Oh yeah, Your mother and I... I always know I'm in trouble when I hear the phrase Your mother and I. Your mother and I have been reading that people like you have a smaller hypothalamus than normal people and there might be therapy available for it." Mel shook her head. "At least he stopped short of recommending a lobotomy."
"So what did you say?"
"I told them maybe they'd be happier if I did get a lobotomy. It got kind of ugly after that," she answered. Mel toyed with the last bite of her dessert for a moment.
"Actually, I think your folks are making some progress," said Henry thoughtfully.
"They seem to have given up on the idea that all you needed was to meet the right man. You remember what happened last Christmas?"
Melody winced. "How could I forget? That silly welcome home party. What a travesty. I had no idea they knew so many single men. I could've started my own harem."
"Somehow, I don't think your parents would have approved of that either."
"Would have served them right," grumbled Mel tossing back the remainder of her coffee. "Luckily for them, I could never get serious about anyone with more body hair than me."
"Me neither," smiled Henry.
The waitress brought the check and Henry slapped a hand on top of it before Mel could make a move. "I offered to buy you dinner," she complained.
Henry shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a giver," he said reaching for his wallet. "Anyway, I can afford it better than you can right now."
"So when are you going to move out of your mother's house?"
Henry stiffened slightly. "Mom needs me," he said.
"Shit," griped Mel. "You're gonna wind up like Norman Bates. Next thing you know you'll be wandering around the house in drag and knifing young women in the shower. Mom'll be in the attic stuffed with corn husks."
"You're a sick little monkey," said Henry getting up. "Did you know that?"
"Takes one to know one," retorted Mel following him toward the door, "but you didn't answer my question."
"You mean why don't I move out of Mom's house?"
"Yeah. It's not like you haven't already got a place of your own lined up."
"The townhouse I inherited from Great-Uncle Vance," said Henry. "I don't actually take possession of the property until next month."
"So when are you moving?" pressed Mel.
"Hadn't given it much thought," shrugged Henry.
"Well, give it some thought while you still have a mind to think with."
That was the problem with having a best friend: They always wanted what was best for you. Henry decided to change the subject. "So what's the plan for tonight?" he asked. "It's a Friday night and you're obviously dressed to ditch me and go clubbing somewhere."
Mel grinned. "Not until well past your bedtime, so fear not. I won't abandon you."
"Promises, promises. So what do we do in the meantime?"
"It's a lovely mild spring evening," said Mel. "I think we should raise our consciousness by spending some contemplative time appreciating womanhood in America."
"That's P.C. for girl-watching," translated Henry.
Melody just leered.
The two walked a half block up Fair Oaks Avenue to Colorado Boulevard. The sidewalks of Old Pasadena were crowded with people going to and coming from restaurants, shops and movies. Mel's eyes wandered from person to person, occasionally lingering on women she found attractive, but more often she'd offer Henry a whispered snap-analysis of a passerby: "Investment banker," she said of one woman they passed, "Catholic school; thinks cunnilingus was an ancient Greek philosopher."
She gestured at a skinny young man standing at the corner. "Cal Tech nerd. Brilliant, but secretly fantasizes about riding a Harley; compulsive masturbator."
"What about them?" asked Henry indicating a couple trying to beat a flashing Don't Walk signal from the other side of the street.
Mel took a moment to consider them. "They've been dating for six months, they're into dessert toppings and light bondage, and will break up early next year when she discovers him in bed with her best friend's blow dryer."
Henry just nodded. "That's what I came up with too."
"I'm in the mood for some new tunes this weekend," said Mel grabbing Henry by the hand and pulling him into Moby Disc Records. Mel began sorting through used record albums. To say that her tastes in music were eclectic would have been putting it mildly.
"I was serious at dinner," Mel told him as she skimmed the back of a Bob Marley CD and then added it to her pile, which included a doo-wop collection, a Janis Joplin record, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, an early Mega-Doom concert cassette, and the disco version of the soundtrack to Battlestar: Galactica. "If you don't get your life moving again soon, you're gonna go stark raving apeshit."
"Oook! Oook! Ack-ack!" aped Henry.
"See? But I really mean it," she said. "You've gotta get out of your mother's house. Go out and do things and meet people. You're never fully going to be able to put Cyndi behind you until you get seriously involved with another woman."
"It's not that easy," complained Henry. "When Cyndi and I were in college, we both lived in the same dorm and we saw each other every day. Since we were both students in the same major, we always had a lot in common. Starting a relationship was very comfortable."
"So now it's a little harder," shrugged Melody getting in line at the checkout counter.
" A little harder? You know what it's been like. I've tried the singles clubs and personal ads and support groups and they've all been dismal failures. I don't know how to meet women and I don't know what to say to them when I do," he complained softly.
"Look, it's all a matter of not letting your fear of rejection control you," counseled Mel.
"Rejection sucks," grumbled Henry reflecting on his divorce.
"It really sucks if you let it paralyze you. It can only hurt you as much as you let it. Watch." She handed Henry her records and turned to the woman standing in line in front of them. The woman was a tallish blonde in her twenties wearing a snug-fitting pair of faded blue jeans and a Cal State L.A. sweatshirt. Mel tapped her on the shoulder.
"Excuse me," said Mel. "This is going to sound really outrageous, but I've been standing in line here admiring you. I just have to tell you that I find you incredibly attractive and was kind of wondering you if you'd be interested in coming home with me."
The blonde just looked shocked.
"You see?" said Mel to Henry. "That really wasn't so pain...."
"Okay," replied the blonde.
Mel did a double-take. "Say what?"
"I said, okay," repeated the blonde. "It sounds like it might be..." She hesitated. "...interesting."
Mel looked at Henry and then looked at the woman and then looked at Henry again. "Henry?" she asked looking guilty.
Henry was cradling his forehead in one palm. "Go on, Mel. I'll see you Monday." He was trying not to laugh. "I'd tell you not to do anything I wouldn't do, but you've already blown that."
"Thanks, Henry," said Mel turning to her newfound friend.
"I'm Val," she told Mel.
"Melody Ling. Call me Mel," replied Mel taking her by the hand and leading her away from the counter.
"I've never done anything like this before," Henry heard Val giggle as she and Mel exited the shop.
Henry glanced at the woman standing in line behind him and smiled.
"If you say one word to me, I'm calling the cops," she said tightly.
"Next," said the teenager behind the counter.
Henry sighed and paid for Mel's music. He walked slowly back up Colorado to the parking garage where he'd left his car. He climbed the stairs to the top level and threw Mel's records in the backseat of his weary black '91 Mustang as he climbed into the driver's seat.
He had intended to head straight home and maybe watch some television before turning in, but he wound up driving along East Green Street instead. He drove past the Plaza Pasadena construction site, past Lake Avenue to the red brick building at the corner of Green and South Catalina Avenue. Henry parked in front of the building and got out of the car. The building had a weathered yet determined look about it, much like Great-Uncle Vance had had. Despite being a residence in a business district, it did not look out of place. Across Catalina Avenue from it was a trio of medical offices housed in a block-long brown brick building of similar architecture. Snug up against the side opposite Catalina was a white stone building housing an antique store.
The place had aged gracefully, thought Henry unlocking the white iron gate and stepping into the courtyard. But then again, so had Great-Uncle Vance, until he fell off the balcony during October's temblor. At 3.0 on the Richter scale, it hadn't even been much of an earthquake. Henry hadn't even felt it. He looked up and saw that the French doors Vance St. Martine had fallen through were still boarded up. Henry was grateful that the chalk outline, which would have been right at his feet, had since faded. To Henry's right, a stone fountain jutted from the brick wall beneath the master bedroom balcony and a chalky-faced gargoyle spouted water into the basin. It leered across the courtyard at the east balcony.
He thought about going in and then remembered that Great-Uncle Vance's lawyer still had the house key. Not that there weren't other ways in. He had visited the place a number of times as a child and, on one of those visits, Great-Uncle Vance had shown him the secret exit that connected the basement to the Pasadena city sewers. He remembered exploring some of those tunnels with his father. They had come back late and wet and stinking to high heaven and Henry's mom had been furious. Henry suddenly missed his father. It had been thirteen years since his death, but at that moment, the loss felt fresh. Certainly, his mom would be a lot better able to cope if he were still alive. Maybe he'd feel better too.
Henry's watch beeped the hour. Perhaps it was time to get on with life. He promised himself he'd return to the townhouse next month. If it looked as good on the inside as it did from the outside, he'd tell Mom he was moving out. He nodded to himself as he got back in his car. "Henry," he said aloud, "it's high time things started happening in your life."
As he pulled away from the curb, a statuesque redhead stepped out of the shadows across the street from the townhouse. She nodded thoughtfully and reached into her purse for a cigarette. She touched one long-nailed finger to the end of the cigarette and held it there until the tip of the cigarette glowed bright orange. She took a drag and then turned to walk away, softly humming Burnin' Love.
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