He saw her face in his mind's eye and there was no mistake. Pale and pleading. Desperate. A ghost with pale red hair floating to the surface of his consciousness.
More like an ache. An awful reminder.
Gil Naylor cranked up the stereo in his vintage Mercedes coupe as it climbed the narrow streets of the Hollywood Hills.
Then he saw her again. This time, smiling. Teasing. Beckoning him further like a siren. "Help me, Gil. Please, help me."
Entering through the elaborately carved Spanish door, the ruggedly handsome forty-nine-year-old actor crossed directly to the bottle of Asombroso Reserva Del Porto, poured a shot and downed it.
Beyond the patio and pool he watched the sun drop like a mustard-colored fizzy into the blue ink ocean. The tequila slammed down his throat like a fist.
And the image vanished.
Replaced by familiar sounds and faces as the house came to life like it always did when he entered. Jagged sparks of energy ricocheted off the terracotta tiles and yellow stucco walls, into the lavender tiled kitchen, and beyond.
Jenny, his live-in girlfriend, responded, hurrying in from the gym in a black tank top and shorts, abs taunt and glistening, nipples at attention. Tara, his personal assistant stuck her head out of the upstairs office and called from the balcony.
"Gil, is that you?"
"Who else?" flashing his five-million-dollar-a-movie smile.
"Ben called," Jenny said.
Ben was his business manager. He grabbed her muscular behind and squeezed. "What's he want?"
"He says while you're in New York you have to clear out your office on First Avenue."
"I know that already."
The building was being razed to accommodate a high-tech apartment tower designed by Daniel Lipschits.
His lips met Jenny's. Like all the other surfaces, they were polished to perfection. Plump and soft the way he liked them.
His personal assistant, Tara, rushed down the stairs, her chest heaving under the white cotton shirt.
"Gil, a messenger dropped off an invitation."
A strange sinking feeling in his stomach as Tara's sculptured white fingernail pointed to the rough mahogany table bought while on location in the Philippines. Gold embossed lettering caught a gleam of light.
"There," she said.
Gil's voice was ragged from a day of looping. A Disney animated feature. He played a leopard with a gambling habit. On Monday he was leaving for NYC to play the villain in a new Angelina Jolie thriller.
He wanted it to be an invitation to one of the Academy Awards parties as he ripped the envelope open.
"Is it Vanity Fair or Elton John's?" Jenny asked panting in front of him like a Chihuahua.
"I don't know."
Inside the card was a faded photograph of a girl with red hair. Someone out of the frame was lifting the back of her skirt and exposing her naked behind, which had a banana protruding from it.
"Gil, what it is?"
He had to steel himself to look at the girls' face, one side of which was pushed down against the blue and silver striped upholstery. Immediately recognized the big amber eyes as they gazed back at the camera. Her mouth twisted up in a smirk.
Written in block letters on the back. "To the good times."
Flashing back twenty years, he felt a stab of tension in his chest, right below his heart.
"Gil, is something wrong?"
Gathering himself, he checked the back of the card, then the envelope again. No postage. No return address.
"A … a messenger left this?"
Tara nodded. "Yes."
Jenny: "Tell us, darling. Don't keep us in suspense."
He balled the envelope, card and photo in his fist. Shoved it in his pocket. "Some wacked-out fan. Nothing special."
The two women made their exits as he lifted the hand-blown decanter and poured another shot of the $1,000-a-bottle tequila.
Tara over her shoulder: "I'll print out your schedule."
Jenny from the bedroom door: "I'll shower and get ready. We're expected at Nobu. 8 o'clock."
Gil wasn't listening. He calculated that he'd received at least a dozen similar photos over the past fifteen years. All of Larisa Peterson in various states of submission. Sent to his various residences, even though he'd moved three times during that period.
Curious, to say the least. Troubling.
He believed that they'd come from Larisa wherever she lived now. And he thought he knew why.
She was bitter. Angry. The photos meant to remind him of a betrayal. One that had probably shattered her dreams and caused her to slip and fall into the banal world of anonymity and endless struggle.
Sipping the tequila, Gil looked past the infinity pool and thanked God again that he had been one of the lucky ones. Plucked from the crowd. One of an infinitesimal number of young actors and performers who had made it to the top.
But he knew it wasn't only God that he needed to thank. Most of the credit for his success went to Bufford Bradley Goddard. Gil owed the five-foot-five real estate billionaire everything. His acting career. The house in the Hollywood Hills. The penthouse apartment in Manhattan. The beach house in Malibu. The ranch in Northridge. The seven luxury cars.
This reality repeated itself over and over in Gil's head as the Warner Brothers' Gulfstream G550 tore through the Nebraska sky. Even with the shades drawn, his i-Pod playing the catchy "Someone That I Used to Know," Gil couldn't stop his mind from tracking back almost twenty years to a past he didn't want to remember.
That's when he working as a bartender/waiter at Maxwell's in Manhattan, trying to land bits as an actor/model. Paying his dues. Another sensitive, good-looking, moderately talented guy from central Florida trying to make it happen. Like Sisyphus struggling to push the boulder up the mountain while living in a tiny walkup apartment on First Avenue.
Gil had a supporting part in an Off Off Broadway play on East Fourth Street in which he played a wolf. After a Saturday night performance in October, he was invited to a loft party on Bond Street.
He took beautiful, fresh-faced Larisa Pearson. Right off the bus from Manassas, Virginia. Tall, strawberry blood, a small mouth with full lips. A bright, winning smile. Big, soft amber-brown eyes.
She'd just started waitressing at the Upper Eastside restaurant Gil bartended at. A beautiful doe in a world of alligators and sharks.
He'd recognized her right away as special. Someone who was fully
alive in the present. A combination of beauty, intelligence, innocence and ripe perfection that to his mind contained more power than a loaded gun.
He admired the cool radiance of her skin in the taxi downtown.
She recited her dreams. Big names like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Pollack, Dylan, Brando, Leonard Bernstein flew by. She'd read a lot. Seemed alternately younger than her nineteen years and older. Her enthusiasm made him look at the dirty, mean city with new eyes.
Everything was cool to her, amazing. Even better than she'd imagined, including the dirty doorway they entered that reeked of piss, the cold industrial elevator that groaned as it lifted them to the 6th floor.
They entered the party like it was a fairy tale.
Elaborate glass sculptures hung from the ceiling, brilliantly colored silk drapes covered walls and windows; tuxedoed waitresses circulated with trays of drinks and hor d'oevres; a jazz quintet bopped in one corner. The throng exuded joi de vivre and attitude. Some famous faces stood out. Julian Schnabel with one foot on a chair holding court. Debbie Harry, Merce Cunningham, Mick Jagger.
He saw them watching her as they approached the hostess - a female artist who made sculptures out of doll parts.
She sat at the center of the room in a pool of blue light - middle-aged, owl-eyed, leering. Aggressively pleased with herself, big red lips.
"Who do we have here?" she asked offering a white-gloved hand.
Beside her sat a little bald-headed man with thinning hair. Crumpled khaki pants, a bland plaid shirt that was missing a button and looked like it needed to be washed.
Their hostess said, "Buff and I saw your play last weekend. We enjoyed it. Especially the parts where we could see your cock."
Gil had been trained by Uta Hagen to keep his emotions readily available. He blushed.
Then Buff in a whiney voice: "How come it's so small?"
Gil wanted to riposte with something smart. But he was used to taking shit. Even proud of his capacity for eating it. More an observer of people than a protagonist when he wasn't playing a part.
"Where are you from?" Buff asked.
It was like Leonardo di Vinci saying to some housewife who painted pictures of cats, "We're both artists."
As Gil was soon to learn, Buff's father had owned half the state. Buff inherited half of that.
For some reason, despite the huge gulf in age (Gil had just turned thirty; Buff was forty-nine) and net worth, Buff took Gil by the arm and starting introducing him to people who could help him, making sure he drank only the best champagne - Krug Clos Du Mesnil.
Gil was so flattered that he forgot about Larisa.
Along the way, Buff revealed that he'd dropped out of college. Didn't drive. Didn't cook. Didn't read. Didn't work. Didn't do much except eat, drink, party and sleep.
"I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but I envy your sense of striving. Your desperation," the little man said.
Gil tried not to be offended. "Is that a nice way of saying you feel sorry for me?"
"Not at all. You probably think wealth solves problems. It also builds thick concrete walls. Creates enemies." Then in a whisper: "Anything I tell you, anything you learn about me, can never be repeated."
There was sadness in Buff's voice as he confided, "You look at the wealthy people here and see glamour. But most of us are vampires and voyeurs. We don't experience life as fully as you do."
Gil understood that as an actor and artist, he chose to invite life in - the beautiful, ugly, inspiring and profane. Maybe Buff held it away and carefully selected what he allowed to enter.
Realizing that the party had wound past 3AM, Gil remembered Larisa. Looked everywhere but couldn't find her. Someone said that they'd seen her leave hours earlier, possibly for another party.
Gil ran into her again two days later as he was setting up the bar. Black pants, a white shirt, which set off her resplendent hair.
He asked, "How come you didn't tell me you were leaving the party?"
"I know you didn't. That's why I'm asking."
She smiled mysteriously. "I'm still there, Gil."
"What does that mean?"
Naughtily, like she was biting his lip: "What do you think it means?"
Her coy attitude, the way she turned her back to him and walked away without explaining- all bothered him. As much as he wanted to get to know her better, he decided he didn't trust her as he mixed drinks for the Wall Street types at the bar.
Her curious behavior might have disturbed Gil even more if he wasn't otherwise engaged with the sudden activity around his career. He was getting calls from producers, casting agents and directors who wanted to meet him. All at Buff's behest.
Doors that had been previously slammed in his face were opened and he was graciously invited to enter. He signed with a prominent agent, and was offered an important part in an Off Broadway play produced by one of Buff's friends.
Sometime during rehearsals, he heard that Larisa had quit working at the restaurant and moved into an apartment in Soho.
Six months later, almost nine months after the party on Bond Street, Gil was tending bar one night thinking about how he was going to prepare for his first big Hollywood film audition when Larisa walked in and sat at the end of the bar, by the window. He didn't recognize her at first. She wore a long beautiful cashmere overcoat with the collar up. Red lipstick. Her strawberry blond hair pulled up, too.
She seemed older, prouder, more sophisticated. Out of his league despite his recent success.
"Aren't you going to say hello?" she asked in the same cat's purr voice.
"Oh. Hi, Larissa."
"I need to talk to you about something."
At midnight, when he got off, she linked her delicate arm in his and led him around the corner to a café. Leaning over the round marble table, a fire burning in her eyes, she spoke in one long, uninterrupted streak. About her plans. Ambitious plans to buy a building in the Village that would house a theater, a film production company and a restaurant.
"I want to make things happen, Gil. Bold, exciting things. Seize opportunities in a big way. I think you know what I mean."
Gil was flattered by the attention.
Wiping cappuccino foam off her upper lip she said, "I'm already shopping for real estate."
After framing the endeavor in broad strokes, she began filling in the details. Food, menus, décor, plays and screenplays she would commission, readings series, literary salons, poetry slams, festivals.
He started to believe in it, too, but a part of him wondered if she wasn't a little crazy or high on drugs.
He'd met tons of young people who covered their vulnerabilities and insecurities with bravado. Like elegant French brocade throw over a worn-out sofa.
Larisa said with conviction, "Gil, I want you to be an important part of this. It would mean so very much to me."
"I don't think I can do it without you."
The yearning in her voice touched something inside him. Before Gil realized what he was doing, he leaned across the table, took her hands in his, pulled her closer, and kissed her on the lips.
Larisa responded heatedly. They found each other's tongues. Hands on legs under the table.
Like a scene from a movie.
Then awkwardly jerking her head towards the window, she stopped. Breathing hard, almost panting, she said: "Gil. Gil, I can't do this now. Something has happened."
His head spinning, wanting to be alone with her. "What?"
"No. No, Gil. You don't understand. I can't!" Strongly, pushing him off.
"Do this," she answered, getting to her feet.
He stopped her, ignoring the erection in his pants. "Wait."
She looked at it, then pointed breathlessly to the window. "There's something…. I can't tell you."
He ripped a twenty from his pocket, slapped it on the table and tried to catch up with her. "Hold on!"
When he reached the Second Avenue sidewalk, she was already climbing into the back of a cab.
A handsome, dark-haired Hispanic-looking man - late 20s, maybe 30 - in the back seat glared back at him menacingly.
The cab sped off.
He was still angry two days later when he met Buff for lunch. They sat across from one another in a diner on Lexington Avenue.
"Only $6.95 with fries and a drink. The cheapest lunch in Manhattan," Buff announced, biting into a tuna sandwich, mayonnaise dripping from the corner of his mouth.
Tastes like it, Gil thought.
He'd grown familiar with Buff's peculiarities, including the pride he took in sniffing out a bargain. Like a spoiled, eccentric nine-year-old trapped in a middle-aged man's body. Eyes slightly crooked. Teeth chipped and yellow. Spare brown hair pushed over the bald top. A paunch.
A week earlier, Buff had displayed his extravagant side, flying the two of them to Ocean City, Maryland for dinner at his favorite seafood restaurant on a whim.
He seemed genuinely happy to spend time with Gil, even grateful for some reason.
"How are things going for you out there in the showbiz jungle?" Buff asked.
"They're promising," Gil answered, trying to hide the hurt he felt about Larisa. "I auditioned for a Joel Silver movie yesterday."
"Silver… I know his sister. I'll talk to her."
"You don't have to."
"Do you want to get the part?"
"I do. Yes."
Buff's wealth not only bred an enormous amount of confidence, it also seemed to produce results.
Gil said, "I can't tell you how much I appreciate all your help."
Although they'd spoken on the phone daily for the last nine months, and met for lunch or dinner at least once a week, Buff had told him little about himself.
His parents had both passed away. He was estranged from his sister. Lived in a penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue and 81st Street that Gil had never seen.
Buff didn't entertain. He'd never married. And never had a serious girlfriend, as far as Gil could tell.
Which raised the question: Was Buff gay? Did that explain his interest in Gil?
Certainly the possibility had crossed the actor's mind.
The two men had left the diner and were walking south on Lexington to the Morgan Library. At the corner of 42nd Street, Buff took Gil's arm and said, "Larisa has asked me to invest in a theater-restaurant venture she's starting. What do you think?"
This took Gil by surprise. He felt conflicted. Protective of his friend/mentor, sympathetic to Larisa.
He chose his words carefully as they studied an exhibit of Dutch Renaissance woodcuts. "I think she's got remarkable energy, even vision. Maybe she can pull it off."
"But should I help her?"
"I don't know."
Buff with great sincerity: "I'll only do it if you want me to."
Gil was so surprised that he didn't know what to say.
Buff said: "It might be good for you to have a place to stage plays to perform in."
"It could be. Yes."
Ten days later, Gil returned from work to two messages on his answering machine. The first was from his agent telling him that Joel Silver's office had called to request a screen test in Hollywood.
The second was from Larisa. "Gil, I got it! My dream is coming true. I'm so excited. The building is at 822 First Avenue. The corner of 8th Street. Meet me there tomorrow. One P.M. I'm going through with the architect. I want you to be there! I love you so much!"
Showered and shaved, Gil walked to Lex and took the 6 train to Astor Place, then across to First, stepping over frozen puddles, wondering what it would be like to visit California.
822 First was an unimpressive three-story, pre-war red brick building. A small theater marquis next to a door with flyers pasted on it. He knocked and waited. His feet freezing, he knocked again.
Larisa's voice soft through the metal. "Gil, is that you?"
She wrapped him in a hug. "Oh my God, Gil! Can you believe it?"
He wasn't sure he could.
Her wrapped in a sheepskin coat with a fluffy wool collar, which set off her perfect skin. Thick mascara made her eyes look deeper. There was a toughness about her that he hadn't noticed before.
Behind her stood a tall woman with cold blue eyes who introduced herself as Suzanne, the architect. The contractor a quiet, self-possessed Asian man.
They started on the ground floor, which had most recently housed a Mexican restaurant. Now it felt haunted and cold. Broken chairs. Tables stacked together. Graffiti sprayed on the stucco walls.
Larisa planned to transform the space into a turn-of-the-century French brasserie, with glass doors leading to the garden in back, a long bar, a small stage in one corner. "For jazz concerts, poetry slams, play readings, comedy nights."
The second floor featured a 99-seat arena-style theater. Larisa went through her to-do list - seats needed to be replaced; bathrooms and dressing rooms refurbished.
The third floor would be remodeled to accommodate a fifty-seat theater, a rehearsal space and offices.
"This will be yours!" Larisa exclaimed as she stood in the back next to a window that looked out over bare trees and a patio below. The sky the color of ice.
"What do you mean?"
"This will be your office. See…. You can even have your meals sent up," she said pointing to the dumbwaiter that went to the kitchen in the restaurant below.
Gil was confused. He excused himself, because he had to go to work.
Larisa followed him down to the sidewalk and gave him a kiss. "You don't know how much you mean to me, Gil," she said. "I want us to be physical. But I can't now. Not yet."
"It's that Latin guy I saw you with, isn't it?"
"Raul? No. He's just someone I met."
Now twenty years later, Gil was back. Stepping out of the rented town car, he asked the driver to wait. 822 First looked the same. The red brick façade slightly dimmer, he thought. Flyers once pasted on the door for experimental plays, art openings and performance pieces now replaced with color brochures hawking yoga classes and pilates.
He felt a sadness shrouding the building as he entered. Larisa's restaurant had never opened. Replaced instead with a process printing operation. The stairway reeked of chemicals.
He wanted to get this over quickly. Put the past to sleep and move on.
Gil hadn't been in the third floor office since March 1990. It remained unchanged. An old metal desk in one corner. Stacks of boxes that contained menus, brochures, Gil's personal mementos and books.
He started sorting through the first box, when he heard a knock.
A stocky man with silver-gray hair stuck his head in.
"Jerry Patterson. I'm a huge, huge fan."
The two had never met in person. Gil had hired the private investigator over the phone. Paid him his $7,000 fee with a credit card.
Patterson brushed the dust off a metal chair and sat. Popped open the black briefcase in his lap. Donned a pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses and, smiling from one side of his mouth, removed a folder.
"Larisa Peterson…. Here she is."
"You found her?"
The PI started reading: "No evidence of the existence of a Larisa Peterson after March 1990, though we can't be sure she didn't change her name."
Gil felt regret, then heard a scratching sound in the wall behind him.
"Sounds like you've got rats."
"I'm going through my stuff and will he out of here in thirty minutes," Gil said, resisting the impulse to leave now.
Patterson continued, "She was born in Lexington, Kentucky July 29th, 1971. The only child of John Lamb and Anna Lou Davis, both deceased. Parents never married. Larisa was raised by her mother in Columbia, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Dropped out of Osbourne High School in Manassas, Virginia after her sophomore year. Appeared in one theater production, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Played Laura. Unclear what she did until she arrived in New York."
The sadness Gil felt turned into curiosity, then anger. Maybe the photos hadn't come from her.
Patterson continued reading: "Last seen on the night of March 14th, 1990, entering this building. Only remaining known relative, half-brother Karl, died in a car crash in '94…. No missing persons report was ever filed."
In his mind's eye, Gil was already revisiting that awful night in March. Rewinding. "What about her friend Raul?"
"His body was fished out of the East River in the vicinity of the Triborough Bridge on April 1, 1990. Cause of death, massive trauma to the head. My guess he was killed and dumped. Which is no surprise since the guy was a drug dealer."
March 14, 1990, Gil had just returned from a month in California and wanted to tell Larisa that he got the part in the Joel Silver movie. Because her phone machine wasn't taking messages, he thought he'd go down to 822 First Ave. See if he could find her.
It was approximately three-thirty in the afternoon. The sky the color of wet cement. Light snow had started to fall. He'd walked down from his third floor apartment and stopped to check the trash.
On the sidewalk, the collar of his pea-coat pulled up against the cold, he was studying a brass floor lamp that someone had throw out, when a voice called.
He turned and saw Larisa sitting in the front seat of black Toyota, parked at the curb with the motor running.
"Gil, I need to talk to you." Her eyes piercing. Her breath churning into white mist.
"I was just going downtown to look for you. What's up?"
Wind from the East River sent a chill up his spine. When the back door opened, he got in and immediately sensed something was wrong.
Raul, behind the wheel, looked coiled up like a cobra.
Larisa's hair and clothes were disheveled. She spoke aggressively. "I have to see Buff, right away."
Raul: "Because otherwise I'm gonna cap his ass."
She punched Raul in the arm to shut him up. Then: "Buff won't talk to me anymore. Won't return my calls. Cut me off. No explanation. Like I'm trash. Which means the theater, the building, everything we dreamed of has gone down the drain."
"I don't understand."
"He had the locks changed yesterday. Construction has completely stopped."
"He's acting like a little bitch," Raul offered.
She spat back at him: "Shut the fuck up!"
Then turning back, she said, "I trusted him, Gil. I thought he was a good man. Decent. Reliable. I made a mistake. He's not. He's like the others. Exploiters. Predators. Pigs!"
Raul again: "He's worse than that."
She scratched her head. "Raul's right. He's sick."
"In what way?"
"In his soul. In his foul, twisted brain!" She took a deep breath, rubbed her nose vigorously.
Gil thought that she and Raul might have snorted some blow.
She started talking fast. "When I first met him… When I told about what I wanted to do. You know the theater, and so on. The whole plan. The one I laid out to you. He said he liked my vision a lot. He got behind it, big time. He was kind. Forthcoming. Generous."
Raul smoldering: "But he put the whole thing in his name."
"I don't have a problem with that, even though I did all the fucking work."
As her voice trailed off, her eyes grew dark. Her face seemed to fill up with something that was threatening to explode out of her.
Raul poked her in the shoulder. "Tell him."
"I don't want to!"
"DO IT! DON'T BE A STUPID BITCH!"
She spoke in a low voice, like a growl: "That dick…. That little fucker. That perverted little asshole. He made me pay."
Gil started to feel sick to his stomach. "What do you mean?"
"What do you think I mean, Gil? He made me do shit! He got his pound of flesh. It started out silly. He asked me to pose for him. See my underwear. Adolescent stuff. Then he wanted to touch me. Here. There. Then he wanted…" She covered her eyes. "It kept getting worse!"
"Larisa, shit! You should have told me." Bile rising into his mouth.
"My mother warned me that everything comes with a price."
Gil felt as though he'd been violated, too. "That weasely little son of a bitch."
"He was taking it to depths you don't want to know. Testing my limits. The degradation…. I… I couldn't go on."
"Of course not. No!"
"As soon as I said, 'that's enough,' he cut me off. Wouldn't even talk to me. Changed the locks on the building."
Raul: "Some fucking friend."
"That's horrible. Disgusting."
"I've been violated in the worst way, Gil. I'll never be the same. And I'm not going to stand for it. I can't!"
She reached for him past the headrest and broke down. Chest heaving, tears streaming down her cheeks.
He leaned forward to comfort her. Hold her. Whisper in her ear that he would find a way to make it better.
That's when he saw the barrel of the .45 automatic sticking out from under a copy of the New York Post on the front seat.
As angry as he was at Buff, Gil felt conflicted. That's why he volunteered to talk to him as a way of potentially defusing the crisis.
Larisa and Raul had other ideas. Crazy ones that involved blackmail, kidnapping and even, torture.
Larisa said: "Either he gives me money tonight, or I take my story to the New York Times."
"How much do you want?"
"Fifty thousand dollars."
Raul: "Screw that. A hundred grand minimum."
They waited in the car around the corner from 991 Fifth as Gil went in.
He'd never visited his friend's apartment and wasn't sure he'd be granted entry as the liveried doorman called up.
"Gil Naylor, correct?"
"Take the elevator. Push PH. Penthouse."
The elevator opened into an elegant foyer. A heavyset woman waited in black pants and a white shirt.
"You're Mr. Naylor?"
"Mr. Goddard is waiting in the library. Follow me."
She led him down a corridor past paintings by Picasso, Degas, Matisse. To his left he saw a living room four times the size of his whole apartment. Large windows looked out over Central Park.
Past a door that led to the kitchen and a half dozen others that were closed, they arrived at the end of the hallway, where the woman knocked on a door and stuck her head in.
"Mr. Goddard. Mr. Naylor is here to see you."
The room was painted a deep shade of green and lined with shelves of books. The ceiling was so high and the dimensions of the room so large that the desk at the end seemed inconsequential.
Buff sat behind it. His sparse hair standing up at odd angles. His face in a scowl.
The diminutive man stood. Removed his glasses. Offered his hand. "What a wonderful surprise!"
Then pointing back to his desk. "I was just reading Rilke. Rainier Marie. Fabulous writer. Poet." Recited: "Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other."
He stopped suddenly. "You look troubled, Gil. What's wrong?"
Gil could barely get the word out. "Larisa…. I saw her."
Gil, his hands trembling, "I don't know how to start."
"We're friends, Gil. You can tell me anything."
Gil plunged in. "She…. She just told me about what happened between the two of you."
"She thinks that you took advantage of her, sexually. Said that when she wouldn't go any further, you closed the building. Cut her off."
Buff leaned forward. "She said that? She really said that I .. exploited her?"
Buff stood up and put his hands on the top of his head. "I don't know what to say. This is strange. I mean, from my perspective she's the one who tried to seduce me."
Gil was caught in a swirl of conflicting emotions. "How? What are you talking about? How did this happen?"
"Actually…. It started the night of the party. The first night you and I met. After you left, Larisa was waiting. She begged me to take her home with me. She said that she didn't have money and didn't have a place to stay."
"I let her stay a couple of nights in my guest room. Then I found a place for her in Soho. The apartment of a friend who was out of the country."
"How come you didn't tell me this?"
"She asked me not to. I didn't think it was important."
"I didn't know."
"What? That I gave her money? That she kept coming back for more?"
"Larisa says that she paid you back."
"She did? How?"
Gil took a deep breath and said, "By acting out your sexual fantasies."
Buff grinned. "Okay…. Maybe I took a couple of pictures. Foolish things. But I never forced her to do anything."
"You didn't talk her into having sex with you?"
Buff's eyes narrowed. He folded his arm across his chest. "Really, Gil. What kind of person do you think I am?"
"I'm not judging anyone," Gil said carefully. "I'm just trying to find out what happened so we can resolve this."
Gil pushed ahead. "Frankly, I was surprised when you bought the building."
"Well, I was thinking of buying something in the area anyway. Seemed like a good investment. I figured, what the hell. I'll give her some money to fix it up. See what she makes of it. Maybe it will keep her out of the trouble. I thought it could be good for you, too."
"Then why did you cut her off?"
"I know you like her, Gil. But the girl's unstable. She started making unreasonable demands. I blame that friend of hers."
"Yeah, Raul. He's a drug dealer, you know. I had him investigated."
This bothered Gil. "Did you check me out, too?"
"Of course not, Gil. How can you ask a thing like that?"
Instead of trying to explain what he was feeling - anger at being deceived, confusion - he blurted out: "They're downstairs."
"Raul and Larisa."
"Now?" Buff hurried to the window and looked out. "Where?"
"They're parked around the corner. They're pissed off and want revenge."
"Jesus, Gil. I'm glad you warned me. What are we going to do?"
"If you don't pay her off, she says she's talking to the press."
"How much does she want?"
"A hundred thousand in cash."
Buff thought for a minute. "It's that Raul idiot, isn't it? He's putting crazy ideas in her head."
"Maybe you should call the police."
"No. No. I'll pay it. Tell them I'll give them seventy thousand. But not here."
Gil took this as an admission of guilt. "Where?"
The little man looked nervously at his watch. "Tell them that I'm going to need a couple of hours to get the money together. Tell them to meet me outside of 822 First at eleven tonight."
Or maybe he was just scared. "Eleven o'clock."
"I'll have my lawyer draw up an agreement. I'll call him now."
Gil got to his feet and stopped. "I'll tell them, Buff. But be careful."
"Raul's got a gun."
Eleven o'clock. Larisa and Raul sat in Raul's car across the street from 822 First Avenue. Gil, covered in cold sweat, watched from the back seat as the two of them snorted lines of coke off the back of magazine.
"Maybe that's not a good idea," Gil said.
Raul: "Maybe you should shut your fucking mouth."
He couldn't wait for this to be over. Wanted to get away from all of them. Looked forward to playing characters in movies who faced moral choices that were less ambiguous.
He forced his mind to imagine California. Palm trees. Blue skies. The beach.
Raul acting like a cowboy, waved the .45 in front of Gil's face. "It's past eleven. Where's your fucking boy?"
"He said he'd be here."
Larisa shouted: "Baby, put that thing away!"
"Baby," she called him. Like Gil's worst nightmare.
His heart booming in his chest, he wondered why he had trusted either of them.
Larisa was talking a mile a minute about how she was going to rebound even stronger and make Buff regret his behavior.
"He thinks I'm going away. I'll show him. Like I'm some dumb hick who doesn't know what she's doing…"
Gil prayed that it would end soon, when he saw the yellow cab pull up behind them. Buff got out cradling a canvas bag.
"There he is!"
Buff in a tweed jacket and wool hat. Like he was hurrying home from dinner.
Larisa excitedly: "He's got the money!"
Raul: "Let's go!"
The two of them were out in a flash. The former barely bothering to hide the pistol under the front of his coat.
They slid across First as Buff fit his key in the metal door.
Gil lowered the back window and shouted, "Buff, watch out!"
The little man turned, looked up in Gil's direction and smiled.
Curious, Gil thought, until he saw the big man step in front of Raul on the sidewalk and three others get out of the van parked in front of the building. They moved expertly. A forearm across Raul's throat. Another man disarmed him from behind. A third placed a hand over Larisa's mouth, lifted her off her feet and carried her inside.
Gil considered fleeing. But some weird sense of obligation to Buff, a feeling of pity for Larisa, and the idea that he could arbitrate a just outcome, carried him across the street and into the building.
The restaurant was dark. He heard bodies flailing. Someone crashed into a table. A fist cracked into someone's jaw.
Buff's voice: "Gil?"
A flashlight came on and shone in Gil's eyes, blinding him.
"Who the fuck is this guy?" A big man asked.
Buff: "He's my friend. He's okay."
"Tell him to leave."
"You should go home, Gil. They'll handle this from here."
"But you said…." He froze.
He stood shrinking as two men dragged Raul by his heels towards the back of the building. Another was holding Larisa by the hair. She turned back to him, pain and desperation screaming from her amber eyes. "Help me, Gil. Please help me!"
The big man slapped a hand over her mouth and pulled her away. Gil didn't move.
Buff: "Go home, Gil. I'll call you later."
"Okay…." He stood there helpless. Not knowing what to do. Blood pounding in his head.
Rough hands spun him and pushed him out the door into the cold.
Two days later, he was in Los Angeles, eager to lose himself in a new persona. He excelled in the part of a hard-ass young lawyer who took no prisoners. After that, he was hired to play a cop on a network series. Another man of action. Ran three years. Movie offers followed. Gil had never looked back.
Never wanted to. Until now.
He and Buff had kept up a formal correspondence. Cards sent on birthdays. Expensive gifts exchanged at Christmas. The Asombroso Reserva DelPorto had come from Buff.
Gil thought of himself differently now. Wiser. More capable of getting from the world what he wanted without anyone else's help.
He reminded himself that he owned a Picasso of his own and a Degas, too, as he waited for the door to open to Buff's Fifth Avenue apartment.
"Gil. It's good to see you. How long has it been? Fifteen years?"
The little old man stood unsteadily on a cane. Diabetes had disabled both his legs and weakened his eyes.
They sat by the window overlooking the park, sipping French Bordeaux and snacking on cheese and little sandwiches that the maid had laid out before she left for the day.
Gil reached into his pocket and handed Buff the key. "I cleared out my stuff at 822 First. The rest can be tossed."
"So that's the end of that."
"Yes," Gil said looking out over the park, trying to keep his cool. He wanted to do this smoothly like the prosecutor he'd once played on TV.
Weave his prey into a trap. Get him to confess to his crimes. Leave walking the high moral ground, his guilt expunged.
Buff didn't appear to be a hard man to break. His frail hands shook as he reached for his glass.
"We never had a chance to talk about what happened all those years ago," Gil said. "You remember Larisa?"
Buff grinned mischievously. "I'm surprised you still think about her after all that's happened to you."
"I think about her once in awhile."
"A big movie star like you. How come?"
Gil cleared his throat and spoke with authority. "People don't just disappear."
"They change. They move on."
"I think you should tell me what happened that night after I left," Gil said.
The old man waved the entreaty away with the back of his hand. "I'm an old man now. My memory is fuzzy."
"I have a feeling that you've judged me unfairly."
Gil leaned forward, emotion gathering in his throat. "I need to know what you did to Larisa."
"Sweet girl. I found her an apartment. I gave her money."
"And then you humiliated her, remember?"
Regret stirred in the old man's eyes. "I couldn't help myself, at first. She was so eager. She put up no resistance. I wanted to see how far she would let me go."
"How far did you go, Buff?"
"You were always careful. You respected the boundaries. You never asked for more than you thought was appropriate."
"I asked about Larisa."
"I… I came to admire her bravery, her passion, her desperation. They were beautiful. Brilliant really."
"Did she make you feel vulnerable? Is that what made you turn against her?"
Mist in his gray eyes. "A new sensation for me. A scary one. In the end, I think I loved her more than I loved you."
"Is that why you had her killed?"
"Is that what you think?"
"And the pictures? The kinky snapshots? Did you send them to me out of some weird act of contrition?"
Buff's hand shaking violently now, he spilled the red wine over the front of his pants. "In the beginning, I wanted you to see who she really is. To understand us better. Once a year, I figured you'd gradually get the idea. Then as time went by, and I didn't get to see you, I sent them as a remembrance of the time we spent together. When we saw each other every week. When we were close."
"You're a sick man."
"I'm dying. Yes."
The hatred Gil felt for him now surprised him. "You're sick in the head."
"Whatever I did for you, for Larisa, I did out of love."
"Don't say that! PLEASE DON'T!!!!"
Buff rose unsteadily and reached into the top drawer of a credenza. "Remember this, Gil?" He pulled out a gun. A .45 automatic, which he had to use two hands to hold up. "It's the gun Raul was carrying."
"Put it down, Buff."
The old man shuffled over and dumped the .45 in Gil's lap. "I want you to have it as a souvenir."
"Get it off me!"
Gil pushed the gun off so that it hit the floor with a clang.
Buff, stuffing a little sandwich in his mouth, bent down to retrieve the pistol. "Take it."
Gil was already on his feet.
As the old man straightened up, the sandwich got stuck and he started to choke.
"G-G-Gil…." He let go of the pistol and grabbed his throat. Then, as he started turning red, directed an odd, painful and quizzical look at his friend.
Gil, frozen, didn't know what to do. Part of him thought he should leave the old man to die as a form of justice, another part wanted to save him, a third calculated: What will people think if they find us like this? Buff dead. The pistol on the floor. Bruises on the old man's chest from what Gil would say was his effort to save him.
With a last glimpse of the old man slumping from his knees to the floor, his face turning purple, Gil turned on his heels and left.
Quickly down the elevator. Out the front door to the Towne car, which waited along the curb.
His heart was pounding as he bent to get in. Then he heard a voice call: "Gil?"
He turned and saw her standing near the back of a cab holding a shopping bag. A big smile on her face. Her hair cut to her shoulders; lighter than before. Her face bonier.
He wanted to be excited, but his body froze. His blood turned cold.
"Gil, I'm not Larisa anymore. I changed my name to Claire."
"Did you see Buff? Did he explain that we're together? That we've missed you all these years, but didn't know how to tell you?"
Gil felt sick. The world around him started to spin and the pavement seemed to melt under his feet. Wanting to escape, he reached for the door of the town car, but lost his balance.
The last thing he heard as he fell was her scream ricocheting off the car door and burning into his ears.
Then he saw her looking down at him. Her lips moved, but he couldn't hear what he was saying. All he could think was: What the fuck have I done? What the fuck have I done? Like an echo that sounded with each beat of his heart.
About the Author
Ralph Pezzullo is a a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning screenwriter and playwright. His books include Jawbreaker (with CIA operative Gary Berntsen), Plunging Into Haiti (winner of the Douglas Dillon Prize for American Diplomacy), The Walk-In, Most Evil, Eve Missing, Blood of My Blood, and Inside SEAL Team Six and Hunt the Wolf (with former ST-6 member Don Mann).