Los Angeles: A Novelby Peter Moore Smith
It is a hoarse whisper over a crackling cell phone - "Angel" - and then the connection is lost. Angel is convinced that the voice belongs to his beautiful and enigmatic neighbor, Angela - and that she is terrified for her life. He paces the floor, waiting for the phone to ring again, calls the police, searches her apartment, but there is no trace of her anywhere, not for days. So begins a haunted man's quest to uncover what happened to the woman he has fallen in love with. Only now does he realize that he knows nearly nothing about her. Angel has his secrets, too. He is the son of one of Hollywood's most successful movie producers, but he has turned away from that bright and power-ridden world. Instead, he leads a cloistered existence, nursing an unfinished screenplay as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner loops ceaselessly in his darkened apartment. But now, for the first time in years, because of Angela's sudden disappearance, Angel is propelled into action. Following the few clues he has gathered about her, he trails Angela through the hard glitter of Los Angeles days and nights. With every new piece of knowledge arrives another question and an even more chilling possibility: Did he merely imagine Angela? Is someone deliberately leading him? Is the phantom he is pursuing the very fear he has been running from? In the murky underworld beneath the bright surface of Los Angeles, everything he knew about her - and himself - begins to unravel. In this city of secrets that aren't meant to be told and people who aren't meant to be found, Angel may soon discover that the most dangerous lies of all are the ones you tell yourself.
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Los AngelesA Novel
By Peter Moore Smith
Little, BrownCopyright © 2005 Peter Moore Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI LOOK BACK AND FEEL TERROR-COMPREHENSIVE, ABSOLUTE-like I was living through one of those familiar bytes of live violence on the news. But at the time, at that instant, I stood on the cool of the kitchen tiles in my charcoal-colored bathrobe, sipping my usual fusion of coffee and psychopharmaceuticals. I had pulled the miniblinds up, uncharacteristically, because I was searching for that cat. She had been mewling out there all night, crying like a human baby, and now, of course, the moment I decided to look for her, she was gone. It was probably the medication, but I found myself mesmerized by the unfamiliar six-in-the-morning brilliance, entranced by the sunlight glinting off the crappy sedans and SUVs in the parking lot below. The whole scene seemed so oddly calculated. Soft beams weaving over the blue and white hyacinths of the old man's overgrown garden next door, hard gleams shimmering off the waxy leaves of his laurel tree-it was all almost too thought-out, as though devised by some cinematographic genius. In the quiet rustle of overhanging branches, I even thought I heard a director whisper, "Action!"
Then, shattering my reverie, the phone rang.
I had been expecting a call, actually, from my father's lawyer's office because therehad been a problem with one of my credit cards at the Vons the other day, and I had left a message with one of the assistants to sort it out. My only thought when I picked up was, why would they call so early?
"Hello?" I answered.
She said my name.
It was her, it was Angela, there was no doubt about it.
Unlike that cat, Angela had been absent all night. I had stayed awake long past the hour she usually came over, then grown bored of waiting and had used the free time to rewrite a few pages of my screenplay before taking a couple of Restorils and crawling off to bed.
Right now I replaced the phone in its cradle, thinking she would call back any second. She probably wanted to explain where she had been last night, I told myself, and had been cut off, that's all.
I looked out the window again. A man I had never seen before walked from my building to his car. He removed his gray suit jacket and laid it neatly over the passenger seat before starting his old Honda and driving away. I tried to imagine the office he worked in-a desk, a computer, a coffee mug filled with pencils, maybe even a potted plant, its tendrils curling.
Then too much time passed, too many blue minutes on the blue digital clock of the coffeemaker. This wasn't right, I kept thinking. She should have called back by now. I picked up again, punched star-69 and listened to the smooth electronic voice of the computerized operator tell me the number of the last call that had come through. I was instructing myself not to freak out. The whole time I was thinking, Stay calm, stay focused. I wrote Angela's cell number down on an old unfilled prescription slip and dialed it immediately, listening to those five impersonal rings before her own recorded message said, "Hi, it's me." She was too cheerful, too sincere. It was an answering-machine answer and didn't capture her personality at all. "Leave a message, I'll call you back."
This made no sense. If Angela had just called from her cell, why wasn't she answering it now?
I replaced the cordless in its cradle once again and picked up my coffee mug, taking that final, gritty sip.
I lowered the miniblinds.
I pressed my ear to the wall between our apartments.
I walked out into the hallway and knocked on her door, even though I knew there would be no answer.
I considered the way she had said my name, that tone in her voice, and waited a fraction less calmly.
With every passing second I became a fraction less calm.
I dialed her number again, this time leaving my own message. "It's me," I said, trying to make my voice sound unconcerned. "What did you want, anyway?" But since I hadn't spoken to anyone all morning, it came out broken.
I let ten more minutes pass, then called again.
"Is everything all right?" I asked the telephone, much more clearly this time. "Angela, what the fuck is going on?"
I hung up.
"A woman," I said less than a minute later, "my neighbor." This time I had dialed 911. I knew it was alarmist, but I was starting to panic.
"What about her, sir?"
"Something's happened. She's afraid."
"Can you be more specific?"
I gave the emergency operator Angela's address; except for her apartment number, it was the same as mine.
"What is she afraid of?"
"I don't know," I blurted. "She called ... she called from the dark. It was in the tone of her voice. It was unmistakably the voice of a person calling from the dark."
"From the dark?"
I stepped out of the kitchen. "From the dark." I had an image of Angela. She was inside a closet, under a bed, deep inside a thicket of bushes. She was hiding, terrified, in danger.
I was agitated, I admit, becoming increasingly irrational.
"Did she say something was wrong?"
"Not in so many words."
There was a pause, then the sound of hard fingernails typing on a computer keyboard.
I thought I detected the sound of disbelief, too, that telltale sigh of skepticism.
"Can you send someone over?"
The light, if you've ever noticed, does things to the human voice. In bright light, people tend to speak through their teeth, unless their eyes are closed, which causes them to speak softly. In midafternoon light, people speak normally, their voices originating from inside their throats. As the light fades into evening, the human voice fades with it. Alcohol, I've noticed, can keep a voice bright and strong as the light disappears. In evening darkness, as the eyes become accustomed to moonlight or artificial incandescence, the voice grows quieter, steadier, more intimate; in total darkness, in complete black, the voice is often just a whisper.
Try it. Close your eyes and speak:
A loud voice in the dark is as unnatural as a scream.
When Angela called and said my name, her voice was barely a voice at all, but it contained everything-confusion, panic, fear. Inside it was everything I needed to hear.
* * *
Weeks before, a couple of months before, I'm still not clear on what day this was, obviously, but at some uncertain point in time, there was a soft, uncertain knock. It was early evening, dinnertime for most people, morning for me. I looked through the peephole and saw a blurred, convex image of a pretty young woman holding a bright orange casserole dish, her hands inside two floral pot holders. I had the idea that she was on some sort of evangelical mission, so when I opened the door, I gave her my iciest smile.
I expected a reaction. I expected, at least, a look of mild apprehension.
But she just stood there, paralyzed.
The light in the hallway was blue fluorescent, a grim, impoverished glow containing only the cold end of the spectrum, and far too bright for these pale irises. I squinted automatically, raising a hand to my forehead, and waited impatiently for her to say something.
A black girl in her late twenties, relatively tall, with long straightened hair colored an unnatural reddish blond, she wore jeans, a Guns N' Roses T-shirt. Her feet were bare, her toenails painted a glittery green metallic. Oddly, her eyes were cobalt, azure, robin's egg-a shade of blue I didn't know human eyes came in.
A good five seconds passed.
"I'm so sorry," she said finally. And something peculiar was developing in those eyes, too, something I didn't expect. "I didn't mean ..."
My own eyes, I should mention, are the color of Caucasian infant flesh. My skin is marble-veined, ivory, translucent. My hair is snowy white, aluminum, a shock of fiber optics. I am white, white, all white, even my eyelashes are white, and what isn't white is stark pink. I am, if you haven't guessed already, an albino. "It's all right," I said. "I know you didn't mean anything." I had to clear my throat because I hadn't spoken to anyone in days. "It surprises people sometimes, that's all." I forced what I hoped was a warmer smile onto my lips. "My appearance."
There was something else about this woman, something genuinely ... not contrite, exactly, or even apologetic-her expression had gone from stunned to understanding almost instantly, like water pouring into a glass-kind, I guess is the word.
"I'm Angela?" she said as if it were a question. "I just moved in down the hall?"
A scent of spices rose from the casserole dish, something mouthwatering I didn't recognize.
Covertly I inhaled, straining to identify it.
"I heard you," I said. "I mean, yesterday I heard the truck outside." There had been the wheezing of air brakes, a couple of moving men shouting to one another in the stairwell.
"I hope the noise didn't bother you."
I shrugged. "I sleep during the day."
"Me, too!" she exclaimed. "I sleep during the day, too!" It was as though we had something so incredibly uncommon in common, as though we were the only two human beings in West Hollywood who stay awake all night. Then her face filled with realization, with that look of kindness again. "I'm really sorry." Her voice was slightly raspy, permanently damaged. As if a low volume now would prevent her from disturbing me then, she let it drop to just above a whisper. "Did I wake you?"
I suddenly became aware of my frayed bathrobe, the chalky skin beneath it. I pulled it closer across my chest, tightening the belt. "It doesn't matter. I'm not going anywhere." I wasn't adequately medicated at the moment, having just gotten out of bed, and was becoming more and more self-conscious, wary of a strange emotion I hadn't experienced in a long time.
She inched forward, those intense blue eyes growing wider, and somehow bluer. "I always think it's nice, you know, when I move somewhere new, to make something special for my neighbors, especially my next-door neighbor." She laughed, maybe a little too cheerfully. "You know what I mean? It's sort of like an apology in advance. But maybe, maybe I already owe you one for the noise. Anyway," she added, "I made lamb stew. If you're -"
I didn't bother to hide my amazement. "Holy shit."
"- a vegetarian, I can always -"
"No," I said. "No, no."
"Well ..." She held out the casserole, eyebrows lifted. "I hope you like it."
I took the bright dish and floral mitts into my hands, an awkward exchange because we had to do it-because we were strangers-without touching.
"My mother used to make lamb stew," I confessed.
There was another lull in the action, as though a piece of dialogue had been cut from the script. We stood there silently, regarding one another, waiting, awkwardly smiling. Finally, I offered her one of those I-have-to-go-now head jerks, as if something desperately important awaited me inside my apartment.
"Um ..." She bit her lip. "Aren't you going to tell me your name?"
Now it was my turn to hesitate.
This is always embarrassing, but around the time I was born, my father worked on various films as a kind of associate producer, procuring actors, securing locations, setting up meetings. It was, it continues to be, his greatest talent. In the movie Barbarella, on which he worked for Dino De Laurentiis in this capacity, there is an absurd character with white hair and white-feathered wings whose name is Pygar the Angel. And my parents, under the psychedelic influence of the era, so the story goes, named me after him.
I should be thankful; I could be named Pygar.
I had to force myself to tell her, but when I did, her whole body seemed to brighten. "What are the chances?" she asked.
"The chances of what?"
"I'm Angela, and you're Angel."
I hadn't noticed the similarity at all, to tell the truth. Besides, I imagined the chances were relatively high-they're just names.
But it didn't matter anymore, because at that moment, the woman who had told me her name was Angela turned around and vanished into her own apartment, her swiftly closing door forcing an artificial breeze down the corridor.
* * *
Back in my living room, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's great noir science fiction thriller, played on my large-screen TV. In those days, I just let the disk rotate endlessly in the DVD player, the volume set to inaudible, as a kind of low-level light source and most of the time the only well of illumination in my whole apartment. I didn't need to hear it because I had memorized all the scenes anyway. The one that was on at the moment was from early in the movie, where Tyrell, the scientist who created the replicants, clasps his hands behind his back and says, "Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto."
"More human than human," I murmured in unison.
In case you don't know, it's a movie about a bunch of renegade androids, or replicants, who are searching for their creator. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, the police detective whose job is to hunt the replicants down and kill them. Mostly, I liked the way the film looked, the futuristic brights and shadows, the glossy blacks and vivid neons.
Right now, I stepped into my minuscule kitchen and pushed the array of psychiatric medication bottles out of the way-the Valium, Librium, and Centrax, the Ativan and Xanax, the Inderol, Prolixin, and Navane, the Adapin, Vivactil, and Ludiomil, as well as the Ambien and Restoril-all the drugs I had been prescribed for anxiety, depression, and social phobia, as well as the other meds designed to counteract the side effects of the first set. Standing a little higher than the rest of the bottles was the container of the drug I simply called Reality. This was the maintenance drug, the one that never seemed to have an effect, except to make my mouth dry and my imagination disappear.
I set the casserole on the counter and removed the lid with one of Angela's flowery pot holders, inhaling the scents of rosemary, sage, and pepper. I noticed the chunks of brown, flaky meat in there, the white potatoes, and orange carrots. There were bright green peas, too, which meant she had probably cooked them separately and placed them in at the last minute, since otherwise they would have gone mushy and gray. I closed my eyes and lived an entire lifetime inside that aroma, and when I took the first bite straight out of the dish, standing there on the cool kitchen tiles, I imagined my vibrantly blue-eyed, glittery-green-toed neighbor driving over to the Vons market on Sunset to buy these ingredients-rosemary, thyme, pepper, carrots, peas, potatoes, lamb. I pictured her gorgeous face in the severe commercial lighting, illuminated like a portrait of a medieval saint, and wondered achingly when I would see her again.
Excerpted from Los Angeles by Peter Moore Smith Copyright © 2005 by Peter Moore Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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