Savage Garden: A Novelby Denise Hamilton
A new play by a rising Mexican playwright is premiering, and Eve and her lover, Silvio Aguilar, are there -- the writer is Silvio's friend from their barrio days. When the lead actress is a no-show, Eve quickly uncovers that Silvio has complicated past ties to the missing diva. But there is no time for hurt, betrayal, or suspicion -- not when there are signs of a struggle at the actress's bungalow. To make matters worse, an eager young reporter, whom Eve is mentoring, keeps insinuating herself into the case at every turn, crossing ethical lines that could bring Eve down with her. . . or get them both killed.
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All day the sun had baked the concrete, sending waves of heat shimmering skyward. Now a breeze blew through the canyons of downtown and people crept from buildings and sniffed the air like desert animals at the approach of night.
Perched at the edge of a fountain outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I felt my mood lift along with the crowd's. It was opening night at the city's premier theater, and soon we'd file inside and leave the pavilion empty, save for the saxophonist nestling his instrument in its blue velvet case, the bums sifting the trash for crusts of panini, and the cashier savoring a cigarette before closing up for the night.
I sipped my Pinot Blanc and watched the cafe grill send up wisps of woodsy smoke. It felt delicious to be anonymous and alone, the crowd swirling around me in a way that suggested New York or Budapest or Paris. This was as good as L.A. street life got, even though it wasn't a street at all, but a concrete slab ringed by theaters and concert halls.
My city had been wrenched from the desert, willed into being by brute force and circus barkers who sold people on a mass hallucination that became a reality. And for generations, the loudest of those barkers had been my newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, and its onetime owners the Chandler family. Their name graced this square, with its reflecting pools and shimmering fountains. It was sheer hubris to send water cascading skyward in the heat of an L.A. summer, but then, water had been the original currency of this land. Without it, the city would sink back to chaparral and sagging clapboard, a provincial outpost doomed to fitful dreams.
Then a man was walkingtoward me. He wore a guayabera, the accordion-pleated shirt of Mexico. His black wavy hair cascaded over his collar. As always when I saw him from afar, before recognition hit, a wave of impersonal pleasure passed through me at his beauty. Then the pleasure grew personal as I realized it was Silvio Aguilar, the man who occupied an increasingly large part of my heart.
We had met the previous year when I profiled the music promotion business that his family had built from a swap meet stand into a multimillion-dollar empire. The attraction had been instantaneous and mutual, but Silvio was grieving the death of his brother and I wasn't supposed to date sources so we tried to control ourselves, which only made things more explosive when we finally did get together.
I loved his complexity, his Old World chivalry, the masterful control with which he ran the family business and the utter abandon I saw in his eyes when he made love to me. Straddling the formal Mexican culture of his parents and the easygoing American ways of his home, Silvio grappled daily with the duality of his existence and wondered where he belonged. Sometimes he turned inward, retreating into pride and moody secrecy, and then I wondered how well I really knew him.
But tonight promised to be perfect. One of Silvio's childhood friends had written Our Lady of the Barrio, the play that would premiere in less than an hour, and we had front-row tickets. It was a triumph the entire city could celebrate, because Alfonso Reventon was a gangbanger who had been saved by the arts, a playwright whose tales of streetwise magical realism brought him growing acclaim and commissions. Our Lady of the Barrio was poised to be a smash hit.
As Silvio drew closer, I saw a harried look on his face. He looked at his watch, frowned, then took my hand and caressed it absently.
"Is something wrong?" I asked. My lover's mind was clearly elsewhere.
"I was just backstage, dropping off flowers for Alfonso. The stage manager says he's hysterical. It's forty-five minutes to curtain on opening night and Catarina hasn't shown up."
"Only the leading lady." A hint of incredulity in his voice.
"She's probably running late. You know those temperamental actresses."
I was determined not to let his words shatter my good mood, the Old World theater aura, the air like crushed velvet against my skin.
Silvio's cell phone rang and he answered sharply. "Yeah?"
On the other end, a man's voice spoke too fast and garbled for me to make out anything. Silvio listened, then said, "Absolutely. You can count on me."
He hung up and scuffed his feet against the concrete, refusing to meet my eye.
"Look, uh, Alfonso says Catarina's not answering her phone. It's a fool's errand, but he's asked me to go by her house. It's only ten minutes away."
My vision of a romantic evening, a shared drink at the fountain, holding hands in the darkened theater, vanished.
I looked at my watch: 7:20. Curtain was at 8:00. There was no way I'd be able to sit still, knowing Silvio was out there, hunting down the star.
"I'm coming," I said.
By the time we wheeled his truck out of the underground lot, seven more minutes had elapsed.
"At this point, it would take a medevac helicopter landing on the roof to get her there on time," I said.
Silvio grunted and kept driving. Tense and focused, he swerved in and out of traffic, his eyes on the road.
"So what's Catarina's story?"
Silvio explained that Catarina Velosi was a fiery Latina. For years she had been Alfonso's muse and his lover. But she was capricious. Unstable. The final straw came when she took off to Berlin midrun with a composer who had scored one of Alfonso's plays. An understudy took over the part and Alfonso had no choice but to get over the actress too. He married, fathered a child, and grew increasingly prominent. His gangbanger past, when it was mentioned at all, lent him a greater nobility for his having escaped it. His plays received critical raves and he won a MacArthur "genius" grant. Eventually the Mark Taper Forum commissioned a play. In Los Angeles, it was theater's holy grail, and Alfonso yearned to be its Latino Lancelot and Arthur combined.
"He wrote Our Lady of the Barrio for her, you know," Silvio said. "Every woman he creates is based on Catarina."
"What a burden."
Silvio shot me an insulted look. "It's an honor," he said. "But the director didn't want to cast her. He had heard the diva stories. So Alfonso got on his knees and begged. Then he had to beg Catarina to audition. She thought it was beneath her." Silvio exhaled through clenched teeth. "Oh, he ought to kill her for this."
The truck shot out over Glendale Boulevard and up around Echo Park Lake. Silvio turned right, making his way along a hillside street above the water.
Catarina Velosi lived in a freshly whitewashed duplex draped with bougainvillea and banana plants and set back from the street by a wooded hillside. We trudged up a short flight of stairs to the entrance. From the house next door came the loud thumping of Spanish rap, the faint smoky scent of something sweet. Pot?
Silvio knocked, then stepped back. He knocked harder, calling her name. He swore in Spanish and yelled something at the rapper's window. A young man with a shaved head and a scraggly goatee stuck his face through the yellow curtain.
"Can you turn that down for a second, I'm trying to reach the lady in there," Silvio said.
The man scowled and withdrew his head. A moment later, the volume was lowered. Silvio knocked again and tapped his foot. He tried the knob. It wouldn't turn.
"Poor Alfonso," he said. "Every critic in town is there tonight."
"How do you know she hasn't turned up by now?"
"He promised he'd call." Silvio tapped the mute cell phone in his pocket.
He stood there, undecided, for a moment. Then he said, "Do me a favor. In my glove compartment, there is a screwdriver. Could you please get it while I check the window?"
Eager to help, I walked down to the truck, somewhat encumbered by my outfit, a scoop-necked 1940s cocktail dress of raw silk that curved nicely around my hips before ending just above the knee. It was a frock made for sipping Cosmopolitans and clapping for encores, not hiking down a stone staircase. The high-heeled black leather pumps didn't help, either.
Inside the truck, the glove compartment held only papers. I looked on the floor and groped under the seats, to no avail. Then I ran up to tell Silvio the bad news. He was standing at the front door, now ajar, and shoving something into his pocket. I heard a faint jingle.
"I thought it was locked."
"I jimmied it."
"That's good, because I couldn't find the screwdriver."
He gave me an odd look. "Well, never mind."
And with that, he stepped into the house. From somewhere inside, we heard a low, guttural growl. Silvio stumbled backward. Something soft brushed against my bare legs. I shrieked. Craning my head, I saw a fluffed orange tail disappear into the shrubbery.
The cat's eerie rrowwwllll reverberated up my spine.
Silvio straightened, pulled a tissue from his pocket, and sneezed several times, his allergies distracting him momentarily from the task at hand. Then he grasped the door with renewed determination.
Inside, the windows were closed and the curtains drawn against the heat. Silvio flipped on the light. When my eyes adjusted, I saw the room was empty. An overhead fan chugged at high volume, its blades whipping the hot, tired air.
From the recesses of the house came faint music, male voices singing plaintively in Spanish, their voices twining in the style of long ago.
"Someone's home," I said.
Silvio ignored me and moved into the living room. Mexican serapes were slung over a leather chair. There was a rattan couch upholstered with toucans and tropical flowers. A low coffee table scattered with Hollywood trade publications. I saw a purse tipped on its side, spilling out coins, a brush, a leather wallet, and a cell phone.
"Catarina?" Silvio called.
I followed him, sniffing the air. The sickly odor of gas from a tidy two-burner stove in the kitchenette mingled with the overflowing contents of an ashtray, each butt kissed by bright red lipstick. Two mugs of half-drunk tea sat on a 1950s chrome table. Above the sink, colorful Fiestaware cups marched along the windowsill. A bleeding Jesus crowned in thorns gazed out from a dispenser of Wash Your Sins Away hand soap. An avocado seed stuck with toothpicks sprouted in a cloudy glass, its vines tumbling to the floor.
"Catarina, are you here?"
The tiny house seemed to absorb and muffle his words. Silvio walked into the hallway, floorboards squeaking under his weight. The singing was louder now, voices naked and anguished. He pushed the bathroom door open and called again, but the only answer was the slow gurgle of a toilet tank. He headed for the bedroom and I followed.
The music seeped out, crooning a silvery ballad. I could make out the lyrics now and they seemed sinister, at odds with the soaring melody and sweet harmony.
Bonita pero fatal Devorando mi corazon."
"Eres una flor carnivora En un jardin salvaje.
Bonita pero fatal Devorando mi corazon."
I went back over the words in English to make sure I had it right:
You are a carnivorous flower In a savage garden.
Beautiful but deadly As you devour my heart.
As the strings died away, I heard a scratchy whir, the pop of a record ending. Then the click of a phonograph arm rising, moving then dropping, the needle nestling back into the vinyl groove in a blur of white noise. The song started up again. It was plaintive and mournful, like the cry of a heron at dusk when the river holds no more fish.
But Silvio wasn't listening. At the bedroom arch, I heard his sudden exhale.
"Maybe you should wait here."
His voice was unsteady. He turned to block the doorway, but I was already looking beyond him.
The bed was empty, its white eyelet sheets pulled back and tousled. A torn screen balanced precariously against the pillow. The sash window above the bed, which looked out onto an alley, gaped open. I craned over Silvio's shoulder.
"Is she there? Let me see. For God's sake, I'm a reporter."
"Catarina?" Silvio said.
Silvio stepped into the room. He walked to the closet and threw it open, pushing aside clothes and meeting only empty space. With a cry of exasperation, he strode to a large hamper and lifted the lid. Nothing. His eyes roved, considering where else a woman might hide.
He brushed past me and soon I heard him outside, calling hoarsely for Catarina.
I walked over to examine the bedsheets. There was no blood. Maybe the screen was old and warped and had fallen in. Maybe it had been torn for years.
My gaze went to the window and I thought I saw a faint smear of red on the sill. I bent closer. It was rusty, already dry and slightly ridged, like a furrow in a field.
Why was this song playing over and over? It was as though someone was trying to tell us something.
"Silvio?" I called, but he didn't answer.
I moved to Catarina's bedside table, filled with framed photos. All held the same pale-skinned woman with long black hair, an oval face, and dark eyes. She had a disquieting way of staring directly into the camera, the force of her will radiating through the photo and into the room. My eyes flittered over more frames. There she was, clad in a negligee and cradling a cocktail in her "Thin Man" phase. Defiant with a group of zoot-suited men, her arms filled with flowers. Dressed in a T-shirt and boxers, her thin, sculpted arms flung around a boyfriend. One of the photos had fallen to the sisal carpet. It lay facedown. I squatted to pick it up, then thought better of disturbing a potential crime scene. Slowly, I stood up.
"Don't touch anything," I called to Silvio. "You already have to explain to the police why your prints are all over the knobs."
I considered Catarina Velosi. A single woman who lived alone. I pictured her putting on her favorite album and twirling around the room in the arms of an imaginary lover. Sliding between those sheets for an afternoon nap before her Taper debut tonight. Then someone raising the window, left unlocked in the heat, slashing the screen and climbing in. Every woman's nightmare. Did he have a gun or a knife? Had he put it to her head? Had a struggle ensued as she tried to fight him off, a struggle in which someone's blood was spilled on the windowsill?
Or had she put on the record for a lover before they headed to bed, then left in such a hurry that she forgot to take it off? What if Catarina Velosi was striding onto the Taper boards to mass applause right now, her biggest concern a case of preshow butterflies? And Alfonso so relieved he'd forgotten to call?
I pictured us two hours from now, gathered backstage. We'd make toasts and drink champagne and Silvio and I would turn this into a funny little anecdote. Remember that night Catarina gave us such a scare...but what if that wasn't it?
There are pivotal moments in everyone's life, when they see the future laid out clear as a seer's vision, and there's both a hallucinatory and a hyper-real quality about it. Can this really be happening? Is it what my gut tells me it is? Should I go on my instinct, even though I'll be roundly embarrassed if I'm wrong?
As you devour my heart, the man crooned.
Slowly, I pulled my cell phone out of my purse.
"There's something that looks like blood on the windowsill," I yelled to Silvio. "I'm calling 911."
"No," he said, his footsteps echoing back into the house. "Wait."
Amazingly for L.A., an operator came on immediately. I took a deep breath.
"I'd like to report a break-in," I said. "A woman is missing. There's a dried substance that looks like blood. Echo Park, above the lake. The address is -- "
"Don't," Silvio said. He ran up, a queer look on his face as he realized I was already talking.
"I'm waiting, miss," the operator said.
"What's the address here?" I asked.
Silvio stared at me for a long moment.
"Eight sixty-two Lakeshore," he finally said.
It was only after I hung up that I considered the apprehension I had seen on Silvio's face.
"Why did you tell me to wait?" I asked.
The corner of Silvio's mouth twitched.
"Because there's got to be some logical explanation," he said. "Catarina's pulled these stunts before. And frankly, I'm worried that bad publicity could kill Alfonso's play."
His answer seemed anything but frank.
"What if Alfonso's not the one getting killed," I said, leading him to the rusty red mark on the sill. "What do you think that is, nail polish?"
He looked at it and repeated that there must be an explanation. I thought he might be trying to convince himself. But then I thought of something else. Again, I heard the jingle in his pocket.
As the sirens drew closer and the singers wound up again with their beautiful and disturbing song, I asked my lover, "You have a key to her apartment, don't you?"
Copyright © 2005 by Denise Hamilton
Meet the Author
Denise Hamilton is a writer-journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times and is the author of five acclaimed Eve Diamond crime novels, Prisoner of Memory, Savage Garden, Last Lullaby, Sugar Skull, and The Jasmine Trade, all of which have been Los Angeles Times bestsellers. She is also the editor of and a contributor to the short story anthology Los Angeles Noir, winner of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Award for Best Mystery of 2007. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young children. Visit her at www.denisehamilton.com.
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In Los Angeles the opening day curtain call is in one hour for the play Our Lady of the Barrio by gangbanger Alfonso Reventon; however the leading lady, explosive actress Catarina Velosi has not shown up at the playhouse. Since Alfonso is a childhood friend, Silvio Aguilar asks his girlfriend Los Angeles Times reporter Eve Diamond to accompany him to Catarina¿s apartment where they find her dead.................. The police wonder if Alfonso who worshipped Catarina and wrote his play for her killed her in a passionate rage or Silvio whose entrance to the crime scene with a perfect witness might have covered up evidence that he was previously there. Eve, accompanied by African-American reporter Felice Morgan, conducts inquiries into those who knew the volatile diva to determine who had the opportunity because several people besides the two prime suspects which include Alfonso¿s wife, the victim¿s drama teacher, and a Hollywood big shot, along with a seemingly cast of thousands had motives.......................... The latest Eve Diamond investigation is refreshed by Felice who brings a youthful (annoying to Eve) vigor to the case even as the veteran reporter wonders if her ¿protégé¿ is a racial quota Blair clone or the real thing; either way she does not want a partner. The who-done-it cleverly makes Eve seems more real than her previous appearances because of her resentment of having a tag-along and how personalized this homicide is with the ties to her boyfriend. Though the racial quota vs. talent issue is never fully explored, fans of Southern California artsy mysteries will agree that Denise Hamilton has scored with this Ace of Diamonds journalistic investigative novel................... Harriet Klausner