On what was to be the last evening of her life, Jane Whittle left the studio at 7:13 p.m. Traffic was slow going over the hill, and she briefly entertained her daily fantasy of working on a show that taped on location north of L.A., as more and more of them seemed to do. But her specialty had become extraterrestrials, and somehow alien life forms always headed straight for West Hollywood. She snaked along the Ventura Freeway past Coldwater Canyon, edging her Prius into the right-hand lane just after Sepulveda.
Jane was, in fact, content. Work was steady; she had a reputation for being one of the most creative makeup artists in L.A. Earthquakes and fires she could do without, but she reveled in the thought that this was March and her car windows were closed due to smog, not temperature. This time of year in London–she shivered remembering the looming gray skies, the dampness that penetrated your bones. Here, she had gardenias blooming in her backyard.
She made the turnoff onto 405 North, following it briefly to Sherman Way. She smiled as she turned onto a side street, then off into the parking lot of La Tureen, her favorite spot for gourmet takeout. Outrageously pricey, yes, but the soups and homemade specialties were to die for. She was a firm believer in treating herself, especially after a hard day’s work.
As she locked the car, she heard her name.
“Why–Jane. It is Jane, isn’t it?”
She looked up to see an old acquaintance just exiting La Tureen, carrying two green and white shopping bags laden with gourmet food.
“By the saints,” Jane said, squinting to make certain she wasn’t imagining things. “What a coincidence to run into you today.”
“Yes, I spent the whold day on the lot discussing Tristan and Isolde. Everyone read in today’s trades about the re-release. It was all they could talk about,” she chuckled. “That film made most of them decide to go into the business, to hear them talk. Oh-sorry. Here I am, running on, and you with food getting cold.”
“No, no,” said her companion. “I’m in no rush the foie gras here’s magnifique, so I try to pick some up when I can. And when I do–” the bags were lifted, their weight tested, “I’m afraid I go overboard. Dinner for twelve, and it’s just me.”
“Can’t blame you,” agreed Jane. “It’s delightful. No one uses saffron in quite the same way.” She was feeling heady at being recognized after all this time.
“It would make me feel less foolish if I could persuade you to share the bounty with me.”
Jane felt herself blush, actually blush, with pleasure. Certainly, she felt comfortable working with different types of people, but this was a real overture of friendship, giving her the feeling she was above-the-line, inside the loop.
“Is there something else I can pick up while we’re here?” she asked.
“I think I’ve emptied their larder already. Do you know of somewhere nearby we could spread out?”
“Why, my place, of course,” said Jane, trying to remember if she’d put away the snack tray after last night’s television viewing. “It’s a couple of blocks away.”
“If it’s really no trouble. I’d hate to put you out.”
“None a-tall! Really.”
“Shall I hop in with you? I’m sure they won’t mind if I leave the car here for an hour.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Jane was relieved to find she had indeed straightened up before leaving at dawn. The small house was polished and shiny. She hummed through the kitchen, bringing a lavendar vase of yellow Devon roses into the small dining room for a centerpiece.
The piquant aromas of basil and ginger emerged as the strong winners as containers were opened.
“Start with the soup, shall we?” asked Jane, folding navy cloth napkins under the heavy silver. “I’ll give us appetizer plates for the brioche.”
“You’re the boss. I was planning paper plates.”
“And for the wine?” Jane asked. “I do have a nice Bordeaux.”
“All this talk of Tristan has opened a floodgate of memories for me–as I’m sure it has for you.” Jane smiled to herself. “Do you hear anything of Lily–Anastasia Day? I keep meaning to write, but I’d hate to bother her.” She brought in the wine and sat down, indicating her gues should do the same. Even as she said it, Jane knew the truth was that she was terrified to risk discovering that Anastasia had forgotten her. That would break her heart. She’d rather protect her memories and not know.
“I’m afraid I haven’t heard anything–at least, not recently. But how about you? Here’s the question you undoubtedly get all the time: are the inhabitants of that Wild West ghost town actually dead, hermaphrodites, or aliens?” her guest asked of Jane’s current series.
Jane chuckled. “All I know for sure is they’re on HBO.” Her companion was polite enough to feign interest in the anecdotes that came with the show’s strange assignments for the cast’s makeup. But as Jane described the makeup department, of which she was head, she realized in a flash of revelation that her assistants were incompetent. And she needed to order some new forehead moldings, but the producer had prohibited it. That got her goat. Did he want the inhabitants of Ghosttown to looke like dime-store trick-or-treaters, or the proud race they were? The thought made her head throb.
“Forgive me,” she said with a short laugh. “None of this is your problem. The brioche is thrilling. There must be fennel in the sausage, don’t you think?”
A wave of heat pulsed through Jane’s body, flushing her face and arms. Oh, dear, she thought. Take a sip of wine Sit and breathe…
But as the hot flashes intensified, the room began to tilt. Candles flickered wildly and went out. Darkness shrouded her. What on earth?
Jane stood, knocking her chair over behind her. She tried to lurch away, but the room was tilting and she felt vomit rising in her throat. Was it an earthquake? No–it was a thing, a presence. She knew because when it grabbed her, it had a sour, evil breath…and it had hands. Hands that held thick silver steel blades.
Jane couldn’t move. It was as if she’d turned to stone. But her flesh was still soft; she could tell because it tore so easily as the monster before her drove the daggers into her abdomen. With each thrust, a blade of pain coursed the length of her body.
“No!” she shrieked. “No, no, no!”
Her last thought was, I don’t want to die like this.
And then she was dead.
Sharon Linnéa is a biographer and novelist who also writes thrillers and mysteries. She lives outside New York City with her family. Visit her at http://SharonLinnea.com