shadow hill

I am — in and around the third BLOODANGEL novel, which will have SOUL in the title in some clever and evocative configuration about which, at the time, I am completely clueless — dreaming along two other books (both of which exist in partial first drafts) set in westside LA. It is not the ‘real’ westside, of course, but *my* westside, which means there will be some otherworldly world-building involved and both these books will share that same world. The circles of characters will overlap each other and hang out in some of the same places, share some of the same events. I have no idea why I want to do this, but I’m compelled by it — they will be completely stand-alone novels, they’ll just be happy companions.

My current work-in-progress started out called SHADOW HILL, then spent a bit of time as THE DECADENTS, and now I’m thinking of going back to SHADOW HILL and calling the other novel THE DECADENTS. (The latter novel has a working title of THE GAME OF YOU, which helps me conceptualize the story but is also a blatant rip-off of a really good Gaiman story, so…).

Here’s an excerpt from what is still a rough and early draft of it. I will not set up the scene. I will simply drop you in it, much like tossing my terrier into the pool, because I am like that:

Then they were tucked inside the warm-leather, new-car smell of the midnight-blue Maserati. Cait guided the car through shadowy streets lined with low-roofed storefronts, broken sidewalks and palm trees. They crossed a glittering sweep of Sunset and wound their way into the hills, along roads that seemed to curve back in on themselves until Layla had no idea where they were or even which direction they were headed. The land of rich people, she thought. Their own nation within the nation. Disorienting to everyone else. She lowered the car window and turned her face into the warm air, scents of jasmine and night blooms and car exhaust and something underlying all that, high and sweet, of once-green things slowly rotting

The address turned out to be the fieldstone wall blocking off the end of the street. Layla didn’t see the intercom until Cait had pulled up alongside it and was reaching out to press the buzzer. “One willowy blonde,” she yelled, turning her head to wink at Layla, “one vaguely exotic brunette.”

The wall slid open in the center and they wound along a driveway strung with Japanese lanterns, their light shimmering off the dusty grey-green of eucalyptus. The house was a low-roofed rambling fieldstone-and-glass creation that seemed surprisingly modest, until Layla realized the back extended down into the hillside. Luxury cars littered the motorcourt. A shuttle bus was parked near the entrance. The front door swayed open; Layla glanced at Cait, shrugged, and led the way inside, following the music and laughter through a long hallway. She paused to look down into the atrium below, which had been designed to resemble a Parisian outdoor café, complete with cobblestone ground, wrought-iron lamppost, table and chair, and French art-deco signs on the wall.

Down the hallway, through two sets of doors, and into the party. About two dozen young women and a handful of men ranged through a room designed to resemble some kind of Balinese hut, the dome of ceiling vaulting above them sculpted and painted to look like thatched straw. The furniture was wood and rattan, aspiring toward humility while utterly luxurious. The back-wall view of dark hills and trees, tumbling into the lights of the city beyond, filled the room like a supernatural presence. You weren’t anyone in LA, Layla thought, if you didn’t own one hell of a view.

“Would you like a drink?” a woman asked them. She was middle-aged, dressed in a kimono robe sashed at her waist, and bleary-eyed, as if she’d just been dragged out of bed. “Wine? Beer? Perhaps a cocktail?”

Layla looked at her awkwardly, then shook her head. Drinking anything here seemed unwise. Cait put both hands in the small of her back, stretched, and asked for orange juice. Moments later the woman was back, handing Cait the juice in a cut-crystal glass, and moments later she was back again, offering a platter of chips and salsa. “Homemade,” she said. “Very good.”

When she left, Layla said, “That’s not the guy’s wife or something…?” She knew some women might accept a loose, unconventional marriage in order to hold on to a rock god, but as this woman maneuvered her own thick body among the drifting nubiles, this seemed too —

Cait lifted her eyebrows, surprised by the question. “His assistant.”

“Oh.” She felt stupid. And wondered why she would feel stupid. She’d been an academic in the northeast, for god’s sake, why would she have a frame of reference for stuff like this?

The rock god sat at the end of a couch, amid overstuffed pillows. Leaning forward, elbows on knees, he listened closely to a busty girl with ink-black hair tangling over pale shoulders. “….the best chicken burritos I’ve ever tasted,” she was telling him. “Just the thought of them makes me really homesick. So I went to Mexico, right, and the burritos there? So disappointing. The ones at this fast food place in my hometown are so totally, so very superior. They should open up a place in Mexico. They’d be totally big.”

The rock star smiled. It was a gentle, loving smile, and he seemed to be urging her on with his gaze to share more of her fascinating self. When she started to speak again, though, he lifted a hand. He pointed one long finger at Cait and Layla. “Fresh arrivals.” He spread both hands in the air. “Welcome.” His face was slack, his eyes heavy-lidded. It was the face Layla remembered from covers of vinyl records stacked in her mother’s cabinet, how she would play them on the turntable and dance around the living room. Without turning his head, or taking his eyes off the two women, he stretched a hand behind his right shoulder and a man – Navaid from the club – darted forward and tucked an ember-tipped joint between his fingers. “Tell me this.” He paused dramatically. They waited. “Did you ever see me in concert?”

“Vegas three years ago,” Cait said. “The last show of the reunion tour.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “Those tickets were fucking expensive.” He pressed a palm to his chest, over his heart. “I thank you for your financial sacrifice.” He took a pull on the joint, held the smoke, exhaled thoughtfully, dreamily. He had to be at least sixty-five, Layla calculated. He’d given up on plastic surgery. Skin sagged at jowls and jawline, draped over etchings of cheekbone. His hair was too lush, crazy: a wig. He looked into the drift of smoke as if contemplating the face of God. “That tour almost killed me.”

His gaze switched to Cait. His eyes narrowed a little and the tip of his tongue went to his lower lip. A flickering in his face – cold, lizardlike – and Layla saw him evaluate and dismiss her friend within a half-second: too tall, thin, small-breasted. Cait didn’t notice, or care, her own gaze wandering around the room. The rock god turned to Layla. If Cait didn’t appeal to him physically, then she likely did; it had been like that when they were in college; they represented such completely different types.

“Tell me your name, sweetheart.”

And his voice was so velvety smooth, its tone so rich and warm, that she found herself doing exactly that: “Layla.”

“Layla!” He sat up straighter in the chair. “Like the song!”

“Of course.”

And the rock god started to sing. “Layla…you got me on my knees, Layla…”

It was shocking. It was the same voice from the records, the radio, the videos on MTV when she was growing up through the eighties; the rock god snapped his fingers and moved his head to the beat, his eyes hooding over: he was a skinny old man in ludicrous clothes, but his voice was a thing apart. It anchored this other, absurd reality that had created itself around him. It almost justified it. It went into Layla’s bones and gut and soul and heart. It invoked like a series of spells one memory after another. Dancing contests she and her grade-school friends held in her living room. The living room itself: threadbare Persian rugs on warped hardwood floors soaking up afternoon sun, cats lurking about the antique furniture; and always that smell in the air, some concoction of roses and vanilla and cigarette smoke, and the special furniture oil the maid, when they still had a maid, had been ordered to use; and the art on the walls, steadily disappearing as her mother sold it off piecemeal. She remembered her first boyfriend, serenading her with the same song, badly and off-key and yet charming, softly in her ear beside her locker at school and in the cafeteria and beneath the bleachers and then in his car by the lake, as she fumbled with the windows so she could feel the breeze on her overheated skin, cricket calls rising through the darkly clustered trees. The rock god’s voice swept up these fragments of personal history and moved them through her and beyond, weaving them into something much larger than her unimportant self, something to do with loss and love and endless ache of desire. How things could break, how there was beauty itself in the breaking.

He took another toke and handed off the joint.

She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to thank him somehow. She said instead, “You have an interesting house.”

“I spent years dreaming up this house. All my favorite places in the world are in this house. Now I don’t have to go anywhere.”

“The world comes to you.”

“Yes.” He gave a nod, as if finding this a great insight. “Yes.” He looked at her with something new in his face — it might have been respect – and in that same moment she saw him dismissing her, the possibility of her, just as he’d discarded Cait. “My beauties,” he said. “Enjoy yourselves.”

He shifted to the black-haired girl. She visibly brightened and relaxed, returned to the glow of his attention. She pushed back her shoulders. “Have you ever been to Kentucky Fried Chicken?”

Navaid barked laughter. “You’re sitting next to a fucking legend – a man who’s dined with presidents and royalty, been everywhere, done everything – and everyone – and you’re seriously going to sit there and ask him about fucking fried fucking chicken?”

The girl flapped her hand. Looked indignant. “You think I’m gonna be impressed because he has mountains of money?” She addressed the rock god. “Money doesn’t impress me. I don’t care the kind of wealth you have, even if it’s billions.” She smoothed her hair behind her ears, sat up primly, as if her mother had reminded her about her posture. “I just like you for who you are, you know?”

“And I like you for who you are. Very much.”

“I’m having a wonderful time just sitting here and talking to you. You know?”

“I do.”

Cait tugged Layla to the other side of the room, They cracked up, leaning in to each other until their foreheads touched. “Jesus,” Cait said, wiping at her eyes. “I can’t believe that just happened. Wait ‘til I tell Greg.”

Navaid appeared behind her, drew her into conversation. Layla sat on a sofa, thinking she would want to leave soon. The woman in the kimono robe – the assistant – set the chips and salsa on the burlwood coffee table. The girls to Layla’s right offered her a framed platinum record turned up like a plate. On it were generous rocks of cocaine, and chalky traces where lines had just been. “Chop some up if you want,” one girl said.

“No thanks.”

“Cool,” said the girl’s friend. “More for us.”

She placed a green Ecstasy pill beside the coke and used the bottom of her glass to crush it to powder. She went at the coke with her credit card, smacking the surface like a chef chopping shallots, then drew aside lines that incorporated the white and the green. “I want to use a hundred for this,” she giggled to her friend. “You’ve got one, right?”

Her friend zipped open her python clutch and fished out the bill. “You’re such a pretentious coke whore.”

There was something about the act of snorting coke that struck Layla as intimate bordering on obscene. Layla glanced at Cait and Navaid. Navaid was staring at the third girl on the end of the couch. He was sniggering. Layla saw the girl, a redhead in a skimpy halter bobbing her head to the music. One unnaturally rounded breast had slipped free of all restraint. Cait gave Navaid a shove. She snapped, “Be nice.”

This caught the girl’s attention. “What?”

“Your boob is hanging out,” Navaid said.

“What?”

He lifted his voice. “YOUR BOOB IS HANGING OUT.”

The girl tucked her breast inside the top and continued with her head bobbing.

Layla touched the arm of the assistant as she came by with a cheese plate and asked where the restrooms were.

Madison intercepted her in the hallway. A hard, manic note in her voice: “You can tell Tim to fuck off next time you see him. I think I just met someone.”

“That’s good, Madison.”

“It’s fabulous.”

“Enjoy yourself,” Layla said, which seemed as pithy a wisdom as any, and moved on. The bathroom off the hall was occupied. A security guard directed her to another. Layla went down a spiraling set of stairs, turned right at the faux-café and into a lounge with exposed-stone walls and bearskin rugs. Someone was sitting in one of the leather armchairs, in shadow, long legs crossed at the knee.

“Hey,” Layla said, as she slipped past to the bathroom.

The man’s voice floated to her. “Hey yourself.”

When she re-emerged into the lounge, she noticed books filling the built-in shelves of the entire back wall. The rock god was a reader? She could never walk past a collection of books without a sweeping glance; it wasn’t about trying to divine the personality of the collection’s owner, although that was often part of it, so much as that books themselves somehow reassured her. She clicked on a floor lamp. The books were all hardcovers. New and untouched. The titles were from the bestseller lists of the last five years, from serious literature to the pinkest chick lit to Harry Potter to thrillers. All together, they gave no sense of anything other than an interior decorator — or perhaps the assistant upstairs in the bright kimono — ordering boxes of the things as wall decoration. Well, she thought, clicking off the lamp and standing again in near-dark, there were worse things you could put on your wall.

“So you’re one of those,” said the man in the armchair.

She had forgotten he was there.

She turned. His legs extended into an oblong of mellow light – stylish jeans, leather thong sandals – while the rest of him remained in shadow.

“One of what?” Although she thought she knew.

“Someone who checks out the bookcase. Bit of a novelty, in these circles.”

“Books,” Layla said hesitantly, “are kind of my life.”

A rustle of leather as the man leaned forward. Now his hands and wrists came into view, resting lightly on his knees. He wore a thin band on his little finger. Elegant hands, Layla thought, and felt the first twinge of attraction. “You don’t look it,” he said. “I would have drawn an incredibly different conclusion about you.”

“Is that so?”

“Let me guess. You’re one of those hotties likes to claim she was a high school geek?”

“I was a geek. I just never looked it.”

“You could pass for one of the cool kids?”

“Still can,” she said evenly.

He seemed to be enjoying this, talking from his mask of shadow. He showed no inclination of moving into the light, being seen. She didn’t want to see him. She was enjoying this as well.

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