She hadn’t heard it, and when the reporter relayed the remark, she laughed out loud, her tiny frame feeling magnified and bloated in righteousness. From the corner of her eye she had seen a horrified Max Klein, wilting at the thought of the unlikely combination of confrontation and conflict. She could see him gathering his thoughts, trying to compose an appeasing retort that would serve to diffuse the bishop’s ire and keep his boss’s honor intact. But as Max had tried to fumble his way through a stuttering introduction clearly meant to give his brain time to organize, Sarah literally stepped in front of him, and said to the reporter, “To the bishop, I say this: Why attack me so violently? Actors should never be hard on one another.” She threw her head back and laughed, her red hair tickling her back.

Even the reporter had smiled a little. He asked if he could use the quote, looking to Max for some kind of permission, the way men always do when a woman is in the presence of another man.

“Of course you may,” she said, still laughing. “And since when does a reporter ask?”

Her response had run the next morning. Max was mortified. He thought that maybe he should go to the Southern Theater to make peace with the producer, to diffuse any potential situation. Sarah told Max that he should relax. She laughed when he talked about not being able to afford a box office loss. “Now it is like a sporting match,” she said to him. “People will buy a ticket just to see who takes the next blow. You watch, the house will be full. That is America.” Then she told him to sit down next to her, patting the couch twice, as if calling a dog. She had spilled a little vial of cocaine on the glass tabletop and said they should enjoy this city as long as they are here. That was back in the days when Max had as much trouble resisting the spell of the drugs as she did. “One promise,” he had said, tilting his head up with closed eyes, letting the drug fall into his head. “Please give an opening statement tonight to reaffirm that you are not at battle with Chicago nor its religious community.” She smiled and nodded, then took her own hit.

That night, in front of the hand-painted curtain of the Venice canal, Sarah had stood at the edge of the Southern Theater’s proscenium, looking up into the glowing lights that walled off the concentric arches, each seat fully filled from the orchestra to the balcony. Set alone in the footlights. She looked once stage left to see the silver silhouette of Max’s tentative but encouraging nod. She cleared her throat. From her tiny body a voice pure yet forceful filled the hall, almost as though it were its own being. “First off,” she said, “I thank all of you for being here tonight. Chicago is certainly the pulse of America.” The audience had roared, clapping and hollering despite the scenic erudition of gowns and black ties now immediately reduced to adulating fans. Her presence was that brilliant. Then she looked back to Max once more and shrugged her shoulders, cocking her head with a whimsical smile that precluded an apology. “As far as the bishop,” she began. There was already an undercurrent of laughter when she pulled a bank draft from the cleavage in her dress and bent over the edge of the stage to hand it to an elderly man with a neatly trimmed mustache. “I trust that you will give this to his Excellency and deliver this message for me,” she began. “When I bring an attraction to a town,” she stated, “I am accustomed to spending five hundred dollars on advertising.” Then she opened her arms to acknowledge the full house. “Since your Excellency has so gratefully done half the advertising for me, I herewith enclose a two-hundred-fifty-dollar rebate for your parish.” The audience had erupted into a tremendous cheer while the drop curtain rose, revealing the paint and nail streets of Paris from which Marguerite Gautier would soon appear.

But aging has a way of sucking the venom out of the fight. And you find yourself starting to slink away, not out of cowardice or onset reticence, but more from the realization of the power of the situation. And the words and vitriol carry every ounce of spite intended, and it is you who is targeted. They are not aimed for play. They are aimed for hurt. So you mostly walk away, trying to assign some meaning to the action, without taking it personally. Sometimes it makes you want to give up.

From the end of the pier, the ocean looked black, strengthening the power of the waves. These were the times when a strong hit of opium was the best solution. A moment when your head can be drained of pressures and filled with glorious truths. It held the power to whittle away the harshness of catechisms, and unblock fear at its worst moments—almost as good as being on the stage. Max worried about her abusing the drug. On occasion, he delicately brought it up in the same way that one brings up alcohol with a drunk, carefully timing it between the sober and the craving. She usually ended up angry with him, reminding him of how much he used to use, and then disappearing behind a bathroom stall where she could smoke without hassle and forget Max’s judgment. But following the last lecture in Santa Fe, she had promised him that she wouldn’t bring any opium in her trunk to Los Angeles. Poor Max didn’t know that she had only put it in his. What a mistake that was. Three days hadn’t seemed such a long way away. And she never could have anticipated knowing the intense rage that would bind to weigh upon her soul.

In the lobby of the King George, the concierge greeted her with a polite fawning. His face showed some concern, as he had been on the blunt end of her waving hand when she had stormed out of the lobby. She smiled politely and nodded her head. The room seemed to stretch infinitely upward, with the hand-painted molding almost lost behind the twinkling glare thrown by the chandelier’s constellation. The furniture was stunning; these were not a set designer’s charade. The striking yellow and red velvets could only be the result of Italian craftsmanship. And seated on a love seat, plush and red with a high back and a gently carved mahogany border at the top, an old man was by himself, his gray nest hair sticking out in several directions. He leaned forward the way many lonely men do, staring out the door behind full black glasses, whittling his right index finger against his left. A strange molested smile hung on his face. She wondered if he was missing a cane.

“Did Madame enjoy her walk?” the concierge asked.

She immediately knew that he had read the article. She could see the collusion in his hard stare and nervous shoulders.

“Is there anything I can do to help make your stay more pleasant?”

She sensed that he was ushering her. On orders to keep her occupied, anything to prevent her from knowing the truth of the situation. And the thought of being in the epicenter of the secret started to infuriate her again. Where the concentric circle of deceit spun out from around her. Everybody she had met since arriving in California had figured her to be too stupid or unaware to know what was going on. A world of nameless gawkers who felt themselves privy to her darkest moment.

She looked the concierge in the eye. Her expression stern and metered, swallowing one last breath as she prepared to expose the whole conspiracy. “Yes, you can help me,” she spoke in a controlled fury. “You can clear that shit of a newspaper from my room, and from the rest of the hotel, for that matter.”

She smiled at the stranger in the dark glasses, then turned and walked toward the bar. Shoulders squared and proud. In full view of the other Sarah.

Purposefully not turning around to see the mask undone.

VINCE BAKER HAD BEEN GIVEN the assignment three days ago. His sonabitch editor at the city desk, Graham Scott, had told him that he had better talk to Bishop Conaty as soon as possible. They had a story to break. He was holding two page-one columns, and another half page for the jump. The rival Los Angeles Examiner had sucker punched them last year on the Vienna Buffet scandal, running a front-page story declaring the lack of morality of the Herald staff. The piece had placed Herald reporters at the Vienna Buffet, a restaurant of doubtful reputation, hunkered down in the underground passage with a bevy of questionable women, some of whom were called actresses, and some the Examiner kindly referred to as “abandoned.” There were tales of booze, the drinks flowing at a modest twenty-five cents a shot, and then moved on to Mumm’s Extra Dry at a hefty three dollars per pint, all billed to the Herald tab in the name of journalism, resulting in charges being filed by the police commissioner for selling illegal liquor. Stories flowed throughout the city newsrooms of broads on laps and under tables. And the Herald just couldn’t get it straightened out. F. T. Seabright, one of their longstanding reporters who had been present at the Vienna Buffet, only dug the hole deeper when he tried to explain that Scott had sent him and another reporter down for an undercover investigative piece on the proffering of illegal booze. But his unnecessary details about the length and feel of the girls’ thighs threw his credibility into doubt. The Examiner was really sticking it to their rival now, recently drawing the religious and community leaders into the drama, as was that reactionary Harrison Gray Otis of the Times. The Herald was taking it from all sides. Threats of boycotts. Letters to the editor. A cry for penance. So when this loudmouth bishop and his cohorts started making noise about the indecency of Sarah Bernhardt and their intended boycott, Graham Scott saw it as a chance to make a righteous gesture to the community at large, but more importantly to finally shut up the bullshit Examiner editorial staff. So he sent his best man. Someone who could make the

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