Brimstone Kiss (Delilah Street #2)

Chapter 9

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The next morning, I again scoured the daily paper. I couldn't believe the violent showdown at Cesar Cicereau's Starlight Lodge a few days ago was still off the local media radar. Could he really keep the press in the dark about his secret mountain killing ground? What an ugly amount of power.

While skimming the Las Vegas online Review-Journal, I was astounded to spot an item about Caressa Teagarden, "one of the last living legends of the early film era." Seems she'd recently relocated to the Las Vegas Sunset City retirement community

I'd been assigned to interview her at Wichita 's Sunset City franchise just before I left the Kansas TV station a couple months ago. Unlike senior citizens who had flocked to Sun City retirement communities until death did them part since the 1950s, senior citizens in today's Sunset Cities seemed to live on forever. Rumor had it that the North Koreans, through various experiments, had invented a method of replacing death with a "twilight awake" state. A thing like that would rake in billions. Think Donald Trump paying to be preserved in amber, comb-over and all. Forever.

I'd never met Miss Teagarden. My assignment editor said she'd "pulled the plug" on her Sunset City contract. "Died," in a way: let herself fade out of physical and even virtual existence.

Not true, apparently. I didn't fret about the cancellation at the time-I'd had bigger issues to deal with, like the sabotage of my entire career-but lies always made me want to find out what was true.

And now, Caressa Teagarden had popped up here. It was almost as if she'd followed me. Why?

I decided she was worth looking up. She'd been a big star in the Silver Screen days and might have known some of the CinSims I'd met here in Vegas. The local reporter gave me Miss Teagarden's number-professional courtesy-and we made an instant date.

After a short drive into the desert, Dolly and I entered an artificially maintained setting out of a movie company back lot of specialty sets. We navigated the winding, tree-shaded lanes that surrounded the picture-book community's large artificial lake and finally found a sprawling, shingle-sided cottage that read "Teagarden" on the gate.

When I knocked (no doorbell) on the arched front door, the sight of the bent, wrinkled, old lady who answered almost physically knocked me over. Most people vain enough to extend their life spans by hook or crook or scientific experimentation had major plastic surgery before signing up for semi-immortality.

Caressa Teagarden was what she would have been before the Millennium Revelation at her age: a crone-a papery, somehow radiant dandelion fluff of a crone. She even used a cane, a sight seldom seen these days when everyone was forever young.

"Come in, young lady. I have tea and scones for you. Scones with currants. Not raisins! The only way to make them."

I tiptoed inside like an elephant in a Venetian glass shop.

The place was a gingerbread dollhouse, even more so than the Enchanted Cottage. Doilies were everywhere and furniture with carved curved legs broadcast the scent of lemon oil. My bottomless homesickness was sinking into the atmosphere like tired feet into a down pillow, a lavender-scented down pillow.

"Sit down, dear. You came to interview me for your…blog? What an ugly, modern term. I like to remember the old days, but I hope your questions aren't too prying."

"Prying? Ah. No." Star power had me by my Dorothy Gale heart. There is no place like home. Too bad I'd never had one.

My guilt at "interviewing" her for a fictional blog faded. Like many oldsters, she craved talk.

"Have a scone." She leaned close and confidentially. "It's the currants that make the scones. Very potent berries, you know. Sip your tea, dear. I've made a rather thorough study of tea over the… years. It's in my name, you see. Of course that's a screen name."

"Teagarden, you mean?"

"Yes, and not my first. My twin sister and I were a child act in vaudeville, Lilah and Lili Lockheart, only our real last name was Zellinsky. I went west and became a star."

"And Lili?"

"She stayed back East and we lost touch. They wanted me to play the Good Witch Glinda. In Oz. I declined, and it went to that vibrato-voiced ditz-oh, did I almost say bitch?-Billie Burke."

"Do you know why I consented to this interview?" Caressa/Lilah asked, abruptly fast-forwarding from the past to here and now, as the old will sometimes. "I need to get something on record."

About her career? Or… I thought madly back, trying to recall any indiscretions, any dead hunky actor I should be asking about.

"Not that, dear girl!"

Could the old lady read my mind?

"This generation is so enamored of digging up dirt. It's my history I wish to have recorded. My family history. That's more important than anything I've ever done on the screen or off it in some overdone satin boudoir. Decor was so over-the-top in the thirties."

Family history. Maybe it was the old-fashioned ambiance, but the phrase almost made me choke up. My only family history had vaporized back in Kansas at Smokerise Farm when Achilles had died.

"Pull yourself together and listen, Miss Street." Miss Teagarden's cane pounded the wooden floor, jolting me out of contemplating my still-fresh loss.

"I am the last of my family line. Oh, there are surviving cousins-first, second, third unto the loony power-but I am the last surviving descendant of Jean-Christophe l'Argent."

Wow.

Who the hell was Jean-Christophe l'Argent? And was he any relation to Christophe at the Inferno? She answered before I could ask.

"He was a famed French artisan who carved many of the most artistic gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The decorative gargoyles acted as necessary waterspouts but they were also thought to guard against evil spirits and monsters. Most people forget, though, that a great monster begat the gargoyles."

"A monster?"

"The fire-breathing, water-spouting, shipwrecking, human-eating dragon called La Gargouille, who purportedly lived in a cave near the river Seine in the sixth century. To placate this monster, murderers and maidens were annually tossed into the Seine. The gargoyles on Notre Dame and other medieval cathedrals were made to guard against the monster, Miss Street, and also to commemorate the dragon's dread reign."

I shivered to hear the tale of the devouring dragon and its victims and thought about rock star Cocaine's nightly entrance on a dragon's head. What evil forces could that stage effect represent?

Caressa saw her tale's effect on me. "My ancestor's work was more than what it seemed, just as you are."

"I don't know what I am. I'm an orphan."

"Ah. Give me your cup. I can read tea leaves." She snatched my empty cup. "Ah. I thought so. You have a split soul, as I do. You are surrounded by split souls, dear girl. That is your gift and your curse."

I'd recently discovered an unknown double. Of course my soul might be split. Now I had a curse?

"You're giving me chills."

"Tut. I'm just an old lady and I'm not really here, am I? I'm just a shadow of myself."

That shadow and split soul stuff spooked me, so did the names Lilah and Lili and the lost twin left behind. Sometimes I did feel I was chasing a shadow in hunting Lilith and that I'd never find a piece of family.

Caressa's knobby arthritic fingers crunched down on mine until I winced. "Self-pity is a servant who will bite you in two. This hand you feel has been wracked with constant pain for forty years."

It was crushing mine. I nodded, the tears in my eyes now from pain, not pity for myself or anyone else.

"I'll find you a book on my ancestor." She rose and tottered toward some bookshelves. Her cane prodded a low footstool into place in front of them.

"Please, let me-"

"I let you and I let you and I never do for myself again."

She swiped at me with the cane like an arthritic old cat showing its claws. I backed off, but stood guard behind her frail form as she climbed up and leaned left, then right, searching for just the right crumbling spine (not her own).

"Here. See for yourself. Jean-Christophe l'Argent, master gargoyle carver, a Frenchman famed for his work on churches."

I turned the brittle pages. The illustrations were engraved drawings, not photographs. I glimpsed twisted gargoyle faces turned to stone as if frozen in some instant of eternal judgment.

"My ancestor had other work, my dear," she said cryptically, "as do you and I."

"I don't understand."

"Perhaps you will." Her eyelids lowered. They were as wrinkled as a silk broomstick skirt.

Broomstick. Was she a real witch, unlike Glinda?

We sat again and she pressed the book into my fingers. I must take it, she insisted. I protested. It was her family history, not mine. She wouldn't let me leave without it. After all, I had followed her all this way to have an interview. Yes, she remembered that we were to do it before, but she'd had a sudden…displacement. Such a fuss. I was here now too, and we'd had time for a good talk. She moved between Sunset Cities, you see. An easy way to travel without leaving home.

Often her focus and voice faded as she recounted scenes from her fabulous film life. "Oh, William Powell! Yes. Born to play Nick Charles. Such a pity that the love of his life, Jean Harlow, died so young and tragically. Also a pity I can't leave Sunset City to visit him."

Her pale, watery eyes fixed on mine. I had a sense of time as precious, like a Faberg�� egg. Circular in a way. Intricate and bejeweled. More than what it seemed, this humble bird shell. Rare large ostrich and emu shells from faraway lands. Pale robin's egg blue of ordinary nature. I had a sense of this time, with her, as fragile. She could be my grandmother…my great-great-great grandmother. My adopted grandmother.

Suddenly an object appeared between us, in her knobby fingers. It was not a scone.

The ring was almost black with age. Coiled with overdone scrollwork. Cheap. Pot metal. Old impure silver at best.

"You have listened to my life. This is in thanks. No, take it. My swollen knuckles are not for rings anymore. Besides, it's worthless, as you suspect."

Her smile was crooked, like her spine, but still a thing of steel. "You are too honorable to take anything of real value from a strange old woman." Irony curled around her words like wrought iron. "This is in thanks for recording my l'Argent family history."

The ring was too big for my finger, and gaudy, and it would probably turn my skin green. I felt proud to accept it.

Home at the Enchanted Cottage that night, I put the ring next to the vase holding Achilles' ashes on the mantel. My Lhasa apso had still been with me when I'd first been assigned to interview Caressa/Lilah.

Odd that she'd preceded me to Las Vegas. I wondered why she was so vague about her twin as I headed up the stairs to bed.

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