April 11, 2021
Volume 1, Issue 8
July 26th, 2003
Allen peered out through the window of his taxi as it traveled along the winding boulevard that curved through the hills of Bel-Air, his eyes scanning the length of the road intently. The luxurious palm fronds and carefully manicured hedges that dotted the residential landscape obscured his view of the surrounding villas, forming an impenetrable wall of foliage that seemed to blur together as he passed by. Some of the more stately homes in the area were nestled even deeper within the neighboring groves, leaving only an occasional nondescript metal gate as proof of their existence. Despite these obstructions, however, he continued his vigil, certain that he would soon catch a glimpse of what he had been waiting for since he first landed in Los Angeles the evening prior.
After a few uneventful minutes, he felt the vehicle pull out of cruising speed to take a turn around a particularly dense copse of trees. The driver, who up to this point had maintained a quiet attitude of professional disinterest, now leaned forward slightly and tilted his head, as though anticipating something to appear just around the corner. Allen had learned enough about body language during the course of his career to sense that this probably meant they were fast approaching their intended destination.
Sure enough, a few seconds later, the driver glanced back at him and provided a brief update on their progress.
"Should be just up ahead."
The taxi swiveled deftly in the other direction and proceeded along a byway that branched off at a slight incline, eventually leveling out to a short section of road that was wreathed by a loose confederation of sycamore trees. No sooner had Allen registered this change of scenery than his eyes lighted upon something in the distance, prompting him to shift into the middle seat in order to see through the windshield unhindered. As the vehicle drew closer and the spectacle ahead of him became all the more clear, Allen broke out in a spontaneous grin, secure in the knowledge that his persistence on the lookout was now firmly justified.
A group of several dozen people crowded around the far end of the road, their attention fixated on the estate that lay on the other side of the wrought iron security gate that stood there. Many of the bystanders held cameras at the ready, their blinding flashes going off at intervals as they struggled to get a good view of the property through the gate's ornate bars, and a few others were pacing back and forth with camcorders in hand, scrutinizing the grounds with an almost fanatical intensity. Some of the throng directed their focus to the taxi as it approached, but quickly returned to their earlier rituals once it became apparent that neither Allen nor the driver were of particular interest.
Flanking one side of the entrance was a small security booth, manned by an attendant who seemed to deliberately ignore the horde of paparazzi swarming at his doorstep. Allen had anticipated that the driver would have trouble pulling up to the checkpoint because of the ring of people blocking the way, but they swiftly parted to either side as the vehicle shuttled forward. After the taxi had rolled to a stop, however, they immediately returned to their positions, vying for a piece of the action as best as they could from inside the gate.
As the taxi's passenger-side window rolled down, the attendant stepped forward and leaned over the counter, sizing Allen up briefly before addressing him.
Allen fumbled around in his pockets for a moment and then handed his credentials over to the attendant. Although printed on nothing more than cheap plastic, the words written on the card were as good as gold: PRESS PASS – Allen Frye, Rock-N Beat Magazine.
He failed to suppress a smile as the attendant's eyes darted between him and the press pass – since his idea of business attire had been the olive drab Army-style jacket that he was currently wearing, he didn't exactly look the part of a journalist. It was an artifact of Beat's rise to prominence during the countercultural era that the publication afforded its correspondents such leeway when it came to their wardrobes, among other things. Despite its somewhat freewheeling reputation, however, Beat had still managed to become one of the select few organizations allowed inside the estate to cover the event going on that weekend, which to his way of thinking was a distinction bordering on a minor miracle.
As if to vindicate him further, the attendant held Allen's pass up to the guest list on his clipboard, and despite his eyebrows shooting up even higher than before, he pushed a button on a nearby console to activate the gate and gestured at the taxi to proceed.
The iron lattices slowly swung outward until the opening was just wide enough to permit their vehicle to enter, effectively acting as a barrier against the encroaching mob as they passed over the threshold onto the property. This transit provided a small window of opportunity for one or two people to get through to the other side if they had made a serious attempt, but Allen was heartened to see that his professional peers still had their standards – the crowd contented itself with looking on at the departing taxi with sullen eyes and taking a flurry of photographs as the gate closed in front of them. Even so, he could not help but feel a small measure of schadenfreude as he left the media frenzy behind, proceeding onward as one of the chosen few who could cover this story firsthand.
The taxi pulled away from the security checkpoint, prompting Allen to try and refocus his state of mind. His job for the weekend had now officially begun, and would require him to be at the top of his journalistic game if he wanted to give this occasion the consideration that it deserved.
With that, he steeled himself for his most prestigious assignment yet: the funeral of gentleman's magazine pioneer and renowned adult film director Henry Hart.
"Here's fine," said Allen, signaling to the driver through the rear-view mirror.
The taxi pulled over to the side of the asphalt parkway that cut through the expansive grounds of the Hart estate, leaving faint tire marks on the parched St. Augustine grass. Allen handed the driver a few crumpled bills for his fare and then stepped out of the vehicle, allowing some time for the taxi to turn around and head back towards the gate before resuming his place on the road.
As the sound of the engine faded away into silence, Allen surveyed the area from where he stood, taking in the sight of what he had once, in his younger years, considered hallowed ground. It was hard to believe that this inauspicious yet vast swath of acreage, consisting mainly of plain lawn, served as the epicenter for Henry Hart's adult media empire. When he had first founded his landmark publication, Hartbreakers, in the mid-1950s, Hart had run the entire magazine out of his apartment in downtown St. Louis, with nothing more than a typewriter and a carton of Lucky Strikes to his name. Since then, his operations had moved to California and, as befitting a sophisticated and successful gentleman of leisure, he had constructed an opulent mansion for himself and his ever-changing coterie of female companions here in Bel-Air.
Bringing himself back to the task at hand, Allen set off along the path towards a pronounced rise in the middle of the property – aptly dubbed Hartbreak Hill by the magazine's readership – his enthusiasm building with each step. He had first set eyes upon an issue of Hartbreakers back in junior high, during those awkward years where he and his friends were on the collective cusp of puberty, gathering in a cloister of secrecy in the woods near the schoolyard to browse through its contents. In those days, his perennial daydream had been to visit the mansion and enjoy Hart's fabulous lifestyle to its fullest – rubbing elbows with celebrities over a strong cocktail, his head swimming with cigar smoke and smooth jazz, with a beautiful woman on each arm. Even as an adult, this fantasy retained a potency in which he could not help but occasionally indulge. And now, in just a short while, he would be able to flirt with the possibility of making something resembling that vision into a reality.
As he trudged towards the crest of the hill, Allen considered the extent to which this fresh state of mourning might cast a pall on the normally playful atmosphere of the mansion, which in turn brought to mind how the funeral itself might pan out the following day. The prospects that he imagined briefly filled his heart with trepidation – the thought of seeing his adolescent idol laid out in a casket, with papery geriatric skin blanched powder-white by some overzealous mortician, was distressing to say the least. He briefly wondered if Hart would be buried with his trademark eyepatch – having lost his eye in France during the Second World War – or instead be outfitted with a glass prosthesis for the sake of decorum, but the idea of someone having to insert a foreign object into a dead man's eye socket made his stomach turn.
Desperate for a distraction from this line of thought, he redirected his attention to a peculiarity that he had been mulling over ever since Beat first selected him to cover the funeral. Besides almost single-handedly establishing the gentleman's magazine as an institution in print media, Hart branched out into pornographic film starting in the late 1970s, eventually becoming a prolific director over the course of the next few decades. Allen could vividly recall tuning into the scrambled Hartbreakers Channel on cable TV with his friends, trying to discern lascivious-looking shapes within the oscillating field of static. Even back then, there had been rumors floating around about a lost film that Hart had produced that had never been released, with the only surviving copy kept under lock and key at his mansion.
While these stories varied wildly in terms of credibility – with some even claiming that Hart himself played a starring role in the footage – Allen was convinced that there was a grain of truth hidden somewhere deep within the weeds of this narrative, and that during his time at the mansion that weekend, he could surreptitiously investigate the matter for his own personal edification. Not to mention, if he could find something substantive enough to break the story wide open, he stood a good chance of earning some well-deserved professional accolades in the process.
Now panting heavily from trekking up the last stretch of the deceptively steep road, Allen finally found himself nearing the summit of Hartbreak Hill. As soon as he reached the top, he was struck by the palpable certainty that his teenage self would have died of envy if he could see where he was right now. He recognized the exterior of the Hart mansion from a well-worn copy of the magazine that he had owned years prior, conjuring the pleasant illusion that he had been there before in another lifetime and was only just now coming back. The ivy-shrouded edifice seemed to radiate a faded brilliance that in itself affirmed its grand historic import, like a Roman temple that had endured resolutely since antiquity. It was at once both daunting and welcoming in its aspect.
Allen walked over to the base of the entryway and stood there, drinking the moment in like a heady draught. Then, clearing his throat, he pushed open one of the heavy oaken doors and entered the building.
The mansion's foyer unfolded before his eyes as though it had leaped straight out of the pages of a Hartbreakers photoset, bringing to the forefront of his mind a lingering reminiscence of times long past. The interior was decidedly masculine in its construction, replete with pillars of rough-hewn stone and rich sienna wood along the walls and rafters. The ornamented ceiling panels and carved wood accents further elevated the foyer's aesthetics, as did the superb detailing of the surrounding wainscoting and door frames. As Allen wandered deeper into this magnificent space, mouth agape, his sneakers echoed subtly against the sensible tan and white tiles that patterned the floor, underscoring the monumental dimensions of even this limited portion of the overarching mansion.
Allen had imagined that, upon walking through the door, he would instantly be swept up in a veritable who's-who of adult superstardom and media personalities – surely some of Hart's former paramours would be there to make an appearance as well, if only by virtue of their sheer numbers. He was somewhat disappointed to discover, however, that the foyer was virtually empty. There were a few people in formal attire clustered here and there, but their dispositions were far from animated, even considering the circumstances of this gathering. Instead of the hustle and bustle of spirited conversation, he found himself enclosed on all sides by a low murmur, punctuated occasionally by one or two sharp whispers. The general mood was uncomfortably strained, as though something was off, but it wasn't quite clear to him why that would be the case.
As Allen pondered these developments, he noticed someone out of the corner of his eye making their way towards him. He turned to find a valet in a dark suit and brimless cap approaching cautiously, as though hoping not to startle him.
"Excuse me, Mr. ...?" the valet asked.
Allen flashed his press pass, and the valet gave an awkward nod.
"Yes of course, Mr. Frye. I tried to call your room at the hotel earlier, but they said you had already left–"
"Is there a problem?" asked Allen.
"Ah, no, but you see, there's been a slight change in today's proceedings–"
The valet was interrupted by the loud ringing of a telephone nestled in a nearby alcove. Flustered, he gave a short bow and took his leave, scurrying across the hall like he had just been set on fire.
This behavior, on top of everything else, only served to sharpen Allen's curiosity. Determined to shed some light on the situation, he ventured deeper into the foyer until he had reached the mouth of a hallway that he had seen guests passing through previously, then discreetly positioned himself against a nearby wall. He was careful to choose a spot that kept the valet within earshot, while simultaneously allowing him to eavesdrop on the general body of event-goers at the end of the hall – between the two, he would hopefully be able to cobble together some idea of what was going on.
As he listened to the muffled speech coming from either direction, Allen began to put the pieces of the puzzle into place:
"...the party's still on, at least..."
"...I guess he died in his sleep, but still, it seems suspicious..."
"...ridiculous, we can't even leave the mansion until we've been cleared to go, to think we would be treated this way..."
"...they said the autopsy came back with irregularities, but nobody knows what the hell they mean by that..."
"...wining and dining all night at his age, you can't tell me he wasn't taking something..."
Allen slowly came to a revelation as he digested all of this – given Hart's lifestyle, there were probably any number of recreational substances present in his system at the time of his death. That would explain the buzz he was hearing about the autopsy results, as well as why the attendees were acting so strangely. He wasn't sure why these details would have any bearing on the day's agenda, however, despite what all the chatter seemed to imply.
It was at that moment that he picked up on a snippet of conversation from the valet as he spoke into the telephone on the other side of the room:
"...yes, there is some doubt about whether his passing was due to, shall we say, natural causes... in any case, the police should be arriving in short order to investigate matters more thoroughly..."
Allen felt the blood pumping in his ears as he tried to process what he had just heard – it sounded as though at the rate things were going, the mansion would soon become a full-blown crime scene. He briefly entertained the thought that Hart could have been the victim of foul play – perhaps some self-proclaimed crusader for moral decency tried slipping something into one of his cocktails? – before realizing that his clandestine plan to find Hart's lost film was now dangerously close to being put in jeopardy. He wouldn't exactly be able to snoop around the mansion with the police scouring the place, which meant that time was now very much of the essence. He needed to start looking right away and try to find whatever he could before–
Suddenly, the front doors burst open, causing the valet and a few nearby guests to give a jolt of surprise. Allen's stomach sank as he watched a small troop of police officers march into the foyer, led by a stern man with a square jaw and a brown jacket. He pulled out his badge and addressed the room curtly.
"Detective Robert Thorpe, LAPD. Mind if we have a look around?"
Allen stepped out of the spacious cloakroom adjoining the foyer, closing the door behind him with a contemplative frown. Detective Thorpe had commandeered the area as a sort of impromptu office for the police to conduct one-on-one interviews with the guests at the mansion, an enterprise that they undertook shortly after they first arrived. Almost everyone that they had called into the room so far had been members of the press, ostensibly because they would be the quickest to process since they were the least likely to have been involved in Hart's affairs – Allen himself had been questioned for a perfunctory five-minute session before being dismissed – but he wondered if it wasn't also a way to dissuade them from sticking around too long and potentially badgering the remaining attendees. It may have been a cynical take on his part, but at the end of the day this was a police investigation, and they didn't take kindly to the inconvenience that the media typically posed to their work, especially for a story that merited coverage as much as this one.
That said, it seemed that Thorpe's methods would ultimately prove unnecessary, since the environment didn't really lend itself to easy conversation with the other guests to begin with. Allen glanced over at the line of attendees waiting their turn by the cloakroom door as headed down the hall, and could almost see the concentrated dreariness drifting over their heads like a dark cloud. He couldn't help but feel a small twinge of sympathy for them – going to a funeral for a longtime friend and associate was already an emotionally draining prospect, but having to undergo interrogation as part of a possible homicide inquiry on top of that would be almost too much to bear. Moreover, he could not detect a single shred of malice in any of them as he passed by, so he found it increasingly unlikely that there had been any sort of criminal intervention behind the scenes on their part. In the end, Hart was probably just another victim of mankind's most hated foe: the inexorable passage of time.
Allen made his way to the drawing room where most of the remaining attendees had congregated, wading through the oppressive atmosphere that hung in the air like a tangible funk. Perhaps predictably, the majority of them had gathered around the bar at the far end of the parlor, huddling together elbow-to-elbow amid the row of Tulip chairs that served as barstools. Tensions were demonstrably high, to the point where the police officers that had been tasked with keeping an eye on the guests were now hovering around the edges of the clamoring crowd, wary of any sign of trouble that might force them to spring into action.
As he watched this spectacle unfold, Allen felt a flash of inspiration go off in his head like a firework. The officers posted in the drawing room were too busy trying to control the unrest at the bar to pay much attention to anything else, which presented a golden opportunity – if there was ever a time to explore the mansion and look for Hart's lost film, it was now.
Shooting one last glance at the bustling fray to make sure everyone was still thoroughly distracted, he turned around and headed back towards the connecting hallway that had originally brought him into the room. From there, he proceeded towards the foyer, adopting an orderly stride so that he would not betray any sense of hurry or hesitation. Experience had taught him that the key to remaining inconspicuous in a situation like this was to act as though he was supposed to be there and that he knew where he was going – anything less than total commitment would result in his cover being blown wide open.
His theory was swiftly put into practice when he entered the foyer at the end of the hall. The span from one side to another may as well have stretched across a minefield for all the danger that it seemed to pose. Sweat started to form on Allen's brow, but he maintained an air of calm confidence as he made his way across the room, fighting the instinct to look over at the line near the cloakroom or anyone else that may have occupied the area by keeping his eyes fixed deliberately forward. The only thing he could hear besides his own runaway heartbeat was the soft reverberation of the floor tiles underfoot as he walked on through.
Finally, he rounded the corner at the other end and followed the hallway running perpendicular to the foyer until he was certain that he was completely out of sight. Then, for good measure, he ducked through a doorway into what he quickly discovered was a bathroom and shut himself in.
Allen gasped for air as he slumped against the closed door – he had unintentionally held his breath the whole time, starting from when he first arrived at the foyer. He sat on the ground for a moment to rest, all the while keeping an ear out for any activity outside that might indicate that he had given himself away. After a few minutes of silence had gone by, he afforded himself a quiet sigh of relief.
Then, seconds later, Allen found himself grinning like an idiot. He had succeeded in clearing the first hurdle that had stood in his way, infiltrating the inner sanctum of the mansion without arousing anyone's suspicion. Now all he needed to do was look around and see what he could find.
Although Allen was at least vaguely familiar with some of the facilities often highlighted at Hartbreak Hill – most of which he had read about in issues of Hartbreakers or in entertainment magazines – he was not at all knowledgeable about the layout of the mansion itself. As such, though he was keen to kick off his search for Hart's lost film by starting with his much-acclaimed private indoor theater, he had no idea how to get there. By necessity, the cinema setup would need to be in an interior room so that it would be dark enough for the movie projector to work properly, but the mansion itself was so large that it was difficult to pin down which specific room it could have been.
He wandered along the edge of the mansion's south wing with his eyes pointed inward for a sign of his target, keeping the outside walls to his left as though trying to navigate a maze. In contrast to the regal-looking foyer and reception areas, the rooms that he walked through felt warmer and more casual in their setup, steeped in wood paneling and variegated orange carpet with matching upholstery on the chairs and curtains. The tall thin windows on his left side let in some narrow sunbeams, revealing scant streams of dust motes floating in the air. Between that and the faint mustiness that seemed to leap out at him from all directions, Allen reasoned that these rooms mainly persisted as a snapshot of a prior era, rather than actively used for entertaining guests.
After checking various doors leading to dead ends – including a kitchen, a gymnasium, and even a laundry room – Allen found himself in a small courtyard that seemed to act as a bridge between the different sections of the mansion. Like the exterior, it was host to innumerable vines that crept and curled along its trellised walls, but these were dotted with bright red blossoming flowers that stood juxtaposed against a humble garden in the center of the space, rife with leafy green palms and philodendrons. The scent of fresh flora wafting in the summer breeze was a welcome change to the stuffiness of the galleries that Allen had explored so far, and so he decided that this was as good a place as any to get his bearings before continuing onward.
However, as he leaned against a nearby railing to observe the contours of the flowering vines, the door on the other side of the courtyard suddenly swung open.
Allen stood in a state of shock as a dignified-looking older woman bustled in, her heels clacking against the smooth stone pavement at a rapid staccato. Her brow was knit and her eyes cast downward as though scrutinizing the floor, not seeming to notice that he was there at all. She thrust a hand into the inside of her dress jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, then proceeded to take one out and light it. Her first puff cut sharp and deep, as though she was trying to flood her whole body with nicotine, and then came back out in a slow exhalation. The tension seemed to dissipate from her face along with the smoke as it trailed off into the air and faded into nothingness.
Allen remained motionless as this scene played out in front of him, but gave an involuntary start when he saw that the woman had now directed her attention away from her cigarette and towards him instead. She regarded him with tired, discerning eyes before finally speaking.
"You're not with the police," she said, her voice mellow yet distinctly throaty. "Who exactly are you?"
Allen pulled out his press pass, his hand still trembling slightly from surprise at her abrupt intrusion.
"Well, that explains a lot," said the woman, eyeing his Army jacket. "You know, Henry was friends with your publisher's founder back in college. I never did have the pleasure of meeting him in person, though."
Allen nodded slowly, and in the process realized the implications of what she had just said.
"You knew Hart personally, then?"
The woman gave him a wry smile in response. "I should think so. I was married to him for fifteen years."
Allen gawked at the mysterious woman, who laughed lightly in response.
"Margot Sinclair, at your service – or as the cops have been calling me, the bitter ex-wife of the deceased."
She gave a small snort at her own remark before taking another drag from her cigarette. Although feeling a little slow on the uptake, Allen instinctively sensed that he had stumbled his way into a potentially advantageous situation. Margot was clearly in the know when it came to matters relating to Hart and his estate in general – if he played his cards right, she could provide some useful insights into Hart's life and, more importantly, might even offer some clues to the location of his missing reel of film. He just needed to make sure he didn't come on too strongly in his questioning, or else she might clam up and refuse to discuss anything worthwhile.
Thankfully, as a journalist, Allen had a few tricks up his sleeve when it came to getting people to open up naturally. In this case, he figured that the simplest way to get things started would be to take a sympathetic stance and lean into it as much as possible.
"The cops were hassling you, huh?"
"I was practically the first person they brought in for questioning," said Margot, gesturing with her cigarette emphatically. "They automatically thought I was suspicious just because I'm his ex-wife, like that's some kind of shorthand for murder. Never mind that we've been divorced for longer than we were ever married, or that I've been living in New York for the past two decades. They're just desperate to make connections wherever they can."
"It sure sounds that way, to be honest," said Allen, thinking quickly. "I guess I can't claim to be an expert at math, but it sounds like you and Hart tied the knot, what, thirty-some years ago?"
"Oh god," said Margot, rubbing the bridge of her nose with her free hand. "I was so young then. We met back in the summer of '67, right after I'd finished college. I majored in journalism and was trying to network whenever I had the chance so I could get started with my career. A friend of mine worked as a model at the time, and talked me into attending this party over in San Bernardino. That's where I first met Henry, and then..."
She shook her head, as though trying to dispel a daydream.
"Christ, I don't know what I was thinking! He was twice my age and divorced once already, but he had this worldly charm to him that could just... pull you right in. I don't know, I was just too young and naive, I suppose. We ended up getting married two years later, and Lord knows I regretted every minute of it."
Allen tried not to stare at her too intently in his fascination, instead hoping to capitalize on her willingness to talk about her history with Hart for as long as he could manage.
"You said that you were looking for a job as a journalist back then, right? Did that ever pan out, or did marriage force you to put it on the back burner?"
"Actually, it sped up the process, if anything. I ended up becoming the managing editor for Hartbreakers."
Margot's eyes sparkled with satisfaction at his astonished reply. "Even before we were married, I started helping out here and there with the articles, and a few years after that I oversaw some changes to revamp the magazine's layout. For a good long while, I was working as the head editor under Henry in everything but name, but it was only after I spearheaded the big 20th anniversary issue that it finally became official."
Allen was nearly bowled over by this revelation. He actually remembered hearing about that particular issue of Hartbreakers, dated December 1975 – the centerfold famously portrayed a young and, at the time, unknown stage actress named Meryl Streep, and effectively launched what many readers considered the magazine's golden age.
"So, how long did you work there before you and Hart... well, you know."
"My career ended up lasting longer than my marriage ever did," Margot said with a hollow laugh. "I left the mansion and moved to New York in '83, and after another year we broke it off for good. I stuck around with Hartbreakers long enough to see the 30th anniversary issue out the door, but after that I just... didn't have the heart to keep going."
She sighed, cigarette smoke billowing out from her lips.
"After all these years, I never thought I'd find myself back here again. Nothing's really changed since I left – except now the place is looking even more out of date than before. Everything seemed so glamorous when I first came to stay here, but after living in the mansion full-time, I came to realize how superficial it all really was. I felt the same way about Henry, too, and I guess that's why it didn't work out between us in the end. Everything he did was for the sake of this high-flying image of himself that he had, and after a decade or so, it wore pretty damn thin."
There was a long pause before she spoke again.
"You know, Henry always told people he lost his eye fighting in France, but he never actually saw any combat. He arrived right after the war ended, and while he was in Paris celebrating with the other GIs, he got hit in the eye with a cork from opening a bottle of champagne. It's a stupid way to go blind, sure, but why lie about it like that?"
Allen was taken aback by this bizarre anecdote, but before he could consider it any further, Margot dropped her cigarette butt onto the ground and tamped it down with the tip of her shoe.
"Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that it's hard to love someone who doesn't really exist. Henry's whole lifestyle was like a big game of pretend, and I gave up the best years of my life to play along with him. Now I've got nothing to show for all the time I spent with him apart from what I was able to do with Hartbreakers."
Allen could sense a bitterness bordering on melancholy in this pronouncement, which seemed to rarefy the air with its outright magnitude. Although he had desperately hoped that his expression remained suitably neutral throughout Margot's story, he was pretty sure that the discomfort was clear on his face by now. The mood at this point felt irretrievably awkward – for the first time in his career as a journalist that he could recall, he couldn't think of anything to say.
Figuring that the best way to save face would be to commit to a tactical withdrawal for the time being, Allen cobbled together a brief, if clumsy, pretext for leaving.
"I've got to get back to the party, but it was great talking to you."
He winced at his poor choice of words and turned away, hoping to make his way briskly towards the exit without further incident. As he did so, however, he felt a small but unmistakable pang of guilt – it didn't feel right to leave Margot there in such an abrupt manner, especially after she had spoken to him so openly about her experience with Hart. He stole a glance back at her after he had reached the door, but to his surprise, she didn't seem to notice that he had left at all. Instead, she remained standing at the railing by the garden, gazing wistfully at one of the flowering vines hanging overhead. Her eyes followed the path of a solitary petal as it separated from its stem, dancing across the light that filtered through the foliage until it had cast itself down, in forlorn silence, upon the hard stone below.
A few hours after starting his search for Hart's lost film, Allen found himself back in the same drawing room from which he had engineered his escape to begin with. The bar had cleared out considerably, with most of the patrons from earlier now nowhere to be found – he surmised that many of them had left the premises after the ordeal with Detective Thorpe's interrogations in the cloakroom, having successfully put a damper on the already grim mood that had held sway at the mansion since he first arrived. A couple of officers remained stationed along the back wall as a matter of procedure, but Allen could sense from their demeanors that the excitement he had witnessed before he left had quickly given way to an unsatisfying anticlimax. They regarded the room with eyes deadened by profound boredom, not even seeming to take notice as he slipped back in and resumed his place among the scattered remnants of the crowd.
He flopped down into one of the many wingback lounge chairs that littered the parlor and let out a heavy sigh, the frustration plainly evident on his face. Despite his best efforts, his investigation so far had turned up nothing of substance – although he had eventually found the indoor cinema, the numerous movie reels stacked inside had been for regular theatrical films as opposed to Hart's own productions. What's more, he had been forced to contend with the occasional officer or two patrolling the halls, stalling his progress each time as he scrambled to find a place to hide while they passed through. He had managed to complete a sweep through the rest of the rooms on the ground floor in spite of these interruptions, but ultimately to no avail.
Another complicating factor was that the whole time Allen was looking for the film, he couldn't help but revisit the conversation he had shared with Margot in the courtyard earlier. He kept replaying what she had said over and over again in his mind, her harsh yet somehow subdued words echoing clearly in his ears like a melody tinged with off-key notes. Even though she was probably not the most impartial person to discuss Hart's history with, what she had told him was likely as close to the truth as her perspective could allow – he knew from professional experience that the way she naturally reacted and responded to his questions indicated a genuine belief in what she was saying.
That said, while he found it plausible that Hart probably wasn't the best husband considering the vagaries of his lifestyle, the way she described him seemed more apropos of a con artist than a publishing magnate. The account she gave about how Hart purportedly lost his eye was difficult to reconcile as well – Allen couldn't recall offhand whether or not Hart had ever explicitly said that it had been the result of being wounded in battle, but that's how he had understood it from what he had read and heard about the matter. He could understand not wanting to publicize an embarrassing incident like that – or even omitting some of the finer details for that same reason – but would Hart have lied about it outright if he had been pressed on the issue?
Something else that Margot had said also stood out in his memory, relating to the state of the mansion in general. He found himself noticing the myriad signs of age that now seemed to mar its former grandeur, to which he had simply been oblivious before – visible cracks along the edges of the crown molding, dry fissures running up sections of the wood-paneled walls, the subtle whiff of mildew from the furniture. Even those elements that had withstood the test of time seemed to persist as nothing more than sore reminders of the ill-fated fashions of the past. Allen didn't need to look any further than the chair he was sitting on, whose sickening lime-green curves seemed to rise out of the splotchy shag carpet like a toadstool growing in fresh manure. The inside of the mansion was starting to feel more and more like a glorified time capsule that had been snapped shut some thirty years prior, rather than the veritable temple of worldly desires that he had imagined it to be.
Faced with these contradictory visions of Hart's past and present, along with the stress of the visitation having gone off the rails right from the very start, Allen was only certain of one thing: he needed a drink.
Leaving the gaudy lounge chair behind, he sauntered over to the bar and settled into one of the many now-free stools that surrounded it. He glanced briefly at the bartender, distinguished by his black satin vest and matching handlebar mustache, before considering the possibilities among the deeply stacked ranks of bottles erected behind him. Suddenly, he remembered something that he had read about in an issue of Hartbreakers back in college.
"I'll have a Hartini," said Allen, gesturing towards a tall decanter of gin in the frontmost row.
The bartender raised an eyebrow, but proceeded to unplug the glass stopper from the vessel and pour some of its contents into a chrome-plated shaker. Allen watched as he added what amounted to one or two droplets of vermouth, followed by a generous volume of olive brine from a jug underneath the counter, before tumbling the mixture into a martini glass and garnishing it with a single fat Manzanilla olive on a silver skewer.
Allen appraised the beverage as the bartender set it in front of him, probing its pale green murkiness with expectant eyes. He hoped that it would live up to its reputation – it was said that Hart was seldom seen at a party without one of his eponymous drinks in hand. With that in mind, he raised the glass to his lips and took a healthy swig.
He nearly choked as the dryness kicked him squarely in the teeth, quickly overwhelming him with its dank and puckering bitterness. Fighting the urge to spit it out all over the bar, he forced himself to swallow the horrid concoction, hoping that the flavor would go away that much sooner. Unfortunately, however, he found that his mouth was still coated with its nauseating aftertaste, leaving him feeling as though his tongue had been sodomized by a sprig of juniper.
As he struggled to compose himself, Allen heard a low, rumbling laughter from somewhere in his periphery. He turned and saw a man in a half-buttoned tuxedo sitting a few seats away, an apparent witness to the entire exchange. When he saw that Allen had noticed him, he held up his hand and waved it from side to side, as if offering a consolation.
"Sorry, kid," the man said in a hoarse but friendly tone. "I didn't think anyone would actually try to order one of those. I always thought it was the kind of thing you would get someone as a prank."
"I heard Hart had these all the time," Allen sputtered, the foulness of the Hartini still lingering on his breath.
The man chuckled. "Carried one around with him at fancy shindigs, maybe, but he never drank any for as long as I'd known him. Hank was more of a piña colada kind of guy – though he'd never let you know it if he could help it."
He stood up and reached across the bar to hand a card to the bartender.
"I'll take care of that one, Gus. And if you can set us up with two of something a little less potent, that'd be just fine."
The bartender took the card and nodded, a brief shadow of a smile appearing under his mustache. As he worked on their order, Allen took the opportunity to inspect his newfound benefactor more closely. The man's face was lined faintly with age, though obscured somewhat by the dark complexion of his skin, and his attitude seemed to be that of an older uncle who was unapologetically young at heart. Allen couldn't help but feel like he had met the man before, but moreover he was taken in by the stranger's infectious good spirits – a smile slowly crept onto his face as the unexpected hospitality held him in its spell for a moment.
Then, suddenly, he was struck by a galvanizing bolt of recognition.
"Wait a minute," said Allen. "You're Hercules Jackson!"
The man gave a short bark of a laugh. "That's my stage name, kid. My friends just call me Shel."
The former adult film legend from the 1980s, known to Allen and the public at large as "Jumbo" Hercules Jackson, leaned back in his chair as he swirled the rum and cola around in his half-empty glass. Allen was embarrassed to admit that, up to that point, he had never even considered what his real name could be – although learning that it was the comparatively unremarkable Sheldon Moore curbed his enthusiasm a bit. Still, meeting him amid the turbulent events of the day was a reversal of fortune for Allen that he sorely needed, and so he welcomed the occasion unreservedly.
As Allen nursed his drink, he listened to Shel wax nostalgic about his glory days at the mansion, waiting for the right moment to steer the discussion towards the topic of Hart himself. Since they had apparently been on a first-name basis during Hart's lifetime, the conversation could prove fertile ground from which he might be able to extract further information – either about the possible whereabouts of Hart's lost film, or anything that might corroborate or contradict Margot's account from earlier.
"So anyway," said Shel. "Right as Elway's about to lob it straight into the end zone, Ronnie jumps out of his chair and spills his beer all over the place, yelling 'Sack 'im! Sack 'im!'"
He pantomimed a vigorous motion like he was trying to guide an airplane down a runway, capping his performance with a hearty guffaw. Although Allen had never really had a head for sports, he found himself joining in the laughter all the same.
"It didn't even matter since the Broncos were never gonna close the gap at that point, but us New York boys were hoping for as big a blowout as Simms could manage before the clock ran out."
Allen finally saw his opportunity. "You're from New York originally, then?"
"I lived there for a few years back in the day," said Shel, tilting his glass idly. "But actually I was born and raised in Milwaukee. Too bad the Packers didn't have it in them that season, though, otherwise I'd be the one jumping around like a maniac."
He chuckled lightly before taking another sip of his drink. Determined to move away from the sports talk, Allen mulled over what he knew about Shel and Hart up to that point before posing his next question.
"What brought you all the way out to New York instead of, say, Chicago? Seems like that would've been an easier move to make."
Shel considered the dregs of his rum and cola for a second or two, as though reading the leaves at the bottom of a teacup, before setting the glass down for the bartender to top back up.
"I suppose for starters, New York was just the happening place to be back then," he said as a fresh cocktail poured into his glass. "Like they used to say, if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. But more to the point, I was trying to get my start as a stage actor at the time, and what better place to do that than the city that's home to Broadway?"
He raised his now-filled glass towards the bartender in a gesture of appreciation and took a small taste before continuing.
"Anyway, I moved there right after I turned twenty, just as soon as I had enough saved up to make the trip – this would've been back in '73 or thereabouts. I spent the next few years in a roach-ridden slum in Manhattan, busting my hump at whatever odd jobs I could find until I could catch my big break. I was living hand-to-mouth for a good long while there."
Allen was enthralled – he had no idea that Hart's most prolific actor had come from such austere beginnings. He proceeded to wonder how Shel could have escaped that proverbial quagmire and ended up in the career for which he was now universally known.
"Did you score a part in a big production, then?" Allen guessed aloud.
"Not even close," said Shel with a self-deprecating grimace. "I auditioned for plenty of roles, but I only made it into a few bit parts in local productions here and there. I tried my luck with the film industry too, working as an extra whenever I could swing it, but I never made it very far past that."
"You must have won out in the end, though. How did that happen?"
"Well, as luck would have it, I had a friend who was doing camera work for this old European director for some erotic art drama called Potiphar's Wife. It was supposed to be like one of those sword-and-sandal flicks that used to be popular back when, except a whole lot steamier. Anyway, he put in a good word for me, and they ended up calling me in one weekend to shoot a few scenes. It was a pretty wild experience for a young guy like me, plus I got a couple hundred bucks out of the deal – enough to keep a roof over my head for another month or two, at any rate."
Shel paused to take another sip from his glass, savoring the sensation for a moment before he proceeded.
"Anyway, it was another year or so before I got a phone call from someone at Hartbreakers. I guess there was some confusion on their end for a few weeks while they were trying to get ahold of me – I was billed as Marcus Jones in Potiphar's Wife, but Hank had told the poor gal to find 'that Jackson guy from the Hercules movie'."
"Ah, I see," said Allen. "So that's where the name comes from."
"Bingo," said Shel, nodding. "So anyway, the gal on the phone told me that Hank liked my work and wanted me to help with a project he was working on. She said he was ready to offer me a thousand dollars and a plane ticket to LA right there on the spot."
He sighed and set his cocktail back on the bar, considering it with an uncharacteristic somberness. Allen could sense a kind of tiredness behind Shel's eyes, like someone who had stared into the past one too many times.
"To be honest, I was flat broke at that point, and it was maybe another week or so before I'd get kicked out of my apartment anyway. Even though I'd tried to pursue my dreams of acting in New York as best as I could – on stage or on screen – it never did end up paying off, let alone pay the rent. There was nothing else left for me to lose, so I took the deal and headed out to LA."
Shel picked up his drink again, the edge of the glass glinting in the bar light.
"Anyway, things started out decent at first. Hank was a friendly and outgoing kind of guy, and had me help with a lot of the groundwork when it came to getting the studio set up. We started out with some art-house movies along the same lines as Potiphar's Wife, with me doing the acting and helping things along behind the scenes, too."
"I don't remember ever hearing anything about those," said Allen.
"That's because they all flopped," said Shel. "Or at least they didn't make as much money as they could have, according to Hank. He ended up using the footage to make a supercut of all the X-rated stuff and sold that to theaters, and that's when the whole venture finally took off. I still tried to convince him to put more of a focus on erotica instead of regular porn, but he said there just wasn't a market for it.”
He drank more deeply from his glass this time, as though trying to wash away a bad memory.
"After that, Hank started trimming things down to the bone. He kept me on strictly as an actor and cut back the scripts to fit on one page so the whole operation could keep moving along at breakneck speed. I was knocking out a new movie every week all through the 80s, and every time they tried pushing the limits just a little bit further than the one before it. The studio pretty much took the phrase 'bigger is better' and ran with it – they would use camera angles, wide lenses, cosmetics, you name it. I remember it wasn't too bad in Big Mack Daddy, but the prep they had me do for Black Mamba was unreal. By the time I did Jumbo, they had to get me fitted for a prosthetic so they could keep up with the trend."
Allen felt his jaw drop as Shel rattled off these scandalous details, but the latter didn't seem to notice.
"Anyway, the rest is history. I can't really complain about the way things worked out, all things considered. I ended up the highest paid actor in the industry – the highest paid black actor, anyway – and it was a better gig than anything I had in New York. But still, I've been retired for about ten years now, and it's hard not to let those old regrets catch up to me. I thought that Hank understood the art of it all – he has practically a museum's worth of ceramics in his study, for god's sake – but first and foremost he was a businessman, and I guess we never really saw eye-to-eye when it came to the creative side of things."
Allen sat there for a while in stunned silence as Shel drained the rest of his glass, but snapped back to attention when the older man stood up from his chair.
"Well, sorry to cut and run, but I think my daughter should be pulling in pretty soon – she's picking me up for my grandson's birthday party this afternoon. Nice meeting you, kid."
With that, Shel shuffled off towards the far end of the parlor and disappeared around the corner. Allen remained in his seat for a moment, trying to get a grasp on everything that had just happened, before getting up as well. However, he quickly found himself stumbling over his own two feet as he fell back down into his chair, his eyes spinning from the sudden vertigo. He wanted to believe that it was because of the alcohol, but in the back of his mind, he could not deny that there was something else to blame for his unsteadiness. He slumped over in his chair and propped himself up by his elbows, his head heavy with the weight of these latest discoveries, as the world around him threatened to spiral out of control.
That afternoon, Allen resumed his investigation into the missing reel of film that had so far eluded him, stalking along the upper floors of the mansion with a half-hearted, almost apathetic gait. Although he was feeling much better than he did just after his drinking session with Shel – he had convalesced at his table with a tray of sandwiches and plenty of water until he could get his legs back under him – his morale had nevertheless plummeted to dangerous new lows. Each room that he explored proved to be a fresh source of disappointment for him, and the remaining opportunities at his disposal were dwindling rapidly. Considering how the rest of the day had gone so far, optimism was in drastically short supply.
As Allen went through the perfunctory motions of his search, his thoughts were consumed by warring images introduced by his encounters from earlier that day. His previous rendition of Hart had been that of a sophisticated man's man – women wanted him, men wanted to be him, and those privileged enough to know him elevated his stature to almost heroic proportions. Now, however, he had two new perspectives to contend with that fundamentally challenged his notions of who Hart truly was. According to Margot, he was a disingenuous and maybe even deceitful person, living a fantasy life for the sake of cultivating his reputation while failing to progress beyond his heyday of the 1970s. To Shel, he was a corporate overlord, sucking people in under the pretext of a shared artistic vision, only to turn around and exploit their talents and bodies alike for his own financial gain. The underlying truth behind these disparate statements was, ultimately, more nuanced than Allen or anyone else could ever realistically discern, but either way, his conception of Hart had been firmly and irrevocably shattered by what he had learned so far.
Compounding all of this was the miasmatic sense of decay that now seemed to overwhelm the mansion, which Allen could no longer ignore as he wandered under the auspices of groaning timbers and dusty vestibules through the upper levels. It was clear that many of the rooms outside the normal flow of traffic went neglected from even the sparse upkeep of the preceding floors, with chips of stone and wood splinters merely brushed off to one side and gossamer strands encroaching along the edges of the discolored ceilings. Even those areas which had clearly had some nominal cleaning done retained only the bare veneer of respectability that Hartbreak Hill had once commanded – or at least, so far as Allen could still assume that it ever had any respectability to begin with.
As he rounded the final corner into the topmost hallway, he wondered if it was still worth trying to find Hart's lost film at that point – considering the dubious nature of its existence and the tumultuous facets of Hart's lifestyle that he had discovered since he first put his plans into motion, it was hard to muster enough motivation to pursue the endeavor all that much further. He even contemplated just cutting his losses and leaving the mansion right then and there, so that he could renew his focus for the funeral he was covering the next day. After all, regardless of whether or not he found this supposed film, he still had a story to write.
However, all of these matters temporarily fell by the wayside as he came upon one last set of doors overseeing the main staircase atop the north wing, standing out from their dull surroundings with their ornate and polished oak facades. Allen was perplexed for a short while, but quickly remembered that he had saved what he had sincerely hoped was the best room for last.
With that, he cracked open one of the doors and slipped into Hart's master bedroom.
For a moment, Allen found himself shaken out of his earlier cynicism, if only briefly. Although thoroughly ensconced in the decorative trappings of yesteryear like the rest of the mansion, the bedroom was undeniably impressive in its bearing – it had clearly been maintained well and kept meticulously clean, in sharp contrast to the other rooms that he had perused up until now. Beautiful amalgamations of wood and stone lined the walls in symmetrical displays of craftsmanship, interrupted only by the presence of a grand fireplace on one side which lent the space a distinctly intimate character. Muraled patterns covered the ceiling with such density and detail that it could have made even royalty blush, and the stained glass in the windows shone dazzling sunlight onto the soft beige carpet in a kaleidoscopic orgy of color.
Amid these palatial furnishings stood the centerpiece of the suite: a four-poster bed of almost unbelievable dimensions. A stack of California King mattresses served as the foundation of the structure, coming together to form a massive rectangle shrouded by extravagant velvet curtains on every side. Allen could only imagine that its broad platform must have served as a kind of playground for amorous pursuits for Hart and his assorted ladies-in-waiting, but this in turn raised a dim specter of gloom within him – from what he had heard, this was where Hart's body had been found just a few days prior. Although it was a fitting place for him to have passed away considering the salacious media he was famous for, the fact of the matter still struck a fairly macabre note in Allen's ear.
As he reflected upon the deep crimson of the bed curtains, Allen felt himself driven by morbid curiosity towards one end of the enormous four-poster, where there stood a small but intricately ornamented nightstand with an antique timepiece sitting on top. He reasoned that anyone accustomed to a bed of this size for so many years would probably have a particular spot dedicated to sleeping, and if that was the case, that Hart's was most likely right next to where Allen now stood, since he would have had a clear view of the clock without having to get up. He pondered this hypothesis as he carefully reached out a hand, ready to part open the curtains and observe what he supposed was Hart's not-quite-final resting place. An unexpected tension flushed through him as he gripped the fabric tightly in his fingers, wondering what he would end up seeing on the other side.
Purging the hesitation from his body, he drew back the curtain and peered into the inner chamber. Lying on the bed in front of him was a young woman reclined against a large pillow, holding a magazine in one hand and a pen in the other. She broke out of her reverie and turned toward the source of the intrusion, her wide eyes looking up at him inquisitively.
Perhaps it was because he was still recovering from his drinking earlier that afternoon, or maybe it was the shock of seeing someone there when he hadn't anticipated it – although he had half-expected Hart's phantom to suddenly appear and lash out at him the moment he flung the curtains open. Either way, Allen soon felt his vision start to blur as his footing gave way beneath him. He had only enough presence of mind to try and cushion himself against the bed as he fell, his consciousness dissolving into a dull inky blackness as he quietly faded out.
When he came to, Allen found himself lying peacefully on his back, staring into the dark red void of the canopy covering the uppermost portion of Hart's bed. The reeling sensation from earlier had mercifully stopped, and as he sat upright on the mattress, his faculties began to return to him in full. It had been a tremendous stroke of luck that he hadn't hit his head against the floor after he had fallen, and although he couldn't remember much of what had transpired, his mind conjured up a hazy recollection of someone reaching out to catch him as he keeled over and–
Allen gave a sudden start at the unfamiliar voice, but calmed down after he noticed the woman from earlier sitting close by. She regarded him with the same oversized eyes as before, though now they were tinged with concern rather than curiosity. Under normal circumstances, he might have been rendered incoherent at the prospect of waking up next to a woman he had never met before, but he quickly realized that she was the one who had intervened during his fainting spell and saw him to safety – thanks to her, he had probably sidestepped a concussion, which would have definitely made that day a whole lot worse than it had already been.
More to the point, however, she was the first person that he had met at the mansion that he was able to recognize right off the bat.
"Polly Packer?" he asked, his eyes still adjusting to the faintness of the light under the sprawl of the bed curtains.
"Yeah, that's me," she replied nonchalantly. "Anyway, what's up? I didn't think they were bringing in any fans today."
"Ah, no. I mean, I'm not a fan– well, I'm familiar with your work, I guess you could say... but, well–"
Allen felt himself getting more and more flustered as he tried to explain himself, until eventually he settled on revealing his press pass to Polly, hoping that it would help clarify his position.
"Gotcha," she said, smirking slightly. "And you're snooping around Hennie's bedroom... why, exactly?"
He was momentarily taken off-guard by the bluntness of her questioning – not to mention the fact that she had referred to Hart as Hennie – but before he could come up with a suitable response, she let out a trill of laughter.
"Don't worry, I'm just playing!" she reassured him. "We get visitors wandering up here all the time. As long as you're not hunting for souvenirs or something, you can look around all you want – just don't go falling flat on your face again."
Allen turned a subtle shade of scarlet as he imagined how the incident from earlier must have looked from her perspective, but swiftly brushed the unwelcome thought away.
"Th-thanks for helping me out with that," he stuttered.
"No problem! Happy to be of service."
Polly's eyes gleamed cheerfully as she settled back down into her pillow, satisfied that he had made a full recovery. Allen could sense a lull in the conversation coming, which he feared might prematurely end things before he had the chance to ask some questions of his own. Determined to take the lead, he examined her visage closely for a moment before he spoke again.
"You know," he began, "I think I saw someone that looked a lot like you in an old issue of Hartbreakers way back when. You don't happen to have a sister in the business or something, do you?"
She looked puzzled for a second or two, but then her expression brightened.
"Yeah, sort of!" she said, laughing as she spoke. "My mom was a model for Hennie a long time ago, so you're probably thinking of her – she won Hartthrob of the Year back in '69."
Somewhere in Allen's mind, a connection clicked into place. An image from his adolescence floated up in his memory, revealing the centerfold for Miss 1969 – Ezra Klein, according to the write-up included with the photoset. Taking a second glance at Polly, he could see the family resemblance to its fullest extent, particularly in the striking look of her eyes. However, he couldn't help but note the differences between the Hartthrobs of the past and those of the modern day when it came to standards of beauty – where the former had a natural grace and elegance that was augmented only by makeup or the liberal application of an airbrush, the latter seemed to have all of these enhancements baked into their very skins by default. Even accounting for his admittedly rose-colored view of the classic Hartbreakers era, he couldn't shake the perception that the woman in front of him had a distinctly plasticated look to her by comparison.
That said, he had enough presence of mind to realize that his personal preferences were immaterial to the matter at hand. Instead, he sought to dig deeper into the gold mine of information that he had all too literally stumbled upon.
"That explains it – so is that the reason you went into the same line of work?"
"Pretty much," said Polly. "Though I ended up doing things a little differently, I guess."
She pushed her magazine aside and leaned up from the pillow, bringing her attention completely into focus as she recounted her story.
"I always thought of my mom as this feminist icon, so I knew I wanted to follow in her footsteps even when I was a lot younger. I hit the road for California the day after I turned eighteen and started making a name for myself in the biz right away. Basically my plan was to make a big splash as quickly as possible so I could grab the Hartbreakers staff's attention."
Allen had no doubt that she had succeeded wildly in that regard – although he wasn't entirely acquainted with Polly's work, he knew that in the adult film industry her nickname was "The Pincushion" for good reason.
"Anyway, I got invited to a party here at the mansion a few months later," she continued. "Hennie and I hit it off pretty much immediately – he actually remembered my mom, if you can believe it – and by the time I left that night, I had a year-and-a-half-long contract lined up."
"That seems pretty short," said Allen, frowning as he considered the logistics.
"It was set up to end as soon as I turned twenty, since I think they wouldn't be able to legally call me a teen in my videos after that. I guess they thought I'd be past my expiration date or something."
She laughed at her own remark, but Allen felt a twinge of uneasiness in his gut – even though she seemed upbeat about it, there was something distinctly disquieting about the idea of her youth being treated like a commodity.
"It turned out to be a non-issue in the end," said Polly. "I spent the next year or so putting in lots of quality time with Hennie, so after my contract was up, he let me stay at the mansion with some of the other girls he had on the payroll – his house guests, he called us."
"So it was a sugar daddy kind of arrangement?" he asked.
"Something like that, though actually it ended up being pretty one-sided. Basically the girls and I would have our fun here on the bed" – she patted the surface of the mattress beside her for emphasis – "And he would lie down over there and just – watch."
"Yeah, he never actually joined in. It wasn't because he had health issues or anything like that – everything was pretty clearly working, from what I could tell. I guess he just liked that sort of thing."
Allen's face fell slightly as he processed this new revelation, though at this point he was barely surprised – considering everything he had learned about Hart so far that day, his penchant for voyeurism was far from shocking. He supposed that it was fitting for a pornographer to prefer to watch the action unfold from a distance rather than participate directly, but either way it was yet another piece of evidence standing in stark contrast to Hart's carefully crafted persona.
As the novelty of this anticlimactic bombshell wore off, he remembered something that Polly had mentioned earlier.
"You said before that you did things differently than your mom did when you joined Hartbreakers," said Allen. "What exactly did you mean by that?"
"Well," she said, pursing her lips thoughtfully. "Mom was invited to stay at the mansion after she became a Hartthrob, but eventually a new girl took her place and she had to move out. It's pretty common in the biz to get bumped from the roster when someone younger comes along, and I guess she had a rough time getting back on her feet again after that. So right from day one, I tried to make myself useful wherever I could, hoping I could find something decent to fall back on for work after my time runs out."
"I suppose that makes sense," he reasoned.
"Yeah, and thank god it paid off – I ended up landing a spot managing the Hartbreakers website a few months ago."
"Hennie never really knew much about computers," she said with a sheepish look on her face. "So he pretty much gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted with it. Hopefully I can get a little more creative with the video content we put online too, although who knows when that'll happen. Either way, it's not like the Internet is going away any time soon, so it's as good a place as any to get a fresh start."
Polly smiled, but let out a small sigh as she gazed off into the dense wall of curtains at the foot of the bed.
"Poor Hennie," she said, a faint note of sadness in her voice. "You know, at the end of the day, he really was just a sweet little old man. I remember the last night we were together, after he finished watching his movie, he said to me–"
Allen's ears pricked up as she spoke, keying in on a particular phrase of hers with such intensity that he felt compelled to interrupt.
"Sorry, his what?"
"Oh, he had this old reel of film that he liked to put on every night before he went to bed. It was part of his evening routine, I guess."
Allen was thunderstruck – despite all the setbacks and self-doubt that he had wrestled with since he first arrived at the mansion that morning, Hart's lost film had now, for all intents and purposes, dropped straight into his lap. Forgoing any of the etiquette that he had previously observed, he blurted out a rapid-fire barrage of questions, hoping that the answer to any one of them would be enough to unravel the mystery that he had tried for so long to solve.
"What kind of movie was it?" he asked frantically. "What was it about? Where did he keep it?"
Polly seemed completely bewildered by his sudden change in demeanor, but still managed a coherent response. "I dunno, he always watched it by himself, so none of us have ever actually seen it. He kept it in a little box that he brought with him into the theater, but I don't know where it came from. Maybe it's an old home movie or something?"
Realizing that there was nothing more that she could tell him, Allen uttered a quick "thanks" and slid over to one side of the bed, practically vaulting off the mattress in the process. Once his feet touched the carpet, he rushed out of the bedroom and headed towards the staircase, all the while thinking at a mad, blistering pace. It no longer mattered to him whether or not Hart had been living a lie, or whether he would end up missing the funeral the next morning, or even if he left the mansion that evening in handcuffs. After putting everything on the line to see the whole sordid affair through to its conclusion, he needed to know exactly what Hart's lost film was about – and why Hart had felt the need to spend the last few decades keeping it a secret.
He just had to know.
Allen stood in the doorway of Hart's study for the second time that day, his eyes keen with renewed determination as he scanned the area inside. He was certain that the box containing the reel of film that Polly had described was hidden somewhere in the room – it was the only place left in the mansion that he hadn't been able to scrutinize as much as he would have liked, due to the police presence around the cloakroom just down the hall. Now that Thorpe and his officers had finished their inquiries, however, only a bare skeleton crew remained on the ground floor, giving him ample opportunity to explore the study to his heart's content without having to worry too much about outside interference.
As the late afternoon sun cast its amber rays through the dormer windows above, Allen reacquainted himself with the contents of the room. More than any other space in the mansion, the study seemed to most strongly reflect the image of refined masculinity that Hart had worked so hard to perpetuate – the walls were lined with bookshelves stocked with heady tomes and topped with elaborate arrangements of antlers and other hunting trophies, while decoratively engraved swords and antique firearms guarded the mantels along the adjoining sides. A stately desk made of dark cherry wood dominated the far end of the room, while the rest of the floor housed a few short rows of display cases containing various artifacts, chief among them flint arrowheads and primitive fertility symbols.
He began to search through the study in earnest, navigating through each of the room's fixtures in turn as he tried to envision where Hart could have stashed the film. The display cases appeared to be sealed with museum glass to keep the curios inside safe, which precluded their use as a hiding place if Hart had been watching the movie on a nightly basis. The bookshelves seemed like promising candidates – Allen had briefly entertained the possibility of a hidden room that could only be opened by pulling out a specific title – but after an exhaustive analysis of each of the books stacked there, he found them all to be completely unremarkable. He rifled through the giant desk with the utmost deliberation, checking for false bottoms in the drawers or any other compartment that might be large enough to conceal a film reel, but once again came up empty. Although prospects were looking more and more discouraging as the search wore on, he found himself buoyed by the unshakable conviction that he was getting closer to his objective with each passing moment.
Finally, after nearly an hour of investigation, he decided to take a short break. He sat down in the chair behind Hart's desk, receding into the studded leather with a groan as he stared off into the distance and collected his thoughts.
As he considered his options, Allen's eyes drifted toward a small statuette that stood on one of the corners of the desk. It was a reproduction of a paleolithic Venus figurine in black onyx, its exaggerated hips and breasts swelling out from its comparatively plain core. It seemed to be par for the course when it came to Hart's apparent artistic tastes, but as he looked at it more closely, he noticed that the figure was slightly off-center from its base. He leaned in to inspect it further, and in the process saw that there were faint scratches in the surface of the desk, parallel and nearly flush with the statue. It was as if the marks were left by something with a straight edge that had been set down repeatedly over time.
Perhaps every night.
Struck by a sudden flash of insight, Allen reached for the statuette and grasped it by the waist, his heart beating furiously in his chest. He raised it from the desktop carefully, noting how the pins that affixed it to its base had been bent slightly as though having been lifted the same way many times before. Although solid, the figure turned out to be astonishingly light for its size, allowing him to tilt the bottom of the base into view with relative ease. With a trembling hand, he probed its dark underside until he discovered a black metal latch, set into a tiny notch that left it nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the base.
Taking a deep breath, he flipped the latch out with his fingernail and turned it until he heard a small click.
The bottom of the statue suddenly dropped out, bouncing off the desk with a clatter and snapping Allen out of his trance. He scrambled to grab it before it could travel any further, but stopped himself after he noticed that something was attached to one side. His eyes followed along as the bottom panel finally landed on the ground and came to a halt, revealing a short flip-top carton that had been secured to its back with plastic clasps. Inside was a roughly 5-inch wheel made of tarnished metal, the thick ribbons of slickery celluloid only slightly jostled from its spool by the descent, along with a smudged paper label that simply read "HART".
Allen stared down at the reel of film for what felt like an eternity, his mind alternating between disbelief and awe.
His hands moved automatically to detach the box and slip it into his pocket before reassembling the figurine on the desk, taking care to put everything back in its place before he walked out the door. An attitude of almost mechanical circumspection took over as he toted this precious cargo along, barely registering the fact that he was making his way towards the cinema room until he had arrived just outside the doorway. As he set to work threading the film into the projector, he felt a whirlwind of emotions rampaging within him – he was elated to have finally found Hart's film, but at the same time, its mysterious allure would by necessity be lost the very moment that he watched it. The dilemma left him with a profoundly bittersweet feeling, but more disconcerting was the remote but undeniable likelihood that the film might contain something far more scandalous than Hart's usual fare – perhaps even something outright illegal. These unpleasant thoughts only served to rattle Allen's nerves, leaving a nauseous sensation in the pit of his stomach.
Still, he had come too far to back down now.
Swallowing the lump that had stuck in his throat, Allen flipped the switch and watched as the projector roared to life, flooding the screen on the far side of the room with a rectangle of light for a few seconds before the movie started up in full.
The scene played out silently in grainy black and white, with pronounced blurs along the edges of the frame from all the wear and tear that the footage had apparently endured during its lifetime. The camera panned across the interior of what appeared to be a recreation hall, which had been decked out with streamers and balloons in every direction. A crowd was gathered among several rows of dining tables, hemmed around an area in the middle of the room where a smaller group was in the process of erecting a banner overhead. The camera zoomed in, and despite the poor quality of the film, the lettering soon grew large enough for Allen to read clearly:
CONGRATS HANK AND BETTY
10 YEARS OF WEDDED BLISS
MAY 18TH 1957
The banner holders parted to reveal, seemingly from nowhere, a couple in formal dress standing in the center of the room, waving out to the partygoers and receiving mute applause in return. Allen could tell that he had never seen the woman before in his life, but the man was at the same time both instantly familiar and completely unrecognizable – a young Henry Hart was staring out at him from some fifty years in the past.
As Hart and his first wife worked their way through the crowd, shaking hands and exchanging greetings with the guests, Allen could see what he had only been able to infer from those who had known Hart in his prime – blessed with the aesthetics of youth, coupled with the sharp fit of his tuxedo and the discreet strapless eyepatch he had worn for the occasion, he cut an unquestionably debonair figure. The ease of his charm and his social graces were also apparent from the reaction of the partygoers, even without the benefit of sound to amplify them. This became all the more evident when Allen focused his attention on Betty, watching as she beamed brightly at each new guest that she encountered and turning her affectionate gaze towards her husband at every opportunity. The two of them seemed to glow with the strength of their shared vitality, putting even the best of their silver screen contemporaries to shame.
It was hard to believe that they would be divorced only a couple of years later.
After a while, the footage skipped ahead to later in the evening. The tables had been cleared from the floor of the rec hall to make room for couples to dance. In the middle of it all were Hart and Betty, turning slowly in each others arms as they moved to the inaudible music of the band behind them. Her head was resting on his shoulder, her face concealed from view, but Allen could tell that from their body language that the both of them were positively ebullient. They remained there, floating in the center of the frame as they swayed back and forth, in a moment that felt like it could have existed outside of time, winding around the gyre of human memory forever.
Then, suddenly, the scene blinked away into nothingness.
Allen sat there, staring into the empty field of the screen, for a very long time, the sound of the film fluttering in the take-up reel more suffocating than any silence.
The gentle light of the mid-morning sun peeked through the smattering of clouds that ringed the cemetery where Hart's funeral was being held, bringing Allen out of his introspective daze. When he first arrived that morning, he had been surprised to learn that the burial would be officiated by a priest, considering Hart's track record when he was alive. Finding himself in the middle of a respectably dry sermon, his mind had wandered off to once again contemplate the events of the previous day – starting with his trials at the mansion and ending at the moment that he had discovered the truth behind everything. Although it had been like going over well-trodden territory at that point, he still felt as though the whole affair had been nothing more than an idle daydream, ephemeral and unreal in its aspect, despite the clear evidence of his senses to the contrary.
Seated in one of the back rows along with the remaining members of the press and those outside of Hart's extensive orbit, Allen could manage a clear view of the other guests as they listened to the preacher's eulogy. He noted that Detective Thorpe was there – despite having concluded that the substances found during Hart's autopsy were unrelated to his passing and that he had died from natural causes, per the police report sent out earlier that morning – but a number of people whom he had seen at the visitation the day before were conspicuously absent. Perhaps they had only attended in the first place to take advantage of the free publicity, before the homicide investigation threw a wrench into their plans. Or perhaps, less cynically, they were simply mourning Hart's death in their own way. In any case, he was able to pick out a few people that he recognized from the crowd – including Shel and Polly – and to his way of thinking, that was enough.
As the priest finished his recitations and began ushering people towards the casket to pay their last respects, Allen mused about what he had seen in Hart's film the day prior. He had watched Hart give interviews and tours of the mansion on television before, where his larger-than-life persona was on full display, but Allen had since learned from his conversations at the mansion how hollow those performances had turned out to be. By contrast, in the lost film there was a palpable sense of authenticity in the way that Hart had carried himself – in fact, it seemed like even back then, he was regarded as an exemplar of the ideals of manly sophistication that he had spent his whole life promoting. Allen was certain that Hart could have remained true to himself and still continued to garner the love and admiration of others for as long as he wished. Was it for the sake of even greater fame and fortune, then, that he had chosen to abandon what had brought him there to begin with?
Allen couldn't say for sure why Hart had strayed from his path, but one thing was clear: there was a reason he had spent his last years on earth watching that particular movie every single night.
With the line moving more quickly than anticipated, Allen suddenly found himself thrust in front of the coffin before he could fully prepare himself for it, leaving him staring down at the former Henry Hart with an unsteady eye. Once the shock had worn off, however, he noticed that although Hart's skin had taken on the waxy pallor that was the hallmark of the deceased, his appearance was surprisingly normal. He was struck by the fact that this media titan, known for his reputation as a suave and confident master of the masculine arts, now lay in quiet repose without any posturing or pretension, giving him an air of unguarded vulnerability that perhaps only Allen could appreciate – after having watched Hart's film, he might have been the only person left who felt any sense of loss for the man that Hart had actually been, rather than the man he had pretended to be.
With that in mind, there was only one thing left for him to do.
Allen made a movement as if to genuflect, mirroring the action as he had seen it done by others in the procession. At the same time, he reached into the inside of his jacket and fished something out of his pocket that he had wrapped tightly in a plain white handkerchief. With a deft motion of his hand, he slipped the camouflaged reel of film into the casket, placing it carefully yet adroitly so that it blended in with the rest of the plush interior's pale fabric. He fought the urge to look around to see if anyone had noticed, but quietly surmised after a while that he had successfully evaded detection.
His purpose thus achieved, Allen turned and exited the front of the line, his heart pounding all the while. As he made his way back to his seat, however, his eyes lighted upon someone in one of the middle rows, who he quickly realized was looking right back at him.
It was Margot.
She stared at him with solemn eyes behind a lacy funerary veil, held in place by a black pillbox hat. He saw that she had tucked a small red flower into the band, a keepsake that stood out vibrantly against the dark fabric. She gave him an almost imperceptible nod, her eyes never leaving his, and in a moment of mutual understanding, he nodded back.
After he and the rest of the congregation had returned to their seats, the coffin was sealed shut and slowly lowered into the grave amid the invocations of the priest. Then, once the internment had been completed, the guests began to disperse from the cemetery grounds. Allen walked down the hill towards the main gate where his ride was waiting, a renewed sense of calm washing over him. As he opened the door of the taxi, he took one last look at the place where the man named Henry Hart lay buried, content to have offered a final gesture, however small, to his former hero's unvarnished memory.
With that, he got into the back of the cab and drove away, leaving the realm of fantasy far behind him.
Michael Seaholm is a software developer from Minneapolis, MN, who writes fiction in his spare time. He has previously written for a couple of short story anthologies, as well as for a local alternative press during his undergraduate career in Wisconsin. His interests beyond writing include game development, music, and retrocomputing.