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Chapter One

Lucinda didn't bother anyone, kept to herself as much as possible. It wasn't so much about privacy as it was about the effort required to speak. She felt as if she'd said everything she had to say at least a thousand times. There was nothing more to add. And, inevitably, talking—to anyone, about anything—either required elaboration on what had been said, or got you into trouble. She preferred to keep her thoughts to herself; it was safer that way.

Luckily, she had skills that allowed her to have something to do without ever having to leave her house; she rarely even had to talk to anyone in conjunction with the jobs she did. That was one of the beautiful aspects of the Internet. You could work in blissful solitude, responding to queries by e-mail or fax, and bill at an hourly wage that was well above that of most of the husbands of the yuppy-mummies whose newly built houses kept creeping ever closer to her secluded, intentionally overgrown piece of property. It wasn't that she needed the money, but she had to do some sort of work to keep herself sane. She'd been inundated with offers for the land for the past decade; they'd started as sporadic feelers and had gradually grown to regular, insistent telephone calls. The instant she saw "anonymous" or the name of some now-familiar real estate agency on the Caller ID, she let the Auto Hang-Up field the call. She particularly enjoyed its message: "I'm sorry, we do not accept telemarketing calls. Please regard this message as your notification to remove this number from your list. Thank you." She did pity many of the people who worked these thankless, low-paying jobs; but a lot of them were con-artists who scammed people, particularly the elderly, out of millions of dollars every year. Besides, the calls were ceaseless and annoying. If you happened to pick up the receiver, you'd be saying, "Hello, hello," into dead space sometimes for as long as ten or fifteen seconds before the person on the other end realized that the auto-dialer had caught a live one. So Auto Hang-Up was her pal, keeping telephonic nuisances away from her. If it was a real estate agent, she said, "Sorry, not interested," and hung up.

She didn't want to sell her house or any part of her land; she didn't want something for nothing (she knew better and, anyway, she didn't have a greedy bone in her body); she had no interest in changing her Internet service provider, or her long-distance provider, or extending the credit line on any of her plastic cards. She knew categorically that she hadn't won a free trip, or a free anything. Those excited voices, prepped to make their pitch, merely made her tired. There wasn't a single service or convenience that she wanted that she didn't already have. So, unless it was work-related (and very occasionally, it was) there was no reason for her to answer the phone.

She had, some time ago, lost her skill in the art of conversation; lost the easy give-and-take rhythm she'd once had, andthe ready humor that had been an integral part of her everydayinteractions. With time and enough neglect, most of her friends gave up and quit calling. One or two had hung in, but she rarely took their calls. Along with the loss of her conversational skills, she'd mislaid her comprehension of friendship. Intellectually, she understood the reason for it, the need. But it had become like a dance she'd once known and had been able to perform automatically, effortlessly. Now she was awkward, uncertain in her movements; could no longer recall the steps or their sequence. And so, at her choosing, she lived in not unpleasant isolation. She wasn't out of touch, though, because everything she might conceivably need to know, or want, was available to her through the Web. Anything could be purchased online, from drug-store items to specialty foods, to books and music, and tools of every conceivable kind. There wasn't a thing she needed that she couldn't acquire in under half an hour on the Inter-net.

The arrival of a UPS or FedEx driver in the morning, and the mailman each afternoon were the focal points of her day. There was a small pleasure in opening packages to examine her purchases: computer accessories or software updaters, office supplies, bath products, even clothes. Diligently, she flattened the packaging and each week, tied with twine, she set the sizable bundle of cardboard out with the blue box of recyclables—the brown paper bags of newspaper and magazines, of hard copy, of junk mail.

She had routines and took something close to comfort in maintaining them. There were nights when she worked until two or three in the morning, then slept until nine-thirty, awakening with a guilty start. There was no one to know or care that she'd overslept, but guilt was a lifelong habit, unbreakable. Still, she liked the early-morning hours when CDs played quietly through the computer's speakers (oldies from the forties, fifties and sixties; tunes that each had a significance she didn't dare examine too closely) and she worked until her concentration began to flag. Then she'd close her connection, let whichever song was playing come to an end and, finally, shut down the computer.

Swiveling in her chair, she'd look around the living room from the vantage point of her L-shaped desk positioned in the corner against the outside wall by the broad window, studying the pictures on the walls, the arrangement of the furniture, the way the verticals defined the size of the windows. The place bore little resemblance to the way it had looked years before, when they'd first come to live here. Her mother had had terrible taste, just terrible. She'd been living proof that becoming rich and famous couldn't overcome what you inherited from a tainted gene pool. The few decent pieces of furniture in the house had been passed along to her mother from her sister Beattie (who'd had exquisite taste). And those pieces had stood out painfully—like new rich kids coming into a classroom filled with students whose parents worked in stores or factories—shockingly out of place, yet fascinating in their own right, with their expensive clothes and flawless teeth. A gorgeous teak sofa with nubby beige fabric; a wonderfully squat, sunny-yellow ceramic lamp with a generous, spreading shade; a wide wicker tray that had at Aunt Beattie's house held an array of glossy magazines but in which her mother had placed three African violet plants that leaked dirty water through the wicker onto the top of the coffee table so that the veneer eventually lifted and split. Given the extreme ugliness of the table, it had been no hardship for Lucinda to consign it to the trash.

In the years since her mother's death, the house had become entirely Lucinda's. Almost nothing of her mother's remained, except some old framed photographs on the mantelpiece, half a dozen carefully packed cartons of highly collectible memorabilia, and eight or nine photo albums that had been started in the early forties and covered nearly thirty years of a remarkable career, and random, almost incidental, family moments.

Now and then, when stricken by something like an esoteric form of amnesia, Lucinda would get one of the cartons down from the attic and sit on the living room floor while she examined the contents: souvenir playbills from special screenings, film scripts, head shots, publicity stills, lobby cards, old contracts, even props from some of the movies. It was weird. A black cigarette holder, cracked and brittle with age, could bring back to Lucinda an entire ninety-six-minute film, complete with dialogue and wardrobe. She'd study the holder and remember the first morning of the shoot and the makeup woman chattering away as she'd painted Lily's face, oblivious to Lily's mounting irritation. Lily had not only been unable to converse at five in the morning, she also hadn't wanted to hear a single word spoken—by anyone. What she'd wanted, always, every morning, was a lot of coffee, two or three cigarettes, and silence, while her system got itself ready for the heat of the lights and the possibility of repeating a scene twice or twenty times To her professional credit, Lily had never been one to make a fuss; she'd just gone onto the set, and quietly told the assistant director, "She talks."

The next day there had been a new makeup lady. Every morning, Lucinda had sat on the floor, reading and glancing over every so often to see how the glamour was progressing— convinced at the age of five and a half that it got applied every morning by a woman with a big suitcase full of pots and jars and brushes and tubes. Lily's face got carried around by somebody else, until it was time to get put on. The same was true of Lily's wardrobe and her personality, depending on who she'd been hired to pretend to be. When she was just Lily at home, Lucinda couldn't find any of the characteristics that appeared when she was Lily on a movie screen. Lily at home was a tiny, very thin woman, pale, with very fine naturally blond hair (her mother had been Finnish) and pretty enough; but not someone anybody ever noticed at the market or on the street or at any of the restaurants where they went to eat. The dichotomy always fascinated Lucinda: that plain Lily, with the terrible taste, was glamorous, sultry, smoky-voiced Lily with a shimmering curtain of gold hair that slid to conceal half her face when she turned or leaned just so; sexy Lily who got thousands of fan letters every week at the height of her career, some of them containing marriage proposals. Lily didn't even read them; six-, then seven-, then eight- and nine- and ten-year-old Lucinda did, picking out the ones she thought should get answers. The others were handled by the studio: Signed glossies were sent to every single person who wrote, regardless of what their letters said—unless Lucinda decided a specific reply was in order. Then one of the secretaries in the press office typed up whatever she and Lucinda concocted. People at the studio took Lucinda very seriously, even as a small child. And not because she was Lily's daughter, but because Lucinda was so clearly possessed of exceptional intelligence that most often what she said had actual weight and significance. She was observant, smart, and easy to have around. She didn't require entertaining, and was content to amuse herself—wherever she was.

Lily, too, deferred to Lucinda in this and other matters. Later, Lucinda realized it was because her mother was neither particularly astute (although certainly not dumb) nor particularly sensitive. She didn't suffer fools gladly and she hated explaining herself. Which led Lucinda to keep asking who her father might have been, because she had no doubt that whatever intelligence she possessed—and people were forever commenting on how smart she was (because she wasn't a particularly pretty little girl and they had to say something; she was Lily's daughter after all)—had not come from her mother. The stories in the press at the time said that Lily had been on location in France and had adopted Lucinda there. Some silly story about having a baby left almost literally on the doorstep of her rented villa. It was ludicrous. For one thing, there never was a movie released. The press boys put out the word that there had been "artistic differences." Anyone with half a brain would have questioned the whole thing. Clearly, Lucinda was Lily's child; they had the same shape eyes (although Lily's were a clear blue and Lucinda's were a hazel that was almost green) and similar features. Lucinda's mouth was fuller and her chin a bit more prominent; she had darker, thicker hair, and a sturdier build, but their similarities—to Lucinda's mind—outweighed these differences. Evidently, the press back then was so hungry for material that it swallowed what it was fed, and there were spreads in the movie magazines showing Lily in the Beverly Hills house with her adopted baby; spreads of Lily at the pool with her splashing toddler; spreads of Lily overseeing her adopted five-year-old's birthday party.

When pressed, Lily finally said, "I've got no idea who your father was. Okay? It could've been a couple of different guys. What's it matter anyway? I did right by you, didn't I?" That was true. In the privacy of their rented California homes (there were three of them over the years) Lily never pretended. "I'm your mother," she said often, "and this is a company town that doesn't go for mothers without husbands. You follow that?"

Lucinda followed that.

"So me and my press agent, we cooked up the story, and we stick to it. Forever, if we have to. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Lotta women would've given you away, afraid to take the heat here, but I didn't, Luce. You're my kid. I wanted you. So just stick to the script and things'll be hunky-dory. Okay?"

"Okay. But which couple of guys could've it have been?"

"Jeez Louise! You get your teeth into something, you just don't let go. I. Don't. Know. Okay? A couple, three guys it could've been."

"Actors?"

"Nah. Those guys are all feathers and no bird. There was a director, a writer. And a grip. I just don't know."

"How come there were so many guys?"

Lily had shrugged. "I liked 'em. That grip was a cute patootie, lemme tell ya."

"Why do you talk that way? Hunky-dory, cute patootie. Nobody says things like that."

"Lots of people say things like that. You're starting to give me a headache, Luce. Go read or something."

Lucinda had gone to read. Her mother's tolerance for questioning was never very high. Her tolerance for men, however, was fairly limitless. She always had a man or two, even three, on the string. Marriage was out of the question, though, a taboo subject never to be discussed. Lucinda didn't mind. Life was acceptable the way it was. Lily made few demands, except for silence in the morning, and Lucinda's presence for yet another photo session. For the most part, Lily let her go her own way.

"You get in trouble, it means I get in trouble. So don't. Okay?"

"Okay, Lily."

"Good girl." * Lucinda was one of the very few kids in the classroom on the lot who wasn't under contract, so she could just be herself. Most of the other kids struck her as stiff and overly polite, as if they were perpetually auditioning—which, in fact, they were. Everything they said and did was noted. Usually the kids hated the whole thing, and complained together in fevered whispering sessions. It was their parents who called the shots, always pushing for their girl or boy to have a crack at this role or that one; showing up dressed to the nines, flashing big smiles and asking how their little Rose, or Jimmy, or Alice was coming along.

During the years she attended school on the lot (because Lily wanted her close by, refusing to leave Lucinda in the care of a housekeeper as most of her peers did), she only met maybe three kids who wanted to be there, who wanted a career in the movies and were prepared to do absolutely anything to have one. The rest of the kids disappeared after a few months or a year, or two, but not without having had some experiences that they were unlikely ever to forget.

There were moments, scenes, branded into Lucinda's brain and she could, effortlessly, shuffle through them like a deck of cards. With a shudder or a grimace she could recall eight-year-old Emily returning from a meeting with a director. She'd skipped out of the room happily, having been prepped by her father that she was up for a good supporting role. Pretty Emily with gleaming, carefully curled brown hair, in a fussy, full-skirted dress that would've been more appropriate at a party, white ankle socks and shiny Mary Janes. An hour later, she'd returned looking as if she'd been caught in a sudden windstorm. Her hair had somehow lost its gleam, the curls had wilted. The starch had gone out of her dress and out of Emily. She moved like a robot, her eyes unblinking, rubbing the back of her hand across her mouth over and over. It was the last time Lucinda ever saw her.

Then there was perky little Jimmy, with the startlingly low, raspy voice. He had unruly red hair and freckles, and an energy that was almost visible; he was constantly moving, couldn't stay still for longer than two minutes. His mother dressed him like a miniature farmer, in overalls and gingham shirts and lace-up work boots—a boy who'd spent the first nine years of his life playing stoopball in lower Manhattan, and the last year pretending to be a farmer. He laughed about it, saying, in his unmistakable New York twang, "She's got a screw loose, my old lady. But we're eating good, so I'm not gonna make a stink."

Jimmy got called in for a meeting with that same director a couple of months after Emily left. And when he came back, it was as if someone had unzipped Jimmy's skin and removed his spine. His energy was completely gone. He, too, walked like a robot; his eyes unblinking, hands hanging heavily at his sides. As he went past her, Lucinda saw a dark stain on the seat of his overalls and wondered if Jimmy had wet his pants. Later that night, in bed, hands tucked under her head, gazing at the ceiling, Lucinda decided that the stain had been blood.

But how could it have got there?

Jimmy lasted another month on the lot, silent and still. And then one morning, he just wasn't there. Lucinda never saw him again, either.

Ginny Holder was one of the kids who'd pushed her mother to let her have a shot at the movies. Ginny wanted to be a movie star, and dressed and acted like one. Ten years old and she wore nylons and high heels and dresses that would have better suited someone twice her age. She blackened her eyelashes, rouged her cheeks, and wore Tangee lip-stick. She sashayed and called people "Darling," and Lucinda thought she was hilarious: a miniature Mae West, with a tiny little body as shapeless as a lozenge. But she had brass and she could actually act, and already had four small parts under her belt by the time Lucinda started going to school on the lot.

"Say, kid," Ginny said that first day, "if you're lookin' to get anywhere, you're gonna have to drop some of those pounds and do somethin' with your hair." She said it with-out malice but matter-of-factly; passing along some helpful hints.

"That's okay," the then six-year-old Lucinda had told her. "I only like watching movies. I don't want to be in them."

"So how come you're here?" "My mama works on the lot," Lucinda explained.

"Oh! Okay. So whaddya think of my dress?" She did a slow turn to show off the diagonally striped black and white, knee-length, form-fitting garment that had puffed sleeves to the elbow and a big white collar.

"It's... " Lucinda searched for the right word. "It's amazing," she said.

"Yeah, isn't it?" Ginny beamed and stood, one hand on her hip, eyes alight with pleasure. "Saw it in an ad and had my mother make it for me. She sews."

"She's really good."

"Yeah. She's a dressmaker. When I'm rich, I'm gonna get her a brand new Singer machine."

Ginny got called to the director's office for a meeting one morning in Lucinda's third year on the lot. Ginny had made fourteen films by then and was getting featured roles, invariably playing girls well into their teens. At thirteen, she easily passed for seventeen with the help of her makeup and a wardrobe remarkable for its inappropriateness. She'd grown a couple of inches taller but still had the body of a child. The wardrobe department built curves into her costumes.

Concerned, Lucinda watched the girl hip-swing her way out of the classroom. At the door, as if she'd known Lucinda was watching, Ginny blew her a kiss, then sailed out. Distracted, nervous, Lucinda kept glancing over at the door, waiting for Ginny to come back. By lunch time, the girl still hadn't returned.

Sitting with Lily in her mother's trailer, Lucinda said, "Tell me about Lloyd Rankin."

"Why?" Lily asked, her fork poised over a plate of salad with no dressing.

"He's always having kids in for meetings and when they come back they don't look right."

Putting her fork down, Lily said, "What d'you mean, they don't look right?" So Lucinda told her mother about Emily and Jimmy and a couple of the others.

"Son of a bitch!" Lily said in a deadly quiet, angry voice she only used when things were very, very bad. "That Ginny girl didn't come back?"

Lucinda shook her head.

"Sit tight, Luce. If I'm not back by the time you finish your lunch, go on back to the classroom." Clad in her wrapper, wearing scuffed mules, Lily marched out of the trailer.

Through the window, Lucinda watched her out of sight. No longer hungry, she dumped her sandwich in the trash and tried to read while she waited for her mother to come back. After half an hour, she got up and went back to the classroom where Ginny remained conspicuously absent.

That evening, while they were eating Chinese at a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, Lily said, "Anybody ever try to touch you, Luce?"

"Touch me?"

"You know. In the wrong places."

"No. Is that what Lloyd did to the kids?"

"And then some," Lily said hotly. "But he won't be pulling any more of that shit any time soon. Caught him red-handed, the disgusting son of a bitch. He was off the lot inside an hour."

"What about Ginny?"

Her mother smiled suddenly. "I like that kid."

"You do?"

"Yup. She reminds me of myself."

"Unh-hunh." Now that she thought about it, Lucinda could see that it was true. "But she's okay?"

"She's gonna be fine, just fine." Lily's smile dissolved and she looked down at her plate as if seeing something ugly. After a few moments, she forked up some more chow mein, chewed, then said, "Anybody ever touches you, you tell me right away. Okay, Luce?"

"Okay."

"That son of a bitch," Lily murmured, then went on eating.

Ginny was back in the classroom the next morning. She looked fine, so far as Lucinda could tell.

"Say, how come you didn't tell me your mama's Lily Hunter?"

Lucinda shrugged, closely studying the girl, looking for signs that she was different, but finding none.

"Well, she's a peach. I'm gonna be in her next picture. Whaddya think of that?"

"That's great," Lucinda said with relief. "You're playing the younger sister?"

"You know the script?" Ginny looked surprised.

"I pick my mama's scripts," Lucinda confided. "But don't tell anybody. Okay?"

"Sure. So, yeah, I'm the sister."

"It's a good part," Lucinda said judiciously. "You'll get noticed."

"About time, too. Say, listen." Ginny lowered her voice. "I, uhm, just want to say thanks … for saying something to your mother."

"Are you okay?"

For a second or two, Ginny's eyes went flat. Then she flashed one of her big smiles and said, "I'm hunky-dory, kiddo. Top of the world."

At that moment, Lucinda realized that Ginny should've been Lily's child; they were more alike than she and Lucinda. The thing was, Lucinda loved her mother more than anyone else in the world. But she hated being Lily Hunter's daughter.

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