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Richard Montanari

The skin Gods


"What I really want to do is direct."

Nothing. No reaction at all. She stares at me with those big Prussian blue eyes, waiting. Perhaps she is too young to recognize the cliche. Perhaps she is smarter than I thought. This is either going to make the task of killing her very easy, or very difficult.

"You've done some acting. I can tell."

She blushes. "Not really."

I lower my head, raise my eyes. My irresistible look. Monty Clift in A Place in the Sun. I can see it working. "Not really?"

"Well, when I was in junior high we did West Side Story."

"And you played Maria."

"Not hardly," she says. "I was just one of the girls at the dance."

"Jet or Shark?"

"Jet, I think. And then I did a couple of things in college."

"I knew it," I say. "I can spot a theatrical vibe a mile away."

"It was no big deal, believe me. I don't think anyone even noticed me."

"Of course they did. How could they miss you?" She reddens even more deeply. Sandra Dee in A Summer Place. "Keep in mind," I add, "lots of big movie stars started out in the chorus."



She has high cheekbones, a golden French braid, lips painted a lustrous coral. In 1960 she would have worn her hair in a bouffant or a pixie cut. Beneath that, a shirtwaist dress with a wide white belt. A string of faux pearls, perhaps.

On the other hand, in 1960, she might not have accepted my invitation.

We are sitting in a nearly empty corner bar in West Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the Schuylkill River.

"Okay. Who is your favorite movie star?" I ask.

She brightens. She likes games. "Boy or girl?"


She thinks for a few moments. "I like Sandra Bullock a lot."

"There you go. Sandy started out in made-for-TV movies."

"Sandy? You know her?"

"Of course."

"And she really made TV movies?"

"Bionic Showdown, 1989. The harrowing tale of international intrigue and bionic menace at the World Unity Games. Sandy played the girl in the wheelchair."

"Do you know a lot of movie stars?"

"Almost all of them." I take her hand in mine. Her skin is soft, flawless. "And do you know what they all have in common?"


"Do you know what they all have in common with you?"

She giggles, stamps her feet. "Tell me!"

"They all have perfect skin."

Her free hand absently goes to her face, smoothing her cheek.

"Oh yes," I continue. "Because when the camera gets really, really close, there's no amount of makeup in the world that can substitute for radiant skin."

She looks past me, at her reflection in the bar mirror.

"Think about it. All the great screen legends had beautiful skin," I say. "Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner. Movie stars live for the close-up, and the close-up never lies."

I can see that some of these names are unknown to her. Pity. Most people her age think that movies began with Titanic, and movie stardom is defined by how many times you've been on Entertainment Tonight. They've never been exposed to the genius of Fellini, Kurosawa, Wilder, Lean, Kubrick, Hitchcock.

It is not about talent, it is all about fame. To people her age, fame is the drug. She wants it. She craves it. They all do, in one way or another. It is the reason she is with me. I embody the promise of fame.

By the end of this night I will make part of her dream come true.

The Motel room is small and dank and common. There is a queen- size bed, and gondola scenes on delaminating Masonite nailed to the walls. The blanket is mildewed, moth-eaten, a frayed and ugly shroud that whispers of a thousand illicit encounters. In the carpeting lives the sour odor of human frailty.

I think of John Gavin and Janet Leigh.

I paid cash for the room earlier today in my midwestern character. Jeff Daniels in Terms of Endearment.

I hear the shower start in the bathroom. I take a deep breath, find my center, pull the small suitcase out from underneath the bed. I slip on the cotton housedress, the gray wig, and the pilled cardigan. As I button the sweater, I catch a glimpse of myself in the dresser mirror. Sad. I will never be an attractive woman, not even an old woman.

But the illusion is complete. And that is all that matters.

She begins to sing. Something by a current girl singer. Her voice is quite pleasant, actually.

The steam from the shower slithers under the bathroom door: long, gossamer fingers, beckoning. I take the knife in hand and follow. Into character. Into frame.

Into legend.


The Cadillac Escalade slowed to a crawl in front of Club Vibe: a sleek, glossy shark in neon water. The thumping bass line of the Isley Brothers' "Climbin' Up the Ladder" rattled the windows of the SUV as it rolled to a stop, its smoked-glass windows refracting the colors of the night in a shimmering palette of red and blue and yellow.

It was the middle of July, the slick belly of summer, and the heat burrowed beneath the skin of Philadelphia like an embolism.

Near the entrance to Club Vibe, on the corner of Kensington and Allegheny streets, beneath the steel ceiling of the El, stood a tall, statuesque redhead, her auburn hair a silken waterfall that graced bare shoulders before cascading to the middle of her back. She wore a short spaghetti-strap black dress that embraced the curves of her body, long crystal earrings. Her light olive skin glistened under a thin sheen of perspiration.

In this place, at this hour, she was a chimera, an urban fantasy made flesh.

A few feet away, in the doorway to a shuttered shoe repair shop, lounged a homeless black man. Of indeterminate age, he wore a tattered wool coat despite the merciless heat, and lovingly nursed a nearly empty bottle of Orange Mist, holding it tightly to his breast as one might nestle a sleeping child. Nearby, his shopping cart waited as a trusted steed, overflowing with precious urban plunder.

At just after two o'clock the driver's door of the Escalade swung open, spilling a fat column of pot smoke into the sultry night. The man who emerged was huge and quietly menacing. His thick biceps strained the sleeves of a royal blue double-breasted linen suit. D'Shante Jackson was a former running back for Edison High in North Philly, a steel girder of a man not yet thirty. He stood six three and weighed a trim and muscular 215 pounds.

D'Shante looked both ways up Kensington and, assessing the threat as nil, opened the rear door of the Escalade. His employer, the man who paid him a thousand dollars a week for protection, stepped out.

Trey Tarver was in his forties, a light-skinned black man who carried himself with a lithe and supple grace, despite his frame's ever-expanding bulk. Standing five eight, he had broached and passed the two-hundred- pound mark years earlier and, given his penchant for bread pudding and shoulder sandwiches, threatened to venture much higher. He wore a black Hugo Boss three-button suit and a pair of Mezlan calfskin oxfords. Each hand boasted a pair of diamond rings.

He stepped away from the Escalade and flicked the creases on his trousers. He smoothed his hair, which he wore long, Snoop Dogg style, although he was a generation-plus away from legitimately copping hip- hop fashion cues. If you asked Trey Tarver, he wore his hair like Verdine White of Earth, Wind amp; Fire.

Trey shot his cuffs and surveyed the intersection, his Serengeti. K amp;A, as this crossroads was known, had had many masters, but none as ruthless as Trey "TNT" Tarver.

He was about to enter the club when he noticed the redhead. Her luminous hair was a beacon in the night, her long shapely legs a siren call. Trey held up a hand, then approached the woman, much to the dismay of his lieutenant. Standing on a street corner, especially this street corner, Trey Tarver was in the open, vulnerable to gunships cruising up both Kensington and Allegheny.