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Still Lives By Maria Hummel

Kim Lord is the artist of the moment, one with a talent for making her audience take a long hard look at society’s uglier side, and themselves in the process. Take her new exhibition at LA’s Rocque Museum – the eponymous Still Lives – in which she recreates the murder scenes of 11 famous women (from Nicole Brown Simpson to the Black Dahlia), but with her own image at their heart. Except on the opening night and Kim Lord is nowhere to be found. Is she the twelfth victim? Her boyfriend Greg “Shaw” Ferguson is soon arrested on suspicion of murder, but his ex, museum editor Maggie Richter, is convinced he’s innocent. The combination of whodunnit and timely attempt to analyse our obsession with violence against women, while not wholly successful, still makes for a thrilling ride. SB

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STILL LIVES

Maria Hummel

£14.99, Quercus

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Kim Lord is the artist of the moment, one with a talent for making her audience take a long hard look at society’s uglier side, and themselves in the process. Take her new exhibition at LA’s Rocque Museum – the eponymous Still Lives – in which she recreates the murder scenes of 11 famous women (from Nicole Brown Simpson to the Black Dahlia), but with her own image at their heart. Except on the opening night and Kim Lord is nowhere to be found. Is she the twelfth victim? Her boyfriend Greg “Shaw” Ferguson is soon arrested on suspicion of murder, but his ex, museum editor Maggie Richter, is convinced he’s innocent. The combination of whodunnit and timely attempt to analyse our obsession with violence against women, while not wholly successful, still makes for a thrilling ride. SB

Chapter:

One

THURSDAY

For the four years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, the Rocque Museum has been my university and my workplace, offering me a degree in contemporary art and the cosmopolitan life – brilliant as the blues in a Sam Francis painting, decadent as a twenty-four-karat cast of a cat testicle. Most days pass in a pleasurable blur of words and pictures. Most nights I hate to leave my little office, especially on April evenings like this, when I can look over my mess of proofs, out to the greening city, and imagine I am still happy.

A couple of blocks down the avenue, a new concert hall is rising like a silver ship from a dirty parking lot. Just past it, I see a theater pavilion, a row of jacaranda trees floating their violet clouds. A mile beyond that, I know the city’s river is still flooding its concrete throat, and I can remember why I came to this place, to live a new life, away from old ghosts.

I would love to stay late tonight in this tiny room, with space enough for my chrome desk and file cabinet, a shelf of art catalogs, and one extra chair for visitors. It’s quiet here past six o’clock. I know where everything is, I have editing to do, and my glass door makes it impossible for people to surprise me. I could wait out the traffic, drive home late in the owing lights of the 101. On my way, I might glance too many times behind me; I might rush the key in the lock of my peeling bungalow. But I would make it home fast, and there would be fewer silent, empty hours before sleep.

Horns bleat below my window. I look down to see two beverage trucks heading for the intersection that leads to the underpass beneath our avenue. They will take two more turns and disappear down a ramping street tunnel to reach the museum’s loading dock. The party is arriving.

Within a few hours, this whole street will clog with limousines. I need to steal my chance now and leave the Rocque. The entire L.A. art world converges tonight for the museum’s Gala opening of Still Lives, Kim Lord’s latest exhibition. Three hundred guests will arrive to eat, guzzle champagne, and crowd the galleries until the rooms hum and buzz. Then they will parade back outside to make glowing speeches about the artist, and dance. A tangible excitement will push out through their noise, like a ball held underwater. It will be the party of the year. Every show of Kim Lord’s is a moment. Every painting ‘is so powerful it makes your eyes bleed,’ according to her new boyfriend, that up-and-coming gallerist with the crooked grin, Greg Shaw Ferguson.

Nice line. I can guess how Greg said it, too. First he looked the Los Angeles Times interviewer deep in the eyes, as if he were suddenly just seeing her, human to human. Then he spoke the words with a little gravel in his voice, shook his dark blond head, and ignored the reporter to brood on some secret thought. And during that brooding, which lasts just one second too long, she fell for him. They always do.

A white TV news van roars below, heading toward the same intersection. Time to go. Ruminating on Greg’s irritating allure won’t erase my own five-year folly over him, and it might thwart my escape. I sling my bag over my shoulder and grab some proofs to drop off with Yegina, our exhibitions manager and my closest friend. I need a good dose of Yegina’s undying loyalty to the Rocque to inoculate myself against more wallowing. So what if the man who moved to L.A. with me, the man I once thought I would marry, will be squeezing Kim Lord’s hand all night? Phones are ringing off the hook at our membership desk. We might all keep our jobs tomorrow.

When I reach the staircase that winds down the center of the building, I allow myself one slow take of the party I’ll be missing. Our offices rise in a windowed, four-story tower above the low-slung hulk of the museum itself, a 1920s police-car warehouse converted to galleries. The Rocque’s concrete walls, broken by a single glassy, steel-girdered entrance, give us the look of a bygone industrial gem plopped among boring sky-scrapers. Our members love the building, but I’m sure its size and design incite the ire of every greedy developer who drives by our footprint on downtown’s best hill.

The museum’s western side is a low gray expanse that aunts its drabness against the mirroring blaze of bank towers. Tonight, it wears a white banner bearing Kim Lord’s name and a dozen sponsor logos. A red carpet unfurls beside it, under spotlights. Men in vests set out cones to block the street. Here, the limos will drive up, guests pouring out until the sidewalk disappears beneath their gowns. There, people will pause in the glare of cameras, not quite smiling. Then they’ll follow a velvet rope to a staircase half a block away that descends to the delivery underpass below, now transformed into a cocoon of cloth and flowers. No stale ballrooms for Kim Lord’s Gala. I can already imagine all the rich, pleased, apprehensive faces. The way they will glide like souls pouring into Hades.

I tread my own humble path down a corridor of fading art posters to Yegina’s office.

She’s alone, blinking, as if someone just handed her a trophy. She’s a catch, Yegina, not in the favored Angeleno way of being so thin you could double as a cocktail straw, but noteworthy for her inky hair and slyly arching cheekbones.

She waves me in, beaming. ‘Guess what?’

‘You got engaged since lunch without telling me?’

Yegina divorced her white slacker husband last year and is searching for the perfect Asian match, preferably Vietnamese.

‘Ha-ha. Guess again,’ she says.

‘Don finally got in somewhere?’ Yegina’s younger brother has been receiving rejections from med schools for the second year in a row. The whole family is devastated.

‘They’re going to vote yea or nay on Bas,’ she says in a dreamy voice. ‘At the next board meeting.’

Bas Terrant is the museum’s new director. Yegina loathes his preppy blond zeal and his appeal-to-the-masses agenda to make the Rocque a ‘must-see destination’ instead of a museum. Since Yegina has spent her whole life despising the masses, and ardently defining herself in opposition to them, she’s nearly come to blows with Bas over the exhibition schedule and when she can squeeze in his ‘people-friendly’ new idea, Art of the Race Car.

‘I thought he had a three-year contract,’ I say.

‘It gets crazier.’ Yegina shakes her head. ‘Kim Lord is AWOL. She was supposed to be here this morning for press photos, and she still hasn’t shown up.’

I put my hand on the door. I don’t care if Kim Lord has gone to Pluto. If I leave the Rocque in the next ten minutes, I can beat rush hour home to Hollywood.

‘She sent a couple of texts, but she’s not answering her phone.’ Yegina pauses dramatically. ‘PR’s got major interviews lined up before the Gala.’ Her eyes catch me sideways and her lashes dip.

I know that look.

‘Oh no,’ I say, opening the door. ‘I’m not calling Greg.’

‘Just dial and let me talk,’ Yegina says. ‘He’s got to know where she is.’

‘It’s too humiliating,’ I croak.

‘Do you understand that the entire Development department will spontaneously combust if their Gala honoree doesn’t appear on time?’ She smiles at me brightly.

It’s true. Our fund-raising team gets increasingly flammable the week before the Gala, and they go off like firecrackers at the slightest provocation. The museum depends on the money they raise, and this year’s party has gotten more buzz than in decades. Art lovers know Kim Lord’s name. They have seen the blood-red banners popping up all over town, and they want to be the first to view her shocking paintings.

‘Please,’ says Yegina. ‘I’ll go with you to that stupid pony party this weekend.’

This is serious payback. I’ve been begging her for weeks.

I sigh and open my bag. ‘It’s horses. In the hills at sunset.’

‘Fiery stallions?’ she says hopefully as I claw through receipts and wrappers. ‘Oh, and Jayme is looking for you,’ she adds. ‘PR needs help.’

‘She promised I didn’t have to work tonight.’

At home is the F. Scott Fitzgerald biography I’ve been reading. And a glass of dry white wine. And the remains of a cherry pie I baked from scratch. It’s a dull life these days, and not the one I thought I’d be signing up for when I first pored over maps of Los Angeles with Greg, tracing the vast quilt of neighborhoods with my finger, imagining our hikes in the Palisades, concerts at the Pantages, breakfasts at Los Feliz cafés, and me making my way writing for magazines. But it’s an unpretentious life, and it’s mine.

Yegina holds out her hand for my phone, a beat-up old flip that makes it difficult to text. I can’t look as I offer it to her. Greg’s number is still the first on my list of contacts, above my parents.

Just as Yegina presses dial, there’s a knock on the door.

‘Come in,’ she says, putting the phone to her ear.

‘Could we talk?’ says a hearty, patronizing voice that could only belong to our dear director, Bas Terrant, an East Coast silver-spoon scion layered under a sheen of Hollywood. Bas’s suit and hair always seem to enter a room before him, and they are immaculate, his fabrics so pastel they melt in your mouth, his blond locks tapered to fall boyishly across his forehead. He is at the age where he should be showing wrinkles and gray hair, yet some aggressively shiny blend of treatments keeps both at bay. Tonight, however, sweat has darkened his temples and his eyes look crimped, as if someone tried unsuccessfully to button them shut. ‘Pressing problem with sponsor recognition,’ he says. ‘Among other things.’

‘Of course. Speak with me.’ Yegina’s face morphs into a pleasant mask. She hangs up the phone and holds it out. It slides cool and solid into my palm. Call to Greg disconnected. He’ll see that I tried to call him. Two months of rigid self-control for nothing.

Bas gives me a strained smile. ‘And do check in with Jayme. All hands on deck tonight,’ he says, and shuts the door.

Two

I do not go straight to Jayme. I go back up to my office and stare at the Cy Twombly drawing on my wall, willing my nerves to settle before I allow myself to be dragged into this train wreck of an evening.

In every office at the Rocque hangs a real artwork from the museum’s permanent collection. I wouldn’t have picked Twombly, but his sketch has grown on me over time. Gray marks cover the paper, a storm of lines. I try to follow one with my eyes; it breaks. I follow another. It breaks, too. If you had asked me at twenty-seven about my life, I would have predicted marriage soon, children after that, a logical and contented unfolding of decades not unlike my parents’. But at twenty-eight, I can’t see how anything connects.

I met Greg Shaw Ferguson almost six years ago, when we were both on a program teaching English in Thailand. A month’s orientation in Bangkok threw us together with about twenty others to learn Thai. The program attracted a core group of the usual naïve, adventurous college grads; one constantly bickering married couple; one guy who wore his bike helmet at all times; and me, who was trying very hard to belong with the college kids. And then there was Greg. He was the same age as most of us, but his mother had just survived her first bout of ovarian cancer, and he had spent the two months prior meditating in a monastery. His head was shaved to a dark fuzz and his silences could pulse like strobes. Most people regarded him with a glum awe. I decided to woo him to our flock.

I should make it clear: I had no romantic stake in this. It was purely sympathy, fueled by my journalistic training in social fearlessness. Fifteen pounds too skinny and without his shaggy hair, Greg had a surly, reptilian look. He didn’t grin or joke like he does now. I coerced him out with our merry crew to ride the canals, to watch a Thai movie with no discernible plot but shrieking and hitting. I gave him my cast-off Kundera novels to read. Yet I had no idea that I sparked any feelings in him until he wrote me after orientation, from his campus in south-eastern Thailand, and invited me to visit. By then, his hair had grown, and obligatory drinking bouts with his Thai colleagues had forced him to abandon his hard-core Buddhist habits. The man who picked me up from the Chanthaburi bus station was a wry, warm, intelligent dreamboat, and strangest of all, he seemed to adore me.

That adoration is gone now, revoked by a toxic mix of grief and ambition. I know why Greg left me and whom he wants to become, and in the abstract I accept it. I even wish him well. He never once lied to me. But whenever I see him in person, it’s like being in a room with an impostor: some creature who slunk out of L.A.’s giant billboards and gated studios and false hopes and took over my boyfriend’s body. He goes by ‘Shaw’ now: a slicker, smarter version of the old Greg. It’s the name of his gallery, too: shaw.

A shadow crosses my glass door, and Jayme West whips it open with one hand while talking on her cell with the other. Jayme spends most of her day attached to the device, and they both possess the same sleekness and utility – everything on my boss’s gorgeous half-Norwegian, half-Eritrean body is exactly where it belongs, from her high, narrow hips to her low, smooth voice and the bright scent of tangerines that follows her everywhere. With her looks and poise, Jayme could make ten times her Rocque salary in Hollywood or politics, but she hates being on camera and always makes Bas take center stage. He adores her. We all do, because Jayme’s hard work and behind-the-scenes orchestrating have helped the Rocque maintain its cultural reputation despite declining revenues. Saved by Jayme is a mantra, which is why her behavior around the Kim Lord exhibition has been especially puzzling to me.

‘Yes, that’s “Rocque” as in “lock.” Still Lives as in “wives.”’ Jayme hangs up the phone, rolling her eyes.

‘Or crock,’ I say. ‘And hives.’

Jayme doesn’t smile. She is not a smiler by nature. It would interfere with the sixteen hundred other things she’s doing at any given moment. ‘Got anything else to wear?’

Before I have a chance to answer, Jayme is marching me to her bigger, tidier office and pulling dresses from a closet, holding them under my chin. ‘You’re the same size as I am, just shorter,’ she mutters. Her phone rings. She looks at the name and cringes, but her delivery is flawless. ‘Mr. Gillespie, we’re going to need to move the interview again. The artist wants more time with you especially.’

She waves the dress she is currently holding. When I take it from her, I’m surprised to see her arm is goose-bumped and shaking. I try to catch her eye, but she deliberately turns away and steadies herself on her desk. I carry the dress obediently down the hall to a bathroom stall, mesmerized by the shimmery green fabric, its leathery weight. I tend to choose demure grays and blues, the wardrobe of a Catholic schoolgirl. This dress feels otherworldly, like it was shed from some alien sea. I fear it will look terrible on me. To say Jayme and I are the same size is like comparing a Jaguar to a Yugo. Clothes don’t fall on Jayme’s lean torso. They float. She could attend the Gala tonight wearing a couple of crusty washcloths, and the fashion writers would fawn over the hot new trend.

I twist the stall lock and step out of my skirt and blouse. The cool air stings my bare skin, and I feel silly and guilty about the washcloth thought. I’ve seen Jayme anxious in recent weeks, but not like this. She and I usually work together on copyediting the exhibition catalogs – I check the text and she checks the images – yet for Still Lives she dumped the whole project on me. This was in January, just after Greg moved out, and only when Jayme found out that he was dating Kim Lord did she apologize for my extra workload.

‘I wish I could help,’ Jayme said to me, or rather to the pen holder on my desk, because she would not meet my eyes. ‘But I’m still out on this one. Bas has got too many new irons in the fire, and I can’t keep up.’

And so, while seething at Kim Lord, I had the additional stomach-churning task of proofing the captions for the photos of the famous female murder victims featured in her show. I tried not to let my eye stray to the disturbing spectacle of Judy Ann Dull, sitting in an armchair, wearing a neat 1950s wool cardigan and flared skirt, her ankles and mouth bound by white rope. I tried not to see the chair’s ratty upholstery, or Dull’s wary, regretful expression at being taken in by a dopey television repairman who promised to help her with her modeling career. I didn’t want to see Judy Ann Dull alive and well, because I knew that later she would be dressed in long black gloves and black thigh-high stockings, trussed topless to an X of wood, raped repeatedly, and strangled in the desert by Harvey Glatman, the Glamour Girl Slayer. Dull was only nineteen years old.

If I had trouble looking at one victim and her story, I couldn’t imagine how Kim Lord had deeply inhabited eleven of these lives and deaths to make her paintings.

Despite her claims, I wasn’t sure she had.

Still Lives street-pole banners hang all over town now, displaying the least graphic of Kim’s works, a depiction of herself as a living Roseann Quinn, a 1973 stabbing victim with long ringlets and a toothy, innocent smile. The curators had insisted on an image without gore, but the banners have a crimson background. When I drove under a block of them on Fairfax yesterday, the color kept tearing my eyes from the road up into the sky. Kim Lord’s face looked back at me, disguised in paint and the features of a murdered woman.

‘I’ve been having terrible dreams about the victims,’ she recently told a reporter. ‘I’m just . . . haunted. Write this down: I, Kim Lord, solemnly swear my next show is going to be about bunny rabbits.’

But Kim Lord’s next show is always more dramatic than her last, she who started her career with The Flesh, a reconstruction of a dingy brothel, hung with paintings of herself costumed as both pimps and sex workers.

‘By turning every viewer into a john, Kim Lord asked her audiences to question the ethics of their own gaze,’ I wrote for our press release. ‘Viewers paid an admission fee after seeing The Flesh, unusual for a gallery exhibition, and Lord became the youngest contemporary artist to sell her entire first show at a Catesby’s auction.’

Catesby’s auctions are usually reserved for established artists, and Kim Lord could have been humiliated by lackluster bids, but instead she made an enormous pile of cash. She is no dummy, which is why I suspect her absence at the moment is just another of her ‘groundbreaking’ moves to escalate her press coverage and drive more people to the museum.

A sudden vain hope bubbles up: maybe neither Kim nor Greg will show up tonight. And I’ll get to attend the best party of 2003 without them.

Three

I shake the dress until I find an opening. The garment slides over my head and tumbles to midthigh. Jayme’s citrus smell floods my nose. I zip up the side and feel the cloth tighten over my hips, snug but not straining. So far so good. Except that the shoulder straps barely cover my bra, and the front of the dress poufs like overalls. The word lederhosen slinks into my mind.

A creak, the bathroom door opens, and someone enters the stall next to me. I check the shoes. Absurdly small blue pumps. Evie from the registrar’s office. I’ve felt bad around Evie since I let our friendship drift a couple of years ago, and even worse lately. When I became overwhelmed by the Still Lives catalog this winter, she was the one who finally stepped in to help me. Registrars are better than anyone at fact-finding on artworks and images, and Evie took a whole chunk of captions off my plate. I promised to repay her by taking her out to dinner at our old haunt in Little Tokyo, but I haven’t. Evie always wants to ridicule Greg’s new name and ambition, or complain about how fattening our tempura is when she’s as tightly muscled as a gazelle. Secretly I fear that she only needs me to feel better about herself.

I race past the mirror, trying not to see the vaguely Germanic oaf flashing across it, and am almost out the door when I hear Evie speak.

‘Your clothes.’

‘Hi, Evie.’ I bend to grab my castoffs. The leather dress constricts like a snake around my abs. ‘What brings you up here?’ The registrar’s office is off the loading dock.

Her blue pumps twitch. ‘The crew’s having a party on the roof,’ she says. ‘Watching people arrive and such.’

This would be the opportune moment for Evie to invite me to join the party later, but she doesn’t. The exhibition crew is the coolest club in the museum, mostly young artists who work part-time constructing the shows and part-time on their own projects. They hang out in their cavernous carpentry room near Evie’s office and bust jokes in low, bitter voices about how broke they are. There’s a distinct social disconnect between them and the upstairs office crowd.

‘Fun for you,’ I say finally. ‘I got coerced into working.’

‘That’s too bad.’

‘I just hope Kim Lord actually shows up,’ I add. ‘She’s blowing all her interviews.’
‘Fashionably late,’ Evie says in a tone of fake cheer.

The toilet roll rattles. At this point I realize I am harassing someone having a private anatomical moment and apologetically take my leave. Jayme’s in the hall, waiting for me, a paper in her hand. She looks calmer now, but she grimaces at the lederhosen.

‘Here. Proof this while I fix you,’ she says. ‘And then I’ll tell you your assignment.’ She shoves a press release in my face and starts digging in her closet again. ‘What size shoe?’ she says, her voice muffled.

‘Ten. With a sizable bunion on the right foot.’

Jayme groans but keeps digging. I read.

Artist Offers Unprecedented Gift

Bas Terrant, director of the Rocque Museum, is pleased to announce that artist Kim Lord is donating the entire exhibition Still Lives to the museum’s permanent collection. The exhibition comprises eleven paintings of Kim Lord impersonating murdered females, including Roseann Quinn, Bonnie Lee Bakley, Gwen Araujo, Chandra Levy, Lita McClinton, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia), as well as one monumental still life. Before undertaking the portraits, the artist spent years studying the lives and deaths of the victims. The combined value of the paintings is estimated at more than $5 million. [Here someone had scribbled $7 million?]

When asked about the reasons behind her muni cent gift, Lord cited the Rocque’s demonstrated support of female artists and her wish not to profit from these particular paintings. She said she sees Still Lives as a tribute to the victims and as an indictment of America’s obsession with sensationalized female murders.

‘I don’t want these paintings ever to be associated with monetary value,’ she said. ‘No one should profit from them. No one should profit from the deaths of any of these women. They are not pinups – they were daughters, mothers, sisters, and wives torn from their lives and their families.’

Terrant expressed his deep admiration for Lord and her work, saying, ‘An artist of Kim Lord’s talent and generosity comes along once or twice a century.’

‘Looks correct, but is this for real?’ I say. ‘Nelson must be livid.’ Gallerists like Nelson de Wilde earn a standard fifty percent from art sales, which means he will be out millions if he is not allowed to sell Kim’s work to collectors. He shelled out seventy grand for the exhibition costs, too, covering the publication of the catalog and the gallery guide. It’s not uncommon for gallerists to chip in on exhibitions (one of the many ethically murky practices of the art world), but in return they expect a reputation bump in their artist’s prices.

‘It’s real.’ Jayme produces a green-blue scarf and a pair of tall brown boots. Her hands it over my shoulders, tightening a strap here, tugging the leather there, owing the scarf. Gusts of tangerine drift over me.

‘Too bad we can’t sell the paintings,’ I say. ‘It would completely fix the hole in our budget.’

Something flashes in Jayme’s face. ‘Too bad we can’t send the release out if she doesn’t approve it,’ she says after a moment, ‘and she can’t approve it if she doesn’t show up.’ She points to the floor. ‘Step into the boots.’

I grip her desk to slide into them; they’re too tight, but Jayme bends and zips them up anyway.

‘Maybe she’s already here, but in disguise. She loves costumes so much,’ I say, unable to suppress my annoyance. Every time Kim Lord has visited the museum in the past couple of weeks, she’s arrived in a different camouflaging getup, complete with wig, sunglasses, retro dress, or boxy 1980s suit.

Jayme gives me an evaluating look.

‘I’m a disaster, aren’t I?’ I say. ‘I should wear my own clothes. Should I take out the earrings?’ I touch the studs, tiny gold butterflies that used to belong to my grandmother.

‘Can’t even see them. And you actually look almost fabulous,’ she says shortly. ‘But you have no idea.’ She unzips a bag on her desk, pulls out powder. ‘Close your eyes. I’m going to do your face.’

Something swipes my brows, dusts my cheeks.

The strokes tickle but feel tender, too. No one has touched me for months.

‘No idea about what?’ I say.

No answer. Jayme’s fingers grab my jaw, rub my cheekbones, but beneath their quick movements, I can feel her trembling. I have to struggle not to open my eyes.

‘She thought she was being stalked,’ she says. ‘Last week she called me three times to check the names on my media list.’ Jayme’s words burn with emotion. ‘She says he sometimes sneaks into the openings through PR.’

‘She told you that?’ I didn’t know Jayme and Kim Lord had gotten so intimate. I’d thought Jayme had had too many irons in the fire.

‘She said she was close to nailing who it was.’ I hear Jayme sigh. ‘And now she’s missing.’

‘Wouldn’t she have told the police, too? Or did she just tell you?’

Jayme dabs my lips.

‘You’re done,’ she says gently.

When I open my eyes, Jayme has already swiveled away, her slender back to me, her straightened hair falling to the tops of her shoulder blades. ‘I’ve got to get ready myself,’ she says, zipping her makeup bag.

Jayme rarely divulges anything from her private life. I know she adores Prince and sh tacos, but boyfriends? Never introduced. Childhood? Nothing happened, apparently, before her halcyon years at UCLA. And her age? Late thirties? Hard to say. But after tonight’s worries and Jayme’s avoidance of the Still Lives catalog, I’m starting to think there’s a reason she never tells anyone about her past. There’s a memory of violence inside her. We might have more in common than I thought.

Four

Bas hired big-time Hollywood event designers for the Gala. Their first proposal for the decor included red-spattered walls and body outlines chalked on the pavement. This caused a near apocalypse in Curatorial, where scholarly types organize the exhibitions and define the art of our time. Stranded in a city of endless boob jobs and crumbling adobe, our curators take to their jobs with special piety. You would have thought their skin was melting off from the howls that went up.

‘Nothing squalid. Nothing cop-show. This is supposed to be high art,’ snapped Lynne Feldman, our chief curator, earning her the nickname ‘High Art’ among our fund-raising folks, as in ‘Hey, let’s tell High Art we’re serving Bloody Marys.’ ‘Stiff ones, ha-ha!’

When Kim Lord heard of the controversy, she suggested moving the Gala out of the museum entirely and into the subterranean underpass used for truck deliveries to the skyscrapers: a street party literally in the street. There’s a good patch of the underpass behind the Rocque’s loading dock – a vaulting asphalt cavern that also connects to a staircase to the upper avenue.

Everyone agreed that Kim’s suggestion was the kind of brilliant and superbly impractical idea for which the Rocque was known, and the designers got to work. It’s turned out to be an amazing space for a party – fifty-foot-high concrete columns soar to the giant girders that hold the avenue above. Instead of gazing at L.A.’s orange night sky, patrons will look up into the beams that hold a living road. The usual white dinner tent, gargantuan orals, cocktail stations, and dance stage will intersperse with real-life street signs and dented guardrails. Thursday-night rush hour will roar above the DJs, and the muted odors of tar and spray paint will mingle with champagne in the mouth.

I tried hard to avoid this occasion on account of my post-breakup bitterness, but now that I’m here, clad in my cuto Nazi mermaid garb, I’m fearful and glad at once. I didn’t expect how the late-afternoon glow would spill down the staircase to the upper avenue, making a grotto of the Gala’s lower entrance. A small gauntlet of paparazzi flanks a second red carpet at the bottom. Mostly doughy, bearded men, they squint into the intense last half hour of sun, when L.A. seems to get the whole country’s light in one concentrated dose before it fades. As the first guests descend past them, the paparazzi take a few shots, then lounge, cameras dangling loose on their chests. No one from Hollywood has arrived yet. Neither has Kim Lord.

In the black-carpeted cocktail area, vestiges of the old murder theme linger, making my stomach twist into its third or fourth knot tonight. A stalker would be right at home here. Bare lights, resembling those in interrogation rooms, hang from poles above the tables. The centerpieces blister with lilies and scarlet roses. Even the appetizers have a corpse-like color scheme: caprese salad with its red tomatoes and white cheese, rare beef toasts, some smeary fig-paste chèvre concoction that resembles an infected wound.

Unable to eat any of it, I chug two glasses of sparkling champagne, trying to pick out my PR assignment. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead playing the pleasant media escort; I would have expected to be the young, aggressive reporter nosing out the story. But here I am, balancing in Jayme’s high boots with a fake smile on my face.

I need to find a fellow named Kevin Rhys from ArtNoise.

‘Artwhat?’ I’d asked Jayme.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Jayme said. Kevin is writing a cover story for a new magazine funded by Mindy Allen, the daughter of a wealthy New York collector. ‘Development wants to hook them as a sponsor. Be nice to the guy. Just got here from the East Coast. He wants to meet all the players.’

All the players? Our annual Gala draws hundreds of elite tastemakers: the people who make art, the people who buy and sell it, the people who opine about it, and the people who long to belong, which includes most of the museum staff, and random rich people, actors, scuzzballs, and politicians. The cocktail area is filling with well-dressed folks, but I don’t recognize any. So many of them look cut from the same mold: the men trim and spectacled, the women like forty-year-olds from the front and sixty-year-olds from the back, their faces feline and taut, their hands spotted and wrinkled. No suspicious figures that I can see, though I doubt Kim Lord’s supposed stalker resembles the gaunt, goofy male I’ve constructed in my mind, an amalgam of the killers who stabbed, strangled, shot, and beat the victims of Still Lives.

My eyes stop on a familiar huddle: Yegina standing with Brent Patrick, leader of the exhibitions crew, and Lynne Feldman, our chief curator.

Lynne’s gothic good looks always stand out in our crowd, as if she alone among us has never stepped foot from our cool white galleries into the abrasive L.A. sun. She is showing her cell phone to the others with a reprimanding look. Reprimanding is one of Lynne’s three signature expressions (enraged and reverent are the others), and it usually indicates that she is politely and heroically restraining herself from pitching a fit. No other curator on the West Coast has organized more significant solo exhibitions than Lynne Feldman, and no one at the museum is more dificult to work with. Artists tend to regard Lynne as a figure of almost godlike generosity and vision, while coworkers go to such extremes to avoid her that some (okay, mostly Yegina) walk up the stairs and take the elevator down to bypass Lynne’s office on the way to the coffee machine.

Lynne’s crimson lips shape the words seven o’clock. I’m guessing that she has heard from the artist. Seven. Kim Lord will be here in time for the end of dinner, then. So why are the others shaking their heads?

Just as I’m stepping closer to eavesdrop, I see a tall, stocky guy weaving through the crowd with a notebook in his hand. He is wearing tweed. He is wearing tweed, leather loafers, and a full beard, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the tiny black stem poking from his breast pocket belongs to a tobacco pipe. The Angelenos glide apart for his passing like aquatic creatures in the presence of a clumping land animal. I have a hunch that he is my Kevin, and I go to rescue him.

He surprises me by shaking my hand warmly when I introduce myself.

‘You work here?’ he says. ‘Doing what?’

As I tell him briefly about my role as the museum’s writer/editor, he yanks out his notebook and scribbles. ‘Sweet job.’

I’d gladly trade, I think. Even as I do, I feel the grief and the inertia that have kept me from trying to be a journalist, pitching editors, gathering clips.

‘What do you think of the show?’ he says.

‘I haven’t seen the actual paintings yet,’ I admit. ‘The crew doesn’t like to be ogled when they’re hanging them. But some of the reproductions are . . . intense.’

Kevin pauses his note-taking to regard me. In an interested and possibly flirtatious manner. I don’t experience this often in my day-to-day existence. Less than fifty percent of the museum employees are men; of those, half are gay and a quarter are married. The other quarter tend to date cocktail straws.

‘I saw the Black Dahlia one,’ Kevin says. ‘Is intense a highbrow euphemism for freaking disgusting?’

‘Highbrow euphemisms are my stock-in-trade,’ I say. I ask Kevin about his own gig, and he tells me he’s here from New York for a week to get the inside scoop on Still Lives. He hasn’t done much art writing; he’s more of a rock critic. But he knows the magazine publisher, and she likes his style.

‘Lowbrow euphemisms abound,’ he says.

As we banter, Kevin’s tweediness recedes, and I am more aware of his height, his broad shoulders. If we were dancing partners, the top of my head would rest right under his chin.

‘So where is the queen of art?’ he says.

‘Not here yet. That’s her gallerist, though. Nelson de Wilde.’ I point out a lithe, silvery man as he joins a cluster of the Rocque’s board members.

Nelson de Wilde’s relationship with Kim Lord is historic – after The Flesh, when she was only twenty-one and he was an unknown gallerist, he paid her a significant monthly stipend to complete Noir, a group of paintings in which she depicted herself as fifteen different black-and-white film stars. Despite the poor critical reception, the show sold out at huge prices. Nelson must have been holding the same financial expectations for Still Lives. He is wearing gray tonight, which makes his close-shorn hair look more metallic than ever, but his mouth hangs down and both his hands are plunged deep in his pockets. Mine would be, too, if I were about to watch millions of dollars in commissions disappear.

Kevin asks me why Nelson looks perturbed.

I tell him it must be preshow jitters.

‘How’d you get this job?’ he says. ‘You have an art history degree?’

‘Not exactly,’ I say.

‘Communications? Journalism?’

I don’t want to talk about my past, so I cast about quickly for someone else to identify. I gesture at Brent Patrick, striding from the bar in steel-toed boots. ‘He builds the shows. You should talk to him. He used to be a big set designer on Broadway.’

I don’t add that Brent quit his New York life because his wife, Barbara, suffers from schizophrenia and they moved to L.A. for a new treatment program. Unfortunately, Barbara’s condition worsened in the program, and she had to be institutionalized. It’s a tragic story, and almost justifies Brent’s bullying condescension toward everyone upstairs, even the curators. (‘Because they don’t actually make things,’ Yegina explained once. ‘Neither do half of the artists we show,’ I said. ‘Well, he hates them, too,’ she said.)

But Kevin should meet Brent because Brent is unbelievable at his job. He can take an artist’s flimsiest idea and transform it into a real experience – it is Brent who envisions the lighting, the path the viewer takes, and even sometimes the artwork’s actual construction. ‘You know the Executed show we did last year? Jason Rains?’

Kevin nods vaguely.

‘Brent was the genius behind it,’ I say, watching Brent slug a shot beneath a battered stop sign. The sign looks absurdly red and shiny now that it is surrounded by white linens and lilies, and I wonder if some lowly production assistant had to soap it clean for tonight. Some of the graffiti on the nearby tunnel also looks fresh and bright, and, is it me, or did someone fill those glass vases with broken windshield pieces? This kind of stagy urban decadence is Brent’s legacy on Broadway; his set for Rent was nominated for a Tony. But I bet it rubs him the wrong way here. This party isn’t art. It’s commerce.

As if on cue, Brent glances up at the stop sign, then shakes his head grimly and clomps away.

‘He created the whole set,’ I say. ‘Jason Rains just watched.’

‘You think I can interview Kim Lord?’ asks Kevin, but just as I’m about to struggle with a lie, one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses arrives on the red carpet and everyone stops breathing.

The actress is wearing jeans and a yellow blouse, platform sandals, a gauzy gold scarf in her hair. She is blonde, willowy, and tall, and on anyone else this outfit would look suitable for a picnic. Yet as the actress gently spins for the flashing cameras, she rewrites the entire occasion around her. She’s showing up for a real party, not another stuffy fund-raising a air. When she smiles the gleaming, genuine smile we’ve all adored on giant screens, people start talking again, louder, chattier, leaning into one another.

‘That’s—’ I say.

‘I know,’ Kevin mutters, and writes something in his notebook.

The last sun lifts from the staircase, and the real crowds start pouring down, a happy, upbeat mob: TV sitcom stars, famous architects, young sculptors looking gawky in their finery – and, far back at the line, Greg. Lean as a fox, in a dark-blue suit. Alone. Seeing him hits me like a punch to my sternum and I swallow the last sip in my glass. I tried so hard not to be here. Greg’s face looks different, but it always looks different to me now, with its thin fringe of stubble and keen expression. This isn’t the Greg who lounged in the hammock next to me peeling a purple mangosteen, or the Greg who helped me lug a secondhand couch into our new Hollywood apartment and hugged me as we surveyed its ruined gold grandeur. Nor is it the Greg who sobbed at our kitchen table when his mother died. He is no longer any of those people. He is Kim Lord’s boyfriend. She sent him ahead. Or he came ahead of her, to have more time hobnobbing with the rich patrons he hopes to woo to his gallery.

‘I take that as a no,’ says Kevin.

‘Huh?’

‘Kim Lord’s probably booked for interviews.’

‘Probably,’ I say.

I see Greg make his way to one of the cocktail stations. A server, a skinny brunette, passes him and thrusts out a tray of crackers heaped with rare beef. Greg stares at the red offering, then shakes his head. The server’s eyes stay on him after he walks away.

‘Might wander around, then,’ Kevin says.

As if he senses my own gaze, Greg spots me and waves.

‘No. Wait,’ I say, turning and taking a step closer to Kevin. ‘Stick with me. I’ll take you to a party with the crew that built the show.’

‘Right on,’ he says eagerly.

Now the crowd is spilling past every guardrail and curb of the decorated urban cave with their leather and perfume and expectations. The guests are milling and staring, holding red cards with their assigned dinner seats. The more people who enter, the bigger this space feels, the higher the girdered ceiling, like we’ll never be enough to fill it. The vast scale reminds me of old cathedrals – the architecture made to dwarf us, to remind us of our insignificance, no matter how many we are. This will be the party everyone dreamed of. The guests will start to notice the smaller touches – the trails of scarlet rose petals over every folded napkin, the Hitchcockian soundtrack the DJ is playing. They’ll line up for snapshots around the stop sign. But soon the novelty of the space will wear off. They’ve come to see Kim Lord and her new show, and to be seen seeing it. So where is she? Where is she?

I keep my head turned from Greg. I should be saying something clever to hold Kevin’s attention, I should be taking his arm and leading him around, but suddenly I’m struck by the fear that everything we’ve made tonight – everything Kim Lord made – is spinning on the same sick fascination that she spoke against in her press release. That beneath all these layers of pleasure and provocation are women who were slaughtered.

Five

Ke-vin!’ shrieks a voice. ‘Kevin Rhys! What on earth are you doing here?’

I have never been so glad to see Thalia Thalberg in my life. Actually, I’ve never been glad to see her at all. She’s the chair of the Rocque’s Young Collectors Club, and her life’s work – being rich and spending her money in elegant but fussy ways – puts her in a caste of people who bear as much resemblance to ordinary human beings as fur coats to the animals from which they were flayed. Nevertheless, to my relief she grabs Kevin’s arm and twirls him toward her and her formidable attire, which looks like a tutu made from shredded sandwich bags.

‘Just here on assignment,’ mumbles Kevin.

‘Mindy’s new magazine?’

‘Yeah,’ Kevin says with a sheepish glance at me.

‘Fantastic.’ Thalia’s eyes rake up and down my torso. ‘How is Mindy?’

‘Busy,’ says Kevin. ‘Have you met Maggie?’

Of course she has. But she won’t remember.

‘I work in Communications.’ I extend my hand and shake Thalia’s. Her fingers are the texture of thawing shrimp. ‘I’m showing Kevin around. How do you two know each other?’

‘We went to school together in New York,’ Thalia says, and mentions some expensive-sounding academy. ‘And Kevin’s father was my history teacher.’

‘Faculty brat, that’s me,’ Kevin says wearily.

Thalia wants to know what Kevin thinks of the Gala, and I’m expecting some glib version of the observations we’ve been hearing all around us, how cool it is to see the gritty street and the glamorous party together at once, but Kevin seems to take her question seriously. He knits his brow and scans the scene as if he just noticed it.

I wait awkwardly beside Thalia, trying to think of one thin sentence of small talk to screw into the impassable social wall between us.

Thalia touches her brunette bob. ‘Oh, come on, Kevin. It’s not an exam.’

‘Well,’ he says finally, ‘I’ve seen the lions and the otters, and the panda was cool. But I can’t find the aye-aye house, and I’ve heard they’ve got this creepy long finger for picking out fruit. I really want to see that.’

‘You are too funny,’ Thalia says in a blank tone, then waves at someone over my shoulder. ‘I’ve got to introduce someone to Lynne,’ she says. ‘I’ll see you later, okay? Nice to meet you, Mary.’

Kevin squints after her, shaking his head.

‘Non sequiturs are the only way to get rid of her,’ he mutters, but he sounds bothered by the exchange.

I’m about to ask why when I see Greg. Alone again, walking the rim of the cocktail area, where the wall breaks for the museum’s loading dock. Greg’s never alone at parties. He instantly finds a group and joins, hands in his pockets, head bucked back for a ready guffaw. A camera flashes near him and he cringes.

‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ Bas booms from the stage in the middle of the dinner tent. ‘Please take your seats for dinner.’

Around us, conversation ceases, and people start cutting and weaving toward the tent, talking about their table numbers. Greg starts heading our way, and Kevin looks lost in the swirl of pushy, ageless ladies desperate to know their social standing. So I grab Kevin’s hand.

‘Follow me,’ I say. ‘You’ll want to get your seat before all the paparazzi take them.’

His fingers, surprisingly dry and strong, grip mine back. Suddenly we’re not doing that light-steering social touch – we’re actually holding hands, the gesture more intimate than I intended. My heart starts thumping, and I try not to trip in the boots that have been squeezing my feet to throbbing hooves. Kevin hunches forward as if he’s ready to tackle anyone who impedes us.

I drop Kevin’s fingers when we reach the dinner tent and it gets too tight to move in tandem. We pass Janis Rocque – a ectionately known in-house as J. Ro – heir to the Rocque fortune and her father’s floundering private museum. Tonight she looks distinctly uncomfortable in her sea-green suit and coils of brown hair. J. Ro likes being at the center of things, but she hates the spotlight and she must be getting worried about our missing guest of honor by now. After her trails an expressionless Nelson de Wilde, and Lynne after him, checking the watch on her slender wrist. It’s six o’clock. The caterers have lined up with the salad plates.

On the other side of the tables, the crowd opens and I turn back for Kevin. I don’t know what expression I’m wearing, but it seems to silence him.

‘You can find a seat over there,’ I blurt, showing him the tables reserved for the media, where photographers are now sitting with their cameras and peering around like meerkats. ‘I’ll be nearby if you need me.’

I point to the back entrance of the dinner tent, where Jayme and I will perch at an unbouqueted white table with other Rocque staff members and our laptops, pretending we don’t need to eat. I can feel Kevin’s eyes on me as I limp away.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Bas repeats, ‘I’d like to welcome you to the Rocque’s Gala for 2003, a street party literally in the street. Any traffic violations will be prosecuted by the board . . .’ He pauses for some faint, forced laughter. ‘Before we tuck into this delicious dinner and begin the extraordinary evening we have planned, I have a brief announcement. Our Gala honoree and the star of the evening, Kim Lord, has been delayed.’

A murmur of concern rises from the crowd.

Bas holds up his hands. ‘She will arrive quite soon, and I can assure you that her paintings are already here, and they are devastating. Here’s some advance praise from the New York Times, just in: “Kim Lord’s eleven portraits and one monumental still life are the product of years of examining the lives, deaths, and media coverage of murdered women, but they are also a statement about painting, how alive it is, how it can still challenge the dominion of photography in our age.”’

Clapping interrupts him.

He smiles. ‘Thank you all for coming out to celebrate Kim Lord, the Rocque, and the gift’ – he lurches and grips the podium, as if he has for a moment lost his balance – ‘we are bringing to Los Angeles for the next three months.’

He hasn’t announced the real gift. The millions-of-dollars gift from Kim Lord, courtesy of her donation of Still Lives to the Rocque’s permanent collection. I search for Kim’s gallerist again and spot him holding his fork, about to spear his frisée and beets. For some reason, Nelson’s tan, metallic look always makes me think of prosthetic limbs, things that are made to look natural but are creepy instead, and also more durable. He sneers and shakes his head, briefly, as if disgusted. It’s an odd expression for someone whose prize artist just got heaped with critical praise.

Bas returns to his seat in a storm of applause. His wife pats him on the shoulder. She is a predictably pale blonde with a talent for smiling without seeming friendly at all. I’ve heard a rumor of divorce. Does she know Bas may lose his job?

I reach the PR table and relieve Jayme so she can ply the most impatient reporters with extra bottles of champagne. Yegina comes over in a tight blue dress and combat boots and sinks down beside me.

‘What was that?’ she asks in an impressed voice.

‘What?’

‘Maggie Richter grabs handsome stranger’s hand just as ex Greg approaches,’ says Yegina. She can’t bear to call him by his new moniker either. (‘Shaw,’ she said scornfully. ‘It’s like a cross between a soap opera name and a tractor brand.’)

‘Handsome stranger is called Kevin. I was afraid we were about to be devoured by Thalia Thalberg,’ I say. ‘Clearly she hasn’t eaten since 2001.’

‘I wish you were edible,’ says Yegina. ‘I’m starving.’

I laugh. She waits, gazing at me with her gray-brown eyes. Yegina has carried me through my breakup, as I bolstered her last year during her divorce from Chad, the bitter end of a long string of white surfers, skaters, and Tibetan Buddhism majors that she has been rescuing since age sixteen.

Now Yegina has given herself over entirely to Asian speed dating and singles nights at her parents’ church, but every fellow she meets has some fatal aw. Humming when he drives. Absolutely silent in bed. Never heard of the Dead Milkmen. Mispronounces Ed Ruscha’s last name. Bad teeth. Too-perfect teeth. Doesn’t know the meaning of ennui. Yegina needs a guy who gets her, and that’s hard to find. There’s a large class of men who can’t endure humor in a woman.

‘Anyway, what did our beloved chief curator show you on her phone?’ I ask.

Yegina confirms that Lynne got a text from the artist announcing her arrival at seven o’clock. I tell her what Jayme told me about a possible stalker.

‘That’s creepy. No wonder she’s been showing up in disguise,’ says Yegina.

‘Though why can’t she disguise herself as Margaret Thatcher or something?’ I ask. ‘Why only dress as starlets? She’s practically forty.’

Yegina shrugs but doesn’t reply.

My fingers find my little butter y earrings and twist them. I wish I could rid myself of this poisonous jealousy. At the head table, Kim Lord’s absence looms at Greg’s left elbow, and Greg himself is looking worse and worse, his cheeks rough and red, as if he shaved them with a dull razor. In times of stress, he forgets to take care of himself. He was a stubbly, hollowed wreck the month after his mother died.

I watch Janis Rocque lean across the table and start interrogating him, which is the conversational equivalent of being whipped around in the locked jaw of a pit bull. I have witnessed Bas being berated by her through the glass door of his office, and Greg now has the same eye bulge, as if he is forgetting, second by second, how to breathe. Dark-haired J. Ro – with her masculine suits, enormous cash flow, and abrupt, decisive manner – is CEO, patron saint, and mercurial monarch of the L.A. art world. She is greatly beloved by many and feared by more. Although the Rocque is just one of her projects, it’s been the core of her vision since the 1980s – that L.A. will not play second fiddle to New York, with its entrenched and historic art scene, but will seize the future by taking risks, supporting art that surprises people and forces them to self-examine. Those of us who love the Rocque believe that if we fail, it’s not just the museum that will go under but also the potential of our city and what it could become.

Regardless of the Rocque’s fate, J. Ro’s public censure could be a big blow to Greg’s gallery. Before I feel sorry for him, however, I remind myself that he chose this fate, this attempt at life among the ultrarich. You can’t succeed in art dealing without such effort.

After a few minutes, Greg stares down at the table, silent and rigid. J. Ro yanks out her phone and wanders away to make a call.

‘You guys hungry?’

I look up to see Kevin standing over us, holding three dinner plates. Why am I blushing? I duck my chin and stare at the ink stain on one of my fingers.

‘Half the paparazzi are heading out,’ he says. ‘Apparently there’s a premiere in Hollywood.’

‘Thank God,’ Yegina says. ‘Sit down.’

I don’t think I am hungry, but when Kevin slides the plate in front of me, I eat the salmon and asparagus gratefully, ignoring Yegina’s raised eyebrow.

‘Hey, so have you met the artist?’ I hear him ask. ‘What’s she really like?’

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