by J.L. Royce
“You must be joking.”
Boris Petronowa stared at Andy, dark eyes shadowed by a strong brow.
The pitch was not going to plan. The elevator’s whir filled the ensuing silence, the soundtrack to the stillbirth of a young man’s dream. The producer, wrapped in a suit costing more than Andy’s net worth, leaned into him.
“Here’s a byline: ‘They hold no prejudice—white meat from the North, dark meat from the South’ Hmm?”
Andy gawped at him, feeling dwarfed by the executive’s bulk, unsure whether his comment was serious suggestion or a cruel joke.
“It could work?” he offered.
Petronowa scowled. “You’ve packaged a proposal sure to offend everyone in America!” And yet, Andy noticed, he himself did not seem particularly offended himself.
“Isn’t that what reality television is about?” Andy felt the heat rising in his face. “And there’s the scenery—the waterfalls, caves…”
He played his only remaining card.
“I’ve done a lot of research—found some intriguing sources, not public, documenting an actual cult—”
The elevator slowed. Andy broke off at a glance from Petronowa: the doors parted, and another executive stepped in.
She was smartly dressed, with a bearing that suggested she was not to be trifled with. Yet the producer made no attempt to move, forcing the newcomer to stand close in front of him. She was as tall as Andy, with honey blonde hair wrapped atop her head. He saw the producer’s hand flexing at his side, fingers inches from her hemline.
Petronowa’s eyes narrowed. “Beautiful women, you say?”
The movie mogul jabbed a fat finger at the button below his own destination.
“Tell the admin in reception that I’ve invited you over tonight. It’s a little gathering at my place. Someone you should meet will be there. Who knows; you may pick up some pointers.”
“Thanks!” Andy bit off any gushing gratitude—best not to show weakness.
The door slid open at thirty-two. Petronowa’s lavish salt and pepper eyebrows rose, dismissing Andy with a jerk of the head towards the hall beyond.
As the door slid shut, the producer’s fingers slipped beneath the skirt in front of him, grazing electric silk as they rose.
His companion murmured, “Such self-control.” A manicured finger pressed the Door Close button, and remained there.
She half-turned to glance down at him, frowning.
“You’re invitin’ him to the dinner?” In private, she tended to slip into the slow Southern drawl that had captured Petronowa.
“Just the party.” he corrected, with a shrug. “After that…we’ll see.”
His free hand slipped his phone out of his pocket and hit a speed dial entry. With the other hand he drew her into him.
The call connected, and Petronowa leaned into the speaker.
“You’re coming tonight, yes? Good. I need you to talk to someone. He just showed up with a spec script he’s been walking around. I’m attaching it. You’ll find it … fascinating.”
He sent the file and closed the call, turning his attention to the woman stropping him.
The elevator’s alarm rang.
“Why don’t we discuss this in my office?” Petronowa suggested.
[Reel 12, June 1985]
The woman is bathing in what the locals called Fitful Falls. The water would diminish to a trickle, they said, by the end of June, not to return until spring, barring a torrential storm.
She is nude, stepping out of the cold spray to soap herself, then back in again to rinse. Her age is indeterminate: she could be eighteen or thirty-eight. In other reels, the dark rope of wet hair appears in amber-blonde, waves.
Oakley had made the movie from concealment behind boulders teetering on the decaying ridge line, just above her location. He had recorded audio on a Philips cassette, which Andy had synchronized and added when he digitized the ethnologist’s 8 mm movies.
Heavy breasts and a pad of belly did nothing to detract from her appeal, in Andy’s opinion.
She finishes her last rinse, ringing out her long hair—tension; release; tension; release—before winding it in a towel and flipping it over her shoulder.
Shower over, she stares directly at the camera, with a sly smile: looks through the lens and into the camera man, the ethnologist, the aroused male. The film ends abruptly: she is out of the frame, as the camera goes pointing off-angle at the trees.
Reel 12, lying on top: it was the first thing Andy happened to peruse after he’d discovered the box of film canisters and tapes. He’d listened to Oakley’s simpering description of the woman—Laurel Anne—idolized by the middle-aged scientist. Early on Andy had been infatuated with Laurel Anne, too—tension; release; tension; release—shamelessly masturbating to the rhythm of her gliding hands.
He couldn’t bring himself to do that any longer, not after piecing together the entire story.
“What’s ‘C of K’? Is that more like ‘Knights of Columbus’, or ‘KFC’?”
He started. Julia was waggling his tablet, displaying his to-do list. Her other hand offered a bowl of salad, which she placed at his elbow
“Neither,” he replied, glancing at the kale and sprouts, then refocusing on the page of script before him. Lately she had been hinting that he ‘temporarily’ find regular employment. There was no way Andy could avoid this conversation.
It was, after all, her apartment.
“Well, what then? Is it that blog you hired on to write, about forgotten scientists?”
“Yes,” Andy agreed immediately, seeing an exit. “As a matter of fact, yes. I had that day job—remember?—moving files for the renovation project in the Department headquarters.”
Decades of physical research materials had been designated for digitization and recycling: lab notebooks, videotapes, audio tapes…and films.
“Turns out the easiest place to find forgotten scientists is in the file storage room.”
Julia leaned over his shoulder, fine brown hair drifting between them. She noticed the video still running, minimized: Reel 12.
She poked the icon: the window opened with Laurel Anne spreading suds over her chest.
“Research, actually. The cinematic output of one Walter Oakley, D.Phil.”
“What did he study—Boobology?”
“American subcultures, cults, and extended family sects.”
“And you just, what, borrowed his work?”
“I digitized the collection for the University and, yes, I kept a copy.” His explanation was adequate, and she minimized the video again.
“Not surprising that Oakley became obsessed with the project,” he joked, hoping she would take it lightly.
“So what is ‘C of K’?” She ran her hands across his shoulders, then up into his dark hair. “Hmm?”
“It’s…a script I’m working on. For a reality series.” Andy leaned back, tried to capture her. She tugged on his curls, but resisted his embrace.
“So not the blog you’d get paid for.” Julia released him.
“Have you refreshed your resume?” she pressed. “Like you promised?”
“Hey, easy—I’ll get to it.”
She picked up the script he had just finished printing, flipping open the cover.
“Cannibals of Kentucky? Are you joking?”
It seemed to be the common reaction.
[Reel 17, August 1985; audio only]
(WO) Can you show me your teeth?
(WO) Is that blood on your teeth?
(LA) I brush my teeth—
(WO) It may be a symptom of scurvy. Fascinating! Do you ever eat fresh fruit, like oranges?
(LA, after a pause) I eat meat.
(WO) Are any of your teeth loose?
(LA) No. Don’t y’all eat meat?
Burt was somewhat more supportive of his client.
“What do I wear?” Andy asked, desperate for advice.
“I’m your agent—not Queer Eye.” There was silence on the line, then Burt relented.
“Let’s see… whatever you have in mind, it’s probably not right for Boris Petronowa’s party. Is it dinner?”
“I…don’t think so.”
“Then make it as simple as possible—denim without holes, a button-down shirt, but casual—no necktie. A necktie is a sign of submission.”
“This is a good thing, right?” Andy pleaded. “I mean, I was hoping to go to his office—”
“Security didn’t throw you out, either. You did all right, kid.”
Andy had only a moment to bask in Burt’s praise before the agent spoke again.
“You say there was a tall blonde in the elevator with Petronowa?”
“She got on—I’m not sure she was with him—”
“Did she smile?”
“No; she looked…”
“Predatory. It was Levka, definitely. The power behind the throne. Watch out for her. You didn’t say anything to her, I hope?”
“She may appear to just be another executive in his production company, but remember this: she may not make Petronowa’s decisions, but she can unmake them. Yeah, it’s a dog-eat-dog business.”
Andy could only see a bright future unfolding.
“Oh—and one more thing…”
“Don’t drive—hire a car.”
“I’ve seen your car.”
[Reel 20, September 1985]
A motel room, shabby, and probably the scientist’s. The camera is across the room, on a tripod, or perched on a piece of furniture. Oakley is half-turned towards Laurel Anne, the pair seated on a dingy couch. She is wearing a summer dress, legs crossed, studying her strapped heels. The outfit looks new.
(LA) I’m looking forward to California—there are lots of young people there, aren’t there. Going to Hollywood, where y’all make the movies.
(WO) You promised to tell me more. Would you call yourself a priestess?
(LA, bored) I understand the old ways, yeah.
She lifts her breasts, squirming.
(LA) Why do I have to wear this thing?
She tugs on the bra straps.
(WO) Tell me about the old ways, Laurel Anne.
(LA) You already know!
She tosses back her heavy hair and laughs, leaning towards him to plant a kiss on his cheek.
(WO, stammers) So sex is part of your ceremony.
(LA, serious) The young eat the old—eat their food, then when they die, use up their money. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The old can eat the young—eat their glamour, their youth…
Weaving up into the foothills, the hired car took Andy as far as the gate. The Santa Monica Mountains were a dark contrast to the light and noise of human activity in the assemblage of glass and steel cubes perched on the hillside.
The engraved card he had received from Petronowa’s officious admin took him past security. He walked up the crushed rock driveway, stepping aside for the limos purring up to deposit their cargo at the door. The evening was pleasantly cool, compared to the city.
Andy lingered outside, admiring the brutal, lavish design, the geometry of light. A pool reflected a topiary garden with a wandering walk framing the property. The mansion was a tight fit for the land, but most of the Trousdale Estates homes were on even smaller lots.
“What do you think?”
Andy turned at the friendly tone of a woman’s voice.
“I’d hate to pay the taxes,” he replied, studying the speaker. She seemed familiar, but Andy couldn’t place her.
“I’m Jill.” She was middle-aged, auburn hair trimmed close around her face, dressed simply but elegantly, smiling encouragement at him as one might a shy animal or small child.
“But it’s…nice,” he continued. “Seems to have a little more privacy than some of the bigger places.”
“Yes, Boris bought the neighboring property and tore down a landmark. Gave some realtors pause.”
Jill waited patiently.
“Oh—I’m Andy,” he finally supplied, offering his hand. “Sorry, if I seem distracted—I’ve just got a lot riding on tonight…”
“Would you like to step inside and get a drink, Andy?” she asked. “I’ll protect you.”
Andy made a show of striding manfully up the walk. If Jill suspected he was shy, she was right.
“I think we were supposed to meet,” she suggested, leading him into the foyer.
Water flowed through the house in an open channel to the reflecting pool they had passed. Moving through, they stepped out again onto a large patio in several levels on the side of the hill. A full bar had been set up outside, along with a lavish spread of finger food.
“You mean, like fated?” Andy asked, trying to get the attention of the bartender. Jill made an irritated noise, and ordered for them both.
“No—I mean it’s totally like Boris to not bother with details like names, or introductions.”
Music drifted below the cross-currents of conversations, and Andy saw a string quartet playing to the side. Jill accepted a martini and handed him another.
Awareness dawned. Andy peered at her. “Professor…Neumann?”
“Just call me Jill.” It was her turn to frown in recognition. “Are you at UCLA?”
“Well, I took some classes in the graduate program, did some…work…there.”
“I thought you looked familiar,” she remarked. “And your field is anthropophagy, I take it.”
Andy sipped the drink, taking time to parse the word before replying.
“I wouldn’t call it my field, exactly. But lately, yes, I’ve been doing some research, revisiting some earlier work, you might say.”
Jill seemed amused. “And it occurred to you it might make for entertaining programming? I don’t think there’s much appetite for another Manhunter.”
They made their way through the milling guests and into a quieter corner of the patio. The lights of Beverly Hills were spread out before them in the summer evening. The academic motioned towards a pair of patio chairs, and Andy trailed obediently behind her. They settled down.
“Well, there’s no crime or horror, per se,” Andy pointed out.
“At least not in the pilot.” Jill sighed. “You haven’t gotten any management input yet. Not that it isn’t an interesting topic, if a bit marginal.”
“There are cooking shows; and survival shows…”
She grimaced. “However, this story line is beyond belief.”
“So that would make you, what—a cannibal-denier?” Andy assumed a confident slouch as the martini worked on him.
“Not at all,” she retorted. “It certainly occurs among humans in extremis. And for ceremonial purposes—magical reasoning…”
Andy’s attention drifted from the impromptu lecture to the guests drifting by: directors, actors, media influencers, some he had followed online. The rest, he presumed, were involved in production—or wannabes, like himself.
“So, Jill,” he interrupted. “What’s a nice scientist like you…”
She finished his thought. “Doing at a producer’s party? I work for his production company as a consultant—cultural sensitivity issues.”
She waggled a skewered olive at him before popping it into her mouth, nodding to herself.
“That’s right—I enable a straight white man to make a fortune telling the stories of brown, female, and gay people. And avoid being charged with ‘cultural misappropriation’.”
“How does he navigate it? Everybody’s some group, nobody’s all groups.”
“In a word: sensitivity,” Jill replied. “I review the work, call them out on casting, or stereotypes.” She shrugged. “Mostly I make sure that hiring is fair and the scripts aren’t too silly.”
Andy sipped. “How do you feel about cannibals as a vulnerable minority?”
She pursed her lips. “I haven’t had time for a thorough reading of your script, but—” she grinned “—perhaps we can use the practice as a bridge between different cultures, rather than the PC interpretation of oppressor versus oppressed, colonizer versus native—”
He bit back Eat or be eaten, and nodded encouragement.
Jill could make or break his project.
“This would be almost a religious practice,” he suggested.
Jill agreed. “The ceremonial consumption of flesh and blood, imbuing the recipient with the donor’s qualities, or powers—”
“Don’t forget semen,” said a sultry voice behind Andy.
He started, splashing himself with gin, and turned to find the tall figure of Levka looming behind him. The hand resting possessively upon his shoulder was so light that he had not felt its presence.
Levka wore what Andy thought at first was a black pantsuit. The fabric, however, was sheer enough for lingerie pajamas, merely shadowing her form. Her bright hair was gathered into a plait wrapped around her head.
The executive continued, “You’ll find that more semen is consumed in Hollywood than human flesh and blood combined, and for the same reason.”
She sipped what might have been an Old Fashioned, a large cherry as unnaturally red as her full lips bobbing in its depths.
“Which is?” Jill prompted.
The blonde leaned down between them.
“Power,” she murmured.
Jill laughed lightly and Andy, convinced it was prudent not to comment, merely chuckled.
“Haven’t you grilled our guest enough?” Levka purred. “He looks ready to be served up.”
Andy tried to place her voice. It could have belonged to a glamorous movie star of the mid-twentieth century, all whiskey and cigarettes crossing ruby lips, a trace of Southern drawl.
“We’re almost done,” Jill hinted. “Why don’t you run along and tell Boris that Andy’s here?”
The executive brought her mouth to Jill’s ear, whispering something, then kissing her on the cheek. Straightening, she glanced at Andy with a slight smile and strolled away.
He admired her retreat, wondering in a vague, alcohol-infused way where he’d seen her, until Jill cleared her throat.
“Levka is quite successful at what she does.”
“Survival. It’s a very competitive business.” Jill frowned into her empty glass, then leaned over to examine his.
“I see we need a refresh. But just one more question.”
“When you were in the department, did you ever come across the work of a Walter Oakley? He was interested in American folk legends and cult behavior, especially in the American South.”
Andy frowned, as if searching his memory, while desperately crafting a reply.
“Oakley? Did he publish in this field? I don’t think I came across any papers…” It was conveniently true.
“No; in fact, he worked in the 80’s. Didn’t publish much before he…vanished.”
“You don’t say?” Andy tried to avoid overacting. “I’ll have to make a note to look him up.” He took out his phone as if to take a memo.
“Where did you say Oakley did his field work?”
“I didn’t.” Jill waved it away. “Don’t bother; Oakley didn’t amount to much. But … as it happens, it was Kentucky.”
Andy felt her watching him.
“That’s where your story’s set, isn’t it?” she asked.
Andy nodded, appearing thoughtful. “You know, I do recall his name—nothing published, just some files in the Department.”
“That would be him, better at collecting data than disseminating it.”
Jill stood, offering her arm. “And then he just vanished, from Kentucky.”
“Maybe Oakley was eaten by a … mountain lion,” Andy suggested.
With a cinematic flourish, Andy interlaced his arm in hers, and they strolled back towards the bar.
“Ever been to Kentucky?” She asked him.
“Uh, no—never had the chance.”
“Too bad—I thought you might be able to suggest some targets for location scouting. Usually a scriptwriter has some vision of the setting, even if he’s smart enough not to belabor the script with the details.” She smiled encouragement.
Andy felt his heart pound. “Oh, I do have some ideas…” He summoned up a few of the town names he could recall from Oakley’s mind-numbing monologues, to season his lie.
“Well, good,” Jill said peremptorily, leading him into the glass cubes to join the shambling herd of guests, their conversations and laughter.
“Boris will be pleased.”
Jill was offering her opinion to the producer in a sidebar, just out of earshot. Boris was nodding, with an occasional sidelong glance at the would-be screenwriter. Andy feigned interest in his refreshed drink while straining to hear, but soon became absorbed in identifying as many celebrities as he could. Julie wouldn’t believe him—if she ever spoke to him again, for failing to extend the invitation to her. He wanted to take out his phone and post a few pictures, but thought it would make him appear a wannabe.
Then all of that activity seemed like background for one person, gliding slowly through the crowd. Wherever she went, frivolity was dampened, and deference appeared.
Levka moved like a great cat through their midst. Watching guests defer to her, Andy was reminded of small animals, rolling over before the predator—whether feigning death or preparing for it. The filmy pantsuit revealed her rolling hips, and Andy felt some familiar response harden him. He wondered what it would be like to roll over for her, supine, defenseless…
As if listening, she turned, and locked eyes with him, for a moment, displaying that sly trace of a smile, so familiar…
“Andy?” Boris rumbled; then—perhaps noticing the object of his abstraction—grinned and took him by the arm.
“Come; we should talk. Plenty of time for fun later.”
Jill appeared subdued; and seeing him in Boris’s orbit, drained her drink.
“I think Andy and I need an update,” she suggested, moving to intercept them.
Boris laughed. “You can have what’s left when Levka’s through; right now, we have business.” He turned to Andy.
“I realize I haven’t been a very good host.” With that, the producer steered him away from Jill and Levka and the glitterati, and deeper into the sterile steel and glass warren. “I should show you the place.”
Andy glanced back to nod at the scientist, who turned away, frowning.
The made a circuit of the ground level, past lavish bedrooms, pristine baths, an impressive study.
“Why don’t you let me make it up to you. You hungry? I’m hungry—why don’t you stay for dinner?” Boris grinned. “I assume you’re free?”
Andy nodded, convinced he had just won a victory, of sorts.
“Let’s see where the important work gets done,” Boris suggested.
Andy decided to press his advantage.
“Location testing—I have some ideas I’d like to share…”
They approached the burnished steel door of an elevator, and Boris waved his phone at a featureless panel. The door slid open silently, and they stepped inside.
“All business, eh? I suppose you have some casting tips, too?” He chuckled. “Some ideas for Lucy May, I suppose?” He grew serious. “The Lucy Mays of the world are my job.”
The elevator descended.
“Of course,” Andy deferred. “Just where are we going? Didn’t I see the kitchen upstairs?”
“The home kitchen, yes—very elegant; connected appliances and all that rot. I thought you’d like to see where the real cooking goes on, for an event like this.”
The younger man couldn’t understand why he would be interested, but wasn’t about to say that.
“Real cooking?” he repeated.
“The banquet kitchen.”
The door slid open, and they faced a spacious tiled chamber full of gleaming metal counters, cooking hoods over expansive grills, and multiple large ovens.
“I’m very proud of this place—we can take on any meal for any number. Tonight, for example—ribs for one hundred guests, give or take a few leaf-eaters.”
He laughed, shambling down the long row of cooking stations, a finger gliding along the stainless steel surface. Andy followed.
“Why is no one here?”
“Crew’s on break—dinner is all prepared, waiting for us upstairs. The staff is eating now, so they can be ready to serve—”
His phone chimed, and he nodded.
“—in exactly one-half hour.”
An impressive array of polished knives, cleavers and saws, filled a rack on the back wall, above a broad oak table.
“I talked to my people—Jill, Levka, others.” Boris’s arm fell heavily across Andy’s shoulders.
“Nothing personal, but they just don’t think you’re hungry enough to make it in Hollywood. Levka, now; came out her with nothing, changed her name, and clawed her way to the top. My queen; my lioness…” Boris squeezed Andy’s shoulder.
“Do you work out? Feels like you work out. Muscular.”
He motioned at another steel door, guiding Andy forward as the young man struggled with a response. Petronowa waved his phone again. The door gave a solid click, swinging open.
“Walk-in freezer. Come in; I want to show you the secret of fine dining.”
The producer entered, toggling on the lights, Andy trailing behind.
“Can you guess the answer?” Boris ushered him forward, stepping aside.
The young man shuddered in the cold, facing a row of hanging carcasses.
Boris grinned. “The ingredients—always, fresh ingredients. See?”
As Andy stared around at the pale, cold flesh, racks of ribs, hanging hocks, the door slammed behind him and the light was extinguished. Alone in the darkness, Andy fumbled for a handle, and finding none, pounded on the door until his fist ached.
Crouched in the freezing cold, he recalled a sultry voice, and it came to him, how he’d encountered Levka before. He found he had lost his appetite.