New Year's Eve, 1927
Harry's Bar, Paris
The most beautiful girl in the room was sitting at the sleek, chromium bar américain, her endless exquisite legs displayed to perfection on a tall stool. As he watched, she folded back her brief black satin skirt to well above the knee—he gasped—and drew a small silver flask from her garter. She doctored the dark red drink in the cocktail glass before her, replaced the flask and took a long sip. She had been beautiful before, with her angelic, angular features and perfect build, but now she seemed to glow and radiate an unearthly gorgeousness.
Suddenly aware of his gaze—she must have felt the heat of his adoration—she turned his way, with a smile and a most un-angelic wink. He stood up quickly and took the seat next to her.
“I'd like to have what you're having—it makes you utterly radiant.”
Sally took another sip and regarded him with amusement, dark eyes wide, fine eyebrows almost disappearing into her fashionable crisp bob.
“It's Fernet and absinthe, mostly. Shall I order you one? It's rather bitter; not many like it.”
With an involuntary grimace (girls and their cocktails!) he shook his head. “I'll stick to whisky. But what's your special additive?” He glanced meaningfully down at her skirt. “Seems to me, that's what puts the sparkle in your eyes.”
“Oh,” she smiled, “just my health tonic. An ancient recipe of my grandmother's.”
“May I try it?”
“I don't think you'd like it.” Somehow she had gestured fluidly and a whisky had appeared. “Let's drink up and take a walk.”
“I'd like that.” He tried to look deep into her eyes, but felt himself slipping; he couldn't catch hold, couldn't touch bottom. Perversely, he reached for her drink and drained it.
As they stood up, he saw her look over his shoulder and nod to someone. He was momentarily on edge—did she have some lowlife confederate who would follow them? With an effort, he turned his head; no, she was just letting her girlfriends know she was going.
“Are you a tart or just a modern girl?” The blunt question slipped out; he hadn't meant to say it aloud. What the hell was in that drink?
She laughed, not offended. “I'm a mannequin. A model girl,” she added in English.
“You certainly are. The very model of a modern girl.” She was almost as tall as he was. He slipped his arm around her shoulders and they went out.
He could still taste her strange cocktail—bitter, but not only that. Complex, haunting . . . so many notes of flavor and fragrance . . . or was that her scent? She was so close to him, her glossy hair brushing his chin, her lean elegant body leaning into his, the thrilling heft of round dense breasts beneath her sliding satin dress . . .
And that was all he remembered. His head throbbed, he felt bruised in a dozen obscure places—and what was he doing under a bridge, with the clochards, rubbing his eyes against the brilliant morning light? Still in evening clothes, he wrapped his white silk scarf around the small wound on his neck and went home.
The most beautiful girl in the room had blazing eyes and vivid russet curls escaping her chignon. She was tall and carried herself like the ballerina she had once been. No one in this room, she reflected—passionate balletomanes all, no doubt—could have seen her on the Mariinsky stage. Though she looked not a day over twenty-four, Natalie's memories were hundreds of years deep, and the last time she'd danced had been over a century ago.
Turning her back on the lavish spread of vodka and zakuskie, she accepted a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and drifted across the ornate, over-heated room. Clustered on settees, standing in tight groups near the samovar, hovering over the refreshments, Russian emigrés were everywhere, chattering away in the mother tongue as if they might never have another chance. Natalie sighed, wondering why she had come.
“Talia, darling, there you are! Come and say hello to some old friends.”
These particular old friends of her hostess (a Moscow society matron whom Natalie genuinely liked) were a countess, a princess and a naval commander. Natalie made polite conversation, keeping her private assessments well-concealed: she had seen the commander working as a hotel doorman, and as for the so-called princess, she'd known both her mother and grandmother and would not have described them as regal in any way.
An hour later, Natalie had had enough—the laments for “our vanished way of life,” the complaints about Paris (“Yes, of course it is beautiful, but so crowded, so rude, so expensive!”), the wearying introductions to impossible numbers of self-proclaimed aristocrats.
Heading toward the exit, she almost collided with a tall, well-dressed man, and they each took a step back.
“Aleksei!” Natalie exclaimed with pleasure. “If only you'd come earlier; I'm afraid I am terminally bored.”
“Natalia! You must not leave yet. Step into the library and we'll catch up.” He opened a door to a mercifully empty room.
“Darling, how I've missed you,” he murmured into her hair. “No one in Paris has a perfect Russian body like yours.”
“And no one in Paris has rich, healthy Russian blood like yours.” She raised her mouth from his throat. “Don't worry, I won't take more than you can spare. It's so good to see you, darling.”
Natalie left smiling, licking her teeth. There was a reason to have come, after all.
Le Boeuf Sur le Toît
The most beautiful girl in the room, petite and precisely sculpted, was talking in halting Japanese to Tsuguharu Leonard Foujita. He had been curious about her origins; she was explaining that she was born in Indochine and had picked up a very few Japanese phrases in her travels. Gracefully sidestepping an invitation to pose for him, she turned to Picasso and switched briefly to Spanish before they all resumed speaking in French.
“You don't want me to pose for you, Léo,” she said again. “That would just keep both of us locked in the stereotypes of orientalism. Better to let Pablo give me three eyes.”
Picasso laughed, but studied her seriously for a moment. “Ah non, Lucienne ma petite. Your eyes are in just the right places. But the planes of your face—you are cubism.”
“Thank you, chéri. And now excuse me; I must go and say hello to Sonia and Robert.”
Taking leave, Lucienne gave each of the artists a friendly hug, nuzzling their necks like an enchanting, sleek cat. Her silky bobbed hair fell forward, and no one could possibly notice the dainty fangs that emerged as she took a few sips from the bull-like neck of one and the slender throat of the other.
“A Blood and Sand, please,” someone said to the barman. Sally turned and looked down the bar, startled not just by the unusual and intriguing order, but the voice giving it—young, female and American.
She was even more startled to see a young woman who was practically her mirror image—slender and charming, with dead-black, dead-straight hair cut in a strictly clipped bob. Aware of her scrutiny, the girl turned and looked back at Sally, a direct intelligent gaze below perfectly straight eyebrows.
Sally slid off her chromium-legged stool and moved down to where the stranger sat.
“Hello, I'm Sally,” she said in English, putting out her hand.
“Louise.” The American shook her hand, still holding her eyes with a level look.
“You're American! And you like Valentino?”
A slight shrug. “He's all right—kind of a sweetheart, really. I didn't care for the film all that much, but it's a tasty drink.” Right on cue, the barman placed a chilled cocktail glass before her and filled it with the fragrant, reddish-brown contents of a shaker.
Sally raised her own Gin & It (rosy with Italian vermouth) in salute. “I do like red drinks, don't you?” she ventured, “Though they don't always make them strong enough here.” With a wink, she retrieved her silver flask from her garter and added a few deep red drops to her glass.
Louise watched her, eyes wide. “How interesting,” she said softly.
“Isn't it?” Sally winked.
“You're not English, are you?”
“I'm hurt that you would say that—my English is flawless, non? Alors, I am a tremendous Anglophile, but you are right, I am pure Parisian French, for generations.”
“I thought so. You're one of those European vamps.”
Sally sipped her drink carefully. “Yes, you could say that. And you . . .?”
“That's what everyone thinks I am. A vamp, a man-eater. I've had to come here, to make films in Europe—no one understands me back home. They say I'm immoral . . .”
“Immortality, yes, it has its problems . . .” Sally interrupted eagerly.
Louise shrugged. “Maybe I am immoral; I don't know. I'm a dancer, really.”
Fragments of the American girl's conversation were starting to piece themselves together in Sally's mind. “You're in films! And you actually know Valentino? You must be from Hollywood!”
“New York, actually—that's my real home, and originally, the American Midwest—but yes, I suppose I am from Hollywood currently.”
“And you're a vamp?”
Louise's silky hair fell into her face as she shook her head. “Type-casting. I suppose it's because I don't really care if my clothes stay on or not.” Her satin frock, which was improbably low-cut in front, in back and at the sides, seemed to be slipping from her shoulders even as she spoke. She shrugged it back into place. “So, Sally—what do you do for fun around here?”
Sally's eyes brightened. “Come and meet my friends. I'm sure we can come up with something.”
Freshly bathed, lightly scented with vetiver and with a “close shave” faintly shadowed at the jawline, Jean Vallotin began to dress—cream-colored silk-knit underwear, a hyacinth-blue shirt with gold and opal cufflinks, the trousers of a beautifully-cut gray cashmere suit. Before the mirror, Jean carefully arranged the neckwear which, born of necessity, had become a signature style, already being emulated by the most modish Berliners: a soft foulard ascot tied under the shirt collar, just peeping above the top button with a hint of color and pattern, and a wide four-in-hand tie of rich, iridescent brocade below the collar, secured with a gray pearl stickpin and tucked into a snug waistcoat.
Sally had devised the double neck-cloth system after realizing what a giveaway her slender throat and complete absence of adam's apple might be. Now, slipping on her double-vent jacket, smoothing it down, arranging her pocket square and selecting a boutonièrre from a vase of pale chrysanthemums, she smiled as she remembered how desperate she'd felt to get back into girl's clothing on their arrival in Berlin. She'd had it all planned—her ever-so-gentlemanly and heartfelt little speech to the contessa before a lingering kiss on the hand, a bow and goodbye . . . until she'd spotted her photo on the front page of every paper at the station newsstand. She didn't even need to lean close to see her likeness, with a blonde bob and gauzy frock, or to read the headlines: “Parisienne femme fatale sought in Massie deaths!”
Luckily, the contessa was too preoccupied in supervising her mountain of luggage and reading messages to give much attention to the newsstand or to Jean himself.
Finally, she turned to her traveling companion: “Jean darling, you must be my guest here. Take the hansom back to my townhouse—do make sure they're careful with my luggage—and make yourself at home. And I want you to visit this shop” (a name scribbled on a page torn from her notebook) “and get yourself some clothes—everything you need. Put it on my account. I insist! It will give me great pleasure. Let them fit you out completely. I have to deal with some business in the country for a few days—such a bore—but you should enjoy Berlin. Au revoir, my sweet; I'll see you soon.”
There had been no choice, really, but to agree. And life, these past few days, in the contessa's grand townhouse, had been nothing but agreeable.
Sally smiled again at Jean's flawless reflection before picking up a pale gray homburg, gray suede gloves and an ivory-topped walking stick and heading out for a stroll.