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Starlet
Author: Sophie Lark

 

Prologue

 

 

It was near lunchtime, but Mr. DeMille refused to let anybody eat.

“We’re going to start the next scene,” he declared, ignoring the pained faces of everyone in the room, and the audible rumbling coming from the stomach of Emmet Walsch, the lead camera operator.

DeMille’s assistant held back her groan. Ruby was starving as well, but her hunger hardly compared to her dread of how Ms. Bloom and Mr. Gable would react to this news. Mr. Gable had only just completed a difficult sword-fighting scene, in which he had to swing around a great blunted saber while sweating under the weight of an elaborate embroidered coat.

With trepidation, Ruby hurried over to the actors’ trailers to warn them. She knocked on Clark Gable’s door first. Mr. Gable was laying on the sofa with a wet towel over his eyes—it was his assistant Willie White who opened the door.

Ruby gave the announcement in a hesitant tone, and as she expected, Mr. Gable flung his towel against the wall and called the director a bloody tyrant.

“I’m not leaving here till I’ve had food and a good, stiff drink,” he declared. “A drink with ice, mind. Mrs. Fischer hasn’t let Willie into the kitchen all morning.”

“She’s been horribly busy,” Ruby said, rubbing her temples. “We’re all behind on everything. I’ll make sure you get your ice, Mr. Gable.”

“Thank you Ruby. You’re an angel,” he said gallantly, smoothing back his dark hair. He looked very handsome of course, but also a little sinister with his eyes smeared with kohl and his skin darkened with cork. It was all very fitting for the character of the Shahryar, but it made Ruby more hesitant than usual to annoy him.

She went to tap on Clara Bloom’s door next. She stood outside waiting, but there was no reply from within.

Ruby saw Lucille, the makeup artist, rinsing her brushes at the outdoor sink.

“Is Ms. Bloom ready?” Ruby asked her. “Mr. DeMille says he wants to start the tea ceremony scene.”

“No, she isn’t,” Lucille said, shaking the brushes so that droplets of water flung off in every direction, sparkling in the sunshine. “I’m sorry, I haven’t done a thing to her yet. I haven’t even seen her all morning.”

Ruby cursed silently. Mr. DeMille was going to blow his top when he heard Clara was late again.

There was a phone in the main office—she could try ringing Clara’s apartment. Perhaps if she dashed over quick enough while everyone was setting up, Mr. DeMille would not even need to know.

Ruby took a shortcut through the prop room, skirting piles of carpets and stacked tables, hurrying past the ornate saddles they had used on the camels last week, through the hodgepodge of vases and scarves and plaster statues that looked heavy but would topple and shatter if you so much as bumped them with your hip.

She came out in the hallway, at the end of which stood the main office—locked at the moment, but Ruby had the key on the jumbled ring hanging from her belt. The hall was unusually dark. Someone had forgotten to switch on the lights, or perhaps the bulb had burnt out again.

As Ruby hurried forward, she tripped over something large, heavy, and soft. She went sprawling, only just stopping short of bashing her face on the ground by flinging out her hands, skinning her palms on the concrete. Her glasses, however, skidded across the floor. Ruby was blind without them.

Tears sprang up in her eyes as she crawled about, groping for the missing spectacles in the gloom. What a horrid morning it had been, with Mr. DeMille in a towering mood and everyone grumpy about working on a Saturday. They were behind schedule on the film—three weeks behind—not to mention the ballooning budget. They knew Mr. Heller was likely to turn up any time now to lecture and threaten, and maybe even fire someone to set an example.

Everybody was exhausted and sloppy, leaving things laying around. What was it that had tripped her, a sandbag?

Ruby located her glasses at last, thrusting them back on her face. She turned around, thinking she must now drag this unknown object back to wherever it belonged.

She saw pale limbs sprawled out on the ground, a yellow cotton dress, ink-black hair. A girl. Ruby had tripped over a girl.

And not just any girl—even in the gloom, Ruby recognized the star of the film, Clara Bloom.

Ruby knew at once something was terribly wrong. Clara was laying on her back with her eyes wide open, staring up at the ceiling. Those eyes were her trademark—the papers sometimes called her The Black Cat, and indeed she did look like a cat with her impish little face, her sleek dark hair, and those thickly-lashed green eyes that slanted up at the corners.

But her eyes were fixed, unblinking, and there was something wrong with the color of them. Hardly daring to breathe, Ruby leaned over to look into Clara’s face. Clara’s eyes were dark with blood, the whole surface of them—no white at all.

Ruby let out a scream. Once she started screaming, she couldn’t stop. She staggered back against the wall and huddled there howling, until people came running from all sides.

 

 

1

 

 

I was washing dishes in my tiny apartment on Hutchinson Street in Chicago. I had the radio playing—"Address Unknown” just coming to an end. When the song stopped, the evening news bulletin began. It was difficult to hear it over the running water and clinking plates.

British cargo liner the Domala has been bombed off the Isle of Wight—no word yet on the 291 persons aboard . . . Cambridge has won this year’s boat race at Henley-on-Thames . . . Cart overturned at the Union Stock Yards, one man crushed, two more injured . . .

I didn’t particularly like listening to the news. It was becoming more and more alarming, especially the bulletins out of Europe. I finished scrubbing up the few dishes a single person makes, then stripped the rubber gloves off my hands and set my water glass upside down on the draining board to air dry.

Shocking news out of Hollywood today, the radio said.

I perked up a little. I didn’t care about gossip, but I thought if something interesting had happened, Clara would want to talk about it when she called me on Sunday. We spoke every Sunday afternoon for at least an hour. It was the best time to catch each other, since neither of us worked that day.

I untied my apron from around my waist, listening.

Actress Clara Bloom, half of the comedy duo Clara and Lillie, star of Who’s In Charge and The Little Empress, was found dead this afternoon on the Paramount Pictures studio lot. Cause of death is yet unknown, but police suspect foul play.

Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles has gone to Germany on a fact-finding mission to . . .

I stood frozen in the kitchen, the balled-up apron still in my hand.

What I heard seemed impossible.

It seemed like an auditory hallucination. Like my bored brain had invented something shocking.

It couldn’t be real, because everything else in the world was exactly the same. I could hear the heavy tread of Mr. Welnick walking around upstairs in his welder’s boots, and the yaps and happy shrieks of the Delphino children playing with their puppy next door.

The last of the evening light was still coming through the window over my kitchen sink, filtered by the iron fire escape and the taller buildings all around, no different than any other night.

I could still smell the tomato soup I’d made for dinner and see the open butter dish on my tiny kitchen table, speckled with crumbs from my toast.

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