Goddess of Light gs-3, Page 2P. C. Cast
"His current release is Pillars of the Sword, but he's published more than fifty books, and most of them have appeared on all the major best-seller lists."
"Never heard of him, but then I like a good crossword puzzle more than just about anything." She cackled again.
"Well, anything except a long, tall man in a cowboy hat and a cold beer."
She elbowed Pamela as she laughed, this time on purpose. Pamela was surprised to feel herself smiling back. There was something honest and real about the old woman that made her craggy face and her gruff manner strangely appealing.
"Pamela Gray," she said, holding out her hand.
"Billie Mae Johnson." She returned the handshake with a firm grip and a warm smile. "Pleased to meet ya. If you need a friendly face or a cold beer, come on by the Flamingo. I'm usually working at the bar on the main floor."
"I may just take you up on that."
The stewardess announced that they were landing, and Pamela returned her seat to the full and upright position. Billie Mae shook her head and grumbled at the squares of the crossword puzzle, most of which were still empty.
"Ya have to know that the hoity-toity New York Times has gone to hell when they start lettin' divorce lawyers from Texas write their puzzles." She sighed and concentrated on one of the questions before looking askance at Pamela. "Hey, the snooty clue is 'metaphoric emancipation.' The answer has seven letters. All I can think of is Budweiser, but that's nine."
"Is the attorney who wrote the puzzle a man or a woman?"
"Try alimony," Pamela said, smiling wickedly.
Billie Mae filled in the letters with a satisfied grunt, then she winked at Pamela as the plane touched down. "You just earned yourself a free beer. Hope you're as good at decoratin' as you are at crosswords."
Pamela approached the uniformed man who was holding a sign that spelled out Pamela Gray, Ruby Slipper, in gold embossed letters. Before she could speak, the man executed an efficient little bow and asked in a clipped British accent, "Miss Gray?"
"Yes, I'm Pamela Gray."
"Very good, madam. I shall take your luggage. Please be so good as to follow me."
She did, and had to hurry to keep up with his brisk pace as he whisked confidently through the crowded airport and out to the waiting limo. Pamela wanted to stand and gawk when he opened the door to a lovely vintage stretch Rolls-Royce, but she slid into the dove colored leather seat gracefully, thanking him before he closed the door.
"Well met, Miss Gray!" a deep voice boomed at her from across the limo.
Pamela jumped. Out of the shadows a man leaned forward, extending a beefy hand. As she automatically grasped it, the crystal chandeliers hanging from both sides of the car blinked on.
"I am, of course, E. D. Faust. But you must call me Eddie."
Recovering her composure, she smiled smoothly and returned his firm grip. Her first impression of E. D. Faust was one of immense size. As soon as he had hired her, she had gone immediately to the nearest bookstore and purchased several of his novels, so she was familiar with his author photo. But the pictures in the back of his books hadn't begun to capture the size of the man. He filled the space across from her, reminding her of Orson Welles or an aging Marlon Brando. And he was dark. His hair, which formed an abrupt widow's peak, was thick and black and tied back in a low ponytail. His long-sleeved silk shirt was black, as were the enormous slacks and the glistening leather boots. Though insulated by layers of fat, the strong lines of his face were still evident, and his age was indeterminate—Pamela knew he must be somewhere between thirty and fifty, but she had no clue exactly where. He watched her watching him, and his brown eyes sparkled with what might have been a mischievous glint, as if he was used to being the center of attention and he enjoyed it.
"It's nice to finally meet you, Eddie. And please, call me Pamela."
"Pamela it is then." Abruptly, he tapped the dragon-head handle of his black cane against the half-lowered panel of glass that divided the passenger area of the limo from the chauffer. "You may carry on, Robert."
"Very good, sir."
The sleek limo pulled away from the curb.
"I trust your journey has not overly fatigued you, Pamela," he said.
"No, it was only a short flight from Colorado Springs."
"Then you would not be opposed to beginning your work immediately?"
"No, I'd be pleased to start right away. Does this mean you've made a decision about the style you'd like for your home?" Pamela asked eagerly. If this exquisite car was an example of Eddie's taste and budget… her head spun at the possibilities. A showcase! She would create an exquisite vacation paradise fit for the King of Fantasy Fiction.
"I most certainly have. I know exactly what I desire. I found it here in this magical city. All you need do is to replicate it." Eddie tapped the window again. "Robert, take us to Caesars Palace."
"Caesars Palace? Isn't that a casino?"
The folds in Eddie's face crinkled as he smiled. "That is exactly why you are perfect for this job, Pamela. You've never been to Vegas, so you will see everything with fresh eyes, eyes that can truly appreciate and capture the unique ambience I desire for my home. And you are correct. Caesars Palace is a casino as well as a hotel. Actually, except for duplicating some of the elements of the hotel's pool, it's not the Palace on which I want you to focus your attention, but rather the incredible shopping mall that is attached to it. The Forum holds the magic I wish for you to replicate."
"A shopping mall?" Had she heard him correctly? How could he possibly want a vacation home—or any home for that matter—to resemble a shopping mall?
"You shall see, my dear. You shall see." Eddie pointed a thick finger at a silver bucket filled with ice and several bottles. "Would you like to refresh yourself with champagne or Pellegrino?"
"Pellegrino, please." She had a feeling she would need a clear head for what was to come.
A shopping mall vacation home. Now that was an odd request. Not that odd requests from clients were in any way off-putting to Pamela. Since she had established Ruby Slipper three years ago, one of the things that she loved most about having her own design business was that it gave her the freedom to cultivate unique clients and to help those clients turn their individual visions into comfortable, tasteful homes. While Eddie poured Pellegrino into a crystal wineglass she thought about Ruby Slipper's very first client, Samantha Smith-Siddons. Ms. Smith-Siddons, formerly Mrs. Smith-Siddons, had wanted to completely redecorate the 8,000-square-foot home she had kicked Mr. Smith-Siddons out of after walking in on him while he was having sex with his twenty-one-year-old office assistant. Unfortunately for Mr. Smith-Siddons, he had also been wearing women's lingerie, red pumps and a blond wig—a fact that his many patrons (Mr. Smith-Siddons owned the largest chain of funeral parlors in Colorado) would have found deeply disturbing if it had become public in a messy divorce. Mr. Smith-Siddons's unique fondness for women's lingerie had not become public knowledge, and Ms. Smith-Siddons was awarded a sizeable settlement for her tactful silence. When she hired Ruby Slipper she had explained to Pamela that she could not tolerate any color except shades of white because she wanted to begin anew and use the purity of color to banish the stain that had been her marriage. Undaunted by the bizarre restriction, Pamela had focused on textures rather than colors. She had used aged, whitewashed wood floors and shabby chic fixtures, as well as the barest hint of blush and pearl and pewter within shades of snow and champagne and moonlight. The end result had been so spectacular that it had won Ruby Slipper its first full article in Architectural Digest.
If she could make Ms. Samantha Smith-Siddons's sterile, almost colorless house into a masterpiece, she could certainly do the same for Eddie's mall fixation.
"I must tell you again, Pamela, how very impressed I was by the exquisite job you did on Judith's boudoir." He chuckled, causing his bulk to vibrate in one gelatinous mass. "Venus rising, indeed. I would have never be
lieved that Judith's rather strange decorating idea would have turned out so lovely. Charles says he doesn't even mind sleeping in a bed that appears to be a giant seashell surrounded by pastels and feminine overtones. Every time Judith steps out of that spectacular bathtub, he can't help but believe he's bedding a goddess."
"It was a challenge, but it came together well." Pamela sipped her bubbly water, thinking that the challenge had been toning down a decorating style that Judith thought of as glamorous old Hollywood, when in actuality it had been bordello-like and tacky. Judith had wanted garish; Pamela had managed to morph it into opulent but tasteful. Charles and Judith Lollman had been so pleased with her work that they had hosted a huge party to showcase their new bedroom suite. Charles Lollman not only produced some of the most successful shows on prime-time TV, but he was a science fiction and fantasy fanatic. One of the many guests he had flown in for the soiree had been the best-selling fantasy author, E. D. Faust. Eddie's phone call had been the first of several referrals that had come from that very successful job.
"A challenge…" Eddie lingered on the word like it was a pastry. "Do you like challenges, Pamela?"
Pamela squared her shoulders and returned his steady gaze. Smiling smoothly, she said, "I think challenges make life interesting."
"Ah, the correct answer." His smile suddenly reminded her of Dr. Seuss's Grinch.
"Excuse me, sir." Robert's cultured voice drifted to them. "Shall I take you to the front of the Palace, or do you prefer the VIP entrance to The Forum?"
"The Forum, Robert. And call James. Tell him to meet us in front of the fountain."
"Very well, sir."
Eddie checked his gold Rolex. "Excellent. We should be arriving just in time. I want you to get the full effect."
Pamela wanted to ask him what he meant by "the full effect," but as they turned the corner, Eddie pointed and said, "It looks deceptively simple when approaching it from this angle. But I've booked a suite for you at the Palace through next weekend, to give you plenty of time to absorb the ambience. You will, of course, want to explore the main entrance, as well as the casino and mall, at your leisure."
She blinked at him in surprise. He wanted her to stay a full week just to do research on a shopping mall? She had several other jobs she was in the middle of. Could her assistant handle them alone? Before she could voice any objections, he waved his hand dismissively.
"I understand your time is valuable." He reached into one very deep pocket and pulled out a wad of large bills, counted out several, and handed them to her. "Is five hundred dollars a day an agreeable amount with which to compensate you for the extra time this decorating challenge will require?"
Pamela wanted to shout, Hell yes! Instead, her smile was calm and professional as she shoved the money deep within her purse. When she got a minute to herself, the first thing she was going to do was to speed-dial her assistant. Vernelle was going to have a heart attack when she found out that this job was surpassing everything they had imagined. And together she and her assistant had excellent imaginations.
"Thank you, Eddie. That will adequately cover the expense of being away from my studio for a week."
The limo slid to a smooth halt. Robert opened the door and helped her out. Pamela studied the outside of the huge building while Eddie extracted his bulk from the car. The exterior relief of The Forum was simple. It looked like an enormous white marble block with hidden columns forming most of the decoration. Not bad, she thought, even tasteful. If this was an indication of the interior of the shopping mall, she could expect long, clean lines and understated elegance. Challenge? She wanted to laugh out loud. As Vernelle would say, this job would be as simple as selling feather boas to gay guys.
"The Forum is through here." Eddie led the way through a plain set of white double doors, moving with a surprisingly spry step for such a big man. "I delight in this entrance," he explained to her as they walked down a stark white hallway that looked like it should belong to a large furniture warehouse. "It always makes such an impression. I like to suppose that I'm leaving one world and entering another." His chuckle was deep and infectious. "But mayhap that is because I create worlds for a living. So, you tell me, Pamela." His eyes sparkled as he opened an ordinary-looking fire door for her and gestured magnanimously that she should precede him. "Behold, The Forum!"
Sweet mother of God, was Pamela's first thought. Her second was that she needed to close her mouth. Then she was caught up in a vortex of sight and sound. People crowded what had been built to look like the pretend streets of Rome. Emphasis on the word pretend. It was tacky beyond belief. She and Eddie had emerged between stores that emblazoned Versace and Escada in gilded letters meant to imitate ancient Rome. But instead of evoking old-world elegance, it reminded Pamela of a cartoon caricature. It was like someone had taken a crayon to history and architecture.
"Spectacular, isn't it?" Eddie boomed.
"The… the ceiling has clouds painted all over it," was all she could manage.
Delighted, he nodded. "It is the exact effect I want for the ceiling in my home. Do you see how they have it lit?" He pointed up. The mock facades that fronted the stores were tall, but they did not reach the domed ceiling. It was obvious that atop the fake roofs were spotlights that shined up, illuminating the pretend clouds. "As you see, right now it appears to be midday, which is what I wish for my home. I want it to be perpetual daylight, so that I may write in an eternal sun."
"Oh, God…" The words escaped Pamela's lips before she could think to reclose her mouth.
Eddie's laughter rumbled between them. "You had no idea it would be like this."
"No idea," she agreed numbly.
"Come! The best lies before us." He quickly checked his watch. "We must hurry. There are only five minutes left before the show begins."
"The show?" Pamela forced herself to stop gawking and hurried to catch up with him.
"Yes! It is what I want you to create as the centerpiece of my home. The spectacular fountain."
"You want a fountain inside your home?" Her voice was pitched to be carefully optimistic. She loved water features and believed they were an important part of creating positive chi within a home. Her mind was already whirring… she would hire an excellent artist and create… she glanced up and tried not to grimace… a tasteful version of the sky blue and cotton white paint-by-numbers scenery above them. Then she would offset that garishness with a fabulous fountain. Perhaps one imported directly from Italy. Eddie would like that, after all, The Forum was a play on Rome, so it would be natural to want a fountain from…
They turned to the left, and Pamela stumbled to a horrified halt.
Opening up in front of them was a monstrosity that spewed bubbling water and naked gods and goddesses. Pamela could feel her head shaking back and forth as if it didn't belong to her. It was atrocious. Huge marble horses lunged from the lighted pool as water frothed around them. Zeus or Poseidon or some other naked god stood atop a platform holding a pointed trident as he stared sternly down at the billowing water. Against one side of the fountain diners sat in little cafe tables of an obviously popular Italian restaurant. Pamela wondered how they could hear one another over the roar of the erupting water.
"No, no, no, not this fountain," Eddie touched her back, guiding her easily past the wet hulk. "I have no need for an imitation of Trevi. I want something truly unique."
Relieved, Pamela gave him a weak smile.
"I do not like that, either," Eddie said as they hurried by The Disney Store, which hosted a life-sized Pegasus sticking out of the top of it. "A winged horse seems a little too much to me."
Pamela nodded silently. A winged horse was "a little too much," but a domed ceiling painted to look like the sky lit with eternal sunlight wasn't? She set her jaw. She liked a challenge. Really. She was an excellent, experienced interior designer with a keen sense of taste and style. She liked eccentric clients. No, she reminded herself firmly, she didn't just like them, she preferred them. The
re was no project so weird or tacky or bizarre that she couldn't take it and whip it into something tasteful and refined.
A crowd of people milled in front of them, from the middle of which a tall man's raised arm caught Pamela's attention.
"Ah, there is James. He has chosen an excellent spot."
Eddie tucked her against him as he plunged into the crowd, propelling them forward like a whale cutting through a school of guppies. When they reached the tall man, Eddie pushed her forward. A little short of breath, she smiled a greeting, but the expression died on her face as she realized where they stood.
It was in front of another massive fountain. This one was shaped like an arabesque window. The center of it was dominated by a gigantic stone man sitting on a throne. Three standing statues ringed the throned figure, but Pamela didn't have a chance to get a clear impression of them because at that instant the eternal sunlight that shined off the domed ceiling faded, and a thick fog began pouring from openings at the base of the throne. Pamela sneezed at the tangy scent of dry ice.
"Bless you!" Eddie said from behind her. Then he leaned down to speak in her ear. "It begins. Watch closely."
Maniacal laughter erupted from the middle of the fountain, and Pamela felt a weird little jolt of shock as she realized that the center statue had become animated. The laughter was issuing from its moving lips. In amazement, Pamela watched as the seated figure swiveled on its dais so that it was facing them.