Unmasked, page 1
About R. Saint Claire
R. Saint Claire
Copyright © 2017 R. SAINT CLAIRE
All rights reserved.
A TV screen suspended from the ceiling of a narrow, amber-hued room flashed with the still and moving images of a beautiful young woman. Some of the pictures in high contrast black and white (the style of 1940’s film noir) highlighted the woman’s platinum blond hair and dramatic make-up, but most were of bright, neon color. In one video clip that appeared to date from the early 1990’s, she took center stage as a phalanx of dancers joined her—shirtless muscular men with smooth skin and sinewy limbs cavorting about her spiritedly, displaying athletic skills and agility her basic moves lacked.
She began to sing. Her voice was weak; sharp in some spots and flat in others, but the dance beat was powerful, relentless, and her tantalizing beauty and taunting sexuality undeniably seductive. The camera moved in on her face and froze on the perfect symmetry of her features: a ripe, red mouth and straight line of a delicate nose leading to shining eyes the color of sapphires fringed with thick black lashes.
A title superimposed over the frozen image read Karla’s Comeback? Liza Keane, an entertainment host with a high-voltage smile, addressed the camera and spoke to the millions of unseen fans.
“Sexy, brash, controversial, but always entertaining—Karla Mancusi--has captivated audiences for nearly three decades with her provocative lyrics and barely-there costumes.”
A shot of Karla in bondage gear straddling a male dancer flashed on the screen. Liza continued, her toothy grin never wavering. “But we haven't heard much from Karla since her last tour, causing some of her fans to wonder if the Queen of Pop might be abdicating her throne to a younger rival. Here's our foreign correspondent, Dante Inferno, reporting live from the Cannes Film Festival with the latest news about Karla and more. Dante?”
The television screen split to reveal Dante, an over-the-top celebrity chaser with bright orange hair holding onto a microphone for dear life while behind him chic, formally attired celebrities mingled, posed, and air-kissed on the red carpet.
He faced the camera. “Bonsoir Liza. It's just been confirmed that Karla will appear tonight to present an award. She's arriving any second.” Another reporter bumped into Dante as a crowd began to gather behind him.Liza giggled. “Dante, we know you're a big Karla fan...”
“So where's she been for the past two years?”
“According to her publicist, she's been traveling in Europe, spending time with her daughter, Bianca.” A flashing image showed Karla in scarf and sunglasses leading a beautiful, dark-haired teenager through an airport. “Karla was concerned about Bianca growing up in the Hollywood rat race. Plus, she had just gotten over her ugly divorce from Bianca's father, Casper Volpe.” A candid photo of Karla and the Italian filmmaker appeared on the screen: she and the handsome, bearded man at a formal dinner engaged in a heated conversation.
Liza arched her eyebrow at the camera. “What went wrong with that power couple, Dante?”
“Well, as you know, Liza, their personal and professional relationship took a huge hit when their high-budget vehicle Body Parts failed to land at the box office.”
A dramatic European style film still of Karla flashed on the screen.
“Ooh.” Liza wrinkled her nose. “That was a stinker?”
“Karla earned a Razzie for that performance, and she hasn’t done much acting since.”
“Dante, Let's talk about this photo of Karla leaving a clinic in Switzerland, sparking a lot of rumors.”
A blurry photo appeared on the screen showing a frail woman, her face wrapped in bandages, being helped into a limousine accompanied by a title on the screen that read: Plastic Surgery Drama!
Dante made a skeptical face into the camera. “That photo has never been confirmed to be Karla, but since she is nearing her fiftieth birthday, it's possible.”
“Dante, many of Karla's fans have expressed concern about her involvement in the controversial Ostara organization.” A photo of Karla on a Manhattan Street standing next to a large bald man (both clad in white robes) flashed on the screen. “Is this new spirituality a change for her?”
“Listen Liza, she may start a new trend or change her coiffure, but deep down she's always Karla, and that's why we love her.”
A commotion erupted behind him as a black limousine pulled up. “She’s here! It’s Karla!”The camera tilted and pushed past Dante. A dark and handsome young man wearing a tuxedo and designer sunglasses emerged from the limousine. He extended his hand; the crowd gasped as Karla, a vision in white lamé, alighted into the crowd, her face partially obscured by the platinum blond waves cascading to her shoulders.
Dante rushed towards her as security guards held back the crowd. Camera flashes and shouts of Karla, over here! This way, Karla! created a circle of white light and noise around her.
In the midst of this chaos, she found the one camera broadcasting her image to the world and stared it down. The lens zoomed in on her eyes, shining like hard-cut, blue gems in a sea of white, coldly confident in their beauty and power. The image froze then cut to a commercial.
The thin, veiny hand of an older woman, trembling slightly, picked up a remote control and zapped off the TV. The room was silent except for the woman’s slow, muffled breathing and, barely audible in the background, the low hum of a jet engine.
Warren opened the bar hopefully. A plastic water bottle tumbled out. The small refrigerator in the back of the limousine was lined with similar bottles bearing the Ostara label, but no booze. That it was one of the products Karla was currently shilling (as if she needed the money) only piqued his irritation and his craving for a stiff drink. Like many adults worming their ways towards midlife alcoholism, he was full of rationalizations and rules: no drinking during the day, only two drinks at one sitting, maybe three if he wasn’t driving. The list went on, and the rules were frequently broken. Today was one of those days when he could not only use a drink, he needed one desperately. The headache began that morning when he read another negative review of his book. Peter (his partner of eight years) asked him why he tortured himself by even looking at them, but Warren could never keep his fingers off a sore. Adept at deflecting the legion of angry Karla fans (he and Peter shared many laughs over some of their more creative death threats), when he read A Brother’s Story described as “prattling” and undeserving of his famous and talented subject by a columnist he respected, it stung.
What-fucking-ever! He thought, rubbing his temples and attempting the deep breathing exercises Peter had taught him—where’s that Tiger Balm when you need it? But it wasn’t helping; what he needed was a shot of good Scotch and a Marlboro Red. He’d quit smoking years ago, but he’d kill for one now, anything to drown out the Karla music video on the television screen. Produced over twenty years ago, it debuted one of her many makeovers and style metamorphoses. She was skinny at the time and slightly muscular, having just begun a strenuous physical training program. Her hair, bleached to an almost white platinum blond, was cut short—too short
Working at various jobs within his famous sister’s orbit for many years, Warren had been privy to the behind-the-scenes machinations elevating her mediocre talent to a level of acceptability. Coming to the fore during the music video heyday, her record company had spared no expense in promoting its golden girl. Warren had even made an appearance in this early video production as a backup dancer. He now watched with growing irritability the lithe body and flushed smooth cheeks of his young self, partially obscured by Karla’s writhing, bordering-on-the-obscene dance moves in the foreground. The video had played on a continuous loop ever since the limousine left his Washington Heights neighborhood and headed north. Perhaps she thought he’d be amused by it, nostalgic. More likely she knew precisely the best method with which to torture him. He glared at her face in close-up on the screen, the scarlet lips mouthing the lyrics he knew too well, and wished he could forget: Gonna get your body, body, gonna get your body, body.
The cell phone bouncing on his knee for the entire ride finally rang.
He pounced on it. “Peter! Thank God! Wait! Hold on. I can’t hear you.” He tapped on the glass partition that separated him from the driver. “Can you turn down this garbage?” He asked, but his request was ignored. The driver looked straight ahead, steering the limousine down the center of the narrow country road.
Shouting over the music, his voice bordering on the hysterical, Warren explained to Peter how when the message arrived that morning telling him to drop everything and get into the waiting limousine, he did. And now he was kicking himself for blindly following her command, once again. In his haste, he had forgotten to throw a flask and his bottle of pain meds in his overnight bag. Halfway through his story, the phone went dead. He had also forgotten the phone charger.
“Fucking bitch!” He threw his phone at the TV screen. It bounced off a close-up Karla’s red lips as they mouthed seductively: Gonna get your body, body, gonna get your body, body...get your body all night long now…
* * *
Anne had been similarly roused that morning from her home. The hand-delivered message arrived as she was heading out the door for a shopping trip, and she had hopped into the limousine without a moment’s thought. Now on the road for an hour, she grew concerned.
The music video playing on the television screen, a romantic ballad that only emphasized the limitations of Karla’s singing voice, didn’t help to calm her nerves or chase away the worry lines forming between her eyes. At forty-eight, Anne looked the part of the upper-middle-class suburbanite: slim and attractive with an expensive wardrobe and expertly highlighted hair. But the divorce from her physician husband five years ago, compounded by her increasing reliance on prescription drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress, had left their marks in the fine vertical lines around her mouth and a general sadness in her soft brown eyes. A kind therapist had helped her from going completely bonkers, and during their sessions she worked up the courage to face the early trauma that marked her life: the tragic death of her parents when she was sixteen.
Now with trembling hands, she opened the limousine bar and sighed when she saw the row of Ostara water bottles and not the wine she craved. She dug a cigarette from her Coach bag and was about to light it when the driver, who hadn’t spoken a word since they left her Larchmont neighborhood stated in a thick German accent, “No smoking. We are almost there.”
“Almost where?” She asked, looking out the window at the long tunnel of green woods surrounding the car, feeling a sense of recognition that she couldn’t quite place. The driver didn’t answer. She put the cigarette back in the pack and looked closely at the video now freeze-framed on a dramatically lit close-up of Karla’s face, her voice warbling out lyrics of how she will get her man. No matter what, love will prevail.
She always knows how to get what she wants, Anne thought wistfully.
Except for what Anne read in the tabloids (and Warren’s book which she found appalling, but read several times over) she knew very little about Karla’s current life. Anne had never even met her niece, Bianca, although she had reached out to Karla when she was born, sending a thoughtful letter and gift, and hoping that perhaps motherhood would help bridge the gap between them. Karla responded with an impersonal thank you card and Anne never contacted her again. She had seen a tabloid photo of Bianca from a few years back and noticed how much she looked like the Karla she had remembered from their teenage years before she became a glamorous, blond superstar.
As the limousine turned off onto a narrow, dirt road, the treetops so low in spots they brushed against the roof of the car, her sense of deja vu intensified. She thought of calling her kids, her therapist, anyone…just to let them know where she was.
If only I knew, she thought, pulling out her phone then dropping it back in her bag with a sigh when she saw that the screen read No Service.
* * *
On the same narrow country road about a mile behind was a limousine carrying Jenna and Chrissie. From looking at them you wouldn’t guess they were even related, let alone sisters. Jenna’s slender body was topped with a dark halo of frizzy hair around her pale, serious face. The straight line of her mouth rarely curved into a smile, and her thick, equally straight eyebrows overpowered her lovely hazel eyes.
In stark contrast to her brooding sister, Chrissie was the definition of bubbly, something Jenna could never hope to become. Her light brown hair hung in shiny sheets to her shoulders, surrounding a friendly face with clear, peachy skin.
Chrissie noticed Jenna’s dark mood, and with her usual buoyancy tried to put a positive spin on things. “Cheer up, Jenna. Maybe we’re going to a surprise concert or a big party. That would be cool.”
“I can think of better ways to spend my time, besides I highly doubt that.” Jenna looked out the window to avoid the flashing neon images coming from the Karla music video that had played incessantly since they’d left Manhattan. She found the countryside calming, and wished Chrissie would stop talking.
“Why?” Chrissie asked.
Jenna sighed, resenting that she had to explain to Chrissie, again, an obvious truth. “Because our dear sister has never done anything out of the goodness of her heart, so why should she change now? When she summons all of us it’s because she wants something. Just what that is I have no idea, but it’s probably something big or else she wouldn’t go to all this trouble.”
“I think you're being a little hard on her.” Chrissie’s cupid’s bow mouth took on a scolding shape.
“Oh? Why is that?” Jenna’s serenity was quickly turning to annoyance in the face of her sister’s denseness.
“She’s been very generous…paying for my school, and helping me find an apartment in the city, and my job.”
“Right,” Jenna counted off with her fingers. “She chose the school, the apartment, and the job. I call that controlling, not generous.”
Chrissie was silent for a moment, then placing a gentle hand on Jenna’s knee said, “She tried to help you too!”
Jenna’s face darkened, recalling a very specific betrayal, one she took out of the vault of memory and painfully massaged every so often. “I don’t need or want her kind of help. Look what happened to Warren.” Jenna and Warren had had their differences over the years, including a current silence brought on by some slight neither one of them had the humility to broach to the other, or even remember. Warren’s biting wit could sting, but she’d take his honesty in all its bitchiness over Karla’s bullshit any day.
Chrissie flared up at the mention of their younger brother. “That horrible book! He wrote that I was a ditz who was totally taken in by Karla. That was so mean, so hurtful…”
“So true.” The words spilled out of Jenna’s mouth before sh
Chrissie looked absently out the window while Jenna turned her attention back to the video screen where Karla sang and strutted to an upbeat tune featured in the film Body Parts: a noir thriller starring the singer and marking her first foray into serious acting. The song was a hit, but the film—destined to be a blockbuster with a stellar supporting cast, a top-notched script, and a multi-million dollar production team with renowned director Casper Volpe at the helm—flopped. Karla could warble her way through a heavily produced pop song, but she was no actress, a fact the reviewers echoed mercilessly.
Watching the video now, Jenna relished the memory of her sister’s failure. It somehow relieved the stab of envy she usually felt when she was forced to think about Karla, which was far too often. She couldn't pick up a coffee or go into a drugstore without hearing one of Karla’s stupid songs or seeing her image on the cover of a tabloid.
* * *
The last limousine to turn down the narrow country road carried Mitch, whose years of hard drinking and two failed marriages showed in his muscles-gone-to-fat physique and fading looks which he took pains to conceal with trendy clothes, a spray-on tan, and a too black hairpiece blended at the temples with drugstore hair dye. His last marriage had ended during a stint in rehab, the result of a DUI combined with a hit-and-run charge: a man had been seriously injured due to Mitch’s negligence. Rehab was a deal he worked out thanks to a very expensive lawyer, courtesy of his wealthy older sister. Mitch didn’t want her help, but he was cornered. Karla pulled some strings, and he ended up at a chichi recovery facility in Florida instead of a New York state prison.