Check out Phillipa Bornikova’s Box Office Poison, available August 6th from Tor Books!
What happens when exquisitely beautiful elves start getting all the roles in Hollywood? Human actors sue, that’s what. In a desperate attempt to keep the squabbling inside the Screen Actors Guild from going public, the president of SAG forces the two sides into arbitration.
Enter Linnet Ellery, a human lawyer working for a vampire law firm, to serve as arbitrator. Linnet discovers that there are sinister forces at work in Tinsel Town determined to shatter the fragile peace between elves, vampires, werewolves, and humans. Someone has been coercing famous elven actors into committing sudden and terrible acts of violence against humans in a series of tragedies that could turn the tide of public opinion against all the supernatural Powers.
During the course of her investigations Linnet realizes that a puzzling secret surrounds her, and that a strange power has been affecting the very course of her life…
I looked out the plane’s window at Los Angeles, and it looked like any other airport. No palm trees in evidence. No movie stars strolling across the tarmac toward private jets. No surfboards. The only difference between LAX and LaGuardia was the lack of snow.
It was my first trip to the West Coast and I should have been excited. Instead I slumped in my window seat back in steerage and contemplated my exhaustion. I had gotten up at three a.m. so I could brave a blizzard and reach LaGuardia by four thirty so I could catch a six a.m. flight to California. Six and a half hours in coach, and I didn’t even get to sleep because I’d been pulled into this arbitration at the last minute by one of the partners at my law firm and I had to review the pleadings.
I hated playing last-minute catchup, but since David Sullivan had saved my life last August I figured I owed him, and seriously, the chance to meet Jeffery Montolbano made it a no-brainer.
I found myself remembering the scene in Earth Defense Force where Montolbano, as the heroic Commander Belmanor, had fought his way into the Council Chamber and then, instead of another shootout, had eloquently convinced the Alien Hegemony that Earth should not be destroyed and that humanity was worth saving. The space marine armor left little to the imagination, and sweat had his black hair plastered across his forehead. The negligent way his hands held the large pulse rifle had made more than a few women wish he would caress them just that way. The gossip columns and entertainment shows were filled with rumors about a possible rift with his beautiful actress wife. His charity work got less attention, but such was the world. I wondered if they really were having problems. Then I felt guilty daydreaming about an actor when John O’Shea, the man who had traded his freedom for mine, was trapped in Fey. Then I imagined what John would say and realized I was being stupid. Fantasizing about an actor wasn’t some kind of emotional betrayal. I pushed away thoughts of the private investigator who had entered my life for a brief few days last summer. I didn’t yet have a solution for breaking him free from the grasp of his Álfar mother, and right now I had a job that required me to focus.
Montolbano was the current president of the Screen Actors Guild, and he was trying to keep the organization from tearing itself to pieces as one set of actors sued another set of actors, the studios, the networks, and the producers, charging that Álfar actors had an unfair advantage over mere humans. As the entire mess crept toward litigation, Montolbano had used a clause in the SAG agreement to force the parties into arbitration.
Various law firms were floated to serve as the impartial arbitrator, and my firm, Ishmael, McGillary and Gold, had been selected. It made sense. We had an office in Los Angeles, but we tended to represent the aerospace industry, and Japanese and Chinese business interests, with limited forays into the entertainment industry, and we weren’t strongly affiliated with any one side. Neither talent, as it was euphemistically called, nor the studios and networks. The consensus was that we would be fair, since we didn’t really have a dog in this fight.
There was a ding as the seat-belt sign went off. People jumped to their feet and began hauling bags out of the overhead compartments. I was way back in the tail section and saw no point in joining the bump and wiggle in the narrow aisle of the airplane. We were trapped until the people up front made it off the plane.
The people two rows in front of me began to move, so I tugged my laptop bag from beneath the seat and stood up. I only had one item in the overhead: my ankle-length, fur-lined, leather coat with a dramatic Anna Karenina hood. I dragged it down and joined the shuffling conga line to freedom. To my exhausted imagination it seemed like I was being slowly extruded from a metal canister.
Passing through the now empty first-class section, I gazed longingly at the wide seats and imagined the champagne that had flowed, the meal that had been served, the in-flight movies. David Sullivan, my boss and the senior attorney, had been seated in first class. He hadn’t waited for me; I hadn’t really expected him to. He was a vampire and, while courtesy was important, there were limits.
If I had been in a high-powered all-human law firm I would have been flying on the firm’s private executive jet, and I wouldn’t have had to get up at ugh o’clock to catch a commercial flight. But I was with a white-fang, vampire-owned firm, so we flew commercial.
The reason? Because of all the Powers—vampires, werewolves, and Álfar—that had gone public back in the 1960s the vampires had decided they needed to try the hardest to integrate with the human population. Maybe they were right. They were definitely the scariest of the Powers. Werewolves looked like regular people until they changed, and the Álfar were just gorgeous. I knew from personal experience that that was deceptive, but most people loved the pretty elves. But vampires—the whole dead thing, drinking the blood of living people—gave our little inner monkeys a big shiver. All the Powers were predators; humans just sensed it more viscerally with the vampires.
Running counter to that argument was the fact that it would make much more sense, given a vampire’s aversion to the sun, to fly at night on private jets. So maybe this noblesse oblige argument was just a bogus corporate justification for being cheap.
The focus of all this thought and analysis was waiting just outside the gate. David was tall, slim, pale, with taffy-colored hair and dark brown eyes. Four thick scars gouged his right cheek where a werewolf’s claws had ripped his face. Apparently the windows at the LAX terminals hadn’t been treated with UV-reducing glass because he was frowning while he opened his umbrella. I wasn’t sure if the frown was meant for me or the windows, and I rushed into speech.
“Sorry, sorry,” I said as I juggled purse, coat, and computer bag.
“What are you apologizing for?” he asked in that brusque way he had when dealing with people being codependent.
“You’re right. Sorry.” I cringed.
“Oh, for God’s sake!”
“I mean, not sorry. It’s a habit.”
“Well, break it.”
“I couldn’t get off any faster.”
I was talking to his back because he’d already started moving toward the escalators and the baggage claim. I yanked up the handle on my rolling computer bag, hurried after him, and wished I hadn’t taken off my shoes during the flight because my feet had swelled and now the black pumps were pinching.
At the foot of the escalator there was a scrum of limo drivers in dark suits holding little signs with names on them. SULLIVAN was among them. A tall, ebony-skinned man studied the umbrella that shaded David and stepped forward, smiling, and introduced himself as our driver, Kobe.
We followed him through a pair of sliding glass doors and stood by the slowly revolving luggage carousel. There were a lot of hardsided golf bags, tennis rackets, and even some scuba gear salted in among the suitcases. David’s was already on the carousel. In a continuation of the-universe-makes-Linnet-the-big-holdup, it was thirty minutes before my suitcase came sliding down the ramp.
Kobe collected the bags and we followed him out of the terminal. The dampness beneath my cashmere sweater became full-blown sweat. It was one thirty in the afternoon. The temperature had to be in the low eighties and here I was dressed in a white wool skirt, beige cashmere sweater, and knee-high brown boots lugging a leather and fur-lined overcoat.
As we trailed Kobe across the street toward a parking structure I watched limos in various colors and designs with darkly tinted windows pull up and sweep away people wearing wide hats and large sunglasses. Interesting how celebrities and vampires were almost indistinguishable in this town. Since we were heading to a garage I figured we didn’t rate a limo. I was right. A Lincoln town car was our ride. With the luggage stowed and David and me in the backseat, we headed out into Los Angeles.
I live in New York City. I’m used to traffic, but there was something about Los Angeles traffic that was overwhelming. Maybe it was just the sheer size of the city. New York was crazy, but it was contained. When we hit the ramp onto the 405 Freeway, Kobe glanced back and asked us, “Do you want to go to your hotel first or to the office?”
Hotel, I wanted to shriek, but the question was directed at David, and he gave the expected answer.
I wanted to punch him, and as I sulked I reflected on how much it sucked to be the human paired with a vampire. They were always perfectly dressed and pressed. They didn’t need sleep, so why should you? Dirt seemed to slide off them as if they were made of Teflon. I could only think of one time when David had been anything but perfectly groomed. It was when he’d rescued me (literally) from the jaws of death when an out-of-control werewolf had tried to kill me and my clients. During that fight he’d torn his suit and had the skin on one cheek nearly ripped off.
He still bore the scars from that battle because vampires didn’t heal all that well. Scientists and medical researchers who studied vampirism still had no idea why dead men could function and survive anything but fire or decapitation. One thing they did know: The vampire infection led to a tendency to form keloids—overgrown, exuberant scar tissue. You could actually judge the age of a vampire by the number of scars. I had a feeling modern vampires weren’t going to bear the scars of existence the way ancient vamps did. We lived in a far less violent time, and people didn’t generally carry bladed weapons. But car wrecks were still going to leave their mark, I thought.
Muffled by the car windows, but still distinct, I heard the beat of propellers. Kobe indicated the cover on the sunroof. “May I?” he asked David. The vampire nodded and huddled in a corner of the backseat.
Once the cover was pulled back we saw a police helicopter and three press helicopters churning past overhead.
“Must be a really bad wreck up ahead,” Kobe remarked.
“Perhaps that explains our snail-like progress,” David said.
Kobe hit the turn signal, and slowly worked his way through the traffic to an exit marked SANTA MONICA BLVD/CENTURY CITY. I knew the address for the Los Angeles office was Avenue of the Stars, Century City. I saw a collection of skyscrapers ahead and to the right and assumed that’s where we were headed. They weren’t all that tall by New York standards, but in this city of low sprawl they stood out. They were also aggressively modern and very black.
We passed a gigantic Mormon temple on our left. On the right were shabby strip malls filled with nail salons and small ethnic restaurants. Then we turned down the broad avenue and shabby went away. There was a large shopping mall with digital billboards alternating between expensive electronics and chic women with pouty expressions. The street was clogged with luxury cars—in the space of a block I saw multiple BMWs, Mercedes, Lexuses, and even a Ferrari. Men in tailored suits and equally well dressed women hurried through crosswalks. Kobe turned into an underground parking lot beneath a black and glass tower and stopped at the valet parking area.
He unloaded David’s briefcase and my computer bag. “I’ll be waiting here to take you to your hotel,” he said.
We rode the elevator to the lobby, and then another elevator to the twenty-third floor. “Is this office managed by a vampire partner?” I asked as the floors flashed past.
“Naturally,” David said. “But Jackson is in Singapore negotiating a trade agreement. Our liaison will be Hank Pizer. He handles the small amount of entertainment law we do.”
“And he’s a vampire?”
We stepped out and made our way to the end of the hall and the tall steel and glass double doors. ISHMAEL, MCGILLARY & GOLD was emblazoned in stainless steel script across the pediment. David held the door for me, and I stepped into a beehive of activity. Phones were ringing, young lawyers were hurrying past reading off iPads or sheaves of paper, and there was the click of computer keyboards like technological rain. The windows were UV-tinted and looked out at some hills that I guess passed for mountains in southern California. The floor underfoot was glossy bamboo, and the furniture was extremely modern. It didn’t look like a place a vampire would find comfortable.
A tall and lushly built woman with deep red hair piled high on her head left her desk and crossed to us. Her sky blue sundress displayed her every curve and deep décolletage.
“May I help you?” she asked, her voice low and husky.
Of course it was, I thought bitterly, as I stared up at her and felt the uncomfortable wetness beneath my arms. I should have had Kobe pull out my suitcase and changed into California clothes in the bathroom instead of continuing to swelter in my New York winter outfit.
“David Sullivan and Linnet Ellery in from New York,” David answered.
“I’ll tell Mr. Pizer you’re here. I’m Elaine Gowdry, Mr. Pizer’s personal assistant. Junie,” Elaine called over her shoulder, “please put Ms. Ellery and Mr. Sullivan in the corner conference room.”
Junie, who turned out to be a tall, gorgeous, willowy black woman, led us to the conference room. There was a giant stack of file folders already on the oval table. As I unlimbered my laptop and David snapped open his briefcase, Junie asked,
“Something to drink? Coffee?”
“Something cold,” I said, plucking my sweater away from my damp skin.
“Water? Soft drink?”
“Coke, please,” I said, deciding I needed a blast of sugar and caffeine if I was going to stay on my feet.
“And you, sir. We have a good choice of types.”
“Something rich,” David said.
So, I thought, he’s tired.
Junie returned with a cut crystal glass filled with ice and an ice-cold can of Coke. Another assistant, a young man with carefully styled “casual” hair, carried a goblet of blood. He made eye contact with David and smoldered. When that didn’t work he tried a twinkle. Neither one elicited a response. Looking disconsolate, the young man followed Junie out of the room.
“Do you ever get tired of it?” I asked
“Having young straight men flirt with you?
David made a face and frowned down into his glass. “Puppy,” he growled. For a moment I thought that was his final word on the subject, but he surprised me and continued. “Why do these children think we’d find them useful additions to the community? They know nothing, have done nothing. They’re just pretty.”
“And who vets potential candidates? Do you have to run it past the Council or can an individual just Make a vampire?” I asked. “Because, seriously, who thought Ryan was a good choice? A vampire who was seducing female associates and risking everybody’s lives.”
“It’s a personal choice.” David gave the tight, closed-lip vampire smile. “To question another’s actions is tantamount to a challenge.”
The way he said challenge made it seem like a piece of vampire etiquette, one that I had never heard of, despite being fostered in a vampire household.
I was getting answers from one of the notoriously close-mouthed members of the Powers. I decided to see how long it would last. “Given your strictures against turning women, does that mean there are a lot of gay vampires… or at least gay men who became vampires?”
“Are you asking about my sexuality?” David asked.
I shook my head. “No. It’s me blurting out whatever is in my head. It’s also about me adding to my store of vampire lore and understanding. But now that you mention it, are you… were you gay?”
David laughed. It wasn’t the reaction I expected. “Linnet, Linnet, you are the oddest human I know. Perhaps it’s because you were fostered, but you seem to be completely fearless about us.”
“Let’s just say unimpressed,” I said.
“But still curious.”
“Your liege never discussed these matters?”
“Mr. Bainbridge wasn’t your typical vampire, and even he would never discuss sex with a young woman in his care.”
“And neither will I,” David said.
“Because you consider me in your care? Because I’m a woman? Or because you’re uncomfortable talking about it?”
David leaned back in his chair and took another long drink of blood. “You’re a good lawyer, Linnet. No matter which part of that question I answer, and no matter how I answer it, I’m fucked.”
I smiled at him, and he gave me a smile in return. At that moment the door to the conference room flew open, and a slim vampire of middle height blew in. Hank Pizer had a narrow, sharp-featured face with bright blue eyes and slicked-back black hair. Unlike every other vampire I’d ever met he had a deep tan. I looked closer and realized he had used a self-tanning spray. That was startling. More startling was the broad smile that he bestowed on us, revealing his long, pointed canines.
“Hey, Davy… Linnie. Welcome to LaLa Land.”
I didn’t mind the diminutive, having been called that for much of my childhood, but it was surprising to hear it from someone I hadn’t even technically met, especially given the formality of the New York office. I glanced at David, expecting an explosion. Again, he surprised me. He just sighed and shook his head.
“Hank, strive to recall that you’re a vampire now. You can get away with it around me, but don’t try it with the senior partners.”
“Yes, Daddy,” Pizer said. Startled, I looked to David, but he studiously avoided my gaze.
Pizer flung himself into a chair. “So, here we are. In the center of a legal shit storm.” His expression said how much he loved it.
“Let’s discuss the case,” David said. Pizer shrugged. “You got the papers.” “I’d like your take on it,” David said. “Right now it looks like one
set of pretty, vapid, and narcissistic people is mad at another group of even prettier, more vapid, and far more narcissistic people.”
“With that attitude toward actors you’d make a great producer,” Pizer said. “Okay. Short version. The Powers come out. By the mid-1970s a few Álfar are starting to join the Screen Actors Guild and auditioning for parts, and getting them too, but it’s just a trickle, so no big whoop. But then a lot of bankable human stars start to age and die, and more Álfar show up, and new, young execs take control of the studios and the networks. They’re comfortable around the Powers, so they cast more Álfar, and then more Álfar come to Hollywood and join SAG. Now the Guild is half-human and half-Álfar, but guess who’s getting most of the juicy roles?”
“The Álfar,” I said.
Pizer made a gun with his forefinger and pretended to shoot me. “Right in one. They are awesome in the room.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“That’s Hollywood speak. You don’t have a meeting, you get in a room together.”
“Well, that’s obnoxious,” David said. “Point is, they’re prettier than humans.” “Their charisma doesn’t translate to the screen,” I said. “They are
gorgeous, but I know—knew—an Álfar. It’s just not the same.” John’s perfect features swam briefly before my mind’s eye.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t matter. It works in the audition, and like you said, they are gorgeous,” Pizer said.
“All of which proves my point. This is unworthy of serious legal action,” David huffed.
“So what? You want me to tell them to forget it? Get a different firm? It’s taken months to get the human actors, the Álfar actors, the studios, the networks, and all their lawyers to agree on Ishmael, and it’s a big payday for the firm.”
“Of course I’m not saying that.” David shook his head like a bull bedeviled by flies. “I’m just complaining. It’s too sunny here, and I can already tell I hate both sides, and this actor Montolbano who drew us into this.”
“There’s something I don’t understand,” I said. “The parties picked IMG to arbitrate. Why not use you? You’re here. You do entertainment law. Why bring us in from New York?”
“Because I’m a player,” Hank said.
“And Hank can always be found at a Hollywood party,” David said somewhat sourly. “Not exactly impartial. Or so the argument would go.”
Pizer did the gun/finger thing again. Hank was rather charming for a vampire, but I decided this 1970s habit could get real old real fast. “Exactly. They know we’ve got the moxie—as you would say—to handle this issue,” he grinned at David. “But folks on the West Coast figured you cold, proper Yankees wouldn’t be appropriately impressed with Hollywood glitz and glamour.”
“Well, they’d be wrong,” I said.
David slewed around in his chair and stared at me. “Oh, don’t tell me you’re a fan.”
“There isn’t a woman breathing who doesn’t think Montolbano is hot, hot, hot,” I said. Pizer gave a wild laugh.
“For an actor he’s also whip smart,” Pizer said. “It was genius to propose an arbitration before his guild tore itself apart.”
I stood and crossed to the stack of folders, laid my hand on top. “We got the Cliff Notes version of this. I’m assuming that witnesses have been approved and most depositions have been taken?”
“Yeah, we’re ready to rock and roll,” Pizer said.
“I don’t suppose you have copies of all this so we can read in our hotel rooms?” I asked.
“Of course I do. I’m Mr. Organization. Copies are already in each of your rooms and a second set in your offices. And no offense, but you look whipped.”
I forced a smile and counted to ten. Vampires are all about the courtesy except when they’re unbelievably rude, because humans just don’t rate.
“I am pretty tired.”
“Have the driver take you to the hotel,” David said. “I’ll stay here. The windows are UV-protected, and the blood is fresh.”
I gathered up my belongings and started for the door. “Hey,” Pizer said to David as I was leaving, “I didn’t know that place in Cabo was just a front for the mob. I’m making up for it this time. You’re staying at the Beverly fucking Hills Hotel. Just one of the premier hotels in LA. Why are you always such a—”
I shut the door behind me, cutting off the bickering, rolled my eyes, and headed for the elevators.
Box Office Poison © Phillipa Bornikova 2013