Larissa acted as though nothing had changed between us, and I suppose nothing had. She continued to wear her robe to breakfast, continued her casual displays of skin. That pissed me off, but I got over it. I concluded that this was her way of letting me know she remained available, and that my problem wasn’t her problem. The idea that I might be insufficiently worldly to take advantage of the situation, or that I was too much of a wimp, bothered me; yet whenever I determined to make a grab for her, something held me back. I attributed impossibly subtle manipulative skills to her. Perhaps, I thought, she had perceived a flawed trigger in my psychological depths and understood that by offering herself, she would neutralize my desire. At length I decided that I was simply a romantic chump where she was concerned, and that I had rendered her unattainable by demanding something of her that she could not provide.
Echevarria went off to the Sierra Nevadas to scout locations. I gave the script a final polish. Larissa stayed on the phone until late in the evening, going out only for business meetings and, judging by the band-aids on her arm, to give blood. On more than a few occasions I overheard her speaking in Russian to someone. Her side of these conversations ranged in tone from pleading to infuriated, and once she used a Russian epithet she had taught me: “Zalupa (dickhead).” After one such call, she stomped about the house, muttering, picking up books and statuettes as if intending to throw them, satisfying the urge by slamming them down. We were mere weeks away from starting the picture, and I didn’t want to jinx the project by asking whether the relationship between her and Misha was deteriorating. I put my blinders on and tried not to dwell on the thousand things that could go wrong.
I returned from a walk one evening to find an extra car parked out front and one of Misha’s bodyguards, a slight, blond guy with a pleasant, finely boned face, standing in the living room, watching a mixed martial arts fight on TV. I peeked into Larissa’s office. It was empty, and I asked the bodyguard where she was.
“Business meeting,” he said without turning from the bloody figures onscreen.
“Where are they?”
He smiled and said he didn’t know.
The smile made me uneasy and I started along the corridor toward Larissa’s rooms; the bodyguard intercepted me.
“Private meeting,” he said.
I tried to push past him and wound up flat on my back, with his hand gripping my throat. He helped me up, asked if I was okay, and steered me back into the living room. I sat on a sofa, feeling impotent and agitated.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
The bodyguard flicked his fingers at the TV, where one fighter was celebrating a knockout. “Ken Shamrock,” he said admiringly. “He’s badass motherfucker!”
Twenty minutes later, Misha came along the corridor. He was buttoning his shirt, carrying a jacket draped over one arm. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, quivering like a hound that has been forced to heel, but I don’t think he even gave me a glance. He stood in the foyer, combing his hair. The bodyguard went to join him. They left through the front door and I sprinted down the corridor.
The sheets were half-off Larissa’s bed, the pillows scattered on the floor. I heard the shower running and called out, asking if she was all right. She said she was fine. When she stepped out of the bathroom, wearing a terrycloth robe, her hair turbaned in a towel, she seemed composed, but her cheek was red and swollen, and there was a tiny cut at the corner of her upper lip. She sat down on the sofa and lit a cigarette with her gold cricket lighter. I wanted to ask what had happened, but I knew and I told her she should call the police.
“You cannot hurt Misha that way.” She had a hit of the cigarette, exhaled and tapped the lighter rhythmically against the glass surface of the coffee table, as if sending an SOS. “Best thing to do is nothing. Sooner or later someone will take a big bite out of Misha. He’s too stupid to be in position of power.”
“You’ve got to call the cops. If you won’t, I will. There’s no telling what he’ll do next.”
“He has done what he wanted. He’s humiliated me. That satisfies him. Now he will leave me alone for a while.” She gazed out the window at the twilit canyon and said distractedly, “Don’t worry. We’ll be all right. You want to do something? Be a nice guy. Make some tea.”
Her behavior confounded me. A woman who cried when she couldn’t undo a button and yet took rape in stride, who viewed it as a humiliation for which the remedy was tea and cigarettes: Maybe it was a Russian thing, but I couldn’t get my head around it. I was disappointed in her, almost angry, as if she hadn’t lived up to a standard I set for her, some special measure like the scale by which her beauty was appraised. I began spending more time away from the house, washing my hands of the situation, telling myself that I couldn’t protect her, though my withdrawal was actually a petty punishment, an expression of my disapproval, and didn’t last for long. My work on the script was done, at least for the moment, and the house was a mess, wires and lights everywhere (we were using it as one of the locations), so I seized the opportunity to renew friendships and caught a couple of movies. Then one night Larissa nabbed me as I was heading out and asked me to have a drink with her. She wanted to celebrate the start of principal photography, now eight days away, and was afraid we might not have time later--she was about to get very busy on the production side of things.
It was too windy on the deck, so we went into her bedroom and sat on the sofa and drank vodka martinis, slipping back into our relationship without awkwardness. She talked about the people she had associated with in Moscow, citizens of the new Russia, crazy musicians and charlatan poets and idiot actors, her face glowing with fond recollection, leaning forward to touch me on the knee, the arm. I tried to keep her talking, watching the light shift across her satiny blouse, listening to her breathy inflections and odd tonal shifts, like someone hitting the stops on the upper register of a bass clarinet. She told me that she had been a production assistant on two movies in Moscow, something I hadn’t known, and this had given her the expertise needed to produce our movie. It was a dream come true for her, she said, speaking about the quality of the actors and the director she was working with now.
“Your script is the heart of the movie,” she said. “They are forgetting this in Hollywood. Everything is explosion, car chase…or else it is farce. They no longer care about story. But you have given me such a brilliant script, a beautiful story. I am so grateful to have met you.”
I was made confident by her praise, infected by her passion for the movie, and a little desperate because I realized this might be my last, best chance to draw her into a deeper involvement. She wasn’t startled when I kissed her. She seemed to want it as much as I did. We moved from the sofa to the bed without a word exchanged. She was a fierce lover. She hissed in delight, she whispered Russian endearments, and she came almost at once, her nails pricking my back, heels bruising my calves, holding me tightly while she let out a series of low, shuddering cries. Then she pushed me onto my back and mounted me. Her hips rolled and twisted, teasing one moment and frenzied the next. The sight of her above me, breasts swaying, her hair flying—it was sublimely sexual. Yet when we were done, when she sat on the edge of the bed sipping her martini, I realized I had been taking mental snapshots of her, filing them away under The Most Beautiful Woman I Ever Fucked, and that her ferocity had been technical, part of a design for pleasure. The relationship had not deepened. It was only sex, though I wanted to believe otherwise.
“You are disappointed,” she said, looking down at me.
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, you are disappointed. I know.” She set down her glass and lay facing me. “You did not hear music. You felt nothing new.”
“No music,” I said, giving in to her. “But I maybe felt a couple of new things.”
She laughed and caressed my cheek. “Men tell me I am great at sex, and I think, so what? What do you mean? I enjoy it. I want men to enjoy. I have good energy for sex. It’s no big thing.” She rested her head in the crook of my shoulder. “Do you remember I’m telling you about the shaman? In the camp?”
“We were lovers. It was only way I could get him to tell me things. After we have sex one time, he says, ‘You don’t have feelings for me.’ I say, ‘Sure I do,’ and he says, ‘You want to know what it is to have love feelings for a man?’ So I tell him, ‘Yes, okay.’ I think he’ll teach me something if I go along. So he lays me down and rubs oil over my body. And spices, too, maybe. It smells of spices.”
“Sounds like a marinade,” I said.
“Then he starts to sing. Very low, deep in his throat.” She demonstrated. “It’s very hypnotic, and I’m getting drowsy. So drowsy, I lose track of what is happening. Soon he’s making love to me. It was amazing. It’s like I hear the music, I’m feeling new things. I’m…I don’t know the word. In another place.”
“Transported,” I suggested.
Her brow furrowed. “Okay, maybe. Afterward I ask if I can go to that place with some other man. He doesn’t know. If he performs the ritual some more, it’s possible, but he’s very busy, he’s got no time. Later, he says. Then the nomads disappear and there’s no chance to perform the ritual again.”
“He probably drugged you.”
“Must be hell of a drug,” she said. “Because I miss him forever. It takes me a year before I want sex with someone else. You think a drug can make you feel something so strong that you don’t really feel?”
“You don’t even need drugs for that,” I said.
I was watching TV the following Sunday, three days before we were to begin shooting, when the police arrived in force. They had a search warrant and asked if I knew where Misha and Larissa might be. I had no idea where Misha was, but I told them Larissa was probably asleep. They didn’t appear to believe me and suggested I come down to Valley Division and answer some questions. During the questioning, I learned that Misha and Larissa had last been seen at a bar in Pacific Palisades. Misha’s car had been found early that morning in a gully not far from the house and there were signs of foul play, plenty of blood, too much blood to hope for survivors, yet no bodies. They asked about Misha’s relationship with Larissa, about my relationship with Larissa, about people with Russian names whom I’d never heard of. After forty-five minutes, they kicked me loose and told me to keep clear of the house until they were done collecting evidence.
I checked into a hotel and called Echevarria and gave him the news. He kept saying, “I knew something would fuck this up.” It wasn’t the kind of attitude I wanted to hear. I told him I’d contact him when I heard anything new and went down to the bar and drank myself stupid. I shed a few tears for Larissa, but not so many as you might expect, perhaps because I sensed that her tragedy had occurred long before I met her and, like Echevarria, I knew something bad was going to happen. I walked around for a week feeling as if a hole had been punched through my chest—I missed being around her, talking to her--and then the police picked me up again, this time conveying me to an interrogation room in the Parker Center with walls the color of carbon paper, where I made the acquaintance of Detectives Jack Trombley and Al Witt, who were attached to the Homicide Special unit of the LAPD.
Witt, a cheerful, fit man in his thirties, dressed in jeans and a sport coat, offered me cigarettes, coffee, soda, and then said, “So, did you do it?”
“Do what?” I asked.
He looked to his partner, an older, thicker man wearing the same basic uniform, and said, “I don’t think he did it. You try.”
“Did you do it?” asked Trombley.
I glanced back and forth between them. “I didn’t do anything.”
“I’m not getting much,” Trombley said.
“Inconclusive?” asked Witt.
“If only he hadn’t lied, huh?” Witt eyed me sadly. “You said you and the Russian babe were friends, but we got your DNA off her sheets.”
“We had sex one time,” I said. “But...”
“One time!” Trombley snorted. “If it was me, you’d have to pry me off her.”
“It was like no good with her or something?” Witt asked.
“Not really,” I said. “It was…I don’t know how to explain so you’d understand.”
“Yeah, we’re pretty dense. We might not get it.” Witt thumbed through the case file. “We found an older sample on the sheets. It belonged to Bondarchuk.”
“That must be from the rape.”
“Yeah, you said.” Witt fingered the edge of a flimsy. “Makes you wonder how come a woman who’s been raped would hang onto the sheets? You’d think she’d throw them away, or at least wash them.”
“What’s your point?”
Witt shrugged. “It’s just weird.” He played with papers for a second or two, and then asked, “What did you do with the money?”
“Boy, he’s good!” said Trombley.
“The fifteen million,” Witt said. “The budget for your movie. Where’d it go?”
“It’s not in the bank?”
“Not in any Wells Fargo bank.” Witt made a church-and-steeple with his fingers. “Here’s how I read it. Larissa was planning to set you up for Bondarchuk’s murder and scoot with the fifteen mil. That’s why she was sleeping on dirty sheets when you nailed her—to implicate you. Maybe she talked you into killing Bondarchuk for her. You caught on to her, chilled them both and buried the money in an offshore account.”
“Works for me,” Trombley said. “Needs some tailoring, but we can make it fit.”
“I couldn’t kill Larissa,” I said.
“Because you loved her? Love’s right up there with greed as a motive for murder.” Witt made a wry face. “You’re not going to tell us you didn’t love her, are you?”
“Yeah. I loved her, but you wouldn’t…I…”
“I know. We wouldn’t understand.” Witt leafed through the file and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Larissa Miusov, AKA Larissa Shivets. Suspicion of robbery, suspicion of fraud, suspicion of extortion. Here’s a good one. Suspicion of murder. Lots of suspicion hanging around your girlfriend, but she always skated. Is that what you loved about her?”
They tag-teamed me for hours, trying to wear me down, to find cracks in my story, but I had no story to crack. Finally Witt said, “We like clearing cases around here and you’re looking pretty good for this.”
“A guy like Misha,” I said. “There must be dozens of people who wanted him dead.”
“More than that. But they’ve all got alibis and a ton of money. You don’t.”
That night I sat in the hotel bar and worried whether the police would charge me; I drank too much and thought about Larissa; then I repeated the cycle. She hadn’t talked much about the years in Moscow after her father died. I assumed it had been a struggle and, having no means of support, that she had done things she wasn’t proud of; but hearing the specifics eroded what I believed to be true and raised unanswerable question about her crimes. Had she been coerced? If so, by who and by what means? And had she intended to frame me? I wanted to deny it, clinging to the notion that we had been friends. Yet it was as if each new thing I learned rendered her less visible, as if during the entire time I knew her, she had been gradually disappearing behind a smokescreen of facts.
After a month they let me back in to the Topanga house to collect my possessions. I no longer feared that I would be charged with a double homicide. Though the case remained open, Larissa’s death was on its way to becoming part of Hollywood lore and I was close to signing a deal that would guarantee production of the Donner Party script and allow me to direct a picture based on a script I would write about the murders. Very little excites America more than does the mysterious death of a beautiful woman, especially a woman who herself poses a mystery. Photographs of Larissa were splashed on tabloid covers and featured on TV. It was said she had done porn in Russia, that she had slept with Gorbachev, that she was a descendant of the Romanoffs. A 20/20 special was in the works. On the advice of counsel, I turned down requests for interviews.
“Save it for the script,” my agent told me.
I packed quickly, oppressed by the house, but before leaving I asked the real estate agent to give me a minute to look around. I walked along the deck, then down to the hall to Larissa’s bedroom. The bed had been stripped, but her clothes were still in the closet, her toiletries in the bathroom, and a trace of her perfume lingered on the air. I sat on the sofa, indulging in nostalgia, remembering moments, things spoken and unspoken. I glanced down at the coffee table.
Sunlight applied a glaze to the glass surface, making it difficult to see, but when I leaned close I realized she had left me a message. That’s how I interpreted the markings on the glass, though I recognize now they may have been the work of idle hours and I understand they were in essence the ultimate mystification of her life, a magical pass made by her disembodied hand that, literally or figuratively, caused her to vanish utterly behind a curtain of rumors and fictions, the final flourish of her disappearing act. At the time, however, I chose to take the hopeful view. I recalled how she had giggled and remarked sarcastically on the act of giving blood, blood she might have used to cover up a murder, and I also recalled things said about Misha, about me, all supporting the thesis that she had escaped, leaving behind evidence to implicate me, to misdirect the police for a while, yet not enough to convict.
Four wheels resembling Mayan calendars, now defaced by random scratches, were etched into the four corners of the glass. The greater portion of the surface was occupied by marks that appeared to represent the surrounding hills, a crude map of our section of the canyon, and there was a patch of tropical vegetation where the house should have been. I identified palms and banana trees. Inside a circle, dead center of the patch, was the figure of a woman, so carefully incised that I made out breasts and a smiling face and a hand raised in a salute—she was half-turned away from whomever she was signaling, like a beloved and gifted actress waving farewell to her audience, preparing to step through the hole she had opened in the world.