Ash was uncomfortable in the gorgeous black tuxedo he was wearing, despite it being tailored specifically for him. Mercutio had glibly insisted on "only the best" and Ash found himself being prodded and measured by a weary-eyed tailor in the back room of a chic Beverly Hills boutique. He felt stilted and unnatural in the expensive clothes. The truth was that he was sleekly elegant and startlingly attractive in his new attire, despite feeling like a child playing dress-up with his father's cast-offs. Mercutio and Rena had both smiled approvingly, Mercutio complimenting him with applause that was not entirely mocking. Ash and Rena ate dinner shortly after in a small, overpriced bistro while Mercutio looked on with mock-benevolence, like an emperor feeding peasants on epiphany.
They were once again swallowed by the limo, its gleaming blackness seeming more serpentine than metallic. The limo curved elegantly through twisting streets and narrow wynds up into the Hollywood Hills. Ash looked out at huge gates defending private homes while Rena engaged in idle chatter with Mercutio. Ash attempted to let his mind wander onto unrelated subjects, but reality kept intruding. He knew almost nothing of this eccentric and evidently wealthy man that was escorting them to the party. Ash studied Mercutio out of the corner of one eye. There was a cruelness to his eyes that belied his ingratiating smiles. Ash thought Mercutio looked every inch the predator, expensive clothes and tastes notwithstanding.
The car turned into a cul-de-sac high on the side of the hill, huge iron gates parted before the car automatically, and they turned into a horseshoe driveway lined with expensive cars. Perched on the hillside was their destination, a house that seemed more glass and light and than plaster or steel. Ash could see flashes of color and movement that were evidence of the glamorous people inside.
The driver opened the door of the limousine and Ash, Rena and Mercutio filed out of the car and onto the brick pavement that led up to the house's main entrance. They ascended up a short flight of stairs to ring the doorbell. The massive oaken double doors were opened by a young, bubbly blond who looked Rena up and down and winked strangely at Mercutio. She spoke in a high, almost annoyingly perky voice, "The Party's through the foyer, down the hall and on the left!"
The three walked through the foyer without speaking, their heels clicking on marble. They could hear the din of the party steadily growing as they entered the hall. When reached the end of the hallway they felt the bass reverberating solidly beneath their feet, turning uniformly to the left they were confronted with a riot of color and sound. Surrounding a glassed-in terrace were the guests. Gentlemen in neatly tailored tuxedos danced with ladies in elegant gowns, while sleekly sullen young men in Armani suits or black turtlenecks seemed to stalk young women in scandalous scoop neck dresses or men's tuxedo jackets. Ash was taken aback by the color, vibrancy and variety of the guests. He noticed several film and recording celebrities mingling with literary lions and well-to-do socialites. Mercutio cleared his throat, looked at the two flanking him and said, "I believe it is time for us to present ourselves to the host".
Ash and Rena looked to Mercutio to see if he meant that they should attempt to wade through the crowd of beautiful people who were seemingly oblivious to their presence, but at that moment a sea of colorful personalities parted to reveal a dashing, if garishly attired figure. He was a handsome young man of what appeared to be Italian descent. Ash recognized Valentino S. from a series of billboards a few years back, he had been the chief model for a fashionable brand of underwear. His signature black eye patch had been replaced with one made of cloth-of-gold and studded with small rubies and he was flamboyantly clad in a white pirate shirt, black plastic pants and knee-high scarlet velvet boots. On most people this ensemble would have looked completely ridiculous, but Valentino had a wiry grace that somehow allowed him to pull it off. Valentino smirked, his one eye narrowing, and spoke in a voice that sounded hardened by the street-life, "Well, Mercutio.. glad you could make it. Who's the lovely lady and the fellow you brought with you?"
Mercutio smiled without humor, "The lady is Miss Rena Martin, my date for this evening. This is her friend from out of town, Ash. Ash, Rena this is our host, Vincent Valentino Storm, former model and current dilettante."
Valentino's smirk faded. His voice was noticeably tinged with acid as he said, "Ash and Rena, I hope you will both enjoy yourselves. If you'll excuse me, I have other guests to attend to" Mercutio smiled, as if he had won some sort of battle. He looked at Ash and Rena and said in a typically imperious manner, "Mingle. I have some business to attend to."
Ash and Rena were soon lost in the sea of glitterati with Mercutio nowhere to be found. Ash nodded dully as a beautiful movie star, the idle of millions introduced herself and began enthusiastically pumping his hand. The movie star smiled, the whiteness of her teeth nearly as dazzling as the diamonds that were dripping down into her cleavage. Ash tried dutifully to be impressed, but really only wished to extricate himself from this woman whose demeanor reminded him vaguely of a shark. He looked over at Rena, who was busy chatting with a rock star whose latest video had been banned from three cable channels and had subsequently sold an extra two million albums. Ash looked again at the blond bombshell who was apparently telling the air an engrossing and utterly charming anecdote and spoke, "Uhh.. would you like some punch or something to drink?" She looked utterly charmed and smiled somewhat condescendingly, "Darling, that's what the help is for."
She was momentarily distracted by one of her colleagues and Ash took his chance to escape, heading instinctively towards the door. Ash was in sight of the terrace doorway when he saw the party's latest arrival. Ash sucked in breath silently. There was a face Ash had seen on the dust jacket of three hardcover collections of poetry and several television interviews. Alan Michaels, Ash's personal idol and muse was standing there. Alan's long, wavy, copper-colored hair was bound neatly in a ponytail. His large, expressive eyes were the color of rosewood. His mouth was a full cupid's bow that hinted at sensuality, but the brightness of his smile seemed to imply innocence and friendliness. He was altogether lovely, in the way that renaissance angels are lovely, a delicate beauty that almost induces tears. Ash stood there staring, almost forgetting who he was until his idle looked at him and spoke.
"Good evening. I am Alan Michaels, I'd thought I'd met most of the worthwhile people who would be attending, but I was evidently very wrong. I have not met you," Alan smiled at Ash almost seductively.
"I -- I am Ashley Bryant, but most of my friends just call me Ash," Ash replied ungracefully.
"Can I consider myself your friend, I'd like to be," Alan said warmly. There was a coughing sound as Alan's companion tried to make himself known. A sullen, handsome bleached blond thrust his hand out towards Ash in a manner that bordered on threat.
"I'm Jaysin Carter, Alan's date. Pleased to meet you," despite the relatively friendly words, Jaysin's eyes told another story. Ash had the good grace to blush and mumble an introduction. Ash looked up at Alan and hazarded speaking again, "Mr. Michaels..."
"Please, call me Alan, I'm hardly old enough to be a Mr." this prompted a snicker from Jaysin.
"M-- Alan, I'm a great fan of your work, and I really think..."
"Alaaan," Jaysin interjected, "we have so many people to talk to, and we're just standing at the door, come on!"
Jaysin pulled the arm of a rather annoyed Alan. Alan stared at Ash with undisguised longing and disappeared into the crowd. Ash sighed heavily, he turned back to scan for Rena when a voice from behind made him jump.
"Having fun?" Mercutio asked abruptly.
"Oh, you startled me," Ash said. "Yeah, I just met Alan Michaels, my all time favorite poet."
Mercutio looked at Ash appraisingly and said, "Mr. Michaels is a curious and sometimes dangerous man," and then he waded back into the crowd once more. Ash wandered the room, trading greetings with CEOs, novelists and poet-philosophers alike. After about twenty minutes of wading through the room, Ash bumped into Rena.
"Hey, I think Mercutio's nearly ready to go."
"So soon? But we haven't been here an hour."
"Yeah, well he likes to make the scene and then split, he says it increases his mystery."
"Oh," said Alan. "You'll never guess who I met. Alan Michaels of all people is here, and.."
"Oh yeah, he comes to a lot of these parties. He's pretty."
"You knew he might be here and didn't tell me? Rena, you know that Songs of Night and Mourning is my all-time favorite book of poems."
"Oh yeah," Rena shrugged, "I just didn't think it was all that important."
Ash looked at Rena strangely.
"I'll be right back, Rena. I'm just going to get some air."
Ash waded through the crowd to the part of the terrace that led to the open air. Ash slid open glass doors and looked up at the sky. He began to lose himself in thought of Colorado and his old life when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Startled, Ash looked behind him to see Alan Michaels, smiling at him, Jaysin nowhere to be found.
"I'm sorry about earlier, Jaysin can be a little possessive."
"Oh believe me, I understand."
"We're about to leave shortly, I gave Jaysin the task of tracking down our coats. I'd like to speak with you again."
Ash's heart pounded rapidly in his chest as he thought of something clever or charming to say, "uh.. cool," was the best response he could come up with. Alan smiled genially at Ash and said, "Here's my card. Call me sometime, we'll have dinner and talk."
Ash nodded mutely and took the card, Alan smiled and turned to go back into the house. Ash stared after him.
Ash ventured into the room again, he found Rena and a very irritated Mercutio standing near the far end of the room. Mercutio favored Ash with a look that was not quite a glare and said, "You are ready to go, I hope?"
Ash nodded mutely. Mercutio leaned close to Ash and whispered in his ear, "I warned you to be wary of Alan Michaels, you little fool, now it may be too late. He has eye on you. Let's go."
A very confused Ash followed Rena and Mercutio out to the Limousine. He was silent the entire way home.
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