TW: drug/alcohol use mentioned in this short story.
Annaliese is the first to arrive, but she always is. She eases her silver Skylark up the curb alongside Marmont Lane and throws it into park. The Chateau looms to her right, its façade gleaming white in the noonday sun. She flexes her fingers, hands cramped from gripping the steering wheel for the past four hours. Thirty-five isn’t that old, but she’s feeling every damn bit of it these days.
“Ma’am, I’ll take your keys. The bellboy will be round for your bags.”
Annaliese gazes over her aviators at the valet and grins. “I only have one bag, doll. I’m from Vegas. I travel light.” He’s sure handsome. Tall and slim, with a full afro bushing out from beneath his cap. Her eyes skim over his name tag: Larry. “Say, you’re new, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am, I started three months ago.” He opens her door, and Annaliese spins a pivot on her stacked heel as she exits the car. Her paisley skirt flips a bit, showing off the tanned length of thigh above her fringed leather boots. She was too old to dance at the Tropicana now, but she still had the body for it, no matter what Sal said. Fuck Sal. She hopes he chokes on one of his fat cigars.
“Well, Larry. The rest of the girls will be here soon,” she says, pulling her bag from the backseat of the convertible. She hands him a crisp twenty. “You should take a break and join us around the pool tonight. Get a little loose. Catch me?”
He scratches his chin. “Now, I don’t know about that…”
“Don’t think about it too long, Larry.” Annaliese winks, then pushes her sunglasses back up her nose. She sashays into the Chateau’s lobby, past the tired, lumpy furniture and the trio of drunken hipsters lounging there.
Carl looks up from his post behind the front desk, his Brylcreem-ed hair gleaming in the tacky chandelier’s dim light. “Ah, Mrs. Salvatore.”
“It’s Miss Werner now, Carl. I ditched that sad sack.”
“Same room as always?”
“Yeah. Fifth floor overlooking Sunset. Say, could you send up a handle of bourbon and a Reuben from Schwab’s?”
He shakes his head and smiles. “Yep. I’ll send one off the bellhops out for it right now.”
Annaliese points a scarlet-tipped finger at the clerk. “You’re a gem. Don’t ever change.” She boards the elevator, running her hands through her wind-mussed waves, using the tarnished brass plating as a mirror. Julie would be the next to arrive with her endless quilted bags and her movie star blond hair. Then mousy little Trudie. And last—always last—Barb. Fucking Barb.
Annaliese’s hands begin to shake. The elevator dings, and she steps out onto the threadbare carpet patched with electrical tape. The door to suite 59 is just ahead, the door smudged with greasy fingerprints. Would it goddamn hurt them to take some fresh paint and a brush to things once in a while?
She reaches into her bag for a joint and lights it up, then pushes through into the room. It stinks like stale cigarettes and patchouli. She rushes to the balcony slider and cracks it open to the sound of traffic humming along Sunset Boulevard. Her shaking stops as the THC floods her system. She tilts her head back and rides the wave, her shoulders loosening. Chase things with a little booze later, and she’d be right as rain. Ready for Barb.
There’s a knock at the door, and she opens to a teenage bellboy clutching a paper bag. He eyes the joint she’s smoking. “Want a hit?” she asks, blowing smoke into his face. He shakes his head and thrusts the take-out into her hands. “Did you get my Jack Daniels, kid?”
“I’ve got it.” The voice is deep, sultry—rich like a mink coat on a January day. Cold ice pierces the pleasant fug of Annaliese’s high.
God, she hasn’t changed a bit. The same sleek, black hair flowing down to her hips, the fringe of dense bangs over her forehead. Those goddamn cheekbones.
“Oh look, it’s Cher,” Annaliese says, rolling her eyes.
Barb waggles the bottle of whiskey at her and kicks the door shut in the bellboy’s face. “Pour, bitch. We need our share before Jules drains it dry.”
Annaliese takes the bourbon and cracks open the lid--a sound like bones breaking. She pours the tawny liquor into a tumbler and hands it to Barb.
“You went red, huh?” Barb asks, her dark eyes running over Annaliese’s hair. “I like it. Did you dye the carpet, too?”
Fuck you, Barb. “I needed a change.”
“I’ll say,” Barb says, taking a long drink. “It brings out your eyes. Makes them greener.”
“Thanks.” Suddenly, Annaliese is fifteen and shy again; the new girl watching Barb cross the tennis courts at Edgerton High on her long legs, her hair in a high ponytail, her full lips slicked with Vaseline. She’d hated her then. She hated her now. It’s the years in-between that make things fuzzy.
“Hey, you want to talk about it, Annie?” Barb’s voice was soft, searching.
“No.” Annaliese turns away and knocks back her whiskey. Hell no. There was nothing the sight of her best friend straddling her husband hadn’t already said. She refills her glass to the rim, liquor sloshing over her fingers.
There’s another knock at the door, followed by a girlish giggle. Barb sighs and goes to open it, her bell-bottoms swishing. Trudie and Julie rush in, hugging Barb and squealing compliments. They don’t even notice Annaliese. No one ever does when Barb’s around.
“Hey,” she says, stepping forward. “I’m here too, you know.”
Trudie gives her a careful smile over Barb’s shoulder. She’s dressed in her usual get-up: pedal-pushers and a sweet little top with a Peter Pan collar, her brown hair cropped at the chin. “Annaliese! I didn’t know if…”
“I’d come?” She raises her eyebrows. “How could I possibly miss our yearly reunion?”
Julie winks, her heavily mascaraed gray eyes as mischievous as a cat’s. “I’m almost as glad to see you as I am that whiskey. Give it.” Julie makes grabby hands at the bottle and Annaliese lets her have it. She’s the biggest lush of them all, but somehow manages not to look it.
Everyone is drinking, but no one is talking—only the clinking of Barb’s gold bangles and the occasional honk of a horn break the silence. The eyes of Annaliese’s oldest friends land on her like mosquitoes, stopping to feed on her shame before flitting on.
“I’m going down by the pool to eat my lunch and flirt with the valets,” Annaliese says, flicking her hair over her shoulder and grabbing the greasy Schwab’s bag. “You can come or you can stay, but I don’t fucking want to talk about Sal. Got it?”
The pool is blessedly quiet. There are only two people there—Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, dangling their feet in the water and chatting. Annaliese nods politely, kicking back on a chaise. Rule number one at the Chateau Marmont: leave the celebrities alone. Still, she has to force herself not to stare at Sharon’s perfect breasts in her white bikini. Too much goddamn perfection in this town.
She tucks into her sandwich, the sauerkraut and corned beef lukewarm, but still salty-good. She chases the sandwich with the rest of her whiskey, and lays back, hitching up her skirt to catch some sun. She senses Barb’s presence before she hears her. So much for peace and quiet.
“We have to talk about this, Annie.”
“Why?” Annaliese says, sitting up. “You screwed my husband. I left him. That’s all there is to it.”
Barb kneels at her side, her long-fingered hands dangling between her knees. “Don’t you want to know why I did it?”
Annaliese laughs. “Because you saw something you couldn’t have and wanted to prove you were better than me.”
Now it’s Barb’s turn to laugh. “Baby, I did it because you deserve better. You had on some thick rose-colored glasses with that jackass. Sure, he took a shy little Midwestern girl and turned her into the star of the Tropicana. Covered her in jewels and fur. But his kind of love was bad. Conditional. He was fucking his way through every set of gams in the chorus line before you saw us together.”
Annaliese swallows the sharp blade of pain in her throat. “Maybe. But it was different with you. You betrayed me.”
“I only did it because I knew you’d find us and it would be the thing to make you leave. Sal was doing some bad shit, baby. Shit that could’ve put you in a lot of danger.”
Annaliese closes her eyes. “I’m not dumb. I saw it—drugs. Hard shit.”
Barb stands, crossing her arms over her chest. “Yeah. Well. I certainly didn’t fuck him cause I wanted him. There wasn’t no talking to you about Sal. Still isn’t. But if you wanna stay mad at me forever over that hairy, fat bastard? Sure. I’ll get another room. You and the girls can have old 59.” She turns on her heel to go.
Something dark runs through Annaliese. She reaches out and grasps a handful of Barb’s corduroy pants, her nails digging into the fabric. “Wait.”
“What?” Her best friend turns, looking at Annaliese through her curtain of hair.
“I... I…” Annaliese chokes on her words. She thought of the things she and Barb used to do. Night things. Dark things. Their eyes meet. Annaliese lifts her sleeve, revealing the small pentacle tattooed on her left wrist—the same tattoo each of her friends bore, marking them as members of the same coven.
Barb smiles and bites her lip. “You wanna get even, baby?”
A fire has kicked up in the Hollywood hills, stoked by the winds howling overhead. October always brings wind and fire to Los Angeles. Tonight, it would bring vengeance.
Barb leads the way through the grass and bone-dry chaparral, dressed in a simple black dress, Annaliese trailing her. It’s been years since they’ve done blood magic. Tamer things had replaced their dark rituals—dancing in nightclubs, chasing rock bands, three-day benders. But the pact they’d made during their senior year still held. The marks on their wrists still held. Their bond, though tested, still held.
They come to a space on the hillside where the silty soil is bare, the lights of the city below glinting like a carpet of jewels. It was the same place they used to congregate when Trudie and Julie still practiced alongside them. But tonight, it’s only she and Barb. The way Annaliese wants it. She takes a deep breath, her heart clamoring, and clutches the leather-wrapped handle of her athame.
Fire crackles in the distance, limning Barb with an unearthly red glow as she chalks a circle in the soil and calls the four corners. She unties the laced neckline of her dress. It falls from her shoulder, leaving her naked.
Annaliese does the same, the wind chilling her bare skin, the ritual blade heavy in her hands. Barb begins chanting, raising her arms overhead and then lowering them, palms held upward to receive. Annaliese places the athame in Barb’s outstretched hand. She closes her fingers around the blade, a stream of blood pouring from her palm onto the soil. Annaliese takes it to do the same, mingling their blood on the ground. The kneel, facing one another.
But the chant Annaliese intones is different than Barb’s. Hers is guttural and low. Ancient.
She shakes as The Other comes through. It has been too long since she’s felt his presence, his darkness and feral power running through her until she nearly swoons. She locks eyes with Barb, who sees the blackness there. Annaliese smiles.
Barb whimpers, scuttling backwards, her hands leaving the circle. Annaliese savors her fear, rancid and sickeningly sweet. The part of Annaliese that is still human hesitates. The Other does not.
276 miles away in the Mojave desert, there’s a poker game going on. In the middle of the green felt sits a mound of cocaine in a silver dish, several bottles of barbiturates, and wads of cash stacked high. Four men form a dark coven of their own, laughing and talking about dames and fast cars.
No one remembers Annaliese. No one is thinking of Annaliese.
Later, one of the young men will tell the coroner about the black dog that came growling out of the corner and jumped on Gianni Salvatore’s chest. But the coroner pats him on the shoulder, looks at his dilated pupils, and tells him to go home to sleep it off.
“Mr. Salvatore had a heart attack, son. Not an unusual thing at all for a man of fifty.”
Los Angeles has its own brand of gothic. From our remote deserts to the Santa Ana winds that are, at this very moment, rattling my windows and pushing fire toward my town, there’s a subversive edge to living here. A darkness that lurks beneath the unrelenting sunshine and waving palm trees. The hills around Hollywood are rife with stories of cult activity, mysterious disappearances, and rich folkloric tales recounted by the native peoples who first settled here.
From the time of its opening in 1929, the Chateau Marmont has had a storied history. It is said that is was built (unwittingly, of course) on the convergence of several ley lines and a power vortex, and so, that is why I chose it as the meeting place for my characters to hold their rituals. Whether witches truly gathered there or not, the Chateau was most certainly a notorious playground for the wealthy. Movie stars, rock stars, and any of the L.A. illuminati who needed discretion with which to indulge their most decadent predilections came to the Chateau, where rules were broken, secrets were kept, and misfits gathered to party.
By 1968, the Chateau was falling into neglect and disrepair. The electrical tape patching the carpets in my story is not an exaggeration. The Chateau Marmont has faced certain demolition more than once, but it is now a protected landmark. Long may it be so.
If you would like to know more about the Chateau Marmont, read the wonderful book The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy. It was my primary resource for this story.
Happy spell-casting, witches.