Mark pressed the remote button, the car's lights flashed and the door locks thumped shut. He turned to head for his room when he heard the sobbing, deep tearing cries that wrenched at his heart. He stopped. Though the hotel grounds were well lit, the profusion of shrubs and trees made it impossible to see where the woman was, which meant he could pretend he hadn't heard and walk away or go looking. Only this was California, USA, not safe solid Canada, and he didn't fancy getting himself killed like all the other poor beggars he heard about on each night's newscast. The sobbing seemed louder. Mark grimaced and headed around a large flowering bush that blocked his view.
She was sitting hunched over, on an ornamental stone wall, face in hands, oblivious to his approach.
"Can I help?" Mark asked.
The young woman sprang to her feet, her wet eyes and cheeks glittering in the pale light.
"Fuck off," she snarled.
Even with her face contorted with distress, her skin blotched and pale, her eyes dark shadows, and her blonde hair disheveled, Mark could see she was attractive. That didn't prevent him taking a step backwards to safety. She was quite right, he reasoned to himself. He had no business intruding on her private grief. But he couldn't leave. She was too young, twenty at most, and clearly in need of assistance, though he doubted any knight-errant had ever met such a rude welcome from a distressed damsel.
"I'm staying at the hotel," Mark said. "Maybe you'd like to come inside. I could get you a coffee, or a taxi, or something."
"I don't need anything from any man," the girl screamed. "You're all bastards."
"Can't argue with you there," Mark said. "I don't think much of men either. Still, I think you should get inside, it's a cool night and you aren't dressed for the weather."
"What's it to you how I dress?"
"Nothing at all," Mark said hurriedly, "but when you're in bed all week with a cold, you'll find it has a lot to do with you."
"Jeez! You sound just like my mother."
Mark was about to reply when he heard the police siren and a moment later a squad car screeched to a halt in the hotel gateway.
Mark and the girl watched two officers walk purposefully toward them. Mark inwardly cursed his stupidity; they'd think he was to blame for the girl's distress. He'd be lucky to escape with a beating, this being Los Angeles.
"Is this man bothering you?" One of the officers asked.
Mark held his breath. She had only to say yes and his pleasant, quiet, life would dissolve into chaos.
Mark felt the girl looking at him but he kept his gaze firmly on the police officers. No way did he want them thinking he was influencing her answer.
"No," she said after the longest pause in Mark's life. "He was offering to help. Only I don't need any. I'm all right now."
"Then we can give you ride home."
"Thanks but I've already accepted this guy's offer of a lift," the girl said and walked to Mark's side as though she would find protection there.
"Then I suggest the two of you get moving," the officer said, making it very clear they weren't wanted in a nice hotel's grounds upsetting the customers.
Mark drove out onto the highway following the girl's directions. In the mirror, he watched the police cruiser pull out of the hotel driveway about quarter of a mile behind him. It stayed there as he drove further into the city and into increasingly poorer neighborhoods.
Apart from giving directions, the girl was silent. She sat slumped against the door, her eyes brimming with tears, staring into infinity.
"What's your name?" Mark asked when she seemed about to start sobbing again. He couldn't stand that. His recently departed, long time, girlfriend Julia would never have behaved like this. She was cool, collected and ... he missed her a lot.
"Piece of shit," the girl replied and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Mark reached out to clasp her hand but she flinched away from him as though he'd been going to strike her. He prayed the police hadn't noticed that.
"I'm Mark," he said and held out his hand. She didn't take it. "If you don't trust me," Mark said in exasperation, "why didn't you let the police drive you home?"
"I trust them less," the girl managed to say through her hands covering her face. "You hear stories about them and single girls at night."
Another triumph for Hollywood, Mark thought sourly. Her fear of her own country's police force underlined the growing unease he felt about his own role in this small drama and, incidentally, in the movie they were making of his book. It was all a part of the same worry. Why did he let his Agent persuade him into this? Canada was where he belonged, not California. He glanced in the mirror and saw the police car still following.
"Left at the next lights," the girl said suddenly.
The street was darker than any others they'd been on and the old houses and duplexes more rundown. Mark decided he wasn't leaving the car here. She could get out and he'd watch her to the door, no more.
"It's the apartment block on the left," she said.
Mark knew it would be. It was probably the cheapest place about. He drew up at the door.
"Come in, please," the girl said. "I need some company. Just for a while."
"Will he be there?"
"Whoever turned you into this wreck," Mark said. He watched the police car park at the end of the street.
"No. There'll be no one there," the girl said. She was quieter now but sad and Mark knew he couldn't refuse.
"Where do I park?" he asked.
Her apartment was chaotic, clothes everywhere, unwashed dishes on the table and in the sink. Mark's fastidious nature rebelled at the mess. Why hadn't he walked right by her to his clean room?
"Sorry about the mess," she said, glancing at him, sensing his distaste. "I-I left in a hurry on Saturday morning." She began crying again and rushed from the living room into her bedroom.
"You splash some water on your face," Mark called, "and I'll make you some coffee." If I can find any in this tip, he thought grimly to himself. The sooner he could get out of here the better he'd like it.
He found instant coffee, a dirty mug and a kettle, which he filled and plugged in. The mug cleaned up and Mark realized he'd have to have one too or she'd be offended so he washed another one. The milk in the fridge was okay because, as he'd guessed from the bowls in the sink, she practically lived on breakfast cereal.
"The dishwasher broke," she said, returning to the living room, bundled up in a thick robe.
Mark decided against a cutting remark on her housekeeping nodded, and asked, "Better now?" She certainly looked better. As a disheveled mess, she'd been attractive. With her hair combed and mascara streaks removed, she was stunning.
"I'm sorry I dragged you into this," she said, "but thanks for everything."
"No problem," Mark replied. "Here," he handed her a mug, "drink this. A hot drink will finish your recovery." And I can go, he added to himself. The thought of the two police officers sitting outside was like a lump of ice in his stomach.
"Thanks," she said, taking the mug and curling up on the couch, tucking her robe under her feet.
Mark sat in the armchair opposite. Now she was calmer, he didn't know what to say. To ask about her problems would lead back to weeping, which he had to avoid; yet he knew nothing else about her.
"It's late," he said at last, "I guess you'll need to be up early for work."
She shook her head. "I'm waiting tables this week," she said, "and I don't start till eleven."
Mark had only been in Hollywood a month but he'd heard the words in so many different ways he knew what she meant.
"Acting seems to be a tough profession," he said.
"I'm doing okay," the girl replied defensively.
Mark nodded and sipped his coffee.
"What do you do?" she asked. "You're not from round here."
"I'm a writer," he said. It still felt strange saying it. Sometimes he thought he'd wake up and find the last year had all been a dream.
"At the moment," Mark said, though he was having doubts about his success at this new line of work.
"What are you working on?"
The transformation in her was incredible, Mark thought. From howling distress to listless apathy to eyes shining with excitement in less than thirty minutes, even for an actor that was quite a feat. His mind jumped back a year to Julia, she was in control of herself--and tidy, Mark looked about again with a barely repressed shudder.
"Overachiever, Underachievement," Mark said.
"I read that," the girl said. "Hey," she exclaimed suddenly, "you're the author! Your picture is on the back." She scrambled to her feet, spilling coffee on her robe. "Wait," she said and rushed into the bedroom.
Mark heard things crashing about the bedroom. He couldn't imagine what the room looked like before but he felt sure it would be worse before she found his book.
"I'll take your word for it," Mark called.
"It's here somewhere," the girl replied, somewhat muffled as though she was under the bed or in a closet. "You can sign it for me."
Mark hated book signings but he'd done enough when the publishers realized they had a winner on their hands to accept her demand. Actually, it wasn't a bad idea. It would be a final scene, closing this whole sorry evening with a flourish.
The girl burst out of her bedroom and rushed to an old wooden sideboard. She opened a door and movie magazines spilled out on the floor.
"Look for it another time," Mark said in dismay. What was left of the apartment would be wrecked if she didn't stop soon. "I'm here till the movie's finished."
"I can't have lost it," the girl said sadly. All the excitement had drained from her. She knelt amid the growing pile of glossy photos of the stars, her shoulders sagging, her head bowed. "I'm never going to be a star now," she whispered so faintly Mark could only just hear.
"Why not?" Mark asked.
"They'll sell the film to the papers and TV."
"The one I did this weekend. I needed the money. Kat said, 'do it.' She had and it was okay. Bit of a joke, really. They said my face wouldn't be seen on the web. But if I become a famous movie star..." her voice tailed away in despair.
"It wasn't a 'bit of a joke' then?" Mark asked. He felt an overpowering urge to comfort her.
The girl shook her head. Mark crossed the room and knelt by her side. He put his arms round her shoulders and hugged her to his chest, feeling her softly crush against him.
"They called me names," she whispered. "They told me before they would. It was in the script, calling me names. The buyers for those kinds of films like that. I thought I could do it and I did at first, but they went on and on and I couldn't take it anymore. It made me cry."
Mark cradled her head between his hand and shoulder. She was trembling and tiny sobs were struggling to escape from inside her slim frame.
"It's okay now," he said. "You don't need to think about it ever again."
"I'll never stop thinking about it," the girl cried.
"Okay, okay," Mark said quickly, as she seemed on the verge of breaking down again. "Take deep breaths. It'll help."
The girl tried, breathing in, swelling her chest, but then dissolved into sobbing. She covered her face with her hands.
"Stop it," Mark said sharply. He needed to her to get control because this distress couldn't go on. "Or I'll give you something to cry about." The words jumped into his mouth unbidden, almost forgotten memories of Julia and how she'd laugh when he acted masterfully overpowering his better judgment.
The effect on the girl was instantaneous.