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Coldheart Canyon

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘Then I told him I still had a life to live in the world, whereas he had been an old man, with a weak heart. I was strong, I said, and there was a good chance I’d be alive for another thirty, maybe forty years, which was an agony to me, but what could I do?

‘“So take your own life,” he said to me. He made it sound so simple. “Cut your throat. God understands.”

‘“He does?” I said to him.

‘“Certainly,” he told me. “This world is Hell. Just look around. What do you see?”

‘I told him what I saw. Fire, smoke, black earth.

‘“See?” he said. “Hell.”

‘I told him, though of course I was still dreaming, I was going to take his advice. I was going to go back to my room, find a sharp knife, and kill myself. But for some reason, as often happens in dreams, I didn’t go home. I went into Bucharest. To the cinema where Brother Stefan used to bring me sometimes, to see films. We went inside. It was very dark. We found seats and Stefan had me sit down. Then the film began. And it was a film about some earthly paradise. It made me weep, it was so perfect, this place. The music, the way the people looked. Beautiful men and women, all so lovely it took my breath away to look at them. There was one young man in particular – and it makes me ashamed to write this, but if I don’t do it here, in my last confession, where will I do it? – a young man with dark hair and light-filled eyes, who opened his arms to me. He was naked, on the screen, with open arms, inviting me into his embrace. I turned to Father Stefan in the darkness, and he said the very thing that was going through my mind. “He wants to take you into his arms.”

‘I started to deny it. But Stefan interrupted me and said: “Look at him. Look at his face. It’s flawless. Look at his body. It’s perfect. And there – between his legs –”

‘I covered my face in shame, but Stefan pulled my hands from my face and told me not to be ashamed, just to look, and enjoy looking. “God made all of this for our pleasure,” he said. “Why would he give us such a hunger to look at nakedness unless he wanted us to take pleasure in it?”

‘I asked Stefan how he knew it was God’s work. Perhaps the Devil had made nakedness, I said, to tempt us and ensnare us. He laughed, and put his arm around me, and kissed me on the cheek as though I was just a little child.

‘“This isn’t the Devil’s work,” he said. “This is your invitation to paradise.” Then he kissed me again, and I felt a warm wind blowing, as though it was spring in whatever country they had created on the screen. And the wind made me want to die with pleasure, because it smelled of a time I remembered from long ago.

‘So now I have come back to my room. I have a knife. When I have finished writing this I will leave what I have written on the table, and I will go out into the field, and cut my wrists. I know we are taught that self-slaughter is a sin, and that the Lord does not wish us to harm ourselves, but if He does not wish me to end my life, why is this knife within reach of my hand, and why is my heart so much at peace?’

His body was found about a hundred yards from the place where Sandru’s frost-covered body had been discovered. Coming so soon upon the death of the old priest, the death of Jan Valek undid the Brotherhood completely. Orders came from Bucharest, and the Brotherhood was disbanded. There was no need to guard the Fortress any longer, the Archbishop said. The brothers would be more useful to the Church if they worked with the sick and the dying, to offer the Lord’s comfort where it was most needed.

Within a week, the Order of St Teodor had left the Fortress Goga.

There were those among the villagers who felt that the Fortress had invited its abandonment, and began its own process of self-slaughter. Superstition, no doubt; but it was certainly strange that after five centuries of life, during which span it had remained strong, a quick process of disintegration should begin as soon as the community of caretakers departed.

True, the winter immediately following was particularly severe. But there had been heavier snows on the roofs and they had not bowed beneath the weight; there had been stronger winds through the casements and they’d not broken open and smashed, there had been more persistent floodings of the lower floors, and the doors had not been carried off on their rotted hinges.

By the time the spring came round – which was late April that year – the Fortress had effectively become uninhabitable. It was as though its soul had gone out of it, and now all it wanted was to allow the seasons to take their steady toll. They were guileless collaborators. The summer was as violently hot as the winter had been bitter, and it bred all manner of destroyers in the fabric of the building. Worm and fly and wasp contributed to the baking heat of the sun with their burrowings and layings and nestings. Beams that had taken ten men to lift them became dusty, hollow things, as delicate as the bones of immense birds. Unable to support their own weight, they collapsed upon themselves, bringing down entire floors as they fell. By the time September arrived, the Fortress was open to the elements. The ward where the brothers had optimistically laid out rows of beds now had a ceiling of cloud. When the first rains of autumn came the mattresses were soaked; fungus and mildew sprouted where the sick would have lain. The place stank of rot from end to end.

And finally, somewhere in the middle of the second winter in its empty state, the floorboards cracked and opened up, and the lowest level of the Fortress, the level where Father Sandru had brought Zeffer to show him the tiled chamber, became available to sky and storm. If anyone had ventured into the Fortress that winter they would have witnessed the most delicate of spectacles. Through the eight vaults above the once-tiled room – which were now all cracked like eggs – snow came spiralling down. It fell into a room denuded. The workmen Zeffer had hired to do the work of removing the tiles had first been obliged to empty the room of all the monks had left in there. Some of the furniture had subsequently been stolen, some broken up for firewood, and the rest – perhaps a quarter of the bounty – simply left to decay where it had been piled up. The snow settled in little patches on the floor; patches which would not melt for the next four months, but only get wider and deeper as the winter’s storms got worse, the snow heavier.

Just before the thaw, in the middle of the following April, the weight of snow and ice finally brought the vaults down, in one calamitous descent. There was nobody there to witness it, nor anyone within earshot to hear it. The room which had contained the Hunt was buried in the debris of all the vaults, plaster and wood and stone filling the chamber to the middle of the walls. Nobody who visited the Fortress in subsequent years – and there were a few explorers who came there every summer, usually imagining they’d stumbled on something darkly marvellous – a Fortress, perhaps, belonging to Vlad the Impaler, whose legendary territories lay only a few hundred miles off to the west, in Transylvania – none of these visitors dug through the overgrown ruins with any great enthusiasm; certainly none ever asked themselves what function the half-buried room might have once served. Nor, should it be said, would they have been able to guess, even the cleverest of them. The mystery of the ruined chamber had been removed to another continent, where it was presently unfolding its dubious raptures for the delectation of a new and vulnerable audience. Men and women who – like the tiles – had in many cases lately left their homelands; and in their haste to be famous left behind them such talismans as hearth and altar might have offered by way of protection against the guileful Hunt.




Chapter 1

There’s a premiere in Los Angeles tonight, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The Chinese has been housing such events since 1923, but of course the crowds were much larger back then, tens of thousands of people, sometimes even hundreds of thousands, would block Hollywood Boulevard in their hunger to see the star of the moment. Tonight’s event is nowhere near that scale. Though the studio publicists will massage the numbers for tomorrow’s Variety and Hollywood Reporter, claiming that a crowd of four thousand people waited in the chilly evening air for the appearance of the star of tonight’s movie, Todd Pickett, the true numbers are in fact less than half that.

Still, a third of the Boulevard is barricaded off, and there are a few cop cars in evidence, just to give the whole event more drama.

As the limos approach the red carpet, and the ushers, who are dressed in the black leather costumes of the villains in the movie, step forward to open the doors a few ‘screamers’, paid and planted in the crowd by the studio publicity people to get a little excitement going, start to do their job, yelling even before the face of the limo’s passenger has been seen. There’s a large contingent of A-list names on tonight’s guest-list, and plenty of faces that elicit screams as they appear. Cruise isn’t here, but Nicole Kidman is; so is Schwarzenegger, who has a small role in the picture as the retiring Gallows, a vengeful, mythological character whom our hero, played by Todd Pickett, must either choose to embody when his time comes round, or – should he refuse – be pursued by the ghosts of several generations of former incarnations of the character, to persuade him otherwise. Sigourney Weaver plays the woman who has broken the curse of Gallows once before, to whom Pickett’s character must go when the phantom pursuers are almost upon him. Her arrival at Grauman’s is greeted by a genuine roar of approval from the fans, who are devoted to her. She waves, smiles, allows a barrage of photographs to be taken, but she doesn’t go near the crowd. She’s had experiences with overly-possessive fans before: she walks straight down the middle of the red carpet, where she’s out of reach of their fingers. Still they shout, ‘We love you Ripley!’, which is the character she plays in the Alien movies, and with which she will be identified until the day she dies. She waves, even when they call the name Ripley, but her eyes never focus on anybody in the crowd for more than a moment.

The next limo in the line contains the bright new star of Gallows, Suzie Henstell, named by this month’s Vanity Fair one of the Ten Hottest Names in Hollywood. She is petite (though you’d never know it on the screen), blonde and giggly; she’s shared a little marijuana with her boyfriend in the limo, and it was a bad move. She stumbles a little as she steps onto the red carpet, but the crowd has been prepped, thanks to several months of puff pieces and photo-spreads and in-depth interviews, to think of this woman as a full-blown star, even though they have yet to see more than a few frames of her acting ability from the trailer for Gallows. So what do they care if she looks a little out of it? Unlike Ms Weaver, who wisely chooses to be elusive, allowing the photographers just a minute or two to catch her, the new girl is still hungry for adulation. She goes straight to the barricades, where a number of young women with souvenir programmes for Gallows are waving them around. She signs a few, giving her boyfriend, who is a six-foot Calvin Klein model hunk, a goofy ‘gee-I-must-be-famous!’ look. The model looks back vacantly, which is the only look in his repertoire. He can give it to you vacantly with a semi hard-on in his jeans, or vacantly with his ass hanging out of his Y-fronts. Either way, it is heart-achingly beautiful; almost troublingly so.

The wind comes in gusts along Hollywood Boulevard, and the security men start to look a little worried. It was some bright publicist’s idea to build two gallows, as a kind of gateway through which the audience for the premiere will need to come. Not, it now seems, a clever notion. The gallows are made to be trashed tomorrow morning, so they’re made of light timber and foam-core. The wind is threatening to topple them; or worse, pick them up entirely and deposit them on top of the crowd. Light though they are, they could do some serious damage if they fell.

Four of the ushers from inside the theatre are summoned from their duties and told to go and stand beside the gallows, two on either side, holding on to them as casually as possible. Security is told that the publicity people only need five more minutes. As soon as Suzie Henstell can be persuaded to move on up the carpet and into the building (which at present she is showing no desire to do), the director’s, Rob Neiderman’s, limo can be brought to the carpet, followed by the last and most important of the bunch, Todd Pickett.

The wind is getting worse; the gallows sway giddily. An executive decision is made to bring Neiderman’s limo in, and if Suzie’s screaming fans are visible waving like lunatics behind Neiderman in his press pictures, so be it. This isn’t a perfect world. It’s already 8:13p.m. At this rate the picture won’t be able to begin until half past the hour, which wouldn’t be a problem if the damn thing weren’t so long, but Neiderman’s cut came in at two hours and forty-three minutes, and though the studio appealed to Pickett to get him to shave the thing down to a tight two hours, Todd came back saying he liked the picture pretty much as it was, so only four minutes were going out of it. That means it’ll be past eleven before the picture’s finished, and almost midnight by the time everybody’s assembled at the party venue. It’s going to be a long night.

Neiderman has persuaded the easily-distracted Miss Henstell away from her fans and down the carpet to the door. The big moment is at hand. The ushers cling to the gallows, their jobs depending on the perpendicularity of their charges. The largest of the limos comes up to the kerb. Even before the door has opened, the fans – especially the women – are in a state of ecstasy, shrieking at the top of their voices.

‘Todd! Todd! Oh God! Todd!’

The cameras start to flash, as though the incomprehensible semaphore of their flashes is going to summon the man in the limo.

And out comes Todd Pickett, the star of Gallows, the reason why ninety-five percent of its audience will be there when it opens next Friday (it is now Monday); Todd Pickett, one of the three biggest male action-movie-stars in the history of cinema. Todd Pickett, the boy from Cincinnati who failed in all his grades but ended up the King of Hollywood.

He raises his hands like a presidential candidate, to acknowledge the shouts of the crowd. Then he reaches back into the limo to catch hold of the hand of his date for the night, Wilhemina Bosch, a waitress-turned-model-turned-actress-turned-model again, with whom he has been seen at parties and premieres for the past four months, though neither will say anything about the relationship than that they’re good friends.

He gathers Wilhemina to him, so that the photographers can get pictures of them together.Then arm in arm, through the blizzard of lights and the barrage of We love you, Todd! coming at them from every side, the pair make their way to the cinema doors, which – having gathered their most important guests into the fold, then close rather defiantly, as if to divide the important from the unimportant, the stable and the solid from those who are simply objects of the night’s wind.

Gallows is an irredeemable piece of shit, of course, and everyone involved with it, from the executives who green-lit it (at a cost of some ninety-million dollars, before prints and advertising costs add another thirty-seven to the bill) to the humblest publicist, knows.

It is, in the words of Corliss’s review in Time, ‘an old fashioned action-horror picture which lacks the full-bone theatrics of grand guignol, and the savvy, John-Woo-style action piece audiences have come to expect. One minute Schwarzenegger is camping it up, the next Todd Pickett, as his unwilling successor, is playing his scenes as though he’s Hamlet on a particularly dreary night in Denmark. From beginning to end, Gallows is bad noose.’

Everybody going up the red carpet that Monday night already knows what Time is going to say; Corliss had made his contempt for the picture very plain in a piece about the state of action movies he wrote two weeks before. Nor does it take an oracle to predict that there will be others who will not like the picture. But the extent of vitriol will prove astonishing, even to those who expected the worst. In the next forty-eight hours, Gallows will garner some of the most negative reviews of the last twelve months, the vehemence of the early news reviewers empowering minor names to pull out the stops. Besides the incomprehensible script, everyone agrees, there is a lacklustre quality to the picture that betrays the cast’s indifference to the entire project. Performances aren’t simply uneven, they seemed designed for entirely different movies: a hopeless mismatch of styles. The worst culprit in this regard? There is no question about that. All the reviewers will agree that the most inadequate performance comes from its star, Todd Pickett.

People writes that: ‘Mr Pickett is plenty old enough to know better. Thirty-something-year-olds don’t act the way Mr Pickett acts here: his trademark “young man with a chip on his shoulder and a thousand-watt smile,” which was looking stale the second (all right, the third) time he did it, seems particularly out-of-place here. Though it seems incredible that time has passed so fast since America first swooned to the charms of Mr Pickett – he’s now simply too old to play the twenty-something Vincent. Only Wilhemina Bosch, as Vincent’s Prozac-chewing sister, comes out of this mess with any credibility. She has an elegant, beautifully-proportioned face, and she can turn a line with the snappy, East-coast smarts of a young Katharine Hepburn. She’s wasted here. Or, more correctly, our time would be wasted here were she not in the movie.’

The premiere audience didn’t seem to mind it. On occasion there were audible gasps and loud laughter (perhaps in truth a little over-loud, a little fake) for the jokes, but there were several long stretches in the Second Act, when the movie seemed to lose their interest. Even in the Third Act, when the action relocates to the orbiting space station, and the special effects budget soared, there was very little real enthusiasm. A few scattered whoops of nihilistic delight when the villain’s planet-destroying weapon actually went off, against expectation, and Washington DC is fried to a crisp. But then, as the smoke cleared and Todd, as the new Gallows, proceeded to finish off the bad guys, the audience became restless again.

About fifteen minutes before the end credits rolled a member of the audience got up from his seat on the aisle and went to the bathroom. A few people caught a look at the man’s face as he looked back at the screen. It was Todd Pickett, lit by the light of his own face. Nobody got up to ask for his autograph.

Pickett stared at the screen for a moment only, then he turned his back on it and trudged up and out of the cinema. He didn’t go to the restroom. Instead he asked

one of the ushers if he could be allowed out of the back of the building. The usher explained that the area around the back had no security.

‘I just want a quiet smoke with nobody watching me,’ Todd explained.

The usher said, sure, why not, and led Todd down a passageway that ran behind the screen. Todd looked up at his reversed image on the screen. All he could remember about the scene that was playing was how damn uncomfortable his costume had been.

‘Here you go,’ the usher said, unlocking the doors at the end of the corridor, and letting Todd out into an area lit only by the ambient light from the Boulevard.

‘Thanks,’ Todd said, giving him a twenty-buck bill. ‘I’ll be back out front by the time the credits roll.’

The usher thanked him for the twenty-note and left him to himself.

Todd took out a cigarette, but it never got to his lips. A wave of nausea overtook him, so powerful and so sudden that it was all he could do not to puke down his own tuxedo. Up came the scotches he’d had in the limo as he drove on down to the premiere, and the pepperoni pizza, with three cheeses and extra anchovies, he’d had to add ballast. With the first heave over (something told him there were more to come) he had the presence of mind to look around, and confirm that this nasty little scene was not being spied on, or worse, photographed. Luckily, he was alone. All he had for company back here was the detritus of premieres past; piles of standees and gaudy scenery pieces designed to advertise movies gone by: Mel Gibson against an eruption of lurid flame; Godzilla’s eye; the bottom half of a girl in a very short dress. He got to his feet and stumbled away from the stench of his vomit, making his way through this graveyard of old glories, heading for the darkest place he could find in which to hide his giddy head. Behind him, through the still-open door, he could hear the sound of gunfire, and the muted sound of his own voice:

‘Come on out, you sonofabitch,’ he was yelling to some-body.By now, if the movie had been working, the audience would have been yelling and screaming, wild with blood-lust. But despite the over-amped soundtrack, nobody was yelling, because nobody gave a damn. The movie was dying on its feet.

Another wave of nausea rose up in him. He reached out to catch hold of something so that he didn’t fall down and his outstretched hand knocked over a cardboard cut-out of Tom Cruise, which toppled backwards and hit a cardboard Titanic, which in turn crashed against a cardboard Mighty Joe Young, and so on and so forth, like a row of candy-coloured dominoes, stars falling against ships falling against monsters, all toppling back into a darkness so deep they were an indistinguishable heap.

Luckily, the noise of his vomiting was covered by the din of his own movie. He puked again, twice, until his stomach had nothing left to give up. Then he turned his back on the vomit and the toppled idols, and stepped away to find a lungful of clean air to inhale. The worst was over. He lit his cigarette, which helped settle his stomach, and rather than returning inside, where the picture was two minutes from finishing, he walked along the side of the building until he found a patch of street-light where he could assess himself. He was lucky. His suit was unspattered. There was a spot of vomit on his shoes, but he cleaned it off with his handkerchief (which he tossed away) and then sprayed his tongue and throat with wintergreen breath-cleanser. His hair was cropped short (that was the way it was in the movie, and he’d kept the style for public appearances), so he had no fear that it was out of place. He probably looked a little pale, but what the hell? Pale was in.

There was a gate close to the front of the building, guarded by a security officer. She recognized Todd immediately, and unlocked the gate.

‘Getting out before it gets too crazy?’ she said to him. He smiled and nodded. ‘You want an escort to your car?’

‘Yeah, thanks.’

One of the executive producers, an over-eager Englishman called George Dipper, with whom Todd had never worked before, was standing on the red carpet, his presence ignored by the press, who were standing around chatting to one another, or checking their cameras before the luminaries reappeared. George caught Todd’s eye, and hurried over, dragging on his own cigarette as though his life depended on its nicotine content.

There was scattered applause from inside, which quickly died away. The picture was over.

‘I think it played brilliantly,’ George said, his eyes begging for a syllable of agreement. ‘They were with us all the way. Don’t you think so?’

‘It was fine,’ Todd said, without commitment.
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