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She stared, blinked, opened her mouth to speak, didn't know what to say. Finally: "We don't."

"We do."

"We can't."

"We can."

"Nothing's that easy."

"I tell you, we've got it."

"They won't let me direct."

"Oh, yes."

"They won't give me final cut."

"Yes, they will."

"My God."

She was stunned. Felt numb.

Eugene offered his congratulations and slipped away.

Wally laughed, shook his head. "You know, you could have played that a lot better for Eugene's benefit. Pretty soon, people are going to see us celebrating, and they'll ask Eugene what it's about, and he'll tell them. Let the world think you always knew you'd get exactly what you wanted.

Never show doubt or fear when you're swimming with sharks."

"You're not kidding about this? We've actually got what we wanted?"

Raising his glass, Wally said, "A toast. To my sweetest client, with the hope she'll eventually learn there are some clouds with silver linings and that a lot of apples don't have worms in them."

They clinked glasses.

She said, "The studio must have added a lot of tough conditions to the deal. A bottom of the barrel budget. Salary at scale. No participation in the gross rentals. Stuff like that."

"Stop looking for rusty nails in your soup," he said exasperatedly.

"I'm not eating soup."

"Don't get cute."

"I'm drinking champagne."

"You know what I mean."

She stared at the bubbles bursting in her glass of Dom Perignon.

She felt as if hundreds of bubbles were rising within her, too, chains of tiny, bright bubbles of joy: but a part of her acted like a cork to contain the effervescent emotion, to keep it securely under pressure, bottled up, safely contained. She was afraid of being too happy. She didn't want to tempt fate.

"I just don't get it," Wally said. "You look as if the deal fell through. You did hear me all right, didn't you?"

She smiled. "I'm sorry. It's just that ... when I was a little girl, I learned to expect the worst every day. That way, I was never disappointed. It's the best outlook you can have when you live with a couple of bitter, violent alcoholics."

His eyes were kind.

"Your parents are gone," he said, quietly, tenderly. "Dead. Both of them. They can't touch you, Hilary. They can't hurt you ever again."

"I've spent most of the past twelve years trying to convince myself of that."

"Ever consider analysis?"

"I went through two years of it."

"Didn't help?"

"Not much."

"Maybe a different doctor--"

"Wouldn't matter," Hilary said. "There's a flaw in Freudian theory. Psychiatrists believe that as soon as you fully remember and understand the childhood traumas that made you into a neurotic adult, you can change. They think finding the key is the hard part, and that once you have it you can open the door in a minute. But it's not that easy."

"You have to want to change," he said.

"It's not that easy, either."

He turned his champagne glass around and around in his small well-manicured hands. "Well, if you need someone to talk to now and then, I'm always available."

"I've already burdened you with too much of it over the years."

"Nonsense. You've told me very little. Just the bare bones."

"Boring stuff," she said.

"Far from it, I assure you. The story of a family coming apart at the seams, alcoholism, madness, murder, and suicide, an innocent child caught in the middle.... As a screenwriter, you should know that's the kind of material that never bores."

She smiled thinly. "I just feel I've got to work it out on my own."

"Usually it helps to talk about--"

"Except that I've already talked about it to an analyst, and I've talked about it to you, and that's only done me a little bit of good."

"But talking has helped."

"I've got as much out of it as I can. What I've got to do now is talk to myself about it. I've got to confront the past alone, without relying on your support or a doctor's, which is something I've never been able to do." Her long dark hair had fallen over one eye; she pushed it out of her face and tucked it behind her ears. "Sooner or later, I'll get my head on straight. It's only a matter of time."

Do I really believe that? she wondered.

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Wally stared at her for a moment, then said, "Well, I suppose you know best. At least, in the meantime, drink up." He raised his champagne glass. "Be cheerful and full of laughter so all these important people watching us will envy you and want to work with you."

She wanted to lean back and drink lots of icy Dom Perignon and let happiness consume her, but she could not totally relax. She was always sharply aware of that spectral darkness at the edges of things, that crouching nightmare waiting to spring and devour her. Earl and Emma, her parents, had jammed her into a tiny box of fear, had slammed the heavy lid and locked it; and since then she had looked out at the world from the dark confines of that box. Earl and Emma had instilled in her a quiet but ever-present and unshakable paranoia that stained everything good, everything that should be right and bright and joyful.

In that instant, her hatred of her mother and father was as hard, cold, and immense as it had ever been. The busy years and the many miles that separated her from those hellish days in Chicago suddenly ceased to act as insulation from the pain.

"What's wrong?" Wally asked.

"Nothing. I'm okay."

"You're so pale."

With an effort, she pushed down the memories, forced the past back where it belonged. She put one hand on Wally's cheek, kissed him. "I'm sorry. Sometimes I can be a real pain in the ass. I haven't even thanked you. I'm happy with the deal, Wally. I really am. It's wonderful! You're the best damned agent in the business."

"You're right," he said. "I am. But this time I didn't have to do a lot of selling. They liked the script so much they were willing to give us almost anything just to be sure they'd get the project. It wasn't luck. And it wasn't just having a smart agent. I want you to understand that.

Face it, kid, you deserve success. Your work is about the best thing being written for the screen these days. You can go on living in the shadow of your parents, go on expecting the worst, as you always do, but from here on out it's going to be nothing but the best for you. My advice is, get used to it."

She desperately wanted to believe him and surrender to optimism, but black weeds of doubt still sprouted from the seeds of Chicago. She saw those familiar lurking monsters at the fuzzy edges of the paradise he described. She was a true believer in Murphy's Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.

Nevertheless, she found Wally's earnestness so appealing, his tone so nearly convincing, that she reached down into her bubbling cauldron of confused emotions and found a genuine radiant smile for him.

"That's it," he said, pleased. "That's better. You have a beautiful smile."

"I'll try to use it more often."

"I'll keep making the kind of deals that'll force you to use it more often."

They drank champagne and discussed The Hour of the Wolf and made plans and laughed more than she could remember having laughed in years. Gradually her mood lightened. A macho movie star--icy eyes, tight thin lips, muscles, a swagger in his walk when he was on screen; warm, quick to laugh, somewhat shy in real life--whose last picture had made fifty million dollars, was the first to stop by to say hello and inquire about the celebration. The sartorially impeccable studio executive with the lizard eyes tried subtly, then blatantly, to learn the plot of Wolf, hoping it would lend itself to a quick cheap television movie-of-the-week rip-off. Pretty soon, half the room was table-hopping, stopping by to congratulate Hilary and Wally, flitting away to confer with one another about her success, each of them wondering if there was any percentage in it for him.

After all, Wolf would need a producer, stars, someone to write the musical score.... Therefore, at the best table in the room, there was a great deal of back-patting and cheek-kissing and hand-holding.

Hilary knew that most of the glittery denizens of the Polo Lounge weren't actually as mercenary as they sometimes appeared to be. Many of them had begun at the bottom, hungry, poor, as she had been herself. Although their fortunes were now made and safely invested, they couldn't stop hustling; they'd been at it so long that they didn't know how to live any other way.

The public image of Hollywood life had very little to do with the facts. Secretaries, shopkeepers, clerks, taxi drivers, mechanics, housewives, waitresses, people all over the country, in everyday jobs of all kinds came home weary from work and sat in front of the television and dreamed about life among the stars. In the vast collective mind that brooded and murmured from Hawaii to Maine and from Florida to Alaska, Hollywood was a sparkling blend of wild parties, fast women, easy money, too much whiskey, too much cocaine, lazy sunny days, drinks by the pool, vacation in Acapulco and Palm Springs, sex in the back seat of a fur-lined Rolls-Royce. A fantasy. An illusion. She supposed that a society long abused by corrupt and incompetent leaders, a society standing upon pilings that had been rotted by inflation and excess taxation, a society existing in the cold shadow of sudden nuclear annihilation, needed its illusions if it were to survive. In truth, people in the movie and television industries worked harder than almost anyone else, even though the product of their labor was not always, perhaps not even often, worth the effort. The star of a successful television series worked from dawn till nightfall, often fourteen or sixteen hours a day. Of course, the rewards were enormous. But in reality, the parties were not so wild, the women no faster than women in Philadelphia or Hackensack or Tampa, the days sunny but seldom lazy, and the sex exactly the same as it was for secretaries in Boston and shopkeepers in Pittsburgh.

Wally had to leave at a quarter past six in order to keep a seven o'clock engagement, and a couple of the table-hoppers in the Polo Lounge asked Hilary to have dinner with them. She declined, pleading a prior commitment.

Outside the hotel, the autumn evening was still bright. A few high clouds tracked across the technicolor sky. The sunlight was the color of platinum-blonde hair, and the air was surprisingly fresh for mid-week Los Angeles. Two young couples laughed and chattered noisily as they climbed out of a blue Cadillac, and farther away, on Sunset Boulevard, tires hummed and engines roared and horns blared as the last of the rush hour crowd tried to get home alive.

As Hilary and Wally waited for their cars to be brought around by the smiling valets, he said,

"Are you really having dinner with someone?"

"Yeah. Me, myself, and I"

"Look, you can come along with me."

"The uninvited guest."

"I just invited you."

"I don't want to spoil your plans."

"Nonsense. You'd be a delightful addition."

"Anyway, I'm not dressed for dinner."

"You look fine."

"I vant to be alone," she said.

"You do a terrible Garbo. Come to dinner with me. Please. It's just an informal evening at The Palm with a client and his wife. An up and coming young television writer. Nice people."

"I'll be okay, Wally. Really."

"A beautiful woman like you, on a night like this, with so much to celebrate--there ought to be candlelight, soft music, good wine, a special someone to share it with."

She grinned. "Wally, you're a closet romantic."

"I'm serious," he said.

She put one hand on his arm. "It's sweet of you to be concerned about me, Wally. But I'm perfectly all right. I'm happy when I'm alone. I'm very good company for myself. There'll be plenty of time for a meaningful relationship with a man and skiing weekends in Aspen and chatty evenings at The Palm after The Hour of the Wolf is finished and in the theaters."

Wally Topelis frowned. "If you don't learn how to relax, you won't survive for very long in a high-pressure business like this. In a couple of years, you'll be as limp as a rag doll, tattered, frayed, worn out. Believe me, kid, when the physical energy is all burnt up, you'll suddenly discover that the mental energy, the creative juice, has also evaporated with it."

"This project is a watershed for me," she said. "After it, my life won't be the same."

"Agreed. But--"

"I've worked hard, damned hard, single-mindedly, toward this chance. I'll admit it: I've been obsessed with my work. But once I've made a reputation as a good writer and a good director, I'll feel secure. I'll finally be able to cast out the demons--my parents, Chicago, all those bad memories. I'll be able to relax and lead a more normal life. But I can't rest yet. If I slack off now, I'll fail. Or at least I think I will, and that's the same thing."

He sighed. "Okay. But we would have had a lot of fun at The Palm."

A valet arrived with her car.

She hugged Wally. "I'll probably call you tomorrow, just to be sure that this Warner Brothers thing wasn't all a dream."

"Contracts will take a few weeks," he told her. "But I don't anticipate any serious problems.

We'll have the deal memo sometime next week, and then you can set up a meeting at the studio."

She blew him a kiss, hurried to the car, tipped the valet, and drove away.

She headed into the hills, past the million-dollar houses, past lawns greener than money, turning left, then right, at random, going nowhere in particular, just driving for relaxation, one of the few escapes she allowed herself. Most of the streets were shrouded in purple shadows cast by canopies of green branches; night was stealing across the pavement even though daylight still existed above the interlaced palms, oaks, maples, cedars, cypresses, jacarandas, and pines. She switched on the headlights and explored some of the winding canyon roads until, gradually, her frustration began to seep away.

Later, when night had fallen above the trees as well as below them, she stopped at a Mexican restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. Rough beige plaster walls. Photographs of Mexican bandits. The rich odors of hot sauce, taco seasoning, and corn meal tortillas. Waitresses in scoop-necked peasant blouses and many-pleated red skirts. South-of-the-border Muzak. Hilary ate cheese enchiladas, rice, refried beans. The food tasted every bit as good as it would have tasted if it had been served by candlelight, with string music in the background, and with someone special seated beside her.