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Chapter One:

Birth of a Legend

(Hollywood Hills, CA, 1941)

 

 

            Into the hills, they rose above the city as the sun left twilight behind like an ominous warning. The moon would not be full tonight, so instead those endless city lights alone would be responsible for keeping the shadows at bay. Of course, for those who seek the shadows, there will be no challenge in finding them. Some do so out of necessity, either to escape or lay traps for the sheep. On most nights, Cane counts himself among the hunters, not the prey, but tonight was something different. For his host, there was no distinction between different and the usual; every day was different than the last, in every possible aspect, and such variations were the usual. Malabar specializes in the unnatural, hence his interest in Cane.

            Fortunate to be born into wealth and an affluent neighborhood, Cane was not awed by the twisting roads leading them to the crest of the Hollywood Hills. He wasn't impressed by the limousine which carried him there, or even his enigmatic host who sat across from him, contentedly watching the scenery pass, his eyes gleaming whenever the glow of a streetlight illuminated them in the darkening limo. Being the guest, Cane sat in the jump-seat and also watched the mountain road go by, his view only permitting him to watch it diminish behind them through the back window.

Cane had little basis on which to foster his sense of anticipation for the evening’s destination, yet he’d barely slept a wink the night before. He knew that Malabar would be sending a car for him around eight that evening and that he should be ready to present himself professionally. At the time it was said, Cane took this advice to mean he should wear his best suit. He didn’t think it necessary to verify with Malabar whether or not he should also bring his screenplay along for the ride.

            Clearly, Malabar’s promise to introduce him to those in Hollywoodland with clout was about to see fruition. As promised, the limousine arrived outside his father’s home in Beverly Hills at eight o’clock sharp, with the sun barely fallen from western skies but Cane already beginning to feel the pull of its sister, the moon. Malabar’s chauffer was waiting as Cane approached the car, and Cane was able to smell respect exuding from the guy’s pores. He tipped his hat and Cane nodded in return, then slipped into darkness that shielded him against the direct influence of the sky.

            The car’s thin metal roof, however, did nothing to protect him from being the latest victim of the world-class con artist who waited inside. Malabar is a figure of many implications. One’s first impression is that he’s wealthy. This, obviously, from the limousines and expensive suits made of exotic materials by tailors whom Malabar won’t name no matter how politely the question is asked. One’s second impression is that Malabar is the most intelligent man in any room. He isn’t tall, but there is an immediate sense of undeniable stature. Cane, coming from a background of privilege in the shadow of his father’s great success, had known many influential and brilliant men: professors, scientists, a Nobel winner or two, but Malabar is something more than even these. One was never sure to what this aura should be attributed, but the aura is always there nonetheless, as invisible yet undeniable as the disquiet one feels in the presence of a ghost. 

            “I see you’ve brought your script,” said the man slouching in the limousine’s back seat. “The Dungeon Master, correct?”

            “Dungeon Keeper.”

            “Of course,” said Malabar. “I should have also told you beforehand to leave your screenplay at home. It looks unprofessional to enter these settings with such things under your arm like a college kid. A man of your talents doesn’t need to display his profession on his sleeve. He is known either by his previous work or by the company he keeps. In your case, we’ll be operating under the benefit of the latter. Would you care for a cocktail, Mr. Cane?”

            “Um, I’d better not. It is that time of the evening after all. Alcohol diminishes my efforts to resist temptation. May I enquire about our destination this evening, or is it still a surprise?”

            Nearly concealed by the shadows of the limo’s backseat, Malabar’s eyes fell to Cane with a hint of mischief in them only fully visible once the car passed beneath the next streetlight. “I’m taking you to meet some people who are interested in this relatively new business of horror movies. Your script may entice them. Of course, they’re not going to sit down and read a screenplay just because you hand them one, but our objective is to make them believe they must do so at the soonest possible convenience. Tonight will be an opportunity for first impressions, Mr. Cane, and setting up such circumstances is one of my talents. Use the opportunity wisely.”

            Cane felt a sense of illumination threaten to permeate the mystery of this evening. He also felt a tug from the demanding blue lady that hung high in the night sky, somewhere beyond the clouds and smog. The draw was not promoted by anger, but sadness, a sense of incompletion within, something like that described by the children of famous people, who know that few people they meet are interested in them for their own merits.

            Cane said, “You want me to show them what I can do.”

Driving toward infamy that night, in the year 1941, any human eye would’ve been incapable of spotting outward signs of deception in Malabar’s disposition, this having nothing to do with the encroaching darkness. Malabar didn’t let you see what he didn’t want you to see, but Cane’s experience with the man was still too young for Cane to have an inkling of all there was to know. Hopes and expectations were all he had for tonight; either capable of blinding anyone, including those who could literally smell deception. Unfortunately for Cane, the common shapeshifter did not also possess an ability to see the future. If so, he would’ve seen a world premier with names up in lights over Hollywood Boulevard, and he would've seen that none of those names are his own.

 The limo turned left into a driveway that ascended at a steep angle, cresting at a rounded horseshoe that continued on at a descent to meet a second driveway entrance. A doorman was waiting to do the driver's work, opening the door. "You are Lazarus Cane?"

"I am," Cane admitted.

"They're waiting for you in back, sir. I'll lead you, gentlemen."

With its passengers out of the car, it was free to continue, exiting at the bottom of the hill to the left. Whispering in his ear as they walked, Malabar now confided: "You won't be shaking hands and making connections, tonight. You're about to be ushered into a room about the size of a large walk-in closet. At first it will be dark in there. Remove your clothes. When a bright light shines down on you, you will find one-way glass in front of you, from floor to ceiling. You will not be permitted to see who's watching you. At that moment, show them your true colors, Lazarus."

"Who will be watching?"

"There are a few movie stars, one director, a few producers, and some special effects people, as well as their dates."

"Sounds like a packed house."

"It's an exclusive audience of people who can make things happen in this town. I wouldn't say it's overcrowded by any stretch of the imagination, not for the full size of the room at any rate."

"Who's the director?"

"His name is George Waggner."

"Never heard of him."

"He made South of Tahiti."

"Didn't see it. What about the movie stars?"

"Did you see Of Mice and Men?"

Cane shook his head no.

"He played Lennie. His name is Lon Chaney."

"Lon Chaney played Lenny? The Man of a Thousand Faces?"

"Not Lon Chaney, Sr. His son: Lon Chaney, Jr."

"Who else?"

"That's all I know."

"The one-way glass: is it break-proof?"

"Of course," Malabar assured him. "You're not my first werewolf."

"And why naked?"

"Because I forgot to tell you to bring a change of clothes."

 

 

*********

After that night in the Hollywood Hills, those who saw what he could do took the information and proceeded to construct a legendary figure, a figure that would be copied, borrowed from, and outright shanghaied through generations of bad horror movies. No one returned his calls during that construction, and still Cane held to that earlier mentioned hope and expectation. It was only after the movie came out that those nights of the blue lady began to extract ever more violent urges from him than before, fueled by sadness heretofore unparalleled. He flirted seriously with the idea of attending some late night showing downtown and then, once the houselights came up, giving the audience a real show; one that survivors wouldn’t believe they’d actually seen, a show they’d never dare tell their grandkids about.

In the wake of the premier, Cane assumed Malabar would visit him nowhere but his memories, but such was not the case.

It was after a showing in Brentwood that Cane enjoyed an unexpected reunion with a man he dreamed of disemboweling. The crowd thinned out around them and Cane’s extraordinary auditory capabilities couldn't miss their excited discourse about the enigma they’d just witnessed on the silver screen, the visage they’d visit in their nightmares for the next few days, weeks, maybe once a year. Malabar, near the curb, waited for them to disperse, standing by the back door of that long, black car of his. The chauffer stood nearby, a bit nervously shifting in place, almost imperceptibly, but Cane was hardly able to miss the intense scent of fear emanating from the man.

He knows I'll make him the stuff of which examples are made, if it comes to that, thought Cane.

Still, Cane couldn’t deny his own curiosity. He approached casually, asking as soon as he was close enough to be heard, “What makes you truly believe that I won’t kill you simply because we stand here in a public place?”

“Listen to me, Cane, and carefully, so I can impart to you the most valuable words you’ll ever hear.”

Cane held his anger in check. It was an off-night, which was further testament to Malabar’s foresight, although no change requires the presence of the Blue Lady. He looked the chauffer up and down, and the man looked back, but Cane felt no sense of anything except abject discomfort. “It’s a good job,” said Cane to the chauffer, “any other night but this.”

The chauffer actually wavered then, as though he might faint.

“Look at me,” Malabar ordered, and Cane’s eyes fell to the man who’d once inferred his profession as some kind of talent agent. He primed himself to take out the chauffer’s throat, even though Cane was no longer looking at him. “Right now, you’re mad at everyone, Cane; me, the actor, the director, the screenwriter, the studio, the world, even though it was only the first five who should have rewarded you for your contribution. I ask you only this: what have I to gain by colluding with such gross negligence of proper credit due you? I’ve let enough time pass for you to consider that yourself, and I assume that you’ve done so.”

“No, you were right the first time. I’m mad at everybody, including you.”

“I’m going to ask you a stupid question, now.”

“And that would be to request your life be spared, I’m betting.”

Malabar dismissed this. “It’s a question that might appeal to your sense as a writer—your sense of dramatic promise let us say.”

Cane listened. Damn the man, but Cane possessed no strength to resist any close proximity to the mysteries accessible by this negligent benefactor. 

“Have you ever seen a movie in which the main character is asked what, if he could have anything the world had to offer, would he request?”

Cane shrugged.

“Do you ever wonder, as the character asked, what you’d request if faced with such an offer?”

“I suppose … well, I guess I’d ask for the most my imagination could conjure.”

“Allow me to inspire you. Might I suggest?”

Cane looked at him dubiously now, his anger mysteriously vanished.

“It would be unfair of me to let you answer before given time to learn of the resources available via my definition of the word most.”

Considering, Cane finally said, “Five minutes. After that, you and your chauffer will commence to be my evening’s true entertainment.”

Malabar stepped to the back door of the limo, holding it open for Cane himself while the driver gratefully abandoned that particular duty in favor of his position at the wheel. Cane looked back once to the marquee above the theater where he’d just left his third viewing of the day, wincing one last time at the movie’s title before sliding past Malabar into the backseat of the limo.