It was dark out by the time the shoot ended, and Alison came around to hand out $50 bills as the models got dressed quietly. The fee was half what James had promised but still way better than the going rate anywhere in Edgemont.
Natalie slipped back into her T-shirt and wondered whether Josh had called again. She hoped so. She felt confident now, ready to take on the world. Or Josh, anyway.
But when she flipped open her phone, she completely forgot about Josh. Her funky graffiti wallpaper—from a gas-station mural she'd seen off the Palisades Parkway—was gone. In its place was a photograph of a dead squirrel with what appeared to be blood oozing from its head.
It was a horrible image, and Natalie didn't know whether she should faint or scream.
"Oh, my God!" James cried almost at the same instant. She was staring at her BlackBerry, her mouth hanging open. "What psycho did this?"
Natalie peered over at the gruesome image on James' screen: a goose with its insides spilling out. Her blood turned ice cold. "I got one, too," she said, showing James her phone.
"All right, everyone," James raised her voice. "Who wants to explain what the hell is going on here?"
One of the models—Natalie thought her name was Clarissa, but then they all looked so much alike—walked over and examined the frightening pictures. "Ew, that's sick!" she squealed.
"I didn't put it there," James snapped back. "C'mon, let's get out of here," she said brusquely to Natalie, tugging her toward the building's grubby stairwell. "I swear, Owen is such a loserati," she muttered. "I mean, those pictures—seriously, could anyone be more predictable?"
"Wait, you think Owen put those pictures on our phones?" Natalie asked as they set off down the street. "But why would he possibly … ?"
"Because he's Owen," James said. "He'll do anything to get me to pay attention to his pale ass."
"But don't you guys—?" Natalie let her voice trail off as, for the millionth time, she had to remind herself that Terra and Nicolai were just fictional characters. The models who played them didn't have to be star-crossed spirit seekers in real life; they didn't even have to be friends. "That's really weird," she finally stammered. "You'd think he could come up with a better way to get you to notice him."
"Gore is his thing. You didn't see his show last summer," James said. "He put these all-out grotesqueries on subway seats and took pictures of passengers' reactions with hidden cameras."
"I missed that one," Natalie said, trying to hide her bitter disillusionment. In Dark Shadows, Nicolai was a once-in-a-generation hero, single-handedly responsible for banishing the Half-Cinders to the Cave of Yesteryear. "You don't think he'd, like, put a hidden camera in our phones, do you?"
"Yeah, right, in his wettest of dreams," James said. "Now what are we having for dinner? Please tell me it's not that nasty macrobiotic yoga stuff, because I'm starving."
"Wow, this place is pretty much my NYC real-estate fantasy," James said when they stepped into the cavernous entryway of Maya's Sullivan Street apartment. Most of the light in the room emanated from a row of tea candles, and a buttery aroma wafted from the kitchen.
Natalie felt a little surge of pride. Maya's home really was a marvel, a large, wide-open space tastefully decorated with a mix of expensive antiques and souvenirs from her world travels: tapestries from Nepal, puppets from Indonesia, armoires from Japan. One day, Maya was always promising, she would take her niece along on one of her journeys.
"Thanks, I find my little home cozy," Maya said, as if she hadn't devoted epic amounts of energy to its design and maintenance. Maya was wearing a simple beige cotton tank dress and an elaborately beaded shawl. Her super-straight hair made a sharp line against her chin.
Without being asked, James shucked off her ballet-slipper flats and placed them alongside the other shoes against the wall.
"I'm having déjà-vu totale right now," James said, pointing at the carved wooden box where Maya stashed her mail. "That reminds me so much of the Dirt Market in Beijing. Is that where you got it?"
Maya looked at the girl curiously. "You've been to Beijing?"
"A couple of times," James said. "Quite the clusterfuck, that town. Oh, sorry, I should explain—I model in my free time." At Maya's perplexed stare, James added, "I'm only 5 feet 7, but that makes me a total Gisele in Asia."
James laughed seductively. Maya joined in, but signs of genuine enthusiasm were absent from her face. She was clearly having trouble getting a read on her niece's new friend.
"Come in, come in," Maya said, ushering them into the main room, where a handsome but completely hairless man sat perched at the edge of the L-shaped couch. He was wearing a tan linen suit and his feet looked soft and almost obscenely beautiful, as if hand-buffed by a team of elves. "This is Stephen. He's visiting from Zurich."
"So, um, is yoga big in Zurich?" Natalie asked after greeting her aunt's friend.
Stephen knitted his brow at them. "Perhaps," he said in a thick Germanic accent. "I don't keep count of Maya's department."
"Stephen's an art collector," Maya said by way of explanation.
"That's a manner of putting it," he said, leaning forward to brush some invisible pollutant off his right big toe. "One might also say I am a soulless banker whose singular redeeming quality is my interest in art."
"Oh, please," said Maya. "You know more about art than anybody I've ever met." She turned to James. "Stephen and I are friends from my former life. He produced a film I acted in."
"I did not produce," Stephen said robotically. "I signed a check."
"My mom's an actress!" James exclaimed. "She's not really the silver-screen type, though—for her it's experimental theater all the way. She sort of lives her art, you could say."
"Good for her," Maya said, still studying James with unconcealed curiosity. "That's a hard way to make a living."
"She does fine for herself," James said. "And it helps when you have a kid you can stick in front of a camera for cash."
Natalie was listening closely; James almost never mentioned her mother.
"Well, she's lucky to have such a beautiful daughter," Maya said, still scrutinizing James.
A few minutes later, the group gathered around the enormous reclaimed wood dining table while their host laid out a typically sumptuous feast of gluten-free lasagna and three expertly prepared farmers-market vegetables, none of which Natalie had ever heard of. Maya was all-or-nothing in all her undertakings, and food was no exception. Unlike Elena, though, she had never taken classes or used a recipe. And unlike Elena, she liked to start meals with a prayer—of sorts.
Maya was the last to sit down. "I hope you don't mind," she said to James, "I always do a little reading before the meal."
"It'll be short," Natalie assured her friend.
James didn't look remotely put out. "No, no, read away—what a cool tradition!"
Maya rifled through a slim book of poetry before stopping on a page. She took a deep ujjayi breath before starting to read:
" 'You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck. ' "
Maya's brown eyes locked into Natalie's as she placed the book back on the shelf. Sensing she was failing to grasp some hidden meaning, Natalie sloppily reached for her fork and kept her eyes on her aunt.
"How outrageously beautiful was that," James rasped. "What genius is responsible?"
"The Sufi poet Rumi," Maya said, her eyes still on Natalie. "It's from one of my favorite mysticism anthologies."
Natalie watched the interaction between her friend and her aunt a little nervously. Was Maya overdoing the wacky act? Was James being too deferential?
James pulled out her black notebook to jot down the name of the book. "I should've known," she said. "I love Rumi."
Natalie breathed a sigh of relief, but Maya was still looking skeptically at James. "You know Rumi already? That's quite an education you have."
James shot a winning grin across the table. "I have my mother to thank for that, I guess—she's really into the classics."
"I see," Maya said, nodding to herself. "Well, bully for you then."
Maya's tone was uncharacteristically sharp, and Natalie looked from her aunt to James and back again. Their expressions betrayed nothing, so Natalie glanced next at Stephen, only to find him completely absorbed in chewing each bite of organic ramp 50 times and unaware of the people around him. The whole vibe was tense and uncomfortable and totally un-Maya-like. Maybe Maya hadn't gotten her meditation in that morning and wasn't feeling grounded enough to entertain properly? Natalie just couldn't figure it out.
"So, Natalie," Maya said in a back-to-business tone after the meal, when James and Stephen were in the kitchen area washing dishes. "What's going on at home?"
Natalie tugged at her medical ID bracelet. "You mean with Teddy?"
Maya nodded. "Your mother was kind enough to fill me in last week," she said with a little bite. Obviously, Natalie should've called her aunt immediately, but to say what exactly? "Has he found any new ... possibilities?"
"He's setting up lunches," Natalie said. That was, as far as she could tell, the only progress Teddy had made on the job hunt.
Glancing over at James, who was clearing the final round of serving plates from the table, Maya murmured, "Sometimes it's when the canvas seems blank that the most beautiful paintings come to life."
"You don't have to speak in code," Natalie said. "James already knows Teddy was laid off—she was over the night it happened."
James put down the plates and walked over to Natalie. "I'm sure he'll get a new job," she said kindly, placing her cold fingers on the back on Natalie's neck. "But that's got to be such a stress on your poor family. You've already been through more than enough trauma in the dad department."
Natalie cringed. How had she forgotten to tell James never, ever, ever to mention her dad in front of Maya? Immediately following her brother's death, Maya's drug addiction—long beaten, thank Shiva or whatever god was due credit— had spiraled out of control. Ever since, the subject of Izzy was pretty much closed, except on the anniversary of his death when Maya went through the motions of "celebrating his spirit."
"Hey, Maya," Natalie said quickly. "Is it cool if James and I go get ice cream?"
"Of course, sweetie," Maya said, but her expression lacked the warmth of her words. She was staring at James with an intensity that made Natalie shiver.