Dante's Numbers

PART 1

1

ALLAN PRIME PEERED AT THE WOMAN THEY’D sent from the studio, pinched his cheeks between finger and thumb the way he always did before makeup, then grumbled, “Run that past me again, will you?”

He couldn’t figure out whether she was Italian or not. Or how old, since most of her face was hidden behind a pair of large black plastic-rimmed sunglasses. Even—and this was something Prime normally got out of the way before anything else—whether she was pretty. He’d never seen this one at Cinecittà, and a part of him said he would have noticed, if only in order to ask himself the question: Should I?

She looked late twenties, a little nervous, in awe of him maybe. But she was dressed so much older, in a severe grey jacket with matching slacks and a prim white shirt, its soft crinkly collar high up on her neck. It was a look out of the movies, he decided. Old movies from back when it was still a crime to be skinny and anything less than elegant. Particularly her hair, a platinum blonde, dyed undoubtedly, pinned behind her taut, stiffly held head in a ponytail that, as she walked into the living room of his apartment, he’d noticed was curled into a tight apostrophe.

It was an effect he found strangely alluring until the connection came to him. Unsmiling, eyes hidden behind heavy shades that kept out the burning July morning, Miss Valdes—although the Spanish name didn’t fit at all—resembled one of those cool, aloof women he’d watched in the downtown theatres when he was a kid in New York, rapt before the silver screen. Like a cross between Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, the two full-bodied celluloid blondes he’d first fallen hotly in love with as he squirmed with adolescent lust in the shiny, sticky seats of Manhattan flea pits. He hadn’t encountered silent, fixated women like this in the business in three or four decades. The breed was extinct. Real bodies had given way to rake-thin models, exquisite coiffures to impromptu mussed-up messes. The species had moved on, and now he knew what kind of job it did these days.

It made death masks of people. Living people, in his case.

“Signor Harvey say …” she repeated in her slow, deliberate Italian accent, as if she were unsure he quite understood. Her voice was low and throaty and appealing. More Novak than Kelly, he thought.

“Harvey’s a drug-addled jerk. He never mentioned anything to me. We’ve got this opening ceremony tonight, in front of everyone from God down. The biggest and best movie of the decade and I get to do the honours.”

“It must be an honour to be in Signor Tonti’s masterpiece.”

Allan Prime took a deep breath. “Without me it’d be nothing. You ever watch Gordy’s Break?”

“I loved that movie,” she replied without hesitation, and he found himself liking the throaty, almost masculine croon in her voice.

“It was a pile of crap. If it wasn’t for me, the thing wouldn’t have made it outside the queer theatres.”

He truly hated that thing. The movie was the kind of violent fake art-house junk the Academy liked to smile on from time to time just to show it had a brain as well as a heart. He’d played a low-life hood in a homosexual relationship with a local priest who was knifed to death trying to save him. When the clamour petered out, and the golden statue was safely stored somewhere he didn’t have to look at it, Allan Prime decided to make movies for people, not for critics. One a year for almost three decades. Nothing