* * *
The place, when I arrived that day, turned out to be in a square in Bloomsbury on a row of what were now expensive language schools, foreign embassies or other going concerns of one type or another. But there were, apparently, a few people who could still afford to keep places here as their own private property.
A group of labourers passed me by as I climbed the marble steps up to the front door, on their lunch hours, speaking to each other in animated Polish.
The young woman who opened the door was completely unexpected, clad in a crombie coat that she held fastened at the waist, her thick-set features inscrutable beneath a thin layer of fuzz on top that in the old days would have been called a suedehead cut. She looked like a poster child for the improvement of the race through applied genetics.
“I’m Jane. You must be here to see Lenny,” she said as I apologised and introduced myself, picking my jaw up off the floor.
Showing me in, up a flight of stairs, I found Valentino in an expensively minimalist living room on the first floor, lounging on a leather couch, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. He was in his sixties, but he looked younger. An enormous pair of sunglasses obscured half his face. “Sterrrrling!’ he said, coming on like he was my oldest friend. “Sturdy. Can I call you Sturdy? Come on in.”
A flatscreen TV was playing rolling 24-hour news at the far end of the room, in which a pool table sat casually unattended. I thought I recognised one of the posters on the wall… Harry Rubik’s own Eye in The Pyramid. An original, from the cinema run.
“Is this your house?” I said, surprised, a little taken aback. I felt like I had died and appeared in a Rubik movie.
“You were expecting perhaps a little more grandeur? No, it’s not mine. I borrowed it from a friend. A very rich friend. One of the perks of the circles we move in, Mr Pons. But then you know all about them, don’t you?”
I was about to ask him what this meant when the woman, Jane, appeared in the doorway with a cordless telephone. “It’s for you,” she said.
He cursed and stood up. “Would you excuse me,” he said. He left me sitting on the sofa with the girl – woman, I should have said, for she was no mewling kitten- standing in the doorway drinking a vodka and tonic.
She didn’t seem to have anything much on under the large coat she was wrapped in. It was odd she was wearing that, as the heating was on in the place. But maybe it was a fashion statement? I wondered what I had interrupted when I arrived here as I accepted a soda water. Her name was Jane Starling, she said, and she had grown up here in London. I was sure I had seen her in some magazines. She had met Lenny through their mutual association with Rubik, for whom they had both been employees: “Leonard’s time is taken up with administrating the afterlife of Mr Rubik’s movies,” she told me.
“Do movies need much looking after?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I’m hoping to write a book with the co-operation of the Rubik estate. Who would have thought that a dead person could create so much work for the rest of us?”
“Well, quite. Between you and me, Leonard hasn’t done anything creative of his own in years,” she said.
“But he was Rubik’s assistant,” I said, “on some of his greatest films. On The Life of Tristram Shandy right through to Century? That has to count for something.”
“Oh yes,” she said, “you know, Len actually edited Century. You see Harry died before he could finish it himself, and someone else had to finish it according to instructions he had left. Not many people know that.”
After a while Lenny Valentino returned into the room and confronted me. I couldn’t say what the phone call had been about, but I could hear him yelling down the corridor. Now he was standing in front of me, and he suddenly didn’t look so happy any more.
“So, you want to do a book about Harry’s films?’ he said. Why the fuck should I let you? What’s the point?”
“Let me ask you something. There’ve been hundreds of books about Harry’s work – good ones, bad ones… some of them very good – but most just say the same thing – very good films, weird fucking man. Harry’s work’s been picked over in detail by critics and fans until there’s not much left of him to pick at. What can you possibly say about him that hasn’t been said before?”
“With respect,” I said, “there’s a lot of stuff that’s yet to be said that I can say about the films – if not the man himself.”
“Well now, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Valentino told me. “So many people only want to rake over the man’s life, and hope to find some things that might cause distress to his surviving family if they came out. So which is it for you?” A look in the man’s eyes told me not to ask what those “things” might be. He went on: “Truth is, Harry was an interesting old goat. He had a pilot’s licence, but he was scared of flying. He was terrified to get on an airliner. All those shots in The Clarifying, up on a mountain side – I’m sure you know – were stock footage Everything else was entirely set up in a studio. Now what kind of man has a pilot’s licence but is terrified of flying? I knew him better than most people, and the truth is I never really figured it out myself.”
“Oh, I agree. He was an interesting person. Perhaps he felt threatened?”
Lenny Valentino looked puzzled. “Threatened? Why would he feel threatened, for Chrissake?”
“Didn’t he have some enemies? People who didn’t like his films? Didn’t he have to actually withdraw one of his own films from distribution, for instance, because people thought it was too, um, violent? The Eye in The Pyramid, wasn’t it? He was also interested in the occult. He was pretty clued up, and he put a lot of things into his movies. Some of these people – in secret societies – are pretty crazy. Maybe actually crazy enough that they might want to kill him because they thought he’d give their secrets away.”
Len Valentino stared at me like I‘d killed his dog.
“Kid,” he said, “how depraved do you think someone has got to be to want to down an airliner full of innocent people just to further some agenda? And make it look like an accident? And what was it he was supposed to know that he thought someone powerful enough might stage some sort of ‘accident’?”
He laughed a little.
I decided to go for it.
“Like I said, those kind of speculations don’t interest me, Len. Besides, it’s well documented – about the death threats and the withdrawal of his film. Harry could do that, because he kept a great deal of control over his own movies. But what interests me is just the films. For instance, did you know that there was supposedly over thirty minutes of FX footage from Time & Stars that was cut because it wouldn’t fit into the finished film? That footage is like a holy grail for cinephiles. It’s only become known about in the past few years because someone who worked on the film let it slip in an interview with a fan-made magazine. As a matter of fact, most people still don’t know about it. I’d love to do something on that. Then there’s all the extra scenes that were cut out of Century -”
Valetino stopped me there. Century had been a notoriously difficult thing to commit to film, the shoot alone running to almost two years as Rubik struggled to realise his vision, re-casting and re-writing where necessary as he went. “Harry burned all his negatives. He wanted the finished film to be his artistic statement – kind of like like a painter who doesn’t want you to see the brush strokes. But -” his voice softened a little, “maybe it wasn’t always so. Yeah, Time & Stars- that’s before my time, I’m afraid. I didn’t start working for Harry until the seventies. But I know some of the technical guys Harry worked with. Some of them went on to do Star Wars, James Bond – all of that stuff. And this is before computers – if you wanted something you had to do it for real in those days. To put something up on screen and have it be more ‘real’ than real – that was Harry’s thing.” He motioned my attention towards the technicolour poster for the sixties classic with the needle-like spaceship jettisoning from the spacestation that was framed on the wall behind us. “Before I met him I was plain old Leonard Jarry from Oklahoma,” he confided to me. “Harry made me, too.” He seemed amused.
“I was hoping you could help me find those missing cans of film. We could make it a tie-in with the book. It could be worth an awful lot to you – and to the estate of Mr Rubik, or course.”
“Of course,” he said, “I’d like to help you, Mr Pons. But first there is something maybe you can help me with. It concerns some documents that were in the possession of our friend the late Captain Mandrax – papers that were not rightfully his to give away – that I believe he may have passed to you.”
So that’s why you contacted me, I thought. That’s what this has all been about all along, you bastard. “You mean these papers?” I said, taking the pages from “Nuclear War 2” out of my pocket.
“Can I look at those?” he asked, eagerly.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but they’re not mine to give away. They belong to the estate of the late Captain Mandrax now, I believe. I only borrowed them. I’d be happy to have a copy made for you, with their permission of course. If you don’t agree, you must file legal proceedings, I’m afraid. Or are you going to make me give them to you?”
Valentino looked angry, then perplexed, and then actually smiled: “I like your proposal, Sterl – and I want to help you. Even if I’m not sure if the missing film you’re talking about even exists any more. If it’s gone into the studio‘s vault, God help you ever getting it out of them. But we do have some stuff in the archive here that hasn’t been properly gone through yet. In fact, Jane here has been taking care of it – isn’t that right?”
“Boxes and rooms full of the stuff,” said the disinterested-looking femme fatale who had been lounging on the sofa in her robe in front of the television.
“She’s sort of the estate’s official archivist and librarian,” he joked. “Now, you’ll have to talk to Roger Starling – that’s Jane’s brother – he’s the man who officially has the final say in these things now Harry’s no longer with us – but if you’re willing, maybe you can come and work here and help her look through things. If, that is, you’ll agree to help us. Now what do you say?”
My head was swimming. Were Rubik’s own archives here, then, in this building? Who was this brother, and why had they apparently made him executor of Rubik’s estate? What was the girl’s connection to all this? And, most importantly, I was wondering how Rubik could have burned all the negatives he didn’t use from Century if he hadn’t even finished the editing and Valentino had done it like she said? That kind of suggested, if that was true, that maybe somebody else had done the burning, too.
I said: “So you’ll help me, then? To find this thing that hasn’t seen the light of day in five decades, and get it out there?”
“Sterling, boy,” he said, “you just sold me on it.”
* * *
The rest of our meeting was a bit of a blur, but I was finally on my way to the door when I decided to chance my arm on a hunch. The young woman – Jane Starling, as I now knew her – was showing me out. “You’re sure you won’t stay for another drink?” she said. “You’ve hardly touched your water.”
“Sorry. Can’t,” I managed to say.
“Well take care, won’t you? And don’t say anything about having been here. We might get weirdos turning up outside.”
“This house used to belong to him, didn’t it?” I said. “Harry Rubik.”
“You’re not supposed to know that,’ she told me. “But I guess you would have figured it out sooner or later. Like I said, we don’t want anyone turning up out of the blue who we might have to deal with later.”
To be continued?*
11 days after writing this last statement in his journal the novelist and biographer Mr Sterling Pons DISAPPEARED.
This was not, however, the end of the affair of the skulls, that was to culminate in tragedy on the mountain slopes of Sorgenfrei, Switzerland.
This story will be continued, therefore, in
THE NARRATIVE OF ANA JONES