Updated: May 14
by Stephen T. Vessels
The following is an excerpt of the story "White Page" featured in the anthology Delirium Corridor, published in December 2020 by Borda Books, curated by Max Talley, and available in our bookstore or on amazon.
Priscilla stepped from the limo and glanced up the forty-eight story Rialto Building across the street. In a high room up there, Robert was being foolish. Her platinum hair and white fur stole gleamed in the staccato glare of popping flashbulbs. She ignored the din of questions from reporters being held back by a line of stoic cops. Escorted by a police sergeant and a couple of lugs in overcoats and fedoras, she made a smiling, graceful dash to the glass entrance of the shorter but ritzier Banyan Tower.
Inside, Hal Stegner, Wallace Pictures’ studio lackey, grinned like a lazy lion. “Priscilla Hart Donovan, as I live and breathe.” He wasn’t here by choice. With a white scarf slung on his neck and tux under his coat, he’d been plucked out of his pleasures and given a mission. He’d been sent.
The lobby behind him teemed with more cops.
“Miss Donovan?” The sergeant held his hand toward an open doorway into the building manager’s office.
Stegner intervened. “What’s this about?”
Priscilla rolled her eyes. Wallace liked to orchestrate his stars’ romantic dalliances, real or illusory. Her romps with Robbie, pics of which had made the gossip columns, had not been sanctioned.
The sergeant looked Stegner up and down. “Who are you, again?”
Hal made a face. “Wallace Pictures has a vested interest in Miss Donovan’s safety...”
The sergeant caught Priscilla’s eye and tilted his head toward the office. Priscilla slipped in. Stegner tried to follow but the sergeant stopped him. This was New York, not L.A.
“No, no, you don’t shut me out. I represent Samuel Wallace—Hey!” The sergeant shut the door in Hal’s face.
Priscilla’s gratification was short-lived when she saw the line-up of heavies inside. The Mayor she recognized. A tall, elderly fellow in uniform she took to be the Chief of Police. She’d seen most of the rest out and about at clubs. Right now they were stern-faced as the Greek busts at the library, all focused on little old her. Evidently Robert was being very foolish.
She gave herself a moment, took her time pulling off her gloves, fished in her purse and held up a cigarette for someone to light. The stone giants ran into each other trying to oblige, which leveled things a bit. She blew a slow stream of smoke. That was better. “What’s the story, boys?”
The Mayor, who had not moved from his seat behind the building manager’s steel-ribbed art deco desk, answered with, “Robert Hecht is a friend of yours.” More statement than question, but requiring confirmation. The Mayor was custom tailored to his role: fat, balding, puffing a tree stump cigar.
“Robbie’s an angel.” Priscilla never turned on a friend.
The Mayor peered at her with one eye cocked. “Your angel,” he removed the cigar from his mouth and leaned forward, “is threatening to blow the top off the Rialto building.”
Priscilla stayed with the Mayor a beat, glanced around at the others. She would rally to Robbie’s aid for just about anything, but demolishing a sky scraper? There were limits. She swallowed. “I think I need you to explain that.”
The Mayor grunted. “He’s holed up on the forty-third floor with twenty cases of dynamite, so he claims. Why do you think he’d do a thing like that, Miss Donovan?”
“I can’t imagine.” Robbie had been calling her since yesterday, begging her to come over.
Priscilla wasn’t sure if she was sorry or glad she’d been held up at the location. “Robbie’s excitable when he’s working on a script.”
“You’re saying this is some sort of creative fit?”
Priscilla’s heartbeat and breathing quickened. “I don’t know what I’m saying.” She couldn’t still the tremor in her voice. “This is completely fantastic. Crates of dynamite—Robbie wouldn’t know where to get crates of dynamite, let alone what to do with them. I don’t believe it.”
“He’s a writer, ain’t he?” the Police Chief said.
“He knows how to use a dictionary and a typewriter, not explosives.”
“Well, he handles a gun well enough,” the Police Chief replied. “He locked up the elevators, so the people above him can’t get out, then fired down the stairwell at my men.”
Priscilla couldn’t get a fix on it. Robbie had been complaining about the pressure the studio put on him to ram through scripts. A breakdown was possible. There’d been times during shooting schedules when Priscilla had wanted to murder a cast member or the director herself. Or more often the great Sam Wallace. Where the hell would Robbie get a gun?
She had a thought. “Hey, it’s a prop. Sure, he was firing blanks, that has to be it. Robbie would never hurt anyone.”
“Maybe you’d like to go up there and test your theory.”
Priscilla dragged hard off her cigarette, did her best not to look rattled.
A tall slender man in a grey suit made a note in a little book and said, “Can you think of any reason why Mr. Hecht might do something like this, Miss Donovan?”
Priscilla shook her head. “He’s been calling me.”
“I don’t know. He’s working on a script. He’s under a lot of pressure from the studio. Some of the things he’s been saying are...strange.”
“Strange how?” the man asked.
Priscilla took another drag. This would probably send Robbie to the nut house but she couldn’t see a way around it. “He said the page was talking back to him.”
The stone giants looked at each other. The Police Chief, the Mayor, and Grey Suit conferred inaudibly.
Priscilla couldn’t take it. “Look, Robbie’s a good kid. The pressure’s gotten to him, that’s all.”
“Miss Donovan—” Grey Suit again—“do you know why we’ve asked you here?”
Priscilla liked him. The others she couldn’t read, but he was straight. “You really think he’s got dynamite up there?”
“If we did, do you think we’d be cooling our heels across the street from him?”
Priscilla glanced around. The stone giants didn’t like that Grey Suit had revealed their skepticism. “So tell me.”
“We need your help.”
Priscilla crossed to an ashtray on a lamp table by the window, crushed out her cigarette.
“Mr. Hecht asked for you. Says you’re the only one he’ll talk to.”
Priscilla looked through louvered blinds at the lights of Manhattan. She’d jumped to work in
New York, sick of L.A. There were a thousand places, here, she’d rather be. Lucy Ball and Clifton Webb were shooting in Manhattan, somewhere. They’d be at the Copa, tonight. “So call him,” she said, praying that would be enough.
The Police Chief dialed the number, put the handset in a speaker cradle so everyone could hear.
Robbie answered. “Yeah?”
“Chief of Police again, Mr. Hecht. Priscilla Donovan is here.”
The line was silent a moment. Then, in the most pained and childlike voice Priscilla had ever heard from a man, Robbie said, “Pris?”
It woke up her protective side. “I’m here, Robbie.”
Another pause and his voice hardened. He said he’d send down an elevator for her, and only her, warned everyone to remember what would happen if they interfered, and hung up.
Priscilla felt the stone giants focus on her again. No one bothered to tell her she didn’t have to go.
A grey-haired man in a corner armchair stood up. “Miss Donovan, would you...?”
She accepted the offer and sat down. “Are there a lot of people still in the building?”
“We’ve evacuated the lower floors,” Grey Suit said.
He tilted his head unhappily. “Most were out for the evening. But still about thirty people on the upper floors. Half of ‘em kids at a birthday party.”
Priscilla nodded. Thirty people depending on her. Kids. Robbie had gone mad.
Her mouth was dry. “Is there anything to drink?”
The Mayor went over himself to a small wet bar and poured her a bourbon.
Priscilla didn’t like whiskey but the burn felt good. Her nerves steadied a bit. She couldn’t get rid of Robbie’s voice. He was as sweet and gentle as they came. Something terrible must have happened to drive him over the edge.
There was a knock on the door. A cop told them an elevator in the Rialto had reached the ground floor.
“Hold it,” the Mayor said.
Priscilla glanced around. The stone giants looked like stricken dogs. Their manhood was taking a waxing tonight. She nodded.
“Miss Donovan, we’ve got men on that floor...” the Police Chief began.
Grey Suit silenced him with a gesture, guided Priscilla back toward the lobby. “Worst case, get to the end of the hall to your left as you exit the elevator. My men are there and they’ll protect you as they can. Miss Donovan—” He took her elbow and she stopped to face him. “I don’t think he has explosives, but if he does—”
“You trying to talk me out of this?” He didn’t answer. She liked that he didn’t answer. She raised her chin at the door and he opened it for her.
Stegner was still there. She grabbed his wrist, held his gaze until the cleverness left it. “Talk to Wallace. They want to shoot Robbie. Maybe they’ll have to, but if we can make him feel safe—Talk to Wallace, Hal. Get him to use his influence. Lawyers, whatever. Do everything you can to make Robbie feel safe.”
Hal stared at her. Grey Suit tugged gently on her elbow and Priscilla went outside with him. “What’s going on?” she heard Stegner ask belatedly as the door closed behind her.
Grey Suit led her across the street. The reporters were gone and the street was empty. The cops had set up barriers, cleared everyone out. She looked up at the Rialto again. If it came tumbling down it would sure make a mess. She glanced back to see the Mayor and the other heavies pile into cars to make their exit.
Grey Suit saw it too and grimaced. Inside the Rialto’s lobby, a couple of cops waited by an open elevator.
Grey Suit stopped her. “You don’t have to do this.”
She pulled out another cigarette. He lit it. “So, in my place you’d cut and run, like our town fathers there.”
He didn’t answer. Priscilla took a couple of quick drags, dropped the cigarette and crushed it out with her foot. She boarded the elevator. “I know how to do it.” She shooed off a cop who started to show her how to work the controller.
“I’ll be here when you come down.” Grey Suit held her gaze as she closed the door.
Burgundy walls with a gold paisley motif, burgundy carpeting, well-polished brass—a stylish coffin, maybe. Priscilla pushed the lever, watched backlit numbers climb past the twenty-six years of her life. She didn’t feel brave; she felt hustled along. A famous film star, with the world in the palm of her hand, sure; and right now she wanted her mother.
The elevator opened on an empty hallway. Priscilla advanced a hesitant step, leaned forward to peer down the corridor. A trembling gargoyle that looked like Robbie stared back at her, his hair a tangle, eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot, face beaded with sweat. He was pointing a gun at her.
She started to retreat but Robbie leapt forward, grabbed her arm, and yanked her out of the elevator.
“Robbie, you’re hurting me!”
He released her and locked the elevator. Priscilla kept her distance, watching. Robbie backed down the hall, lowered the gun. He seemed thinner, like a dehydrated version of himself.
“Don’t look at me like that. I hate that you’re looking at me like that.”
“Robbie, stop all this, whatever you’re doing, and come downstairs with me.”
He turned away, caught in some terrible misery.
“You’re scaring people, Robbie. Dangerous people. They’ll hurt you. They’ll kill you—”
“Pris, I can’t. You don’t understand.”
She realized he was terrified, near eaten up with fear. “What, Robbie? What has you so scared?”
He shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have asked you.” He rubbed his nose with the back of his wrist and sniffled like a ten-year-old.
He really was a mess. “Robbie, you’ve had a breakdown. Let me take you out of here.”
He backed away, the wildness returned to his eyes. The gun rose part way. “Get out, Pris. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Why, Robbie? What on earth has you so worked up?”
“You won’t understand.”
“Well, then you’re just going to have to exercise your gigantic skill with words, because I’m not leaving until I do.”
A change came over him, like she’d said something incredible. “My skill...” And then another look entered his eyes, defiant and a little mean, a little sinister. “You want to know?” He nodded, and laughed a slow, whiny laugh.
He really had gone mad.
“I’ll show you. You’ll see. You’ll see.” He gestured for her to follow him to his apartment.
Priscilla half expected to find stacks of dynamite. It should have been a relief when she didn’t, but what was there was bizarre, its own special kind of creepy.
Sheets of typing paper tacked to the walls, the furniture, the windows, everywhere. Covered edge to edge with typeface—no spaces, no paragraph breaks. She leaned in to scrutinize one above the light switch by the door. At first it just seemed random letters, but she looked closer, singled out a line:
There were words. She read, silently mouthing syllables:
Priscilla blinked and leaned away, frowning. Not Robbie’s best work. She took in the room again. Some men really were no good on their own.
Robbie sat down at his typewriter and started typing. Same kind of stuff, no margins or spaces between words. Except he was typing over words he’d already typed.
“What is this, Robbie?”
He didn’t seem to hear. He was typing with his eyes closed. Priscilla shook him by the shoulder. He stopped, blinked like he’d forgotten where he was, looked up at her.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He worked his mouth like he might answer but placed his fingers on the keys again.
Priscilla took hold of his hands. “No, no, no, no, no.” She turned him to face her and squatted down to look in his eyes. “Come back to me.” She snapped her fingers a couple of times. That startled him; he woke up some.
“What’s going on, Robbie? Talk to me.”
“That’s right, honey, I’m here.”
He glanced around fretfully. “Can’t you hear them? I have to type what they say.”
Priscilla glanced around. “I don’t hear anything, Robbie.”
“You don’t? Well, well you have to. They need to be heard.”
Priscilla wasn’t sure how much to play along with this. “Who are they?”
“Old, old ones. They want in. I have to keep them out.”
He was so broken. She drew him close, let him lean his head on her shoulder. Goddamn studio, working him like a draft horse. “Robbie, how long since you slept?” A tear leaked from her eye. He might not come back from this one.
He shook his head against her shoulder. “Don’t know.”
“You taking pills to stay up?”
He didn’t respond, which she understood to mean yes. “Aw, Robbie, why do you let them do this to you?”
“It’s not—it’s not what you think. Not this time.”
She pulled him to his feet, led him to the kitchen, sat him down in the breakfast nook, searched through cabinets. “Where’s the coffee?”
He shook his head. “Whiskey. Under the sink.”
She found it, rinsed a couple of glasses, poured for both of them. He gulped his down, took a long breath. He was steadying up some.
“You try to go back to that typewriter, I’m going to crack you over the head with this bottle.”
“We gotta get your story straight, Robbie. Why’d you tell them you had dynamite up here?”