They arrived at the top of Culver Hills Road and looped into the circular drive of the Foxworthy Hotel in record time. A few staff members waved at Isabella as Pythian trailed behind her up the front steps and into the grand lobby. The concierge, Rolf, winked at her subtly and then continued speaking rapidly into the replica 1920s candle-stick phone behind his desk. Probably some guest complaining about the beach being more than three blocks away. Take the trolley, people. It goes right there.
Isabella picked up her foot to walk, then put it right back down and stared slack-jawed. The hotel’s two newest bartenders, Nico, who was from Italy, and Constantine, who was from Brazil, emerged from the kitchen at the back of the lobby, balancing about twenty wine glasses each. Several were upside down and several others stacked right-side up. “If my grandmother sees them, they’re dog meat.” She held her breath as they wove between the patrons seated in the open dining area at the far right. Constantine side-stepped a very tall plant and Nico looped around a waiter with a platter full of hot plates. Then they wound down the four steps that led to the Jazz Pit Bar Lounge as if they’d been doing it all their lives. “Wow. Do they do trapeze too?”
“Are there always so many people?” asked Pythian, sounding a little on edge. She understood. She hated crowds too. But for some reason it was different in the hotel. In a regular crowd, she had the added fear of getting lost, which she despised more than anything. She looked around the lobby, bustling with guests, rafters trimmed thinly with garland and a smattering of holiday lights. They had not fully decorated yet. Decorating day was December 21st. Though she would never tell her grandmother that was the best thing about being a Foxworthy-the tradition. With tradition, one never felt lost.
“It’s the holidays.”
Isabella looked at him like he’d grown tentacles. “You know. Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, the Winter Solstice?”
“Oh, yeah. Right. The solstice.”
This kid was very weird. “And like I told you, Python, Theophilus isn’t here giving lessons today.”
It’s Pythian. Piiitheeean!”
“Oh, well. He isn’t here. My Uncle Jack says he won’t be back for months.” Pythian stared up at her with a plea in his eyes. “Fine. You can ask my nano. Then I get my dinner.” She started a course toward the silver-haired woman in the Prada suit, standing behind an ornate podium with a telephone at her ear. Unfortunately, a round man with a walrus-style moustache blocked her from moving swiftly in the direction she wanted to go. When she escaped his presence, a group of little kids darted by nearly tripping both her and Pythian. “You’ll be getting a lump of coal in your stockings this year! Ugh. Sometimes, I hate the holidays.”
Now all she had to do was quickly say hello to her grandmother and goodbye to this Pythian boy.
“Our masquerade ball will be the best New Year’s Eve event we’ve had in years with my granddaughter, Isabella Foxworthy performing and Logan Blues headlining,” Catherine Bayer Foxworthy spoke into the phone as Isabella and Pythian approached her behind the front desk. “Yes. New Year’s Eve. We’ll be doing a homage to Renee Fox and Sinclair Worthy and their era of Hollywood. Can I put you down for seven? Fantastic.”
“Just stopping by to say hello, Nano. I have a ton of things to do.”
“Isabella! I’m glad you’re home. How was your day, dear?” she asked, not noticing the boy standing beside her granddaughter.
“Sunnier. Try to be sunnier. More positive,” she said, her eyes expanding when she finally looked at her granddaughter. “What happened to your knee?”
Isabella’s knee hurt a little, but she hadn’t noticed the blood.
“It’s just a scratch, Nano. I’m fine.”
“And look at your hair!” Her grandmother smoothed her wayward strands down to no avail. “And who is this poor thing? What happened to you?”
“This is Pythian. He says he’s here for lessons with Theophilus. I told him Theophilus isn’t here, but anyway, can you help him out? Get him a ride home or something?”
“Oh, sorry to disappoint you, Isabella, but Theophilus will be here soon. I asked him to come to help you with your music and to restore the theater. Don’t you remember?”
“What? I thought Robert was in charge of that,” she said, shocked. She hated being wrong, especially, when it came to the Foxworthy and what went on beneath its roof.
“And don’t avoid my questions. What happened? You look like you need a doctor, sweetheart,” her grandmother finished, lifting Pythian’s face and studying the scratch that ran from the corner of his eye down his cheek. “That is going to leave a scar,” she said to Pythian before turning to back to Isabella, who was growing more and more annoyed by the situation. “Did you feel any sign beforehand? Hear them before you saw them?”
“Before I saw who?” She always seemed to know more than she let on. Like she could see what she’d been up to just by looking at her though she asked tons of questions. Isabella shrugged, then sighed. What was the point?
“Isabella, you know how to keep out of danger. Use your instincts like I’ve taught you, then tuck yourself away in a safe place.”
“I’m almost fifteen, and we’re both fine. So, do you mind taking him to Theophilus, Nano. I want to go find Betty,” Isabella said through a false smile looking to Pythian, who shrugged.
“Yes. Where do I find him, ma’am?” he asked Isabella’s grandmother.
“Everywhere and nowhere at all, I expect, when it comes to Theophilus. But first I’m going to get someone to clean you up. You should go home. Call your mother. And you, Miss Izzy, stay put.”
“I don’t have a mother, and my father isn’t home.”
“Well,” Isabella sighed, feigning extreme exhaustion. “I am going to get Betty to make a cup of chowder for me.”
“After you clean that knee and meet with Mr. Dodge.”
At that moment, Theophilus Dodge, wearing a purple cape, swept into the room. That was new. He usually wore a top coat with tails and a pair of goggles, and sometimes even a top hat. Oh wait, the goggles were not missing. He just had on a new pair. Small, black, and pushed back on his white-blond head. Today, he’d must have left in a hurry. The hat and tailcoat were rarely missing. Still, he had on the usual Victorian-era waistcoat and an ascot along with a pair of pin-striped trousers. Not only did the mad piano instructor fancy himself a musician and theatrical sensation, but he also believed himself to be a master poet, philosopher, and inventor. Isabella thought he was just a lunatic.
Grandmother Catherine pulled Isabella by the elbow toward the entrance. “Ah, Mr. Dodge. My granddaughter is ready for her lesson.”
Theophilus removed his goggles and placed them in a small case he had at his side. “Splendid. I would like to see the theater as soon as possible, then we can start our lessons.”
“Your nephew is the one who wants lessons,” said Isabella.
“Nephew?” inquired Theophilus. “I have no nephew.”
Isabella looked around but could not find the boy all of a sudden. “He was right behind me. He said his name was Pythian or something.”
Theophilus opened his eyes a bit wider. “Pythian, you say?”
“Yes. I didn’t get his last name, but he said his father was your good friend. Where the heck did he go?”
“Indeed,” Theophilus said, snapping his fingers on both hands. “Well, I think we’ve had enough chit chat for the moment. Now to find my other pupils.” He turned to Catherine. “But not before I see the theater.”
“Oh, yeah, that sounds like a really good idea, Nano. Why don’t you show Theophilus to the theater while I go and get something to eat-”
“After our lesson, of course,” said Theophilus.
“Of course,” Isabella said.
Well,” her grandmother said, looking between the two of them, “I have set you up in the theater to rehearse, so you will both be satisfied.”
“Satisfaction would’ve come with scoops of chowder and maybe even a few swigs of orange soda.”
“Chowder?” Theophilus asked, eyes wide. “I’ve always thought you were a macaroni-and-cheese kind of girl!”
“The photo over that fireplace begs to differ.” He pointed to a black-and-white picture of Isabella and her parents as she grinned over a giant plate of mac ‘n’ cheese. It had been taken on her eighth birthday. Less than a year later, her parents were dead. She looked away. She couldn’t stand that picture.
“People change. They grow up,” she said, swallowing the torment as it got stuck in her throat. Then, she held her head high. “Besides, Betty’s chowder is especially made for me. And I don’t need any lessons. I know what I’m doing.”
“Every great musician has a great coach,” said her grandmother with a sharp glare.
“You force me to play, and I’m good at it. Isn’t that enough?”
“She’s improving. You may want to work with her on her singing. People are starting to compare her to Beatrice, Lord rest that poor girl’s soul.”
“Beatrice isn’t the only one who died around here. Why does everyone make such a big deal about her?”
Catherine and Theophilus shared a cryptic look and did not answer her. They were doing it again. She hated when they did that. Robert was the only one who trusted her and told her things.
“Lots to do, my dear. Same entrance as always, Catherine?”
“Not quite. Isabella, please show him. Oh, Theophilus, I forgot, the Logan boys will be joining you too. They performed with their parents here last night. You heard them Isabella. Logan Blues. They’ll be here for the show, but I thought it would be nice to get the young people together to see what you might come up with.”
Isabella turned red and then her eyes started to burn because she’d forgotten to blink. “I’m fine alone, Nano, really.”
“Try to be open minded. They good kids.”
“How do you even know them?” Isabella snapped back.
“I know their parents from before you were born. Now, go on.” Catherine patted her on the shoulder and turned away.
Isabella looked defeated. “So, not only am I stuck doing this performance, but I can’t practice for it alone?”
“Ah, yes. Now I remember. Well, I mean no. You can’t do it alone. I have other pupils.” Theophilus rubbed his hands together. “This will be a treat for you, Isabella.”
Sixteen-year-old Seth Logan and his younger brother, Micah, appeared wearing matching Los Angeles Lakers warm-ups. Sure, Isabella waved a Laker flag during a victory parade like any other Angeleno would, but those outfits made them look like a pair of purple penguins. As her eyes caught Seth’s she looked away immediately. She noticed if she looked at him out of the corner of her eyes, that he had some slightly attractive features decorating his face. Only slightly though. The slant of his nose and the fierce black eyes, along with his olive skin made him just cute enough for her to notice. Of course, people said her skin was olive-toned too, but it really looked more like oatmeal or maybe peanut butter on a good day.
“Are those your costumes for your performance tonight with your parents?” Theophilus asked. Although some people, including Isabella, thought it was the odd-ball music’s instructor’s taste in clothing that was eccentric, Theophilus was perplexed by the purples and yellows of boys’ outfits. Theophilus Dodge was certainly a walking oxymoron.
“No,” Seth sighed, then let out a derisive laugh. “They’re basketball warm-ups.” Isabella did not like his condescension one bit. Maybe Theophilus was a bit off-beat, and maybe she didn’t feel like taking lessons from him today, but he still deserved some respect. She looked at the handsome boy again and decided that maybe he wasn’t so handsome after all. He was probably one of those types that thought he was God’s gift to all females who had the privilege of looking at him.
“Oh, so you’re in a band and you’re on the Los Angeles Lakers?”
“I do play basketball, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Seth, grinning crookedly for a moment at Isabella then deflated when he turned back to Theophilus. “If our parents ever let us stick around long enough in one place, I’d love to join a team.”
“We’re just fans,” Micah said quietly. “We like to show love and support.”
“Last night when you performed in the lounge, your mom said you guys were from New Jersey.”
“New York,” Seth amended. “And we’re more like nomads, so we aren’t exactly from anywhere.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll do Renee and Sinclair’s legacy proud,” said Theophilus.
“Who are they?”
Isabella sighed heavily. “My great-grandparents. The whole event is about them. Even the mayor is coming because it’s so important. Not to mention like everybody will be there, which is why I can’t to skip my performance even if I’d rather not do it.”
“That’s right,” her grandmother said, approaching them and smiling at the boys, “your concern is at the top of the hour on the last hour of the show and, of course, the countdown to the stroke of midnight.”
“Fine, but why can’t I rehearse alone?”
“Don’t do us any favors,” Seth said. “I could be spending valuable time with my bass or my guitar.”
Isabella snapped her head toward the boy, who hovered about a foot above her and wore an expression that begged her to challenge him. The younger one, Micah, smiled as if embarrassed by what his brother had just said. “Why don’t you do that then?” Isabella challenged. Hers eyes cut deep into his as she glared in his direction.
“Well, thank you, boys. We can use your musical talents and gorgeous little faces. Don’t pop star it out too much though,” she said, kissing her granddaughter’s cheek and then moving in the direction of the two new bartenders, who were now juggling silver cocktail shakers between them. “Nico! Constantine! This is not an underground nightclub off Hollywood Boulevard. Honestly.”
“Let’s get this over with.” Isabella stormed off toward the small elevator across from the grand lobby that led to the entrance to the underground stage.