In the final excerpt from the just published novel Lulu In Babylon, the frustrations of the film business unmask a producer’s true personality. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. 3,350 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Ex-studio boss turned film producer Ben Robbins and his wife Dianne were the only people on deck. Ben had already finished more than half his glass of rosé as he sat looking out on the picturesque port of Ajaccio. Some of the lights of the Corsican capital were beginning to go on though it was not even close to twilight. The yacht was anchored outside the harbor because it was too big to come in any closer. It towered over everything – not just the other boats, but all the buildings.
Ben’s jet had landed in Corsica just over an hour ago after a quick flight from Cannes. The car, as arranged, had taken them directly to the port, where a Zodiac ferried them out to the boat.
Now all the guests were about to have dinner. Ben himself planned to leave by 10:30 if all worked out. His director pal Milo Flintridge walked onto the deck. “Hey, Ben,” Milo greeted him. “Quite a view, isn’t it?”
“Quite a boat is more like it,” Ben replied, then pulled Milo aside. “I’ve got the air controller staying late for us, but I don’t think we can push it too far. We have to be wheels up by 10:45.”
Milo agreed. “This is one night we can’t wait for Rob and Xan. We’ve already gone through five bottles of Domaine Ott.”
Milo was referring to the bankable but elusive actor Rob Tracey and his wife, the stunning actress Alexandra Hobart. Ben wanted Rob for the Oscar-worthy lead in Double Or Nothing. This was Ben’s second, and last, chance to get Rob to say yes.
Tonight’s dinner on the yacht in the Corsican port was intended to erase the memory of the superstar couple’s disastrous meal at Ben and Dianne’s home a few weeks earlier, when the private chef’s plating had triggered Xan’s shrimp allergy and sent her to the hospital.
The steward, right on cue, was carrying a tray with glasses of rosé and a small bowl of olives. Off to the side, on a small bar, there was a platter with prosciutto and melon so juicy that the tray was dripping.
Milo was in jeans. Ben suddenly felt overdressed in his navy blue silk blazer and gray linen trousers. He should have realized this group would be uber-casual. Ben was irritated that he had encouraged Dianne to wear her ruffled pink Nina Ricci. Just then Milo’s wife Francesca appeared on deck, wearing white linen palazzo pants and a red chiffon halter top with a wide red satin sash. Ben was relieved to see the Italian motion picture star’s outfit. Dianne would be fine.
“Are you talking about me?” Francesa said, striking a pose.
Milo greeted his much younger third wife with a kiss that was more than perfunctory. “You look lovely, darling.”
She trilled a laugh as she kissed Ben. He reached out to give her a hug but she was already looking around for Dianne. “I’ll go say hello,” she said.
Milo’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Lulu, pale and diffident, was listening as she slowly put some melon and prosciutto on a plate. Living in Los Angeles this summer while her mother went through intense cancer treatment, Lulu was beginning to understand what had been in play between Milo and her mother Claire.
“We’re going to sit down for dinner,” Milo announced to the group. Everyone moved toward the dinning saloon. Except Ben.
Maybe if he lingered, Ben hoped to be able to greet Rob and Xan in private – away from the group. By the time Ben entered the dining saloon, Milo had almost finished seating everyone. He motioned to Ben to sit next to Dianne, who was already at the very end of the table. There were two empty chairs facing them – which Ben assumed were for Rob and Alexandra. Milo had set up a sort of demarcation zone, so that Ben and Rob could hold a separate conversation. Milo was next to Ben and Lulu was opposite him. They would serve as a buffer.
This looked fine, Ben decided.
He was just sitting down as Rob and Xan entered the room – almost an hour late. Ben felt a flash of satisfaction. On the movie star clock, they were essentially on time. Rob had to be interested in Double Or Nothing.
Xan looked meltingly lovely, Ben thought. He decided to think of a project for her as well. She had changed out of a simple travel dress into cream-colored moleskin riding breeches which redefined the notion of skin-tight, a thin cream silk camisole and a slate blue embroidered Chinese jacket.
However, instead of striding in slightly ahead of Rob, their usual formation, Xan was almost a step behind her husband, holding onto his arm with both hands. She looked slightly unsteady, a hesitancy that could have been brought on by the rolling motion of the sea. Except the yacht was not rolling.
Ben stood up when he saw them enter the room, but Rob shook his head, signaling not to approach. As the couple walked toward the table, Xan seemed to grow paler – her perfect complexion looking less like luscious thick cream and more like skim milk. But Ben may have been imagining it.
The actress acknowledged him with only a glancing smile, and made no eye contact whatsoever with Dianne. Rob covered Xan’s hands protectively with his as they got nearer. Right before they reached the table, Xan pulled Rob closer, then sat down beside him, next to Lulu, and kissed the teenager on the head as she did.
“Happy pre-birthday,” the actress said.
"Thanks, Xan,” Lulu answered, with a quick smile, coloring slightly.
Ben relaxed and smiled at the teenager – or rather relaxed as much as he could. There was nothing unusual in Xan’s actions, he told himself. He needed to stop thinking of that terrible dinner, to stop imagining trouble now, and stick to the matter at hand – getting Rob to yes tonight. Milo was here to help it along. It was going to happen.
Ben partially stood up so he could reach across the table to shake hands with Rob. “So great to see you,” the producer said, a bit too loudly, trying to grab Xan’s attention as well. He took Rob’s hand with both his own, emphasizing his delight.
Dianne echoed his sentiment. “So lovely to see you,” she added. “And lovely to be here.”
Xan had been picking up the glass of rosé at her place setting, and, as Dianne spoke, her hand jerked back. Though the glass was less than half full, Xan’s sudden movement sloshed the pale pink liquid over the rim. It hadn’t looked like that much wine, but it splashed across Lulu’s J. Crew navy lacy white blouse as well as Xan’s trousers. The ghost of a frown crossed Xan’s cameo face, as she bent to mop it up.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lulu said immediately. She would have been more comfortable if Xan had ignored it. It always made the teenager self-conscious when people fussed about her in public. Lulu felt her cheeks getting hot. She was sure her face was already pinker than the wine stain.
Lulu tried to deflect the actress. “Is anything wrong? Are you ok?”
Xan smiled at her, “Of course, honey.” Her voice held steady, but her smile quivered slightly. “It’s just that … the last time I sat at a table with … Ben and Dianne…” Xan hesitated almost imperceptibly before forcing out the last two words, “I had this terrible allergic attack. It was a no fun”
“Let’s not even think about it,” Ben smiled as he interrupted her. He could see Alexandra was tense. Her anxiety felt palpable. Rob reached out protectively, putting his arm around her, but it didn’t help. She couldn’t relax. Ben started thinking this trip might have been for nothing.
“You know,” Rob began, talking directly to Ben and Dianne. “Xan was a little nervous about sitting down to eat with you tonight. That meal we had was a bit traumatic for her. She was actually saying she wanted to eat in the cabin. But I convinced her that this was going to be fine. She knows how excited I am about this project.”
Xan kept her head bent down as her husband spoke. Ben decided he’d been right all along – she had yet to even look at Dianne. Instead, the actress seemed obsessed with getting out the wine stains on her pants.
If only she had stayed in the cabin, Ben thought. Maybe then he’d have had a chance. He’d been right to dwell on the worst-case scenario. Now it was going to be even worse than worst-case.
Lulu could see Xan was nervously twisting her fingers, even as the actress pretended to sop up the stains. “My gosh,” Lulu began again, “what happened–”
“We don’t need to discuss it,” Ben smiled directly at Lulu after interrupting her. “Let’s forget it.” His voice was soft, but it cut through the air like a knife. “It’s over.”
Dianne put her hand on Ben’s arm. She could sense he was coiled and ready. She knew the signs. But most of the table wasn’t listening – because Connor Ericson was making a star-worthy late entrance.
The young British actor, whose tentpole Chessman just grossed $100 million in four days, had flown in with Ben and slept on the plane. But he’d still looked spent when he walked onto the boat and immediately headed to a back cabin to shower. “Sorry I took so long.” Connor apologized to the room. “I needed to clean up before I could think of sitting down with all of you.”
Milo smiled and motioned for him to take the empty chair one seat over. A steward filled the wine glass while Connor walked around the table to his seat. Connor gave Francesca a quick kiss hello and then reached across her to shake Milo’s hand. “Thanks again for having me along,” the actor said then added with a cocky grin, “This has been one hell of a summer.” The entire table seemed jazzed by the young star’s presence and toasted to his success.
When Xan reached for her glass, Lulu saw that her hand was still shaking. The teen realized that the actress was keeping her eyes focused down the other end of the table. When talking to Lulu, Xan turned her entire body, not just her head – essentially sitting sideways in her seat. Lulu had an odd impression that Xan’s gaze was clinging to her, as if she were some sort of psychic life preserver.
“What happened?” Lulu asked again. “I know allergies can be so scary. You know my Aunt Gr–-”
“Was I unclear? No one’s ever accused me of that,” Ben said more quietly. He smiled at Lulu again as he spoke. Dianne’s hand was clutching his arm. But he didn’t care.
“It’s just my Aunt Grace had this terrible al-”
“I thought you were going to be quiet.” Ben’s voice was quieter still. “So do it. Look how upset you’re making Xan. Shut up.”
His tone was curt, as if talking to a dog. But his smile deepened.
Ben realized, so sharply that it felt like a stunning blow, that his deal was lost. The odds may have been slim, he now saw, since he had not reckoned on Alexandra presenting such a problem. But it was really this young girl and her questions, he decided, that had made it impossible. She had ruined his deal. He wanted her never to speak again.
It was the smile that fooled Lulu. “I was just saying,” she began, “that my Aunt Grace has a terrible allergic reaction to peanuts. One time she –-”
Ben could not believe this teenager was still talking. He could almost see palpable waves of anxiety crashing over Xan. She seemed about to flee the table. Any small remaining hope he had for his deal would walk out with her. Yet the girl kept talking. Every word she spoke twisted the knife deeper into his project. The damage was probably irreparable. Yet nothing he said seemed to stop her from babbling.
“What are you doing here anyway?” Ben’s voice was no more than a whisper – but precise as a shiv. “Isn’t your mother dying of cancer? Shouldn’t you be with her during the chemo?” The girl seemed to gasp for breath and her cheeks flamed redder than her hair. “Chemo is really rough you know. What if she dies and you’re not there? How would you feel, knowing that she died as you’re sitting here on a yacht off Corsica?”
Lulu was too stunned by Ben’s words to offer any defense. Not that she could have – he was a master at this art form. Hard-bitten men had quailed before him, and few had come close to causing him the trouble that he felt she had. This teenager had taken down his entire project – and forced him to watch as she did it. He was now looking grimly at a picture with a start date – and no star.
He couldn’t have stopped himself even if he wanted to – though Dianne’s hand was now digging into his arm like a claw.
The girl’s cheeks were crimson, as if he had slapped her several times. Hard. Tears welled up and spilled down her cheeks.
“Crying won’t help your mother at a time like this,” Ben said as Lulu flinched. “If you feel guilty about leaving her when she’s in the fight of her life against cancer – good. You should be.”
Lulu was trapped in a horrifying nightmare. Ben smiled serenely as his steady torrent of soft words engulfed her in acid and bile. She felt powerless even to look away. At some point, she realized, Xan had put her arm around her. The actress had been standing up to leave the table, but as Ben words spewed out, she sat down to put a protective arm around Lulu. Yet the actress was unable to shield the young girl.
“Lulu!” The girl’s head snapped back as Connor said her name.
Connor had been listening to Milo, who was leaning over his wife to tell them the story of Francesca’s first Hollywood screen test. They were all laughing. Milo knew how to tell a story. But Connor had caught sight of Lulu’s face out of the corner of his eye. Milo, seeing Connor’s startled expression, turned just in time to hear Ben’s last sentence.
“Lulu!” Connor repeated, intent on drawing her focus away from that end of the table. “I need a martini to celebrate. Come with me while I make one – and fill me in on the trip.”
“My mother is not dying,” Lulu gasped, willing as much vehemence as she could muster.
Milo heard Ben’s words and his daughter’s reply. He saw that Rob and Xan looked shell-shocked as they rose from the table, almost bloodied from the conversation. The actress’s arm gripped tightly around Lulu, pulling her up as well.
“You’re absolutely right, Lulu,” Milo said assertively, “Your mother’s going to be just fine.”
“What’s wrong with you, Ben?” Rob said. “Slime is too nice a word. People warned me. They call you the ‘Smiling Mamba,’ you know? I ignored them. But I shouldn’t have. I was wrong.”
The smile still played on Ben’s face. Milo turned to him. “Get out. Now. You need to get off the boat.”
Xan’s skin looked even more ashen once she stood up. She seemed unsteady on her feet, though she still sought to shelter the teenager by cradling her in both arms. But Lulu pulled away. She turned her back on the table and covered her face with her hands, seeking some vestige of privacy. On top of everything else, she felt horribly embarrassed to be the center of attention.
Connor was standing beside Lulu. “Come on,” he said softly. His accent was pronounced. “You need to show me where the bar is.”
She couldn’t look at him. He put his hand around her shoulders, bending like a willow against a fierce wind, and gently guided her to the door.
Rob and Xan were only steps behind them. Though the actress’s gait had seemed unsteady when she moved away from the table, her step grew longer and surer as she crossed the room and approached the door. Walking out onto the deck, Xan was again slightly ahead of Rob, settling into her celebrated smooth stride.
Ben, however, hadn’t yet moved. Dianne, too, seemed frozen. Her hand was still on his arm, though her fierce grip had gone unheeded. He couldn’t even feel it. She seemed unable to lift her eyes from the table. Ben could tell she was trying to pretend she wasn’t on the boat – certainly not in that room. But she was. If not for long.
“It’s over, Ben,” Milo began again, since Ben hadn’t moved, “I’ve been trying to help on this. But now we’re done. You can take the hacker back to the port. It’s ready. Get off the boat, Ben. Now. Good night, Dianne.”
Ben could feel the entire group watching him. Their eyes were cold. These same people, who had greeted him warmly just an hour ago, now regarded him as if they were immune system antibodies and he some sort of foreign matter that needed to be expelled from the bloodstream. .
He was a bug on their windshield. Something to be flicked off. Dianne had yet to look up. She was deeply absorbed by the pattern on the plate in front of her.
Ben knew the mood at the table was going to get ugly. The others probably felt they were growing ever more tainted as they were forced to breathe the same air. He needed to get out of that room and off that boat. But he realized, almost with pride, he had no regrets about what he had said. That girl deserved it and more for the trouble she had instigated. She had no right to have a seat at the table, much less to talk while sitting there. Even his youngest child would have known better than to chatter like that with a star when a deal was in motion.
He could feel a growing miasma of disdain. He sensed their collective attitude hardening into contempt – the typical Hollywood attitude toward interlopers.
Ben knew he had to make a clean exit. He at least had to control that act. He stood up with as much dignity as he could muster. He had placed one hand under Dianne’s elbow, so she got up with him. It was like pulling up dead weight. She seemed shocked into virtual paralysis since the incident. He didn’t want to have to drag her out the door. So he paused to regroup before moving away from the table.
He looked out over the group. “It’s always such a treat to spend time with all of you,” he began. “Dianne and I didn’t mean to interrupt your holiday, but this issue was pressing and I needed to consult Rob about it.”
The room was quiet. He felt they were all just waiting for him to leave.
“But now my conversation with Rob is over,” Ben’s smile broadened, with no hint of irony, “I am sorry to leave before this delightful dinner is over, but it seems we must. Not just time and tide, but air traffic controllers wait for no man – or woman.”
At the last two words, he put his arm tightly around Dianne, pulling her close. He figured that the only way he was going to get her out the door was by propelling her. So they moved together, in a kind of shuffling lockstep. It was not the most graceful exit, Ben had to admit. But it was an exit. And that’s what mattered.
The hacker was indeed waiting when they got on deck. Dianne didn’t begin to cry until they were in the car, heading for the jetport. She still hadn’t said a word.
Part One. Part Two. Part Three.