Lola works in Rosa’s establishment. That is, she’s a prostitute in Death of a Serpent—and a good one, Rosa tells me. She stars in this scene, along with Serafina.
Lola sailed into the room. Sapphires sparkled on her fingers. And pearls, too, she dripped pearls. They wound around her neck in long ropes. They dangled from her ears, reflecting opalescent light from tiered bracelets. Her gown of watered silk was cut low in the front with a lace surround, pleated in the French manner. She seemed somehow different from the last time Serafina had seen her, that day in the conservatory, almost a different person—more, how to say it, more mature. But no, that wasn’t it at all, not at all: she was harder. Over her bodice she wore a fitted mauve jacket of boiled wool, a feathered boa draped around her shoulders. Her golden hair was trussed with tortoise combs, around which curls were carefully coiled, and wedged into her cleavage was her ivory cigarette holder.
The prostitute sat. “Rosa told me you wanted to see me.” Her voice was expensive. Reaching for her cigarettes, she stuck one into the holder, and swung a leg over the arm of the chair, revealing a taffeta underskirt, lace petticoats, and black crocheted stockings. On her feet were satin shoes.
“My first customer is in the parlor now. Impatient.” Lola blew smoke from rouged lips. “A dignitary.” Inhaled. Exhaled. “Can’t spare much time, but I want to help.” One propped-up leg arced back and forth.
“I don’t care if he’s the King of Savoy. He’ll have to wait.”
Lola slid her leg off the arm of the chair and crossed it at the knee. As she rearranged herself, her eyes roamed over Serafina’s shape.
No matter, Serafina had a set of questions she asked each prostitute: Did you know Gemma? Nelli? Bella? If yes, for how long? Who were her friends? Did she confide in you? When was the last time you saw her? Did you notice anything strange or new, a change shortly before she died? A new customer? And while the prostitute answered this barrage, Serafina made notes of her facial expression, choice of words, accent, gestures, what she said, what she didn’t say, how she walked, the cut of her gown, the color and style of her hair, her scent, her jewels.
Lola was no exception. She answered with a shrug of one shoulder or a slight shake of her head. Amused by the spectacle, Serafina kept up her battery of questions long enough to study this new side of Lola. When she’d taken her measure, Serafina asked, “What do you know that you’re not telling me?”
Lola’s mask dropped. “Forgive me. I’m about to work, you see, and this is a pose I use. If you’d ever done what we do, you’d understand. I want to help you find this killer. I doubt you’ll catch him—he’s too clever—but I owe it to them, to my friends, to the women who died, and most especially to Bella. She taught me, you see, and I am indebted to her, and to La Signura.”
“Taught you what? Rosa told me you were the teacher here.”
“Bella taught me costume and artifice, the skills necessary in my line of …” She stopped.
Serafina waited for her to continue.
“The skills each woman must have in order to be captivating.”
And later on in the scene, Serafina, who has taken Lola’s measure, speaks to it:
Lola stopped talking. She reached into her fringed bag, pulled out a pot of rouge and applied color to her lips, pressing them together before she continued. It seemed to Serafina that this version of Lola, the working Lola, did not expend more energy than was necessary. Ever. Serafina guessed that trains ran or not, according to Lola’s schedule; customers were satisfied or not, according to Lola’s mood, but no matter what, they paid for the privilege of being with her for what, ten or fifteen, maybe twenty minutes at most, and considered themselves lucky.
Photo: cover, Death of a Serpent. Design, Derek Murphy