A Tale of Deception
Copyright 2014 by John Shepphird
First Down & Out Books Edition: July 2015
All rights reserved. No part of the book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Cover art by Roger Huyssen
Cover layout by Ricardo Netro
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Work as an actress was sparse. Jane survived by a variety of dead-end, part-time jobs. This one, working for a private investigator, paid minimum wage.
Six months ago, on a foggy morning in L.A.’s beach community of Playa Del Rey, she sat in her Nissan waiting for the subject to emerge from his apartment. Her task was to videotape the man as proof he was physically mobile without the assistance of a wheelchair or crutches. Jane worked for Tim Peduga, an ex-cop turned PI who specialized in insurance fraud.
She arrived just before dawn and found a spot across the street from the apartment. She parked in front of a modern house under construction and hoped the contractors, when they arrived, wouldn’t make her move. She could hear the rumble of jets from adjacent LAX airport in the distance.
Jane checked herself in the rearview mirror and hated what she saw. There were bags under her eyes, her forehead was breaking out and her chin looked puffy. Thirty years of age and these moments of self-doubt came more and more often now—a deep, dark depression knocking at the door.
Neighbors walked dogs past. A FedEx truck stopped down the street. She fought boredom by listening to celebrity podcasts on her iPod.
Finally the man emerged from his apartment. It was definitely the same guy from the photo she’d been given. He had shoulder-length curly black hair parted down the middle and a long, scraggly beard. She thought the only thing missing was a flowing black cloak and he could pass for Rasputin, the famed Russian mystic.
She powered the camera.
Even though the video was time stamped, she was instructed to shoot the front page of the L.A. Times first. Her boss Tim explained that a video time-stamp could be manipulated after the fact but a physical newspaper is undisputable proof. She supported the lens on the steering wheel and zoomed in.
Rasputin unlocked the door of a Toyota pickup and searched the cab before emerging with a pack of cigarettes. He smacked the pack of Marlboros on his palm and peeled back the cellophane, tossing the remnants into the wind. He produced a lighter and lit the smoke.
That’s when he noticed her.
She averted her gaze, pretended to be busy with something below the dash while still keeping the camera trained. In the LCD viewfinder she saw him walk toward her. She dropped the camera and went for the ignition. The car sputtered and stalled.
He was closing in fast.
She locked the doors.
“Excuse me,” he said angry. “What are you doing? Do I know you?”
She averted his gaze and tried to start the car again. No luck. Piece of…
He tossed the cigarette at her windshield and smacked the hood. “Were you filming me? You don’t have the right!”
She pumped the gas as the starter whined but the Nissan would not fire. Damn it!
“Give me the camera, bitch!”
What’d he call me?
Jane defiantly flipped him off. She regretted it when it only enraged him more.
Red-faced, he ran around the car and rummaged through the pile of construction refuse. He came back with a cinderblock raised over his head.
You’ve got to be kidding.
Jane ducked below the dash just before the windshield shattered. Chunks of broken glass rained down into her hair.
Over the cinderblock on her dented hood she could see him searching for something else to throw. She went for the ignition again. The car finally started with a mighty roar.
His eyes registered fear.
“Motherfucker!” she screamed. She threw it into drive and punched the gas.
Rasputin flipped over the hood followed by the sound of his head hitting the pavement—much like a watermelon cracking open upon impact.
Months later, dressed in frayed clown regalia, Jane performed a magic trick under the shade of a gnarled ficus tree. For the audience of children she held out an over-sized “die,” the singular term for dice she made clear to the kids, and placed it in a black lacquer miniature cabinet. She closed the two doors and tilted the box to one side before she opened the adjacent chamber.
“See, it vanished.”
She shut that door and tilted the box the other way—the children hearing a thunk as the die seemingly slid to the other half of the box. Opening the opposite door Jane said, “All gone. Show’s over. Thank you very much.”
The kids screamed in protest. They demanded she open both doors at the same time but she pretended not to understand them. When they had been teased enough, Jane opened them both. The die had disappeared.
“Not everything is as it appears,” she said.
This was the final line of her magic routine. She reached into a nearby hat and pulled out the die as if it invisibly jumped through space.
Jaws dropped in amazement. It was her best trick, Jane’s grand finale, an over-the-counter magic shop standard hailed “the sucker die box”—no sleight of hand required and the art of deception at her fingertips.
Later, as the rambunctious kids ate ice cream outside French doors, Jane packed her show away. Kneeling on a thick Persian rug in the master bedroom she paused to gaze at the antique four-post bed, its fine linen, silk pillows and a pure white duvet ironed to perfection. God, it must be nice to be this rich, to wake up in a bed like this. For a brief moment she could daydream until—
“That was great.” The woman of the house was there with purse in hand. “Thank you so much. Brady and his friends loved your act.”
Here was a woman who has everything, this tasteful house, a six-year-old boy, a family of her own. She was the lucky one who woke up every morning in this wonderful bed—obviously with a man who loved her. And worst of all, she appeared to be only a few years older.
“Two hundred dollars, right?” the woman said.
Jane nodded and continued to pack her show away. She felt deep envy, the feeling creeping up into her throat, copper to taste, bitter. She needed a drink of water but did not feel like asking. When she finally stood the woman handed her a check.
“I thought we agreed on cash,” Jane said.
“I didn’t have a chance to get to the bank. I can call my husband and have him drop by the ATM, but he won’t be back until later.”
Jane bit her lip. She needed cash. She could not wait for the stupid husband because she’d be late for class. Jane thanked the woman and took the check without glancing at the total.
Standing in the driveway, still dressed as a clown, Jane waited for her taxi.
She dug out her last thirty dollars and hoped it would be enough to get across town. Once there, she knew she could bum a ride home. This sleepy, tree-lined neighborhood north of Montana Avenue in Santa Monica was once dominated by single-story, pre-war craftsman bungalows. Jane could see that most had been torn down and replaced with two-story, imported-tile McMansions. She found the check to take a look.
No tip. Figures.
Jane wondered why the wealthiest people tipped the worst, or, as in this case, not at all. She hated having to rely on taxis but her car was in the shop again, this time a “broken timing belt,” whatever that was. She’d nicknamed her car rusty-yet-trusty Nissan, but now it was held for ransom by Yuri her mechanic for six hundred dollars plus storage charges since he’d had it so long.
Not long ago she was working for Peduga Investigations when the crazy Rasputin smashed her car’s windshield. Tim paid to replace the glass, plus a little more, and now Jane had nothing to show for it. She suspected Tim wasn’t calling her for surveillance gigs anymore because of that incident.
Being a private investigator seemed flexible enough to allow for her acting pursuits, and Jane figured she could eventually hang her own shingle when she became a licensed PI. She’d done the homework and was collecting paystubs as proof for the required hours needed to get her license.
Then last month, just after the Nissan got out of the body shop, it betrayed her. She’d had to tow it to Yuri’s and the tow alone cost her a hundred and twenty bucks.
But this job, two hundred dollars, would not liberate the Nissan. The money would go towards food, overdue rent and piles of laundry. She would revive her spent pay-as-you-go cell phone, and maybe tackle one or two of the minimum payments from the stack of final notices collecting dust. She checked her watch again. Where was that damn taxi?
Twenty minutes later, in the back of the cab, she peeled off the silly costume. Jane could feel the Arab’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Can you hurry, please? I’m going to be late.”
“I drive fast-as-can, lady. Don’t want speeding ticket.”
With a towel Jane wiped the clown-white off her face. She caught him peering again. She was used to men looking at her, ever since she was a teenager—eyes lingering, drinking her in.
She tried her best to ignore the cabbie, slipped on a white blouse and then removed her athletic bra underneath, a learned maneuver from doing quick-changes backstage in school plays. She stuffed her clown costume into her bag and finally dug out her sides, the script pages with her lines.
On the way to acting class, in clogged Los Angeles traffic, Jane studied her lines.
By the time the meter neared thirty dollars Jane still had more than a mile to go. She told the cabbie to pull over, handed him all the money and apologized for the lack of tip. She could sense his disappointment but there was nothing she could do.
Lugging her suitcase full of magic tricks, wearing a simple white blouse and wrinkled black linen slacks, Jane walked to class, sweating from the heat.
The shabby theater strip on Santa Monica Boulevard, lined with tiny ninety-nine seat theaters, was Hollywood’s equivalent to New York’s Off-Off Broadway. Under a marquee for Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” she rushed past a strung-out prostitute. Upon closer inspection Jane saw the hooker was actually a guy in drag, quite normal for this part of town.
The class had already begun, and Jane tried to slip in unnoticed. No luck. Jeremy Sands, her acting coach whose guidance supposedly had steered a well-known student to an Oscar years ago, stopped mid-lecture.
“Well, look who’s late again,” he said.
The group of acting students seated in the first few rows eyed Jane.
“I’m sorry, Jeremy.”
“What’s that on your face?”
“That…” he said waving his crooked finger at her, “that hideous white stuff, darling. On your face!” Jane ran her sleeve across her forehead, a hint of residual clown white smearing off.
“I…uhm. I do birthday parties,” Jane said quietly.
“I beg your pardon,” he said with flamboyance.
“I was working. As a clown.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
She noticed a new student in the class, an attractive man in a black turtleneck standing in the shadows. He was staring at her. Jane felt two feet tall.
“Everyone else seemed to make it here on time,” Jeremy pointed out. “Face it, Jane, you’re always late. Are you going to be late to the audition of your life?”
Jane said nothing, anger burning. She suspected Jeremy was mad because she was months behind in tuition. She remained silent, eyes downcast. She focused on the chipped paint in the concrete floor.
Jeremy let it hang there for an uncomfortable beat. “We hope not,” he said, followed by a dramatic sigh. “Now, where were we? Heavens, I forget. It doesn’t matter. Let’s shift our energy to an improvisation exercise. Everybody participates, so please break up in pairs.”
Jane was wiping the residual clown white from her face with a Burger King napkin when he approached.
“Try using this.”
Looking up Jane found herself face-to-face with the handsome man in the turtleneck sweater offering his cloth handkerchief. Mid-forties, well-groomed, he was new to the class. She thought it strange a man carried a handkerchief in this day and age.
“Thank you,” she said, reaching for it.
“Let me,” the stranger offered. She hesitated, then Jane closed her eyes and let him dab her face. The cloth felt soft. She caught the scent of his cologne, or maybe it was aftershave, and breathed it in.
“I think I got it all.”
They shook hands. His grasp was firm. Something about him.
Cooper nodded towards Jeremy, “I think he likes you.”
“I don’t think so. He picks on me all the time.”
“Need a partner?”
After class Cooper found her, said, “I know a great place where we can get something to eat.”
“I don’t know…I have to meet a friend,” she said. This was her conditioned response, the excuse she’d often used when men hit on her.
“Maybe some other time.” She didn’t know anything about him. He was older than any of the men she’d dated before.
“You must be hungry. Just a quick bite. No big deal.”
He was so confident, so determined, and she felt uneasy. Jane caught herself twirling her hair. “Maybe next week, after class, we can get a cup of coffee or something.”
“Tonight, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
She felt her nipples alert against her thin blouse. She hoped he hadn’t noticed that she wasn’t wearing a bra, but was pretty sure he had.
White tablecloths, delicate flowers in tiny porcelain vases—Jane and Cooper shared a quiet corner in a quaint bistro tucked away in West Hollywood.
The waiter poured a sample of red wine. Cooper nosed the glass, tasted it, then approved with a nod. The waiter distributed equally and was off.
“Tell me about you,” Cooper said, studying her.
Jane sipped and could tell it was a good bottle, not the under-five dollar twist-cap vintage she drank regularly.
“What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with where you’re from.”
Self-consciously she began to talk. She told him about growing up in Albuquerque, an only child with a single-parent mom. She told him about the semester at the University of Colorado when she caught the acting bug, about driving her Nissan out to L. A. to try to make it as an actress. She told him about her different odd jobs. He was especially intrigued by the work she’d done for the private investigator. She told him about the recent Rasputin incident.
“I’m banking hours so I can get my own license,” she said. “You can’t make any money working for PIs. You’ve got to be your own boss and bill the hours yourself. I figure it’s a gig that will allow me the freedom and flexibility to work as an actress.”
“Are there times,” he asked, “that you impersonate people?”
“Never in person, but I’ve done it over the phone.”
He waited silently until she explained.
“Once I pretended to be a career headhunter to gather information for one of our clients, a woman attorney who practices family law.”
“A deadbeat dad was skipping out on alimony and child support. They tried to garnish wages but he claimed to be unemployed. I got him to admit he was working under the table, and making a pretty good living. The phone call was recorded and he was subpoenaed to appear in court.”
“How’d you get him to spill the beans?”
“I pretended I was really interested in his spa and hot tub business. Flirted a little. Built up his ego and earned his trust, I guess.”
“How’d you do that?”
“Listened mostly. Let him brag about himself. Encouraged him. He took the bait.”
“I bet you’re good at it.”
“I guess so. I’m an actress.”
“Tell me more.”
Jane was careful not to give him too many details. The double-wide trailers she and her mother lived in, the crazy boyfriends she endured, and the fact that she never knew her father. The waiter returned and refilled her glass. She talked about how acting was her complete obsession. All else was secondary.
“I can’t seem to get a break,” she said.
“It will happen. You’re talented,” Cooper said. “You’re a lot better than everyone else in class.”
“Thank you for saying that,” she said, feeling a dash of confidence enhanced by the warming effect of the wine. “What about you? Tell me what you’ve done.”
“What I’ve done?”
“As an actor.”
“I’m really kind of new to it all,” he said. “I thought it might be fun to try because I’ve always been a ham.”
“But Jeremy doesn’t accept just anybody. You had to pass his rigorous audition process to get into the class.”
Cooper shrugged. “Sure.”
“He must have seen something in you,” she said.
“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s fun.” He gave her a playful smile. “I live to have fun. How about you?”
She met his eyes for a moment, had an idea what he meant by that. She looked away without answering, smiled to herself. There was spark and sizzle—a thousand words conveyed in one brief, mischievous moment of silence.
The waiter appeared again with a sliced baguette and duck pate. When Jane took a bite she realized this was the first thing she’d eaten all day, other than three peppermint Lifesavers. Probably why the wine had gone straight to her head.
Cooper drove Jane home that night. His sleek Jaguar made it clear he was wealthy. She liked the smell of the leather upholstery.
When they pulled up outside her shabby apartment complex Jane felt the need to make an excuse. “I lost my roommate and I’m sort of in between places right now.”
He made her feel at ease, insisted that he walk her to the front gate. When he asked to see her again Jane fumbled through her bag and gave him a business card with her picture on it, an actor’s calling card. When Jane first came to Los Angeles, two years ago, she hired a photographer who specialized in creating eight by ten head shots for budding actors. The cards were part of the package.
“Call this number, it texts me,” she explained. “I’ll call right back.”
Cooper raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t have a home phone since this place is a temporary arrangement, and I’m in between cell phones right now because the reception is so bad on this block.” The truth was Verizon had shut off her landline months ago, the heartless bastards, and there was no “talk time” credit left on her pay-as-you-go cell phone.
After an affectionate peck on the cheek, Cooper bid Jane goodnight and casually drifted off, a perfect gentleman.
Jane crawled into bed happy. She marveled how her day started out so awful but then, in the blink of an eye, turned so wonderful. For one magical evening she’d been able to forget her troubles.
She thought about him, tried to remember his scent, definitely in the mood. She imagined he was in bed next to her, and then the endless possibilities.
Fancy dinners, jazz clubs—she ran out of nice things to wear and started borrowing clothes from her neighbor Carla.
Carla Gomez was from La Puente, a Hispanic blue-collar suburb east of Los Angeles. She worked as a bank teller and moonlighted as a hostess in a restaurant nearby. Jane didn’t have many friends and considered Carla her closest.
Carla’s clothes were more revealing than Jane would have chosen for herself, but they fit well and struck the right note for the upscale places Cooper took her.
“A little black dress is always in style,” Carla told her. Carla also owned lots of high-heeled shoes. Jane had claim to only one pair of heels, so she was in luck.
In return Carla demanded all the romantic details. Jane felt giddy, like a teenager, talking about boys from school as she curled up on Carla’s couch and filled her in.
“You’re so lucky,” Carla said. “A nice guy with bucks. That’s it, girl.”
Jane explained she felt Cooper was very patient, careful not to force himself upon her. Testing the waters, his kisses grew heavier and his hands explored, but he was always respectful, always tender.
“He got any cute friends?”
Cooper and Jane agreed it would be best to keep their dating secret from Jeremy and the acting class. Pretending not to be interested in him was difficult. She stole glances from time to time but after class left separately. They often met for a late dinner, just as they had on their first date.
She was falling hard.
One evening they went to a Beverly Hills nightclub, a dark and cozy piano bar. A jazz trio set the mood as the raspy-voiced female singer belted old-school standards, Peggy Lee and Billy Holiday. The patrons were much older, distinguished.
After a few scotches Cooper leaned in and whispered to her, “What do you say we cut out of here and stiff the waitress?”
“Why?” Jane asked, confused.
“For the thrill. This place is packed. She won’t see us.”
“Leave without paying?”
“Haven’t you ever stolen anything? Shoplifted?”
“Let’s give it a shot.”
“We can’t,” Jane said, catching sight of the middle-aged cocktail waitress standing at the bar. “I used to wait tables and enough assholes—”
“—But it’ll be exciting.”
“I’ve got money,” she reached for her purse.
“No, no, put that away. I was only joking.” Cooper pulled a wad from his pocket. Jane could see there was a crisp hundred-dollar bill on top. Why would he want to stiff the waitress? It seemed so weird.
Cooper left a generous tip and they were off.
On the way to his car Cooper suggested they go back to his place for a night-cap. Jane had a pretty good idea where that would lead.
He had mentioned that he lived on the West Side so Jane was not surprised when Cooper drove to Marina Del Rey. But she was surprised when he parked and led her past the luxury waterfront apartments to the docks.
“You never said you lived on a boat,” she said.
“Guess it never came up.”
What a yacht it was. Jane was floored when she stepped inside. The boat was extravagant with polished wood, plush carpet and a good-sized galley.
“It’s awesome,” she said.
He went to the refrigerator. “Champagne?”
At the counter he popped the cork. She kicked off her heels, and standing behind him, slid her arms around his waist.
“Guess I’ll have to call you Captain now, follow orders” she said, teasing, “and be your wench.”
He turned and she devoured him with kisses.
It quickly grew more passionate. On the way to the bed Cooper ripped a few buttons from Jane’s borrowed dress. She didn’t care, groped his shirt and worked her hands down his hard torso. They undressed each other, both breathing heavily.
It was a nice surprise to discover Cooper’s well-defined body. She ran her hands down his core, then wriggled her fingers through his pubic hair finding him rock hard.
They hit the sheets.
His skin was warm and soft. She could feel his muscles surge, entangled, quenching Jane’s heated desire.
She wrapped her legs around him and they were in union.
It felt so right.
The next morning, after kisses and lattes made from the boat’s cappuccino machine, Cooper drove Jane to her apartment.
“You’re incredible,” he whispered in her ear as they kissed goodbye. She watched him drive off, smitten.
The next day he made no contact with her. Jane tried his cell. She got his voice mail and left a message. Getting no response, and feeling vulnerable, she left another message.
By the time she left the fourth message Jane was miserable.
“Hey, I haven’t heard from you so I hope everything’s okay. Call me. Miss you.”
She hung up hoping her voice was not too desperate, too obvious. Desperation is the worst perfume, she once heard. Why didn’t he call back?
Later that evening, and under protest, Carla drove Jane out to Marina Del Rey. The night was foggy, the streets damp.
“This is stupid,” Carla said. “He’s probably married and never told you. Probably got bratty kids, too.”
“Maybe, but I have to talk to him.”
They traveled down Lincoln Boulevard in Carla’s Mazda and turned on to Tahiti Drive. Jane tried to remember where his boat was docked. She saw the familiar entrance and told Carla to stop.
“Will you come with me?” Jane asked.
“Hell no. You’re crazy. Play hard to get, and let him call you. They always do, eventually.”
“Come on, it’s dark.”
“You’re such a wimp.”
They got out and walked to the gated entrance. It was locked and there was no way to climb over. Then a gay couple came through, well-dressed guys in their forties obviously going out for the night.
“Hello, ladies,” one of them said.
“I lost my key,” Carla said.
“Sure you did.”
“You don’t believe me?”
One of them was Hispanic and he and Carla exchanged a few words in Spanish that Jane did not understand. Her charm prevailed. They shared a laugh and Jane caught the gate before it locked.
Approaching the docks she could see Cooper’s yacht. The fog was thick. Cabin lights reflected off the black water. Jane moved cautiously, trying not to make any noise.
They peered into a porthole.
Cooper was inside working on his laptop.
“I see him.”
Carla offered a nod.
Jane took a moment to collect herself and was about to board the yacht when she saw someone else—in silhouette.
The woman brought Cooper a cup of tea and affectionately fondled the back of his neck. Cooper kissed the woman on her hand and went back to his work.
Jane and Carla shared a look.
“See. I told ya.”
“Shit!” Tears and a salty tang in her throat, Jane was devastated. She ran back and Carla followed.
Jane had performed grand openings before. They did not pay as well as birthday parties but there was no other work on the horizon, and this was a three day gig. Clown-face painted in a frown to match her mood, Jane filled helium balloons outside the entrance of a new Costco.
As down as she was, Jane found it in herself to pantomime a silly story. A few kids stood stone-faced as Jane mimed that it took great strength to keep the helium balloon grounded. Jane reminded herself that every chance to perform is a gift, whether it was a B-movie, bad dinner theater, or occasional work as a clown. In the midst of this performance Jane’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She snuck a peek at the display.
It was Cooper.
Her spent cell phone allowed basic texting but the voice calls were blocked until she could refill the account, so she took a break and then gave Cooper a call from the payphone in the lunchroom. As it rang Jane studied the State of California minimum wage placard near the phone.
“Hello?” Cooper answered
“It’s me. What do you want?” she said.
“To see you.”
“Where’ve you been?”
“I’m so sorry. I’ve been swamped with work. I really should have called you back.”
“What do you want?”
“Let’s get together. I miss you.”
At that moment a handful of Costco employees entered, gossiping and laughing. Jane could see some were taken aback by a clown in their lunchroom.
“I’ve got to get off the phone, I’m working,” she said.
“We need to talk,”
“I’m busy tonight.”
“I’ve got to get back to work.”
She hung up on him.
Jane stepped out of the lunch room and heard the pay phone ringing behind her. Jane tried her best to wipe her tears without smearing her painted clown face.
By the time she was outside her beeper buzzed, Cooper again. She ignored it and returned to her kiosk.
A small girl pointed and said, “Mommy, look at the sad clown.”
An hour later Jane saw Cooper in his Jaguar cruising the Costco parking lot. How had he found her? Someone must have picked up the payphone back in the lunch-room and offered her whereabouts. “She’s the clown passing out balloons.”
Jane darted inside, abandoning her post, balloons floating to the heavens.
There’s no way in hell he’s going to see me in this corny costume.
At the lockers she got her clothes, changed in the restroom and left out back through the tire center.
Up the street Jane caught the bus, and on the way home wondered if she would be fired for leaving.
Back in her studio apartment, Jane opened the bottle of Bolla Chianti she was saving, swallowed a gulp and got into a hot shower. She finished a good cry under the spray and felt better. She slipped into her terry-cloth robe, combed her hair and poured more Chianti.
Not the first time her heart had been broken. But this time her feelings for Cooper were so intense, so real. She’d felt alive. Why does it have to hurt so much?
She turned on the television and was mildly caught up by a police pursuit. The news helicopter followed a pick-up truck in a reckless get away. Jane could recognize some of the freeway exits as the guy eluded capture. Someone knocked on her door. She turned down the volume and peeked out of the curtains.
It was Cooper. He caught sight of her. “Jane?”
“What do you want?” Jane asked.
“Let me in so we can talk.”
She opened the door a crack, peeked out. “I saw you with her,” she said with venom.
She could see his wheels turning.
“On your boat. Is she your wife?”
“The woman I saw!”
“No, she’s not my wife.”
“You don’t return my calls, and you’re seeing someone else. I don’t need that shit, all right? And I’m busy right now, so—”
“—Look, I just want to talk. Can I come in?”
“No. My place is a mess.”
“Just give me a chance to explain.”
“There’s nothing to explain.”
“Let me in and we can talk about it. I don’t know what you saw, but it’s not what you think. You need to know something. It’s important.”
Jane unchained the lock and stepped away from the door.
He let himself in and closed it gently.
She cleared fashion magazines from her couch so he had a place to sit. She debated offering him wine since she was drinking.
“Look,” he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t call you. And that woman you saw, she’s not a girlfriend either.”
“I’ve heard that before. Look, I don’t play second fiddle.”
“How can I explain it to you—?”
“—You don’t have to explain anything.” Jane took a healthy sip of her wine.
“She’s an actress.”
“Oh, Christ,” she said, on the edge of tears.
He reached over and took the sleeve of her robe. “Please, bear with me for a moment,” he said. “I’m sorry I haven’t been honest with you. That woman you saw was an actress from another class. I’m in a few acting classes, not just Jeremy’s, but for good reason. I’m searching for the right partner. Can you keep a secret?”
On television the cops fish-tailed the pick-up. The guy was out of the truck, running, vaulting a chain link fence. Cops and dogs closed in.
Cooper continued. “I’m searching for the right partner. If I don’t find her I’m going to miss a great opportunity. I’m looking for a collaborator to pull a job.”
“What kind of job?”
“An illegal job.”
Jane said nothing.
“Listen, I’m not in real estate like I said. I’m looking for a partner to play the part of my wife in order to pull this thing off. It’s going to be risky.”
“And illegal. Got it.”
“A con. A swindle involving diamonds.”
“I need a shill.”
Jane knew what a shill was from her experience doing magic tricks but she questioned him anyway. “What’s a shill?”
“A plant. A person who appears to be an outsider. Someone who seems trustworthy to the mark.”
Jane also knew what a “mark” was—a term familiar in the magic trade. She tried to make sense of it all, said to him, “So you’re a con man?”
“I prefer to be called a craftsman in the art of deception.”
His big yacht, fine clothes, it was now clear. “The boat’s not yours, am I right?” she asked.
“Leased. Look I’m sorry I lied to you. Sometimes I just—-It doesn’t matter.”
She studied him.
“Unfortunately you’re only half of what I’m looking for. You’re beautiful and you radiate such goodness. But I don’t think you’ve got the nerve, the moxie. I’m not sure if I see it in you. That’s why I’m still searching.”
She studied her carpet not knowing what to say.
“I messed up.” A hint of emotion was weaving into his voice. “I started to fall in love. I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
“That time you wanted to stiff our waitress,” she asked, “was that a test?”
“Yes. You didn’t pass, but you were honorable.”
On television the cops had the perpetrator handcuffed and face down in an alley. He squirmed but was going nowhere.
“I really shouldn’t have told you so much. I just felt I owed it to you. Can you keep my secret?”
“Thank you.” He rose and turned to go.
“How illegal is this thing you’re doing?” she asked.
“I’ve said too much.”
“Does this other girl, that actress on your boat, does she have the moxie?”
“I’m sorry. Goodbye.”
He let himself out.
Jane sank into her couch. A con man? She was lost in the notion of it all.
On television the cops escorted the bad guy to their patrol car and the station returned to its regular programming.
On day two of her clown gig she found Clifford “Wizzbo” Nance at her balloon kiosk. She knew Wizzbo, heavy and balding, always in a pathetic costume. For the children he put on a goofy and comical act, but around adults Jane found him caustic and cynical.
“Clifford?” she said approaching.
“What are you doing here?” he said, eyeing the clown wig peeking out of her bag.
“I was about to ask you the same question.”
“Haven’t you heard?” He leaned in and burped, his breath smelling of beer. “You’re fired.”
“You’re my replacement?”
“They say you freakin’ up and split. What’s with that?”
Anger flared but she tried not to show it. She turned on her heels and headed back to the bus stop.
“I say something wrong?” Clifford called out.
When Jane returned to her apartment she was shocked to see an eviction notice posted on her door. Eviction? How was that possible? She was only one month behind in rent.
She knocked on the apartment manager’s door. Squat Mrs. Kovacs answered. She wore a sweatshirt featuring frolicking garden gnomes.
“What’s this?” Jane asked showing her the notice.
“Yes, I know, Jane. There’s nothing I can do.” Miss Kovacs was from Eastern Europe, her accent thick.
“But I thought we had an agreement. I told you, I can pay half and make it up next month.”
“It is not my doing, darling. The new property management company, they insist. They say you are behind in rent so often that you’ve broken your lease, and want you out for good.”
“But I can make it up. If you just give me some time.”
“The new property management, I tell them this for you, darling. But they say no, they say it is new policy. I’m so sorry, Jane. Are you hungry? I’ve made chicken dumplings. Come, please, come in and eat.”
Jane said nothing more and returned to her apartment. Sitting on her couch, the eviction notice in her hand, she thought about what Cooper had said. He was searching for a partner in crime to do something illegal, he made that clear. But Jane was trained as an actress, and playing a part in his scheme could be the role of a lifetime.
His wife, this shill, it’s a part. This is an acting job.
Cooper needed someone to play a convincing character. It would be a flawed character, an accomplice, but flawed characters are the best kind. And deep down Jane knew she could play this role. I can bring the character to life.
She picked up the phone to call Cooper but remembered Verizon had shut off her service. In the drawer where she kept her laundry detergent she found enough quarters for a phone call.
She walked to the 7-Eleven.
She waited until sirens cleared in the distance before calling on the payphone. She was planning on leaving a message but was surprised when Cooper answered.
“It’s me. Tell me more about this job.”
Cooper said he couldn’t talk business over the phone. He had sent a car service for her but the Lincoln she had ridden over in was gone now. Jane was punching Cooper’s security code into the polished brass keypad of the gated entrance when she sensed the men behind her. They were watching.
Frantic, she punched the four-digit code a second time before the buzzer finally sounded. She entered. The heavy gate clanged shut behind her. She broke into a run until she reached Cooper’s boat.
“I think those men are following me.”
They walked casually by, one waving to Cooper.
“Hey, Coop,” he said.
“Taking her out today?” Cooper called out to them.
“Catalina for the Avalon Blues Festival.”
Jane felt foolish for not recognizing them from the night she was here with Carla.
“Louis and Jim,” he said. “They’ve got the thirty-two footer.”
She let out a sigh. “I thought they were…I was sure they were following me.”
“They’re quite harmless…um, a couple, if you know what I mean. Nice guys.”
“My active imagination.”
In the galley down below Cooper made tuna-fish sandwiches on toasted rye. Jane, sitting at the dining table, opened a manila folder. There was a photo of a man in his fifties, stocky with a rugged face. He wore a stylish business suit and scowled to the camera.
“He looks mean,” she said.
“Wolff is not known for his kindness or sense of humor.”
“His name is Wolff?
“Alexander Wolff, real estate tycoon. Moves fortunes.”
“Like Bobby Fischer, the chess player, that’s how Wolff rolls. Aggressive strategy, with speed and a take no prisoners style. Rook takes knight. Sacrifice the pawn. Go in for the kill. As much as I skirt the law now and again, Wolff makes me look like a pure amateur.”
“How much do you skirt the law?”
“I only go after those who can afford it.”
“And Wolff can afford it?”
“In spades. He also brokers in bonds, precious metal, off shore investments, but real estate mostly. He owns high-rises all over the world, many in Hong Kong. Oil wells. And he loves horse racing. Owns a stable of promising thoroughbreds.”
“Hong Kong? Is he British?”
“South African and very serious about his privacy.” Cooper set the toasted tuna-fish sandwich on the table and took a seat. He poured her lemonade and continued, “He purchased a prized thoroughbred yearling last year in Lexington, Kentucky, and he’s coming out here to race it.”
Cooper produced a picture of a horse standing in an auction ring and said, “It’s got considerable pedigree. His sire won The Dubai World Cup.”
Jane sipped her lemonade and asked, “So how does it work, this scam?”
“I propose a diamond deal.”
“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
“Marilyn’s life was so sad, when you think about it.”
“What’s that have to do with anything?”
“Pay attention. I’ll whet his appetite with real diamonds then swap out for phony, counterfeit stones. Afterward he’ll be too embarrassed to go to the cops.”
“To not compromise his image as a world-class deal maker.”
Jane took a bite of her sandwich, chunks of pickle mixed into the tuna salad. It reminded her of the way her mother used to make them. “What makes you think he’ll go for the scheme?” she asked.
“For a con to work, the mark has to have one distinctive character trait.” Cooper paused for dramatic effect. “That, Miss Innes, is greed. Alexander Wolff drips it from his pores, and he’s got a monster ego. The horse racing proves he’s a gambler. His greed will lead him to our trap. His ego will keep him from squealing afterward.”
Cooper was so confident. She felt comfortable sitting next to him, like somehow she belonged there.
“Why me? I mean, there has to be other women…professionals.”
“I considered that. But I’m betting he won’t suspect you.”
“You have an innocence.”
“I’m not all that innocent,” she said.
Cooper pulled out another file and handed it to her—the image of a beautiful woman on a polo field, high cheek bones and long silky black hair. She was exquisite—could be in one of the fashion magazines back at her apartment.
“That’s Alexander’s fiancé,” Cooper said.
“Alexander Wolff is impossible to get close to. He’s evasive and cold, very guarded. The best have tried, salesmen, bankers, nobody can get near. But Veronica is different, more down to earth. That’s how we’ll get to Wolff.” He rested his hand on the top of hers. “That’s your job. The entire deal rests on your ability to make her acquaintance, and then become her friend to earn her trust.”
Jane studied the picture, trying to imagine what Veronica would be like in real life.
“Veronica is a biblical name,” she said. “The woman who cleansed Christ’s face at a station of the cross.” Jane remembered that from catechism.
“I suppose. We’ve got to create a random, off-hand encounter. You’ll befriend her and set up a dinner. I’ll take over from there.”
“Why would she want to be my friend?”
“Listen,” Cooper leaned in, “that kind of thinking, wipe it out of your mind. You’ve got to be positive that she’ll want to know you.”
“I’m going to train you, make you absolutely convincing as a woman from a sophisticated background, having been privileged all your life. I’ll tell you what to say and how to say it. She’ll want to know you.”
Jane studied the photographs.
“If you are going to do this,” Cooper said, “then I have to make one thing clear.”
She met his eyes.
“You’ve got to do everything I say, without hesitation. Do you understand? No matter what.” He sat back waiting for her reply.
“I understand,” Jane said. She finished her lemonade. Out of nervousness she chewed the ice. “I need six hundred bucks to fix my car, and another fifteen hundred to catch up on my rent.”
“And I need three hundred and sixty for the phone company,” she said. “And I owe my neighbor Carla about five hundred bucks.”
“Don’t worry about that.”
“Then forget it!” Jane said, angered. “Find yourself another shill.”
Cooper burst out laughing. “Hold on. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything. You’re not going to need to pay rent because you’ll be staying with me. And you won’t need a car because we’ll drive together. You’re going to leave your old life behind.”
“But I owe that money, and I want my car.”
“Fine, but you can’t drive it.”
“It will stick out. Remember, you’re someone completely different, a refined young lady, royalty. You’re right; you’ll need some walking around money.” He peeled off a few hundred-dollar bills from his money clip, laying them on the table in the condensation mark of her glass. “If it makes you feel better, I understand your scruples.”
“What about my stuff?”
“We’ll put your things in storage.” Cooper picked up the money and held it out to her, meeting her eyes again. “Take it.”
Jane hesitated. Deep inside something told her not to reach for the bills. But something tugged from the other direction. If she accepted his money she would be obligated, his employee. If she didn’t she could still walk away.
“Well?” he asked.
Jane took the money.
The new bills were crisp. Jane took her wallet from her purse and placed them inside. “How much are we going to make?” she asked.
“Let’s talk about that in the car. We’ve got some shopping to do.”
They drove over Mulholland Pass and dipped into the San Fernando Valley. Smog reigned and long-range visibility was low—a blanket of brown haze seemingly trapped forever.
“How much?” Jane asked.
Cooper rubbed his chin, teasing, as if deep in thought. “Hard to tell because math is not one of my strengths. I figure twenty percent of the take is your end.”
“Why not fifty-fifty?”
“Because I cover the expenses, I’ve done all the leg work and I’m the boss. You’re lucky to get twenty. I got five percent on my first job, and was grateful as hell.”
Thirty minutes later Jane stood before an assortment of pistols neatly arranged in a glass case.
“Which one do you like?” Cooper asked.
She studied them, some black, others chrome. They stood in the showroom of the VIP Gun Club, an exclusive indoor shooting range housed in a reinforced cinderblock industrial park building in Simi Valley. She could hear occasional muffled shots fired beyond the diamond-plate steel door.
“I’ve never shot a real gun,” she said.
“I don’t expect you’ll ever have to. But just in case, as insurance, you’re going to buy one.”
“I could never shoot anyone.”
“Like I said, you won’t have to.”
“Then why do I need one?”
“Protection from what?”
“Think of it as an ace in the hole. Nobody needs to know you have it. It will give you a sense of security, and confidence. You’ll always be in control. And if you ever get in a pinch…”
“Do you carry a gun?”
“When I’m working.”
“Are you carrying one now?”
“We’re not working yet.” He glanced down at the case. “I say you give that Colt Auto a whirl,” he said, pointing to a .32 chrome pistol with white pearl handles.
Jane considered the weapon. It looked harmless enough.
“It’s small enough to fit in a purse,” he added.
Moments later, standing in the indoor shooting range, the gun felt snug in her hand. The steel was cold and it was heavier than it looked. He taught her how to insert the clip, hold the gun, aim.
He’d bought ammunition and a paper target of a man’s torso, a silhouette of a scowling hoodlum pointing a gun, the bulls-eye highlighted by black oval rings in the middle of the man’s chest. Jane thought it sad that the paper target was of a human being, not a round target, like in archery. An automated pulley sent the paper target out to fifty feet.
“Okay. Give it a try.”
She had once shot a prop gun loaded with blanks in the movie she acted in, a low budget science fiction film titled Gemini. In between takes a professional gun wrangler swapped the pistols loaded with blanks with identical plastic ones for rehearsals and wider shots. But this weapon had real bullets. It scared her.
“Come on,” Cooper urged her. “You can do it.” He wrapped his arms around her.
She raised the gun, aimed and pulled the trigger.
It was loud, even with her earmuffs on. But after a while Jane got the hang of it. She was surprised by the power of the thing.
When they were out of ammo he led her back to the counter.
They registered the gun in Jane’s name. Cooper explained that both the Brady Bill and California law required that the handgun remain at the store for two weeks after the purchase. The FBI would run a background check. Since she didn’t have a criminal record she’d be allowed to return and pick up the gun in a “fortnight,” the actual word he used. Jane knew that was a term from Shakespeare, heard that expression since working on Gemini. The director was nicknamed “Johnny Fortnight” because he had made so many low-budget genre films, most of them shot in just two weeks.
“It’s called the cooling off period,” the bearded old man behind the counter explained.
Cooper helped her fill out the paperwork then paid for the gun with cash. She had never seen him use cash before, only credit cards. Back in the Jaguar, he said, “Okay, now that we’ve got that taken care of, let’s get you something to wear. Dress you up a bit.”
“Dressed to kill?” she asked.
The silk felt cool against her skin. As the dress caressed Jane’s torso when she moved the feeling made her quiver. She felt so sexy, aroused. She could not recall ever having worn anything so beautiful.
Cooper had taken her to an exclusive boutique in Beverly Hills. She was trying on a delicate evening gown in front of the mirror, backless, provocative, yet classy.
“What do you think?” Cooper asked, studying her.
“You’ll need heels with that.” He turned to the haughty saleswoman, “She’s going to need the right kind. And an evening wrap.”
Jane knew her type, a middle-aged retail professional wearing Chanel No. 5—hair in a tight bun and skewered with an ivory chopstick.
“Just look at you,” Cooper said. “Beautiful.”
She looked in the mirror. The last time she felt like this was prom night.
The saleswoman returned with the shoes, then later a sleek designer business suit, skirt cut high. Cooper said he liked the way this “number” accentuated Jane’s shapely legs. The saleswoman was quick to produce Italian leather black pumps.
Jane barely recognized herself.
As the saleswoman was busy ringing up the items Jane took him by the hand and led him into the dressing room.
“What are you doing?”
“Ssshh,” she said closing the door.
Intoxicated, she unbuttoned his pants then worked her hands below his waist.
“Jane, I don’t think…”
To silence him she bit his lip as playful punishment so it was clear she was leading this dance. She worked her mouth around the back of his ear.
She could feel him getting hard.
She stripped her panties off, dropped them at her heels.
“That bitch can wait,” she whispered in his ear.
She pulled his slacks down, and then his briefs. She propped one of her legs up on the bench and he grabbed her behind. His warm hands squeezed tight.
She wriggled until they found each other.
Jane stared at herself in the mirror, said, “Say my name.”
“Jane,” he whispered.
“No. Louder. Say it so the saleslady hears.”
Hearing him shout her name at this moment was incredibly exciting. He took charge, increased the pace. She let herself go.
She tried to watch herself in the reflection until the sensation became so intense and she had to close her eyes. The climax came quick and strong. It was so good, powerful—a release that brought tears. She bit his neck, her mouth wet. Cooper maneuvered her into the corner, pressing her bare ass against the glass, holding up one of her legs, driving.
This new position paid off in spades—a jackpot. She came again. He followed soon after. Bar none—this was the best orgasm she’d ever had.
With Cooper’s money Jane was able to pay her overdue tuition and Jeremy ceased picking on her. In class Jeremy showed little encouragement toward Cooper but took credit for Jane’s newfound confidence.
“This boldness, the strong convictions,” Jeremy said, “these fresh choices you’ve brought to your work, they complement you, my dear. And you wear them well. You are progressing well in my class.”
Cooper and Jane shared a glance. Jane knew all this was Cooper’s doing. He had reshaped her. He was the one who’d created the new persona.
Later that night on the boat Cooper gave Jane her new name: Kimberly VanCise. “Old money, Dutch-Catholic,” he said. “That’s you.”
“Tell me more about her.”
“Refined. Educated. She’s graceful, cares for others, yet knows how to have a good time. She’s unpretentious.”
“What’d she study?”
“Russian literature. Know anything about that?”
“A little about Chekhov’s plays.”
“That’s a start.”
“Where’d I go to school?”
“Brown University. Ivy League but not too obvious. You got a Masters, but don’t mention that unless it comes up.”
“I got a Masters?”
“Your trust fund encouraged a higher education.”
These few details sent Jane’s imagination whirling. She asked, “What’s your name going to be?”
“Like that. It’s got a ring to it.”
The next day Cooper and Jane moved her things out of her apartment and into a nearby storage unit. She paid Carla the money she owed, and told her that she was going out of town on an acting job. Close enough to the truth, really. Carla was happy for Jane and wished her luck.
Cooper and Jane no longer spent evenings out. He insisted she study her background, read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and undergo rigorous training. He taught her to walk and talk. He spent hours on her table manners since, as he put it, “so much of the time we will spend with both Wolff and Veronica will be over meals.”
Gone was their courtship; this was schooling.
One morning Cooper’s cell phone rang. Jane looked on as Cooper nodded and listened intently. He got up and paced while on the phone. It was clearly the tip he’d been waiting for.
“Great. Thank you.” Cooper hung up and turned to Jane. “Alexander Wolff is going to be here in three days.”
“Yes. We don’t have much time.”
Alexander Wolff had reservations at the Bel Air. Jane knew the hotel was known for two things: a famous bar where countless Hollywood deals were supposedly negotiated, sometimes on the back of a cocktail napkin, and an exceptional spa that rivaled those found in the luxurious desert retreats of Arizona or Palm Springs. Cooper assumed Veronica would spend time in the spa. This is where Jane would make her introduction. When he insisted they do a preliminary scout of the location, Jane put on her new business suit and tied up her hair.
After driving up a tree-lined road into Bel Air they arrived to face a spiffy brigade of valets, tanned college-aged guys who could easily be fashion models, Jane thought. They opened Jane’s car door and handed Cooper a ticket with white-toothed smiles.
What first caught Jane’s eye was the hotel’s expansive grounds and meticulous landscaping. They passed through the garden lobby and moved to the bar for a drink.
Cooper ordered for her. “The lady will have a cosmopolitan, and bring me a Woodford Manhattan, straight up.” When the waitress left he turned to her and said, “As Kimberly, you’ll order only cosmopolitans or Absolute Martinis. Don’t ever ask for wine.”
“But I like wine,” she said.
“Not knowing wine reeks bourgeois. It’s a dead give-away.”
“I know my wine.”
“Not the wine that Kimberly drinks. Trust me.”
She figured he was right and asked “What’s in a cosmopolitan, anyway?” having only read about them in fashion magazines.
“Vodka, cranberry, triple sec. It’s what debutantes drink. You’ll like it.”
“Kimberly would drink it?”
“Since college. And also, forget those Lifesaver candies you eat all the time. Kimberly wouldn’t do that.”
“Okay,” she agreed, knowing deep down she’d miss them.
When the drink came Jane sipped it with apprehensively but was pleasantly surprised. It really did taste good. All it took was this little detail, this sensory hit of flavor enhanced by alcohol and her character kicked in.
She was no longer Jane Innes. She was now Kimberly VanCise. It felt great. She sat up taller—a new persona.
Cooper asked for the menu from the hotel’s restaurant and showed Jane not only what to order, but how to order it. He also said she must make a mental note of the first names of the hotel staff without having to rely on their name-tags. It would not only encourage them to remember hers, but imply that she stays at the hotel often.
Kyle Foster, a successful actor in his twenties she recognized from the movies, entered the bar with an entourage of friends, hipsters and all under-dressed for the place. They settled into a booth in the rear.
Cooper caught Jane checking them out. “You know him?”
“That’s Kyle Foster.”
“He’s a movie star. He used to date Jessica Sanchez.”
Cooper craned his neck. “I don’t see many movies.”
Jane realized Cooper was from another generation. How could he not know Kyle Foster? Veronica, their mark, was a good twenty years younger than Alexander Wolff judging from the photos Cooper had shown her. She glanced around the bar. With the exception of Kyle and his jean-clad friends, Jane could see most of the men were with women much younger. Were these men’s second or third wives? Mistresses? That’s the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” she thought.
It was the first time she’d ever thought of Cooper as being old.
“Finish up, beautiful,” he said, “let’s take a stroll.” She liked that he called her beautiful.
They walked by one of the pools and he pointed out the exclusive bungalows adjacent to the main hotel.
“That’s where Wolff stays,” Cooper explained. “We can keep an eye on his room from the pool.”
On their way out Cooper stopped at the front desk and confirmed details of Wolff’s reservation. Outside he tipped the valet a twenty dollar bill and minutes later they were in the Jaguar.
Gliding down the hill he asked, “So, what was her name?”
“Our waitress at the bar.”
“This a test?”
“Were you paying attention?”
“Maureen. Irish name.”
“You’re going to do fine.”
Jane put her hand on the inside of his leg, something Kimberly would do, as they rolled down the hill and out of Bel Air.
The next week Cooper spent a lot of time on his computer, and Jane practiced her new persona day and night. She walked in character, ate in character, spoke and laughed in character. Little mannerisms and details blossomed. Kimberly was starting to function on her own, surprising Jane sometimes.
The character was taking on life.
A FedEx package arrived, and Cooper received new credit cards, all inscribed with an alias. Jane asked him how he did it but Cooper merely said, “You’ll learn in time.”
Finally the day came. They packed their things and moved into the hotel.
The room was the standard deluxe suite. But Jane had never stayed in a place like this before. The carpet was fine-weave wool, the bathroom marble, the fixtures gold-plated. As she was hanging her new clothes in the closet, her cell phone buzzed. She did not recognize the number so decided to check her voice mail. She picked up the hotel phone and was about to dial when Cooper stopped her.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking my messages.”
“Not from this phone. The hotel keeps a record of every call.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” Jane felt so dumb.
“Use my cell,” he said giving her his phone. “We’ll never use that phone, unless it’s room-to-room, or to the desk. Understand?”
Jane dialed and listened. It was a message from her mother.
“Hi, Jane, we’re here in Los Angeles. Call me. I want to see you, honey.”
Deflated, Jane sank into the bed.
“My mom, she’s in town.”
“In Pomona. At the Winter Nationals.”
“A drag race.” Jane was so embarrassed. “Her boyfriend is on the Winston Cup Racing Team. They travel the circuit this time of year.”
“Listen Jane, I—”
“Don’t worry; I’m not going to call her back.” She stood and went back to hanging up her clothes, feeling him watch her.
“I think you should,” he said.
“Call her back. If not, she’ll worry. If she thinks you’re missing, she may call the cops and that wouldn’t be good.”
“She’ll insist on seeing me. I can’t get out of it.”
“I’m sure we can carve out time.” Cooper checked his watch. “Wolff’s flight has arrived. They should be here any time now. Come on.”
Cooper led Jane into the bar and sat a table with a view of the front desk. Jane ordered a cosmopolitan. Cooper reached into his jacket and pulled out two rings.
“Put these on,” he said.
Jane gasped. One was a wedding band, the other a diamond engagement ring.
“We’re supposed to be married.”
“Oh, right,” she said. Tears welled up but she had to remind herself this was not real. Cooper was not proposing to her. This was all part of the role, and these beautiful rings were mere props.
As time passed her nerves got the best of her.
“You all right?” Cooper asked,
“Butterflies,” she said.
“In the stomach. Dress rehearsal.”
“Oh.” Cooper laughed. “Don’t worry, we won’t approach them tonight. We’re just taking a look.”
As if on cue Jane watched the bellman cross the lobby and step outside. Car doors slammed. Voices echoed. After a moment Veronica and Alexander Wolff made their entrance.
“There they are,” Cooper whispered.
Wolff entered the lobby first. Jane could tell he was a man who’d spent most of his life in charge of things. The woman with him was hidden behind a tall, dark younger man with a shaved head carrying luggage—a bodyguard, Jane guessed.
Then she got a good view of the woman. Jane’s first thought was that Veronica was more beautiful in person. She was taller than she appeared in the photograph. As she walked she led with her hips in a fluid motion. Like a swan, or a doe—sensual. It reminded Jane of something she once had learned in acting class; that when breaking down a character the actor should make the choice to lead with either hips, head, or heart. Veronica led with her hips.
As quickly as they’d come, they were gone. The bell staff followed with carts of luggage.
Jane released a deep sigh.
Cooper turned to her. “What do you think?” he said.
“Bring it on,” Jane said before downing the last of her drink.
Jane was up early. The light was soft in their hotel room, the sheer drapes casting a faint glow. She could hear birds chirp outside and an occasional door slam down the hall. Jane settled into the plush sofa and was reading the complimentary New York Times when Cooper stirred under the duvet cover and sat up.
“You sleep alright?” she asked.
“You were tossing and turning all night.”
Without answering he got up, scratching himself and staggering to the bathroom. “Order room service,” he said before closing the door.
She could hear the shower turn on as she searched for the menu. Appalled at the exorbitant prices, Jane kept it simple. She ordered the continental breakfast for two which included a pot of coffee. Coffee was what she needed most.
Jane turned on the television. In silence, she and Cooper watched the morning news while eating breakfast.
“You might think about getting ready,” he said.
Countdown to curtain, she thought.
Jane fell back on her training to transform into character as she changed into her costume. She did this now, concentrating on how Kimberly would dress herself. Cooper had ordered cotton drawstring pants and a Brown University sweatshirt. Jane had washed the sweatshirt a few times to make it feel worn-in. By the time she eased into her sandals, she was ready.
“Good luck,” Cooper said.
“You’re not supposed to say that!”
“You’re supposed to say ‘break a leg.’ You should know that.”
“Oh. What else am I not supposed to say?”
“A lot of things.”
“The name of the Scottish Play in a theatre.”
“It’s bad luck.”
“Forget it.” She kissed him, a quick peck on the cheek—not her style, but the way she envisioned Kimberly would kiss her husband Charles goodbye.
Walking through the hotel she was a little nervous, which she knew was good—like an athlete before an event. She was ready for the challenge.
Jane strolled outside, crossed a bridge over a delicate koi pond, and entered the Asian-themed spa. A pleasant young woman with a perfect complexion greeted her at the reception desk, jotting down her name and room number. Jane declined the offer for a deep tissue massage and scanned the place. There were a few women lounging in the waiting area reading or watching television, but no Veronica. An attendant gave her a thick robe and directed her to the changing room.
At a full-length mahogany locker, Jane undressed and slipped into the robe before checking out the sauna, Jacuzzi and whirlpool. In an exercise room a yoga instructor modified the positions of her few students.
Still no Veronica.
Jane kicked off her sandals, disrobed and slipped into the Jacuzzi. The water was hot and took getting used to. She submerged her body in stages until she was neck deep and had a good view of the place. Jane closed her eyes. This is how it feels to be Kimberly.
Moments later Jane was startled to see Veronica moving toward the Jacuzzi wrapped in a terry cloth robe. She watched out of the corner of her eye as Veronica disrobed near Jane. She could see Veronica was in excellent shape, her back muscles shapely, and her legs long and firm.
Jane closed her eyes again, and opened them when she felt Veronica slip in the water on the opposite side of the Jacuzzi.
“Good morning,” Jane said.
“Hi,” Veronica said, adjusting her hair into a ponytail.
Jane casually glanced away, searching for a way to open the conversation, something off-hand.
But then Veronica spoke first. “I love these places.”
“This one’s really nice,” Jane said.
“Have you ever been to Canyon Ranch?” Veronica asked.
“That’s in Arizona, right?”
“Just outside Tuscon.”
“I haven’t, but friends say it’s great.”
“I highly recommend it.”
Jane said nothing and considered her next move. Cooper taught her it was best not to lead the conversation, but steer it. Small talk was one thing, but she knew she would have to get to a more intimate place, a commonality between them.
“My husband’s here on business…. what brings you to Los Angeles?” Jane asked.
“Same. My fiancé has meetings all week.”
“Where are you from?” Jane asked.
“Cape Town, but I grew up in New York.”
“Oh. Did you live in the city?”
“Raised upstate, but I met Alexander in Manhattan, when I used to live there.”
She offered me his name. That was a good sign.
“Charles and I met in the city as well. At an auction at Christie’s.” Jane felt good that Cooper’s alias rolled off her tongue so easily. “He outbid me for a signed first-edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and I was furious. Then he asked me to lunch, the rascal. Do you make it to New York often?”
“Not as often as I’d like.”
Jane made idle conversation about a number of things, all rehearsed—her supposed ski chalet in Sun Valley, her supposed education and travels. When Veronica broached the subject of movies Jane was glad. This was something she could talk freely about without having to fake it. They chatted about various stars and Hollywood gossip.
As they became acquainted, Jane found Veronica to be surprisingly laid back, and she seemed like a lot of fun. They moved to the sauna and then to the whirlpool. Finally the two retreated to separate showers. Jane finished quickly, and was dressed when Veronica emerged from the frosted glass stalls and moved to the sink.
When Veronica was brushing her jet-black hair Jane figured she’d take a stab at it. “Since we’re both staying here maybe we should arrange a dinner some evening. My husband would love to commiserate with a fellow New Yorker,” Jane said.
Veronica looked over in the reflection of the mirror. “I’ll ask if Alexander’s got the time,” she said.
“We’re in suite three twenty,” Jane said and turned to go, “It was really nice meeting you.”
“Likewise,” Veronica said.
Jane walked briskly back to her room, through the garden and past the pool. She felt good about how it went—the groundwork. Cooper was in the room waiting for her, watching television. He muted the volume as she sat down and recounted every detail.
He listened silently, nodding. Something was definitely wrong. He seemed angry.
“Everything all right?” she asked.
“When were you going to tell me about this?” he asked, motioning to the television. Jane turned and was astonished to see Gemini, the B-movie she performed in years ago. Amid explosions and gunfights rebel cyborgs battled mutant troopers. The movie’s costumes, special effects and props came off laughably low-budget. On screen Jane was bent over a dying cyborg soldier prying the weapon from his hands. She wore leather pants the tight black-vinyl corset accentuated her breasts.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, sinking into the chair.
“Is that really you?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? What if Alexander or Veronica sees this?”
“What are the chances they’ll ever—?”
“It’s a porno on the hotel pay-per-view!” he said, furious.
Jane was shocked to see another scene spliced in, a futuristic orgy of some kind. A space ship interior was crowded with satin circular beds. These actors were different from the original cast and she did not recognize any of them. It was clear this scene was shot later, or more likely cut in from another picture. An X-rated picture.
“That wasn’t part of our movie!”
Jane explained that she’d performed in the low-budget movie years ago but the film had never seen the light of day. She assumed it had been shelved forever. “This other stuff, this porn stuff, that wasn’t in the script.”
They watched as a big-haired vixen in ridiculous shoulder-pads performed fellatio, servicing a well-endowed space commander.
Jane felt like crying.
“I checked,” Cooper said. “There are only three skin flicks on the hotel pay-per-view. This is one of them. If they’re into this sort of thing the chances they will see this are good, depending on their preference.”
To think this movie was on her resume, stapled to the back of her headshot sitting in casting offices all over town. She wished she could call her agent and scream, but she did not have an agent. She felt so betrayed, dirty.
The movie returned to Jane and her leading man, Curtis, retreating through smoky, pipe-filled tunnels. This footage was part of the original script. It all came back to her, a wash of memories.
“We shot that scene at the water treatment plant,” she said.
“The what?” he said searching the mini bar.
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
The next morning Jane was back in the spa. There was no sign of Veronica. She sat in the lounge area because this gave her a good view of the spa’s entrance. She read magazines and sipped green tea. The staff tried again to sell her on their assortment of options: aroma therapy, pedicures and exotic mud baths, but she politely refused.
Finally Veronica appeared, and Jane hid behind a Vanity Fair magazine. When it was clear she had moved into the dressing room, Jane gave it a few minutes before getting up. She found Veronica undressing.
“What a nice surprise,” Jane said.
Veronica yawned. “Oh, excuse me. I couldn’t fall asleep so I watched TV all night,” she said.
“Must be jet lag,” Jane said hoping Veronica had not explored the pay-per-view choices. They made a plan, decided on a light workout in the gym, a sauna and then the Jacuzzi. It wasn’t until they were neck deep in wet beauty-clay, and there was a lull in the conversation, that Jane found the opportunity.
“The four of us should have dinner.”
“I’ll check with Alexander. Tonight is probably best. He’s got a hectic schedule the rest of the week.”
“Charles will be back early, and the restaurant here is quite good.”
She had pulled it off. Cooper would be happy.
A wave of accomplishment came over her, goose-bumps of excitement under the cake of therapeutic mud.
“Damn it,” Jane said when she noticed a run in her stockings.
“Slow down.” Cooper went to the drawer and handed her a new pair. “You’re going to be fine. Keep Veronica amused while Wolff and I talk business. At some point I’ll cue you to prompt me. When I nudge you under the table, find a graceful way to urge me to talk about my diamond deal, just like we talked about. I’ll play reluctant, but push it. Insist I tell the story. Got that?”
“Yeah,” she said. Between the details of her privileged background, what she and Veronica had previously talked about, and now this extra stuff; there was so much to remember.
Jane took her time with the new pair of stockings. She clipped them carefully to the garter on her thigh. They felt so different than nylon. These retro silk-stockings did not cling the same but as nylon, but Jane realized “Kimberly” would wear classic stockings like these. The costume completes the character.
Cooper zipped the back of her dress and kissed her bare shoulder. “You’re beautiful.”
“You keep saying that.”
“Because you are.”
They walked through the hotel grounds, her heels a challenge on the uneven concrete. It was chilly and the clouds at dusk were a splash of bronze superimposed against a deep cobalt sky.
Jane and Cooper arrived at the restaurant a little early. He tipped the maître d’ and requested a private table. He also made it clear that the bill was to come to him.
“Yes, sir, of course,” the maître d’ said and led Cooper and Jane to the table set inside a bay window overlooking the tropical garden. There was live music in the bar. She recognized the Billy Holiday jazz standard. “All of me, why not take all of me, can’t you see, I’m no good without you.”
The maître d’ led Veronica and Wolff to the table. Wolff’s bodyguard brought up the rear. Jane had not seen this intensely handsome man since the evening they checked into the hotel. He hung back as Wolff and Veronica approached.
Jane made the introductions. The men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Cooper edged up behind Jane and tended to her chair. He had never done that before. She could see this was Cooper’s time to shine.
The waiter took their drink orders and Jane saw the bodyguard drift off. He found a seat at the bar.
“Veronica tells me you two met in the spa,” Wolff started in.
“It’s heavenly.” She hoped that wasn’t a stupid thing to say.
That hung there until Veronica broke the ice. “Kimberly and I have so much in common, like we’ve known each other forever.”
Cooper and Wolff began to chat about the stock market. Veronica talked about the shopping she had done that day, what she had seen, and how the selection here in Los Angeles was so different than New York. Jane listened and nodded politely, but her ear was craned toward the men.
Cocktails arrived and the men made small talk about an assortment of things most of which Jane did not understand. Cooper spoke of his supposed background in the shipping industry, explaining that Los Angeles is the busiest port in the West. Jane could see this was his subtle prompt to get Wolff talking about what he did. Wolff admitted he was in commercial real estate investments, and Cooper said that technically he was too.
“The difference is,” Cooper said, “my buildings float.”
This made Wolff laugh. He sipped his single malt.
Jane could see that Cooper had made some headway. She spoke all the lies that Cooper had taught her, about their travels and the people they’d met. Cooper poured on the charm. He told crazy, fun stories and had the entire table laughing.
Jane caught Wolff’s eye on a few occasions. She offered a polite smile and glanced away, fully aware that his gaze lingered.
She waited for Cooper’s nudge, the signal to bring up the diamond deal.
Wine, entrees, dessert, finally coffee and cognac; still Cooper had not given her the cue. Maybe he would find another way to bring it up. Then, the dinner almost wrapped-up, the waiter brought Cooper the check. He intercepted the bill perfectly as Jane made conversation with Wolff.
Finally he nudged her.
She waited for a lull then leaned into him. “Darling,” she said, “you’ve got to tell them about your friend Roger, the diamond thing.”
“No, they won’t be interested in—”
“Diamonds?” Veronica asked.
“It’s nothing,” Cooper said.
“It’s fascinating,” Jane said. “Come on.”
Cooper played reluctant. Jane urged and he finally gave in. He told a story about a close friend, an old college buddy of from Princeton who moved to Brazil ten years ago and bought a diamond mine. “It turned out to be extremely profitable,” he said. “He’s built a significant market share but the political climate has changed. The Brazilian government is insisting that Roger pay enormous taxes, even demanding back taxes. In an effort to raise cash, and pay off the corrupt government officials, he plans to liquidate much of his inventory and get out of the business. Because the diamond market is controlled by a few major players, a sudden glut may adversely drive worldwide prices down. As a precaution, DeBeers has made an offer to buy everything from him, lock, stock and barrel, also agreeing to pay his tax bill. But they’re only offering twenty cents on the dollar, and Roger is furious. He’s convinced DeBeers has bribed officials in the government to chase him off. But at this point he has no choice.”
Jane felt the need to improvise so added, “And he’s just such a nice guy, really great. So smart and down to earth.”
Cooper nodded. “It’s a shame,” he said. “He has to sell everything and leave the country immediately. So, to Roger’s friends and family, whoever can come up with the cash, he’s unloading the very best diamonds before they audit his inventory.” In a dramatic pause, Cooper sipped his cognac.
Jane noticed that Wolff had leaned forward—interest piqued.
Cooper continued, “He’s set aside the very best, flawless or nearly perfect stones. That being the case,” Cooper reached across the table and took Jane’s hand, “in a few days, it seems, we’ll take possession of over two thousand diamonds.”
Jane added, “I still don’t know what we are going to do with them all.”
“Stones of that quality,” Cooper said, “A trip to Antwerp and they’ll be sold within hours.”
“Remember, I’ve been promised a diamond necklace out of this deal,” Jane said to Cooper, another improvisation.
“Did I say that?”
She punched him in the arm. “What selective memory you have,” Jane said, and then turned to Veronica, “But I’ll settle for a tennis bracelet.”
Laughs around the table.
“All of these stones are between one and two karats—engagement ring size, the backbone of the diamond trade,” Cooper added. “Engagement rings demand the highest price.”
“Well, I guess there’s no price on love,” Wolff said.
Cooper raised his cognac and proposed a toast. “Well said. Let’s drink to love.”
“To love,” Veronica echoed, raising hers.
They toasted and sipped.
Jane felt Wolff’s leg brush up against hers—clearly intentional. She pulled her leg away, pretended not to notice.
As they said goodnight Veronica suggested Cooper and Jane join them at the racetrack Saturday afternoon. Wolff’s horse, a two-year-old filly named Turquoise, was scheduled run in her debut race at Santa Anita.
Wolff explained that Turquoise had posted solid workouts. “Bullet works,” Wolff called them, “but she’s yet to race.”
Plans were set; a day at the races.
Cooper and Jane walked back to their room. He put his arms around her and kissed her forehead, complimenting Jane on the job she did.
She decided not to tell him about Wolff’s leg brushing hers under the table, instead asked, “Is there any truth in that diamond story?”
“In Thursday’s, or maybe Friday’s Wall Street Journal there’s going to be an article about the Brazilian government taxing and regulating diamond mines owned by foreigners,” he said. “I’ve got an associate who’s been holding the story until I cue him to submit it. If it runs, and our scheme works, I pay him out of our cut.”
“How much?” she asked.
“He’ll see a nice bonus. Trust me, it’s not the first time a gatekeeper of financial information is slipped a kickback.”
“Those flawless diamonds you talked about, where are we going to get them?”
“No diamond is without some kind of flaw. Even the finest stones have slight imperfections of some kind. It’s just a matter of what can be perceived. A few of the diamonds will be real, the rest cubic zirconia.”
She peeled off her dress, threw on the hotel’s terry cloth robe, and plopped down on the duvet cover. “I’m exhausted.”
“Hang that up,” he said, pointing to her dress lying on the carpet. “That’s professional equipment. Treat it right, damn it.”
“Sorry.” She got up and hung her dress in the closet. She gathered the silk stockings as well, folding them neatly.
“I feel like a nightcap,” Cooper said while taking off his tie. He opened the mini bar and poured himself a scotch without offering her anything.
“Should I go to the spa again tomorrow?” she asked
“No, we don’t want to wear out our welcome. Use the day to visit your mother. Take my car,” Cooper said.
Jane was relieved. She needed a break.
He sipped his scotch in silence. His mind working, she could see he was in his element.
The next morning Jane was behind the wheel of the Jaguar. The sensation of the luxury automobile gliding with precision felt so different than her Nissan. She cleared downtown and was somewhere near West Covina when a stone smacked the windshield with a loud pop.
“Shit,” Jane screamed and changed lanes.
The stone left a dime-sized fracture in the glass. Gunning it, she passed the semi and glanced at the starburst shape—a thin crack on the windshield. Cooper trusted her and now she’d ruined his perfect car.
She was still lamenting the blemish by the time she reached Pomona Raceway.
Following the instructions her mother had given her, Jane maneuvered the Jaguar past the grandstands to a cluster of trailers. She slowed to see men hovering, tinkering with dragsters, some of them checking her out. She drifted through the camp until he found the trailer with “Danny Dobson Racing” painted on the side. Jane got out and her mother came running.
“My baby! My baby Jane!” she squealed, embracing her daughter. “Why look at you!” she said with tears of joy in her eyes. She turned to the trailer. “Danny, come meet my precious daughter.”
Danny Dobson, a lean and tanned man in his late-fifties, emerged from the Winnebago.
“Danny, my daughter Jane.”
Danny sized up the Jaguar before he approached. He offered his hand. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said with a soft-spoken drawl, a tinge of West Texas, Jane guessed.
“It’s really nice to meet you, too,” Jane said.
They made small talk, and Danny’s casual manner put her at ease. She felt good that her mom was involved with a genuinely nice guy. There had been so many bad ones.
After introductions and pleasantries, Nancy and Danny opened the trailer and showed Jane the dragster. Danny explained they were here to attend the NHRA Pomona Winter Nationals. “A lucky qualifying round,” he said, “could pencil-out to thousands in purse money and a guarantee sanction for next season.” Danny checked his watch and excused himself, apologizing for having to attend a meeting. He grabbed a pack of cigarettes and walked toward the grandstands.
Jane and her mother took a stroll.
“He’s good to me,” Nancy said, “and we have fun, traveling the circuit, it’s an adventure.”
“I’m happy for you, Mom.”
“Enough about me, tell me about you. You a movie star yet?”
“That car and your nice clothes. Must be doing well.”
“I’m doing a little bit of work here and there.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Yeah. It’s his car, not mine.”
“Is he good to you?”
“Yeah, he is.”
“Then we’ll all have to get together. We’re here until Monday. You two have to come out Saturday and see Danny race. We’ll get you pit passes.”
“I can’t, Mom, sorry. I’m working, and he’s out of town.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly disappointed. “What’s your boyfriend’s name?”
“Cooper. I’m sorry we can’t make it.”
“Nonsense. You can find the time. I want Danny to get to know you.”
“I can’t,” Jane said, getting agitated. Her mom had a way of getting on Jane’s nerves. “I’m sorry. Matter of fact, I’ll be going out of town for a long time, out of the country.”
“Where are you going?”
“A lot of places.”
There was an awkward silence.
“You and your acting bug,” Nancy said. “Just as long as you’re happy. That’s what’s important. Are you happy?”
“I am, Mom.”
They walked in silence for a while. Nancy pulled out a cigarette and offered one but Jane refused.
Nancy lit hers and said, “Let’s sit down for a sec.” They took a seat on the bleachers as engines revved in the distance. Nancy took a drag of her smoke. “I know I didn’t give you the greatest childhood, moving around as we did. Never had much. I’m sorry.”
“Mom, you did great.”
“I have my regrets.”
“You raised me good,” Jane said, realizing she’d used terrible grammar. Her character Kimberly would never speak that way.
“Your father,” Nancy said, “I’ve always told you he was a man who came and went.” Nancy paused. “That’s true, but only part of the story. Now you’re old enough you should know everything.”
“Everything what?” Jane asked, wondering where this was leading.
“Before you were born your father went to jail. And that’s where he died. He got killed inside. Knifed in a fight. I’m sorry for not telling you sooner.”
Jane swallowed hard then said, “For what?”
“I’m not sure what for. Prison is a horrible place.”
“No, I mean, what was he in for?”
“He wrote a few bad checks. We were young and dumb. Reckon we partied way too much. I’m sorry I never told you, but I wanted you to know. Just so you can be assured that he won’t be coming around. So you can put it to rest.”
Jane looked into her mother’s eyes, thought about the struggles the two of them endured together, the different men her mother had dated, young Jane in tow. She recalled the fights, the failures and the midnight evictions.
At that moment it became clear, why the desire to be an actress had been so strong. Acting had always been an escape from her dismal life—a better place to go. And her mother encouraged her every step of the way. The dream was both of theirs.
Jane leaned in and hugged her mom. “You did great, Ma, and I love you.”
“Love you too, baby.”
Jane sat back and wiped tears. “I have to go.”
“Work. I’m sorry.”
“Stay. We’ll have dinner. Work can’t be that important.”
“It is. I’m sorry.”
Nancy glanced out over the pavement. The wind blew her hair back and Jane noticed wrinkles in her mom’s face she had never seen before.
“Keep in touch,” Nancy said, forlorn. “Call, email, or text, whatever.” Nancy reached in her jeans and came up with Danny’s business card.
Jane took it. “If I can.”
“If you can? What’s that mean? If you can?” Jane could see Nancy was getting angry.
“Like I said, I’ll be out of the country for a while. But don’t worry, I’ll write, I promise.”
Nancy eased, smiled, “I know you will.”
They got up and walked back to the Jaguar, hugged a tearful farewell. The last thing Jane heard was her mother say, “Good-bye, my baby Jane. Make me proud.”
Driving back Jane could see the chip in the windshield had grown. Like a cancer, she had a feeling this gruesome crack would spread more and more.
She thought about what Cooper had said, how each and every diamond has some kind of flaw, some more than others. Now the Jaguar was imperfect and she knew it was her fault.
She tried to imagine her father. Like a character in a play, or in fiction, she realized he was ultimately flawed—a tragic hero. It all made sense, why she was drawn to Cooper’s deceitful plan in the first place. Her inherent flaws, her imperfections were like the crack in the windshield. She’d been born with them—stigma imprinted in her DNA. Immorality was passed down by a man she would never know.
Driving west on Interstate 10 Jane became more and more obsessed with the crack in the windshield. It lengthened more and took shape of a skeleton hand—wretched and cruel.
The diamond necklace was magnificent.
“Where’d you get it?” Jane asked.
Cooper stood behind her at the mirror, clipping the sparkling pendant around her neck. “You claimed were getting a diamond necklace out of the deal, right?” he reminded her. “Well…”
“Yeah, but that was just an ad lib.”
“I thought we’d do a little show-and-tell. Don’t get too excited. It’s cubic zirconia.”
She tried to hide her disappointment.
“Let me do the talking,” he said. “This time silence is golden, remember.”
Jane examined the necklace as they continued to dress, not nearly as enamored now. Costume jewelry—story of my life.
She cut the price tags off a new backless dress while Cooper slipped into a freshly laundered shirt. He adorned cuff links and a red tie before reaching for his suit jacket. Moments later they were seated into the Jaguar outside the hotel. Cooper showed no emotion and said nothing when she explained how the window became chipped.
“Shit happens,” was all he said.
The plan was to meet Wolff and Veronica at Heidi’s, a restaurant in Beverly Hills. Traffic was light. They cruised up Sunset Boulevard into Beverly Hills. She tried her best to forget that hours ago she’d been visiting her mother at a greasy drag strip in the Inland Empire. She tried to imagine what carefree Kimberly would have done with her day, shopping like Veronica, or browsing art galleries.
They arrived at a club just off Rodeo Drive, its entrance hidden from the street. The place was nondescript with a simple brass plaque and a few valets standing at attention.
Inside black marble dominated the modern decor. The space suggested sex and power, track-lighting illuminating delicate orchids, abstract and erotic art hanging on walls of lacquer-black tile. Although Cooper and Jane had arrived early, Wolff and Veronica were already in the bar. The lustrous clientele was predominantly fashion-clad men, and Jane figured most of them were probably gay. She noticed a small dance floor with musical instruments awaiting the band on a stage.
Wolff took Jane’s hand and kissed it lightly. “Good evening to you,” he said. It seemed so formal and old-fashioned. The Asian hostess led them to their table. Jane spotted Wolff’s bodyguard taking a seat at the bar.
Fine wine was carefully poured. Flaming, wondrous gourmet dishes were prepared at their table. The evening felt magical. Cooper made everyone laugh, spinning outrageous stories and Jane marveled at his warmth and ease. After the main course Veronica suggested the women excuse themselves and led Jane to the powder room.
Veronica was touching up her lipstick in the mirror when she complimented Jane on her necklace. “That’s an impressive piece you’re wearing.”
“That Brazilian diamond business my husband is so wrapped up in.”
“It’s radiant,” Veronica said.
As the women emerged from the restroom the Latin jazz band was starting their set, an upbeat dance groove.
That’s when she saw him. Jeremy Sands, her acting coach, was at the bar, out cruising, no doubt.
At that instant Jeremy Sands spotted Jane. He raised his hand in a wave.
Jane turned away and quickened her step.
Veronica noticed this. “Everything all right?” she asked.
Jane knew her knee-jerk reaction was too obvious.
“What is it?” Veronica asked.
“That man,” she blurted, nodding to Wolff’s bodyguard, also at the bar. “I noticed him at our hotel. I think he’s following us.”
Veronica turned to the bar and laughed. “That’s Buddy. He works for us. He’s Alexander’s security consultant.”
“Oh,” Jane said, acting surprised.
“There have been threats,” Veronica said, “I told Alexander it’s crazy but he’s a very cautious man sometimes. He claims it’s for my safety too, but I think he’s overreacting.”
“I’m really not paranoid. It’s just…” She could see Jeremy eyeing her.
“Since his name is Buddy, I call him our buddyguard,” Veronica said, “but he doesn’t like that.”
Jeremy Sands was still staring.
Jane took her seat and nudged Cooper under the table. Mid-speech and without missing a beat, Cooper picked up on it and glanced to the bar. When he turned back it was obvious that he’d seen Jeremy.
Jeremy got up from his barstool, grabbed his vodka soda and walked to them.
Veronica, meanwhile, was explaining to Jane the differences between her yoga instructors. Jane feigned interest, but her eyes were on Jeremy. Buddy was also on his feet and right behind Jeremy, stride for stride. Both men approached the table at the same time.
“Jane.” Jeremy said.
Jane pretended not to notice him. Cooper stood.
“Jeremy, what a surprise,” he said. “Excuse us a moment, will you? An old friend,” Cooper put his arm around him and led Jeremy away. Buddy stayed where he was, watching them go.
After a few seconds Buddy peeled off, apparently convinced Jeremy was not a threat.
“I love this song,” Jane said, then to Wolff. “Would you care to dance?”
Veronica encouraged him with a nudge, “Sure he does. Go.”
Wolff seemed surprised. He stood, took her by the arm, and guided Jane to the dance floor. As they blended into the crowd Jane searched for Cooper.
Hips swaying to the Latin rhythm, she could smell his cologne and feel his eyes on her. She wondered where Cooper had gone.
The song came to an end. Cooper was there when they returned to the booth.
“You missed the fun,” Jane said.
“Who was that man?” Jane asked out loud, for the benefit of the others, but then realized it was a mistake because Jeremy had called her by name.
“An old friend. Crazy bastard.”
As a round of drinks arrived Jane noticed blood on Cooper’s cuff.
“Now it’s our turn to dance,” Veronica said to Cooper before Jane could clue him in.
“Is that so?”
“Yes, that’s so.”
They moved to the dance floor leaving Jane and Wolff alone.
“That’s a wonderful necklace,” Wolff said to her. “Beautiful.”
“Thank you,” she said. Less is more, Jane thought. Don’t say anything.
She turned and watched the dance floor, fully aware Wolff’s eyes were upon her.
In the hotel bar over a nightcap Cooper convinced Wolff to take a look at the stones. It appeared Cooper’s charm had taken affect and Wolff was interested in the diamond deal.
“But if we’re going to see the stones,” he said, “it will have to be in the morning since on Saturdays the bank closes at noon.”
“The earlier the better,” Wolff said. “Remember, we’ve got the races tomorrow.” He turned to Jane. “I expect you to bring me luck.”
“Turquoise,” Jane said, remembering the name of his thoroughbred racehorse.
“What time does the race go off?” Cooper asked, as if not interested but entertaining the thought. Jane sensed he was playing hard to get.
“Three or so, but you’ll want to get there early. We’ll be in the Turf Club.”
“Why don’t we carpool?” Jane suggested.
“Because we have to be at the stables at eleven,” Veronica said, clearly not as enthused.
At this point Wolff waved Buddy over. He introduced him to Cooper and Jane as his “driver and assistant.”
Veronica said, “Buddy is like family.”
Buddy shook their hands. He was soft-spoken and mannerly, with an accent Jane could not place. After Wolff insisted Buddy join them for a drink he sat and barely said a word. Jane sensed he was never at ease. He kept watching the door, observing all who entered. The waitress came and Buddy ordered an Amstel Light. When it arrived he never took a sip.
“Turquoise is a first-time starter,” Wolff explained. “She’s got exceptional pedigree, solid workouts, and if she can hit the board I plan on pointing her towards a race at Del Mar this summer. She’s got speed, so if she can get a good post and a clean break from the gate she’s got a chance. As a first-time starter, she should go off at a good price.”
“Price? Your horse is for sale?” Jane asked.
“No, a good price at the windows.”
“Her odds,” Cooper explained. “She should have good odds because she’s unproven.” And then to Wolff he said, “What do you expect the morning line to be?”
“At least fifteen to one.”
All this was Greek to Jane.
“How much are we going to bet?” Veronica asked.
“Enough to make it interesting,” Wolff replied with a wink.
Cooper proposed showing Wolff the diamonds in the morning before they set out for the races. “And if you’re game,” Cooper said, “after the races we could take a sunset cruise on my yacht.”
Wolff seemed hesitant at first.
“Let’s do it,” Veronica urged.
“Alright. I’d like my friend Buddy to join us too,” Wolff said.
“There’s plenty of room,” Cooper said. “The more the merrier.”
“The races, then yachting,” Veronica said. “It’s a plan.”
Jane saw that Buddy did not seem happy about the decision but he said nothing.
Walking back to their room Jane wanted to ask Cooper about his bloodstained cuff but decided to wait.
In their room, Jane kicked off her heels as Cooper removed his jacket. The blood had dried on his sleeve, now hardened and dark burgundy in color.
“What happened to your hand?”
“Nothing,” he said and rolled up his sleeve. He went to the bathroom and ran water over his knuckles. “I told Jeremy I’d take care of the balance you owed,” Cooper said before he dried his hands with a towel and went to the mini-bar.
“But we paid that,” she said.
“He insisted on speaking with you. I explained that the people we were having dinner with can’t know that you’re an actress. He said that was ridiculous, and that both of us should be proud of our craft. I led him outside. I think he’s jealous that we’re together.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Cooper said, pouring himself a scotch.
“Jeremy’s gay. He wouldn’t be jealous.”
“No, not romantically jealous. Professionally.” He sat in the plush chair and kicked up his feet. Cooper used the ice-cold glass to soothe his wounded knuckles. “When he asked why we hadn’t been to class, I told him you were studying with someone else. He demanded to know who it was. I don’t know who’s-who when it comes to acting coaches, so I refused to tell him and he became belligerent. He started back inside, claiming that you would certainly tell him. I had to stop him. Damage control.”
“Weren’t you afraid he’d call the police?”
“He was in no condition.”
“But you weren’t outside that long. What if he called the cops and pressed charges?”
“He won’t,” he said with quiet confidence.
“How do you know?”
“Because I told him not to.”
This was a side of Cooper she’d never seen.
He continued, “Jeremy’s got one big-ass ego. What does he care if you’re studying with someone else? All he ever did was criticize you.”
“I guess I let him,” Jane said, removing her necklace, “and I came to expect it. Since my career was going nowhere, and I was so unhappy, I probably felt I deserved it.”
Cooper joined her at the mirror. “Are you now?”
“Unhappy? Because you shouldn’t be. You did great tonight, thinking on your feet. You’re a natural. I’m impressed.”
He ran his hand along her snow-white slip and down the curve of her back, pressing against her.
Men had fought over her tonight, she thought. Cooper was the victor.
“Does it hurt?” she said, touching his hand.
She could smell the scotch on his breath and feel him getting hard. He kissed the top of her shoulder. Then he ravaged her neck, working his way down to her breast. The warmth and pleasure gave her goose-bumps.
He pushed her on top of the bedspread and went to work. It was rough sex, primal. Another part of him she’d never seen. For a moment she wondered if he was fantasizing about someone else.
Afterward, catching her breath as if the wind was knocked out of her, Jane was barely able to move. She dug out a turndown-service mint from underneath the pillow, unwrapped the chocolate and broke it in half. They shared the treat, kissing afterward, tasting the mint on each other’s lips.
Cooper got up before Jane to meet Wolff at the safe deposit box. She was sipping room service coffee when he returned from the bank.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“As good as can be expected. Thank God he liked the real stones and we never got to the cubic zirconia.”
“Think he’ll take the bait?”
“Hard to say,” he said then sized her up. “You’re going to need a hat. Ladies at the track wear hats.”
Jane pictured glamorous images of Southern belles at the Kentucky Derby in wide-brimmed hats. “Another piece of equipment?”
They drove to a store in Beverly Hills. Jane liked the smell of the place—expensive leather. Cooper picked out a sundress and a hat to match. He shot down the sunglasses Jane picked out and instead went for an over-sized pair. Jane thought they were something an old lady would wear.
“These are for yentas. Forget it.”
“Trust me on this.”
“I’ll look goofy.”
“No second guessing.”
Most of his decisions she agreed with but this one Jane was not so sure. She figured they could make the purchase but she didn’t have to wear them.
Stepping from the Jaguar at Santa Anita Racetrack Jane’s first impression was the art deco mural of running horses along the entire length of the massive grandstands. It evoked images of old-Hollywood, the era of men in fedoras and women in minks drinking cocktails and smoking. They made their way to the entrance. The crowd was mostly middle-aged men, many of them with the Daily Racing Form tucked under their arm.
They entered glass doors to the air-conditioned Turf Club and gave their names to an elderly woman at the counter. Jane noticed a sign requiring jackets for men. They pushed through turnstiles and rode an escalator into the grandstands. Jane felt silly because no other women were wearing hats. Why did I listen to him?
They were escorted past tables draped with tablecloths, napkins propped like miniature tents.
Wolff was standing as they approached. Veronica and a few others were seated at their table and Veronica was wearing a hat too, bigger than Jane’s. Thank God, Jane thought. Buddy also sat near and greeted them with a nod.
“Thank you for coming,” Wolff said, and hailed the waiter. Cooper ordered two Bloody Marys.
Jane sat next to Veronica.
“Alexander is a nervous wreck,” Veronica confided. “I’ve seen him negotiate million dollar deals, ice in his veins. But horse racing somehow gets him crazy.” Veronica then made introductions around the table. The others were apparently business associates of Wolff. They greeted Jane with polite smiles but were clearly more interested in chatting among themselves. It seemed Veronica was bored with them and glad to have Jane by her side.
Wolff refused to sit. Veronica begged him to relax but he paid no attention. When it was time Wolff escorted all to the paddock. He chatted with a man in a blue blazer, his trainer. Then a jockey arrived and mounted the impressive black horse. After all the thoroughbreds were led to the track the party returned to the Turf Club.
“I’m off to bet,” Cooper said, money clip in hand.
“This is a tough field, and there’s no guarantee,” Wolff said to him.
“I believe in beginner’s luck.” Cooper marched off to the windows.
Less than twenty minutes later all watched the television monitor at their table as the horses were loaded into the starting gate. At first Turquoise protested going in, the track handlers having to walk her around to calm her down.
“Waiting on Turquoise,” the track announcer said.
The tension at the table was thick. All eyes were on the television as the horse was finally loaded into the gate.
“The joy in life is anticipation,” Wolff said aloud.
“That’s poetic,” Cooper said.
Wolff offered a smile.
“The flag is up,” said the track announcer. The starting bell sounded and they were off. The horses grouped together at first and then spread out on the backstretch. Jane had a hard time discerning where Turquoise was. When it became clear the filly was not up front. Jane felt bad. She wondered how much Cooper had bet.
When they rounded the turn the track announcer cried, “And here comes Turquoise, four wide!”
She could see the horse gaining ground, in contention, but definitely not with the leaders. But the horses surrounding Turquoise were tiring. The filly broke out of the pack and was closing in.
“Get up there!” Wolff shouted. “Go!”
“Turquoise with a sudden burst of speed,” the announcer said.
Turquoise reached the lead horse and nosed past at the wire.
“Turquoise gets up to win!” the track announcer sounded.
Wolff threw his hands in the air. Everyone was patting him on the back, congratulating him. He placed his hand on Jane’s shoulder, “See, you brought me luck.”
Even Buddy came out of his shell, beaming, smiling, and waving his winning ticket in the air.
Finally Veronica grabbed Wolff’s arm and pointed everyone towards the escalators.
“To the winner’s circle,” she said.
Jane followed until Cooper took her arm. “Not us,” he whispered.
“They take a picture.”
“Right.” She had seen winner’s circle photos before, in sports bars, friends and family beaming with pride. She wondered what Wolff and Veronica would think when they noticed that neither she nor Cooper were along for the crowning moment.
After everyone moved on she asked, “How much did you bet?”
“Nothing? Why not?”
“Because only suckers bet on horses.” He turned and moved back to their seats.
She took off her hat and followed.
Jane’s first thought was that Buddy was not properly dressed for boating because he wore his usual dark attire: black blazer and grey slacks. The outfit was appropriate in the hotel, nightclubs and restaurants they frequented, but awkward here. She wondered what kind of violence he’d be capable of if she or Cooper were to blow their cover. Would Buddy be the one to track them down? There was something about him that made Jane feel uneasy.
Veronica teased Buddy, commenting on his attire.
“Aren’t you hot?” she said, the double meaning obvious, and more a statement than a question.
“Hot?” he asked playing along.
“You know what I mean. Aren’t you warm in that jacket?” Veronica asked, trying to play innocent.
“You look hot,” she said, playfully.
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
Veronica leaned over to Jane and whispered, “He’s afraid to take off his jacket in front of you guys because he carries a gun.”
Buddy grinned and stared out at the water.
Jane had only the one pair of sunglasses, the ones Cooper bought her. Even though she hated them she put them on out of necessity. Veronica complimented them, but she still thought they were ugly.
The yacht set out and glided along the smooth water of the marina. Cooper pointed out the vessels owned by celebrities as Jane busied herself serving refreshments. Setting the sails, they moved beyond the breakers. Cooper handed the wheel over to Wolff who seemed to like the responsibility. Veronica found hats down below. She placed a captain’s hat on Wolff and took a white sailor cap for herself, playfully snuggling up against him. Jane thought the cap worked on Veronica. The sun glistened off the water behind her—looked like she belonged in a Ralph Lauren ad.
It was clear Veronica had “sea legs,” able to move around the deck with grace and ease. Sailing, skiing, and tennis were skills the privileged learned at a young age, Jane thought to herself. Kimberly would have these skills too.
“You’re good on a boat,” she said to Veronica.
“A regular Anne Bonny,” Wolff said.
“Who’s Anne Bonny?” Jane asked.
“A famous woman pirate seduced by the sea. Fearless, reckless and mysterious,” Veronica explained.
Jane caught Wolff checking her out again. She smiled back, turned away and felt his gaze linger. It gave her the creeps. She wondered if Veronica had noticed—was pretty sure she had.
Back at the hotel Cooper suggested they get a drink in the bar. Veronica claimed she was too tired, “Besides, I desperately need a shower.”
Jane thought it would be best for Cooper and Wolff to talk business alone, so she said goodnight and headed for the room. She glanced back to see the men move into the bar. Buddy trailed them.
Jane took a hot shower, slipped into a robe and turned on the television. The TV offered the usual menu of the hotel’s amenities. Out of curiosity Jane chose movies and clicked on the pay-per-view menu, then “adult entertainment.” She curled up on the bedspread.
As if on cue a trailer for Gemini appeared but the picture had been re-titled as Saturnalia. Jane cringed at the image of herself in her revealing costume juxtaposed with the harshly lit orgy scenes, not part of the movie she’d signed on for, abstract enough to suggest she was engaging in these acts.
It made her so mad.
She went to Cooper’s laptop computer and researched Saturnalia. Jane learned that Saturn was the Roman god of sowing and seeding. The feast of Saturnalia was a Roman celebration of the winter solstice. It was described by historians as a lavish orgy wherein slaves and masters switched places for the day. She searched numerous links until she found the porn movie Saturnalia, and a link to Zipper Video, the producer and distributor based in Chatsworth, California. Maybe she could sue them. She remembered signing a photo release and short-form contract but could not remember if she still had a copy or where it might be. Jane scanned Zipper’s other movies, titles including Sorority Sister Sodomy Soiree III and one movie featuring obese performers in a historic New Orleans setting by the name of Fat Tuesday.
Jane hopped into bed and switched to an old black-and-white movie, The Postman Always Rings Twice, until Cooper returned an hour later.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“Wolff is sniffing.” He sat on the end of the bed. “Do you remember when I mentioned that this job may take certain sacrifices?”
“This is one of those times. Wolff has a certain request.”
Jane jumped to her feet. “Forget it! No way!”
“How could you even consider—?”
“It’s not what you think.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve seen the way Wolff looks at me. He’s weird.”
Cooper’s tone became very businesslike. “What’s important is that we close this deal. Don’t you agree?”
Jane said nothing.
He took her by the arms. “We’ve come too far. We have to play into our mark’s quirk and do whatever is necessary.”
“What do you want me to do?” she asked, crossing her arms and pulling away.
“Wolff likes to watch.”
“He likes to watch women.”
“Who?” Then it became clear. “Veronica.”
“I have a feeling they’ve done this kind of thing before.”
Jane’s mind raced. She remembered moments, in the spa or during evenings out, in which Veronica’s touch lingered. Was she so naive that she hadn’t picked up on it?
“How do you know Veronica wants to?” she asked.
“Wolff said so. It turns him on to watch her with other women. It’s some kind of game with them.”
“I won’t do it. Forget it.”
Cooper released her and walked away. “I can’t force you. And I won’t try.” He sat at the desk and checked his email.
She could tell he was mad. A headache was coming on. “You’re going to be pissed at me if I don’t, right?”
“No,” he said, but she didn’t believe him.
Jane tossed and turned, not able to sleep that night. Cooper was rolled to one side of the bed, snoring loudly, his back to her. She listened to the noises of the hotel; the plumbing knocking in the walls, a distant television somewhere. It seemed like such a long time ago when she first met Cooper, but it had only been a month or so. Her world was so different now.
Daylight was creeping through the curtains by the time she drifted off to sleep.
She woke to discover the drapes wide open, sunlight spilling across the tangled sheets. Cooper was gone. She dressed, put her hair up and headed for the hotel restaurant.
A waitress moved from table to table offering freshly squeezed tangerine juice and wedges of chilled cantaloupe. Another passed out complimentary newspapers. Jane chose a USA Today, not really what Kimberly would read, but Jane liked the pictures and concise stories. She thumbed to the entertainment section.
Minutes later Jane looked up to see Veronica crossing the lobby and waving at her. “Good morning,” she said and sat down. A waitress approached and Veronica said she’d already eaten, would just have coffee.
“I slept late and I have no idea where Cooper went.”
“I understand your husband spoke with you.”
“Spoke with me?” Jane asked.
Jane leaned back, said nothing.
“I just want to say if you’re not interested, I completely understand. I just hope it doesn’t come between us. I mean, I’ve had such a great time with you, and I don’t want you to think any less of me.”
“No, I…If anything, I was sort of flattered, but it’s just…not really my style.”
“I understand,” said Veronica just as the waitress appeared with her coffee. There was an awkward silence as the server poured.
After she left Veronica confessed, “Honestly, I don’t really have that many friends.”
Jane tried to imagine what Veronica’s life was like, so different than hers. She seemed lonely.
“I really like hanging out with you,” Jane said. “You’re fun.”
“I haven’t been with that many women before,” Veronica said, “but when Alexander suggested it, I thought to myself…Let’s just say I trust you, so…”
At that moment Cooper, Wolff, and Buddy walked into the restaurant together, looking like old friends. They approached the table.
“Well, good morning,” Cooper said.
“Where have you two been?” Jane asked.
“The bank for a little business,” Cooper said.
“I was wondering,” Wolff said as he took a seat, “are you an actress, by chance?”
There was an uneasy silence. Jane looked to Cooper but his face was a mask. “What makes you think that?” Jane asked.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, and I thought I saw you in a movie.”
Wolff shrugged. “You just look like someone. It’s not important.”
Jane could see Buddy was listening. Something told her Buddy had seen Saturnalia as well.
“He knows,” Cooper said, back in their room. “He was asking me on the way to the bank, and I told him I was certain whoever he saw, it wasn’t you. Obviously he didn’t believe me.”
Jane wanted to cry. “What should we do?”
“Deny it. He can’t prove it’s you,” he said.
“What happened at the bank?”
“He seems interested, but I can’t get him to commit. He’s hesitating for some reason, and asking a lot of questions. I can’t put my finger on it.”
Jane asked, “Do you think it will help if I agree to be with Veronica?”
Cooper studied her without saying a word.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it.”
Jane decided against wearing panties and slipped naked into a spaghetti-strap dress. Cooper buttoned the back. She put on her sexiest heels, kissed Cooper, and without saying a word left him in the room.
Under a full moon she made her way across the meticulous grounds to Wolff and Veronica’s bungalow.
She passed Buddy sitting near the pool, reading a paperback under a garden light. He gave her a nod.
The door was cracked open. She entered, hesitant. The bed was neatly turned down. A bottle of champagne sat iced atop a chrome stand. She could hear the shower running.
“Veronica?” she called out.
“Just a second.” The water shut off and Jane could hear the glass doors open and close. Jane wondered if Wolff was in the bathroom but then spotted him beyond the sheer drapes covering the French doors. He was out in the private courtyard and she could barely make out his silhouette behind the translucent veil. The wind blew the curtains. She could see the burning red cherry end of Wolff’s cigar illuminated in the darkness. Jane turned away, went to the champagne and poured herself a glass.
Wolff coughed. She pretended not to hear it. As an actor she was trained to never break the fourth wall.
She’d finished her first glass and was pouring a second when Veronica emerged from the bathroom wearing only a black silk robe.
Jane resisted the urge to glance beyond the French doors.
Veronica crossed the room and stood beside Jane, pouring herself a flute. Jane could smell her shampoo.
“Pretend he doesn’t exist,” she whispered. “He’ll stay right there and won’t say a word, I promise. Are you nervous?”
Veronica put her hand on Jane’s neck and caressed, then unbuttoned the back of the dress.
On the bed Veronica’s skin was warm as if a fire burned deep within. Jane was embarrassed one moment, intoxicated the next, then back to feeling uneasy and even full of shame.
She found Veronica hypersensitive and easily aroused. Legs tangled. Hands explored. Lips caressed. Veronica may have been the most responsive lover Jane had ever been with.
Jane somehow knew what to do.
When Veronica reached orgasm Jane felt powerful. For a moment she was in control, and the feeling excited her. Then Veronica did her best to reciprocate. For the benefit of her audience, Jane feigned hers.
Afterward they held each other.
“You were fantastic,” Veronica whispered softly and kissed her on the cheek.
Jane got up, pulled on the dress, found her high heels and decided to carry them. She crossed the hotel grounds barefoot, past the pool and was back in her room.
“Pour me a drink.”
Jane took a hot shower and when she emerged Cooper handed her a glass of wine.
“Thank you.” She sipped. “Perfect.”
“How’d it go?”
“What’d Wolff do?”
“I hardly saw him. He was watching from the patio.”
Cooper seemed relieved. He kissed her on the forehead. Then the phone rang and he answered. After a few moment he said, “I’m glad you’re aboard. We’ll talk more tomorrow. Great.”
He hung up, looked at her and said, “Whatever you did tonight…he’s in.”
The next morning when Jane awoke, Cooper was already dressed and at the computer. He printed a picture of a streamline aluminum briefcase from a manufacturer’s website and two plane tickets.
“I need you to take a cab to this luggage store and buy two of these suitcases,” he said. “Make sure they’re identical, same model, so you can’t tell one from the other.” He handed her six hundred-dollar bills. “When you return, have the valet bring them to our room. Don’t risk Wolff or Veronica seeing you with them. Understand?”
“Okay,” she said, and then glanced at the plane tickets.
“I’m going to switch cases on him,” he explained. “We’re booked to Tahiti on an open ticket. I need you to pack some of your things and put them in the Jag today, including your passport. Bring only a few changes of clothes and necessary toiletries. We’ve got to be able to pull out at a moment’s notice. Got it?”
They ate a quick breakfast in their room. Jane packed a bag, including her toiletries, and put it in the Jaguar. Afterward she set out for the luggage store in a taxi.
Jane felt the driver’s eyes on her in the rearview mirror. They were pulling onto Santa Monica Boulevard when he finally spoke.
“You’re clown lady, no?”
“I pick you up before. You take off clown costume in my cab.”
Jane recognized him. He was the same cabby that picked her up from the children’s birthday party the night she met Cooper.
“No, I’m not from around here,” she said.
“I never forget face. You undress in my cab. I take you to Hollywood. No?”
“You must have me mistaken for someone else.”
There was an awkward moment until finally the man laughed. “Funny how some people look so much alike. You remind me of one of my customers.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence.
Jane thought it best to not have the cab wait outside the luggage store. She tipped him well and thanked him. She could feel his eyes on her back as she moved to the store.
Inside she showed the print-out of the briefcase to the cheerful woman. She assured Jane they had plenty in stock. Jane purchased two briefcases, still in the cardboard boxes and asked the saleswoman if she could call a taxi.
A half an hour later Jane delivered the boxed cases to the hotel bellhop. Minutes later the staff brought them to her room.
Cooper returned. “We’re in luck. Wolff claims he can come up with the money this afternoon. His bank offers a special service for its key account customers, large amounts of cash available immediately.”
“Banks do that?” she asked.
“Beverly Hills banks do, ones with celebrity clients, or customers with business interests in Mexico or South America. In case of kidnappings they keep millions on hand in emergency reserve.”
She wondered what a million dollars in cash looked like.
“An armored car is supposed to deliver it to his bungalow,” he continued. “That’s where we’ll supposedly split up the diamonds.”
“What do I do?”
“Keep Veronica occupied. Is your passport in the car?”
“Yes, I did everything.”
“Good.” Cooper began to pack.
Twenty minutes later the phone rang. It was Veronica. She wanted to talk about last night. Jane did not feel like seeing her, needed more time to digest what had happened between them, but Veronica was persistent. With Cooper coaching her silently, Jane agreed to meet.
“They have a wonderful tea in the lobby,” Veronica suggested. “Alexander has some business this afternoon so we can meet there.”
Cooper nodded, urged her.
“Sounds good,” she said.
Finger sandwiches, pastries and cookie-biscuits accompanied the civilized English convention of afternoon tea. Jane tried to mimic everything Veronica did and hoped her inexperience at such a thing wasn’t too obvious.
Jane saw the Brinks armored car guards cross the lobby with a grey metal strongbox in tow. She pretended not to notice.
“I wanted to say that last night was extraordinary,” Veronica said. “You were incredible.”
“Thank you,” Jane said, blushing. She studied the pattern of the china, an old English fox hunt, hand-painted and ornate. Men, horse and hound closed in on the elusive fox.
“I won’t say another word,” Veronica said, “because I can tell it makes you uncomfortable. It’s just, I wanted you to know. It was special for me.”
Veronica lightened the tone and went into details about how Wolff had other kinky requests, some of them absurd. Jane laughed. Together they came to the conclusion that, deep down, men are pigs.
They made conversation with some other women at the afternoon tea, most of them grey-haired and elderly. All of them, it seemed, were guests of the hotel. Jane saw the Brinks crew return with their strongbox. She was dying to know what was happening with Cooper and Wolff.
Waiters served more delicacies. Little bits of decorative greens were arranged to perfection on every ornamental dish. Jane had never seen these kinds of cookies before and assumed they must be European.
When the other women were out of earshot Veronica took a serious tone, confiding in Jane. “I also want you to know that, beyond Alexander, I really want to stay in contact with you. As friends.”
Jane could tell Veronica was sincere but wondered aloud, “Beyond Alexander? What’s that mean?”
“When he tires of me, or when our agreement ends. Whichever comes first.”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Veronica said with a condescending tone, as if Jane were a child. “I thought you knew.”
Veronica leaned in and whispered, “Alexander is…” she paused, searching for the right words, “my client.”
“I’m Alexander’s girlfriend for now, because he can afford me.”
The hotel concierge approached them, a thin young man. “Phone call for a Miss Van Cise. At the concierge desk,” he said. Since Jane was not used to being called Miss Van Cise it took a second to figure out that he was talking to her.
“Excuse me,” Jane said to Veronica, getting up, grateful for the interruption. She followed the man to his desk, wondering Veronica is a call girl? Jane couldn’t believe it. She was too perfect, too beautiful. The concierge transferred the call from his desk to the house phone on the wall.
“I’ve distracted Wolff enough to make the switch,” Cooper said on the phone, “but he’s holding me up and I can’t seem to get past Buddy. Get the car. Take it to the airport. Park it at the international terminal and leave the keys in it. When I get the chance to duck out, I’ll hop a cab and join you there. We’ll meet in the airport bar, the one closest to our gate. Got that?”
“Your ticket is in your name. Go now. Get away from Veronica.”
“Yes.” She wanted to tell him what she just learned but figured it could wait. “Be careful,” she said.
She hung up the phone then turned to see Jeremy Sands enter the hotel lobby followed by a man she did not recognize.
You’ve got to be kidding. She ducked behind a pillar.
Jeremy wore a neck brace and had a cast on his arm. They approached the man at the front desk. Jane spied as the man accompanying Jeremy displayed a police badge to the desk clerk. Jeremy had a photo and showed it to him. Jane could see they were looking at her acting eight by ten headshot.
The desk clerk nodded. He motioned to another clerk and they both studied the photo, even turning it over to scan Jane’s resume on the back.
Jane thought about running but decided that it would only attract attention. She had to cross the lobby undetected, get outside and retrieve the car without Jeremy and the cops seeing her.
She glanced to Veronica who was still sitting, now thumbing through a magazine. Jane decided she would need to walk right past Jeremy and the cop, their backs to her at the counter. But then the men pivoted. They were walking her way.
Shit! Jane picked up the phone and pretended to dial.
The detective saw her. “Jane Innes?” he said.
Jane shot a desperate glance to Veronica. Veronica looked from the men and then back to Jane, confused.
“Jane!” Jeremy called out, limping beside the cop.
Jane turned on her heels. She briskly walked the other direction.
“Jane?” she could hear Jeremy calling out. “That you?”
She burst through the door and found herself in the kitchen. Steam and chaos reigned. Cooks shouted. Busboys clanged bus-tubs. She sidestepped a waiter and ran past. She almost lost a heel in the thick, wet rubber mat. Looking back, Jane saw Jeremy and the cop enter. They spotted her. Jeremy pointed, and they advanced.
Jane turned the bend and found herself at the walk-in freezer. A dead end. She could hear Jeremy calling her name again. The freezer was her last refuge. She decided to duck inside, but then got an idea.
Instead of entering, she hid behind the open door, outside the freezer. It was just like when she was hiding in her room as a little girl. None of her mom’s crazy boyfriends ever looked behind her door.
She pressed herself up against the wall. The chrome door pressed cold against her face. She hoped they would walk past. Instead she could hear they stopped.
Her heart was pounding.
“Where’d she go?” she heard Jeremy say.
“Jane?” a voice called out. She assumed it was the detective. “Are you in there?”
She could hear the two of them push through the plastic transparent partition and enter into the freezer.
With a hard shove, she slammed the door. She placed the pin, dangling on a chain, into its hole of the latch-handle. She could hear muffled shouts from inside but they were barely audible compared to the noise of the bustling kitchen.
Success, Jane casually walked back the way she came.
“You cannot be here, lady!” a chef screamed.
To avoid Veronica, Jane slipped out the side door near the restrooms. She circled the building and dug out the claim check plus a five-dollar tip. She handed the ticket to the valet, found cover behind a planted shrub and watched the door.
It seemed like an eternity.
Finally the Jaguar appeared and the valet hopped out. She handed him the ticket wrapped in the tip and got in. She took one last look back at the hotel before driving off.
She wondered how long Jeremy and the cops would be locked inside the freezer. She laughed about how she outsmarted them. She imagined sitting in First Class, the plane lifting off, toasting with Cooper to their success, while Jeremy froze his ass off in the freezer.
Minutes later she was dropping down onto Sunset Boulevard on the way to the freeway. She thought about the bewildered look on Veronica’s face as Jeremy and the cop came at her. She hoped Veronica didn’t run to the bungalow, tell Wolff about it and spoil everything for Cooper. He did say he was on his way, didn’t he? Maybe he managed to get away. There was so little time.
Traffic was heavy on Sunset. When she reached the 405 Freeway, the crack in the windshield caught the light—the skeleton hand reaching out at her, horrifying and freakish.
Jane took the freeway and got off at Century Boulevard heading for the airport. Her heart was racing. She wished she had a cell phone so she could call Cooper to make sure everything was okay. Once in the terminal she’d find a payphone.
More traffic near the historic restaurant at the airport with its retro-futuristic Jetsons design. She wondered how long it would be until she would see it again. This was the beginning of a new chapter in her life. No looking back.
Near the Bradley International terminal Jane pulled the Jaguar into the parking structure, as instructed, and found spot on the top level. She jotted down the parking space number figuring Cooper would need to pass this information on to the car leasing company. She took one last look at the chipped windshield, so ugly.
As she stepped out of the car, a pock-marked man approached her.
She stood frozen.
“Detective Myers, LAPD Robbery Homicide,” he said.
She saw there were other men flanking him.
“Please open the trunk, ma’am.”
“We need you to open the trunk,” he said bluntly.
Trying to appear calm, Jane circled the car and put the key into the lock. She turned the latch the trunk sprung open.
Alexander Wolff lay dead inside, shot in the forehead, his tongue swollen and protruding.
He was staring at her, eyes bugged out, glaring.
Jane staggered and lost her balance.
The next sensation was hitting the concrete—an explosion of pain up her tailbone.
“Like I could possibly have lice!” Jane screamed at them. She stood naked in the shower. There was a dispenser of foamy, pungent disinfectant on the wall.
“Everybody gotta’ delouse, princess,” the female jailer said. To enforce the point the guard made sure Jane vigorously scrubbed her pubic hair.
Earlier during the interrogation at the police station she explained to them that she was the shill, an actress playing a role, but they kept asking about Wolff. She insisted the cops go to Marina Del Rey to track down Cooper’s yacht. She told them her friend Carla would know all about it, or the gay couple Louis and Jim that had the boat in the next slip, but the detectives kept asking the same questions over and over. It was clear their only concern the murdered billionaire.
Jane realized she should ask for a lawyer. Once she made the request they stopped their questions, read her the Miranda Rights and booked her.
They took her to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A. Jane thought it strange they would call a building the Twin Towers in this day and age, summoning images of 9/11.
Having surrendered her clothes before the shower, Jane was dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit, itchy and stiff from starch. The white, flat-soled shoes were too big and had Velcro straps instead of laces. She assumed no laces meant she couldn’t hang herself.
They escorted her to what the guard called “K-ten Keep-away”—concrete-walled cells in a one hundred and eighty degree semi-circle. Each cell was visible from the jailer station in the center. Jane was told that since she was booked for murder she’d be partitioned here.
In the tiny cell she found the vinyl-cushion bed incredibly hard and the blanket was horrible, nothing like the Bel Air hotel’s king-size luxury bed and goose-down comforter.
When she closed her eyes Jane could not shut out the image of Wolff’s morbid death-face. It was like he wanted something from her—beckoning from hell.
Where was Cooper? Had he killed Wolff? What happened?
Some of the prisoners in the surrounding cells tried to engage her, a few spewing insults, but she ignored them.
She was allowed one phone call but she didn’t have the phone number for her mother at Danny’s garage. And she couldn’t remember Danny’s last name. So much had transpired since she’d driven out to see her mom. She could remember the racing insignia on his trailer, and that his garage was out of Sarasota, Florida. Instead she called her answering service hoping Cooper left a message. There was nothing. Next she called her neighbor Carla. She explained her predicament.
“I told you he was no good,” Carla said.
“I know. I should have listened.”
“The rat set you up to take the fall.”
“You saw his boat,” Jane said. “Do me a favor. Go to the marina. See if Cooper is there.”
“And what if he is?”
“Then call the police.”
“You fell in love with a killer, girl.”
“Tell me about it.”
Carla promised to help, and Jane was grateful.
Only after lights out that night did Jane remember her mother’s boyfriend last name was Dobson. Danny Dobson Racing, but it was too late. Lying on the bunk her throat ached and her head throbbed. She felt like she was coming down with the flu. To make matters worse, a woman’s distant scream echoed in the darkness. The screams grew louder, pure madness boiling to the surface.
The next morning Jane conversed with the other inmates in the surrounding cells, even though she couldn’t see them. Latisha was to her right and Kathy on her left. Neither seemed friendly, and Jane didn’t answer when Latisha asked, “What they got you in here for?”
Breakfast was served on Styrofoam plates. The oatmeal was tasteless. The orange juice was undrinkable. The thought of yesterday’s chilled cantaloupe and Kona coffee made it even worse.
She told a guard she’d remembered Danny’s last name and wanted to make the phone call.
“Later,” guard said and disappeared.
Throughout breakfast Latisha pestered with questions. Jane said nothing so Latisha offered her own narrative. “They got me here ’cause the cops found my man’s stash at my place,” she confessed.
“That must have been one hell of a stash if they put you in county ward,” Kathy called out from the other side.
“Yeah, well…it was the stash, and ’cause I gave my man the Ginsu.”
“The Ginsu Knife, like on TV.”
“You stabbed your man with a Ginsu?”
“Damn right. It wasn’t no real Ginsu…Just a steak knife, but he got the point.”
“I bet he did.” Kathy laughed. Latisha joined her with a hearty, commiserating chuckle.
K-Ten Keep-away, Jane reminded herself. Probably best to remain silent.
After a while the jailer escorted her to the same room where she’d been processed the day before. Jane called information and found a listing for Danny Dobson Racing in Sarasota. She dialed that number but nobody picked up so she left a message.
“Someone here to see you,” one of the jailers said, pointing to a pathetic man in his mid-thirties behind the partition. He carried a briefcase, wore a cheap suit, and his thinning hair was parted in a comb-over.
“Jane Innes?” he said, bad posture, shoulders hunched.
Something told Jane this was her public defender.
“You’re looking at capital murder,” Paul said matter-of-factly.
Paul Nance was indeed the public defender assigned to her case. They sat opposite in the sterile room designated for confidential attorney/client jailhouse meetings.
“I didn’t do it.”
Paul said nothing and dug into his briefcase.
“Are you assigned a lot of cases?” Jane asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“Cases like mine. Do you have a lot of them?” Jane remembered from school that most public defenders are swamped with clients—spread thin and never able to spend much time on any single case.
“My share,” he told her, glancing at his papers and wiping his nose with his sleeve. “Not many murder cases, though. You’re my first.”
She noticed his collars were stained brown, his jacket sleeves frayed, and his tie didn’t match his shirt.
“But I went to Loyola with the Deputy District Attorney assigned to this case,” Paul said producing a manila file. “So I’ve pulled a few strings and got an advance copy of the evidence they have against you. Our arraignment is Thursday. It doesn’t look good.”
“What doesn’t look good?” Jane could smell cigarette smoke on him.
He pulled out a yellow legal pad, “Seems a .32-caliber pistol was found in Alexander Wolff’s suite. Tool markings match the discharged shell casings. Coroner pulled .32 caliber slugs from Wolff’s chest and those are in the lab now. Latent fingerprints on the pistol are being analyzed, presumably the murder weapon. The gun is registered in your name, purchased by you, only a few weeks ago.”
“That’s right. He forced me to buy it.”
Jane explained how she’d met Cooper, how she fell in love with him, and how he convinced her to assist him in the intricate scam. Paul listened silently while taking notes, encouraging her to continue with little nods and affirmative grunts from time to time.
“A con man,” he said.
“And I was the shill.”
“There’s more,” he said going back to his briefcase. “Detectives are making inquiry into whether strands of hair found in Wolff’s bed sheets belong to you. Forensics has requested both hair and saliva samples.”
“Wouldn’t they have changed the sheets?” she asked.
“There was no maid service that morning, before the body was discovered. A Do Not Disturb sign was on the door.”
“It’s my hair, and probably Veronica’s too. I was there.”
“In his bed?”
She could see Paul was taken aback. There was painful silence as Jane bit her lip.
“Interesting…in his bed?” he offered. “Please explain how that came to be.”
Jane told him how she was coerced into sex with Veronica. She felt herself blushing as she told him. Although Paul was clearly uncomfortable, she could tell she had definitely piqued his interest.
When finished, Paul dropped his pen and leaned in. “You need to tell me everything,” he said. “Is that understood? Keeping secrets from me will only hurt you in the long run. So please, help me help you. Helping me…” he said motioning to himself first and then pointing to her, “…helps you. Understand?”
“I’m sorry?” she muttered.
He shifted in his seat and continued, “A witness, the bodyguard Buddy Fahlderberg, claims he saw you coming out of Wolff’s hotel room. Mr. Fahlderberg has been cooperating with the investigation. He says you seduced Alexander Wolff. He contends you two had sex before you killed him for his money.”
“I didn’t have sex with him, and I didn’t kill him.”
“Can you explain the missing three million dollars?”
“I was set up.”
Paul rubbed his eyebrows, clearly distraught.
“You have to believe me. I didn’t kill him.”
“There’s more. A man who claims he’s your acting coach, a Jamie, uh…Jim…” Paul thumbed through his legal pad.
“Jeremy Sands,” she said.
“That’s him. He’s a frequent customer at Heidi’s in Beverly Hills.”
“I saw him there.”
“He claims you had him beaten up outside.”
“Cooper did that.”
“Jeremy spent two nights in the Cedars Sinai recovering but was able to track your whereabouts through limo service records.
“It was Cooper’s idea, so Jeremy wouldn’t blow our cover.”
“The detective on the case accuses you of resisting arrest at the hotel and then locking him in a freezer.”
“Yeah, I did that,” she said.
“Another detail you chose not to tell me?” Paul produced another piece of paper. “The timeline suggests that’s when you murdered Alexander Wolff.”
“Do they actually think I had time to kill Wolff and place him in the trunk?”
Paul set the legal pad down and sized her up. “Do you know where Cooper is?” he asked, clicking his ballpoint pen for emphasis.
“If your fingerprints match the ones found on the weapon, and this other evidence stacks up, what makes you think a jury is going to believe you?”
“I swear to you I have no idea where Cooper is. I was set up!”
“Okay, okay…As I said, our arraignment is scheduled for Thursday. How do you wish to plead?”
“Guilty or not guilty? I’m obligated to ask.”
“Not guilty! I didn’t do anything!” Jane said, trying to get him to look her in the eye. “You’ve got to believe me.”
“Let’s take a short break.” Paul stood, fumbling in his pockets. “I can use a smoke.”
She watched him go. Feeling vulnerable, all Jane wanted was her pillow, not the pillow from the hotel but rather the one from her apartment, the down pillow she put in the storage with the rest of her stuff. She wanted her old life back. She wanted to be a poor, out-of-work clown again.
Finally Paul returned, but this time with one of the men she recognized from her arrest—the pock-mark faced Detective Myers.
“Jane,” Paul said, “Detective Myers and his team have a request.”
“Miss Innes, can you identify Cooper’s yacht?”
After Detective Myers asked Jane to accompany them to Dana Point, Paul took her aside and said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Why not? I’ve got nothing to hide,” she said.
“It’s not necessary. If it is indeed Cooper’s yacht they’ll find another way to identify the boat. Besides, I’m due in court and can’t be there with you.”
“Tell them I’ll do it,” Jane said.
“As your attorney it’s my recommendation that—”
“Tell them I’ll do it.”
She could see Paul was offended but didn’t care.
“Don’t worry. I won’t say anything to incriminate myself.”
“This is complicated, and you don’t understand the ramifications—”
“Tell them I’ll do it.”
Thirty minutes later Paul was gone and Detective Myers escorted Jane out of the jailhouse. For the trip they were accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Ling, a squat, no-nonsense Asian woman.
“Did my lawyer tell you about my arrangement?” Jane said.
“What arrangement?” Detective Myers asked.
“The deal I made.”
Officer Ling hesitated with the handcuffs.
“I get a good cup of coffee for the ride,” Jane said, improvising. She never mentioned this to her attorney but figured she’d give it a shot. “Real stuff. Not gas station swill, but Starbucks.”
Ling started in, “I don’t think we have time for—”
“I’m not asking for a latte or espresso,” Jane cut in, “just good, plain all-American drip. Dark roast. With a splash of milk.”
It was a complete bluff but good coffee is one of the things she missed the most.
“That’s not a problem,” Detective Myers said. “Anything else?”
Officer Ling continued cuffing Jane.
“I’ll need my hands in front to drink it.”
Detective Myers nodded his approval and Jane’s hands were re-cuffed in front.
Emerging from the basement of the Twin Towers, the warm sun hit her face and Jane felt invigorated. Minutes later the vehicle was double-parked outside a Starbuck’s near the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Myers went in for the coffee as Officer Ling waited with Jane, the motor running. The car radio squawked unintelligibly.
Myers returned with her coffee. Jane thanked him and took a sip through the white plastic cover. It was strong, like coffee was supposed to be. Although she knew the excursion would be brief, to be out of that horrible jail with a good cup of coffee warming her hands was heaven.
“I saw on TV,” Jane said as they made their way onto the freeway, “that for every day that passes after a murder, the chance of finding the killer becomes more and more difficult. Is that true?”
“There’s truth in that, yes,” Detective Myers said.
“You think I did it, don’t you?” she asked.
“You’re a suspect,” Detective Myers said. “My job is to simply gather evidence. It’s the district attorney’s job to build the case.”
“What if this isn’t Cooper’s boat?”
“Then we’ll continue to search for him.”
Traffic became heavy. The longer this took the better. She wondered if she could get lunch out of the deal.
The cops made small talk. Ling said her daughter sold Girl Scout cookies to officers in the department and someone she called “Captain Crunch” bought twenty boxes, all peanut butter. That got a laugh from Myers. It was clear they were friends. Jane, the outsider, didn’t get the inside joke.
As they drove she gazed out the window. She felt like a goldfish in a bowl, not part of the real world anymore, only able to watch it all pass her by. And like a goldfish, she was bright orange in her starchy prison wear.
The traffic lightened as they drove through industrial City of Commerce. By the time they reached Anaheim they were cruising briskly in the carpool lane. Jane craned her neck looking for the peak of Disneyland’s famed Matterhorn ride but had no luck finding it.
As they exited the freeway and curved toward Dana Point Jane could see the ocean, sparkling in the distance. Myers made a call to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and told them to meet at the dock.
They turned off Pacific Coast Highway into the Dana Point Marina surrounded by steep ocean cliffs. They pulled into a parking lot and got out. Detective Myers produced a trench coat and draped it over her shoulders. She was grateful. The garment warmed her from the cool ocean breeze and cloaked the awful prison orange.
Momentarily a patrol car arrived. Two deputies got out and made introductions. One of the men was about Jane’s age and completely bald. The other was older, African-American with graying temples who went to the trunk and retrieved a set of bolt-cutters.
A crusty dock tender emerged from a nearby office wearing a faded nautical cap and Bud Light T-shirt. He put out his cigarettes and led the way. As they approached the yacht Jane knew immediately.
“It’s Cooper’s boat,” she said.
The dock tender rolled portable steps over and the two Sheriffs boarded the yacht. Even though there was a padlock, the bald one knocked on the door and called out, “Sheriff’s Department.”
There was no answer. After a few more knocks they wedged the bolt-cutters in the door jam. With one yank it split the lock. They opened the hatch.
“Oh, God,” the bald cop said, staggering back and covering his nose.
Myers stepped up to the door and peeked in before making a face. “We’ve got a bogie. Take Miss Innes back to the car,” he said to Officer Ling.
“What’s a bogie?” Jane asked, fearing the worst.
Myers did not answer and immediately got on his cell phone.
“What’s a bogie?!” she repeated to Officer Ling as Jane was led back to the car. She was not given an answer and it made her mad. “What’s going on?”
Moments later, sitting in the car, Jane saw the dock attendant stagger back, looking queasy. He took off his sailor cap, leaned over the railing and vomited. After wiping his mouth on his T-shirt sleeve he lit a cigarette and moved to his small office.
When a van marked Coroner arrived Jane was certain there was a dead body.
She witnessed the bald officer drape yellow crime scene tape across the gated entrance. More cops arrived. Coroner techs dressed in white pulled a gurney out of their van and stood by.
Finally Detective Myers appeared. He opened the car door. “Are you certain that’s Cooper’s boat?”
“Yes. Who’s dead?”
“I’m hoping you can enlighten us,” he said. “Game?”
“It’s not going to be pleasant. We’ve got to wait on forensics, so this may take a while.”
“Is it a man or a woman?” she asked.
Without answering he closed the car door and moved on about his business.
“Let me out of here!” she yelled. She hated being left in the dark. Who could be in there?
Later, the setting sun cast a golden hue across the water and seagulls floated above. Detective Myers reappeared.
“It’s time,” he said.
Jane got out of the car to see techs wheeling the gurney down the dock ramp. They wore masks and rubber gloves. A blue tarp was draped over the body.
Detective Myers reached down and pulled up some grass, letting it fall so he could determine which direction the blades descended.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“We’ll want to be upwind,” he said, and escorted Jane to the opposite side of the railing.
The gurney stopped before them with a human shape under the tarp.
“She the one?” one of techs asked.
They folded the plastic back.
Cooper’s jaw was wide open, gums black. His face was puffed-out and eyes frozen in a perpetual glare.
She had to look away.
“It’s Cooper,” she said meekly.
“Yes.” Her heart pounded. Tears streamed. This was the man she loved.
Then she could smell the rotting flesh. It made her gag. She fell to her knees and vomited. All went blurry, the taste of coffee in her bile.
How could I have been so stupid?
She hated herself. She hated it all.
The second wave of vomit came. Then the painful dry heaves.
Carla sat across the glass in the visitation room and said, “I went to the marina like you told me. The boat’s not there.”
“I know,” Jane said. “It’s in Dana Point. They found Cooper dead, and no sign of the money.”
Carla took that in. “I learned something more.”
Jane studied her friend.
“Remember those two guys we met that night, coming out of the gate?”
“Louis and Jim.”
“Yeah. I asked them how long the boat had been gone. They said only a couple of days, and then told me about a woman who used to come around, and another guy.”
“What other guy?”
“I don’t know. Someone other than Cooper. They didn’t like this dude, thought he was an asshole. Didn’t like her much either. I guess one day they got into it with them, some kind of conflict. They were shooting pictures on the dock. One of the guys is a model.”
“Louis or Jim, I forget who. But they said this woman and this other guy got all up in their face about it.”
“What was this other guy like?”
“I’ve got a picture.”
“They were super helpful, texted it to me so I printed it out at Walgreens. You can see them in the background.” Carla held the photo up to the glass.
Jane recognized Veronica and Buddy, arm in arm, obviously lovers, cool and collected, masters of the universe. She had newfound clarity. “I think I figured it out,” she said. “Veronica killed Cooper. She masterminded it all.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I didn’t realize it until now, but it was Veronica we saw that night on Cooper’s boat, the night we drove out to the marina. You saw her too.”
“She, Buddy and Cooper planned this together from the very beginning. And then they killed Cooper so she didn’t have to split the money,” Jane said, devastated.
“Wolff’s bodyguard. Now it all makes sense.”
“Because she fucked me!”
Carla said nothing in return.
“And her performance was flawless,” Jane said. “Perfect. I’m an actress. I ought to know.”
Part 2 Coming Soon
KILL THE SHILL
To the fellow authors who helped me shape this narrative, I thank The Oxnardians (my writing group) including Jon Beggs, Bob Shayne, Roger Angle, Linda Burrows, Jamie Diamond, Patricia Smiley, Craig Faustus Buck, and Harley Jane Kozak. For inspiration and support, Jennifer Shepphird, Steve Jankowski, Doug Katz, John Hayes, Lawrence Maddox, Gary Phillips, and late pulp paperback author extraordinaire Tom Philbin. I also thank Roger Huyssen for creating such a fantastic book cover, and Eric Campbell for giving this narrative a second life.
About the Author:
John Shepphird is a Shamus Award winning author and writer/director of television films. He lives with his family in Southern California
Other Titles from Down and Out Books
See for complete list
Bite Harder (TP only)
By J.L. Abramo
Catching Water in a Net
Clutching at Straws
Counting to Infinity
Chasing Charlie Chan
Circling the Runway
By Trey R. Barker
2,000 Miles to Open Road
Road Gig: A Novella
Death is Not Forever
By Richard Barre
The Ghosts of Morning
By Eric Beetner and JB Kohl
Over Their Heads
By Eric Beetner and Frank Scalise
The Backlist (*)
By Rob Brunet
By Milton T. Burton
By Dana Cameron (editor)
Murder at the Beach: Bouchercon Anthology 2014
By Eric Campbell (editor)
Down, Out and Dead
By Stacey Cochran
Eddie & Sunny (TP only)
By Mark Coggins
No Hard Feelings (*)
By Tom Crowley
Murder in the Slaughterhouse
By Frank De Blase
Pine Box for a Pin-Up
Busted Valentines and Other Dark Delights
A Cougar’s Kiss (*)
By Les Edgerton
The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping
By A.C. Frieden
The Serpent’s Game
The Pyongyang Option (*)
By Jack Getze
Big Shoes (*)
By Keith Gilman
By Richard Godwin
By William Hastings (editor)
Stray Dogs: Writing from the Other America
By Matt Hilton
No Going Back
Rules of Honor
The Lawless Kind (*)
By Terry Holland
An Ice Cold Paradise
By Darrel James, Linda O. Johsonton & Tammy Kaehler (editors)
Last Exit to Murder
By David Housewright & Renée Valois
The Devil and the Diva
By David Housewright
By Jon Jordan
By Jon & Ruth Jordan (editors)
Murder and Mayhem in Muskego
Cooking with Crimespree
By Andrew McAleer & Paul D. Marks (editors)
Coast to Coast
By Bill Moody
Czechmate: The Spy Who Played Jazz
The Man in Red Square
The Death of a Tenor Man
The Sound of the Trumpet
By Gary Phillips
Scoundrels: Tales of Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes (editor)
Treacherous: Griffters, Ruffians and Killers
By Gary Phillips, Tony Chavira, Manoel Magalhaes
Beat L.A. (Graphic Novel)
By Robert J. Randisi
Upon My Soul
Souls of the Dead
Envy the Dead (*)
By Rob Riley
Thin Blue Line
By Ryan Sayles
The Subtle Art of Brutality
By John Shepphird
Kill the Shill (*)
By Anthony Neil Smith
Worm (TP only)
All the Young Warriors TP only)
Once a Warrior (TP only)
By Liam Sweeny
Welcome Back, Jack (*)
By Art Taylor (editor)
Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015
By Lono Waiwaiole
By Vincent Zandri
(*) Coming soon
Here’s a sample from Richard Godwin’s Wrong Crowd.
Claude was knee-deep in the blue water of the Caribbean Sea when he first saw Maxine. Drops of sea water were running off her brown shoulders and she seemed to stop time with an appeal that was infinite. That day beneath an intense indigo sky he made eye contact with her as she got out of the water and walked over to the bar. He would later look back on it as a defining moment, one of those rare events in a person’s life when they are offered something they’ve secretly desired but never believed they’re capable of having. There were few things in life that Claude really wanted, but she was one of them. And he knew it instantly. He often wondered, after it all happened, if he hadn’t been drunk on pina coladas, whether he would have made the first move and she would have vanished from his life like so many chances he’d let slip.
As it was, he stood up, walked over to her and, holding up his glass, said, ‘Can I get you one?’
Maxine didn’t say anything for a few seconds, just held him in her steady gaze that gave nothing away, and Claude begin to shrink inside his own skin, about to walk away.
‘Sure,’ she said, a sparkle in her deep brown eyes.
She was looking at him over the rims of her shades, and Claude found it sexy, the way she was taking him in.
He came back from the bar with two chilled coladas which they sat sipping beneath a parasol that advertised boating trips. And he felt someone had pierced his heart with a small fish hook.
He looked at her, at her inviting skin, the curve of her body in her swim suit, and said, ‘Are you here alone?’
‘My friend went into town.’
That night he took her out.
Her friend, Doris, was an overweight blonde who laughed nervously when she spoke. Claude met her briefly, maybe for two minutes at the Montehabana hotel where Maxine was staying. Doris offered Claude her cheek and he smelt vodka on her breath. They left her nursing a hangover and went out to eat at Dune’s.
‘I heard this is the most cutting edge place to eat round here,’ Claude said, watching Maxine raise a forkful of swordfish to her moist mouth.
‘This is good, oh, yeah,’ she said.
He liked the way she lingered over her words, speaking them slowly, as if she was tasting them. He liked the look of her manicured nails on the starched white tablecloth. He liked her perfume, and her Gucci shades, her sensuous hands, and the way her hair touched her shoulders. She seemed immersed in an endless sensual experience he wanted to be part of, as inviting as the blue water outside the restaurant window. He didn’t ask her if she had a man, he didn’t want the dream to end. They had lime sorbet and cognacs and they sat beneath a sky strewn with stars that Claude felt were placed there especially for them.
‘Are you from London?’ he said.
‘Hammersmith. And you?’
‘Just up the road.’
‘It feels so far away.’
‘Out here, yes.’
They stood by the sea drinking in the salt air, and he was high on the illusion of night. She looked immaculate in an off the shoulder dress, all white, figure hugging, and she made him feel important and wealthy. She was the kind of brunette he used to crave in his marriage, dark hair that shone, dark eyes, a full mouth and figure.
The mood was broken momentarily when she said, ‘What do you do?’
He looked away, towards the blurred shore around the bay. A yacht was making its way over the smooth blue water, and music floated through the dark air. It could have been in the middle of the ocean. The horizon of the land was fading in the night.
‘I sell boats.’
She took his arm and they walked along the edge of the water. When he kissed her she smelled of peaches and honey.
Claude wanted her, he wanted her like he’d wanted nothing in his life.
‘Do you think Doris will mind if you don’t go back tonight?’
‘She’s probably taken a sleeping pill. Where are you staying?’
‘The Raquel Boutique.’
And for one night in the tropical heat Claude forgot who he was. Back at his hotel room, with iced wine on the side, he peeled away Maxine’s skin tight dress and ran his hand down her arm to her waist.
‘You look like a model.’
She wrapped her long arms around his shoulders and stepped out of her stilettos.
‘You like me, Claude?’
‘I do, baby, oh I do.’
‘You like high maintenance women?’
He didn’t listen to the question because he didn’t care anymore after she touched him. She stepped out of the dress and stood there with nothing on.
‘You see I came prepared,’ she said.
‘You sure did, what a body.’
She was the greatest high he’d ever known. They slept in his bed as the fevered percussion of crickets filled the erotic night with their incessant rhythm.
But when he awoke the next morning he was himself again.
Claude stood in front of the mirror in the hotel he could no longer afford, and turned away. He looked at his heels on the floor next to Maxine’s and saw they were almost as long. He looked at his face, and told himself he wasn’t bad-looking. With his blue eyes and smile he could charm women, but it was his height that always got in the way for him, and in the past he overcompensated by acting tough. He’d dropped that a while back.
He measured himself against the clean bathroom tiles, pushing out his chest and standing tall, telling himself he was nothing more than a short-arsed loser whose wife left him. He’d got home to a note that read, ‘Had enough.’ Yvonne had left her keys and wedding ring on the table in the hall. He’d pawned it for beer, which he proceeded to drink over the following week while he ignored all the reasons his marriage had failed. And he knew that he’d always wanted more than what Yvonne offered him. He didn’t feel guilty, just acutely aware of the passage of time. He became afraid that one day he’d wake up too old to dream. And so he booked the holiday in Cuba, thinking maybe he’d never return.
Now he stood there in the bathroom thinking how he hated his name. His mother had been a French model whose love of romance had unsettled the working class family he’d been born into. She talked of bohemian artists and lovers, of seductions in exotic settings, wearing revealing clothes that confused Claude and his brother. His father retreated into angry silences and alcohol. It was his mother who had named him. Claude later discovered she had a lover years ago called Claude. When she took her own life his father followed soon after, a morose man Claude watched shrink into liver cancer and amnesia. He’d often wondered if he felt betrayed by his mother’s deeds. But he could never determine if his name was a compliment or a test.
He peered out of the bathroom at Maxine. She was sleeping on her stomach, the sheets thrown back. The sight of her naked back and buttocks took his breath away. He wondered if she would put in a bill for the pleasure she’d given him, send him home with a memory and a dose of embarrassment, the experience locked inside him like a dirty secret he couldn’t share with friends. He’d had hookers before, but none like her, she didn’t act like one. He considered paying for the room and leaving when Maxine awoke. And he reprimanded himself for his inherent cynicism. But when he went into the room she reached out a hand and pulled him back into bed and he thought of more lies, hearing the sound of calypso music outside, wondering what it cost to set up a company that sold boats.
‘I can look after you,’ he whispered in her ear as she wrapped her thighs round him.
He traced her body into his mind and told himself she wouldn’t fade. He watched her shut her eyes and he said, ‘I’m done with memories and snapshots.’
They slept late that morning and Claude dreamt he was riding a surfboard on an endless wave. When he awoke he looked out of the window at the sea and the horizon as Maxine showered. He could see her through the open bathroom door. She had the kind of body that belonged in the realm of fantasy, with her full breasts, and endless curves. And he wondered how her body would look in his house. She loved the hotel. She made Claude feel rich.
She went to see how Doris was and met him for lunch at Rio Mar down by the beach.
She wore a blue sarong and drank a mojito while Claude read the list of cocktails.
‘There’s one here that’s called a panty dropper,’ he said.
It was as she laughed that he decided what he was going to do. He looked at her perfect white teeth and listened to the soft hiss of waves. They reminded him of the way Maxine sighed when he made love to her. They ate surf ’n turf. Claude watched her throat flex and relax as she swallowed.
‘I have to go back tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’d like to continue this when you return.’
‘I’d like that,’ she said.
And he felt hungry and alone and high on her. He wanted to be able to afford her, and as he sat there he began to like his name. He realised his mother had given him a test, a signal from a romantic of what life could be. And it all became clear to him beneath the unreal Caribbean sky, as he looked at Maxine, the living fantasy who’d emerged from the waves with all his dreams alive in her hands. She couldn’t drop them now. As he craved her, Claude suddenly felt as fragile as a shard that was missing from a stained glass window.
Claude returned to his house on the edge of Fulham, where crumbling Victorian facades bled into the less salubrious quarters of Earl’s Court, with its lines of Aussie pubs and tourists stepping out of the underground casting looks over their shoulders and at maps. His was a sleazy neighbourhood seeking an identity among the wealthy. It made him feel cheep and lonely and too old for Maxine, who lingered for a day or two on his collar like a spray of perfume. She was fading from his mind as he relived his night with her. And he wandered the dark hallway of the home he’d shared with his vanished wife and thought of ways of keeping the dream alive.
One morning when he felt Maxine was becoming a fantasy he stared at himself for an hour in the mirror in his bathroom, looking at how middle-aged he’d become without even noticing. And he decided he would try to reclaim Maxine like an ornament from a dive.
He didn’t expect the call. He was sitting in his boxer shorts drinking Heineken one weekend when his mobile rang.
‘Remember me?’ she said, blasting sunlight into his head, as he stared out of the window at the rainswept street, seeing the beach and her body.
He ran a hand through his uncombed hair.
‘The very same. I’m back in London.’
‘That’s great. Shall we meet?’
‘Hm. I’ll have to check my diary.’
He could hear laughter in her voice.
‘Well, when you have a moment,’ he said.
‘I’m teasing, silly.’
He met her at Chez Patrick in Kensington, and she looked every bit as desirable as when he’d left her. And Claude wondered why she’d chosen him, with his heels and his middle age.
Afterwards they went to her flat and he took in the sense of her life, a collage of femininity and style. There were no signs of a man or a flat mate. The living room was filled with designer brochures and soft furnishings that came straight from a lifestyle magazine.
He was sipping a Bacardi when she unbuttoned the tie he’d bought at Moss Bros. He’d studied it for hours against the shirt he’d picked for their date. And it all seemed too real and far from the Bahamas and the lies he’d bought her with. Her hand felt smooth on his chest as he unhooked her bra and entered the moonlight again where they strolled on a beach beneath a foreign sun.
They were lying in her bed when he said it.
‘So there’s no man in your life?’
It sounded like a song the way she said it and he stared at the Modigliani print she had on the wall opposite the tangled bedclothes and their entwined bodies reflecting in the glass.
‘You’re a stunning woman, there must be loads of men interested in you.’
She leant on an elbow and looked at him.
‘There are. But I’m interested in you.’
He wanted to ask why, but he didn’t. Instead he made love to her again, hungrily, desperately, hoping it would never end. As she opened her mouth and moaned he knew that danger tasted better than safety.
He wondered what she would think of his place, and over the ensuing weeks he thought of ways of avoiding taking her there. He hired a team of builders to redecorate and made excuses, until one weekend he couldn’t get through to her.
There was another man and his man was Bertrand. He was tall, lean, dark and handsome. The kind of guy Claude thought could pull just about any woman he set his mind to. He had this air of sophistication about him that made Claude feel small and cheap. It was in his movements, the way he used his hands as he talked, and Claude hated him on sight. He followed Maxine, watched her walk arm in arm with him to a French restaurant.
‘So why didn’t you tell me?’ he said when he went to her flat a few days later.
‘Were you following me?’
‘I drove past, I saw you.’
‘Bertrand wasn’t part of my life any more when I met you.’
‘You kept me away from your house, Claude, I’m not stupid.’
‘It’s not what you think.’
‘No, I’m not married.’
‘So why won’t you let me go and see where you live?’
‘I have a relative. I didn’t want you to think I’m encumbered.’
‘A relative? Who?’
‘My brother. I have to help him out, he was staying with me, he’s not now, I felt my lifestyle would put you off.’
‘That wouldn’t put me off.’
‘Then come to my place.’
She poured them both a pina colada.
‘How could I forget?’
‘Claude, I’m not interested in playing around.’
‘What about Bertrand? I saw you with him.’
‘He belongs in the past.’
‘What about me?’
‘You belong in the future.’
‘I want you, Maxine, I don’t want other men around.’
‘There are no other men,’ she said. ‘You really weren’t following me?’
‘I didn’t think you had a car.’
‘Why did you think that?’
‘We always go everywhere in taxis.’
‘That’s because it’s impossible parking in London. I got a car.’
‘What is it? Let me guess.’
‘A Merc,’ he said, before she could put him in a corner.
All through dinner he thought she was lying. They made love back at her flat and he searched her body for physical deception. She looked so beautiful when she came. He put his ear next to her mouth as she did and tasted the sound of her pleasure. He watched her sleeping and wondered what her dreams were. He wanted Bertrand removed. The old Claude would have walked away, the old Claude would never have pulled her. The Claude he found in Cuba thought of guns and violence now, aroused at her naked body as she slept, the sheets thrown back, the light from the streetlamp shining on her full breasts. He touched Maxine in her sleep, running his hand along the contour of her spine, feeling the softness of her body. She could come and live with him where he could watch her all the time. When he was with her he didn’t feel like Claude. He wanted to realise the extravagant promise he’d found beneath the Caribbean sun.
Bertrand’s eyes sparkled when he spoke. He wore long coats that gave him a mysterious air. His aftershave lingered in the air when he walked down the street. The smell nauseated Claude as he followed him. When Maxine agreed to move in she made a request.
‘I want to meet your brother, I don’t want you hiding anything from me and I won’t hide anything from you, okay?’
‘Yes,’ he said, watching as she slipped out of her clothes, threw her bra on the chair, slid down her G-string and walked about her flat getting changed to go out for supper. Her breasts were as firm as a twenty-year-old’s. Maxine was thirty and she’d told Claude her insecurities about her age. And now he wondered what her body would look like in his house. It was as if her attractiveness was framed by circumstance, and Claude feared he would show up the things she was hiding, as if there was another Maxine.
‘I know in a few years men will be looking at younger women, I want to settle down with you,’ she said.
He wanted to believe her but couldn’t. Not with Bertrand around.
As he watched her get dressed, his arousal at her nudity was soiled by the dirty thought of another man inside her. She must have slept with Bertrand that weekend he couldn’t get hold of her. He would ensure Bertrand was nothing more than a memory to her.
He followed him for days, watching the places he went to eat, the women he met. He measured the danger he presented. He knew he wasn’t seeing Maxine, but he was there in the background like a bad odour. Bertrand was the kind of man Claude hated, confident with women, at ease. He made them laugh. He knew things Claude didn’t, female things. Claude wondered what he knew about Maxine. He thought about hiring a detective to follow him, but he didn’t want anyone else knowing.
One day he passed Bertrand in the street. His head came to Bertrand’s shoulders and Claude felt like hitting him. Instead he went home and called Spike.
Here’s a sample from Jack Getze’s Big Mojo.
The big thing about my temporary business partner, Angelina “Mama Bones” Bonacelli: her routine professional consultations can easily deteriorate into criminal activity and violence. Breakfast appointments have been raided by the FBI. Her Power Point presentation to a Jersey state racing commission last summer ended in a fist fight, then later in the parking lot, automatic weapons fire. As a Jersey shore racketeer with direct ties to what’s left of a once powerful New York crime family, Mama Bones packs an abundance of local power, not to mention a loaded nine-millimeter.
For me, Austin Carr, mild-mannered bond salesman, our association has been terrifyingly problematic. Bullets, knives and poison keep turning up at mutually occupied locations and joint functions. In fact, I am lucky to be alive—charmed, really—and I’ve decided I need a new temporary partner or a new livelihood. Trying to explain these concerns to Mama Bones last month, following the funeral of one Heriberto Garzia, a man murdered before my eyes, Mama Bones told me to take a vacation. Think about my future, she said. Don’t rush into drastic change. Maybe when Vic gets better you’ll feel different, she said. Not likely. Her son Vic—my real business partner, who Mama Bones is subbing for—remains physically wounded and mentally unstable following an earlier, unrelated shootout. Unrelated except that minutes before being shot, both gunshot victims—Heriberto and Vic—were talking to me.
I did take several weeks off, per Mama Bones’ strong suggestion, but the results are not what she’d hoped. An exhaustive detailing of past events and stern logic worked against her, particularly a list I made of her associates, men either murdered or who disappeared over the past three years. There weren’t that many names. Okay. But it was a list. Honestly, only a suicidal fool would stay. So this morning, Wednesday, June 25, my vacation is over. I’m here to tell Mama Bones the bad news: Bonacelli Investments will have to do without me. I’ve sold my last tax-free bond.
I avoid a doublewide trailer set hastily on concrete blocks in our back lot, then park my black Toyota Solara near our brick building’s rear entrance. Some Cadillac SUV owner has taken my spot, a white-outlined space that says RESERVED is big blue letters. Must be some meth head. I’m no big shot, I’m Austin Carr, chairman and fifty-one percent owner of Bonacelli Investments, formerly Carr Securities, a regional brokerage firm. We only have one office. We sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds and the kind of insurance that wraps around investment products.
Inside my firm’s back office, key employees Jerry and Pat welcome my return with muted celebration. They wave. “What’s with that trailer out back?” I say. “The thing is taking up half our parking.”
“Ask Mama Bones,” Jerry says.
Great. “Is she here this morning?”
“No,” Jerry says. “She’s still down at the diner.” He glances at his large stack of paperwork, then back up at me. “She hasn’t been coming in until after lunch. And before you raise a stink in front of the salesmen, you better know that’s Gianni’s Escalade in your reserved parking spot.”
Gianni Rossi. Mama Bones’ nephew, bodyguard and pistol-packing crime lieutenant. Probably next in line to her illegal gambling throne. Looks like I must resign myself to another small humiliation.
“Is Gianni here?” I ask.
“He’s with Mama Bones at the diner.”
Mama Bones now owns Branchtown’s landmark Pardon Me Diner, strategically situated across Monmouth Street from our municipal courthouse and police headquarters. Four blocks from our offices. I wave to my friends and newer brokers in the big sales room on the way, but I’m out the front door and down the street in fifteen seconds, passing on the way another of Mama Bones’ centrally-located businesses, Domenic’s Bail Bonds.
Not many people walking on the sidewalks of Branchtown this late in the morning. A few shoppers. We had an unusually cold and snow-filled winter with lots of snow days, and the kids are in class through the end of June. The streets will be more crowded next week, and packed for the Fourth of July.
Inside the diner, I don’t bother asking directions, remembering where the diner’s old office was. I discover Mama Bones behind the closed door next to the Pardon Me’s newly expanded kitchen. Vic told me his mother was born in 1945, which makes her seventy years old this year, but she’s exercising briskly on a tread mill as I barge in. Mama Bones wears leopard-patterned leotards. Jeez, she’s neither flabby nor weak as I imagined. More stocky and hard.
From his seat on a plastic-covered orange couch, Gianni Rossi aims a shotgun at me. He’s wearing tan shorts and a gorgeous blue Tommy Bahama camp shirt, acting all business, however, racking a shell into the pump-action weapon, ready to blow off my head despite having known me for years. Or maybe because he’s known me for years. I once rescued him from an electric meat smoker. Maybe that will help.
Mama Bones glares at me as she flips off the NordicTrack. “You don’t knock?”
“Sorry,” I say. “I wasn’t sure you were in here.”
“All the more reason, Smarty Pants.”
Mama Bones always wears ankle-length black dresses. There’s one draped over the back of the swivel desk chair. Like her Italian accent, the simple garb is designed to make her appear weak, maybe out of touch, when in fact Mrs. Angelina Bonacelli—a widow since 1994—is tougher than week-old tomato pie.
“I wanted you to know as soon as I made up my mind,” I say. “I’m not coming back to work at Bonacelli Investments. I’m done.”
Mama Bones hops off the treadmill, wraps a beach towel around her shoulders and chest, then hurries to hide behind a cherry wood desk that matches the woodwork on the orange couch. “I’m glad you’re back,” she says. “I can’t spend no more time running Vic’s business. I got too many problems.”
I shake my head. “Mama Bones, didn’t you hear me? I said I’m done. I’ve given it a lot of thought, careful consideration like you suggested, but I need to quit. Heriberto being killed in front of me changed things. Forever. I can’t take the violence. Luis agrees with me. He said he would talk to you.”
Luis Guerrero is more than my closest friend. In this context, and many times before in my life, the bartender and owner of Luis’ Mexican Grill is my spiritual advisor. Luis was not a witness to Heriberto’s murder at the racetrack, but he was on the scene soon after, showing up in time to see the murderer—a gangster called the Turk—and help me safely get away. That wasn’t the first time Luis saved my life.
Mama Bones glances toward Gianni. “You hungry?”
“I could eat,” he says.
I get the feeling Mama Bones is not taking me seriously.
She brings her dark eyes back to mine. “We need to talk. How ’bout some lunch?”
“Mama Bones, I need you to under—”
She waves her hand. “You are not walking away from Vic’s investment business today or tomorrow, okay? Maybe next week. Maybe next month. But not today. He needs you. And I need you. Vic ran away from the rehab hospital. Nobody can find him.” She scowls at Gianni. “And a bad fire chased my friends into that trailer you saw. Plus Johnny the Turk Korsay is on some kind-a rampage, had his crooked cops arrest Luis.”
“Arrest Luis?” I say. “For what?”
“For Heriberto’s murder, what do you think, huh?”
“But the Turk killed Heriberto. I saw him.”
“Yeah, and that’s why those crooked cops probably gonna come after you next.”
Gianni and I slide into the big corner booth at the Pardon Me Diner minutes later, order menus and a pot of coffee. Mama Bones will dress and join us. Our view across the restaurant’s eating area and through the floor-to-ceiling windows is primarily of Branchtown’s municipal courthouse. Across Main Street, the century-old gray building sports Roman columns and marble steps, but also stands alongside Mr. Basil’s Hot Dog Shack, Mr. Basil and his wife Becky taking customers’ money through a cut-out slot in a six-foot red wiener. The whole city is like that, a hodge-podge of old and new, fancy and poor, bright paint and weather-worn marble façades. For me, Branchtown’s ancient and eclectic architecture conjures old brown and white photographs of America during the 1930s and our Great Depression.
I get tired of the silence. “So how did Mama Bones end up with the Pardon Me Diner?”
Gianni’s gaze stays on the front door. “Before the previous owner skipped bail eight years ago, he mortgaged the place to Mama Bones,” he says. “You remember Croc Tierney, our ex-mayor? Spent his bribe money at the racetrack?”
“Yeah. He was indicted with all those other Jersey mayors, zoning commissioners and rabbis, right? That FBI sting on construction bids, zoning changes. I remember because there were charges of organ selling, too, and that made national TV.”
“Whatever,” Gianni says, “Croc made payments to Mama Bones for years through a numbered account in Panama, but they stopped. Croc probably figured the property wasn’t worth what he owed.”
“I can tell she likes the place.”
Gianni nods. “Yeah, she figures the location will help her bail bond business.”
“A free meal with every bond?”
“Including dessert and beverage.”
Gianni and I smile, but indeed the Pardon Me Diner throbs with customers. Nice menus, too, the back cover featuring a story about her family and a black and white, high school photograph of a young Mama Bones, her dark eyes and creamy skin in a strikingly pretty, three-quarter profile. She’s wearing a starched white blouse with an exaggerated man’s collar like an old movie star from the middle of last century. Maybe Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause.
Speak of the Devil. Dressed now in her all black widow’s outfit, Mama Bones catches me and Gianni still smirking over her marketing plans. She folds her arms across her chest, poses standing above our table, scowling like a school principal, her two faces side by side before me—one from the past on a menu, the now-face here live—producing a tender portrait of aging. Mama Bones’ basic Mediterranean beauty still holds a permanent grip.
“If you two smarty pants are through making jokes,” she says, “maybe we could figure out what we’re gonna do about Luis, four homeless women and the Turk.”
“What homeless women?” I ask.
“My friends in the trailer.”
I nod like her information makes sense. “How’s Vic? Before he disappeared, I mean. Was he getting better?”
Mama Bones slides into the booth next to Gianni and glares at him again. “Vic is gonna be okay. He says he’s confused about life, but who isn’t, huh? This crazy world. But Vic is more than confused. He’s acting like a mamaluke, dressing up, giving speeches. Last weekend we found him at Branchtown High School talking to an assembly.”
“I have everyone looking,” Gianni says. “Everybody.”
“Vic is gonna be fine,” she says. “My problem, yours, too, Austin Carr, is the Turk. He’s mad that I know he shot Heriberto, mad because Luis called me that night, not the police like he told you. That makes me the one who got Turk out of his jam. I sent his favorite two cops, Davenport and Lindsay, to pick him up, but he’s worried I’ll use the information against him, I guess. Maybe with New York. Also, what I hear, the Turk thinks you saw something that night could hurt him.”
“I saw him murder Heriberto,” I say. “What’s worse than that?”
“I don’t know. But he doesn’t worry about Heriberto no more. The report those two cops filed says they found Heriberto’s body in the trunk of an abandoned car, so there’s no investigation of the Turk. And now those two cops grabbed Luis, trying to frame him, or wanting to know why Luis called me that night. The Turk asking questions through the cops.”
I’m impressed with Mama Bones’ knowledge, and frankly wonder at her sources of information. I can see why my mentally unstable and currently missing partner Mr. Vic thinks his mother sometimes reads minds.
“You gonna ask how come I know so much police business?” she asks.
What? How could…
“We know lots of cops,” Gianni says. “Including Davenport and Lindsay. Both are Lieutenants in the Seaside County Prosecutor’s Gambling Enterprises Unit. Turk pays them more, but they’re also on Mama Bones’ payroll. Or extortion list, whatever you want to call it.”
I am not soothed. In fact, I am washed over by another wave of discomfort. I should not ask questions the answers to which I do not want to hear. That inside trading investigation last year taught me there are pieces of intelligence it’s best not to collect. Then again, Mama Bones and Gianni didn’t need to explain how they know so much. They both volunteered a lot. I worry something’s going on.
“How come you’re telling me all this?” I ask. “I know I kind of asked, but this is your…uh…family business stuff. I’m an outsider.”
Mama Bones shakes her head. “Not no more, Smarty Pants. Until Vic gets better and can run that bond shop again, you gotta work for me. Me and my homeless friends need your help.”
Gianni smiles from inside that spectacular Tommy Bahama camp shirt, his calm manner a visual underlining of Mama Bones’ words. In fact, Gianni’s confident grin is more formidable than the shotgun.
Angelina Rossi—later to become Mama Bones Bonacelli—grew up five miles south of Branchtown in the summer resort of Asbury Park. Her parents leased special soda-making equipment and illegal betting cards to venders on the Jersey shore, a business begun in the 1920s by her grandparents, Giuseppe and Francesca Rossi. Grandma and Grandpa were also political organizers, collecting cash from new Italian immigrants and boardwalk businesses, then delivering the bag money plus ninety percent of the local Italian vote to whichever party paid them most. In short, Mama Bones’ family has been a community leader for the past century, three generations of royalty in the politically-established, highly profitable and still shady Jersey shore tourist industry. And while it is true Mama Bones saved my life several times, the most recent occasion involved only a last minute change of heart, her outlaw hand on a switch that could have ground me into mincemeat.
I’m not sure I owe her any favors.
Still, the jailed Luis Guerrero is as close to me as an older brother, a guiding hand whenever my grip on life grows shaky, and now the hombre needs my help. I can’t and won’t run away from Luis if he needs me. Also, there is Mama Bones’ desires to consider, not to mention Gianni’s smile and his shotgun. Weighing all options and potential consequences, I believe it best my departure from the stock and bond business be temporarily delayed.
“So,” I say. “What’s the plan?”
The Pardon Me Diner hums with conversation and the clatter of racking dishes. Mama Bones sips her black coffee. “Go back to Vic’s bond shop, sell bonds,” she says. “Wait for me or Gianni to call. First thing, we gotta get Luis out of jail—or at least away from those two cops. I called his lawyer—that guy Zimmer you know—and he’s working on bail. But he told me Luis was moved from the Seaside County lockup. Zimmer was having trouble finding him.”
“They’re corrupt cops, but cops,” I say. “They wouldn’t kill him, would they?”
Mama Bones lifts her beefy shoulders. “I’m not so sure.”
“We need leverage,” Gianni says. “How about we threaten to turn Austin over to the Feds unless the Turk releases Luis?”
Mama Bones’ face wrinkles into a living walnut shell. “Go to the cops? New York would probably kill us first.” She sighs. “I should have known Turk wouldn’t trust me. When Luis called me that night, I should have made somebody else send those two cops to the racetrack, somebody I could trust not to tell.”
Mama Bones refers to a cell phone call Luis Guerrero made to her this past May from the racetrack—the site of Heriberto’s murder—and Mama Bones’ subsequent calls to get her capo the Turk out of trouble. I’d gone to the track’s backside, or stable area that night on the spur of the moment, accompanying Heriberto who claimed to be meeting a horse trainer. The trainer turned out to be the Turk, who shot Heriberto, calling him a juicer—a chemist who supplies drugs to make horses run faster and longer, or drugs to mask the initial drug. The Turk would have killed me, too, but an angry horse and Luis saved my life. It was a crazy night, one that taught me plenty about my big mouth. Another thing I remember, another reason the Turk was angry—the Turk said Heriberto had stolen his woman at a party. A redhead.
“We make the threat like it doesn’t come from us,” Gianni says, “We get someone else to lay it out for Turk’s lawyer, maybe that DEA agent we know.”
Mama Bones shrugs. “I don’t like it…but maybe if we can trust the DEA to say the request comes from Luis’ family or something.”
“What about the redhead Heriberto supposedly stole from Turk at the Turk’s own party?” I say. “She could testify the Turk had another motive for killing Heriberto. Put her and myself together, you have a strong case, not only against the Turk, but those county cops as well, Davenport and Lindsay, for hiding Turk’s guilt.”
Gianni nods. “That sounds like leverage to me. We threaten the Turk with Austin and the redhead. Make Turk’s lawyer believe the threat comes from Luis’ family. Hell, we can probably get Luis’ wife to accompany the DEA agent.”
“Might work,” Mama Bones says. “Solana will definitely help. She’s already called me.”
“But do we even know who the redhead is?” I ask.
“Solana heard it was Croc Tierney’s daughter,” Mama Bones says. “Name’s Emma. She lives in Rumson with Croc’s sister, a horsey-type named Barbara Ryder. Ryder fixed her brother’s business problems after Croc skipped bail. She handled the Pardon Me mortgage, in fact, bought me lunch at Clooney’s the day we signed the papers. She complained about her daughter back then. Redheaded, pretty and spoiled.”
“Turk loves the ponies, owns a stable of them,” Gianni says. “He’s always at the track. If Emma’s aunt is another horse owner, it adds up.”
Mama Bones nods. “This Emma Tierney also has a reputation for crazy, Solana says—pazzo enough to date the Turk and then dump him at his own party.”
“Can we find out for sure?” I ask.
“I’ll check it out,” Mama Bones says, “reconnect with this Barbara Ryder. If it sounds like Emma’s the right one, I’ll set something up for you to meet her, get her feelings on helping us. You’re the redhead expert, right? You busy this weekend?”
Excuse me, but I do not understand the widespread popularity of Asian restaurants with searing hot, ping pong table sized griddles. Those flame-throwing onion towers have been known to burn off beards and eyebrows. Forget about the teenage chefs juggling razor-sharp cleavers, blades that could bleed you out before an ambulance arrived. Restaurants should be about serving food, not threatening customers’ mortality.
Most people don’t see it that way, apparently, as Taki’s in Branchtown hums with Sunday evening customers. Young and old are packed shoulder to shoulder in a bamboo forest, lined up around frying meat and vegetables. Emma Tierney is one of the forty or fifty diners who enjoy this menace while they eat. I find her perched in a corner at the last of Taki’s eight hibachi grills, Emma talking to her date, a wiry and taut Russian-looking guy who probably was born in Newark. Whatever, he stares at me with hazel eyes too small for his face. Head shaved, his skin so pale and pocked, I can’t help thinking of a full moon. My internal alarms vibrate.
“Ms. Tierney?” I say.
Emma swivels her attention from Full Moon to assess me. Heriberto’s alleged mistress certainly matches the description Heriberto gave me that night on the way to the racetrack. Her wine-red hair shines in dark, long waves. Her pale white skin glows under a feline canopy of freckled spots.
“You must be Austin,” she says.
“Yes, ma’am. Nice to meet you.”
“Do you mind waiting in the bar?” she says. “I’ll be finished here in ten or fifteen minutes.”
Already tingling from the proximity of Full Moon, a guy who I sense wants to kill me, my spine shudders with an electric tremor. Like the odd lightning strike, I can’t tell if this new charge started at the bottom and rose, or began at the top then fell. What I do know, Emma Tierney’s voice, her manner and word choices do not please my instincts. A strong flame of resentment blossoms inside me. She wants me to go wait somewhere else? Beyond her queenly presence? For ten or fifteen minutes? Seems a bit rude. For Luis, however, I will proceed. All I have to do tonight is introduce myself, ask her to meet with the DEA agent and Gianni. I draw a slow breath and give Emma Tierney the full-boat Carr grin. While I don’t expect my smile to warm up this frosty glass of cherry soda, the Austin Carr Full Boat Grin is always worth a shot. Sometimes, my charm even surprises myself.
“Are you deaf?” Emma says. “Or just dumb?”
A spear lances my heart. Full Moon chuckles out loud. His teeth are yellowed from cigarettes and coffee. The smell of tobacco harbors in his clothes. And while Emma at least now stays silent, her smile is so sad and condescending, my hands clench. Wow. I am normally so easy-going I fail to recognize most insults. Ninety-nine percent of the slanders I do perceive, I choose to ignore. But once in a while—maybe half a dozen times in my whole life—somebody says something I find so insulting, a switch snaps. My gift of gab turns ugly and mean. Am I deaf—or just dumb? I can’t believe anyone would say that to me, especially a pretty woman. Or maybe it’s not her words at all. Maybe this rising bile of hatred awash in my belly is the result of Emma’s nasty, puke-on-you smile. My neck is as hot as a Costa Rican beach.
I show Emma another grin, this one displaying real teeth. “Does your date know you like to hump stable boys at Seaside Park?”
That wipes out the redhead’s smile and her date’s chuckle. Also, of course, I’m immediately embarrassed. Losing my temper is a lousy excuse for generally insulting women, stable boys and a significant Seaside County institution where famed thoroughbreds occasionally roam. As has been pointed out to me before, I have a big mouth. At times, completely unfiltered. Obviously, ancient, subconscious and unwelcome prejudices occasionally bubble up when I’m angry.
Emma hisses. The wrath flashing from Miss Tierney’s blue eyes suggests Heriberto’s story was true—she did have sex with him. And while I figure my interview with Emma Tierney tonight is over—she’s reaching for her hot Japanese tea—I’ve at least confirmed the redhead’s relevance as a potential source for leverage against the Turk. Emma could tell the cops plenty about Heriberto and events immediately prior to his murder. Particularly that private party where she ditched the Turk.
Full Moon stands, shows me how much taller he is. Maybe an inch. But strategically more important, and something I worry about far more, Full Moon carries, shifts and steadies his weight like my friend Luis—that is, with extreme ease, balance and athleticism.
Sensing the intended discharge of Emma’s scalding liquid, and the boiling stuff’s future location—my face—I leap sideways. What my English grandmother might have called a spot of tea catches my wrist, but the bulk of hot liquid splashes onto the floor. Distracted, however, I fail to sense the arrival of strange hands and arms before they clamp me motionless from behind. I’m startled, defusing my efforts to resist. A thick elbow slips around my throat and pulls me backward. I’m immobilized.
So much has happened so quickly, the events so threatening, my brain has pretty much ceded control to my medulla oblongata—that is, the lowest portion, or so-called lizard brain, which deals only with basic functions like breathing. Instinct. And though I am now ready to choke, kick, punch and kill, I never get the chance. While I am helpless in another man’s grip, Full Moon punches the side of my head. My vision turns into a science show, dark stars circling red and yellow suns.
I’m thrown against the giant grill and crash to the floor, ribs burning. I lash out with my right foot, but succeed only in bringing the chef’s cooking cart down on top of me. Surprised voices and the clatter of equipment circle me like hungry birds.
“Pick him up.”
My neck gets swallowed by a big hand. I am forced to rise and walk forward or have my head ripped off. Full Moon and his unknown assistant hustle me through Taki’s hibachi grill like I couldn’t pay my bill, or I’m an accused Ponzi-schemer doing the perp walk. The guy strangling me wears a yellow golf shirt.
While I am inspected by half a dozen strangers, Taki’s heavy double doors slowly part to reveal a new would-be guest. Oh my. I’m sure I know this costumed person, but my brain is always slow when processing strange information. The image is a puzzle. I recognize the purple trim on his white toga, the classic Roman nose, but he can’t be a Senator from the time of Julius Caesar. No, it’s my business partner, Vic Bonacelli, Mama Bones’ missing son, dressed in a purple-trimmed bed sheet. Poor Vic. Will our best bond salesman ever recover from last year’s gunshot-induced health problems?
“Release the barbarian to me,” Vic says. “He has stolen my wealth.”
Vic apparently doesn’t know his mother re-established family ownership of our mutual business, my controlling shares having been contracted to Mr. Vic while Mama Bones held my life in her hands. Even less surprising, Full Moon does not give a flying duck what Mr. Vic thinks or says. Full Moon lets go of my arm to punch Vic and wrestle him to the restaurant floor.
This guy with pock marks all over his face likes to hit people, I guess.
The Russian’s move was violent and quick, but so am I when required. I take advantage of Full Moon’s diverted attention by stomping with all my force on the exposed knee of the guy in the yellow golf shirt. He screams in pain and tumbles to the floor, joining the squirming pile of flesh and bed sheet that is Full Moon and my partner. Hey, look at Mr. Vic wrestle.
The customers think fighting is part of the show. I earn modest applause running toward the kitchen.
Outside, I reach for my cell phone. Mama Bones needs to hear about Vic.
Angelina Bonacelli earned her nickname one year after marrying her husband Domenic Bonacelli, a crime family soldier. What they used to call a made man. He was too handsome to resist, she told her friends. It was 1965, and her man Domenic’s world of organized crime was still influential, prosperous and sometimes violent. Domenic had invited his wife to meet for dinner after work, and at their favorite sidewalk cafe, two druggies tried to steal the brown paper shopping bag of cash Domenic had collected earlier from bookies. He would tell the hospital nurses he shouldn’t have held the cash while eating with his wife, but that evening he had, and the two heroin addicts drew pistols and demanded the money. Twenty years old and a bit impulsive, Angelina interfered, throwing her drink at the closest thief. For her effort she earned a gun-smack to the forehead, and awarded her husband a bullet in the thigh. But Asbury Park High School’s former prom queen recovered to aid her wounded husband. Knocked to her knees, she secretly snagged Domenic’s revolver from his coat pocket and shot both addicts as they argued over the bag, Angelina seriously wounding one and killing the other. She was seven months pregnant at the time with Vic’s older sister Mary, and Angelina’s swelling belly earned her double the respect of Domenic and his friends in the New York family. What in those days they called a condition also justified their new nickname for her—Mama Bones.
Tonight, wondering how she will handle so many problems at once, the widow of Domenic Bonacelli rests in her favorite wicker lawn chair on her Branchtown home’s wrap-around porch, a cool breeze and a glass of California red taking the edge off. Mama Bones thinks some of her dead husband, the wild late 1960s, guns and how lucky she was to end up a grandma. Lots of water past those bridges. She hasn’t fired a weapon since that night she killed the young drug addict, although she carries a Sig Sauer in her purse these days. For protection or reputation she is not certain which. Maybe a little of both. If these disagreements with the Turk get any worse, she might have to re-tune her shooting skills. She doesn’t even want to be capo. Why can’t Turk see that, huh?
Gianni joins her on the porch carrying a portable house phone. “Austin’s on the line. Says Vic showed up at the restaurant on Broad Street—that Taki’s.”
“Vic?” Mama Bones spills her wine grabbing the phone. “Is my Vic okay?”
“Yes and no,” Austin says. “He walked—”
“What do you mean, yes and no, you mamaluke? Is my Vic okay or not?”
“He’s okay, but Emma Tierney is a bitch,” Austin says. “Her two dogs were hustling me outside when Vic walked in and got punched. But he was holding his own when I broke free and ran out the back. Vic was giving as good as he got.”
“You left him fighting?” In the silence, Mama Bones sucks in a chest full of air. It would be nice if Smarty Pants surprised her once.
“Well, yeah,” Austin says. “I wanted to get free and call you.”
Ha. “Who punched my Vic? How come?”
“Emma Tierney told me to wait in the bar fifteen minutes while she flirted with some pock-marked pale Russian guy. So—”
“Pock-marked, pale Russian guy?” Mama Bones repeats Austin’s words out loud so Gianni can hear. He knows why she did it, too. She can tell Gianni recognizes the description.
Austin saying, “Yeah. Bald with pock marks like a moon. Skin like flour.”
“Did he have an accent?” Mama Bones asks.
“Yeah. That’s why I called him Russian.”
“It has to be Kalinski,” Gianni whispers.
Mama Bones’ heart beats faster. First time since last Monday’s Days of Our Lives recap show she’s felt her pulse pick up. How does a meeting with Emma Tierney turn into a fight with Turk’s man Kalinski? She set up Austin’s meeting with Emma by calling Barbara Ryder. Does that mean Ryder has a connection to the Turk? Makes sense. The horse owner angle again.
“Who picked the fight at Taki’s?” Mama Bones asks.
“The Russian guy hit me after I mentioned Emma’s recent relationship with Heriberto. How do you know this Kalinski?”
Okay, now she understands. Mama Bones would bet a thousand dollars Austin used the words hump and stable boy. She takes the telephone away from her mouth, reaches her hand up to Gianni’s arm and says, “Feel like some sushi?”
Gianni nods, helps Mama Bones rise from the wicker chair. He’s such a nice boy. She can clean up the spilled wine later.
“You drive,” she says. “Do we need anything from the house?”
“Nope,” Gianni says. “I have weapons and ammo in my trunk.”
“Okay, Smarty Pants,” she says to the telephone. “Stay there on Broad Street and wait for us. Me and Gianni are on our way.”
Here’s a sample from J.L. Abramo’s Circling the Runway, a Jake Diamond mystery.
James Bingham stood at the curb in front of the high-rise residence, talking with the taxi driver who had dropped off the occupant of apartment 3501 a few minutes earlier. Bingham was inquiring into the availability of deeply discounted cartons of cigarettes. The cab driver assured Bingham he would hook him up that weekend.
Bingham walked back into the lobby as the cab pulled away.
As James Bingham approached the security desk he heard footsteps approaching from behind. Before Bingham could turn to the sound, his head was clamped between two large hands and with the twist of two powerful wrists Bingham was dead.
The woman opened the door leading from the stairwell to the thirty-fifth floor apartments only wide enough to see the hallway in both directions. Finding the hallway deserted, she pushed the door open just enough to slip through. She moved down the hall to the right and stopped in front of the door marked 3501. She pulled a plain white letter-sized envelope from the pocket of her coat and slipped it under the door. She returned to the stairwell doorway, passed through it and started down the stairs. She looked at her wristwatch—it was twenty-six minutes after midnight. She walked down to the thirty-second floor and took the elevator to the lobby. She glanced out of the elevator door. The security guard station was still unoccupied. She quickly exited, nearly colliding with a man walking a dog in front of the building.
The dog walker, Ethan Lloyd, would later say he saw a woman wearing a long blue coat at nearly half-past twelve, alone, sporting sunglasses. A blue scarf wrapped around her head. Ethan considered the coat unnecessarily heavy for such a mild evening, thought the dark glasses were oddly inappropriate for the time of night, and added that the scarf did a very good job of hiding her face and hair. He watched the woman as she moved away from the building along Third Street. Lloyd lost sight of her heading north toward Market Street.
Ethan Lloyd entered the building wondering, as he had wondered going out less than twenty minutes earlier, why James Bingham, the lobby doorman, was not at his post.
Bingham was actually there, but Ethan Lloyd could not see him. James was on the floor, hidden behind the large desk with a broken neck.
The man who had unceremoniously snapped James Bingham’s neck moved to the door of apartment 3501 and he used a key to enter. Less than three minutes later he was about to open the apartment door to leave when he saw a white envelope slide under the door. He stood perfectly still. He heard footsteps moving away from the door and he heard the stairwell door close. He waited a full fifteen minutes before leaving and, as instructed, used a shoe found in a hall closet to keep the door from shutting completely.
The man left the building through the parking garage and he walked calmly down Third Street to Howard Street. Before reaching the intersection of Third and Hawthorne, just beyond the Thirsty Bear Brewing Company, the passenger door of a parked Cadillac opened to the sidewalk and he was invited by the driver to get in.
“Well?” the driver asked.
“Done deal,” Sal DiMarco answered.
“Did you ditch the key?”
Fuck me, Sal thought—remembering he had forgotten to ditch the key.
He carefully slipped the apartment key from his pocket and dropped it under the seat of the Cadillac while the driver was occupied watching for an opening in the busy street traffic.
“A bit of collateral damage, no worries.”
“Tell me about it,” the driver said as he pulled away from the curb.
The woman in blue continued walking up Third Street to Market Street, crossed Market to O’Farrell Street, went west to Powell Street and circled back down to Market.
The woman disappeared down into the Powell Street BART Station.
At half-past midnight the raucous crowd at Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub and Restaurant was so deafening that Tom Romano, Ira Fennessy and Jake Diamond had to escape. They clawed their way out onto O’Farrell Street heading for the Powell Street BART Station one block away to grab a taxi.
“Did you see that woman?” asked Ira, as they crawled into a cab.
“What woman?” Tom asked.
“Going down into the station. Did you see her, Jake?”
“I can’t see anything, Ira. What about her?”
“She was all in blue.”
“Should have been green, don’t you think.”
“I can’t think,” Diamond said.
“Where to?” asked the cabbie.
“O’Reilly’s Bar, Green Street, North Beach,” Ira answered.
“Jesus, Ira, have a heart,” Jake pleaded. “Let’s end this nightmare.”
“Not until the fat lady sings Danny Boy.”
“God forgive us,” said Diamond. “We should have played pinochle.”
“Anyone in the market for cheap cigarettes?” the taxi driver asked as he pointed the cab toward Broadway.
Benny Carlucci stumbled out of The Chieftain Irish Pub on Third and Howard Streets. Carlucci was asked to leave—not very politely. He found himself out on the street alone. He tried to remember if he had arrived with anyone, but soon gave up trying.
He walked west on Howard Street toward Fourth, passing the Moscone Center on his left and the Metreon to his right. Benny walked down Fourth toward the train station at King Street. He spotted a black Cadillac parked halfway up on the sidewalk between Harrison and Bryant under the Highway 80 overpass.
There was definitely something not right about that car in that place at that time.
Benny was a curious kid. The vehicle stimulated his interest.
Carlucci casually approached the Cadillac, looking up and down Fourth Street as he moved. Other than what appeared to be three teenage boys horsing around a few streets down toward the train station, the area was deserted.
Benny expected to find another drunk, like so many others running and falling all over town—this one most likely passed out cold behind the wheel of the big car. Carlucci peered into the passenger door window. The vehicle was unoccupied and the keys dangled from the ignition. He quickly surveyed the street once again and tried the door. It was unlocked. Carlucci pulled it open and slipped into the driver’s seat. He was thinking a ride home in a Coupe de Ville would beat the hell out of a long drunken trip on the train and then a bus ride from the train station to his place on Cole Street off Fulton. The car started with the first turn of the key.
Carlucci turned left onto Bryant Street, turned up Third one block to Harrison, then Harrison onto Ninth Street heading toward Market. Market onto Hayes onto Franklin to Fulton Street and Benny Carlucci was on his way home in style.
The police cruiser, siren blaring, pulled Carlucci over at Masonic Avenue, across from the University of San Francisco, just three short blocks from Benny’s apartment.
The attractive woman who came out of the Civic Center BART station had little resemblance to the woman who had walked down into the Powell Street station twenty minutes earlier. Gone were the dark glasses. Also gone were the heavy blue coat and the blue scarf, replaced by an emerald green two-piece jogging suit and a mane of strawberry blond hair tied back with a green elastic terrycloth band. The .38 caliber Smith and Wesson was now strapped around her ankle.
Once above ground, on Hyde across from the plaza, she jogged in place for a minute before starting up McAllister to the Civic Center Parking Garage. She picked up her car and drove out Geary Boulevard to 25th and then up Lincoln Boulevard to Baker Beach for a solitary run in the sand.
Just before one in the morning, Blake Sanchez stood at a dark street corner in Oakland and watched as one of his least favorite neighbors moved the doormat on his porch and lifted a loose board. Sanchez saw the man place something through the opening and under the porch and then replace the board and the mat before entering the house.
Sanchez took another deep pull off his dope pipe and made a mental note.
What I don’t know would fill a book. What I didn’t know about her could fill a library. It felt as if I was getting closer to her, but it was like looking into a fun-house mirror. She had constructed so many layers of self-deception, she could deflect a jackhammer. I had no idea what she wanted and I convinced myself I didn’t care. It was not an attraction based on the intellectual or the spiritual. It was nothing logical, just biological. The sex wasn’t all that great, come to think of it—and I was thinking about it too often. I thought I was in love with her long after I was sure I didn’t like her. If she had any idea about what she wanted, she kept it a deep dark secret from herself. At first I saw something in her, honesty, selflessness—something she couldn’t see, because it was never really there.
“What do you think?”
“About what?” asked Ira Fennessy.
“I wrote that,” Tom Romano said, sitting between Jake and Ira in the back seat of the taxicab, holding a tattered sheet of paper in his hand.
“Why would you write something like that?” Ira asked.
Jake decided to stay out of it. His head felt the size of the Trans America Pyramid, point and all.
“I don’t know,” Tom said. “For fun I guess.”
The taxi pulled up in front of O’Reilly’s to let them out. The insane crowd was spilling out onto Green Street.
“You have no idea what fun is,” Ira said, “but you are about to find out.”
Jake wanted to protest. He desperately wanted to say something, anything that might rescue them.
But he couldn’t get his tongue to work.
“I liked what you wrote,” said the cab driver as they piled out of the taxi to join the mob.
It was well past midnight, a new day—but it was still St. Patrick’s Day in San Francisco.
Thursday, March 18, 2004.
Trouble is like rain.
It arrives when you least need it.
And when you are least prepared for it.
I opened my eyes and looked up.
The time was projected on the ceiling in large bright green numbers and letters from the clock radio beside the bed—a birthday gift I thought was cute for about two days. It was like an advertisement for unfulfilled wishes. I had hoped it would be much later. I wanted to close my eyes again. Not move. But my bladder was a merciless bully.
I tossed off the bed covers and the cold hit me like an ice cream truck. I discovered I was dressed for going out, or at least dressed the way I had dressed to go out the night before.
I felt infinitely worse than I had when I fell into the bed only three hours earlier, which seemed incredible though not surprising. I tried remembering how I had made it home, but gave up on it quickly. Not a clue.
It had been nearly a year since I had moved back into the house near the Presidio, but I often woke up forgetting where I was. At that particular moment I was having a lot of trouble remembering who I was.
I slipped on my baby blue Crocs and staggered to the bathroom to urinate, intending to be back in the sack in record time. Instead, I finished my business and stumbled down the stairs, found my jacket on the steps halfway down, tried keeping my balance as I put it on and made it out to the front porch for more self-abuse.
I lit a Camel non-filtered cigarette.
It was colder outside than in, but wouldn’t be for long. The porch faced east and once the morning haze burned off it would be drenched in sunlight. The house had been marketed as being cool in summer. The pitch neglected to publicize the frigid in all other seasons feature. On a balmy day in late winter, which this day promised to be, when you entered the house was when you battled the elements.
Both cars were safe in the driveway, which led me to believe I had not driven either one the night before. If I had, one or both would have been twisted knots of tortured rubber, glass, vinyl and steel. Most of the automobiles in the neighborhood were less than two years old and had names that were German or Swedish. My vehicles were a brown 1978 Toyota Corona four-door sedan and a red 1963 Chevy Impala convertible. I loved them both for different reasons and used them accordingly. I was relieved to find them both intact after a stupidly excessive night of green beer and Jameson’s Irish whiskey. I am not a big drinker—but give me a good excuse like St. Patrick’s Day, a pal’s birthday, a Friday or Saturday night, or the joyful sounds of birds singing and I can usually keep up with the Jones’.
I dropped my unfinished cigarette to the ground, to be picked up and discarded at some later time, and returned to the chill inside. I removed the jacket, grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator, and I carefully negotiated the stairway. Up. I washed down a couple of Excedrin to ease my aching body—understanding it was like using a Band-Aid to treat a severed limb.
I struggled free of my party clothes and into sweat pants and shirt. There are many good things to say about down comforters which you forget completely when you are not under one. I covered myself to my chin in an urgent attempt to recall the wonders of goose feathers. I used the remote control to start up a Five For Fighting CD and prayed against all odds that the gentle piano would quiet the drum beating in my head. The projection on the ceiling insisted it was twenty-three minutes after six. I promised myself I would figure out how to disable the slideshow as soon as humanly possible. I closed my eyes and begged for sleep.
My prayers were answered for precisely six minutes.
My eyes popped open. I looked up. The lit numbers on the ceiling screamed six twenty-nine. Judging by the sound that woke me I expected to find myself sitting beside Quasimodo atop the cathedral tower, him pulling the rope with one hand and punching me in the side of my head with the other. Another peel of the deafening bell and another sock in the ear and then another. When it happened the fifth time, I realized at last it was the telephone. I struggled to grab the receiver and hit the talk button. It reduced the buzzing in my head by fifty per cent.
“Since when does my name have five syllables?”
“Give me a break, Darlene. I’m not doing very well.”
“I’ll say. I’ve heard myna birds with better diction.”
“Did you call this early to torture me?”
“I called this early because Joey tried calling you and when he couldn’t reach you he called me.”
“I was outside smoking and must have missed the call.”
“Well, I was having a very pleasant dream featuring Hugh Jackman.”
“What’s so special about Hugh Jackman?”
“You’ll never know until you see the X-Men movies.”
“And what is it with grown women dreaming about movie stars?”
“It’s probably a bit like a World War Two G.I. keeping a photo of Betty Grable in his locker or like the picture of Rachel Weisz you keep in your wallet. Are you going to ask why Joey called, or do you want to continue trying to beat the subject of idol worship to death?”
“Why did Joey call?” I asked.
“Tony Carlucci called Joey so Joey called you.”
“I’m having some difficulty putting the two actions together.”
“The way you’re slurring your words makes me wonder if you could manage to put your two hands together,” Darlene said, without a hint of sarcasm. “Call Joey.”
“Are you going back to sleep?”
“Too late for that, Hugh’s gone. I may as well go for my morning run and get ready to go to the office. Pay some bills, stare at a silent telephone, and calculate the odds that you will show up there before noon. Call Joey.”
The line went dead.
Joey was Joseph Vongoli a.k.a. Joey Russo a.k.a. Joey Clams.
From the day I met him, and for the next five years, he was Joey Russo. Nearly a year ago he took a trip to Chicago to save my neck, and while he was at it he avenged the death of his sister and reinstated the family name.
Joey’s father, Louis Vongoli, a.k.a. Louie Clams, was forced out of the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois by the Giancana family in the thirties. Vongoli relocated to San Francisco with his wife and son and he changed his name to Russo for protection against reprisal. When Joey reclaimed the name Vongoli he went from being known as Joey Russo to being known as Joey Clams, vongoli being the Italian word for clams and clams being easier to pronounce for Anglos.
Tony Carlucci was generally a world of trouble.
I called Joey to find out exactly what sort this time.
He picked up the phone after half a ring.
“Joey, what’s up?”
“Jake, you sound like crap.”
I’d managed three words and he already had me pegged.
“Too much Jameson’s last night.”
“Don’t tell me you went Irish pub hopping.”
“It was Ira Fennessy’s idea.”
“You call that an idea?”
“We got together to play cards with Tom Romano and Ira talked us into checking out Celtic landmarks instead.”
“Sorry to hear it. Tony Carlucci woke me up earlier this morning.”
“Tony needs to speak with you as soon as possible.”
“What did I do this time, leave food on my plate?”
Carlucci ran a restaurant in North Beach where I ate occasionally because his mother was on some kind of mission to fatten me up. Not unlike my own mother’s crusade. If I didn’t clean my plate it caused undue grief. If Tony’s mom was not happy, Tony was not happy.
And when Tony Carlucci was not happy with you, he was a nightmare.
“It’s no joke, Jake. Tony sounded very upset. Don’t ask me what about, he wouldn’t say—but he insisted he had to talk with you right away. He will call at your office at nine and expects you to be there. Be there, Jake.”
“I certainly will be, Joey.”
“Give me a call as soon as Tony’s done with you.”
Interesting choice of words I thought.
I promised Joey I would call immediately after Tony was done with me and then I painfully negotiated my way across the hall toward the shower.
Kenny Gerard was nothing if not punctual.
Kenny was never late for work or, for that matter, early.
His work was that of a doorman slash security guard in a high-rise apartment building at Mission and Third. Kenny worked the day shift, seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, five days a week. His work area was limited to the building lobby, the street-front just outside the building entrance, and occasionally the elevator bank if a tenant needed help with shopping packages. Radios, iPods, portable televisions, chats with friends and book reading were all prohibited while on duty. Fraternizing with the tenants was frowned upon—though there were a good number of young woman residents who Kenny would have loved to do some fraternizing with.
Gerard bounced into the lobby at exactly seven on that Thursday morning. The first thing he noticed was that Jim Bingham was absent from his post.
The large duty desk was an L-shaped affair, fronted by a tall counter which hid the desktop and all but the top of the head of a seated person. Kenny often used the cover of the counter to take in a few pages of a graphic novel or to struggle with the Examiner crossword puzzle.
The days were long and boring.
Kenny sometimes thought he might prefer the three to eleven shift, when there was more activity—tenants coming in from their jobs and going out on the town. Women were friendlier in the evenings than they were rushing away in the morning to their workplaces. But Gerard would rather have the day shift than the graveyard. Kenny pitied James Bingham. The poor bastard was stuck with nothing to do and not much to see from eleven at night until he was replaced at seven. And at seven, Bingham was usually standing right at the doorway itching to get away, waiting on Kenny Gerard like a member of a tag team race.
But not this morning.
And Kenny Gerard continued to wonder where Bingham was until he discovered James hidden behind the security desk.
Bingham didn’t look good.
First at the scene were two San Francisco patrol car officers who were closest when the call came in. Murdoch, a rookie, and Winger, a three-year veteran. The pair were affectionately known at the station as the tall skinny kid and whatshisname.
Kenny Gerard thought they appeared to be very young, and he was correct.
The two officers looked down at the body, which was stuffed under the desk between the counter and the chair. Only Winger had touched the body, and only long enough to check for pulse. James Bingham’s head sat at an angle to his torso that brought Linda Blair to Kenny Gerard’s mind, though he didn’t mention it.
“Do you think he slipped way underneath the desk and snapped his neck?” Murdoch asked.
“I suppose it’s possible,” Winger answered.
“Who do we call now—the forensic guys, the M.E., or homicide?”
“Call it in as a D.O.A., cause of death unknown,” said Winger. “Let them figure out who the hell to send.”
Darlene Roman did her laps around Buena Vista Park alone.
She missed having Tug McGraw running beside her.
Her best friend Rose and Rose’s husband were taking the kids up to Stinson Beach for a four-day weekend and the two little girls pleaded with ‘Aunt’ Darlene to let Tug go along.
Darlene couldn’t say no because the girls were just too cute and the dog loved the beach. Darlene had joined them for dinner the night before and she left Tug there with them when she left for home, so they could get an early start north in the morning. At the dinner table with Rose, Daniel, and the two girls, Darlene wondered how she would like a family of her own.
She often speculated, but never for very long. There was a lot about being free to be herself she was not willing to give up. Sometimes Darlene felt it could be a selfish reluctance. Most of the time she understood she definitely had it in her to love and comfort and be loyal and be compassionate and passionate, but she was far from ready to have anyone be wholly dependent on her and would never let herself be totally dependent on another.
Meantime, she did have her trusty pooch.
And she did have her fun.
Darlene jogged in place for a minute before skipping up the front stairs and entering her small house opposite Buena Vista Park.
Norman Hall stood across Roosevelt Way in the park and watched as Darlene Roman closed the front door. Norman had been watching her jog around the park nearly every morning for more than a week. Hall sat down on a park bench and he stared at the house. He lit another cigarette and wondered where the dog was.
Sergeant Johnson was having one of his worst days in recent memory and it was not yet eight in the morning.
Things had actually been going downhill since the previous day. His wife had flown to Philadelphia in the afternoon. She was attending a big bash to celebrate her parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary on Saturday. Johnson politely declined the invitation to join her. He didn’t get along particularly well with his father-in-law. If he had to describe the man in two words they would be pompous ass. The man never missed the opportunity to insult Johnson, never blew a chance to remind his daughter she could have done a lot better choosing a husband. Johnson’s wife, Amy, came from Pennsylvania aristocracy—and marrying a police officer, the son of a San Francisco welder, was something her father and other members of her self-important dynasty could never understand. Even after the old man’s stroke, nearly eighteen months earlier, when for two months he could hardly speak, he managed somehow to articulate his lack of respect for his son-in-law and his disappointment in Amy for bringing someone so common into the family.
Rocky could only imagine what they all would think if they had known Johnson in his late teens and early twenties, when he ran with the Polk Street Pirates, a gang that plagued the neighborhood with an extended rash of vandalism and petty burglary. But, then again, to these people, being a cop was not all that different from being a thug.
Johnson had seen plenty of ugly things in his sixteen years on the job and sometimes had difficulty seeing the distinction himself, but he always saw a bad cop as the exception and not the rule and did not abide with anyone who preached police corruption was a given. He never saw himself as a knight in shining armor, but he knew when citizens needed protection or sought justice a good cop was their best bet.
And he was a good cop.
Every time Johnson was forced to deal with Amy’s dad he was given grief and the only thing that kept him from tearing the old goat’s head off after another barrage of unveiled insults was the thought of his own father and the pride in his dad’s eyes when Johnson graduated from the police academy after all of the troubled years when Bert Johnson feared his only son might end up on the wrong side of the jail cell bars.
The only ally he had in his wife’s family was Amy’s mother, who apparently cared enough about her daughter to wish her well. But to have to put up with an arrogant jerk-off like her husband for forty years made Amy’s mother a saint or a masochist or both. Johnson felt sorry for the woman, but not sorry enough to join the festivities in the Quaker State.
Amy, of course, was on his side.
She recognized his dilemma. She was very familiar with her father’s rudeness and understood Johnson’s reluctance to subject himself to verbal abuse. Amy Johnson could not insist her husband accompany her to Philadelphia, nor could she ignore her mother’s pleas that Amy be there.
So Johnson stayed at home alone.
And he tried preparing his own dinner after Amy left but he burnt the crap out of it.
He was cajoled into a drink fest with one of the old gang from his Polk Street days and was sick as a dog and couldn’t sleep, especially without Amy there to scold him and then hold him.
After lying in a very hot bath for more than an hour and drinking more than a gallon of water he finally achieved some semblance of sleep.
And less than two hours later the telephone rudely woke him.
Now, before eight in the morning, the sergeant was crowded behind a desk in the lobby of a high-rise apartment house looking down at a dead doorman.
The lobby was a menagerie by now. Police officers escorting tenants from the elevators out to the street, keeping them away from the security desk and the victim, more officers outside interviewing tenants and trying to keep rubber-necking pedestrians moving along the street, crime scene investigators collecting evidence, ambulance personnel waiting for the body.
Dr. Steven Altman, the Medical Examiner, rose from the corpse to stand beside Johnson.
“How did he break his neck?” Johnson asked.
“Someone broke it for him,” Altman said.
“Where is the lovely Lieutenant Lopez?”
“She has the day off.”
Johnson tried to imagine anything less appealing than attempting to create order out of this chaos.
For an instant, he thought that being in Philadelphia wishing a pretentious old fuck a happy anniversary might be worse. But maybe not.
Struggling actress Jane Innes is seduced by a handsome new arrival in her acting class. He makes a proposition. He admits heâ€™s a con man and needs Jane to pose as a rich, carefree heiress to fulfill her part in his intricate scam. Would you agree? Or run the other way? All goes as planned until Janeâ€™s true identity threatens to surface and their scheme begins to crack at the seams. It all leads to a tangled maze of deception, depravity and murder. THE SHILL is part one of a trilogy from Shamus Award-winning author John Shepphird.