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Small-time building contractor John Deal's life is unraveling faster than a film reel spinning off a projector. His best friend Barbara Cooper takes her own life--but does she? Unconvinced that Barbara's death is a suicide, Deal begins an investigation that pulls him into the vortex of a scheme of ruthless Chinese gangsters looking to make a killing in the movie industry.
Paco readjusted his grip on the wheel. "I hadn't much thought about it," he said, trying to get a better look at what was going on back there. The little guy, Mendanian, had dropped the glass that separated the main compartment so they could talk—or so that Paco could watch and listen, was probably more like it.
Paco had met Mendanian and the woman he was back there with at some bar his new landlord had directed him to—Larry's? Harry's? Gary's?—some hangout a couple of blocks up La Cienega from the Beverly Center, crowded little place between a limo service and a flower shop.
His landlord, guy with a shaved head and a stud driven through his tongue, looking him over: jeans, boots, an unconstructed jacket the clerk in the Beverly Center had sworn was the latest thing—finally nodding, "You should do all right in there," and it seemed he had.
"Exactly like we do," Mendanian said, finishing it, laughing at his own joke.
"You mean, while they ride around in big cars with other people driving?" Paco said, hearing the edge in his voice.
"You two be nice," the woman said. She'd started all this, he knew she had. Invited him to join their table in the crowded place, had laughed at Paco's Texas shtick, throwing back her head, showing her perfect teeth, baring the lovely curve of her throat. There were good-looking women in Odessa, he thought; this one would have them turning their heads in shame.
"Research," the little guy was saying, calling from the backseat. "You make a movie, you have to know what your audience wants, that's all. That's what a person like you needs to understand." There was a pause, and the sound of flesh scootching across leather. "You want to write for the movies," the guy continued, "I'm giving you that for free."
"Thanks," Paco said. He cut his eyes briefly to the rearview mirror, caught a glimpse of the woman's milky skin, her backside laid out in the dim sidelamps like a map of heaven.
"Richard just finished Ghost Buddies," the woman had told him over the din in the bar. "And he's going to do some work in China next year, the first American films ever to be made on the mainland?" She'd said it as if it were a question, an invitation for Paco to say he'd heard about these movies. "It hasn't happened yet," Mendanian had said, his first recognition of Paco. "Goddamned Chinks are as bad as anybody else when it comes to putting up the money."
Once he'd found out what Mendanian's business was, Paco told him why he'd come out to California. Now he was beginning to regret it.
"You're not worried, pick up some guy you don't know, let him drive you around like this?" Paco said.
The guy was leaning back in a corner of the seat, still had most of his clothes on, his arms crossed behind his head as she worked on him. "Should I be worried, Paco? You told me you came from an old ranching family. I'm thinking salt of the earth and all that."
"That's right," Paco said. "Salt of the earth." Another mistake, telling him about his family, the ranch that had once covered ninety-six sections of West Texas prime, now shriveled to a fraction of that, and what was left the subject of endless wrangling among the heirs.
Paco turned back to the road. Narrow road that ran along the very spine of the mountains. For two years, he'd never seen past the lip of a cement-block wall. Now, one second he'd have a breathtaking view of the L.A. basin, the next they'd swing around, give him an endless vista of the lights of the San Fernando Valley. On top of that, there was what was going on in the backseat. Though the edge of his own lust had fallen away—too weird for a Texas boy, Paco?—it was still something to behold.
Less than a week outside, out of Texas at last, look what he'd fallen into. Material, Paco. View it as material.
"So how does a fellow from the joint get into writing screenplays, Paco? How does that work?"
Paco glanced in the mirror. Something he hadn't brought up with Mendanian. The woman up on the seat now, atop the little guy and squirming in place, her eyes closed, lower lip caught in her teeth. Paco glanced away. Maybe his lust not all the way gone, after all.
"What joint are we talking about?"
"You don't want to discuss it, it's okay with me."
Paco heard some fleshy noises from back there. He thought about slamming on the brakes, see who yelped.
"Richard made San Quentin Blues," the woman said, her voice breathy. "He researched it. By the time it was over, he'd spent more time in prison than Michael Milken."
Paco glanced in the mirror. He'd never heard of the movie, but he knew something about prison. Looking at it was one thing, living it another.
"It's the way you all walk," Mendanian said. "Always watching without seeming to, always ready for the next bad scene. Quite distinctive, really."
"You took me for a con? And you have me driving your car?"
"Some of us are amused by these things," Mendanian said.
"I don't think you're a bad person, Paco." The woman, her breathing labored. "When we saw you walk in, Richard said, 'There's a guy who's just come out of the joint.' I said you looked cute."
Paco shook his head. He'd heard it was strange out here, but no one had prepared him for this.
"Some guy came through the facility, did a weekend writer's conference," Paco said finally. "He read my stuff, said there was grit. Said there was a movie in it."
"Do tell," the little guy said. "What did you do, anyway, stick up a 7-Eleven?"
Paco glanced in the mirror again. "This getting you off, grinding my ass, too?"
Mendanian laughed. "I'm just trying to find out what you're made of, Paco. See if you've got what it takes."
"Takes for what?"
"For whatever," Mendanian said.
Paco shrugged. What the hell, he could stand a little crap, was even getting used to it. He'd scored a few drinks, got the feel of driving a car again. How long before he'd be able to get a driver's license, after all?
"Let's go to the Watts Towers." The woman again, her voice in a different key. "I think he should see the Watts Towers, Richard."
"Smack," Paco said, ignoring her. "They caught me with a couple loaves of Mexican Brown halfway between Matamoros and Kingsville."
"Yeah?" the little guy said. "Running drugs when you had all that land to sell?"
Paco shrugged. Why had he told Mendanian about his family? But he knew why. Long as he'd been out of commission, find someone like her across a table, he'd have said anything to keep her looking at him with that dazzling smile, raising her arm to signal the waitress for another round, his gaze traveling down her slender fingers, her wrist, the milky hollows of her elbow and underarm.
It made him think of an old movie he'd seen a few months back, piped in for their Saturday night diversion. Spencer Tracy has a slug of a steaming drink, takes one look at Lana Turner, turns into Cro-Magnon man. Sure, Paco thought. Nothing fantastic about that. For all he knew, there were tufts of hair growing out of his own ears right now.
She was off the seat now, was moving in his direction, bent down, all the parts of her swaying with the motion of the car.
He leaned aside, trying to find the little guy's eyes in the mirror. "I got six brothers and sisters. You ever try to get six insane people to agree on the same deal?"
"Nearly every day," Mendanian said.
Not bad, Paco thought. Maybe he wasn't such a twerp after all. Maybe he and this guy had more in common than he'd assumed. So what if he wouldn't last a week in the joint. That wasn't the proof of a person's worth, was it? He was outside now, a normal person again. He had to start thinking like he was.
The woman was at the compartment window now, leaning through, her breasts brushing the back of his neck. "Wouldn't you like to see the Watts Towers?" she asked, her voice smoky.
Back in the restaurant, she'd excused herself from the table, he'd watched her go, soft black dress, medium spiked heels, every nudge of her body an erotic summons. When she returned from the bathroom, her eyes were glittering and a tiny tear of moisture glittered at one of her perfect nostrils. Paco had imagined what the drug was doing to her, how her blood had heated, what she might be thinking. He had stared back at her until he felt he had slid right inside the envelope of her skin, could feel her lungs swelling when she breathed, her blood pounding in his own veins.
"We're going now," she'd said, "but why don't you come with us?"
"Sure," Mendanian had said, sliding a set of car keys across the table at Paco. "Any friend of Lizzie's is a friend of mine."
* * *
Paco sensed a flash of light behind the limo, glanced in the outside mirror to see a car coming up behind them. He shrugged her off. "There's people coming." The glass of the driver's compartment wasn't tinted. Some other driver got a look of what was draped over his back, the guy would sail right off the cliffs.
"So what," she said, leaning heavily into him. Paco's head went down, came back up. He'd nearly missed a curve in the road. He dropped his speed, gripped the wheel tightly.
"I'm trying to drive," he said.
"Look, Richard doesn't mind. He'll drive a while, won't you, Richard ..."
"Jesus Christ," he said, flailing at her, trying to shove her back into the compartment. The car behind them had swung out to pass, was clipping alongside them now. He'd caught the silhouette of cruiser lights atop the sedan, got a glimpse of a cop in the passenger seat glancing their way.
He held his breath, ready for it all to come down: first there'd be the spotlight in his eyes, then the bullhorn voice telling him to pull over ... and then the film in his head collapsed into hyperdrive, a blur of familiar scenes, an instantaneous montage of the American judicial system that ended with the slam of a heavy iron door at his heels, Mendanian and the woman waving good-bye to him from the green, green grass of home.
He was ready for it, girding for it, trying to muster some story: "It's not my fault, officer. She pointed her breasts at me, forced me to drive ..."
And then, miraculously, the cruiser sped on past. He didn't get a good look at the insignia. Maybe it was some kind of rent-a-cop, cruising the megabucks properties up here. Or maybe the uniforms just didn't fuck with stretch limos out here, no matter what might be going on inside. He took a deep breath, watching the taillights of the cruiser whisk on ahead, watched them grow smaller and smaller, until his relief was almost complete.
"You hurt my neck."
It was the woman, whining from the compartment behind him.
"He hurt my neck, Richard."
"You're lucky that's all that hurts," Paco said. "That was the goddamned cops just passed us."
He was about to turn, say something else, when he felt a stunning pain at his head, felt something splash across his face and neck. Brilliant sheets of light danced behind his eyes. He slammed instinctively on the brakes.
"You fucking ignorant hick," she was screaming. She was pummeling him with her fists now, deep into a serious mood swing. Paco had been there, lost in the chemical snowdrifts, where the least word crossways could put you crazy.
The limo slid to a halt across the opposite lane, its nose pointed out at the Valley lights. The bolts of pain had subsided and he blinked his eyes, grateful at first that he could still see, though what he saw made him catch his breath: A couple more feet, they'd have been over the side of the cliff.
He had one hand up to ward off her blows, the other at his temple, checking the knot that had already risen there. He felt a splinter of glass prick his finger, felt something wet trickling down his cheek. He smelled the sick-sweet odor of bourbon. She must have clobbered him with the whole decanter. At least he hoped it was whiskey that was dripping down his collar, soaking him.
"Calm down, Melissa." It was Mendanian, with a voice that wouldn't get an egg-sucking dog's attention. Melissa was halfway into the driver's compartment now, remembering she had nails, gouging him a good one across the cheek. If he hadn't been bleeding before, he sure as shit was going to be now.
Paco was retreating into the corner of the driver's seat, swatting her hands away, when he saw the brake lights go on up ahead of them. Lord, Lord, he thought. The cops had seen them.
The cruiser pulled into a driveway, briefly illuminating an iron fence and a pack of dogs snarling and lunging at the bars. Then it backed out, its headlamps washing over the limo as it hit the roadway and headed back in their direction.
There wasn't much time, but the cruiser would have to round a curve before it would be upon them, this road twisty as a bottomland creek. There was some justice in that, Paco thought, as his hand found the door lever and pulled. He rolled out onto the gravel shoulder of the road, into the cool crisp night.
He was up and slamming the door behind him in one motion, making his choices quick as the first con in the cafeteria line. Can't go forward, can't go back, there'll be another cruiser coming from behind them in a heartbeat. Far side of the road a steep embankment rising up, covered with brush that could hide him, maybe that way ... but then he saw some more of that spike-topped fencing running through the scrub oaks, and next thing there was the noise of things crashing through the brush.
At first it was snarling, then god-awful barking as the dogs he'd seen down the fence line a moment ago got close enough to catch his scent. Their growling changed to something that was more like gargling blood. Better to spend a month chained to a Crip and a Blood in isolation than go over that fence ...
Which meant, with the cruiser slewing around the curve now, its lights bouncing high up, about to come down and catch him there with his thumb up his butt, he had but one way to go.
That's when he went out over the side of the cliff, his hand clutching some gnarly bush that poked from the dusty soil, praying there would be something soft to land on down below. Instead, surprisingly, his feet hit ground. He took one step, then another, picking up speed big-time, but was still beginning to think he'd lucked out.
Then the bush in his hand tore loose like it had never had roots in the first place and there was nothing underneath him but air. He went out into space, his breath gone, his stomach seeming to fly up through his chest, his arms and legs wind-milling.
As he fell, he cursed his father for dying intestate, cursed his impossible, quarrelsome brothers and sisters, cursed the Kingsville cop whose job was so pitifully boring he'd pulled him over for a broken taillight and stumbled accidentally onto Paco's stash, he even cursed the member of the Lomos he'd had to cut with a converted butter knife he'd taken in trade for his old man's watch, for if that little Chicano jerk had been any kind of thug at all, he would have gutted Paco right there on the hardball court of the Permian Basin Correctional Facility and saved him from the terrible fate of falling off a California cliffside to his death.
He was trying to think of someone else to curse when he hit the tree. He felt something snap and rip through his side with an icy pain, felt another something shoot up under his shirt and jacket, trench the flesh along his spine. A jagged point of wood shot up through his collar, took out the lapel of his new coat, glanced off his jaw. His head snapped back as hard as it had the day Chico from the iron pile decided he didn't like some gringo pendejo walking around with a Mexican name, sucker punched him into another orbit.
Excerpted from Deal to Die For by Les Standiford Copyright © 1996 by Les Standiford. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 8, 2011
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