Fun and Games (Charlie Hardie Series #1)by Duane Swierczynski
The first of three explosive pulp thrillers arriving back-to-back from cult crime fiction sensation and Marvel Comics scribe Duane Swierczynski.
Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop still reeling from the revenge killing of his former partner's entire family, fears one thing above all else: that he'll suffer the same fate.
Languishing in self-imposed exile,/b>… See more details below
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The first of three explosive pulp thrillers arriving back-to-back from cult crime fiction sensation and Marvel Comics scribe Duane Swierczynski.
Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop still reeling from the revenge killing of his former partner's entire family, fears one thing above all else: that he'll suffer the same fate.
Languishing in self-imposed exile, Hardie has become a glorified house sitter. His latest gig comes replete with an illegally squatting B-movie actress who rants about hit men who specialize in making deaths look like accidents. Unfortunately, it's the real deal. Hardie finds himself squared off against a small army of the most lethal men in the world: The Accident People.
It's nothing personal-the girl just happens to be the next name on their list. For Hardie, though, it's intensely personal. He's not about to let more innocent people die. Not on his watch.
Insanely entertaining."Josh Bazell, author of the New York Times bestseller Beat the Reaper"
So bloody satisfying."Booklist"
Breathless action. So much fun to read-on the couch or on the run."Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review"
Brilliant ... one hell of a roller coaster read. Mr. Swierczynski writes like Elmore Leonard on adrenaline and speed."New York Journal of Books"
With Fun & Games, Swierczynski has pushed his style to its farthest extreme yet, and from the looks of things, the rest of the trilogy is going to go even further; he has the chops pull it off like the perfect heist."Los Angeles Review of Books"
Swierczynski steps on the gas early in this pulse-pounding contemporary thriller and doesn't let up . . . an unforgettable climax . . . the sequel's appearance won't be too soon for many readers."Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A load of high octane taught action. Readers who like their action fast, brutal, and smart, as well as fans of the Die Hard franchise, will be eagerly awaiting the next installment."Library Journal"
More exciting than whatever you're reading right now, this is Duane's breakout novel."Ed Brubaker, Harvey- and Eisner-Award-winning author of Criminal and Incognito"
A white-hot nuclear explosion."Joe R. Lansdale, Edgar Award-winning author of The Bottoms, Leather Maiden, and the Hap and Leonard series"
Cool, suspenseful, tragic, and funny as hell, Fun and Games is Duane Swierczynski's best yet. I haven't had this much fun reading in a long time."Sara Gran, author of Dope and Come Closer"
An audacious, propulsive thrill ride that kidnapped me on page one and didn't look back."Brian Azzarello, Harvey- and Eisner-Award-winning author of 100 Bullets and Loveless
Read an Excerpt
Fun and Games
By Swierczynski, Duane
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2011 Swierczynski, Duane
All right reserved.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
SHE DISCOVERED Decker Canyon Road by accident, not long after she moved to L.A. A random turn off the PCH near Malibu shot her up the side of the mountain, followed by twelve miles of stomach-flipping twists and hairpin turns all the way to Westlake Village. And she loved it, hands gripping the wheel of the sports car she’d bought with her first real movie check—because that’s what you were supposed to do, right? Blow some of that money on an overpriced, overmuscled convertible coupe that popped a spoiler when you topped 75. She never cared she was going thirty miles faster than any sane driver would attempt on this road. She loved the ocean air smashing into her face, the feel of the tires beneath as they struggled to cling to the asphalt, the hum of the machine surrounding her body, the knowledge that one twitch to the left or right at the wrong moment meant her brand-new car, along with her brand-new life, would end up at the bottom of a ravine, and maybe years later people would ask: Whatever happened to that cute actress who was in those funny romantic comedies a few years ago? Back then, she loved to drive Decker Canyon Road because it blasted all of the clutter out of her mind. Life was reduced to a simple exhilarating yes or no, zero or one, live or die.
But now she was speeding up Decker Canyon Road because she didn’t want to die.
And the headlights were gaining on her.
The prick had been toying with her ever since she made the turn onto Route 23 from the PCH.
He’d gun the engine and then flash his high beams and fly right up her ass. She’d be forced to take it above 60, praying to God she’d have enough room to spin through the next finger turn. Then without warning he’d back off, almost disappearing… but not quite.
The road had no shoulder.
It was like he knew it and was trying to spook her into a bad turn.
Her cell was in the dash console, but it was all but useless. The few seconds it took to dial 911 could be a potentially fatal distraction. And what was she going to tell the operator? Send someone up to Route 23, seventeenth hairpin turn from the middle? Even the highway patrol didn’t patrol up here, preferring to hand out speeding tickets on Kanan Road or Malibu Canyon Road.
No, better to keep her eyes on the road and her hands upon the wheel, just like Jim Morrison once advised.
Then again, Jim had ended up dead in a bathtub.
The headlights stayed with her. Every few seconds she thought she’d lost them, or they’d given up, or—God, please please please—driven over a bump of asphalt where a guardrail should be and tumbled down into the ravine. But the instant she thought they might be gone… they returned. Whoever was behind the wheel didn’t seem to give a shit that they were on Decker Canyon Road, that one slip of the wheel was like asking God for the check, please.
She was almost two miles along the road now; ten to go.
Her Boxster was long gone; traded in after the accident in Studio City three years ago. Now she drove a car that suited her age—a leased Lexus. A car for grown-ups. And it was a fine machine. But now, as she took those insanely tight turns in the near dark, she wished she had the Boxster again.
Decker Canyon Road was notorious for two things: the rustedout chassis of cars that dotted the hills, and its uncanny ability to induce car sickness, even with safe, slow drivers just trying to make their way up to Westlake Village in one piece.
She felt sick to her stomach now, but she didn’t know if it was the road doing it to her, or the events of the past few days. The past few hours, especially. She hadn’t eaten much, hadn’t slept much. Her stomach felt like it had been scraped from the inside.
She’d been up for a job that seemed like a sure thing: producers, director, writer, star all in place, a guaranteed fast-track green light. It was a supporting role but in a higher-profile movie than she’d done in years. A role that would make people notice her again—Wow, she’s in that? I was wondering where she’d been. And then it all had fallen apart in less than an hour.
She’d spent the majority of the past week in her Venice apartment, brooding, not able to bring herself to take much interest in feeding or watering herself or even turning on the satellite cable—God forbid one of her pieces of shit appear, or worse, a piece of shit she’d been passed over for.
So tonight she’d gone for a long late-night drive—the best kind in L.A. Enough wallowing. She wanted the ocean air to blast away the malaise. Blasting away the better part of the past three years would be nice, too…
And then the headlights were back. Rocketing toward her, practically up her ass.
Number of accidental vehicle crash deaths in the United States per year: 43,200.
She stomped on the accelerator and spun the wheel, tires screaming as she made—barely—the next finger turn.
The bastard stayed right behind her.
The worst part was not being able to see much beyond the span of her headlights and having to make lightning-fast decisions, one after the other. There was no room to pull over, to let him pass. If passing was even on his mind.
She wondered why she presumed it was a him.
And then she remembered why. Of course.
At some point she knew Decker Canyon Road crossed Mulholland, and there was even a stop sign. She’d happily pull over then and give him the double-barrel salute as he drove by.
How much farther was it? She couldn’t remember. It had been years since she’d been on this road.
The road continued to snake and twist and turn and climb, the tires of her Lexus gripping asphalt as best they could, the headlights bobbing and weaving behind her, like she was being pursued by a forty-foot electric wasp.
Finally the road leveled out—a feature she remembered now. From here, the road would ease up for a quarter mile as it ran through a valley, followed by another series of insane uphill curves leading to the next valley. A few seconds after, everything seemed to level out—
—then she gunned it—
60, 70, 80
—the electric wasp eyes falling behind her—
Ha, ha, fuck you!
The Lexus made it to the next set of curves within seconds, it seemed, and all she had to do now was slide and skid her way along them and put even more distance behind her. She applied some brake, but not too much—she didn’t want to lose momentum.
Halfway through the curves, though, the electric eyes returned.
Right on her, curve for curve, skid for skid. It was like the car behind her was mocking her. Anything you can do, I can do better.
When she finally saw the red glow of the Mulholland stop sign out in the distance, she decided to fuck it. Hit the turn signal. Slowed down. Used the bit of skirting that now appeared on the side of the road. Go ahead, pass me. I’m stopping. I’m stopping and probably screaming for a while, but I’m done with this. Maybe I’ll take a look at your license plate. Maybe I’ll call the highway patrol after all, you reckless asshole.
She pulled the Lexus to a skidding stop, her first since the PCH, which felt like years ago. Then she turned left and pulled off to the side.
The car followed her, pulled up next to her.
She reached for her cell and power-locked the doors at the same time. The other car appeared to be a goddamned Chevy Malibu, of all things. Some kind of bright color—it was hard to see in the dark. The driver popped out, looked over the roof, made a roll-your-window-down gesture.
Phone in her hand, she paused for a moment, then relented. Pressed the power window lock. The glass slid down two inches.
“Hey, are you okay?” the guy asked. She couldn’t see his face, but his voice sounded young. “Something wrong with your car?”
“I’m fine,” she said quietly.
Now he moved around the front of his car, inching his way toward her.
“Just seemed like you were having trouble there. Want me to call somebody?”
“On the phone with the cops right now,” she lied. She had her finger on the 9 but had stopped. Go on, press it, she told herself. Followed by two ones. You can do it. That way, when this guy pulls out a shotgun and blasts you to death, your last moments will be digitally recorded.
“What the hell were you doing, racing up my ass that whole time?”
“Racing up what? What are you talking about? I didn’t see anybody on the road until just now, when you slowed down. I almost slammed into you!”
The guy sounded sincere enough. Then again, L.A. was crawling with men who were paid to sound sincere.
“Well, we’ll let the police sort it out.”
“Oh, okay,” the guy said, stopping in his tracks. “I’ll wait in my car until they show up, if you don’t mind. It’s a little creepy, being out here in the middle of nowhere.”
She couldn’t help herself—she flashed him a withering Duh, you think? look.
But that was a mistake, because now he was looking at her—really looking at her. Recognition washed over his face. His eyes lit up, the corners of his mouth lifting into a knowing smile.
“You’re Lane Madden. No way!”
Great. Now she couldn’t be just an anonymous pissed-off woman on Decker Canyon Road. Now she had to be on.
“Look, I’m fine, really,” she said. “Go on ahead. I guess I was imagining things.”
“Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but should you even be driving?”
Lane’s brain screamed: asshole.
“You know, I don’t mind waiting, if you want to call this in, or check in, or whatever you have to do.”
“Really, I’m okay.”
The guy seemed to know he’d pushed the ribbing a little too far. He smiled shyly.
“You know, I promised myself when I moved here, I wouldn’t be one of those assholes asking for autographs everywhere he goes. And I’m not. Just wanted to tell you how much I’m a fan of your movies.”
“And you’re even prettier in person.”
“I really appreciate that.”
After a few awkward moments the guy got the hint, walked back to the driver’s side of his Malibu, and gave her a sheepish wave before ducking back inside his own car and pulling away into the dark night.
Lane sped through Westlake Village, caught the 101. It was an hour or so before dawn. The freeway was as calm as it ever gets. She took a series of deep, mind-clearing breaths. Maybe when she had enough oxygen in her brain she’d be able to laugh about all of this. Because it was sort of funny, now that it was over.
The Malibu guy hadn’t been riding her ass; he’d simply been out cruising down Decker Canyon Road for the same reason Lane used to cruise it—the sheer thrill. It only seemed like he was trailing her. Hell, he was probably following her lead. Lane Madden had clearly seen too many action movies. God knows she’d been in too many of them.
They caught her in the Cahuenga Pass near Barham—a two-car team. Malibu had done this dozens of times before. His job title: professional victim. You find your target in the rearview, then start to make a series of subtle calculations that only truly exceptional wheel men can make. A small turn of the wheel, a tap on the brakes, then presto, Hollywood fender bender. Happens all the time.
That was the fun part. The boring part was the aftermath. Bleeding. Waiting in your own car for the highway patrol to arrive. Then more waiting for the EMTs to take you to the nearest hospital. Malibu was stone sober, of course, and his driving record was spotless, since it was erased every time he did one of these jobs. His volunteer work with kids with leukemia (fake) would pop up, as well as his Habitat for Humanity projects (also fake). No one would give him a second glance. Maybe they’d mention his name—an alias, and he had plenty of them—in a newspaper story or two. But mostly they would focus on the actress.
Malibu wanted to take her out on Decker Canyon Road, but it turned out she knew these roads just as well as he did. Sure, he could pull some fancy surefire moves that would nudge her sweet little ass off into the canyon. But that was beyond what had been discussed, so he’d called Mann on the hands-free. The word came back quick: no. This had to look as mundane as possible. Something that would make headlines briefly, but nothing that would be followed up.
No, better if she looked like another coked-up actress who was out too late and didn’t know how to handle her Lexus.
So he trailed her to the 101. Now it was show time.
Malibu liked working with members of the acting community. They were fun. You knew exactly what they were going to do, exactly how they were going to react. Like they were following a script. They had the idea that they were above it all—
“I really appreciate that.”
—that made it all the more gratifying.
Lane was approaching the exit to Highland Avenue—the Hollywood Bowl. It was still painfully early. The sky over L.A. was a pale gray lid. Maybe from here she’d go down to Hollywood Boulevard, then take Sunset all the way back down to the PCH, and then Venice. Make herself a big strong cup of coffee—one of those Cuban espressos she used to drink all the time. Put on some Neko Case, wait for her manager to wake up. Plan her next moves. When life finally stops kicking you in the teeth, you don’t whine and count the gaps. You see the fucking dentist and move on.
She signaled to change lanes, and saw the Chevy Malibu in front of her again. Damnit, the same one from Decker Canyon Road. As the moment of realization hit her—he’s braking he’s braking he’s braking—the vehicle came to a violent rubber-burning halt.
Lane’s body was hurled forward just as the hood was ripped from its moorings and went flying up into the windshield. Glass sprayed. The air bag exploded.
Mann watched the accident from approximately fifty yards away. Now it was time to pull over to the shoulder and be one of those friendly citizens who offers to hold your hand until the police arrive. Only this friendly citizen would be uncapping a syringe containing a speedball and jamming the needle into the victim’s arm. There would be no hello, no speech, no nothing. Just death.
The speedball contained enough heroin and coke to take down a Belushi-size human being; it would probably stop her heart in under a minute. And if it didn’t, there was always something more exotic that could be quickly loaded into a syringe. But better if it looked like a pure speedball. That way, Lane Madden would die and go to Hell still wondering what had happened. The Devil could fill her in.
Lane was numb for a few moments. Her body was telling her she was hurt, hurt bad, but she couldn’t find exactly where. The signals in her brain were crossed. She looked around, trying to solve it visually. If she could put together the details, she’d know what happened.
She had broken glass in her lap. The air bag had smashed her in the face. She half pushed it aside. Her right ankle was throbbing. Her foot had somehow wedged itself under the brake pedal.
A few feet ahead she could see the car she’d hit, or the car that had hit her—she wasn’t sure what exactly had happened. The driver’s head was slumped over his wheel. She prayed she hadn’t killed him.
Then someone opened her driver’s-side door, pushed the air bag out of the way.
She looked down and saw the needle in a gloved hand.
Even though she was still wrapped in a cocoon of shock, she knew that the needle was the one detail that didn’t belong.
The stranger grabbed her left wrist, twisted it, jammed the needle into the crook of her arm, depressed the plunger. Lane’s heart began to race. Oh God, what was in that fucking needle? Her vision went blurry. She clawed at the passenger seat, felt the smashed beads of glass.
Lane grabbed a fistful—
—and smashed it into her attacker’s eyes.
There was a horrible scream of rage and suddenly the needle was wobbling loose, hanging off Lane’s arm. She plucked it out it, threw it to the side, then tried to crawl out of the car. Meanwhile her attacker flailed around, blind, looking for her. Cursing, raging at her.
As Lane’s palms dug into the asphalt of the 101, she realized that her right ankle wasn’t working properly. The damned chunky metal weight strapped to it didn’t make it any easier. Her heart was racing way too fast, her skin slick with sweat. The world looked like it had been wrapped in gauze. Lane crawled away on her hands and one good knee, all the way to the fence at the edge of the 101.
And then she hurled herself over it.
California is a beautiful fraud.
WHEELS WERE supposed to be up at 5:30 a.m., but by 5:55 it became clear that wasn’t gonna happen.
The captain told everyone it was just a little trouble with a valve. Once that was fixed and the paperwork was filed, they’d be taking off and headed to LAX. Fifteen minutes, tops. Half hour later, the captain more or less said he’d been full of shit, but really, honest, folks, now it was fixed, and they’d be taking off by 6:45. Thirty minutes later, the captain admitted he was pretty much yanking off / finger-fucking everyone in the airplane, and the likely departure time would be 8 a.m.—something about a sensor needing replacing. Nothing serious.
No, of course not.
So after two hours of being baked alive in a narrow tube, Charlie Hardie took the advice of the flight crew and stepped off to stretch his legs. After an eternity of standing around, his belly rumbling, he decided to make a run to a bakery over at the mall between Terminals B and C. Hardie had taken exactly one bite of his dry bagel when the announcement came over the loudspeakers: Flight fourteen seventeen ready for takeoff. All passengers must report immediately to Terminal B, Gate…
By the time Hardie returned to his seat, carry-on in hand, someone had already commandeered his space in the overhead bin. Hardie glanced forward and back to see if there were any gaps in the luggage where he could slide his bag. Nope. Everything was jammed in tight. Irritated passengers tried to squeeze by him in the aisle, but Hardie wasn’t moving until he found a place for his carry-on. He refused to check it. He’d carefully planned his seat assignments so that he’d be one of the first on the plane, guaranteeing him overhead bin space. It didn’t matter what happened to the rest of his stuff; Hardie just couldn’t lose sight of this carry-on.
“Everything okay?” a gentle voice asked.
A flight attendant—young, smiling, wearing too much makeup, trying to ease the bottleneck in the middle of the plane. Trying to avoid some kind of incident.
Hardie lifted the duffel. “Just trying to find a place for this.”
“Well, I can check it for you.”
“No, you can’t.”
The attendant stared back at him, catching the raw stubbornness in his eyes. She looked uneasy for a moment but quickly recovered:
“Why don’t you slide it under the seat in front of you?” Hardie had tried that once—during his first flight. Some snotass flight attendant had given him crap about height and width and keeping the aisle clear.
“You sure that’s allowed?” he asked.
She touched his wrist and leaned in close. “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
The flight was quiet, monotonous, boring. Landing, too—a soft touchdown in the early-morning gloom. Hardie was thankful that the hard part was over. Within a few hours he would be back to work in a stranger’s home, where he could sink down into a nice fuzzy alcoholic oblivion, just the way he liked it.
Hardie stumbled into his house-sitting career two years ago. He was between budget residence hotels and a friend of a friend had been called off to a job in Scotland, so he asked Hardie if he’d look after his place an hour north of San Diego. Four bedrooms, swimming pool, bunch of lemon trees outside. Hardie got $500 a week as well as a place to stay. He almost felt guilty taking the money, because it was a mindless job. The place didn’t burn down; nobody tried to break in. Hardie watched old movies on DVD and TNT. Drank a lot of bourbon. Munched on crackers. Cleaned up after himself, didn’t pee on the bathroom floor.
The friend of the friend was pleased, and recommended Hardie to other friends—about half of them on the West Coast, half on the East. Word traveled fast; reliable house sitters were hard to come by. What made Hardie appealing was his law enforcement background. Pretty soon Hardie had enough gigs that it made sense for him to stop living in residence hotels and start living out of one suitcase and a carry-on bag. Rendering him essentially homeless, but living in the fanciest abodes in the country. The kinds of places people worked all their lives to afford.
All Hardie had to do was make sure nobody broke in. He also was expected to make sure the houses didn’t catch on fire.
The former was easy. Burglars tended to avoid occupied residences. Hardie knew the standard entry points, so he spent a few minutes upon arrival making sure they were fortified, and then… yeah. That was it. All of the “work” that was required. He made it clear to his booking agent, Virgil, that he didn’t do plants, didn’t do pets. He made sure people didn’t steal shit.
Fires were another story. Especially in Southern California during the season. Hardie’s most recent West Coast gig was in Calabasas, where he watched the home of a TV writer who was over in Germany doing a comedy series. Hardie followed the news reports between sips of Knob Creek, and then without much warning the winds shifted—meaning a wall of fire was racing in his direction.
There was nothing Hardie could do to save the house. So instead, he loaded up every possible thing that would be considered valuable to a writer—manuscripts, notes, hard drives—into his rental. He was still filling every available nook and cranny when the flames reached the backyard. Ash rained on his hood, the top of his head. Hardie made it down the hill and over to the highway, watching the fire begin devouring the house in his rearview mirror. Watching the smoke and choppers reminded Hardie of that old punk song “Stukas over Disneyland.” The fact that Hardie was pretty deep into a bourbon drunk at the time made his great escape all the more amazing.
Because that’s what Hardie did after the “work” was done and the house was fortified—drank, watched old movies. When Hardie stopped understanding the plot, he knew he’d reached his limit. He’d put down the bottle and close his eyes. He didn’t worry about not being able to hear home invaders, or sirens, or any of that. The stubborn lizard cop part of his brain refused to shut off. Which, Hardie thought, was why he drank so much.
See, it was all one neat little circle.
After the Calabasas fire, and weeks of hawking black gunk out of his lungs, Hardie decided he’d had enough of SoCal for a while. He did some jobs in New York City, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Boston, even DC for one wretchedly humid week. The writer from Calabasas was grateful Hardie had managed to save so much of his material, so it wasn’t as if he suffered poor marks on his housesitter report card. In fact, Hardie had more job offers than he could handle. His living expenses—booze, used DVDs, a little bit of food—were minimal. He sent the rest of his earnings to a PO Box in a suburb of Philadelphia.
When this new California offer came up, Hardie decided it was okay to go back. The house was nestled right on the Hollywood Hills, and the ground was just as dry, probably drier, than it had been the previous year. Which had been an especially bad year for wildfires.
But it was also coming up on the three-year anniversary of the day Hardie’s life ended, and he wanted to be as far away from Philadelphia as possible. He didn’t want to be anywhere near the Eastern seaboard, in fact.
Hardie made his way out of the cramped tube, trying to stretch his sore body while walking. Nobody would let him. Bodies rushed past him from behind, nearly collided into him from the front. He felt like a human pinball. Down a flight of stairs he came to the luggage carousel and waited for the bags to start being vomited up from below.
Nearby, a little boy, about eight years old, squeezed his mother’s hand. He glanced over his shoulder at the automatic doors every time they whooshed open. Down the carousel was a girl—dark hair, pretty eyes, vintage purse tucked under her arm. She tapped her high-heeled shoe to a slow, slow song.
The carousel kept churning. Airport carousels always reminded Hardie of a suit of armor, dirty and scuffed, as if a knight had fallen into a trash compactor.
The bags were belched up one at a time. None of them looked like Hardie’s. There was a loud cry to his left. The little boy was running toward the doors. A man in his late thirties stopped in his tracks, took a knee, then held his arms out as the boy tackled him. He lifted the boy up off the ground and spun him in a half circle. Hardie looked back at the carousel. The girl with the purse, the one who’d been tapping her shoe, was gone. He guessed her bag had come up.
Finally all of the bags were up and claimed, leaving Hardie to stare at the empty metal carousel, turning and turning and turning.
The suitcase contained nothing of real value—a couple of gray T-shirts, jeans, socks, deodorant and toothpaste, some DVD standbys. And Hardie still had his carry-on bag, thank God.
But the loss was still annoying. He would have no change of clothes until the airline located his suitcase—if they located it, ha ha ha—and had it delivered. Hardie went to the airline desk near the carousel and filled out a form with boxes too small for even his small, tight printing. He wrote down the address of the house he’d agreed to watch, wondering how the promised courier service would ever find it.
The owner, a musician named Andrew Lowenbruck, had told Virgil that the place was notoriously well hidden, even to people familiar with the tangle of intestines that made up the roadways of the original Hollywood Hills. Some deliverymen insisted that Alta Brea Drive didn’t even exist.
Hardie figured he might see his bag somewhere on old episodes of The Twilight Zone. Maybe tucked into the background behind Burgess Meredith, or in the overhead bin over William Shatner’s head.
Still, Hardie dutifully filled out the missing-bag form, then hopped a dirty, off-white shuttle bus to the rental-car area. Hardie hated renting cars, because it was one more thing to look after. But you couldn’t be in the Hollywood Hills without a car. What was he supposed to do? Take a bus to Franklin and Beachwood, then hike on up to the house?
Lowenbruck was supposed to have met him at the place this morning. But he’d sent an apologetic e-mail last night to the service explaining that he had to be in Moscow earlier than expected. Lowenbruck was working on the sound track for a movie by an eccentric Russian director who wouldn’t let the unfinished reels leave his native country, so he had to fly out to watch an early cut to start gathering ideas. His original flight was canceled; the replacement left eight hours earlier. Virgil told him that Lowenbruck was known for his “pulse-pounding” action scores—the modern-day Bernard Herrmann, they called him. Hardie didn’t know what was wrong with the original.
So… Hardie wouldn’t be meeting him. But that wasn’t unusual. He rarely met the owners of the houses he watched—it was mostly handled by Virgil at the service, who in turn handled things by e-mail and FedEx key exchange.
Which was probably for the better. If they had a look at Hardie, some owners might change their minds.
Instead, Hardie got to know his clients by the stuff they left behind. The photos on their walls, the DVDs on their shelves, the food in their fridges. Stuff doesn’t lie.
As it turned out, Alta Brea Drive wasn’t too hard to find. Just shoot up Beachwood, the main drag, until you hit a dead end at the fairy tale–looking houses. Hang a sharp left on Belden, which only looks like somebody’s driveway—swear to God, it’s a real road, don’t worry, keep driving. Then, follow the intestinal tract straight up into the Hills until it looks like you are going to drive over the edge of a road and tumble down a ravine to your death. Then, at the last possible moment is another turn, and you find yourself in front of Andrew Lowenbruck’s house.
Hardie was thankful it was daylight. How the hell did people do this in the dark?
These roads weren’t meant for two-way traffic, let alone a row of parked cars along the sides. But that’s what people did up here, apparently—good luck sorting it all out. Still, Hardie made it up the mountain without an accident, and that’s all that mattered.
Hardie had been up in the Hollywood Hills before, watching other houses. But never in this specific area—the original Hollywoodland development known as Beachwood Canyon. The whole setup looked way too fragile to Hardie. Back in Philly, he’d had grown up in a $7,000 two-story row house, which was wedged in with hundreds of other row houses on flat tracts of land that stretched river to river.
Out here was the opposite—all hills and heights and precariously perched multimillion-dollar homes. Every time Hardie looked at the Hollywood Hills, he half-expected to hear a loud wooden snap and then whooosh. All of the houses would slide down from their mountain perches and end up in a giant pit of broken lumber and glass at the bottom of the canyon.
Which was just one of the many reasons Hardie drank a little bit more when he sat one of these houses.
Hardie pulled up in front and turned off his rental—a Honda Whatever that felt and drove like a plastic box. Forget Alta Brea Drive; Hardie wasn’t entirely convinced this car was real. But it was part of the airline–rental-car package he’d found online. He didn’t plan on driving it much, anyway. All he needed was a way to get to a grocery store to buy food and booze, and then eventually a way back to the airport.
There were two other homes on this twisting bit of road, one on either side of Lowenbruck’s place, all three of them clinging to the side of the mountain. Across Alta Brea was a rocky cliff covered in foliage. A crew of two workmen in buff jumpsuits were busy hacking away at the brush with chain saws. On top of the cliff was another of what Californians called a “house.” The only part you could see from street level was a turret, standing tall, looking like it was part of a full-fledged castle. That was the thing about these hills. No matter where you built your castle, there was always somebody with a bigger castle, higher up than yours.
From street level, Lowenbruck’s place looked like nothing more than a wide, flat bungalow. Spanish-tile roof, freshly painted stucco exterior. On the left was a single-car garage. In the middle was a sturdy front door cut from solid oak, and on the right, windows that would offer you a wide-screen view if tall shrubs weren’t in the way.
But Hardie knew this was just the top level. Virgil told him the place had three floors; the other two were built down along the side of the mountain. In his instructions, Lowenbruck called it his “upside-down house.”
The house was famous in a minor way. In 1949 a film noir called Surrounded had been set here, as well as parts of a 1972 neonoir called The Glass Jungle. This was no accident. The director of Glass Jungle was a big fan of Surrounded and had spent a lot of time on permissions for the location. Later still, in 2005, they remade Surrounded—this time calling it Dead by Dawn—but left out the house altogether. Hardie hadn’t seen any of the films, but Lowenbruck told Virgil there were copies at the house—the sitter should check them out, just for fun. Hardie would check out the first one, but not the others. He had a rule these days: he didn’t watch any movies made after he was born.
Seems the movies were another reason Lowenbruck wanted a house-sitter. Every few days some noir geek would just show up and start snapping photos of the house. Some would even try to sweet-talk their way in, as if the place were just a vacant movie prop and not a real place where actual people lived.
Late last night, when he had to catch his sudden plane to Moscow, Lowenbruck e-mailed Virgil to say he’d leave keys in his mailbox.
No keys in the mailbox.
Nobody came, nobody cares. It’s still not about anything.
—Bill Cosby, Hickey & Boggs
LEAVING THE keys to your $3.7-million-dollar home in your mailbox is never a good idea. But Lowenbruck had insisted—there was no time to FedEx them to Hardie, and he didn’t know any neighbors to leave them with. Couldn’t Hardie just let himself in? They’d be in the mailbox, what, a matter of eight hours?
Hardie pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket, pressed the auto-dial number of Virgil’s office. He waited. Nothing happened. Upon closer examination, Hardie realized that there were no bars on the screen. Probably the damned hills, blocking everything.
Hardie decided he wanted a beer. Like, yeah, right now. It was super-early in the morning, but maybe that’s what he should do. Get back in the Honda Whatever, drive back down to level ground, and buy some beer. Perhaps by the time he got back, the keys would have magically reappeared in the mailbox. If not, drink another beer. Repeat until reality conformed.
Hardie realized that unless he wanted to guard this damned place from outside, he’d have to figure out some way of breaking in.
He examined the front, looking for entry points, hoping for an obvious weakness. The oak door was solid, locked. The widescreen windows were locked as well—and wired. Hardie spied the security transmitters mounted in the corners of the frames. Lowenbruck had given Virgil the keypad code, but that was useless with Hardie locked outside now, wasn’t it?
Moving toward the right side of the property, past some eucalyptus bushes, Hardie craned his neck until he saw a wooden sundeck hanging off the back of the house. It was supported by narrow metal poles and fitted with a wrought-iron railing. If he could make it onto the deck, he could probably jimmy open the back doors. The only problem: there was no easy way up to the deck. From the edge, there was a fifty-foot drop to the ground. Not unless Hardie wanted to climb onto the roof, and then jump down onto the deck.
The latter, of course, seemed to be the only option.
Hardie sighed. Was he really going to do this? Who knows what kind of trouble he might get into up there. One slip and he could end up with a broken leg down in the ravine, bobcats circling him.
Hardie slid the phone into his pocket, climbed behind the wheel, pulled the Honda Whatever up closer to the garage door, then parked. He stepped onto the hood of the car and scrambled up the slanted tile roof. The tiles were warm from the sun. Hardie had a vision of the damned things breaking loose, sliding down the roof, and shattering on the pavement, one after the other after the other. Hardie was a large man; he didn’t know if the makers of Spanish tile took his size and weight into consideration.
But he made it to the peak of the roof without incident. There he paused. The lush bowl of the hills was laid out beneath him, and off in the distance were the hazy glass-and-metal skyscrapers of downtown L.A. Hardie instantly understood the appeal of living here. Even though the sides of the mountain were littered with homes, there was the illusion that yours was the only one that mattered, that the rest of these properties had been assembled here for your benefit. No one else had a view like yours, not the homes above nor the ones below. You had a front-row seat to the big show. You could enjoy it anytime you liked… when you weren’t slaving away on a sound track, that is. Hardie wondered how much Lowenbruck enjoyed his view. He doubted the man ever climbed up onto his own roof to catch this particular vista.
Okay, enough. Sooner or later somebody was going to look up and see Hardie standing here, looking like an idiot.
Hardie spied the deck and began to make his way over to it, arms out for balance. Still, he couldn’t help but glance down at the houses below. The different-colored roofs, the pools, the terracotta patios.
And through a clearing in the trees, on the back deck of the house closest to Lowenbruck’s, a nude woman sunbathing.
It almost looked like a mirage. The branches and trees made a perfect frame around her body, blocking out everything but her astounding and abundant nakedness. She was full-chested, with pink nipples that looked too delicate to be out in the bright California sun. Her body was muscled, perfectly shaved, and oiled—as far as Hardie could tell—from her nose down. Her skin practically glistened. Hardie wondered why Lowenbruck hadn’t left the keys with her.
The woman’s eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. She held a cell phone to her ear. And while her mouth moved, the words didn’t travel the distance uphill.
Hardie froze in place, pitched precariously on the downward slope of the roof. He stared for a few moments before he realized that, fuck, she could probably see him, too.
Probably telling a friend on the phone: You’re never going to believe this, but some idiot is standing up on the roof of my neighbor’s place, staring at my tits.
Hardie continued his descent, placed a hand on the hot tile for balance, then jumped down onto the back deck. Something squished underfoot. Hardie was almost afraid to look… then did. Some kind of animal had been up here recently and had left a large deposit on Lowenbruck’s sundeck. Not a bird; this beast appeared to enjoy a heartier diet than seeds and grass.
Fortunately, Hardie had packed another pair of shoes.
Unfortunately, they were in his missing suitcase.
Hardie tiptoed over and tried the sliding glass doors. Miraculously, they were unlocked. Either Lowenbruck forgot or he wasn’t in the habit of locking it.
The moment the contacts separated, however, the alarm was triggered—a shrill repeating bee-BEEP bee-BEEP. Thirty seconds and counting. Hardie knew there was a keypad by the front door. He needed to reach it fast or he’d have company soon, and that would no doubt push back his drinking by a few hours more.
Just as he was about to step inside he remembered the unidentified animal crap on his shoes. Hardie worked off one shoe hurriedly with the back of the other, reached down, yanked off its companion, then darted through the open doors looking for anything, anything at all, resembling a security keypad.
There were too many things hanging on the walls near the front door, too much clutter. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck…
Hardie found it and jabbed the code in with two seconds to spare.
The key situation would have to be figured out sooner rather than later—Hardie didn’t want to leave the premises unlocked for any period of time, nor did he want to climb the tiled roof again to make a grocery run. Maybe he could have some booze delivered? No. Because that would require a working cell phone, and Virgil had told him that Lowenbruck didn’t have a landline.
Anyway, first things first: house check.
The sliding doors from the back deck opened up into a media room—and immediately Hardie knew he’d lucked out. Wallmounted plasma TV, stereo components whose brand name Hardie only recognized from other houses he’d watched. Overstuffed black leather couch, which Hardie immediately decided would be his home base for most of the next month. The wall shelves contained row upon row of DVDs, many of them classics—which was fantastic. Old movies gave him something to fill the long days. He remembered the special Hell of a Myrtle Beach condo that lacked not just cable or satellite TV but a TV as well. Longest two weeks of his life.
The rest of the top floor seemed to be little more than a lifesupport system for the media room. The locked front door led to the vestibule and beyond that a winding staircase with wroughtiron rail, leading down to the lower floors.
The stairwell was lined with cardboard standees of 1980s white tough-guy actors, arranged Sgt. Pepper–style. Clint. McQueen. Bruce. Sly. Arnie. Van Damme. Segal. And, strangely, Gene Hackman. This was seventies Hackman. Crazy-man Hackman. Night Moves and Conversation and French Connection Hackman. The collage of 2-D tough guys looked like it had been stuck up there for a while. The edges of the cardboard were frayed, cracked, and torn in places, and the material itself was yellowing. The surfaces featured a film of dust, and various body parts—an elbow, a foot—had come unstuck from the wall. Either Lowenbruck really loved his action heroes, or some previous owner had, and Lowenbruck thought it easier to leave the whole thing up.
The next room was a smallish dining area, though clearly nobody ever ate in here. The table was covered in scripts, DVDs, CDs, old newspapers, staff paper, pencils. A peek inside a cupboard door revealed more battered scripts, yellowing newspapers, and about forty copies of a sound track called Two-Way Split on CD.
The galley kitchen was clean but spare. Seemed like not much cooking happened in here. No booze in the cabinets, no food in the fridge, except for a box of baking soda and a glass jar of martini olives shoved in the back.
Half bathroom off to one side. Handy. Probably thirty paces between the leather couches and the porcelain throne here. That would make life easy.
On the other side of the kitchen, a door led to a tiny twoperson deck with a hard-plastic Adirondack chair and a Weber Baby grill, overlooking another part of the hills. Hardie looked through the window and thought he could make out part of the Griffith Observatory. No other nude sunbathers in sight, however. Which was a little disappointing. Would have been nice to have the ladies in stereo.
So, three entrances so far:
Back patio doors (if you felt like walking on the roof );
Side patio door (if you were to somehow climb up the side of the house and vault over the railing).
All locks in working order as far as Hardie could tell.
Hardie retraced his steps, passed the gang of action heroes, gave Hackman a respectful nod—
—then continued down the wide stairs as they spun him around to face… a closed set of double doors. Which seemed weird, until Hardie opened them up and walked into a large music studio, soundproofing everywhere.
Ah, so this was the padded treasure in the heart of the Lowenbruck castle: the recording studio. The space was tricked out with enough gear to make the upstairs media room look like a kids’ Fisher-Price set. Huge, wide-screen plasma TV, a mixing console the size of a back porch, multiple keyboards, amplifiers, heaps of spaghetti cable.
Virgil had told him:
“Lowenbruck’s insanely anal about his studio. Don’t even go in there if you can avoid it. Just make sure nothing happens to it.”
“I’ve got explicit instructions here. Like, don’t even turn a knob.”
“What am I, in high school?”
“Just telling you what’s here on the form.”
“Okay, Virge. It won’t be easy, but somehow I’ll resist the urge to record my Pet Sounds tribute.”
Nothing else down here—was there room for anything else?—except two other padded doors. One was open a few inches, and obviously led to a bathroom. Hardie could see a white-tile floor and the edge of a silver mirror. He supposed that when Lowenbruck was in full-on work mode, this was all he needed. His keyboards and a place to take a leak or splash water on his face from time to time. The other door probably led downstairs to the third-floor bedroom.
Hardie was about to head down when the bathroom door flew open all the way and someone screamed and rushed at him and hit him on the head with something really, really hard.
I don’t make things difficult. That’s the way they get, all by themselves.
—Mel Gibson, Lethal Weapon
THE FIRST blow dazed Hardie, made his vision go fuzzy, sent him stumbling one step to the side. The second blow struck him on the upper arm. The entire limb went numb. Some muscle memory kicked in just in time for the third blow. Hardie was able to block the hard, shiny object with a forearm.
With his other hand he snatched out and grabbed a wrist, then twisted it hard. His attacker—a young girl, he could see now—cried out. Hardie yanked her out of the bathroom doorway and spun her into the room proper. Her back hit a mixing board, and her head banged into a monitor that was hanging from the ceiling.
Hardie held up his hands. Tried to, anyway. His left arm was still numb. At least the right one still worked.
His voice sounded strange to him. Hardie couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken out loud.
The girl was wearing only panties and a T-shirt, and her ankle was bandaged. Her legs were lean and muscled. Her whole body trembled.
“Get the fuck away from me or I’ll cut you, I swear to God I’ll jam this straight up your ass!”
Hardie looked at the this in her hands. He couldn’t place it. Long, silver, metal. A tube of some kind. About two feet long, with the circumference of a nickel. Uncapped on the end. Then he looked behind her, into the music studio, and saw others just like it.
A microphone stand.
She had been beating the shit out of him with a mic stand. Hardie said, in a slow and steady and reasonable voice:
“Give me that.”
“I said, stay the fuck away! You people are making a big mistake.”
“You people? Only one of me here, honey.”
There was something vaguely familiar about the girl’s face, like he should know her from somewhere. Had Lowenbruck sent Virgil anything about her, maybe attached a photo to an e-mail? No, Hardie would have remembered that. Nobody was supposed to be here in the house. No girlfriends, no relatives, no friends—nobody. Hardie wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise. That was the whole point. Avoiding people.
Hardie steadied himself, took a step closer. The girl responded by swinging at the air with the mic stand, then inching her way back into the studio.
“Come on, now. Enough’s enough.”
“Stay the fuck away from me!”
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
The girl’s hands fell to her sides. Her head hung low. Her entire body went limp, and she started breathing strangely. It took Hardie a second or two to realize she was launching into a full-on crying jag. He took a step toward her, said:
“Look, why don’t we start with—”
Without warning she lunged. Another hard, mean swing. Hardie was ready this time. He snatched the pole in his hand and refused to let go. She tugged. He held firm. She tugged again. He held on tighter. Uh-uh. Bitch was not getting her mic stand back. Bitch was definitely not hitting him with the mic stand again.
Then she did something Hardie did not anticipate. She lunged forward, pushing the mic stand toward Hardie. His grip was not prepared for this. The mic stand slid through his fist and went into his chest.
Both Hardie and the girl looked down at the pole for a moment before Hardie took a confused step backward. What had just happened?
“Ugh,” he said.
“Oh God,” she said.
Hardie forced himself to look down. Yep. He’d been impaled. Under his gray T-shirt he could feel blood trickling down across his right nipple, along his belly, past the waistband of his jeans. None of this seemed real. He took a breath, wondering if one of his lungs was going to collapse. Maybe pass out. Any second now.
But nothing yet. Somehow, he was still standing.
“Oh God,” the girl repeated, and immediately yanked the mic stand out.
“No, don’t do—”
Too late. The metal slid out of his flesh with a soft, wet shucking sound—like the meat of an oyster being pried from its shell. Hardie took an involuntary step backward, as if he could remove himself from the damage. The girl, too, edged backward, looked alternatively angry, shocked, and confused.
“I told you… I told you I’d hurt you!”
And make no mistake. The wound in his chest really fucking hurt, pain ramping up with every breath, it seemed. But somehow he was still standing, fully conscious. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it had missed everything vital—the heart, the aorta, the lungs, the liver. Then again, maybe she’d nailed his heart right smack-dab in the fucking center and he was going to bleed out in a matter of seconds.
Hardie looked into the bathroom doorway for a towel, something to press against his chest. Maybe wrap around the wound. He took a step forward. Which freaked out the girl.
“Stay the fuck away from me!”
“I’m not going anywhere near you. Believe me.”
The girl tried to focus on him. Every muscle in her body was tensed, but her eyelids were strangely droopy. The combination of anxiety and lethargy suggested the girl had been playing mix and match in a medicine cabinet. Maybe Lowenbruck kept a bunch of pharmaceuticals handy and this girl knew it.
Whatever. Hardie took a few cautious steps into the bathroom, snatched the edges of a white terry-cloth towel and whipped it from the rack. He quickly folded it in half, held it under the entrance wound. Usually, the advice was simple: direct pressure, stop the bleeding. But what the fuck were you supposed to do when somebody impaled you?
Hardie looked at the girl.
“Why did you do that?”
“You’re one of Them… admit it!”
“I don’t know who you mean by Them, but I can assure you, I’m not.”
“Then, what the fuck are you doing in here?”
“I’m the house sitter.”
Her long dark hair hung down in her face, and her skin was dirty in places. Lots of scratches, too, along with a stray bruise or two. She’d bandaged up both of her hands—a sloppy, rushed job. Still, she was a pretty girl. Wide, full mouth, high cheekbones, and eyes that would be striking if she could manage to keep them open all the way—and somebody hosed her off in the backyard for a few minutes.
“House sitter. I watch houses.”
“Why would a fucking house sitter go sneaking around the house, checking every room? Don’t fucking deny it—I heard you!”
Hardie had had enough standing. He carefully eased himself down to a sitting position. If he was going to pass out, he’d rather do it closer to the floor.
“Look, honey, I just got here. Question is, what are you doing here? Because I’m pretty sure my booking agent didn’t mention anything about a crackhead with a mic stand, hiding in the bathroom.”
She rolled her eyes. “Crackhead. Don’t you know who I am?”
“Sweetie, I have no idea.”
The faintest trace of a smile appeared for a moment, then vanished. Then she started trembling.
Hardie had no idea who she was, but a story started to form in his mind. Beneath all of the patches of dirt and scratches and attitude, she appeared to be a perfectly young and healthy girl—not your average skinny L.A. junkie with buggy eyes and cheekbones that could cut tin cans. This girl had been well fed and cared for until relatively recently. Like, maybe even just a few hours ago. Maybe her parents owned a place farther down Alta Brea, or somewhere else in Beachwood Canyon. Maybe she’d stayed up past her bedtime partying hard, an asshole friend suggesting a quick cokeand-H nightcap. Mellow out and party all night long!
Yeah, maybe that was it. She shoots up, she freaks. Knows she can’t go home to Mom and Dad. Not in that condition. Sees the Lowenbruck house. Finds the keys in the mailbox. Still freaking, worried about Them—parents? cops? dealers?—coming for her. Grabs a mic stand—yeah, that still didn’t make sense to him either, but he supposed a weapon was a weapon—then hit the bathroom.
Enter Charlie Hardie, Human Pincushion.
He hoped she had parents. He’d love to send them his emergency-room bill.
With every second that passed, Hardie came to believe that maybe the pole had missed all of the important bits. His sisterin-law-nurse back in Philly had told him a bunch of crazy ER stories—thugs rolling in with twenty, thirty stab wounds, yet still smoking cigarettes and annoyed to have to wait around so long even though they don’t have proper ID, let alone health insurance.
But Hardie had also heard plenty of the opposite, too. Stupid bar fights where one sloppy stab with a greasy butter knife ends up with one man DOA and another facing a manslaughter beef.
And when it came to medical luck, Hardie was reasonably confident that he’d used it all up three years ago.
She’d stabbed a man.
He was probably one of Them, but still… she didn’t mean to puncture his chest. She just wanted to knock him out—though her favorite stunt coordinator, Enrico Cifelli, had once told her how ridiculous that was.
Sure, you saw it in the movies all the time. But Enrico told her that blows to the top of the head almost never render the person unconscious. What it might do, however, is cause the diaphragm muscles to freak out, making it difficult for that person to breathe. Left untreated, it would kill him.
Of course, try to keep all of that in mind when you think you’re being hunted. This was not a movie set; she hadn’t gone through endless repetition, practicing a single move so that it could be filmed. When you’re being hunted, you kind of just wing it.
And now she’d stabbed a man.
Hardie struggled up off the floor, fully expecting to pass out at any second. Before that happened, the dirty psycho chick had to go. To the hospital, to the LAPD, whatever. He supposed he should involve the LAPD because—well, she’d impaled him. And broken into the house. Those still counted as crimes, even in L.A.
“Are you okay?” she asked, hand out, as if to help him up. She took great care not to actually touch him, though. She gestured as if Hardie had an invisible force field around his body.
Hardie shot her a look.
“Hey,” she said. “I said I was sorry.”
Hardie said, “Pretty sure I missed that.”
“Well, I’m saying it now.”
“Whatever. Does your cell phone work?”
“Well, I’d like to call nine one one, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble. Maybe we can call someone for you, too. Like your mom or dad, maybe?”
The girl’s jaw dropped. “My mom?”
“You look pretty banged up. Maybe you should go to the hospital, too. Maybe they can give us adjoining rooms, just in case you feel like ramming something sharp through my body again.”
“You just want me to go outside.”
“Unless there’s an emergency room in the basement, yeah.”
This was getting them nowhere. What was he doing, anyway? Why did he give a shit about this girl, or even this house? Hello, Earth to Charlie: You have been impaled by a steel tube. You belong in a hospital.
She was looking at him. “You say you’re the house sitter.”
“What’s your name?”
“Charlie. And yours?”
“Last name.” This was a command, not a question.
“I’m supposed to just, what?… Believe you?”
Hardie thought about taking a better look at his wound but then changed his mind when his chest started throbbing. He took a semideep breath, wondering if he’d feel his lung collapse suddenly. It made him angry. She did this to him, and now she was giving him shit?
“You want to go upstairs and trade driver’s licenses? Because that’s all I’ve got. I seem to have left my birth certificate and Social Security card at home. Sorry.”
“That’s just what you’d want, isn’t it? Me to follow you upstairs.”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
The girl’s eyes darted around wildly as she processed his words. Then her brain seemed to slip back into gear.
“Okay, let’s say you’re not one of Them.”
“Let’s do more than say it. Let’s believe it, because I’m fucking not.”
“If you’re not one of Them, how did you get into the house? I have the keys.”
“Ah, from the mailbox, right?”
So Andrew Lowenbruck had left the keys after all. Sorry, good sir, that I ever doubted you. Seems like this skinny, spoiled party girl went helping herself. Hardie smiled, but that just seemed to piss her off.
“I asked you,” she repeated, making sure he understood every syllable, even though her voice was trembling. “How. Did. You. Get. In?”
“Yeah. I heard. And thanks to you, I had to walk across the roof and use the sliding doors on the deck.”
“Shit—did anybody see you?”
“See me what?”
“When you walked into the house, did anybody see you? Was anybody watching?”
Hardie thought about his walk across the tile roof and almost said, Well, yeah, there was this woman with amazing tits who caught me breaking into the house, but that didn’t seem like a good way to put this girl at ease.
Before Hardie had a chance to answer, the girl pushed herself back a few inches, creeping away from him, shaking her head back and forth, pure panic on her face.
“No… oh God, what if they saw you? Shit, if they saw you…” Back to them again.
“Nobody’s outside. It’s just you and me, honey.”
Well, and the sunbathing babe.
This was getting old fast. Hardie was wondering what he was going to say to Lowenbruck about all of this. Because after he got this girl calmed and into his rental car, he would have to call the police—and then Virgil. But there wasn’t any way around that. Lowenbruck would need a report for his insurance. Especially if she broke anything. God knows what she did to this place since helping herself to the keys. Goldilocks only ate porridge and smashed chairs and fell asleep in beds. And Goldilocks wasn’t a teenaged junkie.
The girl had obviously helped herself to the keys, but how did she manage to deactivate the alarm? It had been set when Hardie had opened the sliding doors.
The story in his head changed.
Maybe this wasn’t a college girl. Maybe this was one of Lowenbruck’s barely legal exes. She didn’t have keys, but she knew the security code because he never bothered to change it. She runs into trouble, goes to the first place that comes to mind.
Either way, Hardie had to get her out of here and the police thing over with. He was exhausted. Being stabbed in the chest didn’t help his mood either. He hoped it was a few stitches and a couple of Vikes kind of situation… not a go-to-a-hospital-for-major-surgery-because,-oh,-your-lung-is-collapsing kind of situation. He still didn’t want to look down at the wound.
Hardie took a step forward, held out his hand. “C’mon.”
The girl seemed outraged by the suggestion.
“Don’t you come anywhere near me.”
“We both need a trip to the hospital. We can sort this all out in the waiting room.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not leaving this house. I don’t care what you say or what you do, but I’m not leaving.”
No, Hardie didn’t understand, but add it to the long, long list of things he didn’t understand.
And then the world around them fell silent.
Excerpted from Fun and Games by Swierczynski, Duane Copyright © 2011 by Swierczynski, Duane. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
Duane Swierczynski is the author of several crime thrillers and also writes the X-Men spinoff CABLE for Marvel Comics and IMMORTAL IRON FIST. His latest novels include EXPIRATION DATE; LEVEL 26, cowritten with CSI creator Anthony E. Zuicker; and SEVERANCE PACKAGE, which has been optioned by Lionsgate films. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and children.
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