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J.F. Freedman is on fire once again with this novel, a blazing new thriller of power, murder and one woman's relentless search for the truth. An ex-cop-turned-private investigator searches for answers when a wealthy socialite's boyfriend is killed while in police custody. But no solutions lead only to more dangerous questions, as she enters a glittery world where the ultra-rich play the deadliest games.
THE QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE
A woman is standing on a porch, looking out at the hills. She is singularly beautiful. She is fifty-one years old, and men openly gawk at her.
There is a cup of coffee in her hand which has gone cold. She doesn't notice. She is going over in her mind all the things she has to do in the next few days. She has to be strong, stronger than she has ever been in her entire life.
It is early morning—precisely dawn. The sun, a rufous shimmering Jell-O, is starting to break through the early-morning fog, a pale nimbus spreading across the low horizon.
The porch wraps halfway around a small wooden ranch house in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, California. This house is one hundred fifteen years old. A functional house, no frills. The family the woman married into, her husband's family, owns all of the land she can see to the horizon, and beyond.
Their ranch is one of the largest in the county, over 20,000 acres. A working cattle ranch, the real thing, not for show. The people that do the actual work, the cowboys and their families, live in another area of the property, in houses the ranch provides for them, in close proximity to the barns, corrals, and feed pens where the livestock is kept and the tin-roof sheds where the heavy ranch machinery is stored.
Years ago the woman's husband's father had gotten it into his head that this ranch would be an ideal place to grow bananas. The location of this property situates it climatically similar to parts of South America, areas of Ecuador and Colombia; and after reading several books and pamphlets on the subject, sent to him courtesy of the Department of Agriculture, he was convinced of the viability of the idea. There are dozens of varieties of bananas grown in the world, and he was going to grow some of them in his very own backyard. They grow bananas down by the coast, in La Conchita, south of the Rincon, so why shouldn't they grow here in the valley, a mere thirty miles away as the crow flies?
His neighbors, those that were venturing into agricultural pursuits other than cattle, the production of choice in these parts for two centuries, were planting vines for table wine or laying out strawberry fields.
He was going to grow bananas.
They didn't grow. The topography was similar to that of other banana-growing regions around the world, but the climate wasn't lush enough. After ten years of trying different strains and failing with every one, the property was let go back to range.
About the only thing that came out of that enterprise, besides the family taking a considerable financial hit, was an unofficial and definitely unauthorized name for the ranch. The holding is officially titled Rancho San Miguel de Torres: a centuries-old name, bestowed on the property by the king of Spain in Sevilla, with his own hand. After the fiasco with the bananas, however, it became known derisively throughout Santa Barbara County as The Banana Republic, and although the family has striven mightily over the years to get rid of that laughable appellation, it has stuck like gum on the bottom of a shoe.
There's nothing else near this house; it can't be seen except from the hills a mile to the east. The family members don't come out here all that much anymore. Sometimes on the weekends, mostly for privacy.
Over the years the ranch has been modernized to need. The feedlots and castration-vaccination-branding pens are up-to-date, and on the plateau above the house, about a mile away, is a runway for airplanes, capable of taking jets of up to two engines. The family airplanes—a pre-World War II crop duster, a Cessna 182, and a Cessna Citation—are kept in a Quonset hangar at the edge of the tarmac, ready for business.
As the woman stares out across the horizon she thinks about all the time and energy she's put into preserving the integrity of their property, of which this ranch is only one part. When you're on top of the mountain, as visible as her husband's family is, everyone and his brother wants to take a shot at you, drag you down to their level. She will not permit that—never. She has worked too hard to get up here. She appreciates it, even if her husband and mother-in-law sometimes don't, because it's always been there for them: their position, their power, their money, their pride. They can be forgetful that nothing lasts forever, but she won't be, never.
"Is there any coffee left?" A man's voice calls from inside somewhere.
She tosses her cold dregs into the yard.
"I'll make some more. But get up, I've got a long day ahead of me."
"I've got time," the unseen man replies.
"You don't," she reproaches him, calling back into the house, "you have to leave when I do, you can't be here by yourself."
Feet slapping the floor. The sound of piss splashing against the side of the bowl.
She goes inside, runs water from the tap into the coffee pot. Cowboy coffee is what she's making: throw the grinds in the pot and boil the water. Tastes good enough and it's fast.
"I guess a quickie is out of the question," the man calls to her from where he's finishing taking his leak.
"You guess right," she tells him, her voice nothing but serious. She pours two cups, black, and goes outside again.
The man who comes out onto the porch and stands next to her is younger than she is, about thirty-five, lean and muscular like a swimmer, with a thick head of black, Indian-straight hair, cut conservatively. He's naked, his dark body-hair covering his chest like a fur. He slips his hand under the rumpled man's shirt she slept in, runs his fingers along the ridge of her back.
"Stop," she tells him, "this can wait."
"Sure it can," he responds, the hand moving around to the front, caressing a nipple, then nonchalantly dropping to her pussy, massaging it as casually as scratching an itch. "But why?"
He drops to his knees, burying his face in her vagina, eating her. A long moan escapes from her throat, an involuntary exhaling of pleasure.
They fuck standing, his hands holding her ass to elevate her. Gripping the back of his head, the veins in her forearms throb as she comes.
In the bedroom, she gets dressed. Last night's clothes. She sits on the edge of the bed and tugs on her boots. From the adjacent bathroom comes the sound of water running in the shower. She leans her head inside the door, letting out some steam.
"I'll lock up from inside. Just make sure the door's shut when you leave."
His reply is drowned out by the running water.
"Your coffee is on the sideboard. Don't let it get cold." She can't keep the irritation and nerves from her voice. "And don't hang around. If anybody spotted you here the whole deal could blow up."
Kate Blanchard lies on her back, floating. The sun, four o'clock, August-white, cooks the water. She can feel her blood heating up in her veins, her urine bubbling in her kidneys, all that brine percolating through her pores, coating her with a musky sheen, sweat so funky it wrinkles her nose, she can smell it emanating from all the ripe sources, armpits and thigh folds and knee creases.
She hasn't washed in a tub or shower for three days—the pool is as much bathing as she can muster. The pervasive heat leaches out the accumulation of deep-fried high-caloric artery-clogging crap she's been ingesting for the past five days. Days of dropping to sleep from sheer exhaustion, sometimes going until after sunup.
It's been one long unending march, starting from the beach, tripping up under the freeway into town, up State Street and all its flowing tributaries, up into the hills, across the Riviera, segueing into Montecito, doubling back down again. Pit stops at the Biltmore, Butterfly Beach, Jimmy's, Joe's, the Paradise, climbing the stairs to Brophy's to watch the sunset.
She's been in and out of a hundred other joints, large and small, straight, gay, and mixed, the lines blurring along with every other marker, an endless Chinese-dragon procession alongside people you've never seen before and hope never to see again. Scarfing down anything and everything that passes by your mouth, greasy burgers with bacon and chili, guacamole-covered chicken enchiladas, shrimp flautas, tacos and taquitos and tostadas.
Margaritas abound: straight shots of Cuervo 1800, Commemorativa. Anything with tequila. Until a few years ago, when the proliferation of gang violence on the street finally brought a legal end to this ancient and open custom, you could legally walk the streets with a drink in your fist; even so, although that provision has been repealed, it's enforced more in the breach than in the promise: during Fiesta, all bets, by and large, are off.
She sticks to beer. Beer suits her, and a little of that; she's seen, close-up and personal, how bacchanalia can fuck you up, which is one thing she doesn't need—another element to fuck her up, she's gone through enough of them already, thank you.
It came as a surprise to her, this behavior: the socializing, the crazed, reckless partying, the simple act of being with people in large quantities at close range, because she's been reclusive for months, almost monastic, venturing out on a job (as few as necessary), get the essentials done, maybe take in a movie or go on a quiet date. She had carved this time out for personal space and solitude, as a rejuvenation and a penance both, because you can't recover unless you've known pain first. The pain she's known, longer than she wanted or expected; now she's trying to learn what it's like not to be in it. A slow, ofttimes backsliding process.
The so-called cloistered life. Which was getting to be a bore and a drag, frankly, and more than a bit self-pitying. And it's a major big deal, Fiesta, Santa Barbara's most famous tradition and defining characteristic, like the running of the bulls in Pamplona or the Palio in Siena. Last year she'd been out of town up north, cleaning up some of her loose threads, feeling guilty, way too guilty to go partying. Over the course of the present year she'd gotten over that, she was here and alone, so she went down to the beach, where there was a party happening on the sand, and she saw some fellows she knew from the Alameda County Sheriffs Department getting their horses ready. She watched them and stayed for the rest, and afterwards it felt natural to join them.
Starting tomorrow, she'll clean herself up. You can't be a complete puritan about it, you've got to lighten up once in a blue moon. All work and no play, etc. You party and you party and you party and then you go back to not partying.
The pool is uncommonly large, San Simeon-size, built at the same time as the main house, a decade before the turn of the century. An enormous place it had been, twenty-nine rooms, a monument to wealth and high living—until the 1925 earthquake leveled everything to the ground. Now it's a jungle, the entire sixteen acres.
A description of the property on an obsolete county map had caught Kate's eye last year, when she was sitting in the courthouse basement digging up information on a case, one of her first cases after she'd put up her shingle. It had intrigued her, an archaeological ruin sitting right in her backyard, so when she had some free time she set out to find it. It took some clever sleuthing—the old private road leading up to the house had been so long overgrown she'd had to hack her way in with a machete she bought at a garage sale for three dollars, and although she now can drive her car in, she deliberately keeps things pretty much in a state of neglect, to discourage other curious hikers. It's her private place, she doesn't want company.
She hasn't been in Santa Barbara very long. Maybe that's why she didn't take this old ruin for granted. She came a year and a half ago, in January, when it was cooling down, it's only been the last few months this year that the pool has gotten hot enough for her to use; she doesn't like it all that hot anyway, it makes her logy.
Now, though, logy is good. Hot is good. She needs to sweat.
The pool had been the real find. Filthy, half-filled with years of leaves and rainwater, animal scat, old hippie trash, it still worked: it held water, the earthquake and subsequent natural disasters miraculously hadn't cracked it.
She had cleaned it up, dumping countless wheelbarrow-loads of soggy detritus over the side of the hill below the decking, scrubbing the tiles and concrete bottom clean with brush and wire.
The house had been watered by its own self-contained system of wells and irrigation ditches, which she knew about from the same maps and documents which had led her up here in the first place. It had been easy to jerry-rig a water line from the old well down to the pool and fill it with fresh, bone-chilling artesian water. She had waited for the sun to warm it up, which took months, but now it is hot, almost too much, dragonflies and hummingbirds and several species of bees fly and swarm about, resting on the palm leaves that fall in and float about the surface.
Surrounding the pool are a multitude of palm trees, wild and untamed now, so closely grown together their top fronds form a partial rain forest. They give the area a tropical feeling; lying on an inner tube in the middle of the pool, looking up at the trees and the sun, you could be in Hawaii, Tahiti, Bora Bora. The people who had originally built this had been to all those places.
She's never been anywhere to speak of. Mexico, primarily Baja, New York City once, the Rockies. The usual camping-tourist shit, when she and Eric were first married and not trying to kill each other. She wants to travel, she has the freedom now, if she can come up with enough money, which she plans to do, one of these days. She's read about Paris, Venice, Rome. They sound wonderful, romantic. Places to go with a man who will appreciate them, not just bitch about how much it's costing, and how dirty the people are.
She paddles over to the side of the pool and climbs out, stroking the water off her naked body. About 5'6", a tight hundred and twenty-five pounds. Olive skin (she's perpetually tanned, she's never had to worry about sunburn), dark almond-shaped eyes. She doesn't know much about her genealogy but she suspects there's something besides pure Anglo in her blood: Hawaiian, Samoan, Hispanic, at the least Italian or Greek; something to account for the pigmentation. She's comfortable in her skin; her body isn't perfect—far from it—but she isn't particularly vain that way. She's a little heavier in the butt and thighs than she'd like to be, but so is almost every woman she knows. Her legs are long and strong, and despite being the mother of two kids, and having turned forty, her breasts are still firm. Her hair, deep brown, doesn't need any coloring.
There's no reason to wear a suit, the place is completely isolated. She whiffs at her armpit. Definitely funky; time to start cleaning up her act. A nice long shower, wash her hair and pin it up with flowers, brush her teeth, dab some perfume: breasts, wrists, behind her knees, just a touch, so she smells like a girl.
Party hardy one last night, then back to the quiet life. Yoga in the morning, long walks up Tunnel Road past the Botanical Gardens, herb teas and steamed veggies, work, and sleep.
She walks to the edge of the cracked patio and looks down through an opening in the foliage. Far down, past the foothills and the Mission and the red-tiled Spanish-style houses, down to where the streets are rocking, where Fiesta is going full-bore, tonight's the last night, the spring winding tighter and tighter, one final debauchery. She stands above it all, taking in the rays; and below, way down there below her, the city is exploding.
The Princess Bride, a 53-foot custom-built ketch home-docked at Balboa Island, glides past the Santa Barbara breakwater, half a mile outside the buoys. Five people are aboard: Laura Sparks and Frank Bascomb and Frank's three friends from San Diego, the woman and the two men. Laura doesn't like the woman, whose name is Morgan, a made-up name if Laura has ever heard one. They haven't hit it off—the woman is an obvious social-climbing airhead, and a 24-carat name dropper to boot, all that Hollywood crap about Warren this and Kevin that, like they were among her closest personal friends. If she gave one of them a fast hand job in his motor home on some location she'd been working as an extra it would be as close as she'd come to knowing them.
The guys are fine. Surfers, surfers' mentalities. They do the job okay enough, they know how to sail and keep the boat out of trouble, which is all that matters.
Excerpted from House of Smoke by J. F. Freedman. Copyright © 1996 J. F. Freedman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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