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Few things in Los Angeles are as profitable as a dead celebrity.
When a celebrity kicks the bucket, the world first pauses for a brief second to gasp. And then, in the aftermath of all things, tweets get sent, news gets posted, paparazzi sell photos, magazines print special editions, back catalogs go up, memorabilia becomes more valuable, last films attract more attention—everything matters.
There’s even some lawyer out there who manages the estates of the famous dead. There has to be—otherwise you’d get shit like Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum. Otherwise you’d get Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” used in a hemorrhoid-treatment commercial. Elvis is a dead celebrity and he’s rich as f***. Probably worth more dead than when he was alive. Michael Jackson has earned something like $600 million since his death. Yeah, when a celebrity dies, everyone makes money . . . including me.
And as the phone call from the Westside cops had explained: movie star Alan Van, the doe-eyed twentysomething make-the-tween-girls-scream “it kid” was f***ng “dead as dead could be.” Good, I hate when they’re only mostly dead, I think. No sense in suffering more than you absolutely have to. I look out the window behind my desk. Steel bars vivisect my view into rectangular eighths. Across the way, on the roof of the building opposite mine, I see a billboard for some incoming Hollywood movie.
How Do You Kill a God? Those words, a “tagline” as it’s called, command my mind to consider that very question. Freshly rolled onto the marquee in long paper strips today, the promo offers neither a release date for this movie nor a title. Just those words and a haunting pair of eyes—a murderer’s eyes, looks like, glaring back through the iron bars, staring deep into me. I close the blinds. Hell, it might not even be a movie, but most oddities in Los Angeles are Hollywood related, it seems. Much of the time, the little town overwhelms the big one—you say Los Angeles and everyone thinks “movies.” Even a few of the boulders currently in Griffith Park are Styrofoam props, left over from some film shoot. I shouldn’t be too surprised though—after all, this is a place where hidden oil derricks are pumping oil out of the grounds at Beverly Hills High School, making the school something like $300,000 a year. One of the derricks is hidden behind a giant artsy facade that you can see when you head west on Olympic. It’s an apt metaphor for this town: a cold, industrial machine, a money pump hidden behind “art.”
I finish loading my work truck, give the ominous billboard one more glance and head out in search of blood.
Flipping on KFI, the local news/talk radio channel, as I drive to the scene, I listen in for more details on what’s going down. Of course none are available yet—I’m one of the first people to know the actor is dead. So instead of speculation about what sounds like a shit death for the young film star, I get yammering about area politicians. Typical shock jocks and their manufactured vitriol. Annoyed, I flick the radio off again just as quickly.
Details of Van’s untimely demise won’t stay secret for long; as with all celebrity deaths, the media sharks are doubtlessly already aware. They are likely still negotiating the price of relevant information to the highest bidder—the gossipmongers and paparazzi profit from celebrity death as generously as I do . . . hell, better. But where they’re paid to be vermin, I console myself with the notion that I’m being paid for my discretion.
I’d already been approached twice in the previous month by different media outlets looking to retain Trauma-Gone’s services. It was easy money—$10,000 in cash, just for taking some raw “insider” photos whenever a high-profile cleanup came my way. Nothing too gruesome, just some background photos to flesh out the story—stuff not worth “headline money.” Both of the Hollywood-casual-dressed “television producer” types who came to visit me had conditional clauses built into their speeches that bonuses would be forthcoming if I maybe snagged a few recognizable mementos (an Emmy with blood on it, perhaps?) if the opportunity allowed. Nothing written down, just nonchalant provisos slipped off their tongues.
Ultimately, I declined both offers—to combat the loss of income though, if I have a high- profile cleanup, I now automatically add that $10,000 to the bill. It seems fair to me; instead of a newly deceased celebrity’s personal items showing up on the news or supermarket tabloid, for an extra few grand, the family gets to maintain their dignity . . . from me, at least. Plenty of other crime scene–cleanup companies in the area don’t share my consideration.
As I drive, the October air still feels oppressively hot and sticky. Fall in Los Angeles is almost worse than summer because you keep the heat, but add humidity from up out of the south. It will stay this way in Southern California ’til near Thanksgiving, when the temperatures abruptly drop and we encounter a season that isn’t quite winter . . . more like just “not summer.” The air-conditioning in the truck blows fresh and cold though; it is one of the first things I had fixed once I became the owner of the Trauma-Gone Crime Scene Cleaning Company. The air conditioner actually works so well now, I might not even be aware of the unpleasantness that is the outside weather—save for the fact that I always keep the window slightly cracked on account of the whistling. I like the low-pitched intermittent blasts of sound that emanate from the truck’s side panels now. A result of air slipping across the bullet holes, flute-like, on the driver’s side of the—my—company truck whenever I navigate just above cruising speeds on city streets and freeways. When I hear the whistling, I crack my window the slightest bit ajar and speed up. The faster I go, the higher the pitch.
The bullet holes were actually the first thing I decided didn’t need fixing when I took over Trauma-Gone operations. As long as the truck could still drive, the holes would remain as a sort of tribute to Harold, Trauma-Gone’s original owner. My former boss had the unfortunate luck of stopping more than a few bullets from reaching the engine block during a hail of gunfire. The Sureño Lowriders street gang, the ones who killed my boss, were bad news. But I was responsible for his death, more or less, for the Lowriders had been aiming at me. Harold had died, and the truck would live on. It was a piss-poor trade. Maybe the whistling serves as a reminder that I need to do things better.
Ivy would be crushed to learn of Alan Van’s passing, and when I got to the crime scene, I would leave my cellphone in the truck because of it. Once upon a time, I would have left my phone in the truck only to avoid calls from my now-dead boss; these days I do it to dodge an overenthusiastic girlfriend. When Ivy hears word that Alan Van is dead and figures out that I am working the cleanup, she will call incessantly for the gossip.
Ivy loves that stuff—all of it. She has her regular array of online gossip sites that she checks and rechecks throughout the day, and if our TV is on at home, it is tuned to true-crime or Hollywood gossip . . . or Animal Planet. But a constantly on television set is just one of the changes I have learned to accommodate in the previous three months since we’d moved in together. The loss of enduring solitude—the sort that comes from spending days or weeks interacting with no one—is another change for me.
As I pass the Gower off-ramp on the 101 North, I inadvertently catch a glimpse of the crooked arrangement of fifty-foot-high lettering that forms the Hollywood sign, near the peak of the Santa Monica mountain range. “Holly would if she could, but she can’t. She’s dead,” I mutter to myself as I seem to do every time I roll past the real-estate-stunt-turned–Southern California landmark. The memory of the little girl who’d impacted my life—and I hers—would stain me forever. I should be stained though. It would be wrong of me to not feel stained, right? The whistling across the truck panels outside is practically a scream.
I will myself to look forward though the sign quickly disappears behind a teeming wall of reinforced brick, separating the pristine freeway system from the mess of urban sprawl just outside. Right now, I have financial numbers to calculate. I have to figure out how much exactly I am going to overcharge the city—to get paid while the paying is good. I know it is going to cost them at least $10,000, that’s for sure. Harold’s eyes would bug out at the invoices I get away with now.
Cleaning up crime scenes had taken a profitable turn since I assumed full ownership of Trauma-Gone. I still relied on the answering service full of soulless phone operators who were instructed to call me day or night in the event of a cleanup; and they called me often. Business had picked up impressively in the wake of my tussle with Andy Sample and my “heroic” saving of Detective Marcus Stack. For a brief moment, I too had miserably been a sort of celebrity, a part of the Los Angeles dream. My fifteen minutes of fame was ironically born as much out of my avoidance of the spotlight as it was from saving Stack. The news articles and talk shows, forced to work without quotes or an appearance from me, instead built up “the mystery that is Tom Tanner. Is he a hero or villain?” Perhaps both?! the more audacious among them speculated. I didn’t care one way or the other. I just wanted to do my job and be left alone.
It was a weird maelstrom, the shift from media outrage when pundits rightly blamed me for the death of Holly Kelly, and eventually her father, to an antihero media darling when it came out that I had actually been the target of a serial killer’s twisted obsession. People love a good serial-killer story, my mind muses, perplexed.
Entertainment industry personnel had beaten a path to my door, all of them wanting to represent me during my time in the spotlight. Book deals, a possible TV movie, even appearances on celebrity dancing shows were suddenly on the table. Everyone was promising me something and claiming that they alone could deliver on their promises. In fact, most of them seemed downright shocked when I rebuffed their offer of fame. “Most people have to get attacked by a great white shark—not even a regular shark, a bona fide great white—to get this kind of exposure,” one agent told me, incredulous that I wanted none of it.
Exiting the freeway, I take the long vein of asphalt that is Santa Monica Boulevard across the Westside. Making the turn onto Avenue of the Stars, I can already see that the law-enforcement circus on the street is in full swing. This stretch of road with the obnoxiously long name is only concerned with one star today. Alan Van’s death had been a priority call and that meant they wanted me on scene ASAP, no questions asked, no stopping for coffee.
A ring of police cars surround the Fox Plaza building, the service cruisers extending out into the street, obscuring the delivery lane near the curb. Outside a building this tall, this setup usually means one thing: he jumped.
Sure enough, as I crane my head skyward, waiting for a light to change, I can just make out the empty square on what looks like the thirty-fourth floor, one down from the top. The safety glass is completely knocked out, no jagged residual slivers hanging in the window frame. He didn’t throw a chair through it, that’s for sure. Alan Van wasn’t f***Ing around, taking a jump from that height. People who are conflicted about suicide jump from the fourth floor, people who don’t care if they splatter hit the buttons on the elevator for the higher floors.
I know little about this actor—but I’d seen him in a movie earlier in the week. It had been on when Ivy had gone flipping around during the commercials and she’d stuck around to watch, forgetting whatever she’d been drawn to previously. The name stuck in my mind because Ivy had gone on at length about how he’d recently been cast as the lead in a big-budget movie even though he’d just completed rehab for an addiction to pain medicine. Why she’d retained that information for use in her own life, I couldn’t guess. Alan Van was handsome though, and young—really young, like he could actually still be in high school. “Why does a kid that young need pain pills?” I’d asked at the time, but that wasn’t key to Ivy’s narrative and the question had gone unanswered. Though he was playing a high-school “nerd” in the TV movie, I remembered his eyes had an exhaustion to them that betrayed his acting. A thousand-yard stare. A druggie’s stare . . . or a jailbird. I knew those looks intimately, because I’d been both. All the same, I had been drawn into the movie as well, somehow interested in knowing how he would stop a bunch of other werewolf teens from taking over their town.