Eccentric private eye Charlie Waldo is back in another wildly fun and fast-paced thriller lampooning Southern California.
Former LAPD detective Charlie Waldo was living in solitude deep in the woods, pathologically committed to owning no more than one hundred possessions, until his PI ex-girlfriend Lorena dragged him back to civilization to solve a high-profile Hollywood murder. Now Waldo and Lorena have their hands full with a new client, a wild and privileged L.A. teenager named Stevie Rose who tells lies as easily as she breathes.
When the teacher Stevie claims seduced her turns up dead, the LAPD pegs her as the prime suspect. Then Stevie disappears, and her self-involved Hollywood parents turn to Waldo to find her—a task that draws him down into Orange County’s dangerous and complex worlds, both opulent and seedy, where nothing is as it seems.
With treachery and deception at every turn, and with Waldo’s eco-obsessed rules for living complicating his already complicated relationship with Lorena, Waldo fends off enemies old and new as he races to find Stevie and solve the murder.
About the Author
Howard Michael Gould began his career on Madison Avenue before moving to Los Angeles, where he has worked as a screenwriter and playwright as well as an executive producer and head writer of a number of network television series. Below the Line is his second novel, following the introduction of detective Charlie Waldo in Last Looks.
Read an Excerpt
It was a lone pearly strand in a rich ocean of sable, one in a hundred thousand, dazzling in the early gleam and his favorite the instant he saw it. It was a bounty, this white hair; it was dimension; it was the new her, the new them, a token of the hell they'd been through and the hell they'd put each other through and, most of all, the unexpected glory of having somehow found their way back.
She'd hate it, of course, if she knew it was there. She'd have plucked it by now, and no doubt have started a conversation with her stylist about whether it was time to start coloring. So it must have kept itself a secret, this singleton, hiding behind the ones sprouting closer to the crown, betrayed this morning only by the random splay of her thick mane on the pillow, and only to Waldo. Which would make her hate it even more: she'd rather die than show weakness, to him or to anyone. In fact, but a month ago he had believed she'd made that very choice, only to learn that she'd faked her death by propping a finagled corpse behind the wheel of her sort of husband's sort of borrowed Porsche under a Santa Clarita overpass, then dousing car and cadaver in gasoline and setting them both ablaze-and doing it all, Waldo was willing to bet, in the usual killer stilettos.
She'd also hate his knowing because, while she treated unabridged knowledge of everything about Waldo as something like a prerogative, she herself was furtive in countless ways and expected him to accept that. Which he did. But here the first late spring daylight was peeking through the slats of her plantation shutters and revealing a secret about her very body, a bulletin that he'd read and she hadn't, which he cherished and she wouldn't. All of that made Lorena Nascimento's first white hair in this moment the sexiest thing about her, and, Lord Almighty, that was saying something.
He pressed against her backside, testing how deeply she slept. Not deeply enough, he was pleased to find; she reached back for him and shifted to make herself available, liking it this way early in the morning, and raised her head just enough to let him slip an arm under her neck. As he crushed his lips to the locks against her nape she let out a sleepy purr, all the more fetching in her unawareness of what it was he was worshipping so.
His natural inclination to rise early reinforced by the habits of three years in the woods, Waldo knew he wouldn't fall back asleep. He listened to Lorena's breathing slow and deepen, one more little pleasure he hadn't realized how much he'd missed. Goddamn, he thought, it was good to be back with her, but goddamn, it was complicated, navigating the orthodoxies he'd adopted since the last time.
The past month, in fact, seemed like nothing but sex and negotiation. It was hard even to find a place to spend a night together; uncomfortable as he felt at her house, it was still, when she had it to herself, their least bad option. In his tiny cabin there'd be no sleeping space for her unless she took his loft, leaving him to curl up on the floor between the sink and the desk. One time they tried a hotel in Idyllwild but its shower alone overwhelmed his zero-footprint sensibility with its casual outrages, from the non-low-flow head to the tiny plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner and body wash and lotion; the very thought of the megajoules required to manufacture each, just to give some tourist a single partial use before a chambermaid tossed the bottle and remaining contents into a garbage can on the way to a landfill where the leftovers would seep into the groundwater and the container could take centuries to degrade, led Waldo to dry quickly and scurry from the bathroom. He threw on his clothes while Lorena watched from the downy bed in a gauzy postcoital torpor, nonplussed but indulgent, almost amused. He biked to his cabin to sleep, then rode the few miles back to see her in the morning.
Trying to blend their lives, even a little, presented bottomless challenges. One day, flush in physical love, Lorena had presented him with a light purple Hugo Boss dress shirt made of Italian cotton. She didn't mean it as a challenge to his Hundred Things-she'd figured he could replace one of his two work shirts, or maybe choose another possession to shed when he got back to his cabin-but it threw him into a spin nonetheless; the whole point was that the Hundred were painstakingly selected, that nothing was easy to discard, that there'd never be room for a possession so frivolous, and they'd quarreled.
They'd also quarreled over frying pans. Waldo had set out to scramble some eggs on his first morning in her house, only to discover that, oddly, there wasn't a single skillet in the otherwise fully appointed kitchen. When Lorena brought home a two-piece Calphalon set from Williams-Sonoma that afternoon, Waldo felt she should get rid of a Thing-or, better, two-to offset the purchase. She argued that the Things were his rule, not hers, and that she could have as many possessions as she cared to. But this Thing was for his use, he countered, and therefore a de facto cheat of his Hundred. She must have found something appealing underneath his scolding, because she reached into his pants, tabling the debate.
Now Waldo remembered one Thing Lorena did have, which predated him and was thus devoid of moral complication: a top-of-the-line Omega masticating juicer, which sat waiting in the kitchen for him and for the oranges he'd bought at the L.A. Farmers Market the evening before. He sat up, poked a toe under the bed and found his boxers. Sliding them on, he watched the gentle rise and fall of the sheet atop Lorena and marveled for the thousandth time at how everything had turned out. There was no woman like her, and they were each other's again.
He slipped out of the bedroom and headed toward the kitchen. Yes, there were squabbles over shirts and kitchenware, but these were a lot less taxing than the bloodier skirmishes of the old days, over things like fidelity and jealousy and commitment. So while you couldn't quite call it easy, this Lorena & Waldo 2.0, it was definitely easier.
These cheery thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of an unexpected penis.
It was attached to Willem Vander Janssen, Lorena's beauteous husband. He had been working overseas and wasn't due back until the next day-but here he was, standing at the center island of the kitchen with an array of fruits and vegetables and a knife and carving board and the masticating Omega before him, juicing in the nude. "Hey," he said, casually, as if he and Waldo, near strangers, had on more than one pair of boxers between them.
"Hey," said Waldo.
Willem and Lorena were theoretically separated but had decided to share their house until they could figure out the best way to dispose of their joint ownership. They were cordial enough cohabitants, notwithstanding Lorena's torching of Willem's ninety-thousand-dollar car, about which he apparently remained oblivious.
But his nakedness-what did it mean? It could simply be that Willem was preternaturally comfortable with his body. After all, he was nude on a billboard on Sunset, not two miles from here-in a slightly abridged view, perhaps, but that was just a matter of logo placement. Or was he marking his territory? Had he come out here knowing Waldo was in the house, wanting to remind the interloper padding about in his underwear that he was still Lorena's husband, and that during Waldo's three years as a hermit, he had laid a claim on her so physically intoxicating that she'd actually married him, where as she and Waldo had never so much as lived together?
More troubling was the notion that Willem would have been just as nude had it been Lorena walking into the kitchen. Shouldn't their "estrangement" have triggered some sort of modesty? Just how cordial were they? Lorena and Waldo had established no "rules" to this reunion. Was she screwing her husband on the sly, while her lover was out of town?
Willem said, "The last day of the shoot got rained out. Ever been to the Azores?"
"Beautiful," he said, turning to face Waldo full on, nothing but friendly. "You should totally go." There didn't seem to be a hair on his body below his jaw. How did these male models get that way? Shave? Wax? Felicitous disease? Willem poured himself a glass of thick green extract and downed half of it in a gulp. To any hygienic concerns about preparing food without clothing, his perfection stood as its own rebuke; he was Michelangelo's David, fortifying himself for another day under the world's gaze with a healthful dose of enzymes and antioxidants. Still and all, Waldo resolved to find something other than juicing to do with his oranges.
He returned to Lorena's bedroom and found her sitting up and checking her phone. "I thought I heard voices," she said.
"Mm," said Waldo. "Daddy's home." He crawled back in beside her, looking around the meager bedroom. Willem had somehow managed to appropriate the master. "How long you think you'll live here?"
"Why?" she said with a chuckle. "Think we should get a place together? You can't even get through a night in a hotel, for fuck's sake."
He wondered what had made him court trouble with a chancy question like that. Actually, he knew full well: it was the penis in the kitchen. "I'm not saying that."
She continued as if he hadn't answered. "You'd probably want us to share Two Hundred Things. I couldn't get down to two hundred blouses." She slid down and rolled on top of him. "I love you. And I love that we're together."
"How about we have an understanding?"
"Uh-oh." They were careening into the badlands. With one flash of insecurity he'd jeopardized everything.
"Doesn't have to be 'uh-oh.' How about until we figure out where this is going, we just agree not to see other people?"
"Easy for me. I didn't see any people for three years." She giggled. They locked eyes, sealing the deal without needing to say it.
"Now," she said, crossing her hands on his chest and resting her chin on them, "can we talk about something really important? The reporter still wants to sit down with you." Of course he did. Waldo was a big story-again-since coming out of his self-imposed exile to solve a spectacular Hollywood murder case, that of Monica Pinch, found beaten to death and locked in a house with her TV star husband, a violent blackout drunk who claimed not to remember what happened. For legal purposes, Waldo worked the Pinch case as a nominal employee of Lorena's agency. Afterward, trying to capitalize on the notoriety, Lorena hired a publicist, who persuaded the L.A. Times to do a feature on her.
But she wasn't actually talking about the Times article, which they both knew was merely a conversational gateway to the proposal she'd refrained from reviving for the whole week: that Waldo return to detective work full-time, as her partner. She was sure his name on the door would be a Golconda, that all the celebrity work in town would come their way. For Waldo, though, it was all too much to contemplate, starting with the very idea of moving back to the city.
Now, though, she had a new pitch. "You wouldn't even have to do much. Live in Idyllwild if you want. Come into town when you're in the mood." She tilted her head and flashed her eyebrows. "Or once in a while for a meeting when we need you to show your face. Only work a case if something comes along you actually care about."
The variation gave him something to consider, but he gave her his usual wordless no, for now, by screwing up his face and smiling with his eyes. She responded with her usual sigh and pushed herself off of him and the bed.
"Wait-where you going?" He raised a hand, an invitation.
"Can't, marathon man. I've got to drive down to Newport Beach. Some of us do have to work."
"Peep show?" Marital investigations, which he disdained, made up the bulk of her practice. She continued into the bathroom without contradicting it.
"I guess I'll head back," he said, meaning his cabin.
She came right out. "No." Waldo tipped his head toward the door: we're not alone anymore. "Don't go," she said. "Please?" Such a direct entreaty was unlike her. "Hang around one more day," she offered. "I'll meet you tonight in Santa Monica"-she was alluding to a very green restaurant they'd been frequenting-"and then I'll blow some of my Newport Beach money on a hotel." Waldo started to object but she cut him off. "I did some research. Sustainable stay." She didn't care a whit about any of this, naturally; it was all for him. "The bedding is made from recycled plastic bottles, and they've got a waterless urinal in every room. We'll be ballin' out of control."
She had him and she knew it. She turned back into the bathroom, her hair whipping too fast for him to catch one more glimpse of the resplendent thread.
A month earlier, Lorena resurfaced after her gasoline stunt and offered Waldo a lift back to his cabin in Idyllwild. Waldo got into her Mercedes. They weren't even out of Burbank when she mentioned that Willem had left that morning for a fragrance shoot in Miami Beach; they turned the car around and headed straight for her bedroom, which they barely left for the next four days.
Then her husband returned and jerked Waldo out of their private euphoria. He was instantly abashed by the debauchery of those four days-not the sex, but the ethical blight. It had started with that first accepted ride, a brazen flout of the iron rules that had once redeemed him. Worse, floating on a half-week-long endorphin buzz, he had let her keep ordering in food from a pernicious enterprise, new to Waldo, called Grubhub. The meals were varied and delicious and Lorena cannily accepted the deliveries and plated the food out of his vision, allowing him a blind eye to the extraneous bags and plastic utensils she must have been discarding, not to mention the surely less-than-green practices of the originating restaurants, let alone the wanton atmospheric brutality of twice-a-day automobile deliveries.
He'd defiled himself. He'd completely fallen off the eco-wagon, to no end but personal indulgence; he had lost connection to all that had restored sense to his life.