It never rains in Southern California. It burns like hell.
An arsonist's ploy to distract from his real crime turns into a series of deadly wildfires that summon Lucky Dey back into the uniform of a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy. As an emergency first responder, Lucky is sworn to serve and protect. But in doing his duty he tips over a boiling cauldron of criminal behavior—from practiced assassins to the dangerously stupid. Add to the mix a ghost from the past, hell-bent on satisfying a thirst for revenge, and it's not just Lucky who's in mortal danger.
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Porter Ranch. Los Angeles, California. 7:32 p.m.
It began with a match strike, just one of a number of fire-starting options. He'd first imagined he would use something disposable. Something cheap and plastic, like what a chain-smoker would purchase for $1.99 at the corner convenience store. As arsons go, a lighter would leave barely a thimbleful of evidence. But Oren didn't know if the remnants, even if mostly melted in the planned conflagration, could provide some sort of identifying evidence against him. If trace human oil was able to survive a wildfire, a lighter would be expected to bear fingerprints or DNA. And were he to wear gloves, an unsullied lighter would appear too suspicious. Not that he was all that concerned about jail or prison. He pretty much figured that was where he'd end up. It was only a matter of when and how he would be caught and incarcerated for all his sins.
If Oren's life was an unwinding ball of twine, it was nearing its frayed end.
Because Oren's plan was for the blaze to appear as an accident, he settled on a saved book of matches he'd purloined from a recent day at the racetrack. A nonsmoker, Oren had laid in wait for one of the Santa Anita regulars, a greasy sad sack suffering from what Oren coined as MAD — or Multiple Addiction Disorder. The smoker Oren had marked was afflicted with not only nicotine abuse, but a gambling habit egged on by liver-killing alcoholism. When the sad sack reprobate had his eyeballs on the number-five horse in the eighth race, Oren nicked the book of matches from a spot perched atop a pack of Camels. Seconds later, Oren's own pick in the race, a two-year-old filly called Emperor's Price, claimed first place and put Oren back in the black for the day.
Kismet, he'd thought. My fire was meant to be.
Though the execution would take only minutes, he'd been planning the arson for months. He needed the fire to appear authentic — as if it had been accidentally set by one of the fifty-five thousand strong of hopeless human flotsam that had come to populate the dark corners and concrete riverbeds of Los Angeles County.
In the tinder-dry slopes and hills that both encompassed and divided the cities and neighborhoods — where eight months out of a year could be considered fire season — the local homeless population was often responsible for the threatening blazes to property and life. Encampments would crop up seemingly out of nowhere, hidden in the hills among the oaks, bushes, and chaparral, creating instant communities of needle-sharing addicts and comorbid schizophrenics. On cold desert nights they'd build campfires as a way to cook the bacteria out of their recycled meat or roadkill and to keep warm while they slept, many nodding off into a heroin coma after fixing with a few CCs of Mexican black tar sometimes salted with fentanyl. The untended fires would usually peter out. Yet, more often than local fire authorities would like, and when the weather assisted, a few wayward sparks would turn into a fiery hell.
Oren had gathered up his ingredients from a list he'd etched only in his mind:
1 book of matches
1 package of inexpensive hot dogs
1 discarded nonstick skillet
1 square foot of cyclone fencing
1 three-gallon paint can — empty
1 trash bag full of vagrant's clothing
Knowing he'd be able to find that last item in almost any alley or parking lot in L.A., he'd saved it for last. Discarded clothes, filthy and smothered in reeking DNA, were as much a part of the landscape as palm trees, nail salons, and luxury cars. Though no stranger to ugly smells — having breathed in chemicals for much of his career — the human stink in the urine-soaked concrete underpass had made Oren want to vomit. Yet he braved entry and picked up a pair of left-behind Nike sweats, socks, soiled underwear, and a ragged Baja blanket.
Now it was time.
Oren Elek Mankowski, all five-foot-six of him, twisted to face the breeze. Warm. Dry. It was a Santa Ana wind, a Southwest phenomenon where the high-pressure system over the inland desert pushed down on the air, squeezing it across the sandy desert floors and through canyon bottoms until every last lick of moisture was removed. Nature's blow-dryer, thought Oren. It brushed his forty-four-year-old face like the soft bristles of a shoe brush. Forever undersized, his stout fireplug frame and jutting jaw more than made up for his stature and premature patterned baldness — or so he'd convinced himself as a teen and college wrestling All-American at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University.
When the Santa Anas came — technically a reverse wind from the usual sea-to-shore blow, much of the Southland would go on edge. Firefighting crews were doubled and put on alert as TV weathermen unanimously sounded the warning. It was winter in Southern California, barely a week into the new year, yet it was already fire weather. Conditions were ripe. Be aware, be vigilant.
Only days before, the Air Quality Management District board had sent out a countywide reminder that it was illegal to so much as burn a Pres- To-Log in an indoor fireplace or spark up a backyard charcoal-burning barbecue. Critics ruminated that this was an advertisement for firebugs, a sick, twisted subset who got their sexual kicks from setting fires and watching the ensuing destruction.
Oren knew as much, yet didn't blame the authorities for all the warnings. As if firebugs couldn't lick their fingers to know that a foul wind was blowing from the east.
Of course, he wasn't one of those miscreants. He had his own malignant perspective, especially in regard to Los Angeles. Yes, he loathed the city, the county, and perhaps even the entire Southwest region and nearly all who inhabited it. And yet that wasn't the rationale for him starting the wildfire. Oren had a scheme; a defined, for-profit motive. He'd been plotting since Labor Day. He'd even prayed that nary a drop of rain would leak from a cloudy sky before he could open that matchbook stolen from the racetrack sad sack, tear loose a single toothpick-sized cardboard stick, and scratch the match head until a flame appeared.
It wouldn't be the only fire Oren started that day. He'd already lit two others. One built to appear exactly what it was — an arson for arson's sake — and another to appear as if some thoughtless smoker had tossed his burning cigar butt out the window of his passing car. All for Oren's petty profit scheme. He'd saved the most complicated one — the one closest to his home — for last.
Petty, maybe. But, oh man. So damned satisfying.
With the coming darkness as cover, Oren crouched by the makeshift campfire, struck that single match, and lit the scrap paper and kindling he'd assembled inside the old paint bucket. A gust added some easy oxygen. The inside of the three-gallon can swirled hot with an apricot- colored flame. He placed the rusted square of cyclone fence atop the burning bucket, then the skillet and half the packet of Farmer John hot dogs.
Dodger Dogs, thought Oren. After his twenty-plus years in the City of Angels, he'd even come to despise those blue-and-white togged boys of summer and the damned overpriced, low-quality franks the owners offered as genuine ballpark wieners.
With his collar popped high and bucket hat pulled low, Oren waited until the flames in the bucket looked as if they were going to overtake the fake meal. When the hot dogs had begun to sizzle, Oren kicked over the can and the burning coals inside. The dry grass around him ignited.
"It's finally time," said Oren to nobody but himself. He stood, dusted himself off, and turned down a sandy path. It was a mile-and-a-half hike he knew all too well, the trailhead emptying out at Via Medici, the sleepy Porter Ranch lane where Oren and his precious family of four had resided for the past eleven years. By Oren's calculation, if the winds kept their current pace, the wildfire he'd just unleashed would soon be bearing down upon his gated private neighborhood like an all-consuming beast.
It was one hell of a wager. The biggest bet of his gambling life. Win or lose, it was sure to be an adrenaline injection straight to his nucleus accumbens — the brain's pleasure center — or as Oren called it, "my fabulously untamed hypothalamus." Now, that's a pony I'd bet on, he laughed to himself. Untamed Hypothalamus.
He pictured such a horse, a black-on-black filly, dark as the nastiest feeling in his soul. Fiery eyes, jutting blinders, trussed in patent leather, and carrying a chimpanzee-sized jockey silken in UCLA Bruins blue and gold. He pictured the muscled monster lunging at the starting gate, the painted metal clanging in battered restraint before the hydraulics pulled the chute wide. In his mind, Oren heard the distant sound of starting gate bells.
And they're off!CHAPTER 2
Downtown Los Angeles. 8:01 p.m.
For Lucky, if felt like being underwater for twelve straight hours, submarined in the concrete bunker called the Public Safety Division of the city's Personnel Department. The windowless basement floor was chock-full of retired cops engaged in second or third careers as background investigators whose sole job was to probe the lives of police academy applicants, wannabe firefighters, government employees, and nearly anybody else City Hall deemed deserving of more than a perfunctory perusal. With only five months on the job, Lucky had earned a reputation as having the division's lowest clearance rate. Where the average investigator had a monthly pass rate of three out of four candidates, Lucky's percentage had barely crested at 30 percent. This might have been reason for reprimand or dismissal if Lucky hadn't been able to back up his findings with airtight investigations and irrefutable, impossible-to-disregard evidence.
"Heading out right now," Lucky sighed over his mobile phone. He was hurrying across Temple Street, beelining for his black '99 Ford Crown Victoria.
"You already missed it," growled Gonzo, a.k.a. Lydia Gonzalez, his common-law-but-soon-to-be-legally-married missus.
"No. It's all good," promised Lucky by rote.
"You checked your watch? It's already after eight."
"And he locks the door at eight."
"So I'll knock loudly."
"As far as you know, he's got plans tonight."
"I promise I'll come home with it."
"Said the woman with nothing to wager."
"I'm sure I can think of something." The tease in Gonzo's voice came across like a tinny purr.
Lucky could have informed Gonzo that he'd already phoned ahead, informing the neighborhood tailor he'd be late picking up his wedding suit. The clothier in question was a soft little grandfather of Lebanese extraction who lived with his wife above the same corner dry cleaner they'd owned since the late eighties. In Lucky's forty years on Earth, this was going to be the second suit he'd ever owned, the first being an off- the-rack black number he reserved for funerals. It always hung ready, alongside his pressed set of sheriff's dress greens reserved for formal cop burials.
Gonzo had long fancied the idea of Lucky in deep gray pinstripes on the day of their nuptials. When Lucky mentioned he was attiring himself at a Pasadena Men's Wearhouse, a chain discount suit seller, Gonzo expressed a different desire. Her groom was going to be fitted into a fine ensemble that complimented his broad-shouldered surfer's frame. She'd strongly suggested Lucky ask their local dry cleaner for a recommendation. In reply, the aging tailor had practically insisted on personally constructing the former sheriff's deputy a suitable wedding suit.
On most days, Lucky's drive home was via the aging Pasadena Freeway. But a fresh grass fire near the base of Mount Washington had shut down the artery, leaving Lucky to consider a wider route. There was the GPS program that Travis, his soon-to-be stepson, had downloaded onto his phone — the ubiquitous Waze application that seemed a must for all Los Angeles drivers. The technology aggregated live traffic flow with its users' data to sort out the most efficient course of travel between points A and B. And though Lucky appreciated the tech, he preferred to rely on his rookie training and police officer's instinct to nose his way to a destination. Thus he chose to swing the '99 Crown Vic northwest and take the Hollywood Freeway, planning to hook his way back east through Burbank.
He'd already heard the weather reports. The fall and early winter had been suspiciously dry after a summer of record-breaking heat, and now January had arrived, sweeping in with a multi-day forecast of fierce Santa Ana winds. So it was of little surprise when Lucky spotted distant flames. As the grille of his car crested Hollywood's Cahuenga Pass, revealing the San Fernando Valley beyond, he was able to mark three separate brushfires already plaguing the northern hills. By his quick estimate, each conflagration was roughly two miles apart — practically equidistant and at elevations hovering near or just above the residential limits. Those Santa Ana gusts, charging down the sandy slopes like an invisible avalanche, would surely force the fire into populated edges of the Valley's legendary suburban sprawl.
Then, before Lucky could mutter an ominous "Shit," his mobile phone chimed in alert. It was a call to all Los Angeles deputy reservists — the 650-strong Los Angeles Sheriff's volunteers who signed to serve and protect at the snap of Sheriff Paul McGill's bony fingers.
Lucky, though no longer active as a sheriff, was officially listed as a reserve deputy. His position as a reservist was not so much voluntary but rather a negotiated settlement between himself and a department that had labeled him as a liability. Because Lucky hadn't been keen on handing over his badge, "hobby cop" status seemed the only viable salve to heal his very fresh wounds. He'd been a police officer since the age of twenty-two — fifteen years total as a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy plus a two-year sabbatical as a Kern County detective. Subtracting the thirteen months he'd spent rehabbing his back and waiting for his reinstatement to the Los Angeles police rolls, Lucky counted on that shiny six-pointed star as his primary identity. It was his reason for drawing breath, let alone a government-sanctioned license to chase bona fide bad guys.
Petty stuff, he'd later lament.
"Guess I'm not gonna make it," admitted Lucky, his first words after redialing Gonzo. "Woulda lost my bet with you."
"Moot," said Gonzo, an LAPD helicopter pilot for four years. "Just got called up myself. Gotta be up in the air in an hour. Fire crews already playing whack-a-mole out there."
"Know where they're sending you?"
"Think I read Pacoima. Gotta dig out the uniform."
"How 'bout I leave it hanging where your wedding suit should be?"
"That's funny," Lucky conceded.
"Serious, Luck," she moaned. "This fire shit better not fuck up our Saturday."
"'Fire got a mind of its own,'" quoted Lucky, recalling the soot-messed face of an exhausted and defeated firefighter with whom he'd once shared a water break. "So I guess that means no promises."
"Ain't you a ray of sunshine?"
"Can't believe you're marrying me."
"Words outta my mouth," she joked. "Be safe tonight. Please?"
"You too," replied Lucky. "Hey. Wait. Where's the kids?"
"Trav's at Mark's," answered Gonzo. "Supposedly studying for his SATs, but I'll believe that when he scores a fourteen hundred. And Karrie's on the job."
Lucky released a chuckle. "On the job" was cop slang for a police officer at work. Nineteen-year-old Karrie wasn't close to being a cop. At least, not yet. But she held down a job that involved copious interfacing with walk-in customers.
"If I'm giving service to the public in general?" Karrie had amusingly argued somewhat recently. "And if I'm restraining myself from punching them in the face? Think I can call it 'on the job'?"
Lucky had pondered. Then agreed.CHAPTER 3
Westlake Village. 8:22 p.m.
It wasn't technically a smoking break.
At ButterCrème bakery, the time cards referred to the ten-minute work break as "tens."
"My mom says the old-school term is 'coffee break,'" Karrie said to her uniformed coworker. "My dad calls it goin' 10-7. That's cop code for 'out of service.'"
Karrie took a deep hit from her vape pen.
"Should call this a weed break," joked her skin-and-bones associate, the pastel ButterCrème T-shirt and apron matching her eruption of pimples. "Bet he'd loooove to hear that."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hip Slick and Dead"
Copyright © 2019 Doug Richardson.
Excerpted by permission of Velvet Elvis Entertainment.
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