ONE

It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
Popular saying

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 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, over-muscled convertible coupe that popped a spoiler when you topped 75? She never cared she was going 30 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 the 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 fingerturn. Then without warning he'd back off, almost disappearing...but not quite.

The road had no shoulder.

No guard rails.

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 9-1-1 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 state police didn't patrol up here, preferring to hand out speeding tickets out 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 guard rail 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; 10 to go.

Her Boxster was lone 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 rusted-out 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 last few days. The last 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 home-run: producers, director, writer, star all in place, a sure-fire 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 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 last 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 last three years would be nice, too...

And then the headlights were back. Rocketing towards her, practically up her ass.

* * *

Number of accidental vehicle crashes per year: 43,200.

* * *

She stomped 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 run to pull over, to let him pass. If passing was even on his mind.

She wondered why she presumed he 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 he drove by.

How much further 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 it could, the headlights bobbing and weaving behind her, like she was being pursued by a 40-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—

90

Hah hah, 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 these 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.

Godamnit!

Right on her, curve for curve, skid for skid. It was like the car behind her was mocking her. Whatever 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 which 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.

oh shit

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 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, corners of his mouth lifting into a knowing smile.

"You're Lane Madden. No way!"

Great. Now she just couldn't be 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.

"I'm fine."

"You know, I don't mind waiting, if it 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."

"Thanks."

"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.

Sort of.

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 wheelmen can make. A small turn of the wheel, a tap on the brakes, then presto, Hollywood fender bender. Happens all of the time.

That was the fun part. The boring part was the aftermath. Waiting and bleeding in your own car for the highway patrol to arrive, and 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 did one of these jobs. His volunteer work with kids with lukemia (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'd 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 sure-fire 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-out 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 showtime.

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 to 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 to down to the PCH, and then Venice. Make herself a big strong cup of coffee—one of those Cuban espressos she used to drink of 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 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 airbag exploded.

* * *

Mann watched the accident from approximate 50 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 jam 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-sized human being; it 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 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 airbag 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 airbag 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, but 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.

  

  

  

TWO

California is a beautiful fraud.
-Marc Reisner

Wheels were supposed to be up at 5:30 a.m., but by 5:55 it became clear that it 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 1417 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 carefully planned his seat assignments so that he'd one of the first on the plane, guaranteeing him overhead bin space. It didn't matter what happened to the rest of us 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 snot-ass 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 Hardie 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 travelled 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 of their lives to afford.

All Hardie had to do was make sure nobody broke in. He also was expected to make sure they 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 making upon arrival to make sure they were fortified, and then...yeah. That was it. All of the "work" that was required. He made it clear to his book 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 job 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 scotch, 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 devour the house in his rear view 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 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 D.C. 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 house-sitter 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 P.O. Box in a suburb of Philadelphia.

When this new California offer came up, and 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 the start being vomited up from below.

Nearby a little boy, about eight years old, squeezed his mother's hand. He kept glancing 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 turnstile kept churning. These carousels always reminded Hardie of a suit 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 towards the doors. A man in his late 30s stopped in his track, 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, spinning and spinning and spinning.

Figured.

The suitcase contained nothing of real value—a couple of gray t-shirts, jeans, socks, deodorant and toothpaste, some DVD stand-bys. 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, 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 on 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 had to be in Moscow earlier than expected. Lowenbruck was working on the soundtrack 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 cancelled; the replacement left eight hours earlier. Virgil told him that Lowenbruck was known for his "pulse-pounding" action scores—the modern-day Bernard Hermann, 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 looked like you were going to drive over the edge of a road and tumble down a ravine to your death. Then, at the last possible moment, was another turn, and you found 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 rowhouse, which was wedged in with hundreds of other rowhouses on flat tracts of land that stretched river to river.

Out here was the opposite—all hills and heights and preciously-perched multi-million 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 a 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 chainsaws. On top of the cliff was another 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 you.

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 widescreen 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 a neo-noir 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 them, 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 it the place was 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 say he'd leave keys in his mailbox.

Hardie looked.

Yep.

No keys in the mailbox.

© 2010 Duane Swierczynski


Posted with permission. Do not reprint. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
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