Toby Dirk snugged the smooth wooden stock of his Ruger .22 semiautomatic rifle tight against his shoulder. He sighted in on the small Mediterranean stucco house directly across the street. It was one of many vacation bungalows built in the 1950s on narrow lots. Faded pink paint, overgrown shrubs, and tufts of green grass littering the burnt lawn shouted neglect, or poverty, or renters.
In this case it was poverty. The house was clean, but the home’s decline had outpaced the Sanchezes’ bank account. Toby had known the family for years—solid people, Hispanic, struggling to put food on the table. He had no issues with their youngest boy, Juan, dealing dope.
Juan wasn’t his target.
Venice Beach these days was an eclectic mix of million-dollar designer digs and old-school bungalows from a time when rents were low and the neighborhoods were inhabited by immigrants, blue-collar workers, street gangs, and artists. Gentrification was crowding out many of the longtime residents, but the gangs were ingrained. Their members would have to be jailed or hauled out in pine boxes to make way for the upscale clientele looking for a “teardown.”
Toby listened for signs of life in the house he was using as cover, but the precaution was just reflexive. He knew Mrs. Montenegro wouldn’t return home from her deli until after dark. Through her rangy bamboo hedge he had a clear shot of Juan’s driveway and front door.
Now all he needed was a target.
Tomas Vegas would be dropping off a bag of dope to his newest dealer in less than five minutes. Vegas ran his drug business with precision, just like his iron fist. You could set a clock by his daily rounds.
Unfortunately for Vegas, he’d set up Toby’s girlfriend, Eva Perez, for a nine-month stretch on trumped-up drug and weapons charges. She’d been out on parole for three months now, but she was changed. Damaged. Not the same free spirit. It broke Toby’s heart, and it fueled his rage.
Two men in love with the same woman. She had chosen Toby. Gotten his name tattooed on her shoulder in neat calligraphy. Had been pregnant with his child. Toby was head over heels, crazy in love.
Jealousy’s a bitch, he thought, and Vegas was about to pay the ultimate price. Three shots max, to make sure Vegas wouldn’t get up again. If all went according to plan, Toby would soon be paddling out into the Pacific, catching the late-afternoon swells at Sunset Beach.
Toby, twenty-three, had thick, unruly strands of shoulder-length sandy hair held off his face with a black watch cap. A faint shadow of freckles dusted his high cheekbones, set in a chiseled, angular face. His lean body was sinewy with the long ropy muscles of a surfer. His blue eyes were steady and intelligent. He had tested in the top two percentile in the standardized IQ tests at Venice High, and he had been offered a scholastic scholarship to UC Berkeley. He turned it down. All he was interested in was smoking righteous bud and being an outlaw.
He and his two brothers were doing just fine in that regard. If you played by the rules, you were a sucker. It had killed his father, and he wasn’t going down that dusty trail. He didn’t buy into the old saw that life was a bitch and then you die. Toby was sure of one thing and it guided his life choices.
Dead is dead. There was nothing else. No great beyond. No nothing. You created your own heaven and hell in the only life-time you’d ever know, so grab life with two fists while you were young enough to enjoy it, fuck it, eat it, drink it, or smoke it.
Juan Sanchez peered out of his bedroom door and then silently closed and locked it. He could hear his mother working at the kitchen stove, banging her long wooden spoon against the aluminum pot, filled with enough black beans, garlic, onions, and rice to feed the family for three days.
Juan stooped down beside the only piece of furniture in his room besides his bed, a scarred wooden four-drawer dresser. He pulled out the tall bottom drawer and set it aside on his thread-bare rug. On his hands and knees he strained reaching in, and pulled out a tightly banded roll of greenbacks he had taped to the back panel of the dresser. He slid the money into his pocket, then pushed the drawer back onto its chipped plastic runners until it closed.
Juan glanced nervously toward the door, averting his gaze from the wooden crucifix nailed to the wall over his neatly made bed. He stood sentry at his window, waiting for the pounding of his heart to settle and his dealer to arrive.
The sound of Tomas Vegas’s baffled mufflers preceded his arrival in front of the house.
Juan hurried quietly down the hallway, unnoticed by his mother in the kitchen, and into the living room, where his six-year-old sister, Maria, was struggling to pull a sweater over her Barbie’s head. The bright-eyed girl looked up at her brother with such love and admiration, it washed over Juan like a bucket of guilt. He grabbed the doll from his baby sister, yanked the sweater’s hole over the mop of long blonde hair, and handed it back to Maria. “Gracias, Juan,” she said with an angelic smile. Juan returned a tight grin, nervously tapped the roll of bills in his pocket, and steeled his nerve.
“C’mon, be a man,” he mumbled as he headed out the door.
Toby adjusted the rifle’s sight, mindful of the half-inch play in the gun’s trajectory. He had chosen his .22 because it was quiet and, from this distance, deadly as a viper. The bullets would rattle around in his target’s chest, kill him dead, but he wouldn’t have to worry about collateral damage.
Toby started a silent mantra . . . and slowed his breathing.
As he visualized a tight cluster tearing into Tomas Vegas, an antique electric-blue Ford Fairlane glided to a stop across the street.
Young Juan Sanchez ran out of the house and reached the curb before the screen door slammed behind him.
Vegas slid out of his car with a studied cool and sauntered up to his newest recruit. With icy cool he checked out the houses behind Juan, up and then down Fourth Street toward Rose. He was preening like a fucking peacock, Toby thought.
The young men fist-bumped, exchanged a few words, and Vegas popped the trunk and pulled out a fat brown grocery bag.
Juan nervously dug in his pocket for the roll of cash, and as Vegas thrust the high-grade weed toward his newest dealer, Toby let out an even breath. Now. Yet just as he squeezed off a round, a car sped by, blocking the play.
He jerked the gun at the last second. The high-velocity .22 LR load flew wide, shattering a front window. Toby instantly readjusted, fired, and then again.
Vegas’s face registered surprise as he dropped the bag, ripped open his shirt, stared down at two tight holes in his chest.
Screaming, Juan dove behind the safety of the Ford. Loose buds of marijuana spilled onto the street.
Tomas Vegas fell to his knees and keeled forward face-first, stone-dead, in the gutter.
Toby Dirk madly grabbed for the spent shells, palming two from the thick grass. Where was the third one? A primal wail drifted from the target house and chilled him for a beat. Why the hell would anyone shed tears for Tomas Vegas? he wondered as he army-crawled toward the back of the Montenegro house. He had to get out of there before the shit hit the fan. When he was hidden from view, he jumped to his feet and leapt the chain-link fence.
Toby dropped the butt of the rifle into a Whole Foods bag he had stationed in the rear for that purpose. He held the warm barrel discreetly under his arm, close to his body, looking like he’d just gone shopping. He walked swiftly up the hill, being careful
not to run, but flying with adrenaline. He tossed the bagged rifle into the rear compartment of his matte-black ragtop Jeep, covered it with a spare wetsuit, jumped in and fired up the engine.
The sound of a distant siren could be heard, along with the plaintive screams of a woman. Still puzzled by this reaction—who would cry for a drug dealer? — Toby Dirk sucked in a lungful of air, clicked on Bob Marley, cranked up the volume, and powered away from the scene of his crime.
Jack Bertolino stood behind a large hedge, trying for inconspicuous, and watched a team of heavily armed LAPD narcotics detectives pound toward the front door of a modest California ranch protected with security bars on all the exposed windows.
Jack tensed, despite himself. An ex-NYPD inspector, standing down, not invited to the party. In his twenty-five-year career as a narcotics detective Jack had personally served hundreds of warrants on drug and money-laundering cells. And now he was a casual observer.
The first detective carried an electronic battering ram that he wedged in the front door jamb and splintered the door frame.
The second officer ran past him, smashed in the door, and edged inside the house with his bulletproof shield leading the way, shouting “Police! Down on the ground!”
The operation was textbook perfect, until it went dangerously wrong.
The third detective, a young male, got to the front door, weapon raised, and froze in his tracks like a deer in the headlights.
A female detective right on his heels, concerned for her exposed men, shoved him to one side and entered the house, cocked and loaded, shouting for the occupants to get down on the ground! Now! Now!
The young officer shook off his fear, and as he was about to enter the fray, two LAPD black-and-whites came screaming up the street, sirens wailing, horns blaring, light bars flashing.
The cars blew past their location—and a man on a loudspeaker yelled, “CUT!”
“What the fuck, Kenny?” the female actress said to the first AD, who followed her out of the house. Susan Blake glanced at Jack with raised eyebrows and he gave an imperceptible nod of approval, careful not to overstep his bounds with the director.
Susan stripped off her vest, shook her shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair with an angry toss of her head, and strode across the crabgrass toward the director.
Jack stepped out from behind the hedge and started walking toward the camera crew, who were set up across the street. They were shooting a master for Done Deal, a new movie starring the next big female star.
Susan Blake had flawless skin, gray-blue eyes, zero body fat, the musculature of a gymnast and moved with the fluid grace of a dancer. Not yet a household name, she was enjoying strong buzz in the industry, and with two films in the can, she had the full weight of the studio behind her.
Jack kept his eyes on the star as he approached one of the off-duty motorcycle cops hired for security and crowd control while the crew was filming on a public street. The man clicked his phone off as Jack approached.
“A shooting couple of blocks over,” he said to Jack. “They think it’s gang-related, drive-by, possible drug deal gone bad, whatever.
Killed a banger and a six-year-old girl. Fuckin’ Venice. Hell, we’ll probably get a meal penalty this way. Make some overtime.”
Jack didn’t like the cop’s attitude but didn’t push it. He understood cops could get inured to violence if they were in long enough. He said “thanks” to the veteran and walked toward the female star, who was huddled with the director, Henry Lee.
Jack didn’t hire out as a glorified bodyguard/technical advisor as a habit. In fact, he still wasn’t comfortable with the title of private investigator. Jack Bertolino & Associates, Private Investigation looked fine on a business card, but didn’t come trippingly off his tongue.
If not for his bum back, caused by an accidental fall doing cleanup at Ground Zero, he’d still be on the force. Simple as that. As it was, the accident left him eating Vicodin-Excedrin cocktails to stay off an operating table. Jack’s doctor promised him that the third operation would be the charm, but after two failed attempts and months of painful rehab, Jack Bertolino was a non-believer.
George Litton, the head of Epoch Studios, had just paid Jack an embarrassingly large sum of money to sign off on the film rights to the kidnapping and sex trafficking case Jack had broken wide open a few months earlier.
Jack loved to negotiate with Hollywood types. On the force, if he had said no to the dollar amount of a pay raise, they’d say fine and pass him over. Every time he said no to the studio’s offer, they upped the ante.
Finally, Tommy Aronsohn, Jack’s good friend and lawyer, advised him to accept before they rescinded what he coined “the deal of a lifetime.” Jack didn’t argue the point.
Litton phoned Jack at home before the ink was dry and explained his dilemma. The studio wanted Susan Blake to play the lead in the movie.
Susan Blake, the new “It Girl,” grew up in NYC with a brother and a “stage father.” A child actress who became an overnight success after fifteen years of small parts, commercials, and knocking on doors. Her father, a frustrated actor himself, pushed his kids into the business and managed their careers.
A renowned New York theatrical agent discovered Susan in a Broadway production of Rent and signed her on the spot. The man used his formidable power to open doors for her in New York City and Los Angeles, and Susan delivered. After winning critical accolades playing Juliet at Shakespeare in the Park, and then Kate in Taming of the Shrew at the Longacre, she started to land small roles in important films. The powers that be decided she was ready for prime time and threw the full weight of the agency behind her, grooming her for stardom.
Her meteoric success in show business also brought out the crazies. An Internet stalker had been harassing Susan Blake. Since the studio already knew Jack, they suggested he sign on as her bodyguard, and technical advisor, while she was in Los Angeles.
Jack approached Susan and Henry Lee, a diminutive man who wore a perpetual self-satisfied look on his face.
“How did we do?” Henry asked Jack, confident in the answer. “She was all in. I wouldn’t want to be the cop that screwed the
pooch on her watch.” “I agree.”
Susan took the compliment in stride. Jack hammered home the notion that even with all the prep in the world, every time you went through the door, you didn’t know what was on the other side, you didn’t know if you’d get shot in the face. That’s one hell of a motivator.
“Glad you’re on the team, Jack. Great work, Susan. Take twenty, we’ll reset and go in for your close-up.”
“Thanks, Henry.” Susan raised her eyebrows and nodded for Jack to follow her. Their not-so-subtle movement together tracked by the crew.
“Something about a man wearing a gun,” Susan said to Jack. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think that was a come-on line,” Jack deadpanned.
“You wear the gun, I’ll bring the cuffs. Now, that’s a come-on line.”
She got no argument from Jack.
“You told me you cooked Italian,” Susan challenged, enjoying herself. “Are you ready to put your money where your mouth is?” Jack was about to fire off a clever response when Susan stepped back awkwardly. Her smile faltered and the color drained from her face. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s here,” she said, deadly serious. “Who’s here, Susan?”
Susan paused before speaking, the silence filled by a passing car accelerating. “The man who’s been stalking me.”
Jack spun in place, spotted the black SUV already reaching the end of the block, about to turn. Jack pounded the pavement after it, but by the time he reached the corner, the side street was empty. Jack’s breath was ragged, his back was tight, and he was pissed off as he walked back to Susan. This was the first time the stalker had made an appearance on his watch.
The off-duty motorcycle cop had pulled up beside the star to check things out, and Jack addressed him, “Keep your eyes open for a black Ford Explorer. Couple of years old. The driver could be trouble. Too far away to ID the plate.”
“I’ll check out the neighborhood.” The motorcycle cop powered down the street and made the right-hand turn.
Jack turned to Susan. “Was it him?”
“I’m fine, Jack,” she said, evading the question. “I’m sorry, I’m probably wrong, it could’ve been anyone.” She was acting strangely, no longer scared. “No, Jack, I’m not sure it was him.”
“I want you to sit down with a sketch artist.” “Really, Jack. There’s no need to overreact.”
“Overreact?” Jack said tightly. “I was hired to protect you, but I need some help here.”
“Okay, Jack,” Susan said, lowering her voice but unable to hide a flash of anger. “Please, I’ve got a scene to shoot. We’ll talk later,” and she strode away.
What was that all about? Jack watched Henry raise his hands in a question that went unanswered. Susan Blake stormed past her director, banged up the metal steps of her mobile home, and slammed the door behind her.
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