She entered my office on Wilshire and 12th with a spark in her eye. I was reading Chandler, of course. It hadn’t been raining, but October was threatening to pour. It was a cool windless Friday. I took her coat.
“I need to get my son into Stanford,” she said.
We had talked a few times on the phone. She said she would pay cash—cash only. I had accepted. Her son was seventeen. She wouldn’t say where he was enrolled. Outside, the evening streetlamps cast hazy red halos, which were mirrored in her Jackie-O shades.
“Have a seat.”
I offered her a Camel and light. She said she had yoga in the morning and that I shouldn’t smoke.
“What are his SAT scores?”
“Well, that’s wonderful,” I said.
“On three sections.”
I brought her some coffee. She drank.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“How long have you done this kind of work?”
“Kaplan fired me in May.”
“I see. And what assurances do I have that you know what you’re doing?”
I pulled out a knife, a serrated steel Gerber, army-issue, ’98, and sliced off a chunk of the apple I’d been eating. “You don’t.”
“Mrs. Olsen said you were the best.”
“She should know.”
“Then I’ll give you a deposit tonight.”
With that, she slunk over to my desk, extended her leg—she was wearing a black, satin two-piece, all velvet lace—and flashed her garter belt. As she bent down, her pantyhose ripped. “Oops.” She reached below her hemline—somewhere quite private—and pulled out a smirking Ben Franklin. “There’s more on the way.”
Then she pranced off into the night.
“Mrs. Deakins,” I hollered.
She didn’t hear.
I realized she’d left a manila folder on the table, which was sealed with a lipstick kiss. I held up the file, smelling it gingerly. Cocaine, a scent I knew well.
Inside, there were photos of her husband—or what looked like her husband, clutching her and some African prince at a ball. Then, the regular files for her son: test scores, AP slips, transcripts, a list of uneventful activities (soccer team captain, apparently, although the school name was unclear on both that and the transcripts), and finally, a near-naked shot of herself. She was wearing a plunge-cut robe, a tasseled black mortarboard, and clutched a diploma in all the wrong places. The diploma said Stanford, though that wasn’t what caught my eye. I noticed she was standing in broad daylight upon USC’s lawn. It must have been a Sunday, because there was no one else around, but I recognized the steps of Doheny.
I spit out the apple and sighed.
The following Monday, I arrived three hours late for work. I’d like to blame it on traffic on the 405, but in truth, some late-paying client, a perky little senior from Brentwood High, had kept me out late. We had met for drinks along Sunset, and next thing I knew, she was giving me a lift in her Prius at dawn.
“Siri,” I said, closing my blinds, “make me some coffee.” My iPhone didn’t respond. Restarting it, I saw that my inbox was bursting. It was time to hire a human assistant, though I could barely make rent. For the next thirty minutes, I fended off calls from France and Beijing—most of my clients were international—and tried not to open my drawer, where the Maker’s Mark gleamed.
Suddenly, around noon, the dull linoleum squeaked, and a sputtering array of sunlight ignited my cave. A person came in. This never happened on Wilshire, at least not without intent.
“My name is Sam,” the kid said. “Sam Deakins.” He was wearing a Burberry’s trench coat and a black wool fedora banded with a shiny white stripe.
“Ah, your mother was in here last week.”
“She’s not my mother.”
“Who is she?”
“My lover. And if you don’t mind, I’d prefer to stand.”
This required bourbon. “Please have a seat.” I reached down for a swig, and as I did, I noticed he was holding a revolver.
He raised it at me, pointed, and fired. A window exploded behind me. I thought I was dead.
“Sorry,” he said. “Nervous tick.” He put the gun back in his trench coat, which was about six sizes too large for his frame.
“Jesus Christ, what the fuck was that?” I said. I leaned towards my desk drawer, where I kept a piece, but decided against it.
“I’m sorry.” He slowly sat down. “I carry one for school now.”
“Where do you go?”
“It’s a school for actors,” he said.
“So that’s where the money—”
“No. We’re not actors. I just like it because it’s close.”
“Very well, then.” I was sure the cops were being called as we spoke. Outside, a few people sprinted, hunched over, along Wilshire.
“How long have you been living in Los Angeles?” he continued.
“Just a couple years.”
“I see. It’s good that you’re new here.”
“Because you’re new to assholes like me. Me and my mother.”
“She’s your mother or your lover?”
“Both.” He smiled. “Anyways, we’ll pay you in cash, as we said.” A far siren wailed. “Another thing,” he said, rising. “Don’t tell anyone I was here. If you do, well, let’s just say the application will expire.” He stalked to the door, trench coat lifting behind him, a trail of smoke wisping up from his sleeve.
I leaned back in my swivel chair, palmed the birch desk, which I’d hastily bought at IKEA, and wished I had purchased steel.
This is better than law school, I thought. I reached down and took a long drink.
Sergeant Crowley and I were old pals—to the extent one can be pals with a cop.
“Tom,” he said, eying my desk, upon which the apple core rotted. “We got complaints from the pet store next door. They swore they heard a shot, and it looks like your window is gone.”
Glass lay spread along the floor, soaking up the rays of my indifference. I offered him a smoke.
“Shit, man, I wanna help you out. That’s why I came down here instead of the Lieut, but Jesus, you know we can’t have you firing off guns. Unauthorized discharge—Charlie, what’s the time off for that?” He turned to his partner, a scrawny-looking rodent who was shrewishly inspecting the wreckage.
“Six to eight months.”
“You wanna send me?” I offered my ex-platoonmate a glass.
“Look, man, I know shit is rough. But we got counseling. The VA is fine. Don’t be doing nothing stupid.”
I shook the glass.
“Tom, don’t make me come back here with an MP. You know what they do in the brigs.”
“Nothing Sunset hasn’t done to me already, Crow.” The ice glimmered gold.
“Just keep your hands clean this month. I’m up for promotion, finally.” Then he leaned into me. “And I’ll be frank with you, T, army pay isn’t the best.”
“I see they have you working really hard down on Ocean. What is that, half an hour on, twelve off?”
“At least I make an honest living.” He eyed my diplomas on the wall. The bulk of them were real.
Beside him, the rodent was sifting through glass without any gloves on, which I took as a promising sign. “What the fuck did you fire?” the rat asked me.
“This is Charley. 81st Airborne. He’s cool.”
Charley didn’t look like he’d served a damn day in his life. He was holding up a broken piece of glass, which was burnt around the edges. “Looks like a Nitro Express.”
“I didn’t know there were elephants roaming on Wilshire.”
“Cougars,” I said, with a grin.
That night, I worked arduously on the kid’s essays, which wasn’t easy, given that I barely knew his name. In my line of work—college counseling, that is—the less you know, the better. But basic things are required to get in: turning points, setbacks, achievements, personal obstacles, the like. I was pretty sure he was white, given the complexion of his mother/lover, but that’s pretty much all I could deduce.
“What do you think, Siri? Is he a psychopath?”
“I really can’t say.”
“Sir, hon, since it’s just you and me here, what do you say we have a little fun?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said coolly.
Around eight pm, the phone rang. I normally took calls on Skype, which meant it was either the police pursuing an investigation or Sam Deakins announcing that I would be killed.
It was neither, it turned out. It was Sam Deakins’ personal attorney. Rico was his name. And he told me to meet them downtown at the Westin at 12. “Come in a suit and unarmed.”
I took the bus there, of course. I figure it’s part of my civic duty in Los Angeles to ride public transit. Besides, the Prius girl wasn’t around.
The strange thing about riding the bus in Los Angeles at midnight is how few people notice you, even when you’re donning a suit. The subways of Chicago and New York are veritable orgies of staring, all swimming with licentious glares. In Los Angeles, folks are afraid of getting shot, which is just as well, because I came, despite orders, well-armed.
“Honey,” she said—the large black woman next to me—“You got something pokin outta yo cage.”
I slowly adjusted my pants. “Surgery.”
I got off at Fig. The tall lobby lights gleamed through the sheen of puffed rain—what the cynics call smog and I deem a perpetual fount. My shirt collar snagged, and I adjusted my black linen tie. The suit was $12, and it didn’t quite cushion my Colt.
“Welcome,” said a sleek young man emerging from the lobby’s cool air. He greeted me on 4th and hustled me through the revolving glass door. I imagined grim scenes from The Godfather, but he was eighty-five pounds, Latino, and wearing a charcoal wool two-piece with notched lapels, side flaps, and quarter top pockets in the trousers. It wasn’t $12. “You must be Tom.”
“And I’m guessing you’re the attorney.”
“I wish.” Some conventioneers leaned on a fountain-rail. Little kids played. A rubber fan palm glistened in the fake tropic light. “I’m his personal assistant.”
“And where’s Mr. Deakins?”
I surveyed the gallery, and I had the grim feeling that I was being watched by someone besides this fag. “Oh, you mean Sam. We just call him Mr. Deakins for fun.”
“He’ll be arriving later on.”
“And where’s the attorney?”
Suddenly, I felt a jab in my spine. I turned around. An umbrella was poking me.
“You’ll probably want this,” a man said. He was an enormous black bald man without any lips. For a second, I froze.
“This is Rico,” said the queer. “Our J.D.”
I had thought he’d sounded strange on the phone. But in Los Angeles, one never asks.
They drove me to a joint in Santa Monica. At least, I thought it was Santa Monica, judging by the cool ocean air. I sat blindfolded in back, a canvas hood bagging my face, inhaling the new aniline trim. Imported. Japanese. A SUV Lexus, I figured.
They found the Colt, of course. It replaced the umbrella digging into my back.
“Stop here,” said Rico. Somebody coughed. I felt a window lower some more, and a woman’s voice said, “I told him there was more on the way.” They took off my hood, and I barfed.
Fortunately, I hadn’t soiled the SUV’s tan interior—it turned out it was an Acura, which would have been my next guess—but I had seriously dirtied my suit.
“Get that piece of shit off him,” said Mrs. Deakins. We were standing outside of a club, and she was wearing a black satin number. I could see her eyes clearly now. They were dim green, approximately the color of algae, and which is where I figured I would eventually end up. Distant waves crashed along a shoreline. Beside us, ficus roots mangled the sidewalk, and hazy lights bloomed like angels that just didn’t care. “Rico, get this boy a tux.”
I changed in the SUV at gunpoint, struggling to fasten my cuffs. It was a Lanvin double-breasted two-piece with contrasting insets, welted front pockets and peaked lapels. The shirt was mauve and slim-fitting. Then she handed me a pair of flat-topped smoke-lensed shades. “You know what would look great with this get-up?” I asked.
She was still holding my gun.
The four of us passed through an alley and descended a staircase into what looked like a Victorian bordello. The rose walls were wainscoted and buckling. A crimson carpet lined the stone steps, which resounded with a thundering bass.
Entering a parlor, I almost got stabbed by a moose, which was mounted on a wall beneath a frilly chandelier. House music was pumping, and a couple older blacks lingered by a bar. One nursed a tumbler with a fat slice of orange and an oily pink froth. Some candlesticks gleamed at his side. The other was twisting the clamp on a snaredrum. “This ma boy?” he exclaimed.
“No,” said Mrs. Deakins. “He’s my boy tonight, but you’re sweet.”
Soon the house music died, and the drinking man picked up a trumpet. A bass-man joined him, unloading his case, and they cranked out a “Night in Tunisia.”
“Have a seat,” she said. Her lover/son was nowhere to be seen, though Rico joined us on some baronial, brown leather chairs. Then the queer Mexican brought me a queer-tasting scotch.
“So what did you do in the army?” she asked me.
“Kill.” That was only partially true. I had edited Stars and Stripes, which is where I found my knack for penning bullshit.
“Good to hear. So here’s the deal,” she continued. I noticed that she too was not entirely white, despite the green shade of her eyes and her seemingly straight copper hair. “Have you ever heard of Estonia?”
“You ever been there?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“That’s good. That’s very good.” She looked at Rico and winked. “Because that’s where we’re going tonight.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, choking on the liquor, which I realized had been laced.
Then Rico reached over and tapped my leg. “Looks like Rambo here doesn’t like to fly.”
I woke in a box, or what I determined to be a box, but was actually the seat of a cockpit. It was stunningly cold; the plane was twin-engine and loud. The pilot was adjusting some gears. As I came to, strapped to a chair, I noticed Mrs. Deakins strutting up the aisle. She entered the cockpit with drinks in each hand. “No more for you,” she explained to me. The pilot, whom I recognized from the photographs, took a long gulp and surveyed the glittering night. A far orange curve marked the dawn of the horizon. “You’ll be starting work soon,” she said.
“You’re not married, are you?”
“Not this week.”
“That helps.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek. Then it occurred to me suddenly that she might not have been a she. Her lower neck awkwardly bulged, and her shoulders were way too pronounced. “My son will be waiting at home. But before we arrive, maybe you’d like to have fun.” She winked at the pilot, then me.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
She was a man all right. Fortunately, I didn’t have to partake. She and the pilot started up at 40,000 feet, judging by the lines on the dial. When she was finished, she offered me tea. “No smoking in the cockpit,” she sighed.
My hands were still bound to the chair, and the dawn had broadened to gold. Suddenly, Rico stormed into the cockpit, slapped the tranny in the face, and said, “We don’t have time for this shit.” Then he turned to the pilot. “What’s our ETA?”
“Keep your joystick in gear till we land. As for you, Mr. Writer.” He undid my bind, and I noticed a holster slinking out of his tux. “I understand you’re not too bad at writing sentences.”
“I can hold my own.”
“Well, your reputation precedes you. You got the Schwarzenegger kid in, a couple of Kennedies, Puff Daddy’s son, and the Bush girls.”
“The last was a personal favor.”
“Well, today you’ve got an even bigger assignment. Mr. Deakins will explain when we arrive. You might want to rest up a bit. His application’s due before noon.”
I glanced up sullenly.
“You don’t work well under pressure?”
“Not without a gun in my hands.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re not gonna hurt you. Assuming our Precious gets in.”
Several things struck me as unusual about the night—aside from the queer tranny love, the spiking with sedatives, the unexplained flight, and the guns. For one, this was mid-October, and the early deadline wasn’t till November 1st. That was standard at every college, even for athletes and others with questionable ins. Second, who were these people, and why had they called on my services? A new library at Stanford obviously would have done the job. Applications for those types are nominal. Sure, the price tag’s gone up, but when you’re flying a Gulfstream G550 and have a few tuxedos to spare, an endowed chair isn’t hard to afford. And what was with the accents? Russian? Nigerian? Greek?
Across from me, Rico was leaning on the console, peering at the dials, clutching the tranny with one arm around her waist, oblivious, or perhaps disregarding, of the hostile look she wore. “ECAM status checked. Standby altimeter,” said the pilot, sipping his scotch.
I was soon re-hooded, which was just as well, because I could avoid the sexual theatrics as we landed and then drove along a steep-graded road. I found myself nauseous, and they let me throw up in a bin. Eventually, we arrived at a tall lakeside manor. It was a granite-block Romanesque with more gables and peaks than I could count. The sky was cerulean, if that’s what folks call it, and the air a sharp shock to my lungs.
Soon, a trench-coat arrived on a scooter, grinding up the flagstone path. “Well, my good friend, I didn’t expect to see you so soon. Did you enjoy the friendly skies?”
“Not as much as your mom.”
She came rollicking out of the Citroen we’d driven in and gave her young companion a hug. Lipless and the Mexican followed her. The pilot had remained with the plane.
“She’s my sister,” the kid said and gave her a wet, smearing kiss. Then he smiled at me. “Come. I’ll show you upstairs to your room.” He glanced at the lawyer, who gave an approving nod.
My room consisted of inlaid birch floors, gilded winged chairs, and French windows curtained with muslin and lace. Towards the end stood a four-poster bed, a varnished teak desk, and, rather crudely, a Mac.
“I believe you’ve started my application,” said the boy, who was still mounted on his scooter. In fact, he’d expertly ridden it up the steps.
“How did you know?”
“I hacked into your I-Cloud.”
“Anyways, I like what you did with the first question, my most moving experience, though you never mentioned Robert Mugabe.”
“I don’t think that would sit well with Stanford.”
“It isn’t LSE,” I said. “They have principles.”
“Very well. As Rico explained, you have three or four hours to finish. Until it’s noon in Palo Alto.”
“Why so soon?”
“Because I’m hungry.” He laughed. His cohort was trailing up the staircase behind him, pinching their noses at the fumes. “No, actually, I’m gonna need you for a couple more things. We’ve got some investments to deal with. You know, mid-season reports.”
It turned out Stanford was the least of my ordeals. His family held shares in foreign oil, specifically in Equatorial Guinea, which was on the outs with NATO this month. The ruling general was ailing, and his son, whom no one much liked, was threatening to depose him. Earnings were down, as was investor confidence.
“So we need you to rewrite the report. How can we put this…throw a positive spin on the fund.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” I explained. I had done a bit of copy in my day, mostly for temp firms when I was starting out. I didn’t know shit about finance, but marketing was always Q&A: Is my investment safe? Should I be concerned about national stability? What if the market share drops? Couldn’t have been easier. I finished the reports before ten. Probably would have gone faster had Rico not been pointing his Parkerized Sig at my face.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m done.” Their whole cohort slumped on the sofa, while the Mexican poured out chablis.
“Are we finished with him?” the kid asked.
Rico was changing the magazine. “No, not quite yet.”
I knew that was my moment to flee.
“Hold on,” Rico said. “We’ve finished the reports, but if Precious here doesn’t get in, we need a backup.”
“Can I ask—” I said, rising from the desk.
“Sit down,” Rico hollered. I did.
“Why Stanford?” I continued.
“Didn’t you just answer that question?”
“No, I mean, seriously. Why Stanford?”
Rico just grimaced, like some strange mouthless fish.
“Because that’s where the general’s son is studying,” said the kid.
“The incoming Chairman of the Board.”
“And you want to be his classmate?”
“Not exactly,” said the kid. He was checking the discs on his scooter, having worn them out on the stairs. “I’m planning to do him in. And we’ll be holding you here till he’s gone. Just in case you plan to talk.”
At that point, Rico walked over, raised the Sig, and shot the kid in the eye.
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” said the tranny. The kid fell over his scooter. His brains had splattered the curtains.
Rico re-holstered his Sig. “I always hated that bike.”
“My son,” screamed the tranny.
“Shut the fuck up.” Rico picked up the brass casing and dropped it inside his tux, beside a red handkerchief that suitably matched the drapes. “To answer your question,” Rico turned to me. “We’re gonna short the stock. I’ll do the Chairman myself.”
“So why the fuck did we invest in the application?” said the tranny.
“You can withdraw it,” Rico said to me, approaching the computer. “That was just a test of your skills. But I must say, I like what you did with the reports.”
He held out his phone and checked the stock’s quote. The reports had been sent out about twenty minutes back, and already the share-price had tripled. “You’ll make me very rich.” Then he turned to the tranny. “Get your spic boyfriend down to the basement and make sure the cell is prepared.”
“You,” he said, turning to face me. Then his mouth must have borne an even stranger expression as he noticed the back of my chair. I flashed through the hall.
Unlike the shacks of Mosul, the one thing you notice about running through a medieval manor is that shots have a tendency to echo, which is extremely disorienting. I ducked into a bedroom and locked the tall doors. A blast shattered one of them. Across from me, the massive French windows stood open, and I flung myself through them. I landed two stories down on a myrtle hedge, which padded my fall, and came out rolling down a hill. I skidded to a stop beside a poplar. An explosion shattered its limbs. I cut left, and dove headlong into the lake, which was freezing. The shock nearly killed me. I swam. The small lake was reedy and bedded with moss. As I tussled through it, a gunshot punctured my leg. I sucked in my breath and dove down.
I glided until I couldn’t see and my lungs were imploding. I came up for air beside a tussock of sedges, quietly wading, trying not to exhale. I heard splashing far behind me. I couldn’t see where. The sky had since darkened a shade. I made a break for the shore. For the next twenty minutes I ran, huffing, bleeding, unable to lift my left leg, which was gashed below the calf, somehow forcing myself to gallop past the larches and pines. I heard barking far behind. I knew my only chance was to reach the canal, which I had vaguely descried along my right. I couldn’t swim. I had to. I dove.
When I reached the mouth, about a thousand meters down, of some larger lake, I climbed out on a neighboring property—what might have been peasants’. Did they still have peasants in Estonia?—then a low maple woodland. I was shivering cold, unable to breathe. It was dark. I was steaming and drenched. I located a blanket amazingly inside someone’s boathouse, which is where I crouched and spent the night.
My night would have ended there certainly had it not been for one last trick up my sleeve. The boathouse, which was sided with logs and half-toppled onto the rock-shore, was wired for a phone. The sole phone was turned off, of course, as the boathouse had been abandoned for years. I located the pole outside—it was the middle of the night when I did this, and hypothermia was slicing my veins—climbed it, and found the distribution box. Fortunately, it was one of those old residence terminals with a network box behind the lid. I yanked out the phone, unsheathed its wiring, connected the terminal cables, replaced the resistor, opened the hookswitch, and, what do you know, a small, pink LED gleamed. It felt like the warmth of the sun. It took me half-an-hour to work down the static, and in that time, my hands nearly froze. Finally, I got a dial tone, plugged in the jack, and dialed.
“How can I help you, Tom?”
Thinking twice before leaving, I had left her plugged in and allowed her to answer my calls.
“Siri, I’m in serious shit.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”
“That’s okay. Here’s what I need you to do.”
“I need you to open my Gmail, find my iCloud storage account, and back it up on your hard disk.” She didn’t understand, and I had to repeat a few times, guiding her through the process. “Okay, now find ‘My Application’ for Stanford (off-line).” She found it. “Double-click. It should have a list of files to upload. One of those is a video.” It was a feed I had secretly recorded on the Mac, knowing what they would do. “Okay, I want you to make a copy, save it to the disk, and email it to John Crowley at LAPD. He’s in the contacts.”
“At your service,” Siri said.
“That’s my sweet girl.”
“Hold it right there,” a voice shouted. Standing below the pole was a soaking wet tranny pointing a Sig. “There’s no need to do that,” she said. “Jack’s dead.”
“Jack Rico, my attorney. He’s gone. He’s frozen in the lake with the fag. And I don’t want to be connected. Get down from that pole.” She spoke in a voice that was undeniably manly.
“If you shoot me, I’ll have Siri click send.”
“How will you talk when you’re dead?”
“She knows my voice, and I’m the only one who can cancel. She’s uploading now.”
“Give me that phone,” she said.
“You’ll have to come up here and get it.”
She started climbing the pole, one latch at a time, each awkwardly snagging her party dress. Yet she had gorilla-like arms. One of them reached up and seized me, throwing me down from the pole.
I landed on the icy embankment, shattering my thigh, which was already swollen and roughly the width of her wrist. “Siri, cancel that request,” she said into the phone. Then she screamed the same thing.
I ran as fast as I could. I heard a gunshot ring out behind me; I darted past a lawn. Then I jumped into a thick clump of hawthorn, hiding and clutching my knees.
It took several hours before the police lights flickered, far beyond the leaves, past the lake. They were gradually approaching. I realized—as I had expected—that Siri had tracked the location, and Old Crow could extract the call. As the police lights broke out across the lake, glimmering brightly on glass, and I huddled shivering, I saw what looked like a grizzly bear starting through the reeds, splashing in a dark, mangled dress. She didn’t get far in that outfit, and I was relayed safely home.
After recovering for a week at St. Joseph’s, I returned home to Siri, gave her a hug, and found the application to Stanford denied. Too bad. They never knew what they were missing.
Outside, I locked up my office and found a Prius waiting by the curb.
“Where you been, Mr.?”
“It’s the high season, baby. Consulting fees have gone up.”
“Well, let’s see what we can do about that.” Beside her, her little sister looked up from the driver’s seat.
“It’s never too early to start.”
[BIO]: J.A. is a Ph.D. candidate in the creative writing and literature program at the University of Southern California.