Chapter 10

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mysteryDESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.   




Pearl watched from the upstairs window until the gate swung shut and Paul left. She had never really trusted Paul, but he did his job well.  

Now she was inside her castle and had pulled up the drawbridge. Her house had been built by a British screenwriter in the Forties who didn’t have the money for Beverly Hills. The house façade of white stucco crossed by dark-brown exposed beams with a brick first story was a California version of an English Tudor manor that would have fit in better in a New York or Massachusetts suburb. LA was full of houses that looked as if someone had removed them from a studio’s back lot and sprinkled them across the city. When Pearl first saw the house, she remembered her childhood, trolling what she thought of then as the wealthy areas of Pittsburgh, which were actually solid middle-class. Her mother dragged her from door to door, looking for work or begging. She asked for some water for her daughter while working her cons on the homeowners. Pearl remembered a Tudor-style house with a big, powerful Cadillac out front that belonged to a doctor. The house became her image of respectability. Now, while they ate off her Spode Blue Italian china, she would tell her neighbors that it had reminded her of her childhood home in Pennsylvania. Then she would narrate the story of the Spode china, purchased in England in the 1880s and saved when that childhood home burned to the ground. Some of Pearl’s china did go back to the 1880s, just not in her family. There was a cup and saucer she had slipped into her purse at a client’s Philadelphia townhouse while he was getting back into his seersucker suit.

After changing into pajamas and a robe, Pearl retrieved a gun from the nightstand beside her bed. She dropped it into a robe pocket. She carried a gun when she went out as a matter of course. She had a new automatic, a Beretta BU9 Nano, a gift from Gina. She liked its name, which reminded her of her Apple computer. That day she had carried a little derringer that shot .45 Colts or 410 shotgun shells strapped to her left leg six inches above her knee. She kept a Mossberg twelve-gauge under her bed for surprise visitors.

Harry, a safeman who was twenty years older and could tell a story,taught her how to shoot and to clean a gun back in Pittsburgh before she skipped town for Atlantic City. It was a Smith and Wesson model 1917, a big awkward revolver that he carried stuck in his belt. Harry also taught her how to fuck and then taught her how easily the human heart could shift its focus. “A stiff prick has no conscience,” said Harry the day she caught him with a redhead. Nothing in her life ever made her doubt that.    

She came back downstairs and set the alarms and turned on the security lights. Now, with the maid and her housekeeper gone for the night and the two mastiffs out roaming her property, it was her time. 

“You love me don’t you, Bruno,” she said. “And I love you. You too, Max.” She took the dog’s big head in both hands and kissed him on the nose. “I’ve had more love from you two than from any of the men I’ve known,” she said out loud to the dogs, “And that’s a long list.” There had been a mob accountant who had come close, but she still preferred her dogs. She rubbed Bruno’s head as he leaned against her leg. She could feel the life and power in the animal’s muscles. 

She had moved to West Los Angeles to get out of range of a particular vice cop who had made a habit of breaking in on her unannounced. When she thought about him, she could hear the sound of his size twelve kicking in her door. She couldn’t bribe him, not that he was honest. He had a thing about working girls. “I wonder what happened to that asshole,” she said to Bruno and Max. “Something bad I hope. Some people can’t stand to see anybody have fun or make a buck.”

A few of her neighbors, the older ones, knew who she was. The new money sweeping into the area probably thought of her as an older woman who had some money, possibly an aging actress, still attractive and must have been something when she was younger. Pearl would have told them, “I was a knockout when I was young. You should have seen me.” Back then she was up for anything. She still knew how to have a good time and she could take care of herself. 

She went into the kitchen where the red tile floor shown and the countertops were polished. The glass she took down was genuine lead crystal, the silver in the drawers was the real thing, and her china cost a hundred a setting in 1960 prices. Opening the cabinet where she kept the liquor, she took down a bottle of thirty-year-old Balvenie and poured her evening drink. Pearl had given Ava the night off. Ava had left her a snack in the refrigerator, a slice of deep dish apple pie. Putting the pie and her drink on a pewter tray with a napkin and fork, Pearl walked down the hall to her office. 

There was a big desk covered with papers and magazines, two Eames chairs, and dozens of framed photographs. Pearl with sports stars from the Lakers, the Clippers, the Raiders and the Rams, lots of photos of boxers. Pearl posed with the bad boys of Hollywood. Always with one of her girls in the picture, everybody smiling and mugging for the camera. She put the tray on a side table, turned on her computer so she could check the market, and turned on the news.

CNN had a demonstration on from somewhere in Japan. Lots of farmers they said, with signs and headbands with red Kanji, battling the police over foreign beef. The Japanese police carried those big plastic shields that everybody seemed to have these days and long riot sticks. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail, fire splashed on a policeman’s shield. She switched to local news and put a forkful of pie in her mouth, closing her eyes in pleasure. Ava could bake like an angel. An image of life in Pittsburgh popped into her consciousness. She’d known someone who could do a pretty good apple pie there. Pearl pushed the memory from her mind and took a sip of the scotch. The BBC financial news was on. She’d once had a half-Indonesian half-Dutch TV presenter working for her, named Althea. The woman took weekend appointments only, but she’d fly anywhere in the world. A wonderful earner until she’d married a politician she met on her day job. Maybe Pearl should give her a ring. She might want back in if the marriage wasn’t going well or if she needed some money. There was a big demand for exotics who were part something carrying a hint of the colonies. 

Pearl finished the pie. She had her money, close to seven million now. Enough to let her live out the rest of her days in peace. The will at her lawyer’s mentioned the house staff and the gardener. She was going to leave money to Charlie Hoff, a burglar and safe man she knew from the old days, but he had died of liver cancer recently. There was no one else who deserved any of it. She would spend it. Her rotten bitch of a mother died at age ninety. A friend had seen the notice in the Pittsburgh papers and had written to Pearl. Ninety--so maybe Pearl had another twenty years. She’d never wanted the trouble of a child. Ruin your body and drive you crazy. Like Gina, closest thing she had to a daughter. 

“Hard-hearted, scheming bitch. Just like me.” Pearl smiled at the thought. 

She took the tray to the kitchen. The red tile floor was heated. After a few more scotches, and if the Clippers or Lakers had won, she would slip out of her Gucci slippers and do a little dance in her bare feet. Lately, the dances occurred when she had been feeling down and had a couple or three scotches to cheer up. “It takes more than three scotches to get mommy drunk,” she would say to the dogs as they sat there and watched her.

Back in her office, Pearl opened a desk drawer. Inside was a row of throwaway cell phones. She picked one and punched in the number for the week and waited. Someone picked up. She asked for the accounts.


ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.