CHAPTER 1: ARRIVAL
Frank Caldwell was driving southeast away from Los Angeles and into the desert, heading down the 10 to Indio and Palm Springs. He had left early from LA with the morning chill still in the air. Now he was coming up on Indio and close to the end of his drive. The car was climbing through a pass in the Chocolate Mountains. He had reached the wind farm by 9 am. Line after line of relentless, three-bladed propellers turning in synch on their towers.
The house was outside Palm Springs. The client was a Rock musician, wealthy of course. The job was armed bodyguard and supervising house security. The client had stressed that, so there had to be a threat, or a perceived threat, involved. Or he wanted the status of having an armed bodyguard escort him around town. When asked about it, Ryan (the client), had downplayed the threat, had been vague, Seacole said his explanations had wandered. Caldwell was curious about that. You never expected your client to be totally honest with you at the beginning. Events usually forced the truth out.
Frank was incredibly focused. That was your first impression of him. He was six-three, 210 pounds, with the build of a Cruiser Weight and wore his hair in a near military cut. The physical confidence of four years in the Golden Gloves capped by another two as a professional showed in everything he did. For the first meeting with his client, Frank had dressed in khaki slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt as a concession to the heat. A lightweight brown and black hound's-tooth checked sport jacket was carefully folded and lay on the back seat.
Frank Caldwell was the top bodyguard at Seacole Security. He held a California investigator's license, one of eight held by Seacole's employees, and a permit for a concealed weapon. He was a realist.
Frank's father George had also been a boxer. Coming out of the south to California at the beginning of the opening up of the Fifties, George had discovered that he could not make his way by what work he could find. When he married he stepped into the ring and began bringing home an extra paycheck to support his wife and the three children that followed the marriage. He wasn't a great fighter; he was a good fighter, a journeyman with a chin like a brick. He had a powerful body shot, a left that knocked out three men in his career. Hard to bring down, he would take a knee, gather himself, and rise at nine. Never knocked out, he fought on the undercards of seventy fights. Trainers sharpened their boxers against George Caldwell's brick. George never expected anything else. He figured he would see how many checks he could bring in; how far he could shift his family up the ladder on his back. The small family settled securely on his back, feared for him. Even now they watched him out of the corners of their eyes looking for dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, the deadly slowing of speech and trembling hand. So far George Caldwell had eluded it all.
When Frank had tried to follow him into the ring, his father lectured the dinner table on why he had suffered under other men's fists. Frank had persisted. Frank's brother finally shamed him out of the ring. Had taken him to lunch at Roscoe's Waffle House and shamed him. Told him, "You're not Dad and you'll never be him." Told him that he was throwing his father's sacrifices back in his face. And Frank also knew he didn't have the brick, couldn't take the hooks and jabs. He was tired of pissing blood, standing over the toilet in some dressing room waiting for the burst of the thick, red stream once the clots forced through, the toilet splattered red. He wasn't his father, he couldn't stay through the damage done.
Stopping once in Hemet for a date shake, Frank arrived at the house at 10:00 in the morning when the heat began to build. Desert House, a large two-story modern design, landscaped with cactus, agaves, ocotillo, and Joshua trees sat well back from the highway. The guard on the gate passed him through and Frank pulled his Camaro into the drive, stopping on a gravel oval that already held a Lincoln Town car, a red Corvette, an SUV, a 300 series BMW, and a Miata. Through the big windows he could see someone moving around, a shape passing back and forth in the back of the house. Looking over the roof of the car, Frank tried to sort out his impressions.
This was going to be his house, his assignment. This place he had to protect. Ryan, the man was his responsibility. Everything Frank had done to this point in his life would be set against what happened here. He continued to scan the house, the object of his protection. His enemies target.
He walked to the front door, rang the bell, and waited. A man opened the door. It wasn't Ryan. Frank remembered Ryan from his old music videos. This man wore a collarless, white shirt and black slacks, with highly spit-shined, shoes.
"Frank Caldwell to see Mr. Ryan. I'm from Seacole Security."
"Ah yes, we've been expecting you. Welcome to Desert House Mr. Caldwell, please come in."
The man shut the door behind Frank and led him through the great room and down a hall to a room set up as an office. At least it had a table set up as a desk with two leather-strapped Wasilly chairs ranged before it. There was an off-white Berber on the floor and cartoons of musicians on the walls. Behind the table was a console with Ryan's four Grammys arranged on it. A terracotta pot held what looked like the green skeleton of a plant. One wall was a sheet of glass forming one side of an atrium full of cactus.
"If you wouldn't mind waiting here, Mr. Ryan will be with you shortly." Frank waited.
He was looking at the cactus in the atrium when the reflected image of a naked woman passed through the rectangle of the door. Frank turned to look but the woman was gone, replaced by Ryan.
"I'm Ryan." He spoke with a pause, as if waiting for the applause to die down. "Welcome to Desert House." It was the voice Frank had grown up with only huskier, darker with age and abuse. Looking closely, you could still see the younger Ryan. The eyes were tired now. At the beginning, they had been pale grey and looked right at you. He was heavier, his face fuller. The hunger that came out in the early photographs was gone. Ryan wore a white and green short-sleeve bowling shirt and jeans with sandals. He had a turquoise and silver bracelet on one wrist and a bright, stainless steel Rolex on the other. He projected hip wealth.
"Nice to meet you," said Frank.
Ryan gave Frank a quick, firm handshake. He sat in one of the chairs facing the desk. Frank sat in the other.
"Did you find your way down here all right?"
"Yes. Very good directions. Very clear."
"It'll be good to have someone here who can handle things. I'd like you to look around the house and give me your suggestions for security. Do you have a gun with you?"
"Yes. Seacole mentioned that you'd had threats."
"I was involved in an accident a while back and threats were made. There's also a lawsuit coming out of the accident. There are more lawsuits and threats over the band. A couple of my lifelong friends are not happy with the money situation. They're suing over who owns the group name. You know, who can tour with it. And people come by. Crazy fans. They come out now and then. Crazy people live in the desert. Thieves."
"There was a break-in."
"What did they take?"
Ryan seemed to stop and rapidly consider possible answers. "Mementos."
Ryan looked into the atrium. He gave a little nod like he was satisfied with his choice of an answer.
"You file a police report?"
"I'd like a copy."
"I can get it for you. They didn't find anything. Didn't even come out
that night. Showed up the next day. Anyway, I can brief you."
Brief me on what? thought Frank
"Johns will get you settled in," Ryan added. "Then we'll talk some more."
"What about the band members?"
"Well." Ryan turned and looked out into the atrium. Seeing something else. "It's about money. It's always about the money." He stood up, as if to start pacing and then, after three steps nowhere, sat down again. "The formula we agreed on when we started and the division we worked out after Circus when I went solo. My lawyer versus their lawyer versus the record company's lawyers. Managers. Girlfriends and wives. Billy Kelvin had three wives and I swear each one of them hated my guts. Mike threatened me with a gun in Kansas City."
"Drummer." He looked like he was going to open up about something. "Over a girl. And money. Man, people never forget. Or forgive. Once money gets into your band it is gone. Everything just turns bad, man."
"Anything more specific than that? Any threats while they were cold sober and thinking clearly?"
"It's the life, man. Nobody was ever totally sober then."
"What about now?"
"Now? The band is healing. All of us are healing. Mike and I have our problems. I fucked his daughter. That was a mistake." Silence, then, "I don't want to talk about this anymore right now."
The man Frank assumed was a butler stepped through the door.
"You've met Johns? Johns, Frank Caldwell." Johns extended his hand. His
handshake was dry and surprisingly strong.
"Glad to meet you, Mr. Caldwell."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Ryan."
"Johns has been with me for ten years. God. I sound like some old Brit. 'Johns has been in the family for centuries.' Anyway. Johns saw me through AA and Rehab and detox and Rehab again and divorces. Lots of craziness. Anyway. He takes care of the house. We've got three maids who come down from Indio to help out, but Johns is the majordomo. That's his official title: Majordomo. Really." Johns smiled. "Johns will get you settled in. Then we'll talk some more."
Frank went out to the car and got his bags. Johns showed him to a room on the second floor down the hall from Ryan's. The room had the same wealthy rock star style as the downstairs. Potted cactus and carved wood objects had been placed around the space. There were framed photographs on the walls and Indian pots on the dresser. By the windows, three leather club chairs and a wood and iron table formed a sitting area. A flat-screen television sat on a chest in one corner. Frank had a view of the pool and the desert.
This was the first time Frank had lived in the desert and known it as a desert, the landscape unchanged by the irrigation and imported plants of LA. He slid open the glass doors and stepped out onto the balcony and into the heat. The impassive humps of the Chocolate Mountains rose in the distance. A few hundred yards out lay a gully choked full of the rubble that had been swept down from the mountains when flash floods came cutting their way through the flats. It was a horrible land and a beautiful land, covered in boulder flows and thickets of thorny brush, wicked Joshua trees, and sudden bursts of flowers.
Scattered through the desert were oases surrounding perfect examples of the architecture of the Fifties. On the other side of the freeway up by the aqueduct there were small shacks pulled together out of the junk scattered through the desert, lone houses surrounded by tall chain-link fencing, and abandoned shells that had once been houses. Places where you never saw anyone moving around outside in the heat.
The band. Crazy fans. Crazy desert people. Thieves. Frank repeated the mantra of bad guys.
There were more than enough bad guys in the desert to account for hiring a bodyguard, like lawyers and retired child actors. But he didn't like Ryan's deliberate vagueness about things. Frank liked clear threats, the kind you could identify, isolate, and counter. But Ryan wanted to play games and not be direct about anything, leaving lots of shadows, blind alleys, and atmospheric fog. He wanted to be kept safe from things without having to name them. He didn't want to admit Frank to the game yet. Ryan was trying to be a character, "the Innocent Client", in a Chandler novel with one of those private eyes with a true heart and a selfless devotion to lost blondes, thought Frank. He'd been listening to his own songs where lonesome strangers moved through a landscape of haunted women in black dresses and lone men drank scotch in empty bars, while the Santa Ana honing everything to a desperate edge. But he was Frank's client. And Frank would protect as far as possible.
The house was closed up, quiet and cool. The downstairs rooms were as big as ten million dollars could make them. In what Americans had taken to calling the great room, the entire back wall was floor-to-ceiling glass. At one end was a massive fireplace made from the rounded stones the mountain sent down. Over it, a Robert Williams painting of a woman wearing stockings stretched out on a giant taco. Two leather couches faced each other across a large wooden coffee table. In the center of the table was a large piece of white coral. Closing off the square were two leather armchairs. Between the chairs was a stand with a large geode broken so it revealed a curving core of purple crystal. A number of highly polished guitars had been lined up along another wall. With their inlays, body shapes, and metals, they dominated the room as Ryan's tribute to himself. By the windows were an eight-sided table and eight high-backed chairs. A backgammon board with a game still in progress was laid out by a carousel of poker chips. All the furniture had inlays of exotic woods and smooth flowing lines.
Frank followed the central hall back to the kitchen. Johns was sitting at a long wooden table reading one of four cookbooks laid out before him. The kitchen had lots of granite counters and wood cabinets with a light stain carefully worked to look old and uncared for. There was a big subzero refrigerator and a Viking stove. Frank continued through, with a nod to Johns, stopping at the French doors leading to the patio. Fifty feet in front of him was one of the biggest pools he had ever seen. There were round metal tables topped with white umbrellas off to his left. Farther left was an outdoor kitchen with a gas grill.
"We'll have lunch at noon. Sand dabs and a salad," said Johns.
"I love sand dabs."
"Good. We'll have a white wine along with it. You do drink don't you? If not, we have all sorts of sodas and fruit juices."
"Wine sounds good."
"Mr. Ryan has an excellent cellar, primarily Californians, but still a quite nice cellar. For dinner, I'm thinking of pecan-stuffed pork chops.
"You eat very well here."
Frank looked at the bodies placed around the pool. Ryan and another man sat at a table under a white umbrella. A laptop computer was open on the table and both men were looking intently at the screen. Three women completed the group. A tall redhead had pulled a lounge chair into the shade of an umbrella separate from the men. She seemed focused on doing her nails. Two other women were sunbathing on two of the lounges lined up by the pool, one face up, the other face down. Face down was nude; face up was topless. Face down had propped herself up on an elbow and was talking to the other woman. There were towels on the tile around the chairs and bottles of water, the remains of drinks, and tubes of suntan lotion.
"You could take a photo of that," thought Frank, "and call it Aging Rock Star at Home. Or just Rock Star. You've got the girls, the conference with the lawyer, the pool. Take a picture and put it in Vanity Fair."
"Who else is here?"
"Well." Johns got up from the table and came over to stand beside Frank.
They looked out over the pool and Johns began naming people. The man with Mr. Ryan is Joshua P. Rubens, Mr. Ryan's accountant. The girl at the table is Naomi Sinclair. The other two are Maggie Chow and Susan Yee."
"Which is which?"
"Susan is the one with the tattoo.”
Something about the two women was trying to fit itself to an image in Frank's mind. He couldn't summon it up just then or remember where it came from but there was something familiar. Especially her ass, he thought. Why does her ass remind me of someone?
As Frank watched, the talking girl turned and looked right at him. Her sunglasses hid her eyes. He couldn't be absolutely certain she was looking at him, but he could feel her gaze. She stared at him not breaking contact until he came out and spoke to Ryan.
Susan Yee was telling Maggie about this guy who had tried to pick her up at Spider the other night, when she looked up and saw the black man standing in the kitchen. He seemed like a distinct piece of existence separate from everything else. He also looked really built. He was looking right at her.
"Don't look. There's this guy in the kitchen staring at us.”
"What?” Maggie turned to look.
"Don't look. I bet it's the security guy.”
"Oh. I got the cast off just in time.”
"I hope he brought his gun with him.”
"Ryan said he was going to carry a gun.”
As Frank came out into the yard, one of the girls got up, face up, posed on the edge of the pool, then dived smoothly disappearing beneath the surface of the water. Her head reappeared at the other end of the pool. Frank got another quick flash of something, a little clearer this time. He couldn't catch it. Frank submitted it to his unconscious for further action. He looked around and went to sit at a table a short distance from Ryan.
"Give us a minute.” Ryan had noticed Frank, he turned back and continued talking to the other man. Frank looked at the reflective surface of the water, the ocotillo and Joshua trees. He picked up his name several times in the conversation. Soon they seemed to arrive at a mutual point of completion. Ryan closed the computer and called Frank over.
"Sit down Frank. I want you to meet Joshua Rubens, my business advisor."
"I was just telling Josh what your duties would consist of. Josh and I go back a long ways." Josh shook a cigarette out of a pack. He looked like a large seal. He was sweating lightly.
"So you finally took my advice and hired a gunfighter."
"Security, Josh, the word is security."
"Executive protection." Frank tossed in.
Josh dismissed both comments with a wave of the cigarette. "You got me to handle the record company and Mal for their lawyers. Now you got him for the thugs. Welcome on board Frank."
"Could I see your licenses, Frank? A necessary formality."
"Of course." Frank took out his ten dollar wallet and handed it across. Josh actually read both cards with Ryan looking over his shoulder. That was a first, thought Frank. Josh handed the licenses back.
"You filled him in?" Josh looked at Ryan.
"I told him a little."
Josh nodded and flicked the ash from his cigarette. "Well some people are upset over things. As you probably know there was an accident, a fatal accident. Here. Right out in front."
"In the road down from the house," Ryan corrected.
"Wherever. Ryan is about to go to court on this matter. Several weeks ago, there was a request for money, one million dollars in fact. Though we'll negotiate that down."
"You're going to pay?"
"Sometimes it's cheaper than the truth. Also, it avoids a lot of publicity and problems. I'm sure you must have some knowledge about how these things get handled Frank." Josh paused and made eye contact with Frank for the first time. They had reached an important point. Josh was about to give that jerk to set the hook. He was asking Frank to commit himself, to join their little group and accept participation in this confusion.
Frank smiled and tried to look innocently inquisitive. He had expected something like this. When Seacole told him about the trial and the lawsuit, he had known it would happen. It was just a little early. But then Josh probably wanted to get back to town.
"The girls were involved in it. Some other people."
"Sounds pretty bad."
"Bodies all over the road," said Ryan.
Frank looked around at the "bodies" that were present. "Everyone seems to have come through pretty well."
"Maggie broke her arm and got a bad head wound," Ryan traced an arc on his head. "But they were in the back seat. I almost got killed." Ryan did his thousand-yard stare again. Frank wondered how real it was and what Ryan was seeing.
"The thing is," Josh was saying, "the thing is, people have tried to get into the house."
Frank watched Susan Yee going back and forth in the pool, while Rubens and Ryan talked about the attempted break-in. Susan enjoyed the silence under the water, just the hollow water sounds. Her only thoughts were of her stroke, the movement of the water, and the sounds. Willing herself not to think about anything outside the pool, she tried to attain emptiness, becoming the movement through the water.
"People have been hanging around the house and photographers stalking me ever since I moved down here," said Ryan.
Ryan and Josh were also watching Susan Yee go back and forth.
"This was something different," Josh added. "These guys got in, went to the office, and then left real fast. And they didn't grab anything, coming or going. You see what I mean? They wanted something specific. Knew what it was. Knew were it might be."
"I think it's the Sohn family," said Ryan.
"Stanislaus Sohn died in the crash," Josh added.
"They're out to get me. Rich bastards."
"The Sohns have been here since the Fifties, Frank. They're old Palm Springs. Get written up in Forbes. Vanity Fair did a spread on them. Pictures of old man Sohn in tennis whites eating raspberry ice cream. Bunch of fascists. The family has a nasty history."
"They want to see me hang," said Ryan.
"Who else was involved in the accident?"
Ryan and Josh looked at each other. Two conspirators trying to decide whether or not to tell Frank that the package they gave him was going to blow up or let him find out on his own.
"Well," said Ryan, looking at Josh, "Well." Ryan looked at a cactus. "The Sohns, the Fredericks from next door," Ryan gestured toward a hedge on a rise in the distance. "Then there were the Levins. They were just driving through. That guy from Vegas."
"A lot of damage," said Frank.
Susan pulled herself out of the pool at the far end. She posed, face tilted up to the sky, swept her hands back over her hair, pressing the water out, molding it into a long serpent that coiled down her back. Water flowed down over a tiger climbing toward a branch covered with red flowers. The tiger had planted a rear paw on her right buttock and stretched its muscular body up. The claws of a front paw reaching for a hold on her shoulder. Its snarling head turned to the right. Its tail curled. Red petals fell around the black and yellow stripes of the tiger. The tiger moved as she wrung the water from her hair.
Whether it was a fragment caught from a video, magazine or show, Frank didn't know, but she definitely had set a hook in him. He would have to figure it out.
She looked in Maggie's direction and then began walking over to the table where the three men were seated. Susan performed her walk like a dancer, every step carefully placed for maximum impact.
Frank was aware of Susan's approach. He could just see her at the edge of his peripheral vision. Josh was staring as she carefully walked toward them. Ryan seemed oblivious. Maggie Chow watched, chin perched on her hand, controlling her urge to laugh. Then Susan was next to him, five-foot seven inches of brown body, dripping water.
Frank looked up at her. Susan smiled.
"Hello," she said, "We haven't been introduced. My name is Susan Yee." She extended a damp hand.
"Frank Caldwell. Please to meet you, Susan." Frank carefully took her hand, trying not to reveal any emotion.
"Frank is going to be handling security for me."
"Oh. Do you carry a gun, Frank?"
Frank looked up at her and considered the several possible responses he could make. He rejected, "Yes, want to see it?" and selected something more appropriate.
"I'm licensed to carry a weapon."
"Good. I feel much more secure."
Then she turned and executed a perfect walk back to the lounge. The men watched her go. Frank watched the tiger strain to reach her shoulder. She moved with the studied motion of a dancer. Placing one foot in front of the other. He turned back in time to notice Ryan making a face at Maggie. Something there, he thought.
"Damn, I wish I were that tiger," said Josh. "
When they finished talking, Ryan accompanied Josh out to his car. "I wonder what that conversation is going to sound like," Frank thought. He decided it was time to get to work. He began by taking a walk around the house. A quick survey would let him reconnoiter the grounds and lower the level of distraction. Frank took a small notebook from his hip pocket and began making maps. Later, he would transfer the information to the maps he brought with him. He noted the placement of trees, gullies, rocks that could shelter a man. He marked where the telephone and power lines came into the house. He estimated the distances to the house and the location of the nearest houses. Next, he'd do a walk-through of the house.
Frank had reached the front of the house. He decided to walk to the gate. He'd reached the end of the drive and was beginning to wilt under the heat. The sun seemed to exert a physical pressure on him. A car shot past like a low-flying plane, breaking Frank's reverie. The way people drove, it was no wonder they had accidents. To his left he noticed what could be a roadside shrine. A Mylar balloon tied to a cross waved back and forth in the slipstreams from passing cars. Flowers and candles were stacked at its base. The collection of objects gave the accident a reality none of the talk had. Frank looked at it for a moment and then turned and walked back down the drive.
There were two outbuildings on this side of the main house. Frank decided to check them and then get out of the sun. The first was clearly a garage. Four bays opened onto a large circular drive of crushed red stone. The doors were all down and locked. At the side an outside stairwell led up to a porch on the second floor. There would be a room or two up there, thought Frank.
He angled over to the other building. The door was locked. Looking through the windows he could see a painting set up on an easel. The was a painting of a woman, her back to the viewer, standing on the water in the middle of the pool looking toward the Chocolate Mountains in the distance. Lines of fire burned along the top of the mountains. Other canvases were stacked against the walls. The next room held computers, guitars, keyboards, and a drum kit. There were lots of chairs and stools scattered around. Microphones stood about the room patiently waiting for someone to return.
He abandoned his tour of the grounds, heading back to the house through the pool area. Two heads bobbed in the pool, Maggie and Susan. Frank considered going up and changing into his trunks. The heat was getting bad. He didn't wear a hat and felt like his head might explode. A slight breeze like that burst of heat you got when you opened a really hot oven swept over him.
"Hey, Frank! Join us!"
"You're gonna burn if you stay out in the heat. The middle of the day you're either in the pool or in the house."
"I may take you up on that."
"Do. We can tell you what's really going on down here. Help you solve the mystery." Susan hadn't shouted that last part. She had only meant for Frank to hear it. Frank glanced toward the house. Johns was moving around in the kitchen. He didn't see Josh or Ryan. Sitting in the game room was an older, white haired version of Ryan. A Hispanic woman was talking to him. Frank guessed she was a maid or the old man's keeper.
"I'll go change."
"Just jump in we're very informal here at Desert House."
"I'm on duty."
He turned toward the house followed by their cries. "Frank! Come back, Frank!"