And Nina is too busy to question her sister's tale, because an altercation with a has-been Hollywood action hero leaves her with a concussion, two broken cameras, and a hot lead in the grandmother of all tabloid stories- -- the mysterious thefts of celebrity bones from graveyards around the country.Are the bone robbers kids playing games with the devil? Cult scientists intent on cloning dead movie stars? Or members of the Church of Divine Thespians, a shadowy Hollywood sect that may be plotting some unholy ritual? In the world of tabloid reporting, the impossible is not only possible, it's required.
Not being famous is worse than being dead in Hollywood, where the bones of dead celebrities are literally worth killing for. Murder follows an unexpected betrayal, and Nina's quest for the grave robbers twists from the tabloid assignment to a grief-stricken vendetta that matches her camera against their guns, shot for shot.
With her sidekick Frank -- a slovenly assassin of celebrity reputations -- and her beloved toothless Rottweiler in tow, Nina returns to the page in an emotionally riveting tabloid thriller fit to please her own cultish following.
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I was sitting behind a cup of coffee in Café Anastasia when the girl with the lavender-colored glasses walked through the slab of light at the front door, looking for a woman wearing a black leather jacket and rhinestone nose stud. The glasses looked good on the girl but she couldn't see past the blunt line dividing sun and shade and dropped her head to peer over the top of the rims. I knew she searched for a woman in a black leather jacket because she had called twenty minutes before and I wore a leather jacket that day, as I do every day when the temperature drops below 95° Fahrenheit. I sipped my coffee, the movement of my cup drawing her eye. She stepped forward, her head tilted self-consciously high, as though aware that she looked good when she held her head high but also afraid that she might trip in the dim light and that wouldn't look good at all.
"You're the photographer works for the tabs?"
"Sometimes," I said.
She took that to mean yes and sat in the straight-backed chair across the table. "They said you'd give a hundred dollars."
I watched the girl over the rim of my cup. I get a few desperate people trying to sell me fabricated information every week and it has taught me to be cautious, particularly of runaways. Her low-slung knit slacks, bare-midriff silk blouse, and calfskin jacket appeared pulled from the racks of name designers. She'd applied the makeup to her heart-shaped face subtly, as though taught by a cosmetician instead of the myopic older sister with a makeup kit who taught me and most of my friends. She'd pulled her hair back in a tight ponytail to conceal that it hadn't been washed in a week and when she'd turned to sit I'd noticed a swath of dirt at the seat of her pants.
"They said you'd give more," she said, "if I saw someone really famous."
"I don't give anything. I buy information, if it's good enough."
"How do I know if you'll buy?"
"You tell me who and what it is."
The girl nodded. She seemed to get it. She glanced over her shoulder as though afraid someone might be eavesdropping, then leaned far over the tabletop to whisper, "About five minutes before I called, I'm hanging out near the beach, just chilling, you know, and I, like, look across the street and there's Chad Stonewell walking into this place on Ocean Avenue, a restaurant, the Italian-sounding one with the valet parking on Broadway."
She had a sense of the melodramatic, at least.
"Chad Stonewell was a big star ten years ago," I said.
"Is he worth more than a hundred?"
"Back in his prime, he would have been worth more than a hundred. Right now, I don't think I can sell his photograph on eBay, let alone to the tabs."
The girl curled up from the table as though I'd just slapped her. "Okay," she said. "I thought he'd be worth something."
"You hungry?" I asked. "Get whatever you want. My treat."
Her eyes drifted to the sandwiches, pies, and cakes in the display case at the back of the café, then snapped back. "I'm fine," she said.
"Who set you up with the tip?"
She flicked the tip of her index finger beneath her eye, obliterating the tear welling in the corner before it could roll down her cheek. "Nobody," she said.
"Somebody told you to call me, say you'd seen Chad Stonewell, isn't that right? Some PR flack?"
"I saw him with my own two eyes." A second tear sprang from her eye. She flicked it from her cheek and laughed. "What's a PR flack? I don't even know what it is."
"Get yourself something to eat," I said. "It's part of the deal. Not your fault Stonewell's star sank."
She lowered her lavender lenses. "You're not just testing me?" Her eyes glimmered with a half-dozen more tears ready with the slightest justification to leap free. "You really aren't interested?"
I guessed her age at sixteen. Maybe younger. She hadn't been on the street long. Crying one moment, laughing the next, subject to the wicked sway of hormones that emotionally cripple most teenagers -- the wolves on the street would sniff her out soon enough. She didn't have a clue and even less of a chance. I sucked down the last of my coffee and stood. "You got it right, little sister. It was a test. You passed."
The Rottweiler stood on his hind legs and barked when we stepped from the café. I let him jump his paws to my shoulders, then pushed him down and untied the leash from the no-parking sign. I felt bad about tying him up but the city sanitary codes discriminate against dogs. Can't take one into a restaurant, no matter how well behaved the dog or badly behaved the waiters.
"Aren't you afraid it'll bite somebody?" the girl asked.
I dropped the leash. The Rott leaped the door frame into the old Cadillac convertible I drove, settling behind the wheel like he thought I was going to let him steer. "He's only bit two people in the three months I've owned him," I said.
The girl stood at the passenger door, afraid to open it.
I pointed to the backseat. The Rott got the message and jumped over the headrest. "Get in," I said. "If he bites it won't hurt much."
The girl slid into the passenger seat, her eyes never leaving the Rott. "A dog that big, it could take your head off."
"He could," I admitted. "If he had any teeth." I started the engine and pulled into traffic. Café Anastasia wasn't far from the beach. With luck Stonewell would be a fast eater and I could grab his photo and be gone within the hour. I asked, "Where you from?"
"Don't lie to me. I hate lies."
Her face burned red. I proved I was tough enough to intimidate a teenaged runaway, if nothing else.
"How many days you been in L.A.?"
"You sleeping rough?"
She leaned against the passenger door, as far away from me and the dog as possible. Her survival instincts weren't completely dead. "Somebody's taking care of me," she said.
"Doesn't look like they're doing that great a job."
"That's none of your business, is it?"
It wasn't. I curbed the Cadillac at the narrow strip of green that forms Palisades Park, pointed to the public toilets across the grass. "Wait for me there. When I've taken the photo or at least confirmed your tip, I'll drop by to pay you." I dipped into the side pocket of my leather jacket. "Here's a twenty on advance."
She took the money and climbed out of the car.
Before she shut the door I said, "In case you're scamming me and I never see you again, some advice. Be careful who you trust, and never let a man talk you into sleeping with someone for money."
She crossed her arms over her chest, looked away. "I'm not scamming you."
"Good to hear it," I said. "But the advice holds true anyway."
Only one parking valet worked the curb at the restaurant where the girl said I'd find Stonewell and he didn't look overwhelmed by traffic. I hopped out of my car brandishing a cheap folding map. An unwritten set of rules governs the paparazzi biz and one of the most important is never to embarrass informants. Most of my tips come from waiters, waitresses, and parking valets. If I charge into a restaurant, flash attachment firing, I burn my contacts. As I approached the stand I flashed a twenty-dollar bill in my opposite hand, asked, "Can you help me with directions?"
The valet's eyes clicked from map to cash.
I lowered my voice and said, "I heard Chad Stonewell's taking a late lunch."
"I heard the same thing but I wouldn't know for sure," he said, playing along, glancing at the map. "Mr. Stonewell's driver doesn't valet park."
"No reason you should get stiffed. I'll be parked across the street, on Ocean. Give me a salute when you see Stonewell's driver pull out, okay?"
The valet nodded. He was a twenty-something Latino, probably worked two jobs just to get by. The bill changed palms when we shook hands. I didn't know why I was going to so much trouble. Stonewell would never be a nobody -- he'd been too famous for too long for that -- but he hadn't been in a hit film for almost a decade and despite owning the most famously dimpled chin in the history of motion pictures, his name was rapidly dropping to the bottom of the list of bankable stars. An undisputed champ of big-budget action flicks in the 1980s, when he burst onto the scene as the Bruiser from Brewster, Texas, Stonewell was no longer the first name called when the script called for a brawny kind of action hero, and so the parts that came his way were ones others had already rejected. Hard to get another hit that way, particularly when the rise to fame came on a reputation for invincibility rather than acting talent. Not that I wouldn't be able to sell his photograph after I'd taken it. If Scandal Times -- the primary tab I worked with -- didn't take it, another one would. But I wouldn't get much more than a couple of hundred for it. I'd be lucky if I broke even.
I circled the block a couple of times before a spot opened on Ocean Avenue in clear sight of the parking valet. The girl had needed money, sure, but that didn't mean I was responsible for giving it to her. I hated being played for a sucker even if I'd played myself for one. In prison I'd seen a hundred variations of the same girl ten years after the wolves had found her, hollowed out by drugs and hardened by abuse. Nothing I could do to stop that from happening to her, but I didn't have to contribute to it by refusing to help. Maybe she'd take that hundred dollars and change her life. Maybe a hundred dollars was all she needed to tip her life over to the good. Maybe Stonewell was inking at that very moment a multimillion-dollar contract to star in the Next Big Thing and I'd sell his photograph for a couple grand. One thing about suckers like me, we have hope.
The sun rolled over the lip of sea and the sky darkened to violet before the parking valet saluted and a black Mercedes S430 rolled to the stoplight up the street from the restaurant. I wrapped the 35mm Nikon in a plastic bag and tucked the little point-and-shoot into the ankle of my boot. Stonewell's image hadn't graced the pages of a tabloid in months. He needed the publicity. He was going to kiss the sidewalk at my feet when the first flash popped. I checked the avenue for traffic and jaywalked to the opposite curb. The Mercedes stopped in the space reserved for valet parking. I lingered on the corner next to a blond guy waiting to cross the street at the green. When the driver circled the hood to open the passenger door I pulled the camera from the bag and stepped around the corner. A bodyguard held the door to the restaurant open. Stonewell strode out wearing jeans, sneakers, and a satin windbreaker, the kind with the name of a film emblazoned on the back. The guy with him wore a black suit that made him look like a priest in Armani. They stepped into the shot before they even knew I was there.
"Hey, Chad, give us a smile!" I called, and fired the flash.
That was the only shot I'd need, I thought, Chad Stonewell leaving a Los Angeles restaurant with an unidentified man, but Stonewell shouted like I'd just pulled a gun and the bodyguard bolted from the door. My finger twitched again to get the shot, Stonewell pointing at me, the bodyguard vaulting around his left shoulder. I'd seen the same gesture from other celebrities and knew it meant I needed to jet. I backpedaled for a last shot, turned to start my sprint, and collided into the citizen I'd seen waiting for the light at the corner. I spun to go around him, but he grabbed my arm and hit me with a forearm shot to the jaw. He jerked the camera as I fell, held it over his head to show Stonewell that he'd gotten it, and tossed it to the bodyguard. The bodyguard flipped open the back of the camera and stripped out the film.
"Teach her a lesson," Stonewell said. "Camera, too."
The bodyguard shrugged and windmilled the Nikon on its strap. On the downstroke he dropped his shoulder and smashed the camera lens-first into the sidewalk.
"Again," Stonewell said.
The black-suited man behind him presumably watched, his expression impassive behind teardrop-shaped sunglasses. The Nikon swung in a high arc, taut on its strap. The lens had already shattered and the film compartment twisted open on a broken hinge. The second blow came like the coup de grâce to a corpse. The lens snapped free and rolled like a severed head into the gutter. Had they stopped at stripping the film from my camera I would have accepted the loss as one of the hazards of the trade. Celebrities have bodyguards. Sometimes they catch you and when they do they take your film. Every now and then they might throw an elbow into your ribs or in extreme circumstances wrestle you to the ground. By breaking my camera they had taken the chief tool of my trade and that threatened my survival. I pulled my legs up to my chest and drew the boot cam concealed in my Doc Martens. Nobody paid any attention to me when I stood. Stonewell tapped fists with the bodyguard and said something to the man in the black suit as they stepped toward the car. The citizen returned to the street corner, as though waiting for the light. I leapt forward and swung the point-and-shoot to my eye.
"Hey, Chad, how about a smile?"
The flash popped on a group shot, the black-suited man almost smiling in surprise, Stonewell and the bodyguard gaping like they'd just been caught robbing the bank. The flash momentarily blinded them. I sprang from my shooter's crouch and sprinted for the gap between the driver and the man in the black suit, who stepped back to avoid me, cutting off the bodyguard. The driver just looked on. I wasn't his job. Midblock I cut left onto the 3rd Street Promenade, a walk-street of shops and cinemas three blocks from the beach. They'd pile into the car, I thought, and try to catch me on the streets, probably at Wilshire, where the Promenade ends. I cut left again, toward Palisades Park, got lucky catching a green light at Ocean Avenue, and when I reached the mouth of the pedestrian bridge that crosses over the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, I glanced back to see the bodyguard hunched three blocks behind, vomiting into the curb. I maintained my stride until slowed by the sand beneath Santa Monica Pier and only then, safely concealed among the pilings, did I begin to wonder what the hell had just happened.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert Eversz