...... The car is a Porsche. A vintage red Boxster. Sitting in a parking space like it's any other mortal car. Forty-years-old, but it gleams like it just rolled out of the factory. I know I'll never own such a beautiful machine.
...... I pull an ice pick from my sheath and punch a hole in the taillight. I feel like I'm defacing the Mona Lisa.
.......Seconds later, I'm back behind the wheel of my rust-bucket Nova, parked across the lot. Waiting.
.......The Porsche almost loses me on the freeway. Then I see the cracked taillight, bleeding white. My beacon in the dark.
.......I catch up to him on an exit ramp and follow the little car into a residential neighborhood. Once the area was called working class. Now it's funky. Tract homes line both sides of the street. New paint on old bricks. Green grass instead of weeds.
.......The Porsche pulls into carport of a renovated bungalow. I do a drive by. Scope out my target. His name is Jason Powell.
.......Jason has a friend, waiting in the driveway. The two of them are straight out of a Hitler youth dream. Strong, blonde, and white as the sun. But they do something that would've earned them a good dose of Zyklon B from the Third Reich. They kiss. Full on the lips.
.......My dad was no Nazi but he would've called the men faggots. Would've spit the word out like it was a rancid piece of meat. Tells you what kind of sensitive guy old dad was. Me, I barely wince. Darwin calls that evolution.
.......Before I can get the camera up, they're in through the front door. I curse myself, kill the engine of the Nova, and swing out from behind the wheel. Time to get up close and personal.
.......I creep around the side of the house. Feels like I've spent my whole life sneaking around in the dark, circling other people's homes, other people's lives.
.......A light clicks on in the kitchen window. I ready my camera. Through the glass, I see Jason, scavenging in the fridge. Jason, but no friend.
.......What do you think you're doing?
.......I turn slowly and there he is, Jason's kissing partner. Blonde guy with the LA Fitness muscles.
.......I shrug and hold my hands up in surrender. Howdy.
.......I asked what the fuck you're doing? And now he's got this smile on his face. A pit bull's smile. A trouble smile.
.......Relax, I tell him. You got me. You won. So, I'll leave you guys alone. Catch you another time.
.......I try to walk away but he stops me with a straight arm. Veins bulge, squirming like a snake from his bicep to his wrist. You're not going anywhere, he says. Not until you answer some questions.
.......What'd you say?
.......You're not going
.......That's when I make my move. It's an old trick. Fighting Dirty 101. Ask a man a question, then hit him while he's giving you his witty reply.
.......My first shot is a quick jab. I follow with a hard right to the base of the chin. Then I kick him in the balls like I'm going for the extra point.
.......The guy's eyes bulge and he doubles over. While he's down, my fingers snake into his hair and I drive my knee up into his face. Bone crashes with cartridge. That perfect Aryan nose of his goes crack! Blood geysers out in all directions.
.......He sits down hard on his butt, his eyes like window glass. He stays there for a moment, then tries to stand.
.......I shake my head. Don't be stupid, kid. Won't do either us a bit of good.
.......He listens. Sits holding his ruined nose as I walk past him, glaring at me.
.......Nothing personal, I tell him.
.......I head to the Nova, hoping not to hear sirens coming my way. A voice catches up to me as I'm slipping behind the wheel.
.......I look up to see Jason Powell running towards the Nova. When I try to close the door on him, the kid grabs the handle and holds tight.
.......Please, he says. Wait.
.......Nothing to say to you. I turn the key in the ignition and the engine rumbles to life. If the kid doesn't let go, I'll give the Nova a little gas, send him tumbling on the blacktop.
.......It's my brother, isn't it? he asks. My brother hired you to spy on me, didn't he?
.......I rev the engine as a warning, but the kid doesn't let up.
.......Whatever he's paying you, I'll match it, he says. In fact, I'll double it.
.......I take my foot off the gas and look the kid in the eye. Double?
.......Old man Powell lies in a hospital bed at Saint Joseph's, tubes and wires coming out of him like spaghetti. His eyes are closed tight to the world. His mouth is opened wide in a perpetual yawn. His skin is the color of faded sheets.
.......Once upon a time, Powell ruled an empire of car dealerships and hotel chains. He owned thoroughbred horses, sailed yachts, and dined with senators. He was one of the richest, most powerful men in the state. Now, the old man needs someone to wipe his ass for him.Once upon a time, Powell ran four Chrysler dealerships.
.......Okay to talk in front of him? I ask.
.......He's out of it right now, says Patrick. He's Powell's son -- Jason's big brother. A polo shirt and khaki kind of guy. A sweater vest kind of guy. Handsome in a boyish sort of way. Soft.
.......But he's lucid, right? I ask. When he's awake, I mean.
.......Patrick waves his hand in the air like he's shooing away a fly. Sure he's lucid. I've got a doctor that'll testify to it. But there isn't much time left. Five weeks max. So I need those pictures.
.......The place stinks of ammonia and the constant beep, beep, beep of the monitors is working on my nerves. I've got a few already, I say. The two of them walking around, getting coffee. Nothing incriminating.
.......Not good enough, says Patrick. I need them kissing, or at least holding hands. Fucking would be better. My dad's from the old school, you understand? One look at a photo like that and he'll write Jason out of the will. Won't even think twice about it, the bitter old fart.
.......Giving you a bigger slice of the pie.
.......And why not? Patrick says. My brother's been living his depraved lifestyle since he was sixteen. Pulling the wool over Dad's eyes the whole time. I deserve a bigger slice.
.......You'll get no argument from me.
.......Patrick flashes a perfect smile, straight out of a toothpaste ad. "Of course I won't. I didn't forget your bonus for getting the photos to me in a timely manner. Five thousand on top of your regular rate. But I need those photos, and I need them yesterday.
.......You'll get them. Trust me.
.......I pass the waiting area on my way to the elevators. It's a big room full of overstuffed chairs and old magazines. A line of windows overlooks the grounds, letting sunshine through the dust. As comfortable as a hospital waiting room could aspire to.
......With his money, old man Powell couldve gone anywhere in the world. But he owned a chunk of Saint Joseph's and liked to stay close to his investments, even in the end.
......I notice Patrick making a pit stop here. There's a woman sitting in the corner, and he leans in to kiss her on the cheek. The woman is his father's second wife; I recognize her from my research. They talk to each other in whispers, their faces close.
.......The woman's a trophy wife. Maybe forty, judging by the smile lines. Nothing else gives away her age. She's tall. Curvy. Blonde from a bottle. She's visiting a hospital, visiting her dying husband, but that doesn't stop her from wearing a skimpy sundress. Showing off lots of tan skin.
.......She touches her stepson's chest. Lets her fingers linger there.
.......I look away and catch sight of the youngest of the Powell clan -- little Ashley, sitting across the room. Little Ashley's seventeen with a woman's body and long black hair that curtains down over half her face. She stares back at me. Something dark living there in her eyes.
.......I grab the elevator and leave the happy Powell family behind. In the lot down stairs, I've got Johnny Cash waiting for me in the tape deck of my Nova. I've also got a bag full of camera equipment in the trunk.
.......A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. Maybe I can do better than that.
.......I wait and watch.
.......I'm sitting in a rented Pontiac, parallel parked on a hillside overlooking a man-made lake. The car is white with factory everything -- about as inconspicuous as a brick wall. It's perfect. I couldn't risk driving the Nova. Couldn't risk Jason Powell recognizing it.
.......The fake lake has a track around it for morning joggers. Jason is there, running with his friend Roland, the two of them taking their time. They do a couple of eight-minute miles then stop for a break under the shade of mesquite tree. Roland must be having a hard time breathing through the bandages patched across his nose. I almost feel sorry for the guy.
.......I pull out the Nikon and screw on a telephoto lens. The boys are just talking, passing a bottle of water back and forth. I snap off a few shots to warm up. Then Jason gives me something I can use. He touches Roland's face and gives him a quick peck on the lips.
.......I get the shot and pack my gear up. Pulling away from the curb, I turn up the volume of the Pontiac's radio. Turn it way up. I don't even care what's playing, just so long as it's loud.
.......I drop the photos on the desktop.
.......Patrick sits up straight in his executive chair, gazes at the pictures of his little brother then grins so hard his mouth looks like it'll tear.
.......Goddamn, he says, flipping through the pictures. His office is all mahogany and plush fabrics. Smells like leather and lemon oil. On the corner of his desk is a tiffany lamp, giving off a soft glow. You do excellent work.
.......I say nothing.
.......Patrick's smile fades slightly. He reaches into his sports coat, produces a checkbook. Before he can find a pen, I shake my head at him.
.......I told you on the phone. I take cash. Nothing else.
.......You think I'm going to carry five grand around with me?
.......It's seven. The first two covers my rate. The five is my bonus.
.......Patrick says nothing. Just looks at me, trying to give me a concrete stare. Trying to play the tough guy, but he's too soft to pull it off. I let out a frustrated sigh and lean over to gather the photographs up.
.......Fine, he says, You win. He opens the bottom drawer of that big desk of his and fishes out a bundle of bills. Sets the bundle on the table and rests back in his chair.
.......I swap the snapshots for the cash and head for the door. No goodbyes. No handshakes. I can hear Patrick behind me, shuffling through the pictures, chuckling to himself. I let him have his moment of victory. Then I turn around, pulling one more photograph from my pocket.
.......I almost forgot, I tell him. Here's another shot you might be interested in.
.......I lay the photo gently on top of the others. Patrick sees it, and his skin goes milk white.
.......It's you and your father's wife. Or should I call her your stepmom? The two of you look to be having a pretty good time together. Wonder what Freud would say about that.
he stutters. This was taken at the house. In the bedroom. How did you get inside? We have a security system
.......You're asking the wrong questions, I say. What you should be asking is how Dad will feel about you fucking his trophy wife. Do you think he'll keep you in the will?
.......Patrick's soft, boyish face turns to stone. You bastard.
.......Fifty thousand dollars, I tell him. Cash of course. By noon tomorrow. I'll call you with the details.
.......Turning my back on the man, I go for the door again. Patrick begins to rummage through his desk again. He's breathing hard. Excited. Nervous. Angry. I don't need to see his face to know that he's going to do something stupid.
.......My veins do a jitterbug beneath my skin. I let instincts take over and spin around to face him. Two quick steps and I'm standing over Patrick's desk. Close enough to see the sweat rolling down his forehead.
.......Patrick isn't rummaging anymore. In fact, he's not moving at all. His hand is down inside one of the desk drawers, gripping hold of something. His mouth is a hard, flat line across his face.
.......Let's just relax now, I tell him. There's an ice pick strapped to my spine in a makeshift sheath. I slip it out. Clutch it behind my back. Out of sight.
.......The guy doesn't say a thing. His arm, the one reaching into the desk drawer, begins to tremble.
.......Don't do it, I tell him. But Patrick doesn't listen.
.......For a soft businessman, he moves pretty well. The gun comes up in a blur -- a short-barreled revolver. I can tell he's practiced this. Probably spent some bored nights alone at the office, jerking the gun out quick, aiming it at imaginary bad guys. If he was a split-second faster, it might've made a difference.
.......With one hand, I grab hold of Patrick's wrist-stop him from getting the gun around. With the other, I swing the ice pick out from behind my back. It flashes through the air. Patrick's eyes go wide.
.......I bring the pick down hard. Thud. Patrick screams and drops the pistol. His other hand is nailed to the desk, spurting blood.
.......Circling the desk, I scoop up the gun and tuck it into my waistband. I don't much like the idea of being shot in the back.
.......Patrick's screams die down into sobbing whimpers. Close your eyes, I tell him. You don't want to see this.
.......Patrick does as he's told, and I yank the ice pick free. He stumbles backward into his big chair. Quietly, he sits there, cradling his bloody hand.
.......It was an accident, I tell him. You cut yourself on some broken glass. I kick the tiffany lamp off the desktop. It crashes against the floor sending shards of stained glass everywhere. Should be more careful.
.......What about the picture? he asks, nodding towards the photograph of he and his step mom together. His voice is small and distant, like a shy child's.
.......You go ahead and keep it, I tell him. I've got copies.
.......It's a dark night. A few lamps give the waiting area of St. Joseph's a dim yellow glow. I take a seat in one of the overstuffed chairs and watch black clouds roll past the windows.
.......She shows up an hour later. Plops down in the chair next to me, chewing bubble gum. Her long dark hair is pulled back tight in a ponytail. Her legs stretch out from a short skirt, slim and tan.
.......How's it going, Ashley?
.......Ashley Powell pops her gum at me. How did the security codes work?
.......Like a charm, I tell her. Got into the house no problem.
.......So you showed him the pictures, right? Did he go for it?
.......Not right away. Your brother's a very stubborn man.
.......Half-brother, she says. Then she holds out her hand to me.
.......I pass her a manila envelope full of the photographs-both brothers committing their sins. She looks them over, shaking her head, making little noises with her gum.
.......Don't show your father these until tomorrow night, I tell her. After I collect from Patrick.
.......She nods, still eying the snapshots. Tell me again how much I owe you.
.......I turn eighteen in a month, she says. I'll pay you then, out of my share of the inheritance. Which I'm betting will be much larger after Dad sees these.
.......A month's a long time to wait. What am I going to do for a month?
.......Her hand finds my thigh. I can feel the warmth of her fingertips through the fabric of my jeans. We'll think of something, she says.
.......Her gum goes pop.