In just ten short days, we’ll be publishing FUN AND GAMES, the kick-a$$ first book in the kick-a$$ Charlie Hardie series. Continue reading the novel Josh Bazell called “insanely entertaining,” and which Booklist called “so bloody satisfying.”
Missed Chapter 1? Read it here.
“California is a beautiful fraud.”—Marc Reisner
WHEELS WERE supposed to be up at 5:30 a.m., but by 5:55 it became clear that wasn’t gonna happen.
The captain told everyone it was just a little trouble with a valve. Once that was fixed and the paperwork was filed, they’d be taking off and headed to LAX. Fifteen minutes, tops. Half hour later, the captain more or less said he’d been full of shit, but really, honest, folks, now it was fixed, and they’d be taking off by 6:45. Thirty minutes later, the captain admitted he was pretty much yanking off / finger-fucking everyone in the airplane, and the likely departure time would be 8 a.m.—something about a sensor needing replacing. Nothing serious.
No, of course not.
So after two hours of being baked alive in a narrow tube, Charlie Hardie took the advice of the flight crew and stepped off to stretch his legs. After an eternity of standing around, his belly rumbling, he decided to make a run to a bakery over at the mall between Terminals B and C. Hardie had taken exactly one bite of his dry bagel when the announcement came over the loudspeakers:
Flight fourteen seventeen ready for takeoff. All passengers must report immediately to Terminal B, Gate…
By the time Hardie returned to his seat, carry-on in hand, someone had already commandeered his space in the overhead bin. Hardie glanced forward and back to see if there were any gaps in the luggage where he could slide his bag. Nope. Everything was jammed in tight. Irritated passengers tried to squeeze by him in the aisle, but Hardie wasn’t moving until he found a place for his carry-on. He refused to check it. He’d carefully planned his seat assignments so that he’d be one of the first on the plane, guaranteeing him overhead bin space. It didn’t matter what happened to the rest of his stuff; Hardie just couldn’t lose sight of this carry-on.
“Everything okay?” a gentle voice asked.
A flight attendant—young, smiling, wearing too much makeup, trying to ease the bottleneck in the middle of the plane. Trying to avoid some kind of incident.
Hardie lifted the duffel. “Just trying to find a place for this.”
“Well, I can check it for you.”
“No, you can’t.”
The attendant stared back at him, catching the raw stubbornness in his eyes. She looked uneasy for a moment but quickly recovered:
“Why don’t you slide it under the seat in front of you?” Hardie had tried that once—during his first flight. Some snotass flight attendant had given him crap about height and width and keeping the aisle clear.
“You sure that’s allowed?” he asked.
She touched his wrist and leaned in close. “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
The flight was quiet, monotonous, boring. Landing, too—a soft touchdown in the early-morning gloom. Hardie was thankful that the hard part was over. Within a few hours he would be back to work in a stranger’s home, where he could sink down into a nice fuzzy alcoholic oblivion, just the way he liked it.
Hardie stumbled into his house-sitting career two years ago. He was between budget residence hotels and a friend of a friend had been called off to a job in Scotland, so he asked Hardie if he’d look after his place an hour north of San Diego. Four bedrooms, swimming pool, bunch of lemon trees outside. Hardie got $500 a week as well as a place to stay. He almost felt guilty taking the money, because it was a mindless job. The place didn’t burn down; nobody tried to break in. Hardie watched old movies on DVD and TNT. Drank a lot of bourbon. Munched on crackers. Cleaned up after himself, didn’t pee on the bathroom floor.
The friend of the friend was pleased, and recommended Hardie to other friends—about half of them on the West Coast, half on the East. Word traveled fast; reliable house sitters were hard to come by. What made Hardie appealing was his law enforcement background. Pretty soon Hardie had enough gigs that it made sense for him to stop living in residence hotels and start living out of one suitcase and a carry-on bag. Rendering him essentially homeless, but living in the fanciest abodes in the country. The kinds of places people worked all their lives to afford.
All Hardie had to do was make sure nobody broke in. He also was expected to make sure the houses didn’t catch on fire.
The former was easy. Burglars tended to avoid occupied residences. Hardie knew the standard entry points, so he spent a few minutes upon arrival making sure they were fortified, and then… yeah. That was it. All of the “work” that was required. He made it clear to his booking agent, Virgil, that he didn’t do plants, didn’t do pets. He made sure people didn’t steal shit.
Fires were another story. Especially in Southern California during the season. Hardie’s most recent West Coast gig was in Calabasas, where he watched the home of a TV writer who was over in Germany doing a comedy series. Hardie followed the news reports between sips of Knob Creek, and then without much warning the winds shifted—meaning a wall of fire was racing in his direction.
There was nothing Hardie could do to save the house. So instead, he loaded up every possible thing that would be considered valuable to a writer—manuscripts, notes, hard drives—into his rental. He was still filling every available nook and cranny when the flames reached the backyard. Ash rained on his hood, the top of his head. Hardie made it down the hill and over to the highway, watching the fire begin devouring the house in his rearview mirror. Watching the smoke and choppers reminded Hardie of that old punk song “Stukas over Disneyland.” The fact that Hardie was pretty deep into a bourbon drunk at the time made his great escape all the more amazing.
Because that’s what Hardie did after the “work” was done and the house was fortified—drank, watched old movies. When Hardie stopped understanding the plot, he knew he’d reached his limit. He’d put down the bottle and close his eyes. He didn’t worry about not being able to hear home invaders, or sirens, or any of that. The stubborn lizard cop part of his brain refused to shut off. Which, Hardie thought, was why he drank so much.
See, it was all one neat little circle.
After the Calabasas fire, and weeks of hawking black gunk out of his lungs, Hardie decided he’d had enough of SoCal for a while. He did some jobs in New York City, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Boston, even DC for one wretchedly humid week. The writer from
Calabasas was grateful Hardie had managed to save so much of his material, so it wasn’t as if he suffered poor marks on his housesitter report card. In fact, Hardie had more job offers than he could handle. His living expenses—booze, used DVDs, a little bit of food—were minimal. He sent the rest of his earnings to a PO Box in a suburb of Philadelphia.
When this new California offer came up, Hardie decided it was okay to go back. The house was nestled right on the Hollywood Hills, and the ground was just as dry, probably drier, than it had been the previous year. Which had been an especially bad year for wildfires.
But it was also coming up on the three-year anniversary of the day Hardie’s life ended, and he wanted to be as far away from Philadelphia as possible. He didn’t want to be anywhere near the Eastern seaboard, in fact.
Hardie made his way out of the cramped tube, trying to stretch his sore body while walking. Nobody would let him. Bodies rushed past him from behind, nearly collided into him from the front. He felt like a human pinball. Down a flight of stairs he came to the luggage carousel and waited for the bags to start being vomited up from below.
Nearby, a little boy, about eight years old, squeezed his mother’s hand. He glanced over his shoulder at the automatic doors every time they whooshed open. Down the carousel was a girl—dark hair, pretty eyes, vintage purse tucked under her arm. She tapped her high-heeled shoe to a slow, slow song.
The carousel kept churning. Airport carousels always reminded Hardie of a suit of armor, dirty and scuffed, as if a knight had fallen into a trash compactor.
The bags were belched up one at a time. None of them looked like Hardie’s. There was a loud cry to his left. The little boy was running toward the doors. A man in his late thirties stopped in his tracks, took a knee, then held his arms out as the boy tackled him. He lifted the boy up off the ground and spun him in a half circle. Hardie looked back at the carousel. The girl with the purse, the one who’d been tapping her shoe, was gone. He guessed her bag had come up.
Finally all of the bags were up and claimed, leaving Hardie to stare at the empty metal carousel, turning and turning and turning.
The suitcase contained nothing of real value—a couple of gray T-shirts, jeans, socks, deodorant and toothpaste, some DVD standbys. And Hardie still had his carry-on bag, thank God.
But the loss was still annoying. He would have no change of clothes until the airline located his suitcase—if they located it, ha ha ha—and had it delivered. Hardie went to the airline desk near the carousel and filled out a form with boxes too small for even his small, tight printing. He wrote down the address of the house he’d agreed to watch, wondering how the promised courier service would ever find it.
The owner, a musician named Andrew Lowenbruck, had told Virgil that the place was notoriously well hidden, even to people familiar with the tangle of intestines that made up the roadways of the original Hollywood Hills. Some deliverymen insisted that Alta Brea Drive didn’t even exist.
Hardie figured he might see his bag somewhere on old episodes of The Twilight Zone.Maybe tucked into the background behind Burgess Meredith, or in the overhead bin over William Shatner’s head.
Still, Hardie dutifully filled out the missing-bag form, then hopped a dirty, off-white shuttle bus to the rental-car area. Hardie hated renting cars, because it was one more thing to look after. But you couldn’t be in the Hollywood Hills without a car. What was he supposed to do? Take a bus to Franklin and Beachwood, then hike on up to the house?
Lowenbruck was supposed to have met him at the place this morning. But he’d sent an apologetic e-mail last night to the service explaining that he had to be in Moscow earlier than expected. Lowenbruck was working on the sound track for a movie by an eccentric Russian director who wouldn’t let the unfinished reels leave his native country, so he had to fly out to watch an early cut to start gathering ideas. His original flight was canceled; the replacement left eight hours earlier. Virgil told him that Lowenbruck was known for his “pulse-pounding” action scores—the modern-day Bernard Herrmann, they called him. Hardie didn’t know what was wrong with the original.
So… Hardie wouldn’t be meeting him. But that wasn’t unusual. He rarely met the owners of the houses he watched—it was mostly handled by Virgil at the service, who in turn handled things by e-mail and FedEx key exchange.
Which was probably for the better. If they had a look at Hardie, some owners might change their minds.
Instead, Hardie got to know his clients by the stuff they left behind. The photos on their walls, the DVDs on their shelves, the food in their fridges. Stuff doesn’t lie.
As it turned out, Alta Brea Drive wasn’t too hard to find. Just shoot up Beachwood, the main drag, until you hit a dead end at the fairy tale–looking houses. Hang a sharp left on Belden, which only looks like somebody’s driveway—swear to God, it’s a real road, don’t worry, keep driving. Then, follow the intestinal tract straight up into the Hills until it looks like you are going to drive over the edge of a road and tumble down a ravine to your death. Then, at the last possible moment is another turn, and you find yourself in front of Andrew Lowenbruck’s house.
Hardie was thankful it was daylight. How the hell did people do this in the dark?
These roads weren’t meant for two-way traffic, let alone a row of parked cars along the sides. But that’s what people did up here, apparently—good luck sorting it all out. Still, Hardie made it up the mountain without an accident, and that’s all that mattered.
Hardie had been up in the Hollywood Hills before, watching other houses. But never in this specific area—the original Hollywoodland development known as Beachwood Canyon. The whole setup looked way too fragile to Hardie. Back in Philly, he’d had grown up in a $7,000 two-story row house, which was wedged in with hundreds of other row houses on flat tracts of land that stretched river to river.
Out here was the opposite—all hills and heights and precariously perched multimillion-dollar homes. Every time Hardie looked at the Hollywood Hills, he half-expected to hear a loud wooden snap and then whooosh.
All of the houses would slide down from their mountain perches and end up in a giant pit of broken lumber and glass at the bottom of the canyon.
Which was just one of the many reasons Hardie drank a little bit more when he sat one of these houses.
Hardie pulled up in front and turned off his rental—a Honda Whatever that felt and drove like a plastic box. Forget Alta Brea Drive; Hardie wasn’t entirely convinced this car was real. But it was part of the airline–rental-car package he’d found online. He didn’t plan on driving it much, anyway. All he needed was a way to get to a grocery store to buy food and booze, and then eventually a way back to the airport.
There were two other homes on this twisting bit of road, one on either side of Lowenbruck’s place, all three of them clinging to the side of the mountain. Across Alta Brea was a rocky cliff covered in foliage. A crew of two workmen in buff jumpsuits were busy hacking away at the brush with chain saws. On top of the cliff was another of what Californians called a “house.” The only part you could see from street level was a turret, standing tall, looking like it was part of a full-fledged castle. That was the thing about these hills. No matter where you built your castle, there was always somebody with a bigger castle, higher up than yours.
From street level, Lowenbruck’s place looked like nothing more than a wide, flat bungalow. Spanish-tile roof, freshly painted stucco exterior. On the left was a single-car garage. In the middle was a sturdy front door cut from solid oak, and on the right, windows that would offer you a wide-screen view if tall shrubs weren’t in the way.
But Hardie knew this was just the top level. Virgil told him the place had three floors; the other two were built down along the side of the mountain. In his instructions, Lowenbruck called it his “upside-down house.”
The house was famous in a minor way. In 1949 a film noir called Surrounded had been set here, as well as parts of a 1972 neonoir called The Glass Jungle.
This was no accident. The director of Glass Jungle was a big fan of Surrounded and had spent a lot of time on permissions for the location. Later still, in 2005, they remade Surrounded—this time calling it Dead by Dawn—but left out the house altogether. Hardie hadn’t seen any of the films, but Lowenbruck told Virgil there were copies at the house—the sitter should check them out, just for fun. Hardie would check out the first one, but not the others. He had a rule these days: he didn’t watch any movies made after he was born.
Seems the movies were another reason Lowenbruck wanted a house-sitter. Every few days some noir geek would just show up and start snapping photos of the house. Some would even try to sweet-talk their way in, as if the place were just a vacant movie prop and not a real place where actual people lived.
Late last night, when he had to catch his sudden plane to Moscow, Lowenbruck e-mailed Virgil to say he’d leave keys in his mailbox.
No keys in the mailbox.