Mama never did bake him cookies, but somewhere along the way, the beautiful underworld courier Mathilde Durand must have taught her son Alec how to cover his tracks and flee from trouble.
Handy skills for a Hollywood B-movie producer who responds to his partner’s double-cross by stealing their $9,999,900 in seed money. Especially when the Bulgarian mobster who provided the funds comes looking for him—not to mention when the Bulgarian’s masters in The Consortium lose patience and start murdering everyone in sight.
The action in this romance-disguised-as-adventure drives Alec and his misnamed cat-lover Nellie out of Hollywood to Bruxelles, Lugano, Mexico City, Manhattan, and deep into the California desert.
A pair of birds has landed in the garden. Both are jet black, with dull orange beaks and specks of coal for eyes, too small to be crows and skittish to the point of irrationality. They rip at the rough, yellow moss that plagues the wedge of shade underneath the enormous European White Birch in the back left corner. Their wings heave and shudder, as they plant scrawny talons and seek purchase to wrench some poor, ignorant earthworm from its muddy lair. They work as a pair of dull and determined hit men—hit birds?—until the slightest sound sends them scuttling across the lawn and through the air to the sanctuary of a tree.
This is no happy-go-lucky couple, flitting, fluttering, and crooning at each other in their high-pitched, squeaky voices. And small wonder, for there are three cats—one gray striped tabby, one calico, and one hugely overweight—pregnant?—black with shocking yellow eyes—who lord over the contiguous and well hidden nineteenth-century block of townhouses where I hide. The cats have called the shots around here ever since the morning a year ago when I arrived in the violent whirlwind of a North European snowstorm—called the shots, that is, until two nights ago, when a hysterical feline shriek rent the air, followed by three weak gasps of descending audibility—and all of the cats vanished.
If this were North America or the frozen wastes of Russia, one might call in the wolves and coyotes for questioning. But this is civilized Bruxelles, in Belgium, in what has recently been dubbed the European Union Quarter. The last four-legged wild carnivore left its footprint on the cobbled surface of this neighborhood two hundred years ago in a futile flight from the maw of the French Revolution. I’ve repeatedly circumnavigated this enclosed block of European-style suburbia and established beyond a doubt that there exists no way in or out for animal or human predators, except through the securely locked doors and garages of the Belgian bourgeoisie and Eurocrats who populate my neighborhood. And it’s safe to assume that none of those respectable burghers were out on that eerie, moonless night, murdering cats.
But the cats have indeed vanished, and the birds appear quite happy about it. As I write these lines, the original pair of blackbirds has been joined by a pigeon, a pair of non-descript browns, and a thrush.
In the cat world, this passes for ominous.
If the reporter from the Los Angeles Times—Dan Cronin, as I recall—were still paying attention, he’d write that three hundred sixty-six days ago, I ambled out of a Hollywood New Year’s Eve party with an exotic blond on my arm and vanished into thin air. But Dan isn’t paying attention, and neither are the authorities. Nor is the haphazardly coiffed and irritated Malibu resident who petitioned the Superior Court of Los Angeles six months ago to declare her long lost ex-husband deceased. As far as I can tell, no one is paying attention, and this is good news.
It’s a neurosis of our hyper-communicative modern life that we suspect strangers of watching us. Every time we venture down a city street, we pass through a gauntlet of security cameras and swivel-necked policemen feigning alertness. In the newspapers, we read endless reports of geosynchronous spy satellites and ultra-sophisticated computer programs designed to snatch our very own private conversations out of the ether. Spy and mystery novels, magazine articles, and neurotic movies all assure us that we individually matter enough to be watched. But of course, we don’t. And like I said, this is good news.
At Dan’s urging, the authorities spent a good two months searching for the blond who supposedly fled that New Year’s Eve party with me. Whoever she was, she didn’t know me, we didn’t even exchange a look. The police asked the host of the Hollywood love fest, a mover-shaker by the name of Joe Rhymes, to supply a list of all of the blonds who drove away from his mansion that night. No doubt, Joe chortled in reply and served up the female half of the Hollywood phonebook. At any rate, and as far as I know, no blond starlet or script reader ever stepped forward with the tiniest allusion to my seductive powers.
My buddy Joe shouldered his social responsibilities and co-operated with the investigation, but judging by the news reports, his enthusiasm never set any records. Six long months after my disappearing act, he organized the sparsely attended memorial service and somehow talked my ex-wife into dusting off her veil and photogenic regrets. In a thoroughly ingenious touch, Joe allotted $1,000 from our corporate insurance policy to inscribe my name on a bench in the memorial park just off Avalon harbor on Catalina Island. After all, we’d shared so many memories of the cove nearby, where we anchored every summer, drank ourselves silly, screwed our fill of blond starlets, and pondered the chilly waters where Natalie Wood and I supposedly drowned.
Unfortunately, I remember none of those hilarious escapades, and neither does Joe, at least not anymore. Less than a month after I was declared legally, if ambiguously extinct, an anonymous burglar broke into Joe’s house, sabotaged the alarm, stole a trinket or two, and left no grain of doubt concerning Joe’s fate. The execution-style murder brought Dan Cronin back into the picture, but neither he nor the sleuths of Los Angeles Homicide produced a plausible scenario. Suddenly, everyone loved Joe in precise, if indirect proportion to the strength of their alibis. My earlier disappearance and a gossamer thread of underworld connections notwithstanding, the news of Joe’s thinly lamented demise floated to the bottom of the gossip pages like a muddy rock in the cesspool of Los Angeles society.
All good news.
I hate crows. Since early yesterday, I’ve accumulated a pile of stones next to the French doors that give out onto the garden in the hope of catching one of the brutes unawares. There are two of them, both newcomers, intensely stupid and unfriendly creatures with hideous, off-key voices. I’m no ornithologist and give little credence to their erudition and supernatural qualities, but have made a mental note to dust off my Edgar Allen Poe. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never murdered a single living being, not even an insect, but would gladly grant these obnoxious creatures an exemption. They must suspect my intentions. As keenly as they eye the tasty treats in the garden, they’ve thus far clung to the tops of a neighbor’s pines.
Those pines and my tall, leggy birch have just caught the tail end of a random and bitter gust off the North Sea. This is newsworthy. After a nasty bite or two in December, winter has shuffled off to Sweden and left the Low Countries in an impossibly balmy lull. I’ve actually spotted strollers and sunbathers in the manicured lawns of a local park. Anyone who has made the acquaintance of the North Sea might be forgiven for reading these lines with a snort of disbelief, but it is so.
Even in the worst of meteorological hissy fits, the property where I sit rarely sees any wind action at all. It’s a matter of architectural history. For the uninitiated, Belgium is the most invaded country on earth. Two thousand years of marauding Romans, Franks, Spaniards, Austrians, Frenchmen, and Germans have left the Belgians a suspicious and protective folk. They rarely talk to strangers and almost never invite new friends home for dinner. Even the authorities despise the authorities—everyone else just ignores them. Tax evasion is an art. So is minding one’s own business. In the countryside, this has created a landscape littered with ancient fortified farms and abbeys. In the cities, the near-universal preference is for enclosed and contiguous blocks of tall brick-and-stone townhouses. Defiant, impenetrable, anonymous, and rather like me.
My mother bought this property in 1963, in one of her perfectly logical bouts of historical paranoia. She paid cash and—with the aid of friends from her wartime resistance exploits—managed to thoroughly obscure the ownership. Not that anyone was then promoting the species of pogroms and persecutions that have plagued European history—but you never knew. Human beings have never come up short of new excuses to kill each other—we all belong to one group of potential victims or another. But thanks to the shady, mistrustful instincts of one Mathilde Durand, the $9,999,900-Thieves segment of the population has spent the last year in this Bruxelles suburb in apparent security.
Still no sign of the cats.
The last time I saw Joe Rhymes, he was busy embarrassing himself in a corner of his vast living room at the Hollywood New Year’s Eve party he hosted where I theoretically gave up the ghost. This was an unusual event, in that Joe had tossed aside his normally exclusive list and invited everyone he knew. It was a frigid night by Los Angeles standards, moonless and unfriendly, when Joe flung open the sliding glass doors of his cliff-top in the Hollywood Hills. By the time I arrived, around 11:45PM, tuxedoed and solo, no one was suffering from the cold.
A quick glance through the house confirmed me as the only sober funster in the neighborhood. There must have been two-hundred-plus of the glitterati and assorted sycophants and hangers-on. A few would’ve brought the gossip rags trailing after them, except that the paparazzi were busy mobbing the diversionary soiree Joe had announced for the Roosevelt Hotel. I must have been planning something—subconsciously, at least—because I parked outside Joe’s gates beyond the reach of his valet service and entered on foot by a side entrance.
In the thick crowds that clogged the foyer of Joe’s mansion, I found the answer to my most vexing and immediate question. Up the circular stairway, past the ersatz artwork I suspected Joe of buying wholesale and outside a wedding-cake of a bedroom door, stood a pair of silent thugs I’d recently met. Perhaps met is too strong a word—conversation was out of the question in the obscure language they spoke, and we never exchanged so much as a threatening grunt or frown. But their presence now informed me that Joe had indeed invited the Bulgarian to this love fest. And that invitation revealed, at least to my paranoid imagination, that Joe and I had indeed taken on a partner in my latest movie. Or more precisely, that Joe had taken on a partner and cut me out.
I was already severely irritated, and the vision of Joe across a hallway in the next sitting room did nothing to lighten the vindictive impulse that had driven me there. He was playing his favorite game, a variation on hide and seek, where he hid his true self long enough to gain someone’s trust and then popped out of the bushes to skewer the victim with their own secret confidences.
Just then, Joe sat sloppily wedged into a leather sofa and an audience of six, relating the hilarious details of a starlet who’d tried to seduce her way into his affections in order to further her career. This was no covey of deep-thought intellectuals. The worn-out Hollywood clichés that spouted from Joe’s mouth met with knowing nods and grins, at least among the men. If the three women chortled along a little less reliably, it might’ve had to do with the language Joe used to describe the cunt’s—his word, not mine—antics. Even Joe normally eschewed such language, but in the haze of a half-dozen scotches and doting grins, he must have found verbal immunity.
One of the women who endured the story was a B-movie actress named Lauren—or Laura, I wasn’t sure which—whom we’d tested for one of our more forgettable movies and roles. Lauren looked particularly frazzled by the events Joe was relating. This made sense, once I recognized her as the thinly disguised heroine of the tale. Lauren couldn’t very well climb to her drunken feet and escape, for as Joe had no doubt surmised, this would’ve opened up the possibility of her thin disguise evaporating behind her back. So she sat there and took it, swallowing every ounce of dignity her Midwestern parents had ingrained in her, until I walked up and held out my hand.
“Lauren, come here,” I suggested a little too strongly, if only to penetrate the alcoholic haze that enveloped the group. “I have to show you something.”
“Hey buddy,” Joe protested warily. “Her name’s Laura, and she’ll be there in a minute. I was just telling a story.”
“No doubt. We’ll be right back.”
Laura made no move to follow me, but taking advantage of her inebriated confusion, I pulled her up and out of the group.
“Stay out of the master bedroom!” Joe called after us, as we wound away across the room, but that was exactly where I was headed. “Get her to show you the Japanese thing,” he added helpfully.
“Do I know you?” Laura asked from a foggy never-land somewhere between relieved and horrified. Frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn. If she was stupid enough to tolerate Joe’s spiteful games, it wasn’t my problem. My problem was how to get into the master bedroom without giving rise to a host of questions. Thanks to Laura, we were on our way.
We were half-way up the back staircase off the kitchen—and far removed from the bedroom door the Bulgarian’s thugs guarded—when it dawned on my conquest that she’d forgotten to negotiate a suitable pay-off for the sheer ecstasy she was about to provide. I mumbled something about the next Gone with the Wind—I was never very good at negotiating sex with starlets—and gently spun her through a short corridor and into Joe’s inner sanctum.
Joe must have been drunk out of his mind. Either that, or he and the Bulgarian had suffered a monumental miscommunication. I hadn’t the slightest doubt that I could crawl far enough into Joe’s head to figure out the combination of his programmable safe or the passwords he used to protect the innermost secrets of his laptop. But as it happened, no such skills were required. For on the corner of the rich maroon silk bedspread sat two enormous duffle bags. And in those enormous duffle bags was packed the princely, if no doubt inaccurately counted, sum of $9,999,900. All of it immaculately bound, stacked, and laundered.
Laura obliged me by passing out on the bed. Elsewhere in the mansion, a volcano of drunken cheers erupted. Happy New Year indeed. My New Year’s resolution? To never, ever again underestimate the stupidity of East European gangsters and cut-rate Hollywood bullshit artists.