Sam Spaulding is a tough, violent former war photographer with a Pulitzer Prize and a dead brother Henry who at one time ran one of the ugliest gangs in Los Angeles. Sam finds out he has Stage III intestinal cancer and decides to go out spitting in the face of death. But he reckons without his wife Lydia, who takes on her husband’s fate with every ruthless weapon at her disposal.
The skeletons in Sam’s closet hardly help, when they come back to haunt him in the foul-mouthed ex-junkie Rudy Spavik and his angry girlfriend Sheri Ballin. From Los Angeles to the Mexican Baja, this unlikely foursome careens between hell and redemption, never entirely sure which is which. Until a nasty spat with Abe Smullen, the most beautiful drug lord in history, welds them together into a reluctantly indestructible clan.
Dead. Every last one of them, lives erased without a residue, souls exhausted, a thin collection of ghosts in no one’s imagination except his own. As far as he knew anyway—he being Sam Spaulding, whose agnostic finger touched the high-resolution monitor and smeared a fingerprint across the white shirt of Mischa Spavik, the last of the violent crew to go. All six of them in ten miserable years.
How many times had Sam opened this photo file to gaze at the final defiant lob of hubris it represented? In all the thousands of photographs—hundreds of thousands—he’d taken in his career, this one still resonated the strongest. But not until today, at this hour—at this very minute, in fact—did it dawn on him that every one of the six human beings in the fourteen-year-old image lay dead in the ground and long disremembered. Except by him, of course, but how much did that count for? He’d known every one of the furious offenders, and now he knew no one. No one who mattered anyway. No one like him.
The photograph wasn’t the most original shot in Sam’s portfolio. He’d arranged his older brother Henry and his gang of reluctant fallen angels on the sand and rocks of the breakwater south of Redondo Pier before climbing the bluffs above them with a medium-format camera and telephoto lens. Identical white, button-down, cotton shirts and jeans, no belts, no shoes, all of them hauling in paunches for a last-minute stab at youth. The sunset had buttered their smug, lupine faces to a wrinkled shade of leather. They sat atop the world, they owned the joint. Nothing could defeat them except death itself.
And so it had.
The door to the darkroom burst open. The light momentarily blinded him. A quick flick of the wrist and a snap of the mouse button—the computer belched politely to announce the file’s closing.
“Didn’t you see the red light?” he snarled.
“Get a grip, old man,” Lydia drawled behind him. “This hasn’t been a darkroom for years.”
“Get out of here! What do you want?”
“Make up your mind. You got a customer.”
“Get the hell out of here!”
“No problem! I quit!”
The door slammed shut and popped Sam’s eardrums. He hadn’t turned his head, but could tell from Lydia’s hostility that she was going nowhere. Fifteen years with the woman, and he knew every one of her hostilities as well as he knew his own. Even if she did leave, she’d be waiting for him at the apartment, hidden behind the front door, a metaphorical cast-iron frying pan in her fist.
Sam brought up the photograph again. He stared at the six upturned faces. Damn, he was good. He took the magnification to one hundred percent and admired the handiwork that had wiped away the flaws in Henry’s face. The age spots, the boulos pemphigoid bruises, the melanoma scars and lesions.
Henry, Sam’s older brother, had been a photographer’s nightmare, ugly enough to start with, his face a misshapen battleground between nose, chin, and those angry, sunken eyes. But the skin, so soft and smooth in his youth, was what killed him. His damn skin.
Henry first, then BJ in a drive-by on the Camino del Rey, then the two Daves—Dave G and Dave T—one after the other, from gunshot wounds and cirrhosis, leaving just Donny and Mischa to hold back the gloomy curtain. Then, eight years earlier, the indestructible Donny had collapsed from a heart attack and left his lover Mischa to defenestrate himself as a reasonable alternative to withering away, alone and loveless, in the grip of an AIDS epidemic.
All so long ago, but it wasn’t until this afternoon—when Sam opened the certified-return-receipt letter from his own doctor—that he let the news prompt him to pull it all into perspective.
A tentative knock at the door took a second to register. Obviously not Lydia. “What!” Sam shouted anyway. He closed the file and let the dismal moment recede.
“We’ve been waiting out here a half-hour.”
A woman’s voice, young and matter-of-fact. Sam struggled to his feet in the gloom, dropped his reading glasses to the desk, and opened the door. The light from the young afternoon flooded the darkroom. A tiny, black silhouette drew back, surprised. Sam shielded his seventy-two-year-old eyes and waited for her to morph into a three-dimensional human being.
“Where’s Lydia?” he asked.
“The old lady outside? She said to tell you to go to hell.”
“She might look old to you. What do you want?”
The girl was actually grinning. Or laughing at him, not that he gave a damn. She fingered a coal-black lock of hair and pointed behind her. “Not me, it’s my boyfriend. He wants to hire you.”
“I don’t do weddings or babies. Come back tomorrow, and Lydia will help you find someone who does.”
Sam started to close the door, but the girl’s foot and snort of disbelief stopped him. “He’s waiting in your office,” she insisted. “Going through your shit.”
Sam barged past her along the corridor through the gauntlet of wedding and baby photographs Lydia had hung to paint a veneer of activity over his nearly defunct business. The sudden exertion speared his knee. He stumbled into the office just in time to catch the boyfriend snoring in one of the two guest chairs. On the desk blotter, the report from the gastroenterologist lay untouched where Sam had dropped it. Shit. He’d hoped Lydia would find it and save him the trouble of breaking its grim news to her.
“Rudy!” the girl said. “Wake up. I tracked him down in a closet out back.”
“It’s a darkroom,” Sam said.
“Darkroom? Weren’t you using a computer?”
The boyfriend stirred and came to his feet, surprised. “Hey, it’s you,” he observed. He wore a ghastly purple fedora over a matching garish purple silk shirt split open halfway to the waist. Sam glanced at the girl. She was dressed in black, with a sleeveless blouse and attractive pale arms the camera would turn into drooping gobs of white flesh. Obviously not a pair of professional models.
The boyfriend smoothed the brim of his hat and pointed behind him at the largest of twenty black-and-white wartime photos Lydia had hung on the office walls. As if all that pain and fury would inspire a young bride to stop blushing long enough to hire Sam for her wedding. “Is that the Pulitzer?”
Sam took a pass on illumination. He gazed back and forth from girl to boyfriend. Some people were immune to hints, but he tried out his stock answer anyway. “Whatever you want, I’m not doing it anymore. I’m retired.”
“Then why are you here?” the girl asked.
“Come back tomorrow and ask Lydia. I’ve no idea why she keeps it open.” Except otherwise, the two of them would have to spend their days staring wordlessly at each other across the dull clutter of a dining room table.
“We want you to take our photograph,” the boyfriend said. “We heard of you. We’ll pay your going rate.”
“My going rate is zero. You heard of me where?”
“You knew my uncle Mischa.”
Sam hesitated. That explained the purple anyway. Mischa always had the worst fashion sense in history, all noise and bombast. Yet if any member of the gang were destined to leave behind a residue of nostalgia, it would’ve been Mischa. He’d always treated Sam well, better than Sam’s own brother Henry.
Sam had served as the seventh wheel to Henry’s gang, the cliché of a sibling allowed to hang out, but prevented from getting his fingers dirty by a pact between a dying Marge and her dear firstborn gangster. Nothing had changed the sonofabitch’s mind, not even Sam’s stints shooting the Central Highlands of Vietnam and the slums of Beirut and Sarajevo, not even the bullet that took off his right pinky fingernail or the knife in his left knee that had sent him stumbling through the rest of his godforsaken life. Henry didn’t give a shit who killed his baby brother, as long as his own hands remained clean.
“He’s not gonna do it, are you?” the girlfriend asked now.
Sam ignored her and turned to the boyfriend. “What’s your mother’s name?”
“Vera, but she’s dead. Why?”
“I knew her.”
And so he had. Vera, the wild-child Russian and the neighborhood exotic dancer—to use the well-mannered version. So this loud-dressing lout was Vera’s long lost brat Rudy. Sam had always wondered what the boy looked like. He’d just assumed that, by now, the kid would’ve followed his unlamented dangerous beauty of a mother down the sewer of her life. “You still living in South Gate?”
“Hell no. We’ve been in Hermosa for years. What do you know—?”
“Not a damn thing.”
Sam could match the young hoodlum all day long for belligerence. The last time he’d let the mother Vera run him over was at Bud’s, the legendary and long vanished gentleman’s club in Bellflower. Vera was a tall, leggy beauty with a raven shock of hair and two smirking green eyes that gazed over your shoulder whenever you sucked up the nerve to talk to her. “Hey Sammy,” he could still hear her calling out from the stage with a leer for the other customers and a finger pointed at his crotch. “Whatcha got in there for me?” Apparently, not enough. Fifteen years ago, a pair of Latino children had found Vera’s needle-punctured body stuck in a clump of briars in the desiccated concrete trench of the San Gabriel River.
“What’s your name?” Sam asked the girlfriend.
“Sheri. This is—”
“I know who it is.” Sam couldn’t help a grimace as he glanced from Sheri to her boyfriend. The kid had his narcissistic mother painted all over him. What on earth had led the punk to wander into Sam’s relic of a studio? Of all the gin joints…
“Don’t tell me,” Sam sighed. “You want me to shoot you having sex.”
Boyfriend and girlfriend lit up with matching gapes of surprise. The boyfriend recovered first. “Well, now that you mention it…”