Hollywood Hills, California
Gus Riskin sipped from a bottle of water as he surveyed Trey’s living room. What he saw infuriated and disgusted him. The priceless Persian rug beneath his feet was filthy, pockmarked with cigarette burns and littered with the castoffs of a dissolute life: pizza and take-out boxes of indeterminate age now housed skittering colonies of roaches; empty beer bottles and martini glasses had drooled out their meager remains, leaving crunchy spots on the expensive silk pile; drug paraphernalia and detritus were scattered around the room like grotesque confetti. Something somewhere was putrefying, or maybe the whole house was so fetid with human decay, both physical and moral, it had permanently saturated the air. None of this was his problem, but he still found it deeply offensive.
‘Okay, Gussy boy, let’s bang.’ Trey’s voice was croaky and manic as he bounced into the room on spindly, scabrous legs, his margarita glass sloshing more effluent onto the rug. He sank into a sofa, drained what was left of his drink, then bent over the coffee-table and snorted a hearty noseful of coke from a snowy pile. He let out a pleasured sigh. Then his waxen face twisted into an expression of warped mirth. ‘One last party before spin-dry, right?’
Gus smiled, wondering if Trey was asking for validation or just stating a fact. ‘What could it hurt?’
‘Let’s make it a good one. Hey, you sure you don’t want a drink? A bump?’
‘You’re a clean liver with a clean liver, Gus.’ He laughed at his own bad joke, then rubbed his fingers together in a frenzied, greedy gesture. ‘Gimme, gimme, Mr Sandman, whatcha got for me tonight?’
Gus tossed four glassine packets of heroin onto the coffee-table. ‘Something special. For your last party.’
Trey fondled one of the packets with shaking hands, scrutinizing its contents. ‘Looks good. Not south-of-the-border street shit.’
‘I wouldn’t do you like that, man. This is pure number four, just came in this morning. You don’t even have to heat it up.’
‘You’re the boss.’ He pulled a thick bundle of cash from between the sofa cushions and tossed it over. ‘There’s a little something extra for you this time. You never let me down and that’s worth a lot.’
If there was any genuine sentimentality in that statement, it was quickly forgotten as Trey began his ritual with desperate fervor: dissolve the heroin salt, load the syringe, tie off the arm, wait for the stairway to Heaven to open up.
Gus was mesmerized, watching the liquid rise into the plastic body of the syringe as the needle greedily sucked it up, like a honeybee with nectar. He winced when Trey stuck the needle into a partially collapsed, infected vein, then sagged in ecstasy as the syringe and the surgical tubing fell to the floor.
‘Can you stick around for a while, Gus?’ Trey asked, in a syrupy voice. ‘You know, just in case.’
‘Sure, I can do that.’
‘I forgot to put on some tunes. I’ve got a soundtrack all cued up.’
‘I’ll take care of it.’
‘You’re the boss,’ Trey repeated, his voice scarcely a mumble now.
Gus took his time turning on the sound system, tweaking the treble and bass, adjusting the volume. When he was finally satisfied with the levels, he checked on Trey. He was unconscious, but still breathing, which was a goddamned miracle, considering the amount of high-quality dope he’d just pushed.
He sat down on a velvet-covered chair and gazed up at the hideously ugly painting hanging above the fireplace, thinking that beauty truly was in the eye of the beholder. But did anyone really think that that painting was beautiful, or was it only beautiful because it was so valuable? Trey had hinted on more than one occasion that it was worth twice as much as the house, which was a notable claim, since the current market value of the place was at least four million dollars, maybe more. He also had some very cool pictures hanging in other rooms, so they probably weren’t as valuable, but Gus liked them. In his opinion, one of them should be hanging above the fireplace instead.
He closed his eyes for a moment and imagined himself living up here in the West Hills above Sunset Boulevard. Not with a depraved waste of skin and air like Trey, but with a few nubile young ladies. They’d spend sun-kissed days sipping margaritas by the pool and continue the party until the sun came up. Movie stars and rock stars would drop by to gush about his exquisite taste in art and the amazing sound system. Gus would modestly deny any credit for the shitty artwork, explaining that it had come with the house, but he would take undeserved credit for the sound system because it was truly amazing, the best part of the place, as far as he was concerned. It was an audiophile’s wet dream, and right now it was piping in Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt.’ A paean to heroin addiction. An oldie but goodie that would never go out of style.
He was startled out of his unattainable fantasy when Trey stirred a little on the adjacent sofa and started making unpleasant retching sounds. Gus jumped out of the chair and touched his neck. His pulse was weak and thready.
‘Are you in there, Trey?’ He shook him, sloshed some water on his face, slapped him a few times. His eyes sprang open, empty and unfocused, but not entirely without a remedial understanding of his dire situation.
He watched as Trey’s arm moved spasmodically toward the cocaine-dusted coffee-table, toward a Narcan syringe, the overdose antidote he always kept close at hand. Right now, it was impossibly out of reach. In the background, Johnny Cash’s voice narrated abject desolation in a dark, warbling bass, opining about an empire of dirt.
Gus saw genuine fear and desperation in Trey’s face, and he snatched the Narcan and held it up. ‘I think you need this.’
There was a pathetic flicker of hope in the rheumy eyes, and Gus committed that to his scanty list of precious memories as he flung the syringe across the room with explosive rage. ‘Oops! Sorry about that!’
The flicker of hope died, replaced by confusion and betrayal. Trey made some more unpleasant sounds and his arm dropped.
Gus knelt close to him and watched his eyes ping-pong back and forth in their sockets as they tried to bring his face into focus, tried to comprehend. ‘You don’t remember me, do you? No? Well, I guess it’s not important anymore.’
Trey wasn’t looking so good. In fact, Gus was pretty sure he was finally dying, so he sat down on the sofa next to him, placed his hand on the bony shoulder, and waited to feel it. It wasn’t exactly peaceful – no death was, because the true purpose of life was fighting death at all costs and the body did it right up until the bitter end – but it was still far better than he deserved. Fortunately, Hell would balance the scales. That was why it was there. And, really, there was no reason to unduly torture someone bound for Hell.
Gus jumped off the sofa and gaped at the scrawny, bruised ghost of a girl careening against the walls as she emerged from the hallway that led to the bedrooms. She paused, trying to steady herself against the arched doorway that led to the living room, and gaped back at him. ‘Who the fuck are you? Where’s Trey?’
Gus wondered how long she’d been there. A few hours? A week? Even if Trey had still been alive, he wouldn’t have remembered how this dope-sick waif had gotten into his house, whether he’d invited her or if she’d just slipped in unnoticed, like all the roaches that had taken up residence. ‘Trey’s taking a nap,’ he said, suppressing the urge to laugh as he picked up a glassine packet and waved it at her. ‘Maybe you want to take a nap, too.’
Her hard, suspicious face softened with the purest lust Gus had ever seen and she took a few halting steps forward. ‘You got some?’
‘I’ve got plenty.’
She licked her sore-covered lips hungrily.
‘What’s your name?’
‘No kidding? Well, I’m not so sure about that.’ He gave her a lascivious smile. ‘Come here, Lucky, and I’ll take good care of you, like I took good care of Trey. Pure number four.’
An hour later, Gus was jogging down the dark, narrow, labyrinthine streets of the West Hills toward Sunset Boulevard, Johnny Cash’s voice still loud and clear in his head.
Detective Leo Magozzi was sitting at his desk in Homicide, watching the local morning news on the ancient relic of a television set that perched on top of an equally ancient relic of a metal filing cabinet. Everybody in the department complained about it, grumbled about upgrading to a newer model, like something that had been manufactured in the twenty-first century, and some voiced the obvious argument: why have a TV at all when you could stream anything you needed off your computer in higher fidelity? And why have a filing cabinet full of moldering paperwork that had already been digitized around the time dinosaurs walked the Earth?
But Methuselah would not be forsaken. And his stalwart companion and pedestal, the obsolete filing cabinet, would never get ditched, either – the two belonged together, and the doddering pair was a locus of solidarity, showering the senior members of Homicide with warm, fuzzy nostalgia from a bygone era and amusing the juniors with its charming kitsch.
There was a healthy dose of superstition involved, too – there would never be an outright confession of such irrationality, but they all harbored a latent fear that messing with the antediluvian TV and filing cabinet would translate into seriously bad juju, like an 80 percent spike in the homicide rate overnight.
His partner, Gino Rolseth, ambled into the office, slightly favoring his left foot. He tossed his briefcase onto the floor next to his adjoining desk and dropped into his chair, stifling a yawn. ‘I hate Mondays.’
‘Rough night on the town?’
‘Yeah. Angela and I took the kids to a grandstand show at the State Fair. I spent two hundred bucks on deep-fried food, visited a walk-in cooler to look at a bunch of sculptures carved out of butter, then capped off the night listening to some pre-pubescent boy band whine about girl problems they can’t even begin to imagine yet. Five hours after the show was over, we finally got out of the parking lot.’
‘And you had the time of your life.’
Gino got a goofy look on his face, just like he always did when his family was the topic of conversation. ‘Pretty much.’
‘Plus you got some hardened arteries out of the deal. Win-win.’
He leaned back in his chair and patted his ever-expanding paunch fondly. ‘There is that. It’s the one time of the year I can eat absolute crap with impunity and not get the stink-eye from Angela.’
‘It took you five hours to get out of the parking lot?’
Gino shrugged. ‘Well, maybe half an hour. Good interrogation technique, by the way. I like how you distracted me, got me in a happy place, then backtracked and called me out on my patently false statement.’
‘Thank you, but I’m not finished yet. What happened to your foot?’
‘A delinquent tween with a nose ring, an attitude, and a foul mouth. She was jumping up and down like a spring during the concert and landed on my foot. She felt bad about it after I suggested a little course correction of her life. A kid that young with a mouth like a sailor and a nose ring? That can’t be going anywhere good.’
Gino looked up at the TV curiously while he gulped coffee from the travel mug that was never far from his right hand. The slogan ‘YOU HAVE A FRIEND IN TEXAS’ circled its perimeter in bold red letters. As far as Magozzi knew, Gino had never been to Texas and didn’t know anybody who lived there, but he’d never asked about it. Some mysteries were richer left unsolved.
‘Did I miss something, Leo? You’ve got Methuselah on and you never fire up that cranky piece of junk unless the chief is giving a press conference.’
‘Breaking news. Trey Norwood is dead from a suspected heroin overdose.’
‘That’s breaking news? The kid was a total high-ball. It was only a matter of time before he OD’d.’
‘Spoken with the profound sensitivity of a true fatalist.’
‘Life’s fatal. We’re all going into the ground eventually, it’s just a matter of how and when.’ He leaned forward, set his elbows squarely on the desk, and propped his chin in his hands, suddenly hypnotized. ‘Turn it up, Leo. Nothing like the smell of Schadenfreude in the morning.’
Magozzi did so, and they both listened to the media soundbite, delivered by a young male anchor just cutting his very white teeth on the early-morning news. His delivery was robotic, but he’d figure out the teleprompter after some more air time, learn to construct a believable façade of genuine feeling. Sociopaths were able to learn that skill, too, and if they could do it, this kid could.
Gregory ‘Trey’ Norwood the Third, son of legendary Minnesota businessman and philanthropist Gregory Norwood the Second, was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home early this morning at the age of twenty-eight. An unidentified female was also found deceased in the home. No official cause of death has been determined at this early stage in the investigation but, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, drugs and paraphernalia were present at the scene.
Trey Norwood’s struggles with substance abuse over the years were very public and plagued him throughout his short life, although sources tell of his recent commitment to sobriety. He was scheduled to check into a rehabilitation facility in Malibu later this week…
‘What a waste, makes me sick,’ Gino decreed gloomily. ‘The kid had everything going for him, including a brain, which he just didn’t use. One last whirl around the smack carousel before he hit the cleaners and, boom, he’s just another dead junkie. Where the hell was Papa Norwood when his only kid was turning himself into a pin cushion?’
…A family spokesperson has asked that everyone respect the Norwoods’ privacy during this difficult time…
‘This is depressing.’ Magozzi got up and turned off the TV. Methuselah didn’t have a remote with a mute button. Neither did Gino. ‘Papa Norwood is the Minneapolis Police Department’s biggest booster and an old friend of Chief Malcherson’s. We should go offer our condolences.’
‘Yeah, you’re right.’
‘And keep our opinions to ourselves.’
‘Don’t I always?’
Magozzi didn’t answer.