Authors: Timothy Hallinan
Tags: #Murder, #Mystery, #detective, #Los Angeles
A Simeon Grist Suspense Novel
previously appeared in print as:
A DUTTON BOOK
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,
London W8 5TZ, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ring wood,
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 2801 John Street,
Markham, Ontario, Canada L3R 1B4
Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190Wairau Road,
Auckland 10, New Zealand
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published by Dutton, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.
Distributed in Canada by McClelland & Stewart Inc.
First Printing, April, 1991
Copyright © Timothy Hallinan, 1991-2010
All rights reserved
Lyric from "A Little Bit of Emotion" by Raymond Douglas Davies, courtesy of Davray Music Ltd.I Carlin Music Corp.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA:
Skin deep : a Simeon Grist suspense novel by Timothy Hallinan.
813'. 54—dc20 90-46801
Digital Edition published by Hallinan Consulting, LLC
Cover Design by Allen Chiu,
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
To the memory of my father,
Kenneth Frank Hallinan
(January 1, 1914—January 7, 1991).
Pilot, pirate, and gentleman,
he vanquished the blue-nosed eagles.
Belated thanks to Matt Sartwell for the squeal;
And love, as always,
to Munyin Choy
… how frail they are,
the skin, the nerves, the blood and bone
that frame the soul's disguise.
—George Herbst, 1938
was the first book I wrote in the Simeon Grist series but the third to be published. Within six days of my handing this book over to my agent, we had a three-book deal and I was so fired up I immediately wrote
The Four Last Things
. The publishers liked it so much they decided to publish it first, and before it came out, I wrote
Everything But the Squeal
, and the publishers decided to put
out second. Thus,
the first written, was the third published.
This was something I had completely forgotten until I began to look at the book again for e-publication. Here's old Simeon, meeting for the first time someone (Roxanne) with whom he's in bed in a “later” book, and here are two parakeets he apparently owns. One of them meets a quite final end in this book but the other one was banished to that vast imaginary menagerie filled with forgotten fictional animal characters.
Once I was clear on which book this was, I began to get a little – well,
– about going back into it. This is, after all, the one the publisher kept booting to make room for later and, presumably, better books. And, in fact, when I started working on it, I discovered that I really hated bits of it, but that the worst parts weren't as dreadful as I feared and the best parts were better than I'd hoped. And it's got a crackerjack ending.
So here it is, and for those of you who insist on reading series in order, I'm sorry to have thrown you a curve.
– Timothy Hallinan
I - SKIN
1 - Fireworks
In that crowd, Mr. Beautiful and the Korean girl shimmered like millionaires in disguise, minor gods slumming incognito.
By seven-thirty, the crowd in question had jammed itself noisily into McGinty's of Malibu, which, all gussied up for the Fourth of July, was even more of a slag heap than usual. Red, white, and blue crepe paper sagged despondently from the rafters. Red, white, and blue beach balls had been tossed into the ropy fishnet that hung from the ceiling. They nestled among seashells, starfish, old floats, weights, and other nautical bric-a-brac to create a landscape that looked like the place where drowned children go to play.
The bunch jostling merrily beneath this doleful composition in primary colors was a cross-section of virtually every objectionable white urban minority. There were guys who called each other "Dude." There were cowboys and cowgals wearing western hats with those infuriating feather sunbursts on them. There were people wearing both sunglasses and earphones. There were yuppies, puppies (yuppies who had tied their dogs outside), and suppies—garden-variety suckers, but with aspirations to urban chic. Members of the last-named club had thoughtfully identified themselves by ordering McGinty's "John Philip Sousa," a tall-glassed, red-white-and-blue error in judgment that, drunk on an empty stomach, was guaranteed to plant the happy patriot several feet beneath the Ould Sod. We had Topanga Canyon creek rats, out from their caves to blow a week's worth of recycled aluminum cans on a red, white, and blue drunk, and we had a patriotic trio of amphetamine burnouts, skeletal, wild-eyed, hoisting imaginary drinks and nattering together in a far corner. We had people who
hadn't run out of patchouli. And every moment more of them poured in from the Pacific Coast Highway outside, drawn to the beach to celebrate the freedom that, for better or for worse, made them possible.
Some seventies retro with lead ears had programmed the jukebox to play "Stairway to Heaven" nine times in a row. He'd also located the volume control. I was halfway into the basket, working simultaneously on drinking my fourth beer, ignoring the music, and flirting with the one of the female bartenders when a ripple of excited voices penetrated Led Zeppelin and drew my attention to the door.
The focus of the flutter seemed to be a man and a woman who had just pushed their way into the bar. The woman was convincing evidence for the Argument from Design: beautiful far beyond the demands of function, maybe Korean, maybe twenty, definitely sensational. She had long, tangled black hair, extravagant cheekbones, and a lower lip that might as well had "Bite me" tattooed on it. Wrapped low around her hips was a short black skirt, and even her knees were perfect. The world is full of beautiful women who keep their knees under cover.
I was trying to rip my eyes off her and get back to my bartender when I noticed the guy. His sun-streaked hair was so perfect I was surprised he took it outdoors. The face framed by the artful tousles looked to be around thirty, deeply tanned and classically handsome, terminating in a chin with a cleft that could have been his fanny's little brother. The really blinding feature, though, was a set of teeth white enough and flawless enough to make me involuntarily close my mouth. The teeth were revealed in a grin that had probably sucked half the wattage from the urban grid. People in Santa Barbara were doing macramé in the dark. Below the neck he was trim and muscled, encased in tight black leather clothes that sported more fringe than all five members of the Buffalo Springfield in their prime. In all, he was just the kind of guy the rest of us hate.
But he seemed popular enough at the moment. People were slapping him on the back as he made his way through the crowd. The guys who call people Dude were giving him soul handshakes, pounding their open palms down into his with a smack that could be heard even over the music.
"Here's Godzilla," the bartender said sourly. It was the first sour thing she'd said, on an evening that was sour enough to parch peaches. She picked up a perfectly clean glass and polished it, turning her back pointedly toward the spot at the bar where room was being made for Mr. and Ms. Beautiful. "Simeon, it's seven-thirty," she said tightly, alerting me to the fact that I had apparently told her my name. I stared down at my glass, wondering whether she'd told me hers. "Why don't you finish up that beer and flee this den of contagion?" she asked, wiping the glass fiercely enough to break it. "Go up on the bluff, where all the nice people are waiting patiently for the fireworks. Watch parents hug their children. Look at young couples in love. Don't hang around here getting drunk with these mutants. What do you say?"
The other bartender, a large and aggressively shapeless female wearing a leather butcher's apron that looked like it had dried on her, gave my bartender a hard bump on the shoulder as she squeezed by to grab a bottle of tequila. "Thanks, Roxanne," she said nastily. "Remind me to do something for you sometime."
"I'll take him next drink, Felicia," Roxanne said. "Okay? We'll trade off." Felicia muttered something that would have made my mother sit up very straight indeed and toted the bottle back down the length of the bar as I refocused on
Roxanne. She reminded me of cream rising. There was something clean and dairy-maidish about her that made me expect her to have a milk mustache. She'd braided her long, loose brown hair for the occasion and had woven red, white, and blue gift-wrap ribbon into the braid. I suppose it was intended to make me feel patriotic. It just made me want to unwrap her.
"Are you listening?" she said a touch sharply.
"Of course," I said, sitting up and looking attentive. In fact, I'd been watching the shadowy little pulse in her throat, which was beating in time to Led Zeppelin, and wondering if she'd get upset if I leaned forward and licked it.
"Then are you going to do it?"
I went to mental replay. "Leave, you mean?"
"Uh," I said, looking at her pulse. "No."
Midway down the bar, Mr. Beautiful tasted his drink and spat it on the floor. He shoved the glass back at Felicia, and she missed it and it toppled off the inside edge of the bar. Standing behind him, the Korean girl looked apprehensive. Felicia looked like she'd enjoy taking Mr. Beautiful's hand off at the elbow with her teeth, but she got a new glass and began to mix. Mr. Beautiful yelled precise instructions over the music.
"Why not?" Roxanne said, taking no notice of the scene behind her even though she'd flinched when the glass shattered.
"Because I belong here," I said. "These are my people. Roxanne," I said, retrieving the name and committing it to whatever was passing itself off as my memory. "Why should I deserve better? I got the blues so bad you could use me for a dye. Jesus, I haven't worked in weeks. Did I tell you I'm a private detective?"
She gave me an assessive squint, then picked up my glass and sloshed the fluid around. "How many of these have you had?"
"Tonight?" I said. "Or in my whole life?"
"Skip it," she said. "You've had four. And yes, you told me you were a private detective. Is that supposed to change my life? How many did you have before you got here?"
"Two," I lied. If you can't lie to a stranger, who can you lie to?
One corner of her mouth lifted, tickling a dimple into revealing itself. "You know," she said, "there's guys you can believe and guys you can't. And who cares, anyway? Half the trouble in this world is caused by believing. Give me more about your blues. Guys with the blues are so, I don't know, nostalgic."
"Hey," I said, warming to the subject, "blues. Did I tell you about my computer?"
"Yeah." She shrugged. "You can't work your computer. So who can work a computer? Dweebs, that's who."
"It cost two thousand bucks. It's the most expensive paperweight I ever owned."
"Paperweight?" she said. "Well, at least that's new." The other corner went up, and she was almost smiling.
"What time do you get off?" I asked.
"Slow down. You also said something about a girlfriend." Jimmy Page was launching into his guitar solo for what seemed like the fortieth time, and I leaned forward to hear. "A
she shouted. The man on the stool next to me closed his book and stared accusingly.
"Ex," I said. "Ex-girlfriend." I glared at the guy to my right, and he reopened his book. Sartre, just what I should have expected. Eleanor Chan, my long-standing Significant Other, had wisely decided to take a walk, but if she'd been there, she would have sneered at him. "Ex," I said again, daring the guy to look back up at me.
"You told me about her, even if you don't exactly remember doing it," Roxanne said. "That's a point in your favor, that you told me. Maybe not a very big point, but there it is anyway. And besides, you're cute. So I'll break a rule and ask what's the problem."
"Somebody else," I said, skipping the fact that the breakup had been my fault.
"You don't mean someone she's just going out with."
"No. I mean a boyfriend."
Roxanne looked serious and patted my hand. "I'll bet he's a creep," she said. "I'll bet it lasts a week." She left her hand on mine in a sisterly fashion.
"So there I am," I said, cold-shouldering the attempt at comfort. "I'm in the attractive position of feeling hostile, aggressive, and sorry for myself, everything that fascinates women. So what time do you get off?"
"I'm thinking," she said. Then she took my little finger between her thumb and index finger and rubbed it all the way from the tip to the first knuckle in a manner that wasn't even remotely sisterly. She gave me a lazy smile with something very energetic behind it. "I'll give you a buck if you go away and come back for me at ten-thirty. You can buy me dinner."
"Is that a promise?" My little finger wanted more.
"I told you, I'm thinking." She looked around the room. "I don't see a better offer on the horizon. How about you finish your beer, if you must, and go watch the fireworks? I'll be here when you get back." She gave the hand another pat and turned her back to tend to three nervous underage guys at the other end of the bar. I lost myself in soulful appreciation of the twenty-four-year-old female form in retreat. Roxanne had a mountain climber's haunches and a foot plant that seemed to roll the earth away backward behind her. Then she disappeared behind the furious Felicia, and I twisted around on my stool to look at the Pacific, visible across the highway.
Compared to Roxanne, it wasn't much to look at. I'd seen better surf on the Great Salt Lake, and the sun had finally called it a day and rolled on to give skin cancer to people in Hawaii and Asia. Oh, I was in terrific shape.
If someone hadn't finally yanked the jukebox plug, I wouldn't have heard it. There was a shout, and a chair hit the floor. I turned to see Mr. Buffalo Springfield shove the Korean girl away from him and then pour what was left of his drink over her head. Everything went into freeze frame. I saw Roxanne rigid behind the bar, watching. The Korean girl opened her mouth to say something, and the guy in the leather punched her in the face. It wasn't a slap, it was a punch. She went down as if she'd been sapped.
I think I remember throwing a few people out of my way to get to them. The next thing I'm
I remember was the guy bending down over the girl, with one of his legs pulled back to kick her, and my hand grabbing his Simonized hair and yanking him upright. He came up faster than I'd figured, with the glass in his right hand, and he swung it in the general direction of my face. I pulled back and he missed, and the glass struck the edge of the bar and exploded in his hand. With the total disinterest of someone in another time zone, I saw blood spurt from his palm. Using my free hand, I did my level best to break one of the small bones in the side of his neck.
Necks are soft, but my knuckles popped as I hit him. He looked cross-eyed for a second and then started to go after me with the broken glass in his bleeding hand. I kissed the Marquis of Queensbury good-bye and kneed him in the nuts. When he folded forward, dropping the shards of glass onto the girl's stomach, I caught him under the chin with my other knee. His neck snapped back, and he let out an agonized little "whuff" and flopped backward into the sawdust on the floor. I put my foot on his throat and pressed down, hard.
"Finished?" I said happily. I was glad to see that he'd bitten his tongue when my knee hit his jaw. Blood flowed from his mouth and collected in the dimple on his chin. He didn't answer. Probably he couldn't.
"You stinkin' alkie cowboy," someone said behind me in an accent that was pure Panhandle. "Get off him, you dickhead." The voice belonged to the Korean girl, and she was crying. She'd pulled herself to a sitting position and she tugged her skirt down over her thighs in an oddly modest gesture, considering the fact that she'd just been decked in front of eighty or ninety people. She wiped a forearm across her eyes and looked at me fiercely. "Don't you dare hurt my baby," she said.
"Hurt him?" I said. I was confused. I was trying to play mix and match with the Korean face and the Texas voice and failing. "Urn, lady," I said, giving up, "I don't want to hurt him. I want to kill him. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't."
" 'Cause," the Korean girl said, sitting back slightly. I must have looked pretty fierce myself. " 'Cause it's not his fault, dammit."
"Then whose fault is it?"
She passed a forefinger over her front teeth, checking to see that they were still there, and then cranked out a smile. A very small smile. "He's not usually like this. He's just drunk."
"So am I," I said. "And I've wanted to kill somebody all day." I ground my foot into his throat. "Yum, yum," I said.
A circle of people had gathered around us, watching as passively as if we were the film at eleven on the evening news. "Hey," the Korean girl called to the room at large, "isn't anybody gonna do anything?" Most everybody in the circle looked away, unwilling to get involved, but one zealous-looking jerk in a frontier-style plaid shirt shouldered through the folks around him and sprinted for the pay phone. "Do something," the Korean girl pleaded. "Jesus, something terrible could happen."