Matt & Mariko - The Story So Far


The two ice cubes clickety-clacked across the gray sidewalk and then came to rest, barely visible under the soft glow of the street light. If they'd been dice, Matt would've wanted to see the numbers.
     He had a sticker showing a pair of dice on the rear windshield of his '65 Mustang, which he had just parked in front of the Riverside Arms apartments. He'd emptied the ice cubes from the Big Gulp he bought on the way over. If the ice cubes had been dice and he'd rolled snake eyes, maybe he would've gone back to his girlfriend Mariko's house and forgotten about this job.

     He was supposed to be the electrician on this shoot. Nobody had said anything about driving the actress to work in the morning.
     But Rico told him to pick up Aileen on the way in, so that's what he was doing. He pulled his sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on, then realized the sun hadn't come up yet and took them off again. A strong wind had blown from the east the night before, leaving big palm leaves here and there along the street.
     He walked into the Riverside Arms front gate, past the small pool and up a staircase to No. 18, Aileen's place, and knocked on the door. No answer.
     Rico had given him the key and he'd stuck it in an envelope in his glove compartment. But he hadn't remembered to take it with him, so he tried turning the doorknob. Aileen hadn't locked her door the night before, so the walk back to the Mustang would've been a waste of time and energy.

     Aileen was dead out, sleeping the sleep of the wasted on a sofa-bed in the living room. She was stretched out next to a guy with thinning hair and two days of stubble across his cheeks. As Matt sat down on the sofa-bed next to Aileen, the guy woke momentarily, blinked his eyes at Matt, then conked right out again.
     "Honey," Matt said softly to Aileen. "It's time to wake up."
     No response. He gently shook her shoulder.
     "Honey," he repeated. "Wake up time."
     "Shut up," she said. "Go away."
     Matt picked up Aileen's naked body and carried her into the bathroom, placed her in the tub and turned on the shower. She shouted and cursed, but by the time he turned the water off, she was asleep again.
     So he went out into her living room, found a small carrying case with her makeup in it, picked a dress out of her closet and stuffed it inside. He went back into the bathroom, wrapped Aileen in a towel he found hanging from the shower curtain and carried her and the case down to the Mustang.
     A breeze tousled his hair, a last gust from the windstorm of the night before. Matt looked up at a noise above his head. It was a squirrel climbing across a telephone wire, like a tightrope walker. The squirrel stopped halfway, and chattered maniacally for its own reasons, then scampered across the wire toward the next pole.
     Matt put Aileen on the back seat and stuck the carrying case on the floor, got into the driver's seat and turned on the ignition. He pulled out and passed the street light as it shut for the day. The two ice cubes were quickly melting on the sidewalk in the warmth of the spring morning.


The black Mustang zoomed down the two-lane road that cut through the high desert toward the mountains. The radio blasted a mid-tempo pop tune Matt hadn't heard before. He'd been driving for about 45 minutes and the sun was up, brightening the sky by the minute. Matt put his sunglasses on and he sensed Aileen stirring in the back seat.

     She climbed over to the front, the towel sliding off, and cuddled her naked body against him.
     "Ummmmm," she said. "Thanks for waking me up. You feel nice."
     "Good morning," he said blankly.
     "I'm hungry," she announced.
     "We'll stop at the first place on the road."
     The desert was soaring by them, a moonscape. But up ahead a small building sat off the highway. It was Benedetto's. Matt had passed it the day before and knew they served Italian coffee and pastries, so he pulled up to the drive-through.
      "Buon giorno," the waitress said at the window.
      "Two non-fat lattés and two biscottis," Matt ordered.
      "Chocolate biscottis?" the waitress asked.
      "I want mine with sprinkles," Aileen said, covering herself with the towel.
     Matt turned around, surprised by her sudden enthusiasm.
     "I have a sweet tooth today," she explained.
     After the waitress topped their drinks with steamed milk and put lids on their sip cups, she handed Matt the order in a paper bag. Matt gave her a twenty-dollar bill and she gave him back a single plus a couple of coins. The Mustang pulled back out onto the blacktop of the desert road and headed toward the mountains, which had just appeared on the horizon. Aileen opened the bag and put their lattes in the two cup holders on Matt's dash. She bit into her sprinkled biscotti and crumbs fell onto her bare breasts.
     Then she reached into the back seat for her carrying case. Turning back around, she brushed off the crumbs and pulled out a small wad of fabric. It was a shiny black dress that she slipped on over her head and pulled down until it covered her hips.
     "Oh look," she announced, discovering a small box in her carrying case. "Tarot. I'll read your cards."
     Matt sipped from his latte.
    "I guess I should know what the future holds," he said.
     She fanned the deck expertly.
     "Pick one," she ordered.
     He did. It was a card from the Major Arcana, a man riding a chariot into battle.
     "Ooh, the Chariot," she said. "Desperate action, but with innocence."
     She drew another card.
     "Pope reversed," she announced.
     "What's that mean?"
     "That's for me. Too many old men in my life."
     She sat back in the seat, pensive, as the car began climbing the mountain road toward the tree line.
     "So, you hired this guy René, Rico told me," she said.
     "Through the agency. I didn't hire anybody. I just made the phone call."
     "Same difference."
     "They said he was a big good-looking guy."
     "You think I care what he looks like?"
     She sat still for a moment. Then she opened his glove compartment.
     "Do you have tweezers in here?" she asked.
     "No. Why would I keep tweezers in there?"
     "I wanna pluck my eyebrows." She was holding a thin silver box. "I took my compact. But I forgot the tweezers."

Aileen stood on the ridge, her black dress shining in the sun. She looked behind her and started running down the hill. A man in a flannel shirt, wool cap, jeans and work boots appeared on the spot she'd fled. He looked down the hill with a grin.
     The man ran after her, catching up by the bank of a small mountain stream. He grabbed her arm from behind. She whirled to face him and writhed in a futile effort to escape his grip.
     He tossed her onto the ground and ripped off her dress. She winced, but as he unbuckled his belt, her face lit up with anticipation. She smiled.
     He lay down on top of her and kissed her neck as she moaned in pleasure. She closed her eyes and opened her mouth.

     But suddenly she opened her eyes again, raised her eyebrows and sneered at him.
    "What was THAT?" she burst out.
    "Well, I tole ya beforehan' it wathn't gonna work," René said, his Southern accent distinguished by a lisp. "I wathn't gonna be able to go for a lon' time today. You coulda pretended."
     "Cut!" Rico yelled. "What the hell happened?"
     Aileen was furious.
    "Pretend?" she shouted at René. "This isn't pretend. This is REAL!"
    "Well I tole ya," René protested, pulling his pants back up.
    "OK," Rico said, sniffing. "Time is money, people. Let's do it again. From the top."
    "I cain't," René said. "I need a few minut-th."
    Rico, sniffing some more, fixed him with wide eyes.
   "Your contract said: Three money shots a day. And on command."
    "Well, I tole ya, I'm not feeling it today. Especially with her."
    "WHAT?" Aileen shrieked. "ME! THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH ME! She lunged at him but a guy in a shiny suit had already walked over to hold her back.
      "YOU!" Rico had turned to Matt. "You brought me this loser."
       "Hey, I just made the phone call. I'm supposed to be the electrician."
      "Electrician MY ASS!" Rico said. "You're fired."
      "You can't fire me. I quit."
      "NOBODY QUITS HERE! You're either fired or you're dead." He walked toward Matt, menacing a fight.
     "OK," Matt said, beckoning Rico closer. "I'll straighten you out, you screwed up cokehead."
     But before they got within arms length, the shiny suit guy and the cameraman pulled Matt out of the way.
     "C'mere bud," the guy in the suit said. "Let's call it 'creative differences,' and let's call it a day."
     "Hands off," Matt told him and pulled back, then turned and walked toward his car.

     The guy in the shiny suit followed him.
     "You figure people get what they deserve?" the guy in the shiny suit said.
     "I didn't deserve to waste my whole morning.”
     "It wasn't a waste.”
     Matt looked at him.
     "I actually came up here to give you a job," the guy said, taking out a business card and sticking it in the chest pocket of Matt's T-shirt. Matt took it out. There was a phone number on it.
     "No thanks," Matt said, and handed it back to him.
     "Call the number."
     "No phone. Like the song: No phone, no pool, no pets."
     "Borrow your girlfriend's phone," the guy said.
     What did he mean by that, Matt wondered. Does he know Mariko? Was that a threat?
      Matt measured him up. Sometimes you can read a person and sometimes you can't, Matt knew. But he thought he read this guy pretty well and decided this guy wasn't fooling around.
     "What's in it for me?" Matt asked him.
     The guy pulled out a roll of bills from his pocket. He held the money out, counting the cash so that Matt could see how much it was. Ten hundreds for a total of one thousand dollars. The guy stuck the money in Matt's T-shirt pocket.
     "And if I don't call?"
     "Oh, you'll call," the guy said and walked away.
     Matt laughed and got into his car. He stepped on the gas and a cloud of dust rose from behind the Mustang's back wheels as he steered toward the highway leading back to Los Angeles. He slowed down for three deep grooves in the dirt road, cut there by runoff from desert rains. Suddenly a roadrunner darted alongside him, then veered away into the sparse brush. Then Matt was driving back to the city.


     Matt was floating under water, face up, a stream of red trailing from his mouth.
     It was the long red ribbon Mariko liked to tie to her ankle when she swam so she could see it making pretty patterns in the blue pool behind her.
     In her white T-shirt with a black geometric design printed on it and a black bikini bottom, she dived into the water and pulled him to the steps. He was still playing dead.
     "Strange," she said. "That they would fire you like that. It doesn't make sense."
     "It makes perfect sense," he said. "I was supposed to be an electrician. It was supposed to be a made-for-cable picture with a real budget that could get me into the union. But it was a cheap porn flick and I was working with a bunch of coke freaks and low-lifes."
     She walked to the white table by the pool and toweled herself off. He watched her.
     "Your legs are perfection," he said. "Just seeing them naked and wet in the sunlight makes my blood flow faster. Everything else about you, too. Your long black hair. The curve of your neck. The small of your back. The pleasure I would get from watching you close your eyes and catch your breath as I caress you .... "
     "Don't get started. My father will be home any minute."
     "That changes nothing about the effect you have on my circulatory system. Let's go back to my place."
     She looked at him.
     "I'd like to come to your place. But I want to be here when my father gets back. And I'm worried about your getting fired. You shouldn't be treated that way. And I'm not sure you should call that number."
     "I'm not sure I should either. But I'm worried about what happens if I don't."
     "I'm worried about what happens if you do. But it's in Malibu."
     "You're such a snob."
     "Think for a moment. There are possibilities that come with a good address. Nice clothes. A string tie with a jewel on the collar."
     He continued her train of thought for her: "A granite desk. A paper weight modeled after the rock crystal skull on display at the Museum of Mankind in London. A secretary." Then he looked at her. "Reality check: It's not for me."
     "Why not? You worked in an engineering company."
     "And I'd still be there if it made me happy. You know that."
     A man's voice interrupted them.
     "The poetry of corporate existence escaped you, my friend?"
     Reinsuke Yamura, Mariko's father, had walked out to the pool in his dark blue suit and heard the last few phrases of their conversation.
     "I'm more into a lyrical style," Matt responded.
     "But the best corporate leaders are, too," Yamura said. "Sometimes."
     "Welcome home father," Mariko said. "Nani mo kawatta koto wa nakatta wa."
     "What was that?" Matt asked.
     "Oh, I just told him there was nothing new on the home front." She turned to her father to begin the formalities. "Dad, this is Matt Ware. Matt, this is dad."
      Yamura reached down and shook hands with Matt, who was still in the pool.
     "Welcome home," Matt told him. " How was your trip? I understand the humidity's tough in the old country this time of year."
    "Ah, no need to burden yourself with my difficulties. Concentrate on your own hard work. Hard work will be the key to --"
     "Stop it father. You make too much money to be taken seriously as a philosopher."
     "Quite true. But hard work and humility, we can discuss without philosophizing. Or is it too much of a perpetuation of the Japanese stereotype?"
     "Oh, it's an American stereotype, too," Matt said.
     "Yes, that's correct," Yamura said.
     "Except maybe for the humble part," Matt continued. "Although a lot of people say Americans haven't built a good car since the 1965 Mustang. I guess that's humility."
     "Well, on the car issue, maybe," Yamura said. "But it really doesn't mean much. Americans have done great things since 1965. Biotechnology. Software. Space exploration."
     "I agree. But we're also our own harshest critics. And we have a kind of perverse nostalgia. We romanticize the past to the point where we make the present seem deficient. Have you noticed that about Americans?"
    "Yes. I see what you mean."
     "Nevertheless, the part about the cars, that's true," Matt said as he got out of the pool and toweled off. He followed Yamura to the table where Mariko sat as the butler wheeled out a cart with brunch on it. The cart was topped by a huge golden espresso machine. The three of them sat down and served themselves croissants.
     "Tell me father," Mariko asked. "If someone put you in a position where you had to do something or risk making them angry, what would you do? Would you do this thing?"
     "It depends. What is it?"
     "What if it's just listening to a proposal?"
     "Well I would do that, to avoid making an enemy."
     "But what if by listening to the proposal you're getting in deeper than you want to get in?" Matt asked him.
     "Well I would still listen to the proposal. But I would make it clear that my consideration in no way should be taken as a commitment."
     "What if the other party feels you are under their power?" Mariko asked.
     "Then I would make sure I put myself in the position of power so I couldn't be forced into any action."
     Matt looked at Yamura. He wondered if he would be able to master the practical applications of this morning's lessons.
     "How do you like America?" Matt asked him. Yamura looked back at him.
     "I like America very much."


After Mariko had said goodbye to her father, Matt used his cell to dial the number in Malibu. A woman answered and he told her he'd been asked to call. She asked his name and he told her.
     "Yes, Mr. Ware," she said. "Please come to 42300 Pacific Coast Highway. Can you be here by 2?" He said he could. Then he tried to form a sentence asking if he should bring anything. It was a way to ease into a conversation that could help him find out more about who wanted to meet him and why.
     But the woman hung up quickly and a dial tone was sounding in his ear before he had even finished his question.

     Matt steered the Mustang south on Sunset to the coast. The ocean glowed turquoise, lighter toward the horizon, almost white in the sun. As Pacific Coast Highway rose toward Malibu, the sweeping lawn at Pepperdine climbed up an embankment to Matt's right, a lush bright green carpet under the bright blue sky.
     The driveway leading to 42300 was lined with a dozen towering eucalyptus trees, swaying in the beachside breeze. Matt parked his Mustang on the highway, not wanting to leave a stain from an oil leak in front of the house. As he walked to the front door of the white facade it was opened by a blonde in a bikini.
     "Ron," she called behind her. "Matt's here."
      "Hi," Matt said to her.
      "I'm Morgana," she said. "Ron's waiting for you."
      Ron Ashton had been sitting on the balcony overlooking the waves wash gently up to the sand. He was wearing a white bathrobe and sunglasses and put down his newspaper as he walked into the living room to greet Matt. They stood in the living room and shook  hands.
     "Mi casa es su casa," Ashton told him. "What can I get you?"
     "Whatever you're having," Matt responded.
     "Carlo," Ashton called out behind him. "Couple of espressos. And bring out the arrangement."
     He turned to Matt and invited him into his office, where they sat. Ashton placed himself behind his big dark desk and Matt was in a chrome-plated designer chair facing him.
    Carlo wheeled in a cart holding an espresso machine. It looked like the one at Yamura's place. Then he brought in a huge floral arrangement _ tulips and roses crowned by three bird-of-paradise blooms. He placed the flowers on a coffee table off to the side of the desk and served Ashton and Matt the espressos.
    "This is a nice house," Matt offered as a compliment. "Have you lived here long?"
    "Just since the New Year," Ashton said. "I think I should name it. A lot of the houses around here have names. Any ideas?"
     "La maison des mystères?" Matt suggested.
     Ashton looked at him for a moment and laughed.
     "Not bad," he said. "Nothing really mysterious here, though. I need you to do some work for me. And I hear you're out of a job. The timing's perfect. Rico said you were doing good work for him."
     "Until this morning."
     "Well, yeah. But nobody's perfect. The important thing is showing a sense of responsibility. Hard work isn't just its own reward. Some people say I'm lucky. And it could be true. But I found that the harder I worked, the luckier I got."
     Matt reached to the desk and picked up a pen.
     "I wouldn't do that" Ashton said. "It might go off."
     "Oh, sorry. Didn't mean it that way. I just thought if you were going to tell me the secret of your success I should write it down so I don't forget it."
     Ashton stared at him.
     "Keep it," he said, showing the pen with the back of his hand. "You might need it more than I do. Tear gas."
     Matt shrugged, put it in his pocket.
     "Thank you," Matt said. "Shall I ask why you called me here today?"
     "Ah, you called me. Never forget that."
     "Oh, I won't. I've been wondering what would've happened if I didn't."
     "Oh, there was never any question, was there?"
     "Oh, believe me, there was."
     Again, Ashton stopped the conversation and appraised Matt. Matt wondered what Ashton would make of him, but he didn't have time to think about it for long.
     "Reinsuke Yamura," Ashton began immediately. "Ozawatech hired him to arrange the merger. I need to know if it's with Mayanada or PRT."
     "You've got the wrong guy," Matt said, getting up. "I'd make a lousy spy."
     "No, no, no. It isn't spying. Sit down and don't worry."
     Matt sat back down.
     "It's just stock market trading," Ashton said. "I think I know which way this is going. But I want the best information before I place my bet. Like at the track, the guy who talks to the trainer in the morning about how his horse runs on, say, a cold day. Or on moist turf. Yamura's back in town. Just watch him for the next few days, tell me what you see and hear. And bring me something good."
     Matt was dubious.
     "There's no good reason I should do that," Matt said.
     "You could look at it that way. But try looking at it this way: There's no good reason you shouldn't."
     Matt thought to himself: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. He decided he should find out what was going on.
    "OK," he told Ashton. "Doesn't sound too hard, actually. But what if I don't come up with anything?"
     "Oh, you will. That's why you're here. You will."


Matt walked out of Ashton's place and saw a woman in a black dress sitting on the hood of his car, painting her toenails red. It was Aileen.
     "What are you doing here?" he asked her.
     "I left my make-up case in your car. I need it."
     He opened his door and got in. She walked to the driver's side, hoping he would hand it to her.
     "Sorry," he said. "I left it at my girlfriend's."
     "Why'd you do that?"
     "Cause this is L.A. and you don't leave stuff sitting in your car unless you want somebody to break your window just to see if it's worth stealing."
     "Well, I need it," Aileen said as she walked around to the passenger side on her heels, her toes in the air so the nail polish could dry, while a stream of SUVs, Porsches and BMWs whooshed by them on Pacific Coast Highway.
     He reached over to open the door for her from the inside, popping up the handle. She got in.
     "What's in it?" he asked as he turned the key in the ignition.
     "Just my Visa card and keys."
     "How'd ya find me?"
     "Oh, the guy in the suit at the set told me. Besides, everybody knows Ron."
     "How'd ya get here?"
     "René gave me a ride back. We all got fired and the set shut down until they get new actors. New talent, they said."
     He looked at her while he waited for the traffic to clear so he could pull out and drive away.
     "Your Visa card and keys."
     She said nothing in response. He turned the steering wheel and brought the car away from Ashton's place and headed south back toward the city. He looked at her again.
     "I swear it's not coke," she said.
     "So it's meth. Or H. Why did you do that? I could've been busted if I got pulled over. And now it's at my girlfriend's house."
     "No, I swear, it's not drugs."
     Matt was losing patience.
     "Well then what is it?"
     "I don't know. I swear I don't know what it us. It's a little silver box, like a compact, only it's square like a CD box."
     "What do you need it for, then? If you don't know what it is."
     "I swear I don't know what it is. All I know, is it's a lot of money. CJ's dealing it for me. Some guys want it. Show biz lawyers or something."
     "CJ? That junkie? Show biz lawyers?"
     "I swear it's not drugs. It's a lot of money, I swear. Drive me to CJ if you don't believe me, before we go get it. I'll cut you in."
      They passed Topanga Canyon, the steep cliffs rising from the highway on their left, the Pacific glistening on their right, stretching out to the horizon, vast and blue.
     "I'm not sure I want in on this deal," Matt said. "But I'll drive you."
     "Cool. I owe ya. Big time."
     He turned and looked at her, wondering what she meant. But she was looking straight out the window as if he weren't there, her feet propped on the dash, her freshly painted toenails sparkled blood red.
     They drove down Lincoln to Rose and parked in front of a faded green apartment building called Villa Diana. Aileen led the way up a flight of stairs at the back of the courtyard. The Mexicans and Filipinos who lived in the apartments left their doors open, and when Matt glanced inside one he saw a group of men inside huddled around a coffee table playing dominos. In the courtyard, a small boy rode a tricycle around the swimming pool. Aileen knocked on CJ's door. After a delay a little too long for an apartment that size, CJ, about 50 years old with a thin mustache and a black beret, opened the door six inches or so and peered out at them from behind his round wire-frame glasses.
    "Hey-hey ba-abe, whadya say? Not a good time. Come back in about an hour."
    But the door opened wider and a man in a suit was standing behind CJ, holding a gun to his neck, although Matt and Aileen couldn't see that.
    "This the one?" the gunman said, turning to another man in the apartment to ask about Aileen.
    "That's the one," the other man said. "Get her in here."
    "Come on in," the gunman said, then noticed Matt. "You too."
     In a moment, the five of them were standing in CJ's sparsely furnished living room, crowded between an old gray couch and a TV set, which was tuned to a nature show. A lizard was stalking its prey, a large white insect poised gracefully on a green plant. Snap, and the bug was in the reptile's mouth.
     "Wait a minute," CJ protested. "These people don't have anything to do with – "
     "Shut up," the man without the gun said.
      Matt could tell denying would be pointless, so he intervened.
     "No, she doesn't have it anymore," he said. "I've got it."
     The gunman put his pistol back into his shoulder holster. CJ looked relieved and sat down in a chair on the other side of the room, near the TV, which showed monkeys swinging from tree to tree and howling in a rain forest.
     "You know we're willing to pay for it," the other man said to Matt, ignoring CJ, Aileen and his accomplice.
     "Yeah," Matt said, "but how much?"
     Sensing the negotiation was now out of his hands, CJ panicked. "No, wait," he tried to interrupt. "Oh, man – " The other man cut him off and continued to ignore him.
     "This item is the property of my employer," the other man said to Matt. "I have been given broad authority to negotiate its return. My offer is twenty thousand dollars."
     "OK," Matt said. "But I want to know what it is."
     "I don't know what it is. And even if I did know, I probably wouldn't be allowed to tell you. Like I said, it belongs to my employer. My directions are to get it back."
     "I still want to know what it is."
     "Then I'll compensate you for your – disappointment, or frustration – as far as the knowing-what-it-is part. Fifty thousand."
     Matt smiled at the absurdity of the situation.
     "Well, shit, man," he shrugged. "Why not say a hundred thousand."
     "Fine," the other man said, showing some impatience with Matt's cavalier tone. "One hundred thousand dollars."
     Matt was speechless. The other man looked at the gunman and tilted his head toward a gray attaché case near the couch. The gunman opened it, showing it was filled with hundred dollar bills. He took out a sheaf of them and handed them to the other man. The other man handed them to Aileen.
     "That's for your trouble," he said to her. Then he turned to Matt.
     "Can you make it back here in an hour?" he asked.
     "Not if I have to zig and zag to make sure I'm not being tailed."
     "It's not worth it," he said. "We have a deal. That's all I was looking for. I'm not interested in where you've got it stashed. It's just a job for me. You've seen the money. Why wouldn't you come back for it?"
     Matt shrugged. It seemed logical. Still, he was worried about getting jumped on the way back to the apartment. But he had his new tear gas pen in his pocket, the gift from Ashton, and decided he could handle anything that came his way that day. Of course, he was wrong.
     "Back in an hour," Matt said.
     "See you then," the other man said and sat down to watch TV as the nature show concluded with scenes of hippos yawning and snorting, halfway submerged in a jungle river.
Matt  and Aileen walked back to the Mustang.
     "Look at the shit you've got me into now," he told her.
     "I swear I didn't know. I swear."


     Rounding a corner on a quiet street in Beverly Hills on the way back to Yamura's house, Matt heard a siren and pulled over. A police car passed him, lights flashing.
     Matt pulled into the Yamura driveway just as two cops in their dark blue uniforms jumped out of the black and white and ran over to the a gray box on a pole at the curb. Matt watched as they stuck a card into the box, and the massive front doors of the house swung open automatically. The officers sprinted inside, guns raised.
     Aileen sat up straight, suddenly paying intense attention.
     "What's going on here?" she demanded.
     "I don't know," Matt said. They could hear yelling inside the house: the cops shouting orders to someone.
     "Where are we?" Aileen asked Matt.
     "My girlfriend lives here. It's my girlfriend's house."
     Aileen didn't respond.
     "Well, then you better go in and see what kind of problem your 'girlfriend' is having," Aileen said, as if she didn't believe Matt's answer.
     Matt looked at her, got out of the car and walked into the house.

     The butler stood on the black and white tiles of the entry hall with Mariko next to him, her arms crossed and her hands on her shoulders, protecting her heart. She was looking up the spiral staircase as a voice shouted: "This is your last warning. Drop the weapon."
     A gun blast shook the house to its foundation, as if an earthquake had struck.
     Matt, Mariko and the butler stood paralyzed until one of Beverly Hills' finest shouted from upstairs.
     "All clear," he said. "We got him." Then the cop walked down the stairs and strode out to the car, radioed in to report an officer-involved shooting and then came back inside.
     "Just wait here," he said to Mariko, Matt and the butler. The butler went back into the kitchen.
     "What happened?" Matt asked Mariko.
     "I was downstairs watching TV and I heard somebody upstairs. He must've got in through a back window. We had the alarm off, so I called 911."
     Matt was getting worried. He wanted to tell Mariko about Aileen's box, and he wanted to tell her about what Ashton wanted. But not while the police were around.
     It was over in an hour. Two detectives had surveyed the scene and decided it was a routine burglarly and that the shooting appeared to fall within department guidelines. Coroner's investigators picked up the body. The victim couldn't be immediately identified.  "But he had this on him," said one of the detectives, a short woman with a buzz cut, as she held out a small silver box. "Is it yours?"
      "Yeah," Matt said. "Thanks."
      The detective handed the thin shiny square case to Matt. It was spotted with blood. The other detective, a tall guy, saw that Matt had noticed.
      "You'll wanna wipe that off," the detective told him before he left.  
     Matt followed Mariko into her room, which had been ransacked by the burglar before he was shot and killed. Even the sheets of her bed were stripped and her Lichtenstein print showing a down-the-barrel view of a revolver, yellow smoke rising from it, was tilted sideways on the wall above her makeup table.
     "He really messed up my room," Mariko complained.
     "Are you all right?" Matt asked her, standing behind her, placing his hands on his shoulders and kissing the back of her head lightly.
     "No. I'm not all right. I'm freaked out. I don't know what to do."
     "There's nothing you can do, really. I understand. It's upsetting."
     "Damn right it's upsetting."
      Matt picked up Aileen's carrying case.
     "I think this might have something to do with it," Matt said. "It's that girl's. She's in the car. I'm gonna go talk to her."
     Mariko followed him downstairs, but when they got to his car, Aileen had gone.
     "Huh," Matt said.
     "Where would she go?" Mariko asked.
     "I don't know. But I'd better try to catch up with her before we all get into any more trouble."
     He kissed Mariko and got into the Mustang. Then he rolled down the window and tried to explain.
      "I think this stuff was stolen from somebody and Aileen was hiding it so she could claim a reward or something. I'm going to try to get it back to the people who want it."
      Mariko didn't seem overly concerned.
      "Be careful," she said.
      They arranged to meet at The Black Cat Café on Melrose at six.

     Parked in front of Villa Diana again, Matt held the shiny metal box in the palm of his hand. It didn't bear any indication of what was inside – if anything. There were four metal buttons on the back. He tried pushing them a few times to see if a combination would open it, but they didn't even beep and the box stayed closed.
      He looked out the windshield for a few moments while beachgoers were heading home after their time on the sand or the bike path. Matt patted his pocket to make sure the tear gas pen was still there, got out of the car and walked up to CJ's place.
     CJ's door was open about six inches and Matt walked in. But he didn't see the guys in suits. Instead, two blond teen-agers in shorts and basketball shoes were sitting next to CJ, who looked worried. Two skateboards were propped up against the wall and another one was placed on the floor.  Each skateboard was elaborately decorated. One was painted with a surfing skeleton riding a towering wave. Another showed a beautiful naked woman riding a huge motorcyle. The third displayed a dagger, dripping with blood.
     "What's up?" Matt asked CJ, trying to get a read on the situation. Not even CJ would be stupid enough to screw around dealing coke or pills to some skateboard kids while those guys with the shoulder holsters and piles of cash were around.
     "Not much," CJ said. His tone revealed nothing.
     Then Matt sensed movement in the kitchen. A redheaded teen surfer closed the refrigerator door and turned to walk toward him. He was holding a rolled up slice of ham in his fingers and taking a bite.
      "Du-uude," Red said to Matt. "You got it?"
      "Got what?"
      "The little box, dude. You know, the little box."
      "I don't know about a box. I'm buying some coke. Boss is having a party tonight in the hills. Sent me to score."
     Matt turned to CJ.
     "What's this all about?"
     Red lifted a corner of his blue Hawaiian print shirt to pull a tiny pistol from his waistband. Still chewing the ham, he shot CJ in the head, splattering blood on the window. Then he turned to Matt.
     "Got any more questions, dude?"
     "Whoa-ho," one of the kids said, looking at CJ.
     "So, what?" Red asked Matt. But then Red's cell phone rang.
     "Better get that," Matt said. "I think it's your mom."
     Matt leaped across the living room and down a short hall to the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind him. But Red or one of the other kids had already started shooting, blowing small holes in the door.
     In the bathroom were the two guys in suits. One was in the shower, collapsed on himself, and one was kneeling on the floor with his head stuck in the toilet, like he'd been throwing up. Only he hadn't been throwing up. There was blood everyone. They'd both been shot dead.
     The skateboarders were trying to get in, pounding and kicking at the door. Matt had the tear gas pen, but they had at least one gun and there were three of them.
     So he grabbed a towel, wrapped it around his fist and smashed the louvres on the bathroom window. Then he pulled himself out and jumped down to the alley behind Villa Diana. He fell on the concrete, but picked himself up and ran toward the street. The sound of gunfire from the bathroom window continued behind him, fading as he went.


     But then Matt heard crashes and some shouting. The skate punks had thrown their boards through the window and jumped down to chase him. They were rolling through the alley toward him just as he was losing his breath.
     He raced across the street, forcing a red Jaguar to screech its brakes to avoid running him over. He didn't know if he could make it over the block wall in front of him, but he did, pulling himself up and rolling over on his hip. When he landed, he found himself in a back yard with a kidney-shaped swimming pool and a swath of green lawn.
     A bodybuilder in pink bikini briefs was stretched out in his chaise lounge, eyes apparently closed behind his sunglasses, an iPod's tiny headphones in his ears.
    The Jaguar hadn't started up again yet, so the skateboarders jumped onto its hood then off the other side in pursuit. Leaving their boards behind, they scaled the block wall behind Matt and hit the bodybuilder's lawn just as Matt had crossed the yard and was leaping over the opposite wall into the next yard.
     "Hey dude," one of the skaters yelled to the bodybuilder, but he didn't seem to hear or see them.
     Matt landed on the lawn of the next yard, where a woman bodybuilder in a pink bikini was sunning herself on the chaise lounge in front of her kidney-shaped pool, iPod headphones in her ears, eyes shaded by sunglasses and apparently closed, because she didn't make a move as Matt ran across her yard, followed by the skateboarders.
     But in the next yard, a man inside the house saw Matt as soon as he had leaped over the wall. The man yelled "Hey" from behind the patio door.
     "Sorry," Matt shouted back. "Passin' through." He headed for the wall on the other side of the yard, but the man had grabbed a handgun and started shooting, knocking off small gray chunks from the cinderblock. Matt made it up and over nevertheless, landing on a sidewalk and running across the street.
     "Hey," the man shouted again while the skateboarders flew toward the wall he was shooting.
     "Passin' through," one of them shouted back. The man kept shooting, but missed them, too.
     One of the skateboarders pulled a gun from the waistband of his cut-offs and fired back from atop the wall. He knocked a chunk of stucco off the man's house.
     "Cool!" the skateboarder said. The man ducked back inside for a moment, then popped his head out the glass door to return fire as the skateboarders cleared his wall.
     When the skateboarders landed on the other side, they saw Matt running into a house. The man behind them was still shooting, and chips of cinderblock were sailing onto the street Matt had crossed. When the skateboarders landed, they saw Matt run into the open door of a white two-story house with a neatly manicured lawn.
     Matt shut and locked the door behind him, gasping for breath. He heard what sounded like a conversation in the living room, but it was only the TV. Jerry Springer was interviewing a teen-age white girl who had run away from home and was turning tricks for a black pimp.
     Matt paced as quietly as he could through the living room to the kitchen, then into the garage, where he checked the black Mercedes to see if the keys were inside. No luck. He went back into the kitchen and checked the counter. There they were. He picked them up. Just then, the doorbell rang, then rang and rang again. That would be the surf punks, Matt thought to himself. He had the keys in his hand when a woman in a white bathrobe, her black hair still wet from the shower, turned the corner on her way to answer the door.
    She screamed as the doorbell kept ringing.
    "Oh, sorry, ma'am," he said. "The door was open, you must not have heard me. I'm from Wilton Mercedes. They sent me to pick up the car for, ah, an emergency recall."
     "I didn't buy my car at Wilton," she said. The doorbell kept ringing. "I better get that."
     "I'll just take the car then," Matt said.
     "No, you wait. Why is my car going to Wilton?"
     "They're handling the repair, ah, regionally," Matt said, keys still in his hand.
     "Why didn't anyone call me?"
     "Oh they called. They probably got your husband."
     "I'm divorced. He has no authority to make any decisions about my car."
     "Well, maybe it was your boyfriend, then."
     "My boyfriend! That bastard! Now he's trying to get his hands on the Mercedes, too?"
     "No, no ma'am," Matt said while she ran off to open the door.
     He rushed into the garage as the skateboarders pushed past the woman into her house.
     ''Where'd he go?'' a skateboarder demanded.
     "Who?" the woman asked.

     Matt gunned the engine of the big black car and checked for the garage door opener on the sun visor but couldn't find it.
     So just as the skateboarders ran through the garage door and pulled out their guns, he gunned the engine in reverse and crashed the car backward through the garage door with an explosion of metal, and the Mercedes’ tires were instantly squealing on the driveway and out into the street. He turned the car around, its roof scratched and trunk crumpled, and sped off as the skateboarders took token shots toward him.
     The woman in the white bathrobe followed them out onto the driveway, standing between them amid the wreckage of the garage door and its metal bars and bolts.
     The two skatepunks look at the woman as they put their guns back into the waistbands of their shorts.
     "Why'd ya let him take your car?" one of them asked her. Then they walked away, leaving her there to deal with the aftermath of their afternoon.


     The black Mercedes rolled to a stop in front of a house on Alta Vista, a couple of blocks away from the Black Cat Café. He hadn't seen a single cop – you usually don’t, but still – all the way from Venice to Melrose; the Mercedes' owner would've called it in stolen. Matt walked quickly away from the car. It was scratched up badly and the rear windshield bore a spiderweb of cracks. His escape through the garage door had reduced the car to a flawed opal, shining in the twilight.
   He wasn't in such good shape himself. His ankle hurt from landing in the alley after the jump from the window, his forearms, chest and hip were scratched from pulling himself over the cinderblock walls. He didn't remember where or how he got the cut on the cheek he'd noticed in the rear view mirror.
     He'd have to go back for the Mustang later, which was a problem, because as usual he'd hidden his wallet under the driver seat so he had no money on him. With any luck, he thought to himself, the surf punks wouldn't figure out which car was his.  And even if they did, they'd have got bored by then and contented themselves with setting it on fire.
     Up the street near the boulevard, two men in turbans stepped out from a storefront. One held a plate with small pieces of meat on it, a toothpick stuck upward from each one.
     Matt noticed the sign on the storefront as he approached. "Ezna'an Bros. Persian Cuisine."
     One of the men blocked the sidewalk, holding out the plate.
     "Eat kubideh," the man in the turban commanded.
     "OK," Matt said. "I'll try one."
     Three dead guys and maybe me next, Matt said to himself. Might as well have some kubideh. He picked up a toothpick and stuck the meat into his mouth.
     "You like?" the man in the turban asked.
     "Hmmm," Matt said, not wanting to offend. “It's good, but it's not my thing."
     "He like kubidah," the man said to the other man. "Make him plate."
    "No, no, no," Matt said. "I gotta go. Anyway, I'm broke. I left my wallet in my car."
    "No, no," the first man said, taking his arm and guiding him into his small shop, seating him at one of the three tables. "We make you special plate kubideh."
    Before he could do anything about it, the other man in the turban brought out a steaming serving full of the small pieces of marinated steak over fluffy white rice.
    "Oh, hey, guys," Matt tried to protest. "Really, this is nice, but I've got to go meet my girlfriend."
    "You like kubidah," the man who had offered Matt the sample said. "You eat. We trying  -- how you say -- build business."
     Feeling obliged, and cornered, Matt dug in best he could.
     "We are new restaurant," the man said, standing over Matt. "You live near?"
     "Yeah, but no," Matt said. "I'm staying at my girlfriend's place until – " He was going to say something about getting settled into whatever his next job was, but the man interrupted him.
    "Ah, no good," the man said.
    "Whaddya mean no good?" He smiled; now these two guys in turbans were going to pass judgment on him.
    "She nice girl?"
    "Yeah, she's nice."
    "OK. Still, even if nice girl, maybe no good let her keep you with her all of the time."
     "No, it's not like that," he said, thinking about it while he worked on the chewy spiced meat. "She's OK. It's just temporary."
     Both the men laughed.
     "You like temporary," the man behind the counter said. "But maybe she no like temporary. Girls usually no like temporary. Maybe she like longer."
     "Well, longer might be OK, too," Matt said.
     "Oh, OK then," the first man said to the second one. Both men laughed.
     Well, he thought to himself, so far that day he'd got fired from a porno movie after an hour's drive into the high desert. Then he let a crooked businessman force him to spy on his girlfriend's dad. Then he came into ownership of a silver case that got three people killed while they were waiting for him to hand it over. Then he escaped from a set of killer surf punks after a wild chase, and committed a felony – grand theft auto – with witnesses. Now he was defending the merits of his relationship with Mariko against criticism from the Ezna'ans.
     While Matt was completing the inventory of his day and finishing his meat, the brother behind the counter turned on the radio. A blast of air conditioning freshened up the restaurant. Matt noticed it was spotless. The white countertops and tables had a mirrorlike sheen under the fluorescent lights.
     "Well, thanks, guys," Matt said and got up to leave. The radio played "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog" and the Ezna'ans both did their best Elvis impressions. As Matt walked out the door, he saw them lip-synching while they shook their hips and turbanned heads at each other.


     Rollo, Tally and Mariko were sprawled in the turquoise-upholstered chairs around a big table in the middle of The Black Cat. Rollo was talking. Mariko was typing on her laptop. Matt could see she was linked to a brokerage account.
     "Buying low and selling high, I hope," he said as he sat down next to her.
     "A girl's got to take care of herself," she shot back.
     "Two words: Persian barbecue. Aggressive marketing techniques. Go long."
     Rollo, a Jamaican tae kwon do teacher Mariko had taken some lessons from, continued his story.
     " ... so me dad has her movin' in, sleepin' with him in the bed where he slept with me mum just a few months ago."
     Tally, Rollo's friend, an Israeli kickboxing champ Mariko and Matt had met through Rollo, got up and started jumping rope.
     "Ew," she said. "That's disgusting."
     The cafe was empty except for the quartet and a fat man at the far end of the restaurant, wearing sunglasses and sketching with a piece of charcoal on a large white drawing pad. The waiter brought three large bowls of cappucino and set them down while he looked at Matt. Matt raised his hand slightly and shook his head to let him know he didn't want anything.
     "Udovic," Tally said to the waiter, a Serb in a fedora, "I saw you smoking back there."
     "Call 911," he said. "Oh, I forget. You still kickboxer?"
     "Second place in women's regionals."
     "Oh," Udovic said. "Then I better vatch my ass." He walked away.
     "Damn right," Tally shouted as he disappeared back into the kitchen.
     Mariko noticed Matt was thrashed up.
     "You look like you could use a double cap," she told him.
     "I'm past the point where that would help. It hasn't been your typical day. I'll tell you later."
     "How old is she?" Mariko asked Rollo.
     "Madelaine? She's 19. But that's not the worst part."
     "Madelaine?" Tally asked.
     "Ooh, ooh, I know what happened," Mariko chimed in, smiling wildly, pleased with herself that she'd guessed what was coming.
     Rollo saw she'd figured it out.
     "Yeah, yeah, but let me tell you. See me dad took off to Anaheim on a bodyguard job _ one of the Mighty Ducks was signing autographs at some school, and the last time he did that some arsehole walked up and said he slept with the mon's wife, just so he could sue the mon after the mon punched him _ anyway, me dad's gone, and I'm teaching me greenbelt class at the park, and I get home. And there's Madelaine, in the back yard. She's sittin' out by the the pool, getting a suntan. She's naked."
    "Ew," Tally said."Madelaine."
    "So I'm like: Oh, sorry, didn't mean to intrude on you. But she's all: Oh, no, don't be sorry. And she comes into the living room and says: I was actually kind of hoping you'd come."
    "Oh," Tally said, still jumping rope. "Madelaine!"
    "I knew it!" Mariko cried triumphantly, then took a sip from her giant cappucino.
    "And?" Matt asked Rollo.
    "And." Rollo answered with a shrug.
    "Oooh, Madelaine," Tally concluded as she stopped her jump-roping.
     "So in walks me dad, and she pushes me off her and climbs up from under me and she's all: Oh, Rollo, Rollo, I'm sorry."
     "She told YOU she was sorry?" Mariko asked.
     "No not me, me dad. He's Rollo, too. I'm Rollo Junior. So she's like: It was an accident."
     "An accident?" Tally asked.
     "So," Rollo said. "Livin' in me car and out of a job."
     "Should I talk to my dad?" Mariko asked.
     "No, I'll stick with tae kwon do teaching. I'll just have to find another donjon to work at, being that me dad's not wanting me there no more."
     "How're you doing?" Tally asked him.
     "Oh, I think I'm getting where I need to be. I think I'll take regionals this time, better than last year."
     "That's great," Mariko said. Then she turned to Matt. "You should take from Rollo. He's real good. Rollo, show him."
     "Nah," Rollo said, shrugging.
     "Oh, please, please," Mariko said, hands clasped.
     "Well, OK."
     He walked to the far end of the cafe, then performed a series of ka tas as he moved toward them. Slowly at first, and then faster and then back and forth across the Black Cat at lightning speed.
     "I can't go half that fast," Tally said.
     Rollo climbed atop a table and jumped to another, still showing off his moves.
     "Vat da fuck yoo doink?" Udovic said as he walked from the kitchen, blowing smoke.
     "Moves," Rollo answered. When Rollo got next to him. Rollo kicked at his head. Before Udovic could flinch, the fedora was flying across the room.
     "Ya, OK, moofs," Udovic said as he walked away to pick up his hat. "Just get da fuck off da table, ya?"
     "I should take some lessons," Matt said. "How long do you think it'd take me to learn that?"
     Rollo looked him up and down.
     "Not a good candidate, mon," Rollo said. "Coolness. Angles. Efficiency. Too stiff."
     "Whaddya mean, too stiff?" Matt protested.
     "Look," he pointed to Tally, languid in her chair. "Warm. Flexible."
     "What about me?" Mariko asked.
     "Oh, you, you're very good," he said. "Very, very flexible."
     "You guys," Matt dismissed them. "You think you're all that."
     "Look," Rollo told Matt, and walked across the cafe in a military march, mocking Matt.
     "Now look," he said, and walked back rolling his hips and shoulders.
     "Oh, come on," Matt protested again.
     "You can always learn," Tally comforted him. "Maybe."
     Rollo took Mariko's hands and lifts her from her seat, leading her into a dance to the music on the cafe's stereo, a slow, funky techno beat with a melodic synthesizer line on top.
     "Ah, the dance of the zephyr," Matt kidded her.
     "The gods speak through my body," she replied. "It's not me."
     Mariko broke away from Rollo and took Matt's hand, raising him from his seat as Rollo had done to her. Matt joined them in their dance, bobbing his head slightly and snapping his fingers. The music changed to a reggae song and Tally tied the jump rope between two chairs.
     "Lim-BO!" she declared. "Lim-BO! Lim-BO!"
     Rollo bent over backward and slid under the rope, then joined Tally's chant.
    "Lim-BO! Lim-BO!"
    Tally, then Mariko bent over backwards too, swaying their shoulders rhythmically as. They both barely cleared the low passage.
     "Lim-BO! Lim-BO! Lim-BO!" the three of them chanted in Matt's direction.
     "No fair," he said. "I'm taller."
     "Lim-BO! Lim-BO! Lim-BO! Lim-BO!"
     He gave it a try, but as soon as he bent his knees and tilted his head back he fell over backwards, catching himself on his palms. The sun had gone down and the neon light was glowing in the window, which was catching headlights as they flashed past on Melrose. Matt sat on the floor and laughed. Mariko, Tally and Rollo danced around him to the reggae beat, chanting.
     "Lim-BO! Lim-BO! Lim-BO! Lim-BO!"
     The fat man in the corner sketched furiously. 


    Tally and Mariko handed their tickets to the valet outside The Black Cat.
     "Girls driving tonight," Rollo explained to the valet, who didn't pay any attention. Rollo turned back to his friends.
     "But the worst part of the whole Madelaine thing, I didn't tell you," he said.
     "What?" Matt asked.
     "She called me Jefferson."
     "Jefferson?" Tally asked.
     "Jefferson," Rollo repeated, shaking his head. "While we were making it. Jefferson."
     "Who's Jefferson?" Mariko asked.
     "Whoever," Rollo said.
     "Come stay at my place," Tally said to Rollo. "It's better than sleeping in your car on that road by the water towers. Yuck."
     "What about Jack?"
     "That's over," she said. "We decided to get HIV tests, and he got so freaked out by the whole thing that he started hyper-ventilating in the waiting room." She thought for a moment. "Your dad been tested?"
    "No," Rollo said. "Not gonna ask him either."
    "What about Madelaine?"
    "What about her?"
    The valet pulled up with Tally's silver Acura, hopped out and held the door open on the passenger side for Rollo.
    "Has she been tested?" Tally asked as she got in the car.
    "They haven't invented the test for her yet," Rollo said.
    Rollo and Tally waved good-bye to Matt and Mariko as they pulled out into the traffic on Melrose.
     The boulevard had come alive with the night. Bright signs lit a row of boutiques and restaurants on the other side of the street. More and more people were walking up and down the sidewalk on their way to dinner. Cars were backed up trying to make right turns into the nearest parking lot. Horns honked. For a minute, living in Los Angeles was almost like living in a city.  But only for a minute.
     Before the valet could bring Mariko's BMW to the front of the restaurant, a silver Jaguar blocked the way. Ashton was sitting in the passenger seat, looking at Matt through tinted glasses. A blonde woman was driving, but it wasn't the blonde from Ashton's house.
     "Girls driving tonight," Matt said to Ashton, who didn't pay attention.
     Ashton rolled the window down.
     "You're getting shot at," he said to Matt.
     "Word gets around this town fast," Matt replied. He figured Aileen must have found out somehow and got the news to Ashton. But it didn't matter.
     "Ronnie, we have to be at the studio right away," the woman interrupted.
     "My attorney," Ashton said to Matt.
     "A pleasure," Matt said to her.
     "Likewise," she said. "Ronnie – "
     "OK, just a sec," he said with a motion of his hand and turned to Matt. "Look, kid, I'll keep these people off your back. But the things I told you about this morning are happening in the next two days. I need to hear from you before then."
     "You'll keep these people off my back?" Matt asked, head tilted.
     "They may know where you hang out," Ashton said. "I do."
     "Word to the wise?"
     "You think you should be jerking around on this or getting to work?"
     Ashton turned to his attorney and the Jaguar sped off.
     Matt turned around to see Mariko looking at him. It was a look he'd never seen her give him before. The valet pulled her car up to them and Matt walked around to the passenger side.
     "Girls driving tonight," he said again.
     "Girls always drive,” the valet said. “Even when there's no car."
      Mariko tipped him a buck as he closed her door.


     Mariko drove Matt back to her house, silently most of the way. Matt was exhausted and even though he knew she was waiting for him to tell her what had happened, he couldn't muster the strength.
    "It's about my father, isn't it?" she asked as they pulled into the circular driveway.
    He looked at her but didn't answer for a moment. She stopped the car.
    "There's a lot going on," he said. He offered nothing more.
    "Let's go for a swim," she said. "My dad's not home."
    The butler had gone home for the night. They went up to her room, took their clothes off and wrapped towels around themselves. Then they walked back down the curved staircase, across the marble floor of the entry and out the sliding glass door of the living room, into the cool night air of the back yard. Mariko turned on the pool light and they both dived naked into the glowing turquoise water.
    They glided together back and forth across the length of the pool as the rippling light cast a crazy dancing pattern above them on the walls of the house. The black sky showed its brightest lights, thanks to the wind of the night before that had blown the air clear. The Big Dipper was easily visible. Venus and Mars burned brightly near the moon. Mariko climbed out on the steps from the shallow end and Matt followed her. He put her towel around her shoulders and kissed her neck.
     "Don't," she said. She turned to him. "What did the guy in the Jaguar want?"
     Matt wrapped his towel around his waist and they sat down on two wire mesh lawn chairs, facing each other.
     "He wants to know what your dad's doing with a merger deal," he told her.
    Mariko looked at the pool, the light from the glowing blue water bouncing across her face.
    "I thought so," she said. "I was expecting something like this. Are you in trouble over it?"
    "Could be."
    "What are you going to do?"
    "Don't know yet. What do you think I should tell him?"
    "Tell him what he wants to hear."
    "I would if I knew."
    She studied him for a moment.
    "Should we talk to your dad?" he asked.
    "No, that could make things even more complicated for you. I have a better idea."
    "What's that?"
    "He made his proposition seem so innocent. I think you should respond in an innocent manner. I think I know how. Let me sleep on it. But we're going to have to wake up early."
     He followed her back into the house and upstairs. They got into bed naked and wrapped their arms and legs around each other. He kissed the jet black hair on the top of her head and then they were both asleep. It had been a long day.

    Mariko's white BMW sped across the narrow highway as the sun rose. Matt was still recovering from his bruises from the day before and groggy from his second 5 a.m. wake-up in a row. The early morning drive into the high desert, the sticky sweet scent of the sage blooming on the side of the road – it was just like the morning before. How could things have gone so out of control so fast? He asked himself if this was normal life in the real world. Then he remembered his high school days, college finals and the bleak three years at the telecommunications plant.
    High school in Auburn was unremarkable, except for getting suspended for insubordination after refusing to run an extra lap and pushing back when the gym teacher pushed him. So was community college, except there wasn't even a fight with the gym teacher to look back on. Just the basic courses, the French he'd always wanted to learn, plus the credits he needed in electronics for a job at Voxtel, one of the only games in town, the telecommunications equipment company where his dad worked.
     Because he could read a schematic, he eventually set up test benches for the new equipment, did the quality control checks, compiled the printouts and filed them in a report to his department head. It was a living, he eventually decided, but not much of a life. Two years went by, punctuated only by an occasional date, mostly with girls that family friends thought would be good for him. Some were with women he met while he was taking the family Doberman, Alex, for a run in the park. None had anything to offer beyond a quiet life in town and another 30 years of setting up tests for telephone equipment.
     One day a film crew came up from Hollywood, a couple of guys with a Japanese production company making a video for Voxtel stockholders. They were filming Matt while he ran a test. He got to talking with them, and they told him there were hundreds of jobs for electricians on film sets around Los Angeles. They even gave him the name of an employment agency that could set him up with assignments.
     It was just the excuse he'd been looking for. His dad was furious and wouldn't speak to him as he packed up to leave. His stepmother and her daughter, his half-sister, said goodbye, without much emotion invested. He rented a cheap apartment off Melrose, bounced from job to job on low-budget films and the occasional porn video, and met Mariko one night when he saw she was reading Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell'' at the back of the Black Cat Café.
     "Jadis, si je me souviens bien, ma vie était un grand festin oú tous les vins coulaient et tous les femmes dansaient," he recited from his college French course. They had a couple of dinners together before things got more serious. For the first time since he was a kid, there were things about a woman that he didn't understand and he wanted to be with her until he did, and maybe even after that. Then, for the past month, he realized he wasn't spending any time in his apartment, just hanging out at her house while her dad was in Japan. Was this love? Whatever it was, he'd never been happier.

     He watched her as she turned toward the dry lakebed where the space shuttle used to land, passing a series of Quonset huts on their left. She grew up in Beverly Hills, with her father shuttling back and forth across the Pacific. Her mother, too, until she'd had enough and just stayed in Tokyo one day. So with her father on business most of the time, Mariko had spent the last couple of years on her own, finishing high school, nightclubbing, knocking about, a couple of semesters of French at UCLA, but mostly shopping, going to the gym and wasting time. Until now.
     She looked over to see Matt was dozing off again. He wasn't like the other guys she dated in high school or college – they were all striving for something. But in his escape from the grind of his test bench, he'd already found it. She knew what it was, too – the freedom from that grind. But she also knew that freedom is hard to find, but it is always harder to deal with afterward.
     And that would be Matt's challenge. And she knew he'd struggle with it, that he'd be afraid any choice he'd make would find him feeling trapped again. And she knew once he'd found a path to follow, it might be one without her.
     She knew all this without saying it. And she was confident he didn't understand as much about himself as she did. And she thought if she gave voice to her ideas he might get defensive.
     She also knew this about Matt: He might look pretty tough, but his life had been pretty sheltered in a small-town way up until now. And the last few years of staying on her own had given her some insights and strengths for dealing with people and situations that she'd learned to use to her advantage.
    Which she was about to do right now.


     The shining silver cube stood about the size of a small house, surrounded by a set of nine white parabolic discs, one larger than the rest. A blue haze hung over the mountains in the distance beyond. Other than that there was nothing but the alkaline sands of the dry desert lakebed in view.
     Several men in white lab coats were moving from disc to disc. A voice over the loudspeaker announced: "Clear the area." The men all walked away.
     The loudspeaker voice then counted down: "One minute warning." Then: "Ten second warning: Then: "Three ... two ... one."
     A red laser beam shot in a circle from disc to disc, then – amplified and concentrated by the main disc – bore into the cube, instantly and silently. Only a moment later, there was a loud click as the laser shut down. A hole about six-feet in diameter had been cut through the middle of the cube.
     Cheers, applauds, hoots and hollers broke out from a crowd of about 100 standing behind Matt and Mariko, who had front row seats on the bleachers. Some of the engineers, probably the ones who had worked the hardest on the project, shouted "Yee-Haw!" and "Hot Damn!" and threw their hard hats into the air. Then the technicians, politicians and executives started filing down from the observation deck to a reception area off to the right, under the control tower. A group of black musicians on a makeshift stage started playing a conga-driven hard rock beat, chanting the name of Yamura's company _ "Ozawa! Ozawa! Ozawa!" _ over the pulsing rhythm.
     "Well," Yamura turned to Matt. "What do you think now? No poetry in corporate life?"
     Still a little groggy and trying to catch up with what he had just seen, Matt struggled with a response.
     "Can we go look?" he asked Yamura.
     "Let's," Yamura said. Mariko followed them across the cracked surface of the lakebed over to the cube.
     "A perfect circle,'' Matt said, looking at the hole in the cube.
     "We'll have to get it bigger, of course,'' Yamura said.
     "Why?" Matt asked. "It looks like it could blast apart anything that you needed to."
     "Not necessarily," Yamura said. "It's supposed to be a space-based anti-meteor defense. Meteors – or even some comets – get pretty big, you know."
   "I've read about this," Matt said. Then he thought for a moment, and smiled. "But, say, if need be, you could point it back at Earth if you wanted to take out, say, Tehran. Or Pyongyang. Or Tripoli."
    "Yes, that's what they say," Yamura said. "But really, we started working on it after Shoemaker-Levy hit Jupiter. That comet had only been sighted a couple years before. There was a reason to revive some of the "Star Wars" technology, you know, space-based laser defenses, and point them away from the Earth instead of toward it. I've worked on this 15 years. Who knows, maybe it'll save the world one day."
     "And if it doesn't?" Matt said. "Or if it destroys a city instead?"
     "Well, I guess either way, I'll have done my job. And I'll have to live or die with whatever results I've produced, even if the consequences are unintended."
     Matt turned back to the cube and recited:
     "Pour us your poison, it is soothing
     While this fire burns our brains, we go
     Into the abyss, Heaven or Hell, how amusing
     To find the new, what we don't know."
    Yamura tilted his head.
     "Ah, Baudelaire," he said. "Sublime."
     "You know it?"
     "The last lines of 'Death' from 'Flowers of Evil.' One of my favorites," Yamura said, then turned as a man in a white shirt and bright print tie approached them, small clouds of light dust kicking up around each of his footsteps. "A Frenchman," Yamura announced. "This is appropriate."
     "Mr. Yamura," said the engineer. "Nice to see you."
     "Nice to see you too, Philippe," Yamura said. "We were just talking about Baudelaire with Matt here, Mariko's boyfriend. Learn any Baudelaire?"
     "In high school," Philippe said. "We didn't do Baudelaire at the college of mining. Mariko's new boyfriend?" he asked, shaking Matt's hand. "Hello Mariko," he said to her. "You're a lucky guy," he continued, turning back to Matt.
    "I know," Matt said. "Thanks."
    Yamura touched Matt's shoulder.
    "See you at the buffet," he said, turning to walk off.  "I've got to, you know, shmooze."

     Mariko had already started her conversation with Philippe.
     "I never see you at the house anymore," she said, a fake pout on her lipsticked mouth.
    Phillipe was flirting back.
    "Not that I didn't want to," he said. "You're stunning in white. Yurei, they say? A ghost? A spirit?
    "That drives men wild," she replied. "To their doom, smashed up on the rocks. Like the sirens."
    "Yes, I remember. It just that with all this – business, you know, I've been back and forth between Beverly Hills and Toulouse."
    "The merger?" she asked. Matt saw what she was doing, and stayed silent. But he wondered what the "ghost" talk was all about.
    "I guess it's an open secret, but I've been in so deep" –  Philippe put both hands next to his eyes, signifying horse-blinders – "I don't know what's going on in the outside world."
    "Oh, I've heard," she said. "Ozawa wants to buy Mayanada for this project, so they hired my dad from them. But they could also go with PRT, if their technology is stronger. Didn't you work for PRT?"
    "Consulting. Just consulting."
    "Either way. It looks like my dad will head the project for Ozawa, whichever way it goes. You'll be on board?"
    "That's why I'm here."
     "I'm thirsty," Mariko said. "Let's get some of that champagne at the buffet before it's all gone."
     The three of them headed toward the tables, where a stiff, steady breeze was lifting the bottom of the long white tablecloths to show cheap wooden sawhorses underneath. Waiters in hard hats pulled bottles from ice-filled buckets and poured champagne for Matt, Mariko and Philippe. The golden liquid in their crystal glasses sparkled under the desert sun.


Driving south from the test site under wisps of white clouds floating high in the sky, Matt didn't know if the hint he'd got from Phillipe would be enough for Ashton.
     "I'm not sure this gets me in the clear," he told Mariko.
     "You'll have to tell him it's all you can get for now," she said.
     "But I know what he'll say. He'll want to be sure. He'll want more."
     "Well, you've anticipated his response. That's good. Now you can prepare yours."
     "That's the problem. I don't know how. It's like one of those Chinese finger traps. The more I struggle with it, the worse this all seems."
     Mariko thought for a moment.
     "You've found your answer again."
     "How's that?"
     "It's like a Chinese finger trap. What do you do to get out of a Chinese finger trap?"
     "Actually, I forgot. I'm not sure I ever learned."
     "You relax," Mariko said. "You just relax."

     Standing at the back wall of the lobby of the Angeleno, Matt had the pay phone stuck between his shoulder and his ear, head tilted. He didn’t want to use his cell; he thought that Ashton could have technology capable of overriding any blocks he activated. His conversation was going as he'd expected.
     "It's all I could get."
     "I need documents," Ashton shot back.
     "You didn't say anything about documents," Matt said. "I don't know if I can get them. You just asked me to find out. I did. At least, I gave you the best inside information I could get. Are we done?"
     "Not hardly, kid. These deals have a paper trail. There are memos, draft contracts. As we speak, the attorneys for all the executives are cutting buy-out deals and their stock packages. I need some of that to show my, uh, partners in this project."
    "You just asked me to keep my eyes open. You made this sound like it would be easy."
    "So, it's not easy," Ashton snapped. "You're a tough guy. You like a challenge. This should make things more interesting for you. Get me what I need."
     "I don't know if I can. And I'm not sure I want to."
    "I think you can. And I think you want to. Look at it this way: You make some easy money. And then we're even."
    "What do you mean we're even? I don't owe you anything."
    "Let's put our cards on the table, then. I arrange financing for a lot of these movies you've been working on around town. If you don't want to get fired off every set, then, yes, you do owe me something."
     Matt had suspected as much, but because Ashton hadn't brought it up, he hadn't fully considered the possibility and its consequences. So he decided to stall for time by adopting the strategy he'd charted with Mariko.
    "This has taken some of my time and a lot of my energy. After that burglary at my girlfriend's house and the shooting in Santa Monica, I figure Yamura's place is being watched and mine might be too. I'm at the Angeleno off Sunset at the 405. I need you to check me in. I'm going to stay here until this is all over."
    "Fine. Give me a minute to call the front desk. Take the run of the hotel, order anything you need. Just get me some paper on this deal by tomorrow."
    Ashton hung up before Matt could say thanks or goodbye. Or what he really wanted to say, which was: Kiss my ass.
     Matt and Mariko had to wait along the wall in the hotel corridor while a wedding party passed, a crowd of well-dressed people filing into a nearby banquet room. The last in the line was a kilted bagpipe player, blasting a lilting melody over the droning low notes.


Mariko kneeled on the bed, looking out over the freeway as the two streams of colors  – yellow headlights going north, red taillights south – moved like two lava flows in opposite directions as the sky turned dark.
     Matt moved behind her, brushing her hair away from her neck and kissing her where the white silk of her collar touched her skin. He reached around to unbutton her blouse and rubbed her breasts.
     "Mmmmm," she said. "You're in the mood?"
     "Like you said," he answered, thinking about the Chinese finger-trap. "Maybe I need to relax."
    "It's an idea worth considering."
     She turned and kissed him on the mouth, then lay back on the bed. He pulled the rest of her clothes off and massaged her feet, watching her body glow in the fading orange light of sunset that filtered through the tinted window. He kissed her, caressed her and licked her from bottom to top, then turned her over and moved from top to bottom. Then he lay on his back and pulled her on top of him. They made love. When it was over, she stayed in place, her thighs resting on his hips, her head on his shoulder.
     "I hope your theory worked," he said.
     "What theory?"
     "The finger-trap."
     "I'm pretty relaxed now."
     "Works for me.”

    Mariko got out of the shower and put on the white terry cloth hotel bathrobe.  She was drying her hair with a white towel when she came from the bathroom. Matt was standing by the window looking at the jewel box.
    The room service tray had already arrived. Mariko walked over to it and started making herself a seafood crepe. She offered one to Matt.
    "Crab with wine sauce?" she asked.
    "Only if it's real crab," he said. She couldn't tell if he was joking or not, so she looked over at him and saw him holding the jewel box. Her eyes widened.
     "How'd you get that?"
     "By default," he said, but wondered why she was so alarmed.
     Mariko put down the crepe and the serving fork and took the jewel box from him. She pushed the dots in a combination, a tiny motor spun with a whir, and the box popped open.
     The box was lined with red satin. It held a circle of gray slate dotted with gold patterns.
     "A 2604," she said. "Who knows you have this?"
     "A few people."
     "Who are they?"
     "Not important."
     "Do you know what's stored on it?"
     She thought for a moment.
     "We're leaving," she said. She started picking up her clothes to get dressed.
     "Wait a minute. You know what it is?"
     "Fourteen gigabytes and a Hafferman anti-copy algorithm. I'm not surprised you're in trouble."
     Matt followed her out of the hotel room, down the elevator and to her car. He didn't ask where they were going as the car pulled out of the hotel, onto the boulevard, and then back on the freeway.


     The night air of Malibu Canyon rushed through the vents and into Matt and Mariko’s faces they zoomed down the winding road. They only saw a couple of dozen cars coming toward them in the opposite direction. Each one shut its high beams on approach. No one was behind them.
     Instead of heading down Sunset to PCH, Mariko had driven over the freeways to Malibu so she could try to see if anyone was following them before they hit the canyon road. Now it seemed they were in the clear. The walls of the canyon, with fossils from pre-historic times embedded into the layers of dirt that formed them, rose steeply on their right. A ravine plummeted down to a creek on their left. A coyote darted across the winding road ahead of them, visible for only a moment in their headlights before disappearing into the brush.
     Matt was going to ask why she was taking the long way. But he knew, so there was no point. He'd hoped that spending time alone with Mariko would clear his head so he could figure out how to deal with Ashton. But since those hopes were now gone, he thought he'd strike up some idle conversation.
     "So," he asked Mariko as she leaned slightly while steering around a curve. "How's class going?" They sometimes talked about her French lit courses.
     "Fine," she said.
     "What are you on?"
     "The Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns," she told him. "Ever read about that?"
     "No," he said. "When was it?"
     "Late 17th to early 18th. You'd like it. It started with a speech Charles Perrault gave at the Académie Française in 1686. He said the Académie should stop emphasizing Classicism and start accepting progress."
     "Hmm," Matt said. "I'm not sure whose side I'm on."
     "Wait 'til you hear the whole thing before you choose sides," she told him. "Anyway, the Ancients _ the Classicists _ were against modernization because they believed the world of the antiquity was better than the one they lived in. Their theory was that man doesn't change, only the world does.
     "But the Moderns said they were better off than the Ancient Greeks because they had inherited the traditions of the Classics, and could develop their own as well."
     "Sounds reasonable."
     "The Ancients _ Racine, La Bruyère and Boileau _ stood by their theory about the Classics being better. But the Moderns _ Perrault, Fontanelle and Bayle _ developed a theory that science and technology could change the nature of man, the world, and art and culture, too. They believed that artists' tools _ new oils for painting, new musical instruments, different styles of opera _ were changing culture. And so they were changing man's soul."
     "So who won?" Matt asked.
     "Nobody won right away," Mariko said. "It went on for 40 years. Then it became a war."
     "You're kidding," Matt said. "A real war?"
     "No, the Poetry War. It was actually called The Poetry War. Over a translation of Homer. The Ancients liked Homer just the way he was. But the Moderns wanted to do an update of the Illiad and the Odyssey. So they rewrote it, but in their version the Gods didn’t intervene. And the heroes acted more reasonably, less emotionally. Overall, they took out the metaphysical tone, turning the text into a kind of everyday living sort of thing."
     "Dumbing down," Matt said.
     "Yeah, maybe that's a fair equivalent," Mariko said. "But the Ancients didn't defend their position very well and the new translation was published."
     "And that was that?" Matt asked.
     "Almost. The end came with an essay written in 1718 by the Abbé du Bos. It was called "Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting."
     "Whose side was he on?"
     "His own, really," Mariko said. "He was an individualist."
     "So what did he say?"
     "Believe it or not, his theory was: There's no accounting for taste."
     "Is that where they get that saying?"
     "I don't know, maybe. That's probably not exactly what he said. His theory was that determining the value of an artist's work could only be done by looking at it and deciding if you liked it."
     "So that was it?"
     "Yeah, that was the last word, really. So what do you think?"
     "About what?" Matt asked.
     "Well, does man change when the world changes? Is the Chumash Indian who rode his horse across the chaparral here 200 years ago the same as the guy who can fly the space shuttle into orbit? Or do these two guys have different kinds of souls?"
     "That's a good question," Matt said.
     The BMW pulled into a driveway and started climbing a winding road passed a sign that said Ozowatech. Mariko turned to Matt.
     "Yeah," she said. "It IS a good question."


     All the lights were on inside the glass building, so it glowed in the canyon darkness as Matt and Mariko drove up to the guard gate.
     The two guards inside the bungalow at the entrance to Ozawatech were immediately concerned by the late-night arrival, but they relaxed when they saw Mariko behind the wheel.
     "Konbawa, Ojosan. Nagai koto oai shimasendeshita," one of the guards said.  (Good evening, little one. It’s been such a long time.)
     "Mata aete ureshii way, Canto-san,"  she replied. (I’m happy to see you again, too, Mr. Nortbert.) With the formalities dispensed, they switched to English and the other guard handed her a badge.
      "As usual," he told her. "May I say we miss your presence?"
      The second guard then handed Matt a badge – with his photograph on it. Surprised, he looked up to see a camera mounted on the guard gate. It had taken his picture when they drove up. He noticed he didn't really look like himself on the badge – he had a baffled expression on his face and his reddened eyes were surrounded by dark circles, like a raccoon's. But that wasn't the camera's fault, he thought to himself. He was a mess.
     Mariko drove up the road and parked in the light that shone from Ozawatech's lobby. Matt followed her through the two-story tall glass doors that slid open at their approach.
     Matt had expected to find a reception desk in the atrium, in the middle of the black and white marble tiled floor. But instead of a desk, there was massive a sculpture of dark steel and granite depicting what seemed to be the waving surface of a sheet, an immense boulder and a blade.
     Mariko saw Matt was curious.
     "It's called  'The Spirit of Ozawa,' she said. "That’s in English. In Japanese it's 'Jan Ken Pon.' "
     "What does that mean?" Matt asked.
     "Here you say: Scissors, paper, stone," she said. "But it's not a literal translation. It's what the game is called. Jan Ken Pon."
     Suddenly, one of the walls in the lobby lit up. It was a giant-screen TV and a beautiful blonde was seated at a reception desk.
     "Hello Mariko," the blonde said. "How wonderful to see you again."
     "Hello, Gabrielle," Mariko responded. "What a surprise."
     "Well, it may be midnight in Malibu, but it's 10 a.m. in Paris you know, so I'm handling reception from the Champs-Elysées office. What brings you out so late?"
     "Oh, we couldn't sleep, and I wanted to show Matthew some of the new programs."
     "Marvelous that Matthew gets the tour," Gabrielle said. "Can we order you some dinner?"
     "Not necessary, we've already eaten. We'll get going now. Ciao."
     "Ciao," Gabrielle said. The screen went dark and Matt and Mariko walked across the lobby and down the hall to the elevator.