Crashed (A Junior Bender Mystery)

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9781616952761: Crashed (A Junior Bender Mystery)
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Quick-talking burglar Junior Bender gets blackmailed into starting a new career as a private investigator for crooks in this hilarious Hollywood mystery
 
Junior Bender, a burglar with a magic touch, is being blackmailed into taking on a new freelance job. One of LA’s biggest crime bosses is producing a porn movie that someone keeps sabotaging; Junior’s job is to figure out who’s responsible and keep the movie on track.

The trouble is, he’s not sure he can go through with the job, blackmail or no blackmail. The actress lined up to star in the film, Thistle Downing, is an ex-child star who now lives alone in a drug-induced stupor, destitute and uninsurable. This movie would be scandalous fodder for tabloids around the country. Junior knows what he should do—get Thistle out and find her some help—but doing the right thing will land him on the wrong side of some scary people.
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About the Author:

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of thirteen widely praised books, including The Fear Artist, Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief. After years of working in Hollywood, television, and the music industry, he now writes fulltime. He divides his time between California and Thailand.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

If I’d liked expressionism, I might have been okay.
But the expressionists don’t do anything for me, don’t even
make my palms itch. And Klee especially doesn’t do anything
for me. My education, spotty as it was, pretty much set my Art
Clock to the fifteenth century in the Low Countries. If it had
been Memling or Van der Weyden, one of the mystical Flemish
masters shedding God’s Dutch light on some lily-filled annunciation,
I would have been looking at the picture when I took it off
the wall. As it was, I was looking at the wall.
So I saw it, something I hadn’t been told would be there.
Just a hairline crack in the drywall, perfectly circular, maybe
the size of a dinner plate. Seen from the side, by someone peeking
behind the painting without moving it, which is what most
thieves would do in this sadly mistrustful age of art alarms, it
would have been invisible. But I’d taken the picture down, and
there it was.
And I’m weak.
I think for everyone in the world, there’s something you
could dangle in front of them, something they would run onto
a freeway at rush hour to get. When I meet somebody, I like to
try to figure out what that is for that person. You for diamonds,
darling, or first editions of Dickens? Jimmy Choo shoes or a
Joseph Cornell box? And you, mister, a thick stack of green? A
troop of Balinese girl scouts? A Maserati with your monogram
on it?
For me, it’s a wall safe. From my somewhat specialized perspective,
a wall safe is the perfect object. To you, it may be a hole
in the wall with a door on it. To me, it’s one hundred percent
potential. There’s absolutely no way to know what’s in there.
You can only be sure of one thing: Whatever it is, it means a hell
of a lot to somebody. Maybe it’s what they’d run into traffic for.
A wall safe is just a question mark. With an answer inside.
Janice hadn’t told me there would be a safe behind the picture.
We’d discussed everything but that. And, of course, that—
meaning the thing I hadn’t anticipated—was what screwed me.
What Janice and I had mostly talked about was the front door.
“Think baronial,” she’d said with a half-smile. Janice had
the half-smile down cold. “The front windows are seven feet
from the ground. You’d need a ladder just to say hi.”
“How far from the front door to the curb?” The bar we were
in was way south of the Boulevard, in Reseda, far enough south
that we were the only people in the place who were speaking
English, and Serena’s Greatest Hits was on permanent loop. The
air was ripe with cilantro and cumin, and the place was mercifully
lacking in ferns and sports memorabilia. A single widescreen
television, ignored by all, broadcast the soccer game. I am
personally convinced that only one soccer game has ever actually
been played, and they show it over and over again from
different camera angles.
As always, Janice had chosen the bar. With Janice in charge
of the compass, it was possible to experience an entire planet’s
worth of bars without ever leaving the San Fernando Valley. The
last one we’d met in had been Lao, with snacks of crisp fish bits
and an extensive lineup of obscure tropical beers.
“Seventy-three feet, nine inches.” She broke off the tip of a
tortilla chip and put it near her mouth. “There’s a black slate
walk that kind of curves up to it.”
I was nursing a Negra Modelo, the king of Hispanic dark
beers, and watching the chip, calculating the odds against her
actually eating it. “Is the door visible from the street?”
“It’s so completely visible,” she’d said, “that if you were a
kid in one of those ’40s musicals and you decided to put on a
show, the front door of the Huston house is where you’d put it
on.”
“Makes the back sound good,” I’d said.
“Aswarm with rottweilers.” She sat back, the jet necklace at
her throat sparkling wickedly and the overhead lights flashing
off the rectangular, black-framed glasses she wore in order to
look like a businesswoman but which actually made her look
like a beautiful girl wearing glasses.
Burglars, of which I am one, don’t like Rottweilers. “But
they’re not in the house, right? Tell me they’re not in the house.”
“They are not. One of them pooped on the Missus’s ninety
thousand-dollar Kirghiz rug.” Janice powdered the bit of chip
between her fingers and let it fall to her napkin. “Or I should
say, one of the Missus’s ninety thousand-dollar Kirghiz rugs.”
“There are several women called Missus?” I asked. “Or several
rugs?”
“Either way,” Janice said, reproachfully straightening her
glasses at me. “The dogs are kept in back, and they get fed like
every other Friday.”
“Meaning no going in through the back,” I said.
“Not unless you want to be kibble,” Janice said. “Or the
side, either. The wall around the yard is flush with the front wall
of the house.”
“Speaking of kibble.”
“Please do,” Janice said. “I so rarely get a chance to.”
“Does anyone drop by to feed the beasts? Am I likely to run
into—”
“No one in his right mind would go into that yard. The only
way to feed them would be to throw a bison over the walls. The
Hustons have a very fancy apparatus, looks like it was built for
the space shuttle. Delivers precise amounts of ravening beastfood
twice a day. So they’re strong and healthy and the old killer
instinct doesn’t dim.”
“So,” I said. “It’s the front door.”
She used the tip of her index finger to slide her glasses down
to the point of her perfect nose, and looked at me over them.
“Afraid so.”
I drained my beer and signaled for another. Janice took a
demure sip of her tonic and lime. I said, “I hate front doors. I’m
going to stand there for fifteen minutes, trying to pick a lock in
plain sight.”
“That’s why we came to you,” she said. “Mr. Ingenuity.”
“You came to me,” I said, “because you know this is the
week I pay my child support.”
Janice was a back-and-forth, working for three or four brokers,
guys with clients who knew where things were and wanted
those things, but weren’t sufficiently hands-on to grab them for
themselves. She’d used me before, and it had worked out okay.
She didn’t know I’d backtracked her to two of her employers.
One of them, an international-grade fence called Stinky Tetweiler,
weighed 300 hard-earned pounds and lived in a long, low
house south of the Boulevard with an ever-changing number
of very young Filipino men with very small waists. Like a lot
of the bigger houses south of Ventura, Stinky’s place had once
belonged to a movie star, back when the Valley was movie-star
territory. In the case of Stinky’s house, the star was Alan Ladd,
although Stinky had rebuilt the house into a sort of collision
between tetrahedrons that would have had old Alan’s ghost, had
he dropped by, looking for the front door.
Janice’s other client, known to the trade only as Wattles,
worked out of an actual office, with a desk and everything,
in a smoked-glass high-rise on Ventura near the 405 Freeway.
His company was listed on the building directory as Wattles
Inc. Wattles himself was a guy who had looked for years like
he would die in minutes. He was extremely short, with a belly
that suggested an open umbrella, a drinker’s face the color of
rare roast beef, and a game leg that he dragged around like an
anchor. I’d hooked onto his back bumper one night and followed
him up into Benedict Canyon until he slowed the car to
allow a massive pair of wrought-iron gates to swing open, then
took a steep driveway up into the pepper trees.
But Janice wasn’t aware I knew any of this. And if she had
been, she wouldn’t have been amused at all.
“Where’s the streetlight?”
She gave me her bad-news smile, brave and full of fraudulent
compassion. “Right in front. More or less directly over the end
of the sidewalk.”
“Illuminating the front door.”
“Brilliantly,” she said. “Don’t think about the front door.
Think about what’s on the other side.”
“I am,” I said. “I’m thinking I have to carry it seventy-three
feet and nine inches to the van. Under a streetlight.”
“You always focus on the negative,” she said. “You need to
do something about that. You want your positive energy to flow
straight and true, and every time you go to the negative, you put
up a little barrier. If it weren’t for your constant focus on negative
energy, your marriage might have gone better.”
God, the things women think they have the right to say. “My
marriage went fine,” I said. “It was before the marriage went
that was difficult.”
“You have to be positive about that, too,” she said. “Without
the marriage, you wouldn’t have Rina.”
Ahh, Rina, twelve years old and the light of my life. “To the
extent I have her, anyway.”
She gave me the slow nod women use to indicate that they
understand our pain, they admire the courage with which we
handle it, and they’re absolutely certain that it’s all our fault. “I
know it’s tough, Kathy being so punitive with visitation. But she’s
your daughter. You’ve got to be happy about that.” Janice put
down her glass and patted me comfortingly on the wrist with wet,
cold fingers. I resisted the impulse to pull my wrist away. After all,
her hand would dry eventually. She was working her way toward
flirting, as she did every time we met, even though we both knew
it wouldn’t lead anywhere. I was still attached to Kathy, my former
wife, and Janice demonstrated no awkwardness or any other
kind of perceptible difficulty turning down dates.
“Of course, I’m happy about that,” I said. And then, because
it was expected, I made the usual move. “Want to go to dinner?”
She lowered her head slightly and regarded me from beneath
her spiky bangs. “Tell me the truth. When you thought about
asking me that question, you anticipated a negative response,
didn’t you?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “It’s the ninth time, and you’ve never
said yes.”
“See what I mean?” she said. “Your negativity has put kinks
in your energy flow.”
“Can you straighten it for me?”
“If your invitation had been made in a purely affirmative
spirit, I might have said yes.”
“Might?” I took a pull off the beer. “You mean I could purify
my spirit, straighten out my energy flow, sterilize my anticipations,
and you still might say no?”
“Oh, Junior,” she said. “There are so many intangibles.”
“Name one.”
The slow head-shake again. “You’re a crook.”
“So are you.”
“I beg to differ,” she said. “I’m a facilitator. I bring together
different kinds of energies to effect the transfer of physical
objects. It’s almost metaphysical.” She held her hands above the
table so her palms were about four inches apart, as though she
expected electricity to flow between them. She turned them so
the left hand was on top. “On one side,” she said, “the energy of
desire: dark, intense, magnetic.” She reversed her hands so the
right was on top. “On the other side, the energy of action: direct,
kinetic, daring.”
“Whooo,” I said. “That’s me?”
“Certainly.”
“Sounds like somebody I’d go out with.”
“And don’t think I don’t want to,” she said, and she narrowed
her eyes mystically, which made her look nearsighted. I’ve always
loved nearsighted women. They’re so easy to help. “Some day the
elements will be in alignment.” She pushed the glass away and got
up, and guys all over the place turned to look. In this bar, Janice
was as exotic as an orchid blooming in the snow.
“A brightly lighted front door,” I said, mostly to slow her
down. I liked watching her leave almost as much as I liked
watching her arrive. “Seventy-three feet to the curb. Carrying
that damn thing.”
“And nine inches.”
“Seventy-three feet, nine inches. In both directions.”
“And you have to solve it by Monday,” she said. “But don’t
worry. You’ll think of something. You always do. When the
child support’s due.”
She gave me a little four-finger wiggle of farewell, turned,
and headed for the door. Every eye in the place was on her backside.
That may be dated, but it was true.
And, of course, I had thought of something. In the abstract the
plan had seemed plausible. Sort of. And it had continued to
seem plausible right up to the moment I pulled up in front of the
house in broad daylight. Then, as I climbed out, wincing into
the merciless July sun that dehydrates the San Fernando Valley
annually, it seemed very much less plausible. I felt a rush of what
Janice would undoubtedly call negative energy, and suddenly it
seemed completely idiotic.
But this was not the time to improvise. It was Monday afternoon
in an upscale neighborhood, and I needed to justify my
presence. Sweating in my dark coveralls, I went around to the
back of the van and opened the rear door. Out of it I pulled a
heavy dolly, which I set down about two feet behind the rear
bumper. I squared my shoulders, the picture of someone about
to do something difficult, leaned in, and very slowly dragged
out an enormous cardboard refrigerator carton, on one side of
which I had stenciled the words SUB ZERO. This was no neighborhood
for Kelvinators or Maytags.
Back behind the house, the dogs began to bark. They were all
bassos, ready to sing the lead in “Boris Godunov,” and I thought
I could distinguish four of them, sounding like they weighed a
combined total of 750 pounds, mostly teeth. Christ, I was seventy-
three feet, nine inches from the door, not even standing on
the damn lawn yet, and I was already too close for them.
Kathy, my ex-wife, has taught Rina to love dogs. It doesn’t
matter how obscure the opportunity for revenge is; Kathy will
grab it like a trapeze.
Grunting and straining, I tilted the box down and slid it onto
the dolly. I’d put a couple of sandbags in the bottom of the box,
mostly to keep it from tipping or being blown over, but it took
some work to make it look heavy enough. Once I had it on the
dolly, I tilted it back and made a big production of hauling it up
the four-inch vertical of the curb. Then I walked away from it
so I was visible from all directions, pulled out a cell phone, and
called myself.
I listened to my message for a second and then talked into
the phone. With it pressed to my ear, I turned to face the house,
looked up at a second-story window, and gave a little wave. The
cell phone slipped easily into the top pocket of the coveralls, and
I grabbed the dolly handles, put my back into tilting it up onto
the wheels, and towed the carton up the slate path.
At the door, I positioned the box so the side with SUB ZERO
on it faced the street. Then I got in between the box and the door
and pushed open the flap I’d cut in the closest side of the box—
just three straight lines with a box cutter, leaving the fourth side
of the rectangle intact to serve as a hinge. The flap was about five
feet high and three feet wide, and it swung open into the box. I
climbed in. From the street, all anyone would see was the box.
The door was fancy, not functional. Heavy dark wood, brass
hardware, and a big panel of stained glass in the upper half—
some sort of coat of arms, a characteristically confused collision
of symbolic elements that included an ax, a rose, and something
that looked suspiciously like a pair of pliers. A good graphic artist
could have made a fortune in the Middle Ages.
My working valise was at the bottom of the box. I snapped
on a pair of surgical gloves, pulled out ...

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