Crazy place, Malibu, California. A rustic small town that's larger than life in spirit. Maybe it's the sunshine and gleaming sand, but Malibu just seems to breed hope. Anything, however improbable, can happen there.
Yet its slavish devotion to celebrity fosters arrogance, too. In a place where too many notables have come to reinvent themselves, some believe their own myths. And they think their importance allows them to get away with anything, even murder.
Of course, that no-rules philosophy works both ways. It means that anything goes when bringing a killer to justice, too. And that's just the way I like it.
Though Ryan Daniels was buried miles away in the Westwood Memorial Cemetery in Los Angeles, where there are more stars underground than you see above the red carpet on Oscar night--for my own mourning, I kept returning to the tiny beach nestled below his Malibu cliff-topped home. Even if I had been standing before his actual grave, the words flashing in my mind wouldn't have been the ones carved in the marble grave-marker, but those that had screamed from the newspaper headlines when my friend died.
"DANIELS' SUICIDE NOTE RECANTS OWN OUTING," the newspaper had read. "CALLS IT A JOKE."
Ryan Daniels, the sexy actor who played the dashing British agent, James Burke, on the screen for decades, had publicly revealed he was gay. The furor over his outing had only just begun to die down when his body washed up on the jagged boulders along his private beach. A suicide note left under a rock claimed his announcement had been publicity stunt--for which he was so sorry, he had to take his own life.
Strictly speaking, there are no private beaches in California; the coast is all public property. But this rugged little patch of sand and stone was only accessible from the personal staircase shared by the three houses on the bluff above.
Though the rock that had held down the note was gone now, I glared at the spot where the police had found it.
I knew damn well that Ryan's revelation of his sexual orientation had been the honest act of a man tired of living a lie. Despite his succession of sham marriages to a series of bimbos, starting with the star of the first Burke film, Nola Carmen, Ryan's show business friends had always known he was gay. My parents were movie stars Alec Grainger and Martha Collins, decidedly Hollywood royalty, and it had always been common knowledge in our household. Eventually, it became important to Ryan that the public know, too.
I'd seen Ryan shortly before his death, when we went for a run along the Pacific Coast Highway, not far from his house. He seemed happy to me then, not a man who intended to end his life.
If only the police saw it my way. When I first heard the announcement of Ryan's death, I broke the land speed record, getting to Ryan's house.
A patrol officer tried to keep me from the crime scene, but I demanded to see the guy in charge. That proved to Detective Luis Ramirez, a tired-looking, middle-aged man who reflected his indifference by snapping his chewing gum.
Nobody would ever convince me that, on a foggy night, Ryan Daniels came down the rickety wooden stairs and simply marched into the frigid Pacific waters. But that's what Ramirez insisted happened.
"It was a setup," I said. "Was there any sign of trauma?"
With an impatient sigh, he answered, "Of course there was--the waves threw the body onto the rocks. Preliminary findings indicate salt water was found in his lungs. What more do you want?"
When I asked to see the note, Ramirez held up a plastic evidence bag. The sight of Ryan's handwriting on the rough, ivory paper he favored took my breath away.
No matter how damning it looked, however, I still didn't believe it.
If Ryan's death wasn't suicide--then it had to be murder. And I vowed to prove it.
My determination wasn't as crazy as it sounded. Maybe I should introduce myself. I'm Tracy Eaton, mystery writer and...well, detective wannabe. People always try to get me to solve their cases. Okay, so maybe I force my services on them. But I've resolved a few. And one of these days, I would actually solve a case in a way that didn't prove embarrassing to this amateur sleuth. This time, I recruited Uncle Philly as my sidekick, so how could we miss?
Philly was actually my uncle-in-law, and a disgrace in my husband Drew's conventional family because he made his living as a con-man. Since I'd invited him to live with us, I was expected to transform Philly into an upright citizen. Funny, huh? Like putting the fox in charge of the hen-house.
Now, as Philly and I stood again on the beach, my mind drifted back to when Ryan and I first met, twenty-five years earlier. He had come to Hollywood to star in the first Burke flick, and my parents hosted a party in his honor. When I answered the door, unlike the other high-powered guests, he didn't look past the child at the door to the important people. He took the time to greet me and gave my ponytail a tug. Over the years, though the ponytail had long given way to a bob, he always tugged the hair over the nape of my neck, to show me he remembered.
Now I'd never feel that tug again. I roughly brushed away the tears that gathered in my eyes.
Of course, Philly believed I would see him soon, and I wouldn't have to die to do it. Drawing close to my side, so he could whisper over the sound of the pounding surf, Philly said, "Ryan is here. Can you feel him?"
I veered away. Well, not just because of the woo-woo talk--the old coot had eaten raw onions that day at lunch. "Philly, how many times do I have to tell you? That ghost-talk gives me the creeps." I might be a native Angeleno, and we specialize in flakiness, but Philly was just too New Age for me. My friend was gone and I'd never see him again.
"Tracy, someday you're gonna come face-to-face with a ghost. Then you'll see."
I wouldn't see anything--because I'd be long gone.
Philly's scuffed brown dress shoes, so inappropriate for the shore, slipped, flipping sand into the cuff of his old brown tweed suit. If Philly didn't look like the poster boy for Good Will Thrift Shops, I wouldn't recognize him.
I squinted at him. "You ever seen a ghost?"
"Yeah." He looked serious. Deadly so.
"You're putting me on, right?"
His solemn expression broke into an impish grin. "I'm a con-man, sweetheart. It's what I do."
I hoped he was as good at conning other people. This was not the time to fail. We weren't there that day merely to mourn Ryan, but to trap his killer.
I glanced at my watch. "Almost time." My nerves were as jagged as broken glass. Something was going to happen; I could feel it. Something good? Something that would finally acquit me as a detective? Time would tell.
Philly seemed more relaxed. He winked at me and wandered off to check our borrowed device, which we'd stashed behind some brush at the bottom of the cliff.
"Just think, kid," Philly said. "Soon there will be only three people in this place: you, me--and Ryan's killer. Well, and Ryan himself."
Weeks of effort had come down to this. As soon as the cops had abandoned the property after Ryan's body was found, Philly and I returned to the beach. But when we climbed the staircase up the bluff, I couldn't bring myself to enter Ryan's house.
I noticed a disgruntled-looking man removing a "for rent" sign from a house two doors down. Determined to stall, I had struck up a pointless conversation. "Found a renter, huh?"
"I wish. The owner has decided to leave the house empty."
Strange. Malibu houses command monster rents. "Who's the owner?"
"Nola Carmen," he said. "You know, the actress, the old Burke girl."
Nola? Ryan's first wife? To call her an actress was a lie of such proportion, it should have earned the guy an eternity in hell. But she a sex symbol. Even now, in her fifties, Nola filled the tabloids with her scandalous exploits.
Call me cynical, but when murder is involved, nothing can be considered coincidental. After the real estate agent left, Philly and I entered Nola's house through an unlocked window. It didn't take long to search that empty place, since all it held was dust.
Until we arrived at the bathroom—-where we hit pay-dirt.
Greenish-gray water and a residue of sand still filled the bathtub. Alongside was a heavy-looking rock and a scuba tank. A black wetsuit hung from the shower rod, and some kind of pump rested on the tile floor.
"There you have it," I said with growing excitement. "Nola must have coaxed Ryan over here. Then she hit him with a rock and drowned him in the tub." I stuck my finger in the water and tasted it. "Salt water."
Philly scratched his messy graying head. "I don't know, Tracy, how did Nola get ocean water up here?"
We went outside and found black rubber tubing hidden in the ice plant beneath the wooden steps. "See. She ran some tubing down to the water and pumped it into her bathtub. It all fits."
Philly still argued on our return to Nola's house. "And carried him down the hill?"
"Carried or dragged him. She's very athletic. And the police said there was dense fog that night, so the neighbor in the middle house wouldn't have noticed." Once we returned to the bathroom, I glanced at the wetsuit hanging from the shower rod. "She probably held him under the waves to make sure he was dead. You see I'm right, don't you, Philly?"
"Let's ask Ryan. He's here, you know." Philly peered into the corners.
I gave an involuntary shudder. "Philly, nobody is here but us. And we better leave before Nola comes back for this stuff."
We went to Ryan's house to look for the one piece of the puzzle still missing; a journal he'd been using before his death. Someone had cut out several pages. Nola must have taken examples of his writing so she could forge it, and swiped some blank sheets of his stationery.
I didn't know why she killed Ryan, but I didn't care. She was going to pay. Anger blinded me, until I saw Philly staring at the ceiling.
"What are you looking for, Philly?"
"Ryan. He's here now. In his own place."
"Jeez, Philly, you make him sound more mobile than an Indie car."
"Ghosts are like that." He finally quit looking. "The cops aren't going to buy it, Tracy. Too circumstantial. It's still up to us."
That was when the idea we were now carrying out began to sprout in my mind. I threw my arm around Philly's shoulder. "I'd say it's really up to you, Uncle Philly."
"You mean...we're going to run a con on old Nola?"
I'd gotten Mother to pump her show biz friends for gossip about Nola. Though normally she had all the delicacy of a tornado, she promised to be subtle. Despite the exploits detailed in the tabloids, however, there wasn't any genuine talk about Nola. She kept to herself, living as quietly as a nun.
Mother did discover Nola's current address in Venice. We planned to stake out her place. Somehow we had to trick Nola into revealing her guilt, and to do that, we needed to know more about the enigmatic woman.
When we left Ryan's house, Philly skipped to my truck like a teenager. "I get to drive this time!" he cried.
The old huckster had lived all over the world, and not one of those jurisdictions ever saw fit to give him a drivers' license. Still, I tossed him the keys. If I didn't have enough traffic tickets to paper the Santa Monica pier, that might have bothered me.
We cruised down the Coast Highway to where it curved into Ocean and headed south. Venice is a study in extremes. Hookers and hustlers rub shoulders with millionaires there. Rundown cottages, which might be condemned anywhere else, cost a fortune, and can be found next door to pristine mansions that cost many fortunes. It was right across the Venice boardwalk from the beach, on one of those distressed blocks, that we found Nola's Spanish-styled mega-casa, hidden behind a block wall.
From what I could see of her house through the bars of the electric gate on the side street, the joint was impressive. But who moves to the beach only to block the view with a wall?
For five solid days, we pretended to be sunbathers on the sand, while we watched the flow of Nola's household. The mail carrier dropped the mail off around noon everyday, but the maid didn't collect it till nearly six o'clock. Nola only emerged from her mansion once, when she drove her Rolls Royce through the gates only to return a short time later. The woman was a recluse. How were we going to pry her out?
Once we understood the estate's patterns, we riffled through her mail. The tabloids most people pretend not to read at the supermarket check-stand always filled the box.
"She follows her own scandals," I concluded. "She just doesn't want anyone to know how much they matter to her."
"Do you think she follows stories about other stars, too?" Philly asked speculatively.
As he careened into traffic, we sketched out a plan together. We crossed over to Sunset Boulevard and took that to UCLA, where an old high school chum of mine worked in a virtual reality lab.
Brad had been seriously nerdy in high school, and judging by the bow-tie and baggy suit he wore now, not much had changed.
"Can you loan us some stuff, Brad?" I asked, after explaining our idea.
Brad squinted at me. "Tracy, this equipment costs a mint. But I guess we have something old we could program for you. It won't be state-of-the-art."
Philly threw his arm over Brad's shoulders. "Son, neither am I."
I left Philly there to supervise, while I hurried home to compose phony tabloids on my computer. Relying on Philly's advice, my first mock-ups didn't allude to Ryan, just to a ghost reportedly seen on a sheltered beach in Malibu. I buried the article well back in that edition.
In the weeks that followed, I wrote longer pieces, more prominently displayed. Then my headlines hinted that the ghost might be Ryan's, and that he had actually been murdered. Finally, in the last copy, an article suggested Ryan's ghost was prepared to reveal his killer, on that beach, at a particular day and time.
This was that day.
With a nearly an hour left until the time the "ghost" was to appear, I completed the last of our prep. Philly had wanted to get a gun to protect ourselves, but I wouldn't hear of it.
"With klutzes like us, we'd just shoot ourselves," I insisted.
Besides, as easy as it seemed for much of the Southern California populace to illegally arm itself, I didn't have a clue how to go about it. We relied on a simpler plan to overcome Nola. I plucked leaves from the trees on the bluff, wet them and banked them into slippery little clusters on a stony path that she'd have to follow because we arranged some public trash containers and potted plants we brought from home, to block any other way. Philly hid Brad's holographic device behind a bush and turned it on. We'd spliced together clips from some Burke movies, choosing the words so Ryan's ghost would implicate Nola.
Philly banged the device with his fist. "Tracy, I can't get this gizmo to work."
My heart stopped, but I tried to contain my worry. "Just start over, Philly. We still have time."
A strange female voice said, "Uh-uh. You're both out of time."
I whirled around. Nola Carmen stepped from behind one of the boulders studding the shore. She must have hidden there before we arrived. Even worse, she had opted for a gun and she aimed it at us now.
She was still a voluptuous woman. But none of the tempestuous warmth she displayed on the screen was evident in those cold, dark eyes.
"Did you think I wouldn't hear about your mother questioning everyone about me? And those tabloid articles--after the first few, I had my maid buy copies on the newsstand so I could compare."
See what I mean? I'm missing something about this detective-business. But I wouldn't admit our mistakes to her. "The idea that Ryan could tell who killed him must have scared you?"
From the flash in Nola's steely eyes, I saw that at least we'd succeeding in frightening her. But so much for Philly's conning expertise and my mother's discretion. Maybe my choice of sidekicks was the problem.
"Never mind!" Nola snapped. "Come here, my dear. Your time is up."
I looked to Philly in desperation, and just past him, I saw the strangest sight. On the sand beyond the shoreline rocks, a light shimmered in the oddest way. For a moment, it looked like Ryan. The hologram projector must have kicked on. Only...in this image, Ryan wore the running shorts he'd had on the last time I saw him, not the designer suits from the Burke films we had programmed into the device.
"Now!" Nola demanded. "You're going to be so grief-stricken over your friend's death, you'll kill yourself and your uncle on the very spot where Ryan died."
Her finger quivered on the trigger. I started toward her. Something from behind grabbed my hair above the nape of my neck and gave it a tug. I screamed, slipped on the wet leaves that I myself had set out, and slid along the path until I crashed into Nola. She fell and the gun flew from her hand, landing at Philly's feet.
It took just a heartbeat to grasp that we'd disarmed her. See what I mean about the embarrassing way I solve cases? Not letting that deter me, I leaped up and pinned Nola to the ground. Philly managed to pick the gun up without killing himself and pointed it at her with an unsteady hand. I told myself I should get out of the line of fire, especially when he started to dial the police on his cell phone. But there was something I had to know.
"Why did you kill him?"
"Because of that announcement he made, of course!" she spat.
"That he was gay? You had to know."
"Of course, I knew! I lived two doors away from him until I moved to Venice. But the public didn't know."
"So they discovered the truth about him. What of it?"
"Not him--me. My career is based on my sex-appeal."
Which was all a sham, I realized. There was no sensuality, or any other feeling, inside this empty woman.
"Image is everything!" Nola insisted with a sneer.
"Not quite," I said, as some of Malibu's finest came tripping down the wooden staircase.
The jury eventually found her guilty. A Malibu jury finding a celebrity guilty--who would have thought? My testimony and Philly's must have helped, but the clincher proved to be the fingerprints she left on the rock that secured the forged suicide note. If only the cops had checked it at the start. They weren't such crackerjack detectives, either. Maybe I was setting the bar too high.
The day the verdict came in, Philly and I brought armloads of flowers to throw on the waves at Ryan's beach.
"Rest in peace, old friend," I whispered. "There can't be any superficial people where you are--they're all here."
I glanced at Philly. He'd become awfully quiet during the weeks of the trial.
"Tracy, that day, just before you slid into Nola, did you...you know...see anything?" His gaze traveled to the spot on the sand where that image had shimmered in the light.
"No..." I said, though my voice seemed to lift at the end like a semi-question. "You?"
"Well..." he began.
"You were dreaming, Philly. You knew your time was near, and you lapsed into a dream."
"Yeah?" He grinned at me. "Tell ya what, Trace. We ever dream like that again, I promise not to pinch you and wake you up, if you promise not to pinch me."
I smiled back, but sadly. Knowing I'd probably never again lapse into that kind of Malibu dreaming, I reached behind my neck and gave my hair a symbolic tug.
"Philly, you got a deal."