Smack in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, just a few miles south of where the 405 freeway abuts Interstate 5, stands a sixty-year-old Budweiser brewery.
In the shadow of the landmark’s hundred foot exhaust stacks is my daughter’s dance school. Since she was three, she’s been attending classes four to five days a week. So often is the commute that I’ve joked that I’m bolstering my economic bottom line by having my little girl work the Bud plant’s swing shift as an apprentice bottler.
Kidding aside, I often take my work with me. Laptop. iPad. Scripts that require reading. But sometimes, if the timing works out, I can catch a movie at a nearby movieplex. The closest theater is a five-minute drive. Not the safest zip code. But I figure, once the lights dim, who can tell the difference?
I don’t recall the picture I’d chosen. Something Hollywood and banal. The trailers were already playing when I settled into my seat, balancing a Diet Coke and a popcorn. This is when the film broke. The lights automatically dialed back to full. I heard groans from the some of my fellow movie patrons. About twenty by my count. Hispanic mostly. A few were couples. Some moms and their children. Then there was the pair of dangerous young men seated two rows in front of me. The kind of fellahs local LAPD might identify as “male usuals.” Gang colors. Tats up to their necks. Body language saying “I don’t give a shit” and homophobically spaced with an empty chair between them. Practically everything about the duo was a transmission that they were bad ass, soul-jacking motherfuckers.
Yeah. I was being prejudicial as hell. Profiling, even. But only between my ears. While the projectionist above me scrambled to splice the broken celluloid, I began to imagine the crimes those two had committed against society. Burglaries? Robberies? The occasional deadly drive-by? I heard gunshots in my head. I pictured the LAPD helicopter circling over my house at 1 a.m.
If these gangsters were real criminals, what was their territory? Surely I was sitting in it. But how far and wide did they roam? One mile? Two? As far away as my own neighborhood? South of the Boulevard where I imagine I’m safe?
I fully understood that my thoughts bordered on the paranoid. Yet I didn’t know that I was, at that very moment, conceiving the primary character in my next novel.
I’d recently read about a series of violent home invasion robberies plaguing the Valley. I’d imagined a scenario where I’d been a victim of such horrific crime. How long before I’d feel safe in a movie theater, sharing the same air, seated only feet away from two very menacing hombres? That’s when the idea began to take form. A notion that became a story that eventually became my newest thriller, “The Safety Expert.”
Here I was in a movie theater, lights about to dim, prepared to share the same movie experience with two men who, in a different situation, might not dither over splitting my skull with a 9mm. The three of us were moments away from laughing at the same punch lines. Possibly thrill over the same action set pieces.
I imagined a tale where both the victim and perpetrator lived in the same general vicinity, sharing the same strips of roadway, eating in the same restaurants, breathing the very same air. And during those moments when both men might’ve been only a hair’s breadth from the other – just like me and my fellow movie lovers – neither man would have a glimmer who the other was. But what if, all of sudden, they did know about each other? What if somebody appeared and informed them? Reminded them of what kind of menace lurked beneath their skin. What. Would. Happen. Next?
The novel, excerpted here, explores that and so much more.
For the record, I still drive my daughter to her dance classes in the shadow of the Budweiser brewery. And I’ll occasionally slip out to the very same movie theater to catch a show. I do though, remain wary.
Stew Raymo hated nightmares and the lost sleep that followed after one had invaded his slumber. Nightfuckers, he came to call them after first hearing the word during one of his two adolescent incarcerations. And they had plagued him ever since.
He lay awake after disconnecting from the bad dream, reoriented himself, rolled over and over, and almost constantly checked the bedside clock. It was only eleven minutes past two in the morning. He knew that trying to fall back asleep would be useless. So he slipped from bed, careful not to wake Pam.
The hardwood floors he had installed felt smooth and perfect to his bare feet. A great wood product, he thought. That baked-on, factory finish was loads better and more durable than the old-fashioned, sand-and-varnish styles some homeowners demanded. Cheaper, too. Thank God for progress.
After peeing, Stew padded along through his usual post-nightmare route. Back corridor, dining room, kitchen, fridge, snack. Then he turned himself into a big lump in front of his big flat-screen, high-def TV. While flipping channels, he touched his gut. He had gained nearly four inches on his waist since Pam had started to turn his office into “the baby’s room.” Gone were the treadmill, flat bench, and free weights Stew used to heft into the wee hours. He used to fight back against the nightmares with sweat and heavy reps until he ached. He would finish with a half pack of smokes and a long walk to the corner pie shop for a cup of coffee and slice of sweet cornbread. Sure, there was a twenty-four hour gym that was close enough to walk to. But he hadn’t yet found the charm in all that high-tech equipment lined up in modern health clubs.
And he had recently quit smoking “for the baby.”
What fuckin’ baby?
Pam wanted the baby something bad. And who the hell was Stew to deny her? She was pushing thirty years old and his instincts were telling him that it was either gain a baby or lose the wife. What the fuck? Stew had thought. He sure as shit would be a better daddy than his own.
The nightmare was sticking to him. Fifteen minutes, a guzzled Sprite and a half-eaten pastrami sandwich later, even the big screen TV couldn’t wash it away. Not that Stew could remember exactly what had made the nightmare so freaking disturbing. It was more like an icy reflex. As if he had woken up, swaddled in cling wrap, his muscles aching to break some invisible constraint. That and this image he couldn’t shake–three
amorphous human figures, their clear, elastic skin bursting with a dizzying electronic snow like television static.
Stew’s ears were plugged, too. After a dozen forced yawns, he stood, pinched his nose and gently blew, hoping that a change in atmosphere might clear them. His ears remained stopped up. Possibly a head cold, he thought, just before settling back into the sofa. He clicked the remote to DirecTV channel 605, The Golf Channel.
All for the baby.
Screw it, he decided. If he couldn’t run the treadmill and lift free weights, damn if he was going to give up cigarettes.
It took him two minutes to dress, brush his teeth, and hit the sidewalk. He was walking fast. It was one block east to the lights of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, then two blocks south to the 7-11 where a reunion pack of Marlboros was waiting for him.
Ah. Cigarettes, coffee, and hot cornbread.
Then he thought of that inspector guy from OSHA. His name was Benjamin Something or Something Benjamin. He had a snapable neck. Prison had taught Stew to size up every new man the instant he entered his immediate vicinity. Since then, he divided men into two categories. Men whose necks Stew could snap in two. And men with whom he should keep peace. Simple. And the OSHA guy was from the snapable side of the gene pool. His bad luck, thought Stew. Why the hell Stew was thinking of him during the short walk to the 7-11 was a mystery. Was it just some random switch in the fuse box of his subconscious? Or was Benjamin Whatshisfuckinname hiding somewhere in that lousy-assed dream?
All Stew knew for sure was that the more he thought about Ben, the more the cigarettes were calling him.
So Stew began to jog.
Across the boulevard, half a block to his left stood the sputtering 7-11 sign. One of the fluorescent tubes needed to be replaced. Going on three weeks now, thought Stew. It annoyed him when simple things didn’t get fixed right. Where the hell was the maintenance crew? All Stew needed was a ladder, a new six-foot tube, and his DeWalt power driver and he would have the sign fixed in no time.
Then again, maybe the owner was some Punjab immigrant who thought the flickering signage made his 7-11 stand apart from all the other open-all-night convenience marts. Hell if Stew was going to volunteer to help some camel jockey SOB fix his shit. Stew vowed that from this point on, he would never buy smokes from a 7-11 with flickering signage.
Ahead was a notoriously lingering stoplight. The go-green of the southbound signal appeared to ripple across the wet black pavement. A slight marine layer of ground-clinging fog had crept in from the ocean, leaving the air feeling a notch cooler than normal and every object coated in a dewy sheen.
Stew had no patience for that particular stoplight and at three-fifteen in the morning, wasn’t one to press the crosswalk button to wait for a signal to tell him when it was safe to cross the street. Still jogging, Stew stretched from the curb into the parking lane and glanced left, but was more concerned about the oncoming traffic three lanes over. All appeared clear. And the signal in Stew’s brain was as green as a sunlit emerald.
He made a heading for the stuttering sign, sucked in his last lungful of nicotine-free atmosphere, and kicked his body into another gear.
He didn’t see the car. It was a drifting Toyota Prius, its hybrid engine on electronic stealth mode. But for the faintest hum and the sound of tires spinning over wet pavement, the car was virtually silent. In the police report it said that the driver recalled seeing a tall, darting
jogger and hearing the thump of her left front bumper striking him before she had time to apply the brakes.
Stew was upended, spun in the air, and dropped to the earth with a crunching sound that made him certain his skull was crushed. The Puma that was half-laced to his right foot carried all the way to the opposite gutter. And in the slow motion rewind that followed, big Stew lay motionless, waiting to lose consciousness. Maybe even his life.
When that didn’t happened, he groggily started to complain.
“Just wanted a fuckin’ cigarette!”