The phone rings three times before she picks up, answering even though she can see it's me. "I told you not to call me, Nick," she says, more exasperation in her voice than anger. I take that as a good sign.
"Hey, Carol," I say, voice cheerful as I can make it. Thank god she can't see me. Sweating, shaking. I've got cramps in my gut. I feel like I’m being shit through a dog. "I'm in Toluca Lake, heading over to Warner Brothers."
There's a pause on the other end, a silent weighing to see if I'm telling the truth. "I thought they weren't letting you back there," she says. She's right, of course. Got kicked off the lot a couple months ago. No one returns my calls, emails go unanswered. I'm as blackballed as they get. Fucking hypocrites."
"Old news," I say. "Sid called me. Needs a producer with some chops. Thinks he's got a project right up my alley." The lies flow like water. But then, they always did. "Wondering if maybe you'd like to get together for lunch after."
"You never give up, do you?"
"It's been over a month, Carol." The facade's cracking along with my voice. Like a train wreck in slow motion.
"You're high again," she says. "Aren't you?"
"No," I say, and this time it's the truth. Sober three days now. Nothing in my system besides a couple aspirin I found wedged in the backseat cushions of my Jag. Not much of a heroin substitute, but what is?
"Don't lie to me, Nick," she says. "Start with that."
"I told you I'm not using, goddammit," I say. Voice louder than I mean it to be. "I just need to see you." But it's too late. "Please," I say to the silence on the other end of the line.
The best lies are the ones with a little truth to prop them up. I am in Toluca Lake near the Warner Brothers lot, but I'm out here to meet Alonzo, my dealer. I owe him three K, and he's not buying that I'm good for it anymore. Cut me off a week ago. The last of my stash ran out on Tuesday.
Called me last night. Told me if I wanted to get back in his good graces, get a little something for my trouble, that I'd come down here and give him a hand with a project he's got. Perfect timing. Like he’s got a goddamn stopwatch.
When everything else goes away, at least you have your fantasies. Carol was mine. Think about calling her back. Know she won’t answer.
Instead I punch Alonzo on my speed dial.
I meet him in the parking lot of Bob's Big Boy on Riverside Drive. It’s a diner opened in the 'Fifties. Car hop service on weekends, classic car show Friday nights. Thursday morning at ten, though, the lunch crowd hasn't even trickled in. The Starbucks down the street has more traffic.
Alonzo's sitting in the white, Econoline van he uses to drop off his poisons in person. Like fucking Pizza Man. He won't tell me who he sells to, but I have a pretty good idea. Some of the fuckers who won't return my calls.
Alonzo’s got to be in his mid-twenties. Feral eyes, white capped teeth. He fits in perfectly out here. Knows he’s got what I want. Knows I’ll do anything for it. Feels weird being on this side of the fence.
I park. Pull myself out of the Jag. Not sure how much longer I'll have it. Can't keep it gassed with no cash, and I'm already getting nasty-grams from the bank. Same with the Condo in North Hollywood. They already killed the power and the phone. Mobile's only working because it's paid to the end of the month. Soon enough they'll shut that off, too.
"Man, you look like shit," he says.
“Flu,” I say.
“Right,” he says. "Get in. We're taking a drive." I get into the passenger seat and he pulls the van out into traffic.
"What are we doing?"
"Making money," he says. We head down Hollywood Way, pull into a strip mall on Verdugo. Albertsons grocery store, laundromat, couple random storefronts.
He parks in a slot close to the driveway, leaves the engine idling. "Get in the back," he says and follows me. The back of the van is empty. No seats. Too low to stand up straight. No windows besides the front.
"You want to get square with me?" he says.
Stupid question. Right now I'd sell my left nut for a fix. Just to make my point for me, my guts twist and I double over. Alonzo laughs.
"All right," he says. "This is what's gonna happen." He reaches into the deep pocket of his jacket and pulls out a gun. "You're gonna take this and you're gonna wait in front of the grocery store. In a few minutes an armored truck's gonna show up. When the driver gets out you're gonna stick this in his face, grab the bag and run back here."
"You're out of your mind," I say.
He swings the gun up, and it glances off my skull. I grab my face and shriek like a girl. "Never fucking say that again," he says. He hands me the gun, and I take it, head throbbing, hands shaking like I got Parkinson's.
Takes me a second to realize that he's just handed me a weapon.
I point it at him. "I'll kill you," I say. My breathing's fast and shallow, adrenaline filling some of the holes the heroin left behind. "This is your fault."
Alonzo laughs. "You're not gonna shoot me,” he says. “Who's gonna give you your fix?" He empties his pockets. Keys, money, cell phone. Nothing I need.
He presses his forehead against the muzzle of the gun. Eyes on mine. "Go for it," he says.
My hand tightens, but my finger won't pull the trigger. I let it lower, its weight dragging me down.
"That's what I thought," Alonzo says.
"After this we're good?" I say.
"We're good when I tell you we're good," he says. "You don't get it, Nick. I could bend you over and fuck you in the ass and you'll let me. Know why? Because I own your fucking soul." He pulls the sliding door open. "Now get out there and make me some money, whore."
From where I'm standing I can see Alonzo in the driver's seat. He's watching me pace back and forth, hand on the gun deep in my jacket pocket. I'm getting strange looks from passing mothers and their children.
Go ahead and stare. Fuckers. I used to piss on people like these. Goddamn yoga moms and their screaming brats. I fight the urge to pull the gun and wave it in their smug faces. Show these judging bitches what I can do.
Instead, I lean against the glass front of a kid’s clothing store, nose running, sweat making me look like I've just run a five minute mile.
What the hell happened? I used to be the go-to guy. Multi-million dollar deals. More blowjobs from wannabe starlets than I could count.
I catch a look at Alonzo watching me, waiting to see if I freak out or not. Him. He’s what happened to me. I could handle the heroin. I couldn't handle Alonzo.
I'm debating walking over and putting a bullet in his head when the armored truck pulls up. Alonzo and I exchange looks. I shake my head at him. I'm not doing this.
He reaches over to the van's glove box, pulls out a fat, full, plastic bag and waves it so there’s no chance I can miss it.
I'm going to kill him. But it won't be today.
Guard steps down from the back of the truck, hand tight on the butt of his pistol, heavy, canvas bag over one shoulder. Full from the look of it.
Gun's out, waving in his face before he can pull his.
He doesn't move. Just freezes like a statue and looks at me with eyes like diamond drills. "You don't want to do this," he says.
He's right. I don't. But that bag in Alonzo's van is screaming for me to go rescue it. Take the cash and everything will be just fine.
"Just give me the money," I say.
He shakes his head. "Tell you what," he says. "Turn around. Walk away. No cops. I don't shoot you. Best offer you'll get."
Alonzo wants to ass fuck me, Carol’s given up on me. My whole fucking career’s gone up my nose.
But a complete stranger, man with a gun in his face, wants to hand me a get-out-of-jail-free card.
My head clears, like a bubble’s popped. I can just walk away from this. "Thank you," I say and lower the gun.
And that's when it goes off.
Everything goes to shit too fast for me to track. Gunshots, screaming. Another guard and broken glass. Alonzo peels out of the parking lot, leaves me to the goddamn wolves. By the end of it there's two dead men and I've got a hole in my gut you could drive a fucking bus through. I try to run, but the best I can manage is a slow hobble into the clothing store, fire shooting through me with every step.
The place is loaded with baby strollers, cribs. Shrieking mothers scooping up their children and scattering. I've got blood soaking through my shirt and into my pants, a thick trail of the stuff behind me.
Cops will be in the front any second. Only way out is through the back. Hit the street, hijack a car.
Happens every day. How hard could it be? The trick is to stay positive.
I make my way toward an unmarked door in the back, shoulder my way through. Hoping for an exit I get an office instead. Maybe ten by ten. Desk, chair, phone. No windows. No other doors.
My legs give out, sliding me to the floor. I can’t move the left one at all. So much for staying positive.
I'm weighing options when my phone rings. I don’t even look at who it is. It can only be Alonzo.
“The fuck do you want?” I say through gritted teeth.
A pause on the other end. “I— I was wondering if you still wanted to do lunch,” says a quiet voice.
“Carol,” I say. Think fast, rabbit. “I was expecting somebody else.”
“I would hope so,” she says. “Are you okay? How’d the meeting go?”
I look at the spreading puddle of blood I’m sitting in, the gun in my hand. “Not great,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I was thinking. About what you said. It being more than a month. I thought maybe we could get together. Talk about some things.”
In the distance, I can hear sirens. I laugh.
“What’s so funny?” she says.
“Don’t you get it?” I say. “It’s a joke. God’s joke. Banana peels, pratfalls. Not enough for the fucking Almighty.”
She doesn’t understand. How could she? I think about prison, Carol, my already destroyed career.
I went to a NarcAnon meeting out in Silver Lake, once. Kept going on about surrendering to a higher power. It was all bullshit. If I hadn’t gotten some networking in it would have been a complete waste of time.
But one thing that people kept talking about was that they had to hit absolute bottom before they even realized what the right thing to do was.
I figure this qualifies.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath. “Don’t call me back,” I say and hang up the phone.
Boots outside. The door kicks open. They see me. Phone in one hand. Gun in the other.
And they shoot.