Heart Attack and Vine
Los Angeles bodyguard/bouncer Caleb Rush (Crush) is back in this second Crush novel, Heart Attack and Vine. When Rachel Fury, a con-artist friend who’d vanished for a couple of years after a big scam, reappears in Hollywood under a new name as a glitzy movie star, she hires Crush as a bodyguard, and he quickly gets drawn into a criminal mess that requires all his brawn, skill, and savvy to negotiate. It’s rich with Hollywood lore, New Orleans charm, snappy dialogue, fast-paced action, and noir atmosphere.
April, Three Years Ago
“I hate LA,” Rachel said as she traced a thin black line with her paintbrush onto the white tile that lined the face of the Feingold’s Deli stall in bustling Grand Central Market. “What I love is Los Angeles.”
She pronounced it with a hard “g,” the way people did in the 1930s. “Los Ang-a-lees.” With her short-cropped hair, bleached a platinum blond, and her white blouse, Rachel looked like she could have been an extra in an old gangster movie herself. Only the Bluetooth headset clipped to her ear and the snake tattoo on her arm spoiled the illusion.
“I hate the new Hollywood Boulevard. And I hate what they’re doing to Los Feliz and West Hollywood and all the faux-hip shops in Silver Lake,” she said as she continued to paint graffiti on the front of Feingold’s. “What I love is downtown Los Angeles, in all its messy glory. That’s the real City of Angels, Crush.”
Crush was the street name of Caleb Rush. Crush was sitting at a table in front of the Sticky Rice stall, munching on a mess of smelly fried smelt with dipping sauce, Bluetooth nestled in his ear, chatting with Rachel over the airwaves, watching her from the corner of his eye so as not to make it too apparent that they were talking to each other. Rachel was paying good coin for Crush to keep an eye on her, and that’s what Crush was doing.
“God, I hate hipsters,” Rachel said with a sigh. “They’re ruining this town.” Crush grunted an agreement while he half-watched her trace retro-style sketches of deli sandwiches on Feingold’s façade—graffiti made to order.
Rachel Fury was in her early twenties. With her black eyeliner and blue nail polish, she looked like a poster child for the hipster generation. No one hates hipsters more than hipsters, Crush thought. Rachel was a part-time artist, part-time actress, and full-time grifter.
“We’re the last of a dying breed, Crush,” she said, using his nickname. Crush was ambivalent about the name, but he still answered to it.
“What breed is that?” he asked.
“I don’t use a gun.”
“Neither do I,” Rachel said. “I meant it metaphorically. My guns are my brushes. My guns are my way with words. Oh, and my dark, mysterious eyes. Those are my guns, too.”
“Okay,” Crush said, just to pass the time. “What are my guns?”
“Your guns are you, Crush. You’re your own guns.”
Crush dipped some more fish in the spicy sauce and took in his surroundings. Grand Central Market was the innards of Los Angeles. The stomach and lower intestines of the town. A city block, sandwiched between the faded glory of the Million Dollar Theatre and Mexican shops that sold votive candles and statues of saints. Recently renovated, the market housed under one roof dozens of stalls featuring everything anyone would want to eat, drink, or ingest. There were delis frequented by thirty-year-old Jews and taco stands where Mexican immigrants actually ate. There were stalls that sold traditional Chinese medicine, kept in dusty vials that looked like they had been there since the turn of the last century. There were trendy hot spots for trendy hipsters, like kombucha bars and artisanal-chocolate shops.
On one side was Broadway, but not the bustling Broadway of New York—the run-down, seedy Broadway of LA. On the other side, the market opened onto the hillside that was once Bunker Hill but was now just the funicular railway called Angel’s Flight, whose slanted cars took the trip up the steep route to California Plaza and the swooping walls of Disney Hall—that is, when they weren’t closed for safety reasons, which they usually were.
“Mark my words, Crush,” Rachel said. “In two years all the old, dirty, sleazy storefronts in this place are going to be closed, and there’ll be nothing but latte shops, organic cheeses, and pressed-juice stands. It’s the way of the world.”
Someone walking through the crowded aisles between the market stands caught Crush’s eye and made the hair on his arms stand up. It wasn’t that the man was particularly threatening. He was tall and slender, with neatly groomed hair, a gray sportcoat, and an attaché case, like a time traveler from the sixties. The way he looked around with hooded eyes, as if he were a predator seeking prey, sent a warning signal to Crush.
“Principal is approaching,” Crush said into his headset with practiced calmness.
Rachel got excited. “Groovy,” she said, putting her brush in a jar of water on the counter and waiting for the
man to come up to her. “Meet you back at my apartment.” She pulled the Bluetooth headset from her ear.
Crush reached in the pocket of his black hoodie and checked the envelope Rachel had given him. He didn’t know what was in it. He wasn’t being paid to know. He was just being paid to make the transfer. Getting up and throwing the leavings of the fried fish away, he walked over to the deli stand and made as if he were looking at the little blackboard with the daily specials, pointedly ignoring Rachel, who stood next to him, washing out her brushes and singing “California Dreaming” softly to herself.
Sportcoat sidled up to Rachel and backed her into the counter in a way that was both casual and threatening. “Hello, Bridget.”
So Rachel was “Bridget” to Sportcoat. Interesting. She’d been Rachel Fury to Crush for as long as he could remember, but at the Nocturne, the nightclub where Crush was a bouncer on the weekends, she was “Layla Lowenstein.” A girl like Rachel made up a new identity to fit every occasion.
“Do you have it?” Sportcoat said, letting his briefcase thud like a pendulum against the deli counter.
Crush came up to Sportcoat and tapped him on the shoulder. Not in a particularly aggressive way. Caleb Rush was six-foot-five, two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle, in a tight black T-shirt and hoodie. His clean- shaven head had a nasty scar running from above his left eye across his skull. He didn’t have to act aggressively. His physical presence was threat enough.
“You’re not dealing with her,” Crush said. “You’re dealing with me. I have what you want.”
Sportcoat looked at Crush and tried very hard not to look intimidated. “That wasn’t part of the deal,” he said, reaching into the pocket of his jacket and putting his hand on an object that Crush thought might be a gun.
“It’s part of the deal now,” Crush said, in an even tone. “Come on.” If Sportcoat had a gun, that meant he was expecting trouble, but he’d have been expecting trouble from Rachel, not from a mean piece of a work like Crush.
As he often did, Crush wondered what the hell he had gotten himself into. He was a part-timer himself, and one of his trades was doing odd jobs for friends and family. Rachel was one of those. She’d asked him to handle the transfer of an unnamed object to an unnamed buyer. Rachel was infamous for her transactions, usually of stolen or illegally obtained merchandise. Crush had no moral objections to Rachel’s deals, legitimate or otherwise. She was family, sort of, and her money was good. End of story.
But the first thing he had to do was get Sportcoat away from Rachel and out of this crowd of people. If Sportcoat was going to use his gun, Crush wanted him alone, with no bystanders, innocent or otherwise. Crush turned and walked through the crowd, not looking back to see if Sportcoat was following. Crush was willing him away.
Walking to a side exit tucked away between a cheese store and a coffee shop, Crush pushed through a door and into a small hallway lit by flickering fluorescent light. The hallway felt small and dingy after the roomy cacophony of the market. He heard footsteps clicking behind him. A man’s step. Crossing to another door, Crush swung it open and entered a dark corridor. Its walls were covered with red floral wallpaper, faded and peeling, a relic of a gaudier, flashier past. They had entered the neighboring building, the illustrious Million Dollar Theatre.
Built in 1918 by Sid Grauman and designed by Albert Martin, it was LA’s first grand movie palace. A mad mix of Spanish Colonial and Churrigueresque fantasy, it had stood for nearly a hundred years, doing service as a movie theater, a jazz club, a Mexican vaudeville house, and a Spanish-language church. Now it stood empty, waiting for a savior or a wrecking ball.
Walking through the dark wings of the theater, Crush headed onto the stage in front of the tattered movie screen. His way was lit by a ghost light—a single bulb in a small wire cage set on a pole in the middle of the stage. The ghost light was a theatrical tradition, an offering to the twin show business deities of superstition and safety.
The theater was inky dark and silent, a cathedral to the business of motion picture exhibition. The vast expanse of seats lay before Crush like an unexplored cavern, and the proscenium rose high above him. Longhorn skulls and Aztec gods stared down from the ornate arch. Crush walked several steps past the ghost light and turned around.
Sportcoat was standing about ten feet behind him. The ghost light stood between them like a referee at a prizefight. “Are we there yet?” Sportcoat asked.
“Yes,” Crush said. “Do you have the money?”
“Not so fast. Let’s get acquainted first. What do they call you?”
“Busy,” Crush said. “Let’s get this done.”
“Okay, Busy,” Sportcoat said. “Mr. Emmerich just calls me ‘Bub.’ ”
Mr. Emmerich? He said the name as if Crush should be familiar with it. He didn’t know Crush was just a hired intermediary, and Crush wasn’t about to clue him in. “All right, Bub.” Unzipping his hoodie, Crush pulled the package out. It was a plain manila envelope, flat and unimpressive. “Do you have the money or not?”
“I have it.” Bub set the briefcase down on the wooden stage. “Shall we count three and push?”
“Do we really have to?”
“Mr. Emmerich is fond of ceremony.”
“All right,” Crush said, crouching down and placing the envelope on the stage. “One, two, three.”
Crush slid the envelope across to Bub, and Bub slid the briefcase to Crush. Grabbing the briefcase, Crush opened it and saw that it was filled with bundles of twenty-dollar bills. A lot of bundles. There must have been a hundred thousand dollars in there. Rachel was only paying Crush five hundred to make this exchange. His roommate was right—he really had to start being a better businessman.
He looked up to see Bub examining the contents of the envelope Crush had given him. “Doesn’t seem worth it,” he said. “But like Grandma used to say, it takes all kinds of crazy people to make a crazy world.”
“Your grandma was a smart woman,” Crush said. “You wouldn’t say that if you met my grandpa.” Crush shut the briefcase and stood up. The transaction was complete. No gunplay had been necessary. He considered that a success.
“Now,” Crush said, “I leave first. You follow.” “Whatever you say.”
It didn’t really make any difference who led and who followed, but Crush knew that it did matter that he stayed in charge. He walked, covering the distance between them in firm, steady strides. A thought occurred to him when he was opposite the ghost light. He stopped, set the briefcase down on the stage, and opened it.
The bundles of cash looked impressive. He picked one up and flipped through it, like a magician rifling through a deck of cards. The top two bills were real American money. The rest of the bundle was made of cut-up newspaper.
He glanced up at Bub. And at the gun in his hand. “You had to look, didn’t you?” Bub asked.
“I really did. Was this your idea or Mr. Emmerich’s?” Crush gestured to the newspaper money.
“Mr. Emmerich thought it would be funny. I’m going to walk away now,” Bub said. “You’re not going to follow me. Is that understood?”
“Of course. There’s no need anyway.”
Bub turned to walk off. Then he turned back. “What do you mean?”
“You know Bridget,” Crush said. “If Mr. Emmerich cheated her, don’t you think she planned on cheating him?”
Bub eyed Crush. “Go on.”
“Do you really think that’s the genuine article you have in your hand?” Crush had no idea what the genuine article was, of course, but he was pretty sure that whatever Rachel was selling was fake. It was just her way.
Bub maneuvered the manila envelope open again and looked at the contents. Crush could see that they looked like old government documents, marked with a rubber stamp in red ink. Bub licked his thumb and rubbed the red marking. His thumb left a bloody red smear.
“It’s a fake!” he said, affronted.
“That’s fake. These are fake,” Crush said, pointing to the bundles in the attaché case. “We’re even.”
“I don’t think Mr. Emmerich will see it that way,” Bub said. “You picked the wrong man to fuck with.”
“I didn’t pick anybody. I’m just a delivery man.”
“We both know better than that.” Bub walked closer and kicked the attaché case closed. “Pick it up for me.”
“There’s a couple of hundred real dollars in there,” Crush said. “Don’t I get to keep that?”
“Shut up,” he said, gesturing with the gun. “You’re lucky I don’t shoot you right now.”
Crush latched the attaché case and handed it to Bub, who leaned forward to take it. When he bent down, Crush grabbed the ghost light and smashed it down on Bub’s head. The light bulb burst and the theater went black, but Crush didn’t need to see. He grasped Bub where he knew his wrist was and twisted it back. Bub hissed in pain and slammed the back of his head hard into Crush’s face.
Crush took the force of the blow, stumbled back, and then gripped Bub’s wrist more tightly and twisted it. He heard a satisfying crunch as the joint snapped. Bub groaned, and his gun discharged in a loud explosion off into the wings. Crush spun Bub around, stepped back, and delivered a kick to his chest.
By now, Crush’s eyes had adjusted to the dark, so he could make out shapes and shadows. He could just see Bub flying back and falling off the stage into the greater blackness below. Pulling his cell phone from the back pocket of his jeans, he used the flashlight app and located the attaché case where it lay on the stage. Next to it was the envelope Rachel had given him. He picked them both up and walked to the edge of the stage.
Bub was crumpled on the floor, clutching his arm and moaning. The gun was next to him, but he didn’t seem to be aware of it. He opened his eyes and looked up at Crush. “What the hell is your problem?”
“I was hired to make an exchange,” Crush said, tossing the envelope down at him. “Now I’ve made it. Take care of yourself.” He exited, stage right.
Crush walked around the side of the theater on Third Street, let himself into the little lobby, and stepped onto the elevator. It was a small one, having been installed in the seventies when the building was remodeled. In the 1910s it had been the home of the Department of Water & Power. Back then LA was just another city in California.
He rode up to the fourteenth floor, walked to an apartment and pressed the little black buzzer. Rachel opened the door.
“Well?” she said. “Did you get the cash?” Since he’d seen her, she had dyed her hair a bright red and was drying it with a towel.
“Yes and no,” Crush said, walking in. The apartment was small but elaborately furnished. The walls were inlaid with wooden cabinets, and the light fixtures were made of intricate stained glass. “Nice place you have,” he said.
“It used to be William Mulholland’s office, back in the day.”
“What day was that?” Crush said, sitting on a horsehair sofa and setting the attaché case on an old coffee table.
“The bad old days,” she said. “Mulholland is the guy who stole water so Los Angeles could grow. In 1918. It’s a city founded by pirates, Crush.” She tossed her towel on a love seat. “You want a beer? Or a hard cider? Everybody’s drinking hard cider now.”
“What did they drink in the bad old days?”
“Scotch, I guess.”
“Nothing for me,” Crush said as he opened the case.
The bundles of cash looked glorious.
“Hot damn,” Rachel said.
“Don’t get too excited,” he said, tossing a bundle to her. She flipped through it.
“That bastard,” she said when she got to the fake money.
“You were cheating him,” Crush said.
“Yes, but I’m the underdog. They always root for the underdog.”
Crush rubbed his big bald head with his big hand. “Rachel, there’s no audience. This isn’t a movie.”
Rachel shrugged. “It’s all a movie, Crush. And I’m the lead. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who muddles through life by her wits and her charm, conning rich bad guys out of their ill-gotten gains and winning the heart of the Hunky Good-hearted Bodyguard Action Hero.”
“Who’s going to play you?”
Rachel looked offended. “Me, of course. They’re holding out for Zooey Deschanel, but I think she’s too old. The Rock will play you, of course.”
“I’d prefer Channing Tatum. Who am I again?”
“You’re the bodyguard, stupid.”
“I don’t recall you winning my heart. That would be kind of creepy, wouldn’t it? Given our relationship?”
“We’ll change the backstory. We have to work a romance into it. Give the audience what it wants.”
“What if you’re not the heroine? What if you’re the villain?”
“An anti-heroine?” She shook her head. “Sounds like a seventies movie. Directed by Sidney Lumet or somebody like that. Not very current.”
“What were you supposed to be selling him?”
She smiled a bright, charming smile. “Letters of Transit.”
“I need more.”
“Movie memorabilia is a big collectible item these days. You know, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The black bird from The Maltese Falcon. Rosebud from Citizen Kane. Have you seen any of these movies, Crush?”
“I drop by the Cinematheque occasionally.”
“Have you seen Casablanca?”
“‘We’ll always have Paris.'”
“That’s the one. Do you remember the Letters of Transit? The secret documents that Peter Lorre gave Humphrey Bogart? The ones Bogart gave Ingrid Bergman at the end so she could leave Casablanca?”
“You forgot to say ‘spoiler alert.'”
“After seventy years you get a pass,” she said. “Anyway, I’m selling that prop.” She opened a drawer in her coffee table, took out ten envelopes, and laid them on the table. “The original Letters of Transit.” She took out a Marlboro Light and lit it with a match that she scraped against the tile fireplace.
“Those things will kill you,” Crush said.
“A lot of things will kill me. Anyway, I sold them to three collectors yesterday. I’ve got six more on the hook.”
Crush looked at the envelopes. “Are any of them real?”
Rachel looked at Crush as if he’d just said he believed in Santa Claus. “There are no real Letters of Transit. It was just a plot device the screenwriters made up. It’s all pretend.”
“But are any of them the original prop from the movie?”
She considered for a moment, then opened another drawer. “These two. One was for long shots. The other one is the gold mine. What they call the ‘hero’ prop. The one for close-ups.” She took a long, thin envelope, weathered and stained and marked CONFIDENTIAL SECRET. Undoing the flap on top, she slid out two pieces of paper covered in typewritten French and marked with various official-looking stamps. “It’s glorious. A real piece of the dream. Worth maybe a hundred thousand.”
“Where did you get it?”
“I borrowed it.”
“You stole it.”
“Stealing involves keeping. I borrowed it from a collector.”
“Did this borrowing involve breaking and entering?”
“I just needed it to make these copies.” She opened one of the other envelopes and pulled out a nearly identical copy. “Pretty good, huh? I arranged to sell it nine times over.”
“You should have used higher-quality ink. It smeared.”
Rachel started. “Shit. Does he know?”
“Bub? Yes. I imagine Mr. Emmerich knows by now.” “Well, shoot,” she said. She got up and started collecting her things. “I wanted to sell those other six before anybody found out.”
“So now what are you going to do?”
“Disappear. Move to another city. Change my name.”
“You think that will be enough? Mr. Emmerich sounds like a dangerous man.”
“He’s rich and he’s mean and his name’s not Emmerich.”
“What is his name?”
She looked at Crush like she was thinking something over. Then she picked up the real Letters of Transit and handed them to him. “Take these.”
“I thought you were going to return them.”
“Change of plan,” she said. “Just keep them safe. You’ll hear from me in two years.”
“Why two years?”
“Because that’s what it always says: ‘Two years later.’ Right after the dissolve. That’s when you find out what happens to the heroine.”
“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl?”
“That’s right. When she goes off to find herself. Without the Letters of Transit or any evidence to tie her down.” She pulled her car keys out of her pocket. “Do you want a Mini Cooper?”
“You don’t need a car?”
“Not where I’m heading. It makes a better story. ‘She arrived in New York with nothing but the clothes on her back and twenty dollars in her purse.’ ”
“And how much in the lining of her jacket?”
“A couple of hundred thou. But that’ll be our little secret.” She grabbed her jacket. “Take care of yourself, Crush. When you see me again, I’ll be on top of the world.”
Rachel kissed him on the head and was gone, leaving the door of the apartment wide open. She didn’t care. She wasn’t coming back.
Crush thought of her often over the next few years. When he heard of an unidentified body being discovered in the Angeles National Forest, he wondered if it might be her. It wasn’t. He told K.C. Zerbe, his roommate and half- brother, to search for her occasionally on the internet. He turned up nothing.
So Crush just kept the Letters of Transit hidden in a safe behind a poster in his loft and three Christmases rolled by. The crowd at the nightclub where Crush worked as a bouncer drank and danced and aged three years under his watchful eye. It was January and the Oscar nominations were the hot topic, everyone calling up the list on their mobile devices and discussing which of the movies they’d seen and which they’d only heard about. Crush, standing against the wall and being invisible like a good bouncer, hadn’t seen or heard of any of the films. He didn’t keep in touch with pop culture.
One of the nightclubbers shoved an oversized cell phone in front of his nose and asked him what he thought. He was about to shrug and say he didn’t think about it much at all when he saw a photo of the Best Supporting Actress nomination for an up-and-coming young star named Rachel Strayhorn. Take away her sandy blond hair and her blue eyes and she was a dead ringer for Rachel Fury.
Once a con artist, always a con artist, thought Crush.
Reviews for Heart Attack and Vine
"Sly, knowing, and hilarious, 'Heart Attack and Vine' is a perfect caper book set inside Hollywood's Dream Factory that just screams 'movie!' Studios, please option this immediately. With its nonstop action, snappy dialogue, and wisecracking characters, this send-up of Hollywood is a surefire winner." -- Denise Hamilton
"Like Kurt Vonnegut and T. Jefferson Parker teamed up to write a mystery." -- W.L. Ripley
"Insanely fun and readable. Sutton writes like a great raconteur tells a story." -- Hart Hanson, writer/creator of 'Bones'
"Crush is back in town, and the Hollywood sign is in wicked, Technicolor flames. Phoef Sutton's rabid charmers break hearts and redden all carpets, and his pages fly by on winds of wit. This sly writing has Chandler cross-hairs and is pure, CGI-free magic." -- Richard Christian Matheson