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Coming home is always an ordeal. This time it was Jakarta, my least favorite place on the planet, which I was glad to leave, twelve thousand miles, four airports and a six-hour taxi. We flew coach most of the way. I slept about two hours in the last fifty. So I dozed in Francisco's car, the only guy I trusted to get us home safely. Mountain passes, cracked pavement, miles of rutted dirt and bad one-lane bridges. We pulled up at the house around midnight. Our front gate was half open.

The flower boxes had been wrecked and there was trash on the patio. I opened the back door and hit the light switch. Francisco unloaded the car and started schlepping our luggage. The kitchen was a mess, living room turned around backwards, walls painted in sloppy orange and hot pink. We knew it would be bad, but not this bad. The girls were too tired to do much of anything except put fresh linen on the beds, brush their teeth and crash. I got Francisco settled in the spare room and checked the bodega, apparently unmolested. The wood door was locked, no sign of being pried. I flipped through my ring of house keys and finally got the right one. Didn't bother to open the steel gate. Lights and air conditioner were on, like they should be. Everything was piled where I left it three months ago, covered in dust. I shut the door quietly and stumbled through the house turning lights off.

The neighbors were raising hell next morning, revving diesel engines next door. I erected a 10-foot corrugated steel fence sandwiched with styrofoam sheets last year, but the noise still got through and woke everybody at 6 a.m. Took all the fun out of living here. We moped around the kitchen, decided to trash everything except a sealed package of coffee. Francisco volunteered to go to the grocery store, because my Suzuki ATV had a bent fork, smashed cowl, no gas, and three flat tires. I should have chained it up before we left, instead of giving the housesitter a spare key. She was newly arrived from California 100% respectable and went native. Took up with Rastafarian dope dealers who decided to change a few things. The property manager notified me that he threw them out two weeks ago. He showed up at 7:30, apologizing profusely for the mess. I gave him a long list of damage to the house, pool, garden, gate, alarm system, ATV, sinks and sewer clean-outs.

A mulish, overpaid cleaning crew showed up next, so we ate breakfast on the patio. When the living room was finished, I unloaded the strongroom and set up the computers. The phone line was dead. I traced the problem to the outdoor block, skinned the wires clean and got it working again.

I was putting the ladder and tools away when Jimmy Vacarro roared to a halt on his padded quad at the front gate, yelling to me loudly in deep baritone that meant more trouble. I walked over to the gate.

"Cal Blunt was murdered last night!" Jim bellowed angrily.

"Where?"

"At the house he was sitting, Corry's place, K-22. Beaten to death. I'm outta here, Tex. I'm goin' to Ecuador, tomorrow. You know Roberto? They came in with masks and guns, held his wife and kids at gunpoint, smacked the shit out of him and made him open the safe. Fuck this, I'm gone."

He gunned his throttle and skidded away, kicking up dust.

My wife had computer intel. Daniel Paulsen emailed his mom to fly him, his girlfriend, and their Italian bodyguard out of Cristo yesterday. We monitored other people's email occasionally. Never mind how. Danny was supposed to be selling our house, biggest realtor in Cristo. Cal Blunt worked for him.

I walked over to Russo's shop and rented a quad, a big Suzuki 500 with 4WD. In ten minutes I was sliding through the main road toward the upscale beach resorts, where the road curves like a snake. Traffic was slow, so I took a few chances. In K Section, there was a line of parked cars. Rural cops were holding back a small crowd of suntanned gringos, familiar faces. I didn't see any cars from the Judicial Police. It takes them three or four hours to bump down the dirt road to Cristo if they're in a hurry and have nothing else to do in a large, crime-soaked, dirt poor province.

I stopped in the middle of the road. The assholes behind me honked and everyone looked. They knew who I was, why I was here. I spun the back wheels and turned into K-23's driveway next door. It was a steep uphill grade. I punched 4WD before I took out two bushes, careened into the forest, bumped across to Corry's stone wall and flattened their flowerbeds.

There was a rural guard posted at the front door with his hand on his holster. I handed him $100, opened the door, got one whiff and splashed vomit on the flagstone steps. I wasn't prepared for this. Stupidly put my shirt over my nose, held my breath and tried again.

Cal was a friend. Nice guy everyone liked. I warned him about getting too chummy with the natives, especially the super sweet Barco clan that I had to reason with a couple years ago with a carload of coked-up Russians in a surprise visit at dawn.

I saw what I wanted to see. He was bound to a chair. This was a hate crime, not a robbery. There was nothing to rob or pretend to rob. Cal's laptop was smashed on the floor, some glassware and books kicked around.

I staggered down the asphalt drive, decided to leave Russo's quad in the flower bed, so the cops would see it - or not - depending on who they sent to investigate Cal's murder. There hadn't been a single case of murder, robbery or burglary anywhere in this country that the Judicial Police solved, unless someone was caught in the act and standing over the victim with blood on his machete. Last month two of our local bigwigs had been kidnapped and driven to ATM machines, then dumped on a back road.

When the hardware store was looted, the cops had to borrow talcum powder and packing tape from the owner to lift fingerprints. They still used manual typewriters at headquarters.

The crowd of worried neighbors eyed me as I approached. Overfed white Americans that owned fancy houses and kept little obsequious house maids and cooks and gardeners who routinely sold them out to the bad guys. Any one of them could be hit next and they knew it.

I walked down to the beach and had a drink. My hands were trembling. I was sick of carrying a gun and pretending to wave it at a problem that was getting worse every minute. I used the bar phone and called Francisco. He was halfway back to the city. I told him to turn around.

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Here's another little anecdote, slightly more recent.

Glass walled elevators are like Cadillacs, heavy as hell, plenty of chrome, with ultraglamorous controls that look good on engineering vellum and glossy cut sheets but are prone to go up when you want down. The spaciously empty jewel case proudly opened at the top floor and played a congratulatory arpeggio on harp and bassoon before it decided we could shut the door and try for Lobby - Guest Services again.

I hate being tired. Nothing seems to work right. My feet felt like old broken concrete. They unhelpfully clumped in the wrong direction and came to a stop in front of a sign that made no sense. Empty tubes of stuffy corridor stretched left and right. It shouldn't be this hard to find the bottom of an open 10-story atrium with twinkly lights in trees and 50 or 60 leather armchairs. I meandered the wrong way to a dead end and turned around. At the side of the elevator there was a narrow gap of light.

I considered all the things that architects manage to get right. Nothing leaked or fell down. Rooms had hot and cold running television, if you like that sort of thing. I leaned on the back of a cracked leather armchair and rested my eyes for a while. A fountain dribbled peacefully. I was pleased to not hear a vacuum cleaner, which most five-star hotels insist upon operating at 4 a.m. Maybe the floor cleaned itself.

The entire lobby was empty. Nobody at the front desk, which was big enough to park a bus in front of it and throw luggage at the concierge, who had an adjoining suite of sparkling granite trimmed in bronze, also empty and softly well-lighted. The sunken patio bar was deserted, twenty little round tables with clean white linen, heavy burgundy cloth napkins, sparkling clean water glasses right side up. A curved stairway opened into the restaurant. Nicely lit and inviting, if you hopped over a fat velvet rope. Breakfast started at 5:30 a.m. Somebody must be awake somewhere in this joint.

The bubbling fountain was getting on my nerves, so I cruised around the Steinway and bumped into a brass railing that could have been elsewhere. It took a minute to get my hip back together. Now I was dead tired and walking crooked, quietly mumbling ow.

We landed at Heathrow and transferred by coach around midnight, got here at 2:00. I tipped a bellhop too much to guide us and wrestle with a trolley. The room was comped, didn't cost me anything. The girls were too tired to think, just pulled their coverlets down and flopped gratefully on cool white pillows and monogrammed bedlinen. I had a couple of slugs of scotch and then slipped out quietly to bash my hip on a brass railing.

There was a long, wide, sloping underground concourse that connected the hotel to North Terminal. I reached in my vest pocket, fumbled out a Dunhill, and puffed peacefully as I walked downhill. If the smoking Nazis objected, that was okay. The carpeted concourse was empty and silent.

Halfway up the far slope there was a men's washroom. I ditched the butt, peed, and looked at myself in a mirror big enough for 30 of me. Hair seemed straight enough. Two ears, nose, foggy glasses that I polished with a tissue. It took a while to wash carefully. Took off my suit jacket and pulled my tie apart, neatly folded up the shirt sleeves. Swished out my mouth, did the eyes and dried my hands. The tailored jacket felt good on my shoulders again, like a sheath of armor. Jammed the tie in a back pocket. I hate neckties. Not overly fond of wingtips, either.

North Terminal had that quality no one has a right to expect. Huge. Spacious. Organized. Brand new and clean. In a perfect world, all passenger terminals would be like this. I walked a ways through half of it before I saw someone. Looked like a pilot. He was sorting paperwork and had an open briefcase parked at a comfortable angle on the customer side of a tall desk behind a small rope maze. I sauntered across.

"Can I help you?" he inquired. Nice clear strong voice.

I showed him a pack of blue and gold First Class tickets. He pointed to the other half of the terminal and said it was Counter 48, all the way in back. I thanked him, did a lopsided 180 and plodded along, hayfoot strawfoot a mile or two around the empty hangar, convinced that no one in his right mind does such things at 4 a.m. I ought to be in bed like everyone else.

In gay defiance of logic, there was a bright-eyed, efficient-looking, attractive British Airways ticket agent at Counter 48. She had gleaming white teeth and dark red lipstick, soft brown hair knitted in a thick braid, and gave me a 50-kilowatt smile of recognition, as if she was waiting for me.

"Good evening," I marvelled.

"Good evening, sir," she answered sweetly, pending further enlightenment. "Are you travelling to Bahrain?"

"No. Tripoli." I handed her the tickets and passports.

She typed a few lines on the computer, cocked her head to the side, puzzled, and tapped another couple of keys. "Well," she began, "It's a good thing you came to visit. You need to purchase a return ticket from Tripoli to somewhere else, prior to boarding. Let's see what I can get you. One way to Malta is fairly cheap on Air Malta." She quoted a price and I wrote a cheque on my London bank. She had to go to a back office to print paper tickets. Would I like to use the VIP lounge?

It sounded like an invitation. There were frosted double doors with a crimson carpet and traces of gold that opened sesame and saved me the trouble of thinking. More babes to care for me, pour a drink in slim square crystal, guide me into a deep quiet corner of a comfortable sofa.

It sank sideways and I didn't care. Everything went sideways and down, and heavy cool air caught my arms and torso like a cushion of jittery jello that slipped through my fingers. Black was okay. I like black. Never enough black in the world when you need it.

Then I hit something hard and flat. I didn't care. I was tired of living anyway.

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Sold the house years ago. Took a loss on it.

You mean it really happened? I thought it was the set-up opening of a short story.

--Brant

Sometimes I get confused about what's real. I've had a strange life.

I was tired as usual, still going strong after a full day of travel, setting up, negotiating, troubleshooting, shaking my head and shrugging off incredibly stupid fixes. The A-camera didn't have a platform as promised, so he was on sticks on stage in front of the subwoofer column, God help him. I grimly expected the woofers to erase whatever he put on tape and permanently damage the poor bastard's hearing. I hardly knew the guy, but he came highly recommended.

Michael was handheld backstage and the plan was to walk on with the headliner, cover the drummer and sidemen with big loose close-ups from his shoulder. Mike was big and stong, reasonably creative, but the last time we did this, he forgot to push the record button. I reminded him again to white balance, roll to record and keep rolling, no matter what. He said he had a fresh fully-charged brick and understood what to do.

I took one last lap through the pit, where the raving animal end of a packed crowd was screaming, stomping, throwing shit, yelling at me and blowing clouds of THC in my face. The warm-up act was a wall of noise. In the glaring sweep of blinders and black shadows I stumbled on something, landed on my feet and finally made it center stage, where the C-camera was hiding. I forgot the operator's name and it was impossible to talk to him over the din. I got him on his feet and pointed to three shots I needed. He nodded, seemed happy that someone came to visit, which meant there was an escape path unless they broke through the fence. I looked through his viewfinder upside down and saw a red blinking light, patted him on the shoulder, and waved my finger in a circle. Keep rolling. He was on AC, no battery to worry about.

Nothing more to be done except retreat backstage. I milked my last few brain cells to remember a few words of French to ask for a cold drink. Somebody handed me a warm bottle of beer and I tossed it in a trash can. The crowd roared as the headliner went on. There was nothing left for me to do.

I shrugged off both walkie-talkies and handed them to the PA, told him to quit fucking around and start packing up. If he needed me, I'd be in the bar.

It was nice and quiet in the bar. Four of my pals were on plastic chairs around a table waiting for me to play poker. One-Eyed Josh waved me over. He smiled like he was winning, but Boris had a big pile of chips in front of him, too. The Greek Millionaire was table talking as usual and the Columbian decided to fold as usual. I leaned on a chair long enough to order a drink, threw some money down to buy in, said I'd be right back and walked to the men's room.

I pissed in the urinal and looked at a tired face in the mirror. There was somebody else in the stall, flushing the toilet. It was Larry Scott, dressed to the nines, tucking his shirt in his pants, grinning like a cat who just caught another canary.

"Hee, hee, lookee who's here!" he laughed, "Johnnie Diamond, shootin' another Home Movie!" He put a bottle of cologne on the shelf and rapidly washed his hands at the sink, primping his curly white afro by patting it gently, admiring himself in the mirror while he mocked me. "You oughta buy yourself some decent clothes, Johnnie. How many times did I tell you that? You gotta look like money to make money!"

"You're supposed to be dead, Larry," I murmured to myself.

"Dead?" he scoffed. "Who said I was dead?"

"Richard."

"Hah!" he laughed gaily, showing the gold tooth he was so proud of. "I ain't dead. Not yet. I gotta take care of Keith. That boy has talent. I got a starring role for him almost sewed up."

Larry made a show of his snow white cuffs, manicured nails and gold Rolex.

"Please don't bullshit me, Larry. You're dead. Keith is living with a pharmacist in Long Beach, calls himself Sky, looks like shit and hasn't worked in three years. I told him the best shot he had was to play a junkie or second banana gangster in episodic TV, probably a one-off, but at least he'll get a SAG card. Nothing else to be done."

He was gone.

When you're dead, that's where you belong.

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Wish I could write like that...

Here are two books that will make you wish the same thing:

Empire of the Summer Moon -- about the Comanches (the most powerful American Indian tribe and greatest horse warriors)

West with the Night

--Brant

also, early Mickey Spillane for first-person fiction writing (I, the Jury; Vengeance Is Mine, My Gun Is Quick, etc.)

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