Cracking in the desert heat, the sleepy town of Twentynine Palms sits outside the bright blankness that is the sprawl of Los Angeles. For someone on the run like Jack Baylor, who needs a quick exit out of L.A. after a steamy affair with his best friend’s wife, Twentynine Palms is the perfect refuge. But then Jack gets implicated in a murder and his best friend, Tory, is following his trail, out for revenge. With the unexpected help of a 14-year-old girl, Jack desperately works to evade the police and Tory before his world comes entirely unhinged.
“Character is key in this deliciously edgy thriller, screenwriter Pyne’s first novel . . . With dialogue that sings and action that sizzles, this is a prime candidate for the big screen.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“Pyne sure-footedly blazes a fresh trail through Chandler country in this taut, expertly wrought desert noir. Twentynine Palms will leave you buzzing like a heat-dazed cricket.” —Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here and All About Lulu
“Character is everything in this debut . . . Twentynine Palms is great fun.” —Booklist
“A classic Californian noir.” —Kem Nunn, author of Tapping the Source and Tijuana Straits
Imagine a perfect square of impossibly blue sky.
Darkness frames it; a handmade ladder of two-by-fours reaches into it.
It could be Heaven.
The boy has butterflies in his stomach, and an urge to turn back. He knows, somehow, that if he climbs up into the sunlight, nothing will ever be quite the same.
Fourteen-year-old Tory Geller waits upstairs in the master bedroom of this half-finished California-Ranch-Mission-TudorMediterranean-whatthefuck tract home, sitting in the yawning gap where doors with modest pan-European ambitions will someday be hung. Tory is cocksure and cool. His legs dangle over the hardscape twenty feet below and he smokes and gazesout across the cheerful clutter of downtown Santa Barbara, to the slate-water harbor and the smear of Channel Islands hanging just above the ocean horizon.
“You better’ve brought something.” Tory says this with sharpness, doesn’t turn.
Behind him, Jack Baylor, also fourteen, steps off the construction ladder and out of the stairless stairwell. Smaller than Tory, still growing, Jack wears thick glasses and a gold-and-blue St. Stevens Day Camp windbreaker with frayed elastic cuffs. A green glass bottle of Mickey’s Big Mouth beer comes out of one pocket of his jacket, Oreos from the other, and Jack lays his offerings down on the plywood subfloor next to Tory.
“So,” Jack says, diving in, “like. Tory, hey. I’m really sorry about this whole deal with Cathy—”
Tory opens the Mickey’s and takes a noisy swallow.
“—it’s just, my mom knows her mom from church, the thing’s a setup,” Jack pleads his case. “I mean, like I even want to fucking go to the stupid dance.” Not bad. He’s added the “fucking” at the last minute, nice touch, flinty and hard-assed, he hopes.
Tory belches. “You swipe this brew?”
Jack’s face reddens. There is nothing in his mind now besides this wholly blind desire to purchase Tory’s respect. But, here, at fourteen, Jack has not yet perfected his lies. “No.”
“Wuss.” Tory smokes, belches, drinks.
Wuss. Jack waits, and wonders what will happen next. His friends have warned him that Tory might just beat the shit out of him. Jack has never been in a fight.
“You gonna stand there all day?” Tory says. Jack sits—safely distant in case Tory gets an itch to shove him off the edge. Tory’s nostrils spill smoke dismissively. “Relax, Baylor. N.B.D. Know what I’m saying? Hell. Sutton’s already done her.”
Done her. Jack knows what this means. Nods gravely.
Tory smokes. He looks sidelong at Jack. “Sutton says she got both his balls in her mouth, at the same time.”
This, to Jack, sounds wrong. He wrestles with a mental picture of shy-but-perky Cathy DeLong, varsity football Peppette, vaguely arranged ass-up and head south between the splayed hairy legs of the pothead, Tommy Sutton. “Is that good?” he wonders, aloud.
A geyser of beer spews from Tory’s mouth. He’s laughing. After a worried moment, Jack joins in, slowly convincing himself that he meant it to be funny.
Tory offers Jack the crooked cigarette. Jack accepts, slips it between his dry lips, but doesn’t smoke. His mouth is cotton. Tory swigs the Mickey’s and considers the ocean again.
After what he believes to be a reasonable interval, Jack tries to give the cigarette back. Tory waves it away. “All yours, man.”
“I . . . no, better not. My, you know, mom. If she gets a whiff, on my breath—”
Tory holds up an Oreo. “What do you think these are for? Kills the stink completely.”
In point of fact, Jack thought the cookies were for when Tory got hungry. But he keeps the cigarette. Puffs and puffs and puffs without inhaling, nevertheless beginning to feel kind of tingly and sick. The Mickey’s drained, Tory throws it down into a pile of scrap lumber below, where the jade glass shatters.
“You know what’s on those islands?” Tory is pointing west, into the haze.
“Goats.” Jack did a report on the Channel Islands in fourth grade. “Sheep, sea lions, seals, gulls, fossils.”
Tory looks disappointed. For a moment Jack wonders if Tory wanted to tell him this himself, or did Tory, in fact, believe that there was something else out there?
“But at some point,” Jack continues, “somebody brought all these goats out there, and they let them go wild—” Tory’s bored already, but Jack’s in too deep, he has to finish— “and they just kept breeding and breeding and now there’s thousands of wild goats and nobody knows what to do with them. It’s messed up. Sometimes they let people go out and hunt them and junk.”
Tory shrugs. “Yeah, well I know for a fact there’s frat guys that go out there and, you know, fuck the goats. Part of the initiation.”
Jack’s horror and speculation prevent him (oh Jesus) from processing Tory’s subsequent spare but graphic (goats!) recitation of this apparently long-standing UCSB Greek system sacrament.
“Oh, man,” Jack says, when Tory finishes. “Who told you that?”
“I get things here and there. You know. And what I know, man—well, I know what really goes on. It’s like, they teach you one thing. But what really goes on? Is something else.”
Wind comes through the house like an emotion, filling it with an easy silence, pushing paper scraps around in corners and sifting the sawdust.
“The guys all said you were gonna kill me,” Jack confesses.
“You know—some of the guys—” Jack hesitates, sensing a misstep here, accidental betrayal in the making. Will Tory kill them?
“—Christ, they’re such pussies,” Tory says.
Jack’s empty grin, like a lawn jockey’s, cuts cold and meaningless.
“They don’t get it,” Tory is saying, “they’re full of shit. It comes down to one thing and one thing only.”
Jack wonders: What? What one thing?
“I mean, hey. Girls’ll come, and girls’ll go. But you and me—?” Tory deliberately leaves the sentence hanging there, looking at Jack, without expression, as if the completion of his thought is so obvious as to be unnecessary, as if it’s implicit.
And Jack nods, pretending he knows, fourteen in full, confounded, confirmed, content. He gazes out across the lazy green ramble of the seaside city he has always known to be home.
Out toward a colorless ocean, and the vague, private islands of goats.
Shapes, slender whale-grey phantasms, stumble from the foaming tide.
The roar of a storm-swelled ocean thunders low from the marine layer beyond them.
Black with bits of winter-white flesh, unzipped wet suits, hoods flapping behind them like weird rubber cowls of some long-submerged Benedictine order, the taller of the two young men is hauling his gasping companion to the shallows of Rincon Beach.
Tory and Jack are twenty.
“Little cocksucking Valley shit fucking cut me off!” Tory barks. Jack eases his friend down, then runs back to chase their long boards before they float away.
By the time Jack returns with their sticks, Tory is spitting seawater and blinking the salt and sand out of his eyes. “Goddamn it! They shouldn’t even fucking be out here!”
“He’s a pup. They’re Valley pups. Forget about it.” Jack drags the surfboards beyond the reach of the tide. “You’re welcome, by the way. Thank God for Junior Lifesaving, huh?”
“Never took it.”
Farther up the beach, where clumps of clothes and towels and flip-flops are waiting, Jack strips down the top of his wet suit. Tory glares back at the water. Three more surfers are coming in. Day-Glo stripes on high-fashion wet suits, they’re barely teenagers. Sun-bleached hair. Poolside San Fernando Valley tans, Calabasas or Woodland Hills.
“I’m only saying. Somebody should explain the concept to those guys.”
“There’s a concept?”
“Priority. Do not drop in on another man’s wave. The surfer who is closest to the breaking wave has priority.”
“He was already up.”
“Because he jumped my line.”
“Since when have you ever cared about the rules?”
“Maybe you should’ve let a geek have his ride. Take the next wave. You knew he was gonna bail, Tory.”
“These are my waves.”
“That is correct.” Tory starts to walk toward the three surfers. Amiable: “I just want to explain the concept to this dickhead.”
Jack turns his back, on Tory and the ocean. Picks up his towel and begins to dry off. He feels a chill, but not the kind you get from cold air. He knows what’s coming. He tries not to think about what his options are.
Tory intercepts the three surfers down the beach as they come out of the water. They’ve seen him coming. The smallest kid puts a hand up, a gesture of genuine apology. Without any warning, Tory attacks him. Every punch connects, vicious.
Jack rubs the towel in his thick hair. The roar of the surf overpowers the sound of feet splashing in shallow tidal water, fists slapping skin, the kid’s screams for help. Dropping his towel, Jack wraps his clothes together and puts them on his board to keep them clear of the sand. He doesn’t want to look. If he can’t hear it, and he doesn’t see it, does it exist? A smoldering sun flares hot behind Jack’s head for an instant, lending him a sudden, dim halo. He feels its heat. He cannot stop himself. He looks.
What he sees down-beach, in the water, of course, requires him to run.
He reaches Tory and pulls him away from the gasping teenager whose eyes are already swollen red, shut, a pink slick of blood from split lips draining down his chin and neck and hairless, baby-fat chest.
Tory’s fury turns. He lashes out blindly, screaming incoherently, the gist of which suggests Jack mind his own fucking business, which—in an instant—Jack knows is good advice because Tory’s wildly thrown, bone-hard fist connects with the side of Jack’s head and a pain of molten shrieking sharpness splits through Jack’s eye and buries itself deep inside his skull. His body twists, dissolves, nausea washing over him, and he vomits into the water.
Now the Valley dudes are hauling their bloody companion away, and Jack is stumbling backward, and Tory, defused, is looking on in surprise, as if he just happened upon an accident. Jack’s thoughts in this moment are incredibly clear on one point: something bad has happened something bad has happened something bad has bad has bad has happened—has—has—
“Jack—hold still—let me look at it—”
“Oh Jesusfuck oh—”
“Get away from me!”
“Jack, will you let me look at your eye? Shit—here—sorry— but what is fucking wrong with you? You know? Don’t ever do that. Don’t ever try to—”
“Get out. Of my way.”
Then, Tory, seeing it: “Oh man. Oh fuck.”
“Here put this—at least it’s—you just don’t—don’t do that, Jack, you just don’t—”
And Jack has never felt this kind of pain before and never will again, and never will shake the memory of the dull, black, searing screw someone is bearing down on, driving deep beneath the socket of his eye. All he can think about is the pain. Tory’s voice is distant, something overheard.
“It’s not bleeding. It’s okay.”
They’re moving. Up the beach. The sand, on the soles of his feet, burns.
Jack looks up into the sun. It burns through the haze, and bleaches everything white.
Now, a woman, improbably beautiful, coiled naked in the low hills of a white down duvet, waits for Jack, hopes crashing. Her platinum hair is tangled, her face flushed from lovemaking just minutes ago, eyes liquid, thighs slick. She’s three weeks past forty.
A toilet flushes. Watching him come out from the bathroom and circle the bed, Hannah’s face is willfully empty of emotion, as if to suggest it doesn’t matter what Jack does now, which only underlines the utter desperation that overtakes her despite the Ativan she popped as soon as he uncoupled and rolled out of bed.
Golf tees spill, scatter across the red Spanish pavers from the pocket of his shorts. He gropes for them. “Shit.”
“Don’t worry about it. Rosaria will clean up in here later.” Hannah stretches out, her breasts, nearly perfect spheres, levitating, defying all Newton’s laws of gravity. “Unless you can’t afford to waste the tees. Do you need money?” Then she covers her mouth, as if coy. “Oops. Sorry. Oh, Hannah, you castrating little slut.”
He smiles mechanically, pulls the baggy shorts up his legs, in a hurry, buttons them, feeling once again the urgent need to get out. White polo shirt. High-tech huaraches.
“I didn’t mean it.” Her voice reaches for him, clutches at him. He’s got to walk out now. “Shit. I’m not good at this part. Listen, baby, what if we—” She stops, he’s looking back at her. “No,” she realizes. Tears well in her eyes. “No.”
Tears, from cold blue eyes.
He leans down and kisses her forehead lightly before he walks out.
Jack is thirty-five.
It’s the year of the Rat.
Later, in his apartment, Jack’s face, like the rest of him, is glazed with sweat from the midday L.A. heat.
His eyes are closed. Only one of them needs to be. He is blind if he opens the wrong one, but that seldom happens and he doesn’t think about it. A world of diminished perspective is, for
Jack, status quo. Colors explode against the inside of his eyelid, blossom with the hum of an electric fan. Damp tendrils of his hair tremble in the machine-made breeze.
A phone is ringing.
Jack’s eyes open. He waits.
He’s pretty sure it’s Hannah.
Calculating: she would still be in bed. He smells her perfume, Vera Wang, mixed with the residue of their recent, workmanlike act of copulation. It’s a smell, he decides, that is more than a little unpleasant.
The phone rings, and rings, and rings.
An off-key beep, followed by a moment of silence, then a freakishly compressed voice surges through the cheap speaker of the answering machine.
“Jack?” Jack doesn’t move. “Hey, Jack, it’s Tory. Are you there, man? Jack?” Tory. Shit. “You left your cell phone here.”
“Must’ve been, I don’t know, yesterday? And you didn’t fucking notice? I mean, hell, what kind of actor are you, Jack? I mean, yo, it’s kind of like that joke about the actor who comes home, his wife’s been raped by his agent, his kids sold into white slavery, his house burned to the ground, and the guy’s like, ‘My agent came to my house?’” Tory laughs, then lapses into silence. Expecting Jack to pick up, irritated that he doesn’t. A short, frustrated intake of breath: “Okay. Anyway. Your phone’s here. Call me. I’m home.”
Dial tone. Silence. Jack closes his eyes again. Cell phone. Fuck. Goddamn it. Shit.
He imagines the Hope Ranch house, sun through the French doors, Tory standing in the middle of the cavernous ballroom, holding Jack’s cheap Nokia like it’s some kind of radioactive waste, his eyes dead, pretty and mean in the way married money will spoil the flesh and rot the soul. When Tory’s short fuse is lit, the slender muscles of his neck will tighten and relax, tighten and relax.
Wondering about Jack’s fucking phone.
Jack could have left it. That’s possible. Not yesterday, but Tuesday, when he was last up there, helping Tory clean out the Montecito garage before the old house went on the market. But two days had passed. Tory is right. It’s inconceivable Jack wouldn’t know his phone was gone.
A dull, tingling, vacant rolling dread gathers in Jack’s chest, slow crawling, connected to nothing, borne of the boy’s unknown, the boy’s unknowable, and the immutable yearning for acceptance by that which can never give it. Tory was Jack’s event horizon, and, once inside his gravitational pull, falling into the black hole was a certainty. That they have remained friends is as baffling to Jack as the compressed planes of his halved vision. And what has happened with Hannah is so primal that Jack knows, has known from the beginning, it would, must, inevitably catalyze a spectacular meltdown.
Jack doesn’t, however, regret what he’s done.
His mind calculates. If he’d left the phone at Tory’s on Tuesday, not today after fucking Hannah (twice) at noon and then telling her the affair was over—if he’d really left the phone on Tuesday while cleaning the old house and discovered it missing when he got back to L.A. and didn’t know where it was or where he’d left it and wasn’t patient enough to retrace his steps since he was, say, waiting for a call from his agent—couldn’t Jack simply have replaced it? Visit a T-Mobile store, buy a new calling plan, get the free RAZR. After all, Jack had been talking about giving Verizon the shitcan for months because he kept losing the signal on Olympic between Roxbury and McCarthy Vista, a vortex of wireless cross-cancellation so frustrating that a few of Jack’s other actor friends had stopped driving the Olympic corridor altogether.
Jack has a new phone. Which is why he didn’t realize (or care) that the old one was at Tory’s. Which explains everything except why it was in the master bedroom. Well, Rosario could have found it and put it there, not knowing whose it was, which works, until Tory asks Rosario—
—or Jack could just talk to Hannah and she—
—no, talking to Hannah would—
—talking to Hannah wouldn’t—
—talking with Hannah, Jesus—
—but, nevertheless, the thing with the new phone is solid. Who the hell knows how it got upstairs into the bedroom (if that was, in fact, where Tory found it)? Jack will go out now and get a new one, go right to the store, now, and get a new one—
—or just go—
And Tory? Tory, after racking the cordless house phone in its cradle, will cross his cavernous foyer and hurry up his wide stone staircase, past the broken remains of Jack’s Nokia along the baseboard of the upstairs hallway not far from the dent in the hand-trowelled plaster where it hit and exploded after Tory fastballed it from the bedroom, their grand white master bedroom, where everything is slightly in disarray, women’s clothes scattered, bed unmade, the single golf tee Jack missed and Tory will find, under the bed, behind the corner of the duvet.
He’ll walk to a carved set of double doors salvaged from some foreclosed Oaxacan hacienda, and open them, to stare inside at the Italian marble tile tomb his wife modestly calls their master bathroom. Faint pink tendrils swirl in the tepid water of the massive tub each time another drop plummets from the flat-mouthed Italian spigot.
And like a commuter looking at a traffic accident from a passing car, Tory’s expression will never change. He’ll pull the tub drain, use the fluffy white bath towels to wipe the basin, drop the same towels on the marble floor and mop up the motley pattern of overlapping, bloody-wet shoeprints the EMTs left in the course of their recent visit, using his foot to push the towels around.
On the antique dresser is the teak brush from Fiji that Tory’s mother gave him for his tenth birthday. Tory will brush his hair, worried that it seems thinner than yesterday, possibly irritated by the prospect of early male pattern baldness when Jack’s hair is, no question, healthier and thicker and in no danger of leaving. Tory will brush his hair serenaded by the vacant thrum of the tub draining.
Jack, however, will only know that Tory called.