Death By Misfortune
by A.M. Riley

an excerpt


The house had been featured on the cover of the June issue of Sunset Magazine. Situated on the uppermost ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains, it afforded a panoramic view of the Los Angeles skyline, the San Fernando Valley and, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean.

Sunset Magazine did not usually showcase the homes of the rich and famous. But this home was an exception. The article had made much of the house's ergonomic design, its natural lines, the xeriscaped grounds. And the extensive collection of contemporary American photographers' prints lining the walls inside.

It was possibly the most politically correct display of wealth in Los Angeles County.

"Yes, I know. Don't worry." Sitting amidst the rumpled covers of a California king-sized bed, below a life-sized photograph of Andy Warhol shot by a renowned photographer, James Griffen, the owner of the house, spoke into his BlackBerry.

His hair was damp; his toned, tanned body glowed with post-shower moisture. He swirled the ice in his drink as he listened patiently to his caller. "It took me two hours to calm Becket down, but we're back on track," he said, lifting his head to gaze through the floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows at the patio and pool beyond, where the man in question sat waiting.

Becket Russell had also been featured in a periodical at one time. One of those obscure, literary quarterlies that featured the work of young, promising authors. The periodical had long since gone out of business, the promising work out of print.

Griffen smiled to himself and said into his phone, "Never mind how I did it. Well, that's why you handle the money and I handle the personnel. Right?"

The pool by which Becket sat was a so-called ‘Infinity' pool. Built so that it hugged the cliff's edge, the water appeared about to spill into the sky. It had been photographed in the daytime, when the distant beach and ocean could be seen, but it ought to have been presented at night when the dark water really did seem to fall into the abyss of the night, ripples a silvery reflection of stars and moonlight, as if the swimmers would bathe in eternity.

Becket turned his head when he heard the sliding door open behind him. "James, this view is embarrassing. It's as if you live on Olympus."

James Griffen smiled. "Can I freshen your drink, Becket?"

"No thanks. I've got to manage the roads getting out of here somehow."

They were high enough that any sound below was muted and the life in the homes beneath his estate trivial and distant. The clink of the ice in Griffen's glass was loud. "More effective than guard dogs, this location," he said.

Becket bowed his dark head. "I had wondered if the purpose wasn't to keep your victims from escaping."

Griffen came up behind Becket and lay his hand on the back of his neck where the unbuttoned shirt hung loosely open. "Is that what this was about tonight, Becket? Were you feeling victimized?" The gesture may have been fatherly, but the brush of thumb on Becket's neck was not.

"No, of course not."

"I thought we'd settled this, Becket. There's no reason to be concerned. I've sent Sylvie a consolation prize and she hasn't any legal recourse to speak of."

"I'm not concerned about legalities, James. It's the repercussions that worry me."

"Repercussions? What repercussions?"

Becket gave him an expressive look. His cell phone, sitting on the table next to his glass, began to vibrate. James Griffen watched him pick it up and check the caller ID.


"It's my assistant." Becket forwarded the call to voice mail.

"Ah, the one who looks like a muscled Ron Howard? You have all the luck with assistants, Becket. I always get near-sighted women with hormone disorders."

"He' s good at his job," said Becket. "As it happens."

Griffen grinned. "I'm sure he is."

The sliding glass doors at the other end of the house opened and the silhouette of a slim young woman appeared there.


Becket's head turned just slightly. In the light from the house one couldn't really see his expression. Just the white skin, dark lashes. A shadow at the corner of his mouth. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you had another guest."

"She was having a nap," said Griffen easily. "You haven't interrupted anything."

"I'm relieved," said Becket, his tone just a little dry.

The girl padded into the lights that encircled the pool area. She wore a thong and nothing else, and walked as if her enhanced bosoms were leading her. "Jimmy? Are you coming back in?"

"In a minute." Griffen quickly swallowed the rest of his drink, setting the highball glass on the table with the finality of a judge's gavel on the block.

"Just do your job and stop worrying, Becket. Let Tom do what he does. And let me do what I do." Griffen looked toward the sliding glass doors through which the nubile young thing had retreated.

The smile on Becket's handsome face was like the perfect dry martini. Mostly amused, with just a hint of bitter. "Yes, sir, Mr. Griffen."

Chapter One

Smog hung over the 101 Freeway like a heavy eyelid, the pale morning sun peering through. Its thin white light spread across the parking lot of Universal Studios, where a security guard in his hut opened the morning paper to the entertainment section, catching a few minutes of relaxation before the executives began arriving at his gate.

Behind him, the reflective windows of Shipping and Receiving were papered with weathered old instructions on the proper dispersal of packages and film cans. Leaning against these windows, knee bent so one work-booted foot could rest on the glass, a red-headed man in his early twenties, in a blue plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up, muscled arms folded tight over his chest, tried to stay awake. A BlackBerry clipped to his belt, its companion Bluetooth blinking steadily on one ear, and the lanyard with glossy IDs slung around his neck in lieu of a tie, would have marked him to anyone who knew as a studio employee.

Jeremy Reilly was second assistant to Becket Russell, the first AD on director, James Griffen's latest movie. He was the envy of his film school friends. He was also cold in that bone-deep way that comes of no sleep and too much caffeine. Whatever glamour there is in Hollywood, none of it remains in the back lots of studios at six-thirty a.m.

Jeremy's head jerked as he caught himself dozing off again and he pressed a button on his BlackBerry. "Leslie?" he snapped at the voicemail that picked up. "Goddamn it, where the hell are you? I've been paging you for an hour." He disconnected, and folded his arms tighter around the cold in his bones, fighting off sleep. Seconds later, the blinking Bluetooth at his ear bleeped.

"Jeremy!" screamed Leslie, the editorial PA. "I'm so so sorry. Fuck. I mean, well yeah fuck, it's my car, stupid piece of..."

"I've been up all night," Jeremy declared.

"I know. Oh, I'm so sorry. I can't get it to start."

"Call Triple A."

"Yes, what a fabulous idea," said Leslie. "I'll do that as soon as I can afford their service."

"Goddammit, Leslie." Jeremy had recommended Leslie for this job, so his reputation was invested, to an extent, in how well Leslie performed.

"I was ferrying people back and forth all night to the party and I think my alternator pooped out again," said Leslie. "I swear to God, Jeremy, as soon as I can afford five hundred bucks to have it replaced, I will..."

Jeremy grimaced. The pay at their level of production was not scaled to the cost of living in Los Angeles. And cars weren't luxuries; they were necessities. Mass transit was a joke. Cabs were too expensive. He rubbed his sideburns, thinking. "I'll come get you. Call Adam and have him deliver the dailies. Don't tell him about your car."

"W-w...okay," said Leslie.

"I'll be there in thirty minutes." Jeremy pressed the button that disconnected his phone, trying to remember where he'd last parked his car.

* * *

The graffiti on the outside of Leslie's apartment building appeared to have received a new layer of enthused artistic embellishment since Jeremy had last been there.

Jeremy double-parked, called Leslie on his Bluetooth and waited, staring down a man in an Oakland Raiders jacket, head encased in a hat that resembled a black nylon stocking. The man stared back until Leslie had climbed into Jeremy's car.

"Oh my God, the elevator in my building smells like a urinal." Leslie rifled through Jeremy's glove box, pulling napkins, empty CD cases, and a dozen gas receipts out onto the floor. "Don't you have any wipes?"

"Check the back," said Jeremy. His Bluetooth blipped and he glanced at the caller ID on the phone at his elbow. "Morning, boss," he said.

"His master's voice," said Leslie, low.

"Christ, Jeremy, you sound terrible," Becket said, more aggravated than concerned. "I just got in."

"DVD burns on your chair," said Jeremy.

"I saw them. Guess who isn't on the set again..." Becket's voice was tight with vexation.

"I don't know," said Jeremy.

"DePaul, of course. Mr. ‘oh, I'm sorry, I forgot to charge my phone'," said Becket. "He's not in his trailer. His PA says he hasn't seen him since last night."

"DePaul always makes call," said Jeremy. Being the voice of reason during one of Becket's meltdown's was part of his job.

"And I'll need another copy of that trailer burn. Griffen misplaced his last night."

"I already ordered duplicates. Just in case," said Jeremy.

"Jeremy, you're a miracle. Oh, and the dailies were late."

Fuck. "Adam was supposed to deliver them."

"He did, but he was late."

"I'm sorry. I'll talk to him." Jeremy cast an evil look at Leslie, who cringed.

"I don't know what I'd do without you, Jeremy," said Becket. "Oh, and..." he was interrupted once more by the other voice and he said instead, "I'll see you at the lot."

"Right, boss." Jeremy disconnected.

"Your cheeks are pink," Leslie observed.

"Shut up." Jeremy could feel the heat in his face now that Leslie mentioned it. "I'm just tired."

"He's a dragon, Jeremy. He eats boys like you for breakfast."

Jeremy considered that he wouldn't mind Becket eating him for breakfast, lunch or dinner. "I'm not a boy. And he's a great mentor."

"I'll bet." Leslie had finished methodically cleaning his long fingers with the box of hand wipes he'd found in the debris of Jeremy's car. Now he flipped down the passenger side visor and began playing with his immaculate hair. "Maybe if you had a real relationship you wouldn't pine after the unattainable."

"What pining? You're crazy. And Becket doesn't give me time for a relationship."

"This is my point," said Leslie.

Jeremy chose not to pursue this argument. If Leslie knew the truth, he'd beat Jeremy over the head with his clipboard. "Where did you see DePaul last night?"

"The Little Prince?" asked Leslie, dryly. "Had his head in the toilet bowl last I saw him."

"Dammit, Leslie. He's not supposed to drink."

"What Hollywood bartender would refuse Robert DePaul a drink?" said Leslie.

Jeremy grimaced. It was true. "Who drove him home?"

"Did he go home?" Leslie brushed at an invisible mark on his cheek, just like a cat combing its whiskers. "I thought he and the fortune-teller had a private session."

"What? Oh, hell, Leslie. That woman is twice his age."

"I don't think the Little Prince discriminates," said Leslie. "Especially when he's high."

"We're supposed to keep him out of trouble, Les."

"Hey, you're the people person. I just make obeisance whilst doing what I'm told," Leslie shrugged. "Did you talk to her, by the way? She was marvelous."

"Who? The fortune-teller? I was in a telecine bay most of the night with a flatulent editor, Les. I didn't have time to have my cards read."

"Old pooter Peter?" Leslie grinned. "You poor thing. Well, she told me I'd meet a handsome man."

"You work in the film industry. That's a no-brainer."

"Hush. Don't you believe in fate?"

"I believe in covering all possible contingencies," said Jeremy. He touched his Bluetooth. "Beth Ann? Did DePaul call for a car last night?" While he waited for their transportation clerk to check DePaul's last known location, he turned into the lot.

Beth Ann came back on the line and reported that DePaul had been driven back to James Griffen's residence with the director at ten p.m.

"Thanks, Beth Ann." Jeremy disconnected and dialed Becket's number with the flick of the fingers on one hand, his eyes never leaving the road in front of him. "Becket? DePaul went home with Griffen last night. Do you want me to call Griffen's assistant?"

"I see," said Becket. "No, Jeremy, I'll take care of it. Thank you." He disconnected.