Excerpt

Plastic

Frank Strausser

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Plastic, a novel of psychological suspense from Frank Strausser. When a young pop star is gruesomely beaten, a plastic surgeon unsuccessfully attempts to restore the starlet to her former beauty, only to realize he’s part of a bigger plot to cover up all evidence of the assault.

After Barone’s call, Previn battled the typical nighttime congestion along the Sunset Strip and retraced his steps to the Chateau. After leaving almost a full bottle of Bollinger sitting in ice when he’d left dinner with Helen, it was surely the last place on earth he wanted to go. The waiter had actually asked him if he’d like to take it home. 

Previn’s car whizzed along through a blur of taillights. A building-sized ad loomed out of a blood red background, ‘How to Get Away With MURDER.’ Billboards were everywhere. The new Angelina Jolie. Calvin Klein underwear. A huge bottle of Absolut. Megan Fox lying in a bikini. The image of Nick Valentine dropping from the sky.

He pulled into the parking garage at the Chateau Marmont, where he handed the car to the same valet as earlier. He lingered with his medical bag in hand and wondered if he’d have to call Barone for more instructions as to where he had to go when a youngish woman with an edgy, intense red dye job approached. “You wouldn’t’t happen to be Dr. Previn, would you?”

“Yeah.” 

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“I’m Rox. Johnny Tout is over here,” she said, carrying her iPhone in one hand and walking with authority. Previn guessed she was Tout’s personal assistant. It seemed like everyone in Hollywood had at least one. Previn assumed that Tout worked with or was associated in some way with Barone. But now that he was there, he wished he had asked Barone about Johnny Tout.

To his surprise, she didn’t’t lead him into the hotel, but deeper into the garage. Jammed with parked cars, it wasn’t a rectangular space, but an L-shaped one. Previn followed his guide to a black limo parked around the bend. The woman knocked on the dark window and the door opened.

A man with sun-damaged, leathery skin emerged, introducing himself as Johnny Tout. He appeared to be fifty, if a day, with a lot of Peter Pan about him. The bright green paisley shirt with its ultra-high collar beneath a rumpled gray sports coat, skintight black slacks, and pointed boots said, “Look at me!” He was a look-at-me kind of guy.

Clearly, Tout worked out with a personal trainer. But for all that, he wore all his years and then some. Smoking may have contributed. Drink. Stress. Most notable were the bags under his eyes. Previn could not look at his face without wanting to reach for his scalpel.

“I won’t bother you with small talk,” he said very quietly in a guttural Australian twang.  “She’s in there.” He pointed to the car.

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Previn found a young blonde woman sprawled out on the back seat. Bloodied paper towels were scattered everywhere. Her hair and what was a scant silver skirt, her sole attire, were covered in dried blood. He couldn’t tell if she was conscious or not as her head was turned away from him. 

With the greatest gentleness, he reached down and with one hand guided her face round, so he could see it better in the poor light. He still couldn’t. The problem was there were wads of paper towels clinging to the wounds on her face. To touch them would only cause her pain.  Askew, her nose was probably broken, but checking it was a low priority.

His attention was drawn to the aluminum foil-like wrap that so inadequately covered her when he suddenly recalled seeing her walk past him only a few hours before as Helen was asking for the divorce. He’d been unable to take his eyes off her. And now here she was.

She let out a faint moan and waved him off, and then became still again. He released her chin and moved to get up, only to notice her dress was torn. Difficult not to think assault and battery.

When Previn got out of the limo, Tout motioned to him to wait, finished his telephone conversation then handed the phone to his assistant who continued talking into it.

“Well?” Tout asked in a near whisper.

“We better call an ambulance.”

“That bad?” 

It was just this sort of enabling, irresponsible behavior that led to Whitney Houston dying in a hotel bathtub. 

“You understand, I’m sure, it’s hard to give her a really proper examination . . . in a parked car,” Previn said, affecting a tone of this-is-my-considered-opinion. He thought it important to establish up front that for him, the wily veteran, this was business as usual. And it was, up to a point. But the truth was, while he’d viewed many horrible wounds, he rarely went out into the field like this. “I recommend Cedars.”

“No way.”

“It’s a great hospital,” Previn replied. 

“I said, no!” Tout continued in an undertone.

“You don’t think . . .?” Previn stopped himself. There was no point in pressing until he understood Tout’s objection. “When did this happen?” Previn continued, trying a different tact.

“Thirty-seven minutes ago.” Tout hesitated. “Look, I don’t want to keep you in the dark. Barone said you’re one of us. Artists Unlimited, they dig you, mate.”

“I know.”

He looked around and lowered his voice. “She went through a window. Messy business.  Drunk.  Walked right into it.” He smacked his hands together like a thunderclap.

“That it?” Previn asked, raising his eyebrow. 

“May have done some coke, y’ know.”

“She’s pretty out of it.”

“Oh, I gave her Valium.”

Previn couldn’t’t contain his annoyance. “You gave her Valium?”

Tout motioned for him to keep his voice down. “I didn’t’t know what to do.” 

“Get her to a hospital,” Previn announced.

Rox closed the case around her iPhone, then came over and stood beside Tout. He looked at her impatiently then turned back to Previn. “I don’t understand.  You’re a surgeon.”

Previn stared at Tout for a long time. He wasn’t entirely disagreeable. The kind of man who would go down well with a few drinks at the bar, one place where his apparent lack of candor would hardly be a shortcoming. No doubt, he had many entertaining stories to tell.  And Previn loved a good story.

Rox’s phone broke the impasse. She stepped only a few feet from them and began to engage in an intense conversation. Previn looked away but caught most of it.

“Stay away from Johnny, Sid!” Rox said. “He doesn’t want to hear from you. You’ll set him off again. Yeah, we’re talking to him now.”

Previn turned back to Tout. “The girl . . .  she’s in a bad way. We’d have to do lab work.  I don’t even know her blood type.”

“You’re fucking with me!” Tout barked suddenly at full volume. “They said . . . Barone, he . . . I know you’re good. You can handle this.”

Rox joined them again.

“I gotta call Barone,” Previn said.

Tout grabbed Previn’s hand before he could get his phone. “Don’t complicate this.  He asked you here.”

“It’s after midnight. You got a drugged-up woman lying in the back of a car with facial lacerations.”

“Okay. Okay. We’re tits up. I get it.”

“You get it? You get it? You don’t—”

Tout put his hand on Previn’s shoulder and dropped his voice. “We’re on the same side here.”

Previn stared at Tout and Rox. 

“This is my cock-up,” Tout said at last. “I should have leveled with you right away.”

Previn nodded.

Tout looked around, as if to be absolutely certain they were alone and lowered his voice.  “That woman in there . . .  is Fay Wray.”

“She’s a singer, right?”

“A singer?”

“She’s the shit,” Rox replied. “They call her ‘The Face.’ She’s that beautiful.”

Previn was still trying to stomach the idea that Tout had given her a valium after her injury.  Who did that? It was just this sort of enabling, irresponsible behavior that led to Whitney Houston dying in a hotel bathtub. 

“It’s like this,” Previn said. “I’m not a paramedic. There’s malpractice.”

Tout was in a sudden rage. “What kind of doctor are you? She’s about to bleed to death!”

Previn wasn’t used to having to contend with bombastic people like Tout. What’s more, he didn’t like it.  A surgeon is the boss, indeed the benevolent dictator, and his celebrity patients usually didn’t bring intermediaries. 

Previn could only think that Barone didn’t know the extent of this woman’s plight. What began as a favor . . .?  It seemed like this was asking so much more of him. He walked back to the car again and looked in. She wasn’t about to bleed to death. The bleeding had mostly stopped, which is not to say that to the unpracticed eye she didn’t look half-dead. She definitely needed medical attention.

“Okay. Follow me.”   

Tout walked with Rox back to the limo. Previn got into his car, but as he passed the limo, Tout appeared at the passenger window. He reluctantly opened the door and Tout climbed in, leaving Rox to ride with Fay. The acrid stench of Tout’s cologne announced itself so forcefully, Previn was quick to put down the top again.

The last thing Previn could have imagined at the start of the evening was that he’d be driving back to his surgical facility with someone like Tout. He watched with annoyance as Tout adjusted the charcoal leather seat so that it was in a sharp recline. Previn liked both seats upright.

“What a night!” Tout said.

Indeed! Previn was having one of those Sunset Blvd. moments. The William Holden character is lying face down in the pool, dead, and asks in the voice over, “You’re probably wondering how I got here.” 

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From PLASTIC. Used with the permission of the publisher, Rare Bird. Copyright © 2019 by Frank Strausser.




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