Seattle, Washington. July 17. 3:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.
The impeccably tailored Tom Ford tuxedo fit Clint Straker’s muscular, six-foot frame like a second skin and showed no sign of the two knives and the garrote sewn into the lining. He was one of the two hundred guests at a garden party on the back lawn of international shipping magnate Martin Hung’s massive lakefront estate. They were all there to honor Hung on his fifty-fifth birthday. Straker was there to make sure Hung didn’t celebrate his fifty-sixth.
“Hung may be the leader of the world’s largest sex slavery ring but you have to admire his beautiful home and its feng shui,” said Kenny Wu, Straker’s local contact and the man who’d secured him an invitation to the party. Wu’s tuxedo was one size too big for his bony body and made him look like a ridiculously overdressed scarecrow. “See how the house is tucked into the hillside and faces the water? That creates an unobstructed path for the chi.”
Straker’s gaze was on a beautiful Asian woman in a white dress so sheer that she might as well have been wearing nothing at all. “Chi?”
“The positive life force.”
“Good to know,” Straker said and picked up two full champagne glasses from a passing waiter. “Be seeing you, Wu.”
“Where are you going?”
Straker tipped his head toward the woman. “To create an unobstructed path for my chi.”
Ian Ludlow finished reading aloud from his book and smiled, pleased with the last line and with himself for being clever enough to write it. Ian Ludlow finished reading aloud from his book and smiled, pleased with the last line and with himself for being clever enough to write it. He stood at a wobbly lectern beside a table covered with hard- cover copies of his latest Clint Straker thriller, The Dead Never Forget, and paperback copies of the previous six titles in his New York Times bestselling series. His book covers all featured the silhouette of his gun-toting action hero set against a backdrop of explosions, international landmarks, sports cars, and beautiful women with enormous boobs.
He was in Seattle, the first stop in a six-city, ten-day publicity tour for his new book. Today he was speaking at a boho-chic bookstore where everybody reeked of weed and only eight people showed up for his signing. Ian didn’t care about the low turnout. He was on a paid vacation.
“I think that excerpt sums up the essence of Clint Straker and what makes him so attractive to men and women alike,” Ian told his audience, who sat scattered among the four rows of chairs in front of him. “Any questions?”
A young guy in a faded University of Washington sweatshirt spoke up. “How much do you share in common with Clint Straker?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Ian asked the audience. “Look at me.”
They did. What they saw was a guy on the dark side of thirty with the soft body of someone whose idea of exercise was walking into McDonald’s rather than using the drive-through. His right arm was in a blue cast and locked at a ninety-degree angle but he wasn’t wearing a sling. Instead, he just hooked his right thumb in the gap above one of the closed buttons of his untucked dress shirt to support the weight of his broken arm. He wore fashionably faded jeans and white Nikes. By contrast, Clint Straker was physically perfect, a six-foot-tall Special Forces vet who looked great wearing anything and could be mistaken for the model for Michelangelo’s David when he wore nothing at all. He was a spy for hire, a deductive genius and an unstoppable killing machine who didn’t salute any flag or fight for any political or religious ideology except his own personal moral code.
“Clint Straker can beat up three ninjas using only a napkin as a weapon,” Ian said. “But I’ve never hit anybody in my life and I’m a complete klutz. A few weeks ago, I accidentally blew up my house.”
Which was a big reason why he was glad to be on a book tour. He was going to be living out of a suitcase for a while and he much preferred to do it at his publisher’s expense rather than his own. While he was on tour, they paid for his accommodations and his meals, too. It was a sweet deal and the timing was perfect. He wondered if there was a way to extend the tour another week or two.
“So where did Clint come from?” the young man asked.
“Out of misery and desperation. I was in my third year as a writer on the TV series Hollywood & the Vine—”
The words were barely out of his mouth when someone interrupted and intoned, in a deep announcer’s voice: “Half man, half plant, all cop.” Some people laughed and then it seemed like everybody in the store started singing the show’s theme song, which was basically the chorus of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” with very different lyrics.
Ooooh you heard about that cop Vine A plant who can’t stand crime
You get caught, you’re gonna do time . . . Honey, honey yeah . . .
Ian smiled good-naturedly and looked at the back of the room to see how this newfound attention was playing with Vince, the scraggly-bearded store manager, and Margo, the twentysomething “author escort” with short-cropped deep-black hair who’d been hired by his publisher to drive him around Seattle. Vince looked as if he’d been startled out of a nap but Margo was busy texting, seemingly oblivious to what was going on.
It was suddenly important to Ian that he win Margo’s attention. She was bone thin and braless in a retro tie-dyed T-shirt, torn jeans, and flip-flops. She wasn’t his type at all, not that he’d turn her down if she threw herself at him, but she was a barometer of sorts. She was being paid to show an interest in him and if she was bored, it didn’t say much for how his performance was going over with the people who weren’t getting paid to be there.
Ian went on with his story, which he’d told a thousand times before. It usually got him big laughs and lots of sympathy.
“I was writing for a shrub with a badge. It was soul crushing. So I escaped into the action-packed world of Clint Straker and before I knew it, I had a novel. I sold the book, left the show, and my publishing career took off.”
Book money wasn’t quite as good as TV money but he was a single guy without much overhead, especially now that his house was in ashes and he liked being in control of his own creative life. He didn’t have to write anything he didn’t want to anymore and that was worth a slight drop in his income. The only things he didn’t like about being an author instead of a TV writer were writing alone and buying his own lunch.
A frizzy-haired woman in the audience, dressed in a halter top that looked like it was hand-woven out of hemp, raised her hand. “How did you break your arm?”
“I wish I could say that I did it doing something heroic, like grabbing a suicidal woman just as she leaped off a freeway overpass and holding on to her until the fire department showed up,” Ian said. “But the truth is that I fell off my bike. That’s what I get for removing the training wheels.”
He could tell from the expression on the woman’s face that she wasn’t amused. In fact, she seemed disappointed in him.
“You really aren’t Clint Straker,” she said.
Margo looked up at his remark and she seemed to like it. That pleased him until he realized how pathetic it was that he wanted her attention or her approval. He figured it only proved that no matter how successful he was—and he was, by just about any measure—he would always be just another insecure writer.
Ian signed books for the eight customers and left the bookstore with Margo five minutes later. Ordinarily, he would have stayed to autograph every book, on the off chance someone might buy a copy later. But he was right-handed and it wasn’t easy signing with his arm in a cast, and the manager didn’t ask him to, which wasn’t very encouraging.
Margo drove Ian back to his downtown hotel in a rented Impala that felt ridiculously huge for only the two of them. It also seemed like the wrong car for her. She struck him as a VW Beetle kind of woman. Or maybe a Mini Cooper if she had some money, which she obviously didn’t or the publisher would have reimbursed her gas and miles to drive him around Seattle rather than step up for a rental car. Maybe she didn’t even own a car.
“That was disappointing,” Ian said. “I usually draw a bigger crowd.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Margo said. “Union Bay is more of a literary bookstore.”
“My books aren’t literary?”
“They’re spy novels,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t literary fiction. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, John le Carré, and Graham Greene all wrote spy novels.”
“In your last book, Clint Straker seduced a female enemy agent and gave her an orgasm so intense that she fell into a coma for three days.”
“He felt it was a more humane way of sidelining her than assassination,” Ian said. “I think that shows his literary depth of character.”
“It certainly does,” she said.
He wasn’t sure how to take that but he was pleased that she’d read the book and remembered the sex scene. And then he felt foolish that he felt that way. Something about her had turned him into an awkward teenager. It was probably because he hadn’t been laid in ages and being around any woman made him stupidly eager to create a positive impression.
Margo pulled up to the entrance of the Sheraton Hotel at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pike Street and parked the car outside the door.
“I’ll meet you here at ten a.m. tomorrow for your signing at the Crime of Your Life bookstore,” she said. “Do you want to keep the car for the rest of the day?”
“No, no, you take it. I think I’ll stay in and write, maybe enjoy the room service—unless you’d like to join me.”
Margo gave him a hard look. “I’m not that kind of escort.”
Ian felt his face flush with embarrassment. “I wasn’t suggesting—I mean, I wasn’t implying that we’d be in my room. What I meant was that I’d eat with you somewhere that’s not in my room if you wanted to eat, too.”
She smiled, amused by his discomfort. “I was joking. I appreciate the invite but I’ve got dogs to walk and they’re probably ready to burst.” “We wouldn’t want that,” Ian said, reaching across himself with his left hand to open his door. “Thanks for taking me around today. See you tomorrow.”Ian shook his head and backed away from the bar, gripped by the crazy fear that someone might whirl around, recognize him, and shriek at the top of their lungs: “You’re responsible for this!”
He slid out of the seat, closed the door with his hip, and watched her drive off. Was it really an innocent misunderstanding or was he suggesting she come up to his room? He wasn’t entirely sure. Maybe his desperation was coming through. With that in mind, he walked into the lobby and headed straight for the bar to see if there were any women around who’d jump at the chance to sleep with a New York Times bestselling author. But as he neared the bar, he could feel tension in the air like an electrical charge. Dozens of people were standing and staring at the wall-mounted TVs, all of which were tuned to CNN. The screens were filled with apocalyptic images of destruction in Waikiki and scores of injured people on the beach. Ian stopped just outside the bar and caught a portion of anchorman Wolf Blitzer’s report.
BLITZER: Thousands are hurt, hundreds are feared dead. Nobody knows at this point if the crash of TransAmerican 976 was the result of mechanical failure, human error, or an intentional act. But the parallels to 9/11 are impossible to ignore and deeply disturbing.
Ian shook his head and backed away from the bar, gripped by the crazy fear that someone might whirl around, recognize him, and shriek at the top of their lungs:
“You’re responsible for this!”
Excerpted from True Fiction by Lee Goldberg with permission of Thomas & Mercer. Copyright © 2018 by Adventures in Television. All rights reserved.