Among the Living

ONE

A rugged malibu canyon, a clear night. The smooth black road ahead, unstriped, wound through slow turns, the headlights igniting the underbrush. There was a song on the radio over the low rumble of the engine. The windows were down, the air sweet with something that picked that night to bloom. For now, Jimmy Miles was just eyes in the mirror. The half-moon came into the corner of the frame, dancing with the vibration of the motor, full of intent, hung up there like a spotlight over the scene. Jimmy watched it until it slid away again.

A few more turns and there was an iron gate flanked by a pair of fifty-foot-tall jacarandas, like purple fireworks against the night sky. On up the canyon there was a dome of glow and noise, but the house wasn’t even visible from here.

A guard stood next to a fat white plain-wrap Chevy.

Jimmy was ready for him. “What’s the square root of eighty-eight?” he said.

The guard didn’t have an answer, just waited, keeping whatever he thought off his face.

Jimmy held up his engraved invitation.

“Thank you, sir,” the rented cop said and stepped back, and the Porsche—it was a ’64 Cabriolet, a ragtop, black—passed through the gates, nice and slow, behaving itself, and up the drive. The guard watched until it went around the next bend then leaned back against the door of the Chevy. The moon flushed, the shadows changed. The guard looked up at the half-round light high out over the water, but didn’t think a thing about it. After a minute, a raggedy coyote crept out of the manzanita. There was a plate of chicken sate, or what was left of it, on the dash of the Chevy. The dog lifted his nose at it from twenty yards out. The guard squatted, picked through the gravel until he found just the right-sized rock and sent it back into the night.

The big house was all glass and steel and hard edges, like a cruise ship rammed into the back of the canyon, the bridge facing the Pacific, all the lights burning as if there was some enormous emergency. Tall black doors stood open. Music and laughter. Jimmy got out of the car, said something in Spanish to one of the valet car parkers that got an honest laugh and went aboard.

In the foyer, he tossed the invitation onto a side table and walked toward the noise. The card read:Mensa: A Night of Mystery

Joel Kinser’s

June 13th

8 p.m.

12122 Corpo Grosso Road, Malibu

The party was two hours in. Here was a crowd of fairly ordinary people wearing the best clothes they owned, except maybe for the guy in Bermuda shorts, flip-flops, and a Cuban guayabera. They all had drinks in their hands, trying to hold them the right way, and they were a little loud, as if they felt out of place in the big rich house, which inside looked more like a Beverly Hills bank than a ship. Money trumped smarts, at least when you were in the middle of it, even smart people knew that.

Everyone turned as Jimmy stepped down into the main room. There was an Oscar on the piano so there was always the chance a movie star would show. Jimmy was a bit of a clotheshorse. Tonight it was a charcoal suit, a white shirt, a black tie—and pastel suede shoes he somehow made work. There was something about him that was pre-acid sixties, a little Peter Gunn, smoky jazz, cool. He was nice to look at but he wasn’t a movie star so the party people went back to their smart