Riddick: Movie Review

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****Spoiler Warning****

I’ve been kicking around this review for almost a week because I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about one of the subplots.

Here’s the nutshell.

  1. Good B monster movie, I’m going to shy away from great because while the dialogue is much snappier and better written than most, it fails to live up to Tremors or Predator (my top two B monster movies). I did have a good time. Enough that I’ll forgive Diesel for the hot mess that was Chronicles.
  2. Like Pitch Black, it remembers to develop characters – both in Riddick’s journey and in the mercenaries who for the most part are allowed stories in addition to memorable moments that make them more than dead meat.
  3. Continuity that enhances the story and our expectations of characters. Boss Johns gets a special shout-out. I think I love this man. Instead of being the cartoon realm that most of the mercs inhabit, Johns is a real man with professionalism and a keen understanding of the world he works in. This makes his ultimate realization of the truth work.
  4. There are a few moments of cheesy cgi, budget constraints force this, and a few predictable beats (when the dingo-dongo dies – I warned you about the spoilers – the cg for the dingo-dongo is pretty fantastic though, I’d take one even if he would eat my actual dog) but my audience laughed out loud at more than one moment.

***Heavy spoilers from here out***

Image Let’s talk about women, or just one really in Riddick.

   Dahl (Doll)

Her entire character is written more tongue-in-cheek than true misogyny and I think I forgive Twohy for this, because at the end of the day, Dahl is a bad-ass.

She is a sniper and Johns second-in-command. He does not reflect on her gender when he relays this to the other merc captain. She just is.

Very quickly Dahl also relays that she is not sexually interested in any of the men and when Santana challenges her ability to give him orders, she does not tie this refusal to her gender but his unwillingness to take orders. The audience knows that his refusal is all about her gender, but her team is above that. They are professionals who need to do a single job: find Riddick.

This fails slightly in the following scenes where Dahl bathes topless (of course this is a shout-out to the male audience but it is an obviously voyeuristic moment as she knows that at least one man is spying on her, possibly two.

The hiccup is, of course, Santana’s attempted rape. The scene cuts with him in the dominate position which implies her failure to survive against a male opponent. We learn a few minutes later, this was not the case, but Twohy backs off from letting us watch Dahl dominate Santana (I’m guessing this would be too emasculating in the context of a movie geared towards men). But we are led to understand that Santana failed spectacularly.

Dahl is the one who takes Riddick down when the mercs and their technology fail.

The scene (teased in the trailers with Riddick in chains) is not as much about Riddick being sexual with Dahl as it is him pissing on the ground (a la his dindo-dongo) and letting the mercs know who exactly is the dominate male. Although all of his dialogue is directed at Dahl’s lesbianism and his assertion that he will ‘have her’ in the end. It intends the same purpose as his threats of violence. It is Riddick posturing and waiting for the others to back down.

But equating painted toenails with heterosexuality is….. sigh…..

The last scene with Dahl made me laugh. She is lowered to Riddick and clips him to his harness, straddling him, and thus finalizing his desire to be between her legs ‘balls deep’ as it were. But Dahl is in on the joke as well.

In the end, her sexuality does not matter. Whether her lesbianism is a defense mechanism or a real world choice, it doesn’t matter to Riddick or to the movie. She is a competent soldier who remains with Boss Johns and has been an equal partner in the movie itself. Sackhoff is no waif designed to be pretty and completely unrealistic (any movie starring Kate Beckinsale or Jessica Biel has this failing). Her Dahl is an active participant in this world.

Twohy gets more right than wrong, its a welcome change in this genre. Hopefully this collaboration will give us at least one more journey with Richard B. Riddick.

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Slow Breeders: Part 1

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A little old school zombie piece as fall approaches.

Slow Breeders (Part 1 of 3)

Your lost friends are not dead, but gone before, advanced a stage or two upon that road which you must travel…

                                                                                                   -Aristophanes

1.

She hit the ground ass first. The step, the damn step to the garage tripped her as she stumbled out of the house. The fall smacked her spine with pain and it was all she could do not to drop the rifle as she kicked at the door. Kicked it and watched it slam shut just as fingers were reaching through the gap for her.

Her breath came out in a raspy pant. They hadn’t figured out how to open doors yet, but still she watched it. Waited for the frame to make the shiver of movement that meant it was opening. One second, then another, and another – until there was no sign that they were coming through.

The Jeep’s grill was less than an inch from her head and she grabbed onto it and pulled herself to her feet. There was nothing left to do for the ones behind the door or for their slow, solemn keening. A bullet was the only salvation, but she didn’t have the empathy left to go back inside and administer it. The only choice, the only chance, she had was to get in the car and go on without them.

Only once she was inside the Jeep with the doors locked and the shotgun perched on the seat next to her, did she close her eyes. What she should have been thinking about was whether they’d managed to pack everything before Kim and her little sister had turned. But there wasn’t anything once the light vanished and there was only numb darkness, just a momentary regret that she couldn’t stay there forever.

The keys were in her pocket but it took a long time for her to remember them and slide them into the ignition. With the first turn, the engine roared, loud and guttural inside the confines of the garage. For the briefest of moments, her eyes burned with tears but she closed it up and turned her back on it, bottled the grief up with the rest of the horror that lurked in her heart. There was no time for it. Giving in to the truth was just reliving what happened in the house she’d just left, and she’d already been there.

The garage door was slow to rise and she tapped impatiently at the wheel until it was all the way up. The Jeep slid easily into gear and she backed it out. Habit made her turn to check behind, but she still didn’t see the man until he was close – too close. She didn’t hesitate. Shotgun up, foot just above the gas pedal, and her finger already clenched against the trigger.

“Stop!” He shouted through the glass.

The man was, or had been, a policeman. His uniform was crusted with blood and torn. He was carrying a pistol but held it at his side. Rebecca didn’t lower the shotgun. There were too many times when she’d had to shoot, to pick out targets who reminded her of all the people they used to be; mothers, friends, children.

“Wait.” He croaked and took a step closer to the door.

“Get back.” She ordered. “Don’t come any closer.”

“I’m not infected.”

“That’s what everyone says.” She snarled and her finger tightened. She didn’t want to shoot, not because of him, but because it would compromise the vehicle. A blown out passenger window was begging for an infected to reach right in. Exhaustion made the decision for her, the days and days of fatigue were burning through her biceps and she wouldn’t be able to hold the shotgun on him much longer. So she lowered it slightly.

“I’m a cop.” He used the title like it meant something. “Please, I’m out of ammo. My partner is dead. Some idiots torched my car yesterday and I just need a lift out of here. I heard… I heard your car from where I was hiding.”

“No.” Rebecca wasn’t sure who’d answered. It felt like she was watching the interaction through a stranger’s eyes.

The cop looked confused. He was a tall man, bald with warm brown skin, although it looked as green as hers from exhaustion and fear. “I just told you I’m out of ammo. Where’s your decency? I’m not infected.”

They weren’t a stranger’s eyes, they were hers, jaded from everything she’d seen. It made her feel dirty somehow to realize that. “I don’t trust anyone. Least of all…”

Glass crashed behind them.

“Please.”

Bodies pushed through the opening, unaware of the jagged glass that ripped and rent through their flesh. There was no feeling left in them. Only the need, the hunger for what she and the cop represented.

“Oh, fuck.” She hissed and hit the auto unlock. Every door on the Jeep clicked open. He didn’t wait for anymore of an invitation. He was still getting in as Rebecca gunned it for the road. The door caught against the sudden wind of their departure and he fought with it as she spun the wheel furiously and pointed them down the street.

It didn’t take long for them to outdistance their pursuers, but she drove for almost ten minutes before there was any noise except for the sound of their breathing and the constant hum of tires against pavement. The roads weren’t empty. But Rebecca didn’t let them get trapped amid the wreckage with their windows stained red and shattered glass painted around them like chalk lines demarcated bodies at crime scenes. Infected moved through it all, slow motion figures that turned their faces towards the Jeep but no longer understood what it was.

“Thank you,” the cop said finally.

“Yeah,” she kept her eyes on the road. “I didn’t feel like arguing all day.”

“So you weren’t going to shoot me?”

“I didn’t say that.” Rebecca handed him the shotgun from where it rested against her leg. “I’m out. There’s shells in the blue bag behind you.”

He broke the shotgun open and looked into the barrel. It lay across his lap as he twisted into the back seat and found the bag. It was placed prominently on top of several other boxes and bags that were tossed inside as though someone had placed them there with the intent to return and repack them later.

It only took a second to reload and he handed it back to her. “You’re not going to shoot me now, are you?”

This time she looked over at him, her dark eyes intent. If she meant her words to be funny, her tone betrayed it. “That’d be a waste of a good bullet.” Somehow, he didn’t find it funny either.

“My name’s Chase.” He said, as though an introduction would fill the sudden silence. “And I mean it, thank you.”

“Rebecca.” She said it grudgingly.

“Where are we headed?” Then as though he thought that was presumptuous. “Where are you headed?”

“Canada.” The word held such promise. “I’m going to Canada.”

“The border held?” He asked.

The statement made her stiffen. Had the border held? She didn’t know. TV and radio had been off the air for two weeks. Word-of-mouth was unreliable and dangerous, not just from the infected, but from the idiots who though the end of the world was a good time to load up on electronics, money, and women for their own mini-empires. Had the border held? Kim had thought so before her little sister chewed through the soft flesh of her trachea and she’d died screaming bubbles into her own blood. The others had all thought so, all five she’d left back in the house, but none of them had known.

There was a chance that Canada had been successful when Mexico failed. Refugees streaming across the border back to their country of origin and taking the infection with them, refuting their adopted country when she’d proved toxic.

Her hand crawled toward the shotgun unconsciously and Chase raised his palms in supplication.

“I’m sorry.”

It took a moment to refocus and clear her mind of the images that ran riot over each other. Canada, it was a steadying thought. Steel reinforced gates was how she imagined it and Mounties who abandoned their horses for machine gun mounts.

“The last thing I heard was that they’d held.” She didn’t mention who hadn’t, that answer was still eating away at her. “We stopped to resupply, that was our mistake. So I have to keep heading north. That’s the only way I’ll make it. You… you can come if that’s where you’re headed.”

“You have enough supplies to get us there?”

She remembered a house full of supplies. And a house empty of life, just trails of long blood stains past the cans of Hormel and water bottles that had been tipped into them. “The two boxes at the very back should have clothes in them. There should be something that will fit you.”

A look entered his eyes, almost pity. “How many did you lose?”

It took her a long time to answer. There was so much she could say, and yet nothing would ever touch upon the magnitude of what had happened.

“Everyone,” she whispered. “I’ve lost everyone.”

Oblivion: Movie Review – Part 2

***Spoiler warning***

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“Are you an effective team?”

This is what Sally repeatedly asks Vika regarding her relationship with Jack. What is an effective team? By the terms of Oblivion, it is a heterosexual relationship where Vika is unwilling, refuses even, to leave the confines of their palatial home while Jack explores the world below. Even when Jack is in danger, Vika remains in place. She longs for his return but is completely without agency.

In this future version of Earth, we have regressed to the 1950s. Take Jack’s return. He works in the ‘garage’ on the repair of a drone while Vika prepares dinner. She, in fact, comes downstairs to call him up. Like Donna Reed, she remains impeccably attired and in high heels. Following dinner she initiates sex via a naked romp in the pool.

But Jack dreams of another woman. And conveniently the hand of God intervenes to bring her back into his life.

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Julia crash-lands in Jack49’s space and he manages to save her from the drone in the nick of time. Although these moments stretch credulity. What happens next is poor scriptwriting at its worst.

What was Julia’s rank/occupation? I gather that she is an astronaut, but of her actual job that earned a spot on the shuttle? Nothing.

The information we gather about her character is that she loves Jack and he loves her. That’s it. Nothing else about them is offered except for the house on the lake. She does not question his character nor offer him information about what is going on. Not once does she ask what the hell happened between going to sleep and the insanity she has woken up in. Being with Jack becomes her new central focus.

As I noted in Part 1, Vika’s partnership with Jack is now the threat. For him to retain his ‘true’ wife the ‘other woman’ must be removed from the story. This is obvious in the next scene in their home. Jack could tell Vika what he’s found on the planet. Instead, we get his half-hearted attempts to draw her out. He provides zero evidence to Vika to justify his requests, but the story can’t sustain her survival. She is eliminated and he can now return to Julia without the distaste of adultery on his conscience.

(A wise eye might notice that Melissa Leo (Sally) is the actress closest to Tom Cruise’s age (she’s 2 years older than him), while both Vika and Julia are played by women in 31 and 34 respectively.)

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The only other female character is unnamed in the movie (Zara on imdb.com) but she has no speaking parts and instead of utilizing Zoe Bell’s stunt prowess, she is saved by Jack in a fight with the drones.

But back to Julia.

Jack loves Julia and Julia loves Jack. The audience hears this ad nauseum, but they do not exist as people. Once Julia accepts Jack as her husband, creating an ‘effective team’, they make love and return to save the day. Instead, the resistance is ambushed by drones (more realistically they open the doors and let them in). The faux drone is damaged and it is obvious that someone will have to fly the bomb to the Tet.

Julia offers. Why? Because she loves Jack. A woman who was smart and successful enough to be an astronaut will now lay down her life for her husband’s clone because she loves him. Oblivion can’t even dress it as saving the Resistance, this is all about Jack. We’re drilled this in when Julia introduces herself as Julia Harper, accepting her husband’s last name and affirming his dominance over her. I have no problem with taking a spouse’s last name. I have a problem with the narrative shoving the agenda in our face as her complete and ultimate submission of a woman followed by her locking herself into a Sleeping Beauty casket for love.

Vika has died for Jack and now Julia shows herself willing to do the same.

And when Jack saves her, where do we find Julia? In the home he built her, as content to remain there as Vika was to remain on the station. Sally as the requisite Big Bad is dead. But Julia now awaits the return of her husband to his home, a mindset validated by the appearance of Jack52 a clone who only caught a single glimpse of her. Vika’s gilded cage was too artificial, Julia’s is supposed to be more natural, more desirable, a return to simplicity and the domination of man, or of this man.Image

This may be the first science fiction movie that tempted me to vomit a little upon its ending….and I’ve seen Battlefield Earth.

Oblivion: Movie Review – Part 1

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Oblivion (2013) Starring Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough Directed by: Joseph Kosinski

***SPOILER ALERT***

This movie exemplifies the horrible paradox about science fiction in the movies. There are great movies that use story, imagery, music, and technology to tell amazing adventures that go on to become classics. Then there are movies that get two or three elements really well and fall down so dramatically on one that its difficult to appreciate what is left.

If you hadn’t guessed, Oblivion is one of those movies.

I’ve split this review into two parts. The first will deal with the story/plot failure. The second with the role of women in this version of post-apocalyptic Earth.

1. The Hero’s Journey

Jack Harper is presented as an Everyman. He has a blue collar job. It is a task that requires self-sacrifice on the part of himself and his fellow team member Vika (Victoria). Despite their fantastic glass-walled house high above the Earth, they are a dispatch-repair team charged with supporting the Tet and the colonists to Titan.

That’s fine and a nice momentary subversion of the super-gifted, superhuman role that is usually assigned to the hero of a piece. Along his journey he discovers that his true purpose is support of the aliens who are still exterminating the humans on Earth (Scavs). Jack has been lied to, but his real value to the resistance is his job, he is a repairman who can reconfigure the alien drones.

The premise of this story is great.

Then the shuttle crashes down with the obligatory mysterious woman, Julia, who conveniently turns out to be his wife. The journey skews sideways at this point to address the marital infidelity with Vika and his reunion with Julia. I’ll deal with this later, but the Journey fails when we discover, not the truth of his existence as a clone, but the fact that Jack was always special. He was a Space Shuttle Commander sent to make first contact.

It is an epic fail. Instead of this being an ennobling journey of the everyman, we learn that Jack was always exceptional, and thus needed no journey if the inherent nature of his clone meant that he had the qualities of the original. The subversion of expectation was pointless.

2. Alien Purpose

Sometimes we don’t need to know. The aliens, via Sally, have created a fictional Earth populated by cloned pairs in lovely settings that make me wonder who manufactured them to be so perfectly human. Between the human repairmen and the drones, they are subjugating what is left of the Earth while harvesting our water. The explanation of why they wanted the water is to power their fusion reactors which immediately led other reviewers to suggest other locations within our galaxy that also hold substantial water reserves. We’re now into a problem. Either the aliens keep explaining their purpose to us via Jack, or the viewer is left with a huge ‘Why?’ that deepens as we explore the scientific ramifications of what we’ve been told.

Why would an alien race justify anything to those it was exterminating? Or had utilized as a functional element of its oppression? The moment a story has to have a character explain their actions to those watching, it loses the impact, the importance, and the believability.

Better to leave us with nothing but the images of water funneling upward into the sky. The horror of an Earth without water is reason enough to resist.

3. Scavs

I do love a good resistance, but you won’t find one in this movie. Here they have such a minimal role in the story as to be cut out entirely as a people. Imagine if Morgan Freeman’s Beech was a hermit in the desert who accomplished the same purpose. The supporting characters of Sykes and Zara do not propel the plot and the others are cannon fodder. Other than existing in the moment that Jack shows up, they have no character, no world building, no actions to differentiate them. Beech monologues their point, but again, there is no investment in their desires or eventual deaths.

4. Character Development

There is none. Not a single character has any growth or change. Several make stupid decisions to advance the plot. (Julia in the box – you get a special call out.)

It was as though the writers assigned character traits to each person (Ie, Vika – rule-bound, infatuated, unwilling to take risks) and held those traits so firmly during this story that the characters are unable to think or breathe within the confines of their character. Take Vika again, her rigidity is so unquestioning that I wondered how she made it into the space program. The military and NASA value military service, but one doesn’t rise in officer ranks without a brain. Even if she were a scientist officer as his co-pilot, the assumption still is that this is a highly intelligent woman. Not here. Perhaps this would work if we saw Vika more in the final flashback where we learn their original fate. Instead, in this moment, we get her grumbling wife-like about his love of football and taking a creepy ambush shot of the two of them together implying that she is in love with him even then.

Sigh….

I need more out of a movie than for the participants to fit a stereotypical role and look pretty.

Tom Cruise – Jack Harper – Hero

Olga Kurylenko – Julia Rustova – Hero’s love interest

Andrea Riseborough – Vika – Hero’s false love interest and obstacle

Morgan Freeman – Beech – wise and noble Magician character

5. The Clones and Resolution

Oblivion does struggle in that it is nowhere near as psychologically mature a picture as Moon. There is no desperation in Jack’s realization of the thousands of copies elsewhere on the planet. It is disturbing, but his refusal to save Vika52 is just as disturbing. He knows she is unwilling to see, yet he will not save her. Assuming that the clones are people too, why not? Why save those on the planet but not those who were similarly deceived? The answer is, of course, that Jack only cares about Julia who he loves, and not the woman who loves him.

Then there is the final moment, bomb delivered, Jack49 and Beech trick the Tet and free the Earth.

But the denouement leads us back into madness. I understand that Julia’s existence with Jack49’s child is idyllic and exactly what he wanted to save. Their clothes made me wonder where she had found the shopping mall. No post-apocalyptic chic for the love interest, Jack must have been scavenging off-the-shelf supplies in her size. They have an extensive garden and lovely home. Ostensibly she has made no attempt to leave the home he built for her.

Then Jack52 arrives and we learn that he had been looking for her. And the only thing I can think is, what happens when the rest of the Jacks (or even a few of them) stumble onto this mini-Eden. How many men will poor Julia be expected to service? I know they meant this to be romantic and a realization of happiness for Jack and Julia, but seriously, all I could think about were his legions of clones roaming the Earth dreaming about the same woman.

And that’s it. A shallow, glass-like movie with beautiful images and a great soundtrack.

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The Hollywood Incident – Fiction

Originally published in The Harrow Vol. 10, No. 10 (2007)

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Men shouldn’t be allowed to look like the one that walked through my door.

It was a good door, even though it was a little on the cheap side of things. Bare and unfinished, like we didn’t have enough male influence around the office to fix things up a bit. If you thought that, you’d be on target. The glass front of the door said A. D. Haus, Private Investigator. Purposefully gender-neutral to get people through the door.

I get enough walk-ins that it was worth the trouble. I’d say that I’m persuasive when it comes to stating my case. Men are watched, noticed, by those around them. Women can sometimes move in company where a man would stand out.

If that didn’t work, there were always ladies, especially ladies married to Hollywood, who wondered why their husbands had to work late every night of the week. Delicate matters that couldn’t be trusted to the opposite sex, and that was where I came in. Adele Haus is my name, a girl of lost fortune turned private investigator, ’cause what else is a girl supposed to do when she’s lived a life like mine?

But we’re getting off the point. I was just about to describe the giant piece of man-steak that filled up the frame of my door like he was about to take its place.

Big, broad shoulders that made him look like he belonged on the docks instead of corseted into that suit. My kind of fellow, all muscles and testosterone. There was no mistaking why Lacey had let him in without the obligatory five-minute wait. I hadn’t been doing anything important, just a few odds and ends for the girls, but nothing I wouldn’t set aside for that face and absolutely incredible body.

“Who’re you?” he demanded, and I caught just enough of the accent to realize how freshly immigrated my young caller was. Italian, then, despite the light brown hair and the beginnings of a California tan.

“Adele Haus, P.I.” I answered. “But you can call me Del.”

“I’m Enzo. Enzo Moretti.”

I stood, because there’s nothing like a pair of heels and the satin silk of nylons on a girl’s legs to make a man forget what he was going to say. With another woman you use different skills, low-key ones, nothing that will make her wonder what I’ll say to her husband when I catch him at nefarious tasks. Women beating down my door because they think I’ve fallen prey to their husbands’ sad come-ons is an experience I’d rather forego. I’ve heard writers call us ‘the gentle sex’ and I wonder where they did their research.

Luckily for me and the young man, I get to use different talents to put him at ease.

“What can I do for you?” One hip wedged against the corner of my desk, I waited for him to light my Parliament with my lips already tightly clamped around the filter. I was wearing red lipstick, of course; it goes well with my chestnut hair and the tiny red barrettes I’d used to pin it up. A discriminating eye might notice that I dress better than the office around me suggests, but people who come to this part of LA are usually too nervous to notice. We’re just off the edge of Hollywood proper, but it could be miles.

If they come to me, they’ve either reached the end of their ropes, or they’ve got stranger motives, like this guy. At first I couldn’t tell why the mob would have sent him to me. I don’t mix with their kind of business and they don’t think dames are qualified for it. For the most part we never even cross paths.

“I need you to find a guy for me.”

“A guy as handsome as you?” I drawled slowly, just to see his cheeks redden. “I don’t suppose you’ve got an older brother?”

“No, ma’am. I, uh, came to see you ’cause a friend suggested it.”

“A friend.”

I liked where this boy was going. I didn’t have many friends, and if we were going to count them up, the odds got better and better that I knew exactly who’d sent him.

“A friend. Hmmm.” I let a puff of smoke float through my lips and then took a heavier drag as I leaned off the desk. The way they’re cutting skirts these days doesn’t give a lady much room to stretch her legs, but it sure makes everything sway as she walks. I made a quick circuit around the desk and reached for a folder that was at the top of the shelf. Of course it was too high, so I let him retrieve it for me.

Low, rolling thunder came in through the window and scared my poor little client right into my arms. His muscles were as nice to touch as I would have thought, but the dear jumped away before I could finish my assessment.

I threw the folder onto the desk and slipped out the contract: $400 up front, cause a girl’s got expenses. “You sign on the bottom line and tell me exactly what you need me to do.”

He signed; they all do. “Some of the boys have gotten killed. Vinnie says that I shouldn’t worry, that we’ll take care of the ones who did it. But I don’t think that the Greeks did it. They just shoot a guy, not … not rip his guts out.”

Oh he had my interest.

“First, Johnny. And then four nights ago, we were all supposed to meet to go … well you know.” He waited until I nodded and then went on. “But Dino didn’t show. I found him on the docks down by the big marina. It looked like somebody had shot him and then set something on him.”

“What kind of something?” I asked.

“I dunno. Dogs or something.”

I took the pen that he’d just signed the paper with and ran it across the top of my lip. You’ve got to do it carefully or you can drag off that applied carnation red that I’d had to go to the ends of the earth to find. “And your friend?”

There was that blush again. I swear, I could just eat him up.

“Ms. Tanzy at Le Grande Illusion.”

He’d butchered the accent but confirmed my suspicion. Well, they always say that the best client is one who’s referred to you. But I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be as grateful as Tanzy at the end of the day.

“Oh, Tanzy.” I said softly, and accepted the cash he handed across the desk. “I see.”

“If I could ask, ma’am.” There was something about the East Coast that you couldn’t suck out of a boy, even in the glamorous high life of Hollywood. Of course, he probably saw less of that life than I did, or at least we saw the same kind of shadows. “Why do you do this? The investigator stuff, I mean, it can’t be an easy job for a woman.”

I might almost have called it chivalry.

“Well,” I told him philosophically. “I’ve been married three times and divorced twice. And so far, this is the easier work.”

He caught the slip. “What happened to your last husband?”

I grinned and knew it was all teeth. “The things you find out when you’re a private investigator.”

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I felt a little bad, just a teeny bit mind you, after he left. For all his tough-guy attitude, he’d had no idea what to do with me. I hate to admit it, but they never do.

He was only two years younger than me. Lacey wasn’t just my receptionist for the hell of it. She hadn’t bothered to soften him up on the way in, but she’d taken care of it on the way out. If we were cops, it would have been good cop/bad cop, but I found that sweetheart/scary lady worked just as well. So I knew a little bit more about him than he’d bothered to let me know: two years younger and a recent transplant from New Jersey. The mob was trying to fill up its ranks and put some pressure on Hollywood. Get their in on a lucrative investment.

In the meantime, I grabbed a light jacket from the hook. Los Angeles winters weren’t cold, but sometimes you got a stiff breeze, enough to make a jacket a welcome accessory, especially with this storm front rolling in. Lacey was finishing up for the night as I strolled past her desk.

“Where you headed to?” she asked, with a saucy wink.

“I thought I’d put my ear to the ground.” I responded. “See what our boys in blue have to say about the state of things.”

“Mmmm,” came her reply. She rubbed her lips together like she was headed toward a free filet mignon. I couldn’t really blame her; the man I was going to see made a girl salivate like that. “Flynn.”

“Down, girl.” I flapped one glove at her head. “He’s too old for you.”

“And you!” she sallied after me as I let the office door close tightly behind me. But her voice still had a piercing clarity through the walls. “Give him a kiss for me, Del!”

If Lacey wasn’t good at every aspect of her job, and there were a few aspects I couldn’t advertise for, I’d have replaced her a long time ago. Cheekiness from your secretary just makes a girl feel like there’s no respect at the work place. I grinned back at the brick-clothed building as our office light winked out. Damn it all, I liked Lacey and she knew it. Which meant neither of us would be leaving anytime soon.

It took me a few phone calls and a short taxi ride toward the back lots. There were only two black-and-whites and an unmarked police cruiser parked next to the second-biggest studio in town. As I paid and stepped onto the sidewalk, I could see the dead-man’s wagon was ready to go.

I hated the back lot. It was said that they could build any dream you could imagine and make it look real. ‘Course they were pretty crackers about most of that stuff. It might look like a dream on the screen, and for a good solid quarter you got what you paid for. But here, even drawn in the shadows of LA nights, well, these dreams had cardboard façades and flimsy struts. A stiff wind could pull them down.

I strolled around the corner and saw a big man dressed in a well-cut suit look up at me. Phil Flynn scowled for a brief moment before he realized who I was. Well, maybe the scowl didn’t leave as I fast as I would have liked it to, but it did leave.

“Del,” he said. “How do you find these places out?”

“You’d be in trouble if I were a reporter,” I teased him. “Man, these places all smell the same: blood and unwashed bed sheets.” I stepped into the open warehouse door since he didn’t make a move to stop me. The set inside had been made up to resemble a cheap hotel; the kind you could rent by the hour. The bare mattress was still marked with a marbled black stain.

“What do you want?”

I let my lips fall into a moue of disappointment. Phil was the kind of guy who could make a girl want to try out husband No. 4. Honest, hard-working, he’d played a few years of college football but hadn’t let the easy life go to his paunch. He was good-looking to boot; not movie star good, but he had deep-set intense eyes and a way of looking at a girl that told you he was listening.

“And here I hoof it all the way ‘cross town to give you information.”

“Except with you, it’s a two-way street.” He gestured for me to follow him deeper inside the room. “What do you think about this place?”

Phil and I hadn’t met officially. Or at least not in the normal way. I’d been nicked as a possible Harpy Helen suspect. At the time I’d been more amused than angry; she’d been a nutter who’d given the rest of the predators a bad name, and I looked nothing like her. Phil was my arresting officer and hadn’t paid much attention to me when I’d told him exactly where to find the real Helen. Later, when they’d found her, Phil had looked me back up to find out how I’d known.

Women’s intuition, I’d told him. He’d never believed me, but when we happened to meet at crime scenes, he’d trade me information. I’d only known where Helen was because the girls had been watching her, but I could read crime scenes easily. It was never the evidence you could see, but what you could smell.

I turned my attention back to the bed with its mute blood stains. No struggle, as most of the set was still in its ramshackle form. And the location probably meant something to the killer; you didn’t break into a movie set for the hell of it. The studios had enough security that they’d probably found the scene shortly after the murders occurred. Then I caught it: the faint aroma of cheap perfume. There were three different scents. Two were perfume that I wouldn’t bother lifting up at the five and dime, but the third was the important one, an acrid, angry sweat.

“He killed both women. You’ll know the sort. And I’m guessing they were tied up; no screams, no struggle.” I stepped past Phil and examined the room again. “You already found some sort of evidence. It was planted.”

“Planted?” Phil knew me well, but there was always that little bit of doubt.

“Planted,” I affirmed. “The killer wanted you to believe his movie. Why else would he kill them here? It definitely wasn’t a crime of passion — not with those girls. So he’s trying to accomplish something.”

“A normal serial killer would have used a real hotel.”

I had to give Phil credit; occasionally he surprised me. I guess that was why he was a detective. He’d had a fairly good record before he met me, just not stellar.

“Davis! Get me the studio! I’m going to need employee information from them!” The flatfoot nodded and ran for the nearest phone.

He led me outside. We stood under the solitary lamppost and stared at each other.

“Why are you here, Del?”

“You’ll want to keep an eye on the Italians and the Greeks. I heard there might be some action between them.” I got a serious nod in response. The LAPD had been having a lot of trouble with both groups.

“Probably the usual stuff,” he mused. “But how did you know there were two women? The whole bed was covered in blood.”

An easy answer. “I smelled them.”

“Someday you’ll have to tell me how you do that.”

I doubted that Phil would ever really want to know, but I enjoyed his company as much as he enjoyed mine. And he’d never kick me out of a crime scene as long as he realized that I was the key to solving them. Up close I found myself wondering just where on his shoulder I would reach without my heels on. Distracting thoughts. Handsome men have that effect on me, which I suppose makes me an eternal optimist. I mean, there’s got to be at least one modern man who’d understand a girl like me.

“I need to know something.”

“You always do,” he shot back.

“Have there been any strange murders lately? Any bodies found in back alleys?”

Phil gave me a funny look. “It’s LA. I’ve got four dead winos, a couple of runaways from the East Coast, and a guy who beat his wife to death. And that was just last night’s shift. You start adding this shit in and I’ve got an entire morgue filled.”

“I said strange.” Lord, one minute they’re listening to you and the next, the brain just shuts off. “Strange, Phil.”

He thought about it. “We’ve got a stray dog problem out toward the desert.”

Thank God for patience. Any longer for him to get my point and I would have strangled him, myself.

“Stray dogs?”

“Yeah, a couple of bodies got dumped. You know how they like to cross the city line and leave ’em.”

Yeah, I knew how they liked to do that.

“Anyway, there’s gotta be some loose dogs, maybe coyotes, working over the bodies before we get to them. Is that what you’re looking for?”

“Hey! Detective Flynn!” A studio exec came fluttering toward us. I really couldn’t stand the type; they were as real as the back lot around me. A more honest girl might have noted that I wasn’t everything I appeared to be, but I’d paid too many dues to get where I was. A few lies just kept the world in place around me.

“I’ve got to go,” Phil said apologetically and caught my hand. “Catch me for a cup of coffee after shift?”

“When do you get off?” I couldn’t believe I was asking him the question.

“Six. Bertie’s on Alameda?”

“Okay.”

He smiled, an optimistic look. “Good. Be careful, Del.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that I didn’t need the warning. I could take care of myself. I always had.

3.Well, I didn’t need any more to go on. Truthfully, I’d had enough information the moment that Enzo had described the injuries to his friend. Of course he’d assumed they were a few hours post-mortem; most people did. It was no worry these days, but someday they’d get better at reading the clues on dead bodies and figure it out. I was trying to fix the problem before it came to that, because the essence was that the girls were getting lazy.

I caught a late-night taxi from the back lots. Luckily there was some kind of big premiere going on, so there were plenty to chose from. I could see the tiny pops of light against the black sky and hear the cheers as people entered the theater. Like I said before, the kind of Hollywood that mob boys on Enzo’s level never got to see.

The driver, a beak-faced man, gave my legs one long look. “Where to, doll?”

“Le Grande Illusion.”

If his mouth had split any wider, I’d have pulled his silver fillings out. “You working tonight?”

“Business.” Just not the kind of business he was thinking.

We pulled out into traffic and I leaned back to enjoy the ride. Lights flickered overhead. Pale white, they flashed across my face and then gave way to the next one in the sequence. I loved Los Angeles. There were so many places in the world that the dark just came right down to the edge of the walls; cities that were surrounded and overwhelmed at night, with nothing to hold back the monsters that crept through the shadows. Not LA. Electricity showed everything here. So instead, the monsters walked without hesitation under halogen to do their deeds. You might have thought they’d detest the notoriety, but no, they loved it.

“Don’t your husband worry when you’re out this late?”

“Not married,” I said idly.

“Haven’t met the right kind of man?”

I laughed softly. “I keep meeting the right kind of men. I just get tired of them quickly. You see, there’s three kinds.”

“Three kinds?” He chortled. “I thought it was two. The ones you keep and the ones you throw back.”

His sense of humor worked for me. “That’s pretty close.”

“You’ll have to tell me next time, doll.” He slid the taxi over to the curb. “Name’s Harvey. You ever need a ride again for business, you just give me a holler.”

I leaned up against his seat back so I could look him in the face. “You don’t even know what kind of business I’m in.”

But Harvey surprised me. He pointed out the window toward the sky. The object he aimed at was one that I knew intimately.

The moon was bursting full and low on the horizon. That time of year, she’s so full that it seems like she’s on a collision course with Earth. Through the taxi window I could see her curves, almost abnormally swollen and heavy, pushing through the cloud cover.

“You’d think a cabbie ain’t got no sense of things in the world. But I’ve done business with your kind before, and I’ve heard the stories from the old country. There are people you don’t want to know and there’s those you want on your side. I’m happy to work for your side.”

“A dangerous choice.”

“Not really.” He grinned at me again in a wide jack-o-lantern smile. “Better than the mob.”

“My pleasure then, Harvey.” I reached over the seat and shook his hand in a dainty manner. Lady-like, if you’re so inclined. “I’ll remember you, then.” I’d slipped him the fare inside my grasp and he tried to pass it back to me. “Oh no. Like I said, I’m on business tonight. Keep the money.”

“Good evening, Lady.”

I nodded and stepped out of the cab. He pulled smoothly back into traffic, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the second cab pulled up to me. It wasn’t trying to pick me up, but to disgorge its own passenger. I told you, the mob doesn’t trust women, and Enzo was nothing but a loyal goon.

He tried to unfold himself with as much machismo as he could, but the boy was just too big to do it elegantly. The mood already spoiled, he argued with the driver over fare, using threats and perceived violence to work the man down to half price.

The mob was so inelegant. They’d never survive as long as we had. Life was all about subtlety.

“Why are you here?” he demanded.

aburlesqueHere was Le Grande Illusion: gentleman’s club and occasional burlesque revue. The only club in town where you could pick the dancer of your choice to go upstairs for a more private party. This was where he’d met Ms. Tanzy. This was where the trail led, although he didn’t know it yet.

I glanced up at the moon and then at him. Juicy was the only word that came to mind.

“First you talk to the fuzz. And now you come here? What’s the deal?”

Le Grande’s doorman opened the door for us as I walked up the stairs and left my young man to follow me. He was fuming, so I put a little extra sway in my step and tried to look innocent. Lacey says it’s my worst look. I think she’s just jealous that I can pull it off on a regular basis. It’s got to be the bone structure; Lord knows there’s nothing real behind it.

Inside was a strange combination of opulence and sleaze. Enough money had been spent on the interior to make it look like a quality gentleman’s club — leather recliners, good booze on every sideboard, and several butlers who worked the leisure rooms while the stage was set. A gentleman’s club where women lounged on the furniture in the least amount of clothing possible. Usually that was a silk robe drawn tight or left so loose that only gravity and some unique posing kept it on.

The girls smiled as I entered, and some even paused in their conversations to watch us walk slowly across the floor.

“Where is she?” I asked Lilah. She was closest and obviously caught Enzo’s eye, as he lost focus on me to follow the sweeping curve of her breasts.

“In the back. Hiya, big fellow.” She stepped close to him and pretended to nip at his throat. “Maybe you’ll have some time for me later.”

I cleared my throat. “He will.” And then to Enzo. “Come on.”

“What’s going on?” he demanded as I left the main suites behind and walked through the empty theater seating toward the back. “Why are we here?”

“I had the funniest conversation earlier. We were talking about how many kinds of men there are in the world.” I touched my hair to make sure it was still in place. “I’ve always been of the mind that there are three. My first husband was one of the first: a good man, just limited by his perceptions. He went off to the Navy, left me on my own, and expected that I’d just survive without changing. The world doesn’t work like that. So when he came back, well, we just didn’t fit together the way we used to.”

“I don’t see….”

“Hush.” I snapped at him. “I’m the investigator. You paid me to hear this. So listen.”

We entered the back stage. It was still a good forty-five minutes before the next show, so the stage hands were moving on their errands. None of them bothered us.

“My second husband was a looker, and I’ve always been fond of handsome men. But he was the second type. Very impressive on the surface but nothing underneath; no steel. I guess you’d call him an average man. He tried for a while, but in the end he took the divorce and found himself some pretty little widow from San Diego.”

We reached another set of doors. I checked my purse. Everything was in there, including the Colt 1903 Hammerless tucked under my lipstick. “And there was my third husband.”

“But you didn’t divorce him.”

I felt my lips curl into a smile that he didn’t see. “He’s the one that’s relevant to your case.” The door opened under my key and I ushered him through. It was the large store room at the back of Le Grande where they kept everything that the business, or the girls, might need. They were already there waiting for us, although he didn’t know it yet.

“You’re right.” I told him. “He was a bastard. I fell for the pretty face and his lies. And I learned the thing that made private investigation the career field for me. You see, a man will cheat on his wife and expect her to take him back. To forgive him. But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes you want to make him suffer. I get a lot of clients who feel that way.”

“So you put a hit on him?” Poor boy was confused. “But Johnny didn’t have an old lady.”

“No, but there’s a certain kind of man who won’t ever learn from his mistakes. He’ll beat his wife, leave his mistress pregnant with his kid, run over his neighbor’s dog. There’s all sorts of crimes that don’t get punished. And before I knew the girls, there wasn’t anything that women could do about it.”

He’d just started to smell it. The odor. It was what every crime scene smelled like, blood and unwashed bed sheets. Or maybe it was just this place that I carried with me.

But there was another subtle scent underneath it, a musky smell of fur and dirt and sexuality all mixed into one. And then something shifted in the shadows and he jumped, reaching under his jacket for the weapon there. I stopped his hand only an inch away from it and surprised him with the strength in my grip.

“You g-got some kind of f-f-fighting dogs,” he stuttered.

“Not dogs. Wolves.”

And I knew he recognized the girls as they moved out into the open. It’s amazing how sensually a woman can move, how much she can look like a predator. But no one ever expects the two to be so similar until they see her cloaked in teeth and claws.

“W-wolves?”

“Werewolves.” I said with a hiss. “Enzo, sweetheart. The third kind of man is the one that nobody misses. You and your boys strolled in here and thought you could throw your weight around. You didn’t want to pay full price, but you wanted twice the time and, frankly, the girls weren’t impressed.”

His eyes got wider and wider. Tanzy huffed deep in her throat and set pale grey eyes on him as he took a single step backward. Her head reached above his belly button. One hundred and fifty pounds of woman meant a whole lot of wolf.

“You’re a werewolf?” he shot at me.

“No, no.” I almost felt sorry for him. He hadn’t been the worst of the three, but he wanted to ask questions. If he’d listened to his bosses, they would have gunned down a couple of Greeks on the dock and he might have lived a couple more years on the sunny California coast. But here we were.

“What are you, then?”

“You can be a predator without being a werewolf.” I reached inside my purse. “I’m just their broker.”

As I cleaned up in the little sparse bathroom just off the store room, Tanzy lounged against the doorway naked. She always looked so beautiful in wolf-skin, it was a surprise to see that she was just a normal-looking human girl — pink-cheeked and full-bodied with heaving round breasts. A heavenly burlesque dancer, for which I’d always envied her.

“Don’t dump him in the desert,” I warned her and reapplied my lipstick. Carnation red would always be my favorite, no matter what the fads said. “The vultures aren’t picking them clean fast enough.”

“So where are we supposed to put them?”

I loved it when I knew the answers. The little notepad I carried was useful for some things. Occasionally, I even took notes on it. So I wrote a single name and gave her a peck on the cheek.

“Where you off to?” she asked me.

I shrugged. A girl’s got to have secrets, even from her sisters.

EpilogueI slid into the diner seat with a sigh. I’d decided to follow up on a couple of other legitimate cases before my early-morning date, and they’d almost run me late. It was already light out, even though the sun hadn’t breached the horizon.

Phil was waiting for me. He looked tired, too, but he had great timing. A steaming cup of coffee was laid out for me.

“How was your night?” he asked with a smile, and I thought, a girl could get lost in those eyes.

“The usual,” I told him. “But I was thinking about the coffee.”

“Something’s wrong with it?” He seemed startled.

“No, it’s fine.” I took a hearty gulp and decided that it would be fine — after six or seven sugar cubes. It was so bitter I’d lay money that it could cauterize ulcers. “I was just thinking about the kind of man who has a cup waiting for a lady.”

“What kind of man is that?” Phil’s face lit up. I guess homicide detectives don’t get flirted with as often as they might like.

“I have great hopes,” I told him, “that it’s the best kind.”