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BIRDS OF PARADISE

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Chapter 1

By Steve LopezLos Angeles Times Columnist

Escaping the heat in a hotter clime

In a glass house above Malibu, Charlie Bonner is getting set to split for Cabo when the phone rings.

Charlie Bonner went to the closet and shoved his wife's clothes aside, a small fortune worth of chic rags she'd never worn twice. He opened the safe and reached for his passport, two bundles of cash and the address of the dancer from Jumbo's Clown Room on Hollywood Boulevard.

Carmen the dancer knew too much, so what choice did a man of Bonner's stature have but to call Ernesto and instruct him to pay a visit to her apartment in Reseda?

Bonner threw his things into a small black satchel and stood in front of the mirror, brushing back hair that was going fast despite the herbal supplements he'd flown in from Shanghai. What a fraud that was. And hadn't he told the hairdresser to tone down the reds, for crying out loud? He was starting to look like Schwarzenegger.

The phone rang as Bonner finished packing. Probably another bill collector chasing after his wife, Genie.

What a fool he'd been. It was beneath his standards to marry a reality show flash in the pan, even if he was the producer. But that was back when Bonner's little problem had made him weaker than ever, and he barely recalled the quick trip to Vegas.

"Who was on the phone?" he asked when Genie walked into the bedroom.

"I didn't pick up, but he left a message," said Genie, munching on flax seed crackers. "Some congressman, or maybe he said councilman. Sounded kind of jumpy, whoever it was."

Falco, Bonner thought. He'd never met an elected official with bigger appetites or a smaller brain, and Bonner had no intention of letting the hapless politician trip up his perfectly planned scheme. He'd have to make sure to keep him plied with all the usual treats from his Hollywood candy jar.

"You ready?" Bonner asked.

Genie plopped onto the bed and sighed. Pouty lips on a strawberry blond less than half his age.

"We're going where, exactly?" she asked.

Bonner opened the curtains, silk with a moire finish, and blue Malibu light streamed in. He lived in a glass house high on the hill above Big Rock, a cash transaction two years ago. On a day like this -- early burn-off, view halfway to Maui -- Bonner knew there was not a supreme being. No self-respecting God would put an unrepentant sinner like Charlie Bonner in a nest this close to heaven.

"Like I told you," he said to Genie. "It's a surprise. Let me check this message, and then I'll bring the car around."

Bonner had told Falco never to call him at home, the moron. He dialed him back to remind him.

"We've got to talk," Falco blurted, and Bonner could almost see the sweat on the congressman's pallid face.

"Not now," Bonner said. "You already talked too much last night. To a pole-dancer, no less. Jesus, Falco."

"It can't wait, Charlie. Can you meet me at the Venice Pier?"

"Don't get hinky on me, Falco, and don't forget who's working for whom. We'll talk after my meeting in Cabo."

"I swear I'm being followed."

Bonner slammed the phone down and walked into the living room, where he'd just hung the new chandelier fashioned from two Emmys, three Golden Globes and his Pac-10 golf tournament trophy. Charlie Bonner had come too far in life to be ruined by a panicky politician.

He checked his watch.

"Genie? Let's move it."

She sauntered out, still sulky.

"I don't like surprises," she said.

"Don't worry," Charlie Bonner told his wife. "I swear this will be the last one."

Chapter 2

Road to Cabo is paved with surprises

By Joseph Fink, From Camarillo

Bonner loved driving with the top down in Malibu, where it felt like flying above the ocean, but in LAX traffic it was miserable. Genie, though, always insisted that it be left down, and she leaned back in her seat, stretching her arms to either side of her and letting out a satisfied sigh.

"Does the hotel have a free gym wherever it is you're taking me?" she asked, her head still back and her eyes still shut. "I guess I could always just do Pilates, but it's so much nicer when there's machines to use, you know?"

Bonner grunted noncommittally, and reached into his pocket to check that it was still there, because otherwise -- God, his pocket was empty. He checked his other pockets, tasting panic in the back of his mouth for the first time since all this started. If he was late to the Cabo meeting, it was all over. But if he didn't have it with him, then it was like not showing up at all.

Genie opened her eyes and saw him rummaging through his satchel with one hand.

"What now?" she asked, suspiciously.

"Nothing," he said, searching with increased violence, "it's nothing." Suddenly his hand emerged triumphantly. "Aha!" he cried.

It was a black flash drive, labeled with a piece of masking tape on which someone had written in tall, neat letters "The Birds of Paradise."

"What is that?" she asked.

"That," he said, "is another surprise." He put the flash drive into his left jacket pocket and patted it firmly. She pouted, and, when that didn't work, rolled her eyes and screwed up her mouth.

"Fine, keep your secrets. I don't even care." She went back to tanning as he drove past the terminals and entered short-term parking. Ordinarily, he would save money with the distant parking lots, but this time it didn't matter. He wouldn't be coming back for the car anyway.

Genie kept at least five feet between them as they walked toward the terminal. She always did. There had never been any real affection between them. Their marriage was a business deal, an exchange: her looks for his money. That was OK with Bonner. He understood deals.

Which is why it startled him when she leaned in to kiss him as they entered the large air-conditioned check-in area. Her lips lingered on his for a moment, then she retreated and flashed him a flirty smile.

"I have to go to the ladies room," she said.

"Well, don't take too long," he said. "Our flight leaves soon." She smiled again and walked away, leaving her bags with him.

He flipped open his phone while he waited, checking for text messages. Nothing. Ernesto hadn't done the job yet. He glanced at his watch. How long did going to the bathroom take? He decided to go after her and gathered up the oddly light bags.

He stopped. Genie hadn't packed light in her life. He was sure she didn't know how. Dropping his own satchel, he unzipped one of her bags. It was empty. He paused, confused, then opened the second and the third. Empty and empty.

He swore loudly, drawing disapproving glares from a passing couple whose young son was now gawking at Bonner in awe. Ignoring them, he reached into his jacket pocket for the drive and felt nothing but a small slip of paper. He hurriedly unfolded it.

The note was short, and in handwriting he definitely recognized. It said: "Surprise."

Joseph Fink graduated from college last week and is "looking for jobs in which I write things and then people pay me money."

Chapter 3

Genie no longer does the master's bidding

By Nina Levin Jackson, Culver City

Genie got into Ernesto's car outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal. It was a black Crown Victoria, the kind of car the police drove. She hated it as much as she loved Charlie's Porsche convertible. In fact, she hated almost everything about Ernesto: his '70s polyester shirt, his ugly crepe-soled shoes, his stringy comb-over, and, most of all, the smell of stale cigarette smoke and cheap cologne that seemed to hover around him like a haze of smog.

But Ernesto knew things, did things and was for sale to the highest bidder. He knew who Charlie was taking that black flash drive to -- the one now in her purse, stripped of its piece of masking tape. And Charlie was rarely the highest bidder. For all his wealth, he was still a tightwad when it came to certain things, like bribes and payoffs. Genie wasn't.

"Mr. Palmieri's gonna be sore when Charlie shows up at the meeting without the tape," Ernesto told Genie reproachfully. "He ain't a very nice man when he's sore."

Misguided loyalty to Charlie, Genie thought, considering she had already paid him twice what Charlie had offered. And sadly out of touch with the times. Tape? Everything was computerized now.

"Charlie didn't buy any return tickets from Mexico," she told Ernesto. "You know that? But he bought one ticket from Mexico to Colombia." Ernesto didn't say anything. Go in for the kill, Genie thought. She put on a distraught face and mimicked Charlie's nasal voice: "I don't know what happened to my wife. She said she wanted to go shopping in town. I asked her to wait for me. I should have gone with her. Please find her for me." She switched to her own voice. "Only they don't," she added.

"So what do we do now?" Ernesto asked.

"Get Carmen."

All this time, Ernesto had been driving aimlessly about in the vicinity of the airport. Now, with a destination, he headed toward the 405. Genie relaxed in the back seat. It was roomy and comfortable, but the car was no convertible. It didn't even have a sunroof. They hit the 405 north. It was jammed, and traffic was at a crawl. Ernesto turned the radio on to a Spanish-language station. It was playing sappy music she couldn't stand or understand, but she said nothing. She needed Ernesto.

They crawled up the hill, over the Sepulveda Pass, then back down the hill. How can people do this day after day, Genie wondered. "If I had to do it, I'd slit my wrists!" she said aloud. "Do what?" asked Ernesto. "Sorry, I was thinking aloud," Genie said. "Drive in this traffic." "It's not so bad," said Ernesto, "you get used to it."

Ernesto curved onto the Ventura Freeway and got off at Reseda Boulevard. Genie looked out the windows as they drove past mammoth apartment buildings, ugly hulking things with random patches of wood siding on them, then small, ugly houses with brown lawns and ratty-looking bushes under the windows. Finally they drove up to a small apartment building on a street lined with small apartment buildings. The building in which Carmen lived was vomit-yellow, with a brown lawn and bushes under the windows. Birds of paradise. How ironic, Genie thought.

Ernesto parked the car next to a fire hydrant -- the only open spot -- and Genie followed him to the second floor apartment in the rear. She planned to have Ernesto kick the door down if necessary. It wasn't necessary. Someone had beaten him to it.

Nina Levin Jackson is a research attorney at the state Court of Appeal who finds "writing fiction is a nice change from drafting legal opinions."

Chapter 4

Pole dancer shimmies and shakes off a thug

Carmen puts her work experience to good use as she shimmies down to safety and shakes off a thug.

By Lorin Michel, Oak Park

Carmen Madonna Louise Ventura shimmied down the old, iron drainpipe that ran from the roof of her apartment building to the alley in the back, her strong legs gripping the slightly rusted metal. It wasn't her usual kind of pole, and under normal circumstances, she might have smiled at the irony. She was, after all, a pole dancer.

Still, when her feet finally touched the broken pavement, she breathed a sigh of relief. Her heart was pounding and her head hurt. That guy could certainly pack a punch. He hit harder, even, than her ex-boyfriend.

It had happened so quickly.

She was sitting at her crappy little kitchen table, the newspaper spread out in front of her, as she painted her toe nails a vicious shade of red. An open beer was on the window ledge, her third of the morning. Beer always helped her to unwind after a long night at the club.

Carmen downed the remainder of her Pacifico and put the empty bottle down on top of a story about a congressman named Falco. The name was familiar. She wasn't sure why.

Suddenly, the apartment door splintered and a tall, blond man flashing a switchblade burst in, lunging in her direction.

"What the . . .," she cried. She whirled out of her chair and grabbed the first thing she could find to defend herself with: a clay flowerpot.

She threw the pot at his head but he was fast, ducking out of the way and letting it crash behind him. He lunged again. Carmen tried to run past him but he stopped her with his fist, snapping her head back and knocking her to the floor.

Rolling to her left, she grabbed a piece of the broken pot and as he shoved the knife toward her she brought the jagged piece of pottery up and lodged it in his neck. As his blood spurted, she scrambled to her feet, climbed out onto the fire escape and grabbed the pole. And not a moment too soon.

Before she even hit the ground, she heard the sounds of people in her apartment. A man and woman from the sound of it.

Now with the grace of a feral cat, she stole down the alley, her eyes darting back and forth, watching everyone and everything. A curtain fluttered out through an open window and she almost jumped out of her skin.

"Ay, Dios mio," she muttered, running her bloodied hands through her jet-black hair as she stopped at the corner of the building.

A black Crown Victoria was parked in front of a fire hydrant and Carmen shook her head, marveling at the stereotype. A thug in a big, black car. Like THAT had never been done before.

"This really is like a bad movie," she thought as she crossed under the low-hanging tree branches and darted into a doorway.

She put her hand into her pocket to make sure the piece of paper with the phone number was still there. She watched the car, not sure what she was watching for. In the distance, she could hear helicopters and sirens piercing the morning air. Neither were out of the ordinary, not in this area of the Valley, but both were enough to get her moving again.

And the scream she heard coming from the vicinity of her apartment made her move even more quickly.

Lorin Michel is a freelance writer who says she writes "anything anyone pays me to write."

Chapter 5

Bonner's deal goes south, but he doesn't

With his Cabo trip grounded, he takes off in a new direction.

By Arianna Haut, Topanga

It was as if someone had hit the "mute" button in the cavernous LAX terminal.

Bonner stared at the note for what seemed like an eternity, aware only of the single word written on the paper clutched in his shaking hand. It took a hard bump from an overloaded luggage cart to bring him back to reality.

"Watch it," he hissed at a wide-eyed tourist and turned sharply on his heel toward the doors.

He was sure of only one thing: Genie had played him perfectly. Bonner chuckled. He had to hand it to her -- as an actress, it turned out she wasn't half bad. If she'd stuck around, maybe. . . .

He shook his head abruptly, knocking that thought aside. Genie was now just a business deal gone south, nothing more.

Bonner was breathing hard when he hit the sidewalk. The familiar sour taste was rising in his throat as he yanked his cellphone from his satchel and dialed Ernesto's number, cursing as his chubby fingers hit the wrong buttons. After this was over, he thought, diet for sure. And hair plugs.

Of course, it went right to voice mail. Of course, it did. "Useless!" he screamed at the phone, at Ernesto, at the entire situation. Ernesto knew that the details of his retainer specifically stated he was to be available at all times. He was probably asleep, Bonner thought bitterly, or shoving dollar bills at a stringy-haired stripper in a dive somewhere in the East Valley.

Bonner stopped short.

Carmen.

He wasn't sure how much Falco had told her. The congressman had a tendency to blow things wildly out of proportion, and his paranoia about the deal had him spinning delusions about being followed. Falco was slipping from Bonner's grasp, and he knew that he'd never get a straight answer from the congressman himself.

Forget what he'd thought before about God's nonexistence; Bonner offered up a fervent silent prayer that Ernesto really was passed out in a bar and that he hadn't yet paid a visit to the girl.

There was no time to go back for his car -- and besides, he realized with a groan -- he'd handed the entrance ticket to Genie when they pulled into the garage. He hailed the first cab he saw and spat Carmen's address at the driver.

"Reseda, man?" the cabbie said disconsolately. "Now?"

Bonner flung two $100 bills onto the passenger seat. "Go fast," he demanded. "And stay off the 405."

The cab screeched away from the curb. A few seconds later, a sleek, black BMW pulled out from one of the parking structures and slid neatly into traffic behind the cab.

Bonner sat back on the sticky vinyl seat, trying to slow his breathing like that chump maharishi had taught him during his short-lived yoga phase. He stared blankly out the window, pulling at the strands of lies he would have to weave for Palmieri. His trance was broken by the incessant vibrating of his cell.

"I thought I made this clear, Falco," he barked. "Not now."

The congressman's voice was strained and high-pitched.

"Chuck," he said, "I'd really like to meet now, if we could. You can come here. To my house."

Bonner paused. Falco was famously wary of keeping his personal and professional lives separate; their meetings had always taken place at neutral locations. He could hear a low murmuring in the background, and Falco's ragged breathing, and then -- then the line went dead.

Bonner sighed heavily, weighing his options and his loyalties. "Change of plans," he said. "We're going to Beverly Hills."

Arianna Haut, a former high school English teacher, is an SAT tutor. An obsessive reader, she owes the Los Angeles Public Library just $2.75, which, she says, "isn't too bad."

Chapter 6

A little bit like domestic bliss

By Michael Gray, Van Nuys

Falco pushed the off button on his phone, leaned against the cool granite counter top and stared out the window over the sink into the backyard where his wife was watering rose bushes. She did this every day, and it always annoyed him. He knew all about appearances and he knew that the appearance of domestic bliss wins elections. Together, he and Evelyn had won plenty of elections. But they had an army of gardeners for God's sake and yet there she was, every day, watering the rose bushes.

Falco silently cursed Bonner for ever bringing him to Jumbo's in the first place. Sure, Falco thought, he'd had his fair share of indiscretions, but the moment they'd pulled off of Hollywood Boulevard into that strip mall he knew that he was being led to a smorgasbord of sin.

The place was perfect. Dark and small and the dancers had just enough tattoos, piercings and missing body parts to keep it interesting. Best of all, he was nowhere near his district, and that meant no one would notice him; and even if they did, they certainly weren't the type to care.

That's where he'd met Carmen. Sweet, beautiful Carmen. After Falco started to see beyond all the bending and spreading and spinning, he began to notice her intense, burning eyes. Something very different from the vacant, vapid, glassy-eyed stares he got from the other dancers. After a while, Falco came to know that Carmen had a soul, Carmen had something to say. And Falco wanted desperately to talk to her.

So they started to meet at a motel on Sunset near Western, a place where Falco could talk to someone who would listen, someone he felt comfortable with. That's where he began to tell her about what he'd done. And he told her that he was finished with all that. He wasn't going to do it anymore, no matter what.

When he told her that, she smiled.

The small wall-mounted phone rang, jarring Falco from his thoughts. It was someone at the speaker box at the driveway gate. Falco watched the phone, his heart sinking with each ring. He knew he had to answer it. After all, this was his doing.

"Hello?"

"It's me, Falco. Let me in."

Falco stared at the phone in his hand for a minute before pressing the "9" button. The beep coming through the receiver let him know that the gates were opening and Bonner was on his way up.

Michael Gray works in marketing.

Chapter 7

For now, Genie's in the driver's seat

By Renee Holland Davidson

Genie flopped into the passenger seat, breathing hard from her sprint through the alley in a vain search for Carmen. She shot Ernesto a warning, "Keep your mouth shut and drive."

"Where?"

"I don't care. Anywhere. I need to think." She closed her eyes, tried to block out the visual of that blond-haired goon leaking blood onto Carmen's threadbare carpet, a pottery shard rising from his neck like a miniature tombstone.

If she had been smart, she realized, she would've flown to Cabo, ditched Charlie, then found some handsome cabana boy to ply her with margaritas and suntan oil. She rubbed her temples. But if she'd let Charlie handle this thing on his own, he'd have ended up squashed inside an oil drum or buried in a pit, munching gravel alongside Jimmy Hoffa.

She didn't love Charlie, didn't even like him much, but she needed him alive.

Ernesto cleared his throat. "Charlie's gonna get panicky if I don't call soon."

Genie glared at the man's pockmarked face. How much could she trust him? "What are you going to tell him?"

His eyes shifted to her, then back to the road. "What he wants to hear."

"Which is?"

"That I persuaded Carmen life would be nicer in Vegas."

Genie turned away from the smirk that twisted Ernesto's lips, not wanting to think about how often or how intensely he used his powers of persuasion. She glanced at her purse resting on the floor at her feet, wishing she'd kept it in her lap -- not only to protect the flash drive inside, but to have ready access to her Beretta. Forcing a nonchalant shrug, she said, "So call."

She gazed out the window, hoping Charlie was out there somewhere breathing in the relentless smog along with 10 million other Angelenos, far from Cabo's clear blue skies. Ernesto's words replayed in her head, "Mr. Palmieri's gonna be sore . . ." Surely, her husband hadn't boarded that plane, she thought. Panic nipped at her stomach.

Ernesto's cellphone began emitting a tinny version of "La Cucaracha." He winked at Genie, making her feel as if those cockroaches were scuttling up her arms.

" 'lo," he grunted.

Genie heard Charlie's voice, but his words were only vague mutterings punctuated by the beat of "Copacabana" playing in the background.

"It's done. No problems." Ernesto flashed her a cheesy grin. He listened a moment. "OK, I'll get back to you." He snapped the phone shut.

"What did he say?" Genie asked.

"Not much. Cabo's cool, everything's on track. He's chillin' in his room, waiting for Palmieri's call."

"You mean to tell me he hasn't noticed the drive's missing yet? He hasn't found my note?"

Ernesto shrugged. "Guess not. Or if he has, he ain't telling me."

Was Ernesto lying? Or had Charlie actually told him he was in Cabo? Genie wasn't sure. But there was one thing she was damn sure of -- Charlie detested Barry Manilow. No way would he be sitting alone listening to that whiny croon. She remembered when she'd last heard that awful wailing; it was right before they'd left for the airport, on the answering machine -- when Falco called.

Genie picked up her purse, felt Ernesto's eyes on her. She pulled out a brush, casually ran it through her hair. "Turn around. We're going to Beverly Hills."

Ernesto snickered. "Nah. I got other plans."

She returned the brush to her purse and clamped her hand around the gun. She raised it slowly, pointing it directly at Ernesto's right ear. Softly, she said, "Change them."

Now that she's out of the irrigation supply business, Renee Holland Davidson "longs for the day when she can call herself a writer without feeling like a fraud."

Chapter 8

Bonner resorts to three rules of engagement

Cool, calm and collected, Bonner employs his negotiation tactics at his meeting with Congressman Falco.

By Joseph Fink, Camarillo

Bonner had insisted on sitting at the other end of the long dining table even though the distance was absurd for a personal conversation. This, he knew, wasn't a conversation -- it was a negotiation. He hadn't gotten to where he was without becoming very, very good at negotiations

Congressman Falco was sweating and waiting nervously for Bonner to start asking questions, but Bonner only picked up the glass of whiskey in front of him and swirled it around slowly, letting the amber alcohol splash against the ice, keeping his eyes steadily on Falco, and saying nothing.

Charlie Bonner's First Rule of Negotiation: The other guy should always be a little confused.

Falco's mouth twitched. "Well," he said finally, "you probably want to know what was so urgent." Charlie nodded, keeping the whiskey moving over the ice, not saying a word. The congressman nodded too, squaring his shoulders to show he was getting to business.

"Listen," he said, "I think my wife is in danger."

"Why'd you have to ruin a perfectly beautiful stripper by treating her like a real woman?" Bonner asked.

Charlie Bonner's Second Rule of Negotiation: If the other guy starts lying to you, change the subject. Don't let him think for a moment that he's in control.

"What?" said Falco, pushing his own glass away from him. "You heard what I said, right? I wouldn't have called you to my house if it wasn't urgent. My wife is in danger."

Bonner took a long, slow sip. He let it rest against his tongue before swallowing, then sighed appreciatively.

"This is really good stuff," he said. "Falco, do you know the difference between a stripper and a wife?"

The congressman felt the first drop of sweat fall from his forehead and land painfully in his eye. He blinked reflexively, trying to keep himself from doing so, from appearing weak.

"Do I know the difference between . . . ," he said, trailing off.

"Between a stripper and a wife," said Bonner. "You see, you talk to your wife, but you don't sleep with her. And you sleep with a stripper, but, Falco, you do not talk to her. You do not ever talk to a stripper. Ever."

Falco broke. He stood up and his face took on a furious flush.

"Have you listened to a word I've said?" he shouted.

Bonner's smile disappeared, and his voice when he spoke was heavy and cold. This had been a bad day, but he was still the same man he'd been when he got up this morning, and he was still in control.

"Sit down," he said quietly. Falco did. Bonner leaned back in his chair until its front legs lifted off the hardwood.

"Your wife is not in danger," he said. "You are not being followed, and you have been lying to me for days. Possibly longer."

His left hand dropped beneath the table. "Falco, you made a mistake. You called me after I should have already been on my plane. You knew I should have been on my plane. But you weren't even a little surprised when I picked up, because you knew I wasn't going to be able to get on it."

Falco opened his mouth to speak. "Shut up," said Bonner. "You'll speak only when I tell you to speak, because I have a gun under this table and I am just looking for an excuse to shoot you."

Charlie Bonner's Third Rule of Negotiation: When all else fails, point a gun at the other guy.

Joseph Fink is a 21-year-old recent college graduate who writes for a comedy website and is looking for work in which people will "hand me money in exchange for writing." This is his second win in the "Birds of Paradise" contest.

Chapter 9

Twists and turns on road back to Charlie

By Jim Botting, Moorpark

Ernesto pulled onto Coldwater Canyon, leaving the San Fernando Valley behind. The Crown Victoria was built for freeway pursuits, not the constant doglegs of this shortcut to Beverly Hills.

He was forced to concentrate to keep the car on the road. He didn't like having a gun pointed at him, either. Especially by a 30-year-old gold digger.

Ernesto tried to appear oblivious to the gun as he navigated the winding road. Genie began to relax a bit, swaying with each turn and wondering if Charlie had beat her to Falco's house.

As they approached the bottom of the hill, on a particularly sharp curve, Ernesto sped up and tugged the wheel to the right, forcing Genie to lean to the left. As she did, he reached out and clamped his hand on the Beretta like a steel claw. Genie yelped in surprise and pain. With a quick twist, Ernesto pulled the gun away and laughed.

He tucked the Beretta into his jacket pocket.

"Now give me the flash drive."

Genie hesitated and then rummaged around in her purse before reluctantly handing it to him.

"Now who is in the driver's seat?" Ernesto laughed. Genie shuddered at the sight of his yellow teeth. "Don't worry, we will still go see your friend Falco."

Minutes later they pulled up to the congressman's house. Genie noted that Ernesto hadn't had to ask her for directions.

Ernesto got out and walked to the other side of the car. He opened the door and Genie slid out, pouting as usual. Neither noticed the black BMW with tinted windows parked down the block. Ernesto pointed the gun at Genie as they walked toward the large gate, her heels clicking on the cobblestones.

The front doors of the BMW opened simultaneously.

Inside the house, sitting at the dining room table, Falco and Charlie looked up as a buzzer broke the silence. Falco pointed to the monitor above the door to the kitchen.

"We've got company."

Jim Botting is a retired FBI agent, a former police chief, an eclectic reader and a fan of Charles Bukowski.

Chapter 10

Sometimes no news is bad news

By Shaun Morey, Hermosa Beach

Vincent Palmieri hung up the cellphone with a casual snap of his wrist. He knew his boys in the BMW would be springing into action any second. They'd been following Bonner all day -- from his Malibu home to LAX -- watching him panic inside the terminal when his wife disappeared. Then they tailed his cab to Falco's place in Beverly Hills and watched him go inside.

Palmieri wasn't surprised by Bonner's sudden change of plans. Most men were fools. Especially men who married reality show actresses.

But Ernesto? Holding a gun on Bonner's wife. At Falco's home? That was unexpected.

Palmieri flicked open the phone and dialed. He needed some good news. Something to make his stay in Cabo worth all the trouble. Something like Hans finishing the job that morning. That would at least be a good start. Only Hans hadn't called. And Hans always called.

The phone rang too many times, and Palmieri's casual demeanor slipped into something less comfortable. He was about to close the phone when a voice he hardly recognized wheezed into his ear.

"What the hell happened?" Palmieri asked. "You were supposed to call me as soon as it was done."

"She's gone," the man's voice strained against the words.

"Good. You had me worried. I don't hear from you, I worry."

A series of choking coughs caused Palmieri to tilt the phone away from his ear. When the choking stopped, the voice moaned, "She jumped . . . out the window."

"Jeez, a little messier than normal. The cops'll be all over that."

"Carmen . . . escaped," the moaning was followed by a sickening gurgle, and Palmieri slammed his hand on the poolside table. A middle-aged woman in a lounge chair looked up from her John Grisham novel and frowned. Palmieri ignored her.

"You listen to me, Hans. I don't know what the hell's going on, or what's wrong with your voice, but if you ever want to speak again, you take that blond head of yours and figure out where the hell she went! She's a pole dancer! How hard can it be?"

The woman looked up again and scowled.

Palmieri sent her an obscene gesture, heard the line go dead and slammed the phone shut between his palms.

If he caught the late afternoon flight, he could be in L.A. by sunset.

Shaun Morey left corporate life recently to devote himself to writing full time. "It's been the worst financial move of my life," he says, "and I've never been happier."

Chapter 11

A voice puts Carmen into a spin

Carmen waits until her unexpected visitors are gone. But a strange voice puts the pole dancer into a spin.

By Shaun Morey, Hermosa Beach

Carmen watched the front of her apartment building from the corner down the street. The man and woman in the black Crown Victoria had left half an hour ago and didn't seem to be coming back. She'd recognized the man with the pockmarked face. One of the regulars down at Jumbo's. The woman, however, seemed out of place -- like a badly cast actress in a badly written cop flick.

As Carmen considered her options, the blond jerk with the crimson streak at his neck stumbled out to the sidewalk. He straddled a motorcycle, struggled into a helmet and nearly sideswiped a parked car as he sped around the corner and disappeared from sight. Carmen sprinted across the street and rushed into her apartment. Ignoring the newly stained carpet, she snatched her purse from the kitchen table and hurried into her bedroom. She changed into jeans and a sweat shirt and was back on the street at record pace.

In her car, she pulled the slip of paper from her pocket. She'd almost forgotten it during her speed change. Thank God she remembered.

"Tony, it's me, Carmen," she huffed, trying to calm her breathing.

"Tony's unavailable at the moment," the man on the other end said. "Who should I say is calling?"

Carmen swallowed. Tony had told her this was a private cellphone. That it was safe to call any time. That only he answered it.

"Please tell him Carmen called," she said.

"Carmen?" the man's tone brightened. "Well, well, well. This certainly is ironic."

"Who is this?" Carmen demanded, her left eye throbbing.

"Your friend Falco likes to call me Chuck."

Carmen felt more lost than ever. Falco? Chuck? What the hell was going on? "Who?"

"Falco. Antonio Falco, your friend the congressman. You know, the one who likes to talk."

Carmen felt lightheaded. The article in the morning paper she'd been reading about some congressman. Was that really about her Tony? Was her lonely, middle-aged businessman really Antonio Falco, chairman of the most influential committee in Congress?

Carmen disconnected the call. She had to get away. Before anything else could go wrong. Then her phone chirped. She looked down at the incoming number. It was Tony calling back. Or Chuck. Her heart pounded.

"Hello," she said.

"Carmen, it's Tony. Antonio, actually. I'm sorry I lied. I didn't want to involve you. But now you have to listen to me. Listen very carefully. It may be the only thing that saves your life."

Two-time winner Shaun Morey says that when he is "not writing, I like to surf, especially when writer's block stands in the way of the next scene."

Chapter 12

Carmen tries to save an endangered species

By Nick Boone, Agoura Hills

When Carmen hung up the phone, she knew Tony was right. She had to call Palmieri, but that was definitely a dangerous move.

She was already on the endangered species list. If Palmieri suspected for even a moment that she was lying, she'd be wearing a toe tag instead of those cute little Manolo Blahniks she'd been lusting after on Rodeo Drive.

Carmen desperately wished she'd never met Tony. Never been such a good listener. But he just had to tell her his dirty little secret. Now that knowledge would probably get her killed.

Carmen hadn't even fully understood what Tony was telling her. It was pathetic that she was fighting for her life over something she'd barely grasped. Not that her life was exactly champagne riches and caviar dreams. But it was her life, and she wanted to keep it.

Tony called them "Birds of Paradise." He and Bonner had lured the rich, the famous and the occasional public official into little romps with showgirls in Las Vegas -- "paradise" -- all expertly recorded in high definition and surround sound. Carmen could imagine them. The elaborate costumes, the plumed headdresses -- beautiful "birds."

Back when she could still get a man with just a look, she'd aspired to be one of those birds. To be a Las Vegas showgirl was every stripper's dream of ultimate success. But there were no 5-foot-3 showgirls in Sin City. Apparently you had to be tall to sin.

Now that Tony had filled in the gaps, she could see what made this such a deadly business. Palmieri had been blackmailing the poor suckers.

They should change the slogan: What happens in Vegas stays on a flash drive.

The latest one held the unmistakable indiscretions of an appellate court judge. The very judge who just happened to be reviewing Palmieri's racketeering conviction on appeal. But a judge revealed is a judge removed. It's not like Carmen would have ever said anything; she'd never even heard the judge's name. But Palmieri wasn't someone to be bothered by specifics. If Carmen knew something, she was a threat.

Carmen knew the trick would be convincing Palmieri that she'd written it all down and left it with someone who would mail it to the FBI if anything happened to her. She knew that sounded trite and ridiculously "old school," but then Palmieri was nothing if not old school. The goon he'd sent to her place was right out of a Raymond Chandler novel.

Carmen didn't actually have anyone she could trust with such a letter. She just had to invent someone Palmieri didn't know and would believe he couldn't get to.

Palmieri seemed to be a bit bothered by judges. Yes, a judge would do nicely as Carmen's imaginary friend. It wasn't such a stretch. Jumbo's Clown Room had played host to a wide variety of swells. Doctors, attorneys, judges . . . congressmen.

Carmen would need a few details to seal the deal. But just enough to make it believable. Carmen could simply refuse to answer any of Palmieri's questions. After all, she had to pretend to hold a pat hand if she wanted Palmieri to fold.

She fished out her cellphone, took a deep breath and punched in the number Tony had given her.

Nick Boone describes himself as a puzzle enthusiast, math tutor and aspiring screenwriter.

Chapter 13

A wife's loose lips put watchful eyes on Falco

By Helen Ann Thomas, Santa Maria

Hermann "Read Him His Rights" Hauser sat in his cluttered study. Across the street from the Falcos' obscenely large mock Tudor, Hermann watched half a dozen video screens, each with a different angle of his neighbor's house and yard.

This is Keystone Kops stuff, Hermann muttered to himself. He could see Ernesto holding a gun on Genie. A monitor two feet over showed Bonner, who was pointing a gun under the table at Falco. Still another monitor revealed Palmieri's henchmen advancing toward the mansion, guns in hand.

Instinctively, Hermann reached over to pat his own small firearm reassuringly. "Baby Doll," he said to the gun, not taking his eyes off the videos, "you and I may soon have to do some business if these knuckleheads don't wise up."

After six months of avocational surveillance, Hermann knew more about Tony than anyone else on the planet. Getting cameras installed on Falco's property was a piece of cake. Getting a handle on Falco was child's play. The guy was as careless as a big-rig driver with bad brakes.

It started with a simple bunch of roses. Hermann recalled the day that Evelyn Falco showed up at his front door. She hand-delivered flowers from her garden.

Hermann had recoiled at the thought of any cul de sac closeness. After 30 years as a cop and FBI agent, he had hit it big with a best-selling crime novel that a network bought for a series. He was rolling in dough. And in boredom.

He had nothing to do but add up his royalties and residuals. It wasn't as much fun as chasing crooks.

Evelyn's "Welcome to the neighborhood" posies saved him.

She told him who her husband was. Hermann was totally unimpressed with sharing a street address with a congressman.

He had had too many years in Washington, too many years with access to confidential information.

Evelyn had wormed her way into the living room. The roses needed water. A vase. She asked for water for herself. The water turned into gin. The one drink turned into a second and a third. Hermann found himself enjoying her company.

Married broads were like arsenic to Hermann. His barriers were up and in place. He wasn't interested in an affair. But she was fun and she had charm. And she gave him a new hobby. Protect her from her lunatic, low-IQ husband.

Gin had loosened her tongue. She hooked him on her anecdotes about life with Tony.

Hermann could read between the lines loud and clear. Something was going on in Falcoland.

After his fourth drink, he developed an inexplicable protective attitude toward Evelyn.

He had her followed. He had Tony followed. Tony was not paranoid. He was right on target about someone being on his tail and trail.

Hermann's little black book was full of phone numbers of people who followed people, of people who could inconvenience people, of people who could persuade people.

Something was going to bust wide open across the street. Hermann felt it. He tensed. He felt good. He wasn't losing his edge. He eased his bare feet into a pair of loafers and grabbed Baby Doll. His phone rang. He picked up the receiver and grunted, "Hauser here."

Helen Ann Thomas is a columnist for a freebie weekly and a self-described "Law and Order" devotee.

Chapter 14

Hit man has no time to be nursed back to health

By Christopher Valin, Hacienda Heights

Hans awoke to an incessant beeping sound and took a moment to get his bearings. As his vision cleared, he saw that he was in a hospital bed surrounded by machines. He could feel a large bandage on his neck, which hurt like hell.

A nurse was checking the bag connected to his IV, and he felt a slight tug as she adjusted the needle in his arm. "Well, look who's awake."

Hans tried to ask a question but all that came out was a cracked, inaudible whisper.

The nurse was adjusting some settings on the beeping monitor. "You're not going to have a voice for a little while, but when you do, there are some gentlemen outside who'd like to ask you a few questions."

Hans silently cursed, wondering whether it was the cops or worse. He strained to remember how he got here. The memory of his tussle with Carmen was fresh in his mind, but the last thing he remembered after that was climbing onto his motorcycle.

It had seemed like such an easy job. He never should have let his guard down. He got sloppy, and now he was paying for it.

And Palmieri would make sure he paid even more if he didn't finish it.

"I'm going to let the doctor know you're awake. I'll be back soon." Hans nodded back at the nurse absent-mindedly and she left the room.

Hans yanked out the IV as soon as the door was shut. As he stood up, the pain in his neck increased exponentially and he started to feel dizzy. He sat down again and took a deep breath. He was going to be out of time soon, and then he was going to be a dead man, so it was time to get his act together.

He stood up, slowly this time, and searched for his clothes. He found them in a plastic bag in a small closet and quickly put on his pants. He tossed his blood-soaked jacket back into the bag, but he decided he'd still have to wear his shirt despite the red stain on the collar.

His knife was nowhere to be found, so he'd have to pick up something along the way to finish the hit. Or maybe he'd just use his hands. He was certainly in the mood, and taking care of Carmen that way might make him feel better.

He looked out the window and saw that he was only on the second floor. Even in his current condition, he thought he could make it down.

Christopher Valin is a high school social studies teacher, writer and artist who has "been writing short stories my entire life and screenplays for about 10 years."

Chapter 15

Carmen's safety net is already in the thick of it

By Nick Boone, Agoura Hills

Hans wanted to know who was waiting to talk to him, but not badly enough to risk taking a peek. Had to be the cops. A bloody stab-wound victim had a way of attracting attention. It certainly wasn't Palmieri's guys. They wouldn't have asked permission.

Hans really didn't like heights, but the window seemed like his only option. He climbed out and lowered himself as far as he could before letting go.

When he hit the ground he heard a distinctive crack. A pain shot through his leg like an ice pick to the neck. An unfortunate image under the circumstances. If he'd broken anything, he couldn't worry about it. Carmen was all that mattered. An orderly and a woman he was pushing in a wheelchair stared in amazement at what looked like Quasimodo after a vampire attack.

Hans knew he had to get off the street. A man had left the driver's door of his car open as he helped a woman out of the other side. Hans dragged himself over to the car and climbed in. His appearance alone was enough to keep the man from interfering. Hans sped away without the slightest idea of where Carmen had gone.

Sitting in her car in Reseda, Carmen thought about her options. She knew Palmieri hadn't really bought her story. But she also knew it didn't matter as long as he thought she was going to meet him at Falco's at 9 o'clock. Even talking to him on the phone made her shiver like a 5-year-old in the dark. But she'd sucked it up and acted as if she were the one in control.

Now she was considering whether to take out a little insurance policy. She dug through her purse and found a dog-eared business card smeared with lipstick, eyeliner and anything else floating around at the bottom of her bag. She'd almost thrown it out dozens of times, but she kept it on the chance that someday it might come in handy. This was that day.

Carmen could just make out the number. She punched it into her cellphone. "I bet you never expected to hear from me."

Hauser had an uncanny ability to recall every voice he'd ever heard. It's why he'd been the best in the bureau at sitting on a wire. "Carmen?"

"You said if I ever came up with anything good to give you a call."

"My God, Carmen, that was five years ago. I'm no longer. . . . What is it you've got?"

"You guys are still interested in Palmieri, right? Well, I'm guessing the judge that let him out on bail probably didn't give him permission for a little run down to Cabo."

Hauser ventured, "I can guarantee you he didn't."

"Well, if you wanna violate him, he'll be flying in tonight. And if you want the whole jackpot, I know where he's gonna be at 9 o'clock. You ever heard of Congressman Falco?"

Hauser couldn't believe what he was hearing. He instinctively looked over at a monitor that showed the two gunmen now sliding along the side of the house. This was going to be the OK Corral and he had a ringside seat so close he'd have to duck the blood.

Hauser thought for a minute. He should probably call this in. Then he fingered Baby Doll and a grin began to creep across his face. "Yeah, I've heard of Falco. I even have a pretty good idea where he lives. Why would Palmieri go there?"

"It's kind of complicated. It has something to do with Las Vegas, blackmail and a flash drive called 'Birds of Paradise.' "

Nick Boone describes himself as a movie buff, avid detective fiction reader and, yes, still an aspiring screenwriter.

Chapter 16

A battle zone in Beverly Hills

By Shaun Morey

'That's not good," Bonner was saying, his gun inches from Falco's head. They both stood at the end of the dining room table, staring at the monitor above the kitchen door. "Not good at all."

"Drama queen." Genie shot her husband a look. She had walked in moments ago, Ernesto on her heels, the Beretta at her back.

Bonner rolled his eyes. "That means a lot coming from you, baby."

"I thought your gate's supposed to lock automatically," Ernesto grumbled.

"Yeah, well, you're supposed to shut it first." Falco gave Ernesto the world's smallest smile, then looked back at the monitor.

The other three followed Falco's gaze. Two large men wearing suits and holding guns were approaching one of the side doors. The first man reached out and checked the brass handle. He shook his head and kept walking.

"The cameras are motion-sensitive," Falco explained. "We can follow those two all the way around the house."

"Great," Bonner commented. "I always wanted to watch hit men case a joint. Right before they broke in and killed me!"

"What's your problem?" Genie snapped. "At least you've got a gun." She shoved her hip angrily into Ernesto, who jabbed the gun deeper into her back.

"Without that flash drive, I'm dead anyway," Bonner snapped back. "In case you haven't noticed, I missed my flight to Cabo."

Genie's face showed an emotion Bonner had never seen before. A cross between amusement and that pout he hated. "I don't have it anymore."

"What?" Falco blurted, then immediately regretted it.

Ernesto returned the world's smallest smile, and said, "That's right, Antonio. And I think I'll keep it for a while."

"Think again," Evelyn Falco said, cocking a sawed-off shotgun.

"Honey!" Falco croaked.

"Not anymore," she corrected him, her tone flat, her eyes locked on Ernesto's gun.

"But a shotgun?" Falco whined. "I thought you trimmed roses."

"We all have our secrets." She stood barefoot in the alcove, hidden by the large china hutch her husband had purchased on their honeymoon years ago. Back before he got elected. Before he started to wander.

Before she started to fall in love with Hermann Hauser.

In his study next door, Hauser dropped the phone and started to run. Carmen had been explaining Palmieri's blackmail scheme when Evelyn appeared on one of the screens. She'd walked through the back alcove of the dining room, pointing a gun he recognized at Ernesto. It was the unregistered shotgun Hauser kept in his garage. Near that old convertible she liked so much. Now he knew why.

Hauser crossed Falco's lawn, Baby Doll gripped tightly in his hand, and punched in the code Evelyn had given him weeks earlier. The gate swung open. Hauser made it to the front door and was about to shoot the lock when a bullet whizzed by his head. He rolled and came up firing. The first of Palmieri's thugs fell face-down into a rosebush, his gun clattering across the cobblestone walkway. The other man dropped to a knee and pulled the trigger.

Hauser felt the bullet catch his shoulder as he flattened to his stomach and fired off two quick shots. He watched the man flinch, saw crimson petals blossom from his chest. The man's mouth carped silently. He blinked, and toppled sideways like a fallen tree.

"What's Harry doing with a gun?" Falco exclaimed, watching his neighbor on the monitor.

"His name's Hermann," Evelyn snapped, and disappeared through the alcove, her bare feet slapping toward the front door.

Shaun Morey says that "writing fiction is what gets me up in the morning. It's also what gives me those recurring nightmares."

Chapter 17

Palmieri adjusts to flying solo again

By Nancy Keegan

Palmieri was punching numbers into his cellphone even before he got off his plane at LAX. He hated being out of touch. No one picked up at the other end for way too long, and he started to get a bad feeling. Then someone answered but said nothing.

"Who's there?" Palmieri barked after several seconds of silence.

Hauser, still on his stomach in Falco's frontyard, grasped the cellphone that he had pulled from the pocket of Goon No. 2. He immediately recognized Palmieri's voice -- not that it was a big surprise. But he knew that Palmieri would never guess who was on the other end.

Hauser spoke in a hoarse whisper, partly to disguise his voice and partly because of the agonizing bullet wound in his shoulder. "Listen, boss, mission aborted. The feds caught us and forced us to talk. Messed us up bad. They know you're on your way back from Cabo, and they're looking for you at the airport. Sorry, boss." Hauser doubted that Palmieri would buy it, but it was worth a try. At least it might distract him for a while.

Palmieri flipped his phone shut. He didn't know who the hell that was, but he was positive it wasn't one of his boys. They knew they'd be dead if they turned on him. But they must be as good as dead for someone else to have their phone. And how did this jerk know he was getting off a plane from Cabo? Well, if word was out, he'd better come up with a plan for getting out of the airport.

He walked into a crowded men's room and quickly scanned the faces. There -- that guy would do. Palmieri walked up behind a man at the urinal, and tightly grasping the thick Mont Blanc pen in the pocket of his Armani jacket, shoved it into the guy's back.

"Don't make a move, sucker, and don't turn around. Come with me or you're dead."

Palmieri marched the guy into the far stall, closed the door and grabbed him around the throat with both hands. The guy fainted fast, probably more from fear than lack of air.

Palmieri could just imagine what the guy thought was going to happen. He shoved the limp body forward onto the can, reached into the guy's inside coat pocket and pulled out a passport and boarding pass. Palmieri glanced at the photo. This should be good enough to get him through, he decided, pocketing the documents. He could still operate solo when he needed to.

"You're lucky you didn't turn around, sucker. You get to wake up," Palmieri muttered to the still-unconscious (and unzipped) patsy, as he left the stall.

Palmieri blew through customs without a hitch and exited on the lower level, putting on his sunglasses despite the fading sunlight. He wished he had someone to pick him up, but the pickings were getting thin. He moved quickly toward the taxi line.

Retired investment banker Nancy Keegan, who has twice been a runner-up, says she is addicted to this contest. "I am now on vacation in Australia and still sending in my entries!"

Chapter 18

Everyone is sticking to their guns

By Kate Pretorius

Inside the house there was a moment of eerie silence. The sound of gunshots stunned the occupants into a frozen tableau: Charlie Bonner with a gun on Antonio Falco, Ernesto with a tiny Beretta to Genie's back and Evelyn Falco with a sawed-off shotgun trained on the four of them.

Charlie finally broke the silence. "I believe this is what is known as a standoff."

"Like at the end of 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,' " Ernesto said quietly.

"And 'Reservoir Dogs,' " Charlie added, not to be outdone by a hired thug.

"Shut up, both of you!" Evelyn raised the shotgun to chest level. "Tony, who is outside? You must have seen something in the monitor."

Falco hesitated, not knowing how to play this. His wife was exhibiting a side he'd never seen before -- one that he found quite arousing, notwithstanding the two guns currently pointed in his direction. She stood with her bare feet shoulder-width apart, her tan arms hoisting the big gun as though it was the most natural thing in the world. She had such a serene look on her face.

"Evelyn, honey," Falco began in his most soothing, warm politician's tone. "You and I are in this together. Team Falco, right? The police will be coming soon because of the gunshots. I think it might be wise to dispose of the gun. But first, please relieve these two gentlemen of their weapons."

"Not so fast, sister." Bonner was getting into this gangster scenario. "The way I see it, I could very easily put a hole in his head before you manage to figure out how to fire that musket of yours. Is it even loaded?"

The beads of sweat on Bonner's forehead proved the lie to his nonchalance.

"Give it a rest, Charlie. Evelyn, please take my gun away from Ernesto." Genie knew better than to use her bee stung pout on another woman. She opted for rationality, of all things. "You and I just might be able to make it out of here alive if we work together."

Outside, Hauser had made his way to the front of the house just beneath the big bay window in the living room. His visits with Evelyn had paid off, that and the surveillance cameras. Hauser could visualize the players inside. Both of the goons were down and the cops should be arriving within minutes. With luck, an ambulance would be coming along soon thereafter.

He listened to the sounds of the neighborhood, waiting to hear sirens. Utter quiet. Wincing in pain, Hauser flipped open the goon's phone still in his hand. The blood seeping from his shoulder wound was starting to make him feel woozy and his vision was blurring. Call it in, he thought.

The cell began to vibrate and Hauser glanced down at the number calling. He shook his head to clear it and looked again in astonishment.

Kate Pretorius describes herself as an "avid reader, mom and closet writer."

Chapter 19

Carmen heads home to sort her dirty laundry

By Renee Holland Davidson

Carmen drove slowly, trying to get up enough nerve to go back home, not knowing what -- or who -- she'd find there. What happened to the blond thug who'd tried to kill her? Was he cruising the streets looking for her? Or had he returned to her apartment to ransack the place? Wherever he was, she knew he had to be furious, and she knew she never wanted to look into those deranged eyes again.

She let out a long sigh. Throughout her life she'd been impulsive, made bad decisions. Dropping out of college and hitching to L.A. was one of the biggies. And it had gone downhill from there. There'd been a string of menial jobs and loser boyfriends, one of whom introduced her to Jumbo's Clown Room. Hell, he said, she had the bod, she had the moves: easy money. Easy money, my tattooed behind, she thought.

Dancing was hard work, and pretending to enjoy the groping, clammy hands as drunks stuffed bills into her G-string was even harder. Forcing come-hither smiles and bedroom eyes challenged the best actresses. Not that anyone looked at her eyes -- except one man, that is.

The man she'd known only as Tony -- rich and generous, though somewhat needy. Someone who reached out to her with more than sex in mind, who really seemed to care. A "boyfriend" she'd bragged about to friends.

A man who'd gotten her into more trouble than all the petty-thieving, drug-addled men in her life combined.

And now, for him, she was on the verge of another bad, really bad decision.

Carmen knew she had to get back to her apartment, had to dig through the dirty laundry in her hamper. Because there, beneath the tools of her trade -- the gold lamé bikini, the spangled bras and wispy camisoles -- beneath her comfy wear-at-home sweats and raggedy towels, lay the package Tony had given her two weeks ago.

It was an ordinary, padded business-sized envelope. He'd passed it to her with trembling hands, refused to divulge its contents, made her promise never to open it.

"Hide it somewhere," he'd said.

"Where?"

"Anywhere out of sight. Don't tell me where."

"And then what am I supposed to do?"

Tony's already pale face turned white. "Nothing -- unless you don't hear from me for a few days. Then all you need to do is mail it."

"But . . . "

"Ssshh," he'd said, placing a finger on her lips. "Just mail it." He'd stared into her eyes, then looked away. "Better yet, deliver it yourself."

A blaring horn jerked Carmen out of her reverie. She whipped the car back into her lane, giving the horn-beeper a one-fingered salute, then gassed it toward home.

Although she'd spoken to Tony less than an hour ago, with all that had happened it felt like a few days -- a long few days. And despite everything, she harbored a soft spot for the puppy dog-eyed schmuck. She didn't want him hurt; she couldn't sit back and do nothing.

She turned onto Reseda Boulevard, again thinking back to Tony handing her the envelope. She remembered the fright in his eyes, saw his trembling fingers as he'd pointed to the address, heard the certainty in his voice as he'd said, "He'll know what to do."

Carmen could see the bold letters as clearly as if they'd been imprinted on her windshield: Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times.

In a former life, Renee Holland Davidson writes, she co-owned an irrigation supply company. Now she volunteers at Children's Hospital of Orange County, clips coupons and struggles with an obstinate muse. She insists she "didn't start writing Chapter 19 with the intention of including Steve Lopez. That's just where the story led. Honest."

Chapter 20

A good guy and his rat blow their cover

By Jack Shakely

The five people in Congressman Antonio Falco's dining room stared up at the security monitors, surveying the carnage in the front yard.

Falco looked at his bewildered wife. "You can put the shotgun down, Evelyn. Whatever was going to happen already has. It's over. Every video camera and every motion detector in the house goes directly to the security boys. I'm a little surprised the place isn't swarming with cops right now."

"They're here," Ernesto said quietly. "They're just waiting on my signal to close."

"I kind of thought it might be you," Falco said and sat down heavily on one of the ornate dining chairs.

"Would someone please explain to me what's going on?" Charlie asked.

"Unless I miss my guess, your buddy Ernesto is DEA," Falco said.

"You're a fed?" Genie asked, pouty mouth agape. "But you helped me steal the flash drive. You're a criminal, just like . . . like . . . Charlie."

Ernesto moved closer to the congressman, took the shotgun from Evelyn's hands and looked at Charlie. "If you'd like to live another day, you'd better put that pistol where I can see it. Sorry to disappoint you, Genie, but the flash drive was just what we call the MacGuffin. We've had a copy for weeks. We figured that Charlie might try to use it to buy his way out from Palmieri." He turned to Charlie. "Which of course you did. But we had bigger fish to fry, didn't we, congressman?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Charlie croaked, dry-lipped.

"If you think I'm a bad congressman, you ought to see me as a blackmailer," Falco said. "Remember the first scam we tried, when we got that big donor on video with the cheerleaders? The feds got me while I was still in my office holding the envelope. They turned me, Charlie. And to be honest, for once, I'm glad they did, especially after I found out about Palmieri. You think he's a blackmailer. Know what our government calls him?"

"The Finger of the Beast," Ernesto said. "He's one of the lieutenants of the Marenco cocaine cartel. He's been moving millions of dollars worth of dope in and out of his marina in Baja. And he's just the finger. Eventually he's going to lead us to the fist, and eventually, if we're lucky, to the heart. And now you're going to help, too."

"Oh man," Charlie sighed, putting his face in his hands. "Ernesto, you and I go way back. We're in this together. You even brought me some of . . . Oh, I get it. I've been the set up all along, huh? Well, I'm as willing to be a good American as the next guy, I guess. But are you sure about our congressman? I came over here because I found out he's been spilling his guts to that bimbette Carmen over at Jumbo's."

"Say what?" Ernesto said, shooting Falco a hard look.

Falco started to sweat.

"It's not what you think. I didn't really tell her anything important. But I needed a little insurance. I figured half the world, including everybody in this room, didn't care if I lived or died. So I gave her a package. And if anything happens to either one of us, we've fixed it so that the package goes straight to The Times."

"What have you done?" muttered Ernesto.

Jack Shakely is the retired president of the California Community Foundation and an aspiring historical novelist.

Chapter 21

By Philip Garrett Panitz, Calabasas

Carmen sat in her car, watching her apartment complex. After satisfying herself that the coast was clear, she briskly crossed the street and bounded up the stairs to her second-floor apartment, looking back constantly to see if she was being followed.

Once inside, she ran to the hamper and dug deep into the pile of dirty clothes. It was exactly where she had left it. She looked closely at the name on the front: Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times. She had no idea who he was, but if Tony trusted him, that was good enough for her.

Suddenly, her phone started to vibrate. She had switched it to silent mode and had forgotten all about it. The vibration made her jump, and the number in the display did nothing to alleviate her fear.

"This is Carmen," she said loudly, hoping to mask the anxiety she was feeling.

"Carmen. This is Palmieri. We need to meet, and we need to meet now. Where are you?"

There was no way Carmen was going to let him know where she was.

"I'm on my way to Dodger Stadium," she blurted out without thinking. "I'm meeting some girlfriends there." It was a complete lie, but she hoped it might put him off. It did not.

"Great, I'll head there, too. Where are your seats?"

"Uh . . . my girlfriends have the tickets. I don't know yet."

"You'd better not be playing me, Carmen. Meet me at the Stadium Club at exactly 6:30. If you don't show up, let's just say that your mother won't recognize you when they find you."

"I'll be there." She snapped the phone shut and cursed under her breath. Carmen debated her choices. If she didn't meet him, moving to Costa Rica might be her only option. But first . . .

She called information and got the number for the Los Angeles Times. Once connected, she asked the receptionist for Steve Lopez. The receptionist asked for the spelling, and Carmen, shaking her head in disbelief, spelled out, "L-O-P-E-Z."

"I'll connect you," the receptionist said at last, putting Carmen on hold.

"This is Steve Lopez," a voice finally said.

Like a machine gun spraying bullets, Carmen blurted out her tale of woe starting with her affair with Falco, then onto the attack and, finally, to the very important package she now cradled against her breast.

"Who is this, again?" Mr. Lopez asked.

Carmen had to make him understand. She was scared for her life, she explained. And now she was supposed to meet Palmieri in the Stadium Club at Dodger Stadium. She pleaded with the columnist to meet her there so she could deliver the package to him in person. Besides, she said, Palmieri wouldn't do anything to her in the presence of a newspaper reporter.

"Dodger Stadium? OK, now we're talking," Lopez responded.

Prior to writing a winning Birds of Paradise chapter, Philip Garrett Panitz's accomplishments included marrying his wife, Molly, arguing -- and winning -- a tax case before the Supreme Court and taking a pass from Gordie Howe in a hockey exhibition.

Chapter 22

Judge is ready to play ball

Columnist's pitch for details about Palmieri goes into the strike zone.

By Constance Sommer, Mar Vista

Presiding justice Laurence M. Greene -- otherwise known as Larry -- leaned back in his office chair, index fingers pressed against the bridge of his nose. That's what his acupuncturist told him to do when he felt a migraine coming on, and it did seem to help.

He'd endured a spate of migraines lately, and no wonder. The kind of strain he was under would make lesser men crack. Larry endured -- painfully.

It had all started with that phone call. No, no, it had all started with that trip to Vegas. No, no, it had really all started with the house remodel. To this day he did not know why he had let his wife talk him into a second story. Not only a second story, but a redo of half the downstairs and a new kitchen. Now he was up to his receding hairline in debt -- debt he had no idea how to pay off.

Enter Charlie Bonner. They'd struck up a friendship playing racquetball at Larry's downtown club. "You're under too much stress, fella," Charlie'd told him. "Come with me to Vegas for the weekend." OK, Larry thought -- some light gambling, maybe take in a show. What he hadn't planned on was a showgirl. Was it the drinks? Something Bonner slipped in his drinks? Whatever. His head had been like a puff of cotton that night -- light, airy, devoid of common sense.

Still, he'd hoped to put it all behind him -- until last week's phone call. Turns out Charlie was hooked up with one Vincent Palmieri, whose racketeering conviction Larry was reviewing under appeal. "Vinny's got a flash drive with video of your Vegas trip," a voice said. "He's going to expose it to the world. Unless, that is, you agree to help us."

"Give us a hand, we'll give you one," the man continued. The next day, a cashier's check for $50,000 arrived in his office mail, along with a note: "There's more where that came from." God help him, he'd cashed the check. How had he gotten to this point? How much further would he end up going?

Larry was reaching for his prescription pills when the phone rang.

"Judge Greene, it's Steve Lopez." That columnist, again. The guy always wanted to chat about some issue Larry knew he shouldn't discuss.

"Hey, Steve," Larry said, trying to sound as weary as he felt. "This isn't really a great time . . . "

"Just give me a second," Lopez said. "Aren't you reviewing a case of a guy named Palmieri?"

"Uh, yeah." Nausea furred Larry's throat. He pushed it down. "What's up?"

"I just got this call," Lopez said, and explained Carmen's story. Halfway through, Larry put the phone on mute and vomited into his trash can.

"So," Lopez said, wrapping up, "I know you can't talk details, but can you at least confirm that this dude is who she says he is? I'm supposed to meet her at Dodger Stadium at 5:30, but I'd like to know if this is legit."

Larry took a swig of water from the bottle on his desk. "Yes," he said, "it's legit."

"Great, Greene, thanks -- " But Larry had already hung up. He'd planned to stay late at the office, but now he decided the work could wait until the morning.

He pictured the Smith & Wesson in the glove compartment of his car, glad the gun was loaded.

Baseball games could always throw a guy a curveball.

Constance Sommer describes herself as "a stay-at-home mom and fiction writer, the fiction writing coming on a catch-as-catch-can basis."

Chapter 23

Charlie's all wired up for a word with Palmieri

By Tom Yufik, South Pasadena

If the cartel bosses were the heart of the beast and Palmieri was the finger, then Charlie was a single hair that no one would mind losing if it drifted off with the wind.

At least that's how Charlie felt watching the DEA agent threading wires and a microphone under his shirt as he sat in the back of their car.

"How's that feel?" the agent muttered, loudly chewing his gum.

"Like I'm being wrapped in barbed wire," Charlie answered.

He was still reeling from the way his whole universe had shattered and rearranged itself in a matter of minutes. One second he was involved in a spaghetti western showdown, guns pointed in every direction. The next second, Ernesto came clean about who he was, and the whole ticking time bomb was defused.

A day that had started with the hope of a big payoff from Palmieri might now well end with his arrest. Or, quite possibly, Charlie's own death.

Charlie glanced at the agent sitting next to him. Even though Charlie now knew Ernesto was DEA, it was still hard not to see him as the greedy little hit man he had thought he was hiring.

"So why am I meeting Palmieri at Dodger Stadium?" he asked.

"We've been tapping the stripper's phone from the time Falco started seeing her," Ernesto said. "Thugs like Palmieri are predictable in these situations. We knew he would try to contact her again. The Stadium Club is where the meeting is set."

"Don't you think it's safer to let Carmen know about what you're doing?"

"Absolutely not," Ernesto said quickly. "He's expecting her to be there and to be terrified. The moment we try to interfere, we risk Palmieri knowing and the game is over before it even gets to the playing field -- so to speak."

Ernesto and the other agent shared a laugh while Charlie felt a cold shiver creep up his spine and start to constrict his throat.

"You don't need to worry," Ernesto continued when he saw anxiety blanket Charlie's face, "we're gonna have the whole place covered. If Palmieri tries anything, then we're gonna take him down in seconds."

"I hope he's not a fast draw then," Charlie muttered.

"Just remember what we told you to say," Ernesto said. "You explain to Palmieri that Carmen told you about the meeting and you want to finish your business deal. Make sure he knows that you don't care about what he does with her. All you want is your cash. You must get him to implicate the Marenco cartel bosses and then offer you money for the flash drive. If we don't get that on tape, we got nothin'."

"Then what?" Charlie asked.

"Then we take him down and this is all over."

The man who was wiring Charlie finally finished and patted him on the shoulder.

"There you go," he said, chuckling. "I just hope this Palmieri guy doesn't strip-search ya."

Charlie began to really despise this man. He was about to say something obscene when an agent in the passenger seat who had been on his cellphone spoke.

Chapter 24

Carmen plunges into a river of trouble

By Thair Peterson

Carmen stood looking up at her car dangling on the edge of the Los Feliz overpass above the Los Angeles River.

A few minutes earlier, she had been easing from the 134 onto the 5, when her blond visitor from that morning pulled alongside, waving a gun to force her from the freeway.

She bought precious seconds by cutting in front of two 18-wheelers that were clogging the slow lanes, then pulled off the freeway near the zoo.

Carmen drove past the empty Autry museum parking lot. She passed the turnoff to the carousel, recalling the colorful horses and a time long before pole dancing. She screamed along the golf course, past scorched hillsides that had now turned green. She remembered the night the Jumbo's crowd had stepped outside and watched the hills burn.

The hit man gained on her. At Los Feliz, she took a panicked left turn, smashing into the pedestal of Col. Griffith J. Griffith's statue. With a blown tire, Carmen careened so badly that she finally crashed through the Los Feliz bridge guardrail. The force of the crash sent her cellphone flying from her hand, out of the car and down into the river.

She grabbed the backpack that contained the Lopez envelope and raced toward the entrance to the riverine bike path.

As the blond man pulled up to the wreckage, she broke into a desperate gallop, glancing back to see if any cyclists were going in her direction.

As luck would have it, a pimply-faced adolescent was speeding toward her on a mountain bike. Carmen lifted her top. He nearly lost control.

"Can I have a ride?" she said with a smile. "It's something you'll never forget. Just lean back in your seat, and I'll work the handlebars."

She was an expert cyclist -- riding up and down the river path was how she kept her dancer's figure. She could hear her assailant yelling on the bridge. As she pedaled madly southward, she slipped into a battlefield Zen state.

She knew he'd been looking for her, because while she was driving, she'd received a frantic, apologetic call from her building superintendent. A bloodied man had paid a visit and had tricked him into saying what kind of car Carmen was driving. Later, the super had found a pool of blood outside the apartment -- presumably the gunman's.

Suddenly, her Zen state was shattered by the sound of silencer-muffled gunfire. Her pursuer was riding a newly acquired beach cruiser.

The pubescent boy and his bike went tumbling to the right. Carmen went tumbling left, down the riverbank. The blond man crashed into the hapless teen, abandoned his mangled bicycle and started looking around for her.

Carmen raced along the slime-laden concrete, past trees and through water. He fired another shot, and this one missed her by inches.

For the next 10 minutes, adrenaline pushed her onward, but she kept slipping, and he kept gaining. Finally, he was close enough that she could hear his cellphone ring.

And then suddenly, he turned around and headed back toward the riverbank, cursing.

She went stumbling to the next bridge and flagged down a car flying a Dodger blue banner. She looked at her watch. She could still make her rendezvous.

Thair Peterson is a UCLA graduate who says he is "eager to return to my alma mater, soak up the lessons from festival panels, then read a chapter near Kerckhoff Hall this Sunday."

Chapter 25

The game is about to start

By Mike Gibson

Palmieri hated waiting for people. Especially when the person keeping him waiting was a low-class stripper he suspected was playing him for a fool. He glanced at his watch for the third time in 30 seconds. It was still 6:20.

He was also still steaming about his last conversation with Hans. Palmieri had dialed Hans' cellphone number.

"Hello?" a panting voice had answered. "That you, boss?"

"Yes, of course it's me," Palmieri responded. "Why are you so out of breath?"

"I'm right on her tail, boss. Closing in, as we speak."

"Who are you talking about, Hans? Who are you tailing?"

"The stripper, boss. The one I should have taken care of the first time."

Palmieri had called him off in the nick of time.

"Idiots!" he said to himself, fuming. "I'm surrounded by idiots!"

He waved his empty Corona bottle at the bartender. "Another one, please."

"Be right with you, sir," the harried bartender said as he finished filling a waitress' tray with assorted cocktails. It was getting close to game time and everyone seemed to want one last drink before the national anthem.

As Palmieri sat there regaining his composure and planning his next move, he felt someone tap him gently on the shoulder. He spun around to see a familiar face, but not the one he was expecting.

"Bonner!" he blurted. "What in the hell are you doing here?"

"Calm down, Vince," Bonner said. "Things have gone a little awry since we last spoke. But the bottom line is: I think you and I still have some business we need to finish."

Palmieri eyed him with suspicion. "So, how did you know I was here? How did you even know I was in the U.S.?"

"Carmen told me about her meeting with you, Vince. Look, it's a long story. Do you mind if I order a drink?"

Palmieri watched as Bonner waved the bartender over. "I'll say this for you. You're having much better luck with that guy than I've had all night."

"So, where's Carmen?" Bonner asked.

"I have no idea. I was hoping you could shed some light on that. All I know is that my moronic hit man was pursuing her a few minutes ago."

The two were now both leaning with their backs against the bar, chatting amiably and eyeing the entryway to the club.

After a couple of minutes, Carmen walked through the door, accompanied by a thin, balding gentleman, with gray hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. She immediately spotted the two men at the bar and approached them.

Unbeknownst to the four now seated at the bar, a fifth person was watching them intently from his seat in a booth on the other side of the room.

Mike Gibson is business manager for Santa Barbara County Parks. He is also an amateur fiction writer who says he "got the bug after taking a couple of creative writing classes at the local community college."

"There's a problem," he said. "Carmen's missing. We tried calling but her phone is dead. The agent we sent to her place says it looks like someone was just there searching through her room, but she's nowhere in sight. All he found was a pool of blood outside her apartment."

Tom Yufik is a UC Berkeley graduate and three-time "Birds of Paradise" runner-up.

Chapter 26

Carmen swings and misses but Charlie connects

By Stacy Weinstein

As he ushered his growing party away from the bar and toward a quieter table across the room, Palmieri eyed the newcomer.

"Who's your pal, Carmen?"

"Meet my insurance policy -- Steve Lopez, reporter from the L.A. Times." Carmen looked triumphant; Steve felt uncomfortable but tried not to show it. "I figured I needed one after you sent the Terminator after me."

Palmieri looked like he was ready to explode. "This is private business, Lopez. I suggest you go take your drink to the bar."

Steve had been in the business long enough to deflect brushoffs. "I hear you're looking for a flash drive." He reached into his pocket and pulled one out.

Bonner's mouth fell open. He knew this was a bluff, but there was no way he could risk admitting anything in front of a reporter.

Palmieri feigned surprised. "I don't know what you're talking about."

The DEA agents listening in were starting to panic. So close, and now this reporter was going to spook their best lead in years. Ernesto grabbed a microphone. "Get Lopez outta there now!"

Two agents got up from the Stadium Club bar and strode over to the Palmieri table. "Steve Lopez -- it's been years!" The first agent slapped Steve on the back while the other stood directly in front of the columnist, parting his jacket just enough to reveal his badge. "Never miss a column. You're the best!"

"Can we buy you a drink?" The second agent shot a glance at the table. "We promise we won't keep you from your friends too long. We just want to give you a lead on a story."

Steve glanced at Carmen and tried to give her a reassuring look. "I'll just be a few minutes." He stood up and the agents escorted him to the bar.

Once they were out of earshot, Bonner spoke. "Look, I don't know what game you're playing, lady, but I've got the flash drive with the data on it." He showed it to Palmieri, then put it back in his pocket. "Let's finish this deal, and we're done. You can finish her any which way you like."

Carmen decided to go for broke. "Anything happens to me or Tony, and you end upon the front cover of the L.A. Times."

"I don't think that's a very good idea." Judge Larry Greene sat down at the table and let them all see his gun. "Let's keep this out of the papers, shall we?" He looked at Bonner. "I'll take that flash drive."

Bonner knew he had to make Palmieri talk or he was a dead man. With the coolest, most level voice he could muster, he said, "We both know you're not going to use that gun in here, and you aren't going to call this one in. So, you can pay me twice what Palmieri offered me and that flash drive is yours."

"How much?" the judge asked.

"He offered me 50 grand, so you come up with 100K and it's yours."

Palmieri jumped in. "I just upped my offer to 125 thou."

Ernesto grinned and grabbed the mike.

Stacy Weinstein is "Birds of Paradise's" resident "rocket scientist." After being mentioned in a Lopez column, she writes, "I heard from someone I went to college with 20 years ago -- I didn't even know she lived in L.A."

Chapter 26

Tensions boil over clubhouse Coronas

By Karen Dale

'Almost gotcha, loser," Ernesto said out loud, smiling as he listened to the conversation Bonner's wire was picking up. "C'mon, say it, man. Say it."

At the bar, one agent filled Lopez in and told him to keep quiet while the other listened for the go-ahead in his earpiece.

Even as Lopez realized that hell might break loose at any second, his reporter's mind began composing the lead to his story for the next day's Times, and he was dying to know why Judge Larry Greene had showed up and joined Bonner and the others at the table.

It had taken Greene only about 30 seconds to rile Palmieri. The more he said, the redder Palmieri's face got. When Palmieri jumped to his feet, it was clear things were at the boiling point.

"About Carmen," Lopez said to the agent, careful not to look her way. "She's gonna get hurt. She's already told him about the package she gave me before we even came in. She's done. Get her out."

"Zip it, Lopez," said the agent. "I walk over there again and conversation grinds to a halt."

The reporter, flanked by the two feds, faced the glass overlooking the playing field without seeing anything beyond it.

At the table, Palmieri was talking. "Don't make me laugh, Greene," he said. "Look, Bonner, you and I both know His Honor here is in financial badlands -- he needs funds or he wouldn't be on the take. And now he offers you 100K for the flash drive? He hasn't got that kind of cash."

"And Mr. Palmieri, here, does," said Carmen as she slipped her hand through Vincent's, tugging him back down into his chair. Once he was seated next to her again, she tucked her hand through his arm and cozied up, desperate to save her own neck. Steve wasn't coming back from the bar. Tony was out there in Beverly Hills. She wanted to live to see another sunrise.

Palmieri seemed both distracted and flattered by her attention, even as he untangled himself from her.

"Vince," said Bonner, laying both hands flat on the table. "You and me, we had a deal going. I got waylaid this morning -- call it a detour -- but we're cool now, right? Lemme get you another Corona. Just pretend we're in Cabo!"

He let out a sharp ironic laugh, louder than he intended.

"Greene, I suggest you get the hell out of here. Now," Palmieri said, leaning toward him. "Oh, and you might wanna have a chat with the wife before too long. Know what I mean?"

Judge Greene's eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened as he leaned back in the chair.

"You're full of crap, Palmieri," he said evenly. "You talk a good game, ruin people's lives, but you're just somebody's penny-ante gopher, aren't you?"

Vincent glared at him. He took a pull on his fresh beer. Bonner held his breath.

"You're right," he said. "It's not just Vincent Palmieri you're messin' with. My people? They pay me very well. There's more cash comin' in and out of my operation in Baja than you can imagine. Your pathetic little romp captured in full color insures my personal freedom. So I should thank you, Judge. Thank you very much."

He raised his beer in salute, his rage barely contained.

"You're still full of crap," Greene said. "Don't tell me you buy this scumbag's garbage, Bonner."

Palmieri sprang out of his chair, grabbed a fistful of the judge's shirt and spoke directly into his face.

"Ever heard of the Marenco cartel, Judge? That's my business, my source, my people --"

"Gogogogogogo!" shouted Ernesto.

Karen Dale, a five-time runner-up, says she has "learned that persistence pays off."

Chapter 28

. . . And most of them lived happily ever after

By Steve Lopez

Five years later . . .

From the Associated Press

TODOS SANTOS, Mexico -- The mangled body of suspected Marenco Cartel drug lord Vincent Palmieri -- who appeared to have been shot twice and also attacked by sharks -- washed ashore early Tuesday morning and was discovered by fishermen line-casting from the beach.

Palmieri had been at large for three years after skipping bail in Los Angeles, where he was awaiting trial in the infamous "Birds of Paradise" case involving former U.S. congressman Antonio Falco, Malibu TV producer Charlie Bonner and a host of Las Vegas showgirls working as prostitutes.

Palmieri was believed to have been romantically involved with Genie Bonner, wife of the TV producer and a co-defendant. The two fled L.A. at the same time and were seen boarding a yacht together last week in Cabo San Lucas. Authorities said there was no sign of the yacht or of Genie Bonner.

******

Little Chapel of the Flowers, Las Vegas

"Do you, Hermann Hauser, take Evelyn Falco to be your lawfully wedded wife, so long as you both shall live?"

"I do," said Hauser, squeezing his bride's thorn-scarred hand. "I wish I'd met her before that gasbag congressman got his hands on her."

"He doesn't exist, Hermie. You're my first real man."

"Excuse me," the minister interrupted, "but may we proceed?"

"Watch it, Rev," Hauser told him. "You're looking at USMC and FBI, retired."

******

In the office of Falco & Greene, Century City

"The question is this: Is the mayor guilty of a crime or just lazy about who drops money into his lap?" ex-judge Laurence M. Greene asked.

"Depends on what you mean by guilty," said his partner, former congressman Tony Falco of Beverly Hills.

After serving less than six months in prison for their roles in the "Birds of Paradise" scandal, Falco and Greene had become the go-to political consultants for California public officials in need of damage control.

"You call Bert Fields, see what he wants to do here," Falco told Greene. "Meantime, I'll get hold of Pellicano."

******

Jumbo's Clown Room, Hollywood

"Why should I let you write a column about me, Lopez?

"It's an interesting story, Mr. Zell. I mean, it's not as if the Chandlers would have sold the L.A. Times and bought a strip joint called Jumbo's Clown Room in the same week. Besides, you seem to like having your name in print."

"Not when you're doing the printing. I swear, if you'd written one more smart-aleck column about beach access at my place in Malibu, I'd have had you fired. And don't think your new owner won't do the same."

"Didn't you hear?" Lopez asked. "I just bought Geffen's beach compound."

Sam Zell lifted a glass and narrowed his eyes.

"Where'd you get that kind of dough?" he asked Lopez. "I knew I was paying you too much."

"Just sold a screenplay, Sam. They're shooting the movie as we speak."

******

Stage 27, Sony Pictures Studio, Culver City

"And, action!" said the young director, who was working his first feature film after six years in reality TV.

"He's brilliant, this kid," Charlie Bonner told his new partner and executive producer. "I may not know much, Ernesto, but I know talent when I see it."

Ernesto Padilla still didn't like Bonner. A G-man never goes soft, and he still resented the fact that Bonner had lawyered up big-time and was out of the can in three months.

But Ernesto was no dummy. A cool couple of million for a modest amount of consulting? Come on, it'd take 20 years to knock that many coconuts out of the tree as a DEA agent.

And then there was his beautiful wife, who was pulling down another million playing the pole dancer, fresh off a Golden Globe nomination for her star turn in the latest Bond movie.

"Ernesto, you're a lucky man," Bonner said as Carmen Madonna Louise Ventura slithered up and down a shiny brass pole on the set of "Birds of Paradise." They were six weeks into the $96-million production, starring Keanu Reeves as Charlie Bonner.

Ernesto puffed on a Cuban and smiled like a thief.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

The End

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