Los Angeles, California; Present Day
Damien waited for the third chime from the doorbell before opening his front door—his left hand on the knob, right on the nine-millimeter pistol tucked behind his back. The man on the other side was graying, bookish, and smiling.
Damien relaxed his finger off the trigger and smiled in return.
“Hi there,” said the man.
“Hello,” Damien replied.
“This your property, sir?”
“You’re not a renter then. You own this house?”
“Yes,” Damien said. “Something the matter?”
“No. Well, I hope not anyway. I’m a biologist with the park service. Max Berke.”
Max dug into his front shirt pocket and produced his business card, glossy in the late-afternoon light.
Damien read it over. “One second.” He stepped behind his door, placed the weapon in the umbrella stand, then walked back out to the porch. “What can I do for you, Mr. Berke?” he asked, closing the door behind him.
“Call me Max. Sorry, I didn’t ask your name.”
“This is going to sound a bit strange, Damien,” Max said. “You’ll have to bear with me.”
“Part of what I do with the park service is animal tracking. I monitor several species in the Los Angeles area. Coyote packs, for example. One of the animals my team tracks is a cougar. A mountain lion known as C-33. She roams the area right over there, in Griffith Park.” Max pointed southeast. “Not far from these hills.”
“Sure,” Damien replied. “The Hollywood sign photo, right?”
“Yes! Exactly. Yes. That’s her. One of our motion cameras caught C-33 as she walked right in front of the Hollywood sign. So you’re familiar with her.”
Damien smiled. “It’s a fantastic photo.”
“Well, thanks. We were thrilled with it. It did a lot to publicize our conservation efforts.”
“About this time last year, we darted C-33 with a tranquilizer and fitted her with a collar. A radio collar.”
“Every few months since then, we catch up with her and tranquilize her again, and we remove the collar,” Max said. “Has a little gray box on it, with a microprocessor inside. Takes about sixty readings a week, mapping out her coordinates.”
“That’s interesting,” Damien said.
“We think so,” Max said, laughing. “So this last reading, we discovered something very unexpected. C-33 has been leaving the confines of Griffith Park, her usual territory, and has moved into this area here in the Hollywood Hills.”
“Oh, yeah. Even more amazing is that she keeps returning to the same spot over and over. Almost every night for the last couple of months, in fact.”
Damien crossed his arms and nodded, his green eyes wide with curiosity. “Where does she go?”
“Right here.” Max pointed to Damien’s porch. “And when I say right here, I mean right here.”
Damien followed Max’s finger to the porch. “Seriously?”
Max nodded. “I’m completely serious. This animal returns to your house again and again.”
“You’re kidding me.”
Damien looked up and down the length of the expansive front deck. “Oh, my goodness.”
“I’m not here to alarm you,” Max said, “but the park service would be remiss if you weren’t made aware. Mountain lions tend to avoid humans, but for some reason this animal has found something that benefits her survival on your property.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Damien replied. “That’s incredible.”
“Like I said, I’m not here to scare you. I just want to figure out why this lion might be attracted to your home.”
“Okay,” Damien said.
“Do you keep any type of small farm animals? Chickens or the like?”
“I travel for work,” Damien said. “I don’t have any pets.”
“Well, that eliminates that then. What about a grill? Cook meat outdoors frequently? A barbecue in your backyard, maybe?”
“Don’t eat meat,” Damien said. “Vegetarian.”
Max resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Of course the handsome, lean, muscular man standing on the porch of his Spanish colonial revival was a vegetarian. He probably jogged five miles every morning before downing his kale-smoothie breakfast. Thinking of the half-eaten fast-food hamburger on his truck’s dashboard down Damien’s winding driveway, he forced a smile.
“So I’ll cross meat off the list,” he said. “What about critters? Raccoons, skunks…they a problem for you?”
“I smell skunks in the winter sometimes, at night,” Damien replied. “I usually leave the windows open.”
“But you haven’t found dead animals?” Max asked. “All torn up? Skunk heads, raccoon heads? That kind of thing?”
Damien shook his head.
“Gotcha,” Max said.
Max took in the view of Los Angeles from Damien’s porch. The ever-present layer of brown summer smog floated above the city as twilight approached.
“Like I said, these animals usually don’t want to be around humans,” Max continued. “They avoid us. How often do you travel for work?”
“Most of the year,” Damien said. “I’m rarely home.”
“Well, there you go,” Max replied. “It’s entirely possible C-33 has found herself a quiet spot to hide out.” He stepped down the deck stairs, peering over the railing. “What’s under the house?”
Damien shrugged. “Nothing really.”
“Any way to easily access it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I already know the answer to this, but I’m gonna ask anyway. You haven’t heard any crazy sounds at night, right? Screeching or roaring? Giant cat sounds?”
“The females make certain noises when they’re in heat. You would know it if you heard it. Makes your skin crawl.”
“God, no. Never heard anything like that.”
“Yeah. Figured,” Max said, blousing his button-down shirt over his gut as he stepped back up to the porch. “No scratching, growling…”
Max again removed his card from his pocket and handed it to Damien. “Here’s my number.”
“Do I need to move?” Damien asked, taking it. “Or get a hotel room?”
“No. That’s not necessary. But I’m going to alert this area’s animal welfare office of the situation. If for any reason you see or hear anything related to this lion, call me. Anytime. And the park service will send folks out.”
“I’m kinda freaked out. Truly.”
“The complete opposite of my intention,” Max said. “Look, C-33 isn’t out here to harm you or anyone else. She’s just a lion being a lion. Be careful, sure, but there’s no need to panic. She’s more scared of you than you are of her.”
“Okay,” Damien said. “Thanks for the information.”
“Thank you,” Max said, shaking Damien’s hand. “Be in touch, okay?”
“I will, Max. My goodness.”
Max chuckled. “You’ve had a mountain lion right under your nose for the last few months and had no idea. I guarantee you she wants to keep it that way.”
Max headed to his SUV. When he reached it, he opened the door, turned back to Damien, and gave him a salute.
Damien waved in return.
When Max pulled out of his driveway, Damien went back inside.
* * *
Damien stopped at his stove and lifted the lid off a pot of soaking pinto beans. He’d left the nine-millimeter in the umbrella stand and walked through his living room, empty of furniture but for the couch he used for sitting and reading, a hobby he rarely had time to enjoy. He passed his packed bookshelves and headed to the bedroom at the end of the hallway.
As he opened the door, C-33 raised her head from her paws, exposing giant yellow incisors with a yawn. Damien sat on the bed and the lion rolled onto her back, allowing him to scratch her belly.
As he ran his fingers underneath her radio collar, the lion’s eyes closed into slits, her ears flat against her head with pleasure. The force of her purring made his hand vibrate.
I have to go.
You know. Work.
Yes. I promise.
Damien rose from the bed, eyeing his overnight bag, which he’d already packed for his trip to Manhattan. He went back to the kitchen and his dinner of beans.
That night, the lion lay by Damien’s side as he fell asleep. When he started snoring, she left, slipping out the open bedroom window to hunt.
* * *
Damien checked in with the lobby desk and was shown to the elevator banks, where he informed the security guard he was headed to the fifty-second floor. The guard held the elevator doors, pressed the appropriate button, and twisted a key into a slot.
“Straight up, no waiting,” the guard said.
“Many thanks,” Damien replied.
He arranged his bag over his shoulder as the elevator ascended.
* * *
“Mr. Anderson. Hi. Can I get you a water or coffee?”
Damien shook his head and pulled out his parking ticket. “Call me John. And I’m good, thanks. Can I get you to stamp this?”
Damien slid his parking-garage ticket across to the young receptionist, who already had her validation stamp ready. Damien had taken the subway here, but had visited the ticket kiosk on his way up nonetheless. He figured it might buy him a few hours of confusion during the upcoming NYPD response.
The receptionist introduced herself as Julie, offered him a seat in the lobby, then disappeared. He didn’t pick up any of the papers or magazines off the coffee table, financial trades he had no interest in beyond his recent research, in which he was now expert.
Ten minutes later, Julie returned. “Mr. Griggs is ready. Right this way.”
Damien collected his bag and followed her down a long hall toward the suite.
* * *
Andrew Griggs appeared exactly as he had on the cover of Time magazine: blue suit, red tie, gray hair dyed black and slicked flat against his scalp.
Damien pumped his hand, and Andrew pointed to the guest chair in front of his desk.
“Sit, John, please.”
“Nice furniture,” Damien said, taking his seat.
“I’m an antique nut,” Andrew replied. “Well, you’ve probably already heard all about it. How was your trip?”
“No issues. They didn’t drag me off the plane anyway.”
Andrew chuckled. “Right? What the hell has happened to air travel in this country?”
“I think you’d probably do okay,” Damien said. “You own two private jets.”
“Hey, I still put my pants on one leg at a time like every other guy. Did Julie offer you something to drink?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Damien said. “Great office, by the way. Fantastic view.”
“Keeps the rain off our heads,” Andrew said with a shrug. “Nothing? Water? Coffee? Whiskey?”
“I’m set, sir. Thanks.”
Andrew slapped his laptop shut and slid it to the edge of his desk. “All right, John. Let’s hear it. Where should we start?’
“We’ll start at the beginning, I suppose, and work our way from there,” Damien replied. “But what I really want to talk about today is why you want to write your autobiography. What you want to say about your life and how I might bring that story into being.”
“Wow. Yeah. Well, there it is,” Andrew said, leaning back in his leather chair. “I dunno. Something for my grandkids to read, I guess. Set the record straight.”
“The record,” Damien repeated. “Meaning your involvement in reckless lending and shady securities dealings.”
Andrew’s eyes went wide. “Alleged involvement,” he said. “And yeah, that record. You don’t waste any time, do you?”
“If I’m going to ghostwrite your autobiography, we have to lay it out on the table, warts and all,” Damien said. “The fact is your banks offered exotic mortgages to people who had little to no chance of repaying them. You were one of the architects of the housing bust. You destroyed the financial futures of tens of thousands of people. Decimated pension plans. You’re a criminal and a fraud.”
Andrew’s face twisted into a shocked, tight smile. “Wow,” he finally said. “How do you really feel?”
“I feel you’re a world-class violator,” Damien replied. “And my name’s not John. It’s Damien. Damien Attica.”
Andrew’s face fell. “Excuse me?”
“No, Andrew,” Damien replied. “I don’t think I will.”
He rose from his seat and removed an industrial-size window punch from his shoulder bag. Andrew wheeled around in his chair as Damien approached the office’s floor-to-ceiling window, brought the tool to the pane of glass, and pulled the lever.
The glass shattered. Damien dropped the window punch and turned around. He then snatched Andrew out of his chair by the throat and crotch, hoisting him over his head like a barbell.
Andrew tried to cry out but was unable to, as his windpipe was sealed shut. Damien tossed him out the window.
He waited until the screaming faded, then peered down just as Andrew’s body exploded onto Pearl Street, fifty-two stories below.
Damien pulled out his phone and opened the camera app, then flipped the angle so his own face filled the screen.
His eyes were black.
“Change,” Damien whispered. “Change.”
His green irises slowly reappeared as a police siren echoed. There was no time to wait. He removed a pair of sunglasses from his pocket and put them on, an unfortunate but necessary accessory that might draw attention on an overcast day.
Damien slipped out of the office and down the corridor past Julie, who was scribbling notes as she listened in on a conference call. He gave her a little wave, and she waved back, making a point to check the time. Her boss had cleared an hour for this appointment, which had only ended up taking a few minutes.
Damien raced down the building’s inner stairwells to the lobby before slipping out the revolving doors and pushing through the gawkers converging around what remained of Andrew Griggs.
He returned to his Los Angeles home hoping to find C-33 waiting for him on the couch, but it was empty. He then ate what was left of the beans and went to bed.
* * *
The next morning, Damien half listened to cable news while getting dressed. The murder of the infamous Wall Street banker was dominating the headlines. The aerial footage of the glassless office window, juxtaposed by a white sheet over Andrew Griggs’s body fifty-two stories below, sat in a box in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen as the pundits debated whether the incident was terrorist related. The current thinking was that it wasn’t.
“It stands to reason the man had many enemies,” the morning host opined.
Damien stood up from his bed and grabbed his keys from the bureau.
* * *
Traffic on Wilshire was particularly bad, even for rush hour. He crawled along in his red Mustang convertible, dreading this morning’s appointment.
He arrived at the waiting room five minutes late and pushed the call button on the wall underneath a bronze placard that read Past Life Hypnotherapy Partners of Los Angeles. A minute went by, and he anxiously shifted in his seat.
Just over a year had passed since Damien’s first session in this place. He had picked it at random off a list generated from a search engine query: expert on dreams that might be a past life in Los Angeles. The top result went straight to voicemail. The second answered on the first ring.
The woman on the other end was kind and didn’t interrupt his monologue, only listened. Damien told of childhood night terrors and waking up stuck to his sheets, drenched in sweat. Of dreams in places that felt more real than those he visited on a daily basis, and people he could still hear and even smell upon waking. She said yes and uh huh and scribbled down notes. When he finished she told him to come in the next morning at nine, if he could make it. He could, and he did.
The first sessions were awkward and fruitless. Damien had a great deal of difficulty submitting to hypnosis at first, but in time realized it was less a parlor trick and more a simple agreement. If he were willing to suspend disbelief and open himself to suggestion, she would reward him with insight that gave shape to his nightmares. Once this bargain was struck, progress was made.
Over time the dreams became stories, told and retold with little discrepancy between sessions. His sleep improved. He had kept faithful appointments ever since.
The door finally opened, and his hypnotherapist Angela waved him inside with a smile.
“How are you?” she asked as they headed for the dark room at the end of the hall. Her long gray braided hair swung above a flowing hand-stitched skirt, the hippie throwback ensemble smelling of patchouli oil and incense.
“Can’t complain,” Damien said.
“Did you see the thing about that Wall Street guy getting thrown out of a building in New York?”
“So crazy. Right?”
She stepped to the side, allowing Damien to enter the room first. He sat in the same overstuffed chair he always did, underneath the framed hypnotherapy license displayed on the wall.
The light on the coffee table pulsed blue then green, red then yellow, blue then green.
“I want to hear about the cowboy today,” Angela said, her tone light and soothing. “The outlaw. You were just starting to get some clarity with that.”
The colors swirled within the light, the room’s curtains drawn.
“Okay,” he said.
“Watch the light. Relax. Take all the time you need. All the time in the world.”
“Are you comfortable, Damien?”
“Good. Breathe in on a count of four.”
Damien did so.
“And hold for a count of seven.”
The room was quiet for seven seconds, save for the distant traffic on Wilshire.
“And slowly release on a count of eight,” she instructed.
Damien did so.
“Breathe in on a count of four.”
Damien’s shoulders dropped.
“I want to hear more about the cowboy. Watch the light. And slowly release on a count of eight.”
“Breathe in on a count of four. The outlaw. Hold for a count of seven. The cowboy. And slowly release on a count of eight. The outlaw. Breathe in on a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. Go into the light, Damien. And release on a count of eight. The cowboy. Breathe in on a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. And release on a count of eight. The outlaw. Breathe in on a count of four. Go into the light, Damien. Hold for a count of seven. And release on a count of eight. The cowboy. Breathe in on a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. And release on a count of eight. Go into the light, Damien. The outlaw. Breathe in on a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. And release on a count of eight. The outlaw…”
Damien went into the light.