So, here I trudged through my seaside house, Jack Kidd, wealthy landowner and lady killer extraordinaire, half-asleep and half-noxious from last night’s romp with a married woman. While crossing the kitchen floor toward the coffee maker, I felt the heat of the morning sun seeping through my windows. Because of this, I wore only a pair of chinos. I flinched toward the sound of bare feet slapping terracotta floor tiles. A playful hand smacked my backside, ending with a squeeze.
“Aren’t we the scaredy-cat?” my sleepover remarked in a raspy, just-got-out-of-bed voice.
“Coffee, Carmella?” I said.
“Yes, with cream—oh, and please try not to burn it this time.” My houseguest, Carmella Falsetto, was trophy wife to a wealthy Napa Valley winemaker, but unlike most gorgeous specimens of her category, she had the charm and wits of a formidable envoy. In fact, I’d recently negotiated a four-hundred-unit residential deal for her and her husband here in Newport Beach, California, to which her signatures were required.
She pulled a pack of chewing gum from her handbag. “They’re Nicorettes,” she said. “They help with the cravings. Want one?” A smirk lined her face.
“You know I don’t, and it’s not funny either.”
“When a man exhibits delusions of horror in his sleep, it’s funny. You nearly scared the shit out of me, Jack, convulsing and jumping out of bed like that.” Carmella’s nude, lithe shape struck a pose of erotica against the backlight of the kitchen windows. Her short, curly black bed hair was driven to a pointy crown atop her head, offering an inane likeness to a Kewpie Doll. She shoved the small wafer of gum into her mouth. “Your dream seemed intense; are you all right?”
“At least I woke up in bed this time and not on the floor.” I began to load the coffee maker.
“It’s a nocturnal adventure I’ve been having lately, full of nightmares of naked women wearing cat masks and claws and all trying to slash me into ribbons, not to mention the bedwetting and screaming that follows. But other than feeling like I was drugged last night, I suppose I’m fine.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, drugged?”
“It means you make a hell of a nightcap.” I thought of the two cocktails I drained last night before bed. My head felt woozy.
After I set the coffee-maker switch to the non-burn mode, a thought, not quite as distressful as my dream but definitely more grating, began in my head, like a torn ligament when you move a certain way, deep in the flesh, refusing to heal. Because I held a real estate license, I had names and addresses of lots of people. Inside this file were profiles of certain women, Janes, as I called them, whom I had escorted through escrow, then landed in bed. Also stashed in my dossier were the names and candid photos of the cheated husbands and victimized children, compliments of a private investigator I had on retainer, one who snooped exclusively for me.
My voyeurism went further. I researched their lives, where they lived, their schools, professions, even their ancestry. I needed to know why an attractive woman would dare flaunt her unhappiness and her real estate in front of me. And all I had to do was play coy to sly scheduling maneuvers that made sure hubby was out of town when documents needed signing. Speaking of which. . .
My eyes shifted toward the centerfold standing in the middle of my kitchen.
“For a moment I thought you were off in another dream.” Carmella’s smirk intensified. She turned and looked through a pair of French doors that led to my boat dock with one 42-foot yacht slipped inside. “What a beautiful sunrise,” she said, “a delightful color of fiery warmth, unlike my escort.”
I grabbed the half and half from the fridge and noticed the fiery sky wasn’t clouds but smoke. I scanned the immediate horizon, noticing no neighboring buildings on fire.
She said, “Some night watchman you are; you forgot to lock your backdoors. They’re ajar, closed, but not really.” She swung one of the French doors open without turning the knob.
I crossed the room and inspected the doors, then the floor, looking for water residue or tracks.
“For God sakes, Jack, what are you so edgy about? You forgot to lock your door—that’s all.”
My hometown Newport Beach was crawling with greedy land pirates, including Carmella and her husband, who—and I had a formulating hunch on this—were both preparing to go gunning for me over my land—a sizable orange-tree ranch worth somewhere in the eighty-million-dollar range. That is, before it’s developed, which would then put it closer to the billion-dollar range. So, yeah, what the hell was I so edgy about?
I turned from the door and saw Carmella holding a handgun pointed at my breastbone. I froze, not sure which direction my intenstinal tract wanted to go. “Are you trying to be cute?” I asked.
“Just paying you back for scaring the hell out of me earlier.”
I stepped across the room and took the gun from her, a Glock 19, fully loaded. “These things don’t have a safety,” I said. “Your finger was on the trigger.”
“I know. I found it in that drawer.” Her eyes gestured toward the countertop. “Stupid thing to do, darling, having a loaded gun lying around for anyone to find.”
“I’ve been on high alert lately.” I put the gun back in the drawer and returned to the coffee pot and poured two cups. Knowing for certain that I’d locked those French doors last night, I focused again on that side of the room. I took a drink of coffee, grimaced, and had a sudden urge to slam a small kitchen appliance against the wall. I stepped over to Carmella and handed her a cup of the deadly Joe, to which she took a drink, scowled, then nearly dropped her serving onto the countertop.
“I’m no Freud, lover boy, but when a man destroys coffee as easily as you and dreams of nude women wearing cat masks and claws, all the while keeping loaded guns lying around, there must be some perverted significance.” She crossed the room and tossed her chewed-up Nicorette into a trashcan. Her eyes caught mine. “My husband’s offer for your land . . . have you considered it?”
Ignoring her, I returned to the coffeemaker and looked it over, trying to figure out if maybe I was pushing the wrong damn button.
“It’s called encroachment, Jack. Your tidy-didy Orange County has only one destiny and that’s to be a complete and total megalopolis, and you’re the only person standing in its way. You’d better do something with your prime real estate besides harvesting orange juice or it along with you will be bulldozed and left the fool.” She approached me and cupped her hand to my face. “You know I’m right. Can’t you see it coming, Jack?”
“See what coming, Carmella?”
She dropped her hand. “How much do you really want for your land, darling?”
“The highest price.”
“Then let’s sign papers.”
“I won’t let it go that way."
"Then please tell me how you'll let it go."
"I’ve decided on an endgame, but only with a certain player, an irresistible and dangerous as hell muse.”
She huffed out a laugh. “And what if this muse doesn’t want to buy your land?”
“I don’t want to sell her the land; I just need to find her.”
“And then what?”
“Escape to where?”
“I don’t know yet. But I need a different kind of purgatory plush. Costa Rica, Asia, or even Australia. I need to get the hell out of Dodge and preferably with some dignity attached to my nefarious ass.”
Mrs. Falsetto aimed another marksman’s bead on me, this time, less the gun. “It’s a business plan about that land of yours you need to draft together, Jack, and not some dumbass notion about an endgame with some muse.” She paused for a moment, looking at me as if I were a man needing absolution. “Tell you what, I challenge you to find this muse, in which you’ll fail miserably, purging yourself of this nonsense, so you can finally escape to the land of realists and lucrative business deals.”
“Care to wager on my escape?”
“My prime real estate, what else?”
One of her finely plucked eyebrows crept upward. “All those times you’ve refused my offers to buy your land, and now you’re betting the farm on some game? Do you honestly expect me to fall for this?”
“Only if you want a crack at a billion dollars.”
She raised her head slowly, like a snake poising to strike. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“And if you don’t bag this muse, you’ll deed the land over to my husband and me?”
“Lock, stock, and orange juice.”
“How long will you need to play this silly game?”
“Thirty days should do it.”
“And how will you find this muse in such a short time?”
“There’s plenty of game in these parts. You want to play, Carmella, or don’t you?” Game or not, I could tell it was hard for Carmella to conceal her jubilance. A prime parcel of real estate with decades of immeasurable lease residuals was finally within her money-grubbing reach, and every molecule inside her wanted to leap from this room and notify her pirate husband of the plundering news.
“Only you would wager a billion-dollar fortune on a game of sudden death, Jack.”
“I’m an adrenaline junkie when it comes to parlaying affairs, Carmella. What do you expect?”
“I expect you to pay up when I win.”
“I’ll win, trust me, and I won’t ask for much in return.”
“You never do.” After a long moment, our eyes locked to a draw; we then shook hands. “Let the game begin,” she said. “Your land is as good as mine.” Mrs. Falsetto marched across the floor. “You do owe me for last night—only one case of Pinot Noir this time.”
“Sounds fair. I’ll drive you to the airport.”
“Don’t bother. A cab driver will make for better company.” She stopped before exiting the kitchen and turned, striking another pose of erotica. “Tell me this, farm boy, just what kind of muse will it take to pry a man like you away from a billion-dollar fortune?”
“One hell of a dangerous catch.”
She chuckled and said, “There really is no hope for you, darling, or for your shitty coffee. I’ll be in touch—ciao!” She quick-stepped through the house with nicely shaped derriere twitching delightfully behind.