A screenwriter needs another hit movie. Will he scheme it or steal it? 3,890 words. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Ilustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Up ahead, beneath twin palms swaying in a whispering hot breeze, Gavin Falconer could see a massive production — klieg lights crisscrossing the night sky, the blinking neon of the marquee, a line of gleaming black hybrids and town cars at the curb, and a Red Carpet sweeping into the theater.
Fuckers, Gavin thought as he got nearer. “Motherfuckers!” This he shouted out loud without even realizing it, until he noticed people ahead of him had turned to stare and were giving him wide berth, as if he was crazy. Well, he wasn’t crazy. He was a screenwriter, although some might equate the two. He was, however, in a foul state of mind, and when he realized his invitation didn’t include VIP parking, his mood grew even darker.
But he put on a big smile as he passed through security. He made his way up the Red Carpet and stepped into the lobby, a sea of sleek flesh in equally sleek outfits. He scanned the crowd for a familiar or friendly face. He found neither. He did spot Trish Danaher surrounded by an unwieldy entourage. He could go up and tell her he’d read her script and thought it was mediocre at best. But she already considered him a douche so he didn’t bother. He moved through the crowd toward the concession area. Kurt McCann was in front of him in line. Gavin recognized his agent by the sharp cut of his suit but said nothing, just stared and briefly imagining driving the pen in his pocket into Kurt’s skull. Then Kurt turned.
“Dude,” said Gavin, aiming to keep things light, “thought your assistant said you weren’t gonna show. You could’ve returned my call.”
Kurt aimed for light, too, even though his eyes were looking everywhere except at Gavin. “You know what? I changed my mind at the last minute. Got any pages for me? Because they’re getting antsy over at Netflix. You’re way past owing them a draft. I mean, like, breach-of-contract late.”
“They’re coming. I got some really good work done past couple of days. End of the week tops.”
“Excellent, bro. Can’t wait to read them. Such a cool idea. Catch you after the show, okay?” And then the agent was gone, knifing his way through the crowd toward some tatted-up kid who was definitely a prospective client that Kurt was trying to seduce.
Once Gavin Falconer had been that kid. In fact they’d both been babies back then. Gavin, twenty-three and newly arrived from the East Coast, had just finished his first stab at writing in between various low-paying jobs. Kurt, the same age, was still in the mailroom at the agency when a mutual acquaintance had slipped him Gavin’s script, an earnest but self-conscious coming-of-age story set in high school. They met at the Coffee Bean. Kurt wasn’t an agent yet, but he talked like one, smooth and glib and full of promises about the money they’d make together. Gavin wondered if he should shop himself around, but Kurt’s enthusiasm was infectious.
That first script never took off. Then Gavin wrote a second, a ballsy futuristic military thriller. This time he and Kurt struck gold. It sold for a startling sum after a fierce bidding war between several studios eager for a tentpole structured to generate sequels, apps, video games and toys for an endless stream of revenue. Gavin’s name was suddenly everywhere. His Twitter following and Facebook friends exploded. Gavin was courted by executives all over town. Offers to write, to adapt books, to rewrite others and to possibly even direct poured in. Gavin calculated that, if he spent wisely, he might be set for life.
But he didn’t spend wisely. The down payment and closing costs on the house above the Strip ate up one enormous chunk. His black Mercedes S-class AMG ate up more not to mention the insurance. So did spur-of-the-moment trips to Hawaii, Cabo and Vegas, and the non-stop partying in L.A. with new-found friends. Gavin figured the money would keep rolling in, if not from the feature side then from TV, where Kurt had set up a couple of deals that had potential.
But then the big spec sale movie, initially on a fast-track to production, stalled in development. Talent that had eagerly signed on fell away. A succession of executives came and went. Studio management changed once, then again. The whole corporation got swallowed up by a bigger one. And somehow all the heat his writing had generated vanished into thin air. Meanwhile, the story itself, once lean and incisive, had become aimless due to rewrite after rewrite.
Then Gavin made a mistake. He was in a meeting with the last group of executives and he snapped. Already this meeting had dragged on for hours, with the script being picked apart word by word. Already lunch had been debated, ordered, delivered and consumed. Already Gavin was feeling exhausted when one exec made a suggestion he found absurd. So he threw a tantrum, releasing years of built-up frustration in a thirty-minute foul-mouthed rant. An assistant secretly recorded his outburst and it went viral. Almost instantly Gavin was branded borderline insane.
Now Trish Danaher, who’d sold a spec the same week as Gavin — for far less money — was racking up her third ‘written by’ credit and Gavin was basically unemployed and, worse, barred from sitting in the roped-off seats. He knew he could get back on top if he could just get those Netflix pages out but kept finding excuses not to work. Like tonight. Shouldn’t he be home pounding away at his laptop?
Then the lights dimmed, and the curtain parted, and the audience — a super friendly one — broke into cheers at the sight of the studio logo. Yep, Gavin thought as he slipped out of his seat, I’m gonna go home and work. He made his way up the aisle. He could see out of the corner of his eye that a blond guy in glasses seemed to be watching him. When it seemed the guy might follow, Gavin hustled through the exit. Soon Gavin was back home with his laptop open on the dining room table, but he wasn’t working. He was jacking off to porn.
A few minutes later Gavin smoked a cigarette on his deck and took a slug of ice cold Kettle One. As always, the jaw-dropping view spreading out at his feet awed him. He’d first seen the house on Swallowtail Trail when the listing agent was holding a broker’s caravan. Gavin’s accountants were urging him to sink money into property but the house from outside wasn’t much at all — a plain white stucco box. Then Gavin stepped inside and saw that every room gave way to pure unobstructed views. It was one of those rare crystal clear days, searing Santa Anas whisking all the grit out to the Pacific which shimmered like a mirage. He felt as if he was levitating above all the chaos below. He liked that sensation, and he made a winning offer because suddenly he just had to have the house. Little did Gavin know the deck would be the first in an endless line of outrageously expensive repairs the house needed.
“God Damn!” Gavin shrieked into the night sky as he was plunged into darkness. The main circuit blew, the third time in a week.
The main breaker was at the bottom of the property, so Gavin took careful steps in the dark as the ground dropped at a steep angle. Slowly and gingerly he moved down the hill, hands pressed to the stucco wall until he located the panel beneath the deck. He flipped the breaker. The lights around the perimeter of the house popped back on. Gavin turned, began to climb the hill, but stumbled over sharp, cold metal. It was a small sign, a warning — “ARMED RESPONSE” in bold red letters — even though he’d been cut off by the alarm company months ago due to unpaid bills. But he picked up the sign and planted it back in its place beneath the deck.
Again he began his climb up the hill, but again he snagged a foot and lost his balance. Gavin threw out his hands, flailing for something to grasp. His fingers tightened around the root of an old Eucalyptus jutting out of the dirt. For a brief second he was in control again. But the root snapped and Gavin fell. He hit hard dry earth with surprising force. A gash opened near his eye. He thought it was over when he began to roll down the steep slope and he was powerless to stop the momentum of his rapid descent. He bashed through scrubby grasses, bouncing off rocks, hearing rips and tears opening in his clothes, swallowing a mouthful of dirt, stopping only as he crashed into his neighbor’s cold steel gate.
Gavin groaned. He rolled his head to one side and was instantly confronted by the bared fangs, foaming mouth and vicious snarls of a Doberman, which tried hard as it could to poke its snout through the slats of the gate to tear into Gavin’s flesh. The writer snarled right back. For a second the dog looked confused. Then, spooked, it turned tail and ran.
For a few minutes Gavin just lay there, staring up at his house. Then he got to his knees and slowly scaled the hill again. Back safely inside, Gavin studied his face in the bathroom mirror. Blood formed a line from his eye to his chin. It wasn’t long ago that Gavin could be mistaken for a student. Now, just past thirty, he seemed haggard, his once sharp features losing their edge, his dark blue eyes dulled.
Resting, he listened to his numerous voicemails. Most were from bill collectors. He hit call back on the one from Barbara Pearlstein.
“Hey beautiful,” Gavin whispered, when she picked up, his groin twinging at the huskiness in her voice, “I could be over in ten.”
“I’m at the beach,” Barbara said. “Maybe tomorrow?”
“What? The other half at home?”
“No. He will be. Any minute.”
Two years earlier Gavin had met Barbara in a spa’s Quiet Room. She’d held his gaze while letting her thick robe fall just slightly open, so he could see the curve of her breast and the outline of a nipple. Barbara not only had a husband — a downtown attorney with suspicious ties to city government — and also a good ten years on Gavin. But the enormous sums she spent keeping herself looking good paid off. That first afternoon, her black Tesla parked next to Gavin’s Mercedes. they drove to her Malibu house overlooking a beach that required a key to access. They’d screwed like mad, and their on-again off-again relationship continued on Barbara’s terms.
Now Gavin asked, “Why are you calling if I can’t come and see you?”
“I think you know why I’m calling, Gavin.”
He did. She had floated him a loan, five figures he had used to pay off creditors and buy him time. Now all Gavin could think of to say was a lame, “You’ll get your money. I’m not going anywhere.”
Gavin ended the call. He looked around his house. There sat his laptop, the screen having gone into sleep mode.
He knew he should work, but he headed for the door.
His buddy Dimitri owned a club, Haven, housed in a giant old Hollywood warehouse. A string of Ubers circled the block and photographers lingered nearby. Inside Gavin pushed through the crowds until he came to narrow stairs leading up to a VIP section. He was waved in by the bouncer. He spotted Dimitri leaning against the bar. The two had been friends since a few Coachellas back, when Dmitri had tried to get Gavin to bed after a mad sweaty night of pharmaceuticals, music and dancing. It never happened. But they became tight anyway, developing a sort of easy rapport: Gavin called Dmitri a cocksucking fag and Dmitri called Gavin a pussy-eating breeder. Dmitri was one of the smartest men Gavin knew — not book smart, but able to zero in on trends and capitalize them.
Dmitri headed downstairs. Alone, Gavin moved to the edge of the balcony and surveyed the scene below. Suddenly there was the blond guy in glasses waving at him. Who was this asshole? The guy headed over to the VIP section and walked right up to Gavin.
“Hey man,” he said as if they were longtime friends, “How’re ya doing?”
“Who the fuck are you, and why are you following me?”
“I’m Dale Tomasis. I know you like this place. I’ve seen you leaving it on TMZ.”
Gavin eyed him warily now. “You some kind of stalker?”
“We know each other. It hasn’t been that long.”
Gavin took a closer look. In the dim light, the guy seemed sallow, as if he lived in a basement and never saw the light of day. The lenses of his glasses were scratched. Gavin could see shiny scalp through thin hair and deep creases around the eyes. He tried to match a name with the face. He came up empty.
“You don’t remember,” Dale said. “Not a problem. Let me see if I can help you out. ‘Although we’ve made great strides in this pass, and improvements have been made, there are still problem areas in structure, and with the character of Sabrina.’”
“My movie!” Gavin said.
“Yep. I was the story analyst, the reader, remember? They kept making me do notes on every draft you wrote.”
Often in studio meetings somebody would show up with script notes, and then sit silently while the producer and executive did all the talking. Gavin recalled Dale being ignored.
“Well,” Gavin said, “good to see you, man. You take it easy now.”
He headed for the stairs, but Dale was right behind him.
“Wait, can you spare an hour? I’ve got something that might interest you. It’s a pitch. That’s why I’ve been trying to get your attention.”
Gavin rolled his eyes. Everybody had a pitch — distant relatives, old friends. All were certain it would make a great movie. All thought it was so easy. “Listen, Dale, I’m pretty beat,” said Gavin. “Maybe some other time, okay?”
“You know as well as I do your career is in the shitter, Gavin. This pitch is another tentpole for sure. Like your movie, but fresh and new, without the stink of all that development. It can rescue you.”
“And what do you get?”
“We partner on it. We sell it. And I get taken seriously. You still have some cache at the studio. I know that for a fact. So come to my place. Hear me out.”
Gavin mulled over his options as he drained his drink.
The idea was brilliant.
Gavin had followed Dale to Mid-Wilshire, then to an apartment over a garage. Inside was an old faux-leather sofa, a coffee table piled with dirty dishes and a rug that was stained.
“Nice place,” Gavin said.
“It’s a shithole and you know it,” Dale said.
Gavin noticed a shelf with a giant stack of screenplays. “Bring your work home?” he said, trying to make conversation.
“Those are mine,” Dale said. “Twelve scripts. And not one option.”
“Well, that sucks,” Gavin said. “Okay, pitch me.”
Dale opened his mouth to begin, and from that moment in, Gavin sat stunned that the idea was so commercial, then angry that he hadn’t thought of it himself. In fact it wasn’t even one movie — it was a trilogy. He could see global domination. But Gavin didn’t want Dale to see how excited he was and maintained his best poker face.
He said they’d talk in a couple of days. On the way home, though, he’d furiously wrote down every detail.
Now he texted his agent Kurt: “We have to talk. Call me ASAP.”
His phone chirped. “Hey,” Gavin said, “thanks for calling back so quick.”
“Listen, man,” Kurt said, and Gavin suddenly noticed a strange seriousness to his tone, “we’ve got to talk.”
Gavin suddenly tensed. He sensed Kurt was about to dump him. For a moment he couldn’t speak.
“The thing of it is,” Kurt continued, “this relationship has always been a partnership, and I’m not sure that this partnership is really…”
“I’ve got something you can sell. Right now,” Gavin interrupted.
“A spec? Because I thought you were finishing the Netflix pages.”
“No. It’s a pitch.”
“I don’t know. Pitches are tough lately.”
“You got five minutes, Kurt?”
Before Gavin even finished, Kurt stopped him. “Holy Fuck!” the agent said. Can you hold on?” Kurt soon was back. “Can you get yourself to a meeting with Brent Burnham first thing tomorrow? You know he’s sitting on all that Chinese cash, right? We had lunch today, and all he talked about was finding a trilogy like this. You got it all worked out?”
“Yep,” said Gavin.
“Then I’ll set it up. Good luck, buddy.”
Suddenly, Gavin felt lighter, For a second he thought he should call Dale. Then Gavin got wrapped up in thinking about what he should wear.
At the studio, Brent’s second assistant came gliding down the long silent hall. “Brent’s a little backed up in dailies,” she said.
When Brent was ready, the meeting began with the usual chit-chat, with Gavin lying about how he was doing and feigning interest in Brent’s two kids. “So I hear you have this slam-dunk of a pitch?”
“I think you’re gonna like it.”
“Do it,” said Brent, and Gavin was on.
He was barely into the second act of Part One of the Trilogy when Brent held up a hand. “Dude,” he said, “you gotta stop.”
“You not into it?” Gavin asked.
“Opposite. I need you stop because Jules needs to hear it. So does my guy in Beijing. We can teleconference him in. I’m gonna go see if Jules can spare a few. Wait here.”
Gavin nodded. Gavin called Kurt, who picked up in an instant and said “I think I might already have an offer.”
“What?” said Gavin, “I’m not even done.”
“Not there. I started to pitch it to Romy Heston. She’s fucking creaming her panties already.”
Gavin began to sweat. This was moving faster than he expected, spiraling out of his control. “Brent wants me to pitch it to Jules and the Chinese guy,” he said.
“Can you set part of it in Beijing?”
Brent returned. “Let me talk to him,” Kurt instructed. Gavin held out his phone. At first Brent just listened. “Do you know what Romy might offer?” he asked Kurt. “All right, give us ten minutes with Jules. If he likes it, we’ll match her and go higher on the back end.”
Brent hung up and led Gavin to Jules LaVine’s vast corner office where the writer could also make out the face of an Asian man slowly coming into focus on a flat screen. After he pitched, Gavin could hear snippets of debate over offers between Brent, Kurt, Romy, and two other studios that jumped in. When negotiations became more intense, Gavin was escorted outside. When they were over, the final tally for the sale was well into seven figures, with escalations for sole credit, fat bonuses for the second and third parts of the trilogy, and a firm percentage of ancillary rights.
News of the deal would be all over town by morning, if not sooner. As Gavin drove away, he punched Dale’s numbers and got voicemail. “Hey, so I’ve been thinking about the idea. We definitely need to chat. Can you swing by my house tonight? 6321 Swallowtail.”
At home Gavin popped a Xanax, poured some Kettle One into a glass and headed out to his deck. Now darkness was descending over the basin, and again Gavin felt a sense of power surging back into his veins after a long absence. His phone rang, but he let it go to voicemail while he enjoyed this moment of peace. Then he listened to the message. It was Dale. He said he’d be at Gavin’s in an hour.
The hammer slipped from Gavin Falconer’s hand. Strands of hair, and bits of bloody scalp still clung to it.
He stood, stunned, over Dale Tomasis, who lay in a heap on the deck. Gavin saw blood sprayed against the white stucco of his house then went to the kitchen to retrieve his Kettle One as he tried to piece together how their conversation had exploded into violence.
He had begun by trying to convince Dale how much easier it would be for Gavin to get the idea set up himself, and then they would split the profits. “I don’t think you understand,” Dale had said. “If you make the sale alone, I’m still stuck where I am.”
“No, you’re not. For one thing, you’ll have this major chunk of coin and can quit your job to write full time. And I’m going to insist that you must — just absolutely must — get shared story credit.”
“No,” Dale said. “I don’t care about the money.”
“You just don’t get it. Those fucks barely acknowledge my existence. This is my chance to prove I’m smarter than they are.”
“Look, Dale, all I’m trying to do is make this process easier. When you think about it, I’m surprised you’re not thanking me.”
Dale set his glass down on the rail and stood. “You know what, Gavin? I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think I want to work with you.”
“NO!” Gavin said, with enough vehemence that Dale turned back and stared at him. “You need me, remember? You said it yourself.”
“I’m not sure I trust you. So I’m going home, and I’m making certain my notes are all properly dated and backed up, and then I might email them somewhere safe. Just in case. So goodnight.”
Gavin, in that instant, saw nothing but humiliation and shame. Next to his hand, still resting where he’d left it that morning to fix the railing, was a hammer. And in another instant Gavin brought the hammer down in one savage blow to the back of Dale’s skull.
Now Gavin stepped around the mess. And then he felt Dale’s hands slipping around his throat and squeezing, and Gavin struggled to breathe. He twisted around and confronted Dale, whose blood was running down the front of his face, his features twisted with rage. Dale tightened his grip, and Gavin felt himself beginning to slip away. But then he brought a knee up hard into Dale’s groin. Dale’s grip loosened and then Gavin, adrenaline pumping, grabbed Dale by the throat and rammed him against the railing. Dale’s tongue exploded from his mouth and bled where he’d bit down on it.
Dale fell against the rail. Gavin heard a crack, and then he watched the rail break and Dale tumble, arms flailing, over the edge, in an instant vanishing into the blackness below. Gavin raced outside, and then he saw it: Dale had landed square on the “Armed Response” sign. It had sliced right through him.
A voice pierced the darkness. “Hello? Is somebody out there? Hello?”
Gavin didn’t move. Then the light in the neighbor’s house was extinguished.