For the impecunious, merely curious, or those afraid to commit, here is the first chapter of High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare—gratis!
Several hundred yards off the Malibu shore, Midas Demiurgos sat aboard his yacht—christened The Missy in the glory days of the Missy at the Mall franchise—absorbed in the script doctor’s initial notes on Donnie Percival’s Paradise Disenchanted. He wore a wireless ear clip, a false beard, and, underneath the zippered top of his athletic warm-up, a bulletproof vest. In the background droned a CD, Disk 4 of Mega-Vocabulary System II.
“Anarchy: absence or denial of any authority or established order….Autonomous: self-governing or independent…..”
Manny, the wizened Mexican butler, shuffled in like a guilty child to remove Midas’s empty scotch glass.
“La Satana is getting stronger,” he murmured anxiously, referring to the Santa Ana wind by the familiar name “Satan.” Already he had left a text for his woman, ordering her to decapitate one of the chickens and begin the Rosary.
Midas did not look up from his script.
“Somebody die out here tonight. It’s a bad wind, Mr. D.”
“Pour me another drink,” Midas grumbled, still not looking up from the script.
Laying a curse on Midas underneath his breath, one that would cause his boss to become sexually impotent until the next full moon, the butler shuffled over to the bar and began to fix another scotch on the rocks. He did not know what his boss was up to, what with the fake beard and the total blackout of the ship. Midas had even made him cover the painted name of the yacht with a black curtain. But Manny was paid to not ask questions.
Over Midas’s ear clip came a male voice with a clipped, military cadence:
“This is Merman. I have a twenty on the asset. He’s moving westerly toward the beach.”
“Does he have the disk?”
“Inconclusive. I’m moving forward.”
“Let him know you’re there.”
Seventy yards from shore a diver, the water up to his chin, switched on a flashlight attached to the corner of his headgear.
The silhouetted figure running frantically toward the beach did not break his path and run toward the light. The diver switched it off and on again.
“Careful,” the diver heard Midas say through his ear clip. “He might have company.”
Another male voice, slurred and bawling, broke into the system.
“HEY, MR. D.! MR. D.! YOU STILL THERE? THIS IS BRADLEY BLOOD. DONNIE PERCIVAL, MAN, HE’S GOT THE DVD. HE’S, LIKE, MAKIN’ RIGHT FOR THE WATER. YOU THERE, MR. D.?”
“What the hell’s going on?” Midas said, who by this time had tugged a ball cap over his eyes and assumed his post along the rail of the yacht. He scanned the beach with a pair of infrared binoculars.
“Merman, is that Percival coming toward you?”
“Does he have the disk?”
“Dammit, I’m paying you to be conclusive!”
The diver was waist-high in the water now. He waved his arms. The running figure finally appeared to notice the light. He stopped and stared at it. Again the diver waved his arms.
But at this the silhouetted figure turned away, running northward up the beach.
“What in hell—?” the diver said.
“What’s going on?” Midas shouted.
“He’s running away.”
“Did he see you?”
“I thought he did—”
“What the hell is he doing?”
“I think he’s trying to get away.”
“Go after him!”
“I’m in flippers!”
“Well get ashore and go after him! I want all of you to go after him!”
Midas rushed back into the game room and threw the binoculars on the couch. He kept several rifles on a rack on the wall. He grabbed one with an infrared scope and made sure that it was loaded. What the hell was Percival trying to do? he wondered. Run his own game?
He raced back out to the deck. He leaned over the rail, squinting against the wind and the spray as the boat pumped up and down in the waves. Still, he succeeded in picking out Percival trudging up the beach. He raised the rifle, but his eye was distracted by Simon Todhunter’s beach home illuminated in ghoulish green floodlights—there was also a light on in some kind of arboretum up on the roof. He wondered whether Todhunter kept a sniper up there. Even if he didn’t, he no doubt had security on the premises who packed heat. So if Midas fired this rifle, the evening could well turn into a Wild West shootout. But he wasn’t going to let that disk get away.
Midas aimed well over Percival’s head and fired.
He lowered the rifle and saw Percival waving his arms in a sign of surrender. Yet he kept running.
“That’s my DVD, Percival!” Midas roared pointlessly into the savage wind. “Give me that goddam disk!”
He raised the rifle again, steadied his arm as best he could, and aimed for the kneecaps.
This time his victim fell, making a clumsy pirouette before dropping into the waters of the rising tide.
Midas returned to the game room and pressed a button on an intercom. The captain responded in his customary longsuffering drawl.
“I hope you were just shooting at a shark.”
“Get the hell out of here,” Midas shouted. “Go!” Then he spoke to the diver through his ear clip.
“Have you got him?”
There was no answer.
“Have you got him?”
The other male voice, slurred and hysterical, returned:
“YOU SHOT HIM, MR. D.!”
“Get the disk, you moron. Is he alright?”
“YOU KILLED HIM, MR. D.! YOU KILLED DONNIE PERCIVAL!”
Midas felt the oxygen blow out of his head as from a popped balloon.
“Merman?” he gasped, black spots exploding before his eyes. “Get the disk. For the love of God get me that disk.”
Midas flopped down on his leather couch. Manny handed him the fresh scotch. Midas took it and gulped from it, sloshing most of it onto his fake beard.
“Oh God,” he moaned, craning his head back against the back of the couch. “I just killed Donnie Percival.”
“I knew it,” Manny crossed himself and ran out of the room. He had to call his woman. If he was going to make it through this night without getting thrown in jail, she’d better sacrifice another chicken.
* * *
A few hours later, as a thick, toxic dawn oozed over the valley, two figures could be seen strolling down a stretch of Malibu shoreline. One was Walter Blinker, a detective in the Homicide Section of the LAPD. The other was über-producer Simon Todhunter, who requires no further introduction. For Blinker, relatively new to the section, the experience of meeting his favorite celebrities at murder scenes was a thrill that had not yet abated. To his bedazzled eyes, Todhunter looked just like he did in the magazines, huge and hirsute, with the beret and signature scarf which, like a priest’s stole, reached down in two strands to his shins.
To a cold eye, however, Todhunter looked like hell. His face was haggard and drawn, and he sucked the tumid air greedily as he hauled his massive body across the sand.
“I have a little screenplay of my own I’ve been working on,” Blinker, with an air of scripted casualness, interjected into the investigation. “Been puttering away on it for years. It’s a romantic comedy about a down-on-his luck police detective and the murderer he needs to track down in order to save his job.”
Todhunter knew better than to reply to this, so he said:
“I suppose the killer is somebody close to him. Isn’t that usually the case?”
Blinker hesitated, thinking at first that Todhunter was giving him a note on his script.
“Oh yes. You’re absolutely correct. So let’s talk about who was here last night. You were having a little party?”
“Little for us. A hundred or so. Our annual celebration of the Vernal Equinox. We had dinner on the beach by torchlight, then went inside for the symposium.”
Todhunter sucked in his breath, aware of how pretentious he sounded.
“My wife and I like to host distinguished public intellectuals for evenings of conversation.”
Blinker knew all about the notorious symposia that Todhunter regularly hosted with his wife, the voluptuous, volcanic, Ugolina del Fuoco.
“Who were your distinguished guests last night?” Blinker inquired.
Todhunter mentioned the name of a chaired professor in Religious Studies from Prestigious East Coast First-Tier Research University, as well as the name of a prominent atheist. It had promised, according to the invitation, to be an electric evening of discussion on the theme, “Religion After God,” but it turned out to be a tedious love fest between the two panelists. Indeed, everyone at the symposium was desperately relieved when a hysterical girl in a drunken haze burst into the room screaming that Donnie Percival had been shot.
“How many people at your party knew Donnie Percival?”
“Very few had ever met him.”
“Anyone you know have a beef with him?”
“Of course not. Everyone who knew Donnie worshipped him.”
“If you’ll beg my pardon, Mr. Todhunter, how long have you known Mr. Percival?”
“Personally? Not long. We have an agreement, in principle, to make a movie based upon his unpublished novel—Paradise Disenchanted. I was hoping to start shooting early next year.”
Todhunter was doing everything in his power not to let his imagination revel in the romantic aura the murder of Donnie Percival would cast around the production. He was not, however, much practiced at appearing grief-stricken and compassionate. He came off looking mildly dyspeptic.
“How did you meet?” Blinker asked.
“My contacts in New York first brought Donnie to my attention,” Todhunter lied. “His first novel has made quite a splash in the New York literary world.”
“Is that so? I hadn’t heard.”
“Hardly anyone has,” Todhunter said. “Donnie is—was—very secretive about his work and very reluctant to publish it. I’m one of the few people in the world who’s seen the novel. He’s also written plays, poetry, critical essays—all still unpublished.”
Blinker gave a lightly embarrassed chuckle.
“I understand. I’m pretty bashful about showing my stuff, too. My girlfriend is the only one who’s read my script. She thinks it’s better than most of the crap down at the multiplex, but then she’s a bit biased, isn’t she? Wait. Check that. Once I paid for one of these script reading services to give me notes, even paid for the half-hour phone consult. But all this moron did was waste my thirty minutes trying to sell me his 20 DVD screenwriting course.”
“It’s strange there isn’t a body,” Todhunter remarked, struggling to choke his desire to take a handful of sand and force it down Blinker’s gullet.
Blinker pointed up the beach.
“You can see here from the line of debris how far the tide came up last night. If he went down closer to where the shoreline is now, the outgoing tide would’ve swept him out into the ocean.”
Todhunter turned his head and mouthed an expletive. If a blockbuster Hollywood tragedy was going to take place in his backyard, then he sure as hell wanted a body to show for it.
* * *
Donnie Percival was last seen in the wee hours of that blustery Sunday morning running away from Simon Todhunter’s beach house toward the shore. A minute later two shots were heard, several seconds apart, from out on the water. Someone on Todhunter’s security detail reported seeing, right after the second shot, a running silhouette drop into the shallow water along the beach. Just before the shooting, another member of the security detail had apprehended a man named Giggs prowling about the house with a gun, looking for Donnie Percival.
When the police arrived they began questioning the guests who, like avid shell-seekers after a storm, had fanned out over the beach to look for the body of the missing screenwriter. A team of paramedics followed, then Blinker and two of his lieutenants.
One of those lieutenants was now attempting to question the prime suspect, Giggs. Dressed in an immaculately white summer suit and matching white Panama hat, Giggs sat Indian-style on the sand, his cuffed hands resting on his lower back.
“C’mon and do yourself a favor,” the lieutenant said. “Tell me the truth about what went down here last night.”
Giggs gazed serenely out at the immensity of the ocean.
“A man’s most likely dead here, pal, and we’ve got you at the scene with a gun. Don’t you think you might owe us a little explanation?”
Giggs’s countenance brightened.
“‘Tell the truth and give back what you owe.’”
“Come again?” said the lieutenant.
Giggs’s shadowed, lupine eyes looked up at the lieutenant from beneath the brim of his Panama.
“‘Tell the truth and give back what you owe.’ That’s the first definition of justice that Socrates and his friends consider in Plato’s Republic.”
“That’s very nice,” replied the lieutenant. “I’m sure they’ll have all the Plato you want in the prison library.”
“I just find it interesting,” said Giggs. ““A man’s most likely dead here,” you say, implying that if a man is dead, I ipso facto bear some responsibility to—what? Fess up to the crime if I were somehow involved? Turn in my putative accomplices? But the real question is, why? Why should I feel some responsibility in this matter? Why should a man’s death, even granting for the sake of argument that I was the one who pulled the trigger, bind me in some way that is essentially moral?”
“How about—because we can put your ass away for the rest of your natural life?”
“Ah, but you see that’s much less interesting. That’s just, if you don’t mind my saying, a rather gross consequentialism. ‘I should do x because if I don’t do x things will go badly for me.’ Now, setting aside the deep questions of causality that any consequentialist view has to grapple with, what concerns me most about the view is that it doesn’t even consider the possibility—remote, I grant you—that there are certain actions that one must do no matter what the consequences. Do you see the problem? Because if all we’re doing is playing off one set of consequences against another, then there’s nothing underneath our morality—”
But the lieutenant had already started walking away, shouting at one of the police officers, “Can someone get us some coffee over here?”
* * *
Up on Todhunter’s patio, the other lieutenant, a stumpy, bald-pated man named Steckles, was questioning Persephone Mills. The sad, beautiful starlet, whose drug arrest record had gone platinum among her prurient public, sat on a cast-iron bench as Steckles stood limply in front of her like a high school geek finding himself paired in Chem Lab with the gorgeous captain of the cheerleading squad. Persephone’s damp hair was freshly combed and she wore a thick, rose bathrobe borrowed from Ugolina del Fuoco. Steckles was doing everything in his power not to look at the heart-shaped space where the robe fanned open to reveal the nape of her lovely neck and the dizzying constellation of freckles on her upper chest.
He cleared his throat and uttered in a voice about an octave above its normal range:
“How long have you been acquainted with Mr. Percival, Ms. Mills?”
Persephone brushed back a strand of hair.
“We’ve been dating a few weeks. Or we had been—oh God!”
“And you came to the party together last night?”
“Did Mr. Percival appear upset about anything?”
“I’ve never seen Donnie upset. He’s always so—integrated.”
Steckles drew a doodle devil on his pad. He thought that he must not be very integrated. Geez-o-pete,he lost it whenever they sold out of his favorite jelly-glazed at The Donut Hole!
“Did you talk about anything special on the way to the party?” Steckles resumed.
Steckles acknowledged this with the nod of a man who keeps among the comic books and gun magazines stacked on the back of his toilet a volume or two of Nietzsche of his own.
“We’re reading Beyond Good and Evil together,” Persephone clarified.
Steckles scratched a beard on his doodle devil. He felt so—stupid. What was the last book he read? Did graphic novels count? What a stupid illiterate DOOFUS he was! On his pad he wrote, Becoming Good and Evil, and made a mental note to check it out of the public library.
Then he cleared his throat again and tried to grab hold of the tiny, spluttering balloon of his voice.
“Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to—harm Mr. Percival?”
Persephone bowed her head for several seconds. When she looked up there were tears brimming over her lower eyelids.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
“You want to ask me about my record.”
“Oh God. No!” Steckles was mortified. “I mean, only if you think it would be helpful.”
“I’ve been clean for awhile now. I’ve like, totally changed my life. I don’t hang out with those people anymore.”
Stupid! Steckles didn’t want to admit that he’d read the feature story on Persephone that appeared some weeks back in the Star Sunday Magazine, about how she was trying to grow up, get clean, and take on more serious acting roles. God, he didn’t want her to think he was some crazed fan who’d read everything about her! Backpedaling, he continued:
“I—just think—I mean, you just seem pretty mature.”
“Thank you. Donnie believed in me when no one else did. He told Simon that he wouldn’t sell him Paradise Disenchanted if I didn’t play the female lead.”
Steckles nodded, affirming the plain truth that Donnie’s stand had been only just.
“Simon’s dumbass security guard thought that I was trying to hurt Donnie. She saw me take out a can of mace and thought I was going to use it on him. I’m like, where did she get that? When I saw that creep over there (she pointed a manicured finger at Giggs), I told Donnie that I had seen him before, that he used to stalk me when I was filming Missy II. Donnie wanted to take me right home. I only took out the mace to show him that I was prepared to protect myself. But that security guard saw me do it and, like, totally wigged out and threw me into the freaking swimming pool.”
“She most definitely overreacted,” Steckles said. “I’m going to have a word with her about that, if you don’t mind. But first, is there anything else you could tell me that might be useful?”
“I don’t know,” Persephone said, wiping a tear away. “I know Blade was jealous of Donnie. But I can’t believe even he would do a thing like this.”
Steckles didn’t need to ask who Blade was. Axe-man for the power trio, DeathToll, Blade was Persephone’s boyfriend from the release of the original Missy at the Mall movie until about six months previously—when she abruptly and very publicly dumped him at the beginning of her metamorphosis.
“Did Blade and Mr. Percival ever encounter one another?” Steckles asked.
“Once,” said Persephone. “The night Donnie and I first met. Blade got all jealous and started a fight.”
Steckles, of course, like most everyone else on the planet, had watched a clip of this encounter on PeekyBooTube, the video arm of The Daily Voyeur.
“Maybe I’ll pay a little visit to Mr. Blade,” Steckles said, articulating “Mr. Blade” as though he were saying the words: “girly man.”
“Oh God,” Persephone said as she welled up again; “he might be dangerous.”
Steckles closed his eyes in a complacent expression.
“Please don’t worry about that, Ms. Mills. I want you to know that I’m, like, one hundred and fifty percent committed to finding the sonofabitch who did this.”
“That’s so awesome, lieutenant. Thank you!”
* * *
Blinker, meanwhile, had turned to take in the view of Todhunter’s avant-garde beach home: a grey, featureless rectangle that looked to Blinker like a prison building.
“The trick, always, is to keep the two lovers apart,” he mused.
“I’m sorry—?” said Todhunter.
“Oh,” Blinker smiled sheepishly, “just thinking about my script again. I mean, with any romantic comedy, the trick is to get the two lovers to meet, then to find some way to keep them apart for fifty pages. So I have my protagonist meet this wonderful woman at a bar. She takes him home. They begin an affair. Everything’s wonderful. Then one day at work he’s presented with evidence that links her to the murder he’s been working. Bam! That’s my First Turning Point.”
Todhunter reached underneath his glasses and dug two bulbous fingers into the corners of his eyes.
“But I’m not sure I sustain the necessary dramatic tension throughout the entirety of the Second Act. A classic screenwriting problem, eh? On one level I know I need to deepen their love affair, while on another level I need to increase the evidence fingering her as the murderer. But those fifty pages just kind of sag in the middle. I probably need some professional advice. Maybe I should simply shell out another three hundred bucks to a script consultant. Do you recommend those, Mr. Todhunter? I mean, are they really worth it?”
“Why don’t you send me the script?” said Todhunter wearily.
Blinker turned to him with a ludicrous smile of humbled surprise.
“Are you serious?”
“Utterly. Before you leave I’ll introduce you to my assistant, Georgie Kill. You can email it to her and she’ll make sure it ends up on my desk.”
And then right into the wastebasket, Todhunter finished the thought to himself.
“Actually,” Blinker replied, “I have a copy of the script in my car.”
Todhunter caught himself before his mouth curled into a sardonic smile.
“Even better. Now would you excuse me? I’ve had a helluva night and feel a migraine coming on. I think I’ll take a walk up the beach.”
* * *
“One of the first ideas about justice that Socrates and his friends consider,” Giggs was saying to the lieutenant, “is whether justice means simply doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies.”
“Sounds pretty okay to me,” said the lieutenant, not bothering to stifle his yawn.
“I agree, it does sound pretty okay. Yet we have to accept that it only confirms us in our parochial customs. After all, even in the mob you do good to your friends and harm to your enemies.”
“Are you in the mob?” inquired the lieutenant hopefully.
“It was a hypothetical, lieutenant.”
Blinker had moved further down the beach and was now talking to a hulking woman in a jumpsuit of yellow spandex and a mane of dyed red hair. This Amazon had been on Todhunter’s security detail for the party. Though she had told her story any number of times that morning, Blinker wanted to hear it for himself.
“Then I see on the video monitor Mr. Donnie and that Persephone tramp come out onto the patio. She pulls a can of mace out of her purse and aims it right at Mr. Donnie.”
“Was he attacking her?”
“Not soes I could tell.”
“So you ran out onto the patio?”
“Yessir. I ran out and picked up that little bit of a thing and thowed her into the swimmin’ pool. I gave the binifit of the doubt to Mr. Donnie. He’d been real nice to me. Offered to git my script in front of his agent.”
Black envy surged in Blinker’s breast at the prospect of this rival screenwriter gaining an advantage over him, but he suppressed it with the thought that a reading from Simon Todhunter trumped a reading from Donnie Percival’s agent any day of the week. He continued his questioning.
“And that’s when Mr. Giggs arrived?”
“Yessir. Got the drop on me, I’m shamed to admit.”
“Was he trying to kill Mr. Percival?”
“He said he was there to retrieve sumpin’.”
“From Mr. Percival?”
“He didn’t say what it was?”
“No sir. But he indicated he was a hired gun. Mentioned his ‘clients.’”
“He said ‘clients’?”
“And meanwhile Ms. Mills is in the pool?”
“So what happened next? How did you disarm Giggs?”
“He got distracted—there was a whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ from down here on the beach—and so I jumped him and put my signature cattle-ropin’ hold on him. In the mix of things, Mr. Donnie run off. Somebody out here in the dark musta seen him, cuz a few seconds later there was shots.”
“I know you,” beamed Blinker. “You’re Auntie Maim, the professional wrestler. I didn’t recognize you all dressed up.”
Auntie Maim smiled bashfully, revealing a grille of golden braces and a bridge of dentures.
“I only work for Mr. Todhunter for the networkin’ opportunities.”
* * *
Alone and far down the beach, Todhunter spied a silver object glinting in the sand. It was some five yards away, half buried by the tide. He studied it for some while without moving toward it. Then he slowly turned around, pleased to note that Blinker and Auntie Maim were the closest to him, and they nearly a hundred yards down the beach. With no apparent firmness of intention he walked towards the object. It was a DVD in a clear plastic circular case. He turned it over with his foot to see if it had a label.
“Good God,” he said aloud.
He sat down, putting his enormous body in between the disk and the investigation down the beach. He looked contemplatively out at the ocean as with his right hand he slid the disk out of the sand and into his pocket. A few minutes later he rose, and with a forced ease, headed back toward the house.
The lieutenant pushed Giggs’s head below the roof of the squad car and shoved him into the back seat.
“Give up your clients, pal, and maybe we’ll let you take a walk.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Giggs replied. “But would it be just?”
“I mean, if it did turn out that I played some role in a murder, would it be right for me to, as you say, ‘take a walk’?”
“Better than rotting in jail for a couple of guys who couldn’t give a damn about you anyway. C’mon. You want to take the rap for them?”
“Perhaps it’s better to suffer injustice than to do it.”
“Take the deal, pal.”
A thoughtful expression came over Giggs. He said:
“So Thrasymachus, the notorious sophist, reluctantly complies with Socrates’s demand and answers, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger.””
“That’s right,” said the lieutenant. “The advantage is all yours. You got your clients over a barrel.”
“But what would be the effect upon my soul?”
“I’m not your priest, pal.”
“Do you have theological commitments, lieutenant?”
“I’m spiritual, but not religious.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“Neither do I. Take the deal.”
Giggs sighed from out of the depths.
“So we sit here, lieutenant, bound at the bottom of the cave, watching the flickering shadows on the wall, not even sure whether they are shadows. Is there no one who will come to rescue us?”