From the first time the
underage stripper meets the dangerous Mafia boss during a raid on his infamous
San Franciscan Gentlemen’s Club, Coco Stevens is hypnotized by the young,
charismatic Don. Like a doomed moth drawn helplessly toward an enticing yet
lethal flame, Sam Spielman also falls helplessly under her spell. The two could
not be more different - and more alike – and more in love.
Guided by Sam’s clever
mentoring, Coco begins her meteoric rise to the very pinnacle of the international
fashion trade. She proves to be as wily and intelligent as she is beautiful as
she swiftly adapts to the jet setting world of haute couture. She segues her
supermodel status into a blossoming acting career, remaining glued to the fast
track of a world of power and privilege.
For the better part of
a decade Coco balances on the thin edge of a deadly and addictively enticing
razor. It’s a dangerous game with its own set of nasty rules. Although she
plays it with a master’s touch, Coco knows full well that one mistake could
cost her everything. Then the unthinkable happens.
From the exotic African
sveltelands of Kenya to the breathtakingly beautiful sands of Barbados, Coco
rides the golden bullet, hanging on for dear life until finally and inevitably,
the gold begins to tarnish.
In the end, Sam is
forced to choose between the unthinkable and the impossible. Would he rather
pay the ultimate price for the most grievous of this world’s
sins, or go on living in the darkness of his own creation? Seemingly trapped
with a one way ticket on the voyage of the dammed, can Coco and Sam find the
only way out?
Coco finally reaches
for redemption in the barren desserts of Nevada. Hanging in the balance is a
modern day fortune which rivals the worth of King Solomon’s Mines. In a
riveting conclusion with surprising twists, perhaps the wages of sin can be
spent more wisely than even they would have believed possible.
Once in a blue moon life throws you a curveball you never see coming. It rises up at you, does a funny little twist at the very last moment, and takes you on a fast detour from the place you expected to go. Such detours can be powerful, like a deuce trump card when no one else around the table has one. Billy Cunningham was my curve ball, and I never saw him coming until it was too late to do anything about it.
I braked hard and pulled off the highway. I barely made it onto the off ramp. My tires squealed in protest, skidding along the surface of the roasting asphalt. The ’57 Chevy Bel Air seemed to want to keep going down the highway. I should have listened to it and skipped the dusty turn toward the tiny city of Brittle, Nevada, and kept on going. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.
The town of Brittle was fourteen miles down the empty road ahead of me. I figured if I kept to the posted fifty-five mile an hour speed limit I just might make it to town on the fumes cradled in the bottom of the tank. Worst case scenario, no place would be open. It was three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in the steepest part of July. If need be, I could spend the night in the back seat of the four-door Chevy in a gas station parking lot until morning. It was a lot better than running out of gas in the middle of the Mojave.
The stark landscape blurred by on both sides, parted in the middle by the narrow two lane blacktop. In the distance ahead of me the road shivered and melted into the desert in the afternoon’s oppressive heat. I stifled a yawn and kept going, careful not to let go of the speed limit. A dust devil came into view off the road to my left, a whirling dervish dancing in the midst of a small stand of Joshua Trees. I had lost the radio station ten miles ago and just now noticed it. I became aware of a low hum and reached over and dialed the knob on the radio, looking for any kind of life. There was nothing but static, so I shrugged and turned it off. The odometer told me it was still a good ten miles to Brittle. I cursed under my breath, thinking I should have filled up back in Bakersfield when I had the chance.
The steering wheel pulled hard to the right. I pulled back, this time swearing aloud at Murphy’s Law. It was hotter than Hades and – bang – just like that I was going to have to switch out what was left of a torn up G60-15 on the front passenger side. I eased the limping Chevy as far onto the gravel and sand shoulder as I could in the unlikely event I’d have company. I was tempted to change the tire right there on the highway, but that might be asking for trouble. On top of that, I knew I would have to somehow block the jack’s base with something flat to stop it from slipping on the sandy apron away from the road.
I left the car, a blast of desert air wrapping around me like a smothering hand. The contrast in temperature from the air conditioner I had been running full blast made my head spin. I walked around the front of the Bel Air to assess the damage. It was a flat all right. I kneeled down to get a better look. I couldn’t see much, but as I felt around the tread I came across the unmistakable head of the culprit. It had to be at least a ten-d, probably three inches long, buried deep into the rubber.
I stood up and looked in the direction I’d come. There wasn’t a soul in sight. There was no one coming the other way, either. The only sound I heard was a static ticking under the hood of the Chevy. The 327 engine was taking a coffee break, cooling a bit even in the ambient, hundred and fifteen degree heat.
I was sweating like a pig when I finally tightened the last lug nut about twenty minutes later. I jacked her down, rolled the spent tire to the back and muscled it into the trunk, glad to be finished. Perspiration had soaked my t-shirt through to my skin. I retrieved the jack and tire iron from next to the spare on the front and threw them beside the shredded tire. I wasn’t worried about bolting them down; I would get to that when I replaced the tire. I wiped my brow on my forearm and threw the sweat into the dust, slamming down the trunk lid as I peeled off my soaking t-shirt. I smiled in disgust. I could wring the damn thing out and still use it to wipe down the car, I thought ruefully, as a distant drone became more recognizable.
The sound of a strange engine was coming from the direction of Brittle. I peered across the top of the car. I could tell by the sound it was hauling ass, still a couple miles down the road, but closing real fast. “What the hell…?”
An odd wave of anxiety hit me, harder than the heat. I slid up against the passenger side of the car and slowly opened the back door, not taking my eyes off the road to Brittle. The low, throbbing drone grew louder and a shape began to materialize out of the shimmering heat a mile and a half in the distance. I reached into the back seat long enough to retrieve a fresh t-shirt from my overnight bag. I slipped it on, and then locked onto what was coming. Whoever it was had the hammer down. I figured they were coming down the blacktop doing well over a hundred.
As it came nearer, I could make out the telltale rack of lights sitting atop the car. It was the Highway Patrol. I should have felt relieved but that odd, anxious unease which had enveloped me didn’t go away. It got worse when the cop began slowing down. There was no doubt in my mind he wasn’t here to help. What didn’t make sense was how he had known I was out here in the first place. I sauntered around to the front of the car and sat down on its chrome bumper. I figured I would wait for whomever it was rather than having him turn around to stop me. About a minute later the cruiser slowed to a crawl, crossed the highway and came to a stop not more than ten feet in front of me. The driver grabbed something from the passenger side, glanced at me through the windshield, and then got out. He had the tanned, wide-brimmed hat of a trooper in his hands, and was sporting the mirrored sunglasses that seemed to be a perennial part of the shtick. He whisked his hat on and side-stepped his open door, closing it as he did so.
“Afternoon,” he finally greeted me.
I glanced up at the broiling sun and agreed, “Yep, sure is.” I smiled at him then, my reflection clear in his mirrored lenses. I still looked pretty good, in spite of a couple of grease smudges on my cheeks. I wasn’t wearing any makeup; I didn’t have to. I was twenty-five, unconcerned about the lines and crow’s feet which were inevitably right around the corner of life’s visages. I looked closer at my reflection then, ignoring the thirty-something Trooper. I straightened a few blonde locks dangling in front of my eyes. I was five foot eight inches of drop dead gorgeous, a devil in blue jeans with a tight fitting t-shirt. I knew it, and so did he. He reached up with both hands, smiling along with me, and eased off the shades.
“Thanks for stopping,” I said matter-of-factly, still wondering what the Trooper really wanted and how he had known I was here.
“Happy to oblige,” he responded. He was self-assured; I could see that right off.
“Looks like you had a little trouble,” he nodded at the left tire.
I followed his nod, then looked back into his eyes, sighing, “A woman’s work is never done.”
“I would have been out here sooner,” he replied as he reached around to his back pocket, retrieving a white-as-snow handkerchief. His self-assurance bordered on a somewhat attractive arrogance as he stepped across the gravel between us. He licked the hanky and dabbed lightly at a smudge on my cheek.
I grabbed his hand in mine. It was smooth and strong, but gentle at the same time.
“I got it,” I assured him, not wanting to sound unfriendly, but setting some boundaries just the same. Chivalry was one thing, but this was something else.
“Thanks,” I said, a little more self-consciously than I’d intended. He let me have the hanky and stepped back. His eyes were seasoned with wisdom beyond his years and peppered with a kindness uncommon to someone in law-enforcement.
“A buddy spotted you on the highway about five miles back, he interrupted. “He was catching up when he saw you slide sideways onto the off ramp.”
I laughed at that. “I almost missed the turn,” I admitted. “I’m running on fumes.” I shrugged innocently.
He chuckled, “About the only reason anyone comes to Brittle who’s not from here these days. Anyway, he called ahead you were on your way. When you didn’t show I figured something happened and you might need a hand. You change that tire all by yourself?” I could see he was at the crossroads of surprise and impressed.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “Triple A left just before you got here.”
He grinned and held out his hand. “I deserved that. Mark Zarillo, Miss Stevens. A pleasure,” he introduced himself.
“It’s Coco,” I shook his hand, liking its feel even more than the last time. “Who called you?” I decided to cut through the bullshit.
“More like what”, he confided.
“A transmitter on my baby,” I said as I patted the Chevy’s hood. He nodded.
“And you’re not really a sheriff from Hicksville,” I stated the obvious.
He shook his head apologetically, “No, I’m not.”
“Secret Service?” I proffered.
He quickly shook his head, protesting, “No-no, I’m definitely not that.”
I folded my arms over my chest, conscious my nipples were showing through the thin cotton as it breathed perspiration.
“Boyfriend,” he finally confessed.
“Which one?” I replied. We both laughed at that. “Can’t a girl go out by herself anymore?”
“It could have been worse,” he replied.
“If I was working for your employer I’d probably be bald and fifty,” he answered.
“Sam doesn’t own me, you know.” I was suddenly serious. I felt that familiar smothering sensation. It wasn’t just the heat.
Mark Zarillo didn’t say anything, but I caught the unmistakable flash across his face, like a cold blade of steel had just grazed the small of his back. He was afraid, like the rest of them. Suddenly I felt a wave of disgust.
“So what now, Cock Robin?” I suppressed the clammy feeling. I’d realized long ago that none of them had a choice. Fear was the elixir that kept everyone in line. It was Sam’s personal recipe. Without it, there would be no order in their world of affairs.
He shrugged, looking away. He probably felt a little disgusted as well.
“You know the drill, Miss Stevens.”
“For chrissakes – it’s Coco! I’m sorry,” I immediately apologized. “It’s just…” I trailed off, uncertain how to finish. He was a stranger. I suddenly longed for the intimacy which once held me to higher standards.
“It’s okay,” he said softly, “I understand, Coco.” Zarillo the for-the-moment reluctant soldier smiled at me again, only this time it was more the smile a father gives his daughter on her first date, one that said whatever it was she wanted to hear. “Thirsty?” he changed the subject. The moment was gone. “It’s Sunday,” I stated the obvious.
“Sam owns a bar in town. I’ve got the keys.”
“To the bar, or the town?”
He didn’t reply, but I knew the answer anyway. The penny had dropped as far as the Halloween costume was concerned. Sam did that. He owned more than one small dirt water town in the middle of nowhere. While everyone else in the organization was sticking to the big cities, he had reasoned the feds wouldn’t bother to look in places like Brittle, Nevada. He was right and wrong at the same time. They wouldn’t give two hoots about the real estate until it was too late, but the electronic banking left footprints wherever he went. He couldn’t hide that part of the equation. Sam was ingenuous. Worthless land licensed for gambling, under the right circumstances and in the right place, could be transformed into an oasis seeded on a bedrock foundation of washed green – laundered vice profits under RICO. Sam was a Picasso, the desert his canvas. The big valley of Vegas itself had proven it could be done. More recently it had been Laughlin. Lansky had been the pioneer who’d gone where none had treaded before. If Sam had learned anything from Meyer, it was that there were no rules to learn. You made it up as you went, and Sam was like that. It was one of the big reasons he was always out in front of the pack. Just when the competition figured they had the answers, Sam changed the questions.
“I could use an ice cold Michelob Light. Can you do that, Mark Zarillo?”
“I can do that.”
“And one ham and three egg omelet, diced green onions on the side.”
“Done,” he grinned.
“It would appear you are a man of many talents,” I flirted with him.
He considered my offer while that coldness in the small of his back returned. “Not that one,” he assured me, not wishing to sign his own death warrant.
“I was jerking your chain, Zarillo.”
“Uh-huh. That’s something I would just as soon keep my distance from, Miss Stevens.”
I shrugged. “Perhaps a different time, a different place,” I said.
“Perhaps,” he said flatly. “Lock your car. I’ll take us into town and send someone back here to retrieve it. If you’re tired, I can recommend a decent hotel.”
“No, no, and no,” I spoke with indifference. “I’ll follow you, and we will have a drink. I’ll eat and then I will leave. No offense, but I think I’d prefer Vegas.”
“As you wish, but I’ll follow you just the same,” he insisted, not anticipating a response. He was speaking for Sam now. It wasn’t like I could argue with him. Besides, where could I go? I was out of gas, and Mark Zarillo, or more to the point- Sam- had the keys to the pumps.
But still I wondered: why here? As the blacktop arched over a rise and slid down about a mile to the edge of the first unassuming buildings of the small town of Brittle, I suddenly understood. Then I wondered some more, about how I would get my hands on the money I was going to need. Because I knew Sam Spielman was nothing if he wasn’t as sly as ten foxes hiding in the shadows of one very big hen house.
Halfway through my second beer and into a nice buzz I decided to spend the night in Brittle. Vegas would still be there tomorrow. No one was waiting up for me, and the parties were all too predictable. Sam knew where I was, so any subterfuge that would involve sneaking into town had been blown out of the water. I shook my head from side to side. The bastard had a lot of balls to bug my car; that was something I hadn’t expected. But more than anything, I just felt like relaxing for a few hours. Zarillo wasn’t hard to look at and, oddly enough, I felt I could let my guard down a little around him.
I shivered in the cool and dark interior of Spades Bar and Restaurant, one of Brittle’s Main Street marquees.
“Are you cold?” Mark noticed.
I shook my head. “Rabbit ran over my grave,” I smiled demurely across the table at him. “Chivalry becomes you.” I examined him more closely.
“You don’t want a sweater?”
I shook my head again. I’d put on a jean jacket on the way in, with the word Bebe stenciled across the back in fake diamonds. “I’m fine. Thanks, though.” I played with the lip of my bottle of Michelob. An awkward silence settled across the table.
“So, what is it you exactly do for Sam?” I finally said.
He sucked on his Bud, considering his answer carefully before speaking. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that. If I was corporate, I might go as far as to call it general counsel. I’m a lawyer.”
“I’m impressed.” I was. “I’m also confused.”
“What’s a guy like me doing working for a guy like Sam?”
“Something like that. What is a guy like you doing working for Sam? From where I’m sitting it doesn’t quite fit.”
“You don’t know me.” I liked his smile.
“I’m a good judge of character,” I confided, tipping my bottle before continuing. “I can gauge you well enough to know you could have done better.”
“I don’t know about better. Perhaps different, but thanks just the same.” Mark was being genuine. There was a secret behind his dark brown eyes. But then again, I had learned a long time ago everyone had secrets. I was at the front of that line. An old saying came to mind, something about being as sick as your darkest one. It was odd, but I even remembered who had said it to me, now that I thought about it. It was a guy named Jack Holliday.