Intimate Relations: A Finn O'Brien Crime Thriller
It's two in the morning when a domestic disturbance brings Finn O'Brien to an artists' colony on the frayed edges of the City of Angels. Housed in an abandoned brewery, the concrete fortress looms like a dystopian portal to hell. Inside the detective finds a bizarre gathering of Los Angeles elites, a man in a rage, and a young woman beaten to death, her face obliterated.
As he hunts a killer, Finn finds himself in a surreal world where art and science create strange bedfellows, money and desire birth shameful descendants, and the deadliest relationships of all are the most intimate.
Release date: May 5, 2021
Print pages: 286
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Behind the book
Inspired by The Brewery, the world's largest artists community and my unwitting run in with artificial intelligence, this is a book of passion, science, art and deadly, intimate, relationships.
Intimate Relations: A Finn O'Brien Crime Thriller
The night it happened, the City of Angels was quiet in the odd way a big city can be. It was a deceptive silence, an illusory calm, and no more sustainable than holding one's breath. Eventually Los Angeles would exhale and blow out the hot air of discontent, and it would not go unnoticed.
Night owls, insomniacs, creatures cloaked in human skin who lay in wait in dark corners would hear it. Their ears would prick, and their heads would cock as they tried to interpret the sound. Was it the lazy lament of a metropolis settling? Was it the sound of resignation? Had this city, the one that crowned itself with a celestial moniker, always been a hellish place? Or was that little click and whir— that sound of a worn piece of the city giving way—a precursor to something foul. Whatever it was, the sounds that disturbed the peace only mattered to half the population.
The rich half didn't have a care in the world. Those privileged folks were long gone. They had buttoned themselves up in chic Westside condos. They lounged in glass houses perched on stilts in the Hollywood Hills. The wealthy barricaded themselves in their faux villas in Bel-Air. They were safe behind guarded gates, in huge homes rooted on acres of precious land. They rested in condos on Wilshire, a doorman on watch to guard them through the long night. Each day these folks returned to the city, made their fortunes, and scurried back to safety as the sun went down.
Yes, all was right with half the world.
It was the other half who wakened to the sound of the city exhaling. It was the people in Chinatown, Koreatown, Compton, and East LA whose sleep was fitful. The sound disturbed the homeless who seeded the sidewalks, were scattered over empty lots, and took shelter in the doorways of government buildings. The illegals, day laborers, and displaced heard it. The abandoned elderly housed in crumbling apartments heard it. The sometimes creative, seldom successful, often-a-bit-mad freaks, actors, and artists; they heard it.
That night, the sound seemed to come from the frayed edges of the city. In East Los Angeles where livings were eked out in hole-in-the-wall taquerias and gangs replaced government something was stirring. In this part of town there are homes and businesses, but few of them are of any note or consequence. There is one place, however, that stands out. A strange castle of sorts. A compound. A dystopian sound stage of a place. It houses some rich folks and some poor; some on the verge of 'making it', some who never will. Still, this place is magical. To live there means that you belong, that you are acceptable, and that you deserve to be safe behind gates and walls.
In another life this place was a brewery that employed thousands of people. Then it fell victim to microbrewery fashion and California regulation. The people who owned the brewery dismissed their workers and abandoned their buildings. For a long while the compound stood empty; a looming, grey blight built on footprints of concrete poured on cheap land.
But one man's crumbling empire is another's opportunity. In this case, the opportunist was a man and his three daughters. The man and his daughters saw a pot of gold in the brewery's industrial chic buildings. They partnered with the city of Los Angeles, and developed the property into the world's largest artist community. Their pitch was brilliant. Only those who lived and died by the arts could live there. The stipulation immediately made the address desirable. After all, who in Los Angeles did not believe they were a star in the making?
Now The Brewery address was as good as a sprinkle of stardust. Either you would fashion your own galaxy from the glittery stuff or it would bury you. The creative folks had free reign over their individual spaces. They built out bedrooms, and kitchens, and galleries. They painted, sculpted, wrote, and invented stuff. Musicians were the least favored, and trumpeters were not allowed. Even the most creative among them could not bear the sound of a trumpet in these concrete quarters. Soon The Brewery was a thriving concern. The city got its philanthropic jollies, the man and his three daughters got rich, and the artists got a very cool place to live.
The night it happened, the city and The Brewery were peaceful with one exception. There was a party in the three-story unit that was the envy of every artist in the colony. Even by L.A. standards, the party was an exclusive gathering and the guest list rarified.
The guests arrived without fanfare, disappearing into the building so quickly few took notice. There were no windows on the first floor of the unit and minimal windows on the second. On the third floor the windows were cathedral-worthy. On a clear day the people who lived there could see all the way to the ocean. But this was not a clear day, and the people who lived there had not invited those who attended the party. They were but a little cog in the night's wheel of business. They understood the nature of the gathering, but they were not part of it. They hoped the men and women in their home would soon be gone. They hoped the night would end as it had begun: quietly.
They should have known better. This small part of the city was about to exhale.
The handpicked guests were at the party for two reasons. The first was to indulge themselves as only the very wealthy can. The second was to witness the unveiling of something they hoped would make them richer still. They had no idea what that 'something' might be, but it didn't matter. The man who invited them was a god, and when God called you answered, 'Yes, Lord.' While they waited for the unveiling they were thoroughly entertained, barely noting the passage of time. Two men, however, stood apart from the rest, unnoticed in the shadowy alcove near the narrow staircase.
The first man was the artist who lived in the space. He created works of such beauty grown men were brought to their knees. His talent lay in his precision and attention to detail and his delicate touch with a paintbrush. It seemed a strange talent for a man with such an unpleasant look about him. He was tall, broad shouldered, and barrel chested; his long legs and arms were skinny ropes of muscle. The artist's hands were big, his fingers gnarled. The man's head was too large for his body, his face was long and worn. He was not young nor did he seem old, and yet women found him intriguing, even sexy. Men tried to analyze his strange appeal. Eventually they decided that it was the artist's energy, focus, and, above all, his unbridled passion for the female form that made him so unique. Women who inspired him knew their beauty was unimpeachable. He was a man who could make fantasy reality, and that was quite a talent.
The artist was foreign. Czech many thought although no one knew for certain. They wondered about the man and his wife and how they had come to make their living in such a unique way. It was simple, the wife would explain: he was the artist, and she was the engineer. She said this each time the question was asked, even though this was not what people wanted to know. They wanted to know how the artist and his wife felt about what they created. Neither of them ever answered. Eventually their clients decided that it didn't matter what they thought. All that mattered was that they got what they paid for. The artist and his wife and their feelings, in the end, were of no concern.
That night, had the guests noticed the big man in the alcove, they might not have realized he wasn't alone. The person with him did not so much join the artist as appear like a shadow with the movement of the light. He was slight, Asian, and of an indiscernible age. Unlike the artist, his face was as smooth as a young boy's. His eyes were strangely blank and moist behind his thick glasses. His coarse hair was short all around, but longer on top. His ears were small and low. His teeth were not the best, but few people knew this because he never smiled and when he spoke his lips hardly moved.
As they talked, the artist's fists opened and closed with an angry rhythm; his body undulated with frustration. The Asian man stood with his arms to his side and his shoulders hunched over a pathetically narrow chest. His feet were close together. He wore soft shoes, pants the shade of putty, a shirt with short sleeves that was neither white nor beige. His pants rode too high on his thin frame; his shirt was buttoned up tight. The only bright thing about him was the silver buckle on his belt. If anyone had taken note of this man and then blinked they would have no memory of him. They would not have recognized him for who he was, but the artist knew. The artist was on intimate terms with him, but like many relationships it was complicated.
What they shared was a passion for beauty and, above all, challenge. The purpose of that challenge had changed in the last few months, so now they argued fiercely. Rather the artist did. The shade-of-a-man was as silent as the city. The artist didn't hear the small sounds that signaled his displeasure.
"It is over now," the artist said, his vowels distorted by his accent. "Do you hear me? I am done."
"I have paid. We have a contract," the man said.
"I give it back. Every penny. Back in your pocket." The artist raised his hands. He threw his big head to the side as his eyes rolled toward the people in the great room. "Tell them to go. I will not have you exploit her. It's different now. It is all different."
"She is mine." The man did not blink. He did not raise his voice. He did not smile or frown. His words were a mantra, a statement of fact, audio on a loop. "I have paid you. She belongs to me."
The artist slammed the palm of his hand against the wall behind the man's head. The strike missed by an inch; the Asian man didn't flinch. He wasn't brave. He simply lacked the ability to understand anger in the same way he was unable to experience joy. Desire he understood, but that lesson had been long in coming.
The artist's wife often spoke of the man as she and her husband worked. She liked to talk whether her husband was listening or not. The Asian man, she decided, was actually a jellyfish. He had big head full of brains, but his body was useless and unconnected to the brain. She neither liked nor disliked him. He did not make the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. He was not dangerous or lascivious. He was, she said, wealthy, strange, and harmless.
The artist's wife liked that he had chosen them for his grand project. She dreamed of how famous they would become because of this man. The work made her feel alive, and the money was something she had never dreamed of. The artist's wife laughed at their good fortune, the man, and the commission he was paying. Each laugh was different. She giggled at their good luck, chuckled at the man himself, and belly laughed at the ridiculous money he showered on them.
At first the artist laughed with her, but as their work went on he wearied of her talk. There came a day when he didn't pay attention to her at all. The wife understood this. It was his way to withdraw when his art reached a critical stage. She took no offense at first. When he crossed a line, she regretted not having paid more attention.
The night of the party, the artist's wife came down the stairwell intending to take her husband away. They would run from all the people in their home. They would run from the Asian man because now this business was bad. It was horrible. It was hell. But when she saw the two of them arguing she stopped and put her back against the stairwell wall before they saw her. Her chest rose and fell. Her breath was shallow and quick. She was frightened as she listened to her husband growl. He sounded like an animal; she had never heard such passion from him. Her eyes darted to her smock and she saw two buttons were undone. She buttoned one only to jump when she heard her husband's hand strike the wall. Her fingers were shaking as she fastened the second button. When he hit the wall again, she almost cried out. Twice more her husband tried to make his point to the jellyfish man. Twice more she heard their patron's flat voice as he reminded the artist that he had been paid. Twice more the man demanded to see her, his property.
The artist's wife raised her eyes as if she could see through the ceiling to the floors above. She shook her head, lowered her eyes, and leaned forward in time to see her husband make a fist. When he raised it, she rushed down the last two steps and put herself between them. The Asian man would not understand that he was now truly in danger. She was sure that her husband had not thought of the consequences of hurting this man.
Her backside was against the jellyfish man. He had no sense of personal space and didn't move. There was so little room that her behind pressed into his private parts. The contact disgusted her
"Get out of my way, Emi."
The artist took her shoulders and tried to move her aside, but she was not a small woman. She stood her ground, put her hand on her husband's chest, and tried to push him back. He, too, was unmovable.
"What is going on? Stop this fighting. It's almost time. The people—"
Her head inclined toward the open room. She whispered though the guests could not have heard her even if she raised her voice. She put her fingertips to her husband's face to make him look at her, but he shook her off. She tried again.
"Ju lutem. Please. They are waiting. You have promised. I will go get her. Let me go up to get her, Enver. It would be best."
Emi looked behind her. The jellyfish man still pressed against her. She shivered. She understood. Were it not for his money he would be alone to the end of his days. Emi turned, and now her backside was against her husband. He stepped back. The Asian man was shorter than she by only an inch, so their eyes met: her frantic dark ones, his moist and black.
"Move. You must move away."
It took all her self control to keep her voice soft and kind, but firm. He blinked and did as she asked. Emi turned back to her husband.
Emi spoke to him in their own language. She told him that he must get through the night. That was all. She told him there was too much at stake to anger this man. She told him that she knew what to do. She, Emi, would go upstairs and bring her down. That way the man would get what he wanted and the artist would not have to watch.
Her husband waggled his head. His large hands went to his face and when he looked again it wasn't at her. His wife turned her head. She saw nothing but empty space. It took her a moment to understand what that meant. The Asian man was gone, stealing up the stairs. Emi pushed her husband, but there was no controlling him now. He knew what was happening. If the artist wasn't going to give the man what was his, that man would take it.
"No. No. No," she whispered, baring her teeth. "Let him have her."
The artist's voice rose until the wail of it caught the attention of more than one guest. Women paused, men's heads turned. A few smiled thinking that this was the sound of pleasure. Others were annoyed at the disruption of their own.
"Hush," Emi pleaded, near tears as she took his arm. He shook her off. She fell back against the wall, but scrambled up before her husband could give chase.
"I'll get him," she said. "You stay here. Please, Enver. Let me."
"Do not interfere." The artist took his wife by the shoulders, and looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. "Go change your clothes. You shame us looking like a peasant in your work clothes. Take that scarf off your hair; that smock off your body."
"No," she said. "I will not."
He paused when Emi snapped at him. She seldom angered. Now she was full of fury, shaking with it. Still, it wasn't enough to stop him.
"You're right. It doesn't matter what you look like. Leave me alone. Throw those people out."
With that he pushed past her and bounded up the stairs. Emi's fury became panic; just as suddenly panic passed to calm. The wheels had been set in motion long ago, and to make a scene now would ruin everything. Still it would be even worse if she didn't stop both men from going upstairs. She gathered her energy. She would do what she could.
Emi had her foot on the second riser as she thought through her plan. The sound of her husband's footsteps as he pounded up the stairs became fainter the farther he climbed. He stopped on the first landing taking enough time to lean over and look at his wife.
"It is over. She stays."
With that he was gone, and Emi collapsed against the wall. She was exhausted in body and soul; she was terrified in her heart. She thought of the Asian man already steps ahead of her husband, and was almost sorry for him. She was sorrier still for Enver, and herself, and for whatever would come after this. Then she started to laugh. It was a tragedy, yes, but it was also tragically funny. This Asian man didn't know she existed, her husband didn't care that she did, and all because of her.
Emi looked up, but there was nothing to see. Her ears pricked but there was nothing to hear. Her eyes went to the strange and beautiful people in her living room, people whose names she didn't know. She should tell them to go, but before she could gather her strength a sound came from above that turned her blood to ice.
The concrete walls did not absorb it, the narrow stairwells did not bottle it up. Heads went up. The guest's eyes darted here and there as they tried to identify where it had come from, this muted howl of agony. Women moved closer to men who hoped they would not be called upon to be heroic.
The sound was like the roar of a distant train carrying a cargo of insanity. Emi took two steps down. She pushed herself into a dark corner of the alcove where moments ago she had tried to assuage her husband. One of the guests rose from his chair. He smiled as if the sound thrilled him, but his anticipation soon dissolved into a look of confusion.
Worse than the inhuman cry, was the silence that followed. That quiet was huge and filled with something so horrible there was no name for it. Before the wealthy people could decide what to do, the artist rushed down the stairs, ran past his wife, and threw himself into the big room. He fell against one wall and rolled onto another before standing tall and raising his arms to heaven. In that instant, he issued another abominable cry. This one was so deep and long that the guests froze with their eyes wide and their mouths open.
Someone dropped a glass, and it shattered on the hard floor. Collectively, the guests fell back one step. Wild-eyed, the artist staggered around the room. All the fancy folks scurried away. His size cowed them. The look in his eyes spooked them. And the fact that his shirt was red with blood terrorized them.
Clearly the party was over.
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