CITY OF ANGELS
Downtown Los Angeles, April 30, 1992
Armed with booze, cigarettes, and guns, my friends paced the hot rooftop of the American Hotel, peering over the waist-high wall, looking for trouble on the streets below.
To the east, wisps of smoke rose as rioters set fire to the palm trees on the 101 Freeway. Helicopters hovered over treetops near Hollywood Bowl. The Rodney King verdict had gone down twenty-four hours ago, triggering a wave of violence and chaos that ricocheted through Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Once again, we’d broken the padlocked door to gain access to the roof. This time, not to drink and smoke, but to act as lookouts. Rioters were storming Skid Row, a few blocks away. We were making sure nobody messed with the four-story brick building we called home.
I stood by myself facing the west, thinking of Rain.
Every once in a while, one of my friends came to check on me. I was used to being alone, so it felt strange, but good, too. At seventeen, I was the youngest in my group of friends.
“You okay, kiddo?” asked Sadie.
The former cover model was wearing cut-off Levis shorts, platform sandals, and toting some type of big gun like a designer handbag. I took it all in without blinking.
Satisfied, Sadie stalked off, wind whipping her long blond hair as she patrolled the perimeter of the building, leaning precariously over the edge of the wall and occasionally pointing her gun at passerby below.
Danny, who grew up a few blocks away in East L.A., was splayed flat on his back, a black pistol tucked in his waistband, scissoring his arms and legs as if he were making a tar snow angel and periodically shouting, “I wanna burrita!”
His black eyes caught mine for a moment and he cackled loudly, his teeth gleaming in a Cheshire cat grin. I forced a small smile and turned away. Earlier, I’d found him in his room giggling and talking to himself, high on PCP or something. I hoped it wasn’t one of those days he thought he could fly.
Although the fires were still blocks away, the reek of burning buildings mingled with the faint diesel smell of the sun-warmed black tar rooftop, which was starting to feel squishy under my combat boots. A tiny shift in the wind brought with it the sweet smell of weed.
Leaning against one wall, the two Iowa farm boys, Taj and John, huddled with Eve. She dipped her head near the flame of a giant purple bong. I worried her mammoth afro would catch fire. Her black-rimmed eyes were smudged. She didn’t bother wiping the dark rivulets of makeup-sodden tears trailing down her cheeks.
John held the bong in my direction. “Nikki?”
I shook my head, my dark hair swinging.
Taj took a long sip of his beer without taking his gaze off me. He gave me a slow smile.
We were all there.
All except Rain, of course.
As the sun set on the city, its reddish-orange streaks illuminated our drunk and tear-stained faces. Despite the leaden feeling in my gut, I felt a surge of love looking at my friends. It felt odd calling them that, but that was what they’d become. I also felt a sense of belonging. A new feeling to me. Unfamiliar and a little bit scary, but welcomed all the same.
Shouting and glass breaking on the street below startled me and provoked Sadie’s high-pitched shriek. “Get the fuck out of here, motherfuckers!”
Turning back, I searched the horizon to the west, steeling my gaze in the direction where the gleaming white mansion towered over Sunset Boulevard. Smoke mingled with the setting sun, turning the skies blood red. We would strike when it grew dark. Until then, I had to be patient. I pulled up a ripped lawn chair, took a long drag off my cigarette, and settled back to watch L.A. burn.
Malibu, Four Months Earlier
Droplets of blood rhythmically splattered in crimson splotches on the Persian carpet at my feet. I swiped at my nose, but couldn’t stem the flow.
“Get the kid out of here, she’s ruining my goddamn rug,” Dean Thomas Kozlak said. He mumbled the words around the cigar clenched between his teeth. His white hair bobbed as he nodded. “That baby put me out thirty grand at auction. I’m talking fifteen hundred bucks a square foot. Was the Shah of Iran’s for Christ’s sake.”
The slight sting on my cheek was fading. I swallowed the blood dripping down the back of my throat, gagging on the metallic taste.
Across the room of sleek leather couches and glass-topped tables, a wall of French doors beckoned. They led to a massive deck. Although the windows had turned into black mirrors as darkness fell, beyond them—and several feet below—was the beach. Freedom. The doors were slightly ajar. A salty ocean breeze drifted in, blowing my hair across my face.
The big-shot movie director with his Andy Warhol hair perched on the arm of a chaise lounge. Unfortunately, he was directly between those French doors and me. Off to one side, way off, was a door to a long hallway. It was the furthest exit from me. The closest door— actually a swinging door—was behind me. The maid, with her plate of fishy finger foods, had come through them earlier.
I was still woozy and a little confused from the blow to my head. But a rush of adrenaline jerked me back to life. My body was ready to blow. Run. Run as fast as you can.
I lifted my chin to finally look at Chad. The twenty-eight-year-old guy who had been my boyfriend this past month had disappeared. Instead, a stranger shaking with rage stood across the room, downing another shot of the liquid amber in his crystal glass. The stubble on his face hid a weak chin. His lank hair escaping its small ponytail seemed effeminate. He wasn’t looking at me, but at Kozlak with a combination of fear, awe, and worship.
“Take her downstairs,” the director said. “Now. I’m done being Mr. Nice Guy.”
Chad’s gaze turned to meet mine. His pupils had morphed into black orbs. I took a step back.
He set his glass down and turned toward me, headed my way. He was going to hit me again. He was mumbling under his breath. “You’ve embarrassed me, baby. I think it’s time to make you a star in a movie you’ll never have a chance to see.”
“Chad.” It was the sternest tone Kozlak had used all night. At his name, Chad froze. But only for a second.
Run! But he was too close. I could almost feel his fingers yanking my long hair if I tried to bolt.
Then I remembered. I slid my eyes over to the big black gun on the table nearby. Kozlak had been showing it off to Chad earlier. Kozlak smirked. He knew. He knew I wouldn’t be able to even pick up that gun. Pointing it at someone was out of the question.
My nose had finally stopped bleeding. I planted my feet and faced Chad. He grew closer. When he was within reach, I aimed my steel-toed combat boot up into his crotch. He howled and collapsed.
The director leisurely pushed himself up from the arm of the chaise lounge, taking time to carefully arrange his cigar in a crystal ashtray. I didn’t wait around to see what he was going to do next.
I raced through the swinging door. It led to a small hallway. Beyond was the kitchen. In the kitchen, I jammed a small wooden chair under the doorknob and looked around for a way out. Less than five feet away, a glass door led outside to a giant garden with high walls. Another door was beside it. I peeked in. A pantry. My hand was on the doorknob to the garden when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move.
Across the kitchen, another door cracked open a few inches. Behind it, a girl with pink-streaked blond hair stood silently watching me. I flung the glass back door wide open to the garden. With the girl’s eyes on me, I ducked into the pantry instead, pleading with my eyes for her silence. The noises grew louder. The chair I’d propped against the kitchen door slammed to the floor. Right before I pulled the pantry door shut, I held my finger up to my lips. She gave a barely imperceptible nod. Her door closed all but a tiny crack.
My heart thudded in my throat. I froze with one hand on the pantry doorknob. Thirty seconds later, Kozlak’s voice boomed—less than a foot away from my hideout.
“Those garden walls are ten feet high. She’s not going anywhere. Take this.”
“What?” Chad sounded confused.
“Don’t worry. Silencer.”
“You wanted to play with the big boys?” Kozlak’s voice was low and dangerous. “You brought this problem into my house and now you’re going to take care of it. She’s a goddamn runaway. Nobody’s gonna miss her.”
“She’ll come around,” Chad stuttered a little. “I can handle her.”
“Like you ‘handled’ her in there? Get the fuck out.”
They were right on the other side of the door. I could practically feel the heat from their bodies.
The doorknob twisted under my palm, triggering a wave of sheer terror. But then I heard a thud—the sound of a door slamming open and hitting a wall.
“Rain.” Kozlak’s voice was tinged with sudden fury. “Get back in your room.”
“No.” It was a child’s voice, but it was determined. The doorknob untwisted in my hand.
“What did you say?”
A door clicked closed.
“How dare—” Kozlak said between what sounded like gritted teeth. After a second of silence, his voice sounded composed again.
“You go that way.”
Footsteps and then the men’s voices grew fainter. All was quiet. I waited a few seconds. I cracked the pantry door. The door across from me opened.
“Take me with you.” The girl’s voice was frantic. “He’s keeping me here. Prisoner.”
I looked at her for a long second, remembering the director’s proposition to me earlier—starring in a porn flick. When I refused, Chad had slapped me.
I didn’t answer, only nodded before I bolted back into the living room, detouring to the couch to grab my bag, which contained my most-prized possession—my Nikon. I looped the bag’s strap over my chest. The girl trailed behind me.
I slipped through the large French doors to the deck overlooking the beach and Pacific Ocean. Any minute the men would discover I wasn’t in the garden. Out on the sprawling wooden deck, the bracing wind stung my face and tangled my hair. Large clouds drifted over a sliver of moon. Far down the beach, hazy lights cast a big circle on the sand. The waves crashed loudly somewhere in front of me, invisible in the darkness. Below the house, a wooden plank walkway led from the side of the house down to the water. A sound filtered out from the house, triggering a surge of adrenaline. I climbed up onto the rail, one leg hanging over. The girl stood back, hesitating.
I jumped back onto the deck and offered my hand. “It’s the only way.” Our eyes met for a long second, but she didn’t move. I clambered over the side of the rail and hung by my arms, my feet dangling and my bag slamming into my side. The girl stood above me. Voices and footsteps came closer.
The girl looked behind her for a second before scampering over the rail where she hung by my side. “On three,” I said in a whisper.
I counted, closed my eyes, and let go, landing on my butt on the sand below. There was a small thud as the girl fell nearby. Within seconds I had scrambled to my feet and raced over to the walkway.
My combat boots pounded noisily on the wooden planks leading to the surf. The girl’s footsteps echoed behind me. The walkway ended several yards from the water. As soon as my feet left the wood, they sunk into deep sand and everything slowed. I trudged along the beach in seemingly slow motion, slogging through the deep sand like in a bad dream.
But this nightmare was real.
When my feet hit packed, wet sand, I paused to catch my breath, panting as the white froth of the ocean slapped against my boots. The girl caught up. She was quiet beside me.
“Are you hurt?” My own body ached from the fall.
She shook her head. The fear and adrenaline shooting through me made me anxious to keep running, and yet some small part of me balked. By running down that beach, I was leaving everything behind. I would have no boyfriend, no home, nothing but the clothes on my back. I would be alone in L.A. But I also knew that even if I didn’t run, that life was over.
High on the deck of the brightly lit home, the director’s bulky, dark silhouette stood at the rail overlooking the beach. A tiny orange glow, a cigarette, moved from his waist to his head. An icy chill rippled across my scalp. Through the darkness, with the surf crashing behind me, I could feel the menace drifting toward me across the beach. The figure, a mass of black without clear shape or form, seemed to stand preternaturally still. Watching.