“The Movie Makers” [Excerpt] by Gary Phillips

For what the mark wanted—needed, in fact—Rachel reflected as she went through her yoga exercises, was vindication. Having reached a certain age and income level in this dog-eat-dog business, his psyche still needed boosting.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Mikka Bolarus had said to Rachel one evening after a narcotics anonymous meeting as they sipped quite wretched coffee. “For a guy who’s attained what he has, he’s managed not to wrap himself the garbs of the asshole to many of them do. All the while of course pretending to be humble and not give a shit.”

She’d put the coffee to her lips, talking, the words bouncing around hollow in the confines of the Styrofoam cup. “But inside he’s still that working class kid from Downey whose dad did twenty years at a nursery and his mom was a record keeper at an oven parts warehouse. He gives plenty to charities that work with under-privileged kids and doesn’t crow about it, doesn’t have his publicist leak it to the press so he can feel all squishy about himself like a lot of stars do.”

“But he wants the respect of his peers,” Rachel had observed.

“Don’t we all?” Bolarus countered.

Refocusing, Rachel went into her bound angle pose as the rest of the class did too. Their instructor, a lithe woman calling herself Dyline whose pottery was on display in several hotel lobbies along the upper end of Wilshire, slowly spread her arms and raised her chin toward the ceiling.

“As we align the body, so we align our inner being,” she said. She brought her arms back to her chest, crossing her arms at the wrist. She rose effortlessly from her scissor position on her toned legs and added, “I thank you for your time and your effort. Let’s all go forth and have a purposeful day.”

As one, several in the class murmured “Namaste,” clasping the flats of their hands together and bowing slightly.

“Wow, that was pretty intense, huh?” One of the newcomers said to Rachel as she dabbled a towel on her sweating face. “I mean I’ve heard about her, you know? But she’s the real deal, isn’t she?” The woman was on the tall side with her stylish hair cut short and a taut body like an Olympic skier. She’d been using a yoga strap to make adjustments in a few of her poses. The newcomer put this is a genuine Gucci canvas duffel Rachel saw.

“Oh yeah,” Rachel agreed, “she had some students who have been with her for years.”

The two rolled up their yoga mats and Rachel wondered if the woman was an actress and looked to chat her up. Until the blow-off, she had to maintain her front. Not only could she and Sam not be seen together, but it also meant engaging in activities a woman like here would do. As movies, no matter how obscure could be tracked down, she and Sam couldn’t manufacture a past with those kind of credits. But a formerly estranged daughter of a Silicon Valley escapee who was looking to get into the movie business . . . textbook. It took little effort at selling this scenario beyond the expected outer trappings. They had a hacker they’d used in the past to work her magic and create a cyber trail online.

“I’m Chloe,” the other woman said, offering her hand.

“I’m Shawnee,” Rachel replied, shaking the woman’s hand. She felt callouses on Chloe’s palm. Must work out with weights, the pretend producer concluded.

The Dharma Flow yoga studio was on Melrose in West Hollywood. Parking was a premium in the tiny municipality sandwiched between L.A. and where L.A. began again. They both found themselves walking to a public parking structure a few blocks away. Chloe chatted with her, mentioning she was new to town but it seemed she wasn’t looking to get into the Industry. She worked as a CAD designer at an architectural firm that specialized in mall redevelopment projects.

“That one on Beverly Glen at Santa Monica,” she said, “that’s ours.”

“Sounds very involved what you do.” Rachel said, faking interest.

“I’m quite into it,” the other woman said.

They rode the elevator up. The door opened on the third level of the five-story structure. Rachel started to exit, turning her head slightly to speak. “See you next time.”

“For sure,” Chloe said, smiling broadly, back against the rear panel as if she meant to ride further up.

Rachel turned face-forward. The near silent swish of flat footfalls across the flooring reached her at the same moment something was slipped over her head and continuing downward, tightened around her throat. She gagged, her tongue sticking out like some goof in an animated cartoon. She was yanked backward in to the elevator car, the door closing. The woman calling herself Chloe had used her yoga strap, which included a D-ding that one end of it had been threaded through, to choke her.

Struggling, Rachel absently determined that yes, this woman did work out with weights. Her attacker used a foot to stomp on the button that stopped the elevator from functioning. Rachel was reared back, her butt pressing downward as she was pulled into an upright position again. The strap was cinched around her neck and the supposed Chloe had her other arm holding Rachel around the upper part of her body.

“Who are you working for?” Chloe said into Rachel’s ear.

“Wha . . . what are you talking about?” Rachel croaked out. She didn’t have to do much acting to sound fearful.

“You know what the fuck I’m talking about. Why have you been asking around about Mol Rakosian?”

Shit, she almost blurted, her cover be damned. She estimated she could stamp in the woman’s foot to cause her to loosen her grip and start swinging and kicking. But Rachel got it together, eyes on the ball as the old-timers liked to say. “Investment,” she wheezed.

Chloe was a pro. She’d maintained the pressure on her choke hold but had let up just enough for Rachel to get air in her lungs and speak. “Investment?”

Rachel had both hands on the strap. “He’s got money all over town. Someone,” she coughed, “someone I know used to play in one of his games.”

“Who?” Chloe demanded.

Rachel named a director who had been a regular in one of Rakosian’s underground poker games. “Okay, wait, see I don’t really know him, but a couple degrees separated.”

“Why Mol?”

“Taxes,” Rachel improvised. “I mean, I want to avoid them.”

Chloe released her. Rachel stumbled forward, squelching the desire to punch the woman in her washboard abs. “Look,” she said, rubbing her throat. “I’m no kind of threat to him. I do know a little about him and well, I figured he might be a good source to see if we could parlay our resources.” In the three days since Sam had told her Rakosian’s first name, Mol for Molcous, and license plate, she’d been looking into him. The Escalade was leased to the gangster’s liquor distribution business. This was a legitimate concern of his, among several.

“But he’s got his greedy fingers in all kind of pies,” Porter had told her over the phone, filling in information on Rakosian. He’d known the late Finch but didn’t hold a grudge against the two over his death on a previous con. Such was the price of the game they played, he’d told them and had meant it. Porter kept his ear to the ground, and he was as loyal as you could get in this game.

Rachel was as far from Chloe as she could get in the steel box. She held her hand out to the enforcer, signaling she wanted a halt to any other aggressions. “I’m just trying to carve out my end, that’s all. If I pissed him off, I’m sorry. I’ll go my way and he goes his. I get it.”

Chloe pursed her lips, weighing what Rachel as Shawnee was telling her. Maybe, Rachel hoped, it sounded just loopy enough here in La-La Land where all kind of ways movies were realized to come off legit.

“I’ll report back,” the other woman finally said. “It’s up to the boss what happens next. But you damn well better keep your nose out of his business. Don’t you fuckin’ say boo about him to anyone. Because if I do come back, no kind of story will keep you from getting clipped. You get me?”

Rachel bite her tongue not to be a smartass and say namaste. “Yes, ma’am.” She put the proper tremor in her voice.

Chloe hesitated a moment more. Then, designer bag in hand, she hit the button to turn the elevator back on. The door parted and she walked out, not looking back.

Rachel let out air and got centered. The yoga jive was good for something, she admitted, also walking out of the elevator on steady legs. Clearing the parking structure in her car, she dialed Sam but there was no pick up on his end on his end. “This is Shawnee,” she said, staying in character as they did. “Something’s come up.” She hung up and stopped at a bar to have two glasses of red wine while munching on celery and spinach dip.


Excerpted from The Movie Makers (A Grifter’s Song #4) by Gary Phillips, published by Down & Out Books.

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Born under a bad sign with family roots in Texas near the Guadalupe River and the Mississippi Delta, Gary Phillips must keep writing to forestall his appointment at the crossroads. Recent work includes short stories in the Anthony-nominated Bouchercon anthology Passport to Murder and The Highway Kind: Tales of Fast Cars, Desperate Drivers, and Dark Roads. He is editor of the well-received The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir, and co-wrote with Christina Faust the prose adaptation of the classic Batman vs. Joker graphic novel The Killing Joke.


Image altered by Cartoonize.

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