California Fire and Life

BOOK: California Fire and Life
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Praise for Don Winslow’s

“One fiery-fun read.… Only Don Winslow could make this bad boy snap, crackle and pop.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A successful thriller, raised above the ordinary by two things: Winslow’s prose style and the expertise he acquired in fifteen years of working at the same job as his hero.”

Los Angeles Times

“Reads like a forties crime novel with prose so raw it makes you feel hard-boiled.… To the names of great literary detectives, add Jack Wade.”

U.S. News & World Report

“Artfully captures the hot, often incendiary quality of life in Southern California.… I’ll never strike a match casually again.”

—The News & Observer

“A premium read … [with] as many twists and turns as the Pacific Coast Highway.”


“A hot page-turner.”

San Antonio Express-News

“Winslow’s arson thriller is a surefire beach-book winner.… Moves at a brisk pace.… Engaging and thought provoking. Good title. Good book.”

The Star Ledger
(Newark, NJ)

“From the very first pages, this book pulls us in with its haunting descriptions of fire, its complex and surprising plot, and its likable hero.… A burning tale that keeps its heat all the way to the end.”

—Syracuse Herald-American

Don Winslow

Don Winslow is a former private investigator and consultant. He lives in California.


The Winter of Frankie Machine

The Power of the Dog

California Fire and Life

The Death and Life of Bobby

While Drowning in the Desert

A Long Walk Up the Water Slide

Way Down on the High Lonely

The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror

A Cool Breeze on the Underground


© 1999
by Don Winslow

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1999.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Winslow, Don.
California fire and life / by Don Winslow.—1st ed.
p. cm.
I. Title.
PS3573.I5326C35 1999

eISBN: 978-0-307-82459-2


To the claims guys and their defenders. It was an honor.


Many people—most of whom it would be imprudent to thank by name—helped me in the research of this book, and I thank them all. Among those I can name, my undying gratitude to the ever patient Dr. Edward Ledford, president of the Zoex Corporation in Lincoln, Nebraska, for his guidance and counsel in regard to gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers and countless other issues involving the testing of debris samples. My thanks as usual to David Schniepp for sharing his knowledge of arcane surfing matters and south coast lore and legend. My gratitude to my wife, Jean Winslow, for her patient and expert drafting of the floor plans of the Vale house and for countless kindnesses.


Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.

She doesn’t wake up.

Flame licks at her thighs like a lover and she doesn’t wake up.

Just down the hill the Pacific pounds on the rocks.

California fire and life.


George Scollins doesn’t wake up, either.

Reason for this is that he’s lying at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck.

It’s easy to see how this might have happened—Scollins’s little Laguna Canyon house is a freaking mess. Tools, wood, furniture lying all over the place, you can hardly walk across the floor without tripping on something.

In addition to the tools, wood and furniture, you have paint cans, containers of stain, plastic bottles full of turpentine, cleaning rags …

This is also the reason the house is a bonfire.

Not surprising, really.

Not surprising at all.

California fire and life.


Two Vietnamese kids sit in the front of a delivery truck.

The driver, Tommy Do, pulls it off into a parking lot.

“Middle of freaking nowhere,” says Tommy’s buddy, Vince Tranh.

Tommy doesn’t give a shit, he’s happy to be getting rid of the load, a truck full of hot stuff.

Tommy pulls over by a Caddy.

“They love their Caddies,” Tranh says to him in Vietnamese.

“Let ’em,” Tommy says. Tommy’s saving for a Miata. A Miata is cool. Tommy can see himself cruising in a black Miata, wraparound shades on his face, a babe with long black hair beside him.

Yeah, he can see that.

Two guys get out of the Caddy.

One of them’s tall. Looks like one of those Afghan hounds, Tommy thinks, except the guy’s wearing a dark blue suit that has got to be
standing out there in the desert. The other guy is shorter, but broad. Guy wears a black Hawaiian print shirt with big flowers all over it, and Tommy thinks he looks like a jerk. Tommy has him tabbed as the leg breaker, and Tommy is going to be glad to get his money, unload and get the fuck back to Garden Grove.

As a general rule, Tommy doesn’t like doing business with non-Vietnamese, especially these people.

Except the money this time is too good.

Two grand for a delivery job.

The big guy in the flowered shirt opens a gate and Tommy drives through it. Guy closes the gate behind them.

Tommy and Tranh hop out of the truck.

Blue Suit says, “Unload the truck.”

Tommy shakes his head.

“Money first,” he says.

Blue Suit says, “Sure.”

“Business is business,” Tommy says, like he’s apologizing for the money-first request. He’s trying to be polite.

“Business is business,” Blue Suit agrees.

Tommy watches Blue Suit reach into the jacket pocket for his wallet,
except Blue Suit takes out a silenced 9mm and puts three bullets in a tight pattern into Tommy’s face.

Tranh stands there with this
look on his face but he doesn’t run or anything. Just stands there like
, which makes it easy for Blue Suit to put the next three into him.

The guy in the flowered shirt hefts first Tommy, then Tranh, and tosses their bodies into the Dumpster. Pours gasoline all over them then tosses a match in.

“Vietnamese are Buddhists?” he asks Blue Suit.

“I think so.”

They’re speaking in Russian.

“Don’t they cremate their dead?”

Blue Suit shrugs.

An hour later they have the truck unloaded and the contents stored in the cinder block building. Twelve minutes after that, Flower Shirt drives the truck out into the desert and makes it go boom.

BOOK: California Fire and Life
7.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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