Extract: Smoke Over Malibu by Tim Walker

Smoke Over Malibu

Smoke Over Malibu is the new soft-boiled mystery by Tim Walker. It’s a slapstick noir novel set in LA – think Raymond Chandler meets Nick Hornby or The Big Lebowski meets Lovejoy.

The Hon. Lucius Kluge – honourable, lucky, clever – might be the only guy in Los Angeles who’s still living in the past. Lucky pines for the old days of the New Hollywood, before Star Wars and superheroes blew up the movies for good. He spends his days working for an antiques business, his nights boozing and brooding on his former life as an almost-successful screenwriter.

But when his ex-best friend goes AWOL and his elderly boss is assaulted during the theft of a vintage cookie jar, Lucky and his partner Raul are spurred reluctantly into something like action.

Read on for an extract from Smoke Over Malibu!

Smoke Over Malibu
by
Tim Walker

Part One
Sir Lucky

1

The dead guy’s place was in the Canyons, at the end of one of those bronchial cul‑de‑sacs above Franklin that I can still never find without the GPS. The homes petered out into parched scrub and eucalyptus at the top of the street, where the bungalow I was hunting squatted alone on a knoll like a kid left out of a game. As I parked the truck in the turnaround, the sound startled a gang of mule deer who’d been grazing on the slope across from the house. They hurried away through the undergrowth, into the hills beneath the Hollywood sign. I killed the engine and stared after them awhile, still only half-awake. It was eight-fifteen a.m.
        I could tell you about the weather, but this is Los Angeles – you already know about the weather. So I’ll tell you about the bungalow: it was a 1940s Craftsman in avocado, with white trim, leaded windows and a long porch at the top of a steep flight of wooden steps. Cleo Habibi idled in the porch-swing at the summit, flaunting her West Coast dentistry as I clambered to meet her.
        ‘Hey, Lucky.’
        Cleo had on her sale-day ensemble: blue jeans to signify the weekend; a grey blazer that says she’s all business. She was hugging her tablet computer. As I reached the top step, she raised a long, black Audrey Hepburn eyebrow and waited for me to catch my breath. I’d achieved consciousness on the couch an hour beforehand, with just enough time to choose between a shower, a shave or a pot of coffee. I chose the coffee.
        ‘Man, you look rough,’ she said. ‘Need a lie-down?’
        ‘Very funny. Who’s the stiff[~]?’
        ‘Name’s Marty Kann. Seventy-four. Production designer, retired. Massive stroke. Survived his darling wife Pam by a mere eighteen months.’
        ‘That’s sweet.’
        ‘Ain’t it.’
        ‘Spawn?’
        ‘One. Marty Jr. Lives in Reno.’
        ‘Well, somebody has to.’
        She handed me the tablet, and I scanned the items she ’d marked for my attention: a Spanish Revival-style tile table; two Bill Curry Stemlite lamps; some vintage movie merch. A respectable inventory.
        ‘We just dug out a couple Native American baskets,’ she said. ‘Could be authentic; could be from one of those gift shops down at the pueblo. But you should take a look. Mrs Kann was a set decorator. These two had taste.’
        ‘Sure. Thanks, Cleo.’
        Cleo Habibi will as happily unload the home of a dead parking valet as a dead movie star. But whether it’s some Holmby Hills pile or a casita in Highland Park, her commission is a flat 30 per cent, and she is a sucker for nothing – except, on occasion, an English accent. Hence our arrangement: I get a tip-off and first refusal on any promising Californian objets; she gets a good price and half an hour of my scintillating conversation. She’s single with forty in the headlights, just like yours truly. We all get our kicks where we can.
        ‘You want to wait for your partner?’
        ‘Nah, he’ll be a while. You know Raúl.’
        ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Then let’s get started.’
        Estate sales are installation art, each bereft home a retrospective, curated by Cleo’s assistant Yolanda and her menopausal minions. They clean, they catalogue, they value, they display. Every Habibi Estates home has the same odour, a blend of industrial-cleaning products disguising the olfactory traces of the departed: their cologne, their last cooked meal, their valedictory bowel movement.
        The house was bigger inside than out. The handsome, high-ceilinged
sitting room had a view through to the galley kitchen and a Danish drop-leaf table set for six. A side corridor led to the bathroom, two bedrooms and a study. Beyond the dining room, sliding glass doors gave out onto a patio and a once-prim back garden, now browning with neglect.
        Cleo was right – these two had taste. The decor may have been dated, but it was composed with an artist’s eye. Each room had its own distinct, detailed vibe like the different rides at Disneyland: the sitting room was an Alpine ski lodge, the kitchen a kitschy roadside diner. The bathroom had hinoki panelling and a bamboo feature, as if transplanted whole from a Japanese tea house.
        ‘Nice place,’ I said.
        Cleo folded her arms. ‘We did not find it this way.’
        ‘No?’
        ‘Not at all. Those eighteen months Marty was alone? He did a good job burying all this in garbage. Looked like a flophouse. Smelled like a bar.’
        ‘Huh. So you tampered with the evidence.’
        ‘My guess? Guy drank himself to death.’
        ‘Loneliness,’ I replied. ‘It’s a killer.’
        She frowned and looked at the floor, and I figured I’d said the wrong thing. I changed the subject: ‘Let’s start in the kitchen.’
        Hollywood can be barren ground for an antique picker; almost no one stays in the neighbourhood long enough to gather a trove of lasting value. But the Kanns had found their homestead and settled. I could tell as much by the microwave oven built into the turquoise kitchen surround; it was the size of a minivan, manufactured no later than the mid-80s. Old people
rarely redecorate, so by the time they finally expire, their properties are amber-clad mosquitoes, deep-storing the DNA of at least two decades previously. I browsed the spines of Pam Kann’s cookbooks: Julia Child, Wok Cooking Made Easy, The Essential Salad Compendium.
        The Kanns liked to travel. In one of the kitchen cabinets was a selection of souvenir coffee mugs. The Dr Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas. The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the open cupboard below, I found the first item worth my time.
        ‘Hey Cleo, you know what this is?’
        I took a stout ceramic figure from the cupboard and set him on the Formica countertop between two stacks of matching crockery. He was ten inches tall and almost as wide, wearing red tails, green waistcoat, riding boots and a top hat, with a bullwhip coiled at his waist.
        ‘I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.’
        ‘You ever see Dumbo?’
        ‘The flying elephant? When I was a kid, I guess.’
        ‘This is the Ringmaster, from the circus. The bad guy. Remember?’
        Cleo shrugged: ‘Nope.’
        I lifted the Ringmaster’s head and shoulders free of his body.
        ‘He’s a cookie jar, see?’
        ‘He’s ugly as shit.’
        I smirked and studied the jar. The glaze was mostly in fine condition, though I could see a fingernail chip on the lid’s inside rim and a hairline crack on the base. He was ugly, but I didn’t much care: I still get that first-kiss thrill anytime I find a piece with a history, lurking in a cupboard or a loft. I wondered whether the Kanns were accidental collectors, or connoisseurs.
        ‘See that?’ I pointed to the maker’s mark. ‘Kirby Balboa pottery, Newport Beach. Licensed by Disney to make official ceramic merchandise. Dumbo was, what . . . nineteen-forty? ’Forty-one?’
        ‘Beats me.’
        ‘Well, he doesn’t look too bad for seventy-something. I’ll give you two-fifty.’
        ‘Two hundred and fifty bucks? For that thing?’
        ‘He’s worth more. Cookie jars are a hot market.’
        ‘Wow. Okay, sold.’
        ‘And I could’ve had him for twenty. Aren’t you glad I’m so honest?’
        ‘Honest as a bus-bench lawyer,’ said Cleo, who then turned and yelled over her shoulder: ‘Yolanda. YOLANDA!’
        Her assistant shuffled into the kitchen wearing a Habibi Estates-branded polo and Marigolds, holding what looked like the dust filter from a vacuum cleaner.
        ‘Would you please bubble-wrap this monstrosity for Lucky?’
        Yolanda nodded quickly.
        ‘Thaaaank you.’
        Cleo carried a sheet of red spot stickers, and she slapped one on every piece I picked. In the sitting room was the Spanish Revival-style side table, with six decorative tiles inlaid in walnut, depicting a Conestoga wagon crossing the Sierra, its Stetsoned guide clip-clopping ahead. Minimal wear and tear. Red spot. A rare and elegant Kem Weber Airline chair faced the hearth, reupholstered but otherwise in excellent nick: a mid-century piece worthy of a museum exhibit.
        ‘You said he was a production designer?’
        ‘That’s right. And she was a set decorator.’
        ‘Huh. Makes sense.’
        Someone had arrayed a selection of empty picture frames on the mantelpiece. A plastic Christmas spruce stood tilting towards the hearth, adorned with baubles as if it were mid-December. The tree was $15, the decorations $40 for the set.
        At the back of the wardrobe in the master bedroom, behind a thicket of wooden shoe trees, I found a gym bag containing tinned food, chlorine tabs, a first-aid kit, a torch and extra batteries: the Kanns were earthquake-ready, just in case The Big One struck. That noodle soup won’t save you now, I thought to myself. I disregarded the clothes and demanded red spots for the Stemlite reading lamps and the Navajo Dazzler rug at the foot of the queen-size bed.
        ‘These are the baskets I was talking about,’ Cleo said. ‘What do you think?’
        Yolanda and her subordinates had filled two coiled juncus baskets with old sunglasses and scents and arranged them side by side on top of the dresser.
        ‘They look like tat,’ I said. ‘But I’ll take them, see what the boss thinks.’
        Cleo emptied the baskets onto the bedspread so I could take a closer look at the weave. I couldn’t say for sure – I just work here – but I had a feeling they were Mission Indian-made, maybe even nineteenth century. That meant a three-figure price tag. I decided I’d been generous to warn Cleo of the cookie jar’s worth.
        ‘I’ll give you fifty for the pair,’ I said.
        ‘Fifty dollars? You’ve got to be kidding.’
        ‘Fine,’ I replied, and I knelt to roll up the rug. This is how we flirt.
        ‘Eighty.’
        ‘Come on, Cleo. I’m giving you good money for the Weber chair.’
        ‘Okay. Seventy.’
        ‘You’re haggling for the sake of ten dollars?’
        ‘Screw you. A hundred.’
‘Alright, alright. Seventy.’

The second bedroom still bore the unmistakable traces of a teenage Marty Jr: racks of redundant CDs, ranks of plastic action figures and an old games console coated in the accumulated grease of a dozen kids’ fingertips. Peeling bubble-gum stickers papered the chest of drawers. The walls were a map of questionable pop-cultural landmarks, and I tutted as my eye passed over posters for Deadbolt and Axeman, both tawdry comic-book blockbusters from the early aughts.
        ‘What?’
        ‘All this superhero crap,’ I said.
        Cleo chuckled to herself: ‘So British.’
        Americans still think I sound English; to the English, I’m beginning to sound American. Plummy accent, apple-pie vocab.
        Marty Kann’s study was snug and neat, the latter of which was likely Yolanda’s doing. Facing the desk was a nearly-new Herman Miller chair with added lumbar support, the essential accessory of the sedentary, 21st-century creative. The shelves bore art books, pulp novels, ancient VHS tapes and a smattering of studio ephemera. On the walls, among the empty hooks where favoured pictures had already been removed, were framed set photos from films on which I supposed he’d earned production credits: some sci‑fi, some fantasy, a couple of corny thrillers and an old Kurt Russell movie I’d never seen.
        I was a writer in another life, so I have a thing for desks, and Marty did not disappoint. He’d spent at least the last few years of his career behind a single-pedestal, brushed-steel tanker desk, a weighty, purposeful worktop for a man who means it. A Boston sharpener was clamped to one edge, handy for whittling Blackwings. He’d fitted locking castors to the legs, and I could see the ruts in the shagpile where he’d moved it to the far wall to escape the diverting view from his window – a patch of lawn, a lemon tree. I examined the manufacturer’s brand beneath the keyhole on the pencil drawer: McDowell & Craig, Norwalk, CA.
        ‘We couldn’t find the key,’ said Cleo. ‘But the drawer’s unlocked.’
        ‘Not a problem,’ I said, brushing my palm across the metal desktop. ‘We can get the lock changed. With a spit and polish, this’ll fetch eight hundred. Will you take four-fifty?’
        ‘Six?’
        ‘Five-fifty.’
        We shook on it, and Cleo tapped the details into her tablet. Beside the desk were two packing boxes filled with Marty’s pencils and unused sketchbooks; two more with old, rolled drawings. Most of his work had gone to his son or to a studio archive, said Cleo. I offered her fifty clams for what remained, assuming there ’d be something in there to frame up and flog to a film buff. A final box held reams of blank stationery, some of it personalised. I admire a guy who still composes his correspondence in longhand. But really, who was going to buy a dead man’s letterhead?

I’ve now and then found major pottery nestling in the grasses of old Hancock Park mansions, but the Kanns’ yard was unremarkable. The planting beds were stripped, the water feature stagnant. I gave the wicker furniture a once-over. Cleo shaded her eyes and watched scrub jays flitting through the bougainvillea.
        The back entrance to the garage was down a set of cement steps to the side of the house. The space had been converted into an artist’s studio. Inside, one of Cleo’s employees was arranging easels and oil paints. Canvases leaned in a stack against the wall, the top one smeared with depressive, expressionist stripes of grey, green and taupe.
        ‘Who was the painter?’
        Cleo shrugged again. ‘I guess Marty,’ she replied.
        ‘Not a fan?’
        ‘I don’t really go for that abstract stuff.’
        ‘Tell you what,’ I said, inspecting another canvas and finding more of the same, ‘I think you were right about the drinking.’
        I turned to find Cleo holding an old, red firefighter’s helmet, partially blackened by fire damage, with the words ‘Engine 13’ on the front.
        ‘Recognise this?’ she said. ‘It’s the guy’s helmet from Axeman. Guess Marty or Pam must’ve worked on that movie. Did you see it?’
        I scoffed: ‘What do you think?’
        ‘I take it you’re not interested,’ she replied, and put the helmet back on its shelf. ‘Your loss. Some geek is gonna love it.’
        On another shelf I noticed two leather baseball gloves – one child-sized,
one adult – and was momentarily bummed out by the thought that Marty and Marty Jr would never play catch again. A dusty diner neon hung high on the wall, refugee from the scenery of some rock-and-roll period piece: ‘Burgers Fries Shakes’. It looked fixable. Red spot. A pair of small pet crates had been stacked next to packing boxes bearing the Habibi Estates logo, which were stuffed with Life magazines, copies of Reader’s Digest and Marty Jr’s old comic books.
        ‘They had cats?’
        Another shrug. To take too great an interest in the emotional lives of an estate ’s late owners – their work, their relationships, their pets – would be to confront the melancholy realities of her business. I could hardly blame Cleo for keeping her distance. She flicked a switch, and the rusty garage door heaved itself open with a scream.

2

A courier’s note poked from the Kanns’ mailbox, saying Sorry We Missed You. It had started to yellow and curl in the heat. Two senior señoras were already in line at the foot of the porch steps, waiting for the sale to commence at ten a.m. Cleo’s most committed regulars, they glared at me as I emerged from the garage, terminally resentful of the VIP privileges I was afforded by Habibi Estates. I waved to them, teasing: ‘Hello, ladies.’
        Across the street, Raúl Gupta was lounging against the truck, eating a breakfast burrito. Specks of scrambled egg garnished his moustache. He was resting both elbows on the bonnet behind him, which merely accentuated the proud thrust of his pot belly. We both have our stomachs, Raúl and I, but mine is the understated paunch of a slender six-footer, concealed for the most part by dark sweaters or fitted shirts. Raúl’s, by contrast, busies itself beneath his too-small logo Ts like a raccoon rummaging through a handbag. Mine is a symptom of age and laziness, his is a fundamental feature. He made a little bow as I approached.
        ‘My liege,’ he said, doffing his Ray-Bans.
        A lot of people in LA rise early for conference calls to New York and London, but Raúl seems to live on Hawaii time. Ever since his Camry had a falling-out with a fire hydrant, he’s also missing a car – and the cul‑de‑sac was an uphill walk from the closest bus stop. Add to that the leash around his wrist, which was attached to his obstinate French bulldog, and you have a tasting menu of the excuses I was about to hear for his being almost a full hour late.
        ‘I bought you breakfast,’ he said, and produced a second foil-wrapped
burrito from his back pocket, distorted by the curve of his buttock.
        ‘Thanks,’ I replied. ‘I’ll eat after.’

The dog sat blinking on the bench seat of the truck as we shouldered the tools of our trade: moving blankets, shrink-wrap, a stair-climbing dolly. We worked through the house methodically, Cleo trailing behind, crossing each item off her inventory. The line of impatient shoppers snaked along the block by the time we clanged down the steps with the tanker desk strapped to the dolly, both of us clinging on like cattle wranglers.
        To look at us you’d think Raúl was the one out of shape, but after we ’d hefted the desk into the truck, it’s me who was wheezing, sweaty as a Coke from the freezer cabinet. I let Raúl secure our haul, while I wrote out a cheque to Habibi Estates and Cleo addressed the queue from the porch balustrade: ‘Ladies, no large handbags near the jewellery! Gentlemen, no fighting over the Frank Sinatra records . . .’
        Raúl hopped from the tailgate to the tarmac. ‘Gimme a minute,’ he said, and he jogged back towards the garage. I pondered the people in line. The two old maids vied for pole position: eternal rivals bonded by a mutual respect, the McEnroe and Borg of weekend antiquing. Behind them, a heavyset Latino gentleman with untidy facial hair; a pair of old hippies, or else ageing studio execs in mufti; a woman dragging a toddler in a tutu, perchance lost en route to a child beauty pageant; a speckling of hipsters, one straight-facedly sporting a fedora.
        Once they were inside, the competition could be fierce. Cleo’s customers were not above switching price tags. Some would secrete costlier items around the house and return to buy them for half-price after the midday markdown.
        I watched as a station wagon pulled up and spewed out three generations of suburban soccer mom. They joined the line behind a guy with a mobility walker, whom I fancied wouldn’t even make it as far as the front door. Many of Cleo’s most loyal customers were only a few bridge hands from the grave, but as their health faded, the urge to hoard burned ever brighter. Good news for Cleo: when they shuffled off a year or two hence, she could sell the same old rubbish all over again.
        As the shoppers finally climbed the steps to the bungalow, Raúl returned from the garage with his arms full. Under his left was one of the pet crates; under his right, one of the packing boxes filled with magazines.
        ‘Is he still not house-trained?’ I said.
        ‘C’mon, Lucky,’ said Raúl. ‘Give the kid a break.’
        Rather than teach his pet to defecate outdoors, Raúl had papered his floors with newsprint, and then repeatedly failed to admonish the animal when it crapped all over the condo. Now the wretched creature would only perform a bowel movement if it was hunkered down on a copy of California Sunday. Hence the magazines. The little dog stared inscrutably at us both.
        ‘Does he actually do anything except eat, sleep and shit?’
        ‘He has mucho skills,’ said Raúl. ‘He is a crime deterrent. He is a fantastic listener. And he sucks in women like a goddam shoestore.’
        ‘Really? Because to me, he reads kind of gay.’
        Raúl ignored that and held out the crate for the dog to nose. ‘Look what I got, buddy. Now you can travel anywhere. The world is your oyster!’
        ‘Isn’t that like sleeping in a dead person’s bed? What if it’s haunted by a cat?’
        Cleo strolled to us across the turnaround. I held out the cheque, which she folded into her blazer pocket.
        ‘Pleasure as always,’ she said. ‘So I’ll see you soon?’
        ‘As long as people keep dying,’ I replied.
        She noticed the dog, still mute and inert in the driving seat.
        ‘AAAwww! Is that a French bulldog? Is he yours, Raúl? What’s his name?’
        ‘Burgers,’ said Raúl.
        Cleo paused and pursed her lips.
        ‘Burgers? Why’d you call him Burgers?’
        ‘Because imagine me standing in the middle of a park with my empty dog leash, yelling “Burgers! Burgers!” . . .’
        She considered the image in silence for a second, and then tipped her head back and laughed, grabbing Raúl’s arm to keep her balance. Raúl nodded triumphantly at her amusement. ‘And that,’ he said, ‘is why I called him Burgers.’
        Cleo recovered and sighed and dried her dark eyes delicately so as not to smudge her mascara. She bent over to ruffle the dog’s ears.
        ‘Aaawww, Burgers,’ she said. ‘You are so cute!’
        Raúl just gave me a long look, steady and smug, as if to say: See?

The truck is a customised Dodge cube, circa 1985, with bouncy suspension, duff a/c and half a million miles on the clock. It has the words ‘Bart’s Olde California’ and a phone number stencilled along the side. Bart has added some other personal touches over the years, like the ladder rack and the running board. The faulty mechanical tail-lift is long gone, and in its place Bart has jerry-rigged a retractable stepladder to save his AARP knees from hopping on and off the tailgate.
        He ought to have traded the vehicle in years ago but, being an antique dealer, he ’s disinclined to replace anything that still functions.
        The cab smells like the ’80s: cigs, stale Nescafé, synthetic fibres. Hell, it even sounds like the ’80s. The radio’s bust and can only find KCRW for seconds at a time, but there ’s a cassette player and a handful of Bart’s old tapes in the glove compartment with the paperwork and the peppermint Altoids. We ’ve a choice of Graceland, After the Gold Rush, Running on Empty or – Raúl’s favourite – the original Broadway cast recording of Les Misérables. The lyrics to ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ are baked into my subconscious, like the unwanted raisins in an oatmeal cookie.
        I fought hard with the stick and the wheel to squeeze out of the turnaround, now that the truck was heavy with furniture and the shoppers’ parked cars had congested the kerbs. Cleo stood in the door of the garage, smiling wryly at my efforts. Looming at her shoulder, as uncomfortably close as a tailgating lorry, was the heavyset guy with the scruffy facial hair. He was holding the Axeman helmet, and he watched with narrowed eyes as we rolled away.
        ‘Hey,’ said Raúl. ‘Was that Paul Giamatti?’
        ‘Paul Giamatti the actor? Where?’
        ‘In the garage. That fat guy. Looked like Paul Giamatti.’
        ‘What? That guy looked nothing like Paul Giamatti.’
        ‘He was like a Latino Paul Giamatti.’
        ‘Well, then he wasn’t Paul Giamatti.’
        ‘But he looked like Paul Giamatti, is what I’m saying.’
        ‘Sure. If Paul Giamatti were ten years older, a foot taller, twenty pounds heavier and had another guy’s face.’
        ‘Hey, Giamatti is extremely versatile.’
        I had only consumed half of my warped breakfast burrito; the remainder sat wrapped in one of the cup holders. I could sense Raúl sizing it up. Burgers perched on his lap, peering over the dashboard.
        ‘You can eat that if you want,’ I said.
        ‘Really?’
        ‘Yeah, I’m done.’
        ‘You hear that, Burgers?’
        Raúl had torn some pages from one of Marty Kann’s old subscriptions and laid them in the base of the pet crate, which sat between us on the bench seat. Now he slid the burrito from its foil wrapping and put it inside, tugging a morsel of chorizo from the tortilla and offering it to the dog. Burgers sniffed it, licked it, and then allowed himself to be led into the crate by the nose. Raúl closed the cage door behind him. I could hear Burgers masticating over the rattle of the engine.
        ‘So I put your name on the guest list for Blowing Up at the Lo‑Ball,’ said Raúl.
        ‘Huh,’ I replied, trying to sound grateful but non-committal.
        ‘Plus one,’ he said.         ‘Bring a lady.’
        ‘Huh,’ I said again, eyes on the road. ‘So what is it, like an open-mic
night?’
        ‘An open-mic night? Who do you think I am? It’s Blowing Up! It’s one of the city’s top comedy nights. Read LA Weekly once in a while, asshole.’
        In the two years we’d worked together, I’d avoided ever seeing Raúl’s stand‑up act – mostly out of fear: fear he ’d be bad; fear he’d be good. The fear is laced with envy, that he possesses the cojones to stand alone before a crowd and invite their judgement. The Lo‑Ball was high stakes – his biggest gig to date – and he was uncharacteristically anxious. I’d yet to decide whether I could bear to attend.
        ‘Are they paying you?’
        ‘Headliner gets a share of the door. I get free drinks. But if I do good, Verne says he ’ll make me a regular.’
        We paused at a Stop sign on Beachwood. I pulled my e‑cigarette from my jeans pocket and puffed on it. E‑cigarettes are to cigarettes what The Godfather Part III is to The Godfather Part II, but you can only hock so much phlegm before you start to get spooked by the prospect of lung cancer.
        ‘That shit’ll kill you,’ said Raúl.
        ‘No, it won’t. That’s the whole point.’
        ‘Is it FDA-approved? I don’t think so.’
        ‘Jesus, Raúl. It’s lighter than a Marlboro Light.’
        ‘Whatever you say, Sir Lucky. I just think: if you’re gonna quit, then quit.’
        This ‘Sir Lucky’ nonsense? I am the second son of a minor English aristocrat and his American trophy wife. Pater’s proper title is Alistair Kluge, Viscount Wonersh, which makes me the Hon. Lucius Kluge: Honourable, Lucky, Clever. Are any of those adjectives accurate? Everything’s relative.
        Raúl Gupta is how this fish-out‑of‑water comedy becomes a buddy flick. Part Chicano, part Gujarati, all Angeleno: Eastern flavours swaddled in SoCal culture, like a Korean taco. At law school he played percussion for a post-post-punk band, which gave him an appetite for the limelight that, at twenty-nine, remains unsatisfied.
        ‘So tell me a joke,’ I said. ‘What should I expect from your act?’
        ‘I cover a lot of topics,’ Raúl replied. ‘Dating, dog ownership, coffee culture, Asian-American enterprise, my parents. But I can’t just do you a bit in the frickin’ truck. Besides, the element of surprise is a crucial tool in a comic’s arsenal.’
        I inhaled another hit of liquid nicotine. ‘Did you compose that mantra yourself, or do they teach it in Comedy 101?’
        He turned to look at me, less than impressed. ‘Do you act like a douchebag on purpose?’ he said. ‘Or does it come naturally?’
        I grinned: I do it on purpose. I swung the truck onto Franklin, squinting as the mid-morning sun cut through the cab like a reprimand.
 

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