Home > Dream Town (Archer #3)

Dream Town (Archer #3)
Author: David Baldacci



Chapter 1



Aloysius Archer was thirty years old, once a decorated soldier, and next a humbled inmate. He was currently a private detective with several years of intense experience trolling the darker side of life.

He was riding in a 1939 bloodred Delahaye convertible with the red top in the down position because that was how he liked it. He had bought the car a little over three years before with lucky gambling winnings in Reno. It had also very nearly cost Archer his life. He still loved the car. Any man with a pulse would. And so would any woman who liked a man with a nice car.

He was currently heaving over the roller-coaster humps of Los Angeles. The city was decked out in its finest livery for the coming of the new year. That meant the bums of Skid Row had been goose-stepped off the streets by junior coppers who did what they were told, the hookers had been ordered not to solicit on the main thoroughfares, and most everyone had put the lids on their trash cans and brushed their teeth.

The town had brought in about four million strings of lights, an equal number of balloons, and enough confetti to choke the Pacific. And every actor and actress with a studio contract, and even some without, would be showing their toothy mugs in all the right, and wrong, places. While the town definitely had its seamy side, the City of Angels had all the tools and incentive to do showy and shallow better than any other place on earth.

It could be a wonderful place to live, if you had money, were famous, or both, which Archer didn’t and wasn’t. Over the years, he’d worked a slew of tough cases, and had come to know the town and its denizens maybe better than he would have liked.

It was a town that took every single dream you had and then merrily ran it right through the world’s biggest meat grinder. And when the famous were famous no more, the meat grinder treatment was even worse, because those people had tasted what life could be like if enough ink was spilled on you and sufficient butts sat in seats to watch you emote. When that ride was over, it was like being dropped from the top of the Empire State Building to land in a squatter’s shack in Alabama.

Los Angeles had two million souls sprawled over nearly five hundred square miles. Some people were crammed into slums, tract housing, and shadily built tenement death traps, like staples in a stapler, while the wealthy and famous had room to both flex and hide. All this in a city founded on the remnants of a village settled by the Tongva, an indigenous Indian tribe, who called it Yaanga, which translated to “poison oak place.”

Well, they got that right, thought Archer. But for a private eye, LA could be a fascinating study of human beings, and all their many foibles.

He turned left and then right as he moved from dirty LA to rich LA and then to dirty-and-rich LA. He passed a prowler car and saw two of the LAPD’s “finest” sitting inside and sipping on coffee in vending machine cups. They stared at Archer as he passed, probably wondering whether he’d stolen the car or was delivering it to some Hollywood mogul or a desert sheik who’d bought a piece of the city’s myth, along with a fancy ride.

Archer eyed the prowler in his mirror, hoping it would stay right where it was. To his mind, the LAPD was one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world. And they did it with a smile, and a gun, where appropriate. Or with beatings that didn’t show.

Archer had had a police baton or two land on his head, and he’d also spent time in the tank on bogus charges merely for asking questions deemed impertinent, meaning ones directed at finding the truth, because the truth often found LAPD badges mixed in with the other crooks.

These coppers were probably taking a coffee break before heading to a string of ghetto street corners with their dozen-block-deep slums in the rear, to make their quota of busted heads for the week like the good little foot soldiers they were. They were just one crew in a pitched battle for the soul of the city. And there was no doubt in Archer’s mind which faction was winning. If LA were a human body, the criminal elements were the capillaries: small, everywhere, not often seen, but absolutely vital to overall life.

His destination was Universal Studios. He only knew one person there, but it was an important person, at least to him. Liberty Callahan had left Bay Town more than two years ago. That was where Archer lived and worked with Willie Dash’s “very private” detective agency. Callahan had gone to Hollywood to make her dream come true in the land of make-believe. As far as he knew, she was still working on making the town believe in her.

He’d met Callahan in Reno, where she was a dancer and hoofer at a dinner club. They’d traveled to Bay Town together and nearly gotten killed several times along the way. There was nothing like confronting death to cement a friendship.

There was a great deal of private detecting to do in LA. People here seemed to keep killing and robbing and cheating and blackmailing one another to an astounding degree. But when you had a lot of money in one place, some folks were always tempted to take it from both their lawful and unlawful owners.

He passed buildings that were intricately cut into the city’s steep grade and looked lopsided and unrooted as a result. The roots here were always shallow, never deep. Deep required commitment, and there was none to be had here, at least that Archer could see.

Tall, double-stemmed streetlights in the shape of goalposts, which made them look like they were being held up at gunpoint, illuminated the LA night. The NBC sign blinked back at him from Sunset and Vine, while a few blocks south stood the swaggering arch of Paramount Studios. A block over the other way on Hollywood Boulevard, tourists from all over were lined up in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater to stare at handprints set forever in cold, unforgiving concrete.

He kept steering his ride east and glanced at the Hollywood sign ablaze in the hills. A disconsolate actress had climbed up on the sign’s letter H back in 1932, when it still spelled out HOLLYWOODLAND. When she got to the top, she jumped to her death. Archer imagined the meat grinder had gotten to her. She’d probably chosen H because that was the first letter in hell.

He pulled up to the main gate at the studio and presented his driver’s license to the guard there, a beefy type who looked hot and bothered, although the temps were in the chilly fifties at this time of night. The man’s hair was thin and grizzled, his face was fat and wide, and his body matched the face and not the hair. He looked like he’d end up with a coronary if he actually had to hoof it after a gate runner. His holstered .45 slapped against his meaty thigh as he walked around the car, eyeing it like a pretty girl in a swimsuit contest.

“Steering wheel’s on the wrong side, bub,” was his final judgment.

Delahaye was a French company, but this particular Delahaye, a Model 165 cabriolet, had been built for an Englishman, and the wheel had, of necessity, been shifted to the right.

“Not from where I’m sitting,” Archer replied.

Beefy looked at his clipboard. “Who you visiting again?”

“Liberty Callahan. She’s a friend.”

The man grinned. “Lucky man.”

“I take it you know her?”

“Gal’s got what you call personality.”

“Among other things.”

“She’s on Stage Three, just follow the signs. You can park right down there,” he added, pointing the way after handing Archer back his license. “She’s shooting a Roman gladiator picture.” He gave Archer a look that guys give each other when they’re thinking about what women could do for them that nothing else can. “She wears one of them to-gas.”

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