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The Death and Life of Bobby Z

Don Winslow

  Praise for Don Winslow’s

  The Death and Life of Bobby Z

  “Cinematic pacing, potent irony and great escapes. Make this one of yours.”


  “Frantic and funny.”

  —The New York Times Book Review

  “It has whiplash speed, deliciously sleazoid characters, and a major attitude problem. What a blast.”

  —Carl Hiaasen

  “A wild, throw-everything-at-the-reader, very surprising first novel…. He certainly knows how to make a plot move and twist…. This novel is great fun…. Almost magical.”

  —Fort Worth Star-Telegram

  “Fast-paced and highly amusing.”

  —San Francisco Chronicle

  “Reading Don Winslow’s novel The Death and Life of Bobby Z reminds me of the time I stumbled across the secret that was Elmore Leonard. I get the feeling Winslow won’t be a secret much longer. Not with this book. Not with this wonderful blend of story and character, humor and grit.”

  —Michael Connelly, author of The Lincoln Lawyer

  “Don Winslow’s prose is quick and lucid, and the story of Bobby Z sings on every page.”

  —Robert B. Parker

  “A riveting tale of lost hopes, mistaken identities and redemption…. A big part of the book’s lure is its elegant, fast-paced prose. It sparkles with images, great use of language, and nonstop black humor that has led critics to compare Winslow to masters like Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen.”

  —The Bergen Record

  “A wildly paced adventure…. [A] wickedly funny, nonstop thriller.”

  —North County Times (Escondido, CA)


  The Death and Life of Bobby Z

  Don Winslow has worked as a private investigator in London, New York City, and elsewhere in the United States, and as a consultant to law firms and insurance companies for more than fifteen years.

  Books by Don Winslow

  The Winter of Frankie Machine

  The Power of the Dog

  California Fire and Life

  The Death and Life of Bobby Z

  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


  Copyright © 1997 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 1997.

  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.

  The death and life of Bobby Z / by Don Winslow.—1st ed.

  p. cm.

  I. Title.

  PS3573.I5326D4 1997



  eISBN: 978-0-307-82458-5


  To Jimmy Vines,

  the agent who does everything he says he will



  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Chapter 51

  Chapter 52

  Chapter 53

  Chapter 54

  Chapter 55

  Chapter 56

  Chapter 57

  Chapter 58

  Chapter 59

  Chapter 60

  Chapter 61

  Chapter 62

  Chapter 63

  Chapter 64

  Chapter 65

  Chapter 66

  Chapter 67

  Chapter 68

  Chapter 69

  Chapter 70

  Chapter 71

  Chapter 72

  Chapter 73

  Chapter 74

  Chapter 75

  Chapter 76

  Chapter 77

  Chapter 78

  Chapter 79

  Thank you to Dave Schniepp for sharing his knowledge of the Southern California surfing scene.


  Here’s how Tim Kearney gets to be the legendary Bobby Z.

  How Tim Kearney gets to be Bobby Z is that he sharpens a license plate to a razor’s edge and draws it across the throat of a humongous Hell’s Angel named Stinkdog, making Stinkdog instantly dead and a DEA agent named Tad Gruzsa instantly happy.

  “That’ll make him a lot easier to persuade,” Gruzsa says when he hears about it, meaning Kearney, of course, because Stinkdog is beyond persuasion by that point.

  Gruzsa is right. Not only does the murder rap make Tim Kearney a three-time loser, but killing a Hell’s Angel also makes him a dead man on any prison yard in California, so “life without possibility of parole” really means “life without possibility of life” once Tim gets back into the general prison population.

  Not that Tim wanted to kill Stinkdog. He didn’t. It’s just that Stinkdog came to him on the yard and told him to join the Aryan Brotherhood “or else,” and Tim said “else,” and that’s when Tim knew that he’d better hone that license plate to a surgical edge.

  The California Corrections Department isn’t all that thrilled, although a few of its officials admit to mixed feelings over Stinkdog’s demise. What pisses them off is that Tim used the supposed tool of his rehabilitation—honest work making license plates—to commit premeditated murder inside the correctional facility at San Quentin.

  “It wasn’t murder,” Tim tells his court-appointed public defender. “It was self-defense.”

  “You walked up to him on the yard, took a sharpened license plate out of your sweatshirt and slashed his throat,” the lawyer reminds him. “And you planned it.”

  “Carefully,” Tim agrees. Stinkdog had about
ten inches and a hundred and fifty pounds on him. Used to, anyway. Lying dead on a gurney he is considerably shorter than Tim. And much slower.

  “That makes it murder,” the lawyer says.

  “Self-defense,” Tim insists.

  He doesn’t expect the young lawyer or the justice system to appreciate the subtle difference between a preemptive strike and premeditated murder. But Stinkdog had given Tim a choice: Join the Aryan Brotherhood or die. Tim didn’t want to do either, so his only option was to take preventive action.

  “The Israelis do it all the time,” Tim says to the lawyer.

  “They’re a country,” the lawyer answers. “You’re a career criminal.”

  It hasn’t been much of a career: Three juvenile B&Es, a short stay with the California Youth Authority, a court-suggested stint in the Marines that ends in a dishonorable discharge, a burglary that ends up in Chino and then the beef that Tim’s prior PD referred to as “the Beaut.”

  “This is a beaut,” Tim’s prior attorney said. “Let me make sure I have this straight, because I want to get it right when I dine out on it for the next three years. Your buddy picks you up at Chino, and on the way home you rob a Gas n’ Grub.”

  My buddy, Tim thought. Asshole Wayne LaPerriere.

  “He robbed the Gas n’ Grub,” Tim said. “Told me to wait in the car while he just went in for cigarettes.”

  “He said you had the gun.”

  “He had the gun.”

  “Yeah, but he cut a deal first,” the lawyer said, “so for all practical purposes you had the gun.”

  The trial was a joke. A regular laugh riot. Especially when the Pakistani night clerk testified.

  “And what did the defendant say to you when he pulled the gun?” the DA had asked.



  “His precise words?”


  “He said, ‘Don’t stickin’ move, this is a fuck-up.’ ”

  The jury laughed, the judge laughed, even Tim had to admit it was pretty funny. It was so fucking comical that it landed Tim an eight-to-twelve in San Quentin in the proximity of Stinkdog. And a murder beef.

  “Can you plead it down?” Tim asks this public defender. “Maybe third-degree?”

  “Tim, I could plead it down to pissing in a phone booth, and you’re still looking at life without parole,” the lawyer says. “You’re a three-time loser. A monumental career fuck-up.”

  A lifetime ambition realized, Tim thinks. And I’m only twenty-seven.

  That’s where Tad Gruzsa comes in.

  Tim’s reading a Wolverine comic book in solitary one day when the guards take him out, put him in a black van with blacked-out windows, drive him to an underground garage someplace, then take him in an elevator to a room with no windows and handcuff him to a cheap plastic chair.

  A blue chair.

  Tim is sitting there for about thirty minutes when a squat muscular man with a bullet-shaped head comes in, followed by a tall, thin Hispanic man with bad skin.

  At first Tim thinks that the squat man is bald, but his hair is just shaved close to his head. He has cold blue eyes, a bad blue suit and a smirk, and he looks Tim over like a piece of garbage and then says to the other guy, “I think this is the one.”

  “There’s a definite resemblance,” the beaner agrees.

  That said, the squat guy sits down next to Tim. Smiles, then takes a big cupped right hand and whacks Tim on the ear—hard. Pain is like fucking unreal, but Tim, keeling over, manages to keep his ass on the chair. Which is a minor victory, but he knows that a minor victory is about the best he’s going to get.

  “You’re a career fuck-up,” Tad Gruzsa says when Tim straightens back up.

  “Thank you.”

  “You’re also a dead fucker when you get back to the yard,” Gruzsa says. “Isn’t he a dead fucker, Jorge?”

  “He’s a dead fucker,” Jorge Escobar echoes with a grin.

  “I’m a dead fucker.” Tim smiles.

  Gruzsa says, “So we’re all agreed you’re a dead fucker. The question now is, What, if anything, are we going to do about it?”

  “I’m not rolling over on anyone,” Tim says. Unless it’s LaPerriere, then just show me where to sign.

  “You killed a guy, Kearney,” Gruzsa says.

  Tim shrugs. He killed a lot of guys in the Gulf and no one seemed to get too uptight about it.

  “We don’t want you to roll over on anyone,” Gruzsa says. “We want you to be somebody.”

  “So does my mother,” Tim says.

  This time Gruzsa hits Tim with his left hand.

  To show he’s versatile, Tim thinks.

  “Just for a little while,” Escobar says. “Then you walk away.”

  “And you keep walking,” Gruzsa says.

  Tim doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, but the “keep walking” part sounds interesting.

  “What are you guys talking about?” he asks.

  Gruzsa tosses a thin manila file folder onto the table.

  Tim opens it and sees a picture of a thin-faced, tanned, handsome man with his long black hair pulled sleekly back into a ponytail.

  “He kind of looks like me,” Tim observes.

  “Duh,” says Gruzsa.

  Gruzsa’s fucking with him, but Tim doesn’t care. When you’re a three-time loser people get to fuck with you and that’s just the way it is.

  “Try to pay attention, dummy,” Gruzsa says. “What you’re going to do is you’re going to pretend you’re a certain person, then you can split. The world thinks the Angels whacked you on the yard. You get a new identity, the whole works.”

  “What ‘certain person’?” Tim asks.

  Tim thinks Gruzsa’s eyes sparkle like those of an old con who sees a fresh piece of chicken on the yard.

  “Bobby Z,” Gruzsa answers.

  “Who’s Bobby Z?” Tim asks.


  “You never heard of Bobby Z?” Escobar asks. His jaw’s hanging open like he just can’t believe what he’s hearing

  “See, you’re such a moke you never even heard of Bobby Z,” Gruzsa says.

  Escobar says proudly, “Bobby Z is a legend.”

  They tell him the legend of Bobby Z.

  Robert James Zacharias grew up in Laguna Beach, and like most other kids in Laguna Beach he was very cool. He had a skateboard, then a boogie board, then a belly board, then a long board, and by the time he was a sophomore at the aptly named Laguna High he was an accomplished surfer and a more accomplished drug merchant.

  Bobby Z could read the water, read it like it was “See Spot run.” He knew if the waves were coming in sets of three or four, knew when they were going to peak, break right or left, A-frame, backwash or tube, and it was that sense of anticipation that made him such a promising young surfer on the circuit as well as a successful entrepreneur.

  Bobby Z couldn’t even get a driver’s license and was already a legend. Part of the legend was that Z had hitchhiked to his first big marijuana buy and hitchhiked back, just stood out there on the Pacific Coast Highway with his thumb out and two Nike gym bags stuffed with Maui Wowie at his feet.

  “Bobby Z is ice,” intones One Way, resident lunatic of Laguna’s public beach and self-appointed Homer to Bobby’s Ulysses. “One Way” is short for “One-Way Trip,” the story being that One Way took a trip on six dots of blotter acid and never really came back. He wanders the streets of Laguna annoying tourists with his endless stream-of-consciousness soliloquies about the legend of Bobby Z.

  “Those skinny Russian babes could skate on Bobby Z,” One Way might typically pronounce. “He’s that cold. Bobby Z is the Antarctica, except no penguins shit on him. He’s pristine. Placid. Nothing worries Bobby Z.”

  The legend continued that Bobby Z converted the profits of those two Nike bags into four more Nike bags, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and by that time he’d given some money to a flunky adult to buy a classic ’66 Mustang a
nd drive him around.

  Other kids are worried about what college they’re going to get into and Z is thinking fuck college, because he’s already making more than your third-year MBA, and he’s just getting started when Washington declares this war on drugs, which is a major boon to Z, because not only does it keep the prices high, it also puts in jail that layer of semipro incompetents who would otherwise be competition.

  And Z figures out early, even before he skips his graduation ceremony, fuck retail, retail is where you get to lean against your car and spread ’em. Wholesale is where it’s at: Supply the supplier who supplies the supplier. Get to that level and become a non-person just managing the orderly flow of the product and the money and never ever put your own ass on the line. Like buy sell, buy sell, and Z is an organizational genius and he has it figured out.

  Bobby Z has it figured out.

  “Unlike you, dipstick,” Gruzsa says to Tim. “You know how Bobby Z spends his high school graduation night? He rents a suite—a suite—at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel and has his friends over for the whole weekend.”

  Tim remembers how he’d spent graduation night. Not graduating, for one. While most of his classmates were at the prom, Tim and a buddy and two loser girls parked in a Charger up by the recycling center in Thousand Palms with a few six-packs and a low-grade joint. He hadn’t even gotten laid—the girl just puked on his lap and passed out.

  “Like you’re a moke from fucking birth,” Gruzsa adds.

  What can I say? Tim thinks. It’s true.

  Tim grew up—or failed to—in the shithole town of Desert Hot Springs, California, just across Interstate 10 from the resort town of Palm Springs, where the rich people got to live. The people who lived in Desert Hot Springs got to clean toilets in Palm Springs and wash dishes and carry golf bags, and they were mostly Mexicans, except for a few white-trash drunks like Tim Kearney Sr., who on his rare visits home used to beat the shit out of Tim with a belt while pointing to the lights of Palm Springs and hollering, “See that? That’s where the money is!”

  Tim figured he had that just about right, so by the time he was fourteen he was breaking into those Palm Springs houses where the money was, nailing TV sets, VCRs, cameras, cash and jewelry and tripping off silent alarms.