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Way Down on the High Lonely

Don Winslow

  Way Down On The High Lonely

  Don Winslow

  So I drank myself some whiskey,

  And I dreamed I was a cowboy,

  Then I rode across the border.

  —Lyle Lovett

  They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore.

  —Kinky Friedman



  Part One Cowboys





  Part Two Outlaws





  Part Three Gunslingers







  A Biography of Don Winslow


  He never should have turned around.

  Neal Carey was looking out over a deep canyon when he heard footsteps coming up the knoll behind him. He tried to focus on the sheer rock cliff that rose on the other side of the canyon, but the two pairs of footsteps crunching on the gravel path would not go away. They were getting closer.

  He put his attention back on that most delicate and demanding movement, Obliquely Tame Tiger, and watched his left arm slowly move outward and upward, hand open in the knife position. He had been trying to master Obliquely Tame Tiger for almost three years now, and the constant training was just beginning to overcome his natural clumsiness.

  Neal Carey did not want to be disturbed.

  He shifted his weight to his back foot and let the canvas slipper dig into the thin dirt. He breathed in the icy morning air and felt the slight warmth of the early morning sun hit his shoulders. Then he slowly raised his front leg, pivoted on his back foot, and started the slow turn to face the footsteps that were now reaching the top of the knoll. His knoll, damn it, his one private spot tacitly reserved for him every morning during his few free moments before dawn. Did three years of practice mean nothing to these intruders?

  He swung his foot over the gnarled root of the scraggly cedar that clung to the knoll in this harsh altitude among these spare mountains. The cedar had become his closest friend over the years. They had each learned to survive in the thin air and soil, getting little sustenance and needing less.

  He planted his front foot and shifted his weight forward, his left hand raised in front of his face, his right hand open behind his head, ready to whip out and strike like a viper.

  He looked down the stone steps to see the two men reach the top of the knoll and begin to approach him across the stone pavilion.

  Then the world that he finally had come to accept shattered in a single moment.

  The young monk spoke first. He gestured to the short, one-armed man who stood beside him, staring at Neal as he struggled to catch his breath.

  “Ni renshr ta ma?” “Do you know him?” the monk asked Neal.

  “Wode fuchin,” “My father,” Neal answered.

  That’s where Neal Carey made his big mistake. He should have denied knowing the man, or just turned around, or run away into the dense bamboo. If he had done any one of these things, he never would have found himself way down on The High Lonely.

  Part One



  This is some weird kind of place,” Joe Graham said.

  He and Neal were sitting in a small pavilion at the edge of the knoll. The tiled roofs of the monastery below glinted in the sunshine. Monkeys perched on the curved eaves, waiting to leap down onto the courtyard to pounce on any morsel of unguarded food. Brown-robed monks crossed the courtyard with one protective hand held over the tops of their bowls, steam from the hot rice gruel rising through their fingers.

  “Tell me about it,” Neal answered. He’d been a prisoner in the weird kind of place for three years, long enough for the strange to have become the familiar. He filled Graham’s cup with green tea, made a small bow out of habit, then filled his own.

  “You have any coffee?” Graham asked.

  Neal shook his head. If three years’ confinement in a Buddhist monastery had done nothing else for him, it had cured his caffeine addiction.

  “How about milk and sugar?” asked Graham.


  “A clean cup?”

  “It is clean.”

  Right, Graham thought. He’d seen the rats scurrying around the dining hall down the hill.

  “I’ve missed you, son,” Graham said.

  “I’ve missed you, Dad.”

  Neal had never met his real father, a guy who apparently hadn’t figured on getting a kid for his twenty buck investment, so Joe Graham had pretty much taken over the role. Neal had thought about him every day of his imprisonment. No, not imprisonment … “internment” is what the Chinese had called it. An internment that was finally over. Or was it?

  “Did you come to bring me back?” he asked Graham.

  “No, I’m picking up my laundry.” Little asshole, Graham thought. I’ve only been tracking you down for three years, ever since they told me you were dead.

  “Let me tell you, kid,” Graham said. “It cost the Bank one hell of a lot of money to spring you. Next time get yourself popped in Rhode Island. A pizza with extra cheese and you’re out of there.” Graham tasted his tea and grimaced. “What, they mow the lawn and then dump the grass into a pot of water?”

  “How much money?” Neal asked.

  “I don’t want you to get a swelled head. But we’re talking about a low-interest, unsecured loan for ‘agricultural development in Sichuan Province.’”

  “A bribe,” Neal said.

  “Big time bribe.”


  “You’re a ‘friend of the family.’”

  Friends of the Family, Neal thought. The Bank’s shadow department that handled difficult problems for its larger investors. His erstwhile employer. Or was it?

  “Do I still work for Friends?” Neal asked.

  “Did you ever?”

  Since I was twelve years old, Dad. Since you caught me picking your pocket and put my dubious skills to work for you. And now you’ve come to take me home.

  “Besides,” Graham said, “we got an errand for you.”


  Graham looked at him quizzically. “Three years’ vacation isn’t enough for you?”

  “Vacation! You call hauling wooden buckets of water up this frigging mountain a vacation? Lugging bundles of firewood on my back? Listening to a bunch of religious fanatics chant the same goddamn note for three years—that’s a vacation?”

  “To each his own.” Graham shrugged.

  “I want to go back to New York, Graham. I want to sit in the Burger Joint, with the ink from my New York Times smudging the bun of a rare Swissburger as the juices run down my wrist. I want an iced coffee sweating there right beside me … where I can just reach out and grab it. I want to walk down the west side of Broadway and then amble back up the east side. I want—”

  “I, I, I,” Graham titched.


  “Don’t get all worked up,” Graham said. “I’m just talking about a little job I need your help with. We’ll stop off in Los Angeles, do this thing, and you’ll be back in New York slobbering your food before you know it. I worry about you, though, you know? Locked up all this time and you think about cheeseburgers.”

  “What kind of job? What ‘thing’?” Neal asked. The last job had landed him in this place.

  Graham peered into his teacup. “I don’t suppose they have egg creams, huh?”

  Neal shook his head.

  “A missing kid,” Graham said. “Daddy picked him up on Friday for their one weekend a month visitation. Didn’t bring him
back on Sunday night. No big deal.”

  “What’s wrong with the sheriff’s department?”

  “Nothing’s wrong with the sheriff’s department,” Graham answered, “except that they don’t pay much attention to custody cases, even when the mother is famous.”

  “What’s she famous for?” Neal asked. Famous was bad, famous was trouble.

  “Something to do with movies. What, you need a resume? Are you working for us, or what? Because the Chinese can’t cash the check until you’re safely back in the States, so we can still tell them that you’d rather stay here. I just need you for backup. I can get anybody.”

  Actually, I can’t just get anybody, Graham thought. I need you. But we got to take this one step at a time, ease you back in while I can keep an eye on you. See if you can still do the job or whether you’re a burnout case. Three years of what amounts to solitary confinement can do strange things to even the best. And Neal Carey was the best … had been, anyway.

  “Look,” Graham continued as Neal sulked, “we’ll pick up little Cody, drop him back on Mommy’s lap, and go right back to New York. You’ll have the whole summer to jerk off before you start classes.”

  “What classes?”

  “Weren’t you in graduass school when we last saw you? Trying to con them into giving you your masturbator’s degree? Which should be a lock, if you ask me.”

  Columbia University … English department. His would-be master’s thesis, “Tobias Smollett: The Outsider in Eighteenth-Century English Literature.” It seemed like a different life. Come to think of it …

  “Wait a minute,” Neal said, “I’m supposed to be dead.”

  Graham nodded. “It’s an appealing fantasy, I agree. So you were dead, now you’re alive. A glitch in the computer. Nothing a little WD-40 and a contribution to the library can’t take care of.”

  We have to get him back in school, Graham thought. If Neal’s finished as a detective he’s going to need a trade. Seeing as he can’t do anything useful, he might as well be a college professor, which is what he wants to be anyway.

  Neal poured himself another cup of the excellent green tea. He knew it had been provided only because he had a foreign guest, so he might as well take advantage of it. He listened to the sound of the morning chants rising up from the main temple, the numbing monotony that was supposed to focus the chanter on nothingness—and did.

  “So,” Neal began carefully, “all I have to do is help you pick up this kid, and then I can go back to New York and back to grad school?”

  It sounded too good to be true—a life again.

  Graham asked, “You think you got that now, or would you like me to repeat it again? Make up your mind; I want a cold beer and a hot steak.”

  Neal laughed. “It’s a long hike down the mountain, Graham.”

  Graham stared at him for a long moment. “What, you never heard of a helicopter? Honestly …”

  Neal lifted his cup to his lips, thought it over, and then poured the tea on the ground.

  “Do they serve coffee on this helicopter?” he asked.

  “For the money we’re paying, they’d better.”

  Neal stood up. “Let’s go.”

  “About goddamn time,” Graham said as he got to his feet.

  Then Neal Carey did a very un-Chinese thing. He reached out, grabbed Joe Graham by the back of the neck, and pulled him close.

  “Thanks for coming to get me, Dad,” Neal said.

  “You’re welcome, son.”

  So Neal Carey came back from the dead.


  Neal woke up between the cool, crisp sheets of a king-size bed. He opened his eyes and looked through the sliding glass door where the sun sat like a fat orange in the haze of a southern California morning. The air conditioner was humming happily, a cheerful reminder of the comfort that came with wealth: it may be getting hot outside the hotel, but in here it’s any temperature you want it to be.

  A similarly welcoming voice lilted from the corridor, “Room service.”

  Neal wasn’t quite sure that this was all real, but if it was a dream, he was willing to go along with it.

  “Come in!” he called back.

  A young waiter in a starched white uniform rolled in a stainless steel cart, flipped up a folding panel, opened the side doors, removed a white linen tablecloth, and laid it over the panel to form a little dining table. He placed a narrow vase with a single yellow rose on top, then the silverware wrapped in a linen napkin, then the silver coffee service, then a little silver container with slivers of butter in a small bowl of ice.

  “I’m Richard,” he said. “Are you enjoying the Beverly, sir?”

  “So far,” Neal answered, although he could barely remember even arriving at the Beverly. He sat up against the cushioned headboard.

  “Do you want me to serve you now, sir?” Richard asked. “Or would you like to shower first?”

  A shower? The closest thing Neal had come to a shower lately was a freezing waterfall.

  “Shower, I think.”

  “But may I pour you some coffee first?” Richard asked.

  You bet, Richard, if it means that much to you. “Please,” Neal said.

  Richard took out a heavy, cream-colored cup and saucer and carefully poured the coffee.

  “Cream and sugar?” he asked.


  “All right,” Richard announced, “you have the Beverly Breakfast—coffee, grapefruit juice, scrambled eggs with bacon, and the basket with a selection of wheat toast, muffins, croissants, and Danish. I’ll keep it in here over the heater, so be very careful when you take it out, okay?”


  Richard placed two folded newspapers on the foot of the bed. “LA Times, New York Times …”

  God bless you, Richard.

  “… and if there’s anything else, you will please call and let me know. Now, sir, if you wouldn’t mind just signing here …”

  Richard approached his bedside and handed him the check and a pen. Neal signed, added a tip to the already substantial service charge, and handed it back.

  “May I ask you a question, Richard?”

  “Of course, sir.”

  “Where am I?”

  Richard didn’t even blink. He was used to serving breakfasts on many mornings after the night before.

  “The Beverly Hilton, sir.”

  “Keep going.”

  “Beverly Hills … Los Angeles …”



  “I just want to hear the words, Richard.”

  “The United States …”


  “America, sir.”

  “Beautiful, Richard.”

  “Far out, sir.”

  Far out, indeed, Neal thought as he took his first sip of coffee. Black coffee, strong coffee. His caffeine addiction came back like an annoying old friend.

  Richard left and Neal took his coffee into the bathroom, which was larger than his cell back in China. He looked at the telephone on the wall, within easy reach of the toilet, and decided that the people who stayed in this place must be busy people. He turned the shower on and reveled in the smell of clean, hot water. He opened the little cardboard box of designer soap, took the little bottle of designer shampoo, and stepped into the shower.

  He scoured himself with the soap, scrubbed his hair with the shampoo, and then stood under the steaming jet for a good five minutes longer than necessary. In China he had been treated to a weekly bath in a shallow tub full of lukewarm water that had been used by at least three other men before him, so this shower was a treat.

  He stepped out reluctantly, lured by the scent of coffee, the image of scrambled eggs and bacon, and the thought of a newspaper. He found a white terrycloth robe in the closet, slipped it on, and went back into the main room to investigate breakfast.

  Joe Graham was munching on his toast.

  “How did you get in?” Neal asked.

could get used to this,” Graham mumbled. “A very clean place. I got an extra key from the front desk. Can I warm that up for you?”

  Neal held his cup out and Graham filled it.

  “You don’t mind if I eat, do you?” Neal asked.

  “Careful with the plates, they’re hot. And you have a fine selection of croissants, Danish, and muffins.”

  Neal took the hot plate out of the tray’s warmer, set it on the table, and lifted the cover. The smell alone brought him close to tears, but then again, he’d breakfasted on rice gruel for the past few years, except on holidays, when he’d been allowed to add peanuts to the gruel.

  “Is your bacon nice and crisp?” Graham asked. “Mine was.”

  Neal slipped a slice of bacon into his mouth. It crunched between his teeth. “I’ve dreamed about this,” he said.

  “You’re a sick puppy.”

  Neal selected a plain croissant, spread a sliver of unsalted butter on it, took a mouthful, and then dug into the rest of his breakfast. He didn’t even look up until all that was left on the plate was a shiny residue of grease.

  Joe Graham watched in awe.

  “You eat like you’re condemned,” he said.

  “Let me see those Danish.”

  Neal picked out an apricot pastry and devoured it in three bites.

  “Now for the newspapers,” he said. “I don’t even know who’s president.

  “Ronald Reagan.

  “No, seriously …”

  Neal tore into the papers while Graham wandered out onto the terrace and checked out the early morning swimmers in the pool below.

  “Exercise is a wonderful thing,” he observed as the two young lady swimmers stretched limbs and torsos.

  The doorbell rang.

  “It’s for you!” Neal yelled, absorbed in The New York Times. He was on serious sensory overload.

  Graham tore himself away from the view and answered the door. Richard was standing in the hallway beside a luggage cart.