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California Fire and Life

Don Winslow

  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 (Raleigh)

  “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 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 © 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.



  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

  Chapter 80

  Chapter 81

  Chapter 82

  Chapter 83

  Chapter 84

  Chapter 85

  Chapter 86

  Chapter 87

  Chapter 88

  Chapter 89

  Chapter 90

  Chapter 91

  Chapter 92

  Chapter 93

  Chapter 94

  Chapter 95

  Chapter 96

  Chapter 97

  Chapter 98

  Chapter 99

  Chapter 100

  Chapter 101

  Chapter 102

  Chapter 103

  Chapter 104

  Chapter 105

  Chapter 106

  Chapter 107

  Chapter 108

  Chapter 109

  Chapter 110

  Chapter 111

  Chapter 112

  Chapter 113

  Chapter 114

  Chapter 115

  Chapter 116

  Chapter 117

  Chapter 118

  Chapter 119

  Chapter 120

  Chapter 121

  Chapter 122

  Chapter 123

  Chapter 124

  Chapter 125

  Chapter 126

  Chapter 127

  Chapter 128

  Chapter 129

  Chapter 130

  Chapter 131

  Chapter 132

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 134

  Chapter 135

  Chapter 136

  Chapter 137

  Chapter 138


  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 hot 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 oh-fucking-no look on his face but he doesn’t run or anything. Just stands there like frozen, 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.

  California fire and life.


  Jack Wade sits on an old Hobie longboard.

  Riding swells that refuse to become waves, he’s watching a wisp of black smoke rise over the other side of the big rock at Dana Head. Smoke’s reaching up into the pale August sky like a Buddhist prayer.

  Jack’s so into the smoke that he doesn’t feel the wave come up behind him like a fat Dick Dale guitar riff. It’s a big humping reef break that slams him to the bottom then rolls him. Keeps rolling him and won’t let him up—it’s like, That’s what you get when you don’t pay attention, Jack. You get to eat sand and breathe water—and Jack’s about out of breath when the wave finally spits him out onto the shore.

  He’s on all fours, sucking for air, when he hears his beeper go off up on the beach where he left his towel. He scampers up the sand, grabs the beeper and checks the number, although he’s already pretty sure who it’s going to be.

  California Fire and Life.


  The woman’s dead.

  Jack knows this even before he gets to the house because when he calls in it’s Goddamn Billy. Six-thirty in the morning and Goddamn Billy’s already in the office.

  Goddamn Billy tells him there’s a fire and a fatality.

  Jack hustles up the hundred and twenty steps from Dana Strand Beach to the parking lot, takes a quick shower at the bathhouse then changes into the work clothes he keeps in the backseat of his ’66 Mustang. His work clothes consist of a Lands’ End white button-down oxford, Lands’ End khaki trousers, Lands’ End moccasins and an Eddie Bauer tie that Jack keeps preknotted so he can just slip it on like a noose.

  Jack hasn’t been inside a clothing store in about twelve years.

  He owns three ties, five Lands’ End white button-down shirts, two pairs of Lands’ End khaki trousers, two Lands’ End guaranteed-not-to-wrinkle-even-if-you-run-it-through-your-car-engine blue blazers (a rotation deal: one in the dry cleaners, one on his back) and the one pair of Lands’ End moccasins.

  Sunday night he does laundry.

  Washes the five shirts and two pairs of trousers and hangs them out to unwrinkle. Preknots the three ties and he’s ready for the workweek, which means that he’s in the water a little before dawn, surfs until 6:30, showers at the beach, changes into his work clothes, loops the tie around his neck, gets into his car, pops in an old Challengers tape and races to the offices of California Fire and Life.

  He’s been doing this for coming up to twelve years.

  Not this morning, though.

  This morning, propelled by Billy’s call, he races to the loss site—37 Bluffside Drive, just down the road above Dana Strand Beach.

  It takes him maybe ten minutes. He’s pulling around on the circular driveway—his wheels on the gravel sound like the undertow in the trench at high tide—and hasn’t even fully stopped before Brian Bentley walks over and taps on the passenger-side window.

  Brian “Accidentally” Bentley is the Sheriff’s Department fire investigator. Which is another reason Jack knows there’s been a fatal fire, because the Sheriff’s Department is there. Otherwise it would be an inspector from the Fire Department, and Jack wouldn’t be looking at Bentley’s fat face.

  Or his wavy red hair turning freaking orange with age.

  Jack leans over and winds down the window.

  Bentley sticks his red face in and says, “You got here quick, Jack. What, you carrying the fire and the life?”


  “Good,” Bentley says. “The double whammy.”

  Jack and Bentley hate each other.

  That old thing about if, say, Jack was on fire, Bentley wouldn’t piss on him to put it out? If Jack was on fire, Bentley would drink gasoline so he could piss on Jack.

  “Croaker in the bedroom,” Bentley says. “They had to scrape her off the springs.”

  “The wife?” asks Jack.

  “We don’t have a positive yet,” Bentley says. “But it’s an adult female.”

  “Pamela Vale, age thirty-four,” Jack says. G
oddamn Billy gave him the specs over the phone.

  “Name rings a bell,” Bentley says.

  “Save the Strands,” Jack says.

  “What the what?”

  “Save the Strands,” Jack says. “She’s been in the papers. She and her husband are big fund-raisers for Save the Strands.”

  A community group fighting the Great Sunsets Ltd. corporation to prevent them from putting a condo complex on Dana Strands, the last undeveloped stretch of the south coast.

  Dana Strands, Jack’s beloved Dana Strands, a swatch of grass and trees that sits high on a bluff above Dana Strand Beach. Years ago, it was a trailer park, and then that failed, and then nature reclaimed it and grew over and around it, and is still holding on to it against all the forces of progress.

  Just holding on, Jack thinks.

  “Whatever,” Bentley says.

  Jack says, “There’s a husband and two kids.”

  “We’re looking for them.”


  “They ain’t in the house,” Bentley says. “I mean we’re looking for notification purposes. How’d you get here so soon?”

  “Billy picked it off the scanner, ran the address, had it waiting for me when I got in.”

  “You insurance bastards,” Bentley says. “You just can’t wait to get in there and start chiseling, can you?”

  Jack hears a little dog barking from somewhere behind the house.

  It bothers him.

  “You name a cause?” Jack asks.

  Bentley shakes his head and laughs this laugh he has, which sounds more like steam coming out of a radiator. He says, “Just get out your checkbook, Jack.”

  “You mind if I go in and have a look?” Jack asks.

  “Yeah, I do mind,” Bentley says. “Except I can’t stop you, right?”


  It’s in the insurance contract. If you have a loss and you make a claim, the insurance company gets to inspect the loss.

  “So knock yourself out,” Bentley says. He leans way in, trying to get into Jack’s face. “Only—Jack? Don’t bust chops here. I pull the pin in two weeks. I plan to spend my retirement annoying bass on Lake Havasu, not giving depositions. What you got here is you got a woman drinking vodka and smoking, and she passes out, spills the booze, drops the cigarette and barbecues herself, and that’s what you got here.”

  “You’re retiring, Bentley?” Jack asks.

  “Thirty years.”