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From The Dead - Excerpt

From the Dead


Jada Ferrari lit the collection of miniature candles along the coffee table. Darkness evaporated from the living room.
As Jada leaned forward, Jesse Barlow admired the curvature of her figure, the way her brunette hair fell in curls past her shoulder blades.

“I just bought these today,” said Jada, who brushed her hand above the flames and sent the aroma of jasmine wafting through the air. Ever the center of attention, she sat on the edge of the sofa beside Cameron and Gavin, friends from an apartment downstairs, as Gavin lit the round of joints.

The scene, once common, had grown less frequent in recent months. Nowadays, Jada, a burgeoning film director’s assistant, sought company with people who could further her career.

Jesse’s career, on the other hand, begged resuscitation.

From the recliner at the far end of the room, Jesse, distant and disengaged, stared out the window at the crisp glow of a streetlight two stories below. At the chirp of an activated car alarm, Jesse leaned toward the sound in time to see a male silhouette emerge from the shadows and wander into the apartment building next door.

An anonymous man. Los Angeles is filled with them.

Then again, everyone is anonymous to someone. And everyone has an anonymous side, a shadow within, a guarded corner where secrets hide.

Gavin passed a joint to Jada. With a puff, she held her breath, coughed a few times, then fell back against the cushions and hung limber, as though she’d craved this all day.

Cameron grinned. “Next time, you buy.”

Spoken like a low-level accountant.

Jada waved her joint toward Jesse in a hypnotic-like motion. “Are you gonna keep staring out the window or get in on the act?”

Years ago, he wouldn't have hesitated. Never an addict or heavy user, Jesse enjoyed a recreational hit when the urge mounted within. But the pleasure had long passed. He’d grown tired of breathing the strange air, the subtle loss of control.

He wished his guests would leave but knew it would be a few hours. Soon the music would start—Beck’s Odelay, no doubt—followed by a raid on his refrigerator. Gavin and Cameron would argue whether “Loser” or “Where It’s At” was the singer’s breakthrough single.

Oh, what the hell. “All right, hand one over.” And with that, Jesse reached out his thumb and forefinger.

“There you go.” Jada beamed as she passed Jesse a joint. “You never have fun anymore. Gotta live a little!” She turned to her couch mates. “Right, losers?”

Lightheaded, Gavin giggled.

With the joint in his fingers, Jesse sank into the recliner once again. He yielded to the sharp herbal fumes that crept like a current through his veins and loosened his brain. The effect seemed immediate, his body no longer conditioned to the stuff. He focused on the array of candles as their flames increased in clarity and the jasmine grew richer.

Gavin exhaled a deep cloud and leered at oblivion, a pensive look on his face, like a stoned Socrates. He waved his joint in front of his face, as if in afterthought. “You know, those Rastafari guys say this stuff helps you get close to God.”

God, thought Jesse. The God who never seemed to give him answers to a lifetime of questions. And as Jesse sat, present yet isolated, those questions resurfaced in a torrent.

Why did she have to die?

Why did I leave them behind?

Jesse leaned back further against the black leather cushion and clenched his jaw.

I’m a preacher’s son, he thought.

So how did my life get so fucked up?



The screech of an alarm clock pierced the 3:30 a.m. silence. Jada, groggy from the night before, groaned as she felt around the pre-dawn darkness for the button to make the ringing stop. Not one to snooze, she sat up in a heap as Jesse rolled over and mumbled.

“Is Barry scheduling sunrise meetings now?” Jesse asked.

Barry Richert. The Barry Richert, as Jada reminded everyone who would listen. Barry Richert, whose unexpected success arrived two years ago with a low-budget film that became a sleeper hit. These days, the man received hundreds of screenplays a week.

“A location shoot in Malibu. Call time is seven, but he needs me there an hour early.”

Her commute from their Sherman Oaks apartment would require less than an hour, but Jesse knew Jada would spend much longer perfecting her image in the bathroom. She pressed her fingers against her head, which must have continued to pulsate from the prior evening’s get-together.

“Go back to sleep, babe.” She stroked his chest once and climbed out of bed. Jesse leaned on an elbow and eyed the silhouette of his girlfriend, clad in a slinky black negligee, as she tiptoed across the crowded bedroom and turned on the bathroom light.

Through the cracked door, Jesse heard the sputter of a shower. Then he buried his head in the pillow and dozed off. He had come to dread the sunrise in recent months.

* * *

“A polarizing filter will help reduce glare,” Jesse explained. “Kind of like wearing a pair of shades at the beach.” From a display rack on the sales floor, he peered out the window while, for the sixth time, he rattled off the benefits of camera filters to a newbie.

“What about this one?” asked the customer, who grabbed a transparent red filter from the rack and held it toward the overhead light. “It looks like half a pair of 3-D glasses.”

“More or less. It can be used to cover up skin blemishes. Heavy acne, that sort of thing,” Jesse said.

The customer chuckled in a series of mother-hen clucks. She tucked a lock of silvering chestnut hair behind her ear and said, “That would come in handy for my daughter-in-law. The latest one, that is. Spent thousands on a boob job but can’t get rid of that acne along her neckline. Spends half her life in the tanning booth to cover it up. That reminds me: Can any of these filter things hide my son’s inheritance from her?”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

LensPerfection sat on Ventura Boulevard near the Van Nuys intersection. Crammed within a dense stretch of bricked retail, the photography shop shared its walls with a Java Cup coffee shop on one side and an incense store on the other. Jesse found humor in the string of palm trees that loomed outside, whose lazy branches lapped sunlight in strategic array but, in the end, sat unnoticed by passersby. With their perfect spacing, the trunks appeared victims of a transplant, carted to the side of a busy street to project an image of California perfection.

Jesse smirked. Even the trees were cosmetic.

Once he’d satisfied all his customer’s questions, Jesse led her to the checkout counter with a handful of filters he doubted she’d ever use.

By eleven thirty in the morning, LensPerfection attracted its usual surge of foot traffic from those who took an early lunch hour. Most were browsers. A portrait studio sat toward the back and lured the occasional actor-to-be, who arrived with a designer coffee or vitamin water in hand, ready to schedule a shoot for the head shot that would make him famous.

Jesse’s head shots were free. After several years of part-time employment, the owner allowed the extra perk and arranged Jesse’s schedule around his bottom-rung work on film and television shoots. But the shoots had become sparse and, for two years straight, Jesse had not met the minimal hours required to secure medical coverage through his union. At this point, however, benefits were the least of his concerns.

Jesse’s wavy, dark-blond hair, chiseled jaw line, and tall, fit form caught frequent second glances from both genders. But for Hollywood’s cameras, handsome didn’t seem to cut it, not when perfection stood next in line.

Jesse felt a vibration in his pocket. When he flipped his cell phone open and discovered a new text message from Maddy, his agent, his hopes surged. She had gotten word of a possible audition, a small supporting role in a feature film, and had pursued the prospect for weeks. Although it consisted of five lines, it represented an opportunity to expand his resume and connect with its director and principals. Jesse needed the gig.

And the audition was scheduled.

Emotional attachments are dangerous; better to take the news in stride, but this audition could mark the official end of his dry spell and justify years of waiting in L.A.

Jesse returned his attention to the store and the hum of its electric doorbell. A customer, a man around forty years old, entered and hung his sunglasses on his shirt opening. Dressed in starched khakis and a perfect haircut, the man looked more like a mid-level executive who had stopped by on his way to a round of golf. Jesse wondered what a corporate job with steady hours must be like.

“Can I help you?”

“I tossed a roll of film in the drop-off bin yesterday.”

Jesse reached for the basket of completed photo packets on the rear counter. “Name?”

“Glen Merseal,” he replied.

As Jesse flipped through packets, Glen fingered through some eight-by-tens stacked beside the cash register. When Jesse returned, Glen couldn’t seem to pull himself away from a photo of a homeless man. In the photo, the subject leaned against a railing and gazed at the ocean, his face afire beneath a midday sun. With his fishing rod extended in search of a victim, the homeless man’s face spoke of mystery. Jesse couldn’t determine whether the subject appeared content or forlorn; perhaps the man struggled between the two.

Jesse began to ring out the order.

Glen tapped the edge of the photo with his finger and said, “This guy’s expression intrigues me. The photographer captured his, what? His aura?”

“Oh, it’s not a professional photo.” Jesse chuckled. “It’s just a sample photo to illustrate the paper quality.”

“Do you know who took the picture?”

Jesse shoved a hand into his pocket. “I did.” When Glen’s eyebrows rose a bit, Jesse added, “I shot that photo at the Santa Monica Pier. I’ve seen that man from time to time. Guy’s name is Marshall. He must catch dinner there. Life on the beach, huh?”

“Did you take photography classes?”

“A high school class way back, but nothing else. I dabble in it here and there, flip through books to pick up tips. Trust me, I’m no professional.”

“That’s amazing.” Glen glanced at the photo again, but this time he held it up to the light. He extended his hand. “What’s your name?”

“Jesse. Nice to meet you.”

As they shook hands, Glen reached for his wallet and removed a business card.

“My kid’s got a birthday coming up. We’re giving her a little party in a couple of weeks at a park nearby. Would you be interested in taking some action shots?”

“You’re making a professional out of me, is that it?”

Glen nodded.

“Sure,” Jesse said. “Who couldn’t use the extra cash?”

If only film and television jobs were this easy to obtain.

“Great! We’ll figure out the details letter. Number’s on the card.”

As the customer walked away, Jesse peered down at the business card. Was it possible Glen might work in the legal department at a studio?

No such luck. Glen was a franchise owner in a fast-food chain.



Jesse arrived home around six that night. No purse or keys on the breakfast-bar ledge above the kitchen counter, which meant Jada hadn’t yet come home. He tried to recall her schedule today: Dinner plans with Barry Richert and a studio executive? Ink a deal to direct an adaptation of that recent book lauded by critics? He couldn’t keep track of her life. By virtue of her job, Jada subjected herself to Barry’s continual beck and call. Then again, Jesse was thankful to have the apartment to himself for the moment; nowadays her presence alone could trigger tension.

His eyes sensitive from the fluorescent lights at the shop, Jesse slid onto the black leather sofa in the living room and went limp for a few minutes. He ran his hand through his hair. Was he getting tired quicker? Though subtle, he had noticed a difference.

He stared at the jasmine candles on the coffee table, the ones from the previous night, his sinuses acute to the sharp scent. What is it with women and candles? he wondered. Jada wasn’t the kind of woman to leave them at random spots around the apartment, however, so he counted his blessings. Subtle yet aggressive, she was the type to lay the bait and wait for someone to notice and respond with a compliment. And Jesse was grateful she chose a scent other than vanilla. Then again, Jada herself was anything but vanilla.

In its entirety, the apartment décor could be credited to Jada. The glass-top coffee table on a slab of generic gray stone, jazz wall prints fit for a coffee house, muted chrome lamps—everything possessed a contemporary nonchalance, as if an interior decorator stopped by on periodic visits and left behind articles much like you’d forget a ballpoint pen. Every element reflected Jada’s personality. It was a far cry from the more traditional embellishments he found in his northern Ohio hometown. But to her credit, Jada had managed to frame a few of his photographs and put them on the bookshelves. Jesse held no strong opinions in the matter, though on occasion he felt like a stranger in his own home.

And, of course, the lease was in her name.

He grabbed his cell phone from his pocket and read Maddy’s text message again. Countless months had passed since he’d heard good news; he had to savor this audition prospect. Most of Jesse’s media work was as an extra, a random individual who walked down background corridors or pointed at superheroes that clung to the sides of buildings. Seldom did Jesse learn whether he appeared in the final cut until the film opened in theaters.

But he had never carried a line of dialogue. If successful, this audition would be a game changer. A small role, yet even award-winning celebrities had their minor moments early on: Richard Dreyfuss offered to call the police in The Graduate; Jodie Foster lent her voice to an animated Charlie Brown.

On the other hand, his confidence had taken a severe blow the last two years. It’s said you shouldn’t become an actor if you can’t handle rejection. But while the initial rejections are heartbreaking, soon those rejections become routine, to which you grow impervious, like skin numbed by an ice cube. Jesse had always taken rejection in stride. Today, however, with his gears rusty, Jesse fought internal doubts about whether he could win this role. The way he saw it, the odds didn’t fare well for him.

No. Forget the doubt, he thought. It’s been too long. This has to work out. He didn’t want to think about the alternative: another failure, another embarrassment, another step toward a terminated dream.

Jada didn’t understand. Despite her industry savvy, she—

Jesse heard keys jingle outside. Speak of the devil.

She entered in a flourish. Without a greeting, Jada unleashed as soon as she spotted him on the couch.

“Can you believe the guy in the next building parked his crappy car in front of our doorway again? I had to walk halfway up the block to get here. My Beemer is worth more than that guy’s gas pedal! What the fuck’s the matter with him?”

A delicate body figure with a cast-iron tongue. Polished and professional on the job, though. Not an off-color word from her on the set. She knew who fed her and how to perform for an audience of her own.

Jada left her purse and keys on the breakfast bar, then plopped down on the sofa beside Jesse and kicked off her shoes. As Jesse massaged her knee, she drew her legs underneath her and tugged at a bracelet. “I hate location shoots,” she said.

That’s right, she spent today in Malibu. “That bad, huh?”

“Once the police got the street blocked off and we started rolling, it went fine. A side street off the 101. We shot a couple of short scenes in the morning to minimize our days outside the studio lot.” In a single motion, her eyes lit up and she engaged her hands in a near pantomime. “Oh, then it got to be noon and the real fun started. You know those people who wander by and decide they want to make their screen debut? Someone peeks behind a building across the street? We got one of those.”

“A side street in Malibu isn’t what you’d call a high foot-traffic area.”

“I don’t know what this guy was thinking, but he’s coy. Starts out on the 101, just walks by. Maybe a tourist who just had lunch.”

“How far away were you from 101?”

“A couple of blocks, but he wanders up the sidewalk. No crime. He inches closer till he’s a few feet away from the action.” She leaned forward and spread her fingers toward Jesse. “Amanda Galley’s starring in this thing, okay? So she’s hanging out, flirting with the crew like she does. This tourist guy waddles up and makes a remark to her, thinks he’s gonna score with this A-lister. Well, I don’t know what he said to her; the story versions change depending on who you talk to. But he got assaulted with a shoe, and—”

“A shoe? How?”

“He got hit in the head with a shoe.”

“Whose shoe?”

“Amanda’s! She’s in costume, some riches-to-rags character, loses all her money and collects seashells by the seashore in her high heels. Anyway, she pulls off her shoe and hits the guy right in the middle of his forehead. Disaster. The guy doesn’t know what hit him. He starts to scream when a trickle of blood runs down his nasty face. So now the police wander over to check it out, the guy says he’s gonna sue, all this shit. Because he got nicked in the head by Amanda Galley’s pink shoe. She’ll probably show up on the news tonight. What a moron.”

“Amanda or the guy?”

“Both of them. Have you ever worked with her?”


“Prima donna. And if you think about it, she’s never had a big hit.” In a huff Jada fell back against the sofa and drew her brunette hair to rest on her shoulders. Jesse found her olive, Mediterranean skin tone exotic.

Jada had had dreams of her own at one point. She grew up in Reno, Nevada, with her own mother as her biggest fan since infancy. As a preschooler, the talented Jada entered a long list of beauty pageants, where she performed a tap-dance routine with a cane and top hat, choreographed by her mom, a former dancer in Vegas. By first grade, Jada had appeared in a handful of local commercials and, when she was eight, landed a role on television: Bailey’s Gang, a hip, educational program that started as a local Reno show and graduated to syndication during the mid 1980s. Jesse had heard the rundown countless times. Jada played one of a dozen Tree House Kids on the song-and-sketch show which was, in actuality, a rip-off of better-known predecessors—an admission Jada allowed because she considered herself the show’s answer to Annette Funicello.

After five years on the air, controversy raged when a reporter photographed Bailey handing a beer to a Tree House Kid. The show entered hiatus and never recovered. Jada’s acting career screeched to a halt, but still existed in the deep recesses of her subconscious. She seemed to long for those golden days and, due perhaps to unresolved childhood issues, seemed to remain a little girl at heart. When they first moved in together, Jesse discovered a secret stash of videotapes in Jada’s closet—her favorite Bailey’s Gang episodes. Jesse found the stash adorable, but when he took his discovery a step further and joked about her collection, Jada actually cried.

Jesse got up and headed for the kitchen. “I’ll get you a beer, how’s that?”

“No, I’ll just have a glass of wine at dinner. Did you work at the shop today?”

“Yeah, a full day. Wasn’t as eventful as yours, though.”

“Nobody tried to steal a roll of film? No armed robbery?”

“Not quite,” he called from the kitchen. “A customer hired me to shoot pictures at his kid’s birthday party. A little extra cash.”

Expressionless, Jada examined her manicured nails. “Gee, exciting stuff. I can see why you like it there.”

Bottle of Budweiser in hand, Jesse walked back into the room and took a swig. He settled back on the sofa, rested his elbows on his knees as Jada moved closer. She ran her hand along his back.

“I heard from Maddy today,” Jesse said as he picked at the bottle label. “She scheduled me for an audition.”

“Which project?”

Taking Sides. It’s a bit part.”

“The new Mark Shea project? Why would you want that?”

“I need the gig. What’s wrong with it?”

“He’s lost his vision. His last three films tanked. He cast a sinking star in the lead role. You want to associate yourself with that? How many times have I explained this to you?”

“Look, it’s not like I have a choice. I don’t work for Barry Richert, who picks his projects.”

“How many others are up for the part?”

“Four or five. Maddy doesn’t have many specifics on it; she just knows they want someone tall.”

“Well, you should have a decent shot at it.” A quick pause before Jada swung her head around to face him eye to eye. “What else is going on? You’ve got those lines in your forehead—the ones you get when you’re worried.”

For a moment, Jesse traced his finger along the permanent crease line of his khaki pants, where the fabric had lightened a shade. He shrugged.

“Do you ever feel like you’ve lost your edge?” he asked.

“Like what, risk-taking?”

He waved at her reply. “More like your momentum—that bold side of you that drives you to face the odds.”

“Have you forgotten who you sleep next to?” Jada searched his eyes, but furrowed her eyebrows when Jesse remained stone-faced. To her, he must have looked like he studied the ether that hovered over the coffee table. In truth, Jesse knew she didn’t have a clue what motivated him. Nor did she care, as long as his motivation existed. “You aren’t afraid of that audition, are you?” she asked.

“After as many as I’ve been on? Granted, not lately—”

“Because if you are scared,” she continued, “you need figure out a way to hide it. Or else you’ll never get that role.” She chuckled to herself. Jada shook her head, then plopped back against the sofa and crossed her arms. “Don’t you want to be an actor anymore?”

“Now you’ve forgotten who you sleep next to. Why would you even ask that?”

“Things change.”

Great, now she’s in challenge mode. Jesse clenched his jaw, threw his hands on his head in frustration. “Dammit, Jada! Nothing’s changed!” After a deep breath, he let his hands fall to his sides. Why did he try to talk to her about this? Of all people, she would be the last to understand unless the struggle was her own. “Forget it.”

For the first time in L.A., Jesse felt alone.

Weary, he turned to Jada and looked into her eyes. With a gentle rub to her back, he said, “Sorry, babe. It’s nothing. Jitters.”

But he could pinpoint the suspicion in her autumn eyes. When it came to fear detection, the woman had radar.

Jesse leaned in and planted a kiss on her lips.

He’d always adored her Italian lips.



Excerpt Copyright 2010 John Herrick