Skip to Main Content

About The Book

In this literary thriller, a young man descends into the Los Angeles underworld to find his family’s killer—aided by a group of strangers with their own shadowy pasts.

When Marty returns to Pennsylvania after living in California for ten years, he’s happily welcomed by his father and older brother, Jody. The joyful reunion is short-lived. Two days later, Jody enters the house to find his father and Marty shot dead as their masked killer flees out the back door. Without any answers from the local police, Jody heads to Los Angeles looking for who murdered his family and why.

Soon, he finds a trove of strange videos recorded by his brother that leads him into the city’s most dangerous corners, where he comes up against drug dealers, crooked cops, surf gangs, and black-market profiteers. As his investigation expands, it also intersects with Pen, a documentary filmmaker who suspects humanity is living in a simulation and that her missing father found a portal to escape; Renata, an undocumented immigrant who might have evidence to support Pen’s theory; and Tiph, a young mother whose desperate efforts to support her only child via a stolen art stash could prove the key to answering all these mysteries.

My Dirty California is a cinematic, suspenseful, intricately plotted thriller that explores the darker side of the glamorous Golden State.

Excerpt

Chapter One Chapter One Jody
An abnormal day is normal until it isn’t.

Jody slices sweet potatoes into chunks that will become sweet potato fries. His father, Joseph Sr., sorts the mail at the kitchen table.

“Should I start cooking the chicken?” The old man sounds like an old man who’d spent forty years smoking cigarettes, but Jody has seen him smoke only the occasional cigar.

“I’m about thirty-five minutes out. Up to you.”

Joseph Sr. pulls out a bowl of raw chicken pieces that have been marinating in a special dressing recipe Kraft calls Italian. As he passes by Jody, he says, “You chop ’em like that, you’re gon’ lose a finger one day.”

Jody sighs. He’s been using a knife the same way since about the time Joseph Jr. became Jody by way of Joey. This came courtesy of a baby brother who used to throw in extra ds where they didn’t belong. A brother who called himself Mardy. A brother who left at seventeen and hasn’t been back in ten years.

A knock on the door echoes from the foyer into the kitchen.

“C’mon’n,” says Joseph Sr. “Prolly Cutter. He called earlier about picking up some firewood. Even though his back is holding up better than mine.”

The screen door creaks, followed by heavy footsteps through the foyer.

A man steps into the kitchen. But it’s not their neighbor Cutter. It’s a drifter-hippie-type fellow with shaggy hair. Pierced ears don’t hold any jewelry. A dirty hoop-handled canvas duffel bag rests atop one shoulder. Three patches, whether cosmetic or functional, add an extra layer of scrappiness to an already scrappy-looking bag. Jody knows the man is twenty-seven years old, but his crow’s-feet suggest a man in his mid-thirties.

Marty.

His ear-to-ear grin accentuates his pointy chin, and he holds it. Like he’s posing for a welcome-home photograph. Stunned, Jody steals a quick glance at the counter. His father stands frozen, like his hands are sitting in cement rather than raw chicken.

Jody breaks the silence. “Marty… How…” He sets down the knife. Marty drops his hefty duffel to the wood floor. The brothers embrace. The hug helps Jody find the words. “What are you doing here?”

“Felt like visiting.”

Joseph Sr. washes his hands with soap and dries them before he extends the right one. Marty chuckles at his father’s formality, but he does shake Joseph Sr.’s hand.

“Good to see you, Marty. You look… older.”

“Well, I got older. You two, you’re looking younger.” Marty delivers the line with a contagious smile. It reminds Jody of being kids. He fourteen, Marty seven. Whether they played Ping-Pong or soccer or one-on-one basketball or GoldenEye 007, win or lose—whether Jody had let him win or not—Marty wore a sly smile.

“Did you come from LA?” Jody asks.

“Yeah.”

Jody leans left, steals a glimpse of the driveway. His dad’s maroon Toyota Camry next to his own gray Ford truck. “You fly?”

“Uh, no. My friend was driving ’cross the country. He gave me a ride.”

Rory bounds through the doggy door and runs right to Marty. Marty bends and pets the dog.

“Wait, this ain’t Sage, is it?”

“Sage died a few years back,” says Jody. “We got Rory here three years ago.”

“Same breed?”

“Yeah. Mutt,” says Jody.

Marty laughs as he strokes the less-exposed fur behind Rory’s ears.

“I could’ve sent the money. That why you’re here?”

Marty looks at his father, whose eyes are wide, alive. “What? No. What money?”

Rory seems to sense the tension and runs over to the den and plops onto the sofa.

Joseph Sr. returns to the chicken, starts placing pieces on a griddle. Another knock on the door. Joseph Sr. mutters half under his breath, “Who’s this gonna be, your mother?”

Jody’s eyes meet Marty’s. Reflecting thoughts, memories, fears, and dreams in an echo chamber lost in time. Brothers.

Joseph Sr. shouts out in his gruff nonsmoking smoker voice, “C’mon’n.”

The screen door creaks. In walks Cutter, a burly man in his fifties with a frame that looks architecturally designed to chop wood. A guy whose name sounds like a nickname for a goddamn lumberman. And yet, here he is, taking a neighbor’s offer for free firewood.

“Hey, Jody. How are you, bud?”

“Good.”

“You hear who the Eagles traded? Goddam Iggles. They—” Cutter stops when he sees a third man in the kitchen. “Hey, I’m Cutter.” He extends a hand.

Marty shakes it. “It’s Marty.”

“Marty?! Marty Marty? Holy shit, it is you. What are you doing here?”

“Just visiting,” says Marty.

“Christ, must’ve been five years. How long you staying?”

“Ten,” says Joseph Sr. “It’s been ten years.”

Jody eyes his dad. Is he trying to come off cold?

“I’ll let you guys chat. I’ll just grab the firewood.”

“It’s on the deck. Birch in the back might’ve rotted, but the rest’ll burn good,” says Joseph Sr.

Cutter smiles at Marty one more time, then walks out the back of the house.

“Why don’t I run to Acme and get some beer for you two to drink? I don’t think we have more’n a sixer.”

“Dad, that’ll be fine,” Jody says.

“I don’t need more than a beer. As long as it’s a Yuengling.”

“Still all we drink. Dad, stay here. We’ll eat.” Jody looks to his brother. “We were just putting together dinner. You hungry?”

“If you’ve got enough.”

“We were making a few meals’ worth.”

Whole minutes of silence often passed as Jody and his father ate pork chops or barbecue chicken or grilled salmon. And those silences were comfortable. But now, as the three eat, Jody feels every ten-second gap between words.

“What were you doing out there for money?” Joseph Sr. asks, cutting into the latest bout of silence with the fatherly of all fatherly questions.

“Just odds and ends. Enough to make odds and ends meet.”

Jody and his father wait for more details that don’t come.

“The driveway business still going well?”

Joseph Sr. sighs. “Ups and downs. Was doing well for a few years but a couple Mexican crews popped up. Had to bring my price down a bit to compete. Long as the economy ain’t complete shit, folks’ll pay to have ’em repaved.”

Marty turns to his older brother. “What about you? You still selling those magazines?”

Heat rises into Jody’s face and settles in his cheeks. Jody knew his younger brother had thought it was cool he had saved up money mowing lawns and planned to go to Lehigh University as a twenty-four-year-old. He knew his younger brother had thought it was cool that when Jody didn’t get the scholarship he hoped he’d get, he had come up with a plan to sell magazine subscriptions on the side to help pay his tuition. But Marty had left before Jody had arrived at school. He left before Jody got obsessed with selling the magazines and began making thousand-person lists of possible customers. Before he started spending fourteen hours a day trying to sell magazines, three hours a day in class, and two hours a day studying, which left a grand total of five hours a day to eat, sleep, and retain half a beer of a social life. He’d been a typical high school student, but his one year of college stood out as atypical. For starters, he was six years older than most members of his class. The guys on his hall stayed busy getting blackout drunk and testing the boundaries of what consent meant. Aside from the age gap, no one else was studying as much as Jody, and on top of studying, he was working a seventy-hour workweek selling magazines door-to-door. By February of his freshman year, Jody experienced a breakdown. Fatigue, the doctors called it. His body had rejected his grit. Jody started seeing a therapist. By session number two, she linked the incident with another time in Jody’s life. When Jody was sixteen, he was the school’s star soccer player as a junior. But the summer before his senior year, he started practicing soccer for six hours a day. His relationships with his friends fizzled out, and he spent little time with his family. And he ended up hurting his knees from overexertion and missing his senior-year season altogether. Like with soccer, in the case of college, an obsessive focus backfired and prevented him from succeeding at the original goal. The doctor diagnosed Jody with obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), which she explained was different from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The symptoms include an excessive devotion to work that impairs social or family activities, excessive fixation with lists, rigid following of ethical codes, extreme frugality without reason, and hoarding. She started Jody on antianxiety meds he’s been taking ever since. Over the course of ten sessions, she steered Jody toward trying to avoid jobs and activities he might obsess over. Jody remembers laughing about the advice in one of the few lighter moments of the therapy sessions. Just avoid following your passions!

“No, stopped that a while ago. Work on the grounds crew over at the school. Coaching middle school soccer too.”

“No way! I always thought you’d be a good coach. You like being around the kids?”

“They’re okay. When they’re not being lil’ shits.”

Joseph Sr. asks, “You felt any earthquakes out there?”

“Yeah, a bunch of ’em.”

“How about sharks? I read there’s all these great white sharks in Southern California now.”

“I heard other people talking about seeing them. But I haven’t seen one myself yet.” Marty winks at Jody, the kind of wink a seventy-year-old woman gives her grandson, and it pronounces his crow’s-feet. Unless it’s from all the winking, Marty must have spent significant time in the sun on the West Coast.

Sensing another period of silence brewing, Jody grabs two handfuls of dishes.

Jody finishes washing the last plate at the moment his father finishes his last sip of his beer.

“I’m going to bed. But I’ll see you in the morning. Glad to have you home.”

Jody follows Marty’s eyes to the grandfather clock—8:40.

“Okay. You sure it’s okay I stay here?”

“Of course. Whenever, for however long. I told your brother that, and he took it to heart.”

Jody chuckles at his father’s lighthearted jab. Jody had been saving money for years, and in his OCPD list-making fashion, had written a plan eight years ago to save up $65,000, buy a house, find a lady, get married, and then have kids. Jody had shrugged off his doctor’s warning that people with his disorder pursue certain career goals to the detriment of personal relationships, and yet here he is at thirty-four without a girlfriend.

After they exchange good nights and Joseph Sr. disappears to his bedroom, Marty’s gaze returns to the clock. “He normally go to bed at eight forty-five?”

“No. Sometimes.”

Marty chuckles, the laugh evolving into a hmmm.

“Give’m a break. It’s a lot. You showing up like this. Might’ve made it easier if you’d called first.”

“I thought it would be fun this way.”

“Fine. But you gotta see why it’d be hard for him after all these years you haven’t visited.”

“You guys could’ve visited me. Planes go both ways last I heard. I at least wrote to you guys. Letters. Postcards. Hundreds of ’em. All them books I sent you. Never got a line back from either of you.”

“Sorry, brother. I ain’t the letter-writing type.”

For a moment, Jody considers taking Marty upstairs to show him the bookshelf in his room. Hundreds of books alphabetized by author. Every time he got a book in the mail from Marty, Jody read it. He added the book to a database. He looked up the author and made a list of every other book that author had ever written. Then he bought a copy of each novel by that author. And he read them all. So when Marty sent Jody an old paperback copy of Cannery Row, Jody read it and then read everything Steinbeck wrote, from Cup of Gold to Travels with Charley.

“You think it’s really cool for me to stay here though?”

“Yeah.” Jody can’t quell his own curiosity. “For how long?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, your room’s still there.”

Marty scoops up his bag, and Jody follows him down the hall and up the stairs. Marty turns on the light and steps inside the room with fading yellow walls, which at their age don’t look dissimilar from yellowing white walls.

“He’d’ve left it the exact way you did. But we had some water damage a couple years ago. Your posters and stuff are in a box in the closet.”

The stress-free smile Marty had walked in the door with two hours ago slinks away. The sight of his childhood bedroom seems to bring a rush of memories. The good, the bad, and the complicated.

“Your room still the same?” asks Marty.

Jody shrugs, doesn’t offer to show him. He struggles to discard anything, instead organizing his possessions by filling old shoeboxes. At one point, he realized he had way too much stuff. He made an extensive list of what to keep, what to donate, and what to throw out. But making the list was as far as he got.

“You have to work tomorrow?” asks Marty.

“I’m off till the first week of August. Doing a couple soccer camps over the summer. And I’ve been volunteering over at White Clay Creek a day or two a week. Just helping them maintain the nature trail.”

“You want to show me?”

“Sure. We’ll take Rory.”

Jody and Marty walk along the trail, appreciating the woodland phlox and wild geranium. Rory runs ahead, appreciating the wildflowers his own way. Jody suppresses a belch and fights off a fleeting urge to vomit.

“You all right?” asks Marty.

“Yup,” says Jody. A year ago, his dad found Jody throwing up one morning after he’d only had two beers the night before. Over the years, he’d had a harder time drinking without feeling sick the next day, but he never stopped. After calling him “an alcoholic who drinks the least amount of booze ever,” his dad said Jody should either quit drinking or go to the doctor. Jody went to a doctor who told him when he drank before bed, it caused the excretion of excess stomach acid overnight, which was making him nauseous. He told Jody not to drink three hours before bed, but he also wanted Jody to see a psychiatrist because he thought the excess stomach acid could be linked to anxiety. The therapist he’d seen a decade earlier, and gotten along with well, had since retired. Jody met with a new psychologist, who wanted to focus on why Jody had continued drinking a beer or two every night if it made him sick. He believed that Jody liked the nausea, that he was always buzzed or hungover, both states functioning to suppress anxiety. Jody thought that was ridiculous and had not gone back or sought a second opinion.

“Does Dad really have a bum knee, or did he just not want to come?” asks Marty.

“He’s been having trouble with it. You should cut him some slack. Chill out.”

“Chill out? About Dad? I’ve chilled out about Dad. In high school, I used to daydream about shooting him in the head.”

Marty laughs at his own joke, but Jody wonders if he was joking.

“We had different fathers, you and me,” Marty adds.

“He was different after Mom died. I admit it.”

Different is generous.”

Marty was too young at the time to realize silence was the best his father could offer in the wake of his wife’s death from breast cancer. And Jody was too young to realize at the time that they weren’t experiencing their father’s emotional absence the same way. Jody was twenty, and he’d had a present father all the way through childhood. But Marty was only thirteen when he lost his mother and his father disappeared into a black hole of silent grief.

They lose sight of Rory as they go around a bend in the trail.

“Did you really have a friend who was driving across the country?”

Marty laughs. “No, I hitched.”

“Across the whole country?”

“Truckers do it. For cash.”

“Do you got a car out there?”

“No. Well, at times, I shared one with people.”

Jody finds the wording strange. They come around another bend, where the trail runs parallel to a creek. Rory jumps in the water. Marty takes off his shoes and socks. He pulls his shirt over his head, revealing an assortment of tattoos covering 70 percent of his chest, back, and arms. Jody looks away. As if it’s something he’s not supposed to see. Only when he hears the splash of Marty landing in the swimming hole does he return his gaze.

A few moments later, Marty puts the clothes back on over his water-covered, ink-covered skin. Even after they’re concealed, Jody can’t stop thinking about the tattoos, as if they represent how far the brothers had drifted apart. If there’s one thing Jody would never do, it’s get a tattoo. He waits until they’re hiking again before he asks, “When did you get all those?”

“Different times. Some of ’em I wished I hadn’t gotten, and I try to turn them into something else. You like ’em?”

“I don’t know. It’s whatever you want. I don’t really know what you want.”

“We’re brothers. You can’t unknow me.”

“I hear you. And partly, it feels like that. Like a month went by and not a decade. But I really don’t know you, man. I don’t know what you’re like or what you do.”

Another couple of minutes of silence pass before Marty responds. “I’ve been making this thing. I don’t really know what it is yet. It’s called My Dirty California.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s a website. But it’s really just a place I’ve been doing a… project. I didn’t even know what it was at first. I wasn’t trying to define it. Eventually it kinda became a video log, about my adventures or whatever. A place to store all the pictures I take. And I kept up with it. Posting these videos online.”

“So it’s a blog.”

“No,” Marty says. He sounds defensive, as if a blog is uncool. Jody doesn’t keep up with what’s hip—Instachat, Snapgram, Tickity Tock, tweeting twittering, go-Facebook-fuck yourself. Marty seems uncomfortable, and Jody wonders why he even brought it up in the first place. “It’s more a place I can store all these photos and videos and essays till I figure out what to do with the project. Maybe at some point I’ll edit them into a documentary or a piece of long-form web video art.”

Jody wonders what long-form web video art is. “So anybody can see it?”

“In theory, yeah. Anybody can click on it. But I didn’t tell nobody the address, so nobody knows to look for it. No one’s seen any of it. But you can. Saying, if you want to know me, you should watch ’em. You can even add something if you want. The sign-in password is mdc, lowercase.”

“Add something?”

“A video about me or us.” Marty now appears self-conscious. “No pressure. Never mind.”

Jody senses his brother’s insecurity but isn’t sure what to say. He hears Rory growling ahead. He and Marty jog around the bend, where a hiker has a tight grip on Rory’s collar. “Hey, what’r’ya doin’?” asks Jody.

“Dog came up barking at me,” the hiker says.

Jody takes Rory and pets him.

“You should really have him on a leash.”

“All right, take it easy,” Jody says. The hiker speed-walks down the trail.

Marty bends and pets Rory. “Jesus. I see people haven’t gotten friendlier around here. I remember being a kid and seeing Trey and Dukes and those other knuckleheads throw rocks at the Amish people when they passed by the Wawa and thinking I just want to get out of here, ya know, go somewhere people are decent.”

“You find that place out there?”

“Fuck no. I mean, there’s good people in California. But that’s not everybody.”

Jody puts beef tips and chicken strips on skewers as Marty chops squash. Outside, Joseph Sr. preps the grill. The three men each working on a bottle of Yuengling. Jody watches his dad come inside holding the propane tank.

“Out,” Joseph Sr. says.

Jody takes the tank. “I’ll fill it.” He heads out the screen door.

Joseph Sr. emerges behind him. “Jody. I’ll go.”

“It’s fine. I don’t mind.”

Joseph Sr. reaches out for the gas tank, but Jody doesn’t hand it to him. “Let me go. It’d be good for you to spend more time with him. I’m worried about him. He doesn’t look good to me. He could use you. It’s been a long time since he had a brother to talk to.”

Jody whistles. Rory comes running from the backyard, excited to go for a drive.

“Don’t put that on me. It’s been a long time since he’s had a father to talk to.” Jody gets in his truck with the propane tank and Rory and backs out of the driveway. Ten years ago, neither man had judged the other for Marty’s decision to light out for the West Coast. But today, they finally had.

Jody and his dad had words all the time. About which game to watch. Or what to eat for dinner. Or how to get Rory to shut the fuck up. They argued, but as roommates. Bickering. It had been years since they had fought about anything of substance. Jody can’t shake the discomfort as he drives to the hardware store. Jody used to feel good about himself for showing Marty the ropes of right and wrong, good and bad, like he was helping his little bro develop a strong moral code. He used to say to Marty, Do the right thing, which became Do right, then Do ri. It became this saying they’d repeat to each other. Something Jody said before dropping Marty off at Little League practice or before Marty got on the school bus. If Marty had gotten in trouble for getting into a fight at recess, their mother would give him a lecture, and Jody would add Do ri. But when Jody had his breakdown at twenty-four, the therapist helped him see that folks with his disorder see most actions in life as binary, absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Jody had always operated by a specific code. He drank before he turned twenty-one but waited until he was eighteen because he felt like people should be able to have a beer if they’re old enough to die for their country. His doctor had pointed out his need to obsessively categorize everything as right or wrong wasn’t the worst inclination. But Jody realized then he should have been there more for Marty. At sixteen, Jody spent all his time with his first serious girlfriend. At seventeen, it was soccer. At twenty-three, it was his desire to go to college. He realized he should have spent more time with his younger brother instead of just popping in as the morality police, instead of just muttering two syllables. He became guilt-ridden with the idea his preachy sentiments had caused Marty to run away to California. And the meaning of the two words do ri changed. Instead of an inside-joke–like oorah-style bond between brothers, for Jody the words came to symbolize his failure as a big brother and his having pushed Marty three thousand miles away.

Jody waits for his change from the cashier at the hardware store, refilled propane tank in hand. A mom and her two kids walk in the store.

“Hey, Coach!”

Jody nods hello as the family moves past him into the store. What is that kid’s name? Fred or Ben or something.

The cashier hands Jody his change. “Heard your brother shown up.”

“Yeah.”

“He was in my class. Marty Morrel was.”

“Oh, that’s right.”

“I remember senior skip day. Some of us went to Dorney Park. Others went to the Jersey Shore for the day. Your brother went to California.”

Jody chuckles but doesn’t respond.

“Yeah, only Marty’d drop out of high school with one month left. What’s he doing back?”

“I really dunno. I’ll let you know when the gas needs filling up again.”

Jody drives back to the house. He slows as he passes a horse and buggy. He waves to the Amish couple. They wave back. Dusk has conceded to night, and he feels like telling them they ought to be more careful.

Rory runs straight from the truck into the backyard. Jody gets halfway from the truck to the house and stops. He forgot the gas tank. He grabs it from the truck. As he steps from stone to stone, movement draws his eyes to the light in Marty’s second-floor bedroom. Jody opens the front door and walks inside. He stops in the foyer.

Fifteen feet in front of him, there’s a red streak across the kitchen floor. Jody rushes into the kitchen. His eyes follow the red streak to where it ends. Joseph Sr. lies motionless, facedown on the floor. It appears he was crawling—and leaving a smear of blood behind him—before he was shot in the back of his head. Jody sprints over to his father. “Dad?! DAD!”

Joseph Sr. does not stir. Now Jody lets out an animal-like scream.

“MARTY!”

The house shakes as a body scrambles down the stairwell. Jody leaps to his feet and runs toward the noise. A hooded figure bounds down the stairs and fires a silenced pistol right at Jody. Jody leaps behind the kitchen counter. He army-crawls into the dining room. Makes it to the foyer, where he grabs Joseph Sr.’s shotgun and a box of shells from the closet’s top shelf. He hunkers down in the dining room as he loads the shotgun. It takes him a moment. It’s been seven years since he touched it, and he’d fired the thing only once, at a range with his dad. Gun loaded, he scrambles into the den. Bullets just miss his head.

Jody hears a barking Rory come in through the doggy door.

Maybe because of Rory’s barking, or maybe because he saw Jody with the gun, the figure fires three more shots at the couch where Jody’s taking cover and then flees out the back door. Rory runs after him.

Jody gives chase too. As he gets to the back door, to his right he sees Marty on his back in the middle of the living room floor, the tan carpet crimson around him. Jody darts out the back door to see the figure sprinting across the backyard. Rory just behind him. Jody raises his gun and fires. Unscathed, the figure hops the split-rail fence. Jody can’t even tell whether he missed left or right. For a second, he considers going after him. Instead, he darts back inside and dials 911 as he rushes to Marty’s side.

Marty is alive. His eyes are open. He’s breathing. But he also has blood leaking from two gunshot wounds. One in the middle of his stomach, one in his throat.

“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

Jody tries to cover both wounds as he screams into the phone. “This is Joseph Morrel. My dad and brother have been shot. 2513 Oak Cherry Lane. Please hurry.”

“Joseph, is the shooter still on the property?”

“The shooter fled. Please hurry.”

Jody lets the phone fall to the ground. He puts Marty’s respective hands on both of his wounds.

“Hold these tight. I’ll be right back.”

Jody sprints into the kitchen, where he sees Rory nestled up next to his father. Maybe he’s still alive. Marty looked dead but he is alive. Maybe Dad is still alive too. He half trips, half slides to his father. Turns him over. Checks his pulse.

“Dad?”

He can’t feel a pulse. But his own heart is hammering so fast he can’t tell. “Dad? Dad?!”

It’s when he looks in his father’s eyes he knows he’s dead. “No… No…”

Jody leaves his father’s body and sprints back to the living room, where Marty has already let go of his wounds. Marty seems to be slipping in and out of consciousness.

“You’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”

Marty keeps trying to talk, but the gunshot to his throat makes it near impossible. “Nada.”

“What?” Jody asks. “Nada?”

“De Nada. De Nada.”

“Denada? Nothing? I’m welcome? Marty, what are you saying?”

“De Nada.”

“It’s okay. Stay calm. You’re going to be okay.”

Jody tries to keep pressure on the wounds. Marty keeps pointing toward the wall. Jody realizes Marty’s pointing to the phone Jody dropped.

“De Nada.” Blood gurgles out of Marty’s throat every time he tries to talk.

“Stop trying to talk.” Jody keeps a hand on each wound and uses a foot to slide the phone to Marty. Marty tries to write on the phone, but he drops it. And now it’s out of his reach. Jody can’t hand him the phone without taking one of his hands off the wounds.

“De Nada.”

“Stop!”

Marty stops trying to talk. His eyelids droop.

“Marty! Stay here! Marty! Hey!”

The sound of an ambulance in the distance draws closer. But now Marty isn’t breathing. Jody takes his hand off the stomach wound and checks Marty’s pulse. Nothing. He starts doing chest compressions, but the pressure forces even more blood to pour out of the wound in Marty’s stomach. Jody’d been certified multiple times to give CPR as a soccer coach, but those instructions didn’t include what to do if chest compressions caused more bleeding from a gunshot wound. But what else can he do? Jody keeps trying. He’s so focused he doesn’t hear two paramedics enter. One has to pull Jody off the body.

Now Jody staggers back, slumps over as the two paramedics try to bring Marty back from no place to this place.

Jody can see both gurneys from the ground where he sits. His hands and clothes are wet with blood, but his face is dry of tears. The coroner talks to a man Jody doesn’t recognize. Cutter speaks to a few other neighbors. A slew of officers mill about. Rory keeps running in counterclockwise circles barking. Sheriff Carp gets out of his car and approaches.

“Jody. I’m Sheriff Carp. You coached my younger son last year.”

Jody doesn’t remember coaching any sheriff’s kids.

“I’m really sorry about this. For your loss. Are you able to talk me through some of this?”

Now Jody remembers a mom saying something about her husband being a cop. The kid was a little shit.

“Did you get a good look at this man you told them about?”

Jody shakes his head.

“Anything you can tell us? Was he big?”

“Not big. Not small.”

“Okay, good. Did you see his face? What race was he?”

“I didn’t see. He had his hood up when he came down the stairs. And he was shooting. I had to get out of the way. When I went outside, he was running. I saw him running.”

“Okay. We’re going to ask you a few more questions now. And then we’ll pick it up again tomorrow morning at the station.”

“I’m not sure if you’ve slept, but I wanted to see if anything had emerged from the blur.”

Jody hasn’t slept. He doesn’t feel tired or awake. Everyone keeps telling him he’s in shock. “I’ve been thinking about it. Picturing it. Him running away. I didn’t see him. But I saw him running. The motion.”

“Okay?” Sheriff Carp asks.

“I think he had a leg-length discrepancy.”

“What do you mean?”

“The way he was running. The mechanics. The way one leg swung outwards. His right leg was longer.”

“Sorry if I’m having trouble following you. It’s just… you can’t even tell us what kind of pants he was wearing or how tall he was, but you noticed one leg was longer than the other?”

“It’s the motion. And the gait compensation. I coached a kid this season who had a bad discrepancy. We got him wearing a heel lift, but it had already affected his form. You could see an asymmetry in his posture. Pelvic tilt. His hips. Lots of people have a slight difference, like a centimeter. But a two- to three-inch difference is rare.”

“Okay, this is good.”

Jody can tell Carp thinks it’s bullshit.

“What about Marty’s phone? We found your dad’s. But not Marty’s.”

“He must’ve took it. The shooter, I mean.”

“Jody, I gotta ask a couple harder questions here. A neighbor heard you scream Marty’s name. Like you were angry with him. Did he hurt your dad? And you found him? And then did you retaliate?”

“No. I told you already. I came home and they were both shot and the guy in the hood came barreling down the stairs, shot at me, then went outside.”

“Was there tension around Marty showing up? It sounds like from what we’re hearing, he left when he was seventeen and hasn’t come back till now.”

“Yeah, there was tension, but not… no. You’re asking the wrong questions. Marty didn’t do anything.”

“What about you though, Jody? Were you angry with Marty? Or your dad? From asking around, it sounds like your dad had put some money aside for Marty.”

“This is what you’re spending time doing? Accusing me?”

“I’m not accusing you. We’re just talking.”

“I’m telling you. His right leg is longer by at least two inches. You got any leads? What are you doing to figure this out?”

“We’ve got everyone working on it.”

“Nobody in the whole town saw nothing?”

“Couple knuckleheads were on a mini crime spree later in the night. Rick Bird and his two pals. Guess folks saw them out and about. Shot at some road signs. Doing doughnuts in the injection molding plant parking lot. They scared some women who were coming out of Mo’s at one thirty a.m. Cat callin’ or whatever.”

“You talk to them?”

“Don’t have anything to arrest them on, but we’ll get them in for questioning. Left messages on all three of their cells. Just need to track ’em down.”

He can’t sleep. Jody doesn’t even know what time it is. Hours pass. Hours of wanting to cry, his tear ducts not cooperating. When he closes his eyes, he sees blood. And Marty’s face as he died. And his dad’s face, already dead. The phone won’t stop ringing. Family. Friends. More family. Jody stops answering. He turns off the phone.

He can’t decide whether to bring a hammer or a box cutter. The police had taken the shotgun as evidence.

Jody rides around town most of the afternoon and evening. He doesn’t know him, but he knows what Bird looks like. He doesn’t spot him until 9:30 p.m.

From his Ford truck, Jody watches as Rick Bird smokes a cigarette and hits on two women outside a dive bar called Malone’s. The two women go inside, leaving Rick Bird alone with his wounded ego and cigarette.

Jody moves from his truck, creeping down the sidewalk. He charges Rick from behind. Thinks about his dead brother and father. And tackles Rick into the pavement. He holds Rick’s face into the ground with one hand. Holding up the box cutter with his other hand.

“Was it you? Was it?!”

“I di’n’t do shit. Get the fuck off me.”

Before the conversation can progress, a huge fellow knocks Jody off Bird. A third man jogging up to the scene kicks Jody in the ribs. The huge fellow punches Jody right in the eye. The two guys who came to Rick Bird’s rescue show no sign of letting up until Rick intervenes.

“Hold on. That’s Joseph’s boy. Get off’m!”

The two men step back from Jody, who rolls onto his back, trying to catch his breath.

“Jody, right?” Rick asks. “Your dad paved our driveway last summer. That shit’s fucked up what happened.”

“Sheriff Carp told me you’re ducking them.”

“We were just on one is all. Can’t be walking into the station like this. I’m on probation.”

Jody tries to picture the killer coming down the stairs, can see only his hood. But he can visualize the guy running across the backyard and hopping the fence. Rick is way too short to be the guy. And the other two men are both overweight. They’d have trouble climbing a split-rail fence without a boost.

“All right, sorry, then.” Jody picks himself up and walks to his truck. The view out his left eye shrinking as the blood moves in.

“You gonna tell me about that black eye?”

Jody sits across from Sheriff Carp. He didn’t sleep much last night, and he gets the impulse to lie down and sleep on Carp’s office couch. “It’s nothing.”

Carp sighs, phlegm catching in his throat.

“It doesn’t seem like it could be a coincidence. We don’t lock our doors. I can’t remember the last time our town had a shooting let alone a murder. My brother comes home after ten years, and this brutal murder happens, ya know? It’s gotta be something he brought home with him.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, Jody. But I called three different departments in LA. The problem is, neither the city of Los Angeles nor the state of California have any record of your brother living there.”

“What?”

“He didn’t have a driver’s license. He wasn’t paying taxes. ’Tween that and the fact the body’s three thousand miles outside their jurisdiction, I don’t think they’re keen on helping.”

The house resembles a Tupperware convention. There are a ton of people in the kitchen and five times as many dishes of food as people. Jody slips away and sits on the porch in his dad’s favorite rocking chair and pets Rory. Nancy, an ex-girlfriend, waves a sympathetic hello from the yard. Jody pretends he doesn’t see her. For the briefest moment, he remembers this one time when they had sex in her hot tub. And he tries to stay there. To remember her panting and coming. To remember how dehydrated they’d gotten. Jody tries to lean into the memory. To be anywhere other than the present. But it won’t hold.

“You all right, Joe?”

Jody’s uncle Donovan approaches with a glass of J&B scotch. After Jody’s mother, Donovan’s little sister, passed away, Uncle Don started hanging around Jody and Marty more.

“I’m okay.”

“I cried this morning. I’m just letting you know, it’s okay if you gotta cry.”

Jody has tried. He knows it would make him feel better. But he can’t.

Jody glances back to where Nancy was talking with a group in the yard. She’s gone now.

“I’m going to come by tomorrow morning, and you and I will figure out the arrangements, okay?”

“Okay.”

Jody watches the ceiling fan go in circles. He hasn’t been awake the whole night. But he can’t seem to stay asleep for more than a few minutes at a time. When he falls asleep, he dreams of his father and brother talking and eating and hiking and arguing. And every time he wakes, the reality that they’re dead hits him again. Lying awake, he keeps picturing Marty dying, playing the moment over and over in his head. At least his dad had passed first and didn’t witness his son dying.

Giving up on sleep, Jody fires up an old Dell laptop. He types My Dirty California into the web browser. Nothing interesting comes back. Jody types MyDirtyCalifornia.com into the browser. A simple website. In black letters it reads:

my

dirty

california

Below, there’s a long list of links. Each one labeled with a date. The most recent one reads 6/14/19. Jody scrolls down the web page. Hundreds of entries going all the way back to 2/24/15. Jody clicks on a random entry. It’s a video that consists of a slideshow of photographs. Spectacular shots of spectacular trees in a protected area of the White Mountains in Inyo County, California. The trees range from fifteen to fifty feet. It’s not their size that makes them stick out but their gnarled, stunted appearance. Marty’s recorded voice plays over the slideshow of photographs.

“I went to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest on the way back from Mammoth. I’d never heard of this place till a couple years ago. I saw trees there that are over four thousand years old. The oldest trees in the world.”

The trees and landscapes are incredible, but Marty also took innovative shots. Capturing the trees from strange angles. Making them appear at once beautiful and haunting.

“One of the trees is over five thousand years old, but they keep it a secret which tree it is, which I thought was dope. We weren’t able to find it. What would it be like to live thousands of years? Everybody’s chasing longer lives, and yet we’re fucking up the planet and ultimately shortchanging our species’ future in the process. If these trees were conscious and had opposable thumbs, they’d probably have tried to live even longer and fucked it up and gone extinct.”

As the slideshow flashes more photographs of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Jody clicks Back and chooses a different video. This one features Marty talking into the camera.

“I heard about this new meditation technique so I’m going to try it here. It’s called mental ginseng. The key is to—”

Jody jumps forward five minutes. Marty has his eyes closed, and he’s meditating on camera. Jody chooses a third random entry. This one features another video log of Marty talking into the camera. In this one, Marty’s eyes look wonky. The kind of wonky that comes from mixing a six-pack with weed.

“Two weeks ago, I met this waitress who works at Far Bar in Little Tokyo. We talked for a while. I told her I was kinda seeing someone else but that I thought she was cool and that we would get along. I said we should hang out as friends. It seemed to take the pressure off for her. So we went and grabbed lunch as friends and it was fun. We had sex two days later. So then this past weekend, I was at my friend’s party and met this other woman. I’d smoked and had a few, and I found myself telling her the same thing. That I was kinda seeing someone off and on, but I’d love to hang out as friends. I’d meant it the first time with the Japanese girl. But at this party, I was working a line, playing an angle, strategizing like an analytical cock running around trying to get warm. I think—”

Jody has heard enough. He finds the most recent video, the last one Marty posted on the site. It’s a simple sixty-second video log where Marty mentions wanting to go to Eureka and explore Humboldt County.

Jody clicks on the second-to-last video. Another short video of Marty talking into the camera. Here, he mentions being disappointed after staying in Encinitas for a few weeks.

Jody clicks on the third-to-last video. This video cuts back and forth between Marty talking into the camera and photographs he took at a party.

“I went to this ridiculous party in the Hollywood Hills. Not really my scene.” Pictures of the house, an infinity pool in the backyard, guests dressed in everything from designer suits to designer swimsuits to T-shirts. “Seemed like everybody was just wandering in circles like zombies asking either what other people did for a living or how they knew the host. Or both. It was Chester Montgomery’s house. Guy is a character. Owns an art gallery, known for these legendary parties. I played poker with him and his buddies until three a.m. I’m not that big on poker, but even with all the bluffing, it seemed to be the most honest conversation happening.”

Jody presses Back. He’s not sure what he thought he’d find. Maybe a simple video that would explain who would want to kill Marty.

At dawn, Jody throws clothes, toiletries, and the laptop into a bag. From his medicine cabinet, he pulls out his antianxiety medicine. He tosses the pills in the bag. But then he takes them out and returns them to the cabinet.

He finds a piece of scrap paper and pen. Uncle Donovan, please handle burial. I’m sorry. This should cover cost. He puts a check for eleven thousand dollars written out to Donovan Parker next to the note. For a moment, he tries to picture the funerals. And he knows he should stay. And he knows he won’t.

Jody throws the packed bag in the cab of the truck. Rory jumps inside. Jody pulls out an envelope from his pocket. The return address reads: Marty Morrel, 3353 Hillkirk Road, Los Angeles, CA 90084.

Jody plugs the address into Google Maps. Thirty-nine hours.

Nine empty to-go Styrofoam coffee cups fill the cup holders and the floor space beneath the passenger seat. Rory sleeps. Jody drives thirty-five miles per hour over the seventy-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. His Ford truck wheezes in protest. Together, a star-filled sky and his high beams reveal miles of straight road ahead. The earth sure looks flat here.

Thirty miles and sixteen minutes later, Jody slams on the brakes and pulls off into the dirt shoulder. He leaps out of the truck. Squats. Too much coffee. Rory sniffs flowers in the moonlight. It’s remote territory to reign, but Rory marks it anyway. Finished, Jody slumps backward on his butt. Pants still at his ankles. Practically sitting in his own shit. And his dry face gets the storm it deserves. Sensing the despair of his owner, Rory trots over and nestles up to Jody. The man’s best friend had been his dad; now it’ll have to be his dog. Jody hugs Rory. And cries. He stops crying. Takes his jeans off. Uses the jeans to wipe his ass. He abandons the pants on the dirt shoulder. Climbs back in the car in his underwear.

Onward. West.

Three more empty coffee cups roll around at the foot of the passenger seat. Twelve in total now. Jody comes into the greater Los Angeles area on the 10 freeway at 1:30 a.m. He pulls off an exit in West Covina.

Jody collapses onto the bed in the motel room, his ass and back and shoulders sore from thirty hours of driving. But he’s wide-awake thanks to the half-life of caffeine. After lying on his side for twenty minutes, he pulls out his computer and films a video of himself.

“This is Jody. My first entry. I’m going to use my brother’s website to keep track of all this. And in case something happens to me, this will be a place to find what I was able to figure out. I just got to LA. The last four hours took eight hours. Something about Las Vegas traffic on a Sunday. I didn’t know that. Never been to California before. Never been too many places out of PA. Anyway, I’m here, so I guess tomorrow I start. Marty shows up in our little town outside Lancaster after not being home for ten years. Two days in, he gets killed. Gotta figure he was in danger, ran away from LA. All I have to go on is the address where Marty was staying in LA. So that’s where I’ll start tomorrow.”

About The Author

Jason Mosberg works as a screenwriter and TV creator in Los Angeles. He is the creator of the CBS All Access series One Dollar.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 30, 2022)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982178666

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"Compelling and surprising. Jason Mosberg intricately weaves several mysteries together in this captivating literary thriller. A truly unique, intriguing, and satisfying read. I couldn’t put it down!" —Megan Miranda, New York Times bestselling author of All the Missing Girls and The Last House Guest

 

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images