Struggling actress Jane Innes is seduced by a handsome new arrival in her acting class. He makes a proposition. He admits he’s a con man and needs Jane to pose as a rich, carefree heiress to fulfill her part in his intricate scam.
Would you agree? Or run the other way?
All goes as planned until Jane’s true identity threatens to surface and their scheme begins to crack at the seams.
This is the first part of a trilogy following Jane Innes through a tangled maze of deception, depravity and murder.
Trailer for THE SHILL
Praise for THE SHILL
“Sly, sexy and surprising, The Shill is a darkly comic Hollywood tale of a not-so-innocent out-of-work actress being groomed for larceny.”
– Wallace Stroby, author of The Devil’s Share, Shoot the Woman Firs and Cold Shot to the Heart
Pre-Order the Kindle version for $1.99 until JULY 15
Work as an actress was sparse. Jane survived by a variety of dead-end, part-time jobs. This one, working for a private investigator, paid minimum wage.
Six months ago, on a foggy morning in L.A.’s beach community of Playa Del Rey, she sat in her Nissan waiting for the subject to emerge from his apartment. Her task was to videotape the man as proof he was physically mobile without the assistance of a wheelchair or crutches. Jane worked for Tim Peduga, an ex-cop turned PI who specialized in insurance fraud.
She arrived just before dawn and found a spot across the street from the apartment. She parked in front of a modern house under construction and hoped the contractors, when they arrived, wouldn’t make her move. She could hear the rumble of jets from adjacent LAX airport in the distance.
Jane checked herself in the rearview mirror and hated what she saw. There were bags under her eyes, her forehead was breaking out and her chin looked puffy. Thirty years of age and these moments of self-doubt came more and more often now—a deep, dark depression knocking at the door.
Neighbors walked dogs past. A FedEx truck stopped down the street. She fought boredom by listening to celebrity podcasts on her iPod.
Finally the man emerged from his apartment. It was definitely the same guy from the photo she’d been given. He had shoulder-length curly black hair parted down the middle and a long, scraggly beard. She thought the only thing missing was a flowing black cloak and he could pass for Rasputin, the famed Russian mystic.
She powered the camera.
Even though the video was time stamped, she was instructed to shoot the front page of the L.A. Times first. Her boss Tim explained that a video time-stamp could be manipulated after the fact but a physical newspaper is undisputable proof. She supported the lens on the steering wheel and zoomed in.
Rasputin unlocked the door of a Toyota pickup and searched the cab before emerging with a pack of cigarettes. He smacked the pack of Marlboros on his palm and peeled back the cellophane, tossing the remnants into the wind. He produced a lighter and lit the smoke.
That’s when he noticed her.
She averted her gaze, pretended to be busy with something below the dash while still keeping the camera trained. In the LCD viewfinder she saw him walk toward her. She dropped the camera and went for the ignition. The car sputtered and stalled.
He was closing in fast.
She locked the doors.
“Excuse me,” he said angry. “What are you doing? Do I know you?”
She averted his gaze and tried to start the car again. No luck. Piece of…
He tossed the cigarette at her windshield and smacked the hood. “Were you filming me? You don’t have the right!”
She pumped the gas as the starter whined but the Nissan would not fire. Damn it!
“Give me the camera, bitch!”
What’d he call me?
Jane defiantly flipped him off. She regretted it when it only enraged him more.
Red-faced, he ran around the car and rummaged through the pile of construction refuse. He came back with a cinderblock raised over his head.
You’ve got to be kidding.
Jane ducked below the dash just before the windshield shattered. Chunks of broken glass rained down into her hair.
Over the cinderblock on her dented hood she could see him searching for something else to throw. She went for the ignition again. The car finally started with a mighty roar.
His eyes registered fear.
“Motherfucker!” she screamed. She threw it into drive and punched the gas.
Rasputin flipped over the hood followed by the sound of his head hitting the pavement—much like a watermelon cracking open upon impact.
Months later, dressed in frayed clown regalia, Jane performed a magic trick under the shade of a gnarled ficus tree. For the audience of children she held out an over-sized “die,” the singular term for dice she made clear to the kids, and placed it in a black lacquer miniature cabinet. She closed the two doors and tilted the box to one side before she opened the adjacent chamber.
“See, it vanished.”
She shut that door and tilted the box the other way—the children hearing a thunk as the die seemingly slid to the other half of the box. Opening the opposite door Jane said, “All gone. Show’s over. Thank you very much.”
The kids screamed in protest. They demanded she open both doors at the same time but she pretended not to understand them. When they had been teased enough, Jane opened them both. The die had disappeared.
“Not everything is as it appears,” she said.
This was the final line of her magic routine. She reached into a nearby hat and pulled out the die as if it invisibly jumped through space.
Jaws dropped in amazement. It was her best trick, Jane’s grand finale, an over-the-counter magic shop standard hailed “the sucker die box”—no sleight of hand required and the art of deception at her fingertips.
Later, as the rambunctious kids ate ice cream outside French doors, Jane packed her show away. Kneeling on a thick Persian rug in the master bedroom she paused to gaze at the antique four-post bed, its fine linen, silk pillows and a pure white duvet ironed to perfection. God, it must be nice to be this rich, to wake up in a bed like this. For a brief moment she could daydream until—
“That was great.” The woman of the house was there with purse in hand. “Thank you so much. Brady and his friends loved your act.”
Here was a woman who has everything, this tasteful house, a six-year-old boy, a family of her own. She was the lucky one who woke up every morning in this wonderful bed—obviously with a man who loved her. And worst of all, she appeared to be only a few years older.
“Two hundred dollars, right?” the woman said.
Jane nodded and continued to pack her show away. She felt deep envy, the feeling creeping up into her throat, copper to taste, bitter. She needed a drink of water but did not feel like asking. When she finally stood the woman handed her a check.
“I thought we agreed on cash,” Jane said.
“I didn’t have a chance to get to the bank. I can call my husband and have him drop by the ATM, but he won’t be back until later.”
Jane bit her lip. She needed cash. She could not wait for the stupid husband because she’d be late for class. Jane thanked the woman and took the check without glancing at the total.
Standing in the driveway, still dressed as a clown, Jane waited for her taxi.
She dug out her last thirty dollars and hoped it would be enough to get across town. Once there, she knew she could bum a ride home. This sleepy, tree-lined neighborhood north of Montana Avenue in Santa Monica was once dominated by single-story, pre-war craftsman bungalows. Jane could see that most had been torn down and replaced with two-story, imported-tile McMansions. She found the check to take a look.
No tip. Figures.
Jane wondered why the wealthiest people tipped the worst, or, as in this case, not at all. She hated having to rely on taxis but her car was in the shop again, this time a “broken timing belt,” whatever that was. She’d nicknamed her car rusty-yet-trusty Nissan, but now it was held for ransom by Yuri her mechanic for six hundred dollars plus storage charges since he’d had it so long.
Not long ago she was working for Peduga Investigations when the crazy Rasputin smashed her car’s windshield. Tim paid to replace the glass, plus a little more, and now Jane had nothing to show for it. She suspected Tim wasn’t calling her for surveillance gigs anymore because of that incident.
Being a private investigator seemed flexible enough to allow for her acting pursuits, and Jane figured she could eventually hang her own shingle when she became a licensed PI. She’d done the homework and was collecting paystubs as proof for the required hours needed to get her license.
Then last month, just after the Nissan got out of the body shop, it betrayed her. She’d had to tow it to Yuri’s and the tow alone cost her a hundred and twenty bucks.
But this job, two hundred dollars, would not liberate the Nissan. The money would go towards food, overdue rent and piles of laundry. She would revive her spent pay-as-you-go cell phone, and maybe tackle one or two of the minimum payments from the stack of final notices collecting dust. She checked her watch again. Where was that damn taxi?
Twenty minutes later, in the back of the cab, she peeled off the silly costume. Jane could feel the Arab’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Can you hurry, please? I’m going to be late.”
“I drive fast-as-can, lady. Don’t want speeding ticket.”
With a towel Jane wiped the clown-white off her face. She caught him peering again. She was used to men looking at her, ever since she was a teenager—eyes lingering, drinking her in.
She tried her best to ignore the cabbie, slipped on a white blouse and then removed her athletic bra underneath, a learned maneuver from doing quick-changes backstage in school plays. She stuffed her clown costume into her bag and finally dug out her sides, the script pages with her lines.
On the way to acting class, in clogged Los Angeles traffic, Jane studied her lines.
By the time the meter neared thirty dollars Jane still had more than a mile to go. She told the cabbie to pull over, handed him all the money and apologized for the lack of tip. She could sense his disappointment but there was nothing she could do.
Lugging her suitcase full of magic tricks, wearing a simple white blouse and wrinkled black linen slacks, Jane walked to class, sweating from the heat.
The shabby theater strip on Santa Monica Boulevard, lined with tiny ninety-nine seat theaters, was Hollywood’s equivalent to New York’s Off-Off Broadway. Under a marquee for Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” she rushed past a strung-out prostitute. Upon closer inspection Jane saw the hooker was actually a guy in drag, quite normal for this part of town.
The class had already begun, and Jane tried to slip in unnoticed. No luck. Jeremy Sands, her acting coach whose guidance supposedly had steered a well-known student to an Oscar years ago, stopped mid-lecture.
“Well, look who’s late again,” he said.
The group of acting students seated in the first few rows eyed Jane.
“I’m sorry, Jeremy.”
“What’s that on your face?”
“That…” he said waving his crooked finger at her, “that hideous white stuff, darling. On your face!” Jane ran her sleeve across her forehead, a hint of residual clown white smearing off.
“I…uhm. I do birthday parties,” Jane said quietly.
“I beg your pardon,” he said with flamboyance.
“I was working. As a clown.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
She noticed a new student in the class, an attractive man in a black turtleneck standing in the shadows. He was staring at her. Jane felt two feet tall.
“Everyone else seemed to make it here on time,” Jeremy pointed out. “Face it, Jane, you’re always late. Are you going to be late to the audition of your life?”
Jane said nothing, anger burning. She suspected Jeremy was mad because she was months behind in tuition. She remained silent, eyes downcast. She focused on the chipped paint in the concrete floor.
Jeremy let it hang there for an uncomfortable beat. “We hope not,” he said, followed by a dramatic sigh. “Now, where were we? Heavens, I forget. It doesn’t matter. Let’s shift our energy to an improvisation exercise. Everybody participates, so please break up in pairs.”
Jane was wiping the residual clown white from her face with a Burger King napkin when he approached.
“Try using this.”
Looking up Jane found herself face-to-face with the handsome man in the turtleneck sweater offering his cloth handkerchief. Mid-forties, well-groomed, he was new to the class. She thought it strange a man carried a handkerchief in this day and age.
“Thank you,” she said, reaching for it.
“Let me,” the stranger offered. She hesitated, then Jane closed her eyes and let him dab her face. The cloth felt soft. She caught the scent of his cologne, or maybe it was aftershave, and breathed it in.
“I think I got it all.”
They shook hands. His grasp was firm. Something about him.
Cooper nodded towards Jeremy, “I think he likes you.”
“I don’t think so. He picks on me all the time.”
“Need a partner?”
After class Cooper found her, said, “I know a great place where we can get something to eat.”
“I don’t know…I have to meet a friend,” she said. This was her conditioned response, the excuse she’d often used when men hit on her.
“Maybe some other time.” She didn’t know anything about him. He was older than any of the men she’d dated before.
“You must be hungry. Just a quick bite. No big deal.”
He was so confident, so determined, and she felt uneasy. Jane caught herself twirling her hair. “Maybe next week, after class, we can get a cup of coffee or something.”
“Tonight, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
She felt her nipples alert against her thin blouse. She hoped he hadn’t noticed that she wasn’t wearing a bra, but was pretty sure he had.
White tablecloths, delicate flowers in tiny porcelain vases—Jane and Cooper shared a quiet corner in a quaint bistro tucked away in West Hollywood.
The waiter poured a sample of red wine. Cooper nosed the glass, tasted it, then approved with a nod. The waiter distributed equally and was off.
“Tell me about you,” Cooper said, studying her.
Jane sipped and could tell it was a good bottle, not the under-five dollar twist-cap vintage she drank regularly.
“What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with where you’re from.”
Self-consciously she began to talk. She told him about growing up in Albuquerque, an only child with a single-parent mom. She told him about the semester at the University of Colorado when she caught the acting bug, about driving her Nissan out to L. A. to try to make it as an actress. She told him about her different odd jobs. He was especially intrigued by the work she’d done for the private investigator. She told him about the recent Rasputin incident.
“I’m banking hours so I can get my own license,” she said. “You can’t make any money working for PIs. You’ve got to be your own boss and bill the hours yourself. I figure it’s a gig that will allow me the freedom and flexibility to work as an actress.”
“Are there times,” he asked, “that you impersonate people?”
“Never in person, but I’ve done it over the phone.”
He waited silently until she explained.
“Once I pretended to be a career headhunter to gather information for one of our clients, a woman attorney who practices family law.”
“A deadbeat dad was skipping out on alimony and child support. They tried to garnish wages but he claimed to be unemployed. I got him to admit he was working under the table, and making a pretty good living. The phone call was recorded and he was subpoenaed to appear in court.”
“How’d you get him to spill the beans?”
“I pretended I was really interested in his spa and hot tub business. Flirted a little. Built up his ego and earned his trust, I guess.”
“How’d you do that?”
“Listened mostly. Let him brag about himself. Encouraged him. He took the bait.”
“I bet you’re good at it.”
“I guess so. I’m an actress.”
“Tell me more.”
Jane was careful not to give him too many details. The double-wide trailers she and her mother lived in, the crazy boyfriends she endured, and the fact that she never knew her father. The waiter returned and refilled her glass. She talked about how acting was her complete obsession. All else was secondary.
“I can’t seem to get a break,” she said.
“It will happen. You’re talented,” Cooper said. “You’re a lot better than everyone else in class.”
“Thank you for saying that,” she said, feeling a dash of confidence enhanced by the warming effect of the wine. “What about you? Tell me what you’ve done.”
“What I’ve done?”
“As an actor.”
“I’m really kind of new to it all,” he said. “I thought it might be fun to try because I’ve always been a ham.”
“But Jeremy doesn’t accept just anybody. You had to pass his rigorous audition process to get into the class.”
Cooper shrugged. “Sure.”
“He must have seen something in you,” she said.
“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s fun.” He gave her a playful smile. “I live to have fun. How about you?”
She met his eyes for a moment, had an idea what he meant by that. She looked away without answering, smiled to herself. There was spark and sizzle—a thousand words conveyed in one brief, mischievous moment of silence.
The waiter appeared again with a sliced baguette and duck pate. When Jane took a bite she realized this was the first thing she’d eaten all day, other than three peppermint Lifesavers. Probably why the wine had gone straight to her head.
Cooper drove Jane home that night. His sleek Jaguar made it clear he was wealthy. She liked the smell of the leather upholstery.
When they pulled up outside her shabby apartment complex Jane felt the need to make an excuse. “I lost my roommate and I’m sort of in between places right now.”
He made her feel at ease, insisted that he walk her to the front gate. When he asked to see her again Jane fumbled through her bag and gave him a business card with her picture on it, an actor’s calling card. When Jane first came to Los Angeles, two years ago, she hired a photographer who specialized in creating eight by ten head shots for budding actors. The cards were part of the package.
“Call this number, it texts me,” she explained. “I’ll call right back.”
Cooper raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t have a home phone since this place is a temporary arrangement, and I’m in between cell phones right now because the reception is so bad on this block.” The truth was Verizon had shut off her landline months ago, the heartless bastards, and there was no “talk time” credit left on her pay-as-you-go cell phone.
After an affectionate peck on the cheek, Cooper bid Jane goodnight and casually drifted off, a perfect gentleman.
Jane crawled into bed happy. She marveled how her day started out so awful but then, in the blink of an eye, turned so wonderful. For one magical evening she’d been able to forget her troubles.
She thought about him, tried to remember his scent, definitely in the mood. She imagined he was in bed next to her, and then the endless possibilities.
Pre-Order the Kindle version for $1.99 until JULY 15
Will be available as an ebook and paperback