The editor of Palm Springs Noir, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, writes in the introduction:
“The best noir writers make us feel the heat of the sun, the touch of a lover. Setting can be gritty but can also be sublime, no longer relegated to urban locales and seedy hotel rooms but also mansions and swimming pools. Hence, Palm Springs, which may seem like an odd setting for a collection of dark short stories—it’s so sunny and bright here. The quality of light is unlike anywhere else, and with an average of 300 sunny days a year, what could go wrong? …
“The stories in this collection come on like the wicked dust storms common to the area. More than half are by writers who live here full-time; all have homes in Southern California. They know this place in ways visitors and outsiders never will. These are not stories you’ll read in the glossy coffee-table books that feature Palm Springs’ good life. There is indeed a lush life to be found here, but for the characters in these stories, it’s often just out of reach.”
Palm Springs Noir, which will be released on July 6, is the latest in Akashic Books’ award-winning series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each book includes all new stories, each one set in a distinct location within the geographic area of the book. Palm Springs Noir includes brand-new stories by T. Jefferson Parker, Janet Fitch, Eric Beetner, Kelly Shire, Tod Goldberg, Michael Craft, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, Rob Roberge, J.D. Horn, Eduardo Santiago, Rob Bowman, Chris J. Bahnsen, Ken Layne and Alex Espinoza.
At 7 p.m., Thursday, July 15, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett will join Janet Fitch, Tod Goldberg, Alex Espinoza and Michael Craft in a conversation moderated by Corey Roskin. This free virtual event, by the Rancho Mirage Public Library, will take place on Zoom; no advance registration is required. Get details at www.ranchomiragelibrary.org.
Here is an excerpt of from “VIP Check-In,” by Michael Craft.
The move, the new job, the fresh beginning, none of that was my idea. But for two men, together for years—hell, decades—the time had come to plot a path toward retirement. And to Dr. Anthony Gascogne, ophthalmologist, Palm Springs felt like the logical destination. To me, not so much.
That was seven years ago, when Anthony was dead set on relocating his practice from L.A. Because I balked, he said I could join him in the business as his office manager and assistant. My lackluster career as an actor and model had sputtered to a standstill, so I tagged along to the desert. Soon after, when the law finally allowed, he asked me to marry him.
Then, two years ago, Anthony divorced me. And fired me. And my career path took another unexpected turn—a much darker turn.
Starting over, pushing 60, I was broke, unemployed, and couch-surfing.
On the brighter side, I was now in Palm Springs.
Well-heeled snowbirds fled for the long summers, but for the rest of us, 12 months of sunshine provided a constant tan, inspiring me to stay fit. And while the sizable gay populace skewed toward the rickety side of Medicare, this demographic twist had its upside: In the eyes of the local gentry, I was still pretty hot (which had a little something to do with the divorce).
My immediate need for income and a cheap apartment led me to consider—briefly—a stint as an escort. But I wasn’t getting any younger, and time would quickly take its toll, as it had on my starstruck dreams, so I settled on a bartending gig to get back on my feet. When I took the job, the manager said, “We already have a Danny.” He rummaged through a drawer and pulled out a name tag. “Here you go: Dante.”
The job lasted only five months, but the name stuck, trailing me as I sniffed around for more durable employment. And that’s when a friend tipped me off to a vacation-rental agency that had an immediate opening for a field inspector. I landed the job, which involved checking the condition of properties before guests arrived and after they left. My duties also included occasional VIP check-ins and minor service calls during their stay.
“Yes?” crackled the intercom after I rang the doorbell.
“Dante from Sunny Junket.”
A befuddled pause. “What?”
“My name’s Dante. I’m from Sunny Junket Vacation Rentals.”
“Oh. Just a minute.”
This was one of our premier properties, up in the Little Tuscany neighborhood, where the bohemian feel of steep, winding streets gave no hint of the million-dollar views enjoyed by residents behind their walled courtyards. In the gravel parking court on that rare cloudy afternoon in February, my battered Camry looked especially pathetic—huddled next to an elegant champagne-colored SUV. When did Bentley start making those?
The party of two was registered under the name Edison Quesada Reál, booked for 11 nights, the entire duration of Modernism Week. It was a prime booking in high season, costing north of a thousand a day. The office said the guy was a bigwig art dealer from L.A., and they wanted him happy, so they sent me out for the VIP treatment.
I intended to greet them when they arrived at the house, but they’d driven over early, letting themselves in with the keypad code we provided. The front door now rattled as someone fussed with the lock from inside. I waited with my slim folder of paperwork, standing under the cantilevered roof of the boulder-lined entryway. A small peeping bird flitted from the top of a barrel cactus and darted into the darkening sky when the door swung open.
“Well, hello.” His Asian eyes widened with interest as he sized me up.
I grinned, returning the once-over. He didn’t fit my picture of anyone named Edison Quesada Reál. And he was too young for a titan of the art world, maybe in his 30s. He had delicate features and a prettiness about him, like a twink who’d grown up, but he’d also hit the gym and was pleasingly buff, for a short guy. I’ve always had a thing for short guys.
I reached to shake hands. “I’m Dante. Welcome.”
“And I’m Clarence Kwon. Friends call me Clark.”
“Hi there”—I smiled—“Clark.”
“C’mon in,” he said, stepping aside and closing the door after me. He was dressed with the casual sophistication of moneyed L.A.—wispy calfskin loafers, tailored slacks, and a clingy cream-colored cashmere sweater with its arms shoved up to his elbows. Nice pecs. Good guns.
By contrast, I looked dorky in dad jeans and a yellow polo shirt embroidered with the Sunny Junket logo. Gesturing to myself, I told Clark, “They make me wear this.”
He laughed. “You look great.” And I half believed him as he wagged me along, leading me toward the back of the house.
As we entered the main room, the view opened up from a wall of glass. Although I had seen it many times, the elevated vista never failed to stop me cold. Even on that gloomy day, I caught my breath as the city spread out below, peeking through the crowns of distant palms. Sloping down from one side, granite mountains muscled into the scene to wrap around the city. Above, in a vast gray sky, clouds slowly roiled, snagged on the barren shards of the horizon.
“Edison,” said Clark, “the guy from the agency is here.”
Seated at the center of the huge window, facing out, mere inches from the glass, a man in a wheelchair remained dead still for a moment. Then he grasped both wheels. The rings adorning his hands clanged the chrome rims as he turned the chair to face me.
I stepped toward him.
“Stop,” he said sharply. “Let me get a look at you.”
I waited. He was older than me, well into his 70s, and way too heavy to be healthy. Though stuck in a wheelchair, he was smartly dressed—to the point of flamboyance—with a silk scarf of peacock blue around his neck. I shot him a smile.
“Forgive me if I don’t get up,” he said. “If I could, I’d kiss you.” He spoke with a worldly refinement and the trace of a Castilian lisp.
I moved to the wheelchair. “But I hardly know you.”
He grinned as we shook hands. “You’re quite the cheeky little cabbage, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been called many things, Mr. Quesada Reál. But never a cabbage.”
He let out a feeble roar of a laugh. “Please, please—it’s Edison.”
“And I’m Dante.”
“Of course you are.” His tone sounded almost suspicious. Had he seen through my act, the stagey name, the swarthy tan?
Clark moved to the far end of the room, near the long dining table, where he fussed with several piles of art prints, all of them protected by plastic sleeves. While arranging them vertically in wood-slatted browsing racks, he called over to me, “Did you bring us something to sign?”
“No, actually, that was handled online. I just need to snap a picture of the credit card you’ll use for payment—and a driver’s license to verify the name.”
Edison noted, “I don’t drive. You’ll need to handle this, precious.”
The younger man stopped his sorting. With an impatient sigh, he pulled his wallet from a pocket, slid out his license and an AmEx, and plopped them on the table. “This what you need?”
“You bet.” I went over and took pictures of the cards with my phone. I noticed that Clarence Kwon was 34, which could not have been half Edison’s age. I assumed they were a couple; even though their rental was one of our most expensive properties, it had only one bedroom. I explained, “For these pedigreed houses, we run the charges every other day.”
Clark shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Perfectly understandable,” said Edison, wheeling himself in our direction. “You know I’m good for it, precious.”
Clark said nothing as he resumed sorting the artwork.
Edison continued, “Truth be told, no price would be too high for this.” He flung both arms, a gesture that embraced the whole house. Then he leaned forward, beading me with a milky stare. “Do you know who designed this, Dante?”
“Umm, I’ve heard, but …”
Edison sat back, twining the plump fingers of both hands. “Alva Kessler designed and built this house for himself shortly before he died in the late fifties. He envisioned it as a pure, modernist vacation ‘cabin’—a sleek exercise in glass and steel. Truly magnificent, yes? In its sheer minimalism, it’s every bit as fresh and avant-garde as it was sixty years ago. And now, for a while, it’s all mine.” Edison paused, turning his head toward Clark. “I mean, it’s all ours.”
“Right,” said Clark, looking peeved. “Ours, when I’m not at the convention center.”
I asked, “The art sale? I know it’s a big deal during Modernism. I went once.”
“Once”—Edison sniffed—”is enough.”
Clark added, “If you’ve seen one lava lamp, or one Noguchi table, you’ve seen’m all.”
Edison explained that his Los Angeles gallery, Quesada Fine Prints—which dealt in original graphic art, no reproductions—had rented exhibit space where they would offer collectors a wide selection of lithographs, engravings, and screen prints from the mid-1900s. The bulk of their inventory had already been delivered to the convention center, with two of their staffers setting up for the show. The most valuable works, however, would remain here at the house, with Clark showing them by appointment or delivering them for consideration by high-end buyers.
Listening to these details, I stepped over to one of the racks to take a look and was instantly drawn to a smaller print, less than a foot high. “This is great,” I said, breaking into a smile as I lifted it from the bin. “It would sure be at home in Palm Springs.” Bright and colorful, it was a blotchy depiction of a swimming pool.
“That’s a David Hockney,” said Clark. “Limited-edition lithograph, signed artist’s proof, mint condition. At this show, it’s our jewel in the crown.”
Edison said, “Sell that one to the right buyer, precious, and you’ll get the other Bentley.” He turned to tell me, “Clark’s been wanting the convertible.”
Gingerly, I handed the Hockney to Clark, who said, “Edison is exaggerating.” He glanced at the coded sticker on the back of the plastic sleeve, adding, “Or maybe not.”
“I’m feeling peckish,” said Edison. “Some trifle would help.”
Under his breath, Clark told me, “He’s been a bit much lately.”
Edison reminded us, “I can hear you.”
Clearly seething, Clark turned to the wheelchair. “I’m not your coolie servant.”
“But you are.” Edison chuckled. “You can leave, if you want—but you won’t. And I can’t divorce you, can I? Far too costly. Face it, precious: we’re stuck.”
Rain began to spit against the expansive window and drip in long tendrils, streaking the glass from top to bottom, rippling the million-dollar view.
Hoping to defuse the tension, I asked, “Is there anything I can help you with?”
Edison gave me a lecherous look. “Like … what?”
“I’d show you through the house, but you’re already settled in. It’s an older place, has a few quirks. The electronics are all new. Most guests have questions.”
Edison said, “We’ll figure it out.” Then he blurted, “Pink fluff!”
Bewildered, I looked to Clark for guidance.
Still sorting prints, he spoke to me over his shoulder. “We brought a few things that need to go in the fridge—including the raspberry trifle. Could you?”
“Sure.” The galley kitchen opened into the main room from the street side of the house. While the A/V system was up-to-the-minute, the kitchen had retro appliances with a midcentury vibe. The vintage refrigerator was a hulking old Philco in red porcelain enamel; the doors of the top freezer and the main compartment both featured elaborate chrome-handled latches.
Edison wheeled in behind me, watching as I hefted five or six shopping bags from the floor to the countertop. They held a few canned goods and liquor bottles, which I set aside, but they were mostly filled with clear plastic containers brimming with a sludgy concoction that Edison had aptly described as pink fluff. Two bags contained ingredients to make more of it—box after box of fresh raspberries, jars of raspberry jam and Melba sauce, several hefty packages of pound cake. A zippered thermal bag contained at least a dozen rattling cans of aerosol whipped cream.
“Now,” Edison barked with a wild look in his eyes, “pink fluff!”
I removed the lid from one of the Tupperware tubs.
“Smell it,” he commanded.
Whoa. The recipe had been lavishly spiked with Cointreau. The piercing boozy scent of orange melded with the tart perfume of crushed berries, making both my mouth and my eyes water.
“Now,” he repeated, reaching with trembling hands.
I gave it to him, then slid a drawer open. “Fork? Or spoon?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He looked ready to slop into it with his fingers. I gave him a spoon.
He rolled a few feet back and gobbled the trifle. Between swallows, he groaned and gurgled.
I glanced over at Clark, who seemed unfazed by this behavior. In fact, he gave me a thumbs-up. So, I returned to the task of putting things away. I had to tug at the Philco’s heavy ornamental latch (which brought to mind the hardware on a casket) and soon had the beast filled. Its condenser hummed in earnest.
Edison was now banging his spoon on the sides of the plastic container as he scraped at the last of the trifle. I asked if he needed anything else from me, but he shook his head without looking up from his scavenging.
I stepped around the wheelchair, took my folder from the dining table, and told Clark I was leaving. He followed me toward the front of the house.
When I stepped outside, he went with me and gently closed the door behind us. We stood together on the landscaped walkway, protected by the jutting cantilever of the roof. It rained heavily now—straight down, with no wind to drive it—like a translucent curtain blurring the gray afternoon. Raindrops danced wildly on the windshield of the polished Bentley. In the hushed racket of the pelting water, the world was still.
“It’s … exhausting,” said Clark, his words no louder than a whisper as he gazed into the courtyard.
Nodding, Clark turned to me. “Ten years ago, I knew what I was getting into, and I was sure I could deal with the age difference. He’s always been pampered and fussy—that was part of his charm. But now, Jesus. It gets worse by the month, like he’s regressing into childhood. You’ve seen the pink fluff; that’s been going on awhile. As of last week, about the only other thing he’s willing to eat is canned spaghetti, like a kid.”
I’d noticed the SpaghettiOs while unpacking in the kitchen.
Clark said, “What’s next—diapers?”
He was quiet for a moment, then laughed. Stepping near, he clasped my hand with both of his. “You’ve been super, Dante. Really helpful. Thank you.”
I grinned. “Anything else, just let me know.”
He moved closer still, brushing against me and lolling his head back to fix me in his stare. His dark almond-shaped eyes appeared black in the dusky shadows that hugged us. I could hear him breathing. I could almost hear his thoughts. Was he open to a fleeting kiss? Or did he want something less innocent—something more animal and lusty?
When his lips parted, he broke the spell. “Can you fix this weather?”
I backed off a few inches. “It’ll dry up. We never get much, but they say we need it.”
“Yeah,” he agreed coyly, “we need it.”
Which left me unsure if this was small talk—or foreplay. Either way, the time was right for a quick exit. I turned to leave but paused. “Enjoy your Sunny Junket.”
Clark rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. They make you say that.”
With a wink, I sprinted off toward my car.
Excerpted from “VIP Check-In” by Michael Craft, copyright 2021 Michael Craft, originally published in Palm Springs Noir, edited by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, used with permission of the author and Akashic Books.