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Golden Globe-nominated actor Blair Underwood, together with best-selling authors Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, has written a smart and sexy murder mystery set in the drama-filled city of Los Angeles. In “Casanegra: A Tennyson Hardwick Novel,” a former gigolo and struggling actor finds himself caught up in the mysterious, bizarre death of a rap star. Here's an excerpt:
Here’s what you need to know: I hate lines. That’s the only reason I stopped by Roscoe’s that day. I would explain this to the guys from Robbery-Homicide, not that LAPD ever believes a word I say. But it’s the truth.
Any other day, if I had swung by Roscoe’s Chicken N’ Waffles on Gower and Sunset, there would have been customers waiting in the plastic chairs lining the sidewalk, hoping for a table inside out of the sun’s reach. Me, I would have driven straight by. I love Roscoe’s, but what did I just say? I hate lines. Lines are an occupational hazard for actors looking for work, so I seriously hate lines on my days off. Maybe it was because it was ten forty-five on a Monday morning–too late for breakfast and too early for lunch–but the sidewalk outside Roscoe’s was empty, so I pulled over to grab some food.
Chance. Happenstance. Karma. Whatever you call it, I walked in by accident.
As anybody in this town knows, some people give off a magnetic field. A few lucky ones have it naturally; and some, like me, have worked on it over time. A certain walk, the right clothes, a strategic combination of aloofness and familiarity. When I walk into a room, strangers’ eyes fix on me like a calculus problem they can’t solve: I know you from somewhere. You must be somebody, what’s-his-name on TV, or Whozit, from that movie that just came out. Being noticed has always been an important part of my work—hell, half the people in L.A. moved here hoping to refine the art of being noticed, with no cost too high. By now, it’s second nature. Customers looked up from their plates and lowered their voices when I walked into Roscoe’s.
Later, half a dozen people would describe me down to the shoes I was wearing: White suede Bruno Magli loafers. Bone-colored light ribbed sweater. White linen pants. Gucci shades. Any cop knows that if you ask six people for a description, you get six different stories. Not this time. One 76-year-old grandmother at a table in the back had the nerve to tell the cops, “I don’t think he was wearing anything under those tight white pants.” I’m not lying. And she was right. They noticed me, down to religious preference.
But as I walked through the door of Roscoe’s, I tripped over someone else’s magnetic field. The air in that place was crackling, electrified. It made the hair on my neck and arms stand up. Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction when those two small-timers tried to hold up a diner, not knowing the customers included Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, stone-cold killers there for a quick breakfast after blowing away three dumb-ass kids? Well, either somebody was about to hold Roscoe’s up at gunpoint, or someone close to royalty was eating there. Had to be one or the other.
“Hey, Ten,” Gabe said, nodding at me from behind the cash register.
“Everything cool, man?”
“Cool as a Monday’s gonna’ be.” Gabe looked busy, counting the dollar bills from his cash drawer with meaty fingers. Gabe was a short, fleshy brother with worried eyes and a low BS quotient. He wouldn’t tolerate a holdup without showing something in his face, even if someone had a gun jammed in his back. I tilted my head to scan the tables to see whose magnetic field was trumping mine.
I didn’t see Serena at first.
Although there were only six customers in the place and she was sitting alone at the corner table, she fooled my eyes and I looked right past her. All I’d seen was a petite, busty brown-skinned girl with a braided crimson weave and a baggy white track suit, like countless ghetto goddesses I pass every day. If someone had asked me at the time, I wouldn’t have recalled her as all that attractive, much less someone I knew. It was her voice that gave her away, that raspy, spiced honey that would be unforgettable even if it wasn’t one of the best-known voices in the world.
“Oh, so you ain’t talkin’ today?” she said, a smile peeling from her lips.
There isn’t a man alive who could have blinked an eye, taken a breath or remembered his middle name for at least two seconds after seeing that smile aimed his way. The girl froze me where I stood, my ass hovering six inches above my chair.
Serena Johnston. Damn. The girl was a chameleon. Some women need an hour in front of a makeup mirror to make the kind of transformation Serena could make in a blink, just in the slant of her chin and something riveting in her eyes. All of a sudden, she’d gone from nobody I needed to know to a creature like the ones described in longing song lyrics by the great, dead soul singers—all the woman any man could ever need. Her face filled my head with memories of every other inch of her.
The world might know her as Afrodite—the superstar rapper whose first two movies had both scaled the $100 million peak, making her a straight-up movie star too—but she’d always be Serena to me. Five years ago, the last time I’d seen her, films were just a dream she was chasing the way a freezing man might fan a glowing ember. I knew she’d get it going sooner or later, but nobody could have expected her to rise so fast. I couldn’t even take it personally that she hadn’t returned either of my phone messages—one to congratulate her on her first blockbuster, the second to give my condolences after the rapper Shareef, a friend of hers, was killed the night of his Staples Center concert soon after the last time I saw her. I knew Serena had known Shareef almost all her life, and he’d started her career, so that must have torn a hole in her heart. She didn’t call back either time. A woman that hot was too busy for niceties.
Besides, I figured she was too much like me. The past was the past.
And now here she was. Here we were.
Stupid me. I thought it was my lucky day.
I went to Serena’s table and leaned over to kiss her cheek, soft as satin. I caught a whiff of sandalwood and jasmine, last night’s fragrance. So, the fan rags were right: she wore Christian’s Number One. Girlfriend had come a long way. My clothes and watch were worth four-hundred dollars more than my bank balance, and this woman could afford damn near two-thousand Gs for a bottle of perfume. It’s a wonder I could even see Serena beyond the massive chasm that separated our prospects. Being that close to magic made me ache.
“My father raised me not to speak to ladies unless I was spoken to,” I said.
A ray of girlishness transformed her smile, and I felt a tug from somewhere new. “No ladies at this table, T.”
“So, where’s your crew, Big-Time? No assistant? No entourage?”
“T., I’m a big girl. I don’t need no babysitter to eat waffles. If you were anybody else, I’d give you a peck and say hey, and then I’d tell you I’m not in the mood for company, so give me a call sometime. But instead, I’m hoping you’ll shut up and sit down. Damn, you smell good. But that’s not Opium.”
“Not anymore,” I said. I’d given up all my old fragrances five years ago. All I wore now was Aqua di Gio, leaving the exotic Oriental spices behind. I couldn’t wear Opium, Gucci Envy, any of them. There’s something about cologne: It can make you a different man. Whenever I went back to my old fragrances, I itched for old habits.
Serena rested her chin on both fists, studying me like I mattered. “How you doin’?” Her eyes said she wanted me to say I was doing fine. Great. Never been better.
“Fine, darlin’. Great. Never better.”
“Don’t lie to me, T. For real.”
Right then, I wanted to tell her about the past month. I could feel the story clawing from my stomach, trying to break free. A bad taste flooded my mouth, and I took the liberty of sipping from her water glass. Serena had never minded sharing. “Everybody goes through changes now and then. You know how it is. You?”
“Fine. Great. Never better.”
Two liars, then. Serena’s eyes didn’t look like they belonged to a woman who owned her own powerhouse production company and had more brokers on her speed-dial than a girl from the Baldwin Village “Jungle” had any right to fantasize about. I might as well have been staring into my own problems. If I could have, I would have yanked Serena away from whatever was bothering her and taken her to my favorite Maui spot, an out-of-the-way beach where the sun-crisped tourists don’t treat locals like their personal valets. Just for a few days. We wouldn’t have to say a word. The otherworldly sunsets would have cleansed us beyond anything language could provide.
I’m not the wishing type, but I wish I could have done that for Serena.
“I’ve got a steady gig,” I told her. “Deodorant commercials.”
“I thought that was you. What else you got going on?”
“One gig pays the rent, for now. My agent isn’t worth shit. You ever heard this joke? An actor comes home and his house has burned to the ground. His wife is bruised up, her dress torn. She sobs, ‘Your agent came to the house, he raped me, he killed our children, and he burned up everything we own.’ The actor says: ‘My AGENT came to the house? What did he say?’”
I’d hoped to win another smile from Serena. I got a smile and a laugh.
“I feel you. That’s harsh,” she said.
“If I can get my agent to call me back two weeks later, hey, it’s all good. I must be sentimental, or maybe I’m just too lazy to shop around.”
That was only half the story. Blaming your agent is a city-wide pastime in Hollywood. If I hadn’t scored the Dry Xtreme gig, Len would have given up on me. Before the commercials, I hadn’t made him any money in eighteen months. Len could have cut me loose in the ‘90s, but he never had. We had been together for ten years, longer than his marriage. Len used to think I was going places. On rare occasions, he still believed it.
“You’re a lot of things, T., but you ain’t lazy. Or sentimental.”
A lilac business card materialized on the table in front of me. Casanegra Productions, read the black embossed script, which I could see was modeled after the script on the Casablanca movie poster. Classy. I also recognized the name on the card: Devon Biggs. He was from Serena’s old neighborhood, a friend she and Shareef had known since elementary school. Apparently, Biggs was the gatekeeper to her empire.
“Call him today. Tell him I told you to call,” Serena said.
“Nah, girl. I was just playing. I’m doing fine.”
It didn’t feel right. Don’t get me wrong: I gave up the luxury of pride long ago. But both times I’d met Devon Biggs, back when I was hanging with Serena, he’d looked at me with a combination of pity and scorn that set my teeth on edge. I’d chew my leg off before I called that smug SOB.
“Don’t hurt my feelings, T. I’ve got two or three things popping I could use you for. Speaking parts, too. Good parts, and I need someone who can fight. You have to audition, but this is the short line—and I know you hate lines. Talk to Dev.”
A snap of her finger, and she could change my life. Maybe it was a combination of my usual insomnia the night before, an empty stomach and the pile of unpaid bills stuffed in my kitchen drawer, but I wanted to hug Serena like a sister right then. I don’t know why the hell I didn’t.
There I go, wishing again.
I was down to one of my last cards, since I’d been leaving them all over town. In my hand was the card I was saving for my chance encounter with Steven Spielberg outside of Mel’s Drive-In or Spago, but instead I gave it to Serena. Nothing special—just my name, head shot, cell number and P.O. Box. Tennyson Hardwick—Actor at Large.
Serena smiled when she saw it. If I’d had more to spare, I would have given her a dozen to coax out that smile again.
“You look like you’ve got your own stories, Mighty Afrodite.”
I knew Serena would never take the bait, but for some reason I gave it a try.
Serena lived far behind her eyes, and always had. Sure enough, she only shrugged as if she hadn’t heard me.
I was hungry as hell by the time the waitress came to ask what I wanted, but I noticed that Serena’s plate was empty and her check was already waiting, so I only ordered coffee. I didn’t want Serena to think I expected her to sit while I ate my meal, and I didn’t want to be sitting alone at the table when she got up and walked back into her life. I didn’t have room for any more empty spaces, not that day.
“How’s your dad?” Serena said once the waitress was gone.
I felt my face harden into steel. I wasn’t going to talk about my father, especially on an empty stomach. “Same old same old. What’s up with your sister?”
I got steel in return. “Same shit, different decade.”
Small-talk had never been our forte, I remembered.
“Do you know how to use those espresso machines, T.?”
“Why? You got some restaurants you’re hiring for, too?”
Serena gave me the finger. The gesture would have been coarse from anyone else, but I appreciated how slender her finger was, how smooth the skin, how delicate the pearl coloring on her nail; it seemed more like a bawdy promise. Serena took that same finger and dabbed from a pool of syrup on her plate, then gently kissed the pad clean.
“Because, T., I was thinking…somebody I work with gave me one of those machines—a housewarming gift. And it’s been sitting up on my kitchen counter for six months because people I came with on can’t even pronounce `espresso.’ And if you’re not too in love with that cup of coffee you just ordered, maybe you could skip it and make yourself a cup at my place. Like a virgin voyage.”
It took my mind a second to register that she had just invited me to her place. I expected her to break out into a laugh, to own up to the joke.
She didn’t. She was waiting for my answer.
As if a sane man could utter any answer except one.
Gabe could barely contain his smirk as I held the door open for Serena. She walked out into the mid-morning sunshine, brightening the day. “You take care, Ten,” Gabe said with a wink.
“It’s not what you think, man.”
But at that moment, I wasn’t sure what it was. And I didn’t care.
Outside, Serena and I almost ran headfirst into a man who looked like he might have been a linebacker in his younger days; broad from the neck down. Serena’s not an inch more than five-foot-two, and in his shadow, she looked like an acorn that had dropped from a tree. The man’s smallish eyes were locked on Serena’s face. Whether he meant to or not, he was blocking our path.
“Hey,” the man said, dumbstruck except for the single word.
“I get that a lot,” Serena said. “It’s not me. We just look alike.”
The man raised his pointing finger, his head drooping down so low to the side that it almost rested on his shoulder. “Oh, uh-uh,” he said, not fooled. “Afrodite. Hey, it’s Afrodite!” He was shouting, raising the alarm like it was his civic duty.
Back when I knew Serena, she was still dusting off the asphalt of Crenshaw and Jefferson, taking diction and acting classes in a quest for refinement so Hollywood would see her as more than a famous face with a lucrative demographic. In The Jungle, if someone had stepped up on her like this fool, Afrodite would have cussed him out, then kneed his groin if he didn’t take the hint. But not this day. I felt Serena shrink against me as if she thought she could vanish.
Yeah, something was wrong.
“Hey, playa, give us some room,” I said. The man had a good four inches on me, but no one would have known that by my eyes. “My lady says you made a mistake.”
The man was ten years my senior, probably in his mid-forties, but he was still thick and solid. I’d much rather negotiate with a two-hundred-thirty-pound man than fight. Wouldn’t anybody? But I’d already made up my mind that if he didn’t take two steps back to let us by, I was going to break his instep. Something about Serena’s trusting weight against me made me feel like taking chances.
A light went out in the man’s eyes. I could see that he was a big man who sometimes forgot his size, and he hadn’t meant anything by it. He backed up. “My bad. She sure looks like her, though. You got a twin, baby-girl.”
I took Serena’s hand as she led me down Sunset, where her downy white Escalade was parked at a meter. I knew it from the rear plate: CASANEG. I felt her tiny fingers tremor against mine.
“It’s not like the old days, Serena. You need a minder.”
“I got one. He’s off today.”
“Then you need two. You can’t be out alone.”
As she zapped off her car alarm and the taillights flashed a greeting, Serena looked up at me with irritation and something else that made my stomach queasy. A shadow cut her face in half, and a single brown-green eye, glimmering in the sun, was searching me in a way she never had. “You looking for that job too?”
“I’m not working today.”
“Who said you were, Tennyson?” Hearing her voice wrapped around my Christian name made me remember that my mother had named me for a poet.
A wall of heat rose with her as she stepped onto her Escalade’s running board to bring us to eye-level. There was only one thing to do: Right there on the street in front of ten other witnesses, I kissed Serena Johnston as though I had the right.
Excerpted from “Casanegra: A Tennyson Hardwick Novel” by Blair Underwood, Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Copyright © June 2007 by Blair Underwood, Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.