Alexa usually projected strength and determination, but around Nora she became strangely girlish. With Nora, she giggled. Sometimes, as Shane watched them together, he would get a glimpse of what his wife must have been like as a child.

'Shane, Alexa, thank you guys for coming. You're the best.' Nora flashed her irresistible smile, then hugged Alexa. 'I love that outfit, where did you get it?'

'This? It was on sale at May Company.' Alexa wrinkled her nose in apology. 'It's just an Adrienne Vittadini copy.'

'On you it looks like a Dior original.' Nora turned to the handsome fifty-five-year-old man beside her. 'You guys haven't met Farrell. Farrell, these are my dearest friends in L. A., the Scullys.'

Farrell grinned, and they shook hands and all started frantically searching for common ground.

'Nora, you didn't tell me Alexa would be so sexy. This is no meter maid you've got here, Shane.'

Nine out of ten guys who said something like that would have pissed Shane off. Not that he was overly jealous, but there was some primal piece of him that didn't like handsome guys fawning over his wife or calling her sexy. But Farrell got away with it. Something in Farrell's demeanor said 'Just kidding, don't take this the wrong way.' He had a personality… Shane hated the word, but okay, a vibe that was warm, engaging, and funny. In seconds, Shane could feel himself being won over.

Furthermore, Farrell Champion was extremely attractive and his looks drew you to him. He was fit, but not muscle-bound, not a fanatic. His silver-gray hair was swept back off his tanned forehead and his dark eyes looked right at you, focusing, making you feel important.

'What a beautiful house… It's refreshing to see this kind of architecture on the beach.' Shane couldn't believe such an egregiously phony sentence had come gushing out of him.

'Making movies isn't brain surgery, Shane. You gotta take all of this with a grain of salt,' Farrell whispered with a wink. 'No matter what anybody tells you, show business isn't creative art, it's a racket.'

'Did you see the engagement ring?' Nora said, throwing her hand out for Alexa's examination. The diamond was huge-over six carats.

'My God, Nora, you must need someone to carry your hand around for you.'

Farrell grinned. 'Listen, you guys, I think everyone's here now, so I can stop standing in the entry like a nervous doorman. Come on in. Shane, can I get you and Alexa something? How about some white wine, or I have mixed drinks.'

'Alexa likes chardonnay, I'll take scotch,' Shane said.

Farrell steered Nora and Alexa into the plush living room full of beautiful people, then left them staring at the high-profile crowd while he headed toward the bar. Alexa grabbed Nora's hand and squeezed it.

'My God, Nora… he's gorgeous.'

'Not bad, huh?' Nora grinned back. 'After all those foul tips, I finally got some wood on the ball.'

Shane nodded and smiled broadly, the kind of smile you wear when you can't think of a damn thing to say. He had come here fully prepared to hate Farrell Champion… hate him for his fame and success, his wealth and connections; hate him just for having a name like Farrell Champion. But in forty-five seconds or less, while standing in the doorway, Farrell had completely rewired all those feelings, leaving Shane groping for a new take.

Shane's eyes were sweeping the party. Everybody who was anybody in L. A. was there. He spotted faces he had only seen in People magazine.

'There's Kobe Bryant,' he whispered, seeing the Lakers' great only a few feet away talking to ex-Mayor Riordan. Then Farrell was back, handing out drinks.

'Alexa, you had chardonnay… Shane, scotch rocks-that's Dewar's, hope you like it… Nora, here's your Campari and soda.' Then Farrell took them both by the arm and steered them through the room. 'Come on, let me introduce you to some friends.' So off they went, on a celebrity tour of L. A.

'Nicole Kidman, this is Nora's dear friend Alexa Scully and her husband, Shane.' The beautiful Australian actress smiled warmly, shook their hands, and they exchanged a few remarks. Then Farrell moved them on. 'And this is L. A.'s resident bad boy, Jack the Mack… Jacko, want you to meet some friends of Nora's…' Jack fucking Nicholson, Shane thought, feeling starstruck as he shook the famous actor's hand.

More small talk until Farrell carried them along… 'Barbra and Jim live just down the street. Meet Nora's dear friends, Shane and Alexa.' It was Streisand and Brolin.

It went on like that until finally Alexa got pulled away by Nora to meet some of the other bridesmaids, and Shane had to go to the bathroom. He used the one in the hall, thinking he was having a great time in spite of himself. This was one pretty amazing party.

When Shane came out of the bathroom he ran into the last person he would have ever expected to find at Farrell Champion's house.

Chapter 2

THE BAD JOKE

Nicky Marcella was waiting to get into the guest john as Shane exited. They looked at each other like competing art thieves casing a Sotheby's auction.

'My God, Shane Scully,' Nicky said. He was wearing a beautifully tailored, if somewhat gaudy, orangish-brown suit-or was it brownish-orange? — hard to tell because the colors strobed when he moved. Either way, it took some doing to pull off. Maybe the suit was helped by the fact that there wasn't all that much of it-Nicky being only five- foot-five, top to bottom, including his stacked Cuban heels. He was also rail thin-Mick Jagger thin. He had black hair, close-cut on the sides and slightly longer on the top. He was wearing an open-collared silk shirt with a few too many gold chains. His smile was warm, but he was narrow-faced and strangely ferretlike.

'Nicky, how you been?'

'Staying outta jail, I'll tell you that much.'

'Glad to hear it,' Shane said, and he was. He hadn't seen Marcella in four years. Nicky was a Hollywood character. When Shane met him he was doing street-corner cons-green-goods hustles and pigeon drops. Shane had first busted him when he was still a rookie working vice in Hollywood. He'd rolled him up twice more in the Valley when he was riding around in a plain Jane doing a straight eight in uniform. Sometime in the mid-nineties Nicky had switched from short cons to running bets for bookmakers, then had taken a short fall and ended up doing a bullet in County. When he got out, he moved on to straight-up bookmaking, writing betting slips out of a porn shop on Little Melrose. Nicky Marcella had dabbled in the criminal arts for almost the whole fifteen years Shane had known him, and now here he was, in Farrell Champion's house, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood's elite.

'Whatta you up to? Or should I just count the silver?' Shane smiled.

'Can't blame you for that, Shane. But I'm clean as the Board of Health these days. Just a minute, don't go away, gotta tap a kidney.'

Nicky pushed past him into the bathroom while Shane stood outside wondering what on earth Nicky Marcella was doing at this party full of heavy-lifters. Even so, Shane had to admit that, over the years, he'd come to enjoy the guy. Nicky had an infectious personality and never took himself too seriously. Of course, he was shamefully easy to arrest, a wonderful quality in a criminal. No toe-to-toe scuffling or bruised ribs with Nicky. At five-foot-five, he was not the kind of perp who fried your nerves with adrenal overload. Nicky was also a fountain of gossip. Shane would sometimes put the word out on the street, with his C. I.'s and snitches, that he needed some particular piece of intelligence, and more times than he could remember, Nicky Marcella would be the one to call in and drop the science on him.

Another strange thing was that Nicky never wanted anything in return. It was almost as if he were trying to buy Shane's friendship, not his gratitude. And slowly, over the years, Nicky had managed to do it. Shane had really come to like the little grifter in that strange way that cops can like criminals but still not respect them.

The door opened and Nicky walked out smiling. 'Man, you look great. You got a trainer?'

'Yeah, the P. T. instructor at the Academy.'

Nicky nodded and shifted his weight. 'Don't tell that to any of those silks out there,' he said, pointing toward the room full of celebrities. 'In this crowd, you gotta have a personal trainer and he's gotta have a shtick like the

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