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  • Flinch
  • Written by Robert Ferrigno
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9781400030248
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A Novel

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Frightening, feral, and funny, Flinch is a fast-paced noir set amid the frenzied freak show of Southern California. Tabloid journalist Jimmy Gage and his plastic-surgeon brother, Jonathan, have long had a twisted and sometimes nearly fatal rivalry, but the ante was upped when Jonathan recently married Jimmy’s ex. So when Jimmy begins to suspect that Jonathan is the serial killer known as The Eggman, he’s neither surprised nor displeased. What ensues is this harried and hard-edged whodunnit that involves everything from petty porn stars to WWF wannabes to gut-wrenchingly gruesome gangsters and gang lords. Flinch is an intricately plotted whirlwind of a tale that will grip you until the very last page.


Chapter 1

"Never take a woman on vacation to someplace where the cockroaches are bigger than your dick," said Jimmy, scratching away at his reporter's notepad.

"We went to Costa Rica, man, land of enchantment," said Rollo.

"The land of enchantment is New Mexico," Jimmy corrected him, raising his voice over the cheers from the crowd. "Costa Rica is the land where your date rips off your bankroll and passport, then ditches you eighty miles from a phone."

Not that Jimmy was in any position to give advice. Rollo's brief vacation might have left him broke and desperate, but Jimmy himself had just gotten back after a ten-month absence that had been even more disastrous. He had quit his job at SLAP without giving notice, quit everything else, too, leaving Olivia with less notice than he gave his landlord. Most people thought he'd been reeling from the Eggman fiasco, burning bridges in his haste to get out of town, but Rollo knew better. Jimmy was surprised he hadn't asked to come with him.

"You still staying with the cop?" asked Rollo. "I don't think Desmond likes me, man. That one time I was over, he gave me a look like he wanted to frisk me."

"Desmond is a good judge of character," said Jimmy, watching Blaine the Robo-Surfer strut stiffly around the ring in a victory lap, the young wrestler grimacing in genuine pain, blood pouring down the side of his face. He was a blond behemoth in knee-length Aussie-print jams, silvery duct tape wrapped around his bulging biceps, power dials drawn crudely onto his shaved chest with orange Magic Marker. One hand held his ear in place from where the Kongo Kid had practically torn it off, trying to show off for the chubby ring girl. While the Robo-Surfer completed his glory circuit, the Kongo Kid was carried out on a stretcher to a chorus of boos. The ring girl adjusted her gold lamé bikini top in the far corner, oblivious to it all.

"Look at that ear." Rollo pushed back his black-framed glasses; he was a nervous nineteen-year-old with flyaway hair, a braided hemp necklace, and a scraggly soul patch under his lower lip. "Oh man, I am so fucked."

Jimmy and Rollo had met about three years before, after Rollo sent him a series of vicious but well-reasoned critiques of his movie reviews, plus a couple of petite mal?inducing animated shorts that he'd made for his tenth-grade media studies class. Rollo should have been studying filmmaking at USC by now, should have been churning out scripts or interning at Fox, but instead he chose to hustle hot electronic gear from the back of his VW van, using the profits to finance interminable documentaries on mall walkers and carpet installers that couldn't even get screened at Slamdance, let alone Sundance. Rollo was always overextended, always over budget, always in trouble. He was Jimmy's best friend.

"No way is Blaine going to talk to me with his ear thashed," complained Rollo. "All he's going to care about is Does it look infected and should he get a rabies shot and--"

"Stop sweating on me," said Jimmy, scribbling notes while watching the ring girl clomp around the ring in her high heels and baby fat, holding up an ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? sign. He was thirty-six years old, loose and lanky as a colt, wearing black jeans and a billowy gray checked shirt that resembled a TV test pattern circa 1955. The ring girl stepped around the spattered blood on the canvas, her smile faltering, and Jimmy stopped writing. There was nothing about her that was even vaguely reminiscent of Olivia, nothing but that uneasy smile, a brave smile, trying to tough it out. It was enough.

Olivia had been in the middle of a sweet dream the morning he left for the airport, a half smile on her face as she slept, one bare brown leg outside the sheets. The cab was already out front, but he had lingered in the doorway to the bedroom, watching her in the warm light, her hair spread out across the pillow, lips parted, as though about to say something, maybe ask him to stay. Ten months later and he still wondered what would have happened if she had awakened.

"You listening to me, Jimmy?"

The ring announcer climbed through the ropes, thumped the microphone, Testing, testing, one-two-three, but Jimmy's chest was pounding so loudly he barely heard it.

Club wrestling had come to southern California this Sunday afternoon, Retro Wrestling, an unapologetic blend of semipro contestants, unscripted violence, and net-stocking cocktail service. The cheap seats overflowed with accountants and frat boys, WWF cable potatoes looking for live-action body-slams. The plush ringside seats of the Big Orange Arena were reserved for richies slumming the latest trend: ash-blond yacht-club wives with smooth, bare arms and cigar-club morons with florid faces and thick fingers, mouths full of Stone Cold Steve Austin trivia and the exact height of the late, great Andre the Giant. Next month the nasty-cool thing could be cockfighting, and the richies would be name-dropping their favorite bird at the Monday-morning sales meeting, pontificating about titanium heel spurs over drinks and yellowfin at the Five Feet Café.

"Jimmy? Lose the fugue state, man." Rollo fumbled in his oversize black trench coat--a baby-faced brainiac who could play complete chess games in his head but couldn't use a self-serve gas pump without splashing his shoes. He finally pulled out a Palm Pilot speckled with pocket lint. "I was going to give this to Blaine as a peace offering, ask him to put in a good word for me with Pilar." He pulled off a Certs that was stuck to the case. "Now I don't know if--"

"Yeah, Blaine probably can't wait to E-mail his senator or access his on-line stock portfolio." Jimmy deftly caught the Palm Pilot as it slipped from Rollo's grasp, then tucked it back into his trench coat. "You'd do better with an autographed photo of the Rock and a lifetime subscription to Muscle Mania."

Rollo bundled the trench coat around himself. "I should never have come here tonight anyway. You shouldn't be here, either. I saw Great White when I first came in, that big fucker gliding around on the other side of the arena, and I half expected to hear the theme from Jaws. I don't think he spotted me, but--"

"If you saw him, he saw you."

Rollo shivered. "Sometimes when Great White looks at me . . . I think maybe he can read my mind."

"If that were true, you'd be dead already. We both would." Jimmy checked the crowd, barely moving his head. "Don't worry, the pure of heart have nothing to fear."

Rollo wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "What's that got to do with you or me?"

Jimmy grinned.

"Go ahead, make with the happy face--you got luck, what do you care?" Rollo burrowed deeper into the trench coat. "Me, I was born under the sign of fucked-up-and-fucked-over. Jimmy walks through a shitstorm and never gets wet. Meanwhile, back at the motorcade, Rollo takes a five-point-five-six-millimeter slug to the head, a hot shot from the grassy knoll."

"You're no JFK," said Jimmy. "I see you more like Jackie O, lunging for the rear bumper, making that percentage move out of the range of fire." He saw sweat rolling past Rollo's eyebrows. "If you're so worried about Great White, why are you here?"

"You're here, aren't you? I figure you know what you're doing."

"Since when?"

Rollo tugged at his lower lip as if he were pulling open a trap door. "Great White and Macklen, those two are last year's paranoia, over and done with. But Pilar, she's a right-here, right-now problem."

Jimmy looked up as crumpled dollar bills rained onto the canvas from the balcony. The ring girl bent down to scoop them up, and a party of drunken attorneys hooted and waved their neckties at her cleavage. "How much do you owe her?"

"More than I can borrow from you." Rollo pushed back his glasses again. "That's why I took a chance on coming here tonight. I figured I'd link up with Blaine in the dressing room afterward, ask him to talk to her for me--"

"Blaine is useless. You need to talk to Pilar direct."

"Pilar's been waiting for me to mess up longer than my guidance counselor. I go to see her . . ." Rollo shook his head. "It's like the roach motel, man: Rollo walks in, but he don't walk out. You've been gone, Jimmy. Things have changed."

"I hope so."

"No, man, things have changed for the worse. You remember that skateboarder Pilar had hawking tie-dyed yoga pants in Venice? He shorted her a few times, so she had Blaine cut off one of his pinkie fingers with pruning clippers. How bogus is that?"

"Pilar is just trying to scare you."

"I seen the finger, Jimmy. She keeps it in an olive jar on her coffee table, which is totally uncool." Rollo licked his lips. They both knew what was coming. "Can you help me? Pilar likes you."

"Pilar doesn't like anyone."

"Well . . . you're as close as she gets."

Jimmy checked the crowd, barely moving his head. He thought he had seen Great White before, too. "I'll talk to her."

Rollo sighed, looking even younger in his relief. The crowd hooted as the announcer introduced the Jackal, a beefy man in Kmart jungle-print briefs who sprinted down the aisle and awkwardly dove into the ring. "I'm out of here," Rollo said.

"Move slowly," said Jimmy, drowned out by the cheers for Blind Man Munz--Munz paunchy in baggy tights, dark glasses perched on his nose, tap-tap-tapping his way to the ring with a white cane. Jimmy waited until Rollo had disappeared into the crowd, then he eased over to the entrance to the VIP section and snagged an empty beer bottle from a passing waitress. He set the bottle on the very edge of a table and waited. When the security guard was momentarily distracted by the sound of breaking glass, Jimmy slipped past him and up the stairs to the VIP balcony.

The VIP balcony had been reserved by the Sunset Beach chapter of the Corvette Owners of America, tables full of Brylcreme buckos buying ten-dollar Coronas from the waitresses, trying to stuff bills down their tube tops. The air in the balcony was thick with cigarette smoke, the carpeting stained and threadbare, but the far right edge of the section offered a vantage point from which to observe everything going on below. Back when the Big Orange had been a punk dive, Jimmy had seen Baby Steve, half hidden behind his drum kit, loading up a sock full of glue before O.J.'s Knife started its set. When Baby Steve OD'ed a few months later, Jimmy already had his obit written. From this same spot during the Big O's brief country-and-western incarnation, as the Rhinestone Cowboy Club, Jimmy had seen George Jones sucker-punch a stagehand. Right now he could see Rollo hurrying into the lobby. Slower, Rollo.

Jimmy leaned over the balcony, his hands on the railing, trying not to check his watch more than once every five minutes. In a couple of hours Olivia was going to pick him up back at his place. He'd told her he needed a ride to Jonathan's party--it was a lie, but he wanted some time alone with her. Time to make amends. Time to convince her that her mistake had been as big as his mistake. If he was half as lucky as Rollo thought, the two of them would never get to the party.

The first time they'd met, he was interviewing her for SLAP--he hadn't even wanted the assignment, said he wasn't interested in the washed-up-jock beat, but Napitano had insisted. Olivia was a professional golfer, a power player who could slam the ball 230 yards straight down the fairway but had failed to master the subtleties of the putting green. Three years on the circuit, and she'd never even covered her expenses. Now she was the teaching pro at Rolling Hills in Laguna, a new country club catering to a brash, easy-money crowd, dot-com wannabes who raced their carts through the fresh sod, tossing empty bottles of Corona in their wake.

Early one morning, he had waited outside the clubhouse for their interview, seen Olivia walking toward him from the practice tee, and forgotten why he was there, just stared at her striding across the grass with this jaunty, confident gait, seemingly unaware that she had his complete attention. Hard to believe you could fall in love with someone on the basis of her walk, but Jimmy trusted Olivia's sinewy grace more than anything she could have said. People lied with words, but a walk was straight from the heart. She had peeled off her golf glove as she approached, and he imagined that the nape of her neck was damp from the sun. He could still feel her handshake.

Some paleo Queen anthem started up from the overhead speakers, and Jimmy headed toward the stairs, grabbing one of those ten-dollar beers off a table as he passed. There were shouts behind him, but he ignored them, taking a long, cool swallow as he glided past the oblivious guard.

Blind Man Munz caught the Jackal across the face with his cane, and the Jackal howled. The crowd booed its disapproval. A fat man ringside tossed a lit cigar at Blind Man Munz, who batted the soggy Cohiba back as if he were radar-equipped. Jimmy didn't know the exact choreography, but he could guess the story line. Blind Man had to have his glasses torn off and stomped on, maybe even have his cane broken in half, before the Jackal pinned him to set up the rematch.

The main floor of the arena was standing-room-only, but Jimmy moved easily through the shifting mass of bodies with a series of shoulder taps and hip checks, dipping instinctively into the gaps and eddies of the crowd.

"Jaime!" A square-built homeboy in a cutoff "Selena Viva!" sweatshirt banged fists with him. "Long time, vato. Where you been?"

Instead of answering, Jimmy passed the homeboy the bottle of beer, unable to remember the man's name. He remembered the red teardrop tattoo, though, signifying a murder committed in defense of his set.

The homeboy draped a meaty arm across Jimmy's shoulder as he guzzled the beer down, then hurled the empty against the back wall. The bottle bounced off without breaking and clattered onto the concrete, and the homeboy's face hardened; he glared at Jimmy, then spit on the floor. "Mala suerte," he muttered, walking away.

From the Hardcover edition.
Robert Ferrigno|Author Q&A

About Robert Ferrigno

Robert Ferrigno - Flinch

Photo © Jim Mendenhall

Robert Ferrigno is the author of seven novels, including The Horse Latitudes and, most recently, Scavenger Hunt. He lives with his family in the Pacific Northwest.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Robert Ferrigno

Q: First, a little background: you earned a degree in Philosophy and then wrote poetry. It would seem like a fairly radical shift to start writing noir thrillers -- how did that change come about?
Not as radical a shift as you might think. I studied Philosophy out of a desire to make sense of the world and of myselfI was never interested in becoming a professor. Writing novels allows me to struggle with the same moral questions that interested me the most in school, i.e., what is our responsibility to our friends and family? Can doing good be doing harm? When is violence justified? Who are the true criminals? My heroes are always morally tainted, uncertain of the location of the higher ground, their wits and their sense of humor all that stands between them and the abyss. Giving up poetry was easy. When I was in college I got second place at the Southeast Poetry Festival. James Dickey awarded me my prize and told me, "son, you can really write." My prize was the paperback of Dickey’s collected poems. First place got the hardback version. I knew then, I better go into something where excellence paid off a little better.

Q: Your first major newspaper job was as a feature writer at the Orange County Register, and you got the "adventure-and-new-money beat"–was that a good thing? Did that assignment provide any inspiration (or time) for the writing of one of your previous books, THE HORSE LATITUDES?
Being a feature writer was the next best thing to being rich and crazy. I flew with the Blue Angels, drove race cars, went on week long paramilitary adventures with gun nuts and interviewed everyone from strip-club hot-oil wrestlers to retired Joint Chief of Staff Curtis Lemay. I learned to absorb these experiences and personalities, the sounds and sensations, the speech patterns and dress, the way my subjects held their cup of coffee or tilted their head when they thought, all the bits and pieces that reveal character. I used it all.

Q: What makes Southern California such rich territory for your imagination?
Southern California is the epicenter of a certain sleek, cutting-edge cool, a place of vast ambition and no interest in working for it. My kind of place, my kind of people. Just as the most dangerous creatures in the ocean are the brightest and most gaudy, L.A. provides a panoply of equally beautiful, amoral types valet parking attendants offering the latest designer drug or their latest screenplay to their Range Rover clientele, cocktail waitresses debating whether starring in a porno movie or dating a cable-TV development executive would be more useful, "speaking, like career-wise." I also like the auditory mix of Southern California, the amalgam of surf lingo with Black street slang, the mix of Hollywood hype and homeboy Spanish.

Q: In FLINCH, the relationship between the two brothers, Jimmy and Jonathan, is so complex and twisted, and yet so believable, that readers are going to wonder how you came up with it. Do you have brothers or did you just make it all up?

A: Well, like Jonathan, I’m the older brother in a complex, twisted
relationship with my brother, James (I know, I know), and like the two
brothers in FLINCH, James and I are opposites, envious and repelled by
aspects of the other which we lack. I wanted to explore the love-hate
relationship that so many brothers have, particularly the erotic tension when
they both are attracted to the same woman. That’s the simple explanation, but
I think the subtext of FLINCH is what happens when a family member commits a
crime of violence. First, you’re surprised, of course, then you think about
it some more, and you’re not so surprised, and sometimes you’re left
wondering if you share more than blood. About ten years ago my father was
arrested, charged with attempted murder after shooting a man in the face with
.357 magnum at point-blank range. Only the fact that my father was 65 years
old at the time, and his hand shook slightly, caused the bullet to shatter
the man’s face without killing him. The crime caused me to question my own
morality, my own sense of family loyalty, and ultimately brought me closer to
my father than I had been in years. This adds an extra spin to the Jimmy and
Jonathan story which I wanted to make the most of.

Q: The three women in FLINCH–Jane, Olivia and Pilar–are not just
strong, unique characters, but are crucial elements of the book. How do these
women, and women in general, fit into your conception of a crime thriller?

A: I always like to have an unfolding love interest in my books, just to amp
up the tension and make things more complicated. It’s also a great way to
make my male protagonist, no matter how capable in terms of crime and
punishment, feel that he’s in over his head. In FLINCH I have a love interest
(Olivia) that Jimmy has lost, and a love interest (Jane) that is growing. Two
for one. I like the contrasts between these two women that Jimmy is so
attracted to: Olivia who is wild and free but has given it up for the
comfortable domesticity of a marriage to Jimmy’s successful brother, and
Jane, who is ostensibly a proper, by-the-book detective, but behind closed
doors has a drinking problem, and a passion for justice matched only by her
attraction for Jimmy. Pilar is one of my favorite characters. She’s a crook
with a moral streak, an entrepreneur, a seller of hot merchandise, and a
woman you don’t want to cross. I had originally thought of her as a
one-chapter character, just a stand in to move the plot forward, but I fell
in love with her the moment I saw her with her feet up in her living room,
holding an olive jar containing a human finger in one hand, while eating an
orange from her back yard. The confluence of violent retribution represented
by the severed finger, and her nurturing a back yard full of fruit trees
touched my heart.

Q: The Hollywood scene permeates FLINCH, from Jimmy’s work as a film critic, to characters who are film makers or fans. How important is Hollywood to your vision of Southern California and why?

A: Hollywood is crucial to my depiction of Southern California, not just the
movies, but the theatricality and excess that is the essence of L.A., the
emphasis on alluring surfaces and back-lot facades. The first chapter of
FLINCH takes place at a professional wrestling match, with all the attendant
hype and bluster and real action, and this is as much a Hollywood moment as
the latest blockbuster. Hollywood is a state of mind, not a geographical
location, the land of the great hustle, a place where anything is possible,
reinvention is constant, and no one believes anyone.

Q: Speaking of bad guys…you’ve got quite a collection here: Great White, the 300 pound white-supremacist who paints beautiful watercolors and asks people he’s strangling what they see on the other side; Macklen, a crippled thug whose canes are more deadly than a gun; Blaine, the sweet-faced teenage enforcer who almost breaks Jimmy’s back and then apologizes to him and asks for his autograph. Where do you find these characters?

A: I use bits and pieces of people I’ve known and make the rest up. As a
reporter for seven or eight years in Southern California, and I met all
types, but the ones that affected me the most were the tough guys with
dreams. Not just ambitions, dreams. Great White, who has killed a lot of
people, killed them up close and personal, truly does want to know if there
is life after death. When he’s not on the pages of FLINCH, I imagine him
going to past-life regressions and reading Shirley McClaine. Blaine, the
teenage enforcer, is capable of snipping off a man’s finger to make a point
about paying ones debts, but he also has dreams of becoming a professional
wrestler, and meeting the Rock. In L.A., this is not an uncommon fantasy. I
once accompanied an auto repo man on a 3am run in a bad part of town
one minute he was casually breaking into locked garage for a hookup, the next
we were racing away while he sang me his latest country and western
composition. For all I know, he could be the toast of Nashville by now, or
long dead, shot by an angry Porsche owner who missed a couple payments and
still wanted his ride.

From the Hardcover edition.



“May be the best novel you’ll read all year. . . . Miss this novel at your peril.” -The Plain Dealer

“This is a world like no other. If you savor the bizarre, this one’s for you.” —The Washington Post Book World

“What is distinctive about Ferrigno’s gripping action is that it is often set in a natural world whose appeal he makes the reader vividly feel.” -The New York Times

“Like other inheritors of the Hammett-Chandler-Ross MacDonald private-eye tradition, Ferrigno balances the tough doings with a strong sense of moral outrage and compassion.” -Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Readers familiar with Ferrigno’s work in The Horse Latitudes and Heartbreaker may have thought they had experienced the best of Ferrigno, but Flinch ups the ante several notches.” –The Seattle Times

“So adroit is Ferrigno’s carefully layered plot . . . even careful readers may overlook Ferrigno’s elegant but muscular prose style.” –The News & Observer

“A grand read, neatly plotted with fascinating characters speaking great lines. . . . From start to finish, the reader’s mind must race at a frantic pace to keep up with the twists and turns.” –Winston-Salem Journal

“Ferrigno belongs to a group of first-rate authors who have kept the noir tradition alive by showing the dark side of sunny Southern California. He does it, though, from the hip and with a thoroughly modern perspective.” –Rocky Mountain News

“Hugely entertaining. . . . There are enough simmering subplots in this yarn to provide surprises around every corner. Ferrigno provides snappy dialogue, fast-paced action, flashy context and intriguing subtext.” –The Olympian

“A carnival-ride thriller of contemporary California noir by a criminally overlooked writer. . . . Addictive.” –The Dallas Morning News

“Perfectly entertaining.” –Arizona Daily Star

  • Flinch by Robert Ferrigno
  • January 07, 2003
  • Fiction - Mystery & Detective
  • Vintage
  • $12.95
  • 9781400030248

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