I’d been yelled at by plenty of powerful men, but Blake Saunders was the first I could recall who, within five minutes of meeting me, threatened in matter-of-fact tones to tear me into bite-sized chunks and throw them into the Malibu surf.

“Mess with me and I’ll feed you to the sharks, mate. Got it?”

I nodded once, carefully, staring past him at the forty feet of sectioned glass separating us from an equal expanse of coffee-toned Tuscan tile and wrought iron balcony overlooking the crashing Pacific. A pair of double sliders interrupted the panoramic wall on my right, one down near the kitchen, which held enough islands to be considered a small archipelago, and another just behind me, in the family sitting area that offered more square footage than the last apartment I’d lived in, and contained roughly as many CDs, DVDs and audio-visual components as an Amazon warehouse aisle. I was once again a twenty-eight-year-old Lost Boy, so far out of my element I wasn’t sure I’d ever find my way back.

“That’s not why I’m here, Mr. Saunders.”

“And enough with that rubbish. The name’s Blake.” He was staring at me now, dark eyes boring in from the midst of the only light area of his entire being, arranged as it was: burnished waves of dark brown hair falling past his shoulders, darker beard with grey frosting beginning to halo his strong chin, a blood-red long-sleeved tee and black jeans surrounding a stout, yet still firm, middle-aged torso. His arms were crossed defiantly, both hands hidden under bulging forearms. Despite being a couple of inches shorter than me—around five-eleven—he took up infinitely more space in the room.

“Sure. You got it, Blake.” Easy, accommodating, working to manage the temperature of the conversation. It was an old skill born of an old life, offering my counsel to mercurial political types. I had crossed over into a new life in the past year, but that instinct, that reflexive urge to calm the waters around me, had never left me.

Without warning, Saunders spun and power-walked the length of the room to the kitchen, yanking a sweating bottle of microbrew from the massive stainless steel fridge that, along with a matching six-burner commercial-grade range, dominated the far wall. “So,” he called across the open expanse, “Reg says you’re it, the only guy for the job.”

“Well, ah, I don’t know about that—” Levering the enormous steel door shut, he strode back towards me, bearing down steadily to finish five feet away, a single lunging step from lapel-grabbing range. He cocked his head to the right and raised the corresponding eyebrow, leaving it up, like a trigger waiting to be pulled.

“So Reg is full of shit?”

“No. No, it’s just that—”

“You’re just some clever sod who talked his way into my house to stare at the knick-knacks?”

“Not at all, I’m just—”

“Do you want the job or not?”

“Absolutely.” I worked hard to make those four syllables as convincing as the two-minute monologue I had prepared that was clearly never going to be delivered in this man’s presence, even as, in my mind, I traced the breadcrumbs back that had led me here.

*   *   *

Empire had been a world-beating band in the early ’90s, a group that started out several years before that as standard-bearers for the second wave of progressive rock, making two albums’ worth of bold, imaginative, and ultimately commercially impotent music. Then half the band had left and the survivors, including Saunders, had taken a million-selling turn toward the glammy arena rock that had scored them enough hits to allow them to persist through two more decades of touring and recording, in spite of grunge and all that followed.

The job—writing an authorized biography for the band—was one I hadn’t gone looking for. On the contrary, I’d been sitting at home in Santa Rosa at my late father’s desk minding my own business on an early August afternoon, staring at the final galley proof of the book of his writings about music and the people who made it that I’d busied myself for the past eight months assembling, and trying to figure out what happened next. Then the phone had rung, conveying the urgent tones of Empire’s manager, Reginald Pill, known throughout the rock and roll universe as simply Reg.

“We want to gin up a bio for the band, a full-length book treatment,” Reg had said. “Something to fire up the fan base, maybe grab a few eyeballs from the younger set, the ones that still read, anyway. Get it on the shelf at Target, and in the Kindle and iPad and all that.”

My mouth wouldn’t work. Reg Pill? The Reg Pill with executive producer credits on back-to-back Grammy winners? Calling me at home?

“You there, kid?”

“Yes, I mean, a bio?”

“That’s right. The usual, a bit of history, what they’re about now, the odd backstage nonsense from back in the day, tales from the road and all that, but serious, too. You know, straight from the horse’s mouth, none of that gossipy exposé crap.”

“And—you want me?”

“You’re Tim Green, right?”


“Bernie Green’s kid?”


“And he’s dead, right?”

Smooth. “Yes.”

“And you just put together a book of his interviews and all that other stuff, right? Coming out this fall?”


“And you spent half of last year running about with Jordan Lee.”

And there it was. Eight months gone from my last face-to-face contact with my former employer, lead singer for a band that had set records for single-night concert grosses all across America the previous year, I apparently still had his megastar spunk hanging on me. I couldn’t figure out in that moment exactly how my connection to Jordan might be helpful to Empire, but the implication was clear that Reg Pill had.

“Yes I did.”

“Then you’re the guy.”

“That’s great, but I’m not sure—”

“Pay’s twenty grand up front, plus twenty percent of the author royalties after we recoup the advance.”

The phone went silent on both ends for a moment. When he had died seventeen months before, my dad had left an estate consisting of the house I grew up in and enough cash to coast for a year or two if I had to. But it would disappear quickly if I let it, and I hadn’t had a steady paycheck in months. I’d had a good run the previous summer and fall as part of Jordan’s entourage, but we’d both moved on—he’d scaled back the charity work I’d been managing for him to focus on making a new solo album, and I’d poured myself into the process of sorting through thirty years of my father’s work to create a book of his “greatest hits” as a music writer. Now that it was done, I had no idea what came next; the foreword Jordan had generously penned for the book was half the reason I’d found a publisher in the first place. I wasn’t quite at loose ends, but twenty thousand and the chance to jumpstart a potential new career—and maybe generate some spillover sales for the book I’d just finished—was enough to earn my full attention.

“I’ll have to talk it over with—”

“The old ball and chain, sure. Well, just so we’re clear, the gig is you follow them around while they finish the run-up to the anthology album, promotional stuff, rehearsals, the first couple of shows of the tour. Final copy’s due two weeks after that and the book comes out eight weeks later. Any longer, forget it, deal’s off. First show’s the thirtieth of September in Seattle.”

“So,”—I raced through the math in my head, with escalating concern—“copy’s due in ten weeks?”

“Yep, ten weeks, two grand a week plus expenses, and”—this part was pure sarcasm—“you can call home anytime you like.”

“Can I think about it?”

“Sure, mate, sure. You can think about it until five o’clock tomorrow afternoon. If you aren’t standing in Blake Saunders’ living room by then, you can go ahead and lose my number.”

*   *   *

“Absolutely,” I repeated, standing in Blake Saunders’ living room, watching the late afternoon sun shimmer off the wave-tops 450 miles south of the home I’d left before dawn that morning with nothing but an overstuffed duffel and a laptop shoulder bag in the backseat of my trusty Prius. “Yes. I want the job.”

Saunders looked me up and down for the third time since he’d opened his front door to me ten minutes before, skepticism still radiating from the furrows worn into his leathery brow. Then he shrugged, as if it didn’t matter much either way.

“Bloody Reg,” he muttered. “Alright then,” he said, gesturing to the sky as if surrendering himself to the fates, “You’re in. Next thing is meeting Mal.”

At which he strode off toward the front of the house again, waving me along behind him. A few steps back along the wide front hall we had traveled to reach the family room, a curving staircase led down to the lower level. Mal, I knew, would be Malcolm Saunders, the newly-installed lead singer of Empire, and Blake Saunders’ eighteen-year-old son. The ascendance of Saunders the younger had been announced soon after the band had given the boot to co-founder and former frontman Tony “Sparks” Willingham, a controversial move within their fractious fan base.

The gentle leftward arc of the wide staircase carved a high, curving wall on which were displayed a series of electric guitars. A sleek, cherry-red Fender Stratocaster. A flashy turquoise flying V with a glittery finish. A full-bodied, golden Gibson ES335. A two-toned black and white monster, a double-necked custom job with twelve strings running up one neck and six on the other. Next to it, a burnished auburn Rickenbacker twelve-string, just waiting for Roger McGuinn to happen by and play the opening chords to “Turn! Turn! Turn!” And at the bottom of the stairs, a Gibson Les Paul—Holy crap, that looks like an original Sunburst, ’58 or ’59. A ten-thousand-dollar museum piece, hanging on the wall?

At the bottom, a downstairs foyer bisected a hallway running the width of the house, paralleling the Pacific Coast Highway on the shore side and the beach on the other. The several doors on either side of the hall were all shut and the dimmers were set low, other than a single spotlight at the base of the stairs, even as a wash of afternoon sun set the French doors at the west end of the hallway aglow. From somewhere deep in this twilight nether region, careening squalls of electric guitar—Dream Theater, maybe?—were spinning jagged circles.

Saunders set off eastward down the passage, bellowing “Mal!” as he went, as I trailed behind, slowing for a clear look at the target being hit by the single spotlight, a huge three-dimensional multimedia art piece that dominated the foyer. A naked plastic doll floated in the middle-right foreground of a field of twisted metal and mechanical parts, its soft flesh shockingly vulnerable against the sharp and shiny edges all around it. The rest of the frame was filled with a cacophony of gears, dials, wires, block and tackle, a telescope, what looked like a railroad car coupling, at least three computer motherboards, and a giant stainless-steel whisk. At lower left, a metal flower blossomed out toward the viewer from the wreckage around it, its sensuously curved petals cut from a yellow crosswalk sign.

Blake opened a door on the right near the end of the hall and shouted over the wailing guitars: “Dammit, Mal!”

Slamming the door, he turned and stalked to the end of the hall and out the French doors. As I moved to follow, a door on the opposite side of the hall cracked open and I turned to find a small, oval, shockingly pale face peering out.

“Oh hey,” she said. “Who’re you?”

“Um, Tim. Tim Green. I’m the, ah, writer. The one Reg hired. For the band bio. If you heard about that.” Idiot. Shut up.

“Oh,” came her cool response. My eyes had adjusted to the shadowy hallway enough that I could make out a dark crown of hair above her smooth cheeks and sharp nose. Opening the door just far enough to slip sideways through it, she glided into the hall, backhanded a nearby dimmer to bring the hall lights up to full, and offered her hand. “I’m Jane.”

Her hair was a moussed-and-mopped vertical thatch dyed royal purple, and she wore a cherry-red half-inch gauge in each thoroughly punctured earlobe. She was compact but solidly built and rather curvy, with stunning hazel eyes that seemed to flicker back and forth between green and brown with every blink. And she was maybe fifteen. My quizzical expression prompted her to continue.

“Jane Saunders,” she added, nodding sideways down the hall. “Mal’s sister.”

“Oh. Ah. Nice to meet you.” As we shook I glanced down the hall again, remembering as I did that the best way to avoid becoming shark bait was likely to continue following my host. “Your dad was just looking for him.”

“I’m sure. He was on the patio last I knew.”

“Mal!” came Blake’s cry yet again, this time full of concern rather than frustration. We hurried out the French doors into a narrow side yard and turned up the alley it formed toward the beach, emerging at the end of the patio.

The ocean spread out before us, waves curling and crashing in the near distance fifty yards or so beyond the eight-foot glass wall that separated the beach from a generous backyard dotted with palms and shrubs, surrounding a putting green complete with natural sand trap. From the edge of the grass, a flagstone patio covered the last twenty feet to the house all the way down its considerable length. A long, rectangular table of beveled glass dotted with beer bottles and surrounded by a dozen or so padded patio chairs held the middle ground, flanked at the far end by a tall fireplace and sitting area, and nearer to us by a full outdoor kitchen and L-shaped wet bar, with stretched canvas on a framework of steel poles providing shade for much of its eight-foot length.

A few feet past the far end of the polished-cement bar top lay a tangled heap I could only assume must be Malcolm Saunders, long face obscured by curlicued waves of dark hair, shirtless, shoeless, wearing low-slung custom-distressed jeans over checkered boxers, his wiry, heavily tattooed frame unmoving.

“Mal!” Blake was kneeling over him, turning him onto his back and backhanding him gently on the cheek. “Mal!”

Mal’s narrow, nearly hairless torso was a maze of inked imagery; an eagle in flight dominated his right shoulder, while a trail of Chinese characters marched down his left bicep. An avatar of some sort, a trio of overlapping, interlocking diamond shapes forming a triangular blossom, covered his heart. His stomach—concave as he lay slack on the stonework—was decorated with a photorealistic image of a waterfall. Moving closer and glancing around, I took in the battered skateboard lying upside down at the edge of the grass. A patchwork of scuffs was clearly visible along the outer edge of the cement bar top, perched four feet above a hard landing on the flagstone. Was he—no way. Was he grinding on that?

“Jesus, Mal!” Pulling away, Blake turned and ran for the house. “Watch him, I’m calling 9-1-1!”

I turned to find Jane standing over Mal, observing his motionless body with what appeared to be idle curiosity. Is she going to check him out? Maybe she’s in shock. Should I—?

A little twitch began to take hold at one corner of her mouth.

What the hell?

I took a couple of steps in her direction and looked down again at the ink-and-bones rag doll that was Malcolm Saunders. A fraught moment passed until Jane snorted and clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh, closing her eyes and shaking her head violently at the same time, as if having a seizure.

I glanced down again just as Mal’s face seemed to slacken further for a moment. Then, without warning, his lower lip protruded and a jetted exhale blew the hair up off the right side of his face. The revealed eye opened, dark brown and full of brilliant mischief, tracked over to find Jane, then followed her bemused gaze to me. Assessed the situation for a moment.

And winked.



[Never Break the Chain will be available in paperback and Kindle editions on September 5.]