An excerpt from the novel by Elizabeth M. Cosin
Featuring Zen Moses
It rained the day I said goodbye to my best friend; the kind of storm that was packaged in a San Francisco-like cold front. December in Santa Monica could blow in from the Pacific like the draft from a meat locker.
Perfect funeral weather.
Even posh Montana Avenue was dulled. The shops had lost their hard-fought elegance and darkened and drowned by the weather, they melded into the worn sky like so many strip shopping malls.
I kept my gaze downward as I stepped out of my Alfa. I was clutching a dark red and brown vase – K-Mart Dynasty circa 1994 – and trying to stay dry. I was looking for something to kick. A small dog, perhaps. A lawyer. I was feeling sorry for myself.
The rain plunked down, rapping a Disco beat on the brim of my baseball cap. Last night’s hangover was still trying to push my eyes out of their sockets from places inside my head I never knew existed.
A dark sedan buzzed by suddenly, cutting a tight corner out of the alley in front of me as if I wasn’t there. Startled, I rocked backward, lost my footing for only a moment and watched as if in a dream, the pieces of the vase bounce off the pavement in every direction like popcorn in hot oil.
I stood over the shattered urn, the rain sheeting over the rim of my cap, and stared at the jagged-edged clay pieces now congealing with a fine, grayish-brown dust.
It was all that was left of my dead cat.
I watched until the last of his ashes rolled off the pavement with the rest of the rain water.
So much for respect for the dead, I thought as I stood in the rain long enough not to notice it anymore. I was mesmerized by the streaks of reddish brown dye that ran off the cheap pottery, like blood from a new wound. I was thinking of bad omens and wondering if I was looking straight down at one.
The rain was seeping into my skin now and I let it run over me for a while, catching a glance or two from the early morning omelet and cappuccino set that had come out of hiding for the day.
It was still early, the day after Christmas and the few people who did look up didn’t seem to be in any better mood than I was. Maybe Santa had forgotten the Tiffany tea set. I didn’t care.
I felt stupid standing there in the rain, my reflection staring back at me from the window of the corner barber shop. I tried to straighten out my kinky hair – gypsy hair my mom called it – and ended up shoving it under my Giants cap; sweeping dust under a rug.
I yanked the hat downward, tugging the brim at a well-bent spot so it cast a half-moon shadow over my face, partially hiding my eyes by design. I didn’t like the way they could say more about me than I wanted most people to know. My nose stood out, too small and delicate, making my good family cheek bones give the impression I hadn’t eaten since the Giants left a pile of broken hearts and rubble that was once called the Polo Grounds.
The rest of me fit more or less into a gray UCLA sweatshirt – part of a collection of items left by former lovers – and a pair of blue jeans, which like everything else, was hanging on to my skin like a new marine layer.
I cursed myself for drinking too much, pressing my temples to stop the throbbing. As if it was going to make a damn bit of difference. I thought of that bottled water commercial; Something about having 365 days a year to change your life.
Tomorrow, I could head up to the psychic bakery for some multigrain bread, a glass of carrot-pineapple juice with tofu for eggs and a palm reading, then go home and jog a few miles. I could stop feeling sorry for myself and I could go out to the pound and get a new cat.
I looked at my watch, squinted at it really. Tomorrow was still a good day away.
I peeked first before stepping back into the alley and circled behind to the back of Father’s Office, my neighborhood pub.
Nat was waiting for me in the empty bar when I sloshed inside.
“Where’s the deceased?” Nat was looking at me like he didn’t like what he saw. “Did you swim over here?”
I could only shrug on my way to a bar stool, the water running blue off my Levi’s.
I held a piece of the broken vase a few inches above the shellacked bar top, waiting a moment before letting it drop.
Victor, one of the day bartenders, was leaning against the wall behind the counter, leafing through a tattoo magazine. He was a big, muscular man, though his girth rounded soft around the edges like his personality. He could look pretty dangerous sometimes, the gruff goatee at his chin one reason, the book-long display of tattoos that made it look like it was his matte pink skin that had been added, certainly another.
He was the kind of guy who would wait to be asked for his opinion on the weather. But what Victor lacked in natural meanness, he made up for in what I liked to call artificial outrage. It was unwise to make him mad, though at times it had helped me to do just that.
At the moment, he was studying the piece of tile until it rattled still.
“Is that?…” he started. I shrugged. Nat put it into words.
“You dropped Ira?,” he was incredulous.
So was I, but I didn’t voice this. I closed my eyes, wishing myself out of my clothes, out of my skin, really. Nat had poured three beers and was standing behind me, smelling like laundry detergent. He was a big man, too, and while he could hide it better, he always looked like he’d never outgrown his baby fat. He had the kind of even-handed temperament commandeered by bartenders,preachers and social workers. The quiet authority born from years of calming down sinners, 86-ing drunks or talking jumpers off the ledge. The performance of everyday miracles.
It was a minute before I realized he was waiting for me to say something.
“It was an accident,” I said, finally, swiveling my stool around so I was facing Nat, holding the beer but not drinking. “The alley. A car and …wham! That was the end.” I slapped the top of the bar for effect, then shrugged my arms out, swishing the off-white foam of my beer until its head spilled over the glass. My own volcanic eruption.
I could see Nat wondering whether I’d be able to keep track of my head if it didn’t happen to be permanently attached, but he kept this to himself.
“To Ira,” it was Nat who broke our silence, raising his glass. “The only cat to get run over twice” — he looked at his watch–“in 24 hours.” The clink of the toast to my late pet echoed through the bar, muffled a bit in the dense air. The only other sound was the plop-plopity plop of the rain above our heads.
We sat there listening to it.
Nat’s belch broke our revelry, or whatever it was. Victor followed with one of his own and in its wake finished the last two-thirds of his beer in one swallow.
I caught Nat’s eye briefly and an awkward silence followed. Victor, feeling like the third wheel, coughed nervously and looked around for something to do. He finally decided he was needed in the back room.
Next to Ira, my cat, and my sometime partner and soul mate Bobo, Nat was the best friend I had. That was saying a lot because I wasn’t exactly what you would call social. More like social retard. We had managed to exist pretty much like we were now – sharing silences – and Anchor Steams.
I really didn’t know much about him, except that behind his barroom cheer, he kept a knot of pain bigger than a beer keg. It was more complicated, of course, but I’d always figured a woman or two had put him through the relationship garbage compactor and very likely vice versa. I never asked about his history and he never asked about mine. It was an unspoken understanding between two people on the hard side of life who had let the wrong person get away with their heart and money and the right one simply get away.
“You look like you’ve been up since last week,” he broke the silence, his deep voice a strange echo in the empty room. “Working on a case?”
He said this hopefully and I managed an appreciative smile, knowing my traitorous eyes were saying much more. I was a small-time private detective, a job I’d fallen into after making a name for myself as a sportswriter just in time to experience a flame-out that was now the stuff of legend in a business full of legend-telling. I never thought of it as anything more than a really bad day, but then slugging the World Series MVP in the locker room is front page news. My mistake.
Now I spend my time either finding people, which I like a lot and am good at or following errant spouses, which I’m even better at, but hate. Unfortunately, more people cheat on their spouses than turn up missing, at least here in LA, and that means I spend most of my working day doing something that makes me feel like a heel.
It tends to make me miserable, but lately I’m not doing well enough to turn anyone down. If only they’d ask.
“Just a hangover,” I said. “Nothing’s come my way lately. Guess love can exist in LA”
“Fair point,” he said, the sudden ringing of the phone seeming to emphasize his words. “Don’t let the lull fool you. Give it some time and those angry wives will be beating down your door. You can count on it.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I was skeptical and still very wet, pressing my hand against my thigh to wring some of the water out of my jeans. “Right now I could use a change of clothes.”
“It’s for you,” Victor said to me. He was in mid-yell as he walked to where we were sitting with the business end of a cordless phone in one hand and a fresh beer in the other.
Nat’s look was of the “See, I told you so” variety.
I have a unique answering service, a 1920s silent-movie star who I’d help recover money for a few years back. She’d been conned out of her substantial savings by the kind of lowlifes who make their money preying on weak people’s weaknesses.
Now she felt she owed me a debt – apparently my generous fees weren’t enough. So she handled my calls from her home. It had turned out to be a wonderful set-up – most of the time. It gave her something constructive to do and it gave my clients a soothing voice that didn’t come from a little black box. The only problem was that Vivian had this maternal instinct for me that included knowing where I was 24 hours a day and giving my phone number to single Jewish doctors.
“Zen here,” I said.
“Mr. Zen Moses?” it was my given name, an unfortunate combination my parents thought might grant me some kind of mystical powers. It only mystified everyone who had to use it. Few people ever did and most of them were dead or had a G-rating before their job description. A family friend had decided to add one philosopher my folks had left out and Zen had stuck. It worked for me.
“It’s Ms. Moses to you,” I said to the voice that wasn’t Vivian. It was a 180 from the sing-song Brooklynese that made her put R’s on the end of words ending in vowels. “Who wants to know?”
“Your government,” the voice, a woman, was trying to be amusing. It was generic-sounding with an official tone to it, but there was something else beneath it
“Very funny,” I said, pleasantly. “What part of me does my government want to rip out through my throat today?”
“I wouldn’t look at it that way Ms. Moses,” she was back to the land of officialdom. “We’re only doing our jobs.”
This was getting good. “Who would `we’ be, ma’am?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Marcia Atwood, IRS, didn’t I say?”
“No, you didn’t say,” my heart was in China.
“This is probably nothing,” uh-oh. “But there were some, ahh, discrepancies on your 1989 Federal Tax filing. It’s a routine thing, but you’ve been scheduled for an audit.”
Well, at least I’d filed.
“And I was just having a wonderful morning.”
“Ms. Moses, it’s very likely nothing to be concerned about.” That was the second time she’d said that.
“Then why call? It’s practically still Christmas,” I said. “Couldn’t you just skip over my case. Surely someone else is more deserving of government intervention.” Like Bosnia.
She barely broke stride. “Why don’t you schedule a time when we can sit down and talk. Chances are we can get this all settled. Is this your office number?”
“So to speak,” I said, then arranged to meet her at my home office Friday afternoon – she had a few more poor souls scheduled for IRS critical organ transplants between now and then.
“Bad news?” Nat asked.
“It’s the IRS,” I told him. “They’re after me for crimes allegedly committed in 1989.”
“What specific crimes?”
“Beats me. I barely remember what I did last night, much less in a previous decade. Seems like I’m getting audited though.”
“It can’t be too bad,” he said. “I get audited once a month.” He laughed, though the way he ran his business, I was sure he was telling me the gospel.
“I just don’t know why the idea of that doesn’t just lift my spirits,” I smirked. “Now, where was I?”
“Going somewhere to dry off, I think.”
I was thinking about a dry pair of jeans, pushing myself away from the bar and trying to remember 1989. The whole thought process was a strain. Maybe I needed a nap.
Victor came in from the back with an empty glass, walked around the back of the bar and yanked one of the handles. A pile of foam slopped into his glass.
He poured the foam out and tried another handle. The same.
“Must be the CO2,” he said to Nat. “Want me to take a look?”
Nat nodded and we watched Victor lumber to the back. When a tap spits out foam, it usually means the keg is empty and a new one has to be hooked up.Out of our view, to the right was the walk-in refrigerator where Nat kept the kegs for the 30-odd micro-brews he served. Victory peeked around the corner: “You change the temp of the walk-in?” he asked. “It’s set below freezing.”
Nat was frowning. He was very particular about his beers and how they were served. Anything warmer or colder than 37 degrees, meant serving an imperfect product.
Nat gave me a ‘that’s strange’ look and got up to inspect the situation for himself. I was tagging along behind when we heard a muted yelp from the back room. It was Victor. We found him leaning against the keg cooler, holding his hand to his mouth like he was keeping something big inside.
Nat had gently pushed by Victor and had his head in the cooler. “Oh my god,” he said and I peered in over his shoulder.
The walk-in was named so for obvious reasons. It was eight feet deep, four wide, one wall was lined with metal racks and the other with round metal kegs, most attached to plastic tubing. One was attached to something else. Or rather someone else.
It was sitting on the cement floor, arms and legs wrapped around one of the kegs. I went inside, the frozen air turning my wet clothes to ice. It was a man, tanned, well-fed and dark-haired, his mouth grotesquely hooked up to a makeshift tap. I felt for a pulse. No beats. No surprise.
“Christ, Nat,” I said, “he’s dead.”
“I guess I should call the police,” it was Victor. He said it from outside the cooler. He’d seen enough.
Nat sent him to do so, stepping back to the door, leaving me with the body. I took a quick look around.
I was supposedly trained for stuff like this, but I’d managed to avoid corpses whenever possible. I had no stomach for them, which seemed normal to me.
I took a deep breath and squatted down to check for a wallet, but his pockets were empty. I noticed a watch on his wrist, a shiny gold Rolex turned so it faced downward. It was his only identifying mark, that and a small caliber hole in the back of his head near his neck.
I pulled at the sleeve of his leather jacket, its shiny black finish had the just off-the-rack look, though from the soft nap I was certain it wasn’t bought at discount. I was trying to turn his arm so I could get a closer look when the body moved slightly. I flinched, grabbing the air for something to keep from falling on my ass. I got a handful of cold skin, instead. I’d grabbed the guy’s cold, wet, limp wrist.
The sensation shot up my arm and I yanked it back quickly, grabbing at the keg instead, where I steadied myself. Only once I got my balance, I realized I’d gotten my sweaty hand stuck to the metal of the freezing barrel.
I could feel the gentle pinch on my flesh which made me pull even harder, the action dragging the keg and the corpse toward me. Both teetered for a moment, held in place by the hold, then toppled when the connection broke.
In the midst of this, I got a good look at the guy’s face and my heart stopped.
I was rubbing the back of my hand, afraid to look and see if all the skin was still attached. The body lay half-stiff, on its side in a grotesque fetal position, now separated from the metal barrel, which was rolling back and forth on the floor, metal on metal. Clang, swish, clang.
I heard someone call my name, but I was unable to move for a moment, frozen in the freezer.
I finally looked up to see Nat hovering in the doorway, making some joke about my making a mess of things. Little did he know. I noted he didn’t come inside. I didn’t blame him.
He pointed to the keg. It had nearly come to a stop, but was still rocking slightly.
“Keg’s empty,” He said. Another time, he would have been smiling.
I nodded, slowly bringing my mind’s focus back to the present.
“Well at least we know one thing,” he said.
“What’s that?” the words seemed to come from somewhere else. I was edging closer to the door – and fresh air.
“He died happy.”
I managed the thinnest of smiles. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“Are you all right?” he asked me.
“Yeah, sure,” I was far from all right. I was going mad.
Nat didn’t know what I knew: that the man in his walk-in had died 12 years earlier.
I knew. I had killed him..
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
E.M. (Elizabeth) Cosin was born in Ossining, New York in the shadow of Sing Sing Prison. She now lives in Los Angeles with her cat and can frequently be found belly-up to the bar at the real Father’s Office in Santa Monica, enjoying a microbrew. She is a former investigative reporter, sportswriter and also writes for television. Shows she has written for include Buddy Faro, Snoops, Law and Order Criminal Intent, 24, and Dragnet. Zen and the Art of Murder is her first novel. (1998)