Men, in my experience, do not like being interrupted during sex by a ringing telephone. I suppose it's true for women too. It's true for me, anyhow, which is why I never have a telephone in my bedroom.
In late December, however, I had no bedroom. I was sharing one with a guy named Simon Alexander, along with two cell phones, two answering machines, a landline, computer, TV, radio, surround-sound system, beeper, clock, printer-fax-copier, and smoke alarm, all of which had interfered with romantic moments, although some only when one of us rolled over onto a remote.
There was also a gun, occupying the bedside table. The gun hadn't interrupted anything yet, but I'd been living there only a couple of weeks.
Simon was an FBI agent.
We were in the thick of things that late Friday afternoon, in a sweaty, muscle-clenching, heart-pounding clinch, when a click from across the room reminded me I'd turned off the ringer on the phone. Simon's arm tightened around me.
"Wollie," the answering machine said. "Pick up. Wollie."
Simon's grip loosened. It wasn't a national emergency. Despite his technical sophistication, he preferred an answering machine to voice mail for its screening ability. "Simon, if you're listening," the voice said, "I gotta talk to Wollie. Wollie, please be there."
It was my friend Joey. Despite a masculine name, like mine, Joey, like me, is female. Knowing her as I do, I assumed that under the circumstances she'd want me to ignore her.
"Okay, you're not there," she said, her gravelly voice cracking. "I hate to say it to the machine, but you'll hear it on the news. David's dead. David Zetrakis. Our David."
"David?" I extricated myself from Simon's grasp and crawled to the machine. "Our David?" I said. Too late. The beep indicated that Joey had hung up.
Simon's hand found my thigh and gave it a squeeze. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I . . . yes." But I didn't move. After a moment I felt a comforter placed over me.
Simon stood. He was six foot five, as tall as anyone need reasonably be who's not in the NBA, and in great shape, too, which is not unusual in L.A., where gym memberships are as common as car insurance, but still, impressive in a guy approaching fifty. Our relationship, affair, hookup, whatever it was, was new enough that the sight of him naked could still distract me from anything. Even the death of an old boyfriend.
"Someone close to you?" He was checking one of his cell phones for messages.
"Very close. Once upon a time." I picked up my own cell phone to call Joey.
Simon bent down, grabbed a handful of hair, and kissed my shoulder. "Later, beautiful girl," he said. Then he retreated to the bathroom. Still naked.
"Joey," I said to her answering machine. "That's . . . so sad. Are you okay?"
David had been an old boyfriend of mine, but he'd been Joey's too, longer and more seriously. When she picked up the phone halfway through my message, she didn't bother talking. She cried. Joey Rafferty Horowitz was a fairly tough cookie, so hearing her cry, while not a complete novelty, was alarming. Eventually I asked what had happened to David.
"He had cancer," she said. "Pancreatic. Horrible. Untreatable."
I searched for something to say that wasn't a cliche, but gave up. "God, that's awful. I didn't even know he was sick." I design greeting cards, so you'd expect better from me, but when it comes to death, I'm an amateur like everyone else. "And so young," I added.
"Fifty-one," Joey said, blowing her nose. "It's a measure of how old we're getting that fifty-one seems young."
"Did he die in the hospital?"
"At home," she said. "Toluca Lake."
I wrapped the comforter around myself, cold suddenly, and walked to the window. Simon lived in a penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard, a stark, masculine, tall-ceilinged condo with oversized windows washed by a cleaning lady on the inside and a professional crew on the outside. The view went all the way to the ocean. Toluca Lake was to the northeast, over mountains, so it wasn't like I could see David's house, but maybe his spirit hovered above the Pacific.
"When did you last see David?" I asked, but Joey had put me on hold.
I watched the sun set. It was that week between Christmas and New Year's, a time to calculate end-of-year quarterly taxes and polish off gingerbread men and eggnog while making resolutions about sugar, carbs, and alcohol. The L.A. sky faded until the smog was indistinguishable from the sea. I heard the shower in the bathroom and considered joining Simon; he showered unarmed, so it was one place I could safely ambush him.
A click indicated that Joey was back on the line, but she didn't speak.
"Joey?" I said.
"I'm just . . . scared. Wollie, would you still be my friend if . . ."
"Yes. If what?"
"If . . . never mind. Are you going to Rex and Tricia's cocktail thing tonight?"
"I have to. You'll be there, right?" I waited, then said, "Joey, what is it?"
"God, I'm making such a mess of my life." She sounded drunk.
"Honey," I said, "David died of cancer. It's not your fault."
"I didn't say he died of cancer," she said. "He was sick with cancer. What he died of was a gunshot wound to the head."
Gunshot wound to the head.
Cop jargon came naturally to Joey, as half her family was in law enforcement and she herself had saved up for college by working in a morgue, but wouldn't "He committed suicide" have done the job as well? Now I'd picture David's face blown away when I thought of him. That it was anything but suicide--murder, for example--entered my mind and exited just as quickly. Who'd kill a terminally ill soap opera producer?
Suicide, though. What a sorrowful end. And why was Joey acting so strangely? Sad I understood, but . . . scared? Joey didn't scare easily; nor was she prone to despair. I was about to call her back when Simon emerged from his walk-in closet.
Simon clothed was nearly as compelling as Simon naked. He didn't dress like the FBI agents on TV; he dressed like he was off to the Polo Lounge. Tonight it was bark-colored pants and a burgundy shirt, suitable for the cocktail party I was going to, only he wasn't going to the cocktail party. I had no idea where he was going. "Work," he'd said, which could mean anything from a stakeout to a Lakers game. It was the second time that day he'd gone to "work."
I lay on the bed and watched him buckle his belt. "Is suicide a crime?" I asked.
"Is that what your friend did?"
"Apparently. Could you find out the details?"
He glanced at me. His eyes were glacier blue, an arresting color. "Why?"
"I don't know. I just_._._. Joey's taking it really hard, and--"
"What do you mean, no?"
"I mean that if it's not FBI business, there's no reason for the cops to let me in on it, and if it is FBI business, I can't discuss it with you." He began to knot his tie.
I reached over to him, snagging my finger through a belt loop, pulling him close. He didn't resist. "What's the point of sleeping with Feds," I said, "if I can't get inside information?"
"How many Feds are you sleeping with?"
"Within your division or nationwide?"
He took my face in his hands and covered my mouth with his, cutting off my air supply. I didn't resist. When he straightened up, letting go of me, I reached forward, grabbed him around the waist, and fell backward, pulling him onto the bed with me. I'm not an athletic person, so I must've had the element of surprise on my side.
What we did next is the sort of thing you might not expect of a girl who's just been given the worst sort of news about someone, but as my Uncle Theo says, we grieve in mysterious ways. When we were done doing the thing we did, Simon had to do the other things all over, the shower, the fresh clothes . . . the game face. Work.
Simon was at the point in his career where field agents turn into supervising agents, but he liked being a field agent, on the street, with a new operation every few months. Unlike me, who dreamed of a desk job. Not that I was in the FBI, although I had worked for them, for five minutes. I'd worked for nearly everyone for five minutes. In between designing greeting cards.
Life occurs to me in line drawings. Some people hear voices--my brother, P.B., for instance, when not taking his meds--and I do too, sporadically, but mostly I see things. Stuck in freeway traffic, the car in front of me becomes a picture with a caption: Volkswagens on Valium. It's not something I work at. The work is giving the image a context and getting it on paper, but that's more fun than drudgery. I had a line of alternative greeting cards called Good Golly, Miss Wollie, and while this paid the rent, I also needed food, gas, and the occasional pair of shoes. Thus, I augmented my income in a variety of ways, some stranger than others. At the moment I was on the hunt for a new odd job and had no prospects. On the plus side, Christmas shopping was over with for another year.
Simon left for work, and I dressed for my party. Or tried; mostly, I just stood in the closet, clutching the comforter. I'm not a party person--groups of strangers bring out my Inner Wallflower--and now thoughts of death overrode fashion. David, my boyfriend very briefly, had been my friend ever since, ten years, even though I hadn't seen him in months. He was such a dynamic personality, it was hard to conceive of him gone from the earth; it was nearly impossible to believe he'd put a bullet through his head.
And what was going on with Joey? Why would his suicide scare her?
My comforter slipped from my shoulders, and I shivered. Time to get dressed.
I was living out of suitcases. Simon's closets--I had one all to myself--were big enough to park cars in, but I was hesitant to spread out, since there'd been no talk of moving in, just a vague "stay here as long as you need" invitation. I didn't need to, strictly speaking, but my West Hollywood sublet had been reclaimed by its rightful owner a few weeks earlier, and I was too busy being romantic to get any apartment hunting done. In any case, Simon showed neatnik tendencies, so I felt a need to sequester my stuff. I'd taken to drying my toothbrush, post-brushing, and returning it to the suitcase. I pocketed used dental floss so that it wouldn't clutter the Lucite bathroom wastebasket. I Windexed the shower stall daily, purloining supplies from the stash kept by Ilse, the three-times-weekly cleaning lady--were they still called cleaning ladies?--and maybe this was excessive, but I was a woman in love and I didn't want to mess up.
My address book lay in one suitcase, atop my makeup kit, and on impulse I looked up the number for Pete Cziemanski, a man I'd almost dated, at the West Valley Police Department.
I called Pete. While on hold, I tried on clothes, seeking that combination of holiday festive, Hollywood sexy, and _my-friend-is-dead conservative, before going with a black velvet skirt and white silk blouse. It complemented the string of pearls Simon had given me on Christmas Eve, forty-_eight hours earlier. The good news was, I would've felt beautiful in a hospital gown, a happy side effect of having sex every day, multiple times a day. It was a feeling and a state of affairs that wouldn't last, because it never lasts, but I was enjoying it nevertheless.
"Wollie," Cziemanski said. "Liked your Christmas card. What's up?"
So much for small talk. "Pete," I said, "is suicide a crime?"
"Uh . . . a sin, maybe. A crime? No. Why?"
I started to tell him about my friend David, but he interrupted.
"Zetrakis? Producer guy? That was no suicide."
"Are you sure?"
"I know the black-and-white that answered the 911 from the housekeeper."
"What's that mean? He could tell from the body position it wasn't suicide?"
"He could tell by the gun. There wasn't one. Guys that blow their brains out don't generally hide the weapon afterward. Should be on the news if it isn't already."
"So it was . . ."
"Yeah. The 'M' word. Murder."
Murder. I hung up and walked through the masculine, state-of-the-art, black-and-taupe penthouse, my heels loud in the empty rooms. David was murdered, David was murdered, they tapped out, until I was out in the hallway, triple-locking the door behind me.
Rex and Tricia were newlyweds living in Sherman Oaks, twenty minutes north of Westwood, traffic permitting, although traffic rarely permitted. I wondered how it would be to live in a place where "traffic permitting" didn't qualify every description of time and space, where knowing shortcuts and alternate routes was not a survival skill. In L.A., people made small talk about traffic instead of weather. David, for instance, had considered it a matter of honor to make it from his home to the TV studio where he worked in under six minutes. I was born and raised here, but I'd never liked driving. In my dreams, I lived in a city of sidewalks.
Traffic was moderate, which is to say the 405 North was moving, albeit at the pace of a middle-aged jogger, and eventually I pulled up to the mansion Rex and Tricia had built to begin their lives together. A valet parking attendant opened my door and watched as I made the slow trip out of the car: my heels were high, my legs long, and my old Integra low to the ground. Valet parking is a regular feature of any gathering over twelve in certain neighborhoods, signaling that this would not be a cheese ball-and-Wheat Thins affair, and that what you drive may factor into any assessment of you.
"Wollie! Is your cell phone off? I've been calling you for an hour." It was Fredreeq, my other best friend, hailing me from across the driveway.
"Wow," I said. "Look at you. You look . . ."
Fredreeq was swathed in layers of transparent red fabric and a turban. "African," she said. "But why have you come as a nun?"
"You were with me when I bought this blouse. You talked me into it."
"Oh. Well, then." She fussed with my hair as though I were one of her children, then unbuttoned my blouse to show some cleavage. As I'm well endowed, there was a lot of cleavage to work with. "There, that's better. It's not meant to be a turtleneck. Where's Simon?"
"That shouldn't interfere with partying. You two are in the Dopamine Phase. New love, your bodies flooded with chemicals--you should be spending every possible moment together."
"We are. We do." I lowered my voice. "Did you hear about David _Zetrakis?"
"You mean that he's dead?" Fredreeq said, at full volume. "You mean that he had lung cancer, so he shot himself because he didn't want chemo?"
"I heard it was pancreatic cancer," I said. "And not suicide. Murder."
Excerpted from Dead Ex by Harley Jane Kozak. Copyright © 2009 by Harley Jane Kozak. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.