Wednesday, April 7, 2010

365 Photo Project - Day 97


Taken: April 7, 2010, 10 p.m.
Location: Healdsburg, Ca

Instead of boring you with my morbid musings today, I thought I'd try something a little different. As many of you know, I'm a published novelist although I have not had a book out in more than a decade. The reasons for this are varied, mildly complicated and more than a little depressing. It's not that I haven't been writing -- I write all the time, almost every day, pages and pages -- it's just that I haven't finished a novel worth publishing. That's about to change.

In the next few weeks, I'll be putting the final touches on a new book. It's called "Blood Matters." It's not a Zen Moses book (she is my detective character) but a wholly new character, and it's a lot more serious and (I hope) deeper and richer. I'm not knocking my Zen books -- I love 'em -- but I was ready for something new and I'm not always the kind of writer that gets to The End the easy way.

I'm as proud of this new work as anything I've ever done. Some of you have read excerpts that I've posted here and on Facebook. I don't think I've ever posted these particular pages so it'll be something new for everybody I hope.

Without further introduction, then, here's an excerpt from "Blood Matters," the novel. Please note that this excerpt and everything else I write on this blog is protected by copyright. That means if you wanna use it anywhere and for any reason you need my permission. Period. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the read and please excuse any typos -- the line-edit is still a few weeks away.

Downtown Los Angeles used to be a wasteland on nights and weekends. During the day, the streets teem with investment bankers, secretaries and lawyers who navigate the sidewalks against the push of the homeless, tourists and the bike messengers who play chicken with cell-phone chatting drivers looking for the oasis of a parking spot.
But like cockroaches when the lights go on, at closing time they scatter to points in all directions – intent on sitting in the infuriatingly slow-crawling traffic jams in order to get as far away from the skyscrapers as possible.
Slowly, residential buildings are rising up along side those glistening corporate towers and more and more people are moving into loft-style apartments hoping that the Staples Center and the stunning Disney Hall concert building will lure city dwellers into the actual heart of the city.
They’re still waiting. A few short blocks from some of the newest lofts lie a series of streets even a tough guy would avoid in the daylight. On this side of downtown, cheap motels stand side-by-side to empty needle-strewn lots and half-boarded up liquor stores, warehouses next to more warehouses, where people sleep in every doorway and there isn’t anybody around to tell them to take it somewhere else.
Perc had parked his car across from the Beacon Hotel, kept the engine on and the air turned up high. He was listening to a Public Radio Show called “Fresh Air.”
The host was a woman named Terry Gross. Perc had a thing for her. Well, he had a thing for her voice. It soothed him. It made him feel connected to the world. Half the time he didn’t pay attention to what she said, it was just the way she said it that he liked.
Today she was talking to some washed up rock singer who was starring in his own reality show, an arrogant prick with a deep voice who used big words to make himself sound intelligent. Perc was sure it was a cover and he was dumb as shit. People didn’t realize how much you could tell about them just by listening to them talk. Perc had always been able to break people down in the interrogation room. His secret was to listen. The longer you listened, the more you learned and the easier it was to find an opening.
This rocker was talking like he was smarter than everybody but Perc knew better. He was proud of Terry when she called him on it. It made his fucking day.
Perc couldn’t stand it any longer. He was either going to cross the street and go upstairs to see if his father was still breathing or he was gonna put the damn car in gear and drive somewhere and get hammered.
Frank’s words from last night echoed in his head. There was truth in them, as usual. Frank had an annoying way of getting to the center of things. Even when he pissed Perc off, he had to admit when he had a point. And he was right about Perc seeing his old man. It was now or never. And never, Perc considered, was a fucking long ass time.
He cut the car’s engine and opened the door to the oppressive whoosh of hot air. It was Sunday. The street was quiet, save for a couple of derelicts sharing a brown-bagged bottle on a bus bench, an ad for cognac painted behind them. They eyed Perc as he jaywalked across the street.
He stopped in front of the Beacon, looking up at the side of the building. The brick fa├žade, painted hundreds of times, had faded to a warm brown color and a fine, reddish powder lined the street at the bottom edge of the building, as if it was disintegrating right there in front of him.
One of the derelicts spit on the ground, showing a mouth of missing teeth.
“Who you gonna hassle up in there, po-po,” he said. “Even God takes himself a day off.”
“I’m not a cop,” Perc said.
“If’n you say so,” the man said and took a swig from his bottle, laughing at him. “If’n you say so.”
Perc shook his head. A good cop knows a troublemaker from a mile away. Guess it figures it works the other way around too. He waved at the two drunks and went inside the Beacon.
The elevator was working but he couldn’t get it to stop on the seventh floor. He had to pass it twice before he gave up, getting out one floor below and walking up.
The stairwell was dark but empty except for a litter of used needles and condoms and crushed cans of malt liquor. Guess the local junkies had somewhere else to be on Sunday. The hallway heavy with stale air and reminded him of his bad dream, the one he’d been having over and over again for years. The shrink he saw at the department said with work he’d be able to make sense of what it meant. The shrink said a lot of things, most of which Perc thought was common sense or common bullshit. Half the time he changed his mind over what was what.
The walls were cheap plaster white or brown that had gone gray and the carpet on the floor was blotched with stains of unknown origin. The dominant smells were a gag-inducing mixture of piss, sweat and sex.
He found 709 at the end of the hallway, next to a window that was propped open with a Budweiser bottle. It was quieter than he expected but through the thin walls he could pick up sounds inside, a t.v. squawking some bible thumper’s sermon, a couple arguing and other noises he figured were best kept a mystery.
His father left the L.A.P.D. a few years before Perc signed up, which suited him just fine. He wore the uniform his entire career and spent the last decade as a desk sergeant in Rampart. He was old school, which isn’t a compliment from Perc’s point of view.
He was a hard ass and a drunk who, even years after Daryl Gates had slinked away as one of the bad guys, believed problems were solved in windowless backrooms with a billy-club and an open fist. Perc had heard ugly rumors about Sergeant Leo Baldwin, even that he’d sent a few lowlifes to an early grave, but he suspected a lot of it was just talk. His father was one of those men who traded in violence, but only up to a point and that point being to show he was tougher than the next guy. Most of the time, a guy like that only had to prove himself once. After that, you lived on your rep as long as you could.
Perc knew Leo’s secret better than anyone – pick on the weakest person in the room and do it in a way that makes the other guys think twice about what you might do to them.
Perc understood this about his father from a very young age and when he was eleven put his theory into practice. The balance of power shifted that day between father and son and it was the last time Leo had laid a hand on his son in violence.
Still, rumors aside, as far as he’d ever heard, his father had only fired his weapon in the line of duty one or two times, and that was years ago when he was just another green behind the ears beat cop.
What life he had led in the years since his retirement were mostly a mystery to Perc, although occasionally on those rare times he would drive up the coast to visit his mom long after she’d finally left Leo, she would mention him as if they had spoken recently. She never gave him specifics but then he never asked for any either.

He was standing in front of Room 709, staring at the peeling brown paint and the old-fashioned key lock like it was a oracle that would reveal the secret of life to him. It was maybe five minutes before he finally tapped on the door. Nobody answered. He knocked louder.
Then he tried the door. It was locked. He felt a presence behind him and turned to see a waif-thin transvestite who seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“He’s in repose,” the voice said.
She was puffing delicately on a Virginia Slims with lips that were painted the color of blood. He put his hand against the wall to steady himself against the rising tide in his stomach.
The transvestite held the cigarette between her lips and in two easy steps was beside him, one hand on his shoulder, the other on his arm.
“You okay, honey?”
Perc didn’t move even though he didn’t want her to touch him. He kept his eyes closed until the moment passed. When he opened them, and got his bearings, he took a step back. He noticed with embarrassment how she gracefully gave him space without acknowledging his obvious slight.
Instead, with the cigarette between two fingers, she smoothed the folds of her bright green house dress, which she’d buttoned all the way to her neck. She wore a red and yellow flowered scarf in her hair. Her skin was a light coffee color, smooth and even like a child’s but age lines scored her mouth and eyes.
A favorite teacher once told him that he didn’t have to look for humanity because it would find you when you least expected it. It was something he tried to hold on to but his years on this earth had beaten him to a pulp and he long ago stopped expecting it at all.
Yet, here was this woman or man or whatever proving his teacher’s theory without effort or ulterior motives. Still, all Perc could think was that he didn’t deserve it. That’s how fucked up he was.
“You here to see the Sergeant?” Her voice had the sing-song cadence of the deep South and she played it for all it was worth. She said sergeant like it had three syllables.
Perc hadn’t heard his father called that in years.
“If he’s sleeping, I could come back later.”
“Na-uh, honey,” she said, producing a set of keys. “He don’t get many visitors. From the looks of you, I think you’s the one he’s been waiting for.”
“I am?”
“You the prodigal son, ain’t ya?” She said prodigal prod-di-gi-cal and it sounded like a whole different word.
She jangled the keys for him to see. “I’m kind of his nursemaid, I guess.”
Perc was amused and surprised by this. He watched her unlock the door and push it open. She held it for him, the stringy muscles on her arms popping out with definition. She saw him appraising them.
“Ran track at Santa Monica College back in the day,” she said and winked at him. “Me and Carl Lewis were tight, but not like you mean.”
She giggled, putting her hand to her breast. “Sorry, honey. I tend to go babble. Go on inside. I won’t bother y’all.”
Perc hesitated.
“He caint bite you no more,” she said, allowing herself a generous smile as if she knew all his secrets. “Go on now.”
He stepped inside the room. She closed the door behind him.
He thought he smelled death in his apartment but he realized standing there in that dark, seedy one-window room that he had no idea what the smell of death was until this very moment.
He crossed the room in two steps, passing the shadow of a human strewn out on the bed, and ducked into the door-less bathroom so he could vomit in the sink. He had to hold himself up for several minutes before he was able to step back into the room again.
He stood over the figure of his father feeling far more pity than anything else, but also seeing his future in the dark, soulless eyes of the person he hated more than anyone else in the whole world.
He was thinner than he’d ever seen him but other than that he wasn’t the small, shrunken old man Perc imagined when Frank told him he was dying. The only indication of whatever was killing him was the constant hum of the breathing apparatus shoved into his nose, and the bag of shit and piss on the bed next to him.
His father was lying on his back, his eyes closed, his mouth open slightly. His chest heaving an irregular beat, so slight, Perc was sure it would stop at any moment.
“Well what the fuck,” Perc said out loud.
His father’s eyes opened suddenly, opening wider in recognition of Perc. His lips moved but Perc couldn’t make out the words. He stepped closer. On the side table was a beat up copy of the bible, a pack of Marlboros and the lighter his father had carried around with him as long as he’d ever known him. It was silver-plated and engraved with the image of St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Policeman. And, Perc remembered, lost causes.
“Perc,” his father said. “Well, fuck me.”
“I just wanted to see you one last time, make sure it was true what Frank said.”
“I’m a dead man,” he said. “Lung cancer. What’s really fucked up is I still want a smoke.”
Perc was surprised at how strong his father’s voice sounded though it was accented by the scratchiness from a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. Without warning, he launched into a coughing fit that was so violent Perc wasn’t sure he’d survive it. It stopped as suddenly as it had began and for a moment Perc thought he was dead.
Then he opened his eyes again, motioning for Perc to come closer.
“Good-bye, Leo,” he said but his father started to lift himself off the bed. His once-powerful arms had gone soft, too weak to support his frail frame. Perc wanted to dismiss the pity he felt but he couldn’t do it.
His father accidentally dislodged the breathing tube from his nose and he started to gag immediately, the color drained from his face and in his lips started to turn blue. Perc watched him for what seemed like forever, not sure he had the strength or the inclination to help him. But in the end, Perc had no choice. He guessed he wasn’t his father’s son after all.
He went over to the bed and put the tube back in. It was a good minute before his father got his breath back.
“You wanted to let me die,” he said. “I could see it in your eyes.”
Perc just stared at him. “You got something to say, say it.”
“You’re a fucking pussy,” his father said. “You always were.”
“I kicked your ass pretty good,” Perc said. “Maybe you forgot that.”
His father coughed again. “Yeah, yeah, I’m a shitheel. Newsfuckingflash. I don’t deny I was a lousy father.”
“You don’t deserve the title,” Perc couldn’t stand to hear any apologies. He wasn’t ready for it. “I don’t need to hear your excuses.”
“Nobody’s perfect, sonny boy, least of all you. I mean a cop who’s scared of the sight of blood. Jesus,” he coughed again and screwed his face up in pain.
“I ain’t apologizing for shit. My maker will take care of that,” his father said. “I’m just trying to square things before I bite the big one.”
“Well, I’m not going to give you the satisfaction,” Perc said. “I don’t owe you a thing.”
He started to rise when his father grabbed his arm. His hand was cold like a corpse but his grip was solid.
“You have a brother,” he said.
Perc looked back at him.
“Got your attention you little fuck,” he smiled. “Truthfully, he’s only your half brother.”
“It’s no secret you fucked around,” Perc said. “Guess having a kid would follow.”
“Yeah, well this was different. This kid was special. He was going to make me a better man. Fucking crazy talk, right? I mean coming from me, but it’s the God’s honest truth.”
“Good for you,” Perc said. He felt like he’d been kicked in the head.
“Well, shit I didn’t mean it that way. Christ. You take everything so damn personal,” he said. “I wasn’t ready for you, that’s all. Ain’t nothing more complicated than that.
“You turned out all right for the most part, didn’t ya? Maybe you were better off the way things worked out.”
“Wow. Why didn’t I think of that?”
The old man tried to reach for his smokes. Perc absently grabbed the pack and started to pull one out. Why the fuck not?
“Just the lighter,” he said. “I just want the lighter.”
Perc picked it up. He had coveted it for as long as he could remember, his earliest memories of his father pulling it out of his shirt pocket. The silver was tarnished and the engraving faded, but it was still beautiful and it reflected sunlight like a jewel. Perc rubbed his thumb along the face of St. Jude. He had never believed in things like religion and the saints but he had always attributed a magic to his father’s lighter that he couldn’t explain. The fancy of little boys, he supposed.
He held the lighter up but his father waved at him with his free hand.
“I want you to have it,” he said, and he coughed again, this time for a long time. The door opened behind him and the transvestite popped her head.
“Y’all right in here?”
His father waved at her, trying to get his breath back. “We’re fine, Sugar,” he said through coughs.
She clicked her teeth and shook her head before closing the door again. After she left, the room seemed to close in around Perc. He wanted to open the window.
He held the lighter in his hand, turning it around and feeling it’s heft. What was he supposed to feel now?
“So how come you’re not giving this to your special son?”
“It ain’t like it’s free,” he said. “I need a favor.”
“Here we go.”
“Ah, Jesus,” he said. “It’s not like I put you out in the street. Get over it.”
Perc started to get up again, but his father’s grip was surprisingly sturdy.
“This kid. Your little half brother disappeared in 1986.”
“Probably to get away from his father.”
“It wasn’t like that, dammit,” more coughing. “He was fucking abducted. Nobody ever found out what happened to him. Been looking for him ever since.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“Cause I’m dead,” he said. “Cause I promised myself I’d find him. Cause you’re the only person left who got any reason to want to know what happened.”
“You want me to take up a 20-year-old missing persons case to ease your conscience? Half the force thinks you’re some kind of hero. Why don’t you ask one of your old pals.”
“It ain’t about me anymore. You ever do find out what happened, be too late for me. I’ll be pushing up daisies,” he said. “I can’t die without passing the torch so to speak. And you, like or not, are my flesh and blood. I got nobody else to do any passing to. Don’t do it for me. Do it for the kid. He don’t have an end to his story. Everybody deserves that.”
Perc shook his head and placed the lighter on his father’s chest.
“He’s probably dead, Leo,” he said.
His father launched into another coughing fit, this one impossibly worse than the last. Perc pried his father’s hand off his arm. Then he saw it – a trickle of blood drip out of the corner of his mouth.
Perc started to feel the same old sensation wash over him – the flush, the nausea, the dizziness. He closed his eyes, trying to gain control. When he opened them again, his father was quiet again. When he spoke, his voice was barely a whisper. The spittle of blood sat on his chin like a bad omen.
“I know he’s out there,” he said. “He’s alive.”
Another coughing fit. Perc turned away, afraid of the blood, afraid he’d pass out. His father gripped his arm again, so tight he was sure he’d break the skin.
“You have to find him,” he said “Promise you’ll look for him.”
Perc was shaking, not sure if it was the blood or the familiar rage building up inside him, but he could barely speak. He wanted to get up. He wanted to run away from this man, this room, this place, this fucking city. He wanted to run away and never come back.
His father coughed again, this time hacking up a gob of blood onto the sheets, barely missing Perc. He felt sick again. He turned his head away, trying to keep the bile from climbing out of his stomach.
But the ugly moment passed unexpectedly and instead, he felt his father’s grip on his forearm. Somehow it steadied his nerves.
“Promise me,” his father said, his voice almost inaudible.
Perc felt something strange inside, a feeling of pity of longing, of loss. He couldn’t explain it, couldn’t make sense of it at that moment and maybe he never would, but whatever it was, made him do a thing he thought impossible.
“Sure. I promise,” he said.
His father tried to speak again but his breathing was coming in shorter and shorter gasps and Perc could hear the telltale gurgle of his lungs filling up with fluid. He watched his father take his last uneven breaths in that seedy hotel room with the oppressive L.A. sun burning a hole in a spot on the mangy carpet.
Even after his eyes rolled back in his head, Perc could feel his father’s cold grip on his arm, like he was still fighting off his demons even after he had left this world for good.


2 comments:

igetcreative said...

Five Stars!!! Two Thumbs! Elizabeth Cosin will grip you with her hard-edged writing style ala 1950s crime novels. You won't want to put this one down! A Must read!!!

KRennelk said...

That was amazing! I hope I'm not late to work because I had to keep reading. Just stunning my friend, stunning!