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Zen Moses, once LA's top PI, disappeared right after 9/11. Almost 2 decades later, she returns to help crack a baffling murder.Share Tweet LinkedIn Embed pszr.co/OaEuS 2912 views
|Mystery Detective Fiction (series) #1 in Mystery|
|1 publisher interested|
Santa Monica private detective Zen Moses was the toast of LA after solving a number of high-profile cases in the late 1990s. Tough and smart, she was known for her fast-talking, no-nonsense approach and her penchant for whiskey, cigars and bicycle riding, despite having lost a lung to cancer. But a string of professional and personal losses right before 9/11 has Zen questioning the state of her life. When her Cancer returns and her cat takes off, she decides to leave her beloved LA and go off the grid to get back her health and her soul. The trip takes her to the edge of the continent and a fix-it-up house in a one-stop town out on the Mendocino Coast. What she finds there not only helps her rediscover her purpose but leads to a brutally tough case that pits her against an evil, shadowy political powerbroker whose rise to prominence may have been built on a history of murder and deceit.
The novel begins in LA on the eve of 9/11, catching readers up with what happened to Zen after the end of the second novel, “Zen and the City of Angels”. We learn Zen has a relapse of her Cancer has to endure a months-long course of chemo. At the end of this, she decides to leave her beloved LA and take a “job” rebuilding an old house on the Mendocino Coast for her uncle’s friend. The next chapters follow the rebuilding of the house and Zen’s decision after it’s complete to buy it and settle up there. She takes a part time job working for a local attorney.
Fifteen years go by with Zen settled into her new life of isolation and peace. A neighborwho has moved in to a house on her street, approaches her - he knows her name and who she is even though Zen has taken pains to keep her identify on the down low. He recruits her to help him with a case involving his missing son. Zen takes it reluctantly and travels to Williamsburg, Brooklyn where the young man was last seen. The journey takes her to the office of her college roommate, who was a member of one of the country’s most important political dynasties. After solving the case, Zen decides to close up her house and go back to LA where she feels she still has some unfinished business.
As she’s getting her bearings, her college roommate calls and wants to meet. She has a proposal for Zen. But during the meeting, the roommate is murdered right in front of Zen, making her wonder if maybe she’s been out of the game too long.
The FBI approaches her with accusations that she was complicit in the murder and she finds herself on the run from her friend’s killers and the law.
Zen looks into her friend’s death, uncovering a strange course of events that leads to her powerful grandfather, a man who is considered the most important unelected political powerbroker in the country, who everyone just calls The General (think Joe Kennedy if he were alive today). He initially underestimates Zen but then throws the weight of his influence at stopping her, sending Zen on a cross-country journey for answers.
The search takes her to upstate New York, South Florida, the coast of Maine and to the Nation's Capitol.
It all comes to a riveting climax in a Mexican jungle at the site of a brutal mass killing years ago that set into motion the events that have now entangled Zen. In the end, though, Zen finds herself face-to-face with The General with no witnesses and the chance to end it all with one bullet. Does she pull the trigger? This is Zen Justice.
Mystery readers and collectors. Zen and the Art of Murder remains a collector’s item and I still receive mail regularly from fans asking for more books in the series.
Elizabeth Cosin is the author of Zen and the Art of Murder and Zen the City of Angels, both by St. Martin’s Press. Zen and the Art of Murder was critically acclaimed by a number of reviewers including USA Today, the SF Chronicle and the Washington Post and was a starred selection in Publisher's Weekly. The sequel, Zen and the City of Angels, made the the LA Times bestseller and led to the series being optioned for TV by Paramount/CBS. Cosin is a veteran TV writer (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, 24) and a former award-winning journalist and sportswriter.
Her novels have been praised by some of the leading writers of the genre, including Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, James Hall, April Smith and James Lee Burke.
I have remained connected to the mystery community and continue to attend some of the larger mystery book conferences. A new novel would be extremely well received by fans, who have been asking me for more Zen for years. Despite the passage of time, she still seems to be on people’s radars.
Any book with a female detective character. There’s an endless number. It helps that I’ve published before and still have a name, albeit no longer as well known as it was. In addition, some of my competitors are fans, so they would likely help promote my book to their fans.
A Zen Moses Novel
By Elizabeth M. Cosin
I used to be a believer but I’m not anymore. I lost my way in the first year of the new millennium when a desperately hard case cost me the life of a good friend and nearly my own. It was a few months before 9/11 drew a thick black line through the story of our history, when everything in the world seemed to stop, when evil was given 19 names and faces and one man’s hatred brought a planet to its knees from a cave in the mountains of one of the most remote places on Earth.
Looking back, it’s not hard to understand how we didn’t see it coming. I remember those shaky last days of the twenty-first century and the fateful months after with a detachment that bothers me. The 24-hour news cycle was dominated by Y2K threats, conspiracy theorists and religious zealots selling their end-of-the-world scenarios. But to many of us it was just noise, a blip on the radar of a nation on the rise. Work was plentiful, the markets were soaring and mortgages were being sold like bags of peanuts at the ballgame. We were at peace in a world that seemed to be getting smaller and more evolved.
But I wasn’t really paying attention. By the time the news networks were obsessing over whose chads were hanging, I was locked in a battle with a devil from my past who woke up one day and decided he wanted me dead. At the time, I was as blind as the rest of us. At the time, it was a problem in need of a solution and, my reservations aside, - and I had many - I dove right in.
But I’m like that. I’m one of those people who operates from my gut and I will act without thinking about the consequences, only to end up replaying the tape over and over in my head after it’s all done. I can be a champion in the moment, but when left to consider everything later, that's when I fall apart.
My default at the time, was not to do too much thinking. I’d get up in the morning and take a breath and get on with my day, my goal often to simply keep the noise in my head to a low hum. I think this is why I have so few friends and why they’re all so important to me. I will do whatever it takes to keep my word and sometimes I’m unforgiving to people who fail to keep theirs. Some might call it old school but to me, it’s the only way. Honor, integrity, standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, kindness, these are things I live by.
I became a private detective because I thought I could make a difference somehow and because I could do it alone and be my own boss. But even though I know I’ve done some good, the job has soured me on people in general. And in the years since I started, my circle of friends has gotten smaller and tighter and I’ve begun to keep much of the rest of the world a good arm’s length away.
It’s not cynicism as much as survival. I think I just tired of the bullshit and I’ve found it harder and harder to let people in. It may be that I’m destined to live alone with a cat and an excellent record collection in a Santa Monica two-story on a cul de sac that backs up to a pet cemetery.
But even as I lay awake on those long, lonely nights listening to my own heartbeat in the darkness and the soft purring of my cat, Sassy, who would sit on the sill of my bedroom window as if plotting her escape, I would mourn for all those missed opportunities. It’s a loss that still feels palpable. I find myself now at the age where most people confront the bigger questions. As in how and why, and for how fucking long? It fills me with a loneliness and despair that’s hard to stomach and makes me feel like all I’ll ever do is run in place, heading nowhere fast with no light, not even a tunnel.
That was pretty much the state of my heart in those End Times of 2001, when the Twin Towers disintegrated on national television and, I, like a lot of people, lost my faith.
I live in Los Angeles, three hours behind New York; it was after noon when I woke up to the news we were under attack. I sat on my couch still in my pajamas with my freshly-brewed coffee in one hand and remote in the other. I watched the coverage with a pit deep in my gut, the kind you get when your worst fears come true and they’re even worse than you imagined. At first, I had the sound on, but later, as the hours and then days went by, I put it on mute, still glued to my couch in shock. Seeing those soundless images – the ones that have run like a horror show stuck on loop since they were first aired in the hours and days after, somehow made it seem more real. And, in a way, also unbearable, obscene, like stopping by the side of a bad traffic accident to take an Instagram selfie. But I couldn’t turn away. I don’t think any of us could.
It didn’t matter where you lived in this country on that day and the weeks that followed. It wasn’t hard to think the world was over.
After more than week of this, I finally turned the damned TV off, got up, took the longest shower of my life, and dragged out my road bike. I set out through the streets of Santa Monica heading west to the sea and then south, using the Venice Boardwalk through to the Marina and then, picking up the coastal highway as far as I could go, I pedaled for my life. It was so quiet outside, even in L.A. – 3,000 miles away from where the tragedies had unfolded. Life was beginning to return to normal or whatever you want to call it. A few planes were flying overhead again, the sound of their engines made us all realize just how noisy the world is and how eerie it had become when they were grounded for the first few days after it happened.
I rode on under a wide, beautiful and now, unsettling Southern California sky, the kind that stretches out to the horizon and seemingly beyond, as if the other side of the world is close enough to touch. Most of the time, a day like this would make me feel hopeful and connected. But it was hard to feel anything but lost. The country, the world, was stunned. Everybody knew these attacks had changed everything but nobody really knew what the new world order was going to look like. Would it bring us closer together or split us into a million pieces or worse, leave us hanging, like the Florida chads, but in a strange, unsettling limbo?
Obviously, we haven’t figured it out yet and while we’ve had moments of triumph, mostly it’s been a rapidly degrading shitshow. Why not? The post-9/11 world has been ruling us like bitches – back then anger and despair ruled the day, not only throughout the country but in my own heart as well. Much later, I came to understand the problem is not in confronting evil with anger and vengeance, but allowing those emotions to be your only guide and, as a nation, I think we’re still grappling with our perspective. Lessons come hard when the dust has barely settled. Even when the emotions have mellowed, that sinking feeling in your gut is too damn easy to recall and every angry thought that came with it.
I covered 100 miles that day, riding way down the coast into Orange County and back again, letting my legs carry me to a place that blocked out the world and everything in it. I barely even noticed the way my muscles burned as I pedaled deeper and faster into a stiff southerly Santa Ana wind. By the time I turned around and headed for home, my clothes were soaked through to my skin and sweat was dripping from under my helmet, fogging up my sunglasses. I should have taken a break. But I swallowed the pain and the anger and the emptiness in my gut and pedaled on until I was completely spent. I barely got my bike into the foyer before stripping off my cycling kit, and falling into bed, naked and sweaty where I slept the sleep of the dead, my dreams filled with monsters, real and imagined.
That night, I canceled my cable subscription.
A few weeks later, during a routine scan, I received news that the Cancer that took my right lung only a few years earlier, had returned. My doctor looked hurt when she told me, but from the beginning, she had been careful to warn that it would be awhile before I was out of the woods. It’s that kind of cancer. Like the terrorists, it hides in dark places and strikes when your guard is down. That’s why they do so many scans in the weeks and months after. She try hard to convince me it wasn’t a big deal, that it was expected and they had a plan. But the plan, while promising was brutal. I was scheduled for a long course of chemotherapy after what would be my fourth surgery in five years.
They cut me open exactly the same way as the first time – 16 inches long cut that started just below my right breast and up and under my arm ending at my right shoulder blade – and pulled out a cancerous mass the size of a ping pong ball. The second cuts through my chest would mean less chance my nerves would all return to normal and I might always have numbness in the right quadrant of my chest.
Still it was nothing compared with what was in store for me. My first surgery was easy in comparison – out came the lung and I was done. Not even one dose of chemo. But this round, they weren’t taken any chances. I dropped 20 pounds in only a few weeks, my muscles atrophied and when I looked in the mirror, the face looking back at me was gaunt and jaundiced, the bags under my eyes the property of a woman twice my age.
While I didn’t go completely bald, chunks of my hair started coming out in the shower or when I’d run my fingers through it. I finally just had it all shaved off. Smoking and drinking were out, naturally, and the only food I could keep down was white rice, ground chicken and apple sauce, my taste buds so dulled that if you blindfolded me and held a gun to my head, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between steak and tofu.
I spent many long lost days lying on my couch, either too weak to do anything or, in the days after a treatment, puking into a garbage bag. I passed the time watching rented movies or trying to listen to music, anything to take my mind off the way the radiation was poisoning me. It was a messy, unkempt and unpleasant and foggy few months of my life but I was determined to make it through, no matter what. Eight months after my diagnosis, my doctors said I was done with the poison. I was, finally, on my own again.
But just as I was back on my feet and starting to feel a little better about the world, Sassy the rescue cat. managed to punch out the screen in my bedroom widow and take off. I searched for two weeks before I realized she was probably gone for good. The result of the last year of hell had somehow brought on an allergic reaction to cats and letting Sassy curl up on the back of the couch with me while I was watching TV would start off a wave of sneezing. I gotta think she knew it was time to find a new person.
I saw it as a sign from the universe of something much bigger. The day after my last doctor appointment, I put my house up for rent, had all my stuff moved into storage and, with surprisingly little fanfare, sold my late father’s ’62 Alfa to a kid I liked who lived down the street.
I didn't have a plan. I just needed to get the hell out of Dodge.
The where came with the help of my Uncle Sam who found me a place north of San Francisco on the Mendocino Coast. It had been years since I had seen the Pacific from a Northern California sightline and something in my gut knew as soon as Sam brought it up that it was exactly where I needed to be. I waited until the day before I left to tell my inner circle at a private dinner over a few Anchor Steams and a whole lot of Macallan 18 and a pool was immediately started on how long it would be until I was back. The good money was on six months, but in my heart, I knew better. I was in this for the long haul. I was determined to repair the hole that had opened in my heart and wasn’t going back to my old life until I did.
I forwarded my mail to the woman who handles my business affairs, closed my office, suspended my PI ad in the local newspaper and, my temple pounding with a single-malt hangover, headed out of L.A. in a used Mini Cooper I bought off a discount lot on Lincoln with the cash I got from selling the Alfa. Guy Clark was playing on my CD player as I cruised north, and I turned it up, reveling in the twang of his own song about leaving the City of Angels.
If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway
without getting killed or caught
I'd be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain't bought bought bought
I rolled down the window, taking took note of the familiar L.A. skyline in the distance fading into the blue skies behind me, and the beach, and the endless line of the red lights of the traffic crushing the freeways, as it all flashed by like a big sun-washed dream, and wondered when I would be back, if ever.
* * * * * *
My journey ended at an off-the-grid spot 400 or so miles up the California coast in a town of about 40 people, somewhere deep in Mendocino County. An old friend of Sam’s had a vacation house there that needed work and Sam offered my services in return for free rent. I love my uncle. He’s my father’s brother and we practically all grew up in the same house. We had a huge falling out once and then we made our peace and now he is like a father to me. But he’s family, which means he can drive me nuts sometimes, especially when he tries to fix my life. Which, like any good Jewish uncle, he does all the time.
But with this, he did me a huge favor. He was the one who taught me how to build things in the first place. He now makes his living making beautiful pieces of furniture and has a nice business selling them at exorbitant prices to well-heeled Los Angelinos out of a small warehouse in the shadow of Dodger Stadium. My cousin Danny and I spent a lot of our childhood in Sam’s woodshop, a place that became a refuge for me after my mother ran off to join a cult in Idaho. But it’s been a long time since I built anything more challenging than the bookshelves that line my living room, so I’m out of practice. And the chemo spoiled all the good work I’d done on the bike and in the gym since Cancer struck me the first time. I was in the worst shape of my life.
I was probably taking on more than I could handle, but then again, I was not the kind of person to take the easy road. If anything, I understood this was one of those times in my life when the hard way was the only way.
I was hoping the Transcendentalists had it right. The surest salve for getting lost in the modern world is to pose the toughest questions to yourself in a place where nature is right outside your door, and your daily routine requires getting your hands good and dirty. Living just steps from the edge of the continent along the rocky shores of the Pacific would do just that. Getting to rebuild that house was gravy. I knew I needed to work through the stuff churning up my gut and while it’s true that spending long, hard hours in the company of the voices inside your head can drive some people into the darkest places, for most of the rest of us, it can ease the pain in a troubled heart and close up the wounds that can cleave a person’s soul in half.
I knew it even as I pulled up to that broken house, a broken person, and felt the tug in my stomach and a thin, wry smile that I could feel start to form on my face. Contemplating the enormous task ahead of me and the sheer hutzpah for thinking I could tackle it, made me consider what it was like for the Wright Brothers when they were trying to convince people they could get a machine to fly.
The two-story clapboard was barely standing, one big storm short of being fire starter – in large part because the owner had started the renovation but only got a small amount done before abandoning the project, probably because he realized it was such a huge undertaking. It stood, listing to one side, on a block between two other summer houses, both with way bigger lots and in much better condition. They were all sitting on a slight incline, a few hundred yards up a short road from California Route 1, the two-lane that winds hundreds miles and nearly the entire length of the North American western most coast. The whole town consisted of maybe a half dozen homes, some empty lots and a 1920’s two-story hotel that had fallen into ruin and was surrounded by a chain link fence and a long-faded ‘for sale’ sign. It was once a stopover between San Francisco and points north, during the Gold Rush days and later, when timber was king here, and you could feel the ghosts of Steinbeck and Jack London and Eadweard Muybridge and Leland Stanford in the fog and mist that rose up over the rocky shores of the Pacific, and of lumberjacks and prospectors and travelers who came for a view of the edge of the world right here at home.
But it was ancient history in a place where progress came so far and no farther, and it was now a part-time home for people from places named Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Ukiah, and a few hold outs still living in their family homes, who had to drive to a place for work where they couldn’t afford to live.
Beyond the coastal highway lay a grassy bluff that overlooked a stretch of jagged, rocky beach and the Pacific Ocean to the horizon and beyond, it’s grey-blue surface churning up white-capped ripples that at high tide brought thundering waves crashing to the shore so loud it was like they were right under the house. The view was perfect, no doubt the reason Sam’s buddy had held on to the tattered house for so long. He had hoped to tackle a restoration but family and work forced him to put it off. When I met him in San Francisco to pick up the keys, he talked about the house like it was a neglected child. The sheepish look on his face left me wanting even more to make good on his promise to himself.
Inside, the job was even more daunting. The paint was peeling, the floorboards sagged and the beach weather had left a stench of mildew clinging to every surface. Crossing the floor required the dexterity of tightrope walker, lest you take a wrong step and plunge your foot through a rotted beam. You couldn’t even stand up on the second floor so I had to put all my stuff in a corner of the living room, including the air mattress that would be my bed for the next few months, if not longer.
It was late September when I got there. A year had passed since 9/11 and my Cancer coming back, and while I admit I wasn’t feeling optimistic about the future, I was in the throes of that special kind of euphoria that comes with starting a big project. As hopeful as a person could be, considering the baggage I was hauling around and the job I had come here to do, both to that house and me. It was the perfect time of year to arrive to the end of the continent. Autumns here are balmy and clear, a temperate break between the fogged-in cool summers and cooler, wet winters. I was looking at a good run of 65-degree days followed by cooler, sleep-aiding nights, which would give me a shot at getting enough done to secure the house from the rains that were sure to come in the months after.
Tired from the long trip, I fell onto my makeshift bed and left the unpacking for the light of day. But I lay awake for a long time before finally falling into an uneasy, restless sleep, betrayed by the thoughts sowing the seeds of doubt in my head and the uncertainty still lodged in my chest like a bad meal.
The next morning, I was up early to organize my stuff and bring all my tools in from the car and then assess the job, beginning the long process of tearing the place apart so I could put it back together again. I stood over the shaky floorboards, the dank smell of mildew filling my nose and the sounds of the house’s frame creaking and moaning in the morning’s soft ocean breeze, almost unable to move. That’s how big this project felt. But I remembered the lessons of my Dad and his brother who both raised me after my Mom took off. Take every job one step at time, one day at a time and let those moments and days add up to a whole on their own. I grabbed a crowbar and went to work.
By early November, I had stripped the upper floors to the studs, reinforced or replaced most of the key supports and started framing with the help of a couple of guys I brought down from Ukiah for a few weeks of work. It helped speed things up, but the rains came early and the three of us spent the weekend before Christmas hastily covering the roof with plastic sheeting, before they headed back to their families for the holidays.
On my own again, I worked steadily through Christmas Day, the cold rains and winds making it all seem harder. I slept in two pairs of socks next to a tiny heater that buzzed and clicked in a haphazard rhythm in the darkness, and was probably doubling my electric bill. The storm didn’t clear until the morning of New Year’s Eve, but it left in its wake a spectacularly clear day with a large, open blue sky that blended into the surface of the roiling sea like one big blue-grey canvas and reflected a sparkling light off the puddles still drying up from the weeks of rain.
I rang in 2003 on a cold, star-filled night alone on the beach in three layers of clothing and a fire I started with timber from the house I couldn’t re-use. I had a full bottle of California sparkling and a half of Tennessee bourbon to keep my buzz strong as the Pacific crashed home under the roof of a crisp, black star-filled night sky. I took the moment to be thankful for how far I’d come and to consider the last two years of my life and the events that had seemed to throw the whole planet off its axis, and felt wholly apart from what was happening around the country and the calls for vengeance, which were at a fever pitch and rising. Even alone in the vastness of the ocean and an empty beach though, you’d have to be dead not to feel the change in the air. We were on the verge of war and even from my spot so far away from everything, I could sense the darkness that lay ahead for my country. We were getting angrier and more desperate and, like many, I feared we were going down a path of no return. I’m ashamed to say that I also felt powerless to stop it, and in my selfish need to heal my own problems, I took on apathy like a suit of armor. It’s not that I believe I could have made a difference, but I often wonder if everyone who felt like I did spoke up, maybe the colossal clusterfuck we were heading for might have been avoided. I didn’t and it didn’t and I find it hard to consider those years of our history without feeling a desperate sadness and shame for the losses the world suffered because of it.
The letup in the bad weather turned out to be a temporary respite – it rained for most of January and into the first week of February. It seemed I was constantly cold or wet, or cold and wet, and I spent so much time going back and forth to the laundromat in the next town over that I finally just bought a washer and dryer and spent a day hooking it up to the gas and electric lines.
Spring brought the dusty blue skies and that easy, coastal cool weather that has brought people to the Northern California Coast since before they built the roads to get them there. It made the work seem to go faster and I began to welcome the longer days ahead.
I worked mostly alone and kept my own counsel. Every few days, I would walk down to the corner store and use their Wi-Fi connection to check my email, but as the weeks passed I did that less and less. I reveled in just doing the work that was in front of me and quiet, if persistent din of conversations going on inside my head. It was the simplest of life, hammer and nail, the smell of freshly-milled wood and ocean air, the feel of a good tool in my hands, and the taste of a microbrew or two or a glass of whiskey at the end of each day.
Those voices were constant but only occasionally insightful. I really didn’t have time to think about why I was there or about the life I had left behind. Most days I was at it from dawn to dusk, or whenever I ran out of gas. The town was almost always deserted, the only sign of the civilized world came from traffic along the coast highway which whizzed by at inconsistent intervals and I noticed, included a whole lot of motorcycles. Beyond that, all I could hear was the distant booming of the surf and the cacophony of wildlife that lived there.
People who came to stay went elsewhere during the daylight, staying on for a weekend at a time. From the little I gathered from hearing and seeing them around the small town, those day trips were to go wine tasting inland or down the road to Ft. Bragg for BBQ oysters and a microbrew. There they would find a health food market and the remnants of a once-thriving seaside town, where daring fisherman still hawked illegally-caught abalone on spring and summer weekends. Weeks would go by without my seeing or talking to anyone except the kid at the corner market, the UPS man or the clerks at the lumber store and supermarket an hour or so as the crow flies up the coast in Ukiah, where I would go for supplies and materials once or twice a month. The isolation was just what I needed.
By fall, I was able to get the sides up and the roof on and was beginning the process of doing the finishing work on the outside. After that, I got to work on the floors, rebuilt the stairs and finished the inside walls. By the second spring, I was painting inside and out and finally, by the following Christmas, the project was nearly done, save for the landscaping which took much of the next few months. A little more than three years from start to finish. And I admit, I loved every minute of it.
As I was getting to the last of it, Sam drove up with the house’s owner, a history professor at San Francisco State whose name was Bradley but who everybody called “Buzz” for his military crew cut, the same one he first got when he was conscripted into the Vietnam War back in ‘68. They were both impressed with my work, especially Sam. The pride in his eyes was something I won’t soon forget. Buzz almost broke down in tears when he saw the place and then blurted out how a year earlier, when he found out his wife was suffering from Parkinson’s and would be unable to make regular trips to the house, he started to wrap his head around selling it. I could see he felt guilty about even bringing it up but I shocked all three of us when I offered to buy it from him on the spot.
We settled it over a bottle of Anderson Valley pinot and the steaks Sam had picked up on his way up the coast.
The truth was that Los Angeles had started to become a dream and a distant one at that, a shadowy memory in the rearview mirror in my mind. I didn’t miss it at all, and, even though Sam routinely tried to convince me to go back, I was in no hurry to give up the solace of silence that I found here. Even if I knew, deep down, I had put some things aside that I would one day have to face.
My obsession with finishing the house and the sheer cost of the physical labor on my body, kept me off my bike for much of the first year, but I finally started riding again during the first cool summer days, taking long trips up and down the coast and further inland, where the roads were wider and less traveled. The area boasted some of the best roads for biking in the world and lured many professional cyclists who would train during the offseason for the big races in Europe. The landscape was breathtaking and meditative and it was nice to get a workout that stretched my legs and gave me a change of scenery. It took me a long time, but I finally got back into pre-Cancer shape, easily covering more than 100 miles a week.
I had enough saved up to comfortably buy the house and still have plenty left if I was careful about my budget, but I didn’t want to worry about money so I took a part-time job as an investigator for a family lawyer in Ukiah, mostly serving papers and tracking down deadbeat parents. I spent work days driving up and down the coast or going over computer records and every so often, I’d have to talk to somebody. It was not dissimilar to the work I’d done in LA but the pace was less hectic, the clients weren’t mine and the people seemed in far less of a hurry.
I surprised myself at how easily I was able to adapt to my life up out on the coast and how distant LA had become in my mind. My old life felt like someone else’s, a memory cast in shadow and obscured by a fog like a thick glass wall had been built between it and me. I was no longer spending sleepless nights going over all the things I did or didn’t do and worrying about unfinished business left in the City of Angels by a private detective name Zen Moses, a woman I didn’t really even know anymore.
Unlike LA, the seasons up here come and go with pretty clear demarcations, even if they are more subtle than, say, a Minnesota snow storm, but nonetheless they rip along as the song goes, “Too fast to last/ Too vast, too strong”. And they did for me even as I spent them almost entirely on my own, save for visits from old friends, my uncle and a romance or two that never lasted longer than a few weeks.
A year went by and then another and another after that and then, as if in a dream we put a black man in the White House only to replace him, as if in a nightmare, with a crude, manchild with a short fuse, a shorter attention span and a god complex. The world spun and somehow I didn’t spin entirely with it, settling into a easy life with few obligations and even fewer people.
It happened so fast that when I woke up on a crisp and sunny February morning, the day of my 50th birthday, I had no clue where the time had gone. It was as if I had lived the last 15 years in a minute. I never thought I’d be away from Los Angeles for a day, much less almost two decades and while I still had a house there, I no longer felt like it was my home.
I was, to be sure, feeling pretty good about myself even as it was hard to shake the feeling that Rome was burning all around us. In my isolation, I’d gotten to a place of personal tranquility and, most days anyway, had relegated my demons to the past where neither me nor anybody else could do anything about them.
I had friends here and elsewhere on both sides of the political divide and could have rational conversations with both even when we disagreed on the particulars. I felt a pang for people who were marginalized by the modern version of these United States of America, a country that had been divided into two halves – those who had more money than they would ever need and those who were one bad day from losing everything. The former had joined forces against the latter, which was split by racial, ethnic and religious differences that were stoked by the other side to the point where it clouded almost all rational thought – and created an underclass that willingly and enthusiastically voted against their own interests.
I grieved for my nation daily but I admittedly kept it all at arm’s length, preferring to stay mostly off the grid, living out my version of solitary semi-retirement where I was beholden to no man and no man was beholden to me.
It was a long, sometimes painful journey from my heady days as a hot-shit LA private detective, but it was necessary and I had zero regrets about my decision to go. The truth was I was feeling as whole as I’d felt in a long time and I was taking a lot of solace in that. Life was pretty damn good in my corner of the world.
And of course, that’s when you end up on the ground, staring up at the sky and wondering how you didn’t see it coming. It came as I was finishing up a particularly long and satisfying bike ride, winding my way back up the coast along the treacherously narrow Highway 1, which is hard enough to navigate when there’s no traffic, damn near frightening when there is.
An RV rumbled up behind me, then buzzed me too close and kept on going, not seeing or caring that he had forced me to swerve, hit a patch of gravel, lose my wheel for a second, and tumble into a ditch on the side of the road. I managed a relatively soft landing in a patch of low-lying vegetation -- lucky for me it wasn't on one of those stretches where the side of the road is basically a death-leap drop onto a rocky beach – and all I got was a flat tire and slightly bent rear derailleur. That was my bike at least. For me, the damage was severe road rash, a bad cut on my hand and what felt like a separated shoulder. At least, I thought, I didn’t break my collar bone, a common cycling injury and one which takes months to recover from, but that didn’t seem much consolation when I had to adjust my shoulder by myself. I bet they could hear my scream as far as San Francisco, but there was no one out there to help me and shoving my shoulder back into the joint was the only way I could change the tire and limp home.
Thankfully I was nearly at the end of the ride – it would be about a five-mile ride home, but every little bump on the road sent stabs of pain shooting into my shoulder and made it feel like 50. Once safe inside, I took a couple of Vicodin, gingerly taped up my shoulder and thoroughly cleaned the road rash to prevent infection. Then I crawled into bed.
I was still in a bit of shock and jacked up from the effort but somehow when I closed my eyes for a nap, I fell into a deep, drug-induced sleep. I didn’t wake up until 15 hours later, when I opened my eyes, my body stiff and aching, and blinked at the bright sunlight of the next day’s late afternoon.
I spent the next couple of days nursing my wounds and sleeping a lot and letting my body heal. I might be 50 but I had gotten into great shape these last few years and the rest worked wonders. On the third day after, I woke up feeling good enough to do some body resistance work, sit-ups and squats mostly and finished with some cardio on my bike trainer. I still couldn’t put much wait on my shoulder, but the pain was easing and I could imagine getting out for a ride sooner than later.
In the mood to celebrate, I went into Ft. Bragg, picked up some of that abalone and a case of locally-brewed beer and had a solo cookout using the wood-burning stone grill I built in the yard next to the wrap-around porch where I spent most evenings staring out at the seat. I cooked the abalone with garlic, parsley and lemon until it was just charred on the outside and ate it off a paper plate with a little butter sauce, and drank it down with the cold bottles of beer.
As I finished eating, the sun was falling off the horizon, casting a reddish orange glow off the Pacific and I sat back to appreciate the beauty of a world gone crazy. I was a few bottles into the case and happy to drink myself into a stupor that night – it had been a long time since I had really gotten wasted and I was looking forward to it.
Spring was here, summer was coming, Joe Henry was playing out of the speakers I’d attached to the porch, singing about the choices we make and the way fate leads us by the balls, in spite of our best intentions.
We live outside of reason
And we're called to stand out of time—
To hover above the rough river of love
That runs ahead but calls from behind..
Henry’s music had been one of the constants of my life, from when I discovered him in my 20s while I was at school in Berkeley through all the years of my LA life where I’d not only seen him play but met him a couple of times. Listening to his music and the lyrics, many that had been branded onto my heart the way all great writing does, often kept me grounded, anchored to the me of me. Reminders that no matter how far a person runs, they will never be free of the stuff that defines them. You can take it as a bad thing or celebrate it with pride and as I had landed relatively gently into my 50th year on this earth, I was content that I had done just that.
I kept the music on low so I could still hear the sound of the surf and the wind and the far off howl of the coyotes that prowled the heavily wooded landscape behind the house, our natural barrier from civilization.
It was the time of year when the weekenders were just starting to open up their houses for the good weather but I hadn’t seen anyone for a couple of days. You’d think all these years of solitude would drive a person nuts but I had to admit, I had become addicted to it and sitting on that porch getting drunk by myself didn’t feel pathetic to me at all. It felt kinda awesome.
Then as the last of the sun slipped beneath the horizon, I saw a figure walking up from the bluffs carrying a fishing pool and cooler, heading in my general direction.
A guy with fishing gear wasn’t out of place any time of the year. The fishing was good here, especially after a decent storm. Some patience and skill with a surf-casting rod could net you some local cod, which was good eating fish. Smelt could be caught right out of the surface of the ocean, and if you were really brave and didn’t mind that it was illegal and might cost you your life, you could dive for abalone or hunt the shallows for sea urchin.
I watched him pick his way along the bluffs and cross the coastal highway, continuing up my road. He was tall and fit, with an easy, athletic gate, like he wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere ever. From a distance and in the fading light, he looked to be 20 years younger than me, an effect that was accented by the way he wore his faded blue ball cap low on his head so the brim covered his face. When he got closer, I could make out an orange New York Mets ‘NY’ logo on the front. I slunk back in my chair and drank from my beer, one eye on the stranger who was staring at his feet as he walked. The temperature had started to drop as dusk enveloped us. In a few minutes, I would be able to hear the ocean but not see it.
He stopped at the foot of my property, and set his cooler and rod down on the ground before tilting up his ball cap with his thumb. It revealed a face much older than I expected though how old was really hard to tell. He had on a ripped Rolling Stones t-shirt that looked vintage, which he wore over a waffle long-sleeve that gave form to strong shoulders and big, working man’s hands, which he dug into his pockets before he started to speak.
“Evening,” he said to me, his voice deep and sure with a soft tone. I thought I heard New York in his accent though if it wasn’t a trick of the mind caused by his Mets ball cap, it was a long way removed.
“Yeah?” I said with as much disinterest as I could. I really didn’t want to talk to anyone tonight and besides, I was drunk.
He shrugged and almost smiled, but seemed to hold it back, like he was nervous. The thought crossed my mind briefly that he might be someone from my past who knew me and wasn’t here with good intentions. But my past at this point was going on 20 years old and my Walther was inside the house, locked in a box hidden under the floor boards. If he was here to do me harm, I assumed he would walk up to me with something more than a fishing pole and a cooler.
“Been out fishing,” he said, like I couldn’t figure it out. “If you want some I mean. Fish.”
I almost laughed out loud but something about his voice trailing off made me cautious. You can take a girl out of the job but not the job out of the girl, I thought. He looked down again but not before we locked eyes for a minute. They were dark and something else. “Haunted” was the word that came to mind but again, I could be making it all up in my head. I was, after all, out of practice at sizing up folks. Still, he gave off a vibe of sadness and loss, like he’d fallen into a deep hole and couldn’t climb out.
He rubbed his chin like it was a nervous habit. The couple days growth of beard on his face was flecked with gray and made his age harder to figure. I couldn’t guess it if I tried.
“I’m good,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “Sure Miss, um, Mos-.”
He didn’t finish, just picked up the cooler again and looked back up at me without finishing his sentence. I was finding it hard to focus through the fog from the beer and the Vicodin I took earlier for my shoulder but I’ll be damned if he was just about to say my last name. But my brain didn’t engage until he walked off.
“Wait,” I said and he stopped where he was. “You know who I am.” It wasn’t a question.
“Everybody knows who you are,” he didn’t even look at me. “Detective.”
He walked off, disappearing into the darkness. I thought about following him but I was way too wasted to do anything but squint at where he had been standing a second ago. I listened to his footsteps and then a few minutes later could hear a screen door nearby creak open. He let it shut like a slap and when he flicked a light on inside, I could see it was the house two doors down and across the street.
It had been empty for months after the owner died until about a week ago when a late-model Subaru wagon started parking in the driveway. It was clear if anyone had moved in and in my current situation, I wasn’t much into spying on the neighbors; their comings and goings was their business. Now I was sort of wishing I’d paid closer attention.
No other sound came from his house and I stared at the front step, illuminated by his outside light. It glowed like a bad penny in the darkness and as I sat there, all manner of thoughts bounced around my brain. I reached into my cooler for another beer, twisted off the cap and took a long cool sip, trying to figure out what had just happened and how the outside world had finally found me again.
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