Authors: Gregg Hurwitz
The Kill Clause
Do No Harm
Minutes to Burn
by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2007 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Gregg Hurwitz, 2007
All rights reserved
This is a work of fictifion. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Hurwitz, Gregg Andrew.
The crime writer / Gregg Hurwitz.
1. Novelists—Fiction. 2. Crime writing—Fiction. 3. Los Angeles (Calif.)—Fiction. I. Title.
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For Stephen F. Breimer,
with great affection and gratitude
woke up with IVs taped to my arms, a feeding tube shoved through my nose, and my tongue pushed against my teeth, dead and thick as a sock. My mouth was hot and tasted of copper, and my molars felt loose, jogged in their beds from grinding. I blinked against the harsh light and squinted into a haze of face, too close for casual—a man straddling a backward chair, strong forearms overlapped, a sheet of paper drooping from one square fist. Another guy behind him, dressed the same—rumpled sport coat, loose tie offset from open collar, glint at the hip. Downgraded to bystander, a doctor stood by the door, ignoring the electronic blips and bleeps. I was in a hospital room.
With consciousness came pain. No tunnels of light, no bursts or fireworks or other page-worn clichés, just pain, mindless and dedicated, a rottweiler working a bone. A creak of air moved through my throat.
“He’s up,” said the doctor from far away. A nurse materialized and fed a needle into the joint in my IV. A second later the warmth rode through my veins and the rottweiler paused to catch his breath.
I raised an arm trailing IV lines and fingered my head where it tingled. Instead of hair, a seam of stubble and stitches cactused my palm. Light-headedness and nausea compounded my confusion. As my hand drifted back to my chest, I noticed dark crescents caking the undersides of my nails.
I’d dug myself out of somewhere?
The cop in the chair flipped the piece of paper over, and I saw that it was an eight-by-ten.
A crime-scene photo.
A close-up of a woman’s midsection, the pan of the abdomen crusted with dark blood. A narrow puncture below the ribs faded into blackness, as if a stronger flashbulb were required to sound its depths.
I raised a hand as if to push away the image, and in the dead blue fluorescence I saw that the grime under my nails carried a tinge of crimson. Whether from the drugs or the pain, I felt my gorge rise and push at the back of my throat. It took two tries, and still my voice came out a rasp, barely audible around the plastic tube. “Who is that?”
that to her?”
The detective’s jaw shifted once, slowly, left to right. “You did.”
y car occupied slot 221 in the impound lot. A Toyota Highlander, the hybrid model selected so I could drive an SUV and still think highly of myself. I turned over the engine and sat with my hands on the wheel, readjusting to the familiarity of this object that was mine. My head hummed; my scar, largely hidden by grown-back hair, prickled. I felt pressure beneath my face, as if I wanted to cry but my tears had forgotten the pathways. My radio had been left on, Springsteen still going down to the river despite the fact that it had yielded nothing but blue-collar heartache for three decades now. I wondered if I’d left the radio on myself or if somewhere along its towed journey someone had smacked the button. Had I been listening to music on my last nighttime drive? Had I been behind the wheel? Alone?
Of course, I had to pay a vehicle storage fee, six hundred–some bucks. I used a credit card that my keepers had been considerate enough to leave in my wallet while they’d safeguarded it for me. Driving home, I passed a flickering yellow sign and felt a sting of excitement as I parked, the promise of a new liquor store.
“I’m looking for bourbon. You got Blanton’s?”
“Nope.” The guy at the counter didn’t look up from a black-and-white television the size of a clock radio. A cigarette dangled from his lips, supporting an impossible length of ash. I couldn’t see the screen, but a reporter was providing updates about some schmuck who had the same name as me.
“Knob Creek?” I asked. He shook his head. “Maker’s?”
His eyes pulled over to me, snagged for a beat. “Jack Daniel’s.”
I could’ve pointed out that Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee sour mash, not bourbon, but I figured that my first stand back in the world should be over something of greater consequence. Box wine, maybe.
“Yeah, we got the single-barrel.”
I felt his stare on my back as I left the store.
Two minutes later I was on Mulholland Drive. The asphalt vine clings to the ridgeline of the Santa Monicas, shooting tendrils north through the Valley to the Santa Anas and south into the L.A. Basin. On its eastern stretch, tourists pull over to snap shots of Hollywood writ large in white block letters. Persian palaces and mutant Pueblo Revivals perch along crests and hillsides, hiding behind gates and rock walls. It’s a dangerous road, soaked in affluence and romance, home to the breached guardrail, the meandering Marlowe, the David Lynch fantasy, the 2:00
drunken head-on. You’ll drive it too fast and be glad you did.
Tonight I went the speed limit, figuring I’d had my fill of problems. I rode Mulholland west, banking downslope just before the 405 and easing right off the stop sign. My cul-de-sac was as it always was, pinprick lit with porch lamps and walkway goosenecks, the freeway distant enough to sound like sighing waves. My house was unlit, but I paused to recognize its contours. Despite my absence, it looked the same—Richard Neutra on a budget, a steel, glass, and concrete rise of intersecting planes and right angles that came together nicely but fell short of elegant. After my third book deal, I’d begged, borrowed, and borrowed to catch the lip of the ever-receding tide that is L.A.’s real-estate market. I’d paid too much, but the million-dollar view tacked on to the abrupt backyard consoled me in that. If I couldn’t afford it before the trial, I sure as hell couldn’t now.
There were no news crews camped on my front lawn. No paparazzi hiding in seedy cars. No Geraldo Rivera in camo gear and full mustache, ready to pounce.
I pulled in to the garage, plucked the jar from the cup holder and the brown paper bag from the backseat, and headed inside. It felt odd to be carrying so little after so long. No suitcases, no carry-on, just the clothes I was wearing, a bottle in a bag, and a brain tumor in a jar.
I’d been gone four months, but the familiarity was undiminished. The catch of the opening door as the weatherboard scraped the threshold. The particular scent of the interior, a layered blend of carpet and tile, coffee and candle wax. Objects I’d bought, choices I’d made. The emotion rising through my chest broke the instant the door closed behind me. Alone in my house, I finally wept, standing, head bowed, tears dotting the floor at my feet despite the hand I’d clamped over my eyes in a futile attempt to keep the anguish from flooding out. I don’t know how long I stood there shuddering, but when I removed my hand, the overhead light made me squint.
I trudged through my kitchen with its stainless appliances and teak cabinets, through the entryway with its repetitive Warhols that even I’d tired of long ago, past the wide staircase. Everything in the house was cold and sharp—flagstone underfoot, marble corners on countertops, pointy knobs on drawers. The ambience now felt affected, hubristic. I supposed I should have been relieved to be home, even happy, but all I felt was unsure of myself.
I went to the only worn-in piece of furniture in the house, the club chair in the family room. Distressed leather, brass studs, matching ottoman—displayed curbside at a garage sale near Melrose, it had brought my Highlander to a screeching halt. I seated Jack Daniel’s and the brain tumor together on the coffee table, figuring they could swap trade secrets, collapsed into the chair, and felt my shoulders go limp for the first time in four months.
Deep breath. Longer exhale than seemed possible.
Nothing I’d written could compare to this. And I’d had ample opportunity for contrivance. I’d published five books, three of them optioned by the studios, one of which was actually made into a movie, albeit unrecognizable to my readers—the three who saw it—and myself despite the fact that I’d written the first draft. The produced script, about a priest bounty hunter, was named, I’m ashamed to admit,
and it starred a crossover TV star who didn’t cross over. My books feature Derek Chainer of LAPD’s Homicide Special (unhappily converted into Father Chainer for aforementioned flop). In them, pain causes white bursts before the eyes and anger makes the head throb with rage. What my books
do is capture the feeling of seeing your ex-fiancée’s mutilated body in crime-scene photos. Or how hard it is to scrape dried blood from under your fingernails.
I’d thought I knew this world. But I’d known only the outside of it. Once I got in the belly of the beast, once the digestive juices went to work on me, I discovered I knew nothing at all. I’d been merely a tourist on the dark side, watching through binoculars as the creatures stalked and feasted.
My gaze drifted across the room to the row of my titles—hardcovers, paperbacks, foreign editions—and it struck me how I’d overestimated even the minor importance I’d ascribed them. I felt abruptly ill-equipped to take the world at its word, hard-pressed to believe that there was
fundamental merit underlying its designations of failure and success. My yard-sale chair, solid and comforting beneath me, seemed invaluable. But my name, embossed on five glossy spines? One day I’d be a faint reminiscence, me and other low-grade celebs, joining the dusty ranks of brush-with-famers past. Years hence, some blowhard grasping for conversation at a dinner party would have his memory tripped by a turn of phrase. And others might nod their heads and lie kindly.
Andrew Danner. Rings a bell. Remind me.
And what would be our blowhard’s response? A mystery plot retrieved from the thickets of senility? A response sensitive to legal intricacies? Or a simple tabloid reckoning?
He was a murderer.
As always, I had difficulty keeping my fingertips from my head, from that ridge of hardening tissue, the one known entity I’d carried out of my amnesic fog. The scar where they’d dug into my brain rose straight from my left ear just behind the hairline, then curved slightly toward my forehead. By now I’d memorized each millimeter of the pink seam by touch, as if its bumps and edges held answers written in Braille.
I turned on the TV just to get away from myself, but there I was. My shell-shocked reaction when the verdict was intoned. A
split screen of DAs and victims’-rights activists and Alan Dershowitzes. An interview with my seventh-grade teacher. The same old helicopter footage of Genevieve’s house. A witty cable anchor had Photoshopped courthouse pictures to depict me miming the see-no, hear-no, speak-no monkeys.
I had achieved some success as a novelist, but fame had come to me as a killer. Squeaky Fromme, Johnny Stompanato, O.J., the Menendez brothers. I was one of them now. A tale of fate and shame, bent to a classical model. Another modern slant on an ancient story from those funny people with olive laurels and knobby knees. Silly Pandora couldn’t keep her box closed. Crazy dude, whacked his dad and humped his mom. Did you hear the one about the guy, woke up and didn’t even know he’d killed his ex? I was Starbucks chatter, Jamba jive, a drive-time-radio punch line.
I clicked off the TV and sat in the piercing silence.
think if I didn’t know me? Motive. Means. Opportunity. How’s gut instinct stack up against those?
What had I said on the stand?
I believe that anyone is capable of anything.
But, unfortunately, I was my own unreliable narrator. What I needed were some hard facts to slap on the table beside the sour mash and that handsome tumor of mine.
The neighbor’s kid, a chubby, bespectacled tyrant out of a Gary Larson sketch, was at it again with his trumpet, practicing “Whistle While You Work” off tempo and key.
And CHEERfully toGETHER we can TIDY up the PLACE.
I rose and padded around the house, reacquainting myself. On the wobbly kitchen table, beside two grocery bags filled with mail, sat my block of Shun cutlery, sealed in a clear evidence bag. It stopped me cold. A welcome-home gift from the prosecution or the cops, calculated to throw me in case I was entertaining any thoughts about getting my life back to normal. The forged stainless-steel set had been a passive-aggressive gift from Genevieve, a tenfold upgrade on my sorry plastic-handled Target crap. The same expensive set she owned, a perfect match. My knives had made a cameo appearance in the trial, a nice bit of theater. See, jury, he has a set just like hers, all shiny and bristling, and a present from the victim herself! The inspiration for the crime!
The boning knife from Genevieve’s set had been a key piece of evidence. It was what I had been told I’d plunged into her abdomen.
I got scissors from the drawer and sliced the bag open. With odd ceremoniousness I transferred the block to its place on the counter. I balled the evidence bag and threw it away and then leaned against the counter for a moment.
I tried to refocus, to remember how to care for myself. The last thing I needed was a postoperative seizure, so I fought my pills out of my pocket and popped a Dilantin, washing it down with a handful of water from the tap. What a pathetic homecoming.
In the sink rested an empty glass and a white bowl holding a dried orange paisley—incontrovertible evidence of cantaloupe. Breakfast, September 23. The last concrete presurgery event I remembered. The dishes carried the weight of archaeological relics. I rinsed them out and put them away, then trudged upstairs, toting the bags of mail and my tumor, and down the floating hall my Realtor referred to as a catwalk.
More industrious cheer from next door—
put ON that GRIN and START right in to WHISTLE loud and LONG.
My office has the best view in the house. The soundproofed French doors that let into the master were now closed. My chair lay on its back, toppled over; it drew into view eerily, like a body, as I came off the stairs. I stared down at it a few minutes before righting it. Knocked over by a cop during the search? An intruder? Yours truly, lost in my brain-tumor blackout?
Crumpled in my office wastepaper basket were a faxed offer from an Italian publisher, stubs from Dodgers tickets, and a few pieces of junk mail. Remnants of an ordinary day in oblivious progress. I checked my PalmPilot, clicking backward through all the appointments and meetings I’d missed, until I arrived at September 23. The screen was appropriately blank. As I reseated the Palm in its cradle, I was hit by the bizarreness of investigating myself. I was an intruder in my own house.
I tapped the speaker button on my telephone and reached to dial, figuring I should order takeout in case my appetite ever returned, but after three digits realized that no tones issued forth. I dug through the grocery bags, unearthing a handful of disconnection notices. My other services, fortunately, autowithdrew from my diminishing checking account, like my cell phone dutifully charging on the file cabinet. I stuck my headset into my Motorola and dialed.
As Pac Bell’s hold music competed with Snow White, still squalling from next door, I retrieved my e-mail. Expressions of support from friends and readers, a few nastygrams from others convinced of my guilt, a surfeit of Viagra and penis-enlargement offerings that I elected to regard as spam rather than targeted marketing. When I scrolled down to the days around Genevieve’s death, I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved to note nothing unusual.
I logged out of the e-mail account and stared at the blank screen. The thought of writing anything soon—or ever again, for that matter—was daunting. Nothing like a little old-fashioned trauma to bring the self-indulgence of my job to the surface. The impracticality, too. I wished I had a surgery to scrub in for or, failing that, an orphan to mend. Something aside from confronting a monitor and pretending that what I could think up would be of interest to hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom performed jobs that were actually useful.