The Zen Man: Semifinalist in Best Indie Books of 2012

“The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I’ll kill ’em.”
The Thin Man, 1934

The obstacle is the path.
-Zen proverb


Five years of being clean and sober nearly tanked as I watched a bad piece of my past trudging across the parking lot in my direction.  She was far enough away that I couldn’t make out her features, or her companion’s for that matter, but I knew the car parked behind them better than I knew my own soul.  Losing that car had hurt worse than losing the house, the marriage, maybe even my career.  Funny how a lump of tricked-out metal can do that to a man.

I glanced at the clock.  In an hour, Laura and I would start greeting a school of fifty-five sharks from Colorado’s Criminal Defense Association–CrimDefs to those in the know–who were spending their annual retreat at our lodge, technically Laura’s as she’d put up the dough, the Dinosaur Foot Bed and Breakfast and Hot Springs.  We’d wanted to name it something less Barney-like, but this area had been called Dinosaur Foot—after the dinosaur prints and fossils in the region–for generations, going back to the Ute tribe who’d conducted spiritual journeys to the area, so it’d seemed smart to keep the name.

“Something wrong?” Laura stood next to me at the kitchen sink, wiping dry another holly-and-berry etched wine glass for our upcoming guests.  She wore tight jeans—the kind of tight that could make a man almost forget his troubles–and a blue cashmere cardigan that matched her eyes.  But the best was her face.  When she frothed her hair and slicked red on her pouty lips, like she’d done today, she looked like Grace Slick in her prime before Jefferson Airplane nose-dived.

Laura, at thirty-five, was definitely in her prime, too.  But underneath that hot-rock-chick Slick surface, beat the heart of a geek who loved tinkering with computers, a skill she’d applied as a senior manager at the telecommunications giant TeleForce, headquartered in nearby Denver, until her recent early retirement.  One of those forced situations due to company downsizing.

When I didn’t answer, she craned her neck to peer out the window over the sink, leaning so close I could smell her familiar scent, a honey-lavender perfume that, depending on my mood, could craze me or chill me.

“What, those people heading up from the parking lot?”

“Yeah.”  It was a long trek from the lot, several hundred feet that included a lung-stretching hike up stairs to reach the higher ground of the lodge.  I’ve been tempted to put a sign down there—“Warning 150 steps ahead”—because after making it to the top, one feels like a basketball player at the foul line toward the end of a gut-busting game.  Fortunately, after reaching the grounds of the lodge, the only other exertion they’d experience might be hiking in nearby wildflower meadows during the summer, snowshoeing in the winter, or indoor sports all year around in one of the lodge rooms or rustic cabins that edged several natural hot spring pools.

“Probably early arrivals for the retreat,” Laura murmured.  “Know them?”

“One of ‘em.”

“You must have super-hero eyesight because all I see is a short blonde and a tall man.”

“You’re not looking at the whole picture.”

Laura glanced over her shoulder at me, her left eye squinting.  “What?”

“Check the parking lot.”

We call it a parking lot, but it’s more like a monster-size circle of chewed-up gravel at the bottom of the hill.  Currently, three cars were parked there–Laura’s blue Dodge Durango, my gray ’90 Pontiac Firebird, and a sleek yellow number that glistened like a molded cube of melting butter under the late afternoon sun.

“Who in their right mind would paint a car crayon yellow?”

“That’s no mere car, that’s a 2002 Millennium Yellow Z06 Corvette,” I said, feeling a creeping tightness in my jaw.  “And the color is called competition yellow, not crayon.”

A gust of wind triggered a chaotic metallic tune from the wind chimes dangling outside the kitchen window.

She settled back onto the heels of her Skechers, those plump lips forming a small “o” of realization.  “So that’s…”

“Mellow Yellow.”  License plate used to say that, too.  MLO YLO.  From what people had told me, it now read WAS HIS.

Her eyes glistened with a you-poor-little-boy look a thirty-six-year-old man shouldn’t like.

It’d been Laura’s idea to host the CrimDefs’ retreat because it’d be a great way to kick off our grand opening, but I think she was more interested in my having an opportunity to pitch Levine Investigations to potential clients.  I mean, what better investigator for a lawyer to hire than a former lawyer?  Nevertheless, I’d fought the idea of hosting the retreat at our place with all the fury a decades-long Deadhead can muster–which meant I’d mumbled and shrugged a lot.  The problem is ninety percent of the CrimDefs feel one of two ways about me—they either hate my guts or view me as rabidly unstable–so the whole notion of my pitching anything to them was akin to defending myself by tossing veggie burritos to fend off bullets from a firing squad.

But Laura kept reminding me no PI in the state had my credentials, namely eight years experience as a high-profile trial attorney, and that although I couldn’t give legal advice to clients, I could anticipate most lawyers’ legal needs before they arose.  All of which meant I could charge more per hour than my gumshoe competitors.  Such money logic inspired me to pitch my services.

That is, until that blonde, my ex-wife, arrived on the scene in Mellow.

In the years since we’d been divorced, one of her favorite pastimes had been announcing loudly and often what an exceptionally irresponsible, deranged asshole I was.  I’ll cop to some past behaviors, but now that I was clean and sober I liked proving to the world that I had it together again.

“So this means the blonde who’ll soon be at our door is Wicked.”

Short for Wicked Wench of the West, my favorite reference to said ex.  The bad piece of history who’d make damn sure dirt stuck to my rep this weekend just when I’d hoped to sway a little professional sentiment my way. I rinsed another soapy wine glass under the kitchen faucet.  Oh, if rinsing off the debris of my past were so easy.

“Who’s that man she’s with?” Laura accepted the dripping glass from me.

“Some dude headed down a feelin-bad road.”  They’d finally reached the top of the stairs, undoubtedly winded, which accounted for their snail’s pace along the curving cement walk to the lodge’s front door.  As they drew closer, a wave of betrayal mixed with pity washed over me.

“Sam Wexler,” I muttered.

Laura froze, holding a half-dried glass mid-air.  “Your former law partner?”

I grunted affirmatively.

“Wicked is Sam’s date this weekend?”  She frowned.  “Isn’t he married?”

“Guess wifey’s out of town.”

I thought about Sam’s wife Fern and her uncomplicated, small-town ways.  She canned peaches, knitted sweaters, raised the children.  Just add water and mix the perfect housewife, which is why I’d always thought he’d married her.  She was the earth while he played with fire.

Laura shook her head slowly as she set aside the dried glass.  She despised people who cheated on their partners, a fact I knew ‘cause that’s how we met.  Almost a year ago, she’d found me in the online yellow pages under “private investigators” and hired me to follow her fiancé, whom she suspected of cheating.  He was, she dumped him, and I promptly asked her out.  Best snap decision I ever made.

“Wicked’s a lawyer, right?”

“Criminal defense, just like Sam and everyone else registered for the retreat.”  Just like I used to be.

“Considering how many CrimDefs didn’t want to attend because of–”

“My drug-addled rep–”

“Actually I was going to say due to winter travel…anyway, considering Wicked’s unresolved anger over your divorce, it surprises me she decided to show up.  Of course, there’s plenty of room.”

With six chalet-style cabins that accommodated four to six people each, and twelve guest rooms upstairs, all with fold-out couches, we could’ve easily fit another dozen or so attendees.

“No wonder Sam reserved an entire cabin for himself,” I mumbled.  Poor Fern.

“If Wicked plans to stay for the entire retreat, I’ll add an extra charge to his room.”

“Make it enough to cover the mortgage.”

Laura laughed, a throaty, unrestrained sound that always gave me a rush.

“I’m sorry she and Mellow showed up.”  She brushed a light kiss against my cheek.  “Didn’t you say a few days ago that the world is ruled by letting things take their course?”

“Stole that line from Lao-Tzu, who obviously never had Wicked steamrolling toward his front door.”

Laura smiled knowingly.  “This weekend will be okay.  Trust me.”

Anxiety did a mean little tap-dance on my nerves.  I might quote the cool dudes, but I’m a worrier at heart.

The doorbell rang.

Our Rottweiler Mavis, named after Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers, ran helter-skelter into the kitchen, her nails scrabbling against the linoleum floor, barking and snarling.  If looks could kill, Mavis would be a serial murderer, but she was actually the biggest wuss I’d ever met, human or canine.

“We can’t have Mavis greeting all our guests like that,” Laura murmured, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

“No, just select ones.”

Mavis continued the vicious-beast act as all three of us headed into the adjoining room, the foyer of the B&B where people checked in.  Laura had decorated this entrance-way with a dinosaur motif—Jurassic foliage wallpaper, dinosaur foot stools, even a 3D T-rex coming out of the wall.  Within the opening of its mouth she’d inserted a red-covered table which looked liked the dino’s tongue, on which she’d laid brochures and giveaways for guests.  In somebody else’s hands, this could’ve looked like Jurassic Park on Crack, but ever-capable Laura had managed to give it, as well as the guest rooms and cabins, a classy prehistoric ambiance.

I plastered on my best smile and opened the door.

Winter breezes swirled through the doorway, carrying scents of pine and Sam’s pricey cologne, an oriental cedar number I recalled from our shared law-office days.  I’d never needed to ask our receptionist where Sam was because that scent had always announced his comings and goings.

He towered over us at six-three, maybe four.  But then when you’re five-eight, anything over six foot is gratuitous.  He wore a designer look that screamed I’m hip and make big bucks, which meant Sam had come straight from court.  He’d always had the tall, dark, handsome angle going for him, although if I wasn’t mistaken he’d started dying his thinning hair.  Made me feel smug about the thick, curly mass on my head, even if it was prematurely gray.

“Hey, Zen Man.”  Sam smiled sheepishly as he put his arm around Wicked’s shoulders.

She wore cream-colored slacks that didn’t match her beige sweater, which was too low cut and clingy for court so I guessed she’d gussied up for her date, tryst, whatever was going on with Sam. I almost felt sad seeing the bloat in her face and the watery red in her eyes.  Drinking too much again, chased with a favorite pill or three.  Used to be one of our favorite pastimes, getting plastered as an antidote to the stress of trying tough cases and managing demanding clients.  Or so we’d told ourselves.

“Zen Man?” asked Laura, a funny smile on her face.

I shrugged.  “You know how I sometimes toss off Zen quotes.”  Hadn’t been called the nickname in so long, I’d almost forgotten about it.

“But it wasn’t just the quotes, it was the je ne sais quoi you gave them that made you the Zen Man.”  Sam’s wide mouth elongated into a smile.  “Remember?”

“Sort of.”

“Oh.”  The smile leveled out.  “I guess you were too…”

“Yeah.  Probably.”

I watched Mavis sniff the pocket of Sam’s jacket as he introduced Wicked to Laura, explaining how it was a last-minute decision for her to attend the conference, she’d be staying in his cabin, blah-dy blah-dy.

“Nice to meet you,” Wicked cooed, extending a red-nailed hand to shake Laura’s.  A stack of bracelets on her wrists jangled, reminding me how she’d always worn too much jewelry, as though to show the world how successful or loved she was.  When our gazes snagged, I swore I caught a frightened look in her eyes.  Took me by surprise.  Couldn’t recall ever seeing Wicked frightened of something, except the possibility of missing a shoe sale at Nordstrom.  But the look quickly disappeared, like the flash of a shark’s fin in deep waters.


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The Ungrateful Dead: A Prequel to The Zen Man

“I loved The Zen Man and really had fun catching Rick and Laura’s first case in the prequel, The Ungrateful Dead. These novels have everything I love in a mystery: smart dialogue, a flawed hero, a little romance and a great plot. Murder at a coroner’s conference? What could be more fun!” 
~ Nancy Warren USA Today Bestselling Author of The Toni Diamond mysteries