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Director's Cut

An excerpt from the upcoming Moses Wine Novel

by Roger L. Simon


......I knew I was in trouble when I was starting to agree with John Ashcroft -- me a lifelong card-carrying left/liberal and graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, who had espoused every so-called progressive cause from anti-nuke to pro-choice to saving the West Indian manatee, arrested at a half dozen demonstrations and bashed over the head by at least as many cops, nodding approvingly at the utterances of our Attorney General, a man who, a mere decade or two earlier, would have delighted in locking me in the slammer and throwing away the proverbial key. And I wasn't even embarrassed by it.

......Of course I wasn't the only one. Nearly everyone I knew had done a political about-face as sharp as a class of prize plebes at a West Point graduation ceremony. It was a symptom of the times in which we lived. Like others I wanted to help, be Rosie the Riveter or even Clarence the Computer Chip Maker, but I didn't have the skills for any of that, and besides we were told just to go about our normal work, that simply being vigilant would be enough to fight terrorism, whatever that meant. Nobody could explain.

......Certainly being a private investigator in Los Angeles didn't have much to do with battling Al Qaeda in the mountains of Tora Bora. In fact my job didn't appear to have much to do at all with the successful pursuit of this conflict which promised to go on in some form for the rest of our natural lives and possibly beyond, as if we had embarked on a re-upped version of the Punic Wars. It was a depressing prospect indeed. I shuffled around my offices in downtown L. A.'s warehouse district -- my collection of vintage Joplin and Hendrix posters decorating the walls seeming oddly self-indulgent in the new era -- feeling distinctly irrelevant and going through the motions of the few cases we had.

......Samantha, my wife and business partner, ordinarily would have criticized me for my inattention to our work, but I knew she was feeling the same way. She was sleepwalking as much as I was, relying on her methodical FBI training, which she had previously disdained as uselessly bureaucratic. We were just trying to make it through the day. I felt worse for her than I did for me. She was younger and had had fewer years to enjoy the dream of a better world now being decimated by more racial and religious hatred than you could find in a galaxy of skinheads. I was also guilty for having dragged her into a professional alliance with me, urging her to quit the feds and join up with some ex-hippie dick who, in his more feckless youth, had been profiled as the "People's Detective" on the cover of a then newly minted Rolling Stone Magazine with a photograph by Annie Liebowitz, a Bogarted joint dangling from his lips and a Mao button pinned to the band of his tilted Borsalino. "On the case with Moses Wine, the stoned Sam Spade!" said the headline plastered across his weathered leather trench coat. Like many of my generation, I had gone through what felt like several dozen fads and lifestyles since, ending up marrying someone who worked for the very organization I had once reviled -- the federal government. At least with her old employers, however inept they might have been recently, she would have been at the center of things, would have more reason to get up in the morning. On top of that she had wanted to have a kid, but now, in this insane world?

......So it was with mixed emotions -- half excitement, half suspicion -- that I received a phone call early one Tuesday morning from the Los Angeles branch of the FBI asking me to come down to their headquarters that day and speak with Fiona Lucas, the SAC, or Special Agent in Charge, for anti-terror investigations. The local bureau HQ was in the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood and I remembered when I drove up that I had been there relatively recently, December 2000 in fact, when Samantha and I had participated in a protest against the Supreme Court decision in the Florida election.

......Of course we were standing outside then as cars whizzed past, the vast majority of them honking their horns in support of several thousand of us demonstrators who held placards excoriating Bush and the Supremes as thieves or worse -- the alliance of Jews, Latinos and blacks having long ago made Los Angeles almost as solidly a Democratic city as New York.

......This too seemed like ancient history after all that had happened and now I found myself on the inside, suite 1700, the second largest branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation outside of D. C., showing my ID to the front desk. I was then led down several corridors to a small conference room where I was met by Special Agent Lucas, a squat woman in her early forties wearing a floral print blouse and a younger man with a trendy spiked haircut identified as Agent Michael Sudsbury. They were polite but businesslike, skipping the small talk and getting right down to asking questions the minute I was seated across the table. Lucas conducted the interview while Sudsbury made notes on a legal pad.
"Mr. Wine, we understand you're a private investigator here in Los Angeles with your own agency."

......"That is correct."

......"And that your wife Samantha Faber was an agent at our National Domestic Preparedness Office in Washington."

......"Correct."

......"And that she now works with you."

......"Yes."

......"And that your services include serving subpoenas, collecting evidence and testifying at trial."
"Yes."

......"Have you met Mohammed Atta?"

......"Mohammed Atta?" I stared at her with incredulity. The interview had just veered off in the most extraordinary direction. "You mean the Mohammed Atta who flew the plane into the World Trade Center?"

......She nodded.

......"What makes you think I would know him?"

......"Just answer the question, please."

......"Of course I don't know him."

......"Have you ever seen him?"

......"No Except on television of course, like everybody else."

......"When were you last in the Czech Republic?"

......"I've never been to the Czech Republic."

......"What about the Radio Free Europe headquarters in Prague?"

......"Prague? How could I have gone to Prague when I've never been to the Czech Republic? Last I heard it's the capital of the country. Would you mind telling me what's going on here? Why are you asking me these questions?"

......"Have you ever met any agents of the government of Iraq?"

......"What?" I looked back and forth at the two stony faces in front of me, feeling as if I had suddenly dropped down in some whacko Southern California version of Darkness at Noon, palm trees and cell phones replacing dank walls and plates of gruel with stale bread. "This is absolutely unbelievable. Why in the world would you think I have met Iraqi spies? I'm a Jewish-American from New York City, as I'm sure you're well aware. Not exactly a candidate for Islamic Jihad."

......"These are just questions that we've been told to ask you, Mr. Wine," said Lucas.

......"By whom?"

......"Our superiors."

......"And why would they want to ask me these questions?"

......"We don't know."

......"I see. Well, the answer is no."

......"Very good."

......"Anything else they need to know?"

......Lucas and Sudsbury looked at each other. For a moment I wondered what I could possibly expect next. Was I a friend of Yasser Arafat? Did I know Osama bin Laden? Was I planning a trip to Mecca? But she answered simply "Not for the moment. Thank you for your time. We are sorry if we inconvenienced you."

......And with that they escorted me out. I didn't know what to think. I drove back on the 10 with my eye cocked on the rear view mirror. Nothing out of the ordinary. A half hour later I was in my office telling Samantha what had happened. She was as nonplussed as I was and phoned an old friend of hers at National Domestic Preparedness in Washington to try to find out why I was dragged into this. A couple of hours later the friend called back. Indeed there was an ongoing investigation of Mohammed Atta's trip to Prague last April to meet with an Iraqi agent. The Americans weren't convinced it actually happened, but the Czechs insisted it had.

......"But why me?" I asked.

......"She says she's not exactly sure," said Samantha. "But they've been having computer problems and evidently you're on a political watch list from the old days and your name came up on a search engine."
"You mean they typed in Atta and Prague and Radio Free Europe and Iraq and up popped little old Moses Wine, boy radical?"

......"Who knows? She told me you shouldn't worry about it."

......"Great," I said and tried, after a day or two, to push the whole thing into the back of my mind but it wasn't easy. And it wasn't exactly reassuring that the FBI was having "technical difficulties," although it was scarcely surprising. I had read somewhere that the previous director, the less than charismatic Louis Freeh, was such a Luddite he had his personal computer terminal removed from his office. But this still didn't really enlighten me about why I had been brought into the LA offices that day. But in the natural course of life, even this strange event began to recede, only to come back full force one night two weeks later when we were at a Laker game.

......It was one of those dull match-ups early in the season when the champions were struggling to stay awake against the chump-of-the-day, in this case the Memphis Grizzlies. This night they were making such a hash of it they had fallen eleven points behind. Phil Jackson sat there with his arms folded while his team glanced over in embarrassment, waiting for him to signal a time out, which of course he didn't. Then the whistle blew and Shaq was called for charging, accidentally running over one of the smaller Grizzlie guards who looked as if he needed to be carted off on a stretcher to the ICU. It was at that point that my phone rang.

......"Hello," I said, attempting to balance my orange chicken from the Staples Center Panda Express on the rail in front of me while answering the call. The crowd was starting to come alive, responding in a desultory way to the words "DEE-FENSE!" flashing on the giant monitor over center court.

......"Moses, hi, it's Arthur Sugarman. Where are you?"

......"Lakers."

......"Sounds it. Where are you sitting?

......"Row sixteen, visitor's side."

......There was a funereal silence on the other end as if I had cited a location several light years beyond Alpha Centauri. Arthur was a completion bondsman, a kind of insurance man for movies who provided investors financial guarantees that their films would be finished, and no self-respecting member of the entertainment industry would be caught dead sitting further back than row three at Staples. It was a public humiliation equivalent to forgetting Tom Cruise's name in a story meeting. "Oh," he said finally. "Then you can't see Peter's seats."

......"Who?" His voice was fading in and out and I could hear what sounded like a satellite bounce on the line.

......"Peter Farnsworth, our director. They're in the second row, section 101. Just behind Dyan Cannon. Anyway, it doesn't matter. He's not there. He's with me."

......"Where are you?"

......"Prague."
"What Did you say Prague?"

......"Yes."

......I glanced over at Samantha who, until then, had shown little interest in my conversation but was now reacting to the astonished expression of my face. "Hold on." I cupped the phone and turned to her. "It's Arthur Sugarman. He's calling from Prague."

......"No kidding!" She sounded as startled as I was. Arthur lived around the corner from us in the Hollywood Hills but he was calling from the very city six thousand miles away, which had been the inspiration for my interrogation. "What does he want?"

......"Beats me." I had known Arthur for several years. But he had never called me from out of town, not even from as far away as Santa Barbara, let alone Eastern Europe. In fact, he hardly ever called me at all.
Kobe swooped in for a tomahawk dunk and suddenly the crowd was wide-awake, yelling and screaming for Grizzlie blood. The Lakers were coming back.

......Samantha looked at me. "Better talk to him where it isn't so noisy."

......I nodded and slipped out of my seat, walking into a part of the colonnade near a window for a better connection, which amazingly turned out to be clearer than I usually got calling the local pizza delivery. By the time I returned it was halftime and Samantha was standing in the aisle waiting anxiously. "It's the weirdest thing. He wants me to go over there for a few weeks," I explained. "Help out on this film he's bonding."

......"Did you tell him about what happened to you?"

......"Of course. What I could on a cell phone anyway. He didn't seem to know anything about it. All he cared about was this threat to his movie. It's driving him crazy. Some members of the cast and crew the leading lady and the director have been finding plastic snakes in their hotel rooms."

......"Plastic snakes? Sounds like more of a practical joke than a threat."

......"I have a feeling there's more to it, something he didn't walk to talk about."

......"What about the Czech police?"

......"He says they're not taking it very seriously."

......The whistle blew from the start of the second half and we both went back to our seats. Samantha eyed me cautiously.

......"What'd you tell him?"

......"I'd call back."

......"Do you want to go?"

......"What about you?"

......"We can't both. Someone's got to finish Harrison." Harrison was a child custody case we had been working on for Sheldon Dichter, a family lawyer. It was the kind of ugly business I normally avoided, but there wasn't a lot of work around now and we had to take what we could get. "You go ahead. I'll come over when I'm finished. You've been complaining about not being in the thick of things. This will sure put you there And I don't want to be the one who stopped you from going."

......This woman sure knew me. "The FBI didn't say I couldn't leave the country."

......Samantha smiled. "If it turns out to be nothing, you still might find it amusing. You're always complaining about how movie people get what we do all wrong. This is your chance to set them right."

......"This isn't a crime movie, Sam. It's a love story about the Holocaust An art house film."

****

......The first place I went the next morning was to see the morning gang at the table at LA's old Farmer's Market on Fairfax and Third. That was where I had first met Arthur when I had been taken there several years ago as the guest of a screenwriter friend who had since moved to Montana. I didn't think I'd be able to stand it, but I went back and for a while now I had been dropping in to have breakfast under the same umbrella with Arthur and his film industry buddies at what some local rags had taken to calling, with some exaggeration, "The Algonquin Roundtable West." The group that hung out there was a cranky lot at best. All more or less successful, some even famous writers and directors, they acted as if the world, usually personified by philistine movie executives, was a conspiracy to deprive them of their creativity. Every time I stopped by over the years it was as if I had interrupted the same conversations, bemoaning the state of the cinema or the decline of the culture in general. It was a tad repetitive, but they could be funny. And that was the reason I came -- not to mention the flattery of being asked, as an "actual, bona fide private dick," for advice on what would happen in real life for somebody's screenplay. After I gave it, they would reply with a chorus of "Ah, what does he know?" or such like, but I often saw one or the other of them scrawling a note under the table.

......I wanted to find out about Arthur and his movie before I boarded a plane to Prague. It was early and the only ones there were the director Harry Chemerinski, his sometime screenwriter Douglas Corfu and Dorothy Windham, a shrink who was one of the other "civilians" who turned up at the Market on occasion.

......"Well, look who's here," said Chemerinski as I sat down with them. "We haven't seen you in months. What happened? With this new war, husbands can't afford to have their wives followed anymore?"

......"What do you call that tracking errant spouses?" said Corfu. "You have a term for it."

......"'Peace of Mind Insurance,'" I said.

......"Right 'Peace of Mind Insurance,'" said the writer. "I like that. You should use it as your advertisement on a bus bench or something."

......"Who do you think Moses is?" said Chemerinski. "A real estate agent? A gumshoe's a classy occupation."

......"Don't mind those two" said Dorothy. "HBO just turned down their script."

......"Bunch of retarded blood leeches from Hell," said the director.

......"Speaking of insurance," I said. "I just got a call from Arthur Sugarman. He wants me to go over to Prague to help on some film he's bonding."

......"Peter Farnsworth's movie," said Chemerinski.

......"What's he like?" I asked.

......"Sitcom writer trying to make up for his sins," said Corfu. "Surprised you don't know. He used to come here all the time before he got married for the third time." I shook my head. It didn't ring a bell.
"Hey, where's your new wife?" said Harry. "Why don't you bring her around? We'd like to meet her."
Just then Douglas' wife, a Swedish grad student in her twenties, showed up, pushing their two-year old son in a stroller. A few years ago, Corfu had made himself the butt of the usual midlife jabs about seeing too many Bergman movies by marrying Ingrid, a woman thirty years his junior, but that quickly disappeared and she soon became a welcome member of the group. It had to be that way. Aging was the last frontier for the Hollywood Boomer and, although no one was getting a facelift yet, it was an unspoken agreement that anything you could do to stay, or at least look, young was fair game, especially in the movie business where one's livelihood depended on the illusion of youth. So no one ever made jokes about Harry's intermittent dye job, to his face anyway, and, despite the fact that I was only a part-timer, no one so much as batted an eye when I married someone twenty years younger. They only wanted to know when I was having a kid. But I had two already. Grown ones.

......"So what gives with Peter's movie?" said Corfu.

......"Plastic snakes in the hotel room," I said.

......"Donna Gold's the leading lady," said Harry. "She could have my snake in her room any time she wants. And only part of it's plastic Hey, he can save us some bucks on FedEx charges." He winked at the others. "We made a birthday present for Peter. We were going to mail it, but you can carry it over. They won't keep you too long at customs. It's just one of those little razor gizmos you use to slice cardboard. Box cutters I think they call them." Nobody laughed. The director had started his career as a standup comic and the compulsion to crack wise was embedded in his DNA. "Okay, okay," he continued, "you didn't like that one. What is this -- the good taste police? Here's the real present. Let's hope they have Mini-DV format in Prague. Otherwise he'll have to wait to get back to see it." He reached into his pocket and handed me a small videocassette.

......I ran my eyes over the label: "Happy Birthday, Peter ­ Just because you married a Jew, doesn't mean you have to make a movie about the Holocaust. The market's already saturated. Ever heard of Schindler's List? Your pals at the FM!"

......I stuffed it in my jacket and stayed around for a while, hoping to glean a little more information about the film before I left. A few other members of the group, some screenwriters and a producer, a journalist or two, came and went. But no one seemed to know much about the movie, other than it was written by Farnsworth's wife, a woman named Ellen Feig who had been his assistant when Peter was the writer/producer of a TV series called "His Name Is Herman" about a family living in downtown Seattle with a pet goat. And when Chemerinski started launching into his old stories about the glory days of the Seventies and Eighties when the auteur was king and he almost won a couple of Oscars, I knew it was time to leave. Even I, an interloper, had heard them too many times before.

......"Watch your back in Prague," he said as I started off. "Isn't that where those Iraqis met with that Twin Towers guy? What's his name? Mohammed Atta?"

......"That's bunk," one of the journalists chimed in. "Never happened."

......There was that name again. "I doubt I'll be running into him," I said, waving good-bye and wondering, for a split second, if Harry or one of the others in the group had been the one to tip off the FBI. But I realized immediately that was impossible. Until this morning, they hadn't even known I was going to Prague. I hadn't stepped on the airplane and I was already in a paranoid state of anxiety and dread.

......Samantha drove me to the airport but she wasn't allowed to come with me past the gate. We had to say good-bye at the long line in front of the x-ray machines. Under the watchful eye of a trio of National Guardsmen, she gave me a world satellite phone as a going away present. "Call me three times a day," she said. I gave her another kiss and joined the line. An hour and three quarters and two and a half security checks later, I was on the plane.
......

Copyright (c) 2003 by Roger L. Simon


......

Roger L. Simon's prize-winning Moses Wine detective novels have been published in over a dozen languages. Director's Cut, excerpted here and due out in June from Atria Books, will be the eighth in the series. The first, The Big Fix, was made into a film starring Richard Dreyfuss, which Simon wrote. Among his other screenplays are the Richard Pryor comedy Bustin' Loose, the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Isaac Singer's Enemies, A Love Story (with Paul Mazursky) and the Woody Allen-Bette Midler film Scenes From a Mall (also with Mazursky). Recently, he directed and co-wrote with his wife Sheryl Longin (Dick) the independent feature Prague Duet.

"Moses Wine is back with all his wit and wisdom exposing crime and the movie industry to the respect it deserves and proving that Roger Simon is better than ever." (Tony Hillerman on Director's Cut)

Like what you've read? Director's Cut comes out in June from Atria Books. And head here for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!


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