An excerpt from
the upcoming Moses
by Roger L. Simon
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
......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."
......"And that she now
works with you."
......"And that your services
include serving subpoenas, collecting evidence and testifying
......"Have you met Mohammed
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?"
......"What makes you think
I would know him?"
......"Just answer the question,
......"Of course I don't
......"Have you ever seen
......"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
......"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
......"These are just questions
that we've been told to ask you, Mr. Wine," said Lucas.
......"And why would they
want to ask me these questions?"
......"We don't know."
......"I see. Well, the
answer is no."
......"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?"
......"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
......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?"
......"Sounds it. Where
are you sitting?
......"Row sixteen, visitor's
......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
......"Who?" His voice
was fading in and out and I could hear what sounded like a satellite
bounce on the line.
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
......"Where are you?"
"What Did you say Prague?"
......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."
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
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
......"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
......"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
......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
......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,'"
......"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."
movie," said Chemerinski.
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
......"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?
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
......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!
Please direct further comments and
inquiries about submissions to the fiction
editor, or check out this page.
"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a
man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."
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