Harley Jane Kozak Harley Jane Kozak Harley Jane Kozak
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Dead Ex

Dead Ex

Chapter One

Men, in my experience, do not like being interrupted during sex by a ringing telephone. I suppose it's true for women too. It's true for me, anyhow, which is why I never have a telephone in my bedroom.

In late December, however, I had no bedroom. I was sharing one with a guy named Simon Alexander, along with two cell phones, two answering machines, a landline, computer, TV, radio, surround-sound system, beeper, clock, printer-fax-copier, and smoke alarm, all of which had interfered with romantic moments, although some only when one of us rolled over onto a remote.

There was also a gun, occupying the bedside table. The gun hadn't interrupted anything yet, but I'd been living there only a couple of weeks.

Simon was an FBI agent.

We were in the thick of things that late Friday afternoon, in a sweaty, muscle-clenching, heart-pounding clinch, when a click from across the room reminded me I'd turned off the ringer on the phone. Simon's arm tightened around me.

"Wollie," the answering machine said. "Pick up. Wollie."

Simon's grip loosened. It wasn't a national emergency. Despite his technical sophistication, he preferred an answering machine to voice mail for its screening ability. "Simon, if you're listening," the voice said, "I gotta talk to Wollie. Wollie, please be there."

It was my friend Joey. Despite a masculine name, like mine, Joey, like me, is female. Knowing her as I do, I assumed that under the circumstances she'd want me to ignore her.

"Okay, you're not there," she said, her gravelly voice cracking. "I hate to say it to the machine, but you'll hear it on the news. David's dead. David Zetrakis. Our David."

"David?" I extricated myself from Simon's grasp and crawled to the machine. "Our David?" I said. Too late. The beep indicated that Joey had hung up.

Simon's hand found my thigh and gave it a squeeze. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I...yes." But I didn't move. After a moment I felt a comforter placed over me.

Simon stood. He was six foot five, as tall as anyone need reasonably be who's not in the NBA, and in great shape, too, which is not unusual in L.A., where gym memberships are as common as car insurance, but still, impressive in a guy approaching fifty. Our relationship, affair, hookup, whatever it was, was new enough that the sight of him naked could still distract me from anything. Even the death of an old boyfriend.

"Someone close to you?" He was checking one of his cell phones for messages.

"Very close. Once upon a time." I picked up my own cell phone to call Joey.

Simon bent down, grabbed a handful of hair, and kissed my shoulder. "Later, beautiful girl," he said. Then he retreated to the bathroom. Still naked.

"Joey," I said to her answering machine. "That's...so sad. Are you okay?"

David had been an old boyfriend of mine, but he'd been Joey's too, longer and more seriously. When she picked up the phone halfway through my message, she didn't bother talking. She cried. Joey Rafferty Horowitz was a fairly tough cookie, so hearing her cry, while not a complete novelty, was alarming. Eventually I asked what had happened to David.

"He had cancer," she said. "Pancreatic. Horrible. Untreatable."

I searched for something to say that wasn't a cliché, but gave up. "God, that's awful. I didn't even know he was sick." I design greeting cards, so you'd expect better from me, but when it comes to death, I'm an amateur like everyone else. "And so young," I added.

"Fifty-one," Joey said, blowing her nose. "It's a measure of how old we're getting that fifty-one seems young."

"Did he die in the hospital?"

"At home," she said. "Toluca Lake."

I wrapped the comforter around myself, cold suddenly, and walked to the window. Simon lived in a penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard, a stark, masculine, tall-ceilinged condo with oversized windows washed by a cleaning lady on the inside and a professional crew on the outside. The view went all the way to the ocean. Toluca Lake was to the northeast, over mountains, so it wasn't like I could see David's house, but maybe his spirit hovered above the Pacific.

"When did you last see David?" I asked, but Joey had put me on hold.

I watched the sun set. It was that week between Christmas and New Year's, a time to calculate end-of-year quarterly taxes and polish off gingerbread men and eggnog while making resolutions about sugar, carbs, and alcohol. The L.A. sky faded until the smog was indistinguishable from the sea. I heard the shower in the bathroom and considered joining Simon; he showered unarmed, so it was one place I could safely ambush him.

A click indicated that Joey was back on the line, but she didn't speak.

"Joey?" I said.

"I'm just... scared. Wollie, would you still be my friend if..."

"Yes. If what?"

"If...never mind. Are you going to Rex and Tricia's cocktail thing tonight?"

"I have to. You'll be there, right?" I waited, then said, "Joey, what is it?"

"God, I'm making such a mess of my life." She sounded drunk.

"Honey," I said, "David died of cancer. It's not your fault."

"I didn't say he died of cancer," she said. "He was sick with cancer. What he died of was a gunshot wound to the head."

© Harley Jane Kozak

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