I opened my eyes and saw my shoe. One of the black size-10 John Lobb lace-ups I'd bought heavily discounted at the Barney's Warehouse Sale doubling as a pillow. I sat up realizing I'd slept in the back seat of my car. It was pulled over on a residential street somewhere in South Pasadena with all the windows rolled down and the keys in the ignition.
I reached above my head and opened the rear passenger door. The shoe fell out. I stumbled after it, falling to my knees on the lawn of an Arts & Crafts home that looked like it might belong to a Cal Tech professor. I imagined myself from the professor's perspective, looking through the window of a second-floor study to see a man in a rumpled suit throwing up at 6:45AM. I got behind the wheel and headed toward the Harbor Freeway, back to the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank.
Twelve messages were waiting on my answering machine. All from the same person. All hang-ups. Except the one that began with, "You better be careful, y'know? Someone might slit your fucking throat one of these days." I took the mini-cassette tape out of the machine and put it in a Ziploc bag with the others. I opened a pack of fresh tapes and popped in a new one.
I changed into a pair of brown Ron Herman corduroys and a blue Double RL oxford shirt that had been sitting in the dryer for a couple days and headed back to the car. "Star Time" read the sign posted at the exit of the Oakwood parking lot.
Standing in line at Poquito Mas on West Olive, I attempted to piece together the last twelve hours. I'd worn the John Lobb shoes - the ones I secretly called my "special occasion shoes" - to what I'd deemed a special occasion the night before. A party at the Magic Castle to celebrate the launch of a new entertainment trade, Circa Now, in which I had a feature on "the future of children's programming." "Let's make some bad decisions together," the giant blond ad sales chick said to me at the bar, opening her clutch and flashing an 8-ball.
"I like the look," the guy behind me at Poquito Mas said, interrupting my recollection.
"I like the look, man. I mean. If you're gonna go wrinkled, go all the way, right?"
I ate my breakfast burrito on P5 of Lot Z and headed upstairs to work.
I'd been a permalancer at Warner Bros. for nine months. Basically the job was to rewrite synopses of every TV episode from the studio's back catalog and enter the copy into a database. I was on Season Nine, Episode Five, of "Alice," in which Alice suspects that her son Tommy has a drinking problem. It was helpful when you were familiar with a series. Before "Alice," I'd had to rewrite four seasons of "Daktari."
There were about 10 of us working in "the writers' room," an undeservedly romantic moniker for what was actually a nondescript conference room in a black-glass low-rise on South Olive a few blocks from the lot. I woke up my PC and pulled a bankers box of moldering "Alice" press kits from under my desk.
"Does anybody mind if I play the radio," asked RJ, one of the writers, standing at a black-and-purple plastic boombox in the corner of the room.
The others muttered in collective approval. Through my hangover, a moment of clarity…
"Actually? Can I make one request? Can we just not listen to the Wave? I kind of can't deal with, like, smooth jazz, today."
The Wave. They loved that shit-
"Oh, you're too young for the Wave," said Christine from across the room.
"Yeah. The Wave is for: when life didn't turn out the way you wanted," said RJ.
"The Wave. For When Your Nerves Are Shot ," someone else announced, assuming the voice of a cheesy DJ.
RJ put on K-Roc. "Seether" by Veruca Salt. Roz, our supervisor, appeared in the doorway. "Nat, my office in ten." I nodded.
Standing at a urinal in the men's room, I noticed a small, deep bruise and a gash with dried blood just below my waistline. Last night came rushing back: the giant ad sales girl. Some cheesy club in Hollywood called Firefly. "I don't know if you're familiar with hip hop dancing," she said, grinding. Me falling off the small stage where we danced, into a steel drum below that was serving as a garbage can. A bunch of homeboys laughing at me, the white guy in the Brooks Brothers suit standing in the garbage. Doing a bump of crystal in the bathroom with a woman named Jojo and her boyfriend Edgar. The stuff looked like Sugar in the Raw, the cut stuff the Mexican gangs had started selling in LA. All of us back at the ad sales girl's place in South Pasadena. Waking up in my car.
I contemplated a quick nap in the handicapped stall. I flushed instead and headed to Roz's office.
"We've got an assignment for you. You used to work at a real newspaper, right?"
I nodded vaguely. If you'd call the Los Angeles Times a real newspaper, sure.
"Bud Loeb's dead."
"Manager of Sound Transfer. Worked here just over 30 years. We need an obit. To send to the trades, the local papers. With all the cuts lately Marty wants to highlight someone who gave a lifetime of service to the studio."
She passed me a thin file with a Post-It on top that had a building and room number scrawled on it.
"Bill Rutecki. Operations. Go see him and get some quotes. Use the file to fill in the details. And look in the paper to see what the format of an obit's like and stick to that. We need it by Monday."
"I know what an obit looks like." I got up. "One thing. What's Sound Transfer?"
Back at my desk, I opened the file. The first page was a prepared quote from the studio. "Marion 'Bud' Loeb, a valued member of our Warner Bros. family, devoted more than three decades of service…" I closed it.
Using my new assignment as an excuse, I left the office. But rather than head to see Bill Rutecki, I drove to North Hollywood to visit my dog at the Bone Sweet Bone kennels. They didn't allow pets at the Oakwood.
I found her in a long, narrow run trying to dig a hole in the gravel. As I unlatched the gate and entered, she recognized me and started yelping. She had a cut on the top of her nose from digging under the chain link fence, and she'd contracted a case of kennel cough. I sat on the gravel and she collapsed in my lap and fell into a deep sleep. Years ago when I'd looked up Australian Shepherd in the American Kennel Club handbook, a bolded warning read, "This dog is for experienced dog handlers only. This is not a good first pet." As a result of not heeding that advice I wound up with the only dog I'd known that was prescribed Xanax by a Los Angeles veterinarian. It came in these skinny white sticks, like flat, elongated Tic-Tacs. I could tell she wasn't doing well without the meds. But I'd pocketed all the Xanax for myself when I'd brought her to the kennel and invented a cocktail called the Xantini. A vodka martini with a dog Xanax float, basically.
I sat with the dog till the sun went down and left her sleeping. I didn't have the money to get her out of Bone Sweet Bone. I knew I'd probably wind up splitting town and leaving her there.
I got back to the Oakwood and checked my answering machine. The same voice. "You better watch it, you cocksucker-" I put the tape in the Ziploc bag.
Why was I at the Oakwood when there were two other leases in Los Angeles with my signatures on them? The duplex on Montana where my wife Kit Friebaum was living. And my intended bachelor pad on Jefferson and Hauser -designed by a disciple of a student of Richard Neutra's, according to the broker - where Nikki Ward was holed up and refused to leave.
I met Nikki at Tom Bergin's on Fairfax about a month after I'd been fired from the Times over the county assessor story. Leaking the scoop to the competition after my publisher spiked the piece for being implicated in it hadn't worked out. They stitched me up like I was LA's own Jason Blair. My life's ambition turned from winning a Pulitzer to drinking enough at Bergin's so I could get my name on one of those green paper clovers they hung on the ceiling for regulars. Nikki ran with a crew of off-duty cops who worked security there on the side.
"Y'know who you remind me of," one of Nikki's pals on the force, Schmiddy, told me the night I somehow became their mascot. "That guy? That comedian? What's his name?"
"Uh, Paul Rudd," I guessed hopefully.
"No. No. Oh! I know who it is! That guy! Yeah. What's his name? Gilbert Godfried."
Schmiddy also told me how to "remove any unruly patron from a tavern or a club with just a pen knife" by inserting the skinny blade into said unruly patron's inner thigh. Into some major artery, I can't remember which one.
Nikki's pet name for me was Jewy Jewface. "Jewy! Jewface! Get us another round!"
Two months after we met, we moved in together. I figured she was about 24. Why would a 19-year-old girl be hanging out in Bergin's? With cops? She said she couldn't have sex because her "uterus was backwards" or something and it hurt too much. We'd just kind of dry hump for hours, and she developed all these bruises and rashes on her pelvic area. When we finally had sex, she yelled, "Make me your receptacle!" Totally clinical sounding.
I must've told her in some drunken, after-school-special admission about my dad. That I thought he was still alive, somewhere in San Bernardino county, and that I was going to try and track him down now that I finally had some time off.
"No wonder you're father fucking hates you. No wonder he left," she said when she found out I was still technically married. I grabbed her to cover her mouth and make her stop yelling. We'd already had complaints from the neighbors. But the cops came this time, and she showed them the bruises on her stomach. I spent the night in county. I found out from an ADA that she'd run away from Cliffside Malibu, a rehab program, six months ago. That she wasn't actually a "documentary filmmaker" making a short about genital mutilation in Kenya narrated by Beck. She was a Harvard-Westlake senior from the Palisades. Nikki decided not to press charges. But the ADA thought he had a case. I moved out and told Nikki that it was over, but she could stay in the apartment as long as she wanted.
Headlights from a Pathfinder swept across my living room at the Oakwood. It was Timmy, my dealer slash neighbor. I got a couple Tecates from the fridge and searched my pants pockets from the night before for some cash. I found a few bucks and an empty $50 bag. I tore it apart at the seams and licked out the inside. My tongue went numb. I opened one of the cans of Tecate and took a swig.
Friday I overslept and decided at about noon to go to the lot and ask about Bud Loeb. I usually told people I ran into from the old days that I was now "in marketing" so strolling onto the lot every once in a while helped make it less of a lie somehow.
It turned out that Bud's job in Sound Transfer was to copy Warner Bros.' sound library from analog tapes to digital. It also turned out that no one knew Bud very well at all. At least not well enough to have any quotable anecdotes. Bill Rutecki said that Bud started as a runner on the lot in the days when Jack Warner still ran things, and that he'd been a tour guide after that for 15 years. Then he shuttled to different departments doing menial jobs till the end of his career and mostly kept to himself.
I headed to the tour bus depot to ask any drivers who might've had enough time on the job if they remembered Bud. The only one who would've, KC Dunbar, had apparently retired. I figured I could try and get Dunbar's number from HR. But I knew they were tight-asses with personal info and I didn't want to draw attention to myself and a mountain of dubious time sheets. We were always signing in and out for one another back at the writers' room.
I had lunch at the commissary and flipped through Bud's file. I noticed a page with a home address in Toluca Lake. I needed to get this Bud Loeb thing to Roz, and I had nothing. I wished they'd never asked me to do it. As I got up to leave, I saw George Clooney walk in with Alan Horn. I bummed a smoke off an alien who was talking on a cell phone outside just so I could peer at Clooney through the window. He was wearing Zegna - or maybe it was Brioni. One of those slick Italian dad brands.
The Loeb home was about 10 minutes from the lot, a pale green, aluminum-sided, two-family dingbat on North Rose, right around the corner from Bob's Big Boy on Riverside. As I rang the bell, I saw an old woman inside, slumped down at a dining room table that was covered in thick clear plastic. I rang again. She didn't look up. I headed down to the car when a younger woman with over-gelled hair that looked like hard black ramen answered the door.
"Oh, sorry to bother you miss. I'm Nat Klein from-"
"Slamowitz's office? I'm Gloria Loeb. You were supposed to be here at 2:00. My mom's home now-"
I started to correct her, but thought better of it.
"Sorry. The 405-" If you ever needed any excuse for being late in LA, you went with the 405.
"Yeah, I once got stuck in a traffic jam at four in the morning on the 405. It's always bad. Listen, I'd ask you to come in, but I think you'd better come back tomorrow when my mom's not here. Did you find out about the policy?"
"The message I left? Whether the policy pays? In cases of. Well, y'know? If the policy owner might've took their own life."
"Listen, I should tell you I'm really-"
The ramen woman stepped toward me with one hand still on the doorknob. She had deep brown eyes with faded acne scars on her cheeks.
"Was the policy older than two years," I heard myself ask.
"Yeah, I think so?"
"California life insurance policies under two years old have something called 'contestability clauses.' That means, as long as the premiums have been paid on time, the insurance company has a right to launch its own investigation into the policy holder's death. They want to determine if the policy holder committed fraud when they signed up. Lied about a previous mental condition, that kind of thing. If there's fraud, the insurance company only has to repay the beneficiary the premium payments, plus some interest. But if the policy was older than two years, which your father's probably was, you usually have a better chance to get the claim. I'd really have to take a look-"
"Gloria," the old woman inside the house called out, lifting her head slightly.
"I have to go," the ramen woman said. "Come back tomorrow. Around the same time. I'll get the policy for you."
I headed to the car. As I passed the Loebs' driveway I thought I saw yellow plastic tape across the garage. The kind that said, "Police Line Line Do Not Cross."
It was getting dark. I headed back to the writers' room. But then I hung a u-turn on Barham instead and drove toward Sardo's on North Pass. I needed a drink. And I knew that Dick Tellez, my old source at the LA County Coroner's Office, was usually parked on a bar stool there for Happy Hour. He could get me Loeb's autopsy report. Had Bud Loeb offed himself? I envisioned a 12-gauge in one hand and a Looney Tunes commemorative watch as a 30th anniversary gift in the other. Maybe it was nothing. But I got the sense there was a story. And for the first time in a while, I was excited about chasing it.
Maybe I'd even call Peter, my old editor. Use a different byline. Start stringing, get back into it.
I stayed at Sardo's for a few Maker's. But Tellez didn't show, so at 9:00, I headed back to the Oakwood.
The bulb in the entrance hallway was blown out when I flipped the switch. But I saw that my voicemail light was blinking in the living room, so I walked into the shadows and hit "speaker" and "messages" on the machine.
The first message was from Roz. "Nat. Where have you been? Please call me as soon as you get this-"
I walked into the bedroom as the second message began, and was suddenly jerked up and backwards by some force around my neck. A forearm? With a bulbous bicep that pressed tightly on my throat. As it flexed, I felt faint.
"You're dead. For what you did to me, you fucking cocksucker-" Nikki's voice played on the machine.
I was lifted off the ground for a moment and then became aware of a small, sharp sensation in my upper leg, which morphed into searing shooting pains in my groin and lower back.
I heaved forward in agony, then jerked quickly back towards my bed when my leg couldn't take the weight. The person behind me lost their balance and fell, towards the bedroom's beige vinyl vertical blinds, losing their grip around my throat.
I heard a loud crack as they let go and went into the plate-glass sliding door that overlooked the Oakwood parking lot.
As the blinds swung and fell, a beam of light from the parking lot outside broke through the darkness of the apartment and I could see a large dark purple stain growing by my crotch where a pen knife was sticking out. On the verge of unconsciousness, I grabbed the small knife and watched blood uncontrollably pour from the bottom of my pants leg.
"Great," I thought. "My special occasion shoes."