In my last post I mentioned how I had adapted a short story idea into the opening of my novel The Fine Art of Murder. Here are the first chapters of that book. You will notice that in this version, the maid uses her employer’s death as an opportunity to steal a rather valuable painting. Switching between the past and present The Fine Art of Murder traces the murderous provenance of the painting throughout five hundred years of history. The outcome you will be assured to learn is very twisted indeed.
Up high in the Hollywood Hills, Javier Elzorra’s place looked out over Beverly Glen, a commanding view that spread wide over Bel Air and the City of Los Angeles all the way to the dusty horizon. You could see the Pacific Ocean on a good day when the weather was sharp and clear, but today a soft focus haze hung low at the shoreline, grey and mysterious beneath the slow rising sun.
Javier Elzorra was a facilitator, a Moneyman for the Sureños. He didn’t ask where the money came from of course, given the nature of the Sureños business, such questions would be imprudent. Elzorra, dealt with financial logistics—moving large amounts of his client’s money around the world in secret, without it showing up on the big government radar, or being subject to taxes of any kind. It was mundane work, very similar to that executed by vast corporations the world over, but with one crucial difference—every transaction he made was strictly illegal. In theory it was dangerous work, that could lead to arrest, or the punitive actions of his clients at any given moment, but Elzorra was untroubled by such thoughts because he was a super specialist—the best off books accountant in the business, and there was no way the government, or any one else was going to put the kibosh on his billion dollar business, he was too smart for that—way to smart.
As he sat by the pool, with his lap top computer, executing transfers across the world, Elzorra breathed the scent of the orange blossom morning. Tilting back his head ever so slightly, to welcome the soft-rising rays of the morning sun, he adjusted his gold-rimmed sunglasses on the bridge of his nose, and allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. He had made a million dollars already this morning, and he hadn’t even had his first sip of breakfast juice.
It was almost unthinkable that life could be any other way. Hard to believe, when he was studying accountancy at the University of Southern California that things would turn out like this. So many of his contemporaries had gone on to work for corporate firms and big-barreled blue-chip companies, with legitimate portfolios in the fast-trading world of corporate finance. At first it had been easy to be envious of such successes, but where were his wage-slave contemporaries now, the fools.
His dreams had been limitless in those days, but there were few opportunities for a man of such humble background, even a highly educated man, who had fought hard through every semester at school, facing the ignominious possibility that he would not be able to meet his rapidly mounting bills. The tuition fees were only the start. Education was expensive—prohibitively expensive, for a man of humble means. Fortunately, imagination and opportunity had been his salvation. Despite the hardships that had come his way, he had the saints watching over him. He had caught a weekend job, working in the accounts department of a Long Beach shipping firm, who worked a container business, specializing in big-freight traffic from south of the border. Elzorra caught the gig at the mid-eighties tipping point, when the war on drugs hysteria had turned small town Sureño business interests into billion dollar empires. Back then, all they had wanted was a smart accountant who had the ability to keep his mouth shut and do as he was told—now of course, things were very different—the Sureños had enemies on every side, only their reputation and a relentless thirst for brutality kept them ahead of the competition.
Headless corpses, roadside slayings, car bombs, mass shootings. It had once been easy to disassociate figures on a balance sheet from such wanton acts. But now, the connection was undeniable. As the figures rose, so did the death count. Who could know the true figures? Who would believe the shocking truth, even if it were laid out before them in a double entry ledger?
As he breathed in his gilded island world, Javier Elzorra knew that down in the city’s eastern fringes, where he had come from, things were very different—a world of such harsh and unthinkable contrasts, that the old places where he had been born and raised, no longer held any connection for him. Sitting beside the rippling, sun-kissed waters of his pool, Elzorra looked down into the grey, mist-shrouded city streets, feeling a fleeting coldness pass over him.
No going back.
He almost had enough, and then he would be out. He already had a plan. He would have to sail far to escape the reach of the Sureños and their many affiliates. But Elzorra had done his research. He had already bought a farm in Italy. Set amongst the rolling Tuscan countryside, the farmhouse had lime-washed walls and a hard-baked terracotta roof. The place was beautiful, four hundred years old at least. There were lemon groves, and grapevines, and olive trees all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. No smog, no grey city, just a landscape of balance running back through the centuries.
Soon he would be there.
—A new life, in a new world, where no one would be able to touch him.
He had been very careful, of course, even by his own prudent standards. He had made allowances for every eventuality. There was no way they would be able to find him. The offshore accounts, the hidden shell companies, the deep-layered financials circling the globe—a string of ever changing complexity. He had learned much from his long years with the Sureños, He would depart with no more than was owed him, but such honesty was no insurance policy in such treacherous times as these.
Elzorra knew he was good, the best in the business. Not even the combined accountancy might of the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigations would be able to find him, once he dropped off the grid. So he felt sure that his departure, when it came, would be protected by the strength of his own farsightedness.
Elzorra closed the lid on his power-book computer and placed it on the table beside him. He took a sip of the fresh squeezed orange juice, still cold in the glass and admired his palm trees, as they undulated gently in the soft morning breeze. Sunlight glistened across the surface of the leaves, hitting the swimming pool—the sunlight sparkled, pleasing and mellifluous as it danced like music across the flickering surface. Elzorra sipped his orange juice, absorbing the morning glow. In the high distance he could see red-tailed hawks soaring across the sky with their wings spread wide.
THE FINE ART OF MURDER 02
There were many jobs to do, in the house of Javier Elzorra, much cleaning and dusting of every kind. Alicia Calibano had worked seven years for Mr. Elzorra, a quiet melancholy man, without children or family. Such loneliness. It was hardly natural for a man of his age, thought Alica. But who was she to judge. He was a man of religion, and restrained tastes. He didn’t drink or smoke, or indulge in any of the legion of unwholesome activities that others in the neighborhood were given to. Alicia knew these things. She had worked for others in the canyon, people who used their wealth as a tool of their own downfall, almost as if they didn’t care that their unholy sin would doom them to an eternity in hellfire. Alicia knew the bible had passages on that very subject. Meanwhile, she felt it reassuring, that her direction in life had excused her the trials and responsibilities of great wealth. A frugal and honest existence was as much as she could either expect, or look forward to—she was resigned to that. Such knowledge did not however prevent her from obtaining two lottery-draw cards from the Van Nuys liquor mart each and every Friday. But her luck in such matters was stubbornly elusive.
Mr. Elzorra, although a lonely man, was a very wealthy and generous man. Alicia burned candles for him every week at St Catherine’s Church, in the hope that the Holy Spirit of Jesus would bring Mr. Elzorra both happiness and salvation. Alicia was confident that her prayers were being answered. In the seven long years she had worked for her master, he had never appeared so happy. She knew however, that she had little to worry about—Mr. Elzorra led a blameless life— as far as she could ascertain.
Alicia went about her dusting and vacuuming with gusto, cleaning the front of the house first then moving through to the back. So many ornaments and curios to keep clean, but it was more a pleasure than a task. Mr. Elzorra was a man of taste. He liked to collect artifacts of all descriptions, paintings and statues mostly. Many of the things he had collected looked old, like they had come from Europe, or some other such place. He had many pictures that illustrated biblical stories. Alicia recognized St Sebastian, Ezekial and Jeremiah and wise King Solomon too. Mr. Elzorra had several pictures of the Holy family, and a marvelous picture of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. Annuntiatio nativitatis Christi, it said underneath, in heavy gilt script. The painting was quite the most beautiful thing Alicia had ever seen. Mr. Elzorra had told her the name of the artist when she had asked, but the name was long, and sounded Italian, no one she had ever heard of. She had asked Mr. Elzorra if he knew where she might be able to get a print of such a painting, but he just smiled, gave her a knowing wink. A few weeks later, he presented her with a painting so similar to the one she coveted it almost took her breath away. Mr. Elzorra told her the painting was a reproduction, painted with real oil paints, not just some print, that would fade as soon as the sun shone into the room. She thanked him. Told him it was not possible for her to accept a gift of such beauty and value. But he had been insistent. Told her she should hang the painting in a place of reverence, where she could enjoy it every day. Finding such a place in her small, cramped apartment, overcrowded with children and family members was no easy task. But she eventually settled on a spot in her dining room, close to her gilt picture of Christ crucified. Mr. Elzorra had been pleased, when she told him of the location that she had chosen to hang the painting. He told her that a famous artist named Leonardo da Vinci had once painted a similar picture of the Annunciation and another of Christ and his Disciples at the Last Supper. Alicia had a small, faded print of this picture, in her bathroom, but she felt too ashamed to tell Mr. Elzorra. He told her that the Last Supper painting could be found in a dining room of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan Italy. She nodded wide-eyed when he told her this, but she had no idea where Italy was. Close to Spain she thought, or maybe Jerusalem?
As she dusted the marble and bronze statues, Alicia noticed that the Annunciation painting was still missing from its place above the fireplace. Away at the cleaners Mr. Elzorra had said, but that was weeks ago now. Alicia could not understand how it could take so long to clean a painting. She had taken great care to dust it. Treated it with love and indulgence every day, like the painting was her very-own. But now it was to be cleaned by outsiders? Alicia had been troubled by the revelation that Mr. Elzorra did not trust her to clean the painting, or feel satisfied that she had carried out her duties to the fullest extent required. The problem caused her to lie awake at night puzzling over the implications.
Eventually, she had asked Mr. Elzorra if he was unhappy with the standard of her work, or if there was anything more she could do to, carry out her duties more fully. He just laughed. Told her that works of art needed expert restoration, by craftsmen every few years—it is a specialized beauty treatment, it keeps them young, he said.
She nodded, looking to his eyes for reassurance.
He gave her his warmest, most reassuring smile.
There were flowers and a note of thanks delivered to her home the same afternoon. The arrival of the deliveryman from Beverly Hills caused much comment amongst her neighbors.
She thanked him the next day, gave him a framed postcard of a stained glass window she had bought from her church for 50 cents. The window featured the pious figure of Saint Catherine of Bologna. The motto, In Veritas. was inscribed below, within a flowing manuscript. Above her, an Angelic winged figure, holding a heavenly trumpet, celebrated the glowing scene.
Mr. Elzorra told her it was the nicest thing anyone had ever given him. Next day, to her great pride, she discovered that he had chosen to place the framed picture on his nightstand, next to a marble figure by someone called Lorenzo Bartolini. It made her tearfully proud whenever she saw it, so much so, she avoided Mr. Elzorra for days. Alicia smiled happily, at the memory and hummed a tune to her self, as she dusted picture frames in Mr. Elzorra’s study. There were so many beautiful pictures here, some of them very grand. But the painting that she loved the most was the smallest, most unassuming of them all. No more than eighteen inches across. It was the beautiful picture of a woman with blonde ringlet hair, set in a heavy antique frame, that although once gilded, was now darkened with age and a thousand time worn marks it had collected down the years. The picture had a name plaque inlaid into the ornate frame it read, Lucretzia. The girl was young, but wearing the clothes of some age, long gone. The girls dress was modest by modern standards, but the fabric glowed richly and a golden crucifix hung down around her plunging neckline. Alicia liked the picture, because the girl’s dark eyes followed her around the room. The girl had a smile too, twitching at the corners of her mouth. To see the painting, you could swear the girl was alive, smiling at you with silent amusement. And yet, when you looked closely, the smile seemed to disappear, as though she was correcting herself through modesty or decorum.
As Alicia dusted around Mr. Elzorra’s study, she used a care and diligence she used nowhere else, not even in her own home. As she worked, she noticed through the slatted window blinds, that the pool cleaner had arrived. Perhaps Armando was having the day of again. Armando was a hard worker, but he had loose morals and abstained from church. She had suspected for sometime, that he had an agenda of the flesh he was pursuing, with the divorced movie star across the canyon. But sometimes it was best not to know the details of such things lest the taint of sin worked it’s ugly way into your life too. Alicia continued with her work.
A fleeting shadow moving across the plantation blinds. Alicia smiled, Mr. Elzorra going about his daily routine. She finished up in the study, gathered up her bucket of cleaning products, dusters, wipes, furniture polish, glass-cleaner and headed out to the hall way. That’s when she heard the noise, soft and metallic, like compressed air escaping from a compressor, she frowned. Could it be possible that the air conditioning system was malfunctioning again, so soon after the service engineer had made his last visit? Alicia paused at the study door, in front of the painting of Lucretzia. She stood, listening, straining to hear the metallic noise again—instead, a splash, Mr. Elzorra leaping into the pool. She raised her eyebrows in resignation. He had taken his morning swim already. She knew this for a fact, because she had mopped up a long trail of watery footprints leading from the patio doors to the kitchen—A second swim, so soon after his breakfast? Alicia shook her head with resignation. Such behavior would lead to cramping of the digestion, as sure as the Lord made the new day sun.
Alicia gathered up her pail and headed for the broom closet. She selected a long handled mop, with an old-fashioned string head that had seen better days, and dipped it into a tin bucket with a grate wringer. She carried the mop through to the kitchen and started the water running in the kitchen sink. Hot water and cleaning fluid was the professional way to mop. Most people would dry mop a spill, but that wasn’t the way to do it. Dry mopping led to stains and smears, and that was no way to run a household.
Everything quiet now in the yard—as the water from the faucet began to run hot. Alicia couldn’t see Mr. Elzorra in the yard, but the purple flowering bougainvillea that rose up in front of the kitchen window partially obscured her view. Still not hot enough—she let the water run, bustled out busily through the poolside patio doors, to collect Mr. Elzorra’s breakfast things. But as she walked out onto the beautiful poolside patio, Alicia Calibano’s whole world suddenly collapsed, just as surly as if the lance of Longinus had been plunged into her heart.
Mr. Elzorra floating, facedown in the pool, his arms spread wide, like Christ Crucified. Alica Calibano felt as though her next breath would never come, when it did it was accompanied with a wail of terror and tragedy so terrible she felt her hands rise up before her face to stifle the hysterical sobs, that were coming now in waves.
Meanwhile, in the pool, the body undulated gently, as the morning breeze ruffled the water. Alicia’s eyes bulged wider. There was blood in the water, lots of blood surrounding the corpse, flowing from the head like a ghastly blood drenched halo.