Hello friends. Readers of my book The Fine Art of Murder will no doubt recognise the next story that I am going to share with you. I wrote it sometime before The Fine Art of Murder and adapted it in the way that Raymond Chandler was famous for. This is not something I would normally do, as I can remember feeling swindled by Chandler on a number of occasions. Other points of interest—rattlesnakes usually stay well away from humans, unless you are in their territory. I live in the Hills in Los Angeles and there are many snakes out there. I walk every day and only very occasionally see a snake— As for the swimming pool. I was always taken by how fellow author J.G Ballard used swimming pools as a metaphor. I always saw pools as an unobtainable luxury, until I got one and realized that they could also be something of a white elephant. Hope you like The Snake. Let me know if you do.
Up high in the Hollywood Hills Javier Elzorra’s place looked out over Beverly Glen, a commanding view of Bel Air and the City of Los Angeles spreading wide to the dusty horizon. Elzorra was a facilitator. A money-man 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, so that his clients would be unencumbered with the highly challenging business of moving large amounts of money around the world. It was a task for which he was richly rewarded.
As he sat by the pool with his laptop computer, executing money transfers, Elzorra breathed the scent of the orange blossom morning, tilting his head back 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.
Elzorra couldn’t be more happy. His transactions had increased exponentially throughout the years. His initial unease at the dubious legality of the business had been replaced with euphoria and now—well, 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 this way. 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.
His dreams had been limitless in those days, but opportunity was limited for a man of humble background, even a highly educated man who had fought hard through every semester at school. How many times had he faced 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 provided 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, where the war on drugs hysteria turned small town Sureño business interests into billion-dollar business 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 profits rose, so did the death count. Now, who could know the true figures? Who would even believe the shocking truth, even if it were laid out before them like a double entry ledger?
As he breathed in his gilded world, Javier Elzorra knew that down in the city’s eastern fringes, where he had come from, things were very different now. 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 southern 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 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 trail of ever changing financial 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 Investigation would be able to find him once he dropped of the grid. He felt sure that his departure—when it came, would be protected by the strength of his own farsightedness.
Closing the lid on his power-book computer Elzorra 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. In the high distance he could see red-tailed hawks, soaring across the sky with their wings spread wide.
The pool guy was late a gain. It wasn’t the first time. How difficult could I be to clean a persons pool? All you got to do is show up once a week, net out the floating leaves and throw a few chemicals in the mix, to keep things looking pristine. Elzorra had watched the pool guy working his job a thousand times or more. The chiseling creep didn’t like being watched; proof if proof were needed he would cheat you soon as look at you. Elzorra had noticed a number of times when he had been out on business, that the bottom of the pool looked dirty, like the pool guy had skimped on the vacuuming because there had been no one there to watch him.
Then there was the maid. Hell, the maid wasn’t much better. These people would cheat you stupid if you let them. He let her know he was watching of course, picked her up on the little details, checked to make sure she had dusted all the ornaments—not just some of them, and he always moved the couch to ensure she had cleaned underneath it. The new cleaner was always conscientious, but the last few had been slackers. He had to let them go. No point having a cleaner if they are going to skimp on the details. You let employees skimp and pretty soon you will be doing the job yourself, and giving them a paycheck just to turn up.
Still no pool guy.
Elzorra picked up his mobile phone and speed dialed the creep’s number. Listened almost a minute, while the pool guy gave him some bullshit story about traffic in the canyon, can you believe the nerve? Elzorra told the pool guy not to bother, told him if he couldn’t be bothered to turn up to work on time, he would find someone else for the job.
Elzorra cursed. He figured it would take a week at least to fill the position. Meanwhile, the pool would go to hell and quick, unless the filters got cleaned. Pool filters are key. They get gummed up with debris and pretty soon your filtration motor will burn out and the water will go stagnant green in no time. The dynamics of pool maintenance was an ugly chain of dominoes. He had learned that a couple of years back when he hired on a party boy stoner on the recommendation of the gin-brained soap opera actress who lived across the road. Party boy was unreliable from the get go and he neglected his duties completely when Elzorra took a trip to South America on business. When he got back, the pool was like a swamp—all kinds of shit floating in there. Elzorra couldn’t reach party boy to fire him but he heard on the grapevine the creep was the neighborhood Coke dealer. You just can’t rely on anyone anymore.
Rising from his chair, Elzorra walked around the pool and uncapped the pool filter. He examined the swirling water inside the hole. It was dark in there, real dark, a hole just deep enough to reach your arm into to about the elbow, so you could reach out the filter basket. The mesh basket helped prevent leaves and debris that landed in the pool from being sucked through the filtration system. Peering into the hole, the filtration basket looked clogged with some kind of black shining goop. Elzorra shuddered, as he reached down inside the hole—
A fleeting shadow moving across the plantation blinds. The maid 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—a soft splash, perhaps the pool cleaner had arrived at last? The maid paused at the study door, in front of the painting of Lucretzia. She stood listening—another splash louder this time 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? The maid shook her head with resignation, such behavior would lead to cramping of the digestion, as sure as The Lord made the new day sun.
Gathering up her pail of cleaning stuffs the maid 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. 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 started to run hot. The maid 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, as she bustled out busily through the patio doors, to collect Mr. Elzorra’s breakfast things. But as she walked out on to the beautiful poolside patio, her 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. The maid 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 sobs.
Meanwhile, in the pool, the body undulated gently, as the morning breeze ruffled the water. The maid’s eyes bulged wider. There in the water, coiling away from the corpse—a snake. She looked around, desperate with fear, saw the pool filtration basket lying poolside. How could such a thing have happened? A snake inside the basket? Perhaps the creature had been coiled inside, thinking it had found sanctuary? The maid reached inside her apron and pulled out her cell phone. She dialed 911 with trembling fingers. The operator was very calm on pick-up; asked her what service she required. When she said, ambulance emergency! The operator began asking a long series of qualifying questions, to establish the nature of the emergency. The maid was confused. She answered the questions as best she could, but when finally the questions were at an end she was left with the lifeless body of her employer floating face down in the water. The maid asked in faltering English, Will the paramedics be here soon? The operator answered in a soothing voice—Yes, they would, but there might be a longer delay than normal, as traffic in the canyon was backed up for miles.