Russian-American detective A. A. Valnikov is a burned-out homicide detective who gets teamed with Natalie Zimmerman, twice-divorced with a grudge against men. These unlikely partners are assigned the strange case of a stolen show dog being held for ransom. In this bittersweet tale that the Los Angeles Times called “terrifying and romantic,” the partners will find much more than they ever could have imagined. Cosmopolitan called it “fast, colorful and gripping . . . as touching as it is breathlessly entertaining.”
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The Black Marble
By Joseph Wambaugh
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Joseph Wambaugh
All rights reserved.
An explosion of chrysanthemums, candlelight, Oriental carpets, Byzantine eyes. Plumes of incense rising between two a cappella choirs, blown heavenward by chanting voices.
The man in the yellow rubber raincoat swayed unsteadily and raised his sturdy arms toward those marbling clouds of incense enveloping the Holy Virgin. Her eyes were sweet.
Other eyes were reproachful, severe. Byzantine eyes. A kaleidoscope of ikons, small and large: saints, holy men, madonnas. All around him the faces on the ikons stared with great, dark, unrelenting eyes.
From time to time the man in the yellow rubber raincoat would wobble against the burly woman standing next to him.
Finally she'd had enough. "Zhopa!" she muttered.
He answered her in English: "Yes, I'm terribly sorry."
Then both choirs burst forth with the tragic, timeless, Slavonic invocation: "Blessed art thou, Lord God of our Father ... have mercy on us."
The man in the yellow rubber raincoat was overwhelmed by the enduring pathos in those Russian voices, and by the clouds of incense he breathed gratefully, and by the low gilded ceiling and the throngs of believers standing shoulder to shoulder. He kept looking about at the quixotic tapestry of ikons, and the huge ikonostasis screen. Great dark sad eyes. The ikon of the Virgin and Child nestled among apricot and butter and salmon carnations. The batushka raised the pomazok to brush the sign of the cross on the forehead of the first in a long queue of communicants.
The communicant was sleek and feline. Her gray coat was damp from the rain. It flared from a belted waist, and the fur cuffs and hem matched the fur in her hat. She wore calf-molded, gray leather boots. The man in the yellow rubber raincoat was overcome by her beauty when the batushka brushed a cross of holy oil on her forehead. She could have stepped from the stage of an opera by Glinka or Borodin: a maiden fallen from a troika in the forest. The man in the yellow rubber raincoat could almost imagine flakes of luminescent snow on the fur of her collar.
But it wasn't fur, not real fur anyway. And she wasn't Russian, and she certainly wasn't a maiden. She was third-generation Anglo-Irish, currently living with a second-generation Ukrainian, in church on Russian Christmas only to please his great-aunt, who was going to loan them fourteen thousand dollars unsecured for a Jaguar X-J-12, which she needed about as much as she needed those tight boots cutting off her circulation.
The room capacity was limited to three hundred. There were four hundred souls crowded into that modest cathedral for vesper service. Yet few residents of Los Angeles knew that this holy night, Thursday, January 6th, was the eve of Russian Christmas. There was a far holier day to anticipate on Sunday. They all knew about that one. And this year, praise God, it would be celebrated in nearby Pasadena! Super Bowl XI.
The voices: "Blessed art thou ... have mercy on us."
The man in the yellow rubber raincoat felt a bubble of sourness in his throat, swallowed it back, belched, and staggered sideways into the burly woman.
This time she wanted to make sure he understood. In accented English, she said, "Asshole!" And jolted him with a plump elbow to the ribs.
"Uh!" the man in the raincoat gasped, his wet cinnamon hair whipping across his eyes.
"Go home!" she whispered. "You damn dronk. Go home!" And she gave him another jab in the belly.
"Uh!" he belched. "Yes, I'm terribly sorry."
Then he turned, holding his stomach, and staggered toward the door, through the press of standing believers, out of this pewless teeming house of God.
When he got to the door, something clashed at his feet. A small boy said, "Hey," and grabbed his raincoat.
"Here," the boy said, handing the man a set of glinting handcuffs, one steel ratchet dangling open.
"Yes, I'm terribly sorry," the man in the yellow rubber raincoat said, taking the handcuffs and shoving them down inside the front of his belt.
One moment, candlelight and incense and color. The next, darkness cold and wet. But then, always just beyond, was black and cold and rainy night.
"Lord God, have mercy."
The man in the yellow rubber raincoat couldn't get the handcuffs tucked inside his belt. He didn't understand that the belt buckle had slid around to his hip. He groped and pulled at the belt, causing the handcuffs to fall down inside his underwear. The steel was cold, and he cried out as the open ratchet gouged his genitals.
The man in the yellow rubber raincoat struggled. He leaned against the wall of the cathedral, in the shadows, and thought about it. If he was logical and calm it should be very easy to extricate the handcuffs. But he was shivering in the rain. He lurked deeper in the shadows and stealthily withdrew the bottle of Stolichnaya from the pocket of his raincoat. He tipped it up, swaying, and in just seconds the silky flood of Russian vodka warmed him to the toes.
Now he stopped shivering. Now he could think. Except that he was reeling and had to sit. He plopped down on the front step of the cathedral. Right on the tip of the serrated edge of the steel ratchet, lined up directly with his scrotum.
A bent and withered usher inside the cathedral thought for a moment he heard a man scream. Impossible, he shrugged.
Now the man in the yellow rubber raincoat had totally lost the belt buckle. It was all the way around the back, as was the holster and bullet clip. The fly on the old loose poplins was pulled six inches off center. He groped and tugged. He pulled upward, which was the wrong way. The harder he pulled the harder the steel ratchet gouged deep into the wounded sac. He couldn't find the fly. It too had disappeared. He thought he had his pants on backward.
The bent and withered usher inside the cathedral cocked his head and looked toward the ikon of St. Isaac high on the wall. This time he was certain he heard a man scream.
Three women arrived late for Christmas vesper service. One was seventy-three years old, an immigrant and monarchist who had never stopped bemoaning immorality and anarchy in America, who dreamed of her bones being buried in Russian soil. She crossed herself and threw her arms around her two daughters and shrieked in horror. There, by the old monastery garden, framed by the onion dome of the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a howling dervish, a phantom with matted soppy hair, was twirling in the shadow of the golden cupola. His yellow rubber raincoat was spread wide. His dripping pants were torn down around his ankles. Both hands held his genitals. He moaned ghostlike, doing a lonely mad waltz in the rain.
Now, over the heartbreaking Slavonic chorus, the bent and withered usher thought he heard a woman screaming. He cocked his head and offered a prayer to St. Isaac about the baffling indignities of advanced age.
The man in the yellow rubber raincoat was exhausted from the tremendous battle. His handcuffs were on the pavement, as was his four-inch Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolver, as was a set of keys and a dirty handkerchief. Now he was sitting, bare buttocks in a rain puddle, pulling his underwear back up over his knees, realizing that his pants had not been on backward after all.
Five minutes later, he had all his equipment stuffed into the pockets of his raincoat along with the bottle of Stolichnaya. His fly zipper was torn completely off his baggy poplins and dangled between his legs. He stumbled thankfully back into the church.
"Have mercy on us ... Holy God Immortal ... Have mercy on us."
He was once again hot and smothering in the damp press of communicants, watching a slender erect man at least eighty years of age, wearing a threadbare olive topcoat, drop to both knees before the ikon of the Virgin and Child. The old man bowed with grave reverence and stood unassisted before the batushka, aglow in the candlelight. The old man bent to the cross in the hand of the priest and kissed the golden bas-relief of the crucified Christ.
The batushka smiled in recognition. The old man was of the First Immigration, a brick mason from Rostov who had in years past donated his skill to his church. The man in the yellow rubber raincoat didn't know the brick mason. He saw instead a gallant old White Russian soldier, perhaps a Cossack colonel, now standing at attention before the diakon to receive the body of Christ as reverently as he may have stood before the czar himself before boarding a train for The Front.
It became too much for the man in the yellow rubber raincoat. He couldn't stifle the wet drunken sob. It escaped his mouth like the bark of a seal. The communicant in front of him was starded. He turned and looked at the flushed, tear-streaked face, the soppy strings of cinnamon hair flopping in his eyes.
"Yes, I'm terribly sorry," the man in the yellow rubber raincoat said in answer to the silent gaping communicant.
Now the man in the yellow rubber raincoat was himself kneeling before the holy ikon. He pressed his lips grimly, but to no avail. A great sob welled and he barked. The batushka looked up sharply.
Two altar boys assisting the diakon snickered and whispered to each other. The man in the yellow rubber raincoat had to be helped to his feet by two communicants. He turned and grinned foolishly at his benefactors and said, "Yes, I'm terribly sorry."
"Go on," the man behind him whispered. "Go on, you're next."
The man in the yellow rubber raincoat was swaying before the bearded batushka, who looked as though he'd rather give the drunk his fist than his blessing.
Then it simply became too much for the man in the yellow rubber raincoat. All of it: the holy Slavonic chants, the enveloping clouds of blessed incense, the myriads of candles and the rainbow sprays and bursts of carnation and chrysanthemum, the gallant old soldier--brick mason, the omnipresent ikons, and those suffering reproachful Byzantine eyes. He slouched humbly before the priest. And then it all came. His brawny shoulders heaved and he bowed his head and let the scalding waters run. He wept.
His raincoat was open and with each shuddering heave of his shoulders the torn fragment of flyfront jumped and bounced between his knees, a sad rag of a puppet hopping gracelessly on a single wire.
It was unspeakably offensive in this holy place, on this holy day, yet so pathetic the old priest was touched.
"It's all right, my son," he said, and brushed the wand on the weeping man's forehead.
The man in the yellow rubber raincoat felt the warm oil trickle down between his eyes and he grabbed the hand of the bearded priest and said, "Father, I'm terribly sorry. I'm so sorry, Batushka."
"It's all right, my son. S Rozhdeniem Khristovym."
When he heard that ancient Christmas greeting, he kissed the hand of the batushka. Then he lunged past the communion basket and swayed toward the door, scarcely able to breathe.
The bent and withered usher shook his head in disgust and threw open the door for the drunk in the yellow rubber raincoat. The rubber raincoat was old, a dirty canary yellow with a blue collar. The usher looked curiously at the raincoat. It was one of those long, high-visibility slickers worn by men who worked in auto traffic. The usher looked more closely. The raincoat bore an oval patch over the heart. As though for a badge!
"You can't be a policeman!" the usher sputtered.
"Yes, I'm terribly sorry," the man in the yellow rubber raincoat belched. Then he staggered into the night.
The last thing he heard before the rain struck his face was the eternal Slavonic chant: "Have mercy on us ... Holy God Immortal ... Have mercy on us."CHAPTER 2
La Buena Vida
Victoria's redolent warm puffs hinted of the pâté they had shared that night. Madeline Dills Whitfield lay awake listening to the rain. She snagged a lacquered Juliette fingernail on pearl satin sheets sliding closer to Victoria without waking her. Vickie whimpered in enviable sleep as Madeline waited for three Dalmanes and six ounces of Chivas Regal to release her.
Now their mouths were almost touching. Vickie's tongue flicked wet and Madeline ached to stroke the incredible arch of her neck. It was a marvelous neck, now carrying a faint scent of Bellodgia, a neck that lent great hauteur to her movements.
Hauteur. Madeline remembered last Monday afternoon when she and Vickie had strolled across the grounds of the Huntington Sheraton, that once-opulent old dowager of a hotel. That relic of the days when Pasadena was the cultural and social center of the entire Los Angeles area. When old bewhiskered Henry Huntington would don a homburg and waistcoat and ride from his San Marino mansion to Los Angeles in his own railroad car. On a private spur laid by Mexicans and Chinese to his very door.
It hurt to see her so seedy, time-ravaged and mutilated by a grotesque porte cochere of gray concrete, grafted onto the entrance of the hotel where Madeline's mother had been presented at a debutante ball in 1923. And it hurt more when she walked with Vickie by the Bell Tower, toward the hotel's Ship Room, where "Old" Pasadena society had enjoyed dance music virtually unchanged for thirty-five years.
Before she died, Madeline's mother said she was glad her husband had not lived to see the foreigners buy the dear grande dame. Old Pasadena feared the investors from the Far East would tear her down and cover the grounds with cherry trees and high-rise condos.
Madeline and Vickie had stopped in the lobby for a moment, and impulsively, Madeline had turned toward the creaky Picture Bridge which linked the old building with the homely new wing and overlooked the swimming pool where an Oriental waitress served cocktails. Madeline wanted a Scotch and water, but she paused on the footbridge and looked up at the rustic timbered roof, at the painted murals on the gables. The murals suggested pastoral early California. As it never was. Mexicans, Indians, Americans, padre, peasant, landowner: brothers all, in the ubiquitous vineyards and groves.
Then the too familiar empty thud in her chest. A rush of heat to her temples. The price for daring to wax nostalgic, for lingering on this Picture Bridge. Where she had so often stood as a girl and made wishes she had never been given reason to doubt would come true. Then she turned toward South Pasadena and saw the layers of mauve and azure gasses heaving in from the west, and remembered that this lovely vapor blanket made the San Gabriel Valley air perhaps the deadliest in Southern California.
But it wasn't just the smog that was killing Old Pasadena. It was la buena vida of the past coupled with the frugality of the old social order. When white domestics would not work for the wages offered, there were others who would. The blacks were enticed to Pasadena in large numbers and they prospered and multiplied. And then more came and prospered less but still multiplied. Until a day when fourth-generation Old Pasadenans were troubled to discover that twenty-five percent of their school district was composed of children black and brown. And in another ten years they were shocked to discover that thirty-five percent of their public school children were black and brown. And then one day they were outraged and bewildered to discover that over fifty percent of the children in Pasadena public schools were black and brown! Then the white flight began in earnest.
A nine-thousand-square-foot mansion with guest house, tennis court, swimming pool, and two verdant acres of hundred-year-old twisted oak sold for one-fifth the price of what it would bring "over the hill," or "on the west side," on the beaten path of nouveau riche: Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, Bel-Air, Brentwood. Henceforth, Old Pasadena was under siege and near panic. Some were old enough to have children grown and need not fear ghetto busing. Others dropped all democratic pretext, and prep schools quickly became overcrowded. Others moved a few blocks away into the tiny bedroom community of San Marino which had its own public school district. All white.
Madeline Whitfield now needed that drink very badly. She and Vickie left the bridge and walked quickly down to poolside. Then she heard it. The man was unmistakably a Minnesota tourist in for the Super Bowl. Who else would be reeking of coconut oil, white-legged in Aloha print shorts, red socks, black-and-white patent-leather loafers? A hairy belly glistening oil in sunlight which any Californian knew was not hot enough to burn even this flabby outlander. But then he was probably using the pool and the sunshine as an excuse to get drunk at one o'clock in the afternoon. As if an excuse was needed during Rose Bowl and Super Bowl weeks in Pasadena.
The man's voice was bourbon thick. He said, "That bitch moves like a stallion!"
Excerpted from The Black Marble by Joseph Wambaugh. Copyright © 1978 Joseph Wambaugh. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1: The Batushka,
2: La Buena Vida,
3: The Terrier King,
4: The Rabbit,
5: The Big Sewer,
7: The Tragic Muse,
8: The Cathedral,
9: The Black Marble,
10: The Fiddler,
11: The Dog Love,
12: Charlie Lightfoot,
13: Suicide Bridge,
14: The Assassin,
16: Byzantine Eyes,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of my favorite things about Wambaugh is his cop humor woven into his stories.
This is a great read; the cop humor is so ghastly, and the book is full of it, that if you like the dark side, you will love this one. It doesn't stop, lots of twists and crazyness? (?) Now I gotta read another one. Way to go Joe!
The scene in the church, in the first chapter, is so funny it is worth the price of the book. Great story, and a good read