Tuesday, July 21, 2009


The Frog and the Scorpion, by A. E. Maxwell
(978-1-935415-00-8; paperback; $14) Now available!

Chapter One

IT WAS THE bomb that really ticked me off. That was the sound it made, too. Tick, tick, tick, just like it had been hoked up on a George Lucas special-effects assembly line. I remember looking at the bomb, recognizing what it was, and wondering whether the Timex sitting on top of those three sticks of dynamite was shock-resistant.

But the story really began well before that, back in 1978, when the Ayatollah left Paris and flew back to Teheran in triumph. Or maybe it was in 1948, when the Brits left the Arabs and the Jews to fight it out in what was at that moment Palestine and soon became the bloody Middle East.

Oh hell, it was probably two hundred or six hundred years ago. Or a thousand or two hundred thousand, or a million, before men were men, back when they were renegade apes. Or maybe it all began with hummingbirds.

I say this because I remember sitting on the deck in my backyard, face turned up to the sensuous July sunlight, when the first phone call came in. I was watching the hummingbirds at play around the hummingbird feeder Fiora had given me for my birthday just before she took off for five weeks at Harvard, a midsummer seminar on leverage deals and silver bullion futures trading. Rigor mortis set into my soul at the thought of sitting through a few learned lectures on how to screw thy neighbor while preserving every legal nicety. Fiora didn’t see finances that way. The thought of money manipulations brought a light to her eyes that could only be equaled by the prospect of a prolonged romp in bed.

Unfortunately, a romp was not why she had dropped in on me that morning. When I reached for her, she kissed me just enough to get my full attention, smiled beautifully and handed me a package.

“I wouldn’t want you to be bored while I’m away,” she said, “so I brought along some world-class warfare for you to watch.”

My relationship with this honey-haired, hazel-green-eyed woman is a complicated one. We are still married in a lot of ways, although we try to keep the natural friction of two strong wills and two different natures at manageable levels by the polite paper pretense of divorce. Life isn’t that easy, of course. Society can make a union legal or illegal, but it can’t do a damn thing about unruly hearts. Fiora and I still care for one another in extraordinary and sometimes painful ways.

Fiora knows that one of the biggest problems in my life is boredom. She even feels a bit responsible. After all, she’s the one who took the steamer trunk full of currency that my uncle Jake left me and turned it into a small fortune with some shrewd manipulations of the sort taught at Harvard during the summer doldrums. So when Fiora takes off on business junkets, as she regularly does, she tries to leave me with something amusing.

That afternoon I took the package from her and began pulling off bright ribbons when I sensed her watching my hands. The scars don’t show too much anymore; only small, vaguely shiny little circles remain to mark the places where nails from the Oxy-Con packing crate slammed through flesh and bone. But the hole left in Fiora’s life was considerably larger and didn’t show at all on the outside. We rarely talk about her twin brother’s death and our own encounter with his murderer. The memories are there, though; they show in Fiora’s eyes when she watches my hands; they show in the sad gentleness with which she touches the scars, giving me silent apologies that I never asked for and certainly don’t deserve.

Fiora brushed the corner of my mustache and traced my mouth with an elegant, smooth fingertip. “This present is to keep you out of trouble while I’m gone,” she said in a husky voice.

“I’m perfectly capable of amusing myself,” I said, deliberately misunderstanding her. I ripped the gift paper with more force than necessary.

“That’s what I am trying to prevent,” she retorted.

“Then this had better be a hell of a lot sexier than the square box suggests,” I muttered.

Fiora slid a nail into the crease between my lips and I opened my teeth to catch it. Like I say, we have a very complicated relationship with a pretty simple core.

“Sex is a part of this,” she said, tapping the package. “But it has a lot of other things you like, too. Power and competition, courage and cowardice. All the bloody absolutes that fascinate you.”

With that introduction I was not expecting a bird feeder. I gave her a look that had become familiar after years of marriage and separation.

“Love,” she whispered, bending over, ruffling my hair and nerve endings, “have I ever misled you?”

There was an obvious answer to that, but pinpointing the specifics was as elusive a task as identifying the fragrance Fiora wore.

“On second thought,” she said, “don’t answer. It’s such a beautiful day.”

As she reached for the cardboard carton, she gave me that special smile, the one that crushes hearts—or makes them whole. She was right. It was a beautiful day. I smiled in return, admiring the way her hair and body shimmered beneath sunlight and pale green silk. I saw her hesitate and knew that she was thinking about chucking the bird feeder in the koi pond and dragging me off to bed. Then she sighed and began prying at the stubborn package.

“No?” I asked softly.

“No,” she said, regret clear in her tone.

I watched her slender fingers moving over pictures of soft little hummingbirds and reminded myself that where Fiora was concerned, patience was the only virtue that mattered. She had an unusual amount of trouble opening that box but I didn’t offer to help. If I touched her again right away, it would take more than a lovely smile to make me let her go.

Finally a brash red-and-yellow plastic feeder emerged from the shambles Fiora made of the innocent cardboard box. The more I looked at the feeder the uglier it got. I tried to hide my reaction to her present. I shouldn’t have bothered. That woman can read me like a ledger sheet. She shot me an amused glance and turned the feeder in a complete circle for my greater aesthetic appreciation.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “These things look like whore’s Christmas, but they’re more fun than a seat on the Grain Exchange.”

With what I hoped was a polite expression of disbelief I eyed the contraption dangling from her hand. There was a clear glass bottle that ended in four red plastic bugles which I assume were intended to look like big flowers whose unlikely centers were a chrome-yellow mesh. I have a feeling, now that I know a bit more about it, that the flower likeness is for the humans rather than the hummingbirds. Hummers have very little of what I would call an aesthetic sense, but their olfactory equipment more than compensates. They could scope out a drop of nectar in a parking lot the size of Kansas. They sure as hell don’t need phony stamens and pistils to point the way.

Fiora reached into her Gucci bag and produced a pint bottle full of a transparent scarlet fluid. “You can make this stuff yourself,” she said. “Don’t bother to buy the prepared nectar. They price it like it’s something special, but it’s just sugar and water and a little food coloring.”

Her motto is: Watch the pennies and the dollars take care of themselves. A true Scot. I, on the other hand, am a true son of Uncle Jake, who loved adrenaline more than he loved dollars but spent both with equal abandon.

“Fiora, I don’t like to seem ungrateful,” I said, trying to be tactful, “but you’re in the wrong place. This may be California’s Gold Coast, but I’ve never seen a hummingbird in my yard. Maybe the salt air doesn’t agree with them.” I added, waving toward the endless sapphire ocean that was my backyard. “Or maybe the rent’s too high.”

“That’s what I thought about Beverly Hills,” she said. “C’mon. I’ll show you where to put the feeder.”

She filled the feeder and hung it on a nail sticking out of an overhead beam in the middle of the patio deck. Then we sat in the brilliant afternoon sunlight, drinking a bottle of crisp Fumé Blanc from Rutherford and watching the world’s ugliest imitation flower.

After fifteen minutes I said, “Better than most television, I have to agree.”

Fiora lifted one honey eyebrow at me. “Patience, Fiddler.”

So we watched the damn thing for a while.

I was about to suggest that we adjourn to the bedroom for our second glass of wine when I heard a low, thrumming roar about three feet from my ear. My head snapped around. For an instant I saw something hanging in midair, staring at the unlikely flower dangling from the nail over the deck. The “something” appeared to be a cross between a redheaded bumblebee and a green Gambel’s quail.

So help me God, at first glance that’s what the hummingbird looked like. And a glance was all I got. The sudden movement of my head startled him and he darted off so quickly I wasn’t even sure I had seen him in the first place.

“Don’t worry,” Fiora smiled. “He’ll be back.”

Fifteen seconds later the hummingbird reappeared as though he had teleported into position six inches from the feeder. This time I clamped down on my reflexes and watched without so much as moving an eyelash. The hummer wasn’t much bigger than my thumb. His tiny wings beat so rapidly that they were nearly invisible. He was shiny and soft and cute—a tiny Disney character—until I noticed that he was equipped with a beak that looked as long as a darning needle and about as sharp.

As I watched, he hovered, inspecting the garish feeder. Then he snapped forward like he was on an invisible rubber band and thrust his sharp bill into the heart of one of the plastic flowers. After a moment he withdrew, then thrust again. A little bubble boiled up through the red fluid, indicating the bird’s success at solving the minor mystery of the feeder.

“No hummers around, huh?” said Fiora, licking a bit of the wine with a quick pink tongue. “If you get one this fast, you’re going to have a swarm before long.”

She was on a plane for Boston when her prophecy came true. I had dropped her off at LAX, kissed her until I had her full attention and reminded her that I cared a great deal for her. By the time I got back to the house on Crystal Cove, between Newport Beach and Laguna, it was evening. I tucked the Cobra into the garage and walked along the deck to the back door. Before I reached the back patio I heard a harsh, metallic squirring and caught sight of a pair of hummers circling and darting and slashing around the feeder. I stopped and stared, fascinated by the most dazzling and bloodthirsty aerial display I’d seen since the Harriers and the Pucaras traded insults over the Falklands on the CBS news.

Like most modern battles, this one lasted for about fifteen seconds. There was a king on the ocean bluff—I assumed he was the original discoverer of the world’s ugliest flower—and a pretender to the plastic throne. The two hummers flew directly at one another, stopped to hover in midair a few inches apart, darted sideways a foot and hovered again. Then the franchise holder thrust with the speed and grace of an Olympic duelist. The interloper fled. His dominance successfully enforced, the king darted off to perch in my lemon tree.

Five seconds later the interloper reappeared, facing the intrepid defender and challenging him with a sound like a fingernail on a blackboard. They darted side to side, then clashed and locked, hanging in midair for a moment before falling with a soft thump onto the redwood deck. They lay there almost at my feet, oblivious to anything but each other and their war.

In an odd way the battle was all the more vicious for the badminton heft of the combatants. You expect lions or eagles to go at one another talon and claw, but hummingbirds? They’re so small. How can those little bodies hold so much courage and hatred?

There was no answer and the birds knew it. They untangled beaks and claws and scrambled back into the air. One hummer fled and the other zipped off to the lemon tree, which was about ten feet from the feeder. With the bad sportsmanship I have come to associate with hummers, the winner jeered metallically at his vanquished opponent and then sat preening his minute feathers with his warrior’s beak. I walked onto the deck. That silly bird screed at me, warning me off the ugly flower.

“You must have heard about David and Goliath,” I said politely. “You know, the boy with more guts than brains.”

The hummer sat and cursed me nonstop.

“Right, Davy. I can take a hint.”

Five minutes after I went inside I heard another battle, and it went on that way for the rest of the summer. As long as I kept the feeder primed there were about a dozen fierce hummers doing battle for their positions around the ever-blooming flower. Hummers are hyperkinetic. They can go through several times their own weight in food every day, so a constant source of energy was worth fighting for.

And fight they did.

At first it was entertaining to watch them. Their patterns of behavior were so erratic and yet so predictable. The head son of a bitch was King David, a little greenish guy with a ruby throat that extended almost to his eyes. He spent hours on guard, driving away any and all comers. Maybe once an hour he would let a small, soft-gray-green female drink but he would terrify any male who appeared.

And then, for reasons I still have not been able to explain, at the close of day the flower warden would declare a twilight amnesty. For a few minutes it would be free-for-all, with four or five hummers at a time lined up to refuel under the head hummer’s baleful screeing. King David would squirr and curse up a storm, but he wouldn’t defend the flower. After a seemly amount of time, he would take to the air again and clear the skies, a miniature Von Richthoven in a blood-red scarf.

For a while I thought that it was nice of King David to share the wealth of the bottomless flower. But then I found myself wondering whether he let the others drink simply to keep them from losing heart and flying off to other flower kingdoms where they might have a chance of becoming the head hummer. That kind of perverse generosity isn’t a comforting or comfortable thought, I suppose, but then life isn’t always comforting or comfortable.

I had reason to reflect on such matters over the next few weeks. And these reflections began and ended with the hummingbirds, the phone call I got from Shahpour on a bright July morning, and the bomb that had started ticking long, long before.

The sharp-beaked warriors were in full flight when the phone rang, the sunlight was molten gold on the back deck, and the Pacific was a blue so bright it burned. I had finished the newspaper and was glancing about for something to do to amuse myself. That’s the price you pay for not having to work for a living, for being what Fiora calls “independently well-heeled.” Ultimately, you have to invent your own way of proving self-worth and social value.

Well, self-worth, anyway. Social value is a matter of organized opinion, like the number of angels that can do unseemly acts on the head of a pin, or whether the United States is the Great Satan and Khomeini is the Third Coming. Some people go to the office every day to reinforce their sense of self-worth. Me, I fiddle around in other people’s business, lending a hand where I can and deviling the comfortable in behalf of the uncomfortable. But I had no special projects at that moment, so I was in precisely the proper frame of mind when the phone rang and a secretary on the other end asked me to hold for Shahpour Zahedi.

Shahpour was a shrewd, handsome Middle Easterner who owned controlling interest in a little bank down the Gold Coast from me. I knew he was Iranian, and that his father had been finance minister under the late, lamented and lamentable Shah, but I tried not to hold that against Shahpour. I figured the sins of the sons are bad enough without stacking on holdovers from the previous generation.

Fiora and Shahpour met a few years ago when they collaborated on financing a small business park near Los Angeles International Airport. Since he knew Fiora was playing the game with my money, I was included in the obligatory business lunches. That was the first test and Shahpour passed it with all flags flying. You see, besides having a tangled personal life, Fiora and I present some unusual challenges to modern business sensibilities. When it comes to money, she is the heavy. I’m not a fiscal dummy, but I have sense enough to recognize genius and to give it—or rather her—the power of attorney.

Cops, Latinos and Middle Eastern types are baffled by the power structure of my relationship with Fiora. They have a hell of a time figuring out just who does what and with which and to whom. There is usually a fair amount of thrashing around and some minor bloodshed at Spago or Jimmy’s where the high-powered male executive we’re lunching condescends to Fiora and flatters me. Then he gets totally confused trying to figure out why she is feeding him his lunch and I’m sitting there smiling at my beautiful mate and applauding every slice and slash.

Middle Easterners can be overweening, particularly in their disdain for women. But Shahpour was different from the outset. For one thing, he talked to both of us as intelligent adults; I don’t think Fiora had to zing him once to get his attention. Shahpour had been educated in the West—Paris and the Wharton School of Finance—and he carried in those dark eyes a shrewd self-assurance that both accepted the intricacies of American culture and acknowledged importance wherever it was found. Fiora was one of those important intricacies. I was another. Shahpour enjoyed us both.

“Fiddler, how are you?” he asked as he picked up the receiver.

There was not a trace of accent, neither French nor Farsi. His voice was like his mind, endlessly flexible and enormously quick. The tone was different from what I had remembered, though. There was an edge to it that was more than worry and less than fear.

“I’m fine, Shahpour. How are things in the banking business?”

“I’m afraid my family picked the wrong time to get into the American market,” he said. “We bought our shares at the Gold Coast Bank for the right price, but the returns aren’t as strong as we had expected.”

I knew enough about reading bank prospectuses and profit-loss statements to know that the returns on the four million dollars Shahpour had pumped into Gold Coast Bank were substantial. I also knew that bankers were never satisfied.

“Well, you could always find a spot on your board for Fiora,” I said. “She has a few ideas about how to run banks.”

There was a low chuckle. “She does indeed. But I have a different kind of problem, one that you’re, ah, better equipped to handle than she is.”

I felt like a hummingbird that has just scented nectar. It was unusual for Shahpour to get to the bottom line so quickly. Whatever his problem was, it was just slightly less urgent than a heart attack.

“I would prefer not to discuss my, ah, difficulty on the phone,” continued Shahpour. “I know it’s an imposition, but could I ask you to have lunch with me? Today?”

Like I said, I was bored. Besides, it’s nice to encounter someone who appreciates your talents, particularly the kind of limited talents I seem to possess.

“Where and when?” I asked.

“The Ritz-Carlton. One o’clock. But, Fiddler . . .” He paused, as though unsure of his words.

"Yes?” I said, wondering what had left the eloquent Shahpour speechless.

“I’ll be at a table alone. If I don’t greet you, ignore me and leave. I know that sounds unusual, but there may be a certain element of, ah, risk in being seen with me. My precautions are for your own safety.”

I almost hummed with pleasure. With every word my incipient boredom faded. “I’m a big boy, Shahpour,” I said carelessly, “but I won’t say hello if you don’t.”

There are days when I’m as arrogant as a hummingbird with a full feeder. I never know which days those are until it’s too late to apologize to anyone who might be kind enough to still be speaking to me. This turned out to be one of those days. Shahpour really was worried about my neck. And with good reason. King David and his darning-needle beak wouldn’t have anything on the men Shahpour led me to, men who possessed courage, stupidity and hatred in equal, ever-blooming measures.

I didn’t know what I was getting into then. I only knew later, when I was counting my wounds and my losses—those shiny new scars across my self-esteem.


A. E. Maxwell's second Fiddler & Fiora thriller, The Frog and the Scorpion (978-1-935415-00-8; trade paperback; $14), has just been reprinted, available for the first time in fifteen years! Find copies at your favorite independent, chain, or online bookseller. See the list at the right for some of the indies that support & stock BFP titles. ALSO AVAILABLE: The first Fiddler / Fiora thriller, Just Another Day in Paradise (978-0-9792709-6-3; paperback; $13). Read an excerpt from it here.

“Are you in the market for some good news? Try this: David Thompson, publisher of Busted Flush Press… is putting one of his, and my, favorite series ever back into print—the Fiddler books written by A.E. Maxwell… When the Fiddler books first came out, their lean prose and evocative looks at California life won comparisons to Spenser and McGee. Now, thanks to Thompson, we can all relive the pleasures of our youth.”—Dick Adler, former crime fiction reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, “The Knowledgeable Blogger"

"Wit, humor, suspense and a believable plot with just the right mix of action and dialogue."—United Press International

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