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July 1st, 2003

Definitely Dead

by John Herrick

The guy in the middle of the living room floor had one thing going for him. He was definitely dead, and maybe a good thing. He wasn’t wearing any pants. What he should have been wearing in his pants he was wearing in his mouth. Turned out that wasn’t the only thing he should have kept in his pants. For his sake Crocker John kind of hoped that happened after instead of before. Crocker John had come to make a deal on three million dollars worth of sand on the beach with a standard issue five bedroom house thrown in. But right now the deal looked as dead as the guy on the floor. Dead bodies don’t sign contracts. They do scare away customers, even long after the funeral.

When the guy on the floor was still alive his name was Phillip Zebriski and he’d been making a run at sixty. His wife carried the name of Phillipa Zebriski like she’d picked it up at a yard sale. She could still stop traffic with her looks and she talked like she was spitting bullets. Phillipa was gaining on thirty like a tennis pro. She was still good but she was going to lose her game and she knew it. She came from Russia with blonde hair, blue eyes and a catwalk body. Phillip had been a good investment, and the dividends included diamond rings on both hands.

Crocker John thought about just turning around and walking out. Who’d know? There were probably thirty keys to the house hanging on hooks in real estate rat holes like his own, from Easthampton to Westhampton. But Crocker had known Phillip for years. In a way Phillip was one of the good guys out on the East End. He seemed to play the game of real estate for fun as much as profit. Besides, dead bodies didn’t scare Crocker John. This one made him at least a little curious and more than a little angry.

So Crocker took out his cell phone and called his buddy Arm and Hammer. Not his name of course. But you take a guy named Armstrong Hammer, let him spend too much time in the weight room and turn into Viet vet?Ǭ cop with big biceps, bad tattoos and a taste for tasteless short sleeve shirts, what else are you going to call him?

How about Lieutenant?

“What’s the problem now, Crock?” Arm asked.

He could have been a crook instead of a cop, and he was smart enough to know it. That’s why he made detective even when he never could pass obedience school. Crocker told him about the body and the parts not in the pants.

“You touch anything and the next guy in the place is going to find a matching pair.” Arm warned.

It wasn’t hard to look around the house, mainly open plan with a lot of windows on the ground floor raised up high enough on piles to see over the dune and look out over the beach and the ocean. Like a lot of houses out here it had all the personality and design of a gigantic motel room, which is what a lot of them were, in this case a one hundred thousand dollar a month motel suite on the beach. Except for the body and the blood the place looked clean. No sign of The Mrs. Or anything else personal.

When Crocker sold the place to Phillip it had been a crappy little house, cringing under the dunes, without a view and without a pool. Now it was a very big house, still crappy at heart, with a pool, a view, and a much larger price tag.

“He shudda taken the money and run.” Arm said when Crocker John told him about the deal.

“Maybe he should have just run.” Said Crocker.

“Got that right.”

After awhile Arm said. “Don’t get nosy but anything you can find out about this property, any other he owned, you tell me. You know I got stuff in my computers you don’t but I know you got stuff in your computers you can get faster than I can.”

What Crocker found, after a little digging, was that Phillip Zebriski didn’t own the house on the beach and he also didn’t own an oceanfront condo in Brighton Beach, the one in Brooklyn, and he didn’t own a couple of houses on Ocean Parkway on the way to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Tax bills for all of those places got mailed to the ocean front condo for PPZ LLC which did seem to own all those places. A little more digging revealed that PPZ LLC had somehow managed to mortgage all of those places for lots of actual money, a lot more money than any of them had actually cost. That presumably left a lot of money in some kitty somewhere.

Crocker John decided to ignore his friend Arm and go down and visit Brighton Beach.

Crocker had a thing for beaches, and a thing for Russians, for another, and a thing for being nosy. About halfway around the Belt Parkway he decided he must also have a thing for suicidal, which is about the only way to drive on the Belt Parkway.

Brighton Beach turned out to be all he expected and more. A million miles from Manhattan and about the same distance from dim memories of Coney Island, but apparently right around the corner from the Kremlin. Brighton Beach provided a very mixed neighborhood with a collision of old and new, very luxury condos on the beach on one side and a row of shops underneath the El on the other that could have been New York 50 years ago, all with a very heavy Russian accent.

After a bowl of borscht that didn’t come out of a bottle and tasted like it had been cooked in Siberia, Crocker went to knock on the door of the ocean front?Ǭ condo Zebriski didn’t own. Actually he had to ask the door man on the other side of the gated entrance to ring up for him. The doorman told him to go right up, so Crocker did. Phillipa Zebriski opened the door and Crocker could see the Atlantic Ocean waving in the windows behind her. He could also see almost all of her as the bright sun reflecting off the Ocean turned her thin white dress transparent.

“I don’t have it.” She said.

“What?”

“I don’t have the money. I don’t know where the money is. And I can’t help you. Please leave me alone.”

The accent made the last bit sound faintly like Greta Garbo. While he was trying to think of something to say Crocker John looked over her shoulder and through her dress at the rest of the apartment. Like the house on the beach it looked more like a hotel suite than a home, but it was almost totally empty. There was a phone on the floor next to a lonely chair that looked more like a refugee from the Salvation Army than from Bloomingdale’s. Otherwise the huge room was bare as a Soho loft, without the character.

“Do I look like I have money?” she asked, waving bitterly at the room.

“You look like you are leaving.” Said Crocker.

“With what?” She said, and emptied her purse onto the bare floor. Keys, lipstick and a few coins clattered and rolled. She snatched up a fat wallet and began ripping plastic cards out of it.

“Empty. Empty. Empty. Empty.” She hissed as she sailed one credit card after another, gold, platinum and black, across the floor.

Crocker was still looking at the cards skittering across the floor when the window on the ocean exploded into the room.

Shards of glass mixed with the credit cards and a very large man stepped into the room from the balcony, crunching glass into the floor under his feet. He looked like he had stepped out of the Matrix, complete with a black leather trench coat. The Tec 9 in his hand made him look even bigger.

“Who is he?” The man waved his gun at Crocker.

“I thought you sent him.” Said Phillipa. The man made a spitting sound with his lips, dismissing Crocker and the idea at the same time.

“Where is the money?” He said.

“I don’t know.” She said. “It’s not here.” She waved at the apartment. “And it’s not there.” She waved at the busted flush of credit cards on the floor.

“That was five million dollars in mortgage money and it is my money.” Said the man in black. Crocker thought some banks might quibble about that, maybe even the courts, if anyone could find the money.

“No, it’s my money.” Said Phillipa. “I earned every penny of it on my back, with you and with him.”

“That’s why I killed him.” Said the man in black. “He said you had the money.” Well, that answered one question, two even.

“If he’d been man enough to keep you maybe he’d still be alive. If I didn’t have to spend all my time licking caviar off your stinking Russian ass and pouring vodka down your filthy Russian mouth maybe I’d know where the god damn money went”.

“He hadn’t touched me for months, but at least he was a man.”

“Not any more.” Said the man in black.

Phillipa Zebriski spit at him.

The man in black took one step back and then, still holding the Tec 9, he stepped into a double handed backhand crisp enough to give style points to Andre Agassi. If there had been a tennis net across the room Phillipa would have cleared it by inches as she flew backwards to land with her ass sliding on the floor and her head bouncing off the wall with a clunk louder than any tennis ball.

Crocker knew he wasn’t exactly an imposing looking man, standing a good six feet tall but an even better three feet plus a couple of inches around. However he had been a martial arts nut since about the time of the first Green Hornet and his man Kato. Even if his own pocket snake didn’t get as much exercise as he’d like, Crocker was still fond of it, and he worked out regularly in gyms, dojos and boxing rings so the one eyed thing wouldn’t disappear from his sight forever beyond the horizon of an ever rounder belly. Crocker’s looks were definitely deceiving.

He stepped in behind the backhand, grabbed the momentum of the man in black and threw him right back out the window he’d burst in through. Still moving Crocker caught the surprised black Russian on the first bounce with a kick in the balls that lifted him right off the floor. Crocker leaned down and rose up to grab even more momentum and threw the man in black right over the edge of the balcony.

It was five floors straight down to the beach and the sand wasn’t soft enough. The guy didn’t bounce much. He didn’t bleed much either but that was probably because he also didn’t breathe much. Crocker knew he didn’t have to go downstairs to check the guys pulse. Flat. Definitely dead. Crocker almost jumped off the balcony himself when he heard a sharp sound behind him. It was Phillipa. She must have a head like a bowling ball, Crocker thought. With a hiss Phillipa looked over the balcony railing. Then she spit loudly on the body below. No love lost there.

“I still don’t have the money.” She said.

“Don’t look at me.” Said Crocker. “I’m not even a player.”

“Who are you?” Phillipa finally asked.

“My name’s Crocker John. I’m a real estate broker in The Hamptons.” For a minute he thought she was going to spit again, and he wasn’t sure he could blame her.

“I discovered your husband’s body. I was trying to sell his house.”

“Good luck.” Said Phillipa. “He sold it first, to a bank, for about twice what it was worth. They called it refinancing. He called it money. Play money”

She waved at the body below.

“He said he wanted me. He wanted less short sleeve shirts, what else are you going to call him? How about Lieutenant?”

“What’s the problem now, Crock?” Arm asked.

He could have been a crook instead of a cop, and he was smart enough to know it. That’s why he made detective even when he never could pass obedience school. Crocker told him about the body and the parts not in the pants.

“You touch anything and the next guy in the place is going to find a matching pair.” Arm warned.

It wasn’t hard to look around the house, mainly open plan with a lot of windows on the ground floor raised up high enough on piles to see over the dune and look out over the beach and the ocean. Like a lot of houses out here it had all the personality and design of a gigantic motel room, which is what a lot of them were, in this case a one hundred thousand dollar a month motel suite on the beach. Except for the body and the blood the place looked clean. No sign of The Mrs. Or anything else personal.

When Crocker sold the place to Phillip it had been a crappy little house, cringing under the dunes, without a view and without a pool. Now it was a very big house, still crappy at heart, with a pool, a view, and a much larger price tag.

“He shudda taken the money and run.” Arm said when Crocker John told him about the deal.

“Maybe he should have just run.” Said Crocker.

“Got that right.”

After awhile Arm said. “Don’t get nosy but anything you can find out about this property, any other he owned, you tell me. You know I got stuff in my computers you don’t but I know you got stuff in your computers you can get faster than I can.”

What Crocker found, after a little digging, was that Phillip Zebriski didn’t own the house on the beach and he also didn’t own an oceanfront condo in Brighton Beach, the one in Brooklyn, and he didn’t own a couple of houses on Ocean Parkway on the way to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Tax bills for all of those places got mailed to the ocean front condo for PPZ LLC which did seem to own all those places. A little more digging revealed that PPZ LLC had somehow managed to mortgage all of those places for lots of actual money, a lot more money than any of them had actually cost. That presumably left a lot of money in some kitty somewhere.

Crocker John decided to ignore his friend Arm and go down and visit Brighton Beach.

Crocker had a thing for beaches, and a thing for Russians, for another, and a thing for being nosy. About halfway around the Belt Parkway he decided he must also have a thing for suicidal, which is about the only way to drive on the Belt Parkway.

Brighton Beach turned out to be all he expected and more. A million miles from Manhattan and about the same distance from dim memories of Coney Island, but apparently right around the corner from the Kremlin. Brighton Beach provided a very mixed neighborhood with a collision of old and new, very luxury condos on the beach on one side and a row of shops underneath the El on the other that could have been New York 50 years ago, all with a very heavy Russian accent.

After a bowl of borscht that didn’t come out of a bottle and tasted like it had been cooked in Siberia, Crocker went to knock on the door of the ocean front?Ǭ condo Zebriski didn’t own. Actually he had to ask the door man on the other side of the gated entrance to ring up for him. The doorman told him to go right up, so Crocker did.

Phillipa Zebriski opened the door and Crocker could see the Atlantic Ocean waving in the windows behind her. He could also see almost all of her as the bright sun reflecting off the Ocean turned her thin white dress transparent.

“I don’t have it.” She said.

“What?”

“I don’t have the money. I don’t know where the money is. And I can’t help you. Please leave me alone.”

The accent made the last bit sound faintly like Greta Garbo. While he was trying to think of something to say Crocker John looked over her shoulder and through her dress at the rest of the apartment. Like the house on the beach it looked more like a hotel suite than a home, but it was almost totally empty. There was a phone on the floor next to a lonely chair that looked more like a refugee from the Salvation Army than from Bloomingdale’s. Otherwise the huge room was bare as a Soho loft, without the character.

“Do I look like I have money?” she asked, waving bitterly at the room.

“You look like you are leaving.” Said Crocker.

“With what?” She said, and emptied her purse onto the bare floor. Keys, lipstick and a few coins clattered and rolled. She snatched up a fat wallet and began ripping plastic cards out of it.

“Empty. Empty. Empty. Empty.” She hissed as she sailed one credit card after another, gold, platinum and black, across the floor.

Crocker was still looking at the cards skittering across the floor when the window on the ocean exploded into the room.

Shards of glass mixed with the credit cards and a very large man stepped into the room from the balcony, crunching glass into the floor under his feet. He looked like he had stepped out of the Matrix, complete with a black leather trench coat. The Tec 9 in his hand made him look even bigger.

“Who is he?” The man waved his gun at Crocker.

“I thought you sent him.” Said Phillipa.

The man made a spitting sound with his lips, dismissing Crocker and the idea at the same time.

“Where is the money?” He said.

“I don’t know.” She said. “It’s not here.” She waved at the apartment. “And it’s not there.” She waved at the busted flush of credit cards on the floor.

“That was five million dollars in mortgage money and it is my money.” Said the man in black.

Crocker thought some banks might quibble about that, maybe even the courts, if anyone could find the money.

“No, it’s my money.” Said Phillipa. “I earned every penny of it on my back, with you and with him.”

“That’s why I killed him.” Said the man in black. “He said you had the money.” Well, that answered one question, two even.

“If he’d been man enough to keep you maybe he’d still be alive. If I didn’t have to spend all my time licking caviar off your stinking Russian ass and pouring vodka down your filthy Russian mouth maybe I’d know where the god damn money went”.

“He hadn’t touched me for months, but at least he was a man.”

“Not any more.” Said the man in black.

Phillipa Zebriski spit at him.

The man in black took one step back and then, still holding the Tec 9, he stepped into a double handed backhand crisp enough to give style points to Andre Agassi. If there had been a tennis net across the room Phillipa would have cleared it by inches as she flew backwards to land with her ass sliding on the floor and her head bouncing off the wall with a clunk louder than any tennis ball.

Crocker knew he wasn’t exactly an imposing looking man, standing a good six feet tall but an even better three feet plus a couple of inches around. However he had been a martial arts nut since about the time of the first Green Hornet and his man Kato. Even if his own pocket snake didn’t get as much exercise as he’d like, Crocker was still fond of it, and he worked out regularly in gyms, dojos and boxing rings so the one eyed thing wouldn’t disappear from his sight forever beyond the horizon of an ever rounder belly. Crocker’s looks were definitely deceiving.

He stepped in behind the backhand, grabbed the momentum of the man in black and threw him right back out the window he’d burst in through. Still moving Crocker caught the surprised black Russian on the first bounce with a kick in the balls that lifted him right off the floor. Crocker leaned down and rose up to grab even more momentum and threw the man in black right over the edge of the balcony.

It was five floors straight down to the beach and the sand wasn’t soft enough. The guy didn’t bounce much. He didn’t bleed much either but that was probably because he also didn’t breathe much. Crocker knew he didn’t have to go downstairs to check the guys pulse. Flat. Definitely dead. Crocker almost jumped off the balcony himself when he heard a sharp sound behind him. It was Phillipa. She must have a head like a bowling ball, Crocker thought. With a hiss Phillipa looked over the balcony railing. Then she spit loudly on the body below. No love lost there.

“I still don’t have the money.” She said.

“Don’t look at me.” Said Crocker. “I’m not even a player.”

“Who are you?” Phillipa finally asked.

“My name’s Crocker John. I’m a real estate broker in The Hamptons.”

For a minute he thought she was going to spit again, and he wasn’t sure he could blame her.

“I discovered your husband’s body. I was trying to sell his house.”

“Good luck.” Said Phillipa. “He sold it first, to a bank, for about twice what it was worth. They called it refinancing. He called it money. Play money”

She waved at the body below.

“He said he wanted me. He wanted the money. Phillip wanted the money. I wanted the money. Where is the money?”

“That about sums it up.’ Said Crocker.

Actually Crocker was a romantic, who thought he remembered when it was supposed to be cherchez la femme. Now it all seemed to be cherchez le fric.

“What happened?”

“Phillip, he decided now, cash is king. He wanted cash. Selling is slow. Refi in a flash, for even more. Phillip, he didn’t want to sell, really sell. He couldn’t sell. Much more money in mortgages than in property.”

“Negative equity.” Said Crocker.

“Bullshit to that is what Phillip said.” She spit again. Phillipa had the looks of Anna Kournicova and more but she had the manners of a major league baseball player. “Negative equity the banks say. Negative brains Phillip said, ?ɬI call it positive money. I have the money. They have the negative equity. I can play.'”

First, thought Crocker, he had to keep the money, and his life, and his balls. Phillip forgot that part. Maybe he was playing, but the Russian was playing for keeps. Phillip was simply doing what he did, trying to make a killing. Until the Russian killed him.

The Russian was trying to make a killing, too. But he was killing people and that was a deal killer. Until Crocker killed him.

Crocker tugged his cell phone out of a pocket and called Arm to give him the good news. Crocker figured Arm might be able to explain it to the New York cops better than he could.

Maybe he forgot to figure out how hard it would be to explain to Arm, who didn’t seem happy.

“Hey,” Said Crocker. “Now you know who killed the guy in the beach house.”

“Yeh.” Said Arm. “I also know who killed the guy who killed the guy in the beach house.”

“Thanks a lot.” Said Crocker.

“Why don’t you two just wait there? I send over some friends to keep you company until my car and driver gets there? He’ll be wearing a uniform and the car will have a cage in back.”

It didn’t, but that didn’t mean Arm was any less pissed off. Eventually, with Phillipa’s help, they figured most of it out. The banks’ mortgage money went from a PPZ LLC account on a long roundabout route to a Phillipa Zebriski account. She didn’t have a green card and the way Phillip explained it to her once the money was out of the country no one was going to pay any taxes on it. In fact part of it was going to buy a nice tax haven apartment with a residency permit in Monaco, on the real Riviera, as opposed to what Phillipa called the Long Island redneck Riviera.

“Maybe, this time he took it with him.” Said Arm.

Crocker didn’t think so. A guy who couldn’t cross over without choking on his own goolies, a la carte, didn’t seem likely to be able to carry the goodies across.

“I guess it’s just another case of use it or lose it.” Said Arm

Phillip Zebriski used to be an accountant. As far as Crocker was concerned most accountants fell into about the same class of people as a three card monte dealer. Big time accountants deal with higher stakes and more cards but the idea remains the same. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Just ask the folks at Enron or any of the suckers who didn’t know they were playing stocks and robbers on Wall Street.

But one day, about the same time he misplaced his first wife, Phillip discovered he liked the game more than the job. Sort of like poker, the game was no fun for Phillip if the money and the chips weren’t his. So he stopped playing for corporate America and he started playing for Phillip and for fun. For him it was like Monopoly, played for real money, in the Hamptons, which of course is how Crocker met him. Crocker didn’t like Phillip at first, even though he paid good commissions. But eventually he discovered Phillip really did just play for fun. The money was a way to keep score. The guy really lived and worked in a second floor condo on Main Street in Westhampton Beach, no matter how many houses he owned.?Ǭ?Ǭ Some years he was rich and some years he was broke. He didn’t seem to care which. Neither state of affairs affected his life style on way or another. People like Phillip knew how to live well on a credit card, whether or not they had any real money.

After Crocker John finally figured all that out, without much help from Phillip, he realized the guy was actually fun to be around. Somehow Crocker John couldn’t let it rest so he went back and took the key to the ocean front house off the rack again. He paced around the house, looking out at the angry surf. The key to “Now you see it. Now you don’t” is first you have to see it. Crocker was willing to bet you could see it, if you just knew where to look. Finally he found the only thing that seemed out of place in a gigantic house as garish as a bright shiny new penny.

Hanging on a thick rusty key chain in the study was a deck of kitchen counter samples, pieces of corian and marble and granite and even Formica about the size of a three by five card and about a quarter of an inch thick. They belonged to a decorator or an up market kitchen installer. Guys like Phillip Zebriski decorated with money, as in ?ɬI give you the money. You decorate the god damn thing.’ Phillip looked at dollar signs on pieces of paper, price lists. He didn’t waste his time look at color chip charts of paint or marble samples. Phillip played for money, not for taste. So Crocker kept looking at the chain of samples. Then he went outside to his car, to get the hammer he used to pound “For Sale, Exclusive” signs with his name on them into the hard scrabble next to driveways.

Crocker put one of the samples down on the Belgian block beside the driveway and hit it. Nothing. So he hit it harder. Still Nothing. So he really whacked it. It shattered. Inside was nice shiny new credit card with the name phillip a zebriski on it, all lower?Ǭ case. very e e cummings. Phillipa. Phillip a. What a difference a little space makes. Who could complain? Crocker put the deck of samples on the passenger seat and drove off to the nearest gas station, where a stolen credit card is as good as any other and the gas pumps don’t ask for ID. It worked a treat. Twenty gallons of premium larceny. Too bad for her, Phillipa had already changed her name. It came as part of a plea bargain deal that included a one way ticket back to the real Russian Riviera.

Crocker John thought about keeping the stack of new credit cards hidden in the deck of counter chips.

But he finally decided blood money was too expensive for his taste. Given a choice he’d rather keep his own blood and skip their money. Crocker called Arm to break the news.

“Like I said.” Said Arm. “Use it or lose it.”

He paused.

“Keep breathing.”?Ǭ?Ǭ He growled. “That’s an order.”

“Thanks.” Said Crocker.

He could still hear the man in black hit the sand. Breathing seemed like a lot better idea. Crocker John went back to work, trying to figure out who was going to end up owning the Zebriski house on the beach and who would want to buy it.

Meantime the sign in front still said “For Sale” and Crocker John still answered the phone number on the sign.

Sometimes, he thought, even in the Hamptons, as in war, real estate really is a matter of life and death.

– John Herrick

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