Dan Anderson

Dan Anderson

Apr 272015
 

J.P. Morgenstern, the studio CEO, tapped his pencil anxiously on the table while looking out the window at the “Hollywood” sign in the distance. “Well, folks, that’s the story, pure and unvarnished. You’ve seen the numbers and now I’m looking for a reaction. If we suck wind with one more flick, we’ll all be down at Nabisco punching assholes in animal crackers. I’m looking for some ideas to save our butts. Let’s go around the table and get some input. Don’t be bashful―nothing is too ridiculous as long as you can make a case. As they say in advertising, let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. We’ll start on my right with Larry.”

Larry, the bean-counter, looked around the room nervously and opened with “The trades say that science fiction movies made from comic books and video games generate the greatest return because robotics and animation are relatively cheap. Use of sleek, cutting-edge technology can create screen sizzlers. Maybe we should take an animated approach to Joan where she’s a cybernetic warrior encased in iron armor that’s thrown into the middle of a war between France and England in the post-apocalyptic, dystopian, twenty-second century. She creates an army of android humanoids that can time-travel and use sophisticated LASER weaponry and supreme intelligence that attempt to destroy the English machine-soldiers in a futuristic Armageddon. Following the original story, we can have Joan lose the encounter between intergalactic forces, captured, and sold out to her enemies where she is zapped by an atomic disintegrator.”

J.P.’s head snapped back and he groaned. “What did they get in exchange for her―a case of motor oil? Larry, I don’t want to stifle input by being negative right out of the box but that idea borders on incredulity for a couple of reasons. First, the world already had an Iron Maiden―Margaret Thatcher. Second, what does your machine woman do for pleasure―get nailed by the Tin Man from Oz? Gordon, what do you have in the way of an idea?”

Gordon, who still had some cocaine powder stuck to the side of his nose, said “Here’s a novel approach that’s never been done, at least in a quality version―a porno version of Joan of Arc.” Half the people around the table lower their heads in their arms and quietly giggle.

“Hey, I’m serious!” Gordon exclaimed. “A good porn flick is a guaranteed cash cow. We could have Joan, a farmer’s daughter, working in the garden pulling weeds when a column of English soldiers passes by. They are enamored with the scantily clad beauty and force her into the barn and ravish her repeatedly over a bale of hay. This is why Joan hates the English so much and continues to curse them while burning at the stake. Then comes an espionage part. Joan assumes a disguise and infiltrates the English military officers’ quarters where, in exchange for strategic information that will enable her to plan a defense for the Siege of Orleans, she hikes her hem, bends over a table, and writes down the intel she’s acquired while the officers pull a train.”

There was a prolonged silence during which people struggled with whether to offer a rebuttal or let the idea suffocate under the weight of its own fatuousness.

“Here’s the best part. The raunchy apex comes when Joan’s been captured and confined in an English prison. The English jailers try to get Joan to renounce her faith so they subject her to sexual debasement using torture equipment in vogue at that time. She refuses to surrender to their perverse activities so they finally say ‘to hell with it’ and bang her eyes out.”

Finally, J. P. spoke up. “Gordon, I have two questions regarding your proposal. The first is―what is the title of this flesh fest of yours. Joanie Does Jacksonville? The second is―have you ever tried getting some back-door coochie wearing a suit of armor? I think you need to switch to designer drugs and quit buying your California cornflakes in the Walmart parking lot. I’m reluctant to ask, but are there any other suggestions?”

Angie, an intern who received a degree in Digital Filmmaking from The Los Angeles Film School, raised her hand. J.P. looked at her with some hesitation but against his better judgment acknowledged her desire to speak.

“Why not feature Joan in a horror movie? They bring in big audiences in our target demographic and they can be filmed on the cheap. We’ve seen an unprecedented burst of horror movies in recent years. Zombies, vampires, and werewolves run rampant on the screen and tube. Serial killers and supernatural depictions have their own syndicated shows. Look at all the horror movies on the SyFy channel that have a high viewer rating. Scary and creepy are the new buzzwords to people trying to decide where to spend their entertainment dollar. We need to cash in and give the public blood and guts and plenty of it.”

J.P. frowned. “This sounds like a different project to me. How could the plot in Joan of Arc possibly be enriched by introducing monsters and malevolent spirits?”

Angie thought for a second. “We could have Joan and some French soldiers get lost in the fog after a battle and stumble across a deserted haunted castle. The soldiers begin getting picked off one by one. Frankenstein could be hiding on the roof and grab a soldier walking along the parapet, crush his head like a grape, and toss him over the wall into the moat. In another scene Dracula rises from his crypt after dark and, along with his female minions, descend upon a couple of soldiers wandering around looking for a place to pee. They spy Joan but are scared off by the cross around her neck and the cloves of garlic hanging from her bra. The vamps drain the soldiers of their blood and dump the bodies. However, zombies show up and launch into a cannibalistic orgy. After the clock strikes midnight, it is Friday the thirteenth and Jason appears. He catches a soldier, impales him with a pitchfork and hoists the body on a chandelier. Another soldier is jumped by a werewolf who dismembers him with his claws and teeth. In another scene, we could have paranormal apparitions….”

“Thank you, Angie. Further exposition is unnecessary. That’s an interesting concept. I don’t think it meets our needs at this time, but feel free to shop your idea around to the other studios.” J. P. is temporarily frozen in a state of suspended disbelief but gradually recovers and weakly asks “Does anyone else have a recommendation?”

A woman with spiked hair, a pencil behind her ear, and reading glasses perched on the end of her nose offered “How about a musical?”

J.P. rolled his eyes and asked condescendingly “Another novel concept. And how did you envision a happy musical being made of such an intensely dramatic tragedy?”

“You can make a musical out of anything. Look at Springtime for Hitler. I think it could work. Everyone loves singing and dancing. Some of the biggest grossing films in history have been musicals. After the movie’s run its course, it could be re-released as a Broadway play.”

“I’ll probably regret this, but give me a little more insight into your proposal.”

“A great scene has Joan in the dungeon with her fellow prisoners who are all men chained together. They’ve been starved and beaten and wallow in abject misery as they sit on the cold stone floor. But Joan jumps up and breaks out into a little ditty like I Don’t Wanna Be Jail Tail followed by a rousing This Maid Can’t Be Made. The other prisoners are inspired by her vocals and jump to their feet and form a conga line around Joan. This is a high-impact scene. These songs acknowledge her sexual identity but establish that she is chaste because of her higher calling and resistance to temptations of the flesh.”

J.P. is quiet but says softly “I suspect Cole Porter is turning over in his grave right about now. Do you have other songs in mind for this merry musical romp through the torture chamber?”

Spiked Hair isn’t too quick on the uptake and continued her spiel as others in the room began to slide under the table. “The really big scene is at the end when Joan is being burned alive for heresy. She tugs our hearts with a sad ballad like Gimme a Break, I Don’t Want the Stake. The English soldiers in contrast are in a circle dancing around the bonfire waving their torches and doing fist bumps as they celebrate her betrayal by her French countrymen with Kiss the Snitch and Burn the Bitch.”

J.P. is almost apoplectic but managed to exit with “That’s indeed creative, but I don’t believe they had rap and hip hop in the fifteen century.” His head snapped back over the chair as he asked weakly “Does anyone else have a proposal for group think?”

Their audition went as might be suspected. The sisters clearly had no audio or visual talent and those Screen Gem reps that didn’t fall asleep covered their eyes and visibly groaned at the theatrical debacles. Prince Charmaine put his head in his hands and groaned. Gabriella and Isabella were still shrieking their lines as they were physically dragged out of the building with no invitation to return.

The staff was still shaking their heads and laughing as they piled into the conference room to debrief. The critique of the sisters’ performance was not kind.

“No wonder California women are so attractive. After these two were born, all the ugly was used up.”

“They should have been wearing shirts from a pest control company. They could get jobs sitting on kitchen floors at night keeping cockroaches behind the walls and off the linoleum.”

“God messed up big time. You would have thought He’d have closed the birth canal after the first one shot out the chute.”

“I’ll bet the obstetrician who delivered them is still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

“They looked like bookends on the shelf at the satanic library.”

“These sisters are living proof we need a ballot amendment forcing insurance companies to include exorcism as a maternity benefit.”

“Those babes were ugly enough to turn a freight train up a dirt road.”

“I think these sisters were playing blackjack at the Ugly-Ass Casino and doubled down.”

“The two looked like death taking a dump.”

A half hour later they completed their drive through the north side of San Pornando Valley’s Hollywood Hills and pulled up in front of an unidentified warehouse in relative close proximity to monochromatic, cookie-cutter residential subdivisions.

“Are you sure this is the right place, Sebastian?”

Sebastian kept a straight face. “This is the address you gave me. Why don’t you go on in while I gas up at the station on the corner?” This didn’t feel right to Cinderella, but she walked to the door and pushed the buzzer. She was challenged by a voice and entered after identifying herself.

The interior confirmed her suspicions. In the center was a soundstage flanked by themed rooms―a shower, exercise room, sexual torture chamber, bedroom, living room, and sauna. That day’s scene had already been set up and was ugly even by adult movie standards. The colors of the walls and furniture fabric were noisome and ranged from split pea soup vomit to dog poop brown. The paint on the walls had split and chipped and the laminated wood floor was scuffed. The framed artwork appeared to have been torn out of a magazine and was compatible with the fake flowers.

The equipment needed to make a low-budget film was already in place. There was a digital camcorder, lighting equipment on stands and gels, electric and cabling, and dolly and grip equipment.

The male lead was already on the set but apparently having a wood problem. “You must be the new fluffer,” a man with a pot belly and skinny legs said after noticing Cinderella. “Get over there and get Long Johnny Jameson ready for the next scene.”

“Get him ready? What is it you expect me to do?”

The man looked at Cinderella as if she’d just walked out of a cabbage patch and gave her a visually graphic description of her job duties. A blush the shade of bright crimson covered her face and she weakly asked “This isn’t Magnum Screen Gems Studio?”

The man was taken aback but then burst out laughing. “Somebody musta put you up to this. Was it my ex-wife?” Cinderella remained stunned in silence. “I guess not,” he said after a pause. He took a longer look at Cinderella’s face and figure as he circled her appreciatively. “Forget about the fluffer position. We’ll put you in the starting lineup. You wanna be the next adult video diva? Do you do women and men? Could you use a thousand a day? All the men wear condoms now per city ordinance. Go in that room and strip and let’s see what you got.”

Cinderella slapped him and stormed out of the building.

Prince stepped out of his car and looked around the parking lot to get the lay of the land. There were only a few cars there and they looked like they had been abandoned during the Roosevelt administration. He looked at his Ferrari and acknowledged that it was decidedly out of place. Raymond Chandler would have said it looked “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on an angel food cake.” The exterior was otherwise deserted except for one guy sleeping under a tarpaulin in the alcove by the vending machines.

He walked into the shabby motel office. Condom machines of different brands lined a wall touting their different shapes, sizes, and colors and guaranteed ability to prevent STDs. Returned checks stamped “Non-Sufficient Funds” in red ink were thumbtacked to a bulletin board on another wall. Next to it was a calendar with an auto parts pinup displaying her naked charms on the hood of a Dodge Charger LX. Beneath it was a rack of X-rated eight tracks for rent. There was a young girl sitting behind the desk with green and blue spiked hair wearing nose, lip, tongue, and eyebrow piercings. She looked like she emerged through a time warp from the 1970s. She was attired in a long-sleeved go-go dress with an eye-numbing swirling psychedelic pattern. Her outfit was accessorized with a matching fabric headband and ring belt. She glanced up, dropped her petulant bored look, and froze. She recognized Prince Charmaine, cinema stud muffin. Her jaw dropped and she openly gawked. Prince flashed his signature celluloid smile.

“Somethin’ tells me you’re not here to pound your pork, are you?”

“Not today. Hey beautiful, can you tell me who’s in room eight?”

She cleared her throat and managed to stammer, “I can’t give out that kind of info, man. If I did, I’d get my ass totally and seriously fired.”

“What’s the downside of that,” Prince asked. “Working here has got to be grody to the max. Worse than doing prostate checks on Great Danes. Worse than spearing trash by the roadside. What do you want for that information? I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Give it to me and I’ll fork over twenty bucks and an autograph and you can take a selfie with me.”

“Tripendicular!” the freak show hostess shouted as she pocketed the double sawbuck, slid a sheet of paper to him for the autograph, and ran around the counter clutching her iPhone. She jammed her face next to his and took a photo. Satisfied with the results, she returned to her chair and opened the guest register. “The guy that signed the book was gag-me-with-a-spoon material. I thought he was totally gonna barf me out. He gave his name as Benny Greaser like whatever. He tried to put the make on me but I told him to bag his face and eat my shorts. He signed in a Ricardo Del Muerto, another barf bucket. I’d bet the farm those names are bogus. Last week we had two George Washingtons and four John Smiths in here.”

“What was the girl’s name?”

The desk clerk smirked. “You gotta be kidding. The thong crowd don’t register at the Passion Pit since they’re usually hired street trade who don’t stay very long after the guy’s popped a nut. I didn’t see a working girl with him but if I did I wouldn’t have asked for a handle.”

“Look, miss, there’s a girl with them and I have every reason to believe she’s in danger. Can you call the police? Now would be better.”

“Take a chill pill. I’ll make the call but you oughtta know it may take two spins of a sundial for a responder to show up since smoke signals from the Passion Pit have an ‘in another life’ priority with the local shields. They’ll respond to a littering complaint at hobo haven before they’ll swing over this way.”

“In that case, do you have a weapon I can borrow for a few minutes?”

“You kidding? I wouldn’t be working at a rear-door rodeo like this without some major firepower.” She pulled out a 9 mm Glock 17, a twelve-gauge Remington shotgun with an open choke, and an M-16 semi-automatic and told him to take his pick. Prince charmed her out of the pistol, took the safety off, and loaded a bullet in the chamber.

“Hey, Prince. You ever need any movie extras?”

“Possibly. If we ever shoot a slash-and-gash vampire gothic, I’ll keep you in mind.” He headed for room eight and knocked on the door.

Benny Greaser and Ricardo Del Muerto spent the night in the holding tank after being strip-searched, photographed, fingerprinted, and issued their blue scrubs which had recently replaced the orange jumpsuits in the Los Angeles County Jail. The next morning they were escorted to the interrogation room where they were met by two men. The first was a short heavyset man with a broad nose and heavy eyebrows who had run a background check on the duo. Looking at their records had given him the confidence of a man fed the ball for an easy slam dunk over a midget center. The second man at the table had light wavy hair and black horn-rimmed glasses that matched the stubble on his chin. He looked as disinterested as a museum guard in a gallery full of abstract paintings. The Greaser and Del Muerto remained in handcuffs and were slammed into chairs at the table.

The heavyset man opened “I’m Detective Brancuso. I’ll be handling your intake today.”

“I wanna see my mouthpiece,” Benny declared with a touch of attitude. “I don’t want no interview with a guy. I wanna Dickless Tracy.”

“Yeah, me too,” echoed Del Muerto.

“You want an attorney, douche bag?” the detective said with a smirk. “You’re looking at him,” he said pointing to the man with the thick glasses. “This is Mr. Henderson. He’s been appointed by the Public Defender’s Office to represent you. He’ll try to stay awake during this proceeding. I couldn’t get a female deputy to do your interview―they were afraid of picking up some STD or terminal skin rot just by being in the same room with you two lice traps.

“Well, pond scum, it seems you bought the farm this time. Let’s see what we’ve got―kidnapping, assault, battery, possession of a stolen car, no auto insurance, no driver’s license, possession of a stolen cell phone, violation of probation. Your new charges take up an entire page. And many of them are Class 1 Felonies. And these lapses of moral judgment are on top of your priors which date back twenty years and take up another folder. You dirt bags ain’t ever going to get out of Tehachapi to see the light of day. I was looking forward to beating a confession out of you with an L.A. phone book or water boarding you in a bucket of warm spit, but we got statements from the victim and a good citizen that apprehended you in flagrante delicto.”

“In what?” Benny asked.

In flagrante delicto. That’s Latin for ‘You’re screwed.’ ”

“Hey shyster! Ain’t you gonna say nothing?” Benny pleaded while looking at his public defender.

Shyster looked at him, yawned, and said “Objection overruled.”

“I may be able to get a couple of these charges dropped, but that’ll depend on how well you two turkey butts cooperate.”

“Whaddaya say, shyster? You gotta opinion or you gonna sit over dere wid your law book up yo’ ass?”

“I would recommend you accept any offer the state is generous enough to extend. Your bargaining position is weaker than a forty-nine cent margarita.”

Benny and Ricardo looked at each other and sighed. “All right, dick, whaddaya wanna know?”

“Marguerite Rockingham, you’re under arrest. You’re being charged with extortion, a violation of California Penal Code 519, and kidnapping/abduction, a violation of Code 207. You can expect other charges to be added once the DA’s office reviews the arrest file.”

“I neither confirm nor deny these ridiculous allegations,” Marguerite said in a huff.

“Mirandize her, Dano.”

Moran stepped forward with an index card and began reading. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in the court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”

“Up yours, flatfoot. The thing I understand is you two clowns will be walking a beat on outhouse row in Compton. You’ll be patrolling graveyards to keep people from stealing floral arrangements. You’ll be guarding bedpans at the old age home. You’ll be…”

“I got it already, lady. Here’s a news bulletin for you. You’ll be washing toilets in the big house. You’ll be running for your life from cellblock dykes who chase you around like a farmer after a chicken for Sunday dinner. You’ll be on the prison farm scooping up horse hash for the compost heap. Your conjugal visits will be with prison guards during bedtime cell checks.”

Marguerite spit at Brancuso and tried to kick Moran. “And we just added resisting arrest and assaulting an officer of the law.”

After the court proceeding was opened, Mandelbaum’s defense of his client was launched into overdrive and highlighted by his usual theatrics and posturing. “Your Honor, if it pleases the court, we respectfully request that my client, Marguerite Rockingham, be released on her own recognizance. Bail of any amount is quite unnecessary since she is hardly a threat to the community to which she has strong and longstanding ties. She has no criminal record other than a couple of non-moving traffic violations. Her leadership and involvement in charitable activities are too numerous to mention and I will therefore abstain from a lengthy recitation of them in respect of the court’s time.”

The judge looked at the prosecutor and asked “Mr. Mason, what is the state’s response to this request?”

Assistant DA Mason rose to his feet chuckling. “It’s always a pleasure to welcome Mr. Mandelbaum back to these hallowed chambers. He can invariably be counted upon to light up the courtroom with his histrionic oratory and masterful ability to trivialize the serious or make it disappear in its entirety. He once defended a coal mine responsible for the deaths of thirty-two miners by challenging the toxicology reports. He claimed that black lung disease was little more than ‘respiratory irritation.’ I have no doubt the esteemed practitioner of legal legerdemain could get a genocide charge reclassified as critical systemic populational pruning to restore the delicate balance between man his environment.”

“Objection, Your Honor. While I’m flattered by the prosecutor’s recognition of my considerable legal expertise, it has no bearing on the matter before the bench.”

The judge was enjoying the characterization of attorney Mandelbaum but tapped his gavel and opined “Objection sustained, albeit reluctantly. Continue Mr. Mason.”

“We vehemently oppose a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card being issued to the accused. Let’s examine counselor’s statements in more depth. He cites her unblemished arrest record which contains a citation for a non-moving traffic violation. It is true her vehicle was not moving once it stopped on top of the body she negligently ran over. She avoided a manslaughter charge by settling out of court for a substantial sum of money to the injured and to the court for costs. Mr. Mandelbaum also cites his client’s extensive charitable activity but provides no corroboration of this statement. May I remind the court that dropping coins into a Salvation Army Christmas kettle and purchasing Girl Scout cookies hardly propel Mrs. Rockingham into Mother Teresa category. We will support the request for bail but insist that a substantial financial guarantor of her future appearances be levied. We feel our request is in order since her considerable wealth gives her the monetary wherewithal to make her a flight risk.”

“Mr. Mandelbaum, I see your client has been charged with a number of other offences in addition to the major felonies of kidnapping and extortion. She appears to have been rather unruly and uncooperative when arrested. Let’s see, we have third-degree assault, second-degree harassment, second-degree menacing, resisting arrest, fourth-degree criminal mischief, and second-degree obstructing governmental administration.”

“―and a partridge in a pear tree. Your Honor, the DA has taken a minor disagreement over arrest procedure and turned it into a major global conflagration. The number of charges heaped upon my client defies rational examination. He could take a lustful glance at a neighbor and turn it into a violation of all Ten Christian Commandments, the Five Commandments of Islam in the Quran, the Ten Grand Buddhist Precepts, and The Five Principals and Ten Commandments of Hinduism.”

It was the DA’s turn to stand up. “Your Honor, esteemed counsel left out the ability to walk on water and feed the multitudes with five fish and two loaves of bread. Can we get counsel to dispense with his protracted puffery and return to the subject at hand?”

Sep 292014
 

“They found his body parts scattered hither and yon: a leg in Pasadena, an arm in Compton, the remains of his torso in Escondido and his head in Sacramento.” The little man sitting on the other side of my desk who’d identified himself as Quincy Quackenbush finished his sentence with a sigh and clasped his hands in apparent reverential remembrance.

“They can always use a good head in Sacramento,” I quipped without thinking, referring of course to the sorry state of affairs in our state’s capitol.

“One of the underlined names is Don Diego de la Fuente. Isn’t he’s the guy you mentioned earlier . . . the cause of your spat?” I asked.

Quackenbush said drily, “Yes, a pretentious poseur and poster boy for ostentatiousness. His only claim to fame is being a laicized priest.”

“What kind of priest is that?”

“One who’s been defrocked,” Quackenbush explained condescendingly.

“I knew a defrocked priest once,” I quipped. “He was appointed to a large cathedral but subsequently expelled by the church.”

“What on earth for?” Quackenbush asked on belated cue with an air of indifference.

“He claimed to have seen the silhouette of a grilled cheese sandwich in one of the stained glass windows.”

I walked to the front entrance and pressed the doorbell. After two more attempts, the door was opened by the mistress of the house. Her appearance was somewhat unsettling. She was wearing a tube top with a pair of tight capris that stopped at her bony knees. The two residents of the tube had become victims of gravity over the years, and now drooped like half-filled water balloons.  Just above her waist was a tattoo on her leghorn white, flabby stomach which read “Born to Screw.” No offense to evangelical Christianity, but I think she needed to be born again. She should have saved the money spent on the tramp stamp since takers, I suspected, were few and far between. Her lower legs were covered with thin, stringy black hair indicating she was either European or had jettisoned her razor in lazy defiance of personal hygiene. An unlit unfiltered cigarette dangled from her lower lip, awaiting action from the lighter in her right hand. Her left hand might have helped, but it was clutched around a bottle of cheap, supermarket beer. She didn’t look too bright, either. She probably read nursery rhymes to stuffed animals.

“Yeah?” she greeted.

“Are you . . .” I paused to take another look in Fabrice’s little black book, “. . . Mrs. Draper?”

“For the past thirty-five years,” she replied, the cigarette bouncing up and down on her lower lip with the pronunciation of each syllable. “If you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, insurance salesman, or process server, climb back in that piece of junk that’s littering the street out there and burn rubber on your way outta here. I ain’t buyin’, donatin’, or signin’ nothin’.”

“I’m none of those people, madam. I apologize for dropping in on you without calling, but your phone’s been disconnected. My name’s Chauncey McFadden and I’m investigating the murder of Fabrice Pelletier. I understand he was an acquaintance of your husband. I’d like to see Mr. Draper if I may.”

“I’d like to see him, too,” she said, pausing to light her cigarette. That accomplished, she took a deep drag and slowly blew a malodorous cloud of smoke in my direction that dissipated once it made contact with my forehead and glasses. “He ain’t takin’ calls or receivin’ visitors right now.”

“Why not, pray tell?” I asked.

“His fat ass is crammed in a pine box six feet under a granite slab.”

My mouth dropped and I gripped the door frame for support. Surely this can’t be happening again?  

For the second time that day, I offered sympathy to a widow. “When did Mr. Draper pass on?” I searched her face for some discernible expression but found none.

She removed her cigarette with two nicotine-stained fingers the color of cured leather and tilted the bottle to take a swig of beer. Most of the brew found its target. The foam that remained on her lips and the rivulets that ran down her chin were removed with the back of her hand. “You might as well come in. You ain’t gonna rape me or nothin’ like that, are you?”

“Madam, the thought never entered my mind,” I said, stifling a guffaw of disbelief that she could have actually entertained such a possibility. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, if brains were elastic, she wouldn’t have enough to make suspenders for a parakeet.

I stepped inside and found the interior of the house as unkempt as its occupant. The vacuum cleaner and dust cloth were apparently walking the picket line on strike. Cobwebs stretched from the lamp shades to those parts of tables not inundated from overflowing ash trays. Newspapers, magazines and comic books were strewn across the floor, probably just as well considering the nastiness of the floor. A cartoon was flashing across the screen of a black-and-white TV which either had no sound or was in permanent malfunction. Two pairs of men’s underwear hung from the set’s rabbit­-ear antennas. It wasn’t clear whether they were placed there to dry, improve the reception, or as a memoriam to her late husband. Through the open kitchen door, I could see stacks of dirty dishes piled on the counter tops. I suspected that the only clean thing in this house was the sink since it obviously hadn’t been used recently.

“Take a load off your feet,” she invited, pointing to a stuffed chair that had tears in the fabric through which stuffing poked through.

I hesitated in accepting her invitation because a small, brown Chihuahua with oversized dark eyes had just relieved himself on the arm rest before hopping down to the cheap linoleum and scooting over to recline on a dirty wadded towel. I cleared a spot on the end of the matching loveseat and sat down with some trepidation.

“Pardon the condition of the house,” she acknowledged, dropping cigarette ashes on her bunny slippers as she walked, “but since Stanley died, I ain’t felt up to doin’ no housework.”

“He did until six weeks before his death. The company pink-slipped him and booted him out the door like some common criminal. He’d given nineteen years of his life to Pandemic and left without getting so much as a gold watch.” She looked into an empty box of Marlboros and tossed it over her shoulder. It bounced off her pet’s head who responded with a growl. “You got a cigarette?” she asked.

“Sorry, no.”

She rummaged through an adjacent Cool Whip plastic dish being used as an ashtray and parted the ashes with her index finger. She found the longest butt available, blew the ashes off, and shoved it between her lips. She clicked her Bic several times but it refused to ignite.

“You got a light?”

“Sorry, no.”

She looked around her chair and picked up a book of matches lying on the floor. After several futile strikes, she fired up and lit her cigarette. She blew a smoke ring in the air and looked at me. “You ain’t got much, do you?”

“I don’t have the habit either. What did Stanley do at Pandemic?”

“He was a janitor in the systems department. He emptied the trash, did repairs, changed light bulbs . . . stuff like that.”

“Did he know Fabrice Pelletier?”

Mrs. Draper scrunched her face into a contortion of tight wrinkles which I assumed to be a stimulatory recollective process. She finished draining her beer and rolled the empty bottle across the floor into the kitchen.

“That name sounds familiar. I believe Stanley might have done some handyman work for him off the clock at nights and on weekends. I didn’t know him myself.” She looked around for an ashtray and, finding them all filled to capacity, extinguished her cigarette butt on the floor with her slipper.

Then, giving me a come-hither look, she tried to smooth the wild profusion of stringy gray hair the color of pewter and asked, “You wanna stay for dinner? I could whip somethin’ up in a jiffy. To pad her résumé, she added, “Some years ago, I won a beauty contest,” she said while hoisting her tube top to elevate its cargo.

I thought to myself: What was the prize—a month’s free rent in the trailer park?  

I wasn’t about to eat anything that had been prepared in that kitchen, so I politely declined. I rose to my feet in preparation for departure when the animated little Chihuahua left his makeshift mattress and scooted over to hump my ankle.

“Don’t mind him. He’s ugly as a mud fence, but he’s all I got now,” she said before spitting into an empty jelly jar.

I managed to shake the little humper off my leg and bid Mrs. Draper adieu as I backed to the door, keeping the horny little assailant at bay with the toe of my shoe. I got out of there faster than piss running down a porcelain urinal wall.

The maid returned and requested me follow her to the music room where I was instructed to wait for the Van Skeffingtons. I thanked her and, after she’d left, looked around the room in further awe. I had been a museum guard in a previous life and recognized several of the musical instruments. Of immediate attention was a Steinway Concert Grand topped by a wooden Wittner metronome. Behind it, flanking a huge bay window, were a Lyon & Healy Style 23 Gold Harp made around 1890, revered throughout the concert world, and an English harpsichord made by the renowned Burkat Shudi in the late eighteenth century. If I closed my eyes, I could see Madam Wanda Landowska sitting before it, running her fingers over the keys at magical speed bringing musical life to Scarlatti’s Sonata in G. Major.

Resting on a stand was a violin of exceptional beauty. I wasn’t sure whether it was a Stradivarius or not, but I suspected it had never been used to play “Orange Blossom Special.” Artfully framed pictures of classical composers adorned the walls. I recognized the obvious ones like Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, but drew a blank on the remainder. Reinforcing the room’s theme were several antique sheet music cabinets made of burl walnut with pearl inlays.

My admiration was interrupted by a polite cough. I turned to the doorway and was greeted by an attractive couple. In their sixties, both were tall and trim and radiated a measure of elegance.

The man spoke. “I’m Alastair Van Skeffington and this is my wife, Romanesque. He glanced down at my business card and asked, “What can we do for you . . . Mr. McFadden is it? I understand you wish to see us about our late son, Frederick. Please be seated—anywhere but the Edwardian parlor chairs. They’re fragile and irreplaceable.”

I opted for a sofa that looked like it had been made on this continent in the current century and took a seat. They sat opposite me in aged velvet chairs, probably discards from the boudoir of Queen Elizabeth . . . the First. “This is quite a room, folks. You must spend some quality time in here.”

“It is quite pleasant. Do you have a music room, Mr. McFadden?” Romanesque Van Skeffington asked sweetly.

I had to suppress a snicker. My socio-economic status was as close to theirs as twelve-cent Krystal hamburgers were to Beluga caviar. “On a lesser scale—I keep a harmonica in my nightstand drawer.”

The deputy on duty at the front desk knew me by sight and waved me through to Del Dotto’s office. I took the elevator to the fourth floor and saw him through the opaque glass of his office door wheeling and dealing on the phone. I waited until the call ended and walked in. Del Dotto was in his customary position with his feet on his desk, flipping through pages in a folder.

“Well, well,” he said, looking up, “if it isn’t the bloated Chauncey McFadden, the man who’s put more Chinese buffets out of business than the health inspector. Jetways Airlines has asked the DA to issue a warrant for your arrest. They said you took up four seats on a recent flight but only paid for one. Whatcha got to say for yourself, Detective Dufus?”

“My weight problem wasn’t caused by airlines food, that’s for sure. Their idea of meal service is to auction off a half bag of peanuts to the highest bidder. Their chefs must have been trained in the kitchens of Russian gulags under Stalin.”

“What’re you doing here today, McFadden, sneaking around the conference rooms looking for leftover doughnuts from the morning staff meetings?”

“Give it a break, Luther. I’m here to do you another favor and render a public service.”

“A public service? Are you contemplating suicide? If the answer is yes, you’ve got my support. Do it in Ventura County, though, our morgue is overflowing with stiffs and we don’t have the six body bags it would take to haul off your fat ass.”

Ignoring the usual invectives, I said, “Luther, you have four unsolved homicides I think may be connected. If you share the police files on these cases with me, I may be able to lend your department some help. You, of course, could wallow in the publicity . . .”

Luther had two hot buttons—the first was the appearance of his picture in the paper and the second was that which lay beneath women’s skirts . . . front and back. Punch either button and you were more likely to receive some modicum of cooperation.

“I just saw that name,” Del Dotto said, as he thumbed back through some pages. “Here it is.” After scanning the page, Del Dotto added, “It seems Freddie boy was of the gay persuasion as well. He got his clock cleaned outside a gay bar in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe he got dead while giving head.” Del Dotto laughed at his own misplaced attempt at poetic humor.

“Too bad, lieutenant. Until that joke, you were in the running for the Rainbow Coalition’s Man of the Year Award. Is anybody investigating this case, or is it suffering from benign neglect due to the sexual preference of the victim?”

Del Dotto sighed, shook his head sadly, and adopted a look of mock hurt. “Are you suggesting we don’t pursue crimes in the gay community with the same sense of urgency that we do crimes in general? If that’s true, it’s because we have a limited number of cells for the pink ribbon crowd. We can’t throw them in with the general inmate population or we’d get deluged with rectal abscess complaints.”

“Then you don’t have a problem with me poking around this case as well?”

“Be my guest, beast of the feast. I could wind up playing Cupid here. You may meet someone who can jack up your stomach and bop your bologna for you. Now that’s a visual that scares even me.” Del Dotto flashed his patented smirk which was scary enough to send vampires scurrying back into their coffins for refuge. “Just jerking your chain, McFadden. Everyone knows the only woman you ever had was inflated.”

“They’re not so bad,” I said. “They’re low maintenance, easily stored in the closet and don’t stalk you.”

Seeing no doorbell, I knocked. The door was opened by a tall, thin man with leonine white hair which swept over his ears and down past the top of his collar. His bushy eyebrows and Vandyke goatee were black, however, which gave his face an arresting appearance. He must have shopped at the same clothier as Quackenbush. He was wearing a Brunello Cucinelli cashmere sweater in a quiet merlot color which topped a pair of tan Brioni wool­ serge pleated trousers. Not to be outdone, his feet were encased in a pair of Testoni Norvegese shoes. On my part, I tried to button my suit jacket to conceal my rumpled shirt but to no avail.

“I trust you’re the gentleman who called me this afternoon?” he asked, his voice reflecting a European patois that I was unable to distinguish although his name indicated Spanish heritage.

“One and the same. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Don Diego,” I replied while looking around the room. It wasn’t cavernous, but it had been decorated by someone with obvious taste and the greenbacks to fund it. The exterior Spanish motif had been continued inside the bungalow. On the ceiling was a hand-painted mural which showed a gang of small naked cherubs bathing a nude woman. Too bad they don’t make bathhouses like that anymore. From her coochie, a wrought-iron chandelier was suspended which bathed the room in an eerie glow. The walls contained prints of notable Spanish artists representing the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries—El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and Sorolla, respectively. Conspicuous by their absence were twentieth–century masters like Picasso and Miró.One of the center pieces in the room was a large coffee table which I approached with interest.

“No, no, no, please don’t touch,” Don Diego cried with alarm. “That’s a mesa de centro portfirio with a travertine top.”

I pocketed my intrepid hand and continued to look around. There were mission-type candelabras on the tables with matching sconces on the walls. The foyer was enlivened by a small console table with two tall upright chairs on either side.

Reacting to my gaze, Don Diego offered, “That is a Tlajomulco engraved vase atop a consoleta Espanola chica flanked by two sillas escalera con brasos.  

Looking at the dark floor which had been finished and polished to a high gloss, I asked, “Is the floor Spanish, too?”

“Quite the contrary. The floor was imported from Florence, Italy. It is reputed to have come from a bordello owned by none other than Lorenzo de’ Medici.”

“Planks from a whorehouse! Why didn’t I think of that for my place?” I moaned facetiously, gently slapping both sides of my head.

In walked none other than gang boss Picillo followed by two other plug-uglies. This quartet reminded me of a mob version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: murder, extortion, robbery and smuggling. The three strong-arms were all wearing suits and felt fedoras with pinch-front crowns. Their wide ties were a little loud for my taste. They looked as if a watercolor artist had wiped his brushes on them, or been borrowed from a television evangelist.

Picillo plopped in my guest chair, flanked by two of his henchmen; the third remaining by the door to intercept any visitors. Picillo snapped his fingers. In response, one of his minions removed a long cigar from his coat pocket. He removed the cellophane wrapper and threw it on the floor. He offered the stogie to his boss in the palm of his hand, as if it were some sort of reverential sacrament. Picillo licked the exterior of the cigar and slid the end of it in his mouth. The other plug-ugly whipped out a lighter and dutifully lighted it. Picillo stared at me for at least a minute while he puffed on his cigar, the end turning bright red like molten steel in a mill. He took a few long drags and thumped the ashes on the floor.

“Can I get you an ash tray?” I asked disingenuously.

Picillo looked at me through heavy, half-closed eye lids. “If I wanna ashtray, I’ll use your sockets after the boys have gouged out your eyeballs.”

Picillo was clearly no disciple of business etiquette and protocol. “This is an unexpected surprise. Welcome to my agency, Mr. Picillo. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” I managed to mask the quiver in my voice and hide my nervousness by interlacing my fingers on my desk.

“I’m here to do you a favor, McFadden.”

“A favor, Mr. Picillo? Why would a powerful businessman like you do a favor for a small-time operator like me?”

“You still lookin’ for Tony’s killer?”

“Are you referring to Anthony Minocchio known to his associates as Tony the Torpedo?”

Picillo looked at me, inhaled and blew smoke in my face. “Who else would we be talking about, numb-nuts.”

I waved the smoke away from my eyes without responding.

“What’s your plan, meat head?” Picillo asked as he scratched his crotch which was hidden by his expanded paunch.

My eyes were burning from the acrid smoke, but I managed to cough, “We’ve identified five people whom we believe have been targeted by Tony’s killer. I’d like to set a trap using these people as bait, but the police don’t have the manpower to place them under surveillance.”

“Tell me again, how do ya’ know the guy you’re after is the same one what killed Tony?”

“The killer I’m after travelled to a little village in Mexico in pursuit of my client. He went to my client’s casita on the outskirts of town, but instead found Tony who had showed up earlier to rub out kill my client and retrieve the bag of money accidentally left in my client’s car. My killer either killed Tony by mistake thinking he was my client or in self-defense when Tony offered resistance.”

“I get real nasty if I think someone’s blowing smoke up my butt crack. If you’re shittin’ me, you’re gonna be fender meat.”

Lying in the middle of a street with tires marks all over my back wasn’t a pleasant proposition. “Mr. Picillo, I have no desire to be dumped in the cargo hold of a container ship heading to Micronesia. I’m telling you what I know; the honest truth. Here, “I said, holding up my little finger, “I’ll even do a pinky swear.”

The tall man whose pock-marked face looked as if it had been beaten with a track shoe spoke up. “You want I should take fat boy in the alley and get him ready for the bone orchard? I’ll soften him up with a tire iron and then throw his fat ass off an overpass.”

“Nah,” Picillo said, placing his cigar on the edge of my desk and using his hands on the armrests of the chair to lift his butt off the seat. He proceeded to produce a thunderous fart which rattled the glass panes in the window. The two toadies by his side guffawed and did high fives like the Lakers after a slam dunk. Picillo smiled proudly at his display of flatulence and reseated himself.

“The guy with the Zippo can light those for you if you’re interested,” I said drily. I held my breath in advance of a putrid cloud of gas which approached from the other side of the desk. My eyes started to water and I almost passed out from lack of oxygen. The fart finally bumped against the window behind me and slid to the floor.

The elevator, moving slower than the urinal lines during the halftime of a college football game, finally reached the sixth floor. We got out and identified room 616 immediately: An officer was sitting in a chair outside the room reading the National Inquirer. Ruby flashed her badge and we walked inside.

Fortenberry, swathed in white like a newborn baby, was propped up in bed with his right shoulder bandaged and his arm in a sling. He looked over as we entered and greeted, “Hello, hello, pretty lady. Are you here to empty the bed pan or take my temperature? I prefer rectal if I get a choice.”

Ruby flashed him an ominous look and replied, “If I shove something up your ass, it won’t be a thermometer. It’ll be a size ten with stiletto heels at the end of it. Get my drift, bed boy?”

Fortenberry  laughed. “Here I am lying helpless in the sack and instead of sympathy, I get an angel of death with an attitude. Wait ‘til I fill out the hospital survey form . . .”

“The only form you’ll be filling out is the shirt and pants sizes you’ll need in the county jail. Enough of this bedside banter; we have some questions, ace.”

“Fire away, darling, but first, your manners need some work; you didn’t introduce your chubby companion. While you look like the uptown urban version of Cat Woman, your sidekick bears more resemblance to the Batmobile than Batman.”

“Satisfaction has eluded me throughout this investigation; like trying to catch a rainbow in a bucket. I don’t feel like a success. I feel like a film noir character; a manipulated puppet whose every move is determined by a distant and uncaring fate and other forces beyond my control. I sometimes wonder if we’re all wandering apparitions trapped in a cosmic wretchedness like the proverbial fly trying to escape by climbing up the inside of an inverted water glass. Despite my years in the business, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction, good from bad, or reality from fantasy. I feel like I’m constantly being bounced around like those numbered ping pong balls used in the state lottery drawings.

“I’ve only recently realized there’s ‘evil’ and there’s ‘California evil.’ The first is easier to deal with. For the most part, it’s blatant and obvious. Its advocates and proponents display it openly like a badge of honor and use it to hammer and circumvent all opposition in pursuit of their goals. It’s existed for centuries and its presence, symptoms and antidotes are well-established. The countrymen of Hitler and Stalin understand this.

“California evil, however, is a different phenomenon. Its existence is vaporous and elusive, like smoke through a keyhole. It’s harder to detect because it lurks in the shadows and can be found in the most surprising and innocuous of places. It thrives not on direct lies, but on half-truths and deception. No frontal assaults here, just teases and taunts. Blunt force has been rendered passé, replaced by corrosive and malevolent infiltration. Nothing can be taken at face value; no one can be believed. California evil is interwoven throughout all socio-economic levels. Its most salient manifestation is that it exists most strongly in places where it should have never taken root.  I’ve found more integrity among porn stars and lap dancers than icons of high society. I’ve come to appreciate guarded gates, not because it keeps us out, but because it keeps them in. For every California fortune, there’s a trail of beaten and battered bodies like the poor Egyptian stiffs who built the massive pyramids for the pharaohs. Even California politicians are a special breed. It’s not that they’re any more crooked than their peers in other places; it’s that their legislative actions are cloaked in a smarmy, unctuous wrapper of their own insidious design that baffle even the political pundits. Novelty is hailed and new trends worshipped even if they are an intrinsic stain upon morality and negatively impact the moral barometer. In California, the new and fashionable―even if they are aberrations of the value system―become rapidly absorbed into the culture and accepted as an inexorable manifestation of west coast living. It’s the ease with which evil is accepted and assimilated that makes California the canary in the coal mine. Against this backdrop, I suppose it’s no wonder that an insurance company would traffic in murder to save a few bucks on their bottom line.”

Sep 292014
 

Melkoff wasn’t your typical attorney. Court-martialed by the Army for theft and sale of government provisions, Melkoff plea-bargained a felony grand theft down to misdemeanor petty theft. He productively used his cell time at Fort Leavenworth cramming for a law degree through correspondence courses. Once released he had his record expunged of the petty theft charge, passed the bar exam on the first try, and used his newly-acquired legal expertise to open up a low-overhead practice dedicated to the pursuit and accumulation of personal wealth. If any justice was realized through his legal shenanigans, it was purely incidental. Our relationship was based upon mutual referrals. I referred people to him who were facing jail time, and he referred people to me who sought physical evidence —real or imagined—to beat the rap.

Melkoff had just hung up the phone when I entered his sanctorum after knocking a couple of times on the frosted glass panel of his office door. He was leaning back in his chair with his fingers interlaced over his stomach. Even when his face was inert, the upturned ends of his dark, thin mustache periodically twitched. He resembled Snidely Whiplash’s evil twin who had just returned from tying poor pregnant Nellie to the railroad track in the path of an oncoming train after shooting her dog and selling her infant siblings to sexually predatory foster parents.

His office was better furnished than mine, but not by much. His bookcase overflowed with volumes of the California criminal code and other assorted law books. While they were covered with dust and cobwebs, the stack of Hustler magazines on the bottom shelf was spotless.

“McFadden, how they hanging, babe? Got any business for me?”

“I don’t know Melkoff,” I said hesitantly. “The last time I referred a client to you she received a five-year stretch in the pen for simple solicitation.”

“Oh, her,” Melkoff pooh-poohed after a pause. “Her retainer bounced. She shoulda known that an attorney is like a pimp: you cheat them at your own peril.”

That was an interesting analogy . . . and entirely appropriate in Melkoff’s case.

“Did I read an article about you in the papers the other day, my jaundiced jester of jurisprudence?”

“What about?” Melkoff asked suspiciously.

“The State Bar of California pursuing some charges of professional misconduct against you.”

“Oh, that,” Melkoff said, reacting with obvious disdain. “I lost my initial plea at the Hearing Department of the State Bar Court, but I’ve filed an appeal with its Review Department. If I lose there, my next step is to take it to the Supreme Court of California. No big deal. I’ll keep this case tied up until I’m ready to retire to a country that doesn’t have an extradition agreement with the U.S.”

“The L. A. Times was a little vague. What were the Bar’s allegations?”

Melkoff yawned and twisted the ends of his mustache. “The Bar claimed I had formulated a conspiracy to help agribusinesses hire illegal aliens and supply them with phony green cards. They said that in return for developing this illicit arrangement and providing ongoing legal support, I was illegally compensated from federal and state income taxes, FICA deductions, and California employment taxes that had been paid by undocumented workers, but siphoned off to me by the participating companies.”

“How are you going to tap dance around this charge . . . sorry, Melkoff . . . how are you planning to work some legal prestidigitation and get the Bar to see the error of their ways and recant?”

Melkoff yawned. “They took a very biased, narrow view of my accounting methodology. They claimed we were guilty of a conspiracy to defraud the government and harbor illegal aliens. I was simply holding these funds in an escrow account pending the resolution of determinative legal issues.”

“What kind of escrow account was it and where was it located?”

Melkoff started to squirm a little and shifted in his chair. “Well, I haven’t had time to actually set up a separate escrow account so I temporarily deposited the money in a personal account in the Cayman Islands for safekeeping.”

“Then what’s the problem? Why can’t you simply withdraw the money and send it along its merry way to the state and the IRS?”

Melkoff smiled. “Unfortunately, a lot of these workers left their employers—there’s a high turnover rate among this destabilized workforce, you know—before social security numbers could be obtained for them. Without those numbers, we have no way of reporting income tax or OASDI payments.”

“Did the workers even know they were having these taxes deducted?”

Melkoff successfully suppressed a faint smile. “I can’t answer that. The human resources departments at these companies are responsible for personnel administration, and I’m unable to comment on the quality of the services they may or may not have provided.”

“And when the workers disappear,” I added, “there are no plaintiffs to seek judicial relief or pursue the disappearance of their contributions. I suspect you don’t have valid addresses, even if you wanted to return the money.”

Melkoff shook his head in mock empathy. “You got it, gumshoe. These unclaimed funds have to escheat to somebody and it might as well be to me rather than the state of California.”

I slowly and sarcastically clapped in appreciation of Melkoff’s performance and then dried some imaginary tears with my handkerchief. Rising to my feet, I said, “Melkoff, you’re the only guy I know who could have gotten an acquittal for John Wilkes Booth. By the way, have a few of my new business cards,” I offered, handing him a dozen from my pocket. “Maybe you can keep them on the table over there.”

Melkoff looked at one of the cards and started laughing. When his wheeze subsided, he asked, “Has your business been a little slow lately?”

“A little—why?”

“This card says ‘McFadden and Associates, Defective Agency.’ Now that’s what I call truth in advertising. As I’ve always said, you’re a humble man who has much to be humble about. And the only associates you have are the mice that run around your office at night.”

“Stupid printer,” I groused as I stormed out the door.

Del Dotto was thumbing through a stack of pictures of naked women when I walked in.

“Good morning, lieutenant. Are you reviewing evidence from a porno bust or sorting pictures from your last family reunion?”

“McFadden,” Del Dotto greeted, looking up. “What brings your fat ass out of Weight Watchers? Looking for doughnuts left over from our morning staff meeting? Or you here to file a complaint against Big Belly Buffet for declaring you persona non grata? You got no grounds for complaint because the buffet has legal precedent: the Las Vegas casinos that bar professional gamblers who know how to game the system.”

Del Dotto was a royal pain. I only endured his insults as the price I had to pay for his assistance and access to official information vital to my investigations. He had a low regard for PIs in general, and tolerated me because I handled cases given low priority by his department.

“It’s nice seeing you, too, Luther. I was hoping for a favor in appreciation for the Barrington murder case that I solved but you took credit for.”

Del Dotto took one last longing look at the nudes and dug at his crotch. “What’s the favor, porcus maximus?”

Then lapsing into a look of rapture that clearly wasn’t intended for me, Del Dotto said, “Red-hot Ruby is a first-class ball-buster. Anybody who can hang onto that for eight seconds ought to win rodeo prize money.” Del Dotto lapsed into a lecherous grin that could have peeled the wood veneer off a Catholic confessional booth. “She’s got a pair that won’t quit. I saw her floating on her back in a pool at the police picnic last summer and I could have sworn it was a Bactrian camel, you know, the ones with—”

“Two humps. I got it, lieutenant.”

Fortunately, Del Dotto had finished his ribald Chaucerian tale before a tap on the door frame got our attention. Entering the room was a tall, statuesque African-American woman in a dark blue skirt with long, straight, coal-black hair drawn into a bun. Her light ebony complexion and dark eyes made her bright red lipstick and dazzling white teeth even more dramatic. Del Dotto was right about her bust line. She had a badge pinned to her white blouse but it faced more ceiling than wall.

She didn’t appear to be too excited at being in Del Dotto’s office, but I had a feeling that she could hold her own with the grotesque groper.

“You wanted to see me?”

Del Dotto glared at her like a sex-starved deviant looking through a peephole at a carnival strip show and audibly moaned. “Detective Roberts, you’re a sight for sore eyes but business first. I have some good news and some bad news for you.”

After a moment of silence, she responded, “Am I supposed to guess? Or, more importantly, do I even care?”

Del Dotto ploughed on despite her verbal disinterest. “The good news is that my wife died this morning and I’m socially available. How about dinner tonight? If you play your cards right you might find out why I was a champion pole vaulter with my hands tied behind my back.”

“Skip it and zip it, Luther. The only action you could get is from a raunchy, crack head hooker with VD having a going-out-of-business sale behind the dumpster at the rescue mission. Besides, a dead wife wouldn’t stop your sexual advances in any event. Consent from a living being has never been a requirement of yours.”

“Detective Roberts, you don’t know what you’re missing. I’ve cut so many notches in my bed post that I’m sleeping on a pile of wood shavings. We can pop a couple of brews and wallow around in the sawdust.”

“Go find yourself a lonely woodpecker who may appreciate your skills. Now what’s the bad news?”

Del Dotto held his hands over his heart as if he had been mortally wounded. “The bad news is that I want you to meet Chauncey McFadden. He’s a low-rent gumshoe who digs through people’s garbage trying to find something that might generate a meal ticket at a local grease hole. Occasionally, I toss him some table scraps to keep him off welfare, which is why he’s here today. By the way, don’t waste your time trying to evaluate McFadden; he really is as simple-minded and hangdog as he looks.”

Del Dotto was again having a field day at my expense. The information in those files had better be worth the abuse I was taking.

Detective Roberts extended her hand, smiled and said, “Nice to meet you, McFadden. Any enemy of Del Dotto’s is a friend of mine. What can I do for you?’

Down the hall out of Del Dotto’s earshot, I stopped Ruby and shook her hand. “That was a nice piece of work back there, getting permission to request those files. Del Dotto usually only positively responds to a woman who is bent over his desk.”

“He’s not getting any backdoor coochie from me, so the rump-humper might as well do his second favorite thing—reading his press notices. He gets off seeing his pictures or interviews in the newspapers. He spends more time looking in a mirror than a parakeet with cataracts.”

The drive from Fraher’s gave me time to think about this case, in particular, and the Vietnam War in general. To be sure, things happened of which no one is proud. There’s never been a military conflict in the history of mankind in which innocent civilians didn’t suffer, brave soldiers didn’t get killed by friendly fire, and indescribable atrocities didn’t occur. I think it was Randall Jarrell who wrote that in war, “The incongruous is the common-place homogeneous texture of all life.” But there’s an important distinction between horrible acts intentionally inflicted as a matter of military and political policy, and acts committed as a result of isolated breakdowns in the value systems of individuals. That distinction is important because if it should ever disappear, civilization—already as thin as puff pastry—would be in the twilight of its existence.

Stepping inside, we were met by a short older woman holding menus, whose dark sparkling eyes and ear-to-ear smile put you right at home. Her long hair was piled on top of her head like a bee hive and held in place by bright yellow combs. She was wearing a beautiful silk ao dai, a contoured full-length dress split between front and back panels from the waist down and worn over loose-fitting trousers. Upon seeing Ruby, she placed the menus on a lectern, brought her palms together and bowed her head. Ruby reciprocated and I, always an observer of foreign customs, followed suit.

“Miss Ruby, it warms my heart like the summer sun after a savage winter to see you again,” our hostess said, taking Ruby’s hands in her own.

“That feeling is amplified in my own heart like a tsunami roaring through a desolate mountain tunnel, Mama Pham,” Ruby returned.

“And who is this gentleman?” Mama asked, turning to address me.

Going along with the shtick, I offered, “Chauncey McFadden, just a poor troglodyte, fat of body but nimble of mind, who seeks to frolic in the bounty of Mama Pham’s kitchen in order to receive her culinary magnificence and epicurean delight.”

It was the best I could do on short notice.

“You are most welcome,” Mama Pham replied graciously. “May the door of our humble abode never be a stranger to you, but attract you in spellbound rapture like peach nectar to an inquisitive bee.”

“Your beneficence is encompassing, like the mist from a towering waterfall, Mama Pham. May your patrons be as plentiful as raindrops from an April shower, may the dishes prepared in your kitchen dazzle like morning sunlight upon a frosty field, and may the health inspector never find any cat hairs in your chow mein.”

Mama Pham giggled. “You are right; let us cut the crap.” Turning to Ruby, she asked, “Is your usual table okay?”

“Have you personally had a problem here?” I asked Mama Pham.

“Not yet. I think it may be because they fear my two sons, who are masters in the martial arts,” she said proudly. “Both boys hold 10th DAN in Japanese Gojuryu Karate, 10th DAN in Tae Kwon Do, 9th DAN in Torite Jutsu, 8th DAN in Okinawan Kempo, 5th DAN in Isshinryu, and 5th DAN Aikibudo.”

“I’m impressed. I could have used your sons against bullies in junior high that used to strong-arm my lunch money and give me wedgies and wet willies.”

“I understand. Another personal question if I may. Feel free to tell me it’s none of my business, but do you and Villaposas have a personal relationship?”

“Why do you ask that?”

“It looked like he thought you had a book printed in Braille on your ass. I haven’t seen fingers move that fast since Van Cliburn played Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu at the Performing Arts Center.”

“Did you or any of your mates know Mickey Fraher or Gerald Williams?” I asked.

“I don’t see how. They were in a different brigade covering a different AO of I Corps.”

“AO?”

“Area of operations. We rarely joined together for engagements. Except maybe for a Zippo mission—a search and destroy offensive—south of Hue, which turned out to be a BOHICA.”

“BOHICA?”

“Bend Over, Here It Comes Again—the term used for an undesirable assignment.”

Melkoff flashed his evil grin and wagged his finger. That usually meant some aspect of justice was going to be sodomized by the adroit huckster, but I hoped that it would be for my benefit on this occasion.

“Not so fast, my garrulous gumshoe. During my confinement at Leavenworth preparing for a court-martial decision, I got to know a couple of JAG officers—Murray and Porter—who had been assigned to defend me. They had attorney friends who had been assigned to military outposts all over the world, including Vietnam. I called both of them to see if they could recall someone assigned to the Americal Division JAG staff in Chu Lai during that period. Guess what my perilous peeper?’

“You hit pay dirt?”

“Bingo. Porter’s still in the Army and remembered a good friend of his, a lieutenant named Desmond Bonney, who served two tours of duty there from 1969 to 1971. Bonney has left the Army and entered private practice. He’s with a criminal law firm up in the bay area, Leibowitz, Romberg, Weiss, Schwartz, Rabinowicz, Brandeis, Levin, Frankel, and Jackson.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask. How did Jackson manage to latch on with the menorah and matzo ball crowd?”

Melkoff looked around the room and whispered as if his office had been wiretapped. “There is no Jackson. They just added the name to keep the affirmative action activists off their case.”

“Fill ’er up with regular and check the radiator, please.”

He nodded and moseyed over to my gas tank in slow motion.

Seeking confirmation, I asked, “Is this San Arroyo Seco?”

“Yep.”

“It sure is hot, isn’t it?”

“Yep.”

When he had finished filling up the tank, he trudged to the front of the car, lifted the hood, and unscrewed the radiator cap with the rag in his pocket.

“Does it need water?”

“Yep.”

“Does there appear to be a leak?’

“Nope.”

Upon finishing his inspection, he walked back to the garage and filled a gallon bucket with water. He returned and slowly emptied its contents into the radiator.

“Do you also clean windshields here?”

“Yep.”

After discerning no movement in that direction, I asked, “Can you clean mine?”

“Yep.” He dumped the remaining water in his bucket on my windshield.

“Thanks a lot. Do you take credit cards?”

“Nope.”

“Cash only?”

“Yep.”

“Do you know a dog breeder by the name of Dog Duquesne?”

“Yep.”

“If I take a left at the second traffic light, is it far to his house?”

“Nope.”

I handed him money for the gas.

“Change?” he asked.

“Keep.”

He shuffled back to the garage with all deliberation. I’ve seen sunsets that moved faster than this guy. Glancing in the garage, I saw the 1970 Chevy he’d been working on. I’d bet that was the year it was dropped off for repair.

I met Ruby in the lobby of the precinct and we took the elevator to Del Dotto’s lair. We tapped on the clouded glass door panel and walked in. Del Dotto was leaning back in his chair as usual and staring into a compact mirror and replacing some stray hairs that had crossed the part in his hair.

“It looks like we interrupted a meeting of the Luther Del Dotto Admiration Society. How’s recruiting going? Found a second member yet?” I jibed.

Del Dotto, apparently satisfied with the results, slipped the mirror into his desk drawer and looked at us with annoyance. Luther was in one of his moods, which always complicate the situation.

“You rang, Mr. Benny?” I asked, in my best Rochester imitation.

“McFadden, you bloated balloon,” he said with disgust, “I’ve got a good mind to lock you up overnight in the same cell with Saddam, the Sudan sodomite, and let him bugger you non-stop until he gets cramps in his legs. The only thing stopping me is that you’d consider it a reward rather than punishment.”

“Who found him?”

“We received a tip from an anonymous caller. Possibly the same sicko who popped him. The poor bastard only had a couple of weeks to go before retirement.” Then, pointing at the pile of folders stacked on his desk, Del Dotto snarled, “Look at all the damn paperwork I gotta do because the dumb schmuck went and got himself killed.”

“Whew!” I said in sarcastic relief. “You had me fooled for a minute there, lieutenant. I was beginning to think that your grief was the result of his mortal departure, not the hassle of having to complete his burial paperwork.”

Del Dotto scoffed. “This was probably the best thing that could have happened to the old rummy. He’ll get a bronzed plaque on the Wall of Honor and a funeral with high commendations attended by cops from all over the state. He died a lot better than he lived, at least for the last ten years. His family now has something better to remember him by: a hero’s legacy rather than the embarrassment of finding him passed out in his car in the garage and picking up the empty whiskey bottles in the front yard.”

“Remind me not to have you give the eulogy at my funeral, Luther. You’ll have everybody in the mortuary pissing in my casket.”

Del Dotto scoffed, “We couldn’t get anybody to come to your funeral even if we held it at mealtime on Thanksgiving Day at the homeless shelter. If I’m in a good mood, I might have your bloated carcass squeezed into an extra-large body bag and dumped into Long Beach Harbor by a police launch.”

Del Dotto snapped his fingers, “No, on second thought, I couldn’t do that because the animal rights activists would crawl all over my ass for contaminating the sharks’ feeding areas. I guess we’ll have to move on to plan B.” Del Dotto paused for a reaction, but I wasn’t going to encourage him. “We’ll stuff your body in your car and take it to the porno flicks drive-in where you spend every Saturday night. We’ll park you in the back row and roll up the windows. Since there’s nobody who cares enough to report you missing—except maybe your creditors—your disappearance won’t be reported for weeks.”

Our silence was broken by the sound of an arriving vehicle and the flashing of a rotating blue light. After hearing two car doors slam, I creaked to my feet and admitted two police officers. One had a plain uniform with no rank insignia, which indicated deputy status, while the other sported twin gold bars on his shirt lapel, a gold badge on the front of his cowboy hat, and a name plate that said “Sheriff Titus Cowart.” There was another striking visual difference between the two: their size. The deputy was the thinnest man I’d ever seen. His face was so narrow it looked as if it had been pressed in a vise. His Adam’s apple stuck out further than his chin which was small and recessed. He reminded me of a stick figure put together with three pipe cleaners. Adding to his physical woes were oversized ears that stuck out from his head like wings on a butterfly. Equally unsettling was the fact that his eyes were three-quarters closed and his mouth three-quarters open, a bad combination as faces go. The surface of his face sported old bruises and lumps. He reminded me of a boxer at the end of the line who, like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, had nothing left but a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

Glancing over at the sheriff, I saw where the deputy’s weight had gone. Titus Cowart was a rotund man who had once flirted with the three-hundred pound mark before deciding to charge past it at breakneck speed without so much as a backward glance. He looked at me, inhaled, and pulled his thick leather belt up. As soon as he exhaled, his stomach re-collapsed burying his belt buckle and the handle of his firearm beneath cascading rolls of fat.

We entered the satanic sanctum sanctorum together for moral support. Del Dotto was cleaning his fingernails with a letter opener and without looking up said, “This ain’t Malibu, but squeeze into a seat anyway, beach ball.” Now looking up, he said, “McFadden, you gotta be the world’s biggest fuck-up. Outta deference to sweet Ruby here, I go along with your harebrained scheme to catch a notorious serial killer. Against my better judgment I gave you the resources you asked for, and requested nothing in return but a collar. Instead of taking the perp down, you stand around with your thumb up your ass like Sergeant García and let Zorro carve everybody up like a honey-baked ham. You’re damn lucky the SWAT guys report to another department and I don’t have to wade through another pile of paperwork. How in hell do you make a living? I know you couldn’t be getting any references; your clients die faster than a child molester in a San Quentin shower room. Dead bodies follow you like road shit behind a parade elephant. Let me make a suggestion: stay away from homicide cases. You’re in over your head. You got too much junk in your trunk to keep up with the faster guys who’re running circles around you. Do what you do best, which is nab the schlemiel who’s been cuttin’ farts during church service, or the teenage girl who’s been stuffing tissues in her training bra.”

Sep 292014
 

Following her was not hard duty. She had long well-toned legs, a compact derriere, and a walk that would have diverted any randy Hamlin rat from the Pied Piper’s entourage.

The first restaurant we came to – El Sol de Havana – looked “ethnic” enough so we walked up to a menu that was posted outside the front door.  Unfortunately, we had to lean over the body of a weather-beaten, sleeping indigent who was propped against the wall. After reading the menu, I pulled a couple of singles from my wallet and stuffed them into his shirt pocket.

“Is that a good idea, Chauncey?” Girtha asked. “Aren’t you just encouraging him to continue panhandling?”

“I’m just hedging a bet. A friend of mine once told me you should always give money to a homeless man: he could be Jesus working undercover.”

“Miami’s a city of stark contrasts, from the ritzy mansions on Key Biscayne to the peeling stucco cottages of Liberty City and Little Havana; from bronzed, youthful bodies on roller blades to elderly citizens who seem to have been shrunk by years in the sun. Someone once remarked that Miami is a mecca for people-watching because without effort you can see the tree-ripened grapes and the dry raisins they will become. The flashy and the trashy co-exist in a metropolis so complex and diverse that anyone can call it their own.”

The other couple at the table was a disagreeable-looking pair.  The woman, tall and fortyish, had raven-black hair and heavy white makeup that gave her a ghoulish appearance.  Her hair had been pulled into a bun so tightly that it stretched the corners of her eyes as well.  On the edge of her mouth was a small dark mole that had tiny hairs protruding from it, like the legs of a fly under a microscope.  She looked slowly around the room through hooded eyes, like a snake on stakeout outside a mouse hole.  She would have been more at home opening the door of Dracula’s castle to a stranded traveler during an evening thunderstorm or kicking Cinderella in the ass for not scrubbing the floors fast enough.  She was wearing a long-sleeved, burgundy velour dress with a high collar—not typical cruise attire.

The man with her was no bargain, either.  He radiated unpleasantness the way overripe cheese gives off stench.  Tall and lanky like his wife, his long black hair was combed straight back and fastened into a ponytail.  His most arresting features were long sideburns, which almost crept to his jaw, and a long, jagged scar that connected his left temple to his chin.  He had eight gold rings on his fingers and enough dirt under his nails to grow potatoes.  He was dressed in an expensive-looking, double-breasted silk suit and complementary designer tie—but neither helped the image: he still looked like gift-wrapped sleaze.  He had apparently succeeded at something in life, but it wasn’t something I wanted to know anything about.  When he smiled, I shuddered . . . as if someone had lifted a manhole cover to hell.

“I am Arturo Del Muerto,” he said in a heavy Spanish accent, “a businessman from Bogotá.  This is my wife, Castrada.  You must pardon her . . . she does not speak English.”

“What kind of business are you in, señor Del Muerto?” I asked.

He looked at me suspiciously; squinting with his left eye and lifting his upper lip until his top row of yellow teeth were bared.  “In your country, I would be called . . . a headhunter.”

Whatever the señor was hunting, I had a feeling it wasn’t conducive to human health or longevity.  A glance at Del Muerto had cured Girtha’s swoon, and she had picked up her knife either to butter a roll or in anticipated self-defense.

Obscured by my Panama hat and dark sunglasses, I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes: people-watching.  I could justify not buckling down to read with the hope that, in scanning my fellow passengers, I might identify a crazed killer.  However, the only person I saw with a knife and poultry was the chef at the roast turkey carving station in the buffet line.

Nonetheless, while the exercise was without benefit, it was not without interest.  A young couple wearing matching “honeymooner” shirts had their lips glued together like a snail’s belly on the glass wall of an aquarium.  Next to them, a man and woman in their fifties were doing their best to chaperone a young woman I supposed to be their overdeveloped granddaughter.

The man I cast as the grandfather had jowls that were separated by an oversized cigar that occasionally dropped ashes down his convex leghorn-white torso.  I barely restrained a chuckle when he stood up—he resembled a golf ball on two tees.  His wife’s appearance was no less intriguing.  Her lipstick, which looked like it had been applied with a paint roller, was smudged beyond the perimeter of her mouth from chain-smoking through a cigarette holder long enough to play billiards with.  Her hair was frazzled, most likely from a surfeit of tint jobs, which, sure enough, I could make out after she let it down.  Distinct layers defined where it had been dyed different colors at varying lengths. It resembled the strata of Earth from a geology textbook.  Between her lips and her hair, a pair of oversized sunglasses with rhinestone-encrusted frames attempted to cover a slightly swollen face.  I guessed the bandages had recently been removed from her latest bout with cosmetic surgery.  In fact, as I looked more closely, it appeared that her face had been lifted more often than a five-pound barbell at a busy gym.

The object of their devotion, the presumed granddaughter, was a precocious teen nymph who repeatedly jumped in and out of the pool, coyly tugging up her top after its contents had received sufficient exposure and admiration.

Beyond those highlights, all the expected components of the passenger pool were present as well.  I picked out matrons that were trying to peddle their spinster daughters, hoping to achieve at sea what they had failed to do on land; nubile ingénues who displayed their assets under the pretense of working on stubborn tan lines; retired CEOs who were enjoying the fruits of their golden parachutes; recent divorcees who found themselves back on the market, their reentry financed with hard-won alimony awards; couples hoping to jump-start their boring marriages with a change of scenery; widows heavily involved with gin—playing it half the time and drinking it the other half.  I noted women with their gigolos, hoping for love but settling for checkbook sex; and men with their rented mistresses who moaned on cue and stroked sugar daddy’s ego like a racehorse’s groom.  I even spotted some gays, cavorting in thongs, rubbing lotion on each others’ bodies with fawning gusto and bitchy delight.  Relatively few families ventured into my line of sight, probably because of the length and expense of the cruise.  I could have observed indefinitely, but my attention was suddenly captured by the appearance of a familiar figure.

Bellying up to the poolside bar, and ogling all that lay before him, was señor Del Muerto.  Martini in hand, he strutted among the sunning beauties, flexing his biceps and holding his stomach in whenever he made eye contact.  In spite of his efforts, he wasn’t getting much response—though I couldn’t have guessed what part of his appearance was to blame: the black lace-up street shoes he was wearing with a pair of dark dress socks held up by red garters; the crotch of his black nylon swimming suit, which sagged and swung obscenely from side to side like the pendulum of a grandfather clock; or the large jagged scar on his hairy chest that resembled a fire break through a dense forest.

“Señor McFadden!” he greeted upon seeing me.  “What brings you out in el sol, amigo?  You look like you be more at home in a bakery, no es verdad?”  He laughed at his own humor before spitting an olive pit into the pool.

“And you’d look more at home in a lineup, Del Muerto.  What do we have to thank for your appearance today—early parole?  Or did you break out of the pen in the laundry truck again?”

His response was a sneer that curdled the coconut cream in my piña colada. “You funny man, señor McFadden.  You lucky I like you, el gordo,” he said, while pulling a switchblade from the front of his bathing suit.  “This knife is not the only lethal weapon I keep in here, you know.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t look away quickly enough to avoid seeing him grab his crotch.  Fortunately, this conversation about Del Muerto’s testicular excess was short-lived.

“I must go now to shoot some skeets.  You want to join me?”

“Why would I want to shoot skeets?  They taste like clay and they’re hard to tenderize, no matter how long you marinate them.”

“May I ask you a question, Joey?”

“Sure.  I’m out of the closet now.”

I was surprised at the turn in the conversation and offered my support.  “Congratulations on being so open about your homosexuality—”

“I’m not gay.  I’m a recovered agoraphobic,” he chortled.  “Gotcha!”

“Erickson, you can skip the white-collar peccadilloes.  I’m not interested in people with unpaid traffic tickets.  I’m looking for a sadist who can methodically and dispassionately carve people up like a Pacific Northwest totem pole.”

“All right, all right, give me a minute,” I heard Erickson say over the sound of rustling paper. “Are you interested in rape, sodomy, or incest?”

“Only as a voyeur.  Skip those, too—our crimes aren’t of a sexual nature.”

“Joey,” I greeted, hoisting myself up on an adjacent stool.  “Isn’t it a little early to be drinking lunch?”

“It’s vodka and vodka—the latest Soviet diet fad . . . the rage of Caspian fat farms.” Joey lifted his head from his crossed arms on the bar.

“Judging by the number of shot glasses you’ve stacked, you’d better fasten the seat belt on your bar stool.”

“It’s the weather.  “Storms at sea make me nervous.  It’s either vodka or Dramamine, and I ran out of the latter hours ago.  Look out there,” he pointed to the wall of glass being buffeted by howling gusts of wind and water.  “It’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

“Don’t worry,” I comforted.  “The Captain’s name isn’t Noah, the cruise isn’t scheduled for forty days and forty nights, and we’re one comedian short of the required pair.”

“You’ll do in a pinch,” he complimented.

“Look, Chauncey,” Girtha said, looking up from a bottle she’d removed from a shelf.  “This is Mambo Maybelle’s Magic Love Elixir.  It says on the back label that if you ‘slip a couple of drops of this secret formula into your lover’s beverage, it promises to turn him into a human tripod.’”

“Forget it, Girtha.  The only way I could become a human tripod is if my two legs were amputated.”

Girtha looked puzzled, replaced the bottle, and pulled down a cookbook.  After thumbing through the pages a moment, she appeared infused with sudden enthusiasm.  “This cookbook has recipes for ritualistic cooking.  You can induce spells of love . . . pain . . . whatever . . . by using certain herbs and consecrated ingredients.  Here’s a recipe for ‘Grab His Groin Gumbo’—I’m going to copy that one,” she said, searching through her purse for a pad and pencil.

“Might as well; that won’t be on the menu at Waffle House.  Hey, here’s one— ‘Jump Her Bones Jambalaya’.”

“Nothing to tell,” I told her.  “She was memorable but short-lived—like a rented prom dress.”

“I’d be afraid to give him even one bullet, though.  When it comes to security, he’s as helpless as a monkey trying to fuck a wet football.”

Constancia glanced at her watch. “Speaking of Bo, I have a date to trip the light fantastic with your new sidekick, so I’ll give him the news: I’m dying to see the look on his face. But, I do have one question about him…”

“Fire away.”

“Bo is certainly a studly specimen, but do any parts north of his navel work?”

“He’s not a dazzling, sophisticated urbanite but don’t be taken in by his cornpone ambience. He’s as solid as he wants to be. As for tonight, just hold a nickel between your knees and you should be

safe.”

Constancia stood and brushed her hair back from her face. “I never take loose change on a date. Besides I’m a little curious—I could feel him poking my knees at dinner, and he was sitting on the other side of the table.”

“Limbo looks pretty interesting,” Constancia said, after watching one agile dancer inch his way under the stick. “I’d like to give it a try.”

Bo laughed and nodded at her healthy bust. “Sweet thing, the only way you could get under that stick is face down. But, I may give it a try.”

Constancia looked at Bo sweetly, smiled, and counterattacked: “Pocket rocket, the only way you could get under that stick is to tie your willy to your leg.”

“Tit for tat,” Bo replied, enjoying this repartee.

“You wish, tat,” Constancia shot back.

Girtha and I were in stitches. “You two ought to take your testosterone-and-estrogen act on the road. You could be a contemporary update of Nick and Nora Charles, replete with raging hormones, who

spar with each other more than they fight with criminal forces.”

“That sounds like a great idea to me,” Bo said enthusiastically. “Can we start rehearsing the love scenes now?”

“Let’s wait for the script. Oh,” Constancia exclaimed, touching Bo’s arm sympathetically. “That may be a problem for you—you’d have to know how to read—and act.”

Bo laughed. “They can do a voice-over unless we’re in bed; then, I’ll do my own voice and stunts. I’ll have you know I was in a couple of plays in high school—I even played King Lear.”

“Bo,” Constancia laughed, “the closest you’ve been to royalty is watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Constancia and Bo were nearer the water. She was laying face down on her blanket, her face resting on her crossed arms and the string to her bikini top lying listlessly at her side. He had worked

himself into a straddling position over her thighs and had advanced from lotion application to massage.

“Sweet thing, your little old body is just full of tension. You must have a stressful job. Good thing you took a few days off when you did. It’s going to take me a while to work out all these knots.”

Constancia’s only response was to purr and say, “I must admit, for a man with such a hard head you do have soft hands…”

“I was raised on a farm. I had to milk thirty cows every morning before breakfast. Turn over and I’ll show you my technique.”

Constancia smiled. “I rather suspect your technique was developed in the back seat of a ‘57 Chevy at the Hoot ‘n Holler Drive-In–not in the family barn.”

“There, too. In both scenarios, I had ‘em mooing contently, begging for more.”

“Most of the Caribbean islands are usually agreeable to extradition requests. They’re eager to avoid the expense of lengthy and costly trials and prison confinement,” Bo said.

“You were pretty rough on poor Fifi last night,” Constancia said with a grin.

“I was trying to prepare her for the rough nights ahead. You know as well as I do that with that face and figure, she’ll be passed around like kielbasa hors d’oeuvres at a Polish wedding reception.”

Constancia smiled. “Sadly, that’s true. If you ever visit a women’s prison, you’ll hear a lot of them refer to themselves as a ‘LURD.’”

“What’s a LURD?” Girtha asked innocently.

“Lesbian Until Release Date,” Constancia replied.

“Speaking of weddings, I’ll never forget the last one I went to,” Bo said.

“I’ll bet you’ve never been to a wedding where the bride wasn’t eight months pregnant, waddling down the aisle with four little barefoot bastards picking their noses and hanging on to the hem of

her dress and marrying a close relative who was being nudged to the altar by a shotgun held at his back.” Constancia teased.

“That’s true for most of the weddings in my part of the country,” Bo acknowledged. “My own wedding had to be postponed a couple of times until enough bridesmaids could be bailed out of the slammer to attend it.”

“You were married?” Constancia asked in disbelief.

“That’s a fact, sweet thing.”

“How long did your marriage last?”

“One day.”

“One day? What happened?”

“Right after the wedding ceremony, my mother-in-law opened the bathroom door at the church and caught me with my pants down.”

“What’s wrong with that? She should have knocked first.”

“I was in there with the naked maid of honor.”

I shook my head. “That must be some kind of record, Bo. I’ve had bowel movements that lasted longer than your marriage.”

“My intentions are good; it’s just that I get easily distracted,” Bo said, shaking his head in comic introspection.

Sep 242014
 

“Have you been to the authorities?” I asked.

“I just got back from the police station,” she said.

“What did they say?”

“They weren’t very encouraging,” she confided.

I sat down and leaned back in my chair, brimming with confidence gained from five years of exposure to police personnel and procedure. “Let me guess. They said they wouldn’t be able to launch an investigation anytime soon because of budget cutbacks.”

“No, that’s not it,” she replied.

“Then they said they couldn’t do anything because of a manpower shortage due to the current crime wave.”

“No, that’s not it, either.”

My confidence eroding, I leaned forward and said, “Then they told you that since your niece was not a prominent citizen whose demise had provoked a public outcry, her murder had been shoved to the back burner?”

“No, that’s still not it.”

Crestfallen, I surrendered. “So, what did they say?”

“They said they didn’t give a shit.”

I sighed and leaned back in my chair. “I’m afraid that’s pretty much the lowest rung on the crime investigation ladder. Don’t hold your breath waiting for an arrest.”

While she was looking me over, I looked her over—a much more pleasant undertaking. She was a striking brunette, a head taller than I was, with dark brown eyes and an hourglass figure that had more sand in the top than the bottom.

It was not difficult to keep pace with the dotty old seneschal. He exhibited the gait of a man afflicted with pernicious hemorrhoids or suffering the ambulatory after-effects of four decades on a rural Southern chain gang.

“She told me once about this stud she was dating who was unusually well-endowed. She said the last time she saw anything that long, it was swimming up the Amazon swallowing small children on the river bank.”

Pobloski had hired me a couple of years back to find his runaway teenage daughter. I finally located her in Utah, at a maverick religious commune, the Church of the Parallel Divinity—a congregation whose members claimed to be direct descendents of Jesus’ brother, Mycroft. I thought Mycroft was Sherlock Holmes’ brother, but then theology was never my strong suit.

She fluttered her false eyelashes, which were long enough to string a bow.

“What did it say?”

“Nothing, really,” she replied.

“Funny thing about ‘nothing,’” I replied. “It happens most of the time, and in most places, but I don’t believe it happened here.”

She hesitated. I prepared myself to be told either an insignificant truth or a significant lie.

“Did Dr. Rutledge ever discuss his wife with you?”

“Only in general or incidental terms.”

“Did he ever mention his suspicions of her infidelity?”

“That wouldn’t be general or incidental.”

“The car smells new,” I said to The Thing.

“Traded other car in,” The Thing replied. “Blood stains on upholstery wouldn’t come out.”

My uneasiness returned but was interrupted by a loud thump from the rear of the car as we accelerated from a stoplight.

“Maybe you should stop the limo and secure your cargo,” I suggested, planning a dash for freedom at the first opportunity.

“Not stop,” said The Thing. “Just a body. Keeping there ’til The Cleaner from Chicago can acid-wash.”

“The Cleaner better get a move on,” I advised. “It’s going to be hard getting the crew at the car wash to vacuum the trunk with a dead body sprawled in it.” The Thing stared straight ahead without reacting. “As an option, you could prop him in line at the social security office: it’d be months before they discovered he was dead.”

“Judge Barrington did instruct me to cooperate with your investigation, sir. Therefore, I am obliged to do so. Miss Barrington—Jill—can perhaps best be described as a collector.”

Without his teeth, Montrose sounded like a bad re-broadcast of a nineteen thirties radio show. “You mean like a numismatist or philatelist?” I asked.

“Not exactly, sir. You see, Miss Barrington is a collector of orgasms.”

His response caused my head to jerk back, flinging my clip-on bow tie into adjacent shrubbery.

“She is reputed to have one of the largest collections in the occidental world.”

I arrived in Long Beach around two in the afternoon. The sky was overcast, which gave the downtown area an even more dismal appearance than usual. I found the Joy Stick Lounge on a little street off Long Beach Boulevard and eased into a space against the curb.

Inside, I gave my eyes a moment to transition from sun-drenched sidewalk to dark, chilled bar. My adjusting vision disclosed the Joy Stick to be a typical neighborhood watering hole, complete with the obligatory jars of pickled hard-boiled eggs and a rack of Slim Jims at the end of the counter. Behind the bar, a few neon signs flickered intermittently, like pinioned fireflies. Beside me, at the door, I looked down upon a vacant pool table whose slate guts were peeking through a tear in the jaded green felt.

At the bar, a couple of alley queens with faces as weather-beaten as old concert posters on a barrio fence were singing along to an Englebert Humperdinck ballad that oozed forth from a scratched recording in the juke box. Neither the queens nor Englebert were appreciated, however, by one thin desperado with a ponytail whose face was sprawled on the bar between empty glasses and an overflowing ashtray.

There’s a bar like this in every navy town. At night, the cash registers are kept ringing by sailors on liberty, women who materialize from nowhere to help said sailors enjoy their liberty, and night workers getting fortified for the third shift. In addition to those seeking a good time and laughs, others come and drink to remember or to forget. I’ve never been able to distinguish one group from the other; I’m not sure they can either.

The day is a different story. The stools are filled halfway to capacity by mid-morning with all the gallimaufry in the area. Hugging the bar are welfare recipients trying to accelerate the tortuous, slow passage of time and retirees who spend their days in meaningless chatter and sauterne—people who, for the price of a drink, get a bit of conversation and attention that is otherwise difficult for them to secure. Their dialogue is always about the future or the past—current circumstances are conspicuously avoided. The regulars entertain each other with apocryphal tales that recall successes in days gone by or anticipate the big score that lies ahead, as soon as they get that one long-awaited, long-overdue break.

A few patrons stare blankly into eternity, their visual rigidity interrupted by occasional sips of gin. I always suspected that the stares were deceptive; that behind the placid masks raged a turmoil created by the conflict of memories rehashed into oblivion, dreams deferred, and ambitions thwarted—blank faces that served little purpose but to give identity to the manifestation of death. Their shoulders sagged, as if already slumping under the burden of the grim reaper’s cloak.

Looking around, I didn’t see anyone who’d have been carded in at least four decades. The only things needed to complete the transformation of this place into a senior citizens center was for the government to deliver free surplus cheese or a Baptist Sunday school class to pass out peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches on paper plates or a country-western social club to conduct line-dancing classes. I felt the eerie chill of death’s waiting room: lonely souls trying to fan the embers of their youth but the ashes would have none of it. I suspected that when a regular died, they either propped him up against the juke box or pickled him for posterity, like the hard-boiled eggs on the counter.

The bartender acknowledged my presence and walked nonchalantly to my end of the bar. “What’ll it be, bub?”

“I’ll have what the locals have,” I replied.

He returned a moment later with a double shot of rotgut and a beer chaser. “That’ll be two singles.”

“Got a moment, friend?” I asked.

He leaned on the bar with a scowl, which suggested that hospitality was not to be taken for granted. His gray, steel-wire flattop crowned a square face, a jutting jaw, and two cauliflower ears. His short-sleeved shirt was open to the waist so that it displayed parts of a tattoo mural that began at his knuckles, advanced to his clavicles, and descended to at least his navel. The design was difficult to follow, but it must have been etched while he was in a drunken stupor in the studio of Diego Rivera during the latter’s most fervent anti-gringo period.

Resisting intimidation, I pressed on. “I’m looking for a woman—”

“Ain’t we all—” he interrupted. “Take your dance card someplace else, bub. The women here will either puke in your shirt pocket or die on you halfway through the two-step.”

As I deliberated my next move, my thoughts were interrupted by the shuffling of feet. I looked up and noticed that almost everyone had stopped what they were doing and were migrating to the open windows. Out of curiosity, I stood and went to join them.

Initially, I saw patients in wheelchairs and rockers on the front porch of an adjacent residential building. But, then I focused on the object of their attention: an ambulance had quietly glided up the driveway and was slowly circling the building. Still under full gaze, it backed up to a door in the rear. A few minutes later, a gurney and its sheet-draped cargo was wheeled out by two briskly moving attendants.

I would not easily forget the looks on the patients’ faces. They knew the bell had tolled, and while it had not tolled for any of them on this occasion, its clarion call would not indefinitely be denied. They turned away and shuffled back to their previous pursuits, comforted by relief that it was not them on the gurney, but saddened by the inevitability that death was one day closer.

Time is a bitch, I thought. Lips that used to laugh, now mumbled; hair that used to glisten and cascade, now was as sparse and dull as colonial pewter; fingers that used to excite and create, were now brittle and frail; and eyes that used to sparkle and attract, were now listless and pale.

“This job is neat because it’s giving me some practical experience. I’m majoring in hotel management.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that working at the Magic Fingers Motel to learn about hotel management was like analyzing camel manure to gain insight into the engineering of the pyramids.

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