“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.