“Woman Murdered With Vibrator.”
As macabre as it sounded, the headline was not a figment of someone’s perverse imagination. There it was, on page one of the Metro section in the Los Angeles Times. My attention captured, I folded the newspaper to the article in question. It was uncomfortably warm in the small bathroom of my private detective agency and I fanned myself for a minute before reading on.
In the lurid style of crime journalism, the article proceeded to describe how one “Boom Boom” Saperstein, an exotic dancer at one of North Hollywood’s “gentlemen’s clubs,” had been found dead, floating in her bathtub, the murder weapon still inside her. Electrocution was given as the cause of death, in spite of the fact that the vibrator’s electrical cord had been unplugged from the wall and lay innocently on the floor. Also noted in the story was the fact that Ms. Saperstein was the five-hundredth homicide of 1980.
I was just beginning to get into the more graphic forensic details of the article when the bell over the door of my office jingled, indicating the arrival of company. I finished my business and opened the bathroom door a crack to preview my visitor. A soft whistle nearly escaped my pursed lips. Standing in my office, looking out the window, was a stunning creature, the kind I thought only existed in the celluloid world of aerobic workout tapes. She was tall, about five ten, and wore skin-tight designer jeans with a yellow halter that was under considerable stress. Her hair was several shades lighter than her halter and cascaded down her back, terminating in tawny curls midway between her shoulder blades and waist. Her stiletto heals clicked nervously as she began pacing back and forth across my chipped parquet floor.
I quietly closed the door and took a few extra minutes to tuck in my shirt, straighten my clip-on bow tie, and brush the wide lapels of my green plaid jacket. After putting on my broadest smile, I stepped into the room with my hand extended. To my surprise, the statuesque vision had vanished, leaving no evidence of her presence except the lingering fragrance of her perfume. In her place, almost swallowed up by an old armchair in the corner, sat another woman.
This lady was a far cry from her predecessor. She was diminutive, elderly, and plain; surrounded by a nimbus of withered and wrinkled weariness. Her dull, gray hair was drawn tightly into a bun, its simplicity matched by her dark gabardine frock. Her most salient attribute was her drabness. She spoke in an indistinctive, cracked voice.
“Yes,” I replied before asking, “Did you happen to see a young woman in here only a moment ago?”
“No, but I saw one jump into a car by the curb as I was entering the building.”
“I wonder what she wanted,” I mused. “Well, probably not important. What may I do for you, madam?”
She looked around the sparsely furnished room purposefully. In addition to the chair in which she was submerged, the room contained only a folding chair, a used metal desk purchased at a garage sale, a telephone and answering machine, an appointment book, and a two-drawer file cabinet.
Sensing her disapproval, I offered a pseudo-apology. “Please pardon the appearance of this room, madam. It’s a recently opened branch office and the decorators are in the process of sketching some layouts for my review.” I had been tempted to tell her that, like the poet Phillip Larkin, deprivation was to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth but I refrained.
She took another look around and sniffed audibly. “Mr. McFadden, I may have a job for you. It could involve some danger. Do you have a pistol?”
That was a loaded question. Somewhere in my possession I did have a revolver. However, infrequent use had eroded its value since most of my cases involved rather mundane fare such as matrimonial infidelity, missing persons, background checks for pre-nups and child custody, insurance fraud, evidence procurement, and surveillance. Truth be known, I was more at home with a camera than a firearm.
“A private investigator’s license in California doesn’t allow me to carry a concealed weapon. However, I can ‘pack a piece’ if the situation warrants it. Incidentally, may I have the pleasure of an introduction?”
“I’m Rubella Saperstein.”
“Saperstein . . . Saperstein . . . that name sounds familiar.” I rubbed my chin and studied her thoughtfully.
“It was in all the papers this morning. My niece was murdered night before last. Poor Cleotha.”
“Was she the strip . . . uh . . . dancer who was found murdered with a vib . . . uh . . . who was electrocuted in the bathtub?”
“Yes.” Her answer was sandwiched between sighs.
“How can I help you, Mrs. Saperstein?”
“I want you to find her killer. My niece worked a couple of miles from here so I know the area. I picked you out of the yellow pages because of your address. I don’t have much money, but I figured that anyone setting up shop in this part of town couldn’t be charging very much.”
I could see that getting her to speak with candor was not going to be difficult.
“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.”
She nodded her head twice in defeated agreement. “It’s clear that if justice is to be had, it will have to be bought and paid for. I don’t have much in the way of savings, but I’d like to see poor Cleotha’s death avenged, if the price is right.” She cocked her head and looked down her nose at me with suspicion. “And, just how much do you charge, Mr. McFadden?”
“My normal rates are $100 a day plus expenses, but you’re in luck. Since your niece was in the entertainment industry, I can extend a professional courtesy discount, which would amount to $49.95 per day plus expenses.”
After a moment of eyebrow-scrunched reflection, she replied, “I guess that’s reasonable enough. Do I pay you now?”
“Two days in advance for a couple of reasons. First, consideration such as money is necessary to validate an offer and its acceptance and to form a binding contract of mutual assent. Second, such consideration officially establishes a principal and agent relationship between us which authorizes me to act on your behalf in all matters within the sphere of my appointment.”
She absorbed this information for a moment before accepting my offer. “All right, Mr. McFadden . . .” She leaned forward, reached into her canvas satchel, and pulled out a roll of money. I watched as she removed some rubber bands that compressed the currency into a tight cylinder. Then, I watched as she slowly peeled off a one-hundred-dollar bill—I thought I saw Ben Franklin blink, probably dazzled by the rare exposure to light—and I watched as she rubbed it vigorously between her thumb and forefinger to ensure that two bills were not stuck together. Satisfied that only one had been successfully extricated from its colleagues, she resecured the roll and stashed it back into the satchel. “. . . Here you are.” Finally, this mesmerizing vignette mercifully ended and she handed me the payment.
Even at an arm’s distance, the bill exuded the smells of arthritis ointment and mattress mold—the aromas of the old and frugal—but I quickly accepted it and slipped it into my pocket.
“Can you start on the case right away?”
“Let me check my calendar and see.” I picked up the appointment book, hoping she hadn’t noticed how dusty it was, and licked my index finger before thumbing through the nearly blank pages. Other than a few paper lice that were unaccustomed to disturbance, I found no conflicts, which I well knew.
“You’re in luck, Mrs. Saperstein,” I said. “There does appear to be an opening into which I can squeeze you.”
“Thank you, Mr. McFadden. I’m very pleased.” The wrinkles around her mouth softened into what I assumed to be a smile. Her voice went up a note and she touched her hands together. That was probably as close to frenzy as she ever got. I reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a small spiral notebook.
“I’d like to get some information from you, Mrs. Saperstein, if I may. First off, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a housekeeper for a wealthy man in San Marino. I live in the servants’ quarters.”
I flipped a few pages and jotted the information down. “Thank you. Now, tell me about your niece.”
“I raised Cleotha from infancy,” she said wistfully. “Her parents were killed when she was a baby, and I’m all the family she’s ever known.”
“How did her parents die?”
“They were trampled to death years ago in an after-Christmas bargain basement sale at Blaufelt’s department store. Their battered bodies were found beneath a pile of fluorescent Nehru jackets by the cleaning staff the next day. It was horrible. Thank God, Cleotha was too young to remember.”
“I’m sorry. Please, go on,” I urged.
“Cleotha was such a good girl when she was growing up—Girl Scouts, good grades, honor society, you know; all the right friends. However, when she got to be fourteen or so, she started running around with a fast crowd and I began to lose control of her. She wouldn’t listen to me anymore and became rebellious and disobedient.” Mrs. Saperstein paused, absorbed in recollection.
“She was a well-developed girl. In fact, that was the cause of her problems: her body matured faster than her judgment. She began flirting with boys and leading them on. I’ll never forget the first time I had to put up bail for her: she’d surrendered her virginity in the end zone during halftime at a Rams game. Five men were arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, including the place kicker and free safety.”
“She certainly sounds precocious.”
“As soon as Cleotha graduated from high school, she ran away from home. She got a job at the Glad Gland, a seedy strip joint in North Hollywood.”
“Is that when she adopted the stage name, Boom Boom?” I asked.
“No,” Mrs. Saperstein replied. “She’d picked that nickname up earlier in high school. After football games, she used to do the dirty boogie with the starting players on top of the wooden planks in the bleachers. I was told that the noise made by these loose boards as they rhythmically slapped her bouncing booty sounded like ‘boom-boom-boom-boom’ and the nickname stuck. Her yearbook has more athletes’ autographs than the Pro Football Hall of Fame.” Mrs. Saperstein stopped to recompose herself and blink away a painful memory.
“I’m beginning to see a pattern,” I said, briefly basking in the visual of her explanation.
“Yes, well, at the Glad Gland, she danced and stripped, danced and stripped. By the time her act was over, all she had on was two sequins and a boa constrictor named Mohammed Al-Said. The snake’s name used to be Jefferson or Jackson or something, but Cleotha changed it when Muslim names became trendy in the black community.”
“When was the last time you saw your niece?”
“Yesterday.” Mrs. Saperstein dabbed gingerly in the corners of her eyes. “She was laid out stark naked on a slab at the morgue. They called me in to identify the body.”
“Actually, I meant . . . while she was alive.”
“Hmmm. Three or four months ago, I’d say. Cleotha rarely called or came to see me. She led her own life and did as she pleased.”
“Did she have any friends or acquaintances with whom I could talk?”
“She shared an expensive house with a girl named Wanda Latouche, another dancer at the Glad Gland. I never met the girl, though.”
“Was your niece having problems with anyone?” I observed Mrs. Saperstein knotting and twisting a well-worn handkerchief.
“Not that I know of. As I said earlier, I haven’t seen her much since she left home. But if she was in some kind of trouble, she would have come to see me. She knew I was always there for her.”
“All right, Mrs. Saperstein. I’ll see what I can do. If the police do deem this crime to be of little significance, they may allow me to ferret around.” I tore a page out of the notebook and slid it, with my pen, across the table. “Please write down your address and telephone number so I’ll know where to reach you.”
She reached in her pocket and removed some wire-frame glasses that were held together by a paper clip. Then, after obliging my request, she deftly slipped my pen into her satchel. She looked up sweetly. “Is there anything else you need?”
I nodded my head while wondering: why do I always get these clients? “Do you have a picture of Cleotha that I might borrow?”
“Yes,” she replied. She rummaged inside her satchel and handed me a snapshot. “This picture was taken more recently than the one they used in the papers.”
I slipped the picture into my desk drawer. “That should conclude our business for now, Mrs. Saperstein. I’ll contact you as soon as I have something to report.”
She didn’t budge.
“I believe I have ten cents coming.”
“I beg your pardon?” I asked.
“I paid for two days in advance at $49.95, which comes to a total of $99.90. I gave you $100.00; that means I should receive ten cents back.”
I excused myself, walked out to the vending machine in the hall and gave it a swift, well-placed kick. A couple of nickels trickled down into the coin return, and I returned to my office to give Mrs. Saperstein her change. She then used my pen to record the transaction in a black ledger, resumed her death grip on the satchel, and left as silently as she had arrived.