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
 

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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