“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.
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?”
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.”