Melkoff wasn’t your typical attorney. Court-martialed by the Army for theft and sale of government provisions, Melkoff plea-bargained a felony grand theft down to misdemeanor petty theft. He productively used his cell time at Fort Leavenworth cramming for a law degree through correspondence courses. Once released he had his record expunged of the petty theft charge, passed the bar exam on the first try, and used his newly-acquired legal expertise to open up a low-overhead practice dedicated to the pursuit and accumulation of personal wealth. If any justice was realized through his legal shenanigans, it was purely incidental. Our relationship was based upon mutual referrals. I referred people to him who were facing jail time, and he referred people to me who sought physical evidence —real or imagined—to beat the rap.
Melkoff had just hung up the phone when I entered his sanctorum after knocking a couple of times on the frosted glass panel of his office door. He was leaning back in his chair with his fingers interlaced over his stomach. Even when his face was inert, the upturned ends of his dark, thin mustache periodically twitched. He resembled Snidely Whiplash’s evil twin who had just returned from tying poor pregnant Nellie to the railroad track in the path of an oncoming train after shooting her dog and selling her infant siblings to sexually predatory foster parents.
His office was better furnished than mine, but not by much. His bookcase overflowed with volumes of the California criminal code and other assorted law books. While they were covered with dust and cobwebs, the stack of Hustler magazines on the bottom shelf was spotless.
“McFadden, how they hanging, babe? Got any business for me?”
“I don’t know Melkoff,” I said hesitantly. “The last time I referred a client to you she received a five-year stretch in the pen for simple solicitation.”
“Oh, her,” Melkoff pooh-poohed after a pause. “Her retainer bounced. She shoulda known that an attorney is like a pimp: you cheat them at your own peril.”
That was an interesting analogy . . . and entirely appropriate in Melkoff’s case.
“Did I read an article about you in the papers the other day, my jaundiced jester of jurisprudence?”
“What about?” Melkoff asked suspiciously.
“The State Bar of California pursuing some charges of professional misconduct against you.”
“Oh, that,” Melkoff said, reacting with obvious disdain. “I lost my initial plea at the Hearing Department of the State Bar Court, but I’ve filed an appeal with its Review Department. If I lose there, my next step is to take it to the Supreme Court of California. No big deal. I’ll keep this case tied up until I’m ready to retire to a country that doesn’t have an extradition agreement with the U.S.”
“The L. A. Times was a little vague. What were the Bar’s allegations?”
Melkoff yawned and twisted the ends of his mustache. “The Bar claimed I had formulated a conspiracy to help agribusinesses hire illegal aliens and supply them with phony green cards. They said that in return for developing this illicit arrangement and providing ongoing legal support, I was illegally compensated from federal and state income taxes, FICA deductions, and California employment taxes that had been paid by undocumented workers, but siphoned off to me by the participating companies.”
“How are you going to tap dance around this charge . . . sorry, Melkoff . . . how are you planning to work some legal prestidigitation and get the Bar to see the error of their ways and recant?”
Melkoff yawned. “They took a very biased, narrow view of my accounting methodology. They claimed we were guilty of a conspiracy to defraud the government and harbor illegal aliens. I was simply holding these funds in an escrow account pending the resolution of determinative legal issues.”
“What kind of escrow account was it and where was it located?”
Melkoff started to squirm a little and shifted in his chair. “Well, I haven’t had time to actually set up a separate escrow account so I temporarily deposited the money in a personal account in the Cayman Islands for safekeeping.”
“Then what’s the problem? Why can’t you simply withdraw the money and send it along its merry way to the state and the IRS?”
Melkoff smiled. “Unfortunately, a lot of these workers left their employers—there’s a high turnover rate among this destabilized workforce, you know—before social security numbers could be obtained for them. Without those numbers, we have no way of reporting income tax or OASDI payments.”
“Did the workers even know they were having these taxes deducted?”
Melkoff successfully suppressed a faint smile. “I can’t answer that. The human resources departments at these companies are responsible for personnel administration, and I’m unable to comment on the quality of the services they may or may not have provided.”
“And when the workers disappear,” I added, “there are no plaintiffs to seek judicial relief or pursue the disappearance of their contributions. I suspect you don’t have valid addresses, even if you wanted to return the money.”
Melkoff shook his head in mock empathy. “You got it, gumshoe. These unclaimed funds have to escheat to somebody and it might as well be to me rather than the state of California.”
I slowly and sarcastically clapped in appreciation of Melkoff’s performance and then dried some imaginary tears with my handkerchief. Rising to my feet, I said, “Melkoff, you’re the only guy I know who could have gotten an acquittal for John Wilkes Booth. By the way, have a few of my new business cards,” I offered, handing him a dozen from my pocket. “Maybe you can keep them on the table over there.”
Melkoff looked at one of the cards and started laughing. When his wheeze subsided, he asked, “Has your business been a little slow lately?”
“This card says ‘McFadden and Associates, Defective Agency.’ Now that’s what I call truth in advertising. As I’ve always said, you’re a humble man who has much to be humble about. And the only associates you have are the mice that run around your office at night.”
“Stupid printer,” I groused as I stormed out the door.
Del Dotto was thumbing through a stack of pictures of naked women when I walked in.
“Good morning, lieutenant. Are you reviewing evidence from a porno bust or sorting pictures from your last family reunion?”
“McFadden,” Del Dotto greeted, looking up. “What brings your fat ass out of Weight Watchers? Looking for doughnuts left over from our morning staff meeting? Or you here to file a complaint against Big Belly Buffet for declaring you persona non grata? You got no grounds for complaint because the buffet has legal precedent: the Las Vegas casinos that bar professional gamblers who know how to game the system.”
Del Dotto was a royal pain. I only endured his insults as the price I had to pay for his assistance and access to official information vital to my investigations. He had a low regard for PIs in general, and tolerated me because I handled cases given low priority by his department.
“It’s nice seeing you, too, Luther. I was hoping for a favor in appreciation for the Barrington murder case that I solved but you took credit for.”
Del Dotto took one last longing look at the nudes and dug at his crotch. “What’s the favor, porcus maximus?”
Then lapsing into a look of rapture that clearly wasn’t intended for me, Del Dotto said, “Red-hot Ruby is a first-class ball-buster. Anybody who can hang onto that for eight seconds ought to win rodeo prize money.” Del Dotto lapsed into a lecherous grin that could have peeled the wood veneer off a Catholic confessional booth. “She’s got a pair that won’t quit. I saw her floating on her back in a pool at the police picnic last summer and I could have sworn it was a Bactrian camel, you know, the ones with—”
“Two humps. I got it, lieutenant.”
Fortunately, Del Dotto had finished his ribald Chaucerian tale before a tap on the door frame got our attention. Entering the room was a tall, statuesque African-American woman in a dark blue skirt with long, straight, coal-black hair drawn into a bun. Her light ebony complexion and dark eyes made her bright red lipstick and dazzling white teeth even more dramatic. Del Dotto was right about her bust line. She had a badge pinned to her white blouse but it faced more ceiling than wall.
She didn’t appear to be too excited at being in Del Dotto’s office, but I had a feeling that she could hold her own with the grotesque groper.
“You wanted to see me?”
Del Dotto glared at her like a sex-starved deviant looking through a peephole at a carnival strip show and audibly moaned. “Detective Roberts, you’re a sight for sore eyes but business first. I have some good news and some bad news for you.”
After a moment of silence, she responded, “Am I supposed to guess? Or, more importantly, do I even care?”
Del Dotto ploughed on despite her verbal disinterest. “The good news is that my wife died this morning and I’m socially available. How about dinner tonight? If you play your cards right you might find out why I was a champion pole vaulter with my hands tied behind my back.”
“Skip it and zip it, Luther. The only action you could get is from a raunchy, crack head hooker with VD having a going-out-of-business sale behind the dumpster at the rescue mission. Besides, a dead wife wouldn’t stop your sexual advances in any event. Consent from a living being has never been a requirement of yours.”
“Detective Roberts, you don’t know what you’re missing. I’ve cut so many notches in my bed post that I’m sleeping on a pile of wood shavings. We can pop a couple of brews and wallow around in the sawdust.”
“Go find yourself a lonely woodpecker who may appreciate your skills. Now what’s the bad news?”
Del Dotto held his hands over his heart as if he had been mortally wounded. “The bad news is that I want you to meet Chauncey McFadden. He’s a low-rent gumshoe who digs through people’s garbage trying to find something that might generate a meal ticket at a local grease hole. Occasionally, I toss him some table scraps to keep him off welfare, which is why he’s here today. By the way, don’t waste your time trying to evaluate McFadden; he really is as simple-minded and hangdog as he looks.”
Del Dotto was again having a field day at my expense. The information in those files had better be worth the abuse I was taking.
Detective Roberts extended her hand, smiled and said, “Nice to meet you, McFadden. Any enemy of Del Dotto’s is a friend of mine. What can I do for you?’
Down the hall out of Del Dotto’s earshot, I stopped Ruby and shook her hand. “That was a nice piece of work back there, getting permission to request those files. Del Dotto usually only positively responds to a woman who is bent over his desk.”
“He’s not getting any backdoor coochie from me, so the rump-humper might as well do his second favorite thing—reading his press notices. He gets off seeing his pictures or interviews in the newspapers. He spends more time looking in a mirror than a parakeet with cataracts.”
The drive from Fraher’s gave me time to think about this case, in particular, and the Vietnam War in general. To be sure, things happened of which no one is proud. There’s never been a military conflict in the history of mankind in which innocent civilians didn’t suffer, brave soldiers didn’t get killed by friendly fire, and indescribable atrocities didn’t occur. I think it was Randall Jarrell who wrote that in war, “The incongruous is the common-place homogeneous texture of all life.” But there’s an important distinction between horrible acts intentionally inflicted as a matter of military and political policy, and acts committed as a result of isolated breakdowns in the value systems of individuals. That distinction is important because if it should ever disappear, civilization—already as thin as puff pastry—would be in the twilight of its existence.
Stepping inside, we were met by a short older woman holding menus, whose dark sparkling eyes and ear-to-ear smile put you right at home. Her long hair was piled on top of her head like a bee hive and held in place by bright yellow combs. She was wearing a beautiful silk ao dai, a contoured full-length dress split between front and back panels from the waist down and worn over loose-fitting trousers. Upon seeing Ruby, she placed the menus on a lectern, brought her palms together and bowed her head. Ruby reciprocated and I, always an observer of foreign customs, followed suit.
“Miss Ruby, it warms my heart like the summer sun after a savage winter to see you again,” our hostess said, taking Ruby’s hands in her own.
“That feeling is amplified in my own heart like a tsunami roaring through a desolate mountain tunnel, Mama Pham,” Ruby returned.
“And who is this gentleman?” Mama asked, turning to address me.
Going along with the shtick, I offered, “Chauncey McFadden, just a poor troglodyte, fat of body but nimble of mind, who seeks to frolic in the bounty of Mama Pham’s kitchen in order to receive her culinary magnificence and epicurean delight.”
It was the best I could do on short notice.
“You are most welcome,” Mama Pham replied graciously. “May the door of our humble abode never be a stranger to you, but attract you in spellbound rapture like peach nectar to an inquisitive bee.”
“Your beneficence is encompassing, like the mist from a towering waterfall, Mama Pham. May your patrons be as plentiful as raindrops from an April shower, may the dishes prepared in your kitchen dazzle like morning sunlight upon a frosty field, and may the health inspector never find any cat hairs in your chow mein.”
Mama Pham giggled. “You are right; let us cut the crap.” Turning to Ruby, she asked, “Is your usual table okay?”
“Have you personally had a problem here?” I asked Mama Pham.
“Not yet. I think it may be because they fear my two sons, who are masters in the martial arts,” she said proudly. “Both boys hold 10th DAN in Japanese Gojuryu Karate, 10th DAN in Tae Kwon Do, 9th DAN in Torite Jutsu, 8th DAN in Okinawan Kempo, 5th DAN in Isshinryu, and 5th DAN Aikibudo.”
“I’m impressed. I could have used your sons against bullies in junior high that used to strong-arm my lunch money and give me wedgies and wet willies.”
“I understand. Another personal question if I may. Feel free to tell me it’s none of my business, but do you and Villaposas have a personal relationship?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“It looked like he thought you had a book printed in Braille on your ass. I haven’t seen fingers move that fast since Van Cliburn played Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu at the Performing Arts Center.”
“Did you or any of your mates know Mickey Fraher or Gerald Williams?” I asked.
“I don’t see how. They were in a different brigade covering a different AO of I Corps.”
“Area of operations. We rarely joined together for engagements. Except maybe for a Zippo mission—a search and destroy offensive—south of Hue, which turned out to be a BOHICA.”
“Bend Over, Here It Comes Again—the term used for an undesirable assignment.”
Melkoff flashed his evil grin and wagged his finger. That usually meant some aspect of justice was going to be sodomized by the adroit huckster, but I hoped that it would be for my benefit on this occasion.
“Not so fast, my garrulous gumshoe. During my confinement at Leavenworth preparing for a court-martial decision, I got to know a couple of JAG officers—Murray and Porter—who had been assigned to defend me. They had attorney friends who had been assigned to military outposts all over the world, including Vietnam. I called both of them to see if they could recall someone assigned to the Americal Division JAG staff in Chu Lai during that period. Guess what my perilous peeper?’
“You hit pay dirt?”
“Bingo. Porter’s still in the Army and remembered a good friend of his, a lieutenant named Desmond Bonney, who served two tours of duty there from 1969 to 1971. Bonney has left the Army and entered private practice. He’s with a criminal law firm up in the bay area, Leibowitz, Romberg, Weiss, Schwartz, Rabinowicz, Brandeis, Levin, Frankel, and Jackson.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask. How did Jackson manage to latch on with the menorah and matzo ball crowd?”
Melkoff looked around the room and whispered as if his office had been wiretapped. “There is no Jackson. They just added the name to keep the affirmative action activists off their case.”
“Fill ’er up with regular and check the radiator, please.”
He nodded and moseyed over to my gas tank in slow motion.
Seeking confirmation, I asked, “Is this San Arroyo Seco?”
“It sure is hot, isn’t it?”
When he had finished filling up the tank, he trudged to the front of the car, lifted the hood, and unscrewed the radiator cap with the rag in his pocket.
“Does it need water?”
“Does there appear to be a leak?’
Upon finishing his inspection, he walked back to the garage and filled a gallon bucket with water. He returned and slowly emptied its contents into the radiator.
“Do you also clean windshields here?”
After discerning no movement in that direction, I asked, “Can you clean mine?”
“Yep.” He dumped the remaining water in his bucket on my windshield.
“Thanks a lot. Do you take credit cards?”
“Do you know a dog breeder by the name of Dog Duquesne?”
“If I take a left at the second traffic light, is it far to his house?”
I handed him money for the gas.
“Change?” he asked.
He shuffled back to the garage with all deliberation. I’ve seen sunsets that moved faster than this guy. Glancing in the garage, I saw the 1970 Chevy he’d been working on. I’d bet that was the year it was dropped off for repair.
I met Ruby in the lobby of the precinct and we took the elevator to Del Dotto’s lair. We tapped on the clouded glass door panel and walked in. Del Dotto was leaning back in his chair as usual and staring into a compact mirror and replacing some stray hairs that had crossed the part in his hair.
“It looks like we interrupted a meeting of the Luther Del Dotto Admiration Society. How’s recruiting going? Found a second member yet?” I jibed.
Del Dotto, apparently satisfied with the results, slipped the mirror into his desk drawer and looked at us with annoyance. Luther was in one of his moods, which always complicate the situation.
“You rang, Mr. Benny?” I asked, in my best Rochester imitation.
“McFadden, you bloated balloon,” he said with disgust, “I’ve got a good mind to lock you up overnight in the same cell with Saddam, the Sudan sodomite, and let him bugger you non-stop until he gets cramps in his legs. The only thing stopping me is that you’d consider it a reward rather than punishment.”
“Who found him?”
“We received a tip from an anonymous caller. Possibly the same sicko who popped him. The poor bastard only had a couple of weeks to go before retirement.” Then, pointing at the pile of folders stacked on his desk, Del Dotto snarled, “Look at all the damn paperwork I gotta do because the dumb schmuck went and got himself killed.”
“Whew!” I said in sarcastic relief. “You had me fooled for a minute there, lieutenant. I was beginning to think that your grief was the result of his mortal departure, not the hassle of having to complete his burial paperwork.”
Del Dotto scoffed. “This was probably the best thing that could have happened to the old rummy. He’ll get a bronzed plaque on the Wall of Honor and a funeral with high commendations attended by cops from all over the state. He died a lot better than he lived, at least for the last ten years. His family now has something better to remember him by: a hero’s legacy rather than the embarrassment of finding him passed out in his car in the garage and picking up the empty whiskey bottles in the front yard.”
“Remind me not to have you give the eulogy at my funeral, Luther. You’ll have everybody in the mortuary pissing in my casket.”
Del Dotto scoffed, “We couldn’t get anybody to come to your funeral even if we held it at mealtime on Thanksgiving Day at the homeless shelter. If I’m in a good mood, I might have your bloated carcass squeezed into an extra-large body bag and dumped into Long Beach Harbor by a police launch.”
Del Dotto snapped his fingers, “No, on second thought, I couldn’t do that because the animal rights activists would crawl all over my ass for contaminating the sharks’ feeding areas. I guess we’ll have to move on to plan B.” Del Dotto paused for a reaction, but I wasn’t going to encourage him. “We’ll stuff your body in your car and take it to the porno flicks drive-in where you spend every Saturday night. We’ll park you in the back row and roll up the windows. Since there’s nobody who cares enough to report you missing—except maybe your creditors—your disappearance won’t be reported for weeks.”
Our silence was broken by the sound of an arriving vehicle and the flashing of a rotating blue light. After hearing two car doors slam, I creaked to my feet and admitted two police officers. One had a plain uniform with no rank insignia, which indicated deputy status, while the other sported twin gold bars on his shirt lapel, a gold badge on the front of his cowboy hat, and a name plate that said “Sheriff Titus Cowart.” There was another striking visual difference between the two: their size. The deputy was the thinnest man I’d ever seen. His face was so narrow it looked as if it had been pressed in a vise. His Adam’s apple stuck out further than his chin which was small and recessed. He reminded me of a stick figure put together with three pipe cleaners. Adding to his physical woes were oversized ears that stuck out from his head like wings on a butterfly. Equally unsettling was the fact that his eyes were three-quarters closed and his mouth three-quarters open, a bad combination as faces go. The surface of his face sported old bruises and lumps. He reminded me of a boxer at the end of the line who, like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, had nothing left but a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
Glancing over at the sheriff, I saw where the deputy’s weight had gone. Titus Cowart was a rotund man who had once flirted with the three-hundred pound mark before deciding to charge past it at breakneck speed without so much as a backward glance. He looked at me, inhaled, and pulled his thick leather belt up. As soon as he exhaled, his stomach re-collapsed burying his belt buckle and the handle of his firearm beneath cascading rolls of fat.
We entered the satanic sanctum sanctorum together for moral support. Del Dotto was cleaning his fingernails with a letter opener and without looking up said, “This ain’t Malibu, but squeeze into a seat anyway, beach ball.” Now looking up, he said, “McFadden, you gotta be the world’s biggest fuck-up. Outta deference to sweet Ruby here, I go along with your harebrained scheme to catch a notorious serial killer. Against my better judgment I gave you the resources you asked for, and requested nothing in return but a collar. Instead of taking the perp down, you stand around with your thumb up your ass like Sergeant García and let Zorro carve everybody up like a honey-baked ham. You’re damn lucky the SWAT guys report to another department and I don’t have to wade through another pile of paperwork. How in hell do you make a living? I know you couldn’t be getting any references; your clients die faster than a child molester in a San Quentin shower room. Dead bodies follow you like road shit behind a parade elephant. Let me make a suggestion: stay away from homicide cases. You’re in over your head. You got too much junk in your trunk to keep up with the faster guys who’re running circles around you. Do what you do best, which is nab the schlemiel who’s been cuttin’ farts during church service, or the teenage girl who’s been stuffing tissues in her training bra.”