The Taciturn Hottie: Part One
A Joe Downing Mystery
The following is fiction:
The streets were dark with something more than night.
– Raymond Chandler
I HAD TO GO TO PASADENA.
Mrs. Biddleman was pretty decent, and this turned out to be a very wild case. I just barely escaped with my body parts intact, to be honest. I awoke that first morning unshaven and grungy, but no surprise there. I was just on my way to the shower, hands laden with stuff, when the landline rang back in the office. I let everything fall with a nice plop. A white, soapy, oozing mess ensued.
“Is that how you treat the shampooed carpet?” This, Sammy, the custodian of the building, demanded to know of me as he calmly, slowly came up behind me (since slow is about as fast as he can go).
“Oh…..” I said, looking down at the mess, “My bad, Sammy, I got a call right when my hands were full of all this.” I continued, gesturing towards the crap: “Sorry. I’ll clean it up in a second.”
“Oh, that’s all right, Joe,” he responded, “I didn’t mean nothing by it…..no right to cry…..go answer the phone. And where you been hiding, boy? You know you’re killing me, Joe.” Sammy then hobbled away, saying to himself,
“I been trying to figure that sucker out…..that white dude…..”
The San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California run kinda on an east-west axis and sit patiently behind the patios of L.A. and Pasadena like a backdrop to a puppet show. The puppet show called “L.A.,” of course. Why a puppet show? That would be because of the strings attached. But the rugged undulations really make a great backboard for the city itself — those hills, those tall, brawny, scratchy, scrub-oak filled and Manzanita-monopolized hills, they do know where all the bodies were buried in the shadowy founding of the City of Angels. It’s like those mountains are the seats to the show.
So I picked up the L.A. Times newspaper at the Bristol Farms Café in Pasadena after getting off the freeway. I was a little early for my appointment with Mrs. Biddleman, my prospective new client. It was a warm, pleasant morning in July, so I sat outside at a heavy silver table for breakfast. I stretched my legs out and glanced over the paper. The Metro-Link train came clanging by from Claremont and from even further away, come to think of it, from Berdu. Wonder what’s going on over there? Car accidents on the 10 freeway? Now, on page two — what’s this?
Body of Saliciamon member found
in dumpster downtown: Macarthur Park
“The Times learned early this morning that the mutilated body of Ramon Gomez-Gonzalez, a reputed member of the Honduran drug cartel ‘Saliciamon,’ was found yesterday morning by a homeless man digging through the trash of a dumpster in Macarthur Park.
“The LAPD spokesman, Lt. William Braxton, did not immediately respond to questions whether the apparent homicide was gang-related, pending the investigation. He did speculate, however, that the steady, six-month trend charting increased violence downtown was most probably due to the recent influx here, studied by the University of California Los Angeles, of undocumented persons from cartel-controlled territory in the tri-state area of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
“The county coroner issued a preliminary report giving the time of death as approximately 72 hours ago as of 2am this morning, and the cause of death as strangulation and multiple stab wounds, 67 in all, to the stomach, back of the neck, chest, and the small of the back…..”
OK, wait — meanwhile, in the sports section….you know, I had just passed by the park on my way here. That park ain’t the place to be at 2am, not even when the big one hits. When I finished eating, I paid the nice-looking young lady wearing the black Jimi Hendrix tee, got back into the Corvette, and proceeded finally to the old Biddleman place in the heart of old Pasadena: to the residence of Elizabeth Anne Biddleman, that is, nee Astor, 60 years of age. When I at last met her, I knew she was the whole package from FedEx – the big hair, the suffocating fragrance, everything.
First, though, I stood on the public sidewalk looking over at the outside of this big house of hers. It was a tall and dun job with second-story windows peering down at you sternly and implacably, and there were several inset granite pillars supposedly holding up a faux-Renaissance front. A wide, neat, and meticulous lawn stretched out in the front and in the back garden, too, it turned out, with yellow, white, and red roses climbing six feet high and more on prickly, skinny, slanting, tensile vines. Pasadena is famous for its roses. They got a parade for them.
Mrs. B’s house was set back from Colorado Boulevard a good thirty yards, so much so you could have a scrimmage. I finished climbing up the steps to the porch. I walked up to that porch on a walkway of wide, blonde-colored stones, like so many trapezoids, under the sycamore, eucalyptus, and ash trees, which made sketchy patterns on the immaculate lawn. It was inviting. So, should I practice my putts here? No! Not now! So dive putts, down to my soul!
A medieval light structure thing hung down portentously on a long electric cord from the porch ceiling. It looked like it could pull the cord and everything down onto your head, it was so heavy. I kept my eye on that thing. The light was still on at 10am, feeble against the morning light of a hot day in July. A very quiet woman, dressed all in white (I named her “Guadalupe” for the moment), answered the doorbell and let me into the dark, muffled, huge interior: I was certainly expected (but for what, though?!).
Once in, Lupe led me down a long, gloomy, long (did I mention it was long?), silent, and carpeted hallway. My eyes were still full of the dazzling, splashing sun of Pasadena, so I didn’t catch a lot: some Renaissance-style paintings of some old honchos in suits, beautiful Asian earthenware poised on delicate, curving, gold-leaf tables which were themselves poised under humongous mirrors — things like that — a general sense of clueless old money, in short. The air inside, too, must have come wrapped up as an addition from medieval times — a bit stuffy and sickly.
Lupe led me into the library and motioned me to a chair: I thanked her with a nod and sat. She nodded pleasantly in return, half maid, half nurse, and went out without a sound. I busied myself with curiosity about the place while waiting for Mrs. B’s arrival. The library was barely illuminated, with bookshelves crammed with hard-cover stuff all the way up to the top of the high ceiling. More reading than you’d care to do, but it looked good. I’ve always like libraries, ever since being a kid. They’re like a church or something. The books looked carelessly put away, which made it better.
I twirled my neck all around, peering at all the strange stuff. Dark wood was everywhere. Rugs with Far Asian and Middle Eastern designs were all over the floor of the comfortable, capacious room, giving an impression of being in a crazy bazaar. I half-expected some guy named Gideon to pop up out of nowhere and try and sell me a red beret. There was certainly a lot of old junk and stuff from decades ago, still hanging around, sacred. You weren’t allowed to ever throw anything out in this household. I’m not a packrat, so I immediately notice those who are, in amazement that you could keep so much worthless nonsense around you. This room was like a giant, comfortable, old shoe. The house itself was old, too, and must’ve been built just after WWII — it had the august aura of the long-ago, talking first impression. I just sat there and waited. This went on for a while.
But as my eyes finally adjusted to the dim, I thought I beheld Miss Havisham herself perched elegantly and stiffly in front of the lacy, cloistered window which looked out onto the front lawn and onto Colorado Boulevard. Miss Havisham sat so very regally and inaccessibly behind a gargantuan wooden desk that was stained dark brown. Her eyes were closed. Then, after an interval, they slowly opened. She spoke pleasantly to me:
“Mr. Downing, I should like to thank you for arriving so very promptly, and on such short notice, too. It’s very kind of you.” Her voice was predictable sounding, a pretentious aristocratic ring to it.
“Oh, not at all,” I responded, “it’s easy as could be, Mrs. Biddleman. I’m sorry, though, for intruding on you, and that I didn’t speak up. I didn’t know you were in the room at first. The sun!” I laughed. “My eyes weren’t used to the dark yet. A very stupid start to a case for a detective!” I looked down at my hands in my lap and chuckled in self-deprecation. My voice was a little nervous.
“On the contrary, Mr. Downing, I must beg your pardon — I was the one who neglected her manners. I was meditating overlong. I apologize. But you needn’t worry, Mr. Downing, I don’t really believe it all. But you no doubt perceived my efforts?”
“Well, yes, I did, Mrs. Biddleman, after a while,” I replied, “and I really was taken by your meditating. Maybe I should learn it myself! Got to relax sometimes, that’s what I always say!” She beamed and smiled beatifically. I think she liked me. I wasn’t really gonna try it, though, I just said that. Being nice sometimes makes people say more than they should.
“Indeed yes, young man!” she said eagerly, “It works wonders for the spirit in these times of trial! I feel transcendently serene after my morning efforts. Do you know, the Dalai Lama meditates six hours a day?” Putting her hand on her upper chest as if to calm herself, a feminine habit of hers I came to notice in time, she then exclaimed, breathlessly, “Goodness me!” (Effulgent praise, to be sure, but ”transcendently serene?” O, dive thoughts!) She continued presently, the kindness in her eyes turning serious now:
“Mr. Downing, I’ll relate to you now why I called you. It’s my Ingrid. I’m concerned for my dear lost daughter, my foolish Ingrid. I’m concerned for her very safety. She’s twenty-eight, but she has a wild streak, shall I say, and she also has an awful boyfriend, this Rodriguez fellow in a drug gang downtown. He’s horrid, Mr. Downing. I think he’s a murderer and a drug-sniffer. I want you to investigate him and I want you to discredit him and I want you to find him guilty of murder so my Ingrid will forget about him. I believe he committed the murder in the park the other day, and I want you to gather the evidence and give it to the police so they can use it for the guilty verdict!” Now, is there anything else you want me to do? Light your cigarette, maybe? Wow! This was amazingly detailed for any client to be. (Not complaining.)
“Well, Mrs. Biddleman, that’s a tall order, you know,” I began slowly, “I’m sure the LAPD homicide unit and forensics team have already gathered all the evidence and will move to make an arrest. They probably already have a good idea of who it was, or at least of who is close to who it was. There aren’t a lot of different patterns that come up. It’s surprisingly uniform. They know who they’re up against, I would bet, and it’s just a matter of playing a little chess game to make it come out clearly. They know the lay of the land and who the likely players are.You have nothing to worry about. The wheels of justice grind slow, but they do grind.”
I sat back and waited. I suspected that what I had said was a horse that wouldn’t run, as far as she was concerned, and, indeed, she sighed, annoyed, and then countered:
“Mr. Downing,” her tone evincing a little impatience at this point as she sighed, “we both know the police have always had their own reasons for what they do. They do as they please in this world. Who would stop them? Who would presume to police the police? If they find out it’s a gang-fellow (and how could it be otherwise?), they’ll just arrest anyone they wish in the gang. It doesn’t matter to them which one. But it does to me — Ingrid is in love with this wretched Rodriguez. I want you to supplement them and their information so they arrest the right one this time. They’ll believe you. It’s this Pancho Rodriguez — that is the one who did it.” She spoke with conviction, to say the least. I lifted myself up in the chair from slouching.
“But how do you know so certainly it’s exactly this Pancho guy?”
“Because he’s horrible, Mr. Downing — believe me, sir! I know him personally, haven’t you been listening? And because he had to be in on it: it’s his gang, he’s the chief of it, he’s the chief of the horribles!”
“The ELD — the East Los Diablos?” I asked.
“Yes, Mr. Downing, the very same. I do believe that is the correct name of those hideous, vile people.” She crossed her legs slowly in her leather chair for the first time, pronouncing “correct” by trilling the r’s. Her countenance was ruffled with the emotion, and so was the white dress she was wearing that was like a wedding gown.
She went on: “I want you to rid my dear lost Ingrid of him since she is too far gone to manage it herself. She is utterly a cocaine addict.” I had to turn my head away from her and gaze out through the window past her head onto Colorado Boulevard and its traffic. Things seemed so normal out there, in contrast to what I was listening to now. Traffic whizzed by, heedless, on its way somewhere innocently in the bright, friendly sunshine. In a few months the Rose Parade would come meandering by — but not now, not in the heat of July with a gang war raging. Mrs. B. grew quieter, and adopted an historical tone:
“Mr. Downing, my husband, Phineas Biddleman, came to Pasadena in 1933, during the Great Depression. He was a child of three years of age. His father, Asa, was an oil man in Wyoming, and he followed in his father’s footsteps. We became rich, and we lived well. Life was wonderful. Southern California was the jewel of the country. Everyone wanted to come here. Then came these awful times, this violence, this Brave New World. My husband was unable to compete with the bigger companies, and he foolishly and stubbornly refused to sell or merge.
“We have surely fallen on leaner times, I concede, but I expect you to bring a little justice to us at least. Grind away, man! I want this man’s head on a platter! This Rodiguez! I want Ingrid free of him!” Mrs. B. glared a bit. Fire was in her eyes. This gal wasn’t kidding, and she knew what her opinion was. You couldn’t get the upper hand on her, too smart. So, eventually, after a little more back and forth, I agreed to see what I could do for Ingrid. I agreed to investigate this imbecile Rodriguez dude.
We were just about to close the meeting. But behind me, as I sat on the dark embroidered cloth of the walnut chair, the great oak door to the library cracked open a tad. In slid a small, lithe cat, except that it was not really a cat at all — it was actually a very young girl, doing all she could to look older than her twelve years, unsuccessfully (if you’re twelve, you’re just gonna have to live with it). It turned out to be Mrs. B’s daughter.
She kept to the walls, moving laterally, eyeing me relentlessly, checking out what I looked like. She already knew what her mother looked like. And a very small, white, Bichon Frise dog had come in with her, a quiet, cute, and worshipful thing. Very unassuming creature, just glad to be included at all. And the girl knew every inch of the library, easily avoiding, without ceasing to stare me down, the green, Byzantine-patterned chair up against the mahogany panels which rose to the eleven-foot high ceiling.
This girl looked at me a ton, implacably. I glanced at her a tiny bit, quickly. She was slender, about five feet tall, athletic and svelte, wearing pistachio Capri pants, flat shoes, and a short-sleeved white top ending over the thin waist. She had long, long mahogany hair, straight as a string, like the long grooves in those mahogany panels against which she stopped, fifteen feet from me. Her delicate, fluffy dog, plodding along like a walking bathroom slipper, followed her everywhere, looking up at her from her ankles, waiting for instructions. Mrs. B. was indulgent, but not too.
“Are you talking about my sister?” the girl asked, calmly, like a grizzled, experienced trial lawyer. She took five slow steps towards me after speaking, looking deep into my eyes. (The famous Magic Johnson look-off pass was decidedly not her style.) I looked at Mrs. Biddleman briefly, then said, with mock gravity,
“I’m sorry, Miss, that’s confidential. But may I know the name of such a pretty girl?”
“Aly, don’t bother Mr. Downing, he’s–”
“Oh, no, please,” I replied to Mrs. B., ”it’s OK; she’s not bothering me at all.” I then smiled benevolently, trying to smooth the rift between mother and daughter. I went on: “I’m sure you know what ‘confidential’ means, Aly,” I said amiably.
“I do not,” she insisted.
“Yes, you do,” I resisted.
“No, I don’t,” she persisted.
“Are you holding out on me?” I asked her, joking.
“Don’t say that.”
“Aly!” Mrs. Biddleman exclaimed, horrified.
“You’re right, Aly, I’m sorry,” I conceded: “You’re certainly right — I thank you for pointing that out to me…..but do you spend a lot of time with your sister?”
“No!” she said abruptly and decisively, as if everyone knew something so obvious, then walked fully up to where I sat, put her hand possessively on the arm of the very chair, leaned down to my face, and put her eyes about two inches from mine, like she was an eye doctor now. She absorbed herself in looking at the sides of my eyes as I looked over, amused, at Mrs. B., who sighed irritably at the interruption. Aly was so serious and so painstaking as she examined my eyes, so totally deadpan, that I couldn’t help chuckling. She had a likeable charisma.
Soon she was putting both hands on the arm of the chair, in single file, and still searching in my eyes for something, when she suddenly leaned forward confidentially (I was right!) with the news: “You’re outside a lot.”
“Oh yeah?” I answered, “How’d ya know that?”
“Your eyes aren’t completely white anymore,” she answered, with finality. Her eyes were mischievous and confident of their wisdom.
“Well,” I smiled, “you’re right about that, Aly. You’re smart to notice that. Are you some kind of detective person?”
“Yes,” she proclaimed, “I read Encyclopedia Brown.”
“Really?!” I said, sitting up enthusiastically, “I love those books! I read them too when–”
“Aly! Leave us! We’re discussing business, and this is no time for a young girl’s silly shenanigans!” Mrs. B. was venting. ”Take Flapper out in the garden and be a good girl, please!” Aly slumped a little for the first time, her posture flagging a bit, but she shot me another deadpan, conspiratorial look as she slid her hands over the cloth of the chair upon exiting: “Don’t betray the cause!!!” her eyes said to me. I nodded knowingly in assent.
Aly thereupon picked up ol’ Flapper and went out unceremoniously. Flapper barked a little out in the hallway in excitement at going outside. Then I had to scream a little myself outside in the car as I finished the meeting and left the house and got back in the Corvette: the sun had made the steering wheel and the ignition switch super-hot to the touch. I could barely start the engine the switch was so hot. It was about a million degrees in that car. Anyway, now I had to go talk to dear Ingrid (and to Aly, too, but later.) Mrs. B. didn’t mind. She said that Ingrid lived in South Pasadena, a completely separate city from regular Pasadena. Well, old girl, old South Pasadena, you’re so chic, so haute couture, so nouveau riche…..you’re so something that begins with “R”….gosh, I don’t know what the hell I’m saying. I’m at a loss for words. But at any rate, in short, it was now South Pasadena or bust.
…..to be continued…..
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