The Taciturn Hottie: Part Two
A Joe Downing Mystery
The following is fiction:
“Down these mean streets
a man must go
who is not himself mean.”
– Ray Chandler
I STOPPED IN FOR SOME LUNCH AT HAL’S 24/7 BURGER TEEPEE IN SOUTH PASADENA AFTER THE MEETING WITH
MRS. B. I looked around as I entered into the icy air: Neon, shiny stuff, babes. The sound of plates clinking and silverware tinkling filled the whole busy place. Young men and women in yellow long-sleeve dress shirts continually whisked plates laden with hot food off the raised counter under the heat lamps, the chefs in there somewhere kicking it. The plates endlessly made their way to their ultimate destination of your table and your big pie-hole. The front window of the place boasted an “A” grade in cleanliness from the County Coroner as you came in — (whoops! I meant to say the County Health Department, sorry…..).
Good to know the place was clean, though, all kidding aside. A long, straight, pristine white counter for the single people ran longitudinal to the main axis and then took a suicidal ninety-degree turn, whereupon it crashed neatly into the wall. I sat down there so I could lean back lazily against the wall and look out onto California Boulevard. (I’m so enthralled with traffic continuously going by, you see.) I ordered a bowl of chili and lemonade from Uma Thurman and sat back and waited.
An older black man appeared, and he was slowly making his leisurely, labored way through the two sets of double doors. He was clearly a regular and was ordering some take-out stuff, like burgers and onion rings. Gwyneth Paltrow was taking his order and giving him a free cup of coffee while he waited. This gave me a chance to see him: He was gray and wizened, like a sturdy, battered, hollowed-out old oak tree refusing to surrender to the depredations of Father Time. He wore a dusty, grimy, sable-colored old Stetson jauntily, having it pushed back, Clark-Gable-in-The-Misfits-style, upon his white hair. Maybe he was an actor. Between roles. He sported a full grayish-whitish curly beard, stark and low against his smooth dark skin, making him appear like an Afro-Grecian god about to reach again for a thunderbolt or two to hurl down at the dumbass mortals on the Peloponnesus.
Long navy-blue Dickies pants covered his legs, and ended just above rugged black work boots and the two swaths of the white socks. His dark green, open, and waist-length nylon jacket partially covered a brown-and-white checkered flannel shirt, which was itself opened to about the fifth button, just above his navel, and which formed a big, confident, badass “V” across his hairless, flat chest. You noticed right off that he was really cheerful. Amiability oozed from him like molasses from a split-open Maple tree in season in Canada. He had a life-loving, melodious voice, and he used it to spread goodwill to all. But then he noticed me, sizing me up expertly:
“I ain’t seen y’all here befo’ — I’m Lester,” he said, looking me smack in the eye before continuing with, “good to meet ya, sir.” He leaned over, extending his brown, leathery palm, and we shook hands melodramatically as he sat down on one of the swiveling seats, three clicks from me.
“I’m Joe,” I said. “Yeah, I’m not here too much…..first time actually.”
“Is that right? First time?…well then, Joe, welcome to Hal’s. Whatcha gonna have?”
“I ordered some chili. Then I gotta get back to work.”
“Uh-huh, I understand that only too well, my friend,” Les nodded and chuckled in a friendly way, and looked down at his cup of coffee just arriving from Gwyneth. He put an incredible amount of sugar in it. She then withdrew and retreated towards Uma, and they started laughing at something, pretending, unsuccessfully, to be not laughing. I felt like it had something to do with me, and it got me bent out of shape. I kept glancing over at them.
People came in and went out all around us, moving through their day, paying at the cash register, going to the restroom behind us to the right, and leaving through the double doors out into the torrid light and torrid heat of South Pasadena. A dry whoosh of hot air (hopefully it wasn’t from me) hit us whenever the doors opened. Stylish white people mostly, not dressed up exactly, but very California Casual. A huge contrast to the wholesome, family atmosphere of the Hal’s in Rancho. I continued:
“Yeah, I gotta get back to the grind in a minute: Macarthur Park.” He looked surprised:
“Man, you know they had a killing?”
“Sure do. Just making sure it’s all done right, that’s all, everything above board.” I looked into the distance defensively at the retro photos they had on the wall of old-time Hal’s from the 50′s. Sixty years in business. Pretty good. Killings in the park back then, too? Well, does a dog know where the bodies are buried? Uma arrived, smirking, with my chili and set it down, then refilled my lemonade. That kinda won me over, the lemonade refill. After a pause, I said, eating and nodding:
“Guess it was those Diablos.”
“Yeah, Joe, I guess it was, too. I’m with that.”
“Some kinda turf war with the Saliciamon guys, I bet.”
“Yeah, yeah, that would be my thinking, too.”
“67 stab wounds, must’ve been crowded.”
“Yep, musta been.”
“And the guy was strangled, too — why would you strangle a dead body? Unless that came first and went wrong, so that a bunch of ‘em had to gang up on him and go at him like piranhas with blades to finish him. So it was probably pretty messy.”
“Yeah, that’s good thinking,” Les agreed, turning in his seat towards me and going on, intensely: “Yeah, maybe the victim gets on top of the strangling, and gets the one what was sticking him. Maybe wounds the man. Got back what he was giving out.”
“Yeah…..that’s my hunch…..that victim must’ve been pretty tough,” I replied, then added, musing, “but I thought they were in cahoots, the Diablos and Saliciamon.” I then took a humongous scoop of chili and downed it like a drooling, rabid wolf. I stared, motionless, at the oracle.
“Not no more,” Les warned, “but they was. It’s the distribution — the Diablos done it a long time, but now Salicia do it theyself – got the soldiers up from Guatemala. They do the job now, do it right. No need for no Diablos no more: Big trouble.” Les shook his head and nodded grimly.
“Gotcha…..” I said, absently, “but I wonder now where I can meet this crazy-ass Pancho Rodriguez cat?” Les shook his head again.
“Not in the park. And he ain’t went to the killing, neither. Never do go. Try Pico/Union. But watch yourself, chief, he’s a live wire, a real-ass live wire. You gots to be precautious or you gonna end up dead. And don’t be telling those muthafuckas I talked to you.”
“I won’t, I’m not fucking crazy, Les. And I’m definitely gonna be careful with this gang dude. Yeah…motherfuckers, that’s about it.” I paused then, a little uncomfortable. I ate in silence, just to play it safe. After a while, when I was ready to go, I finally just said,
“Thanks for the nod.”
“Forget it.” He waved me away. He knew he had said too much. He was pissed at me and at himself. He brooded over his coffee, calculating the damage. I was done with the chili (not bad), so I got up to leave slowly and dramatically. I passed by him sitting there, and he grabbed my arm. I felt like tearing it away from this crazy loon. I was a little scared. I half expected to crap in my pants. I felt bad about drawing him in. He looked me in the eye again like he was the kingpin of downtown. I felt like I had to let it go on, since he had helped me. He just looked. But then he says to me, squeezing tighter,
“Those bitches hurt me.” He looked away angrily and abruptly and let me go. He practically shoved me away. I moved away slowly, gazing at him, a little dazed, a little uncertain what to do, my lips parted probably in confusion and fear. Who was this guy? And what in the blue-fuck was I getting into? I made my way over to the address Mrs. B. had given me for Ingrid. I decided I would save Pancho for later — I didn’t have my gun. I was gonna fuckin’ need it. I had no choice now but to work around the edges first. It’s a method I hate, though, I like a more direct type of thing. I didn’t glance back at Uma and Gwyneth as I left Hals.
The address Mrs. Biddleman had given me for Ingrid was in downtown L.A. in some two-story crapshoot shit-pile of a building. What a place. It sure wasn’t South Pasadena, to say the least, guys. It was on skid row, and it looked like the apocalypse of the damned. The spotted white sidewalk reflected the brilliant, blinding sunlight of early afternoon, and the cream-colored building itself was dingy and residential, to be sure, but it looked like some industrial thing. Not very inviting, not very savory. A loozers paradise – where they come to die. San Pedro Street. A drug dude and a homeless guy loitered and lurked around the front of the entrance, looking like walking corpses. I guess this building was the jam place if you’re an addict. They avoided eye-contact, as if not knowing you were there, yet still managed to be threatening. I don’t know how, since they looked weak. Kind of a mystery how they pulled it off. Bravo, guys. The still, calm, silent heat did not dissuade them from wearing coats.
It was quiet there, I remember that. You could hear your footsteps on the walk, it was so still. And I was pretty worried about leaving my car at the curb with those dudes right there. That time my tires got slashed in Gorge. Right at the entrance, a sleek new black Beamer was parked at the curb, shiny in the sun to the point of eye-pain. I couldn’t imagine having to touch it, it would be so freakin’ hot. A bumper sticker on it read:
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, we will all know peace.”
Jimi strikes again! I remembered the girl at Bristol. I also remembered then that the Dalai Lama meditates six hours a day. I remember stuff all the time! I entered this eye-sore, and walked over the dilapidatedness of threadbare carpeting to the directory on the wall to confirm that Ingrid lived there as Mrs. B. had said, on the fourth floor: She did indeed.
I approached the elevator to go up, since I couldn’t find any stairs. The small lobby was like something out of an art movie — it was pretending to be street-smart — made over in a very self-conscious, cool tackiness. A tall glowering white man in his 40′s then came striding over to me hard and mad-dog like he wanted to tear me limb from limb. He was dressed in a dirty white short-sleeve tee and old, formerly-pressed trousers — not jeans like me. He had work shoes on his large feet, dirty white socks easily showing. Flood pants, basically.
“You here for someone?!” he said, as if to kill the intruder.
“Yeah,” I replied, unconcerned, “I’m just paying a little visit on the fourth floor.” I didn’t look over at him.
“Yeah?! I’ll just bet you are, buddy!” he responded, staring, then continued sternly with: “Wait a minute!” as if I had fully made a sudden move to kill him. I hadn’t moved a muscle, of course. I could tell he was a lunatic from the padded room, I’m not gonna provoke him. He walked over and looked up through the seam of the elevator door into the shaft, as if he could see through into the cool, dark emptiness there. He pushed the button precisely, ludicrously, like he was using some secret knock to summon the ancient old pile.
“Gladys!!!” he yelled in through the crack in the elevator doors, “Are you up there?!” He fell silent and still and listened to the fascinating interior of the elevator shaft: No sound forthcoming, however. Then another loud sally to Gladys, but again to no avail. He was just about to give a third go, when I stopped him by glancing around and asking,
“Are there any stairs?” He responded to me quickly by pointing irritably at the corner of the lobby, around the corner. I saw for the first time that stairs were there. He surely felt defeated that the elevator hadn’t worked — he slumped, and watched me sullenly as I departed. Possibly he had done some maintenance, but it hadn’t taken.
I exited the stairs on the fourth floor, emerging curiosity-struck into a hallway through a creaking, beat-up wooden door. I walked down the dark carpeted hallway. Let’s not talk about it. I soon stood before a smoky brown door, number 444, Ingrid’s. It was about 1:00pm by now. No sounds from within, but I knocked anyway. I was here. No response. Big surprise there. Druggies aren’t exactly known for jumping up to get the door. I knocked again, not so intrepidly this time, and waited in the silence of the moist, dark, Gothic hallway of the old building.
Finally something shuffled forward. Was it a dog? About to puke and die? After about a century, there was some fumbling with the doorknob. I felt half-inclined to help from outside. Was she retarded? (Sorry…..that’s just anger talking. Won’t happen again. But wait to see how I get it in a minute!)
The deadbolt turned, the door opened, sticking, and then the chain jangled taut and jarring. A sleepy face peered out at me. I could discern enough to figure out who it had to be. A tawdry, haggard, yet really beautiful young woman was slouched before me. She had short and chic black hair covering her pale forehead, and shapely ears tilting out elegantly from within her unruly locks. She had sharp, fine features and delicate skin. She wore faded jeans with holes in the knees, dirty pink socks without shoes, and a tight, filthy white top exposing her waist. She looked up at me, bored to death. Then she looked down, chagrined, as if to say “how long is this gonna take?” And then she looked up again, and spoke first.
“Are you ‘Mr. Joe Downing?’” she asked. I nodded and added,
“Yes, Ingrid, I am.”
“Yes, Ingrid, I am,” she repeated instantly. She made a grimace at me. Then she went on:
“Yeah, well, my fuckin’ mother told me you were coming, but why don’t you just do me the favor of fucking off instead? Huh?! Punk-ass bitch! Are you listening, motherfucker? Just go away, asshole! Got it?”
She stared bullets and she leaned forward. There was a pause as she fell into a depressed silence. My response sorta hung in the air. Well, in retrospect, I can now say I really expected that Hawaii thing with the lei. But beyond all doubt, this girl was a cartoon. First of all, she looked so coked-out that she was incapable of lifting those proverbial two stamps. I think a new-born kitten could have won a Smack-Down on her white ass. Her face was white and wan, a sickly hue that could only come from a long time of lame health. Her sharp nostrils, sculpted originally out of beautiful white marble, were now red and irritated, and looked likely to bust out into pus at any moment, so scintillatingly and painfully abused they were. Scrofulous, yeah.
Her voice was hoarse and strained, but still musical like her mother’s and sister’s. Her long arms were slender like two toothpicks. Her feminine hands shook violently with the longing for her white medicine, and perspiration glistened on her pasty, silky forehead. She finally let me into the place in a resigned way, and shuffled over to a lumpy, tatterdemalion couch and collapsed tiredly.
Bizarrely, she sat upright all of a sudden, seemingly poised and confident. Then her knees bobbed up and down frantically without stopping as she sat, her hands all the while moving nervously up and down the length of her blue-jeans, getting caught in the scattered threads. It was very sensual and weird. It was quiet in the room, too, not just outside. Her breathing was desperate. Her nails were spotted, shattered, and brittle, her hair dull and a little frizzy. She threw her head back to breathe, closing her eyes. She was the picture of sickness. After I got past the initial shock, though, I could hear a brave noise wandering within her voice, a misguided posturing somehow suggesting a just-barely-discernable sincerity underneath the hypocrisy and the F-bombs. “Make life mean something to me,” the tea-leaves in her tone implored.
I could see she was Aly’s sister, too: a demonic determination exuded from her every pore. This family was a piece of work. But she was obviously destroying herself. Mrs. Biddleman was right to be worried, but what had taken her so long to act? Her daughter was on the edge of obliteration.
“So, Ingrid, how long have you known Pancho?” I asked, as I sat down on an upright chair across from her.
“A few years, not that it’s any of your business, fuckin’ asshole.” She sneered at me. I had had enough:
“Would you give it a fuckin’ rest?!” I shouted, and glared at her. A family picture was in a nice frame on the pine bookcase against the greasy wall. It showed Ingrid, Aly, Mrs. B. and a man, probably the father, Phineas, all standing together and smiling broadly.
“If you’re so smart, why are you addicted to that stuff?” I gestured at the personal stash she had on the low coffee-table. “Your mother can’t stand it that you’re on it,” I added.
“I don’t care what that thief thinks, she can go to hell. I’ve got Pancho, and that’s all I need. I love him. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
“Did Pancho order the murder of Gomez?”
“No! Of course not! He’s not a murderer, he’s an entrepreneur, but not a capitalist business man thug. He’s a philanthropist. He brings justice to the people, not mayhem. But did you order the murder of Gomez, asshole?”
“Yeah, I did, as a matter of fact.”
“That’s it, Murderer! Get him! Hey, everybody, I caught him!!!”
“Why did you say your mother was a thief?”
“Because she is. That bitch skims 20k a year from the endowment.”
“My father,” she pointed at the picture in the bookcase, “Phineas Biddleman, asshole extraordinaire, founded the Pasadena Old Heritage Museum in the sixties. It now has an annual endowment of $4 million. Mostly from the John Jakob Jones Living Trust. My mother has been skimming her 20k for years. To make ends meet, she says.”
“Does your father know?”
“He’s got Alzheimer’s, dude. He can’t tie his fuckin’ shoe.”
“Why are you so cruel to your family, Ingrid? You were once a close family,” I said, motioning to the picture, “what happened?”
“Mind your own business, motherfucker! WHAT THE FUCK are you here for, anyway? Are you a chaperone? Get the hell out of my apartment!” She pointed a slender white finger, indignation all over her strained, tired face.
“Your mother thinks Pancho is in on the murder in the park, and wants me to find out. That’s why I’m here. The rest is up to you and yours.”
“Oh, boy! Isn’t that touching! She wants Pancho gone for my sake! What maternal care! But Pancho cares far
more about me than she does! He’s the best thing to ever happen to me! She, on the other hand, is full of shit! Pancho bought me a Beamer! How’s that?!”
“Isn’t that a capitalist pig car?” I joked.
“No!…..it’s a…..it’s a…..it’s a ‘La Raza’ car!”
“Oh, I see. But let’s do move on. Do you see any of that 20k your mother skims?”
“What?” her voice cracked nervously and a little hypocritically. She pretended to be appalled. She sat up super-straight on the couch, crossing her legs in defense, and stared at me, astonished. Her hands spread out on the couch now like a sprinter’s on the track.
“How much do you take?” I persisted.
“What!!!” she shrieked, and asked, “what are you saying, dude?!”
“I’m saying $4 million is a lot of white powder. Obviously. How much do you get, if your mother gets 20k?” She was at a loss as to how to respond. She looked around the apartment, which was full of dirty dishes piled up in the sink of the small kitchen, a mottled cat sleeping curled-up in an old easy chair of the same color, and junk furniture everywhere. Ingrid squirmed uncomfortably. She glanced enviously at the cat. Lying through her teeth didn’t sit well with her. She tried her best, anyway:
“Nothing! I get nothing! I mean, just….just a little…..like her…..how did you know that, anyway?”
“How much does Pancho get?”
“Oh, now, wait a minute! Where you going with this? Are you some lawyer?”
“How much does Pancho get?” I asked again, deadpan.
“What?” she asked, irrelevantly, a little scared.
“Pancho. How much?”
“He…..he…..he gets some…..” she said, looking around. After a pause she then blurted out: “He gets more than us. But he sort of gets Reggie to do it for him. It’s Reggie’s fault!”
“Who’s Reggie?” I asked.
“Reggie Colombo, the curator of the museum. Pancho has him siphon off the funds from the endowment.”
“OK, I’ll have to talk to him at the museum. But why are you telling me all this?”
“What?!” she almost screamed, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I started to laugh:
“I’m just joking. A little humor, that’s all.”
“A little is right, asshole.”
“So how does the war between the Diablos and Saliciamon come into all this?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged sincerely, “who says it does?”
“Oh, I dunno, I guess I do. So did Saliciamon find out about the endowment skimming, and want in on it, too? Just like Pancho found out about it?” Her face grew more and more astonished as I went on, and then she thundered at me:
“Now how did you know that, dude?! Is there anything you don’t know?!”
The meeting ended after some more revelations, mostly not very enlightening. Ingrid had to go out somewhere, so we went down together. First she disappeared into the bedroom, then re-emerged wearing some orange hat.
“I guess you couldn’t find your hat,” I kidded her. She glared, incredulous. We exited the apartment out into the hall. I moved over naturally to the stairs. She looked at me quizzically.
“There’s an elevator, dude,” she informed me, motioning at the thing.
“It’s not working,” I said, “the Commish downstairs tried to get it to work, but it wouldn’t.” She laughed in triumph.
“He’s a fucking blithering idiot. Didn’t you see that, dude? It works perfectly. Everybody knows it but him. It’s just the contacts in the switch downstairs on the lobby level. Up here it works fine — the switch is intact. Watch.” Ingrid summoned the elevator, there was a whirr, and soon here it was. I nodded in affirmation and got in. Then outside, on the sidewalk, there was indecision and tension. The stillness was only in the air.
…..to be continued…..
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