The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Baby’s In Black

The further they went along the concrete passageway, the more Lloyd felt the stadium’s weight pressing down upon him, like he and Audrey were in some dwarves’ mine beneath a mountain. He wondered what it must feel like to be a Dodger, bursting from this compressed sluice into the vastness of the stadium’s field.

In a moment, he knew. He and Audrey turned a corner and stopped at a Dodger blue plywood door. An usher pushed it open and held it for them. Lloyd was nearly blinded by the abovegroundness of it all: incandescent lights made the outfield a shocking, saturated green, while the summer-night smell of fresh cut grass hit him like a snootful of root beer. It took him a moment to realize they had exited into the Dodgers’ dugout.

Where it opened on the field, there was another security checkpoint. Lloyd’s eyes didn’t need to adjust much to recognize the entirely too familiar ruddy face of the lead cop.

“Well, if it isn’t the man who put the dick in interdiction,” Bunk Ailes sneered, loud enough to attract the attention of other cops nearby. “And look who’s helping you look for her husband in this sea of teenaged emotion.”

Audrey, Lloyd could tell, was about to shoot some mouth off at Ailes, so he gave her arm a gentle squeeze. He could do his own needling.

“How about you, Ailes? Any closer to finding that murderer? Which Beatle do you suspect it is?”

“I’m here following orders. You’re following a piece of ass. Don’t try telling me my business. Pardon my frankness, lady, but your boyfriend if you didn’t know is a Grade-C pussy hound. You could do yourself a lot better, seeing how his last two girlfriends are in Chino Prison now, eating clam chowder without a spoon.”

“Are you this charming with all the stadium’s guests?”

“Oh my, I forgot you know the mayor. Let me check your passes and IDs, and please accept my deepest I-could-give-a-shits.”

In any just world, Lloyd would be punching Ailes in the face, but now it was Audrey’s turn to check him with a gentle touch. Ailes kept on goading, though.

“C’mon, Sippie, take a swing. Show the lady what a good loser you are. I always say, you show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Some of the officers nearby were watching to see if Lloyd would rise to the bait. For all the shit that cops gave other cops, their women were off-limits. Only a cop would know how insulting Ailes was being now, while also emphasizing to the others that Lloyd was no longer one of them.

Whatever small doubts he’d been having about spiking Ailes’ thermos shrank to subatomic size. The asshole needed a night of confronting his inner self in a squad car mirror. The thought of that calmed Lloyd, as did Audrey’s cool demeanor. He leaned in to Ailes’ uniformed bulk and flatly said, “I’ll find my ventriloquist before you find your mass killer, and I might find him, too. Maybe I’ll throw in finding your dad’s killer, you pompous fuck. And any time you’re not in uniform I’ll be happy to box your ears in.”

At the mention of his father, Ailes’ eyes hardened and seemed to recede into his head, until their leaden glare looked like hollowpoints in a revolver’s chambers. He kept his voice as low as Lloyd’s. “Underestimate me at your peril, buddy boy, and you just have. We’ll settle up soon. For now, just show me your goddamned IDs.”

Ailes barely glanced at Lloyd’s, but he held Audrey’s long enough to take in her address. There were other people lined up behind them now, black and white musicians in stage suits.

“Next! Move it up, dipshits!” Ailes was suddenly done with the two of them, and they walked out onto the grass. Lloyd felt like a steer heading to pasture, spared the abattoir for another day.

Nothing much had just happened, but he knew his situation with Ailes had just spun out of control, the way Chick Singer had suddenly escalated from a potential bother to an ambushing enemy. With Artie to find and a killer on the loose, he didn’t need the grief Ailes was sure to cause him, but it was worth it to give that asshole some of his own back. His only regret was that Ed Lafferty’s talk with Ailes now would just be an unpleasant waste of Ed’s time.

He snapped out of his thoughts to take a look around. He’d expected the field to be filled with rows of folding chairs, but all the Beatle girls were penned up in the stadium’s fixed seats. Unless there was a Lefebvre among them, they weren’t nearly within batting range of the stage, which was set up behind second base. A chain link fence had been erected around the perimeter of the stands to keep kids from jumping onto the vacant field.

The screams reached a new pitch as he and Audrey walked onto the field. It took Lloyd a moment to realize the screams were for them. They originated in the upper tiers, from which he and Audrey must look like ants, or Beatles, to kids who’d paid $5 or something to scream at dots. Their hysteria cascaded down to the lower sections, where the girls must have figured the other screamers knew something they didn’t and joined in.

Audrey waved and the screams rose. Tiny flashbulbs popped. “I could get to like this!” She yelled to him. Lloyd resisted an impulse to give a Hitler salute to the stands.

Audrey seemed to know where they were going, which was nearly straight over the pitcher’s mound, with 40,000 pairs of eyes watching them. The stage was to their right, six feet high and draped in blue and white cloth. Even taller were glitter-painted Styrofoam letters that spelled out KRLA in front of it.

Lloyd assumed it was one of the station’s DJs at the microphone onstage. He’d been blathering in the background the whole time they were bottled up with Ailes. Now his voice raised to an unnatural pitch as he shouted, “Let’s give a big Eleven-Ten welcome to that piston with the sunny disposition, Bobby Hebb!”

The crowd screamed only slightly louder than they had for Lloyd and Audrey, while the musicians who had been behind them ran for the stage’s stairs, instruments raised over their heads like they were fording a river.

A row of uniformed police parted to allow the musicians through. More police and three lines of sawhorse barricades also ringed the field’s periphery, in case any teenyboppers made it through the fence.

As the two neared the far side of the field, Lloyd saw that a number of them were Long Beach officers on loan. That gladdened him, since it meant there were that many fewer cops who might recognize him and give him shit, of which he’d had just about enough for one lifetime.

Audrey forged ahead at an assured clip, as if she trod over the Dodgers’ infield every day. She was aimed at a checkpoint across from the one they’d left, this one opening on stairs to the seats above. No one here asked for their IDs, and soon they were seated in the second row above the field.

The immediate section held only a few screaming teens; the children, he supposed, of the short-haired, suited adults who filled most of the seats. Record label people, radio people, wigmakers, he figured, here to bask in the sound of money. Audrey, of course, knew several of them, and shouted “hellos” were exchanged before they settled into their seats.

“What small endearments did you and that horrid man share down there?” she asked into his right ear. She turned her head forward so he could talk into hers.

“He’s going to wash my car if I buy a case of Girl Scout cookies from him.”

“I’m glad I’m not paying your expenses.”

He was glad she was willing to keep it light. No need to worry her over Ailes, though Ailes having her home address worried him. He was just the guy to know the sort of vice cops who didn’t mind the easy home run that planted evidence gave them. He wondered if Ailes would be vindictive enough to frame Audrey for something just to get back at him. He cursed himself for not staying cooler. Even if Ailes did end up on an acid trip, Lloyd couldn’t count on him coming out of it holding a bouquet of daffodils.

Audrey leaned forward, cupping her hands around her ears to better hear the music. Lloyd did the same, but it was like trying to listen to a transistor radio someone had thrown in the ocean. When the singer did “Sunny,” a hit even Lloyd had heard dozens of times, the crowd quieted down a bit, but when the singer started milking the song, shouting “One more time!” the kids near him started chanting “No more times! We want the Beatles!”

What Lloyd wanted was for it to be over and to be doing one of two things: lying with Audrey one more time, or following up on what was now more than a nagging suspicion that he knew exactly where Artie Kane was.

The song ended, and the musicians retreated to the dugout, where more people were issuing from Ailes’ checkpoint. Most of them joined a cluster of people to one side of the stage. The remaining person headed their way, and Lloyd soon made out that it was Blue. She was soon seated beside them. Lloyd asked her if the Beatles were on next.

“No such luck. There’s still the Ronettes to go. They were clearing out the Beatles’ dressing room, though, so that no one, like me, could bug them when they head to the stage. It won’t be too much longer.”

That was probably true. Just a single song by some of the jazz acts he’d seen at the Lighthouse lasted longer than Hebb’s entire set. These spectacles seemed planned for short attention spans.

His stomach joined the club, demanding more than the potato chips he’d had backstage. He excused himself, hit the men’s room, and waited in a line of jumpy girls to buy four Dodger dogs, one of which he ate on the way back to Audrey and Blue.

He gave a dog to each of them, and settled in to endure the next act, three women who were already onstage singing beneath the din. Blue wolfed her dog, then began taking photos with her camera with the telephoto lens. After two more songs, she shouted, “Watch this for me, OK?” and left the telephoto on her seat. She headed down to the field with her smaller rig and soon stood in front of the stage, dwarfed by the R in KRLA. More photographers converged there, awaiting the Brits.

He looked across the field, wondering if Ailes would have some choice words for the Fab Four. The person manning the station didn’t appear to have Ailes’ frame. He took up Blue’s camera, popped the lens cover and put the finder to his eye. A young sergeant stood at the podium where Ailes had been. He scanned the rest of the dugout area, and didn’t spot Ailes there either.

He lowered the camera, casting his eyes wider, and saw someone of Ailes’ heft walking with another man toward the outfield in the foul zone. Through the camera again, he saw it was Ailes, walking with Ed, both in animated conversation. It was a disquieting feeling to be spying on the men from afar, knowing they were talking about him.

On a sudden impulse, he turned the zoom to its maximum, focused and snapped two photos of Ed and Ailes together. If nothing else, the shots would pose a mystery for Blue in the darkroom.

The two walked out along the foul line, then Ailes steered them onto the outfield, toward the back of the stage, which was surprisingly unpopulated. The bands and stagehands all accessed the stage by stairs on the sides. Though there was a tent behind the stage marked “The Beatles,” there was no activity around it. Ailes walked Ed to a V between the tent and the stage, where they passed from his view behind a tall blue curtain mounted behind the drum riser. If they wanted to talk, maybe the eye of the storm was the quietest place to be.

There was a hubbub of activity to the sides of the stage as the women finished their act. The crowd noise swelled; not applause, more the sustained whine of a jet’s turbines warming for takeoff. Lloyd had skipped the whole Elvis thing, and had only seen this sort of mass emotion once before, as a kid at an Aimee Semple McPherson sermon, but this was different, all innocence and sexual tension, rising from young teens who scarcely knew what sex was yet. Maybe these girls had screamed at their TVs when the Beatles came on. Here, they joined a coven, where tens of thousands of them were screaming a message beyond words to each other: There’s magic here; let go, love will catch you; George will kiss your lips; scream yourself dry. Lloyd couldn’t even imagine what it must feel like to scream.

Audrey leaned her head on his shoulder and snuggled in, and that was magic enough for him on this warm summer night. He was in their world of two, but still kept an eye out, chiefly waiting to see Ed and Ailes go their separate ways. He’d like to catch up to Ed if he could, to thank him, and to see if Ed had any idea of how much shit he was in for from Ailes.

Another DJ was onstage now, begging the crowd to maintain order when the Beatles came out, though seeming to get a kick out of the added hysteria every time he said “Beatles.” He finally announced the Beatles themselves, and the four ran onto the grass amid a phalanx of keepers.

The screams hit full throttle, a moaning pandemonium of unbridled adolescence. Out there in Willie Davis territory, one of the Beatles stamped out a beat on the stage, and the music commenced, Chuck Berry over a transistor radio that was now in a hurricane.

Audrey had been off his shoulder since the Beatles had come into view. He wondered if she’d be screaming along if he wasn’t there. Well, this was her thing. He’d have to take her to a Coltrane show if they had any future.

He tried handing her the camera to watch through, but she turned it down, shouting, “Let’s just go out by the stage later. We can do that with these.” She indicated the passes.

Two more songs passed by, and still no sign of Ed or Ailes, which made so little sense to him that he decided to check it out.

“I’ll meet you by the stage, OK? I have to see someone.” Audrey looked surprised, but only nodded. Near the stairs, a Beatle girl saw his pass and tried to wrest it from him until her mother pulled her back. He was waved through the checkpoint and took a similar path to the one Ailes and Ed had taken on the other side, along the barricades, then cutting across behind the stage. On his side, the tent and stage nearly met. He figured he could probably see the two from that vantage without being seen.

Up on the stage, the Beatles were doing Beatle things. Lloyd wondered which was supposed to be the cute one.

He was on the field, about ten yards from that convergence when a policeman came running up. He readied the pass to flash.

“Hey, Lloyd!” It was Billy Down. “Man, can you believe this? The Beatles!”

“How you doin’, Billy?”

“Are you back on the force?”

Billy had no idea how the world worked. “No, I’m still a PI.”

All this was shouted, at a juncture where the guitar amplifiers were nearly as loud as the screaming.

“I’ve got to get back. Bye.”

A minute later, Lloyd was back looking for Billy. There was no Ed or Ailes behind the stage. He’d peeked in the tent, and it held only a limousine with a chauffeur seated behind the wheel. He checked the far end of the stage and there was no sign of them walking away. Which left only one stupid direction.

“Billy, let me borrow your flashlight for a couple of minutes.”

Thus armed, he went back behind the stage, and, just below Ringo’s drum riser lifted the draping cloaking the understage, stooped down and climbed under it.

He didn’t turn the flashlight on for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the dark. There was a smell of fresh-sawn lumber, a bassy rumble from the amplifiers, and the report of Beatle boots stamping on the plywood stage above.

As soon as he switched the flashlight on, he saw motion between the upright supports, a human form already on the move, away from him. Lloyd followed, crouching awkwardly. Before he made much ground, the other person slipped under the draping at the far end of the stage.

Ed and Ailes weren’t playing marbles under here. Something had to be very wrong, and his flashlight landed on it. About ten feet in front of him, he saw a body, in pieces, sprawled on the grass.

He knew it would be Ed, and it was, his face lacerated like a cracked porcelain doll, red dice crudely stuffed onto his eye sockets, guts shoveled out of his body and strewn between the severed limbs. Ed was so clearly dead there was no point in checking vital signs. He imagined Ed screaming, drowned out by thousands of other screams, and a cold fury came over him.

Lloyd thought about what Roy Narawamu had said, about looking for a killer smart enough to have the drop on you.

A hacksaw and trowel lay near the carnage, and Lloyd was sure whose fingerprints they held; that these were the implements Ailes had pressed into his hands a few nights earlier. He maneuvered to avoid stepping in the viscera, knelt and wiped down the handles. He took a last look at what had been done to Ed, to steel his resolve, then backtracked to where he’d entered.

Once out, he looked around the edges of the stage for Ailes, but he was nowhere to be seen. Smart. The route he’d taken in with Ed, no one had probably taken any particular notice of him. He could leave it for someone else to find the body. The suspicions he’d already raised about Lloyd made it sure they’d check his prints for a match on the saw and trowel, and Ailes could chuckle from a distance about the web he’d woven.

Ailes would have been equally unnoted exiting the stage area. Anyone who wasn’t watching the Beatles was watching 20 officers careening around the field, Keystone Cops-style, trying to catch four teens who had evidently hopped the fence.

He’d expected to see Billy among them, but he was stationed near the stage stairs watching the band with a beatific look on his face. Lloyd had to shake him, and shout in his face to be heard.

“Billy, listen to me. Ed Lafferty has been murdered. Ed Lafferty, under the stage there. He was killed by a downtown sergeant named Bunk Ailes. That’s A-I-L-E-S. He’s the downtown killer. Understand? Don’t try doing anything about it yourself. This guy is bad news. Tell Roy Narawamu and Doctor Ted at the Coroners what I told you.”

Billy listened, mouth agape, and still seemed to be taking it in as Lloyd handed him his flashlight and went looking for Audrey. He found her with Blue, standing near Mama Cass in a group of other passholders near the left of the stage. He shouted the necessary information about Ailes and Ed to her, adding, “You’re in danger. He knows your address. I need you to get out of town, tonight. Can you do that? Don’t even go home. Don’t tell me how to contact you. You’ll know from the newspapers when it’s OK to come back. He’s going to try to frame me, and I need to get moving.”

She didn’t get the stunned look Billy did, but it was still a lot to take in. She did nothing for a few beats, then kissed him just long enough and said, “Go.”

On a longshot, he asked Blue if she might know where Cochise was, and she did. Then he thought about the fastest way he could take down from Chavez Ravine.

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Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.
jim@fourstory.org

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