The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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In the Wee Small Hours

Summarily disgorged from the underworld, Lloyd walked up Olive rubbing his arm. Bunk Ailes had taken a large hypo-full of blood from him; he’d seen that. But he still was none too sure that Ailes hadn’t injected something into him in the process. Poison, heroin, germs, air bubbles: he wouldn’t put any of that past the ruddy-faced cop.

He was practically giddy that his time in Ailes’ little police dungeon hadn’t been rougher or more drawn out. He took a deep breath, full of night smog and Clifton’s fried chicken grease. It smelled like freedom. A cruddy orange Rexall sign looked as inviting as it had when he was seven.

His gratitude for the moment was blunted by the stinging ache in his left bicep. Plus, Ailes’ good cop act gave Lloyd the creeps more than his bad cop one did, though he knew the latter wasn’t an act. Ailes was a hard-ass from the word go, and Lloyd already knew from Roy Narawamu that Ailes was intent on nailing Lloyd’s favorite Sippie as the downtown killer.

So what was this evening’s little diversion all about? Ailes didn’t need Lloyd’s fingerprints: They were on file with the LAPD, as was his common as water O positive blood type. Was Ailes just doing it to rattle him, while also leading him to believe he wasn’t a suspect, so that if he were the killer, he’d get sloppy?

It was a long shot, but he also couldn’t rule out the possibility that Ailes was looking to frame him. He’d known of cops who planted evidence, but only when they knew the suspect was guilty and there was no other way of putting him away. All Ailes had on Lloyd was a hunch, certainly not enough to go after someone, unless Ailes was driven by an abstract motive, such as proving he was cleverer than the smarty-pants detectives on the case, which didn’t seem like much cause for sending a near-stranger like Lloyd to the gas chamber.

Also, framing Lloyd would entail Ailes being the first one at the crime scene, to plant the items he’d had Lloyd handle. Even if he did that without a hitch, all it would take to make the frame blow up would be for the real killer to strike again. Was the killer the type who would be compelled to murder again, who couldn’t abide the thought of another getting credit for his handiwork? Or did he run cool enough to lie dormant and let Lloyd take the fall, then change his MO or move to another town to resume the slaughter?

 Lloyd could feel his own mind starting to short circuit. He’d been running on almost no sleep for a week. He hadn’t a quiet moment to himself to process what the LSD trip had done to his consciousness. How was he supposed to second-guess what a brutish cop would suppose a maniacal killer was thinking?

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The first phone booth he’d passed was out of order, the mouthpiece cracked in two, its halves not quite held together with chewing gum. A booth at the next corner was occupied by a sailor in his dress whites, making out with a woman old enough to be his mother. Through some cosmic oversight, a third booth was unoccupied and working. He dialed Audrey, hoping she’d heeded him when Ailes nabbed him and gone home.

She answered before the ring even sounded on his end. “Lloyd?”

“It’s me. I’m OK.”

“Do you need bail money? Can I come get you?”

“Slow down. Everything’s fine. They’re done with me. He was just looking for some information that would help clear me, Ailes said, which was a lie, but he could have told worse ones.”

“Jesus, Lloyd, that man. I knew right away he was the policeman you told me about. It was like seeing the villain in a Dickens novel alive and walking down the sidewalk toward us.”

“Once you get to know him, he’s more like a Bram Stoker villain.” Lloyd’s arm throbbed as he talked.

“Where are you? I’ll come get you.”

“I’d like nothing better, but there are some things I have to do.” He wasn’t sure what, but he had a sudden impulse that his proximity just then would only defile Audrey; that the touch of Ailes and his goon had left a filth on him that only a long swim in the Pacific might wash off. “Whatever Ailes is trying to do, I want to nip it in the bud before it gets worse. If I don’t, I’ll feel like I’m walking around with a bulls-eye on my back.”

“You’re sure you’re OK, that you’re not just putting on a brave face for me?”

“You’ve seen the only face I’ve got. I’m OK. I’ll call you in the morning.”

“Lloyd, I love you too. Good night.”

That was the best news he’d heard since he fell out of the birth canal. It made his life worth fighting to keep.

On another impulse, he dropped his last dime in the phone and called Westside Division, hoping Ed Lafferty was on the night desk.

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At 2:10 AM, Lloyd was seated across from Ed at a Ship’s on the Westside. He’d caught a cab and sat on a wooden bench in the station anteroom until Ed had finished his shift at 2.

It was the first time Lloyd had seen the older, gruffly affable cop since Lloyd’s ouster from the force. His pale, age-lined face gave no sign of what he thought of Lloyd. Ed had been a friend and mentor to him, but he also loved the force and never liked seeing it sullied. Since Lloyd’s fall from grace, Ed had sent him a photo of Lenny Bruce dead, and Lloyd had placed two brief calls to him for information, none of which had let him know where he stood with the man.

 One of the neon tubes in the sign outside was buzzing and flickering. Ed looked Lloyd in the eyes and held his gaze for an uncomfortable time before saying, “I saw a girl the other day walking down the street wearing a ducky mini-skirt.”

Lloyd bit. “OK, what’s a ducky mini-skirt?”

“It’s one so short you can see the quack.”

Things must be all right between them, Lloyd figured. Ed joked with nearly everybody, but not if he didn’t like you.

“What were you doing even looking, Ed? Don’t you get enough of that at home?”

“Are you kidding? My wife’s legs have been together longer than the Mills Brothers.”

Lloyd decided to get to the point. “I’m in trouble, and I need some help.”

“So I’ve heard. Officially, I’m not supposed to be talking to you. Unofficially, they can go stuff themselves. You’re the sorriest excuse for a murder suspect I’ve ever seen.”

A yawning waitress came and took their orders, pancakes, bacon, eggs and coffee for both. Then Lloyd filled Ed in, concluding, “I’m trying to figure what I’m up against in Ailes. Do you know anything about him?”

“I know plenty. We were in the same class at the academy. He’d been in Europe during the war, working as a guard at a POW camp in Italy. It might have just been youthful bragging, but he claimed he beat a prisoner to death there with his bare hands.

“He was at the top of the class at the academy. I worked like crazy just to make 13th. Bunk also put out an unauthorized student newspaper there, the Daily Shillelagh. It only came out every couple of weeks, despite the name, and it was filled with news about the force, as well as Bunk’s tips on police work and his opinions on how civilians are sheep in need of watchful herding. The editorials aside, most of it was solid stuff, passing on things he’d learned, and it helped a lot of us to test better.”

“If he was that sharp, it seems like he should be at least a captain by now. What happened to him?”

“You’ve met him. He may be capable, but he’s not liked. He’s always got to be the smartest guy talking. Unless you’re one of his followers, that really wears on you. Plus he’s three times as violent as a cop needs to be, and that doesn’t sit with some of the brass.”

Lloyd wondered if promotion was a touchy subject for Ed. He’d been shot three times by a burglary suspect a decade earlier. That put him in the hospital for a month, and he came out with a useless knee. They promoted him to sergeant, sat him at the front desk, and he hadn’t budged since.

Ed leaned across the table and said, “There’s also this: I’ve never told this to anyone, but you’re in a pickle and need to know what you’re up against.

“You’ve heard that tale about the cop who found his father blowing a guy? That wasn’t just a story. It was Ailes, in the summer of 1952. He was on patrol with Dick Castanga, shined his flashlight on a couple in an alley doorway and found his Pops with a mouthful.”

One of the things that made Lloyd incredulous of such stories was they never seemed to have a conclusion. “So what happened then?”

“Bunk shot them both in the head”—well, that was conclusive—“The other guy died on the spot. Bunk thought he’d killed his father, too, but he was only near brain-dead and died in Fairview State a couple of years later. Bunk and Dick hoked up the scene to make it look like a mugging gone wrong and left it for someone else to find.”

“How’d you hear about this? I don’t suppose it was in the Daily Shillelagh.”

“Dick was my roommate. He woke me up that morning and told me what had happened. He was pretty shook. I advised him to report it, but he said he was already complicit in covering it up, and he thought that may have been the only thing they could be prosecuted for, since to him what Bunk did was a crime of passion, that Ailes was so unhinged by seeing his dad that way that he lost control. And I don’t doubt that Bunk threatened Dick.”

“How did the rumor get started then?”

“I never said a thing, but telling Dick to keep his mouth shut was like telling an Italian not to eat garlic. He evidently made it into a second-hand story, and left his and Bunk’s names out of it, as well as the shooting part, but the story got around. That may be why Ailes never put himself forward for advancement: He wasn’t sure what someone else might know or not know about that night, and maybe didn’t want to give anyone a reason to dredge it up.”

“Where’s your friend Dick now? I’ve never heard his name before.”

“He died in a shootout two months after that night.”

“Was Ailes there?”

 “I don’t know, but I know what you’re asking. I wouldn’t put it past Bunk. One reason I never bought Dick’s crime of passion argument was that Bunk had the presence of mind not to use his service revolver, but a spare .38 he kept under his shirt. Then he planted it on his father, so it looked like he’d wrested it from his attacker. You tell me that’s not calculated.”

The waitress, who apparently had forgotten about the coffees, came out with their plates and set them on the Formica table. On each, the chef had arranged the bacon and eggs atop the pancakes to look like a grinning face.

 

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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

Comments

It’s getting thicker by the line…Good dialogue…leaves ya hanging or is that banging away at something, perhaps the keyboard looking for the history of the Mills Brothers…
“shine Little Glow worm, glimmer, glimmer”  Lloyd’s gonna end up a “swimmer, swimmer”...
Or not!

2012-01-7 by Karen

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