The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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It’s Monkey Time

Lloyd awoke, aware something was different, then realized his bed was at an incline, and then that it wasn’t his bed. A slightly clammy beach blanket covered him. There was sand in the corners of his eyes and the surf sluiced through his ears. That and someone else’s hair was in his face, and the warmest, most deliciously rounded body was backed up against his. He heard Audrey snoring gently, a sound like a jeweler’s saw going through soft pine.

Lloyd raised his head. The beach was empty except for some gulls preening near a fire ring, and a couple of surfers in the water near the pier. He guessed it was around 5:30 and laid his head back down. Things felt more right than they ever had, and he wondered what to do about that.

He could worship her. He could see that, becoming so enraptured by the smell of her hair, the shape of her mouth, that he’d do any foolish thing to be near her. That’s not what he wanted, any more than he’d want a woman to feel possessed with him. But if there was no right way to be with her, he could see himself taking a wrong one.

A gull called, and he raised his head to view the surf again, rolling in like mercury in the umber pre-dawn. He stretched his neck to look east, where a thin strip of golden light rimed the horizon.

Lloyd inched away from Audrey’s body, slow not to wake her. His pants were still undone from the night before. He stripped to his shorts and ran down to the water. It felt warmer on his legs than he’d expected, but it was still bracing as he dove into an approaching wave.

He didn’t aim for the horizon this time. Once past the breakers he swam parallel to the shore, reversing direction every five minutes so he was never far from Audrey’s blanket-covered form on the beach. When he came in, she was sitting up watching him as the fresh daylight shone on him. Here I am, he thought, the elf-boy of your dreams, rising from the deep.

He came ashore, with Audrey calling to him, “You know, you can see right through those shorts when they’re wet.” He didn’t know, and blushed.

Lloyd toweled off, and then, towel around his waist, they walked arm in arm back to his room. There, he dressed and loaned Audrey a sweatshirt. The Albert Ayler album still sat on his turntable, a wasps’ nest waiting to challenge him again.

He’d had his fill of the Snack-O-Rama, and instead walked Audrey to a diner on the boardwalk. It was still early and they had the place to themselves but for the cook and a TV above the counter’s end. Channel 5 was on and George Putnam, who usually hosted the nighttime news, was on camera, looking as disapproving of his fellow man as ever.

“... this victim is described as elderly, white, but otherwise unidentifiable. Like the other recent killings, red dice had been pushed into both eye sockets.”

Lloyd assumed Putnam was recapping Sunday morning’s murder, but he continued, “The body was found about eight this morning, several blocks from the other killings. Though the police refuse to speculate, the murders are obviously linked. They are equally tight-lipped as to a possible description of the killer or his motive, if any exists behind the random, perverse slaughter of our helpless elders.

“A less tragic mystery is also baffling downtown police this morning, the kidnapping, or chimp-napping, if you will, of auto tycoon Chick Singer’s longtime mascot, Bonzo. Shortly after 9 p.m. last night, a man police describe as tall, broad-shouldered and wearing a Mexican poncho stole a newly-debuted 1967 fire engine red Caprice station wagon right off the Chick Singer showroom floor, driving it through a plate glass window. The chimpanzee, a fixture in Singer’s commercials since 1959, was in the passenger seat. Reporter Rick DeVore spoke with an eyewitness on the scene last night.”

The camera cut to a man in a disastrous toupee, talking into DeVore’s microphone: “I was standing right here when it come through the glass, and went skittering down that way. The monkey seemed to be having one hell of a good time. It looked like the other fella was letting him steer.”

Lloyd wondered if “stealth” meant something else in the Mescalero tongue, because it was no mystery to him who was behind the wheel. He looked at Audrey and she appeared flabbergasted, not seeming to know whether to laugh at Singer’s misfortune or to fret about Artie and this killer sharing the streets of Los Angeles.

Lloyd fleetingly wondered if Artie might be the killer. Could he have gone that far around the bend, and could he have the strength and guile to commit such crimes? He’d had to restrain his share of old drunks in his beat days, and they could be wiry, formidable bastards. Then he pictured Artie’s playful bantering with the chef at Musso’s and banished the idea.

Now Singer was on the screen, fixing his steely eyes on the camera. “Whoever stole Bonzo, he’d better hope the police find him before I do. It is a consolation to me, at least, that Bonzo is in a new Caprice, the most comfortable yet rugged station wagon on the market. If you’d like to drive one yourself, we have them at all our locations except for Van Nuys.”

“This asshole doesn’t miss a trick, does he?” Audrey said. “He’d sell the hearse his mother was riding in.”

Her salty mouth got the cook to look away from the TV for the first time since they’d come in. He walked over and poured them two coffees without asking. Audrey sniffed the cream in the small metal pitcher on the counter.

“Do you have anything fresher?”

The cook slid the pitcher at the far end of the counter down their way. Audrey smelled it, and began drinking her coffee black. She had started to cry.

“There’s no reason to think that’s Artie, is there, on the news?” she asked.

“No, but thinking and knowing are two different things. I’ll check around today and see what’s to be known so you can rest easier. But there’s millions of people in this city; odds-wise, it’s probably more likely that Artie stole Singer’s chimp.”

“It’s high time someone did. Back when I did that jingle for him, except for when the camera was rolling, Chick treated Bonzo like shit.”

Lloyd wondered if he should tell her about Cochise, but that would have meant telling her his suspicions about Singer, which would mean telling her about Singer lurking outside her house when she and Lloyd were on the floor, and why ruin a perfect memory?

“Can you do that?” she asked, and when he looked quizzical she added, “Find out that’s not Artie who’s murdered?”

“I’m sure I can.” No need, also, to tell her how unrecognizable the bodies had been so far. But, if he could talk to Roy, they could eliminate Artie from the running by checking again for his unique bone spurs. “Don’t even think about that. Whatever Artie’s doing, it sounds like he planned it for a long time, which should mean he’s snug and safe somewhere. We’ll find out where—I’m canvassing the downtown today with the photos you brought—and you can take your future from there. I hope I’m in it.”

She reached under the counter and squeezed his hand. “Can I help with that? “

“I’d cover more ground on my own. Do you have something you can do today?”

“I have a friend at Capitol Records who was going to get me into the Beatles press conference. I’d rather be with you.”

“Thanks. I never expected to outrank the Beatles in anyone’s book. You go see them, but don’t fall in love with Ringo.”

They left the café without ordering breakfast, not that the chef showed any interest in asking them to. He walked Audrey to her car at his office, and they shared a long kiss at the driver side door.

“Call me as soon as you can. Sooner,” she said, and squeezed his hand again.

separator

Lloyd trotted back to the rooming house, showered and dressed for the day, then ran back to his office for the photos and his car. He tried calling Roy Narawamu, but the phone was evidently off the hook at the coroner’s office.

Se he started the drive downtown. He wished he had a number for Cochise. It had been a long shot to suppose Singer might have anything to do with Artie’s disappearance, and now his pursuit of that was looking to become a major distraction. What the hell did Cochise want with a chimpanzee? Another drinking buddy?

 

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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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