The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Paint It Black

Lloyd was marched down the ever-darkening streets by Sgt. Bunk Ailes and his underling, one to either side of him. If Lloyd kicked up his heels, he wondered, mightn’t they all break into a jaunty stride, harmonizing, “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town?”

The other two evidently didn’t share this thought. They marched just slightly behind him, giving off the mood that they’d mow right over him if he didn’t keep up the brisk pace. After a block of them nudging up behind him, he understood what it must feel like to be a shopping cart.

Finally, Ailes spoke. “Sorry if I ruffled your boss there. I don’t take it when a woman tries to push me. Maybe you do. I got a wife at home that’s like living with a reptile. I don’t need more of that on the beat.”

Lloyd realized this was Ailes’ attempt at making nice. He didn’t expect that to last. The last time they’d met, the cop had made it painfully clear that there’d be hell to pay if Lloyd became a problem to him, and that registering on his retinas counted as a problem.

Lloyd kept an eye on traffic to see if Audrey was circling the block. He hoped she’d taken the hint and headed home. The last thing he wanted was for her to be on Ailes’ radar.

People stepped aside or crossed the street when they saw the three coming. Some looked at Lloyd with curiosity, a few with outright glee that someone other than themselves had gotten the pinch. Humanity. If he were being paraded down the streets of ancient Thebes by men with spears and breechclouts, would the unsympathetic stares have been any different? Are we all just animals competing for the same meat? Lloyd wondered if guys like Ailes ever had such thoughts.

Pershing Square now lay two blocks ahead, with Ailes’ Spartan office below it, off from the underground parking structure. The ruddy-faced sergeant seemed to guess Lloyd’s thoughts.

“People wonder why I’ve stayed on the beat, why I never put myself up for advancement like pretty boys like you. So what if I could have made lieutenant? I’m king here. All the pavement and palm trees between the mountains and the sea, that’s just the outlying territories. This is the citadel and I’m keeper of the castle. Name me anyone else on the force who has their own dungeon.”

He had a point there. From what Lloyd had seen on the morals sweeps, and his own time in Ailes’ interrogation room, the guy ruled here, no matter his rank.

If he was inclined to play nice-guy, Lloyd was willing to play along. It beat getting his throat squeezed by the big gorilla. He said, “Yeah, this always seemed like the heart of LA to me. It was a special day when I was a kid when my dad took me here.”

Ailes’ mood suddenly darkened. Why? Lloyd wondered, He doesn’t know my dad.

 “So now you think it’s your playground? Did Daddy tell you to come down here and muddy up half my crime scenes?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about how with at least two of the guys murdered down here—maybe you read a little something of it in the papers—your fingerprints and shoeprints must be all over the place, since I have accounts of you being there.”

“And that makes me a suspect?”

“It makes you a nuisance. You don’t have the balls to be this killer. I know that just looking at you. But I’ve got to eliminate your prints and snot-rags and whatever else before I can figure whose are the killer’s.”

“Don’t they have detectives for that?”

“Yeah, and they have meat at the supermarket, but I like to get my own. Got a deal on a new Fleetside from Chick Singer, with a Chinook shell on it. Nothing like driving home with a buck tied to your front bumper. You hunt?”

“Just tail.”

“Yeah, we’ve already established you’re not a fruit, or at least not much of one. Hooray for you. That’s quite an accomplishment. And here we are.”

They’d arrived at the blocky concrete elevator shed that would take them to the parking structure below. Ailes and the other one, Gunter, still stood behind Lloyd when they entered. Though he’d been in handcuffs the previous time, this felt more oppressive. They could jab him with a nightstick any second, and he wouldn’t see it coming. Even turning his head forty-five degrees, he had only the most peripheral view of their faces. It was like conversing with a devil on the shoulder.

They all turned silent on the elevator, except for Gunter, who turned extra-silent. It gave Lloyd time to worry about Ailes dropping Chick Singer’s name. It could be innocent enough: Singer Chevrolet was a downtown fixture, and Ailes wouldn’t be the first cop to squeeze a deal from him. But what if the two were friends? For all he knew, Singer could be waiting for them downstairs, fresh from the trip to Watts that Lloyd and Cochise had arranged. Maybe they’d take Lloyd on his own trip to the woods in Ailes’ new camper, toast some marshmallows, then give Lloyd a two-minute head start through the brush.

But all that awaited them downstairs was the same spare chamber. Ailes’ desk, some chairs, gun lockers and cabinets were to one side of it. In the middle there was only the steel chair he’d met before. This time, Lloyd noted that the concrete floor tilted slightly toward the center of the room, where a round metal drain grate was screwed into the floor.

That wasn’t out of line with other lockups he’d been in. When you have drunks vomiting and pissing themselves, it’s nice to have a handy hole to hose it down. And if the hole happens to intimidate those you are interrogating—envisioning their own blood and teeth circling the drain—so be it.

They had Lloyd sit in the steel chair but made no attempt to restrain him. Ailes pulled a wooden chair over from his desk and sat about a foot in front of Lloyd, to his left a bit. Gunter still hovered behind him.

Ailes put on his friendly face again, which made Lloyd’s skin crawl. “Just to confirm my impression that you’re not the killer, I have a few simple questions for you, Buddy Old Boy.” He rattled off dates and times, and asked if Lloyd could account for his whereabouts, which Lloyd did in the most general of terms he could, leaving Audrey out of it. He got the impression that Ailes wasn’t much listening to his answers, in a hurry to get on to the next act.

“Are these the shoes you’ve been wearing down here?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll need to make an impression of them.”

Gunter did, paying no mind to the rime of grey dental paste it left on Lloyd’s loafers. The air in the room was cold and growing stuffier by the minute. How did these guys stand it, particularly with Ailes’ Camel sitting lit and untouched in an ashtray on the desk. Growing up, Lloyd thought no place was as rotten as La Puente. His mind was changing on that.

“Next I need copies of your prints on various surfaces.”

That was crap. He’d been printed when he joined the force, and Ailes would know that. Lloyd didn’t call him on it, because he didn’t want Ailes having any insight into what he did or didn’t know, most pertinently that he already knew Ailes was making the case to detectives that he was the killer.

On short order, Gunter pressed a series of implements in his hands. They were by his sides, so with Gunter filling them from behind, he didn’t get a clear view of some, though he recognized a hacksaw handle by touch.

Lloyd suddenly thought of a story a bass player had told him. He’d played on the soundtrack to one of Elvis Presley’s innumerable movies, and told Lloyd that during the A&R sessions, Elvis always sat on the bench next to the pianist, while the vocal quartet the Jordanaires stood right behind him, Elvis habitually kept his hands clasped behind his back. He was a prankster and one of the Jordanaires couldn’t resist getting back at him. In the middle of one session, he snaked his dick out and plopped it into Elvis’ clasped hands. Surprised, Elvis squeezed his hands together, and when he realized what he was holding, he fell out on the floor laughing.

It was a fleeting thought, but Lloyd nearly guffawed at the image of Gunter doing the same. It didn’t escape Ailes’ notice.

“Amusing you, are we? We must seem like Abbott and Costello down here, after the swanky cases you’ve worked.”

“I don’t think that at all.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I’ve taken up enough of your precious time.”

“Don’t give it another thought. Gunter and I think you really brighten the place up. You’re like the son I never had with a whore.

“Just one more thing and you’re free to go frolic in the glades again. I need a sample of your blood.” Ailes already had a hypo in his hand, dropping it out of sight before Lloyd could see if it had something in it or not. Lloyd’s back went stiff and he thought about bolting for the door.

His corned beef mug drawing closer to Lloyd, Ailes continued, “You have a right to refuse, of course, but what’s a little blood between friends? I’m just trying to clear you of suspicion here. That’s not to say I’m not going to enjoy this.”

He jabbed the needle into Lloyd’s left bicep like it was a meat thermometer.

 

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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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