The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Strangers in the Night

The air was still, neither warm nor chill, and their leisurely Beachwood descent created the illusion of a wafting summer breeze. They might be a couple on a date to Dino’s; a married pair out to see The Sand Pebbles at Grauman’s, with a babysitter back at the bungalow, reading Nancy Drew on the couch while the twins watched Steve Allen on TV.

Or they could be errant, awkward lovers, driving to look for her husband in the senseless parts of town.

It was all wrong, but it was still better than most of Lloyd’s life up to that point.

Added to the list of things he loved about Audrey: Ten minutes after she announced she was going with him and vanished upstairs, she was back and ready. There was none of the primping before a mirror or worrying in the wardrobe that could suck an hour out of an evening’s plans. She seemed confident about the face she was showing the world; she was looking to see what the world could show her.

He’d worried she might reappear in a trench coat or in her typical Emma Peel getup, but she’d pulled a pair of grey wool slacks over her leotard bottom, with a green sweater and black jacket on top, her hair back in a kerchief, a small purse slung over her shoulder.

It was just big enough to hold a .38. Audrey didn’t seem the gun type to him, but he’d been surprised before by how familiar farm-state girls could be with firearms

He was starting to wish he was carrying his, which had gone into a drawer the day he was canned from the force. He’d never liked wearing it. As a beat cop, it felt like some obscene sausage swinging from his belt, daring people to mess with him. It made reasoning with people that much harder. As a detective, the shoulder holster under his jacket didn’t make him feel like a suave spy; it made him feel like a hostage with a hand grenade strapped to his chest, inches from his heart.

But tonight, he wanted every advantage he could have, in case anything got out of hand and presented a threat to Audrey.

She lit a cigarette as they drove, the first he’d seen her smoke since the day they’d met. Had she laid off for him, because he didn’t smoke? He could hope so.

Audrey seemed wrapped in her own thoughts. As they neared Franklin, she reached to switch the radio on. It started to warm by Argyle, and music came out, fuzzy, then louder, horns blaring and a giddy guy repeating “Good day, Sunshine!” until it sounded like some new reveille. Lloyd supposed it was the Beatles.

“Hmmm, it appears you’ve been won over by the wow sounds of today,” Audrey said, bemused.

“I figure if you like it, there must be something to it. I’m enjoying some of what I hear, and it isn’t like I can find good jazz on the AM dial.”

“Why, is there something on FM? I thought that was all Armenians and classical music.”

“There’s KNOB, 97.1. That’s what I listen to at home.”

“Knob? My British friends would get a laugh out of that.”

“Why?”

“Take a guess.”

He took a guess. When in doubt, it’s a dick.

He had planned on canvassing the area near the pawnshop where he’d found Artie’s dummy case, then checking the rescue missions, and finally the bars. If he skipped the bars, he saw a good chance of the evening passing without altercation.

Audrey had turned quiet again. Was she as apprehensive as he was? Thinking about Artie and feeling guilty? Mad that he’d spent part of the past week in her employ getting into bar fights and playing patty cake with an ape? To which he might retort that it was thanks to her friend that he’d spent the previous night frying on LSD. It didn’t help that she hadn’t accused him of anything: aggrieved defenses continued echoing through his head.

The radio cycled through a few more tunes, then a DJ blathered on about the giant steel wool Bob Dylan wig on the roof of the KRLA building. He wondered if that was for real. He stole a glance at Audrey, to find she was looking back at him.

She said, “You’re awfully quiet. Penny for your thoughts.”

He felt like he had an entire roll of quarters banging around in his mind, but little that amounted to a thought. So he told her his plans.

“We’re going to the pawn shops on Spring Street first. Some of them stay open late, but mainly I want to look over the neighborhood more thoroughly for any other signs of Artie, or if we can chance across the bum who pawned the dummy case. Next, we’re going to the Union and LA rescue missions. I don’t think there’s much chance of finding him there. He’s enough of a celebrity that someone would have recognized him if he stayed there, and word would have filtered out. But a lot of people cycle through from the streets. Maybe one of them has seen something. It’s a long shot, but that’s all we’ve got. I love you.”

That last bit surprised him. He’d wanted to end on something that didn’t sound so dry and professional, and that’s what came out.

“Pull the car over,” Audrey said forcefully. He did, parking in front of a wide apartment courtyard with rows of palm trees lit in festive colors. He was afraid she was going to get out and walk away. Instead, she leaned over and kissed him, a long one. She drew her head back, holding his in her hands to look at him squarely. “You’re the ruin of me, Lloyd Sippie. And you have lipstick on your mouth.”

She reached in her purse and passed him a neatly squared handkerchief. She’d evidently said her piece. He wiped his mouth until he was convinced he got it all, and nudged the car back into the sparse traffic.

“Why did you come to me, out of all the detectives in town? Can you tell me that again?” The first time, she’d only implied she’d read in the paper of his disgraced ouster from the force, without elaborating why that would make her hire him. That had nagged him ever since.

“I’d read about you in the Times. I saw your picture, and you didn’t look like some soulless nitwit. A little baffled and shopworn, maybe, but still curious about what life was bringing. Is that you?

“When Artie went missing, I saw your ad in the paper. I didn’t want a nitwit, and I didn’t want some blasé pro who’d farm the work out to his underpaid underlings. I thought you’d be hungry to prove yourself, and would do the job. And I was curious to see if I was right about you.”

“And?”

“Complete nitwit. That’s what I thought when you came out of your bathroom with that forlorn thing in your hand. I’ve since revised my opinion.”

“To?”

“You’re fab. You’re groovy. You’re number one on my hit parade. And I know just the place to hide that forlorn thing, OK? How much reassurance do you need? I thought detectives were supposed to be hard-boiled and unflappable.”

“That’s what I thought, too, but they haven’t got to that in the textbook yet.”

separator

He parked in the Pacific Electric lot and they walked up 5th to Spring. The shop where he’d bought Artie’s case was closed. He asked at two others if someone had tried to sell them the case first, or a dummy, or if maybe Artie himself had wandered by. He got only blank looks, while Audrey stayed in the background, looking through the record bins.

In the half-darkened window of another closed shop, Lloyd was jolted to see Woody Kane, Artie’s famous dummy, staring back through the glass. Audrey didn’t have to get very close before rendering a verdict, “That’s not Woody. It’s just one of the plaster manufactured copies they sold in toy stores in the ’40s. They screwed Artie on the royalties, he sued, and hundreds of these wound up in a landfill somewhere.”

One was creepy enough. Lloyd didn’t like contemplating a mass grave of wide-eyed dummies.

They stood on a corner, waiting for the light. Two bums were nearing them from the other crosswalk on the right, and Lloyd reflexively shifted to stand to that side of Audrey. As the two reached the curb, one stumbled, collapsing into Lloyd, who turned sideways to let the man slide to the cement. Audrey looked on aghast.

The other bum had continued on behind Audrey, seeming oblivious of his buddy’s decline.

“Hey!” Lloyd shouted after him, and the ragged man took off in a run that his previously bent frame seemed incapable of. Lloyd scrambled after him, catching up several storefronts down, where he drew alongside the guy and shoved him hard into a mailbox, from which the man recoiled and landed face down on the sidewalk.

He heard Audrey’s heels on the pavement behind him.

“Lloyd, stop! Have you lost your mind?”

 He stood over the fallen man. She came up, breathless and looking even more vexed when he asked her, “Hand me your purse for a minute.”

She reached for it, and it was no longer on her shoulder. Lloyd rolled the man on the ground over, where the purse was clutched in his hands like a puppy he was shielding.

Lloyd took the purse. The man was conscious.

“Please don’t call the cops, mister. I’m beat up enough as it is.”

“Can you walk?”

“I think so.”

“Then scram.” That wasn’t a word Lloyd heard much anymore, and it felt good saying it, like maybe he was in the same club as Bogart. He said nothing as he slung Audrey’s purse back on her shoulder, over the head this time so it couldn’t vanish as easily. He motioned back to the corner, where there was no sign of the thief’s collapsing accomplice.

“How did you know that wasn’t just some poor cripple falling into you back there?” Audrey asked, still incredulous.

“‘When in doubt, let the sidewalk sort them out.’ That’s what we were taught in the academy. Otherwise, you’re letting someone get close enough in to stick a shiv or bottle stem in you. There’s a small difference between real shambling and sham shambling. Those two seemed too aware of each other’s movements, like dancers. They were up to something.”

“So they were. Bonus points to Detective Sippie.”

separator

He let Audrey take the lead at the Union Rescue Mission. In his experience, the good shepherds there heard so much crap day-in, day-out that they weren’t very responsive to queries. It was harder to ignore the wife of a missing person, and it didn’t hurt if that wife was a looker. They got no leads, but they were able to leave Artie’s photo and their contact info. Some guests were already on their cots there, and Lloyd gave the hall a quick once-over for Artie’s bushy hair.

It was the same story at the next mission. If nothing else, he figured this evening should give Audrey an idea of the wall he’d been butting his head against this past week.

They walked back to the car. At the corner of the PE lot, they passed a patrolman at a callbox. Lloyd realized why he was familiar: He was one of Ailes’ goons, the Aryan-looking one who had followed him to his car the week before. The officer wasn’t looking their way, and he was glad of that.

As he was letting Audrey in the passenger door, though, Lloyd heard footsteps approaching, and a voice telling him, “Please stand away from the vehicle.” He complied, and turned to see the cop standing there, his hands ready by his sides, but his gun in his holster. That was a good sign.

He saw the officer’s ruddy-faced, barrel-chested sergeant, Ailes, striding down the sidewalk toward them, which was not by any stretch a good sign. Ailes must have been who the officer was talking with over the callbox. They probably had the MG staked out.

His first thought was to get Audrey out of there. She had spotted Ailes as well, and from the look she gave Lloyd, he was pretty sure she recognized him as the sergeant from the tale he’d told her. Play this very cool, he willed her.

“Well, if it isn’t old home week,” Ailes said to him as he came up. “I’m surprised to see you, but I’m glad. You can help me clear a few things up. For starts, is this women your employer, or just someone you’re employing for the hour?”

He wants me to take a swing at him, Lloyd thought, and it would almost be worth it.

Audrey spoke up, “I’m his employer. Yours, too, according to the city charter. What do you want with us?”

“From you, nothing, except to butt out. I need to ask the former detective here some questions. It might take a while. I’ll have Gunter drive you home, assuming you don’t live in Pacoima.”

“She’ll take my car,” Lloyd interjected. “I’ll catch a cab later.”

Audrey stood firm. “If it’s all the same, I want to be there while you question him.”

If Lloyd had been close enough, he’d have stomped on her toes.

“It’s not all the same. It’s police business, not frigging Romper Room,” Ailes said, with professional contempt.

“I just want you to know, if anything untoward happens, I know the mayor.”

“Really? What a coincidence. I fuck a whore who knows the mayor.” Ailes brightened, like a polished knife. “Now please get out of my jurisdiction. I’ve got murders to investigate.”

Lloyd gave her a single sharp nod and implored her with his eyes to flee. All he said while handing her the key was, “This is routine. Don’t worry about it, Ma’am. I’ll call you from my office Monday.”

Finally, she got in the driver’s seat, started the ignition, got a quick feel for the clutch and sped off.

He was pretty sure she’d double back to see if he was OK, and just as sure that he’d be 20 feet underground by then, in Ailes’ brutal little lockup beneath Pershing Square.

 

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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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