The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Suspicion

The padded red leather office chair was something Lloyd had lucked onto, abandoned behind a cinder-block office that had been the mail drop for a bismuth-based cancer cure scam. It was the sort of chair you could fall asleep in with a glass of scotch in your hand, waiting for the phone to ring with your next important case.

Minus those accoutrements, Lloyd unexpectedly fell asleep in his anyway, the waves of love and revenge that had sustained him now lying flat and glassy in his brainpan.

He dreamed of the ocean, which he did so often he wondered why he bothered living next to one. This time, he was bobbing on a smooth sea, his head easily riding high in water of nearly his own temperature. The sky was a painful blue, with no escape from its intensity. Lloyd closed his eyes, and immediately something clenched his legs and pulled him under, straight down so suddenly and deep it left a sinkhole in the water above him.

He was tugged to where it massed chill and dark. The grip on his legs released then. He fought his way to the surface, spluttered and blinked, and was immediately towed down again. This repeated until he realized it was the blinking that caused it, but even then couldn’t keep from squinting in that harsh light. Again, he’d be jerked down, and again, until the water’s surface was pocked with pores.

The phone rang. Lloyd roused from the deep to catch it on the third ring, confused by the nickel rolling across the desktop. A man was singing on the other end.

“Hey, big boss man, can’t you hear me when I call?” Lloyd was going to have to get used to waking up to the sound of a 6’7" Indian.

“What’s up? Have you got news for me?”

“Yeah, you asked me to call this morning at ten. Is that news to you?” Cochise sounded a little put out.

“No, you’re right. It slipped my mind.”

“So, am I still working for you or not?”

“Of course you are. I’ve even got some money for a change. Is there somewhere I can meet you?”

“Why don’t I come meet you? I’m in Santa Monica, and you can’t be too many minutes’ walk away.”

Lloyd wasn’t dying to have Cochise see his office. He might scoff at what a cheap hole it was; that and he might expect to crash there. But Lloyd couldn’t think of an ungracious way of not giving him the address.

“Great, I will be there before the sun rides high in the sky, Paleface.”

Which didn’t leave Lloyd much time to call Audrey. He got up and splashed some water in his face from the sink in the utility room, then dialed her number.

She must have been sitting by the phone. “Hello?”

“It’s Lloyd. Sorry for skipping out so early this morning.”

“It’s all right. I read your note. But you missed waking up to me smiling like Scarlett O’Hara.”

And you missed me vandalizing 17 cars, he thought, but said, “Can I catch a matinee sometime?”

“I really want to see you and talk with you today. Can I do that?”

Screw me, he thought, here comes the blow-off. “Last night meant too much. I can’t let that happen again. I can’t be torn in two.” Leaving Mr. Pitiful with both dick and heart flapping in the breeze.

“Sure. I can come by right after I finish some business here.”

“Let me come there. I love the thought of the ocean today. I’ll come see you in your element.”

“There’s not much of it. You want to meet in Malibu instead?”

My element is dog shit, he should have told her. Look up dog shit on the Periodic Table and you’ll see a diagram of my life. That’s what you’re buying into with me. Disgraced cop. Pocker of oceans. Finder of lost husbands. There’s no way I wind up good for you. Not to mention my brain’s going like Jiffy-Pop just at the thought of you and Cochise bumping into each other.

“No, I want to come to Venice, California where you are. How else can I see if you fixed your damn toilet?”

“I’ve still got that business I have to attend to.”

“That’s fine. Would four be all right, at your office?”

 Lloyd said it was, though he had a sinking feeling it wouldn’t be at all.

He could still smell Audrey on his skin. He had no good reason to think she was coming to end it, other than the fact that something so good had never once come his way before. He’d landed in someone else’s movie. How long before the co-star noticed? How could it continue? If it did, he wondered if it would always feel like he was headed up some strange canyon every time he saw her.

He had five and a half hours to spend, and not much to spend it on that could get done in that time, like finding Artie Kane. All he wanted to do was see Audrey, but it mattered how she saw him. It was awkward enough being in both her employ and her bed; he didn’t want to look like he wasn’t earning it, or that he was the sort of guy who’d put self-interest above duty.

If he found Artie, would it be Audrey’s duty to stay with the old fuck through his puttering years? But if she was thinking of sleeping in Lloyd’s bed tonight, what would she think about the neighbors and landlady listening through the thin walls, in his Spartan room with sand in its carpet?

He tried calling Roy Narawamu, but he was in the autopsy room. He doubted Chick Singer was in the phone book—car dealers didn’t enjoy customers showing up with torches at their front doors. He didn’t think much of Singer as a suspect; it would suit his dislike for the man too much. But it was enough of a suspicion that he had to eliminate it.

Maybe the motive could be as stupid as Singer thinking that with Artie out of the picture, he could horn in. So, what, he’d killed Artie, or just put him on a southbound bus in Tijuana? Just for a clearer shot at getting into Audrey’s leotard? If Singer had kidnapped Artie for ransom, why let Artie marinate this long without contacting Audrey?

Unless he had, and she was playing it incredibly cool. Could she? And why? Because Singer had made threats? Because Audrey was in on it somehow? Maybe there was an insurance angle, where they’d pay to recover Artie, or pay her if he turned up dead. In which case, why bring a PI in? As a fall guy? Lloyd felt filthy just thinking such thoughts, but he’d been so jerked around during his ethics violation that he felt a need now to patsy-proof himself.

The idea occurred that if Cochise didn’t have many ideas about other homeless hangouts, he might set him on tailing Singer for a while. There wasn’t much point unless Cochise could borrow a car; he couldn’t track him by footprints and broken twigs. Cochise also tended to stick out like a drunken bronze statue wherever he went. If Singer should spot and confront him, Lloyd would want to be there to see it. Singer might look like he wrestled Chuck Connors, but Cochise looked like he bench-pressed him, and that skinny kid to boot.

“Can you smell that?” Cochise filled his doorway, his nose turned to the air. He appeared not to be more than two or three malt liquors into his morning. Lloyd sniffed, and caught the usual mix of cotton candy, corn dogs and beach rot in the morning breeze. “Christ, I love a cinnamon bun. I smell them hot, not more than 30 cactus shadows distant, Kemosabe: cinnamon buns. If you buy me one, I will reveal the location and wonders of the lost Tayopa mine to you.”

 

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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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Marty Martell & Garn Littledyke would be proud!

2010-12-19 by Leslie

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