The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Talk Talk

Lloyd left Roy to his musings, and was headed out of the building when Roy’s boss stepped into the hallway from the autopsy room. These days, Doctor Ted hardly ever participated in an autopsy unless it was a celebrity, but Lloyd guessed the downtown murders were getting so much attention that some PR was called for. The chief coroner enjoyed his own celebrity—except for the innuendo in a scandal rag about his panty fetish—but he was also expert at using his TV time to leverage more clout for his department. It was a well-run office, and it was often a cop’s best friend in making a case stick in court.

Lloyd held Doctor Ted in high regard, but he wasn’t at all sure Doctor Ted thought the same of him after his fall from grace. He was also now a civilian trespasser in the building, and Doctor Ted ran a tight ship.

Orderlies and others were hurrying through the wide hallway. Lloyd hugged the left wall, thinking he might escape Doctor Ted’s notice.

“Sippie, don’t you go slinking past me like that!” So much for stealth. Doctor Ted was motioning him over, while others paused to look at him, some with recognition, which made him blush.

Expecting a dressing-down, and possibly arrest, he walked over to the stooped old man. Even if he hadn’t been nearing 70, Ted’s head was so huge it might have made anyone stoop. Lloyd had never seen thicker rims on a pair of glasses, yet they seemed dwarfed by the geography of his face.

He grabbed Lloyd’s arm when he came alongside, but instead of ushering him to the door, he led him into his office. It was lined with ornate wood bookcases incongruously stuffed with case files in wan manila folders.

“To what do we owe the pleasure, Lloyd?” he asked in a neutral tone. Lloyd took his time answering, not wanting to place himself in hot water, and wanting even less to implicate Roy. He couldn’t think of anything much better than the truth.

“I’m a P.I. now. I’m looking for a missing person downtown, an old man. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t one of the victims. I also slightly knew the murdered man you’ve identified, Abraham Van Buren. I’m canvassing the streets down here anyhow, so if there’s any way I can help find this sicko, I’d like to.”

“And have we been helpful to you?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“And you do know there’s an entire police force already on the case, yes? Is there anything you can add to their investigation?”

Lloyd explained what he’d noticed about the dice and the body count, until the doctor interrupted him. “That’s an interesting observation, but I’m a little fuzzy on your dice, no pun intended. How are you jumping from two empty sockets to the number three and not figuring there must be two more bodies in between zero and three?”

“Just a hunch. I’m guessing that the killer only thought of the dice after he’d done his first killing or two. Anyone who puts this much effort into his work is getting a real kick from it, and I’m thinking he’s getting a whole other kick now from taunting us. So he wants every corpse he’s due in his tally. The guy with the empty sockets would count as one of them, then there’s another body before or after him that either hasn’t been found or was distant enough in time or place that no connection’s been made.”

“That sounds awfully speculative to me, Sippie, but if you want to find this maniac for us, go ahead. I hope you know that some of us think you got a raw deal from the department, no matter how poor your judgment was. I decided years ago that you’re one of the good guys. I’m counting on you not to change my mind.

“I retire next year, and I’d prefer to exit with laurels, not with egg on my face. If you give your word you won’t do anything stupid that will reflect poorly on my department, that’s good enough for me.”

“You have it, then,” Lloyd said without hesitation, and he meant it, outside of the stupid things he was already doing like sleeping with his boss and keeping a hulking chimpnapper in his employ.

“Just for appearance sake, it might be best if you called here instead of dropping in again. You have my private number. Should I forward your thoughts about the dice to the police, or is someone already doing that for you?”

“Someone is, thank you,” Lloyd answered, knowing Doctor Ted knew “someone” was Roy, but also now that Doctor Ted was okay with that.

“I’ve got one small piece of information for you, this latest victim, Number 6 according to your dice, was probably a motorcycle rider or a person who wore a helmet for some sport a lot. His face was mostly gone, but there were long-term strap marks under his chin. Old guy looked like he kept in pretty good shape until his last couple of hours. That’s not much information, but it’s better than nothing. I’ve sent out an APB to keep a look out for abandoned motorcycles.”

“Can I ask you a question, Doc?”

“What?”

“Why are you wearing a stethoscope? It seems like the last thing you’d need in your line of work.”

“There’s all manner of gurglings and things the dead can tell you if you listen.”

separator

Lloyd covered much of the ground around Skid Row that he’d already gone over, but this time with a clean sport coat and a stack of glossy photos. Many of the people he tried to question on the street shied away, while others talked his ear off about their gout, LBJ’s moon-based laser, or how Sandy Koufax was secretly signaling marching orders to the Zionist conspiracy from the mound.

The barkeeps and shop owners were a little more helpful, taking his card and posting Artie’s picture behind the counter. No one could remember seeing such a man, though.

He tried calling Audrey a couple of times from pay phones, then remembered she was probably at Capitol Records, watching the beset Mop Tops maybe explaining how they’re not really more popular than Jesus, just cuter.

He would rather have talked to her directly, but after three calls he left a message with her service, saying that the person she’d seen on TV—he didn’t want to say “body” to the receptionist—wasn’t Artie, and that he was on the case downtown.

He made a point of stopping at the General News stand and showing Artie’s photo to the Arabic owner, explaining that Abraham had claimed to have seen a person matching Artie’s description. The man drew a blank on the photo, and gave Lloyd a steely look when handed his card. Abraham’s green leather shoeshine throne sat vacant, with a black crepe wreath Scotch taped to the seatback.

After asking around and leaving Artie’s photo at the train and Greyhound stations, Lloyd drove south to his last stop, the tented field where he’d talked with the dwarf and the old stuntman. He wished he knew a way to find Cochise and hear what was up with the newest addition to Lloyd’s growing family.

He retraced the path he’d taken through the weeds on Sunday. The trash fire was still burning; Lloyd pictured a Nast-style political cartoon: a trash fire as the eternal flame before a tomb marked “The New Frontier.”

It didn’t get much more frontier than this field; and Lloyd had seen beyond the frontier, in that stygian, fetid madhouse Cochise had led him into. It was enough to make someone move to Orange County.

 

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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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