The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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That Must Make You Beany

It was a languid Thursday, when the only action was the little brown birds rustling and chirruping through the mulberry bush outside the window, while the smell of beach and corndogs beckoned through the open door. There didn’t seem much point in working, since there wasn’t any work. Lloyd had hung his shingle two weeks before, and no one had come through the door except a wet dog and a guy selling surplus steaks. The only sure thing was that the landlord would drop in two weeks hence.

New phone books didn’t come out for another three months, so Lloyd was stuck placing classified ads in the L.A. Times and Herald Examiner; increasingly discreet ads, their size shrinking with his budget.

Without a client, he could probably scrape together another month’s rent, maybe two if he started sleeping in the office and gave up his rooming house berth. Most of his savings had gone into buying a used red MG the month before he was canned. He’d sleep in that if he had to, because it would be the last to go. His detective’s pay, badge and benefits had vamoosed after it came out he’d been sleeping with both the defendant and victim in a jewelry insurance con.

His bunko squad-mate Ray Gilliam once told him: “Lloyd, you can sure tail a suspect, but you’d do better to suspect that tail you’re chasing.” He had to admit he was overfond of quim and none too discerning of its owners. He never let his pursuits cloud his police work; indeed, in this case a bit of bedroom snooping had led to him discovering that both women had been in on the jewelry scheme. Whatever its fruits, his cock-led investigation had not sounded especially wholesome in the courtroom.

Lloyd moved to the corroded shores of Venice Beach, spent two months feeling sorry for himself, hanging on the beach, sizing up the bodybuilders’ weak spots, banging on a beer bottle along with the boardwalk conga players; sort of accepted by the locals, though nothing like friends.

Then he rented this pine and cinderblock office and started losing his tan.

He wore a suit the first few days, the same durable dark one he’d worn as a detective. Lacking clients, he’d relaxed his standards since then, which is why when his first live one walked in, Lloyd was peeing in the sink in the tiny back room and hadn’t shut the door.

“I don’t know that I want a private investigator who can’t find his own toilet.”

“It’s off limits. I’ve got champagne chilling in it.” Well met, lob returned, but Lloyd blushed a lobster red anyway. In whipping up his pants so pronto he’d left his dick tip jutting above the beltline. His client—she must be; she surely wasn’t selling steaks in that sleek beige outfit—took another step into the office and eyed him coolly. “I recognize Cecil. That must make you Beany.”

She looked to be in her mid-thirties, but the kind who’d watch cartoons because they amused her, not because she had kids. And the kind that under better circumstances would have had his sea serpent rearing its head instead of shrinking under her steady gaze. Lloyd quickly turned away to adjust himself and button up.

“Puppet show’s over? Then perhaps we’ll talk business. But do go ahead and wash your hands.”

Lloyd would have said something back, if he could only think of what. Instead, he washed, dried his hands on a faded yellow floral curtain, and took his side of the desk. She was already seated and had lit a cigarette.

“Audrey Kane, wife of Artie Kane. And wife of Woody Kane.”

Artie Kane had been one of the world’s most famed ventriloquists and Woody his most beloved dummy. They’d been huge on radio, where a ventriloquist seemed as pointless to Lloyd as putting shaved beaver on the air: who’s to know? The two had been in a dozen movies, and made the jump to TV, where Kane slowly faded from prime time to kiddie time to oblivion. Audrey looked to be maybe four or five years older than Lloyd, so she had to be three decades younger than Kane at least.

“Artie’s gone missing. I’d like for you to find him.”

“That’s what I do. And I apologize about just now. The toilet’s stopped up.”

“Think nothing of it. I’m easily entertained. After sitting through I don’t know how many episodes of Kandy Kane Town, I’m entertained by the Chex Gazette.

“Artie’s been absent since Monday. I came home from the Farmers Market to find a note reading I’ve gone hoboing. Don’t try to find me. I’m simply gone. That makes a certain amount of Artie sense, because all he’d talked about all weekend was some Joel McCrea movie on the late show, where this successful producer disappears to live on the streets among the poor. The police say Artie doesn’t qualify as a missing person, since Artie clearly doesn’t think he’s missing. The thing was, I’m almost certain the note wasn’t in his hand.”

“When was the last time you saw Artie?”

“About nine Sunday night. I’d gone down to tell him goodnight. Artie was in the basement, folding Kleenex into neat pocket squares for his ventriloquist dummies’ tuxes. Dummies’ tuxes: Sounds like a Frenchman trying to get to Dallas, doesn’t it? He loved those dummies. He certainly didn’t have much left for me.”

“Did Artie have any enemies, and that includes you?”

“You have to remember somebody to hate him, and even when Artie was on top in this town, everyone loved him, and that goes for me, too.” She traced the tip of her cigarette along Lloyd’s cinder block wall as she talked, and gave him just a hint of a smile.

“Any idea where he might have gone? Any favorite haunts?”

“No, and none that I haven’t checked with. May I enquire as to your rates?”

“$50 a day plus approved expenses.”

“Let’s make it $60, no expenses and you get your toilet fixed. Why don’t you ask me some more questions over dinner?” She crushed out her cigarette on the wall and took a ballpoint pen from her bag. With her right hand she reached across the desk, took Lloyd’s left wrist, turned it over and began writing.

“You can remember my number, can’t you? It’s UP-6217. Call after five.”

She released his hand, scooped up her purse and was out the door. Lloyd looked down at his hand, still extended, like a beggar’s imploring passersby. He drew it closer, and saw what she’d written in a fluid hand was, remember?

UP-what? Goddamn. The numbers had slid past, his mind entirely with the pen tip’s languid crawl across his palm. He nearly ran after her, then pictured himself like some moke in a movie, falling on his keister chasing a dame. He wasn’t that desperate, even if he was.

He replayed her exit in his mind, still couldn’t remember her number, but was pleased with himself to recall she was left-handed. Right, like he could go look for her on the left-handed side of town. He flipped through his phone book and found what he expected, that no A, Art, Arthur or Artie Kane was listed. He looked at his clock. It was 2:15. Then he looked at his wall, where Mrs. Audrey Kane had written UP-6217 in cigarette ash.

 

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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

Comments

I had an MG once; there’s still stuff from it in my garage that I couldn’t part with.

2009-12-8 by David Montgomery

Loved this installment!
I’ll read the book!

phog

2009-12-8 by phog masheeen

Dump the first sentence.
The balance?
Subscribed!
Chris

2009-12-8 by Chris

Can’t wait to find out who is that bondage babe in the red dress.

2009-12-10 by Brandao Shot

i had an MG once, too.  took all three of my kids in it on a 3,000 mile road trip.

and i love the first sentence.

2009-12-12 by florence

Love it! Have to say, I wouldn’t have thought of it, but I agree with Chris: dump the first sentance.
‘There didn’t seem much point in working, since there wasn’t any work.’ is so powerful!

2010-01-15 by Kelly von Hemert

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