The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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We Can Work It Out

Lloyd got no further on the phone with Audrey than telling her about the night of the day she’d hired him—after dancing at the Whisky, when he’d headed downtown and got an earful of Apache vomit—when she interrupted, “Stop. I have to hear this in person.”

He didn’t have chance to tell her he was waiting on the selfsame Apache to collect the chimp still perched atop the back of his prized leather attorney’s chair, plucking at Lloyd’s five week old haircut.

He couldn’t sense if she was amused or angry when she hung up, after telling him to head to the hills as soon as able.

The day was shading into dusk before Cochise returned from dropping his truckload of Chick Singer on a Watts street. The hulking Indian came in grinning, stepping out of a Chrysler Imperial that had a freshly-stolen glow about it.

“You have no idea how hard it is to find a cab down there,” he explained with a shrug, as Bonzo ran to his arms.

He was pleased with himself because he’d left the truck on a street where he anticipated a lot of nightlife, with its back door ajar. He’d stopped to buy some paint and had written Singer Chevrolet Repossessions Dept. on one side of the truck and Hides Money in His Ass on the other.

Just after snapping the key off in the lock—in case Singer had a spare hidden—he’d heard the car dealer stir and start making outraged cries for help. “You keep that up,” he’d told Singer. “You’ll get heap plenty help.”

Lloyd didn’t have to worry about how to ditch Cochise. The Apache had plans to find the Greeter and tool up Malibu Canyon in this latest car, to give Bonzo some tree time. The long-term plan after that, he said, was to drive to Orange County in the morning, leave Bonzo with a jungle-themed amusement park in Anaheim, sell the Imperial to the Santa Ana transmission shop that ran cars across the border, and report back to work for Lloyd by the weekend, probably with a giraffe in tow.

As Cochise drove off into the warm salt-air night, with Bonzo conspicuously climbing and flopping on the front seat, he shouted to Lloyd, “Isn’t this the best of all possible worlds? I mean, really!”

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Driving to Audrey’s along Santa Monica, Lloyd thought about Singer and his goon, not at all regretting the indignities perhaps already being heaped upon them. He had considered, and rejected, Singer as a possible kidnapper of Artie. Now he passed the time wondering if the downtown murderer’s hat might fit him.

Having a henchman, as Singer did, answered questions that had been nagging him. However cunning and evil this killer might be, there was also the mundane business of schlepping his victims and their bodies from place to place. Having an accomplice would explain how he’d done it so handily. With his dealership and probably other properties downtown, Singer could easily maintain a hideaway for the killer’s epic torture sessions.

But being an asshole doesn’t make one a killer. Singer’s mechanic-suited sideman looked like he might be up for gut-punching a rube behind on his loan payments, but not for a diet of slow-burning mayhem. And when Lloyd fought Singer, it was obvious to him that the bullying car dealer didn’t have anything near the dedication and intelligence to be the man confounding Roy Narawamu’s autopsies. That man also wouldn’t be in Watts now, trying to explain why he was butt-naked and hog-tied to his husky mechanic friend. Greco-Roman wrestling wasn’t part of the culture there.

It was a useless avenue of thought, but it took his mind off Audrey. Things being right with her rattled him enough; if they were wrong between them, the propeller might fly right off his beanie. He could sense synapses short-circuiting just thinking about it.

Red. The car ahead of him hit the brakes and halted so abruptly he could barely do the same. It was an Avis; the driver some hat-wearing Gomer who now sat gawking at a highly gawkable miniskirted girl on a bicycle. The man must not have had that back in Kansas.

Moving again, Lloyd pondered what to tell Audrey and what not, to keep her from becoming complicit in his and Cochise’s misdeeds, and to keep from looking like an idiot. He had Artie’s dummy case in his trunk, which was at least some tangible proof he’d been out beating the bushes.

At the cul de sac’s end, he parked in front of Audrey’s, between a blue Simca and an aging but well-tended green El Camino with pool supplies in its bay. He knocked on her door, still wondering if she was mad at him, and what line of questioning she’d take with him.

“Why does your hair look like that?”

She’d opened the door on his third knock. He had no idea what his hair looked like, but remembered Bonzo knotting it. Lloyd stepped in and went to embrace Audrey, but she kept him at arm’s length, motioning toward the sliding glass doors, where, on the patio, an older Asian man was scooping leaves from the koi pond. At the sound of Audrey closing the door, the man’s head turned and with thin lips he scowled at Lloyd. He had a wispy, long mustache, like a movie Mandarin.

“His name’s Chu. Artie named him Pool Man Chu. He was Artie’s gardener until Artie staked him enough to start a pool-cleaning business with his sons. One more guy who Artie would spend hours talking to, though I can’t even tell if Chu speaks much English. I explained that Artie’s missing, and he just goes on skimming and chlorinating. Inscrutable, they call that in the dime novels.”

She turned and started into the living room. When Lloyd turned as well, he bumped Audrey in the thigh with the dummy case he’d forgotten he was carrying. Audrey got a startled look on her face when she saw it. He remembered she said she’d first met Artie by him bumping into her with a dummy case. Lloyd wondered which bump she liked better.

Audrey led him into her previously unseen kitchen, and they sat at a chic maple table with boomerang legs, out of sight of the pool man. The kitchen had clearly been redone during her tenure. Their table and chairs matched figured maple cabinets and panels, very Danish and Jet Age. He imagined Artie’s tastes being more Borscht Age.

She sat across from him. Since no sign of affection seemed forthcoming, he began to unspool his tale of the past week. He spared her the details of what he’d learned in the morgue, and the seamier aspects of life on the streets. He left out trashing Singer’s car lot, but otherwise she got the story in full, from Abraham to Bonzo.

Because it seemed unavoidable now, he recounted Singer’s voyeurism of their lovemakings, how that led to him sending Cochise to tail the car dealer. He told her about Abraham’s daughter, and the carport in Athens; the squatter’s building and the field, about murdered Nolan Bentine and how he’d known Artie in his movie days; about the dwarf, Barney, that he felt impelled to help now that Bentine was dead; how, for reasons he didn’t understand, he was drawn closer to the charred little man because he was so repulsed by him.

Lloyd showed Audrey the dummy case he’d had on the floor. They talked about the pawn shop find and what it might mean. He ended with his latest headache: the word that Aimes, the Pershing Square sergeant, was now pushing Lloyd as the downtown killer.

Audrey looked at him for a moment as if considering whether he would make a good murderer or not. Finally she said, “That’s ridiculous. I was with you every second one of those nights.”

It was a moment before she had another realization. “Am I your only alibi? Christ, this is turning into a country song. Have you heard ‘Long Black Veil’?”

She began softly singing,

The judge said son, what is your alibi,
      If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die,
      I spoke not a word though it meant my life,
      For I’d been in the arms of another man’s wife.

“Would you do that for me? Go to the gallows rather than besmirch my honor?” she asked him.

“If that’s the way you wanted it, though I liked your song about Pacific Ocean Park better.”

“It would appear your life is in my hands.”

“It would appear.”

“What were you planning on doing tonight?”

“Assuming you’re not about to go slip into something more humpable, I’m going downtown to look for Artie again.”

“Great. I’m going with 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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