Chapter One: Come Go With Me
It was just after seven in the morning, mid-April, another perfect sunny Southern California day. I pulled into the parking lot on La Brea, drove past the line of black and white Chevy Del Ray police cars, and parked between a cherry red ’49 Ford station wagon and a turquoise and white Chrysler Windsor. As I stepped out of the car, I was immediately assaulted by the acrid fug of the tar pits. I walked past the plaster dinosaurs frolicking at the edge of the beach and ignored a low appreciative whistle that came from a group of half a dozen police officers standing in a semi-circle, smoking and waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
“Hey Franny, how many fenders have you folded so far today?” one of the uniforms called out. His name was Boyle, so fresh out of the academy that his attempts to grow a mustache barely resulted in a thin sprinkling of peach fuzz covering his top lip. He grinned happily, as the rest of the police officers, most of them veterans, laughed at his crack. I ignored him, but the commentary on my driving ability, or lack thereof, stung. Unused to the aggressive drivers in L.A., I had gotten into no fewer than three fender benders since I had arrived a few months ago.
I handed over the green tabbed folder that my uncle, Dominic Marone, had asked me to deliver. Uncle Dom is a private investigator but he had put in over twenty years in Missing Persons in the LAPD before he retired. When circumstances in my own life changed around the new year, Dom invited me to come out and run his office for him. Let’s just say Hell’s Kitchen had gotten a little too toasty for me, so I packed up the tweed suitcase with leather trim my mother had bought for her honeymoon in Saratoga Springs and hopped on a Greyhound headed west. I was still learning the ropes of the grey areas that Dom inhabited. Most P.I.’s were viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility by local police departments but since Dom was once in the brotherhood, he was treated better than most.
After receiving Dom’s early morning call, I had pulled together the notes from his meeting with a tired looking middle aged woman who had stopped by the office without an appointment earlier in the week. You don’t keep regular hours in the P.I. game, but even so I think Dom was surprised that I had been awake and already at work downstairs when he called me at the office this morning. I don’t really sleep much. Luckily, traffic was light this early in the morning and I had made good time from the office on Cordell Street to LaBrea. Dom extracted a photo from the file and handed it to the lead detective, a veteran cop named Lembroski.
“It’s possible that the body is a gal by the name of Joyce Maynard. The mother came to see me on Tuesday afternoon. Her daughter never came home from her date the Friday before.” Dom checked his notes. “Friday April the 5th.” Lembroski held out his hand for the folder and quickly flipped through it.
“She went out on Friday, and still hasn’t returned a week later? Must have been one hell of a first date,” Lembroski said.
“Nah, it was the pits,” drawled McGreevy, his partner, whose trim, almost dapper figure stood out next to the rest of the indifferently dressed flatfoots. The other officers snickered. From watching television, you’d think cops were stern, buttoned up types. In my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of them weren’t all that different from the perps in their scorn for the rules that the rest of us are expected to follow.
“Did Romeo have a name?” Lembroski asked Dom, handing the file back.
“She thought it might have been Tim or Tom,” Dom said.
“Or Dick. Or Harry.” Boyle again. I knew a bunch of guys like Boyle back in New York. Usually on the shorter side, brash, Irish guys who felt like they had something to prove. Most were bred to become either cops or priests. I don’t think Boyle missed his calling.
“Come on, Dom. If the mother was so worried, why did she wait so long to report it?” Lembroski asked impatiently. He was a big beefy man whose white shirt advertised the pancakes and syrup he had for breakfast that morning at the Pantry Café. Dom knew him from the force and from the little my uncle let drop, Lembroski owed him a favor or two. Lembroski liked to play the ponies and my uncle had given him an inside tip on an exacta that had paid out fifty to one at Santa Anita. Lembroski had a place at Big Bear that was his pride and joy. The cabin was pretty bare bones, but still too much to keep up on a detective’s salary. A lot of cops pad their paychecks, and not always in ways that are strictly on the up and up.
“She hired me after going to you guys. Calhoun at Central caught the call, but he told her that since her daughter was over the age of eighteen, they had to wait at least twenty four hours to file the report. Convinced the mother she was overreacting. When the daughter still didn’t show up on Tuesday morning, she came to see me.”
“If we chased after every chippie who turned a date into an extended honeymoon, we wouldn’t have the manpower to scratch our own asses,” McGreevy said sharply. He obviously didn’t like the implication that the cops should have done more. I looked worriedly at Dom, but he didn’t take the bait.
“That’s pretty much what I told the mother. A common enough story,” Dom said mildly. He reached into his front jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of Chesterfield’s. He offered the pack around. McGreevy visibly thawed as he took one. The two men lit up.
“Anything else?” Lembroski asked. Uncle Dom blew out a plume of smoke.
“The guy didn’t come to the door. He honked the horn and Joyce all but ‘flew out to meet him’. The mother’s exact words. The mug was driving a black Oldsmobile with a white hardtop. The old lady thought it might be a Cutlass or an 88.”
“That narrows it down to about half of the cars on the road,” Boyle piped up again. This kid was really feeling his oats. I rolled my eyes but Uncle Dom shook his head imperceptibly. If the police wanted to bar us from the scene then we’d be gone, and we’d have to rely on getting information from the late edition papers like regular civilians.
“Any I.D. on the body?” Dom asked. For the first time, I noticed a tarp off to the side. Poking out from underneath, a foot was visible, covered in black muck. I shivered in spite of the heat and looked away. Seeing dead bodies before breakfast was going to take a little getting used to. Generally, I liked the job running the office. On slow days I watered the purple hydrangeas outside the office or picked up Dom’s shirts from Wen Ho’s, the Chinese laundry on La Cienega. This wasn’t going to be a slow day.
“Nope. We got nothing to go on,” Lembroski said.
“So it could be the Maynard girl.”
“Maybe,” McGreevy said begrudgingly, but I could tell that he was coming around. Dom showing up at the scene with a positive I.D. could make the job of the PD a whole lot easier. A dark, low slung ambulance pulled up. “We better call for the coroner too. They have to file out a report now, even with accidental deaths.” He called out to the medics who stepped out. “Put away the medical kit, boys, we’re gonna need the body bag for this one.”
“Do you really think it’s her?” I asked Dom quietly. The medics pulled the stretcher out of the back of the wagon, taking their time.
“Once they scrape off the muck, we’ll know for sure.” I repressed the urge to shudder again at the graphic image his words inspired. I was also getting used to the fact that dead people in L.A. received as much as respect as most of the live ones who weren’t famous or in the business of making movies; basically none.
There was a staccato burst of chatter over the police radio. Two more black and whites pulled up, followed by a late model Cadillac El Dorado convertible. I didn’t know much about cars, but even I knew the Alpine White roadster with its cherry red leather interior was a beut. McGreevy looked meaningfully at Lembroski and pitched his cigarette, the butt making a small hissing sound as it hit the tar pits. The man stepping out of the Caddy was wearing sunglasses and unlike the other officers, he went hatless. The sun glinted off his dusty gold hair which was thick and smooth. He was taller than Lembroski, who was practically a six footer.
A hush fell over the previously animated cops. We all watched as Lembroski and McGreevy greeted the new arrival. McGreevy lit a cigarette, with short and snappy movements, clearly displeased by the exchange. Lembroski walked back to where we were standing, his face unhappy.
“Homicide’s here. We gotta clear the scene,” Lembroski said abruptly. Dom looked at him sharply.
“Homicide?” he repeated.
Lembroski shrugged and said to Boyle, “Escort them back to their cars.”
“Come on, Lembo,” Dom protested. Lembroski waved him off. Dom looked like he wanted to say something else, but swallowed it. Boyle smirked at me. Before he could think about putting his hand on me, I took Uncle Dom’s arm. We followed Boyle back to the parking lot.
“Meet you back at the office,” Dom said to me tersely. After opening the door to my DeSoto and helping me behind the wheel, he jumped into the Chrysler, pulling out into the increasingly heavy morning traffic. The new arrival, obviously a high ranker, strode over to the body and drew back the tarp. He looked up and I felt like he took a mental picture of me as I pulled out of the parking lot and onto LaBrea.
Luckily, my foot had developed some lead in it since moving to L.A. and I managed to seamlessly join the line of cars now deep into the morning rush. Such a move would have terrified me a few months ago. Born and raised in Manhattan, I had never practiced driving much after getting my license at sixteen. I silently thanked my father for insisting that I learn how to drive. When I showed up on Dom’s door step, he had welcomed me and gruffly offered me the use of Aunt Theresa’s little blue DeSoto. I felt terrible that I was responsible for denting the bumpers, but Dom waved it off. I think he was just happy that he didn’t have to sell it. I paid for gas, oil changes and any fender benders and Dom covered the insurance. I checked the gauge on the dash. I was down to a quarter of a tank. I pulled into the Gilmore service station on Sunset. The young attendant greeted me with a grin, proudly adjusting his green cap with the snarling lion blazoned across the front.
“How’s it goin’ Franny?” he asked.
“Aces, Cal.” I got out and started filling the tank. It was two cents cheaper a gallon than the full service Texaco around the corner from the office run by Pete Benedetto, a friend of Dom’s. I felt guilty buying my gas from a competitor of one of Dom’s cronies but I liked pumping my own gas. As the tank was filling, Cal grabbed a rag and started cleaning my windshield.
“Nice day,” Cal said. I wanted to point out that ever since I had arrived in Los Angeles there had been nothing but nice days. But I was learning to keep my real opinions on things to myself. People out here prided themselves on being nicer than us rough and tumble New Yorkers. Friendlier? Sure. Seems like people in L.A. are always smiling. But nicer? Personally, I find it stressful to never really know what’s going on behind those smiles. Give me a snarling New Yorker any day. At least then you know where you stand with a person. But I stayed mum.
“Sure is. How are you doing, Cal?”
“Things are good. I’m going to night school to learn accounting. My brother-in-law owns two stations and is looking to buy a third. He needs someone to do the books.”
“Boss,” I said. Cal popped the hood of the car and checked the oil.
“You’re down a quart or two,” he said. I thought about the money in my change purse.
“I’ll stop back next week,” I said.
“Will do,” Cal said cheerfully. He read the pump. “Eight gallons? That’ll be one dollar, sixty eight.” I gave him two dollars and he carefully counted out the change twice before handing it to me.
“Gotta be careful that people don’t rip you off,” Cal said.
“Don’t take any wooden nickels,” I agreed. His grin grew wider as I pulled away.
I snapped on the radio, but the story about finding a body at the tar pits was too new. I made a mental note to stop by Hager’s newspaper stand later in the day; it might make the evening editions. The radio announcer imparted the good news that baseball season would be starting up next week. The Dodgers would be playing their season opener at Connie Mack Stadium against the Philadelphia Phillies. My father and I are huge Dodgers fans. One of my favorite memories is the time my father brought me to Ebbets Field for my twelfth birthday – just the two of us. He sprung for the seven dollar seats along the first base line and I cheered myself hoarse watching Preacher Roe shut out the Boston Braves. Following the Preacher, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee, and the rest of “Dem Bums” was the best part of the summer, and it would be strange not listening to the games with my family. If only L.A. had a team of its own, I thought, with a pang of homesickness.
Dom beat me back to the office on Cordell Street. His Chrysler was already parked in the driveway, so I took the space in front of 9836. I noticed that the purple hydrangeas flanking the front door were starting to droop; I would need to water them before the full heat of the day descended. I pulled out my key, and also noted that the paint on the front door needed a touch up, it was starting to bubble and flake off. The building was shabby, a nondescript two story in a busy working class neighborhood. Business was good enough so that Dom could afford to do some basic maintenance. Heck; if his bank balance was right, he could afford the rent in a much swankier neighborhood, but when I questioned Dom about getting new digs, he shrugged. The neighborhood was filled with working people by day, and pleasure seekers passing through on their way to the bars on Sunset at night. The amount of foot traffic was ideal. Current clients and any potential ones would blend in with the regular action of the neighborhood. Across the street was a double empty lot filled with scrub brush and palm trees, meaning no nosy neighbors to keep track who walked in and out of the building. In the P.I. game, discretion is your bread and butter. I stepped out of the DeSoto, ducking as a handball whizzed past my head.
“Morning, Gus,” I said to the boy who deftly caught the rubber ball as it bounced off the retaining wall juggling it from hand to hand. I didn’t complain. Gus usually wielded a wrist rocket, and he was pretty handy with it too. “How’s tricks?”
“Deadsville,” he said, rocking back on his heels, impatient for me to go inside so he could restart his game. Gus ran with a pretty tough crowd of other neighborhood kids. I never saw his parents but he sometimes reluctantly had his little sister Corky in tow. I waved and went inside.
When I stepped into the entryway, I could still hear the dull thwack of the ball as Gus resumed bouncing it against the stone wall in front. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust after the bright sunshine outside. The door to Dom’s office was closed and I heard the faint sounds of Guy Lombardo’s orchestra on his big RCA Victor radio. I don’t really go for that corny stuff so I snapped on the portable Salora Bambi, my last year’s Christmas present from Reggie.
“This is Bruce Hayes, hoping yours is a very pleasant day, knowing it will be if you stay tuned to Color Channel 98, and remember, my good friends, time wounds all heals. Here’s another top forty hit to make sure your day is lit!” I really wanted to talk to Dom about the events of that morning, but I had learned to respect the closed door, so I contented myself with bopping along to LaVerne Baker snarling “Jim Dandy” as I scooped Chock Full O’ Nuts into the electric coffee pot and plugged it in. I knew the smell would eventually draw Dom out of his office. I made a note on my pad to stop by the Alpha Beta market to pick up more coffee and walnuts. Dom’s temper was better when the office was well stocked with both.
I was in the middle of typing out the invoice for the recently closed Paulson case on the old Remington (Mr. Paulson had cheated on Mrs. Paulson with his secretary. Said secretary was only too happy to clear out of town with her bank account two hundred dollars heavier, thanks to a donation from Mrs. Paulson’s trust fund), when Dom finally emerged from the sanctum sanctorum. That’s Latin for “Keep out, bub”. Only the most important clients were brought into his private office. Unlike most men, Dom was neat; Mrs. Daly, the cleaning woman didn’t have to do much besides run the carpet sweeper and empty the wastepaper basket. He flung himself down into the upholstered mustard and green striped chair beside my desk and reached into the bowl, helping himself to a handful of walnuts as the DJ announced the next record.
“Here’s a new one from the latest teen on the scene. It’s Ricky Rollins with his hit, “You Love Him More.” A rollicking guitar riff was followed by an adenoidal whine: “At the drug store counter/You sip your pop/My love won’t stop/But there’s another boy/You love him more…” Dom snapped off the radio. I wasn’t too upset. Rock and Roll is my thing, but this record was no Heartbreak Hotel. I kept typing.
“Kind of rough this morning, huh?” he asked, finally breaking the silence.
“Yes,” I admitted. “Do you think it’s her? Joyce Maynard?”
“We’ll know for sure if the next of kin I.D.’s the body.”
“The mother,” I stated. I thought of the black muck covering the foot under the tarp. How horrible to have to see someone you loved in that condition. Dom looked at me keenly, reading my mind, in that way which most good detectives have.
“They’ll clean her up first.”
“Wouldn’t that tamper with the evidence?”
“You sound like a cop,” Dom said, smiling slightly. I flushed at the gentle mockery underlining his words. I blush pretty easily, a trait I inherited from my dad’s side of the family. They’re a bunch of palefaces, hailing from northern Italy. My grandparent’s on my father’s side are from a little town called Pino outside of Turin. Yeah, that’s right. Like the shroud. Bleak is in my genes.
Dom sighed and rubbed his eyes. Like most cops, he shows a pretty tough side to the world, but I think seeing that body under the tarp bothered him too. I pulled out the invoice and placed it in the inbox, then slipped an envelope into the typewriter.
“From the way the mother described her, Joyce didn’t seem like one of those good time girls,” I said. In the picture Mrs. Maynard had left with Dom, Joyce looked pretty, but responsible.
“You think a parent is always the best judge of their children?” Dom asked mildly, smoothing down his mustache. I quickly changed the subject.
“So, if it’s a positive identification, the case is solved,” I said. I felt badly for Mrs. Maynard, but there was something to be said for the quick cases. Dom asked for a retainer up front, but sometimes had trouble collecting the rest if the case went on for too long. Twenty five bucks a day plus expenses didn’t come cheap for most people. “Do you want me to type up the invoice?”
Dom sat quietly for so long, I almost repeated the question. But I stayed mum. I was starting to get to know how his mind works.
“Did you notice anything about the crime scene?” he asked, his fingertips tenting under his chin.
“Except for the dead body, no,” I said.
“What about the parking lot?”
I thought about the black and white police cruisers and the long, lean body of the Homicide detective whose arrival had caused us to scramble. Then my mind caught on something.
“There was another car in the lot,” I said slowly, “Besides our two and the cop cars.”
Dom looked at me. Waited.
“It was a red station wagon. A Ford, I think.”
“For someone who just moved to L.A., you’re getting pretty good at knowing your way around cars.”
“My second accident? Was with a wagon just like it. But that one was canary yellow with wood siding.” I thought about the cherry red station wagon. It definitely didn’t belong to one of the cops. “Maybe it belonged to the guard?” I guessed.
“He parked his truck around the corner in the employee parking. Lembo’s still going to question him down at the station, but I’m pretty sure he’ll come up with nothing.”
“Then whose car is it?” I asked.
“That is exactly what I intend to find out.” He walked over to the coat rack and grabbed his hat. “I have a contact at the DMV.” He reached into his pants pocket and tossed me his keys. “You drive. You need the practice.”