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Chapter Two: Endless Sleep

Chapter Two: Endless Sleep

Uncle Dom isn’t really my uncle. He’s my Dad’s best friend from the neighborhood. They were joined at the hip as kids, did everything together. They even joined the army on the same day, but Pop was sent to the Pacific while Dom was one of the lucky ones who walked away from the beaches at Normandy. After the war, Dom settled in Los Angeles and married Aunt Theresa who was working as a cigarette girl at a clip joint on Formosa. They met when there was a shooting at the nightclub and she was one of the witnesses Dom interviewed.

“The vic was a three for a quarter grifter. No one cried at that funeral,” Dom always says when relating the story of how they met. Even though Theresa was almost fifteen years his junior, they never had children, but they seemed to have a good marriage. After putting in his twenty years in the LAPD he and Theresa were all set to move to Palm Springs. One of Dom’s war buddies ran a hotel there that was popular with the movie crowd. Dom was going to provide security to keep out the paparazzi and regular joes who wanted to gawk at the rich and famous. Before they could make the move, Aunt Theresa, who had made the mistake of ignoring a persistent cough, was diagnosed with terminal lung disease.

“Cancer,” my mother had whispered, as if reading the word out loud from the letter Dom had sent could somehow make it spread to our sunny yellow kitchen on West 47th Street. After Aunt Theresa’s swift decline, Dom had given up the idea of Palm Springs and kept himself busy by putting up his P.I. shingle on Cordell Street.

We arrived at the DMV shortly after it opened. There weren’t a lot of people waiting in line. Dom’s contact greeted him with a bright smile.

“Hey Dom,” the middle aged blonde said as we walked up to her window.

“Hi Doris,” he said, smiling back. When I look at him objectively, Dom is still a handsome man. True, he’s in his forties, but the small amount of grey in his sideburns makes him look distinguished. I had heard more than one female proclaim with a sigh that with his dark hair and eyes and neat mustache, he resembled the silent film star John Gilbert.

“I had a real nice time that time we went to the pictures.” I knew Dom went out most nights. Apparently, it wasn’t always business.

“I did too. Listen Doris, could you do me a favor?”

Her smile faded a little and her eyes sharpened as she noticed me hovering next to him.

“Who’s this?” she asked.

“This is my niece, Franny. I told you about her, remember?” Italians take the notion of family seriously. Even if you aren’t actually related by blood ties, hailing from the same town in Italy pretty much insures that you are considered famiglia. People expect that a guy with Dom’s good looks is on the make. By referring to me as his niece, it usually shuts down any speculation about the nature of our relationship.

Doris relaxed and looked around the mostly deserted office. It was surprisingly quiet for a Thursday morning. The women at the other windows were busy assisting the few people on line. The supervisor’s desk with the nameplate “D. Olin” was empty. Dom pressed his advantage.

“Could you run some plates for me?”

She sighed, but had made up her mind. “Let me see that.” She took the piece of paper he slid across the counter. Dom watched with appreciation at the ample but shapely rear view as she disappeared through a door in the back.

“How does she owe you?” I asked.

“Her ex skipped bail and wasn’t paying her alimony. I found him holed up with some dame in Encino and persuaded him to restart the payments.”

I didn’t ask for any more details.

Doris hustled back, her white pumps clacking on the marble floor. Her petal pink dress had a low neck with piping around the vee, which made her front view as eye-catching as the rear. Doris saw that Dom was suitably impressed, and smiled again, her good humor restored. She held up the piece of paper.

“I’ve been dying to see that Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr movie playing at the Egyptian,” she said coyly.

“Tomorrow night? I’ll pick you up at six,” Dom said. A fussy looking man wearing a beige suit and a bowl hair cut emerged from the back and settled down behind the supervisor’s desk. “Ish Kabibble returns,” Dom murmured. Doris briskly stamped the piece of paper, folded it and handed it to Dom.

“Next!” she said to the person standing behind us in the line.

Back in the car, Dom unfolded the paper.

“Give!” I demanded, when he remained silent.

“It’s registered to a Maude Jameson in Pasadena.” He looked thoughtful and tucked the piece of paper in the inner pocket of his jacket. “Let’s go. Take Wilshire to San Bernadino Road.” I started the car. “And ease up on the clutch,” he said. “The more you ride it, the harder you make it for yourself.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said darkly.

Except for a near miss with an old woman who was attempting to make a left hand turn in front of me from the right lane, the drive was happily uneventful. Dom seemed restless, his fingers tapping on the dashboard. He flipped around the radio dial momentarily landing on The Coasters singing “Searchin’” before quickly moving on. I wasn’t surprised. I know by now that Dom generally isn’t a fan of Top Forty but he settled on Perry Como singing “Round and Round”. He makes an exception for anyone who’s Italian. We passed the Times building and turned onto First Street. I parked the Chrysler under a billboard with a picture of a grinning Bryl-creamed executive type looking longingly at a tall Frosty glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Dom took a last hard drag on the cigarette, and then flicked it out the window. He got out of the car and buttoned his jacket. I hurried to catch up with him as he strode under the words “To Protect and Serve” carved over the front door of Central Precinct.

Once inside, Dom walked passed the front desk like a man with a purpose. Luckily the sergeant behind the railing at the front desk was on the phone and waved him through. He skirted the main area with the desks and headed down a hallway. We stopped at a door with Records Room printed on the glass. He tried the door; it opened and we slipped inside. While Dom started going through the file cabinet closest to the door, I kept quiet. If we were caught we’d well and truly be in the omelet. I looked at the photo of a stern faced captain with a bushy mustache that must have been taken at the turn of the century. A precinct map and a drooping rubber plant in the corner were the only adornments in the room. Dom pulled out a folder and read its contents.

“Write this down,” he said quietly. I did so quickly, taking down the information using my shorthand. I sent a silent prayer of thanks for the six months I spent in that Kelly Girl course that I was enrolled in before I left New York. He slipped the folder back into the drawer, and we high-tailed it out of there.

The sergeant at the front desk frowned. “Who are you here to see, Dom? The boys in the pen didn’t see you when I called back to let them know you were here.”

“Hey Mike. I was looking for Lembo. He asked me to come in to talk about a mutual case. The body they found at the tar pits this morning.”

The desk sergeant shook his head. “A bad business, Dom. A young girl like that. People just don’t know how to act decent no more.” He looked at me almost accusingly, as if I were responsible for the decline in morals for all people under the age of thirty. I looked down meekly. See? I know when to keep my mouth shut.

“Don’t I know it,” Uncle Dom said. “Thing is, Lembo’s not around. Could I have gotten the time wrong?” The sergeant checked some papers on his desk.

“He’s down at the morgue. We’ll have more details after they finish with the post mortem. They’re going to bring in the girl’s next of kin to I.D. the body.” Dom snapped his fingers.

“That’s right! Now that you mention it, he did say he was stopping there first.” My eyes widened at the obvious lie, but again, I buttoned my lip. “Thanks Mike. See you at Jimmy Balls’ game on Wednesday?” Uncle Dom’s ex-partner Jimmy Balsamo hosted a weekly poker game out at his place by the beach in Venice. I was never invited, of course, but my impression was that the stakes were pretty rich.

“Yeah, yeah,” Mike growled. “I gotta win back the twenty beans you took off me last week, ain’t I?” The two men shook hands and laughed.

“Smooth,” I said admiringly, as I signaled and pulled out onto First Street. Dom shrugged modestly. “To the morgue?” I guessed.

I might be new to the P.I .biz, but I’m catching on quick.

Lembroski seemed annoyed, but not surprised to see us walk through the door of the building which housed the coroner’s office. He covered up his irritation because of the reception Dom received from Mrs. Maynard. She broke away from Lembo and hurried over to us.

“Oh, Mr. Marone! Do you think it could possibly be…” her voice trailed off as she stifled a sob. As Dom comforted her, I felt the back of my neck prickle. I turned and saw the cop whose arrival on the scene at the tar pits had precipitated our being hustled out. Up close, he was tall, and his blonde hair was cut short to discourage an obvious inclination to curl. His admittedly striking pale grey eyes matched the flecked wool of his jacket, but I had learned the hard way not to swoon at the sight of a pretty face. Dressed in that tweed suit with a buttoned up vest underneath it, and a gold shirt collar pin anchoring his navy blue and maroon striped tie, he looked more like a college professor than a cop. He was looking at me with no expression on his face, but I had the feeling that like Lembroski, he wasn’t happy about our arrival. He turned to say something to Lembroski, and by the sour look on Lembo’s face he wasn’t congratulating him on his fundraising efforts for the PBA.

The double doors opened. Ted Curphey, the coroner, smiled when he saw my uncle. Curphey had started a few months before my uncle retired. He hailed from Nassau County on Long Island, and he greeted Dom like a fellow East Coast ex-pat.

“Dom! How about Dem Bums? Think they’ll take the pennant again this year?” Curphey’s smile faded as the pale grey gaze of the new sergeant stopped him in his tracks. Lembroski pitched his half smoked cigarette on the floor.

“Ted Curphey. This is Lieutenant Tate. He’s the new Head D for Homicide at Central.” Curphey and Tate shook hands. Tate turned expectantly to my uncle. Dom held out his hand.

“Dominic Marone. Sergeant First class. Missing Persons, retired.” Tate’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly, but didn’t comment. He turned to me and murmured, “I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name, Miss --?”

“This is my assistant, Francesca Bari.” Tate nodded dismissively. So, I thought with a flash of anger I was quick to conceal. He was the kind of man who didn’t think a woman had any place in the working world. I somehow resisted the urge to remind him that it was 1957 and not the Dark Ages, but he had already turned away to address Mrs. Maynard, who was obviously distraught, twisting a yellow lawn handkerchief in her hands.

“You don’t have to view the body, Mrs. Maynard,” Tate told her gently. “There are other ways we can identify her.” Mrs. Maynard drew a shuddering breath.

“No, I have to see. If it’s my Joyce…” she trailed off, stifling a sob by pressing the hankie against her lips. Dom nudged me. I was quick on the uptake. I put a comforting arm around her.

“Lean on me, Mrs. Maynard,” I said. Tate shot me an inimical glare which I coolly ignored. With Mrs. Maynard leaning heavily on my arm, we followed Curphey through the double doors to room 100. Dom looked like he was going to speak up about joining us, but one peep at the hard look on Tate’s face must have convinced him that discretion was the better part of valor, and was content with cooling his heels in the waiting room. I knew Dom was counting on me to be his eyes and ears, so I ignored Tate’s obvious displeasure as he trailed us down a long hallway and through the Medical Examiner’s suite of offices. Curphey quickly skirted the doors leading to the autopsy and embalming rooms and led us to a viewing area. Poor Mrs. Maynard was shaking and I wasn’t feeling too steady myself. In spite of the fact that I used to work weekends at my parents butcher shop, I had never really spent time with a human dead body before except at my cousin Ritchie’s funeral, and after his run in with Tony Ice and the Little West 12th Street crew, there hadn’t been enough of him left to display in an open casket.

The examination room’s bright fluorescent lights turned Mrs. Maynard’s already pale complexion into an alarming shade of pale sickly green. I gave her arm what I hoped was a comforting squeeze before letting it go. She approached the table as if she had aged twenty years from when I had first seen her in Dom’s office just over a week ago. Curphey drew back the blanket and Mrs. Maynard let out a strangled gasp. Before she could collapse, Tate was there steadying her. She nodded her head in response to the unasked question, her shoulders shaking with sobs. Tate looked over and our eyes met. I read pity and frustration and a glimmer of anger, and for a moment we were in total harmony as we silently acknowledged how truly awful the moment was. At Tate’s nod, I rushed over, escorting the sobbing woman out of the room. I tactfully steered her quickly past the refrigeration room and out onto a small terrace that overlooked West Temple Street. After the antiseptic smell of the morgue, I gratefully breathed in the smells of downtown L.A., a distinctive perfume of jasmine and car exhaust, hot asphalt and faint ocean breezes. From this height you could just hear the jangling sound of the bells as the traffic light changed from green to red.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly to Mrs. Maynard. She nodded, the tears streaming down her face.

“I knew something was wrong when she didn’t come home. I knew it. Joyce is a good girl. She’s all I have.” What could I say to that? So I just squeezed her hand as we watched the traffic below stream by in an endless mechanical tide.

Tate stepped out onto the balcony. “Mrs. Maynard, the coroner needs you, so you can make arrangements.” He handed her off to a uniform who escorted her down the hallway in the opposite direction from the viewing room. I went to follow her, but Tate held out a hand to stop me.

“I want a word with you,” he said coldly. Uh-oh. Clearly I had been imagining our simpatico moment. I had a feeling I was in the soup, so before he could start grilling me, I shot off a preemptive salvo.

“Aren’t you going to read me my rights first?” His face was set in hard lines, unamused and implacable. I know, I know. Why antagonize the guy, right? I can’t help it. I crack wise when I’m nervous. Tate took his time pulling a leather pouch out of his inner jacket pocket and removing a pipe. I stayed silent as he carefully tamped down the Kentucky Club into the bowl and lit it. He blew out an aromatic stream, those grey eyes narrowing as he viewed me through the cloud of smoke. He was using a typical cop’s move: waiting for the other person to speak. I hadn’t spent the last few months helping out Dom for nothing. Two can play at that game. I bit down on my lip and remained mute.

Finally, Tate asked, “How long have you been working for Marone?”

“About four months,” I replied, surprised. I thought he was going to give me a hard time about Dom and I being at the ID at the morgue.

“As his assistant.” His expression didn’t change, but I didn’t like the emphasis he put on the word.

“That’s right,” I said.

“How did Marone know to be at the crime scene? And then here this afternoon?” Now we were getting to the crux of it.

“It’s a free country,” I said, smiling sweetly. Something flashed in his eyes. Anger? Suspicion? A twingy ulcer after too many meals at greasy spoons? A glance at his trim waistline told me that I was way off base with that last one, but hey. You never know. Either way, I wasn’t going to drop a dime on the desk seargeant.

“Watch yourself, Miss Bari,” he said evenly.

“If you don’t mind, I’m going to go find my – find Dom.” His face tightened again into that stony mask.

“You do that. And do me a favor. Tell Marone I don’t want to see him at any more of my crime scenes. If I do, I’ll assume that he’s a person of interest. Or a citizen that’s impeding an investigation, in which case I’ll lock him up in County. Am I clear?”

“Crystal,” I bit out. I turned on my heel and started to make my grand exit. Unfortunately, the heel of my shoe got caught in the metal drain. I cursed silently. Now, not only was I stuck, I risked ruining a brand new pair of shoes. I had spotted them one day in the window at Bonwit’s on one of my last lunch breaks at the Kelly Girl course. They were beauties, made out of a supple coral leather, and had put a sizeable dent into the money I made working at my parent’s shop and now I was in danger of breaking off the heal and ruining them forever. Before I could make a move, Tate bent down.

“Allow me.” He removed my foot from the shoe, and I felt myself flushing at the feel of those cool fingers on my ankle. He smoothly extricated the shoe without scuffing the delicate leather and handed it to me. Irritated, I had to accept his steadying hand as I put the pump back on.

“Thanks,” I said tightly. He stood up, brushing off his pants knee. “Send me the dry cleaning bill. It’s 9836 Cordell,” I said, loftily.

“I know the address,” he said. He lifted a brow, waiting for a smart comeback. I pressed my lips together, all out of smart comebacks. This one was a tough customer, and I was now definitely on his radar. Being on a cop’s radar is never a good thing, but that’s especially true if you’re in the P.I. business. Dom would definitely not be happy to hear that I was on Tate’s.

Later that afternoon, a check came in on an invoice for a case that Dom had worked on before I arrived on the scene. One of the most important parts of my job is to deposit the checks as soon as they come in. If I hustled, I could make it to the bank before three o’clock. The door to Dom’s office was ajar, so I poked my head in.

“I’m running to First National.”

Before he could answer, the phone rang. I went to answer it, but he waved me off.

“I’ll get it.” He picked up the phone. “Marone.” As he listened, his face tightened. “Thanks Ted. I owe you one.” He hung up, staring moodily out the window.

“Well?” I finally asked. He looked around, as if surprised to still see me standing there.

“Curphey just finished the post mortem. His report states that there was no fluid in her lungs.” I looked at him blankly. “So she didn’t drown. She was already dead before she landed in the tar pits.”

“So it was murder!”

“Everything points to it. But looks like the police report’s going to list ‘Death by Misadventure’. An accident.” Dom shook his head in disgust.

“Was there a sign of a head injury?” I asked.

“In the back, behind the left ear.”

“She could have slipped and hit her head before falling in.”

Dom shrugged. He flicked back the cuff of his shirt and checked his watch.

“Come on.” He didn’t have to ask me twice. I grabbed my purse and slipped on my gloves. They’re my favorite pair, also a Bonwit’s purchase, ivory white with a single embroidered red heart on the cuffs.

“Where are we going?” I asked, as Dom clapped on his grey fedora.

“To the place I always go when I’ve got some thinking to do.”

Next Chapter: Chapter Three: I Walk The Line