JACK LIFFEY
MYSTERY SERIES
created by john shannon

 

Copyright © John Shannon, 2005


ONE


Drive-by


"Don't touch me there," she snapped.

"Hey, kid. Did you know that's a song?"

She glared and rolled away from him, covering her nakedness with the unpleasantly soiled bedspread and clasping one of her hands against her breast where he had reached out idly from where he sat and touched, apparently just to fiddle. She felt as soiled as the bedspread, bewildered by the lights and activity around her. Not quite sure what she had got into.

"It was by The Tubes."

"Sure."

"They were a San Francisco punk band. Well, a sort-of art school band really. Before you were born, the seventies."

"What's going on?"

"On the set? Kelly's trying to fluff Kirk. This is known as waiting for wood, hon. If you're going to stay in the biz, you'd best get used to it. Guys can't always do the deed. Isn't fair is it? All you got to do is make a little noise, but we got to get it up. You want a boyfriend? I could be your boyfriend tonight? You wouldn't have to fake anything."

"Leave me alone."

He fluttered his eyelids a few times, and she had no idea what it was meant to imply. He was in his forties with a strange handlebar moustache and not too bad looking, but she didn't really trust him after he'd lied about what she'd have to do that afternoon. "You better not get yourself too stuck up, princess. It's a long long road down blowjob lane, and somebody like me can ease the way for you."

Rod was the AD--it meant the assistant director he'd told her--that much she remembered. Most of the rest was a blur. Too many people and too much happening in just her third week in the city and then there was that pill they'd given her. They'd said it was to make her relax but it just seemed to have confused her.

"Money is time! Money is time! Money is time!" The director stormed across the messy room, a huge man with a full beard and a shaved head with a tiny rat-like pony tail flopping down in back. He wore torn jeans and his big hands were like ham hocks in her uncle's smoker up in the Owens.

"Ah shit! She's a mess. Make up! Get that lazy cunt in here."

The director stormed away and Luisa Wilson tried to lie still and cause no trouble, draw no attention at all. The AD came back with a clipboard and knelt on the mattress.

"You really an Indian, hon? You sure got the hair. And those black black eyes, I'll say that. Valley Talent says your name is Luisa Wilson, and that's fine with me but I think you're going to want you a fancy screen name. Why don't you look these over while the big dog's hunting down Makeup.

She took the clipboard from him with a remarkably weak hand, almost dropped it. Something wasn't quite right about her muscles. He'd scribbled a number of ridiculous names.

Sleeps-with-Wolves

Princess Show-me-mo

Cat-on-back

Wild Beaver

Wiggling Bottom

She threw the clipboard down and said, "Call me Taboots."

"What's it mean?"

"None of your business."

"Sure, hon. You're only a feature player, remember. You still got time to change your mind."

"Time is money! Time is Money! Time is Money!" The director hove into sight again like a belligerent comet passing through the heavens, bellowing and gesticulating. Trotting behind was the make-up woman with the hair so unnaturally red that it gave Luisa Wilson a headache. "We're twenty minutes from golden time, Jess. Step on it!"

"Whoa, sweetie, you do need some work here." She sat on a corner of the mattress near Luisa and opened the accordion-like makeup box, so like her grandpop's fishing tackle kit, then extracted several small square bottles and a brush.

"Here comes wood!" somebody cried.

"I don't know why they always say you guys are red. It's brown, isn't it?" She held a bottle up for comparison. "Burnt sienna. Sit up a bit if you can, sweetie." She had a nice smile and Luisa tried to be ingratiating.

Luisa Wilson boosted herself up against the wall and readjusted for the woman, but she kept the spread clutched over her breasts. "Don't worry about it, hon," the makeup woman whispered. "That's why I earn the big bucks around here. Even some of the veterans cry the makeup off."


*

Dear Diary,

I was so hope-ful of beginning a new life in this dreamy city, where I can begin completely anew with the aide of a person who cares for me, but little did I realize that this strange odissey of mine that began at the Greyhound bus stopping for me beside the Buy-Rite Market in Lone Pine & would end up in such a strange activity. One man here has tried to console me & I remain cheerful & hopeful inside, despite all. He is very handsome & looks a little like an overweight Brad Pitt. I dream of a handsome man like him who will become my protector, since my first hope of finding a protector & sponsor in Little Deer did not pan out. Taboots


*


"I hear you hate cops."

Jack Liffey laughed. "Does this look like hate to you?"

"No, it looks a lot like a penis. Only smaller."

He laughed even harder. You'd have to get up awfully early in the morning to get the best of Police Sgt. Gloria Martinez, even with both of them naked as jaybirds.

"I've had some bad experiences with the officers of public order. You know how your colleagues react to somebody they think of as a private dick. I'm the partially chewed internal organ of a squirrel that the cat has left at the back door."

He didn't say any more about his job. She knew his tale of losing the cozy aerospace job just as the whole field dried up in Southern California, and then finding out by accident that he had a talent for hunting down missing children. In fact, she had a soft spot for lost kids and approved of what he did. They were in the big queen bed upstairs in her old frame house in East L.A., Boyle Heights actually. She owned the whole two-story house which was unusual for the neighborhood where most of the bigger houses had been broken up into four apartments or more, and even then each apartment held three or four generations of extended family. Gloria had lived there alone until he'd moved in.

There was a gentle knuckle-rap at the door. "Are you two decent?"

"I’m not into epistemology this early," he called out as Gloria discreetly flipped the sheet over them.

His nearly-17-year-old daughter Maeve cracked the door and her hand made a tentative appearance, then her head. "I'm making French toast, Orange juice with pulp, and very strong coffee."

"Bless you," Gloria said. "Are any of the pan dulce edible?"

"I'll put them out but they've gone pretty hard."

He knew Gloria Ramirez' favorite breakfast was machaca, a kind of scrambled eggs with chiles, peppers and shredded beef, but Maeve was on another vegetarian kick and wouldn't dream of serving up something with cow in it. Cows were destroying the planet, they represented a tremendous drain on the earth relative to the calories they provided, and on top of that they farted more methane than the biota could absorb. Which was all probably true, but he liked beef enough to let the planet die a little over his allotted span. Maeve claimed he was no better than an SUV owner, though she had to be careful where she said it because Gloria Ramirez drove a Toyota RAV-4 and Maeve was crazy about Gloria.

"We'll be right down, hon. Give us a chance to freshen up."

"Just don't be humping any more. It'll get cold." The door shut quickly.

"Humping," he said, testing the word in his mouth after his daughter had gone. "Just how polite is that word these days?"

"A few cents better than some others I know, that's for sure. You know what kids mean by 'hooking up?'"

He nodded. "Maeve told me about that stuff. I can't imagine a party where kids just pile in to choose up for meaningless sex, and then they all walk away."

"You're getting old, Jack."

"Boy, I hope that's not just being old. You're closer to the street than me, but there's still goodness and honor out there, isn't there?

She grinned. "Yes, Jack. Santa's been in contact with the tower and his landing gear is down."

He kissed her and gave it up. She was putting on her work mood, he could tell, toughening up for her new partner, a hardnose who'd never even acclimated to having women in the department. "Okay, okay. Let's go down in bathrobes and keep the kid happy."

"I've got to shower. I'm out of here soon. You keep her company for a bit."

As a consolation, she gave him a kiss with a lot of tongue and just for an instant she shuddered and pretended mischievously to be heading toward an orgasm.

"Women may be able to fake orgasms," he challenged, as she pushed him off and jumped out of bed, brown as a cowry, and then he called after her, "But men can fake whole relationships."

"If you're faking this, Jack Liffey, I'll shoot your balls off."

You had to feel a little twinge when a woman who said that to you actually carried the new .40-caliber Glock that the cops had all switched to. He was the one who had proposed marriage about five times over the last year, though. Something deeply private, and deeply hurt, was holding her back.

He wondered if it might be his own anxieties putting her off. Over the last decade he'd lost so many things important to him that he'd given up counting--the secure middle-class job, wife, beloved daughter (only back temporarily), cozy house, money in the bank. It was strange living almost entirely without luck. It left you spiritually depleted, somehow, and a bit too needy.

He'd given up his psychiatrist, too, because he'd only gone to the blithering idiot under duress and when he found out it wasn't going to get him back custody of his daughter he quit. It was hard to know what effect moving to East L.A. was going to have on him, vivid enough but completely out of his culture. He was like a Commanche in Norway, but he was studying Spanish to try to catch up. He wondered if he was too old to start over quite this frantically, but he really wanted to be with Gloria Ramirez and he had tough fingernails to cling to what little seemed to be left. It just took a toll from time to time.


*


Just before 9 AM at the big Coffee Plantation on Wilshire, the perfect time to catch the men's room full of pissers in business suits, semi-disabled by holding up their big paper cups of latte in front of the long row of urinals. Surreptitiously, Rod Whipple slid a new cassette into the little digital video camera; his partner Kenyon "Beanpole" Styles had already done the same. They'd met in an extension film class and the compilation video had been Kenyon's bright idea at a bar after class five months earlier.

"Are we set?"

"On some level."

"Well, on any level, what's the signal?" Kenyon asked. He was about 6-5 and thin as a pencil, hard to keep from attracting attention in the corner of the tiled bathroom, or anywhere else for that matter.

"I rap twice on the door."

"Sweet. Okay, I've got speed."

"Me, too." Rod Whipple stuck out his free hand and rapped hard on the outside swing door, and the two cameramen moved apart to give themselves different angles on the action.

There was an excruciating pause before anything happened. One man shook himself off one-handed and left for the basins.

Then the door flew open and what was clearly a homeless old woman stomped in. She had only a few teeth in her big grin and wore a series of filthy skirts and shirts. Pink socks that had lost their elastic settled limply over laceless tennis shoes.

"Who's the richest cocksucker in the room!" the woman bellowed. Her scratchy voice echoed painfully against the tile.

Every eye and two cameras went to the woman, who stood with her wrists on her hips.

"Get out of here, ma'am. This is the men's room," a man in a business suit said, attempting a kind of patronizing politeness.

"So it's you!"

She rushed at the speaker and before he could turn away she punched him hard in the balls. The man squealed and went down hard on his knees, spewing milky coffee from an oversized paper cup across the restroom floor. "Ow, ow, ow," he bleated on and on. The woman turned immediately on a businessman two stalls away who was caught midstream of a long flow, with a panicky look on his face. She cackled and punched this man even harder and he went off like a steam whistle, bending a little and clutching himself with both hands. He wasn't holding a coffee.

The old woman turned on a third man who was also trapped midstream and he turned on her the only weapon he had and sprayed her purposefully with urine.

"You fascist!" she cried and went for him, but he managed to turn his back and absorb her blows on his hip as the other men in the room fled for the door, right past the softly purring cameras.

The woman reached around the fascist and grabbed his balls and squeezed until he screamed and threatened her.

"Go down, motherfucker, go down now," she commanded, and he did, falling to the side of his hip beside the writhing businessman.

The old woman then turned to the camera and grinned broadly, a kind of mindless beatitude, exposing three widely spaced teeth lost in bluish gums. "Did I do good, boys?"

Kenyon handed her a hundred dollar bill and the two videologists fled the room, straight through the stirred-up coffee bar, then sprinted up busy Wilshire and around a corner before slowing to a reaching gait.

"Jesus, was that sweet," Kenyon exclaimed.

"You could of probably kept the second hundred," Rod said. "Fuck the bag lady."

"No, you fuck the bag lady. Let's be honorable. A hundred bucks is nothing to what we're going to make off DG II. We're gonna be rich!"


*

He was raking the front lawn, even getting in behind the plastic barrels that held geraniums and flicking out the loose mulch, all as some sort of completely gratuitous penance to Gloria, who always managed to keep him off balance, but he enjoyed the physical labor and it had to be done. The yard had grown ankle deep in big papery orange and brown sycamore leaves. He didn't know why anyone planted deciduous trees in California, there were so many good-looking evergreens, from palms and pines to the live oaks that never dropped a thing but acorns. But he liked the look of the sycamore, its big arched boughs and the patchy beige and white bark that invited climbing, and this one was really huge, generations old. The hurricane fence along the sidewalk was trapping the leaves, and the chain link grabbed noisily at the tines of his rattan rake. Used to the openness of Westside front yards, it hadn't taken him long to notice that every house in Boyle Heights had a wall or fence of some kind in front, often concrete block posts with forbidding wrought iron spears in between.

A man in a straw sombrero pedaled past on his kid's banana bike, balancing two big shopping bags on his lap and yawing left and right. Two mariachis hurried somewhere in their maroon outfits glittering with silver and they sidestepped to give the meandering bike plenty of room. It was like an illustrated lecture on cultural estrangement.

One good thing about that sycamore, he thought. It pretty much hid his view of the kids hanging out on the porch three doors up and across the street, in their t-shirts, dark glasses, and baggies, always accessorized with Budweiser cans. They were Greenwoods and this was their turf. He'd talked a bit to the youngest one, Li'l Scooby, but basically as far as they were concerned, he'd simply dropped into their barrio one day from Mars. Li'l Scooby told him he thought only teachers and doctors were Anglos. The 14-year-old boy had never seen the ocean, never been west of the Harbor Freeway, and he immediately stiffened up into warrior mode and stopped chatting whenever one of the older boys showed up. Two years back, Jack Liffey had befriended Marlena's Latino nephews, but Gloria had no relatives here and he'd found it tough to make get to know the neighbor boys.

He'd tried to get close to the Balderamas just south of them in a tiny frame house with the fridge on the back porch. The grandmother was home all day and she had filled the house with what Jews called tchotchkes, colorful stuff of all kinds, and not just Virgins and religious artifacts. There were parrots side-by-side with polished brass icons and ash trays that looked like toilets. He'd read somewhere that every collector was unconsciously deep into an allegory, but he had no idea what hers might be. His Spanish was even worse than her English, despite the lessons he'd been taking doggedly so they hadn't made much progress. The house on the other side held some sort of head gangbanger and Gloria had warned him off trying too hard there.

In fact, though, for all its strangeness to him, he truly loved the neighborhood. Something about being a fascinated and respectful outsider in such a vivid place, only ten miles east of his bland condo, really tickled him. The cooking smells alone would transport you to a faraway paradise.

Maeve came out and lay on the inclined lawn with her hands behind her head, keeping him company.

"So what would be the practical consequences of being an existentialist?" he asked her, taking up a topic from breakfast. She'd been reading Sartre and having a hard go.

"I'd have to move to France and smoke a pipe."

"And die in an auto crash in the Alps, yeah. But, seriously."

"Just like you, I'd have to find some way of building a viable moral system from scratch without waving a lot of religious flags."

"Don't you think you've internalized a lot of me and your mom already? Morally?"

She made an unpleasant face. "You're talking psychology, dad. That's different. I mean principles that are intellectually defensible."

The lawn was looking a bit scraggly once the leaves were cleared off and he realized he'd better get it some plant food before the winter hit. And maybe some more containers for flowers. The whole neighborhood was awash with bougainvillea, roses, and various other showy garden flowers whose names he should have known but didn't.

"Is it really that hard to know what's right?" he asked. "I've never seen the need to gear up all that intellectual apparatus to zero in on it."

"Well, there's always the kitten and the Rembrandt in the fire."

He smiled as he raked two heaps into one big one. He liked the grating twang of the old rake. "I know you'd save the kitten ten times out of ten, no question."

"You wouldn't?"

"It always seems to me an artificial choice. You can't tuck the kitten under one arm, the painting under the other and haul ass? I mean, I know there are plenty of gray areas in the world but they're usually a wee bit more complicated."

"A lot of yours seem to involve unzipping your fly at inopportune times."

He grimaced. "Not that again. Give me a little break. It's been quite a while since I strayed. Remember, Rebecca dumped me and it was only after that that I started seeing Gloria. And you like Gloria better than her anyway."

"Would you go back to Becky if she whistled--you know, just put her lips together and blew?"

He wondered how many 16-year-olds could summon up lines from Lauren Bacall.

"What was that movie?" she asked.

"To Have and Have Not. I would not go back. I'm completely crazy about Gloria. I don't even mind that she's a cop."

Jangly dancy ranchera music started up somewhere nearby.

"What about you and David?" he asked after a bit of reflective silence.

David was her--beau was the old-fashioned word he thought she'd used the other day. Both of them were in their junior year at Redondo High, and David had CalTech in his sights. He supposed they were going steady, as he had said in high school. He didn't like it, but he wasn't going to object and throw her into overdrive. Everything happened too soon these days. Divorce by 18, remarriage by 19, dark night of the soul by 20, midlife crisis at 21....

"What is it about 'what about' that you want to know, Dad?"

"How serious are you two?"

"Do you mean sex, has David got to home plate yet?"

That electrified his backbone, but he tried not to let it show as he came across to rake up the southern side of the lawn.

"Not really. I mean, are you thinking long term? Is it going to interfere with college?"

"How did we get here from existentialism?" she asked, a fairly nifty diversion from talking about David.

"I wish I knew. Love gets a lot more mysterious as you get older, and existentialism a lot less mysterious. You can quote me."

He heard an ominous rumble and a lowered '70s Chevy sedan with primer spots pulled near the curb and idled loudly with that ragged muscle-car belligerence. There were four shaved-head kids inside, and he saw out the corner of his eye that the Greenwoods had all disappeared from their porch and driveway.

"Ese, where you from?" a kid in the shotgun seat challenged.

"Nowhere," Jack Liffey said. It was what you said. It meant you weren't affiliated with any of the gangs. Normally they didn't bother with Anglos.

The boys on the nearside of the car were making those contorted hand gestures out the windows--throwing sign--that were meant to announce who they were, but he didn't have a clue. Little Valley was to the east where the city gave way to county. The Maravillas, a sort of consortium of subgangs had a barrio a few blocks west. And even the Mara Salvatruchas, the citywide Salvadoran gang had an outpost where some Salavadoran families had moved into an apartment building nearby, the Inez Locos. That was all second-hand info he'd got from Gloria. He couldn't even read the spray-painted gang placas that came and went on walls and any other flat surfaces available.

He figured going on raking was his best bet.

"You dissing us, pendejo?"

"No, I'm not." He kept his voice as neutral as he could, but stopped raking and looked up to meet their eyes. He knew better than to try out even the politest of polite greetings in Spanish just then. He was deeply aware of where Maeve lay, without looking toward her. He hoped by some miracle she had slipped back into the house.

The kid at the back window had a T-shaped moustache-beard combination and was mad-dogging him with fierce black eyes.

"I would never be impolite to anyone as powerful as you gentlemen."

"Well, fuck Greenwood, lambiche, que watcha."

Too late he noticed that T-moustache in back was displaying a silver revolver.

"Insane respect man," the pistolero said.

Jack Liffey dived for the leaf pile--feeling foolish and naked--as he heard three shots, one seeming to ping off the front fence, and then the squeal of tires as the low-rider accelerated away. He hadn't been hit and he jumped up and ran out the gate after the car, focusing on the license plate to get a partial, JSP after three numbers, one of the very old gold-on-black California plates, and then he decided chasing after armed gangbangers carrying only a rake wasn't such a great idea.

His heart was hammering as he walked back up the street, panting, and he saw people appearing on porches up and down the block. His mind did handsprings to keep from venting racial epithets, even internally, at the gangbangers. They were wounded children, no-hopers, kids without jobs--grown callous and mean--but still just kids.

Then he saw Maeve lying in a strange position on her side. At first he refused to believe that the dark liquid seeping away down the grass was her blood. He turned and pointed straight at Senora Torres on her porch across the street. "Call 9-1-1!" he bellowed.

The woman nodded and rushed indoors, and Jack Liffey knelt beside his mangled daughter.

"Maeve, can you hear me?"

There was no answer. He turned her shoulders gently and lifted her blouse, just enough to see the ugly entry wound in her abdomen. He ripped off his shirt to press it hard against the seeping blood. His mind turned into a complete jumble of panic and guilt and rage. Off in the corner, an observer struggled for the meaning of lambiche. What on earth had he done wrong? He'd tried so hard to be respectful.

Exit wound, a voice inside cried out, his mind going all the way back to his one day of medic training in Basic. Always look for that, too.


###


Copyright © John Shannon 2015. All rights reserved.