The Picture Ranch 15
I was going to talk to the only person I knew of who could claim close acquaintance with Miss Gräfenberg. But first I needed a few things; folding money, a car and coffee. At least the body-shop had called to say my car was finally ready. My altercation with the still unrepaired fire-hydrant was going to cost me the best part of a hundred dollars, not counting what I'd bribed the beat cop not to make anything of it. For talking to this close acquaintance,I was going to need some company, some muscle, to get me through the door.
My car was in the only body-shop in Encino owned by a Negro. Hell, it might have been the only one outside of Darktown, LA. Jefferson's was the last lot on an unincorporated road heading north west out of Encino. Tommy Jefferson had a tow-truck and a nephew to drive it. He did good work, and besides, he was a decorated veteran. Tommy had served in the 506th Engineer Support Battalion in Europe, 1917. I'd met him outside an American Legion post in back of Palmdale, only a year or so ago. They wouldn't let him in. I tore up my own membership card and we went on the toot. As I got to know him I realised he would have made a good Marine, if only the USMC had taken blacks.
By the time I got to Tommy's my feet were as sore as a first day recruit's. Tommy gave me the only chair in the office and a cool beer. I tried to thank him but he just laughed,
'You look about busted, Buster.'
'Well, I ain't in good shape and I'm busted as in broke. I can't pay right now, and I need the car.'
Tommy sighed, 'You got your flivver, you need moolah too?'
I nodded, just about able to look my friend in the eye.
'You in trouble?'
'Someone I know is.'
'A dame. Gotta be a dame.'
He took a roll of notes out of the chest pocket of his bib-and-braces.
'Don't get excited, I mostly get paid in singles. Or oranges. Oranges, Jee-zus!'
I tried to thank him but he waved me off.
'Key's on the seat.'
My Ford started on the second button push. I was pulling out of the lot when he signalled me to slow down. Tommy leaned through the window,
'Know anyone wants to buy some oranges?'
His laugh followed me down the un-metalled road. I smiled all the way back to town.
I parked next to a phone booth and rang an LA number.
'3 uh, 5 ah… 6.
'Hey, Moose. It's Fisher. Got a day's pay for yuh.'
'Well, I don't know… Last time…'
'We're staying out of Chinatown, I promise.'
'I dunno… We be back before The Shadow's on the radio?'
'I heard it's finished. Orson wants to do somethin' artistic.'
'Who's Orson?' Moose said, and I figured he thought the programme was real.
'Come on, I got a ten-spot with your name on it.'
'Be outside the Trocadero in a half-hour, Moose.'
I could still hear the 'Hooyah!' although the phone was all but on the cradle.
Moose arrived late, but I used the time to think. After that I took a swig out of the bottle I kept under the passenger seat. Then I thought some more. Since there was little else that was true in Miss G's billet-doux, why should her whereabouts be as stated? I let Moose drive, as I had more of the contents of the bottle inside than out by that time.
'You know a place called The Red Menace, Moose?'
'Uh-uh, no sirree. Never been there. Never visited Paloverde Avenue, nope.'
Moose's face went as red as the numbers in my checking account. All that time I had figured his dishonorable discharge had been for violent conduct.
'Moose, it doesn't matter. Just tell the truth. You been there?'
The big palooka sighed. His heaving shoulders knocked me a little sideways in the passenger seat.
'I Loved the USMC. Only place I ever felt at home and they threw me out. Never did nothin' others didn't do.'
''Member Cap'n Vidal? When we wuz at the Recruit Depot, when yuh got back from China?'
I did remember Vidal. We called him Vicious Vidal. Some said he was a little too hard on the new recruits. As I far as I knew, he'd only ever served in San Diego. We'd had some strange officers with the Shanghai Marines, but bullies like Vidal somehow never stayed long out east. I was biding my time at the Recruit Depot, prior to my medical discharge. I got to know Moose at the NCOs club, where he seemed to spend a lot of time on his own.
'Well, one time, after you wuz de-mobilized, I saw Vidal in a place down the Port of San D. And he saw me.' Moose sniffed.
'It was a place like the Menace.'
'And youse think I'm dumb. No, Fisher, not a cabaret.'
I was still thinking so what? Mutual jeopardy. Vidal couldn't have exposed Moose without risking his own career.
'There was an enquiry. They believed the officer and the NCO got busted and a dishonorable. I was a good Marine and a good NCO, Fisher. Nobody's business but mine what side I butter my toast.'
And he was right. If the man at your side could shoot, fight and die like a marine, he was a leatherneck.
I said, 'Semper Fi', under my breath and Moose gave the quietest 'Hooyah' in the history of the USMC.
We were silent for a while. When we pulled up on Paloverde, Moose turned to me,
'Yeah, been in this place once. It's not for me. I went as a favour for a friend… Like today, huh?'
I wondered why I had ever considered Moose dumb. Still, I was right about one thing, I was a lucky detective.
The familiar face of the extra from Anna Karenina appeared at the Judas Hole. I was invisible behind Moose's bulk.
Moose held up a creased and faded card that might once have been red, but was now a rosy pink. The door opened and I went in behind the big guy. We both ignored the 'Hey!' from the door keeper.