Read If Dying Was All Online

Authors: Ron Goulart

If Dying Was All (6 page)

BOOK: If Dying Was All
11.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Yes.”

“I’m Harry Dryden. I interviewed you once for a piece I was doing for the
LA Times.
That was in my pre-howl days.”

“Oh, yeah, hello, Dryden. Pre-howl?”

“You know my wife, don’t you? Calls herself Jane Barham when she writes. Independent little bitch.” The chubby man turned his head from left to right, slowly, a few times. “She seems to have moved away at the moment. Independent little bitch. She’s got a novel which is number three on the bestseller list right this minute.” Dryden chuckled. “I’m not jealous at all. Not bothered one bit. Would have been in my pre-howl days.”

“Pre-howl?” repeated Easy.

“Therapy,” explained the chubby, young writer. “We drive up to Carmel once a week to attend sessions at a private institution. Now, the notion behind howl therapy, Easy, is simply this …”

Easy saw the slim, red-haired Judy Teller standing by herself at one of the wide windows. Her chin was resting on the rim of her glass. There was a dark, angry look on her pretty face. “Excuse me, Dryden. I have to check something.”

“Well, go ahead, you big son of a bitch. Leave me standing here like my independent little bitch of a wife,” said Dryden. “Boy, if I wasn’t so benefited from my howl therapy I’d be pissed off at you.”

Tully Lent spun by Easy as he worked his way over to the small girl television columnist. Lent said, “Listen, Easy. I hear you’ve been under more beds than a chamber pot.”

When he reached the side of Judy Teller, Easy said, “Miss Teller.”

“Go tell him I don’t want to talk to him,” she said, not turning. “He’s a rat.” She glanced back and her lavender-shadowed eyes opened wider. “Oh, you’re not a go-between, are you?”

“Not between you and a rat, no.”

The girl smiled a narrow, quick smile. “You don’t even look like a show business person at all. You have a non-rat aura.”

“I’m John Easy. I’m a private investigator,” he told her. “I’d like to talk to you.”

“Wait. Private detectives come perilously close to the rat category.”

Tm working for Frederic McCleary.”

Judy Teller brought her glass down from in front of her face and half turned to him. “You mean Jackie McCleary’s father?”

“Yes. I understand you were a friend of hers.”

Judy smiled another quick smile. “My God, back when I was some tough, little broad from Queens named Adrienne Grossman. I didn’t do anything right then. I didn’t talk right. I didn’t walk right. I didn’t look right.”

“Jackie’s father has received a letter from her.”

The slim redhead’s hands tightened on her glass. She inclined her head toward an alcove where a narrow sofa was unoccupied. “A letter from Jackie? What did she say?” She moved to the striped sofa and sat down.

“Have you heard from her?” Easy joined her.

“From Jackie?” Judy finished her drink and hailed a passing serving boy for another. When she had it, she said, “My God, that would be impossible. Jackie McCleary is dead. Five years dead. As dead as poor dumb Adrienne Grossman from Rego Park, Queens.”

“Is she?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Who wrote the letter to McCleary then?”

The pretty girl shook her head. “Ask me about show biz, about who’s doing what to whom. I haven’t any idea about who’d write letters to Jackie’s father.”

“Can you think of a reason why?”

“No.” Judy drank half of her new gin and tonic. “McCleary wasn’t especially nice to Jackie. She hated him. Maybe one of her old friends decided to pay him back.”

“Pay him back for what?”

“He gave Jackie a rough time as a father,” said Judy. “Tried to make her feel she was free, but kept a tight grip on her at the same time. She had a terrific fight with him before she got her own place down in San Amaro. He’d call her up and tell her she was killing him, being away from home. He’d get lushed up and tell her he was dying. He was something of a rat to her.”

“You were on the rented yacht,” said Easy.

Judy finished this drink. “That I don’t want to talk about. That was one of the many unhappy events in Adrienne Grossman’s dumb life, and I’m not Adrienne Grossman anymore. I don’t have to relive all that anymore. For anyone.” She rested one slender hand on his leg. “Look, I’m good at quick judging people. I think you’re a non-rat. Stay that way, please.”

Easy asked, “Did you know Booth Graither?”

“Who?”

“Booth Graither.”

“He’s not show business, is he?”

“He’s five years dead,” said Easy. “Just like Jackie.”

The pretty redhead’s hand tightened on his leg. “Easy,” she said. “Easy, you keep walking the fine line between rat and non-rat. No, I don’t know any Booth Graither, living or dead.”

Easy took the beach photo from his coat. “There’s Graither. The one to the right of Jackie. That’s you, to her left.”

The red-haired girl caught the eye of a starving boy and pointed to her empty glass. She didn’t take notice of the picture until she held a fresh drink. “Hold it up closer.” She kept one hand on Easy, sliding it nervously up and down the inner side of his leg. “Yes, there’s poor, pigeon-toed Adrienne Grossman. Look at her, nearly twenty-five there and she’s still got a touch of acne. Which one did you say was supposed to be Booth Graither?”

“Smiling guy on the other side of Jackie.”

“Yes,” said Judy. “I read about his being found on San Obito Island. He must be some boy Jackie was dating then. You know, most of the men in the world are neither rats nor non-rats. They’re nebbishes who fall between the two schools. Them I never pay attention to.”

“No idea why he was on San Obito?”

“None.”

“Was Booth Graither on that yacht trip the San Amaro gang took down the coast?”

“Of course not. You’ve looked up the newspaper accounts I’m sure. There’s no mention of Booth Graither, is there?”

“No mention. Was he on the boat?”

“No. No, he wasn’t.”

“He must have died very close to the same time Jackie did.”

Judy continued to stroke Easy’s leg. “They’re going to investigate that, the death of Booth Graither, aren’t they?”

“The LA County Sheriff’s Office is investigating.”

“Have you talked to them?”

“Not yet.”

“Will you?”

“I don’t know.”

“If you do, you don’t have to tell them there’s any connection between Jackie and Booth Graither.”

“If I talk to them, they’re going to wonder why I’m curious about Graither.”

Judy said, “Damn it. That all happened to Adrienne Grossman. I don’t want her damn past screwing up my life now. My God.”

“You say you didn’t know Graither. You say he wasn’t on the yacht when Jackie disappeared. You say Jackie really did kill herself. So there shouldn’t be anything back there in the past to worry you. Should there?”

The red-headed girl moved her hand all the way up his leg and grabbed angrily at his groin. “No, damn it. I just don’t want a big thing to happen. My pattern now, the Judy Teller life style, is I ask other people questions. I don’t want to be on the wrong end of an interview with a couple of hunky sheriff’s deputies. In fact, if the truth be known, I’m not any too fond of this session with you, Easy.”

“Oof,” replied Easy, trying to loosen the clutch she had on his penis.

“Say,” noticed Judy, “you’ve got an erection.”

“People keep telling me that.”

“Obviously you’re not a rat then. You find me attractive.”

“It’s a simple reflex, ma’am. Anybody who rubbed my leg could produce a similar result.”

“You’re ducking the issue.” She stroked the head of his penis twice more and let go. She folded her hands around her glass and rested them in her lap. “Would you like to take me to dinner at Matteo’s?”

“No.”

“Nickodell’s?”

“Nope.”

“The Fuji Gardens?”

“I have people to talk to tonight.”

“Don’t tell me you can’t eat while you’re on a case?”

“Yes, but not with you tonight.”

“I hope I haven’t acted like poor dumb Adrienne Grossman, grabbing at you like that. I’m still very impulsive.”

Hagopian said, “Hello, John. Hello, Judy. I see I don’t have to introduce you. Are you busy, John? I persuaded Pam to put on some clothes and attend with me. She’s over there by that fag astrologer if you’d like to meet her.”

“Okay.” Easy stood up, grinning down at the slender girl columnist. “I’ll be talking to you again.”

“I hope so,” said the girl. “Hagopian can tell you how to reach me.”

“Easy,” said Tully Lent as Easy passed him, “you ought to meet my doctor. He’s a private eye. Also a private nose and throat.”

Hagopian said, “This is a goofy town, John.”

Easy nodded, smoothing out the wrinkles in his pants.

VII

T
HE GNARLED BLACK MAN
was sitting on a stool in a circle of musty blue light. His eyes watching his steel-bodied guitar, he sang, “Well, I wouldn’t mind dying, but you got to stay dead so long. No, I wouldn’t mind dying, but you got to stay dead so long. Lord, I wouldn’t mind dying, if dying was all.”

The room had a low, white ceiling, swirled with blackish mildew, and it smelled of spilled drinks and dead sea water. A dozen customers, most of them young and shaggy, were sitting around the beer and wine place. Behind the narrow bar, a small deep-tanned man in his early thirties was drinking a glass of white wine, his eyes closed and his thin body rocking slowly to and fro.

“By and by, I’m going to see the king,” sang the Negro. “By and by, I’m going to see the king. Lord, I wouldn’t mind dying, if dying was all.” He stopped playing, set his guitar on the floor and hunched in on himself.

The small man behind the bar blinked his eyes open, scratched his light, tightly curled hair and hopped to a hand microphone sitting on the end of the bar. “That ends the second set for tonight. We here at San Amaro’s finest folk music bar, Blind Joe Death’s Place, appreciate your patronage. Reverend Smokey Oates will be playing again for all of you later in the evening. This is your host, Mitch Stammsky, signing off.”

“I wish,” said Reverend Oates from his stool, “I wish to heck I could have some beer right now.”

A plump, bearded boy in a crimson poncho leaned out from his table and handed the old singer his nearly full bottle of Mexican beer. “Here. God bless you, sir.”

Easy moved from the doorway of the small club to the bar. “I’m John Easy,” he told Stammsky.

The small, tanned man smiled, bouncing on his toes on the ribbed planking behind the bar counter. “Welcome to Blind Joe Death’s. Have a drink on the management?”

“Beer, thanks.”

Stammsky, bobbing and smiling, slid the beer to Easy. “Your office is on a nice part of the Sunset Strip, isn’t it? I looked you up in the book after your lovely secretary called. You no doubt have a very large and resplendent office, very plush.”

“Actually it’s small and resplendent.” Easy rested both elbows on the bar and looked across at the bouncing Stammsky. “I’m working for Frederic McCleary.”

“So your lovely sec said.” Stammsky nodded his head to and fro, smiled. “You know how to live, Easy. Fancy office, lovely sec. Fancy car. You have got a fancy car, haven’t you?”

“It’s the fanciest 1967 Volkswagen I could buy,” said Easy. “You used to know Jackie McCleary.”

Stammsky said, “Back in the days when I was a beach bum.” He laughed, found his glass of white wine, sipped at it. “You might think I still am. Now I own this place, though, which makes me a local merchant. One of the few clubs left in the Los Angeles area where you can still find real folk singers. I book in mostly old spades. To me a young ofay folk singer doesn’t make it. You ought to bring your lovely secretary in some evening soon.”

Easy said, “Jackie’s been in touch with her father.”

Stammsky kept smiling, but his face gradually took on a taut look. “How? By Ouija board?”

“McCleary got two letters from her,” said Easy. “She wanted to set up a meeting. She didn’t keep the appointment, which is why he hired me.”

Stammsky bounced down to the end of the bar to refill the pitcher of the young man who’d appeared there. He came slowly back, smiling still. “Jackie McCleary is dead. I can’t imagine who’d play such a cruel jest on her father.”

“Can’t you?”

Stammsky said, “You figure one of us, one of her old buddies, did it.”

“Somebody wrote the letters. And you say Jackie’s dead.”

Stammsky stopped smiling. “You’re no doubt earning a fat fee on this case. McCleary has money. He must, if he’s willing to spend some of it on ghosts.”

Easy asked, “You have something to sell?”

Stammsky’s brown face slowly returned to smiling. “Not at the moment.”

“You know who’s behind the fake letters?”

“Maybe they aren’t fake, Easy.”

“Have you seen Jackie?”

“Only long ago. In the endless summer of my lost youth.” He laughed.

“How about Booth Graither?”

“The late real estate heir?”

“Did you know him?”

“I knew everybody who hung around San Amaro beach then. I still do.”

“What was he to Jackie?”

The partially frosted glass door of the place rattled open and three girls came striding in. The one in the lead was short and broad-shouldered, wearing a loose-fitting leather jacket and a World War I aviator’s helmet with the flaps fastened up over the top. “Jesus, it’s Bertha and the girl commandos,” said Stammsky in a low voice. He watched the chunky Bertha and her two taller and prettier companions take a table. “No trouble tonight, Bertha,” he called. “Okay?”

“Maybe so,” replied Bertha. She fetched a Tijuana Small cigar out of her black jacket and one of the pretty girl commandos lit it. “Maybe not so.”

Stammsky explained to Easy, “Bertha is an agitator. We didn’t have anything like her when I was a beach bum. We had plain ordinary bull dykes, not complex bull dykes who fight for gay power and women’s emancipation.”

“How are you supposed to help?”

“She says I ought to hire a lady blues singer, for one thing. Excuse me.” He bounded off on his sneakered feet to uncork a bottle of red wine for Bertha and the girl commandos. Back smiling at Easy, he asked, “Out of curiosity, how much does a private investigator such as yourself pull down?”

BOOK: If Dying Was All
11.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Refuge by Karen Lynch
Los Hijos de Anansi by Neil Gaiman
Mortal Sin by Laurie Breton
Beyond the Grave by C. J. Archer
The Jewels of Warwick by Diana Rubino
Yesterday's Gone: Season Six by Sean Platt, David Wright
The Cub Club by Serena Pettus
Dead Tease by Victoria Houston