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Authors: Ron Goulart

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BOOK: If Dying Was All
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“$100 a day.”

“Is that all?” Stammsky hopped a few feet away, then back. “That would come to $500 a week. $2000 a month. Roughly twenty-five grand a year. How can you afford that plush office and the voluptuous secretary on that?”

Easy leaned a few inches closer to the small, bobbing man. “What do you have to sell?”

“Nothing.”

“The sheriff’s office may be able to link Booth Graither and Jackie McCleary up, too,” Easy told him. “They may come and talk to all the alumni of the San Amaro gang.”

“Who says there’s a link between Jackie and Booth?”

“I’ve already established that,” said Easy. “So will the law eventually. Was Booth on your boat trip?”

“No,” said Stammsky. “The trip was just a casual thing. A bunch of us rented the damn motor yacht and left from Marina Del Rey, just up the coast from here. We were going to cruise down to Enseñada, crewing for ourselves. People do such things every day around here.”

“Who paid for the rental?”

“We all chipped in as I recall.” Stammsky gestured at the room. “Lots of deadbeats still get money from home, you know.”

“Why do you think Jackie killed herself?”

“All I know is what I read in the suicide note.” He laughed.

“She did kill herself?”

“I didn’t push her over the side, if that’s what you mean.”

“What about Booth Graither. Who killed him?”

Stammsky said, “Not me.”

Bertha decided to stand and shout, “Why no lady singer?” She bit hard on the tip of her little cigar and red sparks splashed from its end and ticked against the plastic goggles resting atop her head.

The bearded boy in the crimson poncho said, “Sit down, you hooligan.”

“Sexual colonialist,” Bertha replied, flipping her cigar into his beard.

The boy shot to his feet, slapped the cigar out of his whiskers, walked over and punched Bertha in the stomach.

The two pretty girl commandos tackled him and pulled his poncho over his head.

Bertha started to kick the fallen boy with one of her booted feet. A thin, young man in an old college sweatshirt came up and put an arm lock on her.

Stammsky hopped around from behind the bar, saying, “Brawl quietly for Christ sake. I don’t want cops.”

“Exploiter,” said Bertha.

Stammsky joined with the thin ex-college boy and they hustled Bertha outside.

The prettier of the girl commandos stepped twice on the fallen boy’s stomach and said, “You better change your booking policies soon, Mitch.”

“I have a lady blues singer packing her trunk in Memphis right this minute. Be patient.” He guided the two of them to the door and closed them out on the night street. After getting the plump bearded boy’s head back up through the hole in the crimson poncho, Stammsky bounded back to Easy.

“About Booth Graither,” Easy said.

“I’d better announce the next set, Easy, and get the reverend back in a sanctified mood.” Stammsky paused. Across the club the black singer was moving back into the circle of light. “I have your phone number. Maybe I’ll be in touch.”

“Tell me now,” suggested Easy. “How much do you want?”

“I don’t want anything right now. I have nothing to say. But maybe I’ll be calling you.”

Easy watched him for a moment, then nodded and left the place. Directly across the roadway from Blind Joe Death’s was the Pacific Ocean. It came hissing in across the dark sand, black and cold. Behind him in the club, Reverend Oates began to sing about Canaan Land.

VIII

C
HILDREN IN BRIGHT NEW
clothes were swinging from the gilded gates of the cemetery, dancing along the top of its synthetic stone wall. At least fifteen of them.

Easy parked his car on the road outside the Peaceable Kingdom #2 cemetery and walked up over low, rolling hills. At Easy’s back, down a four hundred foot cliffside, was the ocean and the San Amaro beach, clear and quiet in the early morning sunlight.

In the oak trees on the inside of the wall three little boys were climbing. The topmost, a ten-year-old Negro in a pale blue sailor suit, leaped for a branch and missed it. “Shit, oh, dear,” he said, tumbling down halfway to the ground before he caught a new hold.

“Okay, cut,” said a patient voice from up among the few tombstones.

A little, blonde girl in a polka dot pinafore looked up into the oak and called, “You dumb jigaboo, you screw up every take.”

“Kids, kids,” said the patient-voiced man. “Listen, it’s never too young to learn professional ethics. Kids, we don’t criticize our fellow actors. Remember that, Marylee.”

“Eighteen takes on the dumb shot,” complained the little blonde Marylee. “Only because Sambo keeps falling out of his tree.”

When the last of the child actors had disentangled himself from the gates, Easy pushed into the cemetery grounds.

Two panel trucks and a silver trailer were parked on one of the flower-lined lanes, and wires and cables snaked over the bright grass and wound around the gravestones. Just in front of a synthetic marble fountain two cameras sat, watching the children.

The man with the patient voice noticed Easy, waved at him with the clipboard in his hand. “Kids, let’s take five,” he announced. “And, Larry, maybe you’d better stay out of the tree on the next take.”

“But I already memorized the tree swinging part, Mr. Segal,” said the black child. “I was up most of the night preparing, feeling what it would be like. Planning out my movements and reactions.”

“Did you plan to fall on your ass, too?” asked Marylee.

“Kids, kids,” cautioned Ned Segal as he walked carefully down through the tombstones toward Easy. Segal gestured at a pretty Chinese girl who was standing next to one of the cameras with a bundle of scripts clutched to her breasts. “Talk to Marylee, will you, Gina? Explain professionalism to her.”

“I’m John Easy,” Easy said, shaking hands.

“I don’t think I can help you much, Easy,” Segal told him. “Still, as I told your secretary, I’m happy to try. I can’t give you more than ten or fifteen minutes right now. We’re running behind schedule on this commercial.” He was a lean man of thirty, nearly bald, wearing round-framed dark glasses.

Easy watched the frolicking children. “I’m trying to figure out what you’re selling.”

Segal lifted the dark glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “The cemetery itself. I’m doing a minute TV spot for Peaceable Kingdom #2.” He lowered the glasses and called, “Bobby, get off the fountain. Kid actors are a bigger pain than grownup actors.” He walked further downhill and sat on a curb. “As you may have noticed, Easy, this place isn’t doing too well. Only fifteen burials in the five months it’s been in operation. Not that you’re interested, but it’s quite a challenge technically to give the impression you’ve got a crowded popular cemetery when you’ve only fifteen marked graves to play with. Takes a good cameraman to fake it. Larry, I meant it about the tree. Stay on the ground.”

“Why the kids?”

“You probably haven’t thought about the problem, but a cemetery is a tough thing to sell visually, on television,” explained the bald young man. “I can’t come right into your living room and sock you between the eyes with a shot of some poor schmuck being dropped into a grave. No, I’ve got to work some magic, romance the idea. We’ve got more old people in LA than probably anywhere in the country, so there’s a fat market for burials. I’ve got to make that audience prefer Peaceable Kingdom #2, demand it. It’s trickier than making some boob think of my brand of tuna when he’s roaming around the supermarket. No, I’ve got to make the consumer practically ask for Peaceable Kingdom #2 with his dying breath.” He smiled and nodded at the young actors up the hill. “Everybody likes kids. Put them in a cemetery, show them enjoying themselves. What’s more alive than kids? Thousands of little old ladies are going to think Peaceable Kingdom #2 is a nice place.” He lifted the glasses and rubbed at his eyes again. “I’ve only got one real worry.”

“Which is?”

“Earthquakes,” said Segal. “The last big earthquake and part of the hill over there fell down into the ocean. People get funny ideas. They don’t want to be buried someplace where they think an earthquake will come along and dump them in the ocean.” He touched the crystal of his wristwatch without looking at it. “I’m sure you didn’t come out here to talk shop with me.”

Easy seated himself on the curb near Segal. “You knew Jackie McCleary.”

“Yes, very well.” Segal pointed toward the just visible ocean. “I was thinking about her this morning, what with your secretary’s call. Yes, right down there we all used to hang out. Only five years ago. If she’d lived, maybe I’d be hiring her to do a commercial for me. She wanted to act. We all promised each other we’d give all the others jobs when we made it. Kid stuff.”

“You have no doubt about her being dead?”

Segal frowned. “No. Should I?”

“You weren’t on the yacht trip, though.”

“No, I couldn’t go,” said Segal. “Many times since I wish I had. I was pretty close to Jackie. She might have talked to me before she tried anything.”

“Why did she kill herself?”

“You must have read a copy of the note she left behind.”

“She said she was tired of life. Not too specific.”

Segal exhaled and set his clipboard on the grass. “Well, I think mostly it was that damn father of hers. He pressured her a lot, confused her. She was an only child and she grew up feeling anything she wanted to do was somehow wrong.”

Easy asked, “Was there something particular she wanted to do then, something McCleary tried to stop?”

“Not that I know. Why?”

Easy said, “What about Booth Graither?”

“Graither? The guy they found the other day out on San Obito?”

Easy showed Segal the photo of the San Amaro gang. “There he is next to Jackie.”

Segal flipped up his glasses and squinted at the picture. “Hey, look at the hair I had then.” He stroked his bare scalp. “In only five years it went. Everybody in my family is like that, even one of my aunts went bald. Graither? Yeah, I remember him.”

“What was his relationship with Jackie?”

“I suppose she was dating him,” said Segal. “Jackie was sort of promiscuous, in a way. Girls with fathers like hers often are. I ought to know, I had a wife like that for nearly two years. I suppose she was dating him in a casual way.” He shook his head several times. “Easy, I doubt she’d spend too much time with an embezzler and a jewel thief like Graither.”

“Embezzler and jewel thief?”

“Isn’t that what Graither was, more or less? According to the
Times.

“More or less,” said Easy. “Someone has written to Frederic McCleary. Someone claiming to be Jackie.”

“What the hell for?”

“I’m trying to find that out. Has anyone been in touch with you?”

“No. I don’t keep up with the old gang much at all. I’ve been married twice since then. I started my own small advertising shop, specializing in television commercials, about four years back. No, I haven’t seen any of them really. Everybody changes. At twenty-five you’re one thing, at thirty something else.”

“Who might be pretending to be Jackie?”

“You haven’t told me why they’re doing it.”

“To get McCleary out of his house for a day probably. There may be more to it. More to come.”

“They wrote what? Letters, in handwriting?”

“Right. I’m having the handwriting checked now.”

Segal said, That’s funny. It just occurred to me. Could Jackie be alive? I guess they never found her body. I never heard they did.”

“They didn’t.”

Segal took his round-rimmed glasses completely off and dropped them on the grass next to the clipboard. “That would be funny. Jackie alive. Alive all this time.” He looked directly at Easy. “I take it you’re working for Jackie’s father.”

“Yes.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I’m still trying to find out who sent the letters.”

“All that exists is letters really. No one has seen Jackie?”

“No one I’ve talked to yet.”

Segal put his dark glasses back on and picked up the clipboard. “It’s all something to think about, Easy,” he said. “Right at the moment, though, I don’t think I know a darn thing that would help you. You can be sure I’m going to keep thinking. I’ll communicate anything that occurs to me. A promise.” He stood up. “Gina, don’t let them push the tombstones like that. Bobby, you knocked the thing all lopsided. Now it won’t match the other shots. Gina, get that damn tombstone straight.” He smiled absently at Easy. “I’d better go back to work.”

Easy watched Segal hurry back uphill to the cameras and the cockeyed tombstone.

IX

T
HE BIG, SUNBURNED MAN
poked his tennis racket toward Easy, aiming for his stomach. “What is it you want?” He was in white shorts and a white pullover, and he had splotchy freckles and sun blisters speckling his broad face. His racket was in a wood and metal press, and he smelled as though he’d just finished playing.

“Win your match?” Easy asked. They were both standing in an aisle of bleachers above the courts of the Floradena Community Country Club.

“What business is it of yours?”

The tall blonde sitting in the aisle seat said, “He lost. 6-0, 6-2.”

The sunburned man made another jab at Easy with the racket and one of the nuts on the press made a small rip in Easy’s jacket. “Just shut up, Perry. Just shut up.” He scowled at Easy. “I asked you who you were. Are you that son of a bitch private eye?”

“I’m a private investigator,” Easy said. “Which son of a bitch did you have in mind?”

“We don’t want to talk to anybody,” said the sweating man. “I’ve got enough problems. Taking a whole day off from the studio to play in this tournament and then getting trounced by some, I don’t know, some chicano.”

“He’ll probably turn into,” said the blonde, “another Pancho Gonzales, Bud. Someday you’ll be able to brag about this.” “Keep your nose out, Perry.”

To the seated blonde Easy said, “I’m John Easy. My secretary set up an interview. I can talk to you later if you’d like.”

“Why don’t you take a running jump for yourself?” said Bud Burley.

Perry Burley reached out and caught her angry husband’s sleeve. “Buddy hates to lose. Relax, Bud. I can talk to you now, Mr. Easy.” The silver setting of her turquoise ring sparkled once in the early afternoon sun.

BOOK: If Dying Was All
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