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Authors: Joseph Wambaugh

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural

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BOOK: The Delta Star
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He knew that his hooker had the telephone number of Caltech’s division of chemistry and he knew that the private eye was a science groupie, and may simply have come to Caltech one day and asked Missy Moonbeam to call him there. Maybe Lester
Beemer had only been attending a lecture in the auditorium. They were open to anyone.

But there was the cryptic promise from his murdered hooker to the crazy pansy that a Russian scientist was somehow going to enable her to get off the street. Hence, it did seem possible that the foreigner was a Russian being extorted.

Furthermore, his murdered hooker had done a little corpse-robbing and had stolen her former friend’s credit card, which was understandable, given her tastes. But would she also steal his cheap wristwatch? That was not understandable, given her tastes. Or did someone else steal his wristwatch. And why? Did it reveal the time of death?

And finally, he had a tallish black-haired man in a pinstripe suit, who had been stalking one now-dead hooker and one live pansy, probably with a very bad idea in mind for the live pansy.

And all this added up to fruitcake and caviar, since it was absolutely wacky to suppose that there was a mad Russian prowling the streets of Los Angeles and Pasadena for a whore, a pansy and a sleazy old private eye who set him up in a badger game. In any case, it was hardly a motive for multiple murder: a threatened revelation to his wife or boss or commissar that he indulged in kinky sex while visiting Los Angeles, the home of kinky sex.

Some men might murder to hide such a secret. If it meant utter ruin. But homicide investigations usually entailed what was probable, and in this day and age, men might pay quite a bit and do quite a bit to keep an evening with Dagmar Duffy and Missy Moonbeam secret. Yet it was highly improbable that the exposure of bizarre sexual taste was worth throwing people off buildings.

And how in the hell was the private eye killed, if he was killed? Drugs maybe, which made it look like a coronary? He wished there hadn’t been a family doctor so willing to sign the death certificate. He wished they hadn’t cremated the body.

He had to find out if there were any Russian scientists presently at Caltech. He wanted The Bad Czech and Hans to see every face of every professor in the division of chemistry and chemical engineering, foreigner or not. He had no idea how to arrange it. There was one thing for sure if he was even going to hope to unscramble the mess of fruitcake and caviar before he died of exhaustion: he couldn’t tell anyone how little he had. Because he had nothing, not a wisp of hard evidence. He didn’t dare tell anyone at this institution what he was really doing here or they might call the L. A. chief of police, and he might get a stress pension sooner than he expected.

Therefore, there was only one thing for a sensible cop to do if he was going to pursue his nutty Russian clue at the California Institute of Technology: Mario Villalobos was going to lie like hell. But he needed a good one. A lie that would fly.

The detective offered a sample from his bag of lies to three people in the administration building. Each person referred him to another person, and finally the rather confusing police matter was referred from the office of the president to the office of the vice-president for institute relations, to the office of the vice-president and provost. He was getting sleepy and cranky. But then he suddenly perked up.

He wished he’d shaved a little closer when he suffered three gotcha cuts at the station after his early date with Dagmar Duffy. He also wished he’d combed his wind-blown hair to hide the bald spot. And while he was at it, he wished he’d worn his new suit and didn’t have on a shirt with a frayed collar and that his necktie didn’t have a coffee stain on it. And for a moment he didn’t even care that her boss was at the Pasadena conference center for the day, because there was a secretary smiling at him with the largest eyes he’d seen lately, outside of Ludwig’s. And her hair was even blacker than Ludwig’s and much shinier. And then he was sure that his fruitcake investigation had made him bonkers because he realized he was comparing this Latino woman to a panting Rottweiler, and she was anything but a dog.

“My name’s Lupe Luna,” she said, smiling.

“Mario Villalobos,” he said. “Los Angeles Police Department.”

“Much o gusto” she said, still smiling.

“I don’t speak Spanish,” he said. “Well, a little street Spanish.”

“With a name like Mario Villalobos?”

Then it slipped out, the thing he had said a thousand times in his life: “I’m not Mexican.”

She laughed and said, “I didn’t accuse you. But I am. East L. A. Mexican.”

“I didn’t mean … What I meant was, my name’s Spanish, but I’m not.”

“Were you adopted?”

“No, but … oh well, I’m a counterfeit Mexican. I’ll explain it
sometime
if you give me a chance.”

“What can we do for you?”

“I’m investigating a very large jewel theft,” he said.

She was one of those steady gazers, the kind of mature, good-looking woman who always rattled Mario Villalobos. He knew he wasn’t terrific to look at and she was. And she appeared to be smart. And the more he thought of his bag of lies, the dumber they sounded.

“This jewel theft makes my position delicate, as I’ll explain.” He drew thoughtfully on a cigarette, hoping he looked sincere and thought, Jesus, she has a slight overbite. He was a sucker for women with an overbite. No wedding ring and an overbite! “Uh, you see, this theft took place in a very chic Los Angeles restaurant. My victim is an elderly lady and she was dining there with a young man, a gigolo you might say. And a couple at the next table admired her necklace and they did some talking and became acquainted. The man at the next table was a Caltech professor and he was with a young lady. They didn’t give their names.”

The detective paused to smoke and he was almost starting to enjoy himself. First of all, because he had her attention, and secondly, he discovered that his story was turning into pretty good soap opera.

“Well, this is sad, all in all,” he continued. “The young lounge lizard stole the old lady’s necklace and disappeared from her life. We know who he is, but he denies ever knowing our victim and he has an alibi witness as to his whereabouts that night. Are you with me?”

“Yes,” Lupe Luna said. “Where does our Caltech professor fit in?”

“Ah,” Mario Villalobos said. “You see, your professor and his lady could corroborate my victim and destroy the suspect’s alibi. But, and here’s the delicate part: we suspect that your Caltech professor was not with his wife that night. The waiter and busboy who served his table said they were sure it was an illicit rendezvous. Thank God for busybody waiters and busboys.” Mario Villalobos was starting to wonder if he wrote this as a script, could he sell it?


Now we’ve got a problem, Miss Luna … is it Mrs. Luna?”

“It’s Ms. Luna,” she said, dashing his hopes, “but you can call me Lupe.”

That restored them a bit. “I can’t expect your college president to make an announcement asking who was at the restaurant that night. A married man with a young woman? I have to locate him in a discreet manner and assure him that it’ll remain confidential.”

“But you don’t even know the professor’s name.”

“No. My victim knows what he looks like, but that’s another problem. She’s a distraught old lady. What I’d like to do is bring the waiter and busboy here and have them look at pictures of your faculty. And if we can narrow it down to people who look like the witness, maybe the waiter and busboy could see the professors in the flesh. In their classroom or laboratories or something? Very discreetly. We can’t embarrass your professor if we want to make our case. We need his full cooperation, and if he’s a married man having a night out, well …”

“I don’t know how current all our pictures are. He may have been a visiting member of the research faculty. We have nearly two hundred research fellows.”

“My victim thinks he was connected with the division of chemistry and chemical engineering.”

“I can think of something that might help,” she said. “Tomorrow night’s one of our many open-house nights. Lots of chemists will be milling around along with outside people who donate money to Caltech.”

“Do you have any visiting scientists from, say, the Iron Curtain countries?”

“What’s that got to do with the professor you’re looking for?”

“He, uh, he … mentioned a visiting scientist from … I think it was Russia.”

“Might be biology.” She held up slender fingers and ticked off the science divisions.

And we have chemistry and chemical engineering, engineering and applied science, geological and planetary science, physics, math and astronomy. Take your pick.”

“How about chemistry?” Mario Villalobos asked. “Any Russians here now?”

“I haven’t heard of any. When Russians come it’s different than visitors from anywhere else, even Red China. Each Russian scientist travels with a party member and a security man. They stay, oh, six weeks to two months. And no women.”

“They leave mama back home so they don’t defect?”

“Exactly.”

“Wonder if they ever feel like doing a little barhopping?” Mario Villalobos said it casually. “In some decadent capitalist place. Like Los Angeles, for instance?”

“I’ve heard they’re pretty well under control,” she said. “No barhopping without Comrade Vladimir tagging along.”

“But they must get a little romance-starved, with Olga back on the Volga?”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay if you want to come tomorrow night,” she said. “I hear there’s going to be wine and cheese set up in the Athenaeum patio for all the visitors. You like wine and cheese?”

“I like margaritas and ca
rn
e asada,” Mario Villalobos said. “Being a counterfeit Mexican and all.”

“What’s that about?” she asked, smiling again. “Your Hispanic name?”

“I’d love to tell you about it,” he said. “Tomorrow afternoon I’ll bring my waiter and busboy to look at all available faculty photos. If that doesn’t help, we’ll come to the open house for wine and cheese. You gonna be there?”

“Not much for wine and cheese and open houses,” she said. “I’ve worked here for fifteen years. Been to too many of them.”

“In that case, there’s only one thing to do. Come with me tonight for margaritas and carne asada and I’ll tell you all about how I became a counterfeit Mexican with the L. A. P. D.”

“A counterfeit Mexican,” she said, with some interest.

“You’re not married, are you?”

“Divorced.”

“Me too. Twice.”

“I suppose twice is about average for a cop.”

“You ever go out with cops?”

“Before I got married one of my boyfriends was a cop.”

“Oh oh,” he said. “You know cops. Does that mean I don’t have a chance?”

She grinned and said, “You’re not going to believe it, but I was thinking about a Mexican restaurant for a quick bite.”

“I believe it,” he cried. “Pick you up at seven?”

“Afraid not.”

“Six? Five? Ten? Eleven?”

“Have to get home early tonight,” she said. “My fourteen-year-old daughter’s cramming for a history test and I’m supposed to quiz her.”

“How about a very early supper when you get off work? A quick bite and a few margaritas? You can be home by six o’clock.”

“A few margaritas?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“It’s okay if you’re an alcoholic.”

“That’s me,” he said cheerily. “Borderline alcoholic, I like to think.”

“You’re sort of honest-I’ll have to say that.”

“Lupe,” he said, “I’m middle-aged, not much to look at, got nothing in the bank. And the only thing I’m halfway good at is catching bad guys. I figure I gotta be honest.”

“Honesty deserves to win once in a while,” she said, not knowing that except for the personal data, every single thing he had told her was a lie.

“What time should I pick you up?”

“I’ll meet you. Where do you want to eat?”

“You know where York and Figueroa is?”


York y Feeg
” she said with an affected Spanish accent. “Of course I know. I told you I’m an East L. A. Mexican.”

“There’s a restaurant about a block from the police station. The Villa Sombrero. I’ll meet you there.”

“Is it a cop hangout?”

“Lady, you are not a person I’d take to a cop hangout. The last woman I dated from a cop hangout looked like Golda Meir. Or maybe Menachem Begin, I can’t quite remember. This is the best Mexican restaurant I know. I wouldn’t kid you about anything.”

“That remains to be seen,” she said. “See you there at five-thirty.”

***

And while Mario Villalobos was telling a lie that would fly, Dolly and Dilford were about to meet yet another person who would affect Dilford’s testicles.

She would be described on television that night as a Bel-Air housewife. She was seen by one witness strolling along Bonnie Brae Street directly over the southbound Hollywood Freeway. The wind gusted that smoggy overcast afternoon. The wind blew her chestnut hair across her face and whipped it in strings around her sparkling green eyes. She wore a wine-red cloak with a hood which she had bought in London on one of several trips abroad.

She was forty-one years old, had three children, and had been married to the same man for twenty years. He sold commercial real estate and had it made. He dealt with Iranian and Arab investors who couldn’t care less about Reaganomics and high interest rates, and who could buy mink horse blankets from Bijan in Beverly Hills and use them as bath mats.

The Bel-Air housewife owned a Mercedes 450SL and lots of diamonds, round brilliant cuts, of course, and coveted nothing on earth except a Ferrari which her husband refused to buy her. It caused a problem or two in their marriage, resulting in an occasional five-Valium day, but nothing to prepare her friends or family for what happened on Bonnie Brae Street.

In fact, no one on Rodeo Drive where she shopped could understand why the Echo Park area. Even tacky people who lived in the 500 block well south of Sunset wouldn’t go bananas in such a low-rent neighborhood. This was a woman, everyone knew, who could get into Spago’s for Wolfgang Puck’s show biz pizza with only one day’s notice!

It was as though anyone could understand someone doing what she did but they couldn’t begin to comprehend someone doing it in a district that advertised cheapie trips to Manila. It was a low-rent neighborhood full of Filipinos, Mexicans, Cubans and other wogs.

The first witness driving southbound on Bonnie Brae saw her climbing the guardrail and drove straight to a pay phone to call the cops. The second witness was a Good Samaritan and he leaped out of his car and ran toward her, but froze and retreated when she let go of the guardrail with one hand, pointed a bejeweled finger directly at his face and unleashed a spine-arching scream.

By then, unit Two-A-Ninety-nine was exploding onto the scene like a cruise missile, and two hot dogs, Stanley and Leech, were running toward the Bel-Air housewife, who was looking at the speeding cars on the freeway below.

The second police unit contained Dilford and Dolly, who had the presence of mind to radio communications and request that the Highway Patrol stop all traffic on the southbound Hollywood Freeway approaching the Queen of Angels Hospital.

With sparkling green eyes, the woman watched the hot dogs running toward her, running hellbent for heroics and maybe a medal of valor. They stopped when Dilford cut them off and screamed, “Stop, you assholes!” right in their faces.

For an instant the two hyped-up hot dogs took a look at their jumper and saw quite clearly that she was watching them. Her chestnut hair was whipping in the wind, and her wine-red cloak was flapping around her slender shoulders, and her hands were cupped in front of her. Which meant that she was holding on to the stanchions with her knees.

The Bel-Air housewife then looked directly at Dilford, who had one hand on each hyper hot dog. And, still holding her hands cupped in front for whatever gift she thought she was about to receive, she looked at the tall young cop with the bulging blue eyes and the taffy-colored hair blowing straight back from an already clammy forehead.

She said to Dilford, “Come here.”

By now six cops and several civilians and one roach wagon were all gathered on Bonnie Brae and all traffic was stopped both ways except that the traffic southbound on the Hollywood Freeway continued to roar beneath them. Nonstop from the north. From the blind side.

The Mexican on the roach wagon, who had lost many pesos lately due to The Bad Czech’s voracious appetite for free burritos, tried to make a buck or two from selling soda pop to the gathering crowd, who only stopped yelling, “Jump, lady!” when Dolly said she’d shove her stick down the throat of the next son-of-a-bitch to open his mouth.

“Don’t do this,” Dilford pleaded with the woman in the wine-red cloak. “Let’s talk about it. I know it can be worked out.”

Her voice was calm. She said to Leech and Stanley, “You two. Go away.”

And then she suddenly unleashed another eerie shriek, as piercing as a sparking knife blade on a grinding stone. And she began to sway in the wind. At which time Stanley and Leech thought they might be getting in over their wired-up heads, and what the hell, maybe they ought to just boogie on out of here and get their medals some other time.

“Come closer to me,” the Bel-Air housewife said to Dilford, whose taffy hairstyle was going electric. He was looking for a sergeant. He was alone.

“Don’t do this to me, lady,” Dilford pleaded. Which was something many cops before him had said in such a moment. Don’t do this to me.

“Closer,” she said calmly, her eyes bright as a bird’s. She even smiled for an instant. A beatific smile. The smile of a martyr marching to glory.

Dilford was advancing ever so slowly and the wind began to moan on the overpass, or so he thought. Her wind-blown hair hid her face like a mask. Except for the sparkling green eyes.

“Maybe if we talk about it?” Dilford said. He looked like he was going to cry. “Let me go get a sergeant. Please. I’m just a …”

“Closer, closer,” she coaxed with her beatific smile.

She began breathing hard then, facing the Queen of Angels Hospital up on the hill in the distance. And perhaps that’s how she perceived herself. The Queen of Angels. The Virgin of Bonnie Brae. The Madonna of the Wogs.

“Don’t, lady. Please don’t,” Dilford said, with his hand outstretched. He inched closer until he was only two feet away.

And that’s when she gave herself to eternity. With outstretched arms, she imitated every painted plaster saint and martyr she had ever seen.

“Don’t, lady!” Dilford shrieked, leaping forward and grabbing a fold of the cloak for an instant.

She looked at him with the sparkling eyes and sanctified smile of every fanatic who ever quested for crucifixion or drank soda pop in Jonestown. Her body remained still and rigid as though indeed it were painted plaster. With arms outstretched in forgiveness for the world, she did her back dive, head first, and gave up her spirit. To the Hollywood Freeway.

As often happens, the frustrated, smog-burned, crazed drivers on the Hollywood Freeway didn’t even know they had mutilated The Madonna of the Wogs. The first three who ran over the wine-red bundle didn’t know what the hell it was. One thought he’d hit an Irish setter. Another thought it was a plastic trash bag. A third heard something bump into the bottom of his car and thought he’d dropped his transmission.

Dilford had a delayed reaction to his meeting with The Madonna of the Wogs. He and Dolly did a creditable job on the reports at the station. Except that Dilford kept wondering over and over why The Madonna of the Wogs had chosen him and not the hyper hot dogs. And whether he had done enough, or too much, or said enough, or not enough, or chosen the wrong words.

“Was it something I said?” he asked Dolly while they sat penciling out their report.

“What?”

“I thought she was going to take my hand. She looked like she was going to take my hand. Why did she reject me?”

“You did just right. Even the sergeant said so. Forget it, Dilford.”

“I often wonder if my personality alienates people,” Dilford mused, staring with sweat-rimmed, bulging blue eyes. “Was it something I said?”

Dilford’s delayed reaction hit him later, almost the moment he walked inside The House of Misery after work. Dolly was following him in her car and she noticed nothing unusual about his driving. But once inside The House of Misery, in the presence of Leery, The Bad Czech and Cecil Higgins, an odd thing happened.

Dilford said, “I feel like I got a jock full a popsicles. And my hands. They’re like ice. Turn down the air conditioner, Leery.”

“It ain’t on,” Leery said. “I ain’t even got the smoke eaters going.”

“It’s freezing!” Dilford said. And suddenly he felt his jaw twitching. His teeth started clattering together.

Dolly put her cold hand on Dilford’s cold hand.

“I’m freezing!” Dilford said. “I must be getting the flu!”

“Give him a double,” The Bad Czech said.

“A jock full a popsicles,” Dilford laughed, but his teeth were chattering. “It’s c-c-cold!”

“It probably wasn’t even real, kid,” The Bad Czech said to Dilford. “Give him another one, Leery.”

“He ain’t paid for that one yet,” Leery said.

“Bring the fuckin drink or I’ll squeeze your turkey neck till ya gobble!” Then The Bad Czech said to Dilford, “Just shut your eyes and swallow it down.”

Dilford had three double shots of Leery’s bar whiskey, guaranteed to make you go blind, before his teeth stopped chattering and his balls thawed out.

The second strange thing that happened to Dilford was that Dolly matched him drink for drink and neither of them got particularly drunk. She even talked civil to him and continued to hold his freezing hand. In the evening they ate a bowl of Leery’s disgusting clam chowder together and talked about movies.

BOOK: The Delta Star
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