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Authors: Joseph Wambaugh

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

The Delta Star (5 page)

BOOK: The Delta Star
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Chapter T
hree
THE STUBBORN CHOPSTICK

 

Melody
W
aters and
C
hip
M
uirfield were feeling all warm and rosy from the brunch of steak tartare. They did not have Chardonnay as Mario Villalobos expected; they both drank Perrier. Full of steak tartare and designer water, the young detectives now did what they loved to do best: they headed for the coroner’s to gawk at all the maimed and butchered carcasses of former human beings.

First they had entertained each other out in the hall playing with a stiff on a gurney. A Mexican had been shot three times in the chest for walking on the wrong street during a gang war in which he was not involved, nevertheless satisfying the gang’s blood code by his demise. Chip Muirfield had stood behind the body and grabbed the top of the body bag and lifted the head a bit and made the cadaver, who stared with sad and sleepy eyes, respond to all of Melody Waters’ questions.

“How’s the accommodations down here?” Melody giggled.

“Is okay,” Chip said in a gravel voice, shaking the body bag so that the stiff nodded.

“You wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time here, would you?” Melody asked the corpse.

“Is not that okay,” Chip said in the gravel voice, moving the bag so that the stiff shook his head.

They only knocked it off when Mario Villalobos caught them and said, “If you two could tear yourselves away from the gross-out gags, could you please pay a little attention to business?”

Mario Villalobos, while awaiting the arrival of the shoulder holster kids, had given his crime report another perfunctory look-see. It was better than standing around the autopsy room watching them scoop out Missy Moonbeam like the honeydew melon filled with Haagen-Dazs ice cream that Chip Muirfield and Melody Waters had had for dessert. It was better than watching them replace her insides not with little balls of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, but with the scrambled heaps of guts shoveled back in by the morgue tech, who wiped the inside of her now brainless skull with soggy paper towels, which he stuffed inside the empty skull along with his sandwich wrapper when he was through.

As it turned out, Thelma Bernbaum
A.K.
A
. Missy Moonbeam was one of those unhappy wretches whose “funerals” would consist of a few words muttered by a grumpy undertaker who thought the county was screwing him by expecting him to plant this stiff in something remotely resembling a casket for the paltry amount the county was willing to pay to dispose of the little hooker.

Thelma Bernbaum’s next of kin in Omaha were struggling to make it, what with the recession and unemployment, and weren’t about to spend a bundle of hard-earned bucks to bring what was left of Thelma back to a place she always said was about as stimulating as the Gulag Archipelago. (Thelma had read a book or two. What else was there for her in Omaha?)

But upon arriving in Hollywood she had stopped reading anything except Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. She stopped reading altogether when the money was gone, along with the hopes and dreams. And when they lose their hopes and dreams in Hollywood, it’s like sliding bare-assed down a splintered two-by-four, they say. It hurts all the way to the basement.

She’d started out as a $500-a-night call girl. Even a police mug shot could not
obscure
the fact that she had been a pretty girl at first. Then the inevitable: hash, dust, uppers, downers, speed, coke. She never got to heroin, but she might as well have. On one of her arrests she admitted to a coke habit big enough to keep her on her back and knees eighteen hours a day without a shred of real rest or untroubled sleep.

The last mug shot of Missy Moonbeam looked like something that needed an exorcist. Mario Villalobos sighed his peculiar sad sigh and lit yet another cigarette and looked at his watch. It had been a marathon brunch. He wished he hadn’t let the lieutenant talk him into taking on Chip Muirfield for his “seasoning” session, with help from Melody Waters. Mario Villalobos’ regular partner, Maxie Steiner, was recovering from a heart attack, thanks to Leery’s Saloon, lousy diet, lack of exercise, two packs of cigarettes a day, middle-of-the-night meetings with murdered people, a rotten marriage and a divorce. In short, everything Mario Villalobos had experienced, except that Maxie Steiner was ten years older and Mario Villalobos had had two rotten marriages and divorces.

Such troubling thoughts caused Mario Villalobos to look into the room, at the slab of lung a technician had placed on a steel table. It looked like a chunk of coal. That poor bastard had probably smoked as much as Maxie Steiner, which meant he smoked almost as much as Mario Villalobos. The thought of finally going end-of-watch as the result of something as relentless as lung cancer scared the crap out of Mario Villalobos. Better to look his .38 in the eye and smoke it. As he stared at that lung on the gut pan, gleaming like a chunk of anthracite, he got so tense his hands started to shake. To settle them he lit a cigarette, the thirteenth of the day.

Well, if he didn’t die from lung cancer, and if mid-life crisis wasn’t terminal, and if he survived this feeling of dread and despair which more or less clouded every waking moment, he might soon start looking on the bright side. His youngest son, Alec, was nearly eighteen, which meant the child-support payment would end. His oldest son, Frank (he would never permit his boys to be cursed with a handle as Hispanic as Mario when followed by a Villalobos), was safely warehoused in San Diego State majoring in surf bunnies, and bleeding his old man for about $200 a month. The detective didn’t mind the $200 donation as much as the child-support payment for Alec which the court ordered him to pay. In any case the court-ordered payment would soon be stopped and he could send money to Alec directly, of his own free will. He’d still be as bankrupt as International Harvester but at least it would be by choice, and that made all the difference. A man like Mario Villalobos needed at least to pretend to order his own destiny, but he’d been a cop long enough to know that a vagary of fortune probably had as much to do with destiny as any exercise of free will, in the world he inhabited. That is, in the emotionally perilous world of the policeman, where nothing is as it seems.

If he could only stop his hands from trembling. This was something new in his life. He’d noticed for several years that Maxie Steiner’s hands shook for most of the morning. He felt like taking his own pulse but he was afraid to know, and he didn’t want to resemble Rumpled Ronald with the look of doom on his face.

When Chip and Melody had finally arrived, Mario Villalobos thought he could see it in their shining eyes: incipient romance. Or was it just their common love of gore? It was so touching he wanted a double vodka.

“Glad you two could make it,” Mario Villalobos had said to the brunchers.

“Sorry, Mario,” Chip Muirfield apologized. “We couldn’t get served as fast as …”

“Okay, okay,” the detective said, feeling every one of his forty-two years whenever he looked at the surfer’s body and seamless face of Chip Muirfield.

Mario Villalobos was once a good police department handball player, but he was now soft in the belly. He had to let out his pants to a size 35. He weighed more than 190 pounds now, and whereas he used to be nearly six feet tall, he was now less than five eleven. Middle age. He was shrinking in height, expanding in girth. He didn’t have a frame large enough to carry 200 pounds. What would he look like in five more years? Could it be worse than this, smack in the vortex of a world-class mid-life crisis?

While the shoulder holster kids dived into their work, he looked around at the stacks of stiffs waiting to be sawed, chopped, sliced and emptied. There were racks of cadavers in the “reefer” rooms, bodies of unidentified John and Jane Does which could be kept refrigerated for months. There were bunches of bodies in the “decomp” room, decomposed bodies, lying putrid under ceiling fans which could never dispose of the unforgettable smell. There were gurneys loaded with corpses, in one case two on a gurney: a shriveled pair of pensioners, married fifty years, who died as a result of an unvented heater and lay sandwiched in death as they had lain sandwiched in life during damp and drafty nights in their pensioners’ hotel. He wondered how many of them had survived a world-class mid-life crisis. Or if anyone ever did. Or was what he was experiencing more than a mid-life crisis?

Then he saw his face in the reflection of the window glass. In the opaque reflection he had eyes like The Gooned-out Vice Cop. Eyes like bullet holes. He was starting to feel inexplicably scared when Chip Muirfield, with a grin as wide as a surfboard, said, “Don’t you want to watch her being posted?”

“No, you go ahead and enjoy yourself,” Mario Villalobos said, “but don’t get too close.”

The L. A. county coroner had recently been the object of disciplinary action and was criticized for a backlog of bodies. As a result, the pathologists were doing maximum autopsies these days. The last postmortem that Mario Villalobos attended had been on a victim who was head shot. Formerly, a cop could hang around the length of time it took to smoke a few cigarettes, waiting until the pathologist popped the slug from the corpse’s skull. Now the cops had to stand around for two hours. The pathologists, not wanting any more criticism and complaints, were going at it swashbuckler style. They were flashing more steel than the Three Musketeers, everyone said. Even for a head shot they’d open up that stiff from head to toe. Every corpse became a kayak these days, which didn’t displease the shoulder holster kids.

This was only the third autopsy that Chip Muirfield had ever witnessed. He enjoyed each one more than the last. Mario Villalobos thought that if Chip started liking them any better, the kid might start moonlighting at Forest Lawn. The pathologist and technician were trying like hell to get this one zipped in time to watch Days of Our Lives.

The former Western Avenue prostitute, who had delighted Chip Muirfield by dying not in Hollywood Division where she worked but in Rampart Division where she lived, was not broken up too badly by the fall from the roof, at least not her face. Mario
Villalobos thought of the early mug shot of this face now peeled inside-out like a grapefruit. A natural blonde, fair and slight; he wondered if she drove them wild when she got that tattoo of the man-in-the-moon. It was on the inside of her left thigh, high enough to have been a very painful job. In death she looked thirty-five years old. Her identification showed her to be twenty-two.

Mario Villalobos was one of those homicide dicks who somehow revert to uncoplike sentimentality during mid-life crisis. That is, Mario Villalobos, like his old partner Maxie Steiner, gradually came to resent needless mutilation of corpses by cutlass kids who, quite naturally, are extremely unsentimental about carcasses in which detectives have a proprietary interest.

What Mario Villalobos didn’t see while he was roaming the autopsy room, thinking of how dangerous it is to go to The House of Misery every single night, was Chip Muirfield’s interest in the man-in-the-moon tattoo high up on Missy Moonbeam’s torn and fractured femur, close to the inn-of-happiness which the bored pathologist figured was really what was interesting the morbid young cop.

It was a professional tattoo. The man-in-the-moon had winked one eye at Chip Muirfield and with the other glanced up at the blond pubis of Missy Moonbeam. It was a very cute idea, Chip Muirfield thought, but the leg was so destroyed by the fall that the upper thigh was ripped open and hanging loose.

“I wonder if the photographer thought to shoot a picture of that tattoo?” he mused aloud to the pathologist, who shrugged and said, “What for?”

“Identification,” Chip Muirfield said without conviction.

“I thought you already knew who she was,” the pathologist said.

“We’re not certain,” Chip Muirfield lied. “I wish it weren’t so damaged around that tattoo. It’s all ragged and bloody and it’s hard to see. Snip it off there and I’ll have the photographer come and shoot a close-up of it that we can use.”

The pathologist shrugged again and sliced away the flap of tattooed flesh and placed it on the steel table. Chip Muirfield could hardly contain himself. He saw that Mario Villalobos was off down the hall. This might top all the macabre gags that old homicide detectives pulled on each other, if Chip Muirfield could think of something really funny to do with the slice of tattooed flesh which he slipped into a small evidence envelope.

While Melody Waters roamed the autopsy room enjoying the show on the other tables, Mario Villalobos returned and noticed that Chip Muirfield was so intensely interested he looked ready to crawl inside Missy Moonbeam.

“If I were you, Chip, I’d stand back a bit,” Mario Villalobos said, lighting a cigarette, promising himself to cut down before he ended up under the swashbuckler’s knife.

Chip Muirfield was so enchanted by the ragged bloody shell that used to be a girl from Omaha that he ignored the older detective’s admonition.

Mario Villalobos looked at the butter-
brickle
three-piece suit worn by Chip Muirfield, hesitated a moment, and then said, “Even Boris Karloff wasn’t so eager, Chip. If I were you I’d step back just a bit.”

But Chip Muirfield didn’t seem to hear him, so Mario Villalobos went for coffee. The pathologist pulled off his gloves and called it a wrap. The technician looked up at the clock and … Jesus Christ! Days of Our Lives was going to start in three minutes!

That did it. He reached for the faucet over the gut pan to get this baby zipped. He wasn’t paying any attention to a young surfer-cop in a butter-
brickle
suit. He was eying that clock like a death-row convict and he cranked the faucet full blast. The water hit the gut pan with a crash. And Chip Muirfield was wearing Missy Moonbeam.

His butter-
brickle
three-piece suit was decorated by a geyser of blood. A piece of Missy Moonbeam was plastered to his necktie. Another little slice of her hit him on the lapel. A swatch of Missy Moonbeam’s purple gut plopped on his shoulder and oozed like a snail. But worst of all for Chip, who was yelling and cursing the technician-who couldn’t care less-Chip Muirfield had a wormy string of Missy Moonbeam’s intestine dangling from his sunburned surfer’s nose.

BOOK: The Delta Star
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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