By Dan Morey
A rich old lady in Culver City hired me to track down her delinquent granddaughter. I did my best, but a fisherman found her first—floating dead in Ballona Creek. The cops weren’t talking, so I drove out to Playa del Rey, where the creek dumps into Santa Monica Bay. A man was crouched on the rocks, unhooking a fish.
“Wouldn’t eat that if I were you,” I said. “Rained last night. All the filth in Los Angeles is running down this ditch.”
He squinted at me, cupping a hand over his eyes to block the sun. His shirt was soaked through with sweat.
“You hook a mermaid yesterday?”
He shrugged. I held out a twenty. He snatched it and stuffed it in his pocket. The midday swelter was on, and we were out in the thick of it. My neck was already burning. He dunked an old canvas hat in the creek and plopped it on top of his head. Water ran down his face and dripped off his chin. He grinned.
“Tell me what she was wearing,” I said.
“Kimono azul. Silk.”
“Blue kimono. Anything else?”
He shook his head and looked away, embarrassed. Dark clouds gathered over the mountains to the east, rolling slowly toward the city. It had been this way all week—boiling humidity followed by powerful storms. The Mexican Monsoon. A strange visitor in dry L.A. The fisherman took a worm out of a Styrofoam cup and impaled it on a hook.
“Any wounds?” I said.
He cast his line and sat down on a rock. I sopped the sweat off my face with a shirtsleeve.
“I asked you if she had any wounds.”
“Hole en la cabeza.”
He put a finger to his temple, cocked his thumb, and fired.
I ducked into a nearby tiki bar to cool off and mull things over. Rattan ceiling fans circulated the muggy air and a third-rate exotica combo churned out tropical tunes. The lunch crowd was lively: tipsy salesmen, chain-smoking barflies, a bunch of jarheads with sea bags—probably on their way to Da Nang. They were pretty jolly, so it must’ve been their first deployment. Thank God I’d never be going back.
“Nice shirt,” said the bartender. “Trying to blend in with the décor?”
I realized I was wearing a loud Aloha number. Something I’d picked up in Honolulu, along with a bad case of the clap.
“Give me a Navy Grog. And keep the umbrella.”
I settled into a cane chair beside a faux waterfall. The grog was potent, and the tinkling water lulled me into a stupor. When I came to, the bartender was snapping his fingers at me.
“Hey, beach boy. Gent at the bar’s asking for you.”
The guy came over and pulled up a chair. I recognized his fat, sweaty face from a picture the old lady in Culver City had given me. It was her latest husband—he’d been AWOL for a week.
“So, you’re the step-granddaddy.”
He took out a monogramed handkerchief and dabbed his brow. “That’s one way of putting it. You aren’t going to turn me over to the police, are you?”
“For what? No law against marrying a senior citizen and spending her money.”
“Gambling her money. Spending implies I might have something to show for it.”
He lit a cigarette, offering me one.
“No thanks. Only smoke the illegal kind.”
“Is that so? You would’ve gotten along famously with my granddaughter.”
“Step-granddaughter. And I thought acid was her bag.”
He grunted. “LSD, marijuana, hashish . . . whatever came down the pike. Judging by the kimono she was found in I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been frequenting oriental opium dens.”
A gong sounded and the eyes of a towering Polynesian mask began to glow. A girl in a sarong emerged from its maw carrying a bowl of flaming liquid. She swayed across the floor and knelt in front of a group of drunken businessmen, offering them the sacred Mystery Drink.
“Titillating ceremony,” he said. “Though I suspect it’s somewhat less than authentic.”
“It’s as authentic as anything in this town. How’d you find me, anyway?”
He loosened his tie and leaned back. “When I heard about Sandy’s murder, I knew you’d be sniffing around down here. I simply entered the closest bar.”
“Good bet. Maybe you’re not such a lousy gambler after all.”
“If only roulette wheels were as predictable as private dicks.”
An ash from the cigarette fell onto his linen pants. He flicked it off carefully and brushed his lap with the handkerchief. I asked him what he wanted.
“My wife told you about the missing letter?”
“Letter from Sandy. Came a couple weeks ago. Yeah.”
He slid forward and spoke low. “It was the last communication we had from Sandy, and it didn’t just go missing. It was stolen by her boyfriend, Chester, a deviant motorcycle enthusiast.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw him. He came in through the back window and took it right off my desk.”
Shouting erupted at the bar. A couple of longhairs were hassling the jarheads. When they started spitting and calling them baby killers, a bouncer came over and shoved them out the door.
“Your wife said she never read the letter.”
“Quite true. But I did. And the boyfriend knows it. That’s why I’ve been in hiding. Sandy was murdered over the contents of that letter, and if they find me . . . well, you can guess.”
“If who finds you?”
“Chester’s motorcycle gang. Or the Japanese crime syndicate that employs them.”
When he finished telling me what was in the letter, I knew why the cops were nervous. I recommended he head down to Tijuana and stay put.
The Skull Stompers were a pathetic gang of Hell’s Angels rejects. They hung out at a dive called La Rata on Culver Boulevard, a few blocks from Ballona Creek. The usual chopped hogs were lined up out front, but there was no one in the bar, just empty stools and a jukebox blaring acid rock.
I went out back into a trash-strewn yard with a couple of scraggly palm trees. Beyond the trees were acres of wetland. Wading birds picked through the scrub, and gulls circled overhead. It was another sticky, windless day—more Laotian jungle than California coast. The clouds stuck to the mountains, killing any hope of rain.
The Skull Stompers were congregated under the palms, drinking beer. When the leader saw me, he dispatched a goon in an SS helmet. I could smell him at ten feet, through multiple layers of denim and leather. It was ninety-five degrees in the middle of the hottest July in a decade—didn’t any of these guys own a pair of chinos? Or some nice Bermuda shorts?
“You fuzz?” said the goon.
“Do I look like a cop?”
He stroked his scummy beard. “Sorta. Yeah. Except for the shirt.”
“I’m a friend of Chet’s. He here?”
The goon let out a booming laugh. “Chester the Molester? Sure, he’s out on the marsh with the new girls.”
“Tell him I’ll be in the bar when he’s finished.”
I bought a joint off the bartender and sat in a booth. It was good weed, better than the stuff I’d had in Saigon. Easier to enjoy, too. It’s hard to relax with Charlie blowing up every other cafe.
I was flying pretty high when a weird apparition materialized. He looked like a psychedelic nightmare—a shock of wild red hair, mascara-rimmed eyes, thigh-high purple boots. Was I hallucinating? Maybe the bartender laced my pot. The freak popped a switchblade and stabbed it into the table, just missing my hand. “I don’t know who you are, pig, but you better find another bar.”
“I’m here about Sandy. You must be Chester.”
He waved the knife in my face. His cheeks were streaked with melting cosmetics—bad weather for Max Factor. “You think I’m kidding? I’ll carve your eyeballs out and put ’em in martinis.”
I was stoned enough to find this amusing, but I figured I’d be more comfortable waiting in the car. Luckily, I’d parked in the shade. I rolled down the window, tuned the radio to KPPC, and listened to Johnny Otis spin the blues. Big Mama Thornton was halfway through “Ball and Chain” when a black sedan rolled up to La Rata.
A trio of Japanese toughs in dark suits and sunglasses got out. Two of them went inside and the third stationed himself at the door. When he spotted me, he unbuttoned his jacket so I could see his piece. He stared me down until his associates came out, and continued to stare through the car window as they drove away.
According to Sandy’s letter, the Skull Stompers were recruiting young women (junkies, strippers, illegal immigrants) for a Yakuza syndicate, who shipped them off to brothels in Hawaii and Japan. When Sandy found out Chester intended to traffic her, she bolted, threatening to expose the whole operation. Obviously, somebody got to her first, and the blue kimono had Yakuza written all over it.
Chester exited the bar an hour later, climbed on his hog, and roared off. I followed him to the Jungle, a closely packed nest of beachside apartments. The streets were grainy with sand, and busted surfboards stuck out of garbage cans on the corners. The Jungle attracted all sorts of people, from surf bums and college kids to wealthy playboys looking for a game of beach blanket bingo.
It was the perfect place for scum like Chester to peddle drugs, or anything else. He turned onto Trolleyway, the main drag, parked in front of a building with a red tile roof, and climbed the stairs to a second-floor apartment. After a couple minutes, I crept up and listened at the door:
“I told you never to come here again.”
“Some pig showed up at the bar asking about Sandy. Thought I better tell you.”
“Well, I suppose this will save me some time in the long run. Sayonara, Chester.”
A gunshot rang out. I busted in. Chester was dead on the floor, blood oozing from a bullet hole in his temple. The killer stood over him with a pistol. I smacked it out of his hand.
“Looks like you never made it to Tijuana, Gramps.”
“Chester caught up with me before I could leave. Fortunately, I’m a quick draw.”
“Don’t give me that. You planned on killing Chester all along. After you framed him and his Yakuza buddies for Sandy’s murder.”
He slipped the fancy handkerchief from his sport coat and swabbed his face. A fan spun overhead, but it barely registered in the oppressive heat. “So you’re accusing me of killing my granddaughter now? What possible motive could I have?”
“Your wife told me about her new will. Seems Sandy was going to inherit everything.”
He snorted. “If she was, I certainly didn’t know about it. My wife never discusses legal matters with me. She’ll verify that.”
“Can she tell me how you knew about the blue kimono?”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“When we met at the bar you mentioned Sandy being found in a kimono. Nobody knows that except a fisherman and the cops, and they aren’t talking.”
He made a move for the door. I shoved him onto the sofa. His hat fell off and tumbled to the floor, exposing his bald pate.
“How much do you want?” he said.
I looked out the window over the blue Pacific. Waves rolled in, one after the other. Across the ocean, children were dying in villages, consumed by flames. I picked up the phone and dialed.
“Don’t call the police!” His face was flushed. He panted for breath. “I’ll pay whatever you want!”
I thought about that poor girl, floating out to sea in a silk kimono. The waves rolling.
“Sergeant? I got your Ballona Creek killer. Come and get him.”
Dan Morey is a freelance writer in Erie, PA. He’s worked as a book critic, nightlife columnist, travel correspondent, and outdoor journalist. His creative writing has appeared in Hobart, Thin Air, McSweeney’s Quarterly, failbetter and elsewhere, and he’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find him at danmorey.weebly.com.