All of it, the tryst with the Hygiene lecturer at Stanford, beating the consumptive accountant with his eight-pound calculator, egging on the self-loathing Hughes Aircraft pilot, the deadly pie fight on Coit Tower, the trail of enormous foot prints in the mud off Alameda Naval Station, all came to the big universal set of all points lying in the set of no points: me left standing in the billowing smoke with a hang-dog look on my face and a useless tip crumpled in my fist, a note for a last second meeting at the big tent with a Dr. Gruber, former Psychoanalyst to Greta Garbo's psyhchiatrist, before a vast aerosol explosion rent the hopes of men, spraying pink strings, bits and globs over an area the size of a free beer parking lot, and shattering the already thready illusion of safe fun at a 2 bit 3rd string 4 flushing suburban Fresno circus.
Images flashed: the soggy cardboard box of comedy noses and glasses dissolving in the rain in an alley in the Mission. The poo-eating grin of the used very tiny car salesman. A Market Street theater full of confetti from the escape of a bucket-wielding bum with a paper flower in his hat. The hypnotic twirl of a bow tie as the bald red-haired one stood over an unlucky sailor who bled his life out in a Haight street gutter from a seltzer bottle blow to the temple. It was all a waste. It didn't amount to bubblegum stuck on the sidewalk, adhering later to the heel of a some swell tomato's kitten pumps only to be discarded in cute little wrinkled nose disgust into the dustbin of American dreams.
The explosion had been so massive that peanuts and bits of tiger meat were still falling. How clever I thought I was, how much I had penetrated this mystery with shoe-wearing, liver-hardening research, how many blowhard alderman I'd tied to the back of streetcars for another petit-four of detail that might have saved a few lives on the front lines. It was all nothing. I was late. I had failed. In a dusty backwater of the California desert, a distant suburb of Fresno called Hopeville might as well be Smoking Holes Estates. I grabbed my head with both hands and lowered to ground, stuffing back a hot scream of despair. The scene was pathetic and maddening, like a regional dinner theater production of Die Fledermaus
Bits of smoldering pie filling stuck to the few standing walls. Broken figures with conical hats crawled from the blackened hulks of overturned tiny cars. Thousands of ropes of strange pink stringy loops covered everything, tangled in Mrs. Primrose's beard, both heads of each of the famous Morris twins, and tangling up the mass of elephant named Daffodil, like a haggis rolling around in the notions drawer. The gooey pink yarns hung from the cannon and the lion cage, afire here and there; the diver had been trapped mid-air and she hung over the tiny pool suspended like a dead tuna auditioning for an Esther Williams movie. Gaily colored strings of magic infinite hankerchiefs burned under the bright desert sky.
A terrified Rhesus monkey in a red fez sat nervously in the broken remains of the trapeze tower, shaking too much to light his cigaraette.
Movement: out of the corner of my eye someone attempted to speed away on a minature tricycle. I was way beyond patience, or care. My rusty .45, a "present" from a Tenderloin pimp and late victorian furniture re-upholsterer named Pinky Fitzwater, raised itself my hand and in one movement the gun blast, the sound huge in the still, dry afternoon air, dropped the fleeing spy into the bitter earth, nose honking as his face bit the dust.
I walked over to where he lay, his enormous high collar tangled in the trike's chain, the blood oddly invisible on his red wig. I kicked him hard enough to get through the pillows.
"Where's Gruber? GRUBER!" I demanded.
"Schiesse!" He burbled, the blood bubbles spitting out his real nose, the speech of the dying shlamaozzle slurred almost beyond recognition. I bent down to listen. "Gruber's gone! GONE! You fool!! " He whispered. And a last effort at defiance - "Heil Hitler!, he gurgled, as I got a flower-full squirt of water in the eye. "Hee! Hee! Hearghhhh..." His eyes glazed. The blood trickled across his fake stubble, and at the end, his shoes seemed to deflate.
But Dr. Gruber? Gone escaped, or Gone dead?
Back in the City, I drowned my sorrows with the "5 shots 4 bits" deal at the Yellow Kitty, with the flashing neon sign of a giant-eyed hepcat either drinking or vomiting into a martini glass, a joint so sketchy Picasso might have done the blueprints, and so cheap the glasses were made by Dixie. The brandy was labled "fresh," but you appreciate that quality when the bottles are stored in the pathologist's office next door.
Then Lily walked in, bouncing adorably in all directions like a silk bag of koala bears. She somehow sensed I was back in town. Maybe it was my phone call to Pinky, blubbering about how something called Silly String was going to lose us the war when the 101st was trapped in Sicily by a kind of giant Kraut mechanical spider, developed right here in California by a pro-fascist juggling troupe, and they'd gotten clean away. For a pimp, Pinky had a heart, and of course decent taste in reproduction fabrics. He probably sent her right away, a sort of thank you for a little parking problem I'd fixed for him over parking a whore on the mayor's couch with the mayor still lying down on it.
With her dark chestnut hair poured over that soft vanilla skin, Lily looked good stuffed in that brown polka dot dress, good like a Vargas fudge sundae. Wasp-waisted and bumpier than a hillbilly freeway, she stalked over and sat right down next to me, sliding her hips into the crook of my non-drinking arm. Her face was oval and smooth; her lips, not inexperienced.
"Need a little company, Mack? Need your prime rib salted?" She was never exactly writing cartoons for the New Yorker
"Lily, listen, I got some serious drinking to do here...,"
She pouted a little, crossing her arms. "Hey, sugar thighs, a triple gin and coke. Cherry and onion."
"Vodka and Everclear for me, hold the gallstones. " I called to Morrey. " And don't call me' sugar thighs. '"
"I was just saying hi to Morrey, " she retorted, high as a weather balloon filled with laughing gas, with which she was also apparantly filled.
"Him? He's too ....what is it?..tripapalegic for you. " Morrey had hopped out of earshot, bottle in teeth, yamulka typically soiled.
"Never stopped me before," she said, smiling like a lilac baby bunny was riding a candy unicorn across the rainbow between her ears. How the hell did she pick up a Brooklyn accent in Sonoma? Something wasn't right. But what was so right was violating the designed stress load on that dress.
"I oughta wipe that smile off your face by strongly suggesting that you adopt a less seductive expression."
"Oh, yeah? Why don't ya try kissin' me?" Her voice sliding high and girlish and slightly squeeky, like Betty Boop on helium.
"How much is that gonna cost?"
"Hmm.., maybe a sawbuck. Maybe a diamond ring. Depends on your mood, Brain." She started tracing the outline of my right ear right on my right ear.
Sometime around then Morey hopped carefully by with the drinks and the world eventually became a grey haze with little lights like seeing a christmas tree through the house fire the hot bulbs on it started. The last thing I remembered was her sweet, creamy lusciousness coming inexorably in my direction, like I was crossing the street on a sunny day and suddenly noticed I was about to be hit by an ice cream truck.
I woke up in a cab, with a strange, clammy .38 in my hand. There was a smell of gunpowder and tequila and old cigarettes and blood: a perfume department to a private dick. It was still dark. The yellow checked Buick was somewhere near the Sunset. I could hear the roar of the surf. My tie: askew. My pants: itchy. My skull felt like it had an Irishman with a brain tumor and his own hangover retiling the bathroom in it. Oh yes, and in the driver's seat the cabbie had two big old holes in his hat that went right through the windshield, about the same caliber as this gun.
There was only one obvious conclusion: I was really hungry. And one other conclusion: I'd been set up, and me waking up right now hadn't been part of the plan. But people were always setting me up, especially when I was close to something big, so often I was developing a resistance to chloral hydrate. I'd been set up more times than a 5 cent peep show tent. I'd been set up for murder before twice, and transporting a minor for immoral purposes (in the case of THE RE-REINSURANCE COQUETTE),
war crimes (in the case of THE BATTLE OF VERDUN
) , and once for solicitation (in the case of DR. BRAIN OR LOOSE LORETTA?
But why now? I'd failed
. The pink aerosol string pro-axis juggler strike force got clean away. Unless they thought I knew something I didn't, or they suspected I didn't realize I knew something I did, or I was about to find out something else that wasn't something I knew before but was probably extremely important and once I figured it out I would certainly get right on it, and that meant lights out for whoever put this gun in my hand, if I indeed figured out what exactly whatever it is was.
Seemed like half the time I got in a cab someone ended up staying in Motel Styx. I said, it seemed like half the time I got in a cab someone ended up staying in Motel Styx. Heck, 20% of the time I got on a streetcar, some punk ended up in traction. The statistics on my '34 Kaiser weren't much better, and that's not including the people I was specifically trying to kill.
I felt bad for that joker of a corpse, the tip vacuum driving the cab. Steve Lieber by his license. I knew that name from- what was it ? The City symphony - this guy was the back-up assistant percussionist. I recognized him from when he got in a fight during a Mahler performance with an Austrian violist who accused him of being late on a note with the timpani and ended up head first in it. Fired, started shooting junk, watching Flash Gordon serials and stag films obsessively in dinghy all-night Tenderloin cinemas and driving a hack and following that cab to the death.
The whole thing told me more than Lily was trouble, trouble like a 1000 loose Alaskan King Crabs in the Turkish bath trouble. But like that situation, you could just wait in the corner, with a little lemon and butter ready. Time doesn't always work against you. The set up told me more than a month's worth of pounding the city directory, or a lucky tip from a street juggler with diplomatic contacts in Berlin. It told me the whole thing was still going on, and it was bigger than tactical pink aerosol string. But first I had to get out of there. I ripped up the cardboard sign on Lieber's chest that said "Mack Brain killed this guy," in laundry marker, and walked back to my office, where I'd been temporarily staying since 1932. I took the gun and the marker and went through Lieber's pockets for loose change like anyone, I guess. It's a rough world. He had 12 bucks and a bus locker key, which I took, as a clue, and cab fare home.
Of course the cops were waiting for me. Lt. Lefty McGoongle stood smoking a fat Cuban in the hallway, face like a warthog, only hoggier, greasy vienna sausage fingers adjusting an antediluvian bowler hat, presumably some kind of inheritance. McGoongle and I knew each other well, like Napolean and Wellington.
"Hiya, Hoggie. Is it your birthday? Here's a present!" I unhinged the cylinder, emptied it and handed him the .38, and started dropped the cartridges on the floor, one by one. The Lieutenant's block-faced meat buddies made a move toward me but he held them back.
"We got a tip about you, Mack. You iced a cabbie tonight. In the Sunset. " He meated up the gun with his fingers, re-oiling it in the process. " Why'd you plug the percussionist, Brain? Huh? huh? Why? Why'd ya do it? For the money? He diddled your whore? For kicks? Why Brain? Why? Why? Why? Huh? Why?" It was the most advanced interrogation technique since my toddler nephew Scott demanded to know why strawberry ice cream didn't grow in the strawberry patch.
"Maybe I was grumpy. But you can count, can't you Hoggie? Notice anything funnny?"
Five rounds had bounced off the floor.
"Wasn't the cabbie shot twice?," Hoogie asked the palookas. One of of the spam-slabs nodded.
"Doesn't prove anything, " he said.
"Look, when I go out, I don't usually plan on shooting more than five people. So I don't carry extra ammo. Search me, my place. Just tidy up a bit when you're done- my maid just joined the Soviet navy. Look, I'll spell it out in short words: I leave an empty round for safety, a habit I got from your mama, so you know that. That would leave THREE rounds - Hey, Stumpy, don't bother dusting that thing, it's only going to have my fingerprints on it - Your
cabbie was shot with another .38. AND since when do I carry a .38?
"All right, it's a bit unlikely. But you're not off the collar for this, Brain. This ain't over, Brain, till I say it ain't over. No. Is ain't over. Me say Over. Capiche?" All too well, I thought. He pulled out something out of his green and yellow plaid jacket. "Okay, know this guy?" He held up a photo of a large man in a polka dotted mu-mu with an oversize ruff collar - and a head smashed as flat as the pulp for tomorrow's Examiner on the juggler-killer story. "Went by the name Klaus Von Meinheimer, alias Chucky the Chuckler."
"Not enough to laugh at him until now." Cripes, I was hard-boiled today. "Know where I can find Lily?"
"She's still working the Yellow Kitty." She often drew her johns as a B-girl, trying to sell Morrey's vast stock of Icey Mae's Triple Distilled Yak Butterd Rum he bought off a abandoned Bosnian tramp steamer in Oakland in 1913.
Me and McGoongle split ways, seething, like the Pope and Hugenots after arguing over "irregardless" on a triple word score box.
He was going to point to his eyes with two fingers and then to me in the universal I'm watching you
gesture but missed and poked himself . "Acck!..ur, look, Brain, just don't leave town. "
I still had eight bucks from Lieber's cab, and was headed to the Yellow Kitty when I reached in my pocket and pulled out the bus locker key. Worth checking out. Lily could wait, she'd just sell a couple more bottles of the rum and maybe a dram of finest South Dakotan lambrusco.
I hoofed it to the bus terminal, downtown near the Bay Bridge. Locker 230 on the key, right on the floor, a large locker. It opened sweet and easy, like a first kiss, like I was meant to take it to the prom and unzip it's dress in the car. But instead of getting to third base I pulled out a 6 foot wooden mallet hammer, stained liberally with what was, judging from the white pancake makeup mixed with it, dried clown blood. A lady at the bus cafe counter gave me a look like I was some kind of maniac.
For the moment, I put it back, and on the whim of a hunch, unwadded the business card of my last contact, dropped a nickel in the local booth and simply asked the operator to dial Kickapoo-2-7646. Dr. Gruber's number.
A woman answered, in a voice like a mink glove massage with absinthe oil.
"I'm calling for Dr. Gruber."
"This is Dr. Gruber. How may I help you?" A woman. Of course. A lady psychiatrist. And by the sound of her voice, as sultry as a opium-addled Louise Brooks in New Orleans in August in a velvet tennis dress, clearly in the Freudian rather than Jungian school.
"This is Brain." A silence.
"Brain. You're... alive."
"Alive. You too. "
"A...Live. I'm .. glad." Hard to read the sarcasm under that accent, somewhere between Rekjyavik, Vienna, and Larkspur. My guess was that "Glad" was an Icelando-Marinic word for "Extremely Surprised."
"You and I should talk."
"Okay. Where?" If this got any more terse it would be like some Calvinist father explaining intercourse. We made a date, so I brought a juggling pin I'd found in Fresno.
Hopped a cable car back to Columbus, said hi to Crumples, who was working here too, grim as a an iternerant funeral worker, and hobbled upstairs to a choice booth at Cafe Vesuvio, which Pinky himself had reupholstered. That should have been a hint.
I saw a female shape so shapely that the hourglass would run slow, a scrumptious dilly sealed in a trim tweed suit and pencil skirt so well-cut I found myself strangely moved by tan plaid. There wasn't a lot of wool, but the static charge was building.
She turned around. But the lady psychiatrist was ...Lily. Lily was the dilly.
"Heya Mack." She was cute before but now she got really my attention, and that .44 short barreled revolved she was pointing at my family cartridge was the least of it.
"You always bring field artillery on a date, 'Lily?', if that's your real name?"
"That's Lillian, thank you," she said, her voice low and sweet as an unpicked pineapple and yet as cool as the iceberg that sank the Titanic.
"That the second time you've set me up in two days. You still look like a dream, dollface," I said, and what little part of my eyes weren't filling with soft, gooey piles of cotton candy girly goodness was looking for an escape route over the bannister. But with her tapered porcelin finger on Big Bertha there, my options were limited.
"You look like one of those nightmares where you're caught in farm machinery." Her clear grey eye fixed on mine, like a texas rig drilling to the earth for the goopy hot black gold of knowledge.
"You found something, in that cabbie's locker," she stated, as fact; but how could she have known? "You've been doing some bad thinking, Brain, and as today's science proves, all mental disorders result from bad thinking. In the future, bad thinking will be cured by expensive, colorful pills, which might lead to heart palpitations, dizzyness, lethargy, and unpleasant oily discharge. But right now if you love your country, you'd better work it out."
"You had that woman at the terminal watching the cabbie's locker," I said, the walls of stupidity falling to the jackhammer of reason. Then I threw her the juggling pin. She instinctively began juggling it and the gun in one hand. I moved in and grabbed her in a tight hug. The gun and the pin dropped the floor and I kicked the gun down the stairs to Crumples, who in spite of his deep anger would never shoot anyone unless there was money in it or his corn was acting up. Now I had my .45 on her.
"Fudgesicles!" She said, her lips close to mine as I held her in my arms as Lillian for the first time. She smelled good for a psychiatrist, like a vanillia cinnamon boat transporting musk deer in a fresh breeze to the Lollypop Archipeligo.
"Hmm. Let's see now, baby, a juggler, a barstool share cropper and a Doctor." She struggled a little. "You set me up twice in two days. You a filfthy Nazi, Lillian?" I shook her like an almond tree- and the almonds started coming out.
"Think about it Brain, the hammer in the locker - that was Chucky the Chuckles's blood on the Mahler hammer!" It was a Mahler
hammer! Steve the cabbie must have killed Chuckles with it during the performance Mahler's Sixth symphony last night, while I was out like the electricity in Mexico. Nice touch that.
"Chucky was the Nazi! Lieber was our agent!" Her eyes were pleading.
"Agent?" I said. Something was coming together.
"I wasn't the one that drugged you Brain, but I needed what you knew. I'm with...I'm with... the War department. I infiltrated the juggling act. Just like you I learned about the Death String too late. We've got ...we've got to stop them. " Then waterworks came on, and this woman, tough and sharp and delicate as a the corner of a Shaker table, buried herself in my shoulder, where I could feel her up a little bit, and I melted like a chocolate malt under an industrial hair dryer.
But no there was no time for love here in the Lady Psychiatrist's booth. The clowns were on the move.TOUGHER THAN A MOVIE HOT DOG, SMARTER THAN AN ATOMIC THINKING ROBOT: THE COMPLETE REBAR FOR TOOTSIE ROLLS IS AT IRONCANDY.BLOGSPOT.COM