You might say my partner, Ronson, was killed by cherry Life Savers. “These babies helped me quit nicotine,” he’d always say when we had to stop at a drugstore to buy more. And we stopped every night on patrol.
He was in Walgreens buying a roll at the same time a punk decided to rob the place. Joe Shue, the manager, refused to open the till so the kid opens up his Saturday night special and plugs him and Ronson. I saw the whole thing through the window. I called in an officer down and waited for the punk outside. I knew it was too late for Ronson, but I had to try.
“Send a meat wagon too,” I’d told dispatch. “I had to take the shooter down.” He wasn’t dead yet, but he would be. “Hey, kid,” I said, and he instinctively turned in the direction of my voice. I got off a forty-five round to his chest that blew him to the curb. Anyway, I accidentally met the kid’s sister, Kendall Navarro, at the morgue. She came to identify the body. Okay, the face.
“You’re the guy who put Sal away, ain’t you?” she said. She must have seen the surprise on my face. I expected his mother. “Don’t worry, I ain’t one to hold a grudge. Sal was always a rotten kid. I figured he’d die on the street like the piece of trash he was.”
She was one of those dangerous dames, the kind you think has hot lips and a heart of gold, but you’re always wrong on both counts. Still, I couldn’t help myself. My balls were as blue as my uniform. “How about I buy you some Southern Comfort?” I said.
“Yeah, sure. We both had a hard night.”
I drove us to Eddy’s Bar, a watering hole near the beach filled to the brim with lowlifes and losers. “They gave me a few days off on account of me losing my partner. If I know the brass, his funeral will be over and done with before I get back on the beat.”
“You goin’ to the funeral?”
“Probably. Ronson was an alright guy. I didn’t know him well, him being an old timer and me being a two-year rookie. He never shared anything personal with me, but, it wouldn’t look right if I didn’t show up. People might think there was something funny going on. Like maybe I set him up because he found out I was batting for the other side in the drug war.” I wanted her to think I was young, but hip.
“Was he married? You had to know something about him.”
We’d had two shots a piece by then. Maybe that’s why I said yes when Kendall whispered in my ear that we ought to go by Ronson’s house to see if anyone was there. I parked across the street from 6010 Watercress Drive and lit a up a Chesterfield.
“You’ve really never been inside his house? He never had a backyard barbecue or an anniversary party?” she said as we stared at the place.
“Nope. Sounds weird, I know, but it’s the truth.”
“And you never asked him. Like in conversation?”
“Truth is, I didn’t care. We did our job. He went his way, I went mine.”
Pretty soon the whole neighborhood was as dark as Ronson’s house so I hit the ignition. “Let me take you home.”
“Wait! See, that’s what I’m talking about, Jervis . . .”
“The name’s Gerry. Gerry Steele.”
“Okay, Gerry. It doesn’t make sense. This guy Ronson’s an old timer but nobody in the entire police station knows if he’s married? Somebody would know.”
“That’s the literary point, Mr. Goodwin.” The conversation with the director of Swansong Films wasn’t going well. “That’s the tragedy of our times. We’re all so alienated, even the most obvious pieces of information aren’t. No one pays attention to anything but himself.”
“The name ain’t Goodwin, it’s Goldstein. And it all sounds like bullshit to me. Pulps ain’t supposed to have metaphors. It’s supposed be stark. Laid bare like a murdered whore. This story of yours have a murdered whore in it somewhere?” He glanced at his watch. Steele only had a few more minutes to sell him on the next big “B” sleeper.
Sal was one of those guidos whose life’s goal was to join the mob. He even gave himself a moniker: Il Ladro. The Taker. Whatever he wanted, whatever he needed, he stole. The world was full of givers and takers, and he wanted everyone to know which club he’d joined.
“Where you goin’?” Kendall asked her brother. She’d come into the bathroom where he was primping his pompadour in front of the mirror.
“What makes you think I’m goin’ out? I don’t need a reason to look gorgeous.” He smiled and winked at himself.
She stood behind him, eyeing the ripples under his wifebeater tank top. Step-brother by marriage. So, it was okay. He was almost eighteen. She took the comb from his hand and stroked his ducktail. “Stay out of the bars. I can’t bail you out tonight.”
“I was hoping to bum a Jackson off you.”
“Keep hoping. I have to pay the rent. God knows my Pa won’t have a cent with him and the old lady on a bender.”
He grabbed the comb. “Watch it, that old lady’s my mama. Where I come from, you don’t talk bad about nobody’s mama if you want to stay alive.”
She reached around and gave his crotch a quick feel. “A guy like you could help his mama out once in a while. I know some mamas who’d pay for a piece of you.”
“Yeah? Like who, for instance?” She let go and he followed her to the bedroom. It was her turn to doll up. She traded her printed cotton housedress for a red lame sausage casing, and her slippers for three-inch stilettos.
“Diedre Ronson. Horny ol’ bitch. You could get a couple hundred off her.” She dug into her sequined bag and pulled out a five. “You go meet your friends, and we’ll meet up later.”
Sal snatched the five from her hand. “Where?”
“I’ll pick you up downtown. Fourth and Beech. Be waitin’ outside the Walgreens at midnight. Right now, I got a hot date with a guy who’s gonna pay the rent.”
Kendall’s place was cold. She left me alone while she changed into a pair of capris and a pink angora sweater. “You sure you’re over twenty-one, Baby?” I said when she came into the living room. Telling women that always made them grateful, but I meant it about Kendall. The vamp had disappeared and I was alone with the prom queen. One that brought out powdered refreshment on a small silver tray.
“I scored some blow tonight. Want to feel good?”
I did and I didn’t. Sometimes my jolly roger wasn’t happy when I was high, and I hadn’t run the bases only to get tagged out at home plate. “I’d rather have a beer.”
“You sure you’re under thirty?” she said.
I wasn’t gonna pass up that challenge. I took the tray from her, and put it on the coffee table. Then I took her in my arms and planted a kiss on her that always made women swoon. “You want to feel good?” I said.
After two trips to heaven, she brought me that beer. I drank it quick though I knew I was staying the night. This wasn’t the end for me and Kendall. Strange as it sounds, I felt was had a connection like few people share. Not just that we knew people who’d died at the same time, or sorrow for the people who’d died. It was death itself, the one fact of life that trumped sex. “I’ll go with you to Ronson’s funeral,” she whispered as we cuddled on the couch, my eyes heavy with hope.
“What about Sal? Will he have a funeral?”
“I don’t know. Our parents are visiting the Old Country. They may not come back now that he’s gone. I’m working, and I pay the rent here anyway.”
“Did you call them?”
“Not yet. Domani. Domani.”
Goldstein was leaning back in his fat leather chair, puffing on a fat cigar. Gerry imagined this is where fat cat stereotypes were born, in big offices with windows that towered above the little people. “What kind of a name is Kendall?” Goldstein said. “It damn sure ain’t Italian. Doesn’t Mr. Nameless get suspicious she ain’t what she seems? It’s another hole you’re gonna have to plug if we take a chance on this yarn. Change her name to Delores. Or Angelina.”
“I can’t. It would remove the juxtaposition of Kendall versus Sal. Sal’s trash, but he’s honest trash. Robbing is what gangsters do and he’s a gangster. Kendall’s a psychopath. Detached from everything and everyone. We don’t even know if the parents are really in Italy. To her, they’re just gone. Maybe she killed them.”
“You know what this story needs? A martini. If I’m going to get through this bullshit, I’m going to need more to drink than water.” Goldstein cracked open and eye and focused it on . “You know how to mix a martini?”
“Yeah.” Steele found four mini bottles of gin and olives in Goldstein’s under-bar refrigerator and the vermouth on the shelf. It was going to be tough. The ratio of in to vermouth was usually 6:1. He poured two of the mini-bottles of gin over ice in a shaker, filled half of one empty mini-bottles with vermouth, dumped it into the shaker with three olives, and gently jiggled it all together. He brought a short-stemmed glass to Goldstein, who took a tiny sip.
“Not bad. But any booze is good at two in the afternoon when I have to pick my wife up at five. My girlfriend’s gonna be pissed. I try explaining how I gotta be nice to the mother of my kids, and you know what she says? What about our kids? Hell, I don’t know why these blond shiksas think they’re as good as a good Jewish wife, you know?”
“Not really, I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“No. I can’t afford it. But, if I sell this script . . .”
“So, this Kendall knew all along Ronson was married, right? So where was the wife the night he was killed?”
“She’s dead if Ronson did what he was supposed to do before Sal got there.”
Goldstein finished off his martini. “I get it. Ronson kills his wife, and Sal takes the fall.”
“Yes and no. When Kendall picked up Sal at the drugstore, she was going to take him to Ronson’s house, alright. But Sal wasn’t going to leave alive. Kendall was going to kill him with his own gun. Ronson gave her a murder-suicide note to leave at the house. Older woman. Young, romantic lover. Then she and Ronson were supposed to meet for the first time at the morgue. Like she met the No-name rookie.”
“Right scenario. Wrong guy gets killed on a fluke. Does she get caught?” Goldstein skewered an olive with a toothpick.
Me and Kendall went to Ronson’s funeral together. Every guy there gave her the once over, and me an envious nod. “We’re going to meet up at Kelly’s after the service,” Sgt. Willis whispered to me in the vestibule. “Bring your girlfriend.” A black dress comes in handy for all sorts of social gatherings. All she had to do was take off that netted wide-brimmed black hat, put on a string of pearls, and she was ready for the cocktail wake.
Sgt. Willis brought the widow Ronson. Diedre wore diamonds.
Life’s dependent on Chance. Fate. Luck. Whatever you want to call the unknowables. Kendall might have had a better life with me than she had working the bars, but she didn’t see it that way. “What are you going to do when you’re forty?” I asked her one Saturday afternoon as we drove to the Santa Monica pier.
She stared me down with those green eyes of hers. “Drugs.” Using or selling I wanted to ask. I knew she did both now, but I wanted to confront her so she’d confront herself. Maybe she discerned my do-gooder tendencies. “What’s it to you?” she sniped.
I didn’t want a fight. I shrugged my shoulders and shut up.
“Stop at the next gas station. I need to pee,” she said.
She might be telling the truth. She left her purse on the car seat which means she wasn’t snortin’ anything. Honest to God it was open already when I slipped my fingers inside and pulled out a roll of cherry Life Savers. The voice screaming inside my head wasn’t wondering what were the odds Ronson and this drug whore shared a common affection for a red confection? It was screaming how she knew which house was Ronson’s the night he got shot. I knew the street, a short one-block off El Segundo Boulevard. But when I pulled up to the curb, she knew the house. “Maybe whoever’s inside is asleep,” she’d said. Why? Because it was the only house that was dark.
The men, the department. The Medical Examiner. Nobody would talk about somebody’s wife if they knew he had a piece of strange on the side. How’d Kendall make it to the morgue so quick? Who called her about Sal? Unless she’d seen what I saw through the window. Maybe saw me bring Sal down when I could have just wounded him.
I went to the phone booth inside the gas station and called Sgt. Willis. Like a sap, I told him about the Life Savers. Finally, I asked him: “Where was Diedre Ronson the night her husband was killed?” Willis kept me on the line, saying he had to check the case notes, kept me talking until a squad car pulled next to my Chevy. Kendall was back from the bathroom and talking to Officer Adams, holding her purse close to her chest. I saw her look around and point towards the station. Adams put his hand on his .38 and headed towards the station door.
He came in just as the clerk come out of the cooler with a tub of cokes. “You see the guy that owns that Chevy come in here?”
“Nope. I ain’t seen nobody.”
Adams took a coke, nodded thanks, and went outside. He couldn’t kill me in front of the skinny kid. He and Kendall exchanged words, and they got back in his squad car and drove off.
“You let every cop steal your drinks?” I said. I was trying to sound friendly, but I my voice was quivering like a reed caught in quicksand in a hurricane.
“I do when I see he’s trigger happy. He was looking for you, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Two seconds later, Officer Adams was back, and Kendall got out. Maybe he checked the men’s room in the rear of the station. “Hey,” the clerk said, and tossed me a set of keys. “My Buick’s out back. Beat it.”
If I was going to die, I damn sure wanted to know why. I parked the Buick down the street from Ronson’s, went ‘round the back, and let myself in. Diedre was sewing curtains in a room off the hallway. “Don’t scream,” I said. I was standing at the door, with gun drawn and thunder coursing through my veins. She didn’t even look scared. “We need to have a little talk about Kendall and your ol’ man.”
“So, that’s her name,” she said. She folded her material, and sighed. “You want some coffee? I made a fresh pot.”
I followed her to the kitchen. “Why does Willis want me killed?”
She poured us each a cup and got a carton of milk from the refrigerator. “You from Iowa? Mike said he was training a foreigner. As close as we are to the border, and to Hollywood, there’s only one way a cop can make enough money pay off a jealous wife. Smuggling. It doesn’t matter what. Drugs. Guns. Under-aged girls for the strip clubs. Hot cars. Diamonds. You name it. You’re green, and somebody thinks you’re dangerously stupid. This Kendall broad maybe? You ever meet her before?” Diedre sat across from me at the table, a middle-aged woman resigned to being ignored in the land of young, buxom starlets.
Instead of giving her an answer, I said, “Where were you the night Mike was killed?”
“I went to the movies for the seven o’clock show. An oldie. Out of the Past. You like Bob Mitchum? I do. Depression kid makes good. Anyway, I came home, and Mike called. Told me a kid named Navarro would be coming by to pick up a package that was in the freezer. The freezer? That was a new one. What the hell do you keep in the freezer except meat and ice? When nobody showed up by midnight, I went to bed. Willis called me around four in the morning and said Mike was dead.”
“Do you still have the package?”
“I guess so. I didn’t give it another thought . . .” She went to the garage and returned with a foiled wrapped box about the size of a pound of butter. She opened it, but all that was in the box was a dozen rolls of cherry Life Savers. “That’s weird. Who’d come all the way out here for candy?”
“Somebody who thought it was something else, maybe? Nobody’s come here looking for it?”
“I ain’t had no visitors ’til you.”
I didn’t tell her I’d delivered an uninvited visitor the night of the wake, and that Kendall has cased the joint. I didn’t tell her I knew Ronson and Sal had taken bullets meant for her, either. “Can I use your phone?”
“You got a phone book?”
“This is Gerry Steele,” I told the operator at the FBI. “I need to talk to J. Edgar himself.”
“True story of police corruption, hunh?” Goldstein said. “It’s got potential if it’s a true story, but where’s the sex? Did you screw Kendall? Diedre?”
“Well . . . I . . .”
“Sorry, Giles, can’t help you. It’s got no sex. It’s old hat. I mean, ever heroes have sex drives. The motion picture code’s gone, fella. What’s the matter with you? You’re not another Caesar Romero, are you? Christ, what a headache he was. Look, do some rewrites. Jazz it up a bit. Put in some sex and some real action. A car chase or two. Make it hiss with steam. Then we’ll talk. We’re competing with Klute. Bullit. Dirty Harry. And you bring me Double Indemnity? But, hey. You make a good martini. Go downstairs and tell Rudy I said give you a job tending bar.”
“Sure, Mr. Goodwin.”
“That was ten years ago,” Gerry said. “I did a hundred re-writes, but Goldstein never gave me another interview. It was always, call my secretary, you know?”
“And that’s how you came to work here?” Honey Lamont was resting her head on a wobbly hand. “What a shame.” Ten years ago, she might have had a walk-on in a low-budget snoozer, but now she was just another barfly running to fat. “It was a good story. Goldstein fucked up passing on it. How about another little drink, bartender?”
Gerry leaned over and whispered in her ear. “How about I take you home after I close up? I’ll write you into the script. Sexy lady goes home with virile bartender. Show me your gun, she said with her Southern drawl drawing him out of his writer’s blocked soul.”
“Okay, Big Boy. Set em’ up.”
She hadn’t looked at him. Maybe that’s what they mean by blind drunk. He tallied his tip jar. Twelve dollars and thirteen cents. Was she worth it? “You’ve had one to many already, Doll. Are you sure you’re twenty-one?” The compliment would make her night. He thought about calling Deidre. Maybe she’d see him. A nice middle-aged woman who remembered what noir was like might give him a tumble. Ex-wives were good for that.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred print and on-line journals. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story, “Red’s Not Your Color.” She lives in Kentucky and writes full time when she’s not watching classic movies and eating chocolate.