The following is excerpted from Bakersfield: a Crime Novel by Pierre Ouellette (Jorvik Press, 2018).
“You ever meet Hitchcock?”
“I hear he hates cops. That right?”
“Wouldn’t know. Never asked him.”
“What about Bogart? Is he really an asshole?”
“Hard to say. He didn’t talk much.”
“I bet he drove a Cord or something like that.”
“Maybe. Don’t remember.”
“Oh yeah? How could you forget something like that?”
“My feet hurt.”
A year and a half gone. Stone could still feel the ache in his arches, the sweat on the back of his uniform, the blue stink of exhaust from chromed tailpipes.
“Good morning, Mr. Grant. Good evening, Miss Hepburn. Good afternoon, Miss Kelly.” You had to know them all, the entire roster at Paramount Pictures as they passed through that gated arch off Melrose. The big stars were easy, you’d seen their movies. The little ones were tough – and easily offended if you got them wrong.
You smiled. You pushed the iron scrollwork open. You gave a cheerful little tug on the bill of your pseudo-cop hat. You shifted the weight on your Florsheims trying to make the hurt go away. You longed for redemption but settled for a bar stool and a cold beer in the dolorous twilight.
“Your feet, huh?” Brainard replied. “Now with me, it’s my goddam back. Too many years walkin’ a beat downtown. Thank God I made sergeant before I got too crippled up.” He took off his fedora and mopped his forehead. “Oh well. Doesn’t matter. It’s the heat that’s gonna get me in the end. I’m gonna drown in my own sweat.”
No comment from Stone. They turned their attention to the dead girl out in the desiccated riverbed. She lay face down in what now passed for the channel, probably no more than a couple of feet deep. Arms and legs spread like an angel, with a blue dress that billowed gently about her. The pose reminded Stone of a snorkeler paused on the water’s surface with head immersed into an alternate world. Maybe those dead eyes bored through to some untold secret far below. Probably not.
“Okay, it’s all yours, detective,” said Brainard. He looked down at Stone’s shoes. “If I was you, I’d take off my shoes and roll up my pants before I went out there. The riverbed’s not as dry as it looks. Another week or two, and the farms will suck it dry, but not quite yet.”
Stone got the general idea. The Kern River and all its siblings spilled down out of the Sierra Nevada and surrendered their bounty to push up potatoes, peas, beans, carrots, onions and god knows what else across the San Fernando Valley. A relentless sun beat down upon this ancient desert, and the plants fought back with water hijacked from the slopes far above. From desert to garden through hydraulic engineering on a truly massive scale. The hand of man versus the hand of God, palm to palm in an ominous stalemate.
Stone turned and watched Brainard struggle up the embankment through the scrub and dirt to the town above. Brainard was Stone’s lone peer in the Bakersfield Police Department, old and tired and looking for a soft landing. They shared the workload, with the scales tipped decidedly toward Stone. Brainard could easily spend a month solid on a gas station robbery. Which left him no time to deal with the case at hand, so it went by default to Stone. His first homicide in the City of Bakersfield.
In fact, his first homicide anywhere. During his job interview, Chief Beaumont didn’t seem concerned that all of Stone’s plainclothes experience was in the LA Vice Division. Stone was sure that Beaumont knew about his run-in with Chief Parker and didn’t seem concerned about that, either. It had taken a few weeks to understand why he got the job: He was like an exotic animal in a third-class zoo, a big-city detective on display in a small-city police force for all to see. Even better, he looked the part, although you had to overlook the cheap suits. The divorce had drained him financially, as divorces nearly always do. And the many months of unemployment followed by twelve low-wage months as a security guard at Paramount didn’t help.
“So, you ready?” Lavelle, the deputy coroner, had come up next to him. He was an old-timer, like Brainard, but still robust and almost mystically athletic. He wore a tieless white shirt, cotton slacks stuffed into rubber boots, and carried a leather bag with the tools of his trade. “You better lose that suit and shoes.”
“Right.” Stone peeled off his jacket and draped it on a gnarled, leafless bush. He removed his shoes and rolled his pant legs part way up his calves.
They left the river’s edge and started out across the dry bed toward the body in the center. Brainard was right about the mud below the surface. Stone could feel it work its way between his toes as his feet sank half way to ankle level.
The river carved its course about thirty feet below the city’s ground level, and a row of gawkers had gathered on the lip of the bank opposite them. Off to the left, a second crowd lined the bridge on Highway 178. Stone felt slightly ridiculous with his rolled up pants and white legs exposed as he plodded through the mud. It presented something less than a classic cop-at-a-crime scene scenario for all these onlookers.
When they reached the water’s edge, Lavelle held his hand up. “Stay here. I’ll bring her over.”
Stone looked upstream as Lavelle waded toward the body while donning rubber gloves. There was just enough water in the starved channel to create a lot of ambiguity about the body’s origin. She didn’t die here because there were no footprints, but how far had she drifted? If Lavelle could give a quick estimate of time of death, it might be helpful.
Lavelle grabbed the hem of the floating dress and dragged the body over to the water’s edge in front of Stone. Without ceremony, he grasped the right upper arm and rolled the corpse over, exposing the face and front side. The girl’s face was locked in a death mask, eyes and mouth forever open. Lavelle did a quick, clinical scan. “No obvious signs of a struggle.” Stone fought off revulsion and squatted for a closer look. No bruises, punctures or abrasions jumped out at him. But they couldn’t be sure until the coroner took a closer look. “Can you tell me how long she’s been in the water?”
Lavelle sloshed ashore and took a thermometer from his bag. He poked it into the water and held it there. “We’ve got to have the ambient temperature first. The Kern’s still pretty cold, even by the time it gets down here to hell on earth. But that’s not the problem.”
“All I’ll be able to give you is a guess at how long she’s been in the water. But that won’t tell you how long ago she died.” He lifted the thermometer up and squinted at it. “Okay, here’s our ambient. Now we need to go up the old wazoo to get the body temperature.” He rolled the body over so the backside was exposed and turned to Stone. “I need you to lift her dress up a little so I can do an insertion. Not much. Let’s try to give her a little decency.” Stone lifted the hem so Lavelle could do the procedure. He looked up at the people on the bridge in the distance. Hopefully, no one was using binoculars.
Lavelle withdrew the thermometer and took a reading. “Looks like she’s been in the water for about eight to ten hours.”
Stone leaned over and put his hand in the water, which was surprisingly cold compared to the sweltering heat above it. He noted just a hint of current winding around his fingers. “How far do you think she might have drifted?”
Lavelle shrugged. “That’s really tough. She might have gotten hung up several times and then drifted loose. Probably somewhere up around Highway 99. You get further upstream and the channel gets really narrow with a lot of places to get snagged.”
Stone stood up. “Anything else you can give me?”
“Let me take another look.” Lavelle rolled the body back to its front side. “We won’t really know about torso trauma until she’s disrobed at the coroner’s. But let’s see what we can see up here.” He moved in close to the head and neck. “Aha.” He pointed to a spot on her throat. “Lookee there.”
Stone bent over and squinted at the spot where Lavelle’s gloved finger pointed. At first, he saw nothing, but then a very subtle shade of pink revealed itself. “What’s that?”
“Could be an abrasion. Hard to tell after eight hours in the water – but one thing leads to another.” He reached out to her face, put his thumb on one eye and peeled back the eyelid so its inner lining was exposed, all pink and raw. It sent a shudder through Stone. It felt like they were stripping off something forbidden and exposing some dark inner life.
Lavelle went in tight and nodded. “Yup.” He beckoned Stone to come closer. “Take a good look at the mucous membrane. See those little red dots. They’re called petechial hemorrhages. They’re actually tiny blood clots.”
“So what do they mean?” asked Stone.
“They mean she was strangled.”
Lavelle stood up and turned to Stone. “Congratulations, detective. You’ve got yourself a genuine homicide. Good luck.”
Stone left Lavelle and a photographer documenting the scene. He retrieved his suit coat and draped it over his arm and carried his shoes with his other hand. His mud-caked feet left him no alternative. The morning sun crept up toward that critical angle where it would begin to radiate with a vicious intensity. Searing, enveloping, unrelenting. A biblical heat burning its way into the twentieth century on its way to some future hell not yet imagined.
He could still feel how his heart sank when he first descended out of the hills above Grapevine and the San Joaquin Valley spread before him. Fifty miles wide. Hot, flat, hazy. Dirty greens and browns baked nearly colorless. Infinity to the north, distant hills to the east and west. All shrouded in a thin mist born of irrigation water floating skyward in a great cloud of evaporation. Then Bakersfield itself. Population 50,000. Oil and agriculture. A town that plunged its industrial fist into the earth and yanked out petroleum and vegetables. After a lifetime in Los Angeles, it seemed almost impossibly crude.
Stone crested the top of the drop-off to the river and headed for his car, a 1951 Chevrolet police cruiser parked on the shoulder of a gravel access road. The Bakersfield city budget didn’t permit an annual turnover of public vehicles, so the cops always rolled a few years behind the times. He avoided the gravel, which was already hot enough to burn his feet. A couple of patrolmen lounged on the side of a patrol car up ahead, and gave him a silent smirk when they saw his bare feet. He glared back and they let it go. He was good at that. Other men sensed the toughness, the tightly bundled potential, and saw no profit in confrontation.
After wiping his muddy feet on the roadside grass, he threw his suit coat and shoes in the back, and drove off. The clutch and brake felt gritty from the residual sand on his bare soles, but he really didn’t notice.
Who was she? There was no purse, no ID. Jane Doe, late teens or early twenties. The sooner he pegged her, the better. He’d hit the missing persons reports as soon as he reached the office.
He turned east onto 24th St, where a layer of earthen grit covered the streets and parking lots. A dust storm had passed through two days ago, a rolling wall of brown dirt scooped from the valley floor. The town had yet to shake it off.
Who was she?
He rolled past the commercial strip, all post-war and shouting for business. Motels, coffee shops, service stations. Burgers, twenty cents. Shakes, a quarter. Parking, free.
Who was she?
He turned south onto Chester Ave., the four-lane main drag that cut though the central district. Solid, sober buildings. Few higher than four stories. With awnings of striped canvas that lined the sidewalks to keep the sun at bay. Traffic was brisk. New metal surged through the town. Detroit was back to spawning cars instead of tanks.
Who was she?
He hit construction, so he went east over to the corner of 19th and K. About a half century away from Hollywood and Vine. Sears, Kress and Woolworth instead of Tiffany’s, Saks and Barneys.
Who was she?
He’d better find out fast. They’d all be watching. They’d all want to see if the big-city cop stumbled his first time out.
He turned onto Truxtun and pulled into a Flying A service station. He had to do something about his feet before he got to the office. A water hose sprouted from the service island, so he opened the door, swung his feet out and rinsed them off. A uniformed attendant came over Blue shirt, bow tie, and a garrison cap. Stone waved him off. The attendant gave a cautious nod and walked away.
Stone’s dignity returned along with his shoes going on. He continued down Truxtun and pulled into the secured lot behind the police station. Waves of heat boiled off the pavement as he walked to the building and took the stairs to the second story. He shared an office with a dozen other cops, each with their own scuffed metal desk, telephone and wire filing basket. Some desks held family pictures, others hunting and fishing scenes. Color by Kodak.
A secretary sat near the entrance. Mrs. Crenshaw, a pinched and wiry woman in her fifties. She clacked away at a typewriter, whose platen held a report form plus carbon copy. No mistakes allowed. She glanced up at him in sour acknowledgement.
“Any messages?” he asked.
“Not that I know of.” Mrs. Crenshaw always hedged her bet. “The chief wants to see you.”
“When?” Stone asked.
“Right now,” she said, as if it were somehow obvious.
Stone turned around and walked down the hall to Chief Beaumont’s office, where the door was open. He peeked in. The chief sat behind a substantial wooden desk. To his right, a pair of crossed flags depicted the United States and California. A large map of Bakersfield covered the wall behind him. Stone knocked. The chief looked up from a sheaf of papers.
“Stone. Come in. Have a seat.” Beaumont wore a freshly pressed uniform over a solid frame. He had a Rushmore face with a blockish jaw and eagle’s nose. Its effect was tempered by sad blue eyes. Not all was right in the chief’s inner world, the one that most men learned to carry in solitude.
“You wanted to see me?” Stone asked.
“You just got back from down on the river?”
“What do you make of it?”
“Can’t really say. It’s probably a safe bet that it’s a homicide. So far that’s all we’ve got. Next step is to get an ID.”
“This your first murder case?”
“That’s what I thought. You were vice in LA. queers and pimps instead of shooters and stabbers.” Beaumont got up and went to the window. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Just keep your head screwed on straight. It’ll all work out.”
“I’m counting on it,” Stone said.
“They’re all going to be watching you. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I suppose I do.”
“You’re the big city cop. The big star up from LA. Some of them would love to see you fuck up. And you know why?”
“Because it would make certain little people feel like they’re big people. I’m not one of them. I’d love to see you pull this off.”
“Well, that’s my plan,” Stone replied.
The chief managed a hint of a smile. “Good. Keep me informed. That’s all.”
Stone left the chief and went back to the main office, where he started down the row of desks. A sergeant named Bagley looked up at him, a thick man with a drooping gray mustache. “You just might be a really lucky son of a bitch.”
“Falworth’s sick, so they put me on missing persons.” He picked up the topmost sheet in his wire basket. “This came in earlier this morning.” He handed it to Stone. “A Lorilee Winters. Lives up in Oildale. Seems her daughter didn’t come home last night.”
Stone took the sheet. “Thanks. I’ll check it out.”
Bagley returned to his papers. “You do that.” He was a rum-soaked fifty and not too happy about it.
Stone oscillated between relief and anxiety by the time he slid behind his desk. If the report ID’ed the girl, it would save him considerable effort and overcome the inertia that often stalled investigations before they could gather momentum. Good. But he was about to get on the phone with a woman immersed in the deepest of dread, and suggest that her worst fears just might be realized. Bad.
He phoned the number. A woman answered after just a single ring. “Hello?” Her voice was dry and weathered, laced with an Okie twang.
“I’m Sergeant Stone with the Bakersfield Police Department. I’m calling about your missing person’s report. I’d like to ask you a couple of questions. It says here that your daughter is eighteen, about five foot five, slim with blond hair.”
“Well it’s not really blond. She dyed it that way. Her girlfriend helped her.”
“I see. And it says that the last time you saw her was last evening right around dark. Is that correct?”
“I do believe that’s correct.”
“Did she tell you where she was going?”
“We fought about that all the time.” Stone could hear the woman start to unravel. “She said it was none of my business.”
She doesn’t know, Stone realized. She doesn’t know about the girl in the river. And why would she? The paper here was a morning edition, and radio wouldn’t round up the local news until noon.
“But she’s always here when I get up,” Mrs. Winters said. “That’s usually when we start fightin’. She just don’t get it. She just don’t get none of it.”
“I know,” Stone sympathized. “People that age can be difficult. Can you tell me what she was wearing when she left?”
“She had that blue cotton dress on, the one I got her last summer.”
The dress. The blue dress. Stone could still picture it billowing around the body out there in the channel. He had to level with her.
“Mrs. Winters, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but we recovered a body out of the Kern River this morning and it pretty much fits the description you’ve given us of your daughter.”
“Oh Lord! Oh Lordie!” The woman collapsed into fitful sobs.
Stone felt slightly sick. It was awful. You didn’t have to do this kind of thing when you worked in Vice in the big city. You dealt with pimps and weasels. You didn’t have to punch a gaping wound into an innocent human being. He’d come all the way to Bakersfield to become the shredder of souls.
“I’m very sorry, Mrs. Winters. I really am. But I’m going to need your help. Someone needs to identify the body. Is there anyone else besides you who can do it?”
“Maybe it’s not her, right? You can’t be sure, right?” Her voice floated atop a thin bubble of hope.
“No, we can’t be sure. And that’s why we need your help.”
“I’ve gotta know. I just gotta know.”
“I understand. You need to get this behind you. I’m going to come over and pick you up. We’ll visit the county coroner and get this over with as quickly as possible. Is anyone there with you?”
Small, spasmodic sobs filled the earpiece.
“No sir. There’s just me and her. We’re all that’s left.”
Stone had no response. He knew that the tragedy on the other end of the line probably spanned decades and sent dark ripples across the inner landscapes of many lives. It would overwhelm him if he tried to embrace it. “I’ll get there as quickly as I can,” he said. It was the best he could do.
He drove north on Chester Avenue, a stretch of Highway 99 that sliced through town from north to south. A squat, rectangular building on the left with two sets of double doors caught his eye. The Blackboard Cafe. He’d heard of it but never seen it. The Blackboard was the one place in Bakersfield that hadn’t escaped the attention of Los Angeles.
Country music players often spoke of this wild honky-tonk out on the edge of civilization where the music was taking a strange new twist, all loud and raw. Stone made a note to return and take it in. Western music was the last thread of continuity in his rudely shuffled life.
He drove on and crossed a bridge over the Kern River that carried him out past the northern city limits.
Welcome to Oildale. Unincorporated and unforgiving. Home to the Ku Klux Klan and various spinoffs. Full of subsistence housing and a population clinging to the lowest rung on the economic ladder. Second- and third-generation Okies. Spawn of the great Dust Bowl migration in the thirties. Once confined to field labor, but now working the barren sprawl of the Kern Oil Field just to the north. All sweat and muscle and rage. Addicted to rowdy honky-tonks, cheap booze and wild women – or so said the lyrics.
In fact, it reminded Stone of South Park, where he grew up in southern Los Angeles. Only sparser and drier and flatter. In South Park, he’d watched as Southern California gradually reshaped the Okies in its own image. Twenty years after the great exodus, they drove Fords, mowed their lawns and went bowling every Thursday.
At least they did in Los Angeles, but not out here in this landlocked oven. The blue of the Pacific was a distant dream, and the dust devils out on the valley floor churned up memories of failed farms, devastated crops and crushed hopes. The current residents of Oildale were better off than their parents, but still rode in the slipstream of the post-war surge. It turned out that crude oil and raw onions weren’t the path to contemporary salvation.
Stone rolled along past little markets, gas stations, cafes, and dime stores, all a single story high and mostly constructed of wood. A few trees made a futile thrust into the haze, and the streets turned to dirt as soon as you pulled off the main road. Old pre-war Packards, Oldsmobiles, Fords and Chevys slowly baked their way toward terminal oxidation in their curbside parking spots.
People on the sidewalks stared at him as he passed. Old men in suspenders and cocked fedoras. Women in sleeveless cotton dresses and flat shoes. Younger men with oiled hair and cheap sport shirts cut with oversized collars. Some appeared curious, most seemed sullen. A cop car up here only meant trouble.
He turned left on Belle Ave. and headed west. One- and two-room houses lined the street behind brown lawns and automotive relics. Stunted trees offered scant shade to those within. He found the address a few blocks later, next to a park full of dilapidated house trailers. It was small, even by local standards, and fronted by a lawn reduced to straw stubble. A failed coat of chipped paint covered the siding. Since there was no driveway, he parked in front.
He saw the curtain part slightly as he approached the front door, and it opened before he could knock.
“Mrs. Winters, I’m Detective Stone, and I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances.”
“Let’s go.” She shouldered her purse and moved past him toward the car. Stone understood. It was all she could do just to stay collected. He judged her to be an impoverished forty, whip-thin with a sprinkle of gray in her straight brown hair. She wore a dress flared at mid-calf and cinched tight on her spare waist.
He followed close behind and opened the door for her. A fat woman with a baby in arms watched them from her porch chair across the street. An oversize mutt sized up Stone from behind a chain link fence as he climbed into the car. The animal growled in a deep baritone.
Mrs. Winters kept her silence as they went back down to Chester and turned south. When they crossed back into Bakersfield and reached Highway 178, Stone knew it was time to prep her for what was coming up.
“We just need you to confirm or deny that it’s your daughter. Nothing else. No paperwork. They’ll wheel the body out on a gurney and just expose the face. You won’t see any sign of injury. I was there when they recovered her, so I’ve already had a look.”
“I gotta know,” Mrs. Winters said.
“Of course you do.”
East Bakersfield. The Kern County Coroner. Stone showed Mrs. Winters into the morgue section on the first floor. They already had the body out on a gurney. The identification was brutal and simple. An attendant pulled the cover off the face. Mrs. Winters took one look and abruptly yanked her head around in avoidance. Her mouth curled in tears but then settled in a prolonged grimace. “So that’s her?” Stone asked. He had to hear it out loud.
Mrs. Winters gave the faintest of nods. “That’s her.”
“Okay, we’re done then,” Stone said.
“I ain’t done,” Mrs. Stone murmured. “I ain’t ever gonna be done.”
She began to loosen up as they headed back north into Oildale. Stone guessed that the ID process gave her some kind of closure, however brief. She talked of her young marriage, her no-good husband, her life with Charlene. She mentioned that her sister in Kansas was a lesbian, and she seemed quite proud of it. It somehow lifted her family out of total anonymity and gave them a brand of sorts.
By the time they reached her house, Stone felt she was comfortable enough to interview. “Would you mind if I came in and asked you a few questions?”
Mrs. Winters gave a fatalistic shrug. “Sure. Why not?”
Stone declined an offer for something to drink, and they sat in the tiny living room. A caged fan rotated and swept the room with a beam of agitated air. A small table held family pictures in plain metal frames: milestones on a modest and desperate journey.
“Let’s start with last night. Can you tell me what time she left here?”
“Somewhere ‘round eight. Still light out, but not much.”
“And she didn’t say where she was going?”
“She never said where she was going. Not no more.”
“Is there anybody else who might know? Some of her friends, maybe?”
“Don’t think so. Charlene didn’t think much of the girls around here. She only had one real good friend. Marla Eaton. But she ain’t around no more. Moved up to Fresno.”
Stone chose his next words carefully. “Given the circumstances, I think we have to consider the possibility of foul play.” He considered mentioning the possible strangulation, but thought the better of it. “Can you think of anyone who might’ve wanted to harm your daughter?”
“Well hell yeah. Bobby Simmons.”
“Bobby Simmons,” Stone repeated. “Who’s that?” The name seemed familiar.
Mrs. Winters paused and reached for a pack of Camels. She lit one and exhaled a conical cloud of white laced with blue. “A no-good, rotten son of a bitch. That’s who he is.”
“So what makes him rotten?”
“He’s a musician. A guitar player. He’s got a whole string of women lined up. He sweet-talked Charlene, and she just couldn’t get enough of it.”
Stone connected the name. Simmons played in the house band at Trout’s, a honky-tonk bar right here in Oildale. Didn’t sing, just played, but played incredibly well. Even Joe Maphis said so, and Joe was the premier guitar player on country television in Los Angeles.
“Well, being a sweet talker and being a killer are two different things,” Stone said.
“True enough. But when a man gets tossed over for another man, there ain’t no tellin’, now is there?”
“So what happened? Did she break it off?”
Mrs. Winters took a deep drag on her Camel. The tip went nova and glowed a brilliant orange. “She busted up with him about a month ago. In his car. Right out front. With a whole lotta screamin’ and cryin’. I had the window open. I could hear the whole damn business. He lit outta here like a bat outta hell. She come runnin’ in and went straight to her room. Came out a few minutes later, just like nothin’ had never happened. Soon as I saw her face, I knew she was the one that pulled the plug.”
“So you think that he was in a jealous rage?”
“Could be wrong, but sure looked it to me. She had plans, you know. Most girls around here ain’t got no plans at all, but Charlene sure did. She was doin’ a waitress job out at the country club and getting ready for beauty school in the fall. Told me she was gonna open her own shop. I don’t think old Bobby liked any of that. He thought the only real plan was his god almighty self.”
“Was she seeing anybody else?”
“Kinda seemed like it.”
Mrs. Winters stubbed the cigarette in a beanbag ashtray. Lipstick crowned the top end in a pink dawn. “She was out till all hours at least a couple of times a week. I’d ask her what was goin’ on, but she just got mad, so I quit.”
“Was there anything else? Anything unusual about what she was doing?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Would you mind if I took a quick look in her room?”
Mrs. Winters shrugged in a shrunken and bitter kind of way. “Go ahead. Don’t make no difference now.” She pointed toward the door.
“Thanks.” Stone got up, opened the door and went in.
A narrow bed on an iron frame occupied the left wall. A shallow closet and chest of drawers took up the right. Several stuffed animals sat atop the dresser, the kind you won on the midway. A plain wooden table with a plastic mirror stood in back, and served as a vanity. Perfume and shampoo bottles lined its top, along with little piles of costume jewelry, makeup and a small radio done in pink plastic. A single photo was tacked to the wall behind. Bobby Simmons in glossy black and white. He held an electric guitar and wore a decorous cowboy shirt with a string bow tie.
Stone went to the dresser, opened each drawer, lifted the contents and checked the bottom, the obvious place of concealment. Nothing of interest.
He turned to the table top. The radio’s tuner dial pointed to a big country station up north. He ran his finger over the perfume bottles and stopped at the last one. It was smaller, but very stylishly designed and packaged. He held it gingerly by the neck to preserve any prints and read the label: ‘Worth’ in an artful scrawl across the center, with ‘Dans La Nuit’ in simple block letters along the bottom. He pulled a notebook from his breast pocket and wrote it down.
He moved on to the makeup articles and a comb/brush set of tortoise shell plastic. Nothing of note. Next, the costume jewelry. A skein of beaded necklaces, charm bracelets and the like. He extended his index finger and idly pushed the pile across the wooden surface.
Flap! Something fell on the floor.
He knelt down and spotted a pack of matches. He picked it up carefully by the sides to save any prints on the cover. He gingerly opened it to expose a tight little formation of matches, their red tips of phosphor ready for action. All accounted for. He tucked the cover back in under the striker surface and read the bright yellow label: ‘The Rancho Vista Motel’ in green caps on the front, and a crude location map on the back.
He’d driven by the Rancho Vista Motel, but never stopped. It was on Highway 99 going north out of town, with a big LETS EAT sign of red neon that bellowed out into the motorized night.
Stone returned to the living room, where Mrs. Winters stared out the window through eyes steeped in sorrow. The next of wave of grief was breaking over her.
“Did your daughter smoke?” he asked.
“Sure as hell did, but not around here. I wouldn’t stand for it. Not at her age.”
Stone remained standing. “I think that’s about it for now. As soon as we know more, I’ll be in touch.”
Mrs. Winter’s stare remained fixed out the window, out to some impossible distance. “You do that.”
“Goodbye now.” Stone walked out into the gathering heat. It cast a slight film of yellow over the neighborhood. The dog across the street now curled in the shade on a porch. It no longer growled. It only panted. Stone opened his car, which had all the windows rolled up. You didn’t leave them open in a place like this. A brutal blast of broiled air rolled out. He walked around and cranked down each window to let in some ventilation.
He turned on the police radio and stretched the coiled microphone cord so he could stand outside while he made a call. Dispatch put him through to records, where he asked for a quick rundown on Bobby Simmons. He took off his fedora and mopped his brow with his shirtsleeve. Maybe the old cop Brainard was right. Maybe the heat took you down in the end.
The records clerk came back on with what they had on Simmons. A couple of arrests for assault, with the charges dismissed, and a drunk driving conviction that put him on a year’s probation. Stone asked for his current address and got it. Not too far away. North on Oildale Drive then left on Lincoln.
Simmons’ place turned out to be a notch lower than Mrs. Winters’ in terms of curb appeal. Oil spots dotted a front yard composed of packed dirt and devoid of grass. A rotting couch rested on the concrete porch, and with a rusted barbeque below the front window. A ’40 Ford pickup pointed toward the street, its right front tire completely flat.
Stone knocked and waited. The porch took him out of the sun, but not out the heat. The door opened about a foot, revealing a wiry man about 25 in a sweaty tank top. “Yeah?”
Stone pulled out his badge. “Sergeant Stone. Bakersfield Police. I’m looking for Bobby Simmons.”
Stone caught the flash of contempt as the man scratched his receding hairline. “Yeah, well he ain’t here now.”
“You know when he might be back?”
The man ignored Stone and focused on the doormat. “Hard to say.”
“Where’s he work?”
Stone had an inspiration. “Is he playing tonight?”
“Yeah maybe. I think he said somethin’ bout The Blackboard.”
“You tell him I’m a fan, okay? He’s one of hell of a guitar picker.”
The man looked up at Stone. “That what this is all about?”
“Pretty much.” Stone smiled and tipped his hat. “You have a nice day.”
“They start about nine,” the man volunteered.
Stone drove north out of town, then west on the China Grade Loop. Soon, he’d left behind the last traces of green and entered a scorched and barren land of rolling hills covered with oil pumps. Like a great swarm of ants, the machines spread over the ground all the way to the horizon. Insects of black, bobbing steel sucking the prehistoric life out of the earth below.
He came across a service road into Chevron, and drove north. Oncoming trucks kicked up dense dust plumes that forced him to roll up the windows and sweat. Pumps lined both sides of the road, and Stone could see how their rocker arms and counterweights pulled on cables attached to piping than ran underground. For some reason, they struck him as very patient and deliberate in their action. They were playing the long game when it came to pulling out the ancient liquid far beneath them.
He reached a tin-roofed building that served as an office. Three roustabouts in greasy denim and hardhats stared at him as he got out and approached.
“’Afternoon,” he said.
“Yup,” the middle one responded. It seemed that cops were no more welcome here than down in Oildale.
“I’m looking for a guy named Bobby Simmons. You know him?”
“Can you tell me where I might find him?”
“Up there.” The middle one pitched his thumb over his shoulder, where the pumps marched up the dirt slope and over the top.
“Up there where?”
The man shrugged. “Workin’ on a pump.”
Stone kept his cool. “Well thanks for your time.” He turned to leave.
“Always a pleasure,” one of the others said in a burst of sophomoric satire.
Stone heard them snicker as he headed back to the car.
The Wakefield represented the new post-war modality in apartment construction. It resembled a highway motel complex more than a traditional multi-family dwelling. Its narrow parking lot faced a string of one-story duplexes, each with two vented metal boxes on the roof: swamp coolers. They leveraged the blazing outdoor temperature to evaporate water and lower the temperature within. The physics of it was lost on Stone, who was simply thankful to gain some marginal relief as he sat in his unit, the one closest to the street.
He looked out through the living room window at his car, the same Chevy he’d had for five years now. It still had some life in it, which was a good thing, considering the pay cut he took after his old job at the LAPD. By comparison, justice in Bakersfield was a bargain basement proposition.
He hummed under his breath as he did the dishes and placed them in the slotted rack of wire dipped in pink rubber. A country tune, a tale of heartbreak, divorce, and bad luck without end. A story uncomfortably close to Stone’s current situation.
The hell with it. He changed into some cotton slacks and donned a sport shirt.
He would mix business and pleasure. He would attempt to intercept Bobby Simmons at his gig tonight.
Dancing Six Nites A Week.
So said the lettering on the south wall of the Blackboard, which sat squat and rectangular off Chester Avenue just north of the city limits. Stone pulled his Chevy into its parking lot of packed dirt. The music was just starting but the lot was already two thirds full. The setting sun of early summer triggered a hot wind that stirred the trees in the rear.
Stone climbed out, locked the door, and looked toward the building’s north wall. He knew immediately that the Blackboard was something very new and different, even if it appeared to be just another lowdown bar.
You could hear the music all the way out here in the parking lot. Even with all the doors closed, it rolled out and saturated the evening air.
He came around to the front, where two big windows of block glass cast the interior into a rippled fog. Neon beer signs occupied the center of each window, and the double doors between them sported glass portholes that afforded just a peek inside.
A Kern County sheriff’s deputy stood in uniform at the entrance. Stone knew the deal. The guy was checking ID as a second job. He gave Stone a sober nod of assent as he passed. Stone was obviously not a minor.
He opened the door into a churning cloud of heat, smoke and noise. The band blasted out from a stage at the rear, and a long bar ran down the right wall. Scuffed tables and chairs surrounded a big dance floor, which was nearly full. The couples moved to the pulse of a classic country shuffle, with the snare down hard on the backbeat.
Stone moved to the bar, climbed onto a stool, and turned to face the band. The music simply refused to be ignored. In LA, country bands were mostly acoustic, with a standup bass, fiddle, guitar and drums. In a noisy bar, they nearly faded into the background behind the shouting, laughing, and hooting. Not here. The bass boomed, the guitar soared and the pedal steel moaned in a stormy crossfire behind the singer. They rode right up over the top of every other sound source in the room. Clinking bottles, guffaws, conversations, thumps and snorts were all subordinated to this musical imperative.
It was electric, both figuratively and literally.
The traditional doghouse bass and fat-bodied guitar were gone, replaced by instruments that looked they’d been cut out on a jigsaw. Their sound sprang from behind the grill cloth of amplifiers resembling suitcases with a tweed covering.
Stone turned his attention to the players themselves. In LA, you saw cowboy hats, rodeo suits and custom shirts. Not here. The band members wore plain shirts with rolled up sleeves against the ever-present heat.
The music stopped, and the band leader took to the microphone for the introductions. He was Bill Woods and these were the Orange Blossom Playboys. Don Markham on sax, Johnny Cuviello on drums, Larry Williams on piano, Truman Feathers sitting in on Fender bass, and sure enough, Bobby Simmons on guitar, sitting in for someone named Buck Owens.
“Now we’re gonna play one more where we let Bobby loose, so look out,” Woods declared.
He gave a quick count and they launched into an up-tempo boogie, the blues on steroids. Woods raised his fiddle close to the microphone and ripped out the lead line. That done, Bobby tore into his solo with long, utterly fluid lines. His fingers skittered over his guitar’s maple fingerboard so fast that it seemed like they hardly moved at all. People at the tables quit talking and gawked. Many of the dancers stopped and stared in wonderment. He finished to a vigorous round of applause. Woods immediately steered the band into a slow waltz, a ballad about heartbreak and bad luck. Like all good showmen, he knew the value of contrast.
The noise level dropped substantially and Stone came to his senses. He turned and ordered a glass of draft beer. As he grasped the cold jacket of condensation, he pondered how to approach Bobby. It would have been a lot easier if the guy was just some low-life vermin. But Bobby was also a genius-level guitar player, which Stone greatly admired. A female voice next to him interrupted his contemplation.
“Okay buddy, we’re all through here. I’ve had just about enough. Got it?”
He turned to a young woman on the next stool over. She was facing away from Stone, and toward a man who had crowded in close to her, his elbow leaning on the bar. He wore a sport shirt with the short sleeves rolled up to accentuate his tanned biceps. His black, wavy hair shone from a generous coat of Brylcreem. He clearly fancied himself a ladies’ man. “Well hell, I think we’re just gettin’ started,” he informed her in a tenor drawl.
The woman turned away from him and toward the bar. She reached for a cigarette she had going in an amber-colored glass ashtray.
The man grinned contemptuously and moved in even closer, inches from her ear.
She calmly turned and blew smoke in his face, a long steady cloud of it.
The grin collapsed into a snarl. He came up off the bar and cocked his right arm into a punching position.
“I think that’s enough,” Stone said.
The man shifted his eyes of dark almond onto Stone. His kept his arm half-cocked. The girl took a sip of her drink and ignored both of them.
“I don’t think it’s any of your goddam business,” the man growled.
Stone had his badge in his pocket and considered playing the cop card. Then he noticed the man lurch slightly. No card necessary. Even though the guy topped him by four inches, he’d be a fraction of a second late in a fight. For Stone, that was all that was necessary. His cop career had left him well schooled in the art of personal violence.
“You don’t know me and I don’t know you,” Stone said in a very composed tone. “And if you’re smart, you’re going to keep it that way.”
Something about his declaration caught the girl’s attention. She turned and gave him an appreciative smile.
The man swayed in drunken rumination. He’d leveraged his size and nasty attitude and it hadn’t worked. His stare lost its edge and turned inward, seeking the next move. He came up empty.
“Buddy, I’ll be seein’ you around,” he told Stone. “Yes, I will.”
He pushed off the bar with a vicious shove and disappeared into the crowd.
“Sorry about that,” Stone said to the girl.
“No need. He’s the sorry one.” The girl was blond and obviously well-kept, with stylish hair and makeup. Nothing you’d find at the five and dime in Oildale.
Stone held out his hand. “Stone. James Stone. Some people call me Jimmy.”
The girl grasped his hand lightly and let go. “I like James. Let’s go with James. I’m Fatalia.”
“What kind of name is that?”
“You’d have to ask my mother. My mother knows everything.”
Stone definitely wanted to hear more, but they were interrupted by the approach of yet another man. Young, trim and well barbered, with a solid air about him. Like Fatalia, his clothes put him several levels above the Backboard.
“Mr. Stone, I’d like you to meet Captain Gary Piland of the United States Air Force,” she said.
“Good to meet you,” Piland said as they shook hands. He moved in and put his arm around Fatalia’s waist. A possessive gesture that defined the playing ground. Stone understood and didn’t care. He was here in pursuit of hot music, not hot women.
“Mr. Stone needed to intervene on my behalf,” Fatalia commented. “I had a gentleman caller who turned out to be not much of a gentleman at all.”
Piland’s sharp blue eyes wrinkled into a grin. “Damn! A guy can’t even take a leak around here without some kinda trouble.”
Stone did a quick sort. What kind of man would bring such an attractive date into a place like this? It was like a lit cigarette next to gasoline. Answer: Someone who lived on the edge, who not only took risks, but embraced them more than life itself.
“You a flyer?” Stone asked.
Piland nodded. “Yep. Over at Edwards.”
Edwards Air Force Base. It sprawled across a broad expanse of desert eighty miles to the southeast. Fast planes, ice-blue sky, white caliche. A place of engineering alchemy, where they forged brains, balls, exotic metals and high-test fuel into machines dedicated to punching gaping holes in the stratosphere. It also served as a sudden tomb for those who went too high, too fast, too slow or were just plain out of luck.
“You got a fast bike, it’s less an hour from here,” Piland added.
“And you got a fast bike, right?”
“Harley Sportster. Goes like the wind.”
The ballad concluded up on the stage and Woods took to the microphone. “Thank y’all. We’re gonna take a little break and be back in fifteen.”
Stone put down forty cents on the bar for his beer and stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to take care of some business. Nice to meet you.”
“Same to you,” Piland said.
Stone managed to intercept Bobby Simmons, just as he climbed off the stage.
“Sergeant Stone of the Bakersfield Police. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
Simmons sighed. He clearly knew this was coming. “Yeah. Follow me.”
They went through a door that took them into the rear of the building. A dozen or so men hunched over two felt-covered poker tables in a thick cloud of tobacco smoke. Simmons led them to a small kitchen area off to the side. He turned to face Stone in a defiant stance.
“So let me guess. You’re here about Charlene.”
“You’re a hell of guitar player, Bobby. I spent years in LA and you’re as good as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
The compliment blindsided Simmons and knocked him off balance, just as Stone knew it would. He pressed on before the kid had a chance to recover. “I talked to Charlene Winter’s mom and she said you two had a big blowout a couple of weeks back. That true?”
“Yeah, I guess we did.”
“Where were you when it happened?”
“In my car out in front of her place.”
“Did you see her any time after that?”
“No sir, I did not. Nor did I want to.”
“Because she was sneakin’ around with somebody else.”
“How’d you know that?”
“Because she told me. She was really pissed and she wanted to get in a good lick and she knew just how to do it. Damn! I didn’t see it comin’.”
“Do you have any idea at all who it might’ve been?”
“No sir. Because if I did, I would have run ’em down and stomped the shit out of ’em.”
“Instead of her?”
Bobby shut up. His lips moved slightly. He was parsing Stone’s question somewhere inside his head. He didn’t like what he came up with. “No sir, I never hit her. I never hit any of ’em. That just ain’t my style. I might be a liar and I might be a cheater, but I ain’t no hitter. Ask around.”
“I’ll do that. Give me some names.” Stone pulled a small notebook and pencil out of his pocket.
Simmons sighed and rattled off the names of a half dozen women. Stone closed the notebook. “Alright then, I saved the best for last. Where were you last night?”
“I was with Pork Chop.”
“And just who is Pork Chop?”
“He’s my bikin’ buddy. Came down from Fresno. His old lady kicked him out.”
“Bikes, huh? What kind of bikes?”
“That would be motorcycles. He’s got a Vincent Black Night and I got a BSA Road Rocket. They’re damn near dead even in a race,” Bobby volunteered. “But we wouldn’t be doin’ that with you around.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t. Has Pork Chop got a real name?”
“Yeah. Harper Lewis.”
Stone opened his notebook again. “And what were you and Mr. Lewis up to last night?”
Bobby shrugged. “Just the usual. We rode around and hit a bunch of bars. Rainbow Gardens, Clover Club, Barrel House, Trout’s. They’re all good for a free beer ’cause I sit in a lot.”
“Is Pork Chop still in town?”
“And where might I find him?”
“There’s a bike shop out east on Niles Street. He’s buddies with the owner and stays up on the second floor. He’s gotta go downstairs to take a leak, but at least he’s got a mattress to crash on.”
“This place got a name?”
“Red Flag Repair.”
Stone pocketed the notebook. “I just might want to talk to you again, so why don’t you stick around town?”
Bobby shrugged. “Sure. I mean, where would I go? I always been here.”
This final reply would have struck Stone as odd when he first arrived in Bakersfield, but no longer. Unless you were at the top of the heap, the place formed something close to a perfect seal. You went into the oven, baked until well done, and then came out just in time to expire.
Stone left Bobby in the back and returned to the bar. Capt. Piland was regaling Fatalia with a tale of stark terror on high. He stopped just long enough to give Stone a friendly nod and continued. “So I’m at forty-five thousand feet, and the controls are jammed. I’m going in a tight little circle. You don’t want to bail out from up here. There’s too much can go wrong. When it happens, they find guys out on the desert, just sitting by their chute. They look fine, but they’re not fine. Zombies. Brain dead. They lost their oxygen.”
Fatalia gave Stone a little sideways glance and returned her attention to Piland. He gave the couple a polite wave and headed for the door. Stone smiled to himself. He had to wonder how many women had heard that story.
Outside, he stopped to chat with the deputy, one cop to another. The guy turned out to be surprisingly articulate, and a consummate student of the Blackboard scene. Yeah, Bobby Simmons, he knew all about Bobby Simmons. The guy played his ass off but was a real prima donna. Didn’t get along well with the other players. Never had a full-time gig because nobody would put up with all his bullshit.
The talk turned to the body in the river, Charlene Winters. Stone told the deputy that he was the detective on the case, but didn’t bring up the possible connection to Bobby Simmons. The deputy worked for Kern County, whose jurisdiction ended at the Kern River. He said the boys at the office were betting that it was some Oildale punk did it. That might pull the investigation back over the river and into their territory. He said that, for the cops, murders around here were like dog biscuits: They didn’t come along very often, so you jumped and snapped if you could get one.
Stone doubted if that would bring any consolation to Charlene’s mother. He said goodnight and turned the corner into the parking lot.
He walked toward the rear, where the light tapered off and the trees loomed. A hot breeze teased their leaves into a busy little rustle.
He was just about to unlock his car when he heard the voice behind him.
“Well what d’ya know. Lookee who we got here.”
He immediately recognized the source. The tall guy who tried to corner Fatalia.
Stone turned to face him. He wasn’t alone. Two other men flanked him. All leaned on the dented quarter panel of an old pickup about five yards away. The man in question came off the truck, his arms and legs slightly spread. The pose accentuated his height and size.
Stone had to make an immediate decision. He chose to go on the verbal offensive before the guy got off another shot. “So who are your pals? Santa’s little helpers?”
“Ain’t nothin’ gonna help you, Buddy. Not no more.” He started toward Stone. He came at a smooth and measured pace. He’d sobered up considerably.
Once again, Stone considered pulling out his badge. Once again, he decided not to. He liked the music here and wanted to come back for more. He didn’t want the word out that he was a cop.
Besides, the big guy had already made his first and probably final mistake. He’d judged Stone on the basis of size, and little else. The man had four inches and maybe thirty pounds on him, and figured that this advantage trumped all others that might favor the little guy. Wrong. What he didn’t know was that Stone was incredibly fast. Always had been. In high school, he was renowned for flipping a penny and catching it with his other hand before you could even see it in the air.
He also didn’t know that Stone was a cop, who had long ago mastered the vocabulary of personal violence. But he was about to find out.
The man squared off a couple of feet from him. In the rear, Stone saw the two companions start slowly forward. He removed them from the current equation. One thing at a time.
“It’s payback time, little buddy,” the man said. “You scored one in there, now I’m gonna score one out here.”
That said, he threw a vicious roundhouse right.
Stone always suspected that the world somehow appeared slower to him than to other people. Not a lot, but just enough to make a critical difference in situations like this. He ducked under the punch, which he saw as a lazy overhead arc. At the same time, he stepped forward and delivered a thunderous right to the man’s midsection. He knew that in a bar brawl, nobody expects a body punch. He also knew that it’s one thing to absorb a boxing glove to the abdomen, like you saw on TV, and quite another to take the impact of a hard, balled fist. The muscles caved in all the way to man’s intestines. His eyes bulged, his cheeks puffed, his mouth flew open.
Just for good measure, Stone repeated the same punch with his left hand.
He stepped back as the man crumbled and continued on down until he rested on his knees and elbows with his head tucked down out of sight. An almost religious pose of private agony.
Now, the other two. It was going to be problematic. One had come up with a tire iron, the other, a switchblade. They spread out as they neared him, so he couldn’t engage both at the same time.
Stone was still calculating whom to engage first when he heard the unmistakable sound an automatic pistol made as it chambered a fresh round. The sibilant hiss of metal on metal. Stone and the two men all turned in the direction of the sound.
Capt. Gary Piland of the United States Air Force stood with pistol in hand and pointed skyward. “Gentlemen, what we have here is a military-issue weapon, a Colt .45 Automatic Pistol. It is part of the survival gear we take into combat to deal with unforeseen circumstances, such as crashing or bailing out behind enemy lines. As such, we are thoroughly trained in its use and proficient at distances of up to thirty yards, which is somewhat greater than the dimensions of this parking lot. For this reason, I suggest that you drop your weapons, scoop up your fallen comrade and disperse. Immediately.”
The men complied, silently and sullenly. They managed to get their leader part way to his feet, one holding each arm. He staggered forward in a heavy crouch and howled in torment when they tried to get him into the cab. Instead, they took him around to the rear and loaded him onto the bed. That done, they drove off down Chester in a defiant squeal of rubber.
Stone turned to Piland as the truck drove into the distance. “I thank you, sir.”
Piland removed the clip from the pistol, ejected the chambered round and put the weapon in his pocket. “Let me guess: That was the guy who closed in on Fatalia.”
“That was him.”
“Then everything’s evened up. By the way, you’re one fast son of a bitch. Ever had your reflexes tested?”
“Not that I know of.”
“You could’ve been a flyer.”
“Yeah, maybe. But that’s not the way it worked out.”
Fatalia came walking out of the shadows from the far side of the parking lot. “Gary, I’m getting very bored. I don’t respond well to waiting in the car, even when they’re playing Sinatra. What’s going on here?”
“Your boyfriend was trying to recruit me into the Air Force,” Stone said. “Didn’t work.”
“We’re going up the road to Trout’s,” Piland said. “Care to join us?”
“Who’s playing?” Stone asked.
“That would be Tex Butler and Fuzzy Owen,” Fatalia said.
“Don’t know them,” Stone replied.
“Well maybe you should,” Fatalia responded.
“Some other time,” Stone said. “I got a big day at work tomorrow, so I think I’m going to call it a night.”
“Where do you work?” Piland asked.
“I’m with the Bakersfield Police Department.”
“Really? Well that explains quite a bit,” Piland said. An impish grin caught up with him. “You better watch for concealed weapons around here. I hear it’s a real problem.”
“I’ll do my best,” Stone promised.
Fatalia grasped Piland’s arm and started to turn him. “Goodnight, officer.”
Pierre Ouellette’s first two books were the science fiction thrillers The Deus Machine and The Third Pandemic. Writing as Pierre Davis, he published A Breed Apart in 2009 and Origin Unknown in 2011. Under his own name, The Forever Man came out in 2014. Starting his working life as a professional guitarist, Pierre played in numerous Portland-area rock bands and jazz ensembles, including Paul Revere and the Raiders, Jim Pepper and David Friesen. He was a co-founder of KVO, a Portland-based ad/PR agency focused on science and technology, and served as creative director for two decades before the agency was sold in 2000. Pierre now works as a video/film producer and guitarist when not writing. He lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon.