The man stepped out into the blazing sun. His face had the kind of burnt tan that marked him as a local. A surfer or a lifeguard. There were hundreds like him in Huntington Beach.
The short sleeves on his black tee shirt were rolled up exposing a skull tattooed on his right bicep.
The blond man kicked aside a palm frond that had fallen on the steaming hot macadam in front of him and walked to the trunk of his car. He clicked the button on his key and the lid sprung open. The man ran a hand through his hair, took off his glasses, tucking them into his wide hand-tooled Mexican belt. He reached inside the trunk, pulled out a black ski mask and put it over his head. Then he grabbed a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun and closed the trunk.
No one saw him.
The blond man walked towards the sidewalk. He checked out three stores that divided up a modest one-story red brick building that stood out among the Spanish-styled white stucco structures that dominated the area. He focused on the store located between Surf City Gifts and the Psychic Boutique. Its plate glass window featured a huge mural of a bright pink hairy spider. A giant pair of wooden scissors swung above the door. Gothic lettering on the sides of the scissors identified the place as “Pink Tarantula – Coiffeur.”
The man walked straight towards the door under the scissors, turned the knob, then kicked it open with a black leather boot. Three of the salon’s walls were covered with photos of queens and trannies wearing fantastic hairdos, floor length gowns, bedecked with jewels. The fourth wall featured a mural of a surfer riding on the back of a massive pink tarantula. Shelves held antique metal children’s toys. Rockabilly music blared from a hidden sound system.
The man stood for a moment in the doorway, blinding light from behind transforming him into a silhouette figure. Like those they cut for you down on the pier.
A tall woman with long, perfectly-formed legs, like a Varga Girl, stood by a salon chair staring at the figure. She wore white shorts, a halter, and black shoes with spiked heels. A striking bright-red Mohawk with a flowing mane crowned her head. She was talking to a pale thin lady in the chair. Fingers with two inch long jeweled nails molded the young woman’s waxed, spiked green hair.
Tattoos, piercings covered her client. The seated lady wore a white tee shirt with a green cannabis leaf on its front, and faded jeans, torn at the crotch exposing green panties.
The tall woman fell silent. The masked man walked towards her, shotgun pointed at her head. The woman muttered a word and dropped the blower in her hand.
The masked man fired one round of buckshot directly into her head. Pieces of flesh and dyed red hair soaked in blood, spattered the walls, ceilings, and the young woman in the chair. He fired his second shell into the torso of the now slumped over almost headless woman. In less than a second extravagant beauty was transformed into a macabre scene of carnage.
The young lady in the chair was too frightened to make a sound.
The killer walked out into Surf City’s sun. He looked around and saw no one. Then turned back towards the salon. The patron was staring at him. He broke open the shotgun, pulled out the two spent shells and stuck them into his pocket. Reloaded and prepared to reenter. At that very moment a young man holding a surfboard came down the street. A group of three young women in bathing suits with wraparound skirts approached in the opposite direction. A Jag slowly drove up Main. The surfer froze. The young ladies screamed. The Jag gunned its engine.
The man stopped in his tracks, pumped both barrels. In his hurry he missed the door and patron, but blasted out the window. Glass splayed throughout the store, shards sticking to walls and photos. One piece cut the young woman in the forehead. She let out a high-pitched shriek. Like a banshee at an Irish wake.
The man rushed back to his car, opened the passenger door, threw in the gun and climbed into his rice burner. He ripped off his mask, replaced the mirror sunglasses, turned on the engine, jammed the shift into reverse and sped backwards into Main Street. He shifted to first, gunned his engine. The car bucked as he roared away, spewing a dark cloud of smoke out his reamed exhaust pipe.
Sirens rent the air. The police arrived to find the young woman, blood dripping from her forehead, pieces of the tall woman’s flesh clinging to her once white tee-shirt, screaming obscenities as she cradled in her lap the remains of the dead woman’s head.
Not a single witness could give the police any useful description. Not the young lady within, not the surfer and the three young women without. The cops could not locate the driver of the passing Jag.
The phone was ringing. I had fallen asleep in my wheelcahir in front of the TV. So much for re-runs of Law & Order. I picked up the phone. Henrietta. I had been blessedly free of her for some months now. My luck was about to end. And that lady was trouble.
She’s convinced I needed her to help me in my investigations. The truth was I usually ended up helping her. Most of the time my clients don’t even know what I look like. I offer my services tracing people through my web site, Tom Bateman, Investigations. These days most people do their own searching through Google. No problem as long the person you are looking for wants to be found. If your ex-husband or former business partner is determined not to be found, then you need a determined PI. Me.
“Crip. Can you hear me?” she shouted into the phone. In the background I could hear the roar of surf, the cawing of seagulls, the chattering of voices, laughter.
“Where are you?”
“I’m on the pier.”
“What’re you doing there?”
“It’s horrible, Crip. Some guy just walked into the Pink Tarantula with a shotgun and blew Charlie away.”
“The Pink what?”
“You got a hearing problem? I’m the one who should have one. That blast is still ringing in my ears. Everybody’s heard of the Pink Tarantula. World famous hair salon. People come from London, Paris to have Charlie do their hair.”
“What’s that got to do with you?”
“I was sitting in the chair. Blood, specks of flesh all over me. My friend Charlie. Christ’s sake. That’s what I get for giving a shit about somebody.”
“Are you okay?”
“Fuck no. The cops were grilling me all afternoon. Like I knew something about it. Maybe knew the killer. Shit, Crip, you know me. Straight and narrow all the way. Clean and sober. Won’t even cross the street against the light.”
“Now, let’s not get carried away,” I said. Actually it was hard to think of anything Henrietta did that was legal. But she tended towards the petty. Pot growing and peddling. “What in the world are you doing in Huntington Beach? I never knew you to be into surfing.”
“Gotta be kidding. The sun’s been driving me crazy here. Can’t keep out of it. Gonna ruin my complexion. This fucking good weather is depressing the shit out of me. And all these surfing dudes with their bulging muscles and balls. I’d like to knee each one of them. Wipe those stupid smiles off their faces.”
“So why are you there?”
Not easy to get a straight answer out of Henrietta.
“Charlie’s my friend. Or she was. You know I hate chicks. Always gossiping and backstabbing. But Charlie was different. We go way back. She called me. She’s been going through shit with a messy divorce. Now the fucker’s gone, she missed the asshole. Cryin’ on the damn phone. That’s not Charlie. She’s no drama queen. And I hate tears. She said I was the only person in the whole world she could talk to. Sent me the fare, so I had to come.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Come down here. The cops won’t believe that I saw nothing. Suppose I did see something. Then that killer’s after me.”
Here we go again. Never a straight answer, always a twist. A deadly twist.
“Which is it? Did you see something or not?”
“Now you’re grilling me. Some friend. We’ve got to find that motherfucker who shot Charlie. Least we can do.”
“Crip, we’ve faced down some bad motherfuckers. Just this one time. If that dude pumps buckshot into me, it’ll be on you.”
I didn’t know why I bothered to argue with her. I knew in the end I’d do what she asked me to do. Fate. There was more involved. I missed that crazy chick.
“Where are you now?”
“On the pier. By the large pavilion at the end.”
“What’re you doing there?”
“Can’t leave here, Crip. He’s out there. Think he saw me go out on the pier.”
“So you did see the killer.”
“Come on. No more third degree. Ain’t got no money. Just used my last change for a cheese dog and chips. I’m stuck out here freezing my balls off.”
“You know what I mean. All I got on is a tee shirt and once that fucking sun goes down might as well be in Alaska. Don’t worry, Crip. When I get back to Berkeley I’ll repay you for your gas, the time. I’m no sponge. Got this stash.”
“Okay, okay. I’m driving down.” I looked at my watch. Midnight. “Don’t count on me getting there before morning sometime. Where are you going to sleep?”
“Under the pier. Won’t be the first time I slept under a pier. Just hurry.”
At 1 AM a tall muscular blond man stepped out of a dark blue Toyota parked on the Pacific Coast Highway. He passed a young couple, walking hand-in-hand off the pier. The last stragglers. He carried a long canvas case that could have held a fishing rod. But didn’t. He discovered that the pavilion was locked. No one was around.
He returned to the shore, found the path to the beach, and walked out under the pier. Around a dozen homeless lay dozing in sleeping bags. Two bearded young men sat around a fire with a young green-haired girl. They were sharing weed. Blinded by the light of the fire, they did not see him. He turned and walked back to the steps and up to the sidewalk. He did not like witnesses.
He vowed to return to his stakeout the next morning.
I spotted her in the distance as I rolled down the pier towards the pavilion. While everybody else was basking in the warm sun, Henrietta was huddled in the shade, back against the side of the structure.
It was a magnificent day. A brisk wind produced long powerful waves while surfers rode them, swooping down the tunnel they created. Seagulls circled overhead. In the distance I could see Catalina Island.
“There you are Crip,” she said as I rolled up in front of her. “’Bout time.” So much for thanking me for driving all the way down here. But I expected no more. She had a scowl on her face and a Camel cigarette between her lips. The combination of fag and a fake diamond stud piercing her tongue gave her a slight lisp turning “Crip” into “Crisp.”
Henrietta didn’t fit in. On a Berkeley street no one would even notice her. But here, sun blazing away, her pale skin made her look like an extra left over from The Night Of The Living Dead.
“What’s this all about?”
“Like I told you this dude blasted Charlie. Bits of my best friend were all over me.” She hesitated. Was she going to cry? If she could I knew she would but she couldn’t. Not Henrietta, not ever. “There was nothing I could do. Then he turned and left. I tried to get up. I couldn’t move, then the fucker fired into the window. I got caught by flying glass.” I noticed a bandage on her brow. “My friend’s gone and those storm troopers are trying to pin it on me. Say I know the guy. Maybe set her up. Come on. You know me, Crip. I wouldn’t do shit like that. And who do I know in this goddamn oven? Only her. Nobody else.”
“Slow down. Why do they think it’s connected to you?”
“Cus the fucker didn’t blast me as well.”
“And why didn’t he?”
“Use your brains. He only had two shells ready to go. And he wanted to do Charlie for sure. Then he walks out. I could see him through the open door. He reloads, comes back for me, but changes his mind. There were witnesses out there. So’s he turns and runs for his rice burner.”
“Rice burner. Rice rocket. All the gang bangers down here have ‘em. Souped up Japanese cars. You should’ve seen him take off. Thought he was going to fly.”
“Sounds reasonable to me. And the cops didn’t buy it?”
“They kept grilling me. Like I know the guy. Or could spot him again. I mean all I saw was this black figure, sun streaming in around him. I told ‘em that.”
“Did I what?”
“Recognize him. The killer certainly seemed to think you did. And if you didn’t recognize him how could you be so sure he’s waiting for you to leave this pier?”
“Didn’t say I saw him when I came out here. I mean like upfront in the face or somethin’. Think I spotted his car.”
“Back in the salon did you or didn’t you recognize him?”
Henrietta gave me one of those looks I’ve seen on her face before. Straining to look innocent. Something not really possible in her case. Glancing around hoping for a distraction. Then a huge puff on her cigarette sending the smoke right into my face.
“Didn’t actually recognize him. I mean not definitely. For sure. But…”
“When he was in the salon, it was just like I said to the cops. Bright sun coming in the door blinding us, a black ski mask, silhouette. I looked up at Charlie. Like me, at first she didn’t recognize the fucker. Then she said, ‘Skull.’ That’s when he blasted her.”
“That’s all. Just ‘Skull?’”
“Like a name. He went out into the sun and turned towards the door. Like only then he remembered what she said. I could see clearly a skull tattoo on his arm. I mean like it all clicked. I stared at the damn tattoo. He noticed. That’s when he reloaded and started to walk back towards the salon’s door.”
“Just a skull. Must be thousands of them out there.”
“Not like this one. The skull was laughing.”
“Your friend Charlie sure knew how to pick ‘em. Where’d you see that tattoo before?”
“Not the tattoo. The skull. On the side of a Harley in a photo at Charlie’s house.”
“Far from here?”
“Not too far. I got the key since I’ve been staying with her.”
“You shittin’ me?”
“Unless you want to spend the rest of your life sitting on this pier sulking. On the way you can tell me all about Charlie.”
“I don’t know, Crip. I’m kinda tired.”
“You’re tired? I’m the one who’s been driving all night.”
I started wheeling back down the pier towards the Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street. Henrietta grumbled, then rose and followed me.
We passed a Hispanic man fishing, little girl in blue jeans sitting beside him playing with a handheld computer game. A boy dangled a string over the pier’s edge. Probably crabbing. A young woman, wearing a sports bra and extremely short shorts, jogged past, I-pod clipped to her backside, cord leading to earphones flailing in the wind.
I said, “Tell me about this husband of Charlie’s. Could he be the killer?”
“Harvey? Wasn’t him came in that door with the shotgun.”
“Maybe someone he hired.”
“Charlie was scared of the guy. That’s why she made a generous divorce settlement. He inherits nothing. She told me he’s down Mexico. Cabo. Checked out, the cops say. He’s on his way back up for the memorial service.”
“What’s Harvey like?”
“Slimeball. Good riddance. He was her business manager. Robbing her blind.”
We had reached the end of the pier. Henrietta stopped talking and scanned the Pacific Coast Highway for the blue Toyota. I navigated the crowded street and found the curb cut. Then we headed to the parking garage and my van.
A dark blue, low-slung Toyota with tinted windows was parked a half-block away, its motor running. A Lincoln Navigator shielded it from being seen by anyone coming off the pier. The driver spotted the green-haired girl walking next to a man in a wheelchair. When the pair entered the parking garage, the blond man drove the Toyota up the PCH to a new position where he would be able to check out each car as it left the garage.
When Tom Bateman’s van drove out of the parking garage, the Toyota pulled away from the curb and followed. Neither Bateman nor Henrietta noticed the vehicle in the heavy traffic on the PCH.
“Where’re we headed?”
“Drive north on the PCH. Then right on 15th St. She lives just past Olive.”
“Where’d you meet Charlie? In the Bay Area?”
“Way before I ended up in Berkeley. It was in Tucson.”
“I thought you didn’t like hot.”
“I don’t but when you’re on the road you ain’t got much choice. You end up where you end up. The farther away from home the better. So’s anyway Charlie and I were living under this overpass. Least it blocked out the sun. And rain but it rarely rained. I was thirteen. She was seventeen.
“At the beginning she kind of took care of me. We were hustling, sellin’ some dope. I’d do some spare-changin’ cus people are more likely to give to a kid. She’d keep the guys from stealing from me. Most days we hung out under the overpass. She had this sketchpad. These pastel crayons. Always doodling. Creating these wild hairdos. Every now and then she’d get to do a hair-extension or dye job in a salon. But she never got a chair of her own. It was okay. I’d just lie there, smoke dope, with my head in her lap. Time just passed. Never quite knew what day it was.
“Fine with me. But not fine with her.”
I slowed to make the turn up 15th Street.
“What was her problem?”
“Heroin. I told her to keep away from that stuff. But she wouldn’t listen. She was the grown-up. I was the kid. That shit’s expensive and she started taking more and more. So’s she had to turn tricks. Sometimes I wouldn’t see her for days and when she turned up she’d be all dirty, bruised, shaking. I told her she was killing herself. I did my best to help. I held her ‘til she stopped shaking. I gave her what little money I had. Then, I’d go and find her dope. I never could say no to Charlie.”
“So you, the kid, ended up helping her, the supposed adult.”
“Somethin’ like that. Then she finally realized she had to give up the dope, or she would never be able to fulfill her dream.”
“What was her dream?”
“Those great dos she’d sketched. Said she wanted to change the world by changing everybody’s hair. I told her she was crazy. Like we were just trying to survive and keep away from the fuckers. That wasn’t enough for her.”
Henrietta paused then continued. “I helped her go cold turkey. Held her while she writhed and screamed. Wiped her sweating brow. In the end she made it. Underneath Charlie’s tough. I mean really tough. And she had something I didn’t have.”
“What was that?”
“A reason to live. Somethin’ she had to do.” Henrietta paused. “Hey, slow down. Her house’s coming up.”
I slowed and then, as directed, I turned into a driveway next to a one-story tan stucco home, red tile roof. Palm tree out front. Jacaranda and cacti surrounded a bay window, neatly mowed green grass, crushed shell walkway.
Two blocks back near Walnut, the dark blue Toyota found a parking space in the deserted neighborhood. The driver left the motor running.
I reached over to the glove compartment, grabbed my automatic, then unlocked my chair, rolled back to the lift and down onto the driveway pavement. Normally I didn’t view being a paraplegic as a handicap. After all, I have compensated by building up my upper body. And I’m fast as hell pumping my chair with its titanium wheels. This was not one of those times. I stared at the two steps leading up to the house’s doorway.
“Sorry Crip, but I can’t carry you.”
“I don’t want to be carried, for Christ’s sake. Just the chair. But first open the door.”
Henrietta unlocked and opened the front door as I rolled up to the steps. I locked the chair’s wheels and lowered myself onto the first step. I sat down facing out. Then, using my hands, I braced myself up the steps backwards and then pumped my way into the place. Like doing pushups. Not a problem, physically. Kind of like a chimp knuckle-walking. But I’m not a chimp, having evolved a bit higher up the evolutionary ladder. Yet that bullet that hit my spine in ‘Nam had knocked me back down that ladder a bit.
I was pissed that after all these years I felt humiliated. Henrietta, who has the sensitivity of Rush Limbaugh, wasn’t watching. With a lit Camel hanging out the side of her mouth, she cursed as she dragged the wheelchair into the house. Seemed she was doing her best to scratch it up.
I raised myself back into the chair and rolled to the middle of the living room. Spacious, impeccably clean. On the wall were pastels of glams, trannies, and queens sporting a fantastic array of hair coifed into a rainbow of colors and shapes. Sensory overload.
“They call her the ‘Picasso of Coiffure,’ whatever that means,” Henrietta said.
“How’d she end up here in this bleached-out beach town? Looks more the San Francisco type.”
“When I left Tucson, Charlie stayed. She loved the sun as much as I hated it. And she finally got a chair in a salon. I didn’t hear from her for years, ‘til she ended up in San Francisco. Started hangin’ with the trannies and queens. Lived in an old building in the Mission they called ‘The Slut House.’ Joined a post-punk rock group, ‘Surfin’ in the Sewer.’
“Crazy scene, Crip. These fags weren’t trying to look like women. Charlie said they wanted to transform themselves into living, breathing works of art. Weird. But I liked ‘em. Trying to freak out the square world. I could go with that. She helped them. They helped her. Her dos got wilder and wilder.”
“Did she get back into drugs?”
“No, she was always preaching against heroin, then crack, meth. I’d go over there from time to time. You know me, Crip. They don’t come any straighter, but I kind of liked the weird scene. The way it offended so many people, even gays. I had to hand it to ‘em. She caught on. Straight glam queens with bucks sought out her Mission salon. Then the fashion mags started to hire her for shoots. Remember the heroin look?”
“Can’t say that I do.”
“Caused a sensation. All these zoned-out skinny women with spiked hair. Everything black and grey. Drug paraphernalia lying around, in dreary rooms, just starin’ into the camera. Like Zombies. She created the look. Hired me for one shoot. It’s not like she was back into drugs. But she remembered.
“Then one fashion outfit hired her for a shoot in Huntington Beach. The idea was to break from that shit. Launch a new trend. Post-punk, flamboyant color with a baked-out background of beach volleyball. She loved the place. Put money down on a house that very week. Then found a shop on Main.
“Said there’s better surfin’ here than in the sewer.”
I was getting a pretty good feel for Charlie and the life she had led. It should be helping us find the killer. But so far it was not. And yet I was sure that somewhere in that past, in those swirls of defiant hair and glitz, was a trail that would lead us to the killer. “The photo,” I said.
“Where’s that photo with Skull in it?”
“Foll…” She stopped in mid-word. “Hear that?” I heard a low rumble, growing in volume like a rocket headed for the space station. “Gotta be that rice burner again.”
The rumble was right out front. So loud a vase on the shelf over the fireplace fell off. I rolled off my chair and dragged Henrietta down with me.
“What the fuck?”
I pulled out my gun just as a blast shattered the front window, buckshot smashing into a large mirror on the opposite wall over the couch. I dragged myself over shards of glass to the window. When I needed to, I can drag real fast. All I saw was a streak of blue going up the street. No license plate on the damn rice burner.
A drive-by right in the middle of middle class Huntington
“That all you got to say, Henrietta?”
“Not much better. Come on. With all that racket, the police will be here any minute. Show me that damned photo.”
“We gotta go.”
I righted my chair and scrambled back into it. My leg was bleeding, cut by a piece of glass. Having no feeling in my legs can be an advantage. Reluctantly, Henrietta led me into the next room. Charlie’s study. I spotted the picture immediately. I grabbed it off the wall, frame and all, spun my wheels, headed back into the living room, and then out the front door.
I banged my way down the front steps. Not too good for my spine, but we had no time. Henrietta ran after me. I rolled up on my lift, then in the van. Henrietta piled into the passenger seat.
As I gunned the engine and swung out of the driveway, I could hear sirens in the distance. No match for a rice rocket, but that van could move when I needed it to. I swung down Orange Avenue just as a police cruiser pulled up in front of Charlie’s house.
I had my reasons for leaving. PIs aren’t supposed to investigate murders in the State of California. And local cops would definitely resent a PI turning up from Northern California. But why was Henrietta so determined to get out of there? What hadn’t she told me?
We sat outside of the Java Joint Coffee House on the Pacific Coast Highway. In the shade in deference to Henrietta. The sun blasted away through the palm trees lining the green along the beach. A breeze helped cool us. Joggers and in-line skaters in bikinis and shorts had taken over the sidewalk under the trees. The highway was clogged.
I had cleaned up my cut while in the van. I always keep a first aid kit there. Surface scratch. No big deal. And I was not worried about a return visit from our shotgun toter, not with so many witnesses around. Still I positioned myself facing outward, back to the wall.
Lunchtime and the place was packed. Henrietta sat opposite me facing a plate piled high with four humungous chocolate chip cookies and a giant Coke. I sipped my latté, munched on a croissant stuffed with crabmeat, and studied the photograph. A customized Harley with a laughing skull painted on the fuel tank dominated the scene. A large blond man, tanned, matching skull tattooed on his bulging bicep, sat on the front of the seat. Behind him was a tough-looking dude, sporting a dyed-black, 12-inch-tall flattop. Last, pressed against a rococco chromed back rest, was a tattooed woman, with shoulder-length, dark-turquoise-green hair and wearing a bright red bikini. She had the most gorgeous legs I have ever seen.
I pointed to the lady and said to Henrietta, “I assume that’s Charlie.”
“Damn right it is.”
“The other two?”
“The guy with the black flattop is Harvey, her ex-husband. The blond is Skull.”
“That’s it, ‘Skull.’ Nothing more.”
“What they call him. I think his full name is Robert something. Somethin’ that didn’t fit. Oh, I know, Robert Small.”
“Now we are getting someplace.” I put down my coffee and grabbed Henrietta’s hand. Icy cold. She tried to pull loose. I didn’t let go. “We’ve come to the moment of truth.”
“What you talkin’ about?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ll spell it out for you. The killer barges in. Being startled and with the sun in your eyes, you don’t recognize him. I buy that. All he’s concerned with at that moment is offing Charlie and getting the hell out of there. He fires. Figures you can’t recognize him. So he doesn’t bother to reload and pump buckshot into you. He turns and heads out the door.
“Something clicks in his head. He realizes he knows you. That’s why he takes the risk of reentering the store to off you. And he would’ve, had it not been for all those witnesses showing up. That’s why he’s been following us. That’s why he shot into Charlie’s house.”
“Fuck you. I knew I shouldn’t’a called you. I’m going.”
Henrietta tried to get up. I held onto her.
“That’s what happened, isn’t it?”
“So I knew the dude and he knew me. Big deal.”
“It’s a big deal if we get shot. Tell me how you know him.”
“Skull’s a biker. Like Harvey. They used to ride with the Hell’s Angels. Charlie started hangin’ with both of ‘em. She headed south. They followed.”
“And your connection. Come on. All of it.”
“Me and Alvin sold ‘em weed. They transported the stuff to the LA area. Our distributors there. Then Charlie forced Harvey to quit the business. But Skull kept peddling.”
Alvin was Henrietta’s heavy metal, white supremist boy friend. “Is he still dealing for you?”
“Not since Alvin died last year. Got no product.”
Killed in a drug deal gone bad. And no great loss to humanity. But Henrietta thought the world of him. Looked for a moment like she was going to tear up. Of course, Henrietta never cries.
“Can you think of any reason why Skull would want to kill Charlie?”
“Got to be a money angle. Nothin’ else means shit to Skull.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“Why should I know?”
“But you do.”
I figured either the cops or Charlie’s family, or her friends, would have told her.
“Day after tomorrow, 2 P.M.”
“They expect the cops to release the body that soon?”
“It’s not really a funeral. With a body and all that kind of shit. Charlie wouldn’t’ve wanted to be some made-up corpse lying there waiting for Dracula. She would want to be remembered alive. She’s being cremated. A memorial service.”
“St. Wilfrid’s Episcopal Church on Chapel Lane.”
“No. I’m not. Charlie comes from some old New England family. Her full name was Charlene Hopkins. The hypocrites haven’t talked to her for decades but they’re all comin’ out here. Like they hope to inherit.”
“Shit, man. Suppose Skull shows up?”
“I’m counting on it.”
“Where to now?”
“We’ll get a motel by the beach with wi-fi. I need to do some research and we both need some sleep.”
“What are we gonna’ do for two days?”
“Keep out of sight. Hang out. Read a book.”
“You shittin’ me?”
St. Wilfred’s was at the other end of Main and then some. A different world. No surfers. No beach. Palms, grass, posh homes, and even a decorative conifer or two. The church itself had an edifice that reminded me of a mortuary or the entrance to a cemetery. Fitting for this occasion.
The parking lot was already filled so I began to cruise nearby streets looking for a space. That’s when I spotted it. A huge Harley, black body, massive seat covered with sheepskin and an elaborate ornamental seatback with chrome filigree. A skull emblazoned on the gas tank laughed at me. It was the machine from the photo.
“That Skull’s?” I asked Henrietta.
“You seem to know a lot about this Skull guy.”
“I know he sold it to Harvey. Skull was always running out of money.”
I found a parking spot just down the street from the Harley.
“We gotta’ park here?” Henrietta asked.
With Henrietta at my side, I rolled up the ramp provided by these good Christians.
“Fuck, Crip. Let’s get out of here,” she whispered in my ear. My eyes followed hers to the stained glass window in the front, the cross, the altar. For once I felt she had a point.
Then I looked at the audience. Most of the pews were filled with lost souls as out of place in this environment as ourselves. Tanned surfers and beach bums, tattooed women with spiked hair, bikers in leather, trannies and queens dressed to shock. The family clustered in the front pews on the right. As if they were sticking together for protection. On the left was a group of men in suits with open collar sport shirts with lovely, decidedly straight women who looked right out of a Vogue ad. I figured them for the movie folks who knew Charlie through fashion and advertising shoots.
Most striking were the flowers. The entire altar area was drenched in roses, carnations, dahlias, lilies, bouquets of orchids. I rolled up for a closer look. Attached were notes, handwritten poems, photos of Charlie hugging a coifed beauty, antique metal toys, LP albums of classic 50s and 60s hits. Henrietta and I blended right in. It was Charlie’s relatives that didn’t fit.
After the usual sermon about Charlie “going to a better place” – I wondered if there was a place better for her than this world here on earth she had created – came the testimonials. A dour-faced mother spoke of “Charlene, such a happy, fun-loving child.” A tall thin, gray-haired father in proper mourning clothes, noted that “in her mature years Charlene had drifted away from her family.” An understatement if there ever was one. Then her friends got up and described a Charlie that fitted the photo of her on the back of the Harley, the drawings on the wall of her home. Henrietta’s friend.
A hush fell over the audience as a large man with dyed black hair, now short cropped, got up to speak. Harvey. He mumbled something about Charlie being the “love of his life” stumbling over the word “love”, then quickly returned to his seat.
The crowd dispersed quickly. The family piled into limousines prepared to drive to a reception someplace. The biker and surfer crowd took off, seeking to get as far away from Episcopalianism as they could. Harvey was the last to leave and he was completely by himself. I figured no way did this fellow want to smooze with Charlie’s friends.
As soon as I saw him emerge from the church, I nudged Henrietta and started wheeling fast back towards our van. I knew where I would find this fellow. And he, I was quite sure, would lead us to Skull.
Following the Harley was a piece of cake. It made as much noise as a Mack truck. Harvey rolled out of middle-class residential Huntington Beach and back on down to the PCH. He turned right and headed towards Long Beach.
“Where the hell is he going?” Henrietta asked.
“I don’t know exactly but I know why. He came straight from Cabo to the memorial service. Had to be present so people wouldn’t suspect him of the murder. He wouldn’t have been stupid enough to pay Skull off ahead of time.”
“But what did Harvey have to gain by killing Charlie?”
“You’ll see. But right now I figure he’s headed to a meet with Skull. We’ll nab both of them.”
No time for more discussion. We came to a warehouse area and he turned down a narrow street between cinderblock buildings. He pulled into a vacant lot. Someone had parked a trashy Winnebago there and placed a “For Sale” sign in its window. He stopped and turned off his engine.
I crept through a curb break and pulled my van behind the RV. He didn’t see me. Then I used the lift and lowered the chair out the side. I rolled up to him, Henrietta hanging back.
He stared at Henrietta, “What are you doing here?”
“It’s free country,” she answered.
“Come on, Henrietta, what’s your hustle? And who’s the crip?”
“A friend,” she said.
“And what’s your angle?” he asked me.
“Just curious about something. The shotgun. Was that your idea or Skull’s choice?”
“What the fuck’re you suggesting? I was in Mexico when it happened. I loved that chick.”
“Give me a break. You hated her for dropping you. All those years all you did was use her. Then she threw you out.”
“We divorced. I got a good settlement. I won’t inherit a penny from her.”
“Ah, that confused me. We know Skull shot her. Henrietta was there and identified him by his tattoo. But she insisted the only thing he cared about was money. How was Skull going to make any money killing Charlie? Only if you paid him. But how would you profit from her death? If not inheritance, could there be life insurance? I do a lot of work for insurance companies, so I have access to a site that lists all such policies by state and beneficiaries. Bingo. You plan to collect one mil upon Charlie’s death.
“Now back to the shotgun. Messy. Noisy. I bet it was your choice.”
“I wanted her fucking head blown right off. And that is exactly what Skull did.”
Why was he confessing? Because he didn’t expect either of us to live long enough to tell anybody. We heard the throaty roar of the rice burner approaching. The car banged across the sidewalk and stopped about ten feet back. Out popped Skull holding his double-barrel shotgun. No ski mask this time. He was wearing mirror sunglasses. He walked slowly towards us.
Skull looked straight at Harvey. “Where’s my $50 grand?”
“You gotta wait ‘til I collect the insurance.”
“Not the deal. You said to meet you here. You’d bring the money. Now you tellin’ me you ain’t got it on you? You received more than $50 grand from your divorce settlement. You wait for the insurance money. You promised payment upon delivery of Charlie’s corpse. I delivered, you haven’t.”
“A little short of cash right now. Had some bad luck.”
“You have no idea how bad your luck is about to get. Let me explain something folks. This is a 12-gauge shotgun. I pull both triggers and the pellet spread at this distance will take the three of you out. Frangible pellets that fragment upon impact. Not necessarily lethal, but extremely painful. Should any of you survive my first blast, I’ve brought along a 9 mm Glock to finish you off. Any questions?”
Skull was enjoying himself. You’d think this fellow was giving a lecture at a local gun club. I liked that frangible touch. He was speaking too fast. And I didn’t like his twisted smile. The guy was on speed.
Harvey said, “that way you’ll never get paid.”
“Win some, lose some. But I’ll get away with it and it’s been fun.”
Harvey jumped off his bike, pulled a pistol from out of his black leather jacket’s pocket, and ran towards Skull. He must have figured he’d get so close that Skull couldn’t use his shotgun. He figured wrong. Skull pumped both chambers into his chest.
I took my ’38 out from under the blanket in my lap and blasted two bullets into Skull’s skull. And I didn’t give a fuck if it was frangible or not. He had messed up Charlie’s do.