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The house was in the hot part of Hollywood. The part where the sun doesn’t shine tourist-bright and pleasant, but rather hot and oppressive; the part where you’d never dream in your wildest scar-dust dreams that there was a great big, cool blue ocean only five miles away. In this part of Hollywood, people were actually punished for their sins.
The house was between a pool hall on the right and a vacant lot on the left. It was a nice house — for a midget. It was bigger than a cardboard box but smaller than a coffin. It was the kind of bread box that real estate agents euphemistically refer to as a ‘bungalow’. It had been white before the paint had peeled off, now it was just grey and barely standing. It was the kind of place to go if you wanted to be forgotten, or couldn’t afford to be remembered.
I parked my car in the street, followed a trail of ankle-deep potholes that made up the walk, and rapped on the screen door. A voice thundered from within the dingy bowels of the shack: “Come in!”
I was careful to keep the screen door on its hinges while I opened and closed it, and it groaned affectionately as a result. I walked down a short, narrow hall and into a short, narrow living room. The place was carpeted with rotting wood. Malcolm Bull, or what was left of him, was sitting in a broad-backed green chair facing the dirty window. He looked up at me with a pair of beady eyes that could have done business at a hog-calling competition. He didn’t get up.
“Sit down,” he grunted by way of introduction.
I sat down on a ratty couch across from him. A loose spring fondled my buttock.
Malcolm Bull had once been a big, fat, prosperous businessman. That was in the 70’s. Now the fat hung on him in grey folds, like a tunic. His head was shrunken and his face was yellow. Hair clung wispily to the sides of his head, waiting to blow off. A fat, green cigar oozed smoke out of the side of his mouth. Appearances aside, he was still worth about two hundred million dollars.
“I’m Charles Sidney, Mr. Bull. I received your letter yesterday.”
He stared at me with contempt.
I tried again. “What can I do for you?”
I kneaded my hands together until I had fists.
“You’re going to find my daughter!” he bellowed. He seemed upset that he had to uncork the cigar from his mouth to speak.
“Why would I do that?” I asked politely. The dislike was instantaneous. He knew it and was obviously used to it and didn’t care.
He slammed a flabby hand down on the arm of his chair. Dust enveloped his arm and glittered in the air like ashes tossed from an urn.
“Because I said so, dammit!”
“I like to know the reasons for doing—”
“Shut up! I’ll tell you. I’m going to die soon, Sidney, and I know it. While that may please a great deal of people, it doesn’t please me. My daughter ran away from home when she was thirteen. That’s ten years ago. Her mother died eleven years ago. I want to see my daughter again before I die. I think I have that right — if I’m to leave her any money.”
“You put ads in the paper.”
He arched an unkempt eyebrow sarcastically. “So, you can read?”
“I heard it on the news,” I replied. The air in the room was stifling.
“That was a month ago, and a fat lot of good it did. Only crackpots and freeloaders responded. My lawyer took care of them quick enough.”
“So your daughter doesn’t want to be found,” I remarked innocently. It was like throwing a lighted match on a festering pile of oily rags.
“You watch your goddamn mouth, boy! I want you to find her, that’s all you have to know!”
I pushed my hands around some more, but my eyes were on Bull. We stared at each other. I could hear my wristwatch ticking down like the doomsday clock. Before it struck midnight, I spoke. “Do you have any idea where she might be? Any phone calls, letters, postcards—”
“Charge what you want! Find her!”
We stared at each other.
“You’re not going to find her here!” he snapped. He plugged the cigar back into his tobacco-brown mouth and the conversation was over.
I started at the library. I read every newspaper and magazine article I could find on Malcolm Bull and his company, Allied Shipping. It wasn’t a pretty story, but it was an interesting one. Rags to riches, and then by 1975 he was an eccentric recluse living in a plywood cave. He was quoted as saying that ‘when you’ve done everything and know everything, what use do you have for people anymore? I’m the most interesting person I’ve ever met’. He would never be Governor of California with that attitude, but he could certainly be top dog at any movie studio in town. I felt a headache coming on and glanced at my watch — 9:30 p.m. Time for dinner.
I walked through the dark, empty parking lot, listening to my shoes clicking on the pavement. I had always liked that sound for some reason; shoes clicking on pavement or gravel. It sounded busy and efficient, and sure. My ears suddenly twitched as I heard a clicking echo, and then something bounced off the side of my head.
I hit the pavement, did a shoulder roll, and sprang to my feet. A six-foot-five-inch behemoth with a police-issue baton was facing me like he was waiting for the bell to sound to start the next round. I didn’t hear a gong, but he charged me anyway. He swung the head-patter in a high arc and I caught it on the shoulder. I slammed a right to his kidney and he listed over to that side. I hooked a left to his stomach. Then, as he was doubling over with a groan, nailed him with an uppercut to the jaw. He capsized with all senses lost.
When he was nicely settled on the pavement, I jammed my knee into his neck and put all of my weight on top of it. He lay still. I slapped his face a few times. His clock was loaded with scar tissue, and his nose meandered across the map like the Mississippi River. His eyelids rolled up slowly, like window shades, but the rooms were still vacant.
“Did we win, Tommy?” he asked in a thick voice.
“Who are you working for?” I shot back. I could tell by looking at the guy that he didn’t have the brains to be an independent.
He sighed. “I got to sleep now, Tommy.”
I kept him awake long enough to tell me a bedtime story.
I swear I could smell the cheap perfume two floors away. When I got to the door of the apartment, it smelt like the exterminators had just left. I kicked the door a couple of times with my foot. I heard someone skip across the room excitedly; like they were expecting someone. The door opened a crack and a shark eye looked out from behind the security chain. I kicked the door all the way open. The chain snapped neatly and the lady behind the door went spinning into the living room. She hit the side of a chair and then spilled onto the floor. It was a mess I wasn’t going to clean up. I didn’t have a large enough rag.
“What’s the big idea, tough guy?” she demanded from the floor.
I shut the door, walked into the room, grabbed a chair out of the kitchen, spun it around, and sat down.
“Why’d you send a goon after me, Carla?” I asked pointedly. I didn’t want to stay long — the perfume was already giving me girlish thoughts. Like revenge.
“How’d you know my name? Who the hell are you?”
She struggled to her feet and sat down in the chair she had collided with. She was dressed in a faded pink bathrobe and a pair of slippers. The slippers looked to be about size twelve. So did her mouth. She had long, bleached blonde hair and a fleshy face. She would be almost pretty after a few drinks in a dimly-lit bar. Her whole persona shouted working girl, and working a long time at that.
“Skip it! You sent Bobby Baker to rough me up. Unfortunately, you forgot to check his pedigree or you would have known that his nickname was ‘Canvasback’
when he fought in the ring. On account of his herringbone jaw. But I guess there’s only so much a lady like you can afford.”
Her eyes turned profane. She plucked a cigarette from her pocket, lit it, and puffed a couple of times. She didn’t offer me one. She just stared at me. I could tell that she was going to let fly any second — she was just gathering her strength.
I pulled a flask out of my jacket pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a generous swig. The fire in Carla’s eyes was doused by the sight of the liquor.
“We can sit here all night,” I said, stopping to take another chug. “Or I can call my buddy, Lieutenant Boyle, and get you bedded down for the night on an assault and battery beef.”
I held the flask out to her. Just before my arm fell off, she finally took it. Then she killed the contents in one long swallow. A throat like that would be worth something in her business.
“I heard that Malcolm Bull had hired you to find his daughter,” she said, smacking her thick lips.
“I’ve put a lot of time and energy into that fat pig!” she said. “And just when he’s about ready to kick the bucket, I’m going to sit back and let some bimbo show up and claim her inheritance? I got rights to some of that money!” She tossed her head back majestically. She ran dirty fingers through her dirty hair — they got stuck there. “God knows I worked for it.”
I almost felt sorry for her, but I still wrestled her to the floor to get the flask back.
After three days of scorching legwork, I had gotten nothing more telling than a sunburn. I had checked police records, county welfare records, school records — zip. Even in the blistering L.A. sunshine, it was obvious that the trail was stone cold. Out of sheer frustration, I drove over to Bull’s place to ask him for more information. Otherwise, it was hopeless.
I smelled the smell of rotting flesh when I got to the door. Summer in Los Angeles can cook a corpse pretty quick. I found him sprawled on the floor of the living room. His throat was cut and there was a hole in his chest. His heart was missing.
“To find his daughter, right?”
Boyle glanced at me with only slightly less disgust than he had shown the corpse.
Lieutenant Boyle of the LAPD was a short, stocky homicide hound with a bulldog grip and a machine-gun speech pattern. And, despite what I had told Carla Bleue, he was no buddy of mine. He had made Lieutenant the old-fashioned way: passing the necessary exams and keeping his nose clean for ten long years. He was a tough, honest cop, but he lived in constant fear of an assignment that would call for some brainwork. Thinking wasn’t something you master through repetition. He resented that fact, and all those who were aware of it.
“Why’d he hire a bum like you?”
I smiled warmly. “He’s loaded with money, Lieutenant. Obviously he can afford the best.”
“That explains the digs,” Boyle replied, jerking his head around the decayed room.
Boyle stared at the body for a while and then rubbed his tired-looking face with a pair of thick, callused hands. “Musta been some nut. Cut out a guy’s heart.” He glanced at me quickly. “We’re going to keep that fact from the press. For the time being. We got enough problems without flagging the weirdoes. So keep your mouth shut! ‘Kay?”
“Okay,” I said.
Malcolm Bull listened to all this, patiently for a change. He just stared up at the smoke-blackened ceiling. I wondered what he saw down there.
I got back to the office after a two hour grilling by Boyle and his men. If I took off my shirt, there’d have been stripes on both sides of my torso. Even so, I think they believed my story. There’s not much return in a private detective knocking off his wealthy, fee-paying client.
My job was effectively ended, yet I still had to clear my head. I thought of Carla Bleue, and the thousands of other people out there who must have had the misfortune of meeting Malcolm Bull during his sixty-odd years of stepping on faces, and wanted him dead. I thought of the random wackos who prowled the streets of Los Angeles impatiently waiting for their chance to show off. I thought of a little girl who had run away from home a year after her mother had died. Then I thought of the six-pack in the bar fridge in the corner and things suddenly got a whole lot less complicated.
After a couple of malt sandwiches, I was feeling better. I pushed the empty cans away and sat back in my chair. I stretched. I yawned. The traffic on Wiltshire Boulevard was heavy and noisy, but I didn’t hear it. I was thinking about a heart. A seldom-used heart. Hardly any miles on it, folks! Malcolm Bull’s death would be any ordinary murder, if there were such a thing, except for the missing heart. What, in God’s name, would someone do with a human heart?
I smiled. I asked myself: what the hell was there to smile about? But I kept on smiling anyway. Then I frowned. I picked up the phone and pushed some buttons. The receptionist sounded like a long-lost friend. Her name was comprehension. I gave her another one — Doctor Weinkopf.
“Hi, Doc. It’s Charles.”
“Charles, you old peephole artist! Set up any good divorces lately?”
“I’m working on a case for your wife right now.”
There was a pause on the line that could have given birth.
“Ha, ha. Funny,” he finally replied. “What can I help you with?”
“Doc, I need a list of every mental hospital and psychiatric clinic in California, public and private.”
“Planning a vacation?” He laughed.
“Can you get it?”
“Sure, but what for?”
“I need it to justify the steak dinner that I’m going to buy you at the track.”
“Be here in two hours. One, if you finally bought a new car.”
After half a day of phoning and half a day of driving, I found the place I was looking for. The good people of Riverside called it ‘The Institution’. The grounds were fresh-cut and green, and all the orderlies carried permits for their butterfly nets. It was the kind of place where a man could really get some thinking done. Assuming he was insane.
I was shown into the office of the Executive Director and told to wait. I began reading her degrees. They looked real enough.
She walked into the office.
“Please, don’t get up.” She brushed my gallantry aside with a wave of her hand. “She’s in her room.”
“Can I see her?”
“I suppose you can.”
Dr. Wallace was a petite, athletic-looking woman of about forty. She talked with a faint English accent, and carried a professional attitude around with her like an accountant carries a briefcase. We walked down long, white, shiny corridors enveloped in total silence. Past locked rooms and unmanned nursing stations. It smelled like a hospital, only worse. There was something in the air that no one could identify.
We came to Room 304. Wallace unlocked the door and we went in. The room was sparsely furnished with a bed and two chairs. Los Angeles newspapers littered the bed. A young woman was sitting in one of the wooden chairs by the window with her back towards us. She was watching something outside.
“You have a visitor, Alice,” Dr. Wallace announced in a hushed voice.
She didn’t respond.
I looked at Wallace and she looked at me. I could see the pain in her eyes. I didn’t know if it was personal or professional, but I thanked my lucky stars I lived in a world of mostly black and white. I walked around in front of Alice. She looked right through me and out the window. I could spot the family resemblance instantly, but I pulled out the old photo Bull had mailed to me just to make sure. Sure.
“Alice Bull, I’m Charles Sidney.”
Her face was deathly pale. It held no expression. It reminded me of the walls in the corridor.
“Your father sent me to find you,” I said softly. “He’s dead.”
Deep within her troubled green eyes, I saw a light flicker on. And off.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Sidney, but, as I told you, Alice hasn’t spoken to anyone for eight years. Almost the entire length of time that she has been here. The police first brought her here. She was in a very sorry state, indeed. She had rather viciously assaulted one of her, uh, customers.”
We were back in Wallace’s office. She was polishing her glasses, her eyebrows knitted together in concern. “We didn’t even know her last name. Until today.” She put her glasses back on and stared at me. Her clear, blue eyes could have pierced the armour of an M1-Abrams tank. But they couldn’t penetrate the fog-shrouded mind of Alice Bull. “How did you find her?” she asked.
I pushed my hand through my hair and made a half-hearted attempt to cross my legs. The place made me nervous for some reason. “I had a profile of a young woman who had found out that her father was looking for her. She didn’t want to be found. Not by him. The woman was also quite probably insane. She must have recently escaped from a psychiatric facility, been missing for a short time, and then returned. It was a long shot, but I took it. It was that profile and about fifty phone calls that brought me here.” I paused to take a breath. Wallace’s steely gaze was unnerving me. “The nuts don’t fall far from the trees, Doc,” I joked.
She didn’t like that one. “The information you were phoning for is quite confidential, you know?”
I shrugged. “Not if you’re a cop,” I said.
“Which you aren’t.”
I shrugged again. “Not anymore.”
A stony silence followed. It was abruptly chiseled away by a loud rap on the door. We both jumped in our chairs.
“What is it!?” Wallace yelled angrily.
An orderly pushed his shaggy head into the office. There was sweat on his beefy red face. “Room 304!” he shouted, gasping for air. “Suicide!”
She had stabbed herself in the heart. The knife was no doubt the same one that had dissected her father.
There was a piece of paper on her bed addressed to me. The Doctor read it and then handed it to me. She was shaking, and there were tears in her eyes. I read:
Dear Mr. Sidney,
You know what I did. I only want you to know that it had to be done. I could never go back to him. Not after what he did to my mother and me. What he made us do to him. He drove her to suicide. And now I’ll join her. You’ll find his heart in a metal box under the house. Please take it to the hospital, where they can examine it, and find out what was wrong with it.
Thank you and good-bye,
I looked at Wallace. Her face was a thundercloud about to burst open and rain all over me.
I exited by the side entrance.
Laird Long pounds out fiction in all genres. Big guy, sense of humour. Writing credits include the magazines: Blue Murder Magazine, Hardboiled, Damnation Books, Bullet, Robot, Albedo One, Baen’s Universe, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and Plan B; stories in the anthologies The Mammoth Book of New Comic Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Jacobean Whodunits, The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, and Action: Pulse-Pounding Tales; and the standalone book No Accounting for Danger.