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SHORT STORY: Hell of a Year by Don Stoll

He’d waited at the door in the blue jeans that had been painted on, the brush pausing lovingly where his left leg joined his trunk in order to render a conspicuous bulge that was oriented toward the southwest from Ellen Flay’s perspective. Good manners demanded that she offer him a chair even though she’d have been happy to keep him standing in front of her. He placed what he called his “clues” on her desk. Flay shifted in her seat. She’d downed an extra cup of tea at the house, then run into roadwork coming to the office. She was dying for the loo.

The extra tea was because she’d spent the night wondering if she’d have clients the next day. She didn’t need the money with the marriage crumbling but Sylvain still keeping up his end of the bargain. But playing tennis at the club had got old. Her former career as Detective Inspector in the York and North East Yorkshire Police and then in London’s Metropolitan Police had prepared her to work as a PI. Yet trying it in a town that expected a PI to look like Sam Spade—and to sound American—was all uphill. So a client as eager to see her as this young chap had been was gold. The loo could wait.         

He was quite dishy. Life in LA having taught Flay to keep an eye peeled for celebrities, she thought he was a ringer for the bloke from Chico and the Man: tall, and same dark mustache and wavy hair over the ears. But not him, she thought, since Freddie Prinze wouldn’t be wearing a shirt with “RL” stitched onto the chest pocketOr consulting an obscure PI like me, since celebrities like to throw their money about.  

She bent over his clues.      

RL’s for. . . Robert Levin? she thought, recalling the topography of his bulge, but then Steady, Sherlock: circumcision more common here than back home.   

“These are clues to what?” she said.

A black-and-white of a couple in their thirties. A newspaper clipping from 1963 about a homicide, with a photograph of the victim, indicating that the police had no suspects. Flay examined the black-and-white.

“Looks like the woman in the newspaper, right?” Chico said.

“Perhaps, but newspaper photo’s of a girl. Probably from a high school yearbook, Mr. . . “

“Lamb. But call me Roy.”

He studied the black-and-white as she thought Then the lion shall lie down with the Lamb, and since she has no cubs with which to share her meal shall eat all of him alive.

“The man’s my father,” he said. “I’m going through his old stuff.

“The things we do for love.”

He looked at her sharply.

“Is that why I’m doing it?”

“You tell me,” she shrugged.

“Sorry.”

His look softened.

“Most of it I don’t look at, but. . . Maybe in this case something told me to slow down.”

“I don’t believe in that ‘something told me’ rubbish,” she said. “We get tired or bored and we stop what we’re doing. Sometimes it leads somewhere, but usually not.”

He gave her a vacant look. Not the philosophic sort, Flay inferred.

“You found the photo and the newspaper clipping together, Roy?”

“In a paper bag with other pictures. But I recognized the people in the other ones.”

Flay looked at the news story. Above the headline, Mysterious Homicide, a bold horizontal line extended across the upper portion of the T-shaped clipping. In the upper portion she read Fri., May 17, 1963 and Los Angeles Times.  

“Jodie Miller was housesitting for her sister,” Roy said.

“Poor Jodie. Could be the sister was meant to be the victim?”

“No sign of a break-in.”

“So Jodie knew the killer,” Flay said.

“Sister was in Frisco for a few days with her husband. Anniversary.”

“Time for good times, you’re thinking. Chance to use her sister’s bed.”

“When they came back, Jodie’d been dead for a few days.”   

Flay’s nostrils flared at the memory of the stink of decaying corpse.

“And look at the date of this,” Roy said.

He laid a dog-eared magazine next to the newspaper clipping. On the cover a baseball player sliding in the dirt. He opened to a page covered with handwriting. The page didn’t belong to the magazine. It had been inserted.

“My scorecard for the game on Saturday, May 11, 1963. Dodgers won.”    

“You’ve hung on to this for fourteen years?” Flay said.    

“First time I saw Koufax pitch. But you’re English?”  

 “How’d you know, luv?”

She picked up the black-and-white. The man and woman smiling at the camera. In the background a bar like any other, with bottles visible.  

“Your father didn’t go to the game with you, did he?” she said.

“He had two tickets, but that morning he said he’d go with me another time.”

“He didn’t like baseball?”

“Loved it. Played in high school. That morning he said he wanted to get in shape, so he was going to look for a pickup game in Griffith Park while I was at Dodger Stadium.”

In the picture he was thick around the middle.

“And did he?” Flay said. “Get in shape?”

“Never.”

“Pity. And he passed away in. . .”

Roy was born around 1950, Flay thought, so his father. . . between 1920 and 1930? At most ten years older than me but gone already. Makes me feel death’s closing in, got to seize the day.

“He’s still alive,” Roy grimaced. “Barely.”

Flay looked him in the eye.

“And you’re all right with that,” she said.

He looked away. She noticed how long and thick and dark his eyelashes were.

Thinking Seize the day or seize this Lamb to lie down with, she said “How’d you find me?”

“It was a while back,” he blushed. “I saw you playing tennis and asked about you.”

“At the club? You’re a member?”

“I was delivering towels for Ross Linens,” he said, tapping his monogrammed chest pocket.  

Thinking Sherlock indeed, she said “It’s my ex-husband’s club.”

No harm in a little white lie, she thought, and perhaps some advantage.

“I saw you from a distance and couldn’t tell that—”

He stopped.

That I wasn’t a young thing, he was going to say.

Not showing her deflation, she said, “Your mother might know about an infidelity.”

“She died last year,” he said, looking away again and closing his eyes. “Breast cancer.”  

When he left soon thereafter saying his boss would wonder why he was late, Flay’s need to pee revisited her with punishing suddenness. Ensconced upon the throne she thought Could make the argument this feels more satisfying than an orgasm, but it’s quite a different sort of release.  

#

The stink inside Villa Vitti, in Highland Park, made Flay think that on the whole she would have preferred the decaying corpse of Jodie Miller.

She asked at the desk for Bud Lamb, saying she was a friend. A woman, maybe ten or twenty years older than Flay, rolled her eyes.

They walked up some stairs, then to the end of a long corridor. They turned and walked down a shorter corridor. The woman stopped halfway. She spoke quietly.

“I read somewhere that as we approach death, the qualities we’ve had throughout our lives get exaggerated. Now, someone good, like Pope Paul”—Flay noticed the crucifix in the hollow beneath the woman’s throat—”will get more virtuous at the end. On the other hand. . .”

“No young nurses here, I guess,” Bud Lamb said when Flay entered his room.

“Think you could handle it?” Flay shot back.

“What can you handle?” he said, patting his crotch.

 She sat in the plastic chair near his bed.

“You want that handled, you need a nurse. The Diocese sent me.”

“Of course,” he said. “The ‘once a Catholic always a Catholic’ shit.”

“Even fallen-away Catholics deserve love.”  

“I thought you weren’t here to love me,” he grinned.

“Even nonbelievers often crave. . . as the end approaches. . .”

“If I were a real Catholic, I’d confess to a priest. Since I’m not. . . But I’ll confess something to you: I’d like to see the new Bond.”   

Flay thought the only proper Bond was Connery.  

“It’s playing over on Figueroa,” he said. “Even for one of these old biddies it wouldn’t be that hard to get me there. You remember the first one?”

He remembers Ursula Andress, she thought. White bikini, knife strapped to her hip.

“The Cuban Missile Crisis came along right after I saw it,” he said.

“Your JFK chap saved the day.”

“Bond was fantasy while JFK was the real thing,” he nodded. “A naval hero like Bond, and even Ursula Andress couldn’t measure up to Marilyn Monroe. ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President.’ That wasn’t just patriotism.”

He paused.

“I’ll confess something else, Miss. . . You’re a nun?”

“Not a nun, but Miss is right. Miss Miller. Judy Miller.”  

His eyes opened wide.

“You didn’t say Jodie—”

“I said Judy Miller.”

He paused for a long time.

“JFK was the man I could have become if I’d been born rich.”

Flay thought it would be unwise to laugh.

The woman with the crucifix came in.

“Bath time, Mr. Lamb. Doctor wants you cleaned up before he sees you.”

“My two minutes a week,” he said to Flay. “Son of a bitch can’t help me, but two minutes lets him bill the insurance.”

The woman put her hands on her hips.

“Husband won’t touch you, Mary?” he said. “That why you like to wash my. . .”  

He pulled his sheet aside.

“Yes, there it is,” Mary said. “Don’t know why it still bothers to hang around.”

“Maybe a priest not to confess to, but to raise the dead,” he said, grinning at Flay.  

#

Based on the neighborhood mentioned in the newspaper, Flay guessed that the West 6th station had handled Jodie Miller’s killing. It was quiet and the desk sergeant had nothing to do. He found the log for 1963.   

“Al Jackman,” he said. “San Fernando Road station now.”

 At the San Fernando Road station, Jackman wasn’t busy, either. Or helpful.

“I won’t dig up the file because there’s nothing there,” he said as they shook hands. “A dead end. Sister’s in Frisco now. Want her number?”  

“So I can ask the questions you didn’t ask?”

He dropped her hand.

“It was more like, ‘You tried so hard, Detective, so if you ever find anything’. . .”  

Flay realized that she’d assumed the worst because of his appearance: heavy, pale eyes, greasy fair hair needing a trim, stubble. Maybe growing a beard to cover that weak chin, she thought. Looks like a sodding Metropolitan Police Detective of the sort I tried to get away from by marrying and moving to California.  

“Sorry,” she said. “Bad day.”  

He plunged his hands into his pockets. Hiding a ring? She hadn’t looked.

“Drink make it better?” he said. “Great martinis across the street.”

“Another time,” she smiled. “Client’s waiting.”

He found Susan Miller’s number in his Rolodex. He wrote it on a scrap of paper under his own number. He kept his ring hand hidden and did everything clumsily with his right hand.   

A lefty, she thought.  

#

Susan Miller didn’t answer.

Lunchtime now, Flay thought. Roy go home to eat?

She tried his number.

“My lucky day,” she said when he answered.

Yours too, she thought.

“Got loads to talk about, Roy. Be easier in person.”

“Know how to get here?”Roy’s bungalow in Echo Park reminded Flay of something. It was close to Chinatown.

Of course, she thought, the film. One of Nicholson’s clients, the little round chap cuckolded by his wife, had a place like this. Classic old-time LA.    

“Your father adored President Kennedy,” she said. “Still does.”

Silence on Roy’s end.

“What do you remember about 1963 besides seeing your ballplayer for the first time?”

He sighed.

“Hell of a year. My mother had a miscarriage. Late September, but there was no time to notice her sadness because the Dodgers were going to the World Series.”

More silence.

“They wont. But then the President was killed and my parents took it hard. I was twelve. I don’t remember it as well as I remember that game I went to around the day—maybe on the day—of Jodie Miller’s murder. In the second inning. . . Will you know what I’m talking about?”

 “Don’t waste your breath,” Flay said. “Might need it soon for something else.”

He looked at her blankly.

Got to be more direct, she thought.

“I also remember my father talking to me about the miscarriage. He said having a little brother or sister isn’t always a good thing. It can create competition.”

He closed his eyes. She admired his lashes.  

“He told me not to tell my mother he’d said that.”

 You don’t deserve a father like that, she thought. You’re a better man than him.

 She stopped herself from laughing out loud.

A better man in every way, she thought, and there’s a code of ethics for relationships between PI’s and clients?

She remembered Chinatown: Nicholson sleeping with Faye Dunaway.

“Can’t change the past, Roy.”

She undid the top button of her blouse.

“Can only look for comfort in the present,” she said.

She’d learned the hard way that the point with a young bloke was not to encourage him to think he was doing you a favor. He’d start off feeling that way and expect you to act grateful. But act cold toward him and he’d begin to doubt himself. That’s why after talking about looking for comfort in the present she shrugged and said “Here’s one way to do it,” like it wouldn’t be anything special, just a way to get comfortable. And who doesn’t want to be comfortable?

He shrugged back and started to remove his shirt. Flay marveled at how yummy he looked but didn’t show what she was thinking. And that’s when his doubt set in and he started trying his best, which was what she wanted, nothing less.      

#

Getting Bud Lamb to a matinee showing of The Spy Who Loved Me was no big deal.

Afterward, Flay told him it wouldn’t have been bad if Connery had played Bond.

“But you’re satisfied, right?” she added.

“Satisfaction’s relative.”

 He made a fist. Twice, he moved his hand up and down.

 “Even this doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “Not even picturing Ursula Andress.”

“What about Marilyn Monroe?”

“Not even Marilyn Monroe.”

She was about to leave his room in Villa Vitti when he asked for her address.

“Planning to send me a birthday card?” she smiled.

“You never know.”     

#

Two mornings later, Susan Miller answered the phone. Flay said Detective Jackman had reopened the case of her sister’s murder. He had a lead. Nothing Susan needed to know about: the “person of interest” wasn’t a suspect, but might know something. He’d asked Flay to find out if Susan could add anything to what she’d said fourteen years ago.   

“Please thank Detective Jackman. But the only thing I have to add is that lately it hurts more every day, not less, to think about the sister and nephew I lost.”

 “Nephew?”

“Detective Jackman didn’t tell you my sister was pregnant?”   

#

That afternoon, Flay had planned to visit Bud Lamb after the mail came. She got one letter:

Dear Miss Miller,

I’m going to make this fast. I was married, but I had a girlfriend named Jodie Miller. We did a great job of keeping it secret, or somebody would have connected us by now. I thought she was hot stuff because she’d dyed her hair blond, but the dye came out and she wasn’t the same. I told her to dye it even brighter—you know, platinum. Then she got pregnant. She wanted the baby and she said she’d tell my wife if I didn’t help her. But I already had a son and my wife was pregnant too. I could have supported two women and three kids if I’d been born rich.

When I went to see her, I never touched anything with my fingers. Except Jodie, when I strangled her. May 11, 1963. Might as well admit it now.

Bud Lamb

 Flay ran a red light driving to Villa Vitti. Different woman at the desk.

“Family?” the woman said. “I thought we called everyone on the list yesterday.”

“How. . .”

“Made a noose with his sheet,” the woman said. “Tied it to the stair rail.”  

#

Flay called Roy with her sympathies and to say that she was ending her investigation.

“I’m getting nowhere, so it’s wrong to charge you.”

He said he understood. Then he asked when he could see her again.

“We shouldn’t, Roy. There’s a code of ethics for private investigators.”

He didn’t answer.

Back to not trying his best, she thought.

She would give Bud Lamb’s letter to Detective Jackman.

Let Greasy Hair and Weak Chin deal with the fallout.

THE END

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Don Stoll’s fiction is forthcoming in THE BROADKILL REVIEW, XAVIER REVIEW, THE MAIN STREET RAG, WILD VIOLET, NORTHWEST INDIANA LITERARY JOURNALHOOSIER NOIR, HEART OF FLESH, COFFIN BELL, BETWEEN THESE SHORES (twice), YELLOW MAMA (twice), FLASH FICTION MAGAZINE, and FRONTIER TALES, and recently appeared in A NEW ULSTER, THE GALWAY REVIEW (twice: tinyurl.com/y6nxt9nv and tinyurl.com/y4vdsqhe), GREEN HILLS LITERARY LANTERN (tinyurl.com/y2lfxysm), THE AIRGONAUT (tinyurl.com/y67mzfmv), PUNK NOIR (twice: tinyurl.com/y5o2x5fz and tinyurl.com/uwyz7jb), CLOSE TO THE BONE (tinyurl.com/y38ac6jv), HORLA (tinyurl.com/y3k6eewx), YELLOW MAMA (tinyurl.com/y5yzozel), PULP MODERN, DARK DOSSIER (four times), THE HELIX, SARASVATI, SAGE CIGARETTES (tinyurl.com/yyotrtsb), ECLECTICA (tinyurl.com/y73wnmgq), EROTIC REVIEW (twice: tinyurl.com/y8nkc73z and tinyurl.com/y36zcvut), CLITERATURE (tinyurl.com/y5m8arzn), HORROR SLEAZE TRASH (tinyurl.com/qno5ucu), DOWN IN THE DIRT, and CHILDREN, CHURCHES AND DADDIES. In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasizing women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages.