I suspect my peaceful Thanksgiving weekend is about to be disturbed when a stylish, well-coifed woman steps into the lobby of the Hollywood police station. The low sun behind her creates a softly radiant glow on her raven-colored hair—like one of those Revlon ads in Life magazine. Very cinematic. Her “do” is teased at the crown, à la Barbra Streisand. She’s wearing a blue pastel suit with a short, boxy powder blue jacket and over-sized buttons. Like something Jackie Kennedy might wear. Damned if it doesn’t look better on this woman than on the First Lady.
She hesitates a moment to glance about, and coolly scans the room like she’s sizing us up before gracefully approaching the front desk where I sit on a stool. Her furrowed brow signals trouble.
I shove the sports section of the Sunday L.A. Times below the counter as the woman approaches. A major sacrifice. I’m one of a handful of men left in L.A. who still care about pro football in Angel Town, given the woeful record of the hapless Rams. I’d been deeply into an article about how coaching genius Vince Lombardi was likely bringing the Green Bay Packers to their second straight national championship this year, thanks in part to their ridiculously gifted quarterback, Bart Starr. Ah, but even the great occasionally stumble. Yesterday, the Packers, 10-and-zip this season, winners of 12 straight games, unexpectedly lost to the Detroit Lions. Detroit has a good team, but it’s still a stunning loss. I mean the Packers had outscored their opponents 309-74 through the previous ten games, winning by an average of nearly 24 points. Just goes to show nothing’s sacred, ’cept maybe death and Marilyn’s cleavage.
Which brings me back to the woman, whose big brown eyes glimmer in recognition as they give me the once-over. So do mine.
I know this lady.
She’s my high school buddy’s mother. So much for fleeting daydreams of Babs Streisand and Jackie.
Her name is Grace Allan, and her brow smoothes out the moment she stops at the high counter. There’s something about her that both commands my respect and sends a little shiver of dread down my spine.
“Mike Montego,” she says breathily. “Those vivid blue eyes—I’d know them anywhere. How long has it been … eight years? And you, now a police officer, so handsome in that dark-blue uniform. Why, I’d give you a big hug if the counter wasn’t so tall.”
She flashes a warm smile, one I readily remember. Shaking off the shiver, I slide gingerly off my stool.
“Hey, can’t let that stop you.”
My gunshot wounds prevent me from getting too carried away. Hurrying carefully to the end of the counter, I trigger the release button and swing open the wooden pony-door. Mrs. Allan meets me half way, near the corner of the L-shaped counter. We hug warmly. Upon letting go, I note her brow has furrowed again. I say nothing, figuring I’ll learn her reason for being here soon enough.
Hand signaling to my front-desk partner, I say in a raised voice, “Rosy, I’m buying this lady a cuppa joe.”
Rosy Rosenbloom is a burly senior officer. He’s also my landlord in Manhattan Beach where I rent the attic apartment in his three-story house. He tears off a length of wide, light-brown paper rolling out of a noisy rat-a-tatting Teletypewriter below the counter, shifts the Roi-Tan cigar in his mouth and says, “Gotcha covered, Tonto.”
He’s eyeing me like he knows something.
Grace Allan lets out a short laugh.
“Oh yes. Tonto, your nickname. How could I forget? It fits your olive complexion and black wavy hair.” She still has the charm that once made me feel like close family. So why the shiver? Must be the gunshot wounds. Or the lousy coffee I’ve been drinking.
The Tonto tag came about when I was a boy farmed out to live with a strict Christian family. My mother worked full-time and felt she couldn’t adequately care for me during the week. At least I got to spend most weekends with her, usually from mid-Saturday mornings to mid-Sunday afternoons. Precious time was chewed up traveling to and from the San Fernando Valley, an hour each way on the red trolley.
Anyway, my “foster” family didn’t appreciate boyish cussing. Leading to the bitter taste of green soap. To keep the soap on the bathroom sink where it belonged, I went to the local library and searched through a Spanish dictionary. My thinking was to find a Spanish word they wouldn’t understand. I found the perfect phrase, “tanto peor,” meaning so much the worse. Not as tough sounding as the other guys’ swear words, but it kept the Palmolive out of my mouth. Mostly I would blurt, “tanto.” English-speakers heard “tonto,” and the tag was born. These days I let the occasional damn or even fuck slip out; chalk it up to adulthood in general, and life as a street cop in particular.
I escort Mrs. Allan down the narrow back corridor to the small coffee room near the rear station entry, and pull out a dented metal chair. After she sits, I go to the sideboard and fill a fresh paper cup with the world’s worst coffee, then top up my own in a noble gesture of solidarity. I recall she takes hers black, same as me. I amble back with the hot cups, my fingertips starting to burn as I place them on the Formica tabletop. I slowly lower myself into a chair and smile across at her. Her slight frown and concerned expression bothers me. I immediately start rubbing my thumbnail, a nervous habit.
My month-old wounds, courtesy of a recently deceased mobster, still feel a bit sore. Thankfully though, in a week or so I’ll be off this desk job and back doing what I enjoy, working the Felony Car Unit, FCU. It’s a plainclothes patrol assignment focusing on going after robbers and burglars. It’s good, clean fun. And best of all, it’s a stepping-stone toward becoming a homicide detective. My dream job.
Mrs. Allan sips at her hot coffee, grasping the paper cup with a slightly trembling hand.
“Eddie is missing, I believe for quite some time. I’m so worried.”
She sighs, then her lips compress. She may be middle-aged, but she’s still a hot looker. I squirm in discomfort on the aluminum chair.
Her only child and I had hit it off from day one at dear old Hollywood High. Home of the Sheiks. I don’t think that’s the way it’s actually supposed to be spelled, but hey, we’re talking about a high school here. We might have had the only sports teams in the country named after a silent film actor. Rudolph Valentino. You know, the Sheik.
Anyway, Eddie and I were best buddies for three of the most important years in my young, red-blooded American boy’s life. I often swam and generally goofed around in their large pool up in the heights on the opposite side of town from where I lived. If there were any railroad tracks in the vicinity, I definitely lived on the other side of them.
Then we graduated, I enlisted in the Army, and we lost contact.
I want to push Mrs. Allan for an explanation, but she oozes anxiety, so I decide to let her explain at her own pace. Her anxiousness seeps across the tabletop like saltwater bubbling over the bottom of a leaking lifeboat. My body tenses, my thumb itches. I will myself to stop rubbing it.
Setting down her cup on the table, but still gripping it, she says, “This afternoon I flew in from Rome. I’d been there several weeks. Eddie’s father, Robert Lee—you might remember that he’s a cinematographer—anyway, Robert’s there with Leon Shamroy and Jack Hildyard finishing up the filming of Cleopatra—oh, forgive me, Mike, I’m running on.”
She jerkily glances about, then seems to gather herself.
“Mike, something is definitely wrong. Eddie was to meet me as prearranged at the airport when I arrived, but he wasn’t there.” Her moist eyes are intense. I feel another shiver coming on. The thumb continues to itch.
“I’m so worried,” she repeats.
I’m tempted to hold her free hand, but don’t. Could have something to do with the double whammy that she’s my mother’s age, and gorgeous.
“When did you last speak to Eddie?” I ask, wondering if he actually still lives at home.
She blinks and a flash of guilt passes over her glistening dark eyes.
“The day I arrived in Rome I meant to call him, to let him know I arrived safely, but I got caught up with other things, and, well, my son is seldom at the house, and international calls, you know, they can be a hassle.”
Her slender fingers now stroke the paper coffee cup.
“I did send postcards home—that’s another thing. The mail hadn’t been picked up. I found it all over the floor in the entryway, including all the post cards I’d sent.”
I sip my now barely warm coffee, then set down the cup.
“Mrs. Allan, were you able to tell when the mail stopped getting picked up?”
Her brown eyes sharpen, and then she smiles.
“Please Mike, call me Grace.” She twists her left wrist and glances at her red-polished fingernails. “That’s what bothers me—scares me, actually. None of our mail had been gathered … we have a slot in the front door with a catch-box, but it overflowed—as I said, mail was all over the floor.”
Now grasping her coffee cup in both hands, she adds, “It’s as if Eddie hadn’t been in the house since the day I left.”
Okay, so much for wondering if Eddie still lives at home.
“So, he doesn’t live with you?”
“Heavens no. The day following your class graduation ceremony at the Hollywood Bowl, he left. Since then, he’s played gigs all over town, and in Vegas. When I flew to Italy, his group, it’s a sextet, was playing at Peacock Alley.”
She studies me hopefully and takes a sip. I’m familiar with the Peacock, a jazz joint on the west side of our division.
Eddie, a talented musician, played tenor sax in the high school band. He and five other guys in school were heavily into bebop for a while there. They started jamming in his garage, working diligently to improve their chops on bass, drums, piano, tenor sax, trombone and trumpet. Eventually they became good enough to score gigs at various house parties thrown by our classmates. I tried to hang with them, and briefly took up the trombone, but soon realized I was better at sliding into third, so gave up my unpromising musical career for baseball.
I was into their music, although I didn’t play, and I loved to dance. I was actually pretty damned good. My style was called dirty boogie. Whenever I cut loose, everyone on the floor would stop and watch. Only one girl, a cutie, could keep up with me. She later went professional, and now dances with Tito Puente. Josie Powell is called the Mambo Queen. Guess that makes me the Mambo King. Or maybe the Mambo Prince.
During our senior year, Eddie’s group became less frenetic, calmer. They called themselves the Soul Blues Six. Eddie described their style as blue jazz. I dug their new, smooth sounds.
And now here sits Eddie’s mom. I understand her worry, but explain there’s nothing the Department can, or likely will, do. The defeated look she shoots at me is wrenching. She’s clearly distraught, but what can I do? I glance away, knowing I’m letting her down, and feel lousy about it. I can feel trouble coming on. I’m not a detective, at least not yet. But I have been known to carry out the odd investigation on my own. Internal Affairs has a file on me to prove it. Like I said, trouble.
I slug back my cool coffee, hesitate for an instant, sigh, then go ahead and ask what kind of car Eddie drives. I’m my own worst enemy. She says he owns a year-old Corvair.
We finish our java in silence. The tapered fingernails on her left hand tap dance on the side of her paper cup. Sensing her frustration, I surprise myself by laying my hand over her wrist, stilling her fidgeting fingers. It helps ease my own tension.
Although Department protocol requires that a person be missing for 24 hours before a report is taken, I smile as genuinely as possible and tell her I’ll file a Missing Person report. Eddie’s sudden disappearance is compelling. At least I think it is, even though I doubt the Hollywood homicide detectives will agree with me. Her story gives me the leeway to embellish a bit when filling in the “circumstances” box; I’ll say he’s been gone for a few days. Sadly, such reports, except in high-profile cases or where there are signs of foul play, usually stay in a file drawer, and only get acted on when the person is found, often as a corpse.
Here comes the shiver again, this time scurrying across my shoulders.
“Grace, I’ve got the next two days off. I’ll do some checking on my own—see if I can learn where Eddie might’ve gone.”
The relief on her face is sufficient payment for what I feel will be a waste of my time. I rise. She starts to get up as well.
“Please stay seated,” I say. “I’ll get a report form—be right back.”
“Mike, I can’t express how grateful I am for whatever you can do. Maybe it’s a mother’s intuition, but I feel something dreadful has happened to my son.”
I give her a weak smile and quickly leave the room.
When I return, I get the necessary information from her and complete the report. I ask if Eddie is dating anyone regularly. She doesn’t know. I ask for a recent photo of him. She pulls a small one from her red clutch purse and hands it to me.
I listen as she says, “It’s his graduation picture, not recent.” She sounds apologetic. I have to smile, realizing my mother doesn’t have a recent photograph of me, either. Thoughtless sons.
I glance at the formal picture. Eddie’s curly black hair doesn’t have a part. It’s too wild. The devious grin I remember is right there, front and center.
Grace searches about for a place to dispose of her cup. I gesture for it and along with my empty one, shove one into the other, and toss both into a wastebasket over by the sideboard. Swish. Two points.
“Give me a few days,” I say. “I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, are you going to be all right?”
She lets out a tremulous breath, and smiles as she scoots back her chair and stands.
“Yes, Mike, I’ll be fine. Elmo returned with me on the flight back to the States. You haven’t met him, but Elmo Williams is a close family friend. He’s editing the film I mentioned earlier, Cleopatra. He joined me in the taxi and also came into the house.” Her fingernails now tap dance on the tabletop.
“We both saw the mail on the floor. Elmo knows my concern … he suggested I notify the police.” She glances toward the hallway. “He assured me he’ll be available should I need him.”
“Okay.” I slide the one-page report in front of her. “Sign here, please.” I point at the signature box.
She bends to sign it, giving me a faint whiff of a perfume a woman her age shouldn’t be wearing—but I’m glad she is.
I escort her down the hall and into the lobby where we say goodbye. I tell her I’ll be in touch and then watch her walk out through the west exit to Wilcox Avenue. She looks as impressive walking away as she does face to face. I sigh, feeling like I’ve let her down, like I’ve failed her.
Back behind the counter straddling the tall stool, I peer sideways at Rosy, who obviously is waiting to hear the whole story. There’s no big secret here. So I tell him, including the fact that I plan to check out the Peacock Alley tomorrow.
Rosy quickly shifts the soggy stogie in his mouth, a familiar maneuver.
“So, Tonto is gonna play detective, again?” His twinkling eyes, squinting above a cheeky face, reflect the overhead fluorescent light. “I thought you would’ve learned your lesson by now.”