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Ken Kuhlken

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Too Sweet
By Ken Kuhlken
Monday, August 06, 2012

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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Tom Hickey and sons, from the Hollywood and Crime anthology.

Alvaro Hickey had a wild streak. For three years, beginning at age six, he’d made his way as Tijuana street kid, living off theft and running errands for prostitutes.

Now, at seventeen, he had vanished without even telling his brother Clifford.

His adopted parents, Tom and Wendy Hickey, doubted he was gone for good. Still Wendy worried. Tom, a private investigator, promised to go hunting for the boy if didn’t show up in a week.

A Sunday evening in June, after Tom and Wendy had gone to bed, Clifford spotted his brother on television.

He was watching the Steve Allen Show. During the part when Steverino led the audience out of the theater, across Vine Street, and up and down the aisles of the Hollywood Ranch Market, Alvaro brought up the end of the line. He was holding hands with Melody Sweet, but he didn’t look happy as a guy holding hands with his first love who was now a celebrity ought to look.

Her real name was Melanie Sweedler. Sweet had been her mother’s stage name. It fit Melanie. She had a voice so pure, even when she was in fourth grade, when Tom first heard her sing, even some of the rowdiest kids in the auditorium sat bug eyed or with their jaws gone slack. Seven years later, Tom still remembered her song, “Greensleeves,” and the way Alvaro glowed with admiration. The boy had survived off his wit and charm. At eight years old, he’d been crafty and bold enough to pick the lock on the trunk of Tom’s old Chevy, stow away and smuggle himself across the border. But sitting next to Melanie while they drove her home, Alvaro looked as if a hangman had just slipped the noose on him. And he couldn’t talk except in peeps.

Melanie’s father had died long ago. She and her mom lived in one of the flimsy duplexes that had risen up on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach during World War II. Her mom had done time as a Hollywood dancer and Vegas showgirl. Now she was a drunk who supported her habit with jobs like waitress and sales clerk. She rarely lasted a week. Their rent and food came from the V.A. pension Melanie’s father earned them by crashing a Coast Guard helicopter during a rescue mission.

When his brother appeared on television, Clifford rushed to the door of his folks’ bedroom. He knocked and opened it a crack. Wendy was sleeping.

“It’s Alvaro,” Clifford said in an excited whisper.

Tom jumped up and hurried to the living room, still wearing his glasses and holding a book on Chinese history. On the television, the line of tourists tagged behind Steve Allen. Tom and his son watched the procession file out past the coffee and hamburger bar where a trio of would-be starlets wiggled and beamed and a teenaged boy and girl who slumped against the counter gave the camera their James Dean looks. Tom and Clifford watched until the last of Steve Allen’s tourists had crossed Vine and gone into the theater. No Alvaro.

“Okay Pop,” Clifford said, “I’m not on drugs, I’m not hallucinating. They were there.”

Tom nodded.

Clifford stared at him for a minute and said, “I’m going with you.”

“Nope.”

“Look--“

“We don’t leave your mother alone, right?”

“Yeah but--“

“And who’s got school?”

“Me but--“

“And who’s the family bloodhound?”

*

            Tom caught a few hours sleep. By dawn, he was racing through San Clemente, trying to keep his foot still when it wanted to floor the pedal. Tom loved driving, the faster the better. If anybody asked why he kept the ten-year-old Chevy station wagon now that his boys were grown, he told them police aren’t as likely to chase and ticket a faded green four door.

He slipped off his shoe so his accelerator foot wouldn’t be quite so heavy. He tuned the radio to the first L.A. jazz station he could find. Brubeck, Monk, Ramsey Lewis and Jao Gilberto accompanied him past orange groves and Disneyland and into the city, while he thought about Melanie, mostly about her breakdown three years ago.

He didn’t know all the facts. He knew that Melanie’s mom and some boyfriend of hers had got into a spat. The boyfriend landed in Emergency with a kitchen knife in his belly, but he wouldn’t press charges. And the judge looked unkindly upon woman beaters, which kept Brenda Sweedler out of jail and Melanie out of the foster home Tom and Wendy offered.

Melanie cracked up at school, during eighth grade English class. She was a model student. She loved books and all kinds of art and pleasing her teachers, but after the fight in her apartment, nerves overpowered her brain and will. When Alvaro walked her home or through the halls, she might say a few words but never could finish a sentence. A month passed, then the teacher asked her to present her report on “Great Expectations.” Instead of admitting she hadn’t finished, she collapsed. She slipped from her seat, fell to the floor and wept, wailing and thrashing around while Alvaro knelt beside her and pushed desks, chairs and people out of the way until the school nurse and her aide came. They picked Melanie up and led her off.

After six weeks in a county mental health facility, she returned home and to school. But she wouldn’t sing anymore, or read aloud, or even stand with a group in front of the class for a spelling bee.

So, three years later, after Melanie sang, accompanied by Paul Case on guitar, in a talent program at Pacific Beach High School, people considered Case a miracle worker.

He taught junior English, American Literature.  The girls in his classes worshipped him. After all, he moonlighted as a folksinger and had cut a record with a trio called The Wanderers. And the shaggy hair and beach boy tan helped him look younger than his thirty-some years.

*

Tom exited on Firestone and pulled into a Richfield station next to a diner where long ago he and other L.A. police officers used to meet for coffee. A Mexican fellow was on the pay phone. When he saw Tom approaching, he hung up and hustled away, perhaps wary of a guy in a sport coat, hand-painted tie and fedora.

At 7:30, Tom called Melanie. After two dozen rings he gave up and called Brenda Sweedler’s number. He let the phone ring about fifteen times.

“What?” She yawned into the receiver.

“I saw Mel on TV last night. Steve Allen.”

“Big deal. She’s on TV at least once a week. This Tom Hickey or who?”

“It’s Tom. Alvaro was with her.”

“So what?”

“I told you a week ago, he ran off.”

“Oh, yeah, well now you got him.”

“First I need Melanie’s new address.”

*

The boarding house was on Selma near Gower, midway up a block of California craftsman bungalows shaded in poplar and eucalyptus. The old mansion looked like it came from Pasadena, with the Spanish tile and balconies.

On one of the balconies a pretty blonde stood, leaning on the rail. She smiled and waved to Tom as if he had come to serenade her.

A sign above the archway read, “Maude Sinclair’s Home for Ladies.” When Tom was a boy, he saw plenty of those places, meant as sanctuaries, where the girls who migrated from Iowa and Kansas to become starlets often made their first stop, part because they feared the local wolves, part to comfort their worried moms and dads.

He passed beneath the archway and into a courtyard that featured tall agave and pillars of bougainvillea climbing the walls. He hadn’t yet passed the cactus garden on his way to the stairs that led to the second floor rooms when a high voice trilled, “Mister, oh Mister.”

When he turned, he saw a buxom woman of around his own sixty years. She had a pale face except the splotches of rouge, and yellow hair in tight curls. Her long, blousy skirt was the same yellow.

He greeted her, introduced himself and said, “Melanie Sweedler will want to see me.”

“Be that as it may,” Maude Sinclair told him, “no men are allowed in the ladies’ rooms. I’ll go myself and ask if in fact she does care to see you.”

She strode to the staircase and limped up, using the side rail. At the top, she rested then turned right toward the street-facing rooms, went to the third door, and rapped on it. After a minute or so, she knocked again, and waited before she turned and came back.

Tom met her at the foot of the staircase. She gave him a look of dark chagrin. He asked, “You think she didn’t come home last night?”

“If she didn’t, I’m not surprised. She’s the flighty, wayward sort.”

Though the Melanie Tom knew was reserved, cautious to a fault, and always respectful of authority and rules, he nodded and listened for more.

“She drinks, I’m rather certain, although I haven’t yet put my hands on her liquor.”

Which meant, Tom thought, the woman had used her key and gone snooping. “But you’re certain she drinks. How’s that?”

“I see it in her eyes and in the rubbery way she walks. I hear it when she speaks, just the hint of a slur.”

“How about men?”
            Sinclair looked as if he’d made her bite a lemon. “I caught her trying to sneak that folksinger into her room.”

“Folksinger, you say?”

”The one who struts around behind his big guitar, on that silly ‘Hoot and Holler’ show.”

“You know him?”

She was staring at his tie. “Are you a policeman?”

“A friend of the family.”

Sinclair staged an expression of woe. “The girl told me she has no father. What a trial such a rebel must have been to her poor mother.”

“The man,” Tom said. “Paul Case, correct?”

“If that’s the name of the leader and elder of that troupe of hers. The one who drives a brand new Lamborgini.”

“Any others?” Tom asked.

She placed a finger to her mouth as though to assure him gossip was beneath her. “Not three days ago, I happened upon her on this very path brazenly holding hands with a Mexican boy. They were going to her room. Oh, I’ll admit he was handsome. Still, I believe that shows how far she’s fallen.”

Tom nodded. “Two men. Any others?”

“Not that I saw, but surely an older man and a Mexican are two too many.”

“How about girlfriends?” Tom gestured toward rooms that surrounded the courtyard.

She held up both hands as though to stop him from disturbing any of her ladies. “I believe she’s too busy with her troupe, her men, and gadding about. Still, I shall inquire. You may call me at this number.” She pulled a card out of a pocket in the folds of her skirt.

Tom shook her hand and walked past the cactus garden and out of the courtyard. He meant to move his station wagon farther down the block, watch for and intercept Melanie or any of Maude Sinclair’s girls on their way into or out of the home through the archway, the only passage to the courtyard. But the blonde was still on her balcony.

She gave him a droopy grin. “Hi’ya handsome. Ol’ Maudey give you the boot?”

He smiled. “Yes ma’am.” Then he risked Sinclair’s wrath by crossing her lawn to stand beneath the blonde’s balcony. “I’ll bet you’re a friend of Melanie’s.”

“You bet right. Who are you?”

“Tom Hickey.”

“Hickey, you say.” She leaned so far toward him, to study his face, Tom got ready to break her fall. “Like Melly’s dreamboat. Only you don’t look like him.”

“He’s my son. I need a word with him. Help me out, would you?”

“What day’s this?”

“Monday.”

“Okay, right. Let’s see, is it Monday mornings The High Country Singers record? Yeah, it is.”

*

            Paul Case had recruited a dozen singers, including a few guitar strummers. They were mostly kids. Melanie, Tom believed, was the youngest. Case named the group, promoted them around the L.A. folk clubs, landed them a spot on a weekly variety show called “Hoot and Holler,” which won them a contract with Capitol. If they were recording today, it would be in the Capitol Building, an eyesore that looked like a dozen dinner plates stacked upside down, a block up the hill from Hollywood and Vine. He parked curbside across Vine and fed the meter. If he’d been looking for Melanie, he might’ve gone to the Capitol front desk and asked for admission to the studio. But he was looking for Alvaro, who could be loitering anywhere in the neighborhood, waiting for her session to finish, or running errands, coming and going to fetch the group’s cough drops and sodas.

            So he sat in his wagon and thought about Melanie. Maybe the Sinclair woman was right and Melanie had turned her problems over to liquor, like her mother. And like her father, from what Tom had heard about the man. Tom supposed Melanie could’ve been nipping at her mama’s sauce since she was a baby, and caught the habit that way. But he still couldn’t feature Melanie as a drunk. Of all the drunks he’d known, which were plenty, none had been so guarded or self-controlled as Melanie. As a sometime jazz musician, Tom had known more than his share of guys and girls who reminded him of Melanie. Gifted introverts. The kind most likely to become junkies.

            His Timex read 11:15, and he was thinking about a sandwich, when he spotted a dark haired, wiry fellow on a bus stop bench down the hill past Hollywood. He crushed the fire in his pipe with a golf tee he kept for that purpose, and left the pipe in the ashtray. He jumped out of the car. While he walked, he watched his son cross Vine and go a few steps east then stop and stand still looking down at the sidewalk. He stood there the whole time Tom waited for the light at Hollywood Boulevard to change, and while he crossed the street.

            When Tom reached him, the boy was still gazing down, at the star that commemorated Mary Pickford, Tom saw. She was an actress his mother had done seamstress work for and about whom he’d told his boys a few stories.

He said, “She was one of the good ones.”

Alvaro looked up, with a weary and mirthless smile. “Let’s see. I’m on TV last night, you find me this morning. About twelve hours. Not bad.”

Tom hung his arm across the boy’s shoulders. “You didn’t tell us where you were going because . . . ?”

“See, at first, when Mel called, I figured I’d just come up for the day. Then, you know.”

“Nope,” Tom said. “I sure don’t.”

Alvaro pointed across the Boulevard. “Here they come.”

A gang of young folks had poured out of the Capitol Building. All but two of them walked down Vine, and as they came closer Tom recognized the bunch he had watched every Thursday for the six or eight weeks since they landed the TV spot. They looked wholesome, fresh, unlike most folk singers. Tom had no passion for blazing banjos, the strums of relentless guitars, or for any kind of foot stomping number except those of gospel choirs. But Melanie’s every song threatened to break his heart. Last week she soloed on “Barbara Allen,” a ballad about a dear girl who dies from shame and lost love. For the first time in maybe thirty years, a tear had dribbled out from the corner of his eye.

            With some hugs, backslaps and victory waves, the group dispersed in three directions. Paul Case and Melanie stepped into the crosswalk at Hollywood and Vine at the same time a guy in jeans and an L.A. Angels ball cap ambled up behind Paul Case. Tom didn’t see him pull the gun.

            They were halfway across Vine. A second after what could sound to the untrained like a distant backfire, Case lurched forward and staggered head first toward the curb in front of the Taft Building. He touched down a few yards from Tom, his head ramming straight into the ridge of the curb.

            Tom should’ve kept his eye on the shooter. But he didn’t. He couldn’t pull his eyes off Melanie, who had stopped cold in the middle of Vine and stood long enough for Alvaro to dash to her. Then she collapsed into Alvaro’s arms.

*

            Wedged between Tom and son in the front seat of the Chevy, Melanie quaked. Her wavy, honey brown hair rippled. Her sobs were like gasps so deep they choked her and made her gasp again for air. They turned her pale cheeks to red. 

            “Not as wild as that time in eighth grade,” Alvaro said.

            “Is she using?”

            Alvaro turned away, toward the hills. For a minute, he kept her secret. “Yeah, but not like you think, not off the street. Pills, capsules actually. Sometimes, like before a show, when she needs a real jolt to stay cool, she pours it out of the capsule and snorts it.”

            “Morphine?”

            “I guess. Melanie doesn’t even know. They just give it to her.”

            “Who’s they?”

            “Whoever’s on duty at this place we’re going to.”

            As they turned onto Primrose, a half mile up from Cahuenga, Alvaro said, “Dad, who do you think shot that Case?”

            “A pro, for sure. One shot, with a silencer, then disappears.”

            “I wonder why.”

“The music business is dirty,” Tom said.

Alvaro nodded and started petting Melanie’s hair. “So’s the dope business.”

The clinic was a ‘30s mansion Tom remembered well, as the playhouse of Eleanor Boone, a silent movie vamp. Her favorite seamstress was Tom’s mother, who would come home from fittings and rave at Tom and his sister about all the boozing and fornication that went on at Eleanor’s house.

            Melanie took a few steps on her own while Tom and Alvaro lifted and bolstered her between them, taking her into the clinic. She felt bone thin and seemed to weigh almost nothing.

Whoever owned the clinic must be an Eleanor Boone fan, Tom thought. The house was a ringer for the one in his memory. With it’s murals of mythical goat-men chasing plump wood nymphs, the decor seemed more likely to drive patients mad than help heal them.

            On the wall behind the ebony desk hung a layout of at least a dozen photos in gilded frames. Each of them featured a famous actor, actress, politician or athlete standing or sitting beside the same fellow, a guy who made Orson Welles look gentle and trim.

            A girl in a short-skirt nurse outfit came around from behind the desk. Her name tag read “Lilly.” She had skinny legs and smeared crimson lipstick. She rushed to open a door, which the men helped Melanie through, into a room of burgundy leather couches and a single well-padded executive’s chair. When they seated her on one of the couches, she quit sobbing long enough to gaze around. And she gave Tom a look he believed meant “Save me.”

            So he kissed her cheek and said to Alvaro, “Call your brother. If I don’t get back here by, say, suppertime, we’ll use him to relay messages.”

            “You don’t need my help, Pop?”

            “Not like Melanie does. But, yeah.” He looked to make sure the girl in the nurse outfit had left. “Snoop around. Find out all you can about this place.”

            Alvaro nodded. “Pop, Mel’s no junkie. It’s just, she hadn’t sung ever since eighth grade. And Paul Case, he knew the key, he had the stuff. Mel still thinks he set her free.”

            Tom reached out and squeezed his son’s shoulder then let go and started to leave. But he stopped and turned back. “Mel called you every week or so. What made you come up this time?”

            “She was crying, and spooked. Paul Case was acting scary, she said. Like Brett, remember him? The guy her mom stabbed. And he’d snatched a bottle of her pills, she told me when I got up here. But a couple days later, before she ran out of her stuff, he gave her two bottles. And he didn’t look scary to me.”

*

            In the lobby, Tom leaned on Lilly the nurse’s big desk.

“She’ll be just fine,” the girl said.

“Who’s the boss here?” Tom asked. “That guy all over the wall?” He pointed to the layout of photos.

“Doctor Worth. He owns the building and everything,” she said, sounding impressed as if her employer owned California.

“I need to talk to Doctor Worth. Soon.”

She reached for an appointment ledger and found the right page. “Perhaps Friday at four p.m. will work for you.”

“Perhaps not. Where is he now?”

“He’s in Las Vegas,” she said, as if that chintzy town were Paris.

“That’ll do,” he said. “Which hotel?”

*

            Tom only left Melanie in that place because the very sight of it had calmed her, and now wasn’t the time for her to kick any habits.

He found a payphone outside a news stand on Cahuenga. Twenty-five years after he left the LAPD, not many of his pals were still cops. But a switchboard operator helped by reading names off her roster. She connected him to Pete Battaglia. He only remembered Pete as a rookie. Now he ran a team in homicide.

The Paul Case murder had gone elsewhere, but Pete had heard talk about it.

“Who’s got it?” Tom asked.

“Let’s see. That’d be Gonzo. Gonzales to you.”

“Say, Pete, what do you know about one Doctor Worth, psychiatrist, has a clinic on Primrose?”

“Just he’s been known to produce a few movies, or so say the gossips.”

“Movies, huh?”

“Nothing that’s going to win him an Oscar,” Battaglia said. “The kind you don’t want to send your kids to. Why? Paul Case into the Doctor for something?”

“You tell me.”

“I got my own challenges, Tom. Talk to Gonzo.”

*

It was Tom’s first trip to the City Hall, new since his L.A. years, that towered above its surroundings like some gothic cathedral in the plaza of a humble village.

He located Gonzales on the third floor, in a long, narrow room crammed with matching gray desks. To the rookie who stood up and greeted him, Tom said, “Tell Lieutenant Gonzales I can describe the Paul Case murderer, would you?”

The rookie fetched his lieutenant from an office sectioned out of the back corner of the room. Gonzales was young for a lieutenant and either a fighter or not much of one, judging from his flat, bent nose.

Tom spent a minute describing the scene and the shooter. Gonzales set his note pad on the nearest desk and folded his arms. “How old are you?”

“Old enough.”

“Well, in all that time nobody told you to stick around a crime scene, talk to the officers, tell them what you saw?”

            “What do you think?” Tom asked. “Music or dope?”

            “Dope, you say?”

            “Just a thought.”

            Gonzales unfolded his arms. “Dig a little.” He rolled his hand. “Just where did that thought come from?”

            Tom shrugged. “Say I stumble across a dope pusher with M.D. after his name, who do I deliver him to?”

     “How about you give me the name and we do the stumbling?”

“There’s an idea,” Tom said, as he turned toward the elevator.

*

            Tom preferred to drive fast especially when he was mad or more fed up with the world than usual. His favorite drive was the road to Las Vegas, the part beyond the state line. In Nevada, the only speed law was, don’t crash into anything. His station wagon hadn’t the muscle or weight of the Cadillac he’d long threatened to buy, but it ran the big motor, a 350 cubic inch V-8. The tires were new, the front end steady.

            He got stalled by an overturned semi in Pomona. He rolled up the windows and smoked his pipe all through the San Bernardino Valley, preferring to gag on smog of his own making. Once on the open highway, he only managed to drive within ten m.p.h. of the speed limit by telling himself he’d make up for the aggravation once he reached Nevada. He pulled through the Bun Boy in Barstow for a couple hamburgers with plenty of soggy bread and bite sized patties of meat he didn’t want much of anyway.

            He crossed the state line at 4:10 p.m., did the fifty miles left into Vegas and checked into the Desert Inn all before 5:00.

*

            He found Doctor Worth beside the pool, greased and brown and lying on his back. His fingers tapped like a frantic pianist’s on his medicine ball belly.

            Tom sat across the pool, ordered a Dewar’s from the leggy bar runner. He tipped her big and got an inviting smile.

            Doctor Worth couldn’t lie still. Every minute or so, he hoisted his bulk up with his elbows and looked both ways and as far around back as his beefy neck would allow. The temp had to be a hundred plus even after six p.m. And fat guys could sweat plenty. Even so, the sweat pouring off him looked excessive. The drinks he bought were tall and icy and looked like Tom Collins’. They gave him something else besides his belly to drum his fingers on.

            Tom knew from the photos in the clinic that Worth could look imposing, tough as a gorilla, in the right outfit. But neither his swim suit nor his fright flattered him. Today he looked half as menacing as Pooh Bear.

            The last wedge of sun dipped behind the far mountains. Doctor Worth picked up his towel and yellow and orange Hawaiian shirt and padded on small feet and legs half the length of the bar runner’s to the sliding door of a room that opened onto the lawn that bordered the pool deck.

            Tom counted the rooms from the end of the wing to the one Worth had gone into. He strolled to the end of the wing, entered the interior corridor, and walked the length of it, counting doors until he reached the Doctor’s.

            From a comfortable chair in the lobby, he kept an eye

on the door to Suite 118. When a bellhop passed, he requested a phone, and tipped the bellhop well. The fellow whispered, “You don’t know who to call, I could give you some numbers.”

Tom shook his head and called home. When Clifford answered, Tom apologized for taking so long to check in.

Clifford said, “Alvaro’s called four times already.”

“Is Melanie okay?”

“She still isn’t talking, but she’s not shaking so bad. He said to tell you he’s monitoring the dosage. When did he get to be a medic?”

“I’d rather not ask.”

“Yeah, and he said to tell you some nurse called Lilly flipped out when he told her about Paul Case getting shot. She was blubbering when Alvaro called me one time and still blubbering the next time he called. She told him Case was her first boyfriend, and they made some movie together.

“Pop, Alvaro’s as worried about you as he is about Melanie. He says you’re chasing a murderer.”

Tom said, “I leave murderers to the police these days.”

“Where are you, anyway?”

“Vegas. The Desert Inn. My room’s 167, but I’m in the lobby now.”

“Why’d you go there?”

“If your mama asks, just tell her I’m fine and due home tomorrow, maybe by afternoon. Clifford, you and Alvaro will need to share a bedroom for a while. Make your room or Alvaro’s up for Melanie, would you?”

“No, how about I let her sleep in with me. I mean, I’ll sleep on the floor, promise.”

“I guess a son like you is what I get for being a smart guy.”

“Hey, Pop . . . Don’t get shot or anything. Okay?”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

*

A room service cart that passed by Tom and made him salivate with it’s broiled steak smell continued on to room 118. When the cart was on its way back, he stopped the waiter and asked for a steak sandwich and a Dewars.     

“To what room, sir?” the waiter asked.

“Just bring it back here, I’ll take it out by the pool.”

When the meal came, he ate it in the lobby and stepped outside for a smoke in a place where he could watch Room 118 through the glass doors. Then Doctor Worth lumbered out of his room.

He wore white slacks and a red and blue Hawaiian shirt. His moist face glistened. Tom backed around a corner, suspecting the Doctor would come out past him on his way to the parking lot. When he didn’t, Tom went back to the lobby and saw the man halfway down the wing that led to the casino.

Worth lumbered straight to a cashier window, where he scribbled on a house check or an I.O.U. He carried his new stack of chips to the closest roulette table. Minimum bet $10.

Tom wasn’t much of a gambler, but he’d spent a couple years as Chief of Security at Harry’s Casino in South Lake Tahoe, so he knew losing bets when he saw them. Every spin, the doctor would lay a stack on a single number and make a play of covering the long-shot with another stack on black or red. He kept repeating the bet on different numbers and different colors, and hardly paid attention to the ball or where it landed.

When his chips ran out, he returned to the cashier, all the time shooting glances right and left and over his shoulders.

He lost another stack of chips on baccarat, came back to the cashier for more then settled at a blackjack table, $20 minimum, across an aisle from the table where Tom sat watching and playing one dollar bets. For a while, luck overthrew the doctor’s carelessness, and he gathered a mountain of chips. But he either didn’t notice or care when a mechanic with giant paws and sunglasses came in as relief, though anybody half-wise to casinos would know he was there to sneak looks at the second card, deal whichever of the two suited him, and break the winner’s spell. Four players knew, and left the doctor and a diamond studded older woman to get robbed.

Shortly after midnight, the doctor’s chips ran out once again. He started back toward the cashier, shooting glances everywhere, but veered off and stumbled toward a dark place with tables and food servers who doubled as Keno runners. When one of them tapped the doctor on his shoulder and he leaped a yard off his chair, Hickey decided he’d seen enough.

As he neared, the doctor’s small white hands shot up and clutched the edge of the table. Hickey nodded and sat down. “What’s up, Doc?”

 Worth’s cheeks became balloons. “Huh,” he said, as all the breath he’d held spewed out.

To get the doctor’s reaction, Tom said, “I mean, is Paul Case the first guy you’ve had killed?”

            The doctor let out a frail squeal and started to rise. But when Hickey touched his side where a gun might’ve been if he’d worn one, the man sunk back into his chair and began to quiver. “I don’t know anything about--“

“Shh. Let’s take it out by the pool.”

While they walked down the wing toward the lobby with Tom steadying him like he would help a drunk, the doctor asked three times, “What are we doing?”

Tom didn’t answer. He was thinking how he’d changed over a lifetime. Once, the thought of what he meant to do now would’ve horrified his sense of justice. In the old days, he’d thought the world needed guys like him, to hold it together. Anymore he didn’t know what the world needed. So he didn’t go looking to fix it. He didn’t look much farther than his family.

Melanie was family.

The doctor said, “You’re not a cop, are you?”

Tom didn’t bother to answer. Worth didn’t seem to notice or care that urine dribbled out of his pant leg and onto the floor while Tom led him through the hotel lobby and out to the pool deck and parked him on a lounge chair poolside. On the far deck, a couple smooched between giggles and coos.

“Did Paul send you to kill me?” the doctor whimpered.

“Never mind that,” Tom said. “I might not kill you if you’ll do me a little favor.”

The relief on the fat man’s face made Tom want to kick him into the pool, dive in behind and drown him.

“A favor?”

“We take a ride,” Tom said. “We go to L.A., you talk to Lieutenant Gonzales, tell him how you prescribed a little girl who never had a physical pain in her life all the morphine she could swallow. That’s it. You find a new occupation. I go away. Deal?”

The doctor had fallen to panting so hard, Hickey needed to slap him. Which he enjoyed.

“How about it?” Tom said.

“Yeah, sure,” the doctor stammered. “Sure, it’s a deal.”

*

Standing beside his Chevy, Tom said, “You’re not getting into my wagon soaked in piss.” He pointed to the doctor’s white trousers. “Take those off.”

Worth unzipped, unsnapped and let them fall and stepped out of them, all the while watching Tom’s hands.

“Those too.” Tom pointed at the man’s silk boxer shorts.

The doctor’s mouth opened but snapped shut as he glanced up at Tom’s face. He peeled the shorts down and stepped out of them, already trying to cover his privates with his small hands.

Tom opened the trunk, grabbed a blanket and threw it at Worth. “Get in back.”

The doctor left his clothes on the asphalt and climbed in. Tom slid behind the wheel then reached over and opened the glove box. The pistol he pulled out, he showed to the doctor before laying it on his lap.

The old Chevy wagon behaved like a family car until they left the strip for the highway and passed the city limits. Then it roared into the desert.

After a few miles, Worth yelled over the hot wind through the open front windows. “Paul Case was going to kill me.“

Tom rolled up the windows. “Let me guess. You saved Case from going to the streets for his fix. He paid you by playing the stud in a movie or two. When he struck it rich, you offered to sell him the prints. Fair enough. But he disagreed and threatened you.”

The doctor’s silence backed up Tom’s speculation.

After a long minute Worth mumbled, “Who told you those lies?”

“Hush,” Tom said. He switched hands on the wheel, grabbed the .38 off his lap, threw his arm around and aimed the pistol at Worth’s head. “Sit still and keep quiet, Doc. Let me forget you’re still alive.”

*

The speedometer hand bounced between 110 and 120. Feeling a slight pull to the left, Tom wondered if he needed a wheel alignment. And he wondered how much this exploiter of the troubled and the too sweet to survive in a crass and violent world could handle. How much fright would it take before the fat man’s heart caved in?

Worth had lifted the blanket to shield his sweaty face from the wind. A truck blasted by going east. A little squeal issued out of him.

They were almost to the state line when he peeped, “Could we please slow down?”

Tom jammed the accelerator so hard he thought he might’ve dented the floorboard.

 

End

 

       Web Site: Author Ken Kuhlken

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