Black Chords is a bi-weekly Noir/Horror serial, set in an alternate 1940’s Los Angeles.
Case file 1: Stranger Times
Los Angeles is many unkind things, but that’s only if you’ve got functioning eyes in your skull. If you’re a doe-eyed townie off the bus, or just plain stupid, you don’t have them. Believe me. All you’re going to see is the pretty coat of glamour that the big wigs like to keep fresh.
You’re going to be delighted by the glitz. That’s Hollywood’s stock and trade, after all. You’ll ooh and ahh at the choreographed times whenever a shiny zeppelin docks at one of the penthouses atop our skyscrapers, or when the city’s neon kaleidoscope fires up for the evening. Your feet won’t be able to help themselves when the Jazz we produce takes hold, and you’ll dance into the waiting arms of the club-ruled nights.
We’ve got delights and publicly-accepted vice on tap. We’ve got the latest and greatest whatever. Pick a medium. We’ve got you covered. You’ll believe the reels that cheerfully announce that in the year of our Lord, 1940, the City of Angels has already brought the future to the good ol’ U S of A.
But it’s a gold veneer over rust. Those sky-bound party flotillas float over a city that’s as much a den of hustlers and thieves as it is the lavish kingdom of well-to-do officials and movie stars alike. Honestly, the only thing that really separates any of them is who signs their paychecks.
You just don’t have the right set of peepers to appreciate it from the outside looking in. But let me tell you, a decade plus on the force, and three years at my current job were more than enough to let me see things pretty damn clearly.
Take my last case, for example. It was the usual heiress rag: some tart socialite getting the feeling that her beau was alley-catting around town while she got her beauty sleep. And, as per the usual, Mrs. Moneybags was right. The case was also par for the course in that this broad forgot to pay me, but sure remembered to pay her lawyer for the divorce. I still had another fresh invoice on my desk waiting to be mailed out and summarily ignored. Number seven. I doubted it was any luckier than the previous six.
I knew what I was getting into when I opened up shop and slapped the “Raymond Moore, Private Investigations” sign on the door three years back. It’s still a pretty cherry set-up here on the city’s East end near Montebello, if you leave out the be-bop joint on one side, and the hooch dive on the other. Kept the rent low, at least. But, low or high don’t factor in when you’ve got self-entitled clients who wouldn’t pony up the scratch when the bill came due.
I knew it might be like this, sure, but this was starting to get ridiculous. I wasn’t expecting to be flush with the green, but I’d like to at least be able to eat more than the cheap special at the greasy spoon down the block.
Don’t start mailing me sympathy letters yet. It still beat working on the force. I was a sightless rookie starting out with the LAPD, but I had had my fill of the politics, schmoozing, butt-kissing and grift that oiled the city’s wheels long before I had landed that shiny Detective’s badge and desk. Then it was all that with a side of trust-fund kiddies getting off the hook for beating call-girls to death, or well connected bankers walking away from getting collared for gutting low-tier lounge ladies with skinning knives.
And that’s before you throw in the sick scenes left by the not-so-wealthy numbskulls who thought murder was hunky-dory because their dog told them so.
So I walked once my gorge refused to stop rising three years into the promotion. I guess I had not totally shaken off that wild-eyed rookie, because I thought I could do more good on the outside with my own investigation service.
Sure, being master of your own fate sounds sexy, but the reality is take-out meals fit to cultivate an iron stomach, daily calls from collection thugs, and getting gypped by clients who own more cars than the President.
Now you’ve got some idea of the frame of mind I was in as I sat at my desk around ten in the evening, looking at that invoice, and half-considering throwing it in the bin. By it, I mean “all of it”. It’s not like the prospects were good for business. I was already technically off the clock, but the idea of just closing up shop permanently was pretty tempting.
And that’s why I was a bit startled when somebody knocked on my door. Of course they did. Not like I had a buzzer. Hell, I didn’t even have an anteroom or the funds to afford a proper secretary.
I put the invoice for the check-skipping starlet back in the manila folder uncharitably labeled “skinflint”, tucked it back into the drawer, and halfheartedly went through the motions of making myself look more professional. I thought if I never saw another Hollywood glitterati, John or Dame, it would be too soon.
“Come in,” I said.
Naturally, in walks this silver screen actress. At least, she had been. She was a bit too past her prime for the studios, but she still popped up now an again in the serials, and she was always welcome at the premieres. Diane Williams was pushing forty, but she still cut a curvy figure that would turn heads, and gams that would keep ’em looking. She was wearing a lulu of a skirt and jacket combo in burgundy, with a chapeau to match set atop perfectly coiffed raven hair. Ms. Williams regarded me with smoky blue eyes, and a dimpled ghost of a smile.
She looked like the kind of knock-out that might have just walked off the polished floors of the Ritz.
Unfortunately, she didn’t look pleasing enough to my eye to keep me from groaning aloud at the appearance of yet another glitzy broad so soon after dealing with the last. She noticed it, but quickly recovered her pleasant expression as she approached my desk. I stood up to meet her.
I still have some manners.
“Mr. Moore?” she began. “My name is-”
“Diane Williams,” I interrupted. “Sorry. Everyone knows you. Apologies for any slight, miss. Have a seat.” I gestured to the armchair on the other side of my desk, and resumed my own.
Ms. Williams demurely sat down, and crossed her legs. From that close, I could tell ya that her perfumer was to be complimented. She smelled like jasmine in sunshine. Her posture otherwise was ramrod straight with tension. I guess I had wounded her more deeply than I had intended. I fell back on the old tricks to make her feel more at ease.
“Coffee, tea?” I asked in a friendly neighbor sort of way. “Something from the stronger side of the street?”
Giving me the short shrift with her glance, she shook her head. Woof. So much for softening the dialogue. Business instead.
I nodded, and pulled out my legal pad, and flipped to a fresh page. “Fair enough,” I replied with a sigh. “Right to it then. I’ve got standard rates for tailing and getting the snapshots of your man that’ll stand up at a hearing, Ms. Williams. No extra rates for film or development, though-”
“It’s not like that,” she cut in.
I blinked stupidly a couple of times, and shrugged. “Sorry. Too used to that being the going rage for my services. What can I do for you then, Ms. Williams?”
“My sister is missing, Mr. Moore.”
I set to work pulling the usual details out of her. Name? Harriet. Age? Thirty-one. Description? Like Diane in miniature, with a librarian look. Last person to speak to her? Diane. Lovers? Friends? Anyone who might have it in for her? None of the above. Any kind of nightlife? No. Anything out of the ordinary leading to her vanishing act? Bupkis.
Time missing? One week. Yowza. That didn’t bode well.
I frowned, and looked up from my flurry of shorthand notes. “I hate to ask, Ms. Williams, but given the time frame, why haven’t you taken this to the police?”
“I did,” she waspishly corrected me. “They have refused to take the case.”
That was out of sorts. Even at their busiest, I never knew the boys to slam a door in someone’s face like that, particularly a beauty who looked to be old money. And now she was getting snooty with me? It just didn’t add up, and I was starting to lose my patience. She was giving me next to nothing, and then was trying to sell me on the idea that there wasn’t a single flatfoot in this burg with the decency to help her? I wasn’t buying it.
“Okay lady,” I said as I rubbed at my temples. “I’ve heard about enough. I’ve got no time for a snipe hunt, and this is sounding more and more like some joker back at the precinct who thought this would be a nifty prank. I don’t know what strings were pulled to make you the face of it, but bravo. Hilarious. My sides are split. It’s been a real gas, but unless you can give me something real to chew on, there’s the door.”
“It’s not a joke, Mr. Moore,” she insisted, and for the first time, there was real, raw emotion in the words. It was a legitimate down on the knees plea. “I need your help. You’re the only one I’ve got left in this town that can find my Harriet! I’ll pay whatever you need up front, plus expenses. Just … please.”
Knife, twist. Yeah. I’d bite. No one’s that good of an actress. Big Sis was desperate, and damn me for a fool if she wasn’t on the level.
“Fine,” I relented. “At least give me an address. Where did she go missing from? Apartment? Bus stop?” I picked up the pencil again, and hovered the tip over the stationery.
Ms. Williams collected her composure, and rattled off a number that was on Mission road. I wrote it down in a kind of mechanical way, and I stared at it for a moment. I knew that place. Every cop in or out of the business knew that address by heart. It was the Los Angeles County Department of the Medical Examiner.
“Wait,” I breathed, “are you trying to tell me-”
“Yes,” she answered, clearly afraid of my reaction. “My sister has gone missing from the morgue.”
To be continued …
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)