Hummingbird Chapter 6
Sunday as a day of rest was shot to shit. Hauling my aching carcass to the closet I managed to dress myself while Bruno emphatically discussed his plans for the afternoon. Apparently there was a hot date involved because he shot out the front door like his tail was on fire. I hoped he had a good time because I wasn’t going to; at least one of us should be happy.
The Dodge took me to Pat’s Place where I ordered the Breakfast Bonanza and put my brain on hold for a half hour. Pat’s wife Maggie slide a hot platter of eggs, pancakes, bacon and hash browns in front of me, clattered down stack of rye toast along with a pint of fresh orange juice and set a pot of coffee on my table.
“Maggie,” I said, “Did anyone ever tell you you’re an angel?”
She guffawed and shook her plump index finger at me. “Yer lookin’ a bit peaked this mornin’ Mr. Jack McElroy. Eat on up; it’ll put some color back in yer face.”
Maggie is as Irish as oatmeal, with a milky complexion, ready smile and the stars of Ireland twinkling in her eyes. I’d known her since I was a boy, when she was curvy as a milkmaid and a brand new bride. She and her husband raised four boys, two cops, a teacher and a carpenter and now had a baker’s dozen of grandkids.
Whenever I thought the world was crap, Maggie would make me feel like it wasn’t, even if it was only until the last bit of egg yolk glommed onto the last bite of toast and I sailed out onto the street to fight the bastards for another day. That, and her coffee, which could easily peel the paint off a wall; it stuck to a man’s ribs.
Fortified, I headed to my office hoping to eliminate some legwork by working the phone. This time, nobody was camped at the door and I made it to my desk without incident. Three calls later, my dry cleaner, Mrs. Chung, recommended a Mr. Chu as my Chinese puzzle box expert that could be found daily at the Mah Jong parlor on 21st and Pine.
“I take,” she insisted, “He no speak American, no trust round eye.”
After explaining several times the box couldn’t leave my possession, Mrs. Chung finally caught my drift.
“Hokay, I invite him here,” she said. “He come for tea, tomorrow, one o’clock, you bring in shirt for clean and box. I bet he cannot open, so he open, hokay? Old man not so smart as Mrs. Chung.”
A bell sounded in the background. “Shirts come, I go,” she said. “You come one o’clock, bring box, hokay, bye-bye.” I heard her giggling as she hung up.
The phone immediately rang again; this time it was Mike saying his old man could see me at 5 o’clock and did I want him to pick me up. I said no thanks; he gave me directions to a neighborhood in Corona Del Mar and promised there would be cocktails.
So far, the day was going better than anticipated. I decided to press my luck and try Tiny again although it was pretty early in the day for a night owl. To my surprise he answered the phone. No, he’d not heard of this Assassin fellow, but if anybody would, it’d be Paco Julios, manager of the boxing arena over in Bean Town. Friday night fights drew a big Mexican crowd and a lot of deals went down ringside. I thanked Tiny profusely and promised to bring Ada and Tom by for dinner soon.
Feeling like a genius, I congratulated myself for putting two and two together, nearly breaking my arm patting myself on the back. I knew it couldn’t last, but I was hoping for more than the few minutes that passed before Brad barged in.
“The Coast Guard found the skiff and a stiff, but it isn’t Mr. Ward,” Brad announced.
“Who is it, when was it and where?” I growled.
“Uh, the stiff hasn’t been ID’d yet, there was nothing on him. About an hour ago, just past Baron Cove. Ben’s there with the Coast Guard n’ the sheriff’s on his way.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
Brad had been up all night so we figured I’d drive his jalopy around to the cove while he catnapped in the back. The coast was masked in morning fog with sunlight struggling to burn through. Almost nobody was on the Great Highway, and my foot kept leaning harder on the gas as we wove around the swooping curves of the California coastline, windows open, and the salty ocean smell pouring in. It was enough to make a man feel alive.
“Wake up Brad. I need to know which exit to take,” I said.
Without opening his eyes, Brad mumbled, “The Luna Beach turnoff just past The Crab Shack”.
We were already passing The Crab Shack and I had to punch the brakes to make the turn off.
“Whoa Nelly, McElroy,” said Brad, suddenly wide awake. “Easy does it, the road gets narrow fast. Take the left fork down to the water; you’ll see everybody standing around.”
It was a uniform convention all right; a couple of black & whites, an ambulance, a park ranger’s pick-up and an idling Coast Guard cutter waited for some action while men milled like mosquitoes around the 19-foot skiff tied up to a short fishing pier. Two paramedics wheeled a gurney to the pier to collect the tarp covered corpse lying in peaceful repose. Or, judging from the size of it, maybe it was a beached whale.
“Fellas, could you hold on a minute?” I called out.
Heads swiveled our way and one called back, “Who’s asking?”
“McElroy,” I said, “Private investigator. I’m investigating the disappearance of Harold Wade and that’s his boat. I held out my ID; the sheriff in residence eyeballed it, then me.
“Used to work for the San Diego County police didn’t ya”, he said, pushing his aviator glasses up a bulbous nose. “I’ve hearda ya. Mostly decent news.” A bushy grey mustache hid his upper lip and his lower jutted out like a carp. He stuck out a calloused paw and I shook it.
“Sheriff Emil Black,” he said, “What do you know about this here situation?”
“Not enough. I was called in on what looked to be a kidnap that turned into a getaway but now, who knows? This is my guy’s boat and there was evidence back at his boathouse that made it appear he’d grabbed some gear and took off so we put in an APB with the Coast Guard. Now we’ve got the boat and a dead man that’s not my guy.” I shrugged. “That’s about the size of it.”
“Uh-huh,” said Sheriff Black, biting down on the wooden matchstick he had clenched between his teeth. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his beat up leather jacket and rocked back on his heels.
“Well, that’s just dandy. C’mon down and have a gander then; maybe you can figure something out. There’s no identification on the body, but I can tell you he’s the ugliest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever seen.”