"Jake? Can I see you in private, please?" Mongo asked as he stood in the doorway of the stock room. He had a strange look on his face.
I let go of Alex, who slumped into a heap in front of the bar, prompting Marilyn to run around and help him off the floor. I walked over to Mongo, who stepped back in the stock room. I entered the room and closed the door behind me.
"Okay, Mongo, what's up?"
He looked down at his shoes and then back up to me.
"I think I know where Blaze might be."
I studied the faces of everyone in the café:
Rebecca still looked pissed at what I told her, but also looked concerned about the whole situation.
Alex, whom I still had pulled halfway across the bar, just looked embarrassed and more than a little scared.
Marilyn had the 'cat that swallowed the canary' look. I wasn't quite sure what it meant. I wondered if she could really be responsible for Blaze's disappearance.
Everyone else had a sort of blank expression. I think this violent outburst stunned most of them.
Mongo stepped from the stock room and softly called my name...
"Chinatown?" I asked, puzzled. "What the hell was she doing in Chinatown? What the hell were you doing in Chinatown?"
By that point Marilyn came running over behind the bar and started beating on my right side, trying to get me to release Alex.
"Put him down, you big ape, before I call the fuzz!"
I turned to look at Marilyn while still holding Alex draped across the bar.
"Yes, Marilyn, let's call the fuzz. And while they're here we can get them to look into the disappearance of Blaze."
The place got so quiet I thought I went deaf...
She crossed over to the bar without even removing her coat.
"Jake! Have you lost your mind? Put him down!" she yelled at me.
"Stay out of this, Rebecca," I said, regretting now ever agreeing to help her with her stupid Beatnik story.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked with so much indignation it filled up the entire café. By this time everyone in the joint had turned their attention to the bar. So much for subtlety.
"Where, Alex? Or do we continue this conversation out back...in private?"
"Chinatown!" he screamed at me loud enough to shatter the shot glasses.
"Cool your jets, dad!" he said, struggling to break my grasp. I tightened my grip and pulled him up even further. His feet left the ground.
"One more time, Alex. When was the last time you saw Blaze?"
He knew he couldn't get out of my clutches, so he stopped struggling.
"Two or three weeks ago, man! I don't know!"
He shook his head. All traces of being Beatnik seemed to have temporarily left him. So there is a cure!
"I don't remember where, man! I wasn't ghostwriting her damn travelogues!"
About that time Rebecca came through the door...
"What's the beef, dad? I'm trying to pick up on the Monk's vibes, ya dig?"
I nodded, "Just a quick question. When was the last time you saw Blaze?"
He turned, looking at me. I could tell he was stalling, hesitating for some reason.
"Well...who are you, dad, her parole officer?"
That did it. I was fed up with these smartass punks. I grabbed him by the collar, pulling him part way over the bar.
"I'm the guy who's going to put his foot so far up your ass you'll have to open your mouth to trim my toenails. Dig?"
I was standing behind the bar watching the crowd. They were playing "Straight, No Chaser," a cut from Thelonious Monk's new album 5 by Monk by 5, five songs written by Monk and performed by a quintet. It was okay, but I missed Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman.
I was waiting for Alex to catch my eye. I wanted to call him over to ask about Blaze without the whole swarm of bees following him. He finally looked at me and I motioned with my head for him to come to me.
He looked irritated but came over to me...
Did I think Marilyn capable of doing something nefarious to Blaze to get her out of the picture? To be honest, I think everyone has that inside them, drawn out by the right motivation.
Even me, you ask? Yeah, even me.
I've done a lot of things during my years on this Earth, some of it very unpleasant. Did I want to be in France killing Germans? No, I didn't. But it had to be done.
And since then I've killed in self-defense and I've killed to protect others. But a crime of passion? I think that's entirely possible...
Susan Miller was Blaze. I had not seen her around the café in over a month. She had come in about three or four months before that and caused quite a stir. She really stood out over the other girls, for one thing because she was new blood, and for another because of that fiery red head.
It wouldn't have been so bad if she hadn't turned the head of the leader of these particular Beatniks. Alex was the top man, the Lama. Everyone looked up to him. But he belonged to Marilyn.
And she was the ultra-jealous type...
After Mr. Miller left I studied the photograph carefully. I knew I had seen that girl before, only a little older and with a different look. And it hadn't been that long since I'd seen her. Then it finally came to me.
Blaze...not her real name, of course, but that's what everyone at the Existential Café called her because of her fiery red hair. Most girls that get into this culture, and are not already dark haired, will dye their hair dark brown or jet black.
The guys liked her because her hair was different. The girls didn't like her...
I told Mr. Miller that I would ask around and do all I could. He thanked me several times. I asked if I could keep the photo and he said yes, but turned it over and wrote on the back his name and the name of the hotel at which he was staying. I told him I would call him if I found out anything. He left with a slight glimmer of hope in his eyes that he didn't have when he came in.
Whether I liked it or not, I was about to regress back to my old life...
The decision had been made. The die was cast. I couldn't go back now even if I wanted to. And I was ambivalent about the whole venture. I needed to find out about this devastating influx of heroin that seemed to be centralizing around my café, but I knew I was heading for trouble. I wanted to locate Mr. Miller's daughter, whom he called Susan, but I was afraid of what I would find and what I would have to tell this poor man that was standing in front of me. But it was done now. I was all in...
Have you ever laid two magnets close together on a table and watched them slide toward each other and collide? That's what I felt my new life and my former life was doing at that moment. It seemed I was destined to don, however briefly, the uniform of the private detective again.
The man looked embarrassed, "I'm sorry, Jeffrey Miller."
He stuck his hand across the bar. I shook it.
"Would you mind if I showed this photo around?" he asked with eagerness.
"I don't mind, but they won't listen to you. However, they will me."
Skip, one of the less tolerable Beatniks, came rushing up to the bar.
"Hey, daddy-o," he said as he slid a dollar bill across the bar to me, "I need some George change for the ole' Ma Bell, dig?"
I took the dollar bill, opened the cash register, and got 10 dimes out.
"Dig," I said as I dropped them in his hand. I wish this joker would dig: a hole, and then jump in it and cover himself up.
He left and I turned my attention back to the girl in the photo. She really did look familiar..
I knew the story well: she'd fallen in with the wrong crowd at school; her grades began slipping; she started being defiant; staying out past her curfew, sometimes not coming home until morning. Then one morning she didn't come home at all.
The man broke down sobbing when he got to the part about her not coming home at all. I really felt bad for him. I reached down under the bar and got a glass of bourbon that I keep there as a deterrent for me wanting to blow my brains out some nights.
He drank it down quickly...
"Excuse me, sir," the man said as he reached the bar. "Have you ever seen this girl?"
I took the photo from the man and put it under the lamp on the bar. It was a black-and-white picture of a young girl, maybe 16. She looked like the all-American girl-next-door. She had light hair, difficult to identify by the photo, but judging how milky her skin appeared, I would say a natural redhead. She looked so familiar.
"It's possible I've seen her before. Who is she?"
He looked up with teary eyes. "She's my daughter."
I saw him come through the door like a bowling ball through a glass window. He was a man on a mission. I could tell he was burdened by something. He looked to be about 50, the button-down, suburban type. He looked as out of place in a Beatnik café as a goldfish stuck to a cactus.
He approached the bar, fishing in his trench coat pocket for something. I had a nostalgic twinge as I thought he was going for a gun. All my nerves tensed up.
My nerves relaxed when I saw he pulled out a photograph...
After I dropped Rebecca off at her apartment on Reseda Boulevard I pointed my '58 Pontiac Bonneville toward the Hollywood Hills. The affluent residents of Beachwood Canyon didn't take kindly to my relocation there after my financial upgrade, but I still smiled and waved as I went by.
I lay in bed that night staring at the ceiling, contemplating. If I started looking into that business about the heroin I knew I was going to open a huge can of worms, and I sold my fishing pole years ago.
I finally drifted into sleep just as the sun came up...
Rebecca approached me, "Jake? Is he...?"
"Dead?" I asked. "As the proverbial doornail."
"What happened?" she asked wide-eyed.
"They won't know for sure until an autopsy is performed, but heroin was a major contributing factor."
Her eyes widened again, "Heroin?"
I saw the journalistic wheels turning in her mind.
"Hold on there, eager beaver, you have a story to focus on. About the Beatniks...remember?"
"Yeah, but there is obviously some sort of connection. I mean, the drummer was a Beatnik, was he not?"
I ignored the question as I got her coat from the rack and took her home...
Back inside the café everyone was reeling from what had just taken place. The surviving three members of the Downbeats looked about as beat down as a nail driven through a 2x4. They were quietly gathering up their instruments as the regular patrons ran up to me.
"So, what's the scoop, dad? Is he like booking passage on the train to Nadaville?" someone asked from the crowd.
I nodded, "Bought a one-way ticket, I'm afraid, using China White. He was a heroin user."
I noticed two or three of the people in the crowd start to get rather fidgety...