His lungs gasped for air that had been knocked out of them by the wall.
"And what's wrong with me? You're wanted for the murder of a lounge singer and you have the nerve to ask what's wrong with me?" I asked incredulously.
He fought for the air to spit out his words, "Not for murder. I'm wanted for questioning."
"Right," I said, nodding my head. "And you're hiding out here because you're innocent?"
"No," he said as he pulled a flat glass flask out of his pocket and drank from it. "I'm hiding because I'm being framed for murder."
"I'm on the run, Jakey. I can't exactly check into the Hilton."
I chuckled, "Can you afford the Hilton...Milton?"
His clothes looked like they had been wadded up and tossed into a wagon of borax that a team of 20 mules pulled across the desert.
"Come on, Jakey," he said, embarrassed.
I turned around and pointed my finger at him, "My name is Jake! I'm not a ten-year-old boy anymore. Stop calling me Jakey!"
He looked irritated, "God, what happened to you, Jakey?"
I lunged at him, throwing him against the wall.
"What'd I just say?" I screamed...
The door opened. There was a man standing there that I barely recognized. He looked gaunt and pale, like a bag of bones that someone had taken skin that had been soaking in a tub for a year and stretched it over a skeleton and made a pathetic human being out of it.
I pushed past him and went into the room, looking around. If he paid a dime to rent it he's due a refund of nine cents. It smelled like the monkey house at the zoo.
"Nice place you've got here, Milton. My favorite motif: early garbage dump."
I pointed my '42 Pontiac Torpedo in the direction of Garden Grove. It was a really hot day so I had the windows rolled down, the warm air rushing into the car as I made my way toward another fish that was floating in trouble and needed me to scoop him out of it. But I had history with this fish. I couldn't just let him get filleted.
I pulled up to the Silver Sun Motel and exited the car. I walked the concrete path until I found Room 13 and knocked on the door.
"Milton, it's Jake. Open up!"
"Flattery and a dime will get you a cup of coffee at the corner diner, Milton."
"Jakey, listen. I'm in trouble. I need your help."
I exhaled. I didn't want to get involved in this. But regardless of the passage of time I considered this man a friend once. A flawed, overbearing schmuck of a friend, but a friend nonetheless.
"Where are you, Milton?" I asked in an irritated tone.
"Silver Sun Motel. Downtown Garden Grove. Room 13."
"How lucky," I said sarcastically. "I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Thanks, Jakey. I knew I could rely on you."
"Jake Randolph," I said as I picked up the receiver.
"Jakey?" a scared voice asked from another dimension.
I knew it was Milton Dunn.
"Lemme guess, Milton," I said in a matter-of-fact tone, "you're on the run from the police who are seeking to question you about the murder of Paige Turner. You're hiding in a crap hole somewhere and want me to drop what I'm doing and come to your rescue and help clear your miserable name. That about the size of it, buddy?"
There was silence on the other end.
"Damn," Milton finally said, "you're good!"
What Milton never found out was the next day I went back to that fruit stand and paid for those oranges. The owner of the stand took the money and spat at me, telling me not to come within fifty feet of his stand ever again or he would call the cops.
It's a long stretch from stealing oranges to murdering lounge singers, but I honestly wouldn't put it past him. Milton Dunn was only interested in one person: himself. I lost touch with him in junior high school, when his family moved to Pasadena.
And then the phone rang...
"Come on, Jakey!" Milton Dunn said, running as fast as his pencil-thin legs would carry him.
I was running behind as the fruit stand owner chased after us.
"Come back here, you little hooligans!"
Milton had snatched two oranges from a fruit stand a few blocks from the apartment building where we lived.
We outran the portly fruit peddler and wound up sitting on a fire escape looking down at a dirty alley, two ten-year-olds peeling their purloined oranges and eating them.
"This is wrong," I said.
Milton chuckled, "You are such a girl, Jakey! A girl!"
I folded the paper up and turned my desk lamp off. I stared at the window shade. There was a hole in the shade near the top of the window, and a tiny shaft of sunlight violated the darkness of the office. I could see dust particles floating through the air, totally oblivious of private detectives and murdered lounge singers and old school acquaintances. No sense of time or the futility of existence. No need for love or emotion. It just wafted along aimlessly, giving nothing and expecting nothing in return.
My mind drifted back to a long time ago...
When I got to my office in the Lassiter Building on the Sunset Strip I put my feet up on the desk and began to read the story.
According to the article a dame named Paige Turner (which sounded to me like a nom de plume for a pulp novelist), who sang at the Cherokee Club, had been found dead in her apartment in Inglewood. The police were looking for the last person that had been seen with Turner: Milton Dunn.
It had been years since I'd heard that name. I went to grade school with that slimy little weasel...
It was a blunt L.A. morning as I stopped at the corner to buy a paper from Charlie, as I did every day. I didn't even have to exit the car. I would pull up to the corner and Charlie would pitch the paper through the car window to me like Bob Lemon. I'd stop every Friday morning and settle up my tab with him. It was a good arrangement. It kept me in the loop about the goings on in the greater Los Angeles area.
Like the headline for that morning, June 5, 1949:
FEMALE LOUNGE SINGER FOUND DEAD...
I stood at the precipice staring down to the craggy surface below that Milton Dunn had made his final resting place. He lived his life on the edge; a tightrope walker without a net that had now lost his balance and wound up a soggy jigsaw puzzle with pieces disappearing into the Pacific Ocean along with his spilt life's blood.
How did he end up this way? It's a long story, but like with any complicated tale, a dame was at the heart of it.
Oh, and one other person integral to this grimy story:
Me. Jake Randolph, private investigator...