Felix Driscoll: Private DetectivebyFive_Eight©
A NOTE TO THE READER: This story takes place in 1949.
My answering service tracked me down just before midday.
I had had a lunch date with Veronica, the beautiful new girl over at the bail bond place by the courthouse. When she agreed to go out with me I considered myself lucky. She'd come out west in hope of being in pictures and possessed both the looks and the proportions. Unfortunately she also possessed a prominent Bronx accent, a mountain too tall for dialect coaches to climb.
Hollywood's loss became Bailey's Bail Bonds' gain.
Veronica accepted this cruel turn of events in her career with an optimist's smile, but she wasn't smiling when I breezed in that morning. She pouted so hard her bottom lip stuck out like a diving board.
"You look like you're in a good mood," I said, glad I hadn't embarrassed myself bringing her flowers.
"Your answering service just called."
"So what? I'll call them when we get back from lunch. Ready?"
She still pouted. "They said it was an emergency."
"Don't worry, I'll check in real quick and then we'll go." The words sounded hollow to me, probably to her, too.
"I suppose you want to use the phone?"
I said, smiling while I reached across her desk for it, "Don't be difficult. This is not past tense."
"Oh right," said a voice full of Bronx irony, "sure it's not."
I dialed my service. I was told: "You have an extremely flush prospect. A Mrs. Starling up in Malibu. Where the real estate separates the haves from the have nots."
"I'll say. Did she say what she wanted?"
"Call her immediately, it's of the utmost importance, something involving a large retainer."
I jotted down the phone number recited to me, hung up sighing.
Daggers flashed in Veronica's eyes. "You'll have to use the payphone in the hall if it's long distance," she stated in a display of seriousness. She even stretched a little behind her desk, to show me what I'd be missing. Her sweater rode up over her stomach an inch. She had a nice belly button. When she saw me looking she pulled her sweater back down.
I sighed again and went out into the hall to call Mrs. Starling.
She answered on the first ring.
"I'm Felix Driscoll, you contacted my office."
"Oh yes, the private detective." She spoke in a contralto, urgent but a welcome change from the bray of the Bronx blonde. "You come highly recommended. I need you to do some work for me. You're very good at finding people, or so I'm told. Are you free to start immediately?"
Without much reluctance I said yes.
"Mr. Driscoll, it's inconvenient for me to come to your office," she said. "And I don't really want you coming here to my home. Could we meet somewhere?"
"I'm flexible. Wherever you'd like."
Mrs. Starling suggested a coffee shop down from Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway. We agreed to meet there.
"One more thing," Mrs. Starling said before I could hang up.
"Do you carry a gun? I suppose you have to have a license."
"Yes, Mrs. Starling, I'm registered."
"I'm sure it won't be necessary, but please bring one with you."
"I don't always strap on the artillery, but if it'll make you feel better."
"It will, Mr. Driscoll. Goodbye."
I went back to see if Veronica wanted to have dinner instead, but she'd already left for lunch. I saw old man Bailey standing around scowling and ducked out of there myself.
Doubling back to my office for a pistol didn't even leave me time enough for a bag of chips. Malibu is not a long drive from West Hollywood. I took Santa Monica Boulevard to the Pacific Coast Highway and went north. Starting just after noon I arrived about one. The coffee shop where we were to meet was a typical postwar art-deco monstrosity. Only two parking spaces out front had cars occupying them. I parked facing the ocean. Gulls rode the thermals above the shimmering water. A fierce wind whipped my tie.
Anticipating a big lunch I'd skipped breakfast. I at least wanted to use my comb and maybe grab a quick bite before meeting with my client, but no such luck. A hostess asked if my name was Driscoll as soon as I entered. Mrs. Starling was waiting for me at a table in the back. Would I care to step this way, please?
I was going to have to go hungry.
The Starling woman wasn't as old as I'd imagined her to be over the phone, but she was fifty easy. Her friends would refer to her as a handsome woman. She wore a sundress and an oversized pair of sunglasses. All that remained in a Martini glass in front of her on the tabletop was an olive pierced with a plastic sword. She did not ask the hostess to bring more drinks or, better yet, a late lunch. She merely gestured for me to sit.
That urgent contralto warbled: "You're late, Mr. Driscoll."
I shrugged. "You wanted me to pick up a gun, Mrs. Starling."
"And did you? Pick one up, that is."
"I did," I patted the left side of my jacket.
She sat staring at me and I was aware of my hair being awry and my tie amiss. But she forgave me before long and got down to cases. "I apologize for being unable to receive you in my home. I don't want the neighbors speculating on who you are or what you're doing or why. I hope we won't be seen by anyone who knows me." She paused to light a cigarette. Normally she would've let me light it for her but she was in a hurry. "God knows this is far enough away from Malibu. This must be kept confidential."
"It will be," I assured her. The unmistakable scent of frying bacon floated on a draft of air.
"I want you to find my daughter, without involving the police."
I put my appetite out of my mind, got a little notebook out of my jacket pocket. "When did you see her last?" "I spoke with her on the phone a week ago." Today was Friday. "Dana said she was getting married. I told her I had yet to see the engagement ring, let alone meet the man who gave it to her."
"Do you know his name?"
"No last name or you don't know it?"
"If Dana told me I don't remember."
"Is there anything to indicate your daughter may be in danger?"
"Dana was supposed to have come visit me last weekend. She didn't and she didn't call. I talked to her roommate before I phoned your office this morning. She said she hadn't seen Dana either. But she thought she might be with this Vinnie character."
"Does Dana's roommate know Vinnie?'
"Apparently. And doesn't like him."
"Are you basing your all your suspicion on this one person's dislikes?"
I'm not sure if it got a rise out of her, but she audibly exhaled smoke through her nostrils. "Don't be ridiculous. It's more than Dana just canceling her weekend plans. This Vinnie may be some kind of," she hesitated, "of gangland figure."
I wondered if that's why she suggested bringing the gun. I said easily, "Says who? The roommate?"
She tapped ashes in an ashtray, gave a slight nod for yes.
"I'd like to talk with this friend of your daughter's. What's her name?"
She told me, and the address, showed me a recent snapshot of her daughter and the roommate at the beach. She pointed to one of the girls and said: "This one's Dana. They look a lot alike."
"They certainly do. Twins almost."
"Both of them blonde, very beautiful."
"Your daughter is lovely enough to be a screen actress."
"I've seen beauty be the downfall of many a young girl." She spoke as if from experience, and seemed sad enough to cry.
To change the subject I quoted her double my regular rate. The Starling woman didn't bat an eye. Her personal check felt heavy in my wallet.
I promised her I'd be in touch and got up from the table.
"Mr. Driscoll," she said before I left.
"Yes, Mrs. Starling."
"Find my daughter and find out about . . . this man of hers."
"You can count on me," I said as I left.
Outside the afternoon sun had heated the pavement enough to burn through the soles of my shoes. I got in my car and sat squinting at the dazzling sea. The noisy gulls rose and fell with the surf, their cries ripped away by the wind.
I deposited Mrs. Starling's check in a branch of my bank in Topanga Canyon where her daughter shared an apartment with a girl named Lisa Trowell.
A short drive brought me to a prewar stucco apartment building with four wilted palms lining the sidewalk. The wind from the sea blew only heat and a little sand through the breezeways. Somebody had taped a handwritten out-of-order sign to one of the elevator doors. I took the stairs. Sweat collected around the straps of the shoulder holster and, by the time I'd finished my climb, rolled down my back. A trek through a maze of corridors finally brought me to the right door. I knocked, mopping the inside of my collar with a handkerchief, waited for a response and got none.
More knocking resulted in nothing.
I looked up and down the corridor. Not a soul in sight. From my wallet I took a square of plastic and wedged it between the jamb and the lock while turning the knob with my other hand. The door opened and I let myself in. Lazy planks of light angled through the blinds, dim but enough to see by.
I stood inside a cozy little living room with framed portraits on the walls. Two or three of a long-haired girl who was probably Dana in prior years, but all the rest were pictures of who I guessed to be Lisa Trowell. One artful shot looked like a clever double exposure of Lisa and an identically-dressed twin. The rest of the poses ran a gamut of hairstyles and costumes. Lisa had many faces, and moods.
In the small kitchen I found nothing out of the ordinary but the bathroom contained only one toothbrush. One bedroom had an unmade bed and a litter of cosmetics on the dressing table. The other had dust on the furniture and very few clothes in the closet. When I opened several drawers in a bureau beside a neatly-made bed I discovered them empty of any items of consequence. The apartment gave the appearance of two inhabitants when there was probably only one.
As I stepped into the corridor again I wondered if Dana had already run off and gotten married. Back through the maze and back down the stairs I went.
I found the landlord downstairs scooping debris out of the pool with a net attached to the end of a long pole. He had large sad eyes and a drooping belly. Sweat darkened his undershirt and soaked through the waistline of his khakis. Any distraction provided an excuse for a break. He took a business card I handed him emblazoned with the name of a life insurance firm out of Santa Barbara. I explained Miss Trowell needed to sign some paperwork before her policy became effective. I could leave it with Miss Starling if necessary, I offered, just to see what it would get me.
The landlord said, scratching a jowl, "I'm sure I hadn't seen her in . . . it must be weeks now."
To avoid tipping my hand I chose my words casually: "I wonder if she still lives here?"
"Imagine so, I'm still getting the rent anyway." He thought for a second, "Yeah, they're like sisters, those two."
"They look a lot alike?"
"Yeah. They could be twins."
"Could you have mistaken one for the other?"
"Sure, I guess." Once started, I couldn't staunch the flow of information. Lisa got home about ten, she worked as a waitress at a seafood restaurant. Did I want to know how to get there?
One thought cheered me on my way: a jumbo shrimp platter with French frieds.
The seafood joint was a swanky place on the beach, partially built out over the dancing waves. I smelled neither grease nor fish in the air outside. Inside, a plate-glass wall enhanced the view of the water, sparkling in the late afternoon sun. The dining room was deserted, the supper crowd not due for another hour. I asked to be seated in Lisa's section.
A few minutes later a girl with her hair in a bun tip-toed my way, cute in a nautical outfit. Her beauty seemed more subdued than the girl in all those pictures. I figured her to be a year or two younger than the missing Starling girl, about nineteen.
She set a glass of iced water on my table. "I'm Lisa, can I help you?" she said almost shyly.
"I'm working for the Starling family, I'd like to ask you a few questions about Dana."
"Okay. Did you want to order something, too?"
I got the Friday special from the menu. Lisa and I talked while we waited for the kitchen.
"I understand you have reservations about Dana's boyfriend?"
"You've been talking to her mother. She called to talk to me just this morning."
"She asked I get in touch with you about this man."
"Uh-huh. Do you know his last name?"
"Patucci. Vinnie Patucci. I can't stand him." She cupped a hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry! I shouldn't have said that."
"That's all right, impressions count. Is he mixed up in any shady dealings that you know of?"
Lisa lowered her voice even though no one could hear us. "He might be. I've overheard some conversations with Dana. And, and he carries a gun. I know that for a fact."
"What does he carry one for?" I didn't mention the automatic in the rig under my jacket. Mild contempt colored her words. "He brags all the time he's a professional gambler. He sometimes wins big in Vegas and says he needs a gun in case anyone tries to heist him."
"Why would Dana be attracted to that kind of man?"
Lisa wrinkled her pretty forehead. "I guess she only likes the dangerous ones." Something told me Lisa did, too.
"The dangerous ones?"
"Yeah, only the wild ones excite her. That's her reason. I guess Dana is a little wild herself, if you know what I mean." Lisa looked away from me when she said it.
"I'm afraid I do. Do you know if Dana's with Vinnie?"
"Maybe. It's not unusual for her to spend time with him, lots of it. He never spent that much time with me," she blushed, "I used to date him. Before Dana. She's welcome to him."
I didn't believe that but tried to steer her back on track. "Can you tell me where she is right now?"
Lisa shook her head. She looked very vulnerable.
"Is she living somewhere other than your apartment?"
She hesitated. "No."
Friends will lie for friends. I saw nothing to be gained by calling Lisa a liar, so I said: "Do you know how I can get in touch with this Vinnie Patucci?"
"Probably at The Carousel."
"Where Dana met Vinnie. She works there sometimes."
"Mrs. Starling didn't say anything about that."
"Dana's mother doesn't know, she wouldn't like it."
"Is it the kind of place I think it is?"
She waited a long time before speaking, but it was easier for her to tell me than to tell Dana's mother. "It's a burlesque house, peep shows and stuff. Dana says that gangsters own it."
"Why would a girl work in a place like that?" I wondered aloud.
"To meet dangerous men?"
I grinned at her: "You're wise beyond your years, kid."
A bell dinged at the counter in back and she went away for my food. Lisa gave me directions to The Carousel while I ate. I left a big tip. She may not have told the whole truth, but she'd told more than she thought she had.
Traffic on the coast highway was sparse and I got to The Carousel before dark. Slightly out of the way, you had to know where you were going to find it. The proprietors hadn't spent a cent on neon or advertising but plenty on landscaping to keep things nice and private. The two-storied building they operated out of looked like old money to me. Set back among the shade trees, it presented an austere exterior. A paved parking area in the back was almost full. At the door I found out the club was for members only. Twenty of Mrs. Starling's bucks purchased me a 'weekend' membership.
A drink at the bar cost more of her dollars. I ordered another after the delicious first one. The main room looked like a poorly-lit ski lodge with lots of tables and chairs occupied by men and women who weren't their wives. Available girls sat in clusters, several of them smiled at me. I smiled back. I didn't see anyone resembling the pictures I'd seen of Dana. Four musicians played a tune with lots of stops and starts in it. On a small stage a buxom young thing got herself undressed in time with the lurching rhythms. When she finished a dark petite beauty took her place and the combo grooved into a slinky bump and grind.
Hoods in tuxes watched the clientele from the murky corners, others milled around. I didn't see a single one without a bulge under the left armpit. I recognized one of the guests: Tony the Dentist. They called him that because he allegedly extracted a couple of teeth from an uncommunicative rival using a pair of pliers. He and two of his triggermen sat at a table close to the stage.
Would I see Dana in there? The mysterious Vinnie? What kind of a play was I going to make?
A redhead with fiery eyes and a lowcut dress about two sizes too small for her strolled over. "Sitting here by yourself?"
"I guess not anymore. Buy you a drink?"
"Why not? I'm easy." I made no comment. Closer up, her eyes looked glazed, like she'd been smoking reefer.
The bartender appeared while we introduced ourselves. Her name was Suzanne and she wanted a daiquiri. I ordered one for her and a beer for me. More dollars on the expense account.
"I ever seen you in here before?"
"First time in. A friend told me about it, said I could have a real good time here."
"He wasn't wrong." She giggled, and she was too old to be giggling.
I downed a healthy pull of beer. Might as well take the bull by the horns: "He told me to look up a girl named Dana."
Suzanne sniffed. "I haven't seen her in here, not yet anyway."
"Does she work here?" I said with a meaningful look at the stage.
"She might serve some drinks in here but, no, nothing like that, her boyfriend won't let her. He's got his pride, don't you know?"
Suzanne fumbled around in a tiny purse for a cigarette. When she got it lit she put her hand on my knee. She lowered her voice, "You seem like a nice guy, Felix dear, so take my advice. I don't think you wanta be messing around with Vinnie's girl."
She was making it easy for me. "Who's Vinnie?"
"Vinnie Patucci, he's a real tough boy. And let me warn you, he's very jealous. Jealous and tough, a bad combination. He beat some guy up bad in here one night cause he thought he was flirting with his Dana."
"I'll try not to be too scared."
She couldn't decide whether I was kidding her or not. So she continued without breaking her train of thought: "All the girls pant for Vinnie Patucci." Her eyes spoke volumes.
"Why is that?" In the last hour I'd met a girl who hated him and another who adored him. It would be interesting to meet the cause of all this heartache in person.
"Like I said, he's tough. And very masculine."
One of the dangerous boys, I thought. "What does he do?"
"Part of it's just the way he carries himself. He can have any girl he crooks his finger at."
I tried to sound only half-interested. "I meant what's he do for a living?"
"Nice work if you can get it."
"He plays the tables and the ponies."
"Apparently the ladies, too. My friend says Dana is a splendid creature, in his words."
She sniffed again. "Don't I interest you?"
"Don't be jealous. My friend told me . . ."
"Just who is this friend of yours anyway?"
I'd pushed too hard. "You wouldn't know him."
"If he comes in here, I know him."
I flapped an airy hand. "Forget him, forget Dana and this Vinnie character, too. Have another daiquiri."
"Let me visit the powder room first." She vanished into an alcove with a cigarette machine against one wall and a row of payphones against the other. I thought she wouldn't come back, but she did. After that the conversation got mundane. Which suited me. I shouldn't be asking too many questions in a place where the staff packed heat. It's nice to know that a man can take care of himself, and I can, but a bullet makes no distinctions.