Authors: Don Pendleton
IT'S A LOW-SLUNG building occupying the corner of a busy intersection up in the foothills. Like I said earlier, a county area. That does not mean it is in the country. The patchwork of communities I was talking about do not always come together at neat boundaries. Sometimes there is a narrow buffer zone between the incorporated areas. Sp these unincorporated wedges or slices are governed directly by the county board of supervisors. In L.A. these are your traditional free-trade zones—which means that most anything goes, so long as it doesn't get too flagrant.
The New Frontier was pretty damned flagrant.
Big place. Legal capacity of probably several hundred patrons. Open from ten in the morning 'til two in the morning seven days a week. Gold mine. Kind of joint where the parking lot always seems to have as many pickup trucks as passenger vehicles. And you don't see Pierre Cardin or Gucci fashions in there. You do see a lot of dirty jeans and cowboy boots. But the owners are smart. They police themselves. Bouncers are probably their heaviest payroll.
All of the girls double as cocktail waitresses and dancers, take turns on stage—and of course the stage runs everywhere; it's ^actually the bar, sort of star shaped; most of the seating is there. So the girls work you from both sides; as bare-assed dancers directly above your head and as technically bare-assed waitresses at floor level. I would have to say that it is all prime. The amateur night, held once a week, is actually a showcase for hopefuls trying out for jobs—auditions, if you will—and from what I hear the line never ends so I guess the management can be choosy.
It was only about seven o'clock when I blew in there, but the parking lot was already half- filled. The place was a dark hole. It would be fair to say that all the lighting there was came from above the stages, and that was mostly blue. Twenty or so girls were wandering about in various degrees of undress and pushing the drinks. One total nude was gathering up discarded bits of fluff and money from the stage and making her exit while an unseen emcee was announcing the next dancer, "the bewitching Belinda." Canned music with a throbbing disco beat catapulted the bewitcher on stage dressed in cowboy boots and hat and nothing else.
I stood just inside the door for a moment letting my eyes adjust to the lighting; turned away two girls who wanted to seat me, which brought a bouncer over damn quick.
"You'll have to be seated if you
stay. Two-drink minimum."
"Mind if I wait 'til I can see the seats?"
"The girls know where they are. Come on in and party. You can't stand here in the door."
"Actually I came to see George."
"Thought you wanted to see the seats."
"That, too, yeah."
Belinda had just thrown a leg over a patron's shoulder and was playfully riding it like a
, waving her hat overhead and yelling
"She's something else, isn't she."
"No freebie looks, pal. Either come on in or turn around."
"George the bartender. He's working tonight, isn't he?"
"Sit down and order. I'll send him over. But the girls are better."
I said ha-ha and let a harem girl lead me away. She sat me down squarely in front of Belinda, who by now was kicking off her boots and moving into overdrive. It looked as though I had been chosen for her next prop; she bumped in and wiggled her crotch at my face but I leaned back and caught her eye. She caught the uh-uh in mine and moved on down the line to pull another guy's face into her belly.
The girl who had seated me leaned into my arm and massaged my back with a practiced hand as she invited me to relax and have fun and what was I drinking. One of the unspoken but unbreakable rules in these joints: the girls can touch you anywhere with anything but you keep your own hands off of everything. I have found the whole scene to be an exercise in frustration but I guess a lot of guys don't mind the teasing.
I ordered a Jack Daniels and George; received two Jack Daniels and no George about thirty seconds later. Another unspoken and strongly observed rule: move the drinks and move them fast. Turns out here that booze from the well and even a beer costs you three bucks per, but four-fifty gets you a name brand, Jack Daniels or whatever. I gave the harem girl a ten and she returned a single, but slowly; I told her what the hell to keep it and asked again about George.
She said George didn't know me but I told her I knew Juanita and I had a message from her for George.
So a minute later I get George.
George is about twenty-five. George is a flaming gay. I get a whole new insight now into the little joke at the door with the bouncer. But he seems a nice enough guy.
"Terry said you have a message from Juanita. Is she sick?"
"About as sick as you can get, yeah. She won't be coming in tonight."
"These girls, these girls. So unreliable. They're driving me crazy."
"You the keeper of the harem, or something?"
He has a good laugh. "I'm the duty eunuch, yes. I do their scheduling. So what's wrong with Juanita this time?"
"Broken bones. Compound fractures, both arms, both legs. Also lost her face and probably several vital organs."
"You are not being very funny."
"Don't intend to be. Juanita is dead."
"She was killed outside my office today. Came to me for help. Didn't give her any. Should have. I am upset about that. Very upset."
"Who are you?"
I handed him a card. "Who's the guy?"
He examined the card, softly asked. "What guy?
"The one that's been bugging her. You told her a cop."
"I told her nothing of the kind."
"Sure you did. Who's the guy?"
"I told her I thought I had seen the man before. In some kind of uniform. A security guard. A policeman. Something like that. Why in the world did she go to you about this?"
"Because she was scared out of her skull, that's why. With good reason, as it turns out. Who's the guy, George?"
"I told you I don't know."
"Think again. Harder."
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave. This is a place of business and I have work to do."
I produced a pad and pencil, handed it to him. "Address and phone number, please. Catch you tomorrow."
All this, you know, was under very difficult circumstances. The music was very loud. Patrons were hooting and yelling now and again when Belinda did something especially imaginative. The lighting was terrible to start and getting worse all the time, going now to strobes sequenced to the beat.
George refused the pad and pencil. He pivoted about and walked away.
I went after him, about three paces to the rear and lurching just a bit with maybe a touch of vertigo from the strobes. Ever been in one of those? There's a very unreal quality, everything you can see all weird and
-mo, the damned "music" flaying away at you.
With all that, though, George must have been able to get off a high-sign to the bouncers because I suddenly had two of them sandwiching me and herding me toward the door.
Please understand. I didn't go in there for trouble. I can get a bit single-minded, though, at times. I guess this was one of those times. I was pissed, understand. Pissed at myself because a cute kid died after sort of hiring me to look after her. Pissed at sleazy cops. Pissed at perverts who enjoy carving on cute kids and beautiful furniture. Pissed at the whole situation, I guess.
But I was not pissed at those guys for doing their job.
So I set them down gently and went on to put the collar on George. I had to haul him over from the back side of a high-production bar, though, and I guess it spilled some bottles and broke some glasses.
Which brought more bouncers. Four more.
So we broke up a lot more stuff.
Then I dragged George outside and gave him another crack at the memory cells in clear air.
That seemed to help.
"Honestly, I don't know his name," he gasped from two feet above my head. "I just remember something about ... he was a reserve deputy, or something."
Yeah. The clear air helped a lot.
Didn't do much for my mad, though. Well ... maybe it did focus it just a bit.
I went away from there looking for a hot dog who loved to play cop enough to do it for free and enjoyed cruising around in a
with flame decals—a little prick, probably, who enjoyed the official privilege of throwing his weight around and terrorizing people who couldn't fight back.
I knew where to look, yeah.
IT WAS A typical Wednesday evening at the substation. The deputy on the desk was Charlie Hall. Never had any problems with Charlie. Good cop, did his job and collected his pay, spent most of his free time with Big Brothers and Pony League and Little League and every other kid thing he could spread himself onto. Must have been about due for retirement but I knew he'd never walk out on his own; they'd have to carry him away kicking and screaming. Some cops go a little crazy with the stress. Cops like Charlie just mellow into it and divert the stress into positive outlets.
He looked up with a delighted grin. "Joe! How you doing?"
I assured him I was doing fine but I'm sure he knew by the ripped jacket and the mouse under the eye that I was doing the same as usual.
We small-talked for a moment, then I asked him, "Who is this new cop on the block, Ed Jones?"
Charlie gave me a smile and a wink. "You mean Buck Jones."
I growled, "Buck always wore a white hat. I believe this guy qualifies for a different color."
Charlie kept right on smiling. "Don't ever turn your back on him, Joe."
"He's riding with Tanner. They should have a lot of fun keeping each other in sight."
He chuckled. "I rode with Tanner once. One whole miserable week. But don't give the guy all black marks, eh? He's a smart cop."
"Too smart," I said. I was craning for a look at Charlie's log. "Who answered the call on the Valdez homicide?"
He tightened just a bit. "You chasing ambulances now, Joe?"
"Not hearses, for sure," I told him, then sat down and lit a cigarette. "If Tanner's working swing, how come he got Valdez? That should have come in on day watch."
"Joe. When are you going to give up those goddamned cigarettes? They cause heart disease, emphysema, cancer—they'll even make you impotent."
I said, "I never heard that."
"Oh yeah. Anything that needs good blood circulation to function properly. Nicotine constricts the blood vessels. Been having trouble lately getting it up?"
"Getting it down," I said. "How come Tanner?"
He glanced at his log, sighed, took a deep breath. "Joe, you're not with the department anymore. I can't talk official with you."
I said, " Bullshit."
He said, "Actually the call came down just right before shift-change."
"And we're spread thin right now. Would've had to dispatch a car from one of the other districts, and they're all thin too right now."
I said, "Charlie, I can't believe you just sat on this waiting for the new watch to get on board."
"Didn't say I did that, Joe, did I? Actually Tanner called in and said that he was on it."
"He wasn't dispatched."
"No. Said he was in the neighborhood and in touch with the traffic detail. So I logged him in."
I said, "Great. The sleazebag never showed. Not until some time around six o'clock."
Charlie said, "Couldn't be. Traffic detail released and departed shortly after four."
I said, "That's right. And they made a carbon of their report for Tanner. He never showed, Charlie."
"Couldn't be, Joe."
"Okay, it couldn't be but it is. Where can I find him?"
"You mean right now?"
"I mean right now, yeah."
"Go home. Take a shower. Change clothes, at least.
Talk to him tomorrow."
"Right now, huh."
"You got it."
He sighed, turned to his console and did some things with the buttons, came back to me with, "He's on a private call."
I blew smoke at him. "What do you mean, private call?"
"You know. Moonlight call."
I said, "Wait. Cop for hire doesn't do it when the cop's already on watch. Give me that again, just so I have you clearly."
Charlie frowned, took a couple of breaths. "Some of the guys nowadays, Joe, on a slow
, take private calls to relieve the boredom."
"Bullshit on the boredom. If they take them, it's to relieve the financial statement. I can't believe things have got that loose."
"Lots of things are loose," he said with a tired smile, "since you were here. I didn't make the game, Joe. I just sit here and watch it."
I gave my hideous smile, I think, and asked, "Where is he?"
"Officially, I don't know."
"His call came from this joint up above foothills. He signed down for thirty minutes."
"Just about thirty minutes ago."
"New Frontier, right?"
"You were always a jump ahead, Joe."
At the moment I was feeling a few jumps behind. I thanked my pal Charlie and headed for the door. But he called me back before I could get there. Something was working on the console. He'd put on the headset and was taking something down; took a moment to tell me from the corner of his mouth, "If you're headed that way, change your mind. Tanner just requested backup units. We've got a shooting at New Frontier."
I was not about to change my mind.
I was pounding along the hard side at full- tilt, and I knew it. I think I'd known it since late that afternoon. There was no turning back now.
George, the bartender and duty eunuch, lay sprawled on the tarmac outside the joint with two ugly bullet wounds in his face.
An ambulance and a couple of squad cars were there and the uniformed cops had their hands full with crowd control. I brushed right on past them and went to stand over the victim alongside Tanner. The paramedics already knew that they were wasting their time there but they were observing the routine just the same and preparing for transport. I caught a glimpse of Jones poking around inside the cab of a sporty Toyota pickup as Tanner said to me, "Satisfied now, asshole?"
"Satisfied with what? He was alive and breathing last I saw him."
"Heard you roughed him up
"Heard wrong. Didn't even muss his hair. Who did?"
"Figured maybe you could tell me who did," Tanner said with a nasty smile.
He produced a vinyl evidence bag and held it in front of my eyes. A snub .35 pistol was in there, typical Saturday-night special. "Look familiar?" he asked me.
"Yeah. I've seen a thousand just like it."
"This one," he told me, "has had the serial number removed. It also has been fired recently and there are two empty cartridges in the cylinder."
"Neat," I said. "Convenient. Where'd you get it?"
"Ed found it in that pickup over there."
"Yeah, that's really neat," I said.
"What the hell do you mean by that?"
"You know what the hell I mean by that."
I left him standing there and returned through the police line to my car. One of the bouncers I'd encountered earlier was standing there looking at it as I walked up. He looked at me and I looked at him. He sort of half-smiled; said, "You're a cop. Sorry. I didn't know."
I said, "You still don't know," and got in the car.
He walked away while I lit a cigarette. Before I could kick the engine over, though, the door on the passenger side opened and a very cute person slid in beside me. It was Belinda Buckaroo.
I said hi and she said hi.
Then I said, "Where are we going?"
And she replied, "Wherever you want to go. Just do it quickly, please."
I asked why and she told me why.
"That's my car those cops are tearing apart," she said.
"The Toyota pickup?"
"That's the one."
So yeah, we went on along the hard side together, at full-tilt. I've had better company. But not very often and maybe only a shade better.
"Why me?" I asked her, a mile down the pike.
"You're the guy that tore up the club, aren't you?
I said, "Well, I had some help."
"I know who you are," she told me. "I know all about you. I recommended you to Juanita."
"Juanita is dead," I told her.
"I know about that too," she said, face tight. "George told me."
"When did he do that?"
"Just about sixty seconds," she said, "before he got out of my car and got his head blown off."
"The Toyota pickup."
"That's the one," she told me again.
The hard side, yeah. There are those times when you simply cannot avoid it. And there are times when you don't want to.