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L.A. Justice


I’ve come to expect the unexpected from my parents. After decades of being billed as “Hollywood’s madcap couple,” those loveable loonies, Martha Collins and Alec Grainger, wouldn’t recognize the real world if it bit them. But Mother’s doozy of a predawn telephone call surprised even me.

“Tracy!” she hissed. “There’s a man in my bed.”

Now I ask you, is that something a mother should say to her impressionable thirty-four-year-old child? I told her as much.

I might have been less flippant had I known the man was dead.

***

With Dad away on location and their housekeeper having quit, I’d anticipated frequent appeals from Mother, only I figured they’d be more mundane. You’d think I’d learn. I broke countless laws racing from my Studio City condo to their Beverly Hills home and arrived to find Mother waiting in the open doorway. Seeing her fighting back tears, I wanted to take her in my arms and kiss the hurt away like she used to do for me--until I realized it wasn’t the presence of the dead guy that upset her.

“Tracy, darling,” she mourned, “you’re not dressed.”

Stealing a glance to make sure in my haste that I hadn’t left the house naked, I saw that I was wearing my favorite battered sweats, just as I thought. Mother, of course, was decked out well enough to appear on Leno. To say our standards differ is the understatement of the century.

“Excuse me, Mother. I didn’t know that finding a stiff in your bed constituted a formal affair.”
Still, I might have popped for underwear if death had come calling at a saner hour. I’m not a morning person in the best of times, but with my husband, Drew, out-of-town for some lawyer-do, I severed the scant hold the nine-to-five world has on me and frittered the night away sucking down Häagen-Dazs and taking in a Remington Steele marathon. I’d had less than an hour’s sleep when that panicky call came through.

“Mother, forget about me. Who died? How--” I caught sight of the living room through the open archway. Every piece of furniture had been knocked over and torn apart. “What did you do? Host your last tornado or wrap party here?”

ng for something. My hope that this might just be a practical joke was starting to seem foolish. I raced up the stairs to the master bedroom.

Nope, no one was laughing. Tossed on the bed like a rag-doll in a dumpster was a twenty-something man. Despite an unfortunate tendency to flashy clothes, he must have been a looker before someone blew off the top of his head and death turned his skin a trifle pasty. The proverbial tall, dark and handsome, if it isn’t too tacky to check out a corpse.

“Well, there’s nothing we can do but call the police.”

Mother’s martyred sigh overflowed with exasperation. “Tracy, I could have done that. Why do you think I called you?”

I knew why. Because she bought into the myth that I, as a mystery writer, could solve cases on my own. Don’t laugh--I believed it, too. But still, real people can’t operate like the amateur detectives in books. Or so Drew kept telling me.

“Tracy, if you call the police, they’re sure to put your old mother in jail.”

She only refers to herself as “old” when she wants something, so I didn’t take her seriously. “Why would they do that? You couldn’t have known this clown.”

“Oh, but I did,” she insisted. “Paulo Luca was my... protégé.”

“Your...? Oh, God! Do you mean to tell me that while my father is slaving away on some remote location shoot you’re messing around with a kid a quarter of your age?”

“Half!”

We compromised at a third. “But you’ve given him money?”

Reluctant nod. “And that van we had. I was even planning to take him to Cannes with me next week. Oh, you wouldn’t understand.”

I understood, all right. She paid a young man to flatter her, to make her feel young. And I thought all the old fools were men.

“Jeez, Mother.” I spotted a gun tossed on the floor.

“Don’t pick it up!”

“The idea never occurred to me. What idiot--” Oops, I thought, looking into the face of Fury. “Don’t tell me you haven’t played the patsy in enough pictures to know you never--”

“You’re obviously confusing me with some B movie queen.”

Right.

“Besides, it’s my gun. My fingerprints must be on it. I practiced at the range just yesterday.”
“You have a gun? I’m a mystery writer and I don’t have one. Are you any good?”

“Crack shot.”

“Really? I’ve always figured I’d close my eyes and--”

“Tracy, aren’t we getting off-track?”

It’s called denial. I absently slumped onto the bed; before leaping away, my hand brushed Paulo’s.

“He’s warmer than I am.”

“I don’t think he’d been...you know--when I came home.”

“But you must have an alibi. Where were you at this hour?”

“At Franny’s.”

Terrific. You might remember Francesca Grant. She played the secondary lead in a few of Mother’s pictures. They have dinner together about once a month and watch tapes of their old movies. Too bad she has Alzheimer’s. By morning, Franny wouldn’t remember how many toes she had.

“We fell asleep in front of the set. When I woke up, I just put a blanket over Franny and left.”

“Franny’s companion?”

“Already asleep in her room.”

That hole Mother was in just kept getting deeper. I glared at the cause. “Where did you pick up old Paulo?”

“Don’t make it sound sordid. I met him through his uncle, Antonio, a charming gentleman and quite good looking for his age.”

That meant he was at least ten years younger than she was.

“It was all very proper, Tracy.”

“As long as you overlook that dead boy toy on your-- Wait a minute. Paulo’s uncle isn’t Antonio Luca, is he? Hangs around Folio’s Ristorante downtown?”

“He is there a lot.”

“No! Don’t you read the papers? Antonio Luca is reputed to be the most notorious crime boss on the West coast.”

“There is no mob in L.A. Everyone knows that.”

“Fine. You wanna tell him, or should I?”

Talk about giving new meaning to the rock-and-a-hard-place squeeze. At least the cops would ask questions; Luca’s crowd wasn’t known for due process.

“Uh, darling. I’m afraid you haven’t heard the worst.”

“It can’t get any worse, Mother,” I snapped.

“When I came home there was a message on the machine from your father. They’ve changed his shooting schedule. He’ll be home later this week, instead of next month. In time to go with me to Cannes.”

So she not only wanted me to do the impossible, she wanted it fast. For once, Mother withered under my glare. Biting her lip indecisively, stripped of all her protective affectations--I had her right where I’d always wanted her. It broke my heart. Despite the stormy roller coaster she insisted on making of their marriage, she adored Dad. And so did I. What choice did I have?

I still longed to taunt her, to demand how she would have coped with both Paulo and Dad at Cannes. But what would be the point? Consequence was too abstract a concept for Mother to deal with when life was tickling her nose. Maybe some people really are so far outside the norm that they can’t be held to conventional standards.

I’d have to remember that for my own defense when Drew lowered the boom on me.

I finally agreed to put Paulo on ice. Literally. Mother’s neighbor with was away and had left an emergency key with my parents. Happily, she had a walk-in freezer.

“How are we going to get him there, Tracy?”

I wanted to throw him over the fence, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Since Paulo had thoughtfully left the van in the driveway before buying country real estate, I said we’d take that and asked her for the keys.
“I don’t have them, dear. I gave Paulo the only set.”

“So get them.”

“I’m not going to touch him--you get them.”

“Oh, for chrissakes,” I snapped.

I patted Paulo down, but there weren’t any keys in his pockets now. Figured. If his killer hadn’t found what he was looking for there, he’d try Paulo’s place. I ordered Mother to get over her squeamishness and help me drag Paulo to the van. He wasn’t a small man and he was starting to like the position he’d been left in too much to change.

“But, darling, how will you start the van without keys?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll hot-wire it.”

She shot me a look across the bow of her “protégé.” “Surely a response to warm any mother’s heart. Don’t even tell me where you picked up that little skill.”

I hate it when she acts like a normal mother. Who was she trying to kid? She hadn’t winced at making me an accessory.

We wrestled Paulo into the back of the van. The engine started up as easily as my parents’ cars always had when I was in high school and they refused to let me borrow them.

“Oh, Tracy, where did I go wrong? How did you develop this skewed sense of right-and-wrong?”

My tongue still hurts where I bit it.

“What would your father think?”

I thought she had a lot of nerve bringing Dad into it, considering what was decomposing just a few feet behind us. But maybe she really felt lost in this crisis without him. They had been together through a lot of married years. For that matter, they were together when they were divorced, and even, let’s face it--when they were married to other people.

Now, I was thrilled Drew wasn’t there to witness this caper. He was too much the Officer-of-the-Court to condone our turning The Victim into a popsicle. If he ever learned of it, there would be no living with him. Doubtless a moot point, since Mother and I were unlikely to emerge from this skirmish in any better shape than Paulo.

***

“I could sure use a drink,” Mother announced after we left Paulo in his new home.

“Don’t get comfortable, Mother. We’re only half finished.” I reminded her that we still had to put the house in order. “If either the police or the mob drop by, this place has to look like nothing happened here.”

Mother affected a yawn. “Tracy, dear, you know how much I’d love to help, but when a woman reaches my age, she needs her sleep. You’ll understand some day.”

I understood now--she was sticking me with a mess second only to the one left by the Northridge Earthquake. I spent hours cleaning that place and burning the bedspread in the fireplace. Finally, I took the shower I so desperately needed, and found myself standing knee-deep in water that wouldn’t drain.
While I leaned over the side of the tub, with Drano corroding my hands as I wrestled with the drain cover, Mother appeared in the doorway wearing a satin negligee and an honest-to-God feather boa.

“Mother, you’re awake. I can’t tell you how much I miss the privileged life of a celebrity child.”

“If you cursed quieter, I wouldn’t be. For a sweet, young thing, you sure have a smutty mouth.”
“Yeah, yeah. Get me a screwdriver, willya?”

“Where might something like that be?” she asked.

“Never mind, I’ve got it.” No wonder the water wouldn’t drain. Stuffed down the pipe was a narrow cloth bag that had to be over a foot long. “Unless you’ve taken to hiding things in your plumbing, this must be what Paulo’s killer was looking for.” I ripped open the stitches at the top and dumped some of the contents into my hand. What a disappointment. “Who would hide this? It’s just a bag of gravel.”

Mother laughed, a trifle hysterically. “Gravel. Darling, those aren’t stones--they’re uncut diamonds.”
“Diamonds?” I rolled one around in my hand.

“Good ones, too, by the looks of them. There must be over a hundred of them, each as big as your eyeballs.”

I’d heard organized crime frequently converted large amounts of cash into diamonds for easier movement across borders. Bet I knew whose suitcase had been targeted to carry them to Cannes. How could I tell her it was a set-up?

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Mother asked.

Maybe she figured it out herself.

“I don’t know,” I said cautiously. “What are you thinking?

“How we’ll wow them at the next Academy Awards.”

Funny, I was wondering who my real parents were

***

“Tell me again why we’re doing this?” Mother asked when I parked near Folio’s Ristorante. “If you ask me, we should be as far away from this place as possible.”

“I already told you. You’re going to go in there and give the performance of your life so--”

“Oh, this won’t be the performance of my life. That would be either--”

“Mother! You have to convince Luca you don’t know where Paulo is so they look elsewhere for him.”
“Oh. And why are you riding shotgun?”

“Because there’s a good chance someone in Luca’s circle will know you’re lying, and I’m counting on reading that thought on his face.”

Now I understood how Paulo had conned Mother. If he was anything like his uncle, the boy had been smooth. Of course, it may not have been passed by either genes or association. Luca introduced us to his son, Denny, and one of his “boys,” Tom Ricci.

Denny was like a big, dumb dog, eager to please his old man, but clumsy. The way his tongue lolled on his drooping lower lip, he even looked like a panting dog. But Ricci bore watching. While he was as flashy and as much a stereotypical thug as Paulo had been, right down to the ornate pinky rings, I saw unexpected depth in his dark eyes.

“Always a pleasure to see you, Martha, and to meet your charming daughter, but I thought you would be with Paulo,” Luca said in his exquisite accent.

“You mean Paulo isn’t here?” Concern tugged at Mother’s features. “Oh, dear. I hope nothing has happened to him. We were planning a trip. To Cannes, you know.”

I caught the look that passed between Luca and his henchmen. They knew very well.

“When Paulo didn’t return my phone calls, naturally I thought--” Her voice caught.

I could see the wheels turning in Luca’s eyes. They were his diamonds, all right.

“Now, Pop, don’t jump to no conclusions. You know Paulo knew how much this trip to Cannes meant to...uh... him,” Denny ended stupidly. “He wouldn’t just take off.”

While Denny and Luca went through the charade of speculating where Paulo might be, strictly for our benefit, Tom studied Mother thoughtfully, like he was trying to place this new piece into the puzzle. He knew Paulo was dead, I was sure of it.

People, especially those of a certain age who spent their youth idolizing Martha Collins, The Star, will do anything for her. The elderly locksmith who re-keyed her house the last time she blew-up at Dad didn’t blink at loaning me his picks. I should have held out for a lesson. We thought we were so clever when we tailed Tom Ricci to that flophouse. But if the lock on his door were any harder to pick, the caper was going to end in that hall with the rats and roaches.

“Hurry, Tracy. Who knows how long he’ll be gone.”

“Got it!”

Ricci’s room surprised me. Not only was it too clean for that dump, there was a monastic simplicity that didn’t jive with his taste in apparel.

“I’ll search, while you watch the door, Mother. If you see him coming, we’ll dive into the closet.”
Seemed like a good plan. Too bad one of us couldn’t stick to it. She kept coming up behind me and looking over my shoulder. The third time I was about to chew her out, only she noticed something.

“Oh, look. That drawer has a false bottom. I had a hidden panel like that put into a night table when you were little and liked to snoop through my things.

I remembered that. I used to check it out all the time. I pressed the hidden lever, but it stuck.

“Uh, Tracy....”

“Not now, Mother, I can’t get this thing-- There it goes.”

“Darling,” she went on, in her best movie star tone, “you remember meeting this lovely man, Tom Ricci, don’t you?”

I whirled around. Some gatekeeper. Ricci had not only slipped past her, he pulled his gun on us. I smiled knowingly and gestured with the wallet I found in the hidden space.

“No, Mother, I remember meeting Special Agent Thomas Ricci of the FBI.”

“I don’t understand, Tom,” Mother said. “What does it mean to be in deep cover?”

Please tell me I’m adopted.

“Martha, it just means I’m a man without a life.”

Talk about sobering remarks. And subtle changes. Tom looked just as much the wiseguy as ever, but the honest expression of the real man dominated his appearance now. Along with his pain.

“Tracy, I believed in this when I started, but I don’t know who the good guys are anymore. All my superiors seem to care about is nailing Luca. I’m supposed to ignore whatever anyone else does. I’ve looked the other way so many times, I can’t live with myself.”

“You knew about Paulo’s murder?”

“Sure. I followed Denny to your mom’s house.”

“Denny?” I’d obviously missed one of those telling expressions. Maybe because Denny’s face had as much affect as cheesecake. “Why would he kill Paulo, his own cousin?”

“You’ve seen what he’s like. His old man never trusted him with anything important. Paulo was the heir-apparent. Denny probably figured he’d steal Luca’s diamonds and branch out on his own, but Paulo outsmarted him.”

“Surely now they’ll let you out,” I insisted. “They’ll need your testimony.”

He snorted. “You think that was the first murder I’ve kept quiet about?” Tom insisted he knew of two other murders Paulo committed, and he’d actually helped Denny buy guns, arrange for a bomb, and deal drugs. “Maybe if I could have tied Luca to any of it, but....” Tom shrugged. “Look at it from my bosses’ perspective. With Paulo gone and Denny so hopeless, I’m going to be worth more to Luca than ever. They’ll never let me go now.”

“Paulo...? Oh, my,” Mother murmured.

Tom shook his head. “I’ve got a wife and kids I hardly ever see, and for what? I tell ya, Tracy, if I had some money, I’d just walk away and start life over somewhere else.”

“And so you shall, dear boy,” Mother said and patted his hand. “My daughter will make it possible.”
Huh? They both looked at me, expectantly. Why me? I mean, he was this tough Federal cop, hardened by years of deep cover within the mob. Who was I? Just Tracy Eaton, mystery writer and detective wannabe.

What did they expect me to do?

“Tom, I know you’re sick of duplicity, but...well, how do you feel about shell games?”

Tom’s eyes brightened. “Tracy, you find me a big enough shell and I’ll be glad to be your pea.”

It’s hard to feel like you’re commanding a well-trained army when your troops act more like the Keystone Kops. If it had been fun lugging Paulo down the stairs, rescuing him from the neighbor’s freezer after he took shape, so to speak, was just too many laughs for me. Do frozen corpses weigh more or was I just getting really sick of Paulo?

“Hold up your end, Mother. If he hits the driveway, you’re picking up the pieces.”

“Tracy, really--how callous. The dead deserve our respect,” that maternal paragon insisted.

Like it had been my idea to stash him. My offensive imagery seemed to do the trick, however. Mother developed surprising strength for an old lady, slipping Paulo into the van like he’d been greased.
“I still don’t see why we had to move him,” Mother grumbled after we tucked the van back in her yard. “You saw how little Myrna keeps in that freezer. She might not have found him for years.”

Mother was obviously being respectful to the dead again. And as forgetful as ever.

“The objective isn’t to delay the discovery of the murder, it’s to shatter all connection with you. To muddy the water so much both the police and the mob will have to accept the scenario we leave behind.”
“Oh, right. Well, not to worry. Tom will take care of that. I have every confidence in the dear boy.”

Judging by her flush, I suspected she was auditioning another “protégé.” I wished I shared her confidence. Tom worried me. He was at the end of his tether, dangerous at this point in the operation, when keeping his two masters happy had never been more crucial. Luca seemed frantic. Tom reported that he kept barking orders and making Tom chase down every rumor in search of his diamonds. Poor Tom also had to find the man we needed, and squeeze him just enough so he’d accept a deal--then he had to sell the Bureau on it.

I kept telling myself there was nothing to worry about. That having held on this long, Tom wouldn’t quit now. But when he’d passed his expected arrival time at Mother’s house by more than two hours, I figured he had fallen off the tightrope. While debating whether Mother and I should make ourselves scarce, I heard a soft knock on the door.

“Where were you?” Mother roared with uncharacteristic vengeance when Tom entered.

Her anxiety probably had less to do with Tom’s delay than the fact that Dad had called again while we waited. The lies seemed to come easily enough to her--she calls that acting--but Dad’s return had been bumped up to the day after tomorrow. Now we had no margin for error. If Tom failed to finish his part of the operation tonight, we’d never make it.

“Tom...?” I asked tentatively.

“It took longer than I thought, okay? But everything’s set. With a little luck, we’ll pull it off.”
I would have felt better if he hadn’t looked like a man who left all his luck behind him.

Tom remembered to leave a message for Luca. “Yo, Antonio,” he said, assuming his thug personae for the last time. “I found Paulo. He just had mechanical trouble in that van Martha Collins gave him. Him and me are gonna stop at your old warehouse, where he hid the... merchandise, and we’ll see you for breakfast.”

I hot-wired the van again, and we drove Paulo through the darkened streets of that abandoned warehouse district in search of Luca’s building. Since Tom cradled on his lap the device he had picked up tonight, Mother unlocked the door and lit the light bulb hanging from the ceiling. I drove the van in.

Tom’s hands shook so badly, he couldn’t connect the wires as he’d been instructed to. I moved him aside. I raised my face for one last look at him, longing for some assurance that Luca hadn’t turned him. But Tom was already backing toward the door.

I brought the wires together.

My heart stopped.

Despite the eerie silence, I didn’t hear the click that Tom said I would when the connection was made. No time to try it again. I sprinted out the door at what must have been world record pace, to the place where Tom had taken refuge and was now trying to convince Mother to sacrifice the knees of her hose.
I threw her to the ground and covered her body with my own, and held her there, squirming, while the thunder ripped through earth and sky, till the last of the fragments of metal and mortar and flesh and bone rained down on us.

***

“Police still have no leads on the van that exploded in the warehouse district yesterday,” the news anchor reported. “Not enough remain of the bodies for formal identification, but the two victims are believed to be Paulo Luca and Thomas Ricci, reputed gangland figures. The men were reportedly carrying a small shipment of uncut diamonds.”

Mother and I watched the news in a V.I.P. lounge at the airport, while we waited for Dad’s plane.
“In a related story, the body of a man identified as Dennis Luca, son of reputed underworld kingpin, Antonio Luca, was found dead this morning of execution style gunshots. Mr. Luca’s role in the killing is under investigation.”

Mr. Luca’s role made me sick. I remembered staking out Folio’s. We had to make sure the message we’d sent reached Luca. I wasn’t certain whether I’d know on sight, after having blown it with Denny. But there was no question. When Luca left the restaurant, his Continental charm had evaporated, leaving a bitter old man. A man who, when faced with the most critical decision of his life, elected to be a businessman, not a father.

Seeing him, and understanding that he’d condemned his own son to death, I knew that despite my protestations, I never really wanted to be anyone else’s daughter. I felt a little misty suddenly, and I wanted to hug Mother. But why was she shaking her head?

“Sloppy, Tracy,” she said. “Such a poor plan. What were you thinking?

“Excuse me?”

“Admit it, darling, luck played the primary role. You couldn’t be sure the bomb-builder would tell Antonio that it was Denny who commissioned the bomb. Nor could you count on it working so well the police wouldn’t guess there had been only one body in the van, and would have to rely on Tom’s telephone message to make the identification.”

That wasn’t luck, it was Tom’s final arrangement with the Bureau. He delivered Luca on a murder charge, and they leaned on the police to make the identification quickly. Now Tom was safe somewhere in the loving arms of his family with enough of a nest-egg to keep their ship from running aground, once they found a fence. Exactly as I planned. My only regret was doubting him.

“And your moral judgment--really, darling. You let criminals settle the score. Is that what you call justice?”

I felt my blood pressure rising. “Come on, Mother, this is L.A. You know the wheels of justice grind chunky-style here. How many trials have we seen where obviously guilty defendants not only got off, the jury practically threw them a testimonial dinner? This way Denny got the verdict he deserved.”

“Well, all I can say is I hope your father never learns of it. He’d be so disappointed.”

So that was what this was about. She should have trusted me more. I had my own secret, didn’t I? Fortunately, Drew wasn’t expected for another couple of days. Plenty of time for the dust to settle so I could sweep it under the rug.

“Tracy, why are you always so out of step with conventional society?”

I just shook my head. But if you find that question equally perplexing, I suggest you catch a glimpse of Mother at next year’s Academy Awards. Take special note of the baubles. Rocks as big as your eyeballs.

Why indeed.
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