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Nevil Jonson had been giving Jack Hathaway the long, cold screw but I would put an end to it. Daydreaming in my cumulus-ride 1969 Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible, headed west on Wilshire Boulevard, a section called the Miracle Mile, A. W. Ross’s gift to the world of urban planning, only when I passed the La Brea Tar Pits did I realize I’d gone too far.
I reversed course, passed the tar pits again. A million fossils had been extracted from the site, but only one human being. Before stoplights, plumbing, algebra, electricity, and lotto tickets, a young woman had met her demise hereabouts, blunt force trauma to the head.
A body then was as inconvenient as a body today. She had been tossed into the tar pits where her murderer watched until she sank. Nine thousand years later a team of Hancock Park amateur paleontologists had recovered her. Piece by piece.
It set me thinking. Somewhere back there must have been a man like me. A man the grieving family came to, looking for answers about their disappeared kinswoman. What had he told them? Tales of jealous gods? Tales of saber-tooth tigers?
Perhaps, back then, as now, justice did not absolutely require a body. Maybe common sense, circumstantial evidence, would have sufficed. My predecessor would have studied her friends, her family, her lovers. Because, mostly, only those who loved were capable of hate. Then he would draw a conclusion. And then—then, who knows? She might have been inconvenient.
I wondered what they called that man. They call me the Shortcut Man.
• • •
I found my destination, the old Desmond’s building. I parked on Dunsmuir, walked up to the once-grand stretch of boulevard.
The building directory was aged, too, the white plastic letters crooked. Nevil Jonson, Esq. was on the fourth floor. Suite 404.
Jonson practiced a narrow subspecialty at the periphery of the profession. The DA called it UPL—the unauthorized practice of law.
A blatant violation of a client’s trust, most frequently by keeping his money and doing nothing, the usual result was a pablum letter from the State Bar. If the guy did it fifty times he might be prosecuted for a misdemeanor and fined a thousand bucks.
Sometimes, rarely, the lawyer was actually disbarred and ordered to cease practice. In fact, Nevil Jonson had been so ordered. Of course, a practiced bureaucrat, Jonson ignored the order. He then managed to ensnare one Jack Hathaway as a client; that’s where I came in.
The elevator grumbled to a stop. I exited into a lobby serving four offices and a restroom. Jonson’s office was off to my right. I opened the door and stepped inside.
Suite 404 smelled like a case of diminishing returns, musty, dusty, humid. Out-of-date moderne furniture sagged brownly around the waiting area. A fluorescent overhead flickered intermittently.
“How can I help you?” inquired a woman behind a glass partition. A small vase held plastic flowers.
“I’m Dick Henry.” I demonstrated my Mr. Affable smile. “Here to see Mr. Jonson.”
Linda Hart looked up at the man in front of her. He wasn’t among the usual run of customer. He didn’t look worried, rabid, or defeated. Maybe he was another alkie running on a fresh tank of early-morning resolve.
It had taken Linda just a few weeks to realize her boss was a cheat, a thief, and a tartuffle. A man who did nothing for his clients but accept their retainers. Not that the look of the office wouldn’t warn a prudent customer. She always took her paycheck directly to the bank. “Is Mr. Jonson expecting you?”
“You told me he would be. Yesterday.”
“Have a seat, Mr.—uh . . .”
The magazines on the table were as stale as the air. I thumbed through a few, learned about cold fusion, pagers, and quadraphonic sound. At least they had come to exist. I still relied on the promise of flying automobiles.
“Mr. Jonson will see you now.”
I followed the woman down a short hall, lined with cardboard boxes, to the door at the end.
Jonson’s private office had long, narrow windows affording little light. Buildings along the Miracle Mile had actually been designed to be seen through a windshield at thirty-five miles per hour. Not lived in and looked out of.
A tall, bony man with a rubicund complexion rose from a disorderly desk. Thin hair, enhanced to a shade of wiry Gouda, fluffed for volume, shaded his scalp. A red tie was the final touch. Matching his face. He approached me solemnly, hand extended. He had perfected a grave, funereal tone. “I’m Nevil Jonson.”
We shook hands. “Dick Henry.”
He gestured me into a seat. “Coffee?”
As a rule, office coffee will be no better than the lobby magazines.
“No, thanks.” I looked around. Nine or ten certificates hung from the walls. There was one sign of life. A vigorous ficus tree rose gracefully from a big, bright, Chinese-yellow ceramic pot three feet high, three feet in diameter.
Jonson took a sharpened pencil from a jar and a fresh legal pad from a credenza behind him. “How may I be of service, Mr. Henry?”
“I’m here for a little advice.”
Jonson smiled in neutral. “You’re prepared to pay for a little advice?”
“Please continue,” said Jonson, pencil point to tongue.
“I have a friend who spent a good deal of money on a certain matter. Now, months and months have gone by, eleven months, and my friend can’t get any work done, and the man he hired to do it can’t seem to be reached.”
Jonson nodded, made bullet points. “A compliance issue. Perhaps fraud. What’s the sum involved?”
“Thirty-three hundred dollars.”
Jack Hathaway, my old friend at World Book & News, the newsstand, had fallen in love with a Filipina bar girl. All that stood in the way was another bar girl he had married fifty years ago near an air force base in Manila. He had no paper from the event, just an indelible memory of an incredible act she had performed on their wedding night. A feat, even.
“I just want to set things right,” Jack had explained, raising his shoulders sheepishly.
What was wrong with bigamy? In this case.
“I want to die a proper married man,” said Jack.
In other words he wanted to go down screwed.
“Thirty-three hundred dollars.” Jonson did some more scribbling on the legal pad. “Which means we’re still in small claims territory.”
“It’s a lot to him.”
Jonson smiled with his teeth. “Now, look. There’s no reason to be embarrassed. But I have to know what’s what. To help in this matter. Is this friend you’re talking about you?”
“No, it isn’t.”
Jonson set pad and pencil aside. “Then I’m a little perplexed. There’re going to be fees, here. I don’t work for nothing. I’m going to need to know who’s who and who’s going to pay. Who is this friend you’re talking about?”
“His name is Jack Hathaway.”
Jonson’s eyes narrowed for a second.
“By the way, Mr. Jonson, where’s your restroom?”
“Out by the elevators,” said Jonson. He was suspicious. “Who’s Jack Hathaway?”
“Jack Hathaway is your client.” I rose from my chair. “This is a ficus, right?”
Jonson was on his feet, suspicious. “Yes, it is a ficus. What are you trying to pull?”
Pull was, indeed, the word. With a zzzip I emancipated the Love Captain, directed its attention to the dry leaves in the yellow pot.
Jonson’s eyes saucered in horror.
I pointed a finger from my free hand at him before he got any bright ideas. “Don’t make me piss on your loafers, Nevil, because I’d be happy to.” His thin-soled, tasseled lawyer-shoes wouldn’t handle it all that well. They weren’t built for complications.
“You owe Mr. Hathaway thirty-three hundred dollars. You’ve had his money for eleven months. Including my fee, the total comes to four thousand nine hundred ninety-nine dollars. Which keeps us, as luck will have it, in small claims territory.”
Jonson finally found his voice. “G-get the f-fuck out of my office. I don’t respond to blackmail.”
I finished off, shook, reeled in, zzziped.
Jonson pointed at the yellow ficus pot. “You’re going to pay for that. I’m calling the police.”
“Call anybody you want, Nevil. What I’m talking about is your specialty, UPL. The unauthorized practice of law? You’re lucky I don’t represent all the people you’ve been screwing. Though I do have your client list.” No, I didn’t.
I walked up to him, nose to nose. “I’m only interested in Mr. Hathaway. He wants his money back and I want my fee.”
I saw his degree on the wall. “That your degree?”
He looked at it, perhaps recalling earlier hopes and jubilations.
“Have your secretary write the check I asked for, Mr. Jonson. Right now. And don’t make me come back. Or I’ll wipe my ass with your certificate.”
See how my business works? My efficient arbor service made my final ultimatum a credible threat.
Three minutes later, check in hand, I rolled up La Brea, Chase Bank up ahead on my left. I passed the La Brea Bakery, loving the smell of freshly baked bread.
In my opinion, the baking of bread was the line of demarcation between civilized and uncivilized man. Homo bakens. Before I died, I promised myself, I would learn to bake bread. Sourdough.
I took a deep breath. Even more satisfying than the smell of fresh bread—was the smell of justice in the morning.