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The gorilla was sleeping.
When he woke up he'd find a clown in his cage. There would be no reasoning with Gargantua. He was not a reasonable gorilla. Maybe there are no reasonable gorillas. This was the only nonhuman one I had ever met, and if fate didn't step very gently in and let me out, it was the only gorilla I would ever meet.
His keeper had told me that Gargantua was so mean that they had to throw live snakes into his cage just to get him to move out so they could clean the floors.
"But gorillas, they don't eat people," said the keeper, a knotty twig named Henry Yew. "That is a misnomer. They rends 'em apart or chomps 'em sometimes, but they don't eat 'em."
So when Gargantua woke up looking for some succulent head of cabbage to bend or chomp, he would find instead a private detective named Toby Peters. With the war in the Pacific going badly and reports of the Japanese bombing Los Angeles and Seattle, I'd just make a curiosity item in the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times: FAMOUS CIRCUS GORILLA RIPS PRIVATE DETECTIVE. Maybe the Times would wonder why I had been in his cage dressed as a clown. Maybe not.
Well, what the hell, forty-six isn't a bad age to go out at. Not quite getting old, but sure as hell not young. If I survived the night in the cage, my back would probably be sore, and the killer I had been tracking would be gone.
Maybe that great black ball of fur would stay asleep through the night. He looked like a peaceful drunk with his arms out, palms up, his back against the wall of the cage, and his mouth slightly open. He smelled like a musty closet, but I probably smelled worse.
I didn't have much hope of outsmarting him when those eyes opened. Given what had happened over the last three days, he was almost certainly smarter than I was.
The cage was in the corner of a side tent. A lion in the cage nearby lay with his head on his paws, watching me and purring. A breeze from outside sent ripples across the canvas and made a guwhump-guwhump sound. Through the open flap of the tent I could see the dark outline of a wagon and the open field in which the circus had been put up. In the moonlight, I could also see the frozen furrows of the truck tracks. In the morning, when the sun came out and the circus began to shrug awake, the thin layer of ice would be crushed or melt away, and the field would again be a sea of mud. The big cat watching me grew restless and yawned or howled sadly. Gargantua stirred, swatted an imaginary fly in his sleep, groaned a few echoes below sea level, and was quiet.
I could have yelled. Maybe someone would have heard me. Even if they did, I sure as hell would wake my cellmate.
I'd been told Gargantua didn't like clowns. Actually, Gargantua didn't seem to like much of anything or anybody. He had his own air-conditioned and heated cage and people left him somewhat alone, but he pined for the veldt or wherever the hell gorillas come from. I made a decision. I'd take off my clown makeup.
I rubbed at the makeup with my sleeve and considered taking the offensive. There was a tire in the cage that Gargantua snapped like a rubber band when he got bored. It was a better tire than the retread quartet I had on my elephant-battered 1934 Buick. What if I lifted the tire, slipped it over his furry head and shoulders, and then started to scream for help? Maybe it would hold him long enough. Like hell it would. A few more minutes or hours of smelling the air, feeling the chill of night, and wondering how all this happened had more appeal than trying to straitjacket the snoring hulk across from me.
Wouldn't it be grand if he woke up and had a rusty nail stuck on his behind? I'd scramble over, coo something to him, pull off the offending fragment, and we'd be buddies forever. Yes, and the Nazis would apologize and pull out of Belgium.
Less than a week earlier, I had packed my single suitcase with my extra crumpled suit, two pair of socks, my last white shirt, and a couple of pairs of underwear whose holes might be worth a few laughs to a Peeping Tom. It wasn't that I didn't have enough money to put my closet in order. I'd just come off a case that brought my bankroll up to almost two hundred dollars after rent and sundry bills. Now, that may not have been much of a cushion for most working Americans in February of 1942, but for me two hundred bucks was the top of the world. What I didn't have was time. The telegram had said hurry, and hurry I had. I begged an extra few gallons of gas from my unfriendly neighborhood mechanic, no-neck Arnie, who figured gas was going to get tight and prices would go through the roof.
"Wouldn't be surprised if someday we pay fifty, sixty cents a gallon of gas," he had said, pointing his cigar at me.
The Buick had taken more paint than Nita Naldi trying to make a comeback. There was so much lead on it that it should have been bullet proof, which I knew from experience was not the case. The present paint job was most patriotic. It was supposed to be a sleek shiny green but looked more like a rotten olive drab. I had no unsolicited offers to buy it, but it moved and complained only when it had reason.
I had stopped only once on the way down the coast from Los Angeles. That was to negotiate for a full tank of gas by telling the kid operating the pump, who looked six years old, that I was a special representative of Eleanor Roosevelt, that I was touring the area to determine which small businesses needed immediate federal support. The kid paid no attention. It wasn't his station, and he was going in the army in a few days. I was doing my act for the exercise, but in my business you have to keep in practice. You can't tell good lies unless you practice lying a lot. Sometimes I lie when there's no reason for it, just to see if I can get away with it. I had always thought it was a peculiarity of my profession until I ran into an actor who told me actors do the same thing. Then a cop told me that cops lie, and a grocery clerk told me ... I thought of asking the kid at the pump how good a liar he was, but his eyes were off in the direction of the Pacific Ocean and he was listening to the sound of battleships two thousand miles away.
When I got back on the road I listened to Fibber McGee and Molly as the night folded in. McGee was hiding a horse in the garage. He didn't want Molly to know he had it. His idea was that a horse would be cheaper and more patriotic than a car. I'd been on a horse once. Didn't like it. Molly wound up falling in love with the horse, and I wondered if the horse would be part of the show for a while. The announcer told me that I'd be helping America defeat the Japs and Nazis if I kept my car polished with Johnson's Wax. It would make my car last longer and keep me from having to buy a new one.
I caught up with the circus outside of Mirador, a little town not far from Laguna Beach, off the Pacific Coast highway. Through Santa Monica, Torrance, and Long Beach, I had a prickly feeling of where I was headed. By Newport Beach, I was sure of it. The sheriff of Mirador was named Mark Nelson. Nelson was a wiry little guy who smelled like a weak onion, wore sweaty lightweight suits and fake grins, and didn't like me even a little bit. Less than a year before, I'd made him look bad on a case that had brought me to Mirador. He wasn't happy about this happening in front of the state police and the local talent, mostly the Mexicans who arrived in Mirador pretending they were American migrant workers and had to pay him off. It was the rich folks who lived on the private estates down by the beach who needed the image of a sheriff who made no mistakes. It was the rich folks who paid a little extra to get special attention from Sheriff Nelson and his deputy Alex, a bull of a man Nelson had recruited from among the Mexican workers. Alex went about the job of removing headlights and heads according to Nelson's needs and wishes. Alex did it without betraying feeling or interest. It was a job, like picking lettuce, and he wasn't going to risk it by letting anyone know how he might feel.
I had been a piece of lettuce for Alex once, and I didn't look forward to another meeting with him or the charming sheriff of Mirador, but a job is a job.
The highway sign had said that the circus was in Aldreich Field, but I wasn't going to find Aldreich Field in the dark without some directions. I hit Mirador about ten. The town had tucked itself in and gone to bed with its collective head under the blanket, hoping that when the Japanese decided to land their hordes on the coast, it would be somewhere north or south of Mirador. They had some reason to hope that the sight of the coastline of Mirador would deter an invasion. Once it promised to be the fun center of California. Some big dirty money back in the late 1920s had been washed through clean names, and construction had begun on a series of oceanfront gambling houses, hotels, restaurants, and palaces of dubious amusement. The framework and fronts had been finished when 1929 hit, and the market screamed and died. The workers left Mirador with the money and tools, and the gulls perched at night on the frames of never-to-be-built palaces. Then the wind spit seawater at the partially finished buildings for over a decade, and people forgot what had been a promise. An invasion of Mirador would have confused the Japanese. They would have wondered how the Nazis beat them to it and bombed the place.
From the rubble, Sheriff Nelson and a few others had salvaged enough to make a living by offering Mirador as a place where no questions would be asked if a price was paid.
That was where the circus had stopped and where I now found myself. I drove into the big circle in the center of town, avoided something that may have been alive in the street, and parked alongside a police car in front of Hijo's, the only place in town with its lights on. I could hear the music of a Mexican band playing "La Paloma" from inside when I stepped out of my car. There were no streetlights in Mirador. It wasn't just wartime caution. There had never been any streetlights in Mirador.
I examined myself in the window of the darkened Mirador police station, a storefront next to Hijo's. There wasn't much light, but I could see all I wanted to see, a not very tall, dark man with a flat nose and a rumpled suit. I pulled at the suit to shake or shame it into some embarrassed dignity, but there was no more chance of that than of my face being taken for that of a priest on a pilgrimage.
I followed the music through the doors of Hijo's. There were three people at the bar, a woman with a few extra pounds and two men next to her. The music was coming from a radio, not from a band, and the bartender was sitting behind the bar with his head in both hands and a cigarette drooping from his chubby lips. He looked as if he were thinking about doves in a place he hadn't seen. At one of the three wooden tables, a guy lay dead or drunk with his cheek in a pool of wet amber that I hoped was beer. There wasn't much light, just a few dim bulbs in the ceiling and a neon Falstaff beer sign sputtering on the wall. The fat woman looked over at me. The bartender didn't budge, and the two lotharios didn't seem to notice me.
"A beer," I said, stepping to the bar, tilting back my hat and plunking down a quarter.
The bartender looked at me through the smoke without moving his head. Then he grunted and rose. He was in no hurry.
"I'm with the circus," I said. "Been out setting things up down the line. Can you tell me where to find them?"
"The circus," said the bartender dreamily.
"The circus," I repeated, taking the beer, which he handed me in the bottle. The bottle wasn't quite warm, but it was a hemisphere away from cool.
"In the field," he said, nodding his head toward the door.
I nodded knowingly, as if he had told me something valuable, and gulped down some beer. I thought I tasted something solid coming out of the bottle but ignored it and tried again.
"Right," I said. "And how do I get to this field?"
The bartender shrugged.
"The other side of town," came the voice of one of the two men with the woman. He stepped away from her and looked at me floor to hat, deciding what should be done with me.
"OK," I grinned. "And how do I get to the other side of town?"
"You turn your ass around, go through that door, and start knocking on doors till someone tells you or shoots you," the man said, stepping toward me. He was bulky, dark, and drunk. His shirt was faded flannel and his pants denim with white patches at the knees.
I looked at the bartender to try to figure out why I had been given such a warm greeting, but he had gone back to his position with head on hands. "La Paloma" played on.
"Hey," I said, taking in another third of the beer, "I'm just a working man looking for his job. I'm not after trouble."
The guy in the faded shirt was a few feet in front of me now, and his mouth was open, revealing about six teeth and a pit of darkness. I knew a dentist who would like to get his grubby fingers on that mouth, but I wanted no part of it.
"That circus ain't for our kids," he said. "The farm kids and rich kids down the beach. They going to your circus."
"Come on, Lope," cried the woman down the bar in a voice that couldn't decide if it was a tenor or a soprano. It continued to crack as she said, "The circus don't cost that much. Your kids could go."
"Fifty cents," I said with a smile.
"And what about the popcorn and stuff they want?" he challenged, breathing something stronger than beer in my face.
The Falstaff sign crackled and we all looked at it, but it didn't go out. The amber dead man at the table stirred and rolled over to soak the other cheek. I didn't turn my other cheek. I finished my beer, put it on the counter and spoke.
"Say it costs a buck for the whole thing," I said. "I figure that's the cost of two tequilas and a beer. How much you sunk into your own entertainment tonight, pal?"
It was the wrong thing to say. Maybe it came a little bit from getting into the role of circus front man. Maybe it was from being tired from a long trip. Maybe I was just nervous about being back in Mirador. Fighting with a drunken leather-muscled field worker wasn't going to get me directions to the circus.
His face was a thought ahead of his actions. His right arm cocked back, and I reached for the empty bottle. Before the thick fist came around, I whacked the bottle against the side of his head just above the right eye. There was no shattering of glass, just a thunk, and the bulk in front of me went down against the bar.
The other man at the bar rushed toward me and stopped a few feet short when I showed the bottle in my hand. He was smaller than the first guy, about my size and weight, and dressed in black pants with matching shirt and sweater. The bartender roused himself from his dream and looked at me with distaste. He wanted no trouble. He wanted nothing. "La Paloma" ended, and a voice came out of the radio in rapid-fire Spanish.
The flannel bulk was out against the bar, probably as much from what he had soaked away as from my tap on his head. A dark lump was closing his right eye.
"No more trouble," I said to the advancing man, whose eyes were shifting around for something to hit me with or throw at me.
"You hit Lope," he said evenly through his teeth.
"He was going to hit me," I explained, holding tightly to my beer bottle. "Hey, I came in here to find the circus, not to take on a tag team."
Lope's friend grabbed a bottle from the table where the drunk lay dreaming. His bottle was bigger than mine and had something left in it. The something dripped out as he stepped carefully toward me, eyeing Lope in the hope that the bigger man would get up and join him.
"If this happens at every town along the line, I swear I'm quitting the circus," I said, backing toward the door.
The fat woman at the end of the bar let out a howl of laughter and pounded the bar, sending a whiskey glass tumbling to the floor.
"Let the man alone, Carlos," she said, her voice jumping all over the place. "He's a funny man."
"Lope?" Carlos said, pointing his bottle at his downed drinking companion and drenching himself in alcohol.
"Lope asked for what he got," she said, getting off her stool and looking at me. Carlos looked at the sleeping drunk and the bartender for support, but there was none. He wasn't going to face me without an appreciative audience. He drained the last few drops of the bottle and backed against the bar.
Excerpted from Catch a Falling Clown by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1981 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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