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Hollywood Hang Ten
I had been at the office plenty of times without Uncle Lou, but this time was different. This time Lou wasn't at the post office, or picking up a deli sandwich, or out on a case somewhere. This time he was lying under a thin cotton blanket at the V.A. hospital with an oxygen tube up his nose, hooked up to a machine that monitored his breathing. This time, the doctor said, the two packs a day had finally caught up with him.
I stood just inside the doorway and looked around. The sun's rays slanted in through the large front window, catching the dust in the air. In the corner was a metal file cabinet, old and dented. Next to the file cabinet, Lou's desk was piled with papers, one sheet still threaded into his typewriter. I pulled the paper out and looked it over. He had been writing up a report on the Keplinger case. Mrs. Keplinger lived in Palm Springs, on the edge of a golf course. She was rich, lonely, and convinced that somebody was hitting golf balls onto her roof at night while she tried to sleep. Our job was to catch them at it.
The phone rang. I picked it up.
"Hello, is this Lou Zorn?" It was a woman's voice, anxious, almost panicky.
"Lou's not in. This is Ryan. How can I help you?"
"I left two messages with your answering service already this morning."
"I just got in. What can I do for you?"
"It's my son. He didn't come home from school yesterday and I'm starting to get, I mean, I don't think he was even at school yesterday, at least that's what his friend Nicholas said. Joey's not home, he's not at school, I don't know where he is. He's only 11 years old, and I'm scared, really starting to get worried. I don't have a lot of money, but I'll pay whatever you charge. Please, can you find him?"
"When was the last time you saw your son, Mrs. ...?"
"Flynn. Cora Flynn. It was two nights ago, Wednesday night, pretty late. I checked in on Joey when I got home. He was sleeping. But the next morning ..."
She sucked in her breath. When she continued, her voice was shaky.
"Look, I'm at work and I can't leave right now, but is there any way you can come out here? I mean right away, if that's possible. I'm going out of my mind with worry."
I said yes. Then I got out a pencil and jotted down her work address: Building 8. Research. Pinnacle Studios.
* * *
Ten minutes later, I was cruising east on Santa Monica Boulevard toward Hollywood, past clapboard bungalows standing hip to hip with shoe stores and car dealers and glass-fronted drug stores hawking Brylcreem and Dr. Pepper, Modern Screen and Cutty Sark. It was just after 10:00 AM, and already getting hot. I rolled down the window, then cut up to Sunset and took a right.
The Strip was nearly deserted. The nightclubs — all neon swank after dark — had a ghostly abandoned look in the daylight, their lifeless marquees announcing Mort Sahl at the Crescendo, Johnny Rivers at Gazarri's, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones at Ciro's. If Uncle Lou had been with me, he'd be shaking his head and grumbling about how things had changed — and not in a good way. Back in the day, Lou had worked security for various Hollywood celebrities while he built up his private investigations firm. He loved to tell stories about Sinatra punching out some guy over a game of pool, Sammy Davis not-so-secretly dating Kim Novak, Judy Garland falling down drunk at the Macombo. "Who the fuck is Dick Dale?" he would have barked today if he hadn't been plugged into an oxygen tank at the V.A.
Lou had wanted to be a cop, but his gimpy war-leg kept him off the force. So he started up his own investigation agency, an outfit which consisted of himself ... and eventually me. I had worked for him the last five years, since graduating high school class of '58. I'd run errands, type up reports, break him on all-night surveillance. Lou seemed to enjoy passing his know-how on to me. He taught me how to read upside down, how to follow a car in its blind spot, how to snap a decent photo on the sly without looking through the viewfinder.
I saw my uncle as a force of nature. He was short and stocky, had a deep gravelly voice, strong convictions, and a knack for solving even the most baffling case. Divorce, missing persons, hidden assets, midnight golf balls — you name it. Lou always took charge of the cases. I stayed in the background, which suited me just fine. The sidekick role left me plenty of time to surf.
Now, suddenly, here I was ... 23 years old and on my first solo case. I tried to remember the tips Lou had given me over the years about an initial interview: listen to what a person does not say as much as what they do say; pay attention to body language; honor your first impressions, but be ready to modify them when new information presents itself.
Leaving the nightclubs and restaurants of the Strip behind, I drove through the unglamorous side streets of Hollywood — past the hulking concrete monoliths, windowless and beige, which housed the film processing labs, equipment rental houses, and sound mixing studios that made the movie business go.
At the northeast edge of Hollywood, where the scrub brush starts up again and the terrain begins to rise, was Pinnacle Studios. I turned into a wide driveway. Almost immediately, the nose of my car came up against a horizontal security bar with the green Pinnacle logo emblazoned across it. On my left was a kiosk flanked by a couple of coconut palms. A uniformed guard with the green Pinnacle logo on his cap stuck his head out of the kiosk. My white '61 Falcon, only two years old but in need of a wash, earned me a suspicious squint.
"State your business ... sir." The guard didn't bother to hide the sarcasm on the "sir."
"Ryan Zorn. I have an appointment with Cora Flynn in Research."
The guard checked his clipboard, then waved me through with a scowl, as if I'd cheated him out of the chance to ruin someone's day.
The horizontal bar raised up, and I drove onto the lot. In an instant, I had left behind the hodge-podge randomness of L.A., and entered the meticulously manicured world of Pinnacle Studios. Although Pinnacle wasn't a major studio, it remained profitable year after year, churning out a stream of low-budget westerns and horror flicks, with the occasional historical drama thrown in for prestige. I cruised at the posted 15 miles per hour, up a spotless street lined with white Mediterranean-style buildings with red tiled roofs and covered walkways running along the front. Each building was topped with the green Pinnacle logo, followed by a number.
A woman stood in the shadows of Building 8's walkway. She was wearing a navy blue dress, cinched at the waist with a shiny red belt. She had a curvy figure, dark wavy hair that fell to her shoulders, and pale skin set off by red lipstick that matched the belt. As I got out of the car, she stubbed out her cigarette on the railing, crushed it under the toe of a low-heeled pump. I guessed her to be about 35 years old. Her skin was smooth, no wrinkles, but there was something brittle, even hard-edged around her mouth.
"Ryan?" she said, giving me a quick once-over.
"You're ... younger than I thought. I mean, not that it matters ... I just hope ... it's just that I'm worried and ..."
"We'll find your son, Mrs. Flynn."
"You can call me Cora."
She forced a smile. I extended my hand and we shook. Her nails were painted red, no wedding ring, and her handshake was limp like a lot of women's were. I wondered sometimes why nobody taught girls how to really grip the other person's hand when they shook.
"Thanks for getting here so quickly," Mrs. Flynn said. "Let's go inside. With all the lay-offs this summer, I'm the only one in Research right now, so we can talk."
I followed her into the coolness of a large, dimly lit room. The walls were lined with bookshelves and sturdy wooden file cabinets. At the center of the room was a large wooden table where a gooseneck lamp spotlighted an open book. More books were stacked on the table, many with thin strips of paper poking out from their pages. The room had the feel of being both overstuffed and vigorously organized.
Mrs. Flynn dropped into a chair and grabbed for her purse which was hanging over the back. She extracted a pack of Juicyfruit, popped a stick of gum into her mouth.
"No smoking allowed," she said with a nervous laugh. "Worst thing about this job."
She held out the pack of gum. "Want some?"
"No thanks. So, you said the last time you saw your son was Wednesday?"
"That's right. I had gone out with a couple of friends after work, and ... you know how it is, we had a few drinks, no big deal. I checked on Joey when I got home like I always do. He was fast asleep."
"And the next morning?"
"Well, I ..." She bit her lip. "I overslept a bit. I went in to wake Joey, but he wasn't in his room. I just assumed that he had left for school already."
"Is that common? That he gets himself to school like that?"
"He's done it before. Look, I do the best I can, okay?"
"Okay. So what about last night? Did you come straight home after work?"
"Of course I did," she said defensively. "Joey wasn't home, but that's not unusual. He often plays with his friends in the neighborhood until I get home, so I didn't think anything of it. But when I called over to Nicholas's — he's Joey's best friend in the neighborhood — he told me Joey wasn't at school yesterday. That's when I started to worry." Her eyes welled up. "He wasn't at school, and he never came home last night."
"Do you think he ran away?"
"Why would he?" She squinted at me, like I had accused her of something.
I shrugged. "I dunno. Kids do that. It happens."
"Joey and I are very close. He wouldn't do something like that to me."
Mrs. Flynn chewed her lip and looked down at her lap.
"Well," she admitted, "once we had an argument and he got really mad. But that was different. It was about a year ago. He ran out, saying he was going to live with his father. I got in the car and followed him. He didn't get very far. I found him down at the corner where our road meets Sunset, sitting at the bus stop. I reasoned with him, and he finally got in the car. Poor kid."
"Why poor kid?"
"Thinking that he could live with his father."
"Why couldn't he?"
She laughed, but there was no joy in it.
"Let's just say that when my husband left, he really left."
"So you're divorced."
She nodded. "Richard and I split up three years ago. I've only seen him a handful of times since then. Last Christmas he showed up with a present for Joey. No warning, just showed up. That's so Richard. Believe it or not he was once a regular, dependable guy. Had a good job teaching at UCLA."
"He's not at UCLA anymore?"
"Hardly." She shook her head, lost in her own thoughts for a few moments. "Something changed. I never understood what exactly. Richard tried to explain I suppose, in his own cryptic, philosophical way. I think what it boils down to is he just needed to change his life. Joey was eight when he left us. He screwed us financially, not a penny in child support or alimony. I guess I could take him to court, but what's the point ... he says he has no money. Oh, excuse me," she said sarcastically, "he doesn't believe in money. That's why I work and have to leave Joey alone a lot. Do you think I feel good about that?"
It wasn't really a question, so I let it hang. The air in the room was still. I glanced over at the wooden file cabinets. Each drawer had a hand-printed label on the front: Egypt, Rome, Old West, Civil War. A buzzer sounded in the distance. A few seconds later, it stopped.
"So if Joey did run away," I said, "and he didn't go to his father's, where would he'd go?"
"I don't know. I just I don't know."
"And if he did go to his father's?"
"I don't ..." she shook her head. Whatever she was going to say, she changed her mind. "For one thing, all we have is Richard's post office address. He's so damn secretive. No phone, no street address. His PO box is in Santa Maria, a little hick town north of Santa Barbara. That's all I know. He said he wanted to live 'close to nature' — whatever that means. Sometimes I think he's had a nervous breakdown or something. Each phone call, seldom that they are, he promises Joey that he can come visit him, but it never happens. And still Joey thinks his father walks on water."
As Mrs. Flynn descended into a bitter recollection of her failed marriage, I wondered to myself how long I should I let her go on. Lou's interviewing motto was: "Let em rip, then rein em in." I had sat in on interviews with Lou many times, but had done very little interviewing on my own.
"Mrs. Flynn," I cut in after a while, "did anything out of the ordinary happen on Wednesday, or maybe the day or two before?"
"Out of the ordinary? What do you mean?"
"Something that might cause Joey to run away. Like the other time, you said you had an argument. I'm asking because most missing children do turn out to be runaways."
She shook her head. I caught a flash of something in her eyes. I knew in that instant that Cora Flynn was holding something back.
"No" she said. "We didn't have an argument. Nothing like that."
"Or something else."
I waited. She fidgeted with her crumpled gum wrapper.
"That's what scares me the most," she said. "Nothing's happened. You hear ... you know, about kidnapping ... I don't know what to think, but I'm worried sick. I can barely concentrate on anything else."
"Have you called the police?"
She stood up abruptly, walked a few paces, then turned and faced me.
"I don't want to involve the police. That's why I called you ... your agency. I need someone who will put all their energy into finding Joey. The police have so many cases, what's one boy to them?"
"Plenty. Finding missing persons is part of their job. They're good at it."
"I assume you are too."
"We are," I said. (Thinking to myself: let's hope so.) "But how would it hurt to have the police out looking also?"
"I told you: no police."
"Mrs. Flynn, is there something you're not telling me? Because most times that's one of the first things a parent does when their kid goes missing, is call the police."
"You ask a lot of questions."
"That's pretty much my job."
She smiled. She paced for another few steps, then turned back to me. She opened her mouth, was about to say something, but instead she slammed it shut. Finally she flopped back down onto the chair and sighed.
"A few months ago a County social worker came out to the house. She told me someone had reported that Joey was not being properly cared for. Do you know how humiliating that was? The social worker was sweet as can be, but behind that syrupy 'I'm here to help you and your family' crap, I knew she'd take Joey away from me in a quick minute if given half a chance. She checked the fridge, grilled me about my schedule, my habits. And on top of that, she wouldn't tell me who made the call. I'm fairly sure it was Mrs. Ackerman, Nicholas's mother. The way that woman looks at me. ... I can feel her ... judging. Who's she to judge me? She's got a husband, money coming in. I'm working myself raw to support my child, while she's out planting geraniums."
We locked eyes. Hers burned with resentment. Eventually, she sighed and her expression softened up.
"Honestly Ryan, I'm afraid if I call the police, even if they do find Joey, they'll take him away from me."
"I don't think they'd do that."
"But you don't really know, do you?"
She was right: I didn't know much of anything for sure. Still, it seemed lame to worry about a social worker taking her son away in some hypothetical future when right now, in the real here and now, the boy was as gone as could be.
But I figured it wasn't going to do any good to tell this to Mrs. Flynn.
"Okay," I said. "I'll get on it right away. We charge $75 a day, plus expenses. I'll need a recent picture of Joey, and a list of his friends, relatives, anybody who might know something."
"Thank you, Ryan. I mean it."
Mrs. Flynn reached into her purse. She pulled a photo out of her wallet and handed it to me. Joey looked nothing like his mother. He had shaggy blonde hair, a turned up nose, blue eyes, and a few freckles.
"Also, I'll need that PO address for your husband."
"Right. Sorry. And a photo of Mr. Flynn — as recent as possible."
"I've got some at home, but I can't leave work until five."
"Okay. I can get it tomorrow, although ..."
"If I could get a photo of Mr. Flynn today it might help. The sooner I start pursuing this, the more likely we'll find Joey."
"Well ..." She looked at her watch, shook her head. "I'd never make it to the Palisades and back during lunch break."