The second time Holland March died, he saw an angel. Which was more welcome than Richard Nixon. If also a lot more predictable.
She knelt down over him in the parking lot, her blonde curls hanging down over his face. Her eyes were wide, and she was chewing gum. He could smell it. Kinda weird, but maybe angels liked gum.
Holland wasn’t thinking about what angels liked, though. He was thinking about Holly, and how impossibly unfair it was to lose both parents before she was old enough to drive. He was thinking how stupid he was and how he should have been more careful. He was thinking about all the time he’d wasted, and that his head didn’t even hurt that bad, but his ankle did.
He was wondering if Healy would take care of Holly for him. She would need someone.
The angel popped her gum. “Yikes,” she said. “That looked like it stung. You need me to call an ambulance for you?”
“Oh,” Holland said.
It started, as it often did, with a missing girl.
Los Angeles was a city of missing girls. Girls who ran away from home to be in the movies, girls who wanted to become singers and live with rockstars in Laurel Canyon, girls who ended up in the laps of the Sid Shattucks of the world; or else had to give up, and go back to Idaho or Nebraska and admit their dreams weren’t going to come true. This particular girl belonged to Maxine Pierce and Talbot Gunther.
Maxine and Talbot were movie stars, or more accurately they had been. She was seventy years old and retired from the screen. He was dead.
Their home was a Los Feliz Tudor-style mansion. A silent maid let Holland and Healy in, leading them up a spiral staircase to a large office lined with posters from films Talbot or Maxine had made. Their careers had peaked in the late thirties to mid-forties. She was a sleek brunette beauty with famously green eyes; he a square-jawed pinnacle of wartime manhood who played swashbucklers and pilots and romantic heros during his career. Holland felt distinctly put off by their giant glamorous faces staring down at him.
There was a bowl of peppermint ribbon candy sitting on the desk, so at least that was normal. Elderly people everywhere loved their ribbon candy. Holland popped a piece of it in his mouth only to immediately spit it out again; it was older than the house.
“Pick that up,” said Healy. “That carpet is worth more than the both of us put together.”
“I know, okay,” said Holland. “I wasn’t gonna leave it there. I’m not a pig, Healy.”
They were both nervous and bitching at each other to cover it up. It wasn’t like either of them had ever worked for Hollywood royalty before. Healy had spent roughly five minutes wiping his shoes clean on the curb before he’d even approach the front walk.
The door opened before Holland could dispense with the candy. He stuck it in his pocket in an attempt to hide his shame.
Maxine Pierce was just as elegant at seventy as she had been at twenty-five. Her iron gray hair was pulled into a low bun, and she wore a navy blue suit. Her face may have been worn by age, but the eyes remained the same.
“If you’re looking for loose change down there you won’t find it,” she said, apparently amused. “My cleaning staff is very thorough.”
Holland cleared his throat. “Dropped my keys,” he said, and got up.
She sat down behind the desk. “I’ll get right to the point,” she said. “I contacted you because I want to find my estranged daughter.”
“You don’t have anything to do with the Justice department or the manufacturing of automobiles, do you?” Holland asked. Healy stepped on his toes.
Maxine’s eyebrows drew together. “What?”
“Nothing,” Holland said. “Just checking.”
She directed her next question at Healy. “Is your partner having an episode of some kind?”
“I can never tell for sure.”
“Then I’m going to ignore whatever that was,” said Maxine. “My daughter's name is Patricia Gunther, though she may be going by another by now. She left home some time ago and I haven’t seen her since.”
“How long ago, ma’am?” Healy asked. He had his hands clasped politely in his lap. The Catholic schoolboy came out in him at the weirdest times.
Maxine leaned back in her chair and sighed. For the first time since she had entered the room she appeared to be truly old. “Twenty years. Patricia left in 1958. She was sixteen.”
Holland and Healy glanced at each other. Twenty years was more than a bad sign; it was a likely death knell to making any progress on the case. Gunther Jr. could be in the Gold Coast of Africa for all they knew.
“That’s a long time,” said Holland.
“I know,” said Maxine. “Though it doesn’t seem that far away when you’re my age. Time has a way of compressing itself once you’ve experienced enough of it. I am aware what I’m asking isn’t easy. But aside from your usual fee I can give you a bonus if you do find her.”
“What kind of bonus?”
“Ten thousand dollars,” she said, and his soul left his body.
“Can I ask why she left?” Healy was saying after Holland returned to consciousness.
“I assumed you would,” said Maxine, but didn’t seem eager to give an answer. “An argument. What else? She got into a fight with her father, packed a bag and said she would never come back. And she hasn’t.”
Holland had recovered enough to ask questions. “What was the fight about?”
Maxine lifted a shoulder. “It’s been years. Nothing significant that I recall. The things fathers and daughters usually argue about. A boyfriend she had that Talbot didn’t approve of. I can give you the names of her friends in those days, a place to start. Oh, and this.”
She reached into a drawer in the desk. The picture she pulled out was of two girls with their arms around each other and wavy fifties-era hairstyles. One was fair-haired, with a sharp chin and pointed eyebrows. The other was dark, with round cheeks and sleepy eyes. She tapped a manicured nail on the left side - the dark-haired girl. “That’s Patricia,” she said. “That’s my daughter.”
“Ten thousand dollars,” Holland kept saying, all the way home. “Ten thousand -”
“I know,” said Healy. “I know. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. We gotta find her first.” But he couldn’t stop smiling, either.
Holland forgot all about the candy. He threw his pants in the wash without emptying the pockets and it melted through the fabric in a big red stain.
“You have to add the blueberries last,” Holly was saying as he came into the kitchen. Healy stood next to her, mixing something in a bowl. He had his reading glasses on and she was still in her pyjamas. “And it’s best if they’re fresh. Not frozen.”
“What’re you doing?” Holland asked. There was flour all over the counter and coffee brewing. It was seven in the morning. He felt like he’d woken up in someone else’s house.
“Hi Dad,” said Holly. “I’m teaching Jackson how to make pancakes.” She’d only stopped calling him Mr. Healy a couple weeks ago.
“He doesn’t know how to make pancakes?” Holland said. “And you do?”
“Duh,” she said. “I took home ec last year. Remember? You picked me up after school because we kept running late.”
“I thought that was space camp.”
She twisted around to stare at him, a dripping spoon in her hand. “Kidding,” he said, quickly, and kissed the crown of her rumpled head. “I remember. Some kid blew up an oven, right?”
“Timmy Jacobs,” said Holly. “It was awesome. We never did figure out how he managed to do that.”
“How many do you want?” Healy asked. He was pouring batter into a sizzling pan in neat practiced circles, and if he didn’t already know how to make pancakes Holland would eat his shoe. Not that he would bring that up in front of Holly, who looked comfortable and happy.
Holland scratched the side of his jaw, scraping at the stubble there. “I’m not really hungry.”
Healy slid him a sideways look, filled with judgement. Which wasn’t fair, because Holland was no more than mildly hungover. Moderately hungover. Whatever, he hadn’t started drinking until Holly went to bed. He had trouble sleeping sometimes, that was all.
“I guess I’ll have one,” he conceded.
He set the table and watched them dish up the food; it was weird, a routine he’d almost forgotten coming back so naturally. It set off a chain reaction of longing that he didn’t want to think about. So he ate he pancakes he could barely taste instead, and threw several cups of coffee on top of that. By the time he and Healy were doing the dishes he felt halfway to being a human being again.
“Did she let you in?” he asked. “Or do you have a key I don’t know about?”
Healy just shook his head, dipping a dish under the water to get the spots that Holland had missed.
The blonde in the photograph was Lindy Finkel. She was their third stop on the search for Patricia Gunther.
Her father had been a big-time Hollywood producer back in the day and Lindy grew up to take over the family business. Her office was in a clean, modern building that was all right angles and festive indoor plants. She wasn’t an easy woman to get ahold of, or not for the likes of The Nice Guys Detective Agency - it took a week and a half of playing telephone tag with secretaries before they did, and that was only because Healy eventually gave them Patricia Gunther’s name in desperation. Suddenly the doors swung open like he’d said open sesame.
She’d dyed her wheat-colored hair red in the intervening years and dressed like she was on safari - loose khakis with a green shirt tucked into them. “You told me this was about Pat,” she said, seconds after closing the door. “Is she okay?”
“We can’t say,” said Holland, because it was never a bad idea to play into fears when you were questioning someone. “It’s part of an ongoing investigation.”
“You’re not cops,” she said, and looked Holland up and down in an insulting way. “Are you cops?”
“We’re not cops,” Healy confirmed. “But we have to protect the privacy of our client.” Holland nodded, appreciative. That was a good one. Very clever.
“Your client,” said Lindy. “How do I know you aren’t looking for her to break her kneecaps? Maybe she owes someone money.”
“Was she in the habit of doing that sort of thing, back when you knew her?”
Lindy paused to make herself a drink before answering. Gin and tonic. Holland was beset by a powerful thirst; he couldn’t stop watching the liquid slosh around the glass.
“No,” she said, and sat down behind her desk. “But it’s been years since I last saw her. Maybe as much as a decade. People change. Especially in this town.”
Holland tore his eyes away from the glass. He wondered when a drink had become more appealing to him then the attractive woman consuming it; but down that path lay monsters, so he forced himself to stop. “Was there a reason for your falling out?”
“We didn’t have one,” she said. “We drifted apart, the way people do.”
“Miss Gunther isn’t in trouble,” said Healy. “We’re not gonna be breaking any knees. Our client would like to know if she’s okay, too.”
Lindy sat back and rotated the ice in her glass, knocking it together: clink clink clink. “Is the client Maxine?” she asked. “Her mother? Is that who you’re working for? I read about Talbot in the papers; it took him long enough to kick the bucket. He’d been sick for awhile. Everyone in the business knew.”
Holland willed himself to stay very, very still; that no lawless spasm of expression would give the game away. An eyelid must have twitched, because Lindy snorted.
“And you have to be discreet, huh?” she asked. “Figures. What do you know about the night Patty left home?”
“We know that she got in an argument with her father,” said Holland. “About a boyfriend or - similar subject. And that she never came back.”
Lindy laughed. It wasn’t a very nice one. “A boyfriend? There’s an unexpected plot twist.”
“Uh,” said Healy. “Not sure what you -”
“Patricia Gunther didn’t have a boyfriend,” said Lindy. “And she didn’t leave home voluntarily. Her father threw her out.”
“Why’d he do that?” Holland asked. There was no circumstance under which he could picture himself turning his daughter out onto the cold and unforgiving streets. Jesus, what was wrong with people?
Lindy put her empty glass down. “Because she was gay,” she said, “and Talbot Gunther couldn’t handle it.”
They were quiet on the drive home. No radio, nothing. Just the soft sound of the wheels hitting the pavement. It was, uncharacteristically, Healy who broke the silence.
“So she was the girlfriend, right?”
Holland stared. It took him a second to catch on; he’d been thinking of something else. “Lindy and Patricia?”
“Yeah,” Healy said. “Talbot Gunther caught them at it, had a fit, kicked his daughter out. Boom.”
“Boom,” Holland repeated. “Wait, how do you know?”
Healy shrugged. “Isn’t that usually how it goes?”
The hair on Holland’s arms stood up. “How it - how it goes, how would I know how it goes? It could go any which way. I have no personal experience in this matter.”
Healy was looking at him like he was nuts, and no wonder. “I was extrapolating from known facts -”
“Extrapolating? Is that on your word of the day calendar?”
“Extrapolating,” he said, “and we -”
“- have no known facts,” said Holland, “so put a pin in it. We got an address, that’s all.”
Lindy had given it to them reluctantly. “She might not be there anymore,” she’d warned. “Or she might not want to talk to her mother. It’s not like she doesn’t know where to find Maxine if she did.”
“Then why help?” Holland had asked, even though he was shooting himself in the foot by doing so. “Why not tell us to get lost?”
Lindy had looked down at the stationary in her hand and frowned. “It can be hard to heal old wounds,” she’d said. “Maybe this will be a start.”
The address was folded into a square and clenched in Holland’s left fist. A ten year old address was better than a twenty year old disappearance, but not by much. He hadn’t relaxed since they left the office.
“What the hell is your problem all of a sudden?” Healy asked. He turned onto Sunset Boulevard. A trio of girls roared up beside them in a convertible; they couldn’t be more than a couple of years older than Holly. “And since when are you Mr. Precision? You make assumptions all the time. It’s part of the job.”
Holland’s palm tightened around the paper. “Do you think I’m a good father?”
“Is that what this is about?”
Not only. “Yeah,” said Holland.
“Holly loves you,” Healy said. “She’s a great kid. You must’ve done something right.”
Had he? By mistake, most likely - Holly was a product of some combo of luck and genetics that he would never figure out. Like she got all of his good stuff and none of the bad. “Everyone loves their parents,” he said.
“Not everyone. I haven’t spoken to my father in - shit, must be a year and a half by now.”
“Because he slept with your wife.”
“Yes,” said Healy. His knuckles flexed on the steering wheel, flashing white. “Yes, thank you for reminding me.”
“Eventually you gotta get over that, my friend.”
“I am,” Healy insisted. “I don’t make a commotion about it or anything. But I’m not gonna sit down to Thanksgiving with the man either.”
“I guess I can understand that.” Holland’s father had been a mild-mannered paper-pusher with dramatic male pattern baldness who would no more sleep with his son’s spouse than he would fly to the moon. He had been a constant, if not very active, presence throughout Holland’s life; it was being a grandfather that really woke him up. He’d adored Holly, and would sit on the floor with his bad back and his bad knees for hours playing with her. It was too bad they hadn’t gotten more time together. But a lot of things were too bad: you got what you got.
Holland couldn’t claim he and his father ever really understood each other. But they had loved each other and that did mean something.
“What a piece of work,” said Holland.
Healy laughed, short and mostly under his breath. “Well. It was all over but the crying, even before he got involved.”
“I meant figuratively,” he said.
Holland wanted to ask more (When did you meet her? How did you know it was over? How did you know when it began?) - but then, he always wanted to ask more of Healy these days. So he kept his big trap shut, instead - a heroic effort he felt should have been appreciated by someone - and let Healy drive in peace.
There was a car in his driveway. A yellow coupe that belonged to Janet’s sister. He waved as they pulled out. That girl never wore a bra.
There was usually someone over with Holly now. She didn’t like to be alone so much anymore. He called out as he came in so she wouldn’t worry it was - someone else.
Holly was lying on the couch with a comic book. She had her sneakered feet up on the arm of it, tapping her heels against the fabric to some rhythm in her head. Which meant he couldn’t have a drink. He was starting to have rules, to open the bottles only where she couldn’t see, hiding them in his desk drawer or the back of the kitchen cabinets. And god help him, he didn’t know if that was better or worse.
“Is Jackson coming in?” she asked.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s just you and me tonight.”
She put her comic down. “Did you get in a fight?”
He paused on his way into the kitchen. “A fight? No, why would we?”
Holly rolled onto her side. Her shoelaces were coming undone, and he had to stop himself from reaching over to tie them up. She was way too old for that kind of thing. “Because he usually comes in, I guess. You don’t make him wait in the drive anymore.”
“We’re friends now,” Holland said. “You don’t make friends wait in the driveway.”
“Janet says the boys who come to pick up her sister never come in the house.”
“Those boys aren’t her sister’s friends. What do you want for dinner?”
“I had cold pizza from the fridge.”
“Not a balanced diet, Holly,” he sighed. He should have done something about it - made her eat a vegetable, or one of those weird smoothies with wheatgrass that were supposed to be so good for you. Instead he got a slice himself and sat down with her. They watched The Beverly Hillbillies while she did her homework.
It was easier with Emma, he thought. Everything had been.
(Emma had been a paralegal, and Holland met her at the courthouse back when he was cop, a rookie. She’d pepper-sprayed him when he startled her one night outside the building, mistaking him for the a mugger. Six months later they were married. Easy peasy.)
Or maybe it was just that two was a more difficult number than three. If one was the loneliest number -
He didn’t do well alone. That was the problem. Add to that his ill-considered periods of youthful experimentation...
It wasn’t the first time Holland had fallen for a guy, but he could have at least picked one that didn’t punch people in the face for a living.
The apartment was in Koreatown. It was number 3A on the north corner of a two-story walk-up that had balconies on the second level and narrow garden plots on the first. The potential domicile of Patricia Gunther was one of those with a flower bed, if you interpreted overgrown grass and a sprinkle of daisies as a deliberate choice.
All the curtains were drawn and the lights were off. When no one answered their knock, Healy and Holland did what they usually would in this situation: started digging through the garbage
“Why didn’t we bring gloves?” Holland groused. “Why don’t we keep them in the car, plan ahead of time?” It was a particularly fragrant dumpster, filled with pizza boxes, enough empty liquor bottles to make Holland look like a teetotaler, and a couple sad, deflated balloons. Or novelty condoms. He couldn’t tell which and wasn’t about to find out. “I’m gonna prick myself on a hypodermic and die of communicable disease.”
“Wouldn’t stop your mouth from going,” Healy said. They were looking for anything with a name on it. People threw out the craziest things: papers from the government, old pay stubs, summons for jury duty. But even a magazine subscription would do. He paused with a beer can in his hand. “Maybe I should do it, before you do stick yourself on something.”
Holland had no idea how to react to this sudden wave of protectiveness, but he didn’t have to. The door to 3A opened and a woman with short hair and a shearling coat came out.
She put a pair of sunglasses on and strode past them. “Weirdest looking racoons I’ve ever seen,” she said.
“He lost his wedding ring,” Healy said. “Did you - didn’t you hear us knocking, earlier?”
“I don’t want to buy it or vote for it,” she said. “And I work nights so I sleep late.”
“We’re not canvassing,” he said. “We just got a few questions about the woman who used to live there.” he pointed back to the apartment.
“Too bad she can’t answer them,” the tenant said. She reached her destination, a gold pontiac.
“Her mother sent us,” he said. “Maybe you know of her - Maxine Pierce? She was in -”
The woman stopped, leaning back against her car. “I know what she was in.”
“It’s about her daughter, Patricia Gunther.”
She turned her head, looking out at the road. “There’s a name I haven’t heard in awhile.”
“You knew her,” Holland said.
“Used to be roommates,” she said. “Back when she first moved out. We were a couple of babies. It was kinda exciting, living with a movie star’s kid.”
“When did she leave?” Holland asked. “And I guess she didn’t leave a forwarding address, or a phone number.”
“She stayed here for about - three, four years? I think she was heading in the direction of the east coast after that. She had a beef with her parents. My impression was that she wanted to put as much space between herself and them as possible.”
“Okay,” said Holland. He took out a notepad. “That’s very helpful - what did you say your name was?”
“My folks were religious,” she said. “Too bad they didn’t name me Jezebel.”
“You remember anything else?” Healy asked. “What city she wanted to go to? Names of some of her friends, excepting yourself?”
“You kidding? I can’t recall what I had for lunch yesterday.”
Holland ripped off a strip of paper with the office phone number written on it. “You remember anything, call us.”
“Will do.” But that was what people always said.
Holland and Healy went to leave, but stopped when she called after them, hanging halfway out of the interior of the car.
“The old lady,” Delilah said. “Is she ill, or what? I know her husband just passed.”
“Seems healthy as a horse to me,” said Healy. “So don’t go selling stories to the tabloids, or anything.”
“Then why ask?’
Delilah started the car up. The late afternoon light cut through the window, giving her hair a chestnut tint and highlighting her stubborn chin. Not a very feminine face, but a memorable one. “I grew up watching her movies,” she said. “Call it nostalgia.”
“The east coast?” Maxine said. “I don’t know who she would have known there. We’ve been in LA so long -”
“And she wouldn’t have told you if she had friends out there,” Holland finished for her. Beside him, Healy slowly turned his head and gave him the evil eye. He pretended not he couldn’t see.
They were in the living room this time, which was as large and spacious as the rest of the house. No movie posters, though. Just family photographs. Holland was surprised to see how many of them featured Patricia; apparently there hadn’t been a post-exile slash and burn like he would have thought. Or she’d gotten them all out of storage after her husband died.
“I just mean because you weren’t all that close,” he added.
Maxine stubbed out the cigarette she had been holding. “I suppose not.”
“Because of the gay thing,” said Holland, and heard Healy sigh. It was the sound of ten thousand dollars flying out the window.
“The gay thing,” said Maxine, acidic as vinegar. “Now hold on just a damn minute. Are you suggesting I chased my daughter out of her own house because I was a bigot?”
“That’s what it looks like from here,” Holland said. “You’re saying you didn’t?”
“No, you idiot,” she snapped. “I got her a hotel room. It was supposed to be temporary.”
Healy stood up, all of a sudden, and went for the liquor cabinet. He mixed something up in a martini glass. “I used to be a bartender,” he said. “I know when somebody needs a drink.”
She took the glass more out of surprise than anything. “Thank you.”
Healy sat down next to Holland again, closer this time. “My partner’s been having a bad week,” he said. “Please excuse his attitude. Now - what about a hotel room?”
She had regained her composure. “Yes,” she said, “Talbot found out about Patricia’s inclinations. And yes, they fought, and she decided to leave. You have to realize that 1958 was not 1978. There was no possibility of her living a normal life if anyone found out. Talbot was wrong, but - he had his reasons.” Her mouth thinned into a straight line. “Not that I helped matters by mediating instead of picking a side. It was different back then, for women. We couldn’t just do whatever the hell we wanted, regardless of what our husband thought. I don’t expect you to understand. When I went to see her, she had already checked out. All her things were gone. I knew she must have been staying with a friend, but no one would tell me who. I told myself that we had time. That at least she was safe, somewhere. But she never came home.”
“We’ll talk to the rest of her friends,” said Healy. “We might find something yet.”
Maxine’s eyes flicked towards the mantle above the fireplace. There was a large picture there that included the Gunther-Pierce family, but also an unidentified man in a three piece suit. Sadness crossed her face, briefly, in a way Holland thought he recognized.
“Start with Bob Carter,” she said, cryptically. “He always knew her better than us, anyway.”
“You know we could quit,” said Healy, fifteen minutes from the Motion Picture Hospital. “If you have some kinda moral problem with this case.”
“Moral - moral problem,” Holland scoffed. “What do you mean, moral. We spend most of our time trying to catch guys with their pants down.”
“I mean what I said. If you have an issue with the case, we can quit.”
“Seriously?” Holland said. “You’d do that?”
“It’s -” Healy set his jaw. “It’s a lot of money. I won’t deny that. But we got other cases, right? Can’t miss something I never had.”
Holland gawked at him, openly, which was kind of a problem since he was the one driving.
“Eyes on the road.”
He pulled the car out of a swerve and tried to think like a normal human being. But what kept coming up was Healy’s shabby little apartment, the way he’d looked at the rental house when he first saw it. You can afford this on a PI’s salary?
Finally, he came to a solid conclusion. He was an asshole. A diamond-calibre, grade-A asshole. What else was new. He was letting his - his stupid feelings - get in the way of splitting a cool 10K down the middle. That was the start of a college fund for Holly. And who knows what for the man strapped into the passenger’s seat.
“Like I’m gonna throw that kind of money away,” he said, and adjusted his sunglasses. “You know me. I’m in it for the green.”
The side of Healy’s mouth curled up just a little. “You’re such a fucking liar, March.”
The Motion Picture Hospital was a sprawling campus with a collection of red-roofed cottages that veterans and retirees of movies and television lived in. Bob Carter’s was next to a willow tree. He’d been a cinematographer, shot some famously beautiful movies. Probably appreciated the beauty. Holland had a cigarette outside under the shade of the drooping branches, because some people were sensitive about that sort of thing.
One of the nurses had called ahead so Bob let them in right away. He was a sharp-faced man who still had a few dark streaks in his hair, and would have been tall if he’d been standing up. “It’s the damned arthritis in my knees,” he said, indicating his wheelchair. “Some days it isn’t worth it to use a cane.” He led them into the living room. As soon as Holland’s butt hit the couch a fat orange tabby oozed into his lap and refused to be moved.
“So Maxie sent you down?” he asked. “What about?”
“She’s looking for her daughter,” said Holland, scratching the cat under its chin. “She seemed to think you might know where to find her.”
Bob reeled back, as much as he could in a wheelchair. “Patricia? But - that was so long ago. Is she in trouble?”
“So you haven’t seen her lately?”
“No,” he said. “No, of course not.”
“Does she get down here to visit you often?”
“No,” said Holland, because he had an idea. One he was fairly sure of. “Maxine Pierce.”
Bob raised his hands in some unfinished gesture and dropped them back into his lap. “She doesn’t. Not for - oh, I haven’t seen Maxie in years. Since before I came here.”
“You call her Maxie.”
“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“Oh, nothing,” said Holland. “Just that you must have been good friends at one point. I saw a picture of you, at her house.”
“We’ve known each other since we were young,” he said. “Back when I was a key grip and she was an extra.”
“Through thick and thin.”
“You could say so, yes.”
“So how come she doesn’t visit?” Holland asked. “She could have come down and asked you herself.”
Healy moved to interrupt, but Holland stopped him with a hand on his arm. He knew what he was doing. He was a professional.
“You think about asking her that?” Bob asked, looking mutinous.
“I would,” said Holland, honestly. “But I don’t think she’d tell me. She’s kind of a tough lady.”
Bob huffed out a chuckle, small and mostly devoid of humor. “You got that right. It was - family stuff. We disagreed.”
“But you did consider her family,” said Holland.
Bob narrowed his eyes. “You better get to the point, young man. I’ve had enemas that were more interesting to me than this interview.”
“Okay,” said Holland. He put the cat aside, who made a series of grumpy noises and tried to dig its claws in. “Were you Patricia Gunther’s real father?”
There was a ringing silence. Then Bob Carter threw back his head and laughed, full on. “Well, Jesus Christ,” he said, wiping at his eyes. “If that’s not the funniest thing I’ve heard in ages. Did you come all the way up here to accuse me of having an affair with Maxine?”
“You, uh.” Holland’s face was bright red. Probably his whole body was. He was an idiot. “You didn’t?”
“With Maxie? No.”
“With -” Holland said. “You mean - oh. Oh.”
“Caught on, have you?” Bob asked. “Talbot always was more straight-acting than me. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.” He wheeled off into the house, down a hallway where Holland could hear him digging through drawers.
Healy leaned forward and steepled his fingers together. “So. Would you have guessed -”
“Nope,” said Holland. “Noooope.”
Bob came back with a lit cigar in his mouth and an ashtray on his knee. “She knew about it, before you open your mouth again and embarrass us all.”
“Then why did you fall out?” Holland asked.
“Because I wouldn’t tell her where Patricia went,” said Bob. “And she knew that I knew.”
“Mr. Carter,” said Healy, “I gotta ask you a question. If Talbot Gunther was gay, why’d he throw his kid out for taking after him?”
Bob exhaled smoke through his nose. “You’re old enough to remember what the fifties were like,” he said. “Half of fucking Hollywood was in the closet. It does something to your head, I think. I never worried so much - the people in my life knew who I was. But nobody cares about the guy behind the camera. Talbot was in front of it and that changed things. He was terrified of anyone looking at him twice. Never get caught with a dead girl or a live boy, right? Hell, he coulda gone to jail if anyone outside our social circle figured out what we were up to. There was no such person as a Harvey Milk for us. We could barely imagine it. Sometimes I think these kids are crazy with their parades and their politics, but it’s better for them. They won’t have to do what we did.” He paused, the cigar held between his teeth. “Also, Talbot was an asshole. I loved the man but I’m not going to make excuses for him. He was treating his daughter like shit, and I told him so.”
“Do you still hear from her?”
“You mean Patricia?”
Holland nodded. There was another silence.
“Her mother misses her,” Holland added. “But you must know she does. And she’s not a child in need of protection anymore.”
“Of course she isn’t,” said Bob. “I’m real proud of how she grew up.”
“So,” said Holland, gently. “Do you hear from her?”
“Sometimes,” said Bob. “She phones. She visits a couple times a year.”
“From the east coast.”
Bob’s eyebrows came together. It made him look like a disgruntled eagle. “What east coast. She’s here in LA. Works at a place called the Pink Elephant on Vine and De Longpre.”
It clouded up on the way into the city and started to spit rain, so they stopped to put the top up on Holland’s car.
“You know, you did good back there,” said Healy. “Except for the part where you were wrong about everything.”
Holland squinted at him, trying to determine his sincerity. The rain was picking up and plastered his hair down like a wet dog. “Really?”
“The way you were interviewing him,” said Healy. “It was effective, that’s what I mean. I forget sometimes how capable you are at your job. You must’ve been a great cop.”
“I was a terrible cop,” said Holland. “I was too twitchy. I jump when the toast pops up.”
“You do that,” said Healy, and for a second they stood there under the downpour, smiling stupidly at each other. Then he remembered he was getting soaked.
He shivered when they got back inside; Healy reached over to turn the heater on without having to be asked.
“You want to stop at your place and change?” he asked.
“No,” said Holland, though he could feel his shirt sticking to his back. “You?”
“I’m good.” Healy had his leather jacket on, so most of the water had rolled right off him. Holland hit the gas. There was a kind of excitement building under his skin, a sense of rightness - no, wholeness, like all the puzzle pieces had finally been set into place - that he didn’t have any other time.
It was great. Would have been even better if the bar was still on Vine and De Longpre.
They pulled up behind a rectangular building that looked vaguely sinister under the tumultuous sky. A crack of thunder coiled through the clouds, and that was when Holland fell. His foot hit something round and small that slid out from under him and he hit the ground with a shrieked Jesus Christ and a thud.
The angel - her nametag said Marisol, and her tinsel halo was tilted to the left - told him not to move. “He could have a back injury,” she said to Healy, who had come around the car to feel the back of Holland’s head for bumps or blood. “I’m training to be a nurse, so I know.”
“My back is fine,” said Holland, and sat up before anyone could stop him. Healy’s hand was still cupping the curve of his skull. “What the fuck did I slip on?”
Marisol held up a small wheel. The long blond curls were a wig that did not match her complexion very well. “Piece of a rollerskate,” she said. “The waitresses all wear them.”
Holland craned his neck to see out into the parking lot. There were girls all over, dolled up in short red or white robes and skidding back and forth on skates, carrying trays to car windows. A sign by the road announced that the establishment was called Heaven Help Us and sported both wings and a devil’s tail.
“Where’s the Pink Elephant?” Holland asked.
“Buddy,” Marisol said, alarmed. “Are you sure you don’t need a doctor?”
“No,” said Healy. “He’s always like that.”
Holland let Healy drive them out of there because his ankle was throbbing. They only went as far as the nearest phone booth.
Holland limped over and picked up the book. He looked down at the page. He looked over at Healy. He looked down at the page again.
“What,” Healy said.
“Seriously?” said Holland. “It never occurred to us to check a phone book?”
The Pink Elephant was pink inside, though the disco ball and low lighting made it hard to see. Holland blinked rapidly in the shimmering darkness, trying to adjust his eyes. The club was mostly dancefloor, and it was packed. ABBA was playing - Fernando, fighting for his freedom.
Men danced with men. Women danced with women. People danced with… people, in gender combinations he couldn’t begin to guess at.
“Holland,” said Healy, leaning in close. “You’re staring.”
“Shit,” Holland said, and went warm all over. Healy almost never used his first name; the intimacy of it was more distracting than he could handle right now. “Sorry.”
A vision in sequins and feathers - taller than he was, at least in heels - nudged his side with her elbow. “First timer?” she asked, not unkindly, the lines around her eyes deepening when she smiled.
“Not exactly,” said Holland. “We - uh -”
“We’re looking for a friend,” Healy finished for him. “Patricia Gunther - invited us down here, said she might be working a shift tonight.”
“Oh, Patty,” said their guide. “Sure, I think I saw her earlier. Grab a drink and look around, she usually works till closing time.”
“A drink’s not a bad idea,” Holland mused, as they cut across the dance floor. His ankle still hurt, so he went slow. “We could sit down for a minute, I could get my weight off this leg -”
“No drinking,” said Healy, because once he got back on the wagon he did so with a vengeance. “I swear I will steal your car and leave you here.”
“Fine,” Holland muttered. “Jesus. Tell me how you really feel.”
They checked the second level, which was a large balcony area that looked down on the dancers; they checked the stock room and got chased out by some girl with a broom. “You assholes are always trying to fuck everywhere,” she yelled. “Go to the goddamned bathroom like everyone else and leave my perishables alone!” Which Healy thought was hilarious, for some reason.
Finally they made their way to the bar because there was nowhere else left. Holland sat down on a stool and slid a used glass out of his way. A hand caught it.
He looked up, and Delilah looked back. She stood behind the bar with a rag tossed over her shoulder. She had a shirt on that said The Future is Female.
“What the hell?” she said. Her mouth was rigid with anger. “Did you two follow me here?”
Holland looked at her again. Really looked at her; at the familiar shape of her jawline, her serious eyebrows and blunt nose. And there it was - the click he had been waiting for.
He reached into his jacket and put the picture Maxine Pierce had given him down on the counter. “You know,” he said, “you resemble your father a lot more now than you did when you were a kid.”
She crossed her arms but didn’t bother to deny it. “Once I lost the chipmunk cheeks,” she said, “I guess I do.”
Healy didn’t say anything; he just watched them, palms flat on the bar.
“You ever think about going home when he was sick?” Holland asked.
“Nobody told me he was sick,” she said. “So how could I?”
Holland nodded an acknowledgement. “But would you have?”
He expected her to tell him to fuck off. She didn’t. Maybe it was the way he said it; curiosity rather than judgement. “I don’t know.”
“Would you go see your mother?”
“Because she sent you?” Patricia asked, a sardonic smile on her face. “Because she’s paying you?”
“No,” he said. “I’ll get paid either way. But - I’d feel better about it if I knew you were okay with it.”
“I have a daughter,” he said. “I hate the idea of losing her more than anything. But I hate the idea of someone manipulating her into seeing me even more. Kids grow up. They live their own lives. You gotta let them.”
Patricia’s shoulders came down from around her ears. He wondered how long they had been up there. How long she’d had to stand on her own - and if she was relieved that she might not have to, anymore.
“I used to hate looking like him,” she said. “I used to hate it so much. But eventually that hate just kind of faded. I don’t know where it went.”
“My kid’s exactly like her mother,” said Holland. “Spitting image. Lucky her.”
Patricia Gunther didn’t reply. A minute passed. Then another. She picked the photograph up and put it in the pocket of her jeans.
“You can tell her,” she said, finally. “That you found me. I don’t mind.”
Holland opened the car door and climbed in behind the wheel. He tapped his fingers against the leather of the seat while Healy got in beside him. They turned towards each other.
“Holy shit,” said Healy.
“Five thousand dollars each.”
“I know,” said Holland, grinning so hard and so wide that he was going need surgical intervention to remove it.
“How’s your ankle?” Healy asked, like he had all of a sudden recalled the injury.
So had Holland - all that money must have an anesthetic effect. “Hey,” he said. “I’m feeling no pain.”
Healy reached over and wrapped his fingers around Holland’s ankle. “Still feels a little swollen -”
Holland kissed him - quick and hard enough to push him back against the seat - because things were going really well for once and that meant he had to ruin everything. His blood was pounding in his ears. “Fuck,” he said, in a swirl of panic and desire as he let Healy go. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was - maybe someone put something in my drink -”
“You didn’t have a drink,” said Healy. He touched his fingertips to his mouth. “Remember how I said I used to be a bartender?”
“It was in a place like this,” he said, and then let out a laugh at Holland’s expression of bug-eyed shock. “A long time ago. I was younger and better-looking. Could barely get through the door, now.”
“You do okay,” said Holland. His head was spinning. “I like looking at you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,’ said Healy, and kissed him back. Not quick. Slow and dirty, so good that Holland practically dislocated something going for his belt. If he could have gotten down on his knees he would have, but there wasn’t enough room - so he leaned down, elbowing his way in between Healy’s thighs.
“Holland,” Healy said. He closed his eyes, tugged at Holland’s damp hair. “You don’t have to. We’re in a parking lot, for god’s sake.”
But he didn’t tell him to stop, so Holland kept going. He wanted to - he’d wanted to for months. It had been a long time but it was still easy, like getting back on a bike or swimming or some more appropriate metaphor, whatever was appropriate for having his best friend’s dick stretching his mouth open, for swallowing him down as far as possible. He’d been a talented cocksucker. Judging by the sounds Healy made he still was.
“Fucking christ,” Healy said, and pulled almost all the way out only to slide back in while Holland whimpered and drooled. “God - you’re so -” He fucked him with the same steady, careful pace he did everything else, quickened his thrusts until he came with a groan, holding Holland’s head in place. Made him take it, in the best way.
Holland barely had time to wipe his face off before Healy hauled him upright and kissed him deeply. Chasing his own taste on Holland’s tongue. “Jack,” he said, his voice raw, as Healy unzipped his pants. “Jack, please.”
Healy stroked him with calloused, gentle hands until Holland was flushed in the face, gnawing at his lip, his hips lifting off the seat and his overstimulated cock spurting precome. So close, so fucking close -
“What do you want?” Healy asked. “Tell me what you want -”
Holland came in a hot, wet mess between them, sobbing out a name or a prayer. Their clothes were fucking ruined. He pressed his face into the crook of Healy’s shoulder.
“Everything,” he said. “I want everything.”