I have written many a review on books I've never read but never have I spoken about books I did not write. Today, at long last I'm going to remedy that situation by introducing the first in a series of volumes I have not written, entitled Lives Of The Detectives by Tony Petrocelli. I may not have written the book (just one of the millions of books I haven't written not to mention the other millions of books I've never read but feel compelled to talk about and review), but it has been my privilege to have been the translator for this series of volumes, modeled after Vasari's Lives of the Artists, that Anthony "Vulgaris" Petrocelli has spent his life working on after his TV show went off the air in 1976.
Although he was born the son of a poor tiller of the earth, young Mannix proved to have such lofty and lucid conceptions that his father retired to live in a chimney and weep constantly while fashioning small animals out of clay and eggplant skins. But there was no terra-cotta paradise for Mannix, forced into manhood prematurely in order to tend the flocks and guard the holy corpse of Lugo the Lisping Liturgist from a group of wandering Jews who sought to steal the body and garner favours in an Armenian sausage-casing factory. Summoned to Bologna to join the Holy Order of Miserable Men of Short Coats and Puffed Sleeves, he exchanged ugly words one day with Prince Salvatore Johnson, stabbing him in the breast with a putty knife, and was forced to flee Bologna for the suburbs of Pisa. Still his hair remained soft, his eyes long, but a slight speech impediment caused him to blurt the word girdle every time he saw an oxcart. Nevertheless, he spared no labour in his duties and if there was battle to be done the vehement fury of Mannix was sure to be felt. Whether shooting or decapitating some miserable soul, he never suffered guilt or doubt. Doubt was for popes or the King of Portugal or those Dominican barrel-rolling monks who sweated like Florentine pig livers and couldn’t draw a straight line if you broke their ribs with a baptized clockmaker with the plague and guilt, well you could just strap it to a horse’s ass, put a village idiot in the saddle and let it walk away into the dusk as far as he was concerned. But then all the rib-breaking and beggar face-painting and al fresco dining grew tedious and Mannix relocated to the sunny climes of Southern California to bust criminals right down to their underpants.
The yellow bumper car blindsided him against the rubber rail and Mannix spun in his seat, pulled out his Walther PPK and pointed it at the kid’s head.
“Back off punk or I’ll smoke ya like a pack of Chesterfields at a lesbo bar during Happy Hour.”
“Jesus, Mannix,” the ride operator called from his stool near the control panel. “He’s a kid. And you’re supposed to bump each other. That’s why they’re called fuckin’ bumper cars. Now put the gun away.”
“Y’know, you horse’s ass. I’ve heard just about enough from you. You know what I used to drive. Y’know the leather bucket seats this bullet-ridden ass of mine has ridden in. ’67 Oldsmobile Toronado, ’68 Dodge Dart GTS 383, ’70 Plymouth Barracuda 340, fuckin’ ’74 Dodge Challenger 360 Coupe and a Chevrolet Camaro LT. Try that on for fuckin’ size you bumper car wanker.”
“That’s it, Mannix. Get th’hell off’a my ride before I call the cops. I’m being a nice guy. I let you ride the bumper cars for free ‘cause I feel sorry for you since they took your license away. But you’re pushing your luck.”
“Y’know, there’s an old Armenian proverb about guys like you. Goes “If the dog licks his testicles in front of the fireplace on a moonless night then tomorrow your suspenders will snap and leave you pantless before the wedding party's roast suckling pig.”
“What th’fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
|Armenian proverb, illus. 1|
“It’s supposed to mean that I got your number buddy boy and if I so much as see you on the street, and by that I mean even a street a few blocks away that I can see from the window of my apartment using my opera binoculars, I’ll truss you up like a roast pig, stick an apple in your mouth and use you for a hood ornament on my Chevy LT.”
“Go on, get outta here you bum.”
Mannix stomped off the ride, kicking a few bumper car bumpers on his way and headed to the bus stop. With his license gone for good due to his age and the cataract in his left eye, Joe Mannix was humbled to taking public transit.
“Seventeen Paseo Verde,” he said to the bus driver when he got on.
“I don’t go there. Don’t even know where th’hell it is,” the driver muttered. “Anyway, I ain’t a taxi.”
“Ah well. Just drop me at the Good King Wenceslas Wigwam of Wieners and Mangos. I got me a yen for hotdogs, tropical fruit juice and frankincense.”
“Don’t know where that is either but if you wanna ride my bus it’s $2.50 and if you’re gonna keep talkin’ crazy go sit at the back with all the other nutcases. I gotta drive and can’t be paying attention to no crazy talk.”
“You wanna know crazy talk. How ’bout you’re driving your Camaro and a man pops out of the back seat while you’re doin’ 120 on the Santa Monica Freeway and you feel the cold steel muzzle of a 9mm Browning pressing against your skull and the guy says “you put my brother in jail and now I’m gonna paint the windshield with your brains,” and you’re thinking, shit, I just had this windshield replaced after the last guy blew it out with a sawed-off shotgun, so you’re feeling pretty angry and tired of taking shit from punks packin’ crappy guns, guns you wouldn’t be caught dead taking to your grave in case you need some heat for the lowlifes you might meet in the afterlife but you can’t let it show ‘cause the guy’s got a trigger finger as itchy as your mom’s friend who had all that psoriasis and ready to go off like a teenager on the brink of getting his first taste of pussy so you say to the guy, quiet and calm, “hey, your brother’s a no good piece of scum that’s not even good enough to grace the side of an aquarium filled with bottom feeders and I’ve seen algae with more brains than your shit-for-brains brother and if I had to do it again I wouldn’t put him away, I’d shoot him point blank right through the monocle like I did to the Mr. Peanut Killer that time in the San Fernando Valley,” and now you can see the guy’s eye is starting to twitch and the gun’s shakin’ in his sweating palm so you turn the wheel sharp to the right, flying off the road straight into a drainage ditch and the guy flies over your head and straight through the windshield and you punch him in the nuts as he flies over just for good measure as the blood spider-webs across his face from the impact of the windshield and you say, maybe the last words he might ever hear as he smashes through the glass, ‘did I pass my driving test Mr. Luisitania?’ How’s that for crazy talk you sonofabitch?”
“Okay, I changed my mind,” the bus driver hit the lever and opened the doors. “You’re even too crazy for the back of the bus. And unless you’re gonna give me a hundred bucks this is your stop.”
“But we haven’t gone anywhere yet.”
“Magic bus, bud. It gets to where you’re going before you’ve even left. Now get off.”
“There’s an old Armenian proverb that goes, a man whose wife is too fat will find death playing pinochle in the garden shed.”
“What th’fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
|Armenian proverb, illus. 2|
“It means if I ever get on a bus and I see you driving I’ll pistol-whip you so bad your eyes will be where your ears are, your ears will be where your nose is, your nose will be…it’ll be…well, somewhere. You get the picture. You’ll look like Mr. Potato Head after a tequila bender at a biker bar. You’ll be breathing through your penis-hole and peeing through your eyeballs.”
The driver squinted, picked up a soggy tuna sandwich from his lunchbox and pegged Mannix right in the forehead. Then he lurched the bus forward slightly, braked fast and Mannix lost his balance and tumbled down a step onto the sidewalk.
“Why you son-of-a…”Mannix, sprawled on the sidewalk was reaching for his Walther PPK but the bus was already driving off and Mannix came up with a box of breath mints in his hand anyway. He lay there for a bit, catching his breath, his lungs wheezing and sputtering like a Soviet-era air conditioning unit, bits of gravel and dirt spattered across his Creamsicle-coloured Banlon shirt when he heard someone speaking to him. At least he thought they were. He looked up, shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun, feeling bits of tuna flecking his hand in the process and his peepers came to rest on a pair of fatted gams the likes of which he hadn’t seen since he was a kid flipping through his family’s photo album that featured many shots of his father’s prize-winning sow back in Armenia.
“Whoa, lady, you just took my breath away. It’s like my past just caught up with me,” Mannix struggled to his feet.
“Are you…are you okay?” the woman asked. “Here, let me help you.”
“Joe Mannix doesn’t need any help lady. I’ve been shot so many times you could use me as a spaghetti noodle strainer. This little tumble is a walk in the park for me. A walk in a park full of ducks and balloon animals clutched by hopeful little children who have yet to be crushed by divorced parents, uncles who make them fish sealed ball-bearings out of Nabob coffee cans filled with motor oil and breakfast cereal prizes that are flimsier than the wheat flakes they’re nestled within. That’s the kind of park I’m talking about.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” the lady said, one finger extended from a set of chubby knuckles that resembled a cudgel for hammering tent pegs into the ground with. “I know you. You were that guy on TV years back. What’s yer name again?”
“Mannix. Joe Mannix.”
“No, no. I mean your real name. Not your TV name. Mike…Mike…Onyards. Carbine. Vawnyertz. No…no, I know now…Connors. Mike Connors. I remember you on the cover of TV Guide.”
“Mike Connors was an imposter lady. Buried in a paupers grave out by the shellac factory. He tried to muscle in on my turf, the investigative career I’d built with blood, sweat and carpet burns, but I cleaned his clock and now all the trains run on time only he won’t be catching any of ‘em if you catch my drift.”
“Didn’t that guy, Musclepolini do that too,” the lady said. “I mean, make all the trains run on time. In Italy I think.”
“ Y’know. Musclepolini. Rhymes with Mississippi but with a coupl’a less esses and pees.”
“I don’t know. I’m from Armenia. Anyways, I don’t eat shellfish.”
“Listen Mr. Connors.”
“Mannix. I told you my name’s Joe Mannix.”
“Right. Mannix. Listen, you look a little banged up there. Can I buy you a cup of coffee? There’s a nice coffee shop right around the corner here.”
“Well, okay I guess. Normally I don’t let the broads pick up the cheque if you know what I mean. I mean, I’m one’a those guys, the broad gets treated like a princess and all that until she proves herself otherwise, like she’s got a foul mouth or something and then I can be your worst nightmare and go from a prince in shining armour to Satan in a Safari suit so you think I’m just a casual swinger when really I can go from zero-to-sixty on the old sucker-punch meter in three seconds flat though I never hit a broad…just let her know that there’s a place in my brain where the sun don’t shine and nobody better make me go there.”
“Well, I think I’m safe in that department. The last time I swore was fifteen years ago when my father backed over my pet tortoise that was sunning itself on our gravel driveway. It blended in, you see, gray on gray, looked like a big rock but still I swore and my father grabbed me and washed my mouth out with soap or actually, not real soap because we were poor in those days and didn’t have real soap but instead old sponges from the laundry down the street that the woman there gave to my mother out of pity, sponges that had been soaked in sudsy pails so there was still a little soap to be squeezed out of them and he washed my mouth out with one of those sponges even though it was he who ran over my tortoise and gave me plenty of reason to be upset and yet there was no remorse on his face or in his words as he said over and over again, “your stupid turtle squirted blood all over my whitewalls, your stupid turtle squirted blood all over my whitewalls,” and I screamed Nibbly was a tortoise, not a turtle and then my father tried to strangle me and also run my head over with his truck but my mother put a stop to that and so here I am.”
“You are a fascinating woman,” Mannix eyed her dirigible form up and down, marveling at the vast expanse of floral print rayon that spread across her hills and dales, valleys and vales. “By the way…do you have some extra change. I need to make a few phone calls.”
“Of course. And I’ll even spring for a piece of cake or biscotti if you like.”
They stepped into the Black Hole of Colombia, a new franchise that was popping up around the city. Inside was all spot lighting, angular counter-tops and huge, plush chairs you could’ve parked an entire Mormon family or a buffet-fed jockey and his horse in. Colourful, abstract sofa art covered the exposed brick walls and over the stereo speakers was playing the latest CD by Felton Bismarck.
“I love this song,” the lady said. “Where The Walrus Meets The Waterline. It’s got beautiful lyrics.”
“Sure, listen, got a coupl’a quarters?”
Mannix went to the pay phone near the washrooms while the lady fetched their coffees and pastries. He dialed the number from memory and when someone picked up he said, “Now listen, no more of your shit. I want to talk to Peggy and make it snappy.”
“You again you dumb shit,” the man’s voice on the other end said. “I already told you, there’s no Peggy here. Stop calling.”
“Now you listen to me you sonofabitch. I don’t know what you’ve done with Peggy or why you’ve kidnapped her but so help me god I’m going to hunt you down like a three-legged dog dry-heaving in a sun-blasted Mexican border town and shove a dead iguana down your throat.”
“And you listen to me you cocksuckin’ excuse for a carcass. Call me again and I’ll hunt you down, scoop out your eyeballs with a junkie’s old rusty spoon and piss in your empty sockets till I melt that urinal puck you call a brain.” With that the guy hung up.
The next call went to Lew Wickersham, his old boss from Intertect.
“Hello, hello, who’s this?” the voice came on the line.
“Lew, it’s me, Mannix. They got Peggy, Lew. The bastards have Peggy. I need your help. You haft’a get to those computers of yours…work your magic. I need information Lew and quick.”
“Jesus, is that you Mike? Mike Connors. What th’hell you talking about. You caught me right in the middle of a ping pong game.”
“It’s not Mike, Lew. It’s Joe. Joe Mannix. I need your help. Peggy Fair’s in trouble.”
“Jesus Mike. Peggy’s…I mean Gail’s dead. Christ, she’s been dead for what…ten years at least. Don’t you remember the funeral?”
“Stop talking like that, Lew. What’sa matter? Did they get to you too? Are you in on this scheme?”
“My name’s not Lew. I’m Joe. Joseph Campanella. I played Lew on the show.”
“Okay. Have it your way. Listen, I gotta get back to my nude ping pong game. This girl charges by the hour and I haven’t won a match yet.”
“Ah, go ahead you sonofabitch. You’re in cahoots with the people who kidnapped Peggy anyway. If you speak to them, which no doubt you’ll do after this phone call, tell them I’m coming for them and after that I’m gonna be gunning for you Lew.”
“Get some help Mike.”
“Same to you fuck-face.”
Mannix fumed his way back to the table where the lady had set out a couple of coffees, some vanilla almond biscotti and a cinnamon bun.
“Doesn’t look like it went well, Joe.”
“Vilma, now that’s a pretty name.”
“Nice of you to say so, Joe.”
“Well, Vilma, it seems a man can’t trust the people he once trusted the most. The people he would’ve trusted his life with, the people he once trusted to watch his back and I’ve got a very hairy back so it takes a lot for someone to watch it, let alone shave it twice a week, but once there were people I could trust to do that but apparently no more.”
“I’d watch your hairy back for you Joe,” Vilma said around the crunchy biscotti in her mouth. “Maybe even shave it too.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Vilma. I don’t know what it is, Vilma. This world’s changing so much. An old gumshoe like me can’t keep up. In the old days you could call a spade a spade and shoot a man between the eyes or he could shoot you or you could shoot each other and even kill a passerby or two in the process and no one was much the wiser or complained or sent you subpoenas in the form of singing telegrams from people in kangaroo suits.”
“I hear you, Joe.”
iW“I know you do, Vilma, I know you do. But now look around you. It drives me fuckin’ crazy. Excuse the language, Vilma, but it’s all very upsetting. Like the paintings hanging on the walls here. Y’know, I don’t know much about this modern art. I mean, bunch’a splotches and shit. You want art, give me one ‘a those dogs playing poker paintings, y’know with the fucking dogs sitting around smoking goddamn fuckin’ cigars and holding the cards in their little fuckin’ paws and know what the best part is, where you can see the hand of the little dog and all these bulldogs and German Shepherds and Dobermans and shit are calling its bluff but this little fuckin’ schnauzer or whatever, you can see its fuckin’ cards and it’s holding four aces and I just wanna laugh thinkin’ how that little fuckin’ dog is gonna beat all these big fuckin’ dogs and you got a real story there, a real painting full of emotion and drama and humour too, don’t forget the fuckin’ humour cause in my line of business a guy needs a little something to fuckin’ laugh at. But most of all it’s all about the underdog, Vilma. About the little runt that everyone’s counting down and out but in the end he makes those bozos lick the ground his paws walk on.”
“When criminals in this world appear, and break the laws that they should fear, and frighten all who see or hear…” Vilma sang.
“What are you saying, Vilma? What are you trying to say? Are you going all nut pants on me?”
“No, Joe. That’s the theme to the old Underdog cartoon.”
“Y’know, Vilma…I thought there was hope for you, I thought you were the one ray of sunshine in this dead end town, I thought you were the one person I might finally say, ‘y’know Joe, maybe this big bad world ain’t so damned bad after all’ but now you go and do this Vilma, sing this vile, despicable song that denigrates both dogs and PI’s. I don’t know what to say, Vilma, I really don’t. If you were a guy I’d punch you right in the kisser but you’re a broad and, well, if disappointment were two bits a foot I’d have two complete suits made from it with enough left over to maybe make a vest and wear’em in front of you, that’s how bad I feel, Vilma.”
“Oh Joe, please don’t be like that. Give me another chance. I swear Joe, I’ll make it up to you,” Vilma pleaded, cappuccino foam beading her upper lip. “It was just all that…that talk of dogs got me thinking about my poor Nibbly and then I just got all twisted up inside…I wasn’t thinking right but I’m okay now Joe…I’m okay now.”
Mannix raised his fist, a fist that could break through a hundred Armenian stacked flatbreads as if they were butter or the mucous membranes of mollusks washed up on the hot sand of a lesser Black Sea vacation spot, and he shook it, shook that fist as if it were the death rattle of a pit viper suddenly startled from its place of refuge beneath the boards of an old porch of a house somewhere off the highway in central Arkansas, but Vilma knew, knew without a doubt, knew without a hint of fear that he would never strike, at least not her, that the man who was Joe Mannix was shaking his fist not at her but at life and what lay beyond life, at the great mysteries of the universe and all its contradictions too, like why did he love ketchup but hate tomatoes so much and she felt her love brimming over like the tears of a clown who has been stepped on by a circus elephant and Vilma, her own hand shaking, reached out and clasped her pudgy hand over Mannix’s raised fist.
“It’s okay Joe,” she whispered. “It’s okay. I know,” and Joe Mannix, always the tough guy, brushed a biscotti crumb from her forehead, and said, “You’re okay for a dame even if my father would’ve had you sheared for a few kopecks but hey, you can’t go home again and even if you could your sock drawer would be cleaned out and you’d have nothing left to masturbate into.”
“Guess what Joe?” Vilma said. “My father was a sock salesman. I got boxes full in the cubby hole beneath my stairs.”
“Y’know Vilma,” Mannix replied, his eyes softening like pudding at an old folks home. “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Are any of those socks argyle by chance?”