As promised, we're pleased to be able to present Joe R. Lansdale's short story, "Naked Angel," from the forthcoming anthology L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories (available electronically June 6). Lansdale is one of our favorite crime writers working today—if you haven't read his "Hap and Leonard" series, we suggest you being (preferably with the first one)—so to be able to bring his newest work to the world is something we can't overstate our excitement about. He may write mostly about Texas, but the way he embraces the seedy underbelly of 1940s Los Angeles ain't too shabby either. The story begins after the jump.
Joe R. Lansdale
Deep in the alley, lit by the beam of the patrolman’s flashlight, she looked like a naked angel in midflight, sky-swimming toward a dark heaven.
One arm reached up as if to pull air. Her head was lifted and her shoulder-length blond hair was as solid as a helmet. Her face was smooth and snow white. Her eyes were blue ice. Her body was well shaped. One sweet knee was lifted like she had just pushed off from the earth. There was a birthmark on it that looked like a dog paw. She was frozen in a large block of ice, a thin pool of water spreading out below it. At the bottom of the block, the ice was cut in a serrated manner.
Patrolman Adam Coats pushed his cop hat back on his head and looked at her and moved the light around. He could hear the boy beside him breathing heavily.
“She’s so pretty,” the boy said. “And she ain’t got no clothes on.”
Coats looked down at the boy. Ten, twelve at the most, wearing a cap and ragged clothes, shoes that looked as if they were one scuff short of coming apart.
“What’s your name, son?” Coats asked.
“Tim,” said the boy.
“You found her like this? No one else was around?”
“I come through here on my way home.”
Coats flicked off the light and turned to talk to the boy in the dark. “It’s a dead-end alley.”
“There’s a ladder.”
Coats popped the light on again, poked it in the direction the boy was pointing. There was a wall of red brick there, and, indeed, there was a metal ladder fastened up the side of it, all the way to the top.
“You go across the roof?”
“Yes, sir, there’s a ladder on the other side, too, goes down to the street. I come through here and saw her.”
“Your parents know you’re out this late?”
“Don’t have any. My sister takes care of me. She’s got to work, though, so, you know—”
“You run around some?”
“You stay with me. I’ve got to get to a call box, then you got to get home.”
Detective Galloway came down the alley with Coats, who led the way, his flashlight bouncing its beam ahead of them. Coats thought it was pretty odd they were about to look at a lady in ice and they were sweating. It was hot in Los Angeles. The Santa Ana winds were blowing down from the mountains like dog breath. It made everything sticky, made you want to strip out of your clothes, find the ocean, and take a dip.
When they came to the frozen woman, Galloway said, “She’s in ice, all right.”
“You didn’t believe me?”
“I believed you, but I thought you were wrong,” Galloway said. “Something crazy as this, I thought maybe you had gone to drinking.”
Coats laughed a little.
“Odd birthmark,” Galloway said.
Coats nodded. “I couldn’t figure if this was murder, vice, or God dropped an ice cube.”
“Lot of guys would have liked to have put this baby in their tea,” Galloway said.
The ice had begun to melt a little, and the angel had shifted slightly.
Galloway studied the body and said, “She probably didn’t climb in that ice all by herself, so I think murder will cover it.”
When he finished up his paperwork at the precinct, Coats walked home and up a creaky flight of stairs to his apartment. Apartment. The word did more justice to the place than it deserved. Inside, Coats stripped down to his underwear, and, out of habit, carried his holstered gun with him to the bathroom.
A few years back a doped-up goon had broken into the apartment while Coats lay sleeping on the couch. There was a struggle. The intruder got the gun, and though Coats disarmed him and beat him down with it, he carried it with him from room to room ever since. He did this based on experience and what his ex-wife called trust issues.
Sitting on the toilet, which rocked precariously, Coats thought about the woman. It wasn’t his problem. He wasn’t a detective. He didn’t solve murders. But still, he thought about her through his toilet and through his shower, and he thought about her after he climbed into bed. How in the world had she come to that? And who had thought of such a thing, freezing her body in a block of ice and leaving it in a dark alley? Then there was the paw print. It worried him, like an itchy scar.
It was too hot to sleep. He got up and poured water in a glass and came back and splashed it around on the bedsheet. He opened a couple of windows over the street. It was louder but cooler that way. He lay back down.
And then it hit him.
The dog paw.
He sat up in bed and reached for his pants.
Downtown at the morgue the night attendant, Bowen, greeted him with a little wave from behind his desk. Bowen was wearing a white smock covered in red splotches that looked like blood but weren’t. There was a messy meatball sandwich on a brown paper wrapper in front of him, half eaten. He had a pulp-Western magazine in his hands. He laid it on the desk and showed Coats some teeth.
“Hey, Coats, you got some late hours, don’t you? No uniform? You make detective?”
“Not hardly,” Coats said, pushing his hat up on his forehead. “I’m off the clock. How’s the reading?”
“The cowboys are winning. You got nothing better to do this time of morning than come down to look at the meat?”
“The lady in ice.”
Bowen nodded. “Yeah. Damnedest thing ever.”
“Kid found her. Came and got me,” Coats said, and he gave Bowen the general story.
“How the hell did she get there?” Bowen said. “And why?”
“I knew that,” Coats said, “I might be a detective. May I see the body?”
Bowen slipped out from behind the desk and Coats followed. They went through another set of double doors and into a room lined with big drawers in the wall. The air had a tang of disinfectant about it. Bowen stopped at a drawer with the number 28 on it and rolled it out.
“Me and another guy, we had to chop her out with ice picks. They could have set her out front on the sidewalk and it would have melted quick enough. Even a back room with a drain. But no, they had us get her out right away. I got a sore arm from all that chopping.”
“That’s the excuse you use,” Coats said. “But I bet the sore arm is from something else.”
“Oh, that’s funny,” Bowen said, and patted the sheet-covered body on the head. The sheet was damp. Where her head and breasts and pubic area and feet pushed against it there were dark spots.
Bowen pulled down the sheet, said, “Only time I get to see something like that and she’s dead. That don’t seem right.”
Coats looked at her face, so serene. “Roll it on back,” he said.
Bowen pulled the sheet down below her knees. Coats looked at the birthmark. The dog paw. It had struck a chord when he saw it, but he didn’t know what it was right then. Now he was certain.
“Looks like a puppy with a muddy foot stepped on her,” Bowen said.
“Got an identity on her yet?” Coats asked.
“Then I can help you out. Her name is Megdaline Jackson, unless she got married, changed her last name. She’s somewhere around twenty-four.”
“You know her?”
“When she was a kid, kind of,” Coats said. “It was her older sister I knew. That birthmark, where I had seen it, came to me after I got home. Her sister had a much smaller one like it, higher up on the leg. It threw me because I knew she wasn’t the older sister, Ali. Too young. But then I remembered the kid, and that she’d be about twenty-four now. She was just a snot-nosed little brat then, but it makes sense she would have inherited that mark same as Ali.”
“Considering you seem to have done some leg work in the past, that saves some leg work of another kind.”
“That ice block,” Coats said. “Seen anything like it?”
“Nope. Closest thing to it was we had a couple of naked dead babes in alleys lately. But not in blocks of ice.”
“All right,” Coats said. “That’ll do.”
Bowen pulled the sheet back, said, “Okay I turn in who this is, now that you’ve identified her?”
Coats studied the girl’s pale, smooth face. “Sure. Any idea how she died?”
“No wounds on her that I can see, but we got to cut her up a bit to know more.”
“Let me know what you find?”
“Sure,” Bowen said. “But that five dollars I owe you for poker—”
“Forget about it.”
Coats drove to an all-night diner and had coffee and breakfast about the time the sun was crawling up. He bought a paper off the rack in the diner, sat in a booth, and read it and drank more coffee until it was firm daylight; by that time he had drank enough so he thought he could feel his hair crawling across his scalp. He drove over where Ali lived.
Last time he had seen Ali she had lived in a nice part of town on a quiet street in a tall house with a lot of fine trees out front. The house was still there and so were the trees, but the trees were tired this morning, crinkled, and darkened by the hot Santa Ana winds.
Coats parked at the curb and strolled up the long walk. The air was stiff, so much so you could have buttered it like toast. Coats looked at his pocket watch. It was still pretty early, but he leaned on the doorbell anyway. After a long time a big man in a too-tight jacket came and answered the door. He looked like he could tie a knot in a fire poker, eat it, and crap it out straight.
Coats reached in his pants pocket, pulled out his patrol badge, and showed it to him. The big man looked at it like he had just seen something foul, went away, and after what seemed like enough time for a crippled mouse to have built a nest the size of the Taj Mahal, he came back.
Coats made it about three feet inside the door with his hat in his hand before the big man said, “You got to wait right there.”
“All right,” Coats said.
“Right there and don’t go nowhere else.”
“Wouldn’t think of it.”
The big man nodded, walked off, and the wait was started all over again. The crippled mouse was probably halfway into a more ambitious project bythe time Ali showed up. She was wearing white silk pajamas and her blond hair looked like stirred honey. She had on white house slippers. She was so gorgeous for a moment Coats thought he might weep.
“I’ll be damned,” she said, and smiled. “You.”
“Yeah,” Coats said. “Me.”
She came over smiling and took his hand and led him along the corridor until they came to a room with a table and chairs. He put his hat on the table. They sat in chairs next to one another and she reached out and clung to his hand.
“That’s some butler you got,” Coats said.
“Warren. He’s butler, bodyguard, and makes a hell of a martini. He said it was the police.”
“It is the police,” Coats said. He took out his badge and showed it to her.
“So you did become a cop,” she said. “Always said you wanted to.”
She reached up and touched his face. “I should have stuck with you. Look at you, you look great.”
“So do you,” he said.
She touched her hair. “I’m a mess.”
“I’ve seen you messy before.”
“So you have, and fresh out of bed, too.”
“I saw you while you were in bed,” he said.
She didn’t look directly at him when she said, “You know my husband, Harris, died, don’t you?”
“Old as he was when you married him,” Coats said, “I didn’t expect him to outlive you. Of course, he had a lot of young friends and they liked you, too.”
“Don’t talk that way, baby,” she said.
As he thought back on it all, bitterness churned inside Coats for a moment, then settled. They had had something together, but there had been one major holdup. His bank account was lower than a snake’s belly, and the best he wanted out of life was to be a cop. The old man she married was well-heeled and well connected to some rich people and a lot of bad people; he knew a lot of young men with money, too, and Ali, she saw it as an all-around win, no matter how those people made their money.
In the end, looks like they both got what they wanted.
“This isn’t a personal call, Ali,” Coats said. “It’s about Meg.”
And then he told her.
When he finished telling her, Ali looked stunned for a long moment, got up, walked around the table as if she were searching for something, then sat back down. She crossed her legs. A slipper fell off. She got up again, but Coats reached up and took her hand and gently pulled her back to the chair.
“I’m sorry,” Coats said.
“You’re sure?” she asked.
“The dog paw, like you have.”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”
They sat for a long time, Coats holding her hand, telling her about the block of ice, the boy finding it.
“Any idea who might have wanted her dead?” Coats asked.
“She had slipped a little,” Ali said. “That’s all I know.”
“Guess it was my fault. I tried to help her, but I didn’t know how. I married Harris and I had money, and I gave her a lot of it, but it didn’t help. It wasn’t money she needed, but what she needed I didn’t know how to give. The only thing I ever taught her was how to make the best of an opportunity.”
Coats looked around the room and had to agree about Ali knowing about opportunity. The joint wasn’t quite as fancy as the queen of England’s place, but it would damn sure do.
“I couldn’t replace Mother and Father,” she said. “Them dying while she was so young. I didn’t know what to do.”
“You can’t blame yourself,” Coats said. “You weren’t much more than a kid.”
“I think I can blame myself,” she said. “And I will.”
Coats patted her hand. “Anyone have something against her?”
“She had gotten into dope, and she had gotten into the life,” Ali said. “I tried to pull her out, but she wasn’t coming. I might as well have been tugging on an elephant’s trunk, trying to drag the beast uphill. She just wouldn’t come out.”
“By the life, you mean prostitute?” Phillip asked.
Tears leaked out of Ali’s eyes. She nodded.
“Where’d she do her work?”
“I couldn’t say,” she said. “She was high-dollar, that’s all I know.”
Coats comforted her some more. When he was ready to leave, he picked up his hat and she walked him to the door, clutching his arm like a life preserver, her head on his shoulder.
“I can’t believe it, and I can,” she said. “Does that make any sense?”
“Sure,” he said.
“You got married, I heard.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It was great. For about six days.”
When Coats opened the front door the hot wind wrapped around them like a blanket. Coats put on his hat.
“It’s just awful out there,” Ali said.
When he stepped down the first step, Ali said, “You could come back and stay here, you know. There’s plenty of room. You could stay as long as you like. You could stay forever.”
He turned and looked at her. He looked at the house. It was one hell of a place and she was one hell of a woman. But it was too much of either one.
“I don’t think so, Ali.”
The upscale part didn’t tell Coats much about Meg’s work habits. She could have worked anywhere. The only thing it told him is she gave sexual favors to people with money. Coats didn’t like to think it, but she and Ali weren’t really all that different. It’s just that Ali made her deal the legal way.
On the way back to his apartment, Coats drove by the now-defunct Polar Bear Ice Company. It was just another reminder of what he had found in the alley, and it made his head hurt. He drove a little farther and an idea hit him. He turned around and went back.
He parked out front of the ice company in a no-parking zone and walked around back. There was a chain through the sliding back door and there were boards over the windows. The boards over one of the windows were easy to pull loose, and Coats did just that. He crawled inside and looked around.
Before today, last time he had seen Ali was through the prism of a polar bear made of ice. She had decided he was a bad prospect, and started seeing Old Man Harris from way uptown. He heard she was at a party and he went over to see her, thinking maybe he’d make a scene; went inside like he belonged there. And then it hit him. Everyone there had an air about them that spoke of privilege and entitlement. They were everything he was not. Suddenly, what he was wearing, what he had thought was a nice-enough jacket, nice-enough shoes, felt like rags and animal hides. He saw Ali across the way, her head thrown back, and above the music from the orchestra in the background he heard her laugh. A deep chortle of pleasure that went with the music and the light. She was laughing with a man who wasn’t the man she married. She was laughing with Johnny Ditto; a gangster, drug seller, and prostitute wrangler. He was known for handling the best girls, high-end stuff. Johnny was tall, dark, and handsome, splendid in a powder-blue suit with hair that was afraid to do anything but lay down tight and hold its part.
Coats stepped aside so that he was between them and a table mounted with a big ice sculpture of a polar bear on an ice floe. Below the ice was a ring of shrimp, tight up against the sawlike cut at the bottom. Through the sculpture he could see Ali, made jagged by the cuts and imperfections in the carving. He lowered his head, feeling as out of place as a goat at the ballet. He slipped out quick. Until today, it was the last time he had seen Ali.
What he realized now was that the sawlike cut at the bottom of the ice that night was locked in his head, and it was the same jagged cut he had seen on the ice block in the alley. And that polar bear on the table—was that the ice company’s emblem? It made sense, connected up like bees and honey.
Coats walked around and found a room in the back with a bed and camera and some pull-down backdrops. He toured all over, came to the ice freezers with faucets and hoses and frames for shaping the ice. One of the frames was about the size of the big block of ice in the alley. The kind of block an ice sculptor might chop into a polar bear, or use to house a cold, dead angel.
Coats drove along Sunset, and for a moment he thought he was being followed, but the car, a big blue sedan, turned right, and he decided against it.
Downtown he stopped at the morgue to see Bowen.
“What we got is her belly was full of water, and so were her lungs,” Bowen said.
“So she drowned?” Coats asked.
“Yeah, but the way her throat looks, I think someone ran a hose into her mouth, pumped her up. Figure they squirted it in her nose, too. Unpleasant business.”
“When did she die?” Coats asked.
“The ice throws that off. It’s hard to know body temperature to figure how long she was laying there, messes up rigor—” He stopped in midsentence.
Coats was nodding all the time Bowen was talking.
“Oh, I get it,” Bowen said. “That was the point. Harder to know when she died, harder to break an alibi someone might use. They could kill her and walk away, and the ice melts, body’s found, it doesn’t show signs of being dead as long. They could kill her, one, two, three days before and keep her frozen, drop her off when they wanted.”
“If the boy hadn’t gone through the alley, she’d just be a dead prostitute,” Coats said.
“It kind of figures now,” Bowen said. “We found, let me see, three other girls in the past week in alleys. All of them stripped and lying on the bricks. One of them, she was in a pool of water. It wasn’t urine. We couldn’t figure it. Now it makes sense. She melted out of her block.”
“I think they may have killed them all at the same time,” Coats said. “Kept them frozen, put them out when they wanted to, made it look like a string of nut murders. But this time the ice didn’t melt soon enough before she was found.”
“And all this means…what?”
“I’ll get back to you on it,” Coats said.
At the Hall of Records a snooty woman with her hair in knot so tight it pulled her cheeks up under her ears showed Coats where he could look up what he wanted. What he wanted was to know who owned the Polar Bear Ice Company. When he saw who it was, his stomach ached.
He went home and called in sick for his shift, took off all his clothes, sprinkled the bed with water, and lay there with the window open listening to traffic. The sunlight went deep pink and hit the buildings across the way, made them look as if they were being set on fire by celestial arsonists. He thought about what he had found out at the Hall of Records and decided it didn’t necessarily mean anything, but he could never quite come to the conclusion that it meant nothing. He was thinking about what he should do, how he should go about it all. He eventually decided whatever it was, tomorrow was soon enough, after he got some rest.
In the middle of the night he came awake to a click like someone snapping a knife blade open. He slogged out of his dreams and got up and picked his gun off the nightstand. Naked as a jaybird, he walked into the kitchen and looked at the front door, which is where the snicking sound was coming from. Someone was working the lock.
The door slipped open a crack and when it did, Coats lifted his pistol. Then the door went wider. Framed by the outside streetlights was a woman.
“Come on in,” Coats said.
“It’s me, Ali,” the woman said.
“All right,” he said.
She came in and closed the door and they stood in the dark. Coats said, “You always work men’s locks at night?”
“I was going to surprise you.”
“I thought you might be someone else,” he said, and turned on a small light over the kitchen sink. She looked at him and smiled.
“Who would you be expecting?”
“Oh, someone about Warren’s size. Maybe drove you over in a big blue sedan. Maybe he’s standing out there right now with a lock pick in his hand.”
“I didn’t know you liked Warren that much,” she said.
“I don’t like Warren at all.”
“It’s just me,” she said. “Don’t be silly.” She smiled and looked Coats over good. “I certainly like your lack of dress, though a hat and tie might spruce it some.”
“Your husband, he never owned the Polar Bear Ice Company.”
“What?” she said.
“That means you didn’t inherit it.”
“Make some sense, baby,” she said. “I didn’t come here to talk ice. I came to see you and make some heat.”
“That’s all right,” Coats said. “It’s plenty hot enough.”
“I don’t know,” Ali said. “I’m starting to feel a little chilly.”
“You own the Polar Bear Ice Company. You bought it. And it’s not out of business. It’s just closed off and secret and the only time they make ice now they put someone in it. And you got a partner. Johnny Ditto. He’s on the books with you, honey. That doesn’t bode well. He’s not what you’d call your stand-up businessman.”
“In business, you have all kinds of partners. You can’t know them all. Is that a gun?”
“It is,” Coats said. “You know what I think, Ali? I think you’re just what you’ve always been, only more so. Your sister, you were running her with your high-end stable. You were her madam, her and the other girls. Somewhere along the line, you and her, you got sideways, and you had to have her wings clipped.”
“Me? That’s ridiculous.”
“You got a good act,” Coats said. “I believed it. That walking around the table bit, that was good. And I didn’t tell you my address. So how’d you come here?”
“I know people who know people,” she said.
“At the ice house, I found a camera, and I figure that’s where some special pictures were made; reels for smokers. But I also got to figure a girl like Meg, she might have made a film for one of the owners. Someone like Johnny Ditto, a little keepsake for him to take home and watch on lonely nights. But she decided maybe to keep the film, take it out of the private realm. I think she may have made other films, her and some of the other girls. Maybe not just for Johnny. But films for big-name guys who wanted to watch themselves do the deed with some fine-looking babe. Only the babes kept the films. Threatened blackmail. Asked for money. Johnny might not have cared who saw him do what. But some of the clients you and him were servicing, they might have been more worried. You couldn’t have that. So you had to have the films and you had to get rid of any girls in on the scheme. They had to pay. Even your sister had to pay.”
“Don’t be silly,” Ali said. “She was my sister. I wouldn’t hurt her.”
“But you might let someone else do it for you.”
Ali’s face changed. She looked older. She looked tougher. It was like the devil had surfaced under her skin.
“You’re too damn smart for your own good,” she said. “It’s wasn’t exactly like that, but you’re near enough you get the Kewpie doll.”
“I got to take you in,” Coats said.
She said, “Warren.”
Even though Coats expected it, he was still surprised. He thought Warren would have to open the door. But he came through it. The door blew off the hinges like it had been hit by cannon shot and Warren came speeding through the gap. He rushed straight at Coats. Coats brought his gun up and fired, but it didn’t stop Warren. Warren hit him and knocked him back over the table and into the wall. It made cabinet doors fly open and it made dishes fly out; they popped and shattered on the floor.
Coats lay on the floor with Warren on top of him, choking him with both hands. Coats’s vision crawled with black dots and there was a drumbeat in his head. He tried to get his feet stuck up in Warren’s belly to push him back, but Warren was too close. Coats felt around for the gun, but couldn’t find it.
Then he saw Ali, leaning over them, looking down at him. She had his gun in her hand.
“I got nothing against you,” she said. “It isn’t personal. But business is business, and it’s what runs the world. You finish up here, Warren. Make it look like a robbery. Mess things up some more.”
Warren didn’t seem to be listening. He was concentrating on choking the life out of Coats. Ali wandered off, sat in a chair at the table, and coiled one leg over the other.
“You are quite the waste, baby,” she said.
Coats pushed his shoulders up. It helped a little, lessened the choke. There were fewer black dots. He glanced sideways, saw a broken cup from the cabinet. He snatched it up and dragged it hard across the side of Warren’s neck. Warren yelled and sat up. One hand flew to his neck, the other still clutched Coats’s throat. Blood crept through Warren’s fingers, leaked onto the floor.
Coats smashed what was left of the cup into Warren’s nose and rolled him off. There was a shot. Coats felt a bit of a pinch in his side. He scuttled his feet underneath him and rushed at Ali. She was coming out of the chair, pointing the gun. Coats dropped down and the gun barked and his ears rang. He kept coming. She tried to fire again, but he had her wrist now and was shoving her into the wall. When he did he lost his grip on her, but she lost the gun. It went sailing across the room. He struck her with a hard right to the side of the head. She dropped like a brick and didn’t move.
A big hand grabbed Coats’s shoulder and jerked him backward. He went tumbling across the floor. When he looked up, Warren was looking at him. He had one hand to his cut neck. His nose was flat and bloody. His teeth were bared and there was a look in his eye that made Coats feel weak, as if from a blow. Warren trudged forward a couple of steps. Coats lifted his fists, ready to fight. He figured he might as well be bear hunting with a switch.
Warren’s face changed. He had a look that reminded Coats of a man who’s forgotten his money. Warren swallowed, then coughed. Blood flew out of his mouth. He pulled his hand away from his neck and blood squirted high and wide. Warren looked at his bloody hand as if it had been replaced with a catcher’s mitt. Coats saw now that the first shot he had fired had hit Warren in the side. The big galoot hadn’t even noticed.
Warren sat down on the floor and tried to put his hand against his neck again, but he was too weak. It kept sliding off.
“Damn it,” Warren said. Blood gurgled out of his mouth. He carefully stretched himself out on the floor and made a sound like someone trying to swallow a pineapple. Then he didn’t move again. He was as dead as last year’s Christmas.
Coats went over and looked at Ali. She was breathing heavily, and she had a blue knot on the side of her head, but that was the worst of it. When he stood up, he went weak. The hole in his side was dripping big time. He leaned against a chair for a moment, got it together.
Outside, through the doorway, he saw lights. The shots had been heard and someone had called. Pretty soon, cops would be coming up the stairs. He grinned, thought maybe it would look better all around if he could at least put on his pants.