The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles: A California Century Mystery #6

The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles: A California Century Mystery #6

In 1926, when musician Tom Hickey reads in a broadside about a lynching the Los Angeles newspapers failed to report, and discovers the Negro victim was an old friend, he ...

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Ken Kuhlken

Ken Kuhlkens stories have appeared in Esquire and numerous other magazines and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short ...

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Chapter One

Tom Hickey rented in a court near the intersection of Wilshire and Normandie, halfway between downtown Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. He shared the cottage with his little sister Florence. She was seventeen. Six years ago, Tom had snatched her away from their mother, Millicent Hickey, a seamstress for Universal Pictures. He hadn’t spoken to Milly since the day he and Florence left home with nothing but his clarinet and a suitcase of clothes between them. At first he believed their mother would track them down, have him arrested or beaten by a gang of her fellow spiritualists. But all these years, she had left him alone.

He credited Leo Weiss for that blessing.

When Tom was in fourth grade, Milly rented a two-bedroom bungalow on Orange between Highland and La Brea. The owners, who lived next door, were Leo and Violet Weiss. Leo was a detective with the LAPD.

At first, Leo and Vi appreciated Milly. She kept the house spotless, and her passion for gardening transformed the yard into a wild yet orderly scene reminiscent of Eden. But soon, Vi caught Milly whipping Tom with a rope while shouting in “tongues.” Leo warned her, politely, hoping to keep Tom and Florence next door where he and Vi could observe and react.

Then Vi rescued Tom when Milly lashed him to a fence post in the back yard and left him while she ran errands. For that offense, Leo threatened jail next time. Milly moved them to Hollywood, several miles away.

Tom snatched his sister when he was sixteen, Florence eleven. A few days afterward, he reported to Leo what his mother had done to the girl. Then Leo informed Milly that although minors running from their guardians was illegal, torture was more so, and got rewarded by long prison terms.

# # #

Now, in 1926, Tom was a bandleader. Before he turned twenty-two, the other musicians drafted him, though most of them were twice his age.

Tonight they roamed around the vacant storefront owned by Archie the drummer’s uncle, trading jokes and filling the room with a smoky blue haze.

Tom hoped a high C would grab their attention. He lifted the clarinet to his lips.

Then Oz came loping in. He carried the tattered case that protected his alto sax, and a fistful of leaflets. He shoved a leaflet at each of the boys. As Tom took his, Oz said, “None of you white folks go telling me the Klan don’t be here out west.”

The leaflet was a broadside entitled the Forum. It declared:

LYNCHING. We who ask to live in peace; who came to this City of Angels hoping to leave the terror behind; who judge no man without cause; who take only our meager share of the promise this nation affords to those unbound by color; who wish to believe that justice will someday prevail, must now pause to weep. On Monday, the 11th day of October, a gentleman who shall here go unnamed went out walking in Echo Park just as sunlight spilled over Angelino Heights. In the glare of dawn, a vision appeared. So terrible it was, the gentleman believed he had not risen but was in the throes of a nightmare.

A dark man hung limp from the live oak not ten yards off Park Avenue, not fifty yards from Sister Aimee Semple McPherson’s majestic temple.

Before this heinous act, the “Invisible Empire,” resurrected by Mister D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” would have us believe that in our locale they limit their hooded activities to preserving the Good Book’s values by smashing the furniture and windows of speakeasies, flogging the occasional adulterer, marching to protest the election of our first Negro assemblyman, and rallying voters to elect candidates opposed to unfettered growth. Now, with one act, despicable in both substance and symbolism, they have declared war against peace and decency.

The test of a community lies not in the occurrence of sinister deeds. Evil will always live among us. No, the test of our mettle lies in our reaction to manifestations of evil. In the case of this deed, more vicious than simple murder because it targets the spirit of a people, we who seek truth, peace and justice must mourn to our depths more than the loss of an innocent. The implications of the lynching go so deep, they mock the very concept of justice. When public servants attempt to obliterate the truth, they shatter our dreams of a world that could be.

Members of the Los Angeles Police Department carried off the body in such haste, only the one early-rising gentleman witnessed the shameful deed. Let the reader judge: has the briefest account of this heinous crime appeared in the Times, the Herald, or the Examiner?

To our knowledge, no publication but the Forum has risked offending the powerful by reporting the murder of Franklin Gaines.

The floor beneath Tom rose and fell, as if another earthquake had struck. He back-stepped and leaned against the brick wall. “Frank Gaines,” he muttered.

 

Chapter Two

Tom would’ve gone directly from rehearsal to check on Florence. According to his rule, she was to walk straight home following her after-school job sweeping and ushering at the Egyptian Cinema in Hollywood. But the broadside changed Tom’s plans. He caught the streetcar on Pico, transferred to the coach line up Western and Wilshire and hustled the several blocks through the drizzle on slippery pavement to the neighborhood where he once lived.

The Weiss home was a Craftsman bungalow with a low- pitched roof and a rock walled porch extending the width of the house. Leo came to the door in blue cotton pajamas, no robe. He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head through a tangled web of thinning hair.

Though Tom hadn’t seen the man in months, since early summer, he didn’t waste an instant on pleasantries. He gave Leo’s meaty hand a quick shake and said, “Who put a lid on the Echo Park lynching?”

Leo peered at Tom as if to assure himself this was no impostor. He scratched his head again, then turned and flopped into a rose-patterned easy chair with doilies on the arms. “Sit down.”

Tom entered and shut the door behind him. “Lynching?”

From his hip pocket, Tom produced the Forum, which he tossed. Leo caught it, raised and held it close enough so he didn’t need his glasses. While he read, Tom watched for a reaction but saw the profile of a poker face.

Leo folded the broadside in half and set it on the chair arm.

He looked up and shrugged. “How about it?” Tom said.

“Meaning you want to know did it happen?”

“Meaning I know it happened. What I want is to know what you cops are going to do about it?”

Leo stared above, as though tracing the route of a crack that bisected the plaster ceiling. “What’s it to you?”

Tom folded his hands to keep from shaking a fist. “Besides that a man’s dead, and no doubt a whole lot of colored folks are barricading their doors, and a murderer, or a gang of them, is on the loose?”

“Yeah, besides all that,” Leo said. “See, last month a Chinese couple got robbed. The creep raped the gal and dumped both of them off the Santa Monica pier. You must’ve heard, but you didn’t come running to me.”

“Frank Gaines was a pal of mine.” “Musician?”

“An old pal,” Tom said. “Long ago, at the mission on Azusa Street, Frank used to take me down the block to the Arkansas Diner, all those times Milly couldn’t break away from the Holy Ghost long enough to feed us. Frank was a gentleman. Not a morsel of spite or bitterness in him. Good will toward everybody. ”

“I see.”

“Meaning you’re going to tell me who put the lid on?” “Who says I’m in the know?”

“I’m asking, are you?” Leo shook his head.

“Okay then, are you going to find out?”

Leo drummed his fingers on the chair arms. “No.” “Oh,” Tom said. “Orders from Two Gun Davis?”

The way Leo grimaced meant Tom had stepped out of bounds, which didn’t stop him. “You’re not a fan of his, are you?”

“He’s my boss.”

“Yeah, and I hear he’s trigger happy as Billy the Kid.”

Leo said, “The city’s crawling with bad guys. Chief Davis is following the will of the people.”

“Which people?”

“Most of them. Listen, back when you belonged to Milly, in one year, more than a hundred of us got killed. Maybe you recall?”

“So?”

“So when Davis sends the message about the crook you fail to kill tonight could be the one kills you tomorrow, we’ve got reason to heed his warning.”

“And to follow his orders, even if he tells you to cover up a lynching?”

“Some would do just that.” Leo waved the Forum. “According to this, police were involved.” Leo stood and plodded toward the kitchen. As he passed a small marble topped table with a chessboard laid out, a game interrupted in progress, he slid the Forum under the edge of the chessboard. “Tom, I work for the city of Los Angeles. I don’t run it. That’s other men’s job.”

Tom had followed, a footstep behind. “And if you get uppity about it, you’ll soon be out selling cutlery door to door. I’m aware of that. I’m no freshman. The thing is, as you have told me on more than one occasion, every man’s got to choose sides. If you side with the rats just because they run the city, it’ll prove you’re not the guy I believed you were.” Tom choked down the lump in his throat. He wanted to say, And that would break my heart. But a look at Leo’s eyes told him he’d said enough.

They stood nose to nose. “You sound mighty righteous, boy.” The word “boy” pinched a nerve. He couldn’t remember Leo ever calling him boy. He leaned on a wall and ordered himself to act civil. “Back when I was a churchgoing youngster, Frank Gaines and some other good folks pounded into my head I should do what the churchgoers say, not what they do.” “And what do they say?”

“Seek the truth, for one thing.”

A smile broke slowly out of Leo’s stony face. “And where would you go to start seeking.”

Tom gave up the wall and stood straight. “Angelus Temple.” “Why’s that?”

“Frank was lynched not fifty yards from the place, and I’ll bet plenty of his brothers and sisters from Azusa Street are among Sister Aimee’s flock. I could give you a few names. You can start there.”

“I’m not going to start anywhere, Tom. You’re the truth seeker. I’m just a cop.”

After a few speechless moments, Tom said, “I’ve got to check on Florence.”

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