Swine’s Detective Agency
Swine’s Detective Agency was not one of those fancy, bright places in the city of Los Angeles where people gathered, but a dark, and rather dank set of offices that suited the three inhabitants to a tee. The building was old and the landlord was never seen nor did he ever care to be seen. The rent was low, the other tenants absent, or dead long ago. The place was quiet and the most that could be said for it was that it served its purpose. The office sat on an alley that was mostly used for sleeping vagrants and the city’s rat population, who both alike rummaged through the dumpsters in the wee hours of the night. The entrance door was a non-descript grey, and sometimes clients couldn’t even find it; there were no identifying numbers, only an outline of what looked like a butcher’s pig painted on the door. A little odd, some said, but then the three detectives who worked there did things their own way and never cared to stay inside the lines of life.
Down a narrow hallway, leading away from the sunlight of the alley there was another door which led to three offices. The place smelled of sweat, damp, and cigarette smoke. There was also something a bit acrid in the air, maybe a dead rat in the walls? No one was ever sure, and did it matter really? The point of being there was to work with some of the best detectives in the city. These three only took the most challenging cases, the unsolved, cold case murders, the kidnap victims with large ransoms, the drug smuggling, the missing bodies that the police couldn’t find or anything that was too strange, odd, bizarre or weird, but not easy. No searching for cats or dogs, no marriage disputes, or custody battles, no small-time con jobs, or neighborhood quarrels. That was small fry stuff, and didn’t pay the bills anyway.
The office split off into three separate rooms each a bit darker and danker than the other, but no less utilitarian. The one bright spot in the place was Mildred. Why she ever took the job no one knows, but she managed somehow to make these dark and hidden offices feel mildly decent; she provided the coffee (not so bad), the daily chatter (often way too much), and did all the paperwork, including the billing (she was highly skilled).
She applied for the job one day (no one else had), was hired on the spot and never left. Of indeterminant age (somewhere in her 60’s), Mildred was a constant source of support for the detectives, though they would hardly have openly acknowledged it, let alone have given her a raise. But they did remember holiday bonuses, vacation time, and let her off for family emergencies. Every night she rolled her dyed platinum blonde hair in big, pink curlers, and arrived at the office the next day with a perfect coif. She wore bright floral dresses, and flashy red nail polish. Despite this patch of color in an otherwise grey space, she managed to fade into the background when she needed to and stay out of the way of the detectives when necessary. Her makeup was just a little this side of not very fancy, mostly Avon rejects from her nieces who sold the products in their neighborhood. She had a habit of bringing in all manner of desserts, which she fed to the detectives on paper plates, using plastic cutlery for efficiency. Simply put, the three couldn’t do without her and she and they both knew it.
But Mildred was not a miracle worker and despite trying, she could do nothing about the perpetual shadowy darkness of the offices. She tried bringing in flowers, and putting up bright pictures. She even asked if the walls could be painted. No deal. The detectives weren’t having it. No money to be spent on a place that served its purpose already. She stopped asking after a couple of years. At the very least, she was a tiny bright spot for the clients who came fairly steadily during the week and even sometimes on the weekends when Mildred was not there. For she always seemed to leave behind just a hint of maternal care wherever she went, and the detectives were grateful for that even though they would never say so.
Today was a Monday. The start of the week for her and there was plenty to do. When Mildred arrived that morning, she sensed a change in the air; one of the detectives was in his office; she knew who because she heard the familiar wailings of the blues singers he so favored, and she felt the tension brewing in the space around her. Men exuded the kind of tension that people said could be cut with a knife. Mildred knew to be scarce on these days, so she got to work in her usual brisk and organized way. She also knew that the two other detectives would arrive shortly; she had brought in a cheesecake and was just getting the paper plates ready when she heard the alley door open.
Arms sat in his office, staring at his door, waiting. It was a hot, muggy day in the City of Angels and the fan wheezed with age as it rotated. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck and was absorbed by his grey shirt; his suspenders were taut against his muscular shoulders; he didn’t wear a suit, but he looked well-dressed all the same. His brown fedora sat perched on the corner of his desk where he had tossed it when he walked in that morning.
At 33 he cared little for fashion but a great deal for traditions, and though hats were going out of style in 1954, Arms believed in the formality of the fedora. It was uncomplicated and stylish, and it gave him a professional edge that went down well with the criminal underclass and the mafia bosses alike, who also believed in carrying on traditions.
He was waiting for his partners to show up and he was thinking, brooding really on the plan that was beginning to form in his mind about the strange new case that he wanted to discuss with them; he never made any decisions before his partners arrived. Thinking always required music, and for Arms that meant the Black blues artists of the day: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, and a little Billie Holiday thrown in for good measure. He sat in his office for hours listening to the drawn out, steel guitar sounds and the woeful voices of these Black soulful singers. Arms crawled into music when he thought and planned; his partners knew to leave him alone then, and Mildred kept her distance as well.
Arms was good-looking in a leading man sort of way; suave and just a bit debonair, he struck most women as incredibly handsome. He was a thin man with chiseled facial features, and though he wore his black hair slicked back against his head with plenty of pomade as was the style of the time, he had a shock of hair that sometimes came loose and fell across his startlingly blue eyes. This happened only when he became animated with emotions, a very rare occurrence, indeed.
He was a steady man who rarely made a move without thinking through it first; plans were his mainstay in life, and they felt controllable and organized. He was a thinker, but not a philosopher; practicality and method were his tools. The rest of the world could be entirely chaotic but as long as he had a plan he was on the straight and narrow and could handle most anything that came his way. He was highly methodical, diligent in his detective work, and careful not to cross too many illegal lines so that he came to the notice of the local police.
Arms knew he had many failings in life, but one that ran deep was that he had not fought in the war. When he turned 21, he had tried to enlist in the army like his older brother, Michael, and was crushed when he was rejected because of a hearing problem he didn’t even know he had. Michael, ever the high achiever, the one good at football, and popular with the girls had enlisted in 1942 right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, at the age of 23, and been sent to France, but he never came home. The brothers were close both in age and friendship. Michael had even given Arms his nickname because his little brother was all arms and legs on the football field; in fact, any sports he played Arms never mastered, he was a thinker through and through. It’s odd how nicknames make a man; Arms’s identity was no longer his given name of Conor McKenna, but the name bestowed on him by his older brother, and he was glad of it.
The death of his brother in the war hit him very hard. He felt guilt at being the only one left; his mother was heartbroken and never quite recovered and his father just walked into the garage and stayed there. Dad was always tinkering with something, his head under the hood of the car. Arms came from a family that didn’t talk much, so any pain he felt he just buried in a bottle.
His drink of choice was whiskey, neat. The best from The Famous Grouse, which he kept in his desk drawer and only brought out when he needed to think on an important case. A distant cousin in Scotland kept him supplied, and in return, Arms helped one of the cousin’s sons find a job in LA. Arms didn’t drink beer like the other guys because that put weight on a man, and wine was for those high-class bozos up at the club. No, whisky offered him a respite from feeling too much, and thinking too little.
He was a serious man who had lived, not a hard life, but a rather precarious one because he had a wandering spirit in him. He was always searching for something new and different to soothe the savage wounds of his heart, which is why being a private detective suited him. It was a job that brought with it adventure and change on a constant basis. Yet, Arms remained an enigma to most people who knew him, with the exception, perhaps, of his two closest friends; he had a dark past, one that haunted him and that he kept close to his chest. This was something that went beyond the loss of his elder brother and weighed on him, even as he worked to fight crime on the streets of Los Angeles.
As he sat waiting for his partners to show up, he ruminated on the case that he had decided to accept, and cast his mind back to his meeting at the diner with Big Sam.
A Meeting with Big Sam
Sam Scorvino was the head of a small, but growing, Italian mafia ring in southern California. He and his parents ran a delicatessen in Pasadena; a straight on the up and up business with a backstreet flavor. Bottles of olive oil and wine that lined their shelves seemingly arrived just a little too quickly from Italy. But Mama Scorvino was famous for her homemade pasta, and Papa Scorvino was the heart of the community, so everyone looked the other way.
Sam was their middle son and he was always looking for a way to make a name for himself. He had tried several career paths: construction, sales, owning his own small business that rapidly failed, and he even took a crack at college but nothing really stuck. He was good at organizing people and at crime, so he paired the two to succeed at organized crime and he discovered he had found his groove. His older brother Ricky, had managed to go to school and ran a decent architecture firm. Paolo the youngest had gotten married early and worked for his father in law’s trucking company; maybe the olive oil and wine came from there, who knows, but either way, he was doing well with a growing family and a pretty little wife.
The only daughter in Big Sam’s family, Bella, still lived at home and helped her parents in the deli. But at 18, she was ready to fly away with the man of her dreams.
Days before Arms and Big Sam met, a body floated up on Venice beach; it was found by some out of town tourists. Bloated and barely recognizable, the only thing that hadn’t been destroyed by the sea water was a gold ring in the shape of a tiger’s head, embedded with sapphires and diamonds on the right hand of the corpse. The police were called in but couldn’t make a positive ID; the body was moved to the morgue for further investigation and someone on the inside tipped off Big Sam that this might be the northern California crime boss, Brendan O’ Shea.
Known throughout the underground crime syndicate as the most influential and powerful dealer in illegal shipments of exotic animals, O’ Shea ruled his minions with a hard, but fair hand. As the eldest son of a shipping magnate he had risen up the ranks of his father’s business only to turn to a life of crime seemingly because he needed to be amused and perhaps his cocaine addiction didn’t help.
He filled his pockets with the lucre from the rare animals that his crime ring poached from Africa and Asia. He spent his wealth extravagantly and publicly. He held lavish parties at his mansion in San Francisco, the liquor free-flowing, and the women in abundance. Nothing couldn’t be bought by O’ Shea, his whims and fancies satiated solely by money, beautiful women, and pure, uncut cocaine. When O’ Shea felt generous, he would give back to the local Irish community in San Francisco, but he always expected a little bit in return, and so he had a reputation for taking what he wanted when he wanted it. People accepted that and looked the other way.
But someone wanted O’ Shea dead and because his death was such a brutal one, Big Sam surmised that whoever killed O’ Shea had more power than he did. Big Sam, though a small-time crook himself, had big time friends and good connections, and he knew who to get in touch with when a body in the California crime family was found in unusual and strange circumstances.
He met Arms at the local diner down the street from his parent’s delicatessen. Big Sam sat at a back table, his large frame dwarfing the other two men sitting opposite him. He was not called “Big Sam” for nothing; everything about him was large, including the gold rings that he wore on his hands. He had a mop of black hair on his head, and a handle-bar moustache that gave him a distinguished air but that disappeared as soon as he opened his mouth. He was flanked by two smaller men, Billy and Roy, his henchman who never left his side.
Arms entered the diner, his brown fedora in his hands, and walked straight to the back where Big Sam was sitting. No business was discussed at first; just some usual niceties, and a coffee drunk between friends. But then Arms cut to the chase: “What’dya need Sam?” I got other cases to get to, so give me the lowdown on O’ Shea.”
“Whoa, not so fast detective. I called you here, remember? I got a small job for you to do first and then we’ll get to O’ Shea.”
“What is it?” He was suspicious of Sam right away and automatically put his hand on his revolver.
Big Sam saw the move and laughed. “Don’t worry detective, you can trust me.”
Arms, of course, knew he couldn’t trust Big Sam, but he wanted to know what was going on so he relaxed and took a more genial approach to the meeting.
“Okay, tell me what the job is.”
“My sister, Bella, she’s seeing somebody, I know it. And I want to know who.”
Arms leaned back in his chair; searching for the odd boyfriend was not something that Swine’s Detective Agency did. This must be some kind of setup. Why was Big Sam asking him to search for someone when Sam could probably find the boyfriend himself?
“We don’t take those kinds of jobs, you know that,” said Arms, slightly irritated that he even had to mention this. “I’m sure you can find this guy yourself; you’ve got connections and hardly need me to step in and help. What’s the big idea?”
Big Sam looked very serious for the moment, and paused before speaking: “Something’s wrong with Bella, she ain’t herself these days. I can’t put my finger on it, but something or someone’s got to her. I think she’s got a boyfriend who’s trouble.”
Arms was surprised at how Big Sam had dropped his tough guy stance and suddenly looked worried and upset. He had never seen him this way, and he wondered about this strange change in his behavior. Arms felt like he was peering into the private life of the Scorvino family and it made him uneasy. And he was still suspicious of the request to find a stray boyfriend; he pushed Big Sam a bit more on the subject.
“What do you care about some pipsqueak guy anyway and why ask us to do your dirty family work? Put the squeeze on your little sister, I’m sure she’ll tell you everything” Arms said, modulating his tone a little bit so as not to anger or offend Big Sam. No need to get on the wrong side of this family matter, even if it was something he didn’t intend to take on as a case.
But Sam still looked worried and wouldn’t back down from his request. He wasn’t the brightest star in the sky but he knew a good detective, and Arms and his friends ran one of the best agencies in the city.
Big Sam tried again with Arms; he was determined to get his help. “Listen my sister’s a good girl, she doesn’t have any street smarts. She’s just like a little puppy, she’ll follow you anywhere and is at that age when she would run off with someone. I need an outsider to investigate; I’m known too much in the neighborhood and I can’t let on that Bella might be involved with something criminal; it might kill Mama and Papa. I’ve got a feeling that she’s mixed up in something bad and you know my hunches are as good as true.”
Big Sam was right, though no intellectual, he definitely made good on his hunches. And suddenly Arms felt a bit sorry for him, and said, “oh, alright, tell me what’s going on with your sister. Tell me everything. I might consider taking the case.”
Unlike Arms, Foil had been to war. In 1942, at the young age of 21 that experience was a shock to his system; up until then he led a pretty average and safe life. He was one of three boys, and the youngest by quite a few years. His father had a middle management position as an engineer in one of the aircraft factories in Los Angeles. Dad made a good living and was able to take care of his wife and three young children on a decent salary, which made them solidly middle-class.
They lived in a ranch style house in one of the established suburbs in southern LA. His was one of the few white families in the area who didn’t participate in persecuting the African-American families moving into his neighborhood. This meant that he was both embraced and ostracized as a kid growing up in an ethnically diverse area of LA. But his mother stayed at home with the boys, and made sure Foil and his brothers led a fairly protected life without any trauma or major mishaps in childhood. As he grew up and learned to drive, he discovered that the one thing he loved was the feeling of freedom and adventure he got from flying down the road in a car. Unlike his two older brothers, John and Robert, who dutifully went off to college and got degrees in medicine and law, respectively, Foil wanted a less traditional life.
Becoming an ambulance driver in the war came to him by accident, really. Maybe he mentioned that he liked to drive when he signed up, he couldn’t remember, all he did know was that when he was sent off to basic training he was tapped to work in the medical unit as a driver, but of course he would do much more than that. Everyone would. He thought that by supporting his country he would be doing some good in the world, and maybe even find a little bit of adventure overseas. “I can go and see the world,” he thought to himself, but war changed his entire life.
Being an ambulance driver was an in between sort of job in the military. Sometimes it was an even worse place to be than fighting. He was both inside the action and outside of it saving lives. He could do nothing to stop the fighting or the killing, but he was tasked with preventing men from dying. He was ill prepared for the destruction, devastation, and sheer cruelty of one man against another. He came back a shattered soul, having seen the horror of war up close, touching the bodies of the wounded and dead and having no power to bring them back to life.
He survived the war only because he was good at his job, not because he wanted to survive. His disenchantment with life was palpable upon his return and though his family treated him like a hero, he felt like an abject failure. He came back a different man, slightly hollow inside, though somewhere deep within was a glimmer of his old, kind, sweet self from his youth.
He began to seek out the company of women at the end of the war because he could fall into their arms and forget his pain. They gave him a sense of self-release and took care of him, but staying with one meant a sense of permanency and war taught him that there was no permanency anywhere at any time in life.
He wasn’t like Arms in that way; he didn’t ponder or want to think too much about the world. He was a man of action, and movement, and preferred to be on the go all the time and this is one reason why he was always with a woman. Women saw that glimmer of his old self and drew that out of him; women were highly changeable, like himself, and he could pursue them with ease. Being with a woman helped to drive away the memories of death, blood, and the pain of war from his brain.
His nickname, Foil, came from the one woman, a girl really, whom he had loved a long time ago in his past but that he could not forget. His Christian name was Seán Finegan, but Molly, with her kind eyes and sweet smile, used to tease him about foiling the plans that she had made, and the name just stuck. When she said it, he felt important, but now the nickname was just a part of who he was, his own name, his Christian name falling away into some other life before the war and before the dark memories of the wounded and dead.