(An excerpt from The Jade Bone Jar, now available in paperback and Kindle format from Amazon)
I walked a block or so from my office to City Hall and climbed the marble stairway to the ornate offices on the second floor where Oakland’s industrial and commercial wheeler dealers could bribe the city’s top municipal officers in relative privacy and comfort.
Toomey looked like the Republican Mayor of a thriving West Coast city: his full head of silver hair was swept back from a broad, thoughtful looking forehead that would have been right at home on an Etruscan bust. He stood a couple inches more than six feet tall and still had the wide shoulders and narrow waist of the quarterback who'd played first string at Stanford. I was no expert on men's clothes, but his brown tweed suit seemed slightly out-of-date to me. That might have had something to do with the fact it had been custom-tailored for him in a shop not far from Piccadilly in London just before the war broke out. It would have looked just fine on the Tory side of the House of Lords. I'd be willing to bet he could take it off and sell it to some British toff for twice what he'd originally paid.
The Mayor shook my hand like a Charles Atlas graduate. I didn’t mind. I could tell by his prosperous look that If I had to get my fingers splinted, he'd pay my doctor bill.
“Mr. Lynch, I’m sure you read the newspapers,” he said, beginning what I could tell would be a torturous biography intended to impress me with his money, social standing and importance.
I decided to cut it short.
“Not really. Reading the papers makes my lips numb so I have a sixth grader read them to me," I said, shaking out a cigarette and lighting it, just to see if I could get away with firing one up in the majestic seat of city power. "But I only have him come in on Sundays when they have funnies in color. Otherwise the kid gets bored.”
He looked stunned by my brass. "You are certainly impertinent," he spluttered.
"No, " I said. "I'm in Oakland, in the big shot mayor's office. Let's can the bio, your honor. I know you're a large noise in the Alameda County Republican Party who's being pressured to run for Governor by none other than Senator Knowland. I'm sure you didn't ask me to swing by for a campaign contribution, so I assume you want to hire me for a job. Does that about cover it?"
Toomey’s mouth moved like a trout that had just been pulled out of a creek. It was clear to me he needed a script to follow, like a B-movie actor. As soon as somebody rushed his lines or made him lose focus, his mind went completely blank.
“Uh, yes,” he said, scrambling to improvise. “Well, because of my political aspirations, I can’t afford to be surprised by any personal developments. . ."
He looked blank for a half a second, then plunged on: “Personal developments that might, uh, sidetrack my, uh . . ."
He seemed to have lost the thread again.
"Your political aspirations?” I suggested with a smile. I was enjoying the politician’s discomfort.
“Yes,” Toomey said, happy for my assistance. Then, when he realized I was mocking him, he shifted gears.
“I mean, no – I said that all wrong,” he stammered. “My real concern is my daughter, Cynthia. She’s been running with a bad crowd lately and she seems to be out of control.”
That probably meant he was more concerned about how her disappearance would affect his political future than her safety. Whichever turned out to be true didn't really matter. I didn't care why Toomey wanted to hire me, so long as his check cleared.
“What kind of a bad crowd?” I asked.
The mayor rubbed his face with both hands wearily, as if he had just got out of bed. I noticed his eyes were bloodshot, like he hadn't been sleeping much lately. He was one of those men who always seemed to be at center stage, acting a role in a play, but his unconscious gesture undercut his usual artificiality.
“Musicians,” he said. “They play . . . jazz,” he added, twisting his mouth with distaste; his tone of voice made it clear he considered beboppers only a half-step above child porno publishers and would rather watch his grandmother have sex with a Tijuana show donkey than listen to the stuff.
He wasn't the only person who felt that way: a lot of swing musicians like Glenn Miller had served in the military; their patriotism gave them a positive image in postwar U.S. But jazz players also were known to smoke reefers and shoot hop. In addition, they associated with individuals of the Negroid persuasion – and a lot of them belonged to it themselves.
If Toomey’s daughter turned out to be shacked up with some black hepcat, it would be bad news for his political future; even talking about people with brown skin was strictly taboo in U.S. politics, unless you happened to be Eleanor Roosevelt.
If she was in the family way by a jazz player, Katy bar the door.
I pulled out a notebook. “Okay, then. I’m guessing you want me to find your daughter, right?”
Toomey nodded, lowering himself into the leather rollaway chair behind his desk and giving his forehead a weary rub. “Precisely, Mr. Lynch,” he said.
I sized him up. For a moment, I almost felt sorry for him: slumped in his office with his head in his hand, Toomey seemed to be just another 50-plus-year-old father who had no idea where his daughter was. Then I looked at the pictures on the dark wood-paneled walls that showed Toomey shaking hands with every mover and shaker in California politics and pushed the thought out of my mind. The mayor might be worried about his little girl, but it was clear to me he was more worried about his gubernatorial run: her disappearance could be a major political liability; a lot of voters would think twice about voting for a man whose daughter had run away from home.
(More to come next week!)