“It started when they shot my father,” I told Bob.
We were strolling down Ocean Front Boulevard in Santa Monica. Not the most auspicious atmosphere for heart-wrenching confessions, but that was Bob’s fault. He has this nasty habit of getting me into utterly casual settings, where I’m off my guard, then turning my guts inside out.
“Your father?” His interest picked up.
“He’s not the issue,” I said quickly. “The violence is.”
It was a warm evening in July. We’d had a late dinner, and the sun was sinking into the ocean across the street, giving everything a warm orange glow.
My latest spill had Bob nodding sympathetically as he ambled along, hands in jeans pockets, with his green satin letterman jacket hanging over his elbow. Complete nonchalance. You’d think I was complaining about a stapler that didn’t work instead of the violence that has dogged me for last twelve years of my life.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“I know. I just don’t buy your excuse is all.” His arm swung out and landed on my shoulders.
“It’s not an excuse. Doesn’t it seem a little odd that since we’ve been friends, we’ve witnessed three armed robberies and a murder?”
“What I object to is you calling yourself a magnet for violence.”
I snorted. “What else do you call it?”
“Dumb luck, engineered for a Higher Purpose, which, my dear Brenner, is not to give you an excuse for tearing yourself down and avoiding commitments.”
“I’m still seeing you.”
He laughed. “It’s taken me two years to get this far.” He suddenly stopped. “Whoa. Look at that baby.”
He gazed through the window I’d just passed. It belonged to a restaurant, a mom and pop place trying to look trendy with hanging plants and a Cajun menu. Neither of the above had caught Bob’s attention, though. There was a fish tank in the window, filled with live cat fish, including one old monster big enough to feed three families.
“Wonder if he’s for sale.” Bob’s eyes gleamed as the fish wound its way around its fellows.
He had not forgotten my problem. It was merely on hold while his other passion took over for the moment. That, and Bob knows when to back off. He led me into the restaurant.
In Southern California, everyone’s a hyphenate. The owner-cook-maitre d’ greeted us as we came in.
Bob went straight for the fish tank.
“How much you want for the bruiser?” Bob is tricky, but rarely subtle.
“He’s not for sale,” said the owner-cook-maitre d’. “You’d never be able to eat that much.”
“I hate fish,” said Bob. “I want him for my cat. You got a pan big enough to keep him in water?”
“All that for one cat?” The man laughed. “Must be pretty big pussy. Bigger than my Hercules?”
Hercules, happily defying the Health Department, wandered out from behind a table. Even accounting for the gross amounts of black and white hair, he was immense. His head, alone, was bigger than my fist.
Bob squatted and clucked. I’ve yet to meet the animal that could resist him. Hercules was no exception. Bob chuckled.
“He’s a big one.” He stroked the body. “Good muscle tone. How much for the fish?”
“Hercules couldn’t eat that fish. You can’t tell me your cat is bigger.”
Bob shrugged and stood. “Okay, I won’t. But that fish will barely make a snack for Sweetness. How much?”
I tried not to giggle. Bob loves putting people on about his cats. Not that they believe him when he tells them the truth.
“For a tale like that, fifty dollars.” The owner-cook-maitre d’ laughed, shaking his head.
“Great.” Bob snatched his wallet, then paused. If there was more than ten dollars cash in it, I would’ve eaten the fish raw. He grinned sheepishly. “I wonder if my MasterCard will go through.”
“Never mind.” Trying not to laugh, I got out my wallet. “I’ll put it on my card. You can pay me back when you get your check cashed.”
“Now, Brenner, you don’t have to.”
“It’s been a while since I spoiled Sweetness.” I handed over the card. “I may as well.”
I used to tease Bob about hanging around me because I kept my charge cards paid off. Until that resulted in an agonizing session over my self-image.
“So why did the violence begin with your dad?” he asked when we got back to the sidewalk. He had the pan holding the fish.
I shifted. “He was killed in a convenience store robbery. I told you that. You sure you don’t want me to carry the fish?”
“You can hold it while I get the van open.”
We’d been headed for Bob’s van when we stopped.
Sweetness was inside, trashing the shocks. For some reason, she let out one of her loud grumblies, scaring the shit out of a young woman passing the van. She had a firm grip on a little girl who looked like she was around five or six. Bob handed me the pan and dug out his keys.
“What is in there?” the woman gasped as Bob unlocked the back. I struggled with the catfish.
“Just my kitty,” teased Bob, with a grin.
“It, uh, sounds like a lion.” The woman, a rabbity looking brunette, did not want to be talking to us. Yet, she stayed, making conversation in spite of it, and the bored little girl.
“No, it doesn’t. Lions roar.” Bob opened the doors. “This is a Bengal tiger. Hello, Sweetness, baby.”
Sweetness, at least three hundred and sixty pounds bigger than Hercules, put her massive face up against the bars across the back of the van. A tongue that could strip wallpaper flicked out and over her nose.
She’d smelled the catfish and fixed her eyes on the jiggling pan I held.
“I’d hate to have him looking at me like that,” said the woman.
“Me see!” yelped the child. She wrenched her arm from the woman’s grasp.
Bob put his hands out to stop her, but she approached slowly.
“Apphia!” the woman yipped, then smiled awkwardly. “She’s very good with animals. We are all God’s creatures, you know. There are many good lessons to be learned from tigers, if you would study the Bible, you know.”
Bob kept one wary eye on Apphia, as she and Sweetness gazed at each other.
“No tigers in the Bible,” said Bob, cheerfully. “I already checked, unless, you know, you treat them like lions, you know. Cats are cats, you know. And this one is hungry, aren’t you, Sweetness, baby? Brenner, you want to bring Sweetness her snack?”
In the shuffle, the woman slid back from the van.
Bob maneuvered Apphia to where she could still see, but was well out of Sweetness’s reach. Together, Bob and I wrestled with the aluminum pan, while he kept one shoulder on the gate. Not that Sweetness would ever bolt. But she’s still a cat, and cats, if anything, are unpredictable.
The van rocked as the tiger pounced on her treat. The fish flopped around the floor while Sweetness teased it. Apphia laughed.
The woman screamed. I turned. Violence. Again.
Two men shoved the woman into a light colored Mercedes, and jumped in after her. The car was already moving as the doors slammed shut. Seconds later, I lost it in the sea of red tail lights.
Bob slammed the van doors closed, and bolted for the front.
“They’re gone!” I hollered.
Apphia almost was, herself. Bob ran for the sidewalk, and caught her half a block later.
“My god, did you see that?” a female voice gasped. She had that ageless, face-lifted look you see a lot of in Southern California. “They just took her. That poor woman.”
“Call the police,” I snapped. I’d seen too much of this sort of thing to lose my head.
A crowd collected. Bob returned, holding Apphia’s head to his shoulder. Sweetness growled loudly.
“Quiet!” Bob slapped the side of the van.
Murmurs rippled through the crowd as they tried to figure out what he had in there. It took the cops fifteen minutes to show. Most of the crowd had left by then, except the woman with the lifted face. Her name was Florence Woodfield.
Most of the cops I know are LAPD, since that’s where I usually run into my trouble. These were Santa Monica PD, since Santa Monica, contrary to popular belief, is a city unto itself. Officer J. Smalley was the senior and a woman, a no-nonsense type with short hair. Officer R. Diaz had that earnest rookie feel about him. Just what I needed.
Worse yet, there was no reason to believe a crime had taken place, only the word of three adults and a traumatized child. Apphia wouldn’t say a word. It was eerie, really. She didn’t cry, she didn’t whimper. She just went blank, as if it didn’t matter that her mother had been grabbed and taken away.
Woodfield managed to tell her tale in a reasonably coherent way, although she did say that the car was a dark Jag. Bob hadn’t seen the car, and didn’t say what we were doing at the back of the van. Sweetness had long since settled down, ignoring the siren when the cops pulled up. The lazy butt was probably napping.
I gave the officers the license number, and the correct details on the car.
“You think your daughter saw anything?” Smalley asked me.
“My daughter?” I asked. “Oh. Damn. No. She’s not ours. It was her mom that was kidnapped.”
“I was showing her my cat,” said Bob. “In the back of the van. We were outside.”
Smalley gave us a skeptical glare. “I thought you said you didn’t know the victim.”
“We’d never seen her before,” said Bob. “Sweetness got noisy as we came up, and scared her. She asked what it was, and we got to talking.”
“Sweetness,” repeated Smalley.
“My cat,” said Bob. “I’m an animal trainer. I got the permits for her. My friend has a private beach, and Sweetness likes to go swimming, so we took her down there for the day, and stopped here for dinner.”
“Your cat likes to go swimming?” chuckled Diaz.
“It’s not unusual for—uh…” Bob paused.
“Let’s get a look in the back of that van,” snapped Smalley.
“I’d better do it,” said Bob quickly. “I’m not sure I locked the gate in the commotion.”
He handed Apphia to me, then opened the back of the van. Sweetness was already on her feet.
“That’s a tiger,” Smalley said.
“They’re cats.” Bob locked the gate and checked it.
“Oh, my god,” groaned Woodfield. “I just thought it was some weird car alarm.”
“I’m an animal trainer,” Bob said again. “I work big cats for the movies. Here’s my card. Remember ‘Would Be Adam’? Cliff Englewood’s film?”
“That’s that tiger!” Diaz grinned. “His name is Sweetness?”
“Her name is,” said Bob. “She’s quite an actress. Had even the zoo believing she was a male.” He grinned nervously at Smalley. “She’s really very gentle, and, believe me, I’ve been working big cats long enough to know you don’t take chances.”
Smalley bought it. Well, Bob is blonde, blue-eyed, nice shoulders and chest, with a gorgeous tight ass. The world’s lucky he’s so religious, because with his baby face, he’d have it made as a con man. Not that Bob was lying. He doesn’t mess around when it comes to his cats, and he carries his permits with him.
“So the girl is not your daughter,” said Smalley.
“No,” Bob replied.
“All we know is that her name is Apphia,” I said.
Apphia buried her face in my shoulder.
“Diaz, get a call out to child services for a bed,” ordered Smalley. After getting Woodfield’s name and address and dismissing her, the officer came over and gently touched Apphia’s back.
“Apphia,” she said with more kindness than I would have expected. “Honey, we know you’re scared. But can you tell us your mommy’s name?”
Apphia grabbed on tighter.
“Sweetheart, we want to help you,” Smalley continued. “And we want to help your mommy. Can you tell us your last name?”
Apphia wouldn’t budge. Smalley kept trying, and Bob tried. Even I tried. None of us could get the little waif to say a word. She didn’t tremble or act scared. If she hung on Bob or me, it was more out of defiance than fear.
Unfortunately, Diaz came back with the news that the McLaren Home was filled to the rafters again.
That’s where they usually put kids who’ve been traumatized or abused, and it would have been ideal for Apphia. The only place available was a group home in Echo Park run by a widow named Amarilla Wilson. My colleagues and I referred to her as the schoolmarm from hell. Diaz and Smalley would take Apphia there in the squad car.
Smalley turned to us. “I’ll need your names and address.”
“Robert Zebrinski,” he said, then spelled it. “The address is on the card. Call first. I sometimes let the cats roam.”
Smalley made a note. “And you, ma’am? Same name?”
“No!” I yelped. “Uh. It’s Brenda Finnegan. Like the song.”
Both Smalley and Diaz looked puzzled.
“I keep telling you that reference is too dated,” snickered Bob.
I spelled it. Without melody.
Smalley clicked her pen. “Well, we’ll hand this over to the detectives. With luck, someone will report her missing. A small kid. Somebody’s bound to notice. Stay in touch.”
We had to pry Apphia off of Bob. The officers put her in the car and away they rolled.
“She never asked my address,” I said.
Bob’s chuckle rolled out from deep in his throat.
“Ah, the misguided values of our society. She probably figured if you weren’t terrified of Sweetness, you had to be living with me.”
“Hm.” We got in the van, and Bob pulled out. “I told you I attract violence.”
“Damn it, Brenner, you teach high school in South Central LA. What do you expect?”
“You should’ve seen what happened when I taught in Palos Verdes. Damned senior blew his brains all over first period algebra.”
“Higher Purpose. Like tonight. You stayed clear-headed, got an accurate description of the car, and the license number. Now, that poor woman has a chance.” He reached over and held my hand. “It’s obvious things happen to you. But you keep hiding behind that, and it’s ridiculous. Okay. Your father died a violent death. You’ve seen a lot of violent crimes. You’re scared of getting hurt. Who isn’t? But, Brenner, I’ve survived two maulings and a major automobile accident. When I go, you can be sure God, Himself, called me, and it was my time. And if God calls me, He’ll be there to take care of you.”
I didn’t say anything. When Bob gets religious, there isn’t much to be said. It’s easy for him. If he gets mauled, he can write it off to the perverse nature of cats. It’s the way they are, and you don’t dare take a big cat for granted, even Sweetness.
But how do you handle the pure malevolence we humans throw at each other? I never could answer that, and heaven knows, I’ve seen plenty of it. A perverse nature? We’re supposedly intelligent beings, able to rise above our baser instincts. That may be why Bob and I get on so well. I don’t dare take a human being for granted.