I was writing a blog entry when the call came. Not this entry, but an earlier one from a different case. My assistant Kyle called from the other room.
“Jim Fabulous on One!”
Jim’s last name isn’t really Fabulous; it is Fabulo. But no one can resist adding the extra “us.” And truth be told, Jim was a pretty swell guy. The only private eye in town that I don’t consider a competitor. Over the years Jim Fabulous has tossed several cases my way when his plate gets too full, which is quite fab indeed.
I picked up the phone. Jim gave me the details. His client, Marri, wanted a detective to track down her missing son. Marri was agoraphobic, which as it turns out, has nothing to do with having a fear of driving through Agoura, California. Jim said if I wanted the case, I’d need to stop by Marri’s apartment because she never went out of doors.
Now, I’m not agoraphobic, and I hate to judge… but why would you live in San Francisco if you were afraid of being near people? We’re stacked four deep over here.
So two hours later I found myself in Marri’s apartment. She may be afraid of people, but she has no fear of clutter. Every wall in the place had a layer in front of it. Boxes, books, and stacks of newspapers. All she needed was some wood kindling and a match.
“Roland’s been gone for three weeks,” she lamented. “He won’t answer his phone. I’m worried he’s gone back to working for that bookie.”
A bookie? Now things were getting interesting.
“Marri, do you have the name or address of this bookie character?”
“I think his name is Brice. I have the number. Last time Roland did call, he called from this line.”
I waited while Marri sorted through four different stacks of debris. At last she pulled out a torn piece of notebook paper. A telephone number was scrawled on there, next to a checklist of grocery items. Marri tore off the half with the phone number. Then she gave me a photo of her son Roland. It really wasn’t necessary -- he looked just like her. Pale and jowly. The main difference was his head. Whereas mom wore a tight perm, Roland shaved his head bald.
The phone number wasn’t hard to trace. My friend at the phone company got back to me in thirty minutes with a street address. I can’t divulge my sources, so let’s just call him Jerry. And Jerry always comes through.
Brice the bookie lived across the street from the south side of Golden Gate Park. As I walked up to his restored Victorian, I could hear distant drums from somewhere in the park behind the trees. There were no brassy cymbal crashes or tubas, so that ruled out a marching band. More likely a drum circle of Deadheads from the Haight. I rang the bell at the first floor. I waited as the drumming went on for four measures. Then I rang again.
Around the side of the house, I heard a wooden screen door clatter shut. I turned to spot Roland hoofing across the street in an orange flight jacket. The bald dome was unmistakable. I ran after Roland, but had to do the Frogger leap-wait-leap routine to get through passing cars. I caught sight of Roland vanishing over a rise as he slipped through the trees. Moving for the center of the park.
The drumming grew louder as I raced after Roland. My own personal tribal chase soundtrack, now accompanied by chanting. Were these Native Americans? The path came around a bend and I charged straight at a parade of Hare Krishnas, chanting, waving, and beating their drums. My eyes scanned the crowd for Roland… but it was useless. Waldo would have been easier to spot. Every single one of these Hare Krishnas sported a shaved head and an orange wrap. Roland could have marched right past me and I would have missed him.
After they passed, I looked around the perimeter for Roland, but he was gone. It was pointless to continue. Instead, I trotted across the street and returned to Brice’s house. The side door from which Roland bolted was closed but unlocked. I entered the house.
“Hello?” I called out.
No shotgun blasts came in response. No Ninja stars suddenly appeared in my forehead. I felt confident I was alone, so I moved deeper in. The first floor was well kept. Nothing to implicate the house as the lair of a criminal. Marri could learn a thing or two about housekeeping from Mr. Brice. I moved upstairs. In the second bedroom I found an old Hollywood makeup mirror fitted with a ring of naked bulbs. Beside it sat a row of severed heads.
Let me rephrase that.
Beside it sat a row of white wig forms. Each blank white face wore a different colored wig. Some male, some female, some punk. I stepped inside and examined the wigs. This might explain Roland’s head-shaving behavior. If he wore the wigs as disguises, a smooth scalp would make transitions that much easier.
I checked the rest of the room. One bureau drawer held a collection of wallets with various forged ID’s. Each had a photo of Roland wearing a different wig. He was a master con man.
I was startled by footsteps in the hallway.
“Roland?” a man’s voice called out.
My eyes darted for a place to hide. But there wasn’t time. As the footsteps came to the bedroom door, I snatched a woman’s shoulder-length brunette wig and slipped it over my head. I turned to the window as Brice entered behind me.
“I got some food,” said Brice.
Feeling like Norman Bates, I mumbled in response.
“I’ll be in the shower,” said Brice.
Shower. He actually said that word. I nearly laughed and reached for a butcher knife. Brice left. The ruse had worked. I pulled the wig off and waited for the sound of the water pipes. The Psycho reference struck a nerve. I looked over at the last wig form and recognized the curly red locks. With that on his head, Roland could easily pass for his Mother.
As she was a shut-in, I guessed Roland had been going about town impersonating her. That certainly could be why she wanted him found. Or perhaps that was always their arrangement?
This is San Francisco. Lord knows, I’ve seen stranger things.