Stuart M. Kaminsky

The Fala Factor

Once in 1945, when General Eisenhower came to lay a wreath on Franklin’s grave, the gates of the regular driveway were opened and his automobile approached the house accompanied by the wailing of the sirens of a police escort. When Fala heard the sirens, his legs straightened out, his ears pricked up and I knew that he expected to see his master coming down the drive as he had come so many times.

— Eleanor Roosevelt, On My Own


The little black dog on my desk wanted to play, but with a corpse sitting in the corner and a murderer on the way up to my office on the elevator I just wasn’t in the mood. I patted his head, tried not to smell his breath, and said, “Maybe later.”

This didn’t please him. The Scottie lay down, covering the letter telling me where I was to pick up my sugar ration stamp book, put his head on his front paws, and looked up at me sadly. I checked my.38 automatic to be sure it was loaded, aimed it tentatively at the door to my office and hoped that I wouldn’t have to use it, and, if I did, that it would work. It had never proved particularly reliable in the past.

Somewhere far below, the elevator of the Farraday Building ground its way upward. When I was a cop in Glendale back in 1933 or ’34, I’d been on a call with my partner, a guy named John Thompson, who was short, dark, like a floor model Philco radio. He had a few months to go before retirement when we saw a couple of guys running out of a cigar store looking a little excited. We would have paid no attention if one of them hadn’t been holding a shotgun.

Thompson had sighed, “Oh shit,” pulled our car over, shuffled out, and, with me backing him up, stepped in front of the two guys, who were so busy looking back at the cigar store they didn’t see us till we were no more than a ten-foot pole apart.

“What seems to be the discrepancy?” Thompson had said in his beer-grated voice. One of the two stopped and turned to us with his mouth open. He was about thirty and needed a shave and a good dentist. The other guy, the one with the shotgun, was older, maybe forty, and apparently slow of mind and body. His shotgun came up in an arc that would have brought its barrel in line with my stomach in the time between two heartbeats. I didn’t, couldn’t move. Next to me I heard Thompson let out the start of a weary little puff of air, but I didn’t hear the end of it. It was covered by the shot that John took at the shotgun holder. My left ear went temporarily deaf but my right ear caught the sound of the shotgun clattering to the sidewalk.

The gun skittered toward us, sending up sparks. The sound went down my back like false teeth on a wet blackboard. That was the sound that the Farraday Building elevator always reminded me of, but that wasn’t the reason I seldom took the elevator. The elevator was just too damned slow for transportation. If it weren’t for the noise, it would have been great for thinking, but I couldn’t think of anything but that shotgun when I rode in the Farraday elevator.

So, there I was, May 1942, a little black dog on my desk, a Tuesday night when I was supposed to have been with Carmen watching Henry Armstrong take on two guys in an exhibition at the Ocean Park Arena. If the dog and I made it through the next hour, I might still be able to pick Carmen up and catch the match. I knew I had at least four bucks left. So, with a buck for the tickets I could … The dog whined. He either needed a walk, sensed my fear, or had some moment of dog magic that told him something was about to happen.

The elevator ground up past the first floor. My office, really a closet inside the offices of Sheldon Minck, D.D.S., was on the fourth floor. So, considering the speed of the elevator and the way things seemed to be slowing down, I had plenty of time. I glanced over at the corpse in the corner. He looked like a guy who just fell asleep waiting in Union Station for the next train to Anaheim. His hands were folded in his lap and his chin was resting on his chest. His eyes were closed. I had closed them. A whisp of hair dangled over his forehead and down past his nose. If he were a cartoon character, he’d have blown the wisp of hair away while still asleep and the audience would have laughed. But he wasn’t blowing and he wasn’t funny.

The dog whined again and I looked down at him. His brown eyes looked up at my face. What he saw was a private detective named Toby Peters who was closer to fifty than forty-five, had more than a few gray hairs in his sideburns, sweated too easily, and lived with an always sore back and memories bought with hard time. Standing up, which I seemed to be doing less and less, I was close to five nine. My face was dark and most notable for the piece of flesh in its center, which could only charitably be called a nose. God began to remold my nose when I was about thirteen. God used my older brother Phil as his instrument and my brother used a baseball. Later God, without too much creativity, remolded the nose some more with an automobile windshield. Still not content, he let my brother put the final touches to the job with his fist.

That God/sculpture explanation isn’t mine. It was given to me a few years back by my landlord at the Farraday, Jeremy Butler, ex-pro wrestler, present poet. I didn’t see the work of God in my nose when I looked in the mirror or at my reflection in a store window on Main Street. I saw a tough-looking, surprisingly amused man who needed a new suit and a shave.

“Dog,” I said aloud. “why am I happy?”

The dog whined again, but it wasn’t heightened animal awareness. I was now sure he needed a walk I looked around and decided that he couldn’t relieve himself anywhere in my office. I could let him out into Shelly’s office and pretend I didn’t know what he was doing. Given the recently scrubbed state of Shelly’s lair, even Shelly might notice.

“Dog,” I whispered, patting his head, “you’ll just have to hold it. Think about something else.”

The dog had no intention of thinking of something else. He stood up again on his stumpy legs and looked toward the window and downtown Los Angeles. There was an alley out there but it was four stories down.

The elevator ground past the second floor and the corpse slumped a little further in his chair, probably from the vibrations of the approaching elevator. Maybe it was a warning. Whatever it was, it scared the dog, which stood up on the desk and proved that he couldn’t think about something else. I jumped up and back, but my office is just big enough for my desk, my chair, and one other chair jammed behind the door. There was no place to escape but out the window. His leg was up and he was aiming at the telephone.

“No,” I said calmly. “Don’t. Wait. For Chrissake, is a little bladder retention too much to ask after all I’ve done for you?”

I didn’t expect him to understand me, at least not the words. When I was a kid, I had had a dog named Murphy. I used to talk to Murphy a lot, and he always pretended that he understood, which is what dogs learn to do early when they discover that they’re really too stupid to understand. Sometimes you can fool a dog that way. The dog in my office was smarter than the average dog. He put his paw down and whined.

I reached over to the desk and into the bag of Fritos I’d picked up earlier at Safeway and offered a handful to the dog. He sniffed at them, forgot his problem for a second, licked a Frito, took one in his mouth, and sat down to chew on it.

I had lost track of time. Maybe it was the grinding of Fritos in dog teeth that had covered the sound, but I suddenly realized that the elevator had stopped. I tried to listen but the dog had gone for the Frito bag and was pushing paper and grinding, his black nose turning Frito orange. The door to the outside office opened, and then the inner door. All that was left for the killer was to take six or seven stops across the room and open my office door. Above the sound of the distracted dog on my desk I counted the steps and watched as the shadow fell across the pebbled glass of my door.

A hand reached for the door, hesitated, and turned the knob. I reached for my gun on the desk, but it wasn’t

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