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Saturday, May 3, 2014

(”Los Angelinos, all come from somewhere, to live in sunshine, their funky exile.")…Billy Joel

For my family

Father Hollyweird"
Chapter One

Bella Terra Italian Ristorante, Los Angeles

            It's no secret that I do my best thinking in dimly lit places with free flowing booze. So it shouldn't surprise anyone to find me squirreled away in a corner booth at the Manzano brothers little slice of Italy, the Bella Terra Restaurant. It's a nice little place located up the street and around the corner from Pershing Square and I had on my thinking cap this evening. Sipping on a glass of house Chianti I was pondering recent events. While I enjoyed a glass of the boys vino with one hand (on the house of course, they think I’m funny, what can I say) I pulled out a folded letter from my coat pocket with the other. You know, it's not everyday one gets mail from God, well, the Roman Catholic Church anyway, close enough I reckon. The letterhead read Archdiocese of Los Angeles no less, interesting. So why were they knocking on my door? I'm a sinner alright but I’m not a Catholic, well, not anymore technically. Rumor has it my old mother raised me as an Irish Catholic. I wonder if this is anything to do with that unfortunate misunderstanding with the collection plate during one Sunday Mass back when I was five or six. Nah, couldn’t be! The truth is if my life thus far can be an accurate measurement of my spiritual performance, then all those childhood lessons were wasted on me. It's not that I don't believe in God because in my own way I sorta do. It's just that I've seen too much of the awful side of life and frankly don't understand how a God of peace and love can allow such things.

            Let's just say that there's a lot I want to talk about when I get the chance to meet up with the boss-man in the sky. I know what you're thinking, WTF right (meaning where's the faith, not the other connotation). I'm afraid personal experiences have jaded me over the years and my faith has been a casualty in the train wreck that is my life. Listen, the truth is the truth even when it hurts to say so out loud. But ya know what, just between you and me and the fencepost, secretly down deep, even with my bad attitude I'm hoping that when I reach the end I'll discover all my doubts were just baloney and that my sainted old mother was right all along. I'll admit that it would be comforting to know that someone might be up there is looking out for yours truly in spite of my bad self. I wish that I could believe in that now, life would be easier but that requires faith, and mine's been missing in action for a long, long time. But hey, never say never, am I right? There’s another old saying from my sainted old mother. Anyway, that's all I want to say about that.

            I unfolded the letter and read it over again, the third time since receiving it. The note was short and sweet, only a couple of paragraphs with very few details. Basically it was an introduction of sorts from Bishop Armando Delarosa, a noteworthy Vatican insider and a minor celebrity in this town, who, at least according to my source was on the short list to become Cardinal Delarosa. My source being my chubby buddy Bradley Truman, an over the top gossip columnist for the Los Angeles Times. In a nutshell Bishop Delarosa wanted to meet with me to discuss a tragic incident at the Egyptian Theater which either directly or indirectly involved the Church by way of a crusading priest with whom I have recently become acquainted. Said priest is maybe ten or fifteen years older than me and my first impressions tagged him as a nice guy, a real man's man who chose a path few consider and fewer still follow. It was his 'calling' if you will. That's an interesting term, 'calling,' I wonder who drops the dime for that call? Anyway, the preacher seemed to be a man of conviction with a predilection for causes that stretched beyond the average Sunday Mass. His medium was film and his zeal for championing his causes might seem vain and contrary to a commitment to God, but appearances can often be misleading.

            I finished my first glass of Chianti (note to self, remind Angelo to get bigger glasses) and poured another from the carafe on the table in my usual corner booth. Angelo calls this booth the poet's corner because it's perpetually reserved for me and I'm always scribbling something into a little spiral notepad. Like I said, it's where I do some of my best thinking. The boys, Angelo and his brother affectionately known as Fat Johnny, owned the joint, Tony's Bella Terra they call it. Actually Tony was the previous owner from back in the Rat Pack days, the pack being Sinatra, Martin, Bishop, and Sammy Davis Jr. for those of you too young to recognize the term. Actually if you're too young to know the term you're probably too young to know the names, smooth detective work Whitey. Anyway, the brothers have been friends of mine since forever, going way back to my uniform days dressed in LAPD blue.

            Tony's Bella Terra and Casey's Irish Cottage were my sanctuaries where I could concentrate and wrestle with the facts while piecing together the puzzles that were my cases, like the one here that Bishop Delarosa wanted to chat about. That being said I fished a #2 pencil and a small spiral notepad out of my shirt pocket and started prepping for my little pow-wow with the top dog holy man downtown. Flipping to a blank page I started working my tried and true dubya dubya dubya outline. Specifically, What I know, What I think I know, and What I want to know. It's how I start every investigation, especially the tough ones, and this one had the telltale signs of being a real killer-diller (no pun intended).

            So, 'W' number one, what do I know? Well to recap, it was a couple of weeks ago I think, at one of my regular poker games back in June, the 7th to be exact, when I first laid eyes on the crusading padre. Officially he was Father Nicholas Aloysius Quinn affectionately known around town in all of the legitimate publications as Father Nick but sarcastically referred to in the gossip rags as Father Hollyweird. The unmistakable sound of a fender bender had distracted me from one of my weekly poker games. No big deal, I had a crappy hand as usual, and I was pretty sure that Fat Johnny had drawn a spade to fill the King high flush that his up cards were hinting at. Uncharacteristically I played it smart and folded my hand and went over to the window to see what was happening on the street below my second floor apartment. I live at the once famous and now infamous Alexandria Hotel located downtown on Spring Street.

            It's not the classiest of neighborhoods, but then it's not the murder capital of Los Angeles either. I've been hanging my hat here ever since my former wife Rhonda divorced me and joined the "XY" team. Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like. My significant other became my significant brother! Take it from me that'll take the lead out of your pencil. She, I mean he, started calling herself, I mean himself, Ronald and wearing her 'fella' uniform which consisted basically of a pair of Levi button down 501 jeans and a Ralph Loren polo shirt. One must never abandon style he says. It's a new world I guess. What was wrong with the old world anyway? It was beautiful! But I digress…

            Anyway, back to that night. From my window I spotted the good Father across the street leading a pack of young people, teens mostly, up the block and around the corner at an hour that was probably past their curfews. Interesting? That set off a few alarms, and being the nosey buttinski that I am I made a mental note to snoop around the next day and see just what was what around that corner. I watched the small crowd dwindle until the last teenybopper disappeared and then walked back to the table to rejoin the card game hoping to win back at least some of the dough I'd lost, but that wasn't likely. I don't like to kid myself, there's no percentage in it. The truth is I'm just a lousy gambler, always have been. I don't have a good poker face, for card games or real life.      

            As usual the card game broke up shortly after dawn, and since I can't sleep once the sun comes up I decided to hoof it a few blocks over to the Nickel Diner for breakfast. That joint is on my short list of local greasy spoons. I should mention that the ND is swankier than any of the others I frequent. Although the help can be a little snooty and they always seem to be bum rushing the clientele maximizing table turns. It's all about the Benjamins, am I right? If you're not ordering take out you better be ready to eat like a starving puppy because the help will circle your table like sharks until you swallow your last bite! By the way, if you ever go there be sure to try the bacon donuts. I swear I'd never heard of such a thing but damn! Just so ya know, in Whitey's book bacon is bliss…nuff said!

            As it happens, the route to the Nickel Diner was the same one travelled by Father Quinn and his flock of teenyboppers, so I kept my eyes peeled for the Piped Preacher of Los Angeles on my way to breakfast. I crossed Spring St. as soon as I exited the Alexandria and walked briskly down 5th heading east towards Main Street only a block away. I didn't have to walk very far before satisfying my curiosity because as soon as I rounded the corner onto I saw several white canvas tents strung along one side of the block, all the way to the stoplight at 6th Street. One of the tents was set up conspicuously in the middle of the street about halfway between 5th and 6th. There was a lot of action going in all directions around that tent which seemed to be the eye of the storm. This kind of activity in this town usually meant somebody was shooting something for either television or film. Hey this was LA after all and Hollywood was only a short ride on Hwy 101, so no big surprise. Being a life long Angelino I've seen my fair share of location shoots. Frankly they annoy the crap outta me with all the commotion they cause. They're almost as bad as California drivers in a rain storm where everyone loses their mind as if they'd never seen falling water before. That goes double wherever cameras are rolling and everyday life is turned on its ear turning regular folk into card carrying lookie-loos!

            I felt the level of activity increase exponentially as I neared the shaded nerve center. Seated in front of a bank of television monitors was a broad shouldered fella wearing a NY Yankees cap turned backwards.  A generous amount of sandy blond hair spilled out from under the bill of the navy blue ball cap and well over his shirt collar.  The poor guy was besieged by a steady stream of buzzing bees requesting that he sign this and initial that. He had to be the Director on this shoot. I counted no less than thirty different people walk in and out of the tent in the three minutes it took me to reach it. Small wonder the skyrocketing price of a movie ticket these days!

            I continued walking up the block just a little past the tent and then turned back to get a better look at the man in charge. What I saw floored me. It was something that you didn't see everyday and something I was not expecting at all. The fella seated in front of the playback monitors and calling all the shots was not your typical Joe Hollywood type. The man with the lens dangling from a lanyard around his neck was an honest to God (pun intended), white collar wearing, crucifix hanging, true confession taking priest, go figure? So, being a curious cat with zero inhibitions I walked right on up to him and introduced myself. I'm not shy, not by any stretch of the imagination, and I just got in line with everyone else waiting for a signature and when my turn came I handed him my business card instead of a clipboard. The busy man didn't even look up.

"What is a Whitey Roode for pity sake?" he asked in a thick Irish brogue.

"It's a detective, and it's me," I replied in my best Humphrey Bogart impression.

"Are you auditioning my son?" the white collared director asked sarcastically.

"Maybe, any parts for the handsome detective type?" I answered matching his sarcasm.

"No," replied the padre sighing audibly. He held my card up as he turned in his chair to face me.

"Whitey Roode, Private Eye," he said, reading my card out loud.

"Sounds more like a statement than a name," he said, removing his spectacles.

            The lines on the priest's face gave away his age, a fact that his lean physique and full head of slightly graying hair had hid at a distance. He looked at me with piercing blue eyes that twinkled even in the shade. I felt like a school boy all of the sudden, taken completely off guard by his natural aura of genuineness. It felt as though I were in a warm embrace sans physical contact, weird? Father Nick stared at me patiently and waited for me to find my voice, which I did abruptly after clearing my throat loud enough to draw a couple of eye rolls.

"Yeah, I get that a lot," I replied finally, thumbing at my nose like a boxer, trying to regain my edge.

"Do you now? Well Mr. Roode, I'm a busy man this fine morning. What can I do for you?" he asked, politely smiling, putting me at ease.

"Actually I don't need anything your Lordship. It's just that you don't see a film making priest everyday. I guess you can say curiosity got the best of me."

"I see. Well, you should know that Lordships belong to members of Parliament. By the way Mr. Roode, do you recall what happened to the curious cat?"

"Call me Whitey, and yeah, I remember padre, it got dead."

"That happens sometimes. I'm Father Quinn, pleasure to meet you Mr. Roode," he said holding out a beefy hand for me to shake. I took it and we went through the firm handshake ritual that all men do. His grip was firm alright, almost to the point of fracturing a couple of my fingers.

"Back attcha your worship, call me Whitey," I said willing myself not to wince while I waited for him to release my aching hand.

"Alright, Whitey it is, and if you don't mind its Father Quinn. Well now, if you'll pardon me I should be getting back to work, as you can see it's a little hectic around here. Stop by the Parish anytime if you'd like to chat some more. You can find me over at St. Anthony's most weekday mornings polishing my homily for the Sunday's Mass.

"Thanks Padre, I just might take you up on that. Well, guess I'll be seeing ya round then," I said as he turned back to face the play back monitors and deal with the hive of buzzing bees competing for his attention.
            I backed my way out of the shade into the morning sunlight and continued walking up Main Street toward the Nickel Diner and breakfast. I wasn't quite sure what to make of Father Quinn just then but I knew that I'd get a good read on him in short order. First impression though, I liked the man, not sure why? He was at the center of a maelstrom caused by what happened at the Egyptian Theater and he was going to need a friend like me. And I hope that I'm up to the challenge. Anyhow that's the genesis of my initial meeting with the principle subject in the case that the Arch Archdioceses' wanted to hire me for. It's what I know so far. I'll cipher on the other dubyas after I eat, I'm starvin Marvin!

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