The Flaming Motel - By Fingers Murphy


November 1


It was a banner headline, front page, above the fold: Pornography Mogul Shot by Police at Costume Party. Apparently a toy gun had been mistaken for the real thing. A hell of an error to make on Halloween. I was reading the story, both amused and appalled, when the call came in.

I glanced up. Through my office doorway I saw Jendrek answer the phone on Ellen’s desk. He made a few grunts into the receiver, nodded, looking over at me. Our eyes met and he grinned. I heard him mention Professor Stanton. I heard him say we’d handled these kinds of cases before and that we appreciated Mr. Stanton thinking of us. I heard him say we’d be happy to meet whoever it was wherever would be most convenient. He bent over the desk, scrambled for a pen and paper, and scribbled something down.

I was sitting with my feet up on the desk, still holding the paper, when I heard him hang up and say, “Grab your coat, Ollie, we’ve got a meeting to get to.”

Jendrek was halfway out the door when he stopped, leaned back inside and said, “And bring the newspaper, we can learn something about this thing on the way up there.”

I threw on a sport coat and locked the office door behind me, fumbling with the key. Ellen wouldn’t even be in for another hour. We usually sat around drinking coffee at this time of morning. Not much to do. Our law practice wasn’t exactly on fire.

Jendrek was holding the elevator at the end of the hallway, grinning out at me. He was twice my age, but his cherubic round face would have made him look a lot younger, were it not for his shoulder-length gray hair. “Come on, man,” he hollered.

“What is it?” I asked as the elevator closed.

He flicked the paper I was holding with his finger and said, “The lead story. Don Vargas, the porn king. That was his son on the phone. We’re going to meet him, and Vargas’s wife too, I imagine.”

I unfolded the paper and stared at the headline again, having already forgotten the name of the dead man. Jendrek pointed at the paper again as the elevator opened onto the parking structure two levels below ground. He spoke as he walked to his car, rushing. Always rushing. “Apparently Max Stanton represents Vargas’s companies. The family called him in the middle of the night when it happened, and he recommended me if they were interested in suing the police department.”

He unlocked his 1974 Jaguar and hit the automatic locks to let me in. I slid into the passenger seat, still processing what he said. Jendrek laughed as he pulled out of the garage and headed east down Santa Monica Boulevard. “Hell, I knew all that adjunct teaching at the law school would have to pay off someday. If that story in the paper is even half right, we might actually have a good case.”

He was positively giddy, which wasn’t like Jendrek at all. He was usually a stone-cold cynic. I found it amusing and called him on it. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself? You know journalists never get legal stuff right.”

He gave me a sideways glance. “You’re one to talk about that.”

He had me there, and his statement cut to the bone. A journalist had gotten murdered in connection with the very first case I ever worked on. It was the case that both made me and broke me, and I still felt bad about getting the journalist involved at all, even though I had nothing to do with his getting killed. It was just one of those terrible things that happen in the world, one of those terrible things I was getting more and more used to in the four years I’d been out of law school and practicing with Jendrek.

He could sense my rumination and said, “Hey, I didn’t mean to bring you down. I was just joking.”

“I know.” And I did. But there wasn’t much else to say. I returned to reading the paper as Jendrek took a left on Doheny and headed up into the Hollywood Hills. We crossed Sunset Boulevard and kept climbing. The houses grew larger and larger, shrouded by canopies of palm fronds and surrounded by high hedges, ivy-covered walls, and security gates. After a few minutes, I forgot about the past enough to get curious again.

I said, “Jesus, how far up does this guy live?”

Jendrek smiled. “All