WHEN JAZZ WAS HOT
AND CARS WERE COOL AND DEADLY

By Kris Neri

I was coming up on the end of a dark seven -- that's a depressing week to those of you from Squaresville. Heat had been blowing in from hell, and everyone with wheels and enough scratch had taken off for chillier climes. For a cat who makes his living parking cars, that meant I'd been piling up more Z's on the job than the dimes I needed to pay the rent on my pad. But even if it was a sultry August night in 1959, my turf was L.A.'s Sunset Strip, the coolest place and the hottest time in the history of forever. I was one lucky cat to be making this scene, I thought, snapping my fingers for emphasis.

I parked the rear of my blue iridescent sharkskin pants on the fender of my own wheels, a cherry '29 Ford T-bucket, and ran a comb through my hair. Who says you can't top perfection? Moody notes wailed out the door of Dino's, the lodge I stowed wheels for, where jazz is one scorching king. I kept my eyeballs rolling across the Strip, even if nothing was happening there. Until something tripped me to the fact that my luck was about to change.

Stu and Jeff, the cats next door to Dino's, operate a private peepers firm. But they'd locked the place up tighter than a drum this week and peeled off with Suzanne, their telephone chick, to the French Rivera. I'd been after them for a score of 30s -- that's months to you -- to let me sign onto their gig, but they didn't think I was ready to join their payroll. How could I get ready if they wouldn't give me a chance?

But now the ginchiest chick was making her knuckles beat a rat-a-tat-tat against the peepers' door. "Is anyone there?" she called. "Please, I need your help."

Maybe twenty-three and put together with the best plan I'd seen the Man upstairs wig to in ages, she wore a white linen dress that skimmed major league curves. Her hair did a double for coal, and it flipped out above her shoulders in the do sometimes worn by that groovy Jackie-chick, whose old man was making a run for the big White Shack back in DC-town. Not a single hair was out of place; a chick after my own thumper. The only thing about her that was less than perfect was a dark smudge of soot or something, but it looked kinda cute on her little turned-up nose.

Ran the comb through my own cool locks again, and I sauntered her way. "Hey, babe. I work for the cats." I gestured to the private peepers' door. "Any way I can help?"

Her big blue orbs widened in relief and a grateful smile tugged at cherry lips I intended to make my own before this gig was over. I took her into Dino's and laid some bread on the bar for a pair of cold foams, and I perked up my ears while she told me her tale.

The kitten's name was Marianne Conners, and she wore a rock on her left hand that made Gibraltar look like a pebble. She twisted the ring while she talked. "I was engaged to Stan Kessler. Have you ever heard of him?"

"Stan 'the Man'?" That cat had wailed the hottest horn since Gabriel. "You kidding?" I pointed to the black armbands the bartenders in Dino's had worn since Stan flew his Stingray all the way to the Pearly Gates five weeks before. But engaged to Marianne? The last time Stan had played here, he left with another chick on his arm.

Marianne gestured out to the Strip. "The winding parts of Sunset -- Stan always took them too fast."

Dead Man's Curve, I called the section of Sunset in Beverly Hills. I'm coining that term. Mark my words, man, someone's gonna dig it before long.

"But Stan was a great driver, and he always kept his car in great condition," Marianne said. "The police have ruled Stan's death an accident. But I'm sure someone killed him. Can you help me find out who?"

Could I? Man, I was jazzing to the whole scene. This was not only my chance to prove to Stu and Jeff that I was ready for their gig, it also gave me a way to help a kitten who was already making my thumper hum. Daddy-O, I gotta tell you, I'm the luckiest cat on this third rock from the sun.

Third rock from the sun -- that's another jingle I'm coining. You'll be hearing that one, too, before you know it.

After Marianne split, I tapped Benny, one of the bartenders at Dino's, for the authentic dirt about the kitten Stan had been catnapping with the last time I eyeballed him.

"Nola Parker," Benny said with knowing nod. "A party girl, lives in an apartment up the hill, works in some auto parts store down on Crescent Heights. Sure to turn up whenever she thinks there's someone around to show her a good time."

I snapped my fingers at him to show my thanks. Then, while I ran a comb through my hair, I laid on Benny the patter Marianne had given me, about their being close to getting hitched.

"Stan wasn't ever gonna be a one-woman man," Benny said with a shrug, "but that wouldn't have stopped him from setting some babe up behind a picket fence. And your little cutie is the type for a long-term thing, whereas Miss Nola is not. Of course, both Stan and Nola had stars in their eyes the last time I seen them together, and he was throwing a lot of bread her way."

"Benny, my man, how would this Nola chick take it if Stan cut the flow of the bread? Would she have seen enough red to make him sorry he didn't keep the party going?"

Benny rolled that idea around in his noggin. "If she didn't have someone else lined up to take his place -- I'd say she would."

When the rays came on strong the next a.m., I dropped in on Lieutenant Fiore, a strictly Squaresville cat who wore thirty extra pounds of manicotti beneath his belt, but who always dealt the peepers the straight scoop.

"Hey, kid. Stu has you working for him and Jeff now?" the Loot asked me with a skeptical squint.

"Nah, I'm just playing like a pigeon, while they're swooping the French scene," I said, making like I was just delivering a message. "The cats wanna know what you have on that hipster, Stan Kessler, tapping out of this world?"

With a sigh, the Loot pulled a file from a stack on his desk. "Tell 'em they're barking up the wrong tree this time, kid. No mystery about it. Mr. Kessler was just driving too fast and lost control of the wheel over at --"

"Dead Man's Curve," I said.

The Loot's brown eyes widened with respect behind his four-eyes-makers. "Yeah. That's what someone oughta call that spot."

Me. I just did. "So it doesn't look like someone stomped him out?"

Lieutenant Fiore shook his head. "No, why would they? Men loved his playing, women loved his talk. Who'd do it?"

Maybe one who ceased to dig him after she learned Stan didn't blow air merely through his horn.

After splitting from the Loot, I stopped along Sunset to take a gander at the tree on someone's front lawn that Stan had used to stop the Stingray. The tree did the job, but it was its last. The Vette's engine had shattered the trunk and sent the tree's top half toppling. I stood on the ground, beneath the spot where its leaves had once roosted, rolling my eyeballs at where Stan's tires had torn up the terra and left it covered with fresh, jagged oak splinters.

Stay cool, Daddy-O, I told myself when it started to look like my first case had already busted. If the truth was that clear, the Loot would have flipped to it.

So I stared and stared and still came up with nothing. It was only when I was headed back to the T-bucket that I looked back and noticed the Vette's wheels had left non-parallel ruts when it tore through the grass, as if they tried to turn in different directions. Gotcha! I snapped my digits twice to show how hip I was to what had gone down there.

I pointed the T-bucket toward the junkyard off Jefferson, where the Loot told me the wrecked Stingray had been trashed. For the chance to let my Alexander Hamilton -- that's a ten-spot to you -- warm the inside of his pocket, the cat who ran the junkyard told me where to find what was left of Stan's wheels.

The crumpled Vette sat in the middle of the dusty yard, waiting for its turn beneath the crusher. I snapped my fingers at a teenage kid who worked there, and for an Abraham Lincoln, the kid agreed to hold one end of the wreck so I could take a gander at the underside.

It didn't take long to find it, since I was cool with what I expected to find. The ginchiest way to cause steering to fail is to make the steering linkage underneath the car fall apart. And any cat who knows how wheels work would know how to do it, even a cat like me who acted like he was more hip to car technology than he was. The pivoting part, that engine-cats call the idler arm, has a small shaft, which goes through a hole on the steering linkage. Can you dig it? And a nut that makes like a king's pad holds it in place. You make the space between the square towers of the castle nut jazz to the hole through the shaft, and put a cotter pin through to lay on some double safety.

But if a cat removes the nut and sticks a piece of wood in the cotter pin hole, the linkage will stay up until the first hard jolt snaps the wood. When it does, the steering fails -- and sends the driver off to visit the cat who guards the Pearly Gates.

I eyeballed the cotter pin hole. A piece of wood -- squared off like a matchstick and dyed green -- was still stuck in the hole. Man, I was one lucky cat.

Some bad jazz was really coming down now. Before I peeled away from the junkyard, I told the cat keeping my Alexander Hamilton that the fuzz would want to examine the underside of Stan's old wheels, and he should treat it like a baby from now on. Cruising up Fairfax, I stopped at the first public horn I spotted and popped some coin in the slot. I placed a jingle to Roscoe, the racetrack cat who liked to groove with the peepers, asking him to meet me at Dino's that night.

On the way back to the Strip, I stopped at the auto parts store on Crescent Heights, where Benny told me Nola Parker made her bread. Well, some of it. I spotted her behind the counter right away. A cool blonde whose curls danced all the way down to her shoulders, and whose twin set looked like it must have belonged to her smaller sister. You'd expect a blonde who looked like her to be filling her sweater out at Schwab's Drugstore, but she was doing okay there, where cats stood in line before her station at the counter, just itching for this chick to handle their parts. Auto parts, that is.

I slid closer to the counter, where Nola was handing some cat the thrill of his life, along with a new muffler, just by letting her digits brush his. I listened to her lick. No question, she had the auto lingo down pat, too. A chick who knew cars? Can you dig it?

The heat was still rising, but with the top down on the T-bucket, I not only looked cool behind the wheel, I felt it. I cruised on over to the insurance office on Wilshire in Beverly Hills, where Marianne answered the phones. I found her at the front desk, but she didn't seem cool with my being there.

"What are you doing here?" she squeaked.

The mayor of Squaresville, a cat in a gray suit, sauntered past. But the cat was mellow, after all. "A new fella, Marianne?" he asked. "Stan would have wanted you to move on."

Marianne lowered her face, but not before I saw a blush creep up from the neckline of her yellow dress. "Just a friend, Mr. Barnes."

With a kindly smile, the cat said, "Well, why don't you take your young man out for a soda?"

Not giving him a chance to change his mind, I took Marianne's elbow and led her up the street to the soda shop. Over Cokes in small green bottles, I laid the truth on her about Stan and Nola. I expected those big blue eyes to make like a faucet, but Marianne just shook her head.

"Do you think I didn't know what Stan was like? I was engaged to the man, remember? He had a roving eye, and naturally, with the wedding coming up, he developed cold feet. He told me all about that girl when he broke it off with her. He also told me she made some nasty threats." Anger flared in Marianne's eyes. "Now can you see why I can't accept the police version of Stan's death? You're not going to give up on this, are you?"

With a snap of my fingers, I told her I wouldn't. And I added that I might have good news for her soon. When she heard that, the kitten planted a kiss on my cheek. Messed up her hair, messed up mine -- we both combed our dos into place. But it sure made my thumper whirl like a washing machine.

It was time for my gig at Dino's, but with customers making like Casper this week, I knew I'd have no trouble cutting out for sixty fast ones -- that's minutes to you -- when Roscoe showed up.

With his tweed hat crushed on his head, and eyeballs that just naturally rolled to the winners, Roscoe sashayed up to the T-bucket. "What kinda trouble do you have on tap for me tonight, my man?" he asked with a laugh.

When I laid it on him, he still swung hip to it. That's the kind of cat Roscoe was. We piled in the T-bucket and headed for the real estate overlooking the Strip, the location of Nola's pad that Benny had given me. Just to be sure she wasn't home, I laid a little rhythm on her apartment door. When no one answered, Roscoe used his picks to let us make the scene.

The pad was just one big room, with a sofa bed pulled out, and more clothes scattered around than a Hollywood wardrobe department might have. It was hard to see how we were gonna score a needle in that haystack. Since the little kitchen in the corner seemed the most neglected part, we started there. Apart from a couple of aluminum TV dinner trays stuffed in the trash, it was bare. Something told me this chick didn't spend much time behind the range.

Roscoe started opening doors while I pulled at the drawers. That cool cat homed in on it before I did. "This what you're looking for, my man?" he asked.

He showed me a box of green matchsticks, from a joint called "Paddy's Shamrock Pub." Right next to it on the shelf was the castle nut from some car's steering.

Having taken it as far as I could, I laid it all on Lieutenant Fiore then. But the Loot didn't give it quite the reception I was going for.

With a shake of his balding head, he said, "I don't know, kid. You're asking me to buy a lot. Green matches and rigged steering?" He waved a finger in my face. "And that was breaking-and-entering, in case you don't know. I oughta put you away for that."

I made like a clam on that one till the storm passed.

"But since it's for Stu, I'll look into it. If I don't find anything real fast, it's over. Understand?"

I didn't see him again until the Loot showed up at Dino's the next night. My thumper beat fast as he ambled up the drive to me. This would decide it. Whether I stowed wheels for the rest of this earthly scene, or if I graduated to private peeper.

"You did it, kid," the Loot said. "You tumbled to the fact that Stan Kessler had been murdered, when we had no idea." He gave me a grin and patted his big round belly. "It came together just like you said. The green matchsticks in her apartment matched the one in the cotter pin hole in Kessler's Stingray. The grease on the castle nut matched what his mechanic used on the rest of the steering apparatus. We still want to talk with his mechanic, but that's not critical. We've even found Miss Parker's fingerprints on other parts in the Stingray's steering assembly."

"So that chick, Nola, really iced him?" And I solved it.

"Sure looks that way. She hasn't confessed yet. Claims she can talk car parts, but she doesn't know the first thing about fixing 'em. But we'll break her." He laid a big grin on me. "You done good, son."

I snapped my fingers to show how cool I was. But I played it down with a careless shrug. "The jazz a cat or kitten blows wails on. If it didn't hit my lobes, it would have been someone else's." Gave my hair a quick comb.

"Uh...right," the Loot said. He tossed off a quick wave before he headed back to the station to book Nola Parker for the murder of Stan Kessler.

After Dino gave me the rest of the night off, I gave Marianne a jingle, asking her to hop down to the Strip if she wanted some to hear some righteous news. I figured we'd groove to the cat tinkling the keyboard in Dino's, but when Marianne showed up in her powder blue '56 T-bird, all she wanted was to let those wheels roll. But she was so excited by my news, she asked me to take the wheel.

We cruised down Sunset all the way to the beach.

"You did it!" Marianne said. "I knew you would. Now that awful woman will never hurt anyone again."

"Can you imagine a chick offing a guy just cause he dumped her?"

Marianne didn't answer. With a satisfied sigh, she just threw her head back until we parked near where Sunset meets the sand.

Once I switched off the ignition, I planned to put the moves on that sweet chick, only slowly. But Marianne beat me to the punch. Before I could turn her way in the driver's seat, she was on me like white on rice, man.

After a while, Marianne whispered, "Let's go back to my place."

Didn't have to ask me twice. I grabbed the key and gave that little honey of a T-bird so much juice, I flipped the engine out.

"You flooded it," Marianne snapped. In the moonlight, I could see annoyance flash in her eyes.

"It's cool, baby," I said. "We'll just wait --"

She jumped out and popped open the hood. Slowly, I followed her around the front of the car. Gas was pouring out the top of the carburetor. I just kept eyeballing it, not digging the idea of admitting I wasn't as hip to cars as I made out.

Marianne flashed me a superior grin. "Looks like the needle valve is stuck. We could wait all night and it would never clear itself. Why don't you make yourself useful and find my pliers?"

I reached back into her glove box and found a pair, which I handed to her. While I watched, she pinched off the rubber gas hose and told me to crank it over with the throttle pressed full down.

"Donít pump it," she said. "Hold it open. We need as much air as we can get."

The impatient flash in the chick's dark eyes punctuated her order. I hoped back into the car and turned the key. The engine roared to life with a black sputter of smoke out the exhaust. Marianne let go of the pliersí grip, slammed the hood down with both hands and climbed back into the powder blue buggy. Her hair was askew now and there was a dark streak of grease on her cheek.

"Keep it revved," she instructed.

I did what she said. But some bad jazz started drifting into my thoughts. A dark streak...? I remembered the spot of soot on her nose the first time I saw her. The truth wailed into me.

"You --" I stammered. "It was you, not Nola. You know cars. You rigged Stan's steering and killed him. And you set up that kitten to take the fall."

A smirk turned her righteous lips into an ugly gash across her face. "Aren't you the clever boy?"

"Why?" I shrieked. Man, I needed some headache grapplers in a hurry. All at once a hammer was pounding between my ears.

Marianne shrugged. "Stan fell hard for that cheap piece of goods. And he tried to give me the boot. He demanded that I give him the ring back, and he wanted this car, too. This is my car, even if the title was in his name. I wasn't giving it or him up for anything. Surely you can see they both had to be punished for what they did to me."

"Nooo," I moaned. All my cool abandoned me. "But how...?"

"And I thought you were so smart," she said with a click of her tongue. "It was easy, really. I've always maintained Stan's Stingray. He thought it was a hoot that his girl worked on his car."

"The matches?" I asked.

"Mine. I picked them up last St. Patrick's Day." She heaved an angry snort. "Stan and his little friend weren't that discreet. I tumbled to their affair long before he told me. And I noticed that a strange key had appeared on his key ring. When he gave me his keys so I could work on his car, I made a copy. Then I followed him to her little love nest."

"But her fingerprints were on his steering assembly. Oh, I'm hip to what you did -- you bought those parts from her."

In the darkened T-bird, Marianne giggled. "Better still, I sent him there for them. They really must have thought they put one over on me."

I ran my fingers through my hair. My fingers, not my comb. I felt like someone from Squaresville, but I couldn't help it.

I swallowed hard. "We'll have to tip Lieutenant Fiore to what you did."

"Now don't you go getting any dumb ideas, sugar. You are never going to tell this to anyone. Remember how I handled Stan, and think about all the time you spend behind the wheel."

My throat made like the Sahara.

"Besides, honey, we're together now, you and me. Forever."

Forever? Tell me the kitten's lick was a total lie. This cat felt like his luck had all run out.

Marianne rested her head on my shoulder and heaved a contented sigh. But when she caught sight of her tousled locks in the rearview mirror, she sat up and twisted the mirror to face her. She tried to fix the do with her fingers but wasn't cool with the result.

"Now that we're a couple, honey, be a sport." She held her palm out before me.

My eyeballs just kept rolling on it, unhip to her meaning.

"Come on, Kookie, why don't you lend me your comb?"

The End