16 LEW HARPER
Harper/The Moving Target, 1966, USA, Director Jack Smight
I know that Lew Harper worked all over Los Angeles. He was a good man. We were friends. I did some work for him here in Reno and I was always willing. I would do the leg work, and my wife Phyllis used to check any local records. Sometimes I’d pop down to LA and we’d have a few beers and talk about what was wrong with the damned country. He once said to me, ‘Arnie, I’d like a job where death was not so close and grim.’ I knew what Lew meant. I told him it could be worse. We could have worked in a mortuary.
I can tell you that Lew Harper was straight, a good detective. He had these blue eyes that women liked but the man also had principles, too many for some. He wasn’t popular, even with his blue eyes. Lew was too straight for the Long Beach Police Department. They fired him on some trumped up charge. Lew knew it was coming. His boss said something like there’s always one, and you’re it and you’re fired. After that Lew went private. He slept in his office, and somehow kept his car on the road although you should have seen the state of the thing. The worst thing that happened to Lew Harper was Susan leaving. He never did get over her but, as Phyllis said to Lew on more than one occasion, he did not make it easy for the lady. The good news was that they didn’t have kids. Lew didn’t have to worry about that, just the rent on the office and keeping his motor on the road. Pity about Susan, though. She knew how to look after a man and I can tell you she was built. In that way Lew was a fool.
It didn’t help that he liked to have the last word. He was fine with Phyllis and me but his mouth too often got him into trouble. Lew worked in military intelligence in the war and that was where he met Albert Graves. Lew discovered that we all had secrets. Lew was too good at finding out what was behind the front door. It left him with a sour heart. He discovered there is more than death that is grim. He used to say to me, ‘Arnie, we all have to die.’ I know that, I’d say. ‘So why can’t we just behave ourselves in the stuff before?’ That’s the mystery, I’d say. If Lew liked a drink, it didn’t do him much harm. He kept his good looks and stayed in shape. Most of what he earned went on rent, the car and his suits for business. After that there wasn’t that much money for booze.
I know that Lew Harper and Albert Graves are still friends. They’ve been pals since those days in the war. Albert understood. Lew had no option other than to tell the cops what he knew. Ralph Sampson was the guy that Albert killed. Ralph was loaded, a multi-millionaire when a million could buy you a Los Angeles boulevard. Albert was not long in prison. He had a smart lawyer that found as much dirt on Ralph Sampson as he could. After that no one in the jury gave a damn about what had happened to Ralph Sampson or that his murderer was sitting in the middle of the courtroom.
Albert Graves was lucky. Knock off a millionaire and you expect the family to hire the best lawyer. But his family didn’t give a damn. Ralph Sampson was not just cruel to his relatives, he liked to play the field. His wife and her stepdaughter detested Ralph almost as much as they hated each other. As far as they were concerned, Albert had done them a favour. The defence also had some tale about how Sampson had mistaken Albert for one of his kidnappers. According to this smart lawyer, Ralph Sampson panicked and attacked Albert. The smart lawyer claimed Albert was terrified and fired his gun.
Sampson had been held up in this wrecked tanker by this doped up lady piano player, her brother and her boyfriend. Lew knew all this and more. The boyfriend of the doped up lady piano player was hanging around Miranda, the daughter that hated Dad. Miranda knew nothing about the kidnapping. Lew had discovered Sampson because the doped up lady piano player had confessed to Lew and had taken him to the wrecked tanker. When Lew went on the tanker looking for Sampson, the doped up lady piano player drove off in his car. His wife Susan may have found Lew impossible to live with but he could be gallant with women. This might be why Lew left the lady piano player behind in his car.
Lew had asked Albert to meet him at the tanker. Lew arrived, and there was no Albert and a dead Ralph Sampson. Lew got knocked out with a blow to the back of the head. I know because I felt the lump that was left. Albert appeared and woke up a drowsy Lew Harper. Like a good friend, Albert drove Lew home. The truth, though, was that Albert was there before Lew arrived. Lew figured Albert had killed Sampson. At one point Albert threatened Lew with a gun but they had seen too much together in the war. Albert dropped his gun and explained everything. This was how Lew knew that the courtroom story about Albert defending himself against Ralph Sampson was a load of hooey. Lew said nothing, though. He had handed Albert to the police and, as far as Lew was concerned, that was enough. He had stayed true to his principles. All in all Albert was lucky.
Lew Harper was not a vindictive man. He liked to do his job and do the right thing. Lew Harper was a handsome man but he kept people at a distance. After Susan the women should have queued up in a line but they didn’t. I know there were other casualties in the Sampson case. Alan Taggert, the boyfriend of the female piano player, was killed by Albert although Lew reckoned that Albert really did believe that Taggert at the time was going to kill Lew. I’m not so sure. I think Albert knew more about the kidnapping than he pretended. Miranda lost a father and a boyfriend. The step-mother was fine. She was glad to see the back of the cruel husband. Albert said he killed Ralph because when he saw him there inside the tanker he remembered all the cruelty and felt it had to end. Albert Graves also had the hots for Miranda, and there was no way Ralph Sampson would let that happen. How much of this is thought through before a killing, I don’t know. I’ve never killed anyone. Maybe Albert just reacted, a lot just bubbled up inside him. Maybe Albert got used to life without Ralph Sampson and couldn’t face him coming back.
Albert, though, was serious over Miranda. Lew said she was a gorgeous dope but she was just a kid. After her father died Miranda needed to get away from the wicked step-mother and Miranda meandered over to Italy. I discovered that Miranda met serious people. There must have been something in that Italian way of life that affected her. She cut off her gorgeous brunette locks, dyed the rest blonde and appeared in these serious Italian art movies. The last I heard Miranda was married to an academic philosopher. The news affected Lew, made him hate Los Angeles even more and how it stunted people. Lew could never leave, though. I was built for this dung heap, he would say. That was the difference. Miranda got out of LA while she was still young. Lew called her the one that got away.
People don’t like to talk about it but in southern California over the years they’ve had problems with the Klan. Folks from Dixie came to work in the steel factories. Most were okay, and a lot of them were black but amongst the white folks a few were keen to establish Klan chapters. The LAPD didn’t want to know about Klan persecution. The NAACP had to hire private help. Lew got involved. Lew was too young to do anything in ‘49 when O’Day Short and his family were killed. O’Day Short was a black activist who didn’t like how housing estates in LA had to be either black or white. The Klan didn’t like him not liking segregation and they bombed out him and his family. This stuff didn’t end in ‘49. The Klan kept going away and coming back. Lew worked with the NAACP a few times. They liked him, and he enjoyed the work, more than digging his nose into the scandals of rich families, even if that paid well. Lew didn’t like the rich. He called the rich the sour cream that rises to the top.
We had a small theatre in Reno. The actors were young people. They put on all kinds of weird stuff but it made a change from casinos and stupid cop movies. Lew was here for a weekend, and Phyllis and me dragged him to see this Greek thing called ‘Oedipus’. I don’t know why but Lew got really interested in ancient Greek drama. He went to see all the plays, read books about it, but didn’t talk much about what it all meant. He liked to keep it to himself. One night, though, I was in LA. I’d left Phyllis at home in Reno. Lew and me got together and drank a few beers. I asked him, ‘Lew, what’s with all this Greek stuff?’ He said he liked it. It helped him think about some of the cases he’d had to handle. ‘I see,’ I said, although I didn’t. I remember what followed. Lew took a breath, sipped his beer, paused and said, ‘Arnie, the cars get bigger but nothing changes.’ I’d have said something but he just sat there and laughed.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.