Detective Stories: An Introduction

Helen Hufford, “Photo Smarts”
Jonathan Richmond, “The Float”
Chris Panzarella, “Out at Home”
Jason Brown, “Max Parker”
Nicole Stout, “Where’s the Canary?”

An Introduction by David Dougherty:

A couple of weeks ago at my retirement job, the vicar of a nearby Episcopal Church expressed a popular response to my current project, wrapping up a class called “Detective Fiction and Film.” The good Doctor immediately exclaimed, “What an exciting class!” But later, when she asked me to share some of the details with her spouse, a lawyer, she had undergone something of a change of heart. She questioned the legitimacy of offering a class in Sherlock Holmes over one in Shakespeare. And her husband pretty much agreed. So did a Baltimore Sun newspaperman when he interviewed me many years ago on the occasion of the very first, undergraduate, edition of this class.

Legitimate question. And for the record, I do offer a Liberal Studies class in called Shakespeare and Film, but it has never achieved the enrollments of detective fiction. Not consistently, at least. This spring, detective fiction closed on the first day of registration, and I can’t recall ever delivering this class to a less-than-full enrollment. This time, because of an anomaly in the schedule, it ran with 150% of the maximum enrollment. Although market value is a less than ideal criterion for academic legitimacy, there is something beyond merely reading about Sherlock Holmes that appeals to an intelligent, critical audience of graduate students.

And of course, that’s what our semester was about. We read a great deal more – qualitatively as well as quantitatively – than the great British sleuth, and along the way we learned that the form itself comes out of and reflects values that evolved with the Scientific Revolution. Of course, in A Study in Scarlet, John Watson, a physician returned from war in Afghanistan (plus ca change, a point brilliantly made in Martin Farrell’s portrayal of Watson in the first of the Farrell-Nicholas Cumberbatch films of 2011-2012) makes the acquaintance of an idiosyncratic chemist named Holmes. As we read Sir A. Conan Doyle, or Dorothy Sayers, we’re invited to share an artistic illusion that the human mind is sufficient to solve all our problems, be they social or even moral. And when it’s done well that’s the most comforting illusion of them all.

Most of the students, however, found themselves more at home in the native tradition, based not on science but on existential uncertainty. The detective becomes not a superior observer (and, really, some of Holmes’s observations which morph into clues are downright silly; many of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown’s are), but a determined seeker for some kind of elusive mystery – not necessarily truth with a capital T. The supreme value ceases to be scientific objectivity, but rather perseverance, integrity, and the willingness to abide by a code that has no experimental certainty (wouldn’t be a code it if did, would it?). Along with a batch of critical apparatus the class studied the “big four” American detective writers (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Robert B. Parker), and the filmmakers who tried, with varying results, to bring their creations to the screen without too much dumbing down, as well as two brilliant contemporary writers who bring the question of gender to the enterprise, Sue Grafton and Laura Lippman — perhaps America’s answer to the “Queens of Crime” — Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngiao Marsh and Margery Allingham.

One thing we learned was that popular culture probably tells us as much about ourselves as haute couture does. Only the rarest person has her life significantly changed by reading Virginia Woolf, and that person probably has some pretty serious problems if she sees her experience reflected in Woolf’s brilliant characters, rhetoric, and situations. But in the world of pop culture, we often experience what Herman Melville called “the shock of recognition.” For many of us, seeing our beloved broken Baltimore through Lippman’s eyes in Butchers Hill was a revelation of the many problems we all face, and of the humor, idiosyncrasy, and even decency that lurks behind the crime statistics and headlines. And although that point has the liability of being another quantitative argument – many more people read Robert B. Parker than James Joyce, who, in this country at least, is read mostly by students who have assignments to complete – there’s a current of truth behind it as well. We see our times and our conditions reflected in the fictions people actually consume.

The principal assignment for this class was the creation of an original detective story, using and building on the formulas as the great detective writers have done. The goal was to make students aware, though practice, how hard it is to write a really good detective story, whether of the cerebral or the existential sort. And how very much revision is needed to hide the clues almost successfully, to bring the resolution to a surprising and satisfying conclusion. Many of the students learned a lot from the assignment, but some – nearly a third of the class — produced stories that, with successive revisions, deserve to be read. Partly because they showcase the talents and determination of Liberal Studies students at Loyola. These folks revised and revised and revised after they got their A’s. But mostly, because they’re really good.

In the tradition of the great British sleuths of the turn of the twentieth century, Helen Hufford’s heroine isn’t a detective at all, but a gifted amateur like Sayers’ Lord Peter or Chesterton’s Fr. Brown. Herself a high school teacher, Hufford creates Ginny King as a working mom with two part-time jobs, one as a teacher of photojournalism in a girls’ high school and the other as a journalist for a community newspaper. In this Hufford may be influenced by Baltimore’s own Lippman, whose “Accidental detective” Tess Monaghan turned to sleuthing after the newspaper on which she worked went out of business. King has amassed a reputation as the school’s resident sleuth, using her powers of observation and digging beyond the obvious to help the assistant principal discover truants, vandals, cheaters and the like. In the case before us, King also has a vested interest in solving the crime.

The problem in “Photo Smarts” is small, a missing memory card. Then again, for adolescents, there are probably no small problems. As she works through this plot, Hufford connects this trivial matter with the larger, troubling, issue of controlling boyfriends, with a background narrative that is tragic rather than trivial. And one thing I especially like about “Photo Smarts” is the sub-plot that acknowledges that not all the things that go wrong in a girls’ school are the result of crime or evil intent. Some happen because of forgetfulness, overwork, or lack of attention to detail.

A much darker world provides the context for Jonathan Richmond’s “The Float,” a smarmy Baltimore of gentlemen’s clubs, divorce lawyers, and short-term payday loans. One minor character is so bereft of meaning that she welcomes an interview with a phony Sun Journalist, hoping for what Andy Warhol so famously dubbed her fifteen minutes of fame. Himself an economics teacher, Richmond connects the practice of “Floating” bad checks with the recent economic melt-down that so completely undermined America’s economy. His detective, Ben, wanders to Bethany Beach, Delaware, where the lucky ones hide behind gated communities from the consequences of their avarice, while those cashing checks at Lexington Market have to bear those consequences daily and exhibit baseball bats and sidearms to deter robbers, to learn more about his missing banker and the Mercedes with the vanity plate.

A tender scene happens in Bethany Beach, when Ben meets and actually communicates with another outsider, a man who really loves the boat for what it can do rather than for the envy or respect it can impose on one’s fellows. Unfortunately, Ben falls off the wagon for ex-smokers while he’s there, and again the next day. We can only hope that aspect of the mean streets (or the habits of traditional PIs in American fiction) doesn’t rub off on him permanently. Like much of the better crime fiction we studied during the semester, Richmond’s story deals with the ubiquity of material greed, and the devastating effects this has on our community and ultimately our souls.

Most private detectives in American literature are ex-policemen, often, like Chandler’s Marlowe, having been fired for insubordination. One, Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, is an ex-journalist. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser is both an ex-cop and an ex-prizefighter. But not many are ex-baseball players. Mathematician Chris Panzarella’s “Out at Home” successfully combines two literary/pop culture subsets, the detective story and sports fiction. With the murder of a detested owner of a fictional baseball team, Panzarella’s Mark Nelson, though he has suppressed (not quite successfully) his past as a ballplayer, gets access to information the police have to struggle for because the community of ballplayers and coaches still trusts him as one of their own. And, as is true in so many American detective stories, the police and the press have credibility problems with the athletes.

But as he digs into the team owner’s murder, Nelson probes into one of the staples of American sports fiction, the tension between patrician owners and proletarian players and coaches – a motif central to Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952) and the 1984 Barry Levinson film. Upon hearing about the murder, Nelson quips that the list of suspects might include all the Bayhawks’ fans because it is widely believed that the owner is more interested in his profit margin than in the team’s fortunes. In a clever scene in a public library Nelson uncovers the clue that cracks the case, and in doing so once again invokes a core motif of sports fiction, the tension between the organic or natural and the technological.

By far the darkest vision in the collection is Jason Brown’s “Max Parker.” I eventually discouraged Jason from revising further because the vision only darkened with each re-write. The story blends the pessimism of Chandler and his mentor Ernest “Winner take Nothing” Hemingway, as well as the ambiance of cinema noir, which found amenable narratives (and screenwriters) among America’s detective writers, with the even darker, post-modern nihilism of graphic novelists like Frank Miller. Perhaps it’s the final scene, but the cynicism of Sin City seems to pervade “Max Parker.” It’s also a take on the mean streets Chandler so eloquently defined, with whores, druggies, crooked doctors, and union bosses who preside over criminal trafficking.

Chandler famously said that “down these mean streets a man must go who is himself neither mean nor afraid” and concludes that the essential quality of the realistic detective novel – as opposed to the whodunit – is honor. But it seems a stretch, perhaps post-modernly so, to think of Max as a man of honor. He’s more a burned-out-case, a former DEA agent who went rogue after being betrayed by his nemesis, Big Charlie, and serving time. Parker’s status as a felon, who therefore cannot get a license as a private detective or a carry permit, presents challenges Brown cleverly meets. But Parker’s status is fluid, and that’s where the post-modernist angst comes in. He’s both the detective and the hunted; the person who finds the missing prescription pad and the man who wants and needs illegal drugs; the naïve idealist about the love of an ex-whore and the enraged avenger when he can’t escape the fact that her sexual favors were a means of playing him; and a vigilante who plays god when all the systems fail. Whereas Marlowe confesses, in The Big Sleep, that he’s (and we’re) “part of the nastiness now,” Parker emulates Huck Finn and “lights out for the territory” in a boat he bought with ill-got gains, a small slush fund (ditto) and a few days’ supply of painkiller. We have to wonder, at the story’s end, how far any of it is going to get him.

Finally, New Jersey native Nicole Stout combines the cerebral with the existential, positioning her point of view with the client, who has a complicated relationship with both her missing lover and the detective she consults to track him down. It’s a complex world of underworld connections — Adriana’s missing lover and the detective she consults to find him are both connected, and she freely confesses that she’s a “goomata” who has a token hostess job at a restaurant that serves the mob, a Cadillac, a high-end apartment, and a designer cat named Fido.

With all this emphasis on Mafia culture in New Jersey, including an amusing scene in which Adriana and her detective hide out in a closet while some of the leaders of the local Mafia eat and meet to discuss business, one might expect a story reminiscent of The Sopranos. But while “Canary” has some of the association of luxury and a life of crime associated with the cable tv show and its predecessor, The Godfather movie franchise, the story relates to the British sleuth tradition by virtue of its clever clues and complex mystery. Adriana, not her detective, recognizes the key clue in the office of a vet for designer cats, and the mystery’s solution creates, not the despair of a Chandler novel or stories by Jon Richmond and Jason Brown, but actually a love story reminiscent of a Holmes yarn like “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” or even “A Scandal in Bohemia” if we follow it as advertised, as the story of a truly exceptional woman. Though the denouement of “Where’s the Canary?” might shock the pious Victorians of Sherlock’s – or our own – time, it’s a modern version of an ancient narrative, the triumph of true love.

So here they are – five of the finest from a class that learned there’s a lot more than Sherlocking to this stuff – even if most of us learned to admire the Cumberbatch/Farrel modernization of the great British detective and perhaps to look forward to Lucy Liu as Watson in a forthcoming television series. They learned that in the hands of Chandler, Macdonald, or Lippman, the formula becomes a way to bridge the gap between popular narrative and serious literature. And they’ve achieved quite a lot by bridging it for themselves.

An extra special thanks to the five students who worked far beyond the semester’s end to bring their excellent stories to publication-readiness. And to Dr. Randy Donaldson, who sees the document the rest of the way to publication.

Max Parker: The Missing Prescription Pad

Max Parker:  The Missing Prescription Pad by Jason Brown

Prologue

Same dream again.  Evelyn is gagged and tied to a decaying post on a sinking pier.  All I can do is watch while my feet are cemented to the harbor floor.  This time Photi is on the pier.  He is trying to help Evelyn escape. As the water fills my lungs, I wake and relax my jaw.  I am covered in sweat.  I can feel loose granules of teeth in the pits of my molars.  Bruxism is apparently caused by eating sugar before bed (along with a host of other reasons).  I will have to cut out the late night Sour Patch Kids.

            The sound of sirens outside my window reminds me how insignificant one man’s nightmare is in Baltimore.  The city feels more ruthless everyday.  When I was growing up, there was an order to crime in the city.  Nowadays, it’s every gun for himself and the cops can barely keep up with the parking violations.  Besides the jobs I do are too dirty for the boys in blue. 

Believe it or not, I used to be one of the good guys.  Sometimes I still am.  I respect what the law claims to represent; a protection of individual freedom.  It just seems the system has lost sight of that.  It’s nothing but an industry now.  Trust me, I worked for the DEA for nine years.  The last four I spent undercover, and that’s where everything went wrong.  I can’t say I was entirely innocent, but I didn’t do half of what I stood accused of.  Needless to say, I got some time.  But all that’s over now. I have found my own way to set a small part of the world right:  the forgotten sector.  It has its rewards. 

Photi told me last night (after three hours of beer and darts) that I am a desperate man’s last resort. I specialize in those the police refuse to help.  The ex-con, the illegal immigrant, the wanted criminal; the discreet disenfranchised if you would.  What is most rewarding about these clients is my ability to gouge their pockets.  I also wind up with a number of cases that people are afraid to present to the official authorities.  They come to me when their problem needs discretion.  I turn down some, but for the most part I just price out the bad cases.  Sometimes I get myself stuck this way. 

For example:  two weeks ago, Big Charlie (a heroin smuggler and a union longshoreman) walks into my office and asks me to find fifteen kilos of raw dope.  Usually, I would say no; but Big Charlie doesn’t like that word, and he is not someone to upset.  So, I did the math on fifteen kilos (turns out to be worth over a million bucks), and decided that a hundred grand would probably be twice what Charlie was willing to pay.  Especially considering that I get half up front, regardless of the outcome.  This bastard says “you got it- just find my shit!”  Now, I am nursing a bullet hole that went clean through my left shoulder.  Fuckin’ with Big Charlie.  Although I did buy a really nice yacht from a friend’s chop shop with the hundred grand.  Got it docked down in Canton.  I plan on moving the office there as soon as this shoulder heals up.  Currently, my office is set up in a slum section of Park Heights, over by Pimlico racetrack.  I live in a loft above it, pretty much all I could afford when I got out of prison last year.  Great for balancing my income with horse racing on the slow days.   Who the hell is knocking on my door at this hour?

“Hello?”

            “Is this Max Parker’s office?”  The voice suggests femininity.

            “Yes, but it’s a little late; office closed over six hours ago.”

            “Max, it’s me- Evelyn.”

            How did I not recognize that voice? Suddenly, a wave of nostalgia comes rushing over me.  I open the door and her red hair spills into my office like a wildfire in search of oxygen.  The rest of her ivory essence follows subtly.  Her big green doe eyes catch me off guard.

            “Oh, Max, it’s been much too long.”

            “I was just thinkin’ the same thing. How ya been Ev?”

            “I been better, things got all screwed up when you went down.  Honestly, I have wanted to come see you since I heard you were out over six months ago, but I have been too scared.  I kept imagining that you wouldn’t want to see me- that I was all part of your cover, that Max Parker could never really love a loser like me.”  Evelyn is about to fall to pieces, I can hear it in her voice.

            “Listen babe, my life undercover really started to take over my actual life and that had a lot to do with you.  I tried to remain objective and do my job, but you changed everything for me.  And you know what, seeing you here now makes it almost worth it.  C’mere Ev.”  We embrace and there is a sense of relief that neither of us has felt in years.  We kiss and every time that we have ever kissed happens all over again.  Every sensation I had forgotten is awakened.  Every spark I worked so hard to smoother, flares like the fourth of July.  I recoil, afraid of the repercussions.  Evelyn always comes with baggage.

            “So, what’s the deal sugar?  You need something else or just come over to see me?”

            Evelyn says nothing.  She just smiles and grabs my cock.  So much for resisting.  We ascend the spiral staircase to my loft above the office.  It is a whirlwind of dirty clothes and wrinkled papers. Evelyn doesn’t seem to mind as she clears a spot on the bed.  We take each other places we wish we had never left.  Evelyn eventually falls asleep on my chest, curled into my side.  I forgot how radiantly warm she is.

            The morning brings boisterous knocking that Evelyn and I are not prepared for.  That knock, it’s either the police or Photi.

            “C’mon Max, open the door- it’s just me.”

            Photi, great.  The police would be more welcome at this point.  Photi is my partner, but mostly we just drink and play darts together.  We crossed paths tracking a wanted criminal about six months ago. Photi is a bounty hunter, and I was “locating” someone of interest for a client.  After I realized that he could be bought, Photi and I became dear friends.  Last time he was at the office, it was the same routine.  Twenty minutes after the office is supposed to open and I am half-naked with company.  That’s all I need is for him to threaten to pull his license again.  Technically, the whole business is his because it’s impossible to get a proper investigator’s license with a record.  Fortunately, Photi’s bounty hunter license serves the same purpose.  On paper, I am just his greeter. 

            “Coming old friend, slept in again.  Sorry about that.”

            “Is there someone upstairs? I hear the floor creaking and the water running.”

            “Quite the detective you are turning into, Photi.”

            “Who is the lucky girl today?”

            “Evelyn Vanderbilt.”

            “You mean the one that you called mentally unstable and asked me to keep you away from?”

            “No that must have been someone else,” I interject quickly and loudly.

            Evelyn comes down the stairs in nothing but a t-shirt and red panties.  Her white thighs gleam in the morning light.  Photi and I look away long enough for her to descend and retain a shred of modesty. 

            “Photi, Evelyn; Evelyn, this is my partner, Photi.”

            “Guess Max has already told you all about me, huh?” Evelyn says with pursed lips to boot.

            “Just that you two used to run together I think.  Max don’t gossip too much.”

            Thank you, Photi.  He must want me to pay for lunch or something.

            “So, Evelyn, I have some business to discuss with Photi, should I call you a cab?”

            “Sure, just give me a minute to dress, and, oh yeah, there was one other thing.” Here it comes, I knew there would be a catch.

            “What is it dear?”

            “Big Charlie wanted me to thank you for doin’ a good job.”

            “Oh yeah, so you’re his new thank you card huh? I will have to remember that.”

            “It ain’t like that Max, he told me you had been shot and I really felt bad for you.  I told you already how difficult this has been for me.  Don’t make it any harder please, Max.  Charlie takes care of me.”

            “I’m sure he does, babe.”

            “I did this for you Max! Quit bein’ such a jerk, what’d ya think I fuck every guy he asks me to?”

            “No sugar, probably just the handsome ones.”

            Evelyn begins to cry. What am I saying to her?  I am such a jerk.  She is doing the same thing I do, whatever it takes to survive comfortably.  That’s partially my fault for conditioning the girl to a lifestyle well beyond her means. Now she works for Big Charlie.  Out of all the redheads in Baltimore, he had to pick mine.  The hole in my shoulder begins to throb.  I am suddenly nauseous and no longer interested in lunch.  I pick up the phone and call Evelyn a cab.

            Photi and I go out for lunch, my treat.  I owe him at least that much.  If it weren’t for his timely arrival, who knows how long Evelyn and I would have played out that unending charade? 

            “Watcha thinkin’ about? Her, huh?”

            “Photi, you know me well.”

            “So to get this straight, she’s been workin’ for Big Charlie since you went down?”

            “Yes, but going down implies I did something wrong. Can we just say since I was fired?”

            “Sure, but gettin’ fired usually don’t involve doin’ five years in prison.”

            “It was only five on paper, I was out in half of that with my exemplary behavior.”

My phone vibrates and fortunately averts my attention from recalling the twenty-nine months I spent locked up in Hazelton, WV.

            “Hello.”

            “Hey it’s Charlie, how’d ya like seein’ your old broad again?”

            “Yeah, she sure is somethin’, huh?”

            “Well, listen I know you are healing up still, but I got a real easy one for ya in Delaware if you’re interested.”

            “Define easy.”

            “Okay, this friend of mine, Dr. Titan, is a pain doctor and let’s just say he gives people what they want.  So, of course, the feds have been looking into his practice for years.  Suddenly, he starts noticing these prescriptions coming back that he never wrote.  He realizes some junkie has stolen a prescription pad and is forging his signature for all kinds of shit.  Fortunately, the feds haven’t picked up on this, but Doc knows it is only a matter of time.  What we need is someone to discreetly find the pad and return it.”

            “Well, as always, it comes down to the price tag.”

            “Right, I told him you were expensive and he said that he will pay whatever it takes to save his practice.”

            “How much are we talkin’?”

            “I can give you ten grand here, and he can settle with you on the rest when you get the pad.  You will have to work out the details when you get to Delaware.”

            “The case could take up to a week depending on how long it takes me to find the patient who stole the pad.”

            “I never said it was a patient, Max.”

            “I know this, but an employee would be too smart and who else goes in the back at a pain specialist’s beside patients?  A patient’s family member perhaps, either way- I am looking for a patient.”

            “Listen, a week of your time is a lot I understand, but this won’t end up like the last case- I promise.  I will write ya a check and have it delivered to your office today.  Then I will call Dr. Titan and tell him you will be there tomorrow.  The two of you can work out the details in person.”

            “One last thing Charlie, you still owe me ten grand for the GBMC medical bills for this bullet I took.”

            “Okay, ten and ten make twenty, you got it.  Take care Max.” I push the red “End” button on my phone and turn to Photi.  My shoulder is thumping like the pulse of a frightened rabbit.

            “Something weird about this one, Photi.”

            “You aren’t seriously considering taking another of Big Charlie’s jobs, are you?  Max, C’mon.  He stole your woman, got you shot, and you run off to help him?”

            “Usually I would price him out or gouge him.  But he has awakened my curiosity, and I would like to talk to this Dr. Titan.  Not to mention I am almost out of my Roxies, and this shoulder is throbbing.  Besides, Big Charlie is up to something and I have to know what it is.”

            “How do you know he is ‘up to something’?”

            “He has contacted me three times in two weeks, which is unprecedented.  I have sparked his interest for some reason.  I have to see this through, Photi. Try to understand, there is still a lot I haven’t figured out about my arrest.  It seems that Evelyn and Charlie could help shed light on what exactly happened three years ago.  This is more personal than anything.  Don’t want to get you mixed up in any of this, in case things get messy.”

“Max, you know I don’t shy from danger, just don’t do anything stupid.  I don’t mind risking my life for the right cause.”

“I don’t need to you take any risks over this saga Photi.  All I need you to do is stay close to the office in case I need you to look anything up.  I’ll go to Delaware tomorrow and find out what Charlie’s scheming.  You up for some darts tonight?”

“With a hole in your shoulder?”

“I take back everything I have said in favor of your deductive abilities. I’m right-handed Photi.  The bullet went through my left shoulder!”

            “I know you’re right-handed, just couldn’t remember where you got shot.”

            “So you’re just unsympathetic, that’s a relief.”

            The next day I stagger through the beer bottles and darts strewn about the floor of the office.  My shoulder is throbbing.  I find the bottle of Roxicet just in time.  One left.  The refill is two weeks away.  Gonna have to get to Delaware and talk to Dr. Titan, soon.

            “Photi, I’m headed to Delaware.  You all right cleaning up and watching things for a few days?”

            “I told you, I got this.  No problem.”

            With that, Photi hits the snooze button and rolls back over on the couch.  I step out into a warm spring breeze that refreshes my outlook.  Two hours to Delaware and then this shoulder stops throbbing.  I open my Volvo up and get there in ninety minutes.

            The office is a rancher with a wooden sign out front.  I park and make my way into the rural temple of relief.

             “Hello, Max Parker here to see Dr. Titan.”

            “Have a seat, he will call you back, Mr. Parker.”

            The receptionist’s name tag says Alice.  She is definitely in Wonderland.  This office is a zoo of reprobates and delinquents in search of their next fix.  A few people look like they have legitimate pain, but most of this sweat-clothes covered motley crew are here for the high.

            “Mr. Parker, please come back.”

            Dr. Titan is a short man with a tan complexion.  His bald head and stoic smile make him appear intelligent, but there is something off about him.  He escorts me back to his office.

            “Have a seat, Max- You don’t mind that I call you Max, do you?”

            “No, Max is fine. I guess Charlie told you I was comin’?”

            “He did. I understand that we need to work out a payment arrangement before you begin trying to locate the missing prescription pad.”

            “Yes, about the payment.  Well, I took this bullet a few weeks back for our friend Big Charlie and the doctor in Baltimore didn’t give me enough to kill the pain.  I ran out of pills this morning.  Think we could work something out?”

            “This sounds very feasible.  What would you like to have?”

            He begins fumbling with a locked drawer on his desk and I sense relief is near.

            “Those will work.”

            “These are Fentanyl patches, they are very strong.”

            “I know what they are. How many of them can you spare?”

            “I will give you twenty now and I can send you another twenty after the job is completed.  They are worth over two thousand dollars on the street altogether.  I will also hand you a check for five grand when you hand me the prescription pad. With Charlie’s ten, that is seventeen grand. Do we have a deal?”

            “I guess so, since this patch is already stuck to my shoulder.”

            “Good, where shall we start?”

            I have his secretary compose a list of all the patients that came in the week that the pad went missing.  I call Photi. 

            “Are you still at the office?”

            “No, just over at the track though. Why, what’s up?”

            “Can you still run the IntegraScan background checks?”

            “Yeah, back at the office. They charge per inquiry, how many you got?”  Photi hesitantly asks.

            “Shit, he saw over fifty patients the week the pad went missing.”

            “At twenty bucks a pop, this could take a thousand dollars and yield nothing Max.”

            “It’s my only shot Photi.  I hate to ask you to possibly waste hours of your time, but I really need to know if any of these patients have a record.  I will reimburse you the twenty for each inquiry, along with a thousand for looking.  If you find something good, I will split the five grand the doctor gave me with you.”        

            “How can I say no to that? Especially considering I just blew nine hundred on a “sure bet Trifecta” that missed.  I’ll be at the office in five minutes, call you as soon as I find something.”

            “Thanks Photi, I owe you big.”

I check into a Red Roof Inn, waiting for Photi to turn something up.  They have an Indian buffet next to the lobby.  After some lamb vindaloo and a mango lassi, I find my way to room four twenty-one.  Just as I lie down, my phone begins to vibrate.  I hope this is Photi.

“Hello.”

“Hey Max, it’s Evelyn.”

“Hey there, how are ya?”

“I am fine, what are you up to?”

“Just waiting for Photi to call me with some info, on a job in Delaware.  But you probably already knew that.”

“No, Charlie don’t tell me much.”

“Yeah, well the less you know the better off you are.”

“I guess.  I won’t hold you up long, just wanted to tell you that I had a really good time the other night.”  With that there is a click and the phone goes dead.  I was about to say that I enjoyed it as well.  Photi calls just as I was drifting to sleep. The digital alarm clock says nine p.m., those patches are strong.

“Hey Photi, tell me something good.”

“As groggy as you sound, you must already have something good.”

“Just some Fentanyl patches from the good doctor, a little stronger than I remember.”

“Jesus, be careful Max.  People die from that stuff.  Anyway, I found one kid with an interesting record, after about thirty inquiries.  Adam Deveaux, convicted of prescription forgery when he was eighteen.  That was almost two years ago, but he was locked up for nineteen months.  He just got out about five months ago, lives in an apartment complex in Wilmington.  I got an address, I’ll text it to you.”

“Thanks a million Photi.  I owe you as usual.  I was hoping you could do me one last favor and run Big Charlie through there.  I know it won’t yield much, but I would like to know if there is a pattern to his charges.  He usually beats ‘em, but they should still be listed on his record.  I might find some dirt useful if there are any problems with Charlie.”

“Charles Monroe, listed union worker.  Already found his date of birth.  I’ll hit you back after I analyze his background check.  Be careful out there Max.”

“Thanks again Photi, talk to ya soon.”

Thanks to gps, I find Adam’s building easily.  His room is on the third floor, I take the stairs to be discreet.   Room 321, it’s a countdown.  I knock softly. 

            “Who is it?”  The voice sounds groggy and monotone, definitely my man.

            “Just doing a survey, you got a minute?”

            “I guess, just make it quick, I got a meeting in an hour.” He says this while opening the door.  I push my way in and he gets real startled.

            “What the hell dude?  Get the fuck outta here?”

            “Listen, Adam, you are in a fuck load of trouble so I suggest you sit down, shut up, and cooperate.  If I can swing it, you won’t be in jail tonight; just detox.”

            “Jail? Detox? What the fuck are you talking about dude?”

            “Dr. Titan knows you took his prescription pad.  He hired me to find you and I found you quick.  The feds are close behind, no doubt.  If I can get the pad back to the good doctor, I may be able to convince him not to call the police.  If I do this for you, you gotta do something for me.”

            “This is fuckin’ bullshit dude!”

            “Should I just call the cops now?”

            “Fuck you!”

            “Listen to me Adam, you don’t want to go down this road.  I have lived up and down it and it’s treacherous the whole way.” 

            I am such a fucking hypocrite right now, but what else can I say to the kid? Hey, keep getting’ high for the rest of your life, so you end up like me one day!  Fuck, I hate it when I care.

            Adam puts his head in his hands and begins sobbing in a way I can relate to.  I tell him everything will be fine.  It’s probably a lie.

            “I have been to Kirkwood once, it wasn’t that bad I guess.”  Adam finally says through the tears. 

            “Three days and I am out.  I have probation on Tuesday, so that should work.  Just let me grab some things.  And here is the pad.”

            Adam suddenly seems filled with energy and ambition.  He unlocks a small lockbox and hands over what is left of the prescription pad.  It is only about a third full, but something tells me that Adam might not have made it through those last thirty pages.  The hollow twinkle in his eye says he is well aware of this.

            I walk him into Kirkwood Detox Center to make sure that he checks himself in.  I tell him to leave the crime behind and head back to the doctor. People have to start doing right for themselves at some point.  I hope it’s Adam’s time.

I get to Dr. Titan’s office late, but he is still there waiting for me.  I texted him and told him I had the pad hours ago.  I hand him what is left of the pad and he hands me my check.  I explain that Adam is getting some help and advise the doctor not to see him anymore. I am ready to get back to Baltimore.

            I get back to the office around midnight.  When I open the door and reach for the light switch, nothing happens. 

            “Photi, you here?”

            Silence.  Something is wrong.  I pull a lighter from my pocket and the flame illuminates the mess.  There are papers all over the place. The computer has been ripped out. Finally, I make out the shape of a body behind the desk.  Fuck me, it’s Photi.  His body is already stiffening.  Two shots, one in the chest, one in the head.  I know this was Big Charlie.  But how did he know that Photi was checking him out?  Evelyn!  She must have bugged the office when I had her over the other night.  Charlie has a habit of eavesdropping on everyone he can. This is all my fault, I got Photi killed.  Only one way to make this right, gotta go after Evelyn and Charlie.  I call and report a shooting at the office.  I’d like to stay and explain, but I will be detained for twenty-four hours if I’m even at the crime scene.  Murder scenes and felons don’t mix.  Besides, I gotta find Charlie if there’s gonna be any justice for Photi’s death.

            I head for the harbor.  Big Charlie has a yacht down there, hopefully he is on it.  I stop off at a storage area registered to Photi.  It’s where I keep my gun.  Now that I am a felon, I can’t go around packin’ all the time.  Only when I know I will need it.

            Once at the dock, I quietly sneak onto Charlie’s boat. I can hear Evelyn laughing below the deck.  I bust into their cabin and point the gun at Charlie.

            “I want answers, big man, now.”

            “Max, what the hell’s this about?”

            “You have been up to something for the past month and now Photi is dead.”

            “I had nothin’ to do with that Max. Evelyn will tell you, we been on the boat since last night.”

            “It’s the truth Max, me and Charlie been here on the boat all day.”

            “Tell me something Evelyn, how long did it take after I got arrested for you to start trickin’ for dope again?”

            “Actually, Max, I was trickin’ her out when you went down.  You just didn’t know about it.”

            “Charlie, you promised you wouldn’t tell him.  Oh Max, I’m so sorry.  I wanted to stay clean and be happy with you, but the clinic wasn’t enough.  I started getting high behind your back and before I knew it, Charlie had me strung out.”

            Things were finally starting to make sense.  I was trying to save Evelyn, but all I did was ruin my own life.  The prosecution used my relationship with Evelyn to seal the deal on my case.  I always thought it would be worth it if I got out and she was doing better.  Reality has a cruel way of shattering our dreams.

            “See Max, junkies like Evelyn never change.  People like you always get used.  And I always get what I want.  Shame for you, I wanted Evelyn so bad.”

            “So bad that you hired me just to have someone kill me? And when that didn’t work, you sent Evelyn over to bug the office so you could keep tabs on me.  Then you send me off to Delaware in order to kill off my partner, essentially shutting me down as well.  Everything is crystal clear to me now Charlie.”

            “Max, what evidence do you have for any of this?”

            “None, but I do have a gun pointed at you.  I was thinkin’ we would skip the trial and go straight to the sentencing.”      

            “Max, you aren’t thinkin’ clearly.  You are just upset and irrational.  Even if you are right, where does killin’ me get you?”

            “Well, it will make me feel a little better about Photi bein’ dead.  I don’t know if you pulled the trigger or not, but I know you had him killed.  I can’t let that slide, Charlie.”

            I take aim right between his eyes and blow a hole in the middle of Big Charlie’s head.  He falls backward, onto his bed.  Blood soaks his white satin bedding.  Evelyn is screaming.  She will always be a whore.  I really thought I loved her.  Time to put her down. 

            “Sorry Evelyn, this is the only way.”

            I hug her close, sticking the nose of my gun into the back of her neck.  I fire upwards through the top of her head.  I feel splatters of blood and small chunks of flesh on my cheek.  I gotta get the fuck outta here.  Fortunately, my yacht is only a few piers away. 

            I reach my vessel before I see the lights from the cop cars over on Charlie’s dock.  I quietly head out into the harbor.  Plan on heading south, gonna have to lay low for a while after this mess.  Got about fifty grand and eighteen patches left.  That should be enough to get me where I need to go.

Where’s the Canary?

Where’s the Canary? by Nicole Stout

 

She knew what she had become, but had not felt worried until this point: a goomata, not simply a mistress, but a necessary part of life for a mobster.  At 28, her life was just as she wanted it to be while she was growing up; she lived in a beautiful condo, drove a Cadillac, and spent her days alternating between hostessing at a local Italian restaurant owned by one of her boyfriend’s associates, and shopping at The Mall at Short Hills, never once worrying about seeing a bill, much less paying one.  Her lifestyle was completely funded by her sometimes-present boyfriend.

Thinking of Anthony was what brought about her current awful feelings.  While she looked around at her lavish surroundings, she cursed Tony out loud.

“How dare he?  How could he?”

She paced so furtively that her long-haired cat, usually full of energy, had given up any hope of receiving attention and now watched her with lazy eyes from the leather couch.  Adriana wasn’t sure what to do, and wasn’t even sure she could ask anybody.

What had Adriana so concerned was that she hadn’t heard a word from Anthony in three days; one or two days could be forgiven, it was the nature of having a boyfriend with a wife and family who was connected to the mafia.  Three days was unheard of; her calls and texts to his private cell phone had gone unanswered, and he hadn’t even popped in the restaurant or stopped by her place, a habit he had taken up when they first met.

“That’s it Fido,” she said to the cat, now nodding its head sleepily.  “I have to do something.”

What she decided to do was the one thing she promised herself she would never do again, not to mention that she had sworn an oath to Anthony as well.

“I’m off to see Mikey.”

As Adriana sat in traffic on Route 3, heading to Mikey’s office in Patterson, she reminisced about the relationship they once had, a silly fling in her mind, but something much more to Mikey, and certainly more to Anthony.  She was young and foolish, renting a house for the summer on Long Beach Island.  She and a few of her girlfriends (she couldn’t even remember who anymore) had headed out for a night of dancing and drinking in Seaside Heights, home to Jersey’s finest.  The mere thought that she had ever entered the club Karma almost made her gag now.  From across the room she spotted the buff and very handsome young man, who later came over with a Zima (a Zima, for God’s sake!) and introduced himself as Mikey.

The two struck up a “friends with benefits” relationship that continued through the summer.  Adriana wasn’t looking for anything serious at the time, and was unaware that Mikey was.  He tried his best to sweep her off her feet, planning nights out in Hoboken and romantic dinners in the city.  While Adriana lived at home with her parents, Mikey lived in a gorgeous apartment in Englewood and when she questioned (as she often did) where he got all his money, as he never seemed to be at work, he shrugged her off without an answer.  Finally, as the “benefits” aspect of the relationship fizzled and the two became actual friends, Mikey revealed that he was “connected.”

“Connected like how?” Adriana asked naively.

“Jesus, Adriana, you are from Jersey aren’t you?  Connected like connected, like I have friends in high places who make things happen.”

“HAHA!  Like the mafia?  You’re involved with the Mafia?”

“Yeah, it that so hard to believe?”

“Kind of…you’re like a dopey version of…I don’t even know who to compare you to…but it’s someone really dopey.”

“Adriana, I’m not kidding.  My father grew up with the DeCavalcantes, and he introduced me.”

“So what, do ya kill people, shake them down, run a strip club?  What’s the deal?”

“Nah, none of that.  I’m more on the legal side.  That’s why I’m takin’ classes at Union County in Criminal Justice.”

Adriana thought back to that conversation and the many others that followed.  Eventually, the “benefits” of their friendship subsided and they rode the crest of actual friendship:  camaraderie, laughs over dinner, and a comfort she hadn’t found with a male since kindergarten.  As she drove, she tried to construct something that would make sense, especially in the face of the arguments Mikey was bound to make.

She took a few deep breaths as she pulled up to the all- glass building that housed Mikey’s office; he now passed himself off as a somewhat respectable detective.  Adriana laughed as she thought of all the “help” he had building his business, only after he had managed to be rejected by the Sheriff’s Department as well as several town police departments.  She checked her makeup and hair in the mirror, took a few more deep breaths and vowed that she would approach the situation calmly and rationally.

“Where the fuck is he Mikey?”  The sheer volume of Adriana’s voice was matched by the force with which she stormed through the office, leaving two stunned secretaries and three slammed doors in her wake.  “So much for being calm” she thought.

“Ad, calm down.  What’s going on?”  Mikey questioned his clearly flustered friend.

“I know you know something.  Where the hell is Tony?  What’s going on?”

“Ad, I swear, I have no idea what you’re talking about.  Sit down and tell me what’s going on.”

Suddenly, Adriana wasn’t sure she had made the right choice in coming here.  She knew her place, and she knew if Tony hadn’t called or come by, that was his prerogative.  Jesus, what was she going to do next, call his wife, ring his damned doorbell?  She doubted Mikey knew anything; he was on the outskirts of family business.  Then again, he could be in on the whole thing, involved somehow or maybe even some sort of ringmaster trying to break her and Tony apart.

Suddenly, Adriana thought over her relationship with Tony.  They had met two years ago, when she was Mikey’s guest at a family Christening.  She already knew a few of the guys there, since Mikey often took her out and showed her off, especially when he was hoping the relationship would become more serious.  She didn’t know any of the women, and she could almost feel them talking about her behind her back, glowering and glaring in true Jersey fashion.  Suddenly, a strong hand gripped her shoulder and spun her around.

“Dance with me.”

All it took were those three words.  Adriana was stunned by the brazen demeanor of this handsome stranger, and also by the fact that he wasn’t handsome in the conventional way.  He was actually a bit on the short side, and certainly didn’t boast a six-pack like Mikey did.  “In fact,” Adriana thought “the guy looks like he hasn’t stepped foot in a gym in his entire life.”  This certainly wasn’t the type of guy Adriana would have looked at twice, much less given the pleasure of her company on the dance floor, where she liked to think she was a pretty hot number.  However, there was something overtly sexy about the man, he seemed to exude some type of power and Adriana was drawn in.

“HAHA!  Don’t you think I’m a little too young to be dancing with you?  And don’t you have a wife around here somewhere?”

Adriana tried to play cool, but she could feel her heart pounding.  For God’s sake, was she starting to sweat?  She never, not in 24 years of her life, had this reaction to a man.  He was only a man for God’s sake!  And why did she spew out that crap about a wife?  Was she secretly hoping he didn’t have one?  Was she second-guessing herself?  Jesus, what was going on?

“Don’t worry about my wife; she’s busy with her bitchy friends hidden in a corner gossiping about you.  And don’t worry about age because I can definitely keep up with you.”

And he proved he could, in every area of life.  He swept Adriana of her feet (literally) that day and in four years, nothing had changed.  She was as crazy about Tony as she had been that day and she was not only pissed that she hadn’t heard from him, she was worried.  She loved him, and while she understood his family’s code and that he would never leave his wife, a small part of her secretly wished he would.  As ashamed as she was to admit it, that same small part often wished a deadly illness upon his wife, Delores.  She dreamed of a wedding, a big fairytale affair, with all of her relatives and Tony’s family standing by; the most powerful men in Jersey dancing at her wedding, this was her private dream.  It was also one she knew would never be realized, and so she took whatever she could get, even if it meant stolen lunch hours and usually keeping her feelings a secret from Tony.

“You want me to tell you what’s going on Mikey?  I don’t know what’s going on.  I haven’t seen or heard from Tony in three days!  You know that’s not like him Mikey.  Has he called you?  Have you seen him?  Have you heard anything?”

Adriana was aware that she sounded hysterical, but she really didn’t give a damn right now.  All she wanted were answers.  Though now that she thought about it, perhaps Mikey wasn’t the right person to ask.  After all, hadn’t he tried to steer her away from Tony from the get-go?  Right at the Christening, in fact, when he tried to cut in on the dance, and countless other times over the last four years.  In fact, it suddenly seemed to Adriana that the majority of her and Mikey’s conversations over the past four years had been about Tony and why he wasn’t the right guy for her.  She always blew the conversations off as Mikey just running his mouth, but now she thought maybe they had more serious undertones; maybe whatever had befallen Tony had been Mikey’s fault.  Then again, maybe she was just watching too much Discovery I.D. before bed.

“I swear I haven’t heard from him, and nobody’s said anything at all, at least, not to me.”

“Well, something’s going on Mikey, this isn’t like him at all and you know it.”

“All right Ad, lemme get you some water or coffee.  Sit back, take a breath, and when I get back, you tell me exactly what the hell is going on.”

When Mikey left the room, Adriana tried to call Tony again, but to no avail.  The phone went straight to voicemail, just as it had for the past three days.  She took a breath, pulled out her lip gloss, and tried to pull herself together, despite her hysterical state of mind.  After all, she had a reputation to uphold, she was a strong Jersey girl with important ties to some of the most powerful people in the state, and that had to count for something, didn’t it?  When Mikey got back, she would tell him what was going on, and he would help her figure out what to do.

Mikey returned with her coffee, light and sweet, just like he knew she liked it.  He straightened out his Armani suit, closed his office door and took a seat behind his desk with his feet on it.  He twirled a pen in his hand, a calm and casual demeanor about him.

“All right Ad, what’s going on?  This isn’t like you at all.”

Adriana took a deep breath and a sip of coffee.  She tried to collect her thoughts so she was making sense, as opposed to prattling on like an idiot.

“Today’s Wednesday Mikey.  I haven’t heard from Tony in three days.  He called me Sunday night and I haven’t heard from him since.  Never mind him calling, but he hasn’t come by my place and he hasn’t stopped by Fiore’s for lunch or dinner, and he knew I was working the past three days.”

“And that’s weird?”

“Yeah Mikey, it’s friggin’ weird.  Tony calls me every day, usually four or five times, he always answers my calls or texts by the time Conan is on.  He knows my schedule like he knows his own, and there’s no way he’s going to let three days go by without talking to or seeing me.”

Adriana was aware that she was starting to sound hysterical again, but she really didn’t care anymore.  All she cared about was Tony and where he was.  All right, that wasn’t all she cared about, there was the tiny matter of the safe deposit box, but Tony was her main concern.

“Well, if you were my girlfriend, there is no way I’d go a day without seeing you, but of course, I’m not.  I’m also not married with kids.  Maybe he took some time off from his double life and decided to become a family man.”

“Oh, up yours, Mikey!  You know for a fact that Tony is the farthest thing from a faithfully married man.  I’m not his first goomata, but I’m sure as shit gonna be his last.  If you’re not gonna help me figure this out, then I’m out and I’ll do it myself.  And don’t think you or any of your buddies are gonna stop me.”

Adriana feared she may have gone too far, as there was no point in alienating Mikey, especially since he was “in” in a way she never could be.  She was just worried, about Tony and the damn box.  Yes, she had to admit it, at least to herself, the box was a concern, but one she could deal with later.  After all, there was no point in revealing everything to Mikey, all he had to do was help her find Tony.

“Jesus!  Friggin relax.  Of course I’ll help you.  I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on.  I swear I haven’t heard anything and I sure as shit haven’t seen anything.  Don’t go getting all pissy with me; you’re the one who stormed in her like a friggin tornado spewing questions I just can’t answer.”

“I know Mikey, I know.  I’m not sure what to do and I’m pretty sure you’re the only one who can help me.  You have to, you have to help me.  You’re the only one who will tell me the things I need to know and not treat me like a stupid goomata.  I’m more than that to Tony, I know I am.  I can’t go asking any of the other guys, they’ll just blow me off or tell me to take my ass home and wait like a good girl.  That’s not me Mikey, you know it isn’t.”

Adriana stared at Mikey, desperate for him to tell her something.  She knew, especially after four years, that Tony didn’t just decide to take his family on a vacation and leave her behind with only a hostessing job (and a part-time one at that) to support herself.  He just wouldn’t.  Plus, Tony knew she wouldn’t stand for that, she was a strong woman and she deserved his best, at least the best he could give considering his present situation.  Jesus, he told her about the box, didn’t he?  That had to mean something.

She still wasn’t sure that approaching Mikey had been the best decision.  After all, he had tried to stop the relationship from progressing throughout the years.  Besides the attempted cut-in at the Christening (thwarted quickly by several of Tony’s friends), Mikey had tried unsuccessfully throughout the years to break the two up.  His tactics ranged from drunken rants about how Adriana deserved so much more to making up stories about Tony with other women to flat-out telling Adriana to leave Tony and run away with him.  The mafia code of keeping your hands off the girlfriend of another family member seemed to go right over Mikey’s head.  When it came to Adriana, he just didn’t care.  These thoughts led Adriana to believe that perhaps she had made a bad choice in coming to him with this.

“All right Ad, the guys are getting together at Fiore’s tonight for a meeting.  Meet me around the corner, we’ll figure out how to get in there and maybe we’ll hear something.”

“Thanks Mikey, you’re a real friend.  Call me when you get there and I’ll come meet you outside.”

Adriana jumped behind the wheel of her car, feeling somewhat better about her current situation.  She felt like she really understood people, and she was sure if Mikey had anything to do with Tony being gone, she would have some inclination.  She knew he wasn’t thrilled with the situation, partly because he wanted Adriana for himself and also because he felt she deserved better.  As his friend, she supposed she shouldn’t complain about him wanting good things for her, but his desire for her was a little annoying, even after all these years.

What else annoyed Adriana at this point was the fact that the damn cat had a vet appointment.  Naturally, she had a checking account set up by Tony, and paying the bill wouldn’t be an issue, at least, not yet.  Of course, she had to drive forty minutes out of her way to find a vet that would see an Elf cat, so rare that it hadn’t been recognized by cat associations.  Of course, when she told Tony she wanted a cat, he had to buy the best, the, an unrecognizable breed that could only be checked out by a vet who had three patients.  Of course, even in his absence, Tony left his mark upon her.

“Fido, I’m home.”

Adriana called out to the cat, the very cat that was infringing upon her afternoon.  While she looked in all the regular hiding spots, the bathroom, under and behind the couch, and in the bedroom, she pondered the mysterious safe deposit box and tried to remember how she had become aware of its existence.  She remembered Tony mentioning it one afternoon, how she would always be taken care of, and she would always have information that was worth money.

“Oh yeah, now you’re playing sugar daddy for me?  What do I have to do to earn this prize?”

“Nothing, Adriana.  There is nothing you have to do.  I want you to know that you mean so very much to me.  Enough that I have made sure that you will have enough money to live your life the way you want, at least for a few years.” Tony chuckled.

“How much money are you talking about, lover?”

“Enough, Adriana.  There’s enough cash.  There are also stocks, bonds, CDs, and some very valuable information that not many people possess.  If used correctly, that could certainly provide additional income for you, if need should arise.”

“Jeez Tony, the only thing missing is a bar of gold!”  Adriana tried to make a joke, a nervous habit.  Tony knew it too.

“Stop, babe.  Nothing is going to happen, and I’ll always be around to take care of you.  This is just an insurance policy for you.”

But obviously, something had happened.  She couldn’t find Tony, couldn’t talk to him, and most infuriatingly, she had no idea where the key to this mysterious box might be.  That was another concern popping into her head: Did someone know that she knew about this box?  Did someone think she had the key?  Was she in danger?  She didn’t think Tony would do that intentionally, but all it would take in this world of danger and deceit would be the inkling of the thought that she knew more than she did.  If Tony had mentioned that box to someone else, he could have put her in harm’s way: the last thing he claimed he wanted to do.  And, where was that damned cat?

After combing the house for Fido, she was more dumbfounded than ever.  The cat wasn’t under any beds, not in the shower, where he often liked to nap, and not on top of the fridge.  She was stupefied however, when she walked back through the living room and saw Fido right on the couch, exactly where she had left him this morning.  She growled audibly; was she now so involved within her own head that she completely ignored the cat sitting on the couch?  Why hadn’t he moved?  The cat was usually prancing around the house, so jumpy and loud that Tony often asked her to lock the cat away when he came over.

“I guess we don’t have to worry about that now, Fido, do we?”  If she couldn’t talk to Tony, she might as well talk to her cat.

They drove to the vet in silence, unheard of for Fido, who usually wailed the whole time he was in anyone’s car.  Adriana couldn’t worry about Fido now, though something was clearly wrong.  She had gotten a call from Mikey, who told her to meet him around the corner from Fiore’s at 6 p.m.  Adriana wondered how the family could possibly have a meeting during the dinner rush, but she quickly remembered the private room at the back of the restaurant.  No wonder she was always told to keep customers waiting rather than seat them there.

“Pieces are coming together, Fido” she said with certainty, though there was no reply.

The vet’s office was quiet, but this was to be expected since there were only three patients on his client list.  Of course, Tony had found the vet for her, so who knew what the hell was really going on?  After the preliminary check-in, the two went through the usual rigmarole of niceties.  Adriana revealed to Dr. DeRose that Fido had been behaving strangely, not eating as much, and was generally lethargic (more so than usual for an Elf cat, or any cat for that matter).  The doctor seemed to feel that Fido was going through a phase, that all would return to normal (after all, cats, especially rare breeds were of a certain nature) and that if things didn’t return to normal in a few days, she should call and return with Fido for a more detailed check-up.

“Jesus Fido, couldn’t you have anything really wrong with you?  At least that would justify the trip.”

Adriana was annoyed by the trip, the vet, and most of all, with Tony for this whole situation.  She was rushing to get home, especially since it was already four thirty, and she would need to find something appropriate for a stakeout.  She didn’t know exactly what that would entail, but she imagined something black and sporty (in case she needed to take off running).  She certainly never envisioned this situation when she twirled across the dance floor with the man who was at once the love of her life and the thorn in her side.

Adriana parked in the underground garage, took Fido in her arms, entered her apartment and deposited the cat on the couch.  She headed to the bedroom to get dressed; passing pictures of her and Tony on the beach in Aruba, skiing in Aspen, and hamming it up with Mickey Mouse in Disney World.  Memories, her memories, created with a man who disappeared like a thief in the night.  She was determined to find out what happened to him, come hell or high water.  She knew she was putting herself and possibly Mikey, in a dangerous situation.  Other goomatas would probably let this go, but she couldn’t.  She loved Tony, and what’s more, she had no idea how to get to the box.

Dressed in black, Adriana headed to Fiore’s on foot.  She felt prepared, as so many of the crime busters she had read about undertook surveillance this way. The restaurant was a neighborhood staple; family (in both senses of the word) owned and operated for over forty years.  Adriana had gotten the job through Tony’s affiliation with Joey Fiore, another member of the family.  Joey was a great boss; he knew how important Tony was in the family, and therefore, how important it was to keep Adriana happy.  Her schedule was made by her, every week.  She gave herself as few or as many hours as she wanted, took vacations when she felt like it, and made three times more than the other hostesses, one was a ninety year old neighbor who had seen the building constructed and the other was Joey’s thirteen year old niece, who was working her way up to waitress.  While she knew Joey liked her, Adriana also knew that she would be in more trouble than simply being out of work if she was caught spying with Mikey.

Even this knowledge didn’t stop her, and Adriana walked with renewed purpose to Fiore’s.  She met Mikey outside on the corner, and they two discussed their plan of action.

“Listen Ad, you know this place better than I do.  What’s the best way for us to get close to the room at the back without being seen?”

Adriana thought for a moment and replied, “Through the side kitchen door.  There’s a storage closet on the left side of the back room door.  We just have to get in that closet without being seen.”

Armed with this knowledge, the unlikely pair set off to gain information.  Adriana wasn’t sure she would hear anything useful and wasn’t sure how much she trusted Mikey, but she had little choice at this point; she had to track down her boyfriend.  Getting into the kitchen through the side door was a no-brainer, as Wednesday nights were staffed by only one chef, who was half blind and deaf to boot.  As the family members removed their coats and handed them to Joey to be put in the front closet, Adriana and Mikey saw their opportunity and ran with it.  They silently slunk around the doorway after Joey finished, and made their way into the closet, close enough that Adriana could smell the shoe polish on Mikey’s uber-expensive shoes.

The conversation of the family sounded like the same Adriana had heard at a million dinners and parties.  The men spoke briefly about what they should order, arguing between an appetizer of calamari or scungilli.  The decision was made (scungilli) and the conversation moved on.  The men discussed their business ventures, who owed them money and what they would do about it, and what they might undertake next.  Adriana was on the verge of napping when she heard someone utter Tony’s name and felt Mikey jab her in the side, motioning towards the door as though she were as deaf as the chef, and while she couldn’t tell who was saying what, she was certain they were discussing Tony.

“Where the hell is that sonofabitch?”

“He called me Sunday during dinner, I told him to call me back, but he never did.”

“His wife won’t stop calling me.”

“Somebody needs to get on that.”

“Where’s the box?”

The mention of the box certainly got Adriana’s attention.  It was just as she feared, someone else knew about the box, someone with a lot more power than she had.

“What box?  What’s in the effin’ box?”

“No idea, sir.  I just know that somewhere there’s a box and something is in it.”

“What’s in it?  What the hell are you talking about?  Why didn’t anybody feel this was important to mention when this bastard went missing?”

That voice Adriana knew.  That was certainly Charlie Beans, the head of the family.  If he used the word “missing” Adriana believed that the family didn’t have anything to do with Tony’s disappearance.  It wasn’t a guarantee, but she was going to trust her gut once again.  Adriana felt a bit better.  Clearly, nobody knew the details of the box the way she did.  However, the sheer fact that someone else knew about it made her very, very nervous.

The meal ended, and the family members headed to the front of the restaurant to get their coats and hats.  Adriana and Mikey waited until the room was silent and crept from the closet and out of the kitchen door.  They looked at each other and giggled out of sheer relief when they got outside and under the light of the moon.  They weren’t yet sure what happened to Tony, but they were both pretty sure the family didn’t have anything to do with it.  Adriana was also sure that they knew about the box, but less of its contents than she did.  Unfortunately, it seemed as though nobody knew where to find this box.  As she began to head home, with Mikey walking her like a gentleman, Adriana heard a voice call out to her.

“Goodnight Adriana.  Good night Mikey.  You two kids have a good night.”

Adriana began to shake with fear.  That voice belonged to Charlie Beans and the two of them were directly behind the restaurant dressed in black, looking like two idiots playing detective.  While Mikey was a detective, Adriana couldn’t claim the same, and her worries began to increase.

“What’s wrong, Ad?  You’re not worried about Charlie are you?  So what?  We were out for a walk together.  There’s nothing strange about that.”

“Are you kidding, Mikey?  We happen to be right by the restaurant at exactly the same time all these guys are leaving?  We’re dressed like two extras from the Men in Black movies and there’s nothing strange about that?  We’re screwed.”

There was nothing to be said or done.  The situation was what it was, and the only way to figure out exactly how much the family knew would be to wait it out.  Mikey offered to stay on the couch, and Adriana gladly took him up on the offer.  She knew many women who would refuse, but she wasn’t one of them.  The two walked in to find Fido still sitting on the couch.

            “Hey Ad, what’s up with Fido?”

“No idea Mikey, I should probably call the vet again tomorrow.  The damn cat hasn’t made a peep since Monday morning.  You hungry?  How about some eggplant?”

The night passed fitfully for Adriana: still no word from Tony, but at least she and Mikey were still alive.  The two had coffee, and Mikey headed back to his office, promising to catch up with Adriana later or if he received any new information.  Adriana cleaned up some tissues that Fido had nibbled on, along with papers and socks.  Apparently, the only thing Fido didn’t want to eat was cat food.  She put in another call to Dr. DeRose and headed out to his office with a once-again silent Fido.

After the required niceties (weren’t these passé by now?), Dr. DeRose decided to take some x-rays, especially since Fido hadn’t been meowing, crying, or eating.  The non-use of the litter box was also a concern, so Adriana signed consent forms and immediately thought of calling Tony.  When she remembered that he wouldn’t answer, she opted to call Mikey instead.  As much as she complained about Fido and his eccentricities, she really did love the cat and all it had come to represent.  Mikey agreed to drive the forty minutes to offer his support, though he really wasn’t an animal person and didn’t get it.

Mikey and Adriana sat in the waiting room while Dr. DeRose read the x-rays.  He emerged a short time later, with the pictures in one hand and a small envelope in the other.

“Well Adriana, we’re all finished here, at least for today.”

“Where’s Fido?  Is he ok?  How were the x-rays?”  Adriana once again found herself just shy of hysterical.

“Fido’s in the back resting.  The x-ray showed a small blockage in the esophagus, which wasn’t significant enough to constrict breathing, but made eating nearly impossible.”

Adriana closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  “Are you telling me my cat swallowed something?  That’s the big problem?  My cat swallowed something that led to surgery?”

“Yes,” Dr. DeRose replied.  He dropped the x-rays on the table and emptied the contents of the envelope into his hand.

“Does this look familiar?”  He asked the duo, holding up a small key.

“You have to be effing kidding me…my cat swallowed the key?”  Adriana screamed, at once relieved that half the mystery had been solved but also irritated that Tony still hadn’t been found.

“Yup, it seems your cat may have a taste for Bank of America safe deposit boxes” Dr. DeRose replied.

“How do you know it’s Bank of America?” Adriana asked in amazement.

“It’s imprinted on a tiny tag attached to the top.” Dr. DeRose looked as confused as Adriana was feeling.

“Thanks Doc.  We have to be going.” Adriana began pulling Mikey out of the office, a death grip on the key she had grabbed from the vet’s hand.

“Wait, wait!  Fido needs to be picked up tomorrow.”

“Sure Doc, sure thing!”

Adriana and Mikey made their way to Bank of America.  At the front desk, Adriana was asked to show her identification, and upon approval, was taken to a back room.  She had pictured walls and walls of boxes, but was told by the branch manager that that was not the case for “special clients.”  After placing the box in front of Adriana, the manager left her alone to open the box, facing a very uncertain future by herself.

As she opened the box and saw all the cash, all the paperwork and the vast fortune in front of her, Adriana realized none of it meant anything without Tony.  He was all she wanted, and as she thought over the past four years, tears began to run down her face.  She was ready to place the top on the box when a slip of bright pink paper caught her eye.  She had just placed the new notepad next to the phone on Saturday, when Tony came by after work.  She quickly picked up the paper and read:

“Hey Baby.  I am heading out of town for a few days.  I need to regroup and talk to a lawyer down in the Keys.  I think it’s about time to worry about my own happiness and what I want.  I’m going to ask Delores for a divorce so we can move forward with our life together.  I didn’t want to wake you, so I decided to leave the safe-deposit key on the dining room table, but I guess you figured that out.  I’ll be back Thursday morning, and I can’t wait to see you!  Love, Tony”

Adriana shook her head in disbelief, it was like a dream come true.  Everything was going to be fine, though she might kill Fido with her bare hands.  She took notice of a small arrow on the bottom of the paper, an indicator to turn it over.  She did and read:

“P.S.  The effin’ cat is jumping all over the place.  You have to think about doing something with this sonofabitch!”

Adriana laughed out loud, grabbed the note, and headed out to tell Mikey what had happened, the smile from a dream fulfilled never leaving her face.

Out at Home

Out at Home by Chris Panzarella

Rooting for a baseball team as bad as the Edge City BayHawks is like being stuck in an abusive relationship.  Every year they break your heart and embarrass you in public, but come spring you’re right back in the bleachers rooting for them to win.

            This kind of resiliency comes in handy all the time in my line of work.  When you choose to work as a private detective you have to accept the fact that you are going to get the short end of the stick.  A lot.  Clients will refuse to pay, leads will refuse to pan out, and suspects will refuse to tip their hand.  The list goes on.

            However, every once in a great while, if he’s lucky, a private detective will get a chance at a Big Case.  The type where someone rich and famous has been murdered, assaulted, or otherwise brutally victimized in a criminal fashion.  A case where everyone follows the news waiting to see what happens next.  So naturally when a Big Case strolled into my office one humid July afternoon I was immediately suspicious.

***

            My office, Mark Nelson Investigations, sits on West 19th street just a couple of blocks past a wonderful old blue collar neighborhood, recently renovated and now infested with yuppies.  It occupies the second floor of a squat brick building sandwiched between a Chinese take-out joint and a squadron of shabby rowhouses.

            I was sitting at my desk, an old mahogany monstrosity, listening to the BayHawks radio broadcast bounce off the warped walnut paneling that lined the walls when the door opened and a woman calmly walked in.

            She wore a simple yet elegantly tailored navy blue suit and enough jewelry to be considered tasteful but not quite garish.  A slim golden chain glimmered at her throat while a ring set with three sapphires sparkled on her left hand.  Her outfit told me she was rich, rich enough to prefer discretion over attention.  She glanced once around my office with an air of slight bemusement, took a seat on one of the plastic chairs I had picked up at Good Will for a buck, and cleared her throat.

            “Mark Nelson?”

            “Yes ma’am, what can I do for you?”

            “My husband died last night.”

            I blinked.  The woman didn’t.  She kept on talking.  “I believe he was murdered, I want you to find out who killed him.”

            I coughed to buy a moment.  “If this is a homicide case, and it certainly sounds like one, you need to call the police.  Try Detective Lieutenant Portman at-”

            The woman cut me short by shaking her head, slowly but firmly.

            “No.  I considered going to the police, but after they were implicated in the death of that young Hispanic boy I decided they couldn’t be trusted.  Besides, someone called them in already. They’re checking out the crime scene as we speak.”

            I leaned back in my chair and looked at the woman questioningly.  “If the police are already involved, why are you coming to me?  What do you think I can do that they can’t?”

            “Like I said, I don’t trust the police.  I want someone independent looking at the evidence, someone who won’t jump to an easy conclusion to satisfy the press.”

            I sighed, settled back into my chair and pulled out my notepad.

            “Well, it looks like I’m your man then.  Let’s start at the beginning.  What’s your name?”

            “Michelle Peterson.  My husband was a local businessman named Arthur.”

            I paused and looked up.

            “Arthur Peterson.”

            “Yes.”

            “As in Arthur Peterson, owner of the Edge City BayHawks.”

            “That’s correct.”

            “Mrs. Peterson, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the list of people who hated your husband would stretch from my office into the next state.  Do you follow baseball much?”

            “Not particularly, no.”

            “Then you may not know that the BayHawks last put together a winning season three presidents ago.  Players, coaches, managers, and even general managers have come and gone, but Mr. Peterson has presided over all of them.  He is generally regarded as the biggest cause of the BayHawks’ downfall.  Trying to find his murderer will be like looking for a needle in a haystack made of needles.”

            Mrs. Peterson looked me right in the eye.

            “Mr. Nelson, I appreciate your concerns.  Would triple your normal rate be sufficient to allay them?”

            I made a quiet choking sound.  After a moment, I recovered.

            “Okay, okay.  I’ll take the job.”

            “Excellent.”

            “One last question, though.  This case is going to be a huge story.  Why come to a small-timer like me?”

            Mrs. Peterson presented her immaculate white teeth in an icy smile.  “Because, Mister Nelson, I know all about your past.  I know who you used to be.  I imagine you will come into contact with all types of baseball-affiliated people in the course of your investigation.  A man of your background should serve admirably in handling a situation such as this.” 

            Now it was my turn to stare.

            “Not many people know that I used to play for the BayHawks, especially since I took steps to change my name.”

            She lifted one hand in a gesture of apology.  “In any case, I took the liberty of bringing my late husband’s datebook with me.  Feel free to peruse it at your leisure, but I must insist that you not write in the book and return it to me when finished.”

            She stood up and handed me an embossed business card.

            “Here’s my number; please contact me with any results.  I wish you luck in your search.”

            With that she strode out of my office and shut the door behind her.

            I put some water on for coffee and looked at the late Mr. Peterson’s planner.  It was bound in heavy red leather.  I opened the front cover and started reading.

Arthur Peterson kept busy for a man of his advanced age.  His schedule was crammed with business conferences, personal lunches with old friends, and committee meetings on the BayHawks’ current affairs.  After sifting through the last two months’ worth of appointments I had a list of names but no obvious connections.  I decided to take a break and stretch my legs.  The All-Star game kicked off tomorrow in St. Louis.  What better time to check out a murder scene?

***

            I parked my beat-up old Ford three blocks over from Main Street and enjoyed a rare cool breeze on the afternoon summer air as I walked to my destination.

            The BayHawks had played in Edge City Municipal Stadium since they moved here 45 years ago.  Dubbed ‘The Nest’ by the locals almost immediately, it still brought to mind the grand old ballparks from the sixties, where the last of the Silver Age greats played out their careers.  I flashed my ID card and detective’s license at a side gate and was promptly waved through.  Mrs. Peterson had apparently made sure I wouldn’t have any trouble getting in to take a look around.

            I stepped into the main concourse and took a slow, deep breath.  Sometimes when I go to a game I’ll just buy a beer and wander through the concourse, lost in a human sea of crackerjacks and conversation.  This time, as I passed under the green steel archways, only wails of regret and whispers of ghosts long forgotten rose to meet me.

            One of the park attendants, a pale, thin man with a paler, thinner mustache, unlocked the outfield gates and let me onto the field.  I paused for a moment to crouch down and run my hands across a patch of outfield grass, savoring the texture, then continued on to meet the first challenge of the day.          Several uniformed police officers stood guard over the infield dirt, their burnished shields glinting in the sunlight.   Just past them a couple of crime scene technicians in dark blue windbreakers scurried around like fleas that had just caught the scent of blood.  Unfortunately that scent was literal in this case.  One of the officers held up his hand as I approached.

            “Sir, this place is absolutely off limits to civilians, I’m going to have to ask you to leave immediately.”

            I shook my head and flashed my ID again.  “Sorry, but I can’t do that.  I’m a private detective hired and retained by the Peterson estate.  I need to take a look around.”

            The cop narrowed his eyes.  “Perhaps you didn’t hear me correctly sir.  This scene is off-limits to civilians, and that especially includes a pathetic broken down old man pretending to be a-”

            “Eddie, you’re going to have to let him through.”

            We both looked at the speaker, a thirtyish man in a rumpled suit with brown hair and lines in his face.  A detective’s badge hung from the breast pocket of his suit.

            Eddie sputtered.  “Sir, you can’t seriously be suggesting-” 

            Detective Lieutenant John Portman raised a hand.  “Much as it pains me to admit it, Mr. Nelson appears to have friends in high places.  I just got a call from Captain Reynolds, apparently we are to allow Mr. Nelson an unobstructed look at the scene.”  He stabbed a finger at me with a grimace.  “You have five minutes, make the most of them.  Don’t touch anything or I’ll haul you in on obstruction.”

            I simply nodded at Portman and made my way to home plate, conscious that the rest of the officers were watching my every move.  When I reached my destination I just stood and took in the scene for a long moment.

            Arthur Peterson hadn’t died cleanly.  His body lay face-up at home plate, his arms and legs skewed at angles that gave him the appearance of a drunken scarecrow.  The left side of his face had been bludgeoned into a bloody ruin.  I knelt down in the third base batter’s box to get a closer look at his head.  The left temple had completely caved in, but something seemed to have left a faint impression in the wound.  The impression looked like something familiar.  It looked like a baseball.

            I stood up and walked back to the mound, taking care to avoid the crime scene techs who were snapping pictures and taking samples.  Toeing the rubber, I took up a set position and stared in at home plate, thinking.  The sounds of police chatter faded into the background as I focused my attention.  From here Peterson was just a pinch hitter making the last appearance of his career.  In my experience, things were always easier to sort out from a pitcher’s mound.  Unfortunately, this mound was behind on its maintenance; a couple of dirt clumps had been gouged out of each side.

            I thought about the situation for a couple of minutes, then nodded to myself.  The list of suspects had just gotten a lot shorter.

            My five minutes were up.  I bid farewell to Portman and his stable of uniforms and made my way back to the outfield gates.

***

            I was walking back through The Nest’s concourse when a large blond man came huffing up.  Sweat glistened in sideburns wrought like golden wire.  The man pulled off his large plastic eyeglasses, mapped his broad forehead with a white handkerchief, then stuck out his hand.

            “Pleased to meet’cha sir.  Miss Peterson said you’d be droppin’ by.  Name’s Charlie Milton; I’m the equipment manager for the home team clubhouse at the stadium.  Anythin’ I can do to lend a hand?”

            I glanced back the way I had come.  “Now that you mention it, a question has occurred to me.  How come the body hasn’t been taken away yet?  Have you talked to the police here at all?”

            Charlie shook his head.  “I don’ really trust cops, not since some fat sergeant from the 3rd precinct ran my brother in on some bullshit fraud charges a couple years back.  As for the body, given how high profile this crime’s gonna be, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts they’re takin’ their sweet time to make sure they don’t miss anything.”

            I sighed.  “I can’t say I’m surprised.”  I looked back at Charlie.  “Come to think of it, there might be something you can do to help.”

            I took out the list of names I had copied from Peterson’s date book and handed it over.

            “Do you know where I can find any of these guys?”

            Charlie slowly perused the list.  After a moment he brightened.  “Yeah, I can help ya out.  The ‘Hawks just got back from a long road trip.  They’ve got the next couple ‘o days off on account of the All-Star game and whatnot, but they start up again in three days.  I know where ya can find a couple of these guys.  Graham is still livin’ with his parents up on 23rd street, and last I heard of ol’ Crowley he was spending most of his days at the Edge City Library over on Cold River Way.  They’re the only two locals on this here list.”

            He handed the paper back to me and I folded it into an outside pocket of my jeans.

            “You seem to know a great deal for a clubhouse manager.”

            Charlie shrugged.  “I sometimes end up running errands for the guys.  Plus, I feel like I can trust ya.  Ya walk like a baseball player.”

            I thanked Charlie and walked back to my car.

***

            I parked on east 23rd street and walked towards the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Graham.  Their son Marty had been drafted out of high school by the BayHawks in the sixth round of the Amateur Draft.  A promising infield prospect, he had risen steadily through the farm system.  Two years ago he cracked the ‘Hawks’ major league roster as the starting third baseman and hadn’t looked back since.  His hitting skills were alternately described as adequate and a work in progress.  Defensively, however, he was already drawing comparisons to the legendary Brooks Robinson, who had manned the hot corner up in Baltimore many years ago.

            I knocked on the front door and Marty himself answered.  A tall, rangy youth with clear green eyes, his posture spoke of an easy, self-confident grace.  He looked me up and down.

            “Sorry, we don’t give out donations.”

            I smiled.  “Thanks, but I’m not collecting.  My name’s Mark Nelson, I’m a private investigator.  Do you have a minute to talk?”

            Marty cocked his head slightly to one side.  “What’s this about?”

            “Something serious has happened.  I think it would be better if we talked about this indoors.”

            Marty narrowed his eyes.  “Is there any particular reason I should trust you?”

            I spread my hands.  “Honestly?  Not really.”

            Marty nodded slowly.  “Sure, come on in, the parents are out to dinner.”

            The Graham household was well worn but comfortably lived in.  Most of the furniture and decorations looked to be at least thirty years old but well cared for.  Marty led me to the dining room table and sat down, motioning to the chair across from him.  “So, what ‘serious’ matter are you investigating?”

            I took out my notepad and watched Graham carefully.  “Someone murdered Arthur Peterson last night.”

            I expected surprise, maybe a little shock.  Instead the young third baseman merely nodded his head.

            “I know, the manager told us this morning.  The team is trying to keep the story out of the press, but they wanted the players to know firsthand.”

            I raised an eyebrow.  “You seem pretty calm talking about death for someone your age.”

            Marty spread his hands with the palms up.  “I’m not going to lie to you, death shouldn’t  be a cause for celebration.  However, I really didn’t care for that crotchety old bastard.”  He paused.  “This conversation is off the record, right?”

            I nodded.  “Of course.  There’s no love lost between me and the Edge City press, don’t worry.  Getting back to Peterson, why didn’t you like him?”

            Marty scowled at the table.  “Four years ago, I was ready for the major leagues.  My manager at Triple-A knew it.  The coaches there knew it.  Even the other players knew it.  Everyone knew it.  Everyone, that is, except for Old Man Peterson.  He saw the talent I had, but he didn’t want to have to pay for it.  So, he buried me.

            “I toiled in the minor leagues for two more years until I finally forced them to put me on the major league roster.  Who knows what those two lost years will do to my career?”

            He took a deep breath and unclenched his hands.  I looked at him, not unsympathetically.  “Did the team officials tell you how Peterson died?”

            Marty shook his head.  “No, they didn’t have any specifics.”

            “He was killed by a baseball to the head.”

            Marty looked up at me.  “And you think I had something to do with it?”

            “I wasn’t going to put it that bluntly, but yes.  While we’re on the subject, can you tell me where you were last night?”

            Marty narrowed his eyes.  “The entire team flew in yesterday evening, except for Mel Hendricks, who’s our representative at the All-Star game this year.  I went out by myself for dinner and a couple of drinks then came home and went to sleep, but I can’t prove any of it.  On that note, I think it’s time you left.”

            I didn’t press the issue with him.  It had been a long day.

***

            As I rounded the corner back onto East 23rd the glow of a streetlamp revealed Portman’s hunched figure sitting on my hood.

            I stopped five feet away and kept my hands in view.  “Good evening Detective Lieutenant, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

            The man glanced up at me.  “Spare me the pleasantries.  You talked to some people today.  People who don’t talk to the police.  What did they tell you?”

            I shrugged.  “Home gardening tips, mostly.”

            Portman scowled.  “Stop fucking around Nelson.  My men are finishing with the crime scene as we speak.  The only things I need now are witnesses.  I know you’re following up on a lead with Graham.  Bring me into the loop and I won’t make you regret it.”

            I shook my head slowly.  “Sorry, I answer to Mrs. Peterson on this, if you can get her approval I’ll tell you everything.  You’re welcome to arrest me if you want, but something tells me you need to move fast on this case and my being behind bars won’t help you.”

            The detective looked at me long and hard, then threw up his hands as he got off my car.  “Take one of my cards, it has my number.  Damn it Nelson, we’re on the same team here.”

            “With all due respect I play by a different definition of the word.  Have a good night, Detective.”

            Portman’s figure cast a long silhouette as I started my engine and drove off into the night.  

            I went home and poured myself a nightcap.  As I sipped the whiskey I listened to a news broadcast covering an ongoing citywide strike by the municipal trash collectors as it crackled through my radio.  According to the latest reports negotiations had picked up between city officials and the various union reps.  Apparently the large buildups of garbage on street corners had sparked a public outcry to have the matter settled.  Meanwhile, my case was still very much up in the air.

***

            The next morning I scrambled two eggs to go with some toast and orange juice and ate quickly.  I wanted to get to the Edge City Library before it opened.

            Without a doubt, stakeouts are one of the most tedious aspects of being a detective.  I parked the Ford across the street from the library’s front doors and settled down to wait.  Since I was stationed up the street I had a good view of people approaching the library from both directions.

            During the first three hours I didn’t have any luck.  A pair of young mothers walked in together with their children.  An hour and twenty minutes later, three older gentlemen in military veteran jackets trooped through the entrance, chatting quietly among themselves.  Remarkably, a gaggle of adolescent kids crowded through the doors a short time later.  I blinked at them in surprise; most people my age don’t expect children to visit the library of their own free will these days.  Finally, halfway through hour number five, my patience paid off.

            Like countless BayHawk Fans I had seen Bud Crowley’s face on TV often enough to be able to pick him out of a police lineup.  Even in retirement his fluffy gray hair and thick, ruddy face hadn’t changed much.  It was easy to spot the man ambling down the sidewalk in the exact same gait he had used whenever he needed to walk onto the diamond and confront an umpire or two on a bad call.

            I waited until he passed my car, then got out and crossed the street behind him.  I entered the library four steps on this tail, scanned my library card at the front desk a few seconds after Crowley did, then held back and kept him within eyesight as he made his way to the Classics section.   He went immediately to one high shelf, removed a book, and headed for a corner table.  I gave him a minute to get comfortable, then approached.

            “Bud Crowley?”

            He looked up at me, then squinted after a moment.

            “Do I know you, young man?”

            I quickly shook my head.  “No sir, my name is Mark Nelson.  I’m a private detective investigating a murder.”

            “Is that so?  Whose murder?”

            “Arthur Peterson.”

            The weathered ex-manager studied my face for several long moments.  Then he slowly closed his book.  The man had been reading Paradise Lost.

            “I think perhaps you should start from the beginning, young man.”

            I pulled up a chair and gave Crowley the condensed version of yesterday’s events.  When I was finished he rubbed the bridge of his bony nose with a broad thumb and forefinger.

            “Given the circumstances, I assume you are here to question me?”

            I nodded.  Crowley sighed.  “Young man, I managed the BayHawks for twelve years.  Arthur Peterson was anything but a hands off owner during that time despite whatever he said in his daily press conferences.  I doubt a single week went by without his finding some excuse to question my management of the team.  The day I handed him my resignation was one of the most satisfying of my baseball career.

            “We feuded constantly, I won’t deny that.  However, I do deny having a role in that man’s death; it was far easier just to walk away.  Besides, do you really think I could throw a baseball hard enough to kill at my age?”

            I blinked.  “I take it Marty Graham talked to you then.”

            “Indeed, he called me late last night, just after he spoke to you.”

            “In that case, I have just one other question.  What did you and Marty talk about when the two of you had dinner with Mr. Peterson two weeks ago?”

            This time it was Crowley’s turn to blink.  “How did you hear about that?”

            “I have his datebook, he had a dinner scheduled with you and Marty Graham.  So, what did the three of you talk about?”

            He hesitated, but only for a moment.  “We spoke of the future.  Marty and I had each invested a considerable sum of money in a stock portfolio Arthur had set up.  When the stocks tanked, we both wanted to cash out and cut our losses.  The three of us met over dinner to discuss the particulars.”

            A wistful smile played across his weathered face.  “I also asked about coming to spring training to throw some batting practice.  Peterson turned me down; he had just bought two machines that can pitch to batters at speeds ranging from batting practice to over one hundred miles an hour.”

            I shook my head.  “That’s a bit of a shame.  I always thought baseball was the last place for machinery like that.”

            Crowley nodded.  “Besides that, I heard any time you set one up on a pitcher’s mound it has a tendency to gouge out large chunks of dirt from it.”

            An image from The Nest crashed its way into my mind and a chill ran down my spine.  I jerked out of the chair.  “I have to go.  Now.”

            Crowley smiled.  “Sure.  It was nice seeing you again, Billy.”

            I had already started to walk away, but stopped dead in my tracks at those words.  I turned back to my ex-manager. 

            “I…hoped that you had forgotten about me after so many years.”

            He shook his head.  “Not a chance, but don’t worry.  Your secret is safe with me.  The path you chose to walk is no one’s business but your own.  Godspeed.”

***

            I sprinted to my car and broke every traffic law on the books getting back to The Nest.  Thirty minutes later and thoroughly out of breath I staggered into the concourse.  There wasn’t a game scheduled that day, but I flagged down an attendant to point me towards the office for the home team equipment manager.  I was told to check the indoor batting cages nestled deep within the stadium’s concrete-lined basement levels.

            I opened the door to the batting cages just in time to see Charlie Milton step onto the mock home plate with a remote control gripped in his hand.  At the other end of the long room a squat machine crouched on the mock pitcher’s mound like some giant prehistoric insect, overhead lights gleaming on its black metallic shell.  The equipment manager smiled at me.

            “Afternoon Mr. Nelson, I wondered if I was gonna see ya again.”

            I held up my hands.  “It’s over Charlie, please don’t do anything you’re going to regret.”

            He smirked ruefully.  “How’d ya figure out it was little ol’ me?”

            “I saw some deep gouge marks in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound while examining Peterson’s body.  I didn’t make the connection until I heard about his pitching machines this morning.  I had been working on the theory that a human threw the baseball that killed Mr. Peterson.”

            Charlie’s gut shook with deep, hearty laughter.  “Every time it’s always the devil inna details that trips ya up.”

            “Where is that baseball anyway, Charlie?”

            “In m’ desk sealed in a plastic bag.  I stuck a writt’n confession in there wit’ the thing.  Three weeks ago Bud Crowley came back to The Nest to throw out the first pitch for one of the home games.  Later that day I overheard him talking with Marty Graham about how Peterson had screwed ‘em both over in some fancy money deal.  That was the last straw for me; I had already heard rumors from the front office about Old Man Peterson plotting to move the ‘Hawks out to Las Vegas.”

            Charlie looked up at me.  Tears glistened in his eyes.  “I put up with his crap for twenny years, I wasn’t gonna stand for it any longer.  I sent an anonymous note telling him I knew everything.  I told him to be at home plate by midnight or my story was going right to them folks in the press.  I set up one of the machines an’ cut the juice to the stadium’s lights.  As soon as he set foot on home plate I hit the switch and fed his sorry ass a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball.”

            I met Charlie’s wide-eyed stare head on.  “Charlie, believe me when I say I know what it’s like to lose your livelihood when you live and breathe baseball.  But you can move on.  I, I know you’re better than this, put the remote down and let’s talk about it.  Please.”

            Charlie’s grinned.  “I only got one thing left to say.”  His grin widened maniacally.  “BATTER UP!!” 

            He pushed the button.  That damned pitching machine screamed.  A white blur took the man full in the face.  The remains of Charlie Milton crumpled to the ground.  I swallowed and made the sign of the cross.

            I made two calls in the following three minutes.  First, I called Mrs. Peterson and extracted a promise from her to keep my name out of the papers.  I told her the whole tale and made an appointment to return the datebook in two hours.  After I hung up with her I dialed the number for Detective Portman.  I told him what had happened and where I was.  He sprinted through the front doors of The Nest twenty minutes later.  He found the murder weapon and confession right where Charlie had left them.  He promised to keep my name out of the story on the condition that I make a statement for the record back at the precinct.  I agreed, and made it to Mrs. Peterson’s house with five minutes to spare.

            The press broke the story the next day; I made it a point to stay home and ignore the rest of the planet.  Later that week I found myself in a bar two blocks from my office sipping a beer.  Everyone was talking about the strike; the City Council had finally given in, and the trash collectors were back at work keeping Edge City relatively clean.  I listened to a 7 o’clock news broadcast on the matter for a few minutes, then asked the barkeep to switch the channel over to sports, where the BayHawks were facing down the Phillies.  During the sixth inning one of the broadcasters took a break from the play-by-play to tell a brief story.  His voice rustled through the bar like fresh sandpaper.

            “The Edge City BayHawks are no strangers to injury.  One major reason they’ve struggled for so long is their star players’ inability to stay healthy.  Of course few examples are more heartbreaking than their star young catcher from the ’94 season, where they came within three games of making the playoffs for the first time in twenty years.  However, after a nasty home plate collision on the last day of the season gave him a broken arm, wrist, elbow, and shoulder, Billy Brown dropped out of sight and never played baseball again.  Perhaps one day we’ll find out what happened to him.  Until then, we’re proud to bring you BayHawks baseball here on Channel 10!”

            I waited for the game to come back on.  When it did, I ordered another beer and thought about tomorrow.

The Float

The Float by Jonathan Richmond

 

Maybe the gods were plotting against me as I hit all sixteen red lights on Pulaski Highway or maybe they weren’t.   I turned left into the parking lot of the Gentlemen’s Gold Club.  I wasn’t there for a lap dance, rather business and a pit beef sandwich from Chaps, a dive that happened to share the same parking lot with one of Baltimore’s finest jiggle-joints.  I had a meeting with Larry Driskel, a divorce attorney, who lately hadn’t called upon the services of my private investigation firm, Tarrou Security Services.  Larry was in the line, which now wrapped around the small building.  He waved me over to where he stood.

                Larry was in his mid-fifties, with a round face and mustache like Tom Selleck’s.  He was short, overweight and wore a tan suit that highlighted his weeble-wobble frame.  He only took cases of wives.  Maybe he hoped he could be their rebound guy.  We got our sandwiches — heaps of beef, sausage, and American cheese, topped with “vegetables” from the questionably sanitary fixin’ bar, smashed onto a sub roll too small for its contents — and sat down at a small picnic table outside.  Cars whizzed by on the highway while Larry slurped soda from his large white Styrofoam cup.

                “I got a case for you,” he said.

                Larry’s cases were typical of the divorce industrial complex.  What would it be this time? Sitting in a seedy motel parking lot snapping photos of hubby with his mistress or uncovering dirt for a child custody battle?   “Good to hear.  My normal rates apply.  Just like you shysters, I charge by the minute.” 

                He half-smiled as if he were immune to jabs about his profession.  “My client is Mrs. Molly Berger, wife of Ira Berger, owner of A-Plus Check Cashing.  He’s got fifteen stores in different locations throughout the Baltimore-Metro region.”

                Check-cashing joints are all over Baltimore, serving mostly poor city dwellers who have no relationship with a bank.  A-Plus had a considerable market share, and I guess you could say Berger is the banker of the unbanked.  “Fascinating,” I said.  “Tell me more boring shit.”

                “All right, Ben, don’t be a dick.”  I was getting under his skin.  Good.  “Whenever I get a new client we do a financial background check to facilitate property and asset division.  To make sure my client gets her due share.”

                “And yours, I’m sure,” I added.

                “I got two ex-wives of my own,” he said.  “Berger’s all spread out.  My financial guys finally tracked most of the business’s accounts to two small thrifts — Carrollton Savings and Loan, and Westminster Savings and Loan.  That’s where the money is supposed to be.”

                “Bank fraud?”      For the first time today, Larry had my attention.

                He took out a thick manila folder from his briefcase and flopped it onto the picnic table.  “Yeah, check-kiting.  Here’s the summary of the accounts from Carrollton and Westminster.  My guys highlighted the discrepancies.”

                I studied the report for a few minutes.  I’d worked some fraud cases before (for the insurance industrial complex), and Berger appeared to be running a circular scam.  He was depositing bad checks written from his Carrollton account and then depositing them into the Westminster account.  To cover the bad checks, he would write another bad check from his Westminster account and deposit it into his Carrollton account.  Berger was taking advantage of the float – the time it takes between when the funds are “credited” and when the funds actually show up — to inflate his balances and then make withdrawals with money that never existed.  The scam is so pathetically simple, but I guess most scams are.

                “Are the banks and cops aware of this yet?” I asked.

                “Not yet.  Carrollton and Westminster are up to their eyeballs in subprime trash and default swaps.  We’re thinking once they get a grip on their balance sheets, they’ll realize Berger is another one of their toxic assets.  Remember the Satisky brothers?  They managed to run their kiting scam for over three years before they got caught, and shit, Bernie Madoff ran his Ponszi scheme right under the nose of the SEC for over three decades.  If the markets didn’t tank he’d probably still be in business.  Let’s not give our overlords too much credit.”   

                “How much?” Considering all the lime green highlights on the report, Berger was doing a number on the banks. 

                Larry nodded his fat head slowly.  “My guys estimate Berger has been running the scam for almost two years.  The losses for the bank are in the ballpark of ten million dollars.  Berger’s scheme probably would have been discovered if only the damn banks talked to each other.”

                Larry’s Monday morning quarterbacking was right. Maybe if they had communicated this never would have happened.  Isn’t the communications revolution the mantra of the 21st century – WI-FI, 4G technology, Smart Phones, and IPads?  For a connected world, there sure isn’t a lot of communication, just hyper-chaos.  The world was moving faster and the banks hadn’t caught up yet.  “So what is it exactly that you need me to do?”

                Larry attempted to take another sip from his large cup, but it was empty.  “Nobody’s seen Berger for a week.”

                “So you want me to find him?  Why not just call the FBI and let them find him?”

                “We need to find him before the banks or FBI figure out what’s going on.  Mrs. Berger is very concerned about her finances.  Very concerned.  Plus, you know how these well-to-do folks like to keep their dirty little secrets in the closet.”

                Larry sat and watched me as I considered his proposition.  I was concerned about my finances too.     The economy’s long slump was hurting business; insurance companies and lawyers weren’t subcontracting private dicks as much as they once were.  “I’ll take the case.” 

                Larry, satisfied with himself, took out another manila folder.  He stood up and flipped the second folder on the table.  “Here is some more background info on Mr. Berger.  His wife is on a Caribbean cruise and will be back in a few days.  I’ll have her contact you when she gets back if Berger doesn’t turn up by then. This should be enough information to get you started.  I’m going to get a cocktail and a lap dance at the Gold Club.  Want to come?” he asked lecherously.

                I scoffed, “Can’t; I’m working.”

 

II

I sat at my desk and analyzed the contents of the two thick manila folders:  a few photos of Berger, financial disclosures, a list of the A-Plus locations, and real estate reports, one of which listed both a house in Bethany Beach and a membership at the yacht club.  My instincts, which had been off lately, told me Berger was alive and on the run. 

How was he paying for things?  He had easy access to cash, and attempting to track him via his debit and credit card transactions would lead me nowhere.   Where is he sleeping?  Berger might not need cash, but he certainly needed somewhere to sleep.  My friends in the city and county police departments were checking the hotels and motels in the area for his black, 2005 Mercedes E350 sedan with vanity tags that read “CSHMNY”.  The beach house would be an obvious place not to hide if you were used to being on the run, but Berger was a businessman gone bad, and I hoped he would be dumb enough to go there. 

I headed to slower-lower Delaware in my 1994 red Honda Civic hatchback.  To avoid the construction on the Bay Bridge, I headed north into Delaware then south to the beaches.  Traffic on Coastal Highway was minimal.   I passed through the beach party town of Dewey, then through the trailer-parks on Indian River Inlet, and finally into the upscale Bethany Beach.  I turned onto Oceanview Parkway and onto Seabreeze Drive.  Berger’s house was the third on the right.  The two-storey house, with a white porch that wrapped around the entire second floor, was within walking distance to the beach, and he’d probably overpaid for it during the housing bubble.  Berger’s car wasn’t in the driveway, and since it was early October, only one of the houses on the block appeared to be occupied.  I wanted to take a look around.  One can never be too careful, so I grabbed my Kahr nine millimeter out of the glove box.  My carry permit wasn’t any good in Delaware, but I’m not one for details, anyways.   From the trunk, I grabbed a pizza warmer box that I bought off a Domino’s delivery guy for fifty dollars about a year ago.  I had used the box a few times as cover when doing surveillance, and my pizza-man disguise hadn’t failed yet.  I knocked on the door and rang the doorbell.  No answer.  I walked around the back and looked in the large bay windows.  Nothing.  Following the staircase to the second floor, I circumnavigated the porch, looking in each window.  Zip.  Satisfied he wasn’t there, I thought maybe I was underestimating Berger’s criminal mind.  It was time to go.  I was hungry for pizza.

                As I walked down the stairs, a man approached.   “Hey, what are you doing?”

                I was about to find out if the fifty dollars for the pizza box was worth it.  “Somebody ordered a pizza to this address, but no one is home.”

                “Nobody has been there for over a year,” the man said.

                “This isn’t the Horowitz residence?” I asked.

                “No, this is the Berger residence, and they haven’t been here in over a year.”

                “This is 221 Seabreeze Drive, isn’t it?  Are you sure this isn’t the Horowitz residence?”

                “Yes, I’m sure.” He was getting annoyed.  I think my snooping was making him late for his tee time. “And I should know, I’m here all year round.”  He wasn’t completely convinced I was a pizza delivery man.  It was time to go.

                “God darn it!   Somebody must be making prank calls again. You know, a man tries to make a living, and he has to deal with this shit.  I better be going before these other pizzas get cold.”

I hopped in my car and sped off.  In my rearview mirror, I saw the man turn and walk back to his house. Domino’s does deliver.

The Bethany Yacht Club was a five-minute drive from Berger’s house.  At the entrance was a gate and security hut.  Rich people sure do go out of their way to keep the unworthy out of their clubs.  The security hut was empty.  In the off-season, the gate was probably sufficient to keep undesirables out.  I pulled up to the callbox and mashed all the buttons.  The gate buzzed and then opened slowly. 

  I entered the grounds and parked my car near the large club house.  As I walked to his boat, I thought how most of these cost more than three times as much as my townhouse.  A man sat on a boat next to Berger’s.  He was middle-aged, with coffee-color skin, most likely from days on the water.   He was drinking a Heineken and smoking a cigarette. 

“Hi there.”  I stuck out my hand.  “I’m Ben.  I’m here to look at the boat for sale.  Is this Ira Berger’s boat?”

“Nick Marino.”  He hesitantly shook my hand.  “I didn’t realize he was selling it.” 

I examined the boat, pretending to know what I was looking at.   The bow had a large teak deck, a polished brass handrail that followed the length of the starboard and port, and two fighting chairs on the stern.  Through the windows, I could see the cabin was flush with amenities: the salon featured an entertainment center with two-large flat-screens, a full bar, and two leather couches. I couldn’t see inside the master or guest staterooms, but I had a feeling they were just as posh.  “What would you pay for a boat like this?”

“A 46-foot Hatteras Convertible.  Let’s see, I would think in this condition,” he tapped his chin with his finger and looked up as if he this were the most perplexing question he had been asked in awhile. “About a hundred fifty thousand.  If he really wants to get rid of it, maybe one and a quarter.”

    Trying not to be obvious about my real intentions for being there, I engaged Nick in some small talk about the boat, fishing, and places we’d seen.  He seemed to enjoy my company, and I was enjoying his.  I finished being subtle and asked, “What can you tell me about Mr. Berger, so I know what to offer him for the boat?”

“I haven’t seen him or his wife in awhile, but they weren’t my kind of people.  They were all about making sure everybody knew they had money.  Typical of the people around here. The only thing most of them know about boats is that they float.  Me, I just want to be on the water.  I don’t give a shit who knows I have money.  Plus, I drink too much and I smoke too much.  I guess you could say I’m the club pariah.”

  I knew what it was like to be an outsider in an unreasonable world.  I gave an understanding smile.  “When’s the last time you saw Mr. Berger on the boat?”

He lit a cigarette and grabbed another Heineken out of his cooler.  “Last time I saw Ira was over a year ago at the Labor Day social.  You want a beer?”

I drank a beer with Nick and even smoked my first cigarette in twenty years.  It tasted like shit, but I still found it soothing.  I could have sat on his boat all day, but I had a job to do.   I finished my beer; Nick cracked another; we shook hands again, and I walked back to my car.  I had a feeling Nick knew I wasn’t really interested in the boat; my commonness was all too evident.  I headed back to Baltimore, no closer to finding Berger.   

 

III

I went back to my office.  Bethany had been a bust, and none of my contacts had a word on Berger’s Mercedes.  I grabbed the list of A-Plus locations off my desk and headed out to see if I could get any information.  The first three stores yielded little information.  All the employees I talked to knew nothing about Berger.  To them, he was just the man who signed their paychecks. 

Finding Berger was proving to be more difficult than I had originally anticipated.  I carried on– only eleven more stores to go.  The fourth store was across the street from Lexington Market.  The smell of chitlins (imagine hot garbage) polluted the air.  In front of the market, several men stood eating fried chicken, wiping their greasy mouths with slices of white bread.  The inside of the store was a large rectangle, with a long U-shaped wall of bulletproof glass running the perimeter of the store.  Rich people used gates to keep the riffraff out whereas on the mean streets of Baltimore, bulletproof glass was the preferred deterrent.   Behind the glass, in front of a register, a forty-five-millimeter pistol and an aluminum baseball bat were visible, a warning to anyone who thought about doing something crazy.  On my right, a large neon “Lottery” sign hung above two black girls operating the number machines.   To the left stood a walk-in cooler filled with malt liquor and back-alley champagne.   In the middle of the store were three rows of shelves, half-filled with cheap cleaning products, toiletries, and knock-off Hallmark sympathy cards.  Towards the back, customers cashed checks, paid bills, and filled out Western Union forms on the counter ledge.    The store reminded me of a casino where the cash cages were located in the back, making it impossible to leave without passing the bar, gaming tables, or slot machines.  

I approached one of the young black girls working the lottery machine.  “Hey, I’m Ben.  I work for The Baltimore Sun, and I was wondering if I could speak to a manager.”

She didn’t say anything and headed towards the check cashing cage to talk to a white girl who was helping customers.  She followed the lottery girl back to me.  The white girl was probably in her late twenties or early thirties, with a pallid complexion and fake hair tied in a long ponytail.   She was dumpy, had a diamond stud in her right nostril, and a tattoo on her flabby right arm of the comedy/tragedy masks with the message “Laugh Now, Cry Later, Bitch.”  She looked tough but was obviously letting her guard down, excited about meeting a “real” reporter.  Over the years I realized that those on the margins of society refuse to talk to the police or anyone remotely linked to law enforcement, but were more than willing to talk to a reporter.  When you are used to being ignored all your life, you’ll talk to anyone who might be able to get your story out.

She flipped her hair to the side and said, “Hi, Hon.  I’m Ms. Honey, the manager.  What can I do for youz, Hon?”

“I’m Ben Tarrou from The Sun paper.”  I stuck out my hand.  Ms. Honey extended her hand high, fingers pointed downwards, as if we were in the 19th century.  I shook her fingers and hoped she didn’t expect me to kiss her hand.  “I’m doing a story on the check cashing business. Could I ask you a few questions?”

“Oh my, I’ve never been interviewed before.  Let me get my cigarettes, and we’ll go outside and talk, okay, Hon?”

Outside she lit a cigarette and offered me one.  For the second day in a row, I was smoking.  This coffin nail tasted better than yesterday’s and gave me a buzz.  Taking out a small notepad and a pen, I started the interview with some questions about Ms. Honey, playing to her desperate desire to be important. 

“My real name is Ella Nesbit, but all the regulars call me Ms. Honey.  Before I started working here, I would always buy honey-flavored blunts.  I was here so often, Ira, my boss, gave me a job.”

Evidently, Berger had no problem hiring potheads.  Pretending to take notes, I scribbled gibberish in my notepad.

“How long have you worked here?”

“Almost ten years, Hon”, she said proudly.

At least Berger hired reliable potheads.  “You the only manager?”

She lit another cigarette with the first one.  “Uh-huh.  When I started, I was just a lottery girl.  Ira used to run the store, but he’s way too busy these days, so he promoted me to manager.  Are you going to take my picture?”

“Maybe.  Do you like being manager?”

“I sure do, Hon.  I know all the regulars; I know their lucky numbers, where they work, what they drink.  It’s like one big ghetto family.”  She laughed, amused at herself. 

“That’s cute.”  I sarcastically smiled, which, of course, she thought was sincere. 

“On the other hand, Ira’s been a real bitch lately.  He could pay me a little better and treat me with some respect.  I know he thinks I’m just a dumb white bitch from Pigtown, but it wasn’t for me this place would be a bigger shithole than it already is.  He was going to make me general manager of the new store in Woodlawn, but he put the move on hold when the regression started a year ago.  I tried to talk to him about the new store a month ago and he told me that I should be happy I had a job at all.”

 I gave a confused look.  “Regression?  Do you mean recession?”

She batted her eyes, shrugged her shoulders, and gave an innocent look.  “Silly me, Hon.  Yeah, recession.”

I didn’t remember any mention of a store in Woodlawn in the report.  Could I have missed it?  “Where exactly is this store?”

“In the Meadow Park Shopping Center, right off Security.  He’s spent a lot of his time there since he and his wife separated.  Putting the store on hold was a real disappointment.  Now the store is just like most of the other stores in Meadow Park – empty.”

I wrote down the address and put the notepad back in my pocket.  “Thanks a lot, Ms. Honey.  I think I got enough.”

“That’s it?” she said, disappointed. No one had listened to her for a long time, and now I was leaving. “When is the story going to be in the paper?”

“I’m not sure exactly.  I just do the interviews.  It was nice meeting you, Ms. Honey.”  Feeling somewhat bad for taking advantage of her naïveté, I slipped her a twenty.

IV

I left the city and headed into the county.  Thanks to Ms. Honey, I had my first break.  In this business, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.  But how could I have missed the Woodlawn store?  I recalled a TV show about a Virginia lawyer who was busted hiding assets from his ex-wife.  The Arlington lawyer gave some of the legal fees he had earned to his mother, and she put the cash in an account in her name.  The plan was for her to give the money to him after the divorce was final.  Eventually, he was caught and lost his attorney’s license.  Was it possible Berger was doing the same thing?  Had he purchased the Woodlawn store after his wife had filed for divorce, and put the store in someone else’s name?  Berger was turning out to be one sneaky son-of-a-bitch.

                I drove east on the Beltway, storm clouds rolled in, and rain pattered on my windshield.  Despite the worsening weather, which usually ensures gridlock around Baltimore, there was little traffic.  My cell phone vibrated in my pocket; it was Larry.

“What’s up, Larry?  I’m in the county.  Did you know Berger was opening a store in Woodlawn?”

“No clue.  Are you sure?”

“I’m about to find out.”

“Well, you better find out fast.  I just got a call from Carrollton Savings and Loan, and Berger’s gig is up.  The FBI is involved and they’re looking for him too.”

“Good to know,” I said.  “I’ll call you when I know something.” 

I exited off the Beltway, drove east on Security Boulevard, and took a right into the Meadow Park Shopping Center.  The western section of the shopping center housed a grocery store, a dry cleaners, and a Subway; the three stores in the eastern section were vacant. Two of the three stores had “For Lease” signs on their windows.  I pulled around back, and there was Berger’s Mercedes.  CHSMNY!  I parked the car, and, remembering the guns on display in Berger’s stores, I grabbed mine out of the glove compartment. 

At the back door, I grabbed the knob, and the door opened.  “Berger, you in there?”  No answer.  The inside was dark, and cigarette smoke staled the air.  A few tools, work benches, and planks of wood lay scattered on the floor.  In the back, another door led to an office where a faint light beamed from the bottom of the door.  I headed to the back, took out my gun, and cautiously entered the office.

The office was bare, except for a half-empty water cooler to my left and a desk in front of me.  Empty bottles of Christian Brothers’ brandy and cigarette butts were scattered across the floor.  I walked around the back of the desk, and there Berger lay in the fetal position.  His clothes were filthy and he’d probably been wearing the same outfit since he went missing.  A gray, scraggly beard had taken over his firm narrow face.  I bent down, put two fingers on Berger’s scruffy neck, checking for a pulse, nearly gagging at the reek of his breath.  He was alive, just wasted.  I checked him for weapons, but he was clean.  I took the large blue cooler off its stand and dumped the water onto Berger’s face and torso.  Sputtering, he jumped up, stumbled, and fell back into the wall.

“What the fuuu,” he slurred. 

“You’re a tough man to find, Berger.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

‘Now, now.  No need to be vulgar.  Ben Tarrou, private investigator.   I was hired by your wife’s lawyer to find you.” Berger stumbled and pulled himself onto the desk chair and sat.  He was soaking wet; the water cooler shower was probably the closest thing to a bath he’d had in more than a week.  His hands reached for the desk drawer.  I pointed my gun at him.  “Easy there, cowboy.  Let’s not do anything stupid.”

He put his hands in the air.  “Just getting something to drink and smoke.  If that’s okay with you, Mr. Private Investigator.”  He sneered and was struggling to keep his hands up.

I nodded for him to continue, watching his every move, ready to use my gun to erase his face.  At the same time I hoped violence wouldn’t be necessary.  Berger pulled a new bottle of brandy out of his bottom drawer and slammed it unintentionally on the desk.  He struggled to open the bottle.  Finally getting it opened, he took a large swig of the brown firewater and then lit a cigarette. 

“Lots of people looking for you.  Including the FBI.”

Berger took another long pull of brandy.  He grimaced.  “I’ve been waiting.  Didn’t think a private investigator would be looking for me, but the FBI, I knew it was only a matter of time.  Should have known that bitch would have sent someone looking for me.  She’s probably worried about her money or her fucking social status.  That’s all she ever carried about – money.  Boy, is she in for a surprise.”  He smiled wickedly.

Like he was in a clichéd detective novel where the villain meets his demise, Berger wanted to tell his story.  He wasn’t on the run after all; he wanted to be found.  “Why’d you do it?  Is the check-cashing business that bad these days?”

“Are all private investigators smartasses?” His stoned eyes met mine. 

“Most of us,” I quipped back.  He lit another cigarette and offered me one.  I declined. 

He rocked in his chair and tried again to find his equilibrium.  “When I first met Molly, she was a bitch – and she still is.  But I was young, stupid, and had confused good sex with love.”  He breathed heavily out of his nose.  He was growling.  “That cunt. We started with shit, but even when my business took off, nothing was good enough for her.  We traveled, bought a beach house, a boat, went to all the great parties; she loved being part of the social scene.”  He ground his teeth and bit his lip; foam caked the corners of his mouth.  “In the early part of the decade, I began to expand.  Opening new stores, buying up real estate, then the housing bubble burst, and I knew I was in trouble.  Things were going to have to change, but Molly didn’t want to hear it.    I started small, using the float to cover checks. I’d pay this bill or that bill, and then sling a check to cover it.: nobody even noticed.  A thousand here, ten thousand there, and before I knew it I was in deep.  The bankers, the ones who thumbed their noses at me and my business, were too busy running their own scams to even notice — Freddie and Fannie, the real estate agents, the mortgage brokers, Wall Street bankers with their fancy financial instruments, all of them as guilty as I.  You know, I once saw a mortgage broker authorize a four hundred thousand mortgage for someone with a three hundred fico score.  Three fucking hundred.  Dipshit shouldn’t have been able to get a loan for a cold drink.” He lit another cigarette; the tobacco sparkled, fueled by his combustible breath.   “I knew it was over – my marriage and the scam.  And the real kick in the ass was when Molly called me a loser who couldn’t even take care of his family.  What family?  Molly ain’t family.  She’s a hooker I rent for parties.” He slammed his fist on the desk, then started laughing deliriously. “My life is a lie.” 

He reached into the bottom drawer of his desk again and pulled out a gun, a forty-five caliber.  I raised mine, but he wasn’t aiming for me.  The float had gotten the best of Berger — Molly, the Mercedes, the beach house, the boat, A-Plus, the parties, all of it – one big lie.  He could no longer rely on the float; for him it was time to face reality.

He put the forty-five in his mouth.  I heard the barrel clatter against his teeth and he pulled the trigger.  Nothing happened.

“The safety’s still on,” I said.

He took the gun out of his mouth, and searched for the safety release.  Before he had a chance to find it I smacked the gun out of his hand and it slid across the floor away from Berger.  Berger put his hands to his face and whimpered, “I can’t even kill myself.”

I picked up the gun, emptied the clip, jacked the slide to get the bullet out of the chamber, and left Berger.  Then I called Driskel and 9-1-1.

V

I went outside and waited for Driskel and the police.  My job was done, but I couldn’t get what Berger said out of my mind.  My life is a lie.  Maybe we’re all living a lie – using the float to buy time until the bills come due.  I pondered how the collapse of the financial system forced many of us to accept the absurdity of the float.  Molly, like the bankers, denied the float by worshipping money.  Berger’s crimes exposed the meaninglessness of his life.  At some point we all figure out that life has no special meaning or purpose.  I’ve known this for awhile now, and that’s why I choose to exist in the chaos.

Photo Smarts

Photo Smarts by Helen Hufford

 

A picture is worth a thousand words.
– Napoleon Bonaparte

  One picture is worth 1,000 denials.
– Ronald Reagan

 

“The game this afternoon?” Carly asked wide-eyed, as she nibbled on her lower lip.

“That’s right. I need someone to cover it,” Ginny King replied. “Come on, Carly. Don’t let me down.” Ginny touched her shoulder assuredly.

“But I didn’t bring my camera to school today,” Carly answered sulkily.

“Use mine,” her teacher grinned as she handed her the case.” Now, scoot and don’t be late. The game starts at four. I’ll ask Mrs. Candiotti to let you out of detention early.” Ginny laughed as she walked out the door. 

Carly watched the game from the bleachers. She followed her friend, Katie, with her eyes, camera poised for an action shot. Just as Katie was rising to take a shot from behind the line, Carly was prepared to take a shot herself.  Swoosh! Three points. Holy Cross had won! Carly was confident that this one would be featured in the online school newspaper. Photojournalism usually involved more writing than Carly cared to think about, but sometimes a little luck at being in the right place at the right time could help out. Take for instance this afternoon. This was the first chance Carly had at impressing her friends, parents, and teacher with her photography. Although she grudgingly accepted the assignment from Mrs. King, she did want to see her byline and photograph on the school website. Katie would be really happy too. Carly knew Katie was trying to land an athletic scholarship, and coaches from colleges she was interested in would be impressed. Satisfied with the work she had done, Carly smiled to herself and sighed softly.

Immediately after the game, Carly joined her friends at the Red Robin across the street from the gym. She waited in line for only a minute when Emma wedged her way through the crowd and poked Carly in the ribs.

“Follow me,” she mouthed, not bothering to compete with the background music, waitresses and a huge robin mascot singing “Happy Birthday” to an eight year old, and the chatter from the rest of the basketball game spectators who were pouring through the double doors of the restaurant.

“Joe and I left one minute before the end of game to get this table,” Emma explained as she took a sideways glance at her newest boyfriend, a lean and lanky forward in his fourth year at Loyola Blakefield. 

“Too bad. You missed the best part. Katie scored during the last fifteen seconds of the game. It was fantastic,” Lauren commented. “It was totally out of the blue.”

“Carly, where were you?” Emma asked, cocking her head to the side.

“Yeah. Where were you? I was in the gym sitting on the right side, under the cross country championship banner, with Jacob, where we were all supposed to meet, but we didn’t see you there.” Lauren said as she reached for a nacho chip and absent-mindedly double dipped.

“I was taking pictures from the other side of the gym. I’m glad Mrs. King asked me to help out this afternoon in spite of the fact that it kept me from sitting with you guys, and I had to use her camera,” Carly explained to her friends. She sipped her chocolate malt milkshake, the reward she allowed herself for a job well done, before pulling the camera out of her handbag and passing it around the table. 

“Awesome. Let me see the pictures.” Lauren implored as she brushed the crumbs from her fingertips onto the napkin on her lap.

“Pretty impressive work. Katie will be so happy you took this picture of her winning shot,” Lauren crossed her legs, and reached for another nacho.

“Look. You and I are in the background of this shot, Emma” Joe pointed out, passing the camera back.

Sam sat down next to her brother, Jacob, just as the camera was again handed around the table. Typically a high scoring forward center for Holy Cross, Sam broke her arm in a pick-up game in her neighborhood two days ago. The coach and her parents, who were grounding her this coming weekend, were furious with her for recklessly playing around when her team was counting on her.

“Lucky Katie,” Sam stared blankly at the photos Carly had taken.

“We’re in Katie’s shot, too,” Lauren pointed out to Jacob. “I can’t believe I really look like that when I laugh.”

“Oh, you do” Emma confirmed. “I swear you do.”

“Thanks for being so honest” Lauren replied, feeling the vibration of her cell phone in her pocket.

“What are friends for?” quipped Emma, crinkling her eyes and nose.

“I’m the only person not in a picture from the game!” complained Sam, “It seems weird.”

“Say cheese” Lauren, who happened to be holding the camera, snapped a candid shot of Sam who made a funny face on cue. “Now you have nothing to complain about.”

The camera circled around the table once more. Lauren excused herself to check her text messages in private, a habit she acquired from attending a school for girls. She returned a few minutes later, a more subdued Lauren.  

“You guys. I need to return that camera to Mrs. King” Carly forced a tight-lipped smile. “I’m going to try to catch a ride home with Anna over there,” she said. She quickly made her way across the restaurant and then hurried back to grab her backpack, leave money for the check, and pick up Mrs. King’s camera.

In the midst of the now half-full Red Robin, the rest of the group settled up the bill and disbanded.

The next day at 2:25 pm, Ginny had the front office page Carly Beaumont to come down before leaving the school building.

“Carly, I expected you to return my camera this morning,” Ginny raised her eyebrows. Carly, who had been a star on the hockey field last fall, underwent knee surgery during the winter break. She missed so many classes this semester that Ginny was worried about her academically. Ginny, who wanted to see Carly earn a good grade and enjoy the class, assigned the basketball game to her because she knew that Carly had a strong interest in sports.    

“I’m sorry” Carly replied. She had stored it in her locker first thing that morning and really could not find the time to run it back to the photojournalism room during the fifteen minute break the students were allotted. “I got some great pictures. Hope you like them.” Carly placed the camera in Mrs. King’s outstretched hands and fled. 

Later that evening, Ginny was expected to take photographs at the new Archbishop’s reception at Holy Cross. She arrived in the nick of time with her camera in hand. A photographer from Galeone Studios was also scheduled to attend the event, but Ginny was accustomed to cover virtually all of the school events to snap a variety of photographs for the yearbook and other school publications. On this March evening, as Archbishop Lori stepped into the foyer of the school building, he was warmly greeted by the principal and vice-principals of the school.

“Good evening, Your Excellency,” the sisters said, each in turn.

“So pleased to meet you,” he replied graciously.

Ginny selected the best vantage point while introductions ensued. Snap. Snap. After a few candid shots she walked over to a secluded corner of the Music Hall to double check her camera. When she snapped the pictures, she was aware of an unusual icon hovering in the left corner of the viewfinder that she had never seen before.  Blast it! The memory card was missing.      Thank goodness Mr. Paul Galeone himself had just arrived.  Ginny frowned and then pulled out her cell phone and called home.

The home phone was answered promptly, for a change.

“Hi, Katelyn, I have a question for you. Were you checking the pictures on my school camera right after school today?” Ginny asked, tapping her foot all the while.

“No, Mom, why?” her daughter replied. Ginny told her she was just wondering. Katelyn, a sophomore at Holy Cross, who was used to having a mother with a reputation as the school sleuth, knew better than to press her for more information.

“I know our paths might have crossed for a few minutes right after school, but I’ve been at dance class helping Miss Lisa with the kindergarteners for most of the afternoon. Now I’m working on my chemistry homework. Oh, yes, I also took Shadow for a walk and fed him.  Dad brought Chinese carry-out. When will you be home?” Katelyn added.

“I’ll be home soon.” Ginny responded as she glanced around the Music Hall, content that Galeone had everything under control.

On Friday morning, Ginny wanted to hurry to school after leading her boot camp aerobics session at the Western YMCA from 6:00-6:50 am, a favorite among many of the working women in Catonsville. However, instead, she maintained her cool as she let her sixteen-year-old daughter drive her there. Ginny, known for her high energy level and abundant enthusiasm, tried to live up to the popular image she projected, and nearly always succeeded. She enjoyed her part-time teaching job at Holy Cross more than her part-time job as a reporter for the Catonsville Times, even though it sometimes led to a migraine. She was working on practicing patience, so she took the morning drive with Katelyn as an opportunity to strengthen her endurance.

The aroma of cinnamon buns filled the hallway emanating from the Bird Room where the Scholar’s Breakfast for the newly inducted honor society members was underway. Ginny strolled into the Bird Room, centrally located in the school and decorated in a Victorian style featuring pictures of various types of birds on every wall, to grab a cup of coffee and a donut before heading upstairs to the photojournalism classroom. Shirley Candiotti stood next to the coffee dispenser, pouring multiple creamers into her coffee mug. Ginny walked over to where she was standing and reached for a packet of sugar.

“Good morning. I need to talk to you privately. Do you have a minute?” Ginny stirred her coffee and glanced around the room.

“Sure. Meet me in my office right after the beginning of first block. You’re off then, aren’t you?” Ginny nodded, and Shirley picked up her plate of goodies and headed out the door.

Halfway through the first block, Ginny sunk into the chair facing Shirley and set her second cup of coffee and donut on the table by her side. Shirley left the door ajar, but shut it enough for a private conversation with Ginny, before she slid into the chair next to her.

“Someone stole the memory card from my camera – the school camera” Ginny blurted out.

“Wait. Aren’t I usually asking for your help in tracking down the culprits around here?” Mrs. Candiotti, the vice-principal in charge of discipline, asked. Over the years that Ginny had been employed at Holy Cross, she had impressed the administration with her ability to identify the delinquents in several incidents that quite frankly had left them baffled. Last year, disturbing graffiti in the girl’s gym locker room and in a few of the lavatories proved to be a difficult case to solve. With her understanding of the nature of adolescents, and a little luck, King discovered the identity of the guilty party, an emotionally charged student struggling with the break-up of her parents’ marriage. During the previous year, Ginny came to Shirley’s aid twice. First, in the fall, when Daphne Zenith was livid because her Bath & Body Works hand sanitizers were stolen from her classroom, Ginny tracked down the thief and extracted a confession. Then, she demonstrated her prowess again that year when she uncovered the exploits of a handful of seniors who had cut classes for weeks during the spring. In addition to her strong intuition and powers of observation, Ginny’s natural warmth and upbeat personality made her a likely confidante for the girls. Consequently, she was often privy to information that eluded others from her generation.       

Shirley sipped her coffee tentatively and placed her index finger on her temple. “Tell me about it.” She was ready to listen.

“Carly Beaumont used the camera to take pictures at the basketball play-off on Wednesday. She returned it to me yesterday afternoon, at the end of the school day. I had to call her down to the front office to get it. After I took a few pictures at the reception for Archbishop Lori last night, I discovered that the memory card was missing,” Ginny relayed the bad news as concisely as possible. “We’ve lost all of the pictures from the basketball game,” Ginny grimaced and stuffed a piece of donut into her mouth.

“Well, this is the second theft I’ve heard of this week.” Shirley confided. “Heather told me she thinks a test was taken from the top drawer of her desk.” She broke another donut in two and recalled the events of last year’s bout of kleptomania in the school. “I don’t know what to think. Last year, we were all convinced that the worst was over when Jill Moran withdrew from school in the spring. The string of thefts throughout the school suddenly stopped. Now it’s happening all over again. This déjà vu is unnerving.” 

“I doubt that the two events are related,” offered Ginny. “Rumors of a rise in cheating on tests have been circulating recently, but –.”

A rap on the door interrupted their conversation.

“Mrs. Candiotti, may I come in?” Giselle Montague, an English teacher from the third floor, asked.

“Yes, Giselle,” Mrs. Candiotti approached the door to respond to the second emergency of the day. Lately, she always seemed to have an endless list of crises at her door.

 “The cell phones of Lauren Cole and Maura Wilson both went off in the middle of our Holocaust class. Here they are.” Giselle placed the phones on the desk of the disciplinarian.

“OK.” Shirley browsed her list of cell phone violators, and sure enough, this was Lauren’s second offense. “It looks like she’s up for in-school suspension. I’ll see them both at the end of the day.”

Ginny left Shirley Candiotti’s office and entered the photojournalism classroom where a dozen juniors and seniors were gathered around computers, ready to edit articles and lay out the next online edition of the school newspaper.

“Mrs. King, we’re finished with the article about Mr. Miller’s presentation from the assembly two weeks ago. Would you like to take a look at it?” Emma called out from the back of the room.

“Sure.” Ginny skimmed through the article. “Great job! We’re going to feature it. I knew I could count on you.” Ginny pumped Emma up with her contagious enthusiasm.

  “Do you think we have enough room to include this 2001 yearbook picture of his daughter?” Anna asked.

“Yes, that’s a terrific idea,” Ginny responded. She was wondering how they would fill in the gap now that the pictures from the basketball game were missing. She wanted to balance the article on Mr. Miller’s presentation on date rape and violence with something positive like the winning game.  Ginny also wanted to see Carly’s work recovered. Carly had an opportunity to shine, and Ginny did not want to see her lose her chance. She was disappointed that Carly had not been more careful with the camera.  If only the memory card would turn up undamaged. 

“We were all stunned by Mr. Miller’s presentation,” Anna said as she located the picture of Sophie Miller. “How are we going the get this photo on the website? It wasn’t taken with a digital camera back then.”

“We’ll scan it in, Anna. I’ll show you how.” Ginny replied. Placing the yearbook on the scanner, Ginny recalled seeing Sophie Miller in the hallways of Holy Cross years ago. Sophie had not been in any of her classes, but she was just like the girls Ginny taught, full of promise and high spirits.  Happy one day, stressed out the next. Sophie’s father had not been back to Holy Cross in eleven years, since the day of Sophie’s graduation ceremony. Giselle Montague had invited him back to talk to the seniors about the dangers of date rape and violence. In his PowerPoint presentation, he displayed beautiful pictures of his daughter, some that were taken right at Holy Cross. Sophie had just graduated from Villanova, seven years ago, when a boyfriend she had met working in a restaurant in Philadelphia murdered her. He had stabbed her fifty-five times. During the past few years, Mr. Miller had started speaking to teenage girls about the warning signs of a potentially violent boyfriend. Sophie’s boyfriend had been a controlling guy who tried to separate Sophie from her friends. He wanted to know where Sophie was and kept tabs on her by frequently texting and calling her on her cell phone. One of the last text messages Sophie sent to a friend raised the question that still haunts her family. Why did her boyfriend insist on control over her comings and goings? Sophie had decided to break up with him, and she made the mistake of doing it in person. Mr. Miller advised the seniors to break up with controlling boyfriends over the phone and then to immediately surround themselves with friends and family.

    “I had a boyfriend who was too controlling for me last year,” Emma said. “When he would text me, he even asked me to send photos of where I was at. He acted like he didn’t trust me, and like I wasn’t good enough for him. But he always called me every day and wanted to talk. I’m so glad Ethan decided to go to college in another state and that he’s out of my life now. Once in a while he makes a comment on Facebook, but I ignore it.” 

During the break time following second block Carly entered the classroom and plopped her backpack on the floor. She slid into a chair and started to log onto the computer.

Ginny walked over to where Carly was sitting and took a deep breath.

“Hi, Mrs. King,” Carly looked up.

“Carly, the memory card that was in the camera I loaned you is missing,” Ginny informed her coolly.

“You’re kidding,” Carly’s mouth dropped. She pushed her chair away from the computer and stared at Ginny. With a puzzled look, Carly shook her head and moaned, “Tell me it isn’t true.”

“I’m sorry to say that it most definitely is true,” Ginny assured her.

“I can’t believe it.” Carly was dumbfounded. “But this is just my luck. Nothing turns out right for me,” she lamented.

 “Tell me everything that happened the afternoon you took the pictures at the game,” Ginny probed. She wished Carly would save the drama for another day. She was in no mood for it now.

 “After the game I met my friends at the Red Robin across the street. I showed the pictures I took to all of them,” Carly explained, as her furrowed brow and trembling lips displayed her anxiety. “I had a great shot of Katie scoring the winning points.”

“Would you say that the camera was in plain sight the entire time that you and your friends were passing it around the table?” Ginny inquired.

“Yeah, I think so,” Carly replied as she tried to recall exactly what had happened at Red Robin. “I mean we were looking at the pictures together.”

“Did you leave the table at all while your friends were looking at the pictures?” Ginny focused on gathering the facts as she concealed her increasing annoyance with Carly’s nonchalant handling of the camera.

 “Well I had to arrange for a ride home, so I left the table to speak to someone who might be able to give me a ride,” Carly remembered. “You did ask me to cover the basketball game at the last minute, and I had to make arrangements to get home,” she added defensively.  

“Do you think someone at your table might have taken the memory card?” Ginny pressed on. 

Carly was reluctant to provide any information about her friends, but she did say, “Sam might have been jealous of the picture I took of Katie.” The whole situation made her feel sick.

Later that day, Ginny was chewing on a celery stick when Heather Harrison walked into the faculty lunch room. Most of the teachers had returned to their classrooms, so Ginny and Heather were alone.

“Hi, how’s it going?” Ginny put her celery down and wiped her mouth with her napkin.

“Can’t complain too much,” Heather replied and placed a stack of ungraded papers on the table. She opened the refrigerator freezer and filled her mug with ice. 

I heard that you’re missing a test, and you think it might have been stolen,” Ginny was determined to learn more about the incident that occurred in Heather’s class.

“It looks suspicious, but I might have misplaced the test” Heather admitted. “When I was returning unit tests back to my first block class, I didn’t have Erin O’Hara’s with the set. She’s one of my best students.  She asked, ‘Where is my test, Mrs. Harrison?’ and I told her that I must have placed it with the other class’s work. But the other class really hasn’t been tested on that material yet.”

“Where do you usually keep the tests?” asked Ginny.

“When I’m in a hurry, and to keep them in a convenient place, I usually place them in a handy desk drawer. But in light of the rumors I’ve heard lately, I’ll start keeping them under lock and key,” Heather looked down and poured iced tea into her mug. “I have looked everywhere for that test, Ginny, and I can’t imagine where it is.”

“Well, it looks like you will need a good alternative for your other section,” Ginny glanced at her watch, realized she needed to meet a student in two minutes, and headed out the door. At least Heather can resolve her problem with another test, Ginny thought.

After Katelyn drove her home from school, Ginny relaxed for a few moments before checking her email messages. When she went into the family room to use the computer, Katelyn was already there, logged onto Facebook. Normally, her daughter would quickly switch to another site the moment she came near the computer, but Katelyn was busily inspecting photos and she didn’t hear her mother enter the room. 

“Anything new and interesting there?” Ginny inquired.

Katelyn smiled and said, “I was tagged in a few pictures. Would you like to take a look?”

“Sure would,” Ginny looked over her shoulder and her eyes widened. Nice shot if I say so myself, she thought.

The next morning, Ginny’s first photojournalism class started after break time. Some of the students had entered the classroom and were casually discussing their plans for spring vacation as they logged onto their computers. Giselle quietly walked across the room to Ginny.

“I’m here at your request,” she almost whispered as she placed her tote bag by the desk.

“I knew I could count on you. Thanks for watching this class,” Ginny replied. Ginny paced over to the doorway and waited to intercept one student in particular before class began.

  As Lauren approached the door, Ginny caught her eyes and stated matter-of-factly, “Lauren, we need to talk in Mrs. Candiotti’s office.” They walked down the staircase in abject silence. Lauren’s hands clutched the books she was carrying while Ginny deliberately quickened the pace behind her. A passerby stole a glance and then averted her eyes as Ginny and Lauren entered the disciplinarian’s office. Mrs. Candiotti, who was sitting behind her desk sipping coffee, rose and closed the door.

“Lauren, Mrs. King has brought you to my office because a memory card is missing from a school camera, and we think you may be able to help up locate it.” Shirley began.

“I heard Carly say that a memory card was missing,” Lauren responded sullenly. “But I don’t know anything about it.”

Ginny looked squarely at Lauren, whose eyes darted towards the door. “Lauren, did you see the pictures Carly took at the basketball game?”

“Briefly. She was showing them to a lot of people at Red Robin right after the game.” Lauren retorted. “Sam was really jealous of the picture of Katie. Maybe you should question her and leave me alone.”

“Lauren, could you tell us what you remember about the pictures you saw?” asked Ginny.

“She took a bunch of pictures. Some were good and some weren’t. What’s your point? I don’t have a photographic memory. Some of my friends were in the pictures. Maybe they didn’t like the way they looked. Carly isn’t the greatest photographer,” Lauren stated as she flipped her hair over her shoulder.  “I doubt that we really could’ve used the pictures on the school website anyway.”

Ginny sat down at Shirley’s computer and proceeded to log onto Facebook. She brought up a photo that her daughter Katelyn, her Facebook “friend,” was tagged in.

 “Lauren, I recognize this photo as one that I took myself at the Support the Troops service project at BWI Thurgood Marshall last week. A group of us were there to greet soldiers as they reentered the states. I didn’t choose to place this particular photo on the school website, but here it is on Facebook, and you’re in the picture, too. Front and center.” Ginny glared at Lauren.

“Really, Mrs. King. I don’t even know your daughter. Anyone in that picture could’ve placed that on Facebook. Someone else from our class must have uploaded the picture and tagged your daughter,” Lauren argued.

“But the digital trail leads back to you, Lauren. You posted the picture and tagged Anna and Meg. You’ve been hanging around with them in photojournalism class. Maybe you weren’t aware that Meg and Katelyn both run track and are pretty good friends. Meg tagged Katelyn in the photo. It’s really not that hard to see that you did post the picture, and you found it on my memory card,” Ginny claimed.

“Why did you take the memory card, Lauren?” Shirley interjected.  

Tears were forming in the eyes of the senior.

“I had to prevent Carly from featuring the picture of Katie scoring at the basketball game,” Lauren admitted. “Me and Jacob were in that picture together. Even though he is Sam’s brother and I practically just met him, my boyfriend would never understand if he saw it online. If my jealous boyfriend ever saw that picture, he’d make my life miserable!” Lauren sobbed. “When I listened to Mr. Miller’s story about his daughter, I realized that Aaron was too controlling. He has spent so much time texting me. I can hardly stand it.”

            Mrs. Candiotti still had Lauren’s cell phone in her desk because neither of her parents had picked it up yet.  She took it out now and handed it to Lauren who brought up her list of missed calls.

            “Just look at all of the text messages he sent today,” Lauren cried. “He’s driving me crazy.”  Evidently, Aaron had been texting Lauren several times a day over the past few weeks.

“He has been making your life miserable,” responded Ginny, handing Lauren a Kleenex tissue. “You need to get away from him, and we need the memory card back.”

“I’ve tried, but it’s not that easy,” Lauren whimpered. Two months to the day, Lauren had met Aaron during play practice at Mt. St. Joe. Although she had been flattered by his attention at first, more and more frequently she resented accounting for her whereabouts to him. Now that Mrs. King and Mrs. Candiotti were aware of the social pressure Lauren had been feeling, she felt the weight of it lift off her chest.

Ginny placed her arm around Lauren’s shoulders and assured her, “Take it easy. Lauren.” 

Lauren dabbed her eyes with a tissue and sighed. She reached for her backpack and withdrew the memory card from it. She handed it to Ginny and looked down at the floor.

“Come on, let’s see if we can crop that picture and use it with the basketball story.” Ginny was optimistic. “You can help me with it.”

“Really?” Lauren brightened up.

“It won’t hurt to take a look and try,” Ginny felt determined to salvage some part of the photo for Lauren, Carly, and Katie.

 As she was packing up her tote bag at the end of the school day, Ginny heard footsteps outside her classroom door. Heather popped her head inside and smiled.

“The mystery has been solved,” Heather danced around the room.

“Yeah, but I don’t see why you’re celebrating,” Ginny raised her eyebrow, still dwelling on the events of the day.

“Erin, you know, the student who claimed I didn’t give her test back to her, stopped by a few moments ago. She told me she had found her test in her folder.  She knew I had been looking for it, and she didn’t want me to worry about it. It seems that when she stopped by to make up a quiz right before class, the other day, I gave her test back to her before I handed them to the class. Neither one of us remembered it!” Heather was relieved.

Heather, oblivious to the memory card mystery, made Ginny laugh out loud.

 “I’m glad you could solve that one on your own, Heather,” Ginny smiled.

“It’s such a relief to me. I’d hate to think that my students were rummaging through the drawers of my desk,” Heather admitted.

“Well, chalk that one up to sleep deprivation,” retorted Ginny, as she escorted Heather out, turned off the light, and locked the door of the photojournalism classroom.

 

Works Cited

“Picture Quotes.” BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2012. 11 April. 2012.