BAD REFERRAL: A CHARLIE BYRNE INVESTIGATION - KIERAN J. SHEA
Referrals—investigative bread and butter. Most of the time it’s manna from heaven, but every once in a while, said manna from on high? Patchy with mold—butter as rancid as pushcart ghee.
Hugo Lutz. A real smeary bowl of bad news. Medical malpractice attorney. Big claim to fame was going after birth defect cases. Mined the despair with a venomous team of tort wielding, forty-five percenters who I wouldn’t let sift out my cat’s litter box let alone represent my legal interests. The 1-800 pitches on late-night television, the billboards evangelizing justice for those looking to punch a Wonka ticket. A call from his office would make a hardworking OBGYN consider the merits of heavy calibers.
Fortunately, for me, when Hugo’s path crossed mine, he was already dead. Liver cancer, a day before his sixty-seventh birthday. Just embarking on the golden years of Johnnie Walker Blue and Mr. Magooing around Jersey’s finer golf links and God kicked down the memo: Sorry to be a drag and all, but the rent? Past due.
Like many a supercilious ego, Hugo decided to come clean before he met his maker. Told his widow, my prospective and referred client, Hester Lutz, so many things. Deceitful moves over the years, transgressions against kind and kin. Poor Hester. She really didn’t want to know. Who needed the extra aggravation on top of being a bed nurse to abusive, alcoholic shitbird for forty odd years? Do everybody a favor next time, Hugo. Shove it in a bottle and chuck it the fuck out to sea.
“Before my husband died he said he had an affair with someone named Jan Kyler. After the initial shock and the shouting and the tears I pressed him for when this was exactly, but his mind by then, Mr. Byrne, you must understand, the drugs.”
We were in Hester Lutz’s beachfront condo in Atlantic City. It was in a beehive tower that catered to the well-off and winding down, close enough to the ocean that if toppled over in a stiff west wind it would make a decent point break. The day was clear and the air inside was intense. Arid and hot and overpowering odors of Chanel No. 5 and rotting celery. Plenty of knickknacks and furniture, all artfully arranged and expensively winking the washed in sunlight. No doubt select showpiece items trimmed down from a lavish lifestyle elsewhere. Mrs. Lutz looked like a cross between gaunt Elizabeth Dole and a peeled apple left out to dry in the sun.
“The drugs kind of clouded things?” I asked.
She gave an affirming nod, “The pharmacology that treated his cancer combined with his prescribed antidepressants made him crazy. In and out, in and out. One day he was lucid. The next...you can’t imagine.”
Actually, I could but I kept that to myself.
Mrs. Lutz broke down a bit then. Bubbled and shook for a steady five minutes. Thankfully I faked a minor back tweak when she asked me to sit down next to her on the sofa when I arrived. No secret that us of Irish descent don’t do the there-there all that well.
As I watched Hester Lutz sob, I patted myself on the back for having the foresight to dry-swallow a Diazepam from my Tic-Tac dispenser before taking the elevator up. What can I say? It was one of those days. Hell, it’d been one of those weeks. I’d been burning the hours on a dead-end surveillance gig for two weeks straight and my internal clock was all messed up. I needed the soft, carefree fuzz of the Diazepam. Maybe after our meeting I’d grab a fat, juicy nap.
Mrs. Lutz worked a Kleenex. Her jewelry jangled.
“I’m sorry. It’s all just so painful.”
I felt a slight headache coming on. I imagined a battle between the whiny forces of cranial mischief and the Diazepam slugging its way into my bloodstream. Come on, Big D. I managed an obligatory nod, phony as any TV anchorman. “I understand. It’s never easy, these things.”
“Go on. Please.” For the love of God, please.
Hester Lutz looked at me.
“Well, here’s the problem, I think. The day Hugo shared this information with me, about the Kyler woman I mean, he was also hallucinating.”
“Yes. He was in bed talking to the walls. I asked him, who are you talking to, dear? And he prattled on about all these people I’d never heard of. The pharmacology again I suppose. I gave him an extra pill and let him sleep. But then the next day I asked him about this Kyler woman again and he denied it. Flat out denied it! Now he’s dead, Mr. Byrne, and I don’t know what to think.”
“Could this Kyler person be someone he knew before you two were married?”
She shook her head and took a sip from a glass of water on the table in front of her. “No. At least I don’t think so. No. We met when we were young and Hugo was in law school at Temple University. Like any couple I guess we had some ups and downs over the years, but we pushed on through. That’s what people of my generation do, you understand. I never suspected something like this, though. It’s such a shock. That is, if it’s actually true and not some figment of his imagination.”
I picked up a framed photograph from an end table. Hugo, Hester and a man about a decade older than myself, all beaming smiles and tans on the deck of a cruise ship. Happier days, cocktails in hand. “Have you discussed this with your family, Mrs. Lutz? Your son?”
“Franklin?” She shuddered. “No. I don’t want to upset him. He’s been through enough, poor boy. He’s recently divorced himself and his father’s death was very hard on him.”
I tapped the glass in the frame and set the picture down. “Seems old enough.”
Her eye lids closed briefly. “Yes, well, Franklin is not very much mature, I’m afraid. An only child. Hugo and I spoiled him. He’s forty-two, but sometimes he’s as brash as a teenager.”
I let this information settle and then asked, “So why?”
“What do you mean, why? What kind of question is that? Why?”
“A simple one.”
Some bristle. “I think all the whys are my business.”
“See, that’s not exactly correct. If I accept this work on your behalf, the whys will be my business, too.” I opened my palms. “Look, I appreciate this referral but I don’t want to waste your time. Or your money. I’m getting the feeling a verification like this is not the sort of thing I typically look into. I mean, if it was money owed or something like that, maybe...”
“Is this so hard for you then?”
“You’re supposed to investigate things, I mean, that’s what you do, right? Investigate? Find out things for people?”
“Well, maybe we should have called someone else.”
“Maybe you should have. But what I’m trying to suggest here is that there are other less costly ways of going about this on your own, without the expense of someone like me. Have you talked to his former colleagues, golf buddies?”
“This is a private matter.”
“Have you even tried the Internet?”
“I don’t own a computer.”
I tried to slow down my blinking but the Diazepam had kicked in and I stood there like a stupid goat. “OK. There’s the library. They usually have excellent people on staff, they could steer you—”
“But I want to pay you to do this.”
Mrs. Lutz hustled to her feet and steamed toward the kitchen. She returned with an envelope and breezed into my comfort zone with a practiced measure one associates with people peacocking their status against someone of lesser stature. Someone like me, for instance. Once again, my nostrils blazed with smell of sour celery and Chanel No.5.
“The man who referred you said you work with a cash retainer first and then checks later, once things move along.”
“That’s right, but, Mrs. Lutz...”
“I’ve plenty of money, so you tell me if this isn’t enough to get you started.”
The weight of the envelope made me curious. I thumbed open the flap and thought, gee, I really did need to put some money away in my Roth IRA for the year. Or maybe get one of those flat screens in time for the hockey playoffs and some new threads. Suddenly, the narcotic groovy glow of the Diazepam flooded everything. Big deal, a simple verification that poor dead Hugo Lutz cheated on his wife with some woman named Jan Kyler? How bad could it be?
Turns out, pretty goddamn bad.
Five days later, I stood again in Hester Lutz’s foyer, palming away the rain from my hair like Pat Riley in a sauna. No Diazepam this time, just a solid jolt of double espresso holding down the fort. I held out an envelope.
“This is the remainder of the cash retainer you gave me. I took out my flat rate for five days and some more for mileage and expenses. Expenses were pretty short. Call it twenty bucks even. Enough to cover a strawberry milkshake, three Red Bulls, and tolls.”
Hester was dressed in some kind of high-end suede dress with a shiny, purple Western blouse. The blouse had fancy green stitching and snap pearl buttons. Cinnamon red cowboy boots and a black hat completed the cowgirl ensemble. D’hell? I’m sorry but this is New Jersey. Going all Texan is akin to sporting a Samurai costume with a dildo.
“Where is she?” she demanded, eyes slit.
“Jan Kyler exists, Mrs. Lutz. And, yes, your husband was less than faithful. Trust me, you should just leave it at that. My notes are in the envelope.”
She slipped out and unfolded my anonymous summary. It was short, typed, and bullet pointed on my letterhead. She took a moment to read all three paragraphs.
“There’s nothing here that says where she lives.”
Down the hall, her son, Franklin Lutz, stepped out from around a corner near the condo’s galley kitchen.
“What do you mean there’s no address?”
“Ah. You must be Franklin.”
Franklin’s face hardened. “Uh-huh. You were paid by my mother to find this woman. Where is she?”
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“I’ll say. Where is she? Where is that whore who broke my mother’s heart?”
I sized up Franklin, checked the size of his hands, his weight. I decided not to worry and addressed Mrs. Lutz. “Wow, I can see that brashness you mentioned. But, gee, I thought you said Franklin here was too delicate for this matter.”
Franklin stiffened. “Delicate? Where is she, smartass?”
“Tranquilo there, amigo. I was hired to—wait a second.” I reached into my jacket pocket and retrieved my iPhone. I swiveled a finger across the screen for a few moments until I found the recorder application and file. I played back the original consultation, the spot where Hester merely wanted to know if, in fact, Jan Kyler existed.
“See? Your mom asked me if Jan existed. Guess what? Jan does. I went the extra nine yards and, with a little cajoling on my part, confirmed the affair. The fling was a long time ago, and I recommend you leave it at that. Move forward.”
Franklin took a step. I put up a palm like a crossing guard and pocketed my iPhone. “I’m just keeping things real,” I turned and stared at Hopalong Hester in her cowgirl outfit. “See, I had a funny feeling about all this, Mrs. Lutz, so I checked on your son Franklin’s temper here. You have some nasty anger issues, Franklin. Two restraining orders? Thirty days for assault? How do you beat up such a tiny woman such as your ex-wife and get away with throwing me stink? Do me a favor, people, don’t patronize me. Kyler’s address was not part of the deal. I don’t like being used to setup punching bag vendettas or whatever you two have planned.”
Hester blanched. “How dare you!”
Franklin took another, bolder step closing the distance between us. “I ought to kick your butt seven ways from Sunday.”
“Really, Franklin. Must we?”
Mrs. Lutz stammered. “G-get out! Just get out of my house!”
Franklin wheeled. “But, Mom! Wait! This guy owes us! He knows where that little slut lives, goddamnit!”
I started for the condo door but I caught some movement in the buffed parquet floor to my left. When Franklin grabbed my collar, I pivoted, planted my foot, and executed a spring hip throw. Franklin crumpled on his shoulder near an umbrella stand and something delicate and deep clicked. He yelped. He yelped again when I kicked him in his fractured collarbone.
Mrs. Lutz shrieked and slapped at my back.
“Leave him alone! Get out! Get out! Get out!”
I jutted my butt backwards. This threw Hester off balance and she tumbled to the floor with a sprawl and a startled gasp. Her black cowboy hat was knocked free on impact and spun behind her like a popped hub cap twirling in an empty street.
I stepped past Franklin as he crawled toward his sobbing mother and left.
As I waited by the elevator in the hallway, I half expected Franklin to stalk out and try to bang heads with me again. But then I thought—nah. Franklin’s a momma’s boy, plus that broken collarbone had to sting pretty bad. If he or his mother wanted to try anything, they might call the police. But, hey, if it came to that, I could start asking why she wanted to find her husband’s former lover so badly and why Junior was so hot to find Jan Kyler, too, given his anger management issues.
Outside, I climbed into my car and headed back down the coast. I took the scenic seaside route via Atlantic Avenue. Not the quickest way home as the traffic lights were frequent, but I didn’t mind. The sky had cleared. Sunny spring afternoon and warm. Lots of people out, plenty of joggers. I eased down the windows and cranked up some Social Distortion in the cue, Mike Ness doing the jacked-up Johnny Cash. Thought—maybe when I get home I’d grab my Shimano Tallus fishing rod and do a few twilight casts on the bay. Neighbors had been having some luck catching small stripers that week. Sounded good.
Jan Kyler lived an hour or so west, near the Cherry Hill, New Jersey sprawl that butted up against the Philadelphia suburbs. A Pilates instructor, Jan was whip thin in his late thirties, and pretty far out there on the Judy Garland – Anderson Cooper meter. Sang twice a week in a tranny bar off 12th and Locust in Philly. Jan remembered his times with Hugo fondly. When I finally found him, I didn’t know who to pity.
BIO: Kieran Shea can sing “A Little Less Conversation” with a throaty Elvis confidence that is embarrassing to his family, friends and strangers. When he says he’s trying to write, he’s really just avoiding the black helicopters in his head. He blogs at Black Irish Blarney.