BLUE SKIES BLACK: A CHARLIE BYRNE GRIND - KIERAN SHEA
When I stopped by Sticky Pete’s Coffee Shop to return my friend Stevie Maguire’s FunkBox compact disc collection, Stevie grunted a barely decipherable hello and started my double Americano with an irritable clatter and slam.
I decided I’d learn soon enough the complexity of the insect that crawled up his ass so I unbuttoned my sport coat and gazed up at a series of paintings that hung on the coffee shop’s far wall.
Since Sticky Pete’s opened its doors back in 1991, the shop’s mango-colored walls have showcased plenty of local south Jersey artists. Mostly college kids with a creative itch, some semi-decent shooters. It was hit or miss fare but a welcome distraction from staring into the pastry case or the scalp of the person standing right in front of you.
Three years back I bought a photograph that hung there. It was a black and white picture of one of the fairytale reliefs that were affixed to the entrance of Gillian’s Wonderland amusement park in Ocean City.
Wonderland was located a few blocks south and east of the house my grandmother left me at the north end of town. The relief was the fabled mouse removing a bloody thorn from the lion’s paw. Summed up a lot of my work as an investigator. To be frank, it summed up a lot of my life in general although I always felt the big cat would pop the mouse into his mouth like an olive, vermin kindness or not. The mouse and the lion hung above the toilet where my three-legged, one-eyed cat Chomsky precariously wet his whistle from time to time and occasionally fell in as his balance was perpetually fucked up.
That morning the art at Sticky Pete’s was a series of cold-colored paintings featuring different angles of an older, realistically proportioned woman. She was naked and staring out at a turbulent sea. Long knotty hair whipped by an unseen wind obscured her face. She looked a lot like somebody I once knew who worked as a sheriff’s deputy. The woman moved up to Vermont some years ago to follow a man who promised her everything and delivered on none of it. Heard she worked at a ski resort and taught kids how to snowboard. I also heard she ran a yoga studio in a trailer.
I paid at the register for my turbo-charged coffee, stepped aside, and waited. When my order was up Stevie didn’t offer any there you go, my man winks or order up, bros or fuel injection for OC’s man of detection. These were typical acknowledgements I expected to hear from Stevie if I swung by Sticky Pete’s for a cup. Again, most unusual. Stevie’s laid-back, liquid moves were gone and his jaw worked to and fro as he washed his hands at a small sink. I figured a side order of bile was definitely on the way.
I took my cup and settled down on a high-back chair at a wobbly deuce near the back of the shop. Like most in Sticky Pete’s I dawdled with my emails on my iPhone, obliterated the spam, and filed what needed to be filed. No new client queries, which made me tad edgy, but that was okay. I was about to head up the Garden State Parkway to Exit 98 and Spring Lake for noontime face to face closing with an attorney named Martin Barnes.
Barnes hired me to check up on some menthol-flavored dickweed basehead from Brigantine who was spending a lot of time with his daughter as she ticked her way through a communications degree over at Rowan University. Shit work, yeah, but I’m pretty much a whore when my roof needs repairs. The summer rental season was closing fast and weekly renters for my upstairs units get testy with the rates I charge. Me and Chomsky, we lived on the street level, the Batcave, the dark den of bachelor gloom.
Across the shop Stevie said something to the purple-maned girl slicing a sesame bagel at the sandwich prep station. The line was nearly nil so with a tight agreeable nod she gave Stevie the go-ahead to take a break. Stevie unlaced his black apron, hung it on a wooden wall peg shaped like a human fist, and crossed the shop to my table.
Stevie crumpled into a seat.
“I’m thinking of moving, man.”
I powered down a bitter slurp of his perfectly made Americano. Burned my tongue.
Stevie pressed his fingertips into his eyes and snorted back some phlegm. “Because I need to, Charlie, okay? I’m thinking some barbaric red state gone blood maroon. Someplace where hardcore Login Cabin Republicans rough up the suspect to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin is considered intellectual of the year.”
“Fuck. What’s the matter now?”
“What’s the matter now? This Jersey legalizing medical marijuana deal is going to kill me, Charlie! Positively, flat out kill me.”
To offset his paltry income as a house painter and part-time barista at Sticky Pete’s, Stevie dealt a little weed on the side along with the occasional maraca of painkillers that floated his way. He was strictly small time, but he was very serious about his endeavors on the dark side. I ventured a soothing response.
Stevie leaned in and pumped his eyebrows. “Am I? Got a slow twirling DeWalt table saw? Hey, sign me up. Weigh my pieces down with concrete and dump me offshore past the two hundred mile limit. Have you any idea how much product I move in assisted living communities, dude?”
“Half my nut some seasons. I got a lady up near Toms River. She takes six ounces off me every other week. Six! God rest the late actress’ soul but, man, that chick is like Bea Arthur with a power bong. Her and her sewing circle ganja grannies. Then I got the in-home nurses down near Cape May, shit...both those sisters of mercy are Tinkerbells, spreading the love around taking their markup.”
“You could capitalize on the changes in the law.”
“Oh, right. Give me a break.”
“Position yourself. Stand tall. Seriously.”
“Look at me. Look at me, dude. Do I even look like I want to play at that level?”
Truth was Stevie did not project a serious business-like manner. One could have easily described him as one part sound tech for the rock act of your choice, two parts slacker, and one part twitching live wire.
“I work in a coffee shop and paint houses, yo. This ain’t California, man. This ain’t Hawaii. It’s the Garden State. Don’t kid yourself. You of all people should know how much bureaucratic red tape they’d mummy-up someone like me up with, and I’m sure as hell they’d bring up my record even though that was like a billion years ago before I joined the Navy, but knowing those wonks? Picture them saying no way, Stevie. You’re out. Take a big ol’ bite of this here shit hoagie, extra onions...”
“You need to chill.”
“You spend days chasing rabbits at the courthouse, man, I don’t have the patience for that legal mumbo jumbo, insurance forms, and blah, blah, blah. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and all for people starting to enlighten their asses the fuck up, but they should just flat out do it. Just do it. Nationwide. Obama fire a bowl during the State of the Union and say this shit is righteous. Level the playing field once and for all and fuck those Mexican cartels. But I’m not equipped for some business operation, all straight-laced.”
“Color within the lines.”
“You’re not listening to me.”
I folded my hands and projected my best attentive face.
“Things change, Stevie.”
Stevie slapped the table. “Oh?! And what happens to my outstanding customer service, huh? All those years of personal risk on my part dodging the man? What happens to the thrill of the buy?”
“Thrill of the buy?”
“Okay then, how about the love? The whole Stevie experience? Don’t respect my style, don’t respect me. And you know I like getting specific product! Prices are going to fall from the sky like doves.”
I took another sharp sip. “Nice imagery.”
“This is like dumbing down from Fontainebleau to Velveeta.”
“I assume that’s a cheese.”
“Duh. Maybe I shouldn’t have had those three espressos.”
“And these old folks? They’ll get that weak discount shit, and they’ll get used to it, start ragging me for early-bird specials. Sure, maybe not some of my refined aficionados, but even those motherfuckers could start using their medical cards as leverage against me.”
“I think you’re blowing this whole thing out of proportion.”
“You heard. Florida.”
“Oh boy. Are you nuts?”
“My brother lives down there.”
“Yeah. Bet he’d love you sleeping on his pullout couch while he cleans pools.” I touched my head like the old Johnny Carson routine of Carnac the Magnificent. “You start selling and ping! What do you know? I have to get on a flight for both of your funerals because some would-be banger or trailer trash goon gets his hackles up over a half pound of swamp cheebah.”
Stevie harpooned a glare at me. “I’m not that stupid, Charlie.”
I stood. “Look. I’ll be back later today. I’ll swing down to your place, we’ll think this through. Make some tuna melts. Watch some HBO. That Tom Hanks thing they’re doing on the Pacific.”
Stevie shook his head.
I patted his shoulder and left.
The law offices of Martin Barnes were located in the center of Spring Lake proper in a modest brick building. The building’s ground floor over the years had housed a bridal shop, a book store, and a haberdashery. The law offices now took up both the ground and upstairs floors. Barnes had two other partners, a receptionist, and two paralegal assistants. His office was on two.
The running joke about Spring Lake and the neighboring town of Sea Girt was that both municipalities were considered the “Irish Riviera”, due to the excessive amount of well-off third and fourth generation citizens of Irish descent. Truth of it was it was a lot of Wall Street money, even more posturing. Woody Allen actually filmed some of Stardust Memories on the Spring Lake’s barren boardwalk which, unlike my own town’s boardwalk, was unsoiled by the gaudy, arcade and French-fried atmosphere I adored. No middle class in Spring Lake. You either had money or you didn’t and, Manuel? You better bike home after your shift at the country club pronto or the six-figure salaried chief of police will throw you in the clink.
Barnes was a pot-bellied man of iron-gray fifty, self-assured who specialized in tax law. Rashed cheeks betrayed a fondness for gin or vodka or both. A quick spin through the nearby mansions of Spring Lake and Sea Girt and you could understand why Barnes’ specialty was tax law. Homes like that didn’t leave a tax lawyer bereft of business.
Barnes said nothing for ten minutes as he read through my report. His back was to me.
“This everything?” he asked.
“Mostly. There’s some more information and photos on the flash drive I gave you, too.”
“Ask you something?”
“In your opinion, do you think this will end?”
I tilted my head left then right.
“Things happen. It could. Your daughter is young.”
A frustrated sigh. “She’s never been very bright.”
I let that settle. Not the kindest thing to say about one’s only daughter but the guy was paying for my roof repairs.
Barnes spun back around. His reading glasses slipped to the tip of his nose, and he studied my appearance. He sleeved my report into an empty file folder on his desk.
“I had one of our paralegal assistants work on this, too, you know.”
I laced my fingers in my lap.
“Been around lawyers a lot, sir. Good lawyers are thorough. You graduated with honors from USC and then went to Boalt Hall. Law review. Like I said, I expected it.”
“So you checked me out, too?”
“Some. However, you could have saved yourself some money. I could’ve used your paralegal’s surface research and saved some legwork. After all, I did come recommended. Your friend with the trouble down my way. I live by referrals.”
Barnes groaned, “Yeah. My friend. Just so you know I think my friend is a complete asshat, but we play golf together. Tell you what. Let’s pass this off as an audition of sorts, and no harm done, okay? I just wanted to be sure you weren’t just, you know—”
“It’s okay. I’m not offended. People pass themselves off all the time as investigators and just farm online stuff. I understand.”
“Might use you again, considering your thoroughness.”
“That would be great.”
We stared at each other. Outside, the sun was shining a perfect Spring day. The glass of his office window was warming to sleepy as the forecast said the weather would be well into the mid–sixties by two o’clock. I wanted to loosen my tie but didn’t.
“Cash good, Mr. Byrne?
“Yes. Cash is fine, but I need you to sign this invoice.” I laid my invoice on the glass of his desk. “Taxes, you understand.”
A short chuckle. “Ah. The tax man, gets us all in the end, doesn’t he? Fuckin’ cocksucker.” He signed my invoice then measured me some more. “I imagine you’ve worked in varying capacities to garner,” he puffed a breath and bounced his eyes off the report and flash drive on his shiny desk, “this kind of material.”
“I’ve picked up things along the way.”
“And no law enforcement, military, or legal background?”
“Nope. Self taught. Criminology degree. Fire department, a touch.”
“Was a beach lifeguard years ago. They run things, the guards...”
The lifeguard fire department reference obviously didn’t jive with his expectations of an investigator, so he quickly changed the subject.
“Do you carry a piece?”
I tried not to burst out laughing and instead respectfully cleared my throat, “Ah...not usually. Serving papers, sometimes I take something along. Some people own very mean dogs.”
“Mmm, I can imagine. My golf associate said you had your ways.”
“I know all about that problem of his you took care of. Care to comment?”
“Confidential means confidential, Mr. Barnes.”
“Yeah. Getting a diamond ring one’s wife gave you back from some Atlantic City hookers after they slipped you a roofie, some confidential jam, that is. That’s a four-flushing fuckup if you ask me. Then those pictures...good God. The man’s a nine handicap but, like I said, he’s a total asshat.”
“Blackmail is a foolish business. Greed always takes things over the edge.”
“So it does.”
“I’m not much on judging a man’s morality.”
“Not religious then?”
“Bet he can’t wait to get his hands on you...”
“No. That pimp.”
“Hard to say. Maybe on the other side. That is if there is one.”
“The pimp you referred to—both of his kidneys were punctured seven times with a sharpened soup bone in Riverfront State, down in Camden.”
We were quiet for minute after that. Then Barnes stood and collected himself. “You have no idea what it’s like to have a young daughter jeopardize everything that her mother and I hoped for,” his tough façade of projected confidence slipped away for the briefest of moments, “I mean, I do appreciate your assistance with this matter. In every way, you understand? Every way.”
He handed me back my invoice. I took it, gave him his copy, and folded my copy for my breast pocket. The invoice under the bullet heading of SERVICES had a single, ambiguous word for father’s fractured trust and broken heart:
“I’ll need to run across the street to the bank for the cash. If you’d like my paralegal assistant can get you some bottled water while you wait. Or maybe some coffee?”
“Bottled water would be great.”
Barnes left. A minute later his paralegal came in carrying a green bottle.
She was young and pretty. Ponytailed blonde hair and a scrubbed make-up free beauty that was just beginning to fray at the edges with life’s little disappointments. Pale, green eyes. She wore a pink crew-necked Cashmere sweater and a modest dark gray skirt with heels.
“Wow. A Pellegrino mineral water? I’d have been happy with tap.”
She looked out the office window and then back at me.
I swallowed some of the water’s fizz, held out my hand, and she shook it. “It’s Charlie.”
“I’ve a concern.”
She paused and then shuddered. “No...forget it. It’s unprofessional of me. I shouldn’t have even brought it up. Really. I’m sorry. Enjoy your water.”
“Hey now. I’m discreet.”
“No, really, it’s okay.” She turned to leave.
“Wait...are you in law school, miss?”
She turned back and touched the doorway’s frame. She blinked and smiled slightly. “How did you know?”
Her eyes rolled and she bunched her shoulders, “Nights. Seton Hall.”
I puckered out my lower lip for a second, “The Hall. Good law school. Must be hard though, work here, commute all the way up there. Nights on the train?”
“I have a car.”
“My father and Mr. Barnes know each other.”
“That a fact.”
“I used to babysit the Barnes’ daughter a long time ago. Mr. Barnes cuts me some slack because of school. It’s not that it isn’t busy here, it is, it’s just good experience for my resume. You understand.”
“Of course...” I flipped open my wallet and slipped a card from one of the gills on the right. “Take one of my cards. Maybe someday soon you’ll need a grunt like me, fishing through the waste baskets, popping the locks. Discreetly of course.”
She looked at my name. “Is she okay, Charlie?”
I looked at my shoes for a moment and then back at her. Shook my head.
“No. No, she’s not.”
When I got back to Ocean City, I trucked down to Stevie’s. His mood had improved considerably because he had invited some girls over to watch a comedy DVD he picked up at the library. I asked him if he was still freaked about the changes in state medical marijuana laws, but he said it would all work out, that he had hatched a plan. Something weird about going real boutique but it was hush-hush for now. From the stench of things in the bungalow Stevie and the girls were all ripping high, so I ordered a bunch of Chinese for all of us and hung around.
Her name was Jennifer. She was twenty-six, spiky blonde hair, and a dental hygienist with adult braces she was very self-conscious about. Jennifer was somewhat willing and after some talk, we kissed a lot on the couch before she fell asleep in my lap like a backpacker stuck on an airport layover. I felt like I was back in junior high kissing a woman with braces. Stevie fared better than me and took his hookup to his room. There were giggles and after a time some odd rhythmic grunts, then nothing.
I sat in the darkness for an hour with Jennifer the dental hygienist’s head on my lap. Her breath vibrated with the slightest of snores. Like a dying bee caught in a Dixie cup.
Along with the cash, Martin Barnes gave me an envelope with a carefully worded query. The query could be read several ways. None of it incriminating, most of it suggestive, and while quite lucrative—totally illegal. Of course when someone hands you an envelope pinched between some disposable tissues, trouble is certainly on the table. Maybe even your life.
After I left his offices I drove a few blocks down to the ocean and read the query on a bench that had been there since the WPA built the boardwalk’s original foundations. Then I burned the envelope and its contents with a lighter I kept in my pocket, the fragile ashes spinning away in the warm breeze like black snow.
So that night—in the dark with a stoned woman’s sleeping head in my lap—I considered my options.
I wondered what it would take to set up the boyfriend of Barnes’ daughter. With my roof fixing costs now covered, maybe I could sock some more money away for a rainy day. Maybe. Had to cover things just so if it all went south, though.
Goddamn fucking lawyers.
Sometimes it’s how things go.
BIO: Kieran Shea’s reluctant investigator Charlie Byrne has appeared here before, in Ellery Queen, and over at David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp. Visit him at BLACK IRISH BLARNEY.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago