THE DYING ART OF SCRAMBLE AND SCRAPE: A CHARLIE BYRNE GRIND - KIERAN SHEA
For the record, snapping awake with a crooked gray egg of paint-flecked gravel nestled against your tongue is a truly repellent way to regain consciousness. I blinked like I bit into a lemon and took a tentative breath.
Nothing seemed broken. Bruised from kicks, yes, but not broken. Thank God.
My friend Stevie Maguire towered above me, fists on his hips in a disgusted superhero pose. Stevie’s well-worn shop coveralls, askew ventilation mask and goggles were paint speckled, his mad scientist hair a shaggy dandelion against a flawless sky.
“See? I told you something like this might happen. Couldn’t leave well enough alone could you, Charlie?”
I rolled on my back and spat the stone out of my mouth with a cartoonish geyser pa-toot. The stone sailed a weak foot high arc and made chink sound as it landed in the ground next to my head. Gingerly, I probed some fingers between my lips. A sweep for more debris. I’d have puked if the prospect of rib pain hadn’t quelled my nausea.
“Where are they?” I gasped after swallowing a thick trickle of grime.
Stevie glanced over his shoulder at the frittering waves of dust left by my assailants’ car. “Gone, bro,” he said. “Long gone. After those Unabomber-looking psychos dropped you, they got smart and boogied. You should be grateful.”
I’d been short of investigative work and, to be honest, that afternoon I wasn’t even sure I could even call myself a working private investigator anymore. Other than process-serving a handful of tricky deadbeats, the last big case I’d worked on was running down some stolen bicycles from a rental operation down at the south end of the Ocean City boardwalk. I’d tracked the wayward cruiser herd down to Wildwood and IDed the stolen bikes through a fifty dollar tip and a couple of hastily painted-over serial numbers. Not exactly the client-rustling splash that drums up business, but the case did make the local paper. Right next to Knights of Columbus luncheon and the article on the Army Corps of Engineers’ beach replenishment.
Anyway, for some walk around money, I agreed to help Stevie out with some marine maintenance gigs he had perking. A full-time housepainter, coffee house barista and part-time pot dealer, Stevie had been taking on boat work to hurdle his own financial deficits. Naturally, he’d committed to more bottom scrapes and paint jobs than he could handle, so he called me the day before with the promise of some quick cabbage and few brews after knocking off. I thought, Hey, why not? What else was I going to do?
I rolled to a sit and tore my disposable protective paper mask away from my neck with a frustrated snap. I looked left at the boatyard’s chain-linked exit and then left at the snaking tidal marsh seventy or so odd yards away.
It was a beautiful mid-March afternoon with the temperature climbing into the low sixties. The New Jersey wetlands funk was sharp on a ten knot inland breeze and somewhere behind us a power tool whined amongst the smack and twang of loose rigging.
“You okay?” Stevie asked.
I flopped a hand and draped my arms over my tucked in knees. My chest was tight with anger and humiliation as I replayed what happened only minutes before. A pummeling. I blamed sloth, failed reaction times, and lazy cockiness. Two bullet-headed dudes in their early twenties with their female accomplice were robbing dry-docked boats in broad daylight. I’d interrupted their efforts because it was obvious they didn’t belong. The two guys promptly reminded me of the popularity of mixed martial arts in gyms along the Jersey Shore. Everybody and their goddamn brother was Kung-Fu fighting.
I lifted a hand.
“Help me up,” I said.
One of the cops who responded to Stevie’s 911 call was none too thrilled to learn about my knockabout PI history. The second cop, however, seemed okay with it. Turns out it was Donald J. Kelly, DK for short. Back in the day, DK and I played pick-up hoops against each other in the local summer league when I was senior lifeguard down in Avalon and he’d been a rookie guard on the Sea Isle roster. He’d bulked up some since he shut down my passing game, but I remembered him and he remembered me. DK was a Rowan University grad, a corporal, and he had a small contracting company doing kitchen remodels on the side. DK dutifully took our statements with requisite professional cheer and gave me some antiseptic wipes and adhesive bandages for the scrapes on my face while his partner interviewed other potential witnesses.
When DK and his partner finished and left the scene the boatyard manager who’d hired Stevie and me for the day dropped a few crumpled bills at our feet and told us to buzz the hell off. We scooped up the bills, stowed the painting gear in the bed of Stevie’s metallic green ’72 Chevy El Camino, and drove back home to Ocean City. With the both windows down in the El Camino, Stevie slid through the light afternoon southerly flow on the Garden State Parkway and stroked his fuzzy Van Dyked jaw.
“This freakin’ sucks, man,” Stevie sulked. “Just plain sucks. Really gets my cheese, you know what I’m saying?”
“Goes to show you. Just when you think things are getting better events unfold that remind you what a thankless and cruel world it actually is. Sure, you stand up and do the right thing, but still the man turns around and gives you the proverbial shaft.”
I apologized. “Hey, man, it’s my fault. You were right, I should’ve listened to you when I first noticed those jerks monkeying around on that forty footer. I should’ve just minded my own damn business. I’m sorry. I owe you one.”
Stevie shook his head. “Nah, forget it, bro. ’S’only money, right? But that yard manager. What a total Richard. Like excuse us for calling the cops on your crappy little marina heist, but we were doing him a favor. Am I right or what?”
I cocked an elbow on the open window. “One thing is for certain, Stevarino, that guy is going to have a lot of explaining to do. Boat owners, insurance companies. Bad business mojo, any way you shake it.”
“Stripping boats in broad daylight. Goddamn, is it just me or is that just plain rude?”
Stevie slapped down the turn signal and drifted the green beast into the passing lane. A black Mustang in front of us had a white and pink lettered bumper sticker splashed on the right rear chrome. The sticker read: JERSEY GIRLS DON’T PUMP GAS.
I leaned over and fiddled with the El Camino’s ancient radio. My tenderized ribs flashed hot. I hid a wince and found some Allman Brothers halfway through their doo-dilly chart climber “Ramblin’ Man” on the dial. Stevie pointed an imaginary finger gun at the dash and I notched up the volume.
“Security was a joke,” I said nearly shouting over the incoming two-sixty roar and music. “You look like you know what you’re doing, you move fast, no one will question a thing. The yard’s security vehicle? Obviously a sun-faded decoy. Just like all those signs telling you that you’re being monitored. Please, I counted two cameras, one at the gate and one on the office door. I bet you a sack of glazed doughnuts from Brown’s both cameras are totally fried.”
“No doubt,” Stevie agreed. “So, what do you think, man? You think your back-in-the-day lifeguard pal and his partner will ever find those dudes?”
I shrugged. “I haven’t seen DK in almost twelve years. I don’t know what kind of cop he is and a case like this? Stuff like this typically gets reported and then kicked to the detectives. It all depends on similar cases, priorities, how much blowback static they get from the merchandise taken. And anyway, it was actually two dudes and a girl. Her hoodie and sunglasses kind of hid her features.”
Stevie’s raised an eyebrow and turned his head. “Whoa...a chick?”
He clucked his tongue. “Guess my eyesight was off.”
“It happens in amped situations,” I explained. “People tend to see what they want to see. Anyhoo, from the look of things it seemed like she was the lookout and driver. Stood guard when the others boosted the gear from the boats. By the way, if I didn’t mention it before, thanks for coming to my rescue. If you hadn’t come over, it might have been a lot worse. Those guys sure enjoyed their foot play.”
Stevie focused on traffic. “Yeah. So, why did you agree with me when I told the cops that I saw three guys? Man, you can’t just out and lie to the police like that, Charlie. Even if he’s an old basketball bud. They can nail you for that stuff big time.”
I waved a hand. “Relax. Bending the truth provides flexibility. I can make a call and change my statement with DK later, say I got a clearer picture after I settled down. I might even do that but first I want to sit on this a bit.”
“Huh? Sit on this a bit? Sit on what?”
It took a moment for the idea to sink into Stevie’s diminished brain cells.
I picked a bottle of water out of the cooler between us and cracked the cap. Stevie finally responded.
“Hey,” I said, “I’ve nothing going on these days seeing that I’m now out of the painting business.”
Stevie pumped his neck like a chicken and bumped the speed on the El Camino.
“Charlie and the freakin’ land pirates.”
I adjusted my sunglasses. “Maybe.”
“Yo ho ho.”
Along with the confused description of the suspects, I also neglected to share with DK and his partner the license plate number of the thieves’ vehicle. Quick research matched the plate up with a white, beater Saturn registered to one Shauna P. Dean, age twenty-three, residing in the pine scrub borough of Landisville, a few miles west. More scratching revealed a single minor possession prior, along with a host of delinquent infractions bordering on agitating predictability. On a rainy Saturday a few days later, around noon, I staked out her address.
Her apartment was an upstairs unit in a two story warren, heavy on the Latino farm worker flavor. At one-thirty, Shauna Dean and the two tools who tuned me up at the boatyard piled into her Saturn and spun off to points unknown.
When their car hit the main road and headed south, I jogged over to the rental office.
The building manager was a ringer for the late actor John Ritter in the movie Sling Blade, only cue-ball hairless and fidgety. Once I told him who I was and what I was up to, he was more than forthcoming. For a price naturally. It was my kind of bribe—a six pack of Pacifico Clara beer and a large pizza with sausage and mushroom. Coupled with the promise of cleaning out a unit full of troublemakers, he thought it was a sweet deal.
Apparently resident civility hadn’t penetrated Shauna Dean’s or her male roommates’ prolonged adolescence. A lot of late checks and filed grievances from neighboring tenants. Repeated warnings inspired retributive vandalism to both the building manager’s car and other property. Contractual faith had long since been snapped in half.
I drove up the road a mile to grab the pizza and beer and circled back.
After I handed him the pizza box, the building manager flipped open the lid and smacked two sausage-mushroom pieces into one. He then folded up the sandwiched slice and ripped off enough to choke a dog. He cheeked the doughy grease. “Neighbors across and below those troublemakers are going to love this. They hate those idiots. Loud hip hop. Dope smoke. Screaming at odd hours. Mostly the guys screaming at the girl, sometimes the other way around. Cops popped a party there a while back. Took three of their guests away in zip cuffs. You got a Church key on you by any chance?”
I took out a Leatherman from my back pocket and pinched the top off two of the Pacifico Claras in the six caddy. I handed him both bottles and he smiled.
“What kind of screaming?” I asked.
The office chair beneath the manager whimpered as he drained half of the first beer and mauled more of his afternoon snack.
“You know, effing this, effing that. Lovers’ quarrels. Don’t know which of those two mooks is sleeping with the girl, though, maybe neither. Maybe both. To be honest, the development company that owns these apartments would rather have a bunch of Guatemalans on questionable work visas than trash like that. Hell, Koreans with their cod and cabbage stink would be better than those clowns. Hey, at least the Koreans would keep the noise down.”
“Anything else you can tell me about them?”
“What else do you want to know?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, I’ve seen them hanging out at that watering hole in the strip plaza through the woods back there behind building three. Hole in the wall called Shooter’s. Pool tables, video poker, hard core alcoholics hiding from their day jobs, brides, or worse. I think they play in dart league or somethin’.”
“A dart league, huh?”
“You don’t happen to know what night that is?”
“Thursdays, I think. I’m not big on hanging out in bars but they got a little black guy in the kitchen? He makes these atomic wings that’ll blow the back of your head off. Unreal. I sometimes pick up an order or two to go for the Eagles or Phillies games. Hang on a sec.”
The manager dropped his mashed together slice into the pizza box and smeared a finger down some stapled papers on his blotter, “Here’s something that might be of use to you. That girl? Shauna Dean? Apparently she cuts hair.”
“Work address is required for tenants, you know, prove they got a job and shit. Address here says A Cut Above up at the Hamilton Mall. That’s what’s down on her lease application anyway.”
“What about the guys? You have work addresses on them?”
“Nah. She’s the only one who’s officially on the lease. Sublets are a no-no, but boyfriends...you can skirt around that stuff, a lot of people do. I don’t think either of the guys work much other than lifting weights and posing tough.”
He sucked down some more beer, belched, and toasted me on my way out, “My pleasure, Columbo.”
Over the next week and half, I worked on my house to get ready for the summer season. To offset my own tenuous investigative income, I rented the top two floors of my house to tourists looking for an inexpensive vacation on the Jersey Shore. Families mostly, sometimes older tea-sipping couples.
My grandmother had done it before me and, when I inherited the place after she passed, I continued the tradition. My living quarters were on the ground floor street level beneath the wide porch with front and rear entrances, often dubbed the Batcave. My home maintenance routine was patching the wear and tear in the mornings, a jog on the two and half mile boardwalk around noon, a late lunch, followed by a few hours on the computer, looking into similar marina thefts up and down the coast. I checked with DK to see if the case we called in was progressing, but he hadn’t heard anything.
I kept my cards close and debated whether to have a sudden mental recall on Shauna Dean’s license plate. It would have made the cops’ investigation easier but I took my ass kicking personally. Plus that marina guy who fired me and Stevie was a total asshole. On a drizzly chilly night a few days later, I leaned against the trunk of Shauna Dean’s Saturn and waited for her to get off work at the Hamilton Mall. She’d parked her car in an unmonitored corner of the mall’s parking lot. Inside the car, a veritable glen of multi-colored pine tree air fresheners dangled from the rearview mirror. At 10:16, Shauna Dean crossed from a non-descript delivery entrance.
“Hey! Off my car, creep.”
I smiled and hefted a thumb over my shoulder at the decal cornered in the vehicle’s rear window.
“Gee, I didn’t know Quiksilver Roxy was sponsoring menthol-flavored hoodrats.”
“Tell your thieving boyfriends I’m looking for them, okay?”
She flicked her cigarette aside and the ash sparked on the slick concrete. A flip of dyed corn-colored hair, the tough girl stance.
“My thieving boyfriends? I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, mister. And I said get off of my car. Now!”
“Sure thing, Shauna.”
She twitched at my mentioning her name. “Wait. How do you...do I know you?”
I jumped up and her eyes panicked. With trembling fingers, she fumbled at the brass zipper of her heavy leather purse but I closed the gap between us with two quick steps. I caught her wrist before she could unload the tiny vial of pepper spray she dug out of her purse. Burrowing my fingers into her wrist, she released the vial.
“Here’s a safety tip,” I whispered. “If you’re going to walk to your car alone at night, you might want to have an escort or have this stuff out before you leave the building.” I ripped the vial from her hand and pivoted as she tried to launch a knee in my balls.
Squirming, she started to cry out for help but I pressed the pepper spray’s nozzle to one of her nostrils. Her eyes dished wide.
“Shh. Be quiet now or a couple million Scoville units will redefine your world.”
With my mission to bait and terrify Shauna Dean complete, I drove home to OC feeling hungry. Upon arrival home, Chomsky, my three-legged cat, barely acknowledged me from his perch on the arm of the living room couch. I punched off the four digit alarm, chucked my keys on the kitchen counter, and shuffled through the day’s mail. Bills, bank statements, long distance telephone offers and one final deposit check for the second upstairs unit I rented out for the last week of August. Nice academic couple from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania and their five-year old daughter. It boosted my spirits as some income was better than none. Once again I privately thanked my Grandma for leaving me her house mortgage-free.
As I rummaged through the pantry, Chomsky finally blinked interest in my oxygen intake and descended from his throne. Taking the kibble box from the shelf, I rained a shake in his plastic bowl and filled his water dish with a short blast from the tap. Then I pulled the tab on a can of Portuguese sardines. Chomsky gimped across the apartment as I dropped one sardine filet in his bowl and forked the remaining three filets on a micro-waved corn tortilla splashed with a squirt of Tabasco. I was three bites into my horrific bachelor-style dinner over the sink when my cell phone buzzed on my hip.
I’d been expecting the call. The fruits of follow ups on similar marina robberies had come through better than I expected.
Two days later, it was a Thursday and I slipped into the darkness of the toilet known as Shooter’s. Just as the building manager had reported, Shauna Dean and her cohorts Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumbass were in the dart alley degenerating. The St. Patrick’s Day chintz was still up and I noted the rail selection was a rot-gut sentinel review. I wedged myself on a duct-taped spinner between two shadowy patrons pawing longnecks. They acknowledged me and I dropped a twenty dollar bill on the bar.
A pickled-skinned wire with a split lip and a name tag that said Peter took my order and rushed a pint of Guinness. As soon as Peter the bartender tapped the still-roiling pint down, I got a sharp, shoving poke in my shoulder.
“Yo, tough guy.”
I clocked around taking a quick sip from my pint. The taste was flat and all the way wrong. Either the glass was dirty or somebody had decided to use the tap line to flush a colostomy bag.
“Heard you harassed my girlfriend the other night out at the mall.”
I looked over Tweedle Dee’s shoulder and sure enough in the room’s corner by the dart alley, the Garden State’s skank-ho of the year daggered a heavy scowl.
I wiped the corner of my mouth with my thumb. “That a fact?”
Tweedle Dumbass on my right bobbed from side to side. “Yeah. Guess you be some kind of pussy picking on Tommy’s girl. Shauna said you threatened to shoot pepper spray up her nose.” I pinged a look between the two. Both wore oversized black, Flex-Fit Phillies baseball caps backwards. Pierced studs on their jugged ears twinkled.
“Say how’s Limp Bizkit doing these days? You guys still touring?”
The men clutching their longnecks on my flanks chuckled deep and suddenly I could feel Peter the bartender bristling behind me. He delivered the change from my twenty with a slap on the bar.
“Yo, Eric. Tommy. There a problem here?”
The one identified as Tommy lifted his chin but kept his knotty eyes lasered on me. “Yeah, Pete. This is the guy who roughed up Shauna the other night.”
The bartender took interest. “No way. You’re the one who beat on Tommy’s girl?”
I raised a hand. “Unsubstantiated, embellished, and, no, I most certainly did not beat on his girl. All I did was talk to her. She tried to use some pepper spray on me so I defended myself. I told her I was looking for these two.”
The bartender leaned over. “Yeah, well…tell you what, stranger. These two here and Shauna over there are regulars. You? I ain’t never seen you before in my life. That spells trouble to me. T-r-o-b-b-l-e trouble, understand? You got some beef with them, fuckin’ walk it outside.”
I set my sour Guinness down on the coaster. Despite my outward appearance of calm, my heart whammed away in my chest. I rubbed my damp palms on my jeans and stayed loose.
“I don’t want any trouble.”
The bartender seemed pleased with my sheepish reply and stood taller.
“Tommy? Eric? We cool here?”
The two didn’t respond at first, their wild eyes still sizing me up. I slipped another twenty from my shirt pocket and held it out between my thumb and forefinger.
“Look, why don’t I buy these guys a couple of drinks, huh? You know, let bygones be bygones and all that? I’m sure we can straighten this all out over some hooch. How ’bout it guys?” I glanced at the bartender again. “This will cover a couple of Jäger shots and beers back for these boys, won’t it?”
The bartender scoffed. “On top of your change and my tip? Sure. Jägers and Buds, sound good, fellahs?”
The offered selection seemed okay to Tommy and Eric. The bartender snatched the bill from my fingers as Tommy’s hard look broke. He slapped Eric’s bicep.
“Idiot wants to buy us drinks, I say let him. We can always kick his punk ass later when we get good and toasted.”
Eric agreed, “Yeah. Later. Good and toasted first, ass kicking later.”
I lifted up my pint glass to salute the moment but remembered the awful residual taste of the Guinness and set the glass back down. “Great. How about Shauna? I’d really like to apologize to her for the other night. Maybe she’d like a pop, too?”
Tommy motioned for Shauna to join us at the bar and Shauna made her way through the boozy slack. As she approached, I noted the jellyroll blooming beneath her ill-fitting, pink baby tee and a lesion-like tattoo of a leaping Mr. Limpit-esque dolphin on her chubby hip. Ahh. Stay classy, South Jersey.
“Your buddy boy here is buying drinks, baby,” Tommy said. “Jäger shots and Buds back, you want in?”
Shauna Dean hooked a hand on Tommy’s shoulder and eyeballed me like I was the tallest pile of dogshit in the world.
“Free booze. Sure.”
Bartender Peter shouldered off to get the round. I cleared my throat and looked down at my steel-toed Wolverines, ready to strike if it came to that.
“So, um...you guys got the whole land pirate thing going, huh? Pretty gutsy stuff, I mean, robbing boats in broad daylight. Man, that takes a lot of balls.”
Tommy grunted. “Yeah, what do you know about it, huh? Last I saw your lame ass, you were scraping barnacles and paint chips with that skinny freakshow with the hair.”
I countered. “Yeah, yeah. I’m just saying, in terms of professional burglary, that kind of play seems a tad chancy, doesn’t it?”
Tommy jutted a hand. “Listen to this guy. A tad chancy. What’re you doing in here anyway, huh? You have a death wish or something?”
“Yeah, well... I think you do. I think you must have some kind of death wish seeing that you keep turning up. What do you guys think? This douchebag look like he’s got a death wish?”
Eric dropped a hand on my shoulder and squeezed hard. “Sure does, Tommy. I say this he’s got a total death wish.”
I leaned back and gently removed Eric’s hand from my shoulder. I have to admit Eric had quite the grip. “You know,” I said, “Voltaire once said, if you’re going to go and judge somebody, you really should judge them by their questions not their answers.”
Shauna’s face curdled. “D’fuck’s Voltaire?”
Their drinks arrived before I could start my answer. All three plucked up and clinked the viscous, beveled shots of Jägermeister and downed the thick liquid with childish gags and whoops. To expedite things, I helped pass the Bud longnecks. Shauna took her beer from me and gave me the finger up close. Then she turned and hipped her six back to the dart alley. Tommy watched her go and took a pull on his bottle. “So, paint guy. You really have no idea who you’re fucking with here, do you?”
“I know you’re Tommy and Eric.”
“That’s a fact but here’s some additional knowledge. My homeboy Eric here? Eric has done a few AMMA qualifiers, mixed martial arts, one-sixty-eight class.”
“One-sixty-eight. No shit. Really?”
Eric slugged down some beer and beamed.
“Tough weight,” I acknowledged. “No wonder you guys went all Defcon 5 on me.”
“Damn straight,” said Tommy. “But here’s the bad news. Tonight, amigo? Tonight, you’re not so lucky. You came looking for a good ass kicking, I think Eric and me are up for just that. Finish what we started. Down your stout and we’ll waltz you out back.”
I shifted, “Okay, but before we do that, can you answer a couple of questions for me?”
“Yeah. Just a couple.”
“That some sort of last request?”
“Okay. I’ll give you that. Go.”
“How’d you guys come up with burglarizing boats? I mean, I’m no criminal genius but wow, I have to admit that’s pretty original.”
Snickering, Tommy leaned in with pride, “It was Shauna’s idea.”
“Yeah. Her old man? He was a huge drunk and used to work at a marina up near Bricktown. Whenever her old man was short on cash, he and a buddy of his would go trolling through competing marinas and storage yards. Shauna told us all about it. Us, we do three or four jobs a year just for shits and giggles, you know smoke and beer money. Last Fall, we nailed a bunch of places up in Ocean County outside Seaside. This Spring, we’re knocking around here. Truth is during the day, marinas don’t pay much attention and a lot of these boats got some sweet swag aboard. ’Specially the big motor yachts.”
“Like you got your electronics and GPS and stuff, but then there’s also liquor, four hundred dollar rods, expensive tackle, even cash sometimes. Last November, we even found four semi-automatics up Seaside ways and fenced the guns with a homeboy in Philly. Of course, nobody reported the guns missing. Bunch of wop pussies. Hey, what was the name of that boat, E?”
“Alpo. No, wait, Ardito. Yeah. Had guinea flags plastered on the stern and stuff.”
“Yeah. Total wop show. And them rich snots with their sailboats? Please. Don’t get me started. You never check on your toys, screw you if you don’t have your gear locked down. Goddamn ringing the dinner bell for players like E and me. But enough of this...” Both set their now empty Budweisers on the bar.
“Okay,” I said, “One more thing. Before we leave, I’d like to introduce you two to my friends here.” The big men hunched at my elbows turned on their bar stools. “This is Carmen and this is Joe. I did some checking and, wow, wouldn’t you know it? These gentlemen are looking for some unreported missing semi-autos from a boat named Ardito, too. Well, Carmen is, as his brother Joe here just finished up his supervised release after a five stretch up at East Jersey State. He kind of has to stay away from firearms. You players don’t mind if these guys tag along, do you?”
Everything slowed as the worst dawned in the thieves’ faces. I leaned back and Carmen and Joe loomed to their feet.
Tommy and Eric plunged for the door.
BIO: Jersey born writer Kieran Shea scratches at the eight ball of crime fiction and his character Charlie Byrne has graced ATON plenty of times before. He blogs the struggle and other musings at BLACK IRISH BLARNEY.