CHECKIN’ THE CZECH: A CHARLIE BYRNE GRIND - KIERAN J. SHEA
I’d been cracking Mrs. Hart’s eighty-seven-year old ribs for nine minutes straight when two Egg Harbor Township cops and two EMTs plowed through the front door.
From their faces the scene must’ve redlined past camp crazy. Lacerated head wound flooding a delta of blood down my face. Mrs. Hart’s pink nightgown riding high over her splayed legs revealing a gnarled, gray thatch of pubic hair. There was a seven-iron wedged squarely in the far wall like a climbing axe and the carpet still smoldered from where the vodka burned.
From my kneeling position over, I fell sideways as the two EMTs took over. Lightheaded from the crack on my head, I rolled right and exposed my Berretta subcompact holstered beneath my suit jacket.
The two patrolmen didn’t hesitate. Like a good boy, I did exactly what I was told. Laced my fingers behind my head and everything. Sticky blood clotting in my hair.
Man, it always comes down to money in this business, doesn’t it?
“So your mother hired this Ivy Bobková as an in-home caregiver without looking into her background? Why would she do that?”
Richard Hart’s eyebrows pulsed. Scowling at me, he waggled an expensive looking pen between his fingers. Behind him, a small campus of four story identical cake box office buildings soaked in a mean, March rain.
“Ivy had references,” he said. “A friend of a friend of my mother’s. I only learned about this oversight later.”
“Does this friend of a friend have a name?”
“Doesn’t really matter. She was a good woman, but she passed away earlier this year.”
“Huh. So no references from actual health care providers?”
“No, Mr. Byrne. No references.”
“Okay, let’s shift the subject. Tell me; what’s your impression of Ivy Bobková?”
Hart sighed, his eyes flicking briefly to the rain spattered window before his attention returned to my question. “I’ve only met the woman twice. Once when I drove out to the house to take my mother to lunch and another time when my mother asked me to haul a box of my father’s old clothes to the Salvation Army. She’s pleasant enough looking woman. Lean, some might say attractive, brown hair. Mid-thirties maybe? Seems competent. Well-organized and attentive to my mother’s needs, but here’s the thing…” He waits a moment. “I think my mother has been showing increasing signs poor judgment since my father passed away.”
“Oh? When was that?”
“Three years ago. Heart disease.”
I let this information settle for a moment before resuming.
“So, the short of this situation is you’re concerned for your mother’s health and safety?”
“Well, without real references wouldn’t you be?”
Actually, to be honest, I wouldn’t. Call it a backwards blessing, but my own abusive mother and psychopathic father died horribly when I was twelve. Mom ramping downward on her manic curve hung herself from the drop down attic and Dad, in his infinite compassion, drank a fifth of rye and drove into a tree off of the Garden State Parkway. Caring for aging parents? Not on the Charlie Byrne agenda.
I asked, “So you’re not worried about theft or anything?”
“Theft?” Richard Hart actually laughed a little. “Good God, no. Everything my mother owns is in a secured trust and that trust goes directly to my sister and I equally upon her death. It’s quite a substantial arrangement. Even with the downturn in the market our family’s advisors place the value easily above eleven million or more.”
“That’s a handsome sum these days.”
“My late father was a very successful industrial printer. A self-proclaimed Philadelphia king of Heidelberg offset printing long before the digital age. He practically cornered the mid-Atlantic market for a decade. Anyway, my mother has always courted simple tastes and needs. Like my father she’s of German descent and keeps the house practically barren in its modern appointments.”
“So no valuables then?”
“She abhors jewelry and frivolous spending except for her figurines.”
“She collects crystal animals. Scores of them.”
“Like in The Glass Menagerie?”
“Her pieces are a bit more expensive.”
“But no loose cash about?”
“Believe me, with the money from the trust she is more than adequately provided for. Groceries, medicine, clothing…what does one woman need? It’s all delivered to her home, and if she ever needs to go out she has a driver on call. She rarely, if ever, touches cash.”
I nodded. “In a situation like this, the dependency between a nurse and a patient…umm…trust can be abused. Do you suspect physical mistreatment with your mother?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Possibly. Ivy runs a tight ship. I think it’s why my mother likes her so much. Must be an old European thing.”
“Mmm. And you don’t have power of attorney in her affairs?”
“No, and that’s a problem. She’s been resistant. My sister Clarissa and I have been trying to keep up with my mother’s troublesome health issues and to get her affairs in better order, but it’s been very difficult. My mother, you understand, has never been one to complain and likes to control things. I’ve been in and out of the country for the better part of this past year on business. Clarissa, she lives in Omaha and has zero time for the day in and day out issues.”
“Omaha as in Omaha, Nebraska, Omaha?”
“Long way from the Jersey Shore.”
“She met a cowboy of sorts after she graduated from Northwestern. Fell in love.”
“They still have actual cowboys in flyover country?”
“I was being droll. He’s a cattle broker.”
I bit my cheek. Hard. I mean, really. Droll? Who the fuck talks like that? Felt like I was in a Henry James novel.
Richard Hart scooted his chair into his desk. “Mr. Byrne, I am perfectly capable of conducting an internet-based public records inquiry, but I do not have the patience or the time. I’d rather employ someone like you for thoroughness.”
“I appreciate the backslap of confidence.”
“So will you look into this?”
“Sure. But one more thing before we finish up.”
“By all means...”
“Forgive me for stating the obvious, but why don’t you take the simplest course and just fire this woman if you don’t like her?”
Hart made a pained look. “I would if I could, but my mother adores her and now wants to hire an immigration lawyer to help this woman with her visa.”
“What? Her visa? Hold on a second. Why didn’t you mention the visa issue before?”
“I’m sorry, I meant to. Apparently Ivy Bobková’s visa is set to expire. One of the lingering hangovers of the Cold War is that citizens from the Czech Republic, even if qualified, must undergo an excruciatingly complicated process to obtain a visa here. Like I said earlier, Ivy appears to be a competent caregiver, but I’d like to be certain my mother isn’t wasting her money.”
“So she already has an immigration lawyer lined up then?”
He nodded. “Ivy does.”
“Not your mother?”
“Does this lawyer have a name?”
Richard Hart removed his checkbook from his suit pocket. I watched as he scribbled out my retainer on a pale blue check with his expensive pen.
Iventa Bobková…a.k.a. Ivy.
Over the next three days, I doggedly ran the traces on Ivy like my three-legged, one-eyed cat Chomsky when he chases down a rat beneath the boardwalk. However, unlike Chomsky, I came up with nada. Zilch. Not even a taste. The woman was a ghost and off the radar.
Background checks. Christ, what a pain in the nuts. If you can’t corner your quarry with a cell phone, pluck, and a laptop with decent Wi-Fi access, serious problems are afoot. Either (a) someone isn’t who they say they are or (b) you pretty much suck as an investigator. For the record I’d like to think that I don’t think I pretty much suck as an investigator, at least not that much.
Truth was I was more than a little pissed off at the prospect of having to sit on Ivy Bobková with a stint of surveillance, because I had other shit to do.
Richard Hart said Ivy typically bounced from his mother’s house once the old lady was tucked in with her CSI. Ivy always returned to the house the following morning right after breakfast. Fine by me. I parked my Camry down the street from Mrs. Hart’s house, and followed Ivy’s red Nissan Pathfinder when she rolled out just after eight. It was Friday night and Saturdays were Ivy’s day off.
Ivy didn’t head straight home. Her first stop was the gym. Good for her. Work out all that job related stress, paying bills and administering medications. Full hour of cardio on the elliptical, some free weights in the mirror, and some excruciating leg squats. Ah, being a terrific piece of ass like Ivy Bobková takes hard work.
About a half an hour after the gym, she drove to and parked outside one of four twenty unit condos in a development called Sea Pines. The condo complex was a low rent affair on Route 322, and a drooping acid rain-stained sign advertised units starting in the mid-50s. She took the steps two at a time bypassing her mailbox in the foyer apparently too sweaty or too distracted to stop and check. It was the break I needed.
I waited in my car for a light to snap on upstairs and called in an order for a small sausage pie for the address. When the pizza guy asked me which unit, I told them to hold on a second.
Quickly, I got out of my Camry and stepped across the parking lot. At the condo’s main foyer, I cupped my hands against the glass.
I needed another unit that was occupied. I looked left and saw a light on in a second story unit, the mumbled bass of some hip-hop du jour vibrating the sliding glass window that led to the unit’s balcony. I told the pizza guy 202, Unit A.
When the pizza guy showed, I followed him in, jangling my keys and committed a felony by popping Ivy’s mail box. But I scored Ivy’s cell phone bill. Hey, I’m a bastard that way. I headed home to the beach.
Back in my ground floor apartment in Ocean City, I fed my boy Chomsky some kitty kibble and gave the bill the once over as I flopped on the couch. Like most phone bills, there’s usually one number that’s called more than any other. Lover, spouse, work, sick aunt, something like that. Using a burner I kept around for checking on things anonymously, I called the most frequently listed number and it clicked right to voicemail. I was so ecstatic at the name, I poured myself a good four fingers worth of fifteen year old rum.
Calling your immigration lawyer when you’re being squeezed on a visa issue is not that unusual. But lawyers bleed your dry by the hour. Ivy and Jasper talked a lot.
2 A.M. for one hour and twenty minutes? 4 A.M. for ten?
Two hours and fifteen minutes on a Sunday morning?
I hit the sack early and did some dawn patrol surveillance at Ivy’s Sea Pine condo. Around nine, Ivy drove her red Pathfinder to an office park where a doughy looking dude in a suit came out to meet her. The two had lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant as did I. Ivy and Jasper held hands and played footsie while I gnawed on some overpriced veal parmigiana. I gave their waiter forty bucks to confirm the signature on the doughy dude’s credit card.
I’m sorry, but who in their right mind names a kid Jasper?
No wonder he turned out to be such an asshole.
The next morning, after downing a half a pot of coffee, I called Richard Hart to give him an update.
His assistant informed me Hart was away for the next few days on business and asked if I could take a message for him. I told her not to bother and that I had his cell.
I rang him twice and left two messages for Hart to call me immediately. Meanwhile, I got out my heavy drilling equipment, spelunking helmet, and started tearing the living shit out of the dubious legal career of Jasper Gabriel Bloch.
The next morning, Richard Hart finally had the decency to return my calls.
“It’s a scam,” I told him, “I just know it. The whole thing stinks.”
“How can you so be sure?”
“Were you listening to what I just told you? Bloch has a history of being involved in shaky situations going back ten years and this Ivy woman? It’s like she doesn’t even exist. Wait a minute...”
“Her friend. The friend of a friend who referred Ivy to your mother. What was her name?”
“Just give me the name.”
He did. I told him to pick up the phone when I called him back.
It took me the better part of the rest of the day and the following morning to finally locate a family member of this friend of a so-called friend. A heartbreaking story if your personal values are based solely on money.
It seemed some significant funds were cleverly siphoned off of Mrs. Hart’s dead friend’s accounts and no one knew how. Signs pointed to identity theft and the troubles of the information age.
Yeah, right. Nothing embarrasses old seaside money like being taken for a ride.
“Oh my God. I can’t believe this. I should contact the police.”
“I’m going to advise against that, Mr. Hart.”
“Are you deranged? Why not contact the police?”
“Well, all this? It’s pretty circumstantial. Might be more trouble for you with the cops than it is actually worth. And if you confront Ivy or Jasper Bloch directly with your suspicions without actual proof in hand it might even be construed as libelous. Yeah, sure, they might walk away but then again they might not. Bloch is a bit of a weasel that’s for sure. He might smell blood in the water. I mean, come on, his cases make late night TV ads for liability lawyers look like Harvard Law Review.”
“Can you get proof of what they’re up to?”
“That would take a lot more time.”
“I’ll pay you.”
“I’m talking weeks of time. You should just fire the woman. Now.”
“That’s what you recommend?”
“Yes. Then have your accountant work backward, see if anything is amiss.”
“I still can’t believe this. How did you come about this information again?”
“How did you figure out she was working with Bloch to defraud my mother?”
My cat Chomsky looked at me with his one good eye and then closed it. Chomsky let out a long, whistling fart.
I waved a hand and pushed the cat off my desk. “I improvised.”
“Oh Christ, what you did was illegal, wasn’t it?”
“It’s better if I didn’t answer that.”
“You idiot. Now we have no recourse.”
“Look, Mr. Hart, this doesn’t have to be that complicated. We have plenty of recourse. Just fire the woman. That’s the easiest way out of this. Take your mother’s disappointment and protests on the chin and get rid of Ivy before it’s too late. And get the accountant cranking.”
“Maybe it’s too late already.”
“It might be.”
“I need to do it in person and I’m in London.”
London? I thought of the cost of the call and checked my watch. He better not play it cheap on the expense report.
“What about your sister?” I asked.
“Clarissa is not flying out from Omaha just to fire some Czechoslovakian huckster.”
“So what do you want to do?”
He was quiet for almost a full minute before he spoke.
“Talk to my mother. You do it. Explain it. Tell her what you told me.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can. Just do it. Make something up.”
“Make something up? What, just lie to her?”
“Improvise. Apparently you like doing that.”
“Now, hold on a minute...”
“Just do it, Byrne. I’ll wire you an extra two thousand dollars this afternoon on top of your fee if you make it happen by C.O.B. today—that’s a lock. Count on it.”
“Two grand on top of your fee if you take care of this by this afternoon.”
See? What did I tell you? Always comes down to money in this business.
Let me paint the scene for you.
Me in my best suit introducing myself and asking to be invited inside Mrs. Hart’s lovely home in Egg Harbor Township on the pretext as that I am a representative working voluntarily for her son, Richard. Oh really? Yes. Richard is a lovely boy. Yes, indeed, good old Richard, a real straight shooter. He has dispatched me from London with some very important business to discuss. London, really? He’s in London. Oh. I’m here for him. Oh I see, yes.
Mrs. Hart introduces me to Ivy who, I’ve got to say, looks pretty smoking hot in the pink nurse scrubs. We all move to the living room to discuss the matter in private and Ivy leaves Mrs. Hart and me alone to make us some tea. Mrs. Hart is a very frail looking woman, wheezy and has the dried out look of a lifetime smoker. A full generous helmet of nearly platinum white hair.
After some gentle and soothing small talk about various portraits around the room, I steer our conversation to the subject at hand and retrieve my briefcase from where I settled it next to the couch. I perch forward on my chair and open the briefcase on the table between us.
Before I begin, I tune my ears and listen to the distant clinking sounds of China being retrieved for our tea. Then, as diplomatically and clearly as possible, I lay out the information I have gathered so far on Iventa, taking great pains to speak slowly as I cover the specifics.
The rest is really an adrenalized blur. At some point, Ivy eavesdropped on the conversation and her façade shattered like a hammered shell. The denials started in struggled English and quickly grew into molten Slavic vowels and grunts. She threw everything she could at me, despite Mrs. Hart’s shrieking, and it was a Baccarat crystal cheetah that split my head open. Strange piece of bric-a-brac a crystal cheetah. I looked up the price later. Three hundred bucks. Jesus, I hate people.
I bled everywhere. Like, everywhere. And Mrs. Hart collapsed.
Ivy charged from the room and I heard her rattling in the hall closet.
I thought for a fraction of a second that maybe she really was a nurse and was going for a medical kit or crash cart or something. But I knew better. I started to go for my gun as she flew around the corner, a seven iron twirling above her head.
The first blow tagged the meat of my right shoulder, but I managed to dodge the second whooshing swing by ducking. The momentum corkscrewed Ivy’s torso and the seven-iron flew out of her hands and sank into the far wall. Then she started to throw liquor bottles at me from a nearby credenza. A big bottle of Belvedere vodka shattered a Waterford crystal lamp and that’s when the fire started.
I rushed Ivy, leaping over the flames and throwing the biggest upper cut I could muster. Ivy spun away like a movie star dodging the paparazzi and crumpled to the floor.
Quickly, I started mashing out the flames with a throw pillow from the couch. Kind of like using a mushroom to smother a badger. I called 911 before I checked on Mrs. Hart. No pulse. Started CPR. Ivy came to when she heard the sirens, hauled ass.
Anyway, the whole debacle?
Not worth a two grand bonus, not ever.
I took the cheetah.
Tuesday Night Music
2 minutes ago