SHOW AND TELL: A CHARLIE BYRNE STORY - KIERAN SHEA
I’m staring straight ahead and the car’s windshield is brailed with cold November rain. It’s the kind of rain that might ruin a Sunday outing, but makes for good football watching on the couch, a place I would so much rather be. Pretzels and a jar of grainy mustard. A tumbler of Diet Coke and the papers. My three-legged cat, Chomsky, warming my socked feet.
Just barely to my right, Morgan hulks like a slab of breathing quarry granite, spreading peanut butter on a chunk of Italian bread with a white plastic knife ridiculously miniscule in his massive paws. Morgan has been tearing off pieces of the loaf since I picked him up an hour and a half ago, and he’s been washing chunks of the smeared bread down with a quart carton of double chocolate milk ever since. The bread has a good crust on it and it sounds like someone shredding a paper bag each time Morgan rips off a piece. I look down at my chest. Somehow there’s flaky debris from Morgan’s snack all over my black sweater. D’hell? I brush off the crumbs.
“Could’ve had breakfast before we left,” I chide.
Morgan tilts the carton up and swallows of big swig of chocolate milk. “I did. This is my second breakfast.”
“Your second breakfast?”
“What are you? A hobbit now?”
Morgan mows right over my The Lord of the Rings reference, oblivious. “I hit the gym at six after my roadwork. Then I had some bananas, water, and a couple of yogurts. It wasn’t enough. I get hungry after intense workouts. You came by to pick me up at, what? Eight? I just got back from the bakery. I didn’t have time to make sandwiches.”
Like an arcade crane, I pluck up a paper cup of black coffee from the drink caddy between us and slurp.
“But all those carbs and fat,” I say, after swallowing some coffee, “you’ll be hungry again in an hour.”
Morgan eyebrows pump. “Peanut butter has protein, Charlie.”
I set the cup back in the caddy. “Sure. If you’re desperate.”
“If you’re starving in Africa...”
“See me getting porky over here, smart guy?”
I decide not to push Morgan. We’ve been teamed up for three months now and to my surprise Morgan has kind of grown on me. Smarter than he let’s on. Like a quiet bear who can pull random facts out of thin air and do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in a pinch, just don’t interrupt him when he gets stuck on thirty-two down. Some time ago he played minor league hockey in Pennsylvania and New York and racked up the league record for most penalty minutes ever. Knee injury kind of eighty-sixed his career.
I adjust my position in the driver’s seat. “You know, I read somewhere that the FDA allows a certain percentage of vermin hair to be found in peanut butter.”
Morgan starts to snarl as he chews, holds up the open jar. “Well, this stuff is organic.” He waves the jar beneath my nose. With my weak hangover, the greasy aroma of pulverized peanuts makes my stomach wobble.
Morgan finishes his snack and screws the lid tightly back on the glass jar. Ten minutes go by like fucking purgatory on extended replay. Morgan sniffs hard to break the silence. Twice.
“What time does this guy usually leave his girlfriend’s house?”
Wedged next to the drink caddy between us is my spiral-bound notebook. Red cover with the price tag still on it. There’s a ballpoint pen cocooned within the notebook’s wire spiral. I pull the notebook out and flip through some inked pages. Wedge it back.
“He’s supposed to meet up with his wife and daughter to hit mass over at St. Peter’s at 11:30. She cuts him some slack because she thinks he’s sleeping over at his older brother’s house after a late night of playing cards with the boys. Twice a month, he’s here with this girlfriend. He says he’s at the brother’s place outside Toms River, but he’s here getting the pipes done. The older brother is a twice-divorced, world-class pussy hound just like him so he covers for baby brother. Can’t say I blame the guy though. This guy’s wife has issues. Very angry lady.”
“So why's she let him out of the house?” Morgan gestures to the house in front of us. “She angry because the girlfriend?”
“No. I think everything dissatisfies her.”
“Full blood. People back in County Cork.”
“This is why I only tap eastern European chicks.”
I grunt and check my Timex. I really should have stayed home last night, but didn’t. Now I’m feeling fuzzy and short changed of sleep. A stupid party for a neighbor’s engagement, where I drank too much and changed horses midstream. Sugary margaritas to beer. Didn’t imbibe so much that I made a mess of myself or a real scene, but enough to sour up the pipes. Thankfully it was a short two block walk home. My eyes ache. I take another sip of coffee, hoping for clarity.
Morgan asks. “So this guy. This—”
“This Thompson guy. This is just a tell right? Not a show and tell?”
“Correct. Just a tell. A reminder. A gentle push in the right direction.”
Morgan brushes off his shirt and jacket and crushes the milk carton. He stuffs the crushed milk carton, napkins, and plastic knife into a waxed paper bag between his size thirteen engineer boots. He then shucks the sleeves of his leather coat. I watch as Morgan removes a compact Beretta from his coat’s right pocket slit. Morgan checks it, sets the safety, and slips it into the glove compartment. Morgan pops the glove compartment shut with a thumb the size of a large mouse.
“I like tells,” he says.
“A lot less dangerous than shows, that’s for sure.”
“Can we listen to the radio?”
I shake my head.
“You work with someone else, you can listen to the radio. When I do surveillance I like to stay focused.”
“Surveillance. Listen to you. You’re not a private investigator anymore, man. Besides, they got pregame on the AM sports station.”
“I said no.”
“What’re you, five? Let’s just do what we’re supposed to do. Do the tell, get the fire in his belly going, then split. Then we’ll go to O’Brien’s, OK? They have the Sunday buffet and every game known to man on the tube. I can have a few pints and you can break the kitchen’s will to live.”
Morgan squints out the passenger side window. “It’s not like we need to be concentrating.”
“No, it’s bad enough we’re exposed on the street.”
“It’s Sunday. People don’t care around here, Charlie. They’re all reading the paper. Getting ready for church. Sleeping it off. Stinky morning sex and bagels.”
“Just sit tight, he’ll be out any second.”
I glance over at Morgan. “She’s pretty hot, you know.”
“Who? Thompson’s girlfriend? Oh yeah? What’s she do?”
“Works for Prudential up in Newark. Twenty-five or so. Looks like Marisa Tomei, if Marisa Tomei lost the slutty pout and indulged in some cheesecake once in a while.”
“A little gallop?”
“I like a little gallop.”
“And she slinks around with a geek like Thompson?”
I bunch my shoulders and let them fall.
The front storm door of the townhouse creaks open and Jimmy Thompson leans inside giving his girlfriend in the short, cherry silk Kimono a good-bye kiss. He turns and bops down the steps fishing in his pocket with his right hand. Probably looking for his cellular phone and wedding ring. Morgan opens the passenger side door. I call after him as the door knocks shut.
“Go easy, Morgan.”
Two and half minutes later, I’m driving fast enough to boogie but slow enough not to flag a cruiser or undue citizen attention. The round shamrock green and vitamin piss-gold sign for the Garden State Parkway is just ahead on the right, thank God. Morgan is looking out the rear window.
“Man, didn’t you check if he owned a gun, Charlie?”
“What do you think? Of course I did! No records at all! Nothing anywhere! Where does Joe Pocket Protector buy a gun off the radar?”
“Could’ve stolen it.”
“Man, now what?”
I pull myself together. “Plan B. We got to have a Plan B. He’s vulnerable. Snapped elbow that kind of telegraphs that message. But the neighbors, fuck. They might’ve called the cops. That screaming of his—Jesus—you’d think he just discovered pain for the very first time in his life. No doubt his wife is going to go grade 'A' ballistic when she sees him. That fucking fuck better fucking lie to her. You. You best forget about shaving for a while.”
“Jesus, Morgan, do you need to draw you a courtesy map? Every cell phone is a camera now. If we’re lucky no one saw jack, but yours is a face that’s easy to remember. If they did, let’s pray their eye sight blows and there cell phone wasn’t handy. Man, I can’t believe this. A tell means no contact, dude.”
“He pulled a gun on me.”
“No contact is no contact.”
“Who are you preaching gospel? Mister former hot shot private eye...”
“You know Mr. Donofrio is going to be way pissed if this blows up on us.”
“Yeah, well, leave him out of it for now. Let’s see what happens.”
“Think that’s wise?”
“Look, man, I need to think if I’m going to fix this.”
“We should let him know.”
“Donofrio? Are you out of your mind? No, we should not. Definitely not. You know what? I’m going to drop you off. Hang out and stay indoors until I call you, OK? Give me a few hours see what’s happening.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“First, I’m going to ditch the stolen plates I screwed onto this car this morning and then I’m going to check up on what kind of wake you two’s scene back there put out. Which hospital he went to...what cops, if any, responded. I need to make some calls. Maybe there’s not too much damage. Maybe he’ll keep his mouth shut and not panic.”
Morgan points ahead. “Charlie...”
I cut around a braked Subaru Outback and nearly clip the bumper. I crush the horn and swing the car onto the Parkway access ramp. As we slip through the toll I toss a few quarters into the urinal-like toll basket and slice the car into the southward flow back to Atlantic City.
From what I can gather, Thompson keeps his mouth shut. Two days later, I park outside his home and follow him to his job upstate. I don’t bother changing the plates this time around.
Thompson works for a pharmaceutical company up in Union County, Grevel Health Technologies. My tail on Thompson takes me up the thicker sections of the Parkway to the New Jersey Turnpike and then it’s a long, slow commuter hump past the sunken dinosaur spines of the refineries. I listen to the radio. I hear yet again more analysis of the New York Giants meltdown loss to Carolina on Sunday that cost me four Bens and pocket change. To take my mind off things, I think about the Grevel Health commercials I’ve seen from time to time on television, the first wave crest of baby-boomers, shoulder-tied sweaters and cuffed chinos, laughing and flying kites on flawless pink beaches. Couples in bathtubs in the middle of fucking fields, all trying to stall the wages of sin.
The four ice-bland buildings in the Grevel Health compound are minutes west on 280 from the New Jersey Turnpike exit. The building where Thompson works has not one but two windowless Korean carry-out cafes on the first basement level. When I call Thompson’s administrative assistant near noon, I adopt an Indian accent and make out I’m new and calling from IT about a computer request. I learn Thompson is taking lunch downstairs at one of the cafes.
There are about forty tables in the shared dining area. Second hand banquet chairs with grimy square-topped tables and mildew stained prints of the American flag, Statue of Liberty, and eggshell blue skies behind the World Trade Center. I find Thompson eating a cottage cheese and fruit diet plate alone at a four top. He’s looking through a stack of folders. A black nylon soft briefcase rests closely next to his leg like a seeing-eye dog.
I buy an iced tea with lemon in a waxed cup and sit down. Thompson looks up at me like a snorkeler breaching the surface of a lagoon. In an instant, he computes his crappy day just got a little bit more complicated.
I point toward the neon blue cast on Thompson’s right arm.
“Nice color,” I say, “I had a cast once. Plain white plaster, though. Bike accident when I was eight. Landed on a concrete pipe. Long time ago.”
I flip the visitor pass clipped to my jacket. I forged it at home on my laser printer. “Me? I have an appointment later with personnel. Really, sport, who do you think?”
Thompson’s eyes bounce around the room, hatching options. No one in the carryout is paying a shred of attention to us. A stammer. “You’ve come here? To my workplace?”
“Well, things seemed to have deteriorated a bit.”
“You shouldn’t have come here. No. Someone could...”
“What? See me? The security cameras in this building have blind spots as wide than the Grand Canyon. And this visitor’s pass here? I made this myself. Duplicated it from a blown-up photo in your company’s annual report. Guys in public relations might want to Photoshop a thing like that next time.”
“People will notice.”
“Notice what? That I’m irritable?”
“You. Me. You and me together. This is not good.”
“You may be over-exaggerating our consequence.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not like I work alone in isolation.”
I itch my chin and tilt my head. “Well, how ‘bout you make me understand, Jimmy? Hmm? Make me understand.”
Thompson looks around. “There’s secur—umm, there’s issues. There’s protocols, checks and balances. Look, I don’t think you appreciate what I have to do to make something like this happen without leaving a paper trail. People will know.”
“It was your idea to share this information to settle your debts, not ours.”
“You don’t have to bully me.”
“I don’t bully.”
“I’m totally on this.”
“I’m a man of my word. I just need a little more time. Please.”
“See, you say that, have been saying that for a while, and yet, on Sunday, you go all cowboy on us.”
“That was a mistake. I was scared.”
“That guy was huge. I knew I was late on what I promised. Really. I know how serious you people are.”
I sit back. For the briefest of moments, I let my eyes float blank. I think back to a time not so long ago when I wasn’t one of the “serious” people Thompson mentions. Back when I wasn’t in debt myself to a man directly related to the devil, back when I had all my fingers, a girlfriend who loved me, and respectable security business. I see myself then and it’s a lot like looking down a deep, dark well at an abandoned child. I shake off the image and clear my throat.
“I said I was sorry.”
“No, you said it was a mistake and you were scared.”
“I’m sorry then.”
I notice Thompson’s left shoulder easing down.
“Jimmy...don’t even think about doing something stupid.”
He stops reaching for his bag.
“Courage in a briefcase? But isn’t it kind of a firing offense, bringing an unregistered handgun to work?”
“What are you going to do? Shoot me, Jimmy? Here?”
“It’s not unregistered. I borrowed it.”
Great. I clench my teeth. “He know about your commitment to Mr. Donofrio?”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“How about the gun? He know you actually have that gun?”
“So you took it. Good. Smart.”
Thompson shoots forward and whispers fiercely. “Look, I swear on my daughter soul, OK? I swear, I’ll get it to you. Just give me a couple of more weeks.”
I lean in, hands folded, searching Thompson’s eyes. It was just the leverage I needed.
“Do you really want to bring your daughter into this?”
Morgan calls me at home the following evening. It’s late. I’m in bed watching the Discovery Channel, actually debating whether jerking off would be worth the extra effort or not.
Morgan is obviously out on the town. I can hear the tinny cries of girls squealing, glassware clinking, and music pumping. A party in the background. Maybe a club.
“Hey! We got it!” Morgan says. “Chinese buyers verified. All legit.”
“Get this? That stuff? On paper they’re calling it a whatdoyoucallit? A fountain of youth. Yeah. And those slicks from Hong Kong are paying cash. Cash.”
“That’s nice. Mr. Donofrio happy?”
“Man went giddy. Says we’re all going to Puerto Rico for the week to celebrate. Said to offer you a seat on the plane he’s chartering if you want.”
I wince. “Tell him thanks, but no thanks. I don’t feel so good.”
My white lie grows darker. “I don’t feel so good, Morgan. I think I’m coming down with something. Got a doctor's appointment tomorrow.”
“Screw doctors. You need a holiday, brother.”
Morgan Leary calling me brother now. God, how low have I sunk?
Then again, maybe he’s right. Maybe I do need a holiday. I think about dark glasses of aged rum. I think about warmth and Caribbean breezes...crispy pork, plantains and mango. I think about swimming in a warm ocean...dusky, friendly women in bright bikinis and thongs rubbing me down. Then, for the briefest of moments, I think about putting my gun in my mouth.
“Puerto Rico should be nice,” I add.
“Buck up, Chuck.”
“Hey, man, thanks for the offer but I’ll pass. Besides, the less I’m in the boss’s sights, the better.”
“Don’t be that way. You know he’s started to take a shine to you. Now, after this, even more so.”
My moral compass spins like a roulette wheel. The island fantasy appears again, as does eating my automatic. But who would take care of Chomsky? I bear down. Fake a cough.
“Really, man. Feel fluey. Plus my cat’s been acting weird.”
“Three legged freak. Why don’t you just drown the thing, put it out of his misery?”
“Chomsky has soul.”
“Whatever. So, what was it?”
“What was what?”
“In the end. You and the chemistry major up north. I was thinking, at best, by next week’s end, but bang! You go see him and, presto, he delivers stat. You must’ve worked some magic.”
“Show or tell?”
“Strictly a tell. You know me, I’m no tough guy. But it was a good tell.”
Morgan laughs hollow and deep and I let the phone slip away from my ear. On the TV, a great white shark shakes a seal to ribbons and bone.
“We got to get you some more experience with the shows.”
A month later, I’ve blocked the whole Thompson extortion business out of my mind until curiosity chews a hole in the wall. Key strokes at the computer. Me and Chomsky. Alone in the dark.
Thompson hung himself in his garage with an orange extension cord. No word on who found him, wife or daughter, the latter being more horrifying to me in so many ways.
It’s near dawn so I log off the computer and go for a run along the ocean. As I head down the boardwalk, I hear mechanical church bells pealing and realize, wow, it’s Sunday morning again. Time flies. When I get back, I pick up the newspapers at my door, let Chomsky in and hook him up with some kibble.
I crash on the couch for a long time with the papers and wait for the game on the television. After a while, Chomsky hops over and starts doing his grooming thing. I troll the gray pages looking for something, anything to believe.
BIO: This is kind of a time machine for a character Kieran Shea has been working on for about a year now, half-assed New Jersey investigator - Charlie Byrne. The story is set some years in the future after Charlie’s fall from grace. Charlie’s popped up several places around the web. He’s also been in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE. The character Morgan has also made an appearance a short time ago over at David Cranmer’s BEAT TO A PULP in a story called “Backing the Stakes”. Kieran Shea blogs about crime fiction, writing, and other assorted drivel at Black Irish Blarney.