DELIVERED: A CHARLIE BYRNE GRIND - KIERAN J. SHEA
It was a Saturday evening in July and I slowed my white Ford Econoline van down to a prowl. In the shotgun seat, my best friend, Stevie Maguire, let his mirrored aviators slide over the massive Mantoloking, New Jersey beach house like a sweaty, leering perv.
“Whoa, is that?”
“Is that a Lamborghini in the driveway, Charlie?”
I steered the van and kept my own eyes on the ancient, slow-moving VW Bug puttering twenty yards in front of us. “As a matter of fact,” I answered, “yeah, I believe it is.”
Unlike me, Stevie wasn’t a licensed and bonded investigator. Actually, if you took a sharp cake knife you could carve up Stevie’s spotty income pretty much three ways— house painter, coffee shop barista, and small time dope dealer. It was totally my idea to piggyback a process serving gig on our trip up to see George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic that evening. Both of us were huge fans, and the masters of funk were playing the famous north Jersey venue The Starland Ballroom. The Starland was up in Sayreville. Gas was ringing in at nearly four dollars a gallon and combining the two trips from Cape May County seemed like a good idea.
Stevie craned his skinny neck out the passenger side window. “Wow.” He turned back and ran a hand through his sandy mop of hair. “Didn’t Bruce Wayne have one of those suckers in The Dark Knight?”
“Mmm, I think so.”
“What’s a car like that go for anyway?”
I made a left at the next corner and double-parked. I poked the Econoline’s hazards and listened to the flashers tick, tick, tick. For strategic reasons, I’d recently traded in my seen-better-days Toyota Camry for the big van. My Camry had a smash-about earlier in the year and, despite the bodywork and the mechanic’s snuff-stained assurances, it didn’t seem to run right. With tinted rear windows and blasé flanks, the secondhand Ford van was utterly forgettable. Perfect for surveillance and plenty of cargo space in back to sleep one off.
I unsnapped my seat belt and busied myself by throwing a short-sleeved khaki work shirt on over my damp tee. The plastic buttons on the khaki work shirt were tough to secure because my fingertips were moist with the afternoon’s humidity. I grabbed a clipboard from behind the seat and lifted a giant arrangement of roses into my lap. Then I adjusted my plain, dark blue ball cap in the driver side mirror.
Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear...
“You know that house you painted last Spring? Not the cottage in Margate but the small place down in Stone Harbor?”
Stevie waved at a fat mosquito that drifted in through his open window. “The one with the topless sunbathers?”
“Yeah. That car costs about half of that.”
Stevie’s jaw snapped wide. It’s possible he may have stopped breathing because his voice leapt a few octaves.
“Get out of here! Half a million bucks?”
“More like four hundred and change.”
Stevie let out a long whistle. “Wow. I knew I should’ve never stopped playing baseball.”
I shook my head and slid a pen into the breast pocket of the work shirt. “Oh yeah, right, like you’re Joe Athlete.”
Stevie protested. “Hey, I’m athletic.”
“You can barely play beer-pong.”
“I can surf.”
“Who can’t these days?”
“I’ll have you know, Charlie, that when I was a pup I played a mean third base and shortstop in Little League. Yeah, me. Go ahead and laugh, Mister Private Eye Man.” Stevie held his hands in front of him like he was holding a giant, vibrating ball. “I had, like, these mad skills. Real jungle instincts. I bet if I’d just stuck with it, with the right luck and scouts, I could have turned pro.”
“Of course you could have. We all could have. We’d all be millionaires and live happily ever after on some tropical island, taking baths in champagne and ordering up concubines and caviar on speed dial.”
Stevie scoffed. “Lamborghini. Man...and this Garcia loser skips on a teeny weeny rehab bill? What’s up with that?”
“It wasn’t teeny weeny,” I said. “The place is a boutique substance abuse clinic up in the Hamptons and runs three large a day. Two months of getting back rubs and adjusting his addiction chakras and Mister Ninety-Miles-Per-Hour Fastball’s bill came in at almost two-hundred grand. It’s a recovery lawsuit, plain and simple. Naturally, the rehab didn’t stick. Garcia was back in the high life as soon as he hit the streets.”
“So that’s his house back there?”
“No. He’s been off the grid for a while. It’s some banker dude who used to manage some of Garcia’s assets. He loaned it to him. I guess banker dude is trying to drum up business. Ocean front, pool, seven bedrooms and—get this—the place has its own movie theater.”
“How’d you find out Garcia was here?”
I turned in my seat. “Yeah. Everybody thought he split for his native Venezuela because he’s a freaking god down there and the U.S. authorities can’t do shit. But I’d seen him in Atlantic City a bunch of times since the Phillies cut him loose. Guy loves to party hard at the Borgata and the Taj.” I checked my watch. It was almost seven. “Look, this should be a cakewalk, okay? Just stay in the van and hang out. I’ll knock on the door, serve the guy, and then—bang—we’ll split. With traffic going north on Route 35, I think we’ll be able to make the Starland Ballroom by nine, tops.”
I turned off the hazards, dropped the engine into drive, and swung the van around. At the corner, I turned and headed back toward the beach house. “Should be a great show,” I added.
Stevie sang and did a little dancing shoulder roll.
“Oww, we need the funk, gotta have that funk...”
I did my best to appear unaffected by the stunning, bikini-clad woman who answered the front door. A long blonde, the woman wobbled on cork-bottomed, strapped pumps and her glassy blue eyes met mine. Strong whiffs of coconut oil, smashed lime, and rum.
She squealed, “Roses! For me?”
I smiled. “Two dozen. Special delivery for...” I fumbled with my clipboard. “Is there a Jeff Garcia home?”
She grinned and wagged a finger. “Are you sure you don’t mean José Garcia?”
I checked my clipboard. “Oops. Right. My bad. Is there a José Garcia here?”
She extended her arms in an effort to take the rose arrangement from me, but I pivoted slightly. A frown.
“I can take them,” she said.
I held up my clipboard. “I’m sorry, miss. There’s an envelope included with these here flowers and it’s marked personal. I’ve been instructed to hand deliver both to Mr. Garcia. I’m sure it sounds trivial to you and all, but I could get fired if I screw this up.”
She placed a hand on her hip and I got another finger wag. “Who’re are these flowers from? They better not be from another girl...”
In my time as an investigator, I’d served papers to at least a couple hundred people. Most of the time, it’s pretty cold and cordial, but sometimes it gets nasty. Projectiles, evasive maneuvers, screaming. Once down in the Pine Barrens, I had to out shimmy a tipped-over terrarium of cottonmouths when I served a child support delinquent. Anyway, like the Boy Scouts, the key to process serving is to be prepared, to know your assignment. I could feel the waning heat of the setting sun blasting on my shoulders as I set the roses down on the steps in front of me. I checked my clipboard again.
“Says here...from...M. J. Entertainment?”
“Marvin Jaff Entertainment?”
“Uh, yeah. I guess so.”
“Oh, that Marv. How thoughtful of him! Marv is José’s agent.”
“Mr. Garcia isn’t ill, is he?”
A suggestive pump of the eyebrows, “Hardly. Come in, come in. José is around back by the pool. I’ll take you to him.” She draped out a hand, “I’m Jenny, by the by.”
As we made our way inside, I thought about metronomes and ice cream as I admired the tight rhythmic float of Jenny’s ass. She must’ve been a dancer. Given Garcia’s track record down in Atlantic City, I had little doubt the woman knew how to work a pole.
The house itself was incredible. Built like a massive zig-zagged stack of Legos, it had a modern interior with lots of black leather, glass, and polished white marble. As I followed Jenny through a maze of hallways, I clocked the casual accents of turbo-powered opulence. Real Persian rugs. Original pop art. An impressive bar gleaming with top shelf offerings. Suspended above a sunken living room lazed an enormous hammered red metal mobile in the shape of a cricket. A blue felt billiard table with stitched leather pockets hulked beneath the giant Jiminy and on the billiard table’s surface two cues were crossed like swords.
The air conditioning blasted full, even though the accordion doors leading to the rear deck and pool were tracked open. For a moment, I was grateful Stevie was waiting for me back in my van. Sport celebrity or not, Stevie was a tad banzai on the environmental thing. He would’ve taken Garcia’s carbon footprint and planted it straight up his ass.
“José, baby? Special delivery for you...”
Stoned, brown, and corpulent, José Garcia sat on the rough edge of a shallow amoeba-shaped pool, his hairy shins and feet dangling in the water. Picture the athlete past prime and puffy. Garcia wore a garish pair of flowered yellow surf trunks and his black, wavy hair was pulled tight into a wet ponytail. A shitload of gold jewelry adorned his neck and fingers. In one fist, he clutched a bottle of Heineken with a smoldering joint between two fingers; in the other, he held the choke chain tethered to the biggest Rottweiler I’d ever seen.
As soon as I stepped out onto the deck, the dog went bananas. Eyes wild, the beast lunged at me and barked rapid-fire as I shrunk backward. The weight of the animal nearly yanked Garcia into the pool.
Garcia pulled hard on the chain.
“Fausta! Fausta! Calmar niña! Cállate la jeta! Cállate! Cállate!”
Jenny cooed as she adjusted her bikini top. “Marv sent roses, sugar. Isn’t that just the sweetest thing?”
Garcia set his beer bottle down by his hip and flicked the smoldering joint into the pool with disgust. With two hands, he struggled to control the dog on the choke chain.
“What’s that mamagüebo sending me flowers for, huh? Parchita...man needs to be getting me a new pitching contract that’s what he needs to be doin’, not sending me no roses.”
I flattened myself against a section of the outside wall and Garcia grinned at my unease.
“S’okay, man. Fausta? Bitch’s bark worse than her bite, yo.”
I swallowed. “Fausta?”
Garcia laughed. “Means “lucky” in Spanish. Bitch be my lucky charm, no? Strongest of her mama’s litter. Look at her muscles! Look at that jaw! Paws like steel! You can tell, no? Bitch’ll take down a horse.”
“Relax. I got her now. You thirsty, amigo? Want a beer? Jenny, get this hard working man a cold beer.”
I shuffled against the wall not taking my eyes off Fausta but not looking straight at her, either. Like lawyers, dogs perceived direct eye-contact as a threat.
“Uhh...thanks, but no. Can’t drink on the job. I’ve got a few more deliveries to do, plus it’s kind of against...ah...company policy, I’m afraid.”
Fausta riffed out a series of quick barks and Garcia yanked hard on the chain again. The dog steadied but she sounded as if she swallowed an engine on idle.
“Can’t have no beer? Forget company policy, amigo. It’s Saturday, know what I’m sayin’? You work hard. Bosses won’t know nothin’. S’all good here. Baby, where you want these fuckin’ flowers?”
Jenny teetered. “How about inside on the dining room table? That’d be nice.”
José picked up his Heineken and took a pull. I pointed inside and he gave me the nod. I stepped back over the threshold.
The dining area at the back of the house had a ten foot glass-topped table braced on a huge gnarled stump of lacquered mahogany. I placed the arrangement in the center of the table and set the clipboard down next to it. I unclipped the envelope with the suit papers from the clipboard and clenched it between my teeth. Then, as casually as I could, I lifted a leather arm cushion off of a nearby couch. Taking a moment to unzip the backing on the cushion, I slipped my left arm inside against the foam. I plucked up a pool cue from the billiard table and stalked back outside. Tonight’s Feature Presentation: Charlie Byrne in Miguel de Cervantes’ classic, Don Quixote.
Garcia’s voice was void of humor. “D’hell you doing, pendejo? That sofa cushion don’t belong to you, man.”
Behind the envelope clenched in my teeth, my voice buzzed.
I spat out the envelope and it flipped over and over like a paddlewheel until it smacked the deck. The next three words were my starting sequence.
“You’ve been served.”
I’m sure there was a huge eureka moment when the truth of my being there pierced the curtain of Garcia’s intoxication, but I wasn’t around to see it because I was already in motion. I heard Fausta’s choke chain splash on the deck.
The mad scrabble of paws seeking purchase made my blood run cold. With three super strides, I leapt across the sunken living room like a bounding kangaroo; however, even as I motored marsupial, I knew I was screwed. Fausta covered the distance between us in four seconds flat.
Garcia was right, the dog really could knock down a horse. Like a rocket, one hundred pounds of flying black and brown canine slammed me backwards and snatched my wind. Fausta seized the cushion sleeved over my arm and her fangs punctured the leather with ridiculous, thrashing ease. Fused together, we stumbled around and around in a widening circle until both of us crashed into the oversized bar. Jenny shrieked and Garcia told Jenny to shut the fuck up and get his gun. As Garcia padded inside after us, Jenny asked Garcia which gun. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Garcia’s face was an ugly sneer of Latin pride. He snapped his fingers and grabbed his crotch.
“Night stand! The Desert Eagle!”
A Desert Eagle? What the—?
Jenny made for the stairs and, I assumed, the master bedroom.
“You’re dead meat, weenie,” she snipped, starting up.
I focused on my current problem. Fausta clamped fast to my makeshift shield and ruthlessly compressed the muscles in my arm. The grinding pressure of her jaw made it feel like my bones were going to break. I managed to stabilize my footing and, like a linebacker, I sprang as hard as I could into the bar hoping to get away from Fausta and regroup. On impact, the dog let out a sharp, huffing squelch and fell away. Immediately, she spun, crouched, and attacked me again. I got lucky. Mid-flight, I jabbed the pool cue in her mouth. Wet, guttural noises and hot, frothy whips of saliva. Fausta wrested the pool cue from my hand.
Jenny shouted from upstairs. “José, honey?! Are you sure the Desert Eagle is in the nightstand?! I can’t find it!”
“Check under the bed!”
“Hang on—wait! Nope! Not under the bed!”
“The closet! Check the closet! Maybe it’s next to my shotgun!”
Great. A Desert Eagle and a shotgun? Things were looking better and better.
Then the pool cue snapped.
Looking back, I think there was a relished flash of satisfaction in Fausta’s eyes as she cleared the last of the splintered cue from her jaw. The dog had me and she knew it. She even seemed to smirk a little. What Fausta didn’t realize was I’d already reached back and grabbed a half-gallon handle of Tanqueray. As Fausta power-lunged for my throat, I swung for the fences. The bottle detonated against the front of the dog’s skull in a gruesome blast of green glass, blood, and wasted gin.
Fausta sprawled sideways and yelped. Slipping in the liquor and blood, I made for the front door like my lily-white Irish ass depended on it, which it did. Once again, I heard the clicking rush of paws behind me. Garcia roared.
“Yo mataria tu!”
Yeah, yeah. Kill me later, asshole, I got a ride to catch.
Punching out the front door, I saw Stevie sitting in the van at the foot of the driveway. He casually looked over at the sudden commotion and went bug-eyed when he saw me windmilling my arms.
“START THE VAN, STEVIE! START THE VAN!”
Stevie popped the passenger door just as Fausta cannonballed out of the beach house, clearing the front porch steps like some kind of wonder dog. I clambered inside the van and Stevie fired the engine. It took me three frantic tries to shut the passenger door. Stevie mashed the gas.
As we barreled off down the street, Stevie asked me over and over if I was okay. I was, but I was also all the way freaked out and sweating like crazy.
I checked myself for wounds and bites but most of the blood on me seemed to be Fausta’s. My ball cap whipped off when I looked back out the passenger window. Garcia stood at the foot of the driveway, shaking his fist at us with rage. Fausta gave chase, but the poor dog seemed confused, weaving from side to side like a drunk and couldn’t keep up. I felt a twinge of remorse that I clobbered Fausta in the head with the big bottle of booze. Sorry, pooch...such is the war.
I flopped back and listened to my heart wham in my chest.
“Jesus! Thanks, man! Wow, that was intense!”
Stevie shook his head and slid his shades into place. He made a screeching left and then a right. We picked up Route 35 and headed north.
“You need to get a better job, dude.”
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.
FFB: COME CLOSER, Sara Gran
19 hours ago