“Oh My Babe Blues”
As much as I need the work, I don’t take cases involving children. My first attempt at a family didn’t end well, and although the emotional baggage is now down to an overnight bag, it’s still hard to carry.
If the case involves a baby, forget it.
I live and work at my friend Camden’s boardinghouse at 302 Grace Street here in Parkland, North Carolina, where I spend as much time as possible courting Kary Ingram. She hasn’t said yes yet, but any time she gets a chance to help on a case, she jumps on it—sometimes too enthusiastically—which gives me hope for our future as a super crime-busting team.
After a long and stormy engagement, Camden and his girlfriend, Ellin, had gotten married, and despite Ellin’s best efforts to dislodge Camden from his house, she has not succeeded. Ellin, who isn’t the least bit psychic, produced shows for the dubious Psychic Service Network and was always after Camden to be on one of the programs and to find a better job. He was content to work at an upscale clothing store and take occasional carpentry work and jobs that didn’t pay much. These jobs were calm and dull to offset his psychic visions, which were real and often intense.
To complicate matters, his friend, Rufus Jackson, and Rufus’ wife, Angie, were house-hunting and planned to move out, and our oldest tenant, Fred, had passed away, so the boardinghouse was in need of new boarders. This was a problem that got me involved in what became a never-ending series of favors.
What could be so hard about that? You do a little something for someone, they do a little something for you. What’s the problem?
Doing someone a favor?
It can be murder.
● ● ● ● ●
This morning, I parked myself at my regular table near the front window of Perkie’s Coffee Shop and sipped a large Perkie’s Special. Things were hopping at Perkie’s, a small shop in all shades of brown with small round tables, cane-back chairs, and an array of doughnuts, muffins, and pastries within easy reach. Young professionals dashed in for their morning lattes, and other folks settled in at tables with their books and laptops. Everyone had serious faces filled with purpose. Everyone was Getting Things Done, but, as usual, the Randall Detective Agency was spinning its wheels. There hadn’t been a lot of work for me lately, except my least favorite chore, tracking down deadbeat dads.
The latest, a chinless wonder with an oddly shaped skull— sort of like those twelve-sided dice—was going to be a snap to find because he’d written his girlfriend’s phone number on the back of the dollar he’d used for his generous tip to my cabdriver friend, Terrance “Toad” Hall. Then the poor sap called the taxi company looking for it.
Outside, Toad’s taxicab, Old Betsy, pulled into a parking spot. Toad came in, greeted me, and sat down at the table. Despite the hotter-than-average June temperature, he looked cool and elegant, as always. Most taxi drivers in town favor jeans and t-shirts covered with beer slogans. Toad had on his usual dress shirt, narrow tie, and dark slacks. He handed me the dollar. “Here’s another one for the stupid file.”
“The stupid file is full.”
He signaled to the waitress. “Anything new on the horizon?”
“Nope. Just sitting here, wincing.”
Toad’s niece, Evangeline, known as Vangie; her friend, Chloe; and another young woman had formed a band called Slotted Spoon. They worked their way up to four chords, and the owner of the coffee shop hired them. They shared a bill with Wonder Tree and Charred Scabs. The music was horrible, but then, my musical tastes stop ’round about the Forties. The members of Slotted Spoon were up on the tiny stage in the corner, mashing their four chords and wailing about the injustices of life. Seemed a bit early in the morning for angst, but maybe the owner wanted to go ahead and get it over with. All three girls had on black tattered clothes, black lipstick, black nail polish, and lots of black eye makeup. Vangie was singing lead, something about lots of pinchers in the circuit. That’s what it sounded like. Pinchers in the circuit, oooh, baby.
The waitress brought Toad’s order and sauntered back to the counter. He took out a package of slim cigars. “I’m surprised Vangie’s not pregnant or in jail the way her mother lets her run around.” He tapped a cigar from the pack. “When’s Cam due back?”
“Sometime this afternoon.” For their honeymoon, Camden and Ellin had gone to Ellin’s family beach house at Atlantic Beach. Ellin no doubt spent a lot of time frisking in the waves and picking up every seashell she could find. With his aversion to large bodies of water, I was curious to find out if Camden even put a toe in the surf.
Toad offered me a cigar. “You’re staying on at the house?”
I declined the cigar. “Yeah, even though Mrs. Camden would love to toss me out.”
When I first moved into Camden’s house and set up shop in the downstairs parlor, Ellin complained this would bring unsavory characters to the house, but the only characters so far had been Camden’s friends, most of them on loan from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
You couldn’t smoke in Perkie’s so Toad held the cigar for effect. “How’s Kary? Still distracting?”
“I would call Kary Ingram the ultimate distraction.”
Distracting, yes. Also beautiful, headstrong, and frustratingly resistant to all my offers of marriage. She was visiting friends in Virginia and would be home tomorrow. I couldn’t believe how much I missed her. I hoped she missed me, too.
Thankfully, the girls finished their set. Toad and I applauded. Vangie grinned and came over. She tucked a long strand of her blue-black hair behind an ear festooned with silver hoops, revealing dark green eyes outlined in black.
“Morning, you two.”
“Sounds lovely, dear,” Toad said.
She kept grinning. “Oh, shut up. I know you hate it.”
“Reminds me I need to get my brakes fixed.”
“I’d be worried if you liked it, Uncle Toad, but David, here, he’s a real fan.”
I pulled out a chair. “Sit down and join us. Coffee?”
“No, thanks. We can have all we want. That’s why we’re so jazzed. And there’s another reason we’re excited.” She leaned forward as if her news were top secret. “The Cave says we can play the next Rattle this weekend.”
Toad gestured with his cigar. “The Cave? Where’s that?”
“You know. It used to be the Bunker.”
“Oh, yes, on Emerald.”
I’d been to that dark little club. “Is that the latest Goth hangout?”
Vangie gave me a pitying look. “And here I thought you were so with it. Goth is passé. Everything is Shade now.”
“At the next Cave Rattle. Gotcha.”
“So, anyway, the girls and I are chuffed. If we make a sound at the Cave, we might get tagged to play Venue Two in Charlotte. It’s a big step.”
The other girls called to her. “Okay, gotta go. See you two later.”
Toad watched her walk back to where her bandmates were tuning their instruments and adjusting the sound system. “They grow up so quickly.”
“Want me to check out the Cave?”
“No, I know the place. It’s safe enough. Part of the mayor’s plan to clean up the city.”
Richard Holt was running for re-election as mayor of Parkland. Even though the election was months away, he already had his slogan: “Children Deserve a Clean City.” He’d even put up posters of himself and his very photogenic blond wife, Chelsea, posing with brooms as if sweeping up the streets. Model-thin and eerily remote, Chelsea Holt had made it clear in earlier interviews that she came from a wealthy family and never had to use any sort of household cleaning device, so the posters were a source of amusement for the Parkland Herald and local radio personalities. “Someone had to show Mrs. Mayor which end of the broom to hold,” was one of the nicer remarks.
“Holt’s done pretty good so far,” I said. “Couple of extra parks, day care centers.”
“I’m surprised his platform isn’t ‘Children Are Our Future.’”
“Wasn’t that what he used last time?”
“It was ‘Children Are Flowers in the Garden of Life.’”
I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten something so cheesy. And I didn’t want to keep on talking about children. I made sure I didn’t leave the dollar bill with the phone number for a tip.
“Guess I’ll go pick up Dicehead.”
“Does he have a real name?”
“His real name is Ferd Fuller.”
Toad snickered. “Ferd.”
“Short for Ferdinand. His wife knew he wasn’t taking the family car, so my taxi sting paid off.”
“Yeah, this guy was easy to spot.”
“Wasn’t it convenient of him to use your taxi company?”
“Sometimes these things work out. Did Mrs. Dicehead actually pay you to get him back?”
“Yes, she actually did.” I’d had a problem lately with clients not paying their bills. “I was as surprised as you are.”
“The girlfriend wants to cooperate?”
“She doesn’t know that yet, but she will.”
I said good-bye to Toad, gave the Slotted Spoons a wave, and went out to my white sixty-seven Plymouth Fury. I started her up, but I didn’t go anywhere right away. I sat for a while, feeling the ancient air-conditioner do its best to cool the interior, listening to the New Black Eagle Jazz Band play “Oh My Babe Blues,” and thinking about what Toad had said. They grow up so quickly. I couldn’t help but think of Lindsey. She’d been only eight years when the accident took her from me. I wondered what she would have been like as a teenager, as a young woman.
I put the Fury in gear. Keep busy. That was the key to surviving these bouts of self-pity, self-doubt, whatever the latest buzz word might be. Don’t start imagining what might have been.
● ● ● ● ●
Dicehead’s girlfriend lived in Bay Point, a small residential area near the airport. She was a slovenly young woman with bright blue fingernails, mouse-colored braids sticking out from under a blue toboggan—a toboggan hat, in June—and an unfortunate combination of green-and-white striped shirt, skull-patterned shorts, and scuffed black flip-flops. The shirt didn’t quite meet the shorts, so I got a free view of fat, pale, round stomach. Most women complain about this unwanted pooch. Th young woman didn’t seem to mind giving hers a little fresh air. Headphones to an iPod were attached to her ears. During our conversation, she kept the headphones on. She spoke around a wad of gum.
“Saw him yesterday. That’s all I can tell you.”
“Do you think he’ll be by today?”
“He needs to. I gotta talk to him about something. What’s the deal? When you called, you said something about money.”
Money, the magic word. “I owe him money, and I can’t find him.”
“You try his place? Forty-two sixty Pacer Avenue.”
Too easy. “Thank you.”
“He don’t actually live there. It’s where he likes to, you know, keep things private. You going that way, how about giving me a ride? There’s a couple of things I wanna discuss with him.”
“Sure. Hop in.”
Back into the Fury for another blast of lukewarm air and hot jazz. All you have to do is say “money,” and people will jump through hoops, or jump into my car. The young woman ignored my music, her own brand pounding through her ears. She popped her gum. “So what kinda deal you got with him?”
“Me, too. Actually, we got a couple of things going. You really got money for him? He better pay me outta that.”
When we reached Pacer Avenue, she pointed out Dicehead’s love nest.
Forty-two sixty Pacer Avenue was on the east side of Parkland, a short dark street with shuttered homes and droopy trees, exactly the neighborhood I’d choose for romantic rendezvous. Dicehead was home. He stared, slack-jawed, at the sight of his girlfriend.
“What are you doing here now?”
“Me and you’s got to talk. What about that deal we made?”
“The one you was gonna set up.” At his blank look, she sighed, hands on hips. “You said this guy had a good thing going at the racetrack and was going to let you in.”
He eyed me. “You bring along this guy to shake me down?”
“No,” I said. “I’m here to return you to the loving arms of your family.”
Dicehead eyed her and decided I was the lesser of his two problems. “I gotta go with this guy.”
It’s not often the deadbeat dads I corner leap gratefully into my car. Dicehead chose the backseat and cowered there as I drove his girlfriend home. She cussed him all the way. When she got out, she leaned in the window.
“If I don’t hear from you tomorrow, I’m hiring this guy to take you apart, you hear me?”
“All right, all right.”
She went into her house and slammed the door. Dicehead sighed with relief.
“Can’t figure her out.”
“Oh, I don’t know. She seems pleasant enough.”
He looked at me askance. Sarcasm is wasted on a deadbeat dad.
I drove him to another part of town where another woman stood with her hands on her hips. “In case you’re wondering, you’re going to get the same reaction from your wife.”
“I know it.” He looked around as if hoping to see an escape. “Damn.”
“It’s either her or the police.”
“Just because I like to gamble a little now and then…”
As Dicehead got out, I offered him a piece of advice. “You could avoid a lot of grief if you’d pay your child support.” As he dragged himself up the walk toward his wife, other words fought to leave my mouth, but I held back. You ought to be grateful you’ve got children to support. You have children, you stupid bastard. I want to grab you by your skinny neck and shake you till your head rattles like a real handful of dice.
I gripped the steering wheel until my hands ached. Damn.