I stood on the only dock jutting into Lindberg Bay. Deserted beach ran in both directions until the rocks jutted up, swallowing the sand. I had spent many afternoons fishing on this dock as a child. The wood had begun splintering from the sun and salt, but somehow, it remained intact after all these years. The churning ocean swirled beneath me like a hungry tiger awaiting her zookeeper. I loved the ocean, but the thought of being in the water terrified me. I had been an army guy. No water there. You would think that an island boy with a drunken sea captain for a grandfather could not be a landlubber, but that was exactly what I was.
I loved St. Thomas, all fourteen miles of it. Named after a great thinker, it was geographically beautiful, but provided haven to ne’er-do-wells, drug dealers, alcoholics, and other shifty characters who wanted to live on the fringes of society. The biggest problem in “paradise” was a constant water shortage. The second biggest was the economy. The irony of the natural beauty and the huge amount of water that surrounded the island, while such human ugliness and drought existed here in reality, was not lost on me.
As these thoughts clunked around in my head like bumper cars on grease, I pulled my attention from the choppy horizon line to today’s edition of The Virgin Islands Daily News. A handsome sailor’s photo graced the front page this Tuesday morning. The headline read, “Seaman Apprentice Thibodaux Jackson Found Dead.” Dana Gould, my closest contact at the News, appeared in the bi-line. This woman would sell her soul for a hot story, a fact that had bitten me on the butt in the past. I had learned over many years as a private eye not to fight faults in my network of information, but to use those faults to my advantage. Give them what they want, just make sure you get what you want too.
Dana’s article went on to explain that Jackson, while enjoying shore leave with fellow naval seamen and officers, met an unidentified woman at the Normandie Bistro, a local dive in Frenchtown. He had been found dead, the next day. The Naval Liaison issued a statement that, effective immediately, naval ships would not be putting into port in St. Thomas for leave if the local authorities could not insure the safety of its officers and seamen. We all knew there was no insurance around here.
I felt the tension rising in my chest like bad cider. This was the third murder of a sailor visiting St. Thomas in as many months. Press like this threatened tourism, the backbone of St. Thomas’ highly symbiotic economy. In turn, that would threaten my relatively peaceful way of life. It was a life worth fighting for, although, fighting for peace always seemed counterproductive to my way of thinking. Things like this were all the fodder our tyrannical governor needed to reinstate the curfew and bash in a few more skulls in the name of “general welfare.”
I wasn’t Gandhi, out to cure the ills of the planet, but I damn well planned to stop any jokers who thought they could point a gun at my little corner of it. The white-capped Caribbean Sea kept out a lot of scumbags, but to whom or whatever got through, I attempted to be a second line of defense, for a fee. Little did I know that later that day, someone would offer such a payment, and I would accept.
The article bugged me more than it should have because there was another, deeper story that appeared on page one of my consciousness. “West Indian Manner To Be Demoed,” scrolled across my mind’s vision in black and bold. A postcard photo of The Manner appeared below the heavy print.
The Manner was my home since Evelyn, my wife, had died. It had eighteen rooms on two upper floors. I had once told Lucy that the name of the guesthouse was spelled wrong. She’d laughed and said, “T’ink about it.” It sat on a hill overlooking downtown Charlotte Amalie, with thirty-six winding steps leading to the bar on the first floor. The first floor also housed the owner’s quarters and a small dining room. I had my regular seat in the bar, right at the corner, next to the bullet hole.
The Manner echoed the dream of everyone who came to live here. It provided food, drink, and a surrogate family for those who wanted to get away from their real one or didn’t have one at all. Guys like me. It echoed the spirit of the West Indies, hence the name. It wasn’t a manor, but a manner of living that it represented. It had become that for me these last years.
My inner article went on to tell how Payne & Wedgefield, a land-development corporation, intended to tear down the local landmark, built in 1799, and erect shiny office buildings at the base of Bluebeard’s Hill.
After hearing the Wedgefield agenda, I’d gone to see my local attorney-at-law, Alton Adams. Alton’s grandfather lived next to The Manner and had written the Virgin Islands’ National Anthem sixty-two years ago. He told me St. Thomas had no historic landmark protections. He told me that fighting Payne & Wedgefield would take big dollars, bigger dollars than I earned on a private investigator’s salary. He told me that despite being morally criminal, there was nothing I could do except make sure that all the bills were paid so Lucy and Marge could keep the place. I told him that I wished he’d stop telling me things.
A tangle of cirrus and cumulous clouds pelted with orange specks of sunlight filled the sky. I watched as a blonde with a sultry strut and an arch in her lower back sauntered through the hot sand, headed for a date with Danielle Steele, or some other smarmy romance in a remote corner of the bay. She didn’t look at me. They never did, and now even less as my gut pushed for the seven-month pregnancy look and my nappy, black beard crawled over my features like a virus. I touched my nose and wondered if it had broadened over the last couple years as well.
My 2000 Mustang, colored silver and dirt, waited for me on Airport Road. I got in and shut the door as a Cessna powered up on the runway. I rolled up my window and pulled out on the left side of the road. Driving on the left was one of the exotic things about St. Thomas. It caused tourists to get in a lot of accidents on our narrow and windy mountain roads, since they would fly down from the States and forget to follow our crazy traffic laws. When I had lived with Evelyn in Los Angeles for all those years, it was one of those things that I subtly missed and felt so welcoming when I returned, despite being mired in grief.
I got back to my room at The Manner. Marge yelled, “Afta-noon,” as I passed the bar on the way up to my room. Marge and Lucy had run the place for as long as I’d been living there and then some. As I reached the top of the creaking stairway, Marge poked her head out of the saloon style door. “Ay, Boise, what’s da word on dat lady came to see you earlier?”
“Da lady. She was here two hours ago?”
“I wasn’t here.”
“I know. I told her she could check for you in room two, but dat I didn’t see you come back yet,” said Marge as she wiped a brown lock out of her face.
“And?” I grunted.
“An’ notin’. She went up, come down, and leave.”
“You didn’t get her name?”
“Do I look like your secretary? I don’t mind you being a dick out of my guest house beca’ you have a sexy walk and you pay and spend dollas at da bar, but I’m not facilitatin’ your career heah.”
“No, no you’re not,” I replied with open sarcasm.
“So, who is she? You finally seein’ a woman?” Marge often teased me about having no love life. It was her way of getting me out of my funk. It hadn’t worked.
“I’m saving myself for you, doll.” I continued up the stairs and down the wooden hall to door number two.
Who the hell was bothering me now? If it was paying work, good. If it was a broad, she probably wanted me to tail her cheating husband so she could skydive out of their failing marriage in a golden parachute. These women married these numbskulls for the money, and then blamed the guy when he didn’t feel the love and wound up cheating with his secretary, who also wanted his money. Ah, the circle of life. My career path had done nothing to improve my desire to go out with the opposite sex. Getting laid seemed to lead to getting dead or at least having your life slowly strangled out of you over a miserable thirty-year marriage of deception.
I scanned my room and made a cursory check for recording devices in the usual places. No one cared to listen to my exciting existence of tv dinners and alcohol, but old habits refused to let go of me in this way. I had trained for counterintelligence in the army, then backed out, but the stuff they taught me had made me see the world suspiciously. I looked out the window and up Dronnigens Gade, the main street. Cars lined the street as far as I could see. I could walk into the center of downtown in ten minutes. Office buildings rose across our tiny street, gleaming like pillars of salt on a tropical morning. Someone knocked on my door.
“Yeah?” I called.
“Can I come in?” Marge asked.
She entered; worry seeping down her dark cheeks like gravity. I frowned at her.
“Dat friggin’ developa call jus’ now. He say he getting tired of askin’ me to sell dis heah place. He say he t’ink taxes on dis place goin’ up soon. Boise, I can’t afford no more taxes from dis heah gova’ment. I already one mont’ behin’ on da note. Lucy and I need some help.”
“You need money?”
“Or some way to get dis man, Cavenaugh, off our backs.”
Cavenaugh worked for Payne and Wedgefield.
“I’m working on it, hon. Tell Lucy, I’m working on it. You get any more info on these guys that ties them to our beloved governor, send it my way. I know they contributed to his campaign the max allowed, but that’s not illegal. We need more,” I said.
“That’s your job, Boise. You da investigata’, not me.” She started to cry. “Sorry, sorry. I sorry we can’t pay you.”
“Keeping this place open and my room covers it.”
“If we get trou’ dis, your room covered for a while, I promise.”
“That’s no way to run a business, Marge,” I said.
She smiled through her tears. “It’s da bata system. An exchange of goods and services.”
“Okay,” I said.
She left and I cursed. I cursed the corrupt nature of government where good men were held in inferior positions while Machiavellian sociopaths rose to the top. I opened the Payne and Wedgefield file that sat in the middle drawer of my desk. It was light because despite being major land developers in Tortolla, St. Barths, and St. Maarten, I had found little information of substance on them aside from deals done and in development and propaganda. I did know that the president of Payne and Wedgefield was a fellow named Cecil Moutang who hailed from Brazil. He had made a fortune starting and selling a travel website before the crash of 2001 and had cashed out millions. In the intervening years, he had purchased Payne from a British conglomerate and had used its existing presence in the Caribbean to parlay those millions into billions. He now had “buy your own island” money. He had done just that and according to business journals, had an eye for real estate and a penchant for raising Dobermans.
Payne’s lower-downs looked squeaky clean, with legit backgrounds in real estate from different parts of the U.S., Europe, and East Asia. I could not fathom their interest in sleepy little St. Thomas, and the West Indian Manner in particular. I had gone and looked at some of the office buildings Payne had put up around the island. They stank of a sterility I’d last experienced when tracking a felon to Orlando, Florida. The spotless streets and obsessively planned manner of the entire city felt inhuman. I had once heard that Walt Disney even had his workers scrape the gum off the sidewalks at Disney World. All function, no heart. The military was like that, but it served a distinct and vital agenda. Perhaps Payne served such an agenda as well. Problem was, although I loved the ladies and this place was my home, a recession had hit and tourist places, like St. T., took it right on the chin. I had to keep fighting to eat and live, which meant paying gigs still took priority. There was another knock at the door.
A sultry voice wafted under and around the door. “Mr. Montague?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Mr. Montague, may I come in?”
I looked through the peep. Even in the convex distortion, her proportions impressed me. Black hair, straight as moonlight and slightly Asian features on a curvy frame, did nothing to relax me.
“That depends,” I said.
“On?” Her sentences were getting shorter. I liked that.
I opened the door. My face betrayed my thoughts.
“I see you read the paper,” she said. She held out a manicured, but used hand. “I am Thibodaux Jackson’s widow.”
I shook her hand. “Hello, Anastasia.”
“If you like, you may call me Asia, like the continent.”
“What brings you to my doorstep, Asia?” I asked.
“I want my husband’s murder solved.”
I thought then that I was not Humphrey Bogart and prayed Asia wasn’t the latest incarnation of Veronica Lake come to lay waste to my wasted life.
“May I smoke?” She asked.
The cliché deepened. I nodded. I felt sterile because I had nothing to light her Virginia Slim with. After she lit up, I realized that Humphrey would have taken her light and still managed. The stuff that worked in those movies never flew in my office-apartment.
“Do you have something to start?” I said. She smiled and pulled out ten franklins.
“Will that cover your initial expenses?”
“I was referring to information. Leads. We can do this first. This’ll cover if I don’t have to take LIAT.”
“What’s that?” She said.
“The local inter-island airline. Stands for leave island anytime.” I replied.
I explained my rate and that I got a 10% bonus for complete resolution of the crime.
“Is there any such thing?” She questioned.
I said I was glad she could quip about Thibodaux’s demise. “Now, do you have any leads or things to tell me so that I can spend less of your money paying my snitches for info?”
“I only know his life at home, in our New Orleans, with two daughters and a devoted, but imperfect wife.”
I explained that I might discover unsavory things in working toward the killer. If she wanted to know all of these things, I could tell her in my weekly report. If she didn’t want the gory details, I could keep the detailed notes to myself and send her a sanitized version. She elected ignorance. It surprised me that someone would travel fifteen hundred miles to remain ignorant, but I respected her desires.
“How’d you hear about me?”
“I pay enough for that ad. Good.” I said.
I did a twenty-minute interview for background then cut her loose. She left her number at Frenchman’s Reef, a big hotel on a southern point, east of downtown. As she walked out, she said, “I’ll stay on island for 2 weeks and then return as necessary if you haven’t, what do you say, ‘broken the case,’ by then.”
She had a lilting Southern drawl. I wanted to know what her two elementary school daughters would do with a dead father and a mother who would leave for two weeks without them. I immediately called Tommy Scarpetti, a native who wanted to be Italian. He had legally changed his name at the age of 18. His knowledge of Italian culture and customs all came from Coppola and Scorsese movies.
“Tommy, we need to talk about that sailor.”
“You got moula?” I told him yes. “See you at Backstreet Pizza in twenty.”
I walked into the warm pizzeria, nodded to Charlie, the owner, and headed to the back where Tommy already sat at his favorite red and white checked table.
“What’s up?” He said, taking my hand in his and kissing my cheek.
“What do you have for me, Tommy?”
“What’s the hurry, Boise? Have a slice and a smile. Livin’ in L.A. made you uptight.”
Tommy liked the European traditions of slow, easy meals, even when doing business. I did not.
“Tommy, I don’t mean no disrespect, but I need some skinny or my employer won’t be pleased.” I liked to play the disgruntled American employer card when in a hurry so as not to insult Tommy’s leisurely lifestyle.
“Deez Americans, always in a hurry. First my fee, plus an extra fifty for overnight delivery.”
“The post office just raised rates again, huh?” I gave him the money.
“Word on da street is, and you ain’t gonna like dis, it happened in Tutu.”
“The paper said he was in Frenchtown. How the hell did he wind up all the way in Tutu?” I asked.
“I don’t write da paper. They let dat out ‘cause, if da govena sees more incidents in Tutu, Peterson’s gonna kill him in da next election. Frankie took and dumped da body in da Frenchies’ laps so his ghetto gets left alone. The rub is dis: if you want what really gone down, go see Frankie. He knows, guaranteed.” He finished as a large pepperoni pizza arrived. “I know it’s not really Italian, but damn, I love pizza. Take a slice to go.”
I got up. The meeting was over. On my way out the door, my stomach tightened. I took a bottle of Pepcid out of my pocket and popped one. Halfway down Backstreet, I gave the slice to a wino who accepted it without a word. I was going to have to make a trek out to the east end and visit my ex-friend, Francis “Frankie” Floyd Peterson, on his turf. I didn’t like my odds of getting what I needed. I like my odds of getting my ass kicked a lot more.
I headed for Tutu, the largest ghetto area on the island. As I neared the community, I could smell the desperation hanging in the air. Frankie organized things by taking a piece of non-violent crimes and reducing chaotic violence that served no purpose with his “watchmen,” a virtual police force of his own. I assumed that the sailor’s murder was unsanctioned by Frankie, or he would have disposed of the body more carefully. He would not be happy about the heat from the navy that it potentially brought upon his fiefdom. I planned to play on his anger at my own peril.
I arrived a Frankie’s place at eight that night. The club had just opened. Three prostitutes loitered out front, no doubt on Frankie’s payroll. Few did business in Tutu, legitimate or not, without giving alms to Frankie. He had started in his youth as a thug with a catchy saying. He’d charge the locals for protection. If someone got out of line, usually burglars without his blessing, Frankie would break the guy’s ribs. He’d then stretch a condom over the perp’s head and drop the custom made package that the prophylactic came in on the offender’s chest. It said, “Frankie’s: Ribbed for Your Protection.” He’d leave an unopened one for the business owner to show that the thief had been dealt with accordingly and would not be coming back. Those Frankie ribbed never told the police because they were criminals already and knew Frankie would make sure evidence of their crimes got back to the authorities should any charges be brought. As a result, few outside of Tutu, especially the police, knew about Frankie’s calling card condom. The only reason I knew was that I had worked a case for on a child support dodger in Tutu, who got ribbed. His wife spilled it during an argument they had in front of me when I finally found the bum. The compiled dirt you gathered from years on the street was often priceless in breaking a case.
I knocked on the speak-easy style door. A rectangular hole slid open, revealing two black eyes.
“To see Frankie.”
“Wait.” The eyes disappeared.
Moments later, the door opened. A truck-shaped West Indian frisked me. I knew the procedure and had left my piece in the car.
“Mista Petason will see you.”
He led me down a long hallway to a door marked “Private.” I entered. He shut it, then knocked me out.
I came to, tied to a chair in the same room. It reminded me of a police interrogation room, complete with one-way glass on my right and a blinding fluorescent in my face. Frankie stood in front of me. I could hear two gorillas breathing behind my chair, ready to do their duty at Frankie’s behest.
“So, Boise, wha' bring you out to me dis fine Tuesday?”
“Hey, Frankie, sorry to show up unannounced.” I said, controlling my breathing. “I would have called, but I know you hate to talk on the phone.”
He smiled. “My door is always open to old friends.”
His anger had already presented, so I barreled forward, “You got anything for me on the Thibodaux murder?”
He stared at me a long breath. “Have you had a broken rib, Boise?”
“Good, den I don’t haf to describe da pain of breedin’ and movin’ dat come wit it.” He looked at one of his henchmen, “Irie.”
I could tell I had ruined some of his prepared speech on the pain he’d inflict on me to pull my terror into a fever pitch.
“Den le’s get on wit it,” he said.
“Wait!” I yelled, as he pulled out a small bat used on fishing boats for knocking thrashing marlins and sharks unconscious once on deck. “I don’t plan to tell anyone about that. I am not trying to piss you off or disrespect your community. I’m sure you want this killer too because if I know it happened here, it’s only a matter of time before a naval investigator comes knocking. Are you gonna rib him too? If I catch this guy, the heat’s off Tutu, and you can get back to business as usual.” I stopped and waited for his response.
“Wat happened to your accent, Boise? You sound like a whitey from da states.” I said nothing. “Go on,” he said, still gripping the weapon.
“I was hired to find the sailor’s killer. That’s all I want. I know you love this island. Losing all that navy business will affect everyone, even out here. Those ladies out front probably make a killing every time sailors with an appetite for discretion show up out here; so don’t tell me you want this guy to walk. I’m not a cop, never was. I can fix this and keep the Normadie angle intact for the police or make it so they know you had nothing to do with it if it comes out that it happened here.”
When I finished, smoke hung in the air from a still burning cigarette in a glass ashtray. Frankie picked it up now and dragged. “All right, boy-z, maybe you da mon to fix dis problem. Two t’ings. One, I don’ want dem police snoopin’ aroun’ my club. Minimal involvement for Tutu.”
“I told you I’d fix…” I regretted interrupting him before I finished the sentence.
“Damu,” was all Frankie said.
One of his “watchmen” punched me hard in the gut. I tried to straighten and could still see a balled fist in front of my face with a giant sapphire set in gold on the henchman’s ring finger. I gasped for air. He was about to punch me again.
Frankie continued, “Wait.” The thug stopped. All I saw was a glimpse of a scar on his neck and his dreads dangling before he returned to his place behind my chair. “Secon’, I can provide you wit access to da company responsible, but to find the instrument, you’ll have to do some diggin’. If you get da killa, good, but if you get dem, betta.”
I finally lifted my head. I started to speak, then needed another gulp of air. “Are you suggesting solicitation?” I didn’t say any more, but his silence confirmed my suspicion. “Who?”
“Payne and Wedgefield,” he replied. “I don’ have more, but I wan’ dat developa out of my community. I like t’ings how dey is. Dey kill people and our land devalue so dey can buy it up cheap. I don’ have my protection customas no more. I’s bad for business.”
I couldn’t believe my ears or my luck. Ultimately, it didn’t change the task at hand, finding the instrument of death. I could worry about pinning conspiracy and solicitation on Payne and Wedgefield later. What I could do, was use them to get the killer.
Frankie gave me their addresses and some photos of the body. I asked him why they took these and he explained that he tried to keep a record of all killings on his turf. I guessed that he also used photos of dead people to scare the wits out of any uncooperative folks he dealt with. He still hadn’t untied me.
“What else?” I asked.
“Tell me anyway.”
“You owe me.” He grinned like a vampire at a blood bank, “Big. Now, ge’ da hell out of my establishment before I break you in half.”
They untied me and I left. In the car, I popped a couple of aspirins as I wound back toward the Manner. It had been a long night and it wasn’t even ten. Lucy stood behind the bar. A pirate-looking man in his fifties who stank of whiskey was sitting in my seat. I let it go.
“I didn’t know you’d be here or I would have saved your seat,” Lucy said as she threw a napkin on the bar and fixed my rum and coke. I pulled a bowl of peanuts over, had a seat, and ordered a burger. I had two more drinks before heading upstairs. I was asleep in two minutes.
I walked down to see Marge the next morning and get any messages. “A woman called. Is it that same one who was here yesterday? She seems like trouble.”
“You all seem like trouble, Marge,” I replied.
Marge knew not to ring my room before ten, ever. I read the note. It was Thibodaux’s widow. I called the number. She didn’t waste time.
Have you got something and do you need more money, were her only questions. I said no and no, but I’d let her know. I asked her if she’d heard of Payne and Wedgefield and she said no. I gave her the “these things take time, be patient” lecture and hung up.
I kept thinking about catching a big bunch of crooks like Payne and Wedgefield for conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation, but realized that for now, they were simply a means to catching the actual doer. That person was what the police, the navy, and the widow would want. With more time and some leverage, we could get to the bigger fish. Catching the murderer was my job right now.
I tried to think like Payne and Wedgefield. Who would a huge company hire to kill someone and leave no trace? Were they involved with the other dead navy personnel? I contacted a couple of other lowlifes who sold me info, but got nothing fresh. From all reports, it appeared that Frankie Floyd was being righteous with me on this one. I took the address he had given me for Payne and Wedgefield’s offices and headed over there.
Their office was across the street from Nisky Center, where there had once been a convenience store and a KFC, before Payne bought the place. I was beginning to think this company wanted to make St. Thomas one giant office building.
I walked out of the mid-afternoon heat, into a blast of air conditioning. The receptionist greeted me with a smile.
“How may I help you?”
“Let me count the ways,” I said. She laughed a fake laugh she no doubt learned in secretarial school. “I’d like to talk to someone about selling my property.”
“I’ll get someone for you. Please have a seat.” She motioned to a cushy chair.
I took a sucker out of a crystal dish on her desk and sat in the proffered seat. The lollipop always made me feel like Kojack, my idol from the detective world. I figured that a local boy who wanted to sell his inherited, but dilapidated two-acre plot, would get their attention. She returned and sat back down at her desk.
“They’ll come get you shortly.” She said.
After ten minutes, another attractive woman led me into the elevator, used a key to start it, and took me upstairs. When I got to an office, the company representative introduced himself as Mr. Cavenaugh. After discussing my beleaguered financial state, which was not terribly far from the truth, he made an offer for my property on St. Peter Mountain. It was below market, but the swiftness and surety with which it was presented made me realize how serious these guys were about taking over. As casually as I could, I asked why Payne and Wedgefield had so much interest in little, old St. Thomas.
“It’s a beautiful island that is central to our Caribbean operations.” A canned response delivered with practiced ease in his British accent. All four corners of the room featured ceiling-housed motion detectors. I had also seen small black globes in the hallways and downstairs that housed security cameras.
“I’m just a local citizen who’s concerned that my property will be used to make my island uglier. What would you put up there?” I questioned.
“A beautiful property like yours on the mountainside deserves houses or a nice hotel with class. That said, I don’t make the call. I wear the acquisition hat around here.”
I stood up and extended my hand. “Thanks for the offer. I’ll think it over and get back if I’m interested.”
He handed me his business card and we shook. “You are welcome to counter. We like to negotiate.” I looked at his business card.
“I don’t, Tod, but if I get desperate enough, I’ll call, or maybe my lawyer will call.” I headed toward the door, then turned back. “Just out of curiosity, who does the development after acquisition?”
“Mr. Moutang handles those decisions personally. He’s our president.” Cavanaugh said.
“Are you trying to acquire that guest house on Bluebeard’s Hill?” I asked.
“I’m not sure which one you’re talking about. We are trying to acquire numerous properties island-wide at this time.”
“This one has a name. The West Indian Manner.” I said.
“Oh, The Manner?”
I nodded stupidly at his question. “Right, The Manner. That house has been there since I was a kid.”
“No doubt, it was built in 1799. Yes, we are interested in that property. Why do you ask?”
“I’m friends with Lucy, one of the owners and she mentioned that you were interested, but wasn’t sure you were still trying. I spoke to her a while ago about it,” I said.
I had gotten my wish, to see their security. It was out of my league. As I exited the building, I saw a large man in the parking lot across the street with dread locks, who seemed familiar. I looked at him a long moment, but could not place his face. He glanced at me, then went into a bait and tackle shop in Nisky. Maybe he was a bouncer at one of the clubs. I thought I saw a flicker of recognition on his face that moved like the shadow of a cloud you see from a plane on a green field. I dismissed it and returned to my thoughts. It would take at least two pros and a lookout to break into these offices. Bringing others in on something like this was not smart. These guys were big-time and in a lot of pockets. However, the information age was on my side. I could outsource this job so none of my local contacts knew anything. I decided to begin by hacking into their computer systems to see if I could get a name or location where I could begin my search for the killer. An outfit like Payne and Wedgefield must have everything computerized to operate internationally. I had a trusted computer infiltrator in the Pacific Northwest who I called Willow. He called me Steve, and we left it at that. We had worked together on dozens of jobs. Distance and anonymity made us both feel secure in our relationship.
I had had a special encrypted email program downloaded to my cell that we used to communicate. In addition, this geek insisted on scrambling my brain further by using coded messages and burying the meaning in stories. Sometimes it took me hours between the encryption and the long story with the info embedded to decipher what he had for me. If he got real spooked on a job, he’d put a personal ad in the Daily News with a password in bold that I’d need to open the file. He seemed like the guy for this job.
I emailed him and he replied within seconds that he was free and would start the hack, which he sounded giddy about, searching for correspondence about the island and the sailor in question. I told him to also check their bank statements for a payout of about $20,000, give or take ten grand, around the date of the murder. He replied that I should check my messages in about eighteen hours. That left me with nothing to do but old-fashioned snooping. I realized that I had two options for my next move. I could go back out to the original crime scene in Tutu, or I could head to Sub-Base and view the body with the widow. Since going to Tutu involved another potential run-in with Frankie Floyd, I opted for the cowardly choice: viewing the body.
After I explained to the widow that I’d need her approval to view Thibodaux’s body, she agreed to meet me at the morgue. I quickly realized that sometimes, being a coward paid off.
Blazer, the coroner, led us back to view the body. We were the only ones there at lunchtime.
“I really shouldn’t be showing you this without approval from downtown, Boise, even with the broad here.” Blazer said.
“Look, Blazer, she just wants to see him before he…you know.”
He nodded and pulled the drawer out then uncovered Thibodaux’s corpse.
“Did you find anything?” I asked.
“Of course, it was a murder. Look, I can’t talk about the case with you. I like you, but I can’t do any more than show you the body, so long as you are out of here in twenty minutes. I’ll be over there.” He pointed to a table across the room with another body on it. “Have a look, then leave. Okay?”
I agreed and he walked away. Asia came in, closer.
“Are you sure you want to see this?” I asked.
“It’s fine, I can handle it,” she replied. After a moment, she sucked in a breath, put her hands over her eyes, and walked back out to the waiting area. “I’ll be out here,” she whispered as the door closed.
There were bruises around his mid-section as if someone had punched him.
“Are his ribs broken?” I yelled to Blazer.
He ran over. “Don’t yell in here. What?”
“Are his ribs broken?”
“Was there anything else?”
“What do you mean, besides the gunshot wounds that killed him?” Blazer said.
He peered around conspiratorially. “This stays out of the paper and off the record. I will deny ever talking to you; understand? There was a condom wrapper and a condom pulled over his head.”
“What about these?” I pointed at some hexagonal shapes in his gut.
“Looks like the pugilist wore a ring,” he replied.
“Thanks.” I headed out the door. “Let’s go,” I said to Asia.
She asked me what I’d found. I explained that it was better for now that she not have too much information, only that she know that I believed that a man named Frankie Floyd Peterson was involved. If anything should happen to me, she should leave St. Thomas and call the police anonymously with that information. She agreed and wished me luck as she got out at her hotel.
I headed for Tutu. Something wasn’t right. If Frankie was responsible for Thibodaux’s death, why let me go? Why turn me on to Payne and Wedgefield like that? Eventually, the police would find out about Frankie’s signature and go for him. Why would he telegraph it like that?
I pulled over and checked my email messages to see if Willow had come up with anything on the hack. There was one message from him. It said that the bank records were devoid of anything around the date of death in large denominations. Unfortunately, it had only been three hours, so I’d have to be patient. I considered going home and waiting for more information, but it was doubtful anything more substantial would come my way soon. That’s when I noticed it. Someone was behind me on Skyline Drive, coming up fast. Too fast. I tried to put my car back in gear too late. The car hit me on the edge of the passenger side in the rear. My car slid into the hillside, pinning my driver’s door against the wall. The door to the Chevy opened and the guy with the dreads who I’d seen at Nisky Center going into the bait shop leveled a pistol on me.
“Ge’ out.” He said.
I slowly unbuckled my seatbelt, slid across the seat and stood up.
I raised my arms. He patted me down and took my piece.
As we turned to go, the sunlight caught a ring on his right hand. A huge sapphire gleamed in a gold setting.
“Nice ring. Is it a hexagon?” I said. I got no response. “You taking me to Frankie?”
He said, “You drive,” and shoved me into the Chevy. “Don’ go ova twenty-five. I don’ want attention.”
He kept the gun trained on me, but low so no one would see it.
“You know, punching me, then messing up my ‘stang, might make me start thinking you have some personal grudge against me.”
“Shut up,” he growled through clenched teeth. He pulled out a cell phone. “It’s me. I have him. What do you want me to do?” He listened for a few seconds, then hung up.
“You’re going to take the fall for Frankie, you know that right? Is it worth it?”
“You don’ know anyt’ing, da man. Shut up and drive to Tutu. I know a nice spot.”
The sun sank low in the sky, but the heat still hung like mist in the air.
“Can we open a window? It stinks in here,” I said, hoping to get him talking again.
“No. Turn left. Den right.”
I saw that we were entering a housing development just east of Tutu, going towards Red Hook. Most of the lots were still vacant or partially completed. The street we were on, ended in a cul-de-sac, with a completed home that probably served as a model, at the end.
“Park at da en’,” he directed.
I pulled to a stop in front of the completed home. We got out. It was quiet, with only distant sounds of traffic to the west. He threw me some keys. “Open da door.”
I opened the door to the house and went in. I was alone out here without a friend in the world.
“Frankie doesn’t want any more blood in Tutu, huh? Still, this is a little close for comfort, isn’t it?”
“Don’ worry, when I done, you be back in Tutu, mon. Now, sit in dat chair ova dere.” He said.
I sat. Frankie had played me. It still didn’t make any sense that he’d leave the condom for me to find and for the police to eventually figure out. It still nagged me.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
He ignored me. He gave me rope and told me to tie my legs to the chair. When I finished, he put my arms behind me and used handcuffs for them. Behind him, through a large window, I saw movement in the yard. Darkness had taken over the world for the most part, but a small bit of daylight told me that someone was out there. Suddenly, the door burst open, just as my captor completed checking that my feet were securely bound. He spun around to face the noise.
Frankie stood there with four of his posse. All of them had shotguns, except Frankie, who brandished a Beretta 9 millimeter he had colored ice, gold, and green, the colors of Africa.
“Damu, w’a da hell are you doin’?” Frankie yelled.
“Frankie. Frankie. Wha’ you doin’ here?” Damu answered.
“Put down dat gun, Damu.” Damu hesitated.
“Frankie, I was goin’ to call you. Dis man was goin’ to tell dem dat you killed da white sailor. I wanted to take care of it for you, boss.” He still brandished the gun, which was now pointed at me.
“How the hell do you know that, Damu? I never told you that.” I said.
“Shut up, Boise, before I break your ribs.” Frankie turned his attention back to Damu. “I send’ you to do one simple job. I extend my hand in trust by givin’ you somet’ing important to do. You were da las’ one wit’ da body afta I gave it to you to dump in Frenchtown.” He raised his Beretta in rage. “Explain how dis got on dat sailor’s body!” One of Frankie’s watchmen threw a condom at Damu, who swung his gun around and fired at the watchman who had thrown the condom.
At that moment, I threw myself over so that the bottom of my chair faced Frankie’s men, acting as a flimsy, wooden shield for me. Frankie and the other watchmen unloaded into Damu, pelting him with shrapnel. Damu fell backward, arms raised, landing with the small of his back over the seat of my chair, a perfect arch over me. I could hear him wheezing on top of me. Warm liquid ran down my left shoulder.
Frankie ran up to Damu. He leaned over his dying soldier.
“Why, Damu. Why you frame me? I treated you like a son,” said Frankie with genuine pain in his normally controlled voice.
I felt Damu struggling to talk as he lay on top of me.
“Frankie, you taught me, always take da money. I tell dem, I wan’ Tutu. Dey say, if I frame you…” he spat some blood, then continued, “…I get Tutu.” With that, I felt dead weight resting on me as the life left Damu’s large body.
Frankie told me that Damu meant blood, leadership, and strength in Swahili. He gave his men African names of honor when they reached the highest level of watchmen status. I asked him what he was going to do about the navy and police who would come looking for him soon. He said he’d figure something out, and that it was none of my damn business anymore.
I told Asia that her husband’s killer was dead.
“Did you kill him,” she asked hopefully.
“No. Actually, he almost killed me, then an enemy of mine saved me.”
“Do I owe you the extra 10% for complete resolution of my case?” She asked.
I looked back sadly. “Is there any such thing?”