Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Moby Dick In A Can

Here it is, folks. The Big Blog Event! All those people I mentioned in my teaser post yesterday have written a short story that will be posted on their blog today. The set-up involved writing a story in which a character had something in the trunk of his car and he was pulled over by the police. That was it. I can hardly wait to read all the stories. I'll link directly to the stories sometime today or tomorrow. Enjoy.

“Moby Dick In A Can”


Robert W. Tinsley

I know there’s a good reason for me being in the trunk of this car. Me, Jack Brady, all 6'4" and 280 pounds of me, boss of Brady Investigations, stuffed into the trunk of an antique Cadillac. If Johnny Soto ever finds out about this, I'll be the laughing stock of the town. And given the current state of El Paso politics, that's saying something.

* * *

"It's the only way, Boss." Kathleen Sanchez, my sec . . . my assistant was having way too much fun with this. "Fredo set the meet up for Scenic Drive Park tonight. You'd have to be Batman to hide out up there and still get to me in time if I needed help."

"I will not fit inside the trunk of your car," I said.

But I knew she was right. Scenic Drive Park perches on the south end of Mount Franklin. The Drive itself clings to the side of the mountain as it winds around the tip. There it widens out enough to allow parking for about two-dozen cars. You can walk out onto a narrow promontory, which gives you a pretty spectacular view of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. There is no place to hide. The only way to cover Kathleen was to be in the trunk of her car. The trouble was, there was no way I could fit.

"Don't worry, Boss. I'm going to borrow my friend's car. He's got a 1959 Cadillac Sedan DeVille convertible, midnight blue, in cherry condition. It's got the largest trunk ever built for an American car. He's installing the cameras under the dash and in the backseat now. You'll be able to see and hear everything."

"A '59 Caddy convertible? You don't know the meaning of the word inconspicuous, do you?"

"I suppose I could get something that would blend better. But it would be smaller."

I shuddered.

"Besides," said Kathleen, "you said I could take the lead on this one, and I think the Caddy fits my new persona."

Kathleen on her worst day makes modeling agency scouts stop in their tracks and start salivating. Today, in the new persona, she'd make a Bishop take a second look. Her shoes had four-inch spike heels, Bruno Magnus, or something like that. She now stood tall enough to look me straight in the eye. Her skirt was a plaid, pleated number that looked like someone had raided a parochial school clothing store and then gone mad with a pair of scissors, leaving an amazing expanse of well-turned leg exposed to view. A blood-red blouse had the same effect on her upper body. Kathleen’s normal head of glowing black hair hid under a dark auburn wig in a cut like Uma Thurman's in the dance scene of Pulp Fiction. That, along with a couple of makeup tricks that were a complete mystery to me, transformed her into the type of woman one might just see in a midnight blue '59 Caddy convertible.

"All right," I said. I just couldn't get the image of whale being squeezed into a sardine can out of my mind. "I'll go along with this on one condition."

"Anything, Boss."

I put on my most threatening expression; one I’d used to turn SEAL trainees into quivering jellyfish. Kathleen didn't bat an eye. She was pretty much immune having spent two tours in the Navy as a Master at Arms, a member of the Navy's police force.

"Under no circumstances must Johnny Soto be allowed to find out about this."

Johnny Soto is the lieutenant in charge of the El Paso Police Department's Crimes Against Persons division. We've been friends for a long time. I've always teased him about his moustache, a Zapatista type that he continually fiddles with. I tell him that it makes him look like Snidely Whiplash, the villain from the old Dudley Do-Right cartoons.

So far he's not been able to come up with anything comparable on me. But the whale-in-the-can image keeps coming back, and I know it's just the sort of thing he could use. So he's not going to find out about it.

"My lips are sealed," said Kathleen, drawing her fingers across an idiotic grin.

* * *

This whole abortion started two days ago when we were contacted by an investigator for Rogers and Heath Surety, a moderately sized insurance agency. The investigator, Harold Dent, a man so indescript he could disappear in an empty room, filled me in on the problem.

"My company specializes in insuring collectors of various sorts, antiques, paintings, coins, that sort of thing. Recently a number of our clients have been burgled."

"How many?" I asked.

"Four to date in various parts of the country. It seems like the burglars got hold of our client list and started hitting them. The only saving grace is that the thieves have always contacted us to sell the items back. This has saved us an enormous amount of money, but so far we are out $350,000."

"That's turning into serious money."

"It is, and we're tired of it. So far we've acceded to the thieves' demands that the bills be unmarked and that no attempt be made to follow the pick-up man. No more.

"This last theft, from a client here in El Paso, involved a chess set with silver and gold pieces inset with precious stones. The set, housed in a carved teak box, is valued at $250,000. The thieves are asking for $75,000. We're going to give it to them, but the money is going to be marked and the bag will contain a GPS tracker. We're hoping that they have been lulled into a sense of security and won't check this time.

"We want you to handle the exchange and to film it. We have insisted that one of the principals of the burglary gang make the exchange in each case. Every time it has been the same man. He calls himself Fredo, an Hispanic male, mid-thirties, a crescent-shaped scar on the end of his nose. This time we want hard evidence to put these guys out of business."

"All right, Mr. Dent. Do you want me to follow up on the GPS signals?"

"No, Mr. Brady, our own personnel will do that. We just want a front man that Fredo will know is local. He's insisted on that every time. Once you make the handoff, your job is done."

"Sounds easy enough. What's my fee?"

"One percent of the declared value, assuming you get it back. If you don't have the recording equipment already, we'll supply it to you. All the previous exchanges have been done in cars at night, so the equipment will have to be small and have ultra-low-light capabilities."

"I have the equipment I need. It looks like we have a deal, Mr. Dent." I stood up and shook his hand. "Why don't you step out into the front office. Kathleen will take care of the paperwork and get your contact numbers."

* * *

So, here I am. Parked on a lovely April night in a convertible with a beautiful woman. Unfortunately the beautiful woman is in the front seat, and I'm stuffed into the trunk.

It wasn't too bad back here, but it wasn't particularly good either. I lay on my left side facing the rear of the car with a pillow supporting my head. The two low-light cameras fed a small LCD split-screen monitor with two Sony mini video recorders. I could hear everything within 10 yards of the car and could talk to Kathleen through an earplug hidden under her wig.

Kathleen's friend had done a good job concealing the cameras. He'd also installed a handle on the trunk latch that I could use to open it.

We'd been sitting in the parking area of Scenic Drive Park for about fifteen minutes. My left shoulder was starting to go numb, and I was shifting around trying to put a different spot on my shoulder against the metal.

"Boss?" Kathleen's voice came through the plug in my ear. "What the hell are you doing? I feel like I'm in the middle of an earthquake. If Fredo comes while you're break dancing back there he'll know something's up."

"Don't get your knickers in a knot," I said. "I've gotta get circulation going again. Just remember, this was your idea." I could have sworn I heard her giggle.

"Boss, we've got a bite."

I saw on the monitor Kathleen turning to the passenger side of the car. The backseat camera showed a man stop next to the Caddy.

"Hi," said the man. "Nice car." He ran his hand along the top of the door, caressing it.

"Yes, it is," said Kathleen.

The guy's hands were empty.

"A beautiful car for a beautiful woman. My name's Roberto. What's yours?"

For crying out loud! The guy was trying to pick her up.

"Nona," said Kathleen.


"Nona your business. Now beat it."

"Aw, come on. I can be a lotta fun." The guy put his elbows on the door and leaned in.

"You look like a nice enough guy," said Kathleen, "but if you don't haul ass out of here I'm going to cut off your balls and feed them to you a slice at a time. Do I make myself clear?" To emphasize her point she pulled out a Benchmade automatic knife, what they used to call a switchblade, and flicked it open. It made an impressive sound.

The guy straightened up like he'd been hit with a cattle prod. "Hey, no offense lady. Geez, just trying to be friendly."

He backed out of range of the camera, and Kathleen folded up her pig-sticker.

Another half-hour passed with no action. Fredo had said he could show up anytime within a two-hour window, so we still had a while to wait. I was getting increasingly uncomfortable.

Suddenly some skinny kid vaulted over the passenger door into the seat. I saw a gun in his hand.
Shit! This kid wasn't Fredo. He was a stick-up artist.

"Give me your purse. Now."

Kathleen held her purse between her and the kid. I was about to pop the trunk, Fredo or no Fredo.

The kid reached for her purse, and she went into action. She tossed the bag onto the dashboard. The kid's eyes followed the bag allowing Kathleen to grab the gun. She twisted it hard. I heard the snap of the kid's trigger finger breaking quite clearly over Kathleen's mic.

The kid screamed, fell out of the car and scrambled out of sight. I heard a car door slam, then a car pulling out of the parking area in a hurry.

"Did that attract a lot of attention, Kathleen?"

"Some of the people out on the point looked around, but they don't seem agitated. No one's in any of the other cars parked here. Looks like we're still in business."

"Good. Let's just hope there aren't any more cut-rate Lotharios out there. I'm starting to get cramps. Much longer and you're going to have to use an engine lift to get me out of here."

We settled in for another wait, but it wasn't five minutes before a car pulled into the lot and another man approached the car. He stood off a ways, just at the limit of the back seat camera's field of view.

"My name's Fredo. I'd come closer, but I saw what happened to the last two guys that tried that."

"Hi, Fredo. My name's Nona. Get in."

Fredo approached the car and opened the passenger door. As he got in I could see that he carried a dark cloth bag with something rectangular inside.

"That the set?" asked Kathleen.

"It is. You got the money?"

Kathleen reached over the back of her seat and pulled up a briefcase. "You show me yours, and I'll show you mine," she said.

Fredo smiled and opened the bag. He took out a carved box and opened it.

Kathleen opened the briefcase.

Fredo nodded, and they exchanged items.

I couldn't see into the box, but Kathleen pulled out a couple of chess pieces and examined them with a lighted magnifying glass. Fredo pulled out a couple of packs of bills and flipped through them.

"I'm satisfied," said Fredo. "How about you?"

Kathleen put the pieces back in the box and closed it. "Looks good to me," she said.

Fredo got out and closed the door softly. "Very nice car. It's been a pleasure doing business with you."

With that, he walked out of camera range. I heard a car door close and the crunch of gravel as he drove away.

"Done deal, Boss. Everything looks good. You want out of the trunk now?"

"Yes, I want out of the trunk now. But this isn't the time or the place. Fredo was watching you before. He could still be watching. Let's get out of here."

"Aye, aye, Boss" Kathleen started the car and backed out of the parking area. She started driving west on Scenic Drive. We were only about ten minutes from the office.

It was going to be a long ten minutes. I had gotten to know every lump and bump in that trunk intimately. It was like getting to know your in-laws. The more you were around them, the more irritating they became, and these lumps and bumps were getting mighty damn irritating. I had to squirm into a new position about every 30 seconds.

We were almost to Mesa Street when I saw flashes of light reflecting off the inside of the windshield. Then I heard the abbreviated whoop of a siren.

Great! We were being pulled over by a cop. "Were you speeding?" I asked Kathleen.

"Not me, Boss. Strictly speed limited."

"Fine. Just find out what he wants and get me back to the office."

Kathleen pulled over. A couple of minutes later a cop walked into camera range. He stopped just behind the driver's door.

"Good evening, ma'am." He didn't look much older than the kid with the broken finger. When did the police department start hiring high school students?

"Did I do something wrong, Officer?" She sounded like innocence personified.

"May I see your driver's license and insurance card, please?"

Kathleen dug them out and handed them to him. "I was sure I was obeying the speed limit," she said.

"Yes, ma'am," said the cop as he shined his flashlight on Kathleen's license. "I pulled you over because you have a taillight burned out."

"Oh, is that all? I'll be sure to get that fixed right away."

"Is this your car, ma'am?"

"No. It belongs to a friend of mine, Rogelio Amaya. He lent it to me for the evening."

"He must be a very good friend."

Oh, for Pete's sake! Do your job, give her a ticket and let her go. I'm about to go nuts in here.
I had to shift position or scream. Unfortunately the cop put his hand on the car just as I started moving.

He must have felt it. He jerked his hand back like he'd touched a hot stove. "What was that?"

"What was what, Officer?"

"I felt the car move."

"You must be mistaken, Officer. I've got the emergency brake on and everything."

"Do you have something in the trunk?"

Oh, Christ! "Kathleen," I whispered. "Do not, I repeat, do not open the trunk. I don't care how you do it. Distract him somehow. Keep him out of this trunk."

I could see it in my mind. A sardine can. Painted on the lid was a white whale. Printed above and below the whale were the words, "Moby Dick In A Can."

"I don't have anything in the trunk, Officer. I was just out driving on this beautiful evening. You must have felt me shifting position to look back at you."

"No, ma'am, that wasn't it. Please step out of the car and open the trunk."

"NO! Don't do it, Kathleen. Do something. Keep him out of this trunk."

"Is this really necessary, Officer?"

The cop stepped a little further back. "Please step out of the car now. Open the trunk."

Crap! "Think of something, Kathleen. Don't open the trunk."

Kathleen got out of the car and shrugged, probably for my benefit. She walked out of camera range followed by the cop.

I heard the key sliding into the lock. I grabbed the handle that operated the trunk latch. If she couldn't turn the key, she couldn't open the trunk. I felt her try a couple of times.

"It won't open," she said.

"Ma'am," said the kid cop, "if you don't open the trunk I'm going to have to impound the car. Those guys at the impound lot will use a crowbar to open the trunk. Your friend might not like that very much."

I let go of the handle. I heard the lock click. The trunk lid rose. The beam from the cop's flashlight hit me right in the eyes. I couldn't see a thing.

I heard the cop yell, "Holy shit! Ma'am, put your hands on the car." He called for backup.

I still couldn't see anything. Nothing except the label, "Moby Dick In A Can," on my photo in Johnny Soto’s office.



At 7:08 AM, Blogger John R. said...

That's a beautiful image, Bob. :-D

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Graham said...

Heh. Random punchline: "Well, you'd better let him out!"

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Gerald So said...

Good work moving the mood of the piece back and forth between serious and comedic. Over the past few stories, you've brought out surprising dimensions to Brady. The more you do this, the more real seems. Eventually, you'll be able to craft any flavor of around him, as Pronzini is able to do with Nameless.

At 4:38 PM, Blogger Duane Swierczynski said...

Excellent stuff, Bob. I especially love the opening line, and the line about in-laws: how true. And despite being comedic, you really rachet up the suspense in the last section.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Dave White said...

Wow, great story Bob. Everyone else stole my thunder, but they're right, you really found a way to balance suspense and humor and still tell a great story. Nice work.

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Hardluck Writer said...


Another strong Jack Brady outing. Good job! Now we'll just have to get an MP3 version of it ...

-Dave Z.

At 6:12 AM, Blogger Gerald So said...

A couple of words are missing from my comment above:

"The more you do this, the more real *Brady* seems. Eventually you'll be able to craft any flavor of *story* around him, as Pronzini does with Nameless."

At 2:53 PM, Blogger Candace said...

Excellent story with just the right blend. I like the way it starts out with Brady, all 6' 4 of him, already in a pickle -- albeit a Caddy pickle. You've done some great work w/ him and his - ahem - assistant. They seem totally real to me and I enjoyed the hell out of this.


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