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On the Rocks With a Twist

A Sam Spadefish Mystery

October 17, 2006

Charley Fabian’s 68′ Hatteras was to die for – if your luck ran out.

Artie Logue, my contact at Archer All Risk, needed confirmation. Insurance guys are like that. One of his boats (it wasn’t “his” technically, but tell that to an insurance guy) had gone up on a reef off Santa Paula Island with a commercial load of seven swordfish aboard. Babaloo wasn’t insured for commercial use, and Artie didn’t want to pay the three mil in hull insurance. Who could blame him?

He told me to find Babaloo’s crew – Padowski, Ryan, and Duchek – find out what really happened. That’s what I get paid for. So I spent the afternoon walking the fishing docks at San Pedro, finally stopping at Sharkey’s Chandlery – eventually everyone does.

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Sharkey is dark and huge, like Al Capone without the great sense of humor. He hadn’t seen my guys, but he knew he would. I gave him my card wrapped in a C-note to pay for the phone call when one showed up.

The docks here are a funny place, but no one’s laughing. It’s crawling with Serbs and Croats and Bosnians, all hating each others’ guts. Maybe Nick Duchek was one of them. So I went to the Serbian Union but got nothing. I tried the Croatian Brotherhood. Two Ducheks-one of them a Nick. The old man I talked to had a voice that’d been hoarse since birth. He told me that Nick didn’t come in often.

“I need to talk to him,” I said.

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The old man’s eyes crinkled like an old paper bag. “So talk. He just walked in.”

The kid at the door was in his mid-20s, tall, black-haired, with mournful eyes that had some miles on them.

“Nick Duchek?” I said.

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He smiled tiredly. “What kept you?”

•••

I liked Duchek about as much as you can like a guy who’s holding out on you. He told me he just did his job and spent his pay. He’d worked on Babaloo four or five times.

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I still liked him, so I gave it a shot. “Do they do anything on Babaloo besides fish?”

He thought a beat too long. He said no, but by then, it was just a word.

“What happened that day?”

“It was night,” he said. “And there was a heavy fog.”

“Who was at the helm?”

“Padowski was captain.”

“How do I find him?”

Duchek’s head shook. “I heard he’s in Hawaii. Look, I’m a deckhand. What do you want from me?”

There was a roomy silence, but I knew that look. Something in him had switched.

“You sleeping okay, kid? You look beat up.”

“Yeah, well…” It was a complete sentence.

“Come on.” I led him out to my car. Funny thing about sitting in parked cars-people feel as if they have to say something.

“I want out of this,” he said at last. “Padowski and Ryan are scary-and I don’t want to think about Fabian.” Charley Fabian owned Babaloo and lots more.

“I’m not a cop, Nick,” I said. “But I need to know what happened.”

Duchek took a moment, then started.

They fished Babaloo south along Baja. Sometimes they caught more than fish. That night, they’d rendezvoused with a trawler 20 miles off Santa Paula Island to take on 300 kilos of Andes Snow. Padowski had been drinking hard, slipped, and bashed his right arm on the rail. To take his mind off the pain, he medicated with a taste of the cargo. Ryan and Duchek joined in. Blasted, Padowski cracked Babaloo’s twin MAN diesels wide open in zero visibility, and 30 minutes later ran it up the toothy side of Bootleg Shoal. They were hard aground. It took until 4 a.m. for another boat to offload the load. They put out a mayday but were still so wasted they forgot to dump the billfish.

Duchek didn’t look up. “I want out.”

“Okay, Nick. I’ll do what I can.”

•••

I was headed up the 405 when the phone vibrated in my pocket like a hooker going through my pants. The moonlight-and-honey voice I heard meant business.

“Where’d you get my number?” I asked. But I could guess-Sharkey. In Pedro, loyalty, not money, pays.

“I hear you want to know about Babaloo?” she said.

I didn’t answer.

“You know where Pescao is?

“Yeah.”

“I’ll meet you in the bar at 7,” she said. “I’ll be the one wearing shoes.”

The phone went dead. I called the number back, but all it did was ring.

Pescao is one of those overpriced three-valet seafood joints on La Cienega where people go to pretend they’re richer than they are. The dining room was jammed, the bar was empty-except for the redhead. She sat there staring through the wall into the alley out back. Eyes like that go anywhere they want. She said her name was Francie, and her tone said she liked boys. I ordered her a drink, but she waved it off and got right to it. “What do you know about Babaloo?”

“Oh, no,” I said. “You’re telling me about Babaloo.”

“Listen, would you excuse me for a moment.”

It caught me off guard. “Sure,” I said. She got up and headed to the ladies’ room, walking that walk. I reminded myself I was here on business. But she didn’t come back. Instead, two guys I already didn’t like came toward me. The meaty guy watched. The weasel talked. “What say we go out for a walk.”

It wasn’t a question.

Meat smiled. “We think you should come outside. You don’t want to mess up Mr. Fabian’s nice bar, shamus.”

Besides owning Babaloo, Charley Fabian also owned Pescao and these two. That did it-I’d decided against marrying Francie.

Meat clutched my arm like I might get lost. I might.

I stood. The weasel patted me down and found nothing. We were both disappointed.

We walked outside and weasel pushed me into the back of a Lincoln. Meat got in beside me. The weasel was driving. Then Francie showed up, looking just like Francie. She got in front.

We drove as far from L.A. as you can and still be in L.A. The house we pulled up to was grandiose, in a Hollywood sort of way, with a high peaked roof to keep the snow from accumulating. I climbed out and followed Francie. I liked the view. She pushed the button and chimes rang, just like at Ward and June Cleaver’s. But when the door opened, it wasn’t The Beaver.

Charley Fabian looked at me like a used couch. He was straight out of the 1980s-loud shirt unbuttoned down to there. Black, curly chest like the top of Elliot Gould’s head. Gold chains and probably a DeLorean in the garage. “You wanna know about my boat?”

“Were you there when it went on the rocks?” I asked.

“You know I wasn’t. Just the three who chartered it.”

“Put all three of them together, throw in their pickups, dogs, and ex-wives…they couldn’t rent Babaloo for an hour.”

“I gave them a rate. They’re nice boys, work for me at the restaurant. What they do isn’t my concern-or your company’s”

“Listen, until Archer All Risk gets comfortable about Babaloo having a commercial load of billfish aboard and you chartering the boat out, the check for three million doesn’t get cut. That’s how it works. But I’m willing to hear your side.”

“Here’s how it works with me. Those three clowns cost me a new 68′ Hatteras and risked 300 kilos of Columbia’s best blow at a street value of $50 per gram. I’ve already dealt with them, now I’m getting my money from you. You can write up your report my way, or…”

Fabian glanced at Meat. I got a bad feeling.

“Face it, Fabian, you’re screwed. The facts are already in and my client knows where I am tonight.”

“Your client knows where you started tonight…” Fabian said. I heard a step. Then somewhere far away, the top of my head exploded and a light began to spin, spiraling down and down, whirling deep down through wet black to the bottom of the sea.

•••

I looked through a gray gauze. She was bent over me. Her red hair flowed down like a hot wave.

“Sam?”

She was smiling. It scared me, but I didn’t move. The machinery was still loose inside my head.

Cops. Three of them. I didn’t trust anything I saw.

“What happened?”

She touched my face. “Gino pistol-whipped you. You’re still at Fabian’s.”

“But-where are they!”

“Booked by now.” She hitched up the leg of her black slacks and tugged off the tape securing the “wire” to her calf.

“A cop?”

“We’ve been on Fabian for a year. You were the first to get him to talk.”

“You set me up!”

“We followed you to Duchek.”

I tried to get off the floor, but it was too soon. I stayed down. A cop raised me slowly.

“You’re fine,” he said.

“Yeah? How the hell do you know!”

I touched the top of my head. My hair was crusted and matted. “You damn near got me killed!”

“Your car’s at Pescao,” she said. “I’ll drive you.”

“You make it sound like a damn favor.”

I tried to stand. The air filled with millions of tiny white flashes as I headed outside. Francie opened the Lincoln’s door for me. Heading back toward town, she put the hammer down, speeding without worry. Cops had it good.

“I’m sorry it got out of hand, Sam,” she said. “Forgive me?”

“Why?”

“So I can buy you dinner?”

“I’m not hungry.”

She laughed. “Not tonight, silly!”

I looked at her. “What happened to Nick Duchek? Did Fabian get to him like he said?”

“We got to him first. He turned state’s evidence. No problem. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow what?”

“Dinner.” She gave me her best smile.

“Only if we go to Pescao.”

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