One Man’s Junk by Bill Capron
Bob Mack squirmed in the heavy leather visitor’s chair, but he was a high-energy nervous-Nellie guy. His eyes took in the color scheme and came up wanting, for color, that is. My name is CB Green, and I’d known Bob for ten years, since I’d moved to the Portland area, from before when Rhonda was murdered, before my new profession. Now I saw him and his wife maybe twice a year at various functions on the other side of the river. You tend to grow apart from couples when you’re a single guy. It happens. He didn’t know I was color-blind. He didn’t know I was a PI. He never asked. But we share closer friends, and it wasn’t surprising he found me.
I poured him a coffee. “How’s Mona?” I asked.
He made a dismissive wave with his hand. “At her mom’s in Ashland.” That didn’t answer my question. I waited. “Being Mona.” There you have it, the male equivalent of small talk — words without content, but plenty of baggage.
I cut to the chase with my insightful one word question, “And?”
“A friend of mine is camped out in one of my units.”
“Storage units.” He leaned forward, put his elbows on the arms of the chair and quelled the fidgeting. “Mona and I built a storage rental facility in Ridgefield, near 41st, between all those new homes and the highway.”
I drive by the place for my weekly encounter with small town America. I recalled it being built. I didn’t remember anything that cried out ‘Bob Mack’ to me. It’s one of those ubiquitous places where people store stuff they don’t need, won’t use, can’t part with. It says something good about America that even the poorest among us can afford to do this, but that we do it is another story altogether.
From when I knew him, Bob was a building contractor. No one told me about the change. “Since when?”
“Opened up two years ago. The disability insurance drove me out of the construction business.”
It’s tough being a small contractor anywhere, but Washington’s a special case. “Sorry to hear that.”
He waved his hand again; “No big deal. This is more profitable and a whole lot easier on the marriage.” I noted his skin was clearer. Not much mystery there. Less stress.
I put us back on topic, “Can people live in their units?”
He shook his head; “No, not overnight anyway. He comes in, sleeps all day, then goes out when we close down. It’s the law.”
“What’s the worry then?”
With more certainty than the words implied, “I think he’s on the run.”
More of the same, “I don’t know. The previous owner?”
“Owner of what?”
I was confused; “Slow down, Bob, and start at the beginning.”
Bob seemed to compose his thoughts. He wasn’t an organized kind of guy, so it took a while. I watched the exercise play out on his handsome face. “It started three weeks ago when he — ”
“Jack Robbins. I’ve known him since highschool.”
I don’t know anybody since highschool. “Do I know him?” The name sounded familiar.
“You probably met him at one of our summer parties.”
I hadn’t been to one in three years. “So?”
“Jack bought the contents of the unit.” He answered the question on my face. “You know, at auction.”
I shook my head, opened my hands. “I don’t understand. Auction? Why? What?”
He did some more thinking on it. “It’s a rental business. Some people stop paying. Maybe don’t figure it’s worth it. Maybe died. Maybe in jail. Maybe on the run. Maybe broke. Lots of reasons. After three months of late notices we cut off their lock and put on our own. We send more notices. They get another three months. Then we auction off the unit, take out the back rent and any other documented costs for advertising and administration. We send the overage to a state agency.”
The list of things I didn’t know got shorter. “I never heard of anything like that. ”
Like it was a reason, “It’s an industry standard with laws governing the whole process.”
I suppressed my libertarian opinion of the need for the nanny state to meddle. “Do you know what’s in the units?”
He grayed guiltily. “No. We don’t look. It’s against the law.”
Right! I got past it. “The auction?”
His face cleared as he entered safer ground. “We announced it in the Public Disclosures in all the local papers. There is a whole network of junk and second-hand dealers who come to the auctions, looking to score a good deal.”
“While they’re all gathered outside the door, we open up.” He motioned as if he was opening a door, holding his closed hand above his eyes. “They can look, but only from the outside.” Then he closed it.
“Not much you can tell from that.”
He nodded and shook his head simultaneously. “Looking for clues. Once had a unit with a Harley owner’s manual in front. Bidding went wild, to seven thousand for a lot of crap. They thought there might be a motorcycle buried in the junk.”
“There was. Brand new. Worth twenty-five grand. The whole rest of it was worth maybe five hundred. Hardly pay for carting it out.”
“Treasure in the junk?”
“Yes. A man last year found fifty grand of gold coins buried in the bottom of a box of oily engine parts. You’ve got to look through everything.”
Still, the Bob I knew didn’t know second-hand junk dealers. “And why was Jack there?”
“I thought there might be something he wanted.” Again with the graying. I figured Bob took a quick inventory and decided which friend to let in on the opportunity. Not legal, but only an idiot, or a legislator, thinks it doesn’t happen.
My next question was laced with that assumption, “So why not buy it yourself?”
“The auction is for the entire unit?”
He nodded; “All or nothing.”
I stated the obvious, “The buyer maybe ends up with a lot of garbage that way.”
He seemed eager to take a tangent. “Sometimes when you go to a garage sale, you see a lot of connected stuff that no one in their right mind would save. But people save the darnedess things. Especially toys, clothing, pots and pans, dishes, ratty couches, tools. Storage units. It’s where they come from.”
That explained a mystery I’d thought about but never tried to answer. “Then?”
“Jack had to go to three thousand to get it. We loaded everything but the furniture into his truck. He paid a month’s rent on the unit and said he’d pick up the rest in a couple weeks.”
I figured that was a cashless transaction. “And?”
“Three days ago Jack moved in. He’s scared.” He shrugged strong shoulders. “Says I got him in this mess.”
He shook his head, the light gray hair following a half-beat behind; “I don’t know. It must have been the papers.” He grayed again.
It was too much like forty questions, but that’s not unusual when good people do bad things. “What papers?”
“We’re supposed to store away anything personal, for five years in case the owner or a relative wants them back.”
“And you didn’t?”
His shrug conveyed anything but indifference. “No. There were ten boxes of letters and spreadsheets and stuff, even two urns with ashes. I kept the urns. Jack said he’d throw the rest out. It was stupid of me, but they were boxed, and the law doesn’t say I have to open the boxes before they’re taken away.”
I recalled a definition of character — that it’s not what you do when people are looking, it’s what you do when they’re not. Bob had failed. “But you knew?”
“Yes. But it was so many boxes, so I made like I hadn’t seen them.” A pause. “Jack promised …”
Like I didn’t know what happened. “So what did he find?”
His head traced the same line as one of those bobble-head dolls as he lied, “I don’t know.”
I wanted to chastise him on his law-breaking ways, but when laws go against common-sense and self-interest, they’re stupid laws. “Jack know you’re here?”
Bob covered his mouth and talked through his hands, “No.” His eyes were focused over my shoulder. He finally voiced his own deductions, “Someone is threatening him. Maybe he can’t go home to his house. I asked, but he won’t tell me a thing.”
I followed Bob across the Columbia through Vancouver and exited at Ridgefield. The storage facility was new looking with an attractive lawn behind a razor-wire topped chain-link fence. It brought to mind lawns in cemeteries, with pretty much the same usefulness. He’d hired senior citizens to manage the place. They lived in a tidy manufactured home that acted as the office and residence. The front gate was open. The man and his wife were tending the flowers. They waved to Bob.
Bob yelled, “Jack there?”
The old man answered, “Yes, arrived first thing this morning.”
We made our way to the back row where Bob parked behind a late-model Lexis. I parked on the other side away from Unit 1313.
Bob pointed at a rewired hole in the outside fence. “Had a burglary a week ago. Must have been outside waiting for an opportunity. The couple that lives here were gone for an hour, right after closing. Ransacked the office. Stole sixty bucks. I’m putting in motion detectors next week.”
Bob knocked on the garage door. Nothing. He tried twice more, then pounded. Still nothing. He pulled the door up. I controlled my gag reflex. Bob wasn’t so lucky. He put his hand over his mouth, turned and threw up on the pavement.
I put an arm over his shoulder. “Call the cops.”
“What do I tell them?”
I gave him advice I already knew he’d ignore, “The truth.”
There was black blood all over the place, and the reek of bodily fluids. I figured there wasn’t anything Jack Robbins held back. There was so much evil there it should have called a ripple in the Force. But life doesn’t work that way. And there isn’t a Force. But there was justice needing doing.
We spent the next four hours being prodded and poked by the cops. The chief, Atlee Davis, is a friend of mine, but that didn’t do me any good. By keeping my ears open, I learned there was a new hole in the fence, and Jack Robbins house had been torn apart.
Bob, being the closest thing they had to a suspect, had his car impounded. I offered to drive him.
I didn’t start my car. I turned my body towards him. “Okay, tell me what was in the unit that piqued your interest.”
He kept his eyes turned down. “Nothing.”
I slammed the dash with my fist; “Cut the crap. These guys who killed Jack, they might think you know more than you know. If you did, no way he didn’t tell them.”
Tears filled his gray eyes. “There was a set of pencil drawings of a cowboy on a bucking mustang, by Remington, a work sketch for a sculpture.” He turned his head. “You might have seen it.”
I nodded. I owned one of the original bronzes, a large one. It was worth a hefty six figures. It represented seven dead, and counting. It was a gift. It was in my office. He didn’t see it when he was there. Such is the power of male focus.
I motioned him on. “They were originals. Worth twenty or thirty thousand. No big deal. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but they were there, and I knew about them.”
“And that was it?”
“Yes —” It wasn’t a complete answer.
“But?” Nothing. “The papers?”
His body went limp as the wall of resistance crumpled before my eyes. “Jack went through the papers. He found a bank account with two-hundred-and-forty thousand in it. It was electronic access, and he had the passwords.”
The drawings were one thing, but robbery was quite another. “And?”
“I said he should turn it in.”
I held my tongue.
“Jack said he needed the money. All of it.”
“You went along with that?”
“I was in too deep with the drawings.”
I asked a question the cops had already asked, “Who owned the unit?”
“Just some guy.” I waited him out. “Some guy named Jaime Gomez —”
I knew it wasn’t a complete answer. “And?”
“He got shot in Portland.”
I read the paper pretty closely. “I didn’t hear about that.”
The words came out slowly, “That wasn’t his real name. It was Jose Estavez. We found out from his personal stuff.”
That name I knew. “Jesus, Estavez was the accountant for the Cali people. What the hell were you thinking?” Estavez was killed by a hitman from a Mexican competitor, and the resulting tit-for-tat killing spree was still going on.
He gave a defeated shrug.
“You can’t go home. You must know that.”
He nodded, shaking a tear loose. “But this was his personal account.”
I opened my hands; “You know this because?”
“It’s not big enough to be drug money.” He was right there. It broke my heart that a man died for so little money.
I have a house the other side of the highway from Ridgefield where I spend a third of my weekends. It’s too big for me, but there are too many memories of Rhonda to sell it. I took Bob there.
I had some thinking to do. You can’t make justice happen to organized crime, and especially at a level where it would help Bob. Anyway, if it was the Mexicans or the Colombians, he was a dead man walking. But a quarter million is not enough to chase, unless there were lessons to be taught. Maybe it really was Estavez’s money and the people who wanted it back were family. But not nice people. Maybe there was an ending that would keep Bob alive. Maybe.
Chief Atlee Davis is a good friend. And he’s engaged to an even better friend. I didn’t want to mess with him. He’s the kind of guy I can talk to, but I couldn’t ask him to keep the secrets I was planning on keeping.
I built a scenario in my head, that Bob didn’t know about the account, that the drawings were serendipitously found, that the sale to Jack was legit, that he didn’t know what happened to Jack or why. It really could have played out that way. I reworked it with Bob until we had the kinks ironed out. I told him he couldn’t keep the drawings. Bob’s well enough off that it was stupid of him to consider ripping off the artwork in the first place. He said he’d planned to have them valued and pay half to Jack. I didn’t like it, but I understood; they were probably nice drawings.
I drove to Bob’s house. One of Atlee’s cops was parked down the road in an unmarked car. I figured Atlee smelled the fear on the man’s skin and was doing his ‘due diligence’ by keeping tabs on him. But he didn’t know who the killers were because he didn’t know who Jim Gomez was. And he wasn’t going to find out without some help.
When I got back to my house, Bob was worrying himself in the dark with a cup of coffee. I got right to the point, “So where’s the money now?”
“It’s gone already.”
One escape route closed. “Where?”
He stared at his hands. “Jack gave it to his ex-wife, to settle the divorce decree. She said he couldn’t have visitation rights unless he paid up. He had been planning to sell the house after Kaitlin threatened him with trumped up sex abuse charges on the daughter if he didn’t come across.” He watched my eyes. “It wasn’t true.”
A recurring theme in our new world. “What about when the IRS found out?”
“He hadn’t thought it out that far yet.”
Sometimes you need more brains to be a criminal, but a criminal wouldn’t have thought of that either, and not needed to. Jack was a law-abiding citizen, so they’d have caught up with him one day soon. Not that it mattered anymore.
Like I said, the cops were watching Bob’s place, but they were keeping tabs on a potential suspect, not his house, not its contents. A search warrant? Only if he became a likely suspect, else not. The killers didn’t need any search warrants. They’d think Bob had the money even though Jack probably told the truth about what he’d done with it, if he had the time. Maybe they called the ex-wife and she told them that he didn’t give her a thing, that Jack should burn in Hell. If nothing else, they’d get the drawings.
I passed Atlee’s man again, then worked my way down the back roads around Bob’s twelve acres. I hiked the two logging roads. The first was empty, but the second had two cars, an old Buick set up as a low-rider and a new Honda with a scarred keyhole, parked in the brush a hundred yards off the road. There was a gray-haired Hispanic man in the front seat of the Honda. He was smoking a cigarette with the window down. I heard static and he picked up a walky-talky. He said, “What’s goin’ on up there, Julio?”
“Nothin’, dad. The house is dark. Whaddaya want me to do?”
He tossed the cigarette out the window. “Can’t do nothin’ til that cop leaves.” He waited, then, “Juan, you there?”
Another voice barked. “Yeah. I can get in to take a quick look. They’ll never see me.”
The old man said, “After midnight. The cop’ll be gone by then.”
“Two hours. I’m freezin’ out here.”
“Quit complainin’. You two decide and one of you come back here.”
Julio said, “You go, Juan.”
A flashlight marked the noisy progress of Juan downhill through the trees. He was a hulking two-fifty linebacker type, maybe twenty, ugly and bully-mean. He went to the other car and lit a cigarette. Conversation ended.
They didn’t look like hardened criminals though, more your Joe Six-Packs of the Hispanic world. But they’d proved they knew how to hurt a guy.
I tried Atlee’s direct number at the office. No answer. I called his home. He picked up on the eighth ring. “What do you want, Green?”
“I’m on the way over. Put on some coffee.”
Atlee lives north of the town in a hidden little Eden uphill from a canyon entrance to the Wildlife Reserve. He’s ex-LA Homicide doggy-paddling his way through retirement in Hicksville. He’s a handsome guy, four inches shorter than my six-four, looks and is fifty. He’s nicer than one would expect a cop to be.
Lola May Carter’s SUV was parked in the driveway. They’re getting married soon. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen not in a photograph. She is tall, thin, a shiny black with the lightest gray eyes. She says they’re green. I brought them together, sort of.
Lola May gave me a kiss. She whispered in my ear, “I made the coffee.” She owns the cappuccino shop three blocks from my building in Portland. Louder, “Don’t keep him too late, you hear?”
“Sorry, Lola May, but it’s going to be a long night.”
She squinted her eyes. “It better be worth it.”
“Lot of justice to be done.”
That brought a worried smile to her black lips. She’s seen my justice.
I called Bob and told him to use my truck. Atlee and I met him at the station. The chief wasn’t happy that I stuck to the story line Bob and I had devised. He knew it was a lie. He knew I was going to protect my client. He didn’t like that either. Not his cup of justice. He called his guy to end the surveillance and dis-impounded Bob’s car. He and I settled in the back seat under a tarp. We were armed. We had on our bullet-proof vests. We picked up the deputy on the way. He hunkered down in the front seat. We pulled in to Bob’s garage at eleven-fifty.
The rest of the night went according to plan, if you include utter chaos in the plan.
Bob turned on the lights and put on Orff’s Carmina Burana. As the crescendo of the first movement was filling the house, the bad guys broke in. I assumed they wouldn’t be armed much beyond the knife they used on Jack. I mean, they weren’t expecting the cops, so the need for firepower was limited, right? Right! They were carrying two Uzis and a sawed-off shotgun. As soon as Atlee said, “Hands up,” the fat one, Juan, pressed the trigger of the machine-gun and swung it in our direction, pockmarking the floor and wall as the trace of the bullets came our way. But the thirty-shot clip was empty by the time its arc found us. Atlee hugged the floor. From the prone position he shot the fat boy’s kneecap. A shotgun blast filled the void my head had recently vacated. Atlee’s deputy shot the old man in the stomach. Where was Julio? My ears tracked to the second Uzi. Once the trigger was pulled the gun had a life and direction of its own. Atlee killed the kid before the fifteenth round. It was a bloody, noisy mess.
And we were lucky. We didn’t care much for the implications of that. We could be dead. We weren’t prepared. We underestimated the threat. It reminded me of a seminar I’d attended in the pre-PI years, where the speaker said “assume makes an ass out of u and me.” He was right. So we didn’t feel good about being alive, more regretful of what could have been, of what would have happened if they had known how to use their weapons.
By four a.m. the ambulances were gone, the bodies removed, the evidence people out the door. The county sheriffs took our statements, multiple times, and the next day we’d run through them again. Bob went to a motel for the night. Atlee’s deputies brought our cars to the house.
Atlee and I waited silently for the air to stir between us. He was getting angrier by the minute. He let loose first, “You call this justice, CB?” When I didn’t say anything, he went on, “Maybe you want to tell me what really got this little butchery going?”
I steepled my fingers and spoke through them, “Nothing. I came into the story this morning. The butchering was in progress.” I thought some more. “There were a lot of alternative outcomes.” I waved my hand to take in the room. “All in all, this wasn’t the worst.”
“So I got three people without a blemish on their records, one dead, one dying, one limping for the rest of his life. That’s not a mess?”
I locked my eyes on his bright veined pale eyes. “They weren’t good people. They’d already murdered Jack Robbins.”
I lied, “I don’t know? Must have been something in the storage unit.”
He slammed his fists together. “Oh, thanks for that bit of really intuitive deduction.”
“Am I going to find out what?”
I figured the kid was going to talk; “Yes, probably.” He glowered. “But not from me.”
A gotcha, “So you know.”
His words told me how much it bothered him, “It’s going to be a while before I want to see you again.” He held my black eyes. “I feel like an executioner.”
I said the truth, “Not my fault. Bad people die. It’s the nature of their business.”
He got up and left without another word.
I read it all in the paper a week later. The police found out about Estavez, the bank account, Jack taking the money, the brother and his sons who broke into Bob’s office to find Jack’s name after they learned the contents had been sold, Jack giving the money to his wife, her getting a phone call from the unit that morning he died, her greed that sealed his fate, the nasty lies she told about him, her being forced to give the money back.
Bob gave the drawings to the Estavez family, but didn’t admit to anything other than accepting them from Jack. So he got out without a scratch, so to speak. Guess that made me successful. I bought the drawings from the heirs a month later. They were nice drawings. They’re hanging above the bronze. More death. More justice.
To tell the truth though, I felt the worst about Jack, that his wife had enough hate to kill him for her ‘thirty pieces of silver’. There wasn’t any justice in that.