Charlie Ben Studdard & the Case of the Sorry Sucker
by Pierce Nahigyan
Contrary to the beloved myth of the dogged do-gooder, the majority of the detective’s job involved waiting around for something to happen. To the outsider, this looked very much like the detective did nothing at all. It so happened that Charlie Ben Studdard was exceedingly good at doing nothing at all. It was his one true talent. In fact that, and a long history of very failed alternatives, was what drew him to the occupation in the first place.
Currently the only visible sign of Charlie’s occupation was that he was occupying a table in an outdoor cafe, joined by a cup of coffee that steamed like Los Angeles’ serpentine soul. The cafe was a glass and stone affair carved out of the decaying brick of a building slated for demolition. Astride the parking meters was a young man with a full beard and a bright striped sweatshirt, a sandwich board hung over his bristly neck entreating the passersby to donate to the “Save the Cafe!!” fund. He had a bell that he rang, which he rang at all possible times, as if he were the abandoned offspring of Santa Claus come to claim his birthright. Charlie and the young man made eye contact several times. Each time Charlie blew over his coffee and tried to drink it, but the cafe was only capable of serving coffee hot as Pompeii in the off season, and so he put it down and gazed over the son of Santa’s shoulder, at the International Bank Building across the street.
Charlie had missed the lunch rush, but the only parking garage in the vicinity was the concrete behemoth that abutted the dilapidated cafe. If Mr. Grim drove today he would need to pass it to get to his car. Charlie imagined that without the brick building in his way the commute would be a few minutes’ easier. And quieter.
“DO THE RIGHT THING, BE OKAY. SAVE THE KOOKY CAFE FOR GOOD KARMA TODAY.” When the young man said this he looked directly at Charlie. Charlie blew over his coffee.
Soon it must have been time for a break because the young man pulled the sandwich board over his neck and slid it up against the cafe window. He sat down across from Charlie and stuck the rubber straw that extended from his backpack into his mouth. He sucked at the camel pack and glared at Charlie, his hairy lips pursed, his hairy eyebrows colliding like caterpillars vomited up by feral cats. “Alright, man, what’s your deal?” he said.
Charlie took a tentative sip from his coffee. It was tasteless. It was his third cup. He scratched at the hair bent around his forehead from the ring of his hat, and smiled.
“You’ve been sitting here for two hours,” said the hairy young man. “You want something to eat?”
“No,” said Charlie. “I had a sandwich earlier.”
“Gimme a dollar.”
Charlie considered this. “No, I can’t do that.”
“You can’t just sit here and use the table,” said the young man. “We have customers.”
Charlie looked over at the few young professionals across the patio. Inside, twenty younger people were crammed over four tables typing into laptops or glowing smartphones. Charlie looked at his hat beside his cup of coffee, and back up at the young man. “I’ll tell you what, you give me some information and I’ll give you a dollar. For commerce’ sake.”
“For the kooky cafe!” said the young man.
“For a great many things,” said Charlie. He pulled the photograph out of his pocket and showed the young man, who promptly dropped it.
“What the hell is this?”
Charlie picked it up and slid it back to him. “This is a man in the act of copulation with a woman, after a fashion. Do you recognize the man?”
“Listen,” said Charlie, summoning the greater portion of his conviction, “I am working for Jerusalem on the trail of a terrorist. This is the closest associate.”
“You’re a spy?” said the young man.
“Yes,” said Charlie. “A breyre hob ich.”
“I don’t believe you,” said the young man.
“Do you not believe me because I don’t look like a spy? In which case I’m doing my job very well. Or do you not believe me because you’ve never met a spy before? In which case, today is the day your faith will be rewarded.” Charlie flipped his hat onto its crown and pulled two dollars from the sweat band. He laid the bills flat on the table between them.
The young man took them and reached behind his chair to the donation jar beside the parking meters. He dropped them in and leaned back to meet Charlie’s eyes. “Guy comes in for coffee every other morning. They have a Starbucks inside his building but he says he likes it better over here.”
“Some like it hot,” said Charlie. “You ever see him here with a woman? Tall, dirty blonde, dirty smile?”
“Yeah,” said the young man. “She used to work here.”
Charlie pulled another dollar out of his hat. He slid it to the young man. “About ten years ago?”
The young man made a face. “I was thirteen ten years ago.” Most of the face disappeared into the beard but Charlie was willing to take him at his word. “No, she was here maybe three years ago. He’s got her set up in Silver Lake now.”
Charlie forgot to blow on his coffee and swallowed a lot of hot hideousness. “Silver Lake? How do you know?”
The young man glanced at Charlie’s hat. Charlie gave him another dollar and then stuffed the hat back on his head.
“She still comes down to our rallies. Lily. Her name’s Lily.” The young man picked up his sandwich board and looped it back around his neck. He took up his bell and returned to pacing the parking meters calling for social consciousness.
Charlie sat back and glared over his coffee cup at the building across the street. Doing nothing had lost some of its charm.
* * *
Mr. Grim was nearly lost in the herd of business casual that migrated across the street. He was moderately tall, moderately bald, moderately tan, bespectacled and busy looking. He blended without effort. If Charlie had not been four cups into vicious black coffee he might have overlooked the jutting lower lip that he now knew so well. It seemed to quiver as the man forded his way past the slow dawdlers in the crosswalk and hopped up onto the sidewalk. Charlie followed him past the brick building and the ticketing booth that led to the subterranean garage, his hands in his pockets, keeping time with the man’s long strides.
They went down one level, and then another, until they were alone, their simultaneous steps knocking powerful echoes around the enclosed womb of concrete. Mr. Grim stopped near a graffitied pillar that said C-10. And he turned.
Charlie waved at him. “You headed to Santa Monica or Silver Lake?”
Mr. Grim clutched at his briefcase. “Who sent you?”
Charlie decided to open with the truth. “Your wife.”
Mr. Grim ran past the pillar. After a moment to suppress the caffeinated burp that wriggled out of him, Charlie took a deep breath and pursued.
Their footfalls were no longer in sync and so the commotion of their race flew up and around the halogen lighted vastness like invisible bats blasting against the walls. Mr. Grim broke for the stairwell but a thick mob was descending from the street above. He slid in the refuse and powdered gravel by the trash cans and doubled back, slapping Charlie aside with his briefcase and vaulting a smart car on his way up the ramp to level B. Charlie hit a pillar and fell onto the smart car, rolled off and chased after him, wheezing all the way.
He made it to level B clutching his chest, his jacket drenched under his armpits, and frantically looked for where Mr. Grim had got to. The slaps of his footfalls joined their own echoes in a sprightly cachinnation that hid the man in the automotive abyss. His car was on the floor below, so Charlie gambled that the man would try to flee the garage before returning and risk facing Charlie again. For the moment, the man was afraid of him, and Charlie would not give up that fragile edge. So Charlie ran for the ramp to level A.
He saw Grim, a gangly shadow in the light at the mouth of the cave, and he puffed on. He chased him past the ticketing booth and back onto the crowded sidewalk. He heard the electric ding too late and turned to see Grim throw himself into one of the elevators built into the exterior of the garage. Grim still clutched his briefcase, his white face shaking as his eyes searched the crowd for his hunter. Charlie spat into a wilted planter on the sidewalk and tried not to collapse into it as well. His stomach gurgled from the coffee. From the feel of it, it was going to war with his pastrami sandwich. Charlie let out a breathless moan and stumbled off the planter, onto a bus bench, and tried not to curl over it like a moist newspaper.
He sat, and he waited, and eventually he recognized the moderately bald head at the wheel of a moderately gray Volvo zipping out of the garage. Charlie leaned forward and took in the license plate and then he curled over the bench like a moist newspaper.
How long he lay on the bench gasping for air was a mystery, in a mystery confounded by mysteries. He didn’t care to know. All that mattered was when he might breathe again, without pain, without coffee stabbing his guts looking for a way out. It was an hour, perhaps two, when he awoke on the bench, his hat covering his face. He pulled it off to get a look at the sky. The sun was lower, not quite touching the horizon, and turning the LA skyline into a yellow haze guarded by charcoal sentinels. There were few suits left on the street, and Santa Claus, Jr. had long since hung up his bell. It was as quiet as it ever got in downtown.
And that was when the Plymouth arrived.
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