Dead in Boca

WINNER, ROYAL PALM LITERARY AWARD FOR HUMOR/SATIRE, FLORIDA WRITERS ASSOCIATION, 2014.FWA Silvr

 

Ah, Boca Raton.  South Florida’s wealthy enclave of sand, surf, martinis and murder . . .

From high society “Boca Babe” to Harley-riding private eye: Harriet Horowitz has established her rep as a kick-ass P.I. with an insider’s connection to both the high life and the low life of Florida’s Palm Beach coast.

Like “Junior” Castellano, a bigtime land developer who  hires Harriet to find the silver-haired gigolo who broke Mama Castellano’s  heart, Harriet is practical when it comes to solving problems.  Simple enough,  until the Boca police find Junior bulldozed at one of his construction sites.  Was Junior killed by his mother’s, miss Lil’s, con man?  Or by a bitter ex-wife or spurned ex-girlfriend?  Maybe by his estranged sons?  And what about the bartender at Hog Heaven, who was about to lose her home in a trailer park because of Junior’s latest land development deal? 

Behind the money and glitz of Boca is a world of strip clubs, biker bars, pawn shops, and backroom deals.  In a town brimming with Beemers and Botoxed babes, a Harley riding P.I. like Harriet, who hasn’t even had a manicure since shooting  her abusive husband, stands out like, well, Clint Eastwood in a classic Dirty Harry movie.  And this “Dirty Harriet” carries a .44 Magnum, same as he did .  From using her own aging Boca Babe society mom as senior decoy bait to posing as a stripper,  Harriet will do whatever it takes to protect others.  Even if Junior Castellano’s enemies’ list is longer than the reservations at a Boca cocktail bar, and the scheme he was hatching was big enough to destroy the whole city.

A hurricane is heading toward Boca.  It should be named Harriet.

 

 


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Chapter 1

My client was a dirtbag.  But that wasn’t unusual in my line of work.  When you operate a private investigation agency called ScamBusters, your clients tend to come from the seamier side of the human race.  Here’s the big trade secret of con artists: both they and their marks typically have the same motivation—greed.

Take your Nigerian bank scam, for example.  I know you’ve gotten that e-mail, the one that begins with “Esteemed Sir,” even though your name may be unambiguously feminine, like Caroline or Cynthia.  The message proceeds to inform you that the writer is a high-level government bureaucrat whose wife was killed in a tragic and mysterious plane accident, leaving multimillion dollar cash assets that have been frozen. If only he could launder the funds through your bank account, he’d give you a cut of the action.

Now as a perfectly normal, that is to say, untrusting, individual who’s been around the block a time or two, you simply click the garbage icon and mutter, “Damn that spam,” to your dog or cat, as the case may be, who is curled up at your feet.  Not so the dupe who provides his bank account information, only to find out the next day that his funds have been wiped out.  So what differentiates this sucker from you?  Obviously, where he saw dollar signs, you saw warning signs.  So you’ll never find yourself in my office, as Frank Castellano, Jr. did that hot June afternoon, asking me to track down the predator who ran off with your cold hard cash.  

“Junior’s” reputation preceded him.  He was well known in South Florida as a “tough businessman” (read: ruthless crook) and a “highly successful developer” (dirty-dealing S.O.B.—son of a builder).  A recent ruckus involving one of his projects, a nursing home that had plunged into a sinkhole, was just the latest blip in Junior’s prolonged, prosperous career. 

I knew damn well Junior was a greedy bastard, but I also knew that in any, shall we say, questionable transaction, Junior would be the screwer, not the screwee.  So I was a bit mystified when, one fateful Friday in August, a black Town Car pulled up in front of the grate-covered glass door of my office, a hole in the wall in a strip mall just outside bourgeois Boca Raton, and Junior climbed out of the driver’s seat. 

For a moment I thought he was headed over to Carl’s Checks ‘R’ Us check-cashing store next door to conduct business he didn’t care to have his banker or accountant know about.  But no.  Nor did he aim for Tony’s Tattoos on the other side of my storefront.  He took two steps straight to my door and pulled it open, huffing from the exertion, rivulets of sweat running down his cheeks.

Despite his nickname, Junior was well into his sixties.  His portly frame, jowly face, and slicked-back Grecian formulized hair were familiar to me.  He’d been a major client of the law firm of my late, unlamented husband, Bruce Barfknecht, who had successfully fought off complaints filed by incensed buyers of Junior’s properties on everything from mold to mortgage fraud.  I’d spent many a tedious evening in the company of Bruce, Junior, and Junior’s then-wife, Martha, as Bruce climbed the career ladder to partnership. 

I hadn’t seen Junior in a few years, ever since I’d ended Bruce’s quest, not to mention his life, and my ten-year tenure as his abused wife, when I shot him point blank with a .44 Magnum after challenging him to “go ahead, make my day.”  Notwithstanding the fact that the shooting was ruled self-defense, the local press bestowed me, Harriet Horowitz, with the honorific “Dirty Harriet” in homage to Dirty Harry, the ’70s movie character who’d packed the same pistol and punchline.   The tag has stuck ever since.  And that’s cool with me.  The new label redeems the old-school name that my parents saddled me with, in memory of some long-deceased relative.  Plus, Dirty Harry was a rogue cop; I’m a rogue PI.

Thus my reputation preceded me as well, for when Junior plopped himself into one of the two faux-leather chairs in front of my gunmetal-gray desk, he stated, “Horowitz, I’m here to hire you to take out a lowlife scamming scumball.  Name your price.”

I blinked.

“Junior, with all due respect in view of our long abiding acquaintance,” I said, nearly choking on my words, “I’m going to pretend that I didn’t just hear you solicit me to commit murder.”

“Cut the crap, Horowitz,” he replied.  “You and me both know you got no qualms about doing what needs to be done.  You did that sniveling, brown-nosing weasel you were married to.  My humble opinion, you shoulda done it years before.  But better late than never.  So don’t try to deny your vigilante nature to me, sweetheart.” 

Junior maintained that old-time charming custom of calling all women “sweetheart”, “babe”, or “toots” and referring to them as “dame”, “broad”, or “piece of ass.”

But amid his repulsiveness, there was some truth.  I did have an Inner Vigilante that screamed to be let loose when confronted with unredeemed injustice.  But if my Inner Vigilante was going to come out of hibernation, it would be of its own will, not as a hired gun.

“No can do, Junior,” I said.  “Let your feet meet the street.”

He didn’t budge.  He steepled his fingers in front of his lips and looked me up and down with his shifty brown eyes.  I suppose that in my all-black outfit of stretch jeans, tank top, and motorcycle boots, which constitutes my daily attire, I might have resembled some movie buff’s vision of a hit woman. 

I stared right back at him.  He blinked first.

“All right, how’s about this?  I hire you to find the sleazeball, that’s it.”

Right.  I find him, and someone else finishes the job.

I weighed the moral implications of committing an act of vigilantism versus being a mere accessory to same.  I decided it wasn’t black or white; I needed to know more about the case.

“You want to fill me in on what this is about, Junior? Don’t try to tell me you’ve been conned.  We both know better than that,” I said.

“Hell, no.  Not me.  My dear old mama.”

Oh.  The one and only Miss Lillian, Charleston debutante turned Radio City Rockette turned bride of Frankenste . . . I mean, Frank Senior.  It was the stuff of local lore.  Miss Lil’s family had disowned her when she ran off to New “Yank” City and met and married Frank, a Sicilian immigrant whom they considered to be far beneath her station in life.  But when Frank Sr. made it big in construction in Florida’s once seemingly endless building boom, all was forgiven and Miss Lil was restored to the status of Southern blueblood.  The couple settled in Boca, where Frank Sr. tore down an original 1920s Addison Mizner estate and erected a replica of Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara in its place for his bride.  Miss Lil brought her genteel manners to the then-fledgling Boca social scene, which, then as now, tends more toward the boorish.  Her charm and grace made her beloved by all, unlike another grande dame of Boca, the Contessa von Phul, whom I dare regard as a friend, but who is generally more feared than revered. 

“What happened to Miss Lil?” I asked Junior. 

“This hustler stole her heart.  Then he stole her identity.  Then…”

I held up my hand to stop him.  I didn’t need to hear any more to make this as the time-honored Sweetheart Scam. 

Boca was prime hunting grounds for these leeches.  First of all, South Florida is the scam capital of the country.  You take a place with year-round sunshine, a tropical clime, miles of white sand beaches, waterfront mansions, yachts, nightclubs, and bootylicious bods of all sexual identities and persuasions, and what do you have?  Camelot?  No, Scamalot.   Hence, my lucrative livelihood.

And Boca, being one of the toniest towns in the region, is ground zero for grifters.  The place is chock-full of the nouveau riche and, more importantly, their exes and widows.  Well-preserved women living in well-preserved estates with well-preserved alimonies or annuities.  In other words, sitting ducks.  In fact, not long ago, I’d feared my own much-married mother, Stella Celeste Kucharski Horowitz Fleischer Steinblum Fishbein Rosenberg, was about to be scammed, but her new man, Leonard, turned out to be a stand-up guy.

 “Save your breath,” I told Junior.  “I’ve got the picture.  Now, in view of the fact that you’re acting as agent for Miss Lil in seeking my services, I’ll take the case.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said.

I didn’t respond.

“On Mama’s behalf, of course,” he added.

I nodded. 

I pulled my standard contract out of my file drawer and passed it to him across the scratched-up desktop.  My business may be booming, but my office isn’t chic.  Not even cheap chic.  Just cheap.  I know from my former life that opulence means oppression.  Now, I’m frugal and free.

Junior took a few minutes to read through the contract, then we both signed and dated two copies, one for each of us.  Struggling in his seat, he pulled a silver money clip out of his pants pocket and peeled off ten hundred-dollar bills for my retainer.  He handed them over and I stashed them in my boot, right next to my gun. 

“Now,” I said, “We’ll begin with the HELP.”

“The what?”

“The Horowitz Ersatz Lovers Profile.”

Hey, I’m no fool.  After doing a few of these cases, I’ve developed methods to streamline the process.

I pulled up the document on my computer screen and began asking Junior the questions, entering his answers as we went along. 

“What name did the perp go by?”

“Thurman Merrill Worthington.”

“The Third or the Fourth?”

“The Third,” Junior sighed.

Yes, for you ladies out there, it is just that simple.  If a guy with three WASP names followed by Roman numerals comes onto you, run for the nearest exit.  And take all the women in the vicinity with you.  Sisters gotta look out for each other.

I went on with the questionnaire.  “Height?”

“Four-eleven.”

“Not Miss Lil.  The perp.”

“Oh.  I never met him.  You’ll have to ask her.”

“Okay.”  Typical.  These guys avoided face time with the victim’s family and friends.  I skipped all the other questions pertaining to appearance.

“Multiple choice: How did Miss Lil meet him?  a) at a singles dance; b) on a cruise; c) at church/temple; or d) at a charity fundraiser?”

“None of the above.”

“Pardon?”

“They met on the Internet.”

Oh.  Guess I needed to update the questionnaire.  Damn, it was tough keeping pace with the older generation.

“Okay, multiple choice again: What was the length of the relationship? a) three months; b) four months; c) five months; or d) six months?”

“B.  Do they always operate in that time frame?”

“Yep.  True or false: He claimed to be a grieving widower and wasn’t sure he was ready for a new relationship.”

“True.”

“Multiple choice: His stated occupation was: a) investment advisor; b) venture capitalist; c) inventor; or d) chef.”

“C.  Any of these guys really say they’re chefs?”

“Nah.  It’s what we call a lie scale, to see if you’re being truthful.”  Like I was some kind of forensic psychologist.  I just made it up as I went along.  But it worked.

“True or false: He said he needed a short-term loan for his latest investment/ invention, which he would repay double in two days.”

“False.”

I sat back in my chair, folded my arms behind my head, and closed my eyes.

“Okay, Junior,” I said.  “Here’s who we’re dealing with.  A well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken gentleman with old-fashioned values and impeccable manners.  He’s new in town, looking for a place to live. Staying in a suite in an upscale hotel in the meantime. Claims he comes from old money, attended Andover Prep and Yale, has traveled the world, and is fluent in French, Italian, Russian, and Mandarin.  He has a humanitarian streak, professes to believe in the dictum of noblesse oblige.  Does volunteer work, gives money to worthy causes.  That’s appealing to some older women.  They’re no longer looking for someone who’d make a good father, but a Good Samaritan. A father to the world, if you will.

“When he’s with a woman, he’s totally focused on her.  They could be in a roomful of naked Playboy Playmates and his eyes wouldn’t stray.  He has finely honed instincts and intuition.  He quickly learns what makes his mark tick.  Makes her think he can read her mind.  He’s always telling her, “You feel this,” “You think that.”  Even if she doesn’t feel this or think that, she starts to believe that he knows her better than she knows herself.  Yet, he’s a wounded soul.  He’s in need of nurturing, although he’ll never say that outright.  Instead, he tells his mark that she’s too good for him. 

“He spends money on her, never lets her pay for anything.  Until one day, he needs a little business favor.  Can he deposit some money in her account?  Can she charge her credit card for the patent filing fee for that brilliant new invention that’s sure to make a fortune for them both? 

“Or maybe he’s not that overt.  After all, he spends a lot of time at her home, being fed and nurtured.  Gives him plenty of time to snoop through a purse or through the day’s mail while she’s in the bathroom.

“Then one day he doesn’t show up.  And she never hears from him again.  Then she realizes she’s been cleaned out.  Or she starts getting bills for goods and services she never bought.  And then she realizes her identity has been stolen.

“Now, anyplace but Boca, this scummeister would leave town.  But the pickings and the living are just too good here.  And the victims are too embarrassed to tell their friends, so he won’t be recognized.  He can just move from one to the next, changing his story just a little, choosing different options from the multiple choices.  Changes his name, his hotel, maybe his hair and eye color.  Pays off the maître d’s in the restaurants so they don’t let on that he’s a regular with a stable of women.”

I opened my eyes. 

“So that’s it,” I said.  “That’s our man.  Just gotta find him.”

Junior sat in silence, staring at me.

“Wow,” he said finally.  “How do you know all that?”

I stated the obvious: “It’s my job.”

Then I said, “You understand, Junior, as it explicitly states in the contract, once I find this swine, uh, swindler, I turn him over to the police.  Now I’m telling you, and this isn’t in the contract, that if anything happens to him while he’s not in their custody, you’re dead meat.”

Now, I swear when I said that I didn’t know that within twenty-four hours Junior would be buried six feet under, and I would regret my threat.

 


Reviews

“Full of humor, wisecracks, and guessing games as we try to figure out whodunit . . . This has a surprise ending.”                               

–Tara Chevresst, “The Book Babe”

 

“Enjoyable characters and plot.”              

–Anne, Amazon reviewer

 

“Enjoyable mystery with a most interesting protagonist.”    

                                                                          –John H. Manhold, Amazon reviewer

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