AN ARISTOTLE “SOC” SOCARIDES MYSTERY
by: Paul Kemprecos
(click on the image)
The first time I met Howie Gill he was standing in my driveway next to a high-lift pickup truck that looked like it had been used as a paintball target. He stood there with his legs planted wide apart and his hands glued to his hips, elbows akimbo in a “wanna fight” pose. The frown that decorated a face the color of a ripe carrot would have put a bull-dog to shame. If his square head were bent any lower, his chin would have rested on the top of his substantial belly. When a guy built like a haystack glares at you that way, you know he’s trouble.
I ran down the mental list of people who might have a reason to be ticked off at me. It was longer than I would have liked. The stranger didn’t fit the profile of anyone I had offended or owed money to, but I kept a wary eye peeled as I got out of my pickup truck, strolled over and asked if I could help him.
The frown deepened. Not a good sign.
“You Aristotle Socarides?” he growled, making the question sound like an accusation.
“Yup,” I said. “That’s me. Have we met?”
Dumb question. It was unlikely that I’d forget meeting the man blocking the path to my front door. He was a couple inches over six feet tall. His shoulders strained the seams of a faded denim shirt. The sleeves had been inexpertly cut off to accommodate his beefy biceps. His gut hung over mud-speckled blue jeans. His v-shaped unibrow and brush-cut hair were matching orange, as if someone had used the top of his head for a juicer.
He squinted at me with baby-blue eyes that were too small for his face. We had a squinting contest for about ten seconds. I gave him the full-on Clint Eastwood. All that was missing were the electric guitar chords, the chewed-up cigar and the echoing whistle.
I must have out-squinted him, because after ten seconds he blinked and said, “Name is Gill. I want to hire you.”
Gill’s rough-and-tumble looks didn’t fit the profile of my usual charter fishing customers, who tend to be white-collar workers or professionals. Gill wore the knee-high black rubber boots of someone who made his living along the shore, and he gave off an odor that was a mixture of sweat, booze and low tide. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t turn away a paying customer as long as his money didn’t smell, but I shook my head and gave him the bad news.
“Sorry, Mr. Gill. I’m not taking anyone out fishing right now.”
“Who said anything about going fishing? I want to hire a private detective. That’s what you do, right?”
“That’s only part of what I do when I’m not running a charter fishing boat.”
The tips of his wide mouth drooped. “Maybe you’re not the one I want.”
Gill was starting to bore me. “Maybe I’m not,” I said. “Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Gill. Have a nice day.”
I stepped around his wide-beamed body and headed for the front door.
“Hey,” he called after me. “Maybe we should talk anyway.”
I paused with my hand on the doorknob. What the heck, I thought. Talking to Gill might take my mind off my own problems. I turned and pointed to the stairs that ran from the driveway onto the deck that wrapped around three sides of the converted boathouse I call home.
“Make yourself comfortable. Be with you in a couple of minutes.”
Kojak, the Maine Coon cat, greeted me as soon as I stepped inside. Kojak shares rooms with me, as Dr. Watson used to say about his friend Sherlock Holmes. He’s getting on in years, moves more slowly and sleeps a lot. The one thing that hasn’t failed is his appetite. He rubbed against my leg and practically knocked me over until I tossed a handful of tuna flavored Greenies into his favorite bowl—the one with the kitten face on it. While he munched on his snacks, I got a growler of Cape Cod Red beer out of the fridge, grabbed a couple of mismatched mugs from the cupboard and pushed open the screen door to the deck.
Gill was sitting on an unpainted wooden Adirondack chair that was practically invisible under his bulky body. I plunked down in the chair next to his, tilted the bottle and handed a foaming mug to him. Then I poured one for myself. Gill was gazing with half-lidded eyes at a couple of sailboats cutting twin wakes through the green jade waters of the bay. He grunted something that could have been a thank you, or simply a grunt, slurped down half his beer in a single gulp, and said, “Nice view.”
I sipped from my mug, letting the cold liquid trickle down my throat, and gazed off at the narrow barrier beach that separated the bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s the reason I bought this place, even though it was pretty much a wreck. It was part of an old estate and the heirs wanted to unload the old eyesore to pay inheritance taxes on the main property.”
He shook his head. “Not what I expected.”
“The wind used to whistle in through one wall and out the other before I plugged the leaks, but even with all the work I’ve put into it the house isn’t exactly a McMansion.”
“Talking about you, not the house. You’re not what I expected in a private detective. I was thinking you’d be in an office and wearing a suit.”
“Like I said, the detective stuff is a sideline. My day job is taking people out to catch fish. I only take cases that interest me. I don’t advertise. How did you hear about me?”
“A guy named Frank Martin in the DA’s office said I should talk to you.”
“Assistant District Attorney Martin?”
Francis Xavier Martin was a young ADA I’d met on a murder case. Frank is covertly angling for the DA’s job. We’ve been secret friends ever since I made his boss look bad.
“That’s the one. What’s this going to cost me?”
I could have told Gill that he wouldn’t have to spend a nickel because I wasn’t going to take his case, but I was curious why Martin had sent him my way.
So I said, “The first consultation is free. I can’t tell you how much I’m going to charge until I know why you want to hire a private detective. What’s going on?”
He drained the second half of the beer mug as if he were trying to douse some inner fire and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I filled the mug again.
“I’m an oyster farmer. Got a grant on Cape Cod Bay. I was doing pretty good until some bastards ripped off my oyster beds.”
I’d heard coffee shop talk about poachers hitting some of the oyster farms that have sprouted up along the shore of the bay in recent years, but I’d had a busy summer with my charter business and didn’t know the details. “Bring me up to date on what’s been happening.”
He nodded. “Started late spring. It wasn’t just me who lost stock and gear. Buncha guys with farms got hit, but I got slammed the hardest. Twenty thousand oysters got taken in one raid. Top dollar crop ready for market, meaning I got hurt big-time. Ten grand gone in one night.”
I sympathized with Gill. After I left my job as a Boston cop I, too, became a commercial fisherman and I learned from hard experience that working on or around the water is a tough way to make a living. Oyster farmers plant seed shellfish, tend the crop and harvest it. I’ve never done the work, but I’ve talked to a few farmers and know that bad weather or the forces of nature can wipe out months of investment in both time and money. No oyster farmer should have to worry about someone coming in and stealing his crop.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said, meaning every word. “When did the poaching start?”
“I got hit the first time in June. Farmers near me had losses around the same time. We took turns patrolling the flats and hid cameras to see if we could catch these weasels. Even offered a reward. Nothing. By then the poachers had moved on to other towns along the bay.”
“Do the police have any leads?”
Gill sounded like a sump pump as he slurped down his beer. He plunked the empty mug down hard on the table.
“Those guys are nothing but welfare in uniform,” Gill huffed. “I’ve gone to the town cops, the shellfish warden, the harbormaster, the natural resources officer and the environmental police. Everyone says the same thing.” He gave me a humorless smile that displayed the gap between his two front teeth. “They say it’s under investigation,” he said, drawing out the sentence in a lazy drawl.
“With all those people chasing after the poachers, it’s only a matter of days or weeks before someone drops a dime. Why spend money hiring a private cop?”
“Cuz I’m running out of time and oysters. My grant got hit again last night. They didn’t take a lot of shellfish, so it wasn’t a huge money loss, but they grabbed big breeding oysters that are tough to replace. Hell, I didn’t even report it to the cops. Done with those dead-brained screw-offs. I went directly to the DA’s office. Just another clown show. Your friend was the only one who’d talk to me.”
I made a mental note to thank Frank for fobbing Gill off on me. The last thing I needed in my life was a short-tempered oyster farmer. I fetched another growler of beer from my fridge and poured our mugs full.
“Okay, Mr. Gill, let’s back it up a bit. What’s your first name?”
He scowled. “It’s Howland. But don’t call me that if you want to live. Howie will do.”
“Fair enough. Same goes for me. Call me Soc.”
“Now that’s settled, I’m going to be up front, Howie. I’ve got other things on my plate. One of the outboards on my party boat has crapped out and the other is close to receiving last rites. I’ll have some time available while I figure out how to salvage the rest of the charter season, but I can’t do a full investigation.”
“Not asking for one, Soc. Just need you for a few hours. I think the poachers are going to try again tonight.”
“What makes you so sure of that?”
“These guys like to come in on the new moon, when it’s darker than a clam’s asshole. I told the cops, but now they say they don’t have the manpower. Guess they’re all tired out from standing around drinking coffee on road jobs.”
“I get it, Howie. You don’t like the boys in blue, but how can I help?”
“Your pal at the DA’s office said it’s not just getting a look at the poachers. I need a pro to collect evidence that will stand up in court.”
“He’s right. An amateur would mess things up. Okay, I’ll do a stake-out. My normal fee is a hundred-fifty bucks an hour. I’ll give you the fisherman’s discount and knock it down to a hundred. Figure a five-hour minimum between midnight and sunrise.”
Gill glowered. “That’s five hundred bucks.”
“I usually get a five hundred dollar retainer. I’ll pass it up in this case. Pay me when the job is done. The beer is on the house.”
“I don’t have that kind of money, especially after the latest hit,” Gill said. “But the reward’s five thousand bucks. If you catch someone the money’s all yours.”
I raised an eyebrow. Five grand was a tidy sum.
“I’ll have to check out the crime scene to make sure I can do the job.”
“That’s fair,” he said. “When do you want to go?”
“No time like the present.”
Six Hours Earlier
When the blind poet Homer said that ‘our fortunes lie on the knees of the gods,’ he was probably thinking about a frisky young goddess named Tyche. If Tyche smiles, you bump into a friend who invites you to a party where you meet the love of your life. When Tyche is feeling cranky, you miss your pal by a second, spend the night alone tossing shots down in a gin mill only to kiss a tree on the drive home.
I don’t know what Tyche was doing in my neighborhood. Maybe she was on Cape Cod to take in the sea air. And maybe Lady Luck, as we call her, got tired of the lobster stews and ocean views Patti Page used to croon about. But if she hadn’t decided to spice up my life, I would not have driven up to my house to find Howie Gill waiting on my doorstep. I would never have met a great white shark named Emma. I wouldn’t have been drawn into the love affair between a long-dead pirate and a reputed witch. Nor would I have gone into the movie business and met the most beautiful woman in the world. I might have lived what some people would consider a boring and safe existence as a charter boat captain.
Tyche and I go way back. She had let me survive a combat stint as a Marine and gave me a promising career as a detective with the Boston Police Department. I was engaged to a beautiful and intelligent woman who was much better than I deserved. Then Tyche had a bad day and shared it with me. A kid from the Charlestown projects stole a car in what was a rite of passage for young punks. He T-boned my fiancée’s mini-van and killed her. It was a chance encounter, but it sent me skittering off in search of a new life. In my grief, I looked for solace where I had found it after coming home from war. I headed for the sea.
Still in a daze after the funeral, I drove away from Boston and wound up on a deserted Cape Cod beach. I threw stones into the breaking waves and yelled myself hoarse over the crashing surf, which helped a little. I stopped at a coffee shop to warm up and that’s where I met Sam. He ran a fishing boat, needed a crewman, and was desperate enough to offer me a job. I was desperate enough to take it. I quit the BPD, signed on to the Millie D. and learned how to catch fish.
Sam and I made a good team. We were high-liners, which meant we caught more fish than anyone else in the fleet, until years of toil in the toughest of elements caught up with Sam. After he survived a major heart episode, his doctor told him he was done fishing. Sam and his wife Mildred moved to Florida, where the most stressful part of their day was and still remains deciding where to go to enjoy the Early Bird Dinner special.
All I knew when I got up with the sun that golden September morning was that the day was full of promise. I ate a hearty breakfast, said goodbye to Kojak, and headed toward the Hyannis Marina in my 1987 GMC pickup. Shortly after eight o’clock I eased the charter boat Thalassa II out of its slip and pointed the bow into the Hyannis Harbor channel.
As the 36-foot-long, blue-hulled Grady-White joined the slow-moving line of traffic into Lewis Bay, I pictured Sam beside me at the wheel, his sun-toasted nose raised to the heavens like a hound’s. Yup, Sam would declare, any fisherman worth his salt can sniff out codfish miles away. Sam confessed after he retired that he didn’t use his nose to find fish; he had simply figured out when and where they fed over decades of chasing the finny critters around the ocean. Then he used the fish finder.
Sam got a nice retirement cushion when I bought the Millie D. but the days of full fish holds were a thing of the past. Fish were becoming scarce and the cod fishery was circling the drain. I sold the Millie D. for short money and got into the party boat business. Now all I had to do to earn my pay was take folks out on the Thalassa II, find a school of fish, make sure the clients hooked a few, then snap photos of them and their catch for the family album.
Instead of the boots, faded jeans, work shirt and slickers that go with commercial fishing, I wear tan shorts or slacks, depending on the weather, boat shoes and a spiffy sky-blue polo shirt inscribed with a boat logo over my name: Captain Aristotle Socarides. I shaved off the mustache because it was going gray along with my hair. I still wear a gold earring and a shark’s tooth pendant hangs from a cord around my neck, only because that’s the kind of thing clients like to see on us “salty” types.
It had been a great summer. The weather was superb and the fish were so eager to jump into the boat I practically had to bat them off. Fall was looking good. Clear sunny skies were forecast for the next few weeks.
The boat had been hired by a CPA named Mike from Somerville, Massachusetts, for a reunion with three buddies who’d gone to school with him at Northeastern University. As the Thalassa II came abreast of the Kennedy Compound, where dreams were born and died, Mike sidled up to the helm and asked about the boat’s name. I gave him the standard answer.
“It’s the Greek word for the sea.”
Thalassa does mean the sea, but it’s more than that. The word evokes the spirit, the mysticism of the realm of gods and goddesses, the great deep, the abyss from which all things come. I told Mike to whisper the word and he’d hear the hiss of breaking waves. He gave it a try and a smile came to his face.
“Cool,” Mike said. “I like it. What happened to the first Thalassa?”
I could have told Mike the whole story—that a Russian gangster I’d offended had his goons torch the boat, but I didn’t want to make him nervous. I cut it down to the basics: “I had a fire on board.”
Mike must have been satisfied with the explanation because he rejoined his classmates. We cleared the harbor and I goosed the twin 250-horsepower outboard motors. I set a southwest course toward Horseshoe Shoals, a patch of shallow water that lies south of Cape Cod between the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
More than a dozen boats had their lines in the water when we arrived at the shoals. I steered the boat to a reliable honey-hole I had marked on the GPS. The fish finder screen showed a thicket of silhouettes directly below the hull. I cut the engine and we drifted in the easy swells. I handed around the rods and reels. Most clients have little or no experience at fishing, but these guys knew exactly how to cast and troll without getting a fishhook caught in their thumbs. I didn’t have to untangle lines, and even had time to make a few casts myself.
It only took a few minutes before someone shouted, “Fish on.”
Soon, a big bluefish was flopping around on the deck. Then another. It went like that all morning. Over the next couple of hours, we hauled in dozens of blues and bonito. We kept only enough to eat; the rest went back into the water. Around noon I broke open the cooler and passed out the sandwiches that were part of the package deal.
The charter was for a half day, so we headed home after lunch. By then the classmates were re-creating the drunken memories of the night Northeastern whomped Harvard at the Beanpot hockey Tournament. Noses were getting red, only partly from the sun.
I poured coffee all around, reminded the revelers that they had to stay sober enough to drive once we reached the marina, then hauled anchor and started the motors. We made a quick trip back to the harbor entrance. As the boat passed the long breakwater that sticks out from Kalmus Beach, I cut speed in the no-wake zone. Which is when I discovered that Tyche had hitched a ride between the fishing grounds and the harbor.
The blue-black smoke coming from under the starboard motor cover smelled like a burning toxic waste dump. I put the throttle on forward idle, slid the boat into the slip and cut power. The smoke diminished but the odor still hung in the air. I hustled my passengers off the boat and laid the fish out on the dock for the mandatory post-trip photos. The party gave me a generous tip, we shook hands all around and they thanked me for a nice day. As soon as they left I removed the engine cover.
The oil on the dipstick was milky in color. Not good. I walked over to the marine repair shop and talked to a mechanic named Len who said he’d take a look at it. Len came over and checked the oil, clucked like a mother hen, took a closer look at the motor and clucked again.
“Sorry to ruin your day. You’ve got a cracked engine block.”
“I don’t know how that could be, Len. I make sure the motor is maintained.”
“Not a question of maintenance. Block’s been that way for a while. Someone filled in the crack. Take a look here.” He ran his finger down the side of the block to show where the seam had been caulked. “Let’s check out the other motor.” It took only seconds to find another patched block. “This one is still holding, but it’ll blow with some hard use.”
“Damn,” I said. “Guy who sold me the boat and motors didn’t say anything about the patches.”
“Maybe he forgot.”
“Yeah. Right. Maybe I should give him a call.”
I found the bill of sale tucked in with the boat registration. The number I called was out of service. I told Len. He sighed. “You got any warranty on those outboards?”
“The warranty expired this spring. What are my options?”
None of the choices he offered made me jump for joy. It was like picking out my casket from a line-up of coffin models. New motors were out of the question, so I would have to look for refurbished ones or buy reconditioned blocks and rebuild the motors. All options were expensive. All except for new motors would take time. And I would end the Thalassa’s charter season with a big fat repair bill. I told Len I would have to think about it. He said he was sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
Len had a better bedside manner than many of the doctors I’ve met, but there was no sugar-coating the diagnosis. I went back to the boat, hosed down the deck and stowed the fishing rods in the cabin. After piling some personal items into a canvas bag, I got into my truck, headed out of Hyannis and drove east on Route 6, the Mid-Cape Highway. There was no way to minimize it. This was an unexpected disaster.
I had borrowed family money to go into the charter fishing business. I would have preferred a bank loan, but I had already borrowed against my house to buy Sam’s boat and sold it at a loss when the fishery went down the drain. Like the bank robber Willie Sutton said, “You go where the money is.” Working hundred-hour weeks, the Socarides family had built a mom-and-pop pizza and sub joint into a frozen pizza and sub empire. The business is run by my younger brother George. Sister Chloe does the marketing.
My dad retired after dementia set in and spends his days quietly in a rest home room decorated with photos of his hometown of Athens. George voted against the loan and my younger sister Chloe was in favor. My mother is nearly ninety years old, but she still calls the shots. Her vote in favor of the loan was the tie-breaker. It was her idea to name the boat Thalassa as part of the deal. If I reneged on the loan, my mother would lose face. George would make a power play for the company, and Chloe would fight him with every ounce of stubbornness in her body. A family mess, in other words.
There’s another reason I was worried about being beholden to the family. To put it kindly, my mother is a benevolent loan shark. She won’t knock my teeth out or leave me senseless in an alley. She will call in the chits, the obligations that I should be carrying out as the eldest son in a Greek-American family. It would come as a softball. ‘Aristotle,’ my mother would say, ‘I have a favor to ask of you.’ The words strike cold fear in my heart. For years, I never carried a cell phone. I’ve got one now, a Flintstones model flip-phone, because of the business, but every time it rings I worry that it’s my mother needing my help with the family.
I was still stewing about my bad luck when I turned onto my driveway and saw Howie Gill waiting to offer me a job chasing oyster thieves. Tyche was a fickle god, but until she brought Gill into my life, I didn’t know she was also infused with a sense of humor.
Suspense Publishing. Copyright © Paul Kemprecos, 2018.