Key Lime Squeeze
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by Ron Adams
Description: Key Lime Squeeze follows Buffalo P.I. Joe Banks as he answers a plea from a mob princess to locate her runaway husband, insurance executive, Robert Boothby. Saddled with the crime family's enforcer for a traveling companion, Banks tracks Boothby to the Florida Keys, and soon learns he is not the only one interested in locating the missing Insurance mogul. Allies become enemies in a cat and mouse game of murder and deceit as Banks discovers who to trust, and who's in on the squeeze.
eBook Publisher: Charles River Press,
eBookwise Release Date: November 2010
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [299 KB]
Reading time: 180-252 min.
"Be prepared to miss meals, appointments, and phone calls" - Lady Rosalie Skinner
Did you ever have the feeling that as soon as you agreed to do something, you'd regret it? This was definitely one of those times. I was in reasonable demand in the insurance industry, thanks in part to the work I did on the Dellaplante case a year ago. My buddy Kevin Garner, an investigator with Kellerman Life Insurance, did a great job of talking me up to other insurance companies. "Banks is the best," he would tell them. "The guy works hard, won't quit, gets results, yadda, yadda, yadda." The upside to this was that, for first time in recent memory, cash flow was headed in a positive direction, which was nice. It was a big switch from dodging bill collectors, and my wife appreciated it.
So when Midland Merchants, a property casualty company, called Kevin for a recommendation to look into a case, he immediately thought of me. I was sitting in my office when he called, windows open and an old-school box fan spinning in a vain attempt to keep the occupants comfortable in the midsummer heat. I could never keep it straight, whether to have outside air blowing in or inside air blowing out. I opted for the breeze. The air was still hot and humid, but at least it was moving.
"Joe, how would you like to make some easy money?" Kevin sounded cheerful. He had to be in an air-conditioned office or his equally cooled BMW because nobody I knew felt cheerful in this humidity. It was a typical steamy day in late July, in stark contrast to the legendary cold and snow western New York is famous for. I was seriously thinking about the first ice-cold beer out on the back deck after work. So the thought of a simple job that paid well had a certain appeal.
"Easy works for me," I said into the phone, "especially in this heat."
"What? You're still working with that crappy, old fan? With all the work I've been sending you, you think you'd invest in an air conditioner for that hole in the wall you call an office," he said. "If you won't do it for yourself, at least do it for that delicate flower, Samantha."
Kevin had a case of the middle-age hots for Sam Kelly, my assistant-slash-secretary-slash-friend. She ran my office the way my wife, Paula, ran the rest of my life. Both kept me more or less on the straight and narrow. Paula used love and encouragement, while Sam had smack and sarcasm. Both methods worked.
Sam sat at her desk, her auburn hair pulled in a high bun to keep it off her neck. A short, cotton sundress and mid-heeled sandals kept her as cool as possible in the heat. We met a short time after I arrived in Buffalo. I helped her out of a bad situation, and she became a part of the family. We looked out for each other, took care of each other, and teased the hell out of each other.
I covered the bottom half of the phone with my hand and called, "Sam! Kevin thinks you're a vegetable."
She sneered and blew a kiss with one finger.
"I don't think she approves of your opinion of her, Kev."
"Asshole. I don't know why I bother with you sometimes," he shot back. "There's guys like you all over western New York who would kill for the work I toss you, ya know!"
"I know; I know. I can be a real insensitive jerk. Paula is still trying to housebreak me. So tell me about the job."
"Robert Boothby over at Midland Merchants called me looking for someone to check into a problem one of their companies is having with stock theft. They have this major account with Buffalo Wholesale Beverage, and they think one of their own is ripping them off. I told him you were the guy for the job."
"Who's Boothby? Have I ever heard of him?" Buffalo Wholesale I've heard of. As one of the more legitimate business enterprises of the Cantolino family, BWB has probably laundered more gambling and protection money than it ever sold in booze.
"Probably not. I know him from the business. He's a VP over there, runs the high-end property claims."
"Don't they have their own in-house people to do investigations?"
"He asked for you specifically. Apparently, someone's been talking you up to the right people. You want the job or not?"
"Sure. Can you fill me in a little?" I was nervous about dealing with the Cantolinos, but it did seem like easy money. Having a layer of insulation provided by Merchants Mutual wasn't bad either.
"No, but I told Rob I would give you his number, and you can call him and work out the details," Kevin explained.
I took the number. "Thanks, Kevin. I'll give him a call."
As Boothby described it, the work was simple enough. Buffalo Wholesale Beverage Distribution, the largest liquor distributor in the Buffalo area, had been reporting lost liquor case claims for the past six months. At first they lost a few cases a week, but it escalated to the point of fifty to a hundred cases a day. They needed someone to pass as a warehouseman at Buffalo Wholesale and learn why they were losing stock and how to stop it. Once upon a time, during a period of what I like to refer to as intense character development, I drove trucks for a company out of Brockton, Massachusetts. I was qualified and knew the business pretty well. Boothby didn't blink at my fee, so I agreed.
Three weeks later and twenty pounds lighter, I still tossed cases of liquor in the warehouse with no more idea of who'd been taking them than I did before. Paula and Sam were privately pleased to see me "working" for a change, but to be honest, it was not my idea of fun. A cold beer, a hammock in the shade, and a transistor radio with a baseball game--now that was fun.
I reported to the warehouse on my usual shift, nine in the morning. I punched a paper time card into the manual time clock. I shook my head and sighed. A job is a job. Say what you will about the operation, you couldn't say they wasted money on useless technology. The most modern equipment owned was a trio of electric cherry-picker tow motors that lifted the operators high enough to get at some of the cases stacked toward the open ceiling. While the pickers limited the number of people forced to climb the three-story warehouse racks, they could hardly be confused for true modernization.
The only people who knew why I worked here, besides Boothby, were the owners, Tony and Paul Cantolino. The Cantolino family had owned the distributing company for years, passed down from father to sons, along with several questionable business ventures in the Buffalo area. The boys kept a tight rein on the bottom line of all their interests and felt they had to go through the "proper" channels to tend to this problem. Meaning they were letting the law deal with it instead of taking care of it internally. It kept their hands clean. So my job was simple: find out who was ripping them off, call in the authorities, and ride off into the sunset.
The good news was that Tony and Paul liked me. The bad news was that it was assumed by the other workers that I was given special favors by management. Special favors were considered good when doled out by the union but bad when given by management. Go figure.
I walked to the shipper's desk and grabbed an order to fill and a hand truck. I took an order sheet, read the list of items by warehouse location, and headed for the first item to be picked. Luckily it was a full case of Scotch whiskey. I picked it off the pallet of cases, hoisted it on my shoulder, and walked over to the shipping floor.
The floor was laid out in a grid, which turned the whole process into a game of industrial bingo with liquor cases. I liked orders of whole cases; they were easy. The day warmed as it wore on. Sweat soaked my once-clean T-shirt, and caked the dirt and dust. I finally hit a bottle order. That required individual bottles from cases and took longer since I had to go to the bottle room.
I grabbed a cardboard box and got the top off with my cutter, building dividers with the cut-off pieces. I held the order up for reference as I walked the long racks, checking the shelves for the right bottles. The racks ran three high and a good fifty yards long of open cases of everything Buffalo Wholesale kept in stock. Dusty and close back there, awash in halogen light, everybody hated the bottle orders. I was no exception. Luckily my next orders were whole-case orders, so things moved along pretty quickly for the first part of the day. I grabbed a sheet from the order pile and a two-wheeled dolly and went out to the case racks.
It was grunt work of the first order, and the heat and humidity mixed with the dust and diesel fumes in a kind of lung-crushing heaviness that left me sweaty from just breathing. The big push came from liquor stores and bars stocking up for the holiday weekend, and that had us working overtime most nights. I was well into my orders, and had a six-case load of cheap sangria wine on my dolly. I was really pushing hard, looking forward to the spot on the floor to dump my order..
Some joker threw a perfect strike with a piece of scrap wood right under the tire. The two-wheeler jolted to a stop and I tripped forward. My momentum carried me past the dolly, and I managed to roll to the side as the glass inside the cardboard cases shattered, releasing its fruity alcoholic contents. I heard the laughing, but I wasn't quick enough to find out who it was. I got up, checked for my own breakage, and went to get the trash can full of quick-dry to clean up the mess. The stink of cheap wine hung in my nose while I worked the broom, the puddle becoming a solid wet mass of grit. I shoveled it into the dump bin and shoved the whole mess off to the side to be ready for the next victim.
I took a break at 11:30. The sweat and grime stuck to me as I downed a bottle of water. I was still aggravated at the idiot who tripped me up. All this character building was getting old fast. Break over, I pulled a bottle order for about two dozen individual bottles for a bar on the Elmwood Strip. I grabbed an empty box, a bunch of scrap cardboard, and checked my box cutter as I proceeded along the bays of open cases. One of the other guys jerked his head to the side, motioning me to follow him around the back of the racks. I nodded back, very cloak and dagger, and followed him. It was the closest thing I had had to a lead since I started. Three guys stood back there, talking amid the din.
"Hey, yo, Andy!" Jake called.
I paused before I looked up, forgetting for a moment I used my middle name for this job. Jerry Fornes, Bill Francis, and Jake Crawford waved me over. They held the most seniority in the distribution center and were next in line for driving jobs when they came open. I had talked to Jake before, just guy stuff. He was friendly enough. He reminded me of my kid brother, strong and stocky with a thick head of curly, blond hair and a dirty blond shadow of a beard. He was quick with a hand if I needed it and showed me the best ways to do the job. I liked him and hoped he wasn't involved in the scam.
Jerry and Bill, on the other hand, were harder to read. Jerry wore a permanent scowl and held his arms crossed and his legs apart. Bill kept his hands in his back pockets with a more vacant expression, almost as if he were constantly amazed that he was hanging out with Jerry. They were all business, all union, and always passed over for the better driving jobs. They would get out sometimes, taking loaded vans to the bars or liquor stores, but nothing that paid as well as the bigger loads. I made a note that where one was, the other was pretty close by, not that there was anything wrong with that.
"Yeah, Jake. What's up?" I asked, nodding to Jerry and Bill. They nodded back in acknowledgment.
"Nice trip, Banks?" Jerry asked, jabbing Bill in the side.
"Very smooth," Bill added, sniggering. "No hard feelings?"
"Naw," I said with a smile. "But you know what they say about payback."
"You guys know each other?" Jake asked.
"We've seen each other around," Bill piped up. He stood shorter, maybe 5'7", with a muscular build and close-cropped medium brown hair. He looked like the kind of guy who might have always wanted to be a cop but wasn't tall enough to make the cut. He stuck his hand out. I shook it firmly. He introduced himself then Jerry.
"Nice to meet you guys," I said.
Jerry Fornes stood taller than I, wiry with skinny forearms entwined by tattoos. Some of them were the work of a pro, trying to cover up the characteristic blue ink work of a jailhouse amateur. Flecks of silver salted his black hair and goatee and framed his acne-scarred cheeks and forehead.
"Jake says you're OK," Jerry said, his voice grating like sandpaper on asphalt.
"Opinions vary but my mother loves me," I shot back.
"He also said you were a smart ass," Bill said.
"Jake talks a lot, don't he?" I said, looking at Jake, who smiled and shrugged.
"Mostly to us, which is a good thing," Jerry said, slapping Jake on the back. "He says you told him about doing time in Alden, something to do with assault and pissing in a cop car?"
"It was late, I had too much beer, and I needed to take a leak. Seemed like the thing to do."
"In a cop car?" Bill asked.
"The window was open. It looked like a nice, clean place."
"What about the assault?" Jerry chimed in.
"The cop was still in the car," I responded.
That brought a round of head shaking, and I think the phrase crazy SOB was whispered among the bunch of them.
"So what is this, meeting of the local MENSA chapter?" I asked.
"The what?" Jake asked. I was going to explain it but decided it would take too long.
"We just wanted to see what kinda guy you are," said Bill. "Jake says you seem pretty stand-up."
I nodded. Who was I to argue?
"We have a little business on the side," Jerry started. "We were thinking maybe we need to bring another guy into it, if you're interested."
"Wait a minute. This isn't one of those Amway or Mary Kay kinda things, is it?" I asked sarcastically. "Because I had this neighbor, see, and he was always trying to get me into . . ."
"Be serious for a second, will ya?" Jake pleaded.
"All right, guys, what's the deal?"
Bill and Jerry looked at each other, shrugged, and turned to me.
Bill spoke first. "You think you're pretty funny, tough guy?" Apparently he didn't.
"OK, so I have a good sense of humor screwed up with a bad sense of timing. Your point is what? 'Cause I have to get back to work," I said.
"Trust me, guys," Jake piped up. "He's the best guy to bring in." He shot me a dirty look, like I was blowing this big opportunity.
Jerry considered the last statement and said, "We have a partnership here, a little side business like we said. We operate off the losses here at BWB, sorta like a salvage company."
"Salvage company," I repeated. Now we were getting somewhere.
"Yeah, like that," said Bill, pleased to see I was catching on. "You know, with all the breakage that happens around here, it's a shame to let the rest of the unbroken bottles in the case go in the dumpster. So we have a market for all the stuff that would just be tossed otherwise."
"I'm surprised management here hadn't thought of that," I said, playing along.
"They ain't too bright," Jerry said, looking around. "So you want in or what?"
"Yeah, sure. I mean, all we're really doin' is cleanup, right?"
"You know, I think he gets it," Jerry exclaimed. He laughed and stuck out his hand to shake mine. "Maybe he is smarter than he looks."
Jake slapped me on the back, letting me know that I was in with the gang.
Bill looked around then turned to me. "After the shift we'll be at the back of the warehouse, out by the old Parker trailer in the back. Know where I'm talkin' about?"
"Yeah, I'll be there," I told him, turning to go back to work. Finally a break I could use. I stopped for a second to get a drink of lukewarm water from the fountain near the shipping floor doorway and wiped the excess off my chin.
"C'mon, you chimps, back to work!" the shipper called from the front of the pick line. "These friggin' cases ain't gonna move themselves."
This was going to be a long night.