“Drop Off” (a Ben Miles mystery)

The gross humid air was made worse by the growing chill in the air, settling unevenly. The cool temperatures only made the day worse by making him shiver, but also feel the sticky air on his skin and refuse to put a real jacket on, preferring to suffer slightly that to suffer greatly. 

Afternoons in Queens were a mix of riotous frenzies of kids out of school, and the quiet of working-class neighborhoods with no much to do. No one was out in Astoria, giving the gray day a weird, haunted feel as Ben Miles, PI and bondsman, stood on the corner, checking his phone. So far, the instructions had been pretty simple, and the payday was gonna be a good one. Who cares if the client asked hi to wait around and go to specific locations, stand around, and text in when he was there? He’d run the number and names of his new client and they’d cup up clean, so he was reasonably sure the wasn’t a set-up.

Mostly reasonably sure.

Ben’s phone rang, and he checked the text. Same number. The text told him to head to Queens Plaza, a specific corner in the busy subway and highway junction neighborhood of Queens, this side of the bridge. He sighed, figuring this would take him about another half hour, and walked towards the subway station.

Three grand from some NYU college teacher to walk around, no biggie. Ben took the stairs two at a time up to the elevated N train station, swiping through and getting to the platform just as the train was pulling away. “Fuck…” he groaned.

Whatever, no big deal, he thought. There’d be another along in about ten minutes, and he mostly had the platform to himself, the only others being the MTA gy buy the stairs and the homeless-looking lady at the far opposite end. Ben walked along the platform towards the front, hands in pockets, feeling his cellphone buzz again, another call. He swiped the screen without bothering to loo at who was calling. “Yeah?”

“It’s me,” a weirdly static and muffled voice said.

“Who?”

“The static cleared up suddenly, and Ben recognized Dough, one of his ex boss and friend Kalli Kiliaris’ employees. Dough, despite the name and his size, was a quiet bookish type. He was a master researcher, could find anything. Ben used to go through Kalli a lot for help on his cases, and she in turn relied on Dough and other employees of her bigger and better-run private eye company. Lately though, Kalli wa less than pleased to see her ex-employee Ben using her current employees to do all his legwork for his cases when they should, she reasoned, be working on theirs. Ben went behind her back, sneaking into her phone to get to Dough directly this time.

“I know you ran the name and number and they came clean, but I took a look myself at your client. I don’t know how even your half-ass Google search didn’t pick up his drug rap and assault and B&E thing?”

“No,” Ben sighed. “Stupid hippies.”

“Never trust a hippie, man, my old man said,” Dough’s voice changed again and Ben realized that the background noise and static was from him being under elevated subway tracks somewhere. “Anyway, so all the places you said you’ve been going to? It’s a thing.”

“I know it’s a fucking thing, Dough. I’m doing it.”

“No, you don’t get it. It’s like a trend or whatever, a culture. They call it geocaching, where you use GPS to track locations down.” Ben scratched his nose as Dough kept talking, “It’s like a competition or somethi…”

The hit came fast, and Ben crumpled, his phone clattering onto the platform out of his hands. Before he fell, the second blow got him in the kidneys, turning him around to see the short ugly white guy, definitely not a hippie, holding the collapsing asp baton in one hand.

Fuck, that hurt, Ben thought to himself, on the ground.

“Small world, you used to have a girlfriend named Cait, right?” Dough asked him, sitting across from Ben at the diner, oblivious to Ben holding the Ziploc bag of ice to his forehead, eating an omelet.

“How the fuck do you know that?”

Dough looked at him, almost patronizingly, continuing on obliviously. “Anyway, she used to run with that Brooklyn punk crowd before you and her dated, and the guy who got you? She hung with him, his name’s Skin Mike.”

“What Mike?” Ben pressed the cold but rapidly-melting bundle of ice cubes and plastic into his bruised forehead harder, hoping to push the swelling back in. He’d gotten the on on his head from the guy’s fist after trying to take a swing at his knees while on the train platform. The ugly squat guy, still definitely not a hippy, clearly not happy at what Ben was doing, apparently on behalf of some shady hippy bullshit.

“Skin Mike, you know, like skinhead? Anyway, he’s done a little time, mostly drug stuff, he’s a bouncer at some metal club in Forest Hills. My guess? This hippie dude, Rob Sunshine?”

“Rob Flower or Flowers, I don’t remember.”

“Right, Rob Flowers, who according to the info you got, is named ‘Roger Fowlman,’ is using you to check in on stashes of whatever he’s dealing, make sure they’re there, and then using this geocache club culture thing he’s tied into to distribute it.”

Ben sat back against the seat. “No, that doesn’t make sense. Then what’s Skinflap Mike’s angle?”

“Skin Mike. Also, ‘angle?’ Who are you, Nero Wolfe?”

“Who?”

Dough sighed. “Forget it.”

Ben rubbed the bridge of his nose, scrolling through his phone absent-mindedly, tapping at the touch screen. “More like, he hippie used me to visibly seem like I was checking someone else’s stashes while one of his guys did the actual checking, and the stashes belong to whoever Foreskin Mike works for.”

“Skin Mike.”

“What the fuck ever, man. Hey, gimme your phone, mine’s dead.”

Dough finished his food, sliding the iPhone across the table. “What’s up?”

Ben dug through his wallet, spilling a mix of dirty bills and receipts and scraps of paper. “I gotta call a guy, might be able to help us out.”

“A guy?” Dough dropped some bills on the table, getting up.

“Well…a cop,” Ben said.

Ben hated coffeeshops. As a general rule, any sort of restaurant that turned a basic of life like a cup of coffee into some level of culture had to be annoying, and the only good thing that his dad had ever said, after the old man had gone to visit one of Ben’s cousins in Portland, was that coffee wasn’t a goddamn lifestyle, it was something you drank with breakfast.

Still, they were, these days, the best places to work, to meet people, to meet sources or clients or clients who you were going to try to double-cross. Like the nervous, tall, skinny mustached man in the plain grey shirt and dirty faded jeans sitting nervously at the window seat, the one table between two garbage stations, with no straight way out to and from the entrance.

It was the perfect place to make sure someone didn’t try to run out on you suddenly and get very far. On the other hand, it was also a really great place to get stuck if someone sitting across from you decided to punch you in the face after leaping across the table.

Flowers didn’t look like the type, Ben thought at he walked in and maneuvered through the tables and chairs and people to sit down across from his client. “Hey, man.”

“O-oh, hey there, Mr. Miles. How are you?” Flowers stood up, offering a hand, noticing the black and blue mottling on Ben’s forehead. “What happened?”

“Nothing, don’t worry about it. I wanted to talk to you about something though, so thanks for meeting with me.”

The older man reached into his pants pocket, taking out a cell phone and booklet, a check book, Ben realized. “I know you said over the phone that there was a problem with the online payment? I figured I’d just cancel it and give you a che…”

“Yeah hold on,” Ben rummaged through his own pockets, pulling a piece of paper out, sliding it across the table. “Here, it’s the hospital bill for my face, include that in there.” Flowers looked confused, glancing back up at Ben. “I-I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Ben rubbed his hands on his thighs under the table, over the fabric of his jeans. What happened right now was  going to go one of two ways, and he was hoping, praying, that it went the right way. But there was no plan, nothing beyond a rough idea and the microphone taped up under his shirt that led to the input jack on the cellphone in his pocket.

“Sure you do, but whatever, let’s pretend otherwise. You know Skin Mike, he works for whats-his-name at the Death Tunnel club in Queens?”

Ben went on, seeing Flowers’ hand start to shake a little on the small coffeehouse table, “I know you do, ’cause a buddy of mine found the police report you filed against him, remember?” The old hippie was getting antsy, and Ben pressed it. “What’d you have me looking into, it wasn’t fucking pot, which is honestly what you shoulda stuck to.”

I fucking hate meth, Ben thought as he watched his former client sit there and sweat. In all rights, the smart thing to do would have been to not try to lure a drug-dealing client into a meeting to try and incriminate himself in public, but honestly, the personal pride thing was an issue was well. You can only get beat up so many times before it starts to feel like it might be the universe is out for you on a personal level, and when a hippie is behind it, well then shit’s just gone too far.

“A-aah, I think I should, that I should leave,” Flowers stammering a bit, standing, his hands fumbling through his pockets to his wallet. They were shaking as he opened it up, and he shook it out, cash spilling onto the table. “L-look, just, I’m sorry, OK? Don’t call me again.”

“Hey, hold on,” Ben said, reaching out, but the older hippie yanked away and bolted, a weird upright run that looked, Ben thought, decidedly undignified and a little unmanly. Ben was up and running, the weird pressure of the mic pack recording pressing into his side as he yelled into the air, hoping the taped-on microphone would be able to catch it, “He’s taking the fuck off, holy shit down ahhh down the side street!”

Down the street and around a corner, Ben huffing and gasping but catching up as Flowers slowed down, not having anywhere near the endurance to keep the running going. Too many potlucks, too much time on a couch or in a chair. Even the arms were soft and weird, Ben thought, as one fist swung wildly at his head, and he managed to duck down to avoid that at least. He reached out to grab the one wrist, turning quickly and suddenly seeing it.

Dark black metal, clean and shiny and new, some kind of civilian at-home self-defense service revolver. The barrel was short but clean, pointed at Ben’s chest, shaking, twitching, but never moving anywhere far enough to not be a threat. Flowers stood there, panting to the point of comedy, the gun up, his finger on the trigger, staring wide-eyed at Ben in the alleyway. “Just, just leave me the fuck alone, god-dammit!”

Hands held out, calming, at least in the way that calming guys seemed in movies when facing guns, Ben stood there. “Alright, alright, look, I just wanna get paid, but you know, something good? I mean, I know you can afford it, I went back, found your stashes at the places you had me look? Oh man, that is some nice stuff, I know you got the cash from it, right?”

Flowers’ gun wavered, and Ben took another step forward. Somewhere he heard a car, no sirens, not yet, another step forward. “Look, just…let’s talk it out? I mean come on, man, you can’t expect me to not be a little mad after Skin Mike jumped me when I was checking the spots, right?”

“Y-yeah,” Flowers said, letting the gun drop a bit, unsure, his voice a little low, wavering. Come on, Ben thought, just fucking drop it you stupid old hippie.

“Hey what the fuck are you two doing at my loading dock!” a voice barked out, and Ben turned around, seeing the man, older, black, stocky, in an apron leaning out a door from the building.

Fuck.

“G’won now, get the fuck outta here!” he yelled, and in a panic, in a moment, Ben saw Flowers twitch and turn, arm coming up.

Ben jumped.

“Gun went off by itself, huh?” the other cop, not Jhindal, asked him, Ben sitting on the curb at their feet, hands in his jacket pockets, staring at the street.

It sounded, in hindsight, like the worst possible cover-up in the world, and Ben was more or less relying on the fact that every cop that he knew, including Jhindal, knew that he hated guns. Worse yet, he was terrible with them, having replaced the useless .38 he used to have but lost in a fight when he used it like a hammer with an Airsoft gun because he didn’t want to deal with having an actual pistol anymore in the apartment.

“Yeah,” Ben muttered. He and Flowers had rolled around in the alley while the other man ran off, flagging down the first cop he’d seen.

“Whatever,” Ben heard Jhindal say from behind him, scrolling through his phone, the other cop already walking away, done with them. “Weird a guy like Flowers was trying to move up. My aunt used to buy pot from him before she died, thought he was a ‘nice queer boy,’ or whatever.”

“Boy?” Ben asked.

“She was like ninety, every man younger than her was young. Anyway, we’d heard about someone trying to be all white and respectable and get biker meth going,

“Heyo, the ride’s here,” Ben heard Dough call from over his shoulder. The two walked past the crime scene tape to the livery cab car, the dark old sedan at the corner, the driver hopping out as they get to the door, “Be a minute!” He jogged towards the bodega across the boulevard. “Cigarettes!”

“Sure, whatever,” Ben said, sitting back down the curb by the car’s wheel. Dough’s phone rang, and he stared at the screen, looking down at Ben. “Kalli’s calling me, I’mma pick up.”

“Hey lemme get a ride,” Ben struggled to get up as Dough walked away towards a dark sedan pulling up down the block, the window down and a woman’s voice yelling out it. “Down here you miserable shit!”

“You kidding, right?” Dough laughed. “I’ll talk to you later, Ben.”

The cars slowly started to pull away as Ben flipped through numbers in his phone, reading and texting as cop car after cop car pulled away. Jhindal watched and shook his head from the last car, watching the other man make call after call.

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