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The West Indian Manner

I sat on the dock jutting into Lindberg Bay. The churning ocean swirled beneath me like a hungry tiger awaiting her zookeeper. I loved the ocean, but was terrified of being in the water. I had been an army guy. No water there. You would think that an island boy with a drunken sea captain for a grandfather could not be a landlubber, but I’m here to tell you different.

I liked the fourteen miles of land beneath my feet called St. Thomas. Named after a great thinker, it was geographically beautiful, but provided haven to ne’er-do-wells, drug dealers, alcoholics, and other shifty characters who wanted to live on the fringes of society. There were good people here too. Despite being surrounded by water, we constantly experienced a water shortage. St. Thomas got very little rain. The twin ironies of the natural beauty and the huge amount of water that surrounded the island, while such ugliness and shortage existed here in reality was not lost on me.

As these thoughts raged through my mind, I pulled my attention from the choppy horizon line to my latest copy of The Virgin Islands Daily News. A handsome sailor’s photo graced the front page as the paper’s lead story this Tuesday morning. The headline read, “Seaman Apprentice Thibdeoux Jackson Found Dead.” The article was written by my closest contact at the News, Dana Gould. This woman would sell her soul for a hot story, a fact that had bitten me on the butt in the past. I had learned over many years of private eye work not to fight faults in my network of information, but to use those faults to my advantage. Give them what they want, just make sure you get what you want too. It’s even better if you can give them what they want openly, and get what you want without them even knowing.

Dana’s article went on to explain that Jackson, while enjoying shore leave with fellow naval seamen and officers, met an unidentified woman at the Normandie Bistro, a local dive in Frenchtown. He had been found dead, the next day. The Naval Liaison issued a statement that, effective immediately; naval ships would not be putting into port in St. Thomas for leave if the local authorities could not insure the safety of its officers and seamen.

I could feel the tension rising in my chest like bad cider. This was the third murder of a sailor visiting St. Thomas in as many months. Press like this threatened tourism, the backbone of St. Thomas’ highly symbiotic economy. In turn, that would threaten my relatively peaceful way of life. It was a life worth fighting for, although, fighting for peace always seemed counterproductive to my way of thinking. Things like this were all the fodder our tyrannical governor needed to reinstate the curfew and bash in a few more skulls in the name of “general welfare.”

I wasn’t Gandhi, out to cure the ills of the planet, but I damn well planned to stop any jokers who thought they could point a gun at my little corner of it. The churning ocean kept out a lot of scumbags, but to who or whatever got through, I attempted to be a second line of defense, for a fee. Little did I know that later that day, someone would offer a fee for my services.

The story bugged me more than it should have because there was another, deeper story that appeared on page one of my consciousness. “West Indian Manner To Be Demoed,” scrolled across my mind’s vision in black and bold. A postcard photo of The Manner appeared below the heavy print like my dying dream house.

The Manner was my home since Evelyn, my wife, had died. It had eighteen rooms on two upper floors. I had told Lucy once that the name of the guesthouse was spelled wrong. She’d laughed and said, “Tink about it.” It sat on a hill overlooking downtown Charlotte Amelie, with thirty-six winding steps leading to the bar on the first floor. The first floor also housed the owner’s quarters and a small dining room. I had my regular seat in the bar, right at the corner, next to the bullet hole.

The Manner echoed the dream of everyone who came to live here. It provided food, drink, and a surrogate family for those who wanted to get away from their real one or didn’t have one at all. Guys like me. It echoed the spirit of the West Indies, hence the name. It wasn’t a manor, but a manner of living that it represented. It had become that for me these last years.

My inner article went on to tell how Payne & Wedgefield, a land-development corporation, intended to tear down the local landmark, built in 1799, and erect shiny office buildings at the base of Bluebeard’s Hill.

After hearing the Wedgefield agenda, I’d gone to see my local attorney-at-law, Alton Adams. Alton’s grandfather lived next to The Manner and had written the Virgin Islands’ National Anthem sixty-two years ago. He told me St. Thomas had no historic landmark protections. He told me that fighting Payne & Wedgefield would take big dollars, bigger dollars than I earned on a private investigator’s salary. He told me that despite being morally criminal, there was nothing I could do except make sure that all the bills were paid so Lucy and Marge could keep the place. I told him that I wished he’d stop telling me things.

A tangle of cirrus and cumulous clouds pelted with orange specks of sunlight filled the sky. I watched as a blonde with sultry strut and an arch in her lower back sauntered through the hot sand, headed for a date with Danielle Steele, or some other smarmy romance in a remote corner of the bay. She didn’t look at me. They never did, and now even less as my gut pushed for the seven-month pregnancy look and my nappy, black beard crawled over my features like a virus. I touched my nose and wondered if it had broadened over the last couple years as well.

My 2000 Mustang, colored silver and dirt, waited for me on Airport Road. I got in and shut the door as a Cessna powered up on the runway. I shut my window and pulled out on the left side of the road. Driving on the left was one of the exotic things about St. Thomas. It caused tourists to get in a lot of accidents on our narrow and windy mountain roads. When I had lived with Evelyn in Los Angeles for all those years, it was one of those things that I subtly missed and felt so welcoming when I returned in spite of being mired in grief.

I got back to my room at The Manner. Marge yelled, “Afta-noon,” as I passed the bar on the way up to my room. Marge and Lucy had run the place for as long as I’d been living there and then some. As I reached the top of the creaking stairway, Marge poked her head out of the saloon style door. “Ay, Boise, what’s da word on dat lady came to see you earlier?”

“Who?”

“Da lady. She was here two hours ago?”

“I wasn’t here.”

“I know. I told her she could check for you in room two, but dat I didn’t see you come back yet,” said Marge as she wiped a brown lock out of her face.

“And?” I grunted.

“An’ notin’. She went up, come down, and leave.”

“You didn’t get her name?”

“Do I look like your secretary? I don’t mind you being a dick out of my guest house beca’ you have a sexy walk and you pay and spend dollas at da bar, but I’m not facilitatin’ your career heah.”

“No, no you’re not,” I replied with poorly disguised sarcasm.

“So, who is she? You finally seein’ a woman?” Marge often teased me about losing my sex drive if I didn’t get laid instead of laying in my self-pity.

“I’m saving myself for you, doll.” I continued up the stairs and down the wooden hall to door number two.

Who the hell was bothering me now? If it was paying work, good. If it was a broad, she probably wanted me to tail her cheating husband so she could skydive out of their failing marriage in a golden parachute. These women married these numbskulls for the money, and then blamed the guy when he didn’t feel the love and wound up cheating with his secretary, who also wanted his money. Ah, the circle of life. My career path had done nothing to improve my desire to go out and get laid, as Marge like to put it. Getting laid seemed to lead to getting dead or at least having your life slowly strangled out of you over a miserable thirty-year marriage of deception.

I scanned my room and made a cursory check for recording devices in the usual places. Old habits refused to let go of me in this way. I had trained for counterintelligence in the army, then backed out, but the stuff they taught me made me see the world differently from then on. I looked out the window and up Dronnigens Gade, the main street through downtown Charlotte Amalie. Cars lined the street as far as I could see. I could walk into the center of downtown in ten minutes from here. Office buildings rose across our tiny street, gleaming like sand on a tropical morning. Someone knocked on my door.

“Yeah?” I called.

“Can I come in?” Marge asked.

“Yeah.”

She entered; worry seeping down her cheeks like gravity. I frowned at her.

“Dat friggin’ developa call jus’ now. He say he getting tired of askin’ me to sell dis heah place. He say he tink taxes on dis place goin’ up soon. Boise, I can’t afford no more taxes from dis heah govament. I already one mont behin’ on the note. Lucy and I need some help.”

“You need money?”

“Or some way to get dis man, Cavenaugh, off our backs.”

“I’m working on it, hon. Tell Lucy, I’m working on it. You get any more info on these guys that ties them to our beloved governor, sent it my way. I know they contributed to his campaign the max allowed, but that’s not illegal. We need more.” I said.

“That’s your job, Boise. You da investigator, not me.” She started to cry. “Sorry, sorry. I’m sorry we can’t pay you.”

“Keeping this place open and my room covers it.”

“If we get trou’ dis, your room covered for a while, I promise.”

“That’s no way to run a business, Marge,” I said.

She smiled through her tears. “It’s da bata system. An exchange of goods and services.”

“Okay,” was all I had left.

She left and I cursed. I cursed the corrupt nature of government where good men were held in inferior positions while Machiavellian sociopaths rose to the top. I opened the Payne and Wedgefield file that sat in the middle drawer of my desk. It was light because despite being major land developers in Tortolla, St. Barths, and St. Maarten, I had found little information of substance on them aside from deals done and in development and propaganda. I did know that the president of Payne and Wedgefield was a fellow named Moutang who hailed from Brazil. He had made a fortune starting and selling a travel website before the crash of 2001 and had cashed out millions. In the intervening years, he had purchased Payne from a British conglomerate and had used its existing presence in the Caribbean to parlay those millions into billions. Buy your own island kind of money. He had done just that and according to business journals, had an eye for real estate and a penchant for raising Dobermans.

Payne’s lower-downs looked squeaky clean with legit backgrounds in real estate from different parts of the U.S., Europe, and East Asia. I could not fathom their interest in sleepy little St. Thomas, and the West Indian Manner in particular. I had gone and looked at some of the office buildings Payne had put up around the island. They stank of a sterility I’d last experienced when tracking a felon to Orlando, Florida. The spotless streets and obsessively planned manner of the entire city felt inhuman. I had once heard that Walt Disney even had his workers scrape the gum off the sidewalks at Disney World in Orlando. All function, no heart. The military was like that, but it served a distinct and vital agenda. Perhaps Payne served such an agenda as well. Problem was, although I loved the ladies and this place was my home, a recession had hit and tourist places, like St. T., took it right on the chin. I had to keep fighting to eat and live, which meant paying gigs still took priority. There was another knock at the door.

“Yeah?”

A sultry voice wafted under and around the door. “Mr. Montague?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Mr. Montague, may I come in?”

I looked through the peep. Even in the convex distortion, her proportions impressed me. Black hair, straight as moonlight, and slightly Asian features on a curvy frame, did nothing to relax me.

“That depends,” I said.

“On?” Her sentences were getting shorter. I liked that.

“Name?”

“Anistasia Jackson.”

I opened the door. My face betrayed my thoughts.

“I see you read the paper,” she said. She held out a manicured, but used hand. “I am Tibdeoux Jackson’s widow.”

I shook her hand. “Hello, Anistasia.”

“If you like, you may call me Asia, like the continent.”

“What brings you to my doorstep, Asia?” I asked.

“I want my husband’s murder solved.”

I thought then that I was not Humphrey Bogart and prayed Asia wasn’t the latest incarnation of Veronica Lake come to lay waste to my wasted life.

“May I smoke?” She asked.

The cliché deepened. I nodded. I felt sterile because I had nothing to light her Virginia Slim with. After she lit up, I realized that Humphrey would have taken her light and still managed. The stuff that works in those movies never flies in my office / apartment.

“Do you have something to start?” I said. She smiled and pulled out ten Franklins.

“Will that cover your initial expenses?”

“I was referring to information. Leads. We can do this first. This’ll cover if I don’t have to take LIAT.”

“What’s that?” She said.

“The local inter-island airline. Stands for leave island anytime.” I replied.

I explained my rate and that I got a 10% bonus for complete resolution of the crime.

“Is there any such thing?” She questioned.

I said I was glad she could quip about Thibdeoux’s demise. “Now, do you have any leads or things to tell me so that I can spend less of your money paying my snitches for info?”

“I only know his life at home, in our New Orleans, with two daughters and a devoted, but imperfect wife.”

I explained that I might discover unsavory things in working toward the killer. If she wanted to know all of these things, I could tell her in my weekly report. If she didn’t want the gory details, I could keep the detailed notes to myself and send her a sanitized version. She elected ignorance. It surprised me that someone would travel two-thousand miles to remain ignorant, but I respected her desires.

“How’d you hear about me?”

“Yellow pages.”

“I pay enough for that ad. Good.” I said.

I did a twenty-minute interview for background then cut her loose. She left her number at Frenchman’s Reef, a big hotel on a southwestern point east of downtown. As she hung up, she said, “I’ll stay on island for 2 weeks and then return as necessary if you haven’t, what do you say, ‘broken the case,’ by then.”

I wanted to know what her elementary school daughters would do with a dead father and a mother who would leave for 2 weeks without them. I kept my mouth shut as the line went dead.

I immediately called Tommy Malone, a native who wanted to be Italian. He had legally changed his name at 18. His knowledge of Italian culture and customs all came from Coppolla and Scorsese movies.

“Tommy, we need to talk about that sailor.”

“You got moula?” I told him yes. “See you at Backstreet Pizza in twenty.”

I walked into the warm pizzeria, nodded to Charlie, the owner, and headed to the back where Tommy already sat at his favorite red and white checked table.

“What’s up?” He said, taking my hand in his and kissing my cheek.

“What do you have for me, Tommy?”

“What’s the hurry, Boise? Have a slice and a smile.”

Tommy liked the European traditions of slow, easy meals, even when doing business. I did not.

“Tommy, I don’t mean no disrespect, but I need some skinny or my employer won’t be pleased.” I liked to play the disgruntled American employer card when in a hurry so as not to insult Tommy’s leisurely lifestyle.

“Deez Americans, always in a hurry. First my fee, plus an extra fifty for overnight delivery.”

“The post office just raised rates again, huh?” I gave him the money.

“Word on da street is, and you ain’t gonna like dis, it happened in Tutu.”

“The paper said he was in Frenchtown. How the hell did her wind up all the way in Tutu?” I asked.

“I don’t write da papa. They lett dat out beca, if da govena sees more incidents in Tutu, Peterson’s gonna kill him in da next election. Frankie took and dumped da body in da Frenchies’ laps so his getto gets left alone. The rub is dis: if you want what really gone down, go see Frankie. He knows, guaranteed.” He finished as a large pizza arrived. “I know it’s not really Italian, but damn, I love pizza. Take a slice to go.”

I got up. The meeting was over. On my way out the door, my stomach tightened. I took my bottle of Pepcid out of my pocket and took one. Halfway down Backstreet, I gave the slice to a wino who accepted it without a word. I was going to have to make a trek out to the east end and visit my ex-friend, Francis “Frankie” Floyd Peterson, on his turf. I didn’t like my odds of getting what I needed. I like my odds of getting my ass kicked a lot more.

I headed for Tutu, the largest ghetto area on the island. As I neared the community, I could smell the desperation hanging in the air. Frankie organized things by taking a piece of non-violent crimes and reducing chaotic violence that served no purpose with his “watchmen,” a virtual police force of his own. I assumed that the sailor’s murder was unsanctioned by Frankie, or he would have disposed of the body more carefully. He would not be happy about the heat from the navy that it potentially brought upon his fiefdom. I planned to play on his anger at my own peril.

I arrived a Frankie’s place at eight that night. The club had just opened. Three prostitutes loitered out front, on doubt on Frankie’s payroll. Few did business in Tutu, legitimate or not, without giving alms to Frankie. He had started in his youth as a thug with a catchy saying. He’d charge the locals for protection. If someone got out of line, usually burglars without his blessing, Frankie would break the guy’s ribs. He’d then stretch a condom over the perp’s head and drop the custom made package that the prophylactic came in on the offender’s chest. It said, “Frankie’s: Ribbed for Your Protection.” He’d leave an unopened one for the business owner to show that the thief had been dealt with accordingly and would not be coming back.

I knocked on the speak-easy style door. A rectangular hole slid open, revealing two black eyes.

“Yeah?”

“To see Frankie.”

“Wait.” The eyes disappeared.

Moments later, the door opened. A truck-shaped West Indian frisked me. I knew the procedure and had left my piece in the car.

“Mista Petason will see you.”

He led me down a long hallway to a door marked “Private.” I entered. He shut it, then knocked me out.

I came to, tied to a chair in the same room. It reminded me of a police interrogation room, complete with one-way glass on my right and a blinding fluorescent in my face. Frankie stood in front of me. I could hear two gorillas breathing behind my chair, ready to do their duty at Frankie’s behest.

“So, Boise, wha bring you out to me dis fine Tuesday?”

“Hey, Frankie, sorry to show up unannounced.” I said, controlling my breathing. “I would have called, but I know you hate to talk on the phone.”

He smiled. “My door is always open to old friends.”

His anger had already presented, so I barreled forward, “You got anything for me on the Thibdeoux murder?”

He stared at me a long breath. “Have you had a broken rib, Boise?”

“Yes.”

“Good, den I don’t haf to describe da pain of breedin’ and movin’ dat come wit it.” He looked at one of his henchmen, “Irie.”

I could tell I had ruined some of his prepared speech on the pain he’d inflict on me to pull my terror into a fever pitch.

“Den le’s get on wit it,” he said.

“Wait!” I yelled, as he pulled out a small bat used on fishing boats for knocking thrashing marlins and sharks unconscious once on deck. “I don’t plan to tell anyone about that. I am not trying to piss you off or disrespect your community. I’m sure you want this killer too because if I know it happened here, it’s only a matter of time before a naval investigator comes knocking. Are you gonna rib him too? If I catch this guy, the heat’s off Tutu, and you can get back to business as usual.” I stopped and waited for his response.

“Wat happened to your accent, Boise? You sound like a whitey from da states.” I said nothing. “Go on,” he said, still gripping the weapon.

“I was hired to find the sailor’s killer. That’s all I want. I know you love this island. Losing all that navy business will affect everyone, even out here. Those ladies out front probably make a killing every time sailors with an appetite for discretion show up out here; so don’t tell me you want this guy to walk. I’m not a cop, never was. I can fix this and keep the Normadie angle intact for the police or make it so they know you had nothing to do with it if it comes out that it happened here.”

When I finished, smoke hung in the air from a still burning cigarette in a glass ashtray too long. Frankie picked it up now and dragged. “All right, boy-z, maybe you da mon to fix dis problem. Two tings. One, I don’ want dem police snoopin’ aroun’ my club. Minimal involvement for Tutu.”

“I told you I’d fix…” I regretted interrupting him before I finished the sentence. Bruno or Tiny punched me hard in the guy. I gasped for air.

Frankie continued, “Secon’, I can provide you wit access to da company responsible, but to find the instrument, you’ll have to do some diggin’. If you get da killa, good, but if you get dem, betta.”

I started to speak, then took another gulp of air. “Are you suggesting solicitation?” I didn’t say any more, but his silence confirmed my suspicion. “Who?”

“Payne and Wedgefield,” he replied. “I don’ have more, but I wan’ dat developa out of my community. I like t’ings how dey is. Dey kill people and our land devalue so dey can buy it up cheap. I don’ have my protection customas no more. I’s bad for business.”

I couldn’t believe my ears or my luck. Ultimately, it didn’t change the task at hand, finding the instrument of death. I could worry about pinning conspiracy and solicitation on Payne and Wedgefield later. What I could do, was use them to get the guy, potentially.

Frankie gave me their addresses and some photos of the body. I asked him why they took these and he explained that he tried to keep a record of all killings on his turf. I guessed that he also used photos of dead people to scare the wits out of any uncooperative folks he dealt with. He still hadn’t untied me.

“What else?” I asked.

“You know.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“You owe me.” He grinned like a vampire at a blood bank, “Big. Now, ge’ da hell out of my establishment before I break you in half.”

They untied me and I left. In the car, I popped a couple of aspirins as I wound back toward the Manner. It had been a long night and it wasn’t even ten. Lucy stood behind the bar. A pirate-looking man in his fifties who stank of whiskey was sitting in my seat. I let it go.

“I didn’t know you’d be here or I would have saved your seat,” Lucy said as she threw a napkin on the bar and fixed my rum and coke. I pulled a bowl of peanuts over, had a seat, and ordered a burger. I had two more drinks before heading upstairs. I was asleep in two minutes.

I walked down to see Marge the next morning and get any messages. “A woman called. Is it that same one who was here yesterday? She seems like trouble.”

“You all seem like trouble, Marge,” I replied.

Marge knew not to ring my room before ten, ever. I read the note. It was Thibdeoux’s widow. I called the number. She didn’t waste time.

Have you got something and do you need more money, were her only questions. I said no and no, but I’d let her know. I asked her if she’d heard of Payne and Wedgefield and she said no. I gave her the “these things take time, be patient” lecture and hung up.

I kept thinking about catching a big bunch of crooks like Payne and Wedgefield for conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation, but realized that for now, they were simply a means to catching the actual doer. That person was what the police, the navy, and the widow would want. With more time and some leverage, we could get to the bigger fish. Catching him was my job.

I tried to think like Payne and Wedgefield. Who would a huge company hire to kill someone and leave no trace? Were they involved with the other dead navy personnel? I contacted a couple of other lowlifes who sold me info, but got nothing fresh. From all reports, it appeared that Frankie Floyd was being righteous with me on this one. I took the address he had given me for Payne and Wedgefield’s offices and headed over there.

The offices of Payne and Wedgefield were across the street from Nisky Center, where there had once been a convenience store and a KFC, before Payne bought the place and built offices. I was beginning to think this company wanted to make St. Thomas one giant office building.

I walked out of the mid-afternoon heat, into a blast of air conditioning. The receptionist greeted me with a smile.

“How may I help you?”

“Let me count the ways,” I said. She laughed a fake laugh she no doubt learned in secretarial school. “I’d like to talk to someone about selling my property.”

“I’ll get someone for you. Please have a seat.” She motioned to a cushy chair.

I took a sucker out of a crystal dish on her desk and sat in the proffered seat. The lollipop always made me feel like Kojack, my idol from the detective world. I figured that a local boy who wanted to sell his inherited, but dilapidated land, would get their attention. She returned and sat back down at her desk.

“They’ll come get you shortly.” She said.

After ten minutes, another attractive woman led me into the elevator, used a key to start it, and took me upstairs. The representative introduced himself as Mr. Cavenaugh. After discussing my beleaguered financial state, which was not terribly far from the truth, he made an offer for my property on St. Peter Mountain. It was below market, but the swiftness and surety with which it was presented made me realize how serious these guys were about taking over. As casually as I could, I asked why Payne and Wedgefield had so much interest in little, old St. Thomas.

“It’s a beautiful island and central to our Caribbean operations.” A canned response delivered with practiced ease in his British accent. All four corners of the ceiling housed motion detectors and in the hallways and downstairs I had seen small black globes that house security cameras.

“I’m just a local citizen who’s concerned that my property will be used to make my island uglier. What would you put up there?” I questioned.

“A beautiful property like yours on the mountainside deserves hoes or a nice hotel with class. That said, I don’t make the call. I wear the acquisition hat around here.”

I stood up and extended my hand. “Thanks for the offer. I’ll think it over and get back if I’m interested.”

He handed me his business card and we shook. “You are welcome to counter. We like to negotiate.” I looked at his business card.

“I don’t, Tod, but if I get desperate enough, I’ll call, or maybe my lawyer will call.” I headed toward the door, then turned back. “Just out of curiosity, who does the development after acquisition?”

“Mr. Moutang handles those decisions personally. He’s our president.” Cavanaugh said.

“Are you trying to acquire that guest house on Bluebeard’s Hill?” I asked.

“I’m not sure which one you’re talking about. We are trying to acquire numerous properties island-wide at this time.”

“This one has a name. The West Indian Manner.” I said.

“Oh, The Manner?”

I nodded stupidly at his question. “Right, The Manner. That house has been there since I was a kid.”

“No doubt, it was built in 1799. Yes, we are interested in that property. Why do you ask?”

“I’m friends with Lucy, one of the owners and she mentioned that you were interested, but wasn’t sure you were still trying. I spoke to her a while ago about it now.” I said.

I had gotten my wish, to see their security. It was out of my league. As I exited the building, I saw a large man in the parking lot with dread locks who looked very familiar. I looked at him a long moment, but could not place his face. Maybe he was a bouncer at one of the clubs. I returned to my thoughts. It would take two pros at least to break into these offices, and bringing others in on something like this was not smart. These guys were big-time and in a lot of pockets. However, the information age was on my side. I could outsource this job so none of my local contacts knew too much. I decided to begin by hacking into their computer systems and see if I could get a name or location where I could begin my search for the killer. An outfit like Payne and Wedgefield must have everything computerized to operate internationally. I had a trusted computer infiltrator in the Pacific Northwest who I called Willow. He called me Steve, and we left it at that. We had worked together on dozens of jobs. Distance and anonymity made us both feel secure in our relationship.

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