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The Big Bitch
A Jackson "Doc" Holiday Mystery
By John Patrick Lang
Coffeetown PressCopyright © 2015 John Patrick Lang
All rights reserved.
Last summer, when Jesus was found shot dead in my driveway, I was renting a house located in a forgettable section of the Berkeley Flatlands, where hand-painted Volvo station wagons and rusted-out Volkswagen vans went to lay their eggs and die. The style of my home could best be described as something between a cottage and a bungalow, and its design displayed the architectural ambition usually reserved for drive-through taco huts.
I decorated the interior myself in an early St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shop motif. The sole continuity that the couch, easy chair, desk, and bookshelf possessed was that certain discarded air that death, divorce, and life's other dead-ends confer upon furniture. Complementing this flea market theme was an ancient Harman Kardon amplifier and a set of nicked-up Bose bookshelf speakers. On this hardly-state-of-the-art system the albino blues guitar genius, Johnny Winter, was playing one of his signature songs, "You Can Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye." I had it cranked up to somewhere between 100 decibels and the threshold of pain, and then, feeling reflective, I turned it down to a soft murmur.
Taking inventory of my current state of affairs, I determined that I was a man with a great future behind him. At twenty-three I had made a list of goals, and by thirty-six, I had accomplished them all: marry a beautiful woman, buy a beautiful home, get a six-figure executive job, own a GQ wardrobe, own a Jaguar with a Grand Prix racing engine, and accumulate a million dollars in cash. Now, at thirty-nine, I still had the twelve-year-old Jaguar, the wardrobe, but only $1,132 in cash. Three of my achievements I could have done without: launder over one hundred million dollars in dirty money, get indicted by a federal grand jury on one hundred and eleven counts, and become a private detective.
The buzzing of my cellphone broke my reverie.
"Holiday?" asked a toneless male voice I didn't recognize.
"This is Holiday, right? Jackson Holiday? Is Jesus with you? I'm a friend of Jesus." He was half shouting over what sounded like an electric rotary fan and the din of country western music on a jukebox. The voice was pancake flat and hollow sounding with no discernible regional accent. I turned off the blues.
"This is Jackson Holiday, but once again: who's calling?"
"I'm a friend of Jesus, just like I said," he repeated.
"I don't know if 'A Friend of Jesus' is your first name or last name, but your telephone etiquette needs some work. Notice how politely I'm saying 'goodbye' before I hang up."
"Wait! Check your cellphone messages. Now!"
The line went dead. I checked my cellphone messages. It was 6:12 when I retrieved all three texts. At 5:17 Jesus had texted and said it was urgent that I call him at John and Mary's bar. At 5:31 he had texted again and said it was extremely urgent that I call him at John and Mary's. At 5:39 he sent me a text that he was on his way to see me about a matter of grave importance.
As I turned the music off, I stood up and saw Jesus' old yellow Toyota in my driveway. I called his name as I went outside and found the engine still running. Moving closer, I called his name again, but as I reached the car, it was obvious he was a long way beyond the range of hearing. He wasn't breathing. He didn't have a pulse. And he didn't have to worry about tomorrow.
He was as dead as the language of Latin.
I could smell the smoky residue of gunpowder and something else faint and familiar that I couldn't place. I noticed angry worms of blood running from two small wounds in his left temple. It was then that I noticed something else: his Roman collar. In the year or so that I had known the Reverend Father Jesus Cortez, I had never before seen him wearing his Roman collar.CHAPTER 2
The police came in waves. The first to arrive was a uniformed officer who had that assy patrol car smell of leather and supermarket aftershave. Next came two plainclothes detectives in summer clearance Men's Wearhouse suits. Their eyes were dull and their faces blank. The tall one introduced himself as Detective Sergeant Manners and asked me the pointed and seemingly pointless questions police always ask. Several men wearing CSI jackets arrived and performed their tasks perfunctorily.
Then a man with the proprietary air of a policeman with rank appeared.
He was no more than five feet six, with an iron gray flattop on a head half again too large for his body, a pair of shoulders that might have belonged to a professional football guard, and a pot belly so round it looked tumorous. He was wearing the type of brown and orange checkered sports jacket that had gone out of style a generation or two ago. His white shirt had never seen starch, and his garish hand-painted necktie looked like a Christmas gift from a schizophrenic maiden aunt.
As he approached Manners and me, I guessed his age at about sixty. He had the flat, black, glaring eyes of a strip club bouncer sunk deep in a face as pink as baby's skin. He smelled of Old Spice cologne, spearmint gum, and whiskey.
"We got a priest? Catholic priest?" he asked in a bass baritone voice, so deep that it is the kind you generally only hear in a barbershop quartet.
"Yes, Captain," Manners said. "Catholic. He had no ID — apparently his wallet and watch were stolen. According to Mr. Holiday here, his name is Cortez. Father Jesus Cortez, an assistant at St. Peter's parish in San Pablo. We've sent for the pastor. Pastor says there is no known next of kin."
"So? What happened here?"
"Shot point blank, almost execution style, two taps in the left temple. Small caliber. Probably a twenty-two, maybe a twenty-five. We are still waiting for CSI findings."
"To do what? Stumble over the obvious?" the captain said.
"Looks like a twenty-five caliber." Manners produced a small plastic evidence bag that a technician had just handed him.
After glancing at the shell casing, the man turned to me and introduced himself as Horace Hobbs, Captain of Detectives for Berkeley PD. I told him my name.
"Was he your parish priest?"
"No. He was a friend. I knew him from a bar on College Avenue, right across from my office in Rockridge. We used to have a few drinks together."
"Sorry for your loss," said Hobbs, as he looked first into my left eye and then my right. He didn't seem to be so much sincere as looking for a reaction.
"I understand he left three urgent messages for you," he continued, "just shortly before he showed up here dead?"
"He ever do that before? Leave urgent messages?"
"Any idea why anyone would want to take out your friend, the good father?"
"No. No idea."
"Couldn't even guess?"
"He was a great guy. A nice guy. A gentleman. I can't see why anyone would want him dead."
"You didn't do this?"
"You didn't pop him?
"I told you he was my friend."
"So you didn't walk out of your house, pop him, throw your piece down a storm drain and then call 911 thinking you had just pulled off the cutest trick in the annals of crime?"
I heard my voice rise. "He was a friend."
He flashed a sneer of a smile at me. "Take it easy. Just remember that I'm like your late little friend. I hear confessions, too. I just don't offer absolution."
Hobbs walked over to a man wearing a jacket with CORONER printed on the back.
"Hobbs? Why does his name sound so familiar?" I asked Manners.
"Don't you know who he is? Horace Hobbs? He's a legend."
"Not the Horace Hobbs who solved the Freeloader killings?"
"And other high-profile cases. He got called in for cases all over the country. Even went to England one time and worked with Scotland Yard."
"What's he doing here? Isn't he with the Philadelphia police? Or was it Pittsburg?"
"Philadelphia. He retired a while ago. Couldn't stay retired so he took a job here."
"So does he talk to everyone like they should be wearing handcuffs?"
Manners looked over his shoulder and then said in a confidential tone, "They call him old school. They call him a hard-on. You can call him what you want, but the man gets the case closed. Always."
Hobbs walked back over to where we were standing. He was now wearing latex gloves and carrying an attaché case.
"This look familiar?" he asked, pointing to the case.
"Never seen it before."
"It was in the Toyota, wedged under the driver's seat. It's locked. Manners, pretend you're a detective and find my briefcase."
Manners gave Hobbs the look of a stoic soldier, and then hurried away. He returned holding an old leather briefcase with a brass clasp. As Hobbs searched through the cluttered contents, I saw some well-worn paperback novels, a silver flask, and a small leather case that contained what looked like burglary tools. He picked at the lock of Jesus' attaché case for thirty seconds and then popped it open. Closing it just as abruptly, he signaled for Manners and me to follow him. The three of us went to the back of Hobbs' car where we were out of sight of everyone else at the crime scene. As the other police and technicians went about their tasks, he opened the case again. It was stuffed with currency. Hundred dollar bills in one inch stacks bound with rubber bands.
"Looks like at least two hundred thousand or more," Hobbs said as he thumbed through the bills. Turning to me he asked, "What do you think? Think this is the parish's Tuesday night bingo receipts?"
The shock started to subside as I began to experience both anxiety and grief.
Jesus had been murdered in my driveway. By someone who knew where I lived or by someone who had followed him here? Why? I knew he drank too much and I suspected he had a woman somewhere, but he was a priest. A Catholic priest, and whatever his sins, he was a dedicated and committed one. Always a cautious man when speaking of himself or his past, he had long ago had me suspecting that he was running from something or someone. Had the past finally caught up with him? And what about the money? I knew that the questions about Jesus had just begun.CHAPTER 3
The next evening found me at John and Mary's Saloon. If you asked Mary about John, she would invariably respond, with a faint hint of Oklahoma accent, that "that rotten prick died and went to hell years ago." As sole proprietor, Mary had operated the bar for almost twenty-five years as manager, part-time bartender, and full-time matriarch. She was sixty-something now, a hard-looking sixty-something, and in the half-light of early evening, her thin face looked like a cadaver with a fresh makeover. I didn't know the name of the perfume she always wore too much of, but it had the scent of gardenias, lilacs, and the long-buried past.
The bar was on Oakland's College Avenue in the Rockridge District, just a half-mile from Berkeley's southern border. It was a neighborhood pub with a long, cigarette-scarred mahogany bar, pool tables, a big screen TV, and a jukebox that played Bob Wills, Hank Williams Sr., Kitty Wells and nothing more recent than early Merle Haggard. The place had all the amenities the patrons needed to delude them into thinking that they weren't really, truly drinking alone. Mary's clientele was frequently the professional element of upper Rockridge, and even more frequently the blue-collar denizens of lower Rockridge, as well as the unemployed, the underemployed, and the unemployable. And more than occasionally it was the homeless, hopeless, and mindless street urchins of Berkeley and North Oakland, who taking little notice of their own underachievement, loitered through life, living and dying on bar time.
My office was across the street. I drank at John and Mary's because it was convenient, comfortable, and because they served my brand of beer, Steinlager. Also, I was fond of Mary, despite the fact that any conversation with her was littered with the crudities that you might commonly associate with a career submarine sailor.
I sat at the end of the bar, nursing a beer out of a Mason jar, the only type of glass receptacle you could get in the saloon. Mary and I were holding an informal, private memorial service for Jesus when I heard a voice behind me.
"When I first saw you, I made you as the type of pussy who drank beer out of a glass," Horace Hobbs said as he claimed the stool next to mine.
"What do you know about pussy, you jerk-off?" Mary said, "You haven't had pussy since pussy had you." Then turning to me, she added, "This fat tub of shit was in here today harassing, insulting, and wildly accusing anyone who had ever met that sweet dead boy, Jesus." She turned to Hobbs. "Instead of wasting your time here pissing everyone off for no good reason, you ought to get off your dead ass and find out who killed him. You don't have any jurisdiction here anyway. This is Oakland!"
"No jurisdiction?" Hobbs smiled. "You have a second job as a law professor? What's tonight's lecture? Parole violations? Without parole violators I estimate that you'd lose about half your regular customers."
"And just who the fuck are you?" Mary tossed down the bar towel she was holding, threw her head back, and with her hands on her hips confronted Hobbs. "There was a bit on the news today about the murder and about you. Said you were once a big time hotshot. They said back in the day somebody had written a book about you. You and all your big cases. They said you used to be somebody. You used to be this great detective, Horace Hobbs."
"I'm still. ..." He was quiet for a moment. Then, chuckling and staring down at the bar, he said, as if to himself, "You got it right, Mary. I used to be somebody. I used to be Horace Hobbs."
An early recording of Willie Nelson singing his classic "Nightlife" played on the jukebox as Mary said, "Well, look at you now, just another loser from the boulevard of broken dreams and just another swinging dick in John and Mary's Saloon. What are you drinking, Swinging Dick?"
"I'll have a Bud in a bottle and a double rye in one of your cleaner dirty fruit jars."
After Mary brought his drinks she moved to the other end of the bar. I asked Hobbs if this visit was official.
"Why?" he asked without looking up from his drink. "You got something you want to tell me, off the record?"
"I spent five hours with you and Manners last night. Told you everything I know. At least three times."
"Maybe you left something out."
I let that pass.
He looked up from his drink and caught my eye in the mirror. "Are you sure, Doc?"
"Like I said last night: nobody calls me 'Doc' anymore."
"Let's review our interview from last night and my subsequent research. Your legal given name is Jackson Burke Holiday, AKA 'Doc Holiday.' White male Caucasian, age thirty-nine, six feet, one eighty-five, blue on brown. No distinguishing marks or characteristics. No misdemeanor or felony convictions of any kind." He swallowed the rest of his rye and signaled for another round. "But three years ago a federal grand jury in Portland, Oregon, delivered multi-count indictments against you for your role as president of a mortgage bank that went tits up. Mortgage fraud, money laundering, conspiracy to violate the Bank Secrecy Act, et cetera. Now, either you were too smart, or had too good a piece of legal talent, because the indictments all got kicked back, thrown out of court. Case never even went to trial. You walked."
"Maybe I wasn't culpable."
Hobbs looked away from the mirror and directly at me for a moment. He said, "Yeah, maybe you weren't culpable. There's always that, Doc. Anyway, you walked. You walked but you were through in the money game. So you were blackballed from banking and you went to team up with your dad and his private investigation firm in Portland. Approximately a year and a half ago you moved here to the Bay Area and set up your own business specializing in white-collar crime. Your clients are banks, mortgage banks, and insurance companies. You specialize in insurance fraud, bank fraud, and what you evidently have some hands-on expertise in, mortgage fraud. You make a living, you don't get rich ... not so as anyone can tell. On the personal side, two years ago your dad died of an accidental gunshot wound — or he ate his gun, depending on who you talk to. Your mother died when you were a child. That leaves you with no parents, no siblings, no spouse, no live-in girlfriend and no family except a great aunt somewhere in Kentucky who you haven't seen for twenty years. How'd I do?"
I took a fresh sip of Steinlager. "Is there a point to this?"
"A couple, maybe. We'll get to them."
"Ever Google 'Horace Hobbs'?"
Hobbs shrugged. "No. Why?"
Excerpted from The Big Bitch by John Patrick Lang. Copyright © 2015 John Patrick Lang. Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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