A Alamo Barnes Story
by Hugh Lessig
The body arrived in the newsroom around mid-morning.
It came in a reinforced cardboard box from American Bathroom Fixtures that supposedly held a recessed bathtub. At least that's what it said on the outside.
No one paid any attention to it. Corporate flaks mail their stuff to newsrooms all the time, hoping some reporter will want to pad their byline count with a knock-off feature that amounts to 15 inches and a phone call. Usually it's CDs or cookbooks or something, but who's to say someone couldn't mail us a bathtub?
Anyway, one of the guys from the mailroom dragged it over to the business desk, and one of the guys from the business desk dragged it over to me.
"This bathtub stinks," he said. "You get rid of it, Barnes."
This was maybe 10:15 a.m. I was crashing cartwheels on a piece about the mayor's son getting a job in Parks and Rec as an "assistant urban forester." I finished it around 10:30. I topped it off with a new lead at 10:45 when a source called to say it paid 55 grand plus a car. Then I turned around and put my feet up on the box.
"It smells like something died in here," I said to no one in particular.
One of the news assistants pointed to the box, and I noticed it for the first time. It had duct tape at the corners and heavy staples across the top, as if someone had taken out the bathtub and re-packaged something else. I took a letter opener and began to pry off the staples. As it opened, the smell spread throughout the newsroom, and soon the heavy voice of J.D. Bow was above me.
"Good Christ, Barnes," he said. "What have you brought into my newsroom?"
"It's not mine, boss," I said. "Someone mailed it to us."
"Well open it up, then."
"Thanks for the suggestion, boss. I was doing that just now."
I opened it up, and that's when we saw the body. He was an old man dressed in a powder blue business suit with a black tie and black shoes. He was bald, except for a fringe of snowy hair. His hands were folded across his chest, and I took notice of a large diamond ring on his left pinky. He faced looked tight and drawn, as if he had died in great pain. All of us had seen enough bodies in our day, and the newsroom consensus was that he died about a week ago.
J.D. Bow made a growling badger noise in his throat. "C'mon Barnes," he said. "Search his pockets."
A word about my boss. He's maybe 25 years old. He skipped grades in high school and graduated college at 19 -- none of which impresses us, but it makes him want to act older than his years. So we tolerate his Perry White act, knowing all the while that he can spell and he can drink, and he'll probably die by the time he's 55 unless God blesses him with an early heart attack that tells him: Hey goofball. Slow down. Having said that, J.D. Bow is all right.
I asked if we should call the cops or something.
"We'll call the cops or something," he said. "In the meantime, the body is ours to play with until the grownups get here."
I found a business card in a jacket pocket. It was from The Diamond Escort Service on Bell Bend Road in Croaker, Virginia. It listed Shirley A. Jowe as the proprieter. Someone brought over a flashlight to see into the corners of the box. As the light played over the body, the pinky ring winked at me.
"That card's a fake," pronounced Bow. "It's gotta be. There's no place called Croaker, Virginia. Good god damn, Barnes, get an atlas to make sure."
I was already reaching for one. I found Croaker in the southeastern part of Virginia, somewhere between Richmond and Newport News.
"It doesn't look very big," I said. "But small towns can have the best escort services. Like on that movie, Fargo. Why don't I call this escort service?"
Bow stared at the body. "This guy looks familiar," he said. "Why don't you call that escort service and get to the bottom of this?"
The phone rang twice before a man picked it up and said "Diamond escorts." I asked if Shirley was there.
"This is he," he said.
"Really. How much to you charge for an escort?"
"That depends," he said. "How big are you?"
I asked if he would please repeat that.
"How big? Of a load? We haul wide loads in 30 states, which is what I'm insured in. I can go for up to three days on a flat rate. After that, we gotta make arrangements."
Then it hit me. "Oh. You're an escort service."
The man grunted a laugh. "There's just no pulling the wool over your eyes, is there?"
I told him I would get back with more information, then hung up. J.D. Bow had not taken his eyes off the body.
"You know who this guy is, Barnes?" He asked. "That pinky ring once opened a cut on my face," Bow said. "Three years ago. You witnessed it."
"Five years older, 50 pounds lighter and a lot deader," Bow said. "But yeah. It's him."
Harry "The Plague" Bubonic, a San Francisco native, had spread slum housing over half of California. Under the federal government's Section 8 program, he received taxpayer's money to provide rat-dirt apartments to the poor. We dusted him with an eight-part series detailing abuses of federal funds, and that's when he came into our office and floored J.D. Bow. He stormed out, knocking paperweights off desks as he went, calling The Frisco Foil "a cheap, rotten, dickless rag." Personally, I didn't think we were that cheap, but he never returned to our newsroom in particular or to San Francisco in general. Our series sparked a grand jury investigation, Bubonic was indicted for tax evasion, and he fled the area, never to be found. Until now.
"I forget," Bow said. "What was his real name?"
"Bubelli," I said. "But I Bubonic fit better. I think you named him in an ediorial, boss."
We stood there for a moment. A police siren came shrieking to a stop in front of the building. One of the news assistants must've called the police. Bow spoke under his breath.
"What do you want to do?"
I shrugged. "It seems to me that the trail begins in Croaker, Virginia."
* * * * *
I flew into Richmond 12 hours later with a copy of The Frisco Foil in my lap.
We did a big blowout six columns across A-1, a 20-inch main bar and a 10-inch sider by yours truly describing the body. We cleared ads off pages 5 and 6 to run retrospective stuff, and it was all pretty decent. But we knew the story had no legs.
There was no visible cause of death. The cops weren't talking. And we kept the name of the escort service out of the paper until we could nail an exclusive interview with Mr. Shirley A. Jowe. We had souped up the story as best we could -- put shiny wheels on it, gave it a nice coat of paint and attached a loud muffler. But we had nothing under the hood.
Croaker, as it turned out, was a perfectly peaceful little town not that far from Colonial Williamsburg. I rented a room at a Motel 6 and found The Diamond Escort Service right where I was supposed to. It consisted of a three-bay garage with an open sandy lot crisscrossed with tire tracks. A tractor-trailer occupied one garage bay, and off to the side sat three low-boy trailers in various stages of rust. Next to the garage was a yellow clapboard house with a Dale Earnhart flag hanging from the porch.
I knocked on a wooden door labeled "OFFICE" and found a kid behind a desk.
He was maybe 25 years old with a hard, angular face and crusty fingernails. He wore a light blue work shirt with the word "Bo" written in script. The place smelled of strong coffee and axle grease -- or what I assumed was axle grease -- and on the desk, half-buried under a pile of papers, sat a snow globe of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
"I'm looking for Shirley," I said.
"You got 'em, mister." The kid's voice did not treat strangers well.
"Your shirt says your name is Bo."
He looked at his breast pocket as if to confirm my observation. "They call me Bo," he said. "Actually, I have three brothers and my momma calls me Little Bo. My biggest brother is Big Bo. But that's neither here nor there. Are you hauling a load?"
"No. What does she call the middle brother? Your mother, I mean."
"Why'd she name you Shirley?"
"You ask a lot of questions, mister. You a cop?"
"No. I'm a newspaper reporter from San Francisco. Were you expecting a cop?"
"I always expect cops. You know what it's like hauling wide loads over interstates? You might as well wear a sign on your ass that says 'Pull me over and inspect my orifices with a rubber glove and then twist my nuts off, and please make me pay a fine.' I don't like cops. Cops have never helped me. I don't think they ever will. There. Aren't you glad you asked?"
I forced a smile. "I have a follow-up question. Do you know why your business card showed up on a dead body that was mailed to The Frisco Foil newspaper, the body of a man known as Harry Bubonic who disappeared five years ago on the heels of a federal tax indictment?"
Little Bo folded his hands peacefully on his desk. "I always pay my taxes. I know that much."
"But did you know a man named Harry Bubonic? His real name was Bubelli. But he might gone under a similar name."
"No. I sure didn't. What's your name, by the way?"
"Alamo Barnes. I'm a reporter for The Frisco Foil."
"What the hell kind of name is that? You from Texas or something?"
"No," I said. "My mother believed in lost causes and I followed in her footsteps. Have you ever been to San Francisco?"
His hands tightened. "Me? No, I never have been. Nossir."
"Someone you know, maybe?"
Now it was his turn to force a smile. "Nope. Hey listen. You're not asking me the obvious question. Why is this called the Diamond Escort Service when my last name ain't Diamond? Didja ever think of that?"
I gave him a look that said I'd be fascinated to know.
"The fella who used to run this place was Joe Diamond. That's his house next door, and his daughter lives there now. He died six months ago. Fell off a scaffold while painting his house and got impaled on a clothesline post. You go figure that." Then something seemed to jog his memory. "You called me yesterday, didn't you?"
"That I did."
He gave me a sideways look. "You thought I was mongering whores. That I was some kind of pimp."
"To be precise, I thought you were a transvestite pimp."
Little Bo spread his hands and smiled. "That's OK. I get that all the time. I'm thinking of changing the name of this outfit now that I took it over. In his will, Mr. Diamond gave me the business."
"I'm sure he did. You're sure you've never been to San Francisco and you don't know a Harry Bubelli."
"Abso-tively poso-lutely. And about that business card thing? You got to realize, I travel through over 30 states. I hand out my business cards like candy. This guy, what killed him?"
"The police don't know," I answered truthfully. "He might have been sick for a long time. There's no evidence to suggest the corpse was sent through the mail. It just showed up on our loading dock in a big box. No one saw who delivered it, but it could have come from an over-the-road hauler."
"I've seen a few loading docks in my day," Little Bo said, as if that helped.
I left a few minutes later. Just before getting up, I asked Little Bo about the photo of a gifted woman on the trucker's calendar that hung from his wall. As he turned around, I palmed the snow globe off his desk. Maybe it had the name of a store in San Francisco. Maybe someone would have remembered a Dale Earnhart fan from Virginia walking into a San Francisco souvenir shop. Maybe I was already desperate.
As I walked outside, I noticed a young woman watering the flowers next to the yellow house. She was blonde and wore cut-off blue jeans, and she had a full face that would become fat once she reached 50 or so, but now it made her cute in a pouty sort of way. She was trying to watch me with a sideways look that wasn't very secretive.
"Careful," I called out. "You'll drown those flowers."
She looked up and pretended to notice me for the first time.
"Hey, you ever been to San Francisco?"
The woman dropped the hose and ran in the house.
* * * * *
Back in my motel room, I sat on the toilet and studied the snow globe.
It was made in Taiwan, but it offered no clues on where it was purchased. I got up off the toilet, found my laptop and got on-line. The state of California keeps a searchable database of everyone who has gone through Section 8 public housing in the past five years. It's not open to the public, but a friendly source gave me the password to the state Social Services Department some years ago when I wanted to check welfare rolls for elected officials.
I found five people with the last name of Diamond -- four men and one woman named Susan. Five years ago, Susan Diamond stayed in a housing complex in Ventura County owned by Bubelli Realty Company, one of Bubonic's many tentacles. Records showed she was evicted for non-payment of rent on Oct. 12, 1994, and that the dispute went to district court. That was three weeks before Harry Bubonic disappeared from San Francisco. Susan Diamond was 18 then. She would be 24 now.
As I was trying to put things together, J.D. Bow called on the cell phone.
"It looks like Bubonic died of a heart attack," he said. "Off the record, we hear the autopsy came back with 'some irregularities' and they're doing a more detailed test. But that could be a rumor. The Chronicle has nothing we don't have. What about you?"
In my mind, I fast-forwarded a theory. The woman in the yard is Susan Diamond. She goes to San Francisco in pursuit of the American Dream. She stays in cheap housing. She gets evicted by Bubonic, who drags her into court and embarasses her. Little Bo has a thing for the boss's daughter. He eventually finds this Bubonic and finds a way to kill him, then mails the body across the country to divert attention, mistakenly leaving his business card with the corpse. While he's at it, he pushes the boss off the scaffolding and into a clothesline pole, inheriting the business.
"Nothing makes sense," I said. "I can't even explain the snow globe."
"There's a snow globe involved? This gets curiouser and curiouser."
"That's a good one, boss. I'll call you if I have anything."
"Barnes, I know that tone. You're working on something. I can smell it."
"I'll call you."
* * * * *
The next morning, I drove back to the Diamond Escort Service.
I parked my car about one-quarter mile from the business and walked the rest of the way. This time, I went to the yellow house and knocked on the door. The blonde girl answered. She was wearing a different T-shirt and what looked like the same pair of cut-offs, except they were white instead of blue.
"Yes. Hello." She looked like a school kid sitting in the principal's office, trying hard not to look guilty.
"Hello, Ms. Diamond. My name is -- "
"Your name is Alamo Barnes and you're following up on the death of some poor man who ended up in a box in your office," she said. "Bo told me all about you. He's a very impressionable young man. I think he likes you."
"Really? I like him, too. I was wondering if you could help me out with a few questions."
"Why would you ask me?" Again with the safe look. Mouth straight. Eyes steady. Hands carefully relaxed.
"Because you once stayed in housing owned by the man who died. His real name was Harry Bubelli, and he owned something called the Bubelli Realty Company. Records show you stayed in a housing complex of his five years ago, then he evicted you. Do you remember him, Ms. Diamond? I can't believe you would have forgotten that experience."
The stairs creaked behind me, and Susan Diamond's pale blue eyes floated just over my left shoulder. "Why Bo!" She said. "You came just in time."
I turned around to meet little Bo. He was studying my chest like someone trying to figure out where to stick the knife. Then he poked a grimy finger into my shoulder. "Mr. Barnes," he said. "You are getting to be a pain in the ass."
"Now Bo," Susan began.
"Lay off me," he said. "I answered all your questions yesterday. You got no right coming back here and doing a re-run with Susan here."
"Actually, I do have a right," I said. "It's in the Constitution."
"Sometimes I don't like the Constitution."
"Don't tread on me, Bo. Virginia lost the war of northern aggression. We're all brothers now."
Susan stepped between us, her face flushed. "All right, you two. Why don't we all come in and have some lemonade? Mr. Barnes has a right to be here. If I want to talk to him, that's what I'll do."
I followed her in, wondering what she might be up to. The lemonade in the Diamond household was the best I ever tasted, and I said so. Susan thanked me sweetly and began peppering me with questions about the newspaper business. I tried to bring up San Francisco again, but she shut me up and gave me a look that said she didn't want to talk in front of Bo -- who sat with his arms folded and said nothing and drank nothing.
After it became clear that Bo wasn't leaving, I pushed myself off the chair.
"I have to get back to my hotel," I said. "My editor is expecting a call."
Susan followed me to the door and said in an undertone: "What hotel is that?"
"The Motel 6. Room 24. I'll be back there in five minutes."
She nodded and pushed me gently out the door.
I returned to my spacious digs more puzzled than ever, waiting for a phone call or a visit. Susan knew Bubelli. Susan wanted to talk. Bo hated my guts and clearly didn't want me around. I pondered various homicidal maniac/escort service theories for the next five minutes. Then I put my head on the pillow. It was barely 11 a.m., but all this thinking had made me tired. I rolled over and woke up an instant later.
It felt like someone was slicing my intestines with a straight razor. My ears began to ring.
"What gives?" I said to no one in particular.
The ringing came from my cell phone across the room. My legs gave out as I rolled off the bed. I crawled on all fours toward the phone, unable to walk now, grabbing my guts with one hand.
I got the phone. It was J.D. Bow.
"Barnes! Where the hell have you been? I've been leaving phone mail for you all day!"
I tried to say "help," but it came out as "huh."
"Yeah, well listen to this. Harry Bubonic died of strychnine poisoning. Probably from some kind of insecticide.That's a helluva way to go. You get muscle spasms, the shakes. So anyway, what have you got yourself into?"
I focused on my mouth. I made my lips move. "Antidote. Strychnine poisoning. Now."
Bow laughed through the phone. "Very poor taste, Barnes. Even for you. C'mon. Really."
The ragged sound of my breathing greeted him.
"Jesus." Bow dropped the phone and yelled across the newsroom. In the next five seconds, every reporter at The Frisco Foil dropped what they were doing and got on-line. Searchable databases. Medical journal archives. Centers for Disease Control. I don't know how long they took. The next thing I remembered was Bow's tinny voice coming through the phone, which lay on the floor next to my ear.
"Barnes! Listen! You need to throw up! Vomit your guts out! Before the real convulsions start!"
I had lived past enough Friday nights to know the drill. I crawled on all fours to the bathroom, dragging the phone with me, and hit the toilet on the first try. And the second. And the third. It came out my mouth and my nose, and it burned like fire.
I flushed the toilet. I grabbed some toilet paper and wiped my mouth. I lay there for what seemed like a long time, wondering how much of the poison had seeped into my blood, working on yet another theory, or trying to. Except none would come.
From the floor, J.D. Bow screamed at me -- a small, tinny voice coming up through the phone. Over that voice, in my head, I heard the nervous laugh of Susan Diamond.
Now stop it you two. Why don't we call come in and have some lemonade?
It was a schoolgirl's laugh, the kind that plays mischief on a guy. She acted like she wanted to talk to me, then she sent me on my way. I gave her my hotel. My room number.
Which means she knows where I am.
Why, Bo. You came just in time.
Again with the schoolgirl laugh. This time, it came from inside the room.
My stomach tied itself into a knot as I turned on all fours to face the bathroom door. Susan Diamond was still wearing her white cut-offs and T-shirt. She leaned into the bathroom and smiled with big teeth.
"Why Mr. Barnes. How are you?"
I took a breath and gathered myself with as much dignity as I could muster. "Fine. How come you don't have a horsey laugh to go along with those choppers?"
She stepped into the bathroom so I could see all of her, and that's when I saw the gun. It was a revolver -- silver and black, I'm no expert on calibers and such -- but it was big enough to put a hole in me, impossibly huge for her hands. But she carried it loosely and with great flair.
"The manager was kind enough to give me a key because I was so worried about you," she said. "I told him you'd been such a good friend over the years, but then your marriage broke down and you moved out to San Francisco. Now you're coming back and trying to fix things up with your old wife, but it's not working out."
I pushed myself up to the toilet, where I sat unsteadily. "You and Bubonic must've made a great couple," I said. "He has no conscious and you're a pathological liar."
"We made a great couple," she said sweetly. "For a while. So Mr. Barnes, how did that body ever make it to your newsroom?"
I ignored the question. "He wasn't dying of old age fast enough, was he? What's going to happen when they probate the will? You must have tied up that loose end. You'll be drawn into this, Susan. You're on record as being associated with him around the time of his disappearance, and if he's left everything to you -- "
"Silly boy, he hasn't done that," she said. "He left it to one of his cute little paper companies, of which I am the treasurer and have the authority to draw out money. Everyone else on the board is either dead or in jail. Fun, huh?"
A muscle spasm clenched my stomach, and I nearly fell back onto the floor.
"You know, Mr. Barnes. If you let my lemonade just do its work without all that nasty vomiting -- you did barf, didn't you? I can still smell it. Anyway, if you had just let yourself die, you wouldn't be going through this agony. Now I'm afraid you're going to have to commit suicide. It's the ex-wife, isn't it? You've returned to visit her. You still love her. And she rejected you. That's sooooo sad."
I took a deep breath and spoke through gritted teeth: "Sorry I had to wake up. My boss was calling on the phone."
We both looked down at the cell phone just then, because J.D. Bow's voice was still talking. Susan Diamond looked like someone who had seen a snake. Her look made me smile.
"Witnesses don't always have to see things, Ms, Diamond."
She picked up the phone and held it to her ear. I didn't know what J.D. Bow was saying, but it made her turn away from me, walk halfway out of the bathroom, and lean against the doorjamb. She began to heave -- from grief or rage, I couldn't be sure, but she knew someone had just heard everything she said -- and around that time I figured out what to do with the snowglobe I had left on the back of the toilet.
I got to my feet, palmed the snow globe and hit her with as much force as I could muster just behind the right ear. The phone clattered to the floor, and she pitched forward, falling heavily onto the rug. Dizziness overtook me. I grabbed onto the shower rod. She scrambled to his feet, still holding onto the gun. She faced me with an ugly smile.
"You're dead," she hissed. "But first your boss gets his."
She shot the phone.
Pieces of plastic flew like shrapnel as I fell into the bathtub. I looked up to see her with the gun in my face, and I wondered if bits of my head would explode just like the phone did, with pieces of my brain flying all around the room. The funny thing was, I didn't feel scared or relieved or much of anything as the next shot went off.
Susan Diamond took a step forward and dropped the gun. She looked at the fist-sized hole in her stomach and fell on top of me, her dead eyes wide open next to mine, her guts emptying into my lap, her lip-glossed mouth almost ready to chew on my ear. Someone stepped into the bathroom behind her, someone who smelled of axle grease, or what I assumed was axle grease.
"Little Bo, remember?"
* * * * *
It made for a good column once I got the strychnine out of my system.
How Susan Diamond and Harry Bubonic hooked up in San Francisco, how she helped run his little housing empire, how they arranged her "eviction" -- even going to court so it would seem as if they were enemies, then Bubonic simply followed his flame back to Croaker and lived a life of seclusion away from the authorities. When poor Mr. Diamond got suspicious, they pushed him off the scaffolding."
"After she got past killing her dad, nothing seemed to matter," Little Bo said. "She wanted everything -- meaning Bubelli's fortune. He started getting sick on his own -- hell, he was getting on. But like you said, she couldn't afford to wait. The day he died -- hell, he must've screamed for 30 minutes straight."
We were in Richmond, in my hospital room, and he was finishing his story for the third or fourth time. I was sitting up in bed, staring at my laptop, trying to figure out if had gone beyond my 30 column inch limit.
"Are you going to call me Shirley in the paper?"
"That depends," I said. "How do you want to be called?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure I care. Just get in the part where I mailed the body. I thought that was right clever of me."
"People are going to wonder why you didn't call the cops. If you thought Mr. Diamond had been murdered, if you thought Bubonic had been poisoned, if you feared for your own life . . . "
He held up a hand. "Two reasons. Number one, I don't like cops. I believe I've gone on the record on that issue. Number two, Bubelli always talked about The Frisco Foil. He said you guys never gave up once you got your hooks into someone. When Bubelli died, and Susan buried the body in the family plot out back -- "
"That's another thing people won't believe. That you've got a family cemetery on the premisis."
"It's a Virginia thing, Mr. Barnes. You wouldn't understand. Anyway, I go dig up the body, and mail it to y'all with my business card. I know you'd come around sooner or later. Which is why Susan was so surprised when you showed up. She thought Bubelli was still planted in the ground."
"She wondered who mailed the body," I said. "She never got an answer."
Little Bo smiled. "Are you going to stay and cover my trial?"
I shut my laptop and patted him on the arm. "I'll be there. Although if I were you, I'd cop a plea. The district attorney isn't too pleased you didn't call the authorities."
"Hey, I didn't know the guy was a fugitive from justice! At least not at first. All he ever talked about was being forced out of the housing business, and he how hated The Frisco Foil for doing it. I got suspicious when he didn't want to go to the hospital or see a doctor when he startd getting sick, so I did some researching on my own."
"Really. Mr. Bubelli always kept that snow globe of the Golden Gate Bridge, so I figured he was from San Francisco. And I called a friend of mine who's a major contractor for folks in the housing business, and he found out for me."
"Who was the friend?"
"You don't know him. But he owns American Bathroom Fixtures Inc. They have good, sturdy boxes, too."
Copyright (c) 2000 Hugh Lessig
Hugh Lessig is a newspaper reporter who lives in Richmond, Va. His pulp heros are the newshawks of old, especially Kennedy of the Free Press, a creation of Frederick Nebel. (Hugh did the a biography of Nebel for this site)
Special Delivery marks Hugh's second appearance in Thrilling Detective. Check out his other stories at his site: The River City Blade. It contains stories of Alamo Barnes and other hardboiled news guys.
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