Bordeaux Patrol

A Macadamia Charles, Basketball P.I., Mystery
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“I want you to meet with George Maloof.”

I was in Sacramento to talk to a state senator about a licensing scheme for basketball P.I.s. It was supposed to be a short trip, and I didn’t expect anyone, let alone Suge Knight, to track me down. Nevertheless, Suge and George had been locker-mates at UNLV football, so it wasn’t far-fetched that he’d call on George’s behalf.

Maloof'd

{Original art by J.O. Applegate}

“I’ll meet with anyone, Suge. But if George is interested in my services, he needs to clear his old bills.”

“I’ll take care of it. Will you be at your hotel?”

I glanced at my balcony and considered lying. “Yeah,” I confirmed. “I’ll be here.”

Twenty minutes later, I saw a guy on a motorbike park in the front. He carried a small satchel and walked quickly and robotically to the lobby. Thirty seconds after that, there was a knock at my door. I answered and found myself face-to-face with a very large man. “This is from Suge,” he said, as he handed me the bag.

I opened it and saw neatly stacked bills, rubber-banded together. “Do you want your bag back?” I asked, but the man was gone. I counted the money and found I’d been paid for one more job than George Maloof owed me for.

Five minutes later, my phone rang again.

“So you’ll meet with George?” asked Suge. Except he wasn’t really asking.

***

George sat beside his backyard pool. He looked haggard. What remained of his curly locks hung sloppily over his brow, which was claiming more real estate every day. His Hawaiian shirt was unbuttoned nearly to his navel, and the perspiration on his chest hair confirmed the stress he was under as he and his brothers tried to sell the Kings to a group from Seattle. On the little table beside his deckchair sat a tall, sweating glass of beer. I asked him about the mustache-and-glasses disguise beside it.

“I can’t show my face in this town anymore, Mac,” he explained. “Do you know how that hurts? I feel like Lawrence Funderburke in Bloomington.”

I nodded but didn’t offer any sympathy.

“Lawrence Funderburke was a solid contributor to our 2002 run.”

“He was,” I confirmed.

“With a name like that, he sounds like one of those old-timey British pop singers, don’t you think?”

It was hot in the sun, and I wasn’t in a deck chair or drinking a beer. “You didn’t call me here to talk about Lawrence, did you, George?”

“Sorry, Mac,” he said. “It’s just I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore, without the Palms, without the fans.”

“Did you have Suge Knight deliver me a bag full of cash just so you could have some company, or do you have a case for me?”

“Fair enough,” he said. “I do like your company, but I’ve got a case.”

He stopped and took a long sip of beer. I waited. He took another.

“Let’s hear it, George.”

He snapped to, as though he’d just noticed my presence. “Sorry, Mac. Sometimes I daydream about the old days, you know, and forget where I am.”

“The case, George.”

“You remember that Carl’s Jr. ad we did?”

In 2006, the Maloof brothers did a TV spot for their casino’s partnership with Carl’s Jr., the fast food chain. In the ad, the brothers arrive at their casino via limousine, bringing with them several toothsome women, a bag of Carl’s Jr. burgers and fries, and a ‘24-year-old French Bordeaux.’ The last item was presumably the biggest contributor to the price tag on the ‘Carl’s Jr. $6,000 combo meal, only at the Palms.’

“I do remember them, but that was seven years ago.”

“Well, you see, we had a bunch of bottles of the Bordeaux.”

“You mean the casino did?” In my opinion, George needed to stop living in the past.

“We got to keep them when we sold our majority stake,” he explained. “And I was going to sell a few of them so I could take a helicopter to Coachella. But when I went into the cellar, they were all gone. Ten of them, Mac.”

This was no small theft. But was it a case for a basketball P.I.?

“Question, George,” I said, “and don’t be offended: Why didn’t you go to the cops?”

George sighed and took another gulp of beer, pausing to suck the foam off his upper-lip stubble. “Mac, this is a basketball case, through-and-through. I know it’s got something to do with the sale of the Kings.”

“Do you know that? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

George flashed a tired smile. “No, Mac, I guess I don’t know. But it’s a basketball case, I can feel it. And when I get a feeling like that, I’m almost never wrong. Gavin and Joe are the same way. We call it Maloof Intuition.”

***

I started by confirming that the Maloofs had kept the remaining Bordeaux after losing majority ownership of The Palms. George’s story checked out, at least as far as the wine went. We’d see if the same held for Maloof Intuition.

The Bordeaux had been stored not at George’s personal villa, where I had met with him, nor at the casino itself, but rather in the cellar at the Taj Maalouf, the family’s satellite estate on the outskirts of Sacramento, which boasted the original spelling of the family name.

Spires announced the complex on the horizon as I wound through the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. I was greeted by a familiar pain in the ass. His name was Tony and he’d been the gatekeeper there as long as the Maloofs had been hiring me to solve their basketball mysteries. He knew my name—Mr. Charles, he called me, despite my requests that he call me Mac—but insisted that I provide identification and sign the guest book. I was grateful for his exaggerated rectitude—at least I’d have a visitor log to start my investigation with.

“I’m gonna need to see those logs, Tone.” I liked to counter his formality with familiarity to unsettle him.

“Mr. Maloof said you would,” he replied. “If you’ll have a seat on the Private Palms Sundeck, I’ll bring them over.”

I could see the famous gold-plated waterslide, twisting through the air and doubling over itself like a giant intestine. I followed the palm-lined walkway to the backyard, where I sat myself in a plastic chair beneath an umbrella. Back in the day, a servant would have approached and offered me a drink and some almonds, but these were lean times for the Maloofs.

Splash!

I looked up to see emerging from the rippling turquoise of the pool the head and then bare chest of a buxom young woman who had just completed a run down the waterslide.

Seconds later, another topless young woman shot out of the chute, followed in short order by two older, fleshier, topless men. I recognized them as Joe and Gavin Maloof. After rubbing the water from their eyes, high-fiving each other, and briefly checking out their female companions, they recognized me.

“Mac!” shouted Joe. “What a treat!”

“Fellas,” I replied, with a nod.

“You bring a swimsuit?” asked Gavin.

“Sorry, guys. I’m here on business.”

“You don’t need a suit here,” said Joe.

“That’s true,” added Gavin. “Stern never wears one.”

“Maybe another time,” I said. “Anyway, it looks like you guys are pretty busy.”

“How rude of me,” said Joe. “Mac, meet Caitlin and Aubrey. Caitlin and Aubrey, meet Macadamia Charles, the famous basketball P.I.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said.

“You want some ZING Vodka, Mac?” asked Joe. ZING Vodka was their sister Adrienne’s new luxury liquor.

“Thanks, Joe,” I said, “but I’m here on business.” I suspected Gavin and Joe had no idea what had brought me here, nor were they curious enough to ask. Their inability to hold onto the team must have really demoralized them.

Tony arrived with the guest log, sparing me further conversation with the pool group.

“Have a seat, Tone,” I said. “I may need to ask you a few questions.”

Tony sighed. He did not like to leave his post, but knew that George would instruct him to grant my requests.

I opened the book and noticed that mine was the only name listed for today. There had been no guests yesterday or the day before.

“Tone, how long have those girls been here?”

“I believe they arrived this afternoon, sir.”

“Call me Mac, please. And why aren’t they listed in the logs?”

“They’re the guests of Mr. Maloof and Mr. Maloof.”

I’d told Tony at least a dozen times that the whole “Mr.” business was nonsensical when it failed to distinguish between the persons referred to. “Isn’t that what a guest log is for?”

“When guests arrive with Mr. Maloof or Mr. Maloof,” he paused, “or Mr. Maloof or Ms. Maloof, they bypass my checkpoint, sir.”

“So this is a rather incomplete log of visitors?”

“If you say so, sir.”

I thumbed back two weeks, to the time George suspected the wine had been stolen, and suddenly the log looked a lot less precise.

“What’s this, Tone?”

“Sir?”

“Two weeks ago, Tone. These logs are downright sloppy.”

“I was taking my annual vacation, sir. The substitute sentry has been let go.”

The logs listed only three entries, all scribbled in the same handwriting. There was Adam Silver, Kevin Johnson, and Aubrey.

“Don’t these women have last names, Tone?”

Tony shrugged his shoulders. “I couldn’t tell you, sir.”

***

If the cellar was the crime scene, it was hardly preserved. Tony had to shoo out a couple of miniature horses before we could examine it.

“What’s the story with the horses?” I asked.

“When Mr. Silver visited, he took Funderburke.”

“Who’s Funderburke?”

“Mr. Maloof’s stud,” said Tony. By Mr. Maloof, I assumed he meant George. “Commissioner Stern said they could have him back when they broke the deal with Mr. Hansen.” Mr. Hansen was Chris Hansen, the leader of the Seattle bid for the team.

“And the miniatures?”

“Mr. Hansen bought Mr. Maloof and his brothers a new stud and two miniatures.”

“I don’t see them in the log.”

“We don’t log horses, sir. It’s policy.”

I took another look around. The cellar was more than half empty. Some of the slots were occupied by bottles of malt liquor. The floor was littered with cigar wrappers, a squirt gun, and mini-horse dung.

“You guys have cameras down here?” I asked.

“No, sir.”

He showed me where the Bordeaux had been stored. The shelving was scuffed up, as though the culprit had taken the bottles in haste—or anger.

***

Gavin, Joe, George, and I agreed to meet at the Private Palms Sundeck at sunset. I arrived with a pen and notepad, wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts. Gavin and Joe arrived ten minutes later, still shirtless in their board shorts.

The opening horns of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” blared tinnily from somewhere out of sight. This, I assumed, would be George’s grand entrance. He appeared shortly on horseback, wearing the same shorts and half-buttoned shirt, holding his phone high to broadcast the song. Gavin and Joe cheered.

“Mac, meet Vlade!” declared George.

The horse trotted before us but kept going. George pulled on the reins impotently. “Vlade, turn around!” He shouted over the song. “Vlade!” Fumbling with his phone and nearly falling off in the process, he eventually got the volume down. In what I’m guessing was an attempt to look like a celluloid general, he gave Vlade a kick to the flank. The move backfired, as George found himself the unwilling passenger on a lap around the pool.

Gavin pulled out his phone and began to play a game. Joe pulled down and examined a pinch of his bleached forelocks.

After a couple minutes, George got Vlade to stop in front of us. “Okay,” said George, out of breath as though he’d been the one running. “Where were we?”

“I’m curious about these logs,” I said, holding up the book. “What was Adam Silver here for?”

“He took Funderburke,” said George, eyes downcast.

“Chris Hansen?”

“He brought Vlade, Peja, and Doug.”

“Peja and Doug are the miniatures?”

George nodded.

“Where’s Jackie?” asked Gavin, in reference to Doug Christie’s wife.

The Maloofs all laughed. Gavin and Joe high-fived. George pantomimed a high-five from his perch.

“Kevin Johnson?” I continued.

“The city offered to build us a new waterslide if we back out of the Hansen deal,” said Gavin.

“And Aubrey?”

“What about her, Mac?” asked Joe. “She went home. You missed your chance.”

“I never took you for the shy type,” said Gavin.

“Her visit, guys. From the log.”

Joe laughed. “She was just here for a good time.”

“Do you remember her visit?” I asked him.

“They all kind of blur together,” said Joe.

“This log,” I held it up,“is really sloppy. There are no times—not even last names.”

“Who didn’t put a last name?” asked Joe.

“Aubrey,” I said.

“What’s Aubrey’s last name?” asked George.

Joe and Gavin looked at each other and shrugged.

“I’m not sure she has one, Mac,” said Joe.

“Does Caitlin have a last name?” asked Gavin.

“Okay,” I said. This was getting stupid. “When was the last time the Bordeaux was here? Are you sure it was stolen two weeks ago?”

This time all three of them shrugged.

“Dammit,” I said. “Why shouldn’t I assume that you guys just drank it all without realizing it?”

“No, no, Mac,” said George. “There was more than we could drink. It was stolen. I saw it the week before that. I’m pretty sure.”

“Maloof intuition,” said Gavin. I’m not sure he understood the meaning of the word.

***

Before I left, I got the contact info for the gatekeeper who had been fired. His name was Frank. Just Frank. Apparently, last names really weren’t big at the Taj Maalouf.

Frank sounded high when he answered the phone, and not too interested in a meeting. Dead presidents changed his tune on the latter. He insisted I meet him at a Taco Bell. The meal, he made clear, would be in addition to the money.

I probably looked like his tutor, showing up with a big bound book and a pen and notepad. Frank was a skinny kid with fair skin, bloodshot eyes, and a dusting of a goatee. He wore a #55 Jason Williams jersey and long denim shorts.

“Frank,” I said, offering my hand. “I’m Mac Charles.”

“Chalupas.”

“Pardon.”

“Chalupas, then we talk.”

Frank accompanied me to the order counter like a kidnapper with a gun to my back. Chalupas were only the start. He ordered like it was his last meal.

Back at the table, he assembled his haul in a half circle around him. I opened the book.

“Were these the only visitors that week?”

“How am I supposed to remember?”

“Do you remember any women visiting the Maloofs?”

“Like every day, man.”

“But only one of them signed in.”

“If you say so.”

“These are your logs, Frank.”

Frank palmed and then gulped a chalupa, leaving only a skid mark of sour cream on his wispy goatee.

“Frank, do you remember visitors besides the girls?”

He traced the page with a salsa-smeared finger.

“There you go, man. Adam Silver. Kevin Johnson. I think Jerry Springer was there, too.”

“The talk show host?”

“Is there another Jerry Springer?”

There probably was. “I don’t see his name in the log.”

“I dunno, man,” he said. “Maybe he didn’t visit. I was pretty fucked up.”

I left Taco Bell feeling less nauseated than if I’d eaten there. But I was no closer to solving this mystery.

***

The Maloofs pulled my hotel room per diem, insisting that I stay with them at the Taj. It was a cheapskate move, but I‘m not one to make a stink or abandon a case, especially one Suge Knight’s already paid me for. And to be fair, the lodgings were impressive, even if they lacked the folded-corners precision of the Taj’s better-staffed days.

I poured myself a ZING on the rocks and collapsed into the king-sized waterbed. I wondered momentarily whether Frank might have stolen the wine. But I was in no condition to think about the case after a full day of heat and nonsense, so rather than review my notes, I reached for the remote control.

Whose face was the first to appear on the obscenely large flat screen before me? Jerry Springer’s. The universe was taunting me.

I sipped my vodka and tried to imagine him showing up at the Taj. What would he be here for? To recruit women for his show? That had to be the job of someone down the food chain. Was he a friend of the Maloofs? They claimed not to know him, and I didn’t see why they’d lie. Those guys love dropping names.

Springer moved easily about the room, smiling to himself as he held the microphone before indignant audience members. At one point, he turned to his left, and something struck me. I closed my left eye to view him through my right. I closed my right eye to view him through my left. I took another look at the logbook.

I had to find George.

He was asleep in a deck chair, with Vlade tied up beside him. He didn’t respond when I said his name, so I grabbed his shoulders and shook him.

“Mac!” he seemed startled. “What is it? Are the girls here?”

“No, George, I need money.”

“I thought Suge already paid you.”

“He did,” I said. “This isn’t a fee. This is an expense. I need a pricey bottle of wine, too.”

“What do you need it for?”

“I’ll tell you when I’m done, George. I need you to trust me on this one.”

Reluctantly, George agreed to release the funds. I was at the airport within two hours.

***

The weather in Oklahoma City was sunny, but the mood was less so. It seemed that Russell Westbrook’s injury and the Thunder’s subsequent struggles against the Houston Rockets in a first-round series were taking their toll on a team and a fan base that had previously known only unbridled optimism. I talked my way into the practice facility, where I found Scott Brooks hunched over an abacus, muttering “Asik”. I kept my distance; I wasn’t there to see him.

I found Derek Fisher emerging from the training room in the back hall. As president of the NBA Players Association, Fisher kept track of a lot of people. I could see he was about to shout a greeting, so I put my finger to my lips. He nodded and we walked down the hall together.

“Why are we keeping this quiet, Mac?”

“I’m playing a hunch and I don’t want to cause alarm, especially in the middle of a playoff series. There may be nothing here.”

“What’s the case?”

“I can’t say. I just wanted to check in on how things are in the organization. I saw Scotty over there with the abacus.”

“Yeah, Scotty’s having a tough go of things. The ‘Hack Asik’ strategy wasn’t great. But he’s battling.”

“How about upstairs? Presti?”

“Sam’s okay, as far as I can see.”

“And the guys at the top?”

“Bennett’s strong,” he said. “If anyone’s having a tough time, it’s McClendon.”

I’d had a feeling. In the last few years, Aubrey McClendon had lost a fortune at Chesapeake Energy, suffered a margin call on his stock, been forced out as CEO, and had to sell off most of his famous wine collection. He also looked a little bit like Jerry Springer.

Nevertheless, given the condition of the wine rack, I figured this was the act of a desperate man. McClendon’s rough patch was mostly in the rearview mirror at this point. There had to be a precipitating event. “Is it the money? He got hit pretty hard.”

“Actually, Mac, it’s not,” said Derek. “He’s been freaking out about personnel rumors. He thinks Presti’s gonna unload Perk, sign Jason Collins to replace him, and then Collins will gay-marry one of us. ‘It could even be KD,’ he said.”

There it was. McClendon once dropped nearly a million on an anti-gay marriage campaign. Combine his depleted collection with his gay panic and the Maloofs’ crumbling defenses, and you had the recipe for a high-profile basketball theft. Now I just needed to prove it.

I’d come prepared.

“Derek,” I said, “do me a favor.”

“What is it, Mac?”

“Does McClendon still hang out all day in that secret office here?”

“Yeah.”

“Take me over there. He’s never met me. Introduce me as your friend Charles. But don’t tell him I’m a basketball P.I.”

Derek hesitated. He’s always a team guy, but I got the sense he didn’t care for McClendon.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “It won’t hurt the team. And I’ve got a story that’ll have you totally covered.”

“You better.”

We made what seemed like seven left turns in the back halls of the complex and ended at an unmarked door. Derek did the shave-and-a-haircut knock.

“Who is it?” said the voice.

“Fish.”

The door opened and Aubrey McClendon stood before us. Springer was a stretch, at least as a mistaken identity. But there were similarities.

“Aubrey,” said Derek. “My buddy Charles here wanted to meet you.”

McClendon seemed taken aback that a heady veteran like Fish would bring a stranger to his secret lair. I had to move quickly and reframe the interaction with an appeal to his self-interest.

“Mr. McClendon,” I said, “I know you’re a wine connoisseur, and, well, it looks like I solved a big problem for a client, so he got me this fancy Pinot Noir.” I pulled a $10,000 bottle out of my bag. “The thing is, my wife doesn’t like Pinots. She likes Bordeauxs. Now, me, I’d never know the difference. But I figured I ought to make her happy, and I thought to myself, maybe Aubrey McClendon would be interested in a trade.”

McClendon broke into a big grin. “You came to the right place,” he said, opening the door wider to let me in. His desk featured a skyline of wine bottles, and the bookshelves held more wine than books. In the middle of the room, a TV was playing one of the Porky’s movies.

“Looks like you’ve got a lot to choose from,” I said. I knew he’d try to lowball me, so I had to play this right. “The thing is, my wife has this one that’s her favorite. Let me see.” I pulled out my phone and pretended to read off the screen. “Chateau Petrus. You got any of that?”

McClendon smiled again and went to a corner of his desk where there stood ten identical bottles. He handed one to me. “I’ve got a few,” he said.

I examined the bottle. 1982 Chateau Petrus Pomerol Bordeaux. That was the wine. I was unable to suppress my smirk.

“What did you say your name was again?” he asked.

“Charles,” I said, pausing for effect. “Macadamia Charles.”

McClendon’s smile dropped like Chesapeake stock. His shoulders sagged. He knew he’d been had. “I was in Sacramento and I’d been drinking…” his voice trailed off.

“George Maloof would like his wine back,” I said.

I left McClendon with a bottle of ZING as consolation.

--

{Read more Macadamia Charles stories}


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