Gangster, Prankster

A Macadamia Charles, Basketball P.I., Mystery
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December, 2004. Detroit. It had been a couple weeks since the Malice at the Palace, the Pistons–Pacers brawl that had cast a pall over the Motor City, which is gloomy enough in the winter—or even the summer these days.

Aren't We Like The Matrix?

{Original art by J.O. Applegate}

I’d chosen not to work the ensuing investigation; everyone saw what happened, and I didn’t want any part of that hangover. Still, I ended up in town anyway, training police detectives and legal investigators to become basketball P.I.s for a particularly competitive lawyers’ league. Not my favorite assignment, but a basketball P.I. can’t live on love of the game alone.

After a long day of defiant questioning from people who were sure they already knew how to solve a basketball mystery, I needed to unwind. I called my guy Rasheed Wallace.

“Mac,” he said. “What’s good?”

“I’m in town, Sheed. And I need a beer.”

“You mind if Ham Slamwich comes?”

Ham Slamwich was what George Blaha, the Pistons’ play-by-play guy, called dunk-master Darvin Ham.

“I’d love to see Darvin,” I said.

Sheed named a bar and time and we agreed to meet.

It was one of those dark, oaky joints that old guys like. I suppose the calendar said I’d become a bit of an old guy myself and, indeed, I liked the place. Bobby Bland on the jukebox and a bartender more salt than pepper.

Sheed and Darvin sat at the bar, hulking figures, pint glasses tiny in their wraparound hands. Darvin was clean-shaven as always, only eyebrows away from alopecia, while Sheed’s hair and beard reminded me of neglected lawns. Darvin wore a tracksuit; Sheed wore sweatpants and a Christian Okoye jersey.

“You just missed him,” Sheed said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Darko.”

“Aw, why didn’t you have him stick around? You know how long I’ve wanted to meet Darko.”

I’d been intrigued by Darko Milicic, the Pistons’ highly touted Serbian import, since reading Chad Ford’s scouting reports in the summer of 2003. Back then, Darko was only 17 years old, but he sounded like the second coming of Arvydas Sabonis: a skilled, mobile center who could pass and hit threes but loved to bang.

Little did I know that I’d regret missing Darko for investigative reasons as well.

“He had other business to attend to,” said Sheed.

“I’m a little worried about him,” said Darvin.

“Darko’s a gangster,” said Sheed.

“But that thunder dude?” asked Darvin.

“Jay Thunderbolt,” said Sheed, for my benefit. “He runs a strip club out of his house. Running with that cat is the least of my worries about Darko.”

“True that,” said Darvin.

“Young fella needs to get his game right on the court.”

“Is it Larry?” I asked. Pistons’ coach Larry Brown was notoriously hard on rookies. I still have a hard time forgiving him for burying Jalen Rose.

“Larry ain’t on the court,” said Sheed. “Darko can’t worry about Larry. Darko needs to be a gangster on the court. He’s a gangster off the court; he’s gotta bring that same intensity between the lines.”

“Number two pick in the draft,” said Darvin. “I didn’t even get drafted.”

“I sat him down,” continued Sheed,” and I showed him a bunch of Ray Lewis clips. You know I’m a Chiefs guy, but I thought, who better to show Darko the intensity he needs to bring?”

“Ray’s got fire,” said Darvin.

“Ray’s got fire, and that’s what Darko needs,” continued Sheed. “I told him, you gotta be ready to run over anybody. Be like Ray. You’re the Serbian Gangster, the White Ray.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He just nodded like he agreed. I dunno that I got through to him, though, Mac.”

“I have a question,” I said quietly, so the bartender couldn’t hear. “How’d he get in here? I mean, everyone in town knows who he is, and that he isn’t 21.”

Sheed just laughed and shook his head. “For such a good basketball P.I., Mac, you can be one corny dude.”

Darvin got up and headed for the jukebox. “I’m gonna see if they got any E-40.”

***

I got the call from Sheed the next morning. I could tell he was upset.

“I think Darko took my belt.”

“Your belt?”

“Yeah, my championship belt.”

When the Pistons won the title in 2004, Sheed had championship belts, in the style of boxers or WWE wrestlers, made for himself and all his teammates.

“What makes you think Darko took your belt?”

“It’s missing from my locker. And there’s a note there that says, ‘Easy Riddle: Don’t get mixed up about The White Ray.”

“Did you ask him about it?”

“Yeah, he said it wasn’t him. I need you to work on this one, Mac.”

“Who else knows about it?”

“I’m keeping it quiet right now. I’ve only talked to Darko.”

“I understand, Sheed.” This was a big deal. I could tell Sheed’s feelings were hurt. The belts and the bonds they represented meant a lot to him. “I’ll be there in an hour.”

***

The team was just finishing practice when I got to the facility. Sheed wore his Kansas City Chiefs helmet as he swished baseline jumpers. “Forty-five, seventeen!” He shouted with each release. “Forty-five, seventeen, Chaunce!”

This, I realized, was the score of the Chiefs’ blowout win over the Denver Broncos two days prior. Chauncey Billups is a Denver native.

“Mac Charles!”someone shouted. Immediately, everyone gathered around me, players and coaches alike.

“You come to solve the mystery of Rip’s missing jumper?” asked Larry Brown. Rip Hamilton had gone just 3 for 22 in their last game, a one-point loss to the Blazers.

“I thought I was here to work the mystery of when Larry will jump ship to his next job,” I shot back.

Everyone “ooooh”ed, like I’d just called out a teacher in grade school. Larry chuckled and put an arm around me.

“Good to have you back, Mac,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

As things calmed down, I pulled Darko aside. I said that I was a big fan and that I’d like to meet up with him later in the day, if he was free. He seemed a bit confused and I’m sure had no idea who I was, but the welcome I’d received from his teammates seemed to give me some credibility. He gave me his number.

Sheed and I waited until the locker room was clear and checked out the note. I hit the administrative offices and photocopied it.

“You ever consider the possibility of Darvin?” I asked Sheed.

“Nah,” he said. “Darvin didn’t do this.”

“I haven’t investigated it yet,” I said, “but did anyone else know about the Ray Lewis thing?”

“Nah, just Darvin.”

“He likes to mess with you, trying to find E-40 on the jukebox.”

“I’m tellin’ you, Mac. It wasn’t Darvin.”

“You’re probably right, Sheed. But a smart basketball P.I. never rules out a suspect prematurely.”

***

Darko insisted I meet him on a downtown rooftop. It was the kind of request that would raise eyebrows in a gangster flick, and Sheed had more than once called Darko a gangster. But I had an assignment, and I wasn’t going to get psyched out by some teenager with frosted tips.

A dry, light snow had begun to float down, little bits of white fluttering in the wind against the endless gray of the concrete and the river. I double-wrapped my scarf and covered my head with a Pistons beanie the trainer had given me back at the practice facility.

Downtown wasn’t as ghostly as some would have you believe. I even exchanged nods with a few other bundled loners as we crossed paths in Grand Circus Park. However, when I arrived at Darko’s chosen address, I found myself facing a stately, Georgian mid-rise tower in advanced decay. This, I recalled, was the famous—and vacant—Statler Hotel, a magnificent structure whose decades-long crumbling paralleled the city’s decline.

I didn’t know how Darko expected me to get in, let alone up to the roof. The facility certainly lacked working elevators. In fact, viewing it from outside, I doubted the integrity of its stairwells. Perhaps his suggestion of meeting place was less than sincere, like an offer of sale on the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the back of the building I found an old service door that was detached from its top hinge; it filled the doorway, but not perfectly. I was able to slide it open along the concrete—it made more noise than I’d like—and hustle inside, dragging the door closed behind me.

Darkness. The only light was the sliver slipping past the imperfectly closed door. I activated my keychain flashlight. I knew I’d purchased it for a reason. A good basketball P.I. comes prepared. The path forward was now visible, at least for several feet at a time. A rat played Frogger ahead of my footsteps.

The musty air made me cough, and I thought I heard voices murmur in response. Situations like these make me uneasy. I may be long-armed, but I’m also unarmed.

The corridor deposited me into a grand lobby, whose thick air was made visible by shafts of light streaming in through the translucent windows. Though I pride myself on keeping fit, at least for a middle-aged basketball P.I., I didn’t look forward to the 18 stories of dark, cold, musty stairwell that awaited.

I could see only three stairs at a time; it was the opposite of having light at the end of the tunnel. With my eyes on my footsteps, I paid greater attention than I might have otherwise to the decades of detritus that lined the stairwell. Syringes were abundant, as were feces, fast-food scraps, and used condoms. I couldn’t help but shout when, at the landing of floor three, I encountered what I at first thought was a human corpse.

I sighed in relief at seeing the gentle heave of the man’s breast, and tiptoed away, grateful, at least in the moment, that whatever he had ingested or whatever infirmity afflicted him had rendered him oblivious to my presence. I kept my tread light so as not to push my luck.

Things got dicey again at floor thirteen, when I heard the first pop of gunshot. I figured I must have imagined it. Then the second pop arrived. You have to be kidding me, I thought. Another shot. Then another. The regular intervals were mildly comforting, as they suggested target practice, rather than some sort of gunfight or assassination.

Nevertheless, I was walking blindly, not knowing whether these bullets were likely to pierce the wall separating me from the shooter, and then to pierce me. I briefly considered a commando crawl up the stairs, but figured that’d just take longer. I sprinted up the final five flights.

At floor eighteen, I saw the ladder to the roof. I climbed up and slid the cover open. The brightness of day, however meager it seemed before, was quite a shock to my light-deprived eyes. It took me a minute or so to catch my breath and adjust to the light. My clothes were covered in a layer of fine dust. I wiped my face and found it covered in sweat and grime. I shuddered to think what was in my lungs.

A tall figure approached from the far end of the roof, his strides long and fast. He wore a black leather trench coat that hung like a cape. A bird was perched on his left shoulder.

“Macadamia!” he shouted, with a thick accent.

“Darko,” I said.

He reached into his pocket and retrieved a bag. “I brought you some macadamia nuts, as a gift.”

“Thank you,” I said. I really needed to get the word out that I’m more of an almond guy, but it was nevertheless quite a gesture by the kid. “I wish I had something for you in return.”

“Not necessary,” he said. “You are a great basketball P.I. I learn from you.”

“Thanks, but you might be better off learning from Sheed and Ben and Larry.”

Darko shook his head. “Larry,” he muttered.

“Anyway,” I said, “what’s with the bird?”

“This is where I keep my pigeons.”

“Do you race them?”

“Not yet. Maybe later.”

“You just raise them?” I worried that the distinction would be too subtle for his ear, as English was his second language. But Darko understood.

“For now,” he said, “that is enough. I find joy on this roof, where I can see so much of the river and this city. People say Detroit is sad. ‘Bombed out,’ they say. But I have seen bombed out and it is not this. And the birds, they fly in every direction, with such grace and freedom. I keep them in cages to protect them, but I love nothing more than to release them and watch them fly. I feel kinship with them.” He paused. “I seek only to be free.”

“You don’t feel free?”

“If Larry had pigeons, he would clip their wings.”

“Why,” I asked, just noticing something for the first time, “do you have a gun in your pocket?”

“It is to protect my pigeons. They would not fare well against, say, a hawk.”

A subtle pop echoed from below.

“What’s with the gunshots? You have anything to do with that?”

“That is probably Jay. He does target practice down there. You know, they’re going to demolish this building soon.”

“Thunderbolt?”

“Yes, Jay Thunderbolt. Do you know him also?”

“Only heard of him.”

“His house is the best strip club. I do not like this bottle service, these games people play. It is all about proving something. They act like they are watching the dancers, but really they are watching other people watching them pretend to enjoy a bottle they paid way too much for. How do you enjoy the dance in a situation like that? I prefer to live in the moment. There is nothing but lap dance. I get that at Jay’s.”

I simply nodded. I’ve been wrong before, but this contemplative transplant seemed unlikely to have stolen Sheed’s belt.

“Yippee-kay-yay, motherfucker,” droned a deadpan voice. There emerged from the roof’s opening first a large hand gripping a handgun, followed a bespectacled, crooked face (half of it hung low and jowly, the result of a paralysis, I later learned, from a childhood bullet to the head), followed by roughly 6-5 of lanky man. He wore a leather trench coat much like Darko’s.

“Mr. Thunderbolt, I presume.”

He appeared confused by my presence. “You got it. Who are you?”

“Macadamia Charles,” I offered my hand. He switched his gun to his left hand for the handshake. “Basketball P.I.”

“What’re you here for?”

“That question can be interpreted many ways,” said Darko.

“Darko’s right,” I said. “I’m in Detroit to train basketball P.I.s. I’m on the roof to meet Darko, because I’ve always wanted to meet Darko.”

“It’s also a nice roof,” said Darko. “I really like it up here.”

Thunderbolt shrugged, as if to say “good enough,” and turned to Darko. “When are you gonna hook me up with one of those championship belts? I want one for the wall at the house. The customers will be more impressed by that than the letter from Tom DeLay.”

“I like my belt,” said Darko. “It was a gift from my friend Rasheed.”

“My old man would love it.”

“Jay lives with his dad,” Darko explained.

“It’s an exciting life,” said Thunderbolt. “See if you can get another one, Darko.”

“Do you like our jackets, Mac?” asked Darko. “Aren’t we like The Matrix?”

***

Thunderbolt’s entreaties notwithstanding, I left that rooftop with an even stronger suspicion that Darvin was responsible for the belt’s disappearance. How to prove it was another matter. Darko was young and open and probably had no idea I was working a case. Darvin, on the other hand, had been around the block. If indeed he was the culprit, he’d know what I was up to as soon as he caught word of me poking around. A basketball P.I. must be more circumspect with a seasoned suspect like Darvin.

There was this Thunderbolt character as well. Maybe he orchestrated something, with or without Darko’s knowledge. I wished I’d arrived at the bar earlier and been privy to the conversation between Darko, Sheed, and Darvin.

I figured the best way to commence the investigation without raising eyebrows was to talk with Larry. The man was so focused on coaching, he’d think I was there for just X’s and O’s. Larry also loved to talk, and maybe in discussing team dynamics, he’d give me an opening. It wasn’t my cleverest gambit, but I didn’t see this as a case for, say, disguises or surrogates.

I found Larry in his office, his feet on his desk, remote in his hand, reviewing game video.

“Come on in, Mac,” he said, pulling his feet off his desk. He paused the DVD and I took the chair across from him.

“How’s the team?”

“I like the team.”

“This Darko kid?”

“Darko has a lot to learn.”

“Do the guys resent him at all, second pick who hasn’t produced? I mean, a guy like Darvin, he goes undrafted, has to earn everything.”

“Everyone has to earn everything,” said Larry.

“You sound like Pete Carroll.”

He chuckled. “Darvin will be a coach someday. People always see the coaching mind in the skill guys who overcome a lack of athleticism but miss it in the athletic guys who overcome a lack of skill. Both situations are about knowing your role, playing the right way.”

“Fair point,” I said.

“It’s good to have you back, Mac. You know, I wish we had a good basketball P.I.—heck, any basketball P.I.—working the ABA when I was there.”

“Some capers go unsolved?”

“Everything went unsolved. Capers and petty thefts alike.”

“Petty thefts,” I chuckled.

“I know, I know. Below your pay grade.” I noticed Larry’s chest puffing. Was this some fight or flight instinct kicking in?

“I don’t think like that, Larry.”

“Neither do I, Mac. That’s not the way one ought to approach his profession.”

Not the way … not the way … the wrong way. Play the right way. Suddenly, it all made sense. The thorn in Darko’s side was the emptiness around Sheed’s midline.

“What did you do with Rasheed’s belt, Larry?”

Brown furrowed his brow in confusion. “Rasheed’s belt?”

“Don’t BS me, Larry. We go too far back for that. ‘Easy Riddle: Don’t get mixed up about the White Ray.’ If one weren’t mixed up, it would be ‘the right way’, wouldn’t it?”

“Did Rasheed hire you to figure this out?”

“Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”

Larry sighed. “I’m a little disappointed. Rasheed has a brilliant mind, and he’s heard me talk about the right way a million times. He should have figured it out himself.”

“Ordinarily, you’d be right. But this situation’s a little more complicated.”

“How’s that?”

“Never mind. Gimme the belt.”

Larry opened a drawer in his desk and handed it over. It was gaudy and gilded and looked like something Indiana Jones might have shot a Nazi for.

“I was going to give it back,” he explained. “I love Sheed. I really do. I just wanted to make sure he was focusing on the game, and not all this pageantry.”

I knew Larry was sincere when he said he loved Sheed, but I shook my head at the ego, the recklessness of it all. “You’ve got to stop manipulating, Larry.”

He held up a finger, as if to say ‘wait a second,’ and reached into his drawer. He produced a large plastic bag. “I got you some almonds, Mac.”

{Read more Macadamia Charles stories}


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