Turn of the Screw

A Macadamia Charles, Basketball P.I., Mystery
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Latrell Sprewell dangled his legs off the dock. The position made him look like a kid, which was how his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, had treated him, and how Latrell, just a few weeks earlier, had responded. Now, like a kid, Latrell found himself suspended, maybe expelled, surrounded by tsk-ing crickets and talk of lost promise.

It was a couple days before Christmas, and rather than fly over Milwaukee, I’d opted to stop in as the guest of a beer company that wanted to sponsor the National Basketball Private Investigators Association (NBPIA). They provided me several sample cases of their product. I decided to share one with Latrell.

At his suggestion, we met at the marina, despite the fact that it was December and cold and, as far as I could tell, neither of us had a boat. Some other people’s boats had been outfitted with lights and Santa Clauses, though, so we had that. Somewhere nearby, a stereo played “Silver Bells.”

“Good to be back in Milwaukee, at least?” I asked.

“It’s home,” he said. “But it’s not all Laverne & Shirley, Mac. The ‘Kee can be rough.”

I nodded. I didn’t need Latrell to tell me that.

“Next time we do this,” he said, “it’s gonna be on my yacht.”

“You have a yacht?” I asked.

“Not yet.”

My pager buzzed. This was the pager I reserved exclusively for NBA jobs. I told Latrell to keep the beer and found a payphone.

“Hello.” The voice was deep and gruff.

“This is Macadamia Charles,” I said. “Who’s this?”

“This is Glenn Robinson.”

Dogs don't have wings, Mac.

One wall of Glenn’s condo was floor-to-ceiling glass, providing a full view of the harbor. A telescope stood before the window. The adjoining wall featured an altar-like home entertainment system. A small, fake Christmas tree stood in the corner. Glenn directed me to a black leather couch in the middle of the room. I shared it with a giant stuffed pit bull.

“Whose is this?” I asked him.

“Mine,” he said. “I wanted to get an actual big dog, but the condo board won’t let me.”

Glenn’s nickname was Big Dog. Evidently, he was proud of it.

“That’s a shame,” I said. “Nice place, though.”

“I clean it myself. A lot of number-one picks don’t do that.”

“It looks very clean.”

“It is,” he confirmed. “Drink?”

“Water.”

“You want anything to eat?” He grabbed a few almonds out of a bowl and popped them in his mouth. “I’ve got some leftover filet mignon.”

“No need for that,” I said. “But I’ll take some of those almonds you’re having.”

He held up his open hands. “Sorry, Mac. All gone.”

He brought me a glass of water and handed me the case to a cassette tape. The cover image was Glenn himself, in his #13 Bucks jersey, both hands on the rim after a big dunk. “Screwed and Bucked: DJ Screw’s Big Dog Mix,” the cover read.

“The DJ Screw?” I asked. Screw was a Houston guy and an underground legend, the pioneer of the eponymous Screwed and Chopped sound, that bassy, opiatic style that serves as a sonic counterpoint to the shiny candy paint on tricked-out Cadillacs.

“Yeah, man. I’m a number-one draft pick and I’m rich. It’s easy to get a shout-out.”

He had a point, but I hadn’t left Latrell at the dock to hear Big Dog boast.

“You know, Glenn,” I took a sip of water, “I’m sure we could talk mixtapes and star perks and number-one picks all night. I’m sure I’d enjoy it. But I don’t think that’s what you called me for.”

Glenn put a finger to his lips in don’t-speak fashion and hit play on the stereo’s tape deck.

DJ Screw gave the opening monologue in a deep, breathy drawl, pledging allegiance to the Rockets before hyping Big Dog. I raised an eyebrow at Glenn.

“Just wait,” said Glenn. “It’s coming.”

He was right. Without warning, the entire Screw track dropped out, replaced by jaunty norteño stylings. “El cerdo grande!” shouted someone with a bad Spanish accent. The norteño was quickly replaced by a hook that sounded like Spandau Ballet’s “True” on Quaaludes. It’s amazing how half-speed can make something so soft sound so sinister. P.M. Dawn this wasn’t.

The vocals were slowed down as well:

Call ya Big Hog cuz ya ain't got no 'D' in ya,

Sentence ya to waivers for the high crime of bein' ya,

A crop-duster buster, soft in the middle

Concrete feet, overpaid third fiddle

A slow motion popping sound followed the lyrics, before another burst of norteño marked the transition back to Screw’s mix, already in progress.

“That’s why I called you,” he said, turning down the volume.

I nodded. This could be a tough one. “Who else has heard this?”

“No one in my presence,” he said. “But for all I know, the whole team.”

“And you know someone here did it? This wasn’t on Screw’s end?”

“Man, first thing I did when I got my Screw tape was listen to it, front to back. This is a basketball case.”

“When might someone have had access to the tape?”

“I had it in the locker room. Anyone with access to the locker room could’ve done it.”

“Do you know when they did it?”

“I took it on the last road trip, but I don’t think I listened to it again until we got back to town.”

That was the answer I didn’t want. It meant we had several teams to investigate. This one might take a while. I told him as much.

“Those popping sounds at the end—I hope you don’t think those were gunshots,” said Glenn.

“I hope not, too,” I replied, walking to the window and surveying the marina. Christmas decorations marked the border between civilization and the endless nothing of the lake.

“What did you think of the Mexican music?” he asked.

It actually reminded me a bit of a narcocorrido, though I had no intention of freaking Glenn out with the comparison. This didn’t smell like a cartel case, anyway.

“Too short to say whether I liked it or not,” I replied. “Any beefs these days, Glenn?”

“None that I knew of before this.” he said. “People got problems with the Dog, they need to bring ‘em to the Dog.”

“Seems like they did.”

“Directly, man. None of this roundabout garbage.”

“You don’t mind me getting involved, though?”

“If I hire you, I can tell the culprit, ‘Hey, I had Macadamia Charles on the case, so I know it was you!’”

“I’m gonna need to hang onto the tape,” I said.

“I know.”

I took it out of the stereo and placed it in its case. Such a shame. I really hoped Screw hung onto the masters.

“By the way, does Ty still have his record label?”

All Net Records was the Cincinnati-based label owned by Glenn’s new frontcourt mate, Tyrone Hill, a rough-and-tumble power forward. Hill and veteran point guard Terrell Brandon had just joined the Bucks as part of a three-team trade with the Sonics and Cavs.

“Yeah, but I don’t think Ty did this.”

Rather than reminding him that there were no freebies in a basketball investigation, I simply nodded, pocketed the tape, and gestured to the telescope. “You mind?” I asked.

“That’s what it’s there for,” said Glenn.

The lens was trained on the waters just beyond the marina, all black, but for the occasional glint of reflecting Christmas lights. I panned back to the marina, passing over the yachts and sailboats rocking lightly on their ropes, before reaching a long, empty stretch of dock. There sat Latrell, just as I had left him. He tilted his head back for a swig of beer.

***

I asked around for a reputable studio engineer and booked some time for the afternoon, expensing it to Big Dog. First things first, though: I had to visit the team.

Practice was supposed to be closed to the public. I figured I wasn’t exactly the public, but I rolled in with Glenn and brought beer for bribes and explanation. Head coach Chris Ford was a tough customer; I hoped he liked Miller Genuine Draft.

A sturdy slap to my back startled me out of my worries.

“Mac,” said Ricky Pierce, the old gunner, “beer me.”

He didn’t wait for me to comply. Instead, he tore open the case and removed a single can.

“This is for after practice,” he said, with a wink.

“I’d figured you’d prefer shots,” I replied.

I found Ty Hill in the training room, getting his ankles taped. Ty probably wouldn’t be taking a beer. Ty was all about work, as the commentators liked to note. His dad worked six days a week cleaning oil drums. 13 kids to feed. Ty adopted that work ethic, they said.

“Ty,” I said.

“Mac,” he replied, friendly but restrained. “What’s up?”

“Just looking to get rid of some beer, fresh from the Miller brewery. This is their Genuine Draft. Heard of it?”

He chuckled. “Chris’ll flip if he sees you running around here handing out beers.”

“You don’t think he’ll want one?”

Ty just snorted.

“How’s the wax game, Ty?”

He nodded appreciatively. “Just got OTR Clique and Renaizzance to redo ‘Back of the Club.’ Slowed it down a little.”

I didn’t know OTR or Renaizzance, but I saw an opening. “Slowed it down like DJ Screw.”

Ty laughed. “How you know Screw, Mac?”

“Professional obligations, I suppose.”

“Old hand like you, fuckin’ with Screw. Best be careful.”

I laughed. Ty didn’t. He wasn’t showing much, and I didn’t trust him.

***

Chris Ford’s mustache was like a permanent frown. Chris gave me an obligatory hello, but bristled when he saw the beer.

“Who do you think you are, Spuds McKenzie?”

I didn’t mention that he had his brands mixed up. And his species. “What am I gonna do with all this beer, Chris?”

“Not my problem, Mac. Shouldn’t you be at some YMCA looking into a ref who swallowed his whistle?”

“Sounds like a job for his doctor,” I said, taking a seat in a folding chair against the wall. “I won’t get in the way.”

Chris shook his head blew his whistle to start practice. Who blows a whistle to start practice in the NBA?

I was looking for signs of tension, either in the form of resentment or perhaps a guilty conscience.

Though new to the team this season, veteran point guard Terrell Brandon was very much the coach on the court, apart from Chris and his assistants Mike Woodson and Dick Versace, who also stood on the court.

Brandon was an old hand and a natural team leader. He addressed most of his teammates by nickname: Glenn was “Dog”; Armon Gilliam was “Hammer,” as he’d always been; Ervin Johnson was “Bagman” (presumably from his work as a supermarket checker before he decided to play college basketball); Ricky Pierce was “Paper”, a shortened version of the “Big Paper Daddy” handle broadcaster Kevin Calabro had given him in Seattle; and Ray Allen was “Hollywood”, because he’d shot a movie over the summer with Denzel Washington and Spike Lee. It seemed his teammates liked to tease him about it, but Allen just chewed his gum and ignored their barbs.

Ty was just Ty, despite the fact that he and Brandon had been playing together for five years now. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.

The team had just suffered an embarrassing 31-point blowout at the hands of the young Washington Wizards, and was about to get a couple days off for Christmas, so Ford pushed them hard. The intensity escalated through various scrimmaging drills, until Ty and Big Dog both came down with a rebound. Neither would let go, despite Ford’s repeated whistles, and eventually Ty wrestled Dog to the ground, where they continued to tumble and fight. Gilliam and Johnson had to pull them apart.

“Fuck fist fights and lame scuffles!” shouted Ford. “All that gets us is suspensions, especially after the Spree incident. Learn to draw the line.”

When practice ended, most of the players dispersed to ice up and shower. Allen stuck around to shoot jumpers. The coaches stuck around too. I pulled Woodson aside.

“How are things going, Mike? How’s the team?”

“We’re twelve and fourteen, Mac. What do you want me to say?”

Sub-.500 ball wasn’t acceptable with a lineup so stacked. I felt almost cruel asking about it, as it was three or four follow-up questions from asking Mike whether he anticipated being fired.

“I know that,” I said. “I mean the team, cohesion. Any tensions, resentments, or do you think they’re gonna turn it around? I saw Ty and Dog go at it today.”

“Nah, that’s normal practice stuff. Healthy competition after a losing streak. And Chris has been on Dog to rebound more. Things are okay.”

“What about Chris?”

“Chris is old school, Mac. He’s not gonna change his approach.”

“Strange question, I know. But does Chris rap?”

Woodson shook his head quickly, as if he had an insect in his ear. “What? You mean like rap music?”

“I know, I know, not likely. Just wondering.”

“What would make you think that Chris raps?”

Ford had just quoted Biggie in the middle of practice, but I let it go. “Ah, never mind. Just a hunch.”

It seems I’d have to look into Chris Ford as well.

***

The studio was a low-slung spot of brick at the corner of a rough block. The producer stood outside in a worn parka, squinting behind thick glasses. He looked like one of the Proclaimers. I briefly considered asking him how far he’d walked to meet me. We shook hands and he showed me in.

“So what’s the story?” he asked.

I produced the tape. “Someone recorded something over the top of this tape, and I want to see what you can make of it.”

“This a real DJ Screw mix?”

“I’m pretty sure it is,” I said.

“Well, then, that’s a damn shame. I hope Screw hung onto the masters.” He popped the tape into some sort of fancy contraption. “It’s too bad we’re not dealing with digital. I’m going to need to copy this so we can mess around with it.”

I told him we needed only the first three minutes.

The tape played as it copied. He chuckled at the norteño. “Is this supposed to be some kind of narcocorrido ripoff?”

I shrugged. We listened through the rap and the next burst of norteño before he stopped the recording.

“Spandau Ballet?” he asked.

“True.”

“Should be easy to calibrate then. We’ll speed it up so it matches the original. What’s the crop duster bit about?”

“I believe it’s about his shot selection. Spraying indiscriminately.”

He played with the dials, turning the norteño interludes into Alvin and the Chipmunks samples. The background of the diss rap was now just a regular-speed sample of Spandau Ballet’s “ah-ah-ah-ahh-ahh”s.

The rap vocals were another matter. Even sped up, they were deep and robotic. The engineer shook his head.

“Do we need to speed it up more?” I asked.

“I don’t think that’s gonna do the trick. They ran this through a voice changer before they slowed it down.”

“What does that mean?”

“What it means is that we might be S-O-L.”

“What about the popping sound?”

“Same thing, man. There’s some underlying distortion there.”

“That’s all you got for me?”

“Look, your guy, Dog or whatever, he paid for three hours. You’ve used about fifteen minutes. How about I tinker with this for a while and let you know what I find?”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“Feel free to stick around,” he said. “Or I can page you if I find anything interesting.”

“We’ll go with the second one,” I said. I had some Bucks to talk to.

***

I’d left my jacket at the gym to have an excuse to get back in, as it seemed the beer didn’t carry much currency.

The echoes of bouncing balls welcomed me. I was relieved there were still people around. I hoped it would be the right ones. I was disappointed it was just Ray Allen.

He didn’t even have a rebounder; he was just chasing down his own misses.

“You the only one here, Ray?”

“What does it look like?”

I said nothing. He continued to chase down his rebounds, dribble out, and shoot threes. “Who are you again?” he asked.

“Mac Charles. You want me to rebound?”

“Nah.” He didn’t seem out of breath at all. It was an impressive display. “Sometimes I like to chase my own.”

“They call you Hollywood?”

“Soon they’ll call me Jesus.” He swished another three.

“What do you know about DJ Screw, Ray?”

“Dog’s got a tape,” he said. “You should ask him.”

“You listen to it?”

“He plays it sometimes.” Another swish. “Don’t you have some beer to drink?”

I grabbed my jacket and headed upstairs.

I found Chris Ford in his office. His desk was a mess of printouts. A television was paused on game footage in which Big Dog had clearly been beaten on a backdoor cut.

“Dammit, Mac. What do you want?”

“I’ll cut to the chase, Chris: Are you more of a Biggie or a Tupac guy?”

“What?!”

“Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac Shakur?”

“Are those the dead rappers?”

“Yes.”

“Mac, we’re twelve and fourteen. You think I have time to think about dead rappers?”

“DJ Screw?” I asked. “He’s alive.”

He pointed to the door. “Get out, Mac.”

As I walked away, he shouted after me. “And I mean out of the building. Leave my damn team alone.”

I was headed to the weight room to see if I could find Ty, but I put on my coat so Chris would think I was leaving the building. On my way down the hall, I put my hands in my coat pockets and found something funny. Two things funny, actually: A screw and a candy sucker. Screw, sucker. Someone in the building had been watching me and was having a little fun at my expense. I took another look at the sucker. The wrapper said raspberry. I held the candy to my nose and inhaled. I smelled raspberry, but I also smelled cinnamon. Nobody makes a raspberry-cinnamon lollipop. Something else had left that smell.

I still wanted to talk to Ty, but I had something to do first. I headed back to Chris’s office.

“Is there a phone I could use for a few minutes before I go?”

Chris grimaced. He didn’t want to let me, but knew he had to. There was an understanding between the league and the NBPIA.

He directed me to an empty office.

I paged the studio guy. He called back right away, apologizing for having no good news. I told him to forget about it: I had an assignment for him.

I called at least three production outfits and five recording studios, all of them long distance. (Sorry, Senator Kohl.) I got the answer I wanted from the Hit Factory in New York.

Right after that, I got a call back from the studio guy. He gave me the answer I expected.

Sometimes a case comes together rather quickly.

***

I found Ty and Ray in the weight room, taking turns on the bench press. They were skinny guys, both of them, but they knew their way around the iron. I waited until Ty finished his set, for which Ray was spotting. Wu-Tang blared from the stereo.

“A minute with you, Ray?”

“Sure,” said Ray, between chomps of gum. “But it better be quick.”

He stepped out into the doorway between the weight room and the hall.

“I know you did it, Ray.”

“Did what?”

“Recorded over Dog’s tape. Left a screw and a sucker in my pocket.”

“No idea what you’re talking about.”

“I made some calls. You requested studio time when Public Enemy was recording the soundtrack for your movie. You asked for norteño samples. The popping sound at the end was you chewing your gum. I had an engineer recreate it. And the raspberry lollipop smelled like cinnamon.” I leaned in, real close. “The cinnamon that’s on your breath right now. Big Red, I believe.”

Ray stepped back, put his hands on his hips, and tilted his chin up. “So I did it,” he said. “What’s it to you?”

“Does Ty know anything about this?”

Ray shook his head. “This was all me.”

“Why did you do it? Dog took you under his wing last year.”

“Dogs don’t have wings.”

“Seriously, Ray. Why?”

“Man, look at Dog. You see him over there?” Ray asked, pointing to a far end of the weight room that he could see but I could not. How did I miss Dog, I wondered. I stepped forward and indeed saw a set of squat racks that I had failed to notice on my first entrance, as they were half-hidden behind a mirrored wall. Glenn was not there, however.

“I don’t,” I conceded.

“That’s why,” he said. He blew a bubble of Big Red, a thin pink bladder that grew until it popped, sending a shot of hot air right in my face. “Merry Christmas, Mac.”


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