By Martin Harris
I put this down now so I don’t forget later. Like I’m apt to do.
The man’s name was Carl P. Huffines. I don’t know what the P was for. I knew this man for about four or five weeks, maybe. Not more. I never last more than a month or two at anything, it seems like. Always starting over.
As I write this today I have no idea how it was I ended up with Huffines. I had been doing some temping down in the area -- carpentry, some construction -- and probably I was given the tip. Whatever it was, a plumber was a good thing to be that spring.
Carl P. Huffines. Always talking about how the devil was in the details, the devil was in the details. This he’d say to me practically every day, like it was a motto or something. More likely it was just for my benefit, he kept saying it. I don’t know.
Fact was, for most things, Carl usually knew what he was talking about. Generally speaking, I am no good with details, especially when it comes to names. People, roads, towns. Other stuff, too. Like that time with Carl when I’d left a shovel and a brand-new reciprocal saw behind at a job. Sometimes I don’t mind it so much. Having such a godawful memory for stuff, I mean. Mostly it’s a burden, though, and the reason why I usually end up working for brainiacs like Carl P. Huffines. Guys who, for whatever reason, can see stuff the rest of us are missing. The kind who’re always a step ahead, cutting corners, scheming up ways to make the most of a situation. Not to mention dock your pay for having lost an odd tool here or there. This Carl was like that. He’d been plumbing probably twenty years before I’d ever met up with him, running the business on his own for the last couple once his uncle had finally kicked. The one who’d been in Vietnam, as Carl was always saying.
“It’s the little things,” the man would start, as if you were one of them. Then he’d explain how this or that problem could’ve been prevented somewhere along the line had folks planned ahead a little more carefully. Or been a little more observant. How if the customer had just taken a moment or two to inspect the tile to see whether bad grouting was causing the leak, we’d be out of a job. Or how we should thank the builders for skimping on using copper and giving the mice and rats sagging, brittle plastic to gnaw on instead. Or how lucky it was for us that the legislature or the governor or whatever had forced all those low-flush toilets on everybody, especially in the older homes whose long runs to the building drain outfall were getting plugged up all the time . . . .
Yeah, Carl knew all about it.
Sometimes, though, stuff happens you just can’t plan for. Like that particular spring, what with all the storms flooding basements of homes that had been bone dry ever since the day their foundations had been laid. Big rains, scary damn winds. Like the whole world was starting to crack up or something.
Now what I’m telling about, this all happened a while back. Started out just another day. Carl and I left out in the van that morning on another of those Malibu Mud jobs. Or so Carl described them.
We’d dealt with at least a dozen of these during the time I was there, I’d venture. Some actor, or agent to actors, or agent to agents to actors would wake up and go to whip himself up a mug of decaf Orange Zinger or whatever the hell it is they drink. He’d open up his generally reliable CrystalClear or EauParfait or LavePure faucet on which he’d have fitted one of those attachment filter-jobs which according to Carl were a scam anyway and he’d find the tap already had kind of an Orange Zinger-type look to it. So then he’d go to the book and see that little box in the corner for Huffines Plumbing and ring ’em up.
I remember taking a couple of the calls. Talk about melodrama. You’d think these fruits were rehearsing for some horror flick the way they’d go on, like a little rust or mud in the water was a sign that unless they did something quick the zombies would come beat down the door. We’d come around and check it out and in just about every case we’d find that thanks to all the storms the water under the house had risen high enough to submerge the pipes, lifting years of rust and oxidation off and carrying that and whatever dirt or mud was around into whatever leaks there might have been. Usually meant replacing a connector here or there or maybe a joint if the state of things had gotten especially shoddy.
Of course, if you talked to the homeowners you’d think we were magicians or something. Plumbing one of life’s mysteries. People just don’t like to think about how the water or the power or the cable gets to them. Lot easier to let all that goes on underneath their houses remain a mystery.
Carl drove; Carl always drove. Later on I wrote down the address: 1432 West Cheshire Ave. I didn’t write down the Ave., but I think that’s what it was. (Seemed more like an avenue than a boulevard, don’t ask me why.) Over in a semi-ritzy section about three-quarters of a mile back from the coastline. Probably safe from the cliffs creeping inland for the next fifteen years or so, anyway. Has some highway or another running behind it with this large wooded area that shielded the traffic noise from the backs of the houses.
I remember Carl swinging the van into this long, circular drive which wound around behind the huge house. He parked it near the back entrance. Big old back yard, with a garden and a shed. Lot of green in the woods beyond it. A real handsome place.
“What the hell is El Niño, anyway?” I asked Carl as we got out of the van. Interrupting him, probably. Actually, it might have been on some other day I’d asked him that, but it seems like we might have been talking about it again that morning.
“El Niño,” he’d say, bending the N whereas I hadn’t bothered. “Means ‘The Big One.’”
“The Big One?”
“Well the word in Spanish is nine . . . like The Nine.”
“What, like the whole nine yards?”
“No, no . . .”
“To the nines? Like I’m dressed . . . ”
“No, no . . . it ain’t . . . .” He trailed off, shaking his head with that I’m-surrounded-by-morons look while he fished the spare key out from the little tray underneath the lamp beside the backdoor.
“If it don’t mean nothing but the Nine, then I can see how that would drive folks batty.”
Carl ignored me and unlocked the door. I followed him through with the box. Carl looked around a moment without saying anything, then turned to me and pointed, like I wouldn’t know to follow him anyway. I’m remembering this better than I thought I would. I remember trailing behind Carl shuffling across this deep-pile carpeting and through the nicely-furnished living room . . . .
I should probably include what Carl looked like. Just to have it. Squat sort of guy, I guess around one-eighty, one-ninety. He’d have been wearing the blue HP shirt with those gray-striped work pants, of course. The man was on the short side, around five-eight, I’d reckon. Bowling pin body. About fiftyish, though not too wrinkly. Head sort of egg-shaped, with a smallish forehead. Fat face. No glasses. Front teeth crooked, one sort of bent out in front of the other. Dark-colored eyes, say brown. Had a hair job, so a little too much jet in that black if you know what I mean. Get out in the wind and you’d think it was gonna take off on its own. That’ll do.
Carl reached the door to the basement and after some fumbling for the light we took it slow down the sort-of flimsy wooden staircase.
“What are you talking about . . . driving folks batty?” Carl asked as we descended.
“I mean like the hurricanes. They give names to . . . ”
“Oh, right, right, I see . . . yeah, I guess Hurricane Bob ain’t so scary-sounding as the evil El Niño . . . ”
“Like it’s got a name it’s got a face to it.”
“Yeah, well, I suppose.” He rubbed his eye hard with his palm. “Whatever it means it means money to me.”
We made it down to the bottom landing and could see already how the flooding had made a regular soup of things. I set the box down and opened it and we laid out the Holiday Inn towel there on the little square of concrete. Carl took a trial step and it seemed solid enough. I’d seen him lose a boot doing that, actually. Was one of those large, open-style basements, earthen floor, crawl space about four feet on one end and upwards to six or so at the other. Dark and pungent and full of that cold, creeping dampness you just can’t wait to get out of. I’d been in so many of them by that point they were all looking alike. Together we crept around towards the front part of the house, Carl feeling with a gloved hand along the side of the main line as we went.
He stopped suddenly.
“Here we go,” he said, running his finger along the fracture along the side of the pipe. Had a welled-up look to it, like a bloated scar.
It took I’d say about an hour and forty-five minutes to take care of it. A standard connector; we’d had several with us. Several trips up and down, shutting off the water, retrieving pieces and tools from the van, turning the water back on. Had gathered everything up and were about to head back up to the kitchen to see whether the surgery had been a success when I noticed on the other side of the staircase, around the water heater, this wide, grilled-over window that opened onto the back yard.
“Look at that thing,” I said to Carl, pointing. There was some sort of gilded-leaf pattern in the grating. Now I’m thinking maybe it triggered something for me.
“Sure, sure,” Carl nodded. “Here we go. Sink all your money into fancifying a window cover in back of the house that no one is ever gonna see anyway, rather than improving the rot of an excuse you had laid down to connect you to the city line. I’ll never figger . . . ”
I squat-walked over to the window, which was probably about eight feet across and a couple of feet high. I felt a draft coming in where the window wasn’t completely shut.
“ . . . it’s as though they compete with one another to see who can blow the most bread, that sort of ornamental crap. No point whatsoever . . . ”
His voice trailed off and I turned to see Carl kneeled down with his back to me and facing the underside of the staircase.
I edged over. I saw that he was shaking that hairpiece of his back and forth. I leaned over his shoulder, balancing myself with a hand on a crossbeam.
“Look!” he said, suddenly real quiet, like he was trying to catch his breath.
Which was understandable, considering the man was looking at a half-buried skeleton.
The skull was cracked across the front ridge and titled backwards, away from the rest of the skeleton. The lower jaw was apparently still somewhere beneath the dirt, and you could see a couple of fillings shining there in back in the upper jaw. Further down was the breastplate and the sternum or whatever you call it, with pieces of red-checkered material stuck to it here and there. Mingled with what looked like the bones of a forearm and, fully intact, one of the hands. Which with all the flesh rotted off it looked more like four super-long fingers growing out of the wrist bone. A platinum-band on what had to be the pointer. Besides the basin-shaped curve of the pelvis jutting up through the earth, the lower half of the skeleton remained hidden. If you can imagine somebody trying to float on his back, with just the top part of his body exposed while the rest remained immersed...
“Are you seeing what I'm seeing?” Carl stammered.
“I see it,” I answered.
We were silent for several minutes. Finally, Carl lifted himself up.
“Let us try and find ourselves a drink,” he suggested.
I nodded in agreement, and followed him back over to the landing, taking another gander at that design on the window grating as I did. We wiped our boots on the towel and walked up the stairs and into the living room. I took a seat at a glass table beside the kitchen while Carl stepped behind the counter and began going through the cabinets.
“Didja get a look at that material in there?” he asked.
“You know, the shirt.”
“Probably part-polyester.” Cabinet doors opening and closing. “Couldn’t be all poly because if it was it wouldn’t have worn away at all ...”
“What’re you talking about?”
Carl kept slamming cabinet doors, coming up empty.
“Poly don’t deteriorate, see. Not one iota. Whereas cotton, that’s biodegradable. If that shirt had been all poly, you could probably take it and wash it and wear it again.”
I watched Carl rub his chin.
“How long you think he’s been down there?” I asked.
“Aniseed?” Carl pouted, looking at a bottle he’d found. “It’ll have to do. What?”
I repeated my question.
“He? Oh, I’d say at least a year. Maybe longer.” He found two tall glasses and poured us each a couple of fingers’ worth of the liqueur. “Actually I was just thinking how this reminds me of something Charlie used to talk about...”
Charlie was Carl’s uncle, the one who’d been a Vietnam prisoner of war for I don’t know how long. Carl had gotten the business from this uncle, I believe. Actually, maybe Charlie wasn’t his uncle’s name. Could be I’m confusing the name with the Charlies, you know, what they called the Cong or whatever. Carl handed me a glass and took himself a wincing gulp.
“Charlie’d talk about how every now and then, a couple of times a month or something, he and the other P.O.W.’s would be put on what they called burial detail. They’d have them digging graves. Sometimes for the V.C. dead, sometimes for each other. And every now and then, just for grins, they’d have him dig a hole and then say it was for him.”
“Anyway, from what Carl said they’d have him dig these long, narrow graves . . . not like what you set a coffin down in I mean just a couple of feet across, using these big, square shovels with long handles for it. Then they’d set the bodies down inside and cover ’em over with rocks before filling the hole.” He paused a moment, a satisfied look on his mug.
“Obviously, our friend downstairs wasn’t handled with such care, or he wouldn’t have washed up like he did.”
I sipped at the foul drink. As usual, Carl seemed to be enjoying the lecturing.
“What are we gonna do?” I asked.
“I been thinking about that.” I eyed Carl as he choked down what remained in his glass and poured himself another. “You saw that band, right?”
“Band. The ring?”
“Sure you did. That’s how come you knew it was a he.”
“Tell me this, then. What do you think that band means?”
I looked at Carl as he rotated the glass in his hand, swirling the liquid in the bottom of it.
“A wedding ring, I guess.”
“No, no.” Carl gulped, wiped his mouth, and tapped at his chest with a closed fist. “What I mean is, how is it that ring is still there, you think?”
“You got me.”
“Well, it’s obvious ain’t it? Whoever it was dealt him that crack wasn’t interested in the ring.”
“Why do you think?”
I shrugged. Carl exhaled.
“Could it be that Mr. Aniseed here knows something more about it?”
I wet a finger and ran it around the edge of the glass, unsuccessfully trying to make it whine. Carl was pacing behind the counter. I wiped my finger off on my sleeve and thought about how to respond.
“Let’s say he did know something about it,” I said. “Why would he let us rummage around down there?”
“Yeah, that’s something I was wondering about.”
“Maybe it was down there when he moved in?”
“I suppose.” Carl belched loudly. “This stuff is poison.”
I had an idea.
“Then again,” I continued, pointing my finger at Carl. “If there was some way we could know for sure. I mean if we knew he’d done it...”
Carl put the bottle back in the cabinet. He reached over the counter and I handed him my glass. He had a strange expression on his face, like he was trying to keep back a laugh. He turned and opened the faucet and let it run for a minute or so.
“Looks like we got it,” he said, referring to the job. He rinsed out the glasses and put them away. Suddenly he pivoted around and leaning his big body against the counter finally said what I knew he’d be getting to eventually.
“You know, this thing . . . might be worth something to us if we could . . . ”
“If we could?”
“Find out for sure. Like you said.”
“You thinking about shaking him down?”
“Look at this place.” Carl held out a open hand. “Guy ain’t exactly hurting.”
I took a moment to admire the truth of Carl’s observation.
“Probably dropped a couple grand on that damn grillwork down there. I wonder what it’d be worth to him to keep us hushed?” he said.
“We’d have to be sure, though.”
“We could look at that ring...see if it had an inscription or something.”
“There’s that.” Carl pulled at his fat cheeks.
“You know what else we could do...We could dig it out of there and see if there was a wallet or something. I mean if the guy left the ring he probably...”
And on like that. I think I mentioned before how thanks to my forgetfulness we didn’t have a shovel with us, though I was guessing there’d be one in that shed. I talked Carl into us breaking into it, convincing him that either way we were justified in doing so. If it wasn’t the guy’s doing, well it wouldn’t hurt none to go on and dig up what we’d found down there. And if it was, a broken lock on his shed would be the least of our new benefactor’s troubles.
Carl got the ice-ax from the van and with it made quick work of the lock. I forget the brand but I do know it was some knock-off of a Master, rectangular with the blue stripe at the bottom and everything. Sure enough, a grand green spade stood gleaming inside. Thing looked like it had hardly been used at all. Probably part of a set, like from Sears or something. We carried the stuff inside and back down into the basement.
First thing I did once we got down there was pull the band off the bony knuckle and examine it under the light from the window. Had some initials in it, I forget what. Carl said it didn’t jibe with whatever the owner’s name was, so we began digging.
I should say Carl began digging. I began watching.
According to Carl, the owner had mentioned he’d be out all day, so there wasn’t any particular rush to things. Still, I’ll admit to becoming a little antsy when Carl kept interrupting his progress with another speech about the composite of denim or the corrosive properties of zippers or whatever the hell else occurred to him as he carefully cut a couple of little trenches on either side of the skeleton.
It was interesting. Found steel tips but no boots. Some studs. No wallet, of course. Now it was Carl’s turn to be antsy.
“What a waste,” he said, shaking his head over the now fully-uncovered remains. To be honest, I don’t know if he was referring to the dead man or to all the work he’d done to dig him up.
“What now?” I asked.
Carl tossed the shovel to the side and sat on his heels, rocking slowly and looking at his handiwork.
“I don’t know,” he said to me over his shoulder. Probably the first time I’d ever heard him say it. He started to turn around.
“You got any ideas?”
I guess you could say I did.
That’s when I hit him, kind of lunged and got him right between the fat part of the neck and the shoulder with the ice-ax. He fell forward, his forehead smacking hard against the underside of the staircase. Only took a minute or two, I’d say.
I rolled him over against the wall and then went to work deepening those trenches he’d started. Took it much deeper than I had done before, and following Carl’s suggestion, I made a few trips back out into those woods and gathered a couple dozen medium-sized rocks to pile on top of the both of them before tossing in the ice-ax and filling in the hole.
Not that it matters, but several of the rocks I gathered were about the same in size as the one I’d used to fell the old guy with before, right in those very same woods. It had been a couple of years, at least. Came across him just sitting out there, high and happy. Offered me a pull or two off of his bottle. It’s been a hell of a while now, but I don’t think he’d had more than just a few bills on him.
Taking the ring had occurred to me, of course. I’d even gone so far as to yank the thing off. Had it in my pocket as I carried him down through the back yard and rolled him through that big basement window. I didn’t have shovel then, neither, so I must’ve used a rock or stick or something to dig the shallow grave.
I changed my mind about the ring, though. Had that inscription and I didn’t want to risk any trouble at a pawn shop over it. So I’d crammed it back onto his pointer.
Maybe Carl should’ve noticed that. Like I said, normally the man was a stickler for the little stuff. I’m not saying I know what he’d have made of it if he had noticed the band being on the pointer like it was. The man was sharp, though. He might’ve figured something.
I loaded everything back into the van. Remembered to put the key back in the little tray underneath the lamp. I washed the shovel real good and put it back in the shed. Found another Master in the van and put it on the doors, figuring that would look less strange than no lock at all. Drove the van up to Santa-something or other where I was able to park it in a parts lot. They must’ve recovered it by now, though it could have been those parts guys broke it down before they could.
Anyhow, like I said before, I put this all down now so I don’t forget later. Which I’m apt to do.
Because I got to have some way oaf keeping track of these things.Martin Harris is a writer living in North Carolina. He is the author of Same Difference, a hard-boiled detective novel set in 1970s New York City. He also covers the world of poker both under his own name and as "Short-Stacked Shamus" for a variety of outlets, including his blog, Hard-Boiled Poker.