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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Franklin Furpiece
by Keith Abbott

(continued from Cybercorpse #8)
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Time: 1988. Setting: Northern California

Beaux Roule continues his search for Mrs. Robineson's missing son Alcel, a college football player. Whitcomb University's football program boasts of their head coach, Phil Baumgarten, and Deborah, his ideal faculty wife, are also founders of Just One Man, a Male Bonding evangelical arena event. When an ex-player, Wilbur Nock, dies in a boating accident his death leads Roule to a wet-brained ex-jock, Arlis Inman, and then to the program's Sugar Daddy: multi-millionaire Brent "Coondog" Cooner who insures that the Whitcomb players receive illegal payments: "Franklin Furpieces," or pockets full of hundred-dollar bills. Roule discovers that Baumgarten's daughter, Tiffany, was Nock's wife and also had some connection with Alcel and he pursues this lead through the Athletic Director and back to Cooner. In their interview he gets his first taste of official disapproval and an implied threat comes with it. Roule attends Nock's funeral and is restrained from approaching Tiffany. He enlists Mrs. Robineson's help in interviewing some girl friends of Alcel's. These interviews shatter her with news of interracial loony tunes and jealousies in the football program involving Tiffany.

Chapter Seventeen

On a case there's always a point where details touch a little deeper than seems possible. In this case, how this happened surprised me. When I got to my office on Wednesday afternoon, I totaled up my expenses, put Baumgarten's two hundred in with Mrs. Robineson's two grand in my safe, and turned on my message machine. My hustle for upcoming top-end security jobs buried me until the next morning when I left the office for my weekly visit to my mother's nursing home in Orinda.
     I called this a luncheon date, but that was only to make it normal. Mother sometimes knows me. Sometimes I'm her older brother. Then we talk in French, hers fluent, mine fractured. Looking at her is a tragedy if I remember her as the most independent woman I've ever known. But if I stay in the moment, she's only my mother who has lost her memory. If I can't, I think about who she used to be, it's a struggle every minute I'm with her.
     That was a good day. Mother chatted about her work at Turn Toward Peace, a '60s pacifist organization in Berkeley. "I remember how that nasty mimeo machine turned my hands black!" And she laughed, like a child. When she had memory, I let her talk on and remembered that place, too.
     Turn Toward Peace was a Victorian house. Its large back porch, its thrift- store office furniture, its table of telephones for organizing peace marches suddenly combined with the Robinesons' makeshift office, their telephones. This confusion of two offices turned me around for a second, and then one aspect of this case broke open for me.
     My mother had been an All-Pro Activist. She never saw a demonstration she didn't like. Mother had little time for me, so she raised me to be independent. Our house was a nerve center for every Berkeley protest march and I was the pacifists' pet for years. Once, when I was nine, she left me with her volunteers. I fell asleep on our basement sofa. The volunteers thought I was at a friend's and left for the march. When I came upstairs, a man was photographing our files. Groggy, I thought him a volunteer and asked him something. For an answer he blinded me with his flash and disappeared. It seemed a dream, so I laid down on a couch and fell asleep. Years later I learned through the Freedom of Information Act that my dream was an FBI agent. Then, because of my training, I figured out which of her friends were informants, despite the attempts to black out their names.
     When I hit adolescence, I rebelled, read only Marvel comics and took up martial arts. When at eighteen I told mother I'd joined the Army, the look of betrayal on her face was both staggering and also satisfying. My absentee gambler father had died in a hotel fire during a poker game when I was seven, but he'd always been separate from her ideals. There was no more dramatic way to distance myself from her and become a man.
     Our luncheon ended when my cell phone went off. A stolen equipment crisis developed for my girlfriend Lou Ann and her band, Clapsaddle. They were on a gig in Southern California. It took me a few hours to sort it out, amidst another bout of nostalgia for the rocknroll biz. Lou Ann flew in to handle some further complications with their next concert in Marin, and then we shared a pleasant afternoon. I told her about Whitcomb and how this While You're At It Job from E Mack had blossomed into something interesting. When I got to the random driveby shooting, Lou Ann suddenly got interested.
     "So your client threw you on her porch?" Lou Ann asked.
     "Well, Mrs. Robineson removed me to the floor, let's put it that way." I went on to explain that she saved my life. Now this obligation both haunted me and motivated me. "Like my old platoon. I'm hardwired that way. She locked in on that."
     "So your plan was to flip and fluff the case to another agency?"
     "Yeah. Not completely flip and fluff at the start, off-load it to a Sacramento PI."
     "Then why didn't you?"
     "She paid me too much. With that many foster kids, the money's gotta be from the Speaker of the House. Can't be from the church. E Mack would have told me. She didn't earn this, the money's some kind of heavy debt for her, I know it. The two grand has gotta be the Speaker's dough. Besides, how long has it been since I had anything but corporate fucking clients?"
     "With your mother's debts, no use beating yourself up."
     I told her why Mrs. Robineson's life reminded me of mother's, Mrs. Robineson's office my mother's old office. "You remember when I finally cleaned this house out?"
     "I made you do it. You were expecting her to come back, and that was bad for your mental health."
     "Whatever. You wanted me to seal her office in a huge plastic box and donate it to the University Museum for a diorama of Berkeley activism."
     "From Civil Rights to Free Huey Newton to Save the Whales, she never missed a one. Those posters are worth bucks now."
     "Yeah. They might pay for a month's care." When I was running my own PI agency, selected cases like Mrs. Robineson were done pro bono." This is the worst kind of missing person: a cold trail months old. Tried twice to say no."
     "How old is she?"
     "Uh, Lou Ann, that was not really an issue."
     "So tell me."
     I paused, irritated with her. Lou Ann has a wonky eye. What with her face jewelry, 'toos, and rocknroll rags, she's different. But that eye focuses off to one side, and the effect's so striking that most people can't resist telling her things about themselves. When she wasn't with her band, I liked using her for an interviewer. For that matter I never could resist telling her the truth myself. Some kind of magic. "She's probably 38, she's a big, tall, almost lanky woman. Moves fast for her size."
     "Must of, if she surprised you. What, you spend time every week at Aikido, making sure no one can."
     "Hey, Lou Ann, that's not how it happened. I was high on three days of gospel, you know, old times, a little tiddley on E Mack's scotch, talking about . . . " I was about to say my services, but Lou Ann was really jealous. " . . . about my fees. Said two grand, I'd thought she'd blink. I was not paying attention." I paused. "Speaking of time, when's your flight back to LA tonight?"
     An hour of getting reacquainted seemed to calm Lou Ann down enough for the shuttle to the San Francisco airport. But it was funny and irritating. She never was the jealous type. I suppose that's why I was always attracted to rockers, such attitudes were not prized or practical in their world. And with my jobs there were lots of nights when I didn't come home.
     On Friday a call came from a bodybuilder. I'd phoned him the list of Inman's refrigerator medicines. He told me that anyone taking this particular cocktail, regular, would be a lunatic. I said, judging by all the rubber bands lying around, he might be injecting them four vials at a time.
     "Four? You going to see him soon? I mean in person?"
     "Maybe conduct an interview."
     "Roule, carry a stun gun for openers, mace for an equalizer, and a cattle prod for any attitude adjustments."
     News from Sue Masuren: Inman's duplex was owned by CC Corp., which was an arm of CC Rider Corp. which was a subsidiary of C Jam Enterprises. The CEO was everyone's friend, Mr. Brent Coondog Cooner.
     Arlie's disability and medical insurance came from his warehouse job with Record Max, owned and operated by Mr. Brent Coondog Cooner. And Inman's legal representation was provided by the same firm that represented CC Corp., CC Rider Corp. and C Jam Enterprises.
     This prompted me to call Mrs. Robineson and caution her not to tape Alcel's girlfriends, not openly at least. "If you want to do it on the sly," I advised her, "have Rasheedi wear earphones, as if she's listening to a tape, but leave the mic open."
     "Ethical considerations don't bother you much, do they?"
     "Without permission we can't use the tape in a court of law. If Rasheedi tapes it by mistake, then it's for our personal use."
     I explained about Mr. Cooner's long reach into people's lives. If the two women were on his pad, and they knew it, the news was going to be sanitary, if they agreed to talk to her at all. If they didn't know, they could get fired for talking to her. She agreed, reluctantly, to covert taping. I told her, "We'll meet at a restaurant next to the Whitcomb police station."
     The minute I said police station, that's when I got my second good take. I knew what was wrong. Mrs. Robineson caught the change in my voice, asked if something was wrong. "No, just a thought." It was hard to get something past her. I went to brew myself a cup of killer Kona and go over this intuition one more time. First of all, the Whitcomb cops had done the missing persons report front to back. If I looked at it with paranoia, once Coondog gave the green light, the police knew they'd find nothing and proceeded to cover their asses.
     The way the Whitcomb cop flipped their report over his desk had been nagging at me. The cop knew it was clean. And Cooner barely glanced at Alcel's daily schedules. He knew his movements already. His face showed a little tic, when I lied about Alcel having San Francisco friends. He didn't know about any friends.
     And a sinking feeling came over me, too, when I said police station: despite all the help from the school and athletic department, I knew Mrs. Robineson and I were about to be alone on this one.
     There was no half-ass cop cover-up. We had ourselves a Sistine Chapel: marble walls and stooges with hundreds to buy whatever they needed. Nobody gets any more alone than that.
     And yet I had this funny feeling that very few of these guys really knew squat; they covered up good out of habit.
     But her son was dead.
     Now, like Mrs. Robineson, I was sure of that.

Chapter Eighteen

The joint was a brew pub, its balcony overlooked the dining area. I got up there early. I was behind a planter, so I didn't see Mrs. Robineson and Rasheedi until they were in a booth. I was about to join them, when Mrs. Robineson came unstuck. Weeping. Collapsing over and over. Shaking so badly all Rasheedi could do was hug her mother, holding her together.
     The only thing I could think was, Oh shit, what have I done. I chickened out. I left by the rear entrance, paced around in the alley for awhile, trying out worse case scenarios. What could Voree and Geneva tell her that would do this? I reran our interviews: nice polite women, barely memorable. Had I misjudged them. Why couldn't I have seen something ugly coming?
     When I came through the front door, Rasheedi had soothed her mother so she was presentable. The two had just ordered lunch. We exchanged pleasantries, but the hurt, whatever it was, was still in her eyes. And it wasn't directed at me. Rasheedi did the talking, said the tapes of Voree and Geneva were cued to the important parts, but this was in a neutral voice. While Mrs. Robineson and Rasheedi ate, I ordered lunch, then put on the headphones. My food arrived, but got cold. Mrs. Robineson and Rasheedi didn't bother to ask what I thought. Once the tapes were over, I suggested that if Mrs. Robineson wanted to talk, we do it someplace less public. Watching me listen to those tapes. she got wound up tight. The next time she broke loose, I doubted Rasheedi or I could contain her.
     When we passed through the restaurant bar on our way out, a sports channel was on the tube. Baumgarten had resigned. He was devoting himself to Just One Man and his family. Ted Graycar was the new coach.
     "Hell," a guy at the bar said, "all Bum's staff was gone anyway. Graycar's got to pull those new coaches together."
     I don't remember who suggested we drive to the Whitcomb Sports Center or if it was just automatic. Once inside the Center Mrs. Robineson and Rasheedi didn't seem to know what to do. In that shining marble lobby, both women suddenly looked reduced, smaller. The feeling came over me that they wanted to say goodbye, but to what?
     Tears were coming down Rasheedi's face, even though she wasn't making a sound.
     Mrs. Robineson looked worn and sad.
     I started walking. They followed. We trailed round the halls. Around us students were hurrying this way and that. Some intramural sports were going on. Doors opened to shouts, grunts and cheers, along with the sounds of volleyball, gymnastics and basketball. It was so normal and everyday and just what it was, a bunch of college kids in a gym built to last the ages.
     We circled back around to the lobby.
     Mrs. Robineson turned to me, pointed at the white marble wall, and said, "This was supposed to be our ticket out."
     Suddenly I knew what they were saying goodbye to: they were saying goodbye to their rightful place in this castle.
     "Out is all any of us really asked for."
     She touched one of its marble panels. "How could this not do that for us? Look at this! It's so perfect!"
     She reeled down the lobby, and just from the fierce way she was moving, students faded to one side or the other. We followed along, as she rambled, letting everything out.
     "I came up for Mother's Day banquets. Corny. Alcel loved corny stuff like that. He got to squire his mother around. It was what he wanted to do. I wanted to do it, too.
     "We went to a dance and to a dinner together. All the mothers got corsages.
     "He got me one that I'll never forget." She looked over at me and her eyes bored through me. Suddenly her voice began to shudder with anger. "Why aren't we allowed to be people? Just people? Why do we have to rise up and eat this bread of sorrows? They promised. I had their promise. I thought they really took care of their people here."

Chapter Nineteen

Back at the motel Rasheedi took over caring for her mother. Faxes had arrived from Sue. Vital Statistics recorded that Tiffany Baumgarten had married Delond Rounds five years ago, had a child, and divorced him a year later. She had given birth to two children after that time, each one by a different father. Each a different ball player on the Whitcomb squad. Wilbur Nock was the father of the second child, a boy.
     Attached were items from the Whitcomb society pages. She'd left the town when Alcel was a freshman. Tiffany returned in the spring of his sophomore year. The society page of the local paper recorded her return, did not mention where she'd been, and put her in a list of names. Her father and mother ("Coach Bum and Deb") were in there.
     Then I played the tapes of Voree and Geneva again. They denied that Alcel ever had anything to do with Tiffany. They said Tiffany's nickname among the black players was WW, short for Welcome Wagon. Her privilege and access to the players were legendary. Her parents were helpless. From that point the gossip got down and it was dirty.
     The two women claimed Nock was jealous. He couldn't be bothered to hang out with Tiffany, once their child was born. But neither could he stay away from her. The situation turned ugly. The women believed Tiffany was kited out of town last fall by her parents, after her third child was born to another player. They heard she went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she was hired to preside over some cultural center for big bucks.
     When Tiffany returned in the spring, bad news all the way. She'd taken up with the new star of the team, Togoya. Alcel and Ranny T knew and liked each other, but there was no way that Alcel would ever cross him. Togoya was "a low class Compton thug and gangster." Besides, as the two women both put it almost exactly in their separate interviews, Alcel was busy enough with them. They both were sure that Alcel had nothing to do with the coach's daughter. But they allowed that he'd hung out some with Ranny T. Why got the answer he was secretly in awe of Ranny T's rep. "He never was allowed that at home."
     It was interracial loony tunes, gangster envy, in a hothouse atmosphere of jealousy. In short, a mother's nightmare.
     With Geneva, Mrs. Robineson first asked about the squealer business. She never got around to that with Voree, because Voree was unstoppable once she got to dishing the dirt about Tiffany Rounds. Nock had parties out at his lake house for the players, out of jealousy, and she'd come just to spark him off.
     I imagined Mrs. Robineson's unease about her oldest daughter hearing all this.
     Geneva repeated nothing was known about anything between Alcel and Tiffany, but wouldn't put it past Nock to hassle him, if he thought Alcel was messing around.
     Probably to spare her mother any more details, Rasheedi broke in and asked Geneva why Alcel wouldn't talk about the squealer business with her, if Nock's hassling was the case.
     "Alcel's a man. He carries his own bags, thank you." Geneva paused, as if thinking things over. "Besides, during spring training, those dudes are in lockdown. The players are barely students, and then only part-time at best. Most of the profs cut them all some slack, special deals. I know Alcel already had his course projects done by then, but I can't say for sure what he was doing in-between. When I heard about that trip, I shut him down."
     There was a knock on the door. I turned off the tape and opened it. John Dabroe was standing there, in a black and yellow wet suit with a Brooks Brothers sport coat over it. I knew it was Brooks Brothers because it was inside out and its label was showing.
     "Tebeaux, my darling boy," he said, pushing into the room past me, "I understand you need me, badly. I came as soon as I heard."
     He sat down on one of the beds, reached down into the left side of his inside-out Brooks Brother special and removed a 9-mm from his pocket.
     "Nice," I said, "with the sports coat inside out, any cop who stopped you would never think to look there."
     "Why would the police want to stop me?"
     Dabroe hadn't shaved for about four days, and something terrible had happened to his head. Something or someone had wrenched out a patch of hair above his left ear.
     "Did you make bail?"
     "Didn't have to. Darling Sue Masuren dug up some shocking evidence against my false accuser. My lawyer, my cousin the esteemed Peabody Mason Dabroe, threatened to hold a press conference about this. This would have deepsixed several other cases where this buttsnout had born false witness against other suspected felons."
     "What's with the outfit?"
     "Been gold prospecting. This ex-49er pal owns land near here. He has this portable dredging outfit. Fucking great, Beaux, like a gigantic Shop Vac. So I was floating on the river and hosing out the pockets. I'm going to have my nuggets and flakes melted down and applied to my front teeth."
     "Is that the same football player who provided the alibi for your crime?"
     "Yes sir, alleged crime, but wasn't me," Dabroe corrected me. "Truth is some drug dealers got to him. What a dull way to die, suffocating in a deep freezer. The flair and style's gone out of the drug trade vendettas. It's a loss to our public discourse and contemplation on personal ethics."
     There was another knock on the door. Rasheedi was there. She started talking even before I could say anything.
     "I'm sorry about Momma. She's really taking this hard. It's good in a way for us to come up here. But she's been trying for so long to bury all her fears about Alcel. And she really believed in what Coach Baumgarten told her. . . ."
     Suddenly she stopped talking. Her eyes went stony. I turned. Dabroe had made himself comfortable on the bed, moving into her line of sight as he stretched out.
     I stepped back and let her come into the room. It wasn't as if she wanted to, but her own fascination won out.
     Dabroe's feet were bare, caked with sand, something I hadn't noticed, but the cracks in the sand were bloody. His soles were cut up badly, probably from river rocks, they were bleeding all over the bedcover.
     "This is my associate John Dabroe, he handles our liquid accounts. John, Rasheedi Robineson, daughter of our client."
     "Afternoon, ma'am," Dabroe said.
     Rasheedi's head went down in the most imperceptible of nods. Then she saw the gun, then the leaking soles of his feet. She looked over at me as if I'd suddenly changed into less than human.
     I took a roll of paper towels off the bureau, tore off two, and stuck one each to Dabroe's bleeding feet. "You were saying," I prompted.
     Rasheedi's gaze snapped back toward Dabroe.
     "John can hear anything I can hear."
     "Well, mother wasn't really unaware of how things were up here. Those hundreds she gave you? She got them from Alcel."
     "I assumed they came from the Speaker of the House."
     "No. Alcel shipped them down to us, from time to time. But never this many. That's how we got set up in telemarketing. She didn't tell you, I suspect."
     "No, but thanks for letting me know that. I won't let her know you told me. When did she get the last shipment?"
     "End of school. More than usual."
     "Did Alcel say how he got so many?"
     "He said he had moved up from a Franklin Handshake to a Franklin Furpiece now." A tinge of color crept into Rasheedi's cheeks as she said that. "I asked him how he got that."
     Not what it was.
"And what did Alcel say?"
     "He said there'd been a mistake. This Franklin Furpiece was reparations for a mistake. But like I say mama was getting those hundreds from him before that. But just two, three bills. Alumni shake your hand after the game, Alcel got a couple folded hundreds. That's a Franklin Handshake."
     "Uh-huh. When?"
     "During football season. Alcel sent the cash registered mail. She knew it wasn't right, but Alcel had a way of calming Mama."
     "He called this, reparations for a mistake?"
     "Yeah. That's the words he used this spring. Alcel always liked to use the right word. His business courses taught him that, he told me once. That's why he liked classes about contracts and negotiations. Never said what the mistake was."
     I thanked her. She backed up toward the door, keeping her eyes on Dabroe and the blood-blotched towels stuck to his feet.
     "That a diving wet suit?" she said to him.
     Dabroe tilted his head down and looked across his black and yellow rubber belly, as if he'd hadn't noticed it before. "I believe if it ain't, then my momma's got some explaining to do."
     Rasheedi's face suddenly turned bright red, she bit her lip, then ripped open the door and slammed it as she left. I heard her giggling down the walkway.
     "Whatta you need me to do, Boss?"
     "How long are you available?"
     "I think the Oakland police want me to remain on vacation, out of town, for awhile. I sincerely believe they think I'm a positive influence on my neighborhood, but they seem to regard me at the moment as a liability in the public eye, so to speak."
     Dabroe and his Alabama cousins, nephews and assorted in-laws had created a no-fly zone around their many houses up in a canyon in Oakland that rivaled that of the Hells Angels Club zone on two blocks of MacArthur Boulevard. Only terminally suicidal criminals or ignorant out of towners tried to operate in either zones.
     "Some press rat got the photos of the claw marks on the inside of the freezer lid," Dabroe explained, "and published them. My name was unfairly linked to the public outcry."
     "Go to the Pink Elephant Bar here in town. It's Saturday night, so come as you are. A rich scudder named Cooner there. Get close to him, or that failing, find out where the university football team hangs out. There's a crisis at the college, and the head coach has resigned. Once in the club, you might mention this ex-49er, as your bona fide, if he's well-known in these parts."
     "Hell, I'll bring Bads Eye along. He's passed out in the back seat. It's time to feed him."
     "He used to have two eyes, then one got lost, but he never could lose the nickname."
     "Shouldn't that have been Bad Eyes, instead?"
     "His friends were illiterate. That is not his fault."

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