Yesterday, writer Patti Abbott threw out a flash challenge asking for quick stories under a thousand words involving a white van. A few years ago my recurring investigator character, Charlie Byrne, upgraded from his totaled Toyota Camry to a white, nondescript Econoline cargo van. I figured using Charlie was the call for this challenge. She may end up cancelling the challenge if she doesn't get enough participants, I'm not sure. Not due to March 13th, but I got mine out of the way early because I need to focus on the WIP before Spring kicks in. Onward.
A VAN MAN
A Charlie Byrne Short
“That your van?”
I looked over my shoulder and out the diner’s rain speckled window.
“Yeah,” I answered evenly.
“So, how’s that figure? You sideline as a subcontractor like everybody else nowadays too?”
I sighed. “It’s neutral, white van, Mrs. Olmstead. I sit around in places sometimes waiting on people and for surveillance situations I really don’t want to attract attention. Sometimes I do motorcycle and small machinery repos too so having a cargo van helps.”
“Gee, I kind of expected something different.”
“People usually do.”
The curiosity in Mrs. Olmstead’s face drained, and I studied her makeup and played out fortyish features in the gray afternoon light. I supposed there were lots of things Mrs. Olmstead’s mother never bothered to take the time to teach her daughter...proper diet, make-up, and avoiding deadbeats like her ex-husband just to name a few. Back alimony case. Reeked of typical south Jersey malaise and despair. Sure it sucked, but her kind of misery was my bread and rancid butter.
Mrs. Olmstead shifted her heft in the booth.
“Bobbie, after he quit the program and got back on the tit? I heard he’s been livin’ on his drinkin’ buddies’ couches. Bobbie is a carpenter by trade, and with all the Hurricane Sandy damage he could be hidin’ out in a lot of places. Maybe even some of those illegal immigrant dudes. He knows some Mexican.”
“You’ve a name?”
“A name? A name for who?”
“You just said your ex-husband knows someone who's from Mexico.”
“No, I meant he can speak it.”
“Bobbie likes to think of himself as some kind of worldly traveling dude jus’ because he lived in south Texas for a time.”
I shucked my wrist and checked my Timex. It was a quarter after one. I needed to get over to the Atlantic County Courthouse to follow up on another case I was juggling.
“You’ve given me a lot to go on already, Mrs. Olmstead,” I said, sliding out of the booth and standing. “The cash up front is good and, believe me, I appreciate it instead of a cashiers check. Saves me a trip to the bank. I should get back in touch with you in a few days, okay? Don’t worry. I’ll find Bobbie.”
I pulled on my jacket and she looked up at me with those spidery, puffed up eyes.
“So, that’s it then?”
“That’s it,” I said.
She cocked her head. “Huh. Can I ask you somethin’, Mr. Byrne?”
“You can call me Charlie.”
“Okay. Can I ask you somethin’, Charlie?”
She leaned over and lowered her voice, “I know it’s really none of my business, but,” she looked around, “Do you, y’know, carry a gun and all?”
I zipped up. “Sometimes,” I replied. “Depends on the circumstances, but that's rarely the case. Why?”
Mrs. Olmstead bit her lip. I was embarrassed for her because her overly made-up eyes (God help me) were suddenly glassy and excited.
“Well, I just thought that given what you do for a living you might have to pack heat is all.”
I touched my forehead and willed back the weak threat of a headache.
“It’s not as exciting as you think, Mrs. Olmstead. I do a lot of paperwork and spend more time on the computer than anything else. I’m not Batman or anything.”
“But you do have one?”
“A gun? Yeah. I have a couple of guns.”
Point of fact, I possessed three firearms. A Beretta sub-compact, a Benelli shotgun, and cold Smith & Wesson that I kept in a water-tight case buried with extra ammunition behind a church Dumpster in case the shit in my life ever truly hit the fan.
“I won’t ask you what kind," Mrs. Olmstead said, "but I’ll assume you’ve used them, right?”
I looked out the diner window. It took a bit of concentration, but I imagined myself someplace far, far away. Warm but not too warm, sunny and without desperate people like Mrs. Olmstead haunting the corners. Soft sand, blue sea, and bluer sky. I read it was good to visualize a peaceful place to help manage daily stress and one’s anger issues. I was getting better at it, but not by much.
“This isn’t an appropriate discussion,” I said, and then added a cold, hard lie to seal it, “And no, I’ve never used them other than to shoot paper targets at the range. Why? Does your ex-husband own a firearm?”
“Well, that’s good then.”
Mrs. Olmstead sat back in the booth and gathered up her purse. She was a smoker, so the Newports and her pink Bic lighter came out before the keys.
“Well, this is a bit of a disappointment,” she huffed, “but maybe it’s for the best, right? Lord, my wild imagination running all this way and that. Heck, the truth always let’s you down, y’know what I mean?”
“That I do,” I said, “That I most certainly do.”