Five o’clock, Sunday morning. Bert Ferguson eased his thirty-five-foot Boston Whaler into a dock slip at the Detroit Yacht Club—a rather deceptive name for the place where I also berth my houseboat. I don’t own a yacht and probably never will. Then again, I suppose it depends upon your standards. In Detroit, standards are famously low and mine are even lower. However, a yacht I do not own.
The sun grazed the treetops on Belle Isle and splashed gold bursts through the clouds overhead. Another beautiful summer day. I was ready to crash after a long two-day fishing trip for salmon on Lake Erie. Bert cut the engine and I helped tie off his vessel.
“You want me to smoke ‘em for ya?” Bert asked.
“In molasses, and smoke that shit long, too.”
He nodded and hoisted one end of a five-foot long cooler packed with ice and fish onto the edge of the Whaler. I grabbed a handle. We slammed the cooler down hard.
“Ruin a good filet that way,” he warned.
“I spent a month in Alaska once. The salmon ran so thick we could stick our hands in the river and scoop them out. We’d smoke them long, almost like jerky. I love that shit.”
Bert snorted as he stepped off the Whaler onto the dock. He’s a big man, thick in all the wrong places. At one time, he probably pushed six inches over six foot, but age and weight knocked him down a few notches. He still has an inch on me, though, and forty pounds, too.
I met Bert about three weeks ago. We got chummy one night up at the Detroit Yacht Club’s main hall, a Mediterranean-style villa that overlooks the Detroit River and a third of the club’s three hundred eighty boat slips. The Detroit Yacht Club is the largest of its kind in the United States and breaks the top twenty for being one of the oldest. They built the villa when gin flowed, flappers danced, gangsters and bootleggers were the new money, and a brother couldn’t get a decent job in this town, let alone park a boat he might own at the club. Times change slowly, but at least they change. Although a brother still can’t get a decent job in the Motor City, he can sure as hell park his houseboat at the Detroit Yacht club.
The club villa is a swanky joint with a great bar and an outdoor Olympic sized swimming pool. Kind of place for wedding receptions and retirement parties. It’s also where Bert liked to drink spiced rum and tell fish stories.
As for me, I keep my boat at the end of the number four dock. Been there going on almost three months now, and I was beginning to sweat the membership fees, when a friend of a friend tossed a job my way—the Bert Ferguson job.
The referral was a matter of convenience rather than reputation. Money is tight since my forced but well-earned retirement from the Detroit Police Department about seven months ago. Fifteen years doesn’t get you much these days, just a bunch of wished-I-hads and wished-I-hadn’ts.
After I left DPD, I got my private investigator’s license. I couldn’t bear the thought of holding down a security job at one of them Detroit casinos to make ends meet, like most retired cops. I thought I could earn easy money without working too hard. So far, I’m wrong on both assumptions. Seven months, and with only a handful of cases into my new vocation, I’m beginning to think a hard day’s work for peanuts is all I’ll ever know. But life can work in strange ways.
The Ferguson gig is an insurance con. My first one. According to Metro Mutual, Bert is milking them for every dime he can, due to a back injury he sustained while working for Detroit Edison. Apparently, he jacked his spine climbing down an electrical pole. Not long after he declared for workers’ compensation and disability, though, he bought the Boston Whaler for a shiny nickel. DTE has a sneaky suspicion good ol’ Bert is faking it while making it. They’re right.
He runs charters on the Great Lakes—Erie mainly. Not a big deal. There’s nothing to piloting a boat. Customers pay a sizable fee while they do all the work. Not a bad gig, if you can get it. But Bert is sloppy. And as far as the insurance company is concerned, pulling comp pay because you can’t work means you don’t work, no matter what. Far be it for me to knock a man’s hustle, but times are tough, and we all need to eat. With only half a pension from early retirement, I need the cash.
I videoed Bert for a week, carrying coolers and tackle from his boat to his truck. He usually used a dolly for the coolers, but I had some good shots of him sliding them off his Whaler onto the dock. Not enough to nail him, though. We needed to become fast friends so I could see what’s in the coolers. I hired him for a two-day fishing trip, fully reimbursable from the nice folks at Metro Mutual.
“You’re somethin’ else, Lee.”
“Coming from you, Bert, that’s a compliment.”
“You shit. Come on,” he said, “let’s get this bitch on the truck.”
I grabbed one handle of the cooler, while he grabbed the other. We lugged it a hundred yards to the parking lot. That fucking thing weighed at least a hundred fifty pounds. We hoisted it onto the bed of his truck, and not once did he say, “Ouch.”
“See you Friday?” he asked. “We’ll drink rum and tell lies.”
“Always, my man.”
In another life, Bert and I would have been good friends. I like him. He’s funny, tells great stories, and the man knows great fishing spots. But he’s also a liar and a thief. Over the last two days of the job, I shot three hours of video footage of him wrestling salmon, moving around his Boston Whaler like a ballerina, and drinking enough beer to float the damn thing. Happy as a pig in shit. Now ye without sin may cast the first stone, but I have a job to do.
Except for the beer, everything else was enough damning evidence for the insurance honchos to do what they needed to do to stop the bleeding. Bert doesn’t know it yet, but his gravy boat is about to sink, and he’ll have to get a new job just to pay back everything he stole. That is, if he doesn’t end up doing jailtime. I had a feeling I went on my last fishing trip with ol’ Bert.
We shook hands, and I left him with his truck and made my way along the main dock to number four. The club was still asleep. Large motorboats, pleasure cruisers, and sloops lightly bobbed in the water as the early morning waves slapped against the hulls and seawall. Rubber bumpers squeaked against wood and fiberglass. Ducks quacked as they rose with the morning sun. The quiet island surrounding our little club would soon be alive with birdsong. Not me, though, I was ready to sleep nine lives.
Standing under the dimming light at the entrance of dock four was a woman in a yellow blouse, slim denim jeans, and a pair of white flats. She wore a scarf around her mound of blonde hair, bangs bobbed at her brow. When she saw me approach, she gripped her small purse close to her body. Six foot three and black tends to scare fragile white women from the suburbs, and she had suburbanite written all over her.
Too tired to care, I didn’t give her the satisfaction as I breezed right by and headed for my boat.
But avoidance wasn’t in the cards for me.
“Leave a message at the club office, lady. I had a long weekend.”
I kept walking—curious—but not curious enough. Then I heard the slapping of her flats on the wood planks of dock four. I stopped and turned to face my lovely intruder. She put on the brakes and stiffened, worried, but alert eyes and a pretty face in the dawn light stared back at me. She was wearing too much makeup.
“Look, lady, I don’t know what you’re selling, but I’m not buying.”
“I am not selling anything, Mr. Cutter. You are Leroy Cutter?”
Nothing good ever follows a question like that. I’m always on guard and suspicious, but lately, I’m as sensitive as a papercut thanks to the steady traffic of people looking for payment on overdue bills.
I’ve had my share of unwanted visitors, and I always handle them one of two ways. Either I forcefully escort them back to the parking lot or throw them into the Detroit River. The Yacht Club prefers I have a third intervention, but reluctantly accepts the former. However, she was different. My past intruders never looked as good as blondie standing in front of me, too much makeup be damned. So, I became a bit gracious, a little hopeful. I have a soft heart. And I’m lonely.
“Who’s asking?” I asked.
“My name is Barbara Goldman.”
“Who do you work for, Barbara Goldman?”
“I, uh, I do not work for anyone.”
“Lady, we all work for someone.”
“Yes, but I want to hire you, Mr. Cutter.”
She hit her Ts hard when speaking.
For a second I considered turning away and never looking back. I just closed the Ferguson case and didn’t need to be greedy, just make rent. But only a fool turns down a buck. Especially a fool who complains about being broke all the time.
With a jerk of my head for her to follow, we continued down dock four. If I was suddenly going to find myself gainfully employed again, I was going to take the bad news in the comfort of my own home.