Copyright C.W. Cale.
Contact me with an e-mail.
“Making Time for Family”
A Felix King caper.
By C.W. Cale
Two weeks ago an old pal from high school, Jerry Martel, called me out of the blue. He found me online and knew I was a wristwatch nut. As it turns out he now owns a small high-end wristwatch company in Boston. He was in town for a few days and suggested we catch up. He crashed at my place and we had a good time drinking and lying to each other about the ‘good old days’ at Tascosa High. He even gave me the latest model chronograph his company produces; it’s a $1200.00 timepiece. It was a bit weird considering we only had homeroom together. After a few days of swapping way too many stories, boating, and chasing a few girls, he mentioned he was due for a family visit in Phoenix the next weekend. It was good visit we were having and somehow he wasn’t driving me too crazy so I agreed to go along. If I had been listening to my gut I would have seen it coming. Just outside of town, the truth came out. He was headed back to Phoenix because his family was suing him. His entire family.
I gripped the wheel tighter as he droned on. My eye was twitching and had been since El Paso. “Oh, gawd, please don’t light another cigarette!”
Jerry slapped the pack on the dashboard and pulled a smoke out with his lips. “I hate Phoenix in the summer. It’s just so damn hot. People in America, they don’t know hot unless they’ve been here. Your clothes stick to you, ya get hives, headaches, and I tell ya it’s just fucking hot.”
I could listen to this all weekend, oh wait, I already have! “Okay, Jerry, I get that. You’ve beaten that dead horse enough! I now believe you fully. Phoenix, Arizona In the summer, is uncomfortably warm. So if you could, you know, shut up about the heat we could figure out our strategy.”
“Don’t get all pissy, Felix.” He lit the cigarette and puffed a noxious cloud as he spoke. “It doesn’t help matters that I’m here to face down two dozen folks who would just as soon see me dead. The civil trial starts tomorrow morning. Tomorrow Morning!” he reiterated.
“Which…” I swallowed my anger, “is why we need to focus on the problem at hand.”
“Oh, look at that, heat mirage coming right off the highway. See that? It’s the heat! The damn heat just fucking melts you!”
“Enough!” I rolled down my window. Whoo! He was right, it was damn hot!
“That’s not gonna help. It’s only gonna let the heat in.”
I quickly reached over and snagged the cigarette out of his mouth and chucked it out the window.
“Fuh, Damn it! You’re gonna start a wildfire that way! Go back! Godamn it!”
“I’m serious! This is exactly how wildfires start!”
“WHY… am I here, Jerry?”
He blinked at me.
“You asked me to drive out to Phoenix with you; you said a road trip, a chance to hang out, have a little fun, chase down some girls and take in a spa. Ten minutes in you tell me you’re being sued by the remaining members of your family. I’m okay with that. Hell, at this point I think I understand it, but Jerry, I’m not stupid. Clearly you have an agenda. What do you want from me?”
“I need you to help me!” He shouted. “Yes, we’re friends, but I don’t expect you to work for free. I'll, I'll pay you!”
“I need an investigator.”
Oh, here it was. “Jerry? I’m not an investigator! You’re buying into the hype. I run a damn bookstore. I’m no more an investigator than you are.”
“But you caught that serial killer last year?”
I opened my mouth with an objection, but had nothing.
“And you guys did that Vegas thing? And… and I talked with Chick Shunatona.”
“Ahh, hell, the Chick thing? Jerry, no one is supposed to know about that. That whole thing was completely illegal! We almost got our asses handed to us.”
“I just figured if you could help him, well, I mean you guys hated each other in high school, right? –and we were friends and all.”
I buckled. “I’m not licensed. I don’t do this for money. More often that not I, well, I’m not real successful at this. It’s my business partner Charlotte who...”
“No that’s fine, that’s great! No guarantees, that’s cool. Hell, I only need you to get in and ask some questions. That’s all! I promise, man. Just ask some simple questions? Can you do that for an old friend?”
He pulled out his pack of cigarettes again.
“Okay stop. I'll do wha tI can on one condition.”
He pulled another smoke out of the pack, “Sure man, whatever you need it’s cool.”
“Are you sure? Anything?”
“Anything at all. Name it.” He fumbled with the pack.
“No smoking until we get back to Austin.”
“Funny, no, really.” He pushed in the lighter.
I pulled it out and tossed it outside.
“Shit. You evil, evil, Fucker!”
“Sorry, man. You’re killing me with these cigarettes.”
“What-ever!” He threw his pack out the window.
We settled into a nice hotel. Jerry booked separate rooms on different floors. He was picking up the tab for anything I wanted this weekend. Since nothing is ever really free I braced myself for the bill.
“Felix!” He called me over to his table in the hotel bar. “Yeah, over here. I got us a pitcher of beer. Let’s discuss things.” He poured a large glass for me. “Here, we go.”
“Yeah, here we go. What’s your big plan?”
“Well, tomorrow is the preliminary hearing. I expect I’ll spend most of the day with my lawyer.”
“And where will I be?” I drank.
“Hey, did you ever meet my sister Lisa?”
I coughed beer, “The stripper?”
“No! Well, yeah. She used to be a stripper, but cool your jets hombre. She has an MBA now and thinks circles around assholes like us.”
“No kidding. She’s CFO of my family’s business. Lisa is the only one who’ll even speak to me. Truthfully I suppose she’s just diggin’ for information. Sizing me up, you know?
“How does a girl go from dancing at the ‘Crystal Pistol’ to being CFO of a high dollar jewelry company?”
“Yeah, don’t bring that up again.” He pointed his finger an inch away from my nose and looked ready to split my skull.
“It’s just. She was a good kid, Felix. She only got into that ‘cause Dad never paid any attention to her. She’s lucky she pulled her life together.”
“Okay. You know I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just asking. So, why was your Dad so absent?”
“His work. He spent all his time on his horology.”
A man at the next table laughed.
“You think that’s funny? You think that’s FUNNY?” he grabbed the guy and started shaking him.
“Jerry? Damn it! Let go!” I intervened, “Look he didn’t even hear you! Jerry! JERRY! He wasn’t listening to us!” I pulled them apart.
Jerry had broken into tears when I sat him down and explained to the other man. I walked the guy to the bar with his friend and bought them both a drink as way of apologizing. Jerry was still wiping his eyes when I returned.
“C’mon, man. What’s going on with you?”
“Felix, everyone in my family hates me. They think I stole the company from them. They blame me for everything and I’m starting to think maybe they’re right. The case concerns the company. They all think I stole my Dad’s life work. The Caliber 1330.”
“What’s that, a gun?”
“No, Felix. The caliber 1330 is a lightweight precision chronograph based on the old Timex style plate cased movements. Thing was damn near indestructible. Once he put that sucker in a titanium case the damn thing could take a bullet and still keep ticking.”
I looked closely at the watch on my own wrist which Jerry had given me weeks earlier. “Okay, don’t get angry. I have to ask. Did you steal it?”
Jerry smiled, “No. I didn’t. Someone did, but it wasn’t me.” He downed his beer and thought back to that day...
Jerry took a slow lingering look around his father’s workshop. Unworkable prototypes, failures, his Dad called them, littered the shelves. One massive quartz caliber which was designed to mark not only the phases of the moon, but the rotations of the entire solar system still ticked away, it was hours off. Jerry picked it up and smiled to himself. He glanced over at the glass case, disassembled Blancpains, a few Vacheron Constantins, a dozen old Timex self winders and a jaunty Helbros Mickey Mouse watch sat waiting patiently for the master’s hands to tinker with them again.
He glanced around at the desk. It was in complete disarray. His anger flared.
“They’ve been here already Dad. Damn them!” He went to the large roll top watchmaker’s desk.
“Aw, Jesus! It’s gone! DAMN! Damn them all!”
He found the safe under the desk had been hammered open.
“Ah, Dad, no.” The small dark box marked 1330 was empty. “Fuckin’ animals.” He muttered. “I’m done here. I’m done with you people!”
He stormed up into his Father’s study. Grabbed a bottle of port and a box of cigars. Going to the wet bar he selected a wineglass, then picking up his Father’s walking stick he smashed over $3000.00 worth of crystal stemware and decanters. “Grab that you god damn pack of dogs! -and slice yourselves to fucking ribbons for all I care!”
He crawled into his pickup and set the bottle and box down and drove to the mortuary...
Felix sorted out what Jerry had just told him, “But then you left the state and started your own watch company?”
“Yes, and as it happens, my Dad discussed his work with me at length and often. He wanted me to follow him into the business, and I was gonna! But after he died the family tore everything apart trying to grab the biggest chunk of the estate, ugly, ugly, ugly business.”
“Hmm. I’ve seen that happen. Death makes people stupid.”
“We would get together and drink a nice glass of wine at night, sometimes smoke a cigar. It was just nice, spending a little quality time, ya know? I was the last person to see him alive, Felix. Last person to see him dead too ...actually. As they were closing up the casket I took a minute and drank a glass, placed a token splash on his lips and set the glass and a box of cigars in next to him. At that stage people had already started fighting over pots and pans, jewelry and shit. It was time for me to go. I didn’t even go back to the house, just drove East. Ended up in Beantown. This is my first time back, Felix. They all think I stole his work and made it the foundation of my company. No. No, I didn’t steal the 1330.”
“So who do you suspect?”
Jerry was very quiet. He drank his beer and poured another. “You need to find out.” He checked his watch. “I’m meeting Lisa in the lobby. You wait here. I’ll bring her in alone for a bite and a drink and I know it’ll go badly. My sweet baby sister thinks I’m a monster. Doesn’t trust me for shit! When we part ways, as we will, you’ll move in turn on the Felix King charm and find out what she knows. Find out what really happened. Please? She’s the only one I trust. She might know something that will lead us to the truth. She’s the only one who wouldn’t have stolen it.”
So I sat drinking water and waiting until finally I saw them enter. True to his word he began to argue with her immediately. I saw tears in her eyes and when he stormed off he gave me a glance which showed the pain in his heart.
I wandered over to the crying woman.
“Are you okay? Can I help you?” I whispered.
“Whu’ No! No, I’m fine.” She stood and began to leave.
I followed quietly. “I know you. Aren’t you Lisa Martel?”
It stopped her. She glared at me with suspicion. “Who’s asking?”
I ran through a dozen quick and stupid lies in my head. Decided to use the truth. “I’m Felix King. I’m looking for your brother.”
“He’s upstairs, somewhere.” She turned.
She hesitated, “What?”
“Do you remember me? From school? I was a few years ahead of you at Tascosa.”
She looked closer.
“You can’t have forgotten this face; it’s one of a kind!”
“Oh, right. Felix King. Why are you here?”
Another dozen lies ran through my head. “Your brother. I’m supposed to be working for him, but he’s not here.”
“Working for him, how?” she looked at me with high suspicion.
“I’m a writer.” Little lies are easier for me. “International Watch magazine wants an article focusing on your Father’s work.”
“Well Jerry’d know all about that!” she snapped.
“No!” I touched her arm as she turned away. “Actually we can’t find any examples. We know certain prototypes did exist, but no one can find them. I need to interview folks who were around at the end of Mr. Martel’s life. Do you think you could spend a little time talking to me? You know, about your Father?”
“I’m not about to help Jerry cover his tracks. If you’re in this with him you can both go to…”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! I’m just a workin' Joe here. Why so hostile?”
“Jerry Martel stole my father’s work. He was supposed to go into the family business and when Dad passed he just split. He just… he left.”
“He said things got a bit ugly, family fighting over pots and pans, sorta thing. He didn’t want to watch all that.”
“He stole my Father’s life.”
“The prototype, the 1330. Oh, it’s a watch. Father was a watchmaker.”
“I know, an horologist.”
“Yeah, right. He was one of the best in America, actually.”
“Not hard really, American’s are stupid.”
“No we’re not!”
“Yes, we are. Look at how we react to things! Someone we love dies and we all go ape trying to steal a chunk of their money, not OUR money, but their money. Someone we love. What’s that about? American’s think we deserve the world. I mean, look at how we act out there! Stepping all over other countries and expecting to be thanked for it.”
“Quite the little ranter aren’t you?”
“Sorry. I don’t mean to offend. I'm not really one of those politically radical my way or the highway types, really!"
"I'll bet." she smirked.
"I'm a little nervous, I mean you've been all over and done so many things... You just seem like someone I would love to have an intelligent conversation with and I guess I'm blowing it.”
“I... um, thank you. You're not blowing anything. I think you're funny.”
“It's just, your situation just strikes me as… um,”
“as classically American.”
“You really don’t like America do you?”
“Oh, no Lisa, I love America. I just… hate Americans I guess.” I grinned.
“Oh.” She smiled at my stupid comments.
“Look, I'm a little hungry. Could we sit, we’ll get some food and talk some more. We’ll put it on my tab. C'mon, give me another chance, I can be upbeat if I really try.”
She smiled and tilted her head, “Yeah, okay. I guess if I can’t trust a fellow Rebel, I can’t trust anyone.”
“You know!" she punched my arm, "Tascosa, high schoooool we loooove youuuu!” she sang.
I had to laugh. I hadn’t heard that damn song in a decade. “Our hearts will beee forrrreverrrr truuue!”
She smiled at me and I felt my heart shift.
“Yeeech! Rotten song!” I grinned.
She laughed loudly and I suddenly remembered her past career. She just didn’t look like she could've been stripper material. Too classy. Maybe strip clubs had changed since her day. We settled into dinner and discussed social fabric and the downfall of the Roman Empire. She had some amazing views on how sanctified marriage is being slowly usurped by contractual legal unions brought on by the very people allegedly standing guard over sanctified marriages. She made wonderful ironic observations and had a wonderful giggle. I was really enjoying myself. It was time to strike.
“Who stole the 1330?”
She glanced up still smiling. She slowly dropped her smile. “I thought… You don’t really believe him do you? Mr. King, my brother is scum. I trusted him and he betrayed us. He betrayed us all. Totally burnt me.”
“Tell me what you know.” I took her hand. “Lisa, I’m just as much a friend of yours as I am a friend of his. Clue me in, huh?”
“I tried. I really did, but he went crazy and wrecked the place. Somehow he found it, he stole it and he just left us all. I had to go to work on myself fast after that, pull my shit together and get back to school for my business degree.”
It fell into place. “You said ‘you tried’? You tried to what?”
She squeezed my hands and released them. “Felix. This was eight years ago, but I remember vividly every move I made to try and safeguard his work.”
“The 1330. I wasn’t there when everyone arrived. I was actually in Pallyup, Nevada of all places. Working at a…” she fell silent. “Well, my roommate called me. She told me the news and I got to Phoenix as quickly as I could. You know people thought my Dad and I were distant, but we we’re pretty close towards the end. True, early on he wasn’t there for any of us in a lot of ways and I did some things, made some decisions I’m not proud of, but he helped me. He helped me quite a bit. Once we reestablished contact, our talks and his patience showed me how much direction I was missing. It still bothers me that I never got to talk with him in person after we reestablished a good relationship. When I got home, his home, I found a dozen strangers ripping the paintings off the wall. We hadn’t even had a service yet and they…” She wiped her eyes. “I went to his workshop. Someone had beaten the lock off his safe. They had taken the rings and money, leaving the one thing that was actually worth a damn.”
“So you took it?”
“What did…? where…?”
“I hid it. Hid it from them. I took it to his office and saw they had already been there too. I looked around for the most innocuous place I could find. I put it in an old box of cigars and went off to find my loving family. You know, the jackals tearing up the floorboards looking for anything they could carry off.”
Her voice faded away inside my head, “Cigars?” I was dumbstruck.
“I heard someone in the workshop. I was scared, so I hid. Jerry stormed out of there and moved right past me screaming obscenities. He must have seen me put it in there, but I don't know how. Somehow he went right to the 1330 and took it. He smashed up the place and drove away. I saw him take it! So, no matter what he tells you, I SAW him take it!”
“Cigars?” I said again.
“I don’t know how he knew it was in there, but he snapped it up and lit out. Never looked back, just burnt us all!”
“So you built a failing company up into Martel Jewelers. Why are you suing him?”
“He doesn’t deserve this success. It’s Dad’s work and he stole it! I need him to pay for what he’s done!”
Suddenly I noticed Jerry had been standing ten feet away listening in on her story. He wore a look of complete astonishment on his face. He took a step forward, but then stopped.
I motioned him forward.
“Lisa?” he whispered.
She looked like a trapped animal as she rose between us.
“Lisa.” I took her hand. “Jerry, tell her. Tell her exactly what you told me about that last day. The wine, the cigars!”
...But Jerry’s mind was eight years away. He was concentrating on the memory, the feel of the box in his hands. Did it weigh a little too much for a half empty box of cigars? Setting the box down on the seat of his truck. Did he hear something shifting inside as he turned corners? Could it be? Could it really be that easy? Surely it would be ruined at this point, but it could clear his name with her.
As he searched his memory it became clearer; he had poured a shaky glass of port and swallowed it down, taking the glass he dribbled a drop or two on the old man’s cold lips. Sitting there next to the wineglass was a small brown box. He respected the sanctity of the church and declined smoking one last cigar with the old man. He thought back, the box did seem slightly off. Did he remember something shifting inside as he placed it under the old man’s arm?
He gave the old man one last look, “Sleep tight Dad. Sleep tight.” Then he carefully lowered the casket lid as the mortuary director sealed it shut with a large key.
He took Lisa’s other hand and sat her back down, “We need to talk.”