A Scott Drayco Short Story
Scott Drayco stared at the layered meat pyramid. It looked like a horror-film reject. This was the last time he’d do a favor for Benny Baskin. What in the world had possessed the guy to request a turducken for Thanksgiving, anyway? Oh, right. The fact that Benny’s wife Marian, once dubbed the Queen of the Ptomaine Palace, offered to cook the entire meal. Drayco stuffed the mail-order meat monstrosity into the refrigerator and slammed the door.
He’d never tell Benny, but he was touched by Baskin’s offer to play host, knowing that Drayco was a Thanksgiving orphan this year. Again. Drayco’s father was on a case in Hawaii—lucky bastard—and most of his friends were making pilgrimages hither and yon for the Big Family Extravaganza. Baskin’s own two kids weren’t even going to make it, due to “work commitments.” If it hadn’t been for Baskin’s invitation, it would be Thai takeout for Drayco.
The Prokofiev ringtone on his cellphone startled him, but not as much as the caller’s voice when Drayco answered. It was Baskin, who sounded a little . . . off. “Drayco, you should be honored. You’re my one call.”
Drayco processed that for a moment. “One call? That’s what people say when they’re in jail. But I know you’re not in jail because you’re a celebrated defense attorney, not some common thief. So what’s the gag?”
“Uh, actually, I was arrested this morning.”
Drayco bit back the thousand-and-one retorts popping up in his brain like bottle rockets. “Is that a fact? What’s the charge?”
“Theft, can you believe it, junior? Me, Benny Baskin. Theft!”
Drayco cheered upon hearing the normal indignant tone creeping back into his friend’s voice. “That’s the who and when, what about the where and how, Benny?”
“Fairfax PD. Said I shoplifted some diamond cufflinks from Macy’s. I admit I looked at them, but that was it. I looked, I rejected, I left. End of story.”
“No crime in looking. So what aren’t you telling me?”
Baskin sighed. “They found an empty jewelry box in the back floor of my car.”
“And you hadn’t bought any jewelry lately? Or Marian?”
“Not so much as one ugly scarab pin.”
Drayco felt like sighing himself but promised Baskin to make some calls and see what he could do. He looked over to the refrigerator and had a brief thought that TURDucken was appropriately named. This was certainly turning out to be a turducken of a day.
It took him only a few minutes to contact an attorney for the attorney and get the bail-ball rolling. But the day before Thanksgiving, with courts closing early, was not a good day to try and post bail.
It took him another forty-five minutes to wrangle a chat with the Macy’s store dick, John Standish. Drayco had to swallow another pun about Pilgrims and “Maize-ese,” in order to sweet-talk Detective Standish into letting him watch the store video.
Drayco sat at the controls as Standish called up the relevant time window. There was Baskin, looking at the cufflinks, at ten-thirty. The clerk hustled to another area of the counter to assist another customer, but Baskin, the cufflinks, and the box were still there. Three minutes later, the video camera swerved over to the middle of the store where a young couple was engaged in a shouting match.
Drayco had Standish stop the video. “Whoa. What was that?”
“We don’t have a camera pointing directly into that part of the store. So the operator on duty at the time swiveled the camera around to take a look at the commotion. As you heard, it sounded pretty violent. Like someone was about to buy the farm.”
Drayco tilted his head. “I didn’t know Macy’s sold those.”
Standish glared at him. “When the operator saw it was just a couple of bickering lovebirds, he turned the camera back.” Standish started the video again. “Note that both Baskin and the cufflink box are gone. The clerk sounded the alarm right away when she noticed. I got a description from the clerk, ran out to the parking lot, and spotted the box in Baskin’s car before he could vamoose.”
“You say you got a description. Without seeing the video beforehand, how did you know you weren’t targeting an innocent guy?”
“You kidding me? He’s all of what—five feet? White bushy hair and an eye patch. Not many of those running around.”
“Four feet seven. Unless he wore his platform shoes. But okay, you followed him, found the box, but what about the cufflinks themselves? Why would Baskin steal the box and get rid of the diamond cufflinks inside?”
Standish rubbed a hand through what was left of his thinning hair. “I figure he palmed them off to someone else. The Fairfax PD is going over the car. They’ll probably find the goods hidden in a secret compartment.”
“Not if they were never there to begin with. Humor me for a moment. Let me see the part of the video where it swerves toward our bickering Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart wannabes. I saw some other customers in the background.”
Standish hesitated but complied. Drayco studied an elderly woman pawing through leather purses, a mother and daughter trying on shoes, a bewildered-looking man holding up two blouses side by side. Then he spotted someone else—a young boy, nine or ten-ish, alone, wearing a faded DC United T-shirt without a coat. He was leaning next to a display of women’s sweaters, at least for the split second it took for the camera to veer past him and focus on the couple. When the camera veered back two minutes later, the boy was gone.
Drayco thanked Standish and hurried outside to check on the Baskin bail status. No go. It might take the rest of the day if they were lucky. Drayco called a detective he knew at the Fairfax PD and related what he’d seen on the video. The detective was skeptical. Probably too focused on his own Big Family Extravaganza to want to help the infamous defense attorney—the same attorney who’d gotten off every accused criminal he represented.
Drayco got into his car, still puzzling over the empty cufflink box in Baskin’s car. How did it get there? Why was it put there? Drayco didn’t for a moment believe Baskin was guilty. Maybe guilty of a sarcastic wit and questionable ethics when playing poker, but not theft.
Drayco’s thoughts kept coming back to that boy. The worn clothes, no coat in forty-degree weather, were all signs the kid wasn’t a Rockefeller. His confident posture bordering on defiant were signs he wasn’t a shrinking violet, either. Drayco whipped out his cellphone and checked the bus schedules at the stop closest to the mall. He locked onto the only one that looked promising and started driving from Tysons Corner toward Ox Road, waiting until he got into lower-rent areas to branch out into surrounding neighborhoods.
It was a long shot. But Baskin himself was fond of long shots, always betting on the 30-to-1 horse.
After two hours of fruitless driving, Drayco decided it was time to take another course of action when he spied a familiar DC United T-shirt. He parked the car, slid out, and took two steps toward the young wearer of the shirt who promptly took off running as fast as he could. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed Drayco was six-four, and his long legs would have no trouble catching up with the kid.
Drayco grabbed the boy gently by the shoulders and spun him around. Then he smiled. “I don’t suppose you know what turducken is, do you?”
The boy’s eyes widened further than they already were, and he shook his head.
“It’s kind of funny, really. It’s a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck stuffed into a deboned turkey.”
The boy swallowed hard but didn’t say anything.
“John Madden handed it out to winners of the football Thanksgiving Bowl one year. Not sure where the idea came from. But ideas are funny that way. One day, you’re thinking of some wacky new dish you can spring on the in-laws, another day you’re thinking of ways to rob a jewelry counter at Macys.”
For a brief moment, the muscles of the boy’s face scrunched into a mask of frozen panic, but the defiance returned as quickly as a sigh. “I don’t know nothin’ about that turdukey thing or Macy’s.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Drayco spied a concrete-block ledge and led the boy over to it where they sat down, as a couple of foraging mice scampered out of their way. “Look, I’m not a cop. And what’s your name? Mine is Scott Drayco.”
The boy hesitated, so Drayco patted his coat and raised his hands in the air. “No wires, microphones or recorders.” Then he noticed a small, hand-stitched name above the boy’s T-shirt pocket—Juan Peña. Someone cared enough the child to make such a gesture.
Drayco dipped a hand into his own coat pocket and pulled out a wrapped mint from last night’s takeout meal and handed it over. The boy took it, his small hand covering half of Drayco’s.
As the boy sucked on the mint, Drayco said, “Okay Juan Peña. Here’s how it is. I have this attorney friend in jail falsely accused of stealing some cufflinks at Macy’s earlier today. I watched the store video, and you are right there at the time those cufflinks were stolen. Was your family with you?”
Juan shook his head. “My father is in jail too. I think Tia Rosario say it’s somewhere in . . .” Juan sounded it out slowly, “Boorm-eeng-ham.”
“So you live with your Aunt Rosario?”
“Where is your mother?”
“Her ashes sit on the shelf, in a blue jar.” Juan said it in such a calm, matter-of-fact way, it was as if he explained she was off on holiday. Maybe in Hawaii.
“How did she die, Juan?”
“Tia Rosario say, wrong place, wrong time. Drive-by shooting while she is at the kitchen window. La Primera.”
Drayco knew that name, La Primera. One of the many ethnic gangs giving the metro DC area police plenty of headaches and too many full body bags. “It was kind for your Tia Rosario to take you in. I’ll bet she works hard. Maybe more than one job?”
Juan nodded vigorously this time. “She cleans homes. And she works for Rio Taco Truck.”
“Sounds like she does all right by you. And you want to do right by her, too, don’t you?”
“Si. I want her to have a real American Thanksgiving. She is always cleaning up after everyone else’s.”
“I understand. No tacos this year, huh?” Or takeout Thai.
Drayco looked up as a 737 soaring toward National cast a brief coat of shadows over him and Juan. Then he noticed Juan shivering. Drayco took off his own coat and hung it around the boy’s shoulders. It engulfed him like a blanket, and the boy pulled it closer.
“Look, Juan, here’s the story. I don’t for a minute believe my friend stole those cufflinks, which mysteriously disappeared from the box found in his car. I think you may have some idea what happened to those cufflinks. But I have no interest in sending a boy like you to jail, and I also believe in second chances.”
Drayco drew his wallet out of his pants pocket and counted out two hundred dollars, which he handed over. “This may not be the equivalent of a pair of diamond cufflinks, but it will buy a nice Thanksgiving dinner.”
Juan stared at the money for a split second before he snatched it.
“Do you know the old abandoned King Clothing Warehouse a couple blocks over?”
“Si, I walk by there all the time.”
“If I should just happen to drive over there in an hour and just happen to find a pair of diamond cufflinks in the old mailbox by the door, that would mean this whole case is closed. No questions asked. No more arrests.”
Juan shrugged, but his bright eyes were clearly calculating the risks. “No more arrests?”
“Nope. I’m sure the reason you were on that video at the store at the time of the theft was because you wanted to pick out a special present for Tia Rosario. Right?”
A small smile crept over Juan’s face. “Si. A yellow sweater, perhaps.”
“You know the part of my friend’s arrest that is really bothering me? I can’t for the life of me figure out how or why the box ended up in the back seat of his car. You have any idea how that might have happened?”
“Well, Senor Drayco. Perhaps . . . perhaps the real thief followed your friend to his car. And perhaps while your friend took a call on his cellphone, the real thief broke into the car and dumped the empty box on the floor. Perhaps that was how it happened.”
“Hmm. Sounds reasonable. Of course, framing someone else for one’s own actions seems a bit, well, cowardly. Don’t you think?”
Juan chewed on his lip. “You say one hour?”
“Yep. One hour.” Drayco got up to head back toward his own car, but added as he turned, “And you can keep the coat. You’ll grow into it in a few years.”
Drayco didn’t look back as he made it to the car and drove away, hoping he wasn’t making a big mistake. He was fairly certain the kid was guilty, but trading one not-so-innocent innocent for another wasn’t the answer.
He spent the hour at a place called the Broad Bakery and Cafe. He guessed it was so-named because one couldn’t possibly scarf down their cranberry danish and pumpkin scones without getting broad around the middle. He left five minutes before the appointed deadline to get there on the dot of one hour as promised.
Fearing what he might find—or not find—Drayco strode up to the mailbox at the warehouse and fished around with his hand. Nothing. Not even a spider. Was there another mailbox he missed? He walked around the perimeter of the not-insubstantial building, examining every inch, but didn’t see anything resembling a box, mail or otherwise.
It wasn’t too often Drayco misjudged someone’s character. It was one of the reasons Baskin said he hired him on cases, what Baskin called “Drayco Vision,” as if it were some kind of super power. But kids were another matter, perhaps.
Lost in self-recrimination, he almost missed the glint of something shiny on the dashboard of his car when he returned. He unlocked the door and used a handkerchief to pick up the objects, two new-looking gold and diamond cufflinks. And in the back seat lay his jacket.
Drayco did an impression of the video camera, swerving his head around the parking lot, but there was no one to be seen. Broke in and re-locked the door in under eight minutes. The kid was good.
Drayco headed back to the Macy’s jewelry counter, and with a silent apology to his father, to the gods of detection, and to the entire universe, he asked the clerk to get Standish for him. Mindful of the video camera, he leaned on the case with his arm draped oh-so-casually across and dropped the cufflinks from the handkerchief in his hand onto the floor behind the case. Juan would be proud.
When Standish and the clerk returned, Drayco asked them a few innocuous questions before looking over the counter with an Oscar-worthy look of surprise. Emmy-worthy, at least. “What are those?” He pointed.
The clerk bent down and picked up the cufflinks, which had wedged themselves under the foot of the case as if they’d been there all along. “Oh my god—these look like the cufflinks that went missing.”
As she showed them to Standish, the look the man gave Drayco was like a poker dealer giving a player who’d just laid down five aces. Drayco shrugged. “I guess Baskin didn’t steal them after all. That box in his car must be left over from another purchase. Maybe even years ago. Benny is known for being a slob.”
Standish muttered something about Drayco’s faulty parental lineage, or so it sounded to Drayco, as he made a quick exit away from the detective. It wasn’t the neatest solution, but if he simply turned over the cufflinks to the police, they would suspect him of being in collusion with Baskin. Unless he ratted out the kid. This way, no harm, no foul.
A few hours later when Baskin called him—from home, with all charges dropped—the attorney apologized, saying that perhaps they’d have to postpone Thanksgiving dinner for another time. He was exhausted, and Marian was in a dither over the whole thing.
Drayco murmured his understanding, then conducted an Internet search on drive-by shootings that involved La Primera and people named Peña. Bingo. Drayco did another quick search on the names, wrote down an address, opened his refrigerator, and took a long, hard look. He sure hoped Juan and Rosario liked turducken.