Big Tony’s Garage was “down by the river” in so much as you could catch a glimpse of the water if you were tall and really craned your neck.
The place was dead when Bruno and Wally entered. Two guys in coveralls played cards on a makeshift table made of a piece of plywood placed atop a stack of tires. There were no cars being worked on in any of the bays, nor were there any in the lot awaiting pick up.
“Big Tony around?” Bruno asked as he flashed his badge.
One of them pointed to office in the back corner.
“Remind me to bring my car here next time I need something done in a rush,” Wally quipped as they walked across the desolate garage.
“My grandfather was Big Tony, and my Dad, Tony, Jr, named the garage after him,” she explained from behind her desk after she’d asked them to sit. “I was the only kid, so my Dad named me Antoinette, and taught me everything he could about cars in hopes that I would keep the business, and the name, going.”
Bruno and Wally looked around the office, which had an interior design style not often found in a garage.
Antoinette picked up on their thinking. “Interior design is really my thing, but I couldn’t let down my Dad. Although, if things don’t pick up around here soon, I might very well have to fall back on my hobby as my new career.”
Bruno nodded. “We’re here about Charlie White…”
“What did he do now?” she asked and rolled her eyes.
“Why does everyone react the same way when we ask about him?” Wally asked.
Bruno shrugged because he was thinking the very same thing.
“He is no longer associated with this business, which means I am not responsible for any shoddy work and dissatisfied customers,” Antoinette made very clear.
“Have there been dissatisfied customers since you fired him?” Bruno asked.
Her eyes lit up with fury. “Did he tell you I fired him? That son of a bitch! He walked out on me. He left me with a garage full of cars, and he’s playing the victim saying I fired him? Is he trying to run some unemployment scam? Is that what this is about?”
Wally shook his head. “The Police Department doesn’t investigate unemployment claims.”
“But we wanna know about him leaving,” Bruno jumped in before Wally revealed anything he didn’t want Antoinette to know yet.
She sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Charlie was a mechanical wizard who could fix anything. One day, completely out of the blue, maybe seven months ago, he comes in and asks for a raise and benefits. And not a small raise, either.”
Bruno raised an eyebrow. “Did he say why he needed the dough?”
“It wasn’t any of my business, so I didn’t ask,” she replied. “To be honest, if I could’ve given him what he wanted, I would have. Do you have any idea how much health insurance costs? And if I offered it to Charlie, I’d have to offer it to the other mechanics.”
“But I thought Charlie brought in a lot of business,” Wally pressed.
“Sure, but it was mostly from a local gang,” she replied. “They believed in paying when it was convenient for them, if at all. And they scared away my other customers. Even now, after Charlie and his gang buddies are long gone, those customers haven’t returned.”
“So was he all buddy buddy with the gang bangers, or was it more like he was playing nice to get their business?” Bruno asked.
“I’m running a business, Detective, not playing house mother to my employees,” she answered with some frustration. “But I can tell you this: Charlie was a clean cut, all-American guy until The Heathens starting coming around. After a while, he was using, drinking, and letting them hang around here like it was their clubhouse.”
“Why didn’t you do something?” Wally asked.
Antoinette gave him the evil eye. “You think those cretins are going to take orders from a woman, let alone one as tiny as I am?”
Bruno fought to hide a smirk.
Antoinette shook her head. “This went on for about a month. He’d keep pressing for a raise and benefits, and I kept having to turn him down. I finally did compromise and gave him as large a raise as I could afford, but that only seemed to annoy him. After that, he’d miss work, show up under the influence, and say he had to leave early because he didn’t feel well. Then he started to screw up on jobs. One day, he just quit. To be honest, I should have fired him, but he’d been such an exemplary employee for so long, and I kept hoping he was just going through something that would pass.”
Bruno let that comment hang in the air for a moment as he pondered it.
“That ain’t so far fetched. You think something mighta been going on?” he asked.
Another sigh from Antoinette. “I think The Heathens were what was going on. He wanted to act like them, hang out with them, drink and do drugs like them. I’d say The Heathens killed the Charlie I used to know, and replaced him with a version I didn’t recognize and couldn’t employ any longer.”
Bruno stood up and Wally, caught off guard by the move, quickly rushed to follow suit.
“Thanks for your time,” Bruno offered with a polite smile. “Speaking of The Heathens, you hear anything about Charlie stealing a bike from their leader?”
“No, but that wouldn’t surprise me given his uncharacteristic behavior in his last month here. You never did tell me why you were asking about him.”
Wally turned to Bruno to see how he wanted to handle this.
“He seems to have disappeared, and we’re trying to track him down,” Bruno explained.
“I hope you do,” she said sincerely. “Crazy antics and all, Charlie was a great guy. I guess anyone can be a little complicated if you examine his life closely enough.”
“Yeah, it sure is looking that way,” Bruno agreed.
TO BE CONTINUED…