Hair of the Dog.
“Uh oh. Dude, looks like you got a call.”
Kenny spotted the answering machine’s blinking light as he, Einstein and Fish came into the kitchen. They had just parked their Harleys in the garage, after spending the morning on a quick blast up the coast to Santa Barbara.
That was the beauty – and the trouble with summers in SoCal.
On a warm and cloudless day like this, business could usually be counted on to take a back seat to a good long ride.
And after spending the last couple of hours sitting with a restored old Harley Davidson Pan Head engine wildly vibrating between his legs, Fish’s caller was going to have to take a momentary back seat to something a little more urgent.
“We’ll check it out in a second,” he said to Kenny as he headed down the hall. “But first, I gotta go drain the lizard.”
Kenny shrugged. “Whatever.”
Fish was back in the kitchen five minutes later, his little reptile having taken a bit more time to empty than he anticipated.
“Mr. Fishbein, I got your name and number from my attorney, Herschel Lipshitz. My name is Charlie Kipniss. I’ve lost something very valuable and Mr. Lipshitz said you’re my best hope for finding and recovering it. I’d like to meet with you and talk it over. My cell phone number is 310-555-1265. Call me any time. Thanks.”
* * *
Five days a week, the Cantina was one of the more popular Mexican restaurants in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. Nestled in among the quaint, hundred year-old buildings that made up the Old Town section of Calabasas, its Adobe styled architecture and huge patio made the Cantina fit right in with the Old West-themed section of town.
Which was more than one could say about the sprawling Motion Picture Industry retirement home and hospital across the street. It was the one glaring exception that kept this charming and expensively themed burg from looking like it was completely put together by those tastefully wacky Imagineers at Disney.
Saturdays and Sundays, though, were a different story.
From half an hour before the Cantina opened until long after closing, the place was a madhouse, the biggest, noisiest and most boisterous upscale biker bar in at least all of southern California, if not this side of Sturgis, South Dakota. All day and into the night the entire neighborhood pulsated to the beat of loud rock ‘n roll and the roar of big V-twin engines pulling into and out of the Cantina’s parking lot, almost every one of them a Harley.
And at any given time of day, the lot was crammed to overflowing with Harley Davidson Fat Boys and Road Kings, Heritage Soft Tails and V-Rods ranging in age from brand spanking new to two or three years old.
All of which were owned by guys who had to conform to the norms of their chosen professions during the week. But come Saturday morning they could play at being the bad boy they used to be, or had always wanted to be, sporting a carefully cultivated day and a half’s worth of beard stubble, black leather jacket and chaps, and a trucker’s wallet attached to their faded jeans by a long length of chromed chain.
Hit the garage door opener, fire up your thirty or forty K investment in the Motor Company’s product line and you’re good for the next two days, playing middle class weekend warrior at the Cantina.
“You like, see our dude anywhere?” Kenny had to shout to be heard above the music, exhaust roar and crowd buzz at the end of the Cantina’s patio that held their table.
“Don’t worry,” Fish shouted back. “He’ll show. The guy sounded too nervous and scared on the phone not to.”
“Check this out,” Einstein gestured toward the entrance, where a short, balding Pillsbury Dough Boy, dressed in khaki Dockers and a yellow Lacoste polo shirt with way too many X’s on its size label was nervously scanning the patio through his oversized and dark-tinted bifocals. “This has to be our guy, man.”
Of all the people in this section of the place, only seven weren’t decked out in biker drag, and of those, half a dozen were waiters, waitresses and busboys wearing the Cantina’s official employee ensembles.
Which left the jauntily clad Poppin’ Fresh as the lone interloper, the stranger to the herd whose dress, behavior and overall appearance branded him as much an outsider as an outlaw biker would have felt, trapped in the middle of a banker’s convention.
“Charlie!” Fish stood up waving, trying to get the zaftig, biker fashion-challenged party crasher’s attention, but the man’s eyeballs were riveted somewhere else. “Hey…over here!”
Off to Charlie’s left, one of the Hell’s Podistrists had just made a disparaging remark to a member of Satan’s School District Administrators and both gangs of middle class, wanna-be bad boys were ready to jump, just itching to let the good times roll, with Charlie Kipniss, frozen in abject fear, stuck dead center in no man’s land.
Things were going to get very ugly, very fast.
And this wouldn’t be like one of those old, low-budget, Grade-B outlaw biker movies from the sixties, where a skinny, wild-eyed Bruce Dern would take on half a dozen drunk townies.
That was then.
That was old school.
Nowadays, somebody messes with you or your buds, you forget the fists, brass knuckles, chains or switchblades, and come after them where it really hurts.
And you come hard, dealing out nothing less than scorched earth and massive retaliation.
Nowadays, someone gets cute with you or your road brahs, they’ll find themselves staring down the business end of a high-caliber attorney.
And a very unfriendly deposition.
“You Charlie?” Fish shouted over the noise, after worming his way through crowd and tapping Poppin’ Fresh on the shoulder.
Swathed in several yards of short-sleeved yellow piqué, the interloper nodded nervously, his eyes still wide with fear as the two gangs began to slowly circle each other, each member locked and loaded, waiting for the moment when, in one blindingly fast motion, he’d reach inside his leather jacket and serve a member of the other gang with papers.
“Moe Fishbein,” Fish shouted, his face lit up in a Cheshire cat-like smile as he held out a right hand attached to heavily tattooed forearm. “Call me Fish.”
“Got a table over there,” he gestured with his head in Kenny’s and Einstein’s direction. “Let’s go sit down before one of these knuckleheads does something stupid.”
Charlie enthusiastically nodded in agreement.
“Tell me something, “ he called out, following close behind as Fish cleared a path through the sea of black leather, to their table. “Is this place always like this?”
“Nah,” Fish yelled with a smile and a chuckle. “Sometimes it gets pretty damn loud.”
Arriving a their table, he handled the introductions.
“Charlie, I’d like you to meet the rest of the firm. Einstein here is up for a partnership.”
Einstein looked up from the lengthy equation he had scribbled on one of the Cantina’s cocktail napkins and silently nodded to Charlie. Like Fish, he was bearded, heavily tanned and outfitted in the same sort of biker fashions as the rest of the patrons on the patio.
And like Fish, his arms were fully sleeved in tattoos, his two favorites being the ones etched into the palms of his hands.
On his left, a quote from his namesake read, “GOD DOES NOT PLAY DICE WITH THE UNIVERSE.” Across his right were the words, “STOP TELLING GOD WHAT TO DO,” a snappy comeback attributed to Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein’s chief competitor and the other giant of mid-twentieth century physics.
Social niceties out of the way, Einstein quickly re-immersed himself in his equation.
“A man of few words,” Charlie observed, as politely as was humanly possible.
“Yeah,” Fish concurred. “His mom had a serious thing for theoretical physicists. The guy is freakin’ brilliant,“ he chuckled. “Just a little short on social skills.”
To which Einstein responded with a solitary raised digit, without looking up from his equation.
“And this suspicious looking character,” Fish smiled warmly. “This is Kenny.”
Kenny reached over and grasped Charlie in the kind of hug one usually saw with professional athletes and rappers: a quick embrace, two thumps on the huggee’s back, then thump your own chest a couple of times with fingers forming a peace sign as you break the clinch.
“Lemme guess,” Charlie watched as Kenny returned to his chair. “This guy’s mother had a thing for professional quarterbacks who surfed?”
“Nobody really knows, man. Least of all Kenny. Shit like that happens when you grow up in an orphanage.”
“Hey, sorry, Kenny. No offense.” Charlie apologized, feeling incredibly guilty on a couple of levels. First, for having insulted the parents this heavily decorated biker never knew; and second, for all the times growing up, that his own mother -- his classic Jewish mother -- had left him wishing he could be raised in an orphanage.
“No worries,” Fish responded, chuckling and looking right through him.
Then Charlie glanced over to catch Kenny staring up at him from his seat at the table.
Like his two companions, Kenny’s arms were also heavily sleeved in tattoos, but instead of the usual Harley Davidson logos, eagles, American Flags and other body art favored by those who lived to ride and rode to live, Kenny’s appendages were totally covered in cartoon characters.
Everyone from Mickey and Minnie to all seven of the dwarves and Popeye and Olive Oyl.
Not to mention Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales, Tweetie and Taz. Plus Ko-Ko the Clown and Betty Boop.
Even Elmer Fudd in his hunting togs, with a caption underneath that read, ‘Be vewwy, vewwy quiet.”
And the way this demented Saturday morning cartoon show was staring up at him and darkly smirking and chuckling, Charlie was getting vewwy nervous.
He could already feel himself starting to soak through his giant economy size Lacoste polo shirt.
Then Kenny stood up.
Keeping his eyes locked on Charlie’s, he continued darkly smirking and chuckling as he slowly moved in on the fat man.
“Pl – please,” Charlie stammered, his words having no effect on Kenny. “I – I don’t want any trouble.”
All other movement and noise on the patio suddenly ceased as everyone, even the Hell’s Podiatrists and Satan’s Systems Administrators, stopped what they were doing to watch.
Kenny suddenly stopped chuckling.
“Oh God…” Deep inside, Charlie knew he was probably going to die.
Or at the very least, he’d end up spending a few weeks recuperating across the street from his favorite nosh.
Kenny’s smirk was now broadening into a dark, Charles Manson-like grin.
This was it.
Charlie shut his eyes tightly, trying to force his mind to recall a traditional Jewish prayer, the one you said when you were looking death in the face.
Shema Yisroel, Adonai elohaynu, Adonai echod.
Through tightly clamped eyes, he could hear that Kenny was now chuckling good-naturedly.
Risking everything, Charlie forced himself to slightly open one of his peepers and he was just in time to see Kenny coming even closer, smiling and laughing, with both arms spread wide.
“Dude…” Mickey, Minnie, Popeye, Olive, Speedy, Tweetie, Taz, Betty Boop, Elmer Fudd and the seven dwarves all grabbed Charlie in another big hug. “Hey, bud… psych--!”
Charlie quickly looked around, his face a mask of shock and embarrassment.
Kenny was laughing.
Still bent over his equation, Einstein was shaking his head and busting a gut.
Everyone on the Cantina’s patio was pointing in his general direction and howling.
“Gotcha!” Even Fish, the leader of this strange little pack, was breaking up, laughing so hard tears were rolling down his cheek and into his beard as he put his arm around Kipniss’ shoulder. “You should have seen the look on your face, man.”
Realizing that this was all some sort of joke and he wasn’t actually going to be pounded into a pulp by some deranged biker sleeved in animation art, Charlie started to chuckle. Which quickly escalated into a full-blown belly laugh.
“Jesus Christ, I thought I was going to die,” he gasped, truly happy to be alive for the first time since Bryana’s psychotic little pooch went walkabout.
“Aww, Kenny was just yankin’ your chain.”
“Y’know, Hesh was right about you.”
“Really?” Fish was intrigued. “What did that lying, unscrupulous little son of a bitch have to say?” he asked, still laughing.
Charlie chuckled. “He said that you guys are good…and crazy.”
“So…does this mean we got the job?”
“I guess,” the fat jeweler shrugged. “Only, let’s talk about it someplace a little quieter.”
“Step into my office,” Fish gestured toward their three bikes, all parked in the shade at the far end of the Cantina’s parking lot.
Not seeing any other form of furniture in the area, Charlie looked at Fish’s old school chopper, then back at Fish.
“Sure, go ahead. Hey, Mi motocicleta es su motocicleta.”
Having never been on a motorcycle before, much less a stretched out, hard-tail chopper like Fish’s, Charlie’s ascent was anything but graceful.
And it was made even more so by the weight and bulk contained within his sporty outfit.
Once fully seated, he took a moment to grab hold of the hand grips and smiled. Sitting there with his pudgy thighs straddling the gas tank and engine, he felt something he hadn’t experienced in years; he felt powerful and free. And the engine wasn’t even running.
I bet this thing is a gas to ride, he mused. No wonder guys like Malcolm Forbes ride these things.
Right in the middle of making a mental note to investigate whether he would need a zoning variance from the city of Beverly Hills in order to own a motorcycle like this, his reverie was cut short.
“Uh, dude?” Kenny tapped him on the shoulder. “Uhh, you like, lost something and want us to like, find it?”
“Oh yeah, right. Sorry”
Charlie then spent the next few minutes briefing Fish, Einstein and Kenny.
About how Mr. Foo was a black and white Lhasa Apso he had purchased three years earlier for his girlfriend.
About how the dog was ten. maybe eleven pounds, with a black, rhinestone studded collar.
And how he had jumped out of her car at a red light on Sunset Boulevard and vanished into the bushes next to the road, a week or so ago.
And how devastated he and Bryana had been over Mr. Foo’s disappearance.
And how very much Mr. Foo meant to the both of them, and how he would pay any price to get the poor little dog back.
Naturally, he neglected to mention the collection of stolen diamonds mounted on Mr. Foo’s collar.
That little piece of intel was strictly on a need to know basis.
“You find the dog, there’s a fifty thousand dollar reward. And of course, that’s on top of your fee.”
“Of course,” Fish answered.
“By the way, what is your fee? I mean, how much do you charge for something like this?”
“A grand a day, plus expenses. Plus five hundred a day each, for Einstein and Kenny. Works out to two K a day, against a ten-day retainer, in advance.”
Charlie hesitated for a moment.
“Wow, you guys recover the dog, and it’s gonna cost me --”
“Figure about seven thousand a pound,” Einstein answered for him. “Give or take.”
”That’s kinda steep, doncha think?”
“Depends,” Fish smiled. “How much is Mr. Foo worth to your girlfriend and you?”
“I--I can’t even say.”
“Tell you what, Charlie,” Fish pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and took out a business card. “Think it over. If you want us on the case, you can reach me here. If not, that’s cool, too.”
He handed his card to the portly, yellow shirted dog lover still seated on his bike.
Charlie took a moment to scan the business card.
“DOBERMAN RECOVERIES, LICENSED VEHICLE AND BAIL RECOVERY AGENTS, “BIG DOG” FISH, PROPRIETOR. We always get what we hunt.”
Under the headline was the same phone number he had called the day before and a Malibu address.
“And you’re Big Dog Fish, right?” Charlie asked, struggling to climb back off the old school chopper.
“Woof,” Fish answered, his face breaking into a huge beatific smile.
Everyone’s uncle in the diamond business watched as the three heavily tattooed recovery agents climbed on their bikes and fired them up.
“OK,” he shouted over their exhaust. “You’ll have a cashier’s check tomorrow by noon. When can you start?”
“Tomorrow by noon.” Fish answered.
Then he kicked the bike into first gear and roared out of the parking lot, with Kenny and Einstein right behind him.