Saturday, August 1, 2009

A New Story About Old Heartache

We're going to depart from our on-going story for a bit and take a look at another crime that happens everyday. The crimes that people commit when they look for love in all the wrong places. What's the price that they pay for their indiscretions? Read on, cowboys and cowgirls, and The Nightwatchman will take out his old guitar and sing you an old song about used cars, and pretty girls, and how those two things together will break your heart every time:

Roger

Taylor was driving Amy over to some car dealership where she thought that she could get a good deal. Her old one wouldn’t start anymore, and rather than fixing it, which he thought was the only sane idea, Amy had decided she wanted to spring for a new one. She walked out onto her parents’ driveway and into the passenger seat of his Toyota with a piece of paper in her hand. In the corner was a picture of a late nineties Ford Explorer with a yellow explosion behind it. It said that it had a 4x4 and it ran clean, $6999. “That one,” Amy said pointing to the paper. Taylor didn’t see anything about how many miles the car had on it, so that worried him. But, she seemed excited, and he liked that about her. It was easy to get her excited about anything new. She was like a little kid. Besides, maybe if she saw the car she wouldn’t think that it was all that hot, and then he could take her home and not drive around so much. The dealership was on a part of the street where there were about a hundred other car dealerships. There was a tiny building that looked like it might have been a house at some point with strings of little yellow flags radiating from its roof. As they approached the office Taylor suddenly felt very protective of Amy. All of the smooth talk they would get from the salesmen would be too much for her. She’d get suckered into buying a car that would eventually disappoint her, and then they’d have to go out and get another one all over again. It wasn’t just the inconvenience of it all. He wanted to be the voice of reason. He wanted to guard her from her own bad choices. She was impulsive and he was careful. Maybe, that was why she wanted him to go with her. She needed protection from herself. Before they got to the door, a young, dark skinned man came out and shook their hands. Taylor noticed his diamond pinky ring. He had on a blue shirt with a stiff white collar, and a burgundy necktie with matching suspenders. He was actually wearing suspenders. He looked like a stockbroker from that Oliver Stone movie. “My name is Afsheen,” he said, “Welcome.” He beckoned them to the front door of the office, but Amy didn’t go in. She showed him the ad and he whisked the two of them over to the back corner of the lot where the Explorer was. The car didn’t seem to have any visible damage, but Taylor thought that it had probably been sitting on the lot for a very long time. The red paint looked faded. The tires looked a little sunken. The dashboard had several little cracks in it which Taylor attributed to being out in the sun for too long. Amy gleefully opened up the driver’s side door and hopped into the truck. She turned on the wiper blades and squirted a little bit of the fluid onto the glass. “$7000,” Taylor said to himself as he ran his hands over the shallow tread of the front tires. “Can you go get the keys? We’ll take it for a little drive,” Amy said to Afsheen. Taylor got into the passenger seat and opened up the glove box to flip through the operator’s manual. There was maintenance schedule A, and maintenance schedule B. He peaked over the dash at the odometer: 85,000 miles. “That’s a lot of miles for what they’re asking, especially for a car this old” he said. “I want to drive it,” she said. Taylor thought that she was the kind of girl to buy a car like this. Her car would be bigger than other girls’ cars. She would have mastery over something that they didn’t understand and were maybe a little afraid of. Also, he thought that she liked that it had a 4x4. The idea to her was probably that she wouldn’t have to worry about navigating through the icy, slush-bound streets during the long winters where they lived. It was bigger, but it was also safer than the other cars. She probably thought that it offered more peace of mind, or some such thing. Taylor wondered why anyone would want to drive something like this anymore. Afsheen appeared with the keys dangling in his hand. He handed them to Amy and made a move like he was going to get into the back seat. “Would it be alright if we just drove the car around ourselves?” Amy said to him. Taylor thought that this was a pretty sensible idea. Why not just eliminate all of the patter of a sales pitch from the backseat during a test drive? Then, maybe he could talk her down a little. Afsheeen looked around like nobody had ever asked him if they could do that before. He looked like he didn’t know if it was possible. “I will need to make a copy of your driver’s license,” he said. Amy handed it over and he ran into the building. He returned less than a minute later and gave it back to her. “We’ll be careful,” she said. She started the engine. Taylor gripped the panic bar that was over the door as she spun the car out of the tightly packed lot, barely missing a few pricey fenders. She bounced over the curb and onto the road. He listened carefully for any strange noises from the engine as she pressed on the accelerator. “It’s fast,” she said. “It’s okay,” he said. He didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary yet. Not as far as he could tell, anyway. He turned on the AC and cranked the knob up all of the way. The vents blasted a freshet of super cold air. “It’s cold enough as it is,” she said, switching the knob to off. It was a windy day in late autumn, and she wouldn’t need the AC for several more months, but it comforted Taylor to know that it worked. In his mind if the AC worked then a lot of other things on the car had to be working. She got on the freeway on-ramp and accelerated enough to test the cruise control. The inside of the car was quieter than he thought it would be for a 4x4. He settled into the big plush seat a little more, and discovered a button that curved the seat more towards his lower back for more support on longer trips. “I love you,” Amy said. He had heard her say this before, and he still didn’t know how to respond to it, so he just kept quiet. He didn’t think that she really meant it. She was just trying it on for size. Maybe, she just liked the way that it sounded when she told it to another person, any other person. He didn’t know. He did know that there was no way that she could have actually loved him. The truth was, and Taylor knew this, they hardly knew much about each other with their clothes on. He had decided to go back to school to get his teaching license after earning his BA and working for a medical supply company for three years. He was 27, and Amy was 21. He met her in his Teaching Essentials class. He didn’t notice her at first. She seemed just like a lot of the other undergrad girls. Trying on different kinds of guys like they were different styles of shoes, not really deciding what they wanted to do yet, but letting their parents pay the tuition just the same. Going to keggers on Greek row, going to the same coffee shops and diners that all of the other kids went to. Trying to study, but also trying to be noticed at the same time. Taylor guessed that’s how it was. He didn’t have that much free time in college. He slaved in his father’s little market after classes and did homework on weekends. He liked to imagine the other kids in his classes going to these wild parties, drinking, smoking weed, never working or studying. It made him feel better while he was working nearly every night at his dad’s dirty little market. He was a pull-yourself-up-from-your-own-bootstraps type of guy and the others were not. He was stronger than they were. Amy had a big personality. When the semester first started, Taylor thought that Amy already knew all of the other girls in the class, except for the pretty, rich looking girls that didn’t seem to like her very much. She would gad around the room, whispering indecipherable things to the other girls and then they’d all start laughing and carrying on. He asked one of them how long she’d known Amy and she had said, “Who’s Amy?” He was shocked. He had never had much luck with women and when something like this happened it just confirmed his suspicions that all of the women in the world were in one secret, exclusive group and men were lonesome, clueless exiles; mere bystanders, in a world secretly run by women. He didn’t really think a lot about Amy. She wasn’t super pretty or anything. She was a little overweight and she had this short kind of nose. Her bottom lip seemed to stick out a little too far. But she did have red hair and Taylor liked that. It didn’t make her beautiful or anything, but it was unusual and unusual was good. At first he liked the way that she lit up a room and how everybody seemed to like her. He was having trouble getting interested in the classes that he was taking, and he thought that having Amy at this class made it a little more bearable. Gradually, though, he started to dislike how much attention she seemed to always need, and how readily everyone else seemed to want to give it to her. Mainly, he didn’t like it whenever people all seemed to be doing the exact same thing. It made them seem just a little more stupid, and Taylor would start to resent them a little bit. He thought about how hard it was to like a whole group of people if you only knew them as that one group. It was like they were in a play and everybody wasn’t real, they were just playing a part. Taylor saw this happening all of the time. After class one day he was walking to the bus stop. He was on his way to the restaurant where he was working nights. An old Honda drove up beside him and the passenger window whirred down. It was Amy. “Need a ride?” After that, he asked her for her phone number and she seemed surprised. “I didn’t know that you liked me,” she said. “That’s so weird.” Taylor didn’t think it was all that weird. Why did she pick him up and give him a ride to work that day if she wasn’t interested in him? Besides, he did like her. She was fun. The other people in the class were playing these roles and following her around, but she was just being herself. He liked to think that he wasn’t playing a role. He wasn’t the life of the party, but he was doing his own thing and he thought that people could tell that about him. He was just being true to himself, and he thought that she was doing that too. At first, they just went to cheap diners together and got burgers, sometimes Chinese food. She talked a lot, but whenever Taylor would ask her a question about herself she would give a one word answer and then look really bored. When she was finished eating she would rip her napkin into tiny pieces and then stuff them into her water glass. Then, she’d mix the remainder of her food up into this disgusting looking pulp, and then dump the water that was full of napkin chunks over it and make this brown, sloppy mess on her plate. One time, very late at night, Amy called Taylor up and asked him if she could come over to his place. Taylor stood up and began rearranging the furniture in his tiny apartment, moving the pillows around on his couch, running his hand over the surface of his counter to catch the crumbs. “Sure, sure,” he said into the phone. She came over and they sat down for a minute. The TV was on and she started talking, talking about everything and nothing, talking a mile a minute. Taylor wondered what was going on. Finally, she stopped and he started kissing her. They kissed some more and then he started unbuckling her belt. “What are you doing?” she asked, angrily. “God, sorry. Sorry.” She rolled her eyes and they went into his bedroom. The next few nights were a lot like this and it seemed to be getting better. They’d have sex and then they’d go out to his balcony and smoke Camels, even though neither one of them smoked. This was a really funny joke to both of them. Amy said that they were just like people in the movies who smoked after having really great sex. Taylor liked that, “really great sex.” This was a couple of weeks ago. Now, they were coasting down the interstate in this used car that they had hijacked, and everything was fine. Taylor noticed that Amy wasn’t dodging in and out of lanes like she normally did in her old car. She left the cruise on and they just sailed along in the right hand lane. The freeway was practically deserted, which was unheard of on a Saturday afternoon. He didn’t hear any noise from the outside. He didn’t hear any noise at all. Maybe the engine had been overhauled somewhere along the line, he thought. He still thought it was kind of a piece of junk, but maybe for the price it was pretty good. Maybe it was the piece of junk that fit her. Maybe it wasn’t all that bad. “I love you, too,” he said. He was a little late, but she didn’t mind. She looked over at him and gave him a little smile, as if to say, “I know.” It felt good to say it. He still didn’t think it was true, but what was the harm in saying it? It was a nice thing to say. Maybe, it was one of those things that could actually happen if you believed in it enough. Fake it until you make it, or something like that. “I’m buying this car.” “Good. I think you should. I mean, I think you should if it’s really what you want. We haven’t looked at anything else yet.” “I know we haven’t looked at anything else, but I really like it. When you look at it it’s really not a bad deal.” “Yeah.” They exited and got back on the cross-town drag towards the car dealership. When they drove into the lot, Afsheen was waiting for them, anxiously stooped over, wringing his hands in worry over his stolen SUV, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Taylor got out and smiled, shaking the salesman’s hand for no reason at all. They fooled around with the lights for a minute, and opened up the hood to see how dirty it was in there. They went back into the office and made some arrangements for the bank, signed a bunch of papers. They decided that they could go to the bank with Afsheen tomorrow and get everything finalized. Amy said that she had to talk to her dad about something, and Taylor wondered where the money for the car was coming from, but he didn’t ask. It was easy. It was a relief that they didn’t feel the need to play hardball with Afsheen or go through the motions of seeming indecisive about buying the car just so they didn’t look like schmucks who bought the first car that they saw. That’s not what they were. They were two people who knew what they wanted and this happened to be it. They knew what they were doing. They got back into Taylor’s car and he started driving her back to where her parents lived. He took a different route that took a little longer than he would have liked. They passed by the mall and everybody ahead of him braked to make right hand turns and the rest of them seemed to pull into the median to turn left just before he smacked right into them. After that was a cobweb of four way stops and slow red lights through a residential area. Amy was quiet. Taylor wondered if the traffic was just annoying her, but that didn’t seem right. She just bought a new car. She should be on top of the world. “Can we stop somewhere?” she said. “Sure.” “Can we go to the library on campus?” “Well, we could’ve started heading there a minute ago. It’s kind of back the other way now.” She was silent. “What do we need to go to the library for?” “I’m supposed to meet Roger there, today.” Roger was Amy’s ex-boyfriend, or ex-something. Amy had moments where she was transparently materialistic. One of those moments was when she would say that one of her ultimate goals was to marry a doctor. Why a doctor? Well, doctors had lots of money and they helped people. They were certain types of men, careful, well-groomed, composed men who didn’t expose themselves to the other habits that other people had. They didn’t just sit around and watch TV. No, doctors were continuously improving themselves and the lives of people in their community, all while earning cushy salaries and lavishing their wives with expensive gifts. Gifts all the more expensive because they were never around, but Amy seemed to be okay with that. It was the thought that counted. Amy seemed to like letting Taylor know that he wasn’t a doctor. She would joke that she was dating beneath her station. In fact, Taylor was so far from being a doctor that it was ridiculous that they were even together. At first, Taylor thought that all of this was pretty funny, but she brought it up enough that it didn’t really seem like much of a joke to her. She really didn’t like that he wasn’t a doctor. Roger was a doctor. Roger was also a divorced alcoholic, who lived with his parents, but he was a doctor and that was enough for Amy. He was much older than Amy. He was 38, old enough to make Taylor’s skin crawl. What does a 38 year old man want from a 21 year old girl? Probably, the same thing that he wanted. Probably, more than that. Now, they were driving to the library and they were all going to see Roger together and Taylor didn’t know what to think. How would normal people react in situations like this, he wondered. Maybe, this is what normal people really did. Maybe, this just happened all of the time. “Why are we meeting Roger at the library? Why don’t we meet him at the mall or at the zoo, or something?” “Because we agreed that we would meet at the library,” she said. They agreed, Taylor thought. Where was he when they were agreeing on everything? What did she need from him now? Was he supposed to protect her from the unstable ex-boyfriend, provide her with some security for whatever was going to happen with her and Roger? Or was he strictly ornamental? Look, here’s my nice normal boy who doesn’t have all of your liquor soaked oedipal hang-ups, look there he is. “Amy, what are we doing here?” She started to cry. She closed her eyes and put her head down and then she let out a gasping sigh and some tears came out. “I promised that I would give him $4,000.” Taylor squeezed the wheel a little tighter. He saw two boys rolling one of those old time hoops down a hill, trying to keep the hoop from falling over by balancing it with a stick. He’d never seen one of those before. Why would kids these days want to play with something like that? “$4,000?” he said. “We’re driving to the library to give this guy $4,000? I thought he was a doctor, or something. What does he need that kind of money for?” She sniffed back her tears and her face returned to its regular color. You would’ve never guessed that she had just cried. “He’s going through a really tough time right now. He moved back in with his mom and dad because they were having trouble. He wants to help them, but things are really tight right now. These are really hard times on everybody, and I’m just trying to help out a friend, okay? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just money. Why is money always so important to you? You always make a big deal out of it, and it just doesn’t matter.” “You just bought a car and now, this? Where did you get an extra four grand that you can just lend somebody?” Amy was working for her dad and Taylor knew that she couldn’t have all that much money. She didn’t seem to be working very much. She complained about how often he worked and how he was killing himself, and how he never gave himself enough time to do anything fun. Maybe, that was true, but it didn’t really bother him all that much. Everything that he did was just something that he had to do. Nothing was supposed to be easy. That’s the way the world was. They started into the secluded, countrified outskirts of the town where the local university was. Trees without leaves lined the drive. The long, flat blocks of the university buildings could be seen beyond the wide manicured lawns that separated them from the streets. Taylor began to wonder what Roger would look like. He imagined a pimp-like character, with a subtler, less garish kind of sartorial style, the just bought clothes, the mellow tan, and the white smile of someone who practiced at concealing all of their deep-seated personal defects to better gull na├»ve girls into giving them a lot of money. He liked that they were meeting in the library. It was a silent, anonymous place where people could make dirty deals in peace and quiet. Taylor thought of those movies where the gangsters exchange large amounts of money in underground parking garages, everybody wearing suits and designer sunglasses, the money kept in those fancy stainless steel briefcases. He chuckled a little bit, and wondered if he was having too much fun. There was a lot of free parking on Saturday, so finding a spot near the library was no problem. Taylor wore this old double-breasted pea coat that didn’t keep the cold out for long. He flipped up his collar and dug his hands into his pockets as they made their way over the winding sidewalks. Amy stormed ahead of him, her flat heeled feet slapping against the concrete. She was mad, because he was mad. He wasn’t allowed to get mad at anything. Taylor thought that she looked funny from the back while she hustled along indignantly. Her hair tossed from one side to the other. Her feet didn’t move one in front of the other, but she kind of waddled from side to side like a big angry duck. Inside the big marble vault of the library it was almost as cold as it was outside. Gentle draughts blew over them as they descended the deserted staircases that led down to the quiet study areas where there were long rows of desks shielded by wood partitions for private studying. The mausoleum-like quiet of the place always thrilled Taylor. He fondly remembered his undergrad days that he spent poring over his textbooks and devouring big, inconsequential novels in the cubicles and lounging with his feet up on the giant overstuffed chairs when he had some time between classes. They came to the outside of a glassed off room where all of the biology journals were kept near the quiet study area. “There’s Roger,” said Amy. Through the glass he could see a man sitting in one of the easy chairs. He had dirty blonde hair and glasses with a three day old beard on his florid, swollen looking face. He had a denim work shirt on and tan work boots. His hands looked thick and worn and Taylor could see small scabs on his knuckles. He didn’t look like a doctor at all, he looked like someone who painted houses or hanged dry-wall for a living. Taylor wondered if he even was a doctor anymore. He had the look of someone who had found work where they could find it, and had been working that job for awhile. Someone who lived alone and got up early to drive to whatever job they had to do that day, then spent the nights in a bar with other people like that, smoking bad cigarettes and drinking cheap whiskey, coming and going, an acquaintance to some, a stranger to most, and a friend to no one. “He’s drunk,” Amy said. “He’s already had a half a bottle of vodka.” Taylor wondered how she knew this. She told him to wait there and she walked over to where Roger was sitting. He got up slowly and started making his way toward her. He moved like an old man, his feet shuffling and his back bent over. He didn’t weave around like a drunk person. His movements were slow and deliberate and it seemed like he was in pain, but he was careful, like someone who had a lot of practice trying not to fall down or knock anything over after drink a lot, someone who knew that they needed learn to act normally if they wanted to drink a bottle of vodka every day. Roger managed a weak smile when he saw her. They didn’t hug. They talked for a second before she handed him an envelope and then she patted him lightly on the shoulder like you did when said something to somebody else like “take care of yourself” or “hang in there”. He went back to the chair and then stared at the envelope, turning it around in his hands like he had found something that he didn’t recognize and couldn’t make out what it was. “Let’s go,” Amy said. As they walked back Taylor thought a little more about Roger. He thought that he could be like that someday. He wasn’t old enough yet, but it could happen. He wasn’t a big drinker, but maybe that didn’t matter. Things just fell through for people. Things just didn’t work out. Maybe he had failed somewhere along the way already and things were kind of unraveling themselves slowly, slow enough for him not to notice, but surely enough so that when he got to the kind of place where Roger was, he would know exactly how it happened. He suddenly thought that he would have to think very hard to find a way to stop it all from happening, but he was terrified that there was no amount of thinking that could keep all of that misery away from him. Maybe, thinking only made it worse. Maybe, thinking was what allowed the thing that had happened to Roger to pick you up and carry you away, carry you over this threshold where nothing worked anymore, and then you would wake up and there you were. He wondered if Amy had something to do with it. He didn’t see things going much further with her, but that didn’t seem to matter. He would keep choosing her and others like her, and they would keep choosing him. They all knew each other in a secret kind of way and it was the kind of thing that made it impossible for them to get to know someone else who wasn’t like that. Pretty soon the kind of people that they all were would catch up with them, and who they are and where they were going would just fall apart. Taylor felt sorry about it all. He felt sorry for himself and for Amy, but most of all he felt sorry for Roger. He was sorry that Roger was that way and probably had to go on being that way. As the big red-headed girl waddled ahead of him he felt a sickness in his stomach. His palms and his forehead were in a cold sweat. They got back into the car and started driving. “Did you tell Roger that you loved him?” he asked her. “I will always love him, in a way,” she said. He knew that was the exact right answer.

Behind the Green Curtain: Ch. 5

5.

I pulled some petrified towels off of the rack in the bathroom and wrapped them with shaking hands over Deb’s leg. I couldn’t see an exit wound. The bullet had punched through a wall before it got into her leg. It probably didn’t have enough velocity to blow the inside of her leg apart as it entered. The towels were getting soaked through. “They shot me. They shot me,” she said, repeating it over and over. The ambulance was at least twenty minutes out. I had to get her to calm down until then. I stroked her hair. It was drenched in cold sweat. “Take it easy, Deb. Some kind of divorce case this turned out to be, right? I bet you feel real gypped right now. Here you are just taking notes and you end up with a purple heart. Not exactly an “in the line of duty” type of injury, is it?” She gave me a little smile. “At least I didn’t dive over the bed like some scared rookie mall cop, App.” I laughed, trying to hide the panic I was feeling, trying to suppress the rage I felt at the chicken-shit hold up men who did this, rage at the slack-jaws that ran the ambulance service out here in the swamp who couldn’t be bothered to get here on time. I couldn’t stop thinking about the bodies that were slumped over like rag dolls in the next room, the floor pooling up in the blood of six men, the mist patterns drooling off of the wall and the ceiling. And Gail. My god, Gail. I wanted to call her after the ambulance came and before the cops and the media would turn The Nightshade Motel into a complete circus. “You’re hurting my hand,” Deb said. I quickly let go of her hand and she shook it a little to get the feeling back. “I’m okay, App. Thanks for taking care of me, handsome.” Again, I tried to laugh a little. I was on the ragged edge for the next twenty-five minutes until I heard the ambulance’s siren blare as it tore down the dirt road. Along with the ambulance came about a hundred brown-and-yellow Mustangs belonging to the swarm of Barney Fife clones that made up the Duval County Sheriffs. This was going to get worse before it got better. We loaded Deb into the ambulance and before the doors shut she gave me a thumbs-up like the captain of the team who gets carted off the field after an injury but wants the fans to know that he’s okay and he’ll be back next week to win the big game. I waved at her and tried to fight off the urge to vomit. Why the hell did I bring her out here? My instinct for danger was numbed by too much sitting on my ass at the office, watching my waistline expand and my hair turn grey, moping for what used to be. I wasn’t frosty enough tonight, and Deb took the hit for it. I had to get this right. Suddenly, I missed the bourgeois comforts of an open-and-shut divorce case. I went back to the room and grabbed my camera. Good thing I brought those extra rolls of film, because those six bodies in the other room were likely to be very photogenic. I had to get as much dope on the murders as I could before the cops tore the place apart. I took a long slug out of the bottle I brought with me and let the whiskey mellow me out before I called up Gail de Ramos. I got her voicemail and told her to call me back as soon as she could. Then, I hung up and took another drink. Duval County’s finest would make this a long night for me and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Idly, I leafed through the stack of porno tapes on the TV stand. There was “Barnyard Beauties 4”, “All Anal Slutfest”, “Teen Swallowers”, the usual up-front, disgusting titles with pictures of the girls doing what they did best on the backs of the tapes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same outfit that owned this motel also produced this trash. It was all a sewer that most likely started in West Palm Beach and then ran its pipeline of trashy book stores, video stores, massage parlors, and hooker motels all the way up to Duval county. One tape, ingeniously entitled “Newcummers,” caught my eye. On the back of it, was a dark haired, well-endowed girl of about twenty-one kneeling down and getting ready to take on two anonymous studs who had their dicks popping into either side of the frame. The picture was faded and she looked a lot younger, but I got a real knack for remembering pretty faces. Staring back at me with those same bedroom eyes so full of alligator tears in my office this morning was none other than a young Gail de Ramos. My heart started racing again. Knowing that the cops outside would be looking for me, I quickly stuffed the tape into a pocket of the briefcase that Deb carried the laptop in. Then, I tried to forget about all about it. So Derek married a pornstar, so what. That didn’t mean anything, not yet. There was no real way to find an angle on it until I got a chance to ask Gail about it. Would she mind my asking? Sure. But this is the job. I took another drink. I snatched up the Nikon and got ready to go to work. On my way out of the door to the crime scene, Barney Fife stuck his pencil in my face. “You’re the man called in the shooting?” drawled the skinny, weasel-faced rookie. “Appalachia Cruz, private investigator,” I said, producing my investigator’s license. “I’d like to get into that room and get some pictures.” The cop shook his head and squirted a jet of Red Man through his teeth. “This here’s a crime scene involving multiple homicides within the jurisdiction of The Duval County Sheriffs. I’d like you to step on back to my car so I can take you into the office and ask you a few questions.” The crime lab goofs were now opening up the blood stained door. Everybody had their cameras and blacklights out, ready for the big payoff. When the door opened there were the general whistles and shouts of astonishment and disgust at what they saw in the room. One fat pig with a moustache ran out of the room and puked in the bush that I was hiding in earlier. If I wanted to join the party I had to lean on Barney Fife a little. I got up close to him. “I’ve got an open and active investigation on one of the victims in that room, a Mr. Derek de Ramos. I was performing surveillance on the victims at the time of the shooting. I can provide you with a full transcription of everything that transpired in that motel room up to the time of the shooting. My partner was wounded in the altercation that followed. Now, all that I ask is that I be allowed to gather what evidence there is so far to continue my investigation and you will have my full cooperation.” I pushed past the little brown-shirt weasel and shoved some other people aside so I could poke my camera into the room. I didn’t quite get a good look before the cop’s hand was on my shoulder and he wheeled me around. He put his back up against the wall of fuzz that barricaded the door and put his hand on the butt of his firearm. “Sir, you’ve been ordered directly to allow me to escort you to our office where you will questioned. Now, if you keep pushing me, I’ll have to charge you with resisting arrest.” “This ain’t a fucking parking ticket, pal,” I said. I stepped forward and threw my fist full into his face. All ninety pounds of him flew through the throng of cops and he slid through the kiddie pool of red gore that was soaked into the floor of the room. He struggled to right himself and stood up caked in the physical evidence of a six-count homicide. He flew out the door with his mace in hand and I saw the eye of the nozzle just before a full burst of the horrible liquid scorched off my face. The other cops leapt on me with a litany of curses and body blows. It only hurt me for a few seconds more until I puked into the weasel’s mouth and everything went black.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Behind the Green Curtain: Ch. 4


This chapter's a bit of a game changer, friends. Well worth the wait. So, what's with the rabbits? A couple years ago I traveled to San Diego to visit my dad, and I managed to escape from his apartment long enough to stroll through this wooded area that was nearby. I wanted to take the evening air and finish a bottle of Old Crow in piece. After several perambulations around the place, I had finished the bottle and was feeling very drowsy. It being a pleasant night, I decided to nap al fresco on a bed of wilted palm leaves. Very soon I fell into a deep, dark sleep. In my dreams there was nothing but darkness, but I could discern a form moving about in the dark. It was none other than the black outline of The Nightwatchman on his nightly patrol through the unending moonless prairies of a nonexistent wilderness. At first, he seemed very far away but that was only an illusion. He was suddenly very close to me, and I was looking into his starving, steel colored eyes. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shouted "Wake up!" I came to and saw a troop of forty to fifty cottontail rabbits, of varying colors, standing on their hind legs and looking right at me. Just before I thought they were going to pounce on me and devour me, they all disappeared into the labrynthine manzanita. It just goes to show you, friends and neighbors. Be careful when you fall asleep in a strange place. You never can tell what The Nightwatchman will have waiting for you when you wake up...

4.

We traveled for almost two hours more. Deb fed me updates on which way we were heading and I tried to write it all down in my notepad along with the time so that we could keep our story straight for Gail, and maybe the cops if it came to that. That’s hard to do when you’re balled up behind the passenger seat and you can’t move or see anything:

7:10: Drove over the I-95 bridge bearing east towards Brooklyn.
8:00: Still east on I-95. Approaching Commonwealth, Normandy Village.
8:30: Outside of city limits. Approx. 30 miles SW of the Osceola Forest.
9:00: East on I-10. Near Baldwin, Mattox.

It was a long drive. Either these guys had made a deal with backwoods, hillbilly moonshiners or they were taking the money camping with them. The sun had set. Deb switched on the headlights and the dash lit up bright red. I decided it was dark enough to climb up in the passenger seat without getting spotted and blowing her tail, but I still kept low. At 9:15 they exited the freeway and headed down a state road. My concern was that if the streets got too secluded it would be easier for them to spot our tail. I told Deb to ease off a little bit. The streetlights, ranch houses, and convenience stores started to vanish and the tangled oak and Spanish moss began to take over. The truck flipped a right and bounced over a cattle guard onto a dirt road.
“Drive past the road that they turned on and then turn around. We’ll keep following them with our headlights off,” I said to Deb. She drove past the road a couple hundred feet, then she flipped a hard U into the other lane, cutting off a Dodge van that was probably full of girl scouts.
“Jesus,” I said, buckling my seat belt. We got on the dirt road and she killed the lights. The red taillights from the truck could be seen a few hundred yards ahead like some creature’s red eyes staring through the mossy oak and the gathering fog. The road narrowed and I could hear the saw palmetto branches slapping against the side of the car. We had to keep at a good speed to keep up with the truck that was kicking up a cloud of dust ahead of us. Between the winding road, the fog, the dust, and Deb’s lead foot, the road was becoming less than safe to travel on with the lights off. Ahead I could see the truck’s brake light on. It looked like they were stopping.
“Pull over and park the car before they see us,” I whispered to Deb. “We’ll have to bring the equipment a ways on foot and set it up near them. Quiet, quiet, quiet.”
She pulled over sharply and the Trans Am lurched headfirst into a soft shoulder filled with mud. We’d never get it out, but there wasn’t any time to think about that. Deb jumped out to get the stuff out of the backseat. I reached into the glove box and pulled out a pint of Jim Beam that I stuffed into the back of my waistband next to my .38. It was shaping up to be a long night and I didn’t want to get thirsty. I stepped out of the car and got my good loafers into the mud. I got the reel-to-reel and the microphones out of the back. Deb got the camera and her laptop to take notes of everything that we were going to listen in on. We tramped through gnarly branches and swamp water well away from the road to avoid getting seen by the marks. The full moon cast crazy shapes onto the forest floor. The steady drone of the insects was thankfully deafening enough to drown out the sound of our shoes slurping through the mud. Out here, it doesn’t take long for you to sweat through your clothes and after that you’re moving in slow motion. Then, the mosquitoes get what’s left of you.
Through a break in the bushes I could see de Ramos’s truck in the weedy parking lot of what looked like a motel. An old neon sign stood unlit by the road’s entrance, “The Nightshade Motel,” written in squiggly, indefinable letters. The place looked long since abandoned. There was no light in the long, cracked window where the manager’s office would be. A dog-eared “CLOSED” sign was in the corner. The moonlight washed over the lime green paint on the concrete and the room windows looked cracked and covered in dust. No lights were on in the windows. This could have been any number of “adult” motels that dot the back roads of the South, complete with vibrating beds, porn DVDs, and complimentary massage oils. Not to mention the on-site companionship. Usually girls fresh out of high-school on the mob payroll who turn tricks for truck drivers in exchange for free blow and the occasional black eye. Maybe, that’s the kind of outfit an independent contractor like Derek de Ramos can get ahead in. Except that Derek and his buddies weren’t looking to flop with any Nightshade cooze tonight. Nobody had done that here in a long time. If that money wasn’t going to disappear in the thongs of motel gutter wenches, then I wonder what else he had in mind.
The three men got out of the truck with the black bag. They opened up the door to one of the rooms without a key and a light turned on in the window behind the off-white drapes. A troop of rabbits appeared on the edge of the parking lot. They all stood up and sniffed the air furiously, their eyes in the moonlight like tiny, smoldering embers.
“What the hell is going on here?” Deb said. “We have to get closer to these guys without getting spotted.” Through the bushes, I could see the motel had rooms in the back of the building as well as in front.
“If we can get into the room behind them, then maybe we can hear them through the wall,” I said. We snuck out into the broad moonlight and hustled over to the rooms back of the motel. Room 9 was directly behind the room the men were in. If we could get into that room hopefully we could find a way to record what they were saying through the walls. Four brown rabbits scurried away from the battered door as we approached. “What are you doing?” Deb said as I started working on the door with a little screwdriver that I kept on my key chain.
“What’s the matter Deb? This pale moonlight isn’t romantic enough to get you in the mood for a little B&E?” She looked just a little guilty, but I knew that she wanted the straight dope on de Ramos just as much as I did. I ran the screwdriver along the runner until I could feel the lock catch and then unlatch. I opened the door slowly then groped in the dark for a light switch before turning on a lamp that was on an end table.
“Gross,” Deb said. The room looked like it hadn’t been redone in 30 years. It had that anonymous, airless smell typical of old motel rooms. There was false wood paneling on the walls, big orange lamps with tall cylindrical lamp shades, and a bad painting over the king-sized, coin-operated bed. There was an old TV with big, luminescent dials and a VCR. Stacked on top were faded VHS porno tapes with obvious titles. The painting was of a 10-point buck standing on a wind-swept, paint globbed hill with lifeless, coal black eyes that stared back at me without the customary points of light painted into the corners of the eyes. A chill rushed through me like rabbits running over my grave.
I could hear the men murmuring in the room next to us. Time to roll. A central heating vent was over the table on the far wall. Maybe, if the vent communicated into the next room I could get the cover off and feed a microphone through the vent to record what they were saying. It had worked for me in the past. “Let’s move,” I said to Deb. Quickly, she pulled the reel-to-reel out of it’s case and started up the word processor while I took the cover off of the vent with the screwdriver. We fed the microphone in, plugged in our big headphones into the machine, and flicked the record switch on. There was a crackle and then we could hear the TV channels being flicked through in the next room. The sound was coming in loud and clear. Deb pumped her fist in victory and got ready to transcribe.

Man 1: When are these guys gonna get here?

Man 2: Said they were about twenty minutes away.

Man 1: Hope they get here soon. Ain’t shit on TV, homes.

Man 3: This is the most fucking work I’ve seen you do all week. Give me that fucking remote.

I could hear Sportscenter on, and the lighting of cigarettes or cigars. Somebody popped the cap on a bottle. The baseball scores came on and nobody talked. This felt like a different scene from the one I saw at the Shark Tank. If de Ramos was the third man in the room, and I believed he was, he sounded tense, edgy. A big deal was about to go down and he wasn’t going to rest easy until it happened. If that black bag was money, it looked awfully heavy. De Ramos was probably going to buy his product wholesale all in one shot. It had to be about dope. Had to be. Nothing but drugs would bring him out to an abandoned motel in the middle of the swamp. My palms started to sweat listening to the TV go on and on. I suddenly really wanted this de Ramos guy to go down. It was nothing personal. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but prisons had a lot of nice guys, too.
There was a knock on the door. I could hear de Ramos’s guys falling all over each other to answer. “Derek de Ramos,” came a drawling, backwoods voice on the other end of the door. The sound of two maybe three new sets of boots walking into the room.
“This is a long way to drive for a quick trade. You Florida boys got the heaviest, dampest weather I ever did see. Some say South is South, but this here Florida is wet and muggy to beat any Georgia weather, I declare.”
“You bring the package?” Derek asked, wanting the show back on the road.
“Got it in my truck,” said the man. “You got the money?”
It sounded like the duffel bag got slung onto the bed and someone unzipped it.
“Hundred thousand. Unmarked, nonconsecutive. Secured through our Cayman Island partners. That’s real green.” de Ramos said.
“It surely is,” said the man, appropriately laconic. He lit a cigarette and took a drag. “I’ve never seen so much of it all in one place before. Your boss must be real interested in this little gewgaw. Frankly, I can’t tell why.”
“What is it?” de Ramos asked, easing up now that the money was out.
“I was hoping to hell that you could tell me that,” said the man. “Ain’t nothing but this little black box we found on the back of this cigarette truck that we borrowed. Ain’t got no opening, ain’t got no writing on it. Got a matte like finish on it, doesn’t shine back at you at all. Looks like it could weigh forty, fifty pounds, but when you pick it up it feels as light as any ol’ empty cardboard box. Damndest thing I ever did see. We found it and word seemed to get around in an awful hurry. Not long after, your boss called my boss and gave us a great deal. Too great even. We’re happy to take your money, but I’d just as soon part with it for less. It ain’t got no use no how, so far as I can tell.”
“It can’t be killed,” said one of the other Southerners, in a deep gravelly voice.
“Well, that is true,” said the talkative one. “We thought we’d shoot at it awhile to see if we could get it to open, and also just to pass the time a spell. My Remington ten gauge didn’t budge it, and I was right up next to it. Same as my SKS, my AK-47, my .386 deer rifle, a whole mess of those M-80 fireworks the kids had around the house, my wife’s bird gun, it didn’t matter. The fuckin’ thing didn’t have but one fuckin’ scratch on it after all that firepower. We even had a good ol’ boy with an M-60 mounted on his jeep take a whack at ‘er and it didn’t do shit.”
“It can’t be killed,” said another Southerner.
“It can’t be killed,” repeated the talkative one. “Like I said, I don’t mind bein’ rid of the thing. I just want to know what it is ‘cuz I’m the curious type sumbitch. Did your boss say anything about it? Is it a safe? I’ll just bet that it’s a safe.”
“I don’t know what is,” de Ramos said. “My boss didn’t tell me. When I asked him he got pissed, so I backed off.”
“Well, it’s your money,” said the talkative one. “Hell, it don’t matter. So long’s I’m rid of the fuckin’, cussed, bloody gewgaw. As you can see it’s had a bit of an atrophying effect on the minds of my associates. I’m a bit long in the tooth myself, knowing that the thing is nearby. Can’t get a lick of sleep. It’s like I can feel it watching me, almost. ‘Course I got a prostate ain’t worth a damn anymore. Try as I might, I can’t get to piss like I used to could…”
“Let’s get a look at it, eh?” de Ramos interrupted.
“It’s your party,” said the other man. The door opened and I could hear the door of a car opening and shutting.
“There you go,” said the Southerner, shuffling back in.
“What’s this wooden box? I thought it was black,” said de Ramos.
“Nah, it’s inside of that. It’s a cherry wood cabinet I made special for it. I figured since you were paying so much for it, I’d give you something to keep it in. Besides, it sort of… needs something to keep it in.”
“Nice,” de Ramos said, sounding genuine. I could hear the clasps on the wooden box snap and the lid creaked open. There was a long pause. No one said anything.
“My god,” came an indefinable voice, “What is it?”

Suddenly, tires squealed in the parking lot. I could hear them without the microphone. Another car had pulled up and they weren’t being quiet about it. Then, a loud pulsing noise filled de Ramos’s room and I flung my headphones off and hit the floor just as I heard the sound of bullets slapping into human bodies and punching through the walls into our own room. I could hear them thumping into the bed and the side tables, carrying that cordite smell with them. Deb screamed. There was a few more rapid pulses, like someone finishing the job, and then the shooting stopped.
I looked over the other side of the bed and saw Deb lying on the ground with her headphones half off and sucking big gulps of air. She was holding a spot on her calf that was wringing out bright gushes of blood. My pulse was jacked but I stopped the shaking long enough to grab the camera and wheel around to the other side of the motel. I had to get a good look at the shooters. I got a mental flash of Deb getting out of the hospital, looking at the pictures I took of them, and pointing them out to the jury when we would testify in court and send every one of these fuckers to the chair. I hid behind a bush and killed the flash on the camera, hoping to Christ that the moonlight would be enough. Two white males, late twenties-early thirties, wearing black hooded sweatshirts and black gloves loaded a maybe 2’x 3’ sized cherry wood box into a late model, black, Cadillac Escalade truck. In the passenger seat, a white male, mid to late sixties, watched them load up with the window down. He took a huff on what looked like an oxygen mask before rolling up the tinted window. That was something. The truck tore down the road. Snap, snap, snap. I got it all. I couldn’t make the license plate from where I was at, but I was hoping it would wash up in the pictures. Deb was running out of time. I ran back to the room and put my hand on her shoulder. She was breathing heavy, and the blood was getting worse.
I leaned in and whispered, “They’re dead already, girl. Dead. I promise you.”
Through a mist of adrenaline I called 911 with maybe half a bar’s reception on my cell phone. Told them to send an ambulance right away for a gunshot wound. The girl dispatcher on the other end sounded scared. I told her that they didn’t need to rush to help the six other victims of a mass murder in the other room. They would just need to get their pictures taken before getting hauled to the county morgue.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Behind the Green Curtain: Ch. 3

So, the working title of this story is going to be Behind the Green Curtain. I'm not sure what green curtains have to do with the story, but I thought it had a good noir sound to it. Towards the end of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake, Marlowe is sapped from behind by an attacker hiding behind a green curtain. "Never trust a green curtain again," he thinks after coming to and discovering a dead body near him. All previous posts for this story now include the title, Behind the Green Curtain. Let the Darwinian ritual begin...

3.

The rest of the morning went by without incident. We got a couple more calls about the Letourney case but no other new business. My buzz wore off. We were getting close to Derek’s lunch time so I started packing the car. My MG was too flashy for stakeout work. We had this big, maroon 90’s Trans Am that we used for surveillance jobs. It had the big seats, power everything, all that you needed to sit for hours and hours and watch nothing happen. I brought my Nikon with extra film, the microphones, binoculars, and this old, gigantic reel-to-reel that we sometimes used for recording. It came in handy only if I could find any place to hide the damn thing where the marks couldn’t see or hear it recording them, and that was hard to do. Deb went home and changed into some skinny jeans and flats with a t-shirt. When she got back she put on the big headphones that went with the reel-to-reel and turned some dials to test it out, even though she didn’t really need to. She held the big earphones against her head, then pushed her glasses up her nose.
“It’s like I’m a cop in some Steve McQueen movie,” she said.
Kids these days. I went to Wendy’s and got us some sandwiches. I’ll bet I was about as hungry as Derek was by now. We were running late and the traffic on Carson was unusually bad, so we got to The Shark Tank around 2:15. We made Derek’s truck with the D LUXE plates right away. It wasn’t hard. It was jacked up twelve feet in the air and it had custom shocks, big tires, a loud tail pipe, KC lights, all that. There was even a long antenna that was probably attached to a CB in the cab. That took me back to the 70’s. All told, that truck had to have costed just over 60k. It looked like Derek had gotten redneck rich off of independent contracting, whatever that was. He could afford to pump the gas for that beast to take him to a fairly swank place like The Shark Tank every day, so he must be doing alright. We waited.
“I’m starving,” Deb said, pulling the foil off of her Chicken Grill. I tore into my Western Bacon. The Montezuma’s Revenge had given me a real yen for Western Bacon. The Shark Tank was one of those Southern, fifties style, bossanova, clambake looking places that still get built in Jacksonville from time to time. It was a big place with these high, triangular walls of white stone placed irregularly. There were a lot of young palms and flowers by the front door. There was a big red wedge sticking out of the side of the building that held an old style neon sign that you could see from space. Like an old drive-up diner, except the burgers cost sixteen dollars. Still, whoever built it had taste. It didn’t look quite like a straight knock-off of the In-N-Out Burgers that they have out west.
We still waited. I finished my burger and my Coke and French fries and I threw my trash into the back seat where it could keep some old wrappers from Burger King company. These stakeouts can be hard on the waistline, and I was living proof of that. Deb ate like I did most days but was still skinny as a pencil, the cute kid. She had her eyes glued to the entrance like a good scout. I took some exterior photos of the restaurant, just to be thorough. And we waited. A half an hour turned into an hour. An hour turned into an hour and a half, two and a half hours. It was an awfully long lunch for a guy who was supposed to be busy independent contracting. Maybe, the restaurant was where he did most of his business. Maybe, the restaurant was his business. If so, what did independent contracting have to do with any of it? If I sat there in the car any longer I could convince myself de Ramos was running the world out of The Shark Tank Grill. I was getting antsy. I got out of the car. I never was any good at stakeouts.
“What are you doing? You’ll blow our cover,” said Deb, getting out with me. I made my way to the entrance. Too bad I already ate. I’d have gone for a steak just then.
“App, you’re compromising the investigation.”
I stopped. “Debra, it’s been two and a half hours. If that guy’s cheating on his wife he’s doing it inside this restaurant. Now c’mon, let’s go see what we can get for happy hour.” I pushed open the heavy plate glass door and went into the chilled entryway. The restaurant was barely lit except for a strange blue-green glow that came from the fish tanks that they had instead of walls. Inside these tanks were schools of weird colored fish darting through these brightly painted coral and these crazy underwater carnivorous plants. Among the rocks lumbered two massive prehistoric sharks. One with jagged protruding teeth and lifeless, glass-like eyes, the other a battle scarred hammerhead that looked like he took down a few gulf coast fisher men before being incarcerated in this cheesy restaurant. I wondered how they got the big fish to keep from eating the little ones. Maybe, they just let it happen. Maybe, they just stocked the tanks every week and let the old Darwinian ritual take it’s course. Dinner and a show. Thrill to the savage underwater ballet of death, as live fish tear each other to shreds! Half priced chicken finger baskets for the kids. Finally, a waitress arrived.
“Two?”
“We’ll sit at the bar, please,” I said. She vanished, happy to leave us to our own devices.
“The lady and I will have Singapore Slings. Easy on the club soda, but go a little more on the cherry brandy,” I said to the bartender. He looked at me a moment.
“How ‘bout gin and tonics?” he suggested. I conceded.
“We’re gonna get spotted and it’s gonna come back to bite us in the ass,” Deb said.
“Deb, we look like tourists out to photograph Jacksonville’s aqueous fauna in it’s native habitat,” I said, pointing to the Nikon still strapped to my neck. “Relax and watch the little fishies swim. Salud.” We clinked our glasses.
“This place is deserted,” she said. “We didn’t get a picture of the guy, but I don’t see anyone else here besides us.”
“Very peculiar,” I said, rubbing the stubble on my chin. The place was deserted all right. Too late for lunch and too early for dinner. Nothing but two nosy tourists to keep the help busy.
“I’m gonna go find the men’s,” I said. I made my way back towards the kitchen and I went through the swinging doors. Loud Mexican music, and all the cooks and dishwashers stop what they’re doing to watch me walk on through. I go down a narrow flight of stairs that’s lit up by a loud red light like the inside of a submarine at the battle of Midway. I go through the door at the bottom. Inside, two Hispanic males, heavy built, with black collared shirts and grey Stetsons stand over a card table counting up a big pile of money, I mean a huge mountain of cash, bigger than a sleepy restaurant on Carson St. could do in a week. A third guy had his Tony Llamas up on an oak desk and he’s smoking a robusto that smells Cuban. Definitely, the supervisor type.
“Lo siento. Sabes, donde esta el bano?” I ask. The guy with his feet on the desk flashes a smile, gold tooth winking back at me. “Back out the kitchen and down the hall to the left, amigo,” he says. “Habla usted Ingles?”
“Gracias,” I say, heading back up the stairs with my tail wagging behind me. I sit next to Deb and put on a big grin.
“Have fun in the bathroom?” she says with one of her barf-out looks.
“I went downstairs and a guy who might be de Ramos was counting up a big pile of money with his two pals.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” she says. “They saw you? This is divorce work, App. We stay low and wait for the big reveal. That’s how we close cases and get paid. That’s what you told me, like, on my first day.”
“Deb, did you know you’re a beautiful young lady?”
“I’m serious. If he sees you following him in the car he’s gonna get suspicious and then we’re screwed.”
That quieted me down a bit. I guess I hadn’t thought this one through. If he did see us it could put the kibosh on the whole deal. He’d make us for dime store dicks in a minute if he sees my face in his rearview and Deb next to me taking snapshots of his plates. But what about the money? Granted, if Derek flopped with the other woman tonight, we’d get Gail the evidence and that would close the deal. We’d never find out what was really going on in that basement during slow hours at The Shark Tank Grill. I hoped to god that we could string this out another day or so, just to get a little deeper on this thing. Maybe, the money down there was legit, but my gut told me no. And my gut could be very persistent. If de Ramos had dirt on him I had to find out what kind and who with. Anything else was just divorce work.
Staying any longer in the restaurant was goofy. If those guys came upstairs they’d get a better look at me and make Deb. Then we’d really be screwed. I killed the rest of the ice water they called gin and tonic, and we paid the bartender and headed back to the car.
“Hide in the backseat, so he can’t see you when he comes out,” Deb said, and I obeyed. The backseat smelled like old burgers which wasn’t half-bad. Idly, I thought about how great another Western Bacon would be right now.
“Three males in cowboy hats and black shirts,” Deb said.
“That’s them,” I said. “Tell me what’s going on. I can’t see. What are they doing? Where are they going?”
“They’re going near the truck. Yep, they’re climbing into de Ramos’s vehicle. The guy driving is probably him. They’ve got a big black duffel bag with them.”
“Holy shit, that’s gotta be the money,” I said. “Where are they taking the money? If it’s restaurant money it would get picked up by the courier service in the morning and taken to the bank. Something else is going on here.”
“Yeah, they’re doing something with it. Otherwise, they’d just leave it in the safe in the basement.” Deb said, finally getting curious. We lurched over the curb and started to tail the truck.
“Don’t get too close to them Deb. Can you take any pictures of the truck? Here, take the camera.”
Deb drove like a maniac while trying to wield the giant Nikon in a discreet way. I knew she was steady, though. Her pictures always came out good. She was getting into it now. Her hands were tight on the wheel and her jaw was clenched in concentration. It was as close to a chase as you get in this business, and Deb was loving it. Hanging on for dear life in the backseat, I thought about how it was for me back when I was first starting out. Weaving in and out of civilian traffic trying to get that one scoop, that one sliver of a lead. Twenty years of that sure gets burned away in a hurry. Then, you’re in the backseat rolling around like so much fast-food trash.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Behind the Green Curtain: Ch. 2

Here's chapter two of a story that started on the previous post. I still can't think of a name for the novel, so I'll just put a label up that has the main character's name. For those of you that couldn't follow the dialogue for chapter one because of the author's annoying "style," this chapter has quotation marks for all of the dialogue...

2.

Monday morning I got into the office at a quarter to ten. Debra was at her desk finishing up an e-mail. She’s a fair skinned girl with a shorter, more sensible hairdo and eyeglasses one-size too large. She was dressier today than she normally was. She had on the white blouse with the little frills down her little bust, high-waisted slate skirt with the big buttons and those ribbed stockings that knew how to show off her legs. I leaned over the particle board desk and whispered to her, “You keeping it warm for me, Deb?”
“You’re late,” she said. “Keeping what warm?”
“The coffee,” I said, walking into the other room and throwing my stuff onto the brown sofa where the customers sat. I went to the ancient commercial machine that brewed the coffee and poured myself a cup. Then I sat behind my desk and opened the racing form. White Rabbit was in the third race today and it rained a little last night. Deb walked in.
“Florida Star called. They want a statement on the Letourney case,”
I waved my hand at her. “We’re not ready to talk about that yet. After his arraignment we can discuss where and when we did the surveillance. In the meantime, we have to protect our client. If the paper just needs background on the case, have them call Jacksonville metro.” I figured that she’d already done that, but I told her anyway. I lit up a Chesterfield.
“Any new business?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“There’s never any walk-ins before lunch,” she said, turning to go back to the front room. My office shared a wall with a thirty-year-old CPA. I could hear him mumbling some figures into his phone, stopping now and again to shuffle through some papers. Deb was my girl, but she helped the accountant out sometimes just as a courtesy. Lately, she was helping him a lot just to stay busy, because this was our slow season. Lately, there had been a few slow seasons. His fax machine beeped.
“Stop smoking in there,” she called from her desk. I was through with my third cup and ready to call it a day when she came in and asked me if I could take in a client. I shrugged my shoulders and put out my smoke.
“Send him in,”
“Her,” said Deb.
In walked six feet of my kind of woman: big, raven colored hair, broad hipped and ample busted. She had on jeans and calf-high leather boots with spike heels, not that she needed to be any taller. She had on a red vinyl jacket and a tight black top that flattered her enough, not that she needed any flattering, either. Hell, she was every guy’s kind of woman. It was enough to get me to take my feet off of my desk.
“How can I help ya,” I managed to say. She reached over my desk and gave me a firm handshake.
“Gail de Ramos. How do you say your name?” she asked pointing to the “private investigator” name plate that I had on my desk.
“It’s Appalachia,” I said. “Appalachia Cruz.”
“Is that Mexican?” she asked, like we both just got off of the same boat.
“Puerto Rican. My mom was half-white and she gave me that name because we lived in Tennessee when I was a kid, and she loved the mountains.”
“I saw your name when I was looking through the internet and I thought ‘what an unusual name?’ I’m gonna call on him.”
“Well, we’re glad that you did. How can I help you Ms. de Ramos?”
I gestured to the couch and she took a seat.
“It’s my husband, Derek?” she said, pausing a moment to look at the ceiling, letting the tears well up. I knew right away what this about, because it always happened this way. It was going to be the kind of case that I’d have wrapped up by the end of the week. Some guys don’t touch divorce work, but it’s all regular business to me. These people need just as much help and anonymity as the next joker, and who was I turn up my nose? Those tears were all a lot of easy money to me. I had long since run out of any money that was easy.
“I know that he’s seeing another woman,” she said. “He thinks I’m some kind of idiot, but I’m not. I can tell when something’s going on. A wife knows. Christ, we’ve been married for eleven years in June. Here, we’ve got two school-aged kids at home and he’s out sneaking around with some whore behind my back. Well, I don’t let people do that to me.”
“Ms. De Ramos,” I said. “Why don’t you talk to him? Let him know that you know what’s happening and that you want it to stop. Tell him that you want him to be honest. After eleven years you deserve that much.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said. “He’s a cheater, and I won’t be cheated on. Besides, I know that if I tried to talk to him about it, he’ll hit me or worse. He’s done it before, and I wouldn’t put it past him to do it again. I want a divorce, but I want to make sure that his children get the kind of future that they deserve. I want them to be protected.”
She started crying even more now. They always do when they start to talk about getting the right kind of money from a divorce. Still, I came over to her and handed her a box of tissues and I rubbed her back just a little. She smelled great.
“There, there Ms. de Ramos,” I said. “These things are hard on everybody. Having kids in the house only makes it worse. it’s not a good environment for them. Let us help you. We’re gonna help you through this…”
After a minute of this she wiped her eyes.
“I want to catch the miserable bastard in the act, she said. I want to find out exactly what happens and what he says when he’s with this other whore. I want to nail his ass to the wall.”
“If we’re talking around the clock surveillance here, Ms. de Ramos, I must warn you that this kind of thing can be very hard on your bank account.”
“I don’t care about that,” she said. “I have my own money. I want to make sure I have everything that I need when I get my day in court. I want a solid case, with no cops.”
This was just another trophy wife with a chip on her shoulder that showed up all too often in this line of work. A smarter me would’ve said no, would’ve told her to go home, call her sister, take a hot bath. Then, when this Derek gets home tell him that she no longer wants any part of this marriage. He’d get mad, sure. If he wanted to get physical make sure escape was easy, just have your bags packed and storm out of the house. Then, spend the night at her mother’s. Experience told me that 99% of these kinds of problems got solved with just that sort of sensible approach. Chances were good that it wouldn’t really help anyone in court to have me sneak around dingy motels, taking dirty pictures. I could only confirm what people already knew about each other. All of the animosity between them would come out in the courtroom anyway and any judge, worth his salt or not, could tell which party was more guilty than the other just by the way that they talked to each other. So why get an investigator involved?
But, as Gail sat there on my couch and told me her story through her stagy little sobs I knew that I’d do anything to help her out. It wasn’t about the money. For me, the job stopped being about money long ago. Maybe I fell for her a little bit that morning. Maybe I was soft. Maybe I was stupid. Either way, I was too hungover and tired and broke to tell the difference. So, what else was left but to get out and hit the old ball?
“Ms. de Ramos, it sounds like you have a very clear cut case for infidelity. Now what we want to do is catch him in the act with this other woman. We get the right kind of surveillance early on and it will go a long way in helping you with your case and you’ll get the kind of closure that you deserve. Will he be at home tonight or will he be away?”
“He said that he was going out to The Whiskey Mill tonight with the guys after work, but I know that he’s meeting her,” she said.
“In that case we’ll want to start keeping an eye on him right away. We can put a tail on him this afternoon and track him to where he’s really going tonight. We won’t be in touch with you, but you’ll get a full report tomorrow morning with photographic evidence of all of his activities for the evening. Where does your husband work, Ms. de Ramos?
She paused a moment. “He’s an independent contractor so his work is all over the place. He always eats at The Shark Tank Grill on Carson Street for lunch, though. He does that every day at two o’clock, no matter what. Does that help you?”
“Certainly does, that gives us plenty of time to find him at the restaurant and then follow him from there. What kind of car does he drive?”
“He drives a brand-new, black, Ford F-150. You can’t miss it. The license plate says D LUXE.”
“That’s a good start,” I said. “We’d like to begin today if it’s alright with you. We’ll start at The Shark Tank Grill and we’ll follow from there. Even if he doesn’t meet with this other woman that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something like that going on, so we’ll want to keep an eye on him until we’re sure. You’ll be given detailed updates on everything that happens and the ball will be in your court as far as how you want to act on that information. Now, if you’ve got more time I’d like to get all of your details down so Debra can start entering you into our database. Let me show you a table of the kind of billable hours you’re going to be looking at…”
She went through all of the motions and agreed to pay for whatever I put in front of her. She said that she trusted me, said that I came highly recommended, which I guessed meant that I had a nice looking name out of a handful of private detectives on some phone book website. This was very little work for the right kind of money. If all went well, Derek de Ramos didn’t have a cheating bone in his body and would turn out to be just a good ol’ boy who’d rather get drunk with his buddies than tuck his kids in at night. That way, Gail would only get more suspicious and want more surveillance. The billable hours would come rolling in until she decided Derek wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Then, she’d call off the dogs after reviewing my weekly statements. I knew that things never worked out that way but this time I hoped that they did. For her sake and mine.
I got everything that I needed to make the case and then I stood up and stuck my hand out again for another one of her hearty handshakes. She put her arms around me, pressing her big boobs up against my chest. I was buried in her hairsprayed hair and I could hear the squeaking of her vinyl jacket.
“Thank you so much for helping me Mr. Cruz. I know that with your help I can go back to living a normal life. If there’s anything that you need, just call me… Anything.”
After she left I gave her information to Deb and I told her that she didn’t have to look at people’s W-2 forms all afternoon if she wanted.
“Finally a case,” she said. “I thought I was gonna get cabin fever if I spent another day in here.”
“This might be an all-nighter, Deb. I hope you don’t have any plans, but if you do we can work something out.”
She shrugged. “I’ll have to cancel my date with Mr. Miniwhiskers. He’ll just have to watch reality TV and eat strawberry ice cream without me, then.”
I laughed and went back to my desk feeling like a king. A couple more cases like this for the month and I wouldn’t have to wash the office owner’s Mercedes to make the rest of the rent after payroll. Things were shaping up. I got the bag of Montezuma’s Revenge out of my drawer and I rolled up a reasonable sized joint. I flicked on the RCA I had in the corner and the CD got started. It was Louie, Louie; the Toots and the Maytals version. I sparked the joint and took a good pull, and I put my feet up on the desk to let it lay me back a little bit. It was good shit.
The CPA walked in, in his square-john skinny tie, big glasses, and collegiate hair.
“How’s it going, Mr. Cruz?”
“Never better,” I said, holding smoke in my lungs.
“Well, there’s no smoking in here, so…”