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...


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.
“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...


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…”