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.