No doubt about it, I've been hitting the basil hard tonight. Half a sprig at the Tar Pit Club, quarter in the bathroom stall, half heading down the 101 on the drive over, two more waiting here in the car, and only now is the buzz crawling on, a muddled high that's got me jumping at my own tail. Scored it fresh tonight, a whole half-pound from Trader Joe's up on La Brea. Gene, the stock clerk, keeps a hidden stash for his special customers, and though it takes the occasional fin or two to stay firmly entrenched on Gene's good side, you haven't truly done basil until you've done Gene's Special Stash basil. Throws out the kind of buzz where you're wishing the high would come on and you're wishing the high would come on and you're wishing the high would come on and then you're there, and you're wondering how the hell it was possible that you ever weren't there.
This camera's hanging heavy about my neck, lens cap off, tugging
on me, begging for action. It's a Minolta piece of crap I bought for forty bucks, substandard in all specifications, but I can't do snoop work without a camera, and I didn't pull down enough gigs last month to get my good one out of hock. That's why I need this job. That and the mortgage payment. And the car. And the credit cards.
A pair of headlights breaks the darkness, creeping slowly down the street. Flashers, strictly orange. Rent-a-cops. I slouch in my seat. I'm short. I'm not noticed. The car drives past, taillights drowning the peaceful suburbs in a wash of pale crimson.
Inside that house across the way--that one, there, with the manicured lawn, the faux gas-lamp security lights, the pressed concrete driveway--is this month's potential windfall. In the old days, that'd mean a case capable of bringing in anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand dollars by the time Ernie and I threw in fees, expenses, and whatever the hell else crossed our minds as we wrote up the bill. Nowadays it means I'll be lucky to clear nine hundred. My head hurts. I fix up another pinch of basil and chew, chew, chew.
Third day of a three-day tail-and-stakeout operation. Sleeping in the car, eating in rat-infested diners, eyes sore from the strain of picking out details at a distance. For an hour and a half, I've been sitting in my car, waiting for the bedroom lights to click on. It's useless taking pictures of a darkened window, and firsthand personal skinny doesn't make the grade--distraught wives don't give a damn about what a PI sees or what a PI hears. We are persona non grata, big time. They want pictures, and lots of 'em. Some want video. Some want audio. All want proof. So even though I personally witnessed Mr. Ohmsmeyer giggling, cuddling, and generally making cutesy-face with a female who was neither his wife nor a member of his immediate family, and even though my gut tells me that he and the unnamed floozy have been tearing a sexual cyclone through that house for the last ninety minutes, it means crap to Mrs. Ohmsmeyer, my client, until I'm able to grab the shindig on a negative. It'd be my pleasure if they'd just turn on the damn lights.
A halogen pops to life in the living room, silhouettes shimmying into place behind gauzy curtains--now we're cooking. A grope to find the door handle, a simple tug, and suddenly I'm out of the car and stumbling toward the house, my costumed human legs betraying me with every step. Funny how the ground's twisting into knots like that. I stop, catch my balance, lose it again. A nearby tree arrests my fall.
I'm not worried about being seen or heard, but passing out on
the front yard in a basil-induced stupor could look bad come morning. Steeling myself, muscles flexed, legs bent ever so slightly, I flounder across the lawn, hurdle a small hedge, and hit the dirt. Mud splatters my pants; it will have to remain there. I have no money for dry cleaning.
Window's a low one, bottom of the frame just above my line of sight. Thin curtains, probably a cotton blend, lousy for photographs. The silhouettes are dancing now, shadowy figures moving back-two-three, left-two-three, and from the muffled sounds of grunts and growls, I'd say they're out of guise and ready for a full night of action.
Lens cap off, pulling focus, setting the frame to get a nice, clean shot. But not too clean--no divorce court's gonna grant a big settlement on the basis of an adultery pic with Ansel Adams composition. The illicit has to look illicit. Maybe a smudge on the print, a casual blur, and always, always in black and white.
Another light, this one in the hallway. Now I'm noticing features, and it's quite clear that the two lovebirds have shed their skins. Unfurled tails snake through the air; exposed claws draw furrows along the wallpaper. Passion is driving the couple to carelessness--I can even make out the female's mammalian guise tossed across the back of the sofa, knitted blond hair flung across the throw pillows, limp human arms dangling like ticker tape over the side. And moving through the hallway now, toward the bedroom, a pair of lumbering shapes both too concerned with libido to hide their natural postures. Gotta get to that bedroom window.
I'm able to make it to my feet before falling back down again, at which point I decide that crawling around to the side of the house might be the best option. There's dirt and mud and grime down here, but it beats elevating my head above my knees. Along the way, I pass a beautifully landscaped garden, and promptly throw up on the begonias. I'm beginning to feel much better.
Bedroom window, a large bay jobbie that is fortunately hidden behind the overgrown branches of a nearby oak. The curtains, though closed, have parted slightly, and it is through this crack that I may just get my best shots. A quick peek--
Mr. Ohmsmeyer, certified public accountant and father to three beautiful Iguanodon children, is fully out of his human guise, tail extended into proper mating position, claws retracted for safety's sake, a full set of razor-sharp chompers tasting the pheromone-stained air. He stands over his lover, an Ornithomimus of average proportions: nice egg sac, thin forelegs, rounded beak, adequate tail. I don't see anything outstanding there, can't comprehend whatever urges are driving Mr. Ohmsmeyer to break his sacred vows of marriage, but maybe it's hard for a lifelong bachelor to understand the passions that overcome married men. Then again, I don't have to understand it; I simply have to photograph it.
The shutter's not as whisper-quiet as I'd like, but with all the noises they're about to start making, it won't make a difference. I click away, eager to grab as many photos as possible--Mrs. Ohmsmeyer agreed to pay for whatever film and developing costs might be incurred during the process of my investigation, and if I'm lucky, she won't realize that she's also picking up the tab for some prints of last year's fishing trip up at Beaver Creek.
A steady rhythm is set--one, two, thrust, pause pause pause, four, five, retract, pause, pause, repeat. Mr. O.'s got a rough, hit-a-home-run-with-every-swing style to his lovemaking that I'm used to seeing with adulterers. There's an urgency to the process, and maybe even a little anger in that hip action. His scaled brown hide scratches roughly against the green Ornithomimus, and the fragile four-poster bed rocks and creaks with every insistent thrust.
They continue. I continue. Click click click.
This set of pictures will represent what I hope is the end of a two-week investigation that was neither particularly easy nor interesting. When Mrs. Ohmsmeyer came to me two weeks ago and laid out the situation, I figured it'd be your basic cheat job, boring as all hell but in and out in three days and maybe I could hold off the creditors for a week. And since she was the first lady to walk in my door since the Council rectification came through, I took the gig on the spot. What she didn't tell me, and what I soon found out, was that Mr. Ohmsmeyer presented a new wrinkle to get around in that he had somehow obtained access to a multitude of human guises, and had no shame in changing them as often as possible. Spare guises are permitted in certain situations, of course, but only when ordered from the proper source and with the proper personal ID number. Identity fraud is easy enough in this day and age without dinosaurs changing their appearances willy-nilly. Definite Council violation right there, no question, but I'm the last person who's gonna bring Ohmsmeyer up on charges in front of that goddamned organization.
So, sure--I could just stake out the house, place my rump in the car, and watch like a hawk, but who knew where the randy bugger would be throwing it down next? Tracked a guy once who liked to have sex on the girders underneath bridges, of all places, and another who only did it in the bathrooms of the International House of Pancakes. So though a stakeout was an option--and the family home was indeed where I finally ended up--there remained the problem of keeping a bead on Mr. O. But once I decided to trust my nose, my most base of instincts, it all fell into place.
He's got an antiseptic scent, almost grainy, with a touch of lavender riding the edges. Very accountant. Strong, too--I picked up a whiff at two hundred yards. So the next time he tried to pull the switcheroo, it went like this: Into a restaurant dressed as Mr. Ohmsmeyer, out of the restaurant two hours later guised up as an old Asian lady with a walker, but no matter--he left great clouds of pheromones lingering behind like a trail of bread crumbs, and I followed that olfactory path as he led his floozy back to this street, this house, and this bedroom window. Gutsy move on his part, trysting on the home front, but Mrs. Ohmsmeyer and the kids are at her sister's place in Bakersfield for the weekend, so he's safe from direct marital discovery.
Third roll of film spent, and it's almost time to close up shop. Just in time, too, as Mr. Ohmsmeyer's nearing the end of his fun and games; I can feel it in the grunts emanating from the bedroom, growing deeper, harsher, louder. Bass echoes through the house, vibrating the window, the two intertwined dinos flexing before my eyes, and the beat intensifies as the female Ornithomimus begins to howl, lips stretching, reaching for the ceiling, legs locked tight around her lover's tail, that sandpaper hide blushing with blood, sliding from green to purple to a deep mahogany glazed over with excess sweat, Mr. O. panting hard, tongue licking the air, steam rising from his ridged back as he turns his head to the side, teeth parting wide, and begins the last rise, preparing to fully consummate his lust--
A clang, behind me. Metallic. Scraping.
I know that sound. I know that clang. I know that familiar ring of metal on metal and I don't like it one bit. Forgetting my earlier lack of coordination, I leap to my feet and crash through the nearest set of hedges--screw Ohmsmeyer, screw the job--branches breaking as I push through, a crazed adventurer scything his way through the underbrush. Wheeling around, almost losing my balance as I make the turn toward the front of the house, I come to a stop midway between a lawn gnome and the most terrifying sight these eyes have ever seen:
Someone is towing my car.
"Hey!" I call. "Hey, you! Yeah, you!"
The short, squat tow truck driver looks up rapidly, his head seemingly independent of his neck, and cocks a thick eyebrow. I can smell his scent from thirty feet away--rotting veggies and ethyl alcohol,
a potent mixture that almost makes my eyes water. Too small for
a Triceratops, so he must be a Compy, which should make this conversation frustrating, if nothing else. "Me? Me?" he squawks, the clipped screech tearing at my ears.
"Yeah, you. That's my car. This--this here--it's mine."
"Yes," I say, "this car. I'm not illegally parked. You can't tow it."
"Illegally parked? No, you ain't illegally parked."
I nod furiously, hoping nonverbal cues will help. "Yes, yes, right. There's no red curb, no signs--please, unhook my car--"
"This car here?"
"Yes, right. Yes. That car. The Lincoln. Unhook me and I'll be going."
"It ain't yours." He resumes clamping the winch onto the front axle.
Swinging around to the passenger-side window, I reach in the glove compartment--gum, maps, shaker of dried oregano--and pull out the wrinkled registration. "See? My name, right there." I place the document directly under his eyes, and he studies it for quite some time. Most Compys have literacy problems.
"It ain't yours," he repeats.
I have neither the time nor the inclination to engage this dimwitted dinosaur in a philosophical debate as to the nature of ownership, so it looks like a little intimidation might be in order. "You don't wanna do this," I tell him, leaning into a conspiratorial whisper. "I've got some pretty powerful friends." A bald bluff, but what does a Procompsognathus know, anyhow?
He laughs, the little apefucker, a chicken-cluck guffaw, and shakes his head back and forth. I consider a bit of controlled assault and battery, but I've had enough trouble with the law in recent months without having to add another run-in to the list.
"I know 'bout you," says the Compy. "Least, I know all I gotta know."
"What? You've been--look here--I need this car to work--"
Suddenly, the front door to the house across the street opens up, and Mr. Ohmsmeyer, who must have reguised himself in record time, strides purposefully down the front walk. An impressive display of speed, considering it takes most of us at least ten, fifteen minutes to apply even the most basic human makeup and polysuit. For what it's worth, the D-9 clamp riding beneath the guise across the left side of his chest is unbuckled--I can see it even through his guise--but it's nothing a mammal would ever notice. His eyes dart back and forth, nervous, paranoid, searching the darkened street for any sign of his loving spouse. Perhaps he heard my hasty exit from the bushes; perhaps I interrupted his climax.
"The hell's going on here?" he grumbles, and I'm about to answer when the Compy tow truck driver hands me a sheet of paper. It reads byron collections and repossessions in bold twenty-point type, and lists their phone number and some sample rates. I look up, a host of indignant responses foaming to my lips--
To find that the Compy's already in the truck, revving it up, winching my car into place. I leap for the open cab, claws almost springing forth on their own--and the door slams in my face. The sonofabitch is sneering at me through the glass, his angular features almost dar-ing me to leap in front of the truck, to give my life for the life of my automobile, which in Los Angeles is not unheard of. "You pay the bank," he crows through the closed window, "you get the car." And with a shove of the Compy's scrawny arms, the tow truck hops into first gear, dragging my beloved Lincoln Continental Mark V behind it.
I stare down the street for quite some time after the tow truck's taillights have disappeared into the night.
Ohmsmeyer breaks my reverie. He's staring at my legs, at the mud splattered across my pants. A slow wave of anger carves a wake across his forehead. I grin, attempting to head off any ill will. "I don't suppose I could use your phone