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I staked out the motel.
I love saying that. It's what a tough PI would say. In a book, I mean. Or on TV. It's the thing they always have in the movies to show detective work is boring—the private eye staking out the motel. It makes me laugh, because I'm a private eye, and that's not boring. That's exciting. That's surveillance. I interview accident victims, and photograph cracks in the sidewalk. Compared to which, sitting in a car outside a motel really rocks.
I was on stakeout, and happy to be there. The dame—if this were a 40's noir movie she'd be a dame—came to my office and asked me to tail her husband. At least she said he was her husband—in this business you take nothing for granted. I certainly didn't. I got a retainer and I got it in cash.
The broad was named Julie. When I pressed her for a last name she didn't want to give it. Which was pretty silly. Knowing who he was, finding out who she was wouldn't be that difficult. Julie had short blonde hair, a little ski-jump nose, and knockers that wouldn't quit. I'm not sure what era that expression's from. And I'm not sure what it means. Knockers that wouldn't quit. As opposed to what? Knockers that would quit? I thought we were getting along great. Then her knockers quit, right in the middle of dinner.
Anyway, little miss steadfast knockers hired me to tail her husband and see if he was stepping out on her, and I was on the job.
Which was not going well. Not surprising, really. So few of my ventures go well. And I don't think it's me. I think it's just life. I think most ventures are doomed to failure. In the private eye trade, it's the nature of the business. We're attempting to provide an elusive and volatile product. There's so much room for error. Tail her husband to see if he's having an affair. All well and good if he's having one. A fruitless task if he isn't. How long do you keep it up? The answer, of course, is as long as the wife is willing to pay.
I was getting fifty bucks an hour, otherwise I wouldn't have been doing it. I suppose I should have asked for more. For my regular ambulance chasing job I get twenty bucks an hour. Fifty seemed like a whopping increase. A hundred seemed like the impossible dream. I suppose in retrospect it was a possible dream and I should have dreamed it. But the idea of charging somebody a hundred bucks an hour to sit in a car and do nothing just boggled the mind.
So far I'd been staking out the motel for three hours. That was a hundred and fifty bucks for sitting on my keister. A tough job, but someone had to do it, and if anyone was going to get paid for sitting on my keister it ought to be me.
The motel was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just off Route 4. I'd followed the guy there from Manhattan after work. Julie's husband was an insurance salesman for Aflac. She'd made a face when I asked if he knew the duck. I liked that. It meant at least that part of her story was probably true.
As for the rest of it, I was rapidly losing faith. I mean, three hours and no one's shown up? If the guy was meeting someone, where was she?
I was playing little mind games and trying not to pee. From detective fiction, you probably know that private eyes who stake out motels pee in bottles. What they don't tell you is where they get the bottle. It's not like you were going to look for it on the street, find some homeless man with huge plastic bags of deposit bottles and beat him to the next one. I can't see doing that somehow. Basically, you want your own bottle.
A Gatorade bottle is perfect. Only I don't drink Gatorade, I drink Diet Coke. And you can't pee in a Diet Coke bottle. You can't get your dick in. And if you could, you wouldn't admit it. So a quart Gatorade bottle's the ticket. Only problem is, you can't buy an empty Gatorade bottle, you gotta buy a full one. To get an empty bottle, you gotta drink the Gatorade. Only you don't wanna drink the Gatorade, because it'll make you pee. You have to drink it the day before. Only you don't have it the day before, because you didn't have the job the day before, you just got it today.
I wound up buying a quart of Gatorade and pouring it down the sink.
My cell phone rang.
I flipped it open, said, "I thought I told you not to call me on stakeout."
Alice said, "Stanley?"
"Sorry," I said. "Not funny?"
"Hilarious. Listen, are you about done?"
"I'm not even started."
"What do you mean?"
"I tailed a guy to a motel."
"He's there alone."
"This is a guy from Manhattan?"
"He drove out of town and got a motel room alone?"
"Where's the motel?"
"It's in Ft. Lee."
"What the hell's he doing in New Jersey?"
"Yes, it is."
"No one drives over the bridge to Jersey just to rent a motel room. Why in the world would he do that?"
"That's what I'm being paid to find out."
"How are you finding out?"
"By watching the motel."
"If you sit outside watching the motel all night what will you learn?"
"That he wasn't seeing anyone."
"Then what was he doing?"
"How should I know?"
"Doesn't your client want to know?"
"Then there's only one way to find out."
"She doesn't want to ask him. She wants me to find out for her."
"By watching the motel."
"You're going around again."
"You're leading me around again. What do you want from me?"
"I want you to do the job and come home."
"We need milk."
"Oh, for Christ's sake."
"What's the matter?'
"You can't go out and buy milk?"
"I could. But if you're coming home anyway."
"You don't know that. She could show up any minute."
"The woman he's seeing."
"We don't know he's seeing a woman. I gotta get off the phone."
"Why? Is something happening?"
"I don't understand."
She didn't. I don't know if it's true of all wives, or just mine, but an inability to see that they are driving their husband crazy seems deeply ingrained. Alice is a very bright woman, two steps ahead of me on almost any subject. Does she really not recognize the point at which braindrops start dribbling out my ears and I am incapable of following whatever train of thought she wishes to torment me with?
Anyway, I flipped the cell phone closed, prayed she wouldn't call back. Of if she did it would not be an aggrieved phone call, wanting to know why I hung up on her.
Another hour ticked by. A rather uneventful hour. The only item of note was I managed to fill the Gatorade bottle. I also managed to empty it. There was a storm drain on the corner. While I would have made quite a spectacle of myself standing there peeing into it, I had no problem whatsoever walking over there and pouring the bottle down it. Which was a big relief. I had been wondering what I was going to do if I passed my one quart limit. Which wasn't fair, since I wasn't drinking anything. I mean, the cops in the movies are always drinking coffee, with no adverse effects.
Now and then it occurs to me I'm a private detective. See, in my job chasing ambulances for Rosenberg and Stone I don't get a swelled head. I don't swagger around thinking, gee, I'm a big PI. I just go tripping up the stairs in crack houses in a suit and tie hoping like hell the junkies hanging out in the stairwells aren't going to mug me on the way. And they never do, because they think I'm a cop. But the underlying fear that grips me in such circumstances is enough to remind me rather forcibly that any resemblance between me and a TV detective is coincidental and not to be inferred. Nor is the fact that the case I'm investigating invariably involves someone falling down, breaking a leg, and wanting to sue the city of New York. That kind of takes the glamor out of the job. It's only when I get hired by someone else, not Richard Rosenberg, but some walk-in off the street, a person who has no idea who I am or what I do and doesn't realize they are putting their fate in the hands of someone barely competent to do the job—and I use the phrase barely competent generously, allowing for the chance that I might actually do something right—and I wind up doing the type of detective work you see in the movies or read in books. Only then do I get a forbidden thrill out of the fact that, at least for the moment, I'm a goddamned private eye.
This was one of those situations. As I say, staking out a motel is classic PI schtick. I mean, here I am, sitting on stakeout, waiting for the jane to show. To all intents and purposes, even Sam Spade couldn't be doing a better job. I was, at least for one evening, living the dream.
It didn't help, knowing I had to pick up a quart of milk on the way home.CHAPTER 2
The problem with my wife, and without years of psychoanalysis, I doubt if I could ever come close to understanding the problem with my wife, is that she thinks she's smarter than I am. I don't know where she gets this notion. Unless it's from the fact that she is smarter than I am, as anyone who's ever met the two of us can attest. Since she knows she is, she thinks she knows what's best for me. And it's hard to dispute the fact, because she is smarter than I am, and I've never won an argument with her in my life.
At any rate, after bitter experience I've learned that immediately following any conversation with her of any length, it would be wise to analyze what she said, and try to ascertain what nuances had escaped my detection. For, among other things, Alice is a master of the Socratic method, and leaves hints to steer me in the right direction, giving me the opportunity to believe I've come up with the ideas myself.
At any rate, I went over the conversation we just had to see if I'd gotten anything out of it besides milk.
Alice seemed to be gently ridiculing my stakeout. Which I was reluctant to admit, since my stakeout was the only thing that pleased me about the job. And there she was, asking me what I expected to accomplish. When I said ID'ing the woman, she asked me what I expected to accomplish if the woman didn't show up. I said the only way to find out is to ask him, and I said the client doesn't want to ask him. And what did she say then? I couldn't remember, exactly. Whatever it was it bothered me. It bothered me because it was one of those how-can-he-be-so-dumb comments. She was waiting for the penny to drop and me to make the obvious conclusion. All I had to do was figure out what Alice was trying to tell me.
Okay, if the woman never shows up I won't know who she is. Nothing wrong with that statement. Seems perfectly simple and straightforward. Let's break it down. The woman hasn't shown up, so I don't know who she is. That has two parts: the woman hasn't shown up; and I don't know who she is. Of those two statements, I don't know who she is was undoubtedly true.
That left the woman hasn't shown up.
I whipped out my cell phone, called information, got the phone number of the motel. I called it, got the manager.
"Route 4 Motel."
"Yeah. I want to rent a room."
"That's what we do."
"You got two cabins with adjoining doors?"
"Not at the moment."
"What do you mean by that?"
"They're all rented?"
"We only have two. One of them, both units are rented, the other one, just one."
"The one they're both rented—they staying together?"
"If they're rented together, they'll leave together."
"Well, they're not. So I can't help you. But we're not the only motel on the strip."
"You're the best."
"Yeah, right," the guy said, and hung up.
So. The motel had units with connecting rooms. If the husband rented one, what was to stop the woman he was seeing from renting the other?
That set up an interesting hypothesis. If the woman had entered the motel room by the elaborate ruse of using the connecting door from an adjoining unit that someone else had rented, then this meeting was more clandestine than your average, run of the mill tryst, in fact, something my client would really want to know. Because what Alice was underlining in her other not-so-veiled advice was that the only way to find out what the guy was doing was for my client to ask him. Which she wasn't going to do. Which should have ended the discussion. So why didn't Alice drop it?
My client did not want me to go to her husband's place of business, pretend I was interested in life insurance. She didn't want to do anything that would put him wise to the fact he was being tailed. Then he might get cautious and cancel his rendezvous with the woman. I hadn't done that, and the woman hadn't shown up anyway. That was no longer a concern. The situation had gone to hell. It was up to me to save it.
I got out of my car, slammed the door, crossed the street. Went up the motel driveway to unit seven. I took a breath, banged on the door.
There was no answer.
I banged again.
I leaned my head against the door.
It swung inward.
Just an inch, but enough to freak me out.
The door was open!
I didn't care what motivations, rationalizations, or fear of ridicule might be in play at the moment. I knew one thing for certain. I did not want to open that door.
I whipped a handkerchief out of my pocket, used it to grip the doorknob, pushed the door open.
There was no one there. Not surprising, what with no one opening the door. Still, I had seen the guy go in. He had to be there. Unless he'd climbed out the bathroom window. Or went through the connecting door to the adjoining unit. If he did, he could have walked the hell out of there with a hat down over his eyes and I wouldn't have known it.
What a series of depressing ideas.
That was probably what had happened.
I figured I'd better make sure.
I pushed the door closed with my hand in the handkerchief. The doorknob clicked. I wondered if that meant it was locked. I hadn't turned the doorknob, just pushed in on it, since the door was already open. No matter. It would open from the inside.
I walked around the bed and stopped short.
The body of a man lay face up on the floor. He'd been shot once at close range. A pillow had been used to muffle the shot. There were bloody feathers adhering to the side of his head.
I took deep breaths, tried not to throw up. If you ever find a dead body, that's a good tip. Throwing up is an amateur move. Cops can get DNA from vomit if you choose to leave, and they'll make fun of you if you choose to stay.
I calmed myself down, got my stomach under control. Took a look at the body.
He certainly looked like the man I'd been following. Of course, that man didn't have a hole in his head.
I hadn't decided if I was getting out of there or not, but before I did, I wanted to make the ID. I knelt down, fished in his pocket for his wallet.
The door was kicked in, and the room filled with cops.CHAPTER 3
They took me to the Major Crimes Unit, chained me to the wall. That's not really as bad as it sounds. I'd been chained to one in Atlantic City, back when I started this job, just around the dawn of recorded time. They hadn't gotten me for murder then. As a precedent, that had to be a very good sign.
A beer-bellied plainclothes cop, whose white shirt threatened to pop a button at the waist, was riding herd over me. Not that he needed to, what with me being chained and all. The guy was actually reading the New York Post.
The door opened and a plainclothes detective came in who looked as if he'd been sent over from central casting to play the role of a crooked cop. With my track record for judging character, I figured that probably meant he had a heart of gold.
He snapped his fingers at the fat cop, said, "Okay, Morgan, what we got?"
Morgan flipped open his notebook. "Stanley Hastings, suspicion of murder."
"Who'd he kill?"
Well, that was something. With everything falling apart, it wouldn't have surprised me if the guy turned out to be someone else entirely. But, no, that was the name my client had given me.
"Why'd he kill him?"
"I don't know. You have to ask him."
"How'd he kill him?"
"Where's the gun?"
Morgan held up a plastic evidence envelope.
My mouth fell open. I hadn't seen a gun at the crime scene, and it hadn't occurred to me there was one.
"He have it on him?"
"No. He kicked it under the bed."
"That's pretty dumb."
Morgan looked at me. "No, he's a smart boy. Probably didn't figure on being arrested. Thought he'd be long gone before the cops came."
Excerpted from Stakeout by Parnell Hall. Copyright © 2013 Parnell Hall. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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