I don’t know if you’ve ever read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books before. McGee is sort of a private eye who lives in Florida on a houseboat he won in a poker game. While solving mysteries, he helps a lot of ladies in distress. The way he helps them is by fucking their brains out and letting them cook his meals, do his laundry, and scrub the deck of his boat for a few weeks. These women, McGee calls them “wounded birds,” are always very grateful that he does this for them.
To me, that’s a perfect world.
This is the story of what I did to get it.
My name is Harvey Mapes. I’m twenty-nine years old, six feet tall, and I’m in fair shape. I suppose I’d be better-looking if I exercised and stopped eating fast-food three times a day, but I won’t, so I won’t.
I’m a security guard. My job is to sit in a little, Mediterranean-style stucco shack from midnight until eight a.m. six days a week, outside the fountains and gates of Bel Vista Estates, a private community of million-dollar-plus homes in the Spanish Hills area of Camarillo, California.
The homes at Bel Vista Estates are built on a hillside above the farms of Pleasant Valley, the Ventura Freeway, and a really great outlet mall, about a quarter of the way between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. I say that so you can appreciate the kind of drive to work I have to make each night from my one-bedroom apartment in Northridge.
Most of the time, I just sit there looking at my black and white monitor, which is split into quarters and shows me three different views of the gate and a wide angle of an intersection up the hill inside the community. I’m supposed to watch the intersection to see if people run the stop sign, and if they do, I’m supposed to write them a “courtesy ticket” when they come through the gate.
I’d like to meet the asshole who came up with that.
It’s no courtesy to give one, and the folks who live here certainly don’t think it’s a courtesy to take one. Most of the time, they don’t even stop to get it from me; they just laugh or flip me off or ignore me altogether.
And why shouldn’t they? It’s not like I’m going to chase them down to the freeway or put a lien on their homes.
Enforcement really isn’t my job anyway. I’m there to give the illusion of security. I don’t have a gun, a badge, or even a working stapler. If there’s any real trouble, which there never is, I’m supposed to call my supervisor and he’ll send a car out.
The guys in the car, guys so inept and violent the police department wouldn’t hire them, are the “armed response team” the company advertises. If I were a resident, I’d feel safer taking my chances with the robber, rapist, or ax murderer.
I’m just the guy in the shack. The one who either waves you through and opens the gate, or stops you to see if you’ve got a pass. If you do, or if I get the homeowner on the phone and he says you’re okay, then I jot your name and license number in my ledger, open the gate, and return to my reading.
I do a lot of reading, which is the one big perk of the job and, truthfully, the reason I took it in the first place, back when I was going to community college. Mostly I read paperback mysteries now, cheap stuff I get at used bookstores, and it’s probably why I was so susceptible to his offer when it came.
I guess on some level I wanted to be like the tough, self-assured, no-problem-getting-laid guys I read about. I conveniently forgot that in a typical book, those guys usually sustain at least one concussion, get shot at several times, and see a lot of people die.
It was after midnight, but still early enough that I hadn’t settled into a book yet, when Cyril Parkus drove up in his white Jaguar XJ8, the one with a forest of wood and a herd’s worth of leather inside, and instead of going through the resident lane to wait for me to open the gate, he drove right up to my window.
We’re supposed to stand up when they do that, almost at attention, like we’re soldiers or something, so I did. The people who live at Bel Vista Estates are quick to report you for the slightest infraction, especially one that might imply you aren’t acknowledging their greatness, wealth, and power.
Even just sitting in that car, Parkus exuded the kind of laid-back, relaxed charm that says to me: look how easy-going I am, it’s because I’m rich and damn happy about it. He was in his mid-thirties, the kind of tanned, well-built, tennis-playing guy who subscribes to Esquire because he sees himself in every advertisement and it makes him feel good.
In other words, he was the complete opposite of me.
I’d see him leave for work every morning around six thirty or seven a.m., and it wasn’t unusual for me to see him coming home so late. But he rarely stopped to talk to me, unless it was to leave a pass or get a package from me that his wife hadn’t picked up during the previous shift. I’d only seen his wife, Lauren Parkus, once or twice, and when I did, it was late and she was in the passenger seat of his car, her face hidden in the shadows as he sped by.
“Good evening, Mr. Parkus,” I said, adopting the cheerful, respectful, and totally false tone of voice I used with all the residents.
I caught him glancing at my nameplate as he spoke. Each guard slides his nameplate into a slot on the door at the start of his shift for exactly this reason. You can’t expect the residents to remember, or care about, the name of the guy in the shack.
“Fine, sir,” I replied. “What can I do for you?”
He smiled warmly at me, a smile as false as my cheerful respect and admiration.
“Could I ask you a couple of questions about your work, Harvey?”
I figured there must be a complaint coming, and this was just his wind-up. In the back of my mind, I tried to guess what I could have done to piss him or his wife off, but I knew there wasn’t anything.
“What are your hours?” Parkus asked.
“And then what do you do?” he asked.
That question had nothing to do with work, and I was tempted to tell him it was none of his fucking business, but I wanted to keep my job, and it wasn’t like there was anything in my life worth keeping private. Besides, I was curious where all this was going and how I was going to get screwed in the end. At that moment, I had no way of knowing just how bad it would be or how many people would get killed along the way.
“I usually grab something to eat at Denny’s, since they serve a decent dinner any time and have good prices, and then I go home.”
“No, sir, I like to sit by the pool if it’s sunny, swim a couple of laps, maybe go to a movie or something. Then I go to bed around three in the afternoon, wake up around nine or ten, have some breakfast, and come back here for another day of work.”
“So, you only work this one job and don’t go to school or anything.”
Parkus nodded, satisfied. Apparently, I told him what he wanted to hear. I confirmed that I was a complete loser and that yes, his life was a lot better than mine.
“Could I meet you at Denny’s in the morning and buy you dinner?” he asked. “I’d like to talk over a business proposition with you.”
“Sure,” I said, too stunned to say anything more.
He drove up to the gate and waited for me to open it. I hit the button, the gate rolled open, and I watched him drive up the hill, wondering what he could possibly want from me.
I kept watching him on the monitor. I couldn’t do that with most residents, but Parkus happened to live on one of the corners of the intersection that I’m supposed to watch for those “courtesy tickets,” so technically, I wasn’t spying, I was just doing my job.
Cyril Parkus lived in a huge, Spanish-style house that had two detached garages out front and a couple of stone lions on either side of the driveway, each with one stone paw resting on a stone ball. I’ve never understood the point of those lion statues, or why rich people think it’s classy to have them. I’ve thought about buying one and sticking it in front of my apartment door, just to see how my life changes, but I don’t know what they’re called or where you find them and I probably couldn’t afford one anyway.
Once he went inside his house, the excitement was over and I was in for a long, restless night, waiting for daybreak, unaware that with the sunrise, my life would change completely.
At eight o’clock sharp, Victor Banos showed up for his shift. Excuse me, Sergeant Victor Banos. That Sergeant thing is real important to him, though the only real difference between him and me are two military-type stripes sewn on the shoulders of his uniform, which he earned by being the nephew of the area supervisor for the security company.
The stripes indicate that Victor gets slightly higher pay than me because he also serves as a training officer, which means he sometimes shares the shack with new recruits, showing them the complexities of writing license plates down in the log and watching the gate when you’re in back on the toilet.
What Victor doesn’t tell the newbies is how he takes kickbacks from painters, gardeners, plumbers, handymen, electricians, and other workers that he recommends to the residents, or that as the day-shift guy he always gets the best Christmas presents, because he’s the one guard the people who live there actually know.
I really wanted Cyril Parkus to drive up in his Jag, or maybe his Mercedes or Range Rover, and pick me up for that business meeting, just to see the look of jealousy on Sergeant Victor’s face, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen.
“Anything happen last night?” asked Victor.
He asked me that every morning, and every morning I told him nothing had, even though it wasn’t always true.
A year ago, in the street in front of the guard shack, I saw a coyote with a French poodle in its mouth. We stared at each other for a minute or two, then he ran off. Now the coyote shows up every few weeks to stare at me some more. I stare back. That night, just before dawn, he came back. It felt like he stared at me a lot longer this time, before loping off into the darkness.
I’m not sure if a coyote looking at me would qualify as something “happening” to Victor, who claims he once got a blowjob in broad daylight from a teenage girl who lives in the community. While she was giving it to him, her mother happened to drive up to the gate. Victor says he just smiled and waved her through, and neither mother nor daughter was ever the wiser.
I don’t know if the story is true, but all of us guards wanted to believe it anyway. It gave us one more thing to fantasize about during those long shifts in that tiny shack.
So, like always, I told Victor nothing happened, and trudged down the street to where my ’95 Nissan Sentra was parked, a discreet distance from the million-dollar front gate so as not to bring down the property values. They don’t want my car leaking oil on the pressed-concrete cobblestones in front of the gate, but they don’t mind the resident who’s kept a dead DeLorean rotting in his driveway for years, the tires flat, the car caked in layers of calcified bird crap. If it was a Tercel, or a Sonata, or a Maxima, or any other car with a sticker price under fifty thousand dollars, there’d be an angry mob on his front lawn lobbing rocks, torches, and lawyers at the house.
When I got to my car, I took off my uniform shirt, stuck it on a hanger, and hung it from the plastic hook in the backseat. That saved me having to wash or iron it for a couple days. I kept on the white t-shirt I wore underneath and drove down to the Ventura Freeway, took the overpass to the other side, and parked in front of the Denny’s that was beside the off-ramp.
I’d been going to the Denny’s since I started working at Bel Vista Estates, except for a month or two while they were remodeling the restaurant to look like a ’50s diner instead of the ’70s coffee shop it was before. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, since the ’70s were hot again and the ’50s craze was long dead, but that’s Denny’s for you. They’d just discovered stir-fry, too. Pretty soon they’d stumble on croissants.
I picked a booth by the window so Parkus wouldn’t have any trouble spotting me. I ordered a Coke and decided to give him ten minutes before ordering, because the smell of sizzling bacon was making me drool.
I was halfway through my Coke and ten seconds away from flagging a waitress when Parkus showed up, looking like a kid sneaking into a topless bar. Not that I know much about topless bars. Well, not lately, anyway.
He smiled nervously and slid into the booth, smoothing his silk tie as if the simple act of sitting down would’ve wrinkled it all up. I smoothed my t-shirt, just in case sitting down had ruffled me up, too.
“Thanks for meeting me, Harvey,” Parkus smiled. “I appreciate it.”
I shrugged. His suit, even if he bought it at the outlet mall, was worth more than my car.
The waitress came to the table and, while I ordered a T-bone steak, fries, and another Coke, he picked up the laminated menu and made a show of looking through it. I don’t think he was used to a menu with pictures on it. His discomfort already made the meeting worthwhile for me. He ended up ordering a bagel and some coffee.
As soon as the waitress was gone, he smoothed his tie again and smiled at me. I smiled back and fought the urge to smooth my t-shirt. I had no idea sitting was so hard on clothes.
“Harvey, I’ve got a problem and, since you’re experienced in the security field, I think you’re the man to help me,” he said. “I need someone followed.”
I sipped my Coke and hoped he couldn’t hear my heart beating. In that instant, I’d become the hero of one of those old Gold Medal paperbacks, the ones with the lurid cover drawing of a busty girl in a bikini wrapping herself around a grimacing, rugged guy holding a gun or a martini glass.
It could happen that fast.
Then I realized that no, it couldn’t. I wasn’t that guy. I would never be that guy. There had to be a catch to this.
“Why me, Mr. Parkus? You could probably afford to hire a big PI firm that’s got a bunch of operatives and all the high-tech stuff.”
“You’re right, Harvey, I could. But that would make it official, so to speak, and I want to keep this low-key.”
Meaning he wanted to go cheap and pay cash out of his pocket, rather than leave a paper trail. At least that was my uneducated guess.
“Do you really want the guard out front knowing all your secrets?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t know all my secrets.” Parkus smiled, trying to be jovial, lighten things up. “The truth is, Harvey, I want someone I know, someone I can talk to without creating attention. You can give me your reports as I come through the gate. No phone calls, no memos, nothing anyone can ask questions about. It’s certainly not going to look strange if your car is parked outside the gate. And the great thing is, you can watch her day and night without raising any suspicion. Hell, half the time you’ll just be doing your job, right out front where everybody can see you.”
He’d obviously given this a lot of thought, but it still didn’t make sense to me.
“Aren’t you afraid she’ll recognize me?”
“She’s only seen you a couple of times, late at night, in the dark. I doubt she’d recognize you in the daylight, especially out of context. Besides, you’re not going to get that close to her, you’re too good at what you do.”
Either Parkus was trying to flatter me, or he was an idiot. He had to know the extent of my surveillance experience was sitting in a chair, watching the gate open and close.
The waitress arrived with our food, which gave me a few minutes to get my thoughts together. I bought another minute or two pouring A-1 sauce on my steak and chewing on a few bites of meat. I’m glad I did, because tasting that steak cleared my head. Why was I trying to talk this guy out of hiring me? If he thought I was qualified for the job, what did I care? He was offering me the chance to play detective, which by itself was exciting, and we hadn’t even started talking about the money yet.
“You think she’s having an affair?” I asked.
He carefully spread some cream cheese on his bagel while he considered his answer.
“I don’t think so, but something is going on. She’s been acting strange, aloof, very secretive. She’s evasive and can’t account for her time during the day.”
“I see,” I said, even though I didn’t. I knew more about molecular biology than I did about women, and I don’t even know what molecular biology is.
It occurred to me that I didn’t really know anything about this guy and that my steak was getting cold, so I said: “I’m going to need some background. What can you tell me about you and your wife?”
So, while I ate my steak and fries, Parkus told me that he worked in international distribution of movies, selling them to TV networks overseas. His office was in Studio City, a straight shot east on the Ventura Freeway. He said it took him about forty minutes in good traffic to get to work, which is where he met his wife Lauren ten years ago. She was temping as a receptionist. One day he just stepped out of the elevator and there she was. Bluebirds sang. The clouds parted. Their souls kissed. It was as if he’d known her his entire life.
He made it sound a lot more romantic and personal than that, but I was too jealous to pay attention to the exact words. You get the gist of it. They were married six months later up in Seattle, where she was from.
Lauren Parkus didn’t work, and they didn’t have any kids, so she spent her time on what he called the “charity and arts circuit,” working on fundraisers to stop diseases, feed Ethiopians, buy Picassos for the museum, that kind of thing. And when she wasn’t raising money and organizing parties, she was in charge of decorating and maintaining their home, which he told me was practically a full-time job in itself. I thought about asking him to hire me for that job when this was over, but that would have been getting ahead of myself.
Nothing, Cyril Parkus said, was more important to him than his wife and her happiness.
“Even if she’s cheating on you?” I asked, and from the tight look on his face, I’d gone too far. Before he could say anything I’d regret, I kept talking. More like babbling. “I guess that’s a question you won’t be able to ask yourself until I find out what, if anything, is going on.”
That lightened him up a little. “So you’ll take the job?” Parkus asked.
“For one hundred and fifty dollars a day plus expenses.”
Jim Rockford used to ask for one hundred and twenty-five dollars a day, so I adjusted up for inflation. I probably hadn’t adjusted up enough, but anybody could see I wasn’t James Garner, or even Buddy Ebsen, and besides, it was more than double what I got paid to guard the gate.
“What expenses?” Parkus looked amused. I tried not to look embarrassed.
Parkus reached into his pocket, pulled out a thick money clip, and peeled off five one-hundred-dollar bills onto the table.
“This should cover the first few days,” he said.
It was Tuesday, so the retainer would carry me through until the weekend when, I figured, we’d review the situation and make new arrangements.
“When will you get started?” Parkus asked.
“Tomorrow, after my shift. I need to get some things sorted out today, before I jump into this.”
“Of course,” he replied. “Do you have a camera?”
That was one of the things I had to get sorted, but instead of admitting that, I just nodded.
“Then I guess that’s it, Harvey.” Parkus peeled off a twenty to cover our dinner, slid out of the booth, and stood for a moment at the edge of the table, looking down at me. “I really hope this turns out to be nothing.”
I really hoped it would take a week or so to find out.
“Me, too,” I said as if I cared, which, at the time, I didn’t.
He walked away and I ordered a slice of Chocolate Chunks and Chips, the most expensive pie Denny’s had. I could afford it now.
I love saying that, and I knew that I would, which is the only reason why I chose to live in that stucco box instead of the Manor, the Palms, or the Meadows. All the buildings in that area charged the same rent for a one-bedroom with a “kitchenette,” which is French for a crappy Formica counter and a strip of linoleum on the floor.
The Caribbean is built around a concrete courtyard that’s got a kidney-shaped pool, a sickly palm tree, a couple plastic chaise lounges repaired with duct tape, and a pretty decent Coke machine that keeps the drinks nearly frozen, just the way I like them. The whole courtyard smells of chlorine because the manager dumps the stuff into the pool by the bucket-load. Stepping into the water is like taking an acid bath.
The tenants are evenly split between retirees, Hispanic families, Cal State Northridge students, which I was when I first moved in, and young professionals, which is what I am now. It’s what losers like me like to call ourselves, so we don’t feel like losers.
Carol was already at the pool when I came into the courtyard around ten. She was a young professional like me. She was my age, worked at a mortgage company, and was probably a little too chunky in the middle to be wearing a two-piece bathing suit, but I certainly wasn’t going to say anything. She’d lived in the Caribbean about as long as I had and, when she was really lonely and desperate, we’d fuck sometimes. She wasn’t lonely and desperate nearly as often as I’d like. It wasn’t love, but we’d loaned each other money, taken care of each other when we were sick, and, like I said, fucked a few times, so you could say we were good friends.
You’re probably wondering how this squares with my earlier comment that I don’t know anything about women. I didn’t really consider Carol a woman, for one thing. I mean, she was definitely female and she was straight, but to me a woman was more beautiful, more mysterious, more aloof than Carol. A woman was unattainable, and Carol was eager to be attained, only by a better guy than me, which I didn’t blame her for. That isn’t to say I understood her. I’ve known Carol six or seven years and she still doesn’t make sense to me.
So, like I said, Carol was by the pool when I came in. I was carrying a Sav-On bag, because on the way home I’d stopped to buy myself three disposable cameras, some candy bars, two six-packs of Coke, a spiral notebook, and a couple pens. I even treated myself to the latest Spenser novel at full cover price. That’s how good I felt.
I sat down on the chaise lounge next to her and set my bag on the ground between us.
“You know what’s in this bag?” I asked her.
“This is not like the time you bought me some magazines with the idea I’d look in the bag and also see the big box of Trojans and think you were some kind of stud and be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to hump you.”
“That was years ago. When are you gonna forget about that?”
“Never,” she replied. “Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m sunbathing on a weekday, instead of going to work?”
“No, I want you to ask me what’s in this bag.”
She sighed. “Okay, what’s in the bag?”
“My private eye kit.” I leaned back and smiled. “Everything I need for long-term surveillance.”
She leaned over and peeked in the bag. I couldn’t help stealing a look at her cleavage.
“Snickers bars and a paperback.” Carol leaned back on the chaise again, giving me a look. She knew where my eyes had been. “Isn’t this the same as your security guard kit?”
“It’s a little different,” I said. “For one thing, this job pays one hundred and fifty dollars a day plus expenses.”
It was an awkward segue, but I was eager to get to the big news. I took out the hundreds and waved them in front of her face. That made her sit up again.
“Where did you get that?”
“The only retainer you know anything about is the one you wore in high school, so you can drop the bullshit. Are you doing something illegal?”
I didn’t think so. And after I told Carol all the details, neither did she. But she did have questions.
“What do you know about detective work?” she asked.
“What’s there to know? All I have to do is follow her,” I replied. Besides, I intended to brush up on my skills that night. There was a “Mannix” marathon on TVLand I was going to watch, and I’d have the new Spenser book to refer to during the lulls in my surveillance.
“So you’re going to keep working your midnight-to-eight shift and follow her during the day.”
“If you’re supposed to watch her all day, when are you going to sleep?”
“At one hundred and fifty dollars a day plus expenses, who needs sleep?”
“This should be interesting.”
“Which is why I’m doing it. When was the last time my life was interesting?”
Carol smiled. “You have a point.”
She wasn’t lonely or desperate or in the mood to help me celebrate in the lusty way I thought we should, so I went to my apartment to prepare for my new job.
My apartment is a second-floor unit with a “lanai,” which is Hawaiian for a tiny little deck you can barely fit a lawn chair on, and has a spectacular view of our dumpster, which is usually left wide open. So I use the “lanai” to store stuff, like a bike I haven’t used in four years, a Hibachi grill, and that lawn chair I mentioned.
My place is decorated in a casual style I like to call Thrift Shop Chic. Most of my furniture comes from garage sales and hand-me-down stores, with the exception of my bed, which is just a mattress and box spring on a wrought-iron frame. I practically live on this big, black, leather couch I bought at the Salvation Army for a hundred bucks that’d been softened up and creased all over by years of pounding by heavy butts long before I got it.
I’ve also got a bunch of those white particle-board bookcases, the kind you put together with those little, L-shaped, screw-in-tool thingies that come in the box. Most of the shelves are sagging under the weight of books, videos, and stereo components, but it doesn’t bother me as long as the bookcases don’t collapse.
I took a frosty can of Coke from the fridge, a bag of chips from the cupboard, and settled on my couch, put my feet up on the coffee table, and turned on the TV set.
For the next six hours, I watched “Mannix” reruns on TVLand and here’s what I learned.
Getting shot in the arm, which happened to Joe at least three times that afternoon, is really no more painful or debilitating than pulling a muscle. A few days with your arm in a sling and you’re fine. You can also relieve the pain of a concussion by just rubbing the back of your neck and shaking your head. However, you can probably avoid a concussion altogether, if before you walk through a door you peek around the corner first; that way, no one can surprise you with a karate-chop to the back of your neck.
Picking a mobster’s henchmen out of a crowd isn’t really too hard. They are usually the grimacing, muscle-bound guys who look very uncomfortable in their turtleneck sweaters and blazers. They will also be staring at you menacingly, which is a good tip-off about their intent.
I also learned some important pointers about following people. If you’re a private eye, to follow someone driving, you just have to stay one car behind your target; and to tail him walking on the street, stroll casually ten yards back and pretend to window-shop and you’ll never be noticed. However, if you’re a private eye and someone is following one car behind you, you will spot him immediately; and if anyone is shadowing you while you’re walking on the street, you can usually see him by checking out your reflection in a store window.
It’s a good idea for a private eye to drive a sports car of some kind, especially if you want to get away from someone by driving around corners real fast, your tires screeching. Intelligent, well-educated criminals drive Cadillacs or Lincolns, psycho killers and thugs drive Chevys or pickup trucks, while just about every law enforcement officer thinks he will be inconspicuous in a stripped-down, American-made sedan with a huge radio antenna on the trunk.
If you have a female client, no matter what she says, deep down she wants to fuck you. The same goes for any other woman you meet, especially waitresses, secretaries, nurses, and strippers. Apparently, nothing is sexier to a woman than a private eye doing his job. That bit of information was especially nice to know.
Hey, I’m not some kind of cartoon character. I knew “Mannix” wasn’t the real world, that if, say, someone shot me in the arm, I’d probably piss myself and start weeping in agony, then spend the next few weeks zoned out on painkillers I couldn’t afford. But I figured any knowledge was better than nothing at all, and that I couldn’t help but pick up a few useful pointers from watching a private eye, even a fictional one, at work.
Maybe they used real private eyes as technical advisors on the show. Who knows?
By three p.m. I thought I was ready for bed, but it turned out I was too keyed up to sleep, even though all I’d done was watch TV and eat Cheetos all day. So I put my favorite whack-off tape, The Wild Side, into the VCR and went back to the couch.
The tape was already cued up to the scene where Anne Heche and Joan Chen have simulated, lesbo sex, but in light of Anne’s later frolicking with Ellen DeGeneres, I like to think her lust was real. Though you got to wonder if Anne had made it with Joan Chen, why she would want to rub herself against Ellen DeGeneres. Put Joan and Ellen side-by-side naked and, whether you’re a man or a woman, the choice is obvious.
Anyway, I watched the tape, jerked off, and thirty seconds later, I was ready for bed again. This time, I had no trouble falling asleep.
I dreamed I was Joe Mannix, wearing the checked blazer and all, tooling around in a Dodge Charger convertible with Joan Chen in the backseat, her shirt open to her crotch.
Even asleep, I knew it was just a dream, but I also thought that it could actually happen.
The drive from Northridge to Camarillo takes you out the northwestern end of the San Fernando Valley, past the wealthy, four-car garage suburbs of Calabasas, Agoura, Thousand Oaks, and Westlake Village, and down the Conejo Pass into Pleasant Valley.
Around Camarillo, the number of Mercedes, Volvos, BMWs, and Range Rovers thins out and you see a lot of farm workers crammed into shitcans like mine. The area between Camarillo and Santa Barbara is filled with farms, and it takes a lot of low-paid, mostly Hispanic workers to do all the planting and picking.
The area is considered far enough from real places like LA and Santa Barbara that there are two big outlet malls for travelers who find themselves caught in middle of the two-hour journey between the two cities with no place to shop.
Above all of this, looking down on everything like the imperious Greek gods in those old Hercules movies, are the people who live in the gated communities on the graded peaks of Spanish Hills.
On the off-chance that those farm workers ever rise up in violent revolt and storm the hills, they’ve got to get past the guard in the shack first.
I like to think that the terrifying prospect of rousing me from reading a paperback is what keeps them in line.
The night before my first day as a detective went fast. The only memorable moment was the flash of breast I saw while staring at the scrambled picture of the cable porn channel on TV. That was another perk of the job I forgot to mention.
I practically ran out of the shack when Victor showed up in the morning. I didn’t want to get caught by surprise, just in case Lauren Parkus decided to meet her lover promptly at eight a.m.
I hustled down the street to my car, which was parked beside the grassy embankment, and changed into a polo shirt and sunglasses as a disguise. As soon as I was in the car, I stripped off my uniform pants and put on jeans. Actually, that was a lot harder than it sounds, and I was really afraid Lauren Parkus would pick that moment, while my feet were up against the dashboard and I was struggling with my pants, to leave for her erotic romp.
In fact, she was taking so long to get going that I was getting mightily pissed. I was eager to begin detecting, and she was sapping my enthusiasm by not doing her part.
I sat there for two hours, my hands on the steering wheel, staring at the gate, playing out various surveillance scenarios in my mind, and I got so into it that when she finally drove out in her Range Rover, I thought it was an illusion.
I resisted the temptation to stomp on the gas pedal and instead showed my calm professionalism by easing into traffic, not that there was any. I was the only other car on the road, so I stayed way back behind her until we got down into the sprawl of shopping centers and gas stations.
The traffic was pretty heavy down there, so I hesitantly let two cars slip between us. It was a good thing she was driving such a high car, or I would have had a hard time following her.
She turned into the Encino Grande Shopping Center and parked right in front of a place called The Seattle Coffee Bean. I parked in one of the aisles so I could watch her inconspicuously. Lauren went inside and ordered something. I deduced it was coffee.
My hand was shaking as I made a notation in a notepad of her activities. All she did was buy a cup of coffee and my heart already was pounding with excitement. If this kept up, I figured I’d have a stroke when her stud finally appeared.
She sat down at a table outside and took her time sipping her coffee. It gave me a chance to really look at her for the first time.
Lauren Parkus was in her early thirties, with long, black hair and the same lean physique and tennis tan as her husband, which made sense to me. They probably worked on it together, unless she was bonking her tennis pro. I figured I’d soon find out which it was.
Her face had a sculpted beauty, as if God was concentrating very hard while he was working on her slender nose, her sharp cheekbones, the gentle curve of her chin, and her long, graceful neck.
She was clearly deep in thought over something, giving her a pensive expression that did nothing to dull the startling intensity of her eyes, which I could feel from twenty yards away.
She wore a large, loose-fitting blouse that was casually unbuttoned down to the swell of her perfect breasts. And I mean perfect, the kind of breasts you only see on women on movie posters, book covers, and comic books.
I picked up one of the disposable cameras and snapped a picture. It wasn’t for Cyril Parkus. It was for me.
It took her a half an hour to finish her coffee; then she drove off across the parking lot. I was right behind her, I mean literally, as she stopped for traffic at the exit. She glanced into the rearview mirror and I ducked down, as if searching for a station on the radio.
When I looked back up, praying that she hadn’t seen my face, Lauren had already shot into traffic on Las Posas. I tried to follow, but nobody would let me in. It was bumper-to-bumper and the space between the cars and the sidewalk was too narrow for me to fit into. I watched in desperation as she sped through the intersection and on towards the freeway onramp.
If I didn’t get through the intersection before it turned red, she’d hit the freeway and I’d never catch up to her.
I swore, turned the wheel, and hit the gas, speeding with half my car on the road, the other half on the sidewalk, the underbelly of my Sentra scraping the curb and spraying sparks as I went. But Lauren didn’t see any of that; her Range Rover had already disappeared down the embankment to the freeway.
I made it through the intersection as the light turned yellow, and raced onto the freeway in time to see Lauren’s Range Rover about five cars ahead of me.
I weaved through cars until I’d cut the number of cars between us down to two, then I relaxed, settling back into my vinyl seat, noticing for the first time that my entire body was drenched with sweat.
I’d almost lost her and yet, the truth is, I loved every desperate moment.
I spent the next forty-five minutes on the freeway into Santa Barbara torturing myself, wondering if I’d screwed up and she’d done all that on purpose to lose me.
But if Lauren had, she wasn’t making it too hard for me to keep up with her.
Then a Highway Patrol car roared up behind me, tailgating me for a while and giving me something new to worry about. I convinced myself he could tell I was stalking this beautiful woman and he was just waiting for back-up before arresting me. But after a mile or two, he got off the freeway and let me go back to torturing myself over previous events.
The further north we got, the foggier and cooler it got. It’s what my mother used to call “beach weather.” She liked it misty and gray like that. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s one of the things I might have asked her, if she hadn’t walked out the door one morning when I was fourteen and decided not to come back.
That’s around the time I started reading mysteries. I began with Encyclopedia Brown, which I liked for the tough puzzles and the simmering erotic tension. I kept waiting for him to cop a feel from Sally, the prettiest girl in the fifth grade and the only kid in school who could kick the shit out of that bully Bugs Meany, but if it ever happened, I missed it.
I went from Encyclopedia to the Hardy Boys, and then at a garage sale I stumbled onto a pile of ratty, old paperbacks by Richard Prather. He wrote about Shell Scott, a detective who, like me, had a twenty-four-hour-a-day hard-on and looked like a freak. Shell was six feet tall with white hair and white eyebrows. I was gawky and covered with zits. He got laid all the time by women he called tomatoes. I masturbated a lot.
When I wasn’t reading or jerking off, I watched PI shows on TV. We had a great UHF station that showed all the old stuff, everything from “77 Sunset Strip” to “Cannon.” The PIs on The Strip, they were cool cats, even though one of the detectives was played by an actor named Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. If a guy with a name like Efrem could fool people into thinking he was cool, maybe Harvey Mapes wasn’t such a geek name after all. Private Eye Frank Cannon was an ugly fat-ass, but I admired how he got the job done anyway. I thought it’d be great if in one episode he overpowered a hitman by sitting on him, but I don’t think he ever did.
Lauren took the first off-ramp into Santa Barbara, where Kinsey Milhone lives, though she calls it Santa Teresa, which doesn’t fool anybody. I followed Lauren as she drove along the broad beach and I wondered which of the hotels she’d end up at. She had her choice of meticulously maintained, retro-style motels or one of the lush, expansive resorts. They were all pricey and only a few stories tall to maintain Santa Barbara’s friendly village ambience and ensure unobscured views of the offshore oil rigs.
I figured she’d choose a motel, because even at three hundred fifty bucks a night, there was still a certain dirty charm to a room you could drive up to.
But she surprised me by driving past the pier, and the turn into the downtown shopping district, and heading into the beach parking lot instead. She paid her two bucks and found a spot. I did the same, noting the expense, the time, and the location in my notebook and admiring my own professionalism.
Lauren got out of her car, took off her shoes, and walked out on to the sand. I stayed where I was and just watched her.
She walked down to the shore and strolled with her bare feet in the surf. I waited expectantly for the illicit rendezvous and two hours later, my bladder bursting, it still hadn’t happened.
Lauren just sat on the sand, staring at the waves. For me, looking at all that churning surf only made my predicament worse.
I kept glancing at the restrooms, trying to gauge how long it would take me to run inside, piss, and come back out, and if she could disappear in that time. I was never good at math or geometry.
I decided to take a chance.
I bolted out of the car and ran into the restroom, which was thick with flies and the fetid stench of urine. I hurried up to a urinal and pissed. It seemed to take forever. And while I was doing it, I became aware of a homeless man sitting on the floor in a corner, staring at me furiously, like I’d broken into his house and started pissing on his rug.
As I zipped up my fly, I smiled at him and actually said I was sorry. I ran out, took a deep breath of fresh air, and looked at the beach.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d only been away a few seconds and she’d disappeared. I looked for her car. It was still there, so she couldn’t have gone far.
Unless she got into her lover’s car.
I told myself there wasn’t time for that to happen. She’d been down by the water, she couldn’t have gotten back to the parking lot that quickly.
I ran out towards the water, looking everywhere for her as I went.
And that’s when I almost stepped on her.
She was right where she was supposed to be, only now she was lying down, which is how I’d missed her. I quickly spun around, turning my back to her, and hoped for the second time that day that she hadn’t noticed me.
I walked quickly back to my car, got inside, and gave some thought to how to avoid pissing on duty in the future.
I passed the time reading the Spenser book and noticed he never had bladder issues on the job, which I now knew from experience wasn’t very realistic. I was thinking about writing a letter on the subject to the author when Lauren got up off the sand and trudged back towards her car.
I made a notation of the time and started my car up in anticipation.
As Lauren got closer, I could see the sadness on her face. Perhaps it was longing for the lover who never showed up. I briefly considered volunteering to take his place, but ethically, it just wasn’t the right thing to do. I also lacked the courage, the looks, and the charm to pull it off. But there was a light, cool breeze buffeting her blouse, making her nipples big and hard, so I couldn’t help at least fantasizing about the possibility.
I took another picture. This one was also for me.
She got in her car, backed out slowly, and drove off. I took it easy and let a couple cars pass before leaving the parking lot and following her down the street the way we came.
It was going just fine until we were nearly at the freeway. She went through the intersection and the light turned yellow on the car that was between us.
There was only one way to stay with her.
The only thing I really remember about the accident was the sound of the impact when the van clipped me.
I don’t know what it felt like when the car rolled over all those times, or what I was thinking when I unbuckled my seat belt, crawled out of my upside-down Sentra, and vomited on the pavement.
What is real clear to me was the terror on the face of the van’s Mexican driver as he slowed to look at me, and then the sound of his tires squealing as he sped off, dragging his front grill along the pavement.
In a strange way, it was my lucky day.
The driver of the van that hit me must have been an illegal alien or a wanted criminal or something, because he didn’t stick around to accuse me of running the red light and causing the accident.
That wasn’t the only break I got.
The witnesses were totally unreliable. Because the driver of the van fled, in their minds that made him the bad guy, even though they must have seen me run the red light. They resolved the conflict between what they saw and what really happened by simply changing what they saw.
I helped things along by looking as pitiful and pained as I possibly could, hoping to appeal to their compassion and gullibility.
To the police, I was the poor victim of a hit-and-run driver and he became the asshole who hit me. Obviously, I didn’t say anything that would change their minds, but now I know what eyewitness testimony is really worth.
I also made sure to describe the Hispanic driver as black, and say, with absolute certainty, that his Chevy van was a Ford. The last thing I wanted the police to do was find the guy, and the witnesses helped me again. One witness described the driver as Asian, another saw a white woman, and no one knew what kind of van it was.
The paramedics insisted that I go to the hospital, but I didn’t want to make a bad day worse by adding a medical deductible to my problems. Besides, all I had were a few cuts and bruises, which they’d already doctored up just fine. So I swallowed four Advils, thanked them, and walked away to inspect what was left of my Sentra.
There was no question that my car was totaled. I was insured, but I had a thousand-dollar deductible to keep my rates down. I doubted my car was worth much more than two grand, and with only seven hundred eighty-eight dollars in the bank, I saw financial disaster in my future.
I borrowed a cop’s cell phone and called my insurance agent, and discovered my luck was still holding. The deductible didn’t apply in this situation. The insurance company had a deal with a body shop in Santa Barbara; all I’d have to do is have my car towed there and they’d take care of everything, even give me a free rental until they could cut me a check for the negligible market value of my heap.
I figured if I kept working for the next week or so at both jobs, I could still come out of this ahead financially and with a car no worse than what I had before.
So, while I waited for the tow truck, I salvaged my uniform, cameras, and notebook from the car and tried to figure out how I was going to hide this huge fuck-up from Cyril Parkus.
I glanced at my watch. It was five twenty-five.
Lauren Parkus could be anywhere. Fucking her lover or robbing banks or hopping a jet to Rio, for all I knew.
Cyril Parkus was going to want a complete account of his wife’s activities, and if I made something up, I stood a good chance of being caught.
What would happen, for example, if I reported that she went to the movies at three, but when Cyril Parkus got home he discovered his wife had bought a couple stone lions for their back door? Her shopping trip wouldn’t be in my report and I’d be outed as a moron.
The last time I’d seen Lauren was two hours ago, getting onto the southbound Ventura Freeway. If I was very, very, very lucky, she went straight home, but I didn’t hold out much hope.
It was after eight by the time I got out of Santa Barbara in my rented Kia Sephia, Korea’s idea of an automotive practical joke. I was certain if I hit a speed bump too fast, I would be killed instantly.
Even so, I drove the car as fast as it would go, managing to nudge the speedometer all the way up to fifty-six miles per hour without the engine bursting into flames and covering the freeway with bits of charred hamster.
All in all, my first day doing detective work wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it would be. There was no glamour. There was no action. And the only nipples I saw were from a distance. It was a complete disaster. Even so, I was exhilarated in way I hadn’t been since, well, since ever.
I knew I wasn’t going to have time to go home before starting my shift, so I stopped at Target and reluctantly parted with fifty bucks. I bought a fresh shirt and pants, a battery-operated alarm clock, a bunch of snack food, and some personal hygiene stuff.
I stopped at a Chevron station and cleaned myself in the restroom. I shaved, brushed my teeth, and washed my hair in the corroded sink. I slathered Arid Extra Dry Ultra Fresh Gel under my arms, shook the broken glass off my uniform, and put it on, hoping no one would notice in the dark just how wrinkled and dirty it was.
Exuding ultra-freshness, I got back in my car and drove to Spanish Hills, parking down the block from Bel Vista Estates. I set the alarm clock for eleven fifty, put it on the dash, and closed my eyes.
The alarm rang on time. I swiped it off the dash and stuck it in the glove box, which I discovered was roomier than the trunk. I made a mental note to myself to scratch the Kia Sephia off my list of possible new cars.
Every part of my body ached from the accident and within seconds of waking up, my stomach started cramping with anxiety. I still had no idea what I was going to tell Cyril Parkus. I didn’t want him to find out I was incompetent, at least not until I got more of his money, which I needed more now than ever.
I got out of the car, told myself I was as ultra-fresh as I smelled, and walked up to the shack to relieve Clay Denbo, sort of a younger version of me, only black and two hundred pounds heavier. I weight one ninety, so you get the picture.
Clay worked part-time while going to community college in Moorpark, the way I did, only I went to Cal State Northridge, which is a better school.
He was thinking of either becoming a radio psychologist or a parking concepts engineer. Redesigning the layout of parking lots to add more spaces was kind of his hobby. He had a whole sketchpad of ideas he carried around with him and was always asking me to keep my eyes open for problem parking areas he could visit.
Clay was packing up his textbooks and sketchpad as I walked up. One of the books was called The History of Vehicle Parking in the Urban Landscape, a real grabber. He took one look at me and his mouth kind of hung open.
“Jesus Christ, Harvey, what happened to you?” he asked.
“A woman,” I replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but the implication was c