“I’m pretty sure I’m being watched.” Vera sits twisting the lace-edged handkerchief she’s taken from her handbag (a Prada, if I’m not mistaken, I think, bought with my money).
Harry asks the questions and I mostly take notes while Vera gives us her story. I don’t really trust myself not to turn this into yet another verbal brawl. As I listen, I have to say I’m taking no small measure of satisfaction from the predicament Vera has gotten herself into.
It seems that Vera’s favors in bed (and the kitchen, and the pool, and the…) aren’t the only booty that pool boy Paco is after. It seems that Paco has been scoping out her jewelry and my art work as well.
“I think I’m going to be robbed. And as much as I hate to say it, I’m pretty sure I know who’s behind it.”
“That’s a pretty big leap, Vera,” Harry remarks skeptically. “What makes you think someone is going to rob you?”
"Oh, I see him looking. Paco, I mean. I’m not the bimbo,” and here I can’t help but roll my eyes, ”that some people seem to think I am.” She pauses to glance at me, and I shrug dramatically, as if to say “hey, if the shoe -- Jimmy Choo, no doubt -- fits…”
“I walked in to the bedroom one night and caught him pawing my ruby necklace, the one your mom left to me, Marty. ‘You shouldn’t leave this lying around, chica,’ he says. ‘It might get stolen.’ Seemed pretty obvious to me who might be doing the stealing.”
Harry cuts a glance at me, then says, “Geez, Vera, maybe the guy’s concerned about your safety.”
I swallow the guffaw that threatens to explode from my mouth, and say sarcastically, “Oh, yeah, Vera, I’m sure that’s it.”
“Oh, don’t be facetious, Marty.” Vera glares at me. “It doesn’t become you.”
Harry clears his throat, and says, “OK, then, moving right along, children… Vera, you said you were being followed.”
“Well, I can’t be sure, of course. I’m certainly no expert at this tawdry sort of thing. But I keep spotting the same pick-up truck.” She shakes her head as Harry eyebrows lift in question. “No, no, it’s not Paco’s truck. I’ve never seen this truck before. It’s a gaudy blue thing that’s seen better days. It was there outside the hair salon yesterday, and I saw it last week as I was leaving my garden club meeting. Once or twice at the grocery store or around town might be a coincidence. But this often? And the man driving it is most definitely not Paco. He’s a big, ugly guy, looks like a thug.”
“Uh oh, sounds pretty dire, Vera,” I comment, my voice as melodramatic as I can make it. “So just what is it that you want from us? If you think I’m going to go threaten the guy or something…”
“Of course not,” Vera interrupts impatiently. “I just want you to do what you do, whatever that is. Check Paco out. Find out what’s going on. And like I said, I’ll pay for your services.”
I look at my partner, who gives a small nod.
“OK, fine. We’ll help you clean up your little mess. Our rates are $1,500 a day plus expenses, which, of course, I happen to be in a position to know you can well afford,” I said. “We’ll need a retainer of $5,000 today.”
We spend an hour or so getting details from Vera, including a better description of the gaudy blue truck and the thug. All the while, my mind is churning, scheming, planning.
A bit of legwork, both electronic and the old-fashioned kind, reveals that Vera is probably right. Seems old Paco has a bit of a background Vera had never bothered to look into when she hired him to clean the pool, as well as perform other services. His buff young body had apparently been all the credential she’d needed.
Vera’s boy has some experience with this form of entrepreneurship. Last time, though, he got caught with his fingers in the cookie jar, so to speak, and he spent a couple of years making library tables. And here I thought they only made license plates. Joe Mendoza, the thug who drives the blue truck, was Paco’s cell mate at CMC San Luis Obispo.
I’d heard that the prison rehab program was a failure. I guess I heard right, because here these two graduates are, apparently falling right back into their old ways. But this time, Paco isn’t working alone. Maybe the thug brings some new skills to the table. To be honest, that’s just what I’m hoping.
Harry and I are sitting in his Camry down the street from Paco’s Echo Park bungalow, eating powdered donuts. I won’t allow the things in my Volvo, but a little powdered sugar added to the trash heap that is Harry’s car won’t make a bit of difference.
I lick the sugar from my fingers, keeping my eyes on the blue truck sitting in the driveway. “So, here’s what I’m thinking. I say we let them have at it.”
“Wha’d’you mean?” Harry asks with his mouth stuffed with donut.
“Obviously, Mendoza’s been tracking Vera’s movements, charting out her schedule. It won’t take a brain trust for them to pin down pockets of time plenty big enough to pull off a robbery. And the house is pretty isolated up there in Calabasas. No one’s going to see a damn thing. We’ll tell Vera we don’t have any concrete evidence that Paco’s up to anything, but we’ll keep digging. Meanwhile, we keep an eye on their movements so we know when they pull the job. Then we move in.”
“What?” Harry quickly swallows the last bit of donut. “What are you talking about? Move in where?”
“We wait until Mendoza and Mr. Pool Boy grab Vera’s jewelry and my art work, and stash it. It’ll probably be in some warehouse or something. And then we help ourselves.”
Harry’s looking at me like I’m speaking in tongues. “Are you fucking crazy? We're not dealing with a cheating husband here. These guys are ex-con whack-jobs.”
“Think about it, Harry. The stuff goes missing, who’s Vera going to blame? And when these guys discover it’s gone from their hidey hole, what are they going to do? Call the cops? I don’t think so. And they don’t know shit-all about us.”
“No, but Vera does.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered.”
Harry didn’t jump on board that afternoon, but I was pretty sure he’d come around.
It pretty much happened just like I predicted. In the course of our “investigation” for Vera, we discovered the boys had themselves a storage unit up in Oxnard. Check. Vera came home from her book club meeting one night, and found all the jewelry, art, her stereo, the wide-screen TV and assorted other stuff gone. Check. She also found Paco unconscious on the floor with a bloody gash on his head . Huh? Those guys are smarter than I thought. That was pretty damned clever.
Vera called me, of course, right after the ambulance left to take Paco to the hospital. Semi-hysterical, she told me about the robbery, then demanded, “What kind of half-assed detective are you? Why didn’t you know? You said there was no problem.”
“Chill, Vera. I never said there was no problem. I said we couldn’t find one. Why are you yelling at me? You’re the one who took up with that loser.”
“But he didn’t do it, Marty. Poor Paco was at the house tonight, and he got clubbed over the head. He’s on his way to the hospital.”
“Sorry, honey, but I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Call the cops. Now that there’s nothing left to steal, we’re done here. I think Harry and I are going to head up to Frisco to celebrate. I’ll send you the final bill.” With that, I hung up, leaving Vera to sputter indignantly into a dead line.
And then it was our turn.
“You can’t just waltz in there and help yourself, like it was some kind of fucking Vegas buffet.”
“Sure I can. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve been waiting too long for this opportunity and now it’s here. I’m sure as hell not going to let it just slide by. If you’re not with me, then stand the hell back. Your choice.”
In the end, of course, Harry went along, sort of. We flew out the next morning for our “long weekend in Frisco.” After we’d checked in at the Union Square hotel, I left and caught a bus back down to Oxnard, paying cash for the ticket, of course. When I got there, I picked up the unregistered beater with stolen plates that Harry had “bought off a guy” and left at the bus station. I headed over to the storage unit, where as I expected, it was a piece of cake to cut the padlock off the door. In and out in minutes, and back in Frisco in time for lunch on Fisherman's Wharf the next day. By the time anyone noticed the old Chevy sitting in the used car lot across the street from the bus station, we’ll be in LA and back to business as usual.
I’m not greedy. I didn’t take it all, just the jewelry. I’d spent a friggin’ fortune on that stuff, and I figured we could unload it pretty easily and get a nice chunk of change for it. Not enough to make up for the bucks Vera robbed me of in the divorce, but enough to make me feel better. Oh, and I did toss the place while I was there, scattering Paco’s loot from hell to breakfast.
I look at Harry across the table, grinning broadly, and raise my glass. “Let’s drink a toast, shall we? This one’s for you, Vera.”
This is the second part of a two-part story written for the Tenth Daughter of Memory.