I am the Night (the first two chapters)
It all started on another Saturday night at King Harrod’s up near the Georgia border. I wasn’t winning any. The nickel slot crowd would hang around my table long enough to see me lose my shirt. Then, they would lose interest and dine on other, more serious, gamblers. No matter what magic spells I tried to breathe into the cherry red dice I never came out ahead. I cursed the miserable bastards that had the game loaded from the very beginning and retreated to the bar repeatedly to lick my wounds. I pushed away some vinyl palm fronds that hung over the long under-lit bar and I hunched over it to feel sorry for myself. Tim, the bartender, would come over rubbing a glass with a dirty rag.
“Tough break,” he said automatically. “If you need anything, I’ll take care of it. Maybe give you a shot in the arm?”
I nodded my head staring into the walnut counter top like a real sad sack. Another gin and tonic appeared in front of me. I gobbled it down and thought about what a good idea it would be to get up to my room, splash some cold water on my face, and get some sleep. Just forget this whole night ever happened. Losing was part of winning in this man’s game, and it was just my turn, that’s all. It was time to gather up what little I had and just call it the cost of doing business. I still had that option. I could also tell that tonight wasn’t the night for teary goodbyes. First of all, I had driven an hour and a half out to King Harrod’s from my office in Jacksonville. My little red MG purred like a kitten on a bowl full of cream the whole way there. The air felt a little cooler than a hundred degrees. The humidity had retreated a little bit. The insects had gorged themselves on just enough of my blood and were now fast asleep somewhere. The stars were being whipped through the sky by the warm winds of fortune. It had started out as such a magical evening. I could keep it that way with just a little more luck. Just a little more...
Tim was still buying me drinks so I drained another gin and tonic before making my way heroically back to the tables. I reeled away from the bar and could now feel the tiny fingers of the spongy red carpet beneath my white alligator loafers. The drinks were taking effect now. It didn’t look pretty. The small money weekenders were away from their weekday posts at the gas pumps and waffle houses. They wandered gelatinously from one noise making gewgaw to another exhaling cheap beer, cheaper cigarettes, and reeking of bad perfume. They lurked in the aisles not knowing what to do with themselves before finally sinking their fangs into each other’s necks and feasting on each other’s remains. This was the night where the Legion of the Black Lagoon arose from their watery cells to guzzle free booze and cannibalize the weakest among them. I could feel them all watching me.
I decided these paranoid delusions were no way to start a winning streak. I would need some help. I made my way through the coin operated jungle and into the restaurant where they had the floor show. The girl that they had on stage got me interested in a big way. The lights came up and she walked through the blue velvet curtain all covered in these white feathery boas and fans. Everything was covered up but her long pale legs and white satin pumps. A husky voice like raw silk emerged from somewhere within the feathers. I hustled up to the front row with all of the other slobs and lit up a cigarette. The waiter came by with some pink drinks that had fruit dangling out of them. I snatched one and handed him a crumpled up bill.
The girl’s voice started roiling somewhere within her nest of white feathers. With each passing note, the feathered fans and boas would be pulled away from her long white body, revealing more and more skin. Everything about her was white except her deep red lips and dark brown eyes. As I watched her in the darkness I imagined her on my arm at the craps table. She’d give me a smile and blow a kiss to the dice in my hand and they would jump off the boards, landing me big money every time. As morning approached somewhere beyond the borders of the casino’s perpetual daytime I would gather up all of my chips into one big pile and the girl would look me deep in the eyes while I pulled her closer, closer.
Her song was winding down. It was almost time for the big finish. She brushed the last remaining feather fan around her chest and then threw it away as her voice went into the final crescendo. Simultaneously, the lights went out completely, but you could still see the outline of her perfect, curvy figure in the dark while she belted out the last note. As my eyes adjusted to the complete darkness I could see her pale nakedness more completely in the dark. The song stopped and there was silence in the ballroom. I could see the outline of her perfect figure. She was standing with her legs open and her arms akimbo like some ancient military commander. Then she disappeared behind the curtain. The lights came back on and the crowd went nuts. You could hear guys whistling and banging the backs of their chairs. They’d waited their whole lives for something like this and now they were going to tear the place apart. I sucked down what was left of the whiskey flavored fruit salad they gave me and I made my way backstage. I had to get this girl to help me win. Just this one last thing was all I needed to get me ahead. I went down the dark hallway to the left of the stage.
“Sir, there’s no smoking in here,” said one of the waiters, in the darkness.
“Sorry about that. I’m going back there to say hello to an old friend,” I said, dropping my cigarette butt into one of the potted plants.
“I’m afraid there’s no guests allowed backstage,” said the little flunky in a red vest.
“Well, I’m no guest. The young lady’s expecting me,” I said flinging my whole body weight into the red vinyl swinging door and hurrying down the hallway. I took another right down a narrow stairway that I knew had to lead to the girl’s dressing room. I went through a heavy black curtain and she was there unclasping one of her big dangling earrings. She turned around to look at me and her big, round, perfect breasts stared me right in the face. Sobriety hit me like a bucket of cold water. I had a made a terrible mistake and this was going to end badly.
“What the fuck are you doing in here?” she said, “Who are you?”
Two giant men seized me on either side like an octopus in a movie. They pulled me out of the dressing room and showed me to another guard who was waiting. Luckily, I knew the guy. He was a big black kid named Reggie who’d been working steady at King Harrod’s for a couple of years now. Reggie had a heart of gold and would never hurt a fly.
“Good to see you again, Mr. Cruz,” he said to me.
“Hiya, Reggie. How’s the wife?” I said. He gave me a nod.
“Sorry ‘bout this, man.”
He pulled back and slugged me full on the jaw with his big fist, but I knew that he could’ve done a lot worse. I fell like a bundle of dirty laundry into the arms of the two other guys. There was darkness. Somewhere, I could see the girl looking angrily at me like I was something small and scaly that had slithered into her dressing room. I could see the mad face of the craps dealer lording over the crowd.
“SNAKE EYES. No help for the gentleman in the white hat,” he howled at me. The fluorescent lit, chain-smoking zombies all around him were cheering and laughing.
I came to in a wing-backed leather chair. I was in a spacious mahogany paneled office probably upstairs from the casino. A great clock ticked immensely somewhere. The side of my face was numb and my head felt like a box of dancing cartoon hammers. Across a massive desk full of handsomely bound ledgers and fountain pen sets that were sticking up at rakish angles sat Paul Blackbench, the owner of King Harrod’s. He finished writing what he was writing in his book before carefully placing his pen into its little holder and looking up at me.
“Hello, App. Had a late night, haven’t we?”
“‘Lo Paul,” I said rubbing my temples. ”It’s either a very late night or a very early morning. The room’s spinning enough that I can’t tell the difference.”
“I guess the tables aren’t treating you well. These things happen to the best of us.” He stood up, “I like it whenever you come out to see us, App. I try to get you everything that you need, make sure that you’re well taken care of.”
“Thanks,” I said, hearing my swollen jaw click as I tried to close it.
“Crystal said that you tried to rape her. Said that you looked like you had a knife, but she didn’t seem sure.”
The jaw was starting to swell up good now, but I managed a smile.
“Crystal’s alright. No, I wasn’t trying to rape her. I saw her act and I decided I was a big fan, I wanted to see if I could get her autograph.”
“You wanted to get her autograph,” he said very slowly.
“I need more money,” I said. Now was as good a time as any to ask.
Paul looked at me for a moment and then let out a long weary sigh. He moved away from his wine-colored executive chair and went to the high window at the side of the office. He gazed sadly out into the blackness. He looked out somewhere beyond the acres of parking lot and the highway. He had made sure that this casino would be built by securing all of the no-bid contracts northern Florida. All of them won by weeks and months of pumping the right hands and leaving all of the right palms good and greasy. He played golf with politicians and let them play slap and tickle with his best girls whenever they came to his side of town. He looked into the southern Georgia woods; a prehistoric frontier full of faceless, tooth gnashing abominations, a land of unspeakable horror. He looked out over all that he had built and he despaired. Heavy lies the crown, indeed.
“When I was a boy in Arkansas,” he said, “we spent a lot time camping. We’d do that whenever it wasn’t raining buckets and the roads weren’t washed out. We’d just go up in the woods; my brothers, my uncles, my pa, and I. We’d never take a thing with us but our guns and our sleeping rolls. We’d get ground squirrel, pheasant. Even caught a razorback hog a time or two. We’d cook that over a fire and my uncles and my pa would pass the jug around and tell their stories. I don’t know how we did it. We lived, all eight of us, in that little one room shack and it never bothered me. It bothered me later, but it didn’t bother me then.”
He stood there a moment looking sad. He stuck his hands in his pockets. I could hear the loose change jingling around in there. He walked over to his chair again and sat down.
“How much do you need?” he asked.
“Three thousand dollars,” I said.
He opened up a large book that had pages of over-sized blank checks in it. He took out his pen and wrote the three thousand dollars out to me, and then he took out a piece of silk cloth and pressed away the wet ink. Then, he tore the check out and handed it to me.
“Care for a drink?” he asked.
I thought he’d never say so.
“Don’t get up I can make one myself. What’ll you have?” I said, standing up. The blood rushed out of my head and I could feel the floor rising up to get me. I stumbled once, and then fell with all of my weight onto the little liquor caddy that was in the corner. Decanters of priceless scotch and rye spilled onto the bearskin rig, the glasses shattered, ice went everywhere. I didn’t know my own strength. Reggie opened up the door.
“Everything’s alright Reggie,” Paul said, helping me up. “Can you please go find someone to help us clean up in here?”
I leaned heavily onto Paul. “Sorry about the mess,” I said thickly.
He sat me back in the chair and opened up a cabinet behind his desk. He poured us two glasses from his own private reserve. I drank mine down in two gulps. I had taken up enough of the man’s time.
“Well, it’s been swell, but I’d better be off. Thanks for everything, Paul. Come over to my place sometime and I’ll let you break a couple of dishes, just for old time’s sake.”
Paul gave a small laugh and helped me out of the chair. He made sure I was steady to walk this time. He held onto my shoulders and looked me into the eyes.
“It’s nice to have friends in Jacksonville, App. Maybe, I can call you up next time I need something?”
I nodded my head vaguely. He patted my shoulders and steered me out the door.
“Get some sleep, huh?” he said.
Monday morning I got into the office at a quarter to ten. Debra was at her desk finishing up an e-mail. She’s a fair skinned girl with a short sensible hairdo and eyeglasses one-size too large. She was dressier today than she normally was. She had on a white blouse with little frills down her little bust and a high-waisted slate colored skirt with big buttons and those ribbed stockings that she knew showed off her legs. I leaned over her particle board desk and whispered to her, “You keeping it warm for me, Deb?”
“You’re late,” she said. “Keeping what warm?”
“The coffee,” I said, walking into the office and throwing my stuff onto the sofa where we sat the customers. I went to the ancient commercial machine that brewed the coffee and poured my first burnt, rancid cup of the day. I sat behind my desk and opened a racing form. White Rabbit was in the third race today and it rained a little last night. He’d be a sure thing. Deb walked in.
“Florida Star called. They want a statement on the Letournay case,”
I waved my hand at her. “We’re not ready to talk about that yet. After his arraignment we can discuss where and when we did the surveillance. In the meantime, we have to protect our client. If the paper only needs background on the case, have them call Jacksonville metro.” I figured that she’d already done that, but I told her anyway. I lit up a Chesterfield.
“Any new business?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“There’s never any walk-ins before lunch,” she said, turning to go back to the front room. My office shared a wall with a thirty-year-old CPA. I could hear him mumbling some figures into his phone, stopping now and again to shuffle through some papers. Deb was my girl, but she helped the accountant out sometimes just as a courtesy. Lately, she was helping him a lot just to stay busy. This was our slow season. Lately, there had been a few slow seasons. His fax machine beeped.
“Stop smoking in there,” Deb called from her desk. Soon, I was through with my third cup of coffee and ready to call it a day. She came in and asked me if I could take in a client. I shrugged my shoulders and put out my smoke.
“Send him in,” I said.
“Her,” said Deb.
In walked six feet of my kind of woman: big, raven colored hair, broad hipped and ample busted. She had on jeans and calf-high leather boots with spike heels, not that she needed to be any taller. She had on a red vinyl jacket and a tight black top that flattered her enough, not that she needed any flattering, either. Hell, she was every guy’s kind of woman. It was enough to get me to take my feet off of my desk.
“How can I help ya,” I managed to say. She reached over my desk and gave me a firm handshake.
“Gail de Ramos. How do you say your name?” she asked pointing to the “private investigator” name plate that I had on my desk.
“It’s Appalachia,” I said. “Appalachia Cruz.”
“Is that Mexican?” she asked, like I just got off the boat.
“Puerto Rican. My mom was half-white and she gave me that name because we lived in Tennessee when I was a kid. She loved the mountains.”
“I saw your name when I was looking through the internet and I thought ‘what an unusual name. I’m gonna call him.”
“Well, we’re glad that you did. How can I help you Ms. de Ramos?”
I gestured to the couch and she took a seat.
“It’s my husband, Derek?” she said, pausing a moment to look at the ceiling. She let the tears well up. I knew right away what this was about, because it always happened this way. It was going to be the kind of case that I’d have wrapped up by the end of the week. Some guys don’t touch divorce work, but it’s all regular business to me. These people need just as much help and anonymity as the next joker. Who was I to turn up my nose at work? Those tears were all a lot of easy money to me. I had long since run out of money that was easy.
“I know that he’s seeing another woman,” she said. “He thinks I’m some kind of an idiot, but I’m not. I can tell when something’s going on. A wife knows. Christ, we’ve been married for eleven years in June. Here, we’ve got two school-aged kids at home and he’s out sneaking around with some whore behind my back. Well, I don’t let people do that to me.”
“Ms. de Ramos,” I said. “Why don’t you talk to him? Let him know that you know what’s happening and that you want it to stop. Tell him that you want him to be honest. After eleven years you deserve that much.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said. “He’s a cheater, and I won’t be cheated on. Besides, I know that if I tried to talk to him about it he’ll hit me or maybe something worse. He’s done it before, and I wouldn’t put it past him to do it again. I want a divorce, but I want to make sure that the children get the kind of future that they deserve. I want them to be protected.”
She started crying even more now. They always do that when they start to talk about getting money. Still, I sat beside her and handed her a box of tissues. I couldn’t help rubbing her back just a little. She smelled great.
“There, there Ms. de Ramos,” I said. “These things are hard on everybody. Having kids in the house only makes it worse. It’s not a good environment for them. Let us help you. We’re gonna help you through this…”
After a minute of this she wiped her eyes.
“I want to catch the miserable bastard in the act. I want to find out exactly who he’s with, what happens, and what he says when they’re together. I want to nail his ass to the wall.”
“If we’re talking around the clock surveillance here, Ms. de Ramos, I must warn you that this kind of investigation can be very hard on your pocketbook.”
“I don’t care about that,” she said. “I have my own money. I want to make sure that I have everything that I need when I get my day in court. I want a solid case, with no cops.”
This was just another trophy wife with a chip on her shoulder that showed up all too often in this line of work. If I were smart I would have said no. I would have told her to go home, call her sister, take a hot bath. Then, when her husband gets home tell him that she no longer wants the marriage. He’d get mad, sure. If he wanted to get physical, she should make sure escaping would be easy; just have her bags packed and storm out of the house. Then, spend the night at her mother’s. Experience told me that 99% of these kinds of problems got solved with just that sort of sensible approach. Chances were good that it wouldn’t really help anyone in court to have me sneak around dingy motels, taking dirty pictures of their spouses in the act. I could only confirm what people already knew about each other. All of the animosity between them would come out in the courtroom anyway and any judge worth his salt would tell which party was more guilty than the other just by the way that they talked to each other. So, why get an investigator involved?
But, as Gail sat there on my couch and told me her story through her stagy little sobs I knew that I’d do anything to help her out. It wasn’t about the money. Not completely, anyway. For me, the job stopped being about money long ago. Maybe I fell for her a little bit that morning. Maybe I was soft. Maybe I was stupid. Either way, I was too hungover and tired and broke to tell the difference. So, what else was left but to get out and hit the old ball?
“Ms. de Ramos, it sounds like you have a very clear cut case for infidelity. Now what we want to do is catch him in the act with this other woman. We get the right kind of surveillance early on and it will go a long way in helping you with your case. You’ll get the kind of closure that you deserve. Will he be at home tonight or will he be away?”
“He said that he was going out to The Cotton Gin tonight with the guys after work, but I know that he’s meeting her,” she said.
“In that case we’ll want to start keeping an eye on him right away. We can put a tail on him this afternoon and track him to wherever he’s going tonight. We won’t be in touch with you, but you’ll get a full report tomorrow morning with photographic evidence of all of his activities. Where does your husband work, Ms. de Ramos?
She paused a moment. “He’s an independent contractor so his work is all over the place. He always eats at The Shark Tank Grill on Carson Street for lunch, though. He does that every day at two o’clock, no matter what. Does that help you?”
“Certainly it does. That gives us plenty of time to find him at the restaurant and follow him from there. What kind of car does he drive?”
“He drives a brand-new black Ford F-150. You can’t miss it. The license plate says D LUXE on it.”
“That’s a good start,” I said, writing everything down. “We’d like to begin today if it’s alright with you. We’ll start at The Shark Tank Grill and follow him from there. Even if he doesn’t meet with this other woman that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something like that going on, so we’ll want to keep an eye on him until we’re sure. You’ll be given detailed updates on everything that happens and the ball will be in your court on how you want to act on that information. Now, if you’ve got more time I’d like to get all of your details down so Debra can start entering you into our database. Let me show you a table of the kind of billable hours you’re going to be looking at…”
She went through all of the motions and she agreed to pay for whatever I put in front of her. She said that she trusted me. She said that I came highly recommended, which I guessed meant that I had a nice looking name out of a handful of private detectives on some phone book website. This was very little work for the right kind of money. If all went well, Derek de Ramos didn’t have a cheating bone in his body and would turn out to be just another good ol’ boy who’d rather get drunk with his buddies than tuck his kids in at night. That way, Gail would only get more suspicious and want more surveillance. The billable hours would come rolling in until she decided Derek wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Then, she’ll call off the dogs after my weekly statements get a little steep. I knew that things never worked out that way but this time I hoped that they did. For her sake and mine.
I got everything from her that I needed to make the case. I stood up and stuck my hand out again for another one of her hearty handshakes. She put her arms around me, pressing her big boobs up against my chest. I was buried in her black nest of Aqua Net hair and I could hear the squeaking of her vinyl jacket. I wanted to move in there and stay forever.
“Thank you so much for helping me Mr. Cruz. I know that with your help I can go back to living a normal life. If there’s anything that you need, just call me. I mean anything.”
After she left I gave her information over to Deb and I told her that she didn’t have to look at people’s W-2 forms with the accountant all afternoon.
“Finally a case,” she said. “I thought I was gonna get cabin fever if I spent another day in here.”
“This might be an all-nighter, Deb. I hope that you don’t have any plans. If you do, we can work something out.”
She shrugged. “I’ll have to cancel my date with Mr. Miniwhiskers. He’ll just have to watch reality TV and eat strawberry ice cream without me.”
I laughed and went back to my desk feeling like a king. A couple more cases like this for the month and I wouldn’t have to wash the office owner’s Mercedes to make up the rest of the rent. Things were shaping up. I got a bag of Montezuma’s Revenge out of my drawer and I rolled up a reasonable size joint. I flicked on the RCA player that I had in the corner and the CD got started. The song was “Louie, Louie,” the reggae Toots and the Maytals version. I sparked up the joint and took a good pull. I put my feet up on the desk and I let the weed lay me back. It was some good shit.
The CPA walked in. He had on his square-john skinny tie, big glasses, and collegiate hair.
“How’s it going, Mr. Cruz?”
“Never better,” I said, holding the smoke in my lungs.
“Well, there’s no smoking in here, so…”