When the odd job is dirty work.
by Tom Fritsche
The story you are about to read, while drawing inspiration from the author’s experiences, is, for legal reasons, entirely fictional.
It was the summer of 2012—a few San Franciscos ago—when, a year after my graduation from art school, to no surprise of my mother, I found myself without money, without prospects, and utterly unemployed. I spent my days at the Pinecrest Diner reading books (at the time, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett) and my nights at a friend’s apartment in the Tenderloin, smoking copiously and watching cartoons.
In the meantime, I’d picked up odd jobs working on my friend Theresa’s documentary, driving interviewees around town or holding cables out of the way of her cameraman’s feet. Not the most glamorous end of showbiz.
“Don’t worry, Pete,” she told me. “If something better comes along, I’ll throw it your way.”
On my last gig, she caught a glance at my book. “The Maltese Falcon?” she asked. “Maybe you could be a private eye.”
“Yeah,” I laughed, “if you ever have any detective cases that need an extra set of hands, let me know.”
. . .
Several idle days and boozy nights later, my phone buzzes me awake. Unlisted number. “Hello?”
“Pete?” asks a female voice. I generally don’t answer that kind of question from numbers I don’t know, but it’s not every day a woman calls me unsolicited. “Uh, yes?”
“Are you available for a job today at 4:30?”
A woman offering work, no less! I look at the time. How is it noon?
“Hello?” she persisted.
“Oh! Um, yes, I am.”
“Good. Meet me at 7th and Gilbert. 4:30.”
“Wait, what’s the job? Who are you?”
Cathy. Cathy? Nothing. This could go poorly.
“Theresa’s friend,” she said. “I’m a P.I.”
Theresa, you legend, you actually meant it. “All right, 4:30.”
She hangs up.
I sit up in my bed, phone in hand. I can’t believe it.
This is how it works?
. . .
Seventh and Gilbert isn’t far from where I live. It’s just east of the light at 7th and Bryant, a nondescript intersection of a busy street and a quiet alley. I may be the only person in human history who’s ever been asked to meet someone at these cross streets.
I wait there at 4:30. 4:45. 5:30. Finally, Cathy texts me to meet her at another intersection, at 6:00.
And at 6:00, another text, another intersection.
Finally, at 7th and Townsend, a gray Mazda compact SUV stops in front of me. The window rolls down.
“Get in the car, Pete.”
I climb in, and she drives a few blocks before breaking the silence.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says. “Working another case.”
“No problem.” I pause. “Looking for a Maltese Falcon, I guess?” A joke. New bosses like levity.
“No,” she replies, apparently immune to my witty cultural references. “They found it already.”
I must be thinking of other new bosses.
“See, modern private investigation mostly comes down to two kinds of cases: insurance fraud and infidelity. And I only work infidelity.”
I guess it makes sense. That’s usually where the detective story starts: a worried husband wondering where his wife goes when she slips out of bed and into the night. But by the end of it, there’s a double-cross, a triple-cross, a femme fatale, maybe a MacGuffin to look for: a roll of microfilm, a rare jewel, a small statue of a falcon. Something.
She cuts my Hitchcockian reverie short. “Do you want to know why I only work infidelity?”
What would Bogart say? Probably something nihilistic and disaffected. “No.”
I keep my eyes on the road, but I see her turn to look at me, and I tense at her silence. After a few centuries, she lets out a chuckle.
“You’re a natural,” she says.
Me, a natural private eye? No wonder I can’t find work, I’m looking in the wrong century. I should invest in a trench coat and fedora.
“The key to being a good P.I. is to be unnoticeable,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for years, and that’s because even when people know they’re being followed, they never think they’ll be followed by a woman.”
It probably helped that she was completely nondescript—a chestnut-haired woman of average height, average build, in maybe her late thirties or early forties. The most noticeable thing about her were a pair of Jackie O shades that she almost never took off. Neither her hair nor her clothes stood out, and they only seemed to be there because she was expected to have both. Cathy looked like every woman I’d ever passed in the street without a second thought—seemingly engrossed in her own business, a threat to no one, and certainly not a woman keeping tabs on my sins.
“I mean, look at you,” she says. “Have you ever seen yourself?”
“Once or twice.”
“Look at what you’re wearing. Gray button-down shirt, black slacks, black Dickies jacket.”
I went to Catholic school—I have a uniform.
“Seriously, Pete, if I had to describe you to the police, I’d have to say you were a man in his twenties or thirties, black hair, glasses, average build, average height, no visible scars or tattoos, and I don’t know what the hell race you are. You’re perfect for this. You don’t look like anything.”
I’ve never been so honored to be called forgettable.
Wait, I think. Are we expecting someone to describe me to the cops?
. . .
She pulls over. “There he is.” The shutter of her camera clicks furiously. There’s a man at the door of a building across the street, groping in his pocket for his keys. This man, Cathy explains, is cheating on his wife—our client. She threw him out of the house, and now he’s staying with a friend South of Market, sneezing distance from where I live.
Once he goes inside, Cathy stops to show me pictures of our target’s face from every angle, taken from a distance. He’s some kind of investment banker from a company I’ve never heard of, and he exclusively travels via black Lincoln Town Cars, courtesy of Uber, which is also new to me. Our job, she explains, is to gather enough evidence of infidelity to get the wife a favorable settlement in the divorce.
. . .
It went on like this for two weeks—Cathy would call me, I’d meet her in her car parked across from this Harrison Street apartment, and we would sit there for hours. We’d take pictures whenever anyone entered or left, note the time, and wait for more activity. After around twelve hours she’d consider the day’s work over and she’d drive away, leaving me to walk the few blocks home. Later, she’d text me instructions to pick up my pay—a kingly $20 an hour—which she would leave in a manila envelope taped to the underside of a mailbox. In one envelope, she left a note. “Come up with an alias,” it read, and at the bottom: “Burn this letter.”
. . .
My parents were overjoyed to hear I actually had a job. When I told them what it was, they were surprisingly receptive to the concept.
Word got to my grandmother. “I hear you’re a private dick now?” she asked over the phone. She had grown up in the ’40s with detective movies and had a more hard-boiled idea of what being a private investigator entailed. “Do you have a gun?” she asked.
I said I didn’t.
“Do you want one?”
“No, I’m good, Nana.”
“Well, you just let me know, sweetie.” Grandmothers.
. . .
Cathy texts me to meet her at a new location. “We’re in Russian Hill today. Bring a hoodie.” I find her at Hyde and Vallejo and climb into the car. We drive down to Polk Street, a couple of blocks away, where a street festival is going on. Dozens of people unwittingly pass a brushed chrome apartment door where, according to new information given by our client, the other woman lives.
“She says the target’s going to be here today,” Cathy says. “Did you come up with an alias?”
“Mark Scooter,” I say.
“That should do.”
“Like Marco Scutaro with the o’s removed,” I add.
“He plays second base for the Giants.”
“Oh,” she says.
“Hey, listen,” I say. “Do I need to get licensed for this? I was looking it up the other day, and I’m willing to pay any fees out of pocket—”
“The alias should be enough,” she says. As a professional P.I., she would know that legally what I am doing is stalking.
“Did you bring the hoodie?” she asks. I pull out an old gray one that keeps me warm but smells like cigarettes. She approves.
“I need you to get closer to the front door and take pictures when he shows up.” She hands me her iPhone, camera app open. “Pretend you’re homeless.”
I didn’t get this far by asking questions.
. . .
I draw the hood over my head and stand in front of a garage across the street. It isn’t long before the target makes his entrance. Through the phone, I see the whole sequence—his waiting at the door, the long kiss hello, her taking him by the hand into the building. Once they disappear inside, I stop recording and get back in the car.
“Great,” Cathy says. “Now I’m going to need you to go in.”
“Go in where?”
“Inside the building. She’s in number 4.”
“I’m pretty sure they’ll see me if I’m suddenly inside.”
“I just need you to stay long enough to get audio of them having sex. You can do that from the hallway.”
This is more than I signed up for, but I quickly realize that this is exactly what Cathy had in mind. The drop payments, the long silences, the not making me get a license—I’m not her assistant, I’m the guy she hired to do what she legally can’t. I’m her fall guy.
“Do you have a problem with that?” she asks.
“Well….” I squirmed in my seat, waving the right words into my brain with my hands. “Kinda.”
“You’re not comfortable, all of a sudden?”
“Couldn’t these people just get a divorce? Why do we have to do all this for them?”
“Look, we’re almost done for the day. It’ll take you five minutes, they’re probably fucking right now.” She slaps her iPhone back in my hand. “I don’t know how long this guy lasts. Get inside and get audio.”
I go to the front door and hit a buzzer at random. An electronic voice says, “Hello?”
“Hey, I got a package I need you to sign for.”
Buzz. The door clacks open.
Cathy was right. It took five minutes.
This is how it works?
. . .
Just before my next stakeout, Cathy calls me again. “I can’t make it today, but our target spent the night at the girlfriend’s place and we need intel,” she says. “You’ll be working with one of my colleagues.”
She tells me to meet my new boss at Polk and Vallejo, and at 11 a.m. on the dot, I see him. He’s a towering man, ripped to bronze shreds, wearing a tight red tank top with “BENCH O’CLOCK” across the chest and wraparound sunglasses stretched backward around his ears. He waves his gigantic arms over his head to get my attention.
“Mark!” he shouts. Apparently, the alias wasn’t just for the law. “Mark, it’s me! I’m the new P.I. on the case!” Passersby turn to find the source of this noise.
I rush over with my hands out. “Keep your voice down! Are you crazy?”
“What, is he here?”
“Let’s just get in your car. Where are you parked?”
He points to a canary yellow Mustang down the street.
“How long have you been doing this?” I ask.
“About ten years.”
We climb into the Mustang. Just then, our target appears at the door, a black Lincoln waiting for him. The girlfriend sees him out the door and kisses him goodbye with one hand in his back pocket. I take some pictures before I hear the driver’s side door open. My ever-prudent colleague, camera in hand, seems to be going for a better angle. I grab his sleeve and yank him back into the car.
“What are you doing?” he says.
“He’ll see you! Stay in the car!” I recline my seat all the way down.
“Now what are you doing?” he says.
“Making sure he doesn’t see both of us. Be ready to tail him.”
We watch our target get in the car and we start to follow him south toward Market. My new boss attempts light conversation.
“Giants are looking good for the pennant this year, huh?” he asks. “Pablo’s hitting like—” Suddenly, he’s quiet. “That’s the third left he’s made. Do you think he’s lost?”
This man calls himself a professional? “No,” I say. “He’s making a box. He made you.”
“He what?” he asks.
“He knows you’re following him!” I shout. “He fucking sees you!”
We slow to a stop. I peek over the dashboard and see that we’re stopped at a light at 7th and Folsom, in the middle lane, two cars behind the target’s Uber. A door flies open and out goes our man, running between lanes, dress shoes loudly slapping against the asphalt.
“Never seen that before,” says my boss.
“Goddammit,” I mutter. “I’m on him.”
I slide out and keep my head low between the lines of cars. The pursued bolts north up 7th, and as soon as he turns the corner, I begin to run after him. I turn onto 7th and see the door to Sightglass Café swing shut. There. I stop, catch my breath, put on headphones, and calmly amble into the café, nose in my phone. I get in line for coffee—right behind my target.
His breath is ragged as he looks over his shoulder. I feel his eyes on me and glance up from my phone, shooting him a confused look, and then go back to my charade. His chest still heaving, he looks past me, scanning the other patrons for a sign of recognition. He turns back to the line, clearly thinking he’d just lost his tail.
From two feet away I have the best view of the target yet—he’s shorter up-close, with a few gray hairs I hadn’t noticed before. He smells like Paco Rabanne and adrenaline. I know everything about him—even what noises he makes during sex—and now, for possibly the first time in his life, he has been made aware of the people around him; everyone, apparently, except me.
He glances at my headphones, then pulls his phone out to make a call.
“She’s having me followed,” he whispers. “I swear, I just saw this big guy in a yellow sports car follow me from your place.”
He listens for a moment, and his shoulders drop. “I thought we were being so careful,” he said. “Maybe now we don’t have to creep around. I’m so tired of this.” His voice cracks. “I love you, too.”
. . .
Up until that point, it had been easy to treat everything dispassionately, even to outright demonize my target as a philanderer. I’d never cheated in a relationship, and it’s easy not to sympathize with people who do. But now it was clear that this wasn’t just a target, this was a terrified man who had let his romantic dramas spin so wildly out of control that he now suspected he was being followed, like prey. And though he didn’t realize it, he was terrified of me. This man would lose sleep over the idea that the information I’d collected would get back to his wife. And frankly, I was tired too.
I left the line, walked out of the café, and found the Mustang parked around the block.
“What happened?” my boss asked as I approached his window. “Did you find him?”
I lit a cigarette—my last as a private eye—took a long drag, and shook my head.
Tom Fritsche is a former film critic, cartoonist, deckhand, librarian, and private investigator who has spent the last fourteen years in the City. His writing has been featured in Huffington Post, Gentry, and Fandor, and his art has graced art galleries, film posters, concert flyers, and bar napkins throughout the city.