Monday, February 27, 2012

Return of the Subaru

I knew I was in for a long night, so I popped into a Starbucks for something tall and caffeinated.  As I gazed at the overpriced slices of marble loaf cake in the pastry case, the scruffy gentleman ahead of me asked the barista for a black eye.  I nearly offered to oblige the young man when I realized he was only ordering a drink.  Black coffee with two shots of espresso.  For the first time in my life, I asked for a black eye too.

Three hours later I was seated in my Mustang, draining my paper cup and wishing I’d asked for two black eyes.  I’d been sitting in a dark fog two blocks north of Taraval Street in the Sunset District, staking out the home of a bank robbery suspect.  A day before I’d had no suspects at all, but a chance encounter with a subway “resident” provided a solid lead.  But here it was nine P.M. and the house stood dark as a mausoleum at midnight.

My eyes darted to the mirror as headlights cut through the fog.  A hatchback slowed.  I watched expectantly, but the car drove past my suspect’s house and turned the corner.  It wasn’t until the hatchback made a second pass that I took note of the make and model.  The vehicle was a Subaru Tribeca in neon blue, eerily similar to the one I lost two years ago during a paranormal investigation.  I don’t normally tangle with demons and ghosts by choice, but as a favor to my girlfriend I took on the case to help her mother.  Suffice it to say, things went very badly and I lost both my girlfriend and my car.  I never thought I’d see that Subaru again.

Yet here was the spitting image, coasting through the mist.  The car even had a dent in the rear fender that matched the one I’d put in my Subaru when I backed into a mailbox.  I couldn’t say the plates matched because… well, this Subaru had no rear plate.

I was tempted to start my engine, but decided to play it cool.  I would see what this Subaru driver was up to.  By the time he made the third lap, I decided this was no coincidence.  The driver was toying with me.  Given the choice of a long stakeout or a fast car chase, I opted for the latter.

We tore along Taraval, ripping like bullets through the fog.  The Subaru made a suicidal left turn in front of a bus, forcing me to brake and wait three seconds before following.  The driver had made a grave mistake though… he was now gunning up the switchback road to the top of Twin Peaks.  There was no escape.

I lost his taillights around the next bend.  By the time I rounded the corner, he was gone.  Already a level ahead.  I pressed on and reached the parking area, where I swerved to a stop at an angle to block the road.  No one was leaving the peak without my consent.  I climbed out of my car and surveyed the lot.  Only two vehicles sat there, a mini-van and a Cadillac.  The Subaru had vanished.

I snatched a flashlight from my car and went to the Cadillac.  I knocked on the window and it lowered.  An older gentleman with a pencil mustache smiled up at me.  Sitting beside him was a stylish younger woman with a bottle of wine in her lap.

“Did you see a car come up here before me?  Blue Subaru?”

“Subaru?” the older man mused.  He turned to his friend “You see a Subaru?”

The younger woman looked horrified.

“I don’t even know what that is.”

I moved on to the mini-van.  Inside, two teenagers were making out and listening to throbbing dance music.  They didn’t notice me peering through the window, or pinning them with my flashlight.  Chances are they wouldn’t have noticed the Subaru either.

I stared up at the massive radio tower on the hill above.  Red lights aglow like some spacecraft ready for launch.  I always thought the radio tower belonged in a Godzilla movie.  It would serve as a memorable prop for the creature to break in half before being taken down by fighter planes.  Tonight there was no Godzilla and no Subaru either.  Just Crispin Darke and two romantic couples, staring down at the blanket of ethereal fog that concealed what would otherwise be a majestic view of the city lights.

I walked the perimeter of the lot with my flashlight, scanning the bushes for a sign of an off-road adventure.  I found nothing of the sort.  I drove slowly down the hill, noting the guardrails for any sign of breakage.  Alas, the Subaru had not taken a plunge; it had simply vanished like a phantom.  Did I imagine the whole thing?  I made a mental note to drop by the Starbucks again to question the manager about the ingredients in their black eye coffee.  But that could wait for tomorrow.  My next move was to hit the Ace CafĂ©, where a bourbon was waiting with my name on it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Subway Story

Today was the third day of my first bank robbery investigation.  Sure, the feds were doing their fine-tuned routine, and it usually works for them.  However, sometimes an outside approach is fruitful too.  The bank manager is a neighbor of mine and was angry that one of his tellers was pistol-whipped.  He wanted to make sure that nothing was missed, so he asked me, the only private eye he knew, for help. He said the robber had on a red ski mask and used the Powell St. BART station as his getaway route.  It made sense; bank’s side exit led straight into the subway station stairs.  My theory was that the robber rode the subway every day and knew the train arrival and departure times down to the second.  And if he were a cautious fellow, he’d keep to his routine even after making the big score.

So for three days I’ve been riding the rails during morning and evening rush hours.  I bring a Kindle with me so it appears I’m reading a Ludlum novel like half the other commuters.  In reality, I’ve been profiling my fellow riders like someone in a Ludlum novel.  So far, I haven’t spotted anyone wearing a red ski mask.  But there are other signs to look for.  Normally this case wouldn’t meet my thrilling threshold, but hey, there was a chance I could go up against an armed felon.  Preferably in a dark alley.

This morning I caught a middle-aged man with a crew cut giving me the evil eye.  His face looked familiar.  I’d bumped into him on the subway before.  He wears the gray uniform of an elevator service company.  A good occupation if you want an all-access peek into every building of the financial district… including the banks.  I looked back at my Kindle.  In my peripheral vision, I saw the elevator serviceman rise from his seat and move deeper into the car.

A minute later, voices of panic arose from down the aisle in three languages.  Two I recognized.  The third didn’t matter.  Panic is a universal language.  I spied smoke rising from the back of the car.  A seat was on fire.  As passengers rushed forward, I reached for the fire alarm.  The train continued to the next stop while the conductor tried to calm everyone over the intercom.  He sounded like he was reading from cue cards.  I’d lay money this was his first crisis on the job.

I couldn’t see the elevator man, but that was no longer my primary concern.  The doors opened and the other passengers stampeded past me like spooked cattle.  I went the opposite direction, climbing over the seats and charging into the veil of smoke.  I flung off my raincoat and smothered the flames.  As the smoke cleared, the bundle of charred cloth began to move.  I sprang to my feet, astonished to find a homeless man beneath the smoldering blankets.

“Wha’ happened?”

“You were on fire, my friend.”

“Wow, man.  Fire?”

Befuddled, the homeless man pawed around the subway floor until his fingers found a burning cigar butt.  He planted it back in his toothless maw.

“You realize that cigar started the blaze?” I asked.

“Must’a dozed off.”

“You could’ve died.”

He blinked.

“You endangered the lives of all the passengers.”

“What passengers?” he inquired. Indeed, we were the last ones in the subway car.

I mopped my hands with my face.  Then I did the reverse.  I shook out my singed raincoat and slipped my arms back into it.  What a loss.

“Lord, this has been quite the week,” the homeless man declared, “got a hunnerd dollar tip on Monday and lit myself on fire today.”

That gave me a flash of insight.

“Someone gave you a hundred dollar bill?”

He nodded with a reminiscent smile.

“Were you on the subway at the time?”

“I’m always on the subway,” he said proudly.  “I saw this dude sittin’ there with a bag full of money.  He spotted me lookin’ as he zipped it up.”

“And he paid you to stay quiet?”

“I suppose.”  He looked ashamed, as if realizing he’d just broken that covenant.

I asked the homeless man if he could describe the “dude” with the bag of money.  He could.  And he did.

It wasn’t as wasted a day as I’d originally thought.