The PI business was proving to be no more resistant to the chill from Obama’s wet economic blanket than any other profession, so I figured it was time to expand the scope of our activities. I had discussed the opportunities afforded by bounty hunting with the team, and had actually gotten a line on some prime quarry: an illegal alien by the name of Henrique Soto, a native of El Salvador whose crimes were apparently considered so minor – home invasion, assault, vehicular homicide – that the Department of Hopeless Security had released him as part of the president’s sequestration gimmickry. He was still wanted on additional crimes in Maryland and DC, however, for which he had yet to be charged, and I had solid information that he was currently operating in the vicinity of northwest DC. The bounty was a not-too-shabby $25,000, and I smiled as I walked up the steps to the office, picturing myself writing the amount in my check book - particularly all those zeros (in front of the decimal point, for a change).
As I latched on to the knob of the office door, I paused. There was a lot of angry shouting coming from the other side – most of it in unintelligible, but, I was sure, profane Greek – and a violent scuffling noise, punctuated by shrill female invitations to “stop this RIGHT NOW”.
I opened the door carefully, and just had time to duck my head to one side in order to avoid having my eye poked out by the end of what appeared to be an aluminum pole. I dashed over to my secretary’s desk, where Sheila had taken cover behind a file cabinet.
“What’s all this?” I yelled, to make myself heard above the din.
“Nick the landlord came by and insisted on collecting the back rent”, Sheila said. "He threatened to start throwing our stuff on the street. Wronwright lost his temper and began employing his bounty hunting gear to get Nick out of the office.”
I stared in amazement. Wronwright was standing there – in dungarees, a sleeveless shirt, an open, western-style vest, and an outback hat; he resembled a stand-in for Paul Hogan on the set of a Crocodile Dundee movie (assuming that what was needed was a very long camera shot in dim light). He had clamped a huge butterfly net over our fuming landlord, Nick Perites, and was attempting to drag him to the door (it was the pole attached to the net that had almost caught me in the face). Perites was screaming imprecations and probably calling down the wrath of Zeus as he tried, ineffectually, to free himself from the net.
Acting quickly to restore order, I put two fingers in my mouth and whistled. The antagonists paused a moment, sensing an opportunity to catch their breath before resuming hostilities.
“Wronwright, let him go.”
Wronwright, panting, gasped out a response. “But Paco…he threatened to toss our furniture…out the window…couldn’t let him…do that. I told him how we’re about to clean up…in the bounty hunter business…but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Let him go”. With ill grace, Wronwright lifted the net off his prey, but stood at port arms, just in case.
Nick, a short, tubby fellow with receding curly hair, a nose like a prize-winning eggplant and a bristly little mustache, straightened his jacket and began gesticulating like Stokowski conducting the William Tell overture.
“Look, Paco, I’m entitled to have the rent money, in my hand, the first of every month. You guys are three months behind, and when I began explaining the consequences of delinquency to your scrawny partner, here, Ferret the Bounty Hunter, he throws a net over me, like I’m some kind of escaped lunatic. Do I look crazy to you?”
Nick’s recent struggle had left him agitated, disheveled, and red-faced, with foam-flecked lips and a distinctive twitch in one eye, so, considering discretion to be the better part of valor, I thought a candid answer might not be quite the way to proceed.
“Why, no, Nick, no. You strike me as being eminently, er, sane. Sane and reasonable. And I’m sure a reasonable man wouldn’t tear up a lottery ticket before he even looked at it.”
“What do you mean ‘lottery ticket’?”
“Take a gander at this.” I produced a circular showing a mug shot of Soto and the reward being offered for his capture.
Nick grimaced. “Man, that is one ugly face. What’s that thing on his neck? Looks like a tattoo of a frog.”
I took the circular back from him and put it in my pocket. “That’s not a frog. It’s Janet Napolitano, the head of Homeland Security. He got it when he was released from a federal detention center; kind of a sarcastic tribute. Or maybe an act of defiance.”
“What’s he defying? Good taste?”
“Could be. Anyway, the point is, I’ve got a line on where he’s hanging out. He’s worth 25 grand to me, and three months’ rent to you. Now, wouldn’t you rather take a chance on a sure thing that’s going to put money in your pocket than just settle for the short-lived psychological satisfaction of throwing us out of your building – a building, incidentally, which I have reason to believe has several fire-code violations, and has had some repair work done without the proper permits?” I suavely offered him a cigarette and lit it for him.
“All right, all right,” he said, “if you really think it’s a sure thing.”
Sheila sashayed adroitly to Nick’s side, and purred. “That’s right, Nick. You scratch our backs, and we’ll scratch yours.” She ran her fingers up and down his back in a slow sensuous motion.
Nick suddenly gave the appearance of someone who had been poleaxed, but, strangely, had enjoyed the experience immensely. His jaw dropped, the cigarette fell out of his mouth, his eyes fluttered and he smiled at Sheila with unaccustomed benevolence.
“Okay,” he sighed. “I’ll give you another chance. But don’t take too long.” As his glance lighted on Wronwright, he suddenly frowned, made a sign to warn off the evil eye, and departed.
When we were alone again, I turned to study my partner. “Really, Wron? A butterfly net?”
Wron adjusted his steel-rimmed spectacles and drew himself up to his full height. “Hey, it came in handy on that White House job!”
I pushed my fedora back on my head rubbed my eyes. “Wron, we were chasing geckos. And you accidentally bagged Rahm Emanuel”.
“Well, it’s the best I could do on short notice. So, what’s the plan?”
“There have been a string of burglaries and home invasions in Maryland and northwest Washington, and they seem to have Soto’s M.O. They all occur around dinner time, the perpetrator only takes whatever cash is on hand – no jewelry or electronics – and he wears a bright blue ski mask. He’s armed with a pistol and a machete, he typically herds his victims into a bathroom and ties them up, and then steals one of their cars, which he inevitably abandons a mile or so away from the crime scene."
Sheila frowned. “Yeah, but has anybody been able to positively identify Soto?”
“Up to lately, no; however, I recently came across a guy who says he got a pretty good look at him. The victim managed to untie his bonds quickly, and ran to the window in his bedroom, where he saw the man pull off his mask before jumping into the car. I’m going to drop by and see him. His name’s Ed Hurley and he owns a high-end beanery in Washington called the Vanity Fare – f-a-r-e.”
“Clever,” Sheila opined.
“Yeah, I suppose. It’s one of those places where the elite meet to eat; crawling with politicians, I hear.”
Sheila sneered. “Doesn’t do much for my appetite.”
“Baby, at those prices, you don’t have to worry about getting within a mile of the joint.”
“When do we meet Hurley?” Wron asked.
“Tonight, at his restaurant. And wear a tie, will you? If you go in there looking like somebody from the cast of Swamp People, you’re likely to excite comment.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Wron and I stood in the vestibule of the Vanity Fare waiting for Ed Hurley to appear. It was only 5:30 pm, but the place was already crowded with early diners. And the restaurant really did live up to its reputation as a gathering place for politicos. At a booth near the front, a weepy John Boehner called a waiter over and informed him in doleful tones that he had asked for peas, not asparagus, but that he was open to reasonable compromise, unless asparagus was all they had, in which case it would be just fine. Meanwhile, Chuck Schumer was making the rounds of the tables that were occupied by apparent out-of-towners. He wore a camera around his neck and was offering photos for a buck; his own, mind you, not the customers’. He figured the rubes would be delighted to take a picture of him with his own antique Instamatic, and carry the images back to Boisie or wherever as a cherished memento of their trip to the capital.
Hurley finally materialized from the depths of the restaurant. He was a stocky specimen in his mid-fifties, with black hair just beginning to turn gray around the temples. He was swaddled in a double-breasted white dinner jacket and striped black pants. I introduced my partner and Hurley motioned us to a stairway behind the maître d’s station that led up to his private office. After a brief climb, he ushered us into his sanctum sanctorum. It was small, but elegantly appointed, with an oriental rug, an empire desk, a couple of antique oak filing cabinets, a glass-fronted bookcase and – most importantly, in my view – a small table displaying some very high-end booze.
“Sorry for the delay, gentlemen. May I offer you some refreshment?”
I smiled in thirsty anticipation. “Thanks. A bourbon and water for me.”
“And you, sir?” Mr. Hurley inquired of Wronwright.
“You don’t, by any chance, er, have a bottle of Yoo Hoo?”
Unfortunately, the rug impeded my ability to melt into the floorboards, as Wronwright, once again, asked for his favorite beverage, to my acute embarrassment.
But Hurley astonished me. “Sure do.” He stepped over to a small refrigerator, withdrew a bottle of the chocolate drink, and handed it to Wron. Perhaps noticing that my ears had turned fire-engine red – at least, they certainly felt to me as if they had – Hurley smiled. “We get every conceivable request from our customers for all kinds of food and drink. We like not to disappoint even our most…discriminating patrons.” He bowed in the direction of my partner.
Wronwright smirked. “See, Paco? I told you the stuff was high class!”
“Yes, well, ahm, Mr. Hurley, we don’t want to take up too much of your time, so I’ll get down to business. In our telephone conversation, you said that you had gotten a good look at the man who staged the home invasion at your house.”
“I certainly did! As I told you previously, he barged in right as my wife and I were sitting down to dinner, commanded us at gun point to turn over all the cash in the house, plus my car keys, and then tied our hands and feet. But I got loose faster than he expected and ran to my bedroom. It has a window that overlooks the driveway, and I grabbed my binoculars out of the closet. He ripped off his ski mask before jumping in the car, and for the few seconds that it took him to unlock the car door, I saw him quite close up. He had a very distinctive tattoo on his neck, the image of a lemur, I think.”
“Did he look like this?” I pulled the wanted circular out of my pocket and showed it to Hurley.
He didn’t hesitate. “That’s him! No doubt about it. Although…I wonder…is that a lemur or a rhesus monkey?”
“Neither. It’s Janet Napolitano.”
“Ahhh, yes! Of course. How could I have missed it?”
“A perfectly understandable mistake. Anyway, you’ve been very helpful. Thanks for your time.”
Hurley put on an overcoat. “Here, gentlemen, I’ll see you out. I’m on my way to dinner.”
Wronwright’s eyebrows shot up. “What, you’re not eating here?”
Hurley made a sour face. “Are you kidding? The foo-foo muck we serve here may be ok for our pretentious clientele, but I need something more substantial. I’m off to Five Guys Burgers and Fries!”
* * * * * * * * *
The following evening, Wronwright and I cruised the expensive neighborhoods of northwest Washington in my ’38 canary-yellow Packard roadster, keeping an eye open for Soto. It was a bit of a longshot, but since he always escaped in a stolen car, I figured he must arrive by bus or cab, and we might catch a glimpse of him wandering around, searching for the main chance.
Wronwright was in a skeptical mood. “Don’t we kind of stand out in this thing, Paco?”
“Don’t worry, pard, everything’s jake. In the first place, we definitely don’t look like the police, so if Soto’s out here, he’s not going to find us alarming, and in the second place, it’s not that unusual for the fat cats in these neighborhoods to be driving around in classic cars from time to time. Besides, it’s the only vehicle I have.”
“We could have taken my ride.”
“And if we do catch Soto, how were we going to transport him - and both of us, for that matter - on a Vespa?”
“Yeah, I guess it would have been a tight squeeze, at that.”
“Plus, how about all that junk you’ve brought along? What is that stuff, anyhow?”
“Just your basic man-catching equipment: trip-wire, pepper spray, handcuffs, a ninja grappling hook, a net…”
“Not the butterfly net!”
“No, no, that was just a temporary substitute. This is a genuine net for casting, like those carried by a retiarius.”
“A retiarius. You know, a gladiator who fought with a net.”
“God, Wron, you haven’t got a trident and one of those spittoon helmets, do you?”
“Of course not! I mean, er, not with me. For this work, I don’t think those other accessories are necessary.”
We rode along in silence for a while, quartering the neighborhoods, watching for a man who seemed to be just ambling about, taking a too-close interest in the homes in the area.
And at about 7 pm…there he was - although he had progressed beyond the ambling stage. Wronwright spotted him, crouching behind an oleander bush near the front porch of a sizable colonial-style mansion. He was in the act of pulling on his blue ski mask.
“Paco, there! See that guy hiding behind the shrubbery?”
“I sure do. Good catch, Wron. I’ll park the car on a side street and we’ll see if we can intercept him.”
I turned right at the next street, and Wron and I made our way through an alley to the target house. All the properties on this block were fairly heavily veiled in hedges and trees, and we were briefly disoriented.
“Paco, is this the right house?”
“I think so. Shhh! What’s that?”
There was a rustling noise in a bank of overgrown azaleas, and, suddenly, a dark figure shot out into the open.
“I’ve got him!” Wron yelled. He cast his net over the rapidly-moving target, and the next thing I saw was Wron jerked off his feet, his slender form traveling almost parallel to the ground as he flew past my eyes in the merest blur. This event was followed shortly by ferocious barking and the rapidly diminishing wails of my partner, as he was dragged into the night, calling for help. The gathering gloom made it hard for me to follow the trail, but I stopped every few paces and listened, and the sounds of triumphant baying led me to a small stand of holly trees where Wronwright had finally come to rest.
Although, perhaps “rest” is not the word I want. Wronwright had shinnied up one of the holly trees, and was held at bay by an enormous dog – some kind of wolfhound, I believe – that, while still enmeshed in the net, had torn a hole in it large enough for his head to poke through; and that head was full of sharp teeth, vividly on display.
The dog was so thoroughly fascinated by Wronwright that he didn’t see me until I had stealthily taken up a corner of the net and quickly tied it to a low-hanging branch. This substantially restricted his freedom of movement and made it safe for Wronwright to descend.
Except that Wron’s freedom of movement, itself, was somewhat hampered by the barbs on the holly leaves. These did not obstruct his progress on the way up because of the urgency of his need for altitude, but now that he was at somewhat more leisure to consider his descent, he was painfully aware of the needle-like leaves.
“Ow! Paco, I feel like a pin cushion! How do I get down?”
“My advice is just to jump as far out from that branch you’re sitting on as possible.”
“But I must be fifteen feet off the ground!”
“The only alternative, then, is to pick your way carefully down the same way you went up.”
From the house nearby, we heard a deep male voice bellowing. “Prince! Where are you, boy? What the hell’s going on out there?”
“Ok,” Wron said, “here I come!”
Wronwright leaped out of the tree, took wing for a fraction of a second, and landed with a thump at my feet.
“Let’s get out of here!” I whispered, and we ran as fast as we could toward the nearest street light.
Pausing to take our bearings, we realized that we had entered the yard of the wrong house. We ran back toward my car, and then around the corner to the front yard of the house where we had originally seen Soto. To my relief, he had not yet broken in; he was, in fact, still standing by the same oleander bush, staring off in the general direction of our recent adventure, no doubt curious and perhaps alarmed about all the racket.
“I don’t know about you”, Wronwright said, “but I’ve had enough of this skulking around in the dark, waiting for someone’s pet wolf to tear my legs off. Let’s get him!”
I nodded my approval, and we ran for him. He heard us coming from about twenty yards away, and took off.
I’ll say this for Soto: whatever else he had done, he had definitely put time and effort into keeping himself in good physical condition. We chased him for what seemed to be dozens of blocks, through backyards, across busy streets, down dark alleys and up leafy lanes. We jumped across ditches, soared over fences, splashed through water-filled gutters and sprinted through public parks.
We were getting into territory that was increasingly unfamiliar, and we were almost completely spent, when we stopped to take a breather. The houses had thinned out considerably, and we seemed to be at the boundary of a large park or compound of some kind.
Wron lit up with recognition. “Paco! You know what this place is?”
“This is the Naval Observatory!”
“The Naval Observatory? Wait a minute; isn’t there a house on the property that serves as the official residence of the Vice President?”
“Yeah, that’s right. In fact, I believe it’s that stately pile over there.”
At a distance I saw a large white house of the Queen Anne style. Built in the late 19th century, the place has been the official residence of the Vice President of the United States since the mid ‘70s. I figured if Soto got loose in this neighborhood, security was so tight he’d be a goner – and so would our reward.
I was hoping that Soto would skirt the area, but suddenly I heard the ripping of cloth and an angry shout of “Mierda!”. It sounded as if Soto had jumped the fence and torn his pants.
“C’mon, Wron! Over that way! He’s heading onto the grounds!”
We came up against a security fence hidden in a tall hedge, but quickly found a breach; Soto must have been carrying a chain cutter or similar tool. As we eased through the ragged hole, Wron said, “You know, this place is going to be crawling with Secret Service agents in a few minutes. I hope they’re trained to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.”
“All I know is, we’d better get to the house so we can explain ourselves and raise the alarm about Soto.”
We ran toward the house - and saw a shadowy form heading in the same direction.
“There he goes!” I shouted.
Wron and I made for the front door; but when we arrived, running up the steps to the stoop, all was dark and quiet.
“Where do you suppose he is?” Wron inquired.
“I don’t know. I’m going to knock on the door and warn the VP.”
“No, señor, I wouldn’t do that.”
Wron and I glanced at each other, then turned slowly around. There was our man, standing a few feet behind us, a semi-automatic pistol in his hand, pointed right at yours truly.
“The jig is up, Soto”, I said. “In a few minutes you’re going to be surrounded by Secret Service agents.”
He smiled, unpleasantly. “No, señor, you and your friend are going to be surrounded by federales. Or rather, they’ll be gathered around to look down on your corpses, wondering who the two intruders were, and why they shot each other. That little distraction should give me plenty of time to escape.”
“You’ll never get away with it, Soto!”
“Let’s find out.”
I whispered to Wron, “Off the side of the porch. Now!”
Wron dove off the porch to the right, and I jumped off to the left. Before I had even hit the ground, I heard a loud report, mingled with the noise of splintering wood and shattering glass. I carefully crawled from around a shrub, and, to my astonishment, saw Soto lying flat on his back. A quavering voice inquired, “What’s going on out there?”
I knew that voice. “Mr. Vice President”, I said, in my most official tone, “this is Detective Paco. I’m out here with my partner. We were chasing a fugitive felon, and tracked him here. That’s the man, spread out in your yard over there. You shot him. Sir, I’m coming out slowly, with my hands up. Please put down your weapon.”
I stood up and walked cautiously toward the porch, my hands held high. I couldn’t suppress a smile. Joe Biden had been true to his system: he had heard a noise and had fired his shotgun blindly through the front door; he was kneeling, staring through the big new hole in it. With a groan, his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell away in a dead faint.
* * * * * *
Wron and I spent an hour with the Secret Service boys straightening out the whole mess. Fortunately, I knew one of them personally, which smoothed the course of our discussion.
“Ok, Paco, I think we’ve got all we need.”
“Thanks, Craig. How’s the VP?”
“Oh, his wife waggled a bottle of smelling salts under his nose, gave him some chamomile tea and put him to bed.”
“Say, do you think he’ll try to horn in on the reward?”
“I doubt it. He committed at least two felonies tonight, so I believe he’d prefer to quietly bury the whole incident. Your bounty’s safe.”
“My landlord will be pleased . You think Biden will have any trouble with Eric Holder’s people at the Department of Justice?”
Craig chuckled. “You’re kidding, right?”
Craig squatted down beside Soto’s body – the late fugitive had taken a load of buckshot directly in the chest – and scowled.
“He sure was an ugly mug. What’s that tattoo on his neck supposed to be? A cow?”
Craig grinned. “If you ever repeat this, I’ll deny having said it, but that was actually going to be my first guess.”