Read an Excerpt

Trail of the Spellmans

SURVEILLANCE REPORT: VIVIEN BLAKE


I do my job. I watch. I take notes. I snap pictures and record video. I document subjects’ activities through a filter of twenty years of disassociation. I don’t judge. I don’t manipulate the evidence. I simply report my findings to the client. The client can use the information however they see fit. At least that’s the line I feed them. But the truth is always a murkier business.

November 2

2330 hrs

Female subject, 5’5”, 125 lbs, dark brown hair, wearing blue jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt over a dark green military jacket, exits a San Francisco apartment building at Twenty-sixth and Noe. She walks east down the street, scanning the parked cars. She presses a remote key and looks for a flash of headlights. A BMW winks in the distance. Female subject spins in a circle, checking her perimeter; approaches car; gets inside; and starts the engine. She drives east down to South Van Ness Avenue and makes a left turn, stopping on the corner of Seventeenth and South Van Ness at the establishment of Oscar’s Auto. Subject drives vehicle into covered garage. Unable to establish a visual on subject for fifteen minutes.

2345 hrs

Subject and an unknown male (midforties, heavyset, wearing blue mechanic’s jumpsuit with the Oscar’s Auto logo embroidered on the breast pocket) exit the office of establishment. They approach a tow truck with the same logo painted on the side. Subject slips an unidentifiable object into her pocket and jumps into a truck with unknown male. Investigator follows subject vehicle to a liquor store. Unknown male enters the store and leaves three minutes later with a large brown bag (about the size of a six-pack of beer).1

The tow truck returns subject to the residence on Twenty-sixth Street where she was previously seen exiting. Subject rings the buzzer. (Could not establish unit number.) Female subject then enters the building and all visual contact is lost.

 * * *

The preceding events would appear innocent enough to the naked eye, but let me enlighten you as to what the naked eye missed just a few hours earlier that evening: Female Subject met the owner of the BMW in a bar; Female Subject was not of legal drinking age; Female Subject was not the owner of the vehicle taken to Oscar’s repair shop. Finally—and how could you know this?—Oscar’s Auto is a well-known chop shop, doing an arthritic limbo under the radar of the law. Subject, based on my three weeks of surveillance, was a regular menace to society, masquerading as a high-achieving coed.

 * * *

My phone rang just as I was about to end the surveillance and head home. The caller ID said “The Tortoise.” Someone had been tampering with my phone.

“Hello,” I said.

“Where is everyone?”

“I don’t know, Dad.” For the record, I wasn’t withholding information. I really didn’t know.

“I’m tired of always being alone in the house.”

“You’re not alone.”

“Other than You Know Who.”

“Why doesn’t You Know Who have a nickname yet?” I asked.

“I think we’re going with ‘You Know Who’ as a nickname.”

“Kind of messes with our animal theme, don’t you think?”

“Sometimes you got to break protocol.”

“True,” I said. I couldn’t have agreed more.

“I’m lonely.”

“Sorry to hear that, Mr. Tortoise.”

“And I hate my nickname. I should be able to come up with my own.”

“Did you call for a chat?”

“Dinner did not go over very well.”

“The roast?” I asked.

“Inedible.”

“And that’s something coming from you. Did Mom blame me?”

“No, she took full responsibility.”

“Where is she?”

“Origami or pie making, I don’t remember.”

“Those are two very different things, Dad.”

“Any action tonight?”

Silence.

“Are you there?” Dad said. I could hear him tapping his finger on the phone, like it was an old transistor radio.

“I thought we were no longer sharing information.”

“Only on cases we’re working separately. So, any action?” Dad repeated.

“Not unless you consider studying or watching TV—or both—action.”

“Good. Can you drop by the house on your way back? I need the surveillance camera for tomorrow.”

“What’s tomorrow?”

“You know better than to ask questions like that.”

 * * *

I waited outside the Noe Valley apartment for another five minutes, gathering my thoughts. Female subject peered out of the window, checking the empty street, and then defenestrated herself, hanging from the window frame and dropping four feet to the ground. She then sauntered down the street in the direction of her apartment, just over a mile away.

After my conversation with the Tortoise, I made a quick U-turn and watched female subject through my rearview mirror. I had to ask myself whether I was doing my job or if I was an accessory after the fact.

 * * *

At home, I found my father staring at a stack of paperwork that had to be filed. Filing always made him sad, borderline depressed, and since he thought he’d seen the end of those days, to have them return only stoked his sadness. He pressed the intercom button when he saw me.

“The Gopher has landed,” he said.

“I really wish you’d stop that,” I said.

“I can’t,” he helplessly replied.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“The Eagle2 is on the tarmac.”

“It’s just pathetic,” I muttered as I left the room.

The Eagle was indeed on the tarmac (or the couch, as it is commonly known), watching the evening news.

On the drive to Spellman headquarters I debated, as I have over the last three months, how much information I should divulge. I’m a spectacular liar (“magician of the truth” is the new phrase I’m working with). I’ve studied deception enough to know the universal tells, and I can embody honesty to virtually anyone, except a member of my family. With them I have to turn my behavior inside-out, assume a liarlike demeanor at all times—toss in sarcasm with the truth. A salad of honesty and deception is the only way I can get away with an untruth. My point is that I was planning on lying to my parents about the evening’s events and there is a particular way to go about it.

“Did the Sparrow flee the nest at all this evening?” my mother asked, staring at the evening news.

The Sparrow did indeed flee the nest, and another nest, and then she stole a car. With the right delivery, I could both manage a lie and have it read like the truth.

“Not unless you count a study break of grand theft auto,” I sarcastically replied.

“Write it up,” said Mom. “I think it might be time to tell the Blakes that this surveillance is merely a drain on their bank account.”3

“Maybe we wait just a little bit longer,” I replied.

“Why?” my mother asked suspiciously. “That doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s finals week. She could be distracted.”

I fetched a beer from the fridge and sat down on the couch next to my mom.

“Don’t forget to write the report,” Mom said. “It’s always better to do it when it’s fresh in your mind.”

“ ‘Subject remained in her apartment for five hours studying.’ ” I spoke as if into a tape recorder. “It shouldn’t take very long to type that up.”

Silence finally set in.

Television is the perfect anecdote for unwanted conversation. I don’t know how humans ever survived without it.

After a few bars of the grating evening-news theme song, an earnest middle-aged man related a story about a brutal triple-murder-followed-by-suicide in Vallejo. He looked appropriately grave for two full seconds and then turned to his female counterpart.

She nodded, furrowed her brow, and said, “A tragedy . . . And now, I believe we have some breaking news about the tree sitters in Berkeley.”

The camera shifted to the image of a khaki-and-windbreaker-clad newscaster in front of the oak grove on the UC Berkeley campus. Over the hum of protesters and bullhorns, the newscaster shouted into the microphone.

“For a week now, tree sitters working in shifts have lived on the three-hundred-year-old oak tree in protest of a campus development project that would require the trees’ removal. Negotiations began last week but have stalled . . . University officials are once again at odds with the environmental activists who have proven to be worthy adversaries in the past . . . ”

Just then my father entered the room and planted himself next to me on the couch. “You have to admire their dedication,” he said.

“I want to know when they use the restroom,” my mother said.

“That’s what the bucket is for,” I said.

The newscaster continued his report.

“. . . The tree sitters have managed to maintain a constant vigil by working in shifts. In the middle of the night there was a changing of the guards, when the police were called away by a disturbance in the sculpture garden . . . ”

The camera panned over to one of the grand old oaks and closed in on the tree sitter du jour. The reporter continued. “Currently the police are trying to find a safe and peaceful way to end the standoff. We will keep you posted on the latest developments.”

The news cut to an Ivory Soap commercial. My mother picked up her cell phone, pressed number three on her speed dial, and waited until the voice mail kicked in.

“Rae. This is your mother calling. Get the hell out of that tree right now!”

1. I have an eye for this sort of thing.

2. I’ll explain all this animal crap shortly.

3. Shockingly, my mother shows occasional bursts of fiscal integrity.

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