I had just been hired to follow a guy. Funny thing was, I had no know idea why I was being hired to follow him. The guy paying me just said, “Keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
Normally I don’t work on cases without having some facts, but I owed the guy one so I took the job. Hoping the work would be easy I clipped my gun on my hip, slipped into the trench coat my girlfriend gave me last Christmas and headed out the door. When I caught my reflection in a store window I smiled. Stunning. Then I got in my car and drove to Manhattan.
Around nine-thirty in the evening I parked my car my next to a hydrant on West 14th Street. The guy I was supposed to follow over would be on 12th. When I found him he looked harmless enough. Pudgy and around forty, he wearing a black leather jacket, blue jeans and a pair of sturdy looking black shoes. A soft rain was falling, misting the light from the street lamps into disinterested halos. The man didn’t have an umbrella but didn’t seem to notice the rain. Then again he didn’t seem to notice the anything – not the homeless people begging for change, the artsy types outside the galleries or the pretty co-eds with cute butts walking down the street. Feeling the co-eds were being neglected I decided to notice for him. The guy was deep inside his head but I didn’t wonder why. It made him easier to tail.
The man went into a bar off 11th so I followed him inside. It wasn’t my kind of place – noisy crowded, full of impossibly young students boasting about how important their lives were going to be. Besides, the music was bad. The man sat at the bar and ordered a double scotch on the rocks. I grabbed a stool on the opposite side and ordered a Blue Moon draft. I stole glances at the guy while I pretended to study the menu.
I watched as the guy drank his scotch with great deliberation. As he sipped he stared at his reflection in the mirror over the bar. His face looked like he was girding himself for an unpleasant task. Halfway though his drink his cell phone vibrated on top of the bar. He glanced at the screen, downed his scotch and walked out. I dropped a ten on the bar and followed him.
The guy went around the block and met a slim girl in blue jeans and a tight fitting leather coat coming out of a building. She was very pretty and her long brown hair was tied in a ponytail. The man said a few words and they started walking down the street. As I fell in behind them I could hear the girl chattering nervously. The man didn’t say much. They held hands for a minute but when the girl let go he stuffed his hands inside his coat.
After a few blocks they walked into a restaurant near Union Square and sat at a table in the back. I went to bar where I could keep an eye on them and got another beer. When the bartender set a bowl of peanuts down in front of me my nostrils flared inelegantly. I hadn’t eaten during the drive over and I was hungry. After a while the waitress brought the girl a hamburger and the guy another scotch. I was envious of the girl’s hamburger. Pretty soon the couple was in deep conversation. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about but judging from their body language it wasn’t good. Sipping my beer I watched as emotions ran riot across the girl’s face. The man looked like he was imploding into the center of himself.
Halfway through the girl’s hamburger the man finished his scotch. The waitress appeared and pointed to his empty glass. The man nodded and the waitress went away. Then the conversation took a turn. The man slammed his hand down on the table and the girl flinched. The people sitting at the next table glanced at the couple covertly and started whispering to one another. When the waitress arrived with the man’s second scotch I silently prayed he didn’t drink it. He looked like he was about to explode. Three drinks in half an hour are not good for the temper.
But instead of drinking the man stood up and put on his coat. He reached for his wallet but the girl grabbed his hand and shook her head. Leaning forward the man said something, planted a kiss on her lips and walked out leaving a perfectly good whisky on the table.
When I got outside the guy was trying to hail a cab. Because of the weather most of the cabs were taken and the guy was competing with twenty other people for the leftovers. As the rain started coming down harder his face contorted into rage and he yelled, “Fuck!” at the top of his lungs. The people around him jumped. Suddenly he didn’t look harmless anymore.
“What the wrong with you asshole? ” a big guy in gym clothes shouted at him. The man ignored him and continued walking briskly down the street. The gym rat started after him. Uh oh. This was the trouble I was hired to look out for. I ran up and grabbed Gym Rat by the arm.
“Leave him be,” I said. “He didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Fuck him,” Gym Rat said, his face reddening “He can’t do that in front of me.”
“He’s having a bad night. We’ve all have bad nights.”
“He’s not the only one having a hard time in this city. I’m gonna give that clown a piece of my mind.”
Just great. My guy just had to piss off another person in an equal amount of pain. It felt like I was watching two burn victims bumping into each other in a hospital corridor.
“Let it go brother,” I said.
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Yes I can,” I said, squeezing his arm like a vise.
“Hey,” Gym Rat squealed, his anger shifting towards me. “Get your hands off me.”
I’m six-two and weigh two hundred pounds. I used to box professionally, can bench press 300 pounds and run five miles a day. I’ve killed several men and busted up more people than I care to remember. Gym Rat was all show muscle and attitude. I squeezed harder.
“Go home,” I said softly. “This isn’t the time or the place.”
Gym Rat looked up at me and crunched through his options. Sensing they weren’t good he said, “Okay man. No worries.”
“Thank you,” I said, letting go of his arm. “You have a nice night.”
The man I was supposed to follow was already a block ahead of me. If he got lucky and snagged a cab I’d lose him. I jogged up the street and fell in behind him. Hearing my footfalls he turned around and looked at me.
“Are you following me?” he said.
Not having a slick answer I said, “Yeah.”
“Because you look like you’ll kill the first guy who looks crossed-eyed at you.” I said. “Calm down.”
The man stopped and leaned against a lamppost. He was breathing heavy.
“Take deep breaths,” I said. “Get some air into your lungs. You’ll feel better.”
The man took in a shuddering breath, held it and let it out. He looked like he was drowning in a glass of water.
“Trouble with the lady?” I said.
“Yeah,” the man said.
As I waited for the man to catch his breath I stood next to him silently. The only sound in the world was the rain falling.
“I’ve been where you’ve been.” I said after a minute. “You’ll be okay.”
“I know,” the man said. “I know.”
“How are you getting home?”
“I have a car.”
“You’re a mess,” I said. “Why don’t you let me drive?”
The man shrugged and handed me his keys. Not the talkative type I guess.
I found the man’s car wedged between an SUV and a pick up all the way over on the East Side. After we climbed inside I gracefully slid out of the tight spot and headed towards 8th Avenue. If the man noticed my masterful car handling skills he didn’t say anything.
“You mind if I smoke a cigar?” he said.
“It’s your car,” I said. “And your lungs.”
The man slid a short stubby cigar out of a cellophane wrapper and lit it with a wooden match. After he got it going he opened the passenger window for ventilation.
“Where do you live?” The man told me and I started looking for the Lincoln Tunnel. New York’s not my normal beat and I was afraid of getting lost. That’d be embarrassing.
“You want to talk about what happened?”
“No,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Soon we were in tunnel and headed for the Garden State. Call me Natty Bumppo. But as we drove under the Hudson the man’s cigar really started to annoy me. I decided not to say anything and rolled down my window.
“So who are you?” the man asked. His voice sounded tired.
“I’m a private detective,” I said. “I was hired to watch over you tonight.”
“A private detective?” he said, laughing harshly. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I shrugged.
“How’d you get into that racket?”
“I like the work,” I said. “Besides you know what they say, ‘Can’t sing. Can’t dance….’”
“I didn’t need you back there,” the man said. “I can take care of myself.”
“We all need some help sometimes. Besides, I owe the guy who hired me a favor.”
Soon we pulled up to frame house on a tree-lined street. The man looked at it like he was about to walk into prison.
“This the place?”
“Yeah,” the man said, tossing his cigar out the window.
“Listen,” I said. “You wanted something you couldn’t have from a person who couldn’t give it to you. Happens all the time.”
We got out of the car and I gave him his keys. The booze had finally hit him and he swayed unsteadily on his feet.
“Who hired you anyway?” he asked.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
I patted him on the shoulder. “See you around kid.”
The man shook his head in confusion and went inside the house. After he slept off the whisky he’d forget all about me. That was okay. I was used to it.
After a minute a light went on and somewhere inside the house a dog barked. I pulled the collar of my trench coat up against the rain walked to the bus stop. When I got back to the city I retrieved my car and headed back to Boston, feeling like I’d live forever.