Stakeout! Part 1

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A Natalie McMasters Story

By Thomas A. Burns, Jr.

Shit happens.

It's totally an excuse. Something that people say to explain things that don't make sense - a lightning bolt hits a tree and a falling limb kills some poor schmuck just walking down the street. Shit happens. Wrong place, wrong time. You know how it goes.

But then there's the other shit - the really bad shit that people do. Nine-eleven. People who microwave kittens, or babies. Shit, that when you hear about it, you want to shut it out, not think about it, but you just can't help it, because it plays over and over again in your head. And it's even worse when you see it for yourself. You can't just say, "Shit happens," and get away with it.

So I'm writing this to try and make sense out of something that makes no sense. Or maybe it does make sense and I don't want to accept it. Or maybe, shit just happens.

My name is Natalie McMasters. I'm twenty, short and blonde (OK, it's bleached), way cute and a pre-law student at State. And I'm also a private detective - a private detective trainee, to be precise.

It starts in Constitutional History class. Dr. Mac is going on about the reasons why two amendments proposed by James Madison as part of the Bill of Rights were not ratified when my cell phone goes off. Of course it's silenced but the vibration makes me jump.

"You have a comment, Ms. McMasters?"

"No ma'am." The tingling stops - it's kicking over to voicemail.

Of course, I have a terrible time paying attention from then on because it might be Michael, calling to tell me he was just kidding - he really hadn't gotten engaged to somebody else while he was still engaged to me. Yeah, right.

So first thing when I get out of class, I dig the phone out. Dr. Mac walks by as I'm calling voicemail and says, "You know, students really shouldn't bring those things to class, even if they're quiet. You just weren't there for the last fifteen minutes!"

I smile sheepishly as the mechanical voice starts up in my ear, "You have one new message. Press "1" to listen."

I hit the key, and then swallow my disappointment as I hear Uncle Amos.

"Hey, Nattie. I need you to relieve me as soon as you get this. I'm like to bust a kidney. I'm parked in front of 415 Smith Street. See you soon."

Uncle Amos is my mother's brother who runs a detective agency out of a nearby small town, mainly 'cause he doesn't want to pay the rent on an office here in the state capital. He's hired me as his assistant while I'm in school. The pay ain't great but the work ain't hard - most of the time I can study in the car while I'm on stakeout. Most of his business comes from dogging insurance scofflaws, waiting for them to do something for the camera that shows they're not hurt as badly as they say. He even got me a private detective trainee's license from the state, of which I'm prouder than I like to let on.

So I walk to my car and punch 415 Smith Street into the GPS. It's not long before I see his old Chevy, parked halfway up the block. I park a little ways behind then walk up and let myself in the passenger side.

Uncle Amos leans towards me, and I meet him half way so he can give me a peck on the cheek.

Uncle Amos is as Southern as grits, biscuits and country ham, all of which he consumes way too much of. He's not a lot taller than my 5'1" but he's easily double my weight. He's not quite sixty and I constantly worry that he's not going to make it there if he doesn't stop with the fatty food and the cigarettes. He has a broad, likeable face topped off with a shock of pure white hair. It's a great face for a PI – it makes people just naturally want to tell him things. He's wearing his usual cheap, wrinkled suit with the collar open and his tie pulled halfway down the front of his shirt - I don't think I've ever seen him with it done up properly. Magnum P.I. he ain't, but he's my uncle and I love him.

"Whatcha got?" I ask

His eyes narrow critically as he looks me over.

"That's a fine way to dress on stakeout." I'm wearing a tube top with my belly bare, and short shorts.

"Hey, I was in class! I didn't go home to change 'cause you were like, get here ASAP."

"That's a fine way to dress for class," he snorts.

"Whatcha got?" I ask again.

"See the little white house three doors up?" he asks rhetorically. "Our boy lives there. Randall Leighton. He builds houses. Claims he pulled somethin' in his back on his last job and now he cain't work a lick. Got hisself a great big disability policy, so I reckon he could be out for a long time. Insurance company just wants to make sure they're not givin' him an extended vacation."

The house is small, no more than a thousand square feet, with a screened porch on the side farthest from us. A blue Ford van that has seen better days is parked in the driveway on the other side.

"Lives alone?"

"Yep," says Uncle Amos. "Hasn't stirred today. You take him the rest of the day?"

"Sure." I pause, thinking, and then ask, "Can he get out of there without the van?" I want to save myself to trouble of casing the street, knowing that Uncle Amos has already done it.

"Not real easy," Uncle Amos says. "Railroad tracks at the bottom of an embankment behind the house and they's nothin' on the other side but a car dealership and the highway. You saw the mom 'n pop shop at the end of the street when you came in?" I nod. "He leaves without the van, likely that's where he's bound. Ain't really nothin' else in the neighborhood. They got biscuits and hot dogs down there, you get hungry. But be careful. He can get out with the van at the other end of the street and you'd never see him go if you're down there. Okay?"

I nod again.

"Good," he says. "I been here since sunup. I'll wait if you want to get some food, elsewise I'd like to be gone."

"I'll be okay till dinner," I say, "but I'd better get some smokes". Typically, we don't do round-the-clock surveillance on these insurance cases. It's usually enough just to catch your mark carrying a heavy trash can out to the street, running after a kid, or pushing a lawn mower. One time, I even got a picture of a guy working out on a rowing machine in the gym who claimed he'd thrown his back out!

"You need to quit that mess," says Uncle Amos, referring to my smokes.

"You smoke! You need to lose some weight, too!"

Once back in my car, I wait until Uncle Amos is gone, then pull up nearer to Leighton's house. I get out my Constitutional History book, light up a smoke and begin to read with an eye on Leighton's door.

It's nearly dinner time and I'm thinking about calling it a day when Leighton comes out. I get a pretty good look at him during the short time it takes him to get in the van. He's nearly six foot and a little paunchy, probably in his forties with brown hair and a bald spot on top. He's wearing a tight-fitting, striped polo shirt and a pair of Dockers. He fires up the van, backs out and turns toward me. I sink down in the driver's seat as he passes but he doesn't even look my way. I watch in the mirror until he turns at the end of the block before I follow.

Leighton is easy to tail - why shouldn't he be, he has no idea that anyone's interested in him. We end up at a large Chinese restaurant less than a mile away. As he turns into the parking lot, I briefly consider just going on home, but then I pull right in after him. What can it hurt, he doesn't know me from Eve - this way I can get a really good look at him. I give him a minute or two and then follow him inside.

As I step into the ostentatious lobby, I realize I've screwed up. Leighton is at the take-out counter, picking up a large brown bag. Wow, dude must be totally crazy about Chinese food - there's gotta be enough in that bag for three or four meals! I can't risk following him back outside, but it's likely he's just returning home. This time he does notice me as he passes - his eyes go straight to my boobs, then strip away my tube top and my shorts as they slowly slide down my body. Great, the dude's a letch! Now I really hope I can catch him carrying bricks with my digital camera!

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