A Tess Monaghan Mystery
Tess Monaghan hated surveillance work, something of a problem for someone who made her living as a private investigator. Do what you love and you'll love what you do, they told her. Well, she loved everything else about her job. Loved being her own boss, loved being her only employee. She was even starting to love her gun, which she knew was kind of creepy. Unfortunately, surveillance work was a private investigator's bread-and-butter, and she loathed every minute of it, especially in the cause of romantic disputes. Besides, it was just so passive. All her life, she had hated waiting for things to happen. She yearned to be an instigator. Yet here she was again, slouched down in the front seat of her car, camera ready to document someone else's bad behavior.
She stared at the faded plaster king who welcomed guests to the Enchanted Castle Motor Court on Route 40. Time had not been kind to him -- his purple coat had whitish spots that made it appear as if it were motheaten, his face was pitted, and one eye had faded away, so his once-genial smile was now more of a leer. Still, he made her feel nostalgic, for Maryland's past and for her own. There was a time, almost in her memory', when Route 40 was the major east-west highway across the state of Maryland and these kinds of campy stucco cottages had beckoned to travelers with neon promises of air-cooled rooms and fresh pies in the diner.
As for Tess, she had lost her own virginity in this particular motor court, at the allegedly sweet age of sixteen. The wine had been sweet at least. Mogen David, hijacked from her Gramma Weinstein's Seder almost two months earlier, because teenage Tess had been methodical about her bad behavior. The younger version was always plotting, looking ahead to the night when she could just get it over with -- first drunk, first dope, first sex -- mark another milestone on her path to adulthood. Why had she been in such a hurry? She couldn't even remember now. Anyway, it hadn't been bad, it hadn't been good. In fact, it wasn't unlike her early rowing practices. Sore muscles you didn't even know you had on the day after. But it got better, and she got better at it. Just like rowing.
This was the part she remembered the best: The motor court's diner had still been open then and afterwards she had blueberry pie, hot, with vanilla ice cream, the chubby king smiling benignly at her through the glass. That had been just perfect. To this day, blueberry pie made her blush. Now the diner was just a rusting a minum shell. Despite the reputation fostered by the film Diner, Baltimore had a severe diner deficit, if you didn't count the modem, ersatz ones, and Tess sure didn't. "Where have you gone, Barry Levinson?" she sang softly to herself. "Charm City lifts its hungry eyes to you." No more diners, no more tin men. No Johnny U's Golden Arm, no Gino's, no Hot Shoppes Jr.'s, no Little Taverns.
Great, her litany of fast-food ghosts had made her hungry. And her right leg was cramping up. She eased the driver's seat back, tried to massage her hamstring, but a twelve-year-old Toyota Corolla just didn't afford much room when you were five-foot-nine and most of it was inseam. Damn, she hated surveillance work. She tried to make it a rule not to take such assignments, but principles had to be suspended sometimes in light of certain economic realities. Or, in this case, when a certain friend had promised her services without asking first.
At least the client was a woman. She was a sexist about this, no other word. But in her experience, cuck-olded men tended toward violence against others, and she didn't want that on her conscience. Women were masochists, dangers to themselves. Usually. Tess looked at this it way: Four thousand years after the Greeks, Medea would still be front-page news, while feckless Jason wouldn't even rate a question in Cosmo's Agony column.
Not that women's cases weren't lose-lose propositions in their own way. If you didn't get the goods on hubby, some women didn't want to pay for the time put in, they didn't get that a job had been done, even if it had yielded no results. These were the kind of women who tipped poorly in restaurants, on the theory that they provided food service all the time without compensation.
But if you did turn over a discreet set of photographs of hubby leaving, say, a motor court on Route 40, a redhead giantess in tow, the kill-the-messenger syndrome kicked in -- literally. One cheated-on wife had aimed her neat little Papagallo pump at Tess's shin. Tess had counted to ten, left the suburban palace that was about to loom large in the divorce case, and discreetly let all the air out of the tires on the woman's Jeep Cherokee.
So she charged more now. She told would-be clients it was because surveillance work was a bore, which was true, but it was really the aftermath she hated, the moment of truth, which was anything but boring. "Excuse me, ma'am, while you're weeping and thinking about the implications of this information for your twenty-year marriage and your two children, could I trouble you to write me a check?" Tess had started taking much bigger retainers and sending refunds. Easier on everyone.
Unfortunately, this particular wastrel-husband had eaten through the retainer in the first week, without actually doing anything. A nervous type, he cruised the city's best-known prostitution strips, window-shopping, beginning negotiations, then breaking them off at the last minute. Tess had taken a few photographs of women bent toward his car on long, skinny legs, but such photos paid no premiums in divorce court. He could always claim to be asking, for directions.
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