This did not bode well for my budding career as a spy. I had followed the directions exactly, I thought, but now I stood on the porch of the frame two-flat on North Hamlin unable to get past the door. It appeared to be locked. I knocked; no one answered. I looked for signs of business enterprise but didn’t see any. I strained to look through the window of the first-floor apartment but could see nothing through the blinds.
The ad in the paper had read, “Investigators wanted for licensed shopping service. Must have dependable car.” I had called the phone number early on Monday. The sultry-voiced female had answered, “Aragon Investigations.” She gave me the Hamlin address and said they would be taking applications all week.
So here it was Thursday, and the place, such as it was, was locked up tight. Aragon Investigations? It sounded fly-by-night to me. They hadn’t even lasted the week. (If the name sounds fly-by-night to you too, that’s because it is. I just made it up. The boss, whose name I’m also changing, wants his privacy. But the real name of Aragon Investigations sounds just as phony. Trust me.)
I decided to leave before some process server or debt collector mistook me for part of this scam, whatever it was. I departed the nether world of private investigation and retreated to the sunlit reality of my northwest-side apartment.
But then I started thinking about the dulcet tones of the voice that had answered the phone at Aragon. I was a sucker for dulcet tones. My mother used to play the dulcet for hours on end when I was a young boy. I never really got over it.
I dialed the number and got that voice again. I told her my problem and groused about not being able to get past the door.
She said, “You have to turn the knob.”
“Are you the plumber?” she asked. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
No, I wasn’t the plumber. I wanted to apply for a job as an investigator.
“Uh-huh,” she said with a discernible lack of optimism. “Turn the knob all the way to the right and push on the door. It’s not locked. It doesn’t have a lock.”
I went back to the house on North Hamlin and tried the door again. It was indeed unlocked–this time. The plumber probably fixed it.
Once inside I met Mary, the woman behind the voice. Mary is the administrative assistant at Aragon Investigations and she runs the show.
But from what I could see, it didn’t look like there was much show to run. The office takes up the living and dining rooms of what would otherwise be a residential apartment. Several desks, a copier, and phones constitute the bulk of the office equipment. And the copier can’t be used without unplugging the one window air conditioner, which serves largely as a psychological buffer against the heat of the day.
There were, however, shelves full of forms, mysterious forms, typeset forms with large, manly, intimidating headings like ARAGON INVESTIGATIONS and AMS in thick black block type. Aragon suddenly began to take on the look of a no-frills business that meant business. But where was the business? And what was the business?
“We send investigators into department stores and retail outlets to do service testing. Service testing means going into a store, acting like a customer, and reporting the quality of service there. The reports go to the store management and are used as guides for improvement.”
Doesn’t sound too exciting but it might be an OK job.
“We also send investigators into stores and bars to do honesty tests.”
Honesty tests? That sounds like a sinister piece of double-talk. What exactly is an honesty test?
“We test for employee honesty. We see if we can catch them stealing.”
All right! The jackpot. This is what I’d been hoping for.
What do you do, do you infiltrate investigators into stores and have them spy, or what?
Mary smiled and said, “Sometimes, but very rarely. Mostly we just send a crew into a store for 10 or 15 minutes to make some buys and leave.”
Ten or 15 minutes? And you catch employees stealing that way?
“About one out of every five times. In the bars our catch rate is higher, about 25 percent on average and higher than that for some investigators.”
This was hard to believe. This was dishonesty on an industrial scale.
“Employee theft is much more widespread than most people realize, and the cost of that theft, as well as the cost of combating it, pushes up prices.”
This agency, according to Mary, is the largest such service in the Chicago area, but its territory covers the entire northeastern tier of the United States. “We’re affiliated with two other agencies, one in California and one in Atlanta. They take the west and south, and we take everything from the plains to New York City. That way, any one of us can offer national coverage by working with the other two. We get the big accounts that way.”
Mary had given me quite a shock. In just minutes she had transported me from the quiet little house on Hamlin Avenue into a national arena of theft and espionage. This was a big little operation. But where was everybody?
“They’re out in the field or out on the road. The investigators come in here for only a few hours a week to drop off merchandise, pick up their schedules, and file their reports. The clients never come here. We deal with them entirely by phone or mail. Or Phil goes to see them when we first get them on.”
Phil. Phil is Philip Louis Malone, the owner and boss of Aragon Investigations. As I looked around the office I noticed a framed blowup of a newspaper article that featured Phil and Aragon a few years back. There was a picture of Phil in a mock spy disguise. I couldn’t tell exactly what he looked like, but he looked big.
I had met skilled investigators from time to time. They were usually dry and direct. Years of experience leaves them with an uncanny ability to “read” people, and when they speak, their train of speech moves in one direction while their eyes search in another. Dealing with an investigator is a little like dealing with two people at once, with one of them shining a light in your face while the other one measures your shadow. Malone was not only an investigator, he was the boss of investigators. I had to wonder, if not worry, what he would be like.
I didn’t have to wonder for long. While I had been filling out my application, taking a logic test, and scribbling a writing sample, Malone had been at the neighborhood YMCA taking his midday swim. He returned just as I finished and greeted me as he came in.
He was more pleasant than I had expected, even kindly, but he was no less large than I had guessed. And he does bear traces of that peering style and pointed glance that characterize the “type.”
He led me into his office, formerly a bedroom of the onetime apartment. He had a desk, a phone, some chairs and shelves. Lined up on one of the shelves was a set of Chicago phone books going back to 1980.
“Those are for missing persons cases,” Malone said. “You’d be surprised how handy they are for tracing someone’s past movements.”
Malone was the real thing all right. But I had only to look at the official documents hanging on the wall over his desk to know that Malone is a licensed PI, a private investigator.
It was during one of our later discussions that Malone told me what it was like. “Most people think it’s like Magnum P.I. on television, but it isn’t. It’s more like The Rockford Files. You get chased; you get shot at; you get beat up; and your client tries to beat you out of your fee,” he said. “The glamour wears thin real fast.
“When I first got started I was young and I thought I was real hot stuff. I had my license, I had a gun, and I was ready to hit the streets. It didn’t take me long to realize that the reason I had the gun was that the guys I was chasing had guns too. Along about the time I had to shoot at my first man or some guy held a gun to my head, I decided to move into a quieter end of the business.”
Yeah, me too.
For my part, I was hoping the job would only be interesting, not cataclysmic.
Malone read over my application. “You say here that you worked for [former alderman] Marty Oberman from 1975 to 1982 as a researcher and investigator.”
That’s right. Different kind of investigator, though.
“You must have done excellent work to stay with him for seven years.”
Hey, Phil, we’re off to a great start!
As it turned out, Malone said he too had worked for Oberman back in the late 70s as an outside contractor. He said he’d spent a month doing a study of the effectiveness of beat cops versus patrol cars in deterring crime. The beat cops were more effective, he found, but the police don’t like walking a beat.
After a long and wide-ranging discussion about my background, about the work, and even about life in the 80s, Malone finally said, “Well, Kent, I can look at your application and give you all the logic tests and writing tests I want. Those things can tell me when not to take somebody on, but they can’t tell me whether I should. A lot of bright, decent, excellent people have tried this work and haven’t been able to do it. I’m looking for a mix of a lot of special qualities, but the most important of them is a certain kind of inner confidence which you find in people who know what they’ve seen when they’ve seen it. I can’t test for it, and I can’t tell it from checking references or even by interviewing you.”
I got the message. Malone had been very straightforward, and that’s what he wanted from me. It was also clear that the decision was mine. It was up to me to say whether I had inner confidence.
Oh, well . . . uh . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I’m your man, Phil.
I came back in a week to begin my training. Malone gave me a manual that was the book of laws at Aragon. The manual contained instructions on the many categories of service and honesty tests in department stores, restaurants, bars, and drugstores, and sample reports in each category.
Even as one who had written a lot of reports, I had to be impressed by the considerable length and detail of what was produced by these investigators. The bar reports in particular were long and specific, reconstructed largely from memory by observers who were drinking when they were observing and hung over when they were writing.
Unfortunately, the manual also contained the pay rate schedules. “The people who do this work and do it successfully don’t do it for the money,” said Malone. “They do it because they love it.”
They’d have to. But strangely, that statement was at the heart of what would become my major fascination with Aragon and the people who work there.
Malone also gave me a very clear warning: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s someone who goes out on his training without reading the manual.”
Actually, Malone has a fairly long list of things that he introduces with “If there’s one thing I can’t stand . . .” I paid particular attention to the ones that have legal penalties. For example, it’s a class A misdemeanor to tell anybody both what I saw and where I saw it while in Aragon’s employ. I can say what I saw in a bar, but I can’t say which bar. Otherwise, as Mr. Malone so emphatically promised, I could be fined up to $1,000 and spend up to 364 days in the county jail. I would likewise be off to the big house for falsifying a report. And, if a conflict of opinion were ever to develop between myself and someone I saw stealing, I’d have to go on the lie box and verify my story or be “terminated.”
It was 7:30 the evening after the day I was hired, and I was out for my first night of training. I was standing in front of a busy Rush Street night spot where I was supposed to meet Ken, the most experienced of Malone’s bar spies, known in the trade as “spotters.”
My problem was that I had already been in the bar and had been unable to spot even Ken. I couldn’t remember what he looked like. I’d seen him in the office once or twice for a moment but never really took notice. The last time I saw him he was holding a rather becoming pink satin negligee up to his chest, the product of one of his department store service test buys. I hoped he wouldn’t be wearing it that evening. On the other hand, he would have been easier to find.
I went back inside, where Ken finally found me, and we sat down at the bar to do some heavy training.
Drinking is mandatory if you’re going to stay incognito. The bar ownership reimburses you for whatever you spend, within reason. So I attempted to drink to the limits of my reason.
Ken fits right into the bar scene. He’s friendly, good-looking, gregarious, and able to mix well with patrons and bartenders alike. He’s conspicuous but disarming, and he’s lethal to thieving bartenders. Ken knows all their tricks; he managed a bar for four years before he came to Aragon.
“Everybody has a different style,” Malone had said of his spotters. “For instance, Ken, with his tremendous experience, can go into a bar and know by instinct whether anything funny is happening. The tip jar might be too close to the register or the bartender might have some odd moves. Ken picks up on it right away and knows just when and where to look. Then he just relaxes and waits for what’s going to happen.”
And now, Ken was relaxing for all he was worth. He watched the ball game on TV; he drank; he joked and talked with me. He did everything but watch the bar, but he somehow absorbed it all anyway.
But in this bar there was nothing major to absorb, just a lot of little things that could be infractions or not, depending on the policy of the bar. We didn’t know if they were or they weren’t; we would have to report them anyway: “Bartenders were observed smoking cigarettes and drinking unidentified liquids while on duty. . . . Bartender number one was slow to solicit refill orders and slow to clear off the bar. . . . Service was fair.”
My own contribution was to notice that “cash register number two opened spontaneously without anyone in attendance and without observable cause on at least three occasions.”
“Poltergeists!” Mary exclaimed when she heard about that one. “That’s what you can expect when you’re serving spirits.”
The second bar of the evening was right around the corner from the first. There we saw some overpouring of liquor in making mixed drinks. Malone said it was important to report overpours since it could cost a busy bar from five to eight thousand dollars in wasted booze over the course of a few months. We also saw a free drink given to one customer. We had to document that by noting the time it occurred and describing the customer as well as the drink. In addition to having inner confidence, it doesn’t hurt to be a nitpicker.
We went to Ken’s car to write up our notes and talk. “What led you to take this job?” Ken asked, perhaps as curious to know why he was doing it as he was to know why I was.
I didn’t know why. I just wanted to see if I could do it.
So did Malone apparently; but according to Ken, he doesn’t give you much time: “He used to give people a couple of months, but lately he’s been giving about a week.”
A week? So training was going to be more screening than training.
“At first, he just wants to see if you’re going to put in the effort. After that, it depends on your catches.”
Yes, the catches. That was the bottom line in this business. If you don’t catch people stealing you’re out of business no matter how much effort you put in.
“The turnover rate is very high,” said Ken. “I just came back from a road trip, and almost everybody I knew was gone.”
Yeah, well old Phil looked real capable of making the hard decisions. I figured I had a fifty-fifty chance of lasting a week.
“But you’ll do all right. You’re obviously putting in the effort. And I’m going to tell him you’re the sharpest guy I ever trained.”
I was stunned. That was praise from the master indeed, and I let myself feel very good about it. But I had mixed feelings about him telling Malone. Somehow I didn’t think it would be a good idea to subject Phil to the unnecessary stress of rising expectations.
Anyway, I’d lasted a day, and I was scheduled tomorrow to train with Anne, so I asked Ken what she was like.
“She’s standoffish,” Ken said matter-of-factly.
“I mean, she looks standoffish. She’s really a very sweet girl. She’s married.”
Well, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another.
Anne was late. She was supposed to pick me up in front of my building but had gotten tangled up in the maze of one-way streets that keep visitors out of my neighborhood. She finally appeared on the nearest cross street and waved me over. Waving was about as demonstrative as Anne would get. She said she’d “thought about” honking.
Anne and I had met at Aragon earlier in the day, sort of. I think Phil introduced us and I think we said hello or something, but that was about it. Anne gave me the once-over, said something about how to dress for the evening, and then Phil asked me if it was all right for Anne to pick me up.
Anne was all business. Quiet, but not from shyness, and hardly from lack of confidence. I guess the word was “standoffish” after all. I just hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be “haughty.”
But Anne is hardly haughty. And “standoffish” is merely polite. After the first few tentative minutes, I found Anne very easy to get along with. Ken’s terse description, like that of any good investigator, was right on the money.
Anne and I began to talk. As I was getting ready to ask her the big question, she sprang it on me: “Why did you take this job?” she asked.
I don’t know, Anne. Why did you take it?
“I worked in quality control for seven years,” she said. “I guess . . . I just look at this work as . . . another form of quality control.”
Anne did three years in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago some years back, and this got her into quality control. But chemistry was Anne’s second major; her degree was in economics.
That was a good sign. I had graduated from UIC with a degree in economics. Ken, too, graduated from Circle. His degree was in criminal justice.
There was a pattern emerging here. Obviously we three investigators were cut from the same cloth.
“You have to be a little weird to make it in this work,” said Anne.
“You have to be a loner. You have to be able to work independently for long stretches at a time. And you have to really want to catch people stealing and be willing to work at it.”
Two things struck me during my first days on the job. The first was that the average level of ability and academic achievement at Aragon would make the Lincoln Park community look like an underdeveloped country. The second was that all the investigators I’d met so far shared an unquestioning disdain for theft.
“Contempt,” Anne corrected.
Ken and Anne were a definite contrast in styles. If Ken sits at the bar like some amiable spider, feeling at his web for vibrations of wrongdoing, Anne casts a net over the entire bar, her eyes weaving thousands of strands and crosshatches during the course of surveillance. And nothing escapes.
“Watch over there,” she says.
“He just put a brandy snifter behind those bottles.”
“Watch and see what happens to it.”
I can’t see anything but bottles.
“That’s where he put it.”
That sure is an odd place to put a drink. I’ll be watching now. If I stay on it, I may get to see the bartender commit one of the cardinal sins of the bartending universe: drinking alcohol on duty. I’m watching. And watching. But there are so many things to watch: waitress orders, register keys, the tip jars, tab orders, cash orders, credit card payments. There are two cash registers and two bartenders, and their hands move so fast! How do you make sense out of all this?
“It’s gone,” Anne announces.
“He picked up the brandy snifter and took it out of sight behind the back bar,” she said. “When he came back just now, he didn’t have it anymore.”
When did he do that? I was watching all the time, I thought. I never saw a thing.
This went on all night. A drink here, a coin there, a bill over there. Anne is like a master chess player, aware of every piece on the board. She follows them all from their origination to their destination and everywhere in between, pushing, prying, probing with her mind and eyes. She’s almost completely absorbed. She’s even counting coins and bills as they go into and out of the register slots. The hapless bartenders are under siege, and jovial patrons are oblivious to this mayhem among the ice cubes taking place just a few feet away.
C’mon you sons o’ bitches, steal! She’s earned it.
Finally, it happens. A couple of threads in Anne’s net begin to luminesce in the darkness of the bar, tracing out the path of money going astray.
The bar is square. The register sits on a counter at the center of the square; its display and cash drawer face Anne’s side of the bar, but they can’t be seen from the far side of the square.
A standing patron approaches the far side of the square. There’s no place to sit; he remains standing and signals the bartender. The bartender goes over and fills his order, and while there the bartender also fills an order for a customer seated over in the same area.
The bartender collects a ten-dollar bill from the standing patron and a tab from the seated customer. The bartender takes both the ten and the tab back to the register. He places the ten on the register ledge. Keep your eye on it. Just as in the old shell game, that ten-spot is the pea.
The bartender rings up the tab order–and only the tab order–on the register and on the tab. This also opens the cash drawer. He deposits no money, but he takes out change for the ten-spot. He closes the cash drawer.
The bartender goes back to the far side of the bar and gives the change from the ten dollars to the standing patron. The standing patron takes his change and his drink and leaves. The bartender gives the tab back to the seated customer.
The bartender returns to the cash register. Oh my, look at this. There’s money on the register ledge. What to do?
The bartender takes the ten-spot off the register ledge and sticks it into his tip jar. And once it’s in his tip jar, it’s ole, ole ocean, free, free, free.
Maybe the bartender forgot where the ten bucks came from. That’s all right–Anne remembers. And by the next morning, the bar management will know where it came from, too, though they’ll be a lot more interested in where it went.
Most bartenders–the ones who steal, at any rate–follow some variation of the theme set by the bartender in Anne’s catch. And most thefts have a front end and a back end.
The front end is where a drink payment goes unrecorded on the cash register. Sometimes a bartender will just ring up a “no sale” and deposit the payment. More frequently, a bartender will consistently “underring” a particular drink.
For example, you order a beer and it costs two-fifty. You give the bartender two-fifty, but he goes over and rings up only one-fifty on the cash register. Then, to your surprise, the bartender deposits the full two-fifty in the cash drawer anyway. Question: How much did the bartender just steal? Answer: A dollar. Question: But how can he be stealing a dollar if he put it in the cash drawer where it belongs? Answer: He stole the dollar when he failed to record it. He put it in the cash drawer because that’s the best place to hide money.
Of course, the dollar doesn’t do the bartender much good in the cash drawer, so that’s where the back end of the theft comes in. The back end is where the dollar makes its way from the bartender’s account–by his reckoning–into his actual possession, mostly frequently his tip jar.
The cover for this transfer of funds often is the “tip exchange.” The bartender’s tip jar gets loaded with singles, so he wants to change them for larger bills. He goes to his tip jar and counts out 20 singles in full view of everyone. The only problem is he counts one of the bills three times. Eighteen singles go into the cash drawer, and a $20 bill comes out. This is what’s known as an “uneven exchange.” In a lot of bars, tip exchanges–at least unsupervised tip exchanges–are cause for dismissal, simply because they afford such golden opportunities for the retrieval of self-awarded bonuses.
Of course, a lot of bartenders prefer a more direct route. They just take the money straight out of the drawer and stick it into the tip jar. But these guys have no self-respect. They’re even too lazy to earn what they steal.
Usually, to make a catch stick, the spotter has to document several repetitions of the front-end technique as well as at least one instance of the back-end. Anne was fortunate in that her bartender’s theft was seamless, the front and back ends were continuous. Her bartender neglected to put the pea under the shell. And he hasn’t been seen at that bar since then.
Bartenders are almost never fired for stealing per se. That could result in a lawsuit. They’re fired for failing to follow proper cash-handling procedures.
Likewise, spotters never accuse bartenders or waitresses or managers of stealing. They simply report what they see. If an employee loads a cash register into the trunk of his car, who are you to say he’s not just using it for ballast?
I had trained with the best. Now it was time to go out on my own.
Bar spotting is not necessarily easy. Either you have the knack or, like me, you have to master many unfamiliar skills in very short order.
The ability to observe is the foremost of these skills. And the conditions for observation are not ideal. Bars are dark. You have to identify and commit to a seat with a good view as soon as you walk into the bar. You have to go through all sorts of gyrations to see without being seen. And, above all, you have to drink.
This last was going to be a definite problem for me. I like a beer now and then; but after two, I’m lit. And after three . . . Well, I never have more than two, at least not that I can remember.
After observation comes retention. For this, the spotter takes notes. Of course if you just sit at the bar and take notes, you place your incognito in jeopardy, so you write up your notes in the washroom. But you can’t go too often or stay too long, and you certainly can’t let anyone see you writing. I’ve been followed into the washroom on more than one occasion by bartenders or their friends who were suspicious of me.
But each spotter does it his own way. Ken, for example, didn’t take any notes at all until after we had finished two bars. Anne, on the other hand, would disappear into the washroom and return with War and Peace.
Ken told me that when he first started out, he’d call up his house and recite his notes to his answering machine. I tried that once but gave it up: I get annoyed when drunks call up and leave slurred, garbled messages on my machine.
Then, there are the reports. The reports are very important because these are essentially what Malone is selling to the bar owners. You also get paid by the report. No report, no pay. Late report, reduced pay. They have to be very carefully written: consistent, precise, and detailed. But they also have to be hurriedly written, often a thousand words per report during the morning after your night in the bars. Ideally, they should even contain topics of interest to bar owners, like catches. But any catches have to be extremely well documented since people’s jobs are on the line.
The reports follow a standard format using the same deadpan style, no matter what is “observed during the course of the investigation.” They all sound about the same: “The operative entered the establishment on Friday, June 19, at 11:58 PM. Upon entering the establishment the operative observed 127 patrons at or on the bar. Table patronage was not observed as most tables were overturned, with patrons scattered among and about the tables at random. Most patrons were unclothed or partially clothed and were engaged in an orgy, possibly frenetic, of unspeakable licentiousness. Multiple partners were observed. The operative mingled . . .” And so on.
I like to think I contributed a certain advance to this somewhat arcane art form, a device that I call “precision hedging.” Which is, telling it exactly–and probably a little too exactly–like it was: “Employee # 1 was observed putting his hand into the register slot and making a movement which could not be distinguished from that of withdrawing a bill or bills from the slot. He then moved that same hand over to the tip jar and thrust it deep into the wad of bills already there and made a movement which could not be distinguished from that of releasing a bill or bills and withdrew his hand.”
So what else could I say when I didn’t actually see the bills? True, there were only a limited number of possibilities as to what actually happened, but one real possibility was that the bartender had spotted me and was pantomiming for my benefit.
I’m pretty sure I was privileged to watch one such performance by an old veteran who was happy to practice his artistry on the new spotter in town.
Wearing a white shirt and tight black vest, this guy looked more like a Las Vegas dealer than a bartender. Except that all of his moves were slow. Very slow. He’d move slowly around the bar and slowly to the register. His hands moved slowly across the register keys, and they’d move slowly from one cash drawer slot to the next. But when his fingers hit the bills, they’d move so fast I didn’t know what I saw.
There were many occasions when it looked like he was pulling out, then pushing back, the same bill in lightning-quick succession, never really withdrawing a bill at all. If the idea was to drive me nuts over how much money he was taking out of the drawer, he succeeded. One time he had me see him count two twenties, a five, and two singles as change for a ten-dollar bill. Another time he had me see him donate some of his own tip money to the register funds. The only clear infraction I caught was when he gave me a free drink, and that was probably out of pity. After all, I needed something for my report.
It couldn’t have been much worse. At least he didn’t offer me a ride home.
If I worried about being spotted or “burned” in most bars, there was one bar where I didn’t worry for long.
It started out well enough. The bar was crowded, which meant I could blend in, and I was able to get a seat with a fair view of the registers.
But it was only a few minutes before I felt, then saw, a searching pair of eyes. They belonged to a pretty young woman seated at a right angle to me down at the far end of the bar. She was a cool one: Miss Cool, she was. And she had too much poise for her age. She never looked me straight in the eye, so I waited for her out of the corner of mine. Her head never turned, but her eyes did. She was watching me. She was watching the bar. She was watching everything.
Well, so what? A lot of people are natural-born spotters, and a lot of them sit by themselves in bars and look around. I’d seen them before. Still, there was something different about this one. She reminded me of Anne.
In the meantime, one of the bartenders did something funny. She scooped some change out of the register drawer and dumped it into her tip jar. Then she turned right back to the register, took another scoop of change out of the drawer, and dumped that into her tip jar.
What’s this? Once was not enough?
She didn’t stop there either. Within a few minutes she added some other strange moves to her repertoire. This was it! I was going to make my first catch.
I went off to the john to write up some notes. I wanted to get down what I already saw as precisely as I could while it was still fresh.
When I came back to the bar, I was pumped up and ready. I knew exactly what to look for, and I’d be waiting. This was going to be a turkey shoot.
It took me about a half hour to realize that something had gone wrong in my absence, or rather, that something had mysteriously gone right. The bartender–my bartender–was now conducting her transactions with meticulous propriety.
What happened? I was afraid I already knew. I shifted my attention to little Miss Cool down at the end of the bar. Something had changed there, too. She wasn’t looking my way anymore.
My inner confidence began to give way to that old sinking feeling. But at least I was to be spared the torment of uncertainty.
A quarter of an hour later Miss Cool and the bartender were engaged in close conversation. I don’t quite know how I heard it, but here’s exactly how it went: “He can’t take another alcohol,” Miss Cool was telling the bartender, “so his next drink is going to be a tonic water or something like that. If he has one more drink, he’s going to have to worry about a DUI.”
Ow! was she a smart one! So she knew about the DUI, driving under the influence, an extremely unrewarding traffic offense and one that all spotters strive mightily to avoid. And how well she had me pegged! I was just about ready to order a Coke when I overheard what she said.
Well, that was it. There weren’t going to be any catches in this bar tonight. That sharp little cookie had cut me off clean.
But it could still get a lot worse. Bartenders network and fraternize in their off-duty hours, and one of the things they like to do is compare notes on spotters. So if a spotter is burned in even one bar, he’s almost certainly burned in a half dozen others.
I was in a real tight corner. The hunter was now being hunted. There was nothing else I could do. She left me no choice. I had to resort to the Big One, the Bomb, the Doomsday Machine: I ordered a Jack Daniels.
Drinking hard liquor is against regulations for spotters. But I figured that if little Miss Smarty-Pants knew everything else, she probably knew that too. I just hoped this move might confuse her and throw her off the scent. Besides, I needed a drink.
I didn’t know what effect my unorthodox libation was going to have on Miss Cool, but it affected me in a predictable way. After another few minutes, I was off to the john again. I made the kind of beeline that no bee could ever make, not unless pollen ferments. And once I got to the john, I did not write up any notes.
By the time I emerged, I’d decided to leave. I still had another bar to do. I wobbled my way toward the exit, but just as I got there I had a sudden, irresistible impulse. I looked over my shoulder and back at the bar. There was Miss Cool, wide-eyed and looking me full in the face, twisting three-quarters of the way around on her stool to do it. I could see she wasn’t so sure about me anymore, and like the very good spotter that she might have become, she had a near-desperate drive to be sure. Poor kid, I almost felt sorry for her. She had caught me red-handed, or at least red eyed, but now she couldn’t be sure.
Well, don’t think I went back and told her, either!
“How’re ya doin’, Ace?” Malone said as he walked past me. “I’d like to see you in my office as soon as you’re finished with Mary.”
Ace, huh? Well, maybe not just yet, but I was coming along. I had been at Aragon five weeks now and I’d gotten over a lot of hurdles.
Everything had its pitfalls, and it was all hard at first. But the department stores, the furniture stores, and the other stuff were coming under control. And in the drugstores, I’d even made catches. Two, so far!
This last week had been particularly good, and I was finally able to feel accomplished. Maybe there was a chance I would make it after all.
Ah, but there was still the bars. I hadn’t made any catches in the bars yet. And even though the bar spotting was only half the job, it was the half with the real aura, the real feel, the real mystique of spying.
I mean, you could imagine how Philip Marlowe or even James Bond might have got his start in the bars, sitting in the darkness, probing through the smoky haze, eyes and senses alive to the hunt. It was a little harder to imagine him in a doughnut parlor getting ready to write up some poor kid because she forgot to hand him a napkin with his lemon-filled lump.
That stuff was OK, but the bars were a class apart. The bars were . . . well, you know, man’s work.
“Women make the best spotters,” Mary had chirped up one day. “It’s different here right now, but our counterpart in California has been in the business for 40 years and almost all of his spotters have been women.”
OK, so it was man’s and woman’s work; but for me, it was man’s work. At least, it would be after my first catch.
I was curious to know why Malone wanted to see me. I knew he wasn’t going to give me a raise. There is no such thing as a raise at Aragon, just more work if you’ve earned it.
I went over to his office and darkened his door. “Oh, hi Kent, come on in and have a seat,” Malone said, without a hint of the things to come. He was writing when I came in.
I went around and sat down in the big easy chair next to his desk. I had met a lot of challenges in the last five weeks, so I was pretty much at ease with the thought of anything new. In fact, the only thing I hadn’t done so far was the hardware stores. Malone had said I’d be good at those, that I had a good eye for that kind of detail. That’s probably what he wanted to talk about now.
“Kent,” Malone said, putting down his pen, “I have the unfortunate task of telling you that I didn’t make up a schedule for you for this week.”
Ha, ha, ha . . . Well, get to work on it!
“No, I mean, I’ve given this a lot of thought over the weekend, and I just don’t think it’s gonna work out.”
What, huh? You mean . . . ? How can . . . ? I’m doing everything; I’ve even made catches in the drugstores.
“Yeah, I know, but you’re not making any catches in the bars.”
Oh, that. Yeah, but I’m doing good in everything else and I’m getting better even in the bars.
“You are! You are! You’re doing real good. And it’s not fair, I know. You’ve done all the work and you’ve done it all on time. Your reports are solid. You’ve put in as much effort as anyone has a right to expect.”
But the bottom line is the catches.
“The bottom line is the catches, and we’re down from where we should be at this time of the year. The big chains are starting to complain and I don’t want to lose them. I’m going to have to send Ken back in for a while or go back in myself.”
Malone was right of course. He had his bottom line to get to. If he didn’t, the boat would tip over for everybody at Aragon.
Ken, Anne, and Malone himself had put in extra, noncompensated time to help me along right from the start. I winced at the thought that I might jeopardize them.
“I’m surprised you’ve lasted a week,” a friend of mine in the bar business had said early on. “You hate bars; you can’t drink; and you look completely out of place in the bar crowd. Every bartender from here to Seattle probably has your description by now.”
The point had been pretty well made even at the time, but it was now that I had to face up to it. It was nobody’s fault; I just wasn’t born to spot. And Malone didn’t have the kind of margin he needed to see if I’d learn to spot. It was a cutthroat business. Results were needed when they were needed.
I had no complaints. I knew the score from the beginning. And I’d got back everything I’d put into the job, even in the bars. Somehow, though, it would have been easier to take after the first week than after the fifth.
But how about if I just stay with the stuff I’m good at: the department stores? the furniture stores? And the hardware stores!–I haven’t even had a crack at those yet.
“I don’t have enough of that locally to give just to you full-time,” Malone said. “I’ve got to have that stuff to balance out everyone’s schedules. I can’t just put them in bars all the time . . . as you well know.”
Oh yes, I did know. You have to do seven to ten bars a week even with the other stuff thrown in if you’re going to make a living at all. Without the stores, you’d have to do how many? Fifteen? Twenty? That could come to more than 40 beers and 60 hours a week! I couldn’t wish that on anybody.
“Of course, if you went on the road . . .”
No, no, don’t send me into exile. Just fire me.
“Well, OK, you’re fired, but I’ll give you a good reference.”
An honorable discharge. I suppose if you’ve got to get fired, that’s the way to get it.
“It’s not fair, I know,” Malone said again.
Don’t take it so hard, Phil.
I was going to miss this club, but at least I’d been there long enough to miss it. I came back the next week to pick up my check and guess what? The guy who’d been hired to replace me was picking up his last check, too. He’d lasted a week.
Well, the bartenders had won. I’d been out to get them; they’d got me instead. But my mere physical departure would be of small comfort to them. For one thing, I’ll ultimately be replaced by a better spotter, maybe not this week and maybe not the next, but ultimately. Malone will see to that.
More important, I’ll still be in the bars, if only in spirit. My spirit had been a lot more willing than my flesh anyway, and as a spirit I’d get a much better view of the action. Like the Ghost of Spotters Past, I’ll be lurking in the darkness, looking over shoulders, haunting the nooks and hovering in the crannies, watching and waiting, waiting and watching.
Wherever there’s a tip jar too close to an open register, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s an overpour of liquor, I’ll be there. Wherever a bartender fails to record an order, I’ll be there. And wherever there’s a free drink served, I’ll certainly be there.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.