Twenty Five

They play in the pool, it’s overcast today, they won’t cook in the sun. Afternoon nap, tea, then it’s time for cocktails and dinner. Awesome if I do say so myself. Steaks are perfect, crunchy char, just past bleeding inside, tender as a country girl’s heart.
Natalie, “Damn Chef, you exceed yourself, this is like pulled beef, falls apart as I chew.”
Elle, “Ditto.”
I went with mashed, skin on, buttered up, sour cream and chives in the mash. We have marchand du vin sauce, which is amazing on the steak and amazing on the potatoes. I grilled peppers, red, yellow, orange, in a bit of grapeseed oil, added a bit of Tonkatsu sauce at the finale.
Elle, “You should open a restaurant.”
“Thank you, way too much work. When you’re in the restaurant business, particularly if you do dinner, it owns you, you don’t own it. I have a bare bones idea though. What if we had a place that served down home, you know, fried catfish, meatloaf and gravy, southern style green beans, creamed corn, pot roast, I even have a recipe for fried vegetables, cauliflower, mushrooms, broccoli? Think it would work? No delivery, table service or takeout.”
Natalie, “You going to stand around a commercial kitchen all day?”
“Nope, at least not after training. Here’s the rest of the idea. Who wants work, but frequently can’t get it?”
Zoe C, “I’d say illegal immigrants, but they usually find work, umm disabled people?”]
Natalie, “Ex cons.”
“Zoe C has a good idea, my thought was ex cons. Hire a good cook, then have the parolees learn the kitchen and the front. Pay them real wages, fifteen an hour, no tip jars, health insurance, maybe even offset some or much of the cost.”
Elle, “How are you going to make money?”
“At first it won’t, but if it catches on, after four or five places, volume lowers costs. I don’t care if margins are thin, or even nonexistent. I bet it can work at breakeven with just one or two restaurants.”
Natalie, “Can Zoe C and you put together approximate lease costs, what equipment costs, you can buy used restaurant equipment for a song. Then food, utilities blah, blah. I’ll work with Zoe C to spreadsheet the numbers. It might work if you’re purpose is primarily philanthropic, help guys who can’t get work elsewhere. I bet there are women ex cons who can cook. Hispanics and black women have advanced cooking skills, especially for basics like you’re talking about. It’s where they live, how to max their food dollar.”
Zoe C, “Sounds like fun, I can imagine interesting stories coming out of the employees.”
Natalie, “Take cash and debit cards only?”
“No, screw it, cards are welcome, checks we can scan at the time and suck the money out on the spot.”
“When do we start?”
“Nat has a day job, stretching to evening job. Zoe C has flex hours, she and I will start the real estate search. Then I have to find a cook, talk over menu possibilities. I’ll handle that.”
Elle, “I want in, what can I do?”
“Good, thank you. See the county and find out what the restaurant regs are. Everything, the rules for health, the rules for employees, who needs a health certificate, anything else. The county will have a department for this stuff. Meet with them, tell them straight up, we want to know what the rules are so we get it right, not so we can figure out how to circumvent them. After we’ve accumulated enough preliminary data, we meet up and see what happens next.”
Zoe C, “We have a collective project, nice.”
“Tomorrow is Sunday, if you want to do any research that’s up to you, If you want to kick around ideas while we relax, that might lead to something too. Monday, Zoe C and I start looking for leases, Elle and Natalie do your bit as time permits, this isn’t a rush job. If it take six months or a year, it doesn’t matter.”
I wonder what I’m getting myself into, but the girls are enthusiastic and we will learn something regardless of success.
No TV tonight, they’re caught up in the idea and kick around possibilities until midnight. I only know that because Natalie mentioned it the next day, I went to sleep at eleven.
When I wake, Natalie is there, dead away. I would have remembered sex, she came to my bed for the room I suppose. I get up, do morning wake up things, head to the kitchen and crank the pot.
I’m having coffee poolside while I flip through online newspapers.
Natalie comes with coffee, and a second cup for me, “What’s going on in the world?”
“Too much politics, too little actual governing. Same wars as yesterday and last year. No mass shootings so far, but it’s only a matter of time.”
“Depressing, or it should be, but I’m not.”
“Too much to absorb. There’s either a bad news damper in our brain or we just see so much it becomes opaque, like good things, we get habituated, then what was wonderful is only a repeat.”
Zoe C takes a chair, “I overheard. I’ve been reading a couple of the gurus, like Nisargadatta, Krishnamurti, a fair number of Buddhist types, ancient and modern, and a guy still above ground named Rupert Spira. He’s pretty good at summarizing what the ancients up to twentieth century gurus have said.”
“What did they say?”
“That consciousness, which they call awareness, is not something our minds create. Consciousness was there first, it created the universe, our minds create the things we see, including each other.”
Natalie, “So it’s all a dream?”
“In a manner of speaking. He uses the example of a movie screen. Awareness is the screen, without it, there’s no movie. When one movie ends, the screen remains, untouched by the events in the movie. Or like waves on the ocean. The ocean is constant, still in its depths, we are that ocean of awareness, our thoughts are merely ripples on the surface, they arise for a bit, then slip away.”
“What’s the point?”
“We think of ourselves as a self, other people are other selves, things, rocks, tables, cars, houses are within awareness, but awareness is unaffected. Transient things come and go, awareness never changes. In sum, we are all connected because we are the awareness, consciousness. We can return to pure awareness by sticking with I am. They say it is possible to be aware of being aware, which is meditation.”
Natalie, “What happens when that happens?”
“Nothing, nothing ever happens in awareness…except bliss. They use the word love, but that has so many false associations, I prefer bliss. Not happiness about a thing or event, which is more transience. Permanent eternal bliss with no beginning and no end.”
“And how do we fall into the bliss?”
“We never lost it, it is only masked by our belief that the things we see are reality. However, nothing that changes is real, awareness is the only reality.”
Natalie, “I need more coffee before I get to awareness.”
Zoe C giggles, Elle comes out, “What’s so funny?”
“Eternal bliss.”
“I can see that, in fact, I’m pretty happy all the time, maybe not bliss.”
I notice for the first time, she’s right, she is happy all the time. Not airhead happy, but undisturbed, smiling, like she’s glad to be in this world upright and sentient. I don’t think being hot hurts either.
“Tell us Elle, you seem to take things in stride, calmly. Where did that arise, or do you even know, perhaps it’s just temperament.”
Elle, “I don’t want to bore you with personal stuff.”
“If you choose to say, we will listen, if not, we accept that as well.”
Natalie returns with a steaming mug, “What did I miss?”
Zoe C, “Elle is annoyingly happy, we asked her to explain, Chef said only if she wanted to, it’s none of our business.”
Natalie, “Chef has many exceptional attributes, understanding women is not his métier. No insult Chef, no man can.”
I nod, so far, nothing I didn’t know.
Elle grins, “Women talk about everything too much, men too little, it frustrates both sides. To your question….,” she pauses, thinking it over.
“My father was the drill sergeant, go to med school, be a lawyer, blah, blah. My mother was angry, hostile, beyond unreasonable, it was hard to fathom, we had an otherwise nice life. More likely, she was that way when my father was around and he bailed because of it. I got the consequences of her anger. It was…ugly.”
We wait, she doesn’t want ‘so sorry’ or a pat on the shoulder, she’s actually smiling.
“People can’t help who they are, I got that concept early and I don’t know why. I accepted what she did because there was nothing I could do about it. She was miserable all day every day. One day she came at me with her usual intent, kick me around the apartment. Instead, I clocked her, hard. Then I put a butcher knife to her throat and told her to emancipate me and give me a hundred thousand dollars. I knew she had it, about a quarter of her account. She played tough until I cut a long scar across her cheek. After that, until the papers came through, she avoided me. I got out with enough to finance my education. I consider myself blessed, can’t find a reason to mope or regret.”
“What happened to mom?”
“Picked a drunken fight with the wrong guy, he was armed, she wasn’t. That got me the rest of her money. I can maintain an apartment, have a decent car, the rest is invested.”
“Good for you, you didn’t have a mother, you had an oppressor.”
“How I saw it. Ever since then, I figure I can handle whatever, maybe not Wonder Woman, but since then I’ve never felt fear.”
“Some people use hardship to build character, which is what you did. Kenyan runners consistently win marathons. They train as children running on uneven ground, barefoot or with bare bones shoes in hot or freezing weather. Americans believe they should be given top shelf Nikes and training facilities. In their rush to be ‘fair’ they take away the Kenyan advantage, that they win because of hardship, not because of comfortable shoes and coaches.”
Elle, “Exactly, which is what happened to me, I am perversely grateful for my horrid mother, how can I not be grateful for everything else?”
I ponder her comment, excuse myself, “Time for nutrition, how do pancakes and crispy bacon sound?”
Zoe C, You cook it, we eat it.”

Twenty Six

A week passes, it’s Friday afternoon, pushing five thirty, girls are over again.
Zoe C, “Chef and I did our bit, there’s no shortage of locations, we found two that were former restaurants. We decided that was a bad sign, we walked to surrounding businesses, asked if anyone remembered the restaurant. One got bad reviews because of the food, the other got great reviews. According to two different people, the owner was a gambler and blew the cash from the business which left him short of cash to pay vendors.”
Natalie, “How’s that location otherwise?”
“There’s a McDonalds a block away, a doughnut place in the same strip where the restaurant used to be. The McDonald’s was there when the former place was in business, it wasn’t a problem, the doughnut shop does good morning business but it’s pretty much over with by ten.”
Elle waves a packet, “These are the regulations, the county will inspect and tell you what conforms and what doesn’t. A spot that was already a restaurant might make it simpler.”
“Can you check with them again, see if the place we’re talking about had violations?”
“Sure.”
“Now to find a cook and supporting cast. Monday, Zoe C and I are going to meet one of the managers at the LA County Probation Office. Maybe we find a cook and supporting employees from there.”
Natalie, “What will be the hours of operation?”
“I’m deciding, do we want to open early and serve breakfast? Maybe McDonald’s and a doughnut shop are too much competition. My inclination is to run lunch, say eleven to three. Then we see if there’s any demand for dinner.”
Natalie, “How do you figure that out?”
“Ask lunch customers for one. Or we can do take out only after three, who knows, once we’re running it may be evident which way we head.”
Zoe C, “Food costs will be all over the lot until we decide what sells and what can be dropped. My thought is to go really simple. Chef says poboy sandwiches are popular, hot roast beef and gravy, grilled sausage with peppers, meatball, then a half dozen entrees. Fried chicken, meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, red beans and rice with sausage, white beans too, pork chops maybe, chili might work. We think if we get the right cook, he or she will have suggestions.”
Elle, “Making me hungry.”
“Speaking of meatballs, that’s what’s on tap for tonight, rotini pasta, I don’t like fighting with long strands of spaghetti.”
Natalie, “Good idea, you could do that at the restaurant.”
We make our way through dinner, make our way through Kill Bill. I say my goodnights to three girls sitting around the patio table with a bottle of sauvignon blanc. It’s cool to chilly, they have the outdoor heaters going. They may be up to the wee hours.
Guess not, maybe forty five later Natalie slips in, she’s exploring, I’m arousing.
I feel her hand around me, “Jesus, if it gets any harder it will be granite.”
“It’ll keep, suppose you let me warm you up with my special tongue dance, then we’ll put the rock to work.”
Natalie bites her lower lip, I get busy. After a few, I feel thighs tighten around my head, a sign that my tongue should be still, but not removed. I get my reward, she quivers, stretched her legs out, grabs the back of my head and grinds me. She settles and I shift to her side. We kiss.
“I left my scent on you.”
“Lavender.”
“I also like cherry and vanilla, and cherry vanilla.”
“I remember the cherry…from before.”
“I use that most of the time, lavender is more girly….Zoe C is a fan.”
“And Elle? You don’t need to answer, I don’t want a playbook.”
“Suffice it to say, Elle is giddy with whatever, she’s a walking orgasm.”
“You going to visit?”
“Maybe tomorrow, when I left Elle was going down on Zoe C on the patio.”
“Ah, I’m honored you can to me then.”
“I noticed, the flagpole is so rigid.”
“Want me to….”
“Yes.”
In the morning, she’s still here. We had our fun, she curled up against me and I faded into sleep with a smile on my puss.
Saturday morning, just another gloriously sunny day in Malibu. I’d put out fresh cut fruit with crème fraiche, figuring after a fairly heavy dinner that would do until lunch. I have a big veal shank to cook, osso buco for this evening. There’s chicken marinating, I’m in the mood to do barbeque chicken on the grill. They can pick over that for lunch. I want to make ice cream cones for dessert. There’s Ben and Jerry vanilla in the freezer, no chocolate and I need waffle cones.
At the patio door, three luscious nudes are enjoying the fruit, I’m enjoying…well, “Girls, I have a very short grocery run to make, lunch will be barbeque chicken, dinner is osso buco.”
Zoe C, “I’m going to swim until I sink, burn a few calories in anticipation. Chef makes superb barbeque chicken.”
I go off to the local market. Before I make my way to ice cream and cones, I pass a stand with fresh corn still in the husk. Pick up four, then the cones. I make a separate side trip to Trader Joe’s, I want several cartons of their ultra chocolate ice cream, smooth not grainy and the flavor is excellent, not overpowering. 
Since I know California traffic can be chaotic, Zoe C and I always have a cooler in the Hyundai. Before we go shopping, we dump a couple of frozen packs in the cooler. The kind they use to ship when items are perishable. It keeps our cold stuff cold in the event of a freeway nightmare. Today the traffic gods are with me, or at least not against me, the drive is easy.
Put away the food. The recipe I found for corn on the cob is absurdly simple but very well rated. Husk the ears, rinse and get all the fluff off. Add sugar and lemon juice, not a lot of either, to a boiling pot of water and stir until the sugar dissolves. I’m going to use molasses, it will add a different southern sweet to the corn. Here’s the interesting part, put the ears into the boiling pot, turn off the heat and cover. Ten minutes later, you have tasty tender corn on the cob.
I have my chicken parts organized, make my signature (stolen signature) barbeque sauce, which is embarrassingly simple. Ketchup, Worcestershire, brown sugar, molasses, mustard powder, garlic and onion, a chopped jalapeno and one, only one, minced habanero pepper, bit of vinegar. Let it mix in a warm, just under simmering, uncovered pot. A half hour is plenty, stir every five or so. The sauce can sit covered until I need it.
Zoe C passes, “Making your barbeque sauce?” She peers in the pot, lifts the lid and sniffs, “Ah, so good.”
“Get enough of a swim in?”
“Yes, and diving. None of us are going to represent UCLA, but we don’t belly flop, Elle is pretty good, her early years of gymnastics give her excellent proprioceptive sense. Her mother gave her something anyway.”
“Elle will be fine, she’s pretty, friendly and happy, I’ve never seen her in a photograph, I think she’d be photogenic, but I’m not even a blundering amateur.”
“I don’t know either. I do know she has no interest in modeling, she has done a little stage, in high school and takes a drama class at school for a change of pace from business and CS.”
While they sun, I start the chicken. My process is slow, I take almost an hour to grill chicken with lots of turning, painting with seasoned grapeseed oil, more turning. I don’t mind, sun on my shoulders, sip a Sapporo, glance over at nude girls slathering themselves and each other with sunscreen, big floppy hats protecting satiny faces.
The chicken is done, I turn the heat on the grill to just warm, go inside to boil water for the corn. When it’s in the pot, covered and cooking in its own heat, I take the sauce out and coat the chicken pieces. Just a little, the sauce will be warm in a bowl, girls can add more to their taste.
“Food’s up when you’re ready. Take the chicken off the grill, add more sauce if you want. Corn is in foil on the grill, clarified butter to baste is on the patio table. Mimosas in just a bit.”
They hit the pool shower, lather hair and bodies, big towels to dry, brush out hair, although only Natalie has relatively long hair, to her shoulders. Zoe C and Elle are cut beneath the ears.
Then they get a plate and assemble lunch.
Natalie, “Where did the corn recipe come from?”
“I saw it online, changed two tablespoons of sugar for molasses.” 
“It needs to be on the restaurant menu.”
“Good idea,” I chomp into my first piece of corn, damned if she isn’t right, it’s really good.

Twenty Seven

Zoe C and I are warmly received at the Probation Department. Not many people come in looking to hire former inmates. The senior supervisor who met with us put in a call to the boss, she comes down to look us over.
“When Dorotea called, I figured I ought to check you out for myself. Any particular reason you want probationers?”
“No, we’d look at former inmates who served their time and aren’t on probation. I figured your people would have records that include employment history. We want a cook, chef if you will but we don’t need a gourmet anything. What we have in mind is more like a diner, lunch only, no booze, no beer, no wine. The kind of food we want to serve doesn’t take culinary training. I understand  fair number of former inmates have problems finding decent jobs, I’m no expert, it’s what I read in the news.”
Dorotea, “They do unless they have a specific skill, like welder or electrician. They find jobs in food service, but mostly bottom of the rung kitchen duty, almost janitorial. And the hours are a problem. Restaurant owners want split shifts, which means go away for four hours and come back for the evening shift. I understand where owners are coming from, but it’s hard for people who have to rely on public transportation. Particularly in the vast area covered by LA county. Some of the commutes are two hours one way.”
“I can’t help the commute, but I can give them fixed hours. We plan to open at eleven, close at three. They would need to be there a couple of hours before eleven and at least an hour for clean-up afterwards. A seven or eight hour day straight through.”
Dorotea, “That I can work with, you gonna have a line at the door.”
“I need to talk to two cooks, two other staff people that both help in the kitchen until opening, then deal with orders and customers until closing. They help clean up, everyone goes home.”
“Why two cooks?”
“People get sick, have some kid complication, or just need a couple of days off. Plus, we open seven days, with the normal holidays. Oh, and the staff will learn the cooking part as well. If they get to be a part of the preparation, maybe they have a stake in how it comes out. Considering it will be a seven day operation, I’ll probably need more people.”
The department head, Beverly, says, “Pass around a memo, and mention the jobs at the next meeting. Make sure they understand, this isn’t rocket science but it isn’t sweep and mop either. Candidates have to bring something to the table, particularly the cooks.”
Dorotea, “Will do. I have your contact info, give me a couple of weeks to circulate the details. You’ll find candidates, that’s the least of the problem.”
Beverly, “Which is why I said tell them to be selective, not just throw up names.”
“I don’t want to meet the probation officers, just the candidates.”
Dorotea, “The officer might provide a little insight, even a lot.”
“I appreciate that, I don’t want to be biased by someone else’s impression. Besides, they’re only going to say good things or they wouldn’t have put the guy up for consideration. It’s like asking a candidate for references, they aren’t coughing up names of people who don’t like them.”
Dorotea, “Makes sense, I’ll be in touch.”
Zoe C and I head home, “Do you think it went okay?”
“Better than okay. Now we need to nail down a location.”
“I like the one the gambler screwed up.”
I nod, tend to agree, “I’ll negotiate the lease, but I want to diddle around until we have at least one cook. I can explain what we want, then let him or her look at the kitchen, see if it works for the kind of food we want. It looked right to me, but I don’t have to cook in it.”
Shot the afternoon, it’s already six, we pick up Popeye’s chicken and coleslaw.
Zoe C, “I want a shower, can dinner wait?”
“No sweat, I want it in the oven anyway, crisp up the skin.”
She goes off, I dump the coleslaw in a strainer and run cold water over it to wash away some of the mayo. Let it sit and drip for a bit, then sprinkle white pepper and paprika over and mix it. Strainer in a bowl, bowl in the refrigerator. Coleslaw should be crunchy chilled.
Zoe C comes along as I’m having large vodka outside at the patio table, “I opened a Chianti, it’s in the refrigerator.”
She turns, goes in, returns with a glass.
“I hit the website, we have work.”
“Tell me.”
“South, San Diego, Navy boy.”
“Last one was a fireman, this one’s Navy. Must be something about men in uniforms that make them assholes.”
“You might be onto something, cops are pricks, security guards are even worse if that’s possible.”
“So what’s Navy done?”
“The usual, wife’s accident prone, friends have seen her hiding black eyes behind big sunglasses, busted rib from a fall, broken arm from another fall. She got a restraining order, didn’t help, he’s out of the house but he stalks her.”
“Kids?”
“Thankfully no.”
“Anything special about the woman? Like why she puts up with it, she’s not another immigrant marriage is she?”
“Why would that matter?”
“It doesn’t, I was thinking of the last guy, got married and made his immigrant wife legal,” the thought flashes that make-her-legal marriages breed resentment later on.
“I don’t know, Navy is Jeb Smith, his wife is Evelyn. Don’t have her birth surname so maybe she is. You think there’s something in the idea that men who marry illegals come to regret it at some point.”
“Geez, there you go again, inside my head. Yeah, that crossed my mind but I think it’s a stretch. I have no statistics on domestic violence issues limited to that one group.”
“When do we go up…I mean down, to San Diego?”
“Tomorrow unless you have something.”
“I’ll pack up the equipment in the morning.”
We eat, crispy fried chicken, crunchy coleslaw, Sapporo to quench. A movie plays, a guy in the snow, almost eaten by a bear.
“What’s the name of this?”
“The Revenant, but I don’t know what it means.”
“A revenant is someone who returns, especially when he was thought dead.”
“Sheesh Chef, why do you know this stuff?”
“I read a lot, some of it sticks.”
We’ve burned enough oil, it’s eleven and we’re heading out at five to avoid 
LA-San Diego traffic. 
My alarm goes off, I’m not Jack Reacher, I don’t have a mental timepiece in my head. I think that’s a clever writer’s trick by Lee Child, good for him, it’s nice to have characters with lightly superhuman skills. I draw the line at werewolves, zombies and vampires.
Brush, flush, pad in for coffee, how lovely, Zoe C has it dripped. I hear her in the office. A second gun and cash safe is in there, behind a floor to ceiling mirror that slides open if you know where to tap and how many times. The release isn’t part of the mirror, no fingerprints to make the spot obvious.
I sit to sip, she comes out with our travel bag. GPS trackers, listening device, infrared scope and daytime scope for a Ruger .223. Two Glock G43 subcompact slim lines, magazines with 9mm hollow points. There’s also a complete first aid kit, iodine, bandages, tweezers, Betadine, Dermabond, ACE bandages, splints and antibiotics, injectible and oral.
“You know what we need? A drone, with a camera and a listening device, one that can maintain airtime, not fifteen or twenty minutes. When we get back, we should research them, good stuff might be available without me having to build it.”
“So we can sit quietly elsewhere and snoop on the target instead of parking down the block.”
“Exactly.”
“You drive, I’ll do a search.”
A hour later, “This seems to have what you want, no listening device, DJI Phantom 4 Drone Quad Copter, twenty eight minute battery, spare battery, forty five miles an hour, can operate from three miles. It’s four plus stars on Amazon, thirteen hundred. There aren’t any with listening devices, might be able to attach one if it’s lightweight.”
“Order it, we can figure it out at home.”
Zoe C enthuses, “God, this is so badass, okay done, delivery day after tomorrow.”
All our packages go to a private mailbox, nothing comes to the house, not even regular mail, there’s no mailbox on the property. The only access road is blocked by a steel gate and opened by a remote. I don’t want any surprise visitors.
We hit San Diego just before noon, drive to the target’s house. 
Zoe C, “This is going to be tough to spy on, even with the listening device. There’s nothing but small alleys between the houses, we could probably hear them if we were in the house next door.”
“Let’s see what’s on the other side.”
Drive around the corner, left up the street, nothing helpful, same stack of small homes as the target’s street.
“I don’t guess it matters, he only comes here to stalk her, we can’t wait around until he’s in the mood. Let’s pass by his place.”
He’s home, lives in a small apartment, one of eight, not new. 
“There’s his car, the black Mustang.”
“Decent set of wheels, maybe two years old and the top of the line. Based on the apartment, he uses his money for the car. Lot of people like that, craphole apartment, forty grand ride. Put a tracker on it.”
I drive to just behind the Mustang, she hops out and I hear the tracker thunk on the bumper strut. She gets in, I drive off.
“Find a hotel, suite with a connecting room.”
She clicks around her phone, “Hotel Solamar, Luna Suite, connects to king room, top ratings.”
“Book it.”
Check in, suite is nice, the connecting king is half the size of the suite, but roomy enough. The suite has a wet bar, bar stools and small refrigerator. Phone says the Mustang hasn’t moved.
“I’m hungry, we skipped lunch and my large coffee has worn off.”
Zoe C, “Me too, I’ve been surfing, the hotel has some interesting stuff but the Oceanaire Seafood Room looks more to our taste.”
We refresh, the place is walkable, a tenth of a mile, basically next door.
Two beers with raw oysters, with dinner a bottle of Puligny-Montrache, a zippy white burgundy.
For dinner, Zoe C orders chicken fried lobster with truffled honey, cheese grits and hot sauce. I decide on grilled filet mignon and shrimp, I skip the parmesan garlic butter and substitute drawn butter. Drown the steak in ground black pepper, the shrimp I leave alone except for the butter and a few shakes of Tabasco. 
Zoe C, ‘You have to try this,” she cuts me a hunk of her fried lobster.
“That is tasty, I’ll figure out how to do it at home, the girls will go crazy.”
Just as I’m settling up the tab, my phone dings.
“Let’s go, our target is on the move. You go to the room and collect our tools, I’ll get the car.”
I’d tipped the valet to park the Hyundai in easy reach, the kid is back with it in two minutes, he gets another ten. Zoe C shows, we go in search of the Navy Stalker.
Zoe C, “Dang, he’s going to her house, his house until she got him kicked out. I imagine that leaves him sorely pissed.”
We arrive shortly after him, I pull down the block. It’s dark, the windows on the Hyundai are dark tinted, nobody will spot us inside without a flashlight.
He knocks, there’s no car in the drive, no garage just a carport. Clearly she isn’t home. He goes around back, then a light comes on inside. The blinds are drawn, can’t see in from here.
Zoe C, “I have to see what he’s up to.”
“Silent, I don’t want to have to kill him here.”
She goes, I see her creeping around windows, then she’s around the rear for three, then four minutes. Pops out of the dark and climbs in.
“This guy is a charmer. He’s installing cams, those little creepy ones. He put one in the living area, then moved down the hall. I’m sure he’s planting one in a bedroom, maybe even a bath.”
We wait, he’s in ten more minutes, then appears from the side and walks down the block away from us to his Mustang, cranks it and drives. What he doesn’t know is we are following. Navy drives to a bar, not upscale, not dive bar, just a bar. He parks and goes in.
“Stay in the car, we don’t need to be seen together, I’m going to see what he’s up to. If there’s anything relevant, I’ll text.”
She nods, I get out, make sure the door is locked, walk to Friendly Freddie’s and go inside.
Navy is parked at the bar with a beer. There are table and booths. I text Zoe C.
‘photo of wife?’
‘never got one.’
‘ok, cant tell if hes here for a beer or her hang on’
A woman, her back to me in a booth turns and stares at Navy, I can almost see her roll her eyes, has to be the unhappy spouse.

Twenty Eight

Evelyn, who appears to be Hispanic, pulls a phone, taps three times, she’s dialing 911. I suppose if he’s violating a restraining order that’s an emergency. I return to the Hyundai.
“She’s in there, took a look at Navy and called 911.”
“They going to send a unit?”
“Who knows? It’s not a weekend, maybe cops have time to check out a restraining order violation. If they do, he’s going to say he had no idea she was in there, he’ll be happy to leave. They’ll let him walk.”
Which is what happens, at least I think so. I didn’t go back in the bar, don’t want cops seeing me around a soon to be expired sailor. We aren’t exactly sure that he’s a sailor, he’s not in uniform. Maybe he’s a contractor, a civilian employee, maybe he’s never been on a boat.
Two patrolmen go in, a few minutes pass, Navy comes out followed by the cops. He walks to the Mustang, climbs in and drives. The cops hang in their patrol car, one is punching something into a laptop, incident report, nobody arrested.
Doors close, the patrol car moves off to protect and serve somebody else someplace else.
We return to following Jeb, aka Navy. 
Zoe C, “Appears he’s heading to the apartment.”
“Let’s get there first.”
We snap on latex gloves, Zoe C has her wig, I have a watch cap that covers my ears. I let Zoe C out a half block from his place then continue past the eight-plex and park around the corner. 
Parking for the apartments is in the rear, a dozen slots covered, the rest open. I’m on one side, Zoe C on the other. Two minutes later the Mustang growls down the drive, makes a right then turns towards the building. He’s a back-it-in parker, not a nose first one. Jeb doesn’t get out right away, his bad. Zoe C has crossed the lot, keeping low as she makes her was behind the cars. There are four, then the Mustang.
To distract him, I saunter past as he’s exiting the car. He stops, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, taps one out and lights up. Jeb is maybe thirty, a year one side or the other. Short dark hair, the kind of eyes that both attract and repel women, I read dead, like the light is off inside.
He’s standing behind the open driver’s door, one foot on the edge of the floorboard, elbow propped on the roof. I walk up.
“Nice ride, what’s it, a fifteen or sixteen?”
“Fifteen.”
“You take care of it, I can see that,” which is a partial lie, the car is in darkness but the interior light is on and there are street lamps on both ends of the lot.
“Yeah,” he blows a stream of smoke up and away.
“A condemned man having a final cigarette.”
Before he can respond Zoe C puts a silenced hollow point in the base of his skull, angled up to ride through his brain. It breaks up and spreads shrapnel into the squishy grey before it can make a mess of his skull. She takes his wallet and phone, I go right, she goes left. I’m in the Hyundai waiting as she climbs in.
I hold my hand out, “Gloves,” she strips them off and gives them to me.
“You get the brass?”
She takes it from her pocket, one casing, I nod, pull away and to the hotel. On the way she gets a text, it’s Elle.
She reads, giggles, “She wants to know what my hunky roommate and I are doing. I don’t think I’ll tell her.”
She types something in, waits, “She’s working the algorithm, or at least checking results. I told her we went out to eat seafood, didn’t say where, then asked if she was coming over Friday to change the subject.”
The phone clinks, new message, Zoe C taps again.
“All set, you inviting Natalie?”
“Text her and see, ask her what dinner she’ll find most enticing, no, tell her I’m making barbeque shrimp, the New Orleans way. That’ll be Friday unless she can’t make it until Saturday. I don’t know how the job is keeping her boxed in. She may be on the road.”
Zoe C sends the message, no reply, for all I know Natalie’s on an airplane someplace.
We don’t do daily calls, messages or emails, it ain’t love. I don’t need love, I don’t know what love is, except it apparently makes people do stupid stuff.
“I said I was messaging on your behalf, that you’re driving. Don’t want her to think you know nothing about it.”
“Good point, thank you. I don’t think she’s particularly sensitive, but I’m the wrong guy to guess how women look at things like invites.”
“Better if it comes from you.”
“I’ll remember that.”
In our rooms, Zoe C flips though Jeb’s wallet, “He doesn’t carry a load of cash, there’s only a debit card and ninety four in mixed bills.”
“Any military ID?”
“Let’s see…no, nothing like that,” she taps the phone, “they don’t issue ID except to military dependants and veterans for the VA. The Navy issues dog tags but after boot camp they don’t wear them, they get caught in machinery or get hot in confined spaces, like an engine room.”
“He wasn’t wearing tags, no military ID. We don’t know if he was a civilian or a sailor. Doesn’t matter, he’s nobody now.”
It’s eleven fifteen, busy day. Zoe C goes off to bed, I pour vodka over a packed glass of crushed ice, drop in two olives I’d scored from the bar downstairs. Plop on the sofa and let my mind roam. I click on the TV, CNN, the first thing that pops up is Trump babbling, I click it off. If I never hear that name again it will be too soon. Maybe if there’s an announcement that his heart attacked him from all the junk food he eats. I can get down with that.
Instead, I enjoy the harbor and let my mind go to mush. Thoughts pass by and evaporate. I sense a distance between the guy on the couch with a drink and the fact of being apart from him. What’s that about? I’ll have to talk it over with Zoe C on the drive home.
Drink finished, so am I, strip, brush, pee, pile into bed. 
Blink awake, catch the scent of brewed caffeine, then Zoe C puts a steaming mug on the end table.
“Good morning, and thank you.”
Zoe C, “I have an ulterior motive, to get home. I’ve got the stuff packed.”
“Be with you in ten.”
I guzzle half the coffee, quickie lather and rinse, finish the coffee. Dry off, leave my hair wet, it’s short and takes maybe ten minutes to dry. Dress, casual slacks, pullover, socks, sneakers. The other things I stuff into the suitcase. We’re on the road in fifteen. I-405 to I-10 left to the PCH, home.
On the way Zoe C reads the news, “They found Navy, I guess so, we left him dead in a parking lot. A note that he was at a bar where his ex was having a drink with friends and the police came because of the restraining order. He left without incident,” let me see…, “ah, the ex was questioned but she went to a friend’s house for the evening, afraid that her former husband would show up at her place. Alibi intact, police now suspect a common robbery, the victim’s wallet and phone were missing.”
“Good, she’s cleared, and no more stalker ex. You know what? We missed an opportunity.”
“You’re thinking we should have taken the car.”
“Yeah, drive it to the barrio, or whatever passes for one in San Diego, leave it and the keys. Some kids would make a buck selling it to a chop shop.”
“I like it, next time, or next time there’s an interesting car anyway.”
Home, Zoe C, “Leave the suitcase, I’ll do laundry in a bit.”
It’s twelve fifteen, we had coffee to go but no breakfast. I dig around and find pastrami, make up sandwiches with yellow and stone-ground mustard. There are salt and pepper chips I add to the plates. Open Diet Cokes.
Zoe C passes, “Eat something, laundry can wait a half hour.”
We park on the patio, enjoy our slice of the Pacific.
“If my parents could see me now.”
“What would they think?”
“Mom would be fine with it, not that her daughter is an assassin, but the part time school, all around butler and companion to a rich guy. I told her I was a lesbian a long time ago. My father, hard to say, if mom told him anything I never heard about it. He’s not stupid, no boyfriends, no sniffing around about wedding plans. He’s always let me be, and I was never a daddy’s girl.”
“Sounds like a dad who has confidence you can take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, exactly.”
“Best possible parents, let you be you.”
“I think so. And I’m good about staying in touch. If I fill them up with school activities, studying, babble a bit about professors, it keeps them thinking they know what I’m up to. Better that way.”
“It’s Thursday, oh, I heard from Nat, she’s coming Saturday. Barbeque shrimp Saturday then, what do you and Elle want Friday?’
“Elle would be happy with cheese and crackers.”
“How about flank steak? It’s the leanest cut, which can be chewy, but after I grill it, I cut it against the grain in strips. With au jus and a bit of horseradish, it’s quite good. Do creamed corn, baked potatoes with all the additives.”
“Yum. How about cake?”
“Call Louisa and tell her what you want.”
She smiles, “I’ll drive over later and talk to her, she likes that. And I can bring us turnovers for later, her stuff is so buttery flaky, and the filling, cherry, apple or raspberry, the fruit, not some gelatin mush.”
“Now I’m wanting one, get a couple extra for breakfast.”

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