Surveillance is a fancy word for staring at nothing in particular, and it can really piss you off. It's the one thing about private eye work that I hate, and I was doing a lot of it that morning. I sat on the wet, unforgiving plastic seat or whatever you call it on a small sailboat and looked at other boats, small and large. I didn't know who owned the one I was sitting on, but it didn't matter.
I passed the time by staring at some motor launches, fishing boats, whatever. At 4:30 a.m., everything is wet from Pacific dews and damps and it could be considered pretty in the misty lights around the harbor, except that I was feeling grumpy and the bottom half of my coffee was cold. I dumped it over the side but thoughtfully left the paper cup in the boat. I'm not a litterbug. I'm a 64-year-old private investigator and I don't like sitting on cold, wet boats in the middle of the night.
Call me Dick McNabb, private dick with attitude.
This torture was engineered by my client, Mason Stone, who was convinced that his wayward wife, Loretta, was doing drugs and having an affair with a big-time drug smuggler who brought cocaine into California by sailing out to sea and meeting a Colombian with a fishing boat full of the stuff. I told him, politely, that he was nuts, that we have a Coast Guard for the express purpose of preventing just such crap as that, movies notwithstanding, but he was adamant, and so I agreed to spy on the rich guy who occasionally cruised all night long, out to the Channel Islands and beyond. The hours were bad, but the money was good.
Mason said his wife crewed with the guy -- nice touch, I thought, leaving the S off the word like that -- and he knew that they were often at sea during the night and came back to the harbor very early, just before dawn sometimes. No one was around to see them at that hour but a few fishermen, and they wouldn't care one way or another, having no use for pleasure boaters. Mason's idea was that if we could get the drug lord busted, he'd be able to talk some sense into his wife's confused head and get his two sons' mommy back home where she belonged. Then, he said, he could divorce her and get on with his life. He probably still loved her, or rather the shadow of her former self. Plenty of psychic pain involved … It was just no good to have a drugged-out mother serving as paramour for a coke pusher. What a mess.
So there I sat, with a wet ass and a bad attitude.
Well, at least I'd had some adventures since starting my new life and last career. This case looked like a dud, but as we told the team when I was a high school football coach, no one wins 'em all. And as we also said, sometimes you don't win any of 'em.
I had also taught English, mostly, and could cite more poetic utterances, like "C'est la fricken vie."
I won my last big case. Which was also my first. I didn't exactly "solve" an open murder case, but because of my snooping around, a nice woman's killer finally caved in and got caught and is now permanently behind bars.
Granted, it's an odd profession, and it's certainly not for everybody. Sometimes, as when sitting in a wet boat, it's not for me either. But by being a private eye you have a better chance to escape boredom than most jobs offer. And I was heavy bored.
When my wife died three years ago, I had to do something to get the clock moving again. I didn't want to lounge on cruise boats with a blanket over my knees. There's adventure travel, but solo travel doesn't work for me. So here I sat.
My mood was swinging back and forth, kinda bi-polar, depending on my physical comfort. At times it wasn't so bad, here in Santa Barbara's cute little harbor. There was a nice ocean smell to it, and halyards clinked lightly against aluminum masts as a tiny breeze wafted through. Trés pleasant. I wanted some more coffee, but didn't dare leave my post. You never knew. . . and there came a boat! Had to be them. Who else would be out to sea in the wee hours.
I could hear the inboard motor humming softly as a big white sloop turned from the entry channel into Marina 3 to dock. I was on Marina 2, closer to the north end of the harbor and maybe 30 yards away, several fingers closer to the central channel, and I could barely make out the name. I'd have to confirm later that it was indeed the boat I was looking for: Pollo del Mar. Chicken of the Sea. Cute. Boat names are fun.
I ducked behind the raised cabin of my little borrowed sloop and rested my birder's binoculars on the roof. Figured they'd never notice me.
Whoever it was maneuvered smartly right into his slip. Two other guys, I supposed guys, tossed lines to the dock, jumped off and tied down the boat. Soon the third guy - yeah, it was a man - wrestled three big duffel bags out of the cabin and tossed them over the side to the men on the dock. No girlfriend on board. Could it be another boat altogether? Nah. Sunday sailors don't do this.
I got a good view of the bags as the men walked under the greenly glowing lamps over the walkway to the marina gate. The "finger," guess it's called. A-ha. . . They appeared to be sail bags, but they certainly didn't contain sails. Whatever was in the bags was heavy, dense enough that less than half a bag was filled. You could tell from the shape as they hung over the men's shoulders: the upper half of each bag was thin, while the bottom third of the bag bulged.
I'll be damned, I thought. Mason may have been right. What could people be lugging off a boat? Surely not six-pacs of beer, or soggy tuna sandwiches, and probably not fish, or body parts. Their cargo had to be bags of valuable white powder.
They were probably carrying six-pacs, all right - full of nose candy. Cocaine has a street value of many thousands of dollars a pound, and they must have had 20 or 30 pounds in each sack. Many thousands of dollars' worth of dope. These birds were serious crooks. I felt a little shaky. This was way out of my league.
Maybe I was the Chicken of the Sea.
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Gene Cates is a Santa Barbara writer, author of a series of crime novels involving Dick McNabb, private investigator. McNabb is a retired teacher with a craving for excitement -- which he finds.