A.J. Simon eased his beloved Chevy to a stop and parked it away from the other vehicles on the street. He adjusted the rearview mirror and found what he was looking for in its reflection.
"Is that the one?" he asked his brother and investigative partner, Rick, hooking his thumb to point at a Ford F-150 about half a block behind them.
"Yup. This'll be a piece of cake. Shouldn't take more than thirty seconds. Wait here till I start the engine. I'll meet you back at the office. Okay?"
Rick got out of his brother's Bel Air and sauntered nonchalantly to the Ford truck. He casually looked around as if to look for a friend, saw no one else and placed his hand on the door handle. It wasn't even locked! This is going to be one of the easiest repos ever, he thought congratulating himself. There would be plenty of time to drive down to Tijuana for the weekend after he and A.J. delivered the truck to the bank that had hired them.
Rick got into the truck and closed the door as quietly as possible. He fished out a car key from the pocket of his windbreaker and inserted it in the ignition—or rather, tried to, but the key wouldn't go in. "Damn!" This was not the first time he had received a wrong key for a repo, but it still made him mad. Now he'd have to hot-wire the truck.
He was trying to locate the positive and negative wires when he sensed someone else's presence.
"Hey, what're you doing?"
Rick almost jumped out of his skin and looked up sharply only to find his brother peering in through the window.
"Don't you ever, EVER, sneak upon me like that again when I'm concentrating," He snapped while keeping his voice as low as possible, but his menacing tone had no effect on his brother.
A.J. simply shrugged and said with a smirk on his lips, "Refresh my memory, will ya? Did you say, 'This shouldn't take more than thirty seconds,' or was it thirty minutes?"
Flustered, Rick banged the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. "The bank gave us a wrong key—again! If you wanna do this, be my guest!"
A.J. shook his head. "Nah, I'll let you handle it. This is your forte. I took advanced calculus, not shop, in high school."
"A lot of good it did," Rick muttered as the engine of the Ford came to life with a roar after he connected the wires.
A.J. trotted back to his Chevy and drove behind the Ford. Rick was still angry with the bank for making his job a little tougher than it needed to be, and with A.J. for giving him some lip while he was doing most of work. In an attempt to calm down, he reached for the cigarette pack in the breast pocket of his shirt. Only then did he remember he had smoked the last cigarette earlier and thrown away the pack.
Now that a smoke was on his mind, he really craved a nicotine fix. With the left hand on the steering wheel, he opened the ashtray. He knew there would be some cigarette butts because he could detect the unmistakable cigarette odor seeped into the carpeting and upholstery. The ashtray was almost full. Hoping to find something, anything, better than discarded cigarette butts, he pulled the truck to the curb and reached for the glove compartment and rifled through the usual junk. And scored! Granted, it wasn't his brand, and the pack was in a sorry state and half empty. No matter. He eagerly shook a cigarette out of the pack, lit it and inhaled the smoke deeply. The first drag made him a little lightheaded, but he started to feel much better after a few more puffs. By the time he made it back to his office, he felt mellow enough to forgive the incompetent bank and his annoying younger brother—well, almost.
A.J. was standing by his Chevy with his arms folded over the chest. As soon as Rick pulled in to a parking space next to the Bel Air, A.J. greeted him with, "What took you so long? You were driving ahead of me."
"I'm a careful driver, so sue me," Rick dismissed his brother's gripe with a shrug. "Careful driver? Ha! Since when?" A.J. shot back with a good dose of insolence. "Anyway, while you were enjoying a leisurely drive on a scenic route, I put in a call to Golden West. We're to meet with Bergman in twenty minutes, so don't bother getting out of the truck."
Without waiting for his brother to reply, A.J. got into his car and started the engine. With a brother like mine, who wants to quit smoking, thought Rick and reached for the pack for another cigarette.
The meeting with Harry Bergman, a loan officer at Golden West Bank of California, lasted about thirty, forty minutes. He was awfully nice for a banker, offering refreshments to the Simons although they had turned down the offer repeatedly. He made a big ceremony out of presenting them a check for their service.
"Sheesh, I thought that guy would never let us leave," Rick grumbled as he and A.J. walked out of the bank.
"He was just being nice, that's all. It may be hard for you to understand, but some people have manners."
"He's got some nerve, that's what he has. He tried to talk me into opening a bank account with them."
The brothers got into the Bel Air.
"That sure was a waste of time, wasn't it? With the credit history like yours, there's no way they're going to let you open a bank account with Golden West. Or, anywhere else for that matter." A.J. smiled smugly as he drove out of the bank parking lot.
"Speaking of banking, why don't we cash that check before the bank closes? I could use some walk-around money for the weekend," said Rick eyeing the check from Bergman hungrily.
"Sure, we can go to the bank, but this check will go straight to our agency's account. We have bills to pay, and you have to wait another week before you get your next paycheck. What do you do with all your money anyway? You're getting to be too old to live paycheck to paycheck, Rick. How many times did I tell you…?"
A.J. was in the lecture mode again. Maybe it was his way to retaliate for all the punches and kicks and headlocks and other fraternal abuses he'd received from his big brother when they had been still kids, but he sure enjoyed boring Rick with his speeches on prudent living and money management, among other subjects. Not that it did any good—Rick could tune him out without trying too hard. He started to fiddle with the knob on the car radio.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
"I wanna listen to something else."
"Switch it back to my station! I was listening to Charlie Parker. This is my car, and I'm driving, so I get to choose the station we listen to. If you want to change it, you should ask me first…"
Blah, blah, blah…
It was getting close to noon by the time Rick and A.J. left their bank and were heading back to the office. Rick tapped on A.J.'s shoulder to get his attention.
"Hey, drop me off here. I'm gonna get somethin' to eat."
A.J. pulled up to the curb as requested.
"You want anything?"
"Depends. What are you having for lunch?"
"Oh, maybe a hotdog or two, or tacos, milkshake…"
"Uh, no thank you. I'll get something else."
"Suit yourself." Rick shrugged and started to walk off.
"I'll meet you back at the office," A.J. shouted at his brother's receding figure.
A.J. drove a couple of more blocks and parked his car in his regular parking spot. Rick often called him Mr. Predictable, and he knew he was such a creature of habit, but he couldn't help it. The daily routine gave him a semblance of order and peace of mind, which was sorely needed in his line of work, especially when one had to work with a guy like Rick, who was Mr. Unpredictable.
It was Thursday afternoon. Saturday being a Valentine's Day, some people were taking Friday off to enjoy a romantic three-day weekend and itching to leave already including Rick. Especially Rick. He'd been talking all morning almost nonstop about Tracy or Stacy, and the much-anticipated trip to Mexico with her. Most likely another blonde, A.J. surmised. He knew Rick's type well—a looker in a certain way, well-endowed, with a vacuous stare that might inspire a few more dumb blonde jokes. Rick's taste in women, as well as other worldly pleasures, had changed very little since his adolescence. If he kept it up, the transition from his adolescent antics to midlife crisis would be a smooth one.
A.J. climbed a few steps to the front porch of his office with the keys in his hand. He still had some paperwork to do before the closing time. He was about to put his hand on the doorknob when he realized that the office door was not only unlocked but also slightly ajar. Almost as a reflex, his hand went to his gun in the holster. He quietly pushed the door in just a few inches to take a look inside. Rick's desk was dead ahead, and there was a man standing in front of it with his back to the door and A.J. He was slightly bending over as if to look for something on the desk. A.J. stepped inside the office in one fluid motion with the gun in his hand and closed the door behind him.
"Don't move. I have a gun," he calmly announced.
The intruder straightened his back with a start but otherwise adhered to the warning.
"Now, hands up. And turn around. Slowly."
The man obliged. He was in his late thirties or early forties, about five-ten, medium build with non-descriptive features. He looked quite harmless like a regular businessman.
"Look, Mr. Simon… You are Mr. Simon, aren't you?"
"What are you doing in my office?" A.J. ignored the man's question.
"Mr. Simon, this is a terrible misunderstanding. I came here to request your service and found the door open, so I thought you were in."
It was plausible, and nothing seemed to be out of place in the office, but it was still too early to let the guard down.
"I need some proof. Take out your wallet—slowly, very slowly. Let me see your ID," said A.J. without lowering his gun.
The intruder took out his wallet and was about to hand it to A.J. when the office door burst open, and in came Rick with an armload of food.
"Look what I got, A.J…"
The sudden noise and movement right behind him startled and distracted A.J. for a fraction of a second, but only a moment of distraction was all the mystery man needed to strike. His kick was crisp and precise, landing squarely on A.J.'s wrist. The gun flew out of his hand and hit the wall. The intruder was deceptively nimble—before A.J. could react to the lightning-quick attack, he pushed him into Rick' arms. The two brothers tumbled out of their office falling like a couple of domino tiles, A.J. on top of Rick. Rick's lunch rained on and around them. A.J. scrambled back on his feet and ran into the office, but the intruder was gone. He rushed to the kitchen at the back and found the backdoor standing open.
"Damn!" He cursed under his breath.
Rick was just getting up and looked utterly befuddled.
"What the hell just happened?" He asked A.J., who had returned from the back of the office.
"The more pertinent question would be, 'Whom have you crossed lately?'" A.J. took his frustration out on his brother.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Never mind. Did you get a good look at the guy?" asked A.J. picking pieces of sauerkraut off his jacket.
"No. Have you seen him before?" asked Rick shaking his hat to get rid of potato chips crumbs.
A.J. shook his head. "No. When I got here, the door was unlocked, and he was standing in front of your desk."
"Was he doing anything suspicious?"
"Nothing that I could see," said A.J., then he remembered. "It seemed he was looking at or looking for something on your desk."
The brothers exchanged a certain look and raised their eyebrows. They knew exactly what to do next. They delved into the piles of junk on Rick's desk. Personal correspondence, bills, statements, reading materials…
"Do me a favor, will you?"
"If you don't wanna embarrass our clients, keep your skin magazine collection anywhere but here, all right?" A.J. picked up one of the magazines as Exhibit A. Rick let out a hyena laugh, but neither of them stopped searching while talking.
"Ah-ha!" Rick exclaimed lifting his hand from under the desk. He showed a small, round listening device to his brother, who was now unscrewing the cover of the phone's mouthpiece.
"Ah-ha!" A.J. echoed Rick's triumphant cry, showing the same device embedded inside the phone.
They spent next half an hour or so debugging, but a thorough sweep of the entire office produced no other bugs. A.J. sat at his desk and leaned back in his chair after they called it quits.
"Let me ask you again, Rick—have you stepped on someone's toes lately?"
"Why are you trying to pin this one on me?"
"Whoever he was, the guy bugged your desk, not mine."
"Doesn't mean a thing—maybe he didn't have enough time to do yours."
A.J. only shrugged to concede.
"So, what do you think? Some unhappy customer?" conjectured Rick.
"Not very likely. Of course, we can't please everyone, but we only had cases of divorce, repo, missing person and serving summons and subpoenas the last few months. Where do you think ordinary teachers and accountants and deadbeats get their hands on sophisticated listening devices? Spy Kits R Us?"
"Have you heard from the parole board about the recent releases of the ex-cons we put away?"
A.J. shook his head 'no.'
"So, where does that leave us?" Rick's question was probably rhetorical, but A.J. put his two cents in anyway.
"In the dark?"