I’ll be counting down to the April 27th release of Blood is Thicker Than Lots of Stuff, the next book in The Many Travails of John Smith, by sharing sample chapters, advance reviews, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. Last chapter, John started his stakeout in North Clairemont and, in classic John fashion, quickly became bored. This week, the hours of watching finally pay off. Sort of. This is Blood is Thicker Than Lots of Stuff: Chapter 5.
If you haven’t read Investigation, Mediation, Vindication yet, please be aware that some of these sample chapters do include spoilers from that series. Read at your own risk!
IN WHICH TRIPS ARE TAKEN, SIGHTS ARE SEEN, AND AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR SHOWS UP
By Wednesday, I was sick of Clairemont. Mrs. Thompsen had left the house a grand total of three times that week, twice to go to Von’s for groceries, and once to wander through the closest Barnes & Nobles. After the bookstore, she’d eaten lunch at a nearby Panera, where I carefully recorded her selection of a cup of soup and half-salad on the off chance that Phil would ask. The rest of the time, my target had stayed cooped up inside her home.
This was like watching paint dry, except less exciting.
On Tuesday, one of the neighbors had finally taken notice of me. Specifically, an old woman who lived on the cross street where I’d been parking. The movement of her white lacy curtains had initially caught my eye. A minute or so later, I glimpsed a round, bespectacled face peeking out through the window in my direction.
I ignored her for an hour or so, but when she checked on me for the fourth time, I decided discretion was the better part of valor and looked for a new place to park. Unfortunately, the spot I eventually chose was located on the Thompsens’ far busier street, where the Corolla stuck out like a sore thumb.
By lunchtime the next day, it was a toss-up whether a neighbor was going to call the cops on me or Melissa herself was going to cross the street to ask who I was. I was mentally preparing my Mom, Dad… I’m in jail speech when the Thompsens’ garage door began to open.
The woman herself backed down the short driveway in her white Jeep Cherokee. The Jeep was starting to show its age but had been detailed recently—on Monday, right after the second Von’s trip—and gleamed in the bright sunlight. I waited as she turned toward Clairemont Mesa Blvd., and then pulled away from the curb. Someday, I would have a car that shiny. Maybe a Corolla that had been built in the last decade, even.
I thought back to my failed date with Carly and rearranged my priorities. First, I’d move out of my parents’ house. Then, I’d worry about buying a car.
The good part about following someone in San Diego was the sheer number of vehicles on the road at any given time. Unless someone was expecting a tail, it was unlikely they’d notice one car among thousands. The bad part about following someone in San Diego was… well, the same thing, really. It was hard to tail anyone through an ocean of other people. Especially since many of my fellow San Diegans drove like they were late for the birth of a child. I tried to stay close enough to see the Jeep, but far enough away to not be too obvious, a technique I’d gleaned from the spy movies of my youth.
A few blocks to the north, Genesee crossed the 52, a freeway that would take us out of Clairemont for the first time all week. I eased over into the right-hand lane as we neared the on-ramp… and then pulled back into the left lane, as Melissa rolled right past the freeway. Where was she going this time?
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I watched the Jeep turn into yet another shopping center, this one on the corner of Genesee and Governor. If she was going to the grocery store for the third time in five days, I was going to charge Phil hazard pay for extreme boredom.
In the parking lot, a stoner pushed his shopping cart full of Cheetos across the street in front of me. In those old spy movies, Melissa would have taken advantage of our momentary separation and sped out of the parking lot, snickering at the KGB’s inevitably shoddy tradecraft. Instead, she parked in front of the Goodwill that took up one entire corner of the shopping center. Walking to the rear of the Jeep, she lifted out two bags of clothes from the trunk. Donations, by the looks of them.
I almost wept, not even realizing the stoner was out of my way until the driver of the Mercedes behind me laid on her horn. It’s not that I wanted Melissa to be having an affair… it’s just that I was so bored with the alternative. After five days, even my wonderphone was running out of ways to keep me entertained. I gave the donut shop next to Goodwill a longing glance, but Melissa was already coming back, ready to embark on her next mission of diabolical domesticity.
Plus… I looked down at the slight belly that I seemed incapable of completely banishing. I could stand to lay off the donuts for a day or two. Maybe even all the way to New Year’s. My current regimen of three to five crunches a month just wasn’t working.
When Mrs. Thompsen left the shopping center parking lot, she predictably headed back south on Genesee. I checked my clock. Five more hours of surveillance to go, followed by another two days. God help me. I was in the middle of a wild fantasy about blowing off the rest of the day’s stakeout—maybe I could convince Mike to leave work early for a beer or seven—when… was that…? Could it be?! Yes, that was Melissa’s Jeep, two cars ahead of me, turning onto the 52!
I perked up and followed her onto the eastbound freeway, grinning like an idiot. Beer could wait; the game was afoot!
After surviving another of San Diego’s typically hair-raising merges, I firmly resolved to never again even think that phrase. Sherlock Holmes might be able to get away with foot-related sayings, but I was no Sherlock. More’s the pity. Dude had cheekbones like bladed weapons—he and Juliette could have themselves a duel—and he rocked long coats like nobody’s business.
Melissa crossed over the 5 and then the 15, putting us squarely into what I considered eastern San Diego. We were still twenty-five miles or so from the ocean, but you would never have known it from the scrub grass and desiccated shrubbery that dotted the hills on either side of the road.
When most people think of California, they think of palm trees, bikinis, and movie stars, or of Silicon Valley, trolleys, and the Golden Gate bridge. Truth is, most of the state is arid and desolate, a desert without the sandy dunes. Just don’t call it ugly. Please.
You’ll hurt the rattlesnakes’ feelings.
The number of cars on the freeway dwindled as we went east, but never reached a point where Melissa’s Jeep and my Corolla were the only cars in sight. I tailed her off the highway and into Tierrasanta, where she parked in the driveway of a residence on Portobelo. The house was a clone of its neighbors: over-sized and with only a narrow strip of grass separating it from the next such unit. It always amazed me that people would pay half a million dollars for a house and not care that it had been built on a lot the size of a postage stamp.
Then again, I lived in my parents’ basement. I wasn’t in a position to throw stones.
Unfortunately, the houses being squashed together made for a serious lack of curb-side parking, even on a Wednesday. I finally just pulled into the driveway of the house across the street, hoping that the absence of cars there signified a corresponding lack of people inside. I threw on the emergency brake and squeezed into the Corolla’s back seat with my camera. Taking pictures through a windshield, let alone one that hadn’t been washed in a long while, wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t have the time to explore other options.
I started with a wide shot of the house itself, so I could both record its address and clearly show Melissa’s Jeep in the driveway. Then, I snapped a succession of shots as the woman in question walked from her car to the house’s front door. Despite being at least thirty-five, she moved with the grace and energy of someone in their early twenties. Phil was a lucky man.
Except for the whole cheating-on-him part.
Melissa rang the doorbell and waited, her relaxed stance at odds with the behavior of someone out for afternoon nookie. Usually, there was some sort of excitement or nervous anticipation. And usually, the cheating spouse wore something other than just jeans and a shirt. Either this affair had been going on long enough for the two to get comfortable or this wasn’t what I’d thought it was.
If Melissa had driven all the way out to Tierrasanta for a book club meeting, I was going to be really annoyed. Relieved for Phil, but annoyed.
Unfortunately for my client, the man that opened the door didn’t seem like book club material. He was closer to book cover material, in the age-old tradition of models like Fabio: tall and deeply tanned, with a full beard and long, black hair that had been pulled out of his face but still reached down to absurdly broad shoulders. A thickly muscled chest was displayed to full effect by a white tank top, and those bulging arms were obnoxiously intimidating even from across the road. His features were rough but well-defined.
Some women would probably have found him handsome, but only if they were into rugged manly men who looked like Thor’s dark-haired older brother.
The man didn’t smile when he saw Melissa, but they clearly knew each other. He ushered her inside with a wave of one arm, and I decided the only way his bicep could be popping like that was if he were consciously flexing it. Which made him kind of a tool.
I felt better about myself almost immediately. Dude was probably a lousy conversationalist too.
I had the whole exchange on camera, but it was a long way from the conclusive evidence that Phil would demand. I was debating whether I wanted to truly live down to my profession’s seedy reputation by finding a vantage point with a clear shot into the house, when the front door swung back open. The man stepped out, his eyes meeting mine from across the street.
He couldn’t possibly have seen me, could he?
Oh. Yes. He could. And had. He strolled unhurriedly in my direction, bearing down on me like a one-man Ragnarok.
That was my cue to leave. I bruised easily and I sure as hell wasn’t getting paid to be pummeled by barbarians.
The engine started on the very first try—as if the demigod of gently used Toyotas had heard my plea—and I pulled away with a squeal of tires. When I was around the corner and safely out of sight, I flipped Tierrasanta the bird, and sped away.
I kept an eye on the rearview mirror during my long trip back west, but my keen detective instincts told me I’d made good on my escape. Further surveillance seemed out of the question, so I headed to the office instead to spend the remainder of my day digging up information on Melissa’s Wednesday afternoon beefcake appointment. Those were the sort of details that would help pad the report I was going to give Phil.
As the adrenaline faded from my system, replaced with a vague sense of success, I almost felt like a real detective. John Smith, gumshoe-for-hire. I straightened an imaginary fedora and resolved to toss down two fingers of whiskey as soon as I reached the office. Like the fedora, the whiskey would be imaginary. Bourbon was expensive and made me act like an idiot.
Beer, on the other hand… beer was nature’s blessing.
My office was on the second floor of a four-story building that squatted like a mangy dog on the least nice street of Logan Heights. At any given time, there was at least one vacancy, and the ‘Space Available for Lease’ sign in the window had acquired both a layer of dust and a sense of permanence. Without a garage to call our own, parking was a problem; there was plenty of space on the street, but any car left curbside was considered fair game to the gangbangers who occasionally rolled through the neighborhood.
That wasn’t a concern anymore with the Corolla—I’d had a Jehovah’s witness leave a dollar on the windshield out of pity—so I parked directly in front of the building. I checked my mailbox in the run-down lobby, but it was empty, as usual. The good part about paying my overdue bills was that companies had stopped trying to drown me in threatening letters. The bad part was realizing that those letters had been the only mail I got.
When even the debt recovery agencies don’t write or call anymore, life starts to get a little bit lonely.
I shrugged away those dreary thoughts and took the stairs two at a time, whistling something that totally wasn’t a song from Frozen. The insurance broker across the hall had already gone home for the day, his shaky work ethic explaining why he was stuck renting office space in Logan Heights. Someday, I’d have my own office tower in La Jolla or downtown. All I needed was time.
And money. A lot of money.
Keys in hand, I went to open my office door, only to have it swing open at a touch. Crap. It was never a good sign when someone broke into my office. A sudden noise from inside told me I might have caught my burglar in the act. I set my dad’s camera down in the hall, clenched my fists, and rushed into the office with a roar that was unlikely to scare even the smallest of children.
Case in point: the bespectacled Korean girl sitting in my visitor’s chair didn’t even twitch at the noise. Her legs swinging for all they were worth, she turned and smiled at me. “Hi, Mr. John!”
Thursday, I’ll be back with some silly stats about the book and next week, we’ll celebrate the release with some advanced reviews. See you then!