JEFF BLAKE P.I.
I suppose I got hired because of looking like a pliable nerd with glasses that would do what they were told and keep their head down. That wasn’t hard in Seattle, the sun only shined here a few days in July. My card read Jeff Blake, Customer Service. My job, to receive claims reports over the phone, usually auto, prepare a summary and pass it on to the claims adjuster. After a week, I knew all the forms, what to ask for, learned to differentiate the phone screaming of claimants and had begun doing what everyone else in this hell hole did. Compile a list of ways to commit suicide.
There were the normal work station distractions. Tom who came in each day smelling of alcohol and Mary, down the row who crossed her legs in an ever-increasing artful way framed by a shorter and shorter skirt. Beyond that, the job reeked with boredom.
I tired of it quickly, but never the stories. People found all types of reasons and circumstances for their claims. Then there were the obvious fraud cases. They shouted out their hurts and doctor reports almost before they said their name. Always blaming our company for insuring the driver that hit them, trash talking all the while. Wanting big and immediate settlements.
Overtime, you got to know the fraud doctors and attorneys involved. They were, not surprisingly, the same names claim after claim. There were the doozy stories from claims adjusters who came into the office. They made your mind twist up. You would also hear other stories and get to peek into the lives of people who called in claims. Just a glimpse though.
The drone of curiosity about the people on the other end of the phone and their unknown lives began to eat away at me. I began to dream about being a private investigator, a PI. The claims adjusters always walked around like swinging dicks, but when a PI got involved in a case, they kowtowed to them, like the holster with the gun the PI’s sometimes carried. These were the people who solved the claims. Who broke the net of fraud, who worked at night.
I imagined myself taking assignments, finding answers and uncovering the lives of the underbelly of society. My business card would read, “Jeff Blake, Private Investigator.” Where do you sign up for this, I thought before the realities struck.
Becoming a PI was a tall dog. The state regulations and licensing rules fat with requirements. Three years working for a PI firm. Two years of education. A written test and recommendations from other PI firms. I’d seen this before, gatekeepers to professions who carefully crafted steep entry requirements with legislatures. Protecting their bone, I suppose.
I applied to PI firms without any success. The politely took note of my working for a claim firm, but were unimpressed with what I did. No one wanted a skinny glasses wearing desk jockey. Determined to make something happen, I enrolled in a PI correspondence school. Absorbed by the reading between calls, I wanted more than ever to be a PI, but how?
One section of the course captivated me, “Proper Surveillance Techniques.” How to stake out an investigation site. The type of equipment you could legally use. The most interesting though, was how to tail a car.
Here I had an advantage. My paycheck only could cover the most plain and cheapest car. A used dark Ford fusion that showed numerous wear and tear. The perfect car not to be noticed. My apartment could not have been in a better spot for beginning a tail. It sat across from what the city slang called “the projects.” A massive government housing project meant to be a foundation for low income people and new life for the area. In reality though, hope faded here faster than the paint that fell from the buildings. Still the City hype pulled me into the area. I had moved on the project outskirts to this apartment under the guise of a rapidly gentrifying area. You could hear gun shots each night. Ones marked by cars going and coming. I suspected all sorts of evil in this pace.
I finally got up the courage to follow someone. The choice easy. The ass holes in the dark van who visited the projects each night then tore out about 11 A.M. with a loud roar, waking me up. So, I stayed up and got in my car parking it around the corner of my apartment with a clear view of where he usually exited.
There it was. I got a closer look at driver. A wire frame of a guy with some uniform on. He turned and glared from the window of his car. The van just didn’t fit here. He sped off to the west toward I 5, but to my surprise did not hit the freeway. Instead, he caught the high bridge over the Duwamish toward West Seattle.
I kept my distance, placing a couple of cars between me and him. After crossing the bridge, he turned south away from the well to do West part of the city. He took a curvy route through the old industrial river front and then turned west again up a hill. I found myself in a part of the city I had not been before. The sign said, White Center. The place was rough looking. Two streets with Asian shops, bars and adult book stores that converged at a triangular intersection. There a bar stood, the flashing light read Triangle Tavern.
The van parked behind the row of low profile shops. It was dark. The street lights did not reach here. I tried to stay as far away as I could in the parking lot. Plenty of action went on here. Middle age men sneaked into the back of the adult book store. Others left with their arms around girls from the bar two doors away. Two Asian rough looking men stood at the end of one of buildings smoking and watching. My mind raced with imagination. Suddenly the van rear door opened, and another man exited carrying a dark case. He walked around the end of the building and disappeared. I couldn’t make out details about the case except it looked heavy.
The last building on the block was an Asian restaurant and bar. I wondered if the guy went in there. I thought about following but decided to wait the see where the van went next. I sunk down in the front seat behind the steering wheel trying to attract as little attention as possible.
Just then, a patrol car pulled beside me. The officer rolled down the window. “I am officer Rose. I don’t know a lot, but you don’t look like you belong here. It's dangerous here. You might want to move on. And by the way, if you see something suspicious, call the department and ask for me. It’s my beat.”
Seemed like good advice to me, but I found myself hooked to the chase and mystery of it all. I decided to stop at the Tavern and see if I could find out more about this strange place. Besides, Officer Rose had in effect given me my first assignment. My mind quickly put together a farfetched idea that if I could find out something bad and report it. The Police might give me a recommendation to a PI firm. It all danced in a crazy mind of a bored office worker.
The Triangle Bar seemed quiet with a group that looked like long-time locals. A departure from the glossy blare of the streets outside. The bar tender had seen my type before or, so I imagined when I looked him in the eyes. The city guy just wanting a little sin and dirt.
The words just seemed to spill out of my mouth, “So tell me about this place. I’ve just stumbled on it. Not like any other part of the Seattle I know.”
The bartender looked at me, I imagined him contemplating if he should even waste any words. Then he gruffly said, “In the corner over there. He’s our poet, famous around here. He will read the lines of the place for you. His name is Park.”
I turned, seeing a large balding man sitting alone with a beer and a notebook in front of him. An unlit cigarette lay on the table next to the notebook. His face shown the worn look of a hard life and too many hours in bars.
I introduced myself. “Jeff Blake, the bartender tells me you know more about this place than anyone. I guess I’m just curious. Can I sit down and talk with you? It looks like a real roller coaster area.” I looked out the window, traffic moved on both sides of the building.
Park looked up. “Let’s go outside, like a smoke?”
I politely refused.
“Too bad, it gives you time to think.”
He had a sad look of a man who had seen too much, who’s soul still held it in.
“So why are you bothering an old man? Oh, I remember, you want to know about this place. I’ve penned a couple of words and even a book about it. Maybe I would have a word or two for you.”
Park went on to tell me about how the Duwamish River was the key. “You see here you have the water on both sides. To the west you have the Puget Sound just a few blocks away and to the east is the dirty Duwamish River. You crossed it to find your way here. Once here, you have your back against it. You can’t go any further away. You are left with your life as it is. Faced with that, you act out maybe rejecting who you are or denying it with drink and sin. Getting back is the problem. There are reasons the Duwamish runs with the color of a reddish brown. It’s from the sweat of life played out in the factories and warehouses that surround it and the sin washed down from this place.”
Park looked at me with a grimace and said, “Don’t stay too long, you might not find your way back my son.”
Like an open book, I told him about the van and how I tailed it here because it was always hanging around my neighborhood.
“There are all types of stuff going on here. Who knows what the van might be all about. I might ask a few questions from my friends.” Park paused taking a drag on his cigarette.
Then he told me about the gaming that went on in the back of the Asian restaurant just down the street. The one with the half working neon sign and dim lights. You might find some lines to write in that place.
“Just go in the back and you will find out about the people in this place,” Park said and then went inside.
The next night, I drove back to White Center parking to the same dark lot. The van was nowhere in sight. I walked to the back of the Asian place and went in the unmarked door. There were tables full of men, drinking and playing cards. Some of the women I had seen the night before swirled between the tables showing the curve of their hips to the men.
I sat down at one of the tables near the edge, my back against the wall.
“Playing?” Ask the gruff man with the deck of cards in front of him. Two other men with no necks and the hard faces of drinkers looked at me.
“Deal,” I replied.
Just then a large man with dark complexion came over to the table, he had been at the bar getting a drink. He looked at the table and me, like I had taken his spot. He then sat down in the last chair across from me.
I played and listened. The large man again got up and went to the bar to get a drink, he left his hand laying on the table. Everyone waited for him to return. I saw him talking with two Asians who looked like the ones I had seen at the end of the building smoking the night before. He turned and glanced back at the table and me.
Once he returned, the game started again. He blurted out, “haven’t seen you in these parts before have I?”
I shook my head no.
“I hear things you know. Seems you might be friendly the blue cop. Maybe here to snoop.”
I didn’t say anything. Suddenly, the man stood up and pushed the table against me, pinning me to the wall. He thrust himself around the table and grabbed my shirt collars. “Listen fellow, we don’t like any problems here. Any guys with shinny badges disturbing our games. I don’t think you’re welcome here.”
Just then the two Asian guys moved toward me throwing me to the ground. Then they began dragging me out the back door. They held me down and worked me over with their fists. “Don’t come back, one said in broken English.” The other laughed and they both went inside.
I pulled myself together. My glasses were broke and I could feel blood on my face. My body hurt from the blows to the midsection. Somehow, I managed to drag myself to my car.
As I started the engine, suddenly in my blurred vision, I saw the guy from the van again with the same black case emerging at the end of the building. He headed toward a non-descript block building on the other side of the street entering through a side door.
I drove by the building. There was no sign on it, but I could see lights inside and several cars parked in the lot next to it.
Another sharp pain hit me in the mid-section. I had to get out of here. My head swirled, the car seemed to drive itself fueled by panic. Not able to drive any further I pulled into Meyers Way, an abandoned park and ride on a hill that overlooked the city in the distance. A mist surrounded its lights and buildings. The lot only with a few working lights and one or two that flickered.
My mind barely worked, and every part of my body hurt. My cracked glasses made it even more difficult to see. The hell had been pounded out of me. I felt my ribs and grimaced at the pain. A dried streak of blood on my face stared back at me in the car mirror. I was still alive though, maybe more than ever before. I washed the blood from my face with water from a plastic bottle.
Maybe the poet was right, if you stayed too long in White Center, you never make it back. I looked at the City again and thought about my safe desk job and apartment bed. I could go back. The car clock read 1:10 A.M.
Still time to go back to the Triangle Bar. Maybe the poet was there with another clue.
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