The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win
without proving that you are unworthy of winning. - Adlai Stevenson
A new crop of campaign signs had magically appeared overnight along the highway. To me they were symptomatic of the superficial bent our political system had taken recently. Flashy slogans and graphics in lieu of policy discussions. Did anyone honestly think a potential voter was going to make a decision about a candidate based on a yard sign? The only possible good I could imagine coming from the money and effort spent on signs was to serve as a reminder of the upcoming election. Although I doubted anyone unaware of the election would be persuaded to vote as a result of being bombarded by dozens of signs bearing the names of people running for everything from Congressional representative to county clerk. I dismissed the signs as a waste of money and gave them little more than a brief glance as I drove by.
It wasn’t until I got within three blocks of the mall that a tight grouping of campaign signs actually did catch my attention. They were on a vacant lot next to a small house that had somehow survived all the development in the area. It was a busy corner with open space and no visible owner, an easy target for volunteers eager to get their candidate’s name in front of the public. Just yesterday, I remembered seeing a row of bright green signs with dark green print—Nathan Knight for Congress—sticking up out of the uncut grass that blanketed the property. Today, however, the row of bright red signs screamed Vote for Bobby Mann in large navy-blue block letters superimposed over a U.S. flag. The transformation was both startling and strange. As I waited my turn at the stop sign, I wondered what had happened to Knight’s signs. Maybe they had been moved to another location. Or maybe someone supporting Mann had tossed them in the bushes at the back of the lot. It seemed possible. Emotions were running hot in the run for this seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The mall wasn’t officially open yet. There were, however, a number of cars clustered near the main entrance. Once inside, most of the storefronts were still blocked by grates or sliding doors to prevent early shoppers from sneaking in ahead of time.
In spite of the hour, there was a fair amount of activity, mostly seniors doing laps before gathering around the food court’s plastic tables with uneven metal legs to drink coffee and pass the time of day with other retirees. Although mall traffic generally was down, the walkers still gathered in the morning, getting their exercise in by walking back and forth the full length of the mall. Inside you didn’t have to worry about the weather.
I made my way past the familiar stores, occasionally moving out around clumps of walkers who assumed they had the right-of-way. The smell of coffee mingled with the aroma of the centrally located Cinnabon Bakery. I sometimes wondered if they used a fan to disperse the smell of their cinnamon rolls, a sweet invitation to everyone within smelling distance to stop and add approximately one million calories to their breakfast routine.
There were only a few customers at Starbucks, so I opted to get a tall dark roast rather than start the work day with the office’s bland breakfast blend. There was a tempting array of pastries in the display case, but I decided to wait and scarf something from Yuri. More often than not, he stopped at a bakery on the way to work.
As I passed the Sew What? storefront, I paused to admire a newly displayed quilt featuring swirls of green and gold that looked like the background for a Klimt painting. Maybe I should check out the price when the store opened. Now that I had a job, I could afford a splurge now and then, and Mara might like a new quilt. At thirteen, she was still okay with letting me pick out clothes or decorations for her room. I wondered how long that would last.
I shrugged my purse up higher on my shoulder so it wouldn’t slip off as I pulled open the door to Penny-wise Investigations. The name of my employer was painted in a cobalt blue arc that spanned three quarters of the large one-way mirror storefront window. Within the arc in smaller, straight-line print was: “Discount Detection.” Lower down and to the right was a tiny griffin emblazoned in gold next to “P.W. Griffin & Associates. Vigilance you can afford.”
Sometimes I still caught myself wondering how in the world I’d become a detective. My dream had been to use my newly minted Ph.D. to land a tenure-track position by churning out deep, insightful papers on the intersectionality of this and that and the interconnectedness of knowledge. But just as I was about to finish my coursework in an interdisciplinary liberal arts program, my husband died and everything changed. There was no life insurance and very little in the bank. Although it was a struggle, both financially and as the mother of two young children, I somehow managed to complete the program and get my degree.
But as fascinating as a focus on interdisciplinary studies was to me, it wasn’t very marketable to college hiring committees. Eventually I gave up on finding a college position and turned to the business world. Unfortunately, no one there seemed to value my interdisciplinary background either. I was either overqualified or underqualified for whatever position they were advertising for. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a job, any job. Until I impulsively responded to a “help wanted” sign in the Penny-wise window.
Although I hadn’t fully understood the nature of the position I was applying for, my interview with the impressive head of the agency had gone well, and I ended up being offered a job as an investigator. Well, as an investigator in training. Jason and Mara, had been stunned when I announced that I was going to go to work for a detective agency. They couldn’t imagine their Mom as a detective, and, truthfully it was hard for me to imagine it, too. My own mother had been not only surprised, but disapproving. Her dream for me was that I would remarry and devote myself to raising her grandchildren. But here I was. A real-life detective. Licensed and everything. I’d even solved a case or two.
As I pulled the door open at Penny-wise, my purse started to slip. I grabbed the purse with one hand, clutched my coffee with the other, and shoved the heavy door shut with my foot. Our administrative assistant, W. Blaine Watkins, a well-dressed “stay in the office” version of Dr. Watson, glanced up and frowned.
“Sorry.” I hoped I hadn’t scuffed the bottom of the door or dribbled coffee on the floor. Blaine was a stickler for keeping the plush waiting room spotless. When I’d first opened the door to ask about the “help wanted” position, I hadn’t been sure what a discount detective agency would be like. But the tasteful waiting room with the gold nameplate reflecting on the highly polished wood desk definitely wasn’t it.
“Good morning, Cameron,” Blaine said in his usual formal and perfunctory manner. “P.W. would like to see you as soon as you’re settled in.” His blue dress shirt was a perfect match for his blue eyes, cool and professional.
“Thanks. I’ll just drop off my purse and coffee.” And take a few quick sips to charge my batteries. Maybe grab a pastry from Yuri.
“Oh, and ask Yuri to join you, please.”
“Will do.” Ah, a clue. Either Yuri and I were both in hot water, or there was a job afoot, one that required two people. I had been with the agency for just over a year. During that time most of my assignments had been routine investigative work like cheating spouses, employee complaints that required a third-party perspective, theft, runaways, or background checks. They were middle class and small business problems at which no one wanted to throw a lot of money. Only one case had put me in danger, but after that, neither my blood pressure nor my self-defense skills had been challenged.
Even so, I still thought of the job at Penny-wise as part work and part fantasy. No matter how small the problem, I was a bona fide investigator at a detective agency. Not exactly Wonder Woman, but still someone trying to dispense a bit of justice in a chaotic world. It was a far cry from a professorship in the ivory tower, but I had come to terms with it. In fact, I’d decided that compared to detective work, writing papers and teaching freshmen sounded downright boring.
I let myself into the office’s large workroom, affectionately referred to as the “pit” by my fellow investigators. The room looked like an oversized, well-used den for office workers. There was a row of desks separated by chest high gray partitions and rows of bookshelves, a couple of long tables along the sides of the room, an old leather couch, an assortment of chairs, and a line of battered metal filing cabinets. Yuri was at his cluttered desk, staring at his computer, his black glasses with their thick frames resting cockeyed on his nose. When he turned toward me, I realized one arm of his glasses frame was missing.
“Let’s see, did someone spot you tailing them and poke you in the nose? Were you attacked by a drone? Or did you fall off your bike?” I asked.
“I was going to offer you a donut—”
I sighed and eyed the box next to his computer. “I’m afraid we don’t have time. P.W. beckons.” Turning slightly as if heading for P.W.’s office, I quickly snatched a donut and took a large bite.
Yuri gave me an eye roll and dramatically slammed the lid shut on the box of donuts, most likely smashing half of them. “A new assignment?” he asked. Things had been slow of late, reflecting the decline in the number of people who shopped at the mall. All of us had begun worrying about the financial stability of the business.
Yuri stood up and pushed back the mass of black hair that covered his forehead. I went to my desk, put my purse in the bottom drawer, quickly gulped down some coffee, and took another bite of the donut.
“Come on,” Yuri urged. “Let’s do this. I’m tired of sitting around the office.”
“Me too,” I agreed, although I’d been making good use of the office time to learn more about online research and the legal issues involved when handling employee and management complaints. There was a lot to know, and on-the-job training had its limits. Besides, whenever Yuri got bored, he turned to trivia to pass the time. I was tired of being asked about the lifespans of various animals or what historic events happened in a particular month. And I couldn’t think of any reason why I needed to know that fish don’t have eyelids or that some lipsticks contain fish scales to give them pearlescence.
Yuri knocked on P.W.’s door, a modest three-finger rap. When she said “enter,” he stepped aside for me to go first. We have an on-going debate about what behaviors are “polite” versus chauvinistic. But I nodded and stepped inside, resolving to beat him to the punch on the way out.
I always enjoy seeing what P.W. is wearing. Today it was a teal skirt and matching jacket with black, angled stripes on the jacket collar that continued down the front of the jacket and rimmed the bottom edge. A large pin that looked like something from Madeleine Albright’s collection dominated her left shoulder. It was a Roman era griffin studded with gemstones. A teal colored hat with a black ring around the brim hung on the coat rack in the corner.
As we sat in the chairs in front of her desk, P.W. looked up from the file she’d been reading, her dark eyes unfathomable. “Good morning,” she said in her low, hoarse voice, accompanied by a warm but fleeting smile.
We said “good morning” back, sounding to me like obedient children. P.W. is intimidating, not only because of her height, her startling white hair and a commanding presence, but because we know so little about her. The one thing we know for sure is that she has high standards for her employees in spite of our brand as a “discount” agency and our mall location.
“I have an assignment for the two of you.” She paused, waiting for us to look appropriately enthusiastic. We didn’t disappoint.
She pushed the file folder she’d been perusing when we came in across the desk. “It’s a straightforward surveillance. Starting tonight, if possible.” She looked at me and asked, “Will that be okay?”
“Yes,” I said as Yuri nodded his agreement. “My mother should be able to take care of my kids.” When I’d been running low on money and morale, the children and I had left our heavily mortgaged house in another state behind and moved into the bottom floor of a carriage house that we now shared with my mother. She lived upstairs, paid her share of the rent, and frequently bought groceries for all of us. On most days I considered it a good arrangement.
“As you know, there is an election coming up. We’ve been hired by one of the campaigns to look into the theft of their signage.”
“Which candidate?” Yuri asked.
“Does it matter?” P.W. asked.
“There’s a lot at stake in this election,” Yuri said.
“I’m assuming that your political affiliation isn’t more important than catching a thief?” P.W. sounded more curious than judgmental. I knew nothing about her politics, but I, too, had strong feelings about the upcoming election.
I watched the question play out across Yuri’s face. “Nope,” he said. “I can work for the enemy – assuming it’s a paying client.”
“Alright then,” P.W. said. “Our client is Nathan Knight.” She paused to see if Yuri approved.
“He’s my guy,” Yuri said, giving a thumbs up. I already knew he favored Knight from frequent discussions we’d had about the upcoming election. He was my guy too, so I was also pleased. Working for his opponent was not something I would have felt good about. Although to survive as a small business you sometimes have to take on clients that you wouldn’t want as friends.
“Well, then you will be spying on the ‘enemy.’” P.W. said with a hint of sarcasm. I noted that she had not revealed her political preference.
“Hey, I was willing to spy on the good guys, too, but I have to admit I’m glad the good guys aren’t the bad guys,” Yuri said, smiling broadly.
Ignoring his attempt at humor, P.W. continued. “In my experience it’s often zealous volunteers or young staffers who sometimes step over the line during a campaign. They are usually true believers, unaware of the consequences of something they consider more of a prank than an illegal act. Your assignment isn’t to incriminate or castigate the candidate, but to catch those responsible and end the thefts.”
“Is that what the client wants?” I asked.
“If there are charges brought, the Knight campaign will probably welcome the bad publicity it will create for their opponent. As I’m sure you’re aware, campaigns are all about getting media coverage. But they are hiring us because they are tired of constantly having to replace signs.”
“I can understand why volunteers think of stealing signs as a prank,” Yuri said.
I bet you can, I thought. Yuri wasn’t exactly someone committed to following the letter of the law. A characteristic that had from time to time gotten him into—and out of— some awkward situations. Although I didn’t always approve of his tactics, I had let him teach me how to pick a lock and found his ability to make up a story to get information out of someone admirable if not inspiring.
“As you probably know, signs are not inexpensive. And it takes time from other more valuable activities to monitor signage and replace stolen signs.” She paused, turning her dark eyes first on me, then aiming their solemn message at Yuri. “Our goal is to catch the thieves in the act. Just take pictures; don’t make an effort to stop them. Understand?”
“Got it,” I said, turning to Yuri to make sure he agreed.
“Sure,” he said. “We aren’t law enforcement. But do we call the cops as well as take pictures?”
“The actual theft will probably happen fairly quickly. It doesn’t take long to grab a few signs. It’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get police there in time to make an arrest. If, however, it seems safe, you can follow them to see where they take the signs.”
“And take more pictures.”
“Yes. But it’s up to the campaign staff as to whether the police get involved. It’s not your decision.” We nodded in unison. “The best locations for a stakeout are identified on a map in the folder. Signs regularly go missing from those places. You might want to go by this afternoon and choose the best spot for surveillance.”
“And if nothing happens tonight?” I asked.
“You have up to four nights to catch the thieves. Based on their experience of late, it shouldn’t take that long.”
Once we were back in the pit, we poured over the thin file. It came as no surprise that the Knight campaign suspected the Mann campaign volunteers of pilfering their signs. But although they had tried, they hadn’t managed to catch anyone. I guessed that the change in campaign signs I had seen on my way to work might be involved. Theft and substitution.
I spent the rest of the morning doing background checks for a case Norm Nelson was working on. Norm is our resident expert on being nondescript. He’s average in every way, except in his skill as an investigator. In that he excels. The work I was doing for him was tedious but not mind-numbing. You never knew what you were going to find out about somebody. They could be boringly normal, or they could have something in their past that was criminal, kinky, or just plain strange. What you uncovered might or might not disqualify them for whatever position they were vying for. It was up to the client to make that call.
After picking our location, I dropped Yuri off and headed home. There would be time to take a short nap, grab something to eat, and have a brief but inevitable tense exchange with my mother. She never really minds keeping an eye on the kids; she dotes on them. But whenever I need her to look out for them because of my work she inevitably uses the opportunity to let me know that I should be focusing my time on finding a husband, not playing at being a private investigator. After all, I wasn’t getting any younger.
Jason, my pre-teen news junkie son, was, as usual, glued to the TV news when I arrived. He barely looked up when I stuck my head in the living room to announce I was home. My daughter, Mara, with her perfect oval face and thick eyebrows, was on her computer, skyping with a friend. Thirteen was apparently the year when most girls became all girlie and talked for hours about clothes, boys, and the makeup their mothers didn’t want them to wear. I didn’t remember going through that phase, but Mom assures me that I did. I had let Mara get her ears pierced at the end of summer, relieved that she didn’t want more piercings. Actually, Mom had insisted on taking Mara to have her ears pierced or I might not have agreed to it. A love of earrings was something they had in common.
I could hear Mom moving about in the kitchen, probably creating one of her healthy gourmet dinners that the kids would only complain about behind her back. She spoiled them in so many ways they almost forgave her for her cooking, almost. As I went in to see what she was up to, I noticed another article stuck under the ceramic goose magnet on my refrigerator. How I detested that goose with its blue flowered kerchief. I had no doubt that the article would be on one of the now familiar themes: problems single mothers face, longevity and marriage, happiness and marriage, income and marriage, and ways to meet marriageable men—the articles changed, but never the themes.
“I’m going to take a nap,” I announced. “And, Mom, can you keep an eye on the kids tonight?”
Mara was suddenly there, glaring at me. “We don’t need a babysitter,” she said in her newly discovered whiny teenage voice. Who had taken over the vocal box of my formerly sweet young daughter?
“Your grandmother isn’t a babysitter,” I said. I knew the script by heart. “So, what if YOU keep an eye on HER? That better?”
Jason came in and asked, “You on a new case?”
“Stakeout. Campaign signs being stolen on a regular basis.”
“That’s a misdemeanor,” he said. “It’s a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail.” Trust Jason to know the details as they had probably been explained on some news program.
“Whose signs?” Mara asked.
Jason said, “Research suggests that campaign signs have very little impact, if any, on how people vote. But you still need signs.” He paused, then added, “And I can’t stand his opponent, Bobby Mann.”
“Me neither,” Mara said. For once they agreed on something.
“I’ve never cared for a man who uses a diminutive for his first name,” Mom added.
“Well, that’s settled,” I said. “I’m going to catch a few winks and then help out our preferred candidate for Congress. Everyone okay with that?”
Jason returned to his TV news program. Mara went back to her computer. And Mom informed me she would leave something for me to eat in the fridge. I didn’t ask what it would be. I planned on taking sufficient junk food on the stakeout to see me through the evening, so I didn’t need to worry about what she was planning for dinner. I left her in the kitchen stirring some healthy concoction on the stove while wearing a floral apron to protect her beige silk blouse and dark slacks. She isn’t as intimidating or as stylish as P.W., but she’s close. I’d inherited her long legs and high cheekbones, but not her lovely chestnut colored hair. Mine is an uninteresting ash blond. My large hazel eyes are my best feature, and I have good skin. But all eyes don’t turn to look at me when I enter a room. In some ways I’m okay with that.