Most cops regard gumshoes as a lower life form, on a par with defense attorneys, politicians, or their brethren working internal affairs. They view them as meddlers that press for information, ask for favors like they’re entitled, and in general have a knack for mucking up an investigation. So when Gus Engstrom, a retired small-town cop now living in Tucson, gets asked by his younger FBI brother Jason to take out a PI license, the brother adding insult to injury by saying he sees it as a step up, it sets off a small explosion. The dig was meant in fun, but the reason behind the request was deadly serious. The brother, now in his prime as chief of the Phoenix office, wants Gus to go undercover to scope out Medicare fraud at Shady Acres, a major health care complex. Jason wants Gus licensed so that he can affiliate with and access the resources of Maestras Confidential Investigation, the foremost private investigative agency in Arizona.
In retirement, Gus has hooked up with three Harley riding free spirits in their early 60’s who call themselves the Merry Marauders. Gus agrees to the assignment on the condition that he can enlist Jerry Hunter, a fellow Marauder and a former Special Forces Marine, to partner with him. After securing their PI licenses, the pair goes undercover posing as two wacky health care supply salesmen. False starts and re-groupings follow as they scope out the enemy terrain and cultivate a string of informants. As the investigation proceeds, they confront mounting evidence that there are more deadly games than fraud being played by the miscreants of Shady Acres.
“Now that you’ve softened up the mark, it’s time you revealed the small favor you mentioned in your call.”
I was in Phoenix visiting my brother Jason at his invitation. Well, more like at his insistence. After some gourmet burgers, a tablespoon of Sweet Baby Ray worked into each patty, along with several helpings of baked beans and his wife Sara’s all world potato salad, we retired to Jason’s den. He handed me another Pacifico, my favorite South of the Border brew.
“Since you brought it up,” he responded, “I do have a small favor to ask.”
“How small? Or put it another way, what are my odds of survival?” Had I known what was coming, I might not have been so casual about the survival thing.
“Before I answer that, let me ask, do you miss being a cop?”
“Yeah, sometimes. Nailing the perp. Reading him his rights. But definitely not the paperwork. So why the question?”
“What would you say to taking out a PI license?” Jason asked, all innocence.
“Whoa, bro. You know how cops feel about PI’s!” Like many of my brotherhood, I am not a fan. They have a knack for mucking up an investigation. They press for information and ask favors like they’re entitled. Plus, they get away with shit that would have our badges.
“I realize it’s a step up from small town cop, but could you consider it?” Jason liked to needle his big brother, hoping to set off a small explosion. He wasn’t disappointed.
“A step up! Screw you!” Then I caught Jason’s gotcha grin and accepted with good grace that I’d been got.
Jason regrouped. “I’m serious. I want you to take an undercover assignment for me, and the PI license would give you legitimacy.”
“Just wait a minute, here. This small town cop never worked undercover. I left that to the boys in the DEA.”
This was true. I was an advocate of in your face policing, not a lot of subterfuge. The Olympic Peninsula has a tradition of logging and commercial fishing, dangerous, tough guy occupations. That’s the kind of cop they respected. Not to boast, but I wasn’t timid about charging into one of the outlaw taverns to break up a fight or approach a suspect. I just wasn’t one for the coffee and donut scene.
Jason ignored the interruption. Simply went ahead and outlined the mission. It Involved ferreting out evidence of Medicare fraud.
“This is big time, millions in overbillings, and likely many of the billings are pure fiction. It’s South Florida in spades.” But at this point, all Jason had were inferences and suppositions. “We’re pretty convinced that the hub of the activity is a health care complex called Shady Acres,” he said. “It’s situated on the west side of Tucson in desert land that butts up against the Tucson Mountains. I want you to get inside the facility and scope out the lay of the land before we actually move in with warrants and guns blazing.”
“Why can’t one of your agents do the covert stuff?” I asked.
“Our agents look too obviously law enforcement. These guys are pros. Guys like them have made my team before. I want this one to stick. I want a fresh face, one that I can trust, to have a look on the inside.”
I am early sixties and now live in Tucson after thirty plus years as a small-town cop on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Jason, mid-fifties, is in his career prime as the FBI agent in charge of the Phoenix office. My thirty years as a cop was hardly as distinguished, but say what you will, I was never envious of Jason nor would I have traded places.
I began to realize why Jason had lured me up to Phoenix. He wanted to make his case face to face. Get me excited, like maybe he was doing me a favor rather than the other way around. Over the phone, I might even have turned him down.
We lapsed into silence. I mulled over Jason’s proposition. My reluctance to give him a definite yes on the spot stemmed from my inexperience in undercover operations and not wanting to screw up Jason’s investigation. Also, I didn’t like the idea of going in alone. It wasn’t a fear thing. I’d faced down a number of hard cases in my career. I’d just feel more comfortable if I had a partner to work with.
Like the good poker player he is, Jason maintained his silence, in line with the maxim that he who speaks first loses.
“Give me a day to think it over,” I finally said.
“I can live with that. But I expect a yes, big brother.”
Changing the focus, he asked, “Tell me, how are the Merry Marauders, that trio of Harley riding social misfits that unaccountably took you into the fold?”
Here he was wanting a huge favor and he had stooped to insulting my new best buds. I just gave him a look, and received another gotcha grin in return.
“Well, time to retire to the living room for a little family gossip, so name your poison,” he offered in the way of making peace.
For me, this was Jack Black, not neat but with a bare minimum of ice cubes and a splash. Sara opted for an after-dinner liqueur, a snifter of Grand Marnier. Jason liked his scotch, a single malt Glen Fiddich. Sara sat on the floor with a big stuffed recliner at her back. I appropriated the other recliner, and Jason installed himself on the sofa.
Glancing over at her, I reflected on how Jason had sure found the right mate in Sara. Not flashy, but very attractive. Had kept her good looks in spite of three kids, or maybe because of them. After her youngest got to middle school she took up free-lance writing. Wrote articles that occasionally found their way into some big name magazines. Jason is enormously proud of her.
I began by asking after our mom. A spry mid-eighties, she lives in a posh retirement center near Jason.
“She’s doing great. Got herself a new boyfriend.” Jason confided. “Her toy boy she calls him. He’s at least five years younger. I think there’s some hanky-panky, but she probably has to supply the Viagra.”
“Yup, no throwing in the towel after Pops died,” I said.
Not that she hadn’t loved the old codger, we were just giving voice to a realistic assessment.
“Hey guys, be nice,” Sara put in. “That’s your mom you’re talking about.” Then she grinned. She adored her mother-in-law, warts and all. That’s one woman who won’t go gentle into that good night, she liked to say. That described our mom. Wonder where Sara got that way of putting it?
“Not nice?” I replied back. “Did Jason ever tell you the story of his early sex education? That also involved our mom.” Sara said she hadn’t. One secret he’d kept from her, or maybe had repressed it. I sure hadn’t. Memory re-awakening or whatever, Jason tried to shush me, but I held up my hand in a gesture of silence and Sara urged me to get on with it.
Jason was a tender six, and he had come to me with the big question, Do girls have penises like boys? He had accidentally caught sight of mom naked, and hadn’t seen one. It puzzled him.
I’d had the answer to that one since kindergarten. I got ahold of a neighbor kid about Jason’s same age. The neighbor was the kind who’d do anything to please, especially a bigger guy who could protect him from the neighborhood bullies. He had a sister about eight. I gave them each a nickel, and she showed Jason hers. Her rain she called it. However, I recalled distinctly that Jason wouldn’t reciprocate. Sara grinned. That hadn’t been his problem for years. I couldn’t help thinking that those were more innocent times. Now, we’d probably be branded as sex-offenders and be subject to prolonged psycho-therapy.
We continued with family small talk for another hour. I got brought up to date on my two nephews and one niece. Jason and Sara were enjoying occasional bouts of grand-parenting after raising and launching into adulthood three great kids, a good thing because it somewhat made up for my fat zero in that department.
Finally Jason said, “Just so you know, I’m headed out to the desert early tomorrow with my naturalist group. It gives me the opportunity to say hello to a rattlesnake or two. The native cacti are beginning to bud.” Jason truly loved the desert. He’d be away before sunrise.
Later, when we were alone, Jason said, “Sara will make you breakfast, and don’t you dare say no. Sit down with her and take some time to chat. She’s fond of you. Why I’m not sure but there it is. She has been looking forward to seeing more of you since you moved to Arizona.”
I was genuinely touched by this admission, which I did my stoic best to cover by simply answering, “You sure can’t beat Sara’s breakfasts. Been dreaming of them ever since I was here over Christmas. And don’t let one of those rattlers bite you on the butt.”
The next morning, fortified by another of those remarkable breakfasts, I took my leave. We did have that chat at the breakfast table. Standing by the door, she invoked the old cliché, “Don’t be a stranger.” Then added, “Seriously, I’d hoped your moving to our Southwest would mean we’d see more of each other. Come on up anytime.”
No brief handshake, she gave me a sisterly hug.
About nine-thirty, I drove away from the comfortable desert-modern house of Jason and Sara Engstrom. It’s a house that exudes upper middle class respectability and prosperity. But to its credit it is also a comfortable house where grandkids and unwashed brothers can feel at home.
After a grim half-hour negotiating the Phoenix sprawl, I found myself headed roughly southeast on I-10. The morning was chilly, in the mid-forties, but already the sun was warming the desert air into a mid-seventies high, both readings pretty typical for late February.
I enjoy long drives with only myself for company. It gives me a chance to ponder my universe without interruptions, unless it’s some tailgating asshole that comes out of nowhere when I’m passing slower traffic. Doesn’t happen often, the passing of slower traffic I mean. I am fully content with the I-10 speed limit of seventy-five mph, which puts me in a distinct minority of Arizona drivers.
I like taking in the desert scenery, so very different from the lush green of my Pacific Northwest where I spent my working years. Sure I miss the water, not the kind that drips from the sky like Chinese water torture much of the winter, but the kind that stretches from the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula across half the world to Japan and China. When I wasn’t upholding the law, or what passes for law in that corner of the world, you would likely find me on my Catalina 32 under sail in the Straits, or gunk-holing the San Juan or Gulf Islands.
With forty miles to go, I was passing the east flank of Picacho Peak, a solitary landmark rising a conspicuous two thousand feet above the desert floor. Nestled up against the east slope is an RV park for snowbirds on a budget. Across I-10 there is a small commercial complex with gift shops, a gas station, a Dairy Queen and a Subway, date night dining for the RV’ers. Back on the west side is an adult sex shop with paraphernalia to spice up their isolated RV life. I wonder what Rose would say if I stopped and gave it a look-see. Brought back an exotic sex toy for our next night together. No, our relationship is a little too new. She’d probably sling it at me.