As though I were invisible I slid through the revolving door of my airport hotel and kept going on foot. No need for the doormen to know my plans. Besides, the Millbrae Bart Station wasn’t too far to walk, even for a dame of my age. I was dressed to fit in with the population: scarf, stylish shoes, sunglasses, and dark jeans. I had an old Bart card with eleven dollars on it, so I went through the turnstile with the practiced boredom of a native. So far so good.
I could have sworn I used to take the Bay Point train out of Millbrae, so there was a bit of awkwardness when a Bart employee had to tell me I just needed to get on this Dublin train, but I don’t think anyone saw that. In just a few snaps of my gum I was at the 16th and Mission station, ready for some San Francisco sleuthing.
Why San Francisco? Because I was THERE, wise guy, because I was THERE. And a sleuth gets to sleuthing wherever she she may be. Haven’t you read Harriet The Spy?
Rising from the bowels of the 16th and Mission terminal I mixed in with the human flotsam milling outside the station. After a few purposeful turns around the square I found the Fillmore 22 Bus stop just where I expected it to be, at the edge of the road. I had just cased my fellow riders in the bus shelter when I realized I needed to be on the other side of the street.
I was just in time to board that bus, but my intuition, borne of long experience, told me to check with the bus driver who sent me back to the original spot across the street. With moves like these I was confident no one could have followed me. At last I boarded the correct bus, blending in easily with the populace. My destination: Portrero Hill, where I was to meet a couple of operatives.
We saw each other the minute I stepped into Chez Papa Bistrot, the agreed upon rendezvous. I’m sorry to say they were there first, but they had chosen wisely. Their table had a clear view of the entrance and exit. Mark was dressed in his customary black, while David, with his dark rimmed glasses looked the part of a hapless professor. Well played, gentleman, I nodded to myself. These men could be at home in any large metropolis, watching, noticing, making things happen, with no one any the wiser.
When David left for the men’s room, I pulled a package out of my enormous black handbag and slid it across the table to Mark. The package was an “Otter Pup” coloring book from the Monterey Aquarium, but inside were original childhood photos of Mark’s Dad, who also happened to be my Uncle Eddie, my mother’s little brother, deceased now for many years.
The three of us put in some effort perusing the photos. Wondering about the people and circumstances in old photos, looking for clues to past lives – I am always on the scent of these hunts. Here was Uncle Eddie in the backyard of our grandmother’s house, cleaning a fish, while a curious cat looked on. In a second photo young Eddie was angelic, dressed in a white first Communion suit with short pants, accompanied by an older boy. They are standing in a church narthex. We could identify neither the older boy nor the church. Yet a third photo showed young Eddie aboard a white sleigh, right beside Santa Claus, in some unknown department store. The last picture showed Uncle Eddie as a handsome young man in a letter sweater, posing with a pipe. A caption underneath, we think written by one of our spinster great aunts, read “The Pipe.”
Knowing we would not be able to answer all the questions raised by the photos, as there is no one left alive who knows the answers, we left the Chez Papa for some more contemporary surveillance. We settled ourselves down the street on the patio of Farley’s to drink some coffee. Noir, of course. Though ostensibly we were deep in conversation about Southern mores, we all had our eye on the joint across the street.
Thankfully by now we had some reinforcement, in the form of Mark and David’s elderly black and white terrier Windsor. Windsor is blind, but he looked as best he could, while scouting the area for edible clues.
Maybe we saw suspicious activity across the street. Maybe we didn’t. Maybe the five year old girl and her mother sitting on the patio were plants, sent to charm us into giving up our secrets. That kind of gray area is all in a day’s sleuthing. But one thing was certain: we three had to split up, in case we were made.
To throw watchers off the track we posed for some touristy type pictures. Meaning we were noisy and conspicuous. Then as if by magic, three adults and a blind dog disappeared inside a black Smart car and disappeared up the hill. David, displaying the spy craft for which he is well known, dropped me off by the Mission Street bridge, right beside the Portrero Hill Community Garden.
We’re professionals, so I didn’t ask their destination, but as an out of towner I did have to consult with them on one thing. Where could I get my nails done? Mark suggested a place in the Castro called the Hand Job, but also some other options. I took in his suggestions noncommittally, not recording them on paper. The less Mark and David knew of my comings and goings, the better.
After crossing the Mission Street Bridge I found the streets to be curiously quiet for some blocks. But I kept my eyes open, crossing streets frequently, but not stopping except when I needed to examine native plants, which are another focus of my ongoing detective work. Eventually I came upon what I considered to be the likely nerve center of the neighborhood- a yarn store, Imaginknit.
Maybe because I was hot and tired, I decided to just play it straight in there and not try any funny business. Was I ever glad of that decision when out of nowhere bounced what to my unpracticed eye seemed to be a brown and white miniature greyhound. Knowing the place was well policed, I simply chose a pattern, yarn and needle, and after purchasing same I killed a little time winding my yarn. Everything seemed on the up and up there. The shop was chock full of helpful salesladies, delicious yarns and knitted samples. That dog runs a tight ship.
Revitalized by my yarn purchase I ventured back onto Mission Street. Street traffic picked up around Dolores Park. I put away my camera after the passing the park so as not to arouse suspicion.
In a few short minutes I was in the Castro, looking for a nail salon. For safety’s sake, and also because I couldn’t find it, I did not go to the Hand Job Nail Salon, instead choosing the one right beside the Castro theater. The manager was kind enough to take me as a walk in, or else he was afraid to say no to me. For a time my detecting efforts were slowed, as I could only guess at what the nail ladies were saying amongst themselves. They seemed concerned about the blisters I had worn on my toes from the up and down terrain of my reconaissance that day. Me, I was used to it. It’s the cost of business in this crazy trade.
Finally I was released from the salon, with newly bronzed nails and toes. No one who had seen me before could now recognize me as the same woman who had crawled in with overgrown cuticles just one hour before. I sat at one of the round tables at the top of Castro to ponder my next move.
Having made my thorough way from Portrero Hill to the Castro, my mind turned to plans for the evening. Truth was, there was a man interested in my company for the evening, and I was considering his offer. No, it wouldn’t be as peaceful as grabbing a couple of cold brewskis with a meat and three at Mae’s Diner, but the plus side was I wouldn’t have to pay for my grub. I was torn, but then I looked down and found the best clue of the day. If it’d been a snake it would have bit me.
Well then. I decided if that man wanted my company, he would come to me. So I texted him,” Found a place at Albion and Mission. Meet me there.” I ducked in the place and sat myself at the bar. I had time for a Pilsner and a little eavesdropping before my companion arrived, if he arrived. Sure enough, before I could say “You must have thirteen tattoos and body piercings,” to the hostess, the man in question arrived.
Fine. He could pay for the beer I’d already had. We decided the place was as good as any to eat dinner, as there was already a long line to get in where we were. We had each had a long day, his, lecturing in a cold conference room and mine out pounding the pavement in the golden sun, and we were each glad to sit down and relax. My companion knew better than to even ask about my classified work.
As the evening wore on I felt myself lose a little of my hard boiled edge. In the end I let the man guide me back through the crowded street with the pupusa places and bars, back to the Bart Station. Turned out we were each going back out to the airport area, so I let him accompany me. As the Bart train pulled away from the station, I saw our reflection in the window. We looked just like an old married couple on the way back to their hotel. A perfect cover.