My bio says I’m an occasional private investigator and I am, although I play girl Friday to my wife. She’s the one with a PI ticket. I’m the one with the sassy attitude and the legs that don’t stop, if I do say so myself—or should I say I’m Hawk to her Spenser.
We aren’t PIs by design. Like so many things in my life, it was something I kinda fell into. Ten years ago, my wife and I were struggling to make ends meet. I’d been unemployed for nearly 18 months with nothing on the horizon and paying off her college loans wasn’t helping. We needed to supplement our income and we tried doing that with mystery shopping. If you don’t know what mystery shopping is, it’s where people go into various establishments and ensure the store has the right promotions in the right place and the staff say and do the things corporate wants them to do. We signed on with a couple of agencies and started “shopping” various places. We shopped supermarkets, fast food joints, movie theaters, electronics stores and oil changers to name a few. Now, there wasn’t a lot of money in it, but everything we purchased we got to keep. So effectively, we got a lot of essentials and some of our entertainment for free.
We did so well that we were promoted to restaurants. We ate at national chain restaurants and some very fancy restaurants (famous chef fancy). We must have eaten at virtually every 5-star restaurant in San Francisco. Our next promotion led to hotels. Finally, a call came with the intriguing offer. “Do you want to shop casinos?” Sure, was our answer. For several years, my wife and I would fly to Vegas or one of the larger Indian casinos in California, posing as ourselves just taking in the sights, but all the time vetting the hotel, the casino and its staff. Usually, there was a special assignment which involved investigating someone in particular, such as a barman suspected of stealing from the register or the concierge offering personal services or dealers suspected of cheating at the tables.
It sounds fun and it is, but it’s also a lot of hard work. You are essentially working undercover, playing a role. You might turn up to a casino as a high roller staying in the penthouse suites. Me, a regular Target shopper, needs to pull off the image of a high roller, which means having a cover story, knowing how much to tip, pretending to be used to receiving personal service. When we worked a restaurant, it usually meant hanging out in the bar watching the bartender to ensure he wasn’t snagging cash sales or pouring drinks incorrectly. This is fine when the bar is busy, but not when it’s empty. You kinda stick out. Restaurants often wanted to move you to your table early, so we need a reason to stay. We learned to have stories on tap. We would be waiting for friends meeting for drinks, but not staying for dinner then answering phantom cell phone calls when those friends couldn’t make it. There's also the detail work to contend with. There is a lot of paperwork. Every detail needs to be recorded. You need the description of every person you meet. That needs to be cross referenced by a time. That conversation needs to be remembered and noted down. My wife and I divided the duties. I would take names and descriptions and she would note times and conversations. All this starts to add up. A three night stay at a casino results in a 20,000-word report.
Why so much detail? Our report could lead (and has led) to someone losing their job and if criminal charges are brought, we may have to testify. Luckily, we've never had to testify, but our actions have had repercussions. My wife once shopped a store where the person she reported on was dismissed. Fast forward to a few weeks later, when I received a call telling me my wife can't return to the store and we can't shop the store again. The reason was that our report said when and where everything took place. The fired employee told her coworkers these times and date. The coworkers rewound the security tapes back to that time, got a description of my wife, found her name, presumably from the credit card used, and handed that info to other coworkers and kept it handy so that if my wife returned they could enact a little revenge out back. The store manager found my wife’s details on a sheet of paper pinned underneath a checkout and phoned it in to the agency. There have been a couple of other queasy moments along the way, where the situation could have gone sideways. The most memorable was receiving a phone call from the agency owners on the way to a job saying, “It’s off. Abort. Don’t go in there.” It was funny, silly and a tad scary.
With the downturn in the economy, it means we don’t get as many calls to run off to Vegas anymore. That’s a shame, because it’s fun gambling with someone else’s money. It does give me the time to convert our adventures into a fun mystery series. It would be criminal not to.
Simon Wood is an ex-racecar driver, a licensed pilot and an occasional private investigator. His next novel is the thriller, Terminated, dealing with workplace violence. It debuts on June 1st. He's the Anthony Award winning author of Working Stiffs, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper and We All Fall Down. As Simon Janus, he's the author of The Scrubs and Road Rash. Curious people can learn more at www.simonwood.net.