Connie wrote me a cheque for Ava Madison while I waited for Lula to put away her bulletproof vest, her gun and her pepper spray. With doing the takedown in a restaurant, I wanted to go in naked. Not literally naked. Just without all the accessories. There was no point in scaring the customers for no reason. The felon was just a harmless old woman who liked to perform illegal marriages. Phrased like that, she did not seem to be too intimidating at all.
I thanked Connie and put the cheque in my purse. "Have you heard from Vinnie recently?" I asked.
"Yes. He is going nuts stuck around the house. He said if you don't clean up your list soon, he will start doing captures himself again."
"I would like to see that. The last time he did captures with me he shot the skip in the foot. Twice. I was just glad we were driving his car as that sucker bled all over the place. He said he would never do skip chasing again."
"I think he is desperate enough to consider it now."
"I am surprised that Lucille isn't desperate enough to consider letting Vinnie go skip chasing again as well. Anything to get him away from her."
"Steph, that is your cousin you are talking about!" said Connie with a grin.
"But he's not from the branch of the family we like to acknowledge", I said. "When it comes right down to it, however, he did let me blackmail him into giving me a job and that was more than any other member of my family had allowed. And he did keep me on, even though I didn't have a clue what I was doing. In his own way, he has been good to me."
Lula walked out of the bathroom. "Sorry for the delay. I had to readjust the girls after that flak vest squished me so tight. I had Lula squishing out in areas where Lulas are not supposed to squish."
We got to the pub and, because it was a nice day, we headed off to the patio. Grabbing a shady table, we ordered iced teas and the menus.
The patio was not busy. When the server came to take our order, Lula asked for a burger and fries. I ordered a philly cheesesteak with sweet potato fries. I then pulled out Aphrodite's picture.
"I'm sorry. I don't recognize her at all. I don't usually work the evening shift though, so she may have just started and I don't know. Is it important?"
"It is, actually. Would it be possible to see the manager?" She left with our orders. The manager hustled over shortly afterwards.
"May I help you?"
I introduced Lula and myself, then said, "I was here last night with a friend of mine and this person", I held out Aprhrodite's picture "helped serve us. I am trying to find her."
"She doesn't work here. I don't recognize her at all. Did you say she served you?"
"She didn't serve the food or alcohol. She just brought over salt, pepper and condiments, and napkins. She then gave me her card and offered to marry my friend and myself. I still have the card. This morning, when I looked through my files for the people I was supposed to capture today, I found her picture. I hoped to track her down here during your non-busy time. "
"I don't recognize her at all. Penny was working on the patio yesterday evening. She is working the bar right now. I will send her out in a few minutes to talk to you."
We thanked the manager as our food arrived. The food was just as good at lunch as it had been the night before, and I predicted the patio would be a popular spot this summer.
The manager came to our table with the bartender in tow. "I haven't got a clue who that person is", she said, looking at the picture. "I remember you and that good looking man coming in. I remember serving you. And your friend was a generous tipper, I remember that. But I don't remember anyone else at your table, and I don't remember anyone else serving in my section. I would not have been happy to be sharing the job. Less tips for me."
"Thank you for your help." Penny turned and walked away.
I turned to the manager and asked whether there was a surveillance system in place. "We do have one, although it is focused on the door and the till out here, not on the actual tables themselves."
"There is only one entrance and exit from the patio. If the woman was leaving, she would have to go out through that door. I would like to view the security footage."
"Certainly. As soon as you finish your meals, come on back to my office and I would be happy to show you. I'll just go and pull them up on my computer for you now." He turned and left to cue up the tapes.
Lula and I finished our meals and signalled to the waitress that we were ready for the bill. "It has already been taken care of", she said with a smile. "The manager said your meal was on the house." I thanked her and left a good tip on the table.
"If I had known that, I would have ordered the lobster penne", said Lula. I shook my head. If she had ordered the lobster, our meals might not have been covered.
We walked back to the manager's office. "I have isolated the tapes for the time period you specified for the camera over the door. I was waiting for you to come in before I watched them."
We sat down in front of the manager's desk and he turned the monitor around so that we could all see the camera shots. We fast-forwarded through a number of people coming and going until you could see Ranger and I arrive. We looked like a couple. Ranger was standing close to me, his hand on my lower back, as we waited for our table to be readied. We then walked off screen. About ten minutes later, we saw Aphrodite walk through the doorway from the patio into the pub itself. The manager brought up the cameras on the bar and all the entrances and exits to the pub. We watched Aphrodite leave the building. We watched for a few more minutes but she didn't come back.
"Thank you for your help. From what I have seen, it would be stupid for me to stakeout your restaurant in an effort to catch her. I suspect she won't be back. However," I opened up my purse and pulled out a business card, "I would appreciate a call if you do see her. She is not dangerous, but she is marrying people illegally. This means that people who think they are married are in reality not, and this could make a difference legally. It's just a little charge, but it will not look good for her if she doesn't go to court and answer to it."
Frustrated, Lula and I headed out to the car. We sat inside, rolling down the windows to let the fresh breeze blow out the hot, stale air. I pulled out the files.
"How will we capture Aphrodite? It seems like our best lead has now gone kaput", asked Lula.
"We will capture her the old fashioned way. We will go to her house and try there, we will go to her work and try there, and we will discover and then visit her family and friends and try there. We will find her. For a change in pace, however, let's do some of the searching for the traffickers."
"All right, where do you want to look first?"
"I don't want to make contact. I just want to do a stakeout. Let's try their house first to see if they are there."
I got out of the car and said to Lula, "who do you want to be? Exterminator? Ministry of Transport? Molly Maid?"
"Exterminator, I think. We need to smoke out those rats from wherever they are."
I agreed. The traffickers were rats, preying on the hopes and dreams of their own staff. "Exterminator, it is", I said and pulled the corresponding magnetic signs out of my trunk. I applied the signs to the driver and front passenger door, got in the car, and drove to the traffickers' neighbourhood. We parked three houses down on the opposite side of the street and sat, quiet, with our windows down for the breeze. As the sun beat in on us, I started to sweat and my mood plummeted. I hate sweating. I wasn't a cold weather girl, but I definitely wasn't a hot weather girl either. I was more of a fair weather girl. Spring and Autumn are my seasons.
After some time, when I was just about ready to give up, a cube truck pulled into the driveway. Blake Avery, one of the two skips, got out from the driver's side and opened the back of the truck. At least ten Latino women climbed out of the back, scurrying into the house. One woman fell as she got out of the truck. Blake kicked her, picked her up and slapped her across her face. She beetled after the other women into the house. Blake got back in the truck and drove away.
"Call Ranger", I said to Lula. I started the car and followed the truck.
"I have one of the human traffickers in sight. He is on the move. How do you want to handle it?"
"I will divert all the patrol guys out to you. Do not approach the guy until we are there. Call me if there is any change in plans. I will coordinate from this end."
I followed the truck, two car lengths behind, as he drove to an office building to pick up some more workers. By the time he had finished his pickup, there were two Rangeman vehicles behind me. Unfortunately, he had also spotted us tailing him. He performed a series of hairpin turns which must have knocked the passengers in the back around quite a bit, then lost us by driving through a red light. I would have followed, but at the last minute I stopped. There were too many cars coming and the potential of getting T-boned was high.
"Shit", I bit out. When the light turned green I went through the intersection and parked in the first parking lot I could find. The Rangeman vehicles followed me in. I pulled out the phone and called Ranger. "I lost him on a red light. He went through one, and since there was a wall of traffic coming through the intersection, I decided it was safer to stop."
"It pays to be safe."
"But I got all the Rangeman staff here. I've pulled them off their routes."
"That's okay. Consider it a trial run. You can't get them all the first time."
Lula and I got out of the car and met the three Rangeman teams. "I'm sorry, guys. I was doing well there for a while."
"You were sticking to him like a burr on a dog's tail", said Ramon.
"Yeah, you would have been smushed if you had gone through that light", said Calvin.
"I wouldn't have wanted to tell Ranger why you were in an accident on my watch", said Hector.
"What is this guy wanted for, anyway?" asked Manuel.
"It's a husband and wife team, and they are wanted for human trafficking. They illegally import people from South America into the States and then force them to work for peanuts and in some cases just for the price of room and board. Some of the women sign up for the deal thinking that they are coming to a better life. Others are stolen off the streets of South America and brought up here. Judging by what we saw today, I think they are still abusing people's rights and people's dreams. Because the women don't speak English and are illegal immigrants, they have no recourse to escape their life. I want to get these guys badly. They are a high bond as they are a high flight risk."
"We'll get them next time", said Ramon. The men all turned and went back to their cars, and went on their way.
I was still steaming when Lula piped up with "it has been a successful day so far. We got one capture, had an excellent lunch which was only made better by the fact that it was free, and we almost captured another skip. All in all, a good day. Now, Lula is hot, so we are going to have to either get ice cream or go back to the office."
"Ice cream. I need some happy food. And then I will drop you back at the office. I have stuff to do at Rangeman." We locked the car and walked into the convenience store. Lula and I walked over to the ice cream freezer and looked inside. I waited for Lula to make her selection first. I wanted an ice cream sandwich – how cool are they? They combine cookies with chocolate with ice cream. It was a three-for-one. It can't get any better than that. But while I knew what I wanted, Lula needed to look at all the iced treats. She needed to consider and weigh her decision. She rooted through all the ice cream bars, finally selecting two. A Haagen-daas chocolate and almond bar, and a caramel Drumstick. "Do you think I could have two?" she said. "They are good for my mojo."
"It's hot out. I think one will melt while you are eating the other."
"Yeah, you are probably right." She put the two treats in front of her and said "sky blue, sky blue, who's out, not you." She picked up the one that she indicated, hesitated, then exchanged it for the other one.
I picked out my sandwich bar and went to the cash to pay for the two ice creams. Following Lula outside, we sat on the curbstone beside my car, cooling off as we ate. Both of us were successful in eating the snacks before they melted on our hands. We are the ultimate eating machines.
"Perhaps we can search for Aphrodite tomorrow morning?" I suggested. "I want to go back to Rangeman. I think Ranger wanted to see if we could fit in a workout. I could use one to work off some of this frustration."
"Girlfriend, I would want to work off some of that frustration with him as well. I wouldn't mind getting all hot and sweaty with him."
"I was actually thinking of practicing in the gun range."
"Is that what you are calling it now? I would like to see his gun, too. I bet he has a big gun. I would like to practice with his gun in the range, too. Of course, practicing with his gun anywhere would be good. In the bedroom, in the car, in the office…"
"You are incorrigible."
"I am not sure what that means, but I can incorrigible the ass out of it."
"See, happy food strikes again. Ice cream is sure to cure the soul", said Lula.