Saturday, May 22, 2010

Surveillance Duty

I’m writing a novel that has a private investigator in an urban fantasy setting so I wanted to get a feel for the life of a PI. I contacted a fellow member of Mystery Writers of America who is a PI and spent part of the day being an assistant PI. My assignment was to be on surveillance in my car watching one end of an alley to see if anyone drove up and entered a particular house off the alley. I was briefed on my assignment, given a sheet with instructions, met the client who described the three people we were looking for and then parked where I could watch anyone enter the alley. At first I was nervous, particularly since someone across the street was working on a lawn and kept walking back and forth. I expected at any time for this man to stroll across the street and ask what I was doing sitting in my car for a long period of time. I didn’t know what to do while I waited so I started writing on my notepad observations about the neighborhood: a redwood fence around the house where I was parked, another car like mine in the driveway ahead, birds chirping, the sound of a train whistle in the distance, sun shining on my car so I had to open all the windows a crack, etc. Then a car turned into the alley and I started fumbling to get on the two-way radio to send an alert. I was asked if I could identify anyone in the car. I couldn’t. I saw the car was silver but didn’t get a good look at the make of the car. I got a partial license plate but couldn’t remember all the numbers and letters as I wrote a note. My partner drove through the alley from the other end and verified that the car stopped at a neighboring house and not the one we were interested in. I realized that I needed to step up my observation skills. The next car that drove down the alley, I got the type of car, color and license number but again couldn’t see the occupants because of tinted windows. Turned out to be a false alarm as well. I learned that nearly everyone driving in this neighborhood had tinted windows. Made it hard to spot someone. After an hour we swapped ends of the alley. I was becoming more comfortable being parked there watching. On this side there was more traffic but no one doing yard work. Several cars started into the alley and then turned around. I guess it was a good place to change direction if needed. After the second hour we swapped ends of the alley again. I parked in a new place. Now there were two men on the corner talking. I tried to act non-obtrusive. Finally, it started to rain and they each got in a truck and drove off. I had the place to myself. I wrapped up the surveillance with two more false alarms. We found that no one entered the target house during our three hour surveillance. Surveillance work is much like playing outfield in baseball. Ninety-nine percent of the time boring, with a few moments of panic.

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