We Spy

Old-school private eye Joe Adams and his talented sidekick Jason Walz are on the case -- and they always get their man

St. Louis private eye Joe Adams has seen his share of battles. He's worked as a mercenary, infiltrated a cult and helped a Saudi Arabian prince snatch his child from the arms of her American mother. He's busted frauds and found bodies. He's trained Contras and helped the daughter of missing Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa search for witnesses to her father's disappearance. He's been imprisoned in faraway places where nobody knew his name.

"I've been taped to a chair," Adams says, raising his left eyebrow like a silent-film villain. "I know what bloody fear is."

Adams' mercenary work is a bit more mundane now. How could it not be? Inside a clean, yuppified Dogtown apartment, he and his apprentice, lanky twenty-year-old Jason Walz, are working a different kind of covert action: a case of girlfriend versus boyfriend.

The investigators are looking for a bug planted by a guy whom Adams has dubbed "Dummy." (The flamboyant Adams has a nickname for just about everyone.) It seems Dummy got drunk at a party and started blabbing to his girlfriend's sister about things he shouldn't have known -- unless he was somehow eavesdropping on his girlfriend's conversations. The sisters hired Adams to debug the place.

Photos in fancy frames adorn walls painted in Southwestern hues. The pictures show the girlfriend, who appears to be in her late twenties, striking various poses. In one photo she's hugging Dummy, and the two seem very much in love. But apparently their relationship hit the skids.

As always, Adams, who at 54 resembles a younger, fitter Joe Pesci, has done his homework. It turns out Dummy has an order of protection against him in North Carolina. Adams has also unearthed an ex-wife.

"She had nothing good to say about him," the investigator recalls. "She says he couldn't tie his own shoes." When Adams asked the ex-wife if Dummy had ever bugged her, she replied in the affirmative, saying that she busted him taping her phone conversations.

Jason Walz, who stands six-foot-four and wears his brown hair short, both on his head and as a goatee, enters the bedroom after casing the place for phone jacks. He's got a long, carved face. A steady resolve helped him shed 60 pounds in the two years since he started lifting weights and laying off the Whoppers.

The investigator-in-training hasn't seen much action yet, and it'll be a while before Walz comes close to being another Jim Rockford. When a case begins, Joe Adams simply hands Walz a folder, briefs him on the essentials and casts him out into the night. Being underage has its drawbacks, as the bread-and-butter of the private-eye business involves domestic disputes, which seem invariably to climax in bars.

Adams Investigations, LLC, is one of dozens of such firms in St. Louis. Like other top-tier investigators, Joe Adams, who started the company 26 years ago, works with law firms to probe insurance frauds and investigate the finances and spending habits of alimony-seeking wives. He'll work for paranoids convinced they're being watched. He contracts with families, most of them very wealthy, to arrange security.

Walz is Adams' go-to guy when he needs someone to case a house. The elder investigator is too busy to handle days and nights, so he pays the beginner to do the grunt work.

For Adams, a lot of this is nickel-and-dime stuff. Certainly the stakes aren't as high as they were in Honduras in 1985, when Adams was training Contras; or when he threw a man into a volcano; or when he cased a house while, unbeknownst to Adams, the occupant was chewing on his lover's heart and doing unseemly things to the corpse.

"I'm doing the same thing today that I was doing in the military: collecting and deciphering information," he says.

Following a phone line to the corner of the bedroom where it coils into an unassuming storage box, Adams muses, "That's interesting. Hmm." He removes a wicker basket and a teddy bear from atop the box and pulls off its lid to reveal a plush green towel. Adams lifts the towel and his eyes widen. "We-heh-heh-hell. Hello!" Oh yes, the simple joys of a private eye. Inside sits a rudimentary Radio Shack recorder set to run every time the phone is activated.

Walz investigates the tape in the machine. Adams directs him to go out to their minivan, and soon the apprentice returns with tools.

"The neighbor's eyeballing me coming in and out," reports Walz.

Pulling out a spray can, Adams sprays the tape recorder with a clear substance, which quickly dries. "When Dummy gets back tomorrow, [his girlfriend] is going to be at work. Then I'm going to approach him." He shines a black light on the illicit recorder, and it sparkles with invisible paint.

"See that stuff on there? If anybody hits those buttons, it's going to be on them. The more they try and wash it, the worse it's going to get." Sure enough, the next day, Dummy is busted with glowing green hands and a finger-painted steering wheel. Mission accomplished -- and an easy $750.

"Joe is a unique kind of guy," says James Adair, who met Adams in Honduras while working as a Central American correspondent for the now-defunct Eaglemagazine, a mid-'80s competitor of mercenary mag Soldier of Fortune. "He's the sort of guy that just exudes a certain -- menace is not the right word, but he is an imposing figure.

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