If every mess tells a story, John Frycek is sitting at the start of a novel. He’s behind his desk at his Far Northwest Side office, where the flat surfaces are all tchotchkes and weaponry. Ceramic figurines jam one shelf, cheek by jowl: a screaming eagle, a hobo clown, rearing elephants, a Japanese cat, a tiger—all facing in the same direction, as if regarding a good sunset. On the desk: three cans of pepper spray, one empty holster, and a clutch of files. On the bookshelf: mugs, shot glasses, and telling titles (Get Even 2: More Dirty Tricks From the Master of Revenge, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Spanish, The Millionaire Next Door). The credenza is a mass of warning lights: phones, remotes, chargers, and detectors. Thumbtacked to the walls: cloth badges, the kind you’d sew on a uniform. “Chicago Police,” one says. Below it: “Truth—Justice—American Way” and “Donut Police.” There’s also a beat-up fedora, naturally.
Frycek runs a detective agency (Special Solutions), a security company (Total Security), and a self-defense studio (Urban Survival Solutions), all out of a storefront at Milwaukee and Harlem in Edison Park. There’s a single parking space out front, the Chicken Inn next door, and a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. Frycek, a large man, has a high, keening voice and a healthy goatee and speaks with his hands folded over his belly. He is a good-spirited Buddha, a student of the human experience, and a private detective to the bone.
This is the guy you come to when you want to find someone who is hiding—someone dodging a subpoena, someone who owes you money. Or to find what someone is hiding—an affair, a bogus workers’ comp claim. Frycek, 52, has been doing this in Chicago for 32 years. He started by begging his way into an internship with a local PI and notched himself upward, working as a security guard and a department store detective, training in hand-to-hand combat and martial arts, getting certified and licensed in everything from small weapons to electronics, and eventually opening his own agency in 1991. The framed 8-by-10s on his wall testify to the fact that he’s had some brushes with famous people, as he’s bodyguarded for Al Gore, Ben Carson, and Michael Douglas.
“So you’re interested in finding people?” he says, sliding a box of Christmas cookies forward on the desk.
Right. No thanks.
He chews, lips out. “What, no cookie?”
No thanks. OK. One.
Decades ago, I worked for a time in a bail bond shop in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was not a particularly cool job, except that I got to answer the phone late at night using a punchy trochaic chant: “Bail bonds.”
It was old-school. This was before caller ID, call forwarding. Before the internet, smartphones, GPS. Before computers were even useful. I was a night clerk, paid by the bondsman to sleep on a cot in a back office, catching incoming calls from jails all over the state, where stickers listing our 800 number were posted next to the pay phones. The inmates who called had no idea who I was. They only wanted out of jail. I took their information and paged the bondsman, who then phoned whichever one of his brothers lived nearest that jail, so that he could post bail the next morning.
The bondsman was a big black guy, a former cop, the brother of a cook at the restaurant where I worked otherwise. I believe his name was Luther. He wore an empty holster that pulled his shoulders back in a manner that looked painful. The shop had bars on the windows and a gun in the top drawer that Luther told me never to touch. He paid me in cash. Always something different—$20 one night, $25 the next. Sometimes just 10 bucks, if I slept all the way through. I didn’t care. Three nights a week I made money while I slept. It felt like I was stealing.
Bail jumping was rare. Only dummies jumped bail, Luther told me. That’s what he told his clients, too. Most “skips,” as Luther called them, weren’t worth much of a reward. No bounty hunters showed up to look for a drunk-and-disorderly skipping town on a $400 bond. “You don’t need a bounty hunter to find a skip,” Luther liked to say. “You just need to know they mama.”
Sometimes he’d use a guy he called the Trace to track skips down. The Trace was dogged and cagey. He saw the invisible commerce of secrets in a city neighborhood. He knew the churches, the shops, the parks. He knew how to strike up a conversation with a stranger or sit hours in a car waiting out a target. “You can’t hide from the Trace,” Luther would say.
In Illinois, there are no bondsmen. The law here says no commercial entity can post bail money for you. You have to do it yourself or get someone you know to post it for you. It eliminates the middleman in an already fraught transaction between you and the state. But if you are the one posting the bond for someone else, and that someone else doesn’t show up for their next court appointment, you can try to find them yourself. Or you can hire a guy like John Frycek.
Frycek doesn’t long for the good old days before the internet. He likes the footprint people leave behind online, which his software taps: work histories, rap sheets, property records, vehicle registrations. He loves social media, too, because nobody, it seems, can resist illustrating their lives on Facebook. All of which makes his job easier. “A lot of it can be done from a smartphone.” Still, he allows, “it’s more interesting when the desktop tools don’t work.”
He continues: “Most people don’t want to hide themselves completely. They’re usually just hiding one thing they do, one aspect of their lives. They may be having an affair, they may be milking a workmen’s comp claim, you never know!”
And that is a real exclamation point. It seems to excite him—the possibility of discovery, the finding of a solution. There are a lot of exclamations points whenever John Frycek speaks.
He’s promised to let me ride along with his partner tomorrow. Today, though, Frycek is showing me his operation. The front of the shop is a retail business—camera glasses, tracking devices, key chain cams. Cool stuff. Spy stuff. I can’t help but pick up everything I see. A distance tracker. A shaving can safe. A license plate cam. It’s like Sharper Image, but with really, really dirty carpet.
People come in with problems, he says, and “we offer resolution.” Even if it’s not always what they want to hear. “Someone might come to me and say, ‘I need you to find so-and-so, he owes me $500.’ And I’ll say, ‘You don’t want me. You’re going to have to write me a check for a thousand bucks!’ ”
He pauses there. He seems to feel the need to explain. “We’re expensive!” he says.
He goes on: “So I have to counsel them, ‘You’re going to have to let it go.’ ” He raises his chin then and coos, “Let it go.” Like from Frozen. Then he throws his hands out, palms up. “I tell ’em, too, I say, ‘Money is not a boomerang. There are no laws of physics with money. It doesn’t always come back to you. People sometimes disappear with it. Is it worth paying a thousand bucks to get 500?’ ”
He introduces me to his newest employee, Tammy, an attractive, nicely dressed, 50-ish blonde who started here a month or two ago. “Will you look at her?” Frycek says. “Gorgeous. Truly.” Tammy, inured to his chatter, turns around politely when he asks. She’s unfazed, seems to have him figured. “People want to talk to her,” says Frycek. “I can send her into a bar, give her a story, and she can get information. Talking is what this job is about. Talking and computer searches. She’s a newbie. Just starting out. So we’re teaching her. And she’s getting it.”
Frycek tilts his head. “The trick to finding people is to know their weaknesses, to know what they like to do and then use that information to get close and ask more.”
“What we do, and this is a term I made up,” he starts, then reframes: “People call it ‘constructive deception.’ ”
“No,” Frycek says. “Well, yes. Sure. But we’re not defrauding anybody.”
Right about then, Tammy waves and heads out into the blaring noontime sun. “She’s great,” Frycek says again. “She worked in precious metals for 20 years! She knows how to deal with people. She can handle herself.”
He drops back into his desk chair and sighs. “Finding someone, figuring out their secrets—you need the ability to learn and adapt, you have to know and understand people. If you don’t understand human nature, you’re not going to go far in the business. Finding someone is an art.”
He looks down, kicks the carpet a little. “So … constructive deception. Let’s say you want to interview the grandmother of the guy you’re looking for. You might have to say”—and here he changes his voice as he talks into the pretend phone he holds up to his ear—“ ‘Oh, hi, Emma! Hi, my name is Jim Peters. Hey, I went to school with Bradley. Yeah, we went in 1977, yeah, we went to Maine South together. How are you, honey?’ ”
He’s animated, breathy, cast and crew of an entire performance in the space between us.
“Emma” replies, in another voice: “Well, I’m just fine.”
Jim Peters: “Oh, I haven’t seen your grandson in the longest time. How’s he doing?
Emma: “Oh, he’s OK.”
The details on the target—where they are, who they’re with, what they’re doing—generally follow.
Frycek gives me a “You see?” glance. “So constructive deception means that my intent is not to harm her emotionally, or physically or financially, because that would be illegal. Not to mention not wholly ethical.” I don’t get the feeling that last bit would trip him up entirely. He goes on: “You work the situation to get the one piece of information you need. Deception with phones—it’s a tool. You have to use it.”
The constructive deception doesn’t end once, say, he gets a phone number for the target. “You call up and say, ‘I work for R.J. Magintsky’s recovery loss department. There’s a check for $438.72’—you gotta make it like that— ‘and it’s been sitting here the last three months. We really want to get it to you. I’m going to leave this 800 number. Let me know where to send it.’ Or when you really want to smoke somebody out: ‘This is Medical Resource Analysis. Listen, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but your mother is in intensive care right now. I can’t tell you where or how or when, but she’s got a grim outlook. Please call this number.’ ”
With all these tools and tricks at his disposal, is it even possible for someone to disappear? How would Frycek do it? He thinks for a minute. Hmpfs. “Boy,” he says. “It’s tough.” He looks past me, out the window, at a man carrying a box of doughnuts to his car. “I think I’d go into a religious commune. They only use your name. No Social Security numbers. You get a place to live. Maybe they feed you. No address. That’s hard to crack.”
Dennis Aitken is Frycek’s partner. Thrice married, he’s a trim, smallish guy who looks like he’s in his early 60s and carries himself like he’s not afraid of getting in a fight. He’s worked with Frycek the past 15 years. A hapkido master, he teaches self-defense classes in the evenings. By day, he thrums along the arteries of Chicago, wheeling into modest neighborhoods in his rattling, nondescript, tinted-window minivan, parking down the block from people he’s trying to find, watching their doors and driveways like a dispassionate sphinx. He does not want me to describe him beyond that. He insisted on having his face obscured in the photo taken for this story. He has a neat mustache and a slight Russian accent. Well, not true, those last things. They are—to use a term I made up just now— “descriptive construction.”
“I find and follow people for a living,” Aitken pronounces, his voice as level as a tabletop. “I drive around with a box of hats, jackets, sunglasses, and wigs. I need to be able to fade into the background pretty quickly. I need to disappear sometimes. It’s hard if people can make me right away.”
So we drive, the road tilting slightly from one near northwest suburb to the next. It’s a ride-along. First stop, a domestic surveillance case in Des Plaines. Aitken records the front of the house, the car parked there, by pointing his camera into his rearview mirror. “We’re just trying to see if the guy is living with someone.” That part is a child support issue.
Is he—are they—in the house?
He rolls his wrist for a look at the watch. “Should be. It’s 11:15. He usually is at this time. But there’s no telling. He’s invisible right now.”
Normally, Aitken might stay here several hours, 150 yards from the house, watching the entrance in the reflection of a nine-inch mirror. But today we’ve got other stops to make. We’ve got to get to Palatine for some countersurveillance on a Romanian woman who is convinced she’s being followed. “I just have to check that she’s safe, to establish that no one is tracking her.”
What’s she afraid of? Who?
“Her ex-husband, probably. She wants evidence. But I’ve been watching for several days. I’m not picking anything up. I did a bug sweep on her house and found some low-level noise, but that was probably normal stuff—the wireless phone, the microwave. But …”
Aitken turns into traffic, gooses the engine. He drives the big car like a clumsy boat captain, pumping the accelerator, then easing off. Again and again.
“But that didn’t go over well,” he says, flicking a glance in the rearview. “Sometimes people want to feel that things are happening to them. They don’t want to be convinced otherwise. It’s like she wants to be seen. She wants someone to pay attention. Yesterday she told me there was a camera in her mirror. I took the mirror off the wall and showed her. No camera. She said that with the new technology today, cameras are invisible. Like they’re in the mirror itself.”
This detail leaves him a little nonplussed. “That’s when you go, ‘OK, I’m done.’ ”
There’s not much to finding someone, really, he says. You ask questions of the ones they left behind. You learn their habits. Where they like to go, who they like to see. The hours they keep. The things they can’t do without. You find their weaknesses, and those of the people around them, and you make what he calls “pretext calls,” which sound a lot like the “constructive deception” Frycek described.
Beyond that, he looks for personal rituals. “Mornings are good. Some people like coffee. Some people like doughnuts. Some people have to lift weights every day. Some people post pictures of their weekend on Instagram every Monday. No one notices their own habits. It’s just what they are used to. You talk to their friends, you watch social media. You give it time, and they’ll show up.”
It’s hard to stay hidden in the city for long. “It might take a week, it might take two. But with John working in the office and me out here, laying my eyes on things, they get found. If they use their Social Security number, we got ’em right away.”
How would he evade detection if he had to? How would he disappear?
He shrugs. “I’d leave the state. Not the city. The state. Which makes it that much tougher. This right here”—he looks around as we lope through town—“I know this place better than anyone who lives here. In Chicago, there’s a home-field thing that I’m always going to win.”
As we drive, he recounts the adventurous part of his work. Bodyguarding, surveilling, tailing people. He’s engaged by most of it. What he doesn’t like is process serving. That’s when he has to hunt down people to serve them with court documents. “Most of those people aren’t hiding. They live in the open. Yeah, they may bark at you when you give them the papers, but so what? Process serving isn’t finding people so much as delivering bad news.”
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t require a certain craft. “Maybe they don’t want to answer their door. I got to the point where I started putting the papers in a box. I knock on someone’s door with the package under my arm. No one can resist a deliveryman. People assume they’re getting something good if it’s in a box. I’ll say, ‘Are you Matt Divins?’ And they say, ‘Yeah.’ I hand the box to them—you know, ‘You got served.’ And it’s always the same: ‘What the … ?’ ”
He snorts a little.
Aitken has to use these kinds of ruses all the time. “I always grab brochures to have on hand,” he says.
Once he was investigating a workmen’s comp claim in a southwest suburb.
The subject had said he’d suffered a shoulder injury, and the insurance company wanted to make sure the claim was legit. “I took a pile of these Chuck Norris exercise machine pamphlets from a rack at the restaurant where I ate lunch and knocked on his door. He opened up with his shirt off, all pumped up. I told him I was selling the machines. He looked at the pamphlet and said, ‘That’s a shitty machine.’ So I said, ‘Looks like you don’t need it! How much can you lift?’ He said, ‘I can lift 240 to 250 in a military press.’ I said, ‘No way!’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, you can watch me.’ And 15 minutes later, I’m in his basement watching him lift 250 pounds over his head.”
I ask if he had been recording it.
Aitken taps on his sunglasses, at the camera in the temple. “Videotaping it,” he says. “We can’t use any sound. No audio at all. It’s inadmissible. But I had the video.”
Suddenly his attention is diverted. “What the … ?” he says, sounding like one of those people he surprises with court papers. He’s looking at something just ahead of us.
This is our last stop, another domestic surveillance case in Des Plaines, a vaguely migratory investigation of the pale underbelly of scandal in the suburbs. Aitken is here to look for a car in the driveway, the car of a man suspected of having an affair with a client’s wife.
And there it is. Just past noon. A gray and purple PT Cruiser, backed in from the street, squared up to the garage entrance of the client’s house.
“That’s it,” Aitken says. “That’s the one.”
Somehow it doesn’t seem right to me that we caught a bingo on my first day out. It’s a plain car parked in plain sight.
“You mean he’s in there?” I stammer. “They’re just … You found him?”
Aitken nods. But there are no high-fives. No fist bumps. No celebrations or ceremony. Found. Uncovered. Done. Just dingy human suspicions confirmed, curbside on a cloudless day. Think of the ugly night, the ugly weeks, that will follow.
Just yesterday, Frycek had told me: “Looking for someone is like catching a fish. You know it might happen at any time, but fishing takes patience. When you get a hit on your line, when you find someone, it feels good, and then you want to reel it in and finish the job. But our job is over. The skip trace is done. Wham. So you serve the papers. You deliver the news to the client. Everything else plays out on its own.”
Aitken drives toward the house, slows, shoots some video, pulls past the driveway, shoots some more. Then even more from the nearby corner.
That’s it, then?
He nods again and squints through the camera.
Did he get the plate?
“I got the plate,” he says.
He sits and watches. It’s his job. “People,” he says, shaking his head.
“Just people always assume they’re invisible,” he says.
He puts the car in gear. I tell him I want to stay, to see what happens next. He smiles. Finding people doesn’t work that way, he reminds me: You find them, you tell the people who hired you, then you forget the whole mess.