Chapter One: Time and Trouble
Emma sat with her feet on top of her desk. It made her feel taller and eased a nagging tightness in the small of her back, so she could concentrate on the man on the other end of the line. He was infinitely annoying. He was also right.
"Of course I can deliver," she said. "You know me, Harold. You know my agency. It's not like we're the new kids on the block." He was not satisfied. His insurance clients expected a quick response, and so did he. Hadn't she said the reports would be ready? This was a competitive world, hard facts, friendship's one thing, business another. And damn but he was right, which left her with nothing but bluster. The report was late and going to be later. Dobson was supposed to have done it, but Dobson was gone, had quit her. Her agency was crumbling, losing employees like so many rotten teeth. Two this week, Dobson and the idiot receptionist-slash-office manager temp who'd repled the last incompetent temp.
Philosophical differences, the dolt had said, packing her lifetime supply of tissue and allergy pills. As if she could spell philosophy, let alone have one. And Dobson, after all this time, claiming personality differences, whatever asinine inconsequential nit picking issues he meant. He'd said she had a reputation for being impossible. Asked if she'd wondered why she couldn't keep employees. Snapped, "Hire a detective and find out why!"
"Let the delivery date be my problem," she said into the phone. Not much of an offer since it, along with everything else, already was her problem. Nobody left to share the burden, unless Atlas dropped the world and shouldered her load.
She heard a half-hearted, mousey knock. Who? Why? She leaned forward as much as she could, given the straight-out position of her legs, and pushed papers around the surface of her desk with her free hand. Where was that note from the answering service? What time was her next appointment?
The door opened a slice. A head poked around it. Emma's shoes framed a blonde. Pale. Strait-laced. Mid-twenties.
"Mrs. Howe?" The voice was timid and low, but it nonetheless sounded of training. Elocution lessons. How now, brown cow. "There's nobody in the outer office," it continued. "I waited, but then I thought—is this all right? I'm sorry—you're on the phone. Should I—where do you want me?"
Two to one she was selling cosmetics. Had ignored the "No Solicitors" sign downstairs.
No. She was too fresh-scrubbed up-with-America wholesome to be pushing makeup. Make it household—office—cleaning supplies.
Emma waved her hand in a "scat!" motion while Harold, on the other end of the line, continued complaining. "Early next week," she promised into the phone. "You have my word." What was Harold going to do? Start all over with a new investigator? That'd set him back more than Dobson's defection had.
The head at the door stayed put. "But we—I—I was told to—"
"Busy!" Emma hissed. "Not talking to you, Harold. Somebody just popped—" She shooed the blonde with her hand. Did not need a cleanser peddler. Did not ever need that shiny species of woman. Organized and efficient. Homework in on time, no coloring outside the lines, never a detention, the Good Citizen award at graduation. But the only things she'd know would be what she'd memorized.
Emma made further promises to Harold and hung up.
The young woman was still at the door. "Mrs. Howe," she said with more authority, "We have an appointment. I'm Billie August."
For Christ's sake. Emma pushed back in her chair and pulled her legs off the desk. Billy August, the idiot temp had written. As if that sweet—li'l-me voice wouldn't have sounded a trifle high-pitched for a Billy.
Emma cleared her throat. "Sorry. I thought—never mind. Sit down. The receptionist's ill. I…"
Billie settled into her chair elegantly, crossing her legs at the ankles, the way good girls should. "Mrs. Howe, I—"
"Ms. Or Emma."
"Miz Howe, I want you to understand how eager I am to—"
She wanted the job. Shiny-head wanted to be a private investigator. Of course it wouldn't work. For a million reasons, it couldn't. Although Emma Howe of all humans wasn't prejudiced against her own sex, still and all, she hadn't imagined replacing Dobson with a female. It had always been Emma, the boss, with two or three men working for her. There was a pride in that, versus something embarrassing about adding another woman. Particularly now that it would be just the two of them, at least for a while.
Emma's all-girl agency. She would die before admitting anything like that out loud, but damned if those words weren't singsonging in her mind with all the mortifying force they might have had on a third grade playground.
And even if she did take on another woman, it wouldn't be this one with her no risk perfection, her pale hair, straight features and Career Dressing suit. She looked more like the next Grace Kelly than an investigator.
The woman passed her a manilla envelope. "My resume. Your receptionist said to bring it with me, since the appointment was so soon after I'd called."
Emma skimmed the page and tried not to laugh out loud. Boarding school in Connecticut. A fine arts degree with a double major in drama and music. Of what human use was this hothouse flower?
"Is there a problem?" the young woman asked.
"You're shaking your head." She leaned forward, all eager Junior Leaguer. Whatever she was wearing smelled expensive. Eau de Right Side of the Tracks.
"No problem. I was reading your…" Might as well be honest. Or at least sound that way. "Frankly, before we get—the truth is, I was hoping for somebody with more exper—"
"Excuse me, but your ad said interest and aptitude were required, not experience. Or did I misread it?"
Spoken crisply and forcibly, like a well-bred drill sergeant who didn't need to shout. The sweet-li'l-me voice was so far gone Emma doubted that she'd ever heard it. "You read the ad correctly," she reluctantly admitted.
"Good. I assumed you'd prefer a novice. That way, you pay the minimum for six thousand hours. Win-win. I learn, and you have cheap labor for years."
Damn cocky, acting like she had the job just because she showed up. Emma's skin prickled with resentment, then she backed off and tried to understand what it was about this Billie that set her teeth on edge, made her thoughts ping every which way like angry pinballs. Her looks? She was the cultural ideal, not Emma's. Nothing about her appearance she had to compensate for, hide, or "cleverly disguise" as the magazines would have it. Two strikes against her right there, maybe?
But Emma had thought—had decided, had believed—that the gift of midlife was being through with all that. In her mid-fifties, she was no longer a contender in the sexual sweeps. No longer expending effort to meet some impossible definition of what was feminine and "right." You weren't even called "well preserved" at that age. Preserved for what? Nobody was waiting. Far as the world was concerned, you were out of the game, benched for life.
Which was fine with Emma. She never liked their game, and thoroughly enjoyed her own. She'd always felt as if she were sitting on a high tree branch, watching the prefabricated, pathetic lives of other girls. It seemed to her that at birth, girlchildren were set in line, in hateful competition one with the other, like race horses, slapped on their behinds and told to get going—see who could be the best of breed, and told precisely what "best" meant. Emma had always run the other way. She had a great time—but lost the race, according to them. A tomboy, they called her. A hellion. Her hair was never sufficiently smooth, her contours never sufficiently voluptuous, her mouth and manners never sufficiently controlled.
And the freeing, secret magic of reaching her fifties was that none of it mattered any more. She was finally well and truly her own woman, and entirely comfortable with her custom-tailored life and standards.
So what did it mean that here she was, glaring at this Billie person because she looked like everything "they" approved of, was young, smooth skinned and fresh-faced and didn't have creaky joints even on this rainy winter morning. Humiliating to have suffered an attack of hundred-proof competitive venom, rancor at the way nature worked. Can't have it both ways, she told herself. Can't live a long and interesting time and still be young. Your quarrel is with the facts of life, not with Billie August.
Emma was proud of her talent for objectively sizing people up, but here she'd been, jerking her knee so hard she'd nearly blinded herself with it.
"I read the feature about you and your agency in the I.J.," Billie was saying. "I was impressed by—I'm not trying to flatter you, just to explain why I'm here, why I was so excited when I saw your ad. I admire what you've done. Your courage and determination and smarts. Because you pioneered in this field and then started your own agency." She smiled and gesticulated, manicured nails and long fingers intimating that there were no words that could adequately express her admiration.
Emma forgave her for being young, enthusiastic and attractive, and for shamelessly flattering her. For not having arthritic twinges and for spending her college tuition on piano and acting classes. But all the same, if she was revving up to say she needed a mentor or role model, Emma was going to terminate the interview. She needed an employee, not a groupie or fan. Touchy-feelie made her gag.
"—and that you were also a single mother," Billie said.
How noble that Independent Journal article had made her sound. How tactful and kind, if not entirely accurate, the interviewer had been. Heartstring-tearing. Bring your business to the widder-woman.
Emma had told her the truth. But the reporter hadn't chosen to mention that Emma's widowhood and sleuthing had begun simultaneously. Cause and effect.
Harry Howe's heart had not been up to the triple threat of gambling losses, a shaky employment status, and the demands of extramarital sex. When Harry keeled over, his frolicking partner—whose identity became the widow Emma's first very private investigation—chose not to call the paramedics, police, or even the occupant of the next motel room. Chose not to dress the man or pull a sheet over his sad naked bottom before she took off. Instead, when she was safely elsewhere, she phoned Emma to say, anonymously, where she could find her husband in flagranto deado.
Emma wondered how little Miss Eager across the desk would have reacted to the real story, and whether she would still have applied here, all aflutter.
"You raised your kids and ran this place and managed things I need to manage," Billie said. "I want to work with you and learn from you."
She hadn't said the word "mentor." A technical victory, but still, Emma felt relieved. And annoyed. She'd hoped the profile would bring in clients, not job applicants.
"I think everyone needs—" Billie was interrupted by the high whine of a fire engine outside on Fourth Street.
Emma pushed back her chair and went to investigate. All she saw were umbrellas and rainhoods one story below, and a low dark sky above them. El Nino, they said, although it seemed just another damn rainy January to her. She shrugged and went back to her desk and lifted her stained coffee cup. "Can't see anything," she said. "It isn't us."
In other cities Emma had visited, sirens attracted no particular attention, but here, even across the bay from San Francisco, even in a winter downpour, there was always a second's frozen reaction to the warning of a fire, like the collective unconscious of 1906, always referred to as The Fire Of, not The Quake Of. Reinforced—in case anybody had forgotten—by the Oakland firestorm eighty plus years later. Fire was out there, along with earthquakes, like the cry of a timber wolf in the wilderness. Everything you know could be gone in a moment.
"Want coffee?" Emma gestured at the mugs hanging from the prongs of a Victorian hatstand above a coffee maker.
Miss Prim shook her head. "Thanks, anyway," she murmured.
Emma refilled her cup. "You were saying something about what a woman needs?" The girl had been on the verge of something either offensively sensitive and New Age or God help us, stale and Freudian.
"I honestly can't remember. Forgive me."
Emma brought the coffee back to her desk, spilling some in the process. She put her stained cup down, wiped a bead of coffee from a file folder and looked at Billie's application again, although she really didn't need to. "Given your background," she said, "your education, I would think you'd want something in the arts."
"Well, something creative. But that's part of the appeal of this kind of work. It's as you said: different challenges all the time. Not a daily routine."
She'd memorized the damn article. "But," Emma said, "skip-tracing is hardly spurred by the same impulse as, say, interpreting a sonata. Or starring in…" She peered at the resume. "…Uncle Vanya."
Billie August took a deep breath designed to be heard in the third balcony. "I included those things so you'd know I'm not afraid of talking to people or of playing a role. In fact, I'm good at both of them."
"But would you like it? Is this really what interests you?"
"With all due apologies, what interests me more than anything is how I can provide a decent life for myself and my son and not be bored silly meanwhile. Acting is about the least dependable profession I can think of. If I wanted to try, I'd have relocated, but I'm either not good enough or not driven enough. Doesn't matter which. As for teaching, school budgets for the arts are nonexistent and I don't want to be that nice neighborhood lady who gives piano lessons. Even if I could stay alive doing that."
"Let me see if I've got this. You don't want to move to L.A. or New York and wait tables and act, and you don't want to teach kids scales. And once those jobs are eliminated, investigating is left as the only option?"
Billie grinned. "I am currently working at The Final Touch—we sell scarves, belts and earrings. Accessories. I can also type. Clean houses. Sell shoes at Nordstrom's, get my broker's license or perform telephone sex. The thing is—this is what I want to do."
Emma sat back and steepled her fingers.
"I am able-bodied, intelligent, cooperative, adequately creative, and not particularly afraid," Billie said. "Did I forget anything?"
"Loyal, steadfast, never planned to overthrow the government…"
"And I can program my VCR."
"Mechanical aptitude duly noted."
"Miz Howe." Billie's voice pitched low, her head tilted and her eyes narrowed. "I sense reservation on your part. I trust you do not suffer from pigmentation intolerance."
"From…? Not that I know…" Emma put her hand to her cheek. Was something wrong with her coloring? Was this some goddamn new politically incorrect offense? "What are you talking about? What's pigmentation intolerance?"
"A critical inability to believe that blondes have brains."
Emma gave a half-nod of acknowledgment. "Touche," she said.
Billie wasn't smiling. "I do not put Wite-Out on the computer screen."
"Why is it that you never hear jokes about grey-haired women? At least not about our I.Q.'s." Emma ran her fingers through close-cropped silvery hair at the nape of her neck. "Never heard of a ditzy…there isn't even a word for us. Blondes, brunettes, redheads and…old ladies. Not so great in the world at large, maybe, but a plus in this business. We go unnoticed. Even if we color our hair."
"But if you're thinking a young woman—I can be invisible, too. Honestly. I'm kind of a blank without makeup. I can make myself look lots of ways, including barely noticeable."
Emma understood what the other woman meant, although she knew that no female in her twenties—no well-built, pretty blonde, no matter how much makeup she left off or put on, no matter what she did with her dress and no matter how bad a hair day she had—could comprehend just how invisible, even fully bedecked and trying her best, a middle-aged woman could be. Time would teach her that. Emma didn't have to. "So you think this job is creative. You think you'll be reinventing yourself a lot, wearing disguises, shooting—"
"It isn't like that. It's not like in the movies."
"I know that."
"You're mostly checking records, accessing data bases, surveilling rotten husbands or crooked employees or insurance fakes, or finding the addresses of poor dummies who never heard of The Maltese Falcon."
Billie sat straighter. "I'd be good at that. I'm an excellent researcher. Good enough to have already read everything I could find about what it is you do. And to be computer literate. And to have at least a rudimentary idea of accessing information online."
The sugarplum fairy had a solid core. Wonder if she would last. Wonder if the agency would last. Her research skills weren't foolproof—look, she applied for a job with a company everybody else quit. But let her find that out for herself.
"Here's something you should know," Emma said. "This may be the Bay Area and all, but what we are is hired investigators. Our job is to find information for our clients— and deciding whether clients deserve it is none of our business."
"Why would you—"
"Because there is a local geographical imperative to be outraged, to protest and picket and have opinions. Something in the air, maybe. But even if you're an animal rightist and we have a furrier who needs to know who's threatening him, or you're hellbent on saving the black-antennaed slug from extinction, and a developer needs information about its breeding ground, or if we're getting information to help the defense of a sadistic child-abuser, or doing corporate investigation for a company you think is the very definition of oppressive or sexist, or—"
"I believe I catch your drift."
"Then what else?"
"What else should I know about you? Tell me about yourself."
"You have my resume."
Emma waved the air above the application, dismissing it. "Statistics. Schools, jobs, acting roles, marital status. So you're twenty-eight, you can act, you're smart, you're divorced and you have a son. You've lived at your current address for four years. Is that it for who you are and why I should hire you?" She raised her eyebrows. "Tell me whatever you think I should know. Bearing in mind, of course, that I am a detective."
"And will find it out, anyway," Billie murmured.
"Whatever." There were so many damned regulations about interviews, about what you could and couldn't ask. Emma had found that if she simply did nothing, stayed unresponsive longer than was socially acceptable—too long—people felt impelled to fill the vacuum and reveal more about themselves than she could have gotten through a dozen interviews.
She folded her hands and waited.
Read the first chapter of the next Emma Howe mystery, Whatever Doesn't Kill You
All content © 2004-07 by Gillian Roberts/Judith Greber.