Oprah said, or maybe I heard it on Ellen, that public speaking scares more people than spiders and snakes and heights put together (and they all give me the heebie-jeebies, too). Having lots of company didn’t make me feel any better as I struggled into the Spanx hose that made it possible to zip my skirt and slipped on the new Louboutin pumps I shouldn’t have bought even on sale. They were an investment, I told myself guiltily. I needed to look professional for my presentation to the managing partner of a law firm in hopes he’d retain Swift Investigations. Hm, which earrings said competent and trustworthy, but fashionable? My gaze lighted on the clock: 7:30. It only took twenty minutes to get from my Broadmoor house to downtown Colorado Springs, and my appointment wasn’t until nine, but I wanted to make sure I was there in plenty of time. Things have a way of happening to me, even when I plan ahead.
My bedroom door flew open. “Mom, I need more lunch money.”
My forehead puckered as I stared at my beautiful fourteen-year-old Kendall. She’s slim and blond, the image of me, Les always said, when he first met me. Thirty-five years and thirty—well, forty—pounds ago. “Honey, I gave you a check just last week. What happened to it?”
She shrugged. I hate that shrug. She started doing it when she turned eleven, and it’s the only answer I get from her half the time. “Dunno. Must have lost it.”
“Baby, didn’t we talk about how you need to be more responsible?” I pulled a twenty from my purse, which left me with only seven dollars. “We all lose things from time to time. Why, I can’t find the new diet book I bought last week, the one that says you can lose five pounds a week if you eat Greek yogurt at every meal, but—”
“I’m late.” With a flip of blond hair, she turned to go.
“Wait. Which do you like better—the black earrings or the topaz?” I held one of each up to either ear.
“Kendall, get your ass down here or I’m leaving without you.”
She whisked herself out the door as her brother, my son, Dexter, bellowed up the stairs. I started to tell him we didn’t use that kind of language in this house; “tush” or “fanny” was preferable. The door slammed shut behind them before I made it to the landing. Les had given Dexter a red BMW for his sixteenth birthday, and while it was nice that I didn’t have to drive the kids to school, I never knew where Dexter was anymore. My friend Albertine said that was a good thing. “Trust me,” she’d said last time we discussed it, “no mother really wants to know what her teenage son is up to.”
Unfortunately, the principal, the police, and the truant officer insisted on keeping me updated on some of Dexter’s activities, so I couldn’t exist in blissful ignorance. Sighing, I slipped the earrings in, picked up my purse, made sure the CD with the PowerPoint presentation was in it, and left.
* * *
The conference room Danner and Lansky’s snooty receptionist showed me into was intimidating. An oblong table of dark, shiny wood took up most of the room. Matchy-matchy chairs with maroon upholstery lined either side. Nubby gray carpet and heavy drapes muffled any sounds and made the room feel like a funeral parlor. What the place needed was a few accent pillows or framed posters with yellows and pinks to brighten it up. Some plants would help, too. A laptop computer, a projection screen, and some sound equipment gleamed darkly from a cabinet near the podium, and I was glad I’d gotten here early enough to figure out how to work it all. If that was possible. Saying Mr. Danner would be in in five minutes, the receptionist slipped out. I fumbled the CD case from my Coach bag and opened it. Oh, no. I stared at the empty case in dismay. I must have left the CD in my computer.
My breaths came fast and shallow, and I dropped the CD case. I couldn’t call Charlie for help because she was still recovering from a bullet wound in her fanny, which was why I was here in the first place. Maybe Albertine—. Reschedule. I needed to reschedule the meeting.
I was about to scurry after the receptionist when a door at the far end of the conference room opened and a man stepped in, trailed by a woman in her midforties and a younger man. Too late! I was trapped. I forced a smile.
“You must be Ms. Goldman.” The older man, about my age, stepped forward with a friendly smile and his hand outstretched. He was short and slim, with an expensive suit and watch and thick gray-brown hair. “I’m Rich Danner.”
“Georgia Goldman,” I said, flustered. I shook his hand. “But I go by Gigi. G. G. for Georgia Goldman, get it?”
“I get it,” he said with a hint of a smile. “I’ll bet you’re from Georgia, too.”
My accent gave me away every time. “Atlanta, originally.” He seemed nice, not the ferocious legal shark I was expecting, and I relaxed an itty bit.
Danner’s two associates took seats halfway down the long table. Danner sat at the front and gave me an expectant look. “Let’s get started.”
Blinking nervously, I explained about not having my slideshow. “S-so I’m just going to wing it,” I said, twisting my bangle round and round my wrist.
“Wing away,” Danner said.
Stuttering a bit to start, I told him about Swift Investigations, emphasizing Charlie’s credentials as a former Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent and her many years in the private investigator business.
“And you?” Danner asked, giving me a penetrating look.
“I’m kind of new to being a PI,” I admitted. He didn’t need to know about Les dumping me and running off to Costa Rica with his personal trainer, leaving me with only the house, the Hummer, and half interest in Swift Investigations. “I do a lot of the computer searches,” I said, hurrying on to tell him about how we could help his firm with employee background checks, process serving, surveillance, and other investigation needs. “We’re really good and we work hard,” I concluded fifteen minutes later, rubbing my sweaty palms down the sides of my skirt. The skin on my neck prickled, and I hoped it wasn’t a hot flash coming on.
“I don’t know why we can’t give Swift Investigations a try,” Danner said, rising. “As long as there’s no padding of the expense account. That’s why we’re looking for a new PI firm.”
I nodded vigorously. “Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. You won’t catch us falsifying expenses.”
“I won’t catch you or you won’t pad them?”
My mouth fell open, but he laughed, signaled to his staff, shook my hand, and headed toward the door he came in. “By the way, I like your earrings. Shows you march to the beat of a different drummer. That can be useful in an investigator.” He disappeared.
It wasn’t until I got to the garage where I’d left the Hummer and peered in the rearview mirror that I realized I’d put on one black and one topaz earring.
* * *
I called Charlie on my way to the office to give her the good news. “They gave us a couple of background investigations to get started on,” I said, glancing happily at the short stack of folders on the passenger seat. I asked how she was feeling, although I knew she’d say “Fine,” like she always did.
“Fine.” She congratulated me on landing Danner and Lansky’s business. “If it weren’t for this stupid infection, I’d be back in the saddle. The doc says I can come back to work next week.”
Her wound had gotten infected because she had ignored the doctor’s advice about taking it easy. Charlie’s not too good with being told what to do. The surgeon had chewed her out but good for trying wind sprints less than ten days after getting shot. “I’ll hold the fort,” I promised, turning into the strip mall parking lot where Swift Investigations was located.
You’d think a PI firm would be up a flight of dingy stairs in some seedy building—at least, that’s where they always seemed to be in the old movies I watched—but no. Swift Investigations sat in a perfectly ordinary strip mall on Academy Boulevard, a couple of miles south of the United States Air Force Academy. We shared a parking lot with a Mexican café called Guapo Bandito that made yummy sopaipillas; a bridal shop where I was hoping to get a discount on Kendall’s prom dress; Domenica’s, a sex toys store run by a lovely woman named Carol; and Albertine’s, the Cajun restaurant and bar owned by my new friend. Everyone’s so neighborly that I enjoy coming to work every day.
Chilly wind and traffic noise chased me into the office. It’s a small place, and kind of bare bones, but Charlie put the kibosh on my plans to make it more homey; she insisted that our clients preferred a sparse, businesslike atmosphere. I added a couple of plants, though, and photos of my kids on my desk, and a coffeepot, so it wasn’t quite as plain as when I’d started working here six months ago. I patted the bison head hanging behind my desk—Bernie was part of my costume on my first ever undercover job as a PI—and started the coffeepot. Decaf. My body didn’t seem to process coffee the same way now that I was in the midst of the Change, and too much caffeine revved up my bladder, which made things difficult, to say the least, when I did surveillance. Not that I did much surveillance since the meth lab fiasco. I poured myself a cup and was taking my first sip when the door opened. I turned, expecting to see Carol from next door, or maybe Albertine.
A slender twentysomething woman with honey-colored hair stood in the doorway. She had flawless tan skin, amazing cheekbones, and boobs like cantaloupes stretching her thin white sweater to its limits. Long legs in stretch jeans and high-heeled, midcalf leather boots completed the look of model-like perfection. A surge of hatred rose in me, so intense it made my hands shake so my coffee spilled.
“Same old Gigi,” the beauty said, stepping in and closing the door with a snap. “Still klutzy as ever.”
I opened and closed my mouth, but no sound came out.
“You look like a goldfish,” she observed, sauntering forward to perch on the edge of Charlie’s desk.
How dare she? “I don’t—. What do you—? Get out, you … you bitch!” I don’t think I’d ever called anyone that, and I only wished I’d had the nerve to use the C-word.
My words didn’t faze Heather-Anne Pawlusik, the personal trainer and home-wrecking tramp who ran off to Costa Rica with my Les.
“Tut-tut,” Heather-Anne said, arching one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Is that any way to talk to a paying customer?”
“What?” I goggled at her.
“You’re a private investigator now, right?” She looked around the office, eyes skimming Charlie’s pristine desk, glancing off the lavender in-box and ceramic figures painted years ago by Dexter and Kendall on my desk, and lingering on Bernie, who gazed at her with—I was sure—disapproval. “Well, I need to hire a private investigator.”
My brain unfroze sufficiently for me to ask, “Where’s Les?” I looked past her to the door, but it remained closed.
“Now, that,” she said, “is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.”
It took me a minute. “You want me—us—to find Les?”
Copyright © 2012 by Laura DiSilverio