Swift Justice by Laura DiSilverio is the first in the Charlie Swift, private investigator, humorous mystery series.
Charlotte “Charlie” Swift prefers working alone. That’s why after eight years as an Air Force investigator she became a PI rather than a cop. She lives alone, she works alone, and aside from the occasional flirtation with sexy cop Connor Montgomery or her hunky neighbor Father Dan, she likes it that way. Then her silent partner flees the country, leaving his wife, Gigi, with nothing but the house, the Hummer, and a half interest in Swift Investigations. Charlie ends up with a heap of debt and Gigi, who has decided to be a not-so-silent partner. This change comes about while Charlie is trying to find the mother of a baby abandoned on a client’s doorstep. While following leads, she sends Gigi out on crazy assignments, hoping that the pampered socialite will be driven to quit. However, when the baby’s mother turns up dead, there’s a murderer on the loose, and Charlie will need all the help she can get.
The bear had toppled my bird feeder again, the two aspirin I’d gulped with a swig of Pepsi weren’t making a dent in my headache (note to self: don’t try to match Father Dan drink for drink ever again), and I was late for my first appointment of the week. As the owner and currently sole employee of a private investigation business teetering on the edge of solvency, I couldn’t afford to piss off potential clients by being tardy. Unfortunately, the woman tapping her foot outside the door of Swift Investigations did not look like a happy camper when I screeched to a stop in my Subaru Outback.
I assessed the waiting woman through the windshield as I gathered my purse and laptop. She was taller than my five foot three and rangy, dressed in a spiffy red suit and low-heeled pumps. Mid-thirties, at a guess. Everything about her said “wound too tight,” from the French-braided hair pulling the skin of her face taut to the way her eyes skittered to her watch, to me, and to the infant car seat at her feet. Shit. Who brings a baby to a business meeting?
I got out of the car and offered her my hand. “I got tied up with a burglary,” I said in lieu of an apology. I’d bet the burglar had snarfed down at least ﬁfteen dollars’ worth of the primo seed blend I put out to attract songbirds. “You must be Melissa Lloyd. C’mon in.”
She bent to pick up the baby carrier as I unlocked the door and ﬂicked the light switch. The illuminated space was simple, clean, and organized, just the way I liked it. Off-white walls made the ofﬁce look larger than it was. My desk ﬁlled the back right corner by a window with wooden blinds. A matching desk, currently unoccupied since my last assistant left to become an aromatherapist, sat with the long side making an L with the door. A closed door led to the small bathroom in the back left corner.
“You are Charlotte Swift, the investigator?” Ms. Lloyd paused just inside the door.
“Last I looked.” I crossed the nubby, green-flecked carpet and sat behind my desk, stowing my stuff beneath it. Swiveling my chair, I pulled a Pepsi from the mini fridge against the wall and popped the flip-top. I offered one to Ms. Lloyd with a gesture, but she shook her head, looking repulsed. I could see the word “coffee” hovering in her mind, but she didn’t speak it. Just as well, because I don’t even have a coffeemaker; I don’t want to encourage people to linger. There’s a café two doors down if they’re that desperate to feed their addiction.
She wasn’t. She settled the baby on top of the empty desk, tucked a yellow blanket around it, and seated herself in one of the uncomfortable chairs.
“Cute kid,” I said perfunctorily, barely able to make out a wisp of dark hair poking from beneath the blanket. “How old?”
“A little over a week.”
Melissa Lloyd looked damned trim for someone who’d just popped out a baby. Maybe she was into Pilates. I drew a legal pad toward me. “You said on the phone you need to find someone?”
“Yes. Your Yellow Pages ad said missing persons is your specialty, right?”
Since her furrowed brow seemed to indicate she needed reassurance, I said, “I’ve been in business here for almost six years. For the past four, I’ve specialized in ﬁnding missing persons. Before becoming a PI, I was in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the OSI. You’ve seen NCIS, about the Navy investigators? Like that, only without Mark Harmon. Overall, I have more than thirteen years’ experience as an investigator. You can check with these people if you want.” I slid a piece of paper containing the names of clients who’d agreed to provide references across the desk.
She took it, creased it in half, and tucked it into the envelope purse on her lap. “That’s okay,” she said, sounding as if references were no big deal.
She’d be dialing one of those numbers before her car was out of the parking lot.
“What can I do for you?”
She leaned forward, her uncertainty replaced by a businesslike air. I knew she owned an interior design business in Monument—I’d checked her out after she called—and I could suddenly see her bossing wallpaper hangers around, coaxing homeowners into replacing their mauve shag carpet, and trolling furniture stores until she found just the right lamp or ottoman. I ﬁgured this air of command was more natural to her than the earlier indecisiveness. It matched the suit, too.
She took a deep breath and said, “The baby’s not mine.”
“No. Well, sort of.” She bit down on her lower lip.
Oookay. Not her baby. Not babysitting. If she was going to confess to kidnapping, I needed to get it on tape— and I’d have to hope there was a reward for the child’s safe return, because clearly Ms. Lloyd wouldn’t be handing over a retainer check. I surreptitiously pushed the button on the underside of my desk that started a voice-activated recorder.
“So, if the baby’s not yours, whose is it?”
She laughed, an unmirthful sound. “God, I’m screwing this up. Someone left the baby on my porch a week ago.”
The stork, maybe. That sounded about as likely as Father Dan converting to Buddhism. I know my clients don’t always tell me the truth; in fact, most of them probably pitch me lies like Nolan Ryan throwing heat, but I like them to have some glancing acquaintance with reality.
“Why would someone do that?” I tried to keep my skepticism out of my voice.
She half rose, glaring. “Look, if you’re not going to take me seriously—”
I threw up my hands in a surrender gesture. If she’d kidnapped the baby, I needed to keep her calm, convince her to tell me where the baby belonged. “I’m listening. Really. Why don’t you just start at the beginning?” I put on an Oprah face: nonjudgmental and encouraging.
She glanced at the sleeping baby and sank back into the chair. “This is conﬁdential, right? I mean, discretion is very important to me.”
“I’ll keep what you tell me conﬁdential unless I think there’s a good reason to tell someone—something about a crime, say—or the courts compel me to tell. PI-client relationships aren’t protected like lawyer-client communications.” There. If she confessed to kidnapping, I could blab all to the cops with a clear conscience.
Ms. Lloyd looked marginally reassured. At any rate, she continued with her story. “Like I said, someone left the baby at my front door last Monday. I found her when I was leaving for work. She was in that car seat, screaming her head off. At ﬁrst, I thought it was a mistake of some kind, or a joke, but there was a note. It was addressed to me, and when I read it I knew it wasn’t a joke. My daughter had abandoned her baby on my doorstep.” She stopped to take a deep breath.
I leaned forward, my forearms on the desk. “Your daughter? You mean the baby’s your grandkid?” I mentally revised my assessment of her age up a few years. Damn, she looked a year or two younger than my thirty-seven.
“Yes, she’s my granddaughter. I had her DNA tested.”
“You what?” This woman looked like a normal Colorado Springs professional woman, maybe a bit more successful than most, but she was a certifiable loon.
“I thought it was necessary,” she said. She reached into her purse, and I stiffened, but her hand came out with nothing more threatening than a manila envelope. “I got the lab results yesterday—money produces fast results. Olivia’s definitely my granddaughter.” She didn’t sound happy about it.
“Okay, then, and you want me to . . . ?”
“Find my daughter.”
At last, a note of sanity in this bizarre discussion. Her daughter, obviously a teenager, had a baby, panicked, dumped it on dear old Mom, and ran away. Runaways were my thing. This, I could handle. I offered her a sympathetic smile. “Right. How old’s your daughter?”
I jotted a note. “Did you bring a photo?”
“I’ll need one. Her name?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met her.”
Wham! Right back to la-la land. I drained my Pepsi and clunked the can onto the desk. “Ms. Lloyd—”
“I know!” She held up a hand to stop me. “I know it sounds crazy. Just hear me out.”
Her eyes pled with me, and a note in her voice gave me pause. I arched my brows, inviting her to continue.
A wave of red washed up her neck and mottled her jaw. “This is hard for me. I haven’t talked about it in—I had a baby. When I was sixteen, almost seventeen. I gave it—her—up for adoption. I hadn’t heard of her, or from her, since the day I signed the adoption papers until a week ago.”
I pushed across my handy box of tissues, but her eyes remained dry, her voice tightly controlled.
“I know what you must think of me—”
“No, you don’t.”
She stopped, mouth open in midword. After a second’s thought, she said, “You’re right. I don’t. I guess I’m projecting. My husband says I do that a lot. Sometimes I feel so bad about giving up that baby, so guilty, that I worry everyone thinks I’m a horrible person. Unnatural. Like I have a scarlet A on my chest for ‘Abandoner.’ But I was only sixteen! I just didn’t have what it takes to be a mother. I still don’t. And my parents . . . well, let’s just say my daughter’s better off wherever she ended up than she’d’ve been with my folks.”
The bitterness in her voice would give unsweetened chocolate a run for its money. Her remark about abandonment hit too close to home, and I said the ﬁrst thing that came to mind. “You’re married?”
“Yes. He doesn’t know.”
How could someone not notice a baby living in the house? “Hello?”
She almost smiled at the incredulity in my voice. “I mean he doesn’t know I had a baby and gave it up. Of course he knows about Olivia, but he thinks I’m babysitting for a friend. He’s not a kid person; he just about freaked when I called him to tell him last Monday. He told me not to expect him to change any diapers. He’s been away, in Arizona, troubleshooting some problem for a customer . . . he does software, something to do with personnel systems. He’ll probably be gone another two or three weeks, and I need to have this resolved before he comes home.”
“The note says the mom is coming back. Why not just wait?”
“It could be months! I can’t take care of a baby that long.” She shook her head vehemently.
“Well, you could turn her over to Child Protective Services and let them ﬁnd the mother.”
“If she weren’t my granddaughter that’s exactly what I’d do. But . . . well, part of me feels like that would be giving my daughter away a second time, and I just can’t do that either. Hiring someone to ﬁnd Olivia’s mother quickly seemed like the best solution.”
Olivia’s mother, I noted, not “my daughter.” I studied her, the resolute line of her thin lips, the dark smudges under her eyes, the tension in her shoulders. The faintest trace of freckles dusted her nose and the tops of her cheeks, and I imagined her as a kid, playing hide-and-seek and tag in the Colorado sunshine. The baby stirred in her sleep, and we both looked over at her. One little ﬁst now hung over the edge of the car seat.
“Okay,” I told her. “I’ll ﬁnd your daughter. Since you don’t know her name, or where she lives, or what she looks like, let’s start with what you do know. When and where was she born?”
“There’s just one more thing.” Melissa Lloyd looked down at her ﬁngers pleating a fold of skirt, and I could hardly hear her. “I don’t want to meet her.”
She looked up at me, her blue eyes ﬁxed unwaveringly on mine. “I don’t want to see her. Olivia’s mother. When you find her, I want you to meet with her, hand over Olivia. I can let you have some money to give her if she looks like she needs help. Then tell her I don’t want to meet her or hear from her ever again. She’s not part of my life.”
When Melissa Lloyd and baby Olivia had left, I sat for a moment staring at the notes I’d taken. They were pitifully few. Melissa had delivered her daughter, “Baby Girl Hogeboom,” on the twelfth of March, seventeen years ago, at the Community Hospital in Boulder, Colorado. She’d never so much as held the baby, signing the adoption papers before the epidural wore off. She had no idea who’d adopted the baby or whether it was even someone from in state. Not much to go on. I grabbed my third Pepsi of the morning and headed outside, hoping some sunshine and exercise would stimulate an idea.
My PI business, Swift Investigations, occupies the corner ofﬁce in a strip mall on Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs, just two miles outside the Air Force Academy’s south gate. It’s a classy strip mall—not a Lotto sales sign in sight—with a bridal emporium, two restaurants, an art/frame shop, and a toy store that sells educational and ecologically sound products for kids, including doll clothes made of pure Egyptian cotton and imported cashmere that cost more for one dress than my monthly utilities bill, and an Al Gore action figure. “Al Gore” and “action” struck me as a contradiction in terms; buying carbon offsets doesn’t look like it burns many calories.
As I often do when I’m gnawing on a new case, I strode down the sidewalk in front of Ecolo-Toys and the frame shop—neither open yet this morning—past the Mexican restaurant doing a brisk business in breakfast burritos and coffee, the darkened bridal shop, and the bistro my friend Albertine owns at the far end of the mall, around to the alley in back where the Dumpsters hid behind discreet concrete walls and plain beige doors provided back access for deliveries. A couple of scrawny cats slinking around the Dumpster laden with Guapo Bandito’s rotting enchiladas took off as I approached. Pausing to toss a couple of soft drink cans into a Dumpster, I crossed the lane behind the shopping area into a small park with a pond and two picnic tables. Hidden away out here in retail land, far from any residential areas, the park drew few visitors. I usually had it to myself. Scanning the picnic bench for bird guano, I sat and watched mosquito larvae or water striders or some other aquatic insects pock the surface of the pond, grateful for the light olive complexion of my Italian heritage—my mother’s maiden name was DeBattista—so I could enjoy the sun’s warmth on my face without as much skin cancer paranoia as a paleface like Melissa Lloyd must endure. I thought about ﬁnding her daughter.
Under Colorado law, parents who gave a child up for adoption can voluntarily register to have their names and addresses released if the adopted child comes looking for them. Melissa Lloyd had made it abundantly clear, however, that she had not made her data available, and adoptees couldn’t sign up to release their whereabouts to birth parents who came searching for them until they were twenty-one, which Melissa’s daughter wasn’t. So how had Baby Girl Hogeboom found Melissa Lloyd? And why had she left Olivia with her?
The note Melissa reluctantly produced from her purse gave few clues. It was hand-printed on a page ripped from a steno pad. Please take care of Olivia. She’s your granddaughter. I can’t trust her with anyone else. Her father will do the right thing, I know. Tell Olivia I love her. I’ll be back. Beth. As I pointed out to Melissa, the note told us Beth was literate and planned to come back for her daughter, and not much more than that. When I asked if there was anything else with the baby, Melissa pointed to the car seat and said there’d also been a blanket and a different set of clothes. I asked her to leave the car seat, but she had no other way of getting Olivia home safely, so she promised to drop off the seat and the other items early in the afternoon. I had scant hope of digging up a useful clue from them, but I couldn’t afford to overlook the possibility. I’d also put a note on a PI bulletin board I used, asking if anyone had been hired to ﬁnd the mother of a baby born at Boulder Community Hospital seventeen years ago. Melissa’s daughter had found her somehow; maybe she’d hired a PI. I’d call the hospital—not much chance of ﬁnding anyone who remembered the birth after all this time—and some private adoption agencies. I knew damn well I wouldn’t get anything out of the state.
With a plan of action in mind, I dusted off my slacks and headed back to my ofﬁce. Getting on for ten, there were a few more cars scattered in the parking lot. A yellow Hummer sat outside my ofﬁce. I ﬁgured the owner was picking up a bushel of ecologically sound toys for his grandkids, maybe the banana plantation set with its little wooden trees, cute monkeys, and authentically dressed workers. I’d suggested once to the store’s owner, Lucinda Highmoor, that she sell some Agent Orange with the set to let kids replicate the experience of defoliating the jungle to plant crops, but she’d closed her eyes as if in pain and ordered me out of the store with a pointing ﬁnger. I wasn’t really an eco-nazi; it just gave me joy to bust Lucinda’s chops because she took it all so seriously and overlooked the irony of her customers driving gas-guzzling behemoths to pick out eco-sensitive toys for their Ritalin-pickled children.
A shadow moving in front of the window in my office distracted me from the Hummer. I didn’t have another appointment scheduled until the afternoon. Hot damn, maybe I had a walk-in client. Swift Investigations’ business had been slow this summer; I could use a cash infusion, above and beyond the retainer Melissa Lloyd had given me. I needed a new assistant, too, so my being away from the ofﬁce for a few minutes didn’t result in lost business. Wiping the sheen of sweat off my forehead with the sleeve of my aqua blouse, I floofed my bangs and pulled open the door to ﬁnd a woman of a certain age staring at me, looking like Dirty Harriet with a large-caliber revolver cradled in her ample lap.
Gun! My training kicked in, and I leaped back onto the sidewalk, swinging the door mostly shut and standing off to the left, my back pressed against the wall. I really needed to start carrying the H&K 9 mm I kept locked in the safe—and locking the door even when I left for two minutes.
“Hey!” A startled voice with a southern accent that gave the word three syllables followed me out the door.
“Put the gun on the ﬂoor and your hands over your head,” I called out. My hand slid into my pocket to retrieve my cell phone.
“I didn’t mean . . . it’s not . . . I’m Gigi Goldman, Les’s wife.”
I couldn’t think of a reason why my silent partner’s wife would be in my ofﬁce with a gun. I’d never slept with the man; hell, I’d only met him twice. He’d invested some money in Swift Investigations when I was ﬁrst starting out, and I sent him quarterly statements. That was the sum total of our interaction. I was hoping to be able to buy him out by next summer. I peered through the door crack. Mrs. Goldman had done as I asked. The gun lay on the ﬂoor to the side of her chair, and she was holding her hands at shoulder height. She waved at me as I cautiously poked the door wider.
“Hi. I’m sorry if I gave you a scare. I just—”
“Kick the gun over here.”
She swept one plump calf to the side of the chair and nudged the gun my way with her foot. I bent to retrieve it, checking to see if it was loaded. It was. The hair on my arms prickled up.
“Jesus, don’t you even know enough not to brandish a loaded weapon?”
“It’s loaded?” Wrinkles creased her brow.
My God. Carrying the gun with two ﬁngers, I walked around her to my desk and closed it in the top drawer. Then I jerked open the fridge, pulled out a Pepsi, and drank half of it, relishing the tickle of the carbonation. Leaning back in my chair, I ran the cold can across my forehead and focused on my uninvited guest. “Want one?” It seemed only polite to offer my partner’s wife refreshment.
She scootched the chair around to face me and said, “Maybe an iced tea? With lemon?”
“This is a private investigation ﬁrm, Mrs. Goldman, not a restaurant. I have Pepsi, Pepsi, or Pepsi.”
“I’d like a Pepsi, thank you,” she said.
I handed over a can and watched her decide not to ask for a glass. Instead, she drew a handkerchief out of her purse and wiped the top of the can thoroughly before using a metal can opener, also pulled from her capacious bag, to lever open the ﬂip-top. “Nails,” she explained, wiggling her manicured fingers at me.
I studied her as she took a genteel sip. In her early fifties, she had jaw-length hair of that ashy blond color so many well-off women over ﬁfty seem to affect, held in place by a quart of mousse and a can of Aqua Net. She carried an extra thirty pounds or so on her tall frame—I suspected she’d be at least ﬁve-eight standing—and wore a pink and cream knit suit that shrieked “expensive” and hugged her curves a shade too tightly. Her leather bag was large enough to hold supplies for a weeklong camping trip and hung from a strap over her left shoulder. I caught a whiff of ﬂoral perfume that made me want to sneeze. I could see she’d been pretty in her younger days, but time, too many fund-raising balls, and a spa-to-Saks-to-dinner-party lifestyle had stamped her with a matronly air. The closest she got to exercise was probably box seats at a Rockies game.
With my breathing returned to normal, I said, “Let’s start over. I’m Charlotte Swift. Was I expecting you?”
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t think so.” She shook her head. “I’m Gigi Goldman. Well, it’s really Georgia, but I started going by Gigi when I married Les. Georgia Goldman. G. G. Get it?”
I got it. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Goldman?” I willed her not to tell me she thought Les was having an affair and she wanted me to catch him. Talk about conﬂict of interest.
“This is so awkward—”
She was going to try to sic me on Les. I could feel it. I shut my eyes in anticipation of the blow.
“Well, Les ran off with his personal trainer—”
Damn, right again!
“—and I’m afraid I need money, so I’m here to learn how to be an investigator.”
My eyes popped open. “Say what?”
“When Les left for Costa Rica with Heather-Anne, he closed out all our accounts and transferred all our assets. The police say he even took some money that rightfully belonged to investors.” Her soft blue eyes clouded over.
She nodded. “I’m afraid so. Anyway, my lawyer and I have been through all the papers, and the only assets he left me are the house, the Hummer, and a half interest in Swift Investigations.”
She pulled some legal papers from her purse, and I recognized the partnership documents Les Goldman and I had signed. I had a matching set in my file cabinet.
“So you’re saying—”
“I’m your new partner.”
At eight o’clock that night, I poured an inch of peaty Lagavulin single malt Scotch into a glass and handed it to Father Dan Allgood. With the morning’s headache in mind, I grabbed a bottled water and leaned against the deck rail, looking out on my partially xeriscaped backyard. Father Dan, the Episcopal priest who lived next door in the rectory belonging to St. Paul’s, took a sip of the Scotch and sighed his appreciation. This late in August, dusk had settled gently on the foothills, and only a thin line of light rimmed Pikes Peak to the west. I wondered idly if the bear, a three-hundred-pound cinnamon-colored creature with a taste for garbage and sunflower seeds, would wander by tonight. I hadn’t had a chance to repair and reﬁll the bird feeder, so maybe he’d skip my yard on his nocturnal rounds.
“Nectar of the gods,” Dan said, setting his glass on the chair’s arm with a click. “So, what’s this new partner of yours like?”
I turned to face him, thinking as always that, at six foot ﬁve, he looked more like a lumberjack than a priest with his barrel chest, muscled legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, and perpetual tan. Still, there was a quiet strength in his stillness, and the sense of a powerful intellect behind the slightly hooded brown eyes. He never talked about what he’d done before becoming a priest about ten years ago, but something about him made me think of a sniper riﬂe wrapped in a quilt. The outer covering seemed cozy and warm, but the man underneath might be lethal.
I propped my elbows against the deck rail. “She’s a demon in human form.”
He took another sip of Scotch and kept his gaze fixed on me.
I sighed heavily. “Oh, all right, she seems nice enough, but so helpless it makes me want to slap her. She’s in her early fifties, I’d guess, a zaftig blonde. She probably spent more on the ensemble she had on today than I spent on my entire wardrobe last year. Her whole life revolved around Les and the kids and doing the charity dinner circuit until Les dumped her for a twenty-two-year-old. Now, according to her, Swift Investigations is all that stands between her and her kids and the bread line. I’m sure she’s exaggerating.”
“What are you going to do about her?”
“According to my lawyer, there’s not much I can do.” My ﬁngers tightened around the water bottle, and it protested with a crunching sound. “We went over all the paperwork this afternoon, and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do except take on this woman as my partner or buy her out—and you know I can’t afford to do that.” I gestured at the house, a “ﬁxer-upper” I’d bought a couple of years previously and had poured all my savings and a lot of sweat equity into renovating. “Not without selling the house, at least.”
“You were saying just last night that you needed a new assistant—”
“An assistant, damn it, not a partner.” I ground my teeth. If my time in the Air Force had taught me anything, it’s that I like autonomy, that I like making my own decisions and being responsible for the outcome. It’s one of the reasons I’d set up as a PI rather than join the police when I separated from the military; cops have partners. Now, irony of ironies, it looked like I had one, too. “Where Goldman was content to let his money ride, ﬁnagle it as a tax loss somehow, she’ll be drawing a salary. She’ll be taking money out of the business, which’ll make it that much longer before I can afford to buy her out.”
“Maybe she’ll be an asset.”
“Hah! D’y’know what she did before she married Goldman? She was a beautician!” I’d learned that much from Gigi in the hour-long discussion that had followed her bombshell of an announcement. “When I suggested she’d make more money in her old line of work, she told me she wanted to try something new and thought being a PI would be exciting. Did I tell you she brought the .357 with her because she thought PIs all ran around with guns? I think she’s watched too many Spenser: For Hire reruns.”
A half-smile stretched across Dan’s face, crinkling the crow’s feet that showed as white lines penciled against his tan. He watched me pace the deck. “Give her a chance, Charlie. If you’re stuck with her, you might as well make the best of it. Maybe her society contacts will bring in a new class of business for you.”
“You have to look on the bright side,” I grumbled, secretly taken by his idea. “You’re a priest.”
Swallowing the last glimmer of Scotch in his glass, Dan rose, towering over me. “I’m going to turn in. I’ve got a parishioner having surgery ﬁrst thing in the morning, and I need to be there before they put him under. You going to be okay?”
“Go.” I shooed him away. “Thanks for listening.”
“I live to serve.”
From anyone else, it would’ve been a joke. He clomped down the deck stairs and I tracked his progress across the thin strip of woods that separated our houses by the sound of rustling leaves and snapping twigs. His door creaked open a hundred yards away—I really needed to go over there with my WD-40—and a faint “good night” drifted to me.
“ ’Night,” I called back.
The night seemed darker in the silence after his door banged shut. I collected Dan’s glass and my bottle and took them inside, carefully bolting the deck door behind me. I didn’t want the bear helping himself to my Oreos.
Make the best of it, make the best of it, I chanted to myself at seven the next morning as I parked my Subaru outside the ofﬁce next to Gigi’s Hummer. Make the best of it. I pushed the door open. Make the—
“Oh, my God!” I stared in dismay at my ofﬁce. A ficus tree in a pink ceramic pot sat to the right of the door, its leaves tickling my face. The smell of coffee wafted through the room, emanating from the pot perched on a crocheted doily atop the ﬁle cabinet. Two mugs—one with Garﬁeld the Cat and the other embossed with blue stars and the slogan REACH FOR THE STARS!—sat beside the pot. For clients, no doubt. A poster of kittens in a basket of yarn balls simpered from the wall behind the desk I’d have to get used to thinking of as Gigi’s. Framed family photos, a potpourri bowl ﬁlled with stinky mulch, a dish of pink M&Ms, a foot-high plaster rooster wearing a necklace of linked paper clips, a three-tier in-box of lavender acrylic, and a small stereo spewing New Agey-sounding woodwinds obscured the desk. Gigi smiled at me from the chair she’d customized with a beaded seat and a cream-colored cardigan draped across the back.
“Good morning!” Her voice and smile were as happy as the short-sleeved yellow blouse and matching slacks she wore. She looked like a giant canary.
“What the hell is all this?” I asked, my arm sweeping out to embrace the entire ofﬁce. I started toward my desk, an oasis of simplicity and bareness in this gift shop hell, and tripped over an area rug frolicking with parrots and jungle foliage.
Her smile faltered. “I just moved in a few things to make it feel more homey.”
“This isn’t home. It’s a place of business where our clients expect professionalism, not ducklings,” I said, spotting a duckling planter sprouting wheatgrass on the windowsill.
“It’s my philosophy that customers feel more comfortable in an atmosphere that reminds them of home,” she said, the southern accent thickening.
“Well, no one would feel at home in this unless they lived in a Hallmark store,” I said. “Get rid of it.”
The single word took me aback, and I stared across the room at her. Her pleasant face wore an obstinate look, and her mouth was set in a mulish line.
“It’s my office.”
“It’s our ofﬁce,” she returned, “and since we’re going to be working together, we have to learn to compromise, reach consensus.”
Screw consensus. That was probably the word du jour at her charity committee meetings. I bit back the profanities that threatened to spill out and tried reason. “Look, Gigi, you might know best what works in a beauty parlor, but you’ve got to understand that people looking to hire a private investigator are looking for a different . . . aesthetic than women wanting acrylic nails or a perm.”
She folded her own manicured nails into her palms. “I can accept that,” she said after a full minute of thought. “Maybe if I put the duckling planter in the bathroom?”
Gaagh. She wasn’t getting it. I felt like I was wrestling an eel. “That’s a start,” I choked out. “I’ll help you put the rest back in your car after work.”
She held my gaze for a moment, then bent her head to continue reading from the open ﬁle folder on her desk.
“What’s that?” I grabbed a Pepsi from the fridge and took a swallow.
“I thought I should familiarize myself with our cases,” she said without looking up. “I’m starting with the A’s and working my way through the alphabet.”
Pepsi went down the wrong pipe and I choked. A flame of pure anger burned through me. This was my business, damn it, and I’d worked my butt off to get it off the ground, sacrificing a salary the ﬁrst few years until I built my customer base, putting in eighty hours a week, cultivating a network of sources, honing my skills with classes and professional reading. Where did she get off redecorating the office, riﬂing through my client ﬁles, taking over? Resolve hardened within me. Forget making the best of it. If I couldn’t dissolve the partnership, or force her out, I’d have to make her want to leave.
Taking my half-drunk Pepsi with me, I left the potpourri-scented ofﬁce to drag in deep breaths of mingled fresh air and exhaust from the rush hour trafﬁc streaming by on Academy Boulevard. Grinding gears, screeching brakes, and the thud of heavy metal music from a low-rider provided welcome relief from the strains of Zamﬁr or Yanni tinkling in my office. I did several laps around the shopping area at a brisk pace, startling the cats in the alley and a couple of sparrows taking a dust bath on the sidewalk. Caffeinated and calmer, I returned to the ofﬁce and settled myself cross-legged on the ﬂoor to inspect the infant seat and effects Melissa Lloyd had dropped off yesterday. In my haste to meet with my lawyer about keeping Gigi Goldman out of Swift Investigations—for all the good that had done—I hadn’t taken time to look them over.
Nothing was embroidered with Olivia’s full name, worse luck. The car seat had nothing distinctive about it, although the loden-colored lining and molded black handle were classier than most. PEG PEREGO was stamped on the bottom, but that meant nothing to me. I pulled the Onesie with feet from the plastic grocery bag. Yellow terrycloth with a giraffe appliquéd on the chest, it also told me nothing. I examined the labels, hoping to ﬁnd initials at least, but no luck. Without much hope, I pulled the blanket from the bag. It was pale pink, woven from something wondrously soft, maybe cashmere, with a two-inch-deep satin binding embroidered with white lambs. I rubbed it against my face.
“Ooh, a Delicia Furman.”
Gigi’s voice startled me. I looked up, self-consciously lowering the blanket from my face, to ﬁnd her staring at it with delight. “A what?”
“A Delicia Furman. I ordered one for my goddaughter’s baptism present, but there was a two-year waiting list.” She came around her desk and asked, “May I?”
I handed her the blanket. She inspected the embroidery. “It’s deﬁnitely a Delicia. She raises her own cashmere goats, shears them, and spins the yarn herself. I met her once when she donated a blanket to a charity auction I was organizing. She looks more like a goat-herder than an artist, but there’s no mistaking her embroidery. Look how tiny the stitches are, and how the lambs all seem to have different expressions on their faces.” Gigi stroked the blanket reverently.
“What does a Delicia Furman go for?” I asked. “A hundred, hundred fifty?”
Gigi laughed. “Oh, honey, you’re not even in the ballpark. Try twelve to ﬁfteen hundred, minimum.”
Eep. For a baby blanket that was going to get drooled on and peed on? At least this told me that baby Olivia had rich relatives or friends. A thought struck me. “Do you think Delicia’d know who bought this?”
“I don’t know what kind of records she keeps, but this is deﬁnitely a one-of-a-kind, so she might remember. She doesn’t do duplicates or copies of anything, ever.”
I tucked the giraffe outﬁt into the plastic bag and folded the Delicia, snorting as I realized I was thinking of it the way one would “a Goya” or “a Rodin.” I placed both inside the car seat and maneuvered it behind my desk. “Thanks,” I told Gigi, who had returned to her desk and was staring at her computer screen, nails clicking across the keyboard.
She wrote something on a lavender sticky note and handed it to me. “Delicia Furman’s phone number and address,” she said. “From her Web page. She’s outside Larkspur.”
“Thanks,” I said again, studying the note. At least Gigi knew her way around a computer and the Internet. She even had a little initiative. “Do you want to come with me to talk to her?” The words popped out before I could stop them.
“And learn PI interrogation techniques?” Her eyes lit up.
“Think of it as an interview, or better yet, a conversation,” I suggested, already regretting the invitation.
“Gotcha.” She made a note on a steno pad, then tucked it into her mailbag of a purse. “Now?”
I sighed. “Might as well.”
Gigi automatically headed for the Hummer after I collected the blanket, set the answering machine, and locked the office door.
“No way,” I said. “We can’t go visit an artist, a woman who raises goats, for heaven’s sake, in a vehicle that looks like a Sherman tank and burns more gas than small third-world nations. She’d run us off with a shotgun.”
“I never thought of that,” Gigi said, dropping her keys back in her purse—how did she ever ﬁnd them in there?—and following me to the Subaru. “It was Les’s, you know. The Hummer. He sure loved that thing when he ﬁrst got it—waxed it every weekend, wouldn’t let the kids eat or drink in it. I guess he couldn’t ﬁgure out a way to get it to Costa Rica, so he left it. Maybe he just didn’t want it anymore.”
I ignored the wistful note in her voice, wondering if she saw the parallels between Les’s relationship with the Hummer and with her. The bastard. My anger toward Les Goldman surprised me, and I tamped it down. If I was angry, it was only because his disappearing act had foisted Gigi on me, landing me with a partner I did not need or want.
My annoyance kept me silent throughout the twenty-five minute drive to Larkspur, a small community northwest of Colorado Springs best known for the huge Renaissance festival it hosts every summer. We drove past the festival grounds, where permanent walls, shop fronts, and castles loomed among the lodgepole pines like ghosts of medieval England. Delicia Furman’s farm was ten minutes farther on, wedged into a small valley guarded by hills on three sides. The morning sun lit up a small house, a barn, several outbuildings, and fenced enclosures full of goats. A sign at the roadside announced FURMAN’S in elegant gray script on white. We bumped down a rutted driveway, and I parked the car by the first paddock. As I opened the door, the scent of dung, warm animal, fresh hay, and clean water drifted in. The smell pulled me back to the farm outside Spokane where I’d spent several years off and on with Grandy and Gramps, my mom’s parents, while my parents missionaried in all sorts of godforsaken crannies in South America and Africa. Grandy and Gramps had raised a small herd of Barzona cattle, big red animals with the smarts of a teaspoon, but the farm smell was the same. I breathed it in.
Gigi murmured, “Aren’t they just the cutest?”
“Cute” wasn’t the word I’d’ve chosen. The goats were as tall as my thigh in an array of colors—tan, white, brown, gray, black—but they had long horns that swooped back from their brows and twisted to nasty-looking points. The shaggy black goat in the pen closest to me eyed me suspiciously as he chewed his cud. “You’re a handsome fellow,” I told him. Unmoved by my ﬂattery, he scratched the side of his head against a fence post.
Just as I was wondering where to start the search for Ms. Furman, a woman strode out of the barn ﬁfty yards away, trundling a wheelbarrow full of what I suspected was goat poop. Thick gray hair streamed almost to her waist from beneath a blue bandanna. Stained overalls hung loosely over a white henley shirt. Knee-high galoshes enveloped her feet and calves. She stopped when she saw us and stripped work gloves from her hands as she approached.
“Help you?” Her voice and gaze were no-nonsense. Eyes that showed more gray than blue peered from beneath straight iron-gray brows. Tanned skin beginning to soften around the jawline and pouches below her eyes testiﬁed to her life outdoors. She looked like a farmer, not an artist.
I introduced myself and stumbled when it came time to present Gigi. I ﬁnally called her “Gigi Goldman, my associate.” My lips wouldn’t form the P-word.
Gigi looked at me reproachfully but merely said, “We’ve met. Remember, Miss Furman? You donated that beautiful blue afghan with the star motif to our silent auction in support of the battered women’s home?”
Furman’s sharp eyes focused on Gigi. “Right. I thought you looked familiar. Well, if you’re here for another—”
“We need information, Ms. Furman,” I broke in, “not donations.”
“I’m afraid I don’t deal in information,” she said, “only art.” She took two steps toward the pen and scratched the black goat on his knobbly head.
She’d lost me. “I thought you made blankets. We just need to know who you sold this one to.” I nodded at Gigi, and she unfurled the pink blanket she’d been clutching to her chest.
“And isn’t that art?” Furman asked, whipping around to pin me with narrowed eyes. From the look of satisfaction on her face, I knew I’d fallen into a trap she’d sprung many times. “You’re one of the culturally stunted products of our public education system who don’t consider something ‘art’ unless it was painted or sculpted by a DWEM, a dead white European male.” She pronounced it “dweem.”
I felt heat rise to my cheeks but said, “I like Georgia O’Keeffe.”
“Bully for you. How about Junichi Arai or Michail Berger? Maybe Chihuly?”
I knew Chihuly did glass, but I’d never heard of the other two. “Look”—I put my hands up in a surrender gesture—“I didn’t come here for a seminar on alternative art—”
“Alternative?” Her brows rose haughtily to her hairline. A goat coughed behind her, sounding like it was laughing.
This was going from bad to worse. “Do you remember who bought this blanket? It was with an abandoned baby.”
That brought her up short, and she stepped off her soapbox, reaching a surprisingly well formed and delicate hand to grasp a fold of the blanket.
“I think it’s lovely,” Gigi said.
“Thank you, dear,” Furman said, tracing her thumb over one of the lambs. She nodded and looked over to me. “Aurora Newcastle. She bought it about six months ago. It was the last one I ﬁnished this spring before combing season.”
“You don’t shear goats to get the cashmere, you comb it out of them,” she said, making a motion like dragging a comb down.
I sensed another lecture coming on, this one on goat husbandry, so I asked quickly, “Was she pregnant?”
“Aurora?” Furman laughed, a rich chuckle. “She’s as AARP eligible as I am. No, it was a gift for someone.”
“Do you know who?” Gigi asked. She had the steno pad out, pen poised.
Furman shook her head. “No. She didn’t say. And before you ask, no, I won’t give you her address. You understand.”
“Sure.” It didn’t matter. It wouldn’t be hard to Google someone named Aurora Newcastle, and she apparently lived in Colorado since Furman talked like she knew her. “Thanks for your time, Ms. Furman,” I said.
“I’d love to come back and hear about the goats sometime,” Gigi said, real interest lighting her face.
“You do that,” Furman said. “I think they’d like you.” She turned away, striding back to the dung-ﬁlled wheelbarrow, rubber boots scraping a wsk-wsk sound from her overalls as she walked.
“Did you hear that?” Gigi said in an awed voice. “The goats would like me.”
I rolled my eyes and climbed into the Subaru, barely waiting for Gigi to swing her door shut before reversing with unnecessary force.
Back at the ofﬁce, I put mental blinders on to escape the new decor and retrieved phone messages. Two potential clients. I called them back and set up appointments, well aware of Gigi following the conversations from her desk. A third call was from a client who owned a string of fast food restaurants; he kept Swift Investigations on retainer to run background checks on potential employees. This time, he needed some undercover work done at his Buff Burgers restaurant on the northeast side of town. Buff Burgers was a newish franchise that sold buffalo patties with organic produce and whole wheat buns. I groaned at the prospect of doing fast food work to ﬁgure out which employee was skimming money from the cash drawer, and my eyes lighted on Gigi. The menial nature of the job should be just the thing to convince her that investigative work was not glamorous and exciting. “I’ll have an operative there in the morning,” I told Brian.
I put on a serious face as I hung up the phone. “Gigi, I think I’ve got a case you can handle.”
She all but clapped her hands and scurried over to plop down in the chair facing my desk.
“It’s undercover work.” That set the hook. “It might be dangerous.” Yeah, grease splatters might burn her arms. “It’ll be hard, nasty work.” She couldn’t say I hadn’t warned her.
Her eyes widened. “What do I have to do?”
I wrote down the Buff Burgers address and handed it to her. “Report to this address at eight tomorrow morning. A worker quit today, and Brian Yukawa, the owner, is holding a job open for you. You’ll ﬁll out an application like anyone would, but you’ll get the job. The manager’ll train you for your duties. Brian thinks someone—maybe the manager—is skimming from the cash register or selling inventory out the back door or something. Your job is to ﬁgure out who and how.”
“How do I do that?”
Good question. “Keep your eyes open, get to know your co-workers. See if anyone looks like they’re hanging out where they shouldn’t be or has more money than they ought to. This kind of undercover investigation isn’t a science—you just wing it.”
“Gotcha.” She had the ubiquitous steno pad out, and I’d swear she wrote down “Wing it!”
“We’ll get together in the afternoons when you’re off shift to discuss the case. Save any questions for me till then; you don’t want to make anyone suspect you’re not just a run-of-the-mill Buff Burgers employee. You’ll do just ﬁne,” I added with an encouraging smile.
“But what will I wear?” Gigi asked, looking down at her sunny silk ensemble.
“Not to worry,” I said, waving a dismissive hand. “Brian said something about a uniform.”
Copyright ©2010 Laura DiSilverio
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Laura DiSilverio spent twenty years as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer—serving as a squadron commander, and with the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as with a fighter wing—before retiring to parent and write full time.