Marin County is famous for its affluent pleasures and the beauty of its beaches, mountains and redwood forests. In Time and Trouble, a teen-aged runaway, a yellow hearse, an insurance scam, a heart-shaped talisman, a baby’s skeleton in a meadow, and something ugly and odd going on in a Sausalito houseboat all converge there to provide the first—and nearly last—case for Billie August, the new hire of seasoned P.I. Emma Howe.
Emma sat with her feet on top of her desk. It made her feel taller and it 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 replaced 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 halfhearted, mousy 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. Straitlaced. 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 that 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.”
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 manila envelope. “My résumé. 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.