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MAN PLANS, GOD LAUGHS
Less is more. Except when it comes to money and sex. These unassailable truths may explain why I found myself checking into a hotel barely a twenty-minute cab ride from my front door.
I'd been asked to work undercover at a weeklong symposium for dog trainers, which meant I'd be paid to lecture about dog behavior, a paean to my former occupation, and paid again as I practiced my current one, private investigation.
So much for the money part.
My PI firm was an equal partnership, and my partner and I always worked together, which may explain why the elevator operator whistled and stepped back as we boarded his car.
"Hell of a dog you've got there, missus," he said, both hands dropping rapidly to cover the area directly below the brass buttons of his jacket. "Pit bull?" His back was against the wall.
I looked down. Dashiell looked up at me and wagged his tail. "He's not complaining." I waited, but nothing happened. "Want me to drive?" I asked.
"Sorry, missus. Where to?"
I held up my key. While he read the room number, I read the name embroidered over the breast pocket of his jacket. "Home, James," I told him. But once again, nothing happened. There was another customer approaching. And another big dog.
"Rachel," the other customer said. "I didn't know you'd be here." Ignoring Jimmy, who by now was the color of watery mashed potatoes, Chip Pressman and his shepherd, Betty, stepped onto the small elevator. "Three, please," he said, never taking his eyes off me.
Dashiell was staring, too. Either he'd gotten a whiff of Betty, or Chip had a roast beef in his suitcase.
"I've been meaning to call you," he said, the elevator, its doors gaping open, still on the lobby floor.
"Go sit," I said, pointing to the corner farthest from Jimmy. Both dogs obeyed, squeezing into the spot I had indicated. I have no issues when it comes to dogs, but some men turn me into Silly Putty.
Jimmy closed the folding gate and turned the wheel. The old-fashioned open-cage elevator began to rise, albeit slowly.
"Can we have a drink before the dinner tonight?" Chip said, looking at his watch. "There's something I need to tell you."
Somehow, the way he said it, I didn't think it was going to be something I'd want to hear.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jimmy turn slightly, perhaps to make sure he wouldn't miss any nonverbal response, a nod, a shrug, one hand demurely placed on my flushed cheek to indicate both pleasure and surprise.
"Can't," I said.
"I have to straighten out some things with Sam before the symposium begins," I lied.
The elevator stopped at three.
"Well, I guess I'll see you at dinner, then?"
He got off. Betty followed him. Dashiell followed Betty, play-bowing as soon as he was in the hallway. He must have had adjoining rooms on his mind. I thanked Jimmy and got off, too.
"We're on the same floor," Chip said.
I looked down at my key. "Looks that way."
We stood in front of the closed elevator door, neither of us moving, the air between us thick with pheromones and anxiety. He could have used a haircut. I could have used Valium.
"The reason I didn't call," he said, pausing and looking down for a moment, "even though I told you I would--"
"You don't have to do this."
"But I do, Rachel. The thing is, shortly after I saw you at Westminster, I--I went back to her, to Ellen. For the sake of the children."
That ought to work, I thought, the arrow he'd shot piercing my heart.
"Hey," I said, as sincerely as I could, "no problem. I hope it works out for you."
"Rachel," he said. He appeared to be gathering his thoughts. Lots of them. Too many, if you ask me.
"I have to run," I said, as if we were standing so awkwardly not in the third-floor hallway of some hotel but on the track that goes around the reservoir in Central Park.
"Well, okay, I'll see you later."
He seemed disappointed. But was that a reason for me to hang around and listen to the touching story of how determined he was to make his marriage work, or to hear about how he tried but found he couldn't live without Ellen's cheddar cheese potato surprise? I didn't think so.
We walked down the hall. I stopped at 305. Chip and Betty continued another two feet, stopped, and turned.
"We're next door," he said, looking down at his key to make sure.
"Right," I said, nodding like one of those dogs people put on the dashboards of their cars. Then I stood there in the empty hall for a few minutes after Chip and Betty had disappeared into 307.
This wasn't exactly how I had imagined things would go when I was wrapping the black lace teddy in tissue paper and packing it carefully in one of the pockets of my suitcase.
Man plans. God laughs.
So much for the sex part.
Or so I believed at the moment.
DON'T SAY A WORD, SHE SAID
I'd been reading the fashion section of the Sunday Times, most of which gets delivered on Saturday morning, when the phone rang. I liked being up on the important news a day ahead of people who bought their papers at the newsstand. Nails are big, the article said, especially in unreal colors.
The phone rang again. I picked up my toasted bagel and took a bite. The model's nails were considerably longer and bluer than mine. I heard Dashiell bark three times, my outgoing message. Then I heard that it wasn't my sister, so I picked up. "Alexander," I said.
"Oh, good. You're there," a deep, whiskey voice said. "Well, here's the story in a nutshell. I've arranged a weeklong symposium for dog trainers in New York City, the first of its kind, but it seems the participants all absolutely detest each other, and I'm afraid it's only going to go downhill from there. You know how these things are, I trust. So I got in touch with Frank Petrie, who I know from way back, because I decided that what this situation needed was a guard with a gun, you know, just to keep things from getting out of hand. Perfect solution, right? Wrong. He said what I needed was you."
"Can I get your name?" I asked, pulling over a pad and a pen.
"Of course, Samantha Lewis."
Sam Lewis, I thought. I'll be damned.
"Look, Rachel, I've got a problem here--can I call you Rachel? Please call me Sam. Everyone does. The symposium starts in just two days, and I'm beginning to panic here. I'm still dealing with totally annoying last-minute changes in the program, and I've got to get this security business nailed down, too. God, I hope you're available. Maybe I ought to explain what I've done here. Do you have a minute?"
She actually stopped and waited for an answer.
"I do," I told her.
I had a lot more than that. The only thing in my calendar was an appointment to get my teeth cleaned, and that wasn't until the middle of next month.
"I've been running individual seminars for years now," she said, which was sort of like Lassie calling to tell me he was a dog, "and I decided to see if I could get these people together, if I could encourage them to stop the methodology wars and form a community so that people could share information the way they do in other professions."
That ought to work, I thought.
"But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I was asking for trouble. I wondered what on earth I could've been thinking when I dreamed tiffs up. So I figured, okay, it's not lost yet. I'll play it safe. I'll call Frank, get a uniform. It would be well worth the expense. But Frank said no, he said I should hire you, get you to work undercover. 'You don't want your people to know why she's there,' he said, 'they won't open up. You'd be surprised what people say to each other. Sometimes you can stop some nasty business before it gets going. Stick her on a panel. Have her teach,' he said. 'Let her walk the walk, talk the talk, pal around with people, listen to what's being said. She'll fit fight in. She's a dog nut'"
"You're actually concerned?"
"I am. I was hoping I could get them to bury the hatchet. Now I need you there, to make sure they don't bury it in each other."
"Look, Sam, true, the lack of community is appalling, the attitudes less than professional, the bad-mouthing rampant, but--"
"I make a substantial amount of money doing this, Rachel. I can afford the peace of mind I'll get just -knowing I have someone troubleshooting for me. Since you used to be a dog trainer, you are the logical choice. And Frank said you were a pretty decent operative, for a girl." She laughed. "That's when I knew it had to be you."
"Precisely," she said. "I guess that's why I'm still looking for Mr. Okay. There are too many Frank Petries in this world, too many annoying nerds, too many guys who like guys, too many gorgeous hunks who don't bother to tell you they're married, too--"
This time I laughed.
"Don't say a word," she said. "I know it's my own damn fault. I have terrible judgment when it comes to men. And even worse luck"
"Who doesn't?" I was thinking about my ex, not to mention a dozen or so other guys desperation and loneliness had made look an awful lot more presentable than they actually were.
"Well, that aside, right now I have a job to do. So, Rachel, would you do this much for me, would you let me buy you dinner and hear me out? Then if you decide you don't want to do this, at least I'll feel I did my best. Your choice of a restaurant. And make it expensive."
"How about the Gotham Bar and Grill?" I'd always wanted to go there when someone else would be picking up the tab. But then I had second thoughts. "I don't think you can get a reservation the same day."
"Watch me," she said. "Can you meet me there at seven?"
That's when I knew I'd be working for Sam Lewis. Still, I was curious to hear what she'd say to convince me, not knowing she was preaching to the choir.
I spent the rest of the day wondering which trainers would be there and trying to picture them getting along with each other, but no matter how I grouped them in my imagination, as soon as the group exceeded one, a heated argument would break out. Maybe having me there, just in case, wasn't such a bad idea after all.
Late in the afternoon, Dashiell and I took a walk along the waterfront, New Jersey twinkling across the Hudson. Perhaps it was only meant to be seen from a distance.
Back home, I decided to wear black. Dashiell wore his usual too, white with a black patch over his right eye, his Registered Service Dog tag prominently displayed on his collar. I was about to rouse him so we could leave when I realized I didn't have my keys. They weren't in my jacket pocket. Nor were they on the green marble table outside my kitchen, where I often dropped them.
"Dashiell," I said, "find the keys."
He looked up from where he was sprawled on the sofa, his eyes glazed over with sleep.
"Keys," I repeated, chopping the air with a fiat, open hand, his silent signal to search an area.
Dashiell got off the couch and began dowsing for my lost keys. First he moseyed over to my jacket, which I'd tossed over the arm of the sofa. He pushed the pocket with his muzzle to release a puff of air so that he would 'know what was inside. Then he shoved his big nose in, just to make sure it wasn't fooling him.
He did a paws-up on the marble table. No keys, but he 'knows my habits, you have to give him that.
He looked around the living room, moving his head from side to side, trolling for the scent he was after. Then he headed up the stairs, his short nails clicking on the wooden steps. A moment later I heard the keys jingling as he descended the staircase. He dropped my key ring into my hand, sat, and barked. I scratched one of his top fifty favorite spots, one of the ones behind his right ear.
"So where were they?" I asked.
But I didn't wait for an answer. I know his habits, too. He's the strong, silent type, not in the least inclined to divulge hard- won professional secrets.
Posted June 4, 2009
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