The Dangerous Hour (Sharon McCone Series #22)by Marcia Muller
Marcia Muller's beloved heroine Sharon McCone is back to investigate a personal betrayal by one of her operatives that has put her business and reputation on the line.
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The Dangerous Hour
By Marcia Muller
Mysterious PressCopyright © 2004 Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
All right reserved.
I dropped the legal pad full of notes on my office desk, went to the high, arching window that overlooked San Francisco Bay, and waved exuberantly at the pilot of a passing tugboat. He stared, probably thinking me demented, then waved back.
The reason for my impulsive gesture was that I'd just come from a midafternoon meeting with my entire staff in our newly refurbished conference room-a let-the-phones-go-on-the-machine, everybody-must-attend gathering, during which we'd discussed McCone Investigations' present healthy state and bright future prospects. When the session broke up, the others were as high-spirited as I.
During the past two years our business had tripled. Last year we'd taken over all the offices fronting on the northside second-story catwalk at Pier 24 1/2. My nephew, Mick Savage, now headed up our new computer forensics department and was about to hire another specialist in that area. His live-in love, Charlotte Keim, was overwhelmed with her financial investigations-locating hidden assets, tracing employees who had absconded with company funds, exposing other corporate wrongdoing-and I'd authorized her to begin interviewing for two assistants. Craig Morland, a former FBI agent, was invaluable on governmental affairs, as well as a damn good man in the field; and my newest hire, Julia Rafael, had shaped up into a fine all-around operative. I didn't see any reason why either wouldn't eventually supervise his or her own department. Of course, my office manager, Ted Smalley, had yet to settle on an assistant who lived up to his exacting standards of efficiency-so many had passed through his office that I'd stopped trying to remember their last names-but I had no doubt that in time the individual whom he called "a paragon of the paper clips" would appear, résumé in hand.
Not a bad situation for a woman who once worked out of a converted closet at a poverty law firm.
Still, sometimes I missed those days when my generation had held the firm conviction that we could change the world. Which was why the ratty old armchair where I'd done some of my best thinking inside that closet now sat under my schefflera plant by the window of this spacious office at the pier-covered, of course, by a tasteful handwoven throw. I flopped into it to savor my professional good fortune.
I'd basked in the afterglow of the meeting for only a few minutes, while conveniently ignoring a couple of personal issues that had been nagging at me, when the phone buzzed. I went to the desk and picked up.
Ted. "You'd better get out here fast!" Something wrong. Really wrong. So much for basking. I dropped the receiver into the cradle. As I hurried onto the catwalk, I heard the words "... silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."
Two men near the top of the stairway. Plainclothes police officers; I recognized one. He stood poised to assist as his partner struggled with Julia Rafael, attempting to handcuff her. She bent over, kicking backward at his shins, trying to break his grasp. Beyond them Ted and Mick stood, looking confused and helpless.
"You have the right to speak to an attorney ..." Confusion gripped me, too. "What the hell's going on here?" I demanded.
Before either man could reply, Julia screamed, "Help me, Shar! I didn't do anything!" Then the fight went out of her, and she collapsed, nearly taking down the officer.
He steadied himself, went on, "And to have an attorney present ..."
He finished Mirandizing Julia and yanked her upright by the cuffs. She cried out in pain, and I warned, "Careful. You've got witnesses."
He ignored me.
I turned to the other officer. August Williams, an inspector on the SFPD Fraud detail. On several occasions I'd supplied him with leads that I'd stumbled across. "What's the charge, Augie?" I asked.
"Ms. Rafael has been accused of grand theft," he replied. "Specifically, stealing and making purchases with a MasterCard belonging to-"
"I'll take her downstairs," his partner said. I looked at Julia. Now she stood erect, dwarfing the arresting officer by some two inches. Her severe features were stony, her dark eyes blank. She didn't meet my eyes.
She'd been in this situation before, as a juvenile, and knew the drill.
I said, "Go with him, Jules. I'll call Glenn Solomon." At my mention of the city's top criminal-defense attorney, the inspector who was ushering Julia toward the stairway paused, then glared at me. Great-a hard case, one of the types that the department was attracting, and eventually having to discipline, in increasing numbers. Thank God he was partnered with Williams, an even-tempered and by-the-book cop.
As his partner ushered Julia down the stairway, I touched Williams's arm. "Augie," I said, "make him go easy." He nodded, his jaw set.
"As you started to say," I added, "a MasterCard belonging to ...?"
He looked down at me-a big, handsome man with rich brown skin, close-cropped gray hair, and concerned eyes that were pouched from lack of sleep. For a good cop, sleep is always in short supply.
"A credit card belonging to Supervisor Alex Aguilar. He alleges she stole it from his wallet after he rejected her sexual advances last month, and has used it to run up over five thousand dollars' worth of purchases."
Alex Aguilar. Founder and director of Trabajo por Todos-Work for All-a Mission-district job-training program designed to bring the city's disadvantaged Hispanics into the mainstream. Two-term member of the city's board of supervisors. Rumored to be positioning himself to become our first Hispanic mayor.
Alex Aguilar-our former client. He'd hired us to investigate a series of thefts from the job-training center. I'd assigned Julia, since she was my only Hispanic operative.
When I called Aguilar after she'd brought the investigation to a satisfactory conclusion, he said he was pleased and would recommend our services to others.
Now he was accusing her of grand theft. "I don't believe it," I said.
Williams shrugged. "I'm sorry, Sharon, but there's more. I have a warrant to search any part of your offices that Ms. Rafael has access to."
I took the document he held out as a pair of uniformed officers came up the stairway. It specified packages and merchandise from Amazon.com, Lands' End, J. Jill, Coldwater Creek, Sundance, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, and The Peruvian Connection, as well as a MasterCard in the name of A. Aguilar.
The warrant was in order. "Go ahead and search," I said.
I accompanied Williams and his men to the office Julia shared with Craig Morland. Craig wasn't there, and neither were any of the items listed on the warrant. When they finished, Augie asked, "What other areas does she have access to?"
"All of them. I trust my employees and don't restrict them."
But was I wrong to put my trust in Julia? Given her history? I pushed the doubts aside and added, "We'll start with my own office."
After Williams and the uniforms had left empty-handed, I said to Ted, "Get Glenn Solomon on the phone for me, please."
Ted hesitated, looking at Mick, who had remained on the catwalk with him. "May we speak privately?" "Of course."
We went inside his office, and he shut the door. "You didn't tell them about the mail room," he said. "... It slipped my mind."
"Nothing like that slips your mind. You deliberately didn't tell them. Does that mean you think Jules is guilty?" "I don't know what to think. They must have some pretty compelling evidence, to walk in here and arrest her without first asking her to come in for questioning."
Ted crossed his arms, leaning against his desk, and shook his shaggy mane of gray-black hair. He'd been growing it long-always the prelude to some change in fashion statement- and it was at the unruly stage. "I can't believe you don't have more faith in her. After all, you hired her in spite of her juvenile record. You're the one who keeps praising her for the way she's turned her life around."
His implied accusation made me feel small, disloyal to an employee who had, up until now, given me no reason to doubt her. But doubt still nagged at me. Ted saw I was conflicted and let me off the hook. "I'll get Glenn on the phone now."
"Thanks. And then will you please print me out a copy of the Aguilar file?"
I went back to my office and flopped onto my desk chair, numb. All the good feelings I'd been reveling in were gone now. Once again life had reminded me that things are never as secure as they seem. That none of us is immune to the sudden, vicious blow that can descend at any time and place. Ted put Glenn through a few minutes later.
"This is bad news, my friend," he said when I finished explaining the situation.
"You don't need to tell me that." "Julia Rafael-she's the big one, right? Five-eleven or six feet, bodybuilder's shoulders? Standoffish?"
"She's shy. She came up the hard way, and she's not comfortable with people outside her own sphere yet."
"I wasn't putting her down. That's how I acted when I first enrolled at Stanford. Down there on the Farm with all the rich kids, a scholarship student whose father was a grocery store keeper in Duluth, and Jewish to boot. The one time I met your Ms. Rafael, she interested me. Any chance she might've done what Aguilar alleges?"
"I can't imagine her coming on to him. Or stealing his credit card in retaliation. But sometimes she does display a curious pattern of behavior."
"First, there's the shyness, which, as you say, comes off as standoffishness. On the other hand, in a professional situation she can be cool and assertive. But if someone says or does something-no matter how innocent-that she interprets as an ethnic, class, or gender slur, she'll lash out. I've had to warn her about that several times."
"Passive-aggressive," Glenn said. "With a wide swath of middle ground." "Quite interesting."
"As a case study, maybe, but not when my agency and career are threatened. If Aguilar goes to the Department of Consumer Affairs and lodges a complaint against us, it'll be expensive at best, disastrous at worst."
"DCA licenses you. And Julia." "Only me. She's a trainee, hasn't put in the requisite number of hours to take the test."
"So you're the liable party." "If they can prove I had knowledge of what she did." "Which you didn't."
"No, but ... Jesus, Glenn, you never know which way one of their hearings may go. I've heard horror stories. Their investigators just show up at your office-and not to ask if you're having a good day. They question you extensively and demand to see your files on the particular case, and if you resist turning them over, they return armed with a subpoena and the firm conviction that you must be guilty. Sometimes they even perform a general audit. If BSIS-Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, the people who control the licensing process-then deem the complaint valid, there's a hearing, whose results can range from a dismissal to the temporary or permanent loss of your license. Even if the complaint is dismissed, it's an all-around expensive proposition, involving lawyers' fees and court costs, to say nothing of damage to your reputation."
"Have you ever been involved in such proceedings?" "No. During my early years in the business, when I was brash and took foolish risks, any number of complaints probably should've been lodged against me. But I was lucky. Now I keep to the straight and narrow, mostly, and insist my operatives do the same."
"Well, we'll worry about DCA later-if Aguilar even bothers to file a complaint. In the meantime, I'd better take myself down to the Hall of Justice."
"You think you can get Julia out of custody?" "I doubt it. It's unlikely there'll be a duty judge on the weekend. But at least I can hear her side of the story, try to nose out what kind of evidence they have. Where will you be?"
"Here at the pier, I guess. I've got a lot of paperwork to finish up before the weekend." "I'll see you there later, then."
After I replaced the receiver, I looked at my watch. It was five-fifteen, the time when Julia, a single mother, would normally be heading home to her young son, Tonio, or calling her sister, Sophia Cruz, to ask her to care for him. I should get in touch with Sophia, alert her to the situation. I called the flat that Sophia and Julia rented together on Shotwell Street in the Mission district. The phone rang four times before Sophia picked up, sounding distraught.
"Sharon! Thank God!" she said. "I've been trying to get through to Jules for hours. All I got was the machine at the office, and her cell's not working."
Julia, like me, had a bad habit of forgetting to turn on her cellular, but why hadn't Ted or someone else picked up? "When did you call the office?"
"Around three-thirty, when the police came with the search warrant."
We'd all been in the meeting then, phones on the machine. "Did you leave a message?"
"No, I was too upset. The warrant, it was for the apartment and our storage bin. I had to let the police in, and they took a bunch of stuff away from the bin, gave me a receipt. All this stuff that I didn't even know was there, and I can't believe-"
Her words were spilling out breathlessly. I said, "Slow down, Sophia. What kind of stuff?"
"Unopened packages from mail-order places. Amazon. Lands' End. Nordstrom. Packages that had been opened, too. Computer stuff. Fancy outfits."
All items that could easily be bought with a stolen credit card.
"What's going on, Sharon?" "You'd better brace yourself. Julia's been arrested." I told her what I knew of the charges.
Sophia was silent for a moment. Then she said, "She told you she didn't do it?"
"She told me she didn't know why she was being arrested." More silence. Apparently I wasn't the only one who was having doubts about Julia's honesty. Now I felt the same reproach toward Sophia that Ted had displayed toward me.
"What?" I said. "You think she's guilty?" "I don't want to think so. And the stealing isn't like Jules. Even when she was a teenager, turning tricks and dealing, she didn't steal. But the sex thing, coming on to the guy ... For months now, since she and that Johnny broke up, Jules has been kind of down and sticking close to home. Then a few weeks ago she's off to the clubs, hot to trot and find herself another loser."
Julia had perfectly terrible taste in men, and Sophia rejoiced at the departure of each, while dreading the appearance of his replacement.
I said, "So you're suggesting she set her sights on Alex Aguilar?"
"Might've. I know she was excited when he asked her out to dinner. And she did say she might not come home that night, so I should watch out for Tonio. Not that I'm complaining. Jules has her needs."
Excerpted from The Dangerous Hour by Marcia Muller Copyright © 2004 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.
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I bought my first Marcia Muller book 'the dangerous hour' and I also bought my first Sue Grafton 'R is for ricochet'. I started with Marcia and finished the book in a day so I was excited to read Sue. I have to say I'm having trouble getting through it. It's not as fast paced or thrilling as Muller. I'd definitely vote for Marcia Muller over Sue Grafton judging by these books. I know Grafton is the more popular of the two, but I can see why Muller is hailed the mother of the female P.I. Great book!
As The Dangerous Hour opens, Sharon McCone is filled with joy over the economic and professional success of McCone Investigations . . . and overflowing with anxiety about Hy Ripinsky's marriage proposal. Almost instantly the joy of success is replaced with fear of loss as one of her new employees is hauled away for credit card fraud against a recent client. Under California licensing rules, McCone can lose her business due to an employee's malfeasance. While expensive lawyers right to gain her time and breathing space, McCone leads her entire firm and related friends, neighbors and snitches to find out what's really going on. At the same time, she has to keep the wolf from the door so client work continues as well. In the process, all of the usual characters make at least cameo appearances. One of the challenges that Marcia Muller faces in each Sharon McCone mystery is how to employ all of the interesting and memorable characters that she has developed through more than 20 novels. That challenge usually determines how well the book turns out. In The Dangerous Hour, Ms. Muller gives into the temptation to deploy all of her characters . . . and to add a few more interesting ones. Unless she wants to write War and Peace, this means that some characters appear by name but don't really appear as characters. That makes the story seem bloated and dull in places. But considering how many characters are crammed into this book, it's a remarkable achievement to have this only be a minor problem that caused me to nick my rating by one star. McCone is really a loner who likes people . . . but doesn't feel comfortable getting close to them. I credit Ms. Muller with great skill in being able to populate the McCone books with so many characters who could plausibly want to be connected to McCone. Ms. Muller has a great instinct for capturing human motivations, weaknesses and strengths . . . and connecting them to their natural environments and human connections. In The Dangerous Hour she does this very deftly in a number of places so that the new characters seem more vivid than the old ones do. As the McCone universe expands, it becomes more realistic and the stories resonate better. I look forward to even more complicated plots with even more characters in the future. Ms. Muller's skill is developing nicely. I hope she remembers to leave out characters that she cannot involve sufficiently to make them relevant to the story and our interest in those characters. On the other hand, Ms. Muller wisely chose to have McCone deal with the investigation in as much of a one-woman style as possible . . . bringing back the tension and immediacy of the earliest books in the series. Very nice!
Ace author Marcia Muller keeps churning out page turners and readers/listeners happily devour them. Seems impossible but this is the 23rd tale starring likable, lovely, tough private investigator Sharon McCone. Fans have had opportunities to watch Sharon extricate herself from a number of seemingly fatal situations and rise to the top of the heap with a detective agency of her own. Yes, it seems life is good in all departments business is booming and man of her heart Hy Ripinsky wants to tie the knot. But, you know how it is. Just when it's all smooth sailing - kerplunk. One of Sharon's trusted employees, Julia Rafael, stands accused of credit card theft. Regrettably, Julia's past doesn't offer much to recommend her but Sharon had taken a chance. She wishes she hadn't when the merchandise charged to the stolen credit card is found in her agency's mailroom. It becomes obvious that someone's out to ruin Sharon's business. Worse still, the same someone wants to ruin her personally. The credit card in question belongs to a mayoral aspirant. How does that tie in to someone breaking into Sharon's car and home? Therein lies the tale. Voice actress Susan Erickson gives spunky, resonant voice to Sharon as she unravels the latest mystery. Give a listen - Marcia Muller does not disappoint.
In San Francisco, the staff of McCone Investigations held a meeting to discuss the success of the business, which has tripled in less than two years including branching into new areas like computer forensics and how bright the future seems. The meeting is barely over when the SFPD Fraud Detail Mirandizes trainee Julia Rafael for illegally purchasing items with a credit card belonging to jobs training program supervisor Alex Aguilar. The victim claims she stole and used his card after he rejected her sexual advances. McCone thinks Alex was a satisfied customer who now accuses one of Sharon¿s operatives of grand theft. She also realizes that since Julia, as a trainee, was unlicensed with the Department of Consumer Affairs, Sharon and her company are liable, which could lead to a loss of their license. Insisting she is innocent, Julia observes that she is too small a target to matter. Sharon agrees that the goal has to be a bigger fish, probably herself, but by whom, why and the tie in to Aguilar, a potential Mayoral candidate, remain unknown. She and her crack staff plan to find out and prove her trust in Julia was and is the right thing. THE DANGEROUS HOUR may be the twenty something McCone tale, but contains a freshness as if this was the first novel. The story line is fast-paced with plenty of action including murder and revenge as Sharon and her team struggle to learn the identity of the culprit trying to destroy her. With all that going on and taking care of a cat with feline diabetes, Sharon¿s lover Hy Ripinsky asks her again. Fans of the series and newcomers will enjoy this tense private investigative tale. Harriet Klausner