Death of the Office Witchby Marlys Millhiser
Raising a fast-maturing teenage daughter, keeping up with the mortgage payments, and trying to launch a successful Hollywood career would be difficult for anyone. But Charlie/b>
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West Coast literary agent Charlie Greene is on the case when an unexplained murder baffles the local cops—and brings out Charlie’s blossoming psychic gifts
Raising a fast-maturing teenage daughter, keeping up with the mortgage payments, and trying to launch a successful Hollywood career would be difficult for anyone. But Charlie Greene has an additional, more unusual challenge to deal with: her emerging abilities as a clairvoyant. And when Gloria Tuschman, the universally hated receptionist in Charlie’s office and a practicing witch, is found dead in a garbage can—and pleads for Charlie’s help from beyond the grave—the police turn to the reluctant psychic for clues.
Charlie’s colorful cast of colleagues, including Larry the Kid and Dorian the Dapper, are high on the list of suspects. And Charlie can’t rule out members of Gloria’s own coven. After someone else vanishes, Charlie starts attending séances and follows a trail of blackmail and guilty secrets in an effort to unmask a killer who’s scattering clues in this world and the next. She must believe in her new powers if she is to match wits with the murderer in this unpredictable paranormal mystery.
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Death of the Office Witch
A Charlie Greene Mystery
By Marlys Millhiser
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Marlys Millhiser
All rights reserved.
Charlie Greene turned off the engine and rolled down the car window. When her eyes began to water from the fumes, she rolled the damned thing back up again.
Palm fronds peeking out from an expensive neighborhood on the other side of a privacy fence were drooping in the freeway air, too. Orangy-red roofs of new clay tile showed between the fronds in slices. They relieved the bleakness of a rush hour morning with slashes of color.
Charlie punched the office on her car phone and tried hard not to think of two-hundred-dollar Rollerblades. She tapped on the gray Toyota's gray steering wheel.
Five lanes of traffic sat idling poisons into the air on Charlie's side of the road, while all the cars in the opposing lanes zoomed by unobstructed. She'd left the fog behind shortly after leaving Long Beach, now it was just the usual haze clouding the air. But the sun was beginning to heat up the car through it, causing Charlie's pantyhose to start sticking uncomfortably.
"Congdon and Morse Representation, Inc.," Gloria's New Jersey twang finally came over the line, and Charlie could hear the relentless soft click of the keyboard continue without hesitation. Anybody else would have left off the Inc., but not Gloria. Precise was Gloria.
"This is Charlie. I'm stuck in a grid on the 405 and won't make the Universal breakfast on time. Can Richard cover for me?"
"He left already to do that, Charlie, swearingeh under his breath. Is it really gridlock, or just Libby?" Gloria's conceit at being unencumbered by children was only one of her irritating traits. Nothing encumbered Gloria but her fingernails. Long, fire-engine red, with different tiny fake jewels set into each one, they were Gloria's glory. "Or did something odd and unexplainable happen to you like I've been saying? I'm tellingeh you, Charlie, it can't be long now. I can feel it."
The only odd thing happening to me is Gloria Tuschman. "Is Larry in yet?"
Charlie dared to turn on the engine and the air conditioning, knowing she shouldn't keep throwing pollutants into the smog. But she needed to look good today.
"Everybody coming in this morning is in except you," Gloria pointed out ominously. "And everybody but me has left again on some errand or other." Larry, Charlie's assistant, had gone across the street to the Chevron to buy Gloria and himself Hostess Ding Dongs for their coffee break.
As soon as the receptionist started detailing the whereabouts of every last person at the office, Charlie cut her off. "I'll do my New York calling now and be in as soon as I can."
New York was three hours ahead of time, and it was a nightmare to reach everyone before they went home. Of course, Charlie had found it equally difficult getting hold of the West Coast when she'd worked in New York.
Charlie Greene was the literary agent for Congdon and Morse. She handled screenwriters for the agency and served as contact with East Coast book publishers. She managed to complete calls now to a literary agency and a New York producer, and leave a message at McMullins Publishing before the gridlock suddenly opened up as mysteriously as it had closed in. As usual, she didn't pass a wreck or a tow truck or any sign of road construction to account for the traffic holdup. And, as usual, she wasn't as fresh as she would like to have been when she reached the office.
A talent agency on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, Congdon and Morse Representation, Inc. wasn't one of the best-known or more prestigious, but it had a few older stars on its roster, along with a fair number of up-and-comers. Although many more powerful agencies maintained their own imposing buildings, Congdon and Morse shared the fifth floor of the first Federal United Central Wilshire Bank of the Pacific building, a seven-story white stucco structure with black windows. Fortunately, tall palm tree stalks, sticking out of the sidewalk in front of it, didn't produce any small poofs of fronds until reaching the level of that fifth floor. The FFUCWB of P sat on a corner facing Wilshire with its drive-through banking across the side street, a paved alley running along the other side, its first floor halved in size to provide covered parking in back and two levels of parking underneath.
Charlie waved away the parking valet, swooped the Toyota down into its own stall on the first level, took the elevators up to the fifth, followed the carpeted hall until she came to a discreetly marked door, and buzzed the intercom. There was an even more discreet rear entrance that Richard Morse shared with a shrink at the back of the building's fifth floor, but the help had to use the front door.
"What do you want?" Charlie heard Larry's harried-sounding voice instead of Gloria's familiar insulting one. Gloria's voice could discourage more wannabes than a math teacher's.
"It's me, Charlie." She had her own little card that would slide into the metal box next to the intercom and allow her entrance, but it was simply easier to buzz Gloria. She noted only two manila envelopes lying up against the door.
"Where is she?" she demanded as soon as Larry had let her in.
"Phone's driving me crazy. Our Gloria has disappeared on me." Larry was petulant, California bronze, and big. Charlie often had to stop herself from hugging him. "She did it on purpose, the witch."
"She didn't go far, her car's still down in the barn. Did she leave any Ding Dongs?" It was too late to even try to make the Universal breakfast.
"When I got back with them she was gone. More and more I like Richard's idea of installing voice mail," Larry said, returning to the phones. The last time Gloria left on vacation, the temp had somehow shut down the system, and Richard (the Morse in Congdon and Morse) had threatened to replace the receptionist with voice mail.
Charlie grabbed a gooey cake and headed for the staff bathrooms down the private hall. There was no sign of Gloria in the ladies. It wasn't like her to leave her desk that long. When she took her lunch break she even turned the phones over to an answering service.
The hall was long, narrow, and dimly lit. At its end were the stairs to the VIP exit and a tinted window. Charlie peered into the stairwell, wondering briefly if Gloria had felt ill and had a sudden need for air. She couldn't imagine Gloria choosing anything but the public elevator, no matter how awful she felt. The spike heels she wore were bone crunchers. Charlie called down into the stairwell. Her voice echoed back to her from the floors above as well as those below.
Though the window looked dark from outside, she could see clearly into the alley that ran along the side of the building, the white tiered business buildings running along the other side to Charleville Boulevard, and the off-alley parking spots for the residences incongruously snuggled in behind the bank. A high concrete brick wall painted white with tall flowering bushes hanging over it ran parallel to the bank's rear and separated two parking spaces from the next residence. Just beyond it was the rusty-red of old tiles on a garage roof. A breeze set the leaves to fluttering on the wall, shadow-dappling the concrete below. Something in the bushes caught the sun in tiny glints before the breeze moved on across the alley to play with a discarded food wrapper.
A woman dressed for the office stepped out of a gate and walked toward the garage. She stopped partway there and picked up something red, looked around her, shrugged, and then stuck it in one of the huge garbage cans that lined the alley all the way to Charleville Boulevard.
Charlie turned back to the agency offices, catching herself on the metal railing that lined the stairwell as her heels slid on the gloss of the newly waxed floor. She stopped at a whisper behind her, but when she looked there was no one.
"Someone call me?" It had really been more like a sigh than a whisper. It almost sounded like someone had whisper-sighed, "trash can." Charlie had extra-sensitive hearing, and often heard sounds that weren't there. She hated it.
She expected to find Gloria back at her desk, but Larry, still looking harried, motioned to her with a "we've got trouble" expression on his face.
Larry was one of the best-looking men Charlie had ever seen, with butterscotch-blond hair that kept flopping over onto his forehead and huge watery blue eyes that compelled unquestioning sympathy. He also had a lean, lithe body with muscles built up in all the right places. So far he'd failed in his quest to become a star, although he'd appeared in some very appealing commercials and bit parts on TV. Growing tired of waiting tables and parking cars, he'd found steadier employment at Congdon and Morse. When Charlie had taken her job and moved out from New York a couple of years ago, Larry had come with the office.
Now he held one of the phones above his head, letting lights flash on the other lines. "It's the boss for you. You find her?"
"Not yet. Richard, hi. Sorry I was late this morning. It was the freeway this time, honest, and not Libby." Charlie seemed to be in trouble about every other day around the office, and it was no joke. She had car payments, a killer mortgage, and a kid to raise. "How'd the meeting go?"
"I have no time for excuses, Charlie, and where the hell is Gloria?" It was his dangerous, ever-so-patient-and-put-upon voice. "I am a busy man. I cannot stay in the office every minute to manage it. That is why, Charlie, I spend good money to hire people to help me."
"She must have stepped out, but her car's still downstairs. I've been running around looking for her, and poor Larry's answering the phones." The door buzzer was about as subtle as a smoke alarm, and both she and Larry started when it went off. He pressed a button under Gloria's desk and released the lock for Dorian Black. "Here's Dorian now. He can help us look for Gloria."
Everybody had their special office nickname. Gloria was the Witch, Larry was Larry the Kid, and Charlie was fast becoming Mother of Libby. This was Dorian the Dapper. Dorian did not dress for success, he dressed to kill. Never mismatched, colorful yet tasteful, always the perfect tones and textures. He did not wrinkle. His hair and nails and even his shoes were perfection. Yet somehow Dorian Black still managed to come off with all the grace of a used-car salesman. Charlie would never figure out how he did it. And he would never forgive Charlie for having her own assistant. He had to share one with Luella. Where was everybody?
"Dorian can help Larry. Fuck Gloria." Richard Morse crashed back into Charlie's thoughts. "You've got exactly fifteen minutes to get you and your tush over to the Polo. All I could get you was a table on the patio. Monroe and Leffler are at it again, and, Charlie, do I need to tell you about ruffled feathers ruining the stew?"
"Ruffled feathers ruining the stew ..."
"Do not repeat what I say. That's my schtick. Put Dapper Dorian on the line and hie your tail. I am counting on you, Charlie."
Charlie grinned at Dorian and handed him the phone, raced back to the ladies to check her smile for traces of Ding Dong. She'd eaten only half of it, and so far it had been her entire sustenance for the day. The egg and lobster salad at the Polo Lounge was worth the wait, and she knew she could handle Keegan Monroe. But from what Monroe said, nobody could handle Leffler. And "ruin the stew" was a euphemism for queering the deal, which was really serious. Then again, Richard Morse inflated everything but her wages.
Her eyes were still a little tense from her normal morning fight with Libby. Her hair, still a little wilted from sitting in traffic, suffered further as she raced the Toyota up to the Beverly Hills Hotel. But her spirits were rising by the minute. She reassured herself that she was too important to Congdon and Morse for them to blow her off simply because of repeated commuter and family problems.
When Richard Morse had discovered she'd taken a house in Long Beach instead of one closer to work, he'd warned her she was asking for trouble. But a friend of a friend had learned of a semidetached condo for sale in a charming old neighborhood, within walking distance of a high school and the ocean, far from any freeway noise. Since it was under two hundred and fifty thousand—Charlie had gone ahead and sunk every penny she'd ever saved, even selling some stock inherited from her father, to make the down payment. All that for four rooms and a bath, a tiny yard, and a patio. But after a minuscule sublet in Manhattan, it had seemed like the perfect place to raise Libby.
Charlie's mother, who had a whole house to herself now in Boulder, having bought it centuries ago for twenty thousand, was almost too stunned to criticize the purchase. Almost.
However, as Charlie's problems were growing with a growing teen, her boss and mother were growing depressingly more knowledgeable by the day. She and Libby both loved the Belmont Shore area of Long Beach, but it really was a hell of a long way to Wilshire Boulevard. And there was no money left over for things like two-hundred-dollar Rollerblades.
Charlie didn't know what they'd do if she lost her job, since they already lived on the edge. There was the orthodontist now, and college coming up for Libby with terrifying speed. But Charlie was a gambler and, God help her, there was a certain thrill to it all.
She parked in the outer lot and literally ran to the hotel's distant door, avoiding a tip for valet parking. She had two disgruntled writers to assuage, tease, cajole, and persuade to work together. In a small way, she was getting a name for being able to do just that, and Charlie loved attention as much as anybody.
But through all the thrill of it, the sense of power, two shortened pencils kept floating across her memory vision. They had been sitting on Gloria Tuschman's desk when Charlie talked to Richard on the phone. Gloria used them always to key in on her computer, press telephone numbers, and work a calculator. She used the eraser ends, holding one in each hand to save her precious fingernails, and she could type faster than anyone in the office who used all their fingers.
That was only one of the reasons Gloria was known as a witch.CHAPTER 2
In the industry, agents can be very famous people. Like producers, they go unnoticed by the public at large, although their clout in real terms can be awesome. Charlie always sensed inklings of that potential at times like this.
She sailed through the Beverly Hills lobby, where the clientele was rich and ancient, to the Polo Lounge, where studio execs and males-with-money sat in curved-back chairs to talk deals in supposed acoustical stealth. Legend had it that the place was so designed that normal conversations in booths or at tables could not be overheard by those nearby. Charlie believed in only the power of legends.
One of the execs raised an eyebrow in recognition—a lech to be avoided no matter the mortgage. Another managed a royal wave of the hand—he was just as powerful and had actually thrown a deal Charlie's way, asking only for a minor writing assignment for a niece. He had since tired of the "niece." Charlie passed them both with a smile, winked at the elevator man at the piano, and headed for the patio—that tiny bubble of excitement zipping through her veins like a drug.
She also didn't want to lose this job because she loved it.
The Polo Lounge was a cushioned, padded, draped, and sedate place in a relentless pink and green motif. Outside were pink and green umbrellas with "Polo Patio" and "Polo Lounge" interspersed on the scalloped hang-downs where "Cinzano" would have been emblazoned in eateries catering to Charlie's personal price range. White wrought-iron tables with glass tops, white wrought-iron chairs with pink cushions, little pink vases with little pink roses. It was all too-too for the meeting at hand, and Keegan Monroe's expression admitted as much as Charlie slipped into the chair beside him. There were at least ten places that would have suited better, but Charlie figured the Polo was meant to impress Mary Ann Leffler.
One look at the author of Shadowscapes told Charlie that Richard could have saved his pennies. The Montana novelist had been hired by Goliath to write the screenplay on her book. Keegan, who was Charlie's client, was on the payroll to whip the script into usable form both because he was an experienced screenwriter and because he could get along with almost anyone.
He was not getting along with Mary Ann Leffler.
"Adverbs," Mary Ann said the minute Keegan introduced them.
"Excuse me?" Charlie motioned to the waiter. "Would anyone like a drink before ordering?" Maybe she could lubricate away some of the tension here. Then she glanced at the table. "I mean another one?"
Charlie ordered a glass of red zinfandel, Keegan another beer, and Mary Ann Leffler another vodka martini straight up and dry.
"Adverbs suck," the woman said and lit a cigarette off the stub in the ashtray. She wore brown hair cut very short in back, gradually lengthening on the sides until it just curled under the chin in front, all traces of gray dyed to sandy highlights. Her hands were long, strong, and bony—nails trimmed no-nonsense short. The sun had deepened squint lines around eyes that invited no bullshit.
Excerpted from Death of the Office Witch by Marlys Millhiser. Copyright © 1993 Marlys Millhiser. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Marlys Millhiser is an American author of fifteen mysteries and horror novels. Born in Charles City, Iowa, Millhiser originally worked as a high school teacher. She has served as a regional vice president of the Mystery Writers of America and is best known for her novel The Mirror and for the Charlie Greene Mysteries. Millhiser currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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