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I knew it was going to be a bad day when Neva Jean called that early in the morning.
"Callahan?" she said hesitantly.
"What is it now, Neva Jean?" She's one of the best housecleaners I have working for me, but you wouldn't believe the shit that happens in her personal life.
Neva Jean hesitated again. "No use lying. You'll find out anyway. Me and Swanelle were on our way to Valdosta Friday night when we got in a big fight. You know Swanelle's temper. Well, he got so mad at me he pulled into a Waffle House outside Macon, put me out of the truck, and took off and left me standing there. Me with nothin' but a bottle of Mountain Dew in one hand and the Danielle Steel paperback I was readin' in the other. Left me standing there in the middle of the parking lot wearing my house shoes."
I sighed, loudly. "Where are you now, Neva Jean? And how much money do you need to get back here right away? I've got you scheduled to work every day this week, and two of the other girls are already out sick."
There was extended throat-clearing at the other end of the phone. "I'm still in Macon, honey," she wailed. "Some of the girls working at the Waffle House have been taking turns putting me up, and they let me clean up there in return for meals, but my purse is in Swanelle's truck, and if I know him, he's gone off on a toot. You reckon you could wire me bus fare back to Atlanta? You know I'm good for it."
I scrabbled on the kitchen table and found my checkbook. My balance had been lower, but not much. "Will twenty-five dollars do it, Neva Jean?"
"I reckon it'll have to," she said resignedly.
"Fine," I snapped. "Getsomebody to give you a ride to Western Union, and I'll have Edna wire it to you. Make sure you're here by eight A.M. tomorrow. You've got the Mahaffeys and the Greenbergs, and you know they don't like anybody but you in their houses."
just as I banged the phone down-hard-the front door slammed. Into my kitchen, which also serves as office and headquarters for the House Mouse, Atlanta Central Division, a cloud of cigarette smoke preceded a five-foot-two-inch woman in her early sixties. The blue hair was teased and tormented into an unnaturallooking winged creation I call her Hadassah do. It was Edna Mae Garrity, my live-in office manager and threepack-a-day mother.
She set the morning paper down on the old oak kitchen table we share as a desk and sniffed the air.
"No coffee made?"
"I thought that was your job," I said, pointedly waving away the smoke she blew in my direction.
She deliberately shot a stream toward me, then turned toward the coffeepot. "You wanna tell me why you've got your panties in a wad so early on a Monday morning?"
I flipped open the daily appointment book and showed her a full day's worth of bookings penciled there in her own rounded, looping handwriting.
"We've got a full day's work, one big new client, and Jackie and Ruby are out sick. On top of that, Neva Jean just called; she's stuck in Macon with no money and can't possibly get back until tonight at the earliest."
Maybe I should explain here about the House Mouse. Jesus I hate that name. It's a cleaning service, actually. After I left the Atlanta Police Department last year, I had the hot idea of becoming a private detective. Lots of guys I know have done it after leaving the department. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I overlooked one thing-my sex. Once I got my license, I found out fast that unless you're a man and latch on to one of those high-priced corporate-security consulting gigs, most private detective work is just nickel-and-dime skip-tracing and divorce work. Which I detest.
About then, Edna talked me into buying this cleaning service. Easy money, she'd said. She could get her longtime cleaning lady, Ruby, and some of Ruby's friends to come to work for us. And with all her contacts, neighbors, and friends, people she knew from the beauty parlor she'd managed for twenty years, we'd be in high cotton. She kicked in some money she'd been putting aside, and I took ten thousand out of my police pension fund and bought the business.
And since the stationery, brochures, and even the pink Chevy minivan that came with the deal all said House Mouse, it was cheaper to keep the old name. Which I hate.
We operate out of my little bungalow in Candler Park, a nice tree-shaded neighborhood here in Atlanta. The business has grown steadily, I'll have to admit. I had no idea how many yuppies there were in this town who can't bring themselves to scrub their own toilets but who would gladly pay me or my girls $75 a half day to do it for them.
The downside is that every week some fresh disaster strikes. Either a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner bums out a motor, or one of the girls (most of whom are at least fifty) throws out her back, or some old biddy calls to complain we waxed her no-wax floor. Kind of makes you long for a nice dean Friday-night domestic knifing.
The disaster du jour on this particular Monday was three clients who expected the House Mouse to show up this morning, and there I was with most of my mice out of commission.
Edna pulled the appointment book away from me and squinted at it through her bifocals. She's too vain to admit she needs glasses, so she makes do with these $4.99 K-mart specials. She tapped a pencil against her teeth, a sign of deep thought.Every Crooked Nanny. Copyright © by Kathy Hogan Trocheck. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.