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I was not fond of doing temporary work, but writing freelance magazine articles, my usual way of earning money, could be uncertain. Liz Sullivan was by no means an easily recognized name among magazine editors, although my pieces had been published in Women's World, Organic Gardening, and even once, the pinnacle of my career, Smithsonian. After tasting those lofty heights, I'd been sending my stuff to more selective markets than Grit and True Confessions, former sources of small but steady money. I had expenses to meet, and no income with which to meet them. At such times, I dove into the pool of temporary workers that populated the San Francisco Bay Area.
Not five hours previously, I had been peacefully copying travel vouchers and answering telephones in the San Mateo office of Kershay-Pederson Media Alliance, filling in for a flu-stricken receptionist. January was a good month for temp work because so many people were home sick with flu and colds and general post-holiday malaise.
I had worked at Kershay-Pederson for two days, while the receptionist phoned every three or four hours to moan about how sick she was and ask if I needed help. Her job had been relatively simple, as January was also a slack time for book promotions, the firm's mainstay.
That morning, Irene Pederson had called in sick. And then another call, one that caused Judi Kershay toerupt from her office.
"Quick. Call Maria. Maybe she hasn't left yet."
I found Maria on the list of drivers who escorted authors around to bookstores and talk shows. Her answering machine assured me that she'd return my call at the earliest possible time.
"Not her home number. Isn't her cell-phone number there?"
I tried the next number. It rang a few times, and then a staticky voice said, "This is Maria Lopez."
"Judi Kershay for you." I handed the receiver to Judi, but I didn't go back to filing right away. The drama enacted in front of me was too compelling.
"Maria, did you already pick up Shirley Climo?" Judi barely waited for an answer. "So it's not too late. I'll get someone else for her. I need you to drive Hannah Couch. She's arriving"--Judi looked at her watch--" in less than two hours."
I could hear Maria's reaction to that. "I know she can be difficult--" Judi's voice was placating. "That's why we have the bonus for driving her."
More squawking. "But, Maria--" Judi listened intently. "Yes, I know. I know. Forget it. I understand." She handed the receiver back to me and rubbed the vertical lines that had formed between her eyebrows. "I didn't think she would. And Susan is out sick, Leona is on vacation, even poor Irene is sick, and Hannah can't stand me."
"Excuse me." I cleared my throat. "Are we talking about the Hannah Couch? The one with all the books, and the magazine, and the TV show?"
"That's the one." Judi looked at me, her eyes narrowed. "Do you drive, Liz? Of course you do, you live in Palo Alto."
"I have a car--a '69 VW microbus," I replied promptly. "But I took the train today."
"Do you know your way around the City?"
"Tolerably well." I had driven around San Francisco, which in an old car with a clutch is a bit of a challenge. And I had maps, lots of maps. My ostensible reason for joining the Triple A was the age of my bus, which any moment might break down in ways I was unable to fix. Really, however, I joined to get as many maps as I want.
"Would you like to upgrade your position? You can be Hannah's media escort."
I blinked. "Me? Don't you need social graces for that kind of thing?"
Judi smiled grimly. "In Hannah's case, you just need thick skin. She doesn't mince words when she's dissatisfied, and believe me, it takes a lot to satisfy her. Last time she was here, I worked with her myself because none of the available drivers would take her on again, even with the bonus. She and I ... didn't get along." Her lips closed tightly.
"Does she use whips and chains? Water torture? What's so bad?" I pictured Hannah Couch as she appeared on the covers of countless books?Hannah Cooks Italian, Hannah Cooks French, Hannah Cooks Light. She was always beaming a motherly smile, her slightly plump body encased in a sparkling white apron, her silvery hair drawn back in a bun, with a halo of curls around her face. "She looks so nice."
"She is totally obsessive about the details, not just for her books, but for every appearance she does. Maybe that's why she's so successful. At any rate, she likes her entourage to be at her beck and call, do exactly what they're told, and not challenge her authority in any way. Do you think you could do that?"
I thought it would be hard. I was used to being in charge myself, even though I only had myself to be in charge of, and my dog Barker. Barker had not liked being left home alone the previous two days. My neighbor and very good friend Paul Drake had come home at lunch time to let him out for a while, but even so he'd greeted me in the evening with a reproachful air. I knew Paul would take care of him if my job involved longer hours. But neither of them would be happy.
"What kind of commitment are we talking about here?"
Judi gave me an approving look. "I like a person who thinks things through before she jumps in. You would pick up Hannah and whatever entourage she brings along at the airport in"--she glanced at her watch--"one hour and fifty minutes. Her publisher will provide a limo, so you don't have to actually drive. You just make sure she gets to all her events on time; I'll give you a list as soon as her publicist faxes it to me. You get her whatever she needs, whether that's toiletries or tortillas for a cooking demonstration. You make sure everything at the hotel is okay and if it's not, switch her rooms. You prep her for the appearances."
"You mean, makeup and stuff?" My voice came out a high-pitched squeak. "I don't know anything about that."
Judi laughed. "Not makeup. Prep her as in remind her that Ronn Owens likes his guests to be funny, and FanciFoods Marketplace expects a cooking demonstration when she appears there, and stuff like that."
"I don't know anything about that, either." I shook my head. "I don't think I'm woman enough for this job, Judi."
"You could do it, Liz. I've noticed you're a quick study. You mastered the fax machine, didn't you?"
"How did you know I'd never faxed before?"
"Actually, I didn't." She gave me a quizzical look. "I just thought you'd never used that particular fax, which is all you said about it. So you are a quick study. You'd get the hang of it in no time. And did I mention the bonus?" She leaned closer. "Of course the pay for an escort is better than the receptionist right off the bat. Then we offer a hundred-dollar-a-day bonus because Hannah is so difficult. I can arrange to pay that directly to you; the temp agency doesn't have to know about it. In fact, if you want, I can just hire you as one of my workers and you can ditch the temp agency altogether."
"Great. I'll take it." My mouth said those words though my brain still had major doubts. But my reason for doing temp work was to pay my property taxes and homeowners insurance; I didn't like dipping into my savings for anything short of major catastrophe, and my wee retirement account was sacrosanct. It would be nice to pile up a real cushion, as long as I had to do temp work anyway. The whole economy of Silicon Valley was booming in a major way, causing an acute shortage of worker bees. Even my primitive office skills were in demand. The agency with which I was registered found me troublesome, but lately they were desperate, and their desperation coincided with my need. That fortunate alignment of planets might not happen again; it was up to me to make hay while the temporary sun shone.
And that was how I came to be standing at the airport, waiting for Hannah Couch--the Hannah Couch--and her entourage to deplane. I carried a copy of Hannah Hosts Brunch because Judi said that was better than holding up a sign with a celebrity's easily recognizable name on it, which might cause a bit of rumpus at the airport gate.
"But everyone will recognize her anyway. Even I would recognize her."
"You might be surprised," she said cryptically. "I'll stay around until after she's deplaned, so I will know her if you don't. But then I have to cut out, because she hates me, and she'll remember that about five minutes after I say hello."
"If she hates you, why did she call you at the last minute like this? Aren't there other companies that do this?"
Judi shrugged. "She's been through a lot of us already. And perhaps she hates them more, I don't know. I wouldn't even have taken the job, but her publisher sends a lot of work our way, and I didn't want that to stop. It's only a few days. You can put up with aggravation until Friday, right?"
I cleared my throat. "I'm not known for being tactful, Judi. In fact, the reverse."
She didn't look fazed. "Look, the only thing that matters is to do it. I told the publicist we hadn't had time to prep. She understands we're doing them a favor by taking this on at the last minute. Even if it's a disaster, we've come out ahead. And what could go wrong in such a short time?"
"Why is it the last minute? Aren't these things usually planned out very carefully in advance?"
Judi snorted with laughter. Since I had agreed to take on escorting Hannah Couch, her mood had lightened considerably. "The publicist didn't say, but evidently Hannah had a bit of a tantrum. It's been known to happen."
I swallowed. "What if that happens to me?"
"She won't have any media escort." Judi put a hand on my shoulder. "Relax. Just do the best you can. She'll have other people to vent on. She might even be nice to you. One of our drivers thinks she's just wonderful, but that woman is out of town until next month."
So we ended up at the airport. I took a deep breath and tried to remember what Judi had been drilling into me for the past hour. Hannah Couch would have an entourage. Her personal assistant would go with her everywhere. She might bring a food stylist, which would let me off the hook in that department. I hadn't known until then that food could be styled. She might also bring a photographer if she wanted to document a significant part of her tour for her magazine, Hannah's Home. Likewise a reporter or writer to record her pithy words and sayings.
Caught up in the whole thing by then, I found myself on the verge of offering my services as writer. Just in time, I managed to remember one of Liz Sullivan's Rules for Better Living: Never volunteer before you know what you're getting into. I believe it's Rule No. 37. I've kind of lost count since my life's taken a turn for the better in the last year or so.
Having never flown anywhere, I found just being in the airport exotic. I'd been there a few times to pick up my niece Amy and drop her off again, and done the same service for Paul Drake.
My thoughts tended to drift toward Paul lately. We had been friends for a couple of years, but in the past few months we'd gotten much closer. I still had a few reservations about our relationship, but mostly it had been very positive. In fact, if I didn't stop thinking about him while I was supposed to be working, I'd totally lose track of my job.
Uniformed people milled around the tunnel-like opening that led to the plane. Judi Kershay straightened and took a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly in what I assumed was prayer. I held the copy of Hannah's new book more prominently. Looking around at smartly uniformed chauffeurs, I hoped my low-key appearance wouldn't be held against me. My usual thrift-shop office wear consisted of a twill skirt, inexpertly altered by my own loving hands, as the previous owner had been both taller and broader than I, and a white shirt. The thick-soled black loafers had come from Amy, who'd left them at my house after her last visit, complaining that they pinched her toes. They fit me okay, and were even comfortable, but the heavy lug soles made me feel like an escapee from an orthopedic ward.
A clot of people swept toward us. A middle-aged woman, salt-and-pepper hair pulled back severely from her unsmiling face, was in the center of the group. Could that be Hannah Couch? She bore a faint resemblance to the dimply, perfectly coifed woman who popped up regularly on the covers of magazines at the grocery store checkout. Judi Kershay waved, and I held up the book. The woman moved toward us, trailing her group.
Judi stepped forward. "Hannah. How nice to see you again."
Hannah bestowed an automatic smile on her. "Lovely to be back in San Francisco." The smile faded. "Is it Judi?"
"Yes. Fancy you remembering my name." Judi's voice was sweet, but an acid undertone came through. "I'm just here to introduce your escort. Then I must run." She pulled me forward. "This is Liz. She'll be taking care of you while you're in San Francisco.
"Nice to meet you." I gulped and stuck out my hand. I'd never been so close to a famous person before.
Hannah's brown eyes sized me up coolly as she made brief contact with my hand. "Liz. I'm sure we'll work well together."
"I hope so." I spoke to her back. She had already turned away.
Judi winked at me. "Well, I'll be running along. Keep in touch, Liz."
I remembered the cell phone in my knapsack, which had been colonized by so much of Judi's stuff that it was more like her briefcase now. It held a sheaf of papers, the cell phone, petty cash for incidentals, and cab fare to the train station for me whenever I was released from duty that day. The next day I would have to drive from Palo Alto to the City and arrive by seven A.M. That meant an early start at six A.M. it always takes longer in my elderly bus.
Judi walked away, and I watched her, feeling adrift and, for some reason, apprehensive. But I would shake it off. After all, it was only until Friday. What could go wrong in such a short time?
Posted May 6, 2011
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