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I stood at a gate in the San Francisco Airport, slightly behind Judi Kershay, my employer of the moment. I was holding a copy of Hannah Couch's latest book on entertaining, in which she not only told how to bring home the bacon and cook it up in a pan, but how to serve it beautifully to thirty people.
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 has 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 JudiKershay to erupt 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 her 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 lunchtime 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 Fanci-Foods 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 by 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.