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The phone rang, giving Val LeRoy a start. If it rang more than once or twice a day at Diamond Investigations, maybe she'd get used to its high-pitched jangle.
She swallowed the last bite of her lunchtime tuna-with-chutney sandwich while checking the caller ID. No name, but a 219 area code. She had been trying to memorize different area codesafter all, a phone was a private investigator's most powerful tool. She wasn't a P.I. yet, but when the day came, she wanted to be a knowledge bank in stilettos.
This incoming call was from Michigan? No, Indiana. As she reached for the receiver, she noticed a glob of papaya chutney on her fingers.
Another jangling ring.
She didn't want to sticky up the phone with her gooey fingers, but Jayne Diamond, her boss, insisted Val always answer using the handset, never putting the phone on speaker, to maintain the confidentiality of conversations. Rules, rules, rules. That woman had more than a reform school. Val had to remind herself constantly that being mentored by one of the best investigators in Las Vegas was worth all the restrictions.
Keeping in mind the confidentiality of the call, she glanced through the picture window next to the agency's front door, which offered a view of their business parking lot and the sidewalk beyond. Their office was a renovated corner bungalow on a street with other similar bungalows. Not a high-traffic area. Although they sometimes had walkins, nobody was headed toward the agency on foot, and the only car in the lot was Jayne's shiny Mazda Miata.
She glanced at Jayne's office door. Closed.
Val rapped the speaker button with her knuckle.
"Diamond Investigations," she answered softly, plucking a tissue from the box on her desk.
"Uh, are you a private investigator?" The man's voice was low, hesitant.
"Yes." Technically an apprentice, but Jayne didn't want her saying that to potential clients. So Val could answer yes to such a question, but the truth was she'd done little else other than screen calls these first few months of her internship.
"I think my wife's having an affair."
Have mercy, a brokenhearted tale was on its way. She wiped her fingers with the tissue. "I'm sorry to hear that. What's your name, sir?"
"George. My wife's name is Sandy." He cleared his throat. "She started acting different about four months ago in April, around our anniversary doing things like walking into the other room to answer her cell, losing weight, buying new clothes. I suppose I coulda justified some of that, but when she started working later and later."
Val watched a bright orange angelfish dart around rocks in the aquarium against the far wall, guessing what was coming nextSandy was traveling to Las Vegas for A, a business trip; B, to visit family; C, to see old friends .
"Anyhoo " He blew out a puff of breath. "Sandy is flying to Las Vegas later next weekon Friday, August sixteenfor a reunion some kind of hookup with her cheerleader buddies from high school."
Or another kind of hookup.
"And." His voice grew thin. "I was wondering if." A P.I. could follow Sandy while she's in Sin City. "You could follow her?"
"We offer such services," she affirmed. Val couldn't wait for the day when she could just say yes and take on a case. But for now, she only passed on callers' information to Jayne, who would make the final decision.
"I know the hotel my wife will be at.. she mentioned renting a Dodge Charger."
Ever since meeting her best pal, Cammie, a real-life P.I., a year ago, and hearing her stories about sitting on stakeouts, digging through trash to find evidence, interviewing witnesses to crimes, Val wanted nothing more than to be a private eye, too. But first, she needed to earn a Nevada license, which required logging ten thousand hours of investigative experience. After that, the plan had been for Val to become a student Watson to Cammie's Sherlock in their own kick-ass, all-girl Las Vegas agency.
Val had to make adjustments to the plan when Cammie found true love and moved to Denver, but she hadn't given up.
Jayne's door creaked open, followed by the tap-tap of her sensible heels across the hardwood floor.
Which stopped abruptly at Val's desk.
" I could describe what clothes she'll be bringing, jewelry, too, although " George sniffed loudly. "I guess she might not be wearing her wedding ring."
Val looked up at her boss, a trim sixtysomething with cut-glass cheekbones and gray-blue eyes that always seemed to carry within them a withering understanding of the human condition.
Jayne shot one of those withering looks at the phone, back to Val.
Who shrugged apologetically. She could almost hear another "you can't always do things your way" lecture.
"I had that ring made special for her " George stifled a sob.
Jayne mouthed a silent "no" while plucking a ballpoint pen from the breast pocket of her linen blazer, the same bloodless color as her short, bobbed hair. The blazer used to fit her better before she started losing weight recently.
Jayne jotted something on a notepad on the desk and held it up for Val to read: no infidelity cases.
Val nodded, waiting for George to calm down.
"Unfortunately," she said gently, "we're currently not accepting infidelity cases."
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, during which the hum of the aquarium pump filled the room, Val added, "Let me give you the number of another P.I. who might be able to help you."
After looking up the information on her computer, she gave him the number and ended the call.
Then she rolled her gaze up to Jayne's.
"You cannot always do things your way," the older woman began, arching a pale eyebrow. "Although I admire your strength of will and creativity" she glanced at Val's purple-streaked black hair, which today she'd knotted into a loose chignon "you have a habit of forgetting that investigations are not always about autonomy. Often you must work closely with people. Even if you disagree with them or believe you have a more advantageous idea, it would behoove you to treat others' suggestions with respect."
Sometimes she wondered why Jayne always made it sound as though Val were interacting unbehoovingly with some nameless third party and not Jayne herself. But then, her boss had a way of distancing herself, as though she was always observing the world rather than living in it.
"Yes, indeed," Val agreed, "I knew better than to put that call on speaker. Although, if you don't mind my adding a side note, nobody was in the room with me, so it wasn't like I was broadcasting the poor man's broken heart to strangers."
A look that might pass for amusement flittered across the older woman's face. "Sometimes I wonder if we should post my rules alongside your side notes."
The older woman reminded Val of the English actress Helen Mirrenformidable, sophisticated, articulate. But whereas the actress had played her share of industrial-strength women in the movies, Jayne was the real deal. In a Las Vegas Sun interview three months ago, a reporter had referred to her as "one of the best sleuths in Sin City," and that "a new P.I. earning Jayne's Diamond Grade designation is like a restaurant earning a Michelin star rating."
After reading that Sun article, there was only one P.I. Val wanted to be her mentorJayne Diamond.
Who now stood in front of her, lips pursed in thought. "What else is on your mind?"
"Well, these landline phones are" older than dirt "quite antiquated. Plus, cradling a jumbo-size receiver under my chin while taking notes, looking up information on the computer and talking is like juggling pancakeshard to keep a grip on everything. It would make so much more sense if we used cell phones."
"Cell phones have speakers, too. The point is not landline versus mobile, it is about confidentiality."
"Also " She smiled, but it looked more like a grimace. "I've reached the conclusion that Diamond Investigations needs to reduce the number of cases it accepts. Starting today, we no longer accept infidelity cases, except if they are part of an investigation that we are already conducting for a law firm."
"But.I thought infidelity investigations were steady business for a P.I. agency. Although, of course, we don't accept honey traps."
When she realized she wanted to be a private eye, Val started religiously watching the reality TV show Honey Catchers to learn about the business. It featured hot-looking private eyes, male and female, whom people hired to set "honey traps" to test their lovers' fidelity. The P.I., dressed in some sexy outfit rigged with a covert camera, would "accidentally" run into the lover, usually at a bar, and strike up a conversation. Eventually, the P.I. asked for a phone number, a date or even got a little frisky on the spot.
Afterward, the P.I. would show the video to the client. Honey Catchers never showed lovers turning down phone numbers or sexual advances. Which made for a lot of high drama at the end of the shows as the cheated upon confronted the cheater.
"Infidelity investigations can be lucrative, certainly, but we have never conducted honey traps."
"I know it's just that I don't see the harm in accepting those cases as long as we keep them legal." Something in Jayne's faceexhaustion? Distress?gave Val pause. "We don't need to do a mentoring session right now if you're tired."
Jayne eased into one of the high-back wooden guest chairs that faced Val's desk. Through the window blinds, hazy sunlight striped the side of her face, highlighting fine lines around her mouth and eyes. "These moments always count, dear."
She couldn't think of a single time that Jayne had uttered an endearment, for Val or anyone else.
"Legal," Jayne repeated. She reflected on that for a moment. "Some agencies seem to believe that inducing the behavior a P.I. should be attempting to objectively document is acceptable. It is not. If a law enforcement officer behaved in such a manner, it would be called entrapment."
"On some reality cop shows, I've seen female cops dress like hookers and lure men, who are then arrested for soliciting prostitution."
"But those men, when they withdraw their billfolds to pay, exhibit prior predispositions. Honey traps are not telling of the subject's predisposition. A lawyer could easily attack such frivolous evidence in court."
As Jayne pushed a wisp of hair off her forehead, Val noticed her hand shook slightly. But she knew not to ask questions because Jayne didn't like to talk about herself.
Val had learned that well in June, the first time she walked into Diamond Investigations. She had barely shut the door before Jayne made it clear that Val had already broken a ruleclearly stated on the agency websitethat people seeking internships were to mail their resumes, not show up in person. Besides, she had curtly added, she was on her way out.
When she swung her purse over her shoulder, the bag knocked a figurine off a side table. Val dived, catching it before it smashed into pieces on the floor.
As she'd stared at the miniature crystal figuretwo birds perched side by side on a watering bowlshe swore she felt something faint, like a light passing through her. Although maybe what she experienced had more to do with the tender, yet sad, look on her future boss's face. For a moment, she and Jayne had shared concern and relief that the crystal birds hadn't hit the floor and shattered.
After Jayne gently placed the figurine on the top shelf of the bookcasewhere it remained to this dayshe asked Val why she wanted to be a private investigator. She had answered that she worked well alone, liked solving puzzles and wanted to help people.
Jayne had actually laughed. "If you can accept that this business is often driven by greed, revenge and self-preservation," she said, "you will be better off. Shall we start your internship next Monday?"
And here they were, two months later, having yet another of their question-and-answer sessions.
Jayne stood, picked up her purse. "I will be gone the remainder of the afternoon." After a moment of deliberation, she added, "I have changed my mind. For the time being, we are not accepting any new cases until I finalize some cases I'm working on. Are you still commuting by bus?"
"Yes." Ever since the brakes and fuel pump went south on Val's fifteen-year-old Toyota, she had been relying on mass transit. "Mornings are okay, but after five those buses are slower than a bread wagon with biscuit wheels."
Jayne blinked. "I have never heard that expression."
"Means they're slow."
That pained smile again. "Feel free to close at four. See you tomorrow."
She watched the older woman leave, not believing that line about finalizing other cases. When Val first started here, the agency carried ten to twelve cases, easy. Currently there were three open cases, two of which were on hold while lawyers decided whether to go to trial. The third involved pulling court records, which took an hour or two. If anything, the agency needed more cases.
No, Jayne was hiding something. From the recent tiredness in her face and the weight loss, Val wondered what her boss was going through. A death in the family? A financial setback?
She glanced at the crystal figurine. This small object had always seemed too fragile in an office furnished with a heavy wooden desk, bookcases, a grandfather clock and scuffed hardwood floors. The birds obviously held deep meaning. Shame Jayne didn't take it home with her, both for its safekeeping and her own comfort.
Val looked at the picture of her nanny on the corner of the desk. Her grandmothersmiling, her white hair freshly curled, wearing her favorite blue dressstood in front of her tiny antiques shop, Back in Time Antiques, on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. When Val was growing up, she had commuted with Nanny to the shop from their house in the Ninth Ward, the only home Val had ever known before Katrina.
She had brought the photo to work maybe for the same reason Jayne kept the figurine here. Some objects carried too many memories to keep at home, where your mind could easily wander to the past, to what was lost and never found again.