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At 11:37 P.M. the interior of Pier 24 1/2 lay in darkness broken only by a few badly placed security lights. The air was cold and damp, redolent of brine and creosote. Rain hammered the flat roof, and directly above it on the span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a truck's gears ground. Another vehicle backfired, sounding like gunshots.
I paused on the iron catwalk outside my office, watching and listening, my senses sharpened as they always were when I worked alone here at night. The old pier's security was easily breached, there were many places for an intruder to hide, and the waterfront, while undergoing a renaissance these days, was still a potentially dangerous place. Given the right combination of circumstances, most places in this city could be dangerous.
No one was visible on the catwalks that crossed over to the opposite suites of offices; no light seeped through the cracks around the doors. The ironwork threw an intricate pattern of shadows on the concrete floor below, where we tenants parked our cars. After a moment I moved along the catwalk toward the office of Ted Smalley, the efficient and somewhat dictatorial man who keeps both my agency and Altman & Zahn, Attorneys-at-Law, functioning smoothly. The sound of my footsteps echoed off the high ceiling and exposed girders.
A sudden rush of air, and something flew at my head. Reflexively I threw up an arm; my fingers grazed thin membrane and bone.
Jesus Christ, a bat!
Heart pounding, I ran into Ted's office, slammed the door and leaned against it, clutching the files I carried.
"McCone," I gasped aloud,"you've faced down armed criminals without blinking. Why the hell're you running from a little bat that's probably cowering in the rafters by now?"
I knew the answer, of course: the encounter with the bat had tapped into my old phobia of birds—one I thought I'd long before conquered. Apparently not, though, at least not when I was already nursing a low-level depression and edginess, brought on by the wet and stormy weather that had persisted with scarcely a break since the day after Christmas.
A low-wattage lamp burned on Ted's desk. I used its light to scribble a note, which I then stuffed under the rubber band holding the files together. They contained job applications, background checks, and turndown letters for three candidates I'd recently interviewed. Two of the applicants had been excellent, and my note to Ted asked that he keep the files active but early last week my friend Craig Morland had finally accepted the position I'd offered him last December. Craig, a former FBI field agent, was just the man McCone nvestigations needed; his connections from fifteen-plus years with the Bureau had already proved invaluable to me.
Back on the catwalk, I strode fearlessly toward the stairway. No bat was going to intimidate me.
I froze at the top of the stairway, trying to pinpoint the source of the shout, then dropped down behind the railing and peered through it.
"Hey, Sharon, how come you're hiding from me?"
I let my breath out slowly, recognizing the Australian accent of Glenna Stanleigh, a documentary filmmaker who rented the ground-floor suite next to the pier's entrance. Feeling both foolish and angry, I straightened.
"For God's sake, Glenna! I damn near died of fright "
"You? No way." She came out from behind her Ford Bronco—a petite woman with long, light brown curls and huge, lamplike gray eyes. "Seriously, I am sorry. I wasn't thinking."
"No permanent harm done." I started down.
"I wouldn't've shouted like that," Glema added, "but I've been anxious to see you. To tell you about a bizarre experience I had last weekend "
She nodded, looking exceptionally solemn for one with a perpetually sunny disposition. When I first met Glenna, I'd found her cheeriness suspect; nobody could possibly be that upbeat—to say nothing of that nice—all the time. But as I got to know her better I realized how genuine she was, and we became friends of a sort. I often sought her out when I was feeling low, and this past rainy month I'd spent a fair amount of time drinking tea with her in her office.
She said, "It's kind of a long story, but I think the sooner you know, the better. Would you like some brandy? I've a leftover Christmas bottle in my desk."
Brandy sounded perfect. "Lead me to it."
While Glenna searched her editing room for glasses, I sat in one of the low- slung canvas chairs in her office and listened to the rain splatter against the high arched window overlooking the Embarcadero. Across the waterfront boulevard, Hills Plaza—a former coffee mill converted to resident tial and commercial use—was largely dark; the globes of the old-fashioned streetlights along the Muni tracks glowed, highlighting the fronds of the recently planted palm trees. I caught my own reflection in the glass and glanced away, thinking I looked tired.
There was a smashing noise in the editing room, and Glenna exclaimed, "Damn!"
"You all right?"
"I am, but that brandy snifter isn't."
I smiled. The glass had probably been perched precariously, if the editing room contained as much chaos as the office. Framed posters for Glenna's documentaries, on such diverse subjects as Appalachian folk medicine and the ecology of the Great Barrier Reef, leaned at intervals along the walls, where they'd been waiting to be hung for as long as I'd known her.
Glenna returned, a trifle flushed and carrying two plastic tumblers. She poured the brandy, handed one to me, and sat in the matching chair. "Yes, it's a mess in there too," she said, "which is why I broke the last of my snifters. I plan to do something about it one of these days. Or years."
"More likely years."
"You know me—I'm hopeless." But she grinned cheerfully, quite content with her slothfulness. "So what're you doing here this late?"
I shrugged, sipping the brandy. "Paperwork."
"You can't find time for it during business hours?"
"Not unless I chain myself to the desk—and I established the agency to keep from being confined to the office. Besides, I spent most of the afternoon helping Ted sort out what brand of new copier to buy. Leave it to him to suffer a totally uncharacteristic fit of indecision when I have a full in-box. He's been acting weird; it's hell when you can't rely on your most dependable employee."
"Lord, you sound like me: be your own boss and end up working harder and longer than you ever did for anybody else."
"Right." Still, I didn't regret the decision. McCone Investigations was turning a profit and growing; we were steadily earning a reputation for solid, intelligent, reliable work.
"So," I said to Glenna, "what's this bizarre experience you can't wait to tell me about?"
Her small face grew solemn again. "Well, you know that I'm on the board of the Bay Area Film Council?"
"Saturday night we held this positively smashing fundraiser at the Russian Hill penthouse of one of our patrons. Cocktail party for hundreds. The big money came out in droves. Heavy security, of course, and special name tags so none of the riffraff could sneak in. I networked madly, talking up that Hawaiian documentary I want to do, and somebody told me that a member of the Dillingham family—they're big in construction in the Islands—was in the room where they'd got the buffet set up. So I took myself there and came face to face with a woman wearing a familiar name tag." Glenna paused dramatically.
"Who was it?"
"I am not kidding, Sharon. A woman I'd never seen before in my life was wearing a tag that said `Sharon McCone.'"
"My God. Did you speak with her?"
"Yes. I went over and asked her if she was the well-known private investigator. She said she was, so I decided to play along for a while, see what I could find out. She knew a lot about you."
I felt a prickle of unease. "Such as?"
"Mainly professional stuff. Nothing she couldn't have gotten from the papers or from that interview in People after the Diplo-bomber case."
Agreeing to the People interview was one of my worst mistakes; the reporter had made me sound more macho than Dirty Harry, and in the accompanying photograph I looked like someone Harry himself wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.
"But," Glenna added, "she also knew things that I don't recall seeing in print. Such as what kind of plane you fly, who it belongs to, and what he is to you."
"She knew about Ripinsky? Hy Ripinsky, my very significant other and the owner of Citabria 77289.
"She did. And she mentioned your cottage. She called it name ... Touchstone?"
I nodded, very uneasy now. The small stone cottage on the Mendocino coast, which Hy and I jointly owned, was our refuge when the world became too much for us. We rare spoke of it by name to others, and we invited only close friends there.
"Did she say anything about the house we're going to build on the property?"
"Then her information's not completely up to date. So you played along for a while . .
"And then called her on it. I told her I had my office here in the pier and knew you. At first she didn't believe me an tried to bluff her way out off it Then she admitted that she'd been given a ticket to the benefit by a friend who couldn't attend, and she felt outclassed by all the big names and rich people. So she decided to make herself important by impersonating you."
"If impersonating me is her way of achieving import the woman's in serious need of a life."
"In serious need of something. Her curiosity about you struck me as unnatural. She peppered me with questions which, of course, I declined to answer. And then the camera woman I generally use came up and said a potential backer for the Hawaiian project wanted to meet me, and I never saw the bogus McCone again."
"I don't like this one bit. What if she'd gotten drunk and made a spectacle of herself? I have a hard enough time not making a spectacle of myself— Cold sober." "Well, if it'll ease your mind any, she was well behaved and attractive. Your reputation's untarnished, at least in the film community.
"What did she look like?"
"Your body type. Nice features, the most distinctive being large eyes and a mouth that tipped down at the corners. Black hair like yours, in a very similar shoulder-length style. Expensive dress—teal-blue silk knit, clingy."
"And I don't suppose you were able to get her real name?"
"I asked; she sidestepped the question. What d'you think of this?"
"A silly prank, probably nothing more than what she said it was. No harm done, and yet ..."
"Yes," Glenna said, "and yet. That's exactly why I thought you should know about her."
The red digits on my clock radio told me that only six minutes had passed since I last checked the time. I pulled my down comforter higher, snuggled my head deep into the pillows, and shut my eyes. In seconds they popped open. I stared at the ceiling, as a last resort, I'd bore myself to sleep.
Cold tonight, and the sheets had felt damp when I first crawled into bed. Into an empty bed, as Hy was at his ranch in Mono County. He'd vowed not to budge from there until he finished briefing himself for an upcoming fact-finding trip to various South American clients of Renshaw and Kessell International, the corporate security firm in which he was a partner. Or until Valentine's Day, Friday.
Not that either of us was sentimental about February 14. In fact, we agreed that it was chiefly a conspiracy among the purveyors of greeting cards, candy, and flowers. The first year we were together we'd felt honor bound to observe the day, and had ended up giving each other the exact same risque card. The next year he'd been out of the country and sent flowers—coals to Newcastle, since a single rose from him had arrived without fail at my office every Tuesday morning since we'd met. Finally we gave up and took to exchanging cards and gifts whenever the spirit moved us, rather than confining romance to a single day.
However, my friend and operative Rae Kelleher and my former brother-in-law Ricky Savage were still in the throes of romantic delirium, having only been together since the previous summer, and they were celebrating their first Valentines Day in style. They'd invited a bunch of us to an evening that would begin with cocktails at Palomino in Hills Plaza, progress to one of the city's newest and best restaurants for dinner, and culminate in a flurry of nightclubbing all over town. Dressing up and riding in a limo and ordering extravagantly—all of it on Ricky's credit card, where it wouldn't much as make a dent in the country-and- western superstar's finances—was more than even Hy and I could resist. An then we'd have the weekend to recuperate before he left for South America on Sunday night.
I tried to concentrate on the weekend's prospects, but my earlier conversation with Glenna Stanleigh kept overriding other thoughts. A woman had impersonated me at a party. A woman who knew private details of my life, who exhibited an unnatural interest in me.
Who was she?
Determinedly I channeled my mind to work. Two new cases today, both of them premaritals—singles wanting to investigate the people they were seeing. I'd noticed an upsurge in that type of job over the past year, and while I wasn't completely comfortable with many of the cases, I couldn't afford to pass up the business.
The first client, Jeffrey Stoddard, said that his "old lady" took a lot of business trips, and he was pretty sure she was playing around on him while on the road; they were supposed to get married next month, but if what he suspected was true, the wedding would be off. The second client, Bea Allen, a stockbroker, was seeriously considering a marriage proposal, but before she said yes, she wanted a complete background workup on her suitor; he claimed to be heir to a fortune, but he was so cheap that she found the claim suspect. He might be after her money, in which case she'd probably marry him anyway but insist on a prenuptial agreement.
Every week we were hired for at least one premarital—and no wonder, considering the paranoid nature of contemporary society. Sadly, in many situations the paranoia is justified; negotiating the tricky maze of human relationships is at best a scary business. We prey on each other: for money, status, power, and sex. We lie to those closest to us: about our backgrounds, prospects, dreams, and sexual histories. The latter is the most frightening of all; with the spread of AIDS, one evening of carelessness can destroy our lives.
So in the end we eavesdrop and follow—or we hire agencies like mine to do our dirty work.
Yeah, McCone, that's what's making you stare at the ceiling at—now—4:34 in the morning. Paranoia about a woman at a party whose name tag claimed she was you.
Posted November 18, 2010
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