Butchers Hill LP
A Tess Monaghan Novel
Tess Monaghan's blotter-size appointment calendar was the largest, whitest space she had ever contemplated. Thirty boxes of June days, vast as the Siberian steppes, stretching across her desk until it seemed as if there were room for nothing else. She thought she might go blind staring at it, yet she couldn't tear her gaze away. Thirty perfect squares, all awaiting things to do and places to go, and only today's, the fourth, had a single mark on it:
(SuperFresh: Dog food)
There was also a doodle in the lower left-hand comer, which she thought a pretty good likeness of a man in a wheelchair taking a long roll off a short pier. In terrible taste, of course, unless one recognized the man as her erstwhile employer, Tyner Gray, in which case the drawing took on a droll charm.
She had told Tyner that June wasn't the right time to open her own office, but he had pushed and nagged as usual, promising enough work from his law office to carry her through those early dry months. At her darker moments -- this one would qualify -- she believed all he had really wanted was to free up a desk for his summer clerk.
Well, she had only opened for business last week. One expected things to be a little slow just after Memorial Day weekend. Then again, July and August would be quieter still, as most of Baltimore escaped to Ocean City and the Delaware beaches.
"But not us, Esskay. We're working girls," she told her greyhound, who was doing a fair imitation of a Matisse odalisque from her post on the lumpy mauve sofa. "The Pink Nude." No, "The Black, Hairy Nudewith the Pinkish Belly." A one-time racer, Esskay was now a world-champion napper, putting in about eighteen hours a day between the sofa here and the bed at home. Esskay could afford to sleep. She didn't have overhead.
Overhead -- now there was a wonderfully apt word. Tess was over her head all right, deep in debt and sinking a little more each day. So far, her Quicken accounting program showed only outgo at Tess Monaghan, Inc., technically Keyes Investigations, Inc. The business took its name from a retired city cop whose credential was essential if Tess wanted to operate as a licensed private detective in the state of Maryland. She had never actually met Edward Keyes, who put in the incorporation papers in return for a small percentage of her profits. She hoped he was a patient man.
But now her first prospective client, a Mr. Beale, was due in ten minutes. She suspected he would be pathologically punctual, given that he had literally tried to be here yesterday. He had called just after eight the night before, as if his need for a private detective were a craving that required instant gratification. Tess, who had stayed late in a futile attempt to make her new office look more officelike, wasn't in a position to turn down any client, but she thought it wiser to let this one stew in his own juices overnight. Or unstew, as the case may be. Beale had sounded the slightest bit drunk over the phone, his words pronounced with the elaborate care of the inebriated. Tess had given him a nine-thirty appointment, after much ostentatious fretting about the havoc it would wreak in her busy, busy day. Yes indeed, she had cut her morning workout by almost thirty minutes, rowing her Alden racing shell only as far as Fort McHenry.
Last night, in the almost-summer twilight, the office had looked clean and professional, a few easy touches away from being a first-class operation. Today, with bright sun slanting through the plate glass window, it looked like what it was -- the bottom floor of a too-often-renovated rowhouse in one of the iffier blocks on Butchers Hill. Almost 100 years old, the building had long ago buckled with fatigue, its linoleum floors rippling like tide pools, the doors and the jambs barely on speaking terms. Eggshell paint, even three coats, could only do so much.
If Tess had more money, she might have done better by the old storefront, bringing in real furniture instead of family castoffs. Of course, if she had more money she would have taken a better place in a better neighborhood, a bonafide office with wooden floors, exposed brick walls, maybe a harbor view. In nicer surroundings, her junk could have achieved funk status. Here, it was just junk.
Her Aunt Kitty's office-warming gift of framed family photographs, seemingly so whimsical and inspired, only made things worse. What type of businesswoman had a tinted photograph of herself smeared with chocolate, holding fast to the neck of a coin-operated flying rabbit while her grandmother tried to pry her off? Impulsively, Tess yanked this off the wall, only to be reminded that the enlarged photo hid the small wall safe, where her gun rested in solitary confinement. Petty cash would be housed there, too, as soon as she had some.
A hand rapped at the door, with such force it sounded as if it might crash through the glass pane at its center. Eager-beaver Beale, ten minutes early by the neon "It's Time for a Haircut" barbershop clock that hung on the wall, another contribution from her aunt. "Come in," Tess shouted over her shoulder, looking around quickly to see if there was anything else she could hang over the safe. The doorknob rattled impatiently, reminding her that she kept it locked, a sad but necessary precaution in Butchers Hill.
"Right there," she said, placing the picture back on the wall. She could find something more appropriate later. Poker-playing dogs were always nice.
"Miss Monaghan?" Butchers Hill LP
A Tess Monaghan Novel
. Copyright © by Laura Lippman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.