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Digging Up TroubleA Nina Quinn Mystery
By Heather Webber
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Heather Webber
All right reserved.
Thou, Nina Colette Ceceri Quinn, shall not hire any more unreliable ex-cons.
Not an easy commandment, to say the least, since I really couldn't tell who was reliable and who wasn't until they started working for me. I frowned. Talk about a Catch-22.
The trick was weeding out the good from the bad. As I looked around my office conference room, I realized I'd certainly found a few good ones in Kit Pipe, Deanna Parks, Marty Johnson, and Coby Fowler. And of course Tam Oliver, who sat in her throne chair in the reception area pretending she wasn't eavesdropping.
My business, Taken by Surprise, Garden Designs, had thrived over the last few years because of their hard work. And getting any specialized landscaping business to thrive in this day and age was notable, but here in small-town Freedom, Ohio, it was a miracle. This was middle-class country, the heart of the Midwest, and I charged upper-class prices for my day-in, day-out yard makeovers.
It was the bad experiences with my rap-sheeted workers that made me question my hiring practices. Currently, one worker in particular.
"So, no one's seen him?" I asked, looking down the long rectangular table. It was littered with soda cans, coffee cups, and the sad remains of two dozen Krispy Kremes.
"Not since he left yesterday afternoon." Deanna twirled a pencil like a baton. "Said he had an appointment he couldn't miss. And he was all dolled up too. I smelled him coming through a closed door."
The "he" in question was Jean-Claude Reaux, who tended to wear too much cologne, and who was currently MIA. He'd worked for me three years.
He'd started out as a laborer, but I soon noticed he had an uncanny instinct for finding unique items and fabrics to go with my designs. He still did labor -- we all did -- but now he had a lot more input on these design meetings.
Like the one we were in now.
Like the one he hadn't shown up for.
"We can't wait much longer," Kit put in. Kit was my right-hand man.
I found myself staring at him. Not because he was six-foot-five, 250 pounds. Or that his eyes had been tattooed with dark liner sometime in the late eighties. It was because I couldn't get used to the sight of him with hair.
Hair, of all things.
This from a man who practically spit-shined the skull tattoo on his bald head. The tattoo now covered with downy soft-looking brown fuzz.
"Stop staring," he said.
"I can't help it."
He growled. "Try."
"I kind of like it," Deanna said.
Lord, was she blushing? I groaned. I didn't need Deanna having a crush on Kit. Interoffice romances were somewhat prohibited (I'd been known to bend the rules), but that wasn't why. It was because I really didn't want to see anything happen to Deanna -- Kit's live-in girlfriend, Daisy, was the jealous type.
Or so I'd heard. No one had ever seen her. Not even once.
Which certainly piqued my nosiness.
"Me too," Coby singsonged, and batted his eyelashes.
Kit's eyes narrowed. In a dangerous whisper he said, "See what you did?"
"Me?" I asked. "What did I do?"
"Oh for heaven's sake. Sue me." At Kit's growl, I rushed on. "So, where were we?"
"Staring." Deanna's cheeks were still rosy.
Kit crushed a Mountain Dew can.
I ignored him and riffled through the papers in the file in front of me. "No, before that."
"Jean-Claude," Marty supplied, reaching for another Krispy Kreme.
"This isn't the first time he's been a no-show," Kit reminded.
No, it wasn't. So far this month, Jean-Claude had come in late twice and hadn't bothered to show at all three times. Four if you counted today.
Not a good track record. Especially considering we were only two weeks into July.
Any sane boss would fire him.
Unfortunately, I'd come to recognize in my twenty-nine years that I leaned to the right side of normal.
"No one knows what he's up to?" I asked, looking for some explanation. "Marty?"
"Me?" he mumbled over a mouth full of glazed doughnut.
The phone rang in the front room, and I heard Tam answer it. Maybe it was Jean-Claude? Calling in? With a doozy of an excuse?
Because if he didn't have a doozy of an excuse, I really would have to fire him. Sooner or later.
Sooner probably if Kit's glare was any indication.
Inwardly I groaned. I hated firing people.
Tam stuck her head in the door. "Nina?"
I looked up, hopeful. "Is that Jean-Claude?"
She shook her head, her tight curls not budging. "No. It's Lindsey Lockhart. She said she's running late and won't be able to make it until ten. Is that okay?"
My hands immediately turned damp. "Yeah. That's fine. We're running behind here anyway."
"Okay." She turned slowly and walked away, her belly leading. Tam was due in five weeks, and I didn't know what I was going to do without her while she was on maternity leave.
I thought back to my newest commandment and wondered if I should hire a temp through a reputable agency. Only that might ruffle Ana's feathers. My cousin Ana Bertoli was a probation officer who sent me her probationers when someone had trouble finding a job or if I needed a new hire.
Ana would live if I hired a temp. I'd live too.
"Jean-Claude," Kit reminded me when I looked down at my file.
Deanna twirled her pencil baton. "I can take over his workload for tomorrow's makeover."
"I can pitch in too," Marty chimed in, picking doughnut crumbs from the napkin in front of him with dark fingers.
"Me too," Coby offered.
I looked at Kit. "It's a given," he said.
And it was. I could count on Kit for anything. That's why I had to be careful with this newest commandment. I had hired a lot of great people over the years, criminal records and all.
Excerpted from Digging Up Trouble by Heather Webber Copyright © 2006 by Heather Webber. Excerpted by permission.
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