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Authors: Marcia Muller

Someone Always Knows

BOOK: Someone Always Knows
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For Bill, with love

 

11:12 a.m.

I
t's awfully different from the artist's rendering,” I whispered to my nephew Mick Savage.

He and I and several of my staff were standing at the spacious entrance to the recently remodeled McCone & Ripinsky building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco's financial district. Workmen had just removed the tarps from a sculpture we'd commissioned—at great cost—from the world-renowned artist Flavio St. John.

“What do you suppose Flavio's intention was?” Julia Rafael had recently been dating a prominent Latino painter and was into all things artistic.

“He needed a cure for a hangover,” Patrick Neilan offered, scratching at his thatch of red hair.

“Don't be facetious,” I said. “What is it supposed to be?”

“Looks like clamshells.” This from our office manager, Ted Smalley. “A cheap concrete clamshell fused to a larger fake gold one. Flavio must've been hungry for seafood the day he came up with the design.”

The workmen with the tarps seemed anxious to pack up and go. A small crowd had gathered, blocking their trucks.

“Where
is
Flavio?” I asked.

“Rome,” Patrick said. “He had urgent business there, so I drove him to the airport the other night.”

“Urgent business? Without letting me know he was leaving? More likely he was escaping the scene of the crime—with our check in his wallet. I'm putting a stop on it.”

“Ma'am,” a gentleman in the growing crowd said, “can you explain why you people elected to put such an eyesore on your beautifully restored granite building?”

“Well,” I began, “we thought…the concept is as—”

“As ugly as my aunt Stella Sue's butt.”

That came from my husband, standing on the edge of the crowd: tall, lean in his tight jeans, with the brim of his cowboy hat pulled down over his roughly hewn face. People erupted into laughter at his remark.

Trying not to laugh myself, I said, “The gentleman who just spoke is my partner and co-owner of the building, so I suppose he has a right to express his opinion.” I shot Hy a dark look and added, “And you don't have an aunt Stella Sue.”

He shrugged.

“You may as well come up here and say a few words.”

He shouldered through the crowd.

“Actually, folks, I was just joking. The designer of this dramatic entrance, Flavio St. John, is one of the finest sculptors in the world. His talents in any form of sculpting surpass even those of the late Beniamino Bufano, who, except for that horror of a spire that looks like a totem pole at Timber Cove Inn up the coast, did all of us Californians proud.”

I stepped on Hy's foot—hard.

He added, “Apparently our clamshells are Flavio's equivalent of Bufano's totem pole.”

Then, mercifully, he shut up.

“Thanks for coming!” I called to the crowd, and turned to glare at Hy.

He backed up, holding his hands out defensively. “What could I say? It's a piece of shit.”

“Of course it is.” I took his arm and hustled him toward the door.

“We ought to sue that rat-faced little bastard,” he added.

“Keep your voice down.”

“Crappy concrete and bogus gold that look like clamshells with chipped edges are
not
the way to inaugurate our new partnership.”

“We'll do something about it.”

“What? There's probably some goddamn clause in our contract with him that says we can't alter it without his permission.”

“Then it'll just have to meet with an accident. A
terrible
accident.”

“McCone, I love the way you think,” he said as we entered the building.

Maybe I was just used to downscale, but many times when I came through the door of the high-security building—into the express line, where all the guards knew me—I felt as if I were sneaking in under false pretenses. The offices seemed to demand that I spiff up my public image: dress more stylishly, use more artfully applied makeup, and for Christ's sake get those nails done!

All this paranoid hoopla induced by a
building
! One owned by my husband's company and, since we'd merged our firms, by me too.

We entered the reception area on the second floor, and I spotted a freshly opened bottle of champagne and several glasses on the desk. I looked at my watch: it was after noon. Why not? I needed a drink.

In the area beyond the desk, staff members were milling around, their faces studies in shock and disbelief. Most were imbibing wine in quantity. In spite of my outrage over Flavio St. John's ridiculous sculpture, I couldn't help but take pleasure in seeing all the people—new hires, old-timers, and friends.

Since the merger, there had been quite a few changes: Hy and I consulted on all cases together. Mick had hired more tech people, many of whose activities I couldn't fathom; they populated the third floor below us. Ted had also hired a large support staff, some of whom I suspected were practically living in the building—at least I'd seen many sleeping bags, duffels, and clothing on hangers in the second-floor hallways. Sometimes in the dark hours of the morning I worried about the city finding us out and trying to levy a hotel tax or maybe penalize us for violating some ordinance. They'd been closing in on such home-sharing services as Airbnb and VRBO. But recently our rate of closed cases had climbed steadily, and our employees were compensated well enough that they could relocate if necessary. So who was I to complain about a few squatters?

I accepted a glass of champagne from Ted and tapped on the desk. Everyone quieted and turned to me. I toasted them. “Here's to Italian sculpture, twenty-first-century style.”

Many laughed, but others—especially those who had been involved with the designer of the new façade—looked as if they'd rather be at their desks preparing their résumés.

“Come on,” I said, “it's not the end of the world. We made some mistakes and were too trusting, that's all.”

Ted moaned, “Why did we allow Flavio to keep his ‘art' covered up until today? Why didn't we sneak looks at it instead of unveiling for everybody to see?”

“Because we were caught up in the mystique—which Flavio wove all too well—of ‘great artists must be allowed to create in private.'”

“At least there weren't any press people there,” Patrick said. “They'd be accusing us of destroying a perfectly beautiful building.”

“Uh,” Ted said, “there was one representative of the press—”

“Who?” I asked.

“Jill Starkey.”

Oh, shit!

Starkey was a former
Chronicle
reporter and owner/editor/sole employee of a dreadful right-wing rag called
The Other Shoe
. A terrible little troll—oh, I'd pay in my next life for thinking such things, assuming there was a next one, but right now I didn't care—Starkey had frizzy brown hair and a pinched lopsided smile, and hated most things (except for ice cream, and she wasn't too sure about that). One of the chief objects of her hatred was me.

I've never understood what I did to deserve such venom. When she was at the
Chron
, I'd been cordial to her, even though I hadn't really liked her. But since she'd been dismissed from the major paper for causing a libel suit that forced them to settle a large amount of money on the plaintiff, she'd found herself an investor and set up her own publication. Then the gloves had come off. Over and over she'd aimed journalistic jabs and punches at me that I'd learned to duck or roll with. It was either that or throw her off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Thank God
The Other Shoe
was a weekly; the next issue wouldn't come out till Friday.

Ted said, “You okay, Shar?”

“Yeah, just thinking about how much I dislike Jill Starkey.”

“Me too. She's homophobic.”

“I know. How does she find enough people in a city like this who will read her crap?”

“As your mother would say, there's a top for every box.”

I smiled at the garbled expression. My mother has a new one almost every day. Sometimes I think she does it on purpose.

“Seriously, though, we've got to do something about that blight on the building's façade. This is one of the classics of its era.”

Built in 1932, of carefully selected slabs of Vermont granite, the four-story office building has large float windows (as they called plate glass back then) that allow sun and moon and starshine to brighten its offices and corridors. The floors are made of beautifully tessellated hardwood, except on our fourth level, where a massive leak has necessitated carpeting. We lease the ground floor to stylish shops—leather goods, a high-end women's shoe store, the legendary Angie's Deli, and a sweetshop that I've been known to go around the block to avoid—and reserve two, three, four, and the roof garden for our growing operation. The real heart of McCone & Ripinsky is the fourth floor and the roof garden.

Fourth floor: picture a big, well-furnished waiting room with soft leather chairs and sofas, and rosewood tables covered with a wide variety of periodicals. Coffee, tea, you-name-it provided; drinks too if the client insists. I think we stocked yak's milk once for an extremely fussy client from the Middle East. And if any of them are hungry after long drives or international flights, Angie's Deli provides.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm running a catering service rather than an investigative agency. But then, I've been known to tack my food orders on to the clients'.

Back to the offices: as with the building, I have mixed feelings about them. They are elegant—very, very elegant. Oriental carpets over the hardwood on floors two and three; deeply piled pale-gray carpet on the fourth; something that lasts like Astroturf but seems more like real grass on the roof. Attractive and functional contemporary furnishings throughout; posters from special events at the city's museums brightening the pale-gray walls. My own space is a dream: it has an expansive view from the Golden Gate to the East Bay hills, a huge cherrywood desk and matching bookcases and file cabinets, and a full-length sofa so I don't have to lie on the floor during my infamous “quiet times” (which often are not quiet).

My ages-old armchair, years ago rescued from my office in a closet under the stairs at All Souls Legal Cooperative, where I began my career, is now restored in leather; it and its newish matching hassock are positioned by the windows under a healthy potted schefflera plant named Mr. T., after Ted. The Grand Poobah, as he prefers to call himself, had decorated the suite single-handedly. Sometimes I regret giving him such a free hand and open checkbook with the remodeling, but he has impeccable taste, and the results attest to it.

Needless to say, I wasn't used to such luxurious working environs. For years my agency's offices were on the upper tier of Pier 24½, which is now in the process of being demolished, and I'd loved it there, drafty and cold and echoing as it was.

Before that I'd first had the coat closet and then an upstairs room at All Souls Legal Cooperative's big Victorian in Bernal Heights, in the southeastern section of the city. The poverty law firm, headed by my best male friend, Hank Zahn, had subsisted in the big broken-down house, with some employees living in and others—mercifully, including me—living out. But most of the friendships forged there have carried on to this day, and when the co-op folded, I managed to bring Ted along to my new agency. Hank and his wife and law partner, Anne-Marie Altman, have offices within two blocks of us. And the new people we've acquired so far seem to be good fits.

I didn't miss the old days, not really. But I wasn't used to such affluence. My family had been solvent, but just barely. I'd put myself through UC Berkeley on small scholarships and nighttime jobs as a security guard. The years after graduation were lean—who wanted a young woman with a BA in sociology? But then I'd gotten on with a private investigator, trained under my employer for my license, and landed the job with All Souls. After that things had slowly gotten better.

Finally I'd met Hy Ripinsky. Man with a shady past who possessed a great deal of money of an equally shady origin, or so I'd thought at the time. The secrets of that past and money we'd sorted out over time, and I'd finally come to trust him. A couple of times, literally, with my life. After we married, I'd realized I was a wealthy woman, in more ways than just financially.

I plunked my briefcase down on my desk, then studied it critically. It was getting shabby. I was having a bad hair day, and I realized that once again I'd forgotten to put on makeup.

Well, old habits die hard.

1:05 p.m.

Ted buzzed me. “You're not going to like this.”

“What's the matter?”

“You and Hy have a visitor. Gage Renshaw.”

My breath caught and my pulse elevated. “…Gage—that can't be! Hy and I assumed he died years ago.”

“But you never received conclusive proof of it.”

“No, but it's been years since he disappeared. Knowing Gage, he would've turned up to devil us long before this. Are you sure it's him?”

“Turn on your surveillance cam and take a look.”

I touched the switch. The grainy picture on the monitor—not the best we should have bought—showed the reception desk; I moved the cursor to take in the rest of the room.

The figure slumped on the sofa was Gage Renshaw all right. Older, more rumpled than I remembered him, but still with that jet-black hair with a white shock hanging down over his Lincolnesque forehead.

“Son of a bitch,” I said.

“What should I do with him?” Ted asked.

“Throw him off the roof garden.”

“Come on, Shar, this is serious. He's smarmy and obnoxious as ever, and he's demanding to see both you and Hy.”

I thought quickly. “Take him to the hospitality suite.” A room off second-floor reception. “Offer him food, drink, whatever. Say Ripinsky and I are in conference, but we'll be with him shortly.”

BOOK: Someone Always Knows
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