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"I feel like a goddamn fool."
"What?" I hadn't been paying proper attention to what Hy was saying over the phone because I was trying to decipher the hand signals my nephew and computer expert, Mick Savage, was flashing at me from my office door. I waved him off.
"A goddamn fool." Hy Ripinsky's tone was injured; my lover and best friend knew me better than anyone, and had radar for those rare occasions when I didn't listen to him.
"Because I should've known better than to trust Virgil. What kind of name for a contractor is that, anywayVirgil? The jerk called me at my ranch and asked if I could come over here to the coast so he could dig a hole."
"Yeah, by the foundation of the old house." Hy was currently at the property we jointly owned in Mendocino County, where we were trying to get construction of a house under way and where the unseasonably rainy weather was doing its best to thwart our efforts.
Mick reappeared in the doorway, somewhat wild-eyed, his blond hair standing up in stiff points that defied gravity. Again I waved him away.
Hy said, "What d'you think? Virgil never showed. Plus it started storming like a bastard fifteen minutes ago, so now I'm stuck here and I can't find any matches to light a fire."
"Stuck there? Don't tell me you flew."
"Borrowed that Cessna we're thinking of buying."
"You're thinking of buying." The Cessna, in my opinion, was a piece of junk.
He ignored the comment. "So now I'm stuck here. No way I'm flying in this storm, andWhat the hell did youdo with the matches?"
"What did I do with them?" I realized I sounded sharp, but it had been an awful morning for me, too.
"McCone, you made the fire last time we were here. Think."
That was true, and I couldn't blame him for being irritated. The stone cottage on the cliff's edge above Bootleggers Cove must be cold, damp, and miserable.
"Did you check the kindling basket?"
"First place I looked."
Mick reappeared, rolling his eyes in alarm.
"What about that blue bowl on the kitchen counter?"
"Well . . ." My nephew was hopping around now, as if he badly needed to pee.
"Try the dirty-clothes hamper."
"Why the hell"
"Because the jeans I was wearing that last time're in there. The matches're probably in their pocket."
"And women think men are strange creatures."
"Just look. I've got to go now." I cradled the receiver and said to Mick, "What, for God's sake?"
"Come on. Hurry!" He turned and rushed from the room. I heaved a sigh, got up, and followed him onto the iron catwalk that fronted McCone Investigations' suite of offices, high above the concrete floor of Pier 24102.
Three of my five staff members stood around the desk in Mick's office when he and I came in, staring at the brand-new computersomething he called a Wintelthat he'd coaxed me into spending a small fortune for. Ted, my slender, bespectacled office manager, fingered his goatee nervously and kept at a distance. Craig Morland, in sweats and running shoes looking nothing at all like a former buttoned-down FBI field agent, had his arms folded across his chest; his expression suggested that he feared the machine might attack him.
Charlotte Keim, on the other hand, was very much on the attack. She advanced aggressively toward the desk, her petite features set in stern lines. "You varmint!" she said to the computer, her Texas accent more pronounced than usual. "When I get through with you, you're gonna be roadkill!"
At that instant a sickening thump came from under the desk. "Hell and damnation!" Rae Kelleher's voice shouted. She backed out of the kneehole, rubbing the crown of her curly red-gold head, a smudge of dirt across her freckled nose.
"I told you it was plugged in," Mick said to her.
A cold sense of foreboding washed over me. "What's going on here?"
"Uh . . ." Mick looked down at his shoes.
"I . . . don't know. I mean, I must've done something wrong."
"Well, you asked me to print out the report on the McPhail case. And I tried to. But it's . . . like gone."
There were no hard copies of the report on a major industrial espionage investigation, due to be delivered to the client that afternoon.
"So's everything else," Mick added in a small voice, still hanging his head. It seemed to me that his shoulders were shaking slightly. Well, if he wasn't already crying, I wouldin the well-remembered words of my fathergive him something to cry about.
"Mick," I said, "you are supposed to be a computer genius. You got suspended from high school for breaking into the board of education's confidential files. You smashed the security code at Bank of America and very nearly got yourself arrested. Last weekagainst my explicit instructionsyou obtained federal information that even Craig couldn't call in markers for. So how in hell could you lose all your files?"
"I don't believe this!"
"See for yourself." He motioned at the machine.
I went over to the desk, narrowing my eyes against the unholy light, which Ione of the top two or three technophobes in San Franciscoam convinced is evidence that computers are a creation of the devil.
A message was displayed there. White letters on the blue background: "April Fool! I've already ordered the pizzas!"
I blinked. Relief welled up, and I staggered back, laughing and letting Ted catch me. Belatedly I'd remembered my promise that if Mick could trick me this April Fools' Day, I'd treat the entire office to pizza.
"Shar," Ted said through the intercom, "Glenna Stanleigh's on line two."
"Calling from Hawaii?" Glenna Stanleigh was a documentary filmmaker who had offices on the ground floor of the pier. For the past two weeks she and her crew had been shooting a film on the island of Kauai.
I depressed the button. "Hey, Glenna. What's happening?"
"Nothing good." Her Australian-accented voice was strained. "Sharon, d'you think you could come over here? As soon as possible?"
"To Kauai? Why?"
"I want to hire you. My backer on this film agrees it would be a good move, so I can pay your usual rate and cover all expenses. And there's plenty of room in this lovely house I've got on loan. You could bring Hy along, make it a vacation of sorts."
I hesitated, thrown off stride by the unexpected request, as well as by Glenna's tone. Even at the worst of times she displayed a sunny disposition that could be off-putting to us curmudgeonly types, but now she sounded miserable.
I said, "You'd better tell me what's wrong."
"Can't. Not now. Somebody might overhear."
"When you get here. Please, Sharon."
An undercurrent of panic in her voice made me sit up straighter. "Glenna, I can't drop everything and fly over there without knowing why. Besides, I'm not licensed in Hawaii. I'm not sure I could arrange it so I could work there. I could refer you to an agency in Honolulu"
"No! I need somebody I can trust. It could be . . . well, a life-and-death situation."
"Are you serious?"
"Never more so. I think somebody's trying to kill meor kill someone else on my crew."
"What! Why d'you think that?"
"Something happened this morning. I really can't go into it now. And there've been other incidents. Please, Sharon, I don't know what I'll do if you won't help me."
I was silent, considering. On the other end of the line I heard Glenna breathing hard, as if she was about to hyperventilate. "Just a minute." I reached for my calendar, paged through it, noting appointments that could be rescheduled and work that could be shifted to staff members. My personal caseload was light this month, and recently Rae had shown that she could handle the day-to-day operations of the agency as well as I could, if not better. Besides, Hy and I had been talking about getting away to someplace warm and sunny.
"Give me a couple of hours," I told Glenna. "I'll see what I can do."
"Ripinsky, it's me. Did you find the matches?"
"Right where you said they'd be."
"Good. Listen, Glenna Stanleigh called. She wants me to fly over to Kauai as soon as possible."
"Big trouble, according to her. She claims somebody's trying to kill her or one of her crew members."
"Claims? You don't believe her?"
"I don't know what to believe. She sounds panicky, wouldn't go into details on the phone. Anyway, I think it's worth checking out. She's got a house on loan, and she suggested you come along, as sort of a vacation."
"Hmmm. Tempting, but you know what'll happen. I'll get sucked into this thing as well, and that'll be the end of the vacation."
"Would that be so bad? We've worked well together in the past."
"That we have. You're not licensed in Hawaii, though."
"Yes, but I've been thinking: Your company has a Honolulu office. I could probably work under RKI's umbrella."
"Most likely you could. I can set it up. And I might as well go along; I haven't met any of our people in the Islands yet. You want to make the travel arrangements, or should I?"
"I will. How soon can you get down here?"
"Storm's letting up some. I'll fly down later, meet you at your house this evening."
"What about the Cessna?"
"It's on long-term loan."
"Well, don't take any chances with this weather."
"Not to worry, McCone. I've flown reckless in my time, but that was before I had you to come home to."
"Hawaii?" Rae said. "When d'you leave?"
"There's a flight at eight-forty tomorrow morning. Hy and I will be on it if you'll agree to take over here."
We were seated in a booth at Miranda's, our favorite waterfront diner, enjoying a midafternoon break. Rain streaked the already salt-grimed windows and turned San Francisco Bay to a gray blur. Inside, the diner was warm and cozy, redolent of freshly brewed coffee and fried food.
Rae didn't reply. Instead she stared at the window, a frown creasing her forehead.
I added, "I'm sure this trip won't last long enough to interfere with your wedding plans." Rae and my former brother-in-law, country music star Ricky Savage, were to be married in May.
"Better not, since you're to be my best person." The frown deepened.
I began to feel uneasy. Ricky's marriage to my sister Charlene had hardly been one to instill confidence in his regard for the sanctity of that institution, and ever since he and Rae had announced their engagement I'd had my fingers crossed against him doing something to shatter her happiness.
She sensed what I was thinking and made a hand motion to dismiss the idea.
"Don't mind me. I'm grumpy today. The thing is, we'll be lucky if we're married by September."
"This new album of his is taking a long time to pull together. He and the band're down in Arizona at the studio this week, and their sessions haven't been going well. By the time he gets back, there won't be time to plan a May weddingeven a small one like we want."
"So you'll be a June bride instead."
She scowled. "No way! I refuse to become a stereotype at this point in life. And July is outthat's when I married my first husband. And August is when Ricky married your sister."
I shook my head at the complexities contemporary society breeds. Rae and Ricky had any number of anniversaries they didn't want to be reminded of, plus the difficulties of dealing diplomatically with Charlene, the six children he'd had with her, and her new husband. Of course, complexities are more easily surmounted when one, like Ricky, is reputed to have earned upwards of forty million dollars the previous year . . .
"You know," I said, "I may be sabotaging my own request, but why are you still working? You could be in Arizona with Ricky."
"Not while he's recording. Those sessions are too intense. And when he's in L.A. on his record company's business his time is taken up in meetings. The fact that he's gone so much is why I need to work. I'm not the sort of person who can do nothing."
"What about this book you're writing that you won't tell any of us about?"
"I've kind of put that on hold. It was supposed to be glitzy and sexy, but what there is of it's turned into . . . I don't know what. Till I do know, I can't work on it." She laughed, shaking her head ruefully. "Funny, back when I didn't have any money I used to dream about what I'd do if I was rich?mainly shop till I dropped. Then, when I got together with Ricky, I discovered I don't like to shop. I'd much rather order what I need from a catalog, and anyway, those old thrifty habits die hard."
"You could take up a hobby."
"Well, tennis or golf or"
The look she gave was one of pure astonishment.
"No, I guess not."
"Definitely not. So I work. Investigation is the only thing I've ever been good at, and when you put me in charge last winter I found I've got a real talent for management. I've got no problem with taking over the agency while you're gone. In fact, you may come home to a streamlined operation."
"Swimsuit. T-shirts. Shorts. Couple of dress-up outfits. Wonder if I should take my Magnum? Hassle, filling out the declaration forms for the airline"
"Jesus, McCone, when did you start talking to yourself?"
I turned, saw Hy standing in the bedroom doorway, and felt a rush of pleasure. With this tall, lean, hawk-nosed man I shared a life, the cottage on the coast, a love of flying, andupon occasioncertain risky ventures. He was loving, generous, sentimental, and strong. He could at times be enigmatic, mercurial, bullheaded, and downright dangerous. Right now he was just plain wet and weary.
"So how was your flight?" I asked.
He crossed the room and flopped down on the bed next to the clothes I'd piled there, running long fingers through touseled dark blond hair and smoothing his luxuriant mustache. "Grim. You're right about the Cessnait's a piece of crap. Altimeter went out on me, magnetic compass was whirling around like a mouse in a Mixmaster, and coming into Oakland the radio started up like a banshee wail. So when did you start talking to yourself?"
"I always have, when I'm home alone and neither of the cats is around to talk at. Anyway, I'm glad you finally agree with me about the Cessna." Hy's old Citabria had been totaled a month before in an incident for which I still felt partially responsible. We'd been trying to replace it, but hadn't found a used plane we both liked.
"You know," he said, "after tonight I'm leaning more toward that Warrior we test-flew last weekend. I'd forgotten how much I like a low wing."
"Low wing's fine with me, but that Warrior's got its drawbacks." I sent a lacy bra sailing toward the pile on the bed.
He caught it, looked it over speculatively. "Pretty sexy. I thought this was supposed to be a working trip. What's wrong with the Warrior?"
"I don't like the rudders. And the interior's kind of grungy. There's no reason we can't work in a little romance over there."
"A littleor a lotsuits me fine. I know what you mean about the interior. It'd take over ten grand to bring it up to snuff. But what's wrong with the rudders?"
"Too stiff for my liking. Catch!"
"You are thinking of romance. Yeah, you do have to kind of animal the controls around. And it really could do with a prop overhaul, maybe a fire-wall forward treatment, too."
"So what're we looking at beyond the purchase price?"
"Thirty, forty grand. You know what, maybe we should be considering a new plane. When you factor in the expense of making a used one right, there's not a hell of a lot of difference."
"There's a difference. And new planes depreciate very rapidly. Should I take my gun along?"
"Nope. I checked with our Honolulu office, and it's okay for you to work under our umbrella, but they tell me carry permits there are as rare as hens' molars. If I registered the plane to RKI, they could insure it under the company policy and take the depreciation in exchange. That would defray some of the expense."
"So talk to your partners. The expression's 'hens' teeth.'"
"I could've sworn it was 'molars.' I'll do that when we get back."
"Good. And it is teeth."
"Guess you're right."
"I'm always right."
"'Most always. C'mere, McCone. Why wait for Hawaii for the romance?"
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Not her best, but good.